Communicating with Peers and the Public

I’m at a scientific conference currently. All day yesterday, I was in the same room listening to presentations on the same topic, mainly from people doing pure research, with some people doing research with more application objectives. At the end of the day, they brought several of the presenters together for a panel discussion. I had listened all day to many of the presentations, and I was growing somewhat concerned about the implications of some of the research. I support their research. I respect their research. I want to see more of their research. However I do not work in research, and where I work, communicating with the public can be very important. So I asked members of this panel a question. How are they going to explain to the public what they are doing. There is nothing unethical about what they are doing. They are doing good work that could lead to important information being revealed, but they are doing research in the real world, that quite frankly is not at this point meant for the real world. So I wanted to know, had they thought about how to explain the results of their research to the public? A member of the public who saw some of their data could become seriously confused and scared because they wouldn’t understand what the results mean.

I generally am not all that good at communicating. I am fine with public speaking if I have a script. However in public or even one on one, when speaking impromptu I many times stumble over my words. I sometimes have trouble getting all the thoughts in my brain to come out my mouth in a linear manner. I know it is a fault. I work on it. I have also been told by people that I sometimes talk at too high a technical level. I work on it.

So there I was at a scientific conference trying to ask people, many of whom I had known for a day or two, a question. I respect these people and their work. I am trying to ask a question and explain that members of the public might not understand their results. The irony is beyond rich. I, who have trouble communicating at times, who have trouble communicating at a level that others understands technical information, am trying to explain to my peers that they are doing work in a situation that members of the public can see their work, and members of the public will not understand their work.

Of course I stumble on my words. Of course I can’t explain myself clearly. And of course, these scientists I respect start getting defensive. They explain I don’t understand what they are doing. They try to explain what they are doing as if I have not already seen several presentations explaining what they are doing. One interrupts me before I can fully try to explain what I am saying. I explain I completely understand what they are doing, but members of the public won’t. I only want to know how they will explain their results to the public. I don’t want to argue with these people. I hate arguing. I just want them to understand my point of view. I stumble trying to explain. My heart starts racing so badly that I am shaking. I try to calm myself and explain differently what I am saying. A couple of people finally start to understand what I am asking. One responds “oh well, we will explain [jibberish].” I thought I had trouble communicating. No one would understand that.

A woman I have started to have a professional relationship with and have started to become friends with also was sitting next to me. Afterwards, she assured me she completely understood and had the same concern. Then several other people, who are not doing this research, came up to me and said they understood and shared my concerns. I thanked them for that. They have no idea how much I needed that. I hate arguing with people. I don’t want these researchers to think I don’t support their work. I want these people to like me, and I know we share a common goal.

I live and work by a couple of rules. I will not lie to people, and I will not put people in danger. Those are at the top of my list of rules. Telling people the truth is easier said than done when the truth involves highly complex information. It is difficult to explain what the results mean to the public when you don’t understand what the results mean. I work with some awesome people, some of whom take what I write and translate it so a normal person can understand it. I make sure it is technically accurate, and they make sure people can understand it. I understand the importance of communication. You have to tell people the truth, but you have to tell people the truth in way they can understand it. When you don’t understand what your truth means, you also have to tell people that truth.

It’s Not Rocket Science

I subscribe to my county’s weekly police report just in case there might be crime in my area I want to know about. I don’t live in a high crime area, so normally the police report is a bunch of car break-ins and drunks in the bar area of town. Today though I found this interesting report.

MISSILE INTO AN OCCUPIED DWELLING, [location of incident]. On January 18 at approximately 6:51 p.m., a resident reported a known suspect threw a brick and rock into her residence, shattering two windows. [Suspect name] was arrested and charged with missile into an occupied dwelling, destruction of property, drunk in public and violation of protection order.”

