Learned #35: Typical

In which we learn to touch-type.

62 Words a minute. That’s my score, that’s my speed, according to this typing test I found just a minute ago. And, you know, that’s not bad. Not great, but not bad. Back in the day, I used to type at close to a hundred words a minute. I know because my 7th grade typing teacher was impressed and because my Typing 101 teacher didn’t believe me.

I’ve maintained for years that typing was the single most-practical skill I learned in all my years of school. It has helped me type papers, stories, essays, and reports. It has sharpened my thoughts and helped me to concentrate. But it wasn’t easy to learn.

In seventh grade, my teacher taught us by having us copy sentences from our textbooks, a few introductory letters at a time, on clean, white sheets of paper via electric typewriters. He told us to read the copy in advance and search out letter combinations that would occur frequently. Eventually, he had us typing our own letters and reports in (then) current business format.

By contrast, my Typing 101 teacher just yelled a lot. It’s not entirely her fault. Her classroom had only recently had the typewriters replaced with computers and she did not really know how to use them. On the other hand, she did not believe that anyone under the age of 20 could actually type correctly. It was not a fun class.

Methodology and technology aside, both instances share a core similarity: the schools at those times felt that typing was a skill important enough to warrant classrooms outfitted specifically for learning it. As I alluded to above, this is one of the very few occasions where I find myself in complete agreement with the faculty of the schools I attended.

My daughter is three. She’s growing up in a world where smartphones and tablets are replacing computers and voice-commanded virtual assistants are replacing keyboards. I don’t know that she’ll ever need to type. Should she learn anyway?

In this issue:

  • What we’re learning: How to Type

  • What we’re reading: The Field Guide to Typography

  • Down the rabbit hole: Beyond QWERTY

Let’s get to it.

Photo by MILKOVÍ on Unsplash

What We’re Learning:

How to Type

Typing, like anything, requires practice. Like most of you, I imagine, while I type a lot, I rarely sit down to practice typing. Instead, I just type. Relatedly, I don’t often write a lot before I start composing. Instead, I just…type. These two things together mean that my speed and accuracy have decreased a lot in the years since I first learned to type. And, frankly, I don’t think I’m going to begin doing typing runs anytime soon.

I liken it to a musician prepping for a live performance versus going into the studio. The former situation requires practice and preparation because there can be no room for errors. The latter requires skill and knowledge, but leaves a lot of room for corrections and re-composing. I am not a performer. My typing may leave a lot to be desired (have fun finding the typos in this issue!), for the most part, corrections get made and the reader moves on never having seen how the sausage gets made.

But, I’ve been a little obsessed with brain training recently. And typing is often heralded as one method of doing so.

Useful?

Learning to type can help your memory and your coordination (which, in turn helps further develop your cognitive abilities). Basically, everything I said in the Brain Training Issue (#32) holds true in this situation, too.

That said, here are a few things I found that extoll the non-brain-training virtues of touch typing:

Basically, in addition to good memory and cognitive function, good typing skills helps you save time, take notes better, improve your posture, and make you more attractive to the gender of your preference. Maybe. What’s less clear is if practicing typing, once you’ve already learned how, actually helps as well.

The argument can be made that if your Words Per Minute is slower than average (around 50 WPM) you might want to improve just to (literally) keep up. But, once you hit average or above average speed, there’s no obvious benefit to continuing to get faster unless you just really need to put the words down as fast as humanly possible.

Relevant?

As I said above, I'm not sure my daughter will ever need to learn to type. Computers are rapidly moving towards a Star Trek-like voice interface. (Siri, Alexa, Cortana, et. al.) Odds are, by the time she's in junior high, another ten years from now, keyboards will still be attached to computers and available via app on phones and tablets, but they will not be the primary interface, not the way they are now.

In addition to the virtual assistants and smart home components, software technologies like Dragon are making it so that even lengthy entries like reports or articles (or newsletter posts!) can be done via speech rather than text. Which begs the question - will she need to type?

And, assuming she doesn't - that by the time she reaches the working world, speech-to-text technology will be so good that she merely dictates to a computer, will touch-typing become a specialized skill reserved for people who work with code or other special graphical cases?

I don't know. I kind of hope not, but I'm curious to find out. I guess we'll just have to, literally, wait and see.

Further Reading:

This week’s post was directly inspired by the always excellent podcast, The Allusionist. Specifically, episode 89, titled WPM. In the episode, Helen Zaltzman reads an essay all about type and typing. It’s fantastic. Please listen.


