Thursday, November 15, 2007

Dvorak, when the walls fell

I'd heard of the Dvorak keyboarding method years and years ago, but I never really got a handle on it or why it was better for me. Then last week, I came across this post on boingboing linking to a very informative e-comic that outlined exactly why I should switch.

So I hitched up my pants, spat into the brass spittoon and said "Y'all know me. Know how I earn a livin'. I'll catch this bird for you, but it ain't gonna be easy."[1] Metaphorically, of course.

Literally though, I set up the Dvorak keyboard on my Thinkpad (it's included as a option in the Regional Settings portion of the Control Panel), took an old keyboard apart and reassembled it Dvorak-style -- for referral purposes only, you don't need a new keyboard to learn Dvorak -- and went online to find some typing tutorial software that would help me learn. I eventually went with Ten Thumbs and their cool viking cartoon helpers.

I dug in with both hands (ha!) and began to see why Dvorak can be such a blessing for touch typists. All the main letters (s,t,n,a,d,o,e,i) are on the main "home" row. A lot less finger movement means more efficient and presumably faster typing.

Then I started to run into the problems:
  1. O.M.G. was I slow. I'm a pretty fast touch typist on QWERTY, roughly around 75-90 WPM when I really get it going. With Dvorak, I went back down to 18-25 WPM and I could not stand it. Emails, chats, writing technical documentation -- I do a lot of writing in a day, and I literally kept forgetting what I was trying to type because it was taking me so long to type it. I know that it's idiotic to think that I would be as fast a typist right away, and I certainly was improving after only a few days, but it was giving me headaches to try and rewire my brain like this.
  2. Copy/Paste - on your normal computer keyboard, CRTL+C and CTRL+V are the copy and paste shortcuts. But in Dvorak land, C and V aren't beside each other anymore (for the record C goes in the "I" position and V is in the ">" position, QWERTY-wise). I wound up losing efficiency with my keyboard shortcuts.
  3. Multiplicity - I work with a lot of computers. A lot. I have 5 systems in my office, plus my wife's iBook, and literally dozens and dozens of other virtual machines both here at home and remotely at work. That's just too much pain to set each and every one of those up with the Dvorak layout (not to mention that my wife was having none of this madness, so there'd have to be both layouts on several systems to support both of us).
  4. Keyboards - I mentioned that I took apart a keyboard and set the keys up in Dvorak layout, but most keyboards today are "formed" to a physical design and you can't just move keys from one location to another on the keyboard and have it look normal. The alternative is to paint or tape over the letters and put the Dvorak keys in place. Way too much hassle.
So in the end, I pulled the plug on the Dvorak experiment. I think for someone just learning to touch type, or someone who only has one computer, it's definitely a great choice, and I admire all the proponents who swim against the stream to keep this alternative alive. But I've got deadlines to keep and miles of documents to write before I sleep.

[Those of you wondering about this post's title: see here]


oldarney said...

im on dvorak switched 4 days ago and i type at 44WPM not too bad. if you knew querty you wont forget it. its very easy to switch back and forth, as long as you do it often.

Ian H said...

For some totally unknown reason, the Fax software on my Vista box decided that it was going to stay on Dvorak, rather than using the QWERTY mode even after I switched back. I was surprised at how many of the Dvorak key positions I managed to remember!

Maybe when I get around to writing my next novel, I'll do it all in Dvorak. ;-)

Thanks for the comment.