Balboa Park Plants
NY 240th Street Yard
Castillo San Cristobal
Milkweed Beauty
Man Swims the Gowanus Canal

It’s a Pipe

I went to a reception for a new(-ish) exhibit with the Culture Programs of the National Academy of Sciences. The exhibit are paintings by Jonathan Feldschuh that are inspired by the Large Hadron Collider. The paintings are acrylic on mylar, and they are quite gorgeous. While I’m sure my art-knowledgable friends will correct my terminology, to me, they look like impressionists paintings of very high-tech subjects. I love impressionism art, and of course, I love technology, so I really like these paintings. My friends R, J, and I were discussing this one painting that R and I both rather liked. I said I really like the way the perspective of the pipe or wires going off into the tunnel. I questioned whether it was a pipe or a bundle of wires. This is the conversation that ensued.

R: It’s not a pipe. It’s where the collisions occur.

Me: It’s a pipe then.

R: No, it’s not solid.

Me: Pipes aren’t solid.

R: Yes, but it’s different.

J: It’s more high tech.

Me: It’s a pipe.

R: There aren’t fluids flowing through it. It’s particles flowing through it and colliding.

Me: It’s still a pipe.

R: It’s not a pipe because the particles are in a vacuum.

Me: It’s a pipe. Those things at banks where the little container at the drive through is pushed through a pipe is pushed through a vacuum. It’s still a pipe.

R: [sighs] Ok, it’s a pipe.

It should be noted that according the CERN website, “The beams travel in opposite directions in separate beam pipes – two tubes kept at ultrahigh vacuum.” Thus, it’s a pipe. However, in R’s defense, I have a B.S. in chemical engineering, so everything is pretty much a pipe or a tank to me. Also, everything can be fixed with a hammer, but that is another story.

Balboa Park Plants

While in San Diego, I spent an entire day in Balboa Park and didn’t go inside one museum. I was too fascinated by the plants. There are beautiful tropical plants in the Botanical Building, but there are just as many beautiful plants outside. Colorful plants are everywhere, including the Desert Garden, which has many plants that I loved photographing while ever mindful not to get too close, or else ouch.IMG_4390 IMG_4440 IMG_4470 IMG_4499 IMG_4552 IMG_4591 IMG_4633 IMG_4670 IMG_4737 IMG_4801 IMG_4838 IMG_4847 IMG_4871 IMG_5023 IMG_5081 IMG_5110

Cabrillo National Monument

While in Sand Diego, I visited Cabrillo National Monument. Actually I visited it twice. I went in the morning, and the entire area was covered with thick fog. I explored the tidal pool area and met some cute crabs, limpets, and snails. I then went to the peak area and tried to view San Diego underneath the clouds. It was kind of amazing to be on a peak about 400 feet above the ocean and look at a giant fog encompassing almost everything below. I then came back in the afternoon and was finally able to get some good views.

Tidal pool area

Tidal pool area

Tidal pool area

Tidal pool area

Tidal pool area

Tidal pool area

Colorful, rock layers

Colorful, rock layers

Tidal pool area

Tidal pool area

Colorful, rock layers

Colorful, rock layers

Colorful, rock layers

Colorful, rock layers

Chiton

Chiton

Snails and limpet

Snails and limpet

Snail

Snail

Crab

Crab

Crab

Crab

Anemone

Anemone

Gooseneck Barnacles

Gooseneck Barnacles

View across bay

View across bay

View out to sea

View out to sea

San Diego

I was in San Diego recently for a conference, and I was able to take a few days to wander around and see a little bit of the city. A few blog posts to come with photos, but here are some from just around town.

