Category Archives: Communication

iPhone tip: Use a Silent Ringtone to Screen Calls in Your Sleep

Have you ever wished your iPhone would ring only when certain people call? Here’s how to do it:

  1. Download the “Silence” ringtone here: silence.m4r
  2. Copy this file into the Ringtones section of your iTunes. (Click to enlarge.)

  3. Sync your iPhone with iTunes to load the ringtone.
  4. On your iPhone, change your ringtone to “Silence” (under Settings -> Sounds -> Ringtone). You’ll no longer hear your phone calls.

  5. For each person whose calls you still want to hear, change his or her Custom Ringtone to something audible: Click the name in your contact list, choose Ringtone, then choose something besides Default

    3_iphone_important_caller 4_iphone_audible_ringtone

Now you can screen calls in your sleep. Because Sunday afternoons are for napping.

UPDATE (Apr 14, 2011): I haven’t used it, but appears to be an interesting service for identifying phone numbers belonging to telemarketers and blocking them.

The Language That’s Magic

One of my pet peeves is a request in the form of an incomplete “if” statement, e.g. “If you could get me that report by 2:00 PM.” Maybe it’s just me, but the programmer in me thinks that “if” clauses are always followed by “then” statements.

This made Steven Pinker’s talk on language and thought very interesting to me. Why do we speak like this?

Language as a social interaction has to satisfy two conditions: You have to convey the actual content. You want to express the bribe, the command, the promise, the solicitation, and so on. But you also have to negotiate and maintain the kind of relationship you have with the other person. The solution, I think, is that we use language at two levels: The literal form signals the safest relationship for the listener, whereas the implicated content–the reading between the lines that we count on the listener to perform–allows the listener to derive the interpretation which is most relevant in context….

The simplest example of this is in the polite request. If you express your request as a conditional–“if you could open the window, that would be great”–even though the content is an imperative, the fact that you’re not using the imperative voice means that you’re not acting as if you’re in a relationship of dominance where you could presuppose the compliance of the other person. (Steven Pinker, The Stuff of Thought, 14:06-15:10.)

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, Truman Madsen has a similar thought on the language husbands and wives use with each other:

Now, a woman who is a woman delights in being thought a woman. She is “romance conscious,” and in the deeper sense love-anxious most of the time. The language she understands includes a lot of little (and in the opinion of many husbands, disgustingly trivial) things…the tender touch, the kiss good-by, the kiss hello. A morning of robust yard work is not as eloquent to her as the quiet smoothing of little hurdles, the gallantry of an open door, helping her with a chair or a coat and these mean a hundred times more to her feelings of response than the salary you bring home. Having an eye for the new dress or even the old one, saying the word, however inept or inadequate, about this salad or that gravy, remembering and repeating utterly trivial sentiments and events which no grownup man can remember unless he wants to, no woman can forget even if she tries.

Universally, woman is made rich by the man who knows that these touches mean everything. This language speaks to her being. She will respond to it and give.

Now, turn to the man. A man who is a man delights in being thought a man. He is “authority conscious.” The language he understands includes a lot of little things, the language of her listening even to his nonsense, the language of biting her tongue instead of lashing with it when his decisions are finally made, the uninterrupted phone call, the restraining of curiosity, the controlling of the disposition to inquisition. (A wife who insists on knowing nothing will eventually have everything, but the wife who insists on knowing everything will eventually have nothing.) The man understands the language of flexibility in a wife who respects his final decisions (even the decision of not to decide), or even so trivial a matter as when we leave the party. The man comprehends the exhilaration of a woman who, when his delays bring him home late, offers a brighter welcome instead of a dismal doghouse.

Universally, a man is responsive to these little matters which mean everything to him. He will rise to them and give in kind.

It is easy to say that we should prize other languages. If a man brings home the bacon and doesn’t complain at the wife’s food, and shows sympathy for her lot, then why all this emphasis on the romantic sizzle? “If I don’t like your cooking, I’ll say so; otherwise you are doing fine,” said one. On the other hand, if the wife works day and night to tend his kids, to keep his home, and put up with him, then why all the childish emphasis on the authority sizzle? Does a woman have to pander to this desire of a man to have the last word?

Well, it may be strange, as some cynics say (a weird kind of insecurity which mature people ignore), it may even seem ridiculous. But the cost is so little and the results so vast that it is tragic to work against the grain. You can’t speak without speaking a language. And this language is magic. Why not master it and speak it? (Truman Madsen, Four Essays on Love, pp. 56-58.)

Some Collective Intelligence Can’t Be Reduced to Thumbs-Ups and Star Ratings

In a podcast this week, I learned about Sermo, a private social network where doctors can share knowledge with each other. Seems like a good idea — let doctors submit and “rate” treatments for various diseases, Web 2.0-style*, like Digg or YouTube. (This is for fellow doctors only, not like WebMD.)

I suggested Sermo to my father (an ophthalmologist), but he was skeptical. He said each patient is different and many situations are unique. Sometimes patient comfort or reducing risk are more important than treating the disease. Sometimes “subjective” elements like fear or hearsay affect which treatments a patient will accept. How can these complexities be reduced to a simple, Web 2.0 “vote”?

