I was already successful writer and an accomplished typist in the days when personal computers were still being invented. On a freelance writing assignment in Albuquerque, I met Bill Gates and Paul Allen of the newly formed Microsoft. They had just completed a version of the BASIC language program that ran on a microprocessor chip and hired me to write the instruction manual. So I learned the finer points of GOSUB and RETURN from Bill and Paul -- which was a bit like learning to fly from Wilber and Orville. The book turned out fine, and Microsoft turned out even finer.
While we were finishing the last draft, I suggested to Bill that a lot of programmers couldn't type very well and that I would like to create a computer program to teach typing. "Why bother?" was his first response, "since anybody can learn to type out of a book full of exercises." True enough, but a computer, I argued, could adjust the exercises while you are learning. This meant that you wouldn't waste time on keys you already knew and could advance as fast as possible. Using my computer program would be more efficient than any book or class, and it might even be fun.
Bill agreed to distribute my program through Microsoft. The company also distributed Bruce Artwick's Flight Simulator. Adding my program along with Bruce's gave Microsoft an educational product and an entertainment product in addition to their own BASIC.
A few lines of BASIC programming showed me that my concept was valid and that this new software design using feedback programming was a new and effective way to teach motor skills. The first Typing Tutor program was completed in two months and launched with minimal fanfare and no advertising at all. It quickly became the best selling educational software product ever, and it held that distinction for several years. Bill called that first Typing Tutor, "The most lucrative hundred-line BASIC program ever written."
The current Ainsworth Keyboard Trainer has grown from a few hundred lines to several megabytes of code and incorporates many programming concepts and features that are only possible with today's much larger and faster computers. The interval timing and feedback programming concepts I invented with that first educational program are now widely used. I've expanded these early ideas considerably in creating the cognitive modeling systems that drive the current version of my typing software.
Personal word processing
The overwhelming advantage of using a computer or word processor to express your ideas is that it's possible to write as fast and as well as you think. This is like having a direct pipeline from your brain to the screen. Writers who are used to this say "of course," because we're accustomed to expressing ourselves freely and easily. For people who aren't professional writers, this expanded ability to think on screen is a major improvement in communication skills.
Even if you aren't interested in writing the Great American Novel, you will be delighted and surprised to see how easy your writing becomes when the process is as easy and natural as talking.
The ability to edit what you have written gives you two other advantages. First, you can improve and fine-tune your ideas for clarity and force. This improves the quality of what you think and say. Second, you can express yourself freely without worrying about whether the words are coming out "right" the first time. This gives you and your thoughts a new freedom. Writing and editing fluidly on a computer is the direct opposite of writing as if your words were carved in stone.
Word processors help you get unstuck when you're stuck. When ideas don't occur in the right sequence, it's easy to spend quite a bit of time trying to find the next word, the next sentence, or the next concept. With word processing, you write down ideas as they occur. Edit or rearrange the sequence later. The best cure I know for getting unstuck in a hurry is to jump ahead to something you want to say or to the idea you're really thinking about anyhow. Word processing even gives you the option of starting with the conclusion or the punch line and working backward.
By writing more quickly and being more in tune with your thoughts, you will find that expressing yourself on the screen can be a real advantage. Editing and polishing your words gives you the opportunity to make sure that what you say is being presented in the best possible light. But these advantages are not available to you if typing itself is a chore.
Teaching fingers to fly
In addition to word processing, other dimensions of personal computing - Internet, electronic mail, desktop publishing, spreadsheets, scheduling programs, and a lot more to come - are enhanced when your keyboard is a pipeline instead of a bottleneck. Your personal productivity relates directly to the ease and accuracy with which your ideas can fly through the keyboard and into your computer.
Burst-typing is the term I use to describe the way people type most effectively when they are expressing themselves. This concept is central to my design of the Ainsworth Keyboard Trainer and can be seen in many places, including the expert system models I use to set the pace and content of the lessons. Burst-typing concepts also drive the Best Performance Index, which measures your peak productivity, and the Type-OH! game which pushes your fingers even faster than your brain for brief periods.
Using the Backspace key to overstrike and cover up a mistake was a bad idea when people were learning to type on typewriters. The Backspace key on a computer is very different because it allows everyone to correct errors and leave perfect copy. This key also helps my program discover and automatically correct any learning problems or weak keys.
When a person presses Backspace, I can detect if this is just a mechanical error or if it signals a weak or problem key. When I use the Backspace key, for example, it doesn't mean that I've suddenly forgotten how to type. It usually means that my hands are in the wrong place again or that I've changed my mind and wish to edit something.
