Goals I: Beliefs

Everyone has dreams about what they want to do in the future. Write a novel, learn a new language or make a trip around the world. Yet somehow the things we do day-to-day are strangely at odds with these dreams. We seem to do many other things, but we never really get to those things we say we really care about. We run faster and faster, but stay more and more in the same place. How can we turn this around? How can we align our daily activities with our long term goals? I address this question with a three part series on goals. In this first part we look at the foundation for achieving goals: beliefs.

Everything starts with the beliefs that you hold about what you can and cannot do. I once met a highly skilled telecommunications engineer. We both attended a presentation seminar and were very impressed by the speakers there. He was especially in awe of the way they told their stories. He told me that he did not have any stories to tell, and even if he had, he would not know how to deliver them to an audience in a captivating way. The more he talked about not being able to do this, the more concerned I grew. Despite having mastered complex signal processing mathematics, he seemed to be unable to grasp the fact that presentation skills too can be split into manageable chunks that can be learned. After convincing him that he could indeed learn these skills, he went on to give some great presentations. Indeed, they were as good as those we saw that very day. Simply changing his belief also changed his behavior and the resulting real world outcome.

Changing a belief is not easy to do, as these run deeply into insecurities about ourselves and our own identity. We often adopt the beliefs we are exposed to during our upbringing, which tends to be a mixed bag for most. Nevertheless, several beliefs are helpful to adopt right now.

We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.Randy Pausch

1. Start from and with what you have

If you marvel at people with beneficial traits: those good at sports because of their physical features, those proficient at learning because of their intelligence, those skilled at arts because of their creativity, do so because of their accomplishments. That is: how they – learned to – play their cards, not because of what they ‘are’: the cards they were dealt. Talent in the conventional sense is a myth. High performance is the result of practice. A good way to think of this is that you can achieve anything anyone else can, even if your journey may be longer or shorter. It may also include sacrifices you are not willing to make. Factoring this in is fine: working towards goals based on the cards you have is a good thing, making excuses for not working towards goals because of the cards you do not have is not. Instead of thinking in terms of limitations, think in terms of your possibilities.

2. Compare yourself only with your past self

A common habit we fall victim to is comparing our own performance to others, be it our family, friends or accomplished professionals. However, in doing so we usually look at the current skills of the person we are comparing ourselves to, disregarding the journey they needed to get there. A better approach is comparing your own performance now to your own performance in the past. If you have put in effort and are seeing progress: you are on the right track, and in the end: that really is all that matters. That said, while comparing is harmful to progress, being inspired by someone can be a powerful motivator. So, draw inspiration from others, but avoid making comparisons.

3. Foster a strong sense of curiosity

The Internet contains an almost infinite source of materials and methods to learn virtually anything. Given this it is a bit surprising that not everyone is continuously trying to actively learn new things. Curiosity is a good motivation for learning. However, it turns out that the feelings of insecurity, that each of us have, interfere with this. Feeling inadequate stops curiosity dead in its tracks. Children learn quickly because they are less afraid, less worried about failing, and still have this innate curiosity that everyone is born with. Dampening your insecurity and fostering your own curiosity is paramount.

4. Accept the fact that you really can develop yourself

In the past, people used to work in the same job, at the same place, performing the same tasks for many years. The dominant mindset was that you learned at school, and then put your skills to use at work. That is all there was. Scientists found that people’s improvement tapered off and plateaued, and reasoned that this indicated some sort of learning limit. However, this has since been found to be incorrect. Everyone can improve by refining and growing skills, but it requires conscious effort to do so. The rate and direction of growth are under your control. It may take a nudge, like for the telecommunications engineer mentioned previously. However, once you see the possibilities, you can develop yourself far beyond any current beliefs that may hold you back.

5. Do not be too hard on yourself

Learning does not progress as a straight upward line over time. It is rather a bumpy road dominated by regression and plateaus. This is entirely normal. Sometimes there will be clear progress, other times there won’t be any to speak of or even a slight regression. However, from a broader point of view: the more you zoom out, the more you see that your progress really does have an upward direction. Nevertheless, we are not naturally good at looking at things from this perspective. Failing is as much part of progress as is success. People are easily critical of their own lack of short-term progress. Having a clear purpose and meaning behind what you are trying to achieve can help with this. It is good to have ambitious, but realistic, goals. However, it is even more important to reward yourself for putting in the time that eventually enables you to progress towards these goals. Learning to enjoy the process itself and rewarding yourself for even the tiniest amount of effort you put in, is more important than eventually reaching the goal.


