Why I Respect my Robot Elders
May 2, 2014
I've been forced to take holiday from work, Bek has closed my lab until June 1st, and I don't do down-time well. Given I'm without a lab for the moment, I'm forced to seek other outlets for my brain. So, I thought I'd write a few reflections regarding my experiences at LMR in the last two years I've been a member.
I thought I'd write about something I've noticed about LMR in regards to the influx of knowledge: Respect for our Robot Elders.
What's a Robot Elder?
Hell if I know.
But if I had to take a stab at it, I'd define him or her as:
An individual with deep understanding of mechanics, electronics, and software; and how to synergize these variables into an actuated entity to accomplish a purpose, intended or otherwise, even if that purpose is aesthetic.
Others may argue a better definition. That's what's great about LMR, each document I write I feel is automatically a collaboration. As vehement comments arise arguing other definitions, I'll simply click "Edit" and change it--that is, if I approve. (Or if Frits comes in and tells me to change them.) But that's another blog.
What makes a Robot Elder?
Here in lies a mystery. Though, I'm going to humor (bore) my reader with a few of my theories.
I personally believe making a Robot Elder is much like making a robot, that is, it's a synergy of many variables: Environment, motivation, and choice. But here are a few elements I believe are necessary.
Imagine graduating high-school summa cum laude, going to school at a prestigious university and again graduating with honors. You are granted scholarships to pay for graduate school, but Darla tells you she's pregnant. You're wise as well as smart. You realize a Ph.D. isn't going to make you happy, Darla and the baby will. But now you are thrown into a turmoil of labor-economics. Each interview you feel the guy interviewing is an idiot. It doesn't matter, you don't get the job because you stutter. They don't tell that's why, no, that'd be a lawsuit or something. But the question, "how's your verbal communication ability?" seems awfully pointed. It pisses you off even more because the interviewer should be asking, "How's you're oral communication ability?" but he's too stupid to know the difference. Eventually, you find a job half-way across the country because you interviewed via emails. The job pays ok. You are able to make payments on the hospital bills. But you are stuck in a cubicle performing routine maintenance on software designed by a team of idiots, compared to yourself. You secretly wish the company would just let you re-write the software from COBOL on up. And you could, too. In fact, you keep a notepad to make design notes on a better software infrastructure. Several years later your having a "team" meeting and you are asked, "Bob, you've been here the longest, what do you think of the recent updates on the software? Any thing you think we should add?" You clasp the notebook a little tighter. Your brain runs through a thousand scenarios. You speak up, "Um, yes, sir. I've a few notes on changes I'd make given a chance." There's a moments pause as the boss tenses his jaw, looks at his watch, and says, "That's great, Bob. Can you put those in bullets-form for me and shoot them to me in an email later?" You nod, but you know in your heart he'll not even look at the email. Even if he did, without you there to explain it he'd be lost. You begin to question why you work this crap job, but you remember Darla and the kids. You're trapped. You continue to get up for the grind, yet you find your self spending more and more time surfing the internet at work. Then one day it happens, you come across www.letsmakerobots.com
"Hey, this kid's trying to build a robot and has his red and black wires backwards." You instruct him to flip the wires. He replies, "thanx dude. was doing this for teh lulz." You're hooked. You start looking for other questions you can answer. Soon, you find your self challenged, appreciated, and sharp once again. More than that, a lot of people recognize you for your full ability.
You aren't told, "Bob, the budget can't afford that." Or, "Bob, HR needs to talk to you--we can't be calling coworkers 'f*$%ing idiots.'" Or, "Bob, you're too specialized to promote." The fact you are a scientist being asking to schmooze to survive is no longer relevant.
You are free to be the very talented person you are. Free to be brilliant.
Many probably know, but my profession is actually mental-health. That stated, a lot of my understanding of how things work is based in psychology. Regarding robot elders, I personally believe these are folk that are intrinisically motivated. They don't come here and answer questions for us because we are going to turn around and send $50 to their Paypal account. No, I believe most of the Elders active here participate because they get an sense of satisfaction from the interaction they have.
Not every intrinsically motivated individual operates the same. Usually, they are feeding a personal need of sort.
Here are a few psychology theories applied to the intrinsic motivation I feel are key to hanging on to a Robot Elder. Be warned, some of these theories overlap.
A Sense of Community -- this is a force I believe that drives many. We want to interact with other like minded individuals, it affirms who we are. The theory of community psychology I'd like to apply to LMR. It basically states communities arise and stabilize for four reasons.
- Adaptation to an environment, like Bob and his poor working environment. The problem presented to Bob is a lack of recognition and utilization of his full ability. One of the neat things about this aspect of community, is it is a relationship. The community evolves from the problems the environment presents, but eventually, the community begins to change the environment.
- Succession. This is the concept a community develops norms that guide the community successors; this neatly presents at LMR in the statement, "ALABTU!" Or, "Video or it didn't happen."
