5 Bad Ideas Humanity Is Sticking With Out of Habit
Humans are funny when it comes to technology. We're eager to adopt new technologies when the difference is trivial, like camping out for days to buy the new iPhone when we still haven't figured out the old one. But at the same time, we also have a way of getting attached to worthless technologies of the past, just because it's too much hassle to change.
It turns out old habits die hard. And sometimes, they don't die at all.
The QWERTY Keyboard
Quick -- look at the very computer you're reading this on. Depending on your level of geekitude, you probably have a plasma monitor and a system running six terabytes of RAM powered by a flux capacitor. But in order to communicate with this futuristic device you probably call your Tardis, you're still using an archaic system that hasn't been improved since it was introduced 130 years ago. We're talking about your keyboard.
Why It's Inefficient:
Besides not being able to take a punch.
When you rest your hands on the "home row" like they told you in high school, check out what keys you're touching -- A, S, D, F, J, K, L and semicolon. Besides A and S, you're looking at a conga line of some of the least-used letters in the English language and possibly the least useful punctuation mark of all time. In fact, your right index finger, the dominant finger on most people's dominant hand, is sitting on J, which is worth 8 points in Scrabble for a reason -- it's the fourth-least-used letter, trumped only by the loser letters X, Q and Z.
How did we wind up with this intuition-defying random configuration? Well, back in 1868, when Christopher Sholes and a couple of other guys had just finished inventing the first typing machine, the keys were arranged in alphabetical order (our current middle row shows vestiges of this, with A, D, F, G, H, J, K and L still in order). But there was a problem: Before long, people were mashing away on these fragile early keyboards, which had a tendency to jam when two keys next to each other were pressed in rapid succession.
Early versions of World of Warcraft were almost impossible to play.
So Sholes consulted a buddy who had studied up on letter-pair frequency, and he moved the keys that were most often typed together away from each other. After a few other minor tweaks, like moving up the R key, allegedly so that salesmen could impress buyers by typing the word "TYPEWRITER" using only the top row, we had our current QWERTY arrangement. Never mind that the most commonly used letters (E, T, A, O, I, N and S, respectively) were randomly scattered all over, and that it took forever every time you wanted to type "ESTONIA." Sholes wasn't trying to make the most ergonomically sound keyboard; in fact, QWERTY is deliberately engineered to slow you down so you don't have to worry about pesky typewriter jams.
And so you don't have to put "awesome typing skills" on your insurance claim.
Why We're Stuck With It:
The only reason we're still tying our fingers in knots more than a century later is simply because QWERTY got here first.
Since then, several more "scientifically" designed keyboard layouts have been introduced, including Dvorak, Colemak and XPeRT, which no one's ever heard of but which has an extra "E" on the keyboard.
And then there's the E-board. Yes, we just did.
Now, debate rages over how much faster these alternatives are than QWERTY. But the fastest typist in the world used Dvorak to set her record, and it's hard to imagine that a layout with a semicolon in the home row would be as fast as one with an extra E.
Speed aside, countless studies show that Dvorak and others are far more ergonomically efficient, requiring fingers to move approximately a third of the distance that QWERTY requires. Oh, and QWERTY also discriminates against right-handed people. Thousands of English words can be spelled using only the left hand, while only a couple of hundred words can be typed using only the right hand. Maybe Sholes just wanted to hold his beer while he typed.
And yet, QWERTY shows little sign of going anywhere, all because of the "first mover" advantage -- everybody has already grown up knowing only one way to type, and nobody wants to completely relearn how to type for the possibility of slightly increased speed and comfort, at least until they get carpal tunnel.
Virtually everyone reading this was made to learn cursive writing in school. Most of the people reading this are either in college or out of school completely, living in the adult world. So when was the last time you wrote something in cursive, other than your name? Do you even remember what a capital cursive Q looks like? Put your hand down, Quentin.
Originating from the Latin cursivus, meaning "flowing," cursive developed in ancient languages to be a speedier way of writing by hand. And for many hundreds of years, it was. Also, nobody could read your handwriting.
Why It's Inefficient:
There's a reason nobody can read your signature -- cursive is hard to read. Many colleges forbid students from turning in exams written in cursive and present lectures via PowerPoint, not pretty P's and looping L's. Some say writing in cursive can help brain development, but so can printing. Also, kids can type far faster than they can write in cursive, and they can work on their grammar, syntax, spelling and idea flow much more efficiently on a computer than they can with a quill pen and parchment.
The drawback, of course, being that you can't stab someone with a computer.
But the main argument against cursive comes down simply to an allocation of classroom resources. If you somehow already know cursive, fine, but in these days of stretched school budgets and limited teaching time, some wonder whether we should really be devoting school resources to the world's stupidest way of putting words on paper.
