grouperlab

Get, share, and use information well

Category: Personal philosophy

Origin Story

(This took a couple extra weeks to write and post.  Hey, it’s a busy time of year.)

When I was young I thought of growing old,

And what my life would mean to me…

Would I have travelled down my chosen road,

Or only wished what I could be…

“Kyrie,” Mr. Mister

 

This spring has been an interesting time of innovation and re-imagination, both locally and more broadly.  Although I will not be taking a flight to Wakanda in the near future, I was obviously very intrigued by the Black Panther “origin story.”  Living out one’s origin story is hard, in part, for one simple reason: no matter how seriously or strongly one feels one’s passion, the subject of the story has to live their lives forward in time.   The movie scriptwriter and director can work backwards based on the story they want to tell (and the events they already know will be important for the story arc).

ATL_wakanda

Figure 1: Flight to Wakanda sign, Atlanta airport (credit: CNN)

Unexpectedly, I have had the chance to consider my own origin story over the past few weeks—not just because of the opportunity to reconnect with history, but the ability to see in the present how pieces of the story fit together to tie present and past (and maybe, to tie past and present to future).

 

Bring to mind, if you will, a moment from your childhood where many things were possible, and you felt that a hero or heroine was speaking directly to you and your imagination of what you “want to be when you grow up”.  I remember begging my parents to let me stay up late on Christmas Eve when I was six years old-not to wait for Santa Claus, or listen for reindeer, but to listen to astronauts speak for the first time from the orbit of the moon.  The following Christmas, one shouldn’t be surprised that I had an Apollo Saturn V model (like this one, shown below) waiting for me on Christmas morning.

 

REVELL SATURN V ORIGINAL BOX ART

Figure 2: Saturn rocket model, 1969: photo from http://fantastic-plastic.com/REVELL%20SATURN%20V%20PAGE.htm

 

It’s critical to recognize that things rarely work out this clearly or directly; I meet people my age and older who still ask the question of what they want to be.  (Sometimes, that’s about the awareness that life takes us on different paths; sometimes, it’s an admission that even as our bodies get older, we don’t always feel like we’ve “grown up”.  Wasn’t “grown up” supposed to mean that things made sense, or were more clear, or had resolved all the youthful uncertainty?  Apparently not.)  But, nonetheless, imagine such a moment.  And now imagine that a chance to see and hear that hero appears in your email inbox, in the form of an invitation: come see a panel discussion by the crew of Apollo 8 for a book launch about their mission to the Moon.  The opportunity sells out, as would be expected… but not before I have my tickets.  I’m off to Chicago, to hear about the Earthrise photo and the Christmas Eve message and, and, and…

This is the event that made me, and gave me the life I live today.  This is primary inspiration.

I arrive at the Museum of Science and Industry in time to work through the line, and find a seat, before the lights go down.

 

IMG_6413

Figure 3: Barrett at the MSI, with NASA SG Jacket

 

The movie director and screenwriter in my head can create a scene for the event, but that’s not really how it works out.  I’m not called out, or accidentally run into Frank Borman in the hallway, or finding myself shaking Bill Anders’ hand.  (As it turns out, I’d already seen and Jim Lovell before, so what does that say about leading a fairly special existence?)   However, is this really something that I can mark as a failure or disappointment?  I am learning more of what it was to them to be an inspiration to the world, as well as the inspiration and impact they felt to see all of human existence out their window in a single frame, knowing that they were the first to do so.  They are telling the story so that the director and screenwriter are stunned into silence.  The crew describes the surprises, and serendipity, and nearly sacred experience, as they experienced it and as they remembered it: living their lives forward, rather than worrying about the director’s intention.

