"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Archive for June 2013

The Systems Approach to Forensic Investigation

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I like to say that I practice forensic electrical engineering as a hobby, working as a contract specialist for a local forensic engineering firm.  It fulfills my love of figuring out how things work, solving puzzles, inductive and deductive reasoning and helps keep my engineering license current as a bonus.

Most forensic investigations can be solved with what you might call first-level reasoning.  In a fire investigation, for example, you can use your knowledge of fire dynamics and fire chemistry to track the progress of the fire back to a likely area or point of origin.  Then you sift through the debris in the suspected area of origin to attempt to find an energy source.  Once you’ve located all the potential energy sources, you establish a series of hypothesis and test these against the evidence.  This leaves you with a predominant cause, with other less probable causes.  Further examination of the suspected causes will remove or confirm the remaining hypothesis.

As soon as your suspected cause includes an electrical source, this sometimes requires moving beyond first-level reasoning.  This is where a systems approach to investigation is important.

Sometimes you may identify an obvious electrical cause – a poor electrical connection that shows signs of heat damage in excess of the remainder of the fire, for example.  At that point, you may stop the electrical inquiry.  However, is an obvious cause does not present itself, but there is evidence of a possible electrical cause, the investigator has to take a systems approach.

The electrical wiring of a building always has to be viewed from a systems perspective.  An electrical engineer would call building wiring an electrical network, with sources, loads, and non-linear circuit components.  You don’t need to have the electrical lingo down to use a systems approach, which is the real benefit of a systems approach to investigation.  Any reasonably inquisitive person can carry through the process.

For example, the possible cause electrical device you are examining, is connected to a branch circuit which usually feeds a number of other devices.  In a home, almost every branch circuit will include lighting and  electrical outlets (with a few code-driven exceptions such as appliance circuits).  As the electrical current flows through that branch circuit, every attached device has the possibility of influencing the overall characteristics of the system.

Let’s say you find a short-circuit wired connection that is dead-centre in the area of origin, and the wiring displays characteristic signs of very high temperatures.  The first troubling question is why the over-current protective device, the circuit breaker, did not function to remove power?  Circuit breakers do a rather poor job protecting against anything but direct shorts, but in the case of a direct short a circuit breaker usually operates quite quickly.  So why did the circuit breaker not operate to clear the fault?

Your first urge will be to examine the circuit breaker which is a good urge, but it is important to consider the entire network between the service entrance and the fire area, including each of the devices along the way.  Anything interconnected with the branch circuit has the potential of limiting the flow of current to a point where the circuit breaker will not function quickly enough to clear the fault.

Ohm’s law gives a good first-order approximation for residential circuits: V=IR  (voltage equals current times resistance).

In a 120 volt circuit, if you have a dead short (say of 0.01 ohms), the current gets quite large. 120 V = I * (0.01 ohms)       I = 12,000 amperes  Which would cause a functional breaker to immediately operate.

In reality the wiring itself presents a resistive load to the branch circuit of perhaps a few ohms.  That needs to be considered in longer runs of wiring, or if the wiring was not done to code.  I’ll just ignore that at this point.

Now, assume that one of the electrical outlets installed along the branch circuit has a poor connection that is heating, but is not hot enough to cause a problem.  This can sometimes be caused by inexpensive outlets (bought at big-box stores) in work done by non-electricians, that do not use wire screws to attach the wires to the outlet, but rather use a ‘back stab’ connector that uses a spring to hold the wire in place.  These types of outlets should be banned outright, as they are too often causal in electrical problems.

If you insert the wire into the outlet, and then apply any force to the wire (like when pushing the outlet into the box) the wire will twist under the spring, which can impair the connection.  How much can the connection be impaired before it is a problem?  Considering my example of the short-circuit, and add in a series fault that adds a resistance of 5 ohms to the circuit (very small).

