Thursday, March 07, 2002

(I wasn't sure whether this Unabomber Manifesto of sorts belonged here or on my copy-editing site, so I put it in both places. If you're interested in interface design or the Windows-vs.-Mac debate, you'll want to read it, at least until it gets too newspaper-specific.)


If you had never driven a car before, you would have no idea that the stalk on the left side of the steering column controlled these signals. Heck, you probably wouldn't know what the steering wheel was for.

So it would be better to have a big START button on the dashboard, clearly labeled, that directed you to a menu from which you could choose a variety of clearly labeled turn-signal and steering maneuvers, right?

I offer this analogy in sorrow as I prepare to say goodbye to the SII editing system, which I've known in one form or another since 1982. For a long time, before WYSIWYG word processors infiltrated the newspaper market, SII and Atex dominated the market for the proprietary systems on which newspaper people wrote and edited their stories.

These systems were clunky and hard to learn. You could call them DOS-based (although I protest that they present a much more refined interface than DOS). But once you became proficient — mastering their mysterious steering wheels and turn-signal wands — you were off to the races. I worked on SII terminals when they were elegant little made-to-win-design-awards modules that consisted of little more than a standard-size keyboard and a CRT screen. Virtually every command was a keyboard sequence that had to be memorized. In the mid-1980s the design went out the window and SII went to big, ugly, brown Coyote terminals, with the equivalent of function keys (though the keyboard shortcuts remained valid). More recently, "Roadrunner" circuit boards replicated the Coyote interface for the PC and then Coyote software did the same thing without the silicon.

When the techies talk about ease of use, they often fail to observe this critical distinction between initial user-friendliness and true utility. A driver doesn't have time to navigate a series of menus in order to navigate a car, and a newspaper editor doesn't have time to fiddle with a mouse or toggle between an infinite series of desktop windows. Better to put up with the learning curve once (OK — "edit" is "CMD E" . . .) and then operate quickly with that memorized knowledge.

I'm probably on shakier ground here, but all of the above is my problem with the Macintosh cult. The Mac is engineered to be used by beginners. Nothing wrong with that, but you outgrow being a beginner. The Mac-Windows distinction becomes blurred, of course, because you can operate a Mac with keyboard shortcuts and you can operate a Windows machine with Mac-style mousing. But just as the Mac types will observe that Windows offers an imperfect imitation of the Mac interface, I say Apple's keyboard shortcuts seem to be more of an afterthought than Microsoft's. The DOS vestiges that the Windows programmers probably consider a failure are, to me, a big selling point.

Still, though I like Microsoft Word just fine at home, I am not happy about being forced to use it at work. It would be fine if I were working for Simon & Schuster, with five minutes to devote to each word, but I'm at The Washington Post, where I'm lucky to have five minutes to devote to an entire story.

Here are some of the areas in which, amazingly, SII's pre-PC-era programmers came up with things that the modern PC industry has yet to match:

  • Two-step keyboard shortcuts. Hit the CMD or UDK (more on that later) button and a prompt awaits the rest of the equation. This sounds like a tiny difference, but it's a huge advantage in terms of speed and ease of use. Instead of having to form a simultaneous two- or three-finger chord as we must with CTRL and ALT and CTRL/ALT shortcuts, with Coyote we can hit CMD, let go, and then hit the next key. A minute later, if we want. With the same finger, if we want. The type-type-type-slap-slap-type-type rhythm is preserved without that awkward pause during which we must be sure that two keys are depressed at the same time.

  • Easy-to-use macros. UDK stands for "user-defined key." Hit CMD UDK, do what you want the UDK to do, then hit CMD UDK again and the key or key combination on which you want that macro saved. Windows macros allegedly work in a similar fashion, but I've never been able to do much with them. And because UDK is its own key separate from CTRL or ALT, you have access to every symbol on the keyboard as a shortcut. CTRL L might be taken by a built-in function, but UDK L (or lowercase l or right-ALT L or left-ALT L or right-ALT lowercase l or left-ALT lowercase l) is there for you. Every key is a blank slate at least three times over.

  • Save strings (hundreds of "clipboards"). The MOVE key in Coyote acts like the Windows clipboard. But Coyote also allows you to save strings of characters under any symbol on the keyboard. If I save my byline under SAVE B, it's there. It's easy to change if I want to change it, but it stays there until I make such a change. And I can recall it (see above) with a one-hand shortcut, not a two-or-more-finger chord. More than any of the other Coyote advantages I talk about, the lack of a Windows or Mac equivalent to this truly stuns me.

  • Multiple-task find and replace. In Windows, you can search and replace quite nicely — but one thing at a time. Coyote (again, with a bit of a learning curve) allows you to build a single find-and-replace string that searches for multiple things and replaces each with what you want. I have one that converts numbers from one to ten into numerals. The same one converts numerals from 1 to 10 into numbers. In Microsoft Word, I'd need 20 separate searches to do all those things. Now, imagine combining the UDK, the save string, and the multiple search-and-replace. If you've never seen Coyote in action (or, ahem, never seen me use Coyote), the hugeness of this concept will be hard to comprehend. Let's just say that I can create a UDK that, with two keystrokes, fixes a particular writer's 10 worst habits throughout a story.

  • Split screens. In Coyote, I can be editing two stories at once — or editing on one screen and looking up a wire story or sending a message or doing whatever on the other. One keystroke toggles between the two environments. The traditional 50-50 (or whatever percentages you like) split screen is also available, but I've always considered that overrated.

  • Integrated messaging. As an editor in a fast-paced environment, being able to focus on just one screen rather than toggling from window to window is a good thing. Coyote had "instant messaging" before ordinary people had e-mail.

    Here's the "to be sure" graf: To be sure, there are advantages to the true WYSIWYG technology available today. Some of those advantages are specific to the Post setup, however, and some of the potential advantages are not being taken advantage of at the Post (which is part of the reason I'm so irked). But overall, a basic lack of awareness among the programmers of the realities of newspaper production means we're taking a step backward by "modernizing."

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