Which Keyboard?

Repetitive Stress Injury (RSI) cut my career as a hacker short. How can I protect my daughter from a similar fate?

Michael Tiemann
Michael Tiemann is president of the Open Source Initiative and vice president of open source affairs at Red Hat. Disclosure.
Michael Tiemann
5 min read

I grew up with computers in the home, almost. I think I was just eight years old when my father brought home a teletype machine (with integral 110 baud modem) connected to the GE600 mainframe computer. My mother could type up a storm on her IBM selectric, but I was strictly hunt-and-peck on that noisy, strange-smelling teletype. But that teletype really inspired my newfound passion for writing stories, for when I told it to print -- BANGA-BANGA-BANGA-BANGA-KERCHUNK-BANGA-BANGA-BANG -- it printed at a full 110 baud, or almost half as fast as my mom's finger-sprints. Incredible!

My biggest problem when writing stories was settling on the names of the characters. One day I liked one name for the squirrel, the next day I preferred another. As my stories got longer and longer, it took me more and more time to change all the names to suit my fancies. My father pointed out that I could use the search-and-replace function to automate the task, and that's when I began programming. Of course it would be another 13 years before PERL would have given me $SQUIRREL--heck, in 1974, they were still working out the syntax for the Unix shell--and when I think back to my solution, I shudder. I chose "unlikely" strings of characters, like <+-+> and <@#@> to represent the characters, and then used the search-and-replace function to name each of them according to my liking. That posed a new problem: maintaining continuity. Dialog gets really hard to track when $%^&#@ says to @##@$ "Hey, that's my spoon!". But the foundation had been laid: I was writing parametric parables.

The teletype was upgraded to one with a high speed (300 baud) modem, which gave way to a CRT terminal, which gave way to an IMSAI 8080 with a paper tape reader. My father bought a program on paper tape called "2K BASIC" from a hobbyist company named Microsoft. It was pretty limited, but their next version, "Microsoft 4K BASIC" was much better. I started to type in programs from 101 BASIC PROGRAMS and the People's Computer Company book of BASIC programs. Soon, I was playing "Hunt the Wumpus", "Lunar Lander", and "Star Trek". One day my father brought home a PL/1 compiler, installed it on his shiny new Cromemco Z2D (with a 10MB winchester hard disk that cost $10,000 in 1976) and I was hooked on learning computer languages and programming.

Fast forward twenty years and I was working 12-16 hours a day hacking on the GNU C++ compiler with more than 100,000 lines of code to my name, and loving every minute of it. One weekend I visited Richard Stallman at MIT and I was shocked to learn that he could no longer type. He was given strict instructions by his doctor to not touch a computer keyboard for 6-12 months, and that if he did, he may lose forever his ability to type. He was a programming pioneer, and at the time, his symptoms were not well known or understood. We all came to understand that it was RSI--repetitive stress injury, exacerbated by the very keystroke combinations that made the Emacs editor such a powerful programming environment. But the root cause was not Emacs--it was the punative design of the QWERTY keyboard, a legacy of the industrial era when complex keyboard mechanisms were not able to keep up with the speed of human fingers. The solution? Design a keyboard so confounding and unnatural that no human could ever outrun what the mechanism could handle. Or so they thought. Humans are remarkably adaptable, to a point. Human typists did manage (with practice and perseverance) to type every bit as quickly as before QWERTY, but at the expense of long-term health. When typists were women working temporary jobs, the cumulative injury was either not noticed or conveniently ignored.

But now the QWERTY keyboard was extacting its toll on one of the world's greatest programmers, and it was devastating. But I was healthy. I was young. And I couldn't type nearly as quickly as Stallman, nor did my 12-16 hour days compare with his 16-24 hour marathons. "It won't happen to me" I thought. Until it did. And I quit programming as a profession.

A few years later I was at a CEO breakfast in June of 2001. President Bush had just repealed OSHA's ergonomics mandate enacted by congress under the Clinton administration. Conveniently, the President's brother, Neil Bush, was the breakfast speaker, and after he finished explaining to the captive audience why public schools should buy his company's proprietary products, I stood up to ask "Mr. Bush, your brother, the President, has just repealed ergonomic standards that are central to protecting the next generation from work-related injuries that derailed my own career as a programmer. What good is it to give children early access to computers if the QWERTY keyboard limits their fingers to a finite number of keystrokes? What will happen to our economy when graduating college students are near-term candidates for long-term disability?" The question was actually applauded by the audience--the only question to be so recognized, and perhaps one of the last gestures of respect a largely Republican crowd showed to a standing Democrat. Needless to say, the answer was not to the point, and needless to say, we are still suffering with QWERTY.

For this reason I am very ambivalent about introducing my daughter to computers for anything that's going to involve typing. I want to teach her the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard, but I'm afraid to be too different and afraid that such an unconventional path will lead to an early breakdown in our relationship (earlier than, say, age 13). Funny how social we humans are, isn't it?

So I'm focused on a different keyboard right now: the Piano. So far, she's taking to it like a fish to water. It's still early days, but every day she has a real "A ha!" moment with the piano, something that really lights up her face and gets her to say "Oh...my...GOSH! That's so COOL!". Probably not unlike my discovery of the GOTO statement in BASIC. Here's hoping that as she builds strength in her fingers, she's saving herself for a later time when the computer keyboard is really worth it. Until then, it's CDEFG over QWERTY.