Now the total resistance seen by the fault current flow is 5.01 ohms, still quite small.  Look what happens to the current: V = IR, 120 V = I * (5.01 ohms),  I = 24 amperes

Now, even on a 15 amp circuit, that current will take some time to heat the breaker up to the point where it will trip.  Time that is measured in minutes, and not seconds.  Circuit breakers are really good at clearing high-current faults very quickly, but faults like this can last for a long period.  Long enough to start a fire.  (this is a very low power heat source, but it is easy to demonstrate higher powers in similar circumstances).

So, taking a systems approach requires that you examine every device between the service entrance and the suspected cause.  It also includes performing measurements whenever possible – what is the resistance between the service entrance and this device’s terminals?  What is the overall resistance of the circuit from the source (the breaker) to the end of the undamaged run of wiring?  (assuming the power is off, you short circuit the black and white wires at the last point of undamaged wire run, remove the breaker and carry out a resistance measurement between the black wire on the breaker, and the neutral bus.  You could also jumper to two sides of an electrical outlet together).


Written by sameo416

June 29, 2013 at 10:16 am

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Alan Myers Dead at Age 58

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Who is Alan Myers, you’re probably asking.

Myers was the drummer of the iconic punk group Devo, which I’ll admit openly was a major musical and philosophical influence on me throughout my teen years.

The group was ignored by ‘serious’ musicians and listeners as an oddity and a joke, but that was the listener’s loss. Devo’s music engaged some quite profound issues, and the band members are all deep thinkers.

For example, the song “It’s a Beautiful World” is a focused commentary on the constant failure of humanity to achieve greatness.  The closing images take you through one of the 1960/1970 nuclear survival videos in cartoon form, which powerfully underlines the message.

Likewise, Jocko Homo was a commentary on humanity, and creation vs evolution (long before that debate was popular).

They tell us that
We lost our tails
Evolving up
From little snails
I say it’s all
Just wind in sails
Are we not men?
We are DEVO! ….

god made man
but he used the monkey to do it
apes in the plan
we’re all here to prove it
i can walk like an ape
talk like an ape
do what a monkey do
god made man
but a monkey supplied the glue

The band members are outstanding musicians. I read an interview with Mark Mothersbaugh where the interviewer pointed out that Devo’s deconstructed music required a high degree of competence in all forms of music. You had to be able to play, before you could deconstruct the music to its fundamental components.

To a quick look, the music is silly and trite, and the videos hilarious.  That was a part of the message and the deconstruction that surrounded some serious questions, like consumerism – Freedom of Choice is another topic that I’ve preached a number of sermons around (without ever directly referencing Devo’s influence on my theology).  I guess I’m out of the Devo closet now.

In ancient Rome there was a poem

About a dog who found two bones

He picked at one He licked the other

He went in circles He dropped dead

Freedom of choice Is what you got Freedom of choice!

Last one, as a homework assignment – one that I still find disturbing as it deals with some fundamental questions about our ability to create false realities, Peek-a-Boo:

the way that we weren’t is what we’ll become
so please pay attention while i show you some
of what’s about to happen

i know what you do
cause i do it too

laugh if you want to or say you don’t care
if you cannot see it you think it’s not there
it doesn’t work that way

Devo released an album last year, Something for Everybody, which demonstrated their ability to continue to offer commentary on cultural realities.  The song, Human Rocket, provides a profound perspective into the mind of a suicide bomber:

I am a human rocket on a mission of destruction
I’ve been locked and loaded and ready for the confirmation
I am a human missile guided by a secret perfection
That commands my full conviction and wills me on my way

Large parts of the experience will go by unnoticed
We are all distracted by the lights and sounds of everything and nothing
Do you remember the breath you took when they let you off the hook?
And sent you swimming away back into your cell?

I am a human rocket on a mission of reduction
I’ve been cocked and loaded since the dawn of time
I am a human missile guided by a secret voice
That commands my every thought and deed and wills me on my righteous way

Alan Myers – we’re all Devo. RIP.



Written by sameo416

June 27, 2013 at 10:17 am

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George Orwell on Writing Well

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But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you – even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent – and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

One can cure oneself of the not un-formation by memorizing this sentence:

A not unblack dog was chasing a not unsmall rabbit across a not ungreen field.

 – George Orwell, Politics and the English Language.

