QWERTY vs. Dvořák

(rhymes with "the foreshock")


     The short story is that, while originally developed as a means of improving typing-speed, the Dvorak keyboard layout is actually, and quite disappointingly, only marginally better than the QWERTY layout. However, it has also quite unexpectedly proven to be absolutely indespensible at solving a very related, but entirely unexpected problem, and one which affects far too many of us: Repetitive Stress Injuries (RSIs) like Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS). So, you can stop reading here, and take that nugget where it lies, and run with it, maybe even benefit from it, or you can let me bore you to death with an exhaustive history of my own situation, and how I accidentally stumbled over the cure that I recommend for you, and everyone else.

     I've been typing a long time. I started at 13 (in 1971). I just had a hunch that typing was something I should learn to do. After all, all the adults I knew seemed to be able to do it. Why shouldn't I? In fact, why wasn't I being taught that in school instead of the names of the hairs on worms (villii), or the mating rituals of Bantu tribesmen? (Don't ask.)

     I asked my mother about it, and she dug out her own, old school books, gave me her old typewriter, showed me the basics, and I was on my way. A couple of years later, in high school, they actually offered typing classes. Worried that I hadn't taught myself well or correctly, I decided to sign up. Indeed, there were a couple of things I learned in that class that actually improved my typing, such as never correcting on-the-fly. Curiously, the next semester introduced us to electric machines, with built-in correction, and we were now taught to correct errors as soon as they happen, in order to maintain the best alignment, getting the cleanest lift of the old ink. I think I topped out at 60 word per minute (wpm). Not bad, and well within the top 10 percent of the class.

     Then came the military. There, I would have to type log entries for every transmission, and they needed it done fast, and they needed it done right, so ... more typing classes. They got my speed up to 90 wpm, and my error-rate down to next to nothing. This was because our logs could have no erasures. There was a process for correcting errors, but it was very arduous, so you learned not to make any in the first place. It just made everything a lot easier. Curiously, we typed everything in caps. (Call-sign Romeo Sierra, for short; Mike Alpha Romeo Sierra for the whole shebang. That's right, for those in the know: I was MARS.)

     Mind you, I'm not just typing; I have more facets than that. I'm also an avid cyclist, even still today. By the time I was 26, and a programmer, all that typewriter training was really paying off. But I was starting to notice a problem with my cycling. My hands were going numb. Now, that's actually fairly common to cyclists, along with things like Raynaud syndrome. That's why they wear padded gloves, and have padded handlebars with multiple grip positions. That's even where the ram's-horns handlebars came from: It's less about aerodynamics than it is about keeping your body-weight off the palms of your hands. So, I was no stranger to this, but THIS numbness was something more, something new, something I'd never quite experienced before. My hands were literally useless, and that after only a few miles.

     On the one hand ☺, I just troopered on, but, on the other hand, I began to worry about it getting any worse. When I needed to brake, I just couldn't apply the pressure needed to stop effectively.

     This was getting serious.

     That's when another development began to make itself known. I noticed that I would occassionally wake up with swelling and stiffness from the middle of my forearms to the tips of my fingers. Weirdest of all was that, if I held my fingers together, and parallel, and flat, and then tried to close them into a fist, they stopped about half way. I couldn't do wrap my hands around an egg, for example, but I could hold one between my thumb and first two digits. But only if the last two digits were extended. It looked out of place for me.

     You know me. I'm just the sort of autist who would find this more interesting than worrisome. So I started studying this new phenomenon extensively, and concluded that the tendons running through the palms of my hands, out to my fingers, were somehow jambing up together somewhere. Curious. Interesting. And more than a little inconvenient. Because I also quickly learned that, on those days, typing a letter was out of the question. It was just too painful.

     At 27! What? What am I? A cripple at 27?

     But, I was no mere hobby cyclist. I did things like build my own wheels. I built entire bikes. I would even go on to run the tech-shop of a sports store for a year while I was in college. That's how good I was. I was a Cannondale factory certified tech. Ooooh! Problem is that bikes have lots of small parts that require small tools in tight places. And that means lots of hand contortions and leverage. You need grip-strength for that, and we didn't have power tools back then.

     Did I mention that I was also a weightlifter for years? And never really fully gave it up? I used to lift with my kids. I still have dumbells under my desk right now. But, guess what, the human body is just that: human. It can only take so much, something I was about to learn with my fancy, BioPace chain-ring set, too. And I was pushing mine too far. And it was impacting my work, my writing, my coding, my braking, even my shifting.

     What to do?

     By 1994 I had learned a lot about CTS, RSIs, wrist braces, anti-inflammitories, and other programmers with the same problem. I wasn't alone. But surgery loomed as the only permanent solution. Maybe. Turns out that isn't a sure thing either, and can actually make things worse, so I'm standing back, taking it all in, taking my time to make a decision. By 2006, I'm using ergonomic keyboards, tricky pointing devices, and even trying to help others with their problems. Then I hire this young kid with only a year of college. Why only a year? Because he got bored. Hmmm... Sounds familiar. Curiously, he types about 200 words per minute ... on both QWERTY and ... Dvořák!

