A commenter mentioned talk radio star Mark Levin, so as usual I ran to Google to get a quick refresher on him. He’s famous enough for me to know him, but I’m not an expert on the world of right wing radio hacks. Instead of typing in “Mark Levin,” however, I typed in, “Narj Kevub.” And the result is seen in the screen capture above. Google knew exactly what happened before I did. Instead of placing my right first finger on the “j” key, I placed it on the “h” key. Thus, all of the characters that I typed with my right had were the characters just to the left of what I wanted.
Now I understand: in a sense, that’s no big deal. That’s exactly the kind of thing that computers are good at detecting. But it’s totally awesome because computers rarely are so good at protecting us in this way. The focus is constantly on our making computers more like humans. But this is something that humans are actually kind of bad at detecting. And the fact that Google just fixed the error without even really alerting me to it is fantastic.
The Dvorak Simplified Keyboard
This all reminded me of something that happened on Late Night with David Letterman back in 1985. Barbara Blackburn was at that time the fastest typist in the world. According to the The Guinness Book of Records (1977) she “maintained a speed of 150 wpm for 50 min.” That’s just amazing. People think I type pretty fast, and I don’t even manage half of that for short periods of time. Well, the show had her on to compete against the fastest typist they had on staff, Barbara Gaines. Blackburn’s resulting text was similar gibberish.
In a later episode, some encryption expert was brought on and he determined Blackburn’s hands had been misaligned. I just assumed that it was nerves, but it is also possible that the show set her up. Those early days of Late Night were wild. Regardless, this is the kind of thing that can and does happen with typing — as I saw today. And because of the way keyboards are laid out, we really have no intuition about it.
One of the reasons that Blackburn was able to type so fast is that she used the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard. It was designed to replace the QWERTY system that is what we all know. There are various problems with it, but the following statistics kind of sums up everything: roughly 52% of all typing is done on the top row; only 32% is done on the middle row (70% of all typing is done on the middle row with the Dvorak system). What’s more, most typing is done with the left hand. As a result, there is a lot more and more awkward finger movement in the QWERTY system. The Dvorak system looks like this:
The Dvorak system was completed in 1932, yet it has never really caught on. A large part of this is due to network effects — it’s a hassle to change. But it’s also the case that despite the clear theoretical advantages of the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard, practically speaking, its advantages in speed and comfort are marginal.
Google Doesn’t Care about Dvorak
It’s kind of interesting in how computers play into this. In the past, typewriters were typewriters. If you had an advanced one with a ball, you could get one with the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard on it. But most people were stuck with whatever they had and that was almost always QWERTY. Computers changed all that. I could have my computer use the Dvorak system with just a couple of clicks of my mouse. At the same time, computers have made the kind of typing that Barbara Blackburn did (where she could type a novel in one work day) unnecessary.
Strangly, Google does not recognize it if you type something on a QWERTY keyboard using the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard. It must be that people just don’t make that mistake enough to check for it. I’d be surprised if even one percent of typists know the Dvorak system. But I suspect people make the kind of mistake I made today quite often. And it truly is awesome.