Puffy goes Pacman!

This post reveals a new Arch distribution: ArchBSD/Open! I know that this comes unexpectedly; I was surprised, too, after all. In fact it was just by accident that I learned about the new project that will be officially announced on the OpenBSD Journal any day now.

The new distro’s leaked logo

A bit of background

Arch Linux is a Linux distro that is small, simple and light-weight. And it has pacman! This combination proves to be a real success story. Besides Arch Linux we have today: Arch LinuxARM, ArchBang, ArchHurd and probably even more Arches!

Right, one of these other ones is ArchBSD – I’ve blogged about it almost two years ago. It is still around, so it obviously managed to survive. It’s a nice little distro but there’s one thing wrong with it: The name! Why that? Because it is a FreeBSD distribution and even FreeBSD users admit now and then that this is not the only BSD system out there! Right now all other BSD systems are discriminated against. This is a situation both unacceptable and unbearable which must come to an end immediately! It is a matter of life and deathjuice … justice!

Promised some background, eh? Here’s a daemon police wallpaper!

To reflect the fact that it is not the only BSD, the project totally needs to change the name to ArchBSD/Free.

A petition that will force the maintainers with tens of thousands of signatures will soon be started. Feel free to hop over to their forum and tell them that their project name downright sucks, if you can’t wait. Explain why and start demanding that the project be renamed. And while you are at it, tell ‘em that ArchBSD/Free is so much cooler, anyway! It sounds more important, it’s more precise, more fun and more to type!

Puffy loves Pacman

There are three reasons why ArchBSD/Open was created. The first one is: With ArchBSD’s name change to ArchBSD/Free the need arose to provide an ArchBSD/something because otherwise that addition to the name would just sound stupid and be superfluous.

The second one: The world needs more Arch!!

That and the fact that Puffy just loves pacman (well, everybody does, right?)!

With so many good reasons for it, it was just a matter of time until a dedicated team formed to make the dream come true. Now the work for it is finally done and will soon be made public.

Puffy loves pacman!

Release time

Well, while the product is already completed, there’s of course one little detail which blocks the publication. No, it’s not even something technical. Or perhaps it is. Depends on how you look at it. The problem is: The webpage is not done, yet! Yeah, it’s the simple things in life which can cause the biggest trouble.

So what’s the release date? Unfortunately there’s no release date currently. Why? Ok, ok, if you absolutely must know, I’ll tell you. All technical difficulties of bringing Pacman to OpenBSD were solved rather quickly. But despite the team’s best efforts they have not been able to agree on the website design! Er, that is, there is no design, yet, which to agree on…

Think about it for a minute and you’ll see why: FreeBSD’s mascot is Beastie. He’s a daemon with a fork (and rather awkward shoes for whatever reason – probably he just likes them). That’s an easy mascot to work with as it is not hard at all to imagine an Arch daemon: A bigger, badder and probably even redder version of Beastie. But OpenBSD’s mascot is Puffy! Now how on earth does an Arch Blowfish look like and how to come up with a nice theme where it fits in?!

There have been voices inside the team to just make a simple webpage for now and get the release done. The OS was more important than the theme after all. Those ignorants have been kicked off the team of course and their access revoked. That’s a bit harsh? No, not at all! Sorry, this is OpenBSD after all. You cannot make a release without high quality artwork!

Puffy shot first! An example of the very nice OpenBSD artwork

Oh, stop complaining now, will you? If it weren’t for one of the expelled, I wouldn’t have learned about the project’s existence and that means you, too, wouldn’t. Now the big question is: Will ArchBSD/Open ever be released? *sigh* Frankly speaking, I don’t know. I didn’t manage to make contact with the project leader.

But after trying to get in contact for weeks now there’s one thing that I can say for sure: The whole team leaves a rather fishy impression!

TEK – The “Truly Ergonomic Keyboard”

This post is a review of the Truly Ergonomic Keyboard (or TEK for short). This keyboard is very different from any keyboard that I’ve head so far. And since it is not exactly cheap (about 190 EUR or 250 USD!) I thought that I’d write about it so people who think about buying it can read some facts first.

My last two posts were about closely related topics: 1) keyboards, ergonomics, touch-typing and common typist’s injuries and 2) alternative keyboard layouts. I’ve already made clear that I love my TEK there and in fact I’m so enthusiastic about it that I’m going to buy a second one for work as soon as I can afford it.

Truly Ergonomic Ltd.

With such a name the company won’t win a modesty award for sure! And the claim “A revolution in typing” is quite bold, too. But then again, there’s absolutely no need for being modest if you sell a product like that. IMHO this Canadian company could rightfully claim to have re-invented the keyboard or created a “keyboard 2.0″ / “keyboard reloaded” or whatever you want to call it. There are just so many things about the TEK that I’m having a hard time to decide where to start.

The company’s website of course explains a lot of things about the keyboard. I will of course mention everything that I deem important. But I’ll try to focus on my personal user experience with the TEK.

The dust cover that comes with the keyboard – a simple but useful idea!

A radical new approach

The first thing that you notice when you look at it is that the TEK reorganized the key positioning quite strongly. The letter keys stay in the same place compared to the classic keyboard layout. The same is true for the numbers, the Fx keys and the cursor (or arrow) keys. Same with Shift, Esc and so on. But this is more or less it.

Leaving the letter keys in their common position is a good choice because the TEK asks enough of you when you have to re-learn a lot of positions for the other keys. Most importantly: Return, Backspace and Del move from right of the letter keys to in-between. They are placed right in the middle of the keyboard. This feels very odd at first because typically you’ve been familiar with a position to the right for many years. It takes a few hours to get somewhat used to it and, at least for me, it took more than a week to feel “natural”.

The symmetric design makes the TEK look very nice. But aesthetics is of course not the real reason for such a radical re-design. Just as you would have guessed, the real motivation is – ergonomics! The little finger (aka “pinkie”) for example is much weaker than your other fingers. But instead of putting less strain on it, the classical keyboard requires you to use this finger for the Return and Backspace keys which are frequently used during the work day. Re-positioning these two keys so you can use your strong fingers for them makes a lot of sense from this perspective.

The TEK follows a very different keyboard design!

