Saturday, December 24, 2011

An Engineer's Guide to Christmas

Christmas comes but once a year, they say - to which some add (but others do not) that we may be truly thankful there are no more than that. However, with appropriate planning and the following step-by-step guide, your Christmas experience need not be any more harrowing than any other brave expedition outside where the general public gather.

Most engineers have very few friends, which naturally lowers the magnitude of the task as the two variables are directly related. In many cases most of them are also engineers or are at least conversant with the way engineers think. This makes the task easier again - not only are these people content to receive simple, useful presents such as food, but they are open to being asked for suggestions.

Here, then, is the project timeline for your Christmas shopping.

November 1: begin long-term planning phase.
There is no significant stress on the project manager during this phase. It merely consists of planning exactly who will receive a Christmas gift, and asking each person to prepare a wish list. Once completed this list can be circulated around the mutual friends, yeilding a measurable economy of scale.

December 1: begin count-down to Christmas Day.
After giving all your friends a full calendar month in which to compile a wish list, you are now ready to start narrowing it down. Go through each list, immediately crossing off any items which are too specific (eg "Rare mint condition Batman comics from 1974") or require a non-engineering mentality to comprehend (eg "Tutu to match my silver glitter shoes"). Unless your friends are playing a cruel joke on you or are completely unworthy to be friends with a brilliant engineer such as yourself, this should leave you with a short list of between three and five items.

Sort each short list into alphabetical order. You are now ready to actually hit the shops.

NB: Many engineers prefer to buy online, citing lower prices and the ability to multi-task shopping with other productive tasks which can only be done at home, plus the avoidance of Christmas crowds in shopping centres. This method has great potential, but must be used cautiously as the opportunity to exchange unwanted gifts is limited. No standard is mandated, the choice is left to the user.

Carry a copy of the alphabetically-sorted short lists in whatever form is convenient (paper, note on phone, medium-term memory, etc). Try to pick up some of the items as you do your ordinary daily shopping and other errands. This further reduces overheads by combining tasks into a single I/O stream, at negligible cost in either effort or money.

December 17-23: rush week
Hopefully the above operation has reduced your list of gifts not yet organized to just a few. Half an hour of online research will easily tell you which shops sell the items you require, where they are and how to get in, get on with it, get it over and get out. By this stage there is no alternative to setting aside some time to go shopping - before or after work, or on the weekend. However, you can comfort yourself with the knowledge that your engineering mind has reduced the difficulty of this task by an order of magnitude.

Once the shopping is completed, go through your list of people once more to ensure all is completed. The margin for error is very slim, so be thorough on this final check.

December 24: Christmas Eve
The procedure for finalising the project is not particularly time sensitive, but all engineers enjoy precision so I have marked time of day for each step.

10pm: unpack all gift items and lay them out in a matrix on a large flat surface such as a desk or dining table. Glance over each one to see if it has a price tag, because it's not cool to let someone know how much you paid for their gift.

10:30pm: Gather the exact number of pieces of wrapping paper you require, along with tags and sticky tape. Working from (0,0) to (n,m), begin wrapping and tagging the gifts. Any boxed gift, or any other gift forming a rectangular prism, can be wrapped in a standard fashion with one piece of sticky tape to hold the paper together around the middle and one at each end. This option cuts down wastage of tape, and can also save time as every gift can be treated as a previously solved problem. To further reduce tape wastage, use one of the above mentioned three pieces of tape to hold the tag.

11pm: Count the number of completed packages to ensure you have a gift for every person on your list. Use a wheeled vehicle to carry them from your working space to the Christmas tree.

11:10pm. You have now completed your Christmas preparations. It's time to sit back and relax, as your annual ordeal is over.