Get, share, and use information well

Month: March, 2012

Your 21st Century Has Arrived

Often, I spend my weekends catching up on work deadlines and writing papers and proposals for our research.  That’s the life of a faculty member, and since I really enjoy my research, that isn’t such a bad thing.  However, I’m also the parent of two twentysomething children (!!!), and I spent time talking with each of them on Saturday afternoon.  At the risk of soundly solely like an overly proud parent, allow me to note some of our conversations.


The first confession I must make is that this is not the first time I’ve looked to my children’s lives for a research discussion.  Their use of information technology during the days of Myspace and Facebook has supported social connections and interactions as they have moved from Madison, WI, to Conyers, GA, back to Madison and their current lives.  I found that interesting, and used their examples to write about the mathematical descriptions of coupling and persistence that support their connections to friends and family.  Yesterday’s conversations were updates on their current activity, of which there is a lot.  (Kyrie is a student at the University of Wisconsin, studying Religious Studies and Art History, with a minor in East Asian Studies.  Piers is a musician studying audio engineering at SAE in Oxford, UK, and is also known as the ambient electronica artist, Mr. Squirrel.) 


My first conversation was with Kyrie, who was telling me about her sports and academics (not in that order; allow me a bit of literary license).  Dad, can you help me go to the Fencing Championships?  She took up fencing as a frosh, and competes with the fencing club.  The electronic scoring that counts touches relies on signals from the metal blade to the metalized fabric in the fencing fabric.  (Those of you upset about the lack of a jet-pack and cool-looking sci-fi clothing from your 1950’s movies, you need look no further than an athletic locker room to see where your space age clothing went.)  Actually, more of our conversation focused on her excitement about ideas for an undergraduate research thesis topic… on the use of religious themes in a variety of Japanese video games.  In the same way that grudging acceptance of photography in the 19th Century led to a field of art and art criticism of the photographic medium, and the slow respect given to movies in the 20th Century now has the support of departments of film studies, Kyrie is interested in the emerging place of video games as an art and entertainment medium in the 21st Century.  (There is an exhibit on the art of video games at the Smithsonian, with a symposium that she wants to attend in May.  Dad, can you help me get there?)   We were talking about mandalas and reinterpretations of Okinawan folk dances and combinations of Shinto and Buddhist philosophies… in the characters of Final Fantasy X, a game we enjoyed playing together a few years ago.  But today, she’s talking about how software is enabling exploration of religious themes, and abstract art forms, and giving new life to history… while we’re both talking to each other on our stylish, wireless smartphone devices.  Okay… yes, I had an earpiece and microphone hooked to my ear, linked to the iPhone in my pocket, talking to my daughter while putting my bicycle in my car.  Satellite and cellular communications, wireless information technologies, while we consider visual digital culture expressed on game platforms with more computing power than designed and built and flew Apollo missions to the moon.     


Later that afternoon, I went to my laptop, sent Piers a short message on Facebook chat, and he called me on Skype from the room he’s renting in a house in Oxford.   Friends are trying to get him to go out to the pubs on a Saturday night, as a break from studying audio production signal processing and engineering acoustics.  No, I’m going to stay in and talk to my Dad in America.  OK, that’s cool.  Piers is having a great time, and we’re talking about his explorations and appreciation of 1970s funk pieces, and classic jazz, and the new blog he’s been asked to write on music appreciation (for once, I’m leading my kids on a social network technology).  He’s got an interesting idea for a BS thesis, to capture and integrate (and thereby honor) the songs of various indigenous peoples as a way of reminding us of the commonality of music and human connection to rhythmic expression.  (There was a bit of discussion about acoustic analysis of Stonehenge, and how one of its primary roles may have been as a resonant amphitheater—and a ballin’ party zone!  Yes, you can download an app for that, suggesting that there are cool information technology implementations of archaeology as well.)  So, we’re having a great conversation about the history of technology and society, ranging from prehistorical and Roman-era Britain (there’s a nice production studio in Bath) to the astronomical projections done in Mali that allegedly presaged the discovery of Sirius-B hundreds of years ago.  Models and debates about how items might have been used, seemingly dismissed years ago, only to be readdressed with new technologies and knowledge.  New inquiries and instruments can change our understanding of the world we thought we knew?  How primitive will others think of our keyboards and our external communication devices, just as we think of the crank telephone hanging on my wall, which I was showing him by moving my laptop.  Oh, that’s right.  Skype is a videophone.  We’re using IP addressing and 802.11 wireless connectivity for me to comment on his hairstyle and give him “thumbs up” on his recent successes.  But the phone isn’t there for making calls.  It’s art, and it’s craftsmanship, and it’s a reminder that what we are really about is information and communication and experience that we have, and share, and use in our interactions with others.


