Thursday, May 27, 2010

Look Ma, ...

I find myself unable to use my hands for very much of anything, and wondering how to be a productive scientists given this peculiar handicap. The problem is not that I lack hands, I have them and they looked perfectly complete, if slightly blue. The problem is not even I can operate them, I have full control and enough strength to do most simple tasks. Rather my problem is that I mustn't use my hands, for a fight to the swell up become quite painful and remain so for some time. It's not yet entirely clear why this is, so for the time being the blame Levitis Syndrome.

There are many jobs for which not using one's hands would be a greater problem than they are for me as a scientist. A carpenter, a cellist, or a cashier would be much less able to work around this problem and I am. Furthermore, there is extremely little short-term pressure for me to get anything done. In the long term, I have to publish papers to keep my job and move to better jobs in the future. In the short term I want to get things done simply because it is too frustrating to not do so.

I'm using dictation software which, now that I've used for some time, is quite quick and accurate for creating text. Not quite as fast as typing, but a hell of a lot faster than I thought dictation software was before I started using it. I have students to do my lab work for me, I'm not doing any field work, and I have access digitally most of the literature I need. Given all this, why should a small matter like hands make much of a difference?

In practice, there are all sorts of things that I find myself unable to do. The dictation software supposed to make it possible to use many different programs, for surfing the web, analyzing data, sending e-mails and so on; in fact many of these thing are quite difficult to do without moving the mouse or touching the keys. Writing code is extraordinarily difficult. Reading heavy paper books is quite hard. Many software tools are simply inaccessible.

My latest stratagem is to order a mouse controlled by foot. The ability to point and click should solve many of my problems, in combination with this dictation software.

The other challenge of being productive despite my hands, is one of concentration. Doing things so differently requires a lot of thought about how I do them, which distracts me from the ideas and tasks to concentrate on. In addition to that, my hands hurt, tingle, throb and otherwise distract me. I am frankly not so good at ignoring it to the point that I can think deeply.

Ultimately, my hands will probably get better with time and coddling. When that happens, I can add dictation software and foot-controlling a mouse to my long list of random and not particularly useful skills. Until then, I'll be studying the list of available voice commands and wearing slip ons.

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