You Might Be an Engineer If…

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– you have taught your 8-year-old child to do a b/c (benefit/cost) calculation before deciding on whether to purchase a video game (and the kid has never bought one because of this).


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3 is a number of simplicity and engineers use it to count the number of essential questions to ask when deciding to purchase an item. Here they are:
1. How much does it cost?

2. How long will it last?

3. Will it cause me to socialize with people?

The answer to 1. should be very little.

The answer to 2. should be very long.

The answer to 3. should be, “No.”

There is an expanded list we may cover in later posts, but these three pretty much sum it up. The implications are simple. The answers should be straight forward. No whimpy, “Will I feel better with this item?” If it is needed (which is really the first deal-breaker of a question) then the engineer will work through these three questions.
What could be easier?


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A calculation near and dear to any engineer is b/c.

b/c is not short for because to an engineer. It represents the ultimate in engineering decision-making. The “b” represents the benefit an item or service has to the person buying it, and the “c” represents the cost. b/c is the benefit compared to the cost or, as engineers like to say, the benefit-cost ratio. The word “ratio” just adds an engineer-ish feel to it.

Engineers use the b/c ratio to determine if it makes sense to build a large factory, or set up a distribution center, or construct a highway, or dam up a river.

An engineer will also use the b/c ratio in his own life, to determine if it is wise to buy a certain car, or house, or make any other large purchase.

But, what an engineer will do even beyond this is to calculate b/c ratios for pretty much any area of life. Should one buy this pen? Calculate the b/c ratio. Should one get the air conditioner fixed in the car? Calculate the b/c ratio. Should one get married. Sure, why not calculate the b/c ratio.

b/c ratios are powerful tools and in the right hands, the hands of an engineer, they become the essence to an efficient existence.

What Event You Should Do

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A few members of our family were answering the question: If you could compete in any Olympic sporting event, what would it be?  My first response was, of course, the premier event – the triple jump. Setting that aside, I got thinking that, as an engineer, I could figure out what event in which to compete. Here is my reasoning.

The goal is to win a gold medal. And even though the gold medals in these Olympics are only 1.34% gold, there is something to be said for the honor and prestige of winning, I guess.

My thought is that I would want to compete in an event that has the smallest difference between the third and first place finisher. I could make this the sixth and first, or the tenth and first. But I will stay with the third place to the first place, just to demonstrate my engineering solution. The reason to choose this approach is that I would like the best chance to move up to first place, thinking that I will not start in first. So, as we consider just track and field events (the original Olympics), and look at some of the times and distances for various competitions that were completed in this year’s Olympics, we can see which event it would be easiest to move up by calculating the percent of time or distance that the third place was compared to the first place. Of course, for distance events, one wants higher numbers, for time, lower. Therefore, the percent of the lower place score will be below 100% in distance events and above 100% in time, so we will compare the difference from 100%.

Here are the results (all time in seconds, distances in meters):

Event 1st 3rd % Diff % 3rd off 1st
100 m 9.63 9.79 101.66% 1.66%
200 m 19.32 19.84 102.69% 2.69%
400 m 43.94 44.52 101.32% 1.32%
800 m 100.91 102.53 101.61% 1.61%
1500 m 214.08 215.13 100.49% 0.49%
10000 m 1650.42 1651.43 100.06% 0.06%
110 m Hurdles 12.92 13.12 101.55% 1.55%
400 m Hurdles 47.63 48.1 100.99% 0.99%
Shot Put 21.89 21.23 96.98% 3.02%
Discus 68.27 68.03 99.65% 0.35%
Long Jump 8.31 8.12 97.71% 2.29%
Triple Jump 17.81 17.48 98.15% 1.85%

I will now start training for the 10000 meter run. I will forget about the Shot Put.

Run the numbers. It’s the only sensible way to decide.

What If…

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My son thinks up these impossible what if questions. They are impossible. I pay him no mind.

In the Olympics, athletes compete against each other in the same events. But, as an engineer, always trying to improve things, I get thinking sometimes about improvements we could make to the various sports. Can we combine running with swimming and bicycling? They already have it – the triathlon.

OK. How about this. Let’s race a human – an Olympic athlete – against a bicyclist and against a horse. If they were going the same distance, that would obviously be unfair. But if we take the average speed of a human for, say, 1000 meters, then take the time of that run and set the horse and bicyclist out at the distance that their average speed would take them in the same amount of time, then we could race the human running, the horse galloping, and bicyclist cycling. It would all be done with rates of speed, precise distances, and timing to the hundredth of a second. It sounds a bit odd, but it would give the engineer calculations to perform and distances to lay out. He could write up a report on it and submit it to…

All right. It has been done. When I was a kid, my parents, uncharacteristically took all their children to the horse races. It was family day and my dad, a math teacher who understood odds, only bet on the favorite horse to show. We came out 2 or 3 dollars ahead for the evening.

One of the events that headlined the night was a race between – you guessed it – an Olympic champion runner, a bicyclist, and a horse. The Olympic champion was Dave Wottle. In 1972, he won gold, not in his premier event, the 1500m, but in the 800m. Look up the story. It is interesting to read.

So, they placed Dave one distance from a common finish line, the bicyclist further out, and the horse around the curve somewhere. The horse ran valiantly, the bicyclist fell, I think breaking his bike, and embarrassingly landing in some, shall we say, fertilizer. But Dave Wottle won.

A marketer was no doubt behind it, and made sure Dave would win. People liked him. Engineers, code of ethics and all, were likely not to have been consulted. But the engineer could run the numbers, for this race and many like it, making them fair races and using any number of combinations for competitions.

The benefit engineers could have to society if they would only let us stray from providing clean water, electricity, engines, fuel, transportation, wastewater treatment, etc., and provide entertainment for all.

You Might Be an Engineer If…

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– you have ever thought that the design and construction engineers of all the Olympic buildings should be getting medals way more than the athletes, and have designed the look of the medal for those events.


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We are continuing our look at the Olympics here at 156 is not a number near and dear to engineers, but it is a number that came up in the Olympics recently and one that reminds me how engineers can have fun with the Olympics, and indeed, improve various sports.

Today’s sport to improve is basketball. The USA team scored 156 points against a quite inferior opponent in a recent game. This is in a basketball game where there are 8 less minutes than in an NBA game. The Olympic games are split up into four 10-minute quarters. After the first quarter the American team had 49 points. At that pace they could have scored 196 points, so scoring “only”156 was a sign they eased up in the last three quarters.

Scoring 156 points means the team averaged 39 points a quarter, and 3.9 points every minute. And that is with the other team also possessing the ball and scoring 73 points of their own.

This brings me to an idea I have had for a while about basketball and how the broadcast networks can make the game more intriguing to engineers. We are all about numbers – rates, ratios, interpolation and extrapolation. I propose that every 15 or 20 seconds throughout a game, an alternate scoreboard is kept that will extrapolate out what the score will be if the rate at which the teams are scoring is maintained. At the end of the first quarter of the game mentioned above, the score was 49-25. That translates into a final extrapolated score of 196-100.

People would greatly enjoy not only watching the score of the game, but the extrapolated score as it would be updated three or four times every minute. The announcer could say, “Even though there are only 3 minutes and 20 seconds gone in the game, at this rate the (team ahead) will be scoring 136 points! What a rate!”

Didn’t I say engineers could make this game more fun.

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