Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Case for Dvorak

National Safety Month

As you may know, June is designated as “National Safety Month” in the U.S. by the National Safety Council. Perhaps it’s no coincidence, then, that I stumbled across two separate news stories the other day covering the same strange topic: acute computer-related injuries. An ABC news story warns readers that “computers are not play toys” and cites the risks of crushing, strangulation, and electrocution, though it also concedes that the percentage of ER visits due to PC injuries was just 0.008 percent. The other story, citing a different study, finds that more than 21 percent of injuries documented were from computer equipment falling on a person.

Slow news day, huh? But accidents aside, isn't there a much bigger story about the physical danger posed by PCs? I'm talking about repetitive stress injuries, the elephant in the room that these journalists evidently decided to ignore. And why? It's a serious problem. My wife recalls from her journalism days that half the copy editors in the news room wore wrist braces at least some of the time. Think of your own experience and talk to your friends and colleagues: who has had hand or wrist pain from typing, vs. who has had a PC monitor fall on his head?

Lawyers Cash In

Chances are good that you've had a laptop or keyboard with a little disclaimer sticker on it: “WARNING: To reduce risk of serious injury to hands, wrists, or other joints, read Safety & Comfort Guide.” (Never mind that in this photo it’s on my stapler. I moved it.) This disclaimer stems from a 1996 lawsuit in which Digital Equipment Corporation was successfully sued and forced to pay $6 million in compensatory damages to three office workers who developed repetitive stress injuries from using DEC keyboards. Why was DEC singled out, when any keyboard could have caused this injury? It’s because they'd trained their own employees on the dangers of typing but hadn’t warned their customers.

The lawyers on that case must have been pretty slick. But imagine that you're a lawyer pursuing similar litigation and could show the following:

  • This equipment corporation was using an ancient keyboard layout specifically designed to be inefficient, to keep 19th century typewriters from jamming;
  • Instead of thinking of customer safety, a silly marketing gimmick—the ability to spell the word “typewriter” using only the top row of keys—was a design goal of this layout;
  • The corporation declined to offer a more efficient keyboard layout even though one has been available since 1936.

All of these statements are true, but in practice would be of no use to a lawyer because no mainstream keyboard manufacturer offers the more efficient layout—that is, no single corporation is uniquely guilty here. Alas, the so-called “QWERTY” keyboard you’re sitting in front of right now is the very 19th century design I’ve described above. A lawsuit founded on the QWERTY’s lack of efficiency would have to be filed against an entire industry—no, actually, against an entire society—for tolerating this state of affairs. In short, I believe that QWERTY, not DEC or any corporation, is the real villain with regard to keyboard-related repetitive stress injuries.

Battling a legacy of lameness

People have been historically dense about typing efficiency. The typewriter wasn't originally introduced as a way to write faster—just to be more legible. In fact, the widespread practice of touch-typing came more than fifty years after the typewriter was invented. For the first fifty years, most people just hunt-n-pecked!

I first became aware of the existence of a superior keyboard layout in the mid-eighties when I saw the Guinness Book of World Records certified fastest typist go up against the “Late Night With David Letterman” secretary in head-to-head competition. Letterman turned the race into a farce by breaking whatever promise he’d made to the record-holder to provide her with the special typewriter she needed. Instead, just for laughs, he set her up on a QWERTY machine, and declared her a fraud on the basis of her having typed pure gibberish. The poor woman was almost in tears. I could tell something was up, because typing gibberish is actually no faster than typing actual text. (Try it!) I realized this record-holder must use a more efficient layout, and I was intrigued.

Somewhere along the line, I learned more about this alternate keyboard layout. It’s called Dvorak, was created in 1936, and is named after its creator, August Dvorak. He researched typing efficiency for years in developing his design, placing the most commonly typed letters in the most convenient places, and putting all the vowels on the home row under the fingers of the left hand, so that the two hands alternate as much as possible. The fact is, his layout wouldn’t need to be the most efficient possible to be a big improvement over QWERTY. If he’d done a merely passable job with his layout, it would be a big step up given the design intent of the original. Just knowing this more efficient layout existed, I decided I had to try it. Here’s what the keyboard looks like:

A False Start

In January through June of 1995 I tried to learn Dvorak and failed. Windows PC software didn’t support Dvorak yet so to use it I had to remap every key on my keyboard. I already had a macro-programmable keyboard that made this possible, and by sheer luck I had the same keyboard at work. But I had problems. For one thing, the keyboard would occasionally lose its mind, turning my typing into gibberish and requiring me to painstakingly remap the keys all over again. But more importantly, my approach to learning Dvorak, I think, was all wrong. I figured I’d learn it at home and then start using it at work. But all the QWERTY typing I did at work was undermining anything I could learn at home. Because touch-typing is an automated process—your fingers do what they’re supposed to without explicit, conscious instructions from the brain—you have to unlearn QWERTY before you can learn Dvorak. At least, I did.