The Ctrl keys – required for a lot of key combinations – take the place of Caps lock and Return on the classical layout. Caps lock is a key most people use very rarely – if ever. Wasting the space of a nice big key for such a useless one is a shame. This is something not only the developers of the TEK have realized. There are some new laptop keyboards which simply remove the Caps lock key completely. The TEK moves it to the position below the Fx keys instead to make room for the left Ctrl.

Moving the Pg up, Pg down, Home and End keys to the left as another cross like the cursor keys, proves to be an excellent idea. I used these keys less frequently before because they were not within direct reach from the home row. Actually I didn’t even pay attention to that and it only came to my attention after using them really often on the TEK (to e.g. go to the beginning or end of a line). Whenever I’m typing on an ordinary keyboard now, this feels lacking an important feature: Those four keys without having to move the right hand off the letter keys!

Another useful thing (even though I don’t really use it) is the placement of the Fn key right below the Fx keys. You surely know this key from many laptops which however place it in the lower left corner of the keyboard. And that means you’ll need both hands to really use it (or completely over-stretch your fingers which is a very bad idea on the long run!). The Fn key on the TEK is in a much more reasonable position.

There’s exactly one design decision that I disagree with: Making Tab a small key is not a very bright idea. And I’m pretty sure that more people will think the same in this regard. Tab – the key for auto completion on the terminal! – a small key… However this is not really a problem. Why? Just follow along and see.

Fully customizable layout

Annoyed by the Tab thing? Well, just re-map that key. No, no, you don’t have to go through the pain of configuring your xmodmap on Linux or figuring out how to do something like that in Windows if you use it (or are forced to do so). You also don’t have to re-configure your keyboard on every computer you might attach it to. Why? Because there’s the Custom Layout Designer where you can create your own layout with ease.

Once you are done, you can download that layout and then flash the TEK’s firmware – so your changes are made directly inside the keyboard and thus completely independent of the computers you might plug it into later!

This is an extremely lovely feature. Think about it: The possibilities to customize your TEK are almost limitless. For example I’ve mapped Ctrl back to the lower corners of the keyboard and put Caps lock on the former Ctrl keys (remember that I’m using the sophisticated Neo² layout which uses Caps lock to access other layers with different characters for the keys). I’ve also re-mapped Return to the left Space key because I feel that two of them are a waste of keys. And thus the former Return key, a nice big one in an excellent position, is free for mapping Tab on it!

The layout designer is not only extremely easy to use. It also makes sharing your layouts a simple thing, since a link (a pretty long one of course) is created for it. View the layout that I use right now here as an example, if you wish.

Back side of the TEK: You can see the DIP switches here

On the back of the keyboard there are some DIP switches. Click on the image for a bigger version to have a closer look. With these you can change between Windows/Linux and Mac mode, choose the base layout for some countries (or for Dvorak) and if firmware flashing is allowed. Mine is set to German (DE).

The fully programmable custom layout is the one of the killer features of the TEK for me. There are only two things that I can criticize: For one the layout designer does not produce images with the current version of the firmware (v3.40 instead of v4.0 which the keyboard came with). I don’t know when they’re going to update the layout designer. For me it is nothing urgent as everything that I need works very well with v3.40 as well.

The second point is the more important one for me: Currently there’s only a Windows program to flash the TEK’s firmware! Probably not a problem for a lot of people who have at least one Windows machine. I don’t. And since I didn’t trust Wine or wanted to flash from VirtualBox or something, I had to set up a Windows machine to flash my TEK. This made me do something I didn’t want to do again – ever. While having breakfast I installed Windows 2000 on an old laptop. Then the service packs, etc… Ok, I’ll skip over the details. The outcome was that I was able to flash the keyboard and I did so quite a few times until I was satisfied with the layout.

I really hope that Truly Ergonomic releases a flashing software for Linux somewhen. OS X is probably first but anyway even this would be a huge step ahead IMHO. While I don’t have a Mac and thus would not directly benefit from it, it would at least give you a choice – and make a Linux version much more likely. ;)

More characteristics

Another pretty obvious fact is the very small size of the TEK. Truly Ergonomic Inc. advertise this as a huge benefit because the mouse can be closer to the keyboard – effectively reducing the way your hand travels whenever you switch between keyboard and mouse. I admit that I disregarded this point before I had the keyboard: There might be a theoretical benefit but it ought to be so little that you don’t ever notice it! Now I have the TEK and my mouse is much closer to the keyboard. Guess what: it feels good! I’m still using a Natural Ergonomic 4000 by Microsoft at work. And there really is a difference when it comes to a keyboard to mouse switch. It’s perfectly noticeable! So this is not just marketing after all.

The box which the TEK ships in

Less obvious is another strong point of the TEK: It uses mechanical key switches. In case you have no idea what this means I encourage you to do a bit of reading. For short: Most standard keyboards use a “rubber dome” technique to trigger a keypress. This is cheap to produce and is of rather low quality compared to other types of keyboards. Mechanical keyboards use a separate and independent mechanical switch for every single key and the key triggers at the moment you press it about half the way down. There’s actually no reason to press it all the way down. And thanks to the switches the keys are what is called “tactile”. It’s hard to describe the real difference while typing. Try it out for yourself if you’ve got the chance. I’ve come to like the mechanical switches of the TEK and many other people love the switches of e.g. Das Keyboard, a popular mechanical keyboard that uses them as well.

Another detail is that the keys of the TEK do not follow the standard key arrangement of placing them vertically staggered but in a straight line horizontally. In fact it follows the opposite approach – and this is a great idea! You won’t believe how much of a difference it makes if you didn’t feel it yourself. Our fingers do not all have the same length. The key arrangement of the TEK honors exactly this fact.

Remaining things

The TEK is advertised to be compatible with Windows, OS X and Linux. I’ve also used it together with FreeBSD and OpenBSD – just like you’d expect everything is fine of course.

Before purchasing this gem I read quite some reviews of course. There were complains from people who had problems with the so-called “ghosting” and such or needed to “type in” their keyboard before everything worked right. I never had such problems. My TEK worked from the moment on that I first connected it to my PC. But then again this was most likely an issue with the old 207 and 209 models and seems to be solved with the 229 that I own.

