Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Steve Jobs, part deux

I found Aline’s posting from yesterday very interesting. I don’t think we’re that far apart in years (and one never asks about age, does one?), so my experience with “writing technology” is quite similar. I had an added impetus to explore technological change, though, due to the fact that I’m left-handed.

My long story is a sad one. My first grade teacher was a newbie, born of the (somewhat misguided) school of thought that “the child should express him/herself”. This apparently extended to the way we gripped those fat red pencils kids use in the lower grades. To say I have an oddball grip of writing implements is being exceptionally kind. I also write overhand, so being a lefty, the side of my hand trails across the paper. Soft or hard lead, all pencil writing was smudged – badly. I also had to be very careful with pens. The cheap ones seemed to work best, so I used those. With those hand-cramping Bic pens I struggled through high school and university, dreading all tests that involved a lot of writing. One time, my hand cramped so badly I couldn’t finish the exam. My teacher kindly granted me an extra half hour.

Needless to say, I discovered typewriters very early. My mom had an old Olivetti that I loved and I did a lot of my homework on that machine. My graduation present from high school was a portable typewriter and that took me through university. I’m with Aline about carbons, too. Awful things...

For the above reasons, I also went to computers very early on. Working in schools helped there, too, since we had the odd Trash 80 and Apple IIs. What got me heavily into computers, though, involves a nasty run-in involving a very complicated musical score.

I was conducting the Wind Ensemble at the Royal Conservatory of Music here in Toronto and I decided to do a transcription of “Venus” from Gustav Holst’s The Planets. It took many hours of work to get all 36 parts sketched out on huge sheets of manuscript paper. When it came time to do a final pristine copy in pen, each side of each page would take 6 hours of tough work. For one page, instead of turning it over, I flipped it over with the result that I spent 12 hours on the two sides and it was unusable since the verso side was upside down. I won’t even go into the hours it took to write out all the individual parts. It was a black time indeed and I knew there had to be a better way.

Enter a program called Pro Composer that allowed one to produce a decent-looking score and automatically extract all the parts. Gone was the largest part of the tediousness of composition. Pro Composer also played back my compositions so I would know when I handed out the parts that they had no mistakes. That’s a real boon when teaching students, believe me.

It was an easy extension to realize that computers were perfect for writing. And this is where Steve Jobs comes in to the story. A lot of people aren’t aware that he insisted on even early Apple programs that they allow users to produce great typography. We can thank him indirectly for scalable fonts and a lot of the typographical nuances that are available on all computers. He pushed that and got third party vendors involved, too.

Sadly, this doesn’t mean that everyone produces great typography on their PCs. That requires a bit of study and care, but even out of the box, it isn’t hard to make our work look pretty good – and readable. Word processors are really lovely inventions.

I still enjoy writing by hand. I even use fountain pens after I found an incredibly quick-drying ink and the right kinds of paper. There’s something so visceral about putting words down on paper by hand. First of all, one tends to think a little bit more before scribbling one’s deathless prose.

But I can certainly say that I probably wouldn’t be a writer if computers hadn’t come along. Even with a typewriter and correction fluid, producing several hundred pages is definitely not fun.

Oh, and my first word of advice to anyone who yearns for the life of an ink-stained wretch is to learn how to touch type. I did when I was 42 using Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing. It took me 3 months of 10-15 minutes every day and that was the best time investment I’ve probably ever done.


Aline Templeton said...

Fascinating, Rick. How awful to have such a bad start with your early teacher. I was so interested to hear about your musical talents - can imagine Apple must have been a godsend.

Rick Blechta said...

Oh survived just fine. I gravitated to Apple early on because it was so intuitive and the programs all had so many similarities. Since I've been doing graphic design, that's been a real plus since the programs I use are HUGE. Plus, I'm one of those geeks who enjoys knowing about typography and how it works, so Apple was a good choice for me all-round

Anyway, the person who my first grade teacher drove crazy was my Grade 4 teacher who tried so hard to get me to hold a pen properly. She finally had to throw in the towel, poor lady. We remained good friends, though, until her death.

Sylvia MccConnell said...

My father taught me to touch type when I was eight, bought me a portable typewriter when I was 13 to encourage my writing and I never looked back. I was one of the first to get into Apple products in 1982, and have never looked back. One beautiful Apple after another. I'm so glad I was born in this age.

Rick Blechta said...

Gee, Mike, thanks for that comment...I think...

Hannah Dennison said...

I learned to touch type at sixth form college. 2 hours of typing and shorthand every day for a whole year. There were no letters on the keyboard either. I hated it at the time but I am extremely fast and accurate and it's the best thing I ever learned! I find writing longhand too laborious. But I love LOVE Pitman shorthand. I can still remember all the strokes decades later although whether I can read what I've written is a whole other story. Great post!

Becky - Mystery Writers Unite said...

I have known how to type for years and actually took a keyboarding class when they were still offered in the schools.

I became a MAC user and then an Apple product fan about 5 years ago and I've never looked back. The products are innovative and easy to use. This past weekend I discovered an App for my iPhone that will record what you are saying and then type it out for you and you can send it to yourself in an email.

Rick Blechta said...

The best part about Apple products is that they work reliably and they're easy to use. I've had my current Mac Pro for two years and the previous one for six, and there hasn't been a crash in that entire time. You pay more for them, but it's worth the cash for the reliability.

Thanks so much to everyone for writing in!

Rick Blechta said...

By the way, the image I used is of a manuscript for a Chopin piano piece. Believe it or not, this is what he apparently sent to his publisher as his final “good” copy. It should give you some idea of how ratty these things can look. The Beethoven scores I’ve seen are probably the worst. He didn’t just cross mistakes out, he obliterated them!

Donis Casey said...

I love my Apples.

Just to show you what an old codger I am, I had to take typing in junior high school because I am a girl and girls needed to learn to type so they could be secretaries. And in my first typing class, I actually used a manual typewriter that looked like something Ernie Pyle typed on at the front during WWII.