My personal philosophy is that when you know what you ought to be doing, you should just do it—excuses are no good for the soul. In keeping with that philosophy, and because I was using a PC eight to ten hours a day and my hands and wrists ached every evening, I decided I had to get past QWERTY. I finally tackled the Dvorak project again in March of 2002, shortly after reading an inspirational article. By this time, Windows software had Dvorak support built in (Apple had supported it since the ‘80s). I decided to take the cold-turkey approach, converting my home and work PCs to Dvorak and vowing never to go back.

Success

Right after making this resolution I was tasked at work with writing a proposal that ran a couple hundred pages. I was of course tempted to postpone my Dvorak project, but decided any excuse would just breed others, and made up my mind to forge ahead on the alternative keyboard layout. I’ve heard that learning happens faster under duress, and perhaps it’s true: by the time that proposal was done, I was touch-typing on Dvorak. I wasn’t going very fast (maybe thirty or forty words per minute), but my speed has steadily increased ever since. According to an online speed test I just conducted, I’m typing on Dvorak at ninety words per minute, about five words per minute faster than I had after twenty years on QWERTY. More importantly: despite typing more now than I ever have in my life, I never have hand or wrist pain anymore. Never, ever. Dvorak is the real deal.

Why you will reject this innovation

I would be very surprised if anybody switched to Dvorak on the basis of this blog. First of all, I’m not so sure anybody reads this. Second, you are all weak. Okay, I’m kidding. Actually, I think there are a good many reasons why improvements in product efficiency fail to gain widespread adoption. In this essay I will explore some of these reasons, and their applicability to the Dvorak case in particular.

There are probably endless reasons why useful innovations fail, but I’m going to focus on four of them. Here are what I see as the most common low-adoption pitfalls:

  1. What’s in it for me? The precise gain in efficiency is difficult to predict or understand.
  2. The mixed bag. The gain in efficiency is offset by other decreases in overall functionality.
  3. Aesthetics & cultural signals. The revamped product is inferior aesthetically and/or is nerdy.
  4. Don’t go changing. The revamped product requires up-front work and/or behavioral change that scares people off.

(Yes, this is going to be a long article. I’m sure you have something better to do, like watching “American Idol.” Go right ahead. But if you do, all you’ll have to discuss tomorrow at the water cooler is “American Idol,” and all you’ll have to discuss during your retirement is how much your arthritis sucks. And I’ll be the smug guy in the nursing home making fun of your wrist braces.)

Low-Adoption Pitfall #1: What’s in it for me?

It’s hard to commit to a product innovation solely on the grounds of its supposed increase in efficiency. When the product’s performance is—or seems to be—measurable in simple numbers, people are easily persuaded to upgrade. If a 1 GHz PC processor is fast, why, 2 GHz must be twice as fast! If a 7.2 megapixel camera takes sharp pictures, 10 megapixels must be even sharper! Whether or not the numbers translate into actual benefit, people don’t need much convincing. But it’s harder when numbers aren’t involved, or when you don’t have a sense for how your existing product stacks up to the latest and greatest.

Take, for example, your refrigerator. According to the website p2pays.org, this appliance uses a sixth of all the electricity in your home. But how much of that electricity could you save by upgrading? Well, that depends on how old your existing refrigerator is, and what you’re replacing it with. P2pays.org tells me a new fridge could save me up to $94 a year—but what assumptions are they making about what I’m starting with? Stopglobalwarming.org suggests that a new fridge will save me $60 a year, but they don’t provide their assumptions either. A Cornell University study says a ten-year-old fridge uses twice as much electricity as a new Energy Star fridge, but they go on to list actual annual consumption numbers (690 kWh and 436 kWh, respectively) that belie their “twice as much” statement. After awhile my eyes glaze over, and through sheer inertia I stick with my old fridge.

Low-Adoption Pitfall #2: The mixed bag

Many innovative products solve one efficiency problem while introducing others. Perhaps the new problems struck the innovator as mere idiosyncrasies, or perhaps the new problems don’t bother everybody. I can think of several examples of this mixed bag scenario.

