Monday, July 4, 2011

How Can He Type? (A Love Story)

A number of people have asked me how I’ve learnt to type so fast. Often, the question presents itself in the hushed, awed tones of the geeky: these are people who work with computers all the time and these are people for whom speed typing would count as a genuine skill. Also, however, normal people pose this question to me too sometimes, if only with the sort of casual curiosity you reserve for people who can wolf whistle, or people who can do 180 degree splits: an indifferent appreciation for a quirky talent. It gladdens me, though, that typing has become nearly as important as writing in many domains of work, and that the second category of people is shrinking by the day because of that. (My skillz are much more relevant now, yay!)

To return to the original question on how I learnt to type so fast, there’s no easy answer. There’s certainly no magic pill that’ll make your fingers more nimble overnight and there’s no golden serum you inject into your fingers to make them listen to you better. Take what you hear about typing crash courses with a pinch of salt, because it’s all hot air. Like most things in the world, proficiency in typing is all about practice, practice and then some more practice, but with a couple of caveats:

1) You need to learn touch typing, that is, the mad Jedi skill of typing without looking at the keyboard. As you can imagine that’ll double your speed as you aren’t going to waste half your time pausing to verify if you’re typing the right thing. How, you ask? I’ll get to that in a minute.

2) Proper technique is gold. I know people who type fast without the right technique, but I believe that’ll stifle you in the long run.

(On the bright side, I started off as useless as you. And no I was not born with the ability to touch type. There, that should have heartened you considerably.)

I’ll get to the technique part in a bit, but you guys are really asking the wrong questions here. Yes, all you need to do to become a fast typist is technique and practice, but the important question is: how do you actually practise? Practising typing by typing out a list of words twenty times a day is mind numbingly boring, and while it might work, you’re likely to die at 30, you’ll be so scarred by that experience. So how do you do it then? Gamify, of course.

Make learning to type a game: something that’s fun and challenging at the same time. That’s what I did, back during my PS-I (a sort of introduction to an internship I had back in college, after my second year of engineering). I used to think I was a pretty fast typist. I was a regular on DC++ trivia back, and I can safely say that that helped me a lot in improving my touch typing. See, here’s how trivia worked: there would be randomly selected questions coming up every 30 seconds or so, and there would be a bunch of people online at the same time trying to get in the answer first. It was all about speed, especially because questions repeated, and also because some questions were ridiculously easy (20+33=?).

In such an environment, touch typing was the only option. Looking at the keyboard while typing out an answer, pausing for half a second to check what was on screen before submitting it, simply did not work. Gamifying your typing experience forces you to touch type, apart from the fact that it’s actually fun. I don’t know how well DC++ trivia is doing these days, but if a lot of people are on it, join the club. It’s fun even without the whole typing angle.

Speedtest for the solo gamer
What I did during my PS-I was hit this site. Why didn’t I stick to trivia once I’d realized it was doing wonders for my typing speed? Firstly, I was far, far away from BITS Pilani’s LAN, and secondly, I knew, fiercely competitive person that I was, that I would never sacrifice my speed for technique. This site is perfect for the solo gamer: you’re not taking on a hundred other people, the only person who’s challenging you is you, and I loved it.

I don’t know how quickly you’ll tire of this site (I suspect it’ll be a lot quicker than me), but it occupied me for the whole summer. When I started off there, I was doing about 55 Words Per Minute (WPM). While that’s fairly respectable, that’s about a fourth as fast as the fastest typist in the world. Forcing myself to at least try and follow the proper technique (read this for learning about the home row in QWERTY keyboards, and what's a 'proper' technique) dropped my speeds to under 50, but only for some time. By the end of the summer I was easily doing 70 WPM.

Just to cheer you up, here’s what I can do now. That’s more than double what I started off with. (Watch it on mute if you don't like tinny heavy metal. )

This site is the antithesis of speedtest, in many ways. You compete against other people, typos are not forgiven (you cannot proceed unless you correct your errors) and WPM is counted as CPM (Characters Per Minute) divided by 5, to account for variations in word lengths. (Speedtest counts words.) However, I recommend that you not visit this site while you’re still honing your touch typing technique, because it’s frustrating. Very, very much so. It is not pleasantly frustrating like how good games should be, but frustrating in a lethargy-inducing way, the way that'll make you swear on your great grand aunt's grave that you'll never ever touch a keyboard again. I'd suggest that you move on to competing on this site only when you’re reasonably comfortable with your technique and are looking to improve your overall speed.

