grouperlab

Get, share, and use information well

Category: Decision making

Inertial Damping

I have been thinking a lot about damping lately.  To be specific, inertial damping.  You know, that aspect of your hybrid electric car’s regenerative braking system that recharges your batteries while you stop?  Or the gyroscopic properties of a bicycle wheel that keeps you moving forward instead of falling over when you turn?  Yeah, that stuff.  People think about that all the time, don’t they?  No?

This is what happens when a geek starts talking about their internal thought processes, and especially since I recently talked about postcards from the future, maybe I do need to explain my terms.  Apparently, one of the first things I need to do is to explain that I am not talking about “inertial dampening,” which, as far as I can tell, is a science fiction plot device highly likely to get yourself into a fight with physicists for dissing their man Newton.    That’s not my focus today.  I’m trying to take a real physics and engineering term, and see how application of that term in a complex human setting helps me design, analyze, or improve sociotechnical systems in a more effective way… because that’s something that engineers do.

Actually, I started thinking about damping a lot based on a question that someone asked me at the end of the Jefferson Science Fellowship (JSF) lecture I gave on January 24.  (For reference, the point of this lecture is to summarize the general area of work that each Fellow does, both for the policy audience of the State Department and Agency for International Development, and for the scientific audience of the National Academies.)  I spoke about information flow and distributed expertise (because that’s something I do), including the challenges of appropriate coordination during event response for either physical (civil unrest, natural disaster) or cyber-physical (network or security operations) events.  I got quite a few questions, as well as invitations for additional discussions with various groups across the State Dept.  This was a very good feeling, in that it gave me the sense that some people could finally hear some of what I have been trying to study and communicate for years.

However, that does come with a price: when one of those people asks a question, can I give an answer that they understand and know what to do with it?  In essence, that was the challenge when someone asked me a damping question.  (They didn’t really ask it as a damping question, but since I am likely to see lots of things as connected feedback control systems, it’s not surprising that I heard it as one.)

If you have a large bureaucratic organization which lives on sending lots of messages to lots of people for their opinion and approval (aka “clearance”), don’t you run the risk of taking too long to respond to emerging, critical timeline events?

That’s a very reasonable question.  And it takes me immediately to thoughts about damping.  Imagine your new event as some sort of input function.  However, the event isn’t always purely evident immediately, and it doesn’t just go from off to on instantaneously.  There might be multiple events that may or may not be related to each other.  You want your response (output function) to match the demands of the input function.  The engineering version of this problem is one of “critical damping”.  If your damping ratio is too high (over 1), your response to the new event is very slow.  Although you may never over-respond to the event, it takes you a long time to actually respond to the event, and in fact, you may fail to do what needs to be done within the deadlines (people need fresh water and shelter and warmth within a matter of hours to days, or they die).  We tend to assume that faster is always better.  However, there is a limit / problem with that, which we now understand from the world of social media.  Someone can respond *too quickly* with *too little* information, and be unable to tell the difference between the actual event that needs to be responded, and some distractor or misinformation.  (Remember, I’m not trying to be political here, but since the lecture was just a few days after the Inauguration, I may have made a reference to a social media event or two.)  This would be an example of having a damping ratio that is too low (close to 0), which is a different problem.  (You might ask what is the inertial property here.  Well, I have talked in the past about knowledge as “little inertial balls of expertise,” in the sense that expertise allows you to devote energy to efficient processing of the world and move to where you need to go in the future.)  People going off on their first impression without checking sources or others’ understanding would be an “underdamped” response (damping ratio too low), which can be just as bad (but in a different way ) than a bureaucratic, “overdamped” response (damping ratio too high) that takes too long and doesn’t want to risk or challenge anything for fear of being wrong.

In essence, an effective inertial damper takes energy that comes at you, with bounces and noise and possible confusion that you don’t want to respond too much to, and turn it into energy that works for you in a time frame that makes for the tasks you need to do.  That sounds great, and it’s a very interesting problem to work on.  Perhaps the additional challenge is, How do I apply this to my own life?  As much as I enjoy a string of fist-pumping, high-fiving successes in a non-athletic context,   there is the challenge of appropriately damped responses when shifting from State Dept. to Purdue stuff.  Reminder to Barrett: it’s not good to try to do two full-time jobs simultaneously for long periods, and I am feeling now the stress of trying to complete a large number of Purdue (or Indiana Space Grant) activities after spending all day working on Japan Desk activities.  In fact, that stress might be better described as hysteresis, rather than damping.  (Discuss.)  More accurately, damping is the ability to take the frustration of emails and news feed updates and channel that energy into productive work, such as a book chapter, or journal manuscript, or even a blog entry.   Like this one.