First, I give you the recumbent bicycle. I believe it is well established that these bikes are more aerodynamic than a traditional bike, especially if they have a full or partial fairing. The world record for human powered travel was set on a recumbent, and probably the next ninety-nine runners-up were recumbents as well. But the bikes are heavy, so they’re slower going uphill, and they have too long a wheelbase to corner quickly, and they’re not very stable on downhills. They’re also less visible to cars, and hard to mount on a car rack or take on the train. For most riders, the increase in efficiency on flat, straight roads isn’t enough to overcome the disadvantages.

I can think of other examples of mixed-bag innovations: the digital car speedometer (harder to read at a glance), the electric can opener (loud, takes up counter space), the car alarm (makes everybody in the vicinity rightfully wish for your death), and the Kindle (which, being an electronic device, denies its user the escape from electronic devices that is one of the great pleasures of books). I suppose these aren’t all classic cases of failed products, but they’re not runaway successes either.

Low-Adoption Pitfall #3: Aesthetics & cultural signals

We need look no further than the ongoing popularity of the stiletto heel to remind ourselves that efficiency and performance aren’t everything. Aesthetics can—and should—be a consideration when we decide whether or not to adopt a product innovation. Take the case of digital watches: they’re loaded with features—some of them actually useful, like an alarm or a backlight—but I for one am glad they haven’t replaced analog watches. That doesn’t mean I fault you if you prefer digital; I’m just glad I still have a choice. We humans have to look at consumer products all the time; they might as well look good.

In some cases I think we as a society have a real responsibility to reject innovations on aesthetic grounds even if the increase in efficiency is obvious. I give you the modern plastic squeeze bottle of ketchup. Just look at it, compared to its vastly superior ancestor:

It’s almost as though the newer bottle is designed to reflect the physique of the modern American: short, squat, and fat. And of course the new bottle dispenses the product much faster than the old one; instead of the subtle air-bubble-sliding technique, the consumer can now force the ketchup out as fast as he wants. The squeeze bottle even makes a fitting flatulent sound as it spews. Revolting. And yet the American consumer seems to have rolled over on this one: I haven’t seen a proper glass ketchup bottle in a store in years. (Here’s a tip: next time you’re in a decent restaurant or diner, all you have to do is use up all the ketchup in the glass bottle at your table. The label says “Not for resale” and “Do not refill.” On these grounds you can ask to be given the empty bottle, with reasonable expectation of success.)

Along with purely aesthetic considerations, we shouldn’t ignore the cultural signals that our product choices can send. Returning to the case of the recumbent bicyclist, it’s pretty obvious that—whether his turtle-on-its-back position strikes you as inelegant or not—he’s clearly an iconoclast, his odd choice of steed a tacit rebuke to the rest of us. To put it bluntly, the nerd factor of a recumbent is very high. Other high-nerd-factor products include the pocket protector (not in itself particularly ugly, at least no more so than a modern ketchup bottle) and its modern-day equivalent, the smartphone belt holster. I’m not real fond of Bluetooth earpieces, either.

Low-Adoption Pitfall #4: Don’t go changing

Consumer product upgrades are especially compelling when the only thing the consumer has to do is pay his money, following which the increase in performance is automatic. If you replace your 25-pound steel bike with a 16-pound carbon fiber one, you’re going to go faster as soon as you start pedaling. But upgrades are a harder sell when the better product requires work on the part of the consumer. I’m cheered by the huge success of compact fluorescent light bulbs, but at the same time I’m dumbfounded that so few of their adopters seem to have ever tried dimmer switches, which have been around for decades. The only explanation I can think of is that people are too intimidated by the prospect of working around live wires to install the dimmer switches, while anybody can change a light bulb.

The hardest sell of all is a product that requires the user to learn a new technique. The most dramatic example that comes to my mind is the 1989 Tour de France stage race, when Laurent Fignon lost the three-week, 2,000-mile race to Greg LeMond by only eight seconds, on a drastically less efficient bike. The big difference was the aerodynamic handlebar LeMond used. With it, he beat Fignon in all three time trials (races against the clock, where the rider must fight the wind alone).

The aero handlebar was nothing new, really; triathletes in the U.S. had been using them for years by this point, and the American 7-Eleven team had been using them in Europe all season. But Fignon, along with the other tradition-bound European racers, didn’t seem interested in this technology, even after losing time to LeMond in the time trials. Given that in head-to-head stages Fignon seemed the stronger rider, shouldn’t he have started to suspect that his traditional bike was holding him back, and switched to the aero bars for the final time trial? Perhaps Fignon just didn’t believe he could adapt quickly enough to the new position these bars required. (Needless to say, after LeMond’s triumph, the entire European peloton adopted the aero handlebar and with a few notable exceptions they’re ubiquitous in time trials to this day.)