What I found interesting is that legally speaking, a brick and/or a rock is considered a missile. To me this is another reason why rocket science should not be the go to science and engineering field for things that are hard. I hate the phrase “it’s not rocket science” with a passion. Rocket science is not that hard. It involves controlled combustion and trajectory. Missiles, a term which is generally used to mean a rocket that will cause destruction, is quite frankly easy. Science fields that are hard involve things that can’t be controlled near as easy as rockets, like biological systems, like fields trying to predict what stupid humans will do, like basic science where we are still trying to understand all the forces involved. You try doing an environmental and human health risk assessment on a hazardous waste site where toxicologists are unsure what level of exposure to a contaminant is acceptable, where you can’t be completely sure what humans will really be doing and for how long at a site, where people want to know they will be not be subject to undue risk for the next 70 years, and where you can’t be absolutely, completely positive just how much of each contaminant is there, but the polluters don’t want to clean up more than necessary. Then come talk to me about how hard rocket science is.

In summary, as evidenced by this police report, missiles are easy. Rockets are easy. Stop comparing things you think are hard to rocket science.

No, I won’t #HackAHairDryer

Evidently, IBM wants to encourage women to enter science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) by telling them to hack a hair dryer. My first thought is that while I appreciate any technology company encouraging women into STEM, did they really have to pick a hair dryer? I would like to give them the benefit of the doubt that it’s a cheap piece of electronics, but let’s be real. By picking a hair dryer, they are reinforcing stereotypes about women and how we care about our looks. I initially thought I don’t even own a hair dryer, then I realized I may own two. I know there is one in my guest bathroom, left by a relative, and it sits there in case any guest wants to use it. I may have one of my own in my bathroom, bought over a decade, possibly two decades ago. I am not even sure if I still have it because it has been a decade at least since I have used it.

My second thought about #HackAHairDryer is, YOU’RE A FREAKING COMPUTER COMPANY! ENCOURAGE WOMEN TO WRITE CODE OR HACK A COMPUTER IN SOME WAY! Computer science is one of the most underrepresented fields, even among STEM fields, it is one of the worst. For goodness sakes IBM, you are a computer company, encourage women into computers. That is a field you should know rather well. Surely you can think of things women can hack in your own field, things that will not play into stereotypes.

My third thought is what age is this campaign aimed at? Hair dryers use electricity, and they produce heat. They are not exactly the safest things to hack. In IBM’s video, there are a few scenarios for “hacked” hair dryers that quite frankly worry me a bit. If a girl or women wants to hack a hair dryer, great, but I hope there is someone (man or women) around who would know when they are getting into dangerous territory.

I can MacGyver with the best of them. In truth, a whole lot of my hacking knowledge did not come from school. It came from playing with things, looking things up on the Internet, and talking with other people with experience. I don’t “hack” that much. I do have a propensity to take things apart just to look inside and see how they work, which is easy. The difficult part is getting them back together again and having the thing still work as intended.

A final thought I have is aimed at any inspiring engineer. If you don’t like to hack, if you have never hacked anything, my personal opinion is that this means nothing to your aspirations to be an engineer or scientist. Don’t let anyone tell you, you can’t be an engineer or scientist because X. I can’t remember hacking a single thing before college. I can’t remember hacking a single thing as part of my undergraduate or graduate school experience. My education did involve some hands on stuff and science labs, but it did not involve hacking. Most of engineering education is theory and reality of design. That is, first you are taught the theory as to how something should work. Then you are taught how it doesn’t always work like the theory, so here are some empirical equations with fudge factors that do work. Now throw in some safety factors. Ta la, you have your design.

So young women, hack if you want to, whatever it is you want to hack. Explore the world. Stay curious. Learn how things work. Learn ALL subjects and find the ones that interest you the most, no matter what they are.

IBM, back off the hashtags. Do something actually meaningful that will encourage women into STEM like sponsoring science fairs or building competitions or sponsoring college scholarships.

