Kids Stuff

Saw How to Train Your Dragon over the weekend. Very enjoyable movie. If you like cats you'll call in love with the main dragon. I'm pretty sure it's a cat in disguise. Plus, even though it revolves around a geeky guy (like what movie doesn't these days?) the peripheral heroine is a badass axe wielding strong and independent person. Finally some armor I can get behind.
If you like fun and games, there's this genetic algorithm of a car (h/t Pharyngula). I don't know that I quite understand it, it's not precisely a game but presumably up and down votes should make it more than just programming you are watching. I think the key is to leave it alone for a while and see what it comes up with.
However, if you're really angling to avoid doing some work this morning check out this paper plane flash game called flight (h/t avoision). Just don't blame me when it's Friday afternoon and you haven't gotten anything done, ok?


Selling Science

What gimmicks do you use to market your science or engineering blog? I'm a fan of adorable fluffy animals or weird machines or sea creatures. Most engineers I know are visual people and a compelling photo with a hopefully interesting headline just might reel 'em in.

Scicurious recently posted Let's talk about sex (in science). This brought up a rehash of the Science Cheerleaders (or the pretty girls can do science, but remember your number one priority is to be pretty in a traditional way, and by pretty we mean fuckable). You see a lot of bloggers posted about how they either get unprofessional comments on their appearance based on a blog profile headshot or how as professors they get unwelcome attention to their gender and body from students or other professors even. But the verdict was using sex or sexy themes might bring more attention to something, but it does not necessarily do a good job at selling said thing.

One of my fav commenters, jc (when you going to get your own blog and put all your great stuff there?) came out and said something perfect:
"Well, how many women WANT to come forward and say "You were called hot, I was called fat and ugly"?"
The Disturbance Hypothesis definitely holds up. Women are a disturbance to men, PERIOD. If you are too smart, you're fucked. Too pretty, you're fucked. Ugly, fat, brown, lesbian…fucked fucked fucked fucked. If you don't wipe some moron's ass, fucked. If you overshadow some moron's ass with your brilliant study, fucked. Whatever the goalpost is for whatever whiny douche, you have to exist below it as a woman, or you are fucked.
Ain't that the truth. I feel angry and left out and margianalized no matter how you throw the dice. I love Dr. Isis but every time she shows a picture of some hot woman it is like shoving my body hate right in my face when I least expect it. Believe it or not I think sciencey blogs do a good job at sheltering me from society's ridiculous expectations. And I know she's trying to present who she is without judging anybody else, but those pictures make me feel judged.

When I talk with coworkers about the douchebag mucky mucks who work here and get away with harrassment and skeeviness and mysoginistic behavior I'm angry that some of my female colleagues have to deal with this kind of unwanted attention. I'm angry the guys who do this have enough power to get away with it and that pretty much any young pretty woman can be a target. But then I'm reminded I don't get this kind of attention and nobody is referring to me as "pretty" and that they don't think of me that way. Don't get me wrong, I'm certainly not "one of the guys" I'm pretty sure that's a myth. It's just that my not-as-standard level of female attractiveness or femininity puts me in the category of other.

An object to be ignored rather than objectified, and I don't like either option. I'm angry that my male colleagues accuse women of bringing it upon themselves by dressing a certain way when I know that that doesn't help but I feel disgusted that my own modest clothing choices are judged or publically applauded like it's some ridiculous fucking contest of what ways we all meet or fail to meet the boys' standards. It shouldn't fucking matter how we all choose to dress, so shove it! This is my personal style not because exposing more or less skin means I think a man has any right to objectify me or any other woman. And I'm not talking about noting attractiveness inside one's head, I'm talking about how there are engineers and there are women and some neanderthal male brains can't allow anyone to fit in both categories, or are unable to just have a single category: engineer.

My senior project group members were talking with our company sponsor about purchasing materials. Most so far have come from Home Depot. My group is 75% female and they and the male sponsors started relating stories about either themselves or people they know walking into a hardware store and suddenly getting a ton of male attention. Or walking into a video game store. I nodded and laughed. But I felt like the quote from jc's comment: to paraphrase, you were given attention but I'm so fat and ugly I wasn't even noticed. And I felt sad. Sad that we stereotype that "pretty" women need extra help in a hardware store. Sad that like jc I get simultaneously sexually objectified but also rejected for unfeminine features or for my weight. Rarely do I walk the middle ground of being noticed and respected for my personality or my skills. Everytime I think I'm having a conversation with a colleague I get a cutting comment that reminds me I am at core a woman. And like all other women, I am an incorrect woman who does not meet their perfect standard.

I shouldn't have to say props to the men in my life or the men in the blogosphere who do not objectify and do encourage and do not verbalize inappropriate comments and are able to see past all that shit. But I will say it because I hope these men can be the drivers of a culture shift as I don't think we women can do it alone. So thanks allies and fuck off everyone else.


