Mr. Roboto: A Meditation on Love and Engineering


Readers, I have a surprise: it’s Valentine’s Day.

In my continuing efforts to be of service, I’ve decided to whisk this consistently disappointing holiday out of the way, while the year is fresh, so that it will not remain skulking around to poison our relationships (real or aspirational) on February 14th. This Valentine’s Day—the 9th of January—you have a plausible excuse for not buying your spouse flowers, proposing to your girlfriend, or finding a hot new lover: you didn’t know it was Valentine’s Day. I never told you I was moving the date! You’re welcome.

Now that we’ve cleared that up, let me pour you a Bloody Mary and tell you about my Valentine—the man who makes Rhapsody’s furnace tick all winter long, that lucky devil with whom I share a life, a home and two bratty precocious children: Mr. Roboto.

Mr. Roboto is an underwater robotics engineer. And if you are thinking, “Surely that is a pretend job!” then you are just like Rhapsody on her first date with Mr. Roboto.

The date took place at a barbecue restaurant and included all the usual flights and digressions of a conversation in which two people attempt to eat spare ribs with some amount of daintiness and, at the same time, subtly establish how serious, kind, funny, relaxed, breezily sarcastic, stable, accomplished, whimsical, fun-loving, steadfast, sexually adventurous (but not in a weird way), tack-sharp and emotionally secure they both are.

And—incredibly—still single.

Long story short, he walked me home, we kissed, we dated, we wed, a decade passed and here we are in the suburbs with two kids and two cars—exactly two more of either item than I expected to have. In the interceding years, I’ve gone from being a casual observer of the science/engineering type nerd, to something of an expert bystander. Now, we mustn’t over-generalize—it upsets virtually every sort of nerd when one does this—but there are some points of Nerd Culture that are useful for everyone to know, and have not yet been explored by the astrophysicists-turned-comedy-writers at CBS. Life with Mr. Roboto is sweet in so many ways I didn’t foresee in the early days of our relationship, when I was still trying to decipher all the Star Wars references and wondering why, despite my total incomprehension, they did not stop.

They still have not stopped. They will never stop. It took me a while to absorb this.

And now, even I can drop a little Episode IV, or a peppery dash of Next Generation into casual banter—with caution, of course. The first time I made a Star Trek reference that was both witty and relevant, it was all I could do to keep Mr. Roboto from ravishing me on the spot. (Modesty prevents me from relating the full story, but there was some de-cloaking involved and I don’t mean the Klingon vessels.) I’m telling you this, Readers, in case any of you are at a decision point in a relationship with a non-nerd, and wondering if you should commit. You may think that that the suave, socially-adept man you are dating, with his liberal-arts degree and Lego-free apartment is everything you want, but let me ask you this:

Does your man follow you around the house with his pretend Geiger counter pointed at your ass, measuring its off-the-charts hotness?

Well, mine does and I’m here to tell you: it’s a more endearing than you think.


Pop Quiz!

Are these gentleman:

A. Modern day AUV engineers?

B. Actors from the 1916 film “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”? Or

C. Steam Punk festival-goers?

(Answer: Yes.)

* * * *

To protect our family’s privacy I am not going to tell you which engineering school Mr. Roboto attended, but for those who enjoy puzzles, you can make the same acronym from the words “Midgets In Tuxedos.” It’s the sort of campus where any freshman you meet could fashion a spacecraft out of a second hand bicycle with a free half hour and a soldering iron, but unless you attend the school yourself you will not meet them, because they self-destruct in the first thirty seconds of ordinary small talk with civilians.

Yes, we’re painting with a broad brush, but only because our generalizations are 100% fair and accurate.

Mr. Roboto is creeping close to middle age now, but he still loves invention, and not only the battery-powered, sea-faring kind. Our life is full of gadgetry and facinating, needless improvements. As a matter of pride, an engineer can’t leave well enough alone. Don’t like the way that cupboard opens? Now it works on rollers powered by solar wind. Car radio not responding to your voice commands the way you’d prefer? Not to worry: your new operator’s helmet makes it simple! Bra strap tricky to adjust? Just step onto the launch pad and attach the grappling hooks right here.

There are no limits to this kind of thinking, and that is why Rhapsody has learned not to complain about certain problems, like the tendency of feminine hygiene products to shift and bunch. For an engineer, there are no unmentionables. Only problem sets.

* * * * * * * *

Before I forget, I invited Mr. Roboto to guest blog one sentence today, and in typical fashion, he took so long debating options that I regretted asking him at all. His final selections—it was a tie—are:

1. “I have a laser and I know how to use it,” and

2. “Anything worth doing is worth overdoing.”

I won’t lie to you, Readers: sometimes Rhapsody and Mr. Roboto do argue. For example, when I ask him why my keyboard isn’t working and he says, “Did you put the new batteries in it like I showed you?” and I scream that I asked for some help, not a goddamned Zen Koan… or words to that effect.

As we sit here, he is busy refilling a Costco pepper grinder that was designed to be used and thrown away, but he can’t let it go to the trash heap. Nothing upsets an engineer like planned obsolescence, except maybe a carelessly cross-threaded screw. IKEA furniture assembly takes weeks around here, and not because he can’t work out the instructions, but because he won’t stop emailing Sweden with suggestions. And then there are the constant, bitter, futile arguments in the car over directions—but not between Mr. Roboto and Rhapsody. Between Mr. Roboto and the GPS. (If some robots can learn, why not all of them?)

