Dvorak Simplified Keyboard and Awesome Google

Narj Kevub - Mark Levin

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:

Dvorak Simplified Keyboard

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.

7 thoughts on “Dvorak Simplified Keyboard and Awesome Google

  1. Sadly, nine times out of ten I am indeed trying to look up “Narj Kevub.” Maybe that says something about me.

    As for skilled typing being unnecessary, I still see way too many homonym errors (what I call Spellcheck fubars) to be satisfied with computerized copy editing. Younger people don’t appreciate that typists used to be skilled workers. It wasn’t just about speed, you needed to be accurate as well, back in the days of Wite-out and Liquid Paper.

    • Or, Lord, carbon copies! No fixing typos on those.

      I read somewhere that QWERTY was actually designed to slow typists down, as typing too fast would jam two type bars together. Don’t know if that’s an urban legend or true. I do know that because I learned to type on a manual typewriter, I bang computer keyboards way too hard. Thank God they’re not expensive to replace, as mine are doomed to early death. Also typing and drinking beer tends to result in spills. Which wouldn’t hurt a manual typewriter at all!

      • That’s true. Part of the design was to stop mechanism from jamming. If you are old enough, you probably have the experience of typing two characters too fast and having them stick together. What’s amazing is that people still manage to type at these amazing speeds even without a better design. The human machine is better than any of the machines we build.

    • You should check out Google Docs. It does an amazing job of flagging homophone errors. I used to worry a lot more about homophone errors because I thought they indicated a writer’s not knowing the right word. But that’s rarely the case. Language really is about sound to us. And as all good typists know: you rarely type characters; you type words. I’ve gotten into a very bad habit of typing “indpendent” rather than “independent.” My fingers just don’t want to put that extra “e” in there.

      As for really wanting “Narj Kevub,” there are two things. One is that Google give you that option. The other is that it doesn’t assume you want something else unless it is quite sure. There are two levels of certainty. There is, as here, “Showing results for…” And then there is, “Did you mean…” So Google still really is pretty great.

      Funny thing: now that I wrote this article, Google offers “Did you mean…” Before my article there were literally no results for “Narj Kevub.” Now there are!

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