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The Engineer’s Guide to the Academic Galaxy, Vol. 1

By Kristoffer Videl Wijono, Enginger


In the vast and bewildering expanse of academia, much like the infinite cosmos of Douglas Adams' ‘The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy’, university students often find themselves navigating a complex and uncertain journey. Armed with textbooks instead of hitchhiker's guides, their quest is to decipher the enigmatic mysteries of science—be it pure, applied, or even social—all while avoiding the metaphorical Vogon¹ fleets of oppressive exams and deadlines. Here, we embark on a journey through the academic cosmos, offering life advice inspired by the wry wisdom of Douglas Adams, tailored specifically for the hapless travellers in the university universe. So don your thinking caps, grab your trusty towel², and prepare your notebooks as you tune in to this humble lecture on re-engineering your life with wonderfully simple hacks derived from the great field of engineering.


Exhibit A: The Engineer’s Guide to the Academic Galaxy (WIP)

Source: IMDb and The Author’s Photoshop


Turning Up the Difficulty (and Liking It)

Occasionally, being too good at certain things is, amusingly enough, not good. Take forgetting, for instance. Being exceptionally good at forgetting things often brings great woes. It might therefore help to, at times, limit our limitless potential of forgetting by drawing upon another skill we are masters of: making things more difficult.


Surprisingly enough, it appears that present-day Earthlings value electronics more than all-important towels. What is intriguing, though, is that humans sometimes overlook the fact that electronic devices are not fireworks and ignite them by creatively connecting them in reverse, as if the red ‘+’ and black ‘−’ terminals were a match made in heaven. Engineers, however, devoid of such creative freedom, will opt to incorporate specialised connectors that only work one way. This makes it nigh impossible to mess up the connections—unless, of course, the user is in dire need of fireworks.


Exhibit B: Polarised connectors from Samtec, the King of Connectors

Source: Samtec


Likewise, even the most skilled scatterbrains would feel threatened if forgetting were made impossible. In a world where even crucial items such as access cards slip our minds, mindful individuals—including the author, a staunch sceptic of NUS Mobile Key—opt for the ‘unmissable’ approach. Cards in lanyards hang on doorknobs, where they sway and dance whenever the door swings. It would take divine intervention to miss the mesmerising sight—and just like that, forgetting your card becomes less likely than a 5.0 GPA.

Exhibit C: The finest app around

Source: NUS Mobile Key


Even when celestial ordinances sternly discourage such a workaround—doors are a finite resource in the never-ending battle against forgetfulness, after all—a lower-level technique exists too. Anyone accustomed to electronics would know the standard colour coding: red for ‘+’ connections, and black for ‘−’. While some might scoff at the unoriginality, it helps people instinctively avoid starting workplace fires. Harmony is seeing colours matched together, after all.


This method of abusing the subconscious extends to even the most mundane aspects of life, like organising one's workspace. The author’s worktable is the crowning glory of The Second Law of Thermodynamics³ chaotic ballet—atop it lies a towering monument to entropy. Despite this, however, he remains vigilant, taking care to not lose essential tools like his trusty scissors to the tabletop void. They remain tucked away within the ‘IMPORTANT STUFF’ drawer for ready access. This way, even in the face of unbridled disorder, cutting paper need not involve hour-long scavenger hunts for scissors.


Exhibit D: The worktable in room 8-718

Source: Evidently, the room’s resident


The Optimism of Maximum Pessimism

Earthlings have a knack for sprinkling each other with clichés like 'It'll get better' and 'The best is yet to be’, as if they have direct access to the universe's stash of hidden goodies. Unfortunately, these upbeat sayings often fall flat, leaving disappointment in their wake. Optimism, it seems, has a tricky way of making folks sit back and let the cosmos do its thing. They grow complacent, forgetting about the unsolved riddles, hidden problems, and unexpected curveballs lying in wait to derail their dreams. Indeed, pessimism is the superior way to live, in order to be as well-prepared as possible. As the revered Murphy's Law itself boldly asserts, 'Anything that can go wrong will go wrong'.

The ideal engineer is the pessimistic one. Engineers embrace the concept of 'tolerance' to accommodate the grim realities of Murphy's Law, with civil engineers having to plan their sites while accounting for the most outlandish stresses conceivable to ensure the peace and stability of their users. How else would the buildings of beautiful Japan survive the unending barrage of natural disasters that plague them?


In a similar fashion, it is always wise to be ready for life's whims, with contingencies at the ready. If the longer yet safer path is available, it is often the smart move, for misfortune looms like a lurking assassin—poised to strike when one's guard drops. To illustrate, let us ponder the dreadful scenario of an early morning class, a time most foul. The author is a pitifully light sleeper who suffered tremendously last year in Block 5, where he was mercilessly subjected to the demonic serenades of inconsiderate roosters. However, he still never took any chances when it came to the monstrous task of waking up early. He always has two alarms strategically set slightly apart—a robust defence against that rare moment when the bed is particularly seductive. Remarkably, not once has he ever missed a wake-up call, although he has, on occasion, chosen to enjoy his bed’s comfort for a while longer (or, in the words of Singaporean millennials, 'ponned his lessons').


