Shareware Beach

Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Behind The Scenes 2008

Filed under: General — Jan @ 15:17

I’m still using the same setup as last year. The only change is that I’ve moved all our products over from Delphi 7 and 2006 to Delphi 2007.

So for this year’s pictures, I’ve asked my dear wife to take them. I’ve received a few questions about my seating position with the DataHand. Here you can see what works for me.

Behind the scenes of Just Great Software, January 2008

Behind the scenes of Just Great Software, January 2008

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Mouse with a Handshake

Filed under: Ergonomics,Hardware & Gadgets — Jan @ 18:19

One of the mouse replacements I tried during my blogging hiatus in 2006, is the Evoluent VerticalMouse 2. That was before I got the trackballs.

Evoluent’s web site shows they’re at version 3 of this mouse. Judging the differences with version 2 as explained on the web site, I would expect to have the same overall experience with v3 as I did with v2. Since Evoluent didn’t bother to upgrade the left hand version, I’m sure they agree.

Evoluent VerticalMouse 2

Evoluent VerticalMouse 2

Essentially, the VerticalMouse is a regular optical mouse placed onto its side. Instead of laying your hand flat on top of the mouse, you hold it with your hand on its side, like you’d shake somebody’s hand. The claimed benefit is that this way your arm doesn’t get into a twist, and your wrist doesn’t have to bend as much.

Shaking hands with the Evoluent VerticalMouse 2

The VerticalMouse’s learning curve is about five minutes. Opening the box and plugging it in took longer than getting used to it. As a mouse, it’s simply excellent. The sensor is extermely precise. I had to turn down the sensitivity in the control panel, as I was used to a much slower mouse. The term “gamer grade” on Evoluent’s web site is no exaggeration. The handshake position does not make it any harder to move the mouse pricesely.

Furious clicking can be a problem though. The force of your finger striking the mouse button can move the mouse if your grip isn’t tight. And tight gripping is not recommended ergonomically. This isn’t a problem for office or even graphics work, though.

As a mouse, the VerticalMouse gets a perfect 10. Unfortunately, as an ergonomic mouse, it didn’t feel any better for me in the long run than a regular mouse.

At the time I was feeling quite some discomfort in my wrists. That did subside when switching to the VerticalMouse. Though I had already purchased the DataHand, I still mostly used the Microsoft Natural Keyboard at the time. So the relief I got was mainly from switching the mouse.

However, after using the VerticalMouse for several weeks, I started feeling discomfort in my right hand itself. When holding the VerticalMouse, my hand tended to rest on its side on the mouse pad, carrying the weight of my lower arm. In the long run, this gave me the feeling that the bones and tendons in my hand were being slightly crushed together.

After that, I actually bought a new traditional mouse that had the same precision as the VerticalMouse. I alternated between the new mouse and the VerticalMouse for some time. When I began using the DataHand full time, I eventually stopped using the VerticalMouse in favor of the traditional mouse.

I’m not at all convinced that input devices that require the palms of your hand to face the desk pose an ergonomic risk for the typical person. The DataHand and trackball I use now both require this position, yet I no longer feel any significant discomfort. With “significant” I mean waking up in the morning and feeling I worked too hard the previous day.

What does have an ergonomic impact is keeping your wrist constantly bent. When your hands are flat at the keyboard or mouse, your lower arm needs to form a straight line with your hand. If you don’t, you’re putting stress on your wrists. And if the bent wrists rests on a surface, you risk pinching the nerves that go through the wrist. The book It’s Not Carpal Tunnel Syndrome I reviewed last year explains all that. By keeping my chair low enough, I can use the DataHand and trackball with straight wrists, giving me no discomfort.

So while the VerticalMouse is an excellent optical mouse, I don’t feel it’s significantly more ergonomic. Unless you happen to have a particular medical issue that makes it hard for you to keep your arms extended horizontally while using a mouse. Then the VerticalMouse would be a solution. But you’d still need a vertical keyboard. Those exist, but not sold by Evoluent.

Evoluent does sell a “mouse-friendly keyboard” which has the numeric keypad on the left. This allows you to place the mouse closer to the keyboard. At least when you use the mouse with your right hand. That is definitely a good idea. Keeping your arm extended to the right to hold the mouse for long periods of time puts unnecessary strain on your shoulder. This strain can cause discomfort not only in your shoulder, but also further down in your arm (as all the nerves go through your shoulder). The DataHand also allows the mouse to be placed close by (left or right). This certainly makes a significant difference for me.

Monday, 28 January 2008

A Tale of Two Trackballs

Filed under: Ergonomics,Hardware & Gadgets — Jan @ 17:59

I’ve already written two articles about how I replaced my computer keyboard with a DataHand in response to early symtoms of RSI. But I haven’t blogged yet about what I did with the mouse, though I did show a picture in last year’s behind the scenes look.