Wimminz in STEM

A lot of brilliant and smart people have been speaking their minds lately about "women science bloggers" post Science Online 2011 and some other traffic. There's too many to hit all the great responses, but here's a list anyways:
It brings up a lot of things Cherish the Scientist and I have been thinking about as we go forward with our new blogging collective EngineerBlogs (am I plugging this enough? GO THERE AND READ! ADD OUR FEED!). How do you make sure you are achieving diversity and looking beyond the people like you tendency we all have. I mean, it's easier for me, I'm a female blogger so naturally I'll gravitate towards other female bloggers. So how do you convince other people that intentionally recruiting for diversity is a good thing? I like Tenured Radical's post on affirmative action and the idea that merit is actually a system, or even better, the myth of merit. The idea that certain groups don't have distinct advantages from an early age or that our tendency to befriend, to recruit, and to reward people who are more like ourselves doesn't come into play with a historically white/male dominated world. This might be less obvious on the blogosphere, but it's certainly no less obvious in my life. Zuska also wrote a great and succinct post as well on the whole I want to earn this on my own when none of us really accomplish anything purely on our own merit.
It looks like they'll be hiring another female engineer here. The holdup now is she is supposedly "asking for too much" and negotations are occurring. I applaud her for asking for too much. And I wonder if a guy with similar education and experience who had asked for that much would have been categorized in the same way. No way of knowing really, I'm not that involved with the hiring process. Hiring her will bring the department representation of female engineers from 2.7% to 3.3%.
She's replacing a woman who left a while ago to teach. Sometimes I think because the last woman was so successful the people in charge thought let's hire someone like her and that's the only reason we're getting another woman. That if the last person had been a man, and good at his job, it would have been a man like him we'd be bringing in. Due to the other woman's leaving to pursue an alternate career (leaky pipeline? too limited sample size) she was asked somewhere in the offer stage whether there was anything she wanted to disclose, anything that might take her away from here. She mentioned then that she had just had a kid.
One of the people that interviewed her balked that she hadn't told him that, that throughout the multiple interviews she had failed to mention that. Clearly she should have said nothing. Sure, mentioning a pregnancy or future birth of a child might be appropriate by the presence of already born children certainly shouldn't be. She was already holding down a job, clearly she had it worked out. Not to mention the person who balked at it has a grown kid and presumably worked at some point in his career with a child just born. Or not to mention other higher level people in the group have little kids at home. We are reminded it is only a factor for women.
Some of my colleagues are dreading her being brought on and worrying whether she will be demanding or a tyrant of those she works with. But I'm not worried. I'm not one of those women who thinks it's hard to work with other women. I can't say every woman I've ever worked with has been my ally but many have and I've had fantastic peers and mentors that were both men and women. All the women I've worked for and with have had the same spectrum of the men I've worked for. I've yet to work under a real tyrant of a boss, but the ones I know about are all men. I suspect though that's an institutional thing and that the men in charge just wouldn't tolerate a dictator in the form of a woman, they'd make sure to encourage her out of the organization.
I look forward to meeting the new engineer. I hope we will get along and secretly I will try to help her and encourage her, even as the underling I am, as I have tried to do so for other women, minorities, and talented employees who I feel don't get the support they should for whatever category management thinks they don't fit into. Sometimes the things I hear or when I am called a bitch or labelled or put into a box makes it feel like death by a thousand cuts and I feel like giving up. But sometimes I feel like I'm a secret agent and my mission is to seek out these people and help them in whatever little ways I can. Maybe my little contributions will make up for the thousand cuts.

Try new things

I did some welding for the first time this week. Though that might be an exaggeration of what I actually accomplished, but I did something new and learned something.

I found a new blogger I like, Dr. Kathryn Clancy, and she blogged about a panel they had at Science Online 2011 and specifically about how when women want something they have to hide it. She talks about the moment I have been through many times where you are going along with your life and a colleague suddenly objectifies you and you realize you'll never be just another coworker to them, that your primary function is to be a woman. You can be smart for a woman or skilled for a woman but like Billy Joel sang, you're always a woman.

She also talked about women's tendencies not to promote themselves and a commenter had an insightful comment that despite attending the same conferences as men on "always negotiate" or "always promote yourself" that the message she took home to be aggressive was not nearly the same as what the men took home. She also talked about something I feel strongly about: we need to build an old girls club. I take this seriously here as well as in the workforce (which I'll probably talk about soon on EngineerBlogs). That we need to promote others as well as not be afraid to promote ourselves. So I did it. I joined twitter.

Two new things in one week, the hardware and the software, the yin and the yang.


Design Fridays: That's a big prop

The small UAV market is smoking hot. Boeing has a high altitude long endurance (HALE) they'd like to sell to someone. And they're not exaggerating in taking on the HALE acronym, it can reach an impressive 65,000 ft altitude and supposedly stay aloft for up to four days. It's doing some final ground testing now before actual flight testing commences so we'll see the truth in their claims rather soon. Powered by two engines it will also have two really big propellers. 16 ft in diameter big. It dwarfs the not insignificant 2.3L engine that powers it. Here's a video of their ground testing with the prop:

I'd like to see the prop map on that. What's a prop map you ask? Well when designing a propeller the contour of the blade lends itself to a certain efficiency at certain airspeeds and altitudes. There is no one blade that will work for every aircraft so you take a known propeller and its efficiency curves and map it out into little efficiency islands.
Then you can take this information and figure out where your aircraft would perform and how efficiently the prop is doing at various airspeeds and altitudes (air density is what's important here) and compare how efficient your prop is at your max takeoff speed or at your high altitude cruise speed as in the table below.
Given Boeing's Phantom Ray has two engines and two props I wonder if the redundancy allows it to stay up in the air if one engine fails like many larger military or passenger aircraft. At the least I think this is the start of higher expectations for UAVs where once 20-30 hours was considered an endurance flight I expect that will be too short of flight time going forward.

On the shoulders of heroes

Twenty-five years after and the airwaves and blogrolls are a mix of personal memories, trying to define what it meant to us, and what it means now for us and how we can best honor and pay homage to seven people. A lot of the commentary talks about Christa McAuliffe the first teacher in space. I wanted to highlight the story of Ronald McNair, Ph.D., and MIT graduated physicist. He was only the second African American in space. His brother Carl spoke about him briefly on StoryCorps and it's worth listening to. He talked about his brother's curiosity and risk taking. His intelligence and the barriers he overcame.


DARPA Thursdays: Underwater Sensors

A lot of DARPA's interesting marine projects relate to anti-submarine warfare, like this pilotless ship I talked about last year. Now they're looking for an underwater sensor array. I've done some quick CAD of what this might look like, as seen in the photo above. Underwater arrays are nothing new. They can look like buoys, capsules floating underneath the surface, they can even be disguised in something that looks and floats like kelp.
Here DARPA has in mind something that would be in deep ocean, at or near the bottom. This brings to mind my rough idea for a series of pressure resisting domes you could drop to the ocean floor. Sensor arrays are kind of a neat thing to begin with, a bunch of nodes communicating with each other and sharing information. So its a two fold problem of designing something that's mechanically hardy in not only high pressure environments but also cold, corrosion and have to be long lasting or incorporate some clever mechanism to surface itself and be easy to replace.
Working in the ocean is not unlike working in space; you can send your hardware into it but if something fails it's best to have as many possible methods of fixing it from a distance as possible. Meaning communication between nodes and to your surface point would not be trivial. And by the way the FBO is written you can tell DARPA's not looking for amazing innovation, they're just looking for something that works. Seems like a good opportunity for a small interdisciplinary unit to make something effective.


