The Creative, Green, Fun Side of Engineers

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Some may think that engineers are often not incredibly creative, except for finding some bizarre, convoluted way to “solve” a problem. Some may wonder if engineers are really that interested in saving the environment. Some may think engineers are not all that fun. Well, if you are any one of those, it’s time to rethink your view of the engineer.

To combat all these views of engineers, we turn to Bellingham, WA, where the Public Works Department has written a new specification for the use of recycled material in non-structural concrete, thus the green nature of engineers. The creative side comes out since they are using a new material that is being recycled. The fun aspect of engineers is what that material is. The material now allowed to be recycled as part of the aggregate in non-structural concrete in Bellingham is: toilets.

But beyond mere theory, according to a recent edition of the publication Equipment World, a sister publication to Better Roads and Aggregates Manager (I kid you not), Bellingham recently included 400 used toilet seats in one of their sidewalk and path projects. Most will enjoy the name for this new type of concrete: Poticrete.  The project manager stated, “We did it because it was the right thing – and it was fun.” I’ve said this before – engineers know how to have fun!

He also said, and here I will confess that I am not sure if this comment was meant to come out this way, but he said, “We are not only using toilets, but looking into capturing a bigger waste stream.”

This may well change some of the non-engineers view of the engineer as they consider Poticrete. The engineer is green. The engineer can be creative. But most of all, the engineer is FUN!

For those that think I have possibly made all this up, please visit: The Story on Poticrete (The photo of the toilet seat that is bragging about Poticrete is worth the price of admission there.)

An Update on the Scientific Calculator

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A couple weeks ago I shared talked about a neighbor kid stopping by to borrow a scientific calculator for a science final exam. I didn’t have to get one of my kids’ calculators, but, of course, had one on hand to lend him.

So, he brings it back and, unfortunately, I wasn’t here. He left it with my wife or one of my kids. I have it now. But, what I don’t have is information. How did he do on his science final? Did the calculator help? What equations did he use? What functions did he use? Did he use the calculator later to determine the gas mileage of the family car, or figure out the area of their irregular yard, or to help him derive an equation that will determine how much pizza to order with his friends if a number of them go out to eat together and want to order different sized pizzas and he determined the square inches for different combinations of pizza sizes and compared them to the number of people times the average number of square inches of pizza each person would eat? Did he run the calculations of the height-to-weight ratio of all his family members? Did he calculate the angle of trajectory to throw a baseball to optimize the opportunity of hitting the window of the neighbor nobody likes?

If it weren’t for the fact that most engineers don’t like to, want to, or are the least willing to talk that much, they would be asking all those, too. Most engineers would probably just say, “Hey, the calculator do OK?” which sums up all the above questions.

A lent calculator can be a wonderful conversation starter.

You Might Be an Engineer If…


– you have written an equation to explain your wife’s or girlfriend’s emotions.

(As a side note: This is not a good idea.)



8 is not a number near and dear to the engineer, but it is a number that helps define the engineer. From data derived by the Center for Extrapolated Data, 8 is the average number of times a year that an engineer will actually tell his wife, “I love you.”

Most non-engineers (NE) reading this will consider this to be way too low for a good, working relationship, and, I guess from all those relationship books – written by NE’s – sure, that is probably true. A wife typically needs many more words of encouragement and endorsement of love. But in the engineer’s mind, he told her when they got married, and he would tell her if anything changed, so the 8 a year are above what is needed. However, in at least a meager attempt to accommodate this non-logical necessity of using these words of emotion, he acquiesces and uses these words on wildly emotional days like their anniversary, her birthday, Valentine’s Day, and around the holidays at the end of the year. Notice that that is only four times. So the other four are far and away extra ones. Think about it.

As the engineer’s mantra goes, “Engineers don’t feel. Engineers think.”

But, he can learn to adapt. Sort of.

Center for Extrapolated Data

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Some people reading these pages have asked about the Center for Extrapolated Data, which is referenced in a number of the posts. What is it? How does it work? Where do they get their data?

