Missed It

Monday, June 20, 2011

By Steven H. VanderLeest

The fight was right in front of them but they never saw it.  NPR reported on an interesting phenomenon this morning – people often miss something that is right in front of them.  Even though it is in their visual field, it doesn’t register because they were paying attention to something else.  Psychology professor Chris Chabris at Union College has run a number of experiments that show many of us appear to have attention blinders on, only seeing what is the focus of our attention and missing other details.    “Chabris points out that our inability to absorb visual information coupled with our mistaken belief that we actually are able to absorb a lot of it influences all kinds of behavior.  ‘This underlies problems with using cell phones while driving and all kinds of situations like that,’ Chabris says.” ( Alix Spiegel, “Why Seeing (The Unexpected) Is Often Not Believing,” NPR)

I suspect that our limitations in registering information are not limited to the visual.  Worse, we don’t realize how limited we are.  We think we can multitask.  We think we can wade through streams of information and take it all in:  videos, web pages, Facebook updates, movies, magazines, newspapers, books, email messages, and more.  Our society floods us with data, but we really don’t process it all – we simply don’t have the time to think it over sufficiently.  T.S. Eliot addressed this in a poem he published in 1934.

The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
  Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness,
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
  Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
  All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.

Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
  Bring us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.

(T.S. Eliot, “Choruses from ‘The Rock’,” The Complete Poems and Plays 1909-1935, San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanavich, 1971, p. 96)

It seems incredible that already back then society was trading wisdom for knowledge, trading knowledge for information.  We have accelerated the trend with our 24-hour news cycles and instant messages.  We no longer take the time to contemplate, to discern trends in the ebb and flow of history as it unwinds before us. 

The book of Proverbs calls us to seek wisdom.  Information technology could be a powerful tool to aid us in that pursuit, but too often it escapes our control, seducing us into giving up quality in favor of quantity.  So my challenge to you this week is to pick out just a few choice tidbits from the rising tide of information at your fingertips.  Mull them over.  Consider the implications.  Tease out the issues.  Dig out the hidden gems of wisdom.


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

By Steven H. VanderLeest

This is a silly little posting to verify this blog to Technorati.  TV89758HM2DZ

Free Outlets

Thursday, June 09, 2011

By Steven H. VanderLeest

I have just arrived in Chicago for the “Write To Publish” conference (held on the campus of Wheaton College).  So I guess this is a good time for a new blog entry!  My hotel room has just one unused outlet that is easily accessible, and only because the coffee maker isn’t plugged into it yet.  The other three outlets on that wall are taken up by a TV, microwave, and small refrigerator.  The lamp and alarm clock are hogging the outlets by the bed.  The receptacle in the bathroom has one of two outlets open, the other is taken by the hair dryer.  The funny looking plug by the window is probably 220 volts and is occupied by the A/C unit.  So I use the only outlet and alternate between charging my laptop and making tea. It turns out there actually is an open outlet behind the nightstand because an extension cord allows the lamp and alarm clock to share the other outlet, so I can charge my cell phone there.

Good thing I am traveling alone for this trip – when my wife is along, we have even more gadgets that need a daily meal of power.  We only have one child at home yet, but it wasn’t long ago when we had several teenagers angling for outlets too.  We typically have a number of low-power appliances—cell phones, hand-held video games, cameras, and other little devices needing a quick energy snack – so an octopus style power strip became a staple item on trips. 

I wonder how many rooms there are in this hotel?  There are three floors with dozens of rooms each.  Does each of them have a little refrigerator humming away while it munches a few watts?  Let’s see, I edged it away from the wall to read the plate on the back:  60Hz 120V 1.3A.  So that calculates out to 156 watts for the fridge.  I have the desk light on with two 40-watt bulbs, the light by the bed with 100 watts, and the bathroom light on (6 of those decorative 40-watt bulbs).  That’s another 420 watts there.  The microwave isn’t running, so I’m guessing the LED time display only is drawing a trickle of juice for the moment, and similarly for the alarm clock.  The adapter for my MacBook Pro is rated at 85 watts, but my laptop is charged now, so it is probably down to a few dribbles of current now.  It wouldn’t be hard for me to hit a kilowatt of power all by myself in this hotel room this evening.  Oops, there goes the A/C running.  Forgot that one.  I sneak the front panel off —I wonder if all engineers can’t help but explore all the gadgets in the room?  It is rated at 800 watts.  So there, I’m over a kilowatt while that runs for a couple minutes.  I’m not sure what electricity goes for in Chicago, but in Grand Rapids, residential electricity is currently around 12 cents a kilowatt-hour.  So there’s not a lot of dollars burning up here, but still, it seems like a lot of waste.  I can’t easily turn off the fridge but I’ll turn off a couple of the lights.  (By the way, isn’t it strange that we can turn “out” the lights but we cannot turn them back “in”?)