Face Time

How can I get shit done when you keep inviting me to more meetings?
Or the alternate title, me goofing around with excel instead of doing all the work I should be and am complaining about being overwhelmed with.
But really, the chart design elements in Micrsoft's Excel 2007 are pretty sharp. They make my data look like Fucking Data, man! I'm easily impressed. But then most of the people who read my powerpoint presentations share that same quality.

You've come a long way, baby

It's no surprise the prerequisites to be a "geek" by society's standards are to be male, middle class and white. I've never watched The Big Bang Theory but I know the blonde is probably not portrayed as one of the smart characters or geeky characters. And none of the show's cast appear to be anything other than northern european.

Over at SheThought, Heidi Anderson shares a geek flowchart with us showing the path from 16th century geek to computer/tech geeks, to star wars/star trek, and in the end the disappointing path leads to trivialization of the geek label with food geek and fantasy football geek.

The flowchart is all male with 3 out of 26 "geeks" being persons of color (or people of non-whititude at least). Lest the womenfolk feel left out, Heidi points us to "Which Female Tech Influencer Are You?" in fantastic pink. Whiteness is still a requirement here, and traditional roles of femininity and hints of frivolity are encouraged to get you through their flowchart. It seems like women in tech can't just be about women in tech. No shame to the women they featured there, I'm sure they are talented and smart and technically competent- you just wouldn't know it.

This got me thinking about a recent search I did. You see, things are going well over at EngineerBlogs. Finding engineers who blog about engineering and are also halfway decent bloggers is not an easy task. It gets even more hairy if you want to expand your electrically-dominated blogging circle or reach beyond to try to get people with more unique perspectives. So I'm hunting around looking for top bloggers and find several lists, 100 Top Female Bloggers and such like that. I click it thinking, well, a few of these women have to be engineers, right? Wrong.
Okay, a few were engineers, but none blogged about engineering. (Too boring for the internet in general?) Most were blogging about "social media" or "marketing" or even "blogging." How do you blog about blogging? A post here and there sure, but your whole focus? Seems like there's a good number of people out there blogging about technology and making stuff and then a whole lot of women who've been pushed into the blogging about fluff category. The only fluff I think should be regularly blogged about is adorable animals.
So anyways, graphics departments, feel free to make some geek flowcharts that show how diverse the real field of being a geek is. And women bloggers, don't be afraid to blog about the technical stuff you know and kick ass at. And we're still looking for a few good engineering bloggers so if you think you're up to it visit our site, check out the write for us link, and you can contact us there or email me (see my profile on the left) if you have any questions.


Treading Water

I have 2-3 test plans to write and several large configuration packages to compile. Then there's school where I have two very large, comprehensive reports to write on experiments. Thank goodness other people are writing good things on the internet.
Over at Engineer Blogs Fluxor gives a very clear explanation of the Smith Chart, even a sprocket like myself can understand.
Cherish clarifies what electronics reseach is and isn't as relates to an electronics miniaturization office that was shut down at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks for supposedly doing too much research and not enough building.
Kaydee over at the Engineering Ethics Blog talks about the changing balance in Scientific American in its portrayal of the sciences and its political bent.
Christina Mackenzie over at Aviation Week talks about Eurocopters gradually becoming more and more unmanned.


Designing the Collapsible

For my senior project one of the big challenges is trying to flatten the thing we are designing. There are a whole lot pieces of technology out there, though one doesn't traditionally think of using it to fold structures, but in this case that's what we're looking for.

I started off with McMaster Carr, my favorite one stop shop for the discerning mechanical or manufacturing engineer. I'm waiting on an order right now, with a press button incremental hinge, an adjustable friction hinge, and a lever lock hinge.

But another great way to get some inspiration is by heading to your local hardware store, or even your local outdoors/camping store. We found a slot hinge used for folding a chair which was something I had considered. Only problem is our structure is not very large, and these act like a brace in the corners so it can take up quite a bit of room.

We also found a rounded hinge that was used for a camping table and the spring wire/slotted structures that you usually see on pop up tents.

My favorite find, however, was the radial hinge from a jogging stroller. If you can picture the collapsible top of a stroller with rounded supports that allows it to fold close almost like an accordion you can see where this radial hinge fits in.
There's something to be said for looking to the latest research or the most new and advanced manufacturing techniques but there's also an advantage to checking out basic consumer products that are already out there and seeing where inspiration strikes. You never know what simple mechanism did not occur to you in your hunt to optimize your design. Of course, this might be a bit too simplified if you're dealing with a failed water pump or something a bit more complex but if you're thinking for a prototype don't be afraid to stop by your local hardware store just to browse. You never know what you'll see.


Weekend at the movies

I saw The King's Speech over the weekend and it was very good. Well, very good if you like an extraordinary cast of excellent British actors, enjoy your history, and are somewhat of an anglophile or take an interest in the British royals. I recommend it if you think you might fit into one of these categories. It was rated R, apparently for language I'd have to guess, but if you're okay with language and have a teen or adolescent who enjoys these sorts of things I think you'd have no problems taking them to it.
Then I watched An Education on Netflix which is somehow rated PG-13. It was all right, not as good as a lot of other movies but not bad either. I enjoy a lot of the British actors who were in it and there wasn't a whole lot of sexual scenes or anything but given the adult themes of the movie I had to wonder how something like that gets a PG-13 but something else with too many uses of the f-word gets an R.
At the theatres watching The King's Speech a preview came on and I got rather excited. It appeared it was going to be this year's Apollo 13, but instead about the moon landing. The quality looked good, there were all the engineers watching at NASA, and some dramatic shots of the astronauts. Turns out it was some cheap bullshit to introduce Transformers 3. Fuck you Michael Bay.


Ironic or just unfortunate?

  • Two days after mentioning I should probably replace my battery, but was afraid to shell out the money in case that wasn't the problem...
  • One day after somebody else had to get a jump at work and I was putting in oil and got several offers for a jump...
  • Thirty minutes after pulling into the gas station to find out the system had crashed and I'd have to wait for a reboot...
  • The one tool I needed to replace it was the one tool not in my car but recently pictured in my new avatar...

Probably the best place to have your battery die is at a busy gas station across the street from a place that sells batteries. I had numerous offers for a jump (people are nicer than I think sometimes) and nothing more convenient like walking over to buy a new battery right when you need one.


Robot Recruiters?

