Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Typing: The Next Level

1. Touch-Typing or Hunt-and-Peck

Though it has been often stressed that as programmers you should know how to touch-type, I hardly find that in practice. In my experience, the number of touch-typists around me has always been less. The majority use the hunt-and-peck method of typing -- which is slower than touch-typing. Something even slower than hunt-and-peck is using just two fingers to type (two-finger-typing). In my observation girls who like to grow their finger nails often are two-finger-typists.

It's not that people don't want to type faster. They do. It's just that they don't want to put any effort into it. Or if they do start to learn, they soon give up. This is because when you first start to learn touch-typing, your speed and accuracy will be lower than hunt-and-peck. The short-term productivity gain of hunt-and-peck usually wins over the long term benefits of touch-typing.

2. Me: A touch-typist.

I learnt touch-typing around 7 years ago, while I was in college. A senior of mine -- James -- was a touch-typist and inspired by him I started learning. It took me around 3 months to be both reasonably fast and accurate. Since then I have always been touch-typing.

Right now, I average around 85 WPM (Word Per Minute). Which is pretty good and I usually beat people on type racer.

Which leads me to the question:

"Being a fairly good touch-typist, is there anyway I can further improve my keyboard productivity?"

Yes, I believe so. But before I talk about that, let me present some background.

3. Mouse Hand Switches

While interacting with any application I usually use:
  1. Only the keyboard.
  2. Only the mouse.
  3. Both keyboard and mouse. 
I'm quite productive in cases 1 and 2, but when it comes to case 3 (using both keyboard and mouse) my right hand is forced to perform a lot of switches from keyboard to mouse and vice-versa.

To given an example, say I'm reviewing a word document. The mouse is being used by the right hand to navigate through the document. The left hand rests on the keyboard. Now if I want to insert a comment:
  1. First, I will use the mouse to select the insert-command from the menu. 
  2. Then I will have to move my right hand back to the keyboard to start typing. 
  3. Finally, once I'm finished with the comment, I will move my right hand back to the mouse.
If the comments are short in length and plenty in number, this leads to a wastage of time because of frequent right hand switches.

4. Keyboard Shortcuts

The traditional alternative to avoid mouse hand switches, is to learn keyboard shortcuts. This is so that you avoid using the mouse as much as possible.

This still leads to problems:
  1. Not all commands have keyboard shortcuts; these commands can only be accessed through the mouse.
  2. It's hard to remember all the shortcuts of a particular application.
  3. Shortcuts change from application to application.
  4. Sometimes navigation is faster with a mouse.
The solution ...

5. One Handed Typing!

While using the mouse, your other hand is usually free and I would expect it to be on the keyboard. Now if you are a conventional touch-typist, you can type on the keyboard with your free hand, but that is restricted only to one half of the keyboard.

The reason is pretty simple. The touch typing method is so structured that the keys are divided between your two hands. When you become a proficient touch-typist, your right hand knows only the right side of the keyboard and the left hand knows only the left.

So to avoid mouse hand switches, you need to be able to type all over the keyboard with your one free hand!

6. One Hand Keyboard Layouts

One handed keyboard layouts have been around for quite some time. They have been designed for physically handicapped people or people who have lost function of one hand temporarily.

The prominent layouts are:
  1. Dvorak: There are layouts for both left and right hands. The key mappings are completely different from a standard QWERTY keyboard. All major operating systems support it and a QWERTY keyboard can be converted to Dvorak through software mapping. 
  2. Half-QWERTY: This layout is specifically for people who already know QWERTY based touch-typing. The keyboard uses standard QWERTY halves. Your hand rests on its natural QWERTY half. To type characters from the other half, you hold down the spacebar, which causes the characters from the other half to remap onto your hand's half, and type the characters.
  3. One-Hand-QWERTY: Your one hand types on the standard QWERTY layout. No hardware or software remapping is done.
Off the lot, I find the One-Hand-QWERTY method the most promising because the keyboard doesn't need to be remapped. So when you switch from one hand back to two hands, the remapping happens in your brain and not on the keyboard.

I want to learn the One-Hand-QWERTY method over the coming weeks. By doing so, I hope to cut down on the frequent right hand mouse-keyboard-mouse switches. It remains to be seen whether this experiment succeeds.

