Posts Tagged ‘technology is our friend’

Heigh Ho, Heigh Ho, It’s Off to Work Study We Go

September 8, 2011 Leave a comment

Some of you may remember that I had a work study job for a little while last spring.  It didn’t work out, sadly, because what the planetarium really needed was an evenings-and-weekends show presenter, and I couldn’t work at those times, so I ended up just being the IT monkey, and well, no thanks.  There wasn’t even really enough for me to do to justify that, so, with regret, I left.

Toward the end of the semester I noticed a sign on the door to my CAD classroom noting that the MechEng Tech department needed work study students to work in the tool crib of the Machine Tool Lab.  Students in said capacity would be working for Joel Anderson, the machine tool instructor, and the requirement listed (apart from having a work study award in one’s financial aid package) was “must have passed MET 107”.  I was in MET 107 and doing well, so I thought, Hmm, and went on with my day.

At semester’s end, fairly sure I’d passed, I was helping Joel clean up the shop for a little extra credit and to be a Good Academic Citizen (hey, don’t laugh, it was a good class), and I mentioned to him that I might be interested in the job this fall.  He told me to send him an email come mid-August, when the start of fall semester approached, and remind him.

So I did, with the end result that I’m actually blogging this on my netbook in the MTL tool crib in between duties.  These include:

1315442521480 – Manning the Tool Window.  Students needing tools will present themselves at this window  and tell me what they need.  I will find it for them (if I can) and write down what they have against their name on a ledger sheet on my bench.  When they’re finished with it, or in any event by the end of the lab period, they’ll bring it back and I’ll cross it off their list and put it away.  Or possibly tell them to take it away and clean it before they presume to return it, but so far I haven’t needed to do that.

– Locking up the crib and indeed the lab itself after class.

– Taking point for evening lab sessions.  “Night lab” is an optional extra time when the lab is open for students to come in and work on their projects.  This becomes especially popular toward the end of the semester, when it begins to dawn on them that time is getting short and they don’t have all their parts made yet.  I spent a bit of time in night lab myself last semester; it was nice.  Low-pressure.  This semester, Joel doesn’t have a TA willing to do night lab, so on Mondays and Wednesdays it’s just me, in here from 6 to 9, providing tools and rather dauntingly In Charge for purposes of the university’s safety rules.  I’ve got a key that opens the building, the lab, and the crib; I’ve been shown how to turn the lights on and off.  That’s about all the qualifications you need.


At right is a photo of the tool window from the other side, showing my workbench – as close as I get to having an office.  You will note the assortment of drill bits, the cabinet to my left containing various useful items, and the clock, which does not work, such that it is always 6:42 in the tool crib.

The MTL itself is one of the oldest buildings on campus, and is basically a brick barn.  It’s got old-fashioned swingy windows and that classic “inner structures that don’t go all the way to the ceiling” thing going on in places, plus the ceiling really is just the inside of the roof, so when it rains the sound effects can be pretty dramatic.  It has character, as they say, though in some respects it’s a bit primitive.  The fire alarm system, for instance, consists of whomever notices the fire saying, “Hey, a fire!”  (This was actually on the safety test I had to take in order to work here.)


At left is a photo of the machine tool laboratory (MTL Room 101, not to be confused with the Machine Tool Laboratory, which is the building).  Pretty straightforward: Bridgeports on the left, lathes on the right, band saws down back, surface plate and height gages in the foreground.  Not pictured is the CNC mill, which is to the photographer’s right past that bench, and which mere mortal students are not permitted to touch until they get to MET 313.  The tool crib is to the photographer’s left.

This is a pretty swingin’ place to work.  It’s definitely more old-school and industrial than the planetarium, which, apart from the actual planetarium part that I was not allowed to touch, was basically just an office like any other.  This makes me feel more like when I was a kid and my father worked in a similar sort of setting, and I would go into work with him on the weekends.  It smells the same, and scents are very nostalgia-inducing.  I like it a lot.

1315505184987 Part of that is just because I have the key to the toy cupboard.  I mean, we’ve got everything in here.  Here in the cabinet immediately to my left are parallels (for putting things in mill vises so they don’t bottom out in the vise), indicator sets (for ensuring that the mill tables are level), all kinds of gages and micrometers, devices for ensuring that you have your lathe tool set properly for cutting threads, machining squares, combination squares, dial and vernier calipers, gage blocks (for calibrating other gages)… it’s like Christmas for machinists in there.


Behind me are the shelves containing more of the slightly-less-often-used items.  We keep the most commonly used drill bits and end mills (the latter drill-bit-like tools used in vertical mills for… well, for milling the ends of things, hence the name) on the bench by the window, but at left we see the shelves behind me that contain the rest of the smorgasbord of drills and mills, plus the center drills (not sure why we don’t keep those on the bench, actually, they’re pretty frequently needed – must ask Joel).  Not pictured is the lower shelf that has the really freaking big drills.  I’m not even sure what we use those for.  They’re way too big to be used in the Bridgeports we have here.


