The one ability I have never been shy about is my ability to type quickly on a QWERTY keyboard.
I’m not talking thumb or index finger typing here. I’m talking full keyboard, hands on it like hands on a piano; fingers lightly curled resting lightly on top of keys ready to plunge, alight, and scurry to the next, upon command kinda typing.
No look too.
When someone said to me, “Wow Fahri, you type so fast!” I would turn to them while I carried on typing, look them in the eye and reply with mock helplessness, “Right? I can’t help myself!”
But it’s true. I cannot type slow. Once you can type fast, you can’t type slow. It’s like being on the internet. When you are used to 1 millisecond, 5 milliseconds is long.
Even though I’m no competition winner, I can capture regular speech almost verbatim. It’s sloppy at times on the first pass but most of it is in. I can keep up with the quick flow of thought along with the accompanying clutter of crap compared to using a pen. With the keyboard, it is as if my mind were plugged directly into my fingers, bypassing any thinking. For that reason, I don’t think typing quickly to be necessarily a good thing.
I find the texture of my writing with a keyboard harder and rawer compared to when using a pen, which has, in contrast, a more considered and refined quality of expression to it. I feel the pen better mediates my thoughts compared to a keyboard, which is simply a tool to capture raw thoughts. These can be polished and revised until it is the best version of itself.
But there is something to be said for writing on paper by hand with pen and ink. Besides the written word, there is pleasure in the act of writing itself to be savoured; the feel of the pen in hand, the glide of the nib on paper, the shades of colour the ink goes through as it dries. That quality of relationship is difficult to have with a keyboard, which is simply an input device. I don’t love my keyboards like I love my fountain pens.
I type quicker in English than in Malay. Typing quickly and accurately is now an important skill in the computer age. Now, we type more than we write. This may change when video and speech become the primary medium of communication, and converting text to speech, no matter what the accent, at an accuracy rate of 99% becomes cheap and ubiquitous.
I am often asked how I came to type fast. Did I take typing classes? Was there software that could help train my fingers to type fast? Did I study from a book? Was it something my mother ate when she carried me? No, to all of them. There are many formal ways to learn to type quickly. But I didn’t learn that way.
I had an oblique route: computer games. Or more accurately, early PC adventure computer games. Lots of them.
When I was young, I went over to my cousins’ house five doors down from mine every day to play their computer games. Their parents in their wisdom bought the Apple II which had many excellent games going for it at the time. Games like Karateka, Loderunner, Saigon, Wyndam Hill, and many others were popular. I played and finished all of them. My parents for reasons best known to themselves had more important things to do other than to look into this gaming deficiency of mine.
So whilst I played many games on the Apple, it did not develop my typing because back then we used a joystick (get that grin off your face; actually, never mind, keep it on) or a few of the keys on a keyboard to move and perform actions.
The groundbreaking moment was borne out of a combination of my parents’ foresight and ignorance. They had the foresight to realize I should be computer literate even though they were ignorant about computers and tech themselves.
I remember when we picked up the computer. It was from a shop near my old house in Damansara Utama. In the 1980s, Uptown Damansara was known as Damansara Utama. Most of the shop lots around the area were empty. There happened to be a computer shop at the far end of the row of shops. One afternoon, when I was nine or ten, my parents brought me along. It wasn’t to consult me about the purchase but to show me the computer they acquired for me. I think it cost them three-plus grand, which was a sizable amount in the 1980s.
I had no idea what computer it was. All I knew was it was a computer.
We brought it home. My father put it together. I pounced on it right after. But I was quickly disappointed. It was very different from the Apple II that I was accustomed to. I discovered my parents bought me a Personal Computer, a PC, powered by an Intel chip. It used an operating system named DOS. It didn’t have a graphical interface. You just had a command line.
The PC did not have as many well-made games as the Apple II had. So I ignored the PC in the beginning. I found a few games like Digger (a variant of Pac-Man) and Pong (which was ping pong) which were addictive for a short time. Those games were no better than the repetitive consoles games produced by Atari, Commodore 64, and others.
