The Curse Of The Mouse: Apple vs. PC vs. Command Line

I hate, loathe, and abominate the mouse. Nay, not the wee sleekit, cowrin, tim’rous beastie that I chase with a hockey stick (a hard-to-find, left-handed Easton) each winter through my Manhattan apartment, putting a panic in his breastie; a creature which at least provides me with some honest exercise.

I can’t abide that contraption attached to the computer which must be gripped to navigate a cursor round a computer screen, a move which necessitates removing one’s hands from the keyboard and removing it to a misshapen blob, interrupting the flow of work. The mouse

This bizarre maneuver requires the fine muscle control akin to the skill of a drafter, just to place the cursor over the few pixels that make up the word “File.” Then one must click those pixels, scoot the mouse down to another set of pixels and click again. Then more moving and clicking. And then all more still.

Why? To open some document, probably Word, where one will begin to fret over font and typeface and style and tabs and everything else that used to be the domain of the typesetter. All this minutia is so fascinating that people often forget the actual words are more important than their display. WYSIWYG, all right. Word documents are the ugliest in creation.

Your author spends his days writing code and words, tasks which are anti-mouse. Statistical software that requires a mouse to work would cause all analysis to proceed at the pace of an abacus. Imagine having to point and click and point and click and on an on each time one wanted to redo an analysis! The mind boggles.

The mouse also promotes sore wrists. I used to have a permanent ache until I gave it up and switched to typing.

Before the complaint arises, let me admit, gracefully, that the mouse is just the thing in the absence of a pen that can write on the screen. If graphics are your game, then some method must exist for you to interact with the screen. The mouse is singularly ill adapted for this purpose, but it is, as the saying goes, better than nothing. And recall that most people, of course, are not using their computers for drawing.

Never mind all that: Apple’s great innovation was to force people to use its own proprietary, expensive mouse (a creature that this corporation did not invent, much to its credit). Apple’s actual invention was to remove utility from the Microsoft mouse, decreasing the number of buttons from two or three to just one. So now, with just one button, one could do less (but pay more), unless one also placed their hands on the keyboard in a peculiar fashion, much like a concert pianist rehashing some Liszt knuckle-breaker, to mimic the absence of the missing buttons. What a workout!

How much better, then, to remove the necessity of the mouse altogether? If one wants to delete a file with a mouse, the number of actions required are numerous. Much navigating, pointing, and clicking. No simple task. What if, instead, instead of all this forced labor one wrote, “rm file”? This is the beauty of the command line.

You object: “Oh, but you have to memorize that ‘rm’ means remove, and that taxes the little grey cells.” True, but why is this memorization different than knowing the myriad steps involved deleting a file with a mouse? I’ll take your silence as an agreement.

Macs now offer the Linux-like command line, incidentally (didn’t you know?). PCs have a command line, but it is anemic, and Microsoft is always threatening to eliminate it.

I recall the first Macintosh (I’m that old). All those slick “icons”, moving status bars, pictures—what a treat! But I had to agree with Jerry Pournelle that the “Mac was a wonderful operating system attached to a toy computer. ” (A comment that put him on Steve Jobs’s, may he rest in peace, everlasting S-list.) A very expensive toy, at that. And unless one was an Apple adept, it was painful to use one. The mouse was, admittedly, fun at first. It is now a pain.

Microsoft PCs were then “Get a cup of coffee” computers, meaning that when one started the boot process, one could go to the coffee bar, there to linger, only to return to find the machine was still loading “Personal Settings.” The early Macs booted up all right, but were “get a coffee” machines for every task. This is one big reason why the PCs took an early lead are (still) found on the business desks. The mouse on these machines could be used, but it could often be eliminated. New versions of Windows are more Mac-like, which means the mouse is once again a necessity.

The religious devotion of a certain population segment with their Macs is wondrous to behold. Yet thinking about the mouse, especially on Macs, it is useful to recall that the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men Gang aft agley.

Update The original Mac ran hot because it had no fan—“Steve Jobs insisted on that.”

