Aug 252010
 

I feel extremely honored to have the chance to speak at SQLSaturday #50, which is taking place in Iowa City on September 18th.  The organizers have put together a great schedule consisting of some amazing speakers and somehow I got on the list too!

I’ll be giving a talk called “Application Coding Sins.”  As I’ve mentioned before, I was an application developer for about two years before I became a DBA, and still do development work on my own.  In my previous job, I spent a bunch of time writing application code to access and update databases, and even more time re-writing abysmal code that was there long before me.  I came across a lot of terrible ways to do things, and I look forward to sharing those experiences in hopes that others can prevent them from happening.

Should you want to attend, rumor has it there’s still some spots open as of when this post went live.  Check out the registration page for more info, and for the very latest, be sure to follow the Twitter hashtag #sqlsat50, especially on the day of the event!

Aug 192010
 

In my previous post I looked at 4 reasons to learn the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard (DSK).  I’ll now take a look at the other side and give you 4 reasons why you might not want to.

1.  You’re Already A Good Typist

If you’re reading this, chances are pretty good you’re a DBA, developer, consultant, or someone else who makes their living in front of a keyboard.  Given that, chances are also pretty good that you’re a solid typist, as you’d be getting work done very slowly using the hunt-and-peck method of typing.  You’re probably not the world’s fastest, but your typing skills are more than adequate to do your job in a timely manner, right?  Assuming all of the above is true, is it really necessary to learn the Dvorak keyboard?  I can’t imagine there will ever be a job that requires you to use one.

In another light, let’s say you do learn DSK and you can now type 50% faster as a result.  Will you be able to do 50% more work?  You may sit in front of a keyboard for a living, but how much time do you actually spend typing?  “Typist” jobs aren’t nearly as prevalent as they were 50-60 years ago.  Personally, I spend far more time running queries, designing schemas, tuning and troubleshooting than I do typing, so being able to type 50% (or even 100%) faster than I do now doesn’t mean my work will get done much more quickly.

2.  What If It Affects Your Existing Typing Skills?

Will your existing typing skills suffer if you try to stuff knowledge of another keyboard layout into your hands and brain?  Learning new things doesn’t typically reduce learned skills in other areas, but only if done in moderation.  I took 3 years of German in high school and I don’t believe my ability to speak English suffered at all, but I was only speaking German a small part of the day.  Switching to the Dvorak keyboard means that the vast majority of your typing will be on a DSK.  Should you find yourself needing to use a QWERTY keyboard for whatever reason after a few months of Dvorak, you might be surprised at how much you’ve forgotten.

BackToQwerty3.  Your Time Is Important

You have lots of things you’d like to do and only a finite amount of time to get them done in.  Learning the Dvorak keyboard will take up time that you could be spending getting something else done.  Is it worth the time it will take?  Is faster typing speed, the possibility of reduced hand strain and the potential for bragging rights and/or increasing your level of geekdom worth the hours/weeks/months it might take to learn the DSK?  Or is your time better spent getting work done, taking certification tests, being active in the community or spending time with your family?  Decisions like this are made every day, and only you can decide if the payoff from learning the DSK is worth foregoing the other things that time could be spent doing.

4.  Keyboard Shortcuts Will Be A Pain

If you depend on keyboard shortcuts to get things done faster, they will be a lot less convenient on a Dvorak keyboard.  Keyboard shortcuts aren’t going away, but the familiar and convenient keystrokes to hit them change along with the key placement.  For example, the left hand CTRL+{X|C|V} for Cut, Copy, and Paste, respectively, are now a lot more of a stretch, and you’ll need the use of your right hand as well.   This means the everyday practice (for me, at least) of Cut/Copy/Paste using your left hand and selecting with the mouse using your right hand won’t work anymore.  You can definitely get around this by using a keyboard or mouse with hotkeys to perform these functions, but again it’s something to think about.

Other Thoughts

In general, people are lazy and reluctant to change.  When presented with the option of staying with what works well and is familiar, or changing to something new that’s clearly better, a significant number of people will stick with what they know.  The invention of the automobile (or even the affordable automobile) didn’t have everyone selling their horses and buggys overnight – even though the auto presented clear advantages over other methods of transportation, the transition process took many years.

I’ve heard the Dvorak keyboard referred to as the “Betamax of keyboards” more than a few times, and I’m not sure I agree with the comparison.  Betamax predated VHS by a few months, but most consumers had no existing VCR (as none really existed prior to this).  This meant that most consumers would be deciding what format to purchase with no prior allegiance or constraints.  Betamax offered superior resolution, however VHS offered longer record/playback times on a single tape, which is what really won over consumers.  QWERTY predated Dvorak by about 60 years and was well-established by the time the DSK was introduced.  While the DSK offered advantages (e.g. faster, less strain, etc.) its output, a typed page, was no better than with a QWERTY.  Factoring in all the time and money that would need to be spent re-training typists and converting typewriters, and it’s no wonder the Dvorak keyboard never caught on.

