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Musings on a better keyboard

2005.03.01 — Business | Language | Computers | by Roland Grant

Keyboard

Y R U D way U R? [Tysto photo]

As a writer, I often find myself in need of the typesetter's dash or M-dash (—), so called because it is as wide as the capital letter M. It is a useful piece of punctuation and looks good on the page, printed or electronic. But no keyboard I've ever seen includes the dash—or any of several other useful characters we've all made do without all these years. Meanwhile, the worthless reverse-apostrophe (`) is still stinking up the upper left corner.

And it's not just the reverse-apostrophe, that useless bit of dreck. There above it sits the tilde (~). Now, I can imagine how an n-tilde (ñ) might come in handy sometime, when you're indulging in a little Spanglish in your e-mail, but that's not what it is. It's only the hateful tilde.

I almost called it "lazy and shiftless," but of course you do have to use the Shift key to type it.

I can imagine how an n-tilde (ñ) might come in handy sometime, when you're indulging in a little Spanglish in your e-mail, but that's not what it is. It's only the hateful tilde.

And don't get me started on the caret (^). Or the curly brackets ({}). Or the filthy backslash (\). Or the strange and alien pipe (|).

Now, I know that some of these characters have become a part of certain computer programming languages. And, of course, Microsoft Windows uses the backslash to separate folders in a file path. But these uses arose precisely because those characters were available but never used for any sane purpose; therefore it was safe to use them as computer control characters or mathematical operators. They really aren't that important. Besides, why isn't Microsoft using the forward slash for file paths like it does for URLs?

All I know is that no one but programmers uses most of those characters, yet several characters that we could all find useful are nowhere to be found. Who is more important: them or us? After all, there are 290 million typists in the US and—what?—twenty-five thousand computer programmers? Hang the greasy wretches.

[W]e could then forever do away with the straight quote key that sits next to Enter and pretends to love us but does not.

The M-dash is the first character I would add to our modified "typist's" keyboard, followed, I think, by the acute-accented e (é) that is found in words like café and resumé (disgustingly foreign tho they are). Quickly behind this would be the UK pound sign (£) and the euro sign (€). However, these would vie for my affection with the tradmark (™) and copyright (©) symbols.

Of course, probably more practical still would be typesetter's quotation marks for left and right, single and double. This would only require one extra key, since we could then forever do away with the straight quote key that sits next to Enter and pretends to love us but does not.

Sure, Microsoft Word does its best to convert double hyphens to dashes, straight quotes to typesetter's quotes (which it calls "smart" quotes, but which should be called "wild guess" quotes). But doing the little dance that's required to trigger Word's autocorrect feature to do this is often annoying.

[R]emembering Ctrl+Shift+colon+o to get the o-umlaut is more than I want to remember if I use it infrequently and more than I want to bother with if I use it very frequently.

As I type this in Macromedia Dreamweaver, I'm forced to go to the menu and select Insert > HTML > Special Characters > Other to get most of these symbols. And even then, only a small subset of the Unicode set is available. In some programs (MS Word being the obvious one), you can insert many special characters with keyboard shortcuts, but remembering Ctrl+Shift+colon+o to get the o-umlaut (ö) is more than I want to remember if I use it infrequently and more than I want to bother with if I use it very frequently.

In a perfect world, we'd have a number of other symbols available on the keyboard. The degree sign (°), for one, and the cent sign (¢). The c-cedilla (ç) and the o-umlaut (ö) would be handy for foreign words and names. Mathematicians desperate to keep their caret (or a more correct symbol for indicating mathematical powers) would probably love a not-equal sign, a +- sign, and a genuine division sign (÷), instead of having to limp along using the acursed slash to indicate division.

To accommodate all these symbols, of course, we'd have to do more than just dump a few that have worn out their welcome. We might need to repurpose one of the control (Ctrl) or alternative (Alt) keys to be a kind of secondary Shift. Then we would have an extra character available for every regular character key (M could house m, M, and the M-dash, perhaps).

[A] complete set of arrow characters, pointing up, down, left, and right would be nice, wouldn't it?

With more options available, we could indulge ourselves with upside down question marks and exclamation points for our Spanish homework. It's too late now, but a simple bullet character could have saved Microsoft a lot of programming grief. And a complete set of arrow characters, pointing up, down, left, and right would be nice, wouldn't it? Or an actual five-pointed, American-style star? How about a heart character, so you could show your feelings? Where is innovation in the keyboard manufacturing world?

A friend of mine sent me a link to custom keyboard makers and keyboard re-mapping software. So far, D-System Remapper seems to be a great little utility, but I want to solve the problem for everyone, not just me. Also, If you think it's ridiculous to imagine repurposing keys or adding new keys, remember that Microsoft got hundreds of keyboard manufacturers to add its special keys to their keyboards—and those keys are virtually useless! A key that does nothing but bring up the Start menu? It's stupid!

I remember when I first got my a Windows-key keyboard with a new Dell desktop a few years ago. When I played my favorite computer game, I kept hitting the new Windows keys when I was trying to press Ctrl and Alt. My solution: I gave up trying to play the game.

Curse you, Microsoft.

Update: D-System Remapper crapped out a couple of times, so I gave up on it. Curse you, too, D-System.

UPDATE: I've found happiness with Microsoft's own clunky keyboard layout tool.

 

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