This is the third of a small series of posts on computer ergonomics and how I’ve banished computer-use-related pain. As always, I have no affiliate links, kickbacks, nor relation to the companies whose products I’m reviewing, and these reviews are simply posted as a service to the internet in general. For full background, read the first post in the series here and the second post here.
Between the Rollermouse and adjustable-height desk, I was 90% pain free. But there was one more area which still needed some help.
Although many people are selling many different approaches to typing, there were a few ergonomic facts that nearly every resource I found agreed on:
- Your arms should be perpendicular to front of the keyboard
- Your wrists should not be horizontally bent as your hands sit on the homerow
- Your keyboard should be at a height where your forearms are roughly level typing on it.
- Your wrists and hand should be in roughly a straight line, vertically speaking
- Your mouse should be as near to the keyboard as possible.
Here’s a cute little graphic (source) which demonstrates 1-4 in use:
I’ve used (for many years) an Apple Wireless Keyboard, which is a great little unit, and its compactness helps keep the mouse at hand (addressing issue #5). However, even once at the proper height, it has some flaws. First, its’ upward angle encourages vertical wrist-bending (like in the lower right of the diagram above) (Issue #4). Also, and more problematically, its’ (extremely) compact size forces people with broad shoulders (like myself) to angle the arms together approaching the keyboard, then splay the wrists back out to reach the proper key positioning (Issues #1 and 2). This is a major ergonomic issue for most laptops, as well.
I realized that this arm angle issue was perhaps the biggest remaining ergonomic problem I had, so I set out to find a way to fix it.
The Kinesis Freestyle Solo for Mac
The biggest problem I had was finding a keyboard that was friendly to a broad shouldered person like myself. The majority of ergonomic keyboards address this problem by being very contoured (the exemplar of this class being the Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard line). This is great for 1-4 above, allowing the wrists and arms to be in a more natural position while typing, but unfortunately, because these tend to be very large keyboards, they tend to to force your mouse to migrate well across the desk, and the contour on the front makes using a Rollermouse nearly impossible.
Luckily, it appears that fate wants me to have good ergonomics. As I was searching around on Craigslist, I happen to find somebody selling a Kinesis Freestyle Solo keyboard for Mac for $40 nearby, so, of course, I jumped on it.
Although it was the first generation version of the Kinesis Freestyle line (they’ve since moved to the Freestyle 2), it offered exactly what I needed: a keyboard which allows me to type with my arms more separated, allowing my wrists to remain straight even while typing. Mine even came with their “VIP” kit, which allows you to tent the two halves of the keyboard up a little bit more as you type, but because I use the roller mouse, I really haven’t found this necessary. Apparently, they also sell a kit which allows you to mount the two halves vertically, although I can’t possibly imagine using that on any regular basis. My final setup, as you can see below, is relatively straightforward (the white box at the top is an iPod/iPhone dock):
On the whole, I very much like this keyboard. The split design allows me to spread the two halves apart and type with my arms at the proper angle, it has more keys than my Apple wireless keyboard did (although it’s very easy to hit the “home” key instead of “delete”, and it’s just a little bit thicker than the roller mouse, allowing me to rest my palms on the mouse’s pads as I type. also, I’ve had no problems at all with the Apple specific button assignments for the function keys, and although it’s a little frustrating that they’re not the same positions here that they are on most modern Apple keyboards, I’ve never had a problem with them being recognized.
My one complaint with it is that the key feel isn’t at all satisfying, and the unit itself just feels cheaper than the Apple Keyboard, or even modern Razer devices. The key switches are certainly not mechanical, and although the pressure required to activate the rubber-dome switches is pleasantly light, it still feels rather mushy and noncommittal, and it’s hard to tell whether you hit a key or not. This may be something they’ve addressed in the Freestyle 2, but the moment they sell a version of this with mechanical switches, I’ll be on the pre-order list.
Pickiness about switch type aside, I would highly recommend this keyboard to anybody having arm angle issues, or simply looking for ergonomic keyboard that gives you plenty of options and ability to move around your typing position. Although I got an incredible deal on it, if I had to replace it tomorrow, I would gladly pay full retail ($129) for the new version.
