pjk pjk at design.eng.yale.edu
Thu Jan 2 18:52:07 EST 2003

Mail*Link¨ SMTP               Heathkits

Originally mailed 11/29/02, it never made it into the EAS-INFO
archive because of a troublesome attachment. I'm resending it
without the attachment to get it into the archive, the only way I
know how to do it, and apologize for burdening your mailbox one more
time.  Email me if you want the formerly attached Bob Colwell
article, and please also see the follow-up comments at
related to the original "Heathkits" mailing. --PJK

Dear Colleagues -

As a field of technology matures (in my case the field of electrical
engineering) there are inevitable changes to the texture of
professional life and the education for its practitioners. The state
of the art boundaries expand outward, and more technical (but also
economic and legal) complexity is required to reach it. In
electronics that means an ever deeper descent into the microcosm of
ever more complex integrated circuits, whose design has only the
"reality" of simulation, a kind of high-tech video game itself. A
little like the "dream time" in Australian aboriginal culture, a
parallel plane of "VLSI and Complex System" time and experience
comes to have a reality greater than everyday reality itself.

Yet have either the practitioners or the consumers of technology
evolved all that much in the last 40 years, emotionally, in what
feels rewarding and defining, and what feels like a chore? In what
it means to "own" a job, a responsibility, a technical artifact? In
what it means to "do", designing, building, feeling matter with
one's hands? I don't think we have evolved all that much.

Some parts of us evolve terribly slowly. When I had a herniated disk
adventure four years ago, and had leisure to study my copy of Gray's
"Anatomy" in involuntary recumbency, the highly asymmetrical
structure of the vertebrae, what muscle attachments offer what
leverage with what pressure on the disks, made it abundantly clear
that we were designed for maintaining posture on all fours, not
sitting up straight in front of a computer. No mechanical
engineering degree needed to see that.

Our attitudes toward technology have evolved a litte faster, since
the 18th-century "Age of Reason" or "Enlightenment" and Diderot as
its encyclopedist of trade and industry, through 19th-century
industrialization, and on through late 20th-century computerization.
But the last forty years have not been enough time for us to
accommodate with equal satisfaction the making of immensely complex
pictures on tiny grains of sand, compared to the tangible
satisfaction of building a piece of electronics with our hands,
which is what I and my contemporaries did when we built things
called "Heathkits." Many of you will never even have heard of them.

The attached article by Bob Colwell, formerly Intel's chief Pentium
microprocessor architect, will explain. (It comes from the Nov. 2002
issue of IEEE COMPUTER, the "At Random" column on p.10) Like my
colleague Alfred Ganz who happily urged me to read it, I urge you to
do so too. It is all the more interesting for having been written by
a computer architect.

Among my educator readers it may stir thoughts about how the
unbroken abstraction of some courses could be leavened to motivating
effect by some tangibility, how laboratory instruction can most
usefully complement lectures, how a present timid re-emergence of
"kit culture" can best be fostered and taken advantage of.

In older readers it will stir happy thoughts of stereo equipment,
radio amateur gear, test equipment, even televisions, built from
kits, guided by manuals that by their instructional content and
clarity often stirred strong early interests in engineering, or just
led to a well-performing technical object, owned with enough
technical understanding to never require a repairman. Students
coming into engineering with that background 25-30 years ago had
already had an education in electrical/electronic principles,
magnitudes of electrical phenomena, and a hands-on familiarity with
assembly and basic measurement instruments that now has to be
justified and instilled much later. (In fairness I must add that
almost all those early hobbyists turned engineer were male, and that
it was with the advent of computers and programming that gender
asymmetry improved at least a little. Or was it a coincidental
relaxation of wider social gender biases?)

We can't all be so lucky as to be young in a field also young, but
it sure is nice, and ought to give EEs pause for thought about
where "youth" could come from these days, that could again engage
students before they even come to college? Is it biotechnology,
forms of portable computing or other "everyday computational
things"? Is it even still possible at all to have youthful
precursors to electrical engineering? Or is the field like those
older people whom one cannot imagine as ever having been infants?

My neighbor's kids are heavily "into" cars, and do not plan on
electrical engineering, but more likely forest management. If they
don't bend over engines under hoods of cars too much, they'll
probably grow up with their vertebrae in better shape.

All the best,  --PJK

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