0.45 vs. 0.233

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We continue with an engineer’s look at the Olympics by considering two numbers: 0.45 and 0.233.

These represent two margins of results in two different sports. The first one, 0.45 is the difference in seconds (a fraction of a second) between 1st and 2nd place in a swimming race, specifically, the 4x100m freestyle. It is a measurable phenomenon – time. We have the knowledge and ability to measure differences in two people or teams to far less than 0.45 seconds. This is a very specific number and method of measurement, and a specific quantity of measurement.

On the other hand, 0.233 is the difference in the score between two gymnasts, meaning one will make it to the finals and one will not. This brings up the question: o.233 whats? Points? Points of what? This number is not a discrete measurement of time or distance, but instead, it is a compilation of scores of “opinions” of judges. In the absence of being able to measure specific distances or times or weights or whatever, the engineer will consider the option of using a group of experts to score items and weigh the scores, comparing scores, throwing out outliers, etc. In that respect, the Olympics does that right.

But in a strict comparison between the two sports, the engineers will overwhelmingly choose the one where results are measured on an absolute scale and not left to opinion, even if they are experts. Give us track and field. We will take swimming or cycling, or rowing. But vary off the path of time, distance, or weight and venture into gymnastics or diving, well, the engineer will either fall asleep or stay up all night devising a better, specific measurement of those sports.

s = d/t

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This is a simple equation:

s = d/t


s = speed

d = distance

t = time

Watching the Olympics, an engineer can “enjoy” them better by running calculations on average speed in various races.

Take swimming for example. Looking at the four strokes for the men’s world record at 100 m:

butterfly s = 100m/49.82s = 2.007 m/s

freestyle s = 100m/46.91s = 2.132 m/s

breast s = 100m/58.46s = 1.711 m/s

back s = 100m/51.94s = 1.925 m/s

Therefore, when it seems like the breaststroke swimmers are going slow, the engineer will be able to tell you that compared to the freestyle swimmers, the breaststroke athletes are going 80.25% as fast as the faster freestylers. If you want to talk about efficiency, go with the freestyle. It will get you there at over 6% faster by speed than the next fastest stroke, the butterfly, which in itself is 4.26% faster than the backstroke.

Believe me, there are many more comparisons, all based on simple speed calculations, as one considers different speeds of the different strokes at different distances. And this is just swimming.

More on the Olympics, and fun one can have watching them, the rest of the week.

Toy for the Future Engineer

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I was discussing a recent vacation I took to San Francisco and how I visited the Golden Gate Bridge. As an engineer, I had to visit it. (More in later posts.)

After telling this to a number of engineers, one came up to me afterwards and had something to tell me. When he was a child, his favorite toy was —- wait for it —- a model of the Golden Gate Bridge! Did I mention that he is an engineer?

Let me tell you, he was engineer back then, whether age 10, age 14, or whatever, even without the engineering degree or the PE license. Any kid who’s favorite toy was a model of a bridge…

If you are a parent, and notice that your child has some “engineering” leanings, you know what toy to look for. That child will thank you for it later.

Pi Estimation Day

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Last Sunday, July 22, was Pi Estimation Day.

The weekend of celebration started with some tension on Saturday when a friend of mine, we will call him “Wes”, texted me and wished me an early “Happy Pi Day”. As an engineer, technically wrong terms need corrected (it’s concrete, NOT cement). So I texted back and said that the next day was actually Pi Estimation Day and March 14 is Pi Day. Yes, I realize that 22/7 = ~3.14286 and that pi = ~3.14159 and that March 14, represented by 3.14, is 0.00159 from pi and 22/7 is 0.00127 from pi, which is less, which he pointed out in a feeble attempt to defend himself. I, of course, explained that if one considers significant digits, which is always a good engineering consideration, then I was correct. Wes and I have heated debates at times.

Well, Wes, cornered, resorted to what I called out to be ultra-extrapolated logic. Wes is a pharmacist. When meeting people, he likes to say he is a Doctor, to which I always have to add “of Pharmacy”. He said that if dosing to mcg or ngs, then he needs significant digits. But I pointed out that he never uses pi in dosing, to which he responded that if he were dosing for Humpty Dumpty, well –  you can see that my engineering logic outdid his pharmacological mind and pushed him beyond logic.

I may have accepted the first arguments from my brother, the math professor, but a pharmacist (even if he is a Doctor)?

The engineer wins again.

You Might Be an Engineer If…

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– you made a spreadsheet to track ALL of your child’s hitting and fielding stats, complete with weekly, monthly, and 5-game running averages, and with color graphs and charts – and your child is only 6 years old.