My poor impression of the PC continued until I discovered the Pineapple Computer Store. It was located on the top floor of Jaya Supermarket at Section 14, Petaling Jaya. If you played PC games and lived in Petaling Jaya, you could not not know that place. That shop was the PC game mecca in the 1980s and early 1990s; a godsend for us gamers. They sold bootleg copies of the latest games at affordable prices, which was still a bit of a stretch for us.
How could a nine year old afford an original PC game, which went for RM 250 or more, with an allowance of RM 5 a week? And that did not include the RM 3.90 I had earmarked for my weekly comic purchase. It was a stretch but I could afford a game that cost between RM 10 to RM 20 if I gave up comics for a few weeks.
It was there I found many wonderful games for the PC. From that moment on, the PC became my computer of choice. The first game I found there was King Quest: Quest for the Crown by the game developer, Sierra On-Line. It was an adventure game with an interesting story, funny dialogue, and challenging puzzles. I loved it. I completed the game in a few weeks. Finishing it imbued me with a sense of accomplishment because I solved the puzzles by myself, without any help. King’s Quest was one of several adventure games Sierra On-Line produced.
At the time, which was around the 1980s, Sierra On-Line were the masters of the two dimensional, move and type adventure role playing game. There was Space Quest, Police Quest, Quest for Glory, and Leisure Suit Larry, to name a few. I loved and played them all. Most of them had the usual mix of a great story, witty dialogue, and interesting puzzles and quests. I suppose that is why even these days, my first choice of game is an adventure or strategy, not the FPS (First Persons Shooters) which I have no interest in.
How did those Sierra On-Line games help me out? Although we used the AWSD key combination to move the character in the game, to make the character do something, we had to type out what we wanted them to do as a command in a dialogue box for that. Often we had to manoeuvre the character to the place they had to do something and type the command when the character was close to the item of interaction. The command could be something like “Get book” or “Open door”. It could be much longer too.
I remember my breakthrough vividly. It involved a crucial part of the first Police Quest series. In the game, I had to question a suspect who was part of a biker gang. If I didn’t question him, I could not progress further in the game. To get him out of a bar, my police officer character had to push down a row of big motorcycles parked out front of a bar. Once the biker came out, my character was supposed to subdue him with a tonfa he carried.
The difficult bit was this: The moment my character pushed the bikes down, I had a ridiculously short span of time to type the phrase: ‘Take out nightstick. Use nightstick on biker’. Failure to type this meant my character would be beaten to death by the bikers once they exited the bar.
The game didn’t let me pre-type the words. There was no cut and paste then. I wasn’t a two-finger typist but I still wasn’t quick enough to type it out for the game. There was no warning when time began or ended for me to do this. Because of that my character died almost a hundred times, beaten again and again by the bikers. I sat by the computer and typed out that phrase again and again until finally, I was fast and accurate enough to succeed.
After that I realized I could type other phrases quickly too, not just ‘Take out nightstick. Use nightstick on biker.’ Although if I was on auto I would probably type just that. “Take out nigh…” I gained the confidence that all I needed to do to improve and improve quicker was to practice. And practice I did. I played all Sierra On-Line games and a slew of text-based games like Planetfall and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. These days it’s all fancy graphics and mouse. I felt text-based games worked better because they had no visuals. We had to use our imagination instead. It made for a richer experience.
Computer games were not the whole story but it was my breakthrough. I refined my typing ability in university but that is a story for another day.
Playing computer games is not necessarily a waste of time. On the contrary, valuable skills can be drawn from the experience, developed, and then fruitfully applied to other areas of our life. That is how the ability to type quickly has been for me. I cannot count how many times typing quickly has turned out to be a useful skill to have both personally and professionally.
Although I still play computer games, it is not to keep my typing sharp. There is no need to type to game these days. I play it to broaden my experience, refine my strategic thinking *cough* and also have something to talk to my kids about. That is my excuse, anyway.
If you don’t agree with them, you best come up with your own.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a few civilizations to conquer on Sid Meier’s Civilization VI.