Holistic Engineering: What’s That?


Here at Dordt College we advocate doing holistic Christian engineering.  For that matter, we advocate that all work should be done in a holistic Christian way.  But what does that mean?

One can always turn to the dictionary.  “Holistic: characterized by comprehension of the parts of something as intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole.” (From Google.)  But really, what does that mean when engineering is involved?

Engineering is the work of designing technical things that have practical purposes.  Christians desire that their works of engineering will be pleasing to the Lord. That means that a Christian engineer will need some sort of faith life in order to have a conception of what might be pleasing to the Lord.

An engineer might be asked to design brakes for a car.  Designing brakes to please the Lord will color a Christian engineer’s sense of what trustworthiness is.  When you step on the brakes on your car you really, really expect the car to respond appropriately!  Would an engineer’s sense of faith in the Lord, or absence thereof, possibly have some influence on the quality of the the design work this engineer might do on the brakes?  Here at Dordt College, we think it will.  We think an engineer steeped in utilitarianism (for one example) will evaluate the trustworthiness of automotive brakes differently than an engineer steeped in Christian faith.  Let me call that the “faith aspect” of engineering.

“. . .and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” (Micah 6:8)  Good Christian engineering work promotes justice, seeks mercy, and is done with humility.  An engineer who does not have experience designing brakes for cars ought to work under supervision until sufficient experience has been gained.  It would be unethical to do otherwise.  It would also be unjust to deny the engineer the needed supervision yet require the work to be done without supervision (perhaps to save money in the design process).  There are legal and ethical aspects to the design of a car’s brakes.

“. . .whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think on these things.”  (Philippians 4:8) Maybe the brakes should be made a visible highlight of the car, as if a fashion statement. There is an aesthetic aspect to the design of a brake.

“. . .Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it?” (Luke 14:28)  There is an economic aspect to the design of a brake.

“. . .From the fruit of a man’s mouth his stomach is satisfied; he is satisfied by the yield of his lips.  Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.” (Proverbs 18:20-21) There happens to be a vocabulary of words associated with brakes.  Disc brakes, drum brakes, brake pads, brake rotors, brake cylinders, runout, fade, peak force, average power dissipation, etc.  A designer of brakes needs to know the related language.  Words can be used by people to clearly communicate the design and safety features of the brakes, or words can be used to obscure the salient issues.  In any case, words are needed to communicate, and the Bible has quite a bit to say about using words.  Call that the lingual aspect of brake design.

A person using the brakes on a car can talk about the “feel of the brake.”  On some cars you have to push the pedal only slightly.  The brakes might be said to be “touchy.”  On other cars the brake might feel, “mushy.”  Brakes ought to act with the right “feel.”  This would the the sensitive (or psychic) aspect of designing a brake.

Of course there are lots of shapes that could be associated with brakes, starting with “disc” and “drum” brakes.  And there could be lots of numbers involved.  These are physical, kinematic, spacial, and numerical aspects of the design of a brake.

Now let me get back to my original theme.   What is holistic Christian engineering?  The dictionary definition, “Holistic: characterized by comprehension of the parts of something as intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole,” is not bad.  However ideally this would be engineering dedicated ultimately to the glory of the Lord, and encompassing all aspects of creation.  That’s what a Christian should connote from the phrase, “explicable only by reference to the whole.”  Not just by reference to the whole brake, not just the whole car, not just the whole universe, but by reference to God and his revelation to us.

You might notice that some of the words I used above, such as, faith aspect, ethical, justice, aesthetic, economic, sensitive (or psychic), physical, kinematic, spacial, and numerical, are words that relate to various academic disciplines.  Faith and theology go together.  Ethics and philosophy go together.  Similarly for justice and law, aesthetics and art, economics and business, sensitive and psychology, physical and physics, numerical and math.  Thus, an engineer needs an education in a wide variety of academic subjects in order to design holistically and responsibly for God’s glory.

In many engineering curricula basic sciences and math are emphasized as the foundations of engineering.  Liberal arts courses are required to, “round out one’s personality” but are not seen as directly contributing to engineering knowledge.  Engineering is sometimes spoken of as an, “applied science.”  Not so at Dordt College.  Here engineering is an, “applied life.” A life applied to God’s glory.

