Touchscreen tyranny

Nice piece in Slate about the Iphone induced tyranny of touchscreens.  Touchscreens are great for certain devices, i.e., smartphones, but for others– especially things you want to be able to control without looking at, i.e,. MP3 players and car stereo systems, they are a huge step backwards:

Before the iPhone, touchscreens were exotic. Now they are everywhere—in cars, onrefrigerators, beside CNN anchors, and have shrunk down to just over a 1-inch square for the latest iteration of the iPod Nano. What has been described as one of Jobs’ greatest achievements spread from one class of gadget to another; huddled masses of single-function buttons converted, one by one, into powerful, touch-sensitive windows of infinite utility.

Grafting the iPhone’s clever, customizable interface onto other products sounds like a universal win. Then again, try using that touchscreen Nano. With the proper dance of carefully aimed taps and flicks, it can do more than any Nano before it. But when it comes to what iPods were built to do—play audio files—the Nano has devolved. The physical playback buttons have vanished. As one Macword reviewer complained when the player was released in 2010, it’s harder than ever to pause or play a track: “You must pull out the Nano so you can see its screen, then wake up the iPod, then navigate to the appropriate screen.” What might have been a one-step operation on the pre-2010 Nano now requires a sequence of three or four actions. And aside from adjusting the volume, the Nano can’t really be operated blind, with one hand in your bag or pocket.

When my Ipod Nano 1g finally died last year, I bought the touchscreen Nano 6g.  I love it because it is incredibly small, has a built in clip (huge drawback of earlier models) and generally works great.

iPod nano 8GB - Green

That said, I much prefer the click-wheel of the earlier Ipods.  So much easier to use.  Here’s the cool explanation for the problem with the over touch-screenization of life:

What touchscreens lack is something called affordance. It’s a lofty term for an object’s built-in ability to tell you how it works. A doorknob affords turning. The button on a car stereo affords pushing. A touchscreen affords nothing. It relies on software for any affordance, which in turn relies on total immersion for the user. Immersion is a fantastic quality while flicking virtual birds at digital pigs in your smartphone. Immersion at 80 mph is less desirable.

Newer is not always better.  We just seem to think it is.

Potatoes and population

Surely you heard about our population crossing 7 billion this week.  Nice graph of the explosive growith via Wonkblog:

As it happened, I was already very much thinking about population growth this week because I’m reading Charles Mann’s fabulous new book 1493, which details how the cultural and biological exchanges and old and new worlds after Columbus profoundly shaped the modern world as we know it.  You really should so read this book.  Anyway, I just finished the fascinating section on the potato– originally a South American plant– it truly transformed Europe.  It took a continent where starvation was basically endemic and allowed for major population growth because a field planted with potatoes instead of grains yields 4x as much food to eat.  I had no idea.  Look what that did for the population of Ireland:

40% of the Irish population relied on potatoes as their only food source.  Of course, it’s amazing that one food–plus milk– can actually give you all the nutrition you need.  At first, the potato in Europe was largely free of all the “predators” they had grown accustomed to in South America.  Of course, once a disease (actually an  oomycete) made it over from South America, the potato crop was ravaged, as was the hugely dependent Irish population. And as you’ll see in the graph above, it has still not recovered former levels.

Anyway, there’s more great stuff like that in 1493.  For a short version, definitely give a listen to Terry Gross’ interview with the author.

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