Friday, August 31, 2012

Feeling Qwerty?

A Key Question:

The button you press on a computer keyboard to go to the next line is, on my Mac, labeled return, with the word enter in smaller text above it. PC keyboards just say enter.

One can see the reasoning behind this. Once you have input data (typed shit), you then “enter” it by moving on to the next line. Never mind that the text you have typed already appears on the screen. What the cursor is doing, then, is “entering” a new, blank space in which one may input more data (type more shit). It often comes with a helpful bent arrow pointing to the left. This a visual remnant of an earlier age (see below.)

The Mac, on the other hand, which wants to be more intuitive and connected to older methods of inputting data (typing shit), uses a word which has lost all meaning with people young enough never to have known a manual typewriter: return.

Here’s how it worked: when you wanted to move down a line, you had to press in a handle on the cylindar the paper was rolled around (the carriage), and physically slide it back over to the left so that it could march, one keystroke at a time, back over to the right. If it was already in the far left position, disengaging the handle meant the paper would go up a notch, bringing the keys into a blank space. To write (type shit), you literally had to “return” the carriage to the left.

Nowadays, we don’t have metal keys on long, thin fingers waiting in a semi-circle like an orchestra to strike an impression onto paper through an ink-soaked ribbon or ink-lined plastic strip. We have a flashing cursor, a vertical hair awaiting our bidding on a screen. It’s temporal, like a ticking clock, blinking at you expectantly.

It appears when you move into a rectangular text entry area on Facebook, waiting patiently against the left-hand wall, ready to become a witty remark or status update. It used to be that Facebook required a deliberate click on a dark blue “comment” button to post your comment, which could just as easily have been called the “are you sure you want to say this?” button. It naturally assumed that anything you typed was in fact a comment, and not, say, a series of sad face emoticons or a joke ☹.

It had also been a “share” button, reinforcing the idea that social media is for “sharing,” rather than “showing off” or “desperately seeking attention.” The extra step of actually having to move your cursor over to the button and click on it gave the typist / smartass a few precious moments for reflection, in case he or she decided the comment wasn’t as witty as it seemed.

Now, Facebook has no button to share or comment at all. You simply type your shit, and hit return. Or enter. And ta-da: there it is for everyone to read.

↵  ↵  ↵  ↵  ↵  ↵ 

But what does it mean to deliver a comment, or join a hierarchical conversation via a button called “return”? Are you returning to the dialogue? Are you returning a bon mot like a verbal tennis ball? Are you returning someone’s sad face emoticons like an overcooked steak back to the kitchen from which it came? What of a button called “enter”? Are you entering the vertical narrative each time as if merging finto traffic from an on-ramp? Are you a character forever entering from stage left? Or entering it like deja vu, stepping again and again into that same room?

What we name our tools does not go unnoticed. OK, it does most of the time, by most people. But it’s worth stepping back every now and then and considering what we call the things which have become invisible to us. Take the carriage, for instance. It is a conveyance — a means by which to carry something. A carriage was usually pulled by horses until it became a railway car, which became, on a road, just a car. Car — short for carriage. In England, roads are still called "carriageways." The typewriter roll carries the paper. The paper carries the words. Our fingers carry the message. We speak with our hands. A typewriter neither types nor writes. A typist types, and a writer writes. Perhaps a reader will read. The word “text” has become a verb. We rarely use into our phones for actual speech. We enter and return, back and forth, in and out, all day long.

We’re forever typing shit. 

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Obit / Orbit


My copy. December 1969.

To say someone has “balls,” means they have gumption, courage, insane bravery, perhaps. It means they step up to the plate and take that pitch knowing it might knock them flat on their ass.

This week we saw the end of two trajectories of men lauded for their balls, both named Armstrong. Lance, because he famously only had one, and Neil, because he had enough for a whole team.

Neil Armstrong, test pilot, standing next to the sexiest of creatures, the X-15
While it would be apt to note their accomplishments, it is for how they disappointed many with their post-career actions that contributes to their fame. Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, shied away from the spotlight he could have basked in to return to being a private citizen. Lance Armstrong all but ceded what many have long believed: that he (like many) cheated to achieve his goal of getting out in front of the pack, higher, faster, than anyone else.

A few weeks ago, I came across one of the more bizarre exhibits in a museum full of oddities in Cincinnati’s Museum Center. Among the display cases of Ohio’s various rodents and chunks of meteorites, there looms one of Neil Armstrong’s spacesuits, posed as if the man were still inside. It looks disarmingly primitive and out of place unless you know that he came from Ohio and lived in Cincinnati.

In the museum
When asked who the first man on the moon was, many of my former college students replied “Lance Armstrong.” They weren’t thinking about the cyclist, however; just the legacy of the name.

Goodnight, Mr. Armstrong. Good luck and Godspeed. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

It’s All In The Package

Stop Staring.

I am proud to report that my eight year-old son has the nicest underwear in his class. How do I know this, you ask. I am totally presuming. But really, which other eight year-olds are going to be wearing David Beckham boxer briefs? They are probably in Spiderman or SpongeBob Y-fronts.

The reason my son is such a lucky boy is that when I was making a purchase recently, of an armful of tops for fall at the local H&M, I was informed by the cute and impossibly young salesman that I would get 20% off my purchase if I bought some. I did the math. It just made sense.

My savings put me in a chatty mood, so I asked my charming cashier how old he was. I’d guessed 23. He said “23.” I said “I’ve been shopping at H&M for longer than you’ve been alive.” He seemed taken aback — though it wasn’t clear whether that was because he didn’t think I was that old, or that the company he worked for was that old.

H&M is pretty new in the US, and just about unheard of in Pittsburgh. But my conversation took me back to those early items I bought there, at the flagship store on Oxford Street in the 80s. This was well before the Primark era, and well before H&M’s flagship store moved to Oxford Circus.

No, really: stop staring.
Here’s what I bought (and what was considered fashionable back in the mid1980s): a completely floppy silvery fabric jacket, a royal blue tiered miniskirt, and a white string vest. I probably wore all three at the same time. With a headband. It was hideous.

Football players didn’t hawk underwear back then, though we all wondered what Gary Lineker looked like in his. Now, I am left staring at the box. I can’t quite bring myself to throw it away.

Mr. Lineker.