Mellow greetings, fellow travelers.
Okay, so I’m not really a terribly mellow person. I’m Jim Crider, mechanical engineer, car guy, and genetically-engineered tinkerer. Some may know my nom de net AutoJim from various and sundry places, but I’m not a net.celebrity by any means. As for how I got here, if I trace the lineage, there are a few blacksmiths and a couple of master mechanic/master machinists in my bloodline. We understand what the machines are telling us in my family (specifically my mom’s side). My dad learned early on that any birthday or Christmas presents that were “some assembly required” were best left in that state after I had completely disassembled the Pit Change Charger he spent half of Christmas Eve assembling in about 15 minutes. Most of the fun of that particular toy was in the taking it apart and putting it back together aspect, which was actually designed in – and there’s no way whatsoever anyone could sell such a thing in a toy store today, what with the small screws and *gasp* actual working wrench and screwdriver that came with it. Mid 1970s? Sure. Today? The lawyers would have a stroke.
I’m originally from Tulsa, Oklahoma, and currently in Houston (about a year and a half so far) after 18+ years in the greater Detroit area where I designed car parts that, if I did my job right, you’d never really notice. I’ll write about the nature of feedback a bit later in the week. Or in this post. Not entirely sure which yet — I got a late start to my guest week.
What I do these days is design tools for fixing broken stuff subsea.
For fun, I play with cars. I participate with the Sports Car Club of America as a driver in Solo (autocross) competition, and as a racing turn marshal (if you ever watched a road race like the IndyCars at Long Beach in person or on TV, and you see the people on each turn with flags, that’s us).
How I met Gever (virtually – I have yet to have the privilege of a face-to-face) is a racing pal of mine, who happens to a) be a computer programming genius and b) has a completely adorable ~4 year old daughter, posted a link to Gever’s first TED talk on Facebook. At the time, I’d just written a rather angry open letter to US public school administrators (be forewarned, if you venture around my LiveJournal beyond that post, you may find Adult Words. I try to friend-lock the more opinionated posts and the ones with Adult Words, but sometimes one slips out) and Gever’s message at that TED talk really hit home. Struck up a conversation on Twitter in which I linked him to that LJ post, and it’s just kinda gone from there.
About my day job: if you watched any of the ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle) video feeds from the BP Macondo-252 well blowout response (or, as the press calls it “The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill”… don’t get me started on that), beyond the one feed most often shown in the press of the ROV spraying dispersant into the stream of oil and natural gas coming out of the well, you saw some of the stuff my colleagues and I designed and built. I can’t at this time get into a lot of detail about specific tools and techniques we used (the lawyers say so), but the general idea is that this is a harsh environment — at 5000 feet of seawater, the ambient pressure is about 2600 psi, it’s pitch black, and about 40 degrees F.
Which leads me to danger as a topic. Gever suggested I talk about how some situations are simply too dangerous for humans to be involved. This is one of them. Just consider that pressure. We humans are intended to be in what we call 1 atmosphere of pressure, about 14.696 psi absolute at sea level. Pounds per square inch. We have a lot of square inches on our bodies (some, like me, more than others). We don’t really react well to pressure. Commercial divers use funky gas blends (such as replacing the nitrogen in air with helium) and can go 500-600 feet with LONG preconditioning and decompression sessions, but beyond that you need a hard suit. Even manned military subs rarely go much deeper than 800 feet — the amount of metal in the hull needed to resist the crushing pressure becomes a diminishing return as the sub gets heavier for its size and harder to keep neutrally buoyant — and smaller on the inside so you can’t put as much stuff in it.
Since we’re talking about 5000 feet of seawater, or about 2600 psi, let’s do a quick visual. You all know what a Honda Civic looks like, right? It’s a smallish car, weighs about 2600 lbs. And everyone knows what a 12 x 12 floor tile looks like. That floor tile has 144 square inches of area (12^2). Lay down on the floor, put the tile on your chest, and park 144 Honda Civics on the tile.
Doesn’t feel so good, does it?
Humans are squishy. We will compress. A lot. The Mythbusters did a bit earlier this year about venting the air supply in a commercial dive suit while at about 300 feet of depth. It wasn’t pretty (I don’t have any desire to navigate the rather Byzantine Discovery Channel website to find a link to the video right now).
Which goes back to danger: there are simply some environments that we humans can’t easily go. Yeah, there are specialized deep-submersible vehicles that can take 2 or 3 humans down to even the bottom of the Marianas Trench, but they can’t really do much crammed into a 6′ titanium sphere with a half-dozen 6″ diameter viewports. And the support equipment for maintaining habitability is big and bulky and makes the sub too big to fit into many interesting spaces.
Solution? ROVs! Remove the life support requirements and you have something smaller and, conversely, more capable at depth, while the operator sits in a control booth on the surface in a comfortable chair (ROV dives can go over 10 hours in duration), air conditioning, access to a head (“toilet” for landlubbers), blast music, etc.
There’s still danger, but it’s danger that is within the realm of reason: we know how to account for the danger, we see that the risk/reward ratio is tipped toward reward.
And it all comes down to learning – through experience – how to make those risk/reward decisions. That comes from doing dangerous things. As kids, we found ways to take those risks whether or not our parents really overtly allowed it. As adults, we need to set boundaries — and if you think Gever doesn’t set boundaries at Tinkering School, you’d be wrong. It’s just that they’re well out of the direct view of the casual observer (and most of the kids themselves, I’d expect). And when we adults set boundaries for the kids in our charge, we need to say why. Truthfully. Kids have finely-tuned BS detectors. “Because you’ll be eaten by a grue” is a challenge, not a reason. “You haven’t checked to see if that lashing can hold up the platform and 10 of you yet” (see what I did there, tying into this year’s Tinkering School?) is a reason.
Because the objective is a thinking, capable kid that grows into a thinking, capable adult. The neat thing is that starting a kid on the path to thinking and capability isn’t hard to do, because, well, we humans are programmed to learn best that way already anyway. The even neater part is that once that path is started, the artificial boundaries we adults set can open way up and retreat into the shadows.
And that’s the value of the 50 Dangerous Things: they provide a kicking-off point, a way to start down that path. Going off on tangents is not only allowed, but encouraged.
Kind of like this post.
Life is like that, too.