Category Archives: Technology

Why isn’t my mother a mechanic?

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As a child, my mother had her own overalls. She grew up stripping engines and cleaning carburettors. She was the daughter of a mechanic and master builder. Then she became a librarian.

As a child, I wanted to be an astronaut. I grew up playing with punch cards and radio telescopes. My father was a physicist and astronomer. I built rockets, robots, computers and oscilloscopes with him. Then I became a film maker.

Eventually I returned to the study of rockets and robots but from the perspective of trying to understand why our sciences seemed to be gendered and what happens at the intersections of society and technology.

In Technologies of the Gendered Body, Anne Balsamo wrote “My mother was a computer” to launch a meditation on the gender implications of information technologies as she touches on the changing social status and meaning of occupations. For example, clerking was once a male occupation, now primarily female. And some traditionally female crafts have at times been male only guilds, eg. knitting.

In My Mother Was a Computer, N. Katherine Hayles takes this sentence  as her title; ‘as a synecdoche for the panoply of issues raised by the relation of Homo sapiens to Robo sapiens, humans to intelligent machines’. Hayles takes the gender and status implications of our changing technologies in society and raises them to a discussion on our kinship relations to machines, engaging with Moravec’s ‘postbiological’ future.

I love robots because they teach us what it is to be human. Robotics explores our inner space. Our automatons and artificial intelligences imitate life. So we have to work out what it is we are imitating and every choice we make building an imitation being says something about what we think we are, and what we think we aren’t.  So who we are, as well as our society, shapes our technologies, while our technologies change the world.

Hayles’ trilogy of books, Writing MachinesHow We Became Posthuman and My Mother Was a Computer describe an arc that starts at the binary opposition of embodiment and information, engages with the materiality of literary texts and then extends the ideas of ‘intermediation’ into computation. She takes Latour’s call for a turn from ‘matters of fact’ to ‘matters of concern’ literally, as Hayle’s ‘materiality’ is the  intersection between matter and meaning, or “dynamic interactions between physical characteristics and signifying strategies”.

This is a call echoed by Rodney Brooks and Raffaello D’Andrea amongst others, that we start asking social questions more than technological ones in robotics. By extension, a social question is a business one because if someone needs something then they will value it. Not always as highly as they ought, but nonetheless we’ve had enough ‘build it and they will come’! While there are some technical questions (and some people) who are best in an abstract realm, there are many unanswered pragmatic ones.

The materiality of robotics is my area of study, both in the broadest sense of how do some robotic designs come in to being and not others, but in the minute details of whether or not the materials used in robotics affect the demographics of robot designers.

Robotics is gendered. While women are more equally represented these days in health, medicine and biological sciences, it is clear that engineering and the physical and computing sciences are still heavily male biased. [insert all the books, articles and reports written on gender inequality in STEM here] This hasn’t changed much over time either. And for the record, this is still the case in politics, finance and business.

I watch this trend up close in Silicon Valley and both the VC and startup worlds are heavily male dominated. It seems as though rapid innovation exacerbates innate biases at a systemic level [insert another book here]. Of course, there are many fabulous women in both startups and in robotics. Of course, some women achieve success, recognition and reward. It’s just that overall, the odds are not in your favor if you are female and you shouldn’t have to work twice as hard to overcome them.

Do you even want to do what so many men do? Maybe some women want different work lives? Maybe some women want different robots?

It’s time to talk more loudly about both gender and biology. I believe that biology plays a strong part in these differences and we risk becoming a society that refuses to talk about difference – because we want to respect everyone’s equality. Our anodyne culture makes it hard to celebrate different mindedness and different bodiedness. This is worrisome, especially as our ability to tinker with our selves increases. Let’s not do a Dr Lawrence Summers here and shoot the message because we don’t like the messenger.

There are many reasons why women are not in robotics and getting them more engaged in school is only one answer. We must simultaneously address improving the pipeline at every point right up to promotion to CEO or Board, better family life balance, more equitable pay (especially in light of women’s higher rate of p/t or interrupted work), more role models, less innate bias and finally, better value given to areas traditionally female, which will in turn allow more women to import their skills and experience into areas which are, so far, traditionally male.

My mother isn’t a mechanic, but she is a maker. She taught me kitchen chemistry and real cooking. My mother made clothing from necessity and then for pleasure. She taught me 3d modelling, design, aesthetics and problem solving skills in the process. When I was young, I wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps. I wanted to be a physicist, an astronaut, a test fighter pilot and explore outer space.

I gave up when I entered my teens. There was no career pathway for women in space, no role models, no encouragement. That has changed now, but the deeper lesson I learned was that in the world we have unequal access to technology, by gender or by race or global location. I saw this with the spreading of computer technology and the internet. If you live in some parts of the world, you don’t have access to technology and you can’t shape the building of new technologies and it’s hard to be an innovator.

Maybe innovation needs more makers and fewer mechanics. Maybe my mother was happy never becoming a mechanic. But she never got the promotions or the pay that she deserved. And her skills as a maker are far less valued than those of a mechanic.

My siblings followed in my father’s footsteps and got PhDs in the ‘hard’ sciences. By contrast, my mother and I are just Masters, and masters of the ‘soft’ sciences. But we are also makers. And I believe that the Maker movement is one way of encouraging us to value more varied contributions to science/technology. At every level of expertise,  I would like to see more women making a robots, which in turn may lead to more interesting robotics, a robotics that is useful and appealing to the rest of the world.

This post is part of an International Womens Day wrap over at Robohub – your global source of robotics news and views!

Printrbot Rookie Mistakes part 1

I love Brooke Drum’s awesome 3D printer (was on Kickstarter – now at printrbot.com). I wish I had more time each week to work on assembling it, but I do keep hitting little speed bumps along the way.