There is probably something that you have been putting off. Something that you want to do, but never really seem to get to. Perhaps you do not believe you can do it. Instead of confirming this belief: challenge it. Accept where you are right now, start working from where you are. Realize that you can develop yourself and be curious about the world around you. Take tiny steps and rewards yourself for each of these steps and compare your progress only to the progress you made the day before. Accept your failures, celebrate your successes. Realize that changing what you believe you can do is the first step into changing what you actually can do.


  1. Colvin, G. (2008) Talent is Overrated.
  2. Flora, C. (2016) The Golden Age of Teaching Yourself Anything.
  3. Foer, J. (2011) Moonwalking with Einstein.
  4. Pausch, R. (2008) The Last Lecture.
  5. Pink, D. H. (2009) Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.

Breaking Free: How to Rewire your Brain

You have probably seen this all around you: people immersed in their phones, tablets and laptops. We spend a lot of time on-line. On the one hand the Internet offers a wealth of conveniences: information, entertainment and social contact are all literally under our fingertips. On the other hand, it disconnects us from the moment, our long-term plans and distant dreams. When was the last time you looked out a window and day dreamed away? When was the last time you worked on that one skill that required dedicated repeated effort? When was the last time you were on Facebook? Take a moment to ponder these questions.

Books have been around for a long time and have this same quality of immersing us in a different reality: the world created by the author. We all have the experience of being drawn into the elaborate worlds constructed by Tolkien, Rowling or Herbert. Yet, when you take out your mobile phone when you experience even a second of boredom it feels different. Instead of a deliberate choice it seems more like an itch that we need to scratch. Are we really choosing to visit that news site, to play that mobile game or to browse Twitter?

The reality is that many of these sites and apps are designed to keep you coming back. Designed, not as in ‘how they look’, but as in ‘what they do to your brain’. I do not mean returning to these sites as a deliberate choice, but as an addiction. We all feel it: the way we spend our time has changed profoundly in the last decade. We know something happened, but what actually happened and how does it work? There is actually a method to this and it consists of four steps.

Have you noticed what happens if you do not use Facebook for a while? You get an e-mail telling you that ‘your friends miss you’. It requests that you ‘please come back’. This is the first step: to trigger you. What do you do when you get that – obviously automated – e-mail? You take the second step: an action. You login to Facebook to catch up with what you have been ‘missing’. You read the posts on your news feed, you ‘like’ what others posted, you write comments, et cetera. For all this hard work you need something to keep going: the crucial third step is the reward.

To learn a bit more about rewards we have to go all the way back to the late fifties when researchers experimented with something called operant conditioning. They put pigeons in a cage with a small disc they could peck. Doing so would result in some food being dispensed. This way the pigeons learned that pecking the disc would result in something to eat. The researchers tried to find the most effective way to keep this learned behaviour in place. They found an approach that combines fast learning and ensures the behaviour sticks for the longest amount of time: the variable reward. Sometimes pecking the disc would dispense food and sometimes it would not. The pattern would not be predictable. In this variable case the pigeons quickly learned the pecking behaviour and kept going on with it for the longest amount of time compared to other approaches. A four minute look at this experiment and its implications:

Rewards come in three flavours. Firstly, the reward of the tribe: social rewards. Does it make you feel good when someone likes or comments on something you post on Facebook? That is the social reward in action. Secondly, there is the reward of the hunt. The best example of this is the feed. Consider that all social media offer some type of feed, usually arranged as a list of items. Not all of these items are equally interesting to you, some of them more so than others. It is this variation in relevance that makes the feed so successful. Why? Because you have to sift through the feed which gives you a variable reward. Already feel like a pigeon? This ‘list’ with items of variable reward is found in many successful Internet services like e-mail, news sites and search engines. Thirdly, we have the reward of the self: when you learn and master something, like when you play a video game. A four minute video further explaining reward types:

The reward is followed by the final step: the investment. This is when you fill out your profile, you post your own content, reply to comments, et cetera. The investment is what makes you want to come back: you put effort, and therefore value, into the service that you are using. This gives you a reason to come back. In fact, if you go through all of the four habit-loop steps repeatedly: trigger, action, reward and investment; you no longer need an external trigger. There is no need to show you a notification on your phone, or to send you an e-mail. Your trigger has been internalized. The habit-loop now starts with the internal trigger which is usually, but not always, tied to some negative emotion, such as: loneliness, boredom or ineptitude. When you feel these emotions you take your phone out of your pocket and open up Facebook, you go on-line to watch YouTube videos on your tablet, or play Bejeweled on your laptop.

