Surviving Emacs - Part 4
Tuesday, January 31, 2006
A couple of weeks ago, I
posted about my plans to change some things in my computer work environment. I had been
experiencing a lot of RSI-related pain over the past year and needed
to do something about it. Being an Emacs user exacerbated the problem
and, while there are some things that can be done to reduce the
stresses causes by using Emacs (see my previous posts
here), I didn't feel that things would
improve sufficiently unless I made some significant environmental changes.
So, the following picture illustrates my new setup:
I've been using this setup for a couple of weeks now and have already noticed improvements: less forearm pain, less back and neck pain, and I'm more comfortable when working at the computer for long stretches. I'll describe each of the components that have contributed to these improvements:
Kinesis Contoured Keyboard: This is (by far) the thing that has
contributed the most to the improvements that I've experienced. The
keyboard is a real pleasure to type on, with finger wells that
accommodate the different finger lengths and very nice, tactile
key switches. However, even though it is an extremely comfortable keyboard, the
nicest feature of all is the provision of the thumb keypads (which
contain the Enter, Space, Ctrl, Alt/Meta, Delete, BackSpace, Home,
End, PageUp, PageDn keys). Almost all of the keys in the thumb
keypads are keys that I had to use my pinky finger to press
previously, contributing to the
Emacs pinky symptoms I had been experiencing. The picture below
shows the layout that I am currently using. Basically, I have kept the
default Kinesis Mac layout with just a number of minor
- I swapped the right Ctrl key with the right Apple key (so that Ctrl would be closer to my right thumb) and changed the right Apple key to Alt/Meta. I did this because I use Ctrl and Alt a lot and I don't really need another Apple key.
- I converted the CapsLock key to Ctrl. I had already done this on my laptop keyboard, so I was used to having a Ctrl key in that position. Also, I never use CapsLock and it can be really irritating if you accidentally bump it.
- There are a few changes that I haven't made yet but have been considering. One such change is the location of the parenthesis keys (perhaps swapping them with the left/right bracket keys). Some people don't like the positioning of the arrow keys on the Kinesis keyboard and I admit that I've had some trouble getting used to them. But I think I'll try to persevere and see if I can get used to the arrow key placement - the Kinesis engineers obviously put a lot of thought and effort into designing this keyboard and I want to be certain that any change I make is the right one for me and not just a reaction based on what I'm used to doing.
- Cirque Smart Cat Trackpad and Microsoft Intellimouse: I had been using the Microsoft mouse already with my laptop and found it a very comfortable mouse to use. It has a scroll wheel and 5 buttons (including the one that is on the scroll wheel), so it is very convenient to use when browsing the Internet. However, some people suffer more RSI-related pain from mouse use than keyboard use. There are various things that can be done to reduce mouse-related pain, including using an alternative pointing device. I have used trackballs, touchpads, trackpoints, and mice in the past. My personal favorite is a mouse followed by touchpads and trackpoints. So, in order to reduce the amount of reaching and pressing that I do with a mouse, I now have a touchpad that I've positioned in the middle of the Kinesis keyboard. If I need to move the pointer when I'm doing a lot of keyboard work, I'll use the touchpad. When I'm surfing the web, I tend to use the mouse. Since I have an Apple Mac laptop and Apple doesn't support multi-button input devices very well, I use a 3rd party utility called USB Overdrive to map the buttons and scrolling capabilities of the mouse and the touchpad. Note: In addition to the pointing device options I mentioned above, someone also recommended the Wacom Graphire graphics tablet. The person said "I find that I'm much less likely to leave my hand and arm stretched when paging through long web pages, etc. compared with using a mouse or trackball. Furthermore, I find the hand position much more comfortable, with the wrist in a better position, etc. To use it effectively in this way, you have to use "absolute positioning" mode for the cursor with the pen, and it takes a little while to get used to it, but after that it is great.". I haven't had a chance to check this one out; however, it sounds like it might be a good alternative to look at as well.
