Friday, June 20, 2014

The top six lies about the Dvorak keyboard

Woman so frustrated with qwerty that she's reconfiguring the typewriter as a Dvorak keyboard
I've been typing on the Dvorak keyboard for three years now, and there are a bunch of lies going on around the internet about the Dvorak keyboard.

Lie #1: Dvorak is easy to learn.
The truth is that Dvorak is extremely hard to learn. Keyboards are so hard-coded into our very essences, that learning any kind of new keyboard is extremely hard. That's why most of the impressive advances in keyboard technology, like SwiftKey, are based around predicting stuff that's in your head, not on trying to teach you something new.

It took me about a year and a half to replace my qwerty speed on the Dvorak keyboard. A year and a half! I type about 80 WPM, and so if you're a super slow typist, it might not take you that long.

After I had been practicing Dvorak for a month, my typing speed was only 11 WPM. That's right, only 11 WPM! I can type with one finger on qwerty around 25 WPM, so 11 WPM was pretty pathetic. I probably should have given up, but I don't like to give up once I start something. After a few months, I was at 40 WPM, and then I gradually improved from there. I did take a leisurely approach to learning Dvorak. I started with Dvorak on just one of my laptops, and I only fully switched over when I got to the 40 WPM point. I also never trained for more than about a half hour at a time. So, I think it is possible to do it a lot faster than what I did, but I think my results are probably what you should realistically expect.

Lie #2: Christopher Sholes rearranged the keyboard to slow down typists.
Any information about Christopher Sholes is a wild, zany guess. The truth is that we know about as much about Sholes as we do about any obscure character from the 1800's, which is not very much.

In reality, keyboards all used to have an A-Z format, and Sholes became obsessed with slightly rearranging the A-Z format, but not very much. Sing the alphabet song, while you press the keys on your keyboard, and notice the groupings. A-G are on one side, H-P are on the other side, etc. The biggest remnant of the A-Z keyboard is the sequence of J, K, and L on the home row. In fact, the home row used to be J, K, L, M, but one of the last changes Sholes made to the keyboard was to swap the M and the ; keys. Oh, and F, G, H are also kept in alphabetical sequence.

If Sholes was really trying to slow down typists, he would have put the most common digraphs, or two-letter combinations, far apart from each other. Here's a list of the six most common digraphs in English. Notice that most are extremely close together on the keyboard, not far apart: TH, IN, HE, ER, AN, RE. In fact, it seems like Sholes was trying to get the most common digraphs close together, not further apart.

The truth is that Sholes was a crazed tinkerer who haphazardly rearranged the keys, yet held nearly true to the A-Z sequence.

Lie #3: Dvorak is well-thought out
Dvorak did most of his analysis based on one published list of the most frequent 100 words in the English language. In today's information age, that's a pathetic amount of research for something as substantial as a keyboard layout.

There are some huge flaws with Dvorak, such as the placement of the U key and the H key. U and H are popular letters, but for some reason Mr. Dvorak put them under the strongest fingers. Uh, maybe Mr. Dvorak used the word "uh" a lot. I can think of tons of other letters that would have been better in those positions, like E, T, A, O, N, R, or I. And speaking of R, it's the third most commonly used consonant, and it's pressed by a long reach with the weakest finger in Dvorak.

And, the fact that Dvorak put all of the vowels in a line, all lined up, shows Sholes-like thinking. A, O, E, U, I. Dvorak ordered his vowels the way that he originally ordered his numbers, with a crazy weird pattern. By doing this, Mr. Dvorak is basically admitting, "Uh, I know that there's something significant about vowels, but I haven't quite figured it out yet." And, speaking of that, if do you switch to Dvorak, don't use his original numbering system. It sucks. The numbers were originally in the order 7, 5, 3, 1, 9, 0, 2, 4, 6, 8.

Lie #4: Dvorak is different
Dvorak does have a different key arrangement, but it's really not much different at all. The third most popular keyboard layout, Colemak, which does a lot of what Dvorak does, actually prides itself on how un-different it is. "We only switched a few keys from qwerty" is the sales pitch for Colemak.

Lie #5: Dvorak is better in every way
Qwerty is actually much better for super tiny keyboards on smartphones, than Dvorak is. The problem with a Dvorak layout on a smartphone is that all of the popular keys are too close together. This is great for a full-sized keyboard, but it sucks for any kind of smart prediction with teeny tiny virtual buttons.

But, I use a keyboard that was designed for smartphones, MessagEase. It doesn't have tiny buttons.

Lie #6: You'll be able to switch back to qwerty when you need to
For some reason, I was extremely concerned about if I would be able to switch back to qwerty. My original goal was to be a keyboard polyglot, and be able to type fluently on both Dvorak and qwerty. But now that I'm better at Dvorak than qwerty, I never want to go back to qwerty. For me, there's no point at all. Even though I'm critical about Dvorak, it is a superior layout to qwerty. Why spend any time at all on qwerty that I don't have to?

When I use other people's qwerty keyboards now, I hunt and peck at around my 25 WPM. But, I never do any serious typing on someone else's keyboard, and I think that most people also do 99% of their typing on their own computer or at least their own account. It's pretty easy to switch back and forth to Dvorak on any operating system. I even have Dvorak for my Commodore 64 and Vic 20 emulators.

Qwerty and Dvorak use too much of the same parts of the brain to effectively quickly partition them. It should be theoretically possible to do this, but there's probably no point, and it's probably not worth it, so you're probably not going to do it.

Okay, there are the lies about Dvorak. Now I should tell you why I'm still using Dvorak, and not switching back to qwerty.

Reason #1: Dvorak feels better to type on
The biggest reason I won't switch back to qwerty, is that I like how Dvorak feels when I type. It's not the ideal layout, but it makes typing a much more enjoyable experience.

Reason #2: You should learn something new
Input methods are changing. It's slow, but gradual, and it's only a matter of time before kids of the future are using an input method that's completely inaccessible for the adults of today. Learning a new input method is the best way to keep your mind agile enough to be able to learn whatever it is that the kids of ten years from now will be using.

Reason #3: You'll learn a lot about learning
I realize that my reasons for learning Dvorak list is degrading into similar reasons that I would give for, "Why you should stare at a rock to gain enlightenment." While learning Dvorak, I learned two important things about learning. One is how to avoid making mistakes while typing. The other is how to leverage muscle memory with common words to learn new input methods much more quickly in the future. I could have gotten that same enlightenment from staring at a rock, but my way of getting it was from learning Dvorak.

Plover: better than Dvorak
There is something out there that's much better than Dvorak, and it's Plover. It's a chorded keyboard that's based on stenography, like what court reporters and closed captioners use.

I'm now in the process of learning Plover. There are a few issues with it now, because you need a computer application to run it, so I can't use Plover with my phone (which is where I'm typing this) or my Chromebook, but someone should figure that out in the next year or two.

Plover is a chorded, phonetic keyboard, with a bunch of cool theory behind it. So, the way that you type the word "cat" is by pressing the K, A, and T buttons all at the same time. There are some shortcuts, so the way you type the word "it" is by pressing the T on the left hand side, and the way you type "the" is by pressing the T on the right hand side. And a bunch more cool theory, but it's perfect for someone like me who's looking for something obscure with a steep learning curve.

But the coolest thing about Plover is that someone like me who types 80 WPM on qwerty or Dvorak will be able to type about 140 WPM on Plover. When I learned about Plover a couple of months ago, I realized that I've wasted years of my life on Dvorak.

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