Boats near downtown

Boats near downtown

View of San Diego from Coronado

View of San Diego from Coronado

Sculpture next to convention center

Sculpture next to convention center

Entrance to Gaslamp Quarter

Entrance to Gaslamp Quarter

Balboa Theater

Balboa Theater

Santa Fe train station

Santa Fe train station

Downtown office building

Downtown office building

Balboa Park

Balboa Park

Waterfront Park

Waterfront Park

San Diego County Administration Center

San Diego County Administration Center

View of San Diego and North Island Naval Air Station from Cabrillo National Monument (in morning)

View of San Diego and North Island Naval Air Station from Cabrillo National Monument (in morning)

View of San Diego from Cabrillo National Monument (in afternoon)

View of San Diego from Cabrillo National Monument (in afternoon)

View of Coronado from Cabrillo National Monument (in afternoon)

View of Coronado from Cabrillo National Monument (in afternoon)

Communicating with Peers and the Public

I’m at a scientific conference currently. All day yesterday, I was in the same room listening to presentations on the same topic, mainly from people doing pure research, with some people doing research with more application objectives. At the end of the day, they brought several of the presenters together for a panel discussion. I had listened all day to many of the presentations, and I was growing somewhat concerned about the implications of some of the research. I support their research. I respect their research. I want to see more of their research. However I do not work in research, and where I work, communicating with the public can be very important. So I asked members of this panel a question. How are they going to explain to the public what they are doing. There is nothing unethical about what they are doing. They are doing good work that could lead to important information being revealed, but they are doing research in the real world, that quite frankly is not at this point meant for the real world. So I wanted to know, had they thought about how to explain the results of their research to the public? A member of the public who saw some of their data could become seriously confused and scared because they wouldn’t understand what the results mean.

I generally am not all that good at communicating. I am fine with public speaking if I have a script. However in public or even one on one, when speaking impromptu I many times stumble over my words. I sometimes have trouble getting all the thoughts in my brain to come out my mouth in a linear manner. I know it is a fault. I work on it. I have also been told by people that I sometimes talk at too high a technical level. I work on it.

So there I was at a scientific conference trying to ask people, many of whom I had known for a day or two, a question. I respect these people and their work. I am trying to ask a question and explain that members of the public might not understand their results. The irony is beyond rich. I, who have trouble communicating at times, who have trouble communicating at a level that others understands technical information, am trying to explain to my peers that they are doing work in a situation that members of the public can see their work, and members of the public will not understand their work.

Of course I stumble on my words. Of course I can’t explain myself clearly. And of course, these scientists I respect start getting defensive. They explain I don’t understand what they are doing. They try to explain what they are doing as if I have not already seen several presentations explaining what they are doing. One interrupts me before I can fully try to explain what I am saying. I explain I completely understand what they are doing, but members of the public won’t. I only want to know how they will explain their results to the public. I don’t want to argue with these people. I hate arguing. I just want them to understand my point of view. I stumble trying to explain. My heart starts racing so badly that I am shaking. I try to calm myself and explain differently what I am saying. A couple of people finally start to understand what I am asking. One responds “oh well, we will explain [jibberish].” I thought I had trouble communicating. No one would understand that.

A woman I have started to have a professional relationship with and have started to become friends with also was sitting next to me. Afterwards, she assured me she completely understood and had the same concern. Then several other people, who are not doing this research, came up to me and said they understood and shared my concerns. I thanked them for that. They have no idea how much I needed that. I hate arguing with people. I don’t want these researchers to think I don’t support their work. I want these people to like me, and I know we share a common goal.

I live and work by a couple of rules. I will not lie to people, and I will not put people in danger. Those are at the top of my list of rules. Telling people the truth is easier said than done when the truth involves highly complex information. It is difficult to explain what the results mean to the public when you don’t understand what the results mean. I work with some awesome people, some of whom take what I write and translate it so a normal person can understand it. I make sure it is technically accurate, and they make sure people can understand it. I understand the importance of communication. You have to tell people the truth, but you have to tell people the truth in way they can understand it. When you don’t understand what your truth means, you also have to tell people that truth.

NY 240th Street Yard

My most recent nerd trip to New York was to tour the New York City Transit Authority’s 240th Street Yard, also known as Van Cortlandt Yard. The train yard is completely elevated, which in my opinion makes for impressive structural engineering. It is a small shop, so it cannot hold all the trains that are out of service. The do regular maintenance as well as repair. I was impressed with all the safety mechanisms and protocols they have to make sure no one gets hurt.