Science, the Media, Graphics, and Communication

Recently, I had my annual performance review at work, and one of the things my boss said I needed to work on was communication with upper management in the form of not realizing they don’t know what I think everyone knows. I fully admit that there are some things so engrained in me that it would never dawn on me that other people do not actually know those things. Perhaps it is a reaction to the fact that I HATE being talked down to. I hate when people attempt to explain something to me I already know. The more basic the fact the more I hate it. It feels insulting. I hope those people where I have to go back and explain at a lower level, take it as a compliment, as it kind of is. I sometimes assume they already know things, and while I will correct it when necessary, it really is a compliment that I assume someone knows something they don’t. However, I do understand what my boss was saying, and science communication is something a lot of scientists talk about a lot. How can scientists improve science communication so that non-scientists can understand science, especially since science concepts sometimes are complicated?

So in one of those striking coincidences, the same day I have my performance review, the World Health Organization (WHO) comes out with a report that says that processed meat is carcinogenic to humans. The blog post is not meant to go into a discussion of how badly this report was blown out of proportion by much of the media. I will just say there is a difference between relative risk and absolute risk. This Forbes article I think does a pretty good job of explaining what the WHO said and also what it means, and this post by Cancer Research UK is really good and has wonderful graphics explaining risk. I will also say I am not a vegetarian, and although I really don’t eat that much red meat or processed meat, I don’t have a thing about bacon, but I spent a good part of childhood in Texas, and God bless Texas barbecue, meaning brisket so tender no knife is needed, and now I am hungry. I’m sorry where was I? Oh right, WHO and processed meat. So what I did want to say a few words about was a graphic I saw on NBC Nightly News, mainly the image below (which in case it is not obvious, I literally took a photo of my television screen).

Screen shot of NBC Nightly New with Lestor Holt on 10/26/2015

Screen shot of NBC Nightly New with Lestor Holt on 10/26/2015

I am not an expert on asbestos, but I can say with confidence that a smokestack is NOT where asbestos originates. Asbestos is a naturally formed mineral, and in some locations, you can be exposed to asbestos from the natural soil and rock near you. Where people generally get asbestos exposure is old house insulation, old pipe insulation, car brake pads, and a whole lot of old building material. I posted this photo on Facebook yesterday because I was just kind of flabbergasted. It leads me to questions like does NBC News seriously not know where asbestos comes from? Are they just too lazy to find a better graphic? One Facebook friend said that maybe they used a smokestack to designate a generic industrial process. I replied that by that analogy cigarettes should also have a smokestack because they also come an industrial process. Asbestos does not originate from an industrial process. It originates from the earth, but it was then used by industry into various products. The other two graphics imply where your exposure to the named carcinogen would be. Your exposure to asbestos is not from a smokestack. It is from old building material like insulation. They could have had a graphic of fibrous pipe insulation. They could have also just had a graphic of fibers to show what asbestos looks like under a microscope. I feel confident that with a short period of time and a graphic designer, we could have come up with a factually correct and simple asbestos graphic. One may very well already exist. This reply led to a bit of a discussion between my friend and I that was partially about science communication. In short he said that because my reply was so long explaining the problems with the graphic, that he stood by his opinion that the graphic was fine. I acknowledge that my reply was long, but I was not wrong on any points. Also the NBC graphic was just plain bad. A smokestack does not in any way represent asbestos. Worse than that it provides incorrect information to an uninformed viewer who might think that a smokestack is in fact where asbestos exposure comes from.

I very much respect the points my friend made, and he did state something that gets at the heart of a problem I often have, which is brevity. [How long is this blog post now?] I have a tendency to give long answers, which I understand can be annoying to management or anyone else, who wants a short answer. The reason I sometimes give long answers is that the answer is not simple, or I need the question defined better in order to give a simple answer. I just can’t bear the idea to give an incorrect answer. I can’t bear to give a short answer to management then have someone come back and say well what about “this”, and management to come back at me and say well what about “this.” I work in complicated subjects. Very often the problems, the solutions, the questions, and the answers are all complicated. The problem with the media sometimes is they try to make a complicated subject simple and sometimes fail miserably. Sometimes they just have no clue what they are talking about and seem to refuse to want expert advice. I respect journalists who can take complicated science subjects and explain them simply. There is a difference between explaining something simply and accurately and explaining something simply and wrong. Asbestos coming out of a smokestack is simple. It is also wrong.