Here is another interesting point about the distinctiveness of Dordt College’s engineering major.  Notice that there is a little room for our sinfulness to warp our view of basic sciences and math.  Math, physics, chemistry, and biology are all about discovering the nature of God’s creation.  But if we have a wrong or incomplete theory in math or basic science, nature speaks and eventually the theory gets (at least partially) corrected or extended.  God’s general revelation speaks rather strongly in these disciplines.  Our limitations in these disciplines have a lot to do with our finite nature, and only some to do with our sinfulness.  But this is not so much the case in some other academic disciplines.  If we have warped theology, or warped laws, or warped aesthetics, or poor language, these matters do not become so directly evident by scientific experimental procedure or mathematical logic.  These matters are primarily set straight by reference to the God’s special revelation, the Bible.

The devil seems to offer greater temptations in areas that impinge more on ultimate purposes and directions.  If we do our engineering without considering all aspects of creation and without anchoring our lives in the Bible, then evil has a way of masquerading as banal everyday life.  We may be enabling sinfulness more than we could imagine.  On the other hand, if we direct our lives and desires in Godly ways, we may be enabling more grace and beauty than we could imagine.

Understanding engineering design in its whole nature, in all aspects, as it relates to glorifying God and caring for His creation, is holistic Christian engineering.  That’s what we teach.

Photo: Pixabay (public domain)


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Technology: Bringing Us Together or Pushing Us Apart?

I recently participated as a guest editor in a week-long round of blog-posts on the blog, “In All Things.”  Here are links to the six blog posts in a series titled, “Is Technology Bringing Us Together or Pushing Us Farther Apart?”

The first article in the series poses the question.  Five responses follow.

June 8, 2015 by Liz Moss
Is Technology Pushing Us Together or Pulling us Farther Apart?

Kari Sanduka, June 9, 2015
Technology Isn’t Just for Smart People

Douglas De Boer, June 10, 2015
Technology is Imagination Incarnated
As a kid I enjoyed science fiction literature and movies. Little did I know then that some of the futuristic gadgets I was reading about and seeing in movies and comics would become a reality in my life. Dick Tracy’s wrist-watch radio has come to life as a smart watch. In the 1960’s while I was a kid I relished the original broadcasts of the Star Trek TV series. I enjoyed seeing the fantastic gadgets as much as the plots. Now I can enjoy some of. . . (Read more)

Kevin Timmer, June 11, 2015
My iPhone Made Me Do It

Nick Breems, June 12, 2015
Technology and Mindful Evaluation

Justin Vander Werff, June 13, 2015
Technology at every Moment


Photo by Brian Huang modified and used by permission. ccbyncnd2.0

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Are You a “Banana Person”?

A couple protesting air pollution on their wedding day.

In “suburban language,” a “banana person” is a person who wants to “Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything.”

I bring up the matter of building things in view of some controversial projects in my neighborhood.  In order to bring wind power to markets where electricity is really badly needed the Rock Island Clean Line electric power transmission line is proposed.  Activists are protesting it.  Also, in order to bring crude oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota and ultimately to oil refineries as far away as Texas the Bakken oil pipeline is proposed.  Activists are protesting that too.  A wind power project is proposed for Lincoln county in South Dakota.  Activists oppose it.  The Hyperion oil refinery proposed to be built near Sioux Falls, South Dakota will not be built.  Activists were victorious.  (Hence the opportunity to build the Bakken oil pipeline!)

When you pull your car up to a gas pump and fill the tank you create demand for oil pipelines and oil refineries.  When you switch on the air conditioning at home you create peak demand for electric power which usually comes from burning natural gas–delivered by pipeline.  Then the electricity is sent over transmission lines nobody wants to see to your location.  If you depend on reliable electric power for hospitals, flood control, and other vital needs then you create demand for baseline electric power from sources such as coal, hydro (dams) and nuclear energy from refined uranium.  When the Uranium is depleted of its energy then it goes. . . well, “temporarily” into a pool of water at the generator site (think Fukushima) since nobody can agree on where to store that waste or how to safely ship it anywhere.

Some people abhor all the negative consequences of using energy, yet blithely fill their gasoline tanks, crank their air conditioners, and expect world-class healthcare, etc.  Obviously, I have a problem with that.  Sure, I too regret and dislike ugly transmission lines, leaky oil pipelines (with consequent fire risk and pollution of aquifers), etc.  But I also recognize the tremendous benefits these also bring.

To help put this in context I’d like to explore the numbers related to the consumption of gasoline in the United States.   In the paragraphs below I show that the gasoline we use (just gasoline–not counting diesel, propane, natural gas, electricity, etc.) gives us a tremendous amount of energy that we are dependent on for the food we eat and much more.

