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July 2, 2020

RSI is a lifestyle problem

Filed under: Uncategorized — Benjamin Vulpes @ 8:20 p.m.

SaintJohn Piano, whose website has an incredible comment system, sent me links to his work on RSI:

And asked:

If you know anything (really, anything) I don't know about RSI, I'd like to hear it.

A boring story: once upon a time, my father told me to develop good habits around food and exercise early in my life and then maintain them, and I did. The agglomeration of meat, cum, shit, and stones shot through with the CNS and its dark passenger get along quite well, thank you very much. We try to keep a weather eye out for hazards at the 5, 10, and 20+ year horizons, so that the twitchier systems can focus on imminent threats, and the RSI risks have always lurked out there on the periphery, looming and threatening. Not until about 3 years ago did the vandals start moving in from the steppes, but when they did I was well prepared.

Sloth, obsession, and overwork are all bad for the mind, body, and soul. Sloth not! Obsess not, and work thyself not to the bone!

Slouch not in the chair! Listen to the shitsack and learn to hear her quiet plaintive cries when all is not well with your posture. You and your body should not be so divorced from each other that you struggle to communicate. Imagine wedding someone with whom you never spoke, and the sad life that implies, and then reflect upon the relationship between whatever within you wants to obsess over posture and the thing it believes its job to pose. Feh. Don't be a sad sack of shit. Stand up and be a proud, firmly planted, and balanced sack of shit!

Fixate not on the electrotypewriter! SJP sounds like the same kind of boring Westernized office worker as me. Viz:
...skilled production of useful text and digital assets (e.g. internal business communications, code, articles, images, web applications, bookkeeping records), and of myself as a craftsman, who must take precautions in order to not be physically worn down during years of practising his craft.

Building slide decks shouldn't take that much time1, nor should writing memos, nor should writing code. The bulk of that work should be thinking, and then only brief required periods at the keyboard to encode those thoughts into prose, implementations, or presentation decks. There are some particularly insane corporate environments where one might feel compelled to be at the desk all day; perhaps the tests take a million years to run, or perhaps the corporate culture demands super-frilly PowerPoint presentations with carefully-chosen and different transitions between each slide. Either way, in that environment the "technology worker" has grown little beyond Lang's exhausted clock-humper.

If one's not in an outright pathological environment (in fairness, high-test "bullshit work" is pretty infrequent in the parts of the economy where businesses are not owned by people who went to school with the current lizards at the Fed) where the technical structure of the human farming machine doesn't demand 100% attendance at the deskputer, cultural structures drive workers back to their desks, and they internalize this pressure, transmuting it internally into a quest for productivity and to mitigate the damage of typing all the damn day.

The obvious advice of "think more! type less!" is all well and good for your late-career engineer or technology visionary or the soi-disant "architects" who've achieved the dream of "thinking really hard and then having the kids do all the work"2, but how does that help us poor schmucks who actually have to bang out an entire test suite?

Here are the principles that guide my thinking around workspace ergonomics and setup:

Anti-ergonomics 101

The traditional office design serves serves at least the function of cramming as many of us into the same space as possible without driving each other up the walls or actually stepping on each others' toes, while spending as little as possible per butt in chair. This results in desks that look nice but are poorly-sized for all but a thin statistical  slice of the office-demo, chairs that look stylish but are outright physiologically damaging, computer interface hardware that's the smallest step up from adequate possible,  and concrete floors for everyone.

Once you accept into your heart and butt that the office is designed but not for the worker, and understand the resulting institutional indifference to your personal wellbeing, you are prepared to think holistically about how to carve out a domain of health within a fundamentally unhealthy environment. Keep in mind at all times: the entirety of Western commerce revolves around gaining access to human-meat in some form or another, and then extracting as much value as possible from it in the shortest time possible. In shartuplandia, this looks like sitting on recent graduates until HTML user interfaces squeeze out of them like the worlds most horrific parasitic birth sequence, and then casting aside the broken corpses as soon as they start to show signs of wear. For the social media companies, they get access to human attention by (granted, this is a generous characterization) licensing "content" from "other humans" (indistinguishable from Markov processes from where I sit) and while their target audience sits, hypnotized by whatever niche content the machines have determined the individual is most likely to flip through compulsively, shows them ads for shitty Sonicare knockoffs. None of this is new analysis, it's just important to hammer at every single opportunity that the humans are being farmed and that carving a domain of sovereignty out of this world is a life's work, if one even wants to bother!

