Books

The Story of a Robot Named Stinky and the Four Boys Who Built It

Even with the discussion of refractions, range finders, and thermocouples, and the light moments and humor, deportation and immigration status concerns are always there for these four boys.


Spare Parts: Four Undocumented Teenagers, One Ugly Robot, and the Battle for the American Dream

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Length: 240 pages
Author: Joshua Davis
Price: $14.00
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2014-12
Amazon

“La Vida Robot” was one of many great essays published in the anthology The Best of Technology Writing 2006. Written by Joshua Davis and originally published in Wired, “La Vida Robot” introduced readers to four very special young men: Oscar, Lorenzo, Cristian, and Luis. All were born in Mexico, but by their teenage years had landed in a “downtrodden” high school in Phoenix, Arizona. There they formed a robotics club, entered in the MATE (Marine Advanced Technology Education) underwater robotics competition, and put their robot Stinky up against robots from teams with a lot more money, including a team from MIT.

It’s a good enough story (and Davis does such a good job of telling it) that it keeps coming back. Shortly after the article was published in Wired, Nightlight did a segment on "Stinky, the little robot that could".

Now the story is being told in longer forms. In late 2014, it was published in book form. In January 2015, the book, titled Spare Parts: Four Undocumented Teenagers, One Ugly Robot, and The Battle for the American Dream hit the big screen and hit it with some pretty impressive star power, including George Lopez, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Marisa Tomei.

Perhaps it’s not surprising. The story has all the makings of a warm and fuzzy feel good tale. It's about four boys from the clichéd wrong side of the tracks, the ones who usually don't succeed. In the book, Davis details unstable family lives and poor living conditions. Money always seemed to be a problem, and academic excellence didn’t necessarily come easily. Cristian earned straight Fs in third grade (his first year in an American school) in large part because he didn’t understand his teachers. He ended up learning English (and gaining a lifelong love of tools) by watching Bob Vila.

And then there’s just the plain bad luck: Lorenzo’s mother dropped him, head first, on a curb when he was an infant, leaving him with a large bump on his already pear-shaped head. These were kids with all sorts of reasons not to succeed, but they did. At least to a point.

According to Davis, the film ends with the MACE competition and an unlikely father/son reunion (a reunion that, also according to Davis, didn’t happen in real life). It sounds like the movie will provide lots of warm fuzzies. But if you want the real story, read the book.

Davis’ Spare Parts does a lot with the MACE competition, as well. The book builds to it nicely, describing the way each boy came to the States and giving background about the teachers. Davis doesn’t skimp on the technical details, either. Numerous chapters are dedicated to the actual creation of Stinky and the tasks it would have to complete during the competition. One challenge: “to measure the temperature of a cold-water spring at the bottom of the pool. To find the thing, contestants were instructed to ‘look for signs of low-velocity, upward-moving currents’”.

Davis also makes it easy to root for the team and Stinky, particularly when Lorenzo must go to a grocery store and ask a young woman for advice about buying tampons (the team needs a superabsorbent one to stop Stinky from leaking).

Still, even with the discussion of refractions, range finders, and thermocouples, even with the team’s fabulous motto: “Don’t finish last”, and even with Davis’ ability to incorporate light moments and humor, the concerns about deportation and immigration status are always there—sometimes at the forefront and sometimes hovering in the shadows—but always present.

Which is why the last chapters of Spare Parts, the ones that talk about what happens after the MACE competition (and the ones that appear to be missing from the movie) are so important. Because it’s important to ask what’s next. What’s next for these young people who were so creative, so humble, and so smart? They had their shining moment; they did something special, but what do, what can, kids like this do next?

One of the boys, Luis, started working two jobs after graduation; he thought of the MACE competition as “nothing more than a blip, a brief glimpse into the opportunities that other people had. He tried not to think too much about it”.

Davis is a master storyteller. It’s hard to imagine anyone not pulling for these kids and not caring about what happens to them. Well, almost anyone. As Davis relates after Nightline aired the segment, then Arizona State Representative Russell Pearce “explained to viewers that it was inappropriate to focus on a small group of students: ‘You can’t paint this picture of this sweet child over here that we all probably know. And all of us know somebody that’s probably here illegally that is a wonderful person. You can’t take it to that emotional element and, and let that play. Because, look at the damage to America overall.’”

To people who truly believe that America and Americans can’t show compassion to illegal immigrants or that all illegal immigrants are “lazy” and are here to “leech off the government”, hopefully this book will provide another perspective.

Nothing about immigration is simple, and Davis certainly doesn’t suggest any quick fixes or serve up any platitudes. But in a world where the media often seems more interested in highlighting the negative rather than the positive, Davis’ book, which manages to do both, is a most welcome read.

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