What The Heck Does That Key Do?

You know what keys I’m talking about. The ones that say things like Scroll Lock, Break, and SysRq. When was the last time you pressed one of those keys? Here’s how they got to be there, what they originally did, and if there’s still anything you can use them for now.

Print Screen
The Print Screen key barely fits in this category–quite a few people know what the Print Screen key does, and it’s the only one of these keys that I use regularly. Originally, as its name suggests, the Print Screen key dumped the contents of the screen to the printer. So why doesn’t it perform this handy function today? Well, quite simply, graphical user environments. This key was envisioned when text-based operating systems like MS-DOS were the norm, and printing text was quite sensible. But when Windows came along, the Print Screen key had to be deactivated in Windows–dot-matrix printers and graphics don’t mix, and even if your printer printed graphics, that would have been a lot of ink. (Dot-matrix printers are the really noisy kind that operate by punching pins in the shape of letters. If you go to a few stores with old cash register equipment today, you might still encounter a dot-matrix receipt printer.)

But not being able to get a record of the current contents of the screen wasn’t a good solution either, so the function was modified to copy an image of the screen to the computer’s clipboard instead. This remains its function today. If you’ve been reading along with this newsletter every week, you’ve probably encountered a few of my screenshots–an common way to create a screenshot is to press the Print Screen key, paste the image into an image editing program, and save it.

(Note: Macs don’t have a print screen key, but you can take a screenshot by pressing Command-Shift-3.)

Scroll Lock
If you know anything about the scroll lock key, it’s probably that it makes one of those little lights in the upper-right-hand corner of the keyboard come on. But chances are good that you have never known what it’s for. If you’re exceedingly (un)lucky, you might have experienced your cursor in Excel refusing to move when you press the arrow keys. And that, it turns out, is the solution to the mystery of Scroll Lock.

The scroll lock key was envisioned back when most computers didn’t have mice. By pressing the scroll lock key and then the arrow keys, you could scroll around your document without moving the cursor within the document. Nowadays, with the advent of mice and scroll bars, this key is almost entirely useless (except for making the little light light up). A few programs still preserve the old behavior (like Excel), but by and large almost no programs use the key, and you have no real reason to utilize it.

Those unlucky souls who have noticed their computer suddenly start typing over text rather than inserting it probably know something about the Insert key–namely that it’s annoyingly easy to press by mistake. The purpose of the key is to toggle insert and overtype mode–that is, when you type more, whether the computer should insert it before text that comes after, or whether the text after it should be replaced as you type. (If you’re confused, try it: fire up Word, type a few words, press Insert, and try inserting text between the words.)

You probably can’t think of any uses for overtyping text, and by and large there aren’t any, but I can think of a few. For instance, if you have some text in Word that will wrap to the next line and totally mix up the formatting, or you’re filling out a form where adding extra spaces could mess things up very quickly, turning on Insert will let you change or fill in the space without adding extra characters.

Fortunately, pressing this key does not break your computer. In fact, chances are very, very good that pressing the key will do nothing at all. Believe it or not, the origin of the key dates back to the days of the telegraph. Telegraph keys had a switch that would short the contacts of the key, generating a continuous signal. This switch would be set anytime the telegraph was not in use–this way, when the operator was ready to send again, he could turn off the switch and thereby alert the receiving party that he was about to send. (Additionally, if the signal was broken and no message arrived, they would know there was a problem with the line.)

When teletypewriters came into common use (they were used for a time to control early mainframes), the Break key was created to emulate this functionality. Pressing the key would cause the system at the other end to terminate a program, prepare for a login, or something similar. (When controlling a teleprinter at the other end instead of a computer, the printer would generate a continuous series of punches or DELETE characters, which was sometimes used to make a loud noise and alert the operator.)

So is there anything you can do with the Break key? Well, maybe. If you ever run MS-DOS programs, pressing Ctrl-Break may terminate a program. When your computer is beginning to boot and doing the POST (Power-On Self Check, where you see the computer’s hardware or manufacturer’s logo displayed onscreen), you may be able to freeze the output with Pause. But the only thing that most users are likely to be able to do with the Break key is to open the System Properties screen on a Windows computer, which you can do by holding the Windows key and pressing Break.)

I’m tempted to pronounce this “sys wreck” and say that it makes your system explode. But it actually stands for “system request,” and goes down in history as something that was completely superseded and outdated about twenty years ago, yet still remains a standard feature of PC keyboards. It’s usually combined with the Print Screen key and accessed by holding down Alt before pressing the key. The key was originally introduced by IBM as a way to switch between operating systems. Since then it has had…well, basically no use at all. A tiny number of systems use it as a sort of “panic” signal, to trigger a hard reboot or terminate a program.

