QWERTY vs. Dvořák

(rhymes with "the foreshock")


     The short story is that, while originally developed as a means of improving typing-speed, the Dvorak keyboard layout is actually, and quite disappointingly, only marginally better than the QWERTY layout. However, it has also quite unexpectedly proven to be absolutely indespensible at solving a very related, but entirely unexpected problem, and one which affects far too many of us: Repetitive Stress Injuries (RSIs) like Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS). So, you can stop reading here, and take that nugget where it lies, and run with it, maybe even benefit from it, or you can let me bore you to death with an exhaustive history of my own situation, and how I accidentally stumbled over the cure that I recommend for you, and everyone else.

     I've been tying a long time. I started at 13 (in 1971). I just had a hunch that typing was something I should learn to do. After all, all the adults I knew seemed to be able to do it. Why shouldn't I? In fact, why wasn't I being taught that in school instead of the names of the hairs on worms (villii), or the mating rituals of Bantu tribesmen? (Don't ask.)

     I asked my mother about it, and she dug out her own, old school books, gave me her old typewriter, showed me the basics, and I was on my way. A couple of years later, in high school, they actually offered typing classes. Worried that I hadn't taught myself well or correctly, I decided to sign up. Indeed, there were a couple of things I learned there that improved my typing, such as never correcting on-the-fly. Curiously, the next semester introduced us to electric machines, with built-in correction, and we were now taught to correct errors as soon as they happen, in order to maintain the best alignment, getting the cleanest lift of the old ink. I think I topped out a 60 word per minute (wpm). Not bad, and within the top 10 percent of the class.

     Then came the military. I would have to type log entries for every transmission, and they needed it done fast and right, so ... more typing classes. They got my speed up to 90 wpm, and my error-rate down to next to nothing. This was because our logs could have no erasures. They had a very arduous process for correcting errors, and you learned not to make any. It just made everything a lot easier. Curiously, we typed everything in all upper-case.

     Now, I'm not just typing; I'm also an avid cyclist, even still today. By the time I was 26, and now a programmer, and all that typing training was really paying off, I was starting to notice a problem with my cycling. My hands were going numb. Now, that's actually fairly common to cyclists. That's why they wear padded gloves, and have padded handlebars with multiple grip positions. I was no stranger to this, but THIS numbness was something more, something new, something I'd never quite experienced before. My hands were literally useless, and that after only a few miles.

     On the one hand, I just troopered on, but, on the other hand, I began to worry about it getting any worse. When I needed to brake, I just couldn't apply the pressure needed to stop effectively. This was getting serious.

     That's when another development began to make itself known. I noticed that I would occassionally wake up with some soreness from the middle of my forearms to the tips of my fingers. Weirdest of all was that, if I held my fingers together, and parallel, and flat, and then tried to close them into a fist, they stopped about half way. I couldn't do something like wrap my hands around an egg. I could hold one between my thumbs and first two digits, but only if the last two digits were extended.

     You know me. I'm just the sort of autist who would find this more interesting than worrisome. So I started studying this new phenomenon extensively, and concluded that the tendons running through the palms of my hands, out to my fingers, we somehow jambing up together somewhere. Curious. Interesting. And more than a little inconvenient. Because I also quickly learned that, on those days, typing a letter was out of the question. It was just too painful. At 27! What? What am I? A cripple at 27? That's when I noticed it: My cycling hobby.

     I was no mere hobbyist. I did things like build my own wheels. I built entire bikes. I would even go on to run the tech-shop of a sports store for a year. That's how good I was. I was a Cannondale factory certified tech. Ooooh! Problem is that bikes have lots of small parts that require small tools in tight places. And that means lots of hand contortions and leverage. You need strength for that. Did I mention that I was a weightlifter for years? And never really fully gave it up? I used to lift with my kids. I still have dumbells under my desk right now. But, guess what, the human body is just that: human. It can only take so much, something I was about to learn with my fancy, BioPace chain-ring set, too. And I was pushing mine too far. And it was impacting my work, my writing, my coding, my braking, even my shifting.

     What to do?

     By 1994 I had learned a lot about CTS, RSIs, wrist braces, anti-inflammitories, and other programmers with the same problem. I wasn't alone. But surgery loomed as the only permanent solution. Maybe. Turns out that isn't a sure thing either, and can actually make things worse. By 2006, I'm using ergonomic keyboards, tricky pointing devices, and even trying to help others with their problems.


- MARS -