Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Shortcuts

I am a "software developer." I don't know when or why this title became preferred to "programmer." Probably it sounds less technical and therefore more professional. Perhaps engineering school graduates called themselves "software engineers," and non-engineer programmers wanted a similar title. Whatever it is, I can't get used to being a "developer" instead of a programmer. I write programs; I am a programmer.

If you spend a lot of time on computers, eventually you pick up some shortcuts. The best shortcut I ever learned was how to touch-type, but that's in a different class, because you have to practice it to use it. The kind of shortcuts to which I am referring are the shortcuts that you just learn about once and keep re-using. Many of them involve using the keyboard instead of the mouse, because typing tends to be faster than moving a mouse, even if you aren't able to touch-type. For example, when you go to log into a web site, some people will enter their username, use the mouse to put the cursor in the password box, enter their password, and then use the mouse to click on the "submit" button. This is far slower than using the tab key to move the cursor to the password box and then just hitting the enter key, which you can do on almost any web site. Watching someone do it the slow way is kind of like hearing fingernails being dragged down a chalkboard for me: it is painful to see. I want to tell him the faster way, but I know that 90% of people will never use the shortcut after that one occasion; they are just used to using the mouse, so that's what they will keep on using.

Me, I'm kind of addicted to shortcuts. I like to learn them even if they don't save me time, or only a tiny bit of time. I install extensions for Firefox that allow me to use all kinds of shortcuts: things like LoL, which numbers all the clickable elements in a web page so you can type a number rather than using the mouse; All-in-One Gestures, which creates many kinds of shortcuts for using the mouse (for instance, right-click left-click goes back a page); and Easy Gestures, which pops up a pie menu of options if you click the middle mouse button. My favourite shortcuts, however, are undoubtedly the ones that use the keyboard. For years I have been using the spacebar to page through web pages. Pressing the space bar moves a page down exactly one screen, which suits me perfectly. What I've always lacked was a way of paging up equally easily. Sure, I can use the "Page Up" key, but then I have to take my hands off the keyboard, and I try to avoid that. Only this week I learned that Shift + spacebar will page up, just as Shift + tab will tab backwards through a form.

Usually, shortcuts only save a minuscule amount of time. Sometimes, however, they can be a lifesaver. For instance, on Windows, pressing ctrl-alt-delete used to bring up a task manager, where you could kill a program that was hanging. They seem to have gotten rid of this on certain recent versions (at least, it doesn't work on my Vista box); and, as anyone who has used Windows much knows, programs are bound to hang. Fortunately, I discovered that ctrl-shift-escape accomplishes the same thing, and still works on Vista.

I vividly recall one occasion when my wife had kindly agreed to copy the text out of my individual book chapters and paste them into a single file. It was taking her a long time, which seemed odd to me, so I asked her about it. Not knowing any better way, she was clicking at the start of a document and dragging the cursor throughout the whole thing -- often 30 or 40 pages. This was slow, and if she once let off of the mouse button, she had to start all over again. After I explained to her that ctrl-a automatically selects all the text in a document (or, in most cases, a textbox or other container), she finished the job in a few minutes, which had been taking hours.

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