From the Places to Visit File…

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Many people may want to know: Where would an engineer want to visit on vacation? We have a number of great suggestions, but we will start with Washington, DC. The obvious choice for the engineer is Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum. But, as I said, that is obvious, and we will cover that later. Here is another great location: The Building Museum!

Yes, dedicated to understanding the engineering (unfortunately with some architecture and planning thrown in) of buildings and all their facets, systems, and fascinating features. Now, for the bad news. If you didn’t visit it between October, 2009 and July, 2010, you missed what may have been the best exhibit ever. An exhibit dedicated to parking garages. Tell me that isn’t cool.

This is from the News Release at the time:

“House of Cars: Innovation and the Parking Garage is the first major exhibition to explore the history of this familiar structure and open conversations about innovative designs and parking solutions for the future.”

We here at are dedicated to finding more gems like this, and, hopefully, before they are two years out of date. In case anyone ever brings back this exhibit, you will be the first to know. (No one has yet, to our knowledge. Don’t know why.)

Buying a Couch, or Not – The Engineer is Beaten

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This story is from my own life. A number of years ago, we moved into our second home in a different city and got into a house that had a little more room, to accommodate our growing family. My wife looked at our family room and declared, “We need a new couch!”

As an engineer, I surveyed the situation. There was a chair. There was a beanbag seat somewhere. The family room was next to the dining area where chairs could be pulled if needed. Multiple use of furniture, and, best of all, it didn’t cost anything. A new couch would cost something – time, money, calculations, etc.

I informed my wife that we did not need a new couch but we could certainly get around any seating issues in our new family room. Her response was to call my mother. Not her mother, my mother. After explaining the situation, my mother told her to put me on the phone. The first, and pretty much the only thing I heard, was, “Buy your wife a couch.”

The engineer can be frugal, but when your own mother sides with your wife, the increasing grade of the hill ahead is just not worth it. We got a new couch. The engineer was defeated.

You Might Be an Engineer If…

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– you have ever corrected someone about a term people wrongly use, only to be told that it doesn’t matter. (I always correct people when they say the word “cement”, when the word they clearly should have used was “concrete”.)


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Some may consider this a strange number to be of importance or meaning to engineers. Some, but not engineers. The engineer knows this number, 9.81, is one to be remembered and, if it didn’t sound too emotional, cherished. Many non-engineers out there may remember what this number represents from their science class in high school.

9.81, combined with the units of meters per seconds squared is the acceleration due to gravity, at the earth’s surface. It shows up in many equations, especially in mechanical engineering, and is represented by the constant “g”. Thus, astronauts and fighter pilots experience g-forces, or forces as if many times the force of gravity. This acceleration due to gravity means that an object falling near the earth’s surface, discounting air resistance, will travel 9.81 meters per second faster for every second of falling. I know, fascinating.

Sure, we could also talk about 32.2, the English equivalent of “g”, with the units of feet per seconds squared, but let’s not ruin the engineer’s enjoyment of this constant by bringing in a sub-standard unit of measurement. (Thanks.)

Factor of Safety

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A great way to understand the engineer’s interest in living life far from those risky edges is through the geotechnical world, otherwise known as playing in the dirt. When an engineer has to determine whether a soil will fail under the weight of a building, the engineer uses an equation – no surprise there. I won’t go into all the details here for fear of alienating the non-engineers (or putting them to sleep), but in simple terms the engineer want to assure that:

F < S

where, F = the force of the building

and S = Strength of the soil or the amount of Force the soil can withstand before failing

But no one wants S to be just barely more than F. Maybe we measured the forces wrong, or an extra force ends up on it, or our estimation of the strength of the soil may be off, or…. a lot of other things.

My first class in geotechnical engineering helped me see the risk-averse side of engineering. Use an equation with numerous variables which are mostly Greek letters, so you know they must be important. This involved look-up tables and various calculations to arrive at a number for both sides of the equation. Then, to make sure it is safe, multiply the force by 3. Yes, engineers want the strength, after all the complicated equations, to be 3 times stronger than what we calculate may be the force it needs to withstand.