- Interdependence. This is the locking of individuals in a relationship through mutual-need fulfillment. I believe at LMR this often is the exchange of knowledge for recognition. Joe needs get his robot to stop resetting his Arduino and Frank needs someone to recognize his expertise on inductive loads.
- Cycling of Resources. The idea that each community has resources to assist in the problem solving. I define LMR as a digital hackerspace, therefore, most of our offered resources are skills and knowledge. And those with the greatest resources are our Robot Elders. They inject our community with deep understanding and possible solutions to problems. Each question we present, and every response they give, becomes a resource.
If you are psychology person, you are probably sick, and...tired...of this damned pyramid. But, Maslow's Heiarchy is over used for a reason, it often works as an explanation.
At LMR, I feel like the last three needs are what may be fulfilled through interaction here.
- Love or Belonging -- not to be all fruity and foppish. But this is true. We get a sense of belonging here. When Bob found LMR he realized there were other people like him in the world. Or if they weren't like him, at least they appreciated qualities that make up who he is. He emotionally identifies, even if he doesn't want to be ridiculed for saying it aloud. He's a SW engineer, for god's sake, not a damn hippy.
- Esteem -- after Bob replies to a few posts here at LMR, getting replies of, "Dewd! You a genuze!" he begins to realize--he is smart. He remembers what it was like being at university again, where he was the cool guy for knowing which way current really flows. And rightfully so, Bob is a genius. Please dear, brothers, don't mistake need fulfillment as a bad thing. It's a quality of being human that is absolutely devastating if ignored or denied.
- Self-Actualization -- Maslow was known for stating only 1% of the population were self-actualized (of course, he only sampled college students, a group generally not known for wisdom in action). Regardless, I believe I've witnessed some people at LMR self-actualize. They've reached this point where every need they have is fulfilled. In fact, I believe at this point a spiritual infusion takes place, a point where the robot maker is truly imbuing his or her creation with a bit of genuine life. Of course, the scientist in me has to back away from that statement and say: That feeling is probably just a culmination of bio-chemicals coalescing to create what I know as a spiritual feeling. Damn, being spiritual and scientific at the same time is hard. Oh well, blog for another day. But regardless of how we dissect it, why deny something that is healthy and good? Just don't ask me to buy L. Ron Hubbard's mumbo.
Again, these are opinions. Or stuff that makes sense to me.
One more bit I'd like to state about intrinsic motivation -- this comes from one of my theses.
Extrinsic Motivator Overide
The readings on motivation theory seem to be endless. But one gem I came across awhile back I feel explains a natural phenomenon I feel we, as makers, must be aware. If you are an individual that begins to do something because it is fulfilling an internal need (intrinsic rewards, such as recognition), but you begin to receive extrinsic rewards (like money) for the work, it will begin to erode the psychological mechanism within you.
This is counter-intuitive to, "Do what you love." Now, the opposite isn't always true. It really boils down to why you got into doing something. If you start building robots because you wanted to make it a job one day, you'll be fine. But if you got into robots, like myself, for the intrinsic rewards (community, belonging, recognition) and you begin to accept money for what you do--well, if it happens long enough it will turn your robot building into a job. Literally. It breaks down the internal mechanism that was reinforcing the behavior and replaces it with an externally derived mechanism.
Ok. That's my thoughts on motivation theory important to retaining Robot Elders.
We Know Robot Elders are Tools. How do we Keep them?
As I stated earlier, I feel digital hackerspaces have only one resource: Information. Therefore, it is of extreme importance we attract those individuals with the greatest knowledge and understanding. It is not simple enough to keep these individuals as members, it is important to keep them engaged and welcomed. Don't get me wrong, this doesn't mean reach-arounds. In fact, one of the bits that breaks down community bonds quickly is incongruence of communication. Incongruence of communication looks something like this,
"OMG!! You are soooooooooooooooooooo amazing....I want to have your babies! Your answer to my question has solved all my problems--including my wife's infidelity."
The words are stating gratitude, but they are so over the top the reader has to wonder if something else is going on in the message. Like, does this guy have an unhealthy thing for Bob? Maybe he's going to start stalking Bob?
There is so much to the science of congruence, it's better for brevity's sake we simply define it as a human phenomon. And in my opinion, to be congruent simply be sincere and thoughtful. I'm not much of a music person, but I'm told in the rising music stars they remind themselves to remain congruent by stating, "Trying to keep it real."
Alright. So, I'm going to list a few things I feel are important to keeping and attracting robot elders. If you disagree, please make your case in the comments. I've not forgot I'm a relatively new member to LMR.
#1 -- Don't Get Butt Hurt
Not going to lie. I've gotten this way a few times. In fact, I've been very careful about posting to LMR over the years because of some of the feedback I've gotten from members, elders or otherwise. Sorry, Chris, going to use as an example--just bear with me :)
This is one of the very first posts I made to LMR: MRF49XA Transceiver and Bot Control
I cringe looking at it. Notice, it was a pretty poorly thought out question, it was obviously over my head, and I had not done a thorough Google search first. But Chris' response got me. I went and cried in my mommy's lap.