 

IMG_6419

Figure 4: Apollo 8 crew

And what about me?  Well, I am wearing my NASA Space Grant jacket, with the iconic “meatball” logo.  Not surprisingly, that gets some attention: a few people ask if I work for NASA; I’m much better now at saying “yes”.  After taking a look (and some picture) at the Apollo 8 Command Module (and a framed and signed version of Earthrise), I am approached by a woman with a clipboard.  Would I mind being videotaped for the Museum about the Apollo 8 event?  Of course.  I’m excited: perhaps too excited to answer the questions smoothly or calmly, I try to express the excitement of being able to be reminded of my origin story…

 

If the director in my head were managing this story, I would probably have finished here.  But surprisingly, there is more.  The very next day, there was an awards dinner for Engineering faculty, and I was awarded the Engagement and Service Award.  I did not expect or anticipate video testimonials describing my effect and impact, through Indiana Space Grant and the senior capstone projects. I am unable to refute the messages or their meaning; I see no reason to reject the story anymore.  And a week later, I am back at the Indiana FIRST Robotics State Championships, watching the excitement and tension of the competition in one of Indiana’s historic high school gymnasiums.  This is new history being made, of course: the students are vying for the chance to represent Indiana at the World Championships in Detroit, where the NFL draft has taken a backseat in an NFL city to the prior commitment of K-12 students and their robots.  A total of 15 teams earn their opportunities that day, including brand new teams and teams of underdogs who have overcome negative assumptions and lowered expectations to win awards of excellence.  It feels like a small thing, for INSGC to offer financial support to help them on their journey.  Who knows which of them will remember this month as part of their origin story, and the events that set them on the path for a life beyond their imagination, and successes not yet dreamed.

IMG_6536

Figure 5:  Detroit FIRST Championships, Einstein Round Robin.  There is an origin story being written out here.

The Last Weekend, Part 2: Bumping into Bits of History

Now that the calendar has actually turned over to August, reality is starting to set in: last weekend’s relaxed enjoyment and exploration really is the final full weekend in Washington, DC of my tenure as a Jefferson Science Fellow.   In some ways, it feels like the time at the end of a party: people are starting to say their good-byes, but no one has actually left yet.  There is also the question of leaving early and maybe missing something, or staying until the very end with the hosts wondering, “When will this guy ever leave?”  In the social media era, people seem to talk about this as FOMO, but there is another concern in play here.

 

One of the local public / community radio stations here in Washington is WPFW; they are one of my options for jazz music.  (As I just mentioned in the blog a couple of days ago, I have a long personal history with jazz.)  An interesting piece of spoken jazz was in fact a parable: imagine an insect (ant or beetle) navigating on one of the most beautifully designed, luxuriously tufted, exquisitely crafted Oriental rugs ever created.  However, this insect has lived its entire life with the tufts and weaves of the rug, and only sees the tufts and knots as problems confronting it and degrading its existence.  The insect has never had the chance, or thought, to raise up its perspective to look down on the beauty and wonder of the pattern of the rug, and so it laments as burden what we would see as splendor.  Poor, foolish insect.  However…

 

Things have been very hectic at work over the past few weeks.  Offices at the State Department are used to turnover during the summer, where people head off to embassies and consulates across the world, and others return back from those locations to take up work here in Washington.  Those rearrangements don’t always mesh smoothly; right now, we’re down a few folks. Combined with travel, it meant that there were only two of us around in my particular unit for a while, and one was tied up with logistics for a very high profile event.  Last Thursday, that event came to fruition, with lots of last minute frenzy and scheduling nightmares and trying to navigate 100 people through a maze of hallways and elevators into a room that holds 80.  What could possibly be worth all of this?

IMG_5427

Figure 1. William F. Hagerty IV sworn in as US Ambassador to Japan by VPOTUS Pence.

Not surprisingly, the official naming of an Ambassador is a pretty significant historical event, especially when the Vice President of the United States (VPOTUS) does the swearing in ceremony.  It takes a few moments of someone not yet jaded by the process (a foreign affairs intern) to put it in perspective: even with the challenges, “you’re experiencing history”.  In the Old Executive Office Building (the Indian Treaty Room).  With dignitaries.

 

Situations like this can be trivialized with the goal of trying to diminish their historic significance or my involvement in them, but over time, I have come to realize that this actually doesn’t have the effect that I had originally intended.  Sometimes a moment ends up with more impact than is intended, such as a young boy from Arkansas meeting a US President.  They can even be played up to fictional excess, such as Forrest Gump’s unintentional influence on history.  But let’s dial that back a bit.  The event was what it was.  There were other people who felt this particular ceremony very important to attend, which of course makes it more special for those who were there…

IMG_5438

Figure 2. L-R: Sen. Corker, Amb. Hagerty, VPOTUS Pence, Mrs. Hagerty, Sen. Alexander

Particularly, if you happen to be from Tennessee, as the Hagertys are (although the Ambassador’s mother still prefers U. Kentucky basketball, but thinks Gallatin is a better place to witness the Great American Eclipse than Hopkinsville), this is a pretty significant bit of history to experience.

