Computing stuff tied to the physical world

a s d f – j k l ;

In Musings on Feb 19, 2013 at 00:01

What can I say? Some things are worth the pain and the dip, I guess…

Exactly two weeks ago, I mentioned that one of the things I wanted to try was to learn and touch-type. You know, using this curious contraption without looking at it all the time…


Actually, the one I use has an extra key, the “~” / “`” key is in a different place, and the Shift and Return keys have a different size. And to make matters, ehm, more “interesting”, I even followed the suggestion to change the Caps-lock key into an alternate Control key (consider for a moment what that does to typing “TODO” in capitals as a touch-typist!).

Right now, after two weeks, I’m still typing quite a bit slower than I used to, am making tons and tons of mistakes (especially for the hard / far-away keys, and all the tricky Ctrl / Shift combinations), and I’m probably hitting the backspace key almost as often as all the other keys combined to correct my never-ending mistakes.

The worst bit is that this way of typing is still much more distracting than it used to be.

But… you know what? I really, really think it’s going to work and pay off!

Weird as it sounds, and hard as it feels, the letter keys are slowly starting to fall into place. Even after a mere two weeks (I did have some prior experience, to be fair). The thing that is taking most time to adjust to, is not the change in overall speed and effort, but the fact that typing speed is much more variable right now, depending on whether I’m typing letters or hitting other keys, and especially whether the Ctrl and/or Shift keys are involved (not to mention the Mac’s Option and Command keys!). So what seems to be happening is that words already come out faster than I used to type, but everything else really really takes a lot of time and mental effort. In short: punctuation and symbols are a pain, and with programming languages that means lots and lots of keystrokes are… t e d i o u s !

If you write a lot of prose, it’s pretty obvious that touch typing will be a wise investment. But now I’m starting to think that even with something as different as typing code, i.e. a notation full of weird characters, and even typing commands in Vim (where all sorts of key combinations have to be used all the time, and where mistakes are awkward!), the task of learning to type without looking at your fingers or the keyboard is indeed worth the effort.

(Speaking of Vim: it’s easier to type Ctrl-[ than it is to hit the far-away Escape key!)

It’s not even really about looking less up and down, as I thought. It’s about muscle memory, about off-loading an activity to a different part of your brain, and about focus. While writing this weblog post, which is obviously mostly text, I already feel more “relaxed” while typing in this new way. It’s like having an extra assistant – albeit still clumsy ;)

Pretty crazy stuff, if you think about it. I’m not making it up. This IS working!

Up next: the final posts of the Dive Into JeeNodes series – stay tuned…

  1. I guarantee it will pay major dividends especially by the time you hit 70 wpm. The nice thing is that every day becomes practice and you can get faster and faster. I learned long ago and tremendously glad i did. Now if only I could type worth a darn on this iPhone

  2. I have used sticky keys to help out with shift, control and command. Not sure if it’s a good idea in the long run though…

  3. What keyboard are you using? You will find it easier to learn if you treat yourself to a nice mechanical keyboard like the cherry G80-3000 or if you really want to go bananas a Filco or the like.

    With decent tactile feedback (audible feedback as well) you can get up to decent speeds pretty quickly. It feels like less work as well. The Filco can even be ordered with no lettering if you want to really force yourself to touch type

    • I’m using the Mac keyboard depicted above, with tactile feedback but minimal travel. The benefit for me is that it is identical to the keyboard on the laptop – very convenient, since I work at the desk as well as on the couch, so now I get the same “touch” either way. I’m fairly allergic to sound… (comes as side-effect of having Tinnitus).

  4. Even the punctuation (parentheses of all {kinds} [..], commas, =, +, ;) will come in due time! The only thing I often miss-hit is the ~ because it’s so far away and needs the Shift, which for some reason I only operate with my left pink, so I have to reach out with my left ring finger…

    I switched to the colemak keyboard layout about a year ago, by the way, which really is a lot easier on your fingers than QWERTY, but—unlike DVORAK—retains most common shortcuts (copy/past) and punctuation. It’s optimised for English words, so Dutch is sometimes a bit hard (g and j are far away, on t and y keys, but then again the t is on the home row), and it doesn’t really play well with vim—especially the hjkl keys..

  5. It seems to me based on this post that you are trying to learn as you go, i.e. while working and doing the things that you normally do througout the day. That’s fine but I think you also need to practice in other ways to develop your muscle memory. For instance, those silly “a s d f j k l ;”, “ffff jjjj dddd kkkk ssss llll aaaa ;;;;” exercises that some of the typing programs offer might seem silly and a waste of time but they do help to develop muscle memory and the position of the keys. They also help to keep one motivated, as in “oh, cool, I mastered my ffff jjjj, so I am ready for something more challenging”. Anyway, keep at it that you are absolutely right — it will pay off big time, for programming, for writing poetry, or for whatever you end up using a keyboard for.

    By the way, thanks for the tip for using control-[ for the escape key — I have been a happy vi user for many years and I always thought it is a pain to stretch my little finger to reach the absolutely required (in vi) Escape key. I cannot believe I never thought of using Control-[ instead. I’ll definitely be giving that a try to see if I can get used to it since there seems to be something to be gained by using that instead of the real Escape key ;-)

  6. Here’s a fun site for testing your speed:

    My record is at 89 wpm :)

  7. I can type about 600 keystrokes a minute (yes on a standard US qwerty) when I’m really up to speed. I do measure this in keystrokes because when you’re programming you will not be typing full words at all!

    Most of the programming characters are automated already, but I never bothered to learn all the characters at the top of the number bar. Once you get up to 300 keystrokes per min, you can simply allow yourself to look at the keyboard again, because you’ve hit the point where almost everything is in muscle memory already. The other stuff wil come naturally after that.

    I don’t even want to imagine switching to another layout anymore at this point in time! I tried dvorak some time ago, but found that it’s not always possible to switch a computer to another layout. So I stopped bothering and decided to stick with qwerty.

    About keyboards: Those Apple keyboards are not the best keyboards to learn touch-typing on, but in the long run, they are very nice to work with because they require very little effort to press a key. This reduces the strain enourmously. However, when you’re hitting a certain speed (like 400 strokes/min or 70 wpm) your posture becomes way more important than the typing techniques and/or the keyboards themselves. Being able to type very fast is one thing, but you also have to keep it up in the long run.

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