Now that I’ve outlined some of the classic reasons an innovation can fail to gain widespread acceptance, I’ll evaluate the Dvorak keyboard with these reasons in mind.

Dvorak and Low-Adoption Pitfall #1: What’s in it for me?

Let’s face it, Dvorak has a pretty big image problem. For one thing, the vast majority of typists have never even heard of it. And those who have probably don’t know exactly what it is. The name doesn’t help; I’ve been typing on this thing for years and don’t even know how to pronounce “Dvorak.” Is it “De-VOR-ack,” or “De-VOR-zhock?” The word looks foreign and therefore suspicious, and it also summons the idea of wussy classical music. (I actually like the music of Dvorák the Czech composer, but then I’m a bit square to begin with.)

A further challenge: as status-quo-challenging innovations go, the Dvorak keyboard layout doesn’t have any heroes behind it. Its creator was an obscure educator who stayed obscure. To return to the handlebar anecdote: Greg LeMond was an American hero who won, three times, one of the biggest sporting events in history. Surely he more than anyone is responsible for the aero handlebar’s widespread success. Going back a bit further, let’s look at David and Goliath. When any of the rest of us would have cowered in fear, David went right out and fricking slew the evil giant. What could be more heroic than that? The closest thing Dvorak has to a hero is the Guinness Book of World Records fastest typist—whose moment in the sun, if you’ll recall, was spoiled by David Letterman. (Even if it hadn’t been, how heroic is typing fast, anyway?)

At least now you’re aware that the Dvorak alternative exists. And given that you probably type a whole lot, every day, you might even care that there’s a more efficient option to what you have today. At the same time, you’re entitled to be skeptical about the actual gains in efficiency this newer layout can offer you. Sure, it worked for Dana, but who the hell is he?

The theory behind Dvorak

Before I get to the body of evidence for (and, oddly, against) Dvorak, let’s take a moment to examine the gist of its design differences over QWERTY. There are two main principles at work with Dvorak.

For one, the vowel keys are located beneath the fingers of the left hand, with common consonants under the right hand, to maximize the extent to which the hands alternate when typing a word. (English words tend to alternate vowels with consonants.) Try typing (on your QWERTY keyboard) the following letter sequence: sf sf sf sf. Now try fl fl fl fl. Which was easier? Which was faster? Obviously fl fl fl fl. See? Alternating hands helps. (Of course, alternating consonants like this doesn’t actually help to type real words, so what you’re really seeing here is the lack of this trait on QWERTY.)

The second main principle in Dvorak is that the most commonly used letters in the English are located on the home row, right under where your fingers naturally rest. This decreases the amount of reaching you have to do with your fingers. Try typing a few letters on the home row: sldk sldk sldk. That’s really easy. Now try typing a few letters that aren’t: enoc enoc enoc. That’s a bit harder, isn’t it? To get to the upper row you have to straighten your finger out a bit and reach. To get to the lower row you have to curl your finger toward your palm a bit, which is even harder. In the process you occasionally miss the key you’re reaching or curling toward: a typo.

And yet, these trickier keys to reach—e, n, o, and c—are very common letters you shouldn’t have to reach for. With Dvorak, three of these letters are on the home row. Another example: type “the”—the most common word in the English language—on QWERTY. You start with a long diagonal reach to the upper row with the left index finger, a sideways reach with the right index, and a reach to the upper row with the left middle. Not very efficient. With Dvorak, all three letters are right under your fingertips on the home row. Much more efficient.

The key to QWERTY’s inefficiency

Out of top twenty words in the English language, only two can be typed on QWERTY without leaving the home row, whereas sixteen can be typed on the Dvorak home row. Of the ten most common letters in English, only three of them are on the QWERTY home row, whereas nine of them are on the Dvorak home row. (The ninth most popular letter, “r,” was evidently sacrificed to the cause of getting all the vowels on the Dvorak home row.)

Just stop for a second and stare at your QWERTY keyboard. It’s a mess! The indispensable vowels are scattered across the board, while the seldom-used semicolon gets a prominent spot on the home row. How did they get it so wrong? Simple. It’s a result of the state of the industry when QWERTY was created: the concept of the home row simply didn’t exist back then, because the QWERTY creators never envisioned that people could touch-type. Typing in the year 1872 was a two-finger operation where every keystroke was a reach. In 2009, doesn’t it just make more sense to type on a layout that was specifically designed for efficient touch-typing?