 

On Sunday, I saw a person on the National Mall wearing a t-shirt, “I am Black History”.  I can become easily overloaded by such a statement, even though I do actually have a t-shirt that says, “I am kind of a big deal” (thanks, Keena!).  No, I could never wear such a shirt!  I didn’t do this, or that, or whatever else… I’m not these people:

Katherine+G+Johnson+President+Obama+Presents+6K4sUCOPe3ll

Figure 3. NASA Legend Kathrine Johnson receives Medal of Freedom from POTUS Obama.

 

But, as Kathrine Johnson said, history is what each of us does, every day.  I am reminded of this quote from meeting her daughters earlier this year:

IMG_20170303_191425410_HDR

Figure 4. NASA Program Manager Allen, Kathrine Johnson’s Daughters Katherine and Joylette, BSC

Yes, there have been a number of such experiences—not just during this fellowship, but in my own past.  Apparently, I keep bumping into bits of history in the rug.  I should not minimize the value of getting a sense of perspective on them, or lament my interactions with them.  From a different vantage, the beauty and value of the pattern is hard to ignore.

 

 

Returning to Practice

I’ve been interviewing Millennials for work.

 

In one sense, that is no surprise at all.  Many of the students applying for graduate programs stay in the same age range.  I have, by contrast, gotten older.  Incoming students who were approximately my age (or older) are now the age of my children (or younger).  This is the nature of the cycle of life (cue the music from “The Lion King,” which is now considered “Classic Disney”).  So, why was this experience different?

 

First, and most important, was that I was not interviewing people for work in the Lab.  These were postdoctoral fellows applicants for Department of State positions.  The vast majority of them are still just a few years from their PhD dissertation, experiencing a very different world and context than I did when I was interviewing for my first faculty position.  Well, that suggests another difference: I interviewed for a faculty position, and never seriously considered a postdoc.  I have spent months engaged with discussions of the role of scientists and engineers engaged in Science Diplomacy, and the interplay of innovation and policy—quite frankly, the education I had come to Washington to have in this very interesting and challenging period.  These folks aren’t being recruited to work on my favorite projects, or to have exactly the sort of background I would like a GROUPER to have… but there was still a request from my unit chief for what sorts of people to identify in the stack of resumes and personal statements.

 

Signs of life.

 

I was starting to wonder about what that would look like in this context, and in fact, I was starting to question if my time away from the university had left me cynical or unable to see beyond my own narrow daily priorities.  Maybe it was a broader sense of unease with the sudden transition from a snowstorm in late March to 90 degree days in late April.  Where and how and when was I operating?  (I had come to feel a certain sense of stress and negative anticipation regarding my transition back to Purdue, starting in late March when I was requested to provide new course syllabi for my Fall classes.  There are new opportunities for next academic year, but after eight months here in Washington, I am neither ready to start right back in on the academic world, nor think in terms of another full annual cycle of activity here.)

 

And yet, my unit chief wanted me to not only be involved in the interviews, but to craft a few questions for them.  It was, as I have said before, a bit different to operate in support of others, instead of being my own “Principal,” but that is part of my learning these days.  I’ve also been learning a lot about the differences in cultures of science, and hearing about the distinct experiences of what I have come to call, “Millennial Scholars” (those who may be part of the generation born in 1985 or later, but also have completed their advanced STEM degree programs since 2010).  I’ve even produced a few of those people myself, but I already knew enough not to look for people just like Ashley or Karim or Marissa or Jeff (or those who are in the lab now).  The discussions in the AAAS meetings in Boston and Washington still had an immediacy and curiosity to me: I was meeting so many people interested in a concept, science policy, that I had long thought was an oxymoron.  Why were they interested in this?  What new was going on?

 

What are the challenges and opportunities, strengths and weaknesses, of these Millennial Scholars?