Further Reading

The Fable of the Keys – This link was posted in the comments section of my previous post by Daniel Schobel (Twitter), a former co-worker of mine.  The article argues that there is little concrete proof that the Dvorak keyboard is better than QWERTY.  I’m betting the real truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

Aug 172010
 

For quite a while now I’ve been intrigued by the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard (DSK).  I was first introduced to it by my mentor at an internship during college, and after reading about how Dr. Dvorak’s layout of the keys came to be, I thought it would be neat to learn given its advantages.  After giving it more thought, there some disadvantages as well, and I’m torn to the point that I can’t figure out what to do.  In this and the following blog post, I’ll take a look at both sides of the issue.

1.  It’s Faster

Believe it or not, the QWERTY keyboard was actually designed to slow typists down.  Back in the day of old-school typewriters (the ones with typebars) the typebars could easily become jammed if one were to type a letter before the previous letter’s typebar was able to return to it’s resting position.  The QWERTY layout was developed so that these jams could be reduced by forcing typists to type more slowly.  After a lengthy study of the QWERTY keyboard, Dr. August Dvorak, a professor of education at the University of Washington, concluded that the layout of the keys could be rearranged not only to eliminate the aforementioned jams, but also to improve several aspects of typing including overall speed.

Dvorak, along with his brother-in-law Dr. William Dealey, a professor of education at what is now the University of North Texas, studied the frequencies of letters in words of the English language and developed a keyboard layout that minimized finger movement by placing the most commonly used letters in the home row, where the typist’s fingers should spend most of their time.  The next most commonly used letters are in the top row (below the numbers), as moving between the home and top rows is a faster and easier motion than moving between the home and bottom rows, where the balance of the letters reside.  Other optimizations Dvorak and Dealey worked into their design is that words should be typed by alternating between hands whenever possible and that the right hand is favored slightly, as more people are right-handed.

Budget Dvorak ConversionThe end result was that the Dvorak keyboard (apparently Dr. Dealey either did much less work or just got shafted) was considerably faster than its QWERTY predecessor.  Dvorak began entering students trained on his keyboard in the International Commercial Schools Contest for typing.  Ten times between 1934 and 1941, DSK typists placed first in their events.  In 1935 alone 20 awards were won by Dvorak typists.  In 1937, Dvorak keyboards were briefly banned from the contests as “unfair competition” before Dvorak urged them to reconsider.

The current Guinness World Record for fastest English language typist is held by the late Barbara Blackburn, who while using a Dvorak keyboard maintained 150 words per minute for 50 minutes, with 170 wpm for shorter periods and a peak of 212 wpm.

2.  Reduced Finger Strain

It only makes sense that a result of reducing finger movement will reduce strain as well.  As mentioned above, the Dvorak keyboard layout was designed so that the most commonly used letters are in the home row.  In fact, the Dvorak keystroke distribution is 70% in the home row, 22% in the top row, and 8% in the bottom row.  In contrast, the QWERTY keyboard has 32% in the home row, 52% in the top row, and 16% in the bottom row.

I’ve seen claims that using a DSK can help lower the chances of carpal tunnel syndrome as well as be easier to use for those already suffering its effects.  I have never seen any scientific studies affirming this, but it makes sense to me that less repetitive movements would lower the chances of movement-related conditions and would also aggravate said conditions less.

3.  It Would Be Cool To Know

In some ways, learning another keyboard layout wouldn’t be all that different from learning another language, and I think that’s nifty.  Of course in this case it’s a completely optional language, as I can’t really imagine a situation where knowledge of the Dvorak keyboard would be a requirement.  I view proficiency on the Dvorak keyboard as another tool to have in your toolbox which you can leverage when it’s to your advantage to do so.

4.  Built-in Security

The fact that relatively few people use the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard can be seen as an advantage here.  If you have a QWERTY keyboard on your desk and have your operating system set to recognize it as a DSK (which is what I recommend doing) then you’ve got an extra layer of security going on.  Unless they also know Dvorak, any other person who sits down at your computer won’t be able to type anything!  This, of course, is no replacement for locking your computer when you step away, but every little bit helps.

Other Thoughts

Many articles I’ve read about learning the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard advise you to adjust your operating system to recognize your keyboard as a DSK and just start going about your daily business without looking at the keys.  You’ll of course need an image of the keyboard to start out with, and Wikipedia’s article on the DSK has a great image you can print off and keep in a handy location.

While the above approach may work for some, I do better with instruction, so I set out looking for free typing instruction programs to at least give me some exercises teaching the basics.  Some sites claimed to teach Dvorak, but really just showed an image of the Dvorak layout while having you complete the same exercises as students learning QWERTY.  The standard home row exercise of typing “asdf jkl;” on a Dvorak keyboard doesn’t do you much good at all. Actually the number of words you can type on the DSK using only the home row is rather impressive.