Despite the lagging economy and a serious lack of jobs for PhDs, even in science, there's still a push to get more people into STEM fields, especially science and engineering. Arizona State University is highlighting their FIRST Lego League as a way to use robots to hook kids on engineering at an earlier age.
I think this is sort of misleading. 99.9% of engineers will not get to work on robots for a living, or not the kind of robots they think. Sure you can work on your own projects in your spare time, but there's no pre-requisite you be an engineer to do so. I mean, working on robots through my engineering curriculum certainly exposed me to it but there are clubs and internet tutorials and books for motivated folks who have an interest. That is if your day job doesn't kill all the curiosity and creativity that you had for side projects. Not that I'd know anything about that.
Clearly these kids are too young to have seen the Terminator films and know the dangers of building robots, so I guess before they can see an R rated movie is probably a good time to trick them into trusting the machines.
So I don't know, is recruiting more and more people into a shrinking field unethical? Just because we as a society need more scientists, engineers and innovators does not mean we should necessarily encourage that if we don't actually support it with government funding or K-12 education or investment incentives. Getting more kids into STEM is not by itself going to keep companies from shipping more jobs overseas, professional jobs included as India and China start to catch up with a plethora of qualified engineers.
When I worked on my robot project in school one of my group mates asked if I could help him find a job where I work as he was still trying to feel out where he wanted to go. At the time he was working in an on campus lab making small scale electromechanical assemblies with PID controls and really enjoyed that. I had to tell him the opportunity to do such things anywhere else were severely limited. Start up companies in the '90s might have risked one time robot builds for specific applications but in general companies tend to go for the sure thing. And there's innovation, but not in a ground up building your own robot kind of way.
So there's two things I don't like here. One, that we let people believe that "robots" are a good storefront window display for engineering. Two, that bringing people into an industry that can't necessarily support their steady employment is premature until we fix the institutional problems at the top.


All about the attitude

Does the old saying fake it old you make it hold any water? Turns out maybe. Researchers from Columbia and Harvard Universities posed subjects in one of four positions: two high power positions(expansive, open limbs) and two low power positions(contractive, closed limbs). Then they measured risk taking, self-response about feelings, and testosterone and cortisol.
The high power positions were sitting stretched in a chair with legs propped up on a table and arms behind the head as well as leaning "confidently" over a table while standing. The low power positions were sitting in a chair with hands folded in the lap or standing with arms wrapped and legs crossed. I've helpfully recreated these in poorly drawn stick figures.
A saliva sample was taken 10 minutes after the subject arrived as a baseline. And then later, 17 minutes after they had held their pose. They held each pose for 1 minute and were asked to focus on faces that were shown while holding the position.

To measure risk taking they were given $2 and told they could either keep it or roll dice for a 50/50 chance of either losing it or doubling their money to $4. To get self-reported data they were asked how powerful and in charge they felt on a scale of 1 to 4.

So what happened? The stress and testosterone showed correlation in that high power position resulted in higher testosterone and lower stress and the low power was the other way around.

Of the high power posers 86% took the roll of dice versus 60% of the low power posers. The mean higher power self-rated "in charge" on a scale of 1 to 4 was 2.57 versus 1.83 for low power (both with a standard deviation of 0.81).

So clearly there's something to this. But what exactly? With 42 participants I feel like the sample size is good enough to draw some conclusions. But it'd be nice to separate some of this out. Did taking a risk make them rank themselves as feeling more powerful? Is there any reason to believe the constricting positions were just less comfortable and possibly increased the stress hormone as a direct result? Still it seems to show the possibility that body posture can affect your own level of perceived confidence and a strong likelihood that it can cause slight fluctuations in your hormone levels. So maybe you can fake it until you make it.

Carney, D., Cuddy, A., & Yap, A. (2010). Power Posing: Brief Nonverbal Displays Affect Neuroendocrine Levels and Risk Tolerance Psychological Science, 21 (10), 1363-1368 DOI: 10.1177/0956797610383437

Want to see more of my writing? Check out Engineer Blogs where I and several other engineers blog about- well, what else, engineering.


Possession with intent of double-X chromosome

Just stumbled across an oldie but a goodie, how female stars succeed in new jobs from Harvard Business School's Working Knowledge articles. Professor Boris Groysberg looked at top performing equity analysts as an easy to study profession whose yearly metrics he could compare before and after a change in employers. Because most equity firms were located within 1 mile of each other geographical changes would also have less of an affect.
What he found was star male analysts performance actually dropped after changing jobs while star female analysts maintained their performance. Because analysts tend to have the same clients and outside contacts after switching companies Groysberg hypothesized the first reason for why women do better as:

One is that they are more invested in external than in in-house relationships. There are four main reasons why star women maintain external focus: uneasy in-house relationships, poor mentorship, neglect by colleagues, and a vulnerable position in the labor market. External focus makes them more "portable" in terms of making a positive move, but can cause problems if they want to progress within their own organization, because you need a solid internal network and good political capital to get things done in organizations. Anyone who focuses mostly on external relationships will not have that.

So kind of depressing. Women do not have good mentors, internal contacts, or internal institutional support at their own companies. Moving to some other company where they don't necessarily know anybody any better than at their previous employer changes nothing for them. Not really a sign of progress I think. His second reason is a little disappointing, indicating that women do more due diligence in a job search to make sure they are not a token female and that they will have more institutional support whether as a female or just as a person.

I don't like hearing this argument that women don't go into higher paying professions like management because they "have more ethics" than men or don't go into science or engineering because they "choose better jobs" than men and that seems like the argument here. I mean at least we've moved on from "women make better secretaries" but it's like saying African Americans dominate professional basketball because they make better choices to get in as opposed to their white sports colleagues not that their white colleagues actually have more avenues of success available to them.

On a side note, being a lego fan I was looking for a cutesey lego picture to top this post and a google image search of "lego figure" is shockingly masculine. I'd say 98% of figures were male, with a few scantily clad female lego figurines popping up or a few female superheroes. I think I got one hit in the first five pages that was just a normal female figure(lego figures do not even have curves, do we really need to sexualize them as well?). No worries, I thought, this is probably selection bias from the sexist interwebs and hopped over to the lego shop. I search through their City series looking to find ordinary women doing ordinary things. Police, fire and rescue are an all male club it seems with one single police woman who works at the police station but doesn't appear to be a part of any of the units that leave. Transportation shows men only as travellers, city workers, officials and mechanics with a woman working a pizza shop, another of unknown occupation and one travelling with her family in a camper.

