Episode 3: Ergonomics, Thou Art a Bitch

Note: I originally posted this article on a personal blog I ran when I was in my late teens and early twenties. I discovered in May 2020 that the Internet Archive had preserved the contents of that blog in its entirety, including some of the media. That blog was an important part of my personal history, so I reposted all of that content on this website for archival purposes. While my politics, opinions, and outlook on the world have changed radically since I wrote those posts between 2009 and 2011, it’s good to know that I was as much of an idiot then as I am now.


Update [March 31]: Added a pic of my setup.

Owing to Google Summer of Code 2009, I have been spending more time using my MacBook than ever before – hanging out in IRC channels, building Haiku (the project I applied to), writing code and doing a lot of reading. The result? The entire last week spent dealing with severe back pains, shoulder pains, wrist pains and irritable eyes. I have never had these pains before. I remember days when I would spend eight hours in front of my PC without any kind of discomfort. Why now?

After some Googling, I figured out poor laptop ergonomics was to blame. In the past, I have felt some discomfort while working with my MacBook, and I have taken some steps to eliminate that. I got myself a new chair, and reduced the height of my desk by sawing off its legs. Apparently, it wasn’t enough. The problem with laptops is that if you manage to set up the screen in a comfortable position, using the keyboard becomes difficult and if you set up the keyboard in a comfortable position, you can’t read the screen.

With a desktop, you’re usually sitting up straight, with your head in its natural position and your eyes looking straight ahead of you at an angle of 90º. Your elbows, too, are positioned at an angle of 90º with your body and the keyboard is below the level of your chest. If you have a good chair then it supports your lower back, thus reducing back pains. When using a laptop, on the other hand, you’re sitting in a hunched position with your neck bent down. Since the keyboard is so small, your hands are placed unnaturally close to each other, resulting in wrist and shoulder pains. You have to bend forward to type, which kills your lower back.

An overwhelming majority of people who use their laptops as desktops recommend separating the keyboard and the screen. One way to do that is to buy a new screen. Since I don’t have that kind of money, I went with the second alternative – use a USB mouse and keyboard instead of the built in trackpad and keyboard. I already had a portable Logitech mouse, so I headed to the nearest Croma and picked up a Logitech Ultra Flat keyboard for Rs.649 (I know I could have had it for less, but the pain was too excruciating to bear for even one more day). Let me digress from the main post so I can tell you how awesome my new keyboard really is.

The Ultra Flat is smaller and more compact than the regular Logitech Classic keyboard. The keys are placed very close together, but that’s not a problem since they are much larger than the keys on a Classic. They are also softer and much more responsive. There seems to be some kind ’shock absorber’ at the bottom of each key, which slows it down as you press it. Whatever it is, it feels very comfortable. The entire experience of typing on the Ultra Flat could be summed up in one word: smooth. Oh, the best thing about the Ultra Flat? Spring loaded keys! There’s nothing more a geek could ask for.

Okay, back to ergonomics. There’s nothing much to tell now. The next step was to raise the height of the laptop to prevent neck pain. Introduction to Algorithms and The MINIX Book came to my rescue, and now my laptop is standing on the shoulders of giants. As of this writing, I have been working with my new setup for about 5 hours without discomfort. No more pains!

Update [March 31] : I just installed a nify application called KeyRemap4MacBook which allows me to remap several keys on my USB keyboard. The default layout of the bottom row on a regular keyboard is something like this: CTRL | WINDOWS | APPLICATION | ALT | SPACEBAR | etc. On the other hand, the default layout on the MacBook keyboard is like this: FN | OPTION | COMMAND | SPACEBAR | etc. I used a screwdriver to pop-off some of the keys from the UF, and rearranged the bottom row to this: CTRL | APPLICATION | ALT | WINDOWS | SPACEBAR | etc. Then I used KeyRemap4MacBook to remap the ALT key (listed as OPTION_L in the prefpane) to COMMAND_L and the APPLICATION key to OPTION_L. I also remapped CAPSLOCK to CTRL, and checked the ‘Use Keypad as Arrow Keys’ option. After installing KeyRemap4Mac, the DEL, HOME and END keys have started functioning properly, too. Finally, I have my Windows keyboard set up (almost) exactly like my MacBook keyboard.

Nevermind the floral pattern.

Now get off my lawn.