The buzz about Dvorak

What a silly section heading. There’s very little mainstream buzz about Dvorak. We have two very old studies from the 1930s and ‘40s establishing its merit: the original one funded by Dvorak himself around the time he created his layout, and another by the US Navy. Alas, neither report is to be easily found on the Internet. There’s another study, from the 1950s, by the General Services Administration (a government office) that followed the efforts of ten would-be Dvorak converts and concluded that the government should not bother retraining its employees. (I can’t find this online either.) Then there are individuals’ websites, like this one, set up by happy Dvorak users to promote the layout, simply for the benefit of society.

The only modern, formal, published paper you’ll find was written by a pair of economists, Stan Liebowitz and Stephen E. Margolis. Their names pop up every time you research the Dvorak keyboard. I read their paper, and was so annoyed by it that my discussion of its many failings has spawned its own essay: The Case Against Margolis & Liebowitz.”

In the meantime, suffice to say there isn’t much in the way of easily accessible, mainstream, authoritative testimony as to the actual efficiency of the Dvorak keyboard layout. There are testimonies, though, if you hunt for them. I found many among the comments from converts at this New York Times web page. Whether or not you accept up front that Dvorak really is more efficient, we’ve still got three more Low-Adoption Pitfalls to consider, starting with…

Dvorak and Low-Adoption Pitfall #2: The mixed bag

Assuming that Dvorak really is more efficient than QWERTY, we still have to decide if adopting something non-standard is actually worth the hassle. Clearly, there are some downsides to switching to a format that virtually nobody else uses. You may well be intimidated by the process of setting it up to begin with. Beyond that, we all type some of the time on other people’s computers, and there are things we do with a keyboard besides typing simple text, and then there’s the matter of our own computer having all the keys mislabeled.

Setting it up

Converting a Windows 2000 or XP PC to Dvorak the first time is admittedly difficult if you try to figure it out on your own. (With these operating systems Microsoft put keyboard layout options under “Regional and Language Options” instead of “Keyboard.”) But if you follow the explicit directions widely available on the web, this is a five-minute exercise and then you’re done. After that, switching between layouts is easy, with an icon Windows puts on your system tray. And if you employ user profiles on your home PC, you can pre-configure each one with its own layout, so you never need to change anything. (I’m not going to talk about Macs here, other than to predict that their Dvorak support is better than that of Windows, given Apple’s overall OS quality, the fact that they’ve supported Dvorak since the 1980s, and the fact that Steve Wozniak himself types on Dvorak.)

With Vista, Microsoft did a much better job on Dvorak support. (In fact, it’s about the only thing I can see that Vista does particularly well.) A keyboard icon is located, by default, on the taskbar (and a similar one is on the opening login screen):

Switching around

Okay, but what about typing on other computers? Well, you’ll still be able to do it, using QWERTY—the keys are labeled, after all. I can type at about 35-40 words per minute on the old layout, though I never, ever practice on it. (What slows me down is having to look at the keys.) I have to say, during my QWERTY test just now, I had to marvel at how my fingers were going all over the board, constantly reaching for far-flung keys. The difference is not subtle. It’s like the difference between bagging groceries and stocking shelves.

It’s actually very odd: when I first mastered Dvorak, I couldn’t type QWERTY at all, but it’s gradually coming back. Typing on my Blackberry—which I do no more slowly than anybody else—seems to have sharpened my QWERTY skills. Many Dvorak typists can switch back and forth with ease, and I’m gaining confidence that I, too, could develop this ability if I devoted any effort to it.

So ask yourself: how often do you really type in Internet cafés or on other people’s computers? Is protecting your speed on these other computers really worth typing more slowly, with more pain, all the time?

Beyond text

In trolling the web for Dvorak lore I have occasionally come across the argument that not all typing is of text, and that relearning control-character sequences represents a significant hurdle. To me, this sounds suspiciously like something an intransigent QWERTY typist would say. All I can tell you is, it’s no big deal. After all, aren’t those control-character sequences pretty ambiguous to begin with? I’ll grant you that Ctrl-C for “copy” makes sense, but why is Ctrl-V such an obvious assignment for “paste”?

Besides, I still type these same letters—I just do it with different keys, no differently than with text. I configure Cisco routers, using the non-GUI command-line interface, with no problem on Dvorak. (And when I had to take a PC-based Cisco certification exam on a QWERTY, that was no problem either. Well, actually, it was a big problem, but not because of the keyboard.)

