01 May, 2009

Move your thumb, not your elbow

A trackball is a thing of beauty. The one I use at work is the Cordless Trackman Wheel:

(image shamelessly stolen from Logitech's website: please don't sue)

You see that ball? Back before the invention of optical mice, mice had balls on the bottom, too. You moved them around, and the balled rolled; sensors inside the mouse rolled with the ball and by registering its movements determined how you wanted to move it.

The problem with mice is that the user has to move an entire forearm to accomplish anything. Trackballs are much more convenient: the user only has to move the ball using a thumb or forefinger. Believe it or not, it is much more convenient to move your thumb around than your elbow—just ask any animal without opposable thumbs. There's probably something more ergonomic about it, too, but you didn't hear that from me. The Trackman picture above is shaped nicely and conveniently.

In addition, a trackball doesn't need a special pad or even a small work area on your desk to move around, because a trackball doesn't move! It's probably not worth boasting, but I routinely leave my trackball on top of notes, and sometimes on top of piles of papers and such-not.

The only downside to trackballs is similar to the downside to Dvorjak keyboards, to the old AmigaOS, and to other technological advances: users become habitually accustomed to what they first encounter (QWERTY keyboards, MS-DOS/Windows or MacOS) and quickly come think of it as "normal". When approaching a different variant of the same technology, our minds try to work with it in exactly the same way that we work with the previously-known technology. This fails, because different variants often approach things in different ways.

By now, KDE on GNU/Linux is more natural to me than either Windows or AmigaOS ever was. (MacOS is "okay", although it irritates me that some moron at Apple decided that the Finder should automagically hide certain directories like "/usr"—not to be confused with "Users".) Likewise, it's amazing to watch people sit down at my desktop and flail helplessly with the trackball. They usually give up and ask me to move the pointer around the screen for them. This includes professors with PhDs in mathematics and computer science. (Yes, "professors", plural. I've seen it.) Ironically, some of these individuals speak with disdain of mere mortals who stick with Windows because they can't figure out Linux, or who use graphical text editors instead of vi.

Anyway, I heartily recommend trackballs, which at least seem to have developed a healthier market than either Dvorjak keyboards or AmigaOS. Just remember to move your thumb, not your elbow.

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