Tuesday, November 27, 2012
Is the keyboard or the mouse faster for text input?
A very common thing that crops up now and then is the question in the title. What is fastest for editing text, the keyboard or the mouse? The answer which is an often quoted answer is an older "Ask Tog" article[1a, 1b, 1c]. They come up again and again in these discussions and then the keyboardists battle it out against the mouse-zealots.
Since I have been working in most of the "grand" editors out there, Emacs and vi(m) for years, I do have something to say about this subject I think. Currently, I am writing this blog post, and most of my coding in the acme(1)-editor. Acme is often seen as being an editor which is very mouse-centered, but there is more to the game than just being a mouse editor.
First of all, what keyboard shortcuts do acme(1) understand? It understands 5 commands in total: Let ^ stand for the control character. Then it understands ^A and ^E which moves the cursor to the start and end of the line respectively. It understands ^H which is delete character before cursor (backspace) and ^W which kills a whole word. Finally it understands ^U which deletes from the cursor to the start of the line. The very reason for supporting these shortcuts are that they are very deeply rooted in UNIX. A lot of systems understand these commands and when entering text on end, these commands are very nice to have available. I guess I am a boring typist because when I see I have written a word incorrectly, I often just kill the whole word and type it again. The shortcut ^W is a nice quickly typed command on the left hand of a QWERTY style keyboard.
Secondly, and I think this is a very important point, acme(1) has a command language stemming from the sam(1) editor. It may be that the mouse is often used, but if you are to change every occurrence of 'foo' into 'bar' you just execute the command "Edit , s/foo/bar/g". This is almost like in vi. I don't think anybody would argue that for a large piece of text this would be faster to do than to manually go and edit the text. The reason is that we are programming the editor. We are writing a program which carries out the mere task for us. And the cognitive overload of doing so is smaller than being the change-monkey. In the command the comma is a shorthand for "all of the files lines". What if we only wanted the change on the 2nd paragraph of the text? In acme(1) you can just select that text and then execute "Edit s/foo/bar/g". Which narrows the editing to the selection only. As you go from "program" to "specific" editing, then the mouse and the spatial user interface makes it faster and faster.
The [1c] reference has a task which is trying to prove a point. A piece of text needs the execution of, essentially "Edit s/\|/e/g", replacing every '|' with an 'e'. The program above is clearly the fastest way to do it for large texts. And you don't even have to think about that program when you know the editor. But the time it takes to find each letter and replace it is subject to the cognitive overhead the article talks about. It adds up when you are doing lots of these small edits all day.
For editing source code, a peculiar thing happens. I often grab the mouse and then I more or less stay on the mouse. Note that acme has the usual ability to cut-and-paste text on the mouse alone. You don't need the keyboard for this. It means that you can do a lot of text surgery with the mouse alone. Since you can select the end-of-line codepoint, you can easily reorder lines, including indentation. Often, renaming variables happens on the mouse alone. Also, there is some tricks that the mouse has hidden. Clicking twice right next to a parenthesis '(' selects all text up to the matching ')'. The same with quotes. It allows you to quickly cut out parts of your structured code and replace it with other code.
Then there is text search. When writing large bodies of programs, you will often end up searching for text more than editing text. The quest is that of something you need to find. Since the mouse in acme(1) has search on a right click by design, most text can be clicked to find the next specimen you need to consider. A more complex invocation is through the "plumber" which understand the context of the text being operated upon. A line like "src/pqueue.erl:21:" is understood as "Open the file "src/pqueue.erl" and goto line 21 by a right click. Combine this with a command like "git grep -n foo" in a shell window and you can quickly find what you are looking for. I often use the shell as my search tool and then click on my target line. You can even ask grep to provide context to find the right spot to edit.
Good editors can be programmed, and a mouse-centered editor is no exception. Apart from the sam(1) built-in command language, you can also write external unix programs to pipe text through. I have a helper for Erlang terms, called erlfmt, which will reindent any piece of Erlang nicely. I have the same for JSON structures since they are often hard to read.
The thing that makes acme(1) work though stems from an old idea, by Niklaus Wirth and Jürg GutKnecht: The Oberon operating system. In this operating system, the graphical user interface is a TUI or a textual user interface in which spatiality plays a big role. Not unlike the modern tiling window managers, the system lays out windows next to each other in ways so they never overlap. But unlike the tiling window managers, the interface is purely textual. You can change the menu bars by writing another piece of text there if you want. The same is present in acme(1). You often end up changing your environment into how you want it to look. Since you can "Dump" and "Load" your current environment, each project often ends up with a setup-file that makes the configuration for that particular environment. I essentially have one for each project I am working on. In many Erlang projects, there is a shell window where the menu (called the tag in acme(1)-speak) is extended with the command 'make'. This makes it easy to rebuild the project. And errors are reported as "src/file.erl:LINE:" like above, making error correction painless and fast.
The key is that to make the mouse efficient, you need to build the environment around the mouse. That is, your system must support the mouse directly and make it possible to carry out many things on the mouse alone. It is rather sad to see that most modern editing environments shun a so effective editing tool and removes it totally from the entering of text. But perhaps the new touch-style interfaces will change that again? Currently their problem seems to be that the mobile phones and tablets are not self-hosting: we are not programming them via themselves. That probably has to happen before good programming user interfaces using touch becomes a possibility. I must admit though, that the idea of actually touching the 'make' button you wrote down there yourself is alluring.
 Acme is part of the plan9 port: http://swtch.com/plan9port/
 Note that the original Oberon Native System is living on in the Bluebottle/AOS/A2 system today, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oberon_(operating_system) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bluebottle_OS
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- Jesper Louis Andersen
- Lambda-loving CS Geek. Likes metal music. Likes dogs, cats. Does not like pictures of dogs and cats (unless they are lambdacats!)Has an unhealthy coffee addiction. Calls himself the coffee zombie in the morning (BEEEEANS!)Has a neverending curiosity gene, loves intelligence and passion.