The Light Side: As Winter Ends, So Go the Traffic Sneckdowns

March 7, 2014

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It's safe to say that most of us are tired of the snow and can't wait for spring to officially roll around in exactly two weeks. Then there are the traffic engineers, who don't want to see the winter sneckdowns end.

Unless you are a civil engineer and/or work in city planning, chances are you either have never heard of a sneckdown or have just recently been made aware of it due to the viral, worldwide spread of the word from #sneckdown. It is a portmanteau of "snow" and "neckdown," an industry term describing a curb extension that slows down vehicular traffic by narrowing roads and sidewalk corner radii. A neckdown gives pedestrians more space and increases their safety, while shortening road-crossing distances for them.

Sneckdowns are formed -- more like revealed -- after city snowplows and pedestrians carve out improvised pathways in the snow. They have been dubbed nature's version of traffic-calming science, because nothing slows down a car turn faster than a 90-degree corner shaped by snow. The unrelenting Snowmageddons of 2014 have thus been a boon to those who study urban traffic patterns and improve road safety.

The numerous snowstorms have provided plenty of case studies for them to see where people and drivers tend to navigate in the snow and leave behind unused space. In some cases, looking at "plowzas" (plazas of snow created by snowplows) have enabled urban planners and road engineers to put in permanent pedestrian sanctuaries on previously unused spaces in the middle of intersections.

Clarence Eckerson, a filmmaker who is credited as one of the first documenters of sneckdowns, told the BBC, "The snow is almost like nature's tracing paper. It's free. You don't have to do a crazy expensive traffic-calming study. It provides a visual cue into how people behave."

"[T]he next time someone tells you that you can’t have a neckdown on that corner or this corner because there’s not enough room, show them what happens every year when it snows,” wrote Transportation Alternatives.

"Sneckdown" isn't in Merriam-Webster just yet, but it may soon be a permanent fixture in the lexicon.

Company Creates Environment "Tricorder"

When it comes to making everyday tasks like finding out the weather more convenient, in today's age of mobile devices and wireless connectivity, the question that often arises is, "Is there an app for that?" The team at Buffalo, N.Y.-based Sensorcon, a maker of portable gas detection instruments, on the other hand, asked, "Is there a sensor for that?"

Sensordrone is about data, not hype

Credit: Sensorcon

Sensorcon came up with the Sensordrone, which has been likened to a 21st century preview of a Star Trek tricorder. About the size of a cigarette lighter, and finished in an attractive case, the Sensordrone is a Bluetooth-enabled multi-sensor device that connects to Android and Apple smartphones and tablets. On board are 11 sensor types for gauging a variety of conditions around a person's immediate environment.

The first Android and iOS app Sensorcon created for the Sensordrone allowed users to determine real-time temperature, humidity, and pressure around them, making for truly personalized weather reports. Someone who wants to prolong the vegetables in his refrigerator crisper can use the Sensordrone's humidity sensor and Sensorcon's Crisper Humidity Guide app to get the optimal relatively humidity for those leafy greens. If a lady is unsure whether an object is not too hot to touch, she can summon the company's Infrared Thermometer phone app that works with an infrared thermopile sensor.

But the geek team at Sensorcon made sure the Sensordrone didn't stop there. Since February 2013, it has developed other useful apps, such as for measuring carbon monoxide, other types of gas leaks, and air quality, making use of the Sensordrone's built-in reducing gas and oxidizing gas sensors. And for testing water quality, it has rolled out sensor add-on modules for dissolved oxygen and pH level and a companion app. The Sensordrone can also function as a breath analyzer for those wild nights on the town.

Sensordrone was crowdfunded on Kickstarter, where over 1,000 backers raised more than $170,000 in just 42 days to get the device off the ground. It has even become a open platform, after the folks at Sensorcon welcomed third-party development of apps and mobile accessories.

