Tech Talk: It’s a Mystery!

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Tech Talk: It’s a Mystery!
By Brian Boston

“Brian! Glad I was able to reach you. I have a Mystery.” 
“Hi, Dad. What’s the problem?” 
“I was typing a letter and, suddenly everything disappeared!” 
“Okay, I assume you were typing in Word then, right?” 
“That’s right!” 
“What were you typing when everything disappeared?” 
“It was name of a airport. I am traveling again.” 
“Let me guess…you were actually typing the word “Airport” at the time, the screen flashed and you were left with part of the word.” 
“I don’t know about the flash, I was looking at the keyboard, but you are right about the rest. I only have the “ir” left. That’s when I noticed the rest missing.” 
“I think we can get it back, Dad. Hold down the Cntrl key and tap “Z” a few times while watching the screen. Once the “ir” disappears, your text should reappear. You are reversing your keystrokes.” 
“Its back! You are a miracle worker. I see everything back, highlighted.” 
“Good. Make sure you click outside the highlighted selection before you type again. 
Otherwise you might lose it again.” 
“Great! Thanks son.” 
“Happy to help, Dad.”

Mysteries are a Gift

I love mysteries. Whether it’s technical troubleshooting or a TV murder to solve, I enjoy the process of un-wrapping the situation and working back from an event to find the cause, and, hopefully, a solution. 

My Dad’s mystery was actually one we have been through a few times before, though he usually didn’t remember the detail. It also helped that I had experienced the same situation and had the benefit of seeing the “flash” I mentioned. Lastly, I had the benefit of knowing what likely was happening behind the scenes.

His problem was rooted is the position of the Cntrl key just below the Shift key on PC keyboards. It’s very easy to hit Cntrl instead of Shift when you intend to capitalize a letter, like that “A” in Airport.

What’s Going on?

The result of the Cntrl+A keyboard combination on the Mac would be to move the typing cursor to the beginning of the line. Cntrl key combinations on the Mac center around moving the cursor; the same the convention used by UNIX, the operating system on which the Mac operating system, OSX, was based. 

While moving the cursor suddenly can provide some confusion if unintended, the result of Cntrl+A on Windows PC’s is a bit more dramatic. The key combination generates a “Select-All” option. For most Windows applications including Microsoft Word, this selects all text and other objects (pictures, charts, shapes). It’s a great alternative to dragging your mouse down a page or multiple pages to highlight everything.

The “OOPs” Sequence

Unfortunately, if you haven’t intended to Select All, it can cause your text to disappear with the next keystroke. Here’s the sequence:

You are typing madly away without a care in the world

You hold down the Cntrl key and tap A instead of the Shift key to capitalize the letter.

All document contents are now selected. You continue to type the word “Airport.”

All selected items disappear, replaced by by “I” or “irport,” depending on how long you type before looking up and notice everything else is gone.


The Solution to the OOPs Sequence

Cntrl keys on the Windows’ Keyboards are focused on text formatting, document retrieval and storage. Fortunately one of those keys lets you undo a previous operation. Cntrl+Z is known as the “Undo Key.”

How far back you can “undo” actions depends entirely on the program and memory it has allocated for undo operations. Fortunately Word has multiple undo levels. Unless you save the file (removing the undo levels), rolling back is pretty straight-forward. Word also has undo and redo options on which you can click in the document’s title bar.

Mac’s have an Undo key as well, Command+Z. You will find many of the Windows Cntrl key combinations become Command key combinations on on the Mac. Fortunately, The Mac Cntrl key is farther away from the Shift key than the PC Cntrl key so our problem is less likely to occur.

Mystery Solved!

Do you have a technical mystery? It could be moment of “weirdness” or just a question about how or why computing devices behave the way they do. I’m game to figure it out … if you are. 

Please share your mysteries with me at or in the article comments. Your mystery would be welcome here on Tech Talk. Just think of it as your gift to me .

Brian Boston supported Microsoft products during his 18+ years with the company and now teaches, consults, and troubleshoots a wide range of software and hardware devices for Boston Legacyworks.

Brian is available once a month in the Stadler Room of Third Place Commons to present topics and answer your questions about computers.


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