Saturday, February 24, 2018

Two years of Colemak

It's been more than 2 years since I learned to type using Colemak, and I am still happily using it. I have nearly no interaction with QWERTY aside from my phone, the occasional shared machine where I can't use my AutoHotKey mappings, and the meaningless default letters on all the keyboards I use but never look at. I never actually achieved my goal of 70 WPM, but I also never really properly trained for speed. But, I can typically type all day with no back of hand pain, and that was reason numero uno! Although, it should be noted that I also switched to a trackball so I cannot fully attribute my lack of RSI pain to Colemak. I now touch type with all ten fingers, rather than my gimpy QWERTY variant that I self-taught in 2nd grade when my fingers were too small for home row on the keyboard. I'm not really sure why it's taken me two years to blog a follow up about this (more about my poor blogging habits than my typing ability, I can assure). I was pretty solidly proficient in my Colemak adjustment by month 2 of my transition - by March 2016 I was up to a passable 40 WPM. But those were two brutal months. Absolutely brutal.

Some notes about what I learned/now know/struggled with:
  • I like that the transitional Tarmak layouts are available for learning, but for me it was all or nothing. I never used this method because getting proper touch typing technique down made the experience different enough from QWERTY that I learned quickly and did not confuse which layout I was in.
  • Having a labeled keyboard cover helped immensely, especially when it came to passwords. Without this, I would not have been able to switch wholesale and learning would have taken much longer. While I no longer need the labels, having the cover is still really nice, and I have bought multiple over the past two years. Plus, sometimes you are lounging on a couch and not wanting to deal with proper form. Labels mean I can be sloppy occasionally if I want to.
  • Microsoft Windows is pretty hostile in its lack of Colemak support compared to MacOS. Thankfully my home and work machines are all Macs, but I get around okay in Windows with the help of AutoHotKey. My config is here.
  • The "r" and "s" placement was by far the most difficult part of my transition. Moving the "s" into the QWERTY "d" position meant that I was always hitting "r" accidentally when I meant "s". I was still doing that sometimes for a good 6-8 months into my learning process - well beyond where I was proficient with everything else. I have thought many times about just swapping those two keys.
  • At two years, unfortunately I still average about ~55 WPM, which was my pre-Colemak speed on QWERTY. I peak much higher than I ever did with QWERTY at ~75 WPM bursts, but my average is sill brought down by mistakes and inconsistencies. Also, I was never the best speller. I'm more a numbers guy.
  • I did not lose any speed typing on my QWERTY phone, but I did wish I had a good iOS Colemak keyboard in the early days, if for nothing else to give me the exposure to help me memorize Colemak placement. There are a few, and this was the best one I found.
  • On the rare occasion where I have to type QWERTY on someone else's machine in front of them, I feel gimpy and could never achieve anywhere close to my prior typing speed. The less I use QWERTY, the less I can go back to it.
  • I learned that there is a lot of help, blogs, and interesting info in forums, or even chat rooms. But truthfully, I learned way more by just practicing and doing what worked for me than from all the advice. Each learner has their own path.
  • I do not regret switching at all, but I also do not find myself actively recommending to others that they switch, nor do I find that I push Colemak over other options like Dvorak. In fact, I often find myself talking about smaller swapping options or even Minimak because truly - almost ANYTHING is better than QWERTY. QWERTY does manage to beat one purposely awful layout, so I guess it could have been worse. But not much.
  • The new layout kept me from using vim/neovim for a really, really long time. Vi, being a modal editor with both mnemonic AND positional keys like HJKL for movement was too much to manage while learning. Had vim been my primary editor, I probably would not have even switched from QWERTY. The switch was painful enough without blowing use of my favorite editor out of the water.
  • With Colemak, everyone talks about inward rolls and two-letter combos called bigrams and all these nerdy concepts that are pretty techno-babbley, and that's fine. For me, as a beginner, no argument was as compelling as the simple "Wheel of Fortune" argument - remember RSTLNE? The most common consonants plus a vowel? Well, the 10 most common English letters are actually e-t-a-o-i-n-s-r-h-l-d. Have a look at the Colemak home row: a-r-s-t-d-h-n-e-i-o. They are all there on home row with Colemak! There are so many words you can make without even leaving home row. Since your fingers will spend most of their time there, it is so comfortable to type.
  • Optimized bigrams and inward rolls are super nerdy concepts, and I never understood how awesome they are until I was more fluent in Colemak. Now that I am I appreciate how Colemak handles them so much. The joy and comfort of Colemak typing has not worn off. And I'm not the only one. Barstool. Barstool. Ahhh.
So... would I switch if I had it to do over again? Absolutely. Would I choose Colemak? Pretty sure I would, though I am jealous of how much better Dvorak is supported and evangelized. All the good articles are Dvorak related. Are you thinking I am absolutely crazy, or are you thinking of switching? Both?

The best argument I have for you is that if you are a programmer, you are a typist first. For me, making myself a better and more efficient typist pays me back in comfort and longevity. Did I get as fast as I thought I would? No, so maybe that's not worth it to you if that's your goal. But as for RSI, anecdotally I can put a big fat check in that box. Now, off to work on typing speed again.