The Story of Tom

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This is a story of a man we will call “Tom”, because that is his name. Tom is a non-engineer. He was listening to a fascinating story I was telling about aggregates and the influence of asphalt properties dues to the physical dimension of the aggregates in the mix. I won’t retell it here, but it was amazing.

Tom, who is a non-engineer – did I make that clear? – decided that since it was of no interest to him, he would pretend to fall asleep during the story. This act did its job, taking the attention away from the rather interesting engineering story and focusing it on his sleeping antics. He thought it was boring because of ignorance on matters of flat and elongated particles in an asphalt mixture and, further more, didn’t seem to want to learn about them. Tom is not right in the head, I think.

A week later, Tom approached me to apologize. He said that he felt so bad that night that he laid there in bed and couldn’t fall asleep, racked with guilt, haunted by regret, for having made fun of me, and pretty much all of engineering. Then Tom repeated that he couldn’t fall asleep, but then, he remembered my story and fell right to sleep. I don’t think his regret was sincere.

But all this brings up the issue of non-engineers not understanding the engineer or what the engineer does and not caring to. What is odd about that is that these Toms of the world benefit greatly from engineer – drinking clean water, using electricity, driving a vehicle on our highway system, and enjoying all the wonderful fruits of the engineers’ labors, and yet, still, this is what the engineer gets from the Toms in his life.

It is a good thing engineers are public servants and not bent on revenge. We could figure a great way to get back at him. But we won’t.

All That Is Needed

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An engineer I know told me that he is concerned about his daughter. She is showing signs of becoming an engineer when she grows up. This one line of reasoning made it clear that she is a good candidate for engineering school.

She came home from school one day recently and asked,”Why do we need English? Math and science is all we really need.”

Out of the mouths of children can come such wisdom – and cause her parents not a little amount of concern.

Why English indeed?

Important Announcement!

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It’s Engineers Week.

It is time to honor engineers and all they do for society, and for those who were not aware of it, February 17-23 is the week to do this. If you haven’t taken time for it yet, you may wish to get the conversation going at the dinner table. Conversations could include, but are not limited to: your favorite engineers, the best engineering masterpieces, aspects of life that engineers make easier, and planning a thank you note card-writing campaign to engineers in your city or town.

However, I have not told you the best news about Engineers Week, 2013. It is the theme. This theme says it all. It is:

“Celebrate Awesome”

‘Nuff said, my friend. ‘Nuff said.

Who Gets Life?

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Here is a perfect example of why engineers generally don’t do theater, especially serious dramas.

I had the opportunity recently to hear a scene from Our Town. Emily, the main character speaks first and then the Stage Manager, sort of an involved narrator, responds. It goes like this:

Emily – “Does anybody ever realize life while they live it? Every, every minute?”

Stage Manager – “No. The saints and the poets. They do some.”
Thornton Wilder, Our Town


I have been through this play numerous times but it wasn’t until the other night, hearing these lines, that it struck me how anti-engineer, and wrong, this thinking is. All right, we will let the saints part of the line to stay uncontested. But poets? Do poets realize life by providing clean water for people? Do poets realize life by harnessing electricity to raise our standard of living? Do poets realize life when they develop, design, and build engines that allow us to move around this country through numerous modes of transportation? No. No. and No.

Engineers realize life as they provide things that enables the public to enjoy life. Engineers make life so efficient and liveable.

We should rewrite that line to:

Stage Manger – “Not many. The saints do some. Engineers – a lot!”

Engineers – The Fun Ones in Life

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Many people may have the mistaken impression that engineers are not fun people. This far from true.

Here are a few examples of quotes from college civil engineering websites that prove engineers are fun!

From the UCLA ASCE web page:  “It’s super fun mixing and patting concrete and you get to hang out with all the cool ASCE people.” This is in reference to joining them for a concrete canoe casting.

From the University of Alabama in Huntsville ASCE web page, they extol the pleasure in concrete canoes by stating, “… it remains a fun way of learning to explore the potentialities (and limitations) of concrete.”

And from the Case Western ASCE web site, students are quoted as saying things like: “…many ASCE activities are just plain fun.” and “the competitions are some of the most fun times you will have in college.” and “Being active in ASCE, the Concrete Canoe team, and the Steel Bridge team helped me learn time management, leadership skills, and especially the fun side of engineering.”

There you have it. Fun, fun, fun! Engineers are cool. Their competitions are fun. It’s all on the internet. It must be true.

And all this is only from civil engineering. Can you imagine the rootin’, tootin’ blast a mechanical engineer or, dare I say, electrical engineer would have in their association meetings?

Yet Another True WWTF Story

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Recently, I got talking to a non-engineer wife of an engineer that I know. He is involved in an engineering association and she frequently goes along with him to conferences and meetings in order to visit places, but also, I believe, to commiserate with other non-engineer wives.