Hitting the ‘End’ Key
So, between the adjustable height desk, the roller mouse, and the Kinesis Freestyle Solo keyboard, I’m now in a place where I’m largely pain-free, and I can do a full day of work at the computer, alternating between standing and sitting, with relatively little physical consequence.
As you can imagine, I’m absolutely overjoyed by this, and even though it cost me a fair amount of money to acquire the gear I needed to get there, I really do feel like it’s money well spent.
In my last post, I want to talk about some of the other steps that you can take to improve your computer usage and reduce pain without opening your wallet.
Until next time.
This is the second of a small series of posts on computer ergonomics and how I’ve banished computer-use-related pain. As always, I have no affiliate links, kickbacks, nor relation to the companies whose products I’m reviewing, and these reviews are simply posted as a service to the internet in general. For full background, read the first post in the series here, and the third post here.
As I mentioned last time, moving to an adjustable height desk was a major help for my neck and shoulders, and finally put me in a situation where my mouse and keyboard were at the proper height. But even with that, after any mousing-intensive task (data annotation, document editing, or click-heavy gaming), I’d still find myself with considerable wrist pain. So, my next step was to find a better mousing solution.
Finding a better mouse
For many many years, I’ve used a Logitech VX Revolution travel mouse for all of my computing. It’s accurate, fast, and considering I’ve been using the same one since it came out, reliable. But one of the things I realized was that my using such a mouse, and specifically one smaller than my hand, was a major source of my pain.
The first (and cheapest) step I took was to pick up a gel wrist rest. This was helpful in reducing some of the arm pain, but the tension in my hand was still very much there, and even with the wrist rest, I was limited to around 20 minutes of heavy mousing.
I spent a great deal of time trying (and ultimately returning) different mice, ranging from a larger full-size mouse, to a Logitech Thumb Trackball, to a Kensington Slimblade full-size Trackball, but still, my wrist pain stuck around (although varying slightly by solution). So, one after another, the competition got returned.
The Contour Design Rollermouse Free 2
Then, I read about the Contour Design Rollermouse line of input devices. They offered a 30 day in-home trial, so I took it, and ordered a Contour Design Rollermouse Free 2.
This is a completely different approach to input than anything else. Rather than moving a mouse or trackball, you slide a tube on a cylinder, moving it side to side to move the cursor side to side and spinning it forward or backwards to move the cursor up and down. You can press the bar down to single click, or use any of the other buttons for double-clicking or right clicking.
This means it’s not only very low friction, but it works great with either hand, and it’s thin enough that it can sit in front of your keyboard on the desk. Ergonomically speaking, this means that you’re no longer reaching for a mouse, just moving your hands back towards you an inch or two from the keyboard. The Free 2 includes its own wrist-rest for the keyboard. In my experience, it’s been very accurate and great for clickfest games like Starcraft or Diablo, and the adjustment period was only a couple of hours, a bit more to click-and-drag while holding the bar down. You can control the cursor speed on the unit itself, which is really helpful for the initial learning curve, and changing mouse-speed at the system level helps more later.
The unit has only two disadvantages. The first is the Copy/Paste buttons. The problem is that to work at all, they require you to use Contour’s bespoke version of USB Overdrive. The regular version of USB Overdrive (which I use and love) doesn’t recognize those buttons at all, and conflicts with their version, so you can’t install both at once. So, for whatever reason, I have two buttons on the mouse which my Mac just doesn’t see. Frustrating, but minor.
The biggest weakness is that it’s fundamentally not good for twitchy First-Person-Shooter gaming, where you often need to keep mousing in one direction well after you’ve hit the edge of the screen. The Rollermouse has two buttons at either end of the track that, when hit with the roller, simply continue to advance the cursor towards the side of the screen at a set rate. This works intuitively for desktop computing, but in an FPS, when you’re trying to turn your view or do a 360º turn, the set rate is just too slow (and cannot be adjusted).
Rollermice are pricy ($200+), but for me, it’s been totally worth it, and 30+ days later, I wouldn’t dream of sending it back. Using a regular mouse at a desk now just feels silly, and I’m now to the point where I’m scanning Craigslist for used versions so I can have one at work, too. Most importantly, though, I’m mouse-pain free, and 5 hours of data annotation (very mouse-heavy) simply isn’t an ergonomic problem.