About half the time you spend each day is on the habitual auto pilot. If you had to spend every moment consciously deciding what you should do from moment to moment you would probably turn mad. Hence, habits are highly efficient and not necessarily a bad thing. How useful they are depends on whether they align with your goals. Many people have a bucket list: a lists of things they want to do or achieve in their lives. Very few people have ‘posting ten thousand comments on Facebook’ as a high priority on that list, if at all. Yet, their habits lead them to work everyday on exactly that instead of other things high on their list.

Is there a way to change this? Can we do better? Can we rewire ourselves to work on those things we have high on our bucket list, things that are meaningful to us in the long run? Yes, we can. How? Start with identifying what triggers you. Maybe you feel lonely and therefore visit Facebook to get a social reward. Great, we now know that loneliness is your trigger. So, what if instead you call or visit a friend? This also gives you a social reward. This insight is key: identify your trigger, change your action, but keep the type of reward the same.

Another example: imagine that you are feeling bored, you whip out your mobile phone and play some game. Leveling up in the game gives you a reward of the self in the form of mastering the game. What if instead of taking out your phone, you picked up an instrument and starting learning a small part of a piece of music? Apply the same process: identify the trigger: boredom, replace it by a different action: playing the instrument, and get the same type of reward: mastery.

I am not saying that on-line resources like social networks, games and news sites do not have value or should be avoided at all costs, on the contrary: browsing social networks can be great at keeping you up-to-date concerning friends, co-workers and family; posting on such networks can be useful and lead to new insights – like I hope this post will do for you; playing games can be a fulfilling and relaxing pastime that takes your mind off the chores of daily life; reading articles on news sites is a great way to keep your knowledge fresh. However, it seems that few people have mastered the important skill of engaging in these more superficial activities in moderation.

Most of these activities, nice as they are to give us immediate satisfaction in the moment, do not give a deep sense of lasting fulfillment. That is usually because they do not require great skill or effort. The result is a negative emotion, like boredom, and moving on to something else that gives us the instant satisfaction we crave. In conclusion: working on long term goals requires planning, effort and dedication, but also brings fulfillment, meaning and happiness. It seems like a better idea to make working on those things the habits, and making superficial activities the exception.

If you want to get started, there are only three simple steps you need to follow. Firstly, take a moment to identify the habit that you feel makes you lose the most time. Secondly, think of the one thing that you always wanted to do or learn. Thirdly, rewire your habit-loop into working on that one thing. Remember: keep your trigger and reward the same, but change your action. Keep your new habitual routine in place, track your progress and notice the change over time.


  1. Eyal, N. (2013). Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products.
  2. Duhigg, C. (2012). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do, and How to Change.
  3. McLead, S. Skinner: Operant Conditioning.
  4. Goldman, J. What Is Operant Conditioning?

Passwords and Security

After a long journey he was nearly there. In the distance there was the outline of the city wall. Moments later he approached the city gate.
“Halt!”, shouted a heavily armed guard.
He had grown used to this ritual, so he went through the motions.
“What is the pass word?”, the guard asked.
He spoke the phrase he had memorized. The guard nodded, lowered his hands from his weapon, and stepped aside to allow him entry.

The above is how I imagine passwords came into common usage long ago. Passwords are not very practical in the above scenario, which is probably why we now have passports: literally a document to pass through some port, such as a city gate or a border. Checks at the border can also be done using fingerprints. If the guard would take fingerprints and quickly compare them to a set of known prints, he could determine whether to let you pass based on a matching print.

Consider what these three things fundamentally represent:

  1. A password is something that you know, you need to memorize it.
  2. A passport is something that you have, you need to take it with you.
  3. A fingerprint is something that you are, you always have it with you.

Most security systems combine at least two of these three factors:

Access to your bank transactions requires two things. Firstly, your debit card: something that you have. Secondly, your Personal Identification Number (PIN): something that you know. Entering a modern house also requires two things: the keys to your door and the access code to disable the alarm, which again combines something that you have with something that you know. Finally, entering a foreign country may even combine all three ingredients: a border guard may ask why you are entering the country and where you will be staying, he will ask for your passport and may scan your fingerprints.

Where am I going with this? Good security systems combine at least two of the three factors above. Think about how you access all your on-line accounts like Google, Facebook and LinkedIn. Do you use a password? Is that the only thing that you use to gain access? The answer to that is likely yes, and that is not a good thing.

Of all the three fundamental ingredients above, the password: something you memorize, is likely also the easiest to bypass. Not so much because of technical issues, although those do occur, but because of completely understandable human limitations.

