When news travels too fast

Randy C. Hice

Sometimes my research for a Scientific Computing & Instrumentation column starts in one direction, then something occurs that spins it into another direction. In some cases, the catalyst is a historic event. It happened when I was on the road in Tennessee when 9/11 occurred, and it happened again a few weeks ago.


The force of the tsunami tumbled these autos more than 200 meters from the devastated beach.[1]

I started to write about instant messaging, and how it is affecting the workplace. I had intended to discuss how we here at the Laboratory Expertise Center have grown very fond of Yahoo Instant Messenger.

People have gotten fed up with spam, popups, file size limitations and delayed (or extinguished) e-mails. Legitimate messages get trapped by the very filters meant to make our online experience less of a waste of our time. Welcome, instant messengers, that are Porsches to electronic mail's wood-paneled station wagons. By targeting the IP address of the person you are sending the message to directly, the intermediate e-mail servers are circumvented and, scant seconds later, the message pops up on your (or their) screen. In addition, users can set their status as "Available," "Away from my desk," "Sick as a Dog," "General malaise," or whatever, so that one can instantly assess whether they are there or not.


Only palm trees could stop these autos from the crest of the tsunami.[1]

File transfer is a plus as well. With the same direct IP address access, files are spirited directly to the recipient (pending their approval), and size limitations are usually more generous than typical e-mail file quotas. Better yet, as most people within companies do, we have set our instant messenger to allow messages, or even contact at all, onlyfrom people on our user list, called a "white list" in the e-mail world.

But I wanted to put the connection to a test, and the results, while technically impressive, were at the same time horrific.

I started by exchanging e-mails with an old college swim team buddy, Brad Kenny. Now the president of an environmental solutions company in Asia, I figured he was the person that I knew best who was separated by the most miles and time zones. We established IM addresses for each other but, when I went to test the speed of message exchange, Brad's icon was dark, meaning he wasn't online.


The construction of makeshift coffins fails to keep pace with the mounting human toll. [1]

The icon on the Instant Messenger list stayed dark until a few days ago. You see, Brad lives in Phuket, Thailand. As we've been hearing every day in the news reports, an earthquake and terrifying tsunami have devastated Thailand, Indonesia and surrounding countries. The unsettling of the tectonic plates unleashed the force of 10,000 atomic bombs, and the shockwave traveled at 500 mph until it carried a wall of water in front of it to the shores of places unknown to most until then. Banda Aceh, Sumatra, Tamil Nadu and Phuket are now part of our lexicon, and will remain so.

What started as an experiment to test instant messaging across 10,000 miles became a terrifying exchange of disaster and suffering. The ability of instant messaging to quickly relay messages and pictures from the region painted a picture that was almost too immediate, and too graphic. Nonetheless, it is important to know that immediacy has many applications. In this case, each instantaneous sentence spirited to me by Yahoo Instant Messenger brought increasingly dire and desperate news.


Thai children with missing parents receiving their first meals in days.[1]

In addition to the real time portrait being painted, I was sent about 50 high-quality digital photos during this exchange. So, before we examine the actual dialogue, I will say that instant messaging works very well and will supplant e-mail for many of the aforementioned reasons. I also will say that I see a great many ways instant messaging can be used in emergencies, and in routine laboratory informatics as a means of triggering alerts and such in real time. Lastly, I will say that such immediacy provides no latency…no time to assimilate the information. You need to think and react fast, and, in many cases, viscerally. So, instant messaging may be an ointment, if not a cure, for the woes of electronic mail. But, be aware, the news that arrives in an instant can cause nightmares forever.