Being #DistractinglySexy

So here is the summary that you have probably have already heard, Tim Hunt, a Nobel laureate scientist made some very sexist remarks to of all people, a group of female scientists and engineers. He stated men and women shouldn’t work together in the same lab because when they do, you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and they cry when you criticize them. I think the man thinks a bit too highly of himself that any women he works with would fall in love with him.

The reaction mocking him, especially on Twitter, has kept my faith in humanity. Women have been tweeting photos of themselves working in the field and lab. Showing how distractingly sexy they are. I tweeted two photos of myself from HAZWOPER training, once in Level A PPE and one in Level B PPE.

Those tweets have proved quite popular with the Level A photo thus far getting over 1100 retweets, and the Level B getting over 360 retweets. The tweets have been featured in articles in Buzzfeed, Washington Post, Salon, and Huffington Post UK. The whole thing has been rather surreal honestly. I have been contacted my media outlets to comment. I haven’t, partially because of timing and such.

I don’t even have any photos of me really working in the lab or field that would demonstrate how real work is the complete opposite of distractingly sexy. Well, I guess everyone find different things sexy, but get real. In the first part of my career I worked as a consultant. Typical field work included environmental site assessments where I was directing drillers to get soil and groundwater samples. Gloves, steel-toed boots, jeans, and a t-shirt that was likely going to get dirt on it were my “sexy” look. Then there was the time I was helping to sample a malfunctioning aeration chamber at a wastewater treatment plant in 95°F heat. [The aeration chamber is generally the start of secondary treatment, and thus there should be little to no smell. As this was malfunctioning, try to imagine the smell of raw sewage cooking in the heat.] If you find that situation sexy, well, I don’t think I want to meet you. Then there was the time I was checking on a pilot water treatment plant. Mainly it was a whole lot of sitting around, taking notes, checking valves, and taking some samples by myself. Normally field work involves a lot of sweating really. However, there was one time I was working in the field, again getting soil samples, in New Jersey in the dead of winter. There was no sweating or falling in love. There was just me freezing my butt off and making sure the security guards were in sight. That was a fun job; it was the only time I’ve ever been in a location where safety from crime was an actual issue. Normally the safety issues are the more mundane moving parts, heat, sun, fire ants, and then the one rattlesnake. God bless Texas.

When I was a Ph.D. student, we did our field work at auto body shops measuring the exposure the painters received to a chemical in the clear coat. Basically the shops were loud and smelly with really fun chemicals, and we sat around all day collecting personal air samples, tape strips from their skin after painting, all the urine we could get, and blood at the end of the day. In the hot months, there was sweating. In the cold months, there was shivering. At what point would we be distracting each other with our sexiness? Would the latex gloves and respirators, be the cause? No doubt the painters were falling in love with me because I kept trying to get them to drink more water and begging them for more urine. After the field work was done, I spent the better part of two years or possibly more in the lab analyzing all the urine samples. I analyzed over 400 urine samples, and the analysis was a three day procedure. The first part of the analysis involved adding concentrated sulfuric acid to the urine and then heating it for four hours to 100°C. Yes, nothing says distractingly sexy like urine cooked with acid. Luckily, the lab has hoods and other ventilation methods. Oh, and I shouldn’t leave out the part of asking my lab mates for their urine at times because I used that as unexposed urine from which to make my standards. How I did not fall in love with them while they handed me cups of their own urine, is anyone’s guess.

Now, I mainly work in an office. I get into the field every once in a great while. The photos I tweeted are from training, and I have never actually worn that level of PPE for real work. However a couple of weeks ago, I got into the field, and got to help sample fish, then watch a biologist sample them. I did not in fact fall in love with the biologist when he was filleting the fish.

