Monthly Archives: December 2015

QWERTY II

I like learning odd things. Many of these posts are inspired by odd things that I learn, and felt I should share over the Internet. Which is why I was so excited to find out that there was NEWS about everyone’s favorite keyboard layout. As in new stuff. About a keyboard layout that is almost 250 years old. Very exciting. A little while ago, I wrote a post on how we all ended up with the QWERTY keyboard layout. It came from typewriters, and a man who made typewriters, Christopher Latham Sholes. The story goes that the typists of the days of typewriters became very good at typing. This caused typewriters to jam. So Mr. Sholes created an intentionally cumbersome layout to slow these typists down, and fix this problem. As it turns out, you see, the story, might just be a story after all.

A recent paper published by Koichi Yasuoka and Motoko Yasuoka from Japan details evidence of the QWERTY design that has nothing to do with slowing down the pace of typists. They posit that the layout actually stems from morse code and telegraphy. According to the article, the first keyboards that were used by Sholes’ company did resemble a piano. Where they were next developed from, however, begins to differ from the traditional story.

Typewriters and keyboards were used for transcribing morse code messages and telegraphs. This meant that the position of the keys had to be correlated with the morse code symbols. As explained in Smithsonian Magazine article, the paper from the Kyoto researchers suggests that the layout was developed over several years, with the help of telegraph operators. So that’s that. The story was picked up by a bunch of other news-ish type publications, such as The Atlantic and The Huffington Post. The thing is, they’re just going off of the Smithsonian piece, which is about two guys who wrote a paper.

Now, I used to like that the history of the QWERTY layout was simple, despite it’s design to slow me down. I am a decent typer, and so I don’t really hold it against Mr. Sholes. But I’m not going to jump on the bandwagon that is full of the Ysouka’s, and the people from Smithsonian Magazine, The Atlantic, and The Huffington Post. The reason is this: they are basing all of their arguments on the opinion of two guys.

There are a couple of points to make here, the first of which is there are likely elements of truth to every side of this keyboard layout scrum. The jamming problem is so widely referenced and so widely known, and it likely did exist. As a make of typewriters, Mr. Sholes would have been invested in making typewriters that didn’t jam, because then more people would buy his typewriters, and he would make more money. This paper by Stan Leibowitz and Stephen Margolis suggests that the rearranged keyboard layout was designed solely so that keys commonly hit in rapid succession would swing up to hit the page from opposite sides of the mechanism. This also makes for a method of typing which alternates hands a lot, which makes touch typing easier. Another point they make is that what we think of as “touch-typing” now, with computer keyboards, is different from “touch-typing” when typewriters were abundant.

This entire episode has actually lead me to dig up some more information on the Dvorak keyboard layout. It seems that according to an article originally published in 1996 in Reason Magazine, a study performed by the Navy in the 1940s to figure out which keyboard layout was superior, QWERTY or Dvorak, was riddled with threats to validity, meaning that the research is essentially meaningless. Other tests of typing speed have shown that the pace at which one can type is actually more dependent on one’s experience and practice typing in a particular keyboard than the keyboard itself.

For me, to try and type on a Dvorak keyboard would be initially much more difficult, because I don’t have to think about the QWERTY layout when I type. That said, if I put in the hours typing like I have with the QWERTY layout, then I would be able to type on a Dvorak keyboard just as easily. This makes the point that regardless of the efficiency or inefficiency of the QWERTY layout, since we all learned on it, and industry has accepted it as something of a standard, that it is. We’re all used to it, and relatively good at it. The people who type a lot anyways.

The moral of the story is this: The origin story of the QWERTY keyboard is probably not as simple as anyone is making it out to be. The researchers at Kyoto University have found some evidence that further add to the mystery. These keyboards were used for telegraph operators, but typewriters also would jam. So, if anyone reading this happens upon a smallish lamp with a genie inside of it, rub the lamp, and wish to speak to Mr. Christopher Latham Sholes so we can put this issue to rest, once and for all.

