Programming with your feet

footI started feeling a mild burning sensation in my left wrist a few weeks ago. This is a classic early sign of Repetitive Strain Injury.  Uh-oh. I had an email exchange not long ago with someone who now has to use voice activation because typing is too painful. I can’t imagine how frustrating that must be. I decided to ignore Jane Fonda’s advice to “feel the burn” and looked for a way to alleviate the problem.

One approach is to reduce the amount of typing I do. But that is tough when you are running a microISV and writing a blog. I already use the text expander capabilities of the excellent Direct Access software to save a lot of typing (it tells me that it has saved me 51 hours of typing so far). I decided to try an ergonomic keyboard.

I bought myself a Microsoft 4000 Ergonomic keyboard. This is shaped to allow more natural positioning of the forearms and elbows.

microsoft_natural_keyboard_4000

Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000

For more comfortable wrist positioning it also has a built-in wrist rest and the front of the keyboard is higher than the back.

microsoft_natural_keyboard_4000

Note the front of the keyboard (right) is higher than the back (left)

I was quite surprised how physically large it was when it turned up. The shape of the keyboard felt very strange to start with and it took me a few days of slow typing to get used it. The feel of the keys is nothing special and I haven’t yet used the extra gizmos, such as the integral zoom button. But I feel it is an improvement in comfort over the conventional keyboard I had before.

An unexpected advantage of the new keyboard is that it has improved my typing. If you watch a good touch typist, their hands hardly move. I (unfortunately) never learnt to touch type, I just didn’t have the patience. The clearer separation between keys for the left hand and keys for the right hand on the new keyboard made me realise that I was moving both hands left and right, more like a concert pianist than a touch typist. I am now moving my hands less and I think my typing speed has improved as a consequence.

I didn’t feel the new keyboard on it’s own was going to solve my impending RSI problems though. The major problem seems to be the continual Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V, Ctrl-A, Windows-D, Windows-E and Alt-Tab key combinations I do with my left hand, hundreds of times a day. Using the right hand Ctrl key instead of the left one helped a bit. But it occurred to me – why are my hands doing all the work? My legs are doing so little that I often feel stiff when I stand up from a long programming session. Why not put them to use?

I Googled for foot pedals for computers. After wading through lots of hits for music and dictation foot pedals I finally found the Savant Elite Triple Foot Switch. This is a programmable 3-pedal foot-switch that plugs into a USB port.

savant_elite_foot_switch

Savant Elite Triple Foot Switch

At £86.00+VAT it isn’t cheap. But what price do you put on your health? I ordered one.

When it arrived I wanted to program the pedals to map to the Ctrl, Shift and Windows keys. But I couldn’t install the device driver to program the pedals. After a call to the retailer it turns out the device driver doesn’t work on Vista, despite assurance on the website that the pedals could be used with “virtually any computer”[1]. Grrrrr. How long has Vista been out? I finally managed to program the pedals using my wife’s laptop – my last remaining XP box.

So now I can type using my feet for most of the modifier keys. I am using the pedals as I type this. I am still getting used to them, but the burning in my left wrist has definitely reduced. I think I can also type a little faster, but I am too lazy to do the speed tests with and without the pedals to verify this.  On the negative side:

  • Working out where to put your feet when you aren’t typing can be a little awkward.
  • The pedals tend to move around the carpet, despite being metal and quite heavy. Some small spikes might have helped.
  • Although the travel on the pedals is small, they are surprisingly stiff.

When I told a friend about the pedals he asked – why stop there? I could also be using my elbows, knees and head like a one-man-band. I could be working-out and typing at the same time. It is an intriguing prospect.

I just hope I don’t end up with burning ankles.

[1] System requirements have since been added to the website.

38 thoughts on “Programming with your feet

  1. Me Again

    Maybe your text editor is the problem. I use Vim and I don’t have to use the modifier keys much. And I don’t use the mouse at all while coding.

    P.S. I have the exact same keyboard.

  2. introspeck

    I have double trouble – I type every workday, then I take long trips on my sport motorcycle. I did get the beginnings of carpal tunnel last year, and had a bit of a panic. Searching for a possible herbal cure (didn’t see any), I came across this:

    http://www.triggerpointbook.com/

    I did the suggested targeted massages for a week, and the problems disappeared. I know it seems to good to be true, but give it a try. At worst, you’re out the price of a cheap dinner. But truly, it’s been invaluable to me. I’ve since cured other things – leg strains, headaches – and my savings on Ibuprofen alone have more than repaid the cost of the book. But being pain-free – who can put a price on that?

    Definitely improve the ergonomics of your work environment. Better to prevent trouble than deal with it after the fact. I already have the Aeron chair. I’m definitely going to get the footpedals, as much to speed up my typing as anything else. :-)

  3. Nick Hebb

    I was having mild but nagging forearm pain for months. When the scroll wheel on my mouse broke, my forearm pain stopped. I was surprised one little thing would make such a big difference.