The only real problem that I noticed was that the embedded Num Pad (which can be switched on and off) behaves strangely and is not of much use. Since I don’t really depend on it, I simply don’t use it. However for some people this may be a total no-go. This is probably fixed by the firmware v4.0, but I didn’t try it out.

It’s much more of a shame that the TEK is only offered with an US layout. Again this is not much of a problem for me. But my wife is not happy with this at all. And as you can all imagine, this is NOT good (and does certainly not help to convince her that I need to spend so much money again to buy a second one!). Would be great if you could choose between some common keyboard layouts. I’d even be willing to spend some more money for a German one!

Back side of the box which shows some features of the TEK

Also many people wrote that the support of Truly Ergonomic Inc. is lousy and it takes extremely long to get an answer at all. I cannot say anything about this since I never had to contact them. (I’m thinking about writing to them about the Num Pad issue – if I do, I’ll update this article with the answer.)

Another thing is the detachable palm rest. I like it the way it is and never attempted to take it off. But I think for some people it may be nice to have an even smaller keyboard.

Depending on what you prefer, there are different models of the TEK. One model with wide Alt keys (model 227) which Emacs users will love and one with two normal-sized keys instead of one wide Alt (model 229). And then there’s an “MX brown”-compatible (soft tactile) and an “MX blue”-compatible (clicky tactile) version of either model. I’ve got 229 brown and that’s loud enough for me (at least until I finally learn not to push the keys down to the bottom!).

Conclusion

The TEK is not a keyboard for everyone. It is too expensive for many people and too different from the style everybody is used to. But for people who type a lot, who are willing to invest a bit of time to re-learn things and who take advantage of its special features (like the customizable layout), it is pretty close to the ultimate solution. It is well-thought-out in just about any area. A plastic dust cover for example is such a simple yet very effective thing!

The flaws that the TEK has are very few and mostly nothing too problematic. A choice between the US layout and some others printed on the keys would be my biggest wish, closely followed by a flashing software for Linux. However I guess that an updated layout designer to feature firmware version v4.0 is more likely – and of course I’d appreciate that as well.

Perhaps some of these wishes might come true if the TEK reached a much wider audience. Maybe even the price could be reduced then so that again more people could afford it. Ergonomics is an important topic when it comes to progress in the IT field. The TEK is not the only keyboard which tries to implement ergonomic considerations. But it is a very good one.

If you consider doing something about Ergonomics, to get a new keyboard and try out an alternative layout like Neo², Colemak or Dvorak, I suggest learning the alternative layout first. Trying to get used to a new layout while trying to adopt to a new keyboard will almost certainly fail. And learning a new layout is by far the bigger task – so it makes perfect sense to learn it on the keyboard that you are used to and make the switch afterwards.

Keyboards, layouts and ergonomics (pt. 2)

This is the second part of my article about ergonomic keyboards and keyboard layouts. In the first part I wrote about different characteristics of keyboards, touch-typing, typical injuries of people typing frequently and my first experience with an ergonomic keyboard: A curved keyboard from Microsoft.

Better ergonomics

Probably too late (I already suffered from pain in my hands) I decided to get one of Microsoft’s “Natural Ergonomic 4000″ keyboards. It’s quite a bit more expensive than the average keyboard but I hoped that it was worth the money.

The initial impression was at least ambiguous – or probably even negative. I could see the idea behind the ergonomic design and wanted to believe that its wavy style was superior to the simpler curved one. But the whole thing is a true beast of a keyboard! It’s very big. No, actually it is huge – and not only in length but also in height. The later is a problem if you (like me) have a sliding board under your desk where you put the keyboard. Chances are that it won’t fit there. And then, for a personal view, it is really ugly.

Microsoft’s Natural Ergonomic 4000 Keyboard (german layout) – This was my prefered model until now

It wasn’t easy to develop a friendly attitude towards that thing. The first day I used it, I had to switch to my old keyboard again to enter my boot passphrase. I’m the kind of guy who cannot remember his passwords but knows pretty well which keys he presses. And so it was nearly impossible for me to enter a long password at first because the keyboard felt very different from anything I had ever typed on before.

Another thing is the split design; I used to type the ‘b’ key with my right hand for example. This was no longer feasible with the new keyboard thanks to the gab. This was a major nuisance until I realized that it was not the keyboard getting in my way but in fact a bad habit of mine. From this perspective the new keyboard even helped me to get rid of that bad habit and I’m quite happy with that fact now. As I was getting used to it this became less and less of a problem (the same is true for the passwords). It took me about two weeks to adopt the new style enough to type without pressing the wrong key too often. After a bit more than a month things started to feel alright again. My typing speed however was reduced for many months and I felt that I never actually reached my best times again. But the reason for that was not the keyboard. It was myself choosing to learn a new layout.

National keyboard layouts

While the US keyboard layout can be found around the world when it comes to servers, it simply does not qualify for most languages. This is perfectly clear for the Russian Cyrillic alphabet, the Greek one or the Asian languages. But also most European languages which use the Latin alphabet as well, have additional characters which English does not have. This is why there are so many national keyboard layouts.

The default German layout (from Wikipedia)

However the additional characters come at a price: Some other characters are moved and may even require a combination of keys. The German keyboard is a fine example of a very bad keyboard layout today. It features the umlauts (Ä,Ö,Ü) and other characters, but some special characters are not very convenient to reach. In the days of typewriters it may have been ok because you would not need characters like the backslash, curly braces and so on. These examples are located in hard to reach places with AltGr+Plus sign, AltGr+7 and AltGr+0. The problem is that you need them a lot on the computer. Just think how often you need the curly braces if you’re a programmer… You see the trouble.

A lot of programmers in Germany actually just use the US keymap for work. I can work with US pretty well, too, but this is not the ultimate solution. Fortunately there are the so-called alternative layouts.

Optimized keyboard layouts

In the English world Dvorak is the best known one. It has the same characters as the default US keyboard but another layout. A lot of people claim that they can type faster with this layout. The idea here is that the letters which are most often used in English are placed on the home row (this is the “start position” where touch-typists have their fingers when they start typing). This sounds like a good idea but critics claim that there’s barely an improvement in speed it at all. I’ve never used Dvorak so I cannot say much about it.

