Books: Hidden Figures

June 17, 2017

I don’t remember a lot of details of watching the first moon landing, in July 1969. Mostly I remember being bored with how long it took before they finally opened the door of the lunar module. I don’t actually know if my memories of scenes from Mission Control are from that night, or from movies I’ve seen since then. But my impression of Mission Control is of a bunch of men sitting at banks of computers.

White men, in white shirts, figuring out whatever needed to be figured out to get three men to the moon and back. It never occurred to me, until reading Hidden Figures recently, that a lot of the work behind the scenes had been done by black women.

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Books: The Martian

March 13, 2016

My co-worker recommended The Martian to me, after she and her husband went to see the movie based on it. I might decide to see the movie at some point, just for the visual enjoyment, but I’m sure the book is better (as is almost always the case).

It also turned out to be our book club’s selection for March, and we all agreed it was a great choice (except for one person who couldn’t make it to our meeting, who found it rather dry). We were impressed by Mark Watley’s ingenuity and enjoyed his humor.

What I really wanted to know after reading it, though, was how much The Martian gets right – and wrong – about science. Finding online articles on the subject turned out to be easy, though I was frustrated to discover that nearly all of them deal with the movie, not the novel, and at least one of the things the movie gets wrong is where it differs from the novel. But I finally found one that is specific to the novel.

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Cyborgs in the making?

March 18, 2014

Yesterday our younger son asked why science fiction so often portrays problems that arise from a mix of the biological with the mechanical. We had an interesting conversation about real-life instances of machines embedded in people’s bodies, such as mechanical heart valves and cochlear implants. Such devices clearly improve a person’s quality of life without raising concerns that machines could be taking over.

Science fiction, of course, is always looking at what could happen in the future based on current trends. Might we someday have implants that challenge our ability to distinguish between person and machine? Or that make the distinction meaningless?

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Books: Next

January 1, 2011

Usually I do not enjoy books in which there is not a likeable protagonist, but Michael Crichton’s Next is an exception. I picked it up at a yard sale some time ago but only picked it up to read this week – spurred in part by my older son having been reading several of Crichton’s books for a freshman English class in college (though I don’t know if he read this one).

I took a break from it for a couple days, first to read Alcatraz Versus the Shattered Lens, the fourth and apparently final book in Brandon Sanderson’s hilarious (and sometimes thoughtful) series about Alcatraz Smedry, then to work on puzzles in my new National Observer crossword book (WalMart was out of the Herald Tribune crossword books I usually buy). I was somewhat reluctant to pick up Crichton’s novel again, not having yet found any very likable characters in it.

But I noticed, with some surprise, that I had already read more than halfway through the book, largely without stopping (mandatory time off work gives me lots of time to read). I must have found it pretty engrossing. So I picked it up again, intending to read for half an hour or so, so that it would be late enough to take my Synthroid before I went to bed (among my reading this week was an article about a study showing that Synthroid was more effective on an empty stomach at bedtime).

I finished the novel and headed to bed nearly three hours later, having stayed up almost (but not quite) late enough to see the new year in. My mind was full of the thought-provoking scenarios Crichton had included in his novel, and the recommendations he makes in an Author’s Note regarding the legal environment for genetic research.

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Books: Small Things Considered

August 7, 2010

I bought this book several years ago, so I’m not positive what I expected when I bought it, but somehow I had the idea that it was about the design of small things. After all, the cover on my edition (not the same as what is currently available) shows the first inch of a wooden ruler – enlarged at least 500%. A chapter on drinking water-related designs includes a section on the Dixie cup, and the chapter on the toothbrush mentions the toothpick in passing. But physical size is not what the title refers to.

The basic idea of the book is that no design is perfect, that it is not only difficult or  impractical but impossible to have a perfect design. This is because there are always constraints, such as money or materials available, and competing design goals, such as esthetics and practicality. Thus the designer must make choices that sacrifice some of this to get a bit more of that, and the end design is a result of many such compromises.

The premise is easy enough to understand, and using it to examine how many common objects have been designed is very interesting. Sometimes one constraint is that the design has to take an existing object and modify it, which means that many choices have already been made and many possible designs eliminated from consideration. Or it may be that the design needs to allow for future easy modifications, which also forces certain choices and precludes others.

Constraints such as money, materials, and time are fairly obvious. But the designer has to take into account many other factors – safety regulations, the varying size of people who will use the object, the user’s ability to understand how to use it without extensive training, and how it compares with competitors’ products, to name just a few. There is also how to package it for sale, which is another whole design project.

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Preserving Pisa’s belltower

July 29, 2010

I would guess just about everyone has heard of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Probably few buildings have inspired more cartoons, interesting photographs, or off-the-wall ideas about how to fix them. Some of the websites I visited even had to include a disclaimer about their “adult” content because the shape of Pisa’s bell tower makes people think of … well, let’s just say that I saw two cartoons suggesting Viagra to make the tower stand up straight.

I vaguely remember reading, some years ago, that the tower had been closed to tourists because it was getting too dangerous. Italy isn’t high on my list of vacation destinations, though (nothing against Italy, but I’d rather visit the British Isles, the Holy Land, Australia/New Zealand, or some Spanish-speaking country, if I had the money to travel), so I gave little thought to the city known primarily to Americans for its famous architectural problem.

Then today at First Thoughts I was reading Second Links (so named because they post First Links in the morning, and Second Links in the afternoon), and was intrigued by a story about the British engineer who solved Pisa’s 800-year-old mystery (why the tower leaned south). Particularly interesting was the fact that some Italians aren’t happy that he stabilized their long-unstable landmark.

I can understand why they didn’t want him to make the tower stand perfectly straight. Who would want to visit the Straight Tower of Pisa? The tourism trade in Pisa suffered enough when the tower was closed, but at least people could still see it from a distance. If the tower no longer leaned at all, who would bother to go to Pisa at all?

But some people think there was a certain appeal in the danger that it could fall. I’m afraid I’ve never found risk appealing, and I certainly would not want to travel to see a building that might fall on me. I can understand better the perspective of those who worried methods of supporting the building that would detract from its artistic appearance, though until they knew that there was a way to fix it without changing its appearance, I would have thought they would rather preserve it even with unsightly supports than have it collapse as other medieval bell towers have.

My final thought after reading the article – if people would just put the thought, effort, and money into solving other problems that they did into this one, imagine how much we could change the world!