The problem with passwords is that a complex password is hard to remember, and a simple password is easy to guess. Most people err on the side of making their passwords too simple. Why are such passwords easily too weak? For that we have to do some calculations.

Let us assume that you pick a single number between 1 and 10 as password. Let me think: you likely picked either a seven or a three, am I right? Even if I am not, people prefer some numbers over others, and that is exactly the root of the problem. Consider that with a single digit password I would need to guess only ten times and then I would certainly be right. If I can make my guesses a bit smarter – starting with the digits that are more often chosen – I may be able to guess ninety percent of the single digit passwords with only five tries.

Obviously we need something a little longer, a four digit password would have 10^4 = 10000 possible combinations, which is already much harder to guess. This is in fact the search space of the famous PIN codes. Some banks allow their customers to choose their own four digit code, which is a bad idea. Four digits are, from a memorization point of view, ideal for representing a birth date, or some other significant date. Consider that many such dates either start with 19 or 20 and we are left with only two numbers we need to guess: 10^2 = 100 is a much smaller space of possibilities.

Digits are often not the only parts of a password, letters are often allowed. This seems sound, since adding twenty-six letters gives us an additional fifty-two possibilities, letters can be either lower or uppercase, yielding us (10+52)^4 = 14776336 possible passwords of length four. If we add in special characters this number grows even larger.

Adding extra symbols (digits, letters, other characters) to the possible password range may seem like a good idea. However, just as we saw with numbers: if the patterns are predictable they are easy to guess. Consider that if we make a word of two characters in English there are a limited number of actually valid words: ‘of’, ‘it’ and ‘to’ are all valid. In contrast ‘tj’, ‘gh’ and ‘lq’ are not valid words. Sequences of letters that are not words are difficult to remember. Hence, people rarely use them. This leads to predicable passwords that consist usually of nouns combined with predictable number sequences: ‘Ghost2012’, ‘lipgloss’ and even ‘password’.

Indeed the top five passwords are: ‘123456’, ‘password’, ‘12345’, ‘12345678’ and ‘qwerty’. Fortunately few people actually use these passwords. If you were to guess someone’s password using one of these top ten most popular passwords, you would succeed in about sixteen in one thousand tries. Which, while not spectacular, is still ridiculously high.

A thousand tries may seem like a lot, and it is if you would have to type all those passwords yourself. However, this can be automated quite easily. Trying all possible passwords is called ‘brute-forcing’. A modern computer can easily do this at a rate of five-thousand per second. Using some statistical insights, such as those mentioned above, this process can be made highly effective. In fact most passwords under ten characters can be easily broken in several hours using off-the-shelf computer hardware.

I hope it is clear by now that using only a password that you can memorize to secure your on-line accounts is a bad idea. So, how can we improve this?

There are at least two things that you can quite easily do with respect to passwords alone:

  1. Generate passwords, instead of making them up yourself. No offense, but: a randomly generated password by a computer is most certainly better than something that you can think of.
  2. Use long passwords, as we have seen the length of a password is a means to easily increase the difficulty of guessing it. A minimal passwords consists of ten characters, but as computing power increases, this may rapidly become too short. A password of twelve characters is a more realistic minimum nowadays, and sixteen to thirty-two characters is a safe range.
  3. Use a different password for each service that you use. This way, when one account is breached, you do not get a domino effect.

Using a very long password, is one of the few exceptions where you could suffice with choosing your own. Consider that a long sentence as password is quite hard to guess: there are so many possible sentences! Even though a completely random password of the same length is harder to guess, this matters less if the password is sufficiently long.

If you are not into the long passwords, then the best solution is using a password manager of some sort. Keepass and Lastpass are popular solutions that are easy to use. There are two caveats to these services:

  1. They usually use one strong ‘master’ password, which gives access to all the site-specific passwords. This is a single-point of failure is some sense, and can also lead to a domino effect, but this is not a major problem if you have a sufficiently strong master password combined with two-factor authentication: more on that later.
  2. Some of these services may store your passwords ‘in the cloud’ in encrypted form. Understandably not everyone is okay with that. Fortunately, there are also variants which store your passwords locally on your own machine.

In a sense using a password manager in some way may feel like ‘writing down your password on a piece of paper’. This is true, but a strong password written down on a piece of paper that you keep in a safe place, is much better than a weak password that you have memorized. The same applies to password managers: the benefits outweigh the risks.

