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The Words We Use Define Us

April 12, 2015

Did I tell you about “recalcitrant”?

Over a decade ago, I was having a conference call with Audible, I’d been working with them for a few weeks, maybe a month.

Small aside: Audible’s hold “music” is the audio book of Charlotte’s Web. I was always a little sad when a meeting actually started. LeapFrog had the second best hold music: children’s singalong songs… meetings often started with people trailing off their singing as the music cut off.

For this status meeting, I had three or four tasks and had not finished the highest priority one, instead finishing the others. I said that the tough one was being recalcitrant. I was hoping to avoid getting into the details because I knew there was a memory leak and that it was deep in the way the operating system works. I rapidly went on to the completed tasks so I portray it all very positively.

When I finished my spiel, one of the guys on the phone (who were all smart and exactly what you’d expect from Audible-before-bought-by-Amazon engineers)… one of the guys asked “what do you mean by recalcitrant?” so I went ahead and explained that I knew the symptoms and would figure it out soon. I apologized for not getting it done, I acknowledged it was the highest priority and I would get it done quickly. You know, I was really trying to be a professional. It was my first contract gig.

Same guy (name redacted to protect a super nice guy) said, “No, what do you mean by recalcitrant?”

There was a long pause, I didn’t know what he meant.

I mispronounce many, many words. I think all readers have this problem. Let’s just say “impugned” does not have a hard-g sound something I found that out a month or two ago when my husband near fell in the parking lot of the library as he was laughing too hard to see.

I was pretty sure: re-kal-si-trant. But knowing me, I went ahead and spelled it. And asked if I was saying it wrong. I was so embarrassed but I didn’t want them to think I wasn’t willing to learn from them. Same guy says “But what does it mean?”

Not sure if he was yanking my chain but too busy pretending to be professional to get annoyed, I said it meant that the code was being fussy.

He asked if “recalcitrant” meant “fussy” and so I clue in that he’s simply asking for a definition. And so I go into teacher mode (why?) and said, not exactly, that recalcitrant means uncooperative and copping an attitude. I start in on the etymology (aren’t etymologies the coolest thing?).

Then I remember that my goal was to give my status and shut up. So I eventually shut up. The Audible guy thanks me for a new vocabulary word and we finally move on to the next person’s status report.

I have always wondered what everyone else on that conference call thought of that whole adventure.

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April Fool’s Joke

April 8, 2015

Over a thousand people have downloaded an episode of the embedded.fm where I interview our cat

At least three people listened to the whole thing, probably more. It was not our usual hour, only about 20 minutes but still I interviewed our cat. Chris piped up occasionally with the most hilarious additions. But I didn’t really expect other people to listen to the whole thing. I did it for my own amusement. I felt a bit guilty as it caused Chris lots of work (editing it was really tough! And yes, that was our cat though there were multiple recording sessions).

This is the first time I’ve ever participated in April Fools day. It has always been something I avoided or looked on with annoyed amusement (ThinkGeek, though, that is pure amusement).

There is a community to having done a prank like this. 

I found the episode really funny to plan, to do, and to listen to. It worked for me and even thinking about it now makes me want to giggle.

But a joke that is shared? It is much better.

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Special Effects

March 26, 2015

There is a contest to design a TV show that will draw people to engineering the way that MacGyver did for so many of us. And they want a woman protagonist. You can see the contest rules and enter at TheNextMacGyver.com. This is one of my entries.

Title: Special Effects

Genre: Comedy, family drama

Logline (summary):

Running a live educational children’s program is not easy. The show must go on even when everything is broken: Micah had better start fixing this mess, right now.

Pilot synopsis:

On the stage of a live, educations children’s TV show, everything works perfectly. All of the puppets are in good repair, all of the robots work without error, each light is timed perfectly, and even the rails for the camera are working as planned. Every special effect works exactly as intended.

Micah receives congratulations from her coworkers on her fantastic engineering skills, becoming more deeply unhappy with each accolade. Her boss, knowing her well, says he’s certain she’ll come up with something better next time.

Micah is an artist and engineer. She likes to learn and try new things. She’s sick of everyone telling her how awesome her job is (she knows). She gets bored with doing the same thing the same way each time. This tendency to change things, even working things, often leads her into trouble.

Main Character Description:

In her mid-20 and pretty, Micah can weld, work in a shop, use a soldering iron, and program a computer. She has minions to help her but she does the bulk of engineering for the show. She knows how to make it all work; fixing anything that needs it, possibly a few things that don’t. (Mythbusters showed that awesome engineering skills are needed for special effects and stunts, she could have been Adam, if they’d only cast Mythbusters better.)

Three Sample Episode Storylines:

  1. One of the puppeteers gets sick, Micah has to fill in. The work is hot and sweaty so she builds robotics to replace herself. The creature stops moving on live TV and emits smoke. Tears (and hilarity) ensue.
  2. Micah talks her producer into letting her build a robot. Now she has to give it personality but the darn thing is just a lump of metal without personality (well, occasionally it is creepy but definitely not the R2D2 she’d dreamed up for herself).
  3. A favorite reading puppet is destroyed when a child vomits on it. Micah rebuilds the skeleton and skin before the next show.
  4. Micah gets a helper: a boy who uses his Make-A-Wish to see how the eyes glow in his favorite creature. In a quiet episode, she shows how accomplishes this effect in a way anyone can follow.
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Underground

March 22, 2015

There is a contest to design a TV show that will draw people to engineering the way that MacGyver did for so many of us. And they want a woman protagonist. You can see the contest rules and enter at TheNextMacGyver.com. This is one of my entries.