 

This is, in my experience with the lab, a “signs of life” question.  Signs of life it had become a part of my thinking at a time where spring is definitely upon us in Washington.  I’m walking much more around the city again, and over the past few weeks, I have been able to enjoy the cherry blossoms and new plants and warm weather.  In other words, “signs of life returning” was part of my daily experience.

IMG_4993

Figure 1. Signs of life: Tulips at the bus stop

 

The answers were also informative, as well as reminders of an earlier age.  There were those who seemed to have trouble thinking about themselves, and their colleagues, in such a comparative context.  However, this compared to several who actually commented about the relative lack of a sense of historical comparison as a weakness of Millennials.  What was another weakness?  There were several comments about the ease with which new information and new activities and experiences were available, leading to a sense of being dabblers in a variety of skills (“jacks / jills of all trades, masters of none”).  In fact, that ease of collecting and novelty even extended to the strengths and weaknesses of networking.  Although the world of embassies and interagency discussions and think tank receptions clearly indicates a value to the work of engaging with others… there is a difference between engaging in an effective, distributed knowledge network, and collecting friends and likes as a way of keeping score.

 

I found myself curiously replaying one conversation in my mind, about the concept that Millennials were more interested in finding ways to align their actions and employment with their passions.  Now remember, I lived in Cambridge, MA and California during the 1980s startup crazes, where people were all about passion.  I heard the Flower Children talking about living a life of meaning and service.  And, most importantly, I have learned how much my career as a professor is actually well aligned with my passion for exploration and sharing what I found.

IMG_5018

Figure 2. Albert sharing a sense of passion.  Maybe science diplomacy was never so far from my thinking after all.  (At the National Academies Keck Center, 500 E St NW)

 

Was this really different?  And then I heard an interesting alternative take on this thought.  “Well, if I can’t rely on a pension or Social Security to be around, there is no reason for me to trade boredom for security.”  From that discussion, I was transported back to the first few times I taught the course Sociotechnical Systems at Wisconsin. I had known about two different models of work and income as “covenants”:  income and status as a way of demonstrating success and favor, or work as a demonstration of one’s passion and artisan’s skills.  It took discussion and debate in class for me to learn that there was a large population with a third approach: work was something one does to get enough income to spend the rest of one’s time doing what one really preferred to do.  Apparently, lots of people live that way, whether they’re working second shift at the auto parts store, or vice president of global distribution for the auto parts company.  I have not chosen to live that way, and I can’t really imagine doing something I hate just to have the income to do what I love, later.  Is that what others were assuming we were all doing?  Or were others doing this a lot more than I was ever aware?

 

I felt like I had come full circle in the discussion, and my awareness of my own experience as a young scholar.  I am convinced that there are confusions in each generation, not sensing the range or intensity of experience from when prior generations were young and emerging, like new plants bursting into the sunlight and struggling against snow and wind and dangerous frost.  I can appreciate it much more now, because I have been in both places, and I have come to feel them both.  I am not yet done with the intensity of feeling and learning.  And yes, I am still pleased to take a moment on a Spring day and feel the sensual joy of lamb’s ear as I walk from meeting to office or home.  Because, even after a great enlightenment, a return to practice and repeat of small things still has value.

IMG_5065

Figure 3. Lamb’s ear on 19th St NW.  A good reminder of small lessons.

 

 

Weekend Balance #2: Cassandra’s Postcards

Curiously, the concert that I left work to attend last night was something I discovered almost exactly one week earlier (even to the same clock time).  The group I went to see was Black Violin, two classically trained violinists who are a) black, from Ft. Lauderdale; b) insistent on thinking outside of the box; and c) have a strong alternative vision of how the world can be different than it is, beyond existing stereotypes or interpretations.   (Yes, the highlighted words and links are in fact the names of their albums.  Go listen.)  Last Friday, I was on the train to spend the New Year’s holiday in my hometown of Philadelphia with friends.  I had put on the music just for some simple enjoyment, and found myself transformed and emotionally intense and resonant.  (Yes, it’s also when I found out about their concern in Washington, DC last night.)

