Technology marches on

Roger wrote a post the other day about technology stuff, in which he name-checked me:

I don’t know what kind of typist Jaquandor is, but I’m sure that he is appreciating editing the text of his book or two, including Princesses In SPACE!!! (not the actual title), on a word processor, rather than retyping every draft.

In his post, he is addressing the question of what technology he finds the most indispensable, and which he wishes would go away for good. Those are interesting questions, but his citing of me as an example of what’s cool about the development of the word processor is interesting to me.

First of all, there’s an implied question there: Just how good a typist am I, anyway? I’ve once in a while done an online typing test, just out of curiosity, but I haven’t done one in a long time, so let’s find out. When I Google ‘typing test’, I find that there’s a site called Isn’t that helpful! So wait here while I go there and test myself. I’m choosing the following test options: English, 1 minute, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. OK? So hold on a minute….

[hum theme to Simon and Simon to yourself]

OK, we’re back. I was able to type 71 words in the one minute, and that’s with backspacing and correcting my errors as I went. I have never been a ‘fix the spelling later’ person, and I can almost always tell when I’ve mistyped something as I’m going — it’s like my fingers send a signal to my brain saying, “Whoa there, back up, we made a bit of a cock-up there.” So, I suppose that means I’m a passably-decent typist. Of course, I’ve known this for years; I have had many a person at various jobs marvel at how quickly I can dance my fingers across the keyboard. Yay, me!

Oddly, though, I am not an ‘official’ touch-typist, in that I never once took a keyboarding class in school of any kind. I have never been taught the business where you put your index fingers on the F and the J and use all four primary fingers to do the typing. In fact, now that I’m paying attention, I don’t think that either of my pinkies ever once touch the keys of any keyboard I use; instead, both just kind of ‘dangle’ up there in space, not doing much of anything. Frankly, I’ve never understood the utility of the ‘official’ method of typing or why it was taught in school, and I’m fairly certain that were I to try to force myself to learn it now, it would screw me up something awful. Kind of like how, in second grade, I ended up in a school that taught penmanship in a different manner than my first grade school had, and in my efforts to adapt, my handwriting turned to complete drivel for quite some time. (In first grade, we’d learned italics. In second, I was in a ‘balls-and-sticks’ school. That sucked for a while, until cursive came along and I was suddenly using a lot of what I’d already learned in first grade with the italics! Hmmmmm….)

Typing fast is a useful skill, but I struggled with it in my fiction writing for years, because I always had a terrific problem with my fingers being able to type faster than my brain could produce sentences to type. This tended to result in some spectacularly awkward prose when I would type my rough drafts, and I must admit that I’m still seeing evidence of that now, as I work my way through Princesses In SPACE!!! (not the actual title), which is the first book-length manuscript I have typed in its entirety.

So, how did I learn to type so fast? By, well, typing a lot. Lots and lots, over the years. A whole lot of typing. Not just in the course of writing something like Princesses In SPACE!!! (not the actual title), but in writing e-mails. Writing stuff for work in various jobs. Playing text-based computer adventure games. Writing lots of papers for the many writing-intensive courses I took in college. Writing research papers in high school. And, going back even farther, to typing on a typewriter.

We had two typewriters, if I remember correctly. One was an electric typewriter that I wasn’t really allowed to use; the other was a mechanical device in a shade of green that I would later see on our first Volkswagen Rabbit, and never again since. I got curious, so I Googled the words ‘green typewriter’, just to see if I could find out what that old typewriter was, and I believe I’ve found it:

I have zero recollection of the make and model of that green old warhorse of a typewriter, but this really looks like the one. I’d bang away on that thing for long whacks of time. I loved typing on that thing, even when I screwed up and had to deal with it by backing over my mistake and covering it with X’s. I loved the mechanical way it worked: you strike a key and one lever moves another lever which in turn causes an arm with a metal striker in the shape of whatever letter you wanted to swing up and smack the ribbon against the surface of the paper, causing an ink transfer in the shape of the letter you wanted. How cool was that! But, if you got typing too fast, you might hit two keys at once, and then both arms would swing up and try to strike the ribbon at the same time. This resulted in a jam.

I loved the bell that warned you that you were nearing the right-hand margin, and I loved that metal arm that you stuck up from the back of the machine to prop up your workpiece. There was just something awfully pleasing about the constant CLACK CLACK CLACKITY CLACK of that typewriter. I would use a number of electric typewriters after that, in various jobs and schools, but no electric typewriter — which used signals from the keys to make a motor strike a globe with the letters on it strike the ribbon — ever had that same physical appeal.

The typewriter had the same basic idea going on as the piano, and with that as your model, I suppose one could paraphrase the old joke about piano playing: Writing a good story with a typewriter is really very easy. You just have to hit the keys in the right order. I had a music professor in college tell me that playing the piano was terribly easy, as all you had to do was strike the keys in the right order, and the piano made the music for you. Heh.