What about PC gaming? Okay, now I’ll freely confess I’m out of my depth as I don’t ever play computer games. But, this being a full-service blog, I’ve done a cursory Google search and unearthed a small society of Dvorak gamers. Enjoy!

The little issue of labels

You may be wondering if it bothers me to type on a keyboard on which virtually all of the keys are mislabeled. Actually, this bothers me not one iota. In fact, I purchased my first Dvorak keyboard (for $20) just a few weeks ago, and I never use it. (It’s for my daughter, Alexa, so she never has to waste a single moment hunt-and-pecking on the QWERTY keyboard that she is forbidden to ever use.) The fact is, if you need to look at the keys, you really don’t know how to type! That’s actually good news for you, because it will make learning Dvorak that much easier—you have nothing to unlearn.

I first learned to type on the IBM Selectric typewriter, a gorgeous piece of American engineering. The only thing I didn’t like was that the keys were blank: my typing class in junior high used specially made typewriters. Having blank keys was the only way to ensure that students didn’t look at the keys while trying to learn. It is, I believe, well established that you cannot learn to touch type if you look at the keys. So don’t waste your money on a Dvorak-labeled keyboard or stickers for your laptop keys—you’re better off learning on a QWERTY-labeled board. (This is handy for when somebody borrows your computer, too.)

Dvorak and Low-Adoption Pitfall #3: Aesthetics & cultural signals

Five thousand words into this blog, it’s tempting to dispatch this low-adoption pitfall quickly with the simple argument that there is no aesthetic difference between QWERTY and Dvorak because you haven’t replaced any hardware. The act of typing might look slightly different to somebody who’s paying very close attention, but that’s about it. I do get comments about the sound of my typing, when I forget to mute my phone during conference calls. These comments are always some version of, “That must be Dana. Nobody else can type that fast.” An aesthetic demerit? I think not.

But of course there’s the cultural signaling issue to deal with. Anytime you reject the status quo in favor of something you feel is superior, you run the risk of seeming elitist. (Funny, though, how this doesn’t seem to worry people in the case of expensive cars and designer clothes.) Among those who know I use Dvorak, the responses have been benign, similar to people’s response to my good grammar and early morning workout regimen. That is, it’s treated like a generally harmless idiosyncrasy; I’m a nerd, and probably elitist, and probably no fun to have a beer with, but nothing to get up in arms about. (Actually, I like to think I’m a fine beer-drinking companion.)

It’s probably impossible to keep your Dvorak preference a secret from everybody, though some version of “don’t ask, don’t tell” would probably work just fine pretty well if you’re concerned about it. I wouldn’t put my Dvorak skill on my résumé, and I don’t generally talk about it, and that should be enough. Besides, as I’ll cover in this next section, I wouldn’t actually ask you, the reader, to adopt the Dvorak layout. This blog isn’t about you—it’s about your kids.

Low-Adoption Pitfall #4: Don’t go changing

Perhaps the strongest anti-Dvorak arguments pertain to the difficulty of retraining. Certainly this is the focus of the government General Services Administration study that provided much of the fodder for Margolis and Liebowitz’s polemic (click here for details). I’ll freely confess, unlearning QWERTY and learning Dvorak was really, really hard. There were moments when I’d get brain-freeze and for a split second be unable to type on either layout. It was in the same league, effort-wise, as learning not to cuss in front of my kids.

But the difficulty of retraining is really beside the point. Society has labored under the yoke of QWERTY for 137 years—another thirty or fifty years of it isn’t the end of the world. What’s important is to stop this hemorrhaging of efficiency for the next generation, by teaching the Dvorak layout to new typists. This isn’t a problem of aptitude—it’s attitude. If we can all agree that QWERTY is lame, can’t we take the next step and abandon the self-centered, narrow-minded idea that if it’s good enough for us, it’s good enough for our kids?

Generation gap

This wouldn’t be the first time that a better way of doing things was adopted first by the younger generation. Consider the long-awaited “paperless office.” After an unpromising start, this dream is finally beginning to approach reality. I know this because my colleagues, every time they want to print, are futzing around trying to get their PCs to talk to the LAN printer because they haven’t printing anything in so long. Myself, I inherited a local printer from a laid-off colleague about a decade ago and I’m still on that original print cartridge. The man who hired me had a credenza and a large file cabinet to store his papers; though I inherited these when he left, I’ve barely added to them in the last five years. The amount of work-related paper I’ve accumulated is a stack about two inches thick.

