Thursday, May 31, 2007

Dvorak layout: My current obsession

Its been a few days (or months) that I've posted anything. This one had been going on for a few days now. I guess it is easy to compose it offline and then post it online.

I don't know when it was that I first heard about Dvorak keyboard layout. Maybe it was when I was grokking through some Linux manual about 4-5 years back. I came across something that mentioned about a computer keyboard layout that was completely optimised for fast typing and reducing the stress on the hands. Somewhere it mentioned that Dvorak was an ANSI standard. The only other standard that was registered with ANSI besides QWERTY (For the uninitiated the Dvorak registered with ANSI is slightly different from the "classic" Dvorak, which again has different numeric arrangement).

For the next few days, I flirted with the idea of learning this. That being the time when the Linux mania had completely consumed me. I wanted to be 'unique', if you will. And knowing that I'm a master of an elite technology that few had mastered gave me an elated feeling. So was Linux. A rebel group that had its own philosophy and culture, and yet at the bleeding edge of technology and geekdom.

As is my usual practise, I drifted along the interest, then dropped it — not having further source of information (Wikipedia was not invented back then). And an hour on the Internet café would cost me somewhere around Rs. 35. Not knowing how to invest in a keyboard when all the computer resources I need had been lent to me by my kind Uncle.

Skip to the present...

I was reading Syngress Publication's Stealing the Network: How to Own an Identity — a fantastic piece of treasure, I should say. For anyone wanting to get a — whaddyasay — a hands-on experience on Computer security and hacking — Stealing the Network is the way to go. As I was saying, Chapter 5 mentions the story of a Unix whiz, Charles (Bl@ckTo\/\/3r). Charles was a blazingly fast typist — even only with his right hand. The left, usually is occupied with a pizza, or a bottle of coke, or will be flipping pages through thick computer manuals.

The bad guys who wanted to get to his box, even with a hard-wired key-logger installed on his keyboard (Charles suspected that), seem to be only getting seemingly encrypted keystrokes. It is Charles' friend, his room-mate for over 5 years that finally unravels each piece of security measures that Charles have carefully kept in place, and solves the mystery. Now, I don't want to be a spoil sport, and spill out the story here. Go read that for yourself!

The point is that Charles had been using Right-Handed Dvorak keyboard layout, without physically replacing the QWERTY keyboard or manually rearranging the keys. That gave me an idea. Now that I am sitting home, doing nothing (well, officially I'm supposed to be doing my Summer Internship at Plant Lipids, but that's another story) this would be a nice endeavour to try out.

I hurriedly went to college (reason: unlimited net connectivity and Wi-Fi) and proceeded to collect maximum info regarding this Dvorak layout. Enough is enough. I quickly had the same feeling that I had, when I started reading intimately about Linux in the past — "Why didn't I know about this earlier?", "What is keeping me from switching?". Followed by the usual sceptical SWOT analysis and stuff.

This is the article that really hooked me on to this amazing endeavour. Now there is no turning back without giving it a try. By far this has been the most comprehensive website that I came along featuring the Dvorak layout. But then, as I always say — Google is your friend here.

For sceptics that claim that Dvorak was designed before the emergence of computers and are hence not usable, please read this.

Funny enough, "U" and "I" are still put together! And if you don't know, the world record holder in typing speed, Ms. Barbara Blackburn, who achieved a peak rate of 212 words per minute used Dvorak!

Why should you use Dvorak... ?
  • For greater efficiency. Dump the keyboard layout that was "designed to slow down the typist" and switch to Dvorak.
  • To amaze and astonish your friends, and impress and intimidate your enemies!
  • Just to be different; you are a Linux user, aren't you?
  • Its easy to switch any modern OS to use Dvorak without physically replacing the keyboard.
  • Fun; you enjoy challenges.
  • You're a speed freak; you like to type fast.
  • You don't have to worry about RSI and wrist pains anymore!

... And why you shouldn't?
  • Its not a widely adopted "standard"; you will find yourself frustratingly in need to switch keyboard layouts if you use public computers (but switching process is a breeze).
  • The convenient short-cuts like "Ctrl-X" (Cut), "Ctrl-C" (Copy), "Ctrl-V" (Paste) will not be easy any longer (That's why I use GNU Emacs: goodbye to all those "hjkl" bullshit you vi weenies).
  • Its an agony to switch to Dvorak if you're a touch typist on QWERTY like I am (so was when I switched from Wind0ze 98 to GNU/Linux).
  • Slow speed and error-prone typing in the beginning; like typing "pcecjgnrgo" when you meant "ridiculous" (à la typing dir into a Unix shell).

The conversion

I didn't actually bother with purchasing a new keyboard. My first step was to pluck out the keys on my QWERTY keyboard and rearrange them as Dvorak. I then proceeded to change my Sarge box completely to Dvorak. I ran kbd-config which actually stands for dpkg-reconfigure console-tools and selected "dvorak" as the layout (make sure to specifically mention the "Standard Dvorak" rather than "ANSI Dvorak" since, well, the "Standard Dvorak" is just the standard!).

For X, in my Sarge box, I just went ahead and did a sudoedit /etc/X11/XF86Config-4, changing Option "XkbLayout" "us" to Option "XkbLayout" "dvorak". GNOME detected this change upon my restart and asked me whether to change GNOME keyboard settings to that conforming to X's. I consented. Although Linux gurus will note that setxkbmap dvorak would have been a much more "correct" method in X.

