Category : Technology

A Pebble in My Shoe

I’m just back from New York City and the Edgar™ Awards. If you missed the nominations and the grand banquet where winners were announced, go here.

Jeffrey Deaver, MWA President (the tall one) and me at the podium.

The event had me thinking of Edgar Allan Poe and his legacy for mystery writers especially. But it’s this quote of his that I relate to above all:

The past is a pebble in my shoe.

And we probably all feel the same way about a pebble in our shoe: Out!

The high school history teacher tasked with giving me a healthy respect for the past failed—maybe because his primary duty, for which he was hired, was to coach the football team to victory. (He failed at that, too.)

But I can’t blame Mr. F. forever. I’ve had ample time to visit the past in a meaningful way, to learn the details of wars, to imagine lunch with the greats of bygone ages.

We see this “poll question” all the time: if you could visit the past, whom would you have lunch with?

I suppose I could go back and ask Poe if he could sleep at night after writing the “The Tell-Tale Heart.” I couldn’t, after reading, the low stifled sound that arises from the bottom of the soul when overcharged with awe. The same with his “The Cask of Amontillado.” I was young enough to worry myself sick that I’d hurt someone enough for him to seek that level of revenge.

If I ever did have a chance to time travel, I’d go forward, not back.

I don’t want to revisit the time when some women had their lower ribs surgically removed to achieve a more pleasing (to whom?) waistline. And I already know all I want to about the days before plumbing and the zipper and all the iStuff.

I’d like to visit the future, find out what becomes of the Kindle.

It’s fun to have my slide rule hanging in my office, as a reminder of earlier times, but I wouldn’t want to give up my computer.

I’d love to go away for a while and rest, and then come back in 60 or so years and talk to those who are now toddlers.

Some questions for them:

1. Has there been a First Gentleman in the White House yet?

2. Was there a revival of regular cinematic dramas—no comic heroes, no animation, no “special” effects?

3. Did we ever give peace a chance?

4. Did Amy Adams’s face ever wrinkle?

5. What’s the official language of the United States?

. . .  and more.

Of course I could read sci fi and get someone’s idea of the future, or I could write it myself and make my own predictions.

But I want to know what actually happens, whether there’ll be paper books in the year 2100, and what became of the kids who grew up hearing “Good job!” just for waking up in the morning?

What would you want to know?

Three Miles Downriver

That's me, on the left, in a cool but uncomfortable hat.

This week marks the 39th anniversary of Three Mile Island, forever the name of an accident, rather than the name of a nuclear reactor three miles downriver from Middletown, Pennsylvania. It’s the most serious accident in U.S. commercial nuclear power plant operating history.

The accident began in Unit 2, at about four in the morning on March 28, 1979. HERE is a complete backgrounder from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission site. Here’s my version of the aftermath.

Do you remember where you were on March 28, 1979? It was a Wednesday, and if you lived on the east coast, by the time you were getting ready for work, the news, if not a plume, would have spread. For those of us working in the nuclear power industry, the memory is sharp, as for the day President Kennedy was assassinated, and the day the towers fell.

Though it resulted in no fatalities or injuries, the accident at Three Mile Island changed the way we viewed nuclear power and was probably the chief reason we haven’t seen a new plant in decades.

For me, it meant donning a hardhat, clipboard in hand, and traveling the country to inspect reactor control rooms.

Problems with control room procedures were at the heart of the accident, so the government undertook a massive overhaul of reactor operator training and human factors engineering. Week after week, I landed in towns with top-notch accommodations—where “room service” meant having a vending machine down the hall, instead of across the parking lot.

In my experience, relations between the utilities that ran the plants and the government body that regulated them had always been adversarial, and grew more so after TMI.

Sorry, the stairs aren’t working.

Take the time our team arrived for an inspection of a second floor control room. We were told the stairs were being upgraded and the only way to get to the second floor was to go out of the building through the window, climb the scaffolding to the upper level, and enter through the window on that level. Even though I was more agile then, it was still a hassle, not to mention scary. At the end of our three-day inspection, and after many hair-raising trips along the outside of the building, a plant worker made the mistake of removing a temporary partition that was hiding a perfectly good set of stairs, right in front of us.