And yet, printing does go on in our office—a fair amount of it. Our printer and copier are in a room adjoining the kitchen, and every time I head in to fill my water or nuke my lunch, somebody is in there collecting his or her print job. And every time, it’s someone with gray hair. I’ve never seen a person my age in there printing—they’re at their desks, writing e-mail, many of them featuring footers like this one:

I’m not kidding: you could determine the age spread of our office simply by analyzing the LAN print queue. The older folk actually print e-mails. (I’m not sure I’ve ever printed an e-mail in my life.) Go up another ten or twenty years, and you’ve got people who print everything, as though the PC is just a really, really fancy typewriter. Continue further up the age scale and you find the people who don’t use computers at all. I’ll never forget the day I showed my first laptop to my grandpa, who was then ninety-six years old. “But it doesn’t do anything!” he cried, picking it up and dropping it on the table. My heart almost stopped, as I feared for my laptop’s hard drive.

Learning curve

As I approach my fortieth birthday this becomes painful to admit, but I’m heading, along with my peers, toward that state of brain ossification that makes any learning difficult. Asking us to unlearn QWERTY, after twenty or more years of using it, is daunting indeed. Naturally, we project this resistance to change onto our children—but we shouldn’t. For them to pick up Dvorak would be—forgive me—child’s play.

Consider this anecdote. The other day, I was chatting online with my brother Bryan, and when I stepped away, my daughter Alexa saw an opportunity to say hi to her uncle. She grasps that because my Windows profile is set to Dvorak, the labels on the keyboard are useless. Not yet able to touch type, she fetched her Dvorak-labeled keyboard, plugged it in, and typed away. She’s seven, and has not yet had a lesson about USB ports, but—being a kid—she evidently figured, “How hard could it be?” I have no concerns about the next generation’s ability to learn Dvorak, no matter how daunting it may seem to us. All we have to do is get out of their way—which means not exposing them to QWERTY.

My autocratic fantasy

I have this game I like to play: If I Were an Autocrat. For example, if I were an autocrat, the following would be illegal: SUVs, bottled water, car alarms, and teaching QWERTY to kids. (I realize that the first three items on this list, if not all four, may have assured the alienation of some of my blog readership. I guess I can live with this. Perhaps in my autocracy you’d be forced to continue reading anyway, and you’d be tested on the material.)

Being a benign autocrat, I would gradually phase in the anti-QWERTY laws. The first phase would require that Dvorak be mentioned, and operating system support guaranteed, to all students. Once the parenting public had been thus exposed to the technology, I would make Dvorak the standard, with a cumbersome opt-out policy whereby a parent would have to apply to a tribunal to explain why QWERTY made sense for his or her child. Eventually it would be a felony to teach QWERTY to kids.

Okay, I’m kidding!

Obviously, that wouldn’t be the most effective way to phase in Dvorak, nor is there much chance of me becoming an autocrat anytime soon. Actually, the best way to jump-start this evolution would be to provide the awareness and basic tools, and let the kids adopt it on their own as a way to simultaneously rebel and out-type their old, lame parents. I’ve even pondered the creation of video games that slyly promote Dvorak. Not lousy games like the Typing Tutor “typing lobster” game I used once, but cool, modern games. You could have one where the player’s weapon requires fast typing of a common word. For example, if you typed the word “the” too slowly, your avatar’s leg would kick back at the knee like when a girl throws a ball; if you typed it in milliseconds your avatar would thrust his hand beneath the rib cage of the opponent and rip out his heart. The kids would eventually figure out that switching to Dvorak is the way to win. (Yes, this is just a joke. Ultra-violent video games are actually on my autocrat-banned list.)

Am I high on drugs?

It might seem highly improbable that this technological problem has a political or legal solution. But things can change fast. I’m still pinching myself over the relatively recent anti-smoking laws. The day I heard they’d be outlawing smoking in San Francisco, I was sure it was a hoax. When the law was passed, and it gradually became apparent that it would actually be enforced, I really felt this was too good to be true. And then other cities across America started following suit, and even Dublin now bans smoking in pubs. Who could have predicted this?

Other laws show how quickly a societal improvement can be adopted. Ever the vanguard, San Francisco has now introduced a compulsory composting law. I’m in awe, frankly, of how seriously this city takes its civic duty. This new law sounds like the kind of thing I might introduce if I had political clout and/or Gavin Newsom's hair.