img_4758

Black Violin, with the National Symphony Orchestra, Feb 6, 2017

One of my favorite descriptions of my approach to the world was provided by a GROUPER a couple of years ago, during a 1:1 meeting at a conference.  (I can still see the design of the French patisserie / café in my memory.)  The description was that I live part of my existence in the future, but the nice part is that I “send postcards”.  This is a delightful image, but it hides a painful and problematic truth: not everyone can receive “postcards from the future,” or even know that they exist.  I used to think this was a simple problem of better explanation, but I have had to come to the recognition that there is more at play.  An alternative metaphor comes from my son, who once made a surprised and surprising revelation once when watching me dance to a piece of music to which I resonated very strongly.  He admitted that he had thought that I simply didn’t have a very good sense of rhythm.  Then, as he got older and started thinking more seriously about music composition and production as a career, he listened to more music, more often, at a deeper level.  His statement at a friend’s house was with a type of confused awe: “You’re trying to dance to all of the notes, not just the normal beat.”

 

One of my favorite and most inspirational books of my life is called Cyteen, for a number of reasons (including some too complex to go into here).  I am particularly taken by one of the descriptions of a major protagonist’s sense of their life’s work… that, if they are devoted and dedicated to their passion and their gifts and their uniqueness, because of and not simply despite their unique or alternative make-up, they may have the opportunity to someday speak their “Word,” their major contribution to history’s arc.  While Speaking Words to History sounds pretty cool (at least for my sense of doing what I was built to do), it comes at a major, even profound cost.  I am drawn most to the myth of Cassandra, who was cursed for defying the god Apollo (isn’t that usually how things like that turn out?) by being able to see and foretell the future, but being unable to alter it, and being doomed to have others not believe her when she told them.  (I have to hand it to Apollo, though: that’s a pretty exquisite form of sadistic torture.  But really, just because she turned you down for a date?  I mean, you’re a god and all…)

800px-cassandra1

Poor Cassandra.  (From Wikipedia page, public domain image: Cassandra (metaphor)

It’s really hard to explain to GROUPERs the process of finding and sending postcards from the future, and more importantly, I don’t think it’s a proper thing for me to insist that they do so. For nearly all of the students I’ve met, it’s not the right lesson to be teaching, and there are certainly a wide range of valid and important jobs that one can take on without invoking divine curses.  Having someone who can simply receive the postcard, and translate part of it, is worth a lot.   For example, our current experiences of politics, local and national security, and even the nature of honest communication is based on elements of situational context, information cues, and media characteristics of different information and communication technology channels.  We’re asking about tolerance and acceptance of new communications media in various organizations. That sounds like a really great research project, especially when combining new forms of social messaging as various types of an advanced, or evolved, model of email (written electronic communication), or other group interactions (with or without audio and video capabilities).  It might still be considered a bit ahead of the curve, or timely, because we’re in the midst of it now.  But consider a study of organizational acceptance of alternative media channels conducted in 1992, fully 25 years ago.  That’s before there were any iPhones, or web browsers, or T1 lines (or many of my students).  No graphical email or tweets with emojis.  Do the questions even make sense?  For most people, not really.  (At least that’s the memory of reviewer comments for the Taha and Caldwell, 1992 submission to the Human Factors Society conference.)

Back to the train last Friday.  Imagine me trying to dance to all of the notes as the train pulls into (and then out of) Philadelphia as I continue my journey.  The lights of Philadelphia’s Boathouse row are still holiday festive.  I am crying my resonance to the music playing in my ears.  I finally feel like a type of homecoming has occurred, one that I had sought in vain for nearly 40 years.  In the midst of this, an insight.  Normally, I wouldn’t tell anyone, or I’d write it up piecewise in journal papers.  Not this time.  I’m going to show you the postcard here.

 

View #1:  The Spectrogram

A few years ago, Jeremi London (not the actor) and I worked on a model of STEM education based on the concept that what we in fact try to teach engineers in order to be functional, productive engineers is not a single thing, but a large matrix of skills, habits, attributes, and techniques.  Different courses supposedly load on different matrix elements, and different students have different strengths and weaknesses in those elements.  I visualize this as a type of dynamic matrix of peaks and valleys, as you might get in a audio spectrogram.   What we might think of as intelligence or skill or functionality is actually an aggregation of those peaks and valleys across that range of matrix elements: a person’s functionality is, generally, how well their peaks map onto the things they need to do on a daily basis.  Zero functioning is actually hard to imagine, and if most of the population was in fact functioning at zero, we might not even see it as a relevant matrix attribute element to consider.  (If someone had a peak there, would we even think about it as a peak?  Consider the question of tetrachromats.)  For the sake of analysis and comparison, it’s important to both retain the spectrogram as a matrix, and also consider a simplified representation of it.  You could call it IQ or something.  Let’s just describe it as the determinant of the functionality matrix.

