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.

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.

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