The Sensordrone is an example where a company that once operated only in the industrial B2B space, with some creativity around its technology, is now also reaching consumers, hobbyists, tinkerers, and prosumers.

T. gurneyi = Jurassic Europe's Apex Predator

Scientists have discovered what might have been the biggest dinosaur to have ever lived in Europe. While smaller than rock star Tyrannosaurus rex, the newly named Torvosaurus gurneyi was big dog across the pond, preying on other dinosaurs. Bones of T. gurneyi were discovered north of Lisbon, Portugal, following recent embryo finds that are now believed to belong to the dino.

With a head measuring nearly four feet from front to back and filled with blade-like, 4-inch-long teeth, this dino ate meat, and lots of it. There is also evidence suggesting it was covered in "protofeathers," which resembled bird feathers and likely added on to its menacing look.

T. gurneyi was "an active predator that hunted other large dinosaurs," said scientist Christophe Hendrickx. "It's a dinosaur that is quite similar to T. rex." It is also the second Torvosaurus species discovered, after T. tanneri was found in the United States.

In a dino tale of the tape, T. gurneyi gave up about seven feet and 1 metric ton to T. rex. But Hendrickx said T. gurneyi proves that "large dinosaurs did exist in Europe by the end of the Jurassic," when dinosaurs began to shrink about 145.5 million years ago.

The spirit of T. rex will live on this summer, as "Grimlock," leader of the Dinobots race of robot dinosaurs, will make his debut in the fourth Transformers movie. No word on whether auteur Michael Bay will be moved by the latest dino discovery to make a late-addition T. gurneyi as Grimlock's sidekick cousin.

Top 10 Songs for Engineers

As with our other top 10 lists, the usual rules apply. This is not an exhaustive list. We at Engineering.com merely wish to introduce you to a series of songs that we hope will open you up to more songs about STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math).

Not all of these songs are educational, though many are. Nor are all the songs directly about engineers, though some are that, as well. Whatever the case, all 10 of these songs have made their place in the hearts of STEM adults and children alike.

If you think we missed anything please feel free to let us know in the comments for a follow-up article.

10. ArcAttack - Singing Tesla Coils - Pacific Rim Main Theme

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4p39ciSHKwo[/youtube]

Let’s start with the truly nerdy option: engineering your own Tesla coils to produce music. This is what ArcAttack is known for, and the team made it big on America’s Got Talent where one of their own ‘used the force’ to play "The Imperial March." Now they have programmed their own robotic drummer and have become YouTube celebrities of their own rights.

Here is my personal favorite, ArcAttack’s singing Tesla coils playing the Pacific Rim theme.

9. Hank Green – "Strange Charm: A Song about Quarks"

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U0kXkWXSXRA[/youtube]

Hank Green isn’t exactly mainstream; however, having made it to Billboard’s Top 25 revenue generating albums list, he isn’t fringe media either. After parlaying his YouTube fame into a series of entrepreneurial endeavors, Green created DFTBA Records. DFTBA is known for publishing his work and the work of other nerdy YouTubers.

Hank can often be seen singing about nerd culture and science. My personal favorite is "Phineas Gage: A Song." For an engineering crowd, however, "Strange Charm" should be the one to make the list. The song outlines the confusing existence of quarks quite wonderfully.

8. Great Big Sea – "Chemical Worker Song"

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SZUx6gSGtqc[/youtube]

This song should be added to the repertoire of every chemical engineer or chemical engineering class in the nation.

Sung by Canadian folk band Great Big Sea, the twang might be something new to the American market, but I suggest you give GBS a chance. They are funny, adorable, and smart while the song is catchy and powerful. I doubt you will forget it.

7. Leeni – "Headphones on Your Heart"

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bZ7g2SnbdHw[/youtube]

For electrical, computer, and software engineers, the genre of chiptoons will be right up your alley. The basic idea is to take a classic Gameboy, Nintendo Entertainment System, or similar item and hack it into an instrument.

