Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Let's reverse engineer engineering…

Michelle Dickinson is NanoGirl. She is a scientist and educator who has done wonders to promote an interest in the sciences in New Zealand and probably to a wider audience. She is young, attractive and more than willing to front for the cameras. She loves what she is doing and it shows. Recently she protested a New Zealand engineering firm's practice of objectifying women in their promotions in an irrelevant and sexist way. She was prompted to confront the issue by female students in her courses at the School of Engineering and is concerned that the imagery characterised an industry that discourages active participation by women in engineering.

As a result of Nanogirl's campaign it begs the question about engineering as a term and how its application alters the perceptions of both young women and men when considering it as an educational pathway.

I wonder if part of the issue isn't about framing - or reframing?
Regardless of whether we are talking about males or females the term 'engineering' as it is widely understood implies using some kind of force on an object to change its nature. (Which of course it is).

When I was in high school I took engineering as a subject. It was the '77-79. What we studied, or rather practiced, was how to use tools to make things. It suited me because I only had two interests in life at the time - mucking about with old British bikes and art (which involved a lot of drawings of old British bikes…and hot rods). That was engineering. Machines. When I left school I worked in a factory. Ultimately I was a die setter and studied for a NZCE (plastics). Still, engineering was about machining and making shit. Mostly it was dirty and noisy and sometimes dangerous. (In that era safety was a fingers-crossed matter - if you had some left).

Today my daughter takes 'tech' subjects - hard-tech/soft-tech (which I would have called home ec' back in the day). This is a good thing as it refers to the change in how things are made and understood. I don't think enough emphasis is placed on learning to code - or implement solutions to ideas/hypothesis - but that is another story for another time. The issue is that the blanket term 'tech' makes it all but meaningless - even if, like 'engineering', it is correct - as if it is a catch-all to mean not math, english etc.

I wonder if, to attract more people - and have an accurate representation of the population - to engineering there needs to be a movement to reverse-engineer the term. Take nanotech for example. Richard Feynman gave it a false start, implying it was a mind game for scientists, and it can be mind-boggling (just the other day I woke up in the night wondering if there is an 'up' or 'down' at an atomic level and if so how does gravity act on particles?…and what could that mean?).

What does engineering mean? It sounds like a platitude - is it about making the world better? (Not sure how mucking about with old bikes fits in there).

There are levels of engineering; from being the conceptualiser to being the riveter. The old world qualities of being able to manipulate 'heavy' things still rings out. Alongside Feynman I place Brunel 'up there' in the heroic process of bending nature to the human will.

The impression of what an engineer 'is' is rests substantially on Brunel as an archetype - he utterly changed how humans travel and trade. His innovations in ship building, port construction, railways and tunnelling made the world, for better or worse, what it is today. He was a colossus of innovation and the will to make things happen. He paved the way for modern capitalism (once again - for better or worse) with the systems that created the wealth that America tapped from vast, widely spread natural resources - without railroads there would have been no railroad barons. Western parts of the US would probably have been a different country, with different colonial rulers. Banking, arising from the trade would not have evolved as it has (once again, I'm conflicted). Intercontinental transport would have been slower - heck, New Zealand would be less significant than it already is if propellor driven ships that Brunel helped to perfect hadn't allowed refrigerated meat to be transported to Europe. Not everything Brunel proposed worked. He wanted to build a train-like system using a vacuum pipe to propel pods between cities - which sounds a lot like steampunk version Elon Musk's Hyperloop.

So in parallel with the great innovations of Brunel came the psychology of the man forcing his way into the future and blasting aside barriers - whether access to capital or the rocks in a mountainside to make way for a tunnel or bridge. It corresponded with ideas of rugged individualism (pathologically portrayed to the extreme by Ayn Rand in her bizarre philosophy set out in books like  The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged). It is a macho, confrontational vision of the future - fertilised in the soil of industrialism and colonialism.

These attitudes and impressions persist today - though the issues that engineering confronts seem characterised by repairing or mitigating the problems created by the thrusting macho world created by Brunel's Victorian ideals.

Engineers are challenged to do more with less - whether is developing stronger, lighter structural solutions to conserve materials and produce less waste or to explore solutions on a nano scale that delicately deliver a hammer blow to a problem. It's almost a remedial approach to development. We can't un-ring the bell of technology or un-see the demons set loose by opening Pandoras Box but we can refocus and reframe.

The qualities of an engineer might well be better described as 'feminine' - nurturing, preserving and growing - applied by men and women alike. We can't continue to batter our way into the future - because, as even I, with the most rudimentary understanding of Newtonian physics, know that every force has an equal and opposite. Harnessing yin and yang should be present in our thoughts as we engineer the future - and the practice of science, technology and engineering will benefit from the skilled, educated participation of both men and women - because it is so important we can't continue to eliminate half of our intellectual capacity as we have.


Richard Feynman's lecture on nanotech - where he mocks nanotech but which has been adopted - just as I am doing to promote the very thing. He's fantastic. This talk was delivered on my birthday before I was born - and you thought nanotech was mind-bending.