What kind of things did I type? Well, I remember for a while I glommed onto the notion of Star Wars fan fiction, so I had some proto-adventures of Han Solo. At this time I was watching a lot of Star Trek, so I had Han commanding a starship with Chewbacca as his science officer. No, I do not have any copies of this stuff. Earlier than that, I recall a fascination with the Declaration of Independence, so I typed it out, drawing the text from an Information Please! almanac I owned. Why the Declaration? Who knows. And I didn’t really understand the thing. Original fiction? There was some of that, too. I recall chronicling the adventures of a superhero cat named Little Bootie, who flew around in a suit with a big letter K on the front of it. Why was he named Little Bootie? Hell if I know. Why the letter K on his super suit, which had nothing to do with him? Hell if I know. No, I don’t have any copies of those, either. In truth, I don’t think I’ve thought about Little Bootie since second grade, until Roger’s post set me to remembering.

So, yeah. Thanks for that, Rog!

I guess the question now would be, do I miss that old green typewriter? In all honesty, I do not. Being able to cut and paste, to move blocks of text around easily, and to be able to quickly search the text when looking up little details — these are all benefits that are too great for me to want to go back to the clackity-clacking. In editing Princesses, I decided to change one character’s name to something completely different; a decent word processor makes this change take all of five seconds. (Hell, even a crappy word processor makes this change quickly.) If I ever saw one of those old green typewriters someplace for sale, maybe at the Antique Mall, I might well buy it, especially if the price is right, just as a display piece. But I would never go back to it as a primary writing tool.

And what is my current primary writing tool? Here it is:

The current writing instrument

I just got this machine a month or so ago. It’s a Dell Inspiron, running Windows 7. My first laptop was still chugging along, but it was getting ever slower and slower, and showing every bit of its five years of age. For writing, it was a perfectly adequate machine, but web-browsing was getting harder and harder, and it just wasn’t multi-tasking the way it used to. I’d been planning to get a new laptop this year anyway (and from what I’ve heard, I just don’t want any part of Windows 8 until I literally have zero choice). So there it is. This machine isn’t going to win any techno prizes, but it works perfectly well for what I need a computer to do: I can write, surf the web, watch movies and such, and listen to music. Aside from Words With Friends (and now Draw Something, which I play on my tablet, anyway), I’m not a gamer, so I don’t need super-duper graphics or whatnot.

About the only drawback to this particular computer over my last one is the touchpad. I like touchpads, but this one is larger than the last one, and its shifted slightly to the right. In practice, this means that it falls directly beneath the ball of my thumb on my right hand as I type, which can result in me inadvertently moving my cursor to someplace else, as I’m typing. I’ve solved this by using the wireless mouse I’ve owned since I bought the last laptop, so that’s an easy fix. (Oh, and the touchpad doesn’t seem to scroll at all, which I found odd.)

By way of writing software, I’m a faithful user of OpenOffice (because it’s free, not because I have some desire to stick it to Microsoft), and an occasional user of Google Docs. I have Google Drive set up on my computer, and I make a number of regular backups to external drives. I’ve never even looked at this Scrivener thing I’ve heard tell about. Not sure I want to, either.

I do get a bit nervous when I read articles in tech publications touting the impending death of the PC and the rise of the tablet and smartphone as ‘gizmos that do it all’ for the future. Try as I might, I can’t get used to typing on my tablet’s touchscreen. Yes, I only have a seven-inch tablet, but I don’t want anything bigger, and the complete lack of tactile feedback is deeply off-putting, as is the fact that the touch-keyboard’s size makes using both of my hands the way I want to impractical, which in turn means that my tactile ability to trap typos as they happen is severely compromised. Sure, I could get a USB keyboard, I suppose, but then…why not just use a more powerful laptop? No, I think that I will be giving up on laptops only at the bitterest of bitter ends. That is the ground on which I shall make my stand.

Until, that is, they make a gizmo that can plug into my brain and transcribe the stories as I think them. As Keanu says: Whoa….

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3 Responses to Technology marches on

  1. SK Waller says:

    Yet another thing we have in common, sir — our typing skills. Like you, I learned from doing, both privately and by being a secretary for umpteen years.

    I use my Toshiba Satellite laptop (windows 7) and MS Word. For backups I have a collection of flash drives that I just plug into the USB port. And, like you, I'm not changing until I have absolutely no choice!

  2. Roger Owen Green says:

    I CANNOT type on a tablet (yet) to save my life. I must strike it too softly or something, but letters I swore I typed aren't there.

  3. Kerry says:

    I taught myself to type when I was six, on this huge metal typewriter that was mounted inside a desk. You lifted up the desktop and the manual typewriter swung up from inside it. The entire desk was awesome and unwieldy. I can still remember the smell of the ink ribbon. Now I'm going to have to Google that…

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