At right, one of my favorite of the many toy boxes in here: The Cabinet of Cutters!  Here we have saws, saws, some more saws, and the ever-popular face mills (another tool for the Bridgeports, used to surface the top of a bit of stock – and if you’re not careful, the vise jaws – as opposed to the end).  The face mills are kept in those silver cardboard tubes because their carbide teeth are very fragile, and if you chip off a corner it’s pretty much useless until someone indexes the tooth.  At best you’ll get a lousy finish; at worst it won’t work at all, and may actually damage the base of the tool.

I should probably wrap this one up.  It’s getting on toward 4:30 and the guys (and it is all guys, alas – a girl or two in the mech eng tech program would class the place up a little) will be bringing their tools back soon.  Besides, I’m sure the pictures of the tool crib are a lot less interesting than I want to think they are.  My point is, as work study gigs go, this one is pretty sweet.  It has its dull parts, like now, when everyone’s out there working and nobody needs anything, but that just means it’s possible to get the “study” part happening (or blog, like I’m doing now).  All I need is a better chair (and Disability Services is working on that, because they handle all the special furniture requests on campus), and I’ll be set.  It’s a weird feeling.  I haven’t actually liked a job in… jeez, a long time.


Oh, one more photo.  This is an organizer next to the door in the tool crib.  It was labeled by some previous workstudy student who was not entirely sure what some of the things he was tasked with organizing actually were.  As a result, some of the drawer labels are a bit entertaining.  My personal favorite is the one marked ELECTRIC THINGS.

Later, perhaps I’ll talk a bit about some actual classwork that’s going on this semester.  I know, crazy idea, huh?  Blog about college in a college blog?  What will they think of next?

OK, So I’d Make a Lousy War Correspondent

April 29, 2011 3 comments

"We now take you to our correspondent in War-Torn Wherever, Benjamin Hutchins.  Benjamin, what’s going on there?"

"Well, Bob, uh… not a lot, right now.  But the locals tell me things were cuh-razy around here a month ago!  Boy howdy!"

I think what makes me a lackluster blogger is the same thing that’s always made me a poor diarist and an indifferent correspondent: I don’t feel justified in posting or writing to someone unless I’ve got something interesting to report, and often I have a hard time feeling like I do.  This is particularly true at the height of the semester, when it’s basically "Well, uh… went to class, did some homework, went to the next class and turned it in."

Still, the semester’s just about over now (there’s only finals week next week, and by an odd coincidence only one of my classes this semester even has a final),and there have been a few interesting developments to report.

Taking the most recent first, the final engine tests in MET 107 were conducted today.  As you may recall, at the start of the semesters we were split up into teams of six and given a list of required parts (and the prints from which to make them), with the ultimate goal of building a single-cylinder pneumatic engine by the semester’s end.  On the prints it’s called a steam engine, but since we didn’t actually have a boiler handy (for safety reasons), we drove ours with compressed air.  We all got together in the machine shop this afternoon and ran our engines while Prof. Anderson timed them with a strobe.  (An engine that didn’t run would have constituted a major grade deduction.)

The team I was on, Team 2, went into the competition pretty confident.


Fig. 1 Team 2. From left: author, Ben White, Bill Long, Clark McDermith, Cam Terry. Not present: Mike Peasley. Photo by Herb Crosby

We had all our parts done by the beginning of this week and were doing test runs by Tuesday evening.  Bill, one of my teammates, had access to a deburring mill at his job and had spent a lot of time obsessively polishing all the parts as we finished them and turned them over to him, so ours was by far the shiniest engine…


Fig. 2 Engine No. 2. Photo by Herb Crosby

… and once we overcame the fact that I apparently can’t drill a concentric hole in a brass bushing even with the tailstock of a lathe (sigh – I must have scrapped eight of those damn things), it ran as beautifully as it looked.  Bill could actually make it turn over just by blowing into the intake, and since the test pressure was 100 PSI (er, rather more than the average human output, I should think), we had high hopes.

The first run demonstrated that we might actually have done a little too well at the polishing and fettling, as, well, this happened:

MET 107 steam engine test, run #1


We actually blew the valve rod bushing right out of the steam chest on the first run.  (Amazingly, this was not the bushing I had so much trouble with.  That one had the piston rod running through it and performed perfectly in the actual test.  For the technically curious, I made the base plate, the columns, the piston rod bushing, and the piston.)

Fortunately, we had time to tear it down and fix the problem before our second run.


