Humans speak at a rate of about 120 words per minute, yet many practiced typists get words out only about half as fast, and most of us text at a crawling 14 to 31 wpm. The culprit is the 1870s-era qwerty keyboard layout, named for its top left six keys. By some accounts, qwerty was designed to slow us down—to avoid typewriter jams, it spaced out the most commonly used letter pairs—and it slows us down even more now that we’re doing much of our typing with our thumbs, on smartphones and tablets.
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On the evening of February 12, 2009, a Continental Connection commuter flight made its way through blustery weather between Newark, New Jersey, and Buffalo, New York. As is typical of commercial flights today, the pilots didn’t have all that much to do during the hour-long trip. The captain, Marvin Renslow, manned the controls briefly during takeoff, guiding the Bombardier Q400 turboprop into the air, then switched on the autopilot and let the software do the flying. He and his co-pilot, Rebecca Shaw, chatted—about their families, their careers, the personalities of air-traffic controllers—as the plane cruised uneventfully along its northwesterly route at 16,000 feet. The Q400 was well into its approach to the Buffalo airport, its landing gear down, its wing flaps out, when the pilot’s control yoke began to shudder noisily, a signal that the plane was losing lift and risked going into an aerodynamic stall. The autopilot disconnected, and the captain took over the controls. He reacted quickly, but he did precisely the wrong thing: he jerked back on the yoke, lifting the plane’s nose and reducing its airspeed, instead of pushing the yoke forward to gain velocity. Rather than preventing a stall, Renslow’s action caused one. The plane spun out of control, then plummeted. “We’re down,” the captain said, just before the Q400 slammed into a house in a Buffalo suburb.
The crash, which killed all 49 people on board as well as one person on the ground, should never have happened. A National Transportation Safety Board investigation concluded that the cause of the accident was pilot error. The captain’s response to the stall warning, the investigators reported, “should have been automatic, but his improper flight control inputs were inconsistent with his training” and instead revealed “startle and confusion.” An executive from the company that operated the flight, the regional carrier Colgan Air, admitted that the pilots seemed to lack “situational awareness” as the emergency unfolded.
The Buffalo crash was not an isolated incident. An eerily similar disaster, with far more casualties, occurred a few months later. On the night of May 31, an Air France Airbus A330 took off from Rio de Janeiro, bound for Paris. The jumbo jet ran into a storm over the Atlantic about three hours after takeoff. Its air-speed sensors, coated with ice, began giving faulty readings, causing the autopilot to disengage. Bewildered, the pilot flying the plane, Pierre-Cédric Bonin, yanked back on the stick. The plane rose and a stall warning sounded, but he continued to pull back heedlessly. As the plane climbed sharply, it lost velocity. The airspeed sensors began working again, providing the crew with accurate numbers. Yet Bonin continued to slow the plane. The jet stalled and began to fall. If he had simply let go of the control, the A330 would likely have righted itself. But he didn’t. The plane dropped 35,000 feet in three minutes before hitting the ocean. All 228 passengers and crew members died.
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It’s fitting that Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron and the partner of Charles Babbage, was the world’s first computer programmer. For much of computer history, “computers” weren’t just humans—people who sat doing the drudgery of repeated calculations that would, in turn, feed models and algorithms. The computers were also, often, women.
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What Darwin and Turing had both discovered, in their different ways, was the existence of competence without comprehension. This inverted the deeply plausible assumption that comprehension is in fact the source of all advanced competence. Why, after all, do we insist on sending our children to school, and why do we frown on the old-fashioned methods of rote learning? We expect our children’s growing competence to flow from their growing comprehension. The motto of modern education might be: “Comprehend in order to be competent.
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It turns out that both exercise and computer use each have protective effects - but the two together are even better.
In addition to exercise and good nutrition for the aging brain, using the computer to keep your mind active could prevent mild cognitive impairment (MCI). This form of cognitive decline falls in between normal age-related memory problems and the beginnings of Alzheimer’s disease.
It’s long been thought that how a word sounds — its very phonemes — can be related in some ways to what that word means. But language is no longer solely oral. Much of our word production happens not in our throats and mouths but on our keyboards. Could that process shape a word’s meaning as well?
That’s the contention of an intriguing new paper by linguists Kyle Jasmin and Daniel Casasanto. They argue that because of the QWERTY keyboard’s asymmetrical shape (more letters on the left than the right), words dominated by right-side letters “acquire more positive valences” — that is to say, they become more likable. Their argument is that because its easier for your fingers to find the correct letters for typing right-side dominated words, the words subtly gain favor in your mind.Read more. [Image: Wikimedia Commons]
At today’s Apple event, CEO Tim Cook showed this slide, which we have borrowed from The Verge’s excellent liveblog. It shows that Apple has shipped more iPads than its competitors have shipped computers. And that was before Apple announced the new and improved iPad.
Cook devoted the beginning of the event to talking about Apple’s vision of a “post-PC” world, one in which your primary computer doesn’t have a mouse or a keyboard. This chart shows the success of that vision.