Border Country: The Story of Britain’s Lost Middleland

My (almost) local MP, Rory Stewart, has made a fantastic documentary about the border country. I say “(almost) local” because his constituency of Penrith and The Border actually stops just short of Keswick.

He puts forward a fascinating and largely forgotten history of the Border Country, the impact of Hadrian’s Wall, and how the historical records are broadly overlooked today.

The two parts are available on the BBC iPlayer for another four days, I’d highly recommend you watch them.

One of the strangest online customer service experiences I’ve ever encountered

Now that I work at Automattic, I travel more frequently than I used to, and I have become aware of some rather wonderful services that allow you to watch the online television output of your mother country, while in a different country. As most people are aware, UK TV services like the BBC iPlayer are restricted when you’re overseas. However, it isn’t illegal for other services to allow you to appear to still be in the UK, while you’re in fact in a different country. And as I’m a very happy licence-fee payer, I have no qualms about taking advantage of this.

In this vein, I was recommended a service called Adfreetime that allows you to do just as I have said above. While in the US (or pretty much anywhere else where the internet is freely available), this service allows one to appear to be in the UK and thus watch anything that one would be able to watch while actually in the UK. There are a few services like this, but I was recommended Adfreetime, and at just $2 per month, it’s probably the cheapest one out there.

So, off to Adfreetime I go to get set up. I create my order, make a payment through PayPal, but then my account is almost immediately locked down. Apparently I’ve been flagged as a potentially fraudulent customer, and I need to make contact with a representative of the company. No big deal. So I duly file a support ticket, and get my first response. Sadly, the original thread is unavailable to me, so I’ll have to paraphrase. Essentially, I am told that because it appears as though I’m using a VPN, I have been flagged as high risk. As it happens, I’m not using a VPN, but a proxy server, as my employer provides this service as a necessary means of securing my connection. (Certain work-related services are only available when proxied.)

So I disable the proxy, and try again. But to no avail. The problem now appears that because I have the order attached to my account, I can’t attempt to reorder. Even though the original order is marked as declined, there is no way of reattempting payment, and I can’t add another order. So I’m stuck and I return to the support ticket.

I appreciate this is probably seeming a bit dull, but bear with me, it’s about to get good. Once again, I’m told by the same representative that the problem is that I’m using a VPN. But of course, it clearly isn’t, so I respond again, this time with a screenshot, showing what problem I’m actually facing.

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What has taken place so far has occurred over the course of a few days. About a week passes, and I realise that I never had a response. I return once more to Adfreetime and see that my ticket appears to have simply been deleted, and never replied to. Hmmm. So I file a new ticket, this time a bit more irked, enquiring as to why my original ticket has been deleted and if I’ll ever be able to actually pay to use this service. I’ll accept that I’m somewhat brusque, but I’ve never had such difficulty trying to pay to use a service before:

Then a somewhat bizarre and unresolving response comes through:

So this forces a response from me:

And at this point I’m frustrated and decide to fire off a tweet in the vain hope that someone else at the company might come to my aid. It’s a petty tactic but it’s worked in the past:

Then comes this:

Woah. It’s almost slightly threatening. At this point it occurs to me that perhaps I should give up on Richard and try one final approach. One that I should have tried far earlier in the process. I’ll just set up a new account with a Gmail modifier on my email address. I do this, the payment’s accepted, we’re in. Except that within literally a couple of minutes I receive a notification that the payment has been refunded and my new account has been shut down…

So, having given up the game of trying to pay this company for the service that they provide, I decide to just prod a bit further, simply for the sake of resolving how I might have been able to become a customer of Adfreetime:

And I receive this, epic, response:

So there we are. I got told. As it happens, I’ll probably actually use Unblock-us. But at $4.99 a month (almost double, but discounted if you subscribe for a year), it’s still a shame I didn’t cut the mustard with Adfreetime.

On switching to Colemak

As a congenital geek, I have spent most of my life typing in one way or another. In fact my ability to type led to me getting a fairly well-paid holiday job in my teenage years working as a paralegal/typist at various London law firms. I have never properly learnt to touch type but as a result of the above I had developed a pretty quick, cack-handed, 8-finger style of typing with which I could max out at about 130 words per minute.

colemak

Perhaps for these combined reasons, I had never really thought to question the QWERTY keyboard layout. Thus the first I really heard of alternative layouts, I think, was an interview with Matt Mullenweg (the founder of Automattic, the company where I now work). Matt was introduced, among other things, as a “Dvorak user”. My curiosity piqued, I immediately Googled the term to find out what “Dvorak” was. I was fairly surprised by what I found. For the uninitiated, “Dvorak” is, in this instance, an alternative keyboard layout devised by Dr. August Dvorak in the 1930s. He spent years developing the layout while studying typing habits and testing lots of different possible ways of reorganising the keys.