The key does have one useful function on Linux computers. There’s a function called the “magic SysRq key” that can be used to terminate the entire desktop environment (essentially logging you out immediately) or perform various other debugging functions. The key has absolutely no use whatsoever to Windows users.

Soren “scorchgeek” Bjornstad

If you have found an error or notable omission in this tip, please leave a comment or email me: webmaster@thetechnicalgeekery.com.

Copyright 2011 Soren Bjornstad.
Verbatim copying and redistribution of part or all of this article
is permitted, provided this notice is preserved.

Primary sources for this article were my memory (information thus collected over many years from various unknown sources) and the Wikipedia articles on each, which are all quite extensive and helpful.

Zooming In and Out In a Zoom

Ever tried to make a picture, Word document, or web page display bigger or smaller? You probably found it was an exercise in frustration because you kept having to find the zoom options when you didn’t get the amount quite right–but that’s because you didn’t know about this tip. Here are two ways to quickly zoom in and out that work in nearly every program that supports zooming.

Method 1: Using The Mouse
Hold down the Ctrl key, then turn your mouse wheel away from you to zoom in or towards you to zoom out.

Method 2: Using The Keyboard

  • To zoom in, press Ctrl-+.
  • To zoom out, press Ctrl- – (Ctrl plus a hyphen).
  • To return to 100% zoom, press Ctrl-0.

Soren “scorchgeek” Bjornstad

If you have found an error or notable omission in this tip, please leave a comment or email me: webmaster@thetechnicalgeekery.com.

Copyright 2011 Soren Bjornstad.
Verbatim copying and redistribution of part or all of this article
is permitted, provided this notice is preserved.

Slashes and Backslashes, Oh My

Slashes and backslashes can be difficult to tell apart–they look pretty similar, and to make matters worse they’re both used in describing the location of a file. Hopefully you’ll have an idea of the difference when you’re done with this article.

Part 1: Telling Slashes and Backslashes apart

  • This is a forward slash (often known simply as slash): /
  • This is a backslash:

If you have difficulty remembering which is which, try this:

  1. Imagine the two characters forming a hill, like so: /.
  2. On the left side (forward slash), you go up the hill. On the right side (backslash) you go “back” down the hill.
Here are some differences:
  • The forward slash is located on the same key as the question mark.
  • The backslash is located between the Enter and backspace keys and is on a slightly longer key than normal. (On specialized keyboards, the backslash can get moved to all sorts of places.)
  • A forward slash is used for writing English text.
  • A backslash is usually used only in computer contexts.

Part 2: When to Use (Back)slashes

1. In filename paths:
Here are some ways of specifying the location of a file, several of which you probably recognize:

i. http://www.google.com
ii. C:Windowssystem32progman.exe
iii. /home/soren/code/scripts/m.sh
iv. \SERVERMusic
v. smb://SERVER/Music

(i) is a URL for a page on the World Wide Web. Web addresses always use forward slashes. You can probably get away with typing backslashes and have the page still load, but doing so is poor form and may occasionally not work. Please don’t say “backslash” when reading a web address–it annoys some people to no end.

(ii) is a Windows file path. These paths always use backslashes. You can supposedly use forward slashes if you want, but many programs will not accept paths typed with forward slashes.

(iii) is a UNIX or Mac OS X style path. These always use forward slashes. These systems will usually not accept backslashes, because the backslash is used for something else (more on that in a minute).

(iv) is a UNC path, used to specify the location of a device or file on a network in Windows. This uses backslashes, though forward slashes will often work.

(v) is another way of specifying a network resource, usually used on UNIX-like systems. This uses forward slashes.

In short, Windows uses backslashes, while UNIX and Mac OS X systems use forward slashes. Most importantly, Web addresses always use forward slashes.

2. Other Uses

Forward slashes can also be used:

  • as a symbol for division (as in 6 / 3)
  • to precede a command in a chat client or other program (as in /quit)
  • to show italics when only plain text is available (like /this/)
  • To indicate command-line options in Windows (dir/p)

Backslashes can also be used:

  • as an “escape” character, to modify the meaning of the following character. This is a common feature on Unix and Mac OS X command lines. For example, if a space would normally mean the end of a command or name, but the command or name contains a space, it would be written like this: word1 word2
  • to indicate integer division, where any fractional result is cut off (7 2 = 3)
  • to indicate that a line of text or program code does not end but should be carried over to the next line (this is the first part of the line
  • and this is the second part)

There are even more uses for these two simple characters in computing; if I didn’t bore you out of your mind, you can check out Wikipedia, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slash_(punctuation) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Backslash.


If you have found an error or notable omission in this tip, please leave a comment or email me: webmaster@thetechnicalgeekery.com.

Copyright 2011 Soren Bjornstad.
Verbatim copying and redistribution of part or all of this article
is permitted, provided this notice is preserved.

