For a long time I wanted a button at my desk. The vision was simple: it would be a button, it would plug into my computer, and I would tell it what to do. Bonus points if it could survive spontaneous bouts of nerd rage. I expected its impractical purpose to change on a bi-weekly basis (I’m fickle, yo), so I figured some programming would be involved, but first it would need to exist and that seemed to be the hard part. Once a year I would find my fist clenched in the air, trembling, frantically trying to lock in on a button that just wasn’t there. After cleaning up the remains of whatever filled that void I would make my annual attempt to find my button through a few vague and poorly chosen search words.

Years passed. Then in 2008 I finally tossed “usb button” at Google Images. And lo, for I found the Panic Button.

Let’s tally: it’s a big button, it plugs into a computer’s USB port, and it’s programmable… in that it can play one of three homely screen savers. Close enough! So I bought a couple for $17 each, threw away the software unopened, and wrote PanicButton.exe. I could explain the program further but as the old saying goes, “Why go ahead and say what you could say in literally hundreds of individual utterances when in fact time has shown that a single image, carefully chosen within the confines of the correct context, might very well end up equivalent to eloquence due to the potential efficiency with which an idea (and/or ideas) can be communicated visually versus the various verbosities inherent in any language languishing in the larynx.”

Zounds, that is an effective screenshot! And yet I chose to continue. The Panic Button Control Panel accepts a single command which it runs when the button is pushed. It lives in the system tray and can be set to automatically start with Windows. The command can be a file to open or another program to run. The Control Panel is a standalone program; there’s nothing to install and no drivers are required for the button. The system requirements are:

Full disclosure time: The Panic Buttons sent to me from Honk Kong say STRESS and not PANIC, but since the device identifies itself to computers as “Panic Button”, that’s what I’m going with. Either way it’s cheesy, but my project to sand off the white paint never took flight.

Full disclosure overtime: Behold the flailing desperation of synergy as it’s also a Hulk Smash Button, an Ironman Power Up Button, and a Spiderman Sense Button. I can’t speak to whether or not my program works with these variants, but it probably does. Frankly though, I’d prefer that it doesn’t.

I’ll excuse the painfully banal “USB toy” crowd that Panic Button runs with because this is a good product. True to its image, it is a big honkin’ button that was meant to be slammed by a clenched fist. It’s spring loaded, and has like the most satisfying force constant you can imagine. It even makes a little click when fully depressed, like a little tip o’ the hat. And it only fires once per push, so when you find that you’ve pounded it way WAY too hard for professional surroundings you can just leave your fist there, eyes closed, as you exhale deeply until all the steam lifts and those around you eventually allow their fear to subside.

Actually, there are far better things to use a big red button for than dousing in rageahol. Music is a good candidate. Dave Hamp had his button play the Benny Hill Theme. Shouldn’t everything you press play that? For a while I had mine play a random mp3. There’s something about leaning over every three minutes to manually advance a playlist you have no control over… it’s like listening to the radio but harder. Nowadays, the two buttons have settled into more permanent and prominent roles. One is an integral component to the digital infrastructure of the Alaska Department of Commerce in Juneau. The other is installed at an Anchorage firm’s front desk and plays Table Dance. If there’s a story in the Bible about two brothers doing the same thing but then later doing different things, that would make for a good analogy.

And so I present the Panic Button Control Panel. If you happen to have a Panic Button then I dare say you’ll love it. The only subtlety I can think of is that you can drag and drop a file onto it to automatically fill in the Command field. Also, the program knows when a Panic Button is connected and displays its status in the lower left. That status will also let you know when it detects a button push. If all of this is swaying you towards a purchase, it looks like the button is only $10 at Hmmm… you’d better click that link, I can’t tell if I’m joking either.

Next time we’ll begin looking at the program’s internals and I’ll make its source code available. Until that day.