On Emotions and Machines

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Post  The Lady Branwyn on Wed Jan 09, 2013 5:55 am

There are many interesting machines where I work...

I work as a lab tech in a smallish hospital laboratory. It sounds delightfully, devilishly steampunk, but alas, it's not. I think the Powers That Be have must have made it a goal to take something as inherently interesting as a clinical laboratory and design it to be as utterly mundane as possible. Even our dress! Lab coats in general are inherently useful, attractive, and somewhat steamy, if you think of the normal long white coat with lapels and buttons. But alas, ours are hideous lavender and periwinkle zippered monstrosities, without even the decency of a single button, lapel, or proper breast pocket.

But I digress.

There are many interesting machines in this laboratory where I work. Well, sure, the designers of these machines did work in an absolute maximum of beige and gray plastic and not a single one of them has a shiny brass switch, snaking copper tube, or even rusty jaggedy edge of metal to redeem it aesthetically... but the designers could not hide their intrisically interesting mechanisms.

These are machines that take blood, urine, serum, plasma, and various bodily fluids, run them through a bunch of tubes, mix them with various reagents, expose them to electrical currents and light sources, then measure their electrical impedence, or chemiluminescence, or fluorecence, and so on to give useful medical data on the samples. They are full of interseting and expensive fluids, needles, probes, conveyor belts, lamps, and all sorts of other goodness. And, seing as how they break down all the time (having lots of moving parts), the designers did give a little thought to have just a few bits of mechanism semi-exposed, so the lowly lab techs like myself can have some hope of fixing middle-of-the-night problems, or at least of describing said problems to the all night tech support.

One instrument in particular... this is our main hematology instrument. It takes samples of anticoagulated whole blood and measures the size, number, and internal complexity of the various blood cells, giving us the CBC, or complete blood count, one of the most common laboratory tests. I watch it work frequently. I place a blood sample, a plastic tube with rubbery stopper and patient barcode full of venous blood, into the plastic rack and tell the instrument to procede. The rack slides in behind a tinted plastic screen. The little gripper arm comes out and grabs the tube about the neck, lifts it out of the rack, and inverts it several times, to be sure it is well mixed. It then holds the tube upside down and at an angle, braces it from both ends, and sticks a long cap-piercing needle through the middle of the cap to suck out a small amount of blood to test, to various beeping and slurping sounds. The needle pulls out, the arm turns the tube back upright, sticks it back in the rack, and the rack slides out with a jerky motion and comes to a rest.

(And, at last, I get to the point of my post. I seem to be waxing poetical tonight. Perhaps because I am 9 hours into a 10 1/2 hour night shift, my fifth in a row, kept company only by the humming, wizzing, brring, beeping, clicking, tapping, whining of the machines around me...)

When I watch this machine work, I feel... something. Something tricky to describe. Perhaps the best way to descibe it is to say that it makes me want to write. Do I feel sympathy for the poor helpless blood tube, imagining myself grabbed by the neck, turned upside down and right side up again, only to be held immobile, upside down, and have a giant needle probe penetrate my head, sink into my body, and slurp out my essence? Do I feel a sadistic thrill, being the human master that commands this robot to pin, probe, and extract red blood from this poor defenseless blood tube?

...Yes. Yes to both.

I'm sure many of us work with various intersting machines at some points in our lives. Anyone else have emotional reactions to their workings? Please share and let me know that I am not (completely) insane...
The Lady Branwyn
The Lady Branwyn

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Post  Lady Evelyn Grey on Wed Jan 09, 2013 6:55 am

That was a beautiful description of your work place. It has always bothered me why machinery from a certain era is confined to beige blocks. Surely the conformity and durability aren't increased that much to be of value. I just hope, in the future, people will have the same questions about our slim, white iwhatevers as they have moved to a more beautiful and complicated look.

That said, the joys and wonders of machinery have not touched only your soul. I realize that I am venturing down the path of stereotype and dangerously into the dread land of Hipsterdom, but perhaps my earnestness can save me from so terrible a state.

All my life, I have formed connections to the machines around me. Upon unwrapping my first computer, I immediately proclaimed her a Syliva as though viewing my child for the first time. My current computer is Arno, the Monster-Beast. My bicycle is named Fiona. These aren't always consciously chosen names, but when a machine aids and enhances my life more than most humans around me, it deserves a name and some degree of personification.

But more than all my modern machines, gadgets and gizmos, I love my typewriter.

