Sunday, October 31, 2010

The fragility of human life. Reflections of a young engineer.

As an engineer, you expect things to all work perfectly scientifically. You're taught that if you are careful about sticking to the rules, making sure that your calculations are correct, you will create something robust like a bridge or a drive-shaft. This object will be able to bear the required loads and shouldn't break under any normal circumstances...

 Engineers are also taught that you cant design anything to last forever. Everything has a life-span and everything will eventually break sooner or later. If you try to make a drive-shaft to last for ever, it would be either ridiculously big, ridiculously heavy, or both!   We design things to break after a certain number of uses. Whether its a trillion times (rotations of a shaft), or just once (the opening of a coke-can). We can predict when and how the object will fail, and for the most part we do this pretty accurately based on the design, the load and the quality of the material. Everything is neat, everything is calculated and everything is predictable. There is a certain sense of power attached to this, a smugness and a pride...

Unfortunately, life isn't like this. You can never tell when its going to sneak up on you, and when it does, its always a shock. The human body is so fragile in comparison to mechanical things, and so unpredictable in its robustness. You can invest so much time and energy into making it stronger, but you can never say when it will be snatched away. I can breathe life into a robot or a machine, I can bring it back from the dead or make it brand new, but I wish I knew how to do that for a human being.

We are truly made or different stuff, and the same rules just simply do not apply to life. No matter how hard we try, we can't quantify life or cling onto it when its time for it to leave this world. Its a humbling experience that makes me realise how small and powerless each of us really are to control the things that matter the most on this planet and are far more valuable than any chunk of metal can ever be (even if it does talk).

Similarly to the engineering world though, there is one thing we can all be sure of...Nothing lasts forever, so do your best to enjoy every moment with the people you love. And let them know it.

To my dear, sweet and amazing friends, DG and CBS who tragically and unexpectedly passed on this year: I love you, I miss you and I will always treasure the precious memories we've shared.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

End of the Road...Or is it?

Well, I'm back! My thesis has been officially handed in! Years of studying, scores of projects and months of tireless work all culminated in a neatly bound, colour-printed booklet of just over 100 pages...For now, the jury's out, but on the 9th November I will meet with the external examiner who will listen intently to my presentation, examine my poster and give his final verdict! Here's to hoping its a good one!

So how does it feel to be at the end of this long, loooong road? can't really sum it up in a blog.   How can I explain the nights spent pouring over textbooks, days spent puzzling over formulas and weeks spent trying to understand a single, elusive concept, only to have it dismantled for you in five minutes by a classmate in the hallway before an exam? It really is impossible to account for how many confused, stressed and worked-to-the-bone days have gone into this degree. But honestly, if it wasn't this difficult, it wouldn't have been worth this much! 

SAX APPEAL magazine, sold by 1st year UCT students
to raise money for RAG (remember and give)
But to be fair, when I think back on my time here as a student in Cape Town, I don't think about all the stressful assignments, exams and lectures! I think about the amazing things I've experienced, the people I've met and the opportunities I've grabbed with both hands! I think about missioning to Hermanus for the weekend or eating fish and chips at Hout Bay. I think about the time in 1st year when someone put a virus onto the chemistry lecturer's computer which made it flash an image of an obese naked woman for a fraction of a second at intervals throughout the lesson (our FAVOURITE lecturer, good old John Z couldn't figure out why the entire class had apparently gone mad). I remember stumbling down Long Street with my friends to go get a "Mohammad's" that would probably make us sick the next day...I remember selling SAX APPEAL, the rag mag and sitting on the grass in the Civil Eng garden with my mentees, telling them how much was 'the right amount' of partying to do if they wanted to pass, and going to complain to the Mech Eng HOD about the lack of female toilets in the Mech Eng department (an issue I felt particularly strongly about ;) ). I remember watching the sunrise from Jammie Steps and listening to friends play guitar around a campfire on Clifton Beach. I remember how scared and clueless I was taking on this EWB project in Feb this year and how terrified I was to be on the streets of Nyanga the 1st time, and how naive and awkward I was in 1st year and how much I've grown in so many ways...

Long Street, Cape Town.
The place to be for food, fashion and nightlife!
I remember the time I went to a maths tut in a less-than-sober state (something I DON"T SUGGEST) and not knowing what was potting, and failing and skimming through courses by the skin of my teeth in a way that still baffles me! I remember how much fun it was spending all night in the labs (with everyone else) the night before a major hand-in, only to have the printer break down at 6am before the 9am hand-in...Being there with all those awesome people who had run the gauntlet with you, sharing in your sleep-deprived elation and misery, well, it was really something! I remember how everyone came out looking absolutely stunning at Grad Ball, and being shocked at how well engineers could clean up! I remember the lecturers we loved to hate, and those I will always have the utmost respect for! lol, I even remember sitting in the Design Lab (our mech-eng haunt) for the first time and being terrified that I had no idea what a sprocket or cotter-pin was! (realising very quickly that nobody else did either)...

