Computer Ergonomics

I've made some improvements in my workplace ergonomics recently. It may seem like a small thing, but over the course of 8 hour days at the keyboard, the improvements really do add up.

I've decided to avoid taking my fingers off the home row as much as possible. In particular, the right half of the keyboard is for lightweights. Delete key, insert key, arrow keys-- fuggedaboudit. And that numeric keypad thing? It might have been good for playing daleks, but that's about the only use I can think of. No, the best setup involves keeping your hands near the letter keys at all times.

About key bindings. I have CTRL-0 bound to "next workspace", and CTRL-9 bound to "previous workspace." Next tab (in a tabbed xterm) is the right windows key, and previous tab is the left windows key. I think keeping the next and previous tab keys to one keystroke is important, since I use them a lot. I think vim is the most ergonomic editor. Without going into exhaustive detail, vim = near minimal number of keypresses, and no need to ever move from the home row.

I've been using extremely high mouse sensitivity. There's a little bit of a learning curve, but I just find the slower speeds endlessly aggravating to my wrists.

Of course, the posture to use when typing is to keep your keyboard on your lap. A good keyboard tray can also be helpful. It's important to keep your wrists straight.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is to take regular exercise. I've been swimming pretty regularly, and every time I get in the pool, I can hear the cracks and pops of muscles untensing. It's good to stretch out.


Three Big Names in the Industry

Here's a fairly interesting blog post about working at Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo. It talks about the author's experiences as an intern at all three companies.

If I had to guess about what college this guy is from, I would guess Carnegie Mellon University. Back when I was there, people had sort of an obsession with finding "free food." They bragged about it they way students at some other colleges would brag about getting drunk or about getting laid. I never quite understood this obsession, since food and drinks are easy to come by "on your own." But I see that the author spends a few paragraphs, and even has entries in a chart, describing the relative culinary merits of all three companies. Apparently Google is on top in this category.

Offering free food and drink is one of those soft benefits that a company can offer. These kinds of benefits are often cheaper than a straight pay raise, and more effective at raising morale.

It's interesting to note that Google has a culture of secrecy. "Everything at Google was confidential and there were always cameras watching," the author comments. This corroborates with what I've heard from other interns. How ironic that Google, a company whose stated mission is to "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful," is quite resistant to making information about its own internal projects and policies accessible to the outside world. The computer industry is tough, though, and certain companies have used industrial espionage in the past. So perhaps it is just prudence on Google's part.

Still, I fear the security department of a company dedicated to indexing and processing information. They will have recourse to image processing applications for cameras; they can examine email with distributed text processing heuristics which can be run on the company's computer clusters. Surveillance is the Siamese twin of information processing-- they were joined at birth, and always will be.

On this topic, Apple also has a reputation for secrecy. I suppose this is mostly because they want to build up buzz about their new products, and carefully control the rumors coming out about them.

The Microsoft section is disappointingly low on detail. I'm not really surprised that Bill Gates wears regular, scuffed up shoes. Considering the haircut he wears, it almost goes without saying. And my haircut is just as bad, so there. Anyway, was this observation really worth the space the author devoted to it?

The post touches only a little bit on the fragmented, decentralized nature of Microsoft. Supposedly each group has somewhat of its own culture, and some independence from the core. It may be that this is the only practical way to run a software company as big as Microsoft. Or maybe Microsoft has become a jumbled set of ossifying bureacratic fiefdoms. Probably the truth is somewhere in the middle.

The company the author ended up staying at, though, was Yahoo. He mentions that he was disappointed at the layers of bureaucracy above him, but fond of the workplace atmosphere. He especially liked having his own cubicle, as opposed to the open plan workplace that is apparently popular at Google. Although I've never worked in an open plan office, I imagine that I would feel the same way. I'm not sure I'm overwhelmingly enthusiastic about Yahoo's long-term prospects, though.

Anyway, the article was an interesting look at the three companies, through the eyes of a young college graduate. There is no substitute for experience, but at least reading this stuff is interesting.


World of Psychologycraft?

While searching for some unrelated information, I found this little gem of a forum post.
It's about the psychology of massively multiplayer online role playing games. The author views MMORPGs through the reductionist lens of B.F. Skinner.

Almost everyone who has taken an introductory psychology course in high school or college has heard of B.F. Skinner. Skinner is an important figure in Behaviorism, and developed a learning theory known as Operant Conditioning. Skinner claimed that the frequency of a given behavior is directly linked to whether it is rewarded or punished. If a behavior is rewarded, it is more likely to be repeated. If it is punished, it becomes suppressed. This deceptively simple and straight-forward theory may explain why EverQuest is so addictive.


This process of guiding an individual to perform more and more elaborate and complex tasks is known as shaping in Operant Conditioning. It is usually explained in textbooks in conjunction with Skinner Boxes. Skinner boxes are small glass or plexi-glass boxes equipped with a combination of levers, food pellets, and drinking tubes. Laboratory rats are placed into Skinner boxes and conditioned to perform elaborate tasks. At first, the rat is rewarded with a food pellet for facing the lever. Then it is rewarded if it gets closer to the lever. Eventually, the rat is shaped to press the lever. Once the rat learns that pressing the lever is rewarded, a food pellet does not need to be dropped every time and the rat will still continue pressing the lever. It is in the same way that EverQuest shapes players to pursue more and more elaborate blacksmithing or tailoring combinations. Moreover, EverQuest players continue to attempt elaborate combinations in the face of many costly failures.

He goes on to talk about various "reward ratio schedules." It seems that the most effective is the "random ratio schedule," where the subject cannot predict precisely when he will be rewarded. Not surprisingly, Everquest's reward ratio schedule seems to be closest to the random schedule. "Just because you can get a bubble of experience in half an hour today," he remarks, "doesn't mean you can do it again tomorrow."

He concludes:

The massively-multiplayer nature of the game takes the virtual construct one step beyond just an elaborate Skinner Box. The problem with many people is that you can't have one box tailored to all of their reinforcement needs. But having them all in their separate Skinner Boxes is not interesting. The internet solves this problem by allowing individually tailored Skinner Boxes interact with others. And in this way, EverQuest has created a system of inter-connected Skinner Boxes, a Skinner Network even, where each Skinner Box is tailored to its host's needs and reinforcement schedule, and where individuals can interact with each other without sacrificing the integrity of their own construct.

That's a scary vision. I wonder if Blizzard and Sony have any psychologists on the payroll?
After the original's author's lengthy and erudite post, some random guy chimes in:

I read the first to paragraphs and my alt is a skinner/herbalist lvl 58 in World of Warcraft.

Anyway, personally, I have never liked MMORPGs. Too much chat, not enough splat.
My favorite games are shoot-em-ups and real-time strategy games. I loved Starcraft and Warcraft III.

I was never a "pro"-- my record was closer to 50% wins, 50% losses-- but I liked the thrill of the hunt, and competing against actual people. Clicking on a bunch of dialog boxes, to gather 99 Elvish Toadstools (or whatever) could never compete with destroying the enemy's base in my mind. I guess we all have our own skinner boxes to press!