Thursday, November 11, 2010

New World Keyboard

Awhile back, about seven or eight years ago, I made the switch from qwerty to Dvorak. Somewhere and somehow, through details long since forgotten, I learned about the promises of faster, more accurate typing and decided, “This is for me.” I even bought a special keyboard—this being the days of desktops, before laptops became ubiquitous, when one could switch keyboards with ease—that had both layouts' key assignment printed on each key and a hardware switch for toggling the layout in use. So began my adventures as a Dvorak typist.

A few months later, I was firmly again a full-time qwerty typist. Though I managed to learn how to type streams of text in Dvorak just fine in this short time—about as fast and accurate as I typed in qwerty—I encountered an unexpected problem in the switch. Typing did seem easier with the new, more ergonomic layout, but I discovered that I, probably like most computer users, use the keyboard for much more than merely typing text. More on this later, though, for the story continues.

Several years after my failed switch, Coworker Shafik took advantage of a rather ridiculously large quantity of downtime at work to learn touch typing. He was impressed with my own typing skills, which, though not great, are above average, and began asking me questions about how I learned typing. Often verbose when talking about my favorite subject—myself—I ended up relating, among other topics, my failed switch to Dvorak, at which Coworker Shafik suggested, “You should relearn Dvorak.” I had that same ridiculous quantity of downtime as he and decided to give it another shoot.

That was two or three years ago, and I continue to use Dvorak for most typing I do. I'm faster and more accurate with it than qwerty, though only by a little bit on both counts. Being an effective Dvorak typist puts one in the strange situation whereby one is handicapped by the default software keyboard settings on most computers and thus encounters a world made harder than need be. Overall, now that I've made a successful switch to Dvorak, I consider the Switch to be a nearly religious experience. It certainly opened my eyes to more than just typing. I'm not really sure what the best way is to go about describing the mysteries of Dvorak, so I'm going to try something new and describe it FAQ-style. I hope you find this interesting.

Q: Why Dvorak?

A: Many people are aware by now that the “traditional” qwerty keyboard was designed not for ease of use but to slow down typists and thus solve a specific hardware issue of a subset of typewriters a century ago: sticking arms. Dvorak, on the other hand, is designed to be the fastest, most efficient keyboard layout possible (for English typists), and irregardless whether it actually is the fastest, it certainly employs many of the design principles used in any keyboard layout designed for speed and comfort.

Q: What are some of these design principles that make Dvorak so great?

A: Well, it wasn't really my intention to turn this discussion into a technical one about the merits of Dvorak. Such points are already described on the Web and can be found with a quick Google search. However, I'll provide a brief summary of some of the principles. For example, because Dvorak puts all the vowels on one side of the keyboard and most English words are spelled by alternating between consonants and vowels, many words are typed on Dvorak using a rhythm of alternating use of the left hand and right hand for each key press. Try, right now, tapping your index fingers of each hand in alternating succession: left, right, left, right, left, right, etc. Try to tap as quickly as you can. Now try alternating two fingers of the same hand. You'll discover it's easier to alternate fingers of a different hand than of the same hand. Thus, the ideal keyboard layout should seek to maximize left-hand, right-hand alternation. Another example is sweeping, which is the idea that it's faster and easier to press keys from pinkie to index finger than it is from index finger to pinkie. On a qwerty keyboard, it's easier to type “asdf” than it is to type “fdsa”. Thus, the ideal keyboard layout should seek to maximize out-to-in sweeping. With the Dvorak layout, many common letter patterns are swept out-to-in, such as “th” and “sn”.

Q: But you say you're only a little faster on Dvorak than qwerty, so Dvorak can't be that great, can it?

A: Now we're getting to the interesting questions! Objectively, the fastest typists in the world don't bother with qwerty; Dvorak is much superior once one advances to the point where the bottleneck for speed and accuracy is the physical movement of the fingers. The problem is, and the reason why I don't recommend learning Dvorak to others, is that few people advance to this level. I haven't, and I can type probably around 60 wpm or so.

Q: So what is the bottleneck for speed and accuracy for most people?