In 2013 the U.S. consumed 134.51 billion gallons of gasoline. The population of the U.S. was about 300 million. That works out to about 450 gallons of gasoline per person per year, or about one car’s gas tank filled-up per week per person in the population. But that also means that 369 million gallons of gasoline need to be refined, transported to gas stations, and sold in the U.S. every single day. It takes a little over two gallons of crude oil to make one gallon of gasoline. Let’s just say two gallons. That means 737 million gallons of crude oil have to be shipped, piped or otherwise delivered to oil refineries every single day. A single rail tanker car holds about 30000 gallons. That means, if all oil travels by rail, 24567 tanker cars per day. A train might have 100 cars. That is about 250 trainloads of crude oil per day. I’m sure we would prefer that most of this goes through pipelines instead–if it must be transported at all.

What crude oil does not get made into gasoline gets made into diesel, aviation fuel, asphalt, etc.and shipped out to the population. All this happens quite invisibly, yet our daily lives depend on this flow of crude oil, gasoline, and diesel etc. (e.g. keeping the grocery store stocked) Sobering isn’t it? Even if we cut our driving, flying, purchasing in half in order to cut crude oil consumption in half, the numbers are still staggering.

Gasoline contains about 35 kWH of energy per gallon. (it varies a bit depending on processing and additives.  The 35 kWH/gallon figure might be a bit optimistic, but 32 kWH would be about as low as it might go.) Putting this in terms of horsepower, that’s the work of 50 horses for one hour. (OK, actual horses vary in their ability to do work, but those are the numbers and they are ballpark reasonable. Most horses actually cannot produce a full “horsepower” for a meaningful amount of time, so the numbers are optimistic.) So our national annual gasoline consumption works out the the equivalent of 768 million horses working 24 hours per day. But real horses only work 8 hours per day, so we need 2.3 billion horses just to replace our gasoline consumption. That’s about 7.7 horses for every living person in the country. Let’s just say 8 horses per person–and that only replaces gasoline. We would still need to replace diesel, aviation fuel, electricity, natural gas, propane, etc.

Cleaning up after 8 horses per person makes pipelines and rail tanker cars look pretty good I’d say! Not to mention trying to feed and stable all those horses!

The Bible mentions that the Earth has been placed under the dominion of people–all people, not just Christians. (Genesis 1:28) and that it “groans” under the effects of sin (Romans 8:22).  As much as I would like the earth to be in some way perfect (would that be “100% natural,” or “pristine?”  That’s a debate in itself.) I realize perfection is impossible.  We as humans will contribute to the groaning of the Earth.  Sometimes we are reduced to choosing the lessor evil, such as pipelines, rail tankers, or gasoline shortages.

If you are inclined to protest the building of new oil refineries, pipelines, electric transmission lines, and more, please be sure you are prepared to live with the consequences.  It is not fair for you to drive or fly to a rally in Washington DC to protest an oil pipeline for example.  Get on with life without using the products produced by the infrastructure you are protesting. All that said, there is a place for protest.  The couple who choose to protest extreme air pollution by wearing gas masks on their wedding day may be heroes.  Protest raises awareness of issues that are getting out of control.  The protection of the environment in the United States (at least) has much to do with the effectiveness of protests of pollution.  It is unprincipled protest that I’m protesting here.  It is protesting before any damage has been done (or can reasonably be predicted) that I’m protesting.  It is a nostalgic vision of a “100% natural” unblemished-by-sin world that I’m protesting.  Minimizing the effect of sin is what I’m advocating.

As for me, the risks of oil pipelines are what I’d prefer compared to rail transportation of oil.  The reduction of gasoline consumption is something I’d like too, but like most of us, I consume my fair share of gasoline and can’t seem to figure out how to significantly reduce that, even though I drive an electric car most days.  I’m not one to have protested the oil refinery proposed for South Dakota, the Rock Island Clean Line project or the Bakken oil pipeline.  I do however support pollution controls and maybe more of them.  I support wind power realizing that this will kill some birds and that windmill blades make an annoying noise for several miles around them.  (So do freeways!)  If windmills eventually cause serious problems for birds, I’ll reconsider.

How do you decide what you support and what you protest?  I hope and expect you are not a “banana person.”

Thanks to my daughter, Naomi, for an exchange of Facebook postings that prompted this blog post, and to my daughter Kim who prompted me to add links to show my sources.

Photo credit: HAP/Quirky China News/REX.

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UPDATE, 2/25/2015
Cherry Creek Solar Project Tabled

A 10 Megawatt Solar project proposed for the Sioux Falls South Dakota area has been tabled for now.  This project might eventually still be built, but clearly there are objections from people living near the presently proposed site.  The Argus Leader has a description of the original proposal and KELO news has a story on the tabling of the proposal.

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“Out With The Old, In With The New!” (Hey, wait a sec.)