It is an Underwood. I don't know the year, but I suspect as an antique it was in the last sixty years, rather than the last hundred. My grandparents gave it to me one Christmas to encourage my fledgling writing skills. And lords did I write. Sitting down to that raised keyboard, hearing the clack as each letter hit the ribbon and the page beneath, seeing the direct relation between how hard I pressed to how clear the letter was, nothing has ever inspired creativity of the sheer love of words so much as that typewriter- who for some unfathomable reason is unnamed. The sheer joy of writing inspires the words to flow faster. The din of clicking and clacking assure me of my own productivity in a way that the tickertap of keys- no matter how furious- will never do. The time it takes to write out a word relatively ensures that the next word will be even better and, most importantly for me, the lack of internet allows my breaks between thoughts to be productive procrastination rather than lost hours re-checking Facebook and emails.

The end results tend towards the monstrous. My spelling is bad normally (Arno helpfully informs me that I just misspelled monstrous)- but it becomes horrendous on a typewriter. My grammar suffers equally as I rediscover the location of certain punctuation each time I sit down. It is, obviously, impossible to copy and paste, go back and insert a word, line, or paragraph, or edit as I'm writing, but I love my typewriter all the more for those failings.

And yet, I wonder if I would love him as much as I do if I didn't have Arno to turn to for my next anatomy assignment. His failings can be eccentricities rather than annoyances because I have a more efficient system to fall back upon when I need to. After all, pc's were invented for a reason.

Lady Evelyn Grey

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Post  Herkimer on Wed Jan 09, 2013 7:01 pm

While I hadn't thought about connecting emotions to particular machines prior to reading this post, I have long assigned them personalities.
I have a strong tendency to anthropomorphize, and even prefer the company of one machine over another identical machine. I've owned nearly 60 different vehicles, of those, 5 had enough personality to earn names. The most recent is an 89 Crown Victoria station wagon that has been modified (rednecked) with a 5 speed, a few inches of lift and a large truck wheels with off road tires. It is now affectionately referred to as "Herk", which is short for "Herkimer the Hillbilly SUV". (Hence my user name here)

Due to the nature of my formal education, and my chosen profession, hobbies, etc. (repairing and occasionally building/modifying machines) I know better than most that machines are indeed inanimate objects with no emotions, or self awareness.
Having said that, I can attest to the fact that many that seem to have a personality which make them far less pleasant to deal with than others of the same make and model. For instance, when I used to work in a factory setting there was an old man over in the press room who had been there for nearly 40 years. He tended a row of 15 more or less identical presses, which he kept running flawlessly... Well except for press number 842. It had been there even longer than he had. It used the same parts, ran the same material, etc, but it broke down more than the other 14 machines he tended combined. It would stop, and wouldn't restart no matter what he did, until I showed up with my tools. Just about the time I got my meter out and started troubleshooting, it would start working again. Nothing was ever wrong with it by the time I got my meter out. He would have pulled his hair out if he'd had any left. I tried replacing anything that looked even remotely marginal. I replaced the switches, everything in the safety circuit, One by one I replaced every relay in it. I spent an entire weekend once rewiring the whole machine, in the hope that there was a break in the wiring somewhere. NOTHING fixed it.
He finally retired, and the machine continued to act up for about a week, then fixed itself. I can only presume it liked it's new master better than the old one.
On the flip side, I've had machines that just refuse to quit, no matter what is done to them. My wife and I have a 91 chevy van that has 440,000 miles on it. The engine nor transmission have ever been apart, other than for a timing chain swap at 250k that was done as a precaution. It's beat up, and rusty, but it just keeps going. I once had a Pointiac, that I'm sure didn't like me very much. The brakes failed on it multiple times, it caught fire, twice, and generally kept me convinced that it was out to kill me.

I know that it is impossible for a machine to have a distinct personality. I also know for a fact that they often do.


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Post  Mr. Tower on Sat Feb 23, 2013 6:11 pm

I'm actually pretty bad about personifying machines.

When I wrecked my truck several years ago I felt the damage to the truck as physical pain, even though I was not hurt at all in the wreck.

When working on stubborn machines sometimes I start talking dirty to them. Usually it involves stuck bolts or parts that don't want to fit together. "Come on...you know you want it! Thats it, thats it, open up. Yeah, yeah! take it baby!"

Every time I get something working I can't help but yell "Its alive! Its alive!" even if the joke has gotten old.

I have a hard time throwing about any machine, even if its broken and I have no use for it.

When I was a kid there was a story on the radio once about a car told from the point of view of the car. It started out all shiny and new and was bought by a nice family that took care of it for many years until one day they sold it to a new owner who drove it badly. One day he wrecked it and sold it to a used car lot where the car sat for many years unsold, the car got sad lonely and depressed and thought about killing itself because nobody wanted it. One day though a father brought his teenage boy to the car lot. The old car watched them look at all the other newer shinier cars and knew that no one would ever buy it but it turned out that the father had been the little boy from the first family that bought the car back when it was new and he recognized the old family car and ended up buying it for his son, who fixed it up and took good care of it.

Yeah......my first care is still siting in the driveway, and no, it doesn't run. Sometimes I feel it staring at me.

Mr. Tower
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