It was sundowners at La Med and sushi at Beluga and walks with my dog on Seapoint promenade. It was the fact that my favourite club is still Baghdad on Long (dodgiest place I've ever been), with St Yves and Hemisphere coming a close 2nd and 3rd (stunning upmarket places). It was all study parties and birthday parties and CUPCAKE PARTIES and family and friends and dogs and fights....

All in all its been a rocky road, but an awesome one. I would do it all again in a heartbeat, a little differently in some areas (falling victim to the infamous 1st-year spread: gaining 10 kgs which took me 2 years to lose!)), but not missing out on any of it! 

University of Cape Town
Oh wait, I didn't answer the question: how does it feel to be at the end of this long road? Well, I will always love Cape Town, the alluring city, the pink parading city, with her sultry pulse and a beauty that never fails to take your breath away. I will never forget my Alma Mata, UCT, which made me the person I am today, a person with a passion for growth and development, someone who questions and wants more more more out of life! 

But as my Cape Town road approaches its end, I'm faced with a reality: my road is not ending...there is more to do, so much more! EWB is on a roll and I'm rolling onto something bigger and more exciting! This is only the beginning!  So WATCH THIS SPACE!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

See you soon

Yesterday I finally got all the pipes fitted and tightened for my washing machine. Finally, I thought, finally I can start working on the enormous mountain of clothes that have been piling up in the corner of my room! (If there has been a strange smell emanating from me when I walk past, please forgive me!)
So I get everything hooked up, turn it on and get started on my thesis write up (eish!).

After about half an hour of happily typing up all the many problems the hospital has, I get a weird smell, sort of like burnt pots coming from the kitchen. I run in to find my washing machine on spin, happily bouncing around the place, knocking things over and staining the floors like the good washing machine it is...but wait, not so good after all ...the burnt smell was coming from the machine! 

I quickly turn it off, go back into my room and throw a mini fit. My poor housemates!
When I come out again, I call the guy who sold it to me and have another little fit on the phone to him. 

Note to self: Never buy second hand appliances from a dodgy Moybray shop!

So apparently I'll get a new one on never ends...

As for my thesis, I've been having fun making all my little flow diagrams and graphs, but the writing is going painfully slowly! I've taken the major decision to put everything else on the back-burner until its submitted in 2.5 weeks time! (Wait, did I just say 2.5 weeks?)

Study Cartoon Pictures, Images and Photos

This is just so cute!!!

So that means that EWB, sorry but you'll have to do without this EngChic for a while...and blogging?
Well since the name of the blog suggests, I am an engineer in the making...If I want to keep that title, I guess I have to actually get the I'm sure you'll forgive my absence! Promise to be back soon with tons of new EngChic savvy! 

Until then...Caio!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Engineer-Joke of the Week!

Since I'm so very busy with my thesis and EWB, here's another joke.
I thought this was going to be quite lame, but some of it is pretty funny. Admittedly however, one or two  went over my head too, so don't worry!

After every flight, pilots fill out a form called a gripe sheet, which
conveys to the mechanics problems encountered with the aircraft during
the flight that need repair or correction. The mechanics read and correct
the problem, and then respond in writing on the lower half of the form
what remedial action was taken, and the pilot reviews the gripe sheets
before the next flight.

Never let it be said that ground crews and engineers lack a sense of

Here are some actual logged maintenance complaints and problems as
submitted by Qantas pilots and the solution recorded by maintenance
(P = the problem logged by the pilot.)
(S = the solution and action taken by the engineers.)....................You can tell an engineer wrote this...

P: Left inside main tire almost needs replacement.
S: Almost replaced left inside main tire...............................................lame

P: Test flight OK, except auto-land very rough.
S: Auto-land not installed on this aircraft.............................................haha almost had me!

P: Something loose in cockpit.
S: Something tightened in cockpit.

P: Dead bugs on windshield.
S: Live bugs on back-order........................................................................................sigh, engineers!

P: Autopilot in altitude-hold mode produces a 200 feet per minute descent.
S: Cannot reproduce problem on ground.

P: Evidence of leak on right main landing gear.
S: Evidence removed.

P: DME volume unbelievably loud.
S: DME volume set to more believable level.

P: Friction locks cause throttle levers to stick.
S: That's what they're there for...........................................What many don't know is that there                                             .                                                                                              are sub-types of engineer-jokes! This is a  .                                                                                             prime example of a 'Mechanical Engineer-                      .                                                                                               j
oke'. Confused? Welcome to my world!                                                                                                  .                                                                               

P: IFF inoperative.
S: IFF always inoperative in OFF mode.