Even after you’ve achieved a measure of comfort with the words on speedtest, you might still be flummoxed by Typeracer, because Typeracer doesn’t make you type word lists, it makes you type paragraphs. Paragraphs, with – brace yourself - proper punctuation, and - just to reiterate - it does not forgive typos. So, practising a little on Typeracer will improve your real world composition skills much more than a lot of time spent on speedtest.

For context, I started off on Typeracer a couple of years ago, and averaged about 70 WPM. Now I can consistently do about 105. Here’s a video I recorded for er.. motivational purposes. Be warned, I wasted a lot of time on this site, so you'll need a lot of practice to see that kind of improvement, but hey it was college. I’d even call it a productive use of my time.

I know I said I moved to typing with the right technique when I started using speedtest, but that’s not exactly right. It’s not easy to change the way you type overnight: I already had nearly correct technique for my left hand, but my right hand was all over the place, and I never used my pinkies. I think it took me a couple of years to start using my right pinky to type the ‘P’, and even now it flaps up and down like it wants nothing to do with all this typing business. Consciously try and return your fingers to the home row after hitting every key, and without looking, and your job is half done. After all, touch typing is the most intuitive way of typing: you reach for each key with the finger that’s closest to it (only if your starting position is on the home row of course. That’s why typing courses keep banging on and on about that point.) Don't worry if you simply cannot contort your fingers to reach certain keys. Skip them for later, but don't forget that what you're doing is wrong.

And remember, it’s all about gamifying. Any sort of game that puts a price on your ability to generate as many words as you can in a limited period of time, your typing skills come in handy. Here are a few such games I've played in the past, and thoroughly enjoyed.

Multieight is a favourite of mine. Its rules are simple: you make as many words as you can from a eight letter word, in one minute. The bigger the words you make, the more the points you score, obviously.

Boggle also works.

There’s also an app on Facebook called ‘The typing of the ghost’, which is inspired by an unbelievably fun PC game I’ll talk about in the next point. Check it out.

If you can, get your hands on ‘The typing of the Dead’. I think it’s the first and only game that can be classified as a ‘First Person Typer’. (You zap zombies with your keyboard. 'Nuff said.)

Before I sign off, I need just a moment to do one last thing: defend the need to improve your typing skills. Typing shouldn’t be a chore, it should be exactly like writing: a tool you use to get something else done, which in this case is composition. When you’re writing your exams, are you thinking about which finger to move, and in what kind of loopy way, to cross those Ts? No. Typing should be like that, and once you get the hang of it, far outstrips writing in usefulness (at least for composing text). I don’t think anyone writes faster than 60 WPM. It’s quite easy, with a little effort of course (oxymoron!), to hit 80 WPM while typing. I can’t stress enough how much the ability to type fast, and more importantly the ability to touch type - type without thinking - has improved my productivity. (Gah, corporate terms. I rooted around for a better one, but I’m already infected. I guess.) For example, churning out blog posts like this is not a day-long task anymore. (On the other hand, it’s difficult not to hit 20 pages every time I write anything, absolutely anything at all. :) )

Good luck.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Tippity Tap Tap

Everyone knows that foot tapping is contagious. It’s obvious, right? We’ve seen so many popular culture depictions that follow this theme: There’s a lone guy. He’s sitting at a table. In a, er, cafeteria. There’s a spoon, there’s a tumbler and there’s a knack for a beat, all with our lone guy. Before you know it, there’s a full-scale impromptu cafeteria orchestra, with tabletops, people’s backs and grinding knives passing for instruments.

(No, you actually haven’t seen anything like that? There, that’s remedied, and with a highly er… topical example to boot. Forgive me.) OK, I have never seen it happen, but neither have I seen Gandhi, and I believe what I see on TV more than I believe what I see in real life. Real life is very tricksy you see, I saw my name in a cloud once. What sort of self-respecting reality would have that?

Anyway, my point is that when I saw this person on my company bus tapping her fingers discreetly to some unknown rhythm, noiselessly and safely muffled by the backpack nestling in her lap, obviously in response to my not so discreet head-nodding (a more socially acceptable form of the headbang) to some Trivium riff, I was not surprised. No, sir, not in the least bit was I surprised. Music makes the world go round, right? Music is the only language everyone speaks, and all that, I told myself.