    Monday, 21 June 2010

    Mid-Year Resolution Review

    It's somewhere in the middle of the year and a good time to review the goals which I set out to achieve in January.
    1. Watch Avatar 3-D. Done. I first watched it in Fame, Shankarnag. The 3-D experience there was pathetic and thus was forced to watch it again in Fame, Lido. By the 3rd time the movie's charm had worn off.
    2. Take up drinking again. Done. Not really a tough thing to do. I got back to it soon after I finished the Mumbai Marathon. I celebrated the successful completion of the race with Shantanu, Ankita and Rajaram at the Mumbai airport, with a beer.
    3. Do a sub-20-min 5K. In Progress. At the outset itself I had realized that this is going to be a really tough goal. Till now I haven't even managed to do a sub-23-min 5K. One of the reasons being that for the past 2 months I haven't been focusing on this goal. A realistic goal at this stage might be to aim for a sub-22-min 5K by year-end instead.
    4. Lose weight. In Progress. I had put on a bit of extra weight after the Mumbai Marathon. Mainly due to the pre-race "carb-loading", where I went totally berserk with food, and the post-race celebrations. I'm happy to say that I have cut down on all the extra kilos gained. There is still some more fat which I can lose though. 
    5. Learn to swim properly. Not Done. I haven't put any planning or action into this. 
    6. Learn a new skill. Done (partial). OK there is no way anyone can claim to put a "Done" against a skill. There's always scope for more. I still mark it as done, as I pursued Latin Dance classes for 4 months which culminated in a performance in Kyra (a theater-restaurant in Bangalore). 
    7. Decrease unproductive time, while increasing productive time. In Progress. Again, this is something which I can't really mark as "Done" ever. But at the current stage I will mark this as "In Progress." Till now, I have read David Allen's "Getting Things Done."and am implementing its teachings with the help of my smart-phone and a really useful website called Todoist.

    Sunday, 13 June 2010

    The DF Dudes

    Yesterday my good friend Rakesh told me about the 'DF Dudes.' He was in BITS Pilani, to write an exam where he first discovered these guys, although I'm sure everyone knows people like these.

    The DF Dudes are categorized by their frequent usage of the words 'Dude' and 'F*ck'. Where the word 'Dude' is used to express disbelief. 'F*ck' is used to denote astonishment, as the prior object of disbelief turned out to be true. Each word is used in an elongated manner and should take at least 3 seconds to say. So 'Dude' is actually 'Doooooood' and 'F*ck' is 'Faaaaaack.'

    This shall become much clearer with examples:

    Example 1 --
    Guy 1: 'My flight is delayed by 2 hours.'
    DF Dude: 'Dooooood?!!'

    Guy 1: 'Seriously.'
    DF Dude: 'Faaaaaaack!'

    Example 2 --
    Guy 2: 'India won against Zimbabwe.'
    DF Dude: 'Doooooooood?!'

    Guy2: 'Seriously.'
    DF Dude: 'Faaaaaack!'

    So watch out for these DF dudes. Maybe you are one of them.

    P.S: Rakesh, sorry if you were planning to write a post on them.

    Saturday, 12 June 2010

    Two Statements

    I bring to your consideration two statements. The first from Ezra Klein in a Newsweek article, titled "How much Does a Gallon of Gas Cost?"

    One of the reasons we [referring to the U.S] drill wells far offshore and in countries with poor safety and environmental records is that we don't want oil companies mucking about in shallow waters near us.

    The second by U.S. state department spokesman P. J. Crowley in an article by the Hindu.
    Mr. Crowley today also noted that it was hard to draw a comparison between the Bhopal gas tragedy that left over 15,000 dead and the BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico now, saying the American companies were “very mindful and respectful” of the rules of the land when they operated overseas.

    Thursday, 10 June 2010

    Facebook Privacy Concerns

    Few days ago there was a lot of hullabaloo about Facebook's privacy settings. A number of newspapers and online media reported this. In my findings, there were 4 items which were targeted, namely:
    1. Articles questioned the way Facebook originated, highlighting the charges presented in a lawsuit which said that Mark Zuckerberg had stolen Facebook's idea from three of his seniors. 
    2. Later there were reports of some IM conversations between Zuckerberg and a college friend, which apparently highlighted Facebook's "cavalier attitude toward user privacy."
    3. There were also concerns regarding the complexity of Facebook's privacy settings. NYTimes calling it a "A bewildering tangle of options." One of the points presented in the NYTimes infographic being the length of Facebook's privacy policy, which is longer than the constitution of America, without amendments (a number of articles and tweets left out the "without amendments" part). 
    4. Then there were those who claimed that deleting a Facebook account is a "complex process" and as  Facebook didn't "provide an interface to delete your account" they had "crossed the border of unethical behavior."
    The privacy concerns debate also started online activist movements, couple of which I personally noted:
    1. Quit Facebook Day. A movement aimed at making Facebook users delete their accounts by May 31st 2010.
    2. Diaspora. Which calls itself an "open source social network" which is "privacy aware." It's being developed by 4 college students. NYTimes did an article on them in which the time needed to write the code for the social network system is given as "three or four months."
    To all these Facebook responded through:
    1. Elliot Schrage, vice president for public policy at Facebook, who answered privacy related questions on NYTimes.
    2. At a later stage, towards the end of May, Facebook updated their privacy settings UI aimed to "simplify the controls."
    Although the debate has more or less died down, I felt it worthwhile to investigate the news articles and the online activist movements. I have listed below my opinions regarding each.