The Colemak layout (from Wikipedia)

There’s also a less well-known alternative for the English keyboard that is a more modern variant: The Colemak layout. If you are mostly typing English text you may really want to try it out. It’s meant as an even bigger improvement over Dvorak – and it adds a lot of characters from other European languages! Whether you need a Spanish Ñ, Scandinavic Å or Turkish Ç – no problem. While I’ve never used it myself I must say that it sounds pretty good.

And then there’s the most advanced layout that I know of: NEO². It’s a modern re-organisation of the German keyboard that considers letter frequency of both German and English. It uses several dead keys (keys which do not produce a character themselves but modify the next key pressed adding an accent or something to a letter) and has six (!) layers. Thanks to that it can create special characters like the whole Greek alphabet (in lower and upper case) and dozens of special symbols. Thanks to that unique flexibility you can use it for pretty much any language which uses Latin letters!

The 1st layer of the NEO² layout (from Wikipedia)

The letters are the following: Every normal key press is layer 1. Shift+key press is for layer 2. Caps lock+key produces a layer 3 symbol. And so on. Isn’t it great to finally have a good use for that nice big key below tab? Another cool thing is that this layout is already shipping with X11. So in the Unix world it is always just one “setxkbmap de neo -option” away!

Re-learning to type

I admit that I knew about alternative layouts for years but I never cared to take a look. When I finally did, I decided to give NEO² a try. It was self-evident that it would not be easy to fight two decades of QWERTZ writing. And yes, I was in for a fair share of pain. I had to learn a new keyboard completely from scratch. Damn, where was that letter again? I decided to practice a few minutes every day and after some time I found the right letters after thinking a few seconds. My WPM (words per minute) literally dropped to < 10!

As a (previously) fast typist this was a very distressing experience and I can see why quite some people quit instead of really finishing the migration. It takes a lot of resolve and endurance. But hey, there's no free lunch! I decided to stick with it and kept getting better and better. One day I found that I could reach 20 WPM again, then 30. You can imagine my relief when I hit 50 again. Now I could type fluently type texts with NEO².

After taking a one more week to learn the most important special characters and feeling bold one day I decided to switch my layout at work. The password problem was back again and for some weeks I switched layouts back and forth when I had to enter passwords. But it was only a matter of time until this was no longer necessary.

I've been writing NEO² for quite a while now and I'm still failing to hit 70 WPM on random text. Since I quit practicing after reaching 50 this is pretty much ok, I think. Was it worth the trouble to switch over to a new layout? You bet it was! Learning NEO² was one of the best decisions I've made in the computer field next to abandoning the Windows platform. I can only recommend it to everybody who is interested in this kind of thing. Invest some time – it really pays off.

What’s next?

The next post will finally feature my review of the TEK (Truly Ergonomic Keyboard).

Keyboards, layouts and ergonomics (pt. 1)

This post is about keyboards, keyboard layouts and… ergonomics. No surprise here if you’ve read the title! But how come that I write about such a topic? Well, I’ve invested some of the money I got from my family for Christmas and bought a new keyboard. I was a bit skeptical at first because I’d really regret having spent my money on it if it wasn’t really good (as it hasn’t exactly been a cheap one). However just days later I begun asking myself how I could have ever typed with something else. And after a few more days all that I do regret is the fact that I’ve typed for way more than 20 years on more or less conventional keyboards!

Yes, I’ve been going on a lot of people’s nerves praising my new gem. So I figured that I might as well complete the circle and publish my pean here on the blog, too! (Ok, the more serious reason is that I’m suffering from severe pain in my hands like many people who type a lot and that I’d like to talk about today’s possibilities to avoid this.)

This first part deals with a few general things about keyboards and the problems that typists often have. The second part will be about optimizing your typing with alternate layouts and the actual review of my new keyboard.

Edit (03/01/2015): I’ve finally managed to add the pictures that I wanted to have in the article right from the beginning…

Any keyboard does the job, right?

If all you want is to play computer games or enter your password when you log in – probably yes. Even though it’s funny that there are “gaming keyboards” which can also be rather costly. But that’s a very different case and story.

For simple things every keyboard suffices. I own an old laptop that I still use sometimes just for the very reason that I can. Its keyboard misses some keys which makes it not all too pleasant to type on. But still it’s possible. Honestly: I have no clue how many keyboards I’ve had over the years that had some keys no longer working or no longer work properly. May it be due to Cola making some keys stick together or a worn off space bar which would only trigger if you pressed it with a considerable amount of force.

Microsoft’s Comfort Curve Keyboard 2000 (german layout) – the first ergonomic keyboard I had was such a model

I used to retire those keyboards from daily use (simply because they were annoying to work with) but usually kept them somewhere – just in case. You never know if you’d ever need them again, do you? Eventually I got rid of them. But in fact I actually did have a use for them a few times now and then!

So I can say that I’ve had quite a few keyboards in my life and that probably anyone does the job – depending on what that job is!

A matter of taste

There are a lot of different keyboards out there and in many aspects it really is a matter of taste. Some people like black keyboards while others want a white one. There are people who think it’s cool if the keys have background light. Some prefer the flat keys which you often find on laptops these days – others hate them. While many people like keys which do not need much force to be pressed, there are also those that prefer the opposite. Often I hear that somebody would never again purchase a wired keyboard but I know at least as many people who don’t like wireless ones.

It’s not hard to see that there just cannot be one single “perfect” keyboard for everybody. People have different needs and this alone defeats the idea of one universal best keyboard. And as long as you don’t type a lot it probably remains just a matter of taste. However if you type on a daily base this may no longer be the case. Right: No matter how much you type, the color remains pretty irrelevant. But other characteristics are worth a closer look at.

Microsoft’s Natural Multimedia Keyboard (german layout) – an older model with a PS/2 connector that I bought second-hand

But when are you “typing a lot”? If you can only type less than 30 WPM (words per minute) even if your life depends on it, you probably don’t qualify. Which of course doesn’t mean that you could not benefit from thinking about your keyboard again (everybody should try to get the right tool after all, right?). If you type faster than 40 words, you’ve clearly typed enough in your life to make it worthwhile thinking about how you type. Especially if you write “Eagle Finger” (“hunt and peck”) or use “your own system” as a whole lot of people do.

