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Tag: events

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?

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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…

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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:

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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:

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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.

 

 

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.

Huddle Up!

(Also known as “Notes on a train,” otherwise described as the experiences of being on the Amtrak Northeast Corridor commuter rail system finishing a work task while watching the cities roll past.)

 

Although it is the middle of football season, my first thought these days when I hear the word “huddle” is not of grass-stained uniforms or winning touchdown drives, but of men and women in suits in an office or conference room with pads of paper.  They are, in fact, one of the primary ways that State Department offices keep themselves organized and updated.  I find these huddles fascinating for that reason; both the similarities and the differences compared to GROUPER meetings are critically important to me.  Yes, the leader wants to hear from everyone, and there can be moments of banter and amusing references to recent activities (including those grass-stained uniforms).  However, what differs is also important, especially as I consider what I’m learning now and what I will bring back to Purdue next year.

 

A primary difference: why is it that a weekly 9-12 person huddle at State can take as little as 20-40 minutes, or that in a schedule-fluxing day, a five-person huddle can be completed in 14 minutes?  I had a sense that the reason had something to do with the experience, expertise, and professionalism of the team members.  At first, I thought it was that these teams were not getting involved in the messiness of the scrum activity of recognizing and responding to problems; I was informed, though, that this was not correct.  Yes, there are problems, and one purpose of the huddle is to inform the leader[1] when there is a situation that needs to be “escalated” in ways that only the leader has access or resources to accomplish.  It’s not the formal structure of an agenda: most huddles I’ve attended only have advanced communication at the level of “9:15 Huddle”.

 

No, the professionalism takes a very different form: one of preparation.  I have begun to notice that, on each pad of paper, there was a set of bullet points set off and highlighted about specific topics.  In each case, these bullet points seem to evolve into “what do I want my person to know about this topic, and what is the BLUF (bottom line up front) that I can share in 10-20 seconds?”  (Lest you dismiss this style of work as old-fashioned just because it’s on paper, keep in mind that some of our meetings are held in rooms where electronic devices are not permitted.)  The leader may ask about a particular topic, or provide additional “top-down” updates, but this upward-flowing expertise is of vital importance.

 

Those who have spent time in GROUPER know that I directly address the distinctions of people, products, and projects in my interactions.  Huddles aren’t professional development focused on people, although one may hear about when someone will be out or unavailable or otherwise tasked.  There is a recognition of ongoing projects, with timelines ranging from days to months.  But there is substantial focus on products: things due this week, or tomorrow, or maybe even in a couple of hours.  (Remind me to write about “paper” sometime soon.)  Huddles usually don’t get moved due to such deadlines, although they may be shortened.  That also seems to be a fundamental aspect of the professionalism—a strong sense of, and respect for, both time and advance information as critical resources for effective recognition and response to dynamic events.

 

So, whether we are working to 2-3 day deadlines for paper, or highlighting preparation for international efforts requiring 4 months of preparation, it’s not just the product deadline cycle that drives efficiencies in huddles.  I can’t generate the type of experience that a consular officer gets when trying to evacuate citizens after an earthquake or during political instability.  But I do think there is a fundamental difference between “what do I need from my person” and “what does my person need from me” that is of significant importance here.  Good huddles tend to focus on the latter?  Stay tuned.


[1] Actually, the term “leader” is rarely used at State.  I hear “principal” a lot, and I will admit that I have a certain reluctance to t calling someone my “boss”.  So, let me use “person” as a very generic term of a member / leader in greater authority and responsibility in the huddle.