A: The bottleneck is the mental aspect of fast typing. Typing is a physical activity, not much different than any type of endurance racing. A reliable method to advance to a mediocre level is to put in a lot of time practicing/training at a comfortable speed but no significant effort specifically for increasing speed. To advance one's skills beyond this mediocrity, one must train specifically for speed, much as one trains to run faster: i.e, intervals and other intensity workouts. This is a lot of work and is simply not worth pursuing unless you really want to type 100 wpm or faster.

Q: But still, you say you're a little faster with the Dvorak layout than qwerty, so it seems like there's some benefit for people making the switch, even if the physical layout of the keys isn't the bottleneck for most people. What's the problem? Is the learning curve too steep?

A: Believe it not, no. I suspect anyone can become a superior Dvorak typist after spending an hour a day for 6-8 weeks. This is a rather small commitment considering that doing so endows one with a lifelong skill.

Q: So then what's the problem?

A: Actually, to be clear, there's another benefit of using Dvorak as well, which is that the layout is more comfortable and one's fingers stay more relaxed using it because they generally go through more natural movements than with qwerty. However, on the whole, I don't recommend learning Dvorak.

Q: Why not?

A: This question really strikes into the heart of the Dvorak mindset. Look, if all one did with a computer keyboard was input streams of English text, then Dvorak would be the way to go, no question. However, much keyboard use is not this use case. I'll give you an example. Which keyboard shortcuts do you commonly use?

Q: Shortcuts? You mean like Ctrl+S for saving a file?

A: Exactly.

Q: Well, that—Ctrl+S—is definitely one of the common ones I use. So is Ctrl+O, open, for that matter.

A: How about copy (Ctrl+C), cut (Ctrl+X), and paste (Ctrl+V)? You probably use those three all the time, right?

Q: Good point. I do indeed use those three all the time.

A: And many more, surely?

Q; Yes— By the way, how is it that I'm doing the answering and you're asking the questions?

A: Ha ha, you got me there. Well, this answer required some asker participation. Okay, so as you're typing an email, you do a lot of Ctrl+C- and Ctrl+X- and Ctrl+V-pressing for manipulating the text you're entering. For example, if you decide to swap the order of a couple of sentences, you don't delete one and retype it in the other position. You cut and paste, Ctrl+X and Ctrl+V.

Q: Sure, what does this have to do with Dvorak?

A: Well, though the Ctrl key stays in the same place in the Dvorak layout—all the special keys do—the ‘C’, ‘X’, and ‘V’ keys are all swapped. You press what on a qwerty keyboard are ‘I’, ‘B’, and ‘>’.

Q: So? Though I find it strange that ‘V’ is in the ‘>’ spot, presumably you already memorized the different key positions when you spent that one hour a day, 6-8 weeks learning Dvorak. So when you want to press Ctrl+V and the ‘V’ is now in the ‘>’ spot, you will automatically make the mental adjustment and press the correct key combination.

A: No! That's the strange thing. You can learn how to type streaming text using Dvorak and become quite proficient at it, but you must relearn all the key combinations separately!

Q: No way! Really?

A: Yes, really.

Q: You're telling me that I can spend two months learning Dvorak and become faster on it than I ever was on qwerty and yet, at the first need to save a file in my favorite word processor, I'll fumble at the key combination for Ctrl+S and instead end up pressing whatever key happens to be in the ‘S’ spot on the qwerty keyboard?

A: Yes. In this case, that key combination is Ctrl+O, so you end up doing the opposite of saving: opening.

Q: That's a little hard to believe.

A: Yes, it is. I suppose one must try it for oneself to see.

Q: Which you don't recommend…?

A: Correct.

Q: Still, this seems like a pretty minor inconvenience. So you must relearn a few commonly used key combinations. How hard is that?

A: Admittedly, this is not a total deal breaker, though try to keep in mind that each application you use has many of its own key combinations, and the total number of combinations adds up to a lot. Also, some of us elect not to use your favorite word processor and instead spend most of our text-editing time in our own favorite text editor, which happens to stem from a keyboard-only esoteric little program from the 1970s whereby the user relies upon hundreds of commonly used key combinations, many of which are much more complicated than a simple control-key-plus-some-letter combination.

Q: Such as?

A: Such as: :%s/%20/ /g.

