Thursday, September 26, 2013

Star Trek and Physics

Whenever you watch a show like Star Trek, you have to suspend disbelief for the duration of the show, like when you watch a musical. You have to get yourself in a state out of your mind that some impossible or unlikely stuff is going to happen and you have accept them in the parameters of the story. In reality people don't spontaneously break out in song and warp drive will probably never be possible. But there are other things that Star Trek just gets wrong about science and if you know anything about physics watching the show will just bother you. You have to teach yourself to ignore it and enjoy yourself.  The most obvious example is the explosions that go boom, big loud booms. We all know that there is no sound in space. "In space, no one can hear you scream" because sound waves have nothing to bounce off of, there are no molecules to vibrate. Star Trek is good television but mostly bad science so we accept the big booms after the ship explodes because it looks cool and spaceships exploding quietly is just plain boring. Another obvious example is the fact that they never loose gravitational control. Their ships are running out of power and barely enough for life-support and yet, they are not losing gravity. They sometimes find dead ships floating through space that never seem to have lost gravity.  What? I could imagine that the portrayal of our beloved characters floating through the corridors of the Enterprise would be very expensive for a television show, but they should at least be consistent or mention gravitational control once in a while.  They seem to pull gravity out from hiding, like an unwanted step-child, only using it when it is convenient to their plot. When the ship gets hit with a torpedo, they all stumble (sometimes in different directions). But if they have artificial gravity, would this even happen? If so, then wouldn't they also all end up flying to the back of the ship when it goes into warp? I don't know, comment if you do.

These things usually don't bother me with Star Trek. I am not a scientist, I am only moderately knowledgeable about science and I realize Star Trek is, again, just good entertainment but not good science.  But the most recent installment of the franchise pushed me over of the limit. The creators of Star Trek: In the Darkness obviously didn't put believability high on their list of priorities. If a non-scientist like me can verify the wrongness of your physics with 5 minutes on Google then your writers are just damn lazy. The biggest problem is again, gravity. The Enterprise is orbiting the moon when it losing power. It gets pulled into the Earth's gravitational pull and starts plummeting. This actually makes sense because the Earth does pull objects, like the moon, into its gravity. The problem here is that in film it took about 10 minutes to reach the Earth. It took Apollo 11 over three days to cover the same distance, 238,900 miles. A ship with no power, plummeting this distance in minutes ... um ... no! This was distracting to say the least. I had to watch this scene again after the film was done just to see if I had missed something. The reentry into the Earth's atmosphere was also anti-climatic. We were set up for it by Sulu saying, "if we don't get power and shields back on-line we are going to get incinerated on re-entry." A minute or so later, we see the ship burning a little. No one on the ship seems hot or even phased by the re-entry at all.  No incineration, just a few burnt panels. Darn you young Mr. Sulu, I'll never believe any of your hyperbole ever again.

This film was more Star Wars than Star Trek. It was very little adventure but mostly explosions and action. This is not what Star Trek fans signed up for. We want interesting alien cultures, intrigue, a seemingly insurmountable problem, a last minute resolution, some social commentary and a little bit of action. In looking for a wider audience, they lost their base of fans. This is the Mitt Romney of Star Trek movies. The one thing they did right, the opening scene was really cool. It had an alien race, the social commentary and a volcano, but even this had its science problems.  Sulu (again Sulu!) says that the ship's shields can't sustain the heat of a volcano. Really? So a ship designed for deep space travel and entry into planets atmospheres (like it did to the Earth's without its shields later in this same film), can't sustain the heat from a volcano. I beg to differ. Lava is around 2200 degrees F while the temperature of the space shuttle recorded on re-entry in 1981 was 2500 degrees.  (Thank you Google). If you can handle re-entry into in the atmosphere, you can handle a freakin' volcano eruption.

This film is also plagued by something that plagues many prequels. This is supposed to be take place a few years before the original series and yet, they seem to have technology that even the later shows don't have. Apparently, you can transport to Kronus from Earth, you can call someone on Earth on your communicator while orbiting Kronus and they have some really cool automatic seat belts that come in really handy when that selective grativy starts to act up. I would imagine writing for a prequel has its challenges. It must be hard to resist showing new gadgets, but these are very challenging to swallow. I agree that the Star Trek franchise needed a reboot. The actors in this reboot are fantastic (except for Benedict Cumberbatch's portrayal of Khan) and the special effects couldn't be better. After the travesty of Star Trek:Voyager series and the failure of Star Trek: Enterprise, the show needed new ideas and a new approach, but they needed to become more visionary not digress into an average action film. If this continues, I half expect to see Bruce Willis or Sly Stallone in the next film. I am glad to see JJ Abrams move onto the Star Wars franchise and leave this one alone. Star Wars fans like things-that-go-boom and shitty dialogue. He should feel welcome there.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Women and Labor