Words were exchanged.


Typically, we’d arrive in town after a long flight, plus a puddle-jumper, get a few hours sleep, and show up unannounced at the plant around 8 or 9 the next morning. Tip: the “unannounced” part doesn’t work if the population is 300 and the innkeeper is the plant manager’s uncle.

“Oh, shucks,” the manager would say, with a smile that fooled no one. “We’re doing a test right now. Can you come back later? Say, around midnight?”

For all the lack of cooperation on inspection days, I was still impressed by the amazing technology and the possibilities of nuclear energy.

There’s a rumor going around that the US is starting up its nuclear energy program again.

I say this with the bias that comes from wanting to keep my electric blanket and LAN going.

The resurgence of nuclear power might also give new life to my first book ever: Nuclear Waste Management Abstracts. It was released in 1982, but you can be the first to review it on amazon.

Call me

Sheet music: From The New York Public Library

A big week for the telephone:

•  On March 7, 1876, Alexander Graham Bell receives a patent for his invention.

• On March 10, 1876, Bell makes the first telephone call, in his Boston lab, summoning his assistant, Thomas Watson, from the next room.

Interesting — 23 years later, almost to the day (March 6, 1899), the aspirin was invented.

The Jig is up

I borrowed the title and content for this blog from my engineer husband. One of his passions is doing puzzles — acrostics, cryptoquotes, anagrams, and the ones requiring some amount of real estate in our family room: jigsaw puzzles.

He has his own blog that features all the puzzles he and his family and friends have done over the last couple of years. But high-level security concerns make him wary of posting his blog publicly. Potential readers and contributors are required to submit an application to his editor at I’d post his URL here, but he’d only delete it.

Being an engineer, he looks for problems to solve.

The latest, in his own words:

Have you ever wondered if a puzzle maker uses the same cutting process for all the puzzles of the same size and number of pieces?  I have. The next puzzles to be solved are going to be that kind of 500 piecers.  After one of them is solved, I’m going to keep it assembled and compare it to the second one, to see if the pieces are related to each other.

Fortunately for us, the project has been completed and we have the answer: yes! The bottom left-hand corner of two 500-piece (brand name here) puzzles are shown here, as evidence.

If you have any other crucual puzzle-related problems you need solved, submit to the email address above.


April 7, 1969 is listed as one of the birthdays of the Internet.

One of? You mean you can’t Google “Internet birthday” and get a definitive date for the invention of something we use every day? Apparently not.

For example:

• On April 7, 1969, the first Requests for Comments (RFC) were published by the Pentagon’s ARPA project. RFC documents describe the theoretical foundations of the Internet and interconnected computers.

• On September 2, 1969, the first local connection between two computers was established at UCLA.

• On the evening of October 29, 1969, the first data travelled between two nodes of the ARPANET, a key ancestor of the Internet.

• On January 1, 1983, the switch was made from Network Control Protocol to Transmission Control Protocol and Internet Protocol, to accommodate the much larger and more complicated network that would eventually be needed.

As for the WWW, the multimedia portion of the Internet, some say it was invented on Christmas Day, 1990, when the first practical HTML browser was completed; others say August 7, 1991, when CERN unveiled the browser to the world.

Does anyone else think it’s ironic that a chief source for information on everything from movie times to important dates in history doesn’t know when itself was invented? (Pardon the grammatical license. I could check the Internet for proper usage, but can I trust it now?)

It seems the only things we’re really sure happened on April 7 are

• King Kong opened in movie theaters (1933) and

• It’s Russell Crowe’s birthday (1964).

As long as there’s some excuse to eat cake, I’m satisfied.

In Memoriam

January 28, 1986 – one of those days in history. We all remember where we were, what we were doing. Most adults who could, were watching television.