It’s Not Melting, It’s Dissolving

Time for another post where I get on my science grammar soapbox. Have you ever seen the movie The Wizard of Oz? Everyone has seen that movie, right? Recall the scene where Dorothy throws a bucket of water on the Witch, and the Witch dissolves into a puddle while screaming “I’m melting, I’m melting”? First, don’t ever watch that movie with me. Why? Because every time I see that scene, I scream “you’re not melting, you’re dissolving, get it right.” Ok, it is a movie, a movie that takes place where monkeys fly, there are witches, lions walk and talk like humans, and scarecrows come to life. No, I shouldn’t be looking for realistic science in it. However it drives me crazy that they can’t even get the simple difference between dissolution and melting correct.

In the exact same incorrect way, there is a saying that some people say when their children, dog, whatever, is hesitate to go outside in the rain. “You are not made of sugar, you won’t melt.” There are actually several things wrong with that statement. Sugar, as in table sugar, which is specifically sucrose (as opposed to all the other sugars that exist), does not actual melt at all. At 186°C (367°F), it decomposes to caramel. So even if that saying meant decomposes, if the temperature outside is high enough for sugar to decompose, you have much bigger problems then possibly getting wet. You would die of heat. However, if you were made of sugar, and you went out into the rain, you would not have to worry about melting, you would have to worry about dissolving.

Melting is a physical process where solid turns into a liquid due to heat applied to it. Stick ice into a glass at room temperature. Wait a while. You now have water in the glass. The ice melted into water. But you didn’t apply heat, you might argue. The melting point of ice, the temperature at which solid water, i.e. ice, becomes liquid water is 0°C (32°F). So by simply having ice at room temperature (around 22 °C (72 °F)), heat has been applied to it. The temperature is higher than what the ice needs to stay a solid. Similarly put solid chocolate in a pot and heat slowly to 30°C (86°F). You have liquid chocolate. It has melted. Now don’t waste that chocolate, go eat it with strawberries or cake. [Excuse me for a moment. . .]

Now take that glass of water you made by melting ice at room temperature, and pour just a little salt into it. The salt has dissolved into the water. The water, which is the solvent, has dissolved the salt, the solute, into a solution. When Dorothy throws water on the Witch, the Witch is the solute, the water is the solvent again, and now you have a witch solution in water. Based on the film, witch dissolves quite readily. [It would not matter if she threw boiling water on the Witch, it would still be dissolution because the water is mixing with the witch. The water was quite clearly not boiling anyway.] Other liquids can act as solvents to dissolve solutes, but water is the most common in everyday life. Wiping acetone on nails painted with nail polish removes the polish because acetone, a solvent, dissolves the hardened nail polish, the solute, into a solution. [It is a temporary solution in the sense that acetone readily evaporates, but it forms a solution with the polish long enough to transfer the polish to a cotton ball. The acetone then evaporates leaving behind the polish on the cotton.] An important distinction between melting and dissolving is that melting only involves one substance, water, chocolate, wax, etc. Dissolution involves two substances, water and salt, water and sugar, acetone and nail polish, etc. Dissolution can also involve applied heat, but it isn’t required. There is a much longer explanation for that, and it relates to the solute and solvent and numerous other factors.

To review, melting is one substance changing from a solid to a liquid, and one, and only substance is involved. It is a phase change that must involve a temperature (or pressure) change. Dissolution is one substance becoming part of a solution with a liquid, and two substances are involved. It is two substances becoming one, and temperature change is not necessary for it to happen.

I honestly don’t understand why some people don’t understand the difference. However ignorance of this appears to be wide spread. Evidently the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction does not know the difference. That Inspector General recently released a report concerning a half-million-dollar U.S.-built police training center in Afghanistan that was so badly constructed that it is literally “melting.” Nope, it is not. It is literally dissolving. If the center had been made of wax, then maybe it might melt. Based on the wording in this article and the accompanying photos, the building is quite clearly dissolving. That is still incredibly appalling construction. As an engineer, I would really like to see the design plans. However, if the Inspector General does not even know the difference between melting and dissolving, then perhaps the Inspector General would do well to have someone on staff who does. It would make for better and more accurate reports.

