Back to Cuneiform

According to Wikipedia, the first working typewriter became commercially available in 1870. So it’s been nearly 150 years that mankind, in principle, has no longer had a pressing need to write by hand.

Born in 1970, I am exactly a century younger than the typewriter. Lying in front me right now is a black and white photograph of me using my parents’ Torpedo typewriter when I am very little. For as long as I can remember, I have used machines to put letters on paper. Forcing me to write by hand without good reason I consider a deliberate form of torture. In fact, before I returned to school to study CS, the last time I had written more than a brief shopping list by hand was when researching my PhD thesis in history, and that only because back in the 20th century German archives didn’t allow users to take digital pictures of their records. (I hope they do now.)

Now it’s of course inevitable that our system of testing knowledge in the context of extended end-of-term exams more or less forces us to hand-write. I am never quite sure who suffers more, me doing it, or my professors trying to decipher the output of my writing-cramped hands. But short of making a major effort to ensure that using a computer doesn’t open the way for cheating I can see no way around it. Besides, it’s really not easy to write math formulae with a computer, leastways not under time pressure. Let alone draw graphs.

However, a crib is quite a different thing. There is all the time in the world to prepare it. A computer-typed and printed crib is much easier to do, a lot safer, and infinitely more legible than a hand-written one, which means it saves time in the exam, and time is always at a premium. As I pointed out a few days ago, there is really no reason on earth to force us to write a crib by hand, and our operating systems professor is the first teacher here who ever did. (By the by, I sent him an email pointing this out, a week ago, but so far he hasn’t honored me with a reply.)

As a consequence, today I spent five hours (!) on copying the most relevant of my 299 flashcards for operating systems onto a sheet of paper, and I hated every second of it. In fact at times I was just a moment away from tearing it all up and going in the exam without a crib, just to show the professor what I thought of his idea. But on second thought I realized of course that this would just hurt me, and not make him spend a second thought on his strange insistence on hand-writing.

bs_spicker1Now my right hand hurts already two days before the actual exam. And I have produced a unique (and rather chaotic) document crammed with masses of mostly indecipherable text that I will have to guard most carefully for 48 hours because the bloody crib must be handwritten, so a digital copy will likely be no good to me in the actual exam.  It looks like this (see left) … and there is a back side as well of course. Would anybody ever believe this came from somebody studying computer science, of all things!, in the early 21st century? I don’t think so. In fact, it looks just the way producing it felt … like I were carving cuneiform script on a stone tablet. And it took just as long too.

Or maybe it’s my personal Rosetta Stone. In the sense that ever deciphering it will take about as long as it took modern science to learn reading the hieroglyphs.


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