Sunday, March 12, 2017

Steadfast perseverance

I finally saw the movie Hidden Figures this afternoon. That’s the one following the careers of three black women, Mary Jackson, Katherine Goble Johnson, and Dorothy Vaughan, at NASA in the early 1960s as America prepared to launch men into space. The basic plot is simple: These women, through steadfast perseverance, overcome discrimination. There is little doubt where this will end. Even so, it is a joy to watch them do it. I highly recommend the film.

I’ll mention one such scene. The women of the colored computer department are one group that did hand calculations for every mathematical need. A new computer machine is installed – an early IBM – and it is Dorothy who figures out how to make it work (Dad might have known this model and scoffed at the way it portrays IBM customer support as incompetent). Dorothy teaches herself a programming language by borrowing (though probably without proper check-out procedures) a book from the white section of the library. The colored section, of course, didn’t have such books. Dorothy shows enough skill she is named supervisor of the new department and turns all her human computers into programmers. She leads a grand parade from their old offices to the new computer room.

After watching a movie I usually visit International Movie Database to read about a movie’s trivia, goofs, and quotes. This one, alas, had many goofs and I caught one of them. Many of the goofs are cars from the wrong year (1964 and later for a movie set in 1961 and ‘62). Others are the computer printer making 1970s noises, the new computer delivered wrapped in stretch wrap, business men without the buzz cuts of the era, and no tobacco in the offices (though I’m glad of this one).

The one I caught was a part of John Glenn’s flight at the end of the movie. There is lots of discussion about a go/no-go decision point and Katherine is instrumental in the computations around it, even coming up with the math to make it happen. Glenn’s flight is apparently held up until Katherine confirms which set of numbers from the computer is correct (that verification happened weeks before the flight, not when Glenn is about to climb into the capsule). This is the one I caught: The movie portrays the go/no-go moment as just before splashdown. It doesn’t make sense there. A go/no-go decision means someone can abort something and there is nothing to abort then. The real go/no-go decision is when Glenn must decide to fire the rockets for re-entry on this orbit or wait until the next.

Through the movie there are confrontations between Dorothy and her white supervisor Vivian. The big issue is that Dorothy is doing the work of a supervisor and not getting the recognition and pay of a supervisor. Towards the end of the movie Vivian says, “Despite what you may think, I have nothing against y’all.” Dorothy responds, “I know, I know you probably believe that.” I understood Dorothy. If Vivian meant that she would have fought for Dorothy and her team. Instead, by her inaction Vivian supported the institutional racism.

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