WMATA L’Enfant Plaza Fire

Today there was a fire in a WMATA subway tunnel near L’Enfant. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is now investigating, and I have confidence that they will do a thorough investigation. I have some questions about actions taken right after the smoke was reported that no one, or at least no one in the media I have seen, has asked. The station filled with smoke, and they evacuated it. WMATA stopped running green and yellow trains through L’Enfant. However they kept running blue, orange, and silver trains through, but these trains did not stop at the station, as they normally would. For those not familiar with L’Enfant Plaza Metro Station, orange, blue, and silver lines share the same track on the lower level, and yellow and green share the same track on the upper level. My question is, were they sure it was safe to keep sending the orange, blue, and silver trains through? I am not asking from the standpoint of the fire, because presumably, they traced the location of the smoke enough to know it was not in the lower tunnel. By safe, I mean because of the potential inhalation of smoke in the lower level tunnels. If the station filled with enough smoke that it needed to be evacuated, then how were they sure that smoke would not enter the trains running through it?

A couple of quick points:

  • Just because air smells bad doesn’t necessarily mean it is toxic or hazardous, but conversely, just because air smells fine doesn’t mean it is safe.
  • Particulate matter in air and/or smoke is in general not something you really want to breath, but there are different levels of toxicity associated with it. That is, some particulate matter is not more than just an irritant. However, the effect particulate matter has on a person is also affected by that person’s health. People with respiratory issues are more susceptible to any effects.
  • Exposure to hazardous or toxic materials can cause effects on different time scales. People who were trapped on the WMATA train in the tunnel, would have acute (short-term) effects from breathing the smoke, such as coughing and having trouble breathing. However, they were probably also exposed to chemicals whose effect is not immediate, such as carcinogens.

The questions I have, that I have not heard anyone ask include:

  • What is the air exchange rate between the subway trains and the surrounding air? Can the ventilation be turned off manually, so that there was no air exchange between the train and the surrounding air while the trains were near L’Enfant?
  • Were there any measurements taken of the air in L’Enfant, particularly on the lower level where the orange, blue, and silver trains were still running through? If so, what were the measurements of? Just measuring particulate matter will not indicate almost nothing about organic compounds or other chemicals in the air.
  • How far did the smoke spread?
  • Assuming air measurements were taken, did anyone calculate the amount of contaminants that people in the trains would be exposed to while running through the station based on time and air exchange rate?

My educated guess is that no air measurements were taken. There are probably some sensors in place to measure smoke, but depending on how that measurement is taken, it will tell you information about the particulate matter and that is it. I seriously doubt there was initially any sensors that measured organic compounds or any other type of compounds in the air. I have my doubts that any portable system was put in place during the response. The priority would have been evacuating people (as it should have been). It is possible that WMATA had some qualitative data that there was not much smoke on the lower level. That is, someone may have looked at a video screen and decided the air didn’t look bad. However, unless they had actual quantitative data of what was in the air, then visual assessment of air is a really bad way to make assessments on the quality of the air.

The early statements by WMATA and all other sources, like the fire departments involved, was that they did not know the source of the fire, location or cause. Thus they could not have possibly known what was burning and what would be in the air. For example, if wood is burning, you can expect certain chemicals in the air. If rubber is burning, you can expect different chemicals in the air. WMATA probably decided that the air on the lower level didn’t look that bad, and the trains would go through the station quickly enough that very little exposure would occur. They very well may be right, but with no data and no statements about any calculations, they have no way to prove that. Also, did they inform their passengers of this? If I was on a train, and I knew that the train was going to go through, but not stop, at a station that was filling with smoke, I would get off the train. I don’t feel the need to expose myself unnecessarily to hazardous substances, even if in small amounts. I do not like standing near people who are smoking. The second hand smoke may only minimally increase my risk of disease, but I still don’t see the need for that tiny increase. Thus, was WMATA considering passengers’ exposures at all? Furthermore, did they communicate the possibility of exposure to their passengers on the orange/blue/silver lines to allow their passengers to make their own educated decision about staying on the train? My guess is the answer to both those questions is no, and that is another thing to which WMATA should be made to respond.