Is my lifestyle improved by composting? Not directly. All it personally means to me is emptying the kitchen compost bin into the big green waste bin every week, scooping the eerily warm, extraordinarily slimy, chunky, utterly disgusting compost goo off the bottom of the bin with my fingers, fighting the gag reflex and pondering the condensation on the lid of the bin. If the citizens of San Francisco can tolerate a law requiring them to do this, purely out of civic duty, surely we can tolerate a law requiring our kids to be offered Dvorak alongside QWERTY.

Remember the lawyers!

It’s not hard to see how a Dvorak law might take shape. Evidence of a public health issue gives prospective laws some serious teeth. Consider the DEC case: they were forced to pay $6 million in damages because their keyboard was shown to have caused repetitive stress injuries. If I had to guess at why Microsoft Windows supports Dvorak, I’d say it’s protection against lawsuits. After all, why else would they take the trouble, when the number of Dvorak users—though unknown—is likely very small?

Alas, we’re stuck in a chicken-and-egg situation. Before the lawyers get excited about punishing the lack of Dvorak adoption, somebody first needs to establish, in large, well-run scientific tests, the actual efficiency advantage of the Dvorak layout. Once this is established, this keyboard may finally start to gain some traction, and its merit will become widely acknowledged.

National Safety Month

Remember, June is national safety month. So in its honor, why not do something right now to mitigate the risk of a repetitive stress injury? I’m not asking you to switch to Dvorak (though you should). Here are some easy, free things you could do to promote this salutary product:

  • If you’re a parent, consider having your child learn to type on Dvorak
  • Talk to your child’s teacher about offering Dvorak to interested students
  • Read my companion blog post, “The Case Against Margolis & Liebowitz” to gain an appreciation for how a couple of ill-informed economists have helped to cement the ongoing use of QWERTY
  • If you’ve only skimmed this essay, bookmark it for later

If you’ve actually made it to the end of this blog post, congratulations: you have real staying power. In fact, you’re a perfect candidate for actually converting to the Dvorak layout! E-mail me at feedback@albertnet.us if you’d like any tips on how to do this. If not, I’d still like to hear from you. Send an e-mail, post a comment below, or at least take a second to click one of the “reaction” buttons. I’d really like to know if anybody read the whole thing. (The reaction buttons are at the very bottom of this post, past the “useful links.”)

Some useful links

http://abcnews.go.com/Health/PainNews/Story?id=7788538&page=1

http://www.livescience.com/health/090609-computer-injuries.html

http://www.slate.com/?id=2061547

http://www.askoxford.com/asktheexperts/faq/aboutwords/frequency

http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Keyboard+maker+held+liable+for+repetitive+strain+injuries-a019155663

http://dvorak.mwbrooks.com/books.html#rc

http://www.reason.com/news/show/29944.html

http://gigliwood.com/abcd/

http://dvorak.mwbrooks.com/index.html

http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/221/was-the-qwerty-keyboard-purposely-designed-to-slow-typists

http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/05/30/qwerty-vs-dvorak/#comments

http://www.answers.com/topic/typing

http://www.albertnet.us/2009/06/defendants-i-type-lot.html


5 comments:

  1. Read the whole thing.

    And I hadn't considered it before, but I declare today: my currently 1 year old son, Jonas, will not learn QWERTY.

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  2. So, I may have been a bit rash in my commitment to a new keyboard layout for me and my offspring.

    Your argument and anecdotal evidence was so compellingly articulated that I failed to do the necessary independent investigation.

    The new locations for [, ], {, and } concern me: "These various bracket characters are frequently used in many computer [programming] languages as operators or for other syntax markup."
    --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bracket#Computing

    Regretfully, I must retract my previous declaration while I further consider the optimal keyboard layout for my progeny.

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    Replies
    1. I have just discovered (while researching Dvorak support on the Google Chromebook, which by the way is there) that there's a special Programming version of Dvorak! Check out this link:
      http://www.kaufmann.no/roland/dvorak/

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  3. Another link that may be of interest: http://mkweb.bcgsc.ca/carpalx/

    The TNWCLR layout certainly looks interesting: http://mkweb.bcgsc.ca/carpalx/?tnwclr :-)

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  4. Thanks for the great links! I'll confess I haven't read the carpalx article yet, but in skimming it I see lots of very useful-looking stuff.

    As for brackets, I do use them with command-line interface network management stuff and they did present a challenge at first. I stuck little dots to the keys and that helped a lot. I don't know that the Dvorak location of these is less ideal, either ... Bryan believes it may actually be better.

    ReplyDelete