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Archive for April, 2012

Photo from the Swamp People Facebook page.

As much as I’ve enjoyed watching Swamp People, one thing has bothered me about it. It felt exploitive. The Louisiana bayou is about as rural and southern as it gets in the US, and all the hunters on the show are unabashedly country. They’re the kind of people a lot of us like to refer to as hicks or rednecks.

When it comes to the ‘ignorant Southerner’ stereotype I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder. I spent my childhood in a fairly rural area in east Tennessee and I wasn’t really a hunter or farmer but I bristle at the stereotype. After I became a ‘city boy’ I had regular clashes with one of my more smug friends (Swedish daughter of a Vanderbilt professor) who thought Southern accent = ignorant hick. So the choice to use subtitles for most of the Cajun hunters was pretty offensive to me at first.

After a few episodes I realized it was my own preconceptions and defensiveness that were the real problem. The gator hunters on Swamp People don’t sit in board rooms and they have thick accents but most of them are pretty sophisticated businessmen, and I’ve gained a new respect for the small business owner since my wife started up her own business. The profit margin on gator hunting isn’t so great and you have to plan ahead and run a tight organization to make a decent profit from the 30 day gator hunting season. Several of them own successful businesses like gator farms, and convenience markets that carry them through the rest of the year, and one guy even designs boats on the fly with nothing but a Sharpie and a big sheet of metal. He cuts and welds them right there on his property and apparently does a good business at it.

It bothers me a little that I’ve internalized the ignorant Southerner stereotype, but I’m glad to see a few Cajuns doing their part to get rid of it. I suspect that a lot of viewers still won’t see beyond the initial impressions, but maybe that’s just my imagination too.

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Every episode of Swamp People (History Channel) starts with a warning. Before you see the title or the ‘tonight on…’ teaser footage you see a black screen as ominous music plays and the following warning fades in:

The way of life depicted in this program dates back 300 years.

Hunting, especially alligator hunting, lies at its core.

Some images may be disturbing.

Viewer discretion is adviced.

It sounds overly dire, but it’s probably not a bad idea to give a little warning about what the viewer should expect.

Swamp People is all about gator hunting in the bayous of Louisianna. You aren’t going to see a lot of blood and guts, but you will see lots of dead gators getting dragged around and lots of action shots of the hunters standing on piles of previous catches while they try to shoot a live one.

It’s definitely an action oriented, testosterone heavy show. The show follows several groups of gator hunters throughout the gator hunting season. The producers do a good job of editing out the tedium of driving around the swamp putting out the bait and waiting for the gators to take it. Most on-camera time is spent showing the hunters reeling in a hooked gator and there are some really beautiful helicopter shots of the swamp.

In most episodes they follow one of the hunter teams home for a end of the day look at family life. It’s a blatant effort to remind the viewers that the hunters are actual people rather than actors playing a part, and it’s mostly unnecessary. Most of the hunter teams are father son duos or very close friends because gator hunting requires a partner you can trust with your life or at least your health.

One of my wife’s favorite parts of the show is the interplay between the father and son teams. Most of them refer to gator hunting as a family tradition and both halves of the team seem to enjoy the process of passing along the gator hunting skills. The fathers are visibly proud of their sons after a particularly hard fought catch and the sons can be seen enjoying their dad’s pride.

The producers keep it moving and they do a fair job of editing the episodes into a storyline with a tenuous unifying theme. The most recent episodes have been about a tropical storm blowing boats around and making the gators dive deep below the hooks or holing up in the lairs for an early hibernation. Past episodes have shaken up the status quo with things like potential poachers or nearly getting the boat stuck due to water level changes while exploring a remote fishing hole. (That episode included some really amazing shots of one of the hunters jumping his boat over a levee. You could literally see the guy’s adrenaline rush afterward.)

Despite the producers best efforts though, the repetitive nature of the show is a definite drawback. Even shots of angry gators fighting the line and gorgeous overhead shots of the bayou get monotonous after too many viewings. I recommend you watch it in small increments rather than a marathon viewing of every episode on the DVR.

While it’s not appointment television, I think Swamp People is a darn good show. It’s a pretty testosterone soaked soaked show but it does seem to have its appeal to the ladies. My wife actually is the one who turned me onto the show. At first it felt a bit exploitive, especially due to the extensive use of subtitles translating the Cajun accents, but I’ve gotten past that aspect.  Even if you’re not up to a season’s worth of episodes it’s worth watching a few just to see how they actually go about hunting the gators.

All photos are from the Swamp People Facebook page.

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Back when I was an impressionable youngster chemistry seemed like a lot of fun. Acids, open flame, liquids cool to the touch that bubble over when you mix them… As an adult I still have some interest in your basic household chemistry, but any thoughts of a career in chemistry got stomped out of me when I went from lab to lecture. Balancing chemical equations and counting electrons got old real fast.

