MacBreakZ 4 Beta 1 Just Around the Corner

Back in April, on this blog I called for volunteer alpha testers to help me develop version 4 of MacBreakZ.

I was astonished and gratified by the number of volunteers that contacted me. Could it be that interest in ergonomic computing is finally making it into the mainstream?

After an enthusiastic start in 1997, MacBreakZ went through quite a few releases offering any number of new and improved features. With 20/20 hindsight I made one major mistake in the development of this product: I used RealBasic rather than C++ to develop it.

My reasoning was sound (I think): MacBreakZ would be overwhelmingly a user interface application with little behind the scenes processing and speed was really not much of an issue. Back then, and even today, developers seem to fall over themselves to praise RealBasic’s suitability for developing this type of application.

Not so. In my own personal experience, with each new release the RealBasic compiler and run-time system seemed to fix one bug only to introduce 5 new ones of similar gravity. At one point (I think this was early OS X releases) some customers experienced “rainbow text”: each character in the text of all dialog boxes would be a different rainbow color. This problem, as so many others, eventually did get fixed by RealBasic but my confidence in the tool quickly droped to absolute zero. I decided to freeze development with version 3.6 which had proved stable for fear of introducing arbitrary new bugs just by recompiling with the “new improved” RealBasic compiler.

Before all hell breaks lose and every RealBasic enthusiast on the planet starts flamming me: I know you love RealBasic, have never had any problems at all with it and your software is great and 100% bug free; that’s just not at all my experience with the tool..

Back then in the 3.6 days, I hatched this plan to rewrite MacBreakZ in “a real language with a real api”. The first choice of development environment on Mac OS X is Objective-C with Cocoa using XCode: the same tools used to write OS X itself.

Unfortunately for lack of time, the plans remained just that for almost two years and MacBreakZ 3.6 now clearly shows its age and its legacy.

Back in April when the call for alpha tester went out, there wasn’t much code written. I had a very bare-bones activity monitor (the component that detects your mouse and keyboard activity), a rough state machine implementation and a few user interface elements.

The idea was to involve end-users right from the start well before the application design is fixed and major changes are difficult and costly to make. Getting end-users involved early on also opens your developer’s eyes to end-user issues: sometimes you’re the only person on the planet who thinks that a particular dialog or menu item is intuitive, while the rest of the world scratches its collective head and thinks “What’s that supposed to be when it’s finished?”.

In my experience, early user involvement leads to far better product: a product that actually addresses the needs of its users, rather than showing off the cleverness (in his own head) of the developer.

At this point, I obviously need to thank my alpha testers for the amazing feedback and support I have received from them: Thanks guys!

Not only is the new version fully re-developed in Objective-C and Cocoa, but it also makes big sweeping changes pretty much everywhere. In fact, it is more a new product than a new version of an existing product.

I have blogged about progress on MB4; the earlier post has a number of quicktime movies showing the new interface and some of the cooler new features.

Six months, a couple of hundred posts and ten alpha releases later, MacBreakZ 4 is ready to go into public beta. I’m going to spend the next week getting the “behind the scenes” stuff ready, but next Wednesday MacBreakZ 4 beta 1 will be officially posted to the website (If you write me a real nice email, I may send the new version before then :)).

Current MacBreakZ owners will be interested to know that everybody who bought the product after the 1st of January 2005 will receive a free upgrade. Everybody else may like to know that there will be full-featured 14-day trial available from the website on next Wednesday.

It was great fun developing the new version and I hope you will like it.

Take care,


ergonomic stretch #2: lateral neck stretch

This is another one of my favorite stretches from MacBreakZ / ergonomix:


Keeping the head straight all day while you stare at a computer screen is hard work for the neck muscles and they are one of the areas of our body that positively soak up tension. A trapped nerve in the neck can cause you to feel soreness and pain all the way from the shoulders down to the fingers.

This is a great stretch for releasing and counter-acting tension in your lateral neck muscles.

As always, this is not medical advice, you use the stretch at your own risk and you should consult with your doctor before engaging in any physical exercise..

Ergonomic Gear Review #1: Kensington Expert Mouse 7.0

About a year ago, I decided to kick my post-University sedimentary life style, and once again become a badminton superstar. So I joined a club, got my old gear out of the unopened cardboard boxes in the cellar and went off to train two times 3 hours a week just like 12 years ago.
At the beginning I was slow and uncoordinated, just like the middle-aged computer guy who is trying to relive his youthful glory days ought to be. After each training session I was so exhausted that you had to drag me off the court. I would feel awful for at least half a week and more often than not I still felt achy from the last session when the next one came along.

After a while though, I got a bit fitter, I stopped hurting so much, my feet went about their business without complaining quite as much and I was getting close (okay, not that close) to my old performance levels. The first match arrived and I did ok, the second came along and it went fairly well and before I knew it I started winning us much as I was losing and in a word, I was back. The rest is history. Or not.

