Customise your keyboard

When you first got your Mac out of the box and switched it on, it would have run an application called MacOS Setup Assistant. Amongst the myriad settings and options the Assistant presents to new users is the choice of keyboard layout. In Australia, the default setting is "Australian", and most users wisely just click OK and go on to other things.

You may not be aware that the Mac includes numerous different keyboard layouts for different purposes, some of which are actually useful to know about. For instance, you can select a Dvorak keyboard layout if you are one of the many people who prefer that to the traditional QWERTY layout. People used to German keyboards, with the Z where the Y ought to be, can easily switch to that layout.

You can change your keyboard layout at any time using the Keyboard menu, which is indicated by a little flag at the upper right of the menu bar. You can customise this menu (to make selecting between your favourite choices quicker) by selecting Customize menu . . . from the Keyboard menu, or by opening the Keyboard control panel. In the Keyboard control panel, you simply select which layouts you want to appear in the menu, close the panel and it's done.

As well as this flexibility, you can create your own keyboard layouts, if you're brave enough to do a little bit of hacking. For this, you'll need a copy of ResEdit, a popular resource-editing program that allows you to customise the appearance and behaviour of files and applications on your Mac. It's available free from

Once you've downloaded ResEdit, find an easily accessible place to put its folder. I leave my ResEdit folder on the desktop. This makes it simple to move the files I'm hacking into the ResEdit folder, so I know which is the original and which is the hacked version of any given file. It's also a good idea to create a folder within the ResEdit folder called "Originals". Sometimes your hacks will require you to replace original files with hacked ones, and it's advisable to keep track of the original files. You won't need that folder for this hack, though.

No help at hand

One thing I consider a real time-waster when I'm working is aiming to hit the key and hitting instead. It's an easy mistake to make, but then I have to wait several seconds for the MacOS Help application to appear before I can make it go away again and get on with my work. So I'm going to create a new keyboard layout without a key.

First, go into your System folder and locate the file called "System". Select this file, and duplicate it by pressing -D. You should always work on copies of your files with ResEdit, never the originals. That way, you can always undo anything you've changed - this goes triple when working on the System.

After a few seconds, a file called "System copy" will appear. Move the copy to your ResEdit folder. DO NOT under any circumstances leave two copies of your System file in the System folder. The consequences are too horrible to contemplate.

Start ResEdit, and open the file called "System copy". A large list of the System's resources appears, arranged alphabetically. Select the one called KCHR and double-click it. A list of keyboard layouts appears. Select the Australian one (should be number 12) and again press -D to duplicate it. A new layout called "Australian copy" appears further down the list (should be number 128). Select this, then go to the Resource menu and select Get Resource Info . . . .

A dialogue box appears. Type a new name, like Helpless Australian, into the required field, and close the dialogue box without changing anything else.

Now, on the list of keyboard layouts, double-click Helpless Australian. A large grid appears, with a keyboard layout at the bottom and a set of characters at the top. Some of the characters at the top actually represent actions that the system performs when certain keys are pressed, and that's what we want to change.

Note: if the key isn't visible in the grid, you may need to select an extended keyboard layout. You'll notice at the top of the screen that there is now a menu called "KCHR". From this menu, select View As . . . , and from the resulting dialogue box select one of the extended keyboard layouts, and close the dialogue box. It doesn't really matter which keyboard you select, so long as the key becomes visible. Selecting a layout from this dialogue doesn't affect the outcome of the hack, it only affects the grid that ResEdit displays.

Press the key, and take note of which box at the top right turns black (should be in the far right column, third one down). This box represents the action that activates the Help application. At the top left corner of the grid, you'll notice that there is an empty square. This represents a "null" character. If you copy the "null" character over to the square that holds the "Help" action, it will replace the action with, well, nothing.

Quit ResEdit, and save your changes to System copy. Then, double-click on System copy in the ResEdit folder, and find the file called "Helpless Australian". This represents the keyboard layout you've just created. Copy it to the System file within your System folder. (Note: don't just drag it onto the System folder, like you would with Control panels or Extensions - you must drag it onto the file itself).

Next, open up the Keyboard control panel again, and check the "Helpless Australian" option from the list. Close the control panel, and then look at the Keyboard menu again. "Helpless Australian" should appear as one of your options. Select it, and try pressing the key - nothing happens. Of course, if you decide you do need a spot of Help from time to time, you can always select "Australian" again from the menu - no need to restart or anything.

Finally, it's a good idea to delete the "System copy" file from your ResEdit folder. While confusion is unlikely, especially because the duplicate System is not in your System folder (it isn't, is it?), there is a chance it could cause problems on startup, You can always create another copy later if you want to hack some more.

April Fool's Day prank

One of the oldest and most venerable (yet, to this day, still funny) computer-related pranks is to pull the key caps off a colleague's keyboard and muck them around. When the hapless typist returns to their keyboard, they are unable to type anything sensible, and hilarity ensues.

However, this doesn't work if your col-league is a touch-typist who doesn't look at the keys (spoilsport). Furthermore, modern Mac keyboards don't much care for having their key caps pulled off by anyone other than an authorised technician. Do this to a PowerBook, and your victim will completely fail to see the humour.

Here is where ResEdit becomes the prankster's best friend. Using the same steps "described above, create a keyboard layout called "April Fool", and instead of just deactivating the Help key, rearrange everything so chaos reigns. Or perhaps make every key the Help key - use the very evil part of your imagination.

Rather than copying the resultant keyboard layout onto your own System file, though, pop it on a Zip disk, or somewhere on the office network. When your prospective victim isn't looking, drag it onto their System, activate it using the Keyboard control panel, and select it from the Keyboard menu. Hide under a desk or something so you can enjoy the show and emerge at the point where your victim is about to lose it completely. Switch back to their original keyboard layout in order to calm them down afterwards.

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