We saw it live: the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff from Cape Canaveral, killing all seven crew members. Flight commander Francis R. “Dick” Scobee; pilot Michael J. Smith; Ronald E. McNair; Ellison S. Onizuka; Judith A. Resnik; Gregory B. Jarvis; and schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe.

The Evolution of Stored Music

Only a little arm-twisting and I got The Cable Guy to write about the evolution of stored music. I was inspired by the sight of boxes and boxes of CD’s now stored in a corner of our bedroom, compared to a “party favor” we handed out this summer — a small flash drive with hours and hours of music.

Here’s The Cable Guy, in his own words:

I got my first stored music in my life when, as a child, I listened to 78 RPM shellac records. A 12-inch record side could hold around 5 minutes. When I was a teenager, records came as 33 1/3 LPs and could hold around 22 minutes/side. When 1982 came around, the Compact Disc could hold around 75 minutes.

As can be noted, as time passed, the volume of space needed to store music declined significantly. The birth of the CD brought music into the era when it could be stored in digital form.  The personal computer could now be used to supply audio signals to a sound reproduction system which had no moving parts to wear out.  Each replaying of the stored music was as good as the last.

Along with the technological progress in computers, storage of digital data became more reliable, needed less space and had larger storage capacity.


In the last year or so, I converted all my analog music sources to digital files. These included records, tapes and CD’s.
As a summary of this activity, all of the CD’s in my collection were converted to .mp3 files by using the Apple iTunes software program.

The 6 boxes shown contain about 750 CDs:

A view of the inside of one of the boxes:

The conversion of about 200 Clssical CDs to .mp3 files resulted in 53GB of digital data.  This amount of music can fit into the USB flash drive shown on the left side of the image below.
My entire 700 CD collection has 122GB of digital data and can fit into the USB flash drive shown in the middle.
The 2 1/4 inch SSD shown can hold almost 1000GB of digital data.

To provide a perspective of the volume of space that has changed over my lifetime, consider the time on the side of a LP record (22 minutes/side) compared to the 10 hours that the 64GB flash drive can hold.

Back to School

Heavy-duty text!

At the end of this month, my class for Golden Gate U, SF, begins. That is, the payroll office and the Help Desk are in San Francisco; I’m at home in a suburb thirty miles away and my students are all over the world.

The syllabus states: This course examines the impact of scientific thought and technological innovation on major cultures of the modern world. It includes analysis of the acquisition, application, and adaptation of technology in pre-industrial, industrial, and post-industrial societies.

Okay, it’s a bit academic, but that’s to be expected in a university catalog. Really, what the course allows me to do is discuss key events in the history of science that have changed cultural patterns and beliefs. Topics include breakthroughs from the printing press (the Church at the time condemned it as an instrument for spreading the devil’s work) to stem cell research and cloning (now being condemned by some).

It’s challenging and exciting to explore these issues with my students. Advances in science and technology have given every age more conveniences and life-saving medical procedures as well as new problems and new moral issues.

Remember the divorcing couple who were arguing over who would get her frozen eggs? Not a problem in my grandmother’s time. And all the cases of how long to sustain life with technology? Not a problem in the Old West, for example.

With an international student body working in cyberspace, I often don’t know the gender of some of my students. At first this was disconcerting. How could I know how to respond to a posting if I didn’t know whether it came from a man or a woman? I’ve had first names such as Jigme, Myint-San, Widya, Lieu, and many more that are unpronounceable. I longed to have a photo, an audio file, or some indication of the student’s gender. Maybe he or she would refer to a wife or husband. Of course, in 2015, that still wouldn’t be a clue.

Even some “American” names are gender-neutral. Was the Sean I had last term a girl, like the actress Sean Young, or a guy, like the actor Sean Penn? How about Jordan? Lee? Alex? Casey?

Short of asking outright, which I don’t want to do, I have no way of knowing the gender of these students. Every year that I’ve taught this class on line, there is at least one student whose gender I never learn, not even as I assign the final grade.

