Monday, December 29, 2014

Cars are to Gasoline as Engineers are to... Coffee?

Scene: It was a typical day at the office, 11 am. Sunlight peeked over my grey cube walls, bringing a light touch to the typical harsh florescent environment. I was mid-project and I was in the zone. My fingers were flying across the keyboard documenting new system requirements. I reached for my mug, and took a sip... only to realize that it was empty. It was my third cup of the day. That couldn't be good for me.

I didn't feel like I was addicted to caffeine because I could go days without it, but in the office I would always find myself at the coffee pot as I was deep in thought. I wasn't sure how this had happened, in high school I thought that coffee tasted like mud.

But as a freshman engineering student at a hard-core school, I was often still at school studying when the clock struck four in the morning. The tiredness was overwhelming, and the rest of my study group was chugging free coffee like it was already tomorrow. Between the sweet seduction of caffeine to make up for my lack of sleep and the irresistible nature of free things to a college student, I eventually caved. I began to drink coffee just to survive all nighters, when I was too tired to even process how much I hated the taste.

After I had gotten over the mud-like taste I started to drink it when I had to stay up late, when I needed to focus, when I got up earlier than I wanted to, and even when I was just meeting friends at coffee shops. Coffee became embedded into my every day activities, and like most young engineers I've met was intertwined with my social life. Sound familiar? It's a common story for a lot of us.

And that's how I ended up here as a professional, on my third cup of coffee by 11 am. While I don't  think I was ever physically addicted to caffeine, I also knew that the volume of coffee I was drinking couldn't be healthy. And part of me just didn't like the fact that something I had despised not so long ago had become such an expected part of my day to day life.

So, like any good engineer, I did some research about caffeine detoxes. There is surprisingly little information about this considering the prevalence of caffeine consumption in our society. Apparently while "long-term caffeine use can lead to mild physical dependence", "true compulsive use of caffeine has not been documented" (Malenka RC, Nestler EJ, Hyman SE (2009). "Chapter 15: Reinforcement and Addictive Disorders". In Sydor A, Brown RY. Molecular Neuropharmacology: A Foundation for Clinical Neuroscience (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill Medical. p. 375. ISBN 9780071481274). I find that hard to believe considering the number of people in my office gulping coffee like air. Maybe they just need to do a study in an engineering firm.

I'm not claiming here that my propensity towards drinking coffee is anywhere as bad as any "real addiction" that people suffer, but I do find it curious that even in an environment where I am regularly drug tested that it is socially acceptable for me to be at all dependent on any particular substance (other than water and air). At the same time, it makes me wonder why it's socially acceptable for us to have jobs that can be so intense that they are difficult to perform without a caffeine kick to push us through.

Engineers often work long hours with a high amount of mental (and sometimes physical) energy and focus required the entire time. College teaches us that Awakeness = Hours of Sleep + Grams of Caffeine, and real life teaches us that power naps on the job are socially unacceptable. So whether it is a placebo effect or a legitimate solution, when I've worked on the same calculation for four hours without a break and my mind feels like it's turning to mush I reach for coffee. Part of me worries that if I don't have that extra kick of focus, that my work will suffer. The other part of me worries that I (and the others around me) are constantly performing these herculean mental tasks, and that eventually there won't be enough coffee in the world to push us though. And somehow, we (and our respective managements) often don't recognize the increased coffee consumption as a red flag of employees who are overworked, but it's often just an accepted part of our day to day life.

Pumpkin spice lattes could push anyone over the edge
I'm not saying that any one calculation, or design, or problem itself is impossible. I'm saying that the cumulative effect can be exhausting. This is especially true if you have a sales department who promises that you'll walk to the moon by next week, or if you have other external deadlines piling up around you. And, I'm saying that I think that other forms of regaining focus (like taking a walk, or talking to your cube neighbors about nonsense from time to time) can look like laziness to managers (especially those without engineering experience who don't understand why you can't spend every minute making progress on deadlines).

What do you think? Are you and/or your coworkers hooked on coffee? Is that a problem?



Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Happy Holidays!

Wishing all of you and your families a happy and safe holiday season (and a well deserved break from school and/or work)!

I know this time of year can be great, but it can also be very hard. If you happen to be having one of those harder holiday seasons (difficult family, couldn't get off of work, living in a new place without any good friends yet, etc.), know that it's just a few days and things will get better soon. But in the meantime, here's a British guy to show you some Christmas science!

We'll be back with posts next Monday!


Vanessa & Ruby

Monday, December 8, 2014

Nerdy Christmas Gifts

How frustrating is it when every time you search for "gift ideas for nerdy girls" or "gift ideas for the college student" you end up finding a bunch of electronics or something useful that has been made nearly useless by making it into a Doctor Who Tardis shape or a Minecraft Creeper form? When we am looking for cute nerdy gifts for our girl friends, we want something that has a subtle hint of nerd, not a blaring neon sign saying "NERD ALERT HERE." We're proud of our nerdy heritage, but we still want to be both functional and fashionable.