22 Comments

  1. When you use a Windows computer, you might want to try the PowerShell command line. It was designed by former Unix guys at Microsoft to be a sort of best-of-both-worlds blend of Unix and Windows traditions. It’s far more powerful than the old DOS shell.

  2. Your argument is a great example of a perfectly sensible argument further supported by anecdotal data being wrong. The observation is — most people prefer the mouse.

    And let me second the comment about PowerShell. PowerShell passes .NET objects between commands instead of text as in Linux. Much more powerful.

  3. Use the appropriate tool for the task at hand. I do my coding in Mathematica, and mousing back over functions to edit them saves a heap o’ keystrokes. But when I’m writing LaTeX, the mouse takes a long nap.

    All senseless grumbling, of course, since fingers and styluses will be running the mouse out of the house in next few years.

  4. i thought there was much to be said for keeping both hands on the keyboard. Briggs, it sounds as though WordStar (CP/M) may have been a bit before your time, but the old control codes with which you composed and formatted (after a fashion) really did the trick.

    I seem to remember that Pournelle favored a program named “Write” which let you lay down text with great dispatch but didn’t format.

  5. I learned to word process on the Macintosh Lisa in the early 1980s. The OS was much easier to use than DOS. Learning to use DOS and Word Perfect on the PC was a steep learning curve.

  6. I must lament disapearing keystoke shortcuts.

    In the earliest days of windows, there wasn’t a function that could not be performed exclusively with keystrokes. As Windows was updated and new features added, some of those features did not have a keystroke alternative. However, what burned me up was when some functions that could be done without mouse assistance had their short cuts removed.

  7. For a slightly different perspective:

    I have short thick fingers. While a straight command line would be ok for some things, inside any application, the mouse is a must for me. I simply can’t make the reaches for the keyboard shortcuts without taking one or both hands of the home row on a standard size keyboard anyway, so using keyboard shortcuts makes for no advantage over using a mouse. And with smaller keyboards (such as for laptops) while some of the reaches are easier, I have frequent trouble with hitting two keys at the same time.

    In the conflict of keyboard vs mouse, long term I think you are more likely to see the keyboard disapear in favor of voice recognition and using the hands only for the mouse than to see the mouse go away.

  8. I’ve been using Cygwin for Windows for years now and really like it. It gives me what I like from Unix and what I like from Windows.

  9. If you haven’t already, you should read Neal Stephenson’s essay, “In the Beginning was
    the Command Line” http://www.cryptonomicon.com/beginning.html

    Your OS doesn’t matter much when you’re running Emacs fullscreen, as God intended, using XeLaTeX to typeset documents when necessary. Incidentally, I’ve found gesture-recognizing trackpads to be more productive than mice.

  10. Available input devices for Windows computers …
    • Mouse
    • Trackball
    • Stylus
    • Fingers (up to 10)
    • Tablet
    • Keyboard
    • Microphone
    • Kinect
    • Surface
    • Camera

    Number of keyboard shortcuts for Windows: 87
    http://support.microsoft.com/kb/126449

    Number of keyboard shortcuts for Office 2010: Too many to bother counting.
    http://www.microsoft.com/athome/organization/compshortcuts.aspx

    Most often used Office command: Undo (Ctrl + Z)

    There’s a tool for every job and a job for every tool, but you can’t satisfy all the people all the time.

  11. Matt, I must object: ‘PCs have a command line, but it is anemic’. Perhaps it is by Unix standards (I’ve never used Unix at the command line), but the DOS command line and batch file system is extraordinarily powerful. I published an article in the early 1990s on creating a simple batch file (just a dozen or so lines) to perform incremental data backups, along with the occasional full data backup. All the commands contained therein were DOS commands.

    Today I use a DOS command box as an integral part of my graphics work, such as it is. Amongst other things, I compare matching frames from Blu-ray discs and DVDs for quality. Oddly, the easiest way of doing this is to automatically extract somewhere between 5,000 and 15,000 frames from the Blu-ray. I copy a lengthy command line from a text file and past it into a DOS box for this, lightly editing a file name.