Back in December, in my tribute to Podcasts, I mentioned that my Monday morning ritual is listening to C-SPAN podcasts. This is still true.  I have actually always worked with noise. Perhaps it is due to being from a large family. My first college roommate noticed and was so annoyed by me doing homework while blasting Pink Floyd albums that he decided to hide my Final Cut album for a few weeks. Later, in grad school and while a professional, I worked while listening to NPR and now Podcasts. My wife comments often about how I don't like silence. This is true. Silence is boring. Noise, under controlled conditions, makes me productive.

This week's C-SPAN American History podcast was so interesting that it might have been distracting. It was about women in the work place covering the span from World War II to the 1970's. The most interesting thing I learned was that after WW II, women worked down, not out. I had always heard that women, who were working assembly lines and other war industry during the War, went back to being  housewives after the war. When in actuality, after the war, they didn't return home but simply were demoted to lower paying jobs. The attitude was that they were taking "a man's job and earning a man's pay." I can be sympathetic to both the men and the women in this situation, in that, it must have sucked for the women who lost their jobs but also, the men who made the sacrifice and left their jobs to go overseas, really deserved their job's back.

By 1950, there were as many women in the work-force as during the war. They were just in lower paying jobs after the war.  Their pay during the war wasn't as high as their male counterparts, but they were still higher during the war than after.  About 25% of woman sixteen years or old were in the workforce. We are at about 60% now. They went from riveters and assembly line workers to clerks, secretaries, teachers and nurses.

By end of 19th century, women were dominating teaching. In the late 19th century until the 1960's many states had marriage bars which were laws preventing married women from working in some professions, mostly teaching and clerical work. If a teacher got married, she had to quit her job. The baby boom of the 50's caused these bars to go away. Market demand is king which in this case is a very good thing. A nursing boom also happened in the 50's due to the American healthcare systems shift to a centralization around hospitals.  Secretaries, stenographers and file clerks expanded due to the boom of office work. All those women who were working during the war, who liked it, had plenty of other places to find work but still opportunities were very limited in scope and as well as upward mobility.

By the 1970's woman started breaking into professional jobs like management, doctors and clergy. Blue collar professionals like plumbers and electrician still have few women, but that may be a case of self selection rather than gender bias. This I do not know. By the mid-1980's, I was entering the workforce. In my home state of Rhode Island, I obtained my first professional IS job (Information Systems) at a children's clothing manufacturer, located in the south. Their data processing facility was located in Cumberland, RI. I was working the 3rd shift (7PM to 7AM three days a week) as a computer operator on an AS400 IBM mid-range computer. I was being trained by a young Syrian-American woman about my age named Myra. She had more experience than I did and had a degree while I was still working on mine. She was making much less than what I was making (my memory is not good here). I complained to my manager, Bob, about this and he justified it by stating that men were the head-of-household.  I expressed displeasure about his justification and Bob stated that I can resolved this in a very simple way ... I could take a pay-cut to be equal to Myra's.  Of course, I didn't take the pay cut. I had rent and tuition to pay. I cannot imagine this happening today, thirty years later. I cannot even imagine someone's gender coming up while we interviewed anyone and discussed their pay scale. This is progress.

I will not be so bold here to say that the gender gap does not exist. Not only don't I want to deal with the angry email that I would receive, but mostly because I have one major looming question: What does a workplace without a gender gap look like?  If all the stats are collected and we make all the controls we can think of for other factors like experience, education, hours worked, visibility and age/era one entered the work force (I am sure there are more), will we ever be at 100% equal. Aren't there too many factors to get equality? Isn't there always going to be one side always doing better than another? When you google this subject, you get so much data and so many different opinions. I found President Obama's comment about women making 77% of men. I found Slate Double X's article (their feminists wing) that disputed Obama's number stating it was closer to 91% with men working longer hours. I was going to make a link to the specific article, because it made so many good points, but I cannot find this article anymore. I can find some right wing articles that use Slate's to justify their rants. It is a very contentious subject. It has been a long time since my college statistics classes, but 91% with this many factors, seems an awful lot like equal, considering a margin of error.