Here’s all the stupid things I’m doing wrong following the printrbot videos and also the occasional changes to the bill of materials and instructions that are tripping me up. Maybe this will be useful to someone else who is assembling an original printrbot (not the PLUS or the LC/lasercut version)

1. Don’t get those rods perfectly parallel before you work out (using the base plate) just how far apart they need to be. You’ll have about 1 1/2″ of threaded rods sticking out of one side.

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2. Don’t freak out when it calls for three 16mm black screws in this step and you only have one left because you used two on the bearing guide. He’s changed them to 8mm in the video.

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3. Don’t screw your motors in before you flat them. Flatting involves taping off the motor, carefully putting it in a vice and filing one side of the shaft flat. Brooke explains it in one of the later videos.

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4. I’m really not sure what to do about these yet. The video shows a different construction. (these nuts are loose – not fitted into part like video)

Open question: What to do with the new style 5mm to 8mm flexible shaft coupling? And whether or not you need to flat these motors?

R.I.P. Ray Bradbury, Author of Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles

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Ray Bradbury — author of The Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and many more literary classics — died this morning in Los Angeles, at the age of 91.

We’ve got confirmation from the family as well as his biographer, Sam Weller.

His grandson, Danny Karapetian, shared these words with io9 about his grandfather’s passing: “If I had to make any statement, it would be how much I love and miss him, and I look forward to hearing everyone’s memories about him. He influenced so many artists, writers, teachers, scientists, and it’s always really touching and comforting to hear their stories. Your stories. His legacy lives on in his monumental body of books, film, television and theater, but more importantly, in the minds and hearts of anyone who read him, because to read him was to know him. He was the biggest kid I know.”

How Women In Tech Are Losing From Top To Bottom – Forbes

Silicon Valley 

Is a lonely road to blame for the dearth of women in tech?

According to a new survey the number of women in senior technology positions at U.S. companies is down for the second year in a row.

The survey, published by U.S. division of the British tech recruitment group Harvey Nash, attests that just 9% of U.S. chief information officers (CIOs) are female, down from 11% last year and 12% in 2010. According to Reuters, 30% of the 450 American tech executives polled said their IT groups have no women at all in management positions. What’s more, when the same group of executives was asked whether women were underrepresented, roughly one half said no.

Which, I concede, is all bad news for women. To the boy’s club of CIOs in America, women aren’t around and nobody seems to have a problem with it.

But I do. I think it’s wrong and bad and exactly the attitude that’s keeping women from earning anything close to our brothers, boyfriends and husbands. But that’s not what this post is about.

This post is about whether surveys and research like this are bad for women in another way: whether they’re looking at women in tech with a set of blinders on. Determined to find some good in the ongoing conversation about the black hole for women that is the tech debate, I set about looking to prove that this latest research was misrepresenting women in technology by only looking at a particular group of companies at the top.

Unfortunately, as Bob Miano, President and CEO of Harvey Nash USA soon filled me in on, I was wrong. His isn’t a study that looks only at the 500 most profitable companies in America, but rather a sampling of over 450 companies that range from Silicon Valley startups to “a large computer software company with three letters in its name.” And of these companies, fewer than 40 chief information officers were female.

In terms of women at the top, at least, the reports of decline are verified. But what’s worse, where I had hoped that the recent blizzard of startup activity might be helping to change the ratio in favor of the fairer sex, Miano says the opposite is true. He blames the decline in women in tech roles on the uptick of startup companies, which he says tend to be less interested in diversity than many of his older, more established clients who often put major emphasis on recruiting female talent.

But as a woman who covers women for a living, I know anecdotally that this research is not indicative of the number of girls, women, ladies I meet every week who are kicking tech’s butt in the startup world. I look at companies like Joyus and Fab, both highly funded ventures with women leading their tech teams. I look at women like Caterina Fake, Allyson Kapin and programs like Black Girls Code and Women 2.0. I look at numbers that say women are starting businesses at 1.5 times the national average.

This is an issue that has plagued us for too long, says Tara Hunt, CEO of Buyosphere, “Even though we’re seeing an increase in the numbers of women enrolling and graduating college with technical degrees. And even though there is an upswing in women joining and launching startups, we are quite far from parity. The more women we see in high profile technical roles at these companies, the more young women will be inspired to pursue a career in technology.”

True, despite the fact that women have reached senior positions at Facebook, Xerox, Oracle and other large companies, they’re hardly the norm.

Women In Tech Infographic | Women Who Tech

Can Tech Companies Continue To Innovate With No Women At The Table? | Fast Company

Can Tech Companies Continue To Innovate With No Women At The Table?

BY Allyson Kapin | 05-08-2012 | 10:17 AM

This article is written by a member of our expert contributor community.

Women dominate social networks, according to the latest Nielsen report. This is not news. Women have been ruling social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and social gaming platforms for the past few years. Women also bring in half or more of the income in 55% of U.S. households. And women ages 50 and older control a net worth of $19 trillion and own more than three-fourths of the nation’s financial wealth, according to MassMutual Financial Group. Simply put, women are influential and drive the economy.

PacX challenge | The Robot State

Fascinating experiment underway! In November 2011, Liquid Robotics launched four Wave Gliders – unmanned marine vehicles – in an attempt to autonomously travel the Pacific Ocean. On the way the Wave Gliders are sending a stream of openly available data on position, salinity, water temperature, waves, weather, fluorescence, and dissolved oxygen. And of course, the most interesting data. Is it possible to autonomously navigate the ocean.

Well, yes. The Gliders have just arrived at Hawaii, based on the March 7 post, including the one that lost communication. The only one in difficulty has lost rudder control but is nearby and communicating. I think a ride is heading its way. :P