Yet 90 percent of schools are still spending the recommended 60 weekly minutes teaching their second- and third-graders cursive. If that hour is going in, what are we sacrificing? Math? Cultural diversity? Phys ed? Our kids don't need to know how to make flowery Z's. Or at least, they need to know a lot of other things more.
Why We're Stuck With It:
There are some signs that cursive is on the way out. Ten percent of schools have stopped teaching it, which actually makes cursive even more inefficient, as 10 percent of kids now won't be able to read what everybody else is scribbling about.
But most schools are, for now, clinging to their curling C's, thanks to slow-to-change educational standards. Cursive was actually reinstated in Florida's school standards in 2006, amidst fears of students becoming too reliant on technology. Perhaps we should also reinstate hunting and gathering, over fears of becoming too reliant on grocery stores.
The standard "take three months off every summer" schedule that our schools use came about through a combination of fiscal limitations, hundred-year-old developmental theories and antiquated medical concerns that kids somehow couldn't hold up under year-round teaching.
You may have also heard that it's a vestige of farming days, when families needed the kids back on the farm. That's not really true -- that would have meant time off during spring and fall, for planting and harvesting. Either way, it's old-fashioned. And it's hurting our kids. Especially the poor ones.
Why It's Inefficient:
Three things happen when you take kids out of school for three months.
Not to the teachers -- to the kids.
A. They get dumber. The human brain forgets things it doesn't use, and not many kids are doing fractions and reading Shakespeare during the summer. A Time article found that, on average, students lose around a month of math skills each summer. Kids who are poor and don't have access to summer enrichment programs do even worse: Low-income students lose as many as three months of reading comprehension. Other studies suggest that ninth-grade summer learning loss can be blamed for roughly two-thirds of the achievement gap separating income groups.
B. They need to be re-taught what they've forgotten, so kids wind up spending up to a month in the fall reviewing what they learned the previous year, when they could be moving ahead. Most countries that boast higher test scores have shorter summer breaks, and there could be a connection. Sure, some kids are going to be idiots and need to be re-taught things no matter what, but why exacerbate matters with 90 days with no math beyond counting how many levels are left before their Night Elf can get a Flying Mount?
C. They get fatter. Brains aren't the only things that degrade when kids are left to three months of Halo 3 -- they also eat worse. Kids gain body mass twice as fast during the summer as during the school year. Most parents can't afford to take three months off work and babysit, or pay for day care, so without adults policing their intake, many kids are left to their own devices.
Why We're Stuck With It:
And yet, more than two-thirds of people oppose the idea of year-round schooling. Summer vacation hasn't changed much in the last 100 years, and though a few schools are trying year-round classes, it's hard to imagine it catching on countrywide. Simply put, Americans just love their summers. They've been romanticized through adult memories and storybooks of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn spending their long summer days committing grifts and helping slaves escape. What could be more American than that?
Maybe the Statue of Liberty giving the finger to winter.
Now, nobody's suggesting getting rid of vacations entirely -- after all, kids need to recharge, especially those who don't particularly like school. We also don't have the money to pay teachers and keep buildings open year-round, or to clean up after the riots that would inevitably ensue if such a thing were ever actually instituted.
But maybe we could spread the vacations around, like many other countries do. Take the hottest month of summer off to save AC costs, and take the coldest month of winter off to save on heating. A one- or two- month summer is long enough to take family trips, take up a crappy summer job and prevent teachers from spiraling into a three-month abyss of dread.
Corks in Wine Bottles
As long as people have been finding ways to get drunk off stuff, we've needed ways to close up containers, so we can get drunk again later. As bottles became widely used for wine and other products, people found that a soft wood called cork was the best thing to cram into them to avoid taking a swig of vinegar later.
That was a very, very long time ago. As with many things, technology evolved, and today there are plenty of cheaper, just-as-good ways to close up a bottle of Two-Buck Chuck.
Why It's Inefficient:
What, you mean there are problems with plugging up a bottle with a hunk of soggy wood?
Wine snobs will tell you that the reason corks are better than screw-tops or plastic stoppers is that they let a tiny trace of oxygen through to help the aging process. This is fine, except that 95 percent of wine purchased in the U.S. is consumed within the first year, and 75 percent within the first three days. At these rates, we could be using masking tape to seal bottles. According to wine expert Kevin Zraly, only 1 percent of the bottles produced currently in the world are even meant to be aged beyond five years, the period synthetic stoppers are designed for.
Hell, some don't even make it out of the winery and need no stoppers at all.
Synthetic corks are even starting to be tested for their rate of air permeation, and companies have been pouring money into developing closures that control the amount of oxygen that's allowed through them. It won't be long until an airtight cyberseal sings lullabies to your Merlot and gives it a squirt of two molecules of oxygen every year.