MajesticNokia Windows 8 phone

Old: Majestic 886                   New: Nokia 920

I just read a breathlessly exciting advertisement that came in my e-mail in-box today.  Gotta share it with you it’s so good. . .  It says, “Out with the old, in with the new!  The new year is the perfect time to upgrade your Muchmuch XYZZY with the old Candy Corn operating system to the new Muchmuch ZZYXY ™ with the new Popcorn OS.  Plus, with the beta user’s membership rebate plan you’re eligible for a $100 prepaid VISA(R) gift card if you trade in your Muchmuch XYZZY before June 14.  Also, just for our beta members, get a 10% lifetime discount off a new service plan for your new Muchmuch ZZYXY(tm) when you purchase the service plan with your ZZYXY(tm).  Its what Johnson Howard calls, ‘The Best Deal Of 2014!'”  (OK, I changed the names and more than a few other details, “to protect the innocent.”)

So much for the advertising.  In fact my XYZZY is less than two years old.  That’s not really very old, but on the other hand, the original two year service plan is coming to an end.  Conventional wisdom seems to be that I should take advantage of this deal.  Let’s say I trade in my Muchmuch XYZZY for the new ZZYXY model.  What becomes of the old XYZZY?  Who would buy it?  Maybe it can be refurbished and then sold in another, less advanced country.  But the market worldwide for these Muchmuch gadgets is pretty saturated.  Even if my old model is refurbished and put back into service for someone else, most likely that person will then recycle or discard his or her older Muchmuch gadget.  Somewhere along the line, a gadget is going to get discarded in response to my purchase.  Most likely the discarded gadget will go into a landfill or incinerator.  Either way the material stuff of the gadget does not really disappear from the planet.  It just gets dispersed somehow so that we don’t notice it so much anymore.

In the December 30, 2013 issue of Time Magazine there is a brief article (page 13) giving tips on how to “Make Less E-Waste.”  One suggested solution is to code all the parts in electronic gadgets to assist with diss-assembly and sorting so that regulators can track and control the movement of e-waste around the globe.  Another suggestion is to use the parts from old electronics to make new devices, like a, “3-D printer.”  Finally, they suggest replacing the battery to extend the life of older electronic devices.  Really?  Is that all there is to it?

What’s a Christian to think of this?  What’s a Christian Engineer to think of working for a company that makes things such as the “Muchmuch” gadget and promotes a new model every two years?  I’m sorry, I have no easy answers.  But clearly proceeding full steam ahead on maximizing the flow of revenue is not really what God wants for His creation.  There is beauty and joy to be appreciated from the new Muchmuch ZZYXY(tm), but on the other hand, there is beauty and joy to be had from preserving and caring for the (not really very) old Muchmuch XYZZY.  Maybe that’s why there are collectors of some of the really old electronic gadgets.  But honestly, we can’t possibly collect all our obsolete stuff.  I guess we should have the responsibility to purchase only what we can fruitfully put to use in glorifying the Lord, and no more.  That’s not easy to figure out.  I think God is interested in seeing how we respond to the challenge.

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The Twilight of the “Big K”

The “Big K,” more properly known as the “International Prototype Kilogram” is
the shiny metal cylinder under the three glass domes.

How important is it that when you purchase an ounce of gold you get exactly one ounce of gold for your money? The “Big K” is essential to make sure that can happen.  Or how important is it that when you purchase a gallon of gasoline you get exactly one gallon of gasoline for your money? Or if you purchase a pound of bread that you get exactly one pound of bread for your money? There are “standards” to make sure fair measures happen.  These matters are so essential to the trust needed to live together in harmony that they are mentioned repeatedly in the Bible and also are mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, as well as in the equivalent documents of most countries in the world.

The congress shall have the power to. . . coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures.” (From the U.S. Constitution, Article 1 Section 8.  Emphasis added.)

Leviticus 19:35-36 “Do not use dishonest standards when measuring length, weight or quantity. Use honest scales and honest weights, an honest ephah and an honest hin.”

Deuteronomy 25:13-15 “Do not have two differing weights in your bag—one heavy, one light. Do not have two differing measures in your house—one large, one small. You must have accurate and honest weights and measures, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.”

Proverbs 11:1 “The LORD abhors dishonest scales, but accurate weights are his delight.”

Proverbs 16:11 “Honest scales and balances are from the LORD; all the weights in the bag are of his making.”

Proverbs 20:10 “Differing weights and differing measures – the LORD detests them both.”

Proverbs 20:23 “The LORD detests differing weights, and dishonest scales do not please him.”

