All around us

I think about it a lot, but probably most people don’t.  It is all around us, it permeates our existence, it frustrates us, injures us, and kills us.  It is an invisible something that is almost absolutely inescapable, relentless, and uncaring.  It’s in the back of every engineer’s mind and always part of his equations, but it is so ubiquitous that it is rarely noticed or given its fair due.

Myself, and a few others—a small percentage of all the engineers out there—think about it all the time.


Not that we delve into the cause of it—Higg’s boson, dark energy, dark matter, or what have you—but rather the everyday impact of gravity, weight, and mass on engineering projects.  And what constantly amazes me is why it is always an afterthought for many engineers in many fields.  Every building, car, boat, plane, satellite, rocket, kite, chair, train, bus, elevator, and etcetera must be designed for weight or mass limitations, and managing the weight or mass properties properly helps ensure a successful design while managing it poorly, or not at all, often leads to complete failure.  The most common examples are with aircraft which are so sensitive to weight and centers of gravity, though there are many others in other areas:

  • The hovercraft that was too heavy to lift off the ground.
  • The plane that crashed because of too much aft weight.
  • The balcony that collapses from overcrowding.
  • The ferry that capsizes when passengers crowd to one side.
  • The building that collapses while under construction from insufficient temporary braces for the weight.
  • The airliner that can’t take the design load because it was built too heavy.
  • The car that can’t meet its mileage goal because it is too heavy.

The list goes on and on, with weight management, or lack of same, at the center of the problem.  Yet if I introduce myself as a weights engineer I usually get a, “what’s that?”.  You’re probably saying that right now.  And yet, just like gravity, a weights engineer touches every part of an engineering project, from start to finish.  Hers may be the ultimate  systems engineering discipline, and certainly the least known.  And, in many cases, it can be one of the most important.  Both to life and limb, and to cost.

And we still don’t get no respect.  I can live with that, but when there is no recognition at all is when I get frustrated.  With most of the Western world obsessed with their personal weight, how many times do they ask about the weight of the car they are buying, or if their overloaded suitcase will affect the plane they are boarding, or if the snow load on that building is anything to be concerned with, or if that ladder can support them?  Does anybody ever think that if they unloaded their trunk they would get better gas mileage?   Or does the engineer ever think that optimizing their design for weight would save money and increase safety?  Rarely, I think.

What’s my point?  Well, I guess just this:  Weight is worth thinking about.  Or maybe it is better said that not thinking about weight can be dangerous and costly.

What do you think?  Drop a comment below.  And if you’re interested in this topic, visit for more information.

Published in: on January 19, 2010 at 5:00 pm  Leave a Comment  

Team Training

Three days of team training and I still haven’t seen anything new. So do they inflict this BS on us just to check off that box? or do they just not know that they are just rehashing old concepts?

I don’t know, but it can be insufferable for the engineer to sit in such a class and deal with the “softer” side of his job. How to deal with this? I’m not sure, but he’s what I do:

Be a skeptic, even a cynic sometimes, but as Wil Wheaton says, don’t be a dick about it. Be that voice of reason in the muck of corporate fadness, but always also provide alternatives, solutions, and constructive criticism. This way you can participate in a way that gets your message across but doesn’t mark you as a malcontent or a dick.

At least that is the theory. I’ll let you know if it works this time.

Published in: on December 1, 2009 at 7:45 pm  Leave a Comment  

Scale and Smart Birds

This is a little off-topic, but take a look at this link: A visual way to understand scale and the size of small things without having to use analogies.


Since I’m already off topic, here is another thing that I came upon that is quite amazing:   I had heard about Caledonia crows before, where they use the road and cars to crack nuts, but these rooks are creepy smart.  Tool-using and a bit of Archimedes in there as well.

Published in: on October 28, 2009 at 5:03 pm  Leave a Comment  

Good and Bad Bureaucracy

When working for the very large corporation, or the government, you are going to run up against that perenial resistor of progress, bureaucracy.

The ungainly and seemingly arbitrary rules and roadblocks that are thrown at us are almost uniformly despised by engineers who, for the most part, just want to do engineering and not be bothered with inanities. But I think there is a place for bureaucracy. I think the trick is following the good B and while ignoring (as much as your organization will let you) the bad B.