Improvements to your password do not address the most pressing concern: remember that most systems combine at least two of the three factors: something you know, something you have and something you are. A password is still only one of those ingredients. Hence, where possible you should add another one of these ingredients.

Almost all major on-line service providers – Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Yahoo, et cetera – offer some form of two-factor authentication. One popular mechanism called TOTP consists of codes that are generated using an app on your phone. How does this work? You take a picture of a QR image on the screen once, and a security app uses the data in this image to generate access codes that change every thirty seconds. You can set things up so that you are asked for a code only once a month on computers that you regularly use. So the effort is minimal and the security benefit is huge: in addition to guessing your password an attacker would have to gain access to your phone, which is way more difficult.

Some other services may rely on sending you an SMS with a code, or an e-mail with a clickable link. This is a bit less secure, but still way better than only using a password, and thus certainly worth it. If you use a password manager, then securing it with some type of two-factor authentication is an absolute must.

Say that you want to secure some other service X that does not offer two-factor authentication.
What to do? Well, the service may offer logging in via OpenID. This means that you can log in to the service using one of your main on-line accounts, like Google or Facebook. If you have secured that on-line account by enabling two-factor authentication, then transitively the account of service X is now also protected using two-factor authentication.

To wrap up: I recommend that you:

  1. Always use two-factor authentication wherever it is offered.
  2. Always construct sufficiently long passwords.
  3. Seriously consider using a password manager.

After a long journey the data packet, the first in a long data stream, was nearly there. Residing inside the last switch, in the distance was the faint hum of a server. Moments later the packet had entered the server system. The server unwrapped the data packet and found a password inside. But it knew the password was not enough. The server generated a code that it was expecting. It unwrapped the next packet in the stream and found the exact same code it had generated just a moment ago. It allowed the rest of the stream op packets to enter.

Renewed Keyboard Joy: Dvorak

Typing: you do it every day nearly unconsciously. You think of what you want to appear on the screen. This is followed by some rattling sound and the next instant it is there. The blinking cursor stares at you as to encourage you to keep going. Handwriting feels mostly like a thing of the past since typing is so much faster for you, likely up to two or three times. So, what would it be like if you were stripped from this ‘magical’ ability to type?

If you are like me, you probably learned how to type all by yourself. I never took a touch typing class, since it seemed like a waste of time. After all: I could already type, so why take a course to learn something I could already do?

Many self-learned typist adopt a hunt and peck style, meaning they need to look at the keyboard to find the keys. Usually this is done with only two fingers, since using more fingers obscures the view on the keyboard making it harder to ‘hunt’. I did not adopt this style, but rather used the three-finger approach: both hands hover over the keyboard and type using the three strongest fingers: the thumb, index finger and middle finger. Occasionally I used the ring finger as well, though not consistently. Observing my typing style, I noticed that my hands positioned themselves in anticipation of the next key to strike. This all went seamlessly, achieving speeds of about eighty-five to a hundred words per minute, which is not bad at all.

Though my self-learned typing style worked for me, I did try to switch to touch typing several times. Particularly because my hands would feel strained after intense typing sessions. However, switching never worked out. I would intensely concentrate for one day, keeping my fingers on the QWERTY home row of ‘ASDF-JKL;’, touch typing as one should. Nevertheless, the next day the years of acquired muscle memory would take over: I would be thrown back to my ‘own’ style. My hands seemed to have no incentive to touch type, even though I really wanted to consciously. Had I only taken that typing class when I had the chance, then I would be better off today, or … perhaps not?

The famous QWERTY layout, referring to the six top left keys on most standard keyboards, is not the only way to arrange the keys. Firstly, there are many small variations such as AZERTY, common in Belgium, and QWERTZ, common in Germany. Secondly, there are alternative keyboard layouts such as Colemak, Workman and Dvorak. Of these alternatives, Dvorak has been around the longest, since the 1930’s, and is also an official ANSI standard. The story behind both QWERTY and Dvorak, both developed for typewriters, is interesting in its own right and explained very well in the Dvorak zine.

The standardized simplified Dvorak layout is much less random than the QWERTY layout, it notably places the vowels on the left side of the keyboard and often used consonants on the right:


The simplified Dvorak layout

Several years ago I tried switching to Dvorak cold turkey. I relabeled all my keys and forced myself to type using the Dvorak layout. It was a disaster. I would constantly hit the wrong keys, my typing slowed to near a grinding halt. I would spent fifteen minutes typing an e-mail that previously I could write in under a minute. Frustrated, I stopped after three days.