Ezekiel 45:10-12 “You are to use accurate scales, an accurate ephah and an accurate bath. The ephah and the bath are to be the same size, the bath containing a tenth of a homer and the ephah a tenth of a homer; the homer is to be the standard measure for both. The shekel is to consist of twenty gerahs. Twenty shekels plus twenty-five shekels plus fifteen shekels equal one mina.”

Amos 8:4-7 “Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land, saying, ‘When will the New Moon be over that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath be ended that we may market wheat?’—skimping the measure, boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales, buying the poor with silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, selling even the sweepings with the wheat. The LORD has sworn by the Pride of Jacob: ‘I will never forget anything they have done.’”

Micah 6:10-11 “Am I still to forget, O wicked house, your ill-gotten treasures and the short ephah, which is accursed? Shall I acquit a man with dishonest scales, with a bag of false weights?”

Everyone needs accurate weights and measures, engineers included.   The U.S. Congress has delegated the job of defining weights and measures to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), formerly called the National Bureau of standards (NBS).   In order to achieve standards that are internationally accepted, NIST relies on the work of the General Conference on Weights and Measures (GCWM) which is an international body that meets every six years to consider new developments in science as they might relate to achieving accurate weights and measures.  NIST also relies on the work of the International Committee on Weights and Measures, and on the work of the International Buearu of Weights and Measures.  NIST interprets the work of these groups and creates regulations so that U.S. law is consistent with the work of these international agencies.  The process of defining weights and measures depends similarly on these three international agencies in most countries in the world, so these three international agencies have a very important role.  In a very real way they can delight the Lord.

The three international agencies concern themselves mostly with just seven so-called “SI basic units.” (SI stands for “International Scientific” after the french abbreviation.) They are the second (time), the kilogram (mass), the kelvin (temperature), the meter (length), the ampere (electric current), the mole (number of particles in a substance), and the candela (luminous intensity).  It may seem amazing, but all other units we use in commerce and law are defined in terms of these seven SI basic units.  For example, an hour is exactly 3600 seconds.  An inch is exactly 0.0254 meters.  A foot is exactly 12 inches.  A mile is exactly 5280 feet.  And hence, a mile-per-hour is exactly defined in terms of seconds and meters, two SI basic units.  Similarly, ounces (mass), fluid ounces (volume of a liquid), volts (electricty), pounds-per-square-inch (pressure), carats (mass of a gem), and hundreds of other units are defined in terms of the seven SI basic units.  All these other units are said to be derived units, whereas the second, kilogram, kelvin, meter, ampere, mole and the candela are said to be SI basic units.  It should now be obvious that the definitions of the seven SI basic units are a very significant matter for worldwide trade, commerce, science, and life in general.  A change in any one of these definitions would have repercussions far and wide.

The GCWM is scheduled to meet in 2014, and it looks like the agenda will include the potential revision of the definitions of all seven of the SI basic units!  What’s with this?  I predict it will be just as disastrous as the Y2K debacle that happened on January 1, 2000.  In other words, you won’t notice it, but some scientists and engineers will have to spin their gears a bit to make sure you don’t notice it. In order to understand why the GCWM wants to make these changes, we need to review some history.

Back in the 1700’s it was common for each country to have prototype standard units against which to calibrate other measuring instruments.  Maybe you wanted to survey some land and needed to measure it in chains.  You would purchase a measuring chain, and if you wanted to know how good it was, you would compare it to your country’s prototype standard chain.  It does not take much imagination to see what kinds of problems such a system might have.  Maybe the prototype chain in country X is a slightly shorter than that in country Y for example.  Or maybe on a cold day the prototype chain is a little shorter than on a warm day.  Or maybe some wear builds up in the links of the prototype standard chain so that it stretches out to longer and longer lengths (slightly) over time.  Or maybe the metal of the chain is slightly elastic (all metals are) so that in use, the chain changes length based on how much tension you put on it.  OK–specify that it must be stretched to a specific tension and used at a specific temperature–but how will you standardize the measure of that tension and temperature!  It gets complicated really fast.

For all of the above reasons and more, scientists have long wanted to eliminate these prototype standard methods of defining units of measure.  In the early 1900’s scientists realized that standard units could be defined in terms of nature.  For example, the meter could be defined as one ten-millionth of the distance from the North Pole to the Equator along a meridian passing through the center of Paris, France.  (If you were french you would especially appreciate that definition!)  This would be great if everyone agrees that the earth is not changing in size.  And in 1793, everyone agreed.  Now each country could attempt to measure that distance and compare their prototype (formerly the standard) meter to the natural standard, and if everyone did a good job, and if the earth cooperated by not changing size from time-to-time, everyone would have virtually identical prototype meters.  Thus the prototype units lost their relevance as definitions of standard units, although they obviously retained their practical use.  (e.g. something to compare measuring instruments against)  By the way, scientists now allow that the earth might change size.  The meter is now re-defined in terms of the speed of light in a vacuum, which is (still) thought to be constant.