    FWIW, Scott Hanselman has written about Microsoft’s built-in voice recognition software. I believe he’s had good success with it.

  4. dennis

    You should take this very, very seriously. I started having pain in my forearms and fingers constantly for last 3 years. My productivity is half if not less what it was. There is no day that has gone by that I am not in pain in last 3 years. If you want that then just ignore first warning signs. I did and regret it deeply.

    Doctors have no clue, all they prescribe are pain killers which don’t do anything. They ruled out carpal tunnel though…

    You should start as soon as possible stretching program every single day before you start working and during day. This is program I am now working with for last 6 weeks and I feel like I am getting better:

    Key is to do it every single day.

    After you are free of pain keep stretching but start strengthening program as well.

    Use WorkRave to get brakes and stretch while on breaks: http://www.workrave.org/

    I found that MS Keyboard 4000 is really crap. I have one that is sitting in my basement. What works extremely well though is Kinesis Contured keyboard http://www.kinesis-ergo.com/contoured_usb.htm
    It is weird but once you get used to it you can’t go back to standard ones. The key feel is much much better and is easy on wrists and fingers. I have 2 of them on each of my machines.

    In any case trust me, take this seriously or you’ll pay hefty price later.

  5. Tomas

    I too recommend the Kinesis Advantage. They’re expensive, but you said it: how do you put a price on your health.

    And oh; Try Vim. It will put an end to your chorded key combination woes, and it’s a better editor than most to boot. There is integration with Visual Studio if you’re into .NET, and with Eclipse if you’re more of a Java guy.

  6. Andy Brice Post author

    I’ve always hated vi, so I can’t imagine I would like vim. Anyway, you still need to use the shift key for upper case, {}()*&[] etc wouldn’t you?

    I also used to suffer with wrist pain when I had a motorbike. Try getting the clutch lubed/adjusted. I sold the bike when I became a responsible parent. :0/

    Incidentally, I think not wearing a watch while typing/motorcycling helps.

  7. Andy Brice Post author

    >It is weird but once you get used to it you can’t go back to standard ones.

    Which is a problem if you are travelling with a laptop.

  8. dennis

    > Which is a problem if you are travelling with a laptop.

    Sorry I poorly worded that. There are no problems switching to laptop or any other keyboard since layout is essentially the same. What you start seeing though are deficiencies in standard keyboards and the strains they place on your hands and fingers… Thats what I meant by not going back to standard ones…

  9. monk.e.boy

    I had this problem and I got a Saitek gamers keyboard with a ‘floating’ Macro Keypad.

    I macro cut copy paste to single keys. Man, I can’t let go of this keyboard. It has saved my career as a programmer.

    I also macro ‘save’+’upload via ftp’+’run in debugger’ as a single key press.

    You know how WoW is really cool but then you try to explain it to other people and you come off sounding like a dickhead? That’s what this keyboard is like. Until you try it you have no idea.

  10. Apostrophe Fail

    I didn’t feel the new keyboard on it’s own was going to solve my impending RSI problems though.

  11. Daniel Lyons

    I switched to the Dvorak keyboard layout and a Kinesis Ergo keyboard when I had the early warning signs about four years ago. Problem solved. It took about a month to switch keyboard layouts but only about a week to get used to the Kinesis. Emacs causes no trouble with the Kinesis, because you’re pressing your chord keys with your thumbs rather than pinkies. I would imagine vi is probably less pleasant with a Kinesis since escape is still in Siberia and Ctrl-[ would be a big stretch on one hand (if you’re on a Mac). I also switched to a Logitech Trackman Wheel trackball, but I’m sure there are more ergonomic options even than that.

    Best of luck, hope it all works out.

  12. Eric Darchis

    On my first job, I was given the first Microsoft ergonomic keyboard. It took a bit of time to get used to it but I wouldn’t switch back either. Nowadays, the MS 4000 is the only “natural” keyboard that still uses the “normal” position for the insert/delete/home… keys. Nearly all others put the keys vertically, which drives me crazy.

    I have also been considering the dvorak keyboard for some time but didn’t take the step yet.

    Regarding the dead keys, it is important to press them on the opposite side of the key you type. Otherwise, your stress your fingers in a weird position. So right-ctrl C and left shift P.