Big, Important Keyboard Shortcuts

This article isn’t just about big, important shortcuts; it’s about Big, Important ones. Unfortunately, I can’t make that clear in the title. But anyway, if you don’t know these three shortcuts you’re probably wasting minutes of your life every day. If you already do, I have a couple more that might be new.

These shortcuts work almost everywhere–browsers, word processors, image editors, financial programs, you name it. If you’re not sure if a program supports them, try it and see–sometimes they’re not listed anywhere on the menu but they still work.
Part 1: Easy Stuff
Control-X: Deletes the currently selected text and places it on the clipboard (known more conventionally as “cutting”).
Control-C: Copies the currently selected text onto the clipboard.
Control-V: Pastes the contents of the clipboard at the current cursor point.

(Note: You can also cut, copy, and paste files in a file management program such as Windows Explorer, the Finder, or Nautilus in the same manner. In the case of files, a file you “cut” won’t be deleted until it’s been safely pasted at the destination; if you copy something else to the clipboard by mistake, the original files will be left unchanged.)

I can’t tell you how many minutes of my own life I’ve spent watching people slooowly selecting text, then moving their mouse all the way across the screen to select Edit –> Cut from a menu, when they could be done pasting the text already. If you don’t already use these shortcuts, learn them. Paste a sticky note on your monitor until you’ve got it down.

Control-Z: Undoes the last action.

Control-Z is a nice extension to X, C, and V. All four keys are right next to each other and can be easily operated with one hand while selecting things with the mouse with the other. (Unless you use a non-standard keyboard layout, like Dvorak. Then you’re out of luck on that particular front.)
Part 2: Slightly More Advanced Stuff
These aren’t really “advanced”, just lesser-known and less important. If I could only teach someone 10 keyboard shortcuts, these probably wouldn’t be among them–but they do still come in handy.

Control-A: Select all text in the current document or text box.

Sometimes you need to copy an entire document and paste it somewhere else (for example, into an email). Or you might have finished writing a long comment in a text box on a website and want to save it yourself. This shortcut saves you from spending a few seconds trying to highlight a long document or blob of text.

Control-Y: Redo an action.

If you undid your actions one too many times, the Redo command is your friend. It’s an undo for the Undo command. A few programs use the keystroke Ctrl-Shift-Z instead, but it works the same.

Confusingly, Redo also has another function in many programs (like Microsoft Word)–if you just moved or typed something and your last action wasn’t an undo, hitting Redo will repeat your last action.

Soren “scorchgeek” Bjornstad

If you have found an error or notable omission in this tip, please leave a comment or email me: webmaster@thetechnicalgeekery.com.

Copyright 2011 Soren Bjornstad.
Verbatim copying and redistribution of part or all of this article
is permitted, provided this notice is preserved.

I Lost My Window!: Pulling a Mischievous Window Back On-Screen

Have you ever had the title bar of a window get stuck off the screen, so that you can’t move it anymore? In Windows 7 it’s even possible to get a window stuck under the taskbar, which is extremely aggravating–you can see it, but you can’t click on it to move it back out! If you don’t think you’ll remember how to deal with it, print out a copy of these instructions and you’ll know what to do next time it happens.

If you’re not sure exactly what I mean, here are two screenshots: nearly stuck and totally stuck. (For this example, I got the window stuck on purpose by dragging it entirely behind a panel, but it can happen accidentally while moving windows or even sometimes when you open a program. In either case, you see that the window is open but can’t be moved or even seen except on the taskbar.)

The brute-force solution is to close the program and restart it. Unfortunately, this sometimes doesn’t work, because programs often remember the location their windows were at when they were closed, so that they can reopen where you want them the next time. Even if this solution would work, you might prefer not to restart the program.

Fortunately, there’s an elegant and simple fix. This tip works on Windows and Linux; I haven’t tried it on a Mac, but it probably works. (By the way, if you are using an operating system, like Mac OS X, that I say I haven’t tested the tip on, and you try it and it works, please leave a comment.)

  1. Switch to the window with the stuck title bar. To do this, you can click on a part of the window you can see (if there is any), or you can select its taskbar button (so that it looks highlighted, something like what screenshot 2 looks like).
  2. Hold down the Alt key and press the spacebar. A menu should appear with options for managing the window. Choose Move. Here’s a screenshot.
  3. Slide the mouse away from the part of the screen the window is stuck in. The window should move as if you were dragging and dropping its title bar. When you get it to the location you want, click once. (Alternatively, you can use the arrow keys to move the window.)

That’s all. Time to get back to work!

Soren “scorchgeek” Bjornstad

If you have found an error or notable omission in this tip, please leave a comment or email me: webmaster@thetechnicalgeekery.com.

Copyright 2011 Soren Bjornstad.
Verbatim copying and redistribution of part or all of this article
is permitted, provided this notice is preserved.