Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Interdisciplinary life

However zeitgeisty it sounds, interdisciplinary engineering is a growing movement, and a truly beneficial one.  The synthesis of disciplines, and the cross-functionality of engineering studies is increasingly more important as we blur the lines between mechanical, electrical, computer, aerospace, chemical, and biological fields.  Disciplines that used to have nothing to do with each other are starting to realize the benefits of having broad expertise, and departments are popping up around the countries top research universities that encourage and foster this kind of interdisciplinary environment.

Cross-functional engineering in everyday life experiences can manifest many ways.  In a previous post I noted how learning about water hammers in my graduate research lab helped me diagnose a problem with my washing machine years later.  The following story is only mildly related to this concept, but bear with me.  This morning, while desperately trying to keep my 10 month old entertained so that I could shower and feel human, I synthesized three very different experiences together to form one very fun distraction technique:

Part (1): Band Geek

Part (2): My undergrad alma mater's world-renowned pipes and drum band

Part (3): A Sonicare toothbrush.

Let me explain...

I played music for many years, most of my childhood/adolescence.  I started with one of those tiny 1/2 size violins when I was in 2nd or 3rd grade, and then switched to the flute in 5th grade.  Many years of private lessons led into becoming a full-blown band geek in high school.  Marching band, pep band, pit orchestra for the spring musical, parade band, the whole lot.  I was even drum major my senior year.  Yes, that kind of band geek.  Through the standard wind ensemble repertoire, I became familiarized with the works of Frank Ticheli, Percy Grainger, and other pieces inspired by the British Isles.  This love of all things bagpipe-y continued into my collegiate experience.  Though I did not continue participating in the music world as a player, I thoroughly enjoyed the presence of all things Scottish on the Carnegie Mellon campus, including the pipes & drum band.  Wednesday afternoons the band would practice on the Cut and I frequently (in good weather) took to sitting at a picnic table nearby to enjoy some music while working on a problem set.  There is nothing remotely Scottish about me (although my husband is fractionally Scotch from his mother's side), but for some reason the music gives me goosebumps and uplifts my spirit.

In a seemingly unrelated fact: I love my Sonicare toothbrush.  My grandfather Z"L was a dentist and I come from a healthy teeth family.  Regular Sonicare brushings, along with a superb childhood dentist, has yielded me a string of happy adult cleaning appointments with complimentary dental hygienists.  A now for the kicker: I realized recently that the buzzing sound that accompanies the satisfying clean of the Sonicare is almost exactly the same pitch as the drone emitted by a bagpipe.

Circling back, we are back in the bathroom where I am trying to keep my daughter busy while brushing my teeth.  The discovery that the toothbrush emits a bagpipe-esque drone means that I now delight her with a performance of all the music i know that is bagpipe or bagpipe-inspired, hummed with my mouth full of toothpaste.  Some of our favorites are Loch Lomond, Dueling Pipers, an assortment of Percy Grainger's works including Lincolnshire Posy, and Shenandoah.  It may be that she is giggling about mommy's silly faces rather than in delight for the tastefully-delivered renditions of the classics... but regardless.  I get to brush my teeth, and my daughter gets a show.  Everyone wins!

In all seriousness, being able to draw on seemingly unconnected experiences while problem solving is invaluable and merits a continual, conscious push towards erasing the boundaries between fields.  Interdisciplinary engineering is the future: get ready.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

How technology controls us and liberates us: The Internet of Things

When my daughter was first born I downloaded an app to my phone that allowed me to track her wellness: feedings, diapers, sleep habits, doctors appointments, and milestones all in one convenient location.  It even gave me regular feedback (in satisfying chart form) on how she was developing on a weekly or monthly basis.  As a first-time mom and an engineer, I found the plethora of stats comforting.  I had data evidence to show that I wasn't royally screwing up in the rearing of my child, and could confidently answer the medical assistant's questions about the frequency of my daughter's bowel movements*.  Though at times tedious, the regular data entry also gave me peace of mind and allowed me to free up the brain space needed to remember her coos and smiles rather than when she last ate.  Though I abandoned the meticulous record keeping after my daughter weaned herself at eight months, I believe it was an invaluable asset in the first several months of  her life.  Taking a step back and thinking about the impact that one small data-collecting app had on the first few months of my daughter's life, it can only follow how much of a game-changer similar technologies can have on our lives when utilized on a much larger scale.

We often start conversations and give names to concepts before having a concrete idea of their impact, which inadvertently leads us to overstating their magnitude; but the so-called Internet of Things (IoT) has potential to create tidal waves in myriad industries.  Led by the rise of the internet/cloud-based services, semiconductor manufacturing advances, and big data strategies, the IoT is being touted as the basis for the next stage in the industrial revolution.  Surprisingly, one of the largest industries currently bought into the IoT movement is agriculture.

The adaptation of the IoT into the agricultural industry is varied and increasingly complex.  Some of the many implementation points include: real-time monitoring of weather, irrigation, and soil quality, and their inevitable impact on crop yield.  Semios, a company that utilizes wireless sensor networks, detects problematic pest populations and deploys pheromone-based deterrent automatically at the point of need.  Between monitoring cattle health, minimizing water usage and waste, and tracking equipment deployed amongst the crops, IoT is already impacting a wide range of agricultural production.