  13. somebystander

    i’m not surprised that your wrist hurts after using the Ctrl key a lot. but to avoid this you could have saved yourself some money by simply remapping the Ctrl key to CapsLock key. originally the CapsLock key position was the position of the Ctrl key until Microsoft decided to change that. why remains a mystery. perhaps they want to sell more ergonomic keyboards, i dunno. also use a good text editor like vim or emacs and you should have no problems at all. at least i dont have

  14. Christopher

    Andy,

    I had similar problems five years ago. The Alexander Technique (www.stat.org.uk) sorted it. Lessons cost about £25 and are wonderful! I had lessons for about six months and continued the exercises (which involve giving your body correcting directions and lying down for 20mins once or twice a day) for another year. Now when I get symptoms I know what to do to get rid of them.

    Very strongly recommended, although everyone’s different.

    Good luck.

  15. icebird

    I haven’t tried it, but I heard a lot of good things about the typematrix keyboard : http://www.typematrix.com/

    Also, as someone already pointed out, dvorak could help. I’m just throwing some random suggestions, but I do hope you’ll get to feel better.

  16. Lee

    I haven’t ever had an issue with RSI, but I did have occasional stiffness when I would spend fourteen hour days at the keyboard. I’m in too many meetings now, unfortunately, to spend that much time at the keyboard nowadays … but one thing that helped a LOT was switching to the Dvorak layout. Unlike you, I was a touch-typist for many years before doing the conversion … but I was passable after two weeks and back up to my old typing speed after a month. It made a noticeable difference for me. You might want to look into it.

  17. Joshua Volz

    I just wanted to put in another vote for the keyboard. I am typing on that same model right now. I’ve been using it on my own for the last two years and it has been great. I had my new work get me one too. I type on a laptop keyboard as well sometimes, and I haven’t had any trouble going back and forth between them.

  18. David Middleton

    Another vote here for Dvorak layout, which helped me. Your wrists twists a lot less and your total hand movement is substantially less.

  19. Gryph0n

    I’ll second the earlier Dvorak comment.

    I’m a touch typist. With my QWERTY keyboard, I sometimes had sharp pains in my wrist. After switching to Dvorak, I havent had them again.

    There is no scientific evidence to back up the claim that Dvorak won’t cause RSI or pains, but anecdotal evidence does seem to suggest it is useful.

  20. jart

    Wow, you could have saved yourself a lot of money by just remapping your control key to caps lock. There is a registry hack you can download to do this in Windows.

    As for me, I’ve used emacs for years and i don’t think anyone uses the control key as much as we do. I started to get horrible pain in my left wrist a couple years ago so I remapped my control key to caps lock and that made an INCREDIBLE difference!

    I also had to stop using my poor little clicky keyboard and, like you, get a microsoft split keyboard. whenever I try and go back to my old keyboard. Whenever I go back to the old keyboard it only takes a week for my wrists to start hurting again.

    I also, as others have mentioned, switched to dvorak shortly after. Although learning Dvorak was a painful experience (it gets a lot worse before it gets better) I think in the long run it might have been the right choice. I’ve always been a touch typist (I started using computers in a middle school typing class) and as I watch my hands typing this comment in dvorak, it seems that my left hand stays almost entirely on home row, while my right hand is the one doing all the dancing to reach keys above and below home row. I’m not really recommending switching to dvorak unless you’re a masochist, but it’s something worth considering.

    Another thing you can do is create some creative keybindings. For instance instead of reaching for the backspace key, i have it mapped to CTRL-h, this way i can stay on home row. If you’re fortunate enough to have a mac, you can configure this shortcut globally with:

    edit /Library/KeyBindings/DefaultKeyBinding.dict:

    {
    “^h” = “deleteBackward:”;
    }

  21. Shawn

    Take piano lessons from a strict German. You’ll learn how to properly use your wrists. Unless of course you enjoy getting struck with a ruler.

  22. Andy Brice Post author

    To those that have made the switch to Dvorak:
    -do you have a Dvorak keyboard on your laptop?
    -how do you manage if you have to use a QWERTY keyboard?

  23. Gryph0n

    “-do you have a Dvorak keyboard on your laptop?”
    Well, havent ever owned one. Always built my own desktop rigs

    “-how do you manage if you have to use a QWERTY keyboard?”
    Frankly, very badly. I go from being an expert touch typer to a “find and poke” typist.

    There are others who claim they are equally comfortable with Dvorak and QWERTY. Guess my brain cannot wrap around touch typing 2 different keyboard layouts. Wetware bug!!

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  25. jart

    “-do you have a Dvorak keyboard on your laptop?”

    I don’t have a Dvorak keyboard period. I don’t look at the keys so it doesn’t make any difference. When I was learning I had a little graphic of a dvorak keyboard up on my screen though.

    “-how do you manage if you have to use a QWERTY keyboard?”

    On another computer I’ll either switch it into dvorak mode or I can type qwerty about a third of my normal speed by looking at the keys. If I really wanted to I could discipline myself into learning both but it really isn’t an issue for me.

  26. Lee

    -do you have a Dvorak keyboard on your laptop?

