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    yak-layout

    0.0.3 • Public • Published

    The "Yak" keyboard layout and optimizer

    Yak is a tool for developing keyboard layouts via a genetic algorithm. The layouts are optimized for programming and typing English text.

    Yak will also be the name for the layout produced by the tool. At this time I haven't declared a definitive, final version, but it could end up looking something like the following (this is a sample produced by 10,000 iterations of optimization, using the Colemak layout as a starting point):

    ⎋  F1  F2  F3  F4  F5  F6  F7  F8  F9  F10  F11  F12  ⌽
    `  1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  0  -  =  ⌫
    ⇥  d  c  m  p  b  j  x  v  y  ;  [  ]  \
    ⇪  a  r  t  i  h  g  s  n  e  o  '  ↩
    ⇧  u  l  w  f  z  k  q  ,  .  /  ⇧
    fn ⌃  ⌥  ⌘  ␣  ⌘  ⌥  ←  ↑  ↓  →
    

    Design guidelines

    • Learning a new layout is hard: so hard, that you probably only want to do it once in your life. Therefore, the design should go "all in" and feel free to move all and any keys from their Qwerty positions.
    • Inward rolls are delightful and should be prioritized.
    • Both the training corpus and the genetic algorithm should be highly personalized; for example, the finger-to-key placement model should be based on what the user actually does in practice and not what they should do if they follow idealzed typing recommendations (for example, I pretty much avoid using pinkie fingers for anything, so the model should reflect that reality).
    • The genetic algorithm should take cues from Martin Krzywinski's excellent work on the carpalx project, but it should be feature a multi-factor fitness model that goes beyond carpalx's three factors (base, penalty and stroke path).

    Why a new keyboard layout?

    Short version

    From the "Standard Justification For a Project's Existence" playbook:

    ... I realized I needed [blah, blah, blah] but when I surveyed the already existing projects I found that [blah, blah, blah], when what I really needed was [blah blah blah]. So, this project was born...

    Longer version

    I've been aware of alternative keyboard layouts for a long time — years — and as a relentless optimizer, I've been strongly tempted to make the switch to one. But I'm also a Vim user, and the problematic location of the h, j, k, l keys made me doubt. None of the major alternative layouts had these keys in locations that maintained their spatial relationships in a reasonable way, and I didn't want to go down the rabbit hole of remapping Vim's core functionality (I very much prefer to keep things vanilla in that respect).

    This was enough to deter me, literally for years.

    Fast forward to 2015 and I'm on parental leave so have a little bit of time in which I can take the speed hit of learning a new layout. I did a bunch of searching and revisited the major layouts (in my mind, Dvorak, Colemak, Workman, Norman) as well as some of the more obscure options (Arnesito probably being the most radical) and variants on the more common layouts (such as Colemak Mod_DH). None of these address my concerns with h, j, k, l.

    I was aware of the fantastic carpalx tool, which is highly parameterizable, and which I thought I might be able to use to generate a much-better-than-Qwerty layout without changing the position of h, j, k, l (or at least, changing them to some other places where the spatial relationships were maintained).

    Alas, I found it wasn't quite flexible enough to do exactly what I wanted. I could use the "mask" functionality, for example, to pin a key in place, but I couldn't specify more sophisticated constraints such as "put these two keys next to each other but I don't care where", and so on.

    I looked at Micheal Dicken's genetic layout optimizer which produced the so called "MTGAP" layouts, and I read his accompanying blog posts (this intro piece is a good example). I also dived into the Colemak forums and read about other people's attempts at making keyboards using genetic algorithms. It's a fascinating field of study.

    The problem space here is really large. There are too many possible keyboard layouts to make testing them all feasible, and defining what makes one layout better than another is a highly subjective matter. These tools all have different takes on how to establish the "fitness" of a given layout. The main strategies are some blend of the following heuristics:

    • Strokes with weaker fingers are penalized.
    • Keys farther away from the base home row positions are penalized.
    • Hand alternation may (or may not) be preferred.
    • "Rolls" are considered good things (towards the inside; less so or not at all towards the outside).
    • Finger movement distance should be minimized; especially same-finger movement.
    • The most common digrams and trigrams (two-letter and three-letter sequences) should be very easy to type, to the extent that entire layouts exist to make typing "th" or similar easier.
    • Some layouts try to keep important shortcut keys (eg. "C" for copy, "V" for paste etc) in their Qwerty positions.
    • Others may avoid moving Qwerty keys between fingers or hands.
    • Some maintain punctuation in Qwerty positions; others swap the shifted and unshifted values of the number keys to make punctuation more accessible; others still mix punctuation in among the main "block" of letter keys.