It seems we women do not fix or run anything but are only a part of larger sets where clearly there should be at least one woman so the population can procreate and not die out. Other sets are even more disappointing with no women dueling with knights or no women wielding swords, no women swimming underwater to fight the weird sea creatures of Atlantis, no women ninjas, and only a few specific character women in the movie sets (Harry Pottery, Star Wars, Prince of Persia). Okay I suppose some of the ninjas could be women, it's not like the lego figures lead to distinct body shapes, but I still expected a little better from a company from pinko-commi freewave socialist Denmark. Getting past the shear lack of numbers, I think of being a little girl and not getting to see people like me wielding swords or building things but instead being in castles wearing less than everyone else and needing to be rescued. Come on Lego, get it together.


New Venture

There's a new blogging game in town that I'm quite proud of. Myself and a few other of the engineer bloggers have banded together to form Engineer Blogs. So go check it out.
Chris Gammell asks Do you prefer to work on projects on your own? Cherish writes an introduction to metamaterials and Fluxor gives us the long awaited (by me anyways) list of transistor interview questions that he either typically asks candidates or has encountered in his work. I have even contributed my modest writing skills where I talk about where this economy is headed and a government workshop's attempt to outline the future of manufacturing while we struggle to compete with China in What the World Needs Now.
I will still write here, but head on over and add Engineer Blogs to your reader or feed aggregate to get the full effect of three fantastic writers (not sure why they invited me). I'll continue to link over there for new posts or when there's a fantastic post you need to run over and read. You can continue to stay and read here for whatever I don't spotlight over there which might still be engineering related, or might be my amateurish economic predictions, discussions on caffeine, or pictures of my cat.


Gaming Science

Ever wish you could dabble in some microbiology? (h/t MSNBC) An intriguing new game from Carnegie Mellon University called EteRNA lets you design your own RNA sequences. I think it's especially cool that it appears to be intentionally aimed at non-scientists. Probably if you work with RNA for a living this will be less appealing to you. But if you'd like to improve your understanding of RNA and have an interest in biology and science this might just be your bag.
Wikipedia informs me some viruses use RNA instead of DNA as their genetic material which was how I first learned about RNA at an old job I've mine. I know you scientists are wondering what they teach kids in high school biology these days. I'll guess I'll say not much that it took an odd job for me to be exposed to it, or at least to the point where I remembered vaguely what it was. So hopefully that's one effect of games like this: exposing more non-scientists to theories and concepts in a fun and colorful way. Enjoy!


Engineering is Elementary

An elementary school in Minnesota is turning itself into a Specialty School for Aviation, Children's Engineering and Science. I like the idea of getting kids exposure early on to topics like engineering. But I dislike schools that tend to focus to narrowly on either a profession like this, or often language skills (which can be extremely useful if done well, or reduce the children's math and english understanding if not done well). I find it also kind of disturbing to see trends of pushing more people into the engineering profession. I think it's a great idea to make sure more people know about it and people who otherwise wouldn't have the option of going into it but have the ability or an interest to be able to pursue that but I fear programs like this give parents a false hope of a future stable career.
It's been all over the blogosphere about how there are a lot of PhDs in science. And post-doc salaries, as well as limited geographic choices and people leaving for other careers or not getting any job related to what they wanted would seem to imply we have an overabundance of scientists right now. Yes America, the UK and Canada need more scientists but they also need an industry and government foundation being the dual pillars of support for that innovation. And right now industry has been sorely lacking in this area for domestic development while government is fading away.
A little old, but this article discusses the myth of the engineering shortage. It discusses the H1-B Visa push in the late '90s to support a supposed shortage of IT and technology workers and how increasing education in China and India has meant where once we were competing with them for call centers or low level technician support now many professionals are on the same wave length as a highly skilled foreign workforce. And this opportunity is too much to pass up by domestic companies looking for short term profits. In fact for all the talk about a shortage of STEM degrees the article points out if you remove social scientists and technicans from the STEM umbrella past studies have looked at there has been a 130% gain in STEM degrees over a 20 year period while only a 30% increase in occupation. He goes on to state that given the graduation rates between 1993 and 2002 the US graduates enough workers in STEM to replace the entire STEM workforce every 15 years. Obviously, people don't retire every 15 years so unless there's economic growth at a rate comparable there's no possible shortage here.
Encouragement is not the primary issue assuming you don't care about recruiting minorities or women. According to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation 30% of incoming college students state science and engineering as their intended major. Almost half drop out. If half did not drop out, we'd clearly have way too many graduates in those fields to be supported by the economy right now. So why do employers complain? The article discusses what they call the "Monster effect" meaning the job board site. Employers can recruit nationally and internationally and don't need to settle for local candidates. Ronil Hira, Associate Professor of public policy at Rochester Institute of Technology said the following:
"In the old days," he explains, "companies expected engineers to stay around a long time, so they paid for professional development. Now, they want somebody to hit the ground running. They've turned engineers from an asset into a variable cost."
Hira states how this means engineers and IT workers tend to train themselves, and therefore don't focus on specialities that are too specific and not as marketable in a larger job field. The article discusses the disparity present within colleges as well where business expect graduates to be good at project management and communication and so colleges shifted over to focus on these broader more transferable skills instead of focusing on hands-on technical knowledge.
If there was a real shortage, you'd see engineering salaries rising. But instead in the same timeframe average salaries for electrical engineers rose 10% and aerospace rose 9% while management climbed 14% and lawyers 12%. And a whopping 16% of US engineers are foreign born. On the surface this may not be significant, but it's much higher than the 11% of managerial/professional workers in general and I'm sure higher than less educated fields.
Is there a non-cost advantage to bringing in foreign workers? The article includes an anecdote from an employer who brought on at least one US entry level worker and has said he will hire no more because they were more project management focused and could do the actual design and execution of the design that he needed. He compared that worker to interns he brought over from Germany whom he claimed were much more hands on and strong with machine design and tool making.
I'm sure there's some selection bias involved here in bringing over what are likely the top of the crop of German engineering students looking to move to the US versus what might be a local candidate who is not at the top of the US pool of potential engineers. But I also thought of Fluxor's recent post on the disparity between the on paper qualifications of an entry level engineer and their actual design and hands on skill. And there is perhaps something to note in the differences between German engineering (as well as other more hands on local programs) versus highly ranked universities. I've noticed schools that rank higher in the engineering discipline tend to be pretty strong on theory and analysis which makes sense if you're training the next crop of students to be research focused PhDs but less sense if you're training them for the workforce.
I agree with the article's quandary that engineers must now train themselves in these specialized skills whereas 20 years ago companies would generally provide that training for you. I think anecdotally about my own experiences of going out and learning CAD on my own and paying my way through local programs before I ever even started my engineering program. Most of the older designers I work with were taught AutoCAD or Solidworks or ProEngineer through workforce programs that don't exist anymore. When there are a plethora of candidates with these skills that you can pick and choose from, you don't need to train anybody yourself anymore. Even my school learning of these programs along with whatever on the job training I could snatch up was not quite enough to qualify me for a job and a title. The old problem of entry level jobs requiring experience, but how do you get that experience. In a field like design, I feel like I have the skills but because my title isn't what a potential employer thinks it should be it isn't counted. They assume if I actually had the skills I would have managed a title change but there's no incentive from an employer to recognize an employee who pays for outside education or training. Especially if they can get that employee to do the work without the title.
So I think we can assume there is no shortage of engineers. I think we can also draw some conclusions that employers can now be way more picky than before, and that that isn't always fair but it is the reality. Future engineers will have to graduate with a strong grasp of the theoretical fundamentals, communication, writing and project management skills, as well as strong hands on design and machine knowledge. Only so much of this can be learned from University alone and I suspect as time goes on training at community colleges as well as individually motivated on the job training and increased pressure for internships prior to the first full time job will become the status quo.
No longer can an engineer go through college and expect to derive all of her knowledge from that experience but will need to stay knee-deep in school projects, reading some current research and manufacturing papers on their own, self-taught review of the fundamentals for the field in which that engineer decides to apply for jobs, and career-focused technician classes at night. I hope to see some of these hands on programs snatched up by larger research and state universities, but I do not expect it. It is the only way western engineers can remain competitive with their foreign colleagues.


