November 14th 2005

In the blink of an IM

About 6 weeks ago my Dad bought me a brand new IBM Thinkpad. While it's pretty much what I'd consider my ideal laptop to be, it does have a few funny quirks.

The funniest of the quirks has to be the rather small LED keyboard light which, upon pressing the correct key combination, will attempt to illuminate the keyboard in such a way that you can "operate your ThinkPad in low-light situations". In reality, it only satisfactorily illuminates the keyboard if find yourself attempting to type in the pitch black onto a totally black screen with very small white text: opening virtually any graphical window somehow generates enough light to outshine the light!

(Rather hilariously, the amber keyboard light, also known as a ThinkLight, seems to have been the actual deciding factor for Lufthansa to choose IBM as their laptop supplier.)

Lacking the guts and soldering skills to attempt to replace the LED, I was left thinking what else could I do. Daydreams of implementing an exotic communcations protocol between two IBMs (each equipped with a ThinkLight and a webcam pointing at the other, perhaps?) had to come to an abrupt stop when I realised it would, well quite frankly, require another ThinkPad.

Anyway, although the light doesn't do a very good job at, well, lighting, I thought it might be good at just catching your eye...and a few rather bizarre experiments later (involving looking at the other side of the room while turning the light on and off) showed it just might be useful for something after all. So dusting off my C skills from a rather fun Towers of Hanoi-solving robot arm project last year, I wrote a plugin for Gaim (an MSN Messenger client) to blink the ThinkLight a couple of times when I receive an instant message.

And it works! Very well, in fact: in low-light conditions—the favoured habitat of the Computer Scientist, naturally—it's pretty hard not to notice the blinking light.

So, if you happen to have a ThinkPad, why not try it out? Let me know how you get on.

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