But on a different day, and with a different person, something happened that was surprising - in a mind-boggling way, with emphasis on the ‘mind’ and ‘boggle’ bits. I had seen this person enjoying his music quietly, with only the hint of a finger-drum giving anything away. Meanwhile, a brilliant riff and/or a spectacular solo forcefully wedged a happy knife in my skull, and I was swept away into a mini bus-seat rendition of a blast beat using my hands and legs. My twitching hair swayed in sync with the solo of course. In time, I noticed that this guy was sneaking surreptitious glances at me, and not in the: ‘look at that guy, he’s acting so ridiculous’ way.

It was more of a professional envy. I could make it out from that glint in his eye. (Middle aged gentlemen rocking back and forth to some 60s dirge in obvious orgasmic delight was a clue too, but you know, it was that glint that gave it away.) Naturally, I didn’t take to the challenge kindly. How could that presumptuous fool take on heavy metal, and its unrivalled capacity for energization? I had to enlighten him – it would be a blight on my conscience otherwise – I simply had to correct the error of his ways. So, I began to toss my head from side to side even more vehemently, whilst my feet beat out a furious staccato on the floor. I only stopped, chest heaving, heart aflutter, when I found myself nearly blinded by one of the many knobs and edges that jutted in from the window. To my satisfaction though, a quick glance confirmed that the shine in the pretender’s eye was all but gone now, glazed over in dull defeat. Victory! A truly triumphant homecoming it was, when I got off five minutes later.

I’ll let you use your underworked imaginations to sift out the truths in that story, but writing about it brought to mind another, even more mindboggling incident that occurred sometime back, when my workplace was changed to Bagmane Tech Park.

Walkathons and Cheaters

For a while (until this happened), I used public transport to get to work. There was a minor problem with that arrangement: the Yahoo! office was exactly one kilometre from the bus stop where I got down, and I had to walk that distance everyday. To put that into context, in case all you fit-as-a-fiddle people out there consider that a piffling amount, people were ready to shell out as much as a hundred rupees just to get an auto driver to make that short trip. Or they were ready to stand around for up to half an hour, waiting for the in-campus shuttles to arrive, rather than attempt the impossible. While I wasn’t exactly drained by the walk, it was a bit monotonous doing the same concrete scenery everyday, and so I did what any sane person would do to suck the ennui out of routine: I gamified it.

I decided that I would walk as fast as I could, and the next day I would walk faster. I honed my technique (tip: use your adductors more than your calves), and began to shave minutes from my times, until I hit my physical peak with a 9 minute end-to-end run. That day, I walked into work, legs on fire, face red and sweaty and I had a hard time convincing people that I wasn’t returning from a workout in the gym.

I did this for over a month, and I soon got used to outpacing any pedestrians in sight during my walkathons. One day though, I met a stubborn rival. This man walked fast (apparently because he was late for a meeting but I’m not convinced) but not enough to challenge my supremacy. However, immediately after I crossed him, he quickly upped his pace to keep up, and when I got stuck behind a group of giggly snail-walking girls a little while later, he smoothly jumped on to the road to jog around the congregation, and overtake me.

Now that was blasphemy. My mind boggled from the implications of the man’s heinous act. It physically reeled. I don’t know if I mentioned this, but I had one simple rule for my walkathons: Never, ever run. Or even break into a half-jog. I could not break that. But this guy, who was a short, balding guy with thin arms and a paunch , slowed down after he established what he judged was a safe gap, and went back to his walking pace, which while blindingly fast, was no match for mine. Little by little, I ate up the intervening metres until I was right behind him, and that was when I played my masterstroke, and did this:

In case my artistic skills did not let the point get across, here’s what I did: Because ultimately both of us had to cross over to the right side of the road (and there was another rightward curve that was going to come up), I decided to use the diagonal and do it at the first curve of the road, so that I could sneakily establish a lead without seeming to do so (otherwise, the man would start jogging to catch up, I didn’t want that). I did so, and at the end of the operation, we were walking in lockstep, only, on opposite sides of the road. I had given myself a strategic advantage: during the next curve, the man would have to negotiate a longer distance than I.

The man however, did not wait for the curve at all. He dashed – yes, he really dashed - across the road, tracing a mazy, diagonal route, and reappeared a few feet in front of me, and continued walking. Naturally, I was flabbergasted by this man, and his blatant disregard for the simple honour of the walking game. How could he run? Again, though, I slowly cut into his lead. He became aware of this, and a quick glance behind confirmed that walking would simply not do it for him, and then he played his masterstroke. He pulled out his cell phone from his pocket. (I resigned myself to an honourable defeat.)

“Yes, sir, I’m coming.” and he sprinted away without the slightest hint of embarrassment.