Fig. 3 Engine #2 down for repairs. Photo by the author

  A couple of false starts, some hurried consultation, a helpful senior, and a few minutes’ work with the scissors in Bill’s Leatherman, some brass shim stock, and the arbor press, and Team 2 was back in business.  By then the other teams had all had their runs, the fastest of which clocked a top speed of 2287 RPM, so Bill and Cam stepped up to the testing bench, and…

MET 107 steam engine test, run #2


… 3266 RPM, baby.  The fastest entry this semester, and only 480 RPM shy of the all-time record, 3746.  (Bill’s sure we could get it going that fast if we had more time to futz with it.)

So hey!  Victory.  It’s what’s for dinner.  (Apologies for the crap camera work.  Bit excited.)

More news to come, and it’ll get steadily more out of date as the posts go on…

That Was the Week That Was

September 11, 2010 3 comments

Well, Week 2 is behind me now.  It took me a bit of scrambling around (and a fair bit of pestering people), but I got my class schedule stabilized – and, more or less coincidentally, my work load somewhat reduced – by midweek.  I’m carrying 12 credit hours now, which is the minimum for full-time student status but about what I feel comfortable tackling after so long away.  I’m taking care of a little unfinished business in the form of the Intro to Astronomy lab I skipped, for reasons I still don’t remember, back in 1993.  And I have the time freed up to attend the live lectures for my online math class, which has already started paying off after a single session.

I feel pretty good about the prospects of this little exercise right now.  I didn’t when I first started, and I still have moments where I stand on the street corner of life and think, What the hell am I doing here? My last class, CMJ 103 on Friday morning, was one of those moments.  We did our first speeches to the class over the second and third lectures of the week, and my number came up during Friday’s session.

Standing behind the lectern at the head of the room, surveying the startlingly young faces of my classmates – and my instructor, who’s a grad student and must be all of 23 – I felt a very powerful but brief wave of utter alienation, the strong sense that I really didn’t belong anywhere near that room. I feel that way when I’m trudging from class to class, too, watching all those young, fit people dashing about the campus – that sense that they’re supposed to be there and I’m not.

Those moments are getting shorter and further apart as I settle into the routine, though.  And there are upsides to being such an atypical specimen.  It removes a lot of the pressures that “normal” college students experience, leaving me with that many more resources on hand to deal with the pressure of the coursework itself.  Time will tell if this is enough.

After CMJ 103 finished, I adjourned to the library, where I found a table way at the back corner of the reference room, set up my stuff, and spent a happy hour or so of diligence on my math homework, which (as I have previously noted) made considerably more sense after just the one live lecture I’d attended.  The professor’s a terrifically helpful chap who actually likes it that someone from his online class is coming to the in-person lectures.   (He also bears an eerie resemblance to DC Terry Perkins from The Bill, which is a bit odd.)  I am now more convinced than ever that dropping Chemistry was the right call.

As I was working, I paused for a moment and surveyed my surroundings, and it struck me suddenly how much stuff I had around me that I hadn’t had the first time I attempted college.  Not only didn’t I have most of it, a lot of it didn’t exist, even in primitive form.

– Laptop computer: I didn’t have a laptop when I was at WPI, and even if I had, I wouldn’t have taken it to the library with me.  Portable computers were expensive, heavy, fragile, and didn’t work very well.  There wouldn’t have been anything to do with it at the library anyway, because a) there was no such thing as wireless networking and b) the Web hadn’t been invented yet, so I would hardly have been doing my math homework online.

– Smartpen: No such thing existed in 1991.  Even if someone had thought of it, the technology of the time wouldn’t have supported it.

– iPod: Ditto.

– Calculator: Okay, I did have a similar calculator – it was a TI-82, which, although much less powerful and flexible than today’s TI-89 Titanium, was an easily recognizable ancestor.  Calculator technology hasn’t advanced as rapidly as, say, laptop computer tech – though it’s interesting to note that the CPU in my TI-89 is a Motorola 68000, the same microprocessor to be found at the heart of such well-known pieces of equipment as the original Apple Macintosh and the Sega Genesis.

– Smartphone: Well, cell phones did exist in the early ’90s,  but they were gigantic, cost a fortune, and didn’t do much of anything.  They weren’t even very good telephones.  Certainly nothing akin to the Droid had even been envisioned, except possibly by sci-fi writers, much less implemented.

I had all these things that had either not existed or not been within an average student’s reach 20 years ago, and I’m not even particularly well-off.  Not poor, by any stretch, but compared to those kids I see out in the motorcycle parking area firing up their brand-new customized Harleys at lunchtime, my means are pretty modest.  But there I sat surrounded by all these things, doing my homework on the Internet, listening to music, recording the jotted workings of my math problems with the pen I was using to scribble them, and coordinating a rendezvous with my mother for lunch by SMS.  And it occurred to me that Stephen Fry was right.  Nostalgia for the style of an earlier age is all well and good, but warts and all, right now is the peak of history’s pyramid so far.