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Homage to the Engineers and the Science Dudes – by Justyna

13 Nov

To the great disappointment of my father I was very mediocre at mathematics. He totally gave up all expectations when it came to my physics knowledge, and knew better than to enquire about my chemistry classes. To me, chemistry was a death subject as I understood none of, resulting in my sheer loathing of it in its high school curriculum form. Despite lacking all understanding of the sciences I have nonetheless always held those who excelled at it in very high regard. The super people. Engineers have been a part of this super people group. To my soft arts-based mind, they are the hard magicians whose arse I will kiss because I happen to think that they are the more impressive profession than the lawyers, the writers, the designers, the gender studies academics. I hold them in awe because I do not understand their world at all.

I will always marvel at a bridge, I will exclaim in astonishment walking under an overpass at the weight of the concrete, I will totally get into the steel works industrial plant and wish I knew more about its functioning, and one does not have to convince me for long to get me into a technologies museum where I can look at model wind farms and old mining equipment.

I remember a conversation I had with my mate Neil when we were still both in high school. Neil asked me what I thought in general of the Lucas Heights reactor and the debate that was happening about it at the time. In an enthusiastic reply I most probably went off on some lefty-enviro-uneducated-dooms-day rant to which Neil listened to patiently without smirking (a hard task for him then I am sure). He then responded with hard scientific facts, gave me a low-down on nuclear power plant functioning elements and its tid bits, threw at me a whole bag-full of uranium information a person such as myself at that age would not have bothered to find out about and then waited seeing if I had been somewhat convinced by what he had said (which by far exceeded my understanding of the situation). I remember being impressed and realising that the sciencie people had their shit going on. Given that Neil is now working in Boston at the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, my case of the super people is proven. So much more impressive than being a corporate lawyer.

Even though I hated the binge drinking engineer students when I was twenty as much as the next arts/law student, I now wish I had befriended some. Dinner conversations would have been a whole lot more interesting with amazingly different view points presented. My father-in-law is a chemical engineer and is in charge of a ceramic tile factory, plant and quarry. And even though he drives me mad at times when we’re talking about politics or the economy, most times I sit there mesmerised when he talks about chemical processes, quarry structures and the latest cutting-edge industrial machine developments in the ceramic world coming out of Italy. There.


Engineers – by Karen

11 Nov

In Tabitha’s second last sentence she so neatly parodied the post I’d aimed to write that I don’t feel I can do it:

We so often take them for granted, and yet our society depends on them.

Ah, indeed, it would have been that trite.

When I was an evangelical Christian, I used to hang around with many an earnest engineer or engineering student. That must not be where I heard this engineer joke:

A bunch of engineers are sitting around at a party, discussing the nature of the God, and who designed women.

The mechanical engineer states that God must also be a mechanical engineer because “if you look at all the pulleys and levers that drive the body, how the tendons and muscles and bones all work together, well, it’s just amazing.”

The chemical engineer says that no, God has to be a chemical engineer because “if you look at all the chemical processes that drive the body, how the hormones and the brain and the glands and everything else all interact, well, it’s just astounding.”

The electrical engineer says that no, God has to be an electrical engineer because “if you look at the circuitry of the body, how the thousands upon millions of nerve cells transmit signals from one part to another, well, it boggles the mind.”

The civil engineer speaks up last of all and says, no, God is definitely a civil engineer, because “only a civil engineer would run a sewer through a playground. “

I’m rather interested in our disinterestedness in engineering. One of the most fascinating things I watched recently was a documentary about the construction of the Turning Torso tower in Malmo Sweden. The efforts of the narrator to make the topic and its protagonists interesting were truly heroic. In my youth I think I conceived of engineering as a kind of inevitability one can fall into if one doesn’t strive against one’s earthy nature. Truly less aspiration-worthy than owning cafes in Hanoi, my younger self would have thought. I do wonder why.

There’s an interesting scene in the movie Margin Call (which by the way, strikes me as the most realistic depiction of a major investment bank ever put on screen), in which the disillusioned banker bemoans the purposelessness of his lucrative career. He used to be an engineer. He then rants at length about the number of cars that crossed over the bridge he built, how much time they saved. It’s supposed to illustrate how great mathematical minds, in the past, did useful things – they were engineers. But it’s also a boring scene. We don’t care much about the numbers of cars and calculations of time saved.

When I do force myself to think about it, engineering could be an endlessly stimulating occupation, full of creative problem solving. And now that I’m older and have watched an entire movie about the construction of a tower in a Swedish industrial zone, I think that the world of engineers must be intrinsically interesting, if only the artsy types of the world could overcome their collective disdain and make movies about them, preferably starring Kevin Spacey and Stanley Tucci. Oh what the hell, why not Keanu too?

I am off to Australia tonight, so next week’s post will smell like gum leaves.

On engineers and chai tea – by Tabitha

9 Nov

We met Everywhere John when we first arrived in Hanoi. At the time his name was just John but he turned up so regularly at social engagements of such a wide variety that Nathan and I started calling him Everywhere John. As this name was factually accurate, it stuck, and this is what John is now called.

This was taken with Nathan's aged iPhone which has this lovely, permanent, vaseline on the lens effect. Makes Everywhere John look very angelic.

Everywhere John is an engineer of some description. Like Beth, I am confused about, and uninterested in the diversity of engineering types so I forget what kind he is. Maybe electrical? I just know it’s not bridges because I remember talking to him once about model bridges made of pasta and disappointingly he didn’t seem to know much more about this subject than me.