Fast forward to several months ago. I caught a bit of a summer flu and although I was recovering I could not really think straight. Since learning a new keyboard layout is rather mechanical and repetitious in nature, I figured the timing would be right to have another stab at this. My main motivation was to increase typing comfort and reduce hand fatigue. Secondary motivations included load balancing better suited for my hands, reducing the amount of typing errors and being able to reach a higher sustained typing speed. Finally, I also picked this up as a challenge: it is good to force your brain to rewire things every once in a while. I wanted to switch layouts for these reasons for quite a while and this time I decided I would go about it the ‘right’ way.

Firstly, I had to choose a layout. Hence, I determined the following criteria:

  1. Since my left hand is a bit weaker I should opt for a right hand dominant layout, meaning one that utilizes the right hand to control more keys than the left in terms of both count and striking frequency.
  2. The layout should differ sufficiently from QWERTY, as to prevent me from relapsing into my ‘own’ typing style.
  3. As I do a fair bit of software development, the layout should be programming friendly.

Based on these criteria I chose the Programmer Dvorak layout. This layout is similar to simplified Dvorak, but has a different number row. It looks like this:


Programmer Dvorak

The main difference between this Dvorak layout and the simplified layout shown previously is that the number row is entirely different. Instead of numbers, the keys on the number row contain many characters that are often used in source code, such as parentheses and curly braces. To enter numbers the shift key needs to be pressed. This sounds cumbersome, but it makes sense if you count how many times you actually enter numbers using the number row. The numeric pad on the keyboard is much better suited to batch entry of numbers.

Awkwardly the numbers are not laid out in a linear progression. Rather the odd numbers appear on the left side and the even number on the right. This can be quite confusing at first, but interestingly it was also how the numbers were arranged on the original, non simplified, version of Dvorak. So there is some statistical basis for doing so.

If you are considering alternative keyboard layouts you should know that Dvorak and Colemak are the two most popular ones. Dvorak is said to ‘alternate’ as the left and right hand mostly alternate when pressing keys, whereas Colemak is said to ‘roll’ because adjacent fingers mostly strike keys in succession. One of the main reasons that Colemak is preferred by some is that it does not radically change the location of most keys with respect to QWERTY and, as a result, keeps several common keyboard shortcuts, particularly those for copy, cut and paste, in the same positions. This means that those shortcuts can be operated with one hand. As I am an Emacs user, used to typing three or four key chords to do comparatively trivial things – more on that later – this was not really an argument for me. I also read that the way in which you more easily roll your fingers can help with making the choice between Dvorak and Colemak. I think this was conjecture and I have no good rational explanation for it, but perhaps it helps you: tap your fingers in sequence on a flat surface. First from outwards in, striking the surface with your pinky first and then rolling off to ending with your thumb. After this do it from inwards out, striking with your thumb first and rolling back to your pinky. If the inwards roll feels more natural then Dvorak is likely a better choice for you, whereas if the outward roll feels better, Colemak may be the better choice. Again this is conjecture, interpret it as you wish.

Whichever alternative layout you choose: anything other than QWERTY, or a close variant thereof, will generally be an improvement in terms of typing effort. Dvorak cuts effort by about a third with respect to QWERTY. This means that entering hundred characters using QWERTY feels the same as entering about sixty-six characters in Dvorak in terms of the strain on your hands. If your job requires typing all day, that difference is huge. Even more so if you factor in that the number of typing errors is usually halved when you use an alternative layouts, due the more sensible and less error prone arrangement of the keys. Most alternative layouts are as good as Dvorak or better, depending on the characteristics of the text that you type. Different layouts can be easily compared here.

Now that I had chosen a layout, it was time to practice, so I set some simple rules:

  1. Practice the new layout daily for at least half an hour using on-line training tools.
  2. Do not switch layouts completely, rather keep using QWERTY as primary layout until you are confident you can switch effectively.
  3. Train on all three different keyboards that you regularly use. Do not buy any new physical keyboard, do not relabel keys, but simply switch between layouts in software.
  4. Focus on accuracy and not on speed.

Before starting I measured my raw QWERTY typing speed, which hovered around ninety words per minute sustained and about a hundred words per minute as top speed. Unfortunately, raw typing speed is a bit of a deceptive measure, as it does not factor in errors. Hitting backspace and then retyping what you intended to type contributes to your overall speed, yet it does not contribute at all to your effectiveness. So it is the effective typing speed which is of interest: how fast you type what you actually intended to type. Effective typing speed is a reasonable proxy for typing proficiency. My effective QWERTY typing speed was a bit lower than the raw speed, by about five to ten percent. This gives a sustained speed of eighty to eighty-five words per minute and a top speed of around ninety-five words per minute.