Typing – or typing properly

It’s perfectly sensible if people who barely type at all don’t bother to learn to touch-type. Unfortunately a surprisingly high amount of people who type regularly think the same. Why on earth to invest some time and effort that pays off hundredfold and thousandfold? Yeah, why? Just wait a minute – thousandfold? That’s a lot. And yes, I do mean it.

I had the luck to learn to touch-type properly when I was still at school. The hours that I needed for training were relatively few. After I knew where all the keys were (without looking), I just typed and typed and kept improving my skills while I was primarily doing other things. Even in a very pessimistic calculation the time that I saved thanks to proper typing by the end of the year was way more than the time I had “lost” by type training in the first place. Then it started to pay off and really saved me time for other things. And best of all: It still does and will continue to do so for all of my work life and probably beyond that.

Well, I’m the “typealot” kind of guy; I’ve been typing whole books into my pc at younger years because I can read texts written in Gothic type style (aka. black letter) pretty well – and being interested in history, I thought that preserving old writings which are no longer copyrighted was cool. So learning touch-typing has paid off more than thousandfold for me. Might be a bit less for the casual typist, but I cannot recommend learning to touch-type often enough. If you’re using a computer regularly (and chances are, since you are reading a blog like this!), invest that time. Unless you are an old guy who is already counting the days left to retirement pension, you will benefit from learning it.

Ergonomics in keyboards

When I talk to young people about Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI), Tenosynovitis or Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS), they tend to dismiss it: “Ah, why should I of all people get this?”. I can fully understand that. Why? ’cause I’ve been young myself and used to think right the same then.

The rigid splint I’m wearing against the pain

As I grew older I begun taking these possibilities more serious – at least a bit. I had heard about those “ergonomic keyboards” that Microsoft was selling. More out of curiosity than of anything else I bought one of those “curved” things. Thinking of the conventional keyboard as the “normal” form, I found it strange at first. But I could type on it pretty well and it felt alright. It took me less than three days to adapt to the new keyboard and it was not too different from the conventional ones so that I had no problem typing on those, too.

I got more of these and used such keyboards for years. Not because the ergonomic design promised to protect my hands, but because I liked how it felt to type on it. Then I begun to suffer from Tenosynovitis. At first I just thought that I had a temporary problem with my right hand and that it would go away soon. It went away, yes. But it has been coming back again and again. Then I got it in the other hand as well. In the end there were only “better days” and worse ones. In the meantime I have a rigid splint that helps a bit but is also not very comfortable to wear the whole work day so I use it only on the bad days.

The rigid splint’s top side

So are those ergonomic keyboards a fraud? Mine didn’t save me from getting an injury after all! Well, I’m not really sure about the curved keyboard that I had in this regard. It might simply have happened even earlier on a conventional keyboard. But then there are even people who say that those keyboards are not any better than the ordinary ones. I wouldn’t go as far as that but they are probably far less effective than those marketing guys want you to believe. Still this would be the kind of keyboard that I’ll give to my children when they begin to type. Why? Because I think that it’s slightly better than the conventional form but still close enough to it so you can switch between them without much trouble (and let’s face it: There are simply far more ordinary keyboards out there!).

What’s next?

I switched to another ergonomic keyboard quite a while ago and learned an alternative layout. And finally I got what I consider a really great keyboard. That’s what I’ll blog about in the next post.

An interview with the Nanolinux developer

2014 is nearly over and for the last post this year I have something special for you again. Last year I posted an interview with the EDE developer and I thought that another interview would conclude this year of blogging quite fine.

In the previous post I reviewed Nanolinux (and two years ago XFDOS). Since I was in mail contact with the author about another project as well, it suggested itself that I’d ask him if he’d agree to give me an interview. He did!

So here’s an interview with Georg Potthast (known for a variety of projects: DOSUSB, Nanolinux and Netrider – to just name some of them) about his projects, the FLTK toolkit, DOS and developing Open Source software in general. Enjoy!

Interview with Georg Potthast

This interview was conducted via email.

Please introduce yourself first: How old are you and where are you from?

I am 61 years old and live in Ahlen, Germany. This is about 30 minutes drive from Dortmund where they used to brew beer and where the BVB Dortmund soccer team is currently struggling.

Do you have any hobbies which have nothing to do with the IT sector?

Not really. I did some Genealogy, which has to do a lot with IT these days. But now I have several IT projects I am working on.

DOS

You’re involved in the FreeDOS community and have put a lot of effort into XFDOS. A lot of people shake their heads and mumble something like “It’s 2014 now and not 1994…” – you know the score. What is your motivation to keep DOS alive?

I have been using DOS for a long time and wish it would not go away completely. So I developed these DOS applications, hoping to get more people to use DOS. But I have to agree that I have not been successful with that.

Potential software developers find only very few users for their applications which is demotivating. Also there is simply no hardware available today that is limited so much that you better use DOS on it. Everything is 32/64 bit, has at least 4 GB of memory and terabytes of disk space. And even the desktop PC market is suffering from people moving to tablets and smartphones.

People are still buying my DOSUSB driver frequently. They are using it mostly for embedded applications which shall not be ported to a different operating system for one reason or another.

Do you have any current plans regarding DOS?

I usually port my FLTK applications to DOS if it is not too much effort to do so. So they are available for Linux, Windows and DOS. Such as my FlDev IDE (Link here).

Recently I made a Qemu/FreeDOS bundle named DOS4WIN64 (Link here) that you can run as an application on any Windows 7/8 machine. This includes XFDOS. I see this as a path to run 16bit applications on 64bit Windows.

How complicated and time consuming is porting FLTK applications from Linux to DOS or vice versa?

It depends on the size and the dependencies on external libraries. I usually run ./configure on Linux and then copy the makefile to DOS where I replace-lXlib with -lNXlib plus -lnano-X. Then, provided the required external libraries could be downloaded from the djgpp site, it will compile if the makefile is not too complicated (recursive). Sometimes I also compile needed libraries for DOS which is usually not difficult if they have a command line interface.

