Overheard Around Town

Like many folks, I greatly enjoy people-watching, which, as it turns out, has it’s own Wikipedia entry. (Of course.) And part of people-watching is paying attention to the small snippets of conversation that flow through the air. It’s especially interesting to me how different the conversation in the Boston area is from D.C. For example…

In D.C., it’s common to hear conversations about politics and government. Hardly surprising, I know. Still, words and phrases like “markup” and “committee hearing” and “legislative priorities” are as common in the city’s restaurants as “check please” and “dessert menu.”

Now let me be clear, I’m not talking about eavesdropping on private conversations — only things I hear as I go about my daily business.

In Boston, I hear little about the legislative process or lobbying opportunities. Instead, the words and phrases that have stuck out to me tend to revolve around science and engineering, as you might expect. Here are a few examples:

“The mouse trials were promising…”

In a town where every other building is filled with bio-engineering labs, it’s hardly surprising to hear two guys talking about their latest tests, but it was still amusing to hear this snippet as I walked to lunch one day. Sometimes I wonder if the mice talk with each other about the humans in their lives. “Hey Mike, you ever notice how the short human always smells like cheese?” Anyway, I gathered the trials were looking up and then something went wrong. Science strikes again.

“I don’t mean to sound techno skeptic, but…”

Sitting in a Harvard class on computer-human interfaces, one fresh-faced undergrad challenged the professor on the feasibility of gesture-based interfaces. The question wasn’t necessarily bad, but the preface wasn’t exactly endearing.

“The chawps are this thick and cuv-ehd in a brawhn sawce.”

Ok, nothing to do with science. But the accent was just too good not to notice. As a Cambridge cop stood watch over a small construction crew replacing a sewer line, he regaled his peers with tales of his favorite restaurant in the deepest of Boston accents. “My wife is disgusted by it,” he added, “but I go twice a week and usually get two racks.” Laughing, he added, “expensive, but worth it.” I wonder if he gets a discount. And I wonder if that discount is above board.

“With this one, it’s very easy to burn the building down.”

During the introduction to MIT’s “How to Build (Almost) Anything Class,” the professor spoke about some of the equipment students would be using. Explaining that safety courses were mandatory, he also sought to reassure students that most of the equipment wasn’t too dangerous. Except for the laser cutter. Misuse of that tool could summon the fire department and a hundred million dollar bill.

“In this cartoon…”

I think I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s worth saying again. All the scientists around here refer to illustrations or animations as cartoons. Drives. Me. Crazy! Unless Mel Blanc is voicing a character in the animation, it is almost certainly not a cartoon.

“Greek yogurt is basically paste.”

Again, not science per se. I was in a grocery store when I heard one young man say this to his friend. I so wanted to shout “Amen, brother!” but resisted. He is right, though. Totally right. Just want to put that out there.

“My knowledge of paleomagnetism in meteorites is shaky.”

An undergrad in my exoplanets class made this embarrassing admission one day. Maybe I should have made her feel better by admitted that I also have a shaky grasp of paleomagnetism in meteorites. Alas, I’m just not that nice a guy.

“Cell chassis”

A synthetic biology professor was talking about how students in the lab would culture cells from different organisms when the phrase “cell chassis” came up. It seemed so coldly clinical — that each of us is just a cell chassis — that I will be disappointed if I don’t find it used in some dystopian science fiction book or movie soon.

I’m sure there are other fun phrases I’ve missed or forgotten, but these were a few that stuck in my ears over the past few months.

Oh, and as for the photo on this entry? It’s a self-driving tricycle. No relation to this post. Just fucking cool.

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