But here's the hard truth kids, it is (gawd, this is hard for me to write), it's a necessary evil.
LMR is a digital hackerspace, with little moderation and we self-police. This is wonderful when it comes to creativity and self-expression, but it can also be a brutally painful on your feelers. And yes, I don't care who you are, you could be f'in Chuck Norris himself, you do have feelings about things that happen here.
Therefore, one of the lesson I've taught myself over the years is to be aware of my feelings and when they contradict success, to divorce my feelings and strive for goal completion. In simpler words, I try not to get butt-hurt over what's said and get shit done.
It's a simple time-constraint, the more I cry about how a Robot Elder has said something, the less time I'm putting into what was stated. For instance, going back to the Bot Control post. I got upset over Chris' facetiousness and didn't go back to the project. Hell, the MRF49XA samples are still in my drawer at home. (By the way, don't make a board for them. Not worth the money.) There is another negative product over getting butt-hurt on how something is said, I avoided posting on LMR, speaking with Chris, or much activity in general--and the sad part is, there are a lot of good questions I could have asked him I know he has the answers on. (By the way Chris, local hackers want to build a CNC, so you might get a nice long email in the next six months filled with shoddy questions.)
Now, a rebuttal to this assertion could be, "But, dewd, I thought we want information on LMR." We do. But not just any. We want information that is going to better the group. Me asking a question that would better be answered by a good Google search does little to add to the beneficial information available on LMR. We want questions that challenge our Elders. A chance for them to shine and a chance for me to learn.
2# -- For the Love of God: Document and Thank!
I cannot tell you how many versions of this schematic I've put together: Lipo Drop Charger
Even now, I feel like any PCB I design is me fumbling to draw a picture with EagleCAD, then presenting that picture to Bdk6. If he grimaces it was an improvement from the previous, if states, "You building a smoke generator?" then this version is a complete failure. But each time, I was determined to document what I attempted and thank him for his advice. Hell, the man took his time, which is worth more an hour than my car's worth.
The flip side is, if we don't document, not only are we not building a repository for future LMR members, we are also being ungrateful for the time and effort the Elders have put into assisting us with the project. Again, this isn't a form of sucking up; it is the ethical thing to do, to give credit where credit is due.
#3 -- Actually Try what They Recommend
This is pretty straight forward, but I see LMR passer-bys refrain from doing this all the blinking time. The disrespect annoys me to no end. They ask a question, are given a list of things to try, but then come back whining without trying anything suggested. Of course, this makes sense for non-members. They've not been around long enough to know our elders. But, I'll admit, there have been a few times when I've asked questions, been given answers, tried none of them, and then come back to whine about it. If someone catches me doing that again, bitch-slap me. No warning, just one upside my face.
After attempting what was recommended, document the result (back to suggestion #2).
#4 -- Be Overly Respectful
I think my favorite example of this is Chris' referring to OddBot is "OB1." It is congruent, but also an intense sign of respect (well, in the nerd world). The added value here is we are modeling behaviors (those norms I mentioned) for new members. I quickly realized OddBot was a fellow of importance. Then, was blown away to find out he designed the Wild Thumper chassis I'd coveted since day one. Hell, the guy's designing a mechanized suit for his son? He wins robots and dads.
Basically, anything we can do to show our respect for the elders, while remaining congruent. Defend them in posts. Refer to them as "Sir" and "Miss." To be on the nose, might even refer to him as "Elder Bob."
#5 -- Remember They are People
The robot elders are people. They've families to feed and jobs to work. We only get a tip of the whole. So, if they disappear or don't answer questions, just refer back to suggestion #1 and #4. Their environment has probably changed, therefore deconstructing one of the needed elements for their activity here.
#6 -- Question as Last Resort
Don't overload a Robot Elder with questions. No, think of them as someone who has the answer after you have tried everything to find it on your own. I can't state how many times I felt guilty for asking a Robot Elder a question when I knew in my heart I'd not put honest effort into finding the answer on my own.
"Google's Your Friend," if you see this response from an elder you know you've failed this suggestion.
#7 -- Have Fun
This comes out of suggestion #6; one of the components of an Elder answering questions here is the fun-factor. I'm pretty sure they relive vicariously some of the joy of seeing an LED light up the first time, or diagnosing a ring-buffer error. It's fun, inherently. Overloading Elders with poor questions isn't fun for them. Seeing them as only tools to be used; isn't fun for them. In general, just try to stay aware of how your neediness affects the enjoyment of others.
That's it. It's what I got.
I need to state, I didn't write this to be pendantic or a suck-up. It's just how I'm geared. I believe in respect, gratitude, and community. More than that, I believe in LMR.
Humbly, I value member feedback. ALABTU!