The short answer is – it’s magic. No, no, no. This is an engineering blog. There is a rational explanation for almost everything, something we can measure, calculate, or derive. But, for many of the situations that appears on these pages, data simply doesn’t exist – yet. However, we really know that it is true. So, we take data we have, and extrapolate it.

Let’s look at an example. We can state that the Center for Extrapolated Data has determined that an engineer has a 0.0032% chance of volunteering to make a public presentation when asked for volunteers at work, and of the extremely small number that do volunteer, about 38% of those volunteered only because they were scratching their head at the wrong time, and 61% volunteered because they were writing an equation to calculate the odds of being chosen to make the presentation, only to volunteer because they weren’t paying attention completely and thought they were volunteering NOT to make the presentation.

It turns out that 1% of the 0.0032%, or 3.2 out of every 100,000 engineers actually would volunteer to make a presentation.

How did we determine this number? We could lie and say that we surveyed a sizable number of engineers, or that we did detailed studies in this area. But that (the study, not the lie) takes time and money, something we try to minimize as engineers. Instead, we simply go by experience – what we’ve seen – and know that it will be backed up by what every engineer sees at work. Thus, about 3 out of every 100,000 engineers sounds just about right.

We add the .2 to make is seem more precise and engineering-ish.

The Center for Extrapolated Data is explained.

Giving the kids a bath:


An engineer’s approach to raising children, especially in the realm of teaching them how the world works, will set an engineer apart from all other types of people. Here is an example, and I don’t mind saying, from my life. OK, I am proud of this one. When my son was two years old, I decided that when we opened the drain at the end of a bath, there would be none of this, “Bye-bye, water.” Wouldn’t he wonder where it’s going? Shouldn’t he know that engineers clean up that water before it returns to our environment? Won’t all these types of questions confuse him? So, I taught my son as any good engineer father would. When I asked him where the water was going, he would state emphatically, “To the wastewater treatment facility.”

Of course, I conjectured later that the images viewed in our minds were likely quite different. I had settling tanks, clarifiers, and anaerobic digesters in mind. I am fairly certain he just thought of the “wais wotter treemnt fasility” as  big blob of something under the house. That may or may not have contributed to the nightmares he had as a child. But he learned about engineers, and that is what was important.

Mowing the Lawn

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A nonengineer (NE) wife of an engineer told me about when they were first married. She wanted to help out with the home, even doing some things which she typically would not do. In this case, she mowed the lawn. Her thinking was that this would ease his stress from work, show her husband how she was willing to pitch in, and emphasize the teamwork that any marriage would want. But instead of a compliment or showered with appreciation, when her engineer husband came home, he pointed out that she had mowed the lawn – in the wrong pattern. This week, it was supposed to be in diagonal passes. If that didn’t dig him into a hole deep enough, he re-mowed the lawn – THAT NIGHT.

The NE wife has never mowed the lawn since.

True story.

You Might Be an Engineer If…

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– You have ever calculated the check at a restaurant to the penny, with family members.


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The number 5 is a very scary number for engineers. They may not even know it consciously, but it is there – lurking, waiting, about to pounce.

Five represents the number of people that it takes to officially have “an audience”. And, you know what that means. If the engineer has to speak and explain something to 5 or more people, he will consider it, in his mind, to be a PRESENTATION.

This is bad. This is very bad. The engineer may be awkward explaining a point of his work to one other person, two is a bit strange, three is uncomfortable, and four is somewhat unnerving. But once there are 5 people, all bets are off. The engineer goes into presentation mode – badly telling jokes (or what he thinks are jokes), using barely readable charts and graphs, and keeping a monotone level in his voice.

The number 5. If it wasn’t an engineer, I would say that emotions were creeping in.

5 people. That’s an audience.

5 is a number. A scary number.

Polystats for Presentations

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Statistics from the Center for Extrapolated Data show the following:

        82% of engineers have put over

                  51% of their audience to sleep in

                            37% of their presentations

On the bright side, rest is a commodity of which all of us in society need more. In a way, engineers are doing the world yet another service.

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