Thoughts on Systems

Emil Sit

Mar 17, 2006 - 3 minute read - Hacking ergonomics yoga

Workspace hacking

One thing I spend a lot of time doing is tweaking things I use to get them the way I like. For example, this website. But today, I want to comment briefly on the physical infrastructure I have at work.

One side effect of doing yoga is that I have become very aware of how I hold my body and how it feels while I’m working. For example, I used to sit with one leg crossed and my body turned sideways at my desk. I spent most of my time with my head angled down to look at my laptop’s screen. The laptop keyboard is not full-sized so my shoulders rounded forward to bring my arms in, and I would slump into my chair. This couldn’t possibly be good for anyone and no amount of xwrits was going to solve that problem.

Fixing this came partially just by being aware of how I was holding myself. Then, I got an external LCD display and setting it on a big dictionary and some conference proceedings to get it at a good height. (My old officemate used three reams of paper.) I set up my X server to manage the displays as separate screens (since they have different resolutions) and now I can work with most of my distractions (IM, E-mail) down on my laptop screen while my editor stays comfortably in front of me. But the most interesting hack I’ve come up recently involves my keyboard setup.

If you want to get a more ergonomic keyboard, there are many options from the old Microsoft ones to fancy Kinesis adjustable ones. There are specialized one-handed entry methods ranging from modifications of keyboards to chorded devices. And while the MIT ATIC lab offers some of these for trial, I was a little bit put off by the fact they all cost hundreds of dollars. Sure, a small price to pay for the health of your arms, but I wondered if there was an easier option that didn’t require lots of mental retraining.

One day, I was helping someone debug some code and wanted to find a way so we could take turns typing at the same monitor without having to keep moving back and forth. A look around my office revealed the answer: an external keyboard. Five years ago, everyone in my group had an IBM external keyboard (including the nipple mouse) for conformance with our massive Thinkpad collection. (Nowadays, half of us have Mac laptops.) Grab one of these, a PS2/USB adapter, plug it into my laptop and Linux/XOrg set it up as a second keyboard. We could use either one to type.

But, aha! So could I! Instant adjustable split keyboard. Now I use my left hand on the laptop’s built in keyboard and I use my right hand on the external one. I can use the built-in mouse and buttons on either keyboard (which means I don’t have to worry about which side of the keyboard to put it on). It took me about an hour to get used to the arrangement but now I can type at full speed with this split keyboard. My arms are much more comfortably spaced. Because I use an external display, I can keep that centered in front of me. And this arrangement can be easily replicated anywhere I can find a USB keyboard.

The only downside of these improvements is that it makes hacking on my laptop alone that much less comfortable. And I used to do it all day long.