Saturday, June 30, 2007

Raising the Median: Computer Hardware and Software

Image Source: MadAsHellClub.Net

I'm mad as hell and not going to take it any more! (Well, not really, but I am more than a bit disturbed [ask anyone who knows me] :-)

In any case, I've kind of had it with computer hardware and software makers who don't promote better ways to do things and perpetuate the mediocre or inferior.

One obvious example of this is the present keyboard you are probably typing on (just as I am). It's antiquated and inferior in two very obvious ways:
  • Firstly, the actual locale of the letters on the QWERTY keyboard layout, is a relatively slow method to type (created to slow typing down, so 18th century typewriters wouldn't jam). Because of this crappy letter layout, Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) is epidemic among those regularly using keyboards. Additionally, it's a slow way to type, compared to several more modern alternatives, particularly a fairly new one that takes advantage of prior Qwerty training, while minimizing re-training time compared to using a Dvorak keyboard.

  • Secondly, the flat keyboard, with its offset letters, also contributes to RSI, to a higher error rate, and was something that was designed for the actual mechanics of a typewriter, never for the human being. That the computer makers chose to perpetuate this too when manufacturing computer keyboards, is even more unbelievable.

So, in relation to item #1 above, a Dvorak layout (which many of you may have heard about) is far superior to the standard Qwerty layout and results in superior speed (the world's fastest typist used a Dvorak layout), and less RSI. However, the problem is, is that almost every key (33 of them) is recast elsewhere on the board, with many also jumping between hands.

This results in a steep time-consuming learning curve, and many people give up because of this (as I did), even though you can easily reconfigure your keyboard through a software add-on (go to Microsoft, here, if interested). This is probably the reason that the Dvorak never caught on - the very steep learning curve.

No, based on this idea though, others have been at work to recast the keyboard letters, using the lessons of Dvorak, but minimizing extraneous key movement from the Qwerty standard, where gains are minimal. In the case of the Colemak layout (moves only 17 keys, and minimal moved to the "other" hand), this results in, reportedly, much smaller learning curve, with similar speed and ergonomic gains to Dvorak.

It is now the third-most popular English language layout, and is gaining converts every day. More information, including a downloadable program to convert your existing keyboard to this superior letter layout is located at Colemak.com. I hope to download and convert to this layout. I'll report out on this from time to time.

(Note: If you're on a blog aggregator, you can visit The Confused Capitalist here or here [http://confusedcapitalist.blogspot.com] for additional articles and exclusive content!)

Keyboard layout comparisons (click to enlarge any of the below):

QWERTY (The old-fashioned, crappy, standard)


DVORAK (A better keyboard, that never caught on, probably in part due to the learning curve - look how many keys not only shift position, but from one hand to the other).
COLEMAK (With some luck, this will become the defacto standard, particularly with young people. Note how many Qwerty positions are retained, because moving them doesn't create significant improvement and moving them needlessly creates more difficulty in learning a new board layout for old-timers, like me)


So if you're looking to be a faster typist, to alleviate your own RSI, and just generally to make the world a better place, head on over the Colemak.com for a free download to covert your keyboard. OK, that's Rant #1 over. Let's move onto Rant #2.

Secondly, the actual keyboard itself sucks! The hardware makers should have corrected the obvious deficiencies in this, once there was no mechanical reason to retain the "offset" configuration. It results in missed keys, too much finger stretching, and incorrect wrist position, among other problems. The Confused Capitalist has been researching this issue however, reading reviews on the net, and believes to have found a superior board.

While some boards split and twist the keyboard (like the Microsoft Ergonomic that I use at work) which solves part of the problem, it still leaves a large portion of the ergonomics unfixed. However, a newer board, called the SmartBoard, solves most of these problems and adds several other key fixes, as well. The SmartBoard is available from datadesktech.com - see image below.
Finally, rant #3, isn't really a rant, but more of an eye opener. Many people use the Microsoft Office programs without believing there's any real alternatives out there. Well, Open Office has been picking up speed lately, and similar in some ways to Linux, converts. It is a free, volunteer-maintained open source program, providing an array of office suite type products. By all accounts on the internet, the latest release is continuing to improve and now rivals most of the Microsoft suite for utility, versatility, sophistication, stability, etc.