I actually tried several mouse replacements, including the one built into the DataHand. But in the end, I found that a trackball gave me the most comfort. I have two, actually.

Microsoft Trackball Explorer

The one I use most of the time is the Microsoft Trackball Explorer. The actual trackball is very large. You control it with your index finger. The balls movement is very smooth and accurate. At the left side, there are the two standard left and right mouse buttons, with the usual button wheel between them. You control all three with the thumb. Essentially, you need only a thumb and index finger to operate this trackball. There are two extra “forward” and “back” buttons to the right of the ball. I never use those. The trackball’s weird shape fits the right hand very well. There’s no left hand version.

The Trackball Explorer took about a week of getting used to. It’s instantly usable. But using the thumb for so many things feels weird at first, particularly as you never use it on a traditional mouse. Accurate control of the mouse pointer also takes some practice. In the end, for me the Trackball Explorer works just as well as a regular mouse for programming and office work. It also handles turn-based strategy games or point-and-click adventures well. But it’s not fast or accurate enough for any sort of real-time gaming. But then, if you have RSI, gaming is a no-no.

Microsoft Optical Trackball

The other trackball I have is the Microsoft Optical Trackball. This is a more traditionally styled trackball. You control the ball with your thumb. The left, wheel and right buttons are arranged like on a traditional mouse.

This trackball works just as well as the Explorer version. Except that I find that using my middle finger to operate the scroll wheel feels far less comfortable after a long day’s work. I guess that the thumb and index fingers are somehow stronger, and better able to cope with the dual tasks of typing and mousing than the other three fingers.

I mostly keep the Optical Trackball as a spare. Occasionally, my index finger gets tired of exploring the trackball all day. Then I switch to the other one for a few days.

However, the main benefit of a trackball is that you no longer have to hold the mouse. I find that when using a traditional mouse, most of the discomfort stems from having to grasp the thing, no matter how hard I try to grasp it as lightly as I can.

Unfortunately, the bad news is that Microsoft doesn’t make these things any more. That’s particularly weird because used ones easily sell for more than twice the new price on eBay. I did manage to get the Explorer brand new in box from eBay in 2006, and the other one NIB in 2007.

If you’re planning to buy one used, make sure you get one that’s in perfect condition. Though both trackballs use optical sensors, they do have balls. Like old-style mice with balls, the bearings can get dirty, and then the ball won’t roll smoothly any more.

I’ve looked around a bit, and found that Logitech still sells trackballs. The Trackman Wheel Optical is very similar to the Microsoft Optical Trackball. But the Marble Mouse Optical, which has a center-mounted ball, is quite different. It is symetrically shaped, to allow both left-hand and right-hand use. However, it doesn’t look like it will fit either hand nearly as well as the Microsoft Trackball Explorer fits the right hand. And what really kills it for me: there’s no wheel. I might still try one in the future though.

P.S.: If the pictures seem a bit fuzzy, that’s because I’ve been playing with my new f/2 lens. With the focus on the top of the trackball, there’s not enough depth of field to keep the bottom in focus too. But I’m too lazy to redo them at a smaller aperture.

Thursday, 24 January 2008

Don’t Be a One-Trick Pony

Filed under: Software Development — Jan @ 18:00

Jeff Atwood blogs about screening programming job applicants. Essentially, by asking general questions about different aspects of programming, he’s trying to weed out the one-trick ponies.

I was a bit shocked that an article he links to mentioned that 25% to 35% of people applying for a programming job at Amazon couldn’t propose any solution at all how to do a relatively simple pattern search through a large set of text files.

It would only take two minutes to take the phone number regex from RegexBuddy’s library, and edit it to the exact specifications given. And another two minutes to have RegexBuddy search the server tree. Okay, give it 15 minutes to edit and test the regex if you’re rusty on regexes, and 3 minutes for the search if the local network connection to the Unix server is congested.

This isn’t about Java programmers vs. Perl programmers. This is about programmers with broad skills and a rich bag of tools, vs. programmers who crank out code from 9 to 5 trying to appear productive. It’s working smart vs. working hard.

Since JDK 1.4, which is like 3 major versions ago, Java’s regular expression support is just as comprehensive as Perl’s. Java needs a few more keystrokes to instantiate a few classes, while Perl supports literal regexes as a language feature. But that hardly matters. What matters is if the programmer knows what he’s doing, and all the available tools and technologies.

If you’re applying for a job and your interviewer is a Coding Horror fan, spending a little on RegexBuddy might just be the ticket to a better-paid job.

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