 

View #2: The Bowl

Some of you know that I have a deep, longstanding, and personal interest in questions of neurodiversity: creating models of acceptance, encouragement, and tolerance for people with different sets of skills and forms of excellence.  (This isn’t just a “feel good” about diversity and tolerance as a moral issue.  This is about benefitting from excellence where it is found, including functionality peaks due to alternative wiring that represent “signs of life” not common in the general population.  Well, if you’re training PhD students, that’s not a bad thing to look for: higher, and more distinct, functionality peaks than exist in the general population.  After all, not that many folks get PhDs.)

So, the more your spectrogram pattern of peaks and valleys differs from the standard version (not just higher peaks, but peaks in different places), the less “standard” you are.  (Standard, in this case, represents not just the population norm of the matrix determinants, but the modal matrix pattern.)  In an extreme case, someone with a whole lot of peaks in places where standard people are close to zero, and very low functioning where standard people have peaks, would find it exceptionally hard or impossible to communicate with standard folks at all.  (The concept of “communication” here might work as a multi-dimensional convolution integral, or a multiplication of functions against each other.  You don’t worry about that just now, unless you really want to.)  The more non-standard a person is, the further their pattern is from the standard pattern, and the more overall capability and functionality it might take to compensate for the mismatch, and be seen as equivalently functional as the modal, standard person.  If we considered a function where the matrix determinant was the height, and the difference in pattern was a radius (different types of different patterns would be angles, so we’re in polar coordinates), the “bowl” would be a surface of “equivalent perceived functionality,” with an edge being at a place where someone, no matter how many peaks they had or how profoundly high those peaks are, could not interact with standard folks well enough to be seen as functional.   (So, you can’t see in our standard visual spectrum?  Well, we think you’re blind, even if you have a great visual experience of radio waves.  Too bad if you can hear and sing the vibrations of the planet.  We work in 200 – 4000 Hz, thank you, and if you can’t hear or produce in that range, we won’t hear what each other is saying.  Literally.)

 

View #3: The Disk

Another of the elements we have been playing with in the lab gets the shorthand description of “The Six Dimensions of expertise,” with a corollary of “the disk”.  As we described the matrix above, there are lots of different ways we could organize the elements of the matrix of ways people are good at different things.  They may be socially skilled and charismatic; they may be great with tools and interfaces; they may enjoy structured rules and processes; they may enjoy mathematical analysis and quantitative exploration.  There are other ways to slice skills up into different collections, but there’s been a lot of work recently into “four-quadrant” cognitive styles inventories that are used in organizational assessment.  For the purposes of this discussion, all this tells us is where in the spectrogram the matrix elements of your peaks and valleys are likely to be found.  Useful, if we want to do systematic comparisons of different patterns of functioning (and convolutions of functionality for communication or information alignment).  Which is the “right” four-quadrant model?  That’s not a proper question; it’s kind of like asking what is the “right” set of compass directions.  We agree on one for the purposes of discussion, even though there isn’t even alignment between magnetic and geographic compass directions, and it’s even possible that we could have a situation where magnetic south points towards geographic north.

 

View #4 = Function (#1:#3)

What I’ve described for each of the views above is far from a standard description of how we consider psychological concepts of intelligence, personality, functionality, or cognitive diversity.  Lots of researchers toil very intensely in intelligence assessment or engineering aptitude evaluations, or the genetic contributions to Asperger’s syndrome, or refinements of MMPI or Myers-Briggs inventories (to use examples of standard questions in each of the three views).  Mathematically, however, what I have laid out can be combined (although it’s extremely hard to draw the picture in three dimensions).  Imagine the spectrogram matrix (#1) of a “standard average person” (both in terms of normative / neurotypical wiring rather than autistic spectrum, and in terms of average intelligence), where the matrix is organized according to a four-quadrant disc model where different capabilities are ordered within quadrants with respect to their relative frequency and strength in the population.  Take the determinant of that matrix (note that this result should be independent of how you order the matrix elements).  We’ll now define that “value” of the bottom of the bowl as “standard normative functioning in the modal pattern”.