Exhibit E: What it means to ‘pon’

Source: The author’s Google Clock


Plagiarising Helps Everyone

Humans, the poster children for social animals, carry with them an ironic quirk in their history. After all, it chronicles such exciting conflicts and violence that few tales could ever hope to offer. In fact, were it not for humanity’s communication abilities, a future book titled ‘The Earthling’s Guide to Conflicts’ might one day end up as an intergalactic bestseller. Still, if avoiding disagreements and miscommunications for more fluid teamwork is desired, then one needs to look no further than CDE’s E8 for the solution.


As engineering is an unfortunately collaborative discipline, teamwork takes centre stage, relying on the bedrock of effective communication. Something most people would doubtless associate engineering with is robotics, a world of complexities demanding the synergy of large teams. Robots comprise a multitude of components operating on different power levels. Here, the uninitiated might attempt a rather explosive pairing, linking up high-power sources to low-power components, earning membership in the pyrotechnics club in a blaze of glory. In contrast, a well-oiled team thrives on a shared understanding of what goes where, with wires of several colours corresponding to dedicated power levels, thus producing actual robots and not ticking time bombs.


Exhibit F: Bumblebee’s AUV 4.1's Power Architecture, with various power levels of different colours


Unfortunately, university is another arena for collaboration, with similarly significant emphases on group and individual assignments. The introvert’s worst nightmare is finding themselves in ineffectual groups—a nightmare the author knows all too well. That said, good communication does wonders in making a group project more bearable, especially when a certain standard is enforced for the individual tasks. Indeed, plagiarising one another’s methods here may prove instrumental in the group’s effectiveness. This is particularly applicable, for example, for multi-module coding projects, where consistency in coding styles and naming conventions aid greatly in a harmonious integration.


When Junk is Worth More than You

At this point, everyone is surely acutely aware of the fact that life tends to go haywire. One final bit of wisdom that could prove useful would be that using an inferior alternative could strangely prove superior—when there is no choice but to downgrade.


Rafflesians may have occasionally seen a boyish, nerdy figure with an odd and oversized green keychain on his backpack around the hall. Said keychain is actually a printed circuit board (PCB) designed (and owned) by the author, an item most wondrous that it is present in all the electronics humans rely upon. Unfortunately, the design was finalised when the author was blissfully lounging away in a quaint little hotel in Korea, eventually resulting in an amusing disconnect in one of the electrical connections. This was a flaw discovered only after all the relevant components had been soldered onto the board following a six-hour soldering session. It should be clear that the author was—is—as sleep-deprived as any other university student, so instead of reprinting the board and soldering for six more hours, he opted instead to cut the connections and manually connect a short piece of red wire (Exhibit G). It is far from ideal and fairly flimsy. Nevertheless, ten minutes later, work splendidly it did. Truly a marvellous hack job.


Exhibit G: The Flawless PCB

Source: The unfortunate creature who designed and soldered it


Many situations in non-engineering life are directly analogous to this, with perhaps the most relevant and relatable one being our beloved ModReg CourseReg when a desired course dangerously has too few vacancies. Beyond that, however, even something as laughable as deporting an irritating cockroach could benefit from this approach. While there are dedicated, professional solutions to tackling this problem using pesticides or lovely ultrasonic insect repellents, there is also the brilliantly simple, cheap, and easy path of covering the pest with a cup, sliding in a thin piece of paper underneath, and masterfully flipping the whole apparatus to scoop up the tiny menace. It is economically superior, with the added benefits of being highly accessible and without residue.


The Story So Far?

Clearly, such a meagre stash of smarts will not shield you from every malignant caprice the academic universe can toss your way. This here is just an engineer's spiel, mind you; not some transcendent, interstellar hitchhiker's epic. Yet, much like how that Guide is a constantly evolving labour of love by the brightest minds in the galaxy, this guide ought to be a perpetual group endeavour—our quest to someday wrangle together the vast sea of knowledge that humanity has stitched. Who is to say that, down the line, we shall not possess a guide chock-full of insights from everyone—engineers, ballerinas, cabbies, golfers, dog walkers, and all the rest? Picture it: our very own Encyclopaedia Galactica, doling out precious wisdom ad infinitum.


 

¹ The Vogons are a bureaucratic alien species distinguished by their love of paperwork and strict adherence to rules and regulations, even destroying the Earth near the story’s beginning despite the impracticality entailed.

² The towel is “about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have”, providing warmth, comfort, and the ability to conceal one’s identity. It serves as a key symbol of the outrageously satirical series, being a trivial object that somehow plays a significant role in interstellar travel.

³ The Second Law of Thermodynamics, in layman’s terms: the world will always get messier and more chaotic over time.

The primary workspace of Team Bumblebee—NUS’s competitive, student-run Autonomous Vehicle development group.

A board with ‘internal wirings’ to connect various electronics together.

The act of melting solder into blobs to establish electrical connections between components and boards.

In simpler terms, LEAVE YOUR OWN ADVICE IN THE COMMENTS.

The Encyclopaedia Galactica in the series is the supercomputer responsible for generating much of the content of the titular Guidebook.

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