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Two Finger Typing

We've seen our friends across the Atlantic, I've only three US states where I do not know of any relatives, move to reject expertise and embrace bombast in recent years.

And yet none of the inventions which we view as vital parts of our modern existence came without expertise. Not necessarily only from those who have acquired knowledge and skills from formal learning. I am somewhat of an autodidact myself. I found the tramlines along which my formal education tried to direct me, immensely constraining.

But it is a world in which we hang on the words of our Chief Medical Officer Catherine Calderwood as the authoritative voice in our crisis. Our First Minister and Health Secretary Jeane Freeman have to turn her advice into policy and action. But without the expertise, there would be nothing.

All three have voices whose calm and informed delivery assist and reassure us in times of difficulty.

As I sit here, I think about a skill I, and the overwhelming majority of the population, lack—an ability to type with more than two fingers.

To this day, the letters F and J on our computer keyboards are differentiated from the rest. They have a little ridge at the bottom of them. Or perhaps a pimple in their centre.

Because the keyboard used to be the preserve of a trained expert. A person originally called a "typewriter". The word moved to describe the tool and the user became a "typist". Just as "computers" used to be people who "computed". Like Katherine G. Johnson, an African-American mathematician, who had a bigger hand in the USA's space successes than any astronaut.

My pal Archie was almost the only computer programmer I knew who sat down at his keyboard and, without looking, placed his hands in the correct position to use all his fingers in an expert demonstration of rapid-fire touch typing.

The other was Brian.

I started as a trainee computer programmer in October 1969 and was put in a room on the first floor of 66 George Street, Edinburgh to study how to program. I had never seen a computer before I was recruited to the job. They just tested your IQ and you could be in.

In the room with me was a card punch machine. Before the computer keyboard allowed us to directly communicate with the beast, we used a card roughly the size of a dollar bill which had holes punched in it to instruct our master, an IBM 360 series giant. And this machine punched the holes in the card.

The technology was not terribly new. Joseph Jacquard demonstrated his attachment for the power loom in 1801. A roll of card with punched holes controlled the complex weaving actions needed for new designs. It revolutionised the weaving industry, displaced many craft weavers but made woven products available to many who could not have previously afforded it.

The punched card, invented by Herman Hollerith, came later in the 19th century and broke through to mainstream data processing after the 1890 US Census.

It was realised that manually collating the census data, as had been done for previous censuses, would not be complete by the time of the next census. The task was simply too big. Automation was required.

Hollerith's card with its forty columns of ten holes, or spaces without holes, could hold a lot of data. It is could actually hold 2400 different sets of data which is a hundred-and-twenty-one-digit number you get by multiplying 1,099,511,627,776 by itself ten times. Don't ask; I don't have the time or inclination. The first digit is 1 and the last is 6.

His card was the size of a dollar bill for no reason that has ever been disclosed to me. We later added two more rows to produce a slightly bigger card onto which I punched my first tentative steps in computer programming.

Brian was anything but tentative. He would stride into the room. Head for the drawer which contained blank cards. And sit down to confidently punch his program onto an impressively large stack of cards-from memory. His one constant was to totally ignore me.

Until I moved the little 2-bar electric "fire" that provided the only, and very limited, heat in a drafty, cold room.

Brian came in and walked straight through the fire. An impressive series of Anglo-Saxon words were delivered in short order. And now I realised that Brian was blind.

His world was auditory and tactile. To operate the punch-card keyboard, he had had to learn to touch type. And to place his hands he needed these little guides on the F and J keys.

His typing was fast and seemed to be fairly fault-free. He and Archie outshone the rest of us.

We amateur typists, still peering at out keyboards, pecking away with two fingers never dared return to our ignorance and learn to use a keyboard properly.

The experts beat us every time.

We've never needed them more.

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