Improvement Through Unlearning

August 21, 2009

So I turned down the opportunity to go out and drink beer for charity in order to be a complete geek.

Ok, full disclosure.  I am broke.  So the $25 cover charge for entry to the bar (and yes, it really was for charity) was exactly $21 more than I have in my wallet.  So what better to do then learn how to type on a completely different keyboard layout!  Enter the Dvorak keyboard layout.

Dvorak Keyboard Layout

Dvorak Keyboard Layout

What the heck?  Who in their right mind would attempt to learn that thing?  And the real question is why?  In answer to the first question, Master Yoda said in probably his most famous, properly ordered subject-verb-object quote, “You must unlearn what you have learned.” Since I’m quoting Yoda in a blog post about typing on a Friday night, you can see that I’m pretty much in a galaxy far, far away from my right mind.  And secondly, to answer the why, it seems that in order to make progress, in this case typing more efficiently and faster, I have to unlearn something so firmly ingrained in my mind and fingers.  Fair enough.  I’ll give it a try.

The premise behind the Dvorak layout is to simply put the keys you use most frequently on the home row, thereby reducing movement of your fingers to those harder to reach areas.  Granted, it’s only a half-inch or so for most keys.  But to illustrate the point, the letter ‘E’ is the most common in the English language, and yet it is not on the home row of the QWERTY keyboard.  How could that be, you ask?  Without going into too much of a tangent, just know that the design of the QWERTY keyboard was purposefully to slow down the typist [UPDATE:  I learned from this site (http://dvzine.org/zine/01-toc.html) that the slowing typists down theory is a myth, so I struck it from the record because I don’t want to propagate false history.] due to the mechanical keys of yesteryear typewriters contantly getting stuck as typists developed their speed.  So the Dvorak layout has been around since 1936, and with typewriters virtually wiped off the face of the earth, this superior layout should be the norm.  Yet it isn’t.  And that just goes to show you that it’s tough to change a paradigm.

And the real reason for doing this?  Efficiency.  A paltry 20% of the keys in most large blocks of text fall in the home row of the QWERTY layout with only 5% of those keys occurring in sequence, meaning you don’t have to move your fingers from the home row to type a few keys in a row.   The same analysis on the Dvorak layout is a whopping 45% of the home row keys with almost 25% being sequential.  Check out this link to see some imagery that will make more sense.  I’m guessing that a 100% improvement in finger efficiency should translate fairly well into at least a 50% improvement in my typing speed.  Very scientific of me, I know.

Anyway, before I jumped headlong into learning to be a jedi typist, I needed to know my baseline using the normal style keyboard, or the QWERTY layout, as the sufficiently dorky would refer to it.  So I took an online typing test.  Here is a screen shot to show where I started.  78 words per minute!  Not bad!

Picture 2

But only 96% accuracy.  So I had to know what 100% accuracy would look like for me, so I did it again and managed only 61 words per minute.  Still not bad, though.  And compared to all the hunters and peckers I know!  You know who you are!

The next step was to convert my keyboard over to a Dvorak layout which wasn’t that difficult with Mac OS X.  Note that I didn’t physically change my keyboard.  I don’t normally look at the keys while I type anyway, so I figured I could learn Dvorak the same way, by not looking.  And hopefully it will become ingrained more quickly.

And then, on to actually start taking some Dvorak lessons.  Luckily, there is the ABCD Dvorak Typing Course just a click away.  And I started typing right away.  And from the outset, I could literally feel my brain remapping itself.  Talk about a challenge!  I spent an hour or so going through the first 10 lessons in order to learn the new home row keys.  And I’ll keep this up for a few months until I have it down.  But you’d be amazed at just how many words you can type with A-O-E-U-I-D-H-T-N-S on your home row!  Having all your vowels makes it easier of course.  But it takes me back to those terrible days of learning to type.  Remember these exercises?

ff jj fj fj

a sad lass had gas

Well, I had fun with it.  After all, I got to learn on a real typewriter!

So as with anything, diligence is the key.  I’ll be diligent.  After all, I spend my time at the computer a good portion of every day.  I write emails incessantly.  And I write blog posts here and there.  So I’m positive I will find the experience useful.  And the next time I get asked how fast I can type when I’m blazing away at the keyboard in some internet cafe in China, I’ll be able to confidently say over 100 words per minute!  Uh… assuming I can speak Chinese at that point.

Stay productive, my friends!

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3 Responses to “Improvement Through Unlearning”

  1. sessoms Says:

    After showing my nephews, M & G, this typing test stuff, their results are as follows:

    M: 1st try: 38 WPM
    2nd try: 18 WPM (not looking at keys)

    G: 1st try: 8 WPM (not looking at keys)
    2nd try: 18 WPM

    Dvorak anyone? Before you “learn” too much?!


  2. […] a while back, I wrote up a blogpost (Improvement Through Unlearning) about how I was pushing QWERTY aside in favor of Dvorak.  I just reread it and was impressed that […]


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