Joint Base Andrews Air Show
Newtown Creek
Istanbul: Basilica Cistern
Greece: Santorini

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.

Life Today

Another day, another mass shooting in the United States. When I was a child, I can remember fire drills. I remember tornado drills. Active shooter drills did not exist. Now they do.

Today I spent part of my work day completing a whole bunch of mandatory training. One training was on information technology security. In my opinion, the training was stupid, but then again I am more informed than others. I know not to share my password with anyone.  I know not to open unknown files. I take many precautions to protect my sensitive information, like shredding even vaguely sensitive documents. The irony of the training being that it was in fact my employer and its inadequate security that was hacked months back and allowed my personal information to be stolen. My social security number may have been compromised. My employer is now paying for credit monitoring for me. When I was in college, professors posted our social security numbers with our grades as a way to allow us to find our grades and keep them anonymous. Now, posting social security numbers wouldn’t be allowed. They are too sensitive. Because of the internet, there are things I have to worry about that I never did as a child, but I still love the internet. I don’t want to go back to life without it.

I am not one of those people who likes to talk about how things were better when they were young. I love the internet. I love my smart phone. I love my energy efficient light bulbs and appliances. I love indoor plumbing. I love that I can be and am a female engineer. I love that I live in a country with clean air and water, and I don’t have to worry if my drinking water is safe or if the food I buy is contaminated. I love that vaccines exist. A hundred years ago women couldn’t vote. Until the mid-1800s, slavery existed. So, no, I don’t want to go backwards. The world has never been perfect. We have always had violence. People have always stereotyped and hated people for stupid reasons. People have always blamed others for whatever problem. We don’t seem to be able to get rid of violence or prejudice or hatred. This makes me very sad. We have made technological progress. We have made astounding progress in medicine and public health. We have made progress in civil rights. Why can’t we make progress in ending the hatred and violence? Why must we keep killing each other?

More San Juan

I enjoyed my visit to San Juan, Puerto Rico and just need to post a few more photos from my trip. Viejo San Juan really is a lovely area to just walk around and absorb the atmosphere.

View of San Juan Bay

View of San Juan Bay

Courthouse and US Post Office

Courthouse and US Post Office

El Convento, originally a convent and now a lovely hotel

El Convento, originally a convent and now a lovely hotel

Cuartel de Ballaja

Cuartel de Ballaja

Viejo San Juan's famous blue cobblestone streets

Viejo San Juan’s famous blue cobblestone streets

Cristo Chapel, next to Parque de las Palomas

Cristo Chapel, next to Parque de las Palomas

Capital of Puerto Rico (El Capitolio de Puerto Rico)

Capital of Puerto Rico (El Capitolio de Puerto Rico)

Central dome of Capital of Puerto Rico

Central dome of Capital of Puerto Rico

Castillo San Cristobal

On my last day in Puerto Rico, I explored Castillo San Cristobal, a fort built by the Spanish to protect San Juan from attack by land. It was built between 1634 and 1790, and then the U.S. added a few concrete additions during World War II. The fort is huge and has a series of tunnels. Some of these tunnels are huge, connecting the different levels and areas of the fort, and were designed to have defensive explosives. Some of the tunnels are really small, and you have to stoop to move through them. If you ever get a chance to visit, try to get one of the ranger guided tours of the tunnels. Those tours besides being very informative, let you go inside some of the really small tunnels in which you normally aren’t allowed.

