Have you heard a machine sneeze?

Have you ever heard a machine sneeze?

I have. Repeatedly.

It comes as a side effect to being a robotics engineer, hearing machines make strange noises one wouldn't ordinarily expect. Like -- a sneeze.

Alright... it wasn't actually a sneeze.  It was the pneumatics system responding to a mechanical actuation. For days. It would seem that working in the same unchanging environment with the same machine whose behaviors evolve throughout development does encourage my literary personifying imagination. To my ears, I hear sounds like the sneezing that comes with bad allergies. But I suppose that pressure release valves perform a similar function to sneezing -- sneezing is, to some extent, just a form of rapid temporary air expulsion, is it not?

Though these are just the musings of the very particular genre of literarily interested robotics engineer that I know I have become, any engineer gets to know their machine, design, or system so well that it seems to come alive. These systems, computers, or robots seem to be misbehaving when an unplanned feature comes to light during the development process. Any developer of technology can relate to this statement.  The systems we work on, are not alive, or actually mis-behaving in the real sense of the word, I can assure you. If it weren't for the mantra every one of us as software developers has in the back of our minds, "the computer did exactly what you told it to do", our system's rates of software bugs to fix would produce the undoubtable appearance of misbehaving. (Note of reassurance to the non-developer... this is no cause for alarm, bug fixes are simply a part of the development process for every technological device. I am writing this uneventfully from an airplane, on my tablet, after all...)

Last year I wrote a review of the young adult novel Mechanica that I would like to share with you now. It has come to my mind again as I work on my current robotic pursuits -- reminded of the personifying spirits Betsy Cornwell gave the little characters of Mechanica. Please enjoy these comments. I'd highly recommend this novel to anyone (young adult or young at heart!) interested in what I found to be a creative, positive, feministic spin on the classic Cinderella fairytale.

 

If you read it, do let me know what you think!

 

Robotically Yours,

Katrina

YA Novel Review - Mechanica : Betsy Cornwall

Warning: SPOILERS ahead!

I recently read a book called Mechanica. It's the future engineer meets fairy tale magic Cinderella twist, where the main character realizes she doesn't actually want to marry the prince and give up her life in the end. The reviews of the book that I found online were mixed, so to be honest I wasn't sure what to expect, but was too intrigued by the story line to not impulsively purchase the book.

In Mechanica, the protagonist discovers her mother's hidden workshop on her 16th birthday and discovers little machines that her mother had built. Machines and little robot like contraptions, but they have souls. As if the little guys are actually robots who are alive with a soul of fairy magic! Its a magic she doesn't understand, a magic some of the townsfolk think is evil. A magic that brings her little robot friends to life nonetheless.

I felt greatly drawn to this idea because in truth, any machine or robot that I work on for an extended period of time seems to become alive. I improve its functions, discover software bugs, wiring mistakes and improvements. We spend lots of time sitting next to each other, the machine and I, it beeping at me and sometimes moving unexpectedly as if sending me a message. As a matter of fact, it is telling me something. What might seem like misbehavior from my machine tells me I haven't yet solved and found all of it's bugs. If it were alive and had a soul, I would be able to talk back and ask it what was wrong, ask it for help, as the protagonist does in Mechanica. As my machines are only functioning when turned on or plugged in to power, they will only do whatever I program it to do.

As I fix issues and we spend more time together, I get to know the machine as if it were alive. I know what beeps, blinks, and noises it should be making as the machine wakes up and begins operating. I know what beeps, blinks, and noises are unexpected. I know when it doesn't feel like talking and its communication systems are down, or when there's too much interference.  I feel the intense excitement when it operates as expected and completes a mini mission or passes a milestone, however insignificant it may seem to the non-developer. All of these things can make it seem like the machine is alive, like it has a fairy-magic soul like the little robot creations do in Mechanica.