Q: What the heck is all that junk?

A: That would, in my favorite editor, search-and-replace all instances of “%20” with a space character.

Q: …?

A: Or q: to access the command history, including that search-and-replace command; k to move the cursor up a line; f0ref r. to change “%20” to “%2e” and the space character with a period; and enter to rerun the newly modified search-and-replace command.

Q: Allow to ensure readers, for they cannot in fact see my eyes, that my eyes are indeed rolled back into my head and I'm about to lose consciousness…

A: I'm just trying to make a point. It's easy to relearn the 26 letters of the alphabet as well as dozen or so punctuation keys, but it's much harder to relearn all these special key combinations.

Q: But most people don't use your little esoteric program and know only a few key combinations. It seems like they wouldn't be as handicapped from learning Dvorak as you were, and since it worked for you then it should work for them.

A: There's more to it than just the key combinations.

Q: Such as?

A: Such as the problem of retaining qwerty skills.

Q: Are you suggesting that knowing how to type on qwerty is not like riding a bicycle? (Though you did compare typing to “any type of endurance racing”.)

A: Well, you got me there. Yes, indeed, if you spend all your time typing in Dvorak, then you will become painfully slow and mistake-prone in qwerty. One must regularly type at least a little on both layouts to maintain proficiency.

Q: So learning a new keyboard layout isn't really a “lifelong skill”, then? What is learned can be lost?

A: Okay, you got me again. However, I am indeed not recommending Dvorak, despite its good qualities. If all the world used Dvorak by default, then we would be better off and in possession of happier fingers. However, we don't, and there's no escaping that you can't fully switch to Dvorak, not really. You must maintain qwerty proficiency to get around in the real world, and this requires some extra effort. That effort, I think, will not be found to be worthwhile by most persons' standards.

Q: Fair enough. So why do you find the extra effort worthwhile?

A: To tell you the truth, I'm not sure. I do happen to spend a lot of time inputting streams of text, like when I type out blog posts and long emails to friends and family. The little extra speed, accuracy, and comfort that I get from Dvorak is worth it.

Q: How much is “little”?

A: Probably a few extra wpm, a few fewer mistakes per minute, and fairly considerable less pain in the fingers and wrists.

Q: “Less pain” sounds good.

A: Yes, that's not to be underrated. Typing on a Dvorak keyboard is nearly stress-free, for the fingers are making natural movements.

Q: Perhaps Dvorak is worth recommending to someone who just doesn't do well on a qwerty keyboard and maybe even has a lot of wrist and hand pain and has little to lose by attempting a switch?

A: That sounds like a pretty good idea. Also, I guess I might also make a qualified recommendation for the exceptionally curious.

Q: Does this have to do with calling the Switch a “nearly religious experience”?

A: You're exactly right. If you're proficient on qwerty and try to learn Dvorak, it's like starting all over with learning how to type. Only this time you have expectations on what the end result should be, what it's like to type well. So learning Dvorak provides a person with an opportunity to watch how their own brain adapts to a new environment, one where all the keys—except for ‘A’ and ‘M’—are switched around. It's like watching yourself from the outside.

Q: That sounds a little out there and not like my cup of tea. I suppose I understand why you don't recommend Dvorak in most cases.

A: Yes. I guess it's fair to say that I've fallen harder than most for the Dvorak Myth, which is the idea that floats around on the Internet that a mediocre qwerty typist will be transformed into an exceptional Dvorak typist, all because the keys are switched around a little bit. That's not so. Maybe I'm just following my own comfortable path of contrariness and of doing things a little differently than the others around me. Maybe I continue to be entranced by how using Dvorak in a qwerty world continues to allow me to introspect and use firsthand experience to speculate as to how our minds interface with the rest of our bodies and the world around us. Maybe Dvorak is little more than an outlet for being weird.

Q: Maybe we've explored this topic enough, and it's time to end it.

A: Yes, maybe so. Thanks for the questions.

Q: You're welcome. Thanks for the answers. Hey, aren't FAQs suppose to end with an answer and not a question?


silverfunk said...

Dude, you have way to much time on your hands!

cmbrandenburg said...

Silverfunc—Good pun!