Can You Give Us a Statement?

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The fate of the engineer is that there are few times that society, usually through the press, ask you to comment on things. This is all well and good, considering engineers do not like to make public comments, unless one is an engineer in sales, then you can’t stop him from talking. But, for the most part, engineers are quite content in the background, doing what they do best, serving our society by providing clean water, transportation, electricity, vehicles, etc.

The only time that engineers are typically engaged in public conversation is when something goes wrong. If a bridge falls down, levees fail, a pipeline leaks, there is a blackout, or there is any overwhelming natural disaster that people think engineers should have planned for and built countermeasures for, then, and only then is the engineer “asked” for an opinion. This is usually in the form of accusation, but we, as engineers, are used to that. We are here to serve. Engineers prefer to never be asked questions. Let us do the job. If a disaster has occurred, then engineers will analyze it, and suggest those making the monetary decisions how to make a re-occurrence highly unlikely. Along with that, let engineers provide the service they do.

It is not only disasters that this interest by the public causes people to comment on engineering things. I put it this way. Since I am in highway engineering, I have noticed that when I mention what I do to people, their response usually is something like: “Hey, what is wrong with that light on Main and 2nd Street?” or “Why is that sign and the lines on the road all messed up when you drive out of town on Locust Road?” and a lot of similar questions. I have yet to hear what an engineer would like to hear. Something that goes like this: “You are an engineer for our roads? Thank you. Oh, thank you, wonderful engineer, for providing such an advanced highway system for our society so that my family can travel all over this fine city, state and nation. Thank you, kind, serving engineer, for designing and building a transportation network that most countries can only dream of, for our society to use. You, engineer, should be admired and lauded.”

An engineer can have dreams, too.

Stats for the Diamond

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( has some wrap-up thoughts on baseball, now that the World Series just finished the season. Today’s post is technically about softball, if being specific.) has covered this in less detail before, in a Wednesday post. To be more specific, I will tell you about a conversation I had with a Non-Engineer (NE) wife of a an engineer.

I usually ask NE wives whether their husband is an engineer. Most all of them understand exactly what is meant by the question. Of course, he is an engineer because that is his occupation, but, more importantly, he is an engineer because that is who he is. The example this one particular wife gave me was her engineer-husbands keeping of stats for their daughter’s softball games. Lots of stats.

He kept her batting average, obviously, but also many of the stats that MLB announcers like to discuss – batting average vs. left and right-handed pitchers, batting average with people on base, and in scoring position, batting average for games starting at different times in the evening, and also all the various fielding stats. What made it all the more engineering-ish is that he kept it all on a spreadsheet and updated it for each game of the season. Actually, what made it even more of an engineer’s pursuit is that the kid was only 8. But, you know, the color chart covering his daughter’s batting percentage under differing cloud cover percents and temperatures was impressive.


Move Rock

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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 .)

Cavemen knew that to move a rock one could place a stick under the rock and a small rock under the stick somewhere and hang on the end of the stick. They knew the basic idea of a fulcrum. But for cavemen, sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.

Tork, caveman engineer, decided to help his clan out by running some calculations. That way they did not waste time trying to move a rock they couldn’t with the caveman-power they had, nor would they waste caveman-hours by getting a lot of cavemen together to move a rock that did not need the number of cavemen they collected to move the rock. Being an engineer, Tork loved efficiency.

Tork figured out the relationship with the length of the fulcrum, where the smaller rock was to be placed and the ratio of the weight of the rock to the weight needed on the other end. His calculations and “engineering” tables could be found on the wall of his cave.

The sad thing was that no one knew how much they weighed and Tork used his body’s weight as a standard and the variance was too great. So, when Tork calculated that they needed 6 cavemen to move a rock of a particular size, and they moved it with only 5 as they tried it while waiting for the 6th caveman to show up, then the cavemen society, fickle as they were, shunned Tork and his crazy ideas. What really got to Tork is that he realized his mistake and was never able to convince the other cavemen to retry his algorithm. Zonk and Klorn were heavyweights in the caveman community, so they not only messed up the experience, but also made sure that Tork’s crazy ideas about tables on walls (whatever that meant) would not be accepted by others. This alienated Tork to some extent, but, he was an engineer, so he got that. But seeing the inefficiency of his cavemen clan as they wasted valuable time moving rocks is what really frustrated him. Maybe, just maybe, one day, engineers will be accepted members of society. Or, at least, their ideas would be.