Eventually, I realized that it shouldn’t matter whether I’m reading the views of a man or a woman. Does it help to know the gender perspective of a person if the issue is end-of-life technology or gene therapy? Or does it hinder our ability to listen objectively?

Boy or Girl. Should it matter?

The Manhattan Project

On Monday, June 8, Camille gave a presentation on THE MANHATTAN PROJECT: The Physics, the People, and the Politics, at Roosmoor in Walnut Creek, CA.

A well-known, oft repeated quote from Santayana: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

And a somewhat less known quote from Kurt Vonnegut:

I’ve got news for Mr. Santayana: we’re doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That’s what it is to be alive.

I’m in the Vonnegut camp. As far as I can see, we haven’t learned much from probably millions of years of human history, about 6000 of them “civilized”. One obvious example: we remember that war is hard on a country and its citizens, but that doesn’t stop us from engaging in wars, often overlapping, with bigger and better weapons.

For many reasons, I’ve never found history particularly interesting. But recently I’ve become fascinated by one specific period in US history – the years of the Manhattan Project.

So many issues came into play on an isolated mesa in Los Alamos, New Mexico:

• the way the military personnel and the scientific community had to work together though their usual modus operandi were so different;

• the strategy of setting up two groups of scientists with a challenge: team A tries fission; team B tries fusion. Both succeed.

• the very human emotions of fear, jealousy, suspicion that resulted in one of the most famous feuds in modern times: Oppenheimer v. Teller;

• the tremendous feat of turning bits of scientific theory and blackboards full of equations into something tangible, that worked in the real world.

It has taken many volumes to collect the data and report on the aftermath, and I have a feeling it’s not over yet.

Dialogue with Alyx Morgan

This week, The Real Me is trying something new. My writer friend, Alyx Morgan, and I became engaged in a dialogue on Facebook, and decided to take the discussion to our blogs. Here’s the text, which will also be on Alyx’s blog tomorrow, with her comments.

Camille: What’s your response when you see people sitting at a table, each using a portable device?

What’s your response if the people are each reading a book?

What if a teenager comes to the dinner table with her phone? With a book? With knitting?

Alyx: There have recently been lots of videos posted on social media lately about the disconnectivity caused from people constantly being on their smartphones.  I’m sure you’ve seen these people; walking, head bent downward, seemingly fascinated by the small electronic device nestled between their hands.  The videos talk about putting down the phone & getting back in real touch with the world around you; your friends, nature, your community. One in particular suggests that when you “connect” with the world via your phone, you’re actually lonely, because you can edit your life into a beautiful 148 character version of what’s really happening, or a simple snapshot or meme with a few pithy words attached.  This same video, however, says that it’s not loneliness to spend time alone, reading a book, or meditating or even dining out alone, because you’re being a “productive & present, not reserved & recluse.”  Do you agree with that, or do you think you’re being just as recluse if your nose is stuck in a book as if it’s stuck staring at your screen?

Do you feel we’re more connected nowadays than before cell phones & social media, or less, or both?

Camille: Great question, Alyx. I think there’s a bigger issue around this — Ludditism! One of my missions in life has been to defend technology against bad press. When I hear someone refer to reading a “real” book, for example because they like the smell and feel, I wonder what kinds of books thehave. Mine are all just paper, and smell a lot like my Kindle.

Alyx:  I actually had to look up Luddite, Camille, to make sure I fully understood the term.  I don’t think that technology is entirely evil, but I think some people take it too far & use it too much as a way to fill up a void that they fear is there.  I think this is often the case with regards to cell phones & those who are on them constantly.  It’s like my step-daughter who says she’s bored unless we’re doing something.  There are SO many other things to spend your time on that will actually progress your life instead of just sitting around & checking & rechecking Twitter/Facebook/Instagram/etc. for the latest funny memes or to find out what your friends are eating for lunch.

