Archive for the 'Engineering' Category

Robot Surgery

Sunday, May 1st, 2011

When I got a tour of the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Columbia University, from which I ultimately got a degree in electrical engineering, they spent a lot of time showing us the robotics lab.  It was probably the coolest thing a young aspiring engineer could ever see. In four years as a student, I never once set foot in that robotics lab.

Finally, I got my chance to play robot scientist.  My wife got me a black market Roomba for Hanukah a few years ago and it dutifully cleaned our house for several months before it started behaving strangely. Eventually it quit altogether.

Luckily, the Internet has a wealth of information for people wanting to fix their ailing Roombas. The Roomba itself, however, does not make it easy.  I figured there was about a 20% chance of the thing working at all after I opened it up and tinkered with its soft white underbelly, but a replaced IR emitter, a decent soldering job, and about 5,000 tiny screws later, Roomba is once again keeping our house clean from dust bunnies.

If anyone comes across this page with a Roomba that just backs up and spins until it stops and beeps 9 times, here’s what you can do to fix it:

Joules and (Family) Jewels

Saturday, May 2nd, 2009


In London we happened to walk past a statue of Michael Faraday outside the Institution of Engineering and Technology.  I had Shama stop and take a picture of me with him.  (Nice pose, Evan.)

While we were walking away, another dude was getting another lady to take his picture in front of the statue. When I asked if he was an engineer too, the lady laughed, nodded,  and rolled her eyes.

In Dublin Shama had me stop and take a photo of her punching James Joyce in the balls.


I guess we all have our heroes.

Old Technology: It Works, But People Die

Wednesday, September 24th, 2008


Here’s some brilliant turn of the century engineering for you:  I work in an old warehouse building next to a large steel door hanging from rollers.  If there’s a fire, the rope holding the door in place will burn through and the door will roll down the inclined track, shutting the entrance to the room and, theoretically, preventing the fire from spreading.  

Of course everyone inside (i.e. me) dies, but still, pretty clever.

From Lines of Code to Rock Lines and Back Again

Friday, March 14th, 2008

A bridge, it turns out, requires a lot of mass to keep it from being pulled down into whatever crevasse it happens to be spanning. In the case of the bridge in Guatemala I worked on for the last week and a half, that mass came from rocks and concrete. The Benque River was abundant with rocks of all sizes. Unfortunately, those rocks were in the river, quite a ways from their eventual home in the abutments on either side. After hours of pulling rocks out of the river and stacking them on the banks, we’d form a long line and pass the rocks from one person to the next until the last person could place it appropriately.

I’ve been a member of Engineers Without Borders for several years and whenever someone returns from a trip they are often accompanied by grand adjectives: wonderful, amazing, life-changing. I get the point now. These trips offer something that’s hard to find: a chance to interact with a different culture in a truly cooperative way.

There are a million stories to tell from the trip, and I’ll probably tell many of them here, but the thing I’ll remember most is those rock lines. It was the time when those of us from Chicago and the Mayan Kichi’ villagers who lived near the bridge site really bonded. It’s no coincidence that the two Kichi’ words we all knew by the end of the trip were heavy (al) and rock (pek.) It’s also no coincidence that the English word all of the Kichi’ knew by the end of the trip was “Oops!” Occasionally a particularly “al li pek” would make it almost all the way up the embankment when a combination of mud, sweat and aching hands would compromise someone’s grip and we’d all watch it roll back down to the river accompanied by laughs and shouts of “Oops!” from Chicagoans and Kichi’ alike. Good or bad, we were all in it together.

It Is Our Most Modestly Priced Receptacle

Monday, February 11th, 2008

In a couple weeks I’m going to Guatemala to help build a bridge with Engineers Without Borders. I’m not a big traveler. I don’t like being far from home, and I don’t like being a tourist. This trip is as far from being a tourist as one could ask for. We’ve got a five mile hike from the end of the nearest road to get to the site where we’ll be camping and working with 70 villagers to build a suspended bridge, allowing the locals to get to and from health care, schools, markets, and other necessities.

I’m a little nervous about this trip for a lot of reasons. Can we actually get this thing built without any electricity in such a remote location with such a short time frame? Are we going to be okay camping for such an extended period of time? What’s it going to be like in such close quarters with a bunch of people I barely know? I had to get travel insurance yesterday. The second item listed under “additional coverage details” did little to assuage my fears.

R.I.P. Cone of Freshness

Monday, February 4th, 2008

There’s an intake vent at Jellyvision that has been pouring cold air into the office all winter. Woody calls it “The Cone of Freshness.” Fresh or not, it’s pretty inefficient to have cold Chicago air pouring into your building through a two foot intake.

I tried making a one-way valve out of paper that closes when the heater is off, keeping the cold air out of our office, but opens up and allows air to be sucked (intook?) when the heater is on. The photo above shows it in full suck mode with the valve open.

It seems to be working, although Nate, who sits right underneath it, says it scares the crap out of him every time it closes.