 

Whose Project is This?

Is this what the lab is currently working on?  My goodness, no.  I would NEVER assign this, in totality, as a project for a student thesis.  It requires significant revisions of three or four major disciplines, as well as some advanced mathematics for the methodologies, and new forms of data collection on thousands or millions of persons on a set of variables we don’t even define well, let alone currently measure or collect.  But, for the first time, I have been willing to describe a panoramic postcard of this type in a public venue.  Why?  For years, I was worried that lots of other people would understand, and jump on the problems, and start working on them, and that my best contributions would be left behind, meaningless and trivial.  Then I started to think that this would be considered foolish and ridiculous, unless and until I took on myself the responsibility of being able to explain it better so that “most people” could get it.  But, Words Spoken to History are not widely understood, even for years or decades, and the measure of the mark on the tree of knowledge is not how many people applaud when the mark is made.  Galileo learned this lesson, as did Leonardo DaVinci, and Marie Curie, and Rachel Carson (and Ariane Emory).  Am I comparing myself to them?  No, not even close.  I’m just trying to Speak my Words.

 

 

 

Thank you, C. J. Cherryh, for the concept of sets, and A-E, for the introduction.

Weekend Balance #1: Learning the Right Things

Approximately 5:30 Friday (yesterday) evening, I told my unit chief that I was headed out for the evening and weekend.  That was not only okay, it was expected; I’d been heading into work 11 hours earlier to work on a very active set of reports from the day’s activity in Japan, which I summarized and sent out to our colleagues.  (Ah, the joy of nearly 24 hour coverage due to time zone differences: the Japanese Embassy in Tokyo starts to wind down about the same time that the first folks in Washington are getting on the Metro to start their work day.)  He surprised me by encouraging me not to think about work for a couple of days as I went to a concert and planned for a quiet time at home.  Well, those who know me will recognize an immediate disconnect: Barrett to not think about work for whole days at a time?

Well, that is a challenge these days, for multiple reasons.  It’s actually something that we discussed in a couple of our (distributed, online) lab meetings last fall, about finding appropriate forms of balance and mechanisms for taking care of one’s internal resources.  Now, it would have rung hollow if I were to take 3-4 hours on Christmas Day to write up a blog entry on work-life balance.  (Don’t worry.  I spent much of the day with a roaring fire, computer games, and lots of cookies.)

When I woke up this (Saturday) morning, I was looking forward to coming out to the kitchen to a waiting blanket of snow, to make some tea and settle in for a quiet day… of typing up notes and responding to Purdue emails and designing new projects.  That is a day off?  Well, it is a day away from reading media reports of Japan – Korea tensions or considering meeting preparations for trilateral engagement.   But on the other hand, the truth is that I have somehow set myself to try to manage two full-time jobs.  How does that really work?

img_4769

McPherson Square, with the first snow of the season: a good day for learning.

One of the first recognitions is the difference between what I want and what is, and if there is a gap between the two, what do I want / choose to do about it?  The truth is, I specifically chose the Jefferson Science Fellowship opportunity as a unique experience to expose me to activity and opportunity that I could not get in my past patterns at Purdue, with a few grad students and departmental responsibilities and a few obligations to the state of Indiana.  Those aren’t bad things, but there was a gap that needed to be addressed.  (When I return to Purdue, there will be another gap, because for me to return to exactly the set of activities I left this past August would be a waste of this experience, no matter how familiar, or comfortable, or well-prepared I am for them.)

I am seeing this recognition in another context when I think about the experiences of my students.  To be here, in Washington DC, is more than anything an experience of learning.  And sometimes, learning takes up all of my time: it is one of my primary job tasks.  Learning is also a task that takes focus, and discipline, and patience.  I’m not just talking about the process of collecting a bunch of facts for later regurgitation, which is what most students think of in the context of taking a class for a grade.  I mean a deeper learning, about context and discernment and recognizing what aspect of this pattern is important, and real, and valuable for me to integrate into a larger whole.

