Category : Technology

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.

Backyard Satellite Dish Demise

GUEST BLOG today, from the Cable Guy, who presided over the decommissioning of our last satellite dish. Thanks, Cable Guy, for keeping me entertained all these years.


After over 25 years of using satellite dishes for viewing television programming, the Cable Guy has the latest big dish removed from the Real Me backyard.

(Note: the pipe remnant has been capped by an inverted Christmas tree stand.)

Previous residential sites where a big dish resided were:Over the years these three dishes served their purpose well, allowing avoidance of inferior cable TV quality and program scheduling.

Now programming is obtained by a much smaller satellite dish, which can provide better quality HDTV because of the increased power and frequencies used today. Also, broadcast reception is available from the antenna shown. The antenna is not significantly different from those used in the early 1950’s, when viewing was done on a 10 inch TV with a round screen. 

The Cable Guy has left the porch and the back yard.


Report from Crimelandia

I’m back from Left Coast Crime in Portland Oregon last weekend.


Gigi Pandian accepting award from Gar Anthony Haywood

• Congratulating Gigi Pandian for her Rose Award — for the best mystery novel set in the LCC region.

Gigi also has the best photo collection here.




Panel: It’s A Living: Odd Jobs & Strange Professions, with 
Linda Joffe Hull (excellent moderator), 
Diane Vallere, Tammy Kaehler, and 
Robert S. Napier.

• Reuniting with friends and colleagues.

• The comfort of overcast days, so easy on the eyes.

• Made in Oregon shops with many chocolate choices.

The Bad:

• Hotel dining, with only one choice for dinner: the bar!


The Real Me, c. 1980

I couldn’t help recall the last time I was in Portland – as part of my job inspecting nuclear power plant control rooms for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Here I am at TROJAN in the late 20th century, as the digital natives call it.

Women’s History Month

MARCH – Women’s History Month.

I have mixed feelings about women’s anything, unless it’s the feminine care aisle in the supermarket or the OB/GYN specialist.

I remember being in Washington DC during the opening of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the self-proclaimed “gender specific” museum. I saw a wonderful exhibit of the works of French sculptor, Camille Claudel, as well as works by Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot.

Who thought we needed to build a special museum for the work of these and other female artists? Didn’t they deserve to be shown at the National Gallery of Art, only 20 minutes away by foot.

I almost regretted buying a ticket, seeing it as supporting continuing sexism in art and culture.

Yes, this is another of my rants against separating women’s achievements, singling them out, as if they can’t compete in the real, co-ed world.

Years ago, I was part of a program I’ll call XYZ, to give girls an extra push by having a day of science, for girls only, taught by female scientists. Sounds good, right?


First, there was the giggle factor—boys, young and old, giggling over the fact that girls had to be taken aside and given special attention to learn science. They obviously weren’t good enough to be taught science with the boys.

The guys were right—that’s exactly how it looked.

That should have been enough to kill the program, but it didn’t. I tried several times to change the course of the program, simply by inviting boys to the classes. Let the boys experience female science teachers, too (see above for why that’s important!) I continued to volunteer in the program, constantly petitioning for a change of philosophy and was shot down each time, until I finally quit. I realized that sexism was still rampant, and the powers that be would always consider that girls need special TLC to learn the hard stuff.

The program, started in the 1970’s, is alive and running, and still girls only. I know personally two of the Board members, and I know they “mean well.” But — When I ask, “Why is there still such a thing as the XYZ program?” the answer I get is “Because girls and women are still underrepresented in science and technology fields.”

If after 40 years of XYZ, that’s still true, here’s another possibility:

Girls and women are still underrepresented in science and technology fields because programs like XYZ exist, and encourage people to think girls can’t cut it in the normal learning environment. Because boys who are left out will still go on to be the CEOs and Research Directors and giggle as they look at women applicants and remember those special girls who got together to play scientist.

Driving Miss Royal

The Cable Guy finished updating my website last week. (THANKS, CABLE GUY!) It now loads equally well on the biggest and the smallest devices you own.

Browsing around the site while he was working on it, I came across a “poem” I wrote a long time ago, in my punny phase. Here it is:

Typewriter, mid-20th century. (It's hard to rhyme with Underwood.)

Driving Miss Royal

There once was a writer named Royal,
To her keys and her carriage so loyal.
She knew how to white-out,
Wrote poems with the light out,
She really was quite a smart goyal.

Our Royal could type like a racer;
No one in sight could out pace her.
She typed with great speed
And never did need
Even a tiny eraser.

But poor Royal was out making copies
When they came with the wires and the floppies.
A computer they brought her
And said that she oughta
Start learning or go and plant poppies.

So Royal met up with a cursor
And her life just got worser and worser.
In spite of her wiles
She lost all her files
And spoke in words terser and terser.

Our writer friend couldn’t believe
That software could novels retrieve.
Her disks she would whack
With alas and alack
And for her lost typewriter grieve.

For many ’tis ever so tiring
To figure out manuals and wiring.
But our Royal’s a leader,
A mystery reader,
In days she was back in there firing.

Now Royal performs any feat
With options, escape, and delete.
She does her off-loading
With no more foreboding
And menus for her are a treat.

And now for the rest of the news:
Royal is off on a cruise.
From her PC
She gets efficiency.
There’s gold in them there CPU’s!

©Camille Minichino 1989

How embarrassed should I be?

Technology and Social Change

My online class starts at the end of August: Science, Technology, and Social Change. A favorite topic, a favorite class.

I’m gearing up by gathering blogs, articles, and rants about what social media, smartphones and other electronic devices are doing to our teens, our dining habits, our culture.

Has our attention span suffered? Have we lost the ability to focus, to enjoy the moment?

Here’s one way to look at it: people haven’t changed. Only the tools have changed.

For example:

• In 1989, pre-smartphones, pre-Facebook, pre-almost everything, a college student in the northwest sent me postcards regularly. The usual message: I’m here in the library, studying hard.

My (unwritten) response: No, you’re not. You’re writing postcards, connecting to family and friends.

That same person, now 45 years old, posts on Facebook. The message: Thanks to (our babysitter), my husband and I are having a nice dinner out by ourselves.*

My (unwritten) response: No, you’re not. You’re posting on Facebook, connecting to even more family and friends.


Is technology ruining our ability to focus or is it simply filling a need?

*Actually, she writes Me and my husband are having a nice dinner . . . but we can’t blame technology for that, can we?