Over about a century of time, each of the seven basic SI units have been redefined in terms of natural constants, save for one lonely holdout.  Since 1889, and to this day (to be noticeably redundant), the kilogram is defined as “The mass of the International Prototype Kilogram,” more affectionately known as “Big K.”  “Big K” is kept in very carefully controlled environmental conditions in a vault in Sèvres on the outskirts of Paris.  But in 2014, it looks like the GCWM is going to retire this definition.  To accomplish this, they are proposing to define the numeric values of four well-known natural constants.  These are Planck’s constant, the elementary charge of an electron, Boltzman’s constant, and Avagadro’s constant.  Previously, to eliminate other prototype units from having definitional status, the GCWM has defined the ground state hyperfine splitting frequency of the caesium-133 atom as exactly 9 192 631 770 Hz (thus defining the second),  the speed of light as exactly 299 792 458 meters/second (thus defining the meter), and the luminous efficacy  of monochromatic radiation of frequency 540 x 1012 Hz is exactly 683 lumen-per-watt (thus defining the candela).

There are a few competing proceedures for exactly how the kilogram might be redefined.  The use of a watt-balance and in particular, settling on a exact numeric value for Plank’s constant is at the heart of the leading contender as of now.

If this proposal to define the numerical values of the four constants passes, and it looks like it will, then there will be seven such defined constants, from which the definitions of all seven SI base units will be derived.  The last prototype unit, the “Big K,” will loose its definitional status.  Pretty cool and it’s about time IMHO.


The Holy Bible (quotations are from the NIV)
Proposed redefinition of SI base units in Wikipedia
Redefining the kilogram at phys.org
World’s Roundest Object on You Tube

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Image of “Big K” from http://www.bipm.org/en/scientific/mass/pictures_mass/prototype.html

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Maker Communities vs. Reformer Communities

There is a popular cultural phenomenon called the “Maker Community.”  Actually, there are a whole bunch of these communities.  “Makers” are people who are interested in crafting innovative and unusual stuff from scratch or more commonly, by making new arrangements of commonly available things and materials.  This phenomenon is being celebrated in magazines and TV shows.  A typical project for a maker involves something of the past being put to a new and futuristic, modern or otherwise just “cool” use.  For example, making artistic sculptures from old car parts or making a high-definition TV antenna from wire coat hangers.  Technologies such as welding and machining metal, woodworking, electronics, computers and 3-D printing and robotics are mixed and mastered at a hobbyist’s level of expertise so that each “maker” has a wide breadth of technical skill.  But it is not just the technology.  Being a “maker” means being part of a community.

Probably the main reason “making” did not become a cultural phenomenon in the past, say between World War II and the end of the twentieth century, has to do with the difficulty of communication.  In that era social media did not exist as we know it now.  Yes, the Interent and the World Wide Web were invented in the last decades of the twentieth century, but Super-8 movies, VHS camcorders and  Gopher were just not the same as You Tube and Facebook.  On Gopher you could publish the plans for your project, say a giant match made from an eight-foot-long four-by-four chunk of lumber.  But on You Tube you can share the emotional thrill of a “cool” project with thousands or maybe millions of people.  In the past it was too hard to get a community of like-minded people together face-to-face, but the maker community can use social media to establish communities that cross geographic hurtles.

As a side note, ham radio enthusiasts had achieved a sense of community spanning geographic hurtles, but the degree of technical knowledge required and narrowness of the topic kept the ham community out of the public eye most of the time.  A “maker community” is somewhat like a “ham community” only using more modern media and a much broader selection of technologies.

I’ve observed that the products of the maker community are not really the things they build.  After all, what can usefully be done with a “giant match?” It’s the cultures they build that count.  Building culture is really what engineering at Dordt College is about too.  We observe technical problems in society and try to solve them, not just for the thrill of building something, but also for the thrill of serving others as Jesus Christ’s hands in this world.

Consider the senior engineering projects done at Dordt College.  I’m sure any “maker” would understand why we do these projects.  Just like “makers,” we reform things.  Unlike the overall character of the maker movement, our goal at Dordt College is serving the Lord.  When true service to God happens, then true joy and peace are the outcomes. I’m thrilled to be part of Dordt’s “Reformer Community!” (And I love “making.”)

