Vol. 1 / No. 4 — Selfies, Space News, and Things That Aren’t Free

Narcissism is the Mot du Jour

“Using the Oxford Dictionaries language research programme, which collects around 150m words of current English in use each month, we can see a phenomenal upward trend in the use of selfie in 2013, and this helped to cement its selection.”

Oxford Dictionaries announced that they had decided up on “selfie” as the word of the year, thanks largely to its massive increase in usage over the past year. For every time it was used last year, it was used 170 times this one. Let’s just hope it doesn’t keep increasing at that rate, or next year it’ll win the most overused word.

What’s causing the growth of selfies? Probably the increasing ubiquity of cameras. As Randall Munroe has noted, we carry better and better cameras with us everywhere we go these days. But “selfie” isn’t the only linguistic change taking place in this new technological world. As the Atlantic reports, the English language has a new preposition. Why? Because the Internet.

And if the word of the year announcement is leaving you upset, don’t worry — you’ve probably never used (or even heard of) the other winners Oxford Dictionaries selected from previous years: omnishambles (2012), squeezed middle (2011),  big society (2010), simples (2009).

Mr. Glaisher, do try and take some more readings.

“He leans across his laboratory desk for a bottle of brandy, and he can’t hold it the grip has gone from his arm. And then he slumps back unconscious in the balloon. Henry Coxwell, the pilot, who’s watching all this happen, thinks we must get down now. They’re still rising at a thousand feet a minute, this is recorded, and Coxwell reaches for the hydrogen release valve line, and as with balloons it’s been turning slowly and the line has got tangled in the hoop above. He himself, his sight is going, his muscular strength is going, but amazingly — these were Victorian guys remember — he clambers up into the hoop, he pulls the line down into the basket — he still can’t hold it to release it so he puts it in his mouth and he holds it with his teeth and he pulls it — and he gets the gas release, and gradually Glaisher comes back to consciousness… Coxwell shakes Glaisher by the shoulder and what — can you imagine what a modern scientist might say — but in this case Coxwell said, “Mr. Glaisher, do try and take some more instrument readings — do try.” … and Glashier does, and the journal starts again.”

Mostly gone are the days of “citizen scientists as adventurers,” but we can still relive the bravado (and the lunacy) of the early days of balloon flight through Richard Holmes’ new book on the subject, Falling Upwards. Last week Science Friday interviewed him about it: it’s worth a listen.

Amazon Link: Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air


Autism and Empathy

By jumping up and down, it’s as if I’m shaking loose the ropes that are tying up my body. When I jump, I feel lighter, and I think the reason my body is drawn skyward is that the motion makes me want to change into a bird and fly off to some faraway place.”

Naoki Higashida is a Japanese boy on the autism spectrum, whose particular brand of autism allows him a method of communication denied to so many: he can express himself in text. In his book “The Reason I Jump,” recently translated for English audiences by bestselling author David Mitchell, he relates just what it’s like.

As rates of diagnosed autism rise, and the terminology is debated, one thing is becoming clearer: while it was previously thought that people on the autism spectrum were lacking in empathy, instead it appears that the opposite is true. “I can walk into a room and feel what everyone is feeling,” Kamila Markram says. “The problem is that it all comes in faster than I can process it. There are those who say autistic people don’t feel enough. We’re saying exactly the opposite: They feel too much.”

And in case you didn’t have enough feelings this week, here’s a moving and anonymous letter published in the Guardian this week: A letter to my husband, who has ASD.

Amazon link: The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism


Space News (Public and Private)

This week in spaceflight, NASA’s MAVEN probe headed to Mars to study what’s left of its atmosphere, the ESA’s Swarm mission launched to map the Earth’s magnetic field, and the International Space Station’s JEM Small Satellite Orbital Deployer (read: mini-satellite cannon) fired some cubesats into orbit  as part of NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI).

In the private sector, Elon Musk’s SpaceX reached a new safety milestone in preparation for 2014 abort tests, but it looks like the Inspiration Mars mission won’t be using a Dragon capsule, despite Musk’s personal ambitions for the red planet. And Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic will now be taking payments in Bitcoin, for you who love the cryptocurrencies.

The Science of “Cubicle Hell”

In other news, as someone whose computer was stolen from his cubicle two weeks ago, I’m inclined to agree with the Guardian’s Oliver Burkeman, when he says “Open-plan offices were devised by Satan in the deepest caverns of hell.And he has science to back him up:

“Based on the occupant survey database from Center for the Built Environment (CBE), empirical analyses indicated that occupants assessed Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ) issues in different ways depending on the spatial configuration (classified by the degree of enclosure) of their workspace. Enclosed private offices clearly outperformed open-plan layouts in most aspects of IEQ, particularly in acoustics, privacy and the proxemics issues. Benefits of enhanced ‘ease of interaction’ were smaller than the penalties of increased noise level and decreased privacy resulting from open-plan office configuration.”

If you have access to December’s Journal of Environmental Psychology you can check out the study by Jungsoo Kim and Richard de Dear.

You Autocomplete Me

“While the autocomplete restrictions may imply that Google is masking just how bad things are, there are also causes for hope. The top search results for “women shouldn’t have rights,” if you type it in completely, are now dominated by pagesabout the ad campaign. The sheer volatility and self-modifying nature of the Web makes it difficult to pin down prevailing notions for any great length of time.”

We’ve all seen the horrors of typing in “women shouldn’t” into the Google search bar and finding it competed with undesirable responses: “go to college,” “drive,” “preach.” But in this Slate article, David Auerbach explains that things are not as bad as they seem: on the one hand, the autocompletions don’t always reflect agreement with the statement, and on the other hand, Google is working to fix them. More over at Slate.

Meanwhile if you’ve had your ear to the ground, you’ve probably heard about Google’s latest project: hummingbird. Here’s what it actually is, and why you won’t be able to help using it (hint: it’s not a mini spy drone).

Oh, and Google’s computers have started to do things Google’s engineers are having trouble following. I, for one, welcome our Google overlords.

Free Speech Isn’t So Free (if you’re protesting oil)

“If an individual does not like a proposed drilling project and wanted to oppose it, he or she would have to pay a $5,000 fee to file an official protest.”

DailyKos this week reports on a bill intended to make it easier for oil companies to drill on public lands by, among other things, imposing a fee of $5000 for protesting. If it passes, does that mean we can impose a fee to protest soldiers’ funerals? (I’d say $1,000,000 would be a reasonable amount).

And Another Thing That Isn’t Free

“But it does come off as an incredibly nosy piece of surveillance equipment – sometimes you wonder if all this integration is just so that metrics can be taken on how long you can stand watching someone murder a hit song on X Factor before you boot up Call of Duty to shoot virtual people in the neck.”

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve noticed that the next generation of Sony and Microsoft gaming-consoles-slash-swiss-army-knives have hit the shelves. Here are a some of the more entertaining reviews, along with my favourite, You Know What? I’m Getting a WiiU.

Now we just need to sit back and wait for Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw to play all three.

This Week in Equality

Finally, this week Hawaii and Illinois became the 15th and 16th states in the union to legalize same-sex marriages, but I wouldn’t hold your breath for a complete set any time soon. Mississippi didn’t officially finish abolishing slavery until February.

In other news from the “liberal” media, the governor of the great state of Oklahoma has decided that if it’s a choice between giving benefits to the spouses of gay service-members or giving benefits to nobody, she’s just going to take her toys and go home.

And rounding out the week: if you haven’t seen it yet, yes, it’s an ad. But also: it’s amazing. You’re going to want to watch this one.