Scribbler’s Saga #72 – Musings on Keyboards

Posted: November 26, 2018 in Uncategorized

© 2018 G.N. Jacobs

In Fiction-Land there was a gruesome murder last night, Mr. Qwerty ended up splayed out over a stack of leather bound books with a carriage return bar jammed through his right ear. The gore was considerable…

Okay, I’ve done better writing about how imaginary people get whacked by other (hopefully) imaginary people. Probably would spike up the blood spray and the chunks of bone and brain, or something. All to lead a post about keyboards.

I suppose we all love-hate Mr. Qwerty who helps us talk to HAL and the many varieties of Mini-HAL. When things work right, we tap keys and words appear. When they don’t, I curse you to an interesting life of cleaning our skin flakes from that insistent bastard with toothbrushes and Goo-Gone. And that’s before we smash him, like Pete Townsend doing his Fender guitar dirty, when the words don’t appear.

A short recap of the basic why of the keyboard, hereafter a named un-indicted coconspirator in all kinds of literary mayhem. The keys were placed QWERTY, AZERTY or AWERTY style because the various dudes inventing the manual typewriter thought the key placement of lots of consonants on the left side with most of the vowels and rest of the letters on the right would enable quick typing without jamming keys.

America and Britain went for subtle variations of QWERTY and other countries with Roman alphabets landed on several variations of the other main types (look up which is which on Wikipedia). And the sound of the clackity-clack changed offices forever. So do we like the typewriter as a primal force of feminism (yay, women can have jobs outside the home that don’t necessary involve cooking, cleaning or sex)? Or was the advent of the typing pool as much a screw you to women (we’re just going to relegate this boring repetitive job to women despite being dimly aware of repetitive stress injuries long before the scientists published papers about carpal tunnel syndrome in the 1980s)?

What this meant for me was that as it became clear that typing would be required for every college paper conducted outside the pressure cooker of a timed blue book exam, I had to take a typing class a prerequisite for going to an expensive college prep middle school. Taking a class wasn’t the end of it. I had to practice to even begin to maintain my (completely artificial, I know now) 40wpm typing speed.

I hated typing practice almost as much as I’d hated piano class in my earlier youth. So I’m just the sort of kid to take cues from Eddie Murphy doing his infamous riff on Mr. T as the (I thought) ultimate fuck you to the people making me practice. Let’s just say that if you ever want to get a rise out of a conservative but otherwise decent weekend father like mine to the point where his first verbal reaction was – “does he need to see a shrink?” – write three pages with a lot of out there sex.

Luckily, Mom had my number – “no, he was just angry that I made him type stuff.” She also went on to say that she thought my words were amazingly creative and that I should one day write for Playboy. Never mind that Mr. Hefner’s operation doesn’t actually publish stories like what I’d written, because as a men’s lifestyle magazine the stories and articles are meant to be read after absorbing the pulchritude and represent a counterpoint to the sexy metier. She wouldn’t know, she falls outside the target market.

During these years, someone invented a computer that you could have at home and the office. For the earlier part, I lived vicariously off my friends’ Mac 1.0s and PCs because for most people you really should wait for Moore’s Law to start grinding down the price down before buying the box your kid might not use until they really need it (college). And I got over whining about typing.

The salient point, the powers that be kept Mr. Qwerty gainfully employed adding a few function keys. They did it because they assumed the first users would be women crossing over from the Royals and Selectrics in the office. We launched ourselves into the cybernetic age with a familiar keyboard, cheerfully it seems.

Everything is now mobile to the exclusion of every other consideration. And we find ourselves at the first technological decision point since the invention of the typewriter and it’s rooted in the tricky balance between small enough to fit in a bag and large enough to comfortably fit our hands that haven’t gotten smaller to match. A small keyboard weighs less, but gives away some typing comforts. A large keyboard feels good under our fingertips, but ruins the line of the carry bag sticking out at odd angles.

As you may guess and sometimes read, I’m all over the map with my gear. I sometimes wonder if I should bust out some poetry that pretty much compares the trade offs a writer makes finding his Goldilocks equipment to a story of an eternally cursed individual unable to find a good pair of shoes. Certainly, I’m just now grooving on images of Ernest Hemingway found next to Sisyphus and Tantalus in Hades pounding his writing table angry at the millimeters worth of hot and cold porridge in his gear design.

As you can see from the pictures, the smaller the keyboard the more likely the designers will move keys around to make things fit. The fold up keyboard that when closed might create confusion with a jewelry box holding a necklace had a mostly good layout where the Shift Key on the right doesn’t conflict with the Arrow Keys, at the expense of moving the hyphen key into the subordinate keys found only by tapping the Function Key on the left. No bueno, I love me my carefully executed hyphens and M-dashes.

The small keyboard that comes in the red bag was an earlier purchase for a since replaced mini-iPad. It had a good layout for everything; hyphen key where it’s supposed to be, Bluetooth works with my phone and the Right Shift Key isn’t hidden behind the Arrow Keys. Cool, except that the board is small enough that the typing feel is all about my hands diving in and around each other just a millimeter off from Goldilocks.

My current mobile keyboard is wider laterally and folds up the outer keys over the center of the board. The Bluetooth works with my iPhone. The Hyphen Key isn’t hidden behind some other key function accessed by the Function Key. It’s about a foot wide and types okay, so what’s the catch? The Right Shift Key is buried to the outside of the Arrow Keys such that the typist quickly learns to take his/her right hand off the keyboard to push Shift. Nearly every word needing a capital letter seems to have a home on the left side of the keyboard, which becomes important because we’re taught to push Shift opposite the letter key pushed.

In the great scheme of things, a writer continuously trying to find a tool that Goldilocks might like once she has to type her letter of apology to the bears for her acts of trespassing isn’t much. If I’m like this over $40 keyboards, imagine me as a violinist before getting famous enough to acquire a Stradivarius? But, that last bit is for the music column on a later day. Anyway, I’m temporarily at the Close Enough for Government Work stage of my eternal search for the right gear. Get back to writing!

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