Grumpy Old Employees

Is an aging workforce a good thing in this economy? The Fiscal Times thinks so. They argue older employees delaying retirement is good for many reasons, one of which being less pressure on social security with workers not retiring all at once.

Over the past 16 years, labor force participation rates for men aged 62 to 74 climbed 39 percent, reversing three decades of decline. At the same time, participation for older women jumped 66 percent. In 2010, the government reported the highest number of 60-somethings in the work force since age-specific records began in 1948 — 12.9 million. 

They also argue that these workers contribute to the productivity and GDP of the nation being essential in this economy. But I'm not sure there's an evidence that employing these highly experienced workers longer actually helps with productivity. Even the reasons stated that people keep working seem pretty self-centered and not likely to contribute to engagement at work:

An AARP survey found that 69 percent of older workers plan to stay on the job into their golden years, but the majority would prefer part-time options. The top two reasons for wanting to keep working were for money and health insurance. The people who are already working past traditional retirement age tend to hold jobs that are structured differently: more flexible, fewer hours, less office politics and higher satisfaction, according to research by the Families and Work Institute.

And I have to admit the whole thing about them preferring to work part time is sort of ridiculous. I'm betting a huge chunk of the population would prefer to work part time, at least at different points in their lives. Would that we all had the pull and influence at work to make it so, not to mention retirement savings to dip from. But it's telling that this data reflects my own anecdotal experiences: that the older employees I know who keep working tend to do so because they think they can not afford to retire, or are concerned about health benefits (either because they are too young for medicare, think it will be too costly, or are neo-cons afraid that "obamacare" has somehow affected their precious entitlement benefits).

I am sympathetic. I think if you don't have the money that's a perfectly valid reason to keep working longer.

The financial crisis and recession have motivated some workers to delay retirement, as they struggle to recoup losses in their nest eggs. Even a two-year increase in the median retirement age could cut in half the share of households that are financially unprepared for old age, according to a McKinsey Global Institute study.

What with the magic of compound interest, it's no surprise that older workers can make up for retirement losses in a shorter timeframe. If their 401k was already substantially larger than younger workers, it's no wonder a few years could help to really turn it around. Not to mention the stock market's gone up more than 50% from its low in 2008. But here's where the article loses me. It's trying to convince me that all these people staying in the workforce longer is a good thing for the economy: of which I and most people I know care mostly about one thing, jobs.

Rather than seeing these people as crowding out younger workers from jobs, it's important to remember that as they stay in the work force longer, they generate more demand for goods and services — which creates jobs, Stevenson said.

Oh really?

Take the health care sector, where a shortage of nurses has forced employers to focus on retaining older workers, and to view flexibility as a strategic business tool rather than an accommodation, said Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute. Bon Secours, for instance, offers more flexible and part-time work in addition to facilitating transitions to less-physically demanding jobs. The company child care center is available to grandchildren of employees, not simply children. "They've done a lot of things to make the work force more appealing to older workers," Galinsky said.

The utility industry's engineers, executives and field technicians have an average age of 48, five years older than the median U.S. worker. At PSE&G in Newark, about a third of the energy company's 10,000 employees are already eligible to retire, said David Lyons, a PSE&G director. To keep skilled workers, the company implemented a phased retirement program three years ago that lets eligible employees work up to 24 hours a week for two years while receiving pension benefits, in addition to a program to rehire retirees for temporary engagements of up to 24 months.

Yeah I don't think all those brand new nursing graduates who can't find jobs are thanking you for your diligence in hanging on to nurses past retirement age. Like other industries in the past, there was all this talk about how there would be an extreme nursing shortage in this country once baby boomers started retiring. And young and motivated people flooded nursing schools. Last year the California Institute for Nursing and Healthcare was anticipating 40% of nursing graduates would be unable to find jobs. I get why companies would rather hang on to an older worker with much more experience rather than hire a fresh grad. But this to me is a win for the employer at best, and possibly the older worker, but a loss for GenY and GenX workers who have already dealt with the fact that many management positions would be out of their reach for much longer than previous generations and now are having the rug of education and hard work leading to a semi-stable job pulled out from under them.