So the Rollermouse left me 99% covered, with FPS gaming as my sole unfulfilled mousing need. Luckily, fate intervened to bring me and Call of Duty back together.
The Evoluent VerticalMouse 4
A few days after falling for the Rollermouse, I happened to be perusing Craigslist looking for keyboards (more on that next time), and stumbled upon an ad for another ergonomic mouse, the Evoluent VerticalMouse 4 Wired selling for $40. Considering that this was a $60+ discount, and I needed an FPS mouse, I went for it, and picked it up.
This is a conventional slide-it-on-the-table optical mouse, but it’s designed to be held as if you were shaking its hand, in a much more neutral position. It’s quite nice, with 6 programmable (using USB Overdrive) buttons, and I’ve found it quite accurate. The LED “Evoluent” logo is excessively bright, and can be annoying in an otherwise dark room, but the mouse is otherwise well designed.
Most importantly, although I still do get some pain using it for a few hours (with breaks) for gaming, it really is more comfortable than any slide-it-on-the-table mouse I’ve ever used, especially with a gel pad for the wrist, and it has quite neatly filled the niche of a somewhat ergonomic FPS gaming mouse for those occasional FPS sessions. Although I’m not sure I’d spend the full $100 MSRP, for the $40 I paid, the VM4 is an excellent ergonomic mouse, and is really useful in the one niche that the Rollermouse falls down.
That said, I spent a week or so with both the Rollermouse and the VerticalMouse on my desk, and outside of the First-Person gaming niche, seldom reached for the VerticalMouse. Using the Rollermouse, now that I’m used to it, really is that much quicker, more comfortable, and more ergonomic than any mouse, even one so consciously designed as the VM4.
So, after trying a variety of input devices, I’ve come to use (and love) the Rollermouse for 95% of tasks, and I like the VerticalMouse for the specific niche of FPS gaming. If you’re experiencing wrist or finger pain from mousing, try the Rollermouse free trial. They’ll cover everything if you don’t like it, and, well, this little rollermouse has been a lifesaver for me.
So, mouse needs met, I went on to rectify the last of my ergonomic sins: the keyboard.
To be continued…
This article extensively discusses a profane English idiom and its Russian translation. If you don’t care for linguistic discussions of naughty words, you might be more interested in a different post from the archive.
I just happened upon an excellent (although brutal) article talking about the cultural significance of dashboard-mounted cameras in cars in Russia.
Although the whole article was fascinating, as a linguist, I absolutely loved the author’s brief foray into the language of the websites used to share accident videos (about halfway through the article). My favorite, particularly beautiful example is below:
кирпичи – “Bricks” (as in “shitting bricks.”) The audio track often features the driver panting or shouting the entire Russian vocabulary of swears at the top of their lungs. Used for videos with near misses or close shaves.
“кирпичи” (pronounced ‘keer-PI-chi’, /kirpitʃi/), is quite literally just the Russian word for a brick you’d build a house with. As the author suggests, this second meaning comes about because Russian speakers seem to have adopted the English phrase “to shit a brick” into their language.
When you read it, you’ll borrow idioms
This beautiful English idiom, alternately “to shit bricks” or “to shit a brick”, roughly means “to become panicked, scared or angry”, is attested all the way back to 1961 in the Unabridged Oxford English Dictionary (although a few uses were shown prior to that in Google Ngram Viewer). In my experience, is most often used with reference to somebody else’s future or past reaction. A few examples:
“When she sees that dent in her car, she’s going to shit a brick”
“Kerri shat a brick when John jumped out at her from the bushes”.
The equivalent Russian phrase, cрать кирпичами, literally means “to shit with bricks” (cрать ‘to shit/defecate’ + кирпич-ами ‘brick.instrumental-case’). cрать кирпичами (pronounced “Srat Keer-pi-cha-mi”, /sratʲ kirpitʃami/) is defined on the Russian meme and slang site Lurkmore as, roughly translated, “designating an extreme degree of fright”, roughly equivalent to the English expression, and very much in line with the dashcam video site usage. The site then goes on to mention the common uses of the term on the internet, in greater culture, and in medicine (mocking the logo and packaging of a hemhorroid cream which appears to show the unorthodox production of a кирпич).
