Monday, November 19, 2007

I type QWERTY you type QWERTZ let's call the whole thing off

SMB said in a recent comment that if I were to have a shopping basket on the website it should definitely be in Flash. (SMB disapproves of selling stories on the website in principle - a while back she offered to go out and earn $1000 or so, whatever it would take, and give me the money so that I did not disgrace myself by this shameful practice. I only wish Lewis Lapham felt that strongly about it.)

Meanwhile Bremer Sprachblog has been discussing the question of languages that 'don't have a word for X' - for instance, the folk myth that the Finns do not have a word for Amoklauf (running amok). It struck me that we are missing a word for something that is now very common, which I shall call DVORAKracy. I explain.

The term 'QWERTY lock-in' is commonly used to refer to the way a particular technology achieves dominance when it is used by a sufficiently large number of people, to the point that it makes introduction of something better impossible. It has been claimed that the DVORAK keyboard layout is in fact more efficient, but in the days when typewriters were all we knew it was not worth a manufacturer's while to construct typewriters with that configuration, and today, though one can easily switch virtual keyboards, the physical keyboard in anglophone countries tends to stick to QWERTY.

People then get into arguments about how hard it is to adapt to a new virtual keyboard, how long it would take to get used to DVORAK. It would not be worth a typist's time, is the argument, because it would take so long to get back up to the original speed, let alone improve on it. As far as I can tell, this is not true.

I learned to type at the age of 13, at the Centro Colombo-Americano de Cali. I was 13, my best friend and her twin sister were 13, my sister was 10, and we used to go down and work our way through classes with young Colombian secretaries-in-training, beginning:

Index finger:

fff jjj fff jjj fjf jfj fjf jfj

Next finger:

ddd kkk ddd kkk dkd kdk dkd kdk

4th finger:

sss lll sss lll sss lll sls lsl sls lsl

5th finger, aaa ;;; aaa ;;; and so on, and then it got exciting, because g and h were introduced - letters which were struck by moving the left index finger to the right, the right index finger to the left:

ggg hhh ggg hhh ghg hgh ghg hgh AND, more importantly,
fgf jhj fgf jhj fgf jhj gfg hjh gfg jhj (so that one got used to this tricky manoeuvre, moving the finger one key over and back again)

gh were, in fact, well placed for a typist of English; the index fingers, thanks to their placement on the hand, have the most room to move around, and striking two keys with the index fingers in quick succesion feels very easy.

Once you're used to typing this way, minor variations can be picked up quickly. Germany does not have QWERTY lock-in, it has QWERTZ lock-in (the Z is where the Y was found on the Remingtons and Olivettis of the Centro Colombo-Americano), and a German keyboard has ö ä ü and ß where we had ; ' [ and -. A French keyboard has AZERTY lock-in; it also has the most common combinations of letter-plus-diacritical mark on the numbers row, numbers being typed by using the shift key. Both are EXTREMELY convenient, and it does not take long - perhaps an hour or so - to adapt to either if one is typing in the relevant language. That's if one is doing what I do most of the time, thinking as I type. I expect it would take longer to achieve a good copy-typing speed, but that's partly because when one types in one's native language one has typed most of the words many times before - thousands of words are in muscle memory. In a new language one is typing most of the words for the first time; the hands don't know where they're going to go as soon as the word presents itself.

I tried DVORAK at one point, and it didn't look as though it would take long to get back to my normal speed - and there would be good reason to switch, or rather to switch between DVORAK and QWERTY, because if one spends a lot of time at a keyboard typing the same words with the same patterns of movement there probably is a danger of repetitive strain injury. Yes. Sloth has prevented me from doing so, but I don't think the investment of time would be significant.

The fact is, though, that no one is going to come along, install the DVORAK virtual keyboard and delete QWERTY, so that I have no choice but to use the new one.

Unfortunately the equivalent of this does happen very frequently with software. Someone decides to design my website in software I don't own and have never used; I can then choose between making all updates by proxy and learning a new software program. But the latter really is time-consuming, not least because the quality of documentation is generally very poor. So I leave the website untouched. The blog gets hundreds of posts, but the website is virtually static because the designer used software she knew and loved.

Now, there are software programs that do well things I might want to be able to do - LaTeX, for instance, does do a wonderful job with equations. Everyone who has ever used LaTeX, though, admits that it takes a long time to master it; someone once told me he thought his thesis had taken an extra year to write because he spent so much time wrestling with LaTeX. In other words, it is a fact of modern life that at some point or other one will be forced to spend a lot of time on some piece of software that is crucial to a project one badly wants to do. Since this is unavoidable, one would like to avoid adding yet more software programs to the To Do list if they are not strictly necessary. Not least because one knows very well that the new program will itself be superseded within a few years; knowledge of the program is a rapidly depreciating asset.

The conviction that a task will be much better accomplished in software unknown to the primary user seems to be very common. If there were a word for it, I sometimes think, it might not go so absolutely unchallenged.


SMB has left another comment expressing incredulity at the idea that one might buy Flash. The thing to do is get it illegally. Did I buy my copy of Office, anti-virus software etc? (Um, yes, actually. Legal copy of Office. Legal copy of Mellel. Legal copy of Illustrator. Legal copy of Dreamweaver.) It could be that nobody buys software any more. It does strike me as a leetle odd that helping myself to illegal software would be morally acceptable, while selling stories on a website looks bad.


"Post-Google" by TAR ART RAT said...

if I had a nickel for everz damn time I've typed a z instead of a y in the past year... fuerthermore, my ä is wher my ' usually is, so I end up with a lot of "donät"s instead of "don't"s, but at home the keyboard is American - so the brain must switch gears... ouch.

Anonymous said...

Helen, If one were to buy legal software, think of all the people who could not have office. it is unfair, and so morally acceptable to steal it until no person is denied the chance to exist in this world, which is the world of computers.

selling stories on a website is not morally wrong. It just isn't beautiful. it is exactly like you pharsed it. it looks bad. That is worst than immoral for a woman. (or even a man.)

Ithaca said...

I love donät

smb, I'm sorry, I can't quite see how my buying a legal copy of Office prevents other people from obtaining a copy, whether by fair means or foul.