Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Digital Watches

Every once in a while, when pop culture and cubicle culture intersect, a creation emerges that withstands the test of time like a liberal arts major in calculus—today's stuff: the digital watch.

With synthesizer music all the rage and nifty 4-bit effects plastering cable TV in the novelty decade that was the 80s, the rise of the digital watch was inevitable. Four modes, ten-millisecond accuracy, and an initially-hefty price tag—what’s not to like?

As the fad ticked its way out for pop culture, technology stepped up with even greater badge of geekiness, but the technically-challenged wouldn’t bite; they had traded their neon tees and synthesizers for flannel and old Fenders.

Always practical and oblivious to the change, engineers kept sporting this functional fashion 'till this very day. But now’s no time to trade in the quartz and LCD for the mechanical engineers’ version; if hipsters could bring back thick-rimmed Apollo-13-style glasses, the digital watch might be next.

Just hope they don’t kill the PDA in the process.

Photo by midnightcomm

Monday, December 15, 2008


This post has been a long time coming, but assorted events in (how many engineers does it take to determine the model number of an espresso machine?) and out (the Bay Area—'nuf said) of the office made it finally seem like an appropriate time for the post.

Rock stars have marijuana, athletes have steroids, and engineers have caffeine, only this is a performance-enhancing drug with a killer delivery system: coffee.

The on-demand world requires on-demand engineers driven by the demands of managers; even with typical hours of 10 'til whenever, the scheduling requirements of Corporate America just aren't satisfied by engineers' "when it's done" attitude. Stepping in to offer some encouragement that management is too busy to dispense is the break room coffee maker. This marvel of engineering is the lifeline of the office, providing waking hours to a workforce that would otherwise be somewhere between inattentive and dormant.

Engineering lightweights, claiming to not like the taste or breaking their dependency often opt for coffee's weaker—and barely imbibable—cousin, tea, while blasphemers drink the office enemy, decaf. Then there are the addicts: the espresso drinkers. With brewing rituals rivaled only by serious drug users, this group of engineers clearly has a problem, but who can argue with results?

Coffee: the fuel of Silicon Valley, RTP, and the server room of every company.

Image by: emdot

Monday, December 8, 2008


Never watch an action movie with engineers.  They love to explain why an explosion wouldn't really be that big or that computers just can't do magical image processing—always during the action sequence—and ask about key plot elements they missed during said explanations.  But sci-fi is different.  For some reason, in this one genre, engineers are willing to overlook the sounds in space and technobabble in their quest for entertainment.

It's never about the plot or the writing.  Debates over the superiority of favorite franchisees are never over the that, they're over the pseudo-technical filler in each.  It doesn't matter than Star Wars was rethemed children's story with religious overtones intended to sell merchandise, or that Star Trek was a "wagon train to the stars" used to discuss current political issues in analogous circumstances, that just fills up the space between robots, energy shields, and cool guns.  When engineers watch science fiction, they don't just suspend their disbelief and imagine, they imagine they're looking at something they helped create.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008


What loves to sleep, works at night, and eats the same thing every day?  It's not just our friends the engineers, it's their pet cats.

Their popularity among the pocket protector crowd isn't just because engineers identify with them; what engineers love about cats is how practical of a pet they are, requiring only food, water, and a relatively clean litterbox, and no "love," "time," "walks," or "affection."  Throw in their vocal feedback system, and they're easier to care for than a houseplant.

But combine cats with another love of engineers, the internet, and it's a thing of beauty.  After seeing an engineer's guide to cats (below) on YouTube and a caption—in characteristically poor English—accompanying a picture of a cat on icanhascheesburger, one can only hope that the architects of the internet knew they were laying the foundation for a medium designed to facilitate the exchange of feline-based comedy.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Ted Stevens

It seems Alaska senator Ted Stevens's tube might be coming to an end. Ballot counts are showing that the incumbent was defeated by a margin large enough (1%) that anyone with a background in math would declare the election over. So in memory of his terms as a senator, here is Ted Stevens's series of tubes.

Why geeks turned the most accurate part of his diatribe into their battle cry against the technologically-neophytic senator, I don't know; I'd call it a web of tubes, but from a practitioner of the legal arts who wasn't versed in graph theory, close enough. There are plenty of other gems he spewed—"personal Internet" (what is this, an HP ad featuring alleged insider trader Mark Cuban?), "Internet was sent" (only if you're Google)—but engineers are left to troll the internet and letting pedantry ruin hateboys' fun. Sure, engineers hate his ignorance, but what's better than a tech punchline waiting to happen?

