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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.

 

Dragonfly_Sun

Figure 1.  Dragonfly: You know what I mean.

 

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.

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?

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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.

 

 

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.