Written by sameo416

June 18, 2013 at 7:21 pm

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Success through Failure: King David’s Human Side

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“So Solomon sat on the throne of his father David; and his kingdom was firmly established” 1 Kings 2:12

In his book, “Success through Failure” engineer Henry Petroski asserts that, “failure, not success…is the true touchstone of design.” Petroski is speaking of bridges but this thought is as true for we people of faith as it is for structural steel. It is the times we do not do God’s will that teach us the most about our faith.

The transition of David’s dynasty to his son Solomon is one filled with intrigue and spilled blood. Yet too often David and Solomon are seen as almost saintly figures whose perfection is held up for Christians to emulate. In his dream speech to God, Solomon continues this pretence by saying that his father was blessed because he, “walked before God in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward God…”. (1 Kgs 3:6)

Wait a minute. Is this the same David who stole another man’s wife, ordered his murder (and others), and refused to serve justice over the rape of Tamar? We are witnessing some royal gilding of the lily by Solomon, who stands with a straight face before the Almighty and witnesses to David’s greatness.

Solomon himself has secured the throne with three murders, a banishment, and intermarriage with an Egyptian princess, all actions that don’t receive a high approval rating in the Old Testament. Yet Solomon continues his oration calling himself, “…only a little child…” and humbly asking for wisdom.

We reduce these nuanced and complex figures to 2-dimensional flannel-graph images with a simple moralistic story to back up the felt. David was a good king and God blessed him so if you’re a good person God will bless you as well. These men are far too complex to be reduced to any simple moralistic story that we can package up and pass on as a kind of “chicken soup for the new king” story on how to live a Godly life. Our reality is a little more nuanced.

Solomon is residing on the throne not as a result of David’s somewhat variable, “faithfulness, righteousness, and uprightness of heart”, and certainly not as a result of his own great humility. Solomon resides on his father’s throne because God has placed him there in spite of all he has done.

This distinction is an essential one for us to understand. Rather than high and mighty figures that present us with unattainable levels of holiness, David and Solomon are very human figures who continually go astray from the righteous path. They are of far more use to us this way than the sanitized images of our Sunday School flannel-graph presentations, for as powerful people who struggle to do right, but still do wrong, David and Solomon are models of each of us.

David and Solomon, in this clear light, help us to understand Paul’s words when he says, “For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (Romans 7:18-19) In understanding their struggles following God we find help and solace in our own struggles, as we live in this troubling world and work to “understand what the will of the Lord is” (Ephesians 5:17b).

What is even more important than grasping the image of these two flawed men is God’s response. God does not reject their failing attempts to follow His law but rather says that David was a man after His own heart (1 Samuel 13:14). This is not because David was perfect but because he kept trying to be perfect, even though he failed. The response of God to that effort is to bless, to encourage and to remain in relationship.

This is great news for us. It doesn’t matter what you have done for the blessing of God is there because you keep on trying and not only if you achieve some level of perfection. Like designing bridges, it is in our failures that we learn what it truly means to be a follower of Christ. Like David and Solomon even when we fail and especially when we fail, that forgiveness will be there to encourage us to keep on struggling, and to keep on seeking God.

Written by sameo416

June 17, 2013 at 8:02 pm

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Science, then religion; Religion, then science?

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We have heard, and continue to hear, of the supposed acrimony that exists between science and religion. These debates seem to start fully polarized, with one (the fundamentalist scientist) accusing the other of irrationality; and the other (the fundamentalist religious type) asserting that only faith is necessary. What we learn from this exchange is that fundamentalism is a divisive mode of thought equally present in both science and faith.

There is another position which asserts there is little difference between the scientist and the person of faith. This argument is based entirely on a false dichotomy created by those who understand little of the theology of science, or the science of theology.

At its fundamental level, both science and theology are based on a similar set of assumptions about creation: There are things unknown, mystery beyond present comprehension; that these things can become known; that when things become known, this serves to open up awareness of new mysteries not previously considered; and that awareness spawns the next set of great questions.