    Then, for manageability, the files need to be shuffled into several directories (hey, I’m doing this in DOS, so they aren’t folders!) of a thousand files each. I lightly edit another DOS batch file and it is performed in a very small fraction of the time the same task takes in Windows.

    If a mouse upsets you too much, well you never need point it a the few pixels constituting ‘File’ — in Windows anyway. Just press Alt-F followed by the letter marking the action you wish to perform.

    Of course, most people using computers simply follow by rote what they’ve been taught without even thinking about alternative ways of doing things to improve efficiency.

  12. Like Briggs, I have found the evolution of computers a bit strange — in my case it’s probably my age, which is closing in on 60 years old.

    Anyhow, I thought the development of writing was a mark of the advancement of civilisation (well I think that was what my history teachers tried to teach me, among other things).

    So the comand line made a lot of sense to me. But then I discovered this big “improvement” in computers. Instead of using words as commands, we needed to use pictures (icons) to instruct our computers.

    It seemed to me to be a backwards step?

  13. Matt:

    Others have suggested software alternatives but hardware solutions can apply. Like you, I had terrible wrist pain problems as a result of mousing through the years. Four years ago I shifted to a 2.25 inch diameter trackball. The pains have stopped. I find the trackball faster than the mouse. Moreover, since it sits permanently directly adjacent to the keyboard, the time off the keys is much shorter. My current favorite is a Kensignton Expert Mouse but many good ones exist.

    Regards,
    DavidC

  14. I learned Fortran with punch cards, (no chinese typing then), … was told to run my simulations on several Sun Stations overnight so other students could use them during the day, used Emacs to edit files and ran SAS in X-window, …, used the Edit Command to create and debug my Tex files at the Dos command…

    Life can’t be any easier. My only complaint is that I don’t have a personal secretary.

  15. When you say that ‘rm filename’ takes fewer steps than with a mouse, you are not properly counting. Did you remember do ‘cd’ to the proper directory? Did you mis-type the filename? (Or did you accept a command-line completion that was wrong, perhaps?) Did you do multiple ‘ls’ commands to see which file you want to remove? How do you undelete the file if you decide to?

    Don’t get me wrong: I programmed little blinky lights on the front of PDP-11 computers. I used email before the “@” was invented. (You had to know how to route the message to the destination computer yourself.) I’ve been a long-time Mac user and MacOS X has been a HUGE win, with its UNIX roots. Heck, I use R a lot, and it’s all command-line.

    I’m just saying that the argument for command lines is usually biased and full of misconceptions and miscounting. Including yours.

  16. What you need is Debian stable. Then add to it:-

    ratpoison
    wmii
    awesome
    Ion2 (have to compile it yourself probably)
    dwm

    I really liked Ion2, but have finally settled on fluxbox. The mouse does not irritate me as much as all the flashing and decorating that mainstream window managers indulge in.

    If you want to be super minimalist and keyboard oriented you can look at

    tmux

    A sort of updated ‘screen’ equivalent. Screen being what the true command line gurus use instead of a window manager…. Not tried it.

  17. Or try this:-

    Salix Ratpoison 13.37 is released. This is probably the first-ever Linux distribution release featuring Ratpoison as the main window manager. The aim of the Ratpoison edition is to create a system that is fully usable with the keyboard only, no mouse required! For everyone that is not familiar with Ratpoison, Ratpoison is a window manager for X ‘with no-fat library dependencies, no fancy graphics, no window decorations, and no rodent dependence’. Ratpoison uses a workflow that is similar to that of GNU screen, which is very popular in the terminal world. All interaction with the window manager is done through keystrokes….

    Salix is based on Slackware, it split off from Zenwalk.

  18. Matt,

    I think you need to add the ‘curmudgeon’ tag to your posts.

    I’ll drop in my own curmudgeonly rant, except in the interests of time I’ll limit it to the conclusion: Worpderfect 5.1 was the best word processing software EV-AH!

    There, I feel so much better.

    Ciao,
    Earle

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