Scratch Map Summer 2018

After some epic trips in the past years, this is what our scratch map looks like. It doesn’t give you a clue about the frequency or preferred places, but it does show our biases to date. Antarctica is in our todo list.

My first plant

My parents in law got me an evergreen bonsai for Christmas, a Ficus Retusa.

It's not until recently that I've got interested in the idea of growing a plant. I find fascinating that you can mold a living being to your liking, within certain constraints. Every branch contains a possibility, and you've got to decide which ones to develop. The fact that it's a slow process that takes years to fully see the results speaks of the patience and constant caring you need to put into it. I don't want to think too much about that because the thought of committing myself to something for so long is scary! At the same time, I've found a sense of calm and bonding in things like cleaning every individual leaf of the tree once a month – I can understand much better now to Paul Richardson, the exo-botanist of Mars.

Being the first plant I own, I'm still learning a lot about everything: its watering needs, what's a good pruning balance, how to identify and treat pests and diseases, etc. So far, it's been enjoyable.

Shelter from the Storm

Mars soundtrack (the National Geographic tv-show) is fantastic. Nick Cave is just the perfect voice to convey that feeling of exploration and fear. Moon, Interstellar, The Martian, etc; it seems sci-fi movies got an appreciation for soundtracks that have a major role in the film – and I enjoy that.

As much as I like Cave’s main theme for Mars, after a few episodes, I was in the need of something like Dylan’s Shelter from the Storm. Exploration needs joy and celebration.

Touch typing in Dvorak

On November 2016 I had a free month between jobs. Apart from some resting, reading, and general preparations for my new adventure, I still had quite a bit of free time to do new things or build good habits. It was while cleaning my office that I found a keyboard I had bought a couple of years back:

Its layout was a beautiful matrix -which is good for your fingers- and came with Dvorak by default. So it struck me: how about improving my typing during the coming weeks?

As a programmer, typing is an essential skill for me. I had been doing it for more than 15 years in a learn-by-doing way, and I plan to keep typing for years to come. I thought it would be fun to spend a couple of hours a day training in touch-typing and give Dvorak a second try. And so I did.

How it felt

Before I switched, I recorded about 15 typing sessions at TypeRacer using the QWERTY layout, which logs typing speed (words per minute) and accuracy (% characters right over the total). I was at 67 wpm and about 95% accuracy at the time.

Progress was very humbling at the beginning; it felt like learning to walk again, and I swear that, sometimes, I could even hear my brain circuits being reconfigured! After a few weeks, though, I was at 40 wpm and, by the end of the month, I was at 50 wpm. I stopped quantifying myself by then: as I started working, I had a lot of typing to do anyway.

During the first months, real-time communication -chat, slack- was the only moment I struggled and felt like perhaps the switch wasn’t a good idea. I don’t know what people thought of me, but my writing at the time was typing-bounded – I was certainly a very slow touch-typist by my own standards. But time passed and I improved.

Spáñish Dvorak and symbols

Throughout the process I changed my setup quite a bit:

  1. I started by using the Programmer Dvorak layout with a TypeMatrix keyboard.
  2. After a few months, I switched back to my good old ThinkPad keyboard because having to use a mouse again after years without it was painful.
  3. A few months later, I switched to the Dvorak international layout, because the Programmers Dvorak didn’t quite suit me.
  4. Then, I tweaked the common symbols I use for programming so they were more ergonomic for my daily tasks.
  5. Although the bulk of my typing is in English, I still need to write decent Spáñish, which basically means using tildes on vowels and ñ so I switched to the Spanish Dvorak.
  6. Finally, Spanish Dvorak wasn’t the improvement I was looking for, so I’ve ended up accommodating tildes, ñ, and other symbols in the Dvorak international as I see fit.

This is how my layout looks like today:

All these changes through the year have affected my ability to build muscle memory – sometimes I still need to look at some specific symbol on the keyboard. However, the current version has been unchanged for months, so I only need a bit more time for them to stick.

Performance to date

Given that I was a QWERTY user for 15 years, I thought I would give the new layout a year before comparing any numbers. The fair thing to do would be comparing after 15 years, but I’m a bit impatient for that. So I went to TypeRacer and noted down the results for about 20 races:

In terms of speed, it looks like I’m mostly there. My median speed now is 65 words per minute, 2 wpm less than before. I had a higher peak (83 vs 79), but I was under 60wpm in more sessions.

In terms of accuracy, I’ve improved a bit. My median accuracy has increased by 1,5 points, and I had only 2 sessions below 95%.

Coda

My accuracy has improved, and having fewer mistakes to correct will help me become a faster typist as time passes. By learning to touch-type I also have grown more endurance.

This experiment was very humbling. I believe it increased my brain plasticity by an order of magnitude. Although I hope to improve my numbers, what’s more important to me is to promote a healthy use of the tools I heavily depend upon.