Entertainingly, Lurkmore.to also associates the Russian phrase with “Майндфак”, a Russian transliteration of the English slang term “mindfuck”, and give the Russian translation of the common English phrase associated with “Mindfuck” surprise images, “When you see it, you’ll shit bricks”. Considering that the association between these images and the phrase is so strong that the main site devoted to collecting these images is shitbrix.com (NSFW), I’m glad to see that the Russian equivalent shares this association.
Putting all the bricks together
So, in conclusion, I absolutely love that this English idiom was borrowed into Russian, and all the more so, I love that the phrase was borrowed through translation (using the Russian word for “shit” and “bricks”), rather than “шит брикс” or a similar transliteration. I’ve also enjoyed looking into the history of the English idiom, although it has been surprisingly difficult, because relatively few sources examine profane idioms in detail.
Regardless, this is just another example of the power of the internet and the language change that’s happening around the world, and it shows that no language is immune. So, next time I see a similar idiom borrowing, I should be better able to hold on to my кирпичи.
This is the first of a small series of posts on computer ergonomics and how I’ve banished computer-use-related pain. As always, I have no affiliate links, kickbacks, nor relation to the companies whose products I’m reviewing, and these reviews are simply posted as a service to the internet in general. You might also be interested in the second and third posts in the series.
As a graduate student, annotation supervisor, and computer geek, I’m sitting in front of a screen for most of my average day, and aside from investing in a comfortable desk chair several years ago, I never really put mind to how my body was positioned, used, and stressed as I did so.
This hasn’t been a problem in the past, but recently, after one acute injury (and, as I get older), I found myself plummeting into the depths of RSI (“repetitive stress injury”) hell. My wrists were killing me, fingers were going numb, my neck and shoulders were tense, and it got to the point where after about 20 minutes of typing at my desk, I would literally have to stop. Even using a wrist brace wasn’t helping, and it was getting worse, not better. Given that I write papers, code, and emails for a living, if I couldn’t safely do so, my very livelihood was at risk. I had to do something.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest attested usage of the term ergonomics was in 1949, and interestingly, the term seems to have been formed based on the existing word “economics”, simply substituting eco- for “ergo-“, the Greek word for ‘work’. Simply put though, the field of ergonomics is focused on studying how it is that people do work, and how to more efficiently and safely allow that to happen.
When I started experiencing this pain, I went to see my doctor, who recommended I start looking into ergonomics. So I did. After reading some online resources on computer Ergonomics (as well as talking to ergonomics geeks), my problems quickly became clear.
So, I decided to do an ergonomic overhaul of my workspace. I’m going to make a few posts discussing some of the solutions that I’ve found in that process, and reviewing the projects that have really made a difference.
The search for a better desk
I quickly realized that my biggest issue was that the desk I was using simply didn’t fit me. Based on my body geometry (and my strangely long upper arms), when sitting, I need a desk that’s around 26” high. I was limping along using a 30” desk with a keyboard tray, which lowered the keyboard down a little bit, but this left my mouse on the desktop, and left my wrist at an unhealthy angle when mousing. My monitor was also far too low, and the relatively small desktop didn’t give me a place to more stably raise it up.
On top of all that, I realized that I was spending way too much time sitting, and wasn’t changing my position nearly often enough to allow my body to stay healthy. So, in the name of experimentation, I built a $22 IKEA standing desk. It allowed me to pick the proper height for my body geometry (which I then knew for later) and felt great, but ultimately, as I typed, the desk-on-a-desk shook around more than I was comfortable with, and it was quite a production to move back to sitting. Perhaps most importantly, it was ugly as sin.
But it was still $22 well spent. Having built and used one, I knew I could use a standing desk, that I liked the idea, and most importantly, how high I needed it to be. So, I started searching for an adjustable height desk.
