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Saturday, March 9, 2013

Mac shortcuts and keyboards aren't very friendly

As long as I'm in a character I/O mood today, I might as well finally talk about this part of the Mac "experience": the modifier keys.

Typical Mac dropdown

Here's part of a typical Mac dropdown menu, taken from the Mail application which comes with the OS. I call your attention to the list of hotkeys (or "accelerators", perhaps) down the right side of that menu.

First up is this cloverleaf looking thing and a Z. That's not too complicated since there's actually one of those symbols on my "command" keys. It obviously means command-Z, and trying it gives the expected results.

Next you have this up-arrow, then the cloverleaf, and then the Z. There's no up-arrow on my keyboard, but I'm sufficiently experienced (ahem) to have used an actual clickity-click typewriter back in the day, and so linking it with "shift" isn't too much of a stretch. Back then, depending on what sort of machine you had, when you hit shift, things actually, well, shifted right there in front of you. So, okay, shift-command-Z.

The next three are just variants on the first, and then it gets weird again. Cloverleaf plus ... left arrow with an X in it. Again this calls back to the typewriter, sorta. You could back up but you sure couldn't delete what was there without some manual intervention. I know that character appeared on the backspace key of some typewriter keyboard I encountered somewhere along the way, but it sure isn't on my Mac. This is command-backspace, or I guess, command-delete, as the key is marked on my machine.

Then there's just another simple one, and then it gets even stranger. Now it's this ... sleeping cat face thing and what appears to be the power button logo, only rotated a bit and with an arrow on top. That first one is really weird, but I think I found out by trial and error over the years that it means "option". There's absolutely nothing on my option keys suggesting this, but empirical data suggests that's what it's for. The other one? I still don't know. I know it's not the power button, for sure. Nothing else on the machine even remotely resembles it.

Everything else is just a variant of something already covered. There are also menus which use a caret (^) to mean "CTRL", but being indoctrinated in Unix means I know that one already. I can't imagine what it's like for someone who has no idea what that thing means.

What's really annoying is that I'm pretty sure older Macs had more symbols on their keys. I can't remember what they all were or where they lived, but I'm willing to bet they matched up with all of these mystery meat icons in these menus. Why they're using icons for things that don't match anything you can actually type, I may never know.


One last thought here: Apple II keyboards inspired a certain sense of exploration. Every kid was told "control-open-apple-reset" to reset the machine and get it booting your disk. I obviously noticed there was a "closed apple" on the other side. We didn't use it much, if at all.

Still, it got me thinking: if the "open apple" works with control and reset, then what does the "closed apple" do? I don't think it did anything, but then that made me wonder what would happen if I used both. Control - open apple - closed apple - reset. I got a crazy system test: the screen went nuts and the little squeaker in the case started making this horrible noise. The computer teacher probably thought I had killed the poor machine.

I knew enough to know that a mere four-fingered "death grip" shouldn't kill the box, and give it a proper reset sequence to shut it up and put things back to normal.

(I didn't know about the PET killer poke back then.)