Thursday, March 14, 2013

Progress to Keys

A friend of mine once told me this joke.  A woman was cooking a ham.  Before she put it in the pan, she cut off the ends.  She had always done it that way.  Her husband noticed and asked why she had always done this.  She had no reason other than that's what her mother did.  So she called up her mother and asked why.  She didn't know either, because she simply copied the practice from her own mother.  So she called up her grandma who explained that she only did that because her pan was too small.

I thought of this joke one day not too long ago when I looked down at my keyboard and noticed how the keys on the keyboard were arranged, not the letters on the keys, but the actual physical keys.  I've seen keyboards almost every day for a long time, but I never noticed the oddness of the layout.  First of all, they are arranged on a downward slant, going left to right.  Secondly, the slant is only sort of a slant.  The offset between the keys in the home row (the middle row of letter keys) and the keys in the row above it is greater than the offsets between the keys in the top two rows and between the keys in the bottom two rows.  Why this asymmetry?  Why the inconsistent offset?

There must be an ergonomic reason for the odd, asymmetrical arrangement, right?

If you learned touch typing you were taught to have your fingers resting on the home row, with the fingers on your left hand occupying the a, s, d, and f keys and the fingers on the right hand occupying the j,k,l, and semi-colon keys.  Each finger is responsible for the keys in the slanted column containing the key on which it rests, with the index fingers doing double duty as they cover the columns between the f and j keys.

Because of the slant, I find that the index finger on my left hand rubs slightly against the middle finger, while on my right hand the index finger is drawn away from the middle finger.  At least it does if I follow the instructions of my typing teacher (do they still have those?  I would guess not.).  I also find that because of the slope, the Q is easier to type than the P, even though they are reflections of each other across the centre of the keyboard, both typed with the pinkie finger on the key above their "home" key.

I guess it's win-some/lose-some, with some stuff easier on one hand and other stuff easier on the other hand.  But it would be hard to believe that this was intentional, especially if you consider that P occurs more frequently than Q in a typical English text.  If it had been done intentionally, the designers would have reversed the two letters (assuming it had been decided that both were to be typed with the pinkie on the row above the home row).

 Of course, it wasn't done intentionally.  This is where the ham comes in.  The modern electronic computer keyboard was based on the old fashioned mechanical typewriter.  We had a couple of these in the house when I was growing up, before the advent of the affordable desktop computers, and long before brand new laptops could be had for less than a fifth of a graduate student's monthly salary.  I'm sure electric typewriters had been invented by that time, but those were for people in higher echelons of society than ours.

On these old mechanical non-eletronic beasts, the keys were attached to long metal arms.  Arms attached to keys in the same column were placed as closely to each other as possible, but obviously could not occupy the same space.  This forced the arrangement of the keys at the time, and that old arrangement is roughly the one that we use to this day.  Despite the fact that it has not been necessary for a long time, the oddly offset, asymmetrical arrangement still persists.

It survived electronic typewriters and computer  keyboards.  It survived the jostling of key positions in order to fit the most important keys of a typical computer keyboard into the constrained spaces of laptop computers.   Perhaps most surprisingly, it survived various attempts by aftermarket computer keyboard manufacturers to sell keyboards that were more ergonomic.  The keyboard was rounded to better fit the shape of the hand.  The left and right hand sides were severed from each other and laid out in an attempt to produce a more natural angle.  Yet, like cutting the ends off of the ham in the joke, the downward slant and irregular offset remained through all of these changes.  One would think that at some point, those people who were tinkering with other aspects would have noticed this and realized there was no point to it.

With the dawn of tablets and smart phones, whose space constraints are even tighter than laptops, some keyboard designers finally have been forced to quit old habit.  Touch screen keyboards are mostly grid-like, and smart phones with qwerty keyboards tend to arrange their keys without slant or offset.  This practice does not seem to have influenced makers of full sized keyboards yet.

Of course, this is probably not a huge issue.  After all, it took me more than 20 years of typing before I even noticed.  But still, given that it's not necessary to type this way, given that it doesn't treat both hands equally, I think it would make some sense if we had something more... even handed to type on.


Although it is less significant, the legacy of the mechanical keyboards reminds me of this.

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