The good B are in the forms and processes that set and maintain criteria, standards, databases, and strict engineering processes and methods. These aren’t out there just because somebody was bored one day and decided to develop a form to unleash on the workers. These things that make up the good B are there to preserve good engineering processes and to enforce safety.

I suppose using the perjoritive like bureaucracy isn’t quite right here, but I have to suppose that some of our good B could be another person’s bad B. In any case, I think there is some good in some bureacracy.

What do you think? How do you deal with bad B and how do you make your own good B as efficient as possible?

Published in: on September 25, 2009 at 2:13 pm  Leave a Comment  

Product Review: HP-35S


After a number of years of disappointing the almost rabid fans of the HP-15C and the HP-41 calculators, it seems as though HP may either be listening to the fans or at least coming to their senses. Exhibit A is the new HP-35S which seems to have come out for the 35th anniversary of the original HP-35 (shown on right) which was their first pocket calculator and the world’s first scientific pocket calculator. Whatever the reason, I think HP has produced a fine product.

As good as the 15C? Nope, ‘fraid not.  The only hope of that would be a remanufacture of that classic. Considering the amount even a beat up one can fetch on e-bay, HP could probably make a fortune if they did resume production (sign this petition if you agree). By the way, there are two great iPhone/iPod touch applications that emulate the 41 and the 11c.

Not perfect, no, but the 35s is still a great calculator with many of the features we love about HP calculators.  First, of course is that it is RPN. Yes, there is an algebraic mode too, but I’ve never bothered to try that out. The RPN works as well as ever – I really don’t understand why anybody would want any other method.

The keyboard is almost as good as the old calculators but you can feel the difference with these new, Chinese pads. decent clicks and feedback, but just not as solid as the old ones. The calculator has all the functions you’d need, though there are some changes in placement that have created some complaints. Notable of these is the STO button which requires a shift button first. No big deal, to me, but the layout could be improved a little. Welcome new functions include conversions and a ready library of physical constants. Very handy.

The form and look of the calculator is somewhat retro but I think it is a handsome look and though it is a little big for a shirt pocket (it still fits); it fits the hand nicely. Sitting on the desk, however, creates a bit of glare in the display. Nothing too drastic, but it can be annoying under some soul-sucking office fluorescent lighting. The display is two-line which makes it a bit easier to remember what’s in the stack.

Actually, one of the common complaints about the case is that the sides aren’t quite straight. I guess people used to use the old cases as impromptu straight edges out in the field. I, for one, don’t mind the slight curve.

I can’t really comment on the programmability of the thing, but from other reviews it seems adequate, with both label and line number addressing (a problem with the 33s which only had the 26 labels to work with).

All in all, I think this is a really good attempt by HP to get back to the proper roots of their legendary calculator line. I just wonder how much longer RPN calculators will be around at all. For that reason I’m going to pick up another 35s as a spare, and keep looking for a cheap 15c.

See more reviews and pick one up (around $50 US) at (link).

Published in: on September 23, 2009 at 3:44 pm  Comments (11)  

The push-button age

The push button age. Yeah, I know that I’m going to sound like a grumpy old man here — back in the good old days when we only had slide rules made of stone… — but bear with me for a minute.

There is nothing wrong with the advanced tools we use nowadays — I’m mainly talking about computers here — but more how they’re used. The other day I asked one of the young engineers to estimate some weights and center of gravities from some sketches. Note I said sketches, not drawings. Well, what he came back with were some hand calcs (on engineering paper, no less) with the results. Weights and centers to eight, count them, eight decimal places. When asked about this, the engineer said that he had done the margin Excel and just copied the results to the paper. After giving him some grief he agreed that it was a little ridiculous.

Was it that important in this case? Not really, but it shows that he wasn’t thinking like an engineer. We shouldn’t make it look like our calculations are precise when the information we get isn’t. The precision we show should reflect the fidelity of the underlying information as well as the calculation process.

I can’t blame Excel here, but the user who blindly took the numbers given by the computer without thinking about what the numbers mean. We’ve run into numerous occasions where reports have numbers that don’t meet the sanity test but were never caught because they were in nice neat computer printouts. I think the more we use these tools, the more likely we will lose the ability to perform these vital sanity checks or even understand why we need these checks.

What do you think?

Published in: on May 19, 2009 at 5:28 pm  Leave a Comment