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Forget Mavis Beacon: Self-Taught Typists Are Nearly as Fast as Touch Typists

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As the world transitions from analog to digital, computer skills are more crucial than ever. But—at least in some areas—formal classes may not be. A study of trained and self-taught typists published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance found that the two groups could be comparably speedy when it came to practical tasks.

The keyboards on which we type have changed dramatically in the last 40 years, but our ideas about proper technique really haven’t. The gold standard is still touch typing, in which typists use eight fingers, stationed on the "home row," and have no need to look at the keyboard. Everyone knows this is the fastest, most efficient, and most professional way to type.

Logan Laboratory / Vanderbilt University

 
But how do we know this? And is it even true?

To find out, researchers at Vanderbilt University brought 48 keyboard users into the lab. They asked each subject which fingers they would use to type various words, which sorted the touch typists from those who used a nonstandard, or self-taught, technique. Next, they seated each participant at a computer station under a video camera and put them through a series of typing tests, testing their speed and accuracy in typing sentences, paragraphs, words, and nonsense phrases. Sometimes the letters on the keyboard were covered, and sometimes they were visible. The typists were also asked to identify where on the keyboard each letter belonged.

The researchers believed the results would support what we all think we know: that touch typists would be faster and more effective, since they’re using more fingers and not stopping to look at the keys.

This proved partially true. Trained touch typists were faster when it came to traditional typing tests (they clocked in at about 80 words per minute). But at 72 words per minute, the nonstandard participants weren’t far behind (although, when the keys were covered, their speed reduced and their error rate increased). “We even had one two-finger typist who could manage 60 words per minute,” study co-author Gordon Logan said in a statement. “That is good enough to pass a typing proficiency test.”

But Logan and his colleagues realized that standardized typing tests are a pretty poor reflection of the kind of typing most of us do nowadays. We don’t just copy text; we write our own emails, memos, and term papers. When the researchers asked their participants to type their own words, the playing field was leveled pretty quickly; even the speed of one "skilled typist" plummeted from 78 to 45 words per minute.

The researchers also found some striking inconsistencies between the way people thought they typed and their actual technique. Fourteen out of the 24 self-identified touch typists were actually using nonstandard typing methods, making “standard” typing far rarer than the so-called nonstandard style.

Many schools still require students to learn to type, and the age at which those classes begin has gotten younger and younger as standardized tests move onto the computer. Teachers understandably want their students to be prepared for the tests’ mechanical elements. Yet given the nonstandard typists’ success, the researchers wonder if teaching kids to type is worth the effort.

"The benefits of earlier training may not be large enough to outweigh the costs the typist and educational system would have to pay," Logan said. “Similarly, our results raise the question of the value of remedial training for nonstandard typists."

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Revisit Your Favorite '90s Screensaver With This Free Game
Cahoots Malone
Cahoots Malone

In the '90s, a significant amount of computing power was devoted to generating endless brick mazes on Windows 95. The screensaver has since become iconic, and now nostalgic Microsoft fans can relive it in a whole new way. As Motherboard reports, the animation has been re-imagined into a video game called Screensaver Subterfuge.

Instead of watching passively as your computer weaves through the maze, you’re leading the journey this time around. You play as a kid hacker who’s been charged with retrieving sensitive data hidden in the screensaver of Windows 95 before devious infomancers can get to it first. The gameplay is pretty simple: Use the arrow keys to navigate the halls and press Q and click the mouse to change their design. Finding a giant smiley face takes you to level two, and finding the briefcase icon ends the game. There are also lots of giant rats in this version of the screensaver.

Screensaver Subterfuge was designed by Cahoots Malone as part of the PROCJAM 2017 generative software showcase. You can download it for free for Windows, macOS, and Linux from his website, or if playing a game sounds like too much work, you can always watch videos of the old screensaver on a loop.

[h/t Motherboard]

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As Big as a What? How Literary Size Comparisons Change Over Time
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Many humans are bad at visualizing what measurements really mean unless you give them a comparison. Tell someone a space is 360 feet long and they'll probably just blink; say it's the length of a football field and you might get a nod of comprehension. That's why many writers use size comparisons rather than precise measurements in non-technical works. (It also helps convince people your work wasn't written by a robot.) But the comparisons that writers use reflect the culture and time period they're in—tell an ancient Roman something is the size of a credit card or a car, and you're not going to get very far.

As spotted by Digg, programmer and data visualization whiz Colin Morris recently performed an experiment that demonstrates how these kinds of object comparisons change over time. Morris mined the vast Ngram dataset of English-language Google Books for occurrences of the phrase "the size of ___" between 1800 and 2008, then ranked the top results by popularity overall and in specific centuries. Some of the results made perfect sense (England has phased out the shilling; basketball didn't exist for most of the 1800s), while others were more surprising (why did we stop referring to cats as a popular size comparison in the 21st century?).

Overall, Morris found that items from the natural world have fallen into decline as reference points, while sports analogies have exploded onto the scene. (Morris wonders whether this has to do with the rise of leisure time, and/or the mass media that exposes far more spectators to sports than ever before.) Some of the specific results also have intriguing stories to tell: We no longer talk about the size of pigeon's eggs largely thanks to the extinction of the passenger pigeon, which was once the most numerous bird in the United States. The numbers of city pigeons just don't compare—when was the last time you saw one of their eggs?

There is one clear winner across the centuries, however: peas. These tiny legumes were the most popular reference point in the 1800s and they remain so today. The same is true of runner-up the walnut. Let it not be said we have nothing in common with our ancestors.

Here are the top five items in each century that Morris investigated:

1800s

1. pea
2. walnut
3. pinhead
4. egg
5. hen's egg

1900s

1. pea
2. walnut
3. pinhead
4. egg
5. orange

2000-2008

1. pea
2. walnut
3. quarter
4. football field
5. egg

For the full list, head over to Colin Morris's site.

[h/t Digg]

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