News from TypeMatrix

I’ve just had an email reply from TypeMatrix. Two things really excite me:

1. They are intending to get Colemak skins printed very soon, and when they do they’ll be advertising it on their site.

2. They are trying to get their keyboards into schools to get them in front of children from an early age. The intention being that they’ll give kids the skins and let them choose between Qwerty, Colemak or Dvorak as they wish.

What a fantastic idea! If anyone has any ideas for participating in the experiment, i suggest you contact TypeMatrix!

Colemak on a mac

These are the steps that you need to take to get Colemak keyboard layout fully working on your iMac or MacBook, including remapping Caps Lock to Backspace.

Installing the layout

Download Colemak.keylayout and Colemak-Mac-Icons.zip. Unzip and put them in your ~/Library/Keyboard Layouts

Files for the Colemak keyboard layout

You will need to restart before they will be picked up by the system preferences.

Activating the layout

Having restarted, go to System Preferences -> Language & Text -> Input Sources and you should find Colemak as an available layout. You may want to tick “Show Input menu in menu bar” if you want an easy way to switch layouts. You can also play with the keyboard shortcuts for switching.

Enable Colemak layout

A tip for beginners: if you enable the “Keyboard & Character Viewer” at the top of the list then you can get a useful on-screen picture of the layout.

On-screen Colemak keyboard viewer

Mapping Caps Lock to Backspace

I found this is easily done with PCKeyboardHack. Download it, unzip it and install it. You will have to restart again, unfortunately. This is Serious Business we are doing here!

Having restarted, go to System Preferences -> PCKeyboardHack and tick the first option: Change Caps Lock to keycode 51 (Delete)

PCKeyboardHack change Caps Lock to Delete

It feels slightly slow to respond and you can’t press and hold to delete many characters at once. I didn’t think i’d keep it, but just as i’ve been writing this blog post i’ve found i’ve got used to it extremely quickly (actually that says more about the number of errors i’m making at the moment!)

In any case my TypeMatrix has the backspace in the middle, which i think is an excellent place for it, and i don’t wish to annoy the people i pair with who like to have Caps Lock as an extra Ctrl key.

But there you go – that’s how you do it if you want to! :)

Colemak keyboard layout

At eden lately there has been a surge of interest in the Colemak keyboard layout and TypeMatrix keyboards.

Colemak is an alternative keyboard layout to Qwerty, which as legend has it put the keys in a non-optimal position to slow people down on old typewriters in order to reduce jamming.

The diagonal arrangement of keys on most keyboards also harks back to the typewriter era. TypeMatrix avoids this historical baggage by arranging the keys in columns, and providing a hardware switch to both Colemak and Dvorak layouts.

TypeMatrix 2030 Colemak layout

My typing history

I switched to Dvorak almost ten years ago because i wanted a keyboard layout which was designed to be more efficient and comfortable to use than Qwerty. I became pretty fast on Dvorak: my typeracer average score was 97 words per minute.

For a few years i have suspected that Colemak is even better than Dvorak, and i would have switched sooner had i known that my TypeMatrix keyboard supports Colemak. You see, for pair programming, it’s really useful to have a keyboard with your chosen keyboard layout built in, otherwise you have to constantly change the settings on the operating system.

At the end of January, Tom Brand found out that TypeMatrix also enables Colemak. For some reason, they don’t advertise this fact anywhere! For the record, you press Fn+F5 and hey presto you’re in Colemak mode!

The deciding factor for me was this keyboard layout analyzer which allows you to type in your own text and see all sorts of statistics for different layouts. I tried it out with emails i have written, code samples and tweets, and in every case Colemak was significantly better for me than Dvorak (and of course, far better than Qwerty).

Learning Colemak

 #colemak typing practice at lunchtime with @tom_b025 on our ... on Twitpic

So at the beginning of February i started learning Colemak. I have been using aTypeTrainer4Mac which has a horrible user interface, but actually works really well in encouraging you with your progress, moving up through the levels at an appropriate pace.

In the middle of February i had a holiday during which i did a lot of Colemak practice, and used Colemak almost exclusively, so that when i came back to eden i was ready to pair program with Colemak.

I am still quite slow going, and have to apologise for all my mistakes, but for the last two weeks i have been getting better all the time. It is starting to come more naturally to me now, patterns are getting stored in my brain, and it feels really comfortable.

Colemak compared to Dvorak

 my lovely new "colemak" keyboard skin! thanks to @... on Twitpic

Only now that i’ve switched to Colemak can i realise the flaws of Dvorak. The L was a strain, and i did not like the second finger stretches to Y and F. It turns out the G and J are much more sensible characters to put there.

It’s great to have the X, C and V back to where they were on Qwerty, as well as the comma and full stop, and all the symbol characters. Not that i need to look anyway: my new TypeMatrix skin has none of those keys marked!

My best typeracer Colemak speed so far has been 44 words per minute. Not a patch on my previous Dvorak speed, but i will keep practising and hope one day to break 100 words per minute.

On teaching kids Colemak

I was recently asked whether Colemak/TypeMatrix would be good for school children to learn. Whilst i hate to think that the baggage of the past continues to be passed on to another generation, the truth is that we still live in a Qwerty world.

TypeMatrix keyboards are expensive, and Colemak isn’t easily available on all computers (unlike Dvorak). TypeMatrix does not yet make a Colemak skin, and the skins they do make look cluttered because of the overlap with the function keys. I enormously prefer the blank layout, but i can’t imagine many kids getting on too well with that!

I don’t know what the answer is just yet. I’d like to see more people realise the benefits of Colemak as a superior keyboard layout and make the switch. I would also like to see more Colemak keyboards made that don’t require downloading any software or switching any settings.

Maybe as a society we can begin to wean ourselves off the hangups of obsolete 19th century typing equipment and get used to a 21st century solution!

Learning from my apprentices

I feel truly blessed to have the opportunity to be a mentor to my apprentices Alberto and despo. I am finding that i am really enjoying the role, and i feel such a sense of compassion and pride for my apprentices.

Whenever i pair with anyone, i always learn something. Although i am spending much of my time consciously teaching, to also learn from my apprentices by pairing with them gives me such a good feeling.

Thanks to despo, i am now using iTerm instead of Terminal. I have been encouraged finally to use Enrique’s Vim Ruby Refactoring tool, we have set up spork and autospec, and i have learnt about RSpec’s nested format. Together we both found out how to use RSpec shared examples today.

Importantly, despo is helping me to realise that i have a tendency to hold too much in my head, and try to do too much at once. I am grateful to despo for restraining me from racing ahead too fast, and for reminding me to do one thing at a time. It is good for me to realise what i need to do to become better at teaching.

I have not yet had the opportunity to pair for more than a few hours with Alberto, but i know i will get the chance soon, and i know i will learn new things from Alberto too, which excites me no end! :)