Khao Lak-Baan Nam Khen harbor area of Takuapa.[1]

RandyH: You there, Brad?
Brad Kenny: yes
RandyH: (expletive deleted) the news gets worse every day here in the papers
Brad Kenny: just got back from hospitals
RandyH: The original figure for Phuket seems to have been way low.
Brad Kenny: they don't have a clue when this is over it will be a quarter of a million worldwide
Brad Kenny: Phuket will be more than 3000, Thailand more than 7000
RandyH: Unreal. I read stories in the paper every day about Phuket, and it was on NBC News last night
RandyH: Why are they so far off here in the U.S.?
Brad Kenny: don't look at the dead figures, look at the missing. I did it from the first day
Brad Kenny: after 6 hours we found very little alive
RandyH: Where were you when it hit?
Brad Kenny: in my house, inland and 40 meters above sea level
Brad Kenny: the earthquake woke us up
Brad Kenny: I had a employee Christmas party the day before, and got up late
Brad Kenny: we were to meet all our friends at the beach by 9AM for breakfast
Brad Kenny: we were late
RandyH: What time did it hit?
Brad Kenny: earthquake at 8am tsunami at 9:30am
RandyH: Did you have any idea the tsunami was on the way?
Brad Kenny: no
RandyH: Did you see the surge from the waves?
Brad Kenny: only heard the stories
RandyH: I'm amazed you have Internet service
Brad Kenny: we never lost power 95% of the island is unaffected it makes it so surreal
Brad Kenny: my friends were at the beach where we were supposed to be. Peter lost his 4 month old girl Sonya's (Brad's 11 year old daughter) best friend's parents are "missing"
Brad Kenny: you can't imagine. No one should see this in any lifetime
RandyH: Sounds like you're out there helping...what are you up to?
Brad Kenny: I'm a construction company. they asked us at first to build caskets first 500 now 2000 more
Brad Kenny: I am the community services chairman for the Rotary Club of Patong Beach we do what we can
RandyH: There was a story about Patong Beach on the national news
RandyH: Isn't Surin Beach nearby?
Brad Kenny: Surin beach was lightly hit it has a large lip, and at a different angle
RandyH: We're seeing a lot of amateur videos ones every day.
RandyH: The scariest showed someone just panning the beach, then you see this wall of water...way out there, rising up.
RandyH: What time is it now?
Brad Kenny: 9.66 pm now
RandyH: How did you become aware of the tsunami? The news? Phone calls?
Brad Kenny: phone calls
Brad Kenny: Justin (Brad's 5 year old son) doesn't understand he asked why so many sirens all the time…never before
RandyH: The US is trying to get aid there...I think to Sumatra first, but the distribution channels are...gone or non-existent
RandyH: The death toll reported here started at, I think, 18,000...which was incomprehensible, but seems to go up 20,000 every night
Brad Kenny: Thailand is so advanced (as compared) to Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India
RandyH: That's just for Indonesia?
Brad Kenny: yes
RandyH: They are saying the numbers everywhere are going to double from sanitation problems...contaminated water and such…cholera, dysentery
Brad Kenny: no sanitation no drinking water problems here Thailand is organized Phuket is an international city with international services I don't think any different than if this hit Florida
RandyH: Sounds like Indonesia and India are 10X worse because they are not modern in those areas.
Brad Kenny: exactly they had stick houses on the beach Thailand had concrete
RandyH: What do you think the people in the US are not hearing about this story?
Brad Kenny: we look at the news and are puzzled
Brad Kenny: can i send you files through chat here?
RandyH: Sure. Use file transfer if you have them now
Brad Kenny: let me try here
RandyH: Re; the files.
RandyH: I should see files ready to download message if you send on Yahoo
Brad Kenny: ok now?
RandyH: Haven't opened them yet, but will in a minute
RandyH: I will have a look. I have a phone call with Switzerland in a few minutes, but will look for you online later. But, for my article, what do you think we're not hearing here in the US?
RandyH: But I didn't understand your comment about 'puzzled'. Puzzled that the numbers are so low?
Brad Kenny: its human nature to disbelieve the unbelievable!
RandyH: That is true.
Brad Kenny: 250000 dead unbelievable!
RandyH: I'm getting more photos now.
RandyH: Thanks. I'll look for your icon later.
RandyH: And that's a great job you're doing. Not much I can say.
Brad Kenny: ok I have to go, Justin wants to sleep. The earthquake scared the hell out of him he's only 5 and sees TV and earthquakes that kill
RandyH: See you. Take care.

Randy Hice is the president of the Laboratory Expertise Center. He can be reached at

[1] Photos courtesy Brad Kenny, ESP