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It’s natural to ask if there is an app
From the Financial Times of Tue, 23 Dec 2014 17:30:08 GMT
©Bloomberg

Babies think in logs. In logarithmic scales, that is. This means that newborns are able to notice when an image of eight ducks on a screen switches to an image of 16 ducks. We notice they notice because when the switch happens to the larger flock, there’s an observable spike in activity in the parietal lobe of a baby’s brain.

This isn’t just about babies noticing that something has changed — a switch on the screen between eight ducks and eight trucks lights up a different region of the brain. That babies can clock a large percentage increase in quantity, such as 100 per cent in the case of the ducks, but not a small one (say, between eight and nine ducks) is what defines their innate sense of numbers as logarithmic rather than linear. In contrast, integers, and the linear scale we place them on, is something that we have to learn by rote when our parents teach us how to count. It’s a cultural construct.

All of which makes me wonder, how would babies use a laptop? I recently bought a MacBook for the first time and trying to work with its default settings makes me feel positively infantile. There is a genuine possibility that a three-month-old would be better at handling its trackpad, with its “natural scrolling”, than I am.

Unlike the operation of a track wheel on a mouse, reading an article from top to bottom on the Mactraption requires an upwards movement on the trackpad instead of a downwards one. Is Apple right when it says that this method, which mimics how navigation works on touchscreen devices, is “natural”? And if so, does that mean that at some point on the path to adulthood I lost my innate understanding of how to scroll?

When natural scroll was introduced to Mac computers in 2011 some people were happy, others were a bit “meh” and some were properly cross. If I had a Mac at the time I probably would have been in that last group but it couldn’t have been as bad as when Microsoft removed the start menu in its Windows 8 operating system in 2012. That blunder deserves a spot next to “New Coke”.

As it turns out, a paper published in 2013 by Jing Chen and Robert W Proctor lends support to Apple’s choice. The researchers’ experiments measured the performance of test subjects when they used natural scrolling and also when they used the more traditional computer scrolling method. In almost all cases, subjects performed set tasks faster with natural scrolling. Matching one’s finger movement with the direction the content travels on the screen does appear to be better.

So that’s the science I ignored by switching off natural scrolling on my MacBook. As was the case with Windows 8, I needed some apps to correct the situation. It’s a testament to the modern world that whenever a big software company makes user experience decisions that some cabal of people (hello!) don’t like, there is an app developer standing by to make it all better. All hail app developers! (In case you are wondering: an app called Start8 adds back the Windows start menu and ModernMix forces Windows 8 apps to run in windows with a close button and stuff.)

Funnily enough, the app that rode to the rescue in the Mac situation was created by the developer Nick Moore, who wanted to be able to use natural scrolling in older operating systems. Bless him, he also made it possible to use natural scrolling on the trackpad while simultaneously allowing an old fogey to scroll on a mouse. Just what I needed!

Scrolling isn’t the only thing where our preferences for visual frames of reference differ. In first-person computer games, one moves the mouse to the right to look right and left to look left but what to do with the mouse if you need to look up? Moving it away from you is the norm, but some prefer to “invert the Y-axis” — pulling the mouse towards them to look up. Where a game doesn’t allow inversion, there is typically, of course, an app to fix that.

Concerning our preference for numbers, a more recent study seems to show that even as adults, we may retain some instinct for the logarithmic number sense we had as babies. Even if that’s true, there is no escaping the linear world once you inhabit it. For once, there is no app for that. But thank goodness for the apps that fix everything else, whether our preferences are natural or not.

lisa.pollack@ft.com



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