58 Keys

Just to say, it kills me beginning a blog title or actually any sentence with a number. It’s as knife-scraping as beginning one with a lowercase letter. Consequently, having written very many articles and news stories about the likes of the iPhone, I’m used to contorting headlines to fit in one word, any word, before the offending digit or lowercase. In this one situation, though, putting anything before “58 Keys” would change it.

“The 58 Keys” would make you think of John Buchan’s The 39 Steps, for instance. “The Mystery of the 58 Keys” is Agatha Christie if you’re normal, Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators if you’re less so.

Mind you, just saying 58 Keys is at risk of putting you in mind of either Edgar Allen Poe or, in a slightly different chain of thought, Florida.

Somehow I think it’s fitting, however, that you are very unlikely to read that title and know what this is about yet it is impossible that you haven’t been affected by it. Now it sounds like a disease.

It’s just this. I offer that every artistic, sporting, engineering, scientific, medical, architectural, sculptural, scriptural, design or really any human endeavour, any human thought of the last thirty years has gone via a keyboard. That’s obviously true for writers but a sculptural artist, say, he or she may work with stone and chisels but at some point they email a gallery describing it.

Amateur photographers not intending to ever sell their work and, let’s go to an extreme here, too illiterate to write a caption, they still use a keyboard. Whether it’s holding down the Option key as they choose a function in Photoshop or it’s logging in to Flickr as CrazyNutBoy99, they use a keyboard.

We never think about this, most especially not if we’re touch typists, because we’re thinking about the work we do. The keyboard and our fingers on it are the bridge from our thoughts to the physical reality of what we’re creating. And I’m just fascinated by that. I’m fascinated by how pressing these keys means I get to talk to you. By how using exactly the same keys I will unthinkingly, unconsciously switch from writing words to issuing commands: I press Command-S to save my work do much that the S key is worn down.

If you’re reading this on a phone or a tablet then you’ve got an onscreen keyboard that pops up when you need it and hides away again when you don’t. If you’re on a laptop then these days the keys are probably what’s called a Chiclet style unless it’s a Butterfly mechanism or in Microsoft’s case a curious cloth-like one.

The type of key varies from silent and virtual to the mechanical Cherry keyboard that clacks away terribly satisfyingly to the ears of those of us trained on manual typewriters. The number of keys varies a lot too. It’s not that I usually go around counting them, honest, it’s more that for decades the standard layout for a computer keyboard has been what’s called the PC AT one with 102 keys. When you see the QWERTY layout with a numeric keypad to the right and arrow keys between the two, it’s probably 102 keys.

That is a standard, whether you’re using QWERTY or something like France’s AZERTY. That is also a standard whether you’re in the UK or the US, though for unfathomable historical reasons, our two nations have different keyboards. In the UK, the Return key is a tall one that takes up the space of two keys vertically. In America, it’s a wide one that takes up two key spaces horizontally. Nutters.

Even so, it’s the same number of keys and you have never looked at me so strangely before. Let me hurry to explain why I’ve called this 58 Keys and not 102.

It’s the Mac.

The original Apple Macintosh is the reason we have iPhones and iPads, it’s the reason we have Windows. And, yes, that original Mac had 58 keys on it.

There should’ve been 62. People at Apple fought over four more keys and they lost. Steve Jobs rejected four keys. He rejected the arrow keys. You can think that’s taking micro-management too far, but there was a reason.

He refused to allow the original Mac keyboard to have these arrow or cursor keys because if it had them, people would use them. Since it didn’t, there was no other way to move your cursor around the screen than to use the mouse. This was the first time any public computer had included a mouse and, as strange as it seems today, it was bloody hard to grasp what in the world this thing was for.

Taking away four keys meant you had to use the mouse and it’s part of why we did so it’s part of why we got to move away from those green or yellow phosphorus text displays into full-screen, full-colour, overlapping windows.

Even if you have never used a Mac, even if you’re a die-hard PC fan and even if you’ve only ever had your phone as a computer, the decision to give the Mac just 58 keys shaped everything we do today.

There’s no reason to say this to you now, no particular anniversary, no keyboard launch and definitely no way to explain why I currently have about nine keyboards in my house. But you will spend time at some keyboard today, whether that’s onscreen or physical, and you will every day. We could get really deep into how mechanical keys work, we could dive into how onscreen keyboards invisibly expand the letter you’re most likely to type next. But let’s just take a moment to notice how this small thing has world-changing impact.

Restored to life

Confession: I backup everything I write, everything that lands on my Mac, everything. But I rarely go into the backups to restore anything. Until this week when my arm was twisted into powering up my last computer again and doing some work with it. I’m going to claim that it doesn’t matter what the work was but really, I just cannot remember – because of what I found instead.

Every five or six years I buy a new Mac and take a minute or two to bring over all my current documents. I also promise to sort out the pile of hard drives I have inside some of these Macs and outside all of them but I never do.

This week I did and it’s been like data archaeology. Let me just tell you this first: here on my old Mac Pro I found I’d got 44 feature films. They appear to have been ripped from my DVDs but I don’t remember doing that.

Then there are 279 whole episodes of TV series. Some DVD rips, some iTunes purchases, I don’t know.

And 15,768 radio or other audio tracks.

I do understand that one because I used to have my Mac Pro automatically switch itself on to record the Afternoon Drama on BBC Radio 4 every day so there’s a pile of those. It’s a pile with titles like ‘Afternoon Play -ep723.m4a’ and no other way to work out what each is but to listen.

Then, too, I’ve made a lot of radio on my Macs so there’s surely a thousand or more tracks to do with that.

One more thing. Somewhere in that Mac Pro’s folders there were also 3,336 scripts. A thousand or more movie scripts plus entire series of television ones. Oddly few radio, for some reason.

All of this is now on a drive connected to my iMac and Backblaze, my online backup service, is sweating as it uploads the lot to cloud storage to make sure it is never lost, that it is always available to me wherever I am.

And that would be where I’d stop. Look at this, I could say: I’ve found all this glorious material and that it will of course occupy me, enthral me, distract me.

Only, this digging into a massive personal archive turns out to be a delicate dig into the past. It’s delicate because at first you see a photograph and alongside it there’s the date. It’s a file on your Mac, there’s the name and there’s the the Date Modified. It’s putting a pin in a memory – but then opening that image, looking at that document, just glancing at it changes the Date Modified to today. It’s like grasping at something that crumbles in your hand.

Now, if you dig slightly to the left and down a bit there is way to show the Date Created. But I didn’t think of that until I’d go into paroxysms about the ephemeral nature of even digital memories.

And as I write this to you, I’m actually back by that old Mac Pro because I wanted to get that screen grab of its display looking whitewashed. (When did I take that whitewash photo? Apparently Sunday, 8 September 2013 at 11:12.)

But I’m looking for that date and the drives inside this Mac Pro began giving out a little scream.

They’re going to die. And I’ve already plugged in one ancient external drive that I pointlessly struggled to find the right cables for because it’s dead.

We use these machines to do our work and to do everything, but along the way we are inadvertently documenting our entire lives in sometimes minute-by-minute detail. It’s not always great detail. It’s sometimes scraping when you find an old email and the text comes along with a tsunami of upset.

It’s not great detail when you learn what open wounds you still have. But it is great detail, it is the greatest of all details, when you a To Do list from 2003 that has hopes for the future that you’ve since achieved.

I’m not saying you should dig through your old computer documents and I’m definitely not saying you should do it without a strong mug of tea beside you. But I am saying you should backup everything. I’ve said that for years and meant it in very practical terms but today I mean it in emotional ones too.