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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).

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

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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?

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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.

 

 

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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

 

 

… For Government Work

Although it was not that cold this winter, and we actually didn’t get a real snowstorm until after the Equinox, the real emergence of Spring here in DC allows me more time outside to appreciate my experience here and what I am learning during this Fellowship.  There are lots of features for me to appreciate on a sunny day, such as the cherry blossoms in bloom, or the re-awakening of the flowers in the courtyards, along my walking and bus riding routes.  Even my senses and sense of pace have been involved.  (In late March, I had surgery to remove a polyp that was taking over my nose and sinuses.  That forced a few days off, and a slower pace of activity while I was recovering.  Now, my sense of smell, already acute, is coming back online with even more sensitivity and range.)  It’s no longer the “time is money” or “he who hesitates is lost” lessons of childhood forcing me to rush to everything.  It’s April, and literally, it’s time to stop and smell the blossoms.

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During one of these sunny, warm days, I came to contemplate the impact of my experience at the Department of State on my sense of *self*.  The look and sound of BSC in a suit and dress shoes, striding with purpose to his office at Main State, evokes a certain set of descriptions that aren’t really the same as BSC in a tweed jacket and cords and sneakers, keys jangling, walking around West Lafayette.  Oh, and don’t forget the shades.  A friend had asked me to send a picture of me in work mode, and so I did, wearing the classic Ray-Ban Wayfarers (they’re actually a vintage pair, with my own prescription inserted), standing in front of the Department of State sign (and taking care not to use an angle or direction that would disturb the Diplomatic Security folks)…

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There were two responses to this picture.  My friend commented that I wasn’t smiling, and looked upset and grim.  (No, it was a combination of pain from the doctor checking on my nose, and just thinking hard about what I needed to do.)  So, I took another picture, with a smile and a different background (the National Academies building across the street):

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The second response was my own.  For somewhat surprising reasons, I recognized in that picture a reminder of my research career.  Compared to many psychologists and engineers, I spend a lot of time doing “fieldwork,” including a research method known as “participant observation” (where one spends time “embedded” in another culture or organization, working alongside of the regular people living that other life, in order to learn what’s important to them and how they come to view things—and not make foolish errors about what designs will or won’t work for them, or what their daily challenges are).   Of course, cultural anthropologists might laugh at my calling this “fieldwork”: I’m not living in a hut somewhere 15 miles from the nearest paved road.  But it does mean that much of my data and thinking comes from talking to people who are not me, and don’t have my world view—they’re not designers or researchers about systems, they’re performers in, or users of, the systems that I study.  They may or may not reflect on how and why they do what they do.  I’m fundamentally an outsider to those aspects of their organizational and social culture.  (This is something that I’ve experienced for most of my life.  More on that later.)

That insight quickly spawned a new one: the Department of State is the third federal government agency in which I have functioned as participant observer since I began my graduate research career over 30 years ago, for weeks or months at a time.  My prior agencies were the National Park Service (NPS), and NASA.  What is profoundly interesting about that collection of agencies is that they are profoundly mission driven, and have a great deal of unique visibility.  (It’s said that a former Secretary of State defined their job, and the role of the Department in general, as “explaining the U.S. to the rest of the world, and explaining the rest of the world to the U.S.”)  NPS is there to conserve and protect our natural and cultural heritage for future generations.  NASA brings the universe to us, and takes us further out into the universe.  (Yeah, I want more of that.)

I recognized as well that these are very romantic, idealistic views of the world and what we should be doing in and with it.  Managing occupational safety, or confirming regulations over drug approvals, or ensuring people pay their taxes on time are in fact really important features of living in a complex society that is also a safe and healthy one.  The folks who work there even have their official seals and logos and organizational cultures.  However, I dare say that they do not capture the cultural imagination and romantic vision of the following:

  • a park ranger in their hat or baseball cap hiking in the backcountry, explaining the meadow flowers and the remnants of people who lived in the area 200-400 years ago;
  • an astronaut in their space suit, or flight controller in mission operations, or engineer or scientist analyzing data that enhances our exploration and understanding of the solar system;
  • a diplomat flashing their official passport in some far-flung airport, or at an embassy or ambassador’s reception, engaging in the gentle statecraft that enables a broader, richer, more peaceful world.

The challenge for romantic idealists is that they can get caught in their ideals, writing scripts for the movies that play in their own heads.  I find myself doing this a lot, and maybe it’s a remnant of having a very vivid, broad imagination as a kid, combined with living in and between multiple cultures just a few miles from each other in Philadelphia.  Not surprisingly, I caught myself a few days ago in such a “movie script” moment: I was writing a document, and imagining the cheers of a crowd as a “VERY SENIOR GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL” finishes an announcement and walks off the stage, shaking my hand and thanking me for putting together such an excellent policy.  (It’s kind of like the scene in the movie, “A Christmas Story,” where Ralphie imagines an enraptured teacher marking a series of “+” after the “A” grade on his essay.  I’m actually not that fond of the movie, but given the number of times it plays each December, it’s hard to avoid seeing the scenes again and again.)  That is a nice movie scene, but in truth, it’s very rare that a solo author of a policy really gets the policy enacted, or their work acknowledged, in such a direct way.

When I get myself out of the movie and start to re-examine the real world (even the biographical movies, such as the recent hit, “Hidden Figures,” are not piecewise accurate, nor were they filmed in real time), I really need to bring myself back down to the ground and face the harsh reality… or is that a mistake, too?  Consider the list above.  I have been that ranger, and worked directly with them, working in the backcountry and the visitors’ center.  I have been that engineer, working with those astronauts and flight controllers and flying in the vomit comet.  And just this week, I was that diplomat, working to support the international relationship as a member of a country desk and enjoying a conversation at the Ambassador’s residence.

Am I enjoying my experience?  Do I think it’s worth it?  I keep getting asked that question, and the answer is even more true now than it was six months ago: without a doubt, this is one of the most important adventures and educational experiences I could have had at this stage of my life and career.  These are lessons I could never learn if I stayed in the lab, no matter how brilliant or talented or hard working I might be there.  The realities of these experiences themselves are amazing and precious and valuable beyond my ability to fully recognize in the moment.  (Yes, it was ideas that I observed and learned and developed at NPS and NASA that have influenced the papers I’ve shared and work that I’ve been able to present while I’ve been here at State.)  There is yet more for me to learn, and do, and integrate, as I continue to experience a world and career filled with opportunity and danger and change.

 

Not bad, as they say… for government work.

 

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.