P: Suspected crack in windshield.
S: Suspect you're right.

P: Number 3 engine missing.
S: Engine found on right wing after brief search.

P: Aircraft handles funny.
S: Aircraft warned to straighten up, fly right, and be serious.

P: Target radar hums.
S: Reprogrammed target radar with lyrics.

 ....and my personal favorite.....

P: Mouse in cockpit.
S: Cat installed.

P: Noise coming from under instrument panel. Sounds like a midget pounding
on something with a hammer.
S: Took hammer away from midget.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Lean Machine!

I've decided that the time for thinking, talking and planning is over. If I'm going to get anywhere with my thesis, I'm gonna have to start doing! And Fast!

So I barge into the supply-chain department's office yesterday morning at the hospital and declare

EngChic: "It's time to be revolutionary!"  

I lift the large, heavy white-board off its stand and start frantically cleaning it (using a bandage and a bottle of detergent that I suspect is meant for medical wound sterilization).  I'm met with an array of responses, from blank stares to fits of giggles to outright screeches. 

Z: "What happened to EngChic?"
F: "I dunno, she just came in and started talking like a crazy person"
S: Waaaa! Hahahahaha

I make a big, beautiful visual control system called an ANDON board, showing the stock that had been requested by the wards but not issued due to out-of-stock items. The response from everyone was surprisingly good! The storemen liked how that they could see what was out-of-stock, the manager liked how he could keep the storemen in check, the data capturerers liked how they could communicate info to the ward staff without having to search for documents, the ward staff liked that they could see when their stock was coming! 

So simple, but why the hell had nobody done it before???

So this morning I burst into the office rounding everyone up and shipping them to the boardroom for a Lean Workshop. I simulated a simplified production line and got everyone to participate in 'lean games'. Everyone loves to play games, and I really think it was helpful to get them to visualise flow! Of course, I had a lot of fun jumping up and down, screaming at the play-operators to hurry and produce faster coz 'the patients are suffering!' 

I sneakily snuck in a couple of lean principles like waste, flow and value-to-the-customer to get them thinking...Brainwashing is a slow process! I even invited the ward clerk I had a tiff with last week in the hope that it would show her the 'bigger picture' and get her to buy into the changes she's been resisting, but we ended up having another screaming match which ended in a tense can't teach some old dogs new tricks...

The rest of the morning was spent decorating the office with bright and colourful visual controls like KANBAN! Lean can really be fun at times! I love how creative you can be! 

This thesis is teaching me so much about real life...Really, you don't know anything until you 'do it'...Most of my time has been spent talking to people, building relationships, trust, convincing them to see things differently and to buy into my ideas...convincing them it was their idea in the 1st place...

The question is, where is 'Mechanical Engineering' in all of this? Well, someone told me the other day that the root meaning of 'engineer' is someone who makes things I guess the answer to the question is 'everywhere'.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Work and Play

Friday was chaos! I had promised to help my sister bake the cupcakes for the cupcake-party 21st we had at Kirstenbosch (will post piccies soon), but had a few hundred things to do before then. I had told Harro that I'd meet him at 1:30 to discuss continuing the funding to Engineers without Borders (EwB) for the Township Caterers Project for next year.

Recap: The Dept. of Chem Eng at UCT is doing this big bad research project involving various aspects of the treated wood problem. There's one guy doing his PhD on technology deployment, another on the health risks of cooking with the wood, another group on economic consideration at transport nodes etc. EwB is doing the fun part: actually implementing technologies to the people who need it!  Harro is the head of this research endeavor, simply titled: TD4SUD or Technology Deployment for  Sustainable Urban Development (scary acronyms!)
Staff of Societi Bistro restaurant

My head has been on the chopping-block lately since I've been concentrating pretty hard on my thesis and have let things slide a lot!  I've realised that I need to become Superwoman and take more control of this again, or else I'll be remembered as the most colossal failure of the year!  I thought I'd get to campus a little early from the hospital, and do some research for EwB, but I got a little distracted with updating the EwB tab on my blog...check it out! Then, Holle and Anya emailed me and said they'd love to meet and discuss how the Energy Research Centre at UCT can help us, and get an update. So I thought that I should go round and check them out first, before Harro and get it out the way..So at 1:30, I'm in Anya's office, trying to explain why the project is falling apart, when I get a call from my head of social research, G, who I'd ALSO told I would meet at 1:30!!!

Well, somehow I managed to meet with all three groups and give them each what they needed to know...Don't ask how I managed to schedule 3 meetings at the same time!  Thank goodness it was Friday and I got to go for a gorgeous run on Seapoint promenade before supper with friends at Societi Bistro! This place is a little pricey, but definitely worth it! My mushroom risotto was absolutely delicious! And no, I'm not just saying that because my friend's brother, Stefan is the head chef...See Stefan, I even said it on my blog!