That attitude very much informs both the Christian and the scientist, and makes possible a synergy of the two: the scientist-Christian. What enables that approach is the love of mystery that necessarily undergirds each pursuit: the Christian’s search for the face of God; and the scientist’s endless quest to answer the next great question. Both, if they are being honest and true to themselves, will admit that the greatest joy comes not from answering a question, but rather from discovering that each new truth reveals even deeper mystery.

This is what invigorates and motivates me in any pursuit: theology, engineering or (more recently) administrative law. To know that each answer begets yet further and deeper mystery and that it is the delight of those mysteries, and the quest for understanding, that brings meaning and vitality to both a life of faith and a life of science.

The false dichotomy created by this age, which places faith and rationality completely at odds with each other, is predicated on two fundamental lies. First that a person of science can not have faith except by selling out their intellectual honesty; and second that a person of faith can not accept any of the teachings arising out of science, except by selling out their simple faith. This false dichotomy fails to acknowledge the essential place of mystery for both the priest and the scientist. It fails to recognize that the two perspectives have far more in common than in difference, and that ultimately, all mystery leads back to God.

Without mystery, there is no need for science. With nothing else to research, no more diseases to cure, science becomes…well, much like religion without faith – a system of beliefs which exists only to perpetuate itself through the assertion of dogma. So we end up dogmatically asserting only Newton explains motion, and that his truths are unchanging. Unchanging…until the next explosion of discovery reveals our dogma to be only part-truth, and an area of thought never considered arises from the ashes of our previous certainty (relativistic motion in that case).

Similarly, without mystery, there is no need for faith. If we fully understand the mind of God, the mystery of His great creation, why is there any need for questing, for difficult community, for prayer, discernment or for endless dialogue on the great questions? Religion, without an intrinsic sense of mystery, becomes nothing more than a system of dogmatic, unchanging belief which seeks only to perpetuate itself.

So, at their best, both science and faith rest firmly on a bed of mystery. It is that mystery that drives those who seek to know, who seek only to understand the next question to be asked. At their worst, both faith and science become empty structures that seek only to impose their brand of dogma, and to seek conformity regardless of the surrounding reality.

So a person of faith who says, “I know God completely,” is missing the mystery. A scientist who asserts, “The science on this is closed,” is wilfully blinding themselves to the mystery that surrounds their discipline. With both the pursuit of God, and pursuit of scientific discovery, the final chapter remains eternally unwritten.

For a person of science, as well as a person of faith, it is in knowing about the unknown that drives them forward. In the end, perhaps, these two journeys are not that different, and perhaps both seek the same face of God, just in different guise.

Written by sameo416

June 17, 2013 at 8:01 pm

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Who is Your Parachute?

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Matt“Speed”, “Cameras”, “Eject!” With that final word the test engineer in the cab of a truck speeding down an airport runway flicked a button that fired a rocket motor. That motor lifted a pilot-escape seat off the truck bed 150 metres into the air, where a parachute was supposed to inflate, gently lowering the test dummy to the ground. We were evaluating improvements to an older pilot-escape seat used by the Snowbird Air Demonstration Team.

We carefully planned every detail of our testing, as each test run was very costly. We worked hard to create around us a reality that made success highly likely. On that day, when a Discovery Channel film crew was present, that careful reality fell apart. The parachute did not open, the dummy did not leave the seat, and the whole mass arced high in the air and then crashed onto the concrete runway, showering bits of dummy, ejection seat and parachute over a wide area.

That engineering test can teach us something about our spiritual lives. While your life may have been going along without a hitch, like our test program to that point, eventually something fails. Like our test dummy, instead of a soft landing you and everything around you comes crashing down. There is nothing left but pieces. Crawling out of the wreckage we emerge dishevelled and disoriented and uncertain which way is the road home. These times always remind me of Dorothy emerging from her cyclone-swept farmhouse to say, “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”

For an engineer, a badly failed test yields more information than one that spectacularly succeeds. By studying the failure and putting the pieces back together, you gain wisdom to design better and stronger systems for the future. In our lives after loss, disease or a failed relationship has left us an emotional wasteland, that same process works. God uses our darkest times to help us to learn, to grow and to become stronger. As Kipling wrote (in a poem known to all engineers) failure is followed by rebuilding, “That we – by which sure token, We know Thy ways are true – Because of being broken, May rise and build anew. Stand up and build anew!”

