Computational thinkers make good body hackers

Sean McGrath’s report on coping with RSI reminded me of a couple of things. First, I need to find out whether the chair-mounted split keyboard shown here is still available. It’s been hugely helpful to me over the years, but I’m not sure it can be replaced at this point, and that would suck.

(Update: Uh oh. Discontinued 3 years ago.)

Second, I’ve been meaning to note a connection between computational thinking and health. Sean writes:

RSI is about the most complex problem I have ever tried to debug.

His reference to debugging might seem like a geeky affectation, but I don’t think that it is. When you’re searching for the causes of health problems, including mechanical ones like RSI, it can be fiendishly hard to, as Sean says, “establish repeatable causal connections between events.” Our bodies are complex, layered systems. Problems arise at different levels; the levels interact; any assumption may need to be questioned. But ultimately our bodies are systems, and computational thinkers can be pretty good at hacking and debugging them.

You see it when geeks deal with RSI. And you also see it when they deal with obesity. I known seven or eight technical types who have slimmed dramatically in recent years. We’re talking major weight losses of 75 pounds, or 100, or even more. In each case they describe the process in the language of computational thinking. “I hacked my body.” “I debugged my metabolism.”

Sean is right to offer this disclaimer:

I am a computer geek. Not a medical practitioner. If you have symptoms, go see a doctor, ok?

And yet, in my experience with RSI and with other kinds of mechanically-induced soft tissue injuries, doctors can’t help much if at all. What’s required is realtime analysis and debugging of a complex system, on a continuous and perpetual basis. The person best equipped to do that debugging is you, the owner, operator, and inhabitant of the system.

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10 thoughts on “Computational thinkers make good body hackers

  1. Conversely a surprising (frightening) number of health workers do not seem to exhibit good computational thinking. I suspect that memorization is a good selector for medical practice and that somehow memorization doesn’t work well with computational thinking. After all if you can remember the result every time, there is not much need to understand the derivation from first principles. At least that’s my excuse for having a terrible memory.

  2. I wrote the screed below to Zach when he complained of carpal tunnel ( He talked about ergonomics, wrist splints, ice, and ibuprofin.

    Yes, CTS really sucks. Other things that help are significant doses of B6, chiropractic adjustment of the wrists, and accupuncture.

    If you are taking ibuprofen or another NSAID, keep it up steadily to reduce the inflammation. For OTC ibuprofen, that’s 2 pills 4 times a day, or up to 2x more (usually as a prescription dose) if your doctor approves. You’ll need to do it for at least 2 weeks for full effect. Consider taking a PPI (proton pump inhibitor) like Prilosec to avoid ulcers from the ibuprofen. If your ears start ringing, cut back the dose.

    That said, the best possible therapy would be to lay off the computer, Treo, and guitar completely for about 3 weeks. Beach time?

    (This advice comes to you from someone who hasn’t really had a vacation for 20 years.)

  3. One thing you can try is to use left-hand mouse. Few years back I noticed that I was using mouse for clicks/double clicks way more than keyboard and switching hands helped significantly. It would take 2-3 days of practice but once you get it you will never go back.

  4. > One thing you can try is to use left-hand mouse

    As a matter of fact, I switch mousing from hand to hand every 3 to 6 months. Being as bilateral as possible has turned out to be a key strategy for me, and not just with mousing, but all kinds of things: swimming, snow-shoveling, etc.

    1. I could not agree more. The key fact with RSI is to pre empy discomfort and have a chnage of posture/activity before the onset of discomofrt. I came across the DXT Ergonomic Mouse which allows you to adopt a more vertical wristy and hand posture while allowing for right and left hand use.

  5. I agree the inhabitant is the best at diagnosing. After about 6 miserable months of very weak grip, and tingling in my hands. I’ve been almost symptom free for 10 years now.

    I’ve found that tense muscles in my neck and shoulder area will pull the nerves and cause weakness in my wrists and hands, and along with some tingling in the thumb area. I got to the point where I could barely turn the key to unlock my car. I found that if I keep properly hydrated, and muscles loose, these symptoms will lessen and finally go away. Proper hydration is the key. Your muscles will NOT loosen up until you are properly hydrated. Cut down on the caffeine, alcohol, and vitamins for a bit, stretch this area a lot, and get plenty of neck and shoulder messages for a while. Keep the blood flowing to this area with hot showers and heating pads. When you get rid of the knots and tension especially between your neck and your shoulders, your symptoms will go away… assuming you caught this before there is nerve damage down in your wrists. I only have occasional bouts of slight weakness in my hands, and I head them off before they get bad. Hope this helps.

    I found hitting golf balls is a good way to keep the related muscles active and stretched. Do this after you’ve loosened up a bit… impossible before that.

  6. Hello. Noticed your post on Twitter & am writing in because this book changed everything for me a decade ago now. I highly recommend it and Dr. Pascarelli, who I think may have retired. Perhaps there’s a way to track down someone applying his strategies — a combination of physical therapy, technique changes & ergonomic chair, screen, desk setup.

    Here’s the write up & link as I just found it on Amazon: Repetitive Strain Injury: A Computer User’s Guide (Paperback)
    by Emil Pascarelli (Author), Deborah Quilter (Author) “In 1981, when IBM proudly unveiled its first personal computer, America fell in love with it in a way reminiscent of an 18-year-old’s infatuation with…” (more)

  7. One thing you might want to try (which has helped close friend a lot!) is to rewire your mouse or buy a mouse with foot buttons. I know clicking mice has hurt me a lot in the past – never enough to move to the feet though.

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