Superposition

With a flourish and frenzy of activity, the cycle has completed itself and begun once more.  This week, of course, was particularly hectic.  On Tuesday, we in GROUPER were pleased to celebrate Liang’s successful defense of her dissertation (now to finish the writing!), and after a 2-hour lab meeting, I went home and got some pleasure reading in.  Wednesday was a travel day, with challenges of unstable weather leading to one canceled flight, and ground stops due to ramp closures at both the start and finish of the second leg of the trip.  Hours late, but with the air cooled from the rain, I finally finished the trip and got home for a good night’s sleep.

 

“Hold it.  You were at home, then you got stuck during thunderstorms, and finished the trip, and went home?  Did you not get to your destination?  Was your trip canceled?”

 

Even as I write this entry, there is a type of surrealism about this week.  I’m sitting in one of the chairs I have had for over five years, with Amber on my lap, looking at her cat tree and food and a bunch of other items I clearly recognize.  The window still faces east, but the image is different: instead of an empty parking lot across the street, I see a tall tree and an office building.  In other words, the shift has now occurred.  Amber and I have moved to Washington, DC to start my position as a Jefferson Science Fellow.  My first day is next Monday, and I have begun enjoying the exploration of the neighborhoods of McPherson Square and Thomas Circle, and picking up coffee and pastry and fruit at the White House Street Market.

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Amber exploring the new window view

My world is changing significantly, and yet some things remain consistent.  I am still an engineering faculty member, but I am thinking about a completely different set of issues this August compared to last August.  Our lab meeting addressed a very interesting topic based on students’ recent experiences, and one that I will be considering very hard in the coming months.  Academia, government, and industry are considered vastly different places, and representing wildly divergent career paths for those with PhDs.  And yet, we’re taught (and have first hand experience) that a variety of people all craft their actions, decisions, and processing of information based on perceived risks, costs, and outcome benefits.  There’s only one challenge.  The benefits that drive most industry teams (profit—hey, I hear the new Aston Martins are really nice) don’t come into play at all for most academic or government folks, and the primary risk keeping academic folks up at night (someone already published my idea in that journal I love!) don’t seem to bother industry or government people much.  A government employee may complain bitterly about the costs of having to work 5-10 hours of overtime one week; many academics and industry research folks take a 60-70 hour average work week as pretty much standard.

 

You may notice that the website (http://www.grouperlab.org) looks very different than a few months ago; that took us a while to work through.  Elliott, our wonder-undergrad, did a pretty thorough redesign and architecture job, but what was more important was not just the scripting language or tab sequences.  We went back to a very basic question: who comes to our lab’s website?  Three different types of groups (yes, it’s that “use case” thing) want distinct types of information, at varying grain sizes.  Even our own GROUPER alums represent different types of interaction profiles.  We’ve got government employees seeing how our work can inform improvements for federal agencies.  GROUPERs are also rising up the ranks in industry, and may be in a position to hire a new or recent grad (in this sense, GROUPER is definitely a distinct and valued brand).  With the lab’s traditional gender mix (somewhere approaching 2/3 female), it’s not surprising that a number of alumnae list their primary function right now as “Mom”.  I see no reason to hide that, or feel guilty or ashamed to highlight such life pathways.  If everything is a system, and GROUPERs look at information everywhere, can’t those skills be applied to everything from medical information use for family members, to understanding the daily experiences of neurodiversity, to getting a front-row seat to the miracles of how humans develop broad processes of learning and skill development sets in ways that still challenge our most sophisticated machine learning algorithms.

 

Over the next few months, the GROUPER blog will be more active again, but it won’t be focusing as much just on our current lab research.  We’re still researching, of course, but we have other stories to tell, and other forms of impact and effect to consider for how we get, share, and use the information we’ve been gathering and lessons we’ve been learning.  Thanks for visiting us again after our quiet period.  Hey, it gets busy learning how to be in multiple places at once.

 

Filling in the Blanks

How can it be that it’s been nearly 18 months since my last blog entry?  Well, I could wax philosophic, and point out that the path to such an outcome is like the path to other, more positive outcomes.  It’s an accumulation of daily habits, and a series of perhaps small, but sometimes very distinct, decisions.  So, a bit of a review of what’s been happening, and what lessons can be drawn from both the period of silence and what has filled that silence.