Frequent use of Backspace to correct the same key, however, can be significant in analyzing performance. My software is smart enough to know and detect the difference between simple mistakes and a pattern that indicates a problem. I leave the Backspace key active at all times, allowing people to type perfect copy if they wish and giving me vital information about possible weak keys.
The information I gain by analyzing the pattern behind the Backspace key is one of the powerful tools I use in creating unique lessons and drills to match each person's needs and eliminate their weak keys automatically.
How to walk, and chew gum, and...
Being able to write as easily as you talk is a real advantage. But talking, walking, and a lot of other functions you now do without thinking take time, effort, and a lot of feedback to learn. These and other activities we take for granted are possible because of proprioceptive conditioning. This is the process by which one part of your brain is programmed to handle a set of details by itself. This ability can extend to a wide variety of tasks that we can do without conscious thought, like walking across a room, riding a bicycle, driving a car, and using a computer keyboard.
Ainsworth Keyboard Trainer programs your fingers to read your mind. The computer maintains a cognitive model while this software is teaching you to type. Lessons and drills are continuously adjusted to optimize this conditioning path so you learn to type without thinking about your fingers just as you now walk without thinking specifically about your feet and balance.
When your interactive programming is optimized, learning is more pleasant. It's like exercising or learning with the perfect companion. If you were playing tennis, for example, your ideal partner would be someone who is slightly better at the game than you are. You wouldn't choose a flatfooted klutz who can't even return your serve, and you wouldn't want a Wimbledon champion blowing you off the court either.
This computer program is your ideal partner, modifying itself in real time to give you a constant, comfortable challenge. This software is responsive because it collects information, creates knowledge about you, and reacts instantly to subtle differences in your performance. Get really hot, and the program moves ahead quickly. If you start to get tired, the program senses this and eases off a bit to match your new pace. While learning to type may not be as much fun as playing tennis, you will never be bored and you will never be pushed beyond challenge into frustration.
And so, forth!
When typewriters were first invented, the word "typewriter" referred to both the machine and to the person pushing the keys. A single typewriter and her machine could easily out-pace several expensive clerks copying letters, bills, and other manuscripts by hand. This efficiency meant cost savings to almost any business and rapidly created a new typing machine industry. Word processing machines took a similar route. They were developed for the business community and accepted with open arms because the new "word processor" with her even fancier machine could outrun several typewriters and save even more money.
When computers were new and novel, they cost so much that you had to be a government, a university, or a very successful corporation to own or even use one. As soon as a small computer could be manufactured and sold at a price on par with what it cost to hire an accountant, this changed dramatically. Even a modest PC has an "accountant power" rating of at least three (3) because it would take three full-time accountants to produce the billing and payroll checks that the average PC can spew out in a single afternoon. No wonder computers quickly became the ultimate business machines as expensive billing done "by hand" went the way of inkwells and quill pens.
Today, you and I can afford to own a computer system that a couple of decades ago would have cost a real fortune, not to mention the additional cost of a special room, electricity, air conditioning, and a swarm of technicians to keep it all running.
So what can you do with a computer that's useful and not simply fun? I developed several "useful" programs for handling personal finances, home filing systems, and time management. I enjoyed developing these products, and people enjoy playing with them, but the simple programs I created that attempted to use a computer as a personal business machine were often more fun than function.
Software tools are an entirely different matter. It makes sense to have as many tools as you can effectively use. These include spreadsheet programs, drawing and graphics programs, serious financial programs, simulations of all sorts, and, of course, word processing software. While you may not have a personal typing pool that needs speeding up or a business that requires computer-based financial management, you certainly do have ideas to express, information to share, and communications with others that must be clear and readily understood.
Personal computers have come of age. And they keep getting better, faster, more powerful, and even less expensive. For those of us who write software, this continuing evolution is both exciting and empowering. The effects we enjoy are not unlike the liberation that the invention of printing had on those who write books. Because of this continuing evolution, it is now possible for software designers to create incredibly powerful tools that many people can afford to have and use.
I have chosen to focus my attention on writing programs that enhance people's access to their own creativity. To this end, I use the power of your personal computer and Ainsworth Keyboard Training Systems to strengthen your finger-brain connection so that your fingers (and left brain) can automatically take care of the keyboard while your mind (or right brain) is free to explore, express, and refine what you really think. This provides the essential link that gives you and others access to the free flow of your ideas, thoughts, and creations.
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