Photo by wheresmysocks

Monday, November 17, 2008


Engineers hate sports.  They hate them so much that company off-sites are planned to avoid mandatory activities requiring more physical exertion than a trip to the break room.   This hatred has been with most engineers for most of their lives, probably due to a combination of high school and a practical lack of gross motor skills.

But then there's Foosball.  Not only does it exclusively use engineers' college-hardened fine motor skills, it also attracts coworkers and classmates who actually enjoy sports, namely Europeans and Central/South Americans who grew up in cultures devoted to its field-based cousin.  It's this black and white cookie of the sports world that brings engineers and athletes together as equals in competition.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Facial hair

Watching the Nova documentary Battle of the X-Planes with my mom and aerospace-engineer brother, we noticed a fashion sported by a solid 50% of the Palmdale CAD jockeys: the mustache (which gives a male-to-female ratio of roughly 15:1, but that was expected).

Part-time engineer Leonardo da Vinci, physicist Albert Einstein, communist and Linux fanboy Richard "Che" Stallman, and libertarian gun-nut Eric Raymond all have various forms of facial hair, and why not?  It saves time, prevents nicks and razor burn, and even enhances engineers' natural female-repellent abilities.

For those not ready to go all the way, there's the hipster beard—stubble—5-o'clock shadow for the olds.  It's not really something real engineers opt for, instead finding its way onto poseurs like Justin "I'm a Mac" Long and Kevin Rose.

Kevin Rose photo by MR "(O)"

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Civics and Corollas

Visit the parking lot of any company that employees engineers and you're bound to run across swaths of these cars and their mid-sized siblingsall stockparked between Beamers and Porsches belonging to managers (and lucky engineers) compensating for shortcomings.

What engineers like about Honda and Toyota's compacts isn't something that Detroit can superficially duplicate; it's much deeper than that, rooted in Japanese corporate culture's respect for workers and good engineering.  These are companies that think like engineers: practically; they value quality, efficiency, and price, believing that, in the end, consumers will choose a good product over a multi-generation marketing campaign.

At the end of the day, we're all stuck in traffic, only engineers pay 4 times less than their upperlings for the privilege of going home at 10 mph.

Photos by Ian Muttoo and nnecpa

Thursday, November 6, 2008


On the surface, what engineers love about Ikea might just be from their neotenous world where the distinction between college life and corporate life is subtle (at best), but there's more to it than that. Ikea is a company known for its obsession with efficiency. Its utilitarian, almost dystopian, styled furniture and decor always value function over form, all while being cleverly marketed as "European." Even the stores themselves are a triumph of industrial (imaginary) engineering, realizing the true meaning of "big box retailer" while turning what other stores might label a "shopping experience" into an meandering two-floor assembly line.

But that doesn't mean the merchandise is assembled, and there's nothing—save for every entry on this blog—engineers like more than "assembly required," instructions optional—the very essence of engineering.

Photo by Effin See

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

You might be an engineer if...

  • ...you hear "pie" and think π.
  • ...showing up to work at 10:00 is "early."
  • ...you use Firefox.
  • ...you still use IRC.
  • ...getting your mail counts as "going out."
Photo by laihiu

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Greek characters

No, not anyone from My Big Fat Greek Wedding or Uncle Jesse from Full House, I'm talking about glyphs (or "letters," for the linguistically challenged). Engineers love using symbols that normal people can't understand, and not because Greek characters make engineers feel smarter than everyone else; Greek characters remind engineers that they are smarter than everyone else—same with lawyers and Latin legal terms.

Learning new characters is no small task for Engineers. Not only does it strain their already poor language skills, they have to remember that when a foreign professor says "fee," he might mean φ, but this is just the price of superiority.

If confronted by an engineer spewing Greek characters like blather from a drunk, mention archaic English letters like Þ and Æ. Either his head will explode out of confusion or he'll ignore you—a win-win in my book.

Photo by shonk

Friday, October 31, 2008

Sci-Fi Costumes

Happy Halloween!

Engineers are mixed about Halloween. On one hand, it's an excuse for girls to wear less than usual, but on the other, it's a day when engineers have to put effort—even more than with a suit—into what they wear.

Enter Sci-Fi costumes.
They range from simple to intricate, all dependant on the engineer's dedication. If it's costume-required event, don't expect much effort; a quick trip to the costume shop (or the closet in the case of engineers whose grasp on reality is practically fuzzy logic) and the obligation's met. If the costume's optional (this basically means a convention), engineers geek-out and make some amazing creations, ensembles so good they look like they belong in a a Sci-Fi show normal people haven't seen.