Recent changes in corporate behavior around housing their herds of humans don't really change this dynamic. While we may all be thrilled to work from home, our corporate overlords have neatly slipped the rope of investing at all in the workspace (that some have of their own free will threaded their neck back through should show quite plainly that it's not actually a neck in there, but some other appendage the corporate hydra can leave to swing at will), leaving many folks completely adrift without any guidance on how to work safely at home3. So with this reminder of how we're all just Deleuzian machines of consumption and production of the things that are available in our environment to consume and things the political economy demands be produced in hand, we're no better equipped, but at least emotionally shattered and ready to accept the prescriptive bit.

Ergonomics 101

Sitting is killing you.

The good lord didn't design you to sit on your ass on a cushion with your legs dangling off a ledge all day. It's downright unnatural, and outright unhealthy. You'll fuck up your spine doing that, weaken all sorts of critical core muscles that will set off a further cascade of back musculature problems as your spinae erector attempt to compensate (and inevitably fuck themselves up as they're NOT FUCKING DESIGNED FOR IT). If you must sit, buy a fancy sit-uation that doesn't atrophy your core musculature.

Stand instead of sitting, and if you can't stand for extended periods of time, alternate with sitting, and push yourself to achieve ever and ever longer erect periods.

Erect head

Don't let your head droop too much; you'll develop an unsightly hump of muscle on the back of your neck. Have you looked at the kids out there? Notice how they're always hunched over, staring at their handhelds? Get one of them naked, and inspect the back of their necks,  I guarantee that you'll find what look like hypertrophied traps, but I suspect are actually splenius capitus (although we should both go ask someone who actually knows).

I keep my monitor at a height such that my eyes are level with a line perhaps two inches below the top bezel, so that I can regard the bulk of my screen with minimal neck movement, and so that I can keep spine in as natural a curve as possible for the most time possible. This is a per-person optimization, and you'll need to tune your workspace, but I  wouldn't expect to tilt the head much more than 20º off horizontal; the further down it tilts the more work your neck and back will have to do to hold it erect.

Relaxed arms and wrists

Relaxed proficiency is at the core of performance. It's hard to screw well, yog well, run well, or climb well if your musculature is perpetually in a clenched state. You'll never have the flexibility to move gracefully, get into position and blast the ball across the court if your muscles are constantly working against each other to compensate for artificially-induced atrophies and hypertrophies, and if you type a lot while tensed up you'll waste energy pointlessly fighting against yourself. Your arms should be open to a bare minimum of 90º in the vertical plane, and most frequently overlooked, as minimally rotated in towards your torso centerline as possible. Take a moment, and find the dumbest and cheapest keyboard in your arsenal. Can you use it without expending energy bringing your hands together to hit the home row? Consider what this strain is doing to the muscles in your back. Get a keyboard that lets you position the two hands entirely independently.

Move your attention down your arms to your wrists. Any flat keyboard will force you to "pronate" your wrists, which is to say rotate your thumbs downwards from their natural position. "What natural position?", I hear you ask. Stand up, and bounce a few times, letting your joints hang loose. Then, without exerting too much conscious control, bring your forearms perpendicular to your local gravity field. If you're like me, your hands are positioned as though you're ready to stroke two fellows off at the same time, cylinders parallel to the g field (give or take thumb position). Now, rotate your hands down into a traditional typing pose.

Sucks, doesn't it? Much like narrow toe-box shoes, once I saw this, I could never *un* see it, and to this day reducing pronative stress is an un-satisfied goal in my personal ergo dreamscape. Many split keyboards on the market have "tenting" that lets you mitigate pronation, look into them.

Let us now consider flexsion and dorsiflexsion, the rotations that you'd make from the wrist if you were to place your hands as if on a piano keyboard and then rotate up and down. Dorsiflexsion  (flexsion towards the dorsal surface) is more work for the whole stack, not merely resisting gravity but further pulling the hand up. In my poor experiments, dorsiflexsion is a major irritant, and I structure my work spaces so that my hands hang down atop my keyboards, and the keyboards tilt down away from me. I find this mitigates pain significantly.

Interestingly, SJP cites Pascarelli and Quilter on the topic of wrist rests (and implicitly dorsiflexsion):

"When people rest their wrists on the edge of the desk while they work, they overload the tiny muscles and tendons of the hand and forearm. Computer work requires the assistance of powerful muscles of the shoulders and back, but these muscles cannot be engaged if people rest their wrists while they type."