The only ache that refused to go away was a little burning sensation in my heel. I had been using my old squash shoes from 1995 until then. You know the "no cushioning, no shock absorption, ultra-flat sole variety that is a lot like running barefoot but with shoes on. In my defense, that's actually quite a good choice for badminton because you spend a lot of time on your toes and a light flat shoe is pretty much ideal for quick turning without spraining your ankle.

Unfortunately, I am no longer 18 and by the time I got expensive, well cushioned, badminton-specific shoes, my doctor called it quits and told me to stop playing for a least a year. Apparently I have an inflamed achilles heel and "those things can snap you know".

What's all this got to do with the Kensington Expert Mouse and more specifically with version 7.0?

Well, the moral of the story is that the gear you use makes a difference to how likely you are to injure yourself. Had I started out getting myself new badminton shoes, I might not have ended up with Achilles heel problems. Then again I might have pushed even harder and still got myself injured, so equipment alone won't get you a free "out-of-jail" card.

In this column, I will be reviewing all kinds of ergonomic gear for your computer work. Some of you may find the jump from competition sport to humble key pressing and mouse clicking a bit much to take. Well, actually it isn't such a large jump.

Whilst the forces involved in athletic movements are obviously much stronger, the muscles and joints that you use when working on your computer are much smaller and more delicate. What's more, you're not likely to play badminton or go running 8 to 12 hours a day, every day.

In a previous post, I did a quick calculation that got you to 1.8 million key presses a year; that's a lot of little shocks on fragile little joints and ligaments. In this first ergonomic gear review, I'll be looking at my latest ergonomic toy, the Kensington Expert Mouse 7.0 for Windows or Mac.

Kensington Expert Mouse 7.0

Well, first of all, it's not a mouse, it's a trackball and that's a good thing. Mice are by their very design likely to result in repetitive strain injury sooner or later. There are probably mouse than keyboard-related RSI problems. The tell-tale "my right hand hurts more than my left" sign points right at a mouse injury.

Anyway, it's a trackball, but please don't picture one of these tiny little marble sized things that used to adorne laptops a few years ago. The Expert Mouse has more in common with a pool 8 ball. The whole mouse is somewhat super-sized as far as pointing devices go. It measures a hefty 5 by 5.75 inches (around 12×15 cm) and is a good deal larger yet if you include the wrist rest.

Anyway, it's a trackball, but please don't picture one of these tiny little marble sized things that used to adorne laptops a few years ago. The Expert Mouse has more in common with a pool 8 ball.

The whole mouse is somewhat super-sized as far as pointing devices go. It measures a hefty 5 by 5.75 inches (around 12×15 cm) and is a good deal larger yet if you include the wrist rest. The trackball itself is surrounded by 4 large buttons and circled by Kensington's Scroll Ring.

When your hand rests on the trackball in the middle, your fingers falls quite naturally onto the 4 buttons. The button at the bottom left is far away the easiest to use and is (by default) mapped to the single click. Your thumb rests comfortably on it, so you'll probably do most of your clicking with the thumb rather than with the fingers. A sound decision given that it's your strongest "finger".

The top right button, which (again by default) mapped to "double click" is also easy to reach. In order to comfortably reach the top left and the bottom right buttons, I usually have to move my hand. The bottom right button does the right click and the top left button is a "click and drag" affair: when you click it, it select the item under the pointer and goes into "drag lock". The drag ends when you click the button again.

This is ergonomically sound thinking because it avoids the awkward "I'm holding down the mouse button while trying to move the pointer" problem. In fact, this is one of the neatest things about trackballs in general: you never run out of desk space. With a mouse once you've reached the edge of the work surface you need to pick it up and reposition it in the middle, not a great idea in general ergonomic terms and outright impossible while keeping a mouse button down.

The button themselves are heavy duty affairs with a distinct micro-switch feel to them. They produce a very distinct "click" sound that leaves you in no doubt about what you've done.

The Scroll Ring that surrounds the trackball is a new variation on the familiar scroll wheel. Unlike most scroll wheel implementations, this one makes perfect ergonomic sense. The typical Microsoft Mouse scroll wheel placed between the left and right button really forces you to adopt a very awkward finger position which is positively begging for long-term problems (bye bye middle finger).

The Scroll Ring does its job perfectly and is probably my favorite feature on the device. The ring has a slightly rubbery feel to it and you can turn it comfortably using all five fingers together or just with a single one. The surface of the ring is covered in little indentations into which your fingernails slip comfortably. I gives you the impression of working with a high precision microscope dial.

The ring moves by small very distinct notches. Scrolling through text feels very natural right from the beginning. You leaf through multiple screens by just continuously turning the ring. I love it. In fact it reminds me of a more precise version of Apple's iPod click wheel.

Some people are turned off by the admittedly fairly cheap "plastic-on-plastic" sound that the ring makes when it moves. Yes, I think Apple would probably have done a better job getting the sound right, but then again they make the worst mice in the world (pretty as they undoubtedly are).