Hunting the Elements is a recent episode of Nova that almost made me regret my choices. The episode is a two hour documentary on the table of elements and presents it in a real and exciting way. It pulls you in with ‘real world chemistry’ but it manages to lay down some actual basic chemistry education in an interesting way. (Probably because it had a higher production budget than most text books.)

The organization of the segments throughout the episode is a bit haphazard from a scientific point of view but it does the work of a showman in pulling you in and keeping you interested. It starts out with a trip to a gold mine and takes you through the process as they pull huge dumptruck loads of soil out of the mine and refine each load down to a tiny nugget (approximately one gram of gold per heaping truck full of soil) and end up with a refined gold ingot worth $1.5 million.

Gold may not be the best place to start a discussion of the periodic table, but it’s certainly the most eye catching sequence and does the job of catching your attention. Other highlights include a sequence on combustion (lots of stuff blowing up and some cool high speed photography of it), a physical representation of the periodic table (with samples of each element), and visiting a lab where they’re manufacturing new elements.

The unifying theme of the episode is the periodic table itself. It’s digitally superimposed on random surfaces throughout the nearly two hour episode. It’s a bit distracting at times, but it does serve to recenter viewer attention after each sequence. Most of the major elemental groups are covered through the course of the episode and the host provides a succinct explanation of the periodic tables structure that brought back the fundamentals I learned back in Chemistry 101 and would probably be a good overview for people who haven’t seen the periodic table since high school (or for high school students seeing it for the first time).

I think the biggest problem with the episode is the humor. There are several extended scenes meant to be comedic and the host gets off some real groaners, much to the fake chagrin of the actual scientists. It may be my imagination, but I think the eye roll inducing humor is intentional. As annoying as it is, the humor grounds the episode and reminds the viewers that science isn’t some mystical subject akin to magic. I just wish they hadn’t let some of the comedic moments go on for so long.

Overall I really enjoyed it. It was educational but it moved quickly enough to keep from being overly boring. It was structured in a way that grabbed your attention and moved from the more exciting visual subjects (gold mining) to the less concepts that are less visually impressive but more exciting in their potential (making new elements). I recommend it for any novice in the chemistry field, and I think it would make great viewing for a high school chemistry class. I’d make my own kids watch it if they didn’t have the attention span of four year olds (though the explosions do appeal to a four year old boy).

You can watch the episode over at PBS.org, but I don’t guarantee how long that will last. They also have an iPad app and some teaching games on their website. There’s also a fun interactive periodic table here.

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Civil Engineering is a term that covers a lot of space.  It’s a field that allows for a lot of specialization, but today I want to talk about my own little corner of that giant space.  Hydraulic Engineering, these days better known as Water Resources Engineering.

Since the beginning of my career I’ve been in hydraulic engineering.  In this case ‘hydraulic’ means ‘related to water.  The industry and most practicioners have been moving toward ‘water resources’ in the intersts of avoiding confusion related to the other uses of the word ‘hydraulics’.  Also, when you get into the nitty gritty (which I’m avoiding for the moment) of it, water resources covers a wider range of topics than hydraulics.  In the 1960’s and 70’s water was only an impediment to get away from your building as quickly as possible or a tool to make electricity, these days it’s so much more complex.

So what does a water resources engineer do?  The title encompasses anything related to water, and water is 70% of the earth’s surface and vital to every form of life we’re aware of, so it’s a pretty broad spectrum of resonsibilities.  So here’s a bullet list:

  • Designing water and waste water treatement plants.
  • Flood modeling to determine those pesky 100 year floodplains that journalists like to talk about when it rains a lot.
  • Road drainage so we don’t have to stay in the garage on rainy days.
  • Bridge design to make sure the Walmart upstream doesn’t get flooded.
  • Restoring damaged and polluted streams.
  • Designing levees to make land more useful.
  • Land development that turns forest or pasture into your local Target.
  • Water distribution systems so something wet comes out when your turn the faucet.  (including those awesome water towers)
  • Erosion control on construction sites to keep dirt out of streams.

That’s just a list off the top of my head.  Nearly every civil engineering has a water component of some sort and most civil engineers have a working knowledge of the basic principles no matter what area they practice in.

Me personally?  I’m a specialist.  I work for an organization that builds a lot of roads so my primary job is to keep the roads above flood waters and making sure the good taxpayers of this state don’t get blamed for roads that flood people who live nearby.  When something goes wrong and water gets in someone’s house my colleagues and I are the ones that get the call to figure out what went wrong.  (It’s important to note though, water resources engineering is one of the few specialties where catastrophe can happen even if no one screws up.)  It’s a rewarding job, but it does involve a lot of routine design work to keep things from going wrong.  Unfortunately though, when my workday is at its most interesting it probably means someone else had a really bad day.  I sometimes feel guilty about deriving the most enjoyment out of the parts of my job based on someone else’s bad fortune, but I do take a lot of satisfaction in fixing what’s broken so it won’t happen again.

