A touch saves a life

The Moth is a stand-up storytelling podcast I’ve been enjoying lately. An especially moving story was told by Mike Destefano. When he had reached the rock bottom of his life, having lost his wife, his father, and his will to live, a mentor literally reaches out to him, touches him, and changes everything:

The flame that I had as a kid, all of it, gone. Because now everyone died. All at that one moment, you know? And I made arrangements to fly home the next day, and I got on the plane, and when I got on the plane I decided that I was going to end my life. I’m pretty much done. And I wasn’t telling anyone, it wasn’t a threat, it was a total fucking decision that I’ve pretty much had enough of this. There is no more, nothing else to live for, and I’m done. So I got on the plane, and I was so excited because I’m like, I’m really going to fucking die, this is so great! I was thrilled and at peace. And I couldn’t wait until the funeral was over, because that’s when I’m going to do it. I’m not going to jump off a building or in front of a car. You people ever heard of overdosing on drugs? …I get up and go to the back of the plane to go to the bathroom and… the monk that I had met was sitting in the back row… And he put his hands out like he did before, again… and it worked for me… it just, it worked. And I got home, and I quit my job and I said, you know what? I want to be a fucking comedian.

Listen to the whole thing.

[audio:moth-podcast-89-mike-destefano.mp3]

Download (mp3, 17 MB)

Gestures and words are neurologically similar

Two types of gestures were considered for the study: pantomimes, which mimic objects or actions, such as unscrewing a jar or juggling balls, and emblems, which are commonly used in social interactions and which signify abstract, usually more emotionally charged concepts than pantomimes. Examples include a hand sweeping across the forehead to indicate “it’s hot in here!” or a finger to the lips to signify “be quiet.”

Current thinking in the study of language is that, like a smart search engine that pops up the most suitable Web site at the top of its search results, the posterior temporal region serves as a storehouse of words from which the inferior frontal gyrus selects the most appropriate match. The researchers suggest that, rather than being limited to deciphering words alone, these regions may be able to apply meaning to any incoming symbols, be they words, gestures, images, sounds, or objects.

It doesn’t surprise me that a widely held theory of language is based on our understanding of how search engines work, because we tend to conceptualize our world with metaphors based on technology. But this suggests that many of our abstract theories might be pinned to planned obsolescence schedules, which is kind of amusing.

Right-handers: right arm is longer than left. Left-handers: arms are equal length.

Volunteers were brought to the lab and estimated their perceived arm length and how far they could reach with their arms… Left-handed volunteers judged both of their arms to be the same length, but right-handed participants underestimated the length of their left arm—they consistently perceived their right arms as being longer. In addition, right-handed volunteers thought their right hands were larger than their left, when in fact, they were both the same size. When guessing how far they could reach with their arms, left-handed volunteers estimated they could reach equally far with both arms while right-handed volunteers predicted they could reach farther with their right arm.

Watch UI: a case study from Bill Buxton

With cunning and insight, Bill Buxton writes about how everyone is clamoring to design touch interfaces into products without understanding the usability issues that result. He discusses “four watches in [his] collection,” hinting at the treasure trove of usables and unusables he curates. The watches are a starting point for his main criticism:

There is a serious lesson here for those would-be innovators who, on seeing the great success of one company’s use of some technology or another, scramble to adopt it in the hope that it will bring them a share of that wealth as well. Such behavior is more appropriate for lemmings than innovators.

Rather than marveling at what someone else is delivering today, and then trying to copy it, the true innovators are the ones who understand the [long nose of innovation], and who know how to prospect below the surface for the insights and understanding that will enable them to leap ahead of the competition, rather than follow them. God is in the details, and the details are sitting there, waiting to be picked up by anyone who has the wit to look for them.

Sounds right to me.

(via Touch Usability)