Well, that can be a process of life discipline, which then applies to everything.  Learning is about noticing how I balance on one leg during morning exercise, or how well I could run through the cold last night to catch the bus or rail, or… how I improve the management of the lab.

It’s often been suggested that I have a casual approach to managing the lab.  Actually, this is not true.  I could insist on clocked hours, minimum amounts of in-person time in the lab, weekly reports, and any number of other rules.  Some people actually have de-selected the lab because I don’t have lots of those rules.  As I experience this year as an immersion in this bureaucracy, I recognize that it’s not that students don’t learn anything if I impose such rules; however, it’s clear that they can easily learn the wrong things.  Did you reflect on the task, or simply put in the time?  Did you embrace the difficulty as a form of instruction, or simply as a burden?  Do you examine the situation as a system with gaps in design or execution of objective functions, or just complain about how “they” don’t care about (fill in the blank with whatever you feel is important from your local perspective)?  Do you even think about what the various objective functions are?

As a result, I now have a much deeper appreciation of what choices are being made when one of the members of the lab considers taking on a full time job at various stages of her/his graduate professional progression.  These are not trivial decisions, and there are various reasons why someone may need to choose to work at a job during one’s graduate career.  And I’m not casual in my feelings about this.  But I need the student to learn the right lessons, and I have learned (with both students, and children, and other organizational participants) that the right lesson comes from a well-designed combination of the teacher, the student, and the lesson (there is an interesting book on this called The Seven Laws of Teaching, originally published in 1884.  Read widely, question deeply.)

One of the lessons is that getting a PhD is about learning to think about questions, and developing answers, that others have not done so.  If you can’t work your way all the way through your own dissertation topic and method and analysis and interpretation, you really don’t deserve the PhD.  Yes, your advisor can help you, but if you need your advisor to give you all of the steps, then it’s not your PhD.  (Thanks, I already have my own, and I don’t feel the need for another.)  Another lesson is that very few people outside of academia, or those who do not have a PhD already, really understand what that first lesson is about.  There is just a different way of thinking and working going on.  Not bad, not good, just different.  So, if you’re used to approaching the world with one set of priorities and tools, and you move to another place where people don’t approach the world that way, you’re going to have to shift back and forth… and most people don’t shift back and forth among ways of thinking that well.

On the other hand, given how much I think about rules and lessons and managing and studying humans for a living, if there is a rule or insight or lesson I try to share, it’s usually not just for the sake of the rule.  (See above.)  That’s not casual either.   If there is a disagreement between myself and a student on a dissertation topic, or methodological approach, or insight available from a course, there is a possibility that the student is right and is operating based on information not available to me.  (In other words, they are good and working in an alternative domain.)  However, one observation of learning the right vs. wrong lesson is when I see students trying to fulfill the letter of a rule, but miss the spirit; or try to avoid the rule because it’s not ideal or fun or convenient (or “fair”?); or argue with me about how my accumulated experience is not relevant for a particular case.  Again, there may be reasons why any of those is correct.  But, to be honest, that’s not likely, and what concerns me more is, what lesson is the student learning or trying to execute?

So, as I move forward through 2017, there are lots more lessons to learn, and quite a few gaps to examine and determine how I might want to resolve them.  I admit that I am nowhere near content with my resolution of how to perform both Purdue vs J Desk jobs ideally.  (One lesson is, I really want to do this J Desk job really well, because that is the priority and opportunity available to, and surrounding, me now.  I care about the Purdue version / job, but it’s hard for me to do that full time too, and still care for my health and sleep and eat properly.  So it slips in priority right now… but I know that’s only for a year, not for an indefinite shift as a career.  That’s a lesson also for the students.)

Lessons are, in fact, about resolving gaps—not just gaps of factual knowledge, but gaps of how experience can affect interaction with the world.  I continue to explore how to find the right gaps, and resolve them in good and effective ways, to solve the right problems.  That’s a fairly comforting and happy thought for me as an engineer.  And although we didn’t get as much snow as I might have hoped, I can improve my recognition of what gaps were most important for me to close today.

 

 

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.