- Kinesis foot switches: I have two Kinesis single-action foot switches. If you use a Mac, you have to buy one of the foot switches that plug directly into the Kinesis keyboard and not the USB foot switches. Apple won't let one USB device modify the input of a separate USB keyboard or mouse. I have one foot switch acting as Ctrl and the other acting as Alt/Meta. I've heard different stories from different people - people tend to either love or hate foot switches. I find that they are really convenient when I'm doing "heads down" work in Emacs. They took a bit of getting used to initially, but when I use them, they offload an awful lot of the effort of working in Emacs to my feet. When I'm not doing heavy duty editing work and I'm using a mixture of keyboard and mouse/touchpad, I usually just push the foot pedals out of the way and don't bother with them.
- Bakker-Elkhuizen laptop stand: Laptop stands raise the laptop so that the screen is at a better viewing angle. Most of the ones I looked at were pretty flimsy. I didn't want something that was easily knocked over and I didn't need a stand that I would carry around with me as I plan to only be using it from my home office. I looked at a number of different models; but, in the end, I got a Bakker-Elkhuizen stand. It is pretty heavy (about 6 lb or 2.8 kg) and is designed for 17-inch laptops (some stands are only suitable for 15-inch or smaller laptops). It also has a little compartment for cable storage/management and a document holder (that is placed directly over the laptop's keyboard and under the screen).
- Software: Many people recommended using a software timer that would tell you to take a break on a periodic basis. This sounds like a very good idea and I keep meaning to start doing it. Actually, there's no excuse for me not to since I just have to type "M-x type-break" in Emacs. If you need something that will work outside of Emacs, there are a number of different options that people have suggested to me. One recommendation that works on both Linux and Windows is Workrave. A Linux-only alternative is xwrits.
- Other: There are a number of other things that I should
- Jamie Zawinski's page "my wrists and welcome to them" has a lot of good information in it. I only came across this page recently - it would have saved me a lot of time if I had seen it earlier in that it provided info that I had to find through other sources.
- A number of people sent me very detailed emails on Dvorak keyboard layouts. This is an option that I am still considering. I have heard pros and cons to using Dvorak with Emacs. Some people said that using Emacs with the Dvorak layout was not very "convenient". Others have said that switching to the Dvorak layout has greatly improved their typing experience and helped eliminate causes of RSI-related pain. One suggestion was to use the Dvorak layout in conjunction with Viper (vi) mode in Emacs. The use of foot pedals and the Kinesis thumb keys might also overcome a lot of the anti-Dvorak objections that I've read. Anyhow, if I eventually do decide to give Dvorak a try, I'll undoubtedly make it a topic for a future blog post.
- Another suggestion that was made by several people was sports/exercise. Now, I can regale you with fantastic stories about how fit I was in my 20's, but my current level of fitness is a bit "sub-optimal". ;-) Our bodies function as a unit and when we over-use one component of that unit, we are asking for trouble. By ensuring that the body gets sufficient exercise, one helps prevent these types of problems from occuring in the first place (as well as helping the body overcome them when they do occur). I've started to devote more time to exercise in the past month and this is something I need to make certain I continue to work at.
- The crystal beside my computer was given to me by one of my daughters. She heard that they absorb radiation from computer monitors. I'm not sure whether that's true or not; however, if my daughter thinks it will work, that's good enough for me! :-)
My previous posting on this topic obviously resonated with quite a few people as I had a large number of emails with words of support and/or tips/suggestions. Thanks to the following people for their emails: Robert Goldman, Jason Dunsmore, Sriram Thaiyar, Christian Lynbech, Markus Ziegler, Byron Fast, Keith Amidon, Rainer Joswig, John Splittist, Nolan Eakins, Brian Rice, Richard Melville, and a few others whose names I neglected to note down. I really appreciated getting your emails.
Update-2006-01-31: Chris Rose pointed me to two blog entries that he made (see here and here) about re-mapping keys in OS X and X11. He also commented that "Unfortunately OS X keymaps only allow you to re-map some keys (generally not the modifier keys, although OS X 10.4 has made steps in the right direction---see Keyboard and Mouse in the System Preferences).".