Typing Tutors

I eagerly did a apt-cache search dvorak on my Debian Sarge desktop box and it came up with dvorak7min package. Naturally Debian must have support for more typing tutors, but my Sarge installation only the 3.0r1 DVD disk-1. Its based on ncurses library and is console based. If you happen to use Sarge, like I do, please run unicode_stop before you proceed. Unicode support on the Linux console is still in infancy, if you ask me (but it has improved a looot in Ubuntu and other "modern" distros). Also, before practising on the console, remember to switch the layout on the console to Dvorak by loadkeys dvorak. You can switch back by loadkeys us which on QWERTY is psahvdt; f;, just in case your are switching without physically rearranging the keys, that is ;). I also did try out KDE Ktouch, and found that it is not very bad, but definitely not suiting to my tastes.

But after following a link in Wikipedia, I came upon a link titled ABCD: A Beginning Course in Dvorak. This is really a good site where you can practise Dvorak.

But being the sceptic that I am, I needed to double-check the claims of Dvorak people. The Dvorak people claim that you can type more words on the home row. I checked:

lycaon:~$ egrep -i '^[asdfghjkl]+$' /usr/share/dict/words | wc -l
lycaon:~$ egrep -i '^[aoeuidhtns]+$' /usr/share/dict/words | wc -l

Oh, well, 153 words on a QWERTY home row as compared to 1969 words on a Dvorak! But I guess that it takes a minimum of three letters for a sequence of characters to be considered a word.

lycaon:~$ egrep -i '^[asdfghjkl]{3,}$' /usr/share/dict/words | wc -l
lycaon:~$ egrep -i '^[aoeuidhtns]{3,}$' /usr/share/dict/words | wc -l

Impressive! 117 on QWERTY against 1898 on Dvorak. Just to show the size of my wordlist:

lycaon:~$ wc -l /usr/share/dict/words
98569 /usr/share/dict/words

Hmm... not bad, or is it? Don't think that I'll buy those numbers, yet. I have to see it in effect before becoming a believer.

Now that I've started living with this new layout, I honestly don't know how long I'll have to live with it before I can achieve my QWERTY speed back. I think I'll give it a month. Till then its back to hunt-and-peck!

I should quote this sentence that I found in a comment to a Dvorak site:
Basically popularity and pervasiveness generally trumps design and engineering excellence in the market place.
Sad, but true. Look at what M$ did to the computing world, and Intel to the chip market!

And an another interesting one:
To me, the Qwerty/Dvorak split is comparable to the block-letter/cursive split: I favor the first for brief incidental use (scribbled memory-joggers, URLs) and the second for extended composing (a good email, an essay, a letter).

Now that is something worth considering!

Here are some interesting links:


Binny V A said...

So, still on dvorak? What kind of speed do you get?

I dont want to damage you 'uniqueness' but, I am on dvorak as well - going 2 months strong now.

> The convenient short-cuts like "Ctrl-X" (Cut), "Ctrl-C" (Copy), "Ctrl-V" (Paste) will not be easy any longer
Not a problem if you are using KDE(like me) - every shortcut is customizable.

Binny V A

ADTC said...

Hey thanks for the comment :D
It's best if you DON'T rearrange your keys into Dvorak, but leave them at QWERTY. That's because you can learn to touch-type and you'll avoid looking at the keyboard to find the keys (Keys are in QWERTY while you type in Dvorak. They don't match!)

Another reason is that if you ever have to [temporarily] type with one hand only, you can do it faster on a physical QWERTY keyboard (looking at the keys) than on a physical Dvorak keyboard (looking at keys again). Yea, you have to change the layout temporarily to QWERTY. An example of such situation would be chatting (type with left hand) while you're eating something with your right hand.

Anyway congratulations on joining the supporters of Dvorak, I'm really proud of you for going against the flow and making the switch.

Btw, you can search Wikipedia to learn about "Touch Typing". You can download the free Stamina Typing Tutor if you haven't learnt touch typing.

Cheers, and Happy New Year!
PS: This message was typed using Dvorak Keyboard Layout :P

maravind said...

@binny v a
I haven't measured, but I'd say I can type 'reasonably' fast -- maybe ~55wpm, may ~60wpm -- or maybe more.

I've adopted and quite liked the 'old' PC shortcuts -- Shift-Del (Cut), Ctrl-Ins (Copy), and Shift-Ins (Paste). They work in Emacs too. ;)

I've realized (painfully) that rearranging the keys does infact hinder your typing speed, makes your keyboard bumpy, etc.

I can type Dvorak (with one hand, while eating with the other), on physical QWERTY, even if the layout is Dvorak. My mind maps I -> C, F -> U, etc. Practise! :)

The reason I'm commenting now (usually I reply to comments via email, which is B-A-D) is that I discovered the Chapter on Bl@ckTo\/\/3r, is available online here.
So you don't have to purchase the book. Go, read, and enjoy...

Arun Basil Lal said...

Am getting inspired. Gonna give it a shot. That article on 'the curse of QWERTY' is all you need to make the decision to switch. Awesome!

(Typed in QWERTY with DVORAK in mind)