Engineers Can Be Fun on Road Trips, Too

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I have a “friend”, at least in the sense that he is on my friend list on Facebook. I will call him, “Eric”, since that is his name. He is a musician.

The other day, “Eric” posted on FB that he was in the car on a trip with his kids and they were playing DJ with the songs being played on the radio. What do you expect? Music is his life. And I am guessing that the kids were mildly amused.

However, I am here to report that engineers can be great fun for kids while riding in the car, too.  Just like people such as “Eric”, an engineer will use his skills to fascinate the children. Here are a few tried and true ways:

– After a stop to fill up,  the engineer can give the odometer readings for then and the previous stop and give the number of gallons of gas purchased and then ask, “Can someone be the first to calculate the gas mileage we are getting?” This can be made more challenging by giving the eager youngsters the price of gas per gallon and the total amount of the bill, instead of the number of gallons, and by taking away their calculators.

– While traveling through an area with a lot of bridges, the engineer can ask the kids to identify at least 5 different types of bridges!

– For varying speeds and direction of travel, have the children sketch out the vectors on a map, and break each down into it’s component vectors.

Yes, “Eric”, you may have music, but what happens when you are in the middle of nowhere without a good FM station to listen to? The engineer can bring along a few calculators or some graph paper or maybe just his love of equations, and the kids will have wonderful memories for years in the future of road trips with the family.

Engineers ARE Left-brained

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A few years ago I worked in an office where one of the people that worked there had some creative side to her, singing or playing an instrument or something. Since I also have a part of me that some consider to be somewhat creative – although I am an engineer and very much of an engineer and think like an engineer – my coworker and I would talk at times about our creative interests. This led to what I will only call – the email.

She sent me an email about something dealing with work, and then at the end of it, she made mention that it was good to have another right-brained person in the office to discuss things that were not so much of a technical nature. What? Me? Right-brained?

I went home that Friday, told my wife about this insult my coworker leveled on me, and spent the weekend sullen and vexed. I went in on Monday and composed an email back stating that she was obviously misreading my mental state. Speaking of which, I wrote it my emai that I had to talk about this “right-brained” comment at length with my wife, and, possibly embellishing a little, discussed the depths of depression and intensity of professional counseling I endured over the weekend due to this comment.

Just as I was about to hit Send, the left side of my brain caught the problem, analyzing it thoroughly and keeping me from actually sending the email. Why? Because if I did send an email that complained and whined about a little comment and the counseling is caused, then that would only prove her point that I was right-brained.

I deleted the email. For what it is worth, I felt better doing that.

Engineers are left-brained. They think logically, and with reason and pragmatism. And that is needed when insulted by careless coworkers.

METRIC WEEK – Signature Block for an Engineer

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This week on, we will pull together in one week some of the posts that were written to inform and to promote the metric system, an incredibly obviously superior system of measurement to the one we here in the United States use.

Hoping you all aren’t like my friend, John, who thinks I have a “problem” with being pro-metric, when clearly, it is the “pro-English” with the problem…

Signature blocks say something about the person. Many people put inspiring quotes after their names on e-mails. Some make up quotes themselves. Some of these add-ons may be educational, informative, or something meaningful the person would like the reader of the e-mail to remember.

For an engineer, this may also be true. I ran across a great signature block from an engineer recently:

43,560 square feet in an acre
5280 feet in a mile
16 ounces in a pound
128 ounces in a gallon

23 confused kids in a class

What could be simpler?

It was great! The engineer promoting the metric system in an educational, informative, and inspiring way.

The Height of a Child

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To measure the height of a child as he or she grows, the engineer will make sure it is accurate. That is his job.

This may involve some whining from the child and a few smart comments from his wife, but to get a measure in which one can be confident takes a little work. This means don’t rely on those doctor office contraptions. I have never trusted them. The nurse has the kid stand up on them, may tell them to stand up straight, may not, and then flops this metal arm on their head that may or may not be horizontal. Engineers do not appreciate flippant approaches to measurement.