What does all this watt counting have to do with my Christian faith?  First, a little awareness of my resource use can help me be a good steward.  Second, I think maybe I’ve gotten a little too comfortable with the instant gratification of electricity on demand.  My hunt for outlets this evening was a good reminder of how good I have it in general.  Those outlets are little blessings that give me power to light the room, heat my tea, cool the air, and keep the bits flowing in my laptop.  Third, as I’ve mentioned in a previous blog, I think electricity is a nice analogy of the Holy Spirit and God’s providence:  a constant source of energy that keeps everything running and alive with spark. 

Global vs. Sustainable

Monday, June 06, 2011

By Steven H. VanderLeest

The engineering department at Calvin College recently updated our mission statement.  Two of our self-identified features caught my eye because they can be contradictory:  sustainability and global.  Sustainability has been part of our program since its inception, though it was called stewardship back in the day. Dr. James Bosscher was a professor of engineering at Calvin in the 1960’s to the 1980’s.  I took my first materials science course from him while a student at Calvin.  Bosscher saw the need to connect engineering with stewardship, establishing the first recycling program in the Grand Rapids area using devices designed by his students, such as a glass smasher.  The scriptural principle of stewardship (now labeled with the PC term “sustainability”) continues to drive our engineering program today, where we regularly see engineering senior design projects that focus on sustainability topics such as energy conservation, recycling, environmental remediation, and more.  In addition, some of our faculty at Calvin, such as Matt Heun, are now teaching about climate change due to human activity, emphasizing the grand challenges society now faces in balancing a voracious appetite for energy with the huge resource demands that need implies.  Climate change is a complex issue that is global in nature.  It ties us all together from Shanghai to Seattle, from Detroit to New Deli.  So in some sense, my department’s inclusion of both sustainability and global education is complementary. 

Our focus on the global nature of engineering has been more recent.  As the world has become flat, in the last 10 to 15 years we have started to add more international flavor to our curriculum.  We have encouraged our students to pursue mission projects in the underdeveloped 2/3 world.  We have brought classes of engineering students to Europe, Asia, and Africa.  We have studied the effect of today’s global market forces on the practice of engineering.  Today we offer multiple courses abroad during our January interim, a semester abroad in the Netherlands, a summer program in Germany, and international internship opportunities. 

While the goals of stewardship and global education are both key features of our program that provide high value to our students at Christian engineers, these strategic directions can also conflict.  The cost and environmental impact of flying 25 students and a professor between continents is significant.  I wonder if our goal of stewardship would ever sway us to skip an international flight?  I’m not saying that stewardship dictates we never spend resources.  As stewards, God has called us to cultivate his creation, allowing us to carefully use the resources in creation in ways that allow all creation to flourish:  both human and non-human, both living and non-living.  The difficult part of this assignment is identifying when resource use becomes abuse.  In my classroom, I believe I can justify the use of electricity for lighting the classroom, though it would be better to use natural sunlight or perhaps high efficiency fluorescent bulbs (while avoid use of mercury).  I can probably justify heating the classroom in the winter, though it would be better if we wore sweaters so that the thermostat could be dialed a little lower.  As for intercontinental airfare, it seems to me that occasional trips can be justified, but it would be better to plan an extended stay requiring just one flight there and one back – rather than splitting a visit into two different trips.  It would also be better to provide forums for students returning from international opportunities to share their experiences with students on campus, maximizing the value of the resources spent in traveling.

This task of balancing reminds me of Ghandi’s famous phrase: “There is enough in the world for everybody’s need, but not enough for anybody’s greed.”  That is, there is a sense that justice, yet another scriptural mandate, also comes into play when we think of the stewardly use of resources in a global context.  Engineers are quite familiar with trade-offs in engineering design.  For example, making the car safer often requires adding weight, which makes it less fuel-efficient.  Likewise, we encounter tensions between Biblical values in real-world situations.  This means decisions about strategy and priorities are rarely black and white.  Nevertheless there are still better and worse solutions that we must evaluate on multiple dimensions, such as their impact on the environment (stewardship), their fair allocation of goods (justice), their service to humanity (love), their opportunity to witness (mission) and more. 

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(c) 2013, Steven H. VanderLeest