A few months ago, Everywhere John decided to open a café. That’s the kind of thing that an engineer can do in this land of opportunity called Vietnam, much like how I became a newspaper columnist, and Nathan became a crime-fighting superhero.

The café is called the Hanoi Social Club, and I’m sitting in it RIGHT NOW (whoah, meta). I’m here most days actually, sucking up their wifi, drinking a long black and eating roast pumpkin salad with lentils and ricotta, followed by flourless chocolate cake. They have many other things on the menu, but I’m stuck on these for now. Almost all of my social engagements take place here, and some of my work ones too.

Yuppies like me can now drink chai in Hanoi.

The café is like a little piece of Australia (Melbournians like to say “a little piece of Melbourne” because they don’t want to admit that other cities might have cafes too). They play The Lucksmiths, they have copies of Frankie and Dumbo Feather and the other day I even read the Review section of the Weekend Australian.

This is where I like to sit, because of the proximity to the power point. I sit here with my Mac, sipping my chai, and reading the SMH online. I CAN HEAR YOU SCOFFING FROM HERE.

I know better than to take any international guests of ours to the Hanoi Social Club. The one and only visitor I’ve taken there said “Hmm, there sure are a lot foreigners in here”, and there was judgement in them there italics. To me, this is like going to a Chinese restaurant in Sydney’s Chinatown and complaining, “Hmm, there sure are a lot of Chinese people in here”.

It’s okay for minority communities in Australia to maintain their own culture, foster their own communities, and continue eating their own food – Multiculturalism! Diversity! Vibrant Community! – yet we don’t like the reverse idea of Anglo expat communities doing the same overseas. There’s a distasteful colonial overtone to it.

I know I felt exactly the same way about expat enclaves before I moved to Vietnam. Even just the word “expat” seemed sleazy and unsavoury somehow. But now I’m here, I really do think that the development of any cultural or ethnic community is just the most natural thing in the world, no matter who’s in it, and that those communities contribute enormously to the broader society that houses them. Eating flourless chocolate cake at the Hanoi Social Club doesn’t lessen the “Vietnam-ness” of my life here; in fact, it makes it better, offering me enough comforting familiarity to better enjoy the rest of my very Hanoian day.

The staff at the Hanoi Social Club, who are all Vietnamese, are really great. Apparently Everywhere John has asked that during their shifts they work their way through the menu, trying every dish at least once. But the rest of the time, they go out of their way to make their own meals – Vietnamese meals – and eat those instead.

Note the distinct lack of chai tea on the staff table.

I think that is totally awesome. I know enough about Vietnamese eating habits to know they wouldn’t take too kindly to eating lentil pasta or bulgur salad every day, just like I don’t want to eat pho seven days a week.

The unofficial motto of the Hanoi Social Club is more like a directive: “Love Your Town”. And no, it’s not referring to Melbourne. This little patch of Australia, frequented by foreigners, really, truly does fuel my love of Hanoi.

And so ends this post about the important work that engineers do. We so often take them for granted, and yet our society depends on them. Nice work, Everywhere John.

What I know about engineers by Beth

7 Nov

I know fuck all about engineers actually. But an engineer did break my heart. Twice. Same engineer. Twice the heart breakage. From this I learnt that engineers are efficient.

I met Len Careburn (not his real name), when I was 24 through a a girl I worked with. He was studying some kind of engineering. From this I learnt that there are lots of kinds of engineering. I liked him instantly, and when I say ‘like’, I thought he was hot in a tall, dark, skinny, standoffish but vulnerable way. We went on a date to a crappy Italian restaurant in Newtown, had sex, somehow gave each other a nasty rash (true story), and next thing I knew we were an item.

Len liked to tell me that he wanted to be a hermit one day. And that he would like that day to be very soon. Engineers are very independent. I have no idea how I glossed over this in my mind, because I was convinced that we would get married and have babies together. There were good times, but I honestly can’t remember what form they took. We had nice breakfasts I think…

There were bad times, like when he crashed my car and then dumped me for two weeks.

This is where the generalisations about engineers cease. But the story is too good not to tell you how it ends up.

There were worse times, like when we got back together only to have him tell me that he’d been sleeping with a friend of his. So we broke up again but kept sleeping together for a bit. He posted me his diary (as you do) sometime after the break-up, and in it was a list of pros and cons written about me. I now wish I had kept it because it was pure gold, but all I can remember now is that a con was that I was a dud root, and a pro was that he really liked my parents. So many tears wasted over this guy! “Argh! Young Beth, something better is out there!” I yell back at myself. But to no avail.

There were even worse times, like when I hadn’t told my parents about why we’d broken up and they offered to have him live with them when all his flatmates moved out and he was completing his honours year. I’d moved out, so I had to schedule my time visiting my parents when he’d be out of the house. They were pretty bad times.

And then we got back together! (?!?!) It’s good for me to know that I have made many insane decisions. I hope it makes me a humbler parent, but I’m sure it won’t. Somewhere in there I went to visit Tabitha in Paris and my friend Mandy in Tokyo, and got into film school, and life started really going some great places for me. So I had the courage to dump him. Two years after we went to that crappy Italian restaurant. And he cried. But I didn’t.

He eventually followed his hermit dream and moved up to far north Queensland to work with steam engines (his first love), where he still lives I think, with two dogs and some cats.

The relationship, although painful a fair percentage of the time, taught me so much about myself and what I wanted from life and a life-partner. Len predicted that Jeff and I would get together, and with that he was right. I bare him some ill will in a very mild way, but don’t begrudge him staying in touch with my mother. Which he does. I’m grateful for that time; engineer and all.