This is how engineers live life. Make all the calculations. Then multiply by a Factor of Safety of 3. It explains a lot.

Mowing the Lawn – Updated!

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A couple weeks ago, I wrote about an engineer who came home from work and saw that his newlywed wife had attempted to help out with a household chore – mowing the lawn – only to find that she had mowed it in the wrong pattern! I also said, as was told to me by the non-engineer (NE) wife, that he, the engineer went out and re-mowed the lawn that evening.

I ran into another NE wife who, after reading that post, wondered if she had told me that story already because the exact same thing happened to her. She had not told me this. This was a second occurrence. However, her story was a little more insightful into the ways of an engineer. When her new husband came home and saw the lawn – again, mowed in the wrong pattern – he did not even come in the house. He started up the mower and got right to correcting this flagrant disorder, still in his oxford shirt, tie, and wingtips.

I say with Spock, “Fascinating.”

The obvious note: This second NE wife has also never mowed the lawn since.

You Might Be an Engineer If…

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– you have ever asked a girl out by reading from a script.

3. 14159265358979323846264338…

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Yes, pi, an important concept to mathematicians, is also a great number for engineers. Engineers don’t get all emotional, or verklempt, or sensitive about pi, like mathematicians do. Mathematicians can be so emotional – at least when compared to engineers. Mathematicians even celebrate pi day, March 14, or 3.14, as a tribute to pi, and as an excuse to eat pie. Trust me. I know this for a fact. I have a brother who, along with his wife, are both math professors and they have a pi day party every year.

But, whereas mathematicians get so very emotional about this concept pi, engineers simply use the number. It shows up in many places – tucked into equations, sprouting out of various engineering applications, and materializing in all sorts of engineering phenomenon. Mathematicians can talk about the theory of pi, like, “Is there an end to it?” But engineers simply use the number for improving our way of life.

Let the math nerds have their pie. Engineers, the cool ones, will continue to use pi and numbers like it to serve society in their everyday lives, superheroes in disguise.

The Equation to Understand the Engineer and Public Speaking

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As with most things engineering, an equation always helps to understand life. For the engineer giving presentations, this holds true. Let’s look at how good engineers do as public speakers, by analyzing the equation that explains how good the presentation is:

Q = (0.3*K)*(1/R)*(1/V)*(1/A)*(1/J)


Q = Quality of the presentation by an engineer

K = Knowledge level of the subject

R = Resistance to speaking

V = Volume, or number of people in the audience

A = Deficiency of the visual aids

J = Inability to tell jokes

In this equation, the quality of the presentation is inversely proportional to the resistance to speak, the number of people in the audience, the deficiency of the visual aids, and the inability to tell jokes.  The sad truth for the engineer is that the values of all of these factors are typically quite high, meaning they bring the quality of the presentation WAY down.  To make things worse, the strong suit for engineers in public speaking, their grasp of the subject matter, though proportional to the quality of the presentation, only contributes by a factor of 0.3.  In other words, it doesn’t look good for the engineer as a public speaker.

But at least the engineer now can understand this lack of presentation quality. Equations are good.

Engineer – Defined

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I think it important to define: Engineer. To define the person may be difficult in one short post. There would need to be lot of writing to explain the person who is an engineer. But I’m talking about the word engineer.  From Oxford’s English Dictionary, it seems that engineer did NOT come from a word meaning geek, or socially inept, or poor public speaker, as some might think.  It originated from the Latin ingenium for which the original concept was ‘ingenuity, cunning’ (surviving in Scots as ingine). It’s where we get the word ingenious, which I take as a compliment. Engineers solve problems in creative ways. It is also where we get the word engine which is also a compliment. Engineers get things done.

So, for all the engineers out there, the next time someone asks you where your pocket protector is, or “pretends” to go to sleep while you explain something, or coughs while saying the word “geek” under his breath, well, I think it’s time for that person to learn a little Latin.

For the non-engineers out there, maybe now we can get some respect. Or else the next time you might need help with calculating the angle of trajectory to optimize your softball pitch, we just may conveniently not be around.

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