To help you solve this problem, we (Ruby and Vanessa) created a list of gift ideas for your nerdy girl friends. We aren't getting any sponsorship out of this (even though this seems like a giant Etsy add). Mostly this is a list of things we found to be awesome and would secretly like one of our friends to find, be influenced by, and buy for us this holiday season. *hint hint*  If you don't like Pinterest, then you should probably just come back next Monday when we write something more substantial and aren't just posting links and photos.


Jewelry is a simple gift, but getting something that re-purposes electronics and other engineering things makes it unique and more thoughtful than your standard pair of cubic zirconium studs. It's only secretly nerdy, because most "regular people" don't even recognize this stuff as being related to engineering.
Geekery Heart Necklace - Circuit Board Heart Jewelry - Steampunk Industrial Jewelry - Nerdy Geek Love
This necklace is geeky, but totally wearable. It's $31 on Etsy.  

This necklace is handmade, and can be found on Etsy for $20
If your scientist/engineer is not really into electronics, you could try this cool solar system necklace (which is being sported by the Chief Scientist at NASA so you know it's out of this world)...
This solar system necklace was worn by the Chief of Science at Nasa! It is $400 though, so perhaps out of the average price range.
Maybe that engineer likes cool materials, which would make this glow in the dark necklace a pretty sweet gift.
It's $31.95 on Etsy.

Or you can always go the superhero route. Here is an example of a superhero piece that isn't too bling-y or blaringly obvious.

This Wonder Woman necklace is $49 on Etsy

Other Wearable Things

This T-Shirt comes in all sorts of colors and sizes and cuts, and is $28. 

And while we're still talking about clothes, what about the batman apron. It's not subtle, I grant you. But it is both nerdy and practical if you have a nerdy friend who likes to cook. Or in Ruby's case, if you're a nerdy girl who likes to bake and bake and bake. It also has the added benefit of supporting your friend's habit of feeding all of her friends tons of sugary treats. This means that she (and you since you know her secret) can look good next to them in all the holiday pictures this season. 

Note, these aprons also come in other superhero options like Captain America, Iron man, and others.  

Christmas Tree/Hannukah Bush Ornaments

Einstein Ornament $12.50
Darth Vader Ornament $27

Odds 'N Ends

Okay, I straight up give up on trying to even categorize these things. 
I didn't even know coffee stencils were a thing, but these are $24 for a set of 3
Tap into her creative side with this cool 3D pen. It combines some interesting science (electronics, materials science, even structural stuff), with out of the box thinking and is just all together cool.

Or if your nerdy friend is in the car a lot for commuting to and from her off-site plants, conferences, and meetings, an audiobook can be a practical and thoughtful gift. Plus, something as amusing as "Confessions of a D-List Supervillain" is going to have her considering becoming a super villain herself and joining the dark side of the force.

You can get this from amazon here!

No matter what you get or give this holiday season, we here at Pocket Protector and Heels wish you all a very happy holidays!


Vanessa and Ruby

PS. What "nerdy" things are you hoping for this holiday season?

Monday, December 1, 2014

Company Holiday Parties

It's that time of year... Companies all over are having holiday parties. Whether they are for Christmas, New Years, or generic "holiday", 'tis the season for people getting drunk in front of their boss and regret it for the rest of the year.

So here as our gift to you this holiday season, Ruby and I have compiled some advice on company parties.

  • Always wear something at least as nice as you wear to work. If your company is business casual, do not wear jeans. Company parties are often where management sees how well people can socialize, and determines if somebody can be promoted. If you are wearing a ripped t-shirt and stinky sneakers, you don't really seem like "management material". If you bring a +1, make sure he or she is also dressed appropriately. 
  • How many drinks do you normally have when you go out to dinner? Subtract one, and this is how much you should drink at your party. You don't want to be the drunken mess everyone talks about for the next year.
  • Always be gracious and cheerful. If you're bitter about how little time you get off for the holidays, forget about it for the duration of the party. If you're bitter about your raise, forget about it. If your bitter about your holiday bonus (or lack thereof), forget about it.  If you're bitter about your workload, forget about it. If you're bitter about your seating arrangement, forget about it. If you're bitter that your Secret Santa got you a snuggie, forget about it. Rise above, and be cheerful because nobody likes a Grinch, especially during the holidays.
  • Avoid gossipy conversations. Especially in party atmospheres where everyone is mingling, the chances of you being overheard while you make fun of your manager are dangerously high. So keep your comments about your boss's ill fitting suit to yourself.
  • Keep everything PG. Remember that even though you are in a social setting you are still essentially at work, so now this is not the time for dirty jokes or politics.
  • If you are invited to bring a +1, make sure you only bring someone who will represent you professionally. In other words, it's better to go alone than to bring some guy you met at a bar last week or a roommate who is on the rebound (and likely to hit on your coworkers).
  • Use this as an opportunity to network. Company holiday parties are one of the only times that people from multiple departments and varying levels of standing come together. Brush up on your small talk and try to talk to some people you don't know, and take it as an opportunity to get face time with your superiors.
  • Be thankful, where appropriate. A lot of times management pays for these socials out of their own pocket. Even if it isn't a legendary party it's the thought that counts and nobody likes being taken for granted.

Have a happy holidays!

Vanessa & Ruby