    I don’t have a Dvorak keyboard on my desktop nor on my laptop. I use Windows’ built-in functionality to alter the layout in software.

    -how do you manage if you have to use a QWERTY keyboard?

    As Jart commented, I also can type about half of my normal speed by looking at the keys on QWERTY. At times when I’ve had to do it a lot, it’s almost like there’s a psychological switch where when I’m not looking at the keyboard I naturally type Dvorak, when I am looking, I naturally type QWERTY.

  27. Michael

    Dennis,

    Did they do an MRI scan on your wrist? It could be a “ganglion cyst” that’s putting pressure on your wrist. These can be removed; otherwise, they do tend to shrink on their own if you take it easy on your wrist.

    You may want to check that out.

    Other than that, I’d like to put my vote in for the Microsoft 4000 Ergonomic Keyboard…

  28. rey

    I type all day and night, and have absolutely no problems.

    Firstly, learn Vim. Emacs will work but only if you do heavy key remapping.

    Keyboard wise, the 4000 ergonomic is the step in the right direction, but it’s small time. Get a Kinesis Advantage Pro. Expensive, yes. Worth it? Yep.

    Lastly, get the foot pedals. I don’t know if your foot pedals are compatible with the kinesis advantage pro though, maybe. In any case, all of these things combined, you shouldn’t be feeling any stress at all. But yes replace the 4000 ergonomic immediately. The only reason I keep mine around, is if someone wants to use my computer. They look at my Kinesis Advantage Pro and I can see the fear in their eyes at the premise of them having to use this “contraption”.

    That’s another thing, you NEED to know how to touch type to use this thing properly, and even then it’s a slight learning curve. Totally worth it though.

  29. Peter Oberauer

    Hey Andy!

    Have been using Caps Lock mapped as ctrl with emacs and the OS cut/copy/paste keys in other apps for two years, very comfortably.

    http://www.emacswiki.org/emacs/MovingTheCtrlKey

    Instructions on swapping keys for Mac, Linux and Windows.

    Using Caps Lock as ctrl keeps the pinky on the home row, rather than scrunching up the hand.

    The swap makes the bash/readline ctrl-based keys much more attractive than reaching across the keyboard to home and end.

    These work in bash, emacs, and most apps on Mac incl Firefox: Ctrl+a (beginning of line, ctrl+e (end of line), ctrl+s (isearch), ctrl+r (reverse search history etc), ctrl+k (cut/kill to end of line) etc.

    http://www.gnu.org/software/bash/manual/bashref.html#Readline-Bare-Essentials

  30. Peter Oberauer

    PS. I really prefer a slimline keyboard to a fat one.
    Personal preference on the short keystroke I know, but what most should agree on is a slimmer keyboard means the hands angle less when typing. Yes I could have a fat keyboard with a matching fat wrist rest, but unless my desk is properly adjustable, which it isn’t, that raises my elbow height, and then my shoulders scrunch up. Many out there, I uses this one, which
    works with Linux too:
    e.g. http://www.apple.com/keyboard/

    Don’t know anyone who’s tried it, but this has always intrigues me as the most comfy alternative for your own mission control:

    http://www.ksl.stanford.edu/people/kpfleger/ergo/

    Armrest Mounted Split Keyboard Setup
    Defnitely forces you to use the correct fingers on the correct sides of each keyboard.
    And of course data gloves deserve a mention:

    http://gram.eng.uci.edu/~cmehring/KITTY/about-kitty.html

  31. Jan Goyvaerts

    A keyboard that includes a numeric keypad is simply not ergonomic when you put the mouse to the right of it.

    I got a Microsoft Natural Keyboard when I first started to feel discomfort in my arms and wrists. It helped for a while. But ultimately, there’s nothing natural about qwerty or dvorak keyboards no matter how you curve them.

    Dvorak isn’t a solution to RSI. Any benefits the layout brings will be negated by your tendency to use those benefits to type faster.

    I swear by my DataHand. I had some reliability issues with my unit initially, and there’s quite a learning curve, but now I wouldn’t want to be without it. Unfortunately, it’s not being manufactured any more. You may find one on eBay.

  32. Peter Oberauer

    Jan

    Re: “A keyboard that includes a numeric keypad is simply not ergonomic when you put the mouse to the right of it.”, I saw these the other day: keyboard with separate numeric keypad, or with numeric keypad on the left for right-handed mousing.

    http://www.evoluent.com/

    All is not lost for DataHand: they say “We will soon have a limited number of new DataHand Pro II units for sale.”

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  34. RSI treatment blog

    I have found Dragon NaturallySpeaking voice recognition software to be absolutely invaluable. It means that you need to use the mouse and keyboard a lot less. I used it for dictating this comment :-)

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