The way to do this correctly is to get a straightedge that is also a level, the kind with the bubble in the glass cylinder. Have the kid stand straight as they can against a wall and place the level on their head, making sure it is, well, level. But how straight the kid stands and where the level hits on their uneven heads, along with possibly a few other variables, will not assure this to be an accurate measurement. So, here is the key. Take the measurement numerous times. I will not tell you how many, but it is more than two. Have the kid step away from the wall, then back against it, and place the level on his or her head and make a mark – and do this many, many times. You will then see that the field of measurement, particularly when a variable like a child is involved, is not an exact science. But at least with a number of measurements, you will see that their may be a few outliers, but many of the marks will be bunched together very closely and the average of those can be taken as the best measurement of the child’s height.

By the eighth time or so, the child may complain about stepping away and standing up again. Remind them that is only done once a year, or if you really like tracking height progression, once every month, and also remind them of the confidence he or she can have in “knowing” how tall you are (in English and metric units), rather than a sloppy, “Yeah, I’m about 4 feet 8 inches that friends who rely on that doctor office measurement can only say.

I think I’ve proved my point here.

The Interview

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I am not changing jobs, or even considering it. But I had an interview the other day.

I was interviewed by a high school kid who was taking a class where he was given the assignment of interviewing an engineer in order to find out what engineering was all about. This was to give the students some ideas about what areas of engineering exist and whether they may want to go into engineering themselves.

I wish to report that I did not disappoint the engineering community. I regaled him with stories of engineering – standards, spreadsheets, design issues, and statistics. Anyone would have been in awe.

This student had the wonderful opportunity that few school kids get, but many should experience, that of sitting down with an engineer and hearing about the wonderful world of engineering. All students should be able to learn that bridges are beautiful, electrical circuitry is exciting, HVAC systems are cool, and wastewater treatment plants simply rock.

He left with an amazed look in his eyes. Or it could possibly have been a disbelieving-crazed-bored look in his eyes. I can never tell those two apart.

I guess we will see how successful I was as a spokesperson for engineers in a year or so when it is time for him to apply for college. Then we will see if he puts in his application to fine engineering school, or some place that’s all fru-fru and artsy.

I can’t wait.

Golden Gate Bridge, and Beyond


A month or so ago, I mentioned that I not only visited the Golden Gate Bridge, I also heard from an engineer I met that his favorite toy as a kid was a model of that bridge.

Another story from this engineer was that when he was a child, he and his brother would talk their dad into visiting really cool sites on vacations. But, remember, this kid’s favorite toy was a model of a bridge. So, on their vacations, they planned around stops to power plants, dams, landmark bridges, and maybe even a really neat wastewater treatment facility.

Some kids would love to plan their vacations so they could visit zoos, circuses, amusement parks, or some other temporarily fun-filled adventure. But a future engineer understands that a good vacation is one where the fun lasts for a lifetime, or at least a career.

If you have a child with engineering leanings, I will share this fact with you. Factory tours and visits to water treatment facilities are fascinating.

Torkitus Walks Around Rome

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This week, we will introduce another engineer from the past: Torkitus, Roman Engineer. Torkitus lived in the first century BC, when the Roman Empire was forming out of the Roman Republic.

As Torkitus walked around Rome, he discovered many people with difficulties that could be figured out if only he had his abacus. One person needed to calculate the fastest way to Carthage or Smyrna. Another needed to figure out how much water to purchase for his entire household for the week. And another person needed help on the water/cement ratio of the concrete he was installing for his private road. (Concrete roads were all the rage.)

Torkitus solved all their problems by first solving his. He created a smaller version of the abacus and then, as engineers have a tendency to do, sewed a piece of cloth on the chest area of his tunic, and placed the abacus in it with a piece of thin copper sheeting in front to keep the abacus from harm from the hits the soldiers would give him as they walked by. In other words, Torkitus created his own pocket protector.

Torkitus was considered a geek. But he was a geek who was much in demand. So goes the engineer throughout history.

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