Entrance to the elevated 240th Street Train Yard

Entrance to the elevated 240th Street Train Yard

Below the elevated 240th Street Train Yard

Below the elevated 240th Street Train Yard

The underside of the completely elevated 240th Street Train Yard

The underside of the completely elevated 240th Street Train Yard

The lavish office of the yard supervisor

The lavish office of the yard supervisor

Train in for maintenance

Train in for maintenance

Stacked and organized supplies

Stacked and organized supplies

I have no idea what these are, but the shop has really cool looking parts

I have no idea what these are, but the shop has really cool looking parts

Contact shoes (how the train makes contact with the 3rd rail). The one of the left is a snow shoe, the ridges cut the snow and ice, and the one on the right is a regular shoe.

Contact shoes (how the train makes contact with the 3rd rail). The one of the left is a snow shoe, the ridges cut the snow and ice, and the one on the right is a regular shoe.

Basket full of contact shoes. The yellow one is a snow shoe.

Basket full of contact shoes. The yellow one is a snow shoe.

Trains in the 240th Street Train Yard shed

Trains in the 240th Street Train Yard shed

Cables hanging in front of the car are "bugs". The ones with more cable and a 2nd box are little bugs because the have less voltage. The other one on the left is a big bug because it has more voltage and power the entire train.

Cables hanging in front of the car are “bugs”. The one with more cable and a 2nd box is a little bug because it has less voltage. The other one on the left is a big bug because it has more voltage and power the entire train.

A stick is used to make sure the contact shoe is at the right height. A maintenance worker is carrying another stick used to measure the height of the car above the rail.

A stick is used to make sure the contact shoe is at the right height. A maintenance worker is carrying another stick used to measure the height of the car above the rail.

Unclose view of the 3rd rail that ends at the entrance to the shop.

Unclose view of the 3rd rail that ends at the entrance to the shop.

Cool looking thing on a train the shop. I think it is a device that tests the doors and opening and closing.

Cool looking thing on a train the shop. I think it is a device that tests the doors and opening and closing.

240th Street Train Yard entrance to the shop

240th Street Train Yard entrance to the shop

Signals at the entrance to the 240th Street Train Yard shop

Signals at the entrance to the 240th Street Train Yard shop

It’s Not Rocket Science

I subscribe to my county’s weekly police report just in case there might be crime in my area I want to know about. I don’t live in a high crime area, so normally the police report is a bunch of car break-ins and drunks in the bar area of town. Today though I found this interesting report.

MISSILE INTO AN OCCUPIED DWELLING, [location of incident]. On January 18 at approximately 6:51 p.m., a resident reported a known suspect threw a brick and rock into her residence, shattering two windows. [Suspect name] was arrested and charged with missile into an occupied dwelling, destruction of property, drunk in public and violation of protection order.”

What I found interesting is that legally speaking, a brick and/or a rock is considered a missile. To me this is another reason why rocket science should not be the go to science and engineering field for things that are hard. I hate the phrase “it’s not rocket science” with a passion. Rocket science is not that hard. It involves controlled combustion and trajectory. Missiles, a term which is generally used to mean a rocket that will cause destruction, is quite frankly easy. Science fields that are hard involve things that can’t be controlled near as easy as rockets, like biological systems, like fields trying to predict what stupid humans will do, like basic science where we are still trying to understand all the forces involved. You try doing an environmental and human health risk assessment on a hazardous waste site where toxicologists are unsure what level of exposure to a contaminant is acceptable, where you can’t be completely sure what humans will really be doing and for how long at a site, where people want to know they will be not be subject to undue risk for the next 70 years, and where you can’t be absolutely, completely positive just how much of each contaminant is there, but the polluters don’t want to clean up more than necessary. Then come talk to me about how hard rocket science is.