Which brings us to common costumes. The staple costumes are from Star Trek and Star Wars. Favorite choices are Star Trek crewmembers, Star Wars Storm Troopers, Darth Vader (a bold choice), and random Jedi (not to be confused with Buddy Christ). Thankfully, these common costumes are some of the most recognizible to the treating public, but there are many more series that only viewers of the SciFi channel know.

If you encounter a vaguely sci-fi character you don't recognize, stay calm. Don't guess and don't comment; just smile and nod.

Storm Trooper photo by oli
Star Trek Engineer photo by Simon Zirkunow

Friday, October 24, 2008


No one better epitomizes the engineer than one man: Woz.  With a list of geek cred longer than his waistline, it's no wonder that engineers love the guy (and the ones that don't are just jealous).  He lives the engineer's dream, learning much on his own, starting at the bottom of a large tech company where his talent got somehow noticed, turned this talent into his own company, and went on to pursue random interests, from music festivals to dating D-list celebrites to Segway Polo.

And he lives the engineer heartbreak: three failed marriages, a former business partner, and an airplane crash, all with the sad backstory of designing computers in hopes of "finding ways to be cool"--engineering himself into the Mac Guy.

Engineers may be short on heroes, but this larger-than-life yet down-to-earth character more than makes up for it.

Photo by RobotSkirts

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Simpsons

Between pop culture and geek culture lies a favorite sitcom of the last two decades: The Simpsons.  The mainstream appeal is obvious--hyperbolic characters in equally hyperbolic situations wrapped up in 22-minute packages--but between the doughnuts and fart jokes, the show is loaded with intellectual gems that slip past the average American like calculus by a redneck.

Gems like a "disproof" of Fermat's Last Theorem, where show writers wrote a computer program just to create near-disproofs that only work on handheld calculators, Homer's first day in a nuclear physics class, and even an entire episode devoted to girls and math, Girls Just Want to Have Sums, all make nerds feel right at home.

But mostly, engineers like The Simpsons because they see themselves and people they know in the characters.  Homer in their lazy coworker, Apu in the guy they're losing their jobs to, and themselves as a combination Lisa, Comic Book Guy, and (mostly) Professor Frink, all work to make engineers feel represented in a medium that has a long history of paying more attention to doctors, lawyers, politicians, forensic investigators, writers, entertainers, and, as of late, "real" people than to the camera-shy engineer.

Have a favorite nerdy reference you'd like to share?  Leave a comment!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Outline format

Engineers hate writing.  Programmers like to say that the code, itself, should be all anyone needs to figure out how it works, but managers don't buy this.  They insist that engineers document what they're doing, usually under the guise of ISO 9000.

For the times when engineers have to write, they write in ways that reflect how they think and how they do their jobs--step-by-step and in hierarchical trees. These are things engineers see every day, and they understand them.  

Enter "outlines."  The biggest selling point of outlines is enforced organization. With outlines, it's clear how two topics relate to each other and how relevant the topic is. Not only that, it's easy to search an outline and learn how that point fits in the big picture or every detail about that point.

They're fast, accurate, get the job done, and don't requite complete sentences; this is what engineering is all about.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Air shows

In honor of Fleet Week in San Francisco (because what other part of the country has that many engineers?), I give you air shows.

Engineers are used to working in the background--the leeter the engineer, the less visible.  They can't explain what they do to normal people, show off videos of their work, or even describe what they do on a business card.  Air shows, however, let engineers feel like roadies for a band that everyone--moms, grandparents (especially the grandpa that served in WWII), kiddies--loves.  Where else can engineers who create plastics, optimize aerodynamics, program C, or design microcontrollers point their pale arms toward the sky and say "I helped build that!"

So at Stuff Engineers Like, we join former engineer and nerd anti hero Paul Boutin in saying "Yeeeeeeeeeah baby YES WE CAN!!"

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Friday Night Codefest

Google claims that Mark Twain advised "Never put off until tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow," which brings us to today's stuff that engineers like: the Friday night codefest.

The Codefest is a time-honored semi-semesterly tradition where lack of sleep, delivered food, and a deadline combine to create what is generously labeled "the project." Architectures, flow charts, and APIs be damned, this is about results and partial credit.

Half of procrastination is borne out of necessity; managers, professors, and TAs never quite know what they want, always changing their minds at the last minute, but the other half is just the modus operandi of engineers who knew they'd have
  1. [almost] nothing better to do and
  2. an upcoming deadline
not to mention, it doubles as an excuse for not going out with socially-active acquaintances.