five for fightin’, another another another followup

ted | junk | Friday, April 13th, 2007

From Firebase Igloo, a transmission was barely audible over the background static:

1) You are being sent on an engineering job at a very remote and isolated location. You are unsure of the nature of the work once you arrive, but you will need to build something – maybe a building, maybe a machine. There will be ample raw material at the jobsite, but no tools. You will access to the internet via satellite.
What are the five tools you bring?

Since I will apparently have electricity for internet access I infer I will also have it for running tools. I also surmise since it may be a building or machine, it would be wise to have the capability to cut and join metals & natural composites. I also believe you want to know what major tools I would bring and not individual screwdrivers or six penny nails.


One – Combination mill/drill/lathe, a big one. You can cut, drill, tap, turn & mill metal, plastic & wood on one of these. Not the most elegant or efficient tool but an awfully useful one.

Two & Three – Triple process arc welder and air compressor. Not only useful for stick, arc & TIG welding, but the air compressor lets you use it as an air arc rig to quickly cut through massive steel beams with ease. The air compressor is useful for all sorts of weird tasks, not the least of which is powering a die grinder to deburr parts or clean up welds.

Four – Calibrated tape measures. Give me three of them and I can draw most any angle or geometric shape.

Five – a big fat black Sharpie. Doublecheck your trig on the side of a 2×4, mark places to drill and tap, sketch a layout on a sheet of rusty carbon steel. Not as accurate as a scribing line but no need for messy bluing and more useful on more surfaces.

With these five, I believe I could probably manufacture any other tools necessary. Probably.

2) Tough shit, I am going to ask you a history question. As an engineer, how did the development of the American rail network after the Civil War contribute to American science and industry.

I think you have a typo. I believe you meant to type, “War of Northern Aggression” instead of “Civil War”. Simply put, without the ability to move machinery over long distances relatively easily (compared to using a horse & buggy), industry would have been concentrated only at sites that had direct dock access to steam ships. The entire right, left & central coasts would be jam-packed with industry and there would be nothing in the center of the country. I also suspect the waterways would have turned into instant superfund sites should that have happened.

As a barely-related aside, when rail equipment began to be standardized after the WNA, rail tracks had to be put to the same gauge. Most tracks in the northeast were roughly at our current standard gauge of 4′ 8-1/2″ (1435 mm). Most tracks in the glorious south were at roughly 5′ (1524 mm). Aside from a few spurious outliers anywhere from 4 – 6′ gauge, these two were the norm. After huge amounts of arguing and debate, the entirety of the Southern railroads were switched to the new gauge over the course of 2 days, starting 1886-May-31. Tens of thousands of workers pulled up the westmost rail of all broad gauge tracks, moved it three inches east and respiked it. Why change the South? Other than being the nation’s whipping boy, it is easier to move rails in on their ties than to move them out, potentially past the end of the tie.

However, should the entire nation have adopted the broad gauge of the South or even a wider gauge, it would allow for much wider rail cars meaning more cargo in each car, less tipping of the center of gravity if one rail dips a fixed amount and generally all around better for freight transit.

3) What are the techniques you use to deal with the stupidity of non-engineers?

Never go into detail. If someone doesn’t grasp how gears work they damn sure won’t understand how the involute shape of gear teeth actually allows for force to be transmitted tangent to the base circles of both gears at the very same time and permit this to happen even with varying degrees of shaft misalignment.

Draw lots of pictures. I’ve used a piece of soapstone on the side of a railcar, a sharpie on a placemat, ball-point pen on a bar napkin and a my finger in the dirt to make crude illustrations to help get my point across.

If you’re talking about a concept or bit of equipment someone isn’t familiar with, always have a sample to show them. I once had a girlfriend who had her car tuned up before a long trip and it didn’t fix her grinding brake noises. I quickly suggested they did not machine her brake rotors. When asked what that was, I simply took her out to her car, showed her the parts I was talking about and explained why brake rotors must be flat. Apparently it impressed the hell out of both her and her Mom that I would not only explain things such that two very non-technical folks could understand it, but I would show her exactly what I was talking about.

She uncerimoniously dumped me a few months later. Life is hard.
Suffering through college to get an engineering degree is harder.

4) What are the techniques you use to stand living with all those Yankees? Ok, Chicagoans aren’t really dyed in the wool Yankees, but it is very cold there and they don’t know how to cook. Thoughts?

The very fact they have enriched white hominy on shelves here and bother to call it grits only galls me more, but the ample food and beer helps temper my rage. They do know how to cook up here, just not the right things – I have to bring up my own grits from my native South. I can get some excellent Greek, Korean, Indian, vegetarian or authentic South American food less than 10 miles from my house. Having loads of other choices helps to make up for lack of staples.

I try not to laugh at their silly sayings. Up here they call soda “pop”. Sweet fizzy drinks are all collectively referred to as “coke”, like god hisself intended!

5) Is religion incompatible with the world view of a thinking person, well grounded in the natural sciences? Is the continued position of cultural primacy for religion a threat to our contemporary technologically advanced society, or is it beneficial?

The view that religion and natural science being mutually exclusive is an awfully narrow-minded view of either. For an example that has been beaten to death a thousand times, I can easily see how Christian creation mythologies fit in quite nicely with the Big Bang Theory.

My major beef is with folks what think the Bible dropped from the heavens, leather-bound with gold inset lettering on the cover. It was written by Man and heavily edited by folks that, well, probably had an ulterior agenda.

Back to my example, I can see it right up to the part where he creates woman out of man part. I don’t know any man that would let somebody take a rib from him.

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