Sad News

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Today, an engineer was in the news. The sad news is that this is because he passed away. His name is Norman Joseph Woodland and he was a successful mechanical engineer. One could say that he was successful because of his age of 91 or his marriage of over 60 years. But, instead, we turn to how the world views success, particularly of an engineer. Did he make life better for our society?

The answer to this in Woodland’s case is —- YES!

Woodland invented the bar code. It is estimated that over 5 billion times each day a bar code is scanned. The increase in speed, accuracy, efficiency, ease, – you get the idea – that this invention has made our lives, not to mention our trips to the grocery store, is immeasurable. He was an engineer to be admired, as are most engineers.

Here is a link to the NYTimes story.

Movies Are Not Kind to Engineers

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While some movies may make the engineer look good, most do not. Here is one movie the engineer should avoid, although a few years old now – MI3, Mission Impossible 3.

There is a scene near the beginning of the movie in which Tom Cruse’s character is at an engagement party and two women and a guy are talking to him about his cover. He, of course, needed a cover job since he was a spy. His cover job was being a traffic engineer working for the Virginia DOT. He was explaining to them about traffic studies – stating things that were wrong – and then he left. The two women said that they would marry him (he was Tom Cruse), but the guy’s reaction was what most people were thinking. He pretended he was falling asleep.

That is what the engineer gets from Hollywood. Thinking engineers are boring, that that fascinating work they do is of little interest to the rest of the world.

As I said, there are a few good scenes from movies that are complimentary to the engineer, although I can’t think of any right now.

Weird Al Contributes to the Conversation

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As an engineer, I swear that when Weird Al came out with his song, White and Nerdy, he was thinking of engineers. Yes, not all the images are purely about engineers. And yes, there are many engineers who are not white. But for the most part, the song by Weird Al, a parody of Ridin’ by Chamillionaire, might as well be a theme song for engineers. I prefer to consider myself more of a Geek, but Nerdy is just around the corner from that.

I encourage you to find a video of White and Nerdy on the internet, watch it, and try to tell me that engineers are not portrayed there. Makes me laugh every time.

A Baseball Story for an Engineer

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( has some wrap-up thoughts on baseball, now that the World Series just finished the season.)

The best baseball story I have heard recently that most any engineer will appreciate is Moneyball. I have not seen the movie, but I went through the book a few years ago and I am still impressed by the logic and sheer emotionless decision-making that was introduced by the Oakland team. These are qualities that engineers admire.

One may say that these were really math nerds or statisticians, and to some extent that is correct. But considering the level of application of mathematic principles to solve a real-world problem, I would say that these people acted much more like engineers than mathematicians.

Whether a math guru or an engineer, it is good to point out that Brad Pitt is not typical of the way these numbers geeks look, but I’m not complaining. It’s good press.

Getting There First

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(Tork, caveman engineer, the first engineer in history, make that pre-history, returns for this week on, however, due to Tork’s lack of understanding of time, his escapades are spread over two weeks .)

Tork, caveman engineer, was like other cavemen. He wanted to be the first to the inlet of water in the morning. No one went out before it was light, all leaving their cave at sunrise. This often created a traffic jam of sorts on the paths the cavemen had worn down in the jungle.

Tork realized that different paths took different amounts of time when different numbers of cavemen were on the paths. He calculated, with a few experiments, how to best navigate the paths to get to the water pool first. He could not run the fastest, but he understood traffic, and peak traffic volumes and alternate routes. He would have really benefited from sensors, traffic algorithms, and a telecommunications network, but Tork was just pleased to get to the water before Zonk relieved himself upstream. Next on Tork’s agenda was building a good wastewater treatment facility, or at least educating the Zonk’s of the world about proper “dewatering” procedures.


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It is election season. The candidates are campaigning and debating. But one thing is missing. The perspective of the engineer. And, since engineers serve society by providing such wonderful services to the public, their perspective should be heard.

We should have someone ask the candidates two basic questions:

1. Where do you stand on the general state of disrepair of our country’s infrastructure?  – I will say, each candidate will say he is for it. Being against good highways, or water treatment, or electrical grids is like being against puppies. They will always be for them. (How to pay for it may be more tricky.)

2. Where do you stand on the metric system? – This is an issue which they usually keep away from on the campaign trail. Why? It makes too much sense.

I guess it is obvious that they have never asked me to moderate or even ask a question at a debate, because they know, like you know, where I would take it….

A Poem for Parents

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For all the parents whose child carries a calculator around, takes apart appliances, puts appliances back together, or always want to visit Radio Shack, this limerick is for you:

“This algorithm should prove it!” he stated,

Their son’s penchant for numbers inflated,

They could not change this course,

The parents lost to the force,

To an engineer’s life he was slated.

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