Engineers also I think will not thank industries for offering juicier benefits to their oldtimers (who will already qualify for social security at much younger ages than successive generations, who do not know if it will even still be there for them). We already saw stability and pensions denied after the generation that retired before boomers and now we're seeing a desperate gamble to give some last, tasty benefits to boomers that no later generations will ever get a whif of. The national unemployment rate of engineers may not seem so bad, but the last career fair I was at included several hundred new graduates, many who had been unable to find their first job still after eight months since graduating and many more who were graduating soon and ten years ago might have already had a job offer but now had only the long unemployment of their peers to look forward to. Many of these bright young engineers would love to be wooed and coddled by utility companies. I agree a fresh engineer is not a decades experienced engineer but I wonder if comprehensive training programs are really much more expensive than increasing pension benefits or extending health insurance.
There's a lot of good studies cited in this article but no proof to back up that keeping older workers in the labor force longer has any benefit whatsoever to the economy or the GDP in any real measure. Even if it's good for the GDP, we've already seen that though this recession is supposedly over and GDP starting to rise that does not necessarily trickle down to the average worker. Until then I'm going to see this for what it is: another trick by employers to preserve short term profits and not look ahead towards long term growth.


Cold Weather and Hard Facts

It's time for some cold weather driving. Break out your snow tires, flip on your AWD, and remember to steer into the spin. The Canton Daily Ledger answers several car myths about oil changes, work from the dealership, and even washing your car with dishwashing soap. However, my favorite is this cold weather classic:

- Myth: My car engine needs to warm up before driving.

During winter months, it is a common practice for drivers to warm their vehicles up inside, but a cold engine will warm up faster when it is being driven instead of idling. If you use your car infrequently, take a few minutes to warm up your car before you drive away. This allows cold, thick oil to warm up, protecting your engine from damage. For cold weather starts, all you need is 30 seconds to ensure proper oil flow and lubrication. In the event of frigid temperatures, driving at a slower speed for a few miles will give your car enough time to warm up.

I'm not saying we trust all our car advice to some yahoo who lives in Illinois (Junior Damato, the Talking Cars columnist) but I wish my neighbors would read his advice. Because I'm sick of hearing their "pimped out", muffler tuned little POS car idling and being revved up for 30-40 minutes every night usually while I'm trying to enjoy dinner or even better while I'm trying to sleep. It doesn't even sound like a proper car. It sounds like someone's mowing their lawn, but then irritatingly revving their lawnmower, and of course it's obnoxious noise is also likely tuned to carry some distance so it's a really loud lawnmower.

It's great they take their car seriously, and it appears they race other vehicles of theirs (which must be how they pay the mortgage since none of them ever seem to leave to go to work, coke dealer also comes to mind). I'm not a specifically automotive engineer, but it's my understanding engine idle is one of the most wearing portions of an engine's life. An engine wants to be in cruise speed. It does make me wonder why so many aircraft engines require such extensive warm-up periods in comparison, but honestly it doesn't get that cold where I'm at, and they don't even drive it anywhere afterwards. Automative engines are pretty hardy stuff. So stop idling your lawnmower all night. Thanks.


S is for Saturday and Sleek

Tesla Motors plans to release it's luxury electric Model S sometime in 2012. On the outside it looks a lot like you might expect for a luxury sedan. It's got the smooth curves you'd expect to see in a current model luxury sedan, not unlike the designs that are going into a new Infinity or Cadillac. Unlike Tesla's other famous model, the Roadster which was built from a Lotus skeleton, this body chassis is an original design. Given how expensive the technology for a a decent range all electric vehicle is it makes sense Tesla would be pursuing a luxury model meant to compete with the BMWs and Audis of the world.
But despite its very aesthetically pleasing exterior and typically plush looking interiors this remains an interesting car in that they are advertising it will be able to travel 145, 230, or 300 miles on a single 45 minute charge depending on which battery pack you purchase. As someone who fills up about every 300 miles that is getting impressively towards normal consumer use. And you don't even have to go to the gas station, you can plug in at home. Unfortunately for now this sort of thing is going to be out of reach from the typical consumer. I've seen in the mid-50s for pricing which is of course more expensive than the mid-30s you could probably spend on an otherwise similar petroleum fueled internal combustion powered sedan. But for now, the engineering is impressive. Stop by ElectroVelocity for some interesting videos on the design and technology that went into the Model S.


Design Fridays: Starbucks Logo

The picture above shows the ever changing face of a Starbucks cup of coffee. Now there's even a new logo and they are dropping the words. What do you think? I like the efforts to make the logo more simple, but I don't think the Starbucks mermaid has enough strength in brand symbol recognition to stand on its own. And coffee is such a nice word, evoking such wonderful mental images and emotions for us addicts, removing the word seems almost sad.
So +1 for simplicity but -1 for promoting the brand. Any other thoughts on this, what does everyone else think?


DARPA Thursdays: The Ultracap

The military is always looking for new and better ways to power the equipment a soldier has to lug around. I mentioned last year the DARPA initiative to power electronics directly from human body heat and now we're talking storage and how fast you can charge. DARPA awarded industry leader Maxwell Technologies, along with the University of Massachusetts, a contract to develop ultracap energy storage.
Maxwell already makes ultracapacitors; they are like a conventional capacitor but extremely more dense. Per wikipedia instead of having the traditional two plates and a dielectric the two "plates" are separated by a substance rather than empty space. There's still a voltage difference between the two sides, but less physical space is actually needed and therefore more can be crammed into less space. Meaning these end up with a power density of 10 to 100 times your typical battery.
According to Maxwell, soldiers now lug around approximately 60 lbs in batteries or backup batteries. This would enable more power storage than what the soldier is carrying around now, though I wonder that as technology improves and we make better and newer and fancier little devices that this won't just mean the soldier continues to carry around the same weight only now it can power new tools.


Data Dump

I've been staring at lines of data lately and looking for trends. No, not economic trends like the above, but abnormal values or sustained low or high values of hardware that might explain equipment failures. Often the values from a test track each other, much like the large dips and jumps in the DOW Jones Industrial Average can be seen mirrored in gas prices. Both are no doubt related to some third value of consumer demand or consumer confidence or perhaps even industrial production or health of the economy depending on how far you want to extrapolate. Both are charging up right now, leading many to wonder if there isn't a bubble in the stock market. But gas prices we tend to expect will continue to rise as the economy recovers. We might even see rising gas prices lead to rising inflation which in general would not be good for the stock market.
But it's difficult to make any predictions on data you can't see. I've talked before about the problems of data extrapolation which I think are especially true when something pertains to the economy. And yet here I sit, strolling through a massive amount of data looking for trends or trying to predict when failures can occur. Even when it might be a binary failure that no data can predict, I must look for trends nonetheless.