She told me that she was not going with her husband on the next trip and that this had some fascinating repercussions. Because she was not there, another engineer who was bringing his wife along, a friend of the woman with whom I was talking, signed his wife up for the conference field trip. He wouldn’t have signed her up if other non-engineer wives were at the conference, but this engineer was a thoughtful type, not wanting his wife to be without friends and left out. The field trip was, you guessed it, to the local Waste Water Treatment Facility!

As for this wife who was forced, make that, given the opportunity to tour the WWTF, I am uncertain how long she will hold a grudge against the wife who did not go, but likely it will be at least as long as the memory of the sludge drying beds lingers.

The Far End of the Bell Curve


I changed the lights in the entry way “chandelier” yesterday, with the help of a couple of my kids. I climbed the ladder, they took the burned out bulbs and handed me the new ones. It was a team effort.

It made me think of our previous house, where we had a similar setup with a chandelier in the entry way that had 7 or 9 or so light bulbs and the only way to access them is with a ladder. But with that one, all the lights were working when we moved in, and then, over the next few years, we saw the bulbs burn out, one by one, until there was only one of those 40W bulbs still working. This was the bulb at the far end of the bell curve of light bulb longevity. As an engineer, I appreciate a good bell curve.

My family whined and said it was too dim and we should replace the bulbs. But I didn’t want to replace all but one bulb and then have to go up there and replace that one before the others need replacing again, and then… well, you get the idea. Plus, this was a great experiment. I convinced them (my interpretation) of the need to find how far out that bell curve went, seeing that we had a 99.999 percentile bulb up there. We waited. We waited 2 or 3 years past the penultimate light bulb failing for that last bulb to finally burn out. We were exploring the very, very far end of the bell curve, and it was great. A little dim. But great.

I should have documented it.

Santa? Let’s Do the Calculations…

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Yes. There is a Santa Claus if your name is Virginia. But I strongly suspect that Virginia did not grow up to be an engineer.

When children get to that awkward age of arguing about whether Santa is real, one can spot the future engineer. One child may say that she saw presents in her parents’ closet. Another might question whether reindeer could possibly fly. And yet another point out that there are millions of kids in the world and how is it possible that St. Nick could make it everywhere in one night.

The future engineer will pick up on this argument but then state, as he will many times in the future, “Let’s do the calculations.” He will then go on to show, upon pulling out paper, pencil, and calculator, that the concept of Santa as presented by the adult population is dubious at best.

“Think of it this way. Take just our state, with a population of around 5 million people. We will be conservative in all our calculations. Say, 20% of them, or 1 million are children of Santa-visiting age. Some of these may live in the same household. We will allow 3 per household, again, fairly conservative. That means that 333,333 households in our state alone need visited. Our state is all in one time zone, but even assuming that our state is the only land mass with population in our time zone, that would mean that Santa would have one hour to visit all these children-possessing homes after the last time zone and before the next one. Santa would have 60 minutes, or 3600 seconds to do this. He would have only 0.0108 seconds to visit each home. Inversely, he would have to visit 92.5925 homes per second. Even in a bad mood and placing 90% of the kids in homes on the naughty list, Santa would still need to visit 9.25925 homes per second. I just don’t see that happening without major contortions of the space-time continuum. And we are only actually talking about a fraction of the children in the time zone, let alone the entire world, not to mention the stamina one would need…”

Before he goes on to present and weight calculations, he’s likely sitting there by himself. But he will get used to that.

Merry Christmas, future engineers.

Strike Out

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When a person swings at three pitches and misses all of them, he strikes out. So it is with me and my children as engineers.

I had a conversation, a rather short one, with my youngest child recently. She is a freshman in high school. We were discussing possible career choices and I said something about engineering. After all, her stronger topics on standardized tests are in math and science. But, she said, and quite quickly, I might add, “No.” The insult to my engineering nature did not stop there. She went on to say she wanted to do something in…… I hesitate to say this….. in the arts!

She wants to be an artist of some sort. She might have well said she wanted to be an architect!

So, here I am. My first two children are already on paths that are taking them far away from engineering. And now, strike three.

I struck out.

I Should Have Known Then…

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I ended up becoming an engineer later in life. By later, I mean around 30, after getting a different degree and working at a couple different careers before going back to school for engineering. My mother used to say that she suggested engineering as a career for me when I was in high school. I don’t remember that.

What I do remember is that one time, I was on the bus going to a basketball game – I played throughout high school, it was a small school.  I took along a slide rule and the directions and was learning how the slide rule worked. I am not so old that slide rules were the norm in high school, and in fact very few people even then knew what they were for, let alone how to use them. So, I was teaching myself how to use the slide rule and that night, I did great on the court. I played extremely well. It was like my engineering self was alive, making shots off the backboard at the proper angle and calculating my way easily to a double digit point game.

I should have known then that I should go into engineering. The slide rule was pointing the way.

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