Now to the real price: the trackball. As I said, it is huge. It is also surprisingly heavy. The Expert Mouse 7.0 uses optical sensors and the ball itself is just dropped into the hollow space in the middle. It moves with very little noise or friction. It provides a good solid feel, something that is often  missing from trackballs. Moving the ball with your fingers is comfortable and it has precise feel.

Most often when you use a trackball and you give it a good strong spin, the pointer will jump around the screen in an uncontrolled fashion until the ball comes to a halt several turns later; this is the trackball equivalent of banging your mouse on your desk in frustration 🙂 With the Expert Mouse it takes some effort to get the ball spinning and the pointer remains very "collected".

I tried the latest beta release of Kensington's MouseWorks software for Mac OS X, which did its job very competently. The software allows you to remap the buttons, adjust the mouse speed (you can actually customize the acceleration curve which again adds to the scientific instrument feel), define application specific actions, etc.

One feature that is still absent is the ability to simply place the pointer automatically on the default button of a dialog box. This is a feature that used to be ubiquitous on Mac OS 9, but I have never yet seen it on OS X. What a shame!

What else is in the box? A USB to PS/2 adapter for older Windows machines and of course the wrist rest. The wrist rest is fairly large and covered in firm, but soft, fake leather and it does its job. In use, it is comfortable and I would personally recommend leaving it on.

The Verdict

Well, this is certainly the best trackball that I have ever used. It has a very no-nonsense built-to-last design philosophy. The ball itself is as precise as it is comfortable. In my opinion the Scroll Ring is the best implementation of the familiar scroll wheel design yet. The buttons are ok, but I find them a little bit too stiff to push comfortably. Of course, if they were any less stiff, you would end up pushing them by accident while rolling the trackball, still they are not my favorite feature.

In summary, this device has found a permenant place on my desk for the time being.

I only got it a few days ago, so I'll keep you posted on how it works out long term.

The price. Oh yes. It's not really cheap at $99.99 in USB/PS2 and $119.99 in its wireless incarnation. Then again, you get what you pay for.

ergonomic stretch #1: Make yourself tall

ergostretch number 1

When we spend all day in front of our computer our whole body is working overtime trying to maintain our static posture.

If you're anything like me, after a while you start slouching this way and that, ending up half-way under the table. Not quite the recommended posture 😉
This little stretch brings some welcome relief:
It stretches the back, shoulders, arms, wrists and fingers, all without getting up from your chair.
Give it a try. 

This stretch is taken from our MacBreakZ and ergonomix for windows Personal Ergonomic Assistant software.

Ergonomic Tip #2: Take regular breaks

After the first painfully obvious part of this column "Don't bang the keys!" comes the second, no-less obvious tip.

Taking no rest breaks may make you look like you're overworked and underpaid, but it will also make you tenser, more tired, prone to error and ultimately less productive.

The static posture in which we sit and type all day in front of our computers, the long hours of staring at a screen a few inches away from our eyes, the tens of thousands of keystrokes and the endless miles of mouse travel that we accumulate each day is sure to leave some trace at the end of each work day.

Just getting up for a few minutes allows our muscles to relax out of their cramped-up position, allows our eyes the luxury of looking at something else for a while and it gives a welcome break to our hands and wrists.

The notorious "They" recommend to take a five to ten minute break every twenty to thirty minutes of screen-based work.

I know what you're going to say though: I hate being interrupted when I'm in the middle of something. I lose focus and concentration when I get up. etc.

We all know the feeling of being "in the zone". We are in the middle of doing something complicated and after hours of unproductive screen gazing, we suddenly know exactly what needs to be done and how. And we are doing it. And we are enjoying doing it. And we are not going to stop until it's done.

This phenomenon is known to psychologists as "flow". When we experience "flow", we are working towards a clear goal, with optimal concentration, total efficiency and we may even experience a temporary "loss of self awareness". Should you stop because it might give you a headache in the evening? Probably not.

Most of our "work time", however, is spent in a much less ecstatic state of total productivity and this is particularly true for "knowledge workers". We spend a lot of time doing before thinking, and then going back and re-doing what we've already done after having properly thought about it. There is even a word for it: iteration.

Getting up and doing something else for a few minutes will help us clear our mind and let our subconscious get on with the job of sorting out what we should probably have done in the first place. How often have you finally figured out a complicated problem in the car on the way home, or in the shower in the morning, or when talking about the weekend's sport results with John from Engineering at the water cooler?

You can't force insight by sitting around feeling busy. You can work more that way, but you'll probably end up achieving less and the quality of your work will probably poorer for it. The point is that taking breaks doesn't make you less productive, it makes you healthier, less prone to error and ultimately happier at work and after it.

Rest break timers, such as our MacBreakZ or ergonomix products will remind you (sometimes perhaps too forcefully) to take a rest break. This can be annoying when you're in full flow and you will be tempted to just turn the damn thing off. Don't. Just ignore the dialog and take the break when you're ready.

When you're not in an ecstatic flow state, however, try to get up and take a walk. You'll feel better for it and trust me, you won't get less done.