I even know some people who will have the TV on in the background (often muted) while doing something else on their computer &/or listening to music through their headphones.  That constant barrage of electronic stimuli would drive me insane.  Maybe I’m just wired in a way that it’s too much noise in my head & I want to pay attention to it all, but can’t, so I become exhausted by trying to divide my attention.

I will say that I’m of the former group with regards to books, though not quite for the same reasons.  While I definitely notice a scent to books (especially older ones), my preference is because the typeface is bigger & it’s easier for me to hold a book, rather than a small, half-inch thick device.  Plus, I stare at a computer screen all day long at, so I prefer to give my eyes a rest when reading.  I do see the benefit of being able to have 5 (or 25) books all in one small device, rather than having to lug them around on vacation, but I just don’t think I’d ever be able to do it.

Something else that drives me crazy about technology is when people who are out dining with others sit at the table with their noses buried in their cell phones.  It seems rude to me to ignore someone who’s sitting right there next to you in favor of someone who may be miles away.  What’s your take on that?

Camille: We’re not too far off, Alyx, but I admit a bias toward “the latest” and toward noise. I grew up with the sounds of people/city above, below, and around me — never lived in a single, separate house until well into middle age. So I do like the comfort of noises! I understand the need to get away from a screen, however. One reason I like my e-reader is that I can make the font as large as I need and even though it’s a screen it seems be more in my control.

As far as dinner — I think it depends on a mutually agreed upon “rules.” If I know my dinner (or shopping or driving) companion is annoyed by devices, I refrain. If I know my companion is also dying to check her email, then we go for it!

And often the connections are part of the conversation. “Oh, Ian just told me he passed his test.” or “Can you make lunch with us on the 20th?”

Alyx: I agree that if both (or all) parties are okay with it, then it’s none of my business.  My husband & I have been known to go out to dinner together & bring separate books to read.  We don’t do it often, but sometimes that’s the only time we have to read & I kind of think of it as no different than when couples read the Sunday paper together on the couch or over breakfast.  We put the books down when food arrives & relate to each other then, but we still got a little bit of down time in our fantasy worlds.

So, if you’re into the “latest”, how much time do you spend on your smartphone?  Do you spend a lot of time on social media with your smartphone?

Camille: I use my smartphone for Internet only when I’m on travel, pretty much only to check email and take pictures. My eyesight isn’t good enough to do too much FB or videos on my smartphone. Sorry I misled you about “the latest” which refers mainly to our home “entertainment” system, not portables. My husband is a retired tv engineer, so we’re the early adopters w/r satellite dishes, dvrs, and so on. Which means we’re left with a laser disc player and other now outmoded devices!

I agree about being together but engaged in something else, something that’s likely to be shared in the end, like reading a book, on screen or off. My husband and I do separate puzzles together, calling out for help from one chair to the other.

I wonder how often that’s happening when we think people are “not connecting?”

I do have one awful story about phones – a woman pushing a stroller was crossing a huge intersection in front of me not long ago as I was waiting to make a right turn, cars stacked behind me. She had one hand on the stroller and one holding the phone, her head buried in the phone. Unsafe! There’s a line to draw.

Alyx: I agree, that’s SO unsafe!  And I think that’s one of my main problems with this trend . . . people who can’t seem to take their eyes off their phones for even 5 minutes!  It’s almost like people are afraid they’ll miss something important if they focus on “mundane” things like having dinner with your family, walking, or (heaven forbid) driving!  If you’re sitting down somewhere & invested in your phone, that’s one thing (except for when parents use the phone as a babysitter for their young children), but when you’re doing some other activity, put the phone down & focus on that activity!  I promise, the message or Facebook status update will still be there when you arrive at your destination.

Camille: Yes, safety first! There’s another aspect of this, maybe for another time, and that is that often our jobs require constant availability. Even if we’re freelancing, our clients expect us to be ON all the time, for appointments, cancellations, last minute questions. There’s a different expectation than there used to be, say 20 years ago, maybe even 10. In a sense, we do run the risk of missing something if we’re around at the “right” time.

Remember to get Alyx’s take on this at on Friday 5/29/15.