As I started with my daily Dvorak training sessions, I also started seeing a decrease in my effective QWERTY typing speed. My fingers started tripping up over simple words and key combinations, even though I still used my ‘own’ typing style for QWERTY, and touch typed only in Dvorak. The effect was subtle, but noticeable, lowering my effective QWERTY speed with about ten to fifteen percent. I deemed this acceptable, so I persevered, but it does show that using two keyboard layouts definitely messes up muscle memory. I think this effect can be mitigated to some extent by using specific layouts on specific keyboards, but I did not test this, as I would be breaking my own rules.

The first sessions in Dvorak were slow, with effective speeds of about five to ten words per minute. In fact the first days were highly demotivating, it felt like learning to walk or ride a bike from scratch again. I started out with my fingers on the home row and consciously moved my fingers into position. That process took a lot of concentration, you can think of it as talking by spelling out each word. Furthermore, every time I hit a wrong key, my muscle memory would stare me in the face full of tears and proclaim it had triggered the right motion. It did … just not for this new layout I was learning.

So, what did I use to train? I started out using a site called 10fastfingers, but I found it a bit cumbersome and it did not have a lot of variance. In the end, I can really recommend only two sites, namely learn.dvorak.nl and keybr.com. The latter has the nice property that it adapts the lessons to your proficiency level and is quite effective for improving weak keys. /r/dvorak is also good for inspiration and tips.

Some basic other tips: start typing e-mails and chats with your new layout before making a complete switch, as it will give you some training in thinking and typing, rather than just copying text. Furthermore, switching the keyboard layout of your smartphone may help as well, not for efficiency, as Dvorak is really a two-handed layout, but for memorization. Dvorak is not really designed for phones, other layouts may be better, I have not looked deeply into this, as I generally dislike using phones for entering text, it does not seem worth the trouble of optimization. I do not recommend switching the keys on your computer keyboard, or relabeling them, as doing so will tempt you to look at the keyboard as you type, which will slow you down. It is better to type ‘blind’.

It took some discipline to keep at it the first few days, but after about a week or two I was able to type at an average speed of about twenty-five words per minute. Still not even a third of my original QWERTY speed, but there was definitely improvement. After this there was a bit of a plateau. I spent more time on the combinations and key sequences that were problematic, which helped. Six weeks in I was able to type with an average speed of around forty words per minute. Since this was half of my QWERTY speed, I deemed it was time to switch to Programmer Dvorak completely.

In contrast with my previous attempt several years ago, this time the switch was not a frustrating experience. The rate of learning increased as my muscle memory no longer had to deal with two layouts. Typing became increasingly unconscious. The only things that remained difficult were special characters and numbers, for the sole reason that these do not appear often and thus learning them is slower.

Currently I am about ten weeks in. I did not use the same training tools during that entire time, but I do have data from the last eight weeks. Let us first take a look at the average typing speed:


Average smoothed typing speed

The graph shows two lines spanning a time of eight weeks, a green one which shows the raw speed and a purple one that shows the effective speed. You can see that both speeds go up over time and the lines are converging, which implies the error rate is going down. My average speed is currently around seventy words per minute, which is close to my original QWERTY speed.

We can also look at the non-smoothed data, which gives a feeling for the top speed. In the second graph, shown below, we see that the top speed is about hundred words per minute which is actually about the same as my QWERTY top speed.


Raw typing speed

There is still quite a bit of variation, as is to be expected: not every character sequence can be entered at a high speed and some keys have a higher error rate than others. Most errors are mechanical in nature, which means: simply hitting the wrong key. This is particularly prevalent when the same fingers needs to move to press a subsequent key, for example for the word ‘pike’ one finger needs to move thrice to hit the first three letters. More generally, my slowest keys are the Q, J and Z and the keys with the highest error rate are the K, X and Z. Luckily these are not high frequency keys, and they are also underrepresented during training, so over time the errors will likely decrease and the speed will increase for these keys.

With respect to my original goals: firstly, I can say that typing in Dvorak is more comfortable than QWERTY, particularly at higher speeds my fingers feel much less jumbled up. The hand alternation is very pleasant, though it took some time for my hands to get synchronized. Secondly, in terms of speed: after about ten weeks I am very close to my QWERTY speed, which is great. It shows that switching layouts is possible, even though it takes effort and discipline to do so. It was frustrating at first, but I feel that it was a good opportunity to purge many bad typing habits that had accumulated over the years.