 

I’m a big fan of waiting for a big, dramatic highlight to emphasize in an announcement.  Back in November, 2014, I was applying for a campus-level directorship position; I was pretty excited about the opportunity, and the ways that I could use my skills to connect research, and STEM engagement, and educational improvements at K-12 and university levels.  I thought I was going to get the position.  I didn’t.  In retrospect, it’s not necessarily that I was a bad candidate for the job, but a bad match for the view (by others) of what the job needed.  This is actually an important distinction, and I am convinced that I had never actually seen the idea of not being selected for a position in that light before.   Well, a few weeks of anticipation were followed by days of anger and frustration, which in turned into a more circumspect view of job searches and candidate interviews no longer just being about showing that someone is “good enough” to be considered.  Imagine that all of the finalists may be “good enough,” in some generic sense, but every complex job is a combination of factors on a very large vector of possible criteria (utility), where different people involved in the selection (stakeholders) have different ideas of the importance (weights) of the criteria, and decide what “best” looks like (stakeholders maximizing their objective function according to their multi-attribute utility weighting).  I was a really good candidate for one version of the job.  I wasn’t the best candidate for another version of the job.  That doesn’t make me a good or bad candidate overall, and certainly not a bad person.  An important lesson to learn, but not one I was ready to write about in Spring 2015.

 

The lab was going through a significant shift in 2014-15, both conceptually and physically.  We spent the first half of calendar 2015 in Wang Hall, learning how to conduct a different type of meeting with a different configuration of students (three new, first year grad students with only four or five continuing students).  We’re back in Grissom Hall as of August 2015, but the only thing about the building that’s stayed the same on the inside is the walls and bricks and windows framing the building’s outer boundary.  And we’ve had to learn an even more interesting set of dynamics: we are now at a point where much of the lab’s activity officially qualifies as a distributed enterprise.  Dissertation-writing students are working in industry, and other doctoral students are doing co-ops, internships, and other work in multiple time zones.  Lab meetings and 1:1 individual interactions are more likely to occur in Google Hangouts than Grissom 335 (my new office) or the GROUPER dedicated lab space (which doesn’t exist).  So, we have had to learn new lessons about information alignment and distributed knowledge sharing.  That’s a topic for another entry, coming soon.

 

Believe it or not, the lesson learned about being a good candidate vs. a matching candidate for the job had to be taught to me again in 2015.  This time, the position was a campus administrative post, and again, I thought I was a very good match for a visionary leadership role in a broadly influential and interdisciplinary approach to the future of the campus.  Great, right?  Except that this objective function was apparently not aligned with the utility vector of critical stakeholders.    This is neither good nor bad, in itself.  (Remember what you just told them, Barrett.)  I do believe that the transition from anger to acknowledgement happened faster this time, and to be honest, it’s a lesson that does need a very strong reinforcement over multiple administrations for me to actually learn the meaning well.

 

Oh, there’s some outcome productivity in terms of field visits, and journal papers, and GROUPER degree completions.  However, I wouldn’t suggest scheduling MS thesis defenses by multiple students on consecutive days.  We succeeded last summer, and now the number of GROUPER MS thesis grads exceeds 30.  But I’m not likely to try that again soon—it’s a lot of reading, and a MS thesis is often as much a test and oral exam for the advisor as for the student.

 

In the end, I’m better off for it, and I think we in the lab have learned a number of very important and valuable lessons.  It can be dangerous if someone gets too much in the habit of doing without considering, or acting without accepting that both “success” and “failure” can be a benefit or blessing.  One of the challenging, and yet extremely beneficial, outcomes is that the two interviews required me to very explicitly consider the question of how to manage the lab, and in essence, examine what was an appropriate “carrying capacity” of GROUPER at this stage of my career.  (I’m probably more active than ever before, with GROUPER work and GROUPERs in 2015 supported by five federal agencies—AHRQ, FAA, NASA, NSF, VA; it’s not yet the “riding into the sunset” that I had previously considered.)  We’ve been practicing skills that I see in increasing frequency in industry, but not as much in academia—how to become easy and fluent with a team operating across geography, knowledge domain, and a variety of external constraints to be focused and robust to a variety of communication channel capabilities.

 

More coming soon.  I’m expecting a big announcement in a week or so.  No, really.