    1. Questions regarding the origins of Facebook. There is no denying the fact that there was a lawsuit against Mark Zuckerberg. The judge presiding over the case said that the allegations were "tissue thin" and both the parties eventually agreed to settle. Most of the article seems to be based on speculation and story-telling. 
    2. Zuckerberg's IM conversations. The article says that in the IM conversation Zuckerberg was joking and also the conversation was presented out of context: "Could Mark have been completely joking? Sure." As far as I'm concerned drawing conclusions from anything presented out of context is wrong. I don't see how something like this could show "Facebook's aggressive attitude towards privacy." 
    3. Complexity of Privacy Settings and Length of Privacy Policy. I agree that the earlier privacy settings UI was quite deep and a novice user must have found it difficult. But for an advanced user, it did provide a greater amount of granularity. The privacy policy is lengthy, but it was compared against the American Constitution (without amendments). Most people, and many other articles which I read, tended to ignore the "without amendments" part and started believing that the privacy policy is lengthier than the American Constitution -- which is false. 
    4. Difficulty in deleting a Facebook account. I didn't find the procedure to delete a Facebook account difficult. Searching for "delete account" in the Facebook help center pulls up the link which guides you how to delete your account permanently. I don't think the process is complex and Facebook does provide an interface to delete your account. Facebook's decision to first deactivate your account before deleting it makes sense for three reasons. First, Facebook wants to retain you as a user. Second, if you mistakenly delete your account you have a means to revert your action. Third, if someone else hacks into your account and deletes it, you can recover.
    5. Quit Facebook Day. I would call this movement a failure. According to this PCWorld article only 26000 people committed to delete their accounts. Note that they only "committed" to delete their account. It doesn't mean that they actually did. 26000 is not a large number if you think about the total number of users in Facebook. The number of people committed to quit is only 0.005 percent.
    6. Diaspora. I find no point in speculating over how great a new online social networking site is going to be without it even having a sign-up page. 
    7. Facebook's UI Change. The recent UI change, I feel, does give novice users an easier interface to control their privacy settings while allowing advanced ones to achieve more granular control. That seems to have quietened the skeptics, at least for now. 
    I don't believe that Facebook is a company which doesn't do any evil. Just like Microsoft, Apple or Google, I'm sure that Facebook has skeletons in its closet. The point which I'm trying to make is that the media has been trying to concoct stories by wrongly interpreting facts or by paying no attention to facts.

        Wednesday, 9 June 2010

        The Return of the Passport Ordeal -I

        I'm in Delhi again and this time around it's not a vacation or illness. The reason I'm here is to get my passport renewed. Renewed, mind you, not reissued ... read on.

        Five years ago, after a lot of struggle, I was issued a passport. That passport was issued under the Tatkaal scheme. A scheme which allows people to obtain fresh passports within a week's time by paying an extra amount. The only catch being that these passports might only be valid for 5 years and not the whole 10 years. Such passports are called short term validity passports and mine is one of them.

        The problem with short term validity passports is that you can't, in passport terminology, get them reissued but only renewed. Reissue means that you get a fresh passport, provided your previous passport is nearing expiration. Renewal, on the other hand, means an extension of the validity period, from under 10 years, to the whole 10 years. For example, in my case the 5 years' validity will be extended to 10 years.

        Knowing all this, with complete forms, I went to the passport office. I reached there early enough to be the 6th or 7th person in the queue for the miscellaneous services (renewal is a miscellaneous service, unlike reissue). When I came to the front, I was told that renewal is going to take time ... 25 days (his exact words were "इसमें टाइम लगेगा; पचीस दिन"). He also gave me a bunch of other forms to fill. Now 25 days in babudom-speak can be an eternity. Also it requires another round of police verification.

        Hoping that there will be another faster route to get it done, I didn't submit the forms. After a lot of investigation and talking to people, it turns out there isn't any faster way.

        Given that I need to go for a US visa interview for my further studies, the delay in this passport renewal formality could become a disaster. My future hangs precariously.