Bergen Sign Shop

Collection of old signs on the shop's wall

Collection of old signs on the shop’s wall

I recently had a chance to tour New York City’s MTA’s Bergen Sign Shop. The Bergen Sign Shop is where all the signs for MTA’s subways are made and possibly a few other signs. The wonderful employees came in on a Saturday so that they could take two tour groups, from the New York Transit Museum, through the shop and show us how they make the signs. It was really neat to see and also interesting to hear how things have changed from the way things used to be made. Computers are now used for much of the process where as like many things, they used to have to be done by hand. Some of the signs they make are made like many of us make signs with regular ink jet printers, although they have massive printers with the biggest ink cartridges I have ever seen.

Safety first signs being printed in bulk. As an engineer, I particularly enjoyed seeing this.

Safety first signs being printed in bulk. As an engineer, I particularly enjoyed seeing this.

All the “buttons”, the colored circles with the subway line letter or number, are printed on rolls of colored vinyl with adhesive backing. The line’s letter or number is then printed in black or white. A machine also cuts the circle into the vinyl, so employees just have to remove the excess from around the circles.

Rolls of vinyl in various colors ready for the printer. C line buttons being printed.

Rolls of vinyl in various colors ready for the printer. C line buttons being printed.

Drawer full of ready to go buttons. The buttons are made in 7 standard sizes.

Drawer full of ready to go buttons. The buttons are made in 7 standard sizes.

They have another machine that just does detailed cutting of vinyl rolls. Once the vinyl has been cut, the excess is removed, and letters, numbers, and symbols are left in place. The letters are already spaced properly like they would be from a printer and are then transferred as a unit by an employee to a sign.

Roll of vinyl leaving the cutter.

Roll of vinyl leaving the cutter.

The below, very short video is a series of photographs of an employee showing how he transfers the cut letters to a sign. The method he uses keeps all the letters spaced properly as they were spaced by the computer. The letters are transferred from the vinyl roll to transfer paper then to the sign.

Once the letters, buttons, etc. are on the sign, the sign is then laminated. It is later sent to the tin shop to be applied to a metal frame.

Sign being laminated

Sign being laminated

There is another machine that engraves signs and also applies to plastic beads to make braille signs.

Engraving machine

Engraving machine

Temporary location sign with Braille.

Temporary location sign with Braille.

In a separate room, they make frosted glass signs by applying a template and coating the glass with uv-activated substance. Ultraviolet light is then applied, and anything not covered by the template will be frosted.

Glass placed into machine where a vacuum will be applied and then it will be treated under ultraviolet light

Glass placed into machine where a vacuum will be applied and then it will be treated under ultraviolet light

Sign about to be treated under ultraviolet light

Sign about to be treated under ultraviolet light

Sign being treated under ultraviolet light

Sign being treated under ultraviolet light

Glass after being treated with uv light

Glass after being treated with uv light

In the back, they had the finished signs stacked up ready to be installed. They also had a supply of generic signs used in various places.

Spare generic signs stacked in storage

Spare generic signs stacked in storage

Finished signs ready to be installed

Finished signs ready to be installed

It was a really fun tour, and it was really neat to learn how the signs are made. Thanks to the New Your Transmit Museum and MTA employees for allowing us to take this tour and showing us how they do everything!

Twitter, Scientists, and Arbitrary Lists

Fairly often some website produces a list of people you should follow on Twitter. Yesterday it was Science with their The top 50 science stars of Twitter. This list, like so many before, is arbitrary, lacks diversity, and is based on, in my opinion, stupid metrics. Many people on Twitter have noted that this list is overwhelmingly white and male. They based the star status on follower count and a completely ridiculous metric called the Kardashian Index,” or K-index, which is about as ridiculous as the people for which it is named. The list also lacks diversity from a field of study standpoint. Also, some people have noted that other “star” Twitter scientists were left off, which according to the article’s author was because they restricted the list to Ph.D.s. I think that is a stupid restriction, and I am a Ph.D. Furthermore, someone noted that one of the accounts on the list is a bot, and another one are simply tweets by the person’s PR person. 

