Category Archives: Engineering

Rise of the Rocket Girls

Rise of the Rocket Girls: the women who propelled us, from missiles to the moon to Mars by Nathalia Holt (Little, Brown and Company, 2016)

This is the true story of the women who worked at California’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in a professional capacity from its founding in the early 1940s to the 1990s. In 2013, the author interviewed several dozen women who had worked as engineers at JPL over its history, making this into a collective biography that uses real names, photos, career highlights, and love stories. In the beginning they were called computers, because they literally used their mathematical skills to compute trajectories, escape velocities, and many other key parameters needed to guide rockets to their destinations. Though some of them had mathematics or even engineering degrees, the women who were hired at JPL in the 1940s and 1950s were not classified as engineers; they were part of a separate all-women group.  Those that stuck around JPL into the 1960s were eventually reclassified, when computers came to mean digital computing machines and gender discrimination started to be frowned upon. Prior to that they suffered significant discrimination, such as when they were forced to quit when they became pregnant. Threaded throughout the book are descriptions of the various space missions that JPL supported over the years and the many technical contributions made by women engineers. The black and white photographs really made the story come to life for me.


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Filed under Engineering, Nonfiction

The Very Hungry City

The Very Hungry City : urban energy efficiency and the economic fate of cities by Austin Troy (Yale University Press, 2012).

The premise of this book is that as the cost of energy goes up permanently (due to climate change and exhaustion of fossil fuel supplies), cities that use significantly more energy will lose economic competitiveness to better-designed, more energy efficient cities. Troy doesn’t explore the more radical possibility that the cost of energy could go up so much that cities would become economically isolated. However, he does make a pretty good case that energy efficiency (defined quite broadly to include water supply and public transit) is going to be a major factor in economic success of cities in the rest of this century. He provides some interesting historical background on how transit systems developed (or were not developed) in major metropolitan areas of the U.S., and the issues around suburban sprawl. Troy also offers some comparisons to urban planning approaches in Europe, particularly Sweden and Denmark, where he interviewed bicycle commuters and residents of impressive planned urban housing developments. Throughout the book Troy highlights ideas that reduce urban energy costs (tree planting, congestion pricing, LEED architecture) as examples of what the more successful cities are doing right.

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Filed under Engineering, Environment, Urban planning

Under the Surface

Under the Surface: Fracking, Fortunes, and the Fate of the Marcellus Shale by Tom Wilbur (Cornell University Press, 2012)

Tom Wilbur was a reporter with the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin when he started reporting about fracking in the Marcellus Shale, and the story turned into a full-length book. Binghamton, New York is a city in southern New York just north of the Pennsylvania border, which you reach if you take I-81 north (as I have done many times) through the Endless Mountains region of northeastern Pennsylvania. I found this book to be very enlightening. Wilbur explains that the Marcellus Shale is a geologic formation underlying the Appalachian Mountains containing a great deal of natural gas. However, retrieving the gas was impossible or unprofitable until very recently, when hydraulic fracturing (fracking for short) began to be employed. Wilbur describes the advent of fracking in northeast Pennsylvania and southern New York from the perspectives of the property owners it affected and the local and state governments who were called upon to regulate it. It is particularly interesting to see how differently the states of New York and Pennsylvania reacted. Wilbur notes that many landowners are thrilled to get the money paid by the gas companies for drilling on their lands, and still feel that the initial problems were insignificant. On the other hand, he points out two major areas of contention between the parties: the secretive and inconsistent manner in which the leases and payments were negotiated, and the environmental issues that resulted in significant loss of property values for some unfortunate landowners. Although I have read of earthquakes being attributed to fracking, that issue was not mentioned by Wilbur. Instead, he focuses on documenting known cases of explosions and methane contamination of ground water, which form an important public record since gas companies often deny that these things occurred.

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Filed under Engineering, Environment

Confessions of an Economic Hit Man

Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins (Blackstone Audio, 2005)

The title of this book makes it sound like it’s going to be a hilarious romp, with lots of wild and crazy adventures and snarky humor. In fact, Perkins could not be more serious (both about confessing and about being a hit man), yet this is not a dry economics tome, either. It is a memoir of Perkins’ real life as an economic consultant in the many developing countries where American companies operate. It reveals a successful strategy for creating a global capitalist empire so insidious that most of the people who helped make it happen didn’t know they were doing it. Perkins did know, up front; his guilt for what he did eventually made him write this book. The job of an EHM is to convince poor countries to borrow huge amounts of money from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, then give the money to American engineering firms to exploit their natural resources and create modern infrastructure. Just make sure that the countries can never pay the money back, so the “corporatocracy” (a collusion of government, big corporations, and big banks) can continue to control them.
As with all capitalist schemes, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer (often by being forced off their land by big oil or big agriculture), and the environment is destroyed in the process. If the country elects democratic leaders with left-wing ideas (like helping the poor or nationalizing oil companies), the “jackals” are sent in to assassinate the leaders in nasty “accidents” and put right-wing dictators in place. If the jackals don’t succeed, the American armed forces invade and remove the leader who doesn’t want to do the big corporations’ bidding and allow the country to be exploited. This is the true story of the “third” world since World War II, and especially since 1970, which has been hidden from us by the corporate-controlled media – the story of what really happened in places like Indonesia, Panama, Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Ecuador. You may not believe me now, but when you have read this book, you will.

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Filed under Engineering, Environment, Social Science

Human Transit

Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich our Communities and Our Lives by Jarrett Walker (Island Press, 2011)

Most books about public transportation immediately become mired in jargon and tedious math. This book is refreshingly different. Walker explains the why and hows of public transportation  in a simple and clear way that anyone can understand. He believes that we all should be able to weigh in on how best to serve our communities with public transit, whether that involves buses, trolleys, or rail systems. Walker takes apart the intimidating complexity of transportation systems by focusing on only one aspect in each chapter: routes, connections, fares, frequency, density, and so on. By the end we can see clearly how the pieces fit together, what tradeoffs are unavoidable, and where some of our cities went wrong.

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Filed under Engineering, Urban planning


Cyberselfish: a critical romp through the terribly libertarian culture of high-tech by Paulina Borsook (Public Affairs, 2000).

One day our Internet access was down for 3 hours in the library where I work, and I found this 12-year old book on a shelf and starting reading it. Paulina Borsook is a former writer for Wired, and the premise of “Cyberselfish” is that the computer industry (particularly in northern California) is dominated by a a libertarian worldview. She calls these anti-government, free-market enthusiasts “techno-libertarians”, whose individualist ethos doesn’t leave any room for government help or private charity. I’m not sure Borsook completely explains why so many high-tech engineers and executives are libertarian, but she does reveal some key insights. For example, she seems to feel that their hatred of government stems from their subconscious (though not necessarily correct) belief that the government is populated by the popular kids that beat them up for being nerds.  They also willfully ignore any factors outside of themselves that may have contributed to their success (such as government-provided infrastructure or being in the right place at the right time).  Having met a lot of folks like this in the engineering field, I think Borsook is right on the money.

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Filed under Engineering, Social Science


Interop: The Promise and Perils of Highly Interconnected Systems by John Palfrey and Urs Gasser (Basic Books, 2012).

This is a very timely book about a simple concept: interoperability. As our world becomes run by complex systems, many automated to a significant extent, interoperability between systems becomes more and more important. Yet we don’t always want complete interoperability; there are essential issues of privacy and security that we need to make sure are not overlooked. Attorneys Palfrey and Gasser show us both sides of interoperability in a variety of modern systems, elucidating the advantages and disadvantages for various constituents.

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Filed under Engineering, Social Science