Monday, March 30, 2009

Peeking inside

The most male-dominated professions in this country are things my size would probably not make me good at: pipe fitters, diesel and heavy equipment mechanics, and that sort of thing. Mechanical engineering, though, is still very male-dominated, and about the only disadvantage I've encountered to being a woman in the profession is that it still surprises people. I don't look like people's image of a mechanical engineer. Many people ask how I chose mechanical engineering. This is part of that story.

I wasn't the curious child who took apart everything in sight to see what was inside. That part of me came later, after I grew out of being quite so timid. Mostly, I think it came after somebody told me I could.

A large part of discovering I could was a class called Engineering 25 that I took during my freshman year of college. It wasn't mechanical-engineering specific, but I think those were the parts I liked best. The class was run as an experiment, with two sections. One had all women. The other was mixed. I was in the mixed class. The idea, partly, was to see whether women learned engineering differently in the absence of men. I'm sure the results and findings were published somewhere, but I don't recall seeing them.

I learned both less engineering and more engineering in that class than in any other class I took. I learned less engineering in the sense that we did not focus on equations or mathematics or textbooks in that class. We did not resolve the motions of things that were rotating on other rotating things, or calculate energy or entropy or moments of inertia.

I learned more engineering in the sense that I learned to try things. I think I still have a screwdriver somewhere that I got in that class, and I learned how to use it there. I am sure I knew how to loosen a screw before, but it didn't usually occur to me to do so, or (even more importantly) that doing so might be educational and fun. No user serviceable parts inside, right? Somebody's going to get angry, right? No. Not at all.

We took apart all sorts of things in that class. We took one-cylinder Briggs & Stratton lawn mower engines down to their component parts and reassembled them so they worked. We took apart small things, like pens and staplers, on our own and observed the inner workings of toilets and things around the house. We took apart small appliances (mostly alreadey dead) in pairs. My partner and I got down to the gears in an electric toothbrush, even though we had to smash the plastic case with a hammer to get in. We took apart larger appliances in larger groups. Ours was a cast-off washing machine.

We even took apart a junker car (one for the whole class), even cutting the frame with a welding torch. Have you ever tried smashing a windshield? Windshields and the tempered glass they use for rear windows in cars smash differently, and they're hard to break. I'd really like to know if those little infomercial car safety hammers do anybody any good. It took me several tries with a real hammer that had some heft, and I wasn't stuck in a car seat.

We also designed our own simple wooden projects with dowels, planks, and wood screws. Mine was a custom back pack rack for when I came home from a wet bike ride. I still have it, but I don't still bike in the rain. We all learned to solder and assembled our own multimeters from a kit. (I still have mine and occasionally even still use it.) We toured a new housing construction site and a wastewater treatment plant. We even took water samples and made cultures to look at under the microscope. Mine had the most interesting microbes of anybody's water in the class. It wasn't from a toilet or from the rather stagnant "creek" that ran through campus. It was the drinking water that had spent a couple days in someone's bird cage down the hall in the dorms.

Ever since, I've made a habit of opening covers, taking stuff apart, and trying things whenever an opportunity presents itself. Sometimes I put things back together so they work; other times I give up because something is not worth fixing, but I try to learn a bit about what's inside before I toss it. I got our current vacuum cleaner off somebody's curb and reengaged an idler pulley that had ceased to turn the brush roll. I repack bike bearings and do other maintenance when my bike needs it. I replace faucets, doorknobs and things around the house. And I try to carry that attitude and everything I've learned with me to work and use it in my designs.

Much of this article and this article grew out of what I learned and the attitude that grew in that class.

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Monday, March 23, 2009

At the controls

My brother-in-law, David, was borrowing this little Bobcat when we saw him this weekend. He didn't rent it. A friend of his owns it and lets David borrow it sometimes in exchange for maintenance work.

I think David might have been partly joking when he offered to let people at the party drive the thing, but I decided I wanted to try it and spoke up. We waited until the next day, when the rest of the party had gone home, and then went out to rearrange the ground in his back yard.

Here's David giving a bit of advice and me driving:

The "official" task was to take that little pile of dirt and go fill in a low spot, which I attempted at a rather timid, snail's pace, generally moving the wrong thing the wrong way before doing what I intended. I did avoid hitting a hose hookup, the one obstacle anywhere in the area, and I did get quite a bit more adept at it in just the ten minutes or so I shuttled dirt back and forth.

I won't be applying for any jobs as a heavy equipment operator anytime soon, but it was an awful lot of fun, and I'm glad I tried it. It's not the sort of thing I would usually do. I did not learn to drive until shortly after getting my bachelor's degree, for instance. And aren't these things for trained people who know what they're doing? But for ten minutes in an empty space I enjoyed it.

The controls are quite easy. There are two hand levers that independently change the speed of the wheels on either side, making it quite a nimble little machine. The left and right foot pedals lift and tilt the bucket, respectively.

It's not as visible as I'd like in the photo below, but these machines are not designed for short women. That's my little foot missing the foot pedal by a good 3-4 inches. I managed to operate it a little clumsily by scooting far forward in the seat and pointing my toes. If I had a job to do besides rearranging dirt, I'd probably strap some blocks of wood to the pedals, or something.

Anyhow, it was not my usual Sunday activity, which was probably why it was so much fun.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Another ungrounded (ahem!) tale

Here's the reason I've had ditch-digging on my mind today. I've been thinking of summoning a big load of mulch to do some paths in my back yard and I started thinking through what would happen if a driveway full of mulch appeared tomorrow. There is no vehicle access to the back yard, meaning that I could move it into a pile in the back yard and then move it to where it needed to go, or I could move it directly where it needed to go. One of the things I want to do is make a path through my side alley, but before I put a path over that alley, I want to put in a pipe from the sprinkler system timer toward the back yard. Hence the trench.