     It took about a month of watching him to get me to give up on Windows altogether on all my machines, and go back to Linux again. I'd pretty much resigned myself to a Windows future 4 years earlier, having found RedHat a less than adequate Desktop OS. Oh, RedHat Linux was still on all the servers. I would NEVER use Windows there. (Except for the Visec server, and only because they had no Linux option.) But now I was using Ubuntu Linux as my primary desktop OS, and loving it. But, this time, instead of trying to run the one or two Windows-only programs that I had to use under Wine, I was running them in VirtualBox, and that worked much better. I even migrated my wife and kids to Linux. We're a Linux family.

     So, what has this got to do with the keyboard? Well, that's another curious thing. Linux also handles alternate keyboards better (imho) than Windows does. When you switch keyboards in Linux, it's system-wide. And you won't find yourself accidentally switching back to the regular US keyboard either. And that in just one window. Really maddening. So I forced myself to start typing on the Dvořák layout. Yes, there was a learning-curve. Yes, at 50, it was a struggle. But I did it. And I learned a few surprising things along the way.

     The first thing I learned is that I had actually stopped typing QWERTY a long time ago, but had simply failed to notice it. I had to have a minimum, blind, error-free, typing-speed of 60 words per minute in the Air Force, but that was 26 years ago (at that time). Since then, the rigors of programming and general computer use had pretty much destroyed my typing skills. I actually had to look at the keyboard most of the time. Why? Because typing is all about having your hands on home-row, and rythms and patterns. You almost never actually type any words into the keyboard; your fingers replay the rythm of the words. You have patterns in your head, and memorized sequences in your fingers. And, any new words you encounter must be memorized in terms of muscle-memory, and then added to a typing dictionary in your brain.

     Worse, just using a computer, especially if you're competent at driving the keyboard instead of resorting to the speed-crippling mouse, is a matter of odd combinations of single keys, Ctrl+X, Ctrl+V, Shift+Insert, Ctrl+Shift+F12, and, of course, Ctrl+Alt+Del.

     This combination of muscle-memory, single-stroke responses, and Plutonian key-combinations already play havoc with your mental typing dictionary, but it gets even worse because spelling anything normally is practically anathema to a programmer. Not only are the programming languages' keywords all upper-case, all lower-case, or wierdly camel-case, they lack any spaces or punctuation. They often lack any resemblance to human words at all. Programming languages, and even scripting languages are languages only in the sense that you can communicate using them, but only with computers and other programmers. And the result of decades of typing in things like, OPENSEQ, sshfs, and CRT, is that your fingers gradually lose their ability to 'speak' their native 'tongue' (finger?). And the dominance of keyboard command-sequences (Ctrl+Alt+Del) just shatters your home-row habit.

     In short, I couldn't really type any more. Occasionally, when staying late, writing up a lot of documentation and e-mails, it would come back to me, but I was still looking at the keyboard a lot. So, what does this mean? It means that there wasn't really all that much binding me to QWERTY any more. I no longer had so much invested in it that I just couldn't risk trying something else, and that something else was now on full display, right in front of me, at about 200 wpm.

     So I took the plunge.

     And I've never looked back.

     And the other thing I learned?

     I could type again!

     I can't explain it, but Dvořák just works better for typing. After a decade of using it, I'm not sure I can claim to have achieved the level of expertise I once had with QWERTY back in my 20s, but I never struggle with it, and I NEVER have to look at the keyboard. Dvořák seems to be more intuitive a layout for my brain than QWERTY ever was. And I'm still doing all the same scripting and programming that fouled up my QWERTY typing expertise, maybe even more. But my Dvořák typing skills only ever improve (however slightly) with time.

     And then, finally, came the revelation I never expected, the thing no one ever promised, the achievement that was nowhere to be found among the stated goals of the original project: The utter elimination of Repetitive Stress Injuries.

     How does this work? I can only guess, and my guess is that the letters are laid out in a pattern that requires less stressful hand contortions in order to type the most frequent words and letter combinations, even when tpying in any of those bizarre, other-worldy languages that only computers can understand. It just works. It just happens.

     And my hands are almost always on home-row.

     And I'm still biking, albeit on a tadpole nowadays, where there's no weight at all on my hands any more. But I can pull those brake-levers with ease. I can stand that rig on its nose any time I want to, and, often, even when I don't want to. I actually have to brake lightly so as to not risk spinning out of control.

     I will NEVER go back to QWERTY.

     Go ahead. Give it a try. What have you got to lose? Maybe only something you'd really enjoy losing.


- MARS -