In some cases, some of the programs are reported as superior, with the most notable complaints being for the Power Point equivalent "Impress" still not up to the Microsoft standard, while the spreadsheet program "Calc" isn't - for sophisticated users - as good as Excel. However, huge strides have reportedly been made over the prior release. According to my research, many users are reporting that they prefer the Open Office word processor. You can go to OpenOffice.org to download this FREE program. So, even if a couple of the programs aren't quite there yet, it's not hard to think they will be soon.
Oh, and did I mention that Open Office can both properly read and save back into a Microsoft format? So my only question would be - unless you have very sophisticated spreadsheet or presentation needs - why on earth would you spend the bucks to upgrade to the latest Microsoft suite?

By the way, many of you might note the label "Global Warming" below, and wonder how this bloggering possibly ties in with that theme. It's simple really - any improvement in efficiency offers the possibility of turning off the computer sooner, and therefore reduces power consumption. Further, less RSI means fewer trips to the doctor. Ergo, less greenhouse gas emissions.

Secondly, using Open Office, an open source document, means that you don't - perhaps - have to work quite as much, since you don't need to pay for this particular type of product. Ergo, the potential exists for a couple of less trips to work every other year. Times millions of workers = less greenhouse gas emissions.

Perhaps not obvious connections, but ones which can, and I believe, do, exist.

Well, that's it for now - I have all of these links on the right hand side of my blog, under the title "Computer Stuff". I hope you are able to use this to improve your own life - to "raise the median".


JW

The Confused Capitalist

4 comments:

Deborah said...

I do like this post. I first became aware of the Dvorak layout about 9 years ago as it was discussed in education programs, indeed the whole history and development of the QWERTY keyboard was discussed.

I've brought up the existence of this keyboard in the classroom, but it is enormously difficult to fight the existing structure.

The Dvorak keyboard versus the QWERTY keyboard in my mind is a very good example to study to increase understanding of the obstacles that exist for any change that is a very good idea, yet society is set in what they know.

Take this one step further, there is research out there that a search on "you are not stupid," might bring up hits. I haven't tried it myself, but that is the title of the research I was also reading in university.

The premise of this research is that technology is making us feel very stupid because we can't get it to do something simple and we get completely stressed out and frustrated. The premise of this research is that we are not stupid, but the design of the interface of the technology is stupid and poorly design and planned in terms of how we naturally try to use the technology.

Right now I see this as the most important research that people new to the technology field should be learning, but my most recent foray into education was a gross turn-off for the utterly "QWERTY" teaching style and ideology towards teaching technology design.

It is a real problem when those in power to educate the next generation are so utterly oblivious to what is important and how technology design that doesn't not interact with natural human behaviour sucks the life out of the economy.

Right now one of the most important developments in education that I see is they are working on a fully integrated technology design for entering student's marks, attendance and notes. I worked with a system in Britain that stole 1.5 to 2 hours of my day for the disastrous design of the technology and it did absolutely zero to make my job easier. They recently were running a pilot of a program with a similar objective in Coquitlam and I talked to some of the teachers involved and you could see just by talking about it they were stressed and upset by it because it was adding enormous workload to their jobs.

I was taking an education technology course and I wanted to do a project on this where I outlined what the technology design needed to be and the instructor looked at me and asked what that had to do with education. I really believe that what is coming down the pipelines is going to be enormously crushing for education. Teachers are already working an average 50 hour work week and you try to steal an extra 1-2 hours per day from them for utterly no benefit for students and something in the system is going to break.

What can I say, your tax dollars are being flushed down the toilet big time, both in higher education, and by what is coming down the pipeline for k-12 education and we should all be outraged by it.

Deborah said...

I think what needs to happen is that these different key board designs need to be programmed as standard options with a toggle before they can catch on.

Personally I use lots of different computers and maybe my experience is unique, but until such time as I can just toggle with a button as a standard feature on pretty much any computer I use, I can't see investing the time to learn a new design, and I am very distrustful of what happens in the short term if I was to download software and then have work I actually need to get done.

Bobbybelize said...

I have the answer to your concerns - in a new keyboard design. I need a manufacturer. Does anyone know of one that they will share with me?

Bobbybelize@mac.com
operationrecovery.org

mahasiswa teladan said...

hi..Im student from Informatics engineering, this article is very informative, thanks for sharing :)