Music to my Ears

I was a band geek in high school. Let me rephrase that. I was in just about every musical group that I could be in in high school. I earned my high school diploma from Arlington High School in Lagrangeville, New York, and along the way I was a member of the marching band, the wind ensemble, multiple full orchestras, a brass quintet, a pit orchestra, the holiday brass choir, and the graduation band…you know…pomp and circumstance and whatnot. I was actually the drum major of the marching band my junior and senior year. The only part of high school music I was never really a part of was jazz, but that was only because I am a french horn player – that’s right, a horn player through and through, I didn’t start out on trumpet or anything – and french horn players can’t swing to save their lives. I wasn’t really a band geek though. I mean I practiced, but only as much as I had to. I’m more of a band geek now than I ever was in high school. I’ve learned about the physics of sound waves, and listen to various bits of instrumental music in my free time, and not just because of nostalgia.

If the pen is mightier than the sword, then how mighty is the baton? Or the horn? The piccolo, or the violin? Music invokes a visceral response from people. To spread an idea through words, people have to read the words. With the sword, blood must be shed, or it is simply a fancy prop. With music, the ideas permeate through the resistance that is given to words and swords. Music goes beyond language. Two people can listen to a song, and understand it, even if they can’t understand one another. There are musicians who I love listening to, can barely speak english, and yet they convey more emotion in their music than many people who use actual words. Not to downplay the significance and beauty of words. Certain phrases and passages written by those whom I deem to be great writers will make me melt like butter. Or, really, anything that melts, whenever the temperature or pressure are such that the thing will melt. I digress.

I saw something posted on Facebook a little while ago by the guy who was my high school marching band director. It was a quote about how you need to be selfless when performing, and how the accomplishments of the group are greater than the accomplishments of any one of the members, or something like that. It made me a little sad to see it, because it’s just crap. Yes, the accomplishments of the group belong to the group, but creating good music is more than just the group’s achievement. It’s one of the things I like so much about it. In order for the group to be good, there needs to be individual talent. Each member of the group must be able to stand alone, and be just as perfect then. It is easy to be a part of a large group, and to go unnoticed. Both the good, and the bad. The beauty of music isn’t simply in the power of a large ensemble, it is in the intricacy of a single performer. Each individual’s intonation, each individuals volume, and tone, that matters. One of the keys to a good ensemble is the talent of the individuals within.

The accomplishments of the individual go hand in hand with the accomplishments of the group. A very talented individual can be part of a terrible ensemble, and vice versa. The performance of the group does not take away from the performance of the individual. If a group performs well in spite of a poor performance from one individual, the individual still performed poorly. Every part of the ensemble matters, and the best ones have every detail squared away. Every individual does all that is required of them, no matter how minute the detail. The thing that is so awe inspiring about an immaculate performance from an ensemble is that simultaneous individual greatness. It is in this spirit of individual performance, where lies the reasoning behind my favorite instrument of all time.

My favorite instrument, out of all of them, is the piano. The french horn has it’s great moments, and, because I’m biased as fuck, I think it has WAY more great moments than all the other instruments. I get all quivery in the legs from a well placed oboe note every now and then, and the shrieky piccolo frills in Sousa marches are brilliant, but the horn just makes me melt. Despite all of that, the piano is my favorite. It is my favorite because all you need are fingers, and you have a little symphony. Polyphony. Chords. You have chords. Yeah yeah, you can do chords with a guitar, but a guitar is simply not as beautiful to me. Personal preference. It is what it is. You can take a piano, and play. Try out different notes, and see what happens. You don’t need an ensemble. Before computer programs let us write music that was all synthesized and shit, there were pianos. Some of my favorite music to listen to is just one guy hammering away on some keys. And Mannheim Steamroller. I love the shit out of Mannheim Steamroller.

Ultimately, music is so powerful because it can fill so many roles. It can bring people together, it can be humorous, it can diffuse great tension, right after creating it. It says so many things, without saying anything at all. It is the one thing that can place me right back in high school, reliving all the emotions and experiences I had back then.

I started on this tangent because I happened upon some youtube videos of drum corps performing, and it brought back all of the memories that I have that are associated with music. Playing music was a definitive part of my high school years…and middle school years…and elementary school years. More than that, now I can feel rhythms, and I can sing (not well, but I mean, I know what notes are, and attempt to hit them). Plus, I got that really groovy metaphor for all those group projects our professors and bosses have been assigning us. It has introduced me to people who have through the years meant a lot to me. Isn’t that really all we want, to mean something to people? The people whom I have met through music are some of the craziest, whackiest, insane, weird, and amazing people I’ve ever met. But that’s ok, because I am crazy too.