Everyone you talk to says that the gender gap is unjust, but if that is so, then who is doing it? In such a competitive economy, why would anyone not pay a good employee what they are worth? Job offers are usually based, somewhat, on the prior job's salary. So if there still is a gender gap, is it just due to the fact that we still have people in the economy who were hired when there was one? So again, I won't be so bold to say that the gender gap no longer exists, but that in the last 20 + years, I just have not seen it and have difficulty even imagining it in our current culture. Perhaps I just lack imagination.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Rivers Are Better Than Lakes

I have mentioned in the past, I spent a good part of my youthful summers in a rowboat on the Pawcatuck River in Rhode Island. Because of this, I am very comfortable in a river ... not so with lakes.  Lakes make me nervous. The apparent largeness, the wakes of motor boats, the deepness ... lakes are scary, rivers are home. Rivers aren't usually very deep. If you do fall out of the boat or tip over, you won't have far to swim. The stumps and branches make for great lifesavers. Lakes are scary when they are placid and scary when they are choppy. Rivers are poetic, full of personality and charm. They wind through the country side through fauna and landscape, cutting through mountains and hills. They run besides roads, under bridges and can cover miles of countryside. When you take a boat out on a lake, you mostly go in circles.

When my wife discovered the sport of kayaking a few years ago, and then got obsessed, we've come up with a deal. I will join her if we do a river. If she wants to do a lake, she can find someone else. A couple of weekends ago, when we visited a friend on Harvey's Lake (pictured above in the shadow of Harvey's Mountain), was an exception. We stayed at their cabin in Barnet which is in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, the most remote and sparsely populated part of the state. Harvey's Lake official name is actually Harvey Lake but the locals add the apostrophe, probably because it sounds better. It was named after one of the first European settlers of Barnet, Colonel Alexander Harvey. The lake's claim to fame is that is was influential in the early life of French oceanographer, SCUBA inventor and television documentarian Jacques Cousteau. We are lucky Barnet is in Vermont and not New Hampshire because there would probably be Jacques Cousteau go-carts and "trading posts" littering the lake if it were in NH. Cousteau apparently visited as a child and did his very first diving in the lake. I prefer to stay above water. When I kayak a lake, I try to make it as river-like as possible. I stay on the perimeter and take as many inlets as possible. We found a channel in Harvey's Lake that was a welcome change from looking at people's backyards and docks. The channel was very shallow and wound through marsh land like a snake in the grass. We had to turn around after ten minutes but it was the most interesting part of the ride. The circle around the lake took about an hour and a half.

The weekend before was more my style. We headed out to Otter Creek in Vergennes, VT. We put our kayaks in near the Rivers Edge Campground in Vergennes, VT.  With our friend, Cynthia, we headed out against the current so that we paddling with the current on the return trip, when we were tired. We paddled for about an hour and a half until we reached the dam which is very near downtown Vergennes. Vergennes is a cute little city. It is the smallest of Vermont's nine cities with a population around 2500 and it is the first city founded in Vermont's history, third in New England. I have heard that it is the smallest city in the country, which simply means that it is the smallest municipality in the country that actually has a mayor, but I haven't been able to find anything on-line to confirm this. The dam is a beautiful spot that is accessible by car. We stopped and had lunch surrounded by families fishing and picnicking and paddled back to the cars which only took a half an hour.

Otter Creek is roughly 112 miles long. Its waters start in a town called Peru on Mt. Tabor in southern Vermont. By the time it gets to Vergennes, it is only a town away (Ferrisburg) from its ultimate destination, Lake Champlain.  The last time we kayaked it, we started near Lake Champlain and turned around at the campground.  So after this trip, we've done from Vergennes Falls to Lake Champlain. One of the nice things about kayaking a river is that the thinness of the by-ways forces you to stay close to your companions. The conversation is better. My wife and I are not natives to Vermont but our friend, Cynthia, is. She told us about how the stretch that we drove past along Spear Street in Shelburne and South Burlington that overlooks Lake Champlain, which is now covered with McMansions and condos, was all farmland when she was a child, just a couple of decades ago. This made me appreciate the kayak trip a little more, for it all might be gone ... soon.

You generally see more wildlife on a river than on a lake as well. On Harvey's Lake we saw an occasional loon, but that is about it. Otter Creek treated us with an osprey mother perched above her nest (we could hear the babies chirping), herons galore and dozens of turtles.

Rivers are better than lakes. Not sure I'd want to building a house near a river with water levels rising the way they do, but for a summertime Kayak trip ... I will take a river anytime.