Learning Keyboard Layout

1. Colemak

Roughly three years ago I decided to learn the Colemak keyboard layout. I did that without moving around the physical keys of my keyboard, i.e., I learned to type it “blind” from the get-go (other than the advantage for typing speed, it also makes it easier to use qwerty keyboards away from home). For this task, I made unidirectional anki cards. The front (“question”) side consisted of a single letter or punctuation mark, while the back side consisted of a photo of either my left or right hand, with a single finger highlighted. The highlighted finger is the finger that is responsible for typing that character. This, incidentally, served a double role. First, of course, it taught me the location of the keys (only roughly, of course, as there are three rows, as well as some fingers which are responsible for more than one column), but second, it also taught me “proper fingering”. I think my fingering might have receded to something less than optimal since, but still today my Colemak fingering is much better than my qwerty’s.

Another key part of this deck was the adjustment of the review intervals. If one goes to “options”, one can see “steps” under the “New Cards” and “Lapses” tabs. These are the intervals in minutes of the next reviews of correctly answered new and young(?) cards. I believe the default is “1 10” (I personally use “1 60” for my own language decks), meaning that after you answer a card correctly for the first time it will show 1 minute later, then 10 minutes later if answered correctly two times in succession, and then the next day on the third success.

With a keyboard layout we want not just to remember where the keys are, but recall them fast. My approach was thus: first, when reviewing, I didn’t let myself a long time to think. If I’m thinking for two or three seconds, that’s already too slow––– I’d flip the card and mark it wrong. Second, I changed the “steps” to “1 2 6 10 12 14 15 16 20 60 240” (though I’ve never practiced long enough for the longer intervals to really matter; I practiced until the deck had no cards to show me, which probably happened when all cards reached a 6 or 10 minute interval) which made for a frenzied reviewing experience, adequate for the task at hand.

I don’t remember now how big of a part the anki deck served in this learning, but I suppose it was very helpful. I do remember going through an excruciating phase of typing words very slowly, but I got passed that. Either way, I use Colemak until today, typing at a speed of roughly 80-90 WPM4, so the transition was all in all successful.

2. Stenotype

I have had a dormant stenotype deck for a while, but recently my older computer keyboard broke down and I got a new one with ah N-key rollover which allowed me, together with the open source Plover, to commence with studying steno and which made the anki deck relevant.

I’ll try to make the description here as fathomable to people who had never heard of stenotype in their life before, but my main concern is to explain what I’m doing to people who might be already engaged in learning to steno.

A stenotype is a chorded keyboard. You press more than one key at a time to produce a punctuation mark, a syllable, a whole word or even a whole expression. Ignoring the numericals for the moment, it means that as opposed to the 34*2=68 possible inputs of a regular keyboard (34 keys combined or not with the shift key), in steno there are 2^22 = 4,194,304 possible inputs (actually somewhat less, but this is just to illustrate the general order of magnitude). The challenge, therefore, is to learn which keys to simultaneously press for a given desired output, to be able to recall this combination quickly, and have the digital dexterity to correctly execute the mechanical motion.

As you might imagine, in comparison to  “regular keyboards”, the learning curve is much longer5, but the fruits of the labour include a much faster typing speed6 achieved with a much decreased movement of the fingers.

This is still work in progress, and I’ll return to update this section.

The individual keys of the steno keyboard are assigned individual letters (as well as a “star” key), and there are letters which are assigned key combinations (for example, the combination of the left “t” and “k” is assigned to a “d”). Many letters are represented twice (or even more with the case of “s”) in the keyboard, once on the left and once on the right side (or hand).

Before studying any steno theory at all, I’ve created an initial deck with many similarities to my Colemak deck. I use the same intervals and try to answer cards quickly. The front side of the cards contain a letter and a side (left/right), as well as sounds (short and long vowels, diphthongs). For single key letters, the back side contains a picture from the set used for the Colemak deck, representing a finger, as well as a text that indicates “up” or “down”, corresponding to one of the two rows of the steno keyboard. Letters with assigned combination of keys have a back side with a chart of the steno keys with the relevant keys highlighted.

