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Tag: experience

The Last Weekend, Part 1: Talking in Jazz

“It’s a beautiful day outside.  I wish they could all be like today.”

“It is wonderful.  I’m glad we have any day like today.”


The past two weeks have included some of the most beautiful weather one could hope for in Washington.  Of course, we’ve also had the thunderstorms, and flood warnings, and 95F weather, but today was wonderful.  As a result, it was easy to take a few extra minutes to walk around the various neighborhoods and take in moments of beauty and peace on what is, amazingly, my last full weekend of The Adventure here in DC.  (Next weekend, I will be on campus for Commencement and Liang’s PhD hooding; after that, it will be moves with Amber and myself, taking up much of my attention.)  A sunny day, with a bit of breeze and clear blue skies to allow my mind to explore and expand across my internal and external landscape.  Walking around down on the National Mall can even have those moments of peace among all of the people, if one listens.  Hear that? A musician busking across from the Museum of Natural History, or in front of the Museum of American History.  What’s that singer singing, at Lafayette Square next to the White House?


One thing that has helped me gain a sense of balance while I have been here has been the effort to take the time to notice and appreciate elements of nature and ephemeral beauty when they occur.  I noticed this earlier this month, when (on an early Monday morning return from Indiana) I was listening to a delightfully resonant piece of music while walking among one of our busy commuting streets.  Taking pleasure in the music (perhaps I was dancing just a little bit?) was something that could emanate easily in that sense of pleasure and enjoyment; people I passed brightened up a bit and smiled.  Why was the music so important?  Recently, I have come to the realization that I don’t just want to hear the music, I want to allow and enable others to hear that resonant tune that brings joy to the face or even a tear to the eye.  So, it’s been on my mind a lot recently.


Imagine, then, a cool and sunny day earlier this week (yes, in July, in Washington); I crossed the street and, just as I walked past an old streetlight on my way into the office, a breeze caught and rustled my clothes and touched my face.  This was truly a gift of sensory awareness.  I looked up, and there between the old streetlight and a new tree, silhouetted by the sun, was a delightful dragonfly moving between branch and blossom.


“Dragonfly out in the sun, you know what I mean, don’t you know…

“And this old world is a new world and a bold world for me… And I’m feelin’ good.”


An actual dragonfly gave me the reminder of the shared experience of the classic Nina Simone tune, Feelin’ Good.  How can I be upset about that?  That was the start of a very productive day.


Hearing the jazz in a moment’s pause on the way into work… and wanting to share that with others.  Recently, I was told by one or two GROUPERs, and my best friend, that I “talk in jazz”.  How can that be?  What can that mean?  Well, imagine that people studying a discipline are learning to recognize notes and specific tunes.  Well, one can play a melody using nothing but tuning forks, and someone could recognize a snippet of a Brandenburg Concerto, or a rock anthem, or a jazz standard.  But most of us would not go to a concert to hear that.  We want to hear the instrumentation, and the virtuosic performance, and maybe a unique interpretation.  Especially in jazz, that unique interpretation does not just stay on the melody, but is a combination of skill with the basic melody and rhythm, and the ability to experiment with it within boundaries, while remaining honest to the structure and returning to the theme in time. (Perhaps my upbringing has something to do with this.  I remember, as a young kid, reading the liner notes to a jazz album; I think it was Miles Davis’ “’Round About Midnight”.  One of the solo riffs during the title song has a distinctive reference to “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” as a type of musical joke—a baseball game at midnight?  It’s where the musician went, and took us with him.  I learned to hear the song differently because of those liner notes.)


Scan and connect; read widely and question deeply.  Those are mottos of the lab, and critical elements of my personal philosophy.  Don’t just hear the melody… listen for the nuggets in between.  (Fortunately, as my son has gotten more accomplished in music, he has forgiven me for my strange form of dancing.  Maybe Dad isn’t completely lacking in rhythm.  Maybe he’s trying to dance to all of the notes.)  Megan and I were sitting in a restaurant while she told me about this idea of talking in jazz, or in other words, talking around the answer.  No, I am not meaning to tease my students, or in a more predatory sense, “play with my food”.   I can hear much more, and want to share it, in the complexity and richness that some of the world appears.  “Experience is a convolution function that elicits latent segments of the matrix of personality set” was something else I said to Megan.  That’s not play.  That might be an alternative time signature, or some unique syncopation… it’s also a reference to one of the pieces of the Cassandra’s Postcards entry.


Maybe I need to be reminded to play the melody a bit more often.  W. Ross Ashby wrote a cybernetics text on “requisite variety,” which suggests the complexity of genetic variability is what gives us adaptive range in a variety of environmental conditions.  That adaptive range is not always tested, if the environment doesn’t change.  The genetic variability doesn’t go away, though.  It is only when tested with changing environmental conditions that the relative value of variability is highlighted… in individuals or in populations.  But just getting people to read and recite Ashby’s Law of Cybernetics is like playing the melody of Feelin’ Good on a set of tuning forks.  We don’t learn important questions there: How is it used?  What does it evoke?  What do we learn by that experience?


I have already started to recognize elements of my experience here that I will miss once I return to Indiana.  But there is a richness of available experience everywhere, and it is wonderful whenever I can experience it in beauty and pleasure.  A summer day with bright sun and blue skies is a great opportunity.  And guess what?  I even got a moment to replay a bit of the melody:  another dragonfly.



Figure 1.  Dragonfly: You know what I mean.


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.


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.


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.


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



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.