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Yet another fine number for engineers is 3. This number is intrinsic to many basic qualities of life as an engineer sees it.

3 is the number of points that define a plane, and, therefore, are the number of legs of a stable chair or stool.

3 is also the number of coordinate lines in, what else, 3-dimensional space. When engineers break down forces into components, there are 3 directions into which the forces are defined. They are called, in very technical terms, x-, y-, and z-coordinates. Creative? Maybe not. But powerful? Most definitely.

An engineer can explain so many thing by breaking down the vectors of force or velocity into its 3 coordinate directions. Why did his kid wreck the car? 3-dimensional coordinate analysis of the speed and direction of the car, and the 3-dimensional interaction of the forces between the car tires and the road, should adequately explain why the car left the road and hit the tree. Sure, the engineer Dad could simply say that his son or daughter was going too fast. But a far better explanation, and possibly a far better punishment, would be to have the 3 dimensional forces and velocities sketched out in a very detailed explanation of the movement of the vehicle. A finite element analysis could be added, too, just for the fun of it.

3 can be a very powerful number.

Another Basic Equation

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For engineers, the breakdown of life can be seen in equations. While some may be very complicated, like how a wife’s mind works, many are simple and constitute the basic building blocks of our world.

For example:

F = ma


F = force

m = mass

a = acceleration

It really is as simple as V = IR. For this equation, F = ma, motion, forces, and the mass of the object are described in a beautifully simple equation that everyone, not just engineers, can appreciate.

How much speed can you get a car going by pushing it? F = ma

Would it help if the car was lighter (less mass)? F = ma

Would more people pushing make it easier? F = ma

For non-engineers, next time you are in a group of friends and, say, someone suggests that you figure out a way to move the trajectory of an asteroid heading straight toward earth, simply bring up this equation, F = ma, and you will be the person who saves earth. Finding a way to apply the force to the asteroid and all the little details that go along with the rest of the problem, those can be solved by others. You are the one who got it going, kick-starting the whole saving-the-world initiative by your understanding of force, mass, and acceleration, and their relationship to one another. You will be a hero.

The Thoughts of Torkus

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The top 10 thoughts of Torkus, Medieval Engineer:

10. A pulley system could lift the stones for the castle more efficiently than making the peasants stand on each others’ shoulders.

9. Clean water systems could really help with all this pestilence.

8. These times would benefit from an engineering handbook with equations for all my thoughts.

7. Why won’t the fair maidens be impressed with how I can use my abacus?

6. Task for tomorrow: create wastewater treatment facility so people will quit urinating in the streets.

5. I wish electricity was invented so that I could design an build a electrical grid. These Dark Ages are DARK.

4. There has got to be an equation that calculates the ideal ratio between a castle wall and the castle area. What use that would be, I don’t know.

3. I know how to impress the fair maidens. I can develop an algorithm that will determine their weight from measurements of their head, bust, waist, hips and calfs. They will consider me wonderful.

2. Pestilence could be reduced with the help of engineering – if only allowed to help. Then the fair maidens would be mine.

1. At least the mud from the pathetic condition of the roads fills in the potholes.

Clean Water

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A month or two ago, we focused on Tork, prehistoric engineer. This week, we will look in on descendant, Torkus, who lived around the turn of the first millennium. We call him Torkus, Medieval Engineer.

In the time of Torkus, even though people did not understand germ theory and the various ways diseases could be transmitted, they did have a sense that clearer water was better for people than rancid water. Torkus, the most respected engineer of his day (because he was the only one around) understood that water needed to be somehow “cleaned”. He called this act “water treatment” and devised various methods to filter the water using different membranes, layers of materials, etc. Torkus didn’t get into chemical treatment, but the water he produced was generally clean and free of most harmful diseases. But providing this service to society proved more difficult.

Torkus went to the warlords who controlled the region at the time and tried to convince them of the benefit of water treatment. They considered him a crazed lunatic, then flogged him, hit him with sticks, and smashed his abacus. That last bit of torture was the cruelest to Torkus. But, he enjoyed a relatively healthy life after that, while most of the ruling warlords died of battle wounds and pestilence.

Clean water – a service provided by engineers. Torkus was ahead of his time.

You Might Be a Medieval Engineer If…

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– you have tried to impress a fair maiden by explaining how she can make life better for herself by making her cart easier to pull, by reducing the friction between the wooden axle and wheels, only to see her make her life easier by talking some big, stupid guy into pulling the cart for her.

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