View from top level

View from top level

Old stone design

Old stone design

Upper level

Upper level

Upper level looking into courtyard

Upper level looking into courtyard

Upper level artillery foundation

Upper level artillery foundation

View from newer concrete WWII lookout

View from newer concrete WWII lookout

Entrance to small, normally inaccessible tunnel

Entrance to small, normally inaccessible tunnel

Small, normally inaccessible tunnel

Small, normally inaccessible tunnel

View from courtyard

View from lower, exterior courtyard

Entrance to lower tunnel with symbol on top warning of explosives

Entrance to lower tunnel with symbol on top warning of explosives

Inside a tunnel

Inside a tunnel

Dungeon entrance

Dungeon entrance

Courtyard with view to city through window

Courtyard with view to city through window

Main courtyard

Main courtyard

Entrance to the main tunnels

Entrance to the main tunnels

Soldiers' quarters

Soldiers’ quarters

Officers' quarters

Passageways in soldiers’ quarters

Exterior of fort

Exterior of fort

Cueva Ventana

I got to visit Cueva Ventana (Window Cave) today in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. The tour starts by walking by Pee Wee Cave, which only meets the bare minimum requirements of a cave.  You don’t go in. There is no point or room really. There is a short walk through the forest, which when I visited meant getting to see among other things a bunch of giant snails on the trees. Then you walk through cave number two, which I don’t think they actually named. The middle portion of this cave is, well, cavernous, with huge ceilings and wide walls. However the walk through it is fairly short. Then you walk down an extremely steep path to get to the actual Cueva Ventana. There are bats living in there among the limestone columns. At the end of the cave is the Ventana. It has amazing views of the Arecibo River valley. The valley is gorgeous, and you can see the mountains beyond. The tour is worth the view alone. However the caves are really neat to see also, and I love bats, so getting to hear and see them was also a highlight. Sadly while there, you can see vandalism from years past, but tourism is now helping to support security and clean up for the site.

Entrance to Cave 2

Entrance to Cave 2

Entrance to Cave 2

Entrance to Cave 2

Entrance to Cave 2, at very lower left side of dark cave area, opening on other side of cave is visible

Entrance to Cave 2, at very lower left side of dark cave area, opening on other side of cave is visible

Cave 2

Cave 2

Opening to Cave 2

Opening to Cave 2

Entrance to Cueva Ventana

Entrance to Cueva Ventana

Columns in Cueva Ventana

Columns in Cueva Ventana

Stalagmite in Cueva Ventana

Stalagmite in Cueva Ventana

Ceiling of Cueva Ventana

Ceiling of Cueva Ventana

Floor and side of Cueva Ventana

Floor and side of Cueva Ventana

Cueva Ventana's Window to Arecibo River valley

Cueva Ventana’s Window to Arecibo River valley

Arecibo River valley viewed through Cueva Ventana's Window

Arecibo River valley viewed through Cueva Ventana’s Window

Arecibo River valley viewed through Cueva Ventana's Window

Arecibo River valley viewed through Cueva Ventana’s Window

Viejo San Juan’s Colorful Buildings

I love buildings that are painted bright colors. They grab you and make you look at them. They look fun, festive, and alive. The Caribbean is famous for its colorful buildings, and Viejo San Juan has its share. Here are a few of the colorful buildings I saw in Viejo San Juan that I really liked.

Skinniest building I've ever seen

Skinniest building I’ve ever seen

Colorful houses

Colorful houses

A school

A school

Antiguo Casino

Antiguo Casino

Green building

Green building

Alcaldia (City Hall)

Alcaldia (City Hall)

Lots of balconies

Lots of balconies

All different colors

All different colors

Turquoise

Turquoise

The pink building used to be a bank

The pink building used to be a bank

Viejo San Juan

It wasn’t until I walked around Viejo (Old) San Juan, especially the perimeter of it, that I realized how it really is a walled city. El Morro guards the entrance to the bay, but the fortifications encircles the entirety of the old city. One of the few ways, and the historic way, from the sea level to the city is through La Puerta de San Juan. Walking through the La Puerta, you realize the fortification is serious fortification, as La Puerta is almost a tunnel in terms of the distance you must walk to go from the sea side to the city side. The fortification is truly impressive with the wall thickness and garitas and small openings for guards to stand ready. One modern day bonus of the fortification is that it must help protect Viejo San Juan from any hurricane storm surge. There is a promenade that follows the wall from its beginning on the bay side and ends on the ocean side of El Morro. It gives spectacular views of the fort and the water as well.

Beginning of bay side wall

Beginning of bay side wall

End of Paseo de lan Princesa

End of Paseo de lan Princesa

Bay side of El Morro

Bay side of El Morro

Garita

Garita

Bay side wall

Bay side wall

La Puerta de San Juan

La Puerta de San Juan

La Puerta de San Juan

La Puerta de San Juan

Ocean side wall

Ocean side wall

Ocean side wall

Ocean side wall

Ocean side wall with El Morro is background

Ocean side wall with El Morro is background