Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Slowly improving my ergonomic-ness

One of my coworkers in the lab recently decided to start back up on his piano-playing. Naturally, I was jealous (why did I never learn to play piano?). However, within a week he came into the lab bearing wrist braces and a grimace. Between learning Chopin and coding for 8+ hours a day on a 13" MacBook, all of the finger work finally did him in. He was unable to bend his wrists at all while wearing the braces, so he had to buy an ergonomic keyboard that doesn't require bending of the wrists.

I have always been slightly curious about exotic keyboard layouts and ergonomic ways of working, starting with my learning of Dvorak layout last year and continuing when I saw several people at UW with fancy Kinesis keyboards. Since that visit I have been debating whether or not I need to worry about ergonomics, and if I do, what to do to alleviate this worrying.

For starters, I have tried various different ways of using my MacBook. Despite being the midsize model (15"), it is very hard on your wrists to use the cramped keyboard for extended periods of time. This is compounded by the abundance of chairs and tables on Purdue's campus that make good posture difficult or impossible. The first experiment was to try sitting up straight. This only is comfortable in a small number of chairs on campus, so my tried an entirely different approach to typing posture: standing up while typing. This is also hard on campus because most tables are quite short. This has only worked at home, where my dinner table is designed for high chairs.

The next step, one which I am currently in, is experimenting with keyboard and monitor height. My other main gripe about laptops (besides cramped keyboards) is that they force you to look downwards at the screen. This makes it very difficult to maintain a good posture while typing, since your neck is bent forward and head downward. My first attempt at fixing this is to buy a somewhat cheap ergonomic keyboard (the bog-standard, entry-level Microsoft ergo keyboard). With this, I can adjust the height of they keyboard and the laptop screen independently. It will take me a few days to get used to using an external keyboard again, as I never use a mouse these days.

I'm wondering what the long-term, optimal configuration will be. This is important to consider before I spend a lot of money on other equipment, and before I start graduate school and set up my student office. Does the split keyboard/screen necessitate having a desktop for long-term work and a laptop for short-term work? Is it worth it to have ergonomic setups at both work and home? It's fully possible to drive two external monitors with my MacBook Pro's video card, but all of the setup and takedown is a barrier to starting work easily. At the same time, I don't know if i'll be able to get a nice monitor and a decent Mac Pro or iMac in the graduate student offices.

I suppose time will tell. In the meantime, i'm going to continue improving my standing-while-typing posture, and hope that someday down the road I will not have to deal with the occupational hazards of hacker/programmer (as my poor coworker must deal with now).

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