Title: Underground

Genre: Drama

Logline (summary):

Jenny joins The Game to solve puzzles. If only she knew which side she’s on…

Pilot synopsis:

Jenny Quinn has three degrees: electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, and cognitive psychology. She knows a lot of theory but not much about people.

Hired as a junior professor despite her extreme social awkwardness, Jenny discovers she not only hates lecturing, she’s so bad at it that her school is about to fire her.

She calls her aunt to complain and ends up playing a complicated real-life game of puzzles, science, math, even costume play. She flies through everything except the costume part: pretending she’s a spy (she does ok but throws up after, the only physical stress she shows throughout the game).

Jenny is enthralled but does not realize the game is actually breaking into Acme Technology HQ. When “caught”, actually by presenting herself at the head office, Jenny is reprimanded then offered a position creating gadgets for spies. She jumps at the opportunity to continue solving excellent puzzles.

Main Character Description:

Jenny is 24, striking. She is healthy from swimming but klutzy: her body is a tool but she spends her time in her mind. Being social is as difficult and exhausting for her as it would be for another to solve a two-body physics problem.

Through her job at Acme Tech, developing devices for covert operatives (spies), she gains people skills and connects with her coworkers. Eventually, she grows from introverted nerd to someone who speaks for the agents heading into danger.

Three Sample Episode Storylines:

  1. When a rush job comes in, Jenny learns speed is of the essence. She fumbles around, working alone and refusing help. She fails to deliver the required gadget. Luckily, she’s not the only smart one and Joe saves the day. Jenny wonders if she’s smart enough.
  1. Jenny lets a shield device go a little early, knowing there was an occasional glitch. It fails and someone gets very hurt depending on her tech. At work, she act like it is no big deal but is unhappy as she heads home.
  1. After several episodes of awesome puzzles, Jenny realizes her devices kill people, real world people, not simulation targets. She begins to wonder who she works for.
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Shameless Self Promotion

March 19, 2015

I recently read Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking. It was a good book but I feel like I should be able to use the information instead of be vaguely amused, somewhat uncomfortable with the anecdotes.

Once again, I started a blog post with a plan and then totally lost the thread by the second sentence. Writing is hard. This blog is where I practice-write. I know it is public so it isn’t my absolute worst attempts (the drafts area is a scary place) but it isn’t an attempt to be professional.

On the other hand, Chris and I have been trying to be professional with writing for Element 14. We have a blog called The Linker that is loosely related to the people was talk to on the Embedded.fm podcast. Readers don’t have to listen to the podcast, the idea is we start from some topic we discuss and explore it further.

In Solving a Different Problem, Chris talked about how a guest said he wanted to explore a business problem instead of a technical one, how that’s neat and different from most engineers.

In How to Win the Hackaday Prize (and Other Design Challenges), I mug about being a judge for the Hackaday Prize (again!).

In Make Anything, Chris starts to explore the idea of how open source hardware is changing the industry.

In the next one, I’ll be talking about how applications matter to me and why that makes working on open source tools difficult, which makes me appreciate them more.

So yeah, I’ve been quiet here because I’ve been writing over there. We are getting paid for that which is nice. Though we’ve both been so angsty over, the material the cost/benefit is not going well. I think after we’ve got a half dozen finished, it will flow more easily. I hope, I hope.

I suspect that will happen around the time we hit 100 podcast episodes. One hundred. That is just crazy. We are still having a good time, still enjoying talking with people and hearing from listeners.

I’ve never been much of a joiner. I’m truly an introvert: I’d rather be by myself (or with Christopher) almost all the time. Without an external impetus and a fair amount of effort, I wouldn’t meet people. But after almost-100 episodes, I feel a lot more connected to the industry and to the the community than I’ve ever felt.

Chris and I have talked about ways to publicize the podcast. I got stickers (ok, the stickers crack me up but they seemed like a decent giveaway for people who want to know the show name when I’m at conferences).

I was looking into going to more conferences. However, Chris pointed out that conference attendees and podcast listeners may not overlap. That prompted me to ask if I could go on The Engineering Commons, they said yes and I did. It was fun, I should see if there are others.

As for conferences, I am going to and speaking at  Solid in June on inertial sensors and ESC-SV in July on making. I’m already nervous.

Other than that, I’ve been working a lot. I have two projects that are currently in the “omg, I broke everything” stage. One of them will be finished in the next week (fix then finish white paper). The other will get fixed and then I can start the fun parts.  (The third one really seems to be in production so it is finished… or would be if they’d pay me. Sigh.)

A week or two ago, a friend asked how things were going. I burbled on about work and the podcast and Chris. Then she asked about non-work stuff, how is that going?

I was couldn’t come up with anything. I mean, I read many books and watch tv but didn’t think we’d have any commonality there. I have some new ipad games I find amusing but those are mental cupcakes so I’m a bit embarrassed about them. House and garden need attention but who wants to hear about my plans for new closet doors and mulch? And my exercise program is going well but I can’t really imagine discussing it. It made me feel a bit one dimensional.

I know that is silly.

Well, if this was a professional piece, I’d wrap it all up and have some grandiloquent point at the end. Yeah, you can imagine that for yourself while I go make lunch