The best free site I’ve found so far is typingweb.com, which has Dvorak-specific lessons.  You do have to dig for them a little bit (look under “specialty lessons”), but I’ve found the exercises to be very practical.

Further Reading

The Dvorak Simplified Keyboard: Forty Years of Frustration – an excellent article that’s now nearly forty years old but does an excellent job of explaining how the keyboard layout came to be.  It features some very informative images and is definitely worth a few minutes of your time to read.

Aug 122010
 

Take a moment to think about the really important passwords you use – maybe for your computer at work, email, financial information, or even the ‘sa’ account on SQL Server.  How many characters long are they?  Are they really all that difficult?  Are they:

  • Dictionary words?
  • Words with a few numbers or symbols substituted in place for letters?
  • Totally random combinations of letters, numbers, and symbols?

The last option is obviously the most secure choice, but it also happens to be the most difficult to remember.  I’ve previously mentioned that I’m a big fan of KeePass, an open source password organizer/generator.  It’s a great way to store all your passwords, and for my most sensitive information I have KeePass generate rather long passwords that are completely random.  The pros and cons of this are that the passwords are extremely secure, but also nearly impossible to remember.  Without an installed copy of KeePass handy, I can’t log in to those accounts from anywhere other than my home computer.  I don’t see that as a problem for things like bank websites, as I can’t imagine the need to access them from anywhere other than home anyway.  For other accounts, though, it might present more of an issue.

In my opinion, the happy medium between an easy to remember dictionary word and a much more difficult random sequence is a really long non-random sequence, at which point it isn’t as much a password anymore as it is a passphrase, and that term describes exactly how to come up with them.  Take a sentence, capitalize each word, remove the spaces (or better yet keep the spaces and other punctuation if allowed), add a few numbers if there aren’t any already and voila, you’ve got yourself a reasonably strong passphrase.  They’re easy to remember yet very difficult to crack given their length.  I try to shoot for a length of around 30 characters, and I shudder when encountering systems with a maximum password length lower than that.

Password Too Long

A sure way to lose my business!

The term “passphrase” is nothing new and I can assure you I’m not saying anything that hasn’t already been said by someone else.  I’m just surprised that it hasn’t become more commonplace in this, the era of choosing strong passwords.  To me, “phrase” implies a much longer length than “word” and I think end users would get the hint if an account registration process prompted them to create a passphrase instead of a password.  This could easily be enforced by requiring a minimum length of 15 to 20 characters.

Aug 102010
 

This month’s T-SQL Tuesday is brought to us by Jason Brimhall (Blog | Twitter) and he’s asking what we do to prepare for some time off.   Databases don’t take any time off, and in my experience DBAs rarely do either.  We do earn our vacation like every other employee though, and every once in a while we might even be allowed to use some of it!   When I’m getting ready to go on a vacation, I take 2 simple steps to help ensure that things stay “business as usual” while I’m out of the office:

T-SQL TuesdayDocumentation

The same documentation you write to help others (and perhaps yourself!) learn about your system and avoid confusion can also save your vacation.  If your processes and procedures are accompanied by good documentation, others will be much more likely to handle problems on their own.  Not only can this help cut down on interruptions while you’re at the office, but ideally can reduce them while you’re away as well.

Of course, documentation won’t help anyone if it’s not stored in a location that’s accessible to everyone in the organization.  If people can’t find it (or it’s a pain to navigate through once they do) they’re not going to want to read it, meaning you’ll be just as likely to have someone call you or show up at your desk as you were before.  Try to store your documentation on an internal wiki or similar system.  Another great idea is to include a “quick reference” containing the most common errors/problems and how to solve them quickly.  Writing good documentation does take up time that you could otherwise be using to get more work done, but it can also save a lot of time when you or someone else are in a pinch.

Delegation

Another good idea for when when you’re headed to the science museum beach is to make sure others know to contact someone else in your absence.  This designated contact person will have your contact information and the instructions to please use it only if a true emergency exists.  Changing voicemail and out-of-office messages to say that you are out of the office, the date you’ll be returning, and who to contact in case of emergency will leave very little room for someone to say you didn’t do due diligence.

If you’re part of a team, that person you redirect requests to while you’re gone will hopefully be someone who either took part in your projects or has solid knowledge about them.  If you’re the only person in the organization with any kind of database knowledge, things can be a bit trickier.  Hoepfully there’s someone that’s at least technically savvy enough to read your documentation (see above!) and do whatever is necessary to put out the fire when it occurs.  Being the only person at your company with a clue about the technical operations is a very bad situation both for you and your employer.  Not only will vacation time be difficult to come by, but should something happen like you become sick or get hit by a bus, the business could be affected.