    Which of these heuristics should be weighed more heavily is open to debate. Unfortunately, the cost of experimentation is high, as one cannot simply learn a new layout every week (for example, to learn a high-alternation layout like Dvorak one week, a distance-minimizing layout like Arnesito the next week, and a balanced layout like Colemak the following week). This means much of this is more art than science, as you end up having to go with your gut instinct.

    Like any programmer faced with an excessive amount of choice, I decided it was time to write my own tool, one capable of perfectly expressing my intent. If I was going to go through the pain of learning a new layout, I wanted to do it only once in my lifetime, using an optimal algorithm tailored to my needs, and drawing on a corpus of my own typing.

    By this point I'd realized two things:

    • Doing this properly was going to be a lot of work: not only would I have to develop the algorithm, but I'd need to get a high-quality corpus, and that could be very time-consuming indeed. For example, it wasn't going to be enough to just pipe source code into the corpus. Source code is heavily edited and re-edited, and shortcuts, autocomplete and snippets are used to produce large amounts of text without actually typing it. Furthermore, in Vim, a lot of typing occurs outside of "insert" mode but doesn't wind up reflected in the document. In short, the only way to get an authoritative corpus would effectively be to keylog (capturing keystroke and timing information) for an extended period, which would not be without its technical difficulties, and would also burn through the window of opportunity that I had during parental leave to learn a new layout.
    • The difference between the popular alternative layouts is small, and choosing a "best" layout is hard and of dubious advantage; simply switching away from Qwerty towards any other layout would probably be a winning move.

    In my gut, I sensed that Colemak would be good enough, and it comes on OS X by default, so no messing with layout files or other complicated set-up would be required in order to use it. Additionally, even though the h, j, k, l keys don't have the desired spatial configuration, they are at least close to one another, and I have the option of using a tool like Karabiner to end-run around the problem and define an alternate layer that brings the cursor keys onto the home row whenever I hit dead key or hold down Alt.

    So, I decided to switch to Colemak, build the layout optimizer for fun, and throw a good-but-not-perfect corpus at it (ie. I was going to skip the keylogging step). This was still going to be a non-trivial side-project, with multiple steps involved. In short yak-shaving. Some layouts have names (like QGMLWB) are hard to remember and even hard to pronounce. Given the amount of yak-shaving involved in my plan, "Yak" seemed like a good name for the layout.

    Install

    $ npm install -g yak-layout

    Usage

    $ yak help # show usage info 
    $ yak corpus-stats # show corpus statistics 
    $ yak layout-stats [layout] # show layout statistics (defaults to QWERTY) 
    $ yak optimize [layout] # generate an optimal layout 

    Sample output

    Known issues

    • You have to B.Y.O.C. (Bring Your Own Corpus) and store in in ./yak/corpus.txt (although the repo contains a dead-simple script in the "extras" directory that I used to throw together a quick-and-dirty corpus).
    • We don't yet model alternate layers (for example, the "Alt" layer).
    • We treat shifted versions of keys as wedded to their unshifted keys, always moving them together.
    • Not yet implemented: more sophisticated constraints such as "move numbers but keep them in this row".
    • Configurability is limited from the command-line; many things can only be tweaked by editing data structures in the source code.
    • There is no built-in facility for running the optimize subcommand repeatedly, accumulating the serialized, optimized layouts onto disk for later processing; there's not built-in facility for analyzing such batches of optimized layouts either.

    Links

    License

    The MIT License (MIT)

    Copyright (c) 2015-present Greg Hurrell

    Permission is hereby granted, free of charge, to any person obtaining a copy of this software and associated documentation files (the "Software"), to deal in the Software without restriction, including without limitation the rights to use, copy, modify, merge, publish, distribute, sublicense, and/or sell copies of the Software, and to permit persons to whom the Software is furnished to do so, subject to the following conditions:

    The above copyright notice and this permission notice shall be included in all copies or substantial portions of the Software.

    THE SOFTWARE IS PROVIDED "AS IS", WITHOUT WARRANTY OF ANY KIND, EXPRESS OR IMPLIED, INCLUDING BUT NOT LIMITED TO THE WARRANTIES OF MERCHANTABILITY, FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE AND NONINFRINGEMENT. IN NO EVENT SHALL THE AUTHORS OR COPYRIGHT HOLDERS BE LIABLE FOR ANY CLAIM, DAMAGES OR OTHER LIABILITY, WHETHER IN AN ACTION OF CONTRACT, TORT OR OTHERWISE, ARISING FROM, OUT OF OR IN CONNECTION WITH THE SOFTWARE OR THE USE OR OTHER DEALINGS IN THE SOFTWARE.

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    Install

    npm i yak-layout

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    Version

    0.0.3

    License

    MIT

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