I follow a few people on the list, so obviously I think some of them worth following. However, if you are trying to be more active on Twitter and interact with people, most (but not all) of these people are not the people to follow. The more followers you have, the more difficult it is to interact with them, assuming you are even trying. Don’t get me wrong, some of the people on this and other lists do tweet great information. However, if your goal on Twitter is to network, make friends, learn things, and sometimes get help or advice, then “stars” are not to the people to follow. I have made friends on Twitter, including friends I have later met in person. I have also networked and gotten great advice on work and personal projects. I see tweets on an almost daily basis of scientists helping each other out via tweets. Someone will tweet out asking for advice on some lab protocol or best manner to collect a certain type of sample, and others will reply with advice. Many people, including myself, tweet out a photo of something we are trying to identify. If I know people who know things in that field, I’ll tag them, and via crowdsourcing, we can normally identify the life form or object. That sort of fun learning experience is through interactions with us non Twitter stars.

If you want to use Twitter for things like that, you need to seek out people in your field or fields you are interested in, or just people who tweet out interesting things. Ignore the number of followers they have, and look at what they tweet. The less followers they have, the more likely they will follow you and interact with you. There are wonderful people with tons of followers that are worth following on Twitter, and some of them do a good job of interacting, and there are some worth following even if they don’t interact. I just mean that you can get a lot more out of Twitter if you interact with people. That leads to the obvious question, how do you find these people? Look for Twitter lists such Women Tweet Science Too which was created to in reaction to the lack of women on the above mentioned Nature list. Many people have already created tons of great public lists like this for people in various fields. Follow people on these, and then once you find people you really like on Twitter, see who they follow and with whom they interact.

Furthermore, if you want my personal opinion on how to get people to follow you, which you can take or leave, then see below.

1. Tweet. That may seem obvious, but it you don’t tweet, people are not going to follow you. Tweet links to articles you find interesting. Tweet things you find funny. Tweet about what you are working on, even if you think it is uninteresting or no one will understand what you are doing. Your fellow nerds and geeks will understand and be interested. Even if no one if following you, you have to get started somehow.

2. Have a avatar photo. Having one that represents something about you, even if it is not a photo of you. I rarely follow Twitter eggs.

3. Have a Twitter bio. When someone follows me, I look at their bio. Do they work in a field interesting to me? Do they say something funny? Do they have interests similar to me?

4. Interact with people. Even if a person doesn’t follow you, if they ask a question you can help with, reply to them. Give your input.

Decipher This Warning Sign

I saw this warning sign today by creek near my office. I know what the sign is trying to warn people against, but the drawings struck me as a little weird. I tweeted the photo out with my interpretation of two of the drawings, and then got some more hilarious interpretations. I have listed them below. Submit a comment with your interpretation if you can do better.

Water warning sign

Water warning sign

1. Person standing above water drinking from glass:

Me: Humans, no standing on top of water.

@Ilovebraaains: No standing on top of bacon

@marginfades: and yet, no admonition for walking on water.

2. Person leaning over water with huge water droplets.

@MGhydro: No crying in the water.

@MGhydro: No crying over bacon! Unless they’re tears of joy!

@fMRI_guy: Caution: Windy. While you are washing your face, your towel may just fly away & you’ll be naked

3. Person swimming

@Swansontea: No punching water while in the prone position

4. Person washing car

@MGhydro: No throwing dog poop over cars.

@fMRI_guy: Don’t use your car as a barrier in a snowball fight. That’s just rude.

5. Dog running above water

Me: Dogs, no swimming on top of the water

6. Hand above water with bottle and banana peel (why is it always a banana peel?)

@MGhydro: No picking up trash from the water.

@fMRI_guy: Also, don’t pick up bottle messages.

Me: No sending messages in bottles

@lockwooddewitt: Garbage and bacon: Gotta keep’em separated