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Monday, February 14, 2005

I Want A Better Keyboard

I found myself wondering the other day: Why am I (a programmer in 2005) stuck using an input device designed for a totally different user (a secretary in 1873)?

And I'm not just talking Qwerty vs. Dvorak here. Those are both designed for people typing large quantities of English text. A significant portion of what I type every day bears little or no resemblance to English, at least as far as character frequency goes. I haven't done any real analysis, but I'd guesstimate that when I'm working in C#, probably one third of the characters I have to enter are ones I have to shift for. That means that I'm essentially being forced to press 33% more keys that I would otherwise. Does this strike anyone else as enormously inefficient?

So I did some Googling, and I haven't been overwhelmed by my options. I found the Kinesis Contour keyboards, which look pretty slick, and would certainly sooth the ol' carpal tunnel, but don't really do much for my coding woes. Another option is the TouchStream LP, which doesn't even have keys, and supports lots of gesture interface stuff. Pretty cool, but I'm not sure I'm ready for something quite that avant-garde. Both these lines of keyboards are programmable, which I suppose would address my programming wants. The only other line of programmer-oriented keyboard that I found is the Happy Hacker series, which seems to have blank keys as its main claim to fame, but I really need the ergonomic layout.

Obviously, though, price is the major obstacle, coupled with the fact that I can't just run down to Best Buy and try out any of these. So I guess I'll stick with my good ol' MS Natural Pro for a while longer (with the inverted T arrow key arrangement, thank you very much -- although it looks like that's only available now with some weird and pointless multimedia crap).

Any fellow programmers have good suggestions? Besides switching to Python to avoid curly braces and parentheses?

Friday, February 04, 2005

What is Windows doing to us?

I generally try to stay away from geeky, explicitly computer-related topics, since there are already plenty of blogs discussing those better than I can. A couple of us had this discussion at work today, though, and it was too interesting to me not to follow up on. We'll soon return to the regularly scheduled boring personal stuff. - Ryan

An article today on has caused a fair amount of noise online, hitting Slashdot and Ars Technica (although it doesn't take much to get any kind of coverage for MS-bashing around there). One of the comments on Slashdot caught my eye, though:
...there is something that I have noticed about...Windows users: for whatever reasons they are reluctant if not opposed to change...mention OS X or Linux to them and they immediately go on the defensive, as if you are que[s]tioning them and their decision making abilities ("Well, Windows can do that, too.") a "switcher"...after almost 20 years of Windows...I can honestly say: Windows users, it's not your fault. Microsoft should be ashamed, not you....
That sounded sickeningly familiar to me. In fact, it sounded a lot like what people say about victims of abuse: they become defensive when challenged about their abuse, they're ashamed, they blame themselves. Hmm....

DISCLAIMER 1: It is by no means my intention to equate serious abuse with computer problems. Abuse is a serious issue, and shouldn't be demeaned in any way. Symptoms are similar in most types of abuse, though, so some comparisons are inevitable.

DISCLAIMER 2: I also don't intend for this to come across as Microsoft bashing. In fact, I make a very nice living writing Windows software. MS is neither evil nor incompetent, nor is it pure as the driven snow. It simply is; get over it.

So I did some Googling, and I turned up a good page discussing symptoms and effects of abuse. A few of the results they mention are: anxiety attacks, low self-esteem, lack of trust, anger. Now, think about some of the average, non-geek computer users you know (assuming you know at least a few). How many of them are excessively anxious around computers? How many of them say things like, "I'm just so stupid about computers?" Do they trust computers? Do they get angry at their computers? Uh huh, that's what I thought.

Another frequent symptom of abuse is that the victims will become defensive when challenged and will often vehemently defend the abuser. Think of some of the dedicated Windows users you know. Have you ever tried to suggest to them that they switch to another OS? What are their excuses? "Windows is really no worse than any other OS." "I need Windows to do [whatever]." "I couldn't learn how to use something else." I've seen otherwise smart, rational people who use Windows nearly become violent when questioned by a Mac user or Linux user.

Let's examine those responses. The "no worse" argument sounds eerily similar to "all men treat women that way." The others speak of deep-seated fear. They "need" Windows, or they "couldn't get by without" Windows. Those sound a lot like the reasons abuse victims give for not leaving their abusers, don't they?

The Ars article mentions the "Guilt Group" of users, who feel that it's their fault their computer gets viruses or trojans, or it's their fault their computer crashes all the time. And if you read some of the comments on Slashdot, we experienced computer users tend to perpetuate that idea, by blaming the victims. Or, to paraphrase the violence and abuse page, explaining why society tolerates, computer problems: "People may have the attitude that [computer problems are] the fault of the victim, or that the [problems are] a normal part of [computer use]."

There are some other threads in this idea I could follow, but I think that's more than enough for now. I'll just finish with one more point: the attitudes of the abusers themselves.

According to the abuse page, the "perpetrator alternates between...abusive behavior and apologetic behavior with apparently heartfelt promises to change." That's interesting since, according to Bill Gates, security problems are not the fault of Microsoft, just a little more than a year after Steve Ballmer promised that MS would improve security. I'm sure a little Googling would turn up a plethora of similar statements.

Of course I'm not claiming that Microsoft is intentionally abusing anyone, but the parallels are interesting nonetheless.

Could it be that a huge portion of the world's computer users have been conditioned to expect a certain degree of abuse from our computers? To believe "that's just how computer are?" Kind of an unpleasant thought, huh?