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Memoirs of a Dvorak user in QWERTY land

I have been using the Dvorak keyboard layout for a little less than a year. This post is the recollection of my experiences as a Dvorak user in a world dominated by stubborn dogmatists inclined on worshipping the most inefficient keyboard layout users, manufacturers and perpetrators of the QWERTY keyboard layout.

I too was a user of the QWERTY layout until a little less than a year ago. I could say that my typing speed was rather decent, reaching around 50 words a minute under optimal conditions. I had over four years of practice touch typing on the QWERTY layout, and felt rather proud of my typing skills, which I can modestly claim were better than most of my friends.

However, I have always tried to be a maverick, and what better way to claim that I speak geek than to have a keyboard layout as esoteric as the Dvorak? I tried switching to the Dvorak, but the cost of switching was extremely high, and I barely managed to type at 5wpm. It sucked so much while typing code, that I gave up the attempt.

Until the time I started to lose sensation and control over my finger-tips. A quick cyber-chondriac like search over the all knowing Google linked my symptoms with the dreaded carpal tunnel syndrome, the bane of all typists. At that time, I was involved with a project that involved insane amounts of typing, and C code at that, which meant that my fingers moved much more in a day than my legs moved in a month. Repetitive strain injury seemed too likely a possibility, which meant that I had two choices: Either I could stop typing, consequently ditching my project, and losing an honour and a good reference from a professor, or I could switch to the Dvorak layout, trashing my typing speed, with a hope to recover, consequently delaying my project, and losing a good reference from my professor. I chose the latter.

The trouble with my earlier experiments with the Dvorak was that I had the same old QWERTY layout on my keyboard, and I was trying to memorize the Dvorak layout in my head. Big mistake, as I can say with confidence that I still cannot remember the Dvorak layout exactly, but muscle memory on my fingers ensures that I can type in excess of 60wpm. Prashant Sohani, whose blog may be found here, too was experimenting with the Dvorak. (I regret to inform that yours truly could not be the first kid on the block with the Dvorak layout) However, Prashant followed a better approach to familiarizing himself with the Dvorak layout: he plucked out and rearranged the keycaps on his keyboard in the Dvorak layout. When I decided that I would be switching to the Dvorak layout for good, I followed his example, and much to the surprise of my room-mate, was found with all the keycaps removed from my keyboard one fine morning, with the Wikipedia page for the Dvorak layout (which has an illustration of the layout) opened in my browser as a reference for the layout in which I was to replace my keycaps.

The first two months were marked with an excruciatingly low speed of typing. I made many mistakes, often allowing my fingers to move as they would over the QWERTY. The worst experience was while chatting over IM clients like Google Talk. However, within two months of switching, I was almost as good on the Dvorak as I was on the QWERTY, and that resulted in the post here. However, in the process, I completely forgot the older, familiar and ubiquitous QWERTY layout, a minor hitch, since I was not going to go back to that weird, illogical and injury causing layout; ever! Wrong thinking!

In a world dominated by the QWERTY layout, I find myself as one maverick bent on doing things the wrong way. People I meet frown on me for not being able to type on the QWERTY. People who use my computer think that I am probably some kind of weirdo, and wonder as to what in the name of heaven or hell possessed me to purchase a computer with such a weird keyboard layout. When they learn that I never purchased the computer this way, but rather modified my layout, risking permanent damage to my keyboard, and patiently tearing my keyboard apart and putting it together again in the Dvorak configuration (I never did that, rearranging the keycaps is hardly tearing the keyboard apart...) the suspicion that I was probably bumped on the head as a baby only strengthened.

However, the Dvorak layout on my keyboard has given me my share of laughs too. It's fun at how people hardly notice the weird layout when I type, or when they see my computer, until the moment they actually wish to type on the keyboard. Then the response is on these lines, What the ^#$* is this? It's fun watching them struggle on this layout, especially when they attempt to log into their email accounts or into facebook. You don't even have to be a typing whiz to spot all their passwords by looking over their shoulders!