Overview of Sermo

Overview of Sermo

That’s not to say doctors aren’t taking advantage of the Internet. My father subscribes to the American Glaucoma Society’s emailing list and has found it helpful. He said glaucoma specialists from around the world share stories and experiences. When a doctor tells a story he can share more detail, and the listening doctors can interpret and apply the story to their own patients. The collective intelligence in these stories can’t be reduced to a simple thumbs up/thumbs down vote or a star rating. (That’s not to say that this is Sermo’s model — I don’t know — or that my father won’t still try it.)

The book Made to Stick explains the importance of story-telling for transmitting information. A Xerox repairmen told his co-workers, over a game of cribbage and in precise detail, how he and his partner spent 4 hours repairing a photocopier that gave them a misleading “E053” error message. Here’s why:

Why do people talk shop? Part of the reason is simply Humanity 101–we want to talk to other people about the things that we have in common. Xerox repairmen work with photocopiers, so they talk about them. But that’s not the only factor at play here. For example, the storyteller above could have shared the general arc of the story without the details. “I had a real bear of a problem today–it took me four hours to get to the bottom of it. I’m glad that one’s over.” Or he could have leapt straight to the punch line: “After hours of hassle, I traced the problem back to a measly burned-out dicorotron. How was your morning?”

Instead, he tells a story that’s much more interesting to his lunch partners. It has built-in drama–a misleading code leads two men on a wild goose chase until they uncover, through lots of work and thought, that the problem is simpler than they initially thought. Why is this story format more interesting? Because it allows his lunch partners to play along. He’s giving them enough information so that they can mentally test out how they would have handled the situation. The people in the room who weren’t aware of the misleading E053 code have now had their “E053 schema” fixed. Before, there was only one way to respond to an E053 code. Now, repairmen know how to be aware of the “misleading E053” scenario.

In other words, this story is part entertainment and part instruction. Shop talk conveys important clues about how to respond to the world. It teaches nurses not to have blind faith in heart monitors. It teaches copy repairmen to beware of the misleading E053 code. (Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath. pp. 207-208, my emphasis.)

* I’m using Web 2.0 in the classical sense, the way Tim O’Reilly defined it to mean the aggregation of collective intelligence, not the popular connotation of brightly colored websites with rounded corners.

How to Save Voicemail Forever on Your Mac

With a combo of free Mac applications, you can record and save voicemails from your mobile phone.

You’ll need to install the following Mac applications:

skype Skype. You’ll use Skype to make a call to your mobile phone and listen to your voicemail. Though the app is free, you’ll need to buy Skype Credit to make a “Skype Out” call to your mobile phone.


audacity Audacity. You’ll use this free application to record your phone call.


soundflowerbed Soundflower and Soundflowerbed. This free system extension will connect Skype to Audacity. It’s like a laundry chute for audio; you can direct audio from any application to another. It does this by adding a pseudo “device” to your list of audio devices in System Preferences.


  1. Open Audacity, then Audacity Preferences. In the Audio I/O section, change the Recording device to Core Audio: Soundflower (2ch). audacity_preferences
  2. Open Skype, then Skype Preferences. Under the Audio tab, change Audio Output to Soundflower (2ch).
  3. Open Soundflowerbed in your menu bar, then under Soundflower (2ch), select Built-in Output. Soundflowerbed allows you to monitor the audio passing through Soundflower, like having a window into the laundry shoot to watch clothes that fall past.
  4. Back in Audacity, click the Record button to begin recording.


  5. In Skype, make a call to your cell phone. When your greeting begins playing, press the sequence of keys that accesses your voicemail (probably the asterisk key followed by your password.) Listen to your voicemail as you normally would. Then hang up. skype_phonecall
  6. Switch back to Audacity and click the Stop button. You should see the zig-zaggy waveform of the message you just recorded.
  7. Click the Audacity cursor directly before your message. (You can find out where this is by using the Play and Stop buttons.) From the Edit menu, choose Select then Track Start to Cursor. Push the Delete key on your keyboard. This will remove extraneous audio before your message. audacity_before
  8. Click the Audacity cursor directly after your message. From the Edit menu, choose Select then Cursor to Track End. Push the Delete key. This will remove extraneous audio after your message. audacity_after
  9. Choose Export from the File menu and save your voicemail. You can email it to a friend or save it in iTunes. audacity_export

Saying No

I received a phone call that impressed me. It was like this:

“Richard, I’m afraid I can’t help with the project like we had planned. Some things have come up, and I no longer have the time. I just wanted to let you know. If I can help in the future, I’ll call you again.”

Flakiness is so common, but here is a guy who didn’t flake out. He communicated “no” just as clearly as he had communicated “yes”. I no longer had to wonder.

“No” isn’t mean or rude. If you can’t realistically commit, “no” is courteous.

“No” is a way of prioritizing. If you say “yes” to everything, you haven’t prioritized.

As someone who tends to say yes and overcommit, I’m impressed by this example of saying no.