You then have to test if all the features of the application work on DOS and make some adjustments here and there. Often you can use the Windows branch if available for the path definitions.

Porting DOS applications to Linux can be more complicated than vice versa.

Linux

For how long have you been using Linux?

I have been using Linux on and off. I began using SCO-Unix. However, I did not like setting things up with configuration files (case sensitive) scattered over many directories. It took me over a week to get serial communications to work to connect a modem. When I asked Linux developers for help they recommended to recompile the kernel first – which means they did not know how to do that either. So I returned to DOS at that time. But I have been using Linux a lot for several years now.

What is your distribution of choice and why?

I mainly use SUSE but I think Ubuntu may work just as well. This may sound dull but you do not have to spend time on adding drivers to the operating system or porting the libraries you need. The mainstream Linux distributions are well tested and documented and you do not have to spend the time to tailor the distro to your needs. They do just much more than you need so you are all set to start right away.

My own distro, Nanolinux, is a specialized distro which is meant to show how small a working Linux distro can be. It can be used on a flash disk, as an embedded system, a download on demand system or to quickly switch to Linux from within Windows.

However, if you have a 2 Terabyte hard disk available I would not use Nanolinux as the main distribution.

FLTK

Which programming languages do you prefer?

I like Assembler. To be able to use X11 and FLTK I learned C and C++ which I currently use. I have not done any assembler in a while though.

You seem to like the idea of minimalism. Do you do use those minimalist applications on a daily base or are they more of a nice hobby?

Having a DOS and assembler background I always try not use more disk space than necessary. Programming is just my hobby.

Many of your projects use the FLTK toolkit. Why did you choose this one and not e.g. FOX?

I had ported Nano-X to DOS to provide an Xlib alternative for DOS developers. In addition I ported FLTK to DOS as well since FLTK can be used on the basis of Nano-X. So I am now used to FLTK.

Compared to the more common toolkits, FLTK suffers from a lack of applications. Which three FLTK applications that don’t exist (yet) do you miss the most?

I think FLTK is a GUI toolkit for developers, so it is not so important what applications are available based on FLTK.

If you look at my Nanolinux – given I add the NetRider browser and my FlMail program to the distro – it comes with all the main office applications done in FLTK. However, the quality of these applications is not as good as Libre Office, Firefox or Gimp. I do not expect anyone to write Libre Office with a FLTK GUI.

When you awake at night, a strange light surrounds you. The good FOSS fairy floats in the air before you! She can do absolutely everything FOSS related; whether it’s FLTK 3 being completed and released this year, a packaging standard that all Linux distros agree on or something a bit less unlikely. ;) She grants you three wishes!

As with FLTK 3 I wish it would change its name and the development would concentrate on FLTK 1.3.

Regarding the floating fairy I would wish the internet would be used by nice and friendly people only. Currently I see it endangered by massive spam, viruses, criminals and even cyber war as North Korea apparently did regarding the movie the ruling dictator wanted to stop being shown.

Back to serious. What do you think: Why is FLTK such a little known toolkit? And what could be done about that?

I do not think it is little known, just most people use GTK and so this is the “market leader”. If you work in a professional team this will usually decide to go for GTK since most members will be familiar with that.

What could be done about that? If KDE and Gnome would be based on FLTK I think the situation will change.

From your perspective of a developer: What do you miss about FLTK that the toolkit really should provide?

Frankly speaking, as a DOS developer the alternative would be to write your own GUI. And FLTK provides more features than you could ever develop on your own.

What I do not like is the lack of support for third party schemes. Dimitrj, a Russian FLTK developer who frequently posts as “kdiman” on the FLTK forums, created a very nice Oxy scheme. But it is not added to FLTK since the developers do not have the time to test all the changes he made to make FLTK look that good.

What do you think about the unfortunate FLTK 2 and the direction of FLTK 3?

I think these branches have been very unfortunate for FLTK. Many developers expected FLTK 2 to supersede FLTK 1.1 and waited for FLTK 2 to finish before developing an FLTK application. But FLTK 2 never got into a state where it could replace FLTK 1.1. Now the same seems to happen with FLTK 3.

So they should have named FLTK2/3 the XYZ-Toolkit and not FLTK 2 to avoid stopping people to choose FLTK 1.1.

Currently there is no development on FLTK 2/3 that I am aware of and I think the developers should concentrate on one version only. FLTK 1.3 works very well and does all that you need as a software developer as far as I can say.

Somebody with a bit of programming experience and some free time would like to get into FLTK. Any tips for him/her?

I wrote a tutorial which should allow even beginners in C++ programming to use FLTK successfully (Link here).

Nanolinux

You’ve written quite a number of such applications yourself. Which of your projects is the most popular one (in terms of downloads or feedback)?

This is the Nanolinux distro. It has been downloaded 30.000 times this year.

NanoLinux… Can you describe what it is?

Let me cite Distrowatch, I cannot describe it better: Nanolinux is an open-source, free and very lightweight Linux distribution that requires only 14 MB of disk space. It includes tiny versions of the most common desktop applications and several games. It is based on the “MicroCore” edition of
the Tiny Core Linux distribution. Nanolinux uses BusyBox, Nano-X instead of X.Org, FLTK 1.3.x as the default GUI toolkit, and the super-lightweight SLWM window manager. The included applications are mainly based on FLTK.

After compiling the XFDOS distro I thought I would gain more users if I would port it to Linux. The size makes Nanolinux quite different from the others and I got a lot of downloads and reviews for it.

The project is based on TinyCore which makes use of FLTK itself. Is that the reason you chose this distro?

TinyCore was done by the former main developer of Damn Small Linux. So he had a lot of experience and did set up a very stable distro. Since I wanted to make a very small distro this was a good choice to use as a base. And I did not have to start from scratch and test that part of the distro forever.

NanoLinux uses an alternative windowing system. What can you tell us about the differences between NanoX and Xorg’s X11?

Nano-X is simply a tiny Xlib compatible library which has been used in a number of embedded Linux projects. Development started about 15 years ago as far as I recall. At that time many Linux application developers used X11 directly and therefore were willing to use an alternative like nano-X for their projects.