Prashant did happen to contact me some time back, to inform me that the reason he couldn't type fast enough on the Dvorak was that he had the rather bad habit of looking at the keyboard as he typed, which slowed him down considerably. At that time, he used to pride on the fact that he could switch dynamically from the Dvorak to the QWERTY while typing. He told me that he intended to replace his keycaps back to the good ol' QWERTY layout, but keep the Dvorak layout in the software configuration. I think this move must have puzzled users of his computer far more than it ever puzzled people using my computer.

But I digress. This post ought to be a reminiscence of my experiences with the Dvorak layout, not of other users. I now jump to the time when I went as a research assistant to École de technologie supérieure, where I was assigned to work with Dr. Michael McGuffin. I was given a desk and a computer to work upon, wherein I mentioned that I might be more efficient on my laptop, as I was used to the Dvorak layout. At that time, Michael mentioned that he too used the Dvorak, as I later found out that his Wikipedia users page proudly proclaimed this (indeed, if someone has the patience to edit all those Wikipedia articles, he needs to be an efficient typist, and the Dvorak is the epitome of efficiency). However, it was something that instantly sparks some familiarity and respect, that the other person too is open enough to try out something that is not convention. Meeting another person and finding out that he uses the Dvorak layout is an experience not unlike meeting another of your countrymen in a foreign land.

However, being a Dvorak user in a world where almost all the keyboards ship with QWERTY is not a very pleasant experience. Of course it increases the geek and maverick value of a person, but leaves the person disadvantaged when it comes to working on other computers. When I have to work on computers in the lab, I quickly change the keyboard layout to Dvorak, and depend upon my skills at touch typing to get me through, conveniently forgetting to revert to QWERTY when I am done. When debugging a friends Ubuntu installation, I again have to start by changing the layout to Dvorak, and inform my friend that he needs to revert to QWERTY when I am done.

However, there are times when I don't have control over the keyboard layout that I may choose. Recently, I gave the GRE examination. For the analytical writing task, I had to type in two essays into the computer. My familiarity with the Dvorak immediately put me at about the same advantage as a person who did not know typing at all. I often made mistakes pgvd kjg; (like this). When I called up ETS, to request a special accommodation for the Dvorak layout, mentioning that as I was skilled in touch typing, I did not need separate hardware, that I only needed the keyboard layout to be changed in software, I was politely but firmly informed, Sorry sir, but we do not offer the Dvorak. Heck, I am not sure if the person at the other end even knew what the Dvorak layout was.

At the same time, it is exceedingly difficult impossible to find any laptops that ship with the Dvorak layout. The layout can of course be switched in software to the Dvorak, and the keycaps can be plucked and replaced into the Dvorak layout if the hardware permits, but it is apparent that the Dvorak is not the keyboard preferred by manufacturers. I did find some highly ergonomic keyboards which may be ordered with the Dvorak layout, but the costs are exorbitant. However, I think that not all operating systems support the Dvorak layout, while trying to operate a friend's MacBook, I could not find any options for switching the layout to the Dvorak. Since I dislike the Mac, and anything associated with Apple combined with the fact that users of the Mac are such wimps for reasons that I myself do not know, I don't think that the lack of a Dvorak layout on the Mac is of much concern.

To conclude, I took around an hour to write this post, my typing speed limited mainly by the speed of my thought process. I think it is great to be a Dvorak user in QWERTY land, it's fun to be able to type with much less effort than friends running a hurdle race on the QWERTY, and best of all, the feeling of being a maverick, a person who has been guided by reason and not by convention, to be a heterodox in the computer world, and of course, to watch the fun as my friends struggle on my computer. It's totally worth switching to the Dvorak, it's easy to learn, and easier to type. While typing may not be all that fast, it's always less strenuous, and that's what really matters.

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