In summary, as evidenced by this police report, missiles are easy. Rockets are easy. Stop comparing things you think are hard to rocket science.

Engineering Advice for the Star Wars Dark Side

I’ve just seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and I really have some questions for the Dark Side about how they construct their bases. Look, I like science fiction and fantasy. I am willing to look over the fact that the Laws of Thermodynamics and the Laws of Physics are routinely violated. What I have trouble overlooking is that the Dark Side designs their bases in bizarrely unsafe and inexplicably useless ways.

Let’s ignore the fact that the Dark Side is completely incapable of learning from its mistakes. It’s called redundancy by design. Your enemy should not be able to find one thing to destroy and take down the entire base. So stop putting the same flaws in base designs. Also, for goodness sakes, get better computer network security.

No, what I really want to talk about are the catwalks. The Dark Side has completely inexplicable, unsafe catwalks installed in their bases. I am ignoring the huge, unused, exists-for-no-reason chasms that always seem to be in the bases. Most bases are about using all the space they have. Good to know the Dark Side has space to waste. Anyway, those chasms always seem to have one or possibly two catwalks. The catwalks don’t seem to exist for productive reasons because if so, there would not just be one when the chasm is something like 50 stories high. You would want to move people or things on more than one level. Also, the catwalks are about the width of one person. They never seem to be wide enough for two people to pass. That is fairly stupid design. If it was a narrow chasm, then that might make sense, but when the chasm is a hundred times bigger than the catwalk, surely you can make the catwalk a little wider.

Now let’s talk safety. Yes, I get it. These are bases, so they are not designed for children, disabled, or comfort. That doesn’t mean you can’t have handrails, safety rails, safety cages for your wall ladders, etc. Safety is not just to protect stupid people, although that at times is a big part. People trip. People are holding something (like a prisoner, say) and can’t completely see where they are going. Don’t try to tell me survival of the fittest. From what I can tell, the Dark Side seems to most appreciate Storm Troopers who just follow orders and don’t think for themselves. They are prime candidates for people who need safety rails. People who blindly follow orders are prime for lemming-like activities. [Although lemmings don’t actually do that mass suicide thing that many people think they do, but I regress.]

If you have the resources to build the most amazingly large and destructive bases in the universe, then you have the resources to put in proper safety rails and catwalks wide enough for two people to pass.

Is there an Intergalactic Building Code? Does the Dark Side follow it? Does the Dark Side have licensed Professional Engineers? How did they get building permits? Were there inspections? Does the Dark Side have any common sense? Any engineer who approved these designs should have the license revoked. Any organization that can’t learn from its mistakes to deserve to have their stuff destroyed over and over again.

One more thing I have to say as an environmental engineer. Has the Dark Side heard of recycling? I don’t just mean because it is good for the environment. I mean why waste perfectly good resources, like I don’t know all the leftover resources on a crashed battleship? Use old resources when rebuilding, especially when you keep rebuilding the same thing over and over again.

NY East 180th Street Maintenance Shop

I was lucky enough to get the chance to tour New York’s MTA East 180th Street Maintenance Shop. The maintenance shop is located in the Bronx and is one of several shops that service NY subway cars. It was built in 1917 and has been renovated more recently. There are six shops inside the shop and 26 storage tracks outside the shop in the yard. The shop is constantly doing maintenance on the subway cars, and also while we were there at least, had two old trains inside, including one World War II (or possibly older) era train. In short, if you are a transit nerd, this place is totally cool. We got to walk alongside trains and see their underside. We got to see parts of the train that normally you never get to see, or at least you never get to see unless you are about to be hit by one.

The outside storage yard

The outside storage yard

Two trains inside the shop. The one of the right is clearly a vintage one.

Two trains inside the shop. The one of the right is clearly a vintage one.

Looking down one of the inside tracks

Looking down one of the inside tracks

View underneath one of the trains. Not a view you normally get.

View underneath one of the trains. Not a view you normally get.

A rail of an inside track. I never did find out where you place the main bugs.