Since nano-X is not fully compatible to X11, a wrapper called NXlib was developed, which provides this compatibility and allows to base FLTK and other X11 applications on nano-X without code change. The compatibility is not 100% of cause, it is sufficient for FLTK and many X11 applications.

Since nano-X supported DOS in the early days I took this library and ported the current version to DOS again.

Netrider

The project you are working on currently is NetRider, a browser based on webkit and FLTK. Please tell us how you came up with the idea for it.

Over the years I looked at other browser applications and thought how I could build my own browser, just out of interest. Finally Laura, another developer from the US, and I discussed it together. She came up with additional ideas and thoughts. That made me have a go at WebKit with FLTK.

What are your aims for NetRider?

I wanted to add a better browser to my Nanolinux distro replacing the Dillo browser. Also, as a FLTK user I wanted to provide a FLTK GUI for the WebKit package as an alternative to GTK and Qt.

There’s also the project Fifth which has quite similar aims at first sight. Why don’t you work together?

Lauri, the author of Fifth, and I started out about the same time with our FLTK browser projects, not knowing of each other’s plans. Now our projects run in parallel. Even though we both use FLTK, the projects are quite different.

We have not discussed working together yet and our objectives are different. He wants to write an Opera compatible browser and competes with the Otter browser while I am satisfied to come up with something better than Dillo.

I did not ask Lauri whether he thinks we should combine the projects. I am also not sure if this would help us both because we implemented different WebKit APIs for our browsers so we would have to make a WebKit library featuring two APIs. This could be done though. Also he is not interested in
supporting Windows which Laura and I want to support.

Would you say that NetRider is your biggest project so far? And what plans do you have for it?

Setting up Nanolinux and developing/porting all the applications for it was a big project too, and I plan to make a new release beginning of next year.

As with NetRider it depends if people like to use it or are interested to develop for / port it. Depending on the feedback I will make my plans. Recently I added some of the observations I got from beta testers, did support for additional languages, initial printing support etc.

The last one is yours: Which question would you have liked me to ask in addition to those and what is the answer to it?

I think you already asked more questions than I would have been able to come
up with. Thank you for the interesting questions.

Thanks a lot Georg, for answering these questions! Best wishes for your current and future projects!

What’s next?

I have a few things in mind… But I don’t know yet which one I’ll write about next. A happy new year to all my readers!

Tiny to the extreme: Nanolinux

It has been more than two years since I wrote about XFDOS, a graphical FreeDOS distribution with the FLTK toolkit and some applications for it (the project’s home is here.)

Mr. Potthast didn’t stop after this achievement however. Soon afterwards he published Nanolinux. And now I finally found the time to re-visit the world of tiny FLTK applications – this time on a genuine Linux system! And while it shows that it is closely related to XFDOS (starting with the wallpaper), Nanolinux does not follow the usual way at all according to which newer things are “bigger, badder and better”. It is rather “even smaller, more sophisticated and simple to use”!

I needed three attempts to catch the startup process properly because Nanolinux starts up very fast. Probably the most important difference from the DOS version is that Nanolinux can run multiple applications at the same time (which is something that goes without saying today). But there’s of course some more to it. If it weren’t then this review wouldn’t make much sense, would it?

The startup process of Nanolinux

TinyCore + NanoX + FLTK apps = Nanolinux?

Yes, that is what Nanolinux basically is. But that’s in fact more than you might expect. The first thing that is noteworthy is the size of Nanolinux: Just like the name suggests, it’s very small. It runs on systems with as little as 64 MB of RAM – and the whole iso for it is only 14 MB in size.

The Nanolinux desktop (second cursor is from the host machine)

While many people will be impressed by this fact I can hear some of you yawn. Don’t dismiss the project just yet! It’s true that people have stuffed some Linux 2.2 kernel on a single floppy and still had enough space remaining to pull together a somewhat usable system. But Nanolinux can hardly be compared to one of these. You have a Linux 3.0 kernel here – and it features a graphical desktop together with a surprisingly high amount of useful applications!

Applications

Speaking of applications: Most of which are part of XFDOS can be found in Nanolinux, too, like e.g. FlWriter, FlView and Dillo. There are just a few exceptions as well: The DOS media player, PDF viewer etc. However there are also a few programs on board which you don’t know from the graphical DOS distribution. I’m going to concentrate on these.

Showing off the Nanolinux menu

A nice one is the system stats program: As you would expect it gives you an overview of system ressources like CPU and RAM usage. But it does a lot more than that! It also lists running processes, shows your mounts, can display the dmesg – and more. Pretty useful small tool!

Then we have Fluff from TinyCore. It is a minimalist file manager. Don’t start looking for icons or things like that. It follows a text-based approach you may know in form of some console file manager. It’s small but functional and works pretty well once you get used to it.

System stats and the Fluff file manager

Want to communicate with others on the net? Not a problem for Nanolinux. While it comes with Dillo, this browser is not really capable of displaying today’s websites correctly. But Nanolinux also has FlChat – a complete IRC client! So it allows you to talk to people all over the world without much trouble.

FlChat – a FLTK IRC client!

Or perhaps you want to listen to music? In this case you’ve got the choice between two FLTK applications: FlMusic and FlRadio. The former is a CD player and the second let’s you listen to web radio stations. Since Nanolinux runs from RAM after it has started, it is no problem to eject the CD and put in some audio CD of your choice instead.

FlMusic and FlRadio for your ears

Extensions

Even though that’s a pretty formidable collections of programs, there’s of course always the point where you need something Nanolinux does not provide. Like it’s mother, TinyCore, Nanolinux supports Extensions in this case. These are binary packages which can add pre-build applications to your system.

Let’s imagine you want to burn a CD. Nanolinux has an extension for FlBurn available. After clicking on it from the extension list, the system downloads and installs the extension. Once this is finished, FlBurn will be available on the system.

FlBurn installed from the extensions

There are a few extensions available for you. And what to do if you need a program that has not been packaged for Nanolinux? Well, you can always try to build it yourself. If you feel like it, there’s the compile_nl package for you which provides what you need.

