was invented in the 1920's as a sane alternative
to the intentionally uncomfortable Sholes, or QWERTY, typewriter
And I've always wanted to try it out, having heard tales of
its higher speed and greater comfort. I do not (yet) have
any problems with carpal tunnel syndrome, but I'm in my
mid-thirties now and starting to take health issues more
seriously, especially where they concern my work environment.
I'm also a bit of a computing nonconformist. If something works
better than what I've been using, I'm usually willing to give
it an honest try, even (or perhaps especially) if it deviates
from mainstream practice. And as an engineer, I tend to
prefer logical designs over kludges. Remember, the QWERTY
layout was designed to intentionally slow down the typist
so that she would not jam the hammers on the early typewriter
designs. It offends me that such a design has persisted
solely on the strength of backwards compatibility. It is
as if the Intel 8086 instruction set architecture had
been intentionally designed to be weird, instead of
just reflecting the implemetation technology of its time.
When I read in "Barbarians Led By Bill
Gates" (which you can buy from your local independent bookseller)
that the strangely influential Nathan Myhrvold uses the Dvorak
keyboard layout to improve the speed at which he conveys ideas
for global domination to his executives, I was reminded of
my interest in trying the keyboard, despite the association.
So I did a
Google search on Dvorak and found some good links. It turns
out that it's really easy to rearrange the meanings of the keys
from QWERTY to Dvorak on a Windows, Mac OS 9, or X system.
(I ended up changing one line in /etc/X11/XF86Config and one in
/etc/sysconfig/keyboard on my Red Hat Linux laptop.) It's
also easy to use xmodmap on an X client in a script that
switches back and forth between the two layouts.
(Why is the Dvorak layout claimed to be faster and more comfortable?
It's because the keys that correspond to the most common
letters of the English language sit right under the
fingers on the "home", or middle, row of the keyboard.
Also, all of the vowels are under the fingers of the
left hand, so an alternating motion between the hands
And so I did it on a Friday afternoon when nothing major was
happening at work. After a couple of hours of using Dvorak
with reference to a printed layout diagram tape to the
bookshelf above my machine, I took the further step of popping
off the keys and rearranging them. (This required about fifteen
minutes and two large-sized paper clips, extended and bent into
L shaped tools.)
The next week was crazy-making in the extreme. I had reduced
myself from a very high-speed touch-typist to a miserable
hunt-and-pecker. I had exposed myself to ridicule from
$WALLY in the office next door. And I had to think
carefully about every keystroke, for the QWERTY layout
was deeply embedded in my spinal cord and would resurface
in my fingertips at any moment if I were not vigilant.
I had not realized how important the skill of
typing was to my daily life, at work and at home. This
painful transition process gave me, perhaps, some connection
and stronger sympathy with the disabled. Just when I would
think that I had crossed the watershed and had retrained
my unconcious fingers, I'd hit the wrong key in vi
and suddenly feel alienated from my own body.
The scariest moment was when I sat down at the other
workstation in my office, which I had not yet converted,
and I could not type on its keyboard.
In the course of becoming half-proficient with Dvorak,
I had lost my QWERTY typing skills. If I had had to
sit down and pound out a few thousand lines of code
that day, I simply could not have done it. I was
crippled, and had become committed to Dvorak while
I still thought that I was experimenting with it.
It helped to find out on IRC and in diary comments that
others had experienced this transition and survived it.
And I was able to notice daily improvements. Most
improvement came from learning two- and three-letter
combinations subconciously. I had not realized the
extent to which my typing ability was a set of
deeply memorized macros, and it takes a lot of
repetition to reprogram them. I had to essentially
learn vi all over again.
Now, nearly two weeks after beginning the transition,
I estimate that I am about 75% as fast with Dvorak
as I was with QWERTY -- and I was really fast
with QWERTY. More important, I can testify that
this layout is indeed more comfortable to the fingers.
I hope to be back up to full speed in another couple
of weeks of continuous use, and if I'm even faster,
that'll be just fine with me.