Also, cork incubates a fungus called "cork taint." Mold, chlorine and phenols can react in natural cork, creating the fungus that produces a taste in the wine that's been described as varying between "wet dog" and "grapes barfed in my mouth." And it affects anywhere from 1 to 11 percent of wines.
Of course, some people just don't care about that sort of thing.
Cork is also expensive, partly because it takes more than 40 years for an oak tree to mature enough to produce good natural cork, which usually has to be harvested by hand (and the first harvest can't be used for wine corks). Sure, some of the cheapest corks are competitive with synthetic alternatives, but those are the corks most likely to cause taint and break into floaty pieces in your crappy Riesling. More often, a cork costs 75 cents, or even a few dollars for the high-end ones.
Why We're Stuck With It:
People still associate cork with class and status, and popping a cork out of your 1950 Cabernet Sauvignon is just more impressive than deactivating an iCork developed by Apple. Alternative stoppers aren't new, but even with their cheaper prices and comparable qualities, they've only just begun to infiltrate the world's bottle-stopping industry.
The hillbilly dishrag part, we may have just made up.
The Imperial Measurement System
In the early days, measurement systems were based on body parts, or whatever else was readily available. A foot was a man's foot, an inch was the width of a man's thumb or three end-to-end barleycorns, and a furlong was the distance King John could force a team of oxen to go before they dropped dead in the dirt. But these measures varied from place to place and weren't very well related to each other, so eventually it became clear than a standardized system was needed.
To John Holmes' ancestors, this was considered 16 feet.
The metric system as we know it originated in Europe in the late 1700s and used as its length basis the meter, which was 1/10,000,000th of the distance from the Earth's equator to the North Pole. All other measurements went up or down with prefixes by scales of 10, which was conveniently the number of fingers everybody had. There was really only one major country that didn't want to get involved.
Why It's Inefficient:
There's a kilometer-long list of things the imperial system is bad at. Scaling is random and difficult: A mile is 1,760 yards, a yard is 3 feet, a foot is 12 inches. Even worse is converting between systems, something we wouldn't have to do if there was only one. This occasionally causes disasters in international science: In 1983, a Boeing 767 jet ran out of fuel during an Air Canada flight because workers made an error in converting the amount needed, and in 1999, NASA lost a Mars orbiter because one engineering team used the metric system and another didn't.
Want to measure something really small? Fugeddaboutit. The only imperial measure for really tiny things is the thou, which is 1/120,000th of an inch, and even our nerdy MIT friends had never heard of it. Maybe it's 1/100th of one of King Henry's toenail clippings. Imperial isn't even very good at the stuff it's supposed to do well: The average man's foot is actually 0.8 feet, and anyone measuring things with barleycorns these days is probably autistic.
There's also some evidence that our jalopy measurement system is part of what's making U.S. students bad at math. In Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, he suggests that Asian students may have a built-in advantage in the subject because Eastern languages are structured in a way that makes numbers intuitive. Conversely, having a language -- or a measurement system -- that makes numbers clunkier and difficult to convert would have an adverse effect on young children picking them up from the world around them. Foundation and early confidence are everything in math.
Combined, of course, with proper punishment for not learning.
For this to be true, of course, U.S. students would have to be worse internationally at math than they are at other subjects ... and in fact, they are. Two recent studies show U.S. students to be right around average (12th and 15th) of 30-some industrialized nations in reading scores but among the worst (25th and 30th) in math. There are no doubt other factors involved, but a nonintuitive measurement system can't be helping.
Why We're Stuck With It:
Actually, we have started to use metric, in some ways. The imperial system is so clumsy that the U.S. scientific community has already abandoned it for metric, which is much better at measuring anything really big or small, like light wavelengths. Besides the sciency stuff, electricity consumption is measured in kilowatts, data storage is measured in megabytes, and nutrition labels have been in both imperial and metric for quite a while.
But let's be honest: The metric system has not caught on here. Technically, the U.S. government adopted the metric system in 1866. But what it failed to do was restrict the use of the old system in any way that actually affects regular citizens. We haven't made the crucial transition from "soft metric" ("1 pint ") to "hard metric" ("500 milliliters "), in which the imperial equivalent gets a smaller and smaller font size and eventually disappears.
Why? Well, these numbers aren't just used in math -- there are imperial measurements built into the culture and language. We instinctively know that it's good for an NBA center to be 7 feet tall instead of 6, something that gets lost when you switch it to 2.13 meters. There is a mental image associated with a "quarter-pound" hamburger, or a gallon of ice cream. Changing the units of measure means changing the language and certain figures of speech.
"I'm not good with math. Just give me the 'bigass' one."
Still, these days, every country uses the metric system, except the United States. Well, and Liberia and Myanmar.
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