Don’t be too ambitious however! Nanolinux comes with Nano-X, remember? That means any program which depends on some Xorg library won’t compile on your system. You’ll just end up with an error message like the one shown in the screenshot below!

Compiling your own packages with “compile_nl”

Summary

Nanolinux builds upon the core of the TinyCore Linux distribution – and while it remains below the ordinary TinyCore in size, it comes with many useful applications by default. It can run on a system with as little as 64 MB of RAM and is extensible if you need any programs which did not fit into the 14 MB iso image.

This little distribution can do that thanks to the use of Nano-X (think X11’s little brother) and a special version of the FLTK toolkit modified to cope with that slim windowing system. It is definitely worth a try if you’re at all into the world of minimalism. And even if you’re not – it can be a nice playing around just to see what is possible.

What’s next?

While I do have something in mind which would be fitting after this post, I’m not completely sure that I’ll manage to get it done within the remaining time of this year. Just wait and see!

The concepts of complexity and simplicity

Life in general is a very complex thing. Society is a complex matter, too. Also the IT world is a complex one. And so are many of today’s programs – for the good or the bad.

In many fields complexity is a necessity. You cannot build a simple microprocessor that satisfies today’s needs. And there is no way to have a very simple kernel that can do everything that we need. I agree to that and I do not want to condemn complexity as a whole. But – and I cannot stress that enough – while more and more sophisticated programs are being developed, projects have the tendency to become overly complex. And this is what I criticize.

A bit of history

Most of my readers are probably happy users of some Unix-like operating system. Some may live long enough to have witnessed how these systems changed over time. Many of us younger ones did not and so we only know what we have read about these times (or probably not even that).

Thinking about the heritage of Unix, another OS called Multix comes to one’s mind. This system was jointly developed by AT&T, GE and the MIT. It was a sophisticated operating system which had many remarkable or even truly revolutionary features for its time. A lot of effort and money was put into it. High expectations were put on Multics. And then eventually – it failed.

AT&T had pulled out of the project when they realized that it was rather slow and overly complex. They learned from it and attempted to create a system which followed the opposite approach: Aim for simplicity. This system lead to an incredible success: Unix.

So it is important to know that enthusiasm for technology and the urge to develop more and more complex programs is not a new phenomena at all. In fact I’d claim that it is the logical consequence of how man thinks. While all things begin with relatively simple forms, complexity as a concept does not follow after the concept of simplicity. On the contrary: Simplicity is the lesson learned after realizing the downsides of complexity.

Universalism and particularism

Some people seem to be fascinated with the idea to have one tool that should do nearly everything. Let’s assume we have that tool available today. The result will be an extremely complex application which has an overwhelming number of features. There will hardly be any single person who will know all these features (let alone bring all of them to use).

Now each feature you don’t use wastes space on your drive. While this is true, it is certainly the smallest problem when you’re not working in the embedded field. A bigger one is that it will surely be of low quality: While it can do a hell of a lot of things, it is very unlikely that all of its features will be comprehensive. The program is likely to be rather slow because optimizing a very complex program is extremely difficult. The worst thing however is that it is bound to contain a high amount of bugs, too!

It is a well-known fact that program code where functions are longer than the maximum lines that fit on the screen, contain far more bugs. For some reason a lot of programmers seem not interested in writing good code but either just want to get something done or aim at too ambitious goals which make the project overly complex.

On the other hand there are projects which specialize in a single, narrow field. If you suggest a new feature it may very well happen that it will be rejected. The people who work on this project do not care for stuff just because that’s currently ultra-hip. Instead they often refer to features which are not really needed as unnecessary bloat. These programs cannot do a lot of things by themselves but excel at what they can do.

Following the later idea is the Unix way of doing things. The true power comes from the combination of specialized tools which can yield mind-blowing results when used by an experienced user.

Featuritis?

There are quite a few programs which suffer from a strange illness which could be called “featuritis”. It often makes the host look handsome and appealing for many people. This illness is usually not deadly and often invisible for quite some time. But it does bear a very destructive aspect, too…

Two of the programs recently found infected are OpenSSL and BASH. The former kept so much legacy code in the project and even re-implemented things done better by others that it was impossible to have a good overview of the whole project code. The later implements a lot of features which are hardly ever used by anybody and also uses some functions of its own which are arguably wasted code since there are better alternatives out there.

Both projects succeeded in being widely distributed but read by few and understood by even fewer. And those few didn’t look at all the obscure parts of those unclear and confusing code. This is why severe bugs could exist for a very long time before anybody ever noticed.

Probably the most important project where I diagnose a particularly intense form of featuritis is Systemd. It acts like an init system but absorbed the functionality of so many other programs by now that I’m getting dizzy thinking of it. Worse: A lot of people who have looked at it more than just a bit claim that it is badly designed and the code is rather unclean. Even worse: The developers of Systemd have had a conflict with Linus Torvalds because they broke things with their code and even refused to fix it insisting that it was not their problem! And the true tragedy is that it has spread to a great many Linux distros. Once a really bad bug is found concerning Systemd, this will probably take suffering for admins and users to a whole new level.

An exit strategy for the brave

My respect for the OpenBSD guys continues to grow the more I read about it. They claim to have a very secure OS and from what they do I can only say that they mean it. The LibreSSL fork or the SystemBSD project are just two examples that show how dead serious they are. A lot of people seem to ridicule them because there are not too many OpenBSD users out there when compared to Linux. That’s true of course. Their OS may also not be very familiar from a Linux user’s point of view and the OpenBSD guys may not be too friendly towards newbies. But they are nice enough to make their projects portable so that everybody can profit from them!

And in case you want to stick with Linux, there’s a great source for this platform as well. The guys over at suckless aim at creating programs “that suck less”. Go ahead and read a bit – especially the sucks and rocks pages! On the first one you’ll flabbergasted at how bad the situation really is with a lot of programs. Yes, they are fundamentally broken – and their developers don’t care about that. Code correctness doesn’t pay of if you just want to target the masses. But if you want to do things right it does.

Are there really people out there who care? You bet there are. Think about this topic again and try out a few alternatives. You might well find a real gem here and there – if you are able to look over some of the shortcomings compared to the well-known, featureful and bloated defaults.