Online communication: "If you just message 'hi' and nothing else I assume I’m getting fired"

I have a friend who used to always put "Mark" and only "Mark" in the subject line of emails to me. It vaguely bugged me but I never told him to stop. Then I found out he did it to a mutual friend and she told me it really freaked her out and she told him to stop. She said having email with nothing but her first name as the subject made it seem like the message was going to have ominous news and she was loathe to open it.

In as essay for The Outline, Casey Johnston shares a similar experience: a boss who slacked "hi!" and only "hi!" Johnstone thought this meant she was about to be fired.

“Hi” implies “I need to have a full conversation with you that you’re going to be present for,” which is never good. Once I respond, if she responds to my response fast enough, I can’t theoretically pretend to not have seen what she just said, because I was literally physically JUST there, responding; no one responds and then immediately logs off. Once I respond, she has me, but I don’t know what for. It’s like she has laid a trap that is very obviously a trap that I have to now just walk into knowing I’m about to get lit up for something. Except that I don’t, really, because all she said was “hi!”

All she wanted was for me to fix a misspelling of a source’s name in a piece.

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100,000 payphones still haunt the United States

You may not have noticed, what with there being a cellphone in pocket of almost all Americans, but according to CNN, there's still 100,000 payphone in the United States. This is great news for Maroon 5, superheroes looking for a place to change and 1930s detectives calling into to their office to talk to a sassy secretary.

For those of you too young to remember, before cellphones and smartphones were ubiquitous, staying in touch when you were out and about meant having to ask your bartender to use her phone or finding a payphone. Opting for the latter meant walking, maybe, a few blocks to find a bank of payphones or a phone booth. According to CNN, there were still two million payphones as late as 1999. Just under two decades later, that number has shrunk down to 100,000. As payphone became less profitable, the appeal for large telecoms to spend money on their upkeep lost its luster. Nowadays, when you see a payphone in the wild, it's likely owned by a smaller company with lower expectations of what an acceptable margin of profitability looks like.

That anyone is interested in maintaining a network of payphone in operation is a lifeline to those who can't afford to own a mobile phone, who's smartphone ran out of juice at the worst possible time and during disasters. In the wake of an major earthquake or other major regional event, cellphone networks can often lock up from too many people attempting to access the system at the same time. Read the rest

Neuroscientist explains the same concept about the brain to a 5-year-old and then a grad student

Bobby Kasthuri is a neuroscientist at Argonne National Laboratory. In the video he was asked to explain what a connectome is to 5 different people; a 5 year-old, a 13 year-old, a college student, a neuroscience grad student and a connectome entrepreneur. Read the rest

Chart of every Nokia dumbphone from 1982-2006

Prepare to take a technological trip down memory lane with this enormous comprehensive chart of every Nokia dumbphone model starting 35 years ago. Extendable antennas, clamshells, you name it. Read the rest

Why the US Navy wanted to communicate using whale language

In the 1960s and 1970s, the US Navy researched whether they could use synthesized whale sounds for submarines to have encoded conversations across long distances underwater. Called Project COMBO, it was a fascinating attempt at biomimicry. The project's culminating experiment even attracted a pod of whales. Alas, Project COMBO ultimately failed, but it makes for a great story. From Cara Giaimo's article in Atlas Obscura:

Positioning themselves off of Catalina Island, 150 feet underwater, they blasted their squeaky, warbly codes through a transmitter. The receiver, placed at varying distances away, plucked the messages out of the noise flawlessly. Another test, in the fall, went deeper down and extended the range. In June of 1974, they sent out a real submarine, the USS Dolphin, which successfully transmitted sounds to a receiving ship—and, in a true vote of confidence, attracted a pod of pilot whales.

After these testing successes, researchers were left with a lot of work to do. Although they had the pilot whale on lock, they wanted to expand their repertoire by inventing “techniques and equipment to synthesize large whale sounds and small whale screams.” They still had to create scalable versions of their tools, including the call generator and the spectrograph-recognizer. Looking ahead, more problems loomed: the researchers figured this was a good enough idea that the Soviets would steal it, at which point American submariners would need to add another skill to their arsenal. “Fleet sonarmen must become more familiar with bioacoustic signals,” they wrote—inspiring thoughts of submarine soldiers, facing long days underwater, taking up sonic seal- and whale-watching.

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1871 plans map out the first circuit of the globe by telegraph

The Library of Congress site contains gems like this map showing the proposed final link of the original world wide web: the proposed trans-Pacific telegraph line, envisioned with Civil War-era technology. Read the rest

Notes on communication

John Scalzi's posted ten points about free speech, conversation, debate and related subjects. There's lots of good stuff there: "8. If people do not engage you, it is not necessarily because they are afraid to engage you. Maybe they don’t have the time, or interest. Maybe they think you’re too ignorant to engage, either on the specific topic or in matters of rhetoric. Maybe they don’t want to either implicity or explicitly let you share in their credibility. Maybe they think you’re an asshole, and want nothing to do with you. Maybe it’s combination of some or all of the above. They may or may not tell you why." Read the rest

The difference between "being right" and "being persuasive"