But more galling than any of these to Mr. Roboto is careless pandering to the nerd television viewer, such as the use of the number pi as a critical plot point in a crime drama—a golden moment instantly spoiled when the detectives round pi to 3.1416 on their crime-solving white-erase board, and as I know we can all agree, the rounding of irrational numbers is total fucking bullshit, CBS.   

Even Rhapsody can try his patience sometimes. I have this darling thing I do where I take the two pieces of a malfunctioning object—coffee maker, dust buster, car—and I tap them together like an adorable and inquisitive squirrel. Then I bat my long, Disney-esque eyelashes at Mr. Roboto so he will help me. He is never fooled. Calmly, he turns to our daughter, Brioche, and says, “Your mother claims to be a feminist” and then to me, “It’s called a screwdriver and you know exactly where we keep them.”

And I blink and do my squirrel taps a few more times, until finally the top of Mr. Roboto’s head comes off and you can see all the flickering LED lights and other improvements he’s made to his frontal cortex, right here at home with ordinary household tools.

* * * *

I’m making it look like all the nerds are boys, aren’t I? But that’s not true. Female nerds are everywhere, and I certainly don’t want to perpetuate sexist stereotypes, even if I exemplify a depressing number of them. Here is an actual exchange between two young, bespectacled female nerds as they tapped away at their iPads at Logan Airport, while I eavesdropped and used what I heard to form sweeping assumptions about them.

Precisely what they said:

Nerd Girl #1: [not making eye contact with companion] Do you think we’ll ever break the light barrier?”

Nerd Girl #2: [after long, thoughtful pause]. I’ve read a lot of books on that subject. I think… Yes… Eventually.

Now, why are you and I not having similar exchanges? Because these young women belong to a group with a better chance of working this matter out, in all its particulars, than you and I have of completing the 1040-A tax return without error. Which is worth thinking about, the next time you spot someone wearing a Star Trek uniform in Business Class.

* * * *

There is nothing sweeter than watching Mr. Roboto lead Brioche and Tannery through their first few viewings of the Star Wars trilogy– the nerd equivalent of teaching the cubs to hunt. And on days when he is not completely aggravated by me, I think Mr. Roboto is proud of my progress, as well. I’ve evolved from someone who would only approach a problem by doing my Disney Squirrel routine and wondering when someone more capable would be along to fix it, to thinking, “Perhaps I am the one who will fix it!”

It is not always    infrequently    almost never the case that I actually can fix it, but the thought alone is empowering. Sometimes I just go ahead and read the manual, for the sheer hell of it. We have many electronic devices here in our house whose primary functions I cannot begin to control, but most have digital clocks in them, and because I have read the manuals, these little clocks are displaying accurate times! I have even diagnosed a problem with our dishwasher, identified the broken part, then ordered and installed said part without involving Mr. Roboto at all. All I did was snap a new little plastic wheel onto the bottom drawer, but I felt like I’d solved the Schrödinger equation.

It’s a start.



P.S. As a Valentine keepsake, I had Mr. Roboto’s favorite equation etched onto a martini glass for each of you:

Vectorial Navier-Stokes equation   …that’s right, bitches!

Photos: D J Shin (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (, via Wikimedia Commons; Stuart Paton (en:20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916 film)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


9 thoughts on “Mr. Roboto: A Meditation on Love and Engineering

  1. Kris- I cannot begin to tell you how much I loved this! Probably more so because, as you may or may not have heard, I just got engaged to my very own nerd :). (Not sure you’ve ever heard the story of how I solidified my commitment to move to Boston after a dinner party at sanjay’s-the first time I met him- and thought- these are my people! This is where I will find a boy!….8 years later and here I am). -Laura

    Sent from my iPhone

    • Either that means you had a really bad week (I hope not) or you liked the post. In any event, I pretty much only post things that I think you will find entertaining. If it’s not going to make you laugh, it generally gets cut.

  2. Breaking news from the math world: This past week, Mukhtarbai Otelbayev, a mostly unknown professor from Kazakhstan, claimed to have found a closed-form solution to the Navier-Stokes equations (ie, my “favorite equation” cited above, that describes fluid flow in air, water, plasma in stars, etc.) I’m not certain that this isn’t an elaborate prank, and if not then he is likely just plain wrong, but if his work checks out, then this is a huge development!

  3. I got up early, really early, to go to the gym this morning with a friend. She was picking me up at 5:50. Neither of us could wimp out, since she knew I’d be waiting for her and I knew that she would be in front of my house honking if I didn’t come out when she got there. Which would not endear me to anyone within blocks.

    She no showed. She still hasn’t replied to my texts. So I decided to soothe myself by catching up on Rhapsody in Cool. And ended up truly, literally, laughing out loud at this nerd post. Your nerd completely out-nerds mine! My nerd would enjoy doing some of that stuff but rarely does. I get the complaints about planned obsolescence but not the cool work-arounds. I think I need to prod his full nerdhood (nerddom?) to emerge. I’m going to show him this post and see if his hormones make him competitive.

    You have made my day and I still haven’t had breakfast! Because I’m supposedly going to the gym.

  4. Pingback: Exciting Things You Don’t Know About Hotlinking | Rhapsody In Cool
  5. Pingback: Rhapsody Sings the Body Electric | Rhapsody In Cool

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