There are also some downsides, the main one is that typing QWERTY is slow for me now, and that will likely continue to deteriorate. I do not see this as a major issue, as I do about ninety-nine percent of typing on my own machines. For the other one percent, it is possible to switch layouts on each and every computer out there. Some people may dislike the moving of keyboard shortcuts, and that can really be an issue, but for the most part it is just a matter of getting used to it. As an Emacs user, I took the opportunity to switch to the ergomacs layout, which I can recommend. It significantly reduces the number and length of chords: keys that need to be pressed in succession, and is also more compatible with more broadly adapted shortcuts.

Do I recommend that you switch to Dvorak, or an other alternative layout? That really depends on how frequently you type. If you type rarely, switching may not be worth the effort. However, if you have to type a lot every day then I think it is worth it purely for the increase in typing comfort. The only argument against this is if you often need to switch computers and you can not easily change the keyboard layout on those machines.

Dvorak definitely feels a lot more natural than QWERTY, and so will most other more optimal layouts. I am relieved I never took a touch typing course. It would have taken much more effort to unlearn touch typing QWERTY if I had. Thanks to not doing that I have been able to learn and become proficient using a layout suited for my hands in just ten weeks. So, if you type frequently, are willing to make the jump and have enough discipline to get through the initially steep learning curve, then I can definitely recommend it. Even just for the challenge.

Best Movies of 2014

1. Interstellar
science fiction, drama, adventure
Space science fiction as it should be: with sufficient depth, an interesting story line and focused on how human beings are affected by what they experience. Interstellar is as much about people, their motivations and relations, as about what they are exposed to: the dazzling effects of space-time. The ending could have been better, but despite that Interstellar is highly recommended.

2. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
science fiction, drama, action
Worthy successor to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, with a better and more interesting continued story. Seeing the first movie is certainly recommended, but not required to appreciate this one. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is extremely convincing in its portrayal of the apes. Ironically, they have the same basic hopes, dreams and wishes as people have, yet aligning their interests with the humans proves difficult, leading to heart wrenching scenes.

3. The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz
This documentary tells the real story of Aaron Swartz: a child prodigy, prolific hacker and activist. Ending up in a legal battle that can not be won, he takes his own life at the age of 26. This documentary takes an honest and open look at the events that lead up to his death, shows the views of many of the people he touched, and makes one think about some of the twisted systems that are in place in modern society.

4. The Grand Budapest Hotel
adventure, comedy
A strange, but highly entertaining movie about an eccentric hotel concierge and a lobby boy set in the fictional country of Zubrowka. Concierge Gustav is framed for the murder of one of his most beloved clients, after which a colorful adventure ensues. The way the story is told, the visuals and acting contribute to a rather unique ‘feel’. The Grand Budapest Hotel was definitely one of last year’s pleasant surprises.

5. The Lego Movie
animation, adventure, comedy
Surprisingly fun movie about the famous toy bricks. Emmet, a construction worker, becomes the reluctant hero as he has to save the Lego world from the evil Kragle. Enough layered humor to be entertaining for both kids and adults, even those that did not play with Lego (but, who didn’t?). This is easily the best computer animated feature of 2014. “Everything is awesome! :)”

6. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
fantasy, action, adventure
This final installment in the Hobbit trilogy primarily bridges the gap between Tolkien’s original “The Hobbit” book and the start of “The Lord of the Rings”. Though, the size of the ensemble cast is a bit overwhelming, the movie is well paced, entertaining and has good dramatic impact. Perhaps not as grand as The Lord of The Rings, but certainly worth watching.

7. X-Men: Days of Future Past
comic, action, adventure
Easily the best X-Men film to date, surpassing even 2011’s X-Men First Class. The film shares similarities with Terminator’s storyline: sending someone to the past to prevent a dystopian future, in this case: Wolverine. Recommended thanks to a well developed story and what must be the coolest ensemble cast of an X-Men movie to date.

8. The Edge of Tomorrow
science fiction, action
Though poorly marketed, the Edge of Tomorrow gives an interesting spin on the “reliving similar events repeatedly” genre. The movie achieves a nice balance between action and drama, perhaps best described as a mix between Starship Troopers and Groundhog Day. The end result is an entertaining ‘popcorn’ movie with a hint of intellectual gleam.

Other honorable mentions:

  • Guardians of the Galaxy
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  • The Equalizer
  • The Maze Runner
  • Non-Stop
  • The Hunger Games Mockingjay Part I
  • Divergent
  • The Amazing Spider Man 2
  • Godzilla
  • RoboCop