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The joys of technology take their toll on the eyes

One of the great joys of semi-retirement revealed to me some time back is a "Pajama Day."

That's when you don't have to go anywhere in particular or do anything urgent, so you can stay in your pajamas all day, doing exactly what you please — eating Greek yogurt, leftover baked chicken and broccoli salad and swigging chocolate-flavored protein drinks.

A couple of weeks ago, I was enjoying a marvelous jammie day reading what the Victorians called "penny dreadfuls" and moderns call "chick lit" on my beloved Kindle, absent-mindedly stuffing myself (with healthy food, of course), when I realized that 10 straight hours of making like a slug isn't particularly healthy.

So I lumbered onto my treadmill, switched on the wall-mounted TV, opened the blinds and began my conscience-soothing 30 minutes of walking.

That's when I noticed something funny: the TV was blurry, and the lush vegetation outside looked like a giant green cloud. I looked at the readout board on my treadmill and all I saw was a fuzzy red smudge.

I recalled an article a friend had just sent me from Real Simple Magazine, with the headline "E-Reader Eyestrain."

It described my condition as Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS), a phenomenon described by New York City-based optometrist Harvey Moscot as what happens when someone stares at a computer screen for hours at a time.

The result is sometimes blurry vision, eyestrain and headaches, Moscot said. Nineteenth-century novelists called it scrivener's malady, a reference to what happened when clerks spent long, unbroken hours scrunched over account books in dark, windowless offices, staring unblinkingly at columns of figures (think Herman Melville's Bartleby, the Scrivener).

To my relief, Moscot said the Kindle uses electronic ink (e-ink), which "is easy on the eyes," but that other electronic devices, like Apple's iPad and Barnes & Nobel's NookColor, have a backlit LCD screen, similar to a computer monitor. "A stark contrast between the screen and your surroundings is hard on the eyes," he said.

Technos go into stuff like "parallaxes," "electrophoresis" that makes e-ink look as though it's printed on the page rather than buried in it, "emissive displays," "viewing angle uniformity," "full aperture ratios," yada, yada, yada, but the bottom line is that e-ink is like a printed page, the ideal reading medium, and LCDs aren't.

I've rarely been bothered with CVS at work because I flit between looking at the computer, researching materials on my desk, talking on the telephone, running around looking for stuff and staring out the window toward Dunkin' Donuts next door — while I do some profound thinking, of course (and fantasize about chocolate eclairs).

I thought about my bout of blurry vision when I read that several area schools are buying iPads for students to use. I'm excited about the idea, because textbooks can be out of date months before they're even printed. The world map changes quickly (South Sudan was created less than three months ago, never mind that I'm still trying to figure out what happened to Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia), history is being made every day, and science changes at the drop of a dinosaur bone, so a teaching device that can be quickly updated is a boon.

At the same time, educators need to think about protecting kids from unintended consequences, like eye problems and learning retention.

There's tons of information on the Internet about these subjects, and the general consensus from experts and users alike on potential eye problems is that backlit screens are fine for short spurts of reading and browsing, like e-mail and short articles, but e-ink screens (Kindles) are best for long periods of reading, such as novels and non-fiction. (For a technical explanation why, look up Russ Wilcox, co-founder and former CEO of E Ink, the company that brought us the "electronic paper" used in Kindles.)

Whether it's e-ink, LCD, LED, or a printed book, frequent breaks are essential to avoid dry eye, which can happen when people get engrossed in what they're watching and forget to blink. Several sources recommend the 20-20-20 rule: read 20 minutes, then look 20 feet away for 20 seconds, but that's quite a challenge when you're totally caught up in what you're reading and two hours seem like 20 minutes.

A different kind of concern comes from a new study by scholars at the University of Oregon, "Medium Matters: Newsreaders' Recall and Engagement with Online and Print Newspapers," which found that people who read news stories in print remembered more facts and ideas than people who read them online.

Whether that problem transfers to everyday readin', writin' and 'rithmetic is yet to be determined.

In any event, I'm hoping that the school people think about these potential pitfalls before they completely toss the books.

The joys of technology take their toll on the eyes 09/02/11 [Last modified: Friday, September 2, 2011 11:47pm]

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