Monday, May 04, 2015

Elon Musk - The Sun King?

In my previous post I talked about Elon Musk as a visionary. If you had any doubts - watch this clip where he launches the Tesla battery pack for solar power.

Reducing carbon emissions is crucial to having a sustainable future. Continuing to rely on fossil fuels isn't just moving the deck chairs around on the Titanic - it is the iceberg.

Remember Steve Jobs' announcing the iPhone and it seemed like the second coming of Jeepers Cripes? You have to admire Musk's vaguely shambling, seemingly unrehearsed pitch. It's the content that wins the day.

And one other thing. The technology behind the Tesla system is open source. Think about that. He's not simply launching a slick new thing for movie stars and the 1% to feel good about reducing their carbon footprint. He's making it accessible to virtually everyone.


There's more info here (and an interesting discussion thread).

One point though - I wish he'd get a better tailor - the jacket didn't seem to fit so well.

Friday, May 01, 2015

What do you mean 'who is Elon Musk'?

Steve Jobs is dead. Bill Gates might as well be (he was always kind of boring) - in the realm of visionary world-leading people who is there to be inspired by?

How about Richard Branson? Not really. He's a publicity hound for sure and he parlayed his restlessness into starting and collecting businesses under the quirky Virgin brand. But he's never really disrupted an industry with anything unique.

There's people like Peter Thiel - one of the original investors in Paypal and Facebook - but, aside from being lucky and in the right place at the right time with some spare change he's hardly going to significantly change the world.

 You get my drift?  Who is there that not only has ideas that no one else has and has the completely insane focus to make them happen?

How about Elon Musk. No doubt you will have beard about him. He's often referred to as the prototype for Tony Stark (IronMan). He co-founded Paypal with Thiel, but unlike his Thiel he has gone on to innovate at a rate that can only be describes as (and I think this is the scientific term) …bonkers.

Musk created the Tesla car company. It makes viable electric cars - which is an astonishing accomplishment in itself but what is more remarkable is that his company is developing an entire infrastructure to make the vehicles practical - with not only a network of electric recharging stations but also making forays into generating the energy to pump into the vehicles (which is free for their owners). It makes sense that he has a significant interest in sustainable energy.

His company SolarCity is the second largest provider of solar systems in the US. (If I was you I'd look for some investments in solar power).

 He's developing plans to create transport system called HyperLoop that would allow you to travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 35 minutes - a distance of 350 miles. It operates like a vacuum tube.

It seems as though Musk operates in a way that takes Niels Bohr's question very seriously indeed: "Your ideas are crazy - but are they crazy enough" Oh, and he's also got SpaceX a company that is reimagining space travel (making Virgin Galactic seem like a low altitude publicity stunt). It is world's largest private manufacturer of rockets and has a deal with NASA.

You get the picture - the man is a brainiac maniac.

Obviously he attracts a lot of interest and attention - to be expected when you have wealth and influence that wasn't inherited.

People want to know the magic trick - how can they replicate Elon Musk's magic?

His ex-wife has some insights for you, posted on a Quora thread in response to the question:

 “Will I become a billionaire if I am determined to be one and put in all the necessary work required?”

“No,” she says and goes on to say that is the wrong question.

“You’re determined. So what? You haven’t been racing naked through shark-infested waters yet. Will you be just as determined when you wash up on some deserted island, disoriented and bloody and ragged and beaten and staring into the horizon with no sign of rescue?”

 “Shift your focus away from what you want (a billion dollars) and get deeply, intensely curious about what the world wants and needs.

Ask yourself what you have the potential to offer that is so unique and compelling and helpful that no computer could replace you, no one could outsource you, no one could steal your product and make it better and then club you into oblivion (not literally).

Then develop that potential.

Choose one thing and become a master of it.

Choose a second thing and become a master of that.

When you become a master of two worlds (say, engineering and business), you can bring them together in a way that will :

a) introduce hot ideas to each other, so they can have idea sex and make idea babies that no one has seen before and

b) create a competitive advantage because you can move between worlds, speak both languages, connect the tribes, mash the elements to spark fresh creative insight until you wake up with the epiphany that changes your life.

 The world doesn’t throw a billion dollars at a person because the person wants it or works so hard they feel they deserve it. (The world does not care what you want or deserve.) The world gives you money in exchange for something it perceives to be of equal or greater value: something that transforms an aspect of the culture, reworks a familiar story or introduces a new one, alters the way people think about the category and make use of it in daily life.

There is no roadmap, no blueprint for this; a lot of people will give you a lot of advice, and most of it will be bad, and a lot of it will be good and sound but you’ll have to figure out how it doesn’t apply to you because you’re coming from an unexpected angle. And you’ll be doing it alone, until you develop the charisma and credibility to attract the talent you need to come with you.

 Have courage. (You will need it.)
And good luck. (You’ll need that too.)”

 And, of course, he wants to go to Mars. I expect we'll get a postcard sometime soon.