The GeekDesk Max
Unfortunately, the few stores selling adjustable height desks in my area wanted $1500+ and had non-existent return policies, so I looked online and found GeekDesk. After reading an absurd number of reviews, almost all positive, I ordered a small frame-only GeekDesk Max, to save money (shipping the top was pricy) and get a faster ship time. It cost around $810 to get it to my doorstep, and I was amazed at their shipping speed, I ordered on a Sunday afternoon and got it on Friday.
I picked up a desktop from IKEA, around $38, a LACK shelf ($14), and four 4x4x5 chunks of scrap wood from Home Depot ($0.98), and assembled the whole thing in about an hour and a half. I mounted the desktop to the desk itself, put the shelf on the four blocks, and put my monitor and laptop on the shelf. I also mounted a vented plastic bin to the bottom of the table with a power strip and USB hubs, for cable management. Now my monitor’s at the proper height, my desk can be at whatever height I need, and the whole thing actually even looks attractive.
In short, even costing almost as much as a month of rent, I absolutely love the GeekDesk Max. It’s been reliable, relatively quiet, has had no problems lifting everything I put on it, and it’s fairly stable even at standing height (although you can still feel a bit of wobble if you lean on it more than a bit). Although I thought it was silly at first, the four programmable height settings are a brilliant thing: I use one for my sitting height, one for my standing height, one as low as the desk will go (for a better window view when I’m not using it), and one at handwriting height while standing. If you’re interested in an adjustable height desk, I would highly recommend GeekDesk to anybody.
Life with an adjustable height desk
Most importantly, moving to an adjustable height desk helped a lot with the pain. The most beautiful thing about it, is that I was able to get my mouse and keyboard (along with the rest of the desktop) at the right height all the time, which immediately cut down on a lot of the pain I was feeling.
I also find myself doing most of my actual work standing up, sitting down only to take a break every so often or at the end of a long day. It’s odd, but when I stand, I find I’m less likely to get into a “holding pattern”, surfing the same few websites over and over, and I’m more likely to actually get something done, and it’s infinitely easier to break off from the computer to go check the boiling water in the kitchen, etc.
So, although your mileage may vary, the GeekDesk Max (and adjustable height desks in general) get my seal of approval.
But even with the better desk, mousing and keyboarding still hurt. So, in the next part of my series on ergonomics), we’ll talk about mice, and how I managed to cut that pain out.
One of the things I enjoy most about language is that even a tiny change in phrasing or word choice can have a profound effect on what’s understood. I recently happened across a perfect example of this in one of my favorite linguistic areas, talking about time.
Consider the below two questions asking about two famous bands, one active and one not:
Did you ever see the Beatles live in concert?
Have you ever seen the Rolling Stones live in concert?
They’re both asking for roughly the same information, and both make perfect sense. Now, let’s swap the phrasing around:
Have you ever seen the Beatles live in concert?
Did you ever see the Rolling Stones live in concert?
Suddenly, to a native speaker, something’s off. Both the English present perfect tense (“Have you seen”) and the simple past tense (“Did you see”) indicate that the seeing would have happened before the conversation.
However, in swapping the two tenses, we’ve changed the implication of the sentence. In the first set of sentences, using the present perfect (“have you seen”) implies, through whatever linguistic wonder, that you still could go see the Rolling Stones if you wanted to. On the other hand, using the simple past acknowledges that, if you hadn’t seen them while you had a chance (before the deaths of John Lennon and George Harrison), you never will.
This difference isn’t just to trip us up. We can use this implication productively, to clarify exactly what we’re talking about. Imagine being asked both of the below questions:
Did you ever visit the World Trade Center?
Have you ever visited the World Trade Center?
The first question, to most Native English speakers’ ears, is asking whether you had a chance to visit the World Trade Center towers before their destruction on 9/11. If somebody has visited the newly rebuilt World Trade Center complex, or perhaps the memorial garden, they should answer “Yes” to the second question, but not to the first. Similarly, if you asked a friend (about a mutual acquaintence) “Did John ever show you his scar?”, your friend’s reponse might start with “When did John die?!”
This difference in implication, a change in what linguists refer to as aspect, is very subtle, and may take many years for a non-native speaker to fully master. But at the same time, it’s very real, and it’s an important part of language which humans (and, in my research, computers) must be able to understand.
I just hope that you can understand it before somebody could ask me if you ever did.