After “”mastering”” these, I proceeded to learn steno theory through an online guide. This guide contains link to simple online practices, and my experience with them, especially the simpler ones, was very rewarding. I believe the preluding anking was very beneficial. First, it divided a task into two separate tasks, rendering both simpler to learn –– particularly since I’m typing it “blind” on a qwerty layout: one task is finding the letters on the keyboard, while the second task is choosing letters to form a word. The triviality of anking makes the first task rather effortless; one can learn the layout even without actively trying to remember. The difficulty of the second task –– the online practice accompanying the guide –– is stripped from the difficulty of searching for keys (and from the uncertainty that I’m hitting the wrong letters, since I’m blind) allowing me to concentrate on learning a “single thing” instead of a multipule of them, making it easier to learn. First, trivially,  because the learner part of me is tasked with only learning one thing. Second, because I do the practice faster (since finding the keys I’m picking is faster), meaning I can practice more “pick the right letters/keys” at any given period. The latter also means that I’m able to work up my speed of word-typing, unhindered by the speed of finding the right keys.

The speed of finding a key is not zero, and it “dosen’t need to be” so. However, I seem to see an opportunity for an expansion of the “low level” steno anki deck. Let’s say that the time for me to figure out where to move a single finger to input a letter is x. Naively, if this is the only thing I know, it would take me y*x time to figure out where to move my fingers to type y letters. This is “fine” with a qwery keyboard where keys are hit sequentially. However, it seems like much typing speed can be gained by learning to conjure finger movements to hit an arbitrary amount of keys at the same speed that one conjures a movement to hit one key, namely x7. I have already studied letters that are represented as a combination of keys which I presume to be able to conjure at an equal speed as single-keyed letters. The expansion would involve adding cards with multiple letters at the front. Given the way syllables/words are constructed with steno, I think I’ll restrict letter combinations to either side of the keyboard, and not both.

As there are 7 keys on the left side, we have 7 choose 2 or 21 2-key combinations, five of which are single letters. There are 35 3- and 4-key combinations, 21 5-key combinations, 7 6-key combinations and, of course, a single 7-key combinations. In total, counting all from 1-key “combination” to 7, there are 127 –––– a reasonable amount to memorize. The math is trickier for the right side with the pinky responsible for 4 keys, but it would be less than 254 cards. In total (and ignoring combinations including the star key) it would be less than 381 cards. As there’s no way around it, I’ll learn it either by sheer orthodox practice or through anki, I think it’s a worthwhile pursuit. The real hurdle would be to actually generate the cards, and hopefully I’ll find some way to automate it (with the hope that automating this would take less time than manually doing it). Either way, I suppose this deck could in the future also assist other steno-learners, and therefore a worthwhile investment.

For after my introductory steno theory learning, an anki deck I’ve downloaded with the 3000 most frequent English words is waiting for me to learn (and adjust to my own preferences). I’ll probably go for it after I am pretty solid with the letter-combination deck. This words-deck, if I apply to it a similar speed-standard as for the letters so that I don’t just learn to recall the “typing” but recall them fast, should –– I believe –– greatly push me forward in typing speed. First, by giving me “applied” practice of the theory, and second, simply by making me proficient in typing these words which together should account for a very high percentage of the words in any text. (à la Zipf’s law)

4. Based on some online tests. I think I might be typing generally somewhat faster, that is, when I’m not copying a text in a manner that necessitates me to either look at the source text or look at what I’m writing, but not both (my eyes don’t go this way).

5. Somewhat analogously speaking. Does a qwerty keyboard have a learning curve at all? The characters are printed on top of the corresponding keys. One could compare it to “blind typing” on a qwerty, or talk about the time it takes to acquire a certain WPM typing speed, which is in the general sense problematic as well. With steno there are expressions you might not know how to type, making certain texts to greatly slow you down by forcing you to spell the expressions, or even slow you down infinitely long (0 WPM) had you somehow skipped to learn how to spell single letters. But I’m just wasting words here: this “theoretical consideration” is of no importance to anyone, I’d imagine.

6. That is, an “average stenographer” types at a significantly faster rate than world champion qwertiest. This statements might hide the fact that most students don’t finish steno school. What this means is not so clear; the pressures of school can be very different than the inherent difficulty of what they teach. The way I see it, “average stenography” would be the level of someone who actively works on improving the skill until a plateau in progress. I think studying steno is a long and not a particularly inherently enjoyable journey, but a very feasible one as long as one steadily moved forward.

7. If you need some motivation here, imagine a well trained pianist. Presumably, the pianist can play repeatedly a single chord at the same speed that she plays a single key (with a single finger).


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