If you're into science literacy — or, even, if you're just into arguing with other people on the Internet about science — you need to read this post by neuroscientist Chris Holdgraf. It's a great explanation of why "the data speaks for itself" isn't a particularly good retort (and can, in fact, be misleading) and why sacrificing a little accuracy for the sake of understanding is a better idea than it sounds. Read the rest

Senator requests NASA investigation of Space Vikings

Image: Ved Chirayath

This photo, taken by astronautics grad student and photographer Ved Chirayath, was meant to be a bit of free promotion for NASA and space exploration. It's part of an art exhibition called Physics in Vogue, which combines real science with the style of fashion photography. With the help of a Viking re-enactment troupe and some of his colleagues from the Ames Research Center, he put together a shot that was meant to connect current NASA projects to the exploration-oriented Viking culture. What if two of Earth's greatest explorers met face-to-face?

The photo was done on Chirayath's own time, using funds from two arts grants that had nothing to do with NASA. But it has become the center of an extensive investigation initiated by Senator Chuck Grassley, aimed at discovering whether dastardly NASA scientists were using taxpayer money to make whimsical photos. They weren't. Ironically, though, the investigation did use taxpayer money. More, Chirayath estimates, than it would have cost him to get such a photo done by a professional. Read the rest

New, high-tech cancer detector: Great idea, or still in need of work?

MelaFind is a new device that helps doctors identify melanoma skin cancers. In many places, it's being reported as the greatest breakthrough in skin cancer prevention to come along in decades. But, notes Gary Schwitzer at Health News Review, those pieces leave out the fact that MelaFind is actually fairly controversial. A lot of cancer researchers and docs are worried that it will give patients and doctors a false sense of security — a big issue considering the fact that MelaFind is only designed to identify small melanomas. It could turn up false negatives (or false positives) with non-melanoma skin cancers or melanomas that don't fall into a narrow type range. Read the rest

Yet another reason why jargon sucks

Yes, it's useful for communicating within your group, but as soon as you step outside that circle jargon becomes a problem. That's true even for scientists trying to communicate between disciplines and sub-disciplines of a field. At Ars Technica, John Timmer talks about jargon acronyms that look the same, but mean totally different things depending on what science you do. One of his examples: CTL. If you study flies, this can refer to a specific gene. For people who work with mice, it's a reference to curly tails. For immunologists, it's a type of white blood cell — cytotoxic T lymphocyte. Read the rest

Do GMOs yield more food? The answer is in the semantics

Today, on Twitter, I learned something new and interesting from environmental reporter Paul Voosen. Over the years, I've run into reports (like this one from the Union of Concerned Scientists) showing that genetically modified crops — i.e. Roundup Ready corn and soybeans, which is really the stuff we're talking about most of the time in these situations — don't increase intrinsic yields of those crops. But I've also seen decent-looking data that seemed to suggest exactly the opposite. So what gives?

Turns out, this is largely an issue of terminology. Read the rest

Are "theory" and "hypothesis" dead?

Do you understand the difference between a "hypothesis" and a "theory"? Physics professor Rhett Alain thinks you probably don't. But he says that's not your fault. The words just aren't terribly precise, at least in the public parlance, and they only serve to make discussions about science confusing. He has a modest proposal: Let's replace them both with something that makes sense to the general public. Read the rest

Great moments in pedantry: Actually, there is a Jedi mind meld

It's right there in the Expanded Universe book series, says Chris Peterson, a research assistant in MIT's Center for Civic Media. It's a form of group communication. What's more, Peterson writes, if you follow the theories of anthropologist and sociologist of science Bruno Latour, the Jedi meld might actually be the most useful tool for Obama to employ. (Thanks Ryan!) Read the rest

Why do dogs bark? (And what are they saying when they do?)

Barking might just be a reflex for agitated dogs. It might be a side-effect of domestication — i.e., when you select for less-aggressive animals you get ones that tend to bark. Or, it really might have meaning, both for other dogs and for humans. At Scientific American, Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods describe some of the research on dog communication, including studies that show both humans and dogs can tell the difference between barks associated with, say, food, and barks associated with the presence of a threatening stranger. Read the rest

TEDx Meta

The New Yorker's Nathan Heller looks at five of the most popular TED Talks of all time and uses them to explain why, exactly, this series of public lectures is so much more popular than all other public lecture series. Read the rest

Beautiful watercolor notes from the Aspen Environmental Forums

I've been live-tweeting today from the Aspen Environmental Forums. But in a session this morning, I noticed that my friend Rachel Weidinger—director for the ocean advocacy group Upwell—had a far niftier way of taking notes and communicating what she was learning. While I opened up my iPad, Rachel opened up a full set of watercolor paints.

What she produced was something more akin to illuminated manuscripts than paintings—collections of short quotes and key ideas, done up in vibrant colors and surrounded by thematic doodles. It's great stuff, and a really interesting way to process and present information.

Rachel was kind enough to let me post her notes here. This page comes from the panel we attended this morning, all about climate change and the long-term impacts those changes are likely to have on regional weather. Check out more of her illuminated notes at Flickr. Read the rest

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