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Image of welder from http://www.morguefile.com/
Image of VHS Camcorder from an e-bay listing
Image of Super-8 camera from trade-bit





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Robo-calls abuse Technology

Back in September my household received more than one political robo-call per day for a time.  Even though some were from organizations I support, they all blended into one huge annoyance.  Not a single one of those calls moved me (except to vent on my blog).  What do you feel when you get a robo-call?  The telephone should not be used this way.  These calls interrupted family life.

If anybody has any research data that shows recorded telephone calls are effective, I doubt the wisdom of the research on two grounds.  First, the ends do not justify the means.  This type of message does not merit the immediate interruption of family life that a telephone call causes.  There is no tornado nearby!  No friend is calling to arrange a birthday party.  Second, trying to speak to hearts and minds by making robo calls is plainly inane regardless of any data.  If you insist that robo calls work, then use your robo-caller for a higher purpose—for evangelism.  Maybe you could get Beth Moore, Tony Campolo, or some other notable person to record a convincing call to conversion and salvation.

Imagine followers of all faiths acting like this!

The robo-calling this fall has been inane indeed.


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Image from Animation Playhouse.

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Julia Child’s 100th Birthday & Engineering

Today would have been Julia Child’s one-hundredth birthday.  (She lived from August 15, 1912 to August 13, 2004.)  She is the author of Mastering the Art of French Cooking and the host of the PBS TV show, The French Chef and several other TV shows about cooking. In honor of her birthday, PBS released a You Tube video titled “Julia Child Remixed.”

I’m old enough to recognize that Child’s singing voice on this video sounds much like Julia Child did on those 1970’s era TV shows she hosted.  How did they make Julia Child sing for this this sweet (pun intended!) video?  My guess is that they used a product like Antares Auto-Tune to alter the original sound track of some video clips from her TV shows.  Consider the variety of the technologies needed (other than cooking!) to televise and record those original TV shows, to convert them to a digital format, to artfully edit them into the remix, to make her talking voice into a singing voice, to add a synthesized backup band, and to wing this over the web to your eyes and ears.  If that intrigues you, then you might be interested in engineering!  All of these technical tasks fall squarely into the arena of electrical and computer engineering.

My doctoral research was in signal processing.  Thus it was a delight for me to discover this “remix” tribute, not only because I once enjoyed her TV shows when they were originally broadcast, and not only because I love food (Bring on the roasted potatoes!), but also because I enjoy the type of engineering work that made this retrospective “remix” possible, even if Auto-Tune is not my particular project.  I just thought I’d bring that to your attention!

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Image: from the linked You Tube Clip



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Right to Privacy: Is It A Liability?

The fourth amendment to the US constitution (part of the Bill of Rights) states:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

On July 20, 2012 during a midnight showing of the film, “The Dark Night Rises,” James Eagan Holmes, 24 years old, opened fire killing at least 12 people and injuring 58 others.  The news stories that followed this tragedy can hardly prevent each of us from pondering the state of gun laws in the USA.  Also, just as after some previous similar tragedies, we communally wonder if there were any signs that the shooter needed psychological help.  Did anyone observe any signs that we might have been able to use to avoid this needless violence?

I have a thought to offer on this topic.  Cell phones now have GPS units in them.  It is technologically possible to track every cell phone and thus the locations and interests of most people, to sift through all their messages, to link this information to credit card transactions by name, date, and address, to link this with web searches (Bing, Google, Yahoo, etc.) banking, academic, and medical records, and to link this with social networks (Facebook, Google+, etc).  A whole lot about each of us is stashed in the “cloud.”  It is just not organized.  We could rather easily set up a national data-mine to sift though this information.  It would then be possible to flag a Ph.D candidate with $26000 in grant support who is spending lots of money on guns and munitions and withdrawing from his studies.  Except our constitution prevents it.  Not just that, we are so accustomed to privacy, that our sense of ethics prevents it.  So I ask. . .

Is the right to privacy a liability in a technological society?  I’m starting to wonder which is worse, big brother or privacy?

Here are some opinions from others on this matter:

From IEEE Spectrum’s Inside Technology Blog, “Is Your Cell Phone Snitching On You?

Robert J. Sawyer promoting his novels: “Privacy: Who Needs It?

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Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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Transistorized Transformation

This is the world’s first transistor radio model.  The retail price was $49.95 when introduced on October 18, 1954. Almost 100,000 were sold in the first year of production.  It is the model TR-1,  designed by Texas Instruments and Regency Electronics and manufactured by Regency Electronics.


That transistors “revolutionized the world” is a banal truth!  What might be some of the more interesting truths we can discover beyond that?