Previously unbeknownst to me, and perhaps you, the QWERTY layout is incredibly inefficient. It originates from problems with the first typewriters whereby the typebars could easily jam if the user typed two neighbouring letters in quick succession. This prototypal snag was solved fairly early on in the development of typewriters but due to commercial reasons, including the fact that hundreds of thousands of people had already grown accustomed to the QWERTY layout, it became the industry-standard.

This is pretty bad in the grand scheme of things. Typing on QWERTY involves a lot of awkward finger stretching and very poor utilisation of the “home row” of keys (ASDFGHJKL). If you’ve learnt to type properly, you’ll be aware of the concept of keeping your fingers hovering over this row with your two index fingers on the notched F and J keys.

You may think that a bit of awkward finger stretching isn’t that big of a deal, but the problem is a lot worse than you might imagine. One of Dr. Dvorak’s studies compared two typists performing the same task. With Dvorak’s layout, the typist’s fingers travelled about 1 mile per day, with QWERTY the same task caused the typist’s fingers to travel about 20 miles per day. This difference exemplifies a genuine health concern – QWERTY is more likely to cause repetitive strain injury (RSI).

Since then various folk, including Dr. Dvorak, have tried largely in vain to convince the zombiefied public to use more efficient keyboard layouts with arguably limited success. People like Matt are fairly rare with Dvorak having an estimated global usage of less than 0.1%. In fact Dvorak himself pretty much gave up. “I’m tired of trying to do something worthwhile for the human race,” he is alleged to have said, “they simply don’t want to change!”

Anyway, I’m a sucker for anything that professes to make my life easier/better etc. I love new apps and things that can improve my workflow. Automattic is fairly unusual in that it boasts almost 7% Dvorak usage across the 225 employees working here. Matt is a pretty good Dvorak evangelist!

So, if you’ve read this far you might be wondering what the hell Colemak is, given that it is in the title of this post. Well, Colemak is one of the more recent developments in the world of keyboard layouts. It was released in January 2006 and gets its name partially from its founder, Shai Coleman, while stealing the last two letters of Dvorak. Standing on the shoulders of giants like Dvorak, Coleman felt that Dvorak was a little out of date. As good as it is, Dvorak was developed almost 80 years ago, some time before the first modern computer was built. Thus Coleman devised Colemak. It is a much less extreme reorganisation of the traditional QWERTY layout with only 17 differences. It retains the main shortcut keys such as C and V so copy and paste commands remain the same. However, it also comprises most of the benefits of Dvorak and is actually slightly more efficient.

I found out about Colemak from another fellow Automattician, Ian Stewart. I read a few of his blog posts about it and having had the privilege of being able to discuss with Matt and Ian, Dvorak and Colemak respectively, I decided to give Colemak a try. (Along the way I discovered that there’s a bit of tension between the Dvorak and Colemak cadres at Automattic so I may have limited my career prospects by not going with Matt’s preferred layout, but Colemak just seemed so appealing!) So mid-October 2013, I went cold turkey and switched my keyboard layout (Macs have native support for Colemak). I’ll be honest, the first few days were absolute hell. It was like forgetting how to talk and having to gradually learn from scratch. Typing a quick email became a daunting undertaking. Fortunately there are a fantastic series of lessons and exercises available in the form of an app called MasterKey. I worked through these in my downtime as often as I could and I soon found myself being able to get through sentences without as much agony as before. I had a print-out of the Colemak layout just beneath my monitor but other than that I completely touch-typed which is the recommended way of doing it.

Within a very short space of time, I could completely understand the benefits of Colemak. Once you get into typing complete words in the MasterKey tutorials you can clearly see the benefits of it and how little your fingers and hands have to move in order to type. Now, just under three months on, I haven’t quite got up to my previous speed but I’m definitely on my way and I’m really enjoying using a far more efficient layout.

So, as a New Year’s resolution, why not give it a try?