Your Stuff

I had to haul around my laptop the other day. Due to not having a trunk in my car this meant dragging my heavy backup into the doctor's office, than around me all day on the first day of classes. While in the library during a break I had to pack everything up just to walk over to the bathroom only to return a few minutes later. It's frustrating, but of course the consequences of not taking my valuables with me are overwhelming and far outweigh the trouble in hauling my stuff around. I began to reflect back on how there are no lockers on campus and how for security reasons no lockers at my high school. Obviously, the lockers themselves might not have been that secure but as a commuting student sometimes I lament a place I could stash some books for a few hours and not have to carry them around.
Then I began to wonder what it's like for those don't have a home or a car to keep their things in. The stereotypical homeless we can picture with shopping carts or large trash bags. Ratty looking, but I wonder if that doesn't discourage someone assuming their valuables are worth stealing. I would suspect homeless are a highly vulnerable population to theft and how difficult it must be to not have anything of value that you can't carry around with you. I wondered if there are solutions for these people. The shopping carts they use are technically stolen property and might get taken away from them. City workers might see their stashed belongings as trash and throw it all away. Does anybody have in mind backpacks or carts that could help the homeless? Or how about a safe place to keep their things?
A little digging pulled up this program for a homeless storage facility in Portland, Oregon. There's also this program at the First United Church in Vancouver. It's not a permanent storage facility, but a place that people can leave things while they go to job interviews or appointments. It's interesting as a society we focus so much on where we are going to house our homeless, which is important, but other things that make such a big quality of life difference are perhaps overlooked. I see this as akin to internet access for the homeless. It's important we realize they are people like us and the needs we have are the needs they have but with no property their lives are extremely complicated. I wonder if it might not be more beneficial if many of the engineering solutions that we look to implement in third world countries as affordable healthy and quality of life enhancers weren't applied to our poverty stricken population. Urban homeless may not have the same needs as rural third world poor but they do have needs and I'm not sure it's getting enough attention at the moment.


The Rational Consumer

How reliable are economic models that depend on economic actors to act in their own best interest? I just watched the Nova documentary, Mind Over Money which displays various theories of economics as modelled by mathematical equations that expect us all to act in our own best interest or those who think emotions and behavior cause us to act irrationally.
They talk to Robert Shiller a Yale economist who it could be said predicted both the tech stock crash and the housing market crash as speculative bubbles. He argues against the rational consumer theory, stating that bubbles are not based on self interest. He talks about the "Tulip Mania" in the Netherlands in the 17th century, widely believed to be the first speculative bubble of which there are records. Tulips were relatively new and not unlike today they were trading tulip futures as well as actual tulip bulbs. At the peak, some of the most expensive tulip brands were selling a single bulb for 12 times the yearly income of a typical skilled craftsmen. While many attributed this bubble to crowd irrationality and use it as an example of behavioral economics (as does Shiller) many others try to draw rational explanations from this event. I still found it interesting that there could be such speculation on something that seemed to have very little intrinsic value whatsoever. But then, in the documentary they show that in studies even when "traders" are told a commodity has no value and will be completely without value at the end of they experiment they tend to take risks and buy creating a bubble and ending up busted in the end.
It's an interesting documentary, though I think Nova pushes the behavioral model a little too much. Though I agree and think it's folly to think that as a mass people will always act in their own self interest. The fact that people were willing to pay up to $600,000 for a three bedroom home a few years ago and now because they are underwater, but can still afford the payments, they often choose to walk away from their mortgage. If they kept paying they'd likely have some decent equity in their home. And hanging on to the home they can probably expect its price to eventually rise over time. But as is typical, we discount the future and make decisions that appear to be only in our immediate best interest. The immediate value of the home, and the immediate consequence of mortgage payments are more important than a forclosure on our financial records or lost equity or downpayment. The difficulty of obtaining equity in the future is discounted and the advantage of walking away now is considered more important.
Documentaries like this always make me worry about the stock market which I invest in, but secretly worry is some house of cards built on nothing. I worry about the price of homes as well as other bubbles and the stagnant wages of American workers right now. But at least you can live in a house. You can't live in a tulip.


Computers and the Homeless

Everyone knows there's a big gap in worldwide between the have and the have nots in one area: internet access. A new study looked at that gap where you would expect to see it in an obvious way. They looked at computer and internet use in homeless populations in the Philadelphia area. The results are somewhat surprising.
Right now 58% of households have some kind of computer and 76% of these households have access to the internet. Of the homeless population they reported an average homeless time of 12 years. Of the 100 study participants, 47% reported computer use within the last 30 days. By far the main source of their computer use was free access at the public libraries in Philadelphia. University libraries, service organizations, churches and coffee shops rounded out the other sources where homeless were able to access the internet.
Users lauded the free public library services and discussed ways in which they manipulated the system for even more time on the computers than they were supposed to be allowed. Job searching made up the majority of what they used the internet for, followed by general internet surfing, word processing, social networking, and housing searches. They cited using the internet for "social connectedness" likely a good motivator for the social networking use. Their leisure use reflected what you might expect from a typical internet user: surfing the internet, reading the news, listening to music, shopping, books, movies and sports.
This might have been the first study to look at the homeless alone and their technology and computer use. What are the implications of this study? The homeless themselves suggested that cities and other agencies consider using the internet to disseminate information to homeless in their communities. I think it also emphasizes how important public libraries and computer and internet access there are to homeless populations or poor or transient populations in general. It also sets the bar for what information we want to pass on to these people and gives us perhaps another outlet at reaching them. Spreading health information and the possibility for social and community groups that could support these people having a stronger presence on the internet are other possibilities this study indicates might be a good push in the future.
Eyrich-Garg, K. (2011). Sheltered in cyberspace? Computer use among the unsheltered ‘street’ homeless Computers in Human Behavior, 27 (1), 296-303 DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2010.08.007