So right now I'm busy doing my homework! And I've found tons of resources from people who have done similar stove projects all over the world. The World Bank, Hilary Clinton and University of California, Berkley are amongst them!

If you're interested, check out some of these links: I'm so impressed by the amazing work being done!

Economist Article: Silent and Deadly, Smoke from cooking stoves kill poor people

Yahoo Video: Most Efficient Stove?

Case Study: Ghana businessman manufactures and sells energy-efficient stoves, and trades in carbon...

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Engineer Joke of the Week

When it comes to social behaviour, i'ts a weel-known fact that engineers can tend to be a little, well, special at times...'Enginnering-jokes', the kind that use terms and jargon specific to our field admittedly can become quite corny.

So at dinner last night, one of my engineer-friends (who just got a job-offer McKinsey!! Well done EM!) was telling us a story about a friend of his who could best be described as 'the real life Sheldon' (Big Bang Theory).

EM:    Hows it going RLS? What did you get up to last night?  (RLS = Real-Life Sheldon)

RLS: I'm good EM, well I really had a craving for chai tea.

EM: Yes, chai tea is nice!

RLS: But I don't like the brand I usually buy, so at Pick n' Pay yesterday, I went out and got a whole lot of spices...and made it from FIRST PRINCIPLES! *starts cracking up*

EM: *Shakes head and walks away*

Definition First Princliples: to derive a formula to work out something complicated by using basic, fundamental equations from maths and science.

Ah, Engineers! You gotta love 'em!

Mad Scientist Cupcake! Cute!!!

 I'm busy making cupcakes for my sister's 21st! Yay, fun! Cupcake party, round 4! (You know we had to do it one last time).

Friday, October 1, 2010

Photo Day Fiasco

My Thesis project: supply-chain of hospital stock
Today was a those really stressful day; one of those days that makes me wonder, 'Why the heck am I doing this engineering thing anyway?'  To make matters worse, the most ridiculous thing happened, but I'll get to that in a second...

For starters, I had my first 'tiff' at the hospital with the ward clerk, (a person who is CRUCIAL to the success of my project). Let me put it this way, if I don't get her to do her job and do it well, then I had just better go home, curl up in bed and watch Gossip Girl!    But no, I decided instead to loaf my way back to the office, grumbling, and just do the work myself...The problem is that it's not sustainable if I do it! So I mooched around for a bit, cursing my fate until I thought, 'Wait, this person is just a clerk in a smelly, dirty trauma ward. You have a mission and that is to save this sick hospital for the patients who need it! You need to find a way to make this work.' So I took it straight to the top! The Superintendent (who calls me 'the little lady with big ideas') was more than willing to listen, and tomorrow we're calling a few key people in, including the clerk, and finding a solution!

After that, I went to lunch with the MBA student who is doing an action research project on how the hospital is adopting and adapting to the Lean Changes that are happening (i.e. the changes I'm making!). So we go to long street, and sit in this nice cafe, but I was starving so I suggest we find some place better.  Down the street, I'm drawn in by the smell of falaffel and end up making us go to a really dodgy take away for a schwarma!  Well, being interviewed at a dirty table with Indian music playing in the background was not ideal, I realize only after I had ordered and paid for the meal! But it was ok...until the phone rang!

DW:   Engineer-Chic, where the hell are you?

EC:    Oh, just having lunch on long street

DW: do know that today is class photo day and you're missing it!

EC:  Aaaah! Oh *N%# ! I completely forgot! Stall them I'll be there in like ten minutes!

So Ms MBA races me in her fancy car to campus and I gallop into the place, falling and clutching at my belongings, hair flying everywhere, to see my entire class assembled in neat rows and formal clothing.  The group erupts in shouts of "Wait!" as I tumble into a row, and push my way right into the center (of course!), just in time for the final, 'wacky' photo.

I tried to stand very straight and proper! Hopefully they can photoshop me into the rest. Well, at least I made one!

Photo's like this line the corridor in the Mech Eng Department...Apart from the clothes and colour (of the picture and the people), not much has changed...Well, not we have 4 girls

All in all, standing there amongst these 100 or so guys all dressed up in suits and ties (well there are like 3 other girls too), knowing that I'd come that far with these awesome people, and shared so much joy and suffering...and that at the end of this year, they are all gonna go off and do great things, and that I was there amongst them..I made it, I Survived!  well, it made me feel quite special! I'm trilled that I'm an engineer! Even though it was a rough day, I couldn't see myself anywhere else!

Ooooh! And I got my new (second-hand) washing machine yesterday! I worked like a charm but the outlet pipe lipped out of the sink and flooded my whole kitchen. Again. never ends...