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Trevor Drover and the International Mystery Keystroke Adventure

This might be my favorite Dumb Question of all time. It starts in Australia, passes through the US, saunters into The Netherlands, then hits two spots in Japan and ends up in our collective distant past. We’ll start with the original question from Trevor Drover in Australia:

Pages Arrange tab showing dropdown for height
Trevor Trying to Size a Graphic in Pages with Weird Dropdown

Hi Allison, I have a dumb question that maybe you or one of the internationally famous Casterways can explain. I believe I have found an undocumented keyboard combination, the output of which I don’t understand.

But what problem were you trying to solve by randomly pressing key combinations I hear you ask?

This could be another dumb question that has no answer. A friend is learning to use Pages. If you use Pages you will know that when you have an object on a page you can drag it into position and also drag on the handles to resize it.

Another option to move the object is to use the arrow keys for small adjustments. If you select the object and click on the Arrange pane the exact size and position can be entered into the appropriate fields. My friend wanted to enter the precise size of an object and then use the keyboard arrow keys to position it without having to touch the mouse.

So I created an arrow and made it 5 cm wide and 1 cm high then went searching for a key combination that would cause the entry to be accepted and exit the box and return control to the object on the page.

This is when I found Option-Esc did something strange. I have no idea what the suffixes mean. These include Pms, Ams, Pms, Pm, Am, Ish, Sts, Ths, and Rds, depending on the numeral entered.

The confusion continues as the Option-Esc key combination only works in the presence of numbers 1 to 12. With your cursor to the immediate right of one of the digits press Option-Esc and a dropdown list appears.

The numbers 1 to 12 can be entered lots of places such as an email body or subject, but not in the To field; in a search field, in most documents, etc, and when you hit Option-Esc up pops that window. What does it all mean?

By the way, the only solution that I could find to my friend’s Pages problem was to use the mouse to once more select the object then use the keyboard arrow keys.

All the best, Trevor

Before we dig in, I want to elaborate on exactly what Trevor observes when he hits Option-Esc. His description was quite precise but it’s incredibly difficult to describe something clearly that makes no sense.

He said that he was typing numbers from 1-12 into the size field in pages and he just happened to hit Option-Esc in his experiments. When you replicate Trevor’s steps, you’ll get a dropdown that is full of what looks like nonsense (and sounded like it when he read it out. He was using Option-Esc after typing a 1, and it was offering him 1pm’s, 12pms, 1ams, and more in this weird dropdown.

If you type a 2 in that field and hit Option-Esc you get an equally eclectic list of glop all starting with 2, like 2ams, 2nd, 2day, etc. Every number you test is a new adventure.

I started by playing around with this myself and trying it in different text fields like Trevor mentioned, such as in the body of an email. I started noticing a partial pattern. Maybe the 1-12 thing had to do with time? Like 2ams is sort of like 2am? I noticed something else very curious. One of the items in the dropdown for me was 190th, which is the name of a street nearby.

Around this time I was chatting with Helma in the Netherlands about it and she gave it a try. When she typed the number 3 and then Option-Escape, one item in her dropdown was a very specific Dutch Postal Code from where she works. Now we have an interesting pattern. The list seems to be influenced by what we personally type. I tried selecting one of the options several times in a row and I saw it move up the dropdown list until it was at the top.

But then I found something inexplicable. In my list, but not hers, on the dropdown for 1 I saw 1-Chme. I had no idea what this was, or even how to draw a horizontal line over an “o”. I couldn’t find it in the keystrokes available for the Mac, so I copied and pasted it into Google, where I discovered it is the way a city district is described in Japan. Ok … how did that get in my list?

Now I was getting really into it. During the live show, I demonstrated this bizarre option-escape thing. I noticed that Michael Westbay was in the audience, and I know he lives in Japan so I asked him to confirm that 1-Chme is a city district and he said it was.

I knew one more person who would enjoy being baffled by this weird discovery of Trevor’s, and that was Kaylee who also lives in Japan. I told her about it via Telegram and I was right that she was intrigued. In fact, I’m going to let HER take over the story from here.

Yahho! Kaylee dayo! And Im definitely a geek.

One of the frustrating… err, interesting! things about being internet buddies with Allison Sheridan is that were never in the same time zone, or even the same time of day!

Time zones, as we all know, are tricky little buggers, which can lead to, among other things, unusual times for conversations to occur, as well as you realising days later that you dont quite remember that 3am conversation where you agreed to do a podcast bit. I dont drink, so this kind of thing never happens to me! Anyway…

Point is, I vaguely remember something about addresses. And option-escape. And virtual machines. Wait, wait! Dont tell me! Err, wrong podcast. But I think its coming back to me! Let me just check my open Safari tabs. Yeah! Here they are. Countless tabs about old operating systems.