I used to be afraid of a dystopian view of my life, based on the sadness expressed in the song, Cat’s in the Cradle by Harry Chapin.  However, those conversations gave me a very positive sense of what and how my kids share my experience and sense of the world.   Despite not being engineers, both of my kids are demonstrating passionate integration of society and technology, of art and analysis.  We talk using technologies that were the science fiction of Star Trek, about entertainment media that allow us to bring together drums and voices and visual patterns from Edo to Edinburgh, acoustics for the Picts and Sirius binary star transits for the Dogons.  All are braided together, and a curious mind using tools in their hand and lap that cross disciplines and integrates perspectives to create a beautiful tapestry of understanding, giving lie to our worst assumptions about our limits or failures.  However, none of this is a given.  I find it a precious wonder to have had those conversations.  Those opportunities for sharing stretch my brain just a bit more, listening to the ones whom I once fed strained peas now feed me ideas and examples for research in socio-technical systems engineering.  


I didn’t expect the doorbell to ring, announcing the delivery of that 21st Century I ordered.  It didn’t come packaged as I expected it.  And it doesn’t come free.  But it certainly is a package I want to continue unwrapping and trying and understanding.

Stream Management

“Hire the best people, and then get out of their way.”  — Arnold O. Beckman


While I was an undergraduate, I frequently heard variations of this management philosophy; as an independent-minded student, often working by myself on projects, the mindset was very appealing.  However, as a major professor and lab director, things are not always that easy. 


Recent updates of the lab webpage have focused on further elaborations of the range of projects (“streams”) that GROUPERs are involved and productive.  Instead of just listing the two primary research application areas (healthcare and spaceflight), we’ve now elaborated all three application areas (including STEM education), as well as the three more general methodological / theoretical considerations (communication effectiveness when resources are constrained; the effects of delays and information asynchrony on performance; and processes of knowledge sharing in teams and communities).  Why all of the additions?  Not just to sound more impressive and recruit more students (with seven grad students, two undergrads, and a 50% administrative appointment, it’s not clear that a much bigger lab is needed or wanted).  With the new population of students (see the “Restocking GROUPER” entry), it is almost inevitable that the interests of this collection in 2012 would “load” on the streams differently than the lab circa 2004 or 2008.  They even change their allegiance to a particular stream as their understanding of their topic (and their understanding of how the streams are organized) evolves through their development as students and scholars.


So, how does one remain sensitive and aware of these issues?  One problem, of course, is that you don’t know what someone doesn’t know, or that you didn’t agree on basic elements, until implicit expectations aren’t met, or unquestioned assumptions aren’t grasped.  This seems to show up most frequently, and with the greatest sense of immediacy, when students are in the midst of a critical written milestone (a thesis proposal or dissertation preliminary document, or a thesis or dissertation draft in preparation for a final defense).  And with that, I again recognize the challenges of managing a diverse lab that works on novel and bleeding edge problems or approaches.  There really isn’t a good way to give someone a past completed thesis and say, “Read this, and do exactly the same sort of thing with the same format, and you’ll be fine.”


In some cases, even that might not be sufficient.  After 22 years, a dozen dissertations chaired (and another 20-30 as a committee member), and over 30 theses chaired, it’s easy for me to have the different pictures in my head.  Research methods questions?  I just go back to my psychology background.  Systems engineering definitions?  Yes, the style of that is covered, all the way back to my sophomore Unified Engineering experience.  But what if your writing style was formed and honed by those with backgrounds in mathematical optimization, or physics, or political science, or software simulation?  I’ve experienced all of these from GROUPER students in the past two years… and they’re not the same.  Good luck with putting them all into the same box, or worse yet, into a blender and hoping that something palatable comes out.  (Suddenly, I cannot help but think about the old “Bass-O-Matic” Saturday Night Live skit.)  Yes, it would be much more straightforward to have a single stream and project focus, with all of the students having very similar backgrounds.  However, I confess that I wouldn’t enjoy it as much. 


There is a balance between being too far away, and being too close.  Each person, and each group, needs its own balance.  So, I’m looking for dynamically stable equilibria in academic research management and educational personal / professional development.  Last academic year, I spent a fair amount of my time working with two students both trying to finish their dissertations at the same time.  This year, the challenge has been a dissertation, a thesis, and dissertation prelim document, in addition to other research projects.  I keep insisting on being directly involved in each project, and each document, and each student—to the extent that I felt guilty and nervous when I mentioned during a lab meeting that I would be gone for a few weeks and unable to keep to the weekly schedules.  With this level of commitment, I can be both overwhelmed and concerned when I am not there every moment—exactly the opposite of Beckman’s admonitions.  And yet, when I expressed worry that the GROUPERs would be left vulnerable and exposed in the “dangerous jungle and forest” of graduate student life, the response was one of the most rewarding and valuable validations I’ve received in a number of years:


“We’re not in the forest.  We’re in the Lab.”


That’s also a philosophy I can live with.