And since it is a work of fiction, why not make the robots have souls? That's what it can feel like when your robotic creation operates as expected in real life, anyway. This story truly put the emotion and imagination I have behind developing, designing, and working in robotics on paper in form of this novel. I can definitely see that girls and young women could be more attracted to mechanics, technology, and robotics through untraditionally written stories like Mechanica. It is certainly not your ordinary robotic work of science fiction.

 

Well done Betsy Cornwell, and happy reading to the rest of you!

I am a STEM person, and so are you!

Hello Friends!

I am a STEM person, and I’m positive that you are too!

At my place of employment, we have an event each year to host girls from a couple of local schools for an “Introduce –a –Girl to Engineering Day”. This past year, one of the focuses of the event was to introduce the idea that we are all STEM people (again, STEM stands for Science Technology Engineering and Math). I wanted to share this idea with you all, as I think it is a very important one we don’t often consider!

You may wonder: how could I be a STEM person if I have no interest in becoming an Engineer, Mathematician, or Scientist? (just to name a few..) My answer to you – because STEM is all around us and involved in everything you do on a daily basis!! Yep, that’s right. I will even challenge you to think about any hobby or interest that you may have, and realize the ways in which engineering and science is involved in that interest! If you like to cook, play music, play sports, you are a STEM person! Not only are you a STEM person for creating chemical reactions and concoctions while cooking, or creating melodious sound waves and (mathematical) signals while playing music, or proving physics principles and projectile motion while playing sports, but you can also learn to appreciate the many types of STEM professionals who had to design, build and test the equipment and tools used for those activities. Isn’t that just fascinating?? I sure think it is…  

I’ve compiled a list of what I think are a few great resources that you can look to if you are curious about STEM fields and engineering. If you or someone you know wants to learn more but doesn't know where to look, or wants to prepare for a future career in STEM, check some of these out. On that note, if you know of any other great websites or resources to refer to, I'd love to hear about them! (I'm sure there are many others, I've just listed a few here)

So, friends, I will leave you today with this thought: don’t forget to think about the STEM that’s all around you and challenge yourself to wonder, how am I a STEM person? You may just be surprised and intrigued by a new, interesting type of engineering that you never knew existed! Who knows?! Any questions or comments… feel free to leave me a message or comment! 

Let's Start the Tech Talk...

Hello friends, fellow book lovers, and future engineers!

I was indulging in one of my favorite pastimes one afternoon [reading, naturally], when I came across a passage in my book that jumped out at me: 

"Despite the enormous importance of engineers and inventors in making our daily life what it is, history does not tell much about them. The earliest historical records were made by priests praising their gods and poets flattering their kings. Neither cared much about such mundane matters as technology. 

As a result, ancient legend and history are one-sided. We hear much about mighty kings and heroic warriors, somewhat less about priests, philosophers, and artists, and very little about the engineers who built the stages on which these players performed their parts. The warriors Achilles and Hector were celebrated in song and story - but the forgotten genius, who, about the time of the siege of Troy, invented the safety pin, lies wholly forgotten. Everybody has heard of Julius Caesar- but who knows of his contemporary Sergius Orata, the Roman building contractor who invented central indirect house heating? Yet Orata has affected our daily lives far more than Caesar ever did." - L. Sprague De Camp, The Ancient Engineers

Before reading this passage, it had not occurred to me that this simple reason could be one of the culprits for a lack of conversation about engineering and technical subjects. A logical solution that came to mind to help rectify this situation, was to start writing!

As an engineer with a love for robotics, innovation, gadgets, and history, I am fascinated by technological accomplishments of today and the past. Here in this blog, I hope to share with you interesting stories of technological accomplishments and my musings related to engineering and STEM fields! (STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math)

Don't worry!! Though I like Math, I will not scare any of you with its complications in this blog. I will merely share anecdotes with you related to its importance and practical use! (in my own personal opinion, of course) Hopefully, you all will find these stories I come across in my reading, research, and travels just as interesting as I do. Let's try and prove that Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math is simply FASCINATING, shall we??  

Stay tuned for more!!  Talk to you soon...