A rail of an inside track. I never did find out where you place the main bugs.

A really cool looking part underneath an older train

A really cool looking part underneath an older train

A really cool looking part underneath an older train

A really cool looking part underneath an older train

An older train with fading paint

An older train with fading paint

Underside of an older train, which I find fascinating due to the duct tape and marking to designate two different technologies or parts from when NY had three different subway systems.

Underside of an older train, which I find fascinating due to the duct tape and marking to designate two different technologies or parts from when NY had three different subway systems.

An old train which has clearly seen better days

An old train which has clearly seen better days

An old rail car that was converted to a rail adhesion train, used to add sand or a coating when leaves start to coat the rails. It is no longer, or rarely used, as contractors are hired to clear the rails of leaves.

An old rail car that was converted to a rail adhesion train, used to add sand or a coating when leaves start to coat the rails. It is no longer, or rarely used, as contractors are hired to clear the rails of leaves.

Looking down the inside tracks from the rail entrance to the shop

Looking down the inside tracks from the rail entrance to the shop

Rail at entrance to shop

Rail at entrance to shop

Rail inside the shop

Rail inside the shop

No, I won’t #HackAHairDryer

Evidently, IBM wants to encourage women to enter science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) by telling them to hack a hair dryer. My first thought is that while I appreciate any technology company encouraging women into STEM, did they really have to pick a hair dryer? I would like to give them the benefit of the doubt that it’s a cheap piece of electronics, but let’s be real. By picking a hair dryer, they are reinforcing stereotypes about women and how we care about our looks. I initially thought I don’t even own a hair dryer, then I realized I may own two. I know there is one in my guest bathroom, left by a relative, and it sits there in case any guest wants to use it. I may have one of my own in my bathroom, bought over a decade, possibly two decades ago. I am not even sure if I still have it because it has been a decade at least since I have used it.

My second thought about #HackAHairDryer is, YOU’RE A FREAKING COMPUTER COMPANY! ENCOURAGE WOMEN TO WRITE CODE OR HACK A COMPUTER IN SOME WAY! Computer science is one of the most underrepresented fields, even among STEM fields, it is one of the worst. For goodness sakes IBM, you are a computer company, encourage women into computers. That is a field you should know rather well. Surely you can think of things women can hack in your own field, things that will not play into stereotypes.

My third thought is what age is this campaign aimed at? Hair dryers use electricity, and they produce heat. They are not exactly the safest things to hack. In IBM’s video, there are a few scenarios for “hacked” hair dryers that quite frankly worry me a bit. If a girl or women wants to hack a hair dryer, great, but I hope there is someone (man or women) around who would know when they are getting into dangerous territory.

I can MacGyver with the best of them. In truth, a whole lot of my hacking knowledge did not come from school. It came from playing with things, looking things up on the Internet, and talking with other people with experience. I don’t “hack” that much. I do have a propensity to take things apart just to look inside and see how they work, which is easy. The difficult part is getting them back together again and having the thing still work as intended.

A final thought I have is aimed at any inspiring engineer. If you don’t like to hack, if you have never hacked anything, my personal opinion is that this means nothing to your aspirations to be an engineer or scientist. Don’t let anyone tell you, you can’t be an engineer or scientist because X. I can’t remember hacking a single thing before college. I can’t remember hacking a single thing as part of my undergraduate or graduate school experience. My education did involve some hands on stuff and science labs, but it did not involve hacking. Most of engineering education is theory and reality of design. That is, first you are taught the theory as to how something should work. Then you are taught how it doesn’t always work like the theory, so here are some empirical equations with fudge factors that do work. Now throw in some safety factors. Ta la, you have your design.

So young women, hack if you want to, whatever it is you want to hack. Explore the world. Stay curious. Learn how things work. Learn ALL subjects and find the ones that interest you the most, no matter what they are.

IBM, back off the hashtags. Do something actually meaningful that will encourage women into STEM like sponsoring science fairs or building competitions or sponsoring college scholarships.