And then goes on to say about his own setup that:

I use a split keyboard so that my shoulders are not rolled forwards and inwards, plus long gel pads across the entire front of the keyboard tray on which to rest palms.

How this is possible without inducing dorsiflexsion, I cannot  imagine. Perhaps the man can enlighten us!

Encourage natural spinal curvature

One frequently ignored tweak to further improve the ergonomics of a standing workstation is to encourage the curve at the base of the spine. To achieve this, I keep the chair I keep around for odd moments of sloth and indolence underneath my desk when the latter is in its raised position, and put a foot on the seat. I alternate quite naturally, letting the body dictate cadence and pose.

Alternate frequently to auxiliary working spaces

All this said, stasis is death. Remember that it's repetitive strain injury, so another approach to systemic mitigation is to mix up the work location regularly. In the car port, for instance, on a laptop. In the backyard, when the sun's just right (although the wireless is spotty back there). In the living room, with the babies when culling email or other tasks that require less focus. I try to reserve desk work for when I truly need to type for an extended period of time.

Health: attain and maintain

All all all all all of this said, there's one topic nearly completely unaddressed in SJP's work: a holistic approach to health and strength. He touches on the dangers of doing keyboard-intensive work while stressed, and the importance of getting a good night's sleep for the recovery of the afflicted organs, but that still falls far far short of a holistic health regime. Yes sleep is important, and yes in general one wants to avoid pointless stress (but not at the cost of avoiding entirely the stressors that the work of rising to the event of makes the next time-slice of the 4d worm that is a human moving through time a little bit more capable, and the compounding returns from rising to those stresses again and again and again), but that is such a terribly narrow sliver of the whole picture of health. I can't possibly do justice to the topic here, but I'll leave these breadcrumbs for the hungry mind: ensure that you're regulating your blood sugar consciously and well over the course of the day, sugar crashing will contribute to mental fatigue and poor form at the keyboard((Form is critical for learning any life skill. Progressing through the deadlift and working on the muscle-up is done vastly faster if the practitioner has good form from the first day compared to the beginner who has no support and does not focus on form, and hits constant performance plateaus that take either good friends or expensive trainers to identify the flaws in form that need fixing before moving on to the next set of plates. Form first, and only then power. You'll hurt yourself otherwise!)). I personally can't get by without yoga and running, although I'm considering handing the running gear in and taking up swimming, for stupid reasons along the lines of "perhaps the additional thermal load will be a hilariously convenient way to increase overall metabolic output in the limited time I have for said".

I would of course be remiss if I neglected to share Mircea Popescu's old crack about running. It certainly can add years to your life; pretty much just as many as you spend running! On the other hand, Joe Rogan wouldn't want you to forget that we all end up worm food anyways, but also to remember that that's no reason to not put a bit of grease into enjoying the ride while we're here.

All of the above is to say:

In practice, these are the tools I use to minimize ongoing damage and foster ongoing health:

Anyways that's enough for a single post nominally on ergonomics and RSI. Amusing that my first post back after the fall of the hallows should be a 3.2Kw girthy turd on ergonomics in the corporate context.

  1. While an excess of flash generally speaks to a disregard for the material, presentation is incredibly important and the minimal work done must be chosen with style and panache in mind. Minimalism isn't easier, but it can be less work. []
  2. Which can even pan out halfway well, provided the kids are supervised adequately, their work julienned in advance, and their existential angst handled by someone who can at least pretend to care. []
  3. Personally, I'm boggled that folks don't put the 30 minutes of research into tuning their own environment that would yield 70% of the wins in this space. I've learned over the last year or two just how committed Americans are to being told what they can do, what they can't do, how to do the things they're permitted to do, and so on ad nauseam. I've been a much longer time in the shartup Butugychag mines and misc. small business than I have in megacorpland, and I'm starting to understand how BigCorp life fosters learned helplessness in its employees; part and parcel of retaining and farming them efficiently. Dependency! Tangentially, while driving to Waco yesterday, I listened to Jon Stewart riffing on the JRE about how "we need to"(!) crack the American health insurance system off of the employment system. Sounds lovely, but I sincerely doubt that the megacorps who finance elections in the states are going to support anything that reduces employee dependency on employer. []

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