What now seems to be a banal truth was not so at the time.  In the 1950’s Transistors were “interesting,” but not clearly, “revolutionary.”  The transistor was invented in 1948.  It’s widespread use and influence did not develop until about 20 years later, in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.  The transistors of the 1950’s were pretty crappy not only by today’s standards, but also in comparison to the devices they were supposed to replace, vacuum tubes.  Whereas the tubes of the 1950’s might have a 10% or maybe a 20% variance in a specification such as gain, transistors of that era might have a variation of over 200%.  Many engineers dismissed the new transistors as being impractical, just a lab curiosity.

An engineer at a company called Regency found a way to use the transistors of the era to reliably make AM transistor radios in an assembly-line process[1].  Here lies my first observation of a more interesting truth.  New technologies often enter the market at the bottom end, in low-cost applications, like an AM radio, rather than in high-end applications, like a computer.  The low-end applications serve as a demonstration of the technology.  The companies that dominate the market tend to ignore the new entrant since they do not have the facilities or expertise to economically compete in the low end of the market.  Low profit margins and little future growth potential make the new entrant seem very marginal and irrelevant.  (Look where AM radio is in popularity today!)  But that could be a mistake because as the new technology becomes more fundamentally practical it will experience exponential growth up the market chain.

In the 1950’s RCA was a big player in the business of main-frame computers.  Remember the RCA Bizmac line of computers?  With at least 5000 vacuum tubes in each computer and a 1950’s era price of at least 1.6 million dollars how could you forget?  But computers of that era were not mass produced[2].  The Bizmacs have been forgotten and the mass production of the Regency TR-1 is part of the reason you undoubtedly have never heard of a Bizmac before reading this.   (I’ve written more about RCA here.)  On the other hand,  have you heard of IBM computers?  They were transistorized and mass produced of course.  Thomas J. Watson realized that the mass production of the Regency TR-1 AM radio was important.   He also realized that he had to do more than start a project to design a transistorized computer.  He had to change attitudes and culture within IBM.  When engineers at IBM continued to advocate the use of vacuum tubes in computers, Watson simply gave them transistor radios [1].  That is apparently what what it took to get them to start designing computers with transistors.

You have to experience a new technology to really appreciate it.  New ideas are so foreign when they are new that they are difficult to understand in an emotional way.  This tends to hide the value of new ideas.   Experience is key to understanding new ideas.

At first new technologies are used to simply replace old technologies.  For example, transistors replaced vacuum tubes.  But later, the new technologies make other things obsolete.  Vacuum tubes require a device called a transformer to match the tubes to a loudspeaker.  Just like the transmission in a car converts the torque and speed of the engine to something appropriate for the differential and wheels, a transformer converts the voltage and current of a vacuum tube to match the needs of a loudspeaker.  The TR-1 radio pictured above had a matching transformer in it because the transistors were being used like tubes were.  Once tubes were replaced with transistors, the next largest component in the radio was the matching transformer.  At first engineers attempted to miniaturize it.  But they quickly discovered that transistors were not exactly like tubes, and that transistor circuits could be designed to directly drive the loudspeaker.  Viola!  No more matching transformers in radios.  Cost, weight, size, and battery life were all further improved.  All the companies that made matching transformers for audio applications lost a large segment of their market. This continuing type of innovation based on previous innovations is persistent.

Now we have personal computers, laptop computers, smartphones, Facebook, Youtube, and more.  In a sense all of these have been enabled by transistors.   At their heart, these new technologies represent the collective desires of our society.  They reflect our collective culture.  All of them represent a continuous developmental process of human desire.  Every one of us has little choice but to be influenced by these innovations.  (Do you still listen to your music on CD’s?  It is getting hard to do.  Sales of CD players are so low that many stores do not sell them any more.  Soon CD’s will go the way of Vinyl LP’s.)  But looking forward, we do have choices in developing the future.  We can innovate.

In summary,

1.)  New technologies often invade the marketplace at the bottom end first, seeming to offer little, but they demonstrate something fundamentally new in a practical way.  (There are exceptions.)

2.)  One needs to experience new technology to really appreciate it.

3.)  New technologies grow slowly at first, but eventually transform much more than could ever have been initially anticipated.

4.)  One can hardly choose to ignore technological innovations, but we can lead with innovation in order to influence our culture.  Technology is one of the means by which we as a society influence culture, that is, the means by which we influence what others care about.


[1.]  http://www.regencytr1.com/Regency_Early_Years.html

[2.]  http://www.dvorak.org/blog/ibm-and-the-seven-dwarfs-dwarf-six-rca/

Photo credit: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Regency_TR-1.jpg

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