I suggest starting out with Leeni. Her voice and frequent use of traditional instruments might help you to assimilate into the 8-bit video game sound of the genre.

A close runner-up from this genre was Anamanaguchi (famous to Scott Pilgrim fans), so I suggest you check them out, too.

6. Blue Man Group featuring Dave Matthews – "Sing Along"

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a0E3y1pBPlg[/youtube]

Here is one for the mechanical and civil engineers. Blue Man Group are famous for building musical instruments out of everything, from PVC pipe to trash cans to thin metal rods. If it swings, bangs, reverberates, rings, or even swooshes, they will use it, and it will be fantastic. Definitely a band for the DIY engineer.

This video also features a collaboration with my personal favorite musician, Dave Matthews. The awkwardness of the lyrics, BMG, and Matthews in the video should be relatable to many in the engineering community. Just because you are introverted doesn’t mean you can’t have fun. The only question is, “If I sing a song would you sing along?”

5. Ok Go  "Needing/Getting"

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MejbOFk7H6c[/youtube]

Another hard decision was which Ok Go video to choose. Often seen creating a musical Rube Goldberg machine or a very technical music video, all of their music could fit. The band is hilarious, too, as seen in their collaboration with the Muppets a few years ago.

After much debate, "Needing/Getting" is the song of choice. The decision was made mostly because it looks like a car commercial gone horribly wrong. Engineers in the automotive industry should get a hoot out of it. As for a commercial, I’d buy a car from these guys -- just not after they use it.

4. Genesis – "Land of Confusion"

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1pkVLqSaahk[/youtube]

I find this song to be an anthem for environmental engineers or any engineer with political aspirations.

Though the song and video have little, if anything, to do with engineering, the lyrics might resonate. We live in a strange, messed-up world, and it is the job of an engineer to make this place just a little easier and safer to live in.

As this world becomes more and more polluted and issues like global warming become more of a factor, the confused world will look to scientists and engineers to fix our problems. “So this is the world we live in. And these are the hands we're given. Use them and let’s start trying. To make it a place worth living in.”

3. They Might Be Giants – "Meet the Elements"

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uy0m7jnyv6U[/youtube]

They Might Be Giants write educational songs to rock out with your kids. Best of all, the songs don’t get annoying when replayed endlessly.

My personal favorite is "Meet the Elements." The video is adorable and really gets kids to understand the fact that most everything they interact with is a chemical -- something quite important, considering the “no chemicals” misnomer movement that has infiltrated our society.

If you want to meet They Might Be Giants, they will be at the USA Science and Engineering Festival with Engineering.com this April.

2. Army Corps of Engineers – "Engineer’s Hymn"

This is a no-brainer really. The traditions of this song in the U.S. Army and North American universities have no bound. Often known as "Godiva’s Hymn," it talks about the drunken antics of engineers. Like any good drinking song, it has been gaining verses since its inception. But one thing has stayed the same, the chorus:

“We are, we are, we are, we are, we are the engineers, We can, we can, we can, we can, demolish forty beers, Drink up, drink up, drink up, drink up, and come along with us, 'Cause we don't give a damn about any ol' man who don't give a damn about us!”

1. Chris Hadfield – "Space Oddity"

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KaOC9danxNo[/youtube]

It was a big debate on whether to use Hadfield’s or the classic David Bowie version in this list. I even contemplated adding other Major Tom songs. Though Bowie is one of the best artists of our age, few things are as amazing as witnessing a real-life astronaut singing this classic song from within the International Space Station.

This video also served as the famous astronaut’s NASA swan song. With that knowledge the emotion in the video is quite thick. Just watching it brings tears to one’s eyes. Best of all, Hadfield has the musical talents to pull off the emotion of such a classic.

This article by Shawn Wasserman was originally published on Engineering.com and is adapted in its entirety with permission. For more stories like this please visit Engineering.com.

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