Our comfort, in the midst of those frightening times, is that we are living out a cycle experienced by all God’s people throughout time. Understanding that this very Godly cycle of * creation – destruction – chaos – recreation * applies to each of our lives helps to keep us anchored when everything becomes storm-tossed and grey. Even in the midst of a Kansas moment when we emerge a little dizzy, knowing that we are part of an ageless cycle that all God’s people live through brings comfort and assurance.

For the great sufferer Job, who lost it all but was blessed in the end, this cycle is plain to see. From flocks and family – to the death of everyone he loved – to the ash heap with a potshard – and back into blessing, Job’s story retells the cycle we have all lived. The critical thing missed in Job’s happy ending is Job himself. While he receives blessings, flocks, gold rings and many children these things all come to a man who has already lost it all. Can the happy ending of Job erase the laughter of each dead child or the touch of a beloved wife who is now no more? These things will be a part of Job for as long as he draws breath. His new strength comes, not from forgetting the loss, but by rebuilding to include the loss.

Our real spiritual growth comes out of those Kansas moments when everything we had planned now needs to be discarded and built anew. Out of the pain and loss of that chaos, God will bring us into reorientation and help us to find the stronger spirituality that exists through the loss. Our comfort comes from knowing that however long we may spend in Kansas, days, months or years, that re-creation will come with God’s help. Like our test dummy, smashed into pieces that we then picked up, repaired and re-assembled, God will likewise pick up the pieces of our life and gently reassemble them. It is through that loss, and through the failure, that we grow into the people that God calls us to be.

Written by sameo416

June 17, 2013 at 8:01 pm

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“…they may be one as we are one…” a Pentecost Reflection

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I penned this reflection after reviewing a case of the B.C. Court of Appeal, Bentley v. The Diocese of New Westminster. The case set out by the court, “…tests the ability of the members of four Anglican parishes to remove themselves from a diocese of the Anglican Church”. This desire for separation contrasts strongly with God’s Pentecost call to unity in the Spirit.

God’s people have a long history of taking extreme measures to protect the church. The Great Schism involved mutual separation to protect east from west, and west from east. The Reformation carved off portions of the western church to save it, for the sake of the Gospel. The modern era with some 38,000 Christian sects confirms the popularity of physical separation to protect. Even full communion with our Lutheran brethren has not changed us in a fundamental, structural way, as an undiminished compliment of overseers and church offices attests.

Does the mystical church, Christ’s body, require our intervention to safeguard it? Will Christ fall if we fail to carve out every hint of sickness through violent separation? Does our mystical consumption of the one bread in our divided “churches” undo the real physical fracture we have welcomed?

Acts 2 recalls a gathering of God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When the apostles speak each Jew hears not just their language, but their dialect. There is no sameness in this group, but unity in difference because of the one Spirit. When the gathered Jews ask what to do, Peter replies: “Repent and be baptized…in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit…”

This membership test of the true church requires but two actions from those who answer: repent and be baptized. God’s response is the gift of the Holy Spirit. There is no further test of belief or creed required! God’s Pentecost reality is that church is not an institution and the Spirit is not poured out onto a building; but on every individual who responds to Peter’s call. With that image of unity, why do we insist on safeguarding the salvation of our church through physical division?

It is a powerful message of what is church: not an institution, a street address, a figurehead, but everyone who repents and is baptized. There is no Jew or Greek; no Anglican or Lutheran; no orthodox or liberal; or BCP or BAS in Peter’s call – so why is it so in our world? Could it be that we place such value on our corporate structures, working groups and reports that we are willing to divide Christ’s body to sustain what was never alive in Christ? Does the Holy Spirit reside within the Anglican Church of Canada? The Diocese? That church building on the corner? Or is it with all those who have answered Peter’s call, however they may gather? In Acts 2, the answer is clear.

Written by sameo416

June 17, 2013 at 8:00 pm

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"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.