Lets back up a bit. As she mentioned, Allison messaged me regarding the use of chome in Japanese addresses. I confirmed what Michael had told her & tried to explain some of the uses, including pronunciation and a few examples.

She then explained the bizarre nature of option-escape auto-completing to various weird phrases. As I experimented a bit, I noticed that, in addition to numbers 1 through 12, I could also type something like E-x-c-i-t & use option-escape to get a list of words, including Excited, Excitingly, Excitability and simply Excite, if you enjoy remembering search engines of the late 90s.

However, unlike Helma, I was not seeing my Japanese postal code being auto-completed or anything like that. So I suspected that there may be a Machine Learning aspect to this; code which was added at some point beyond High Sierra. But this opened up a new can of worms: if this WASNT new, and it worked on High Sierra… how far back could we go?

To Excite! Well, OK, so I used Google… but this led me to a Macworld.com post from October of *2003* which discussed this exact functionality in Mac OS X version 10.3 Panther! Yes, Panther! This feature is so old, it came on optical media! (And not even a DVD, but 4 CDs, to boot!)

I quickly found a few other blog posts about this feature, including one on Daring Fireball from 2006. Meanwhile, Allison discovered that pressing F5 would also replicate the option-escape functionality!

And thats when the its almost 3am, I really should be asleep but… rabbit hole Id dug myself into got even weirder. On both the MacWorld & Daring Fireball pages, I kept seeing comments indicating that this system-wide feature possibly dates back all the way to NeXTSTEP. Yes, NeXTSTEP. The predecessor to modern macOS.

Kaylee installs NeXTStep Using Previous
Kaylee installs NeXTStep Using Previous

Well, to heck with sleep. Lets fire up Previous. See, because its NeXT? So, Previ… oh, never mind…

Previous allows you to emulate a NeXTcube or NeXTstation. Its… fiddly. And I suspect that me using a Japanese keyboard may possibly be causing slight issues. Nevertheless, I was able to successfully boot into both NeXTSTEP 3.1 & OpenSTEP 4.0.

But I was not at all prepared to see the words TextEdit appear in a 20+ year old operating system. Logically, I know that NeXT is where TextEdit was born! And yet, it was still a surreal experience.

Alas, in both NeXTSTEP 3.1 & OpenSTEP 4.0, I was unable to replicate the option-escape functionality. I tried everything I could think of, including F5, but no dice. But I wasnt about to give up that easily.

Back to AltaVista! I mean, Google. And wouldnt you know it, but I found a reference in The Complete Guide to the NeXTSTEP User Environment in regards to autocomplete functionality using the escape key in Terminal! Quote, NeXTSTEP monitors the text you type in the Save and Open panels and Terminal windows and can assist you in completing long pathnames. After you have partially entered a pathname, press the Escape key to have NeXTSTEP complete it. For example, if you were to type /LocalL and press Escape, NeXTSTEP would complete the pathname by typing ibrary for you.

And its true! I was able to replicate this functionality in Terminal. Pressing the escape key DOES auto-complete directories. Success! I was so… oh, whats the word? Elated? Enthusiastic? It starts with an E. Maybe I should Ask Jeeves…

Anyway, so it seems to me that, while the direct functionality of option-escape does not trace back to the NeXT days, the seed of the idea DOES! The only lingering question remains: when exactly was the auto-correct functionality added to Mac OS X? Panther? 10.2? 10.1? Or even before? Perhaps in the Public Beta or Rhapsody, even?

Sadly, most of that era seems to be difficult to access via emulation without an actual PowerPC Macintosh (or other hardware which I dont own…), so for now, the mystery will remain.

But hey! At least some of the history has been traced! And Id bet that one of the friendly and enthusiastic NosillaCastaways out there has access to the PowerPC era of Mac OS X, right?

But with that, Ill throw it back to Allison to wrap up this wild story. And until next time…

Ijo! Kaylee deshita! Bye bye!

Ok, how cool is that? Not only do we now know what this crazy option-escape thing is, we know where it came from. I still don’t know why it’s invoked with such a weird keystroke, why it works from 1-12 but not 13, why it changed from Esc to Option-Esc somewhere after NeXTStep, and why I have a Japanese city district in my list.

But I do know that having an international group of friends to pass a problem along from Australia to the US to The Netherlands to Japan is really cool.

And by the way, does anyone know the answer to Trevor’s original dumb question? Remember this all started when he was looking for a way to type in a specific size for a graphic in Pages and immediately use the arrow keys to move the graphic into position without using the mouse.

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