I’m planning some future posts with details about some of the projects I’ve been involved with (mostly from that bullet list above), but for today I just wanted to give an overview for anyone who might be interested.

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I usually hate when a blogger posts excuses for not blogging, but I’m going to do it now just so no one thinks it’s a repeat of the unannounced lengthy sabbatical I took from the old blog.

I’ve been off attending the annual conference of the American Water Resources Association (TN Section) which is held in a remote location surrounded by very nice water resources (and somewhat LACKING in cell service).  When I got back from that I ran afoul of the mountain of paperwork required to file income taxes for my wife’s photography business.  (Curses upon thou foul Schedule C.)  Never fear, my imaginary readers, the conference provided lots of inspiration for new and amazing posts and I just hit the ‘send’ button on my taxes so I’ll be back as soon as I can look at the computer again without going cross-eyed and clutching at my wallet.

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Some days people just make me tired.  Maybe I’m just old and cranky, but it seems like there is someone (if not an entire group) dedicated to criticizing a decision someone else made.  Believe it or not, I’m not even referring to this years elections.

The ice cream man seems to be another flashpoint in the war of everyone versus everyone else.  I posted a comment I intended to be funny on Facebook about the ‘free music van’.  Most of the responses were agreement or funny, but there were a couple that weren’t so nice including one ‘shame on you’.  I know these people fairly well so I was willing to give the benefit of the doubt on their intentions.  Then I ran across a controversy in Brooklyn.  Apparently a parenting group is calling for a ban on ice cream vendors in the local park, and others vehemently disagree.  It’s your typical locally brewed controversy, but the vitriol of some of the opinions surprised me and made me take my own nay-sayers a little more seriously.

From the original NY Post article:

a nanny who also took her charges to Harmony recently, wishes the worked-up moms and dads would just get a life.

“They’re obnoxious,” she said. “There’s no harm in this.”

Then we have “Brooklyn Parents Hate the Ice Cream Man, Want Someone Else to Do Their Jobs.  Again.” and “The Ice Cream Man Isn’t Raising Your Kids, You Are”.  It’s hard to take either post seriously when the judgement is built right into the title.

I’m not trying to overblow my own experience.  It’s just knowing that you can be shamed, told to get a life, and have your parenting called into question over an opinion on ice cream.  It makes me weary.

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Alternate title for today’s post: Why ice cream makes me contemplate mortality.

I love me some ice cream, but I much prefer to fetch my own these days.  I’m referring to the portable purveyor of frozen goodness that comes wrapped in the shrillest, loudest, most annoying music possible.  And my objections are personal and professional, young AND old.

When I was a kid my family lived in a fairly rural area with a decent amount of space between houses.  The ice cream truck didn’t come by all that often, and when he did you had to be on top of your game to get him to stop.  We lived on the side of a steep hill and traffic came over it dangerously fast.  It was dangerous to go slow on our road so we never heard the music until it was on top of us.  (As a professional Designer Of Roads, it makes me shudder to remember how dangerous it was to stop a van full of ice cream in that road.  Those guys should have known better than to cruise our neighborhood.)

My brother and I had to develop a pretty robust strategy to get our ice cream.  It involved a bunch of fainting goats, a mini-tramp, and……….  (Sorry, different caper.)  One of us rushed in for money while the other prepared to flag the guy down and filibuster until the money man showed up.  It was one of the few times we actually worked together (the other being when we watched R rated movies on the VCR in my brothers room) and we were successful about 50% of the time.  Even when we the plan came together and we were successful I always worried about some car flattening us while we dickered over chocolate or strawberry.  Nothing ever happened, but to this day ice cream and vehicular mayhem are directly linked in my mind.

Now that I’m an adult, I live in a subdivision with 1/3 acre lots.  Population is fairly dense thanks to the smallish lots and there are lots of families.  Most people just think of it as the suburbs, but apparently it’s a target rich environment if you drive a van crammed full of icey goodness and a speaker on top blaring loud  music.  We’ve lived in this particular neighborhood for almost four years and about this time every year we start getting multiple daily drive bys from those purveyors of fine frozen treats.  By the end of June I’m usually contemplating calling in a noise complaint to the local police every time I hear that shrill music coming and I’ve threatened worse (in the privacy of my own mind) when they have the nerve to slow down and honk the horn on our block.

Since they cruise our neighborhood twice a day EVERY day we’ve actually had to resort to telling the twins that it’s just a ‘free music van’.  That seems so much easier than explaining to an unhinged toddler why we can’t have ice cream every day twice a day.  Sadly, they’re sharp little buggers now that they’re four and I think the jig is going to be up very soon.  Fortunately, they’re also old enough to understand ‘No’ even if they don’t like it.

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