It is inevitable, as a modern internet-savvy mom, that I run into the occasional parenting blog rant about the dangers of feeding children GMO produce treated with commercial pesticides.  I have to admit that I do not feel strongly in either direction, but I find that (as in most things) everything in moderation is a fine way to lead life.  However, a recent conversation with a good childhood friend (who is now a research entomologist working on the impact of pesticides) about the deteriorating honeybee population got me thinking about how the IoT can further impact the industry.  Similar to the technology already deployed by companies like Semios, it is imaginable that the industry could shift to a continual spot checking of pests/crop disease as a means to ensure product health.  Drone monitoring of remotely embedded sensors (or even a LPWAN deployed across hundreds of acres) could identify and treat/isolate localized issues, removing the need for blanket pesticide treatments.  Rather than assuming a plural contamination, the crop could rely on the "herd immunity" provided through tackling the source of the problem.

Some obvious challenges are associated with this level of data collection and analysis: first and foremost, the size of the gathered data.  For each crop and local pest populations, weather patterns and water availability, a new model has to be assessed, vetted, and deployed.  --The added complication being an overall lower tolerance for experimental methods because of the potential negative impact to a valuable resource.   However, something amazing can also yield from this brave new world: the ability to identify a more ideal symbiotic relationship between crops and the environment.  We already acknowledge the need to maintain a minimum population of pests for the benefit of their natural predators (e.g. bees and birds), but imagine using IoT to find the "sweet spot."  Because of this new shift to data-driven production, standards and threshold tolerances will need to be reconsidered.  Hyperawareness of environmental impact on crop yield makes old standards and practice obsolete.  Even the concept of "economic threshold," which may rely on partial information or subjective standards, will need revamping.  In essence, fully assimilating IoT into agriculture, or any industry for that matter, will require building a new intuition.  Something that I have found makes engineers nervous is when you suddenly violate their intuitive sense of how the world works.  Paradigm shifts are scary, but they are also inevitable in this rapidly changing world.  IoT brings to the table the incredible power of data and hyper-connectivity, and we need to work hard to not only develop the technology, but the mindset around the use of the technology as well.

* Side note: asking why your child's bowel movements smell like trash is not, apparently, a legitimate question and will get you laughed at.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Spice of life

It's not a secret but here's a confession anyways: I love to eat.  More specifically, I love to eat good food.  Wholesome, fresh, crunchy, earthy, dense, light, tangy, complex, savory, sweet, spicy, umami et al.  I love all of it.    I was raised in the kitchen: stirring dishes and chopping vegetables, learning how to beat egg whites to patient perfection, watching my dad make an Argentine asado every Sunday night, flipping through my mom's cobbled-together binder cookbook with plastic sleeves holding torn out pages from magazines and print-outs from the web...the list goes on.  My parents have a step stool/chair in the corner of the kitchen, and I spent my childhood camped out on it watching my folks cook.  I grew up having an intense appreciation for not only eating quality ingredients, but for the process of cooking them as well.

One of my newly developed (by reason of becoming a mom) techniques for multitasking is something my husband and I call "cooking show."  It's not that our daughter constantly needs attention: she is perfectly able to play alone for 30-45 minutes uninterrupted, and can accomplish some truly impressive destruction in her play area if left to her own devices.  But I discovered that if mommy is banging pots in the kitchen, she wants to be a part of it.  So I plop her into her high chair or into the doorway jumper, and narrate the steps as if I'm the star of my own Food Network show. (I will admit that sometimes I also do funny accents and dramatically sing the ingredient list to keep things interesting).  My daughter loves it and watches all the steps intently; I could probably convince myself that she is learning how to cook at 10 months old.  I was in the middle of this week's episode of "cooking show" (Sautéed tofu with fresh basil & garlic) when it occurred to me that one of the reasons I enjoy cooking so much is its relationship to my engineering background.

The previously addressed topic of mindful engineering/science relies heavily on building up an effective intuition about common events.  Deeply ingrained procedures make a useful "tool belt" for rapid problem analysis and solving.  The creation of a "tool belt" directly relates to my experience in the kitchen.  I love spices.  I have an entire, fairly large, cabinet just for my spices.  I am always looking for new and unique combinations, and read cookbooks and foodie blogs to better understand how spices balance and mix together.  One of the greatest pleasures I derive from cooking is being able to look at a fridge full of raw ingredients and know how to create a meal of dishes that balance and compliment each other.  The ability to know ahead of time the expected outcome, even without having tried it before, is exciting and empowering.  It drives my mother crazy (she's more of a textbook recipe follower) but I never measure spices,  making it impossible for her to recreate my dishes.

My husband, who plays the guitar, pointed out to me while I was drafting this post that the way I mix spices together is very much like musical improvisation.  A strong improvisor will have a repertoire of rehearsed licks that they can rely on for a particular style or performed piece.  This really got me thinking, because I always thought of musical improvisation as a channel of pure creative expression, rather than a demonstration of seamlessly rehearsed technical ability.  --But that's exactly how it manifests.  Applied to mindful engineering, the same tool belt of intuitive problem solving knowledge can look elegant, beautiful, and creative, even when it is built upon a solid understanding of the theory and highly-technical aptitude.