The whole thing, about 15m long and the depth of my trenching shovel (give or take), took about 2 hours. It needs some of the loose stuff cleared out of the bottom (I'll let a length of pipe tell me where it's too shallow) and, of course, pipe laid and the trench refilled. The soil is dense clay. It was wet and sticking to the shovel, but because it was wet I can get a shovel through it. In summer, it dries to an impenetrable consistency.

Here are a couple more stories about digging holes that (I hope) are more amusing than yard work itself.


My parents dug their sprinkler system in the front yard some years ago. The trenches were open on Halloween night, and my mother, fearing that some hapless trick-or-treater might accidentally step in one, donned a costume (a Renaissance-looking gown with a large headdress) and spent the evening handing out candy from a chair at the base of the driveway so that nobody would have to cross the lawn.

While she sat there, she regarded the trenches, and noticed that they looked a bit like open graves. She spent the later parts of the evening asking at least the older trick-or-treaters if they would like to try any of these nice, fresh graaaaves. I think she scared quite a few.

One of California's lesser-known is the underground home and gardens of the Sicilian Immigrant Baldasare Forestiere in Fresno, California. He dug the place partly as a shelter from the heat of California's central valley. Apparently not content with however much digging he did as a farmer, he spent forty years chipping away at the hard soil with hand tools, carving out an elaborate maze of tunnels and caverns. You can get an idea of the man and his creation at the website. The place is open to the public as an historic landmark.

Job application

Not during this recession but the last one, when the dot-com implosion hit California and our area hard, Scott was out of work for quite some time. He is usually a network administrator, but all the technology jobs dried up at once. So he decided to try selling cars for a while instead, mostly to see what it was like. The two or three months he spent at it is another story that I'll tell another time.

These are real questions from the car sales application, and Scott's real answers.

Q. What is the least favorite job you have ever had?
A. Digging ditches for a landscaping company. [This was part of a summer job he had back in high school.]

Q. What did you like least about that job?
A. Digging ditches.

Scott got the job.

Saturday, March 14, 2009


Bored one summer, my father and one of his cousins molded a pair of large feet in concrete and smuggled them in their luggage to his cousin's home in a small town. They used their large foot-molds to make tracks down into the river on a muddy river bank near the town.

Sure enough, the tracks were discovered shortly, and it was a small enough town that the discovery attracted the notice of the press. I'm pretty sure one of their moms was on to them, and I'm pretty sure she made them go fess up, at least as soon as the stir started.

We were driving along the California coast years later (this part, I remember personally) and we stopped in a gift shop selling rocks, wooden postcards, and other such things. My father (who never purchases such things) found a map of California Bigfoot Sightings, and sure enough, it listed tracks as having been found in his cousin's small town. I think my dad still has the map.

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Monday, March 09, 2009

Root beer, hugs, and overseas visitors

Meeting someone online is meeting someone backwards. You get to see inside their head first, then maybe you get a bit of their voice over the phone, and then you eventually get to see a face, or maybe just a photo. The first person I ever met this way was from Melbourne. When I did eventually pick him up at the train station, it was by finding who was left on the platform looking lost; I hadn't seen a photo.

As it turned out, the restaurant I'd planned to visit was closed, and the train was about an hour late (trains are one thing we don't do especially well here), so I ended up taking him straight home. I think he was almost as nervous about the arrangement as I was. We'd all heard bad things about meeting people from online, but that's the way it worked out, so we did it anyway.

I was busy cooking some spaghetti that I hadn't planned on cooking that night when he asked whether he could have something to drink. I hadn't even realized I hadn't offered. One of the few things I knew about him was that he liked root beer and couldn't readily get it in Australia. So he opened the fridge and there in the middle of the top shelf were a couple of cans of A&W root beer I had put there with him in mind. I don't know if "swooned" is quite the right word for what he did then, but that's what it looked like to me, and both cans were quite empty before the night was through.

He's a very spontaneous traveler, and one thing he doesn't schedule ahead of time is lodging. I had a spare room empty because my roommate was gone for the summer, so he stayed a couple of nights, sleeping better than he'd been managing at hostels and on trains, and I showed him some of the area. I also got to know him a bit.

At the end of his stay here, I dropped him off in San Francisco. We walked out onto the Golden Gate Bridge, had some pretty good hamburgers at some little restaurant I couldn't name now, and I left him at the hostel where he'd spend the next night or two before flying further north. That was the point where I finally got around to hugging him (or vice versa, but no matter), and I haven't seen him since.

We've kept in touch, at least intermittently, since then. I've sent him a couple of different boxes. One contained, among other things, a big souvenir A&W mug and a can of root beer. They can't air mail soda, apparently, so it took 2 months to arrive by ship. When it did arrive, I managed, eventually, to convince him to pour the root beer over some ice cream. He was taking it on faith that this was a desirable thing to do with only one can of root beer at hand, but I think he liked it.

One thing I've never figured out how to mail, though, is a hug. That very first visitor is why I insist on getting hugs (and frequently also serving the peculiar American beverage root beer) when I meet people from online.

I heard just in the past few days that he'll be in California again in a few weeks. I don't know if we'll have time for quite the same adventures as last time, but I'm planning to have the root beer and the hugs all ready to go.