What We’re Reading:

The Field Guide to Typography: Typefaces in the Urban Landscape

by Peter Dawson

Ever since I first learned what a font was, sometime in the dark ages of the early 90s, I’ve been fascinated by them. Not only is there a staggering variety of ways in which a given letter of the alphabet can be drawn, but the meticulous, precise methodology of applying a given way-of-drawing to the entirety of the alphabet and related symbols is mind-blowing. Add in the fact that we, as readers, can recognize hundreds, if not thousands, of variations on a theme and read an A as A even if it’s written in archaic, calligraphic script and, well, again, mind = blown.

So. After all that, what’s the book about? As the title suggests, it’s a field guide. The book…you know what? I’m just going to quote myself:

Typography is a rich, thought-provoking study with a deep, storied history. And yet, for most of us, it is an unremarkable aspect of modern life. We rarely stop to consider the fonts we use in our family newsletters; we do not question the availability nor the history of Times New Roman or Verdana. Typography surrounds us everywhere, every day, and yet we never see it.

Peter Dawson's The Field Guide to Typography: Typefaces in the Urban Landscape seeks to change that by introducing the reader to real-world examples. The book is replete with glossy, full-color photographs paired with histories, category, classification, identifying marks, and everything else you would expect of a working dictionary or encyclopaedia. Additionally, one of the most interesting and aesthetically pleasing aspects of the book are the breakdowns of individual fonts. These illustrations identify and label the various components of a typeface (baseline, descender, etc.) along with suggested meanings and evoked images or feelings.

Whoo-yeah. There are a ton of pictures (by me) at the link above, as well. If you or anyone on your gift-list is a type lover, get this book. You’ll not regret it.

*For the record, and in case Google gets confused, my review was also re-printed here, on Boing Boing.


Elsewhere:

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Down the Rabbit Hole:

Beyond QWERTY:  Alternate Keyboard Layouts

It turns out that QWERTY is not that great a system for typingIt was designed based on the needs of early typewriters - namely that the keys had to be far enough apart that they would not get stuck together or jammed when hit in rapid succession.  In other words, we keep the T separated from the S and the H, it’s closest collaborators, because if you hit TH too rapidly on early typewriters, you might cause a costly breakage in the machine.  So, QWERTY - good for early keyboard manufacturers, not so great for typists.

(Wait! Apparently that is all a myth! New research says that the layout was chosen because of its ease for telegraph operators. So, lesson learned - research, then write… But, the point stands - we’re using a system based on something designed for a method of communication that no longer exists.)

The most popular alternative to QWERTY is called Dvorak, named after its inventor, August DvorakProponents insist that it’s a far more efficient layout and that it is much, much easier on the hands than a standard layout.  Personally, I’m more intrigued by its cousin - Dvorak One Handed.  I like the idea of learning to type with a single hand; during the early days of laptop computers, manufacturers and designers struggled with creating viable alternatives to a mouse.  At the moment, I personally use a MacBook Air and find using a trackpad far more efficient than a mouse.  Imagine then, if I could type and mouse (i.e. move the cursor) at the same time.  Researching and taking notes would be that much faster…

Not that we do all our typing on laptops or desktops these days.  The explosion of smartphones has brought a new wave of alternative keyboard layouts to the market - I’m pretty happy with the standard one, I just wish it were bigger.

Of course, not all alternatives to QWERTY are character maps.  Sometimes, the keyboard itself gets changed.  Years ago, I became fascinated by a product called the Frogpad One Handed keyboard.  Designed for people with physical disabilities, it grabbed my imagination because it seemed super efficient.  I never ended up getting one for a variety of reasons (namely that the product was not well reviewed and even now, that website is not great) but I still like the idea of different physical layouts.

And none of this has even touched on using non-English keyboards.  I use a Japanese Mac which means that the apostrophe is in a different place and my @ symbol is no longer above the comma.  And don’t even get me started on the many, many different ways I can type in Japanese on my phone - remember trying to text on early mobile phones?  Now do it with a second, third, and fourth set of characters!

I don’t know that I’m going to change my keyboard layout anytime soon.  As intriguing as it sounds, it also sounds like a lot of work.  But, if typing does become a specialized skill, as I wrote about above, it’s not inconceivable that the keyboards needed for those jobs will also become specialized, much like a court stenographer’s typewriter.  Who knows?  We’ll just have to wait and see.

That’s it. Stay strong, stay healthy. Learn something.