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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.



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.


With a flourish and frenzy of activity, the cycle has completed itself and begun once more.  This week, of course, was particularly hectic.  On Tuesday, we in GROUPER were pleased to celebrate Liang’s successful defense of her dissertation (now to finish the writing!), and after a 2-hour lab meeting, I went home and got some pleasure reading in.  Wednesday was a travel day, with challenges of unstable weather leading to one canceled flight, and ground stops due to ramp closures at both the start and finish of the second leg of the trip.  Hours late, but with the air cooled from the rain, I finally finished the trip and got home for a good night’s sleep.


“Hold it.  You were at home, then you got stuck during thunderstorms, and finished the trip, and went home?  Did you not get to your destination?  Was your trip canceled?”


Even as I write this entry, there is a type of surrealism about this week.  I’m sitting in one of the chairs I have had for over five years, with Amber on my lap, looking at her cat tree and food and a bunch of other items I clearly recognize.  The window still faces east, but the image is different: instead of an empty parking lot across the street, I see a tall tree and an office building.  In other words, the shift has now occurred.  Amber and I have moved to Washington, DC to start my position as a Jefferson Science Fellow.  My first day is next Monday, and I have begun enjoying the exploration of the neighborhoods of McPherson Square and Thomas Circle, and picking up coffee and pastry and fruit at the White House Street Market.


Amber exploring the new window view

My world is changing significantly, and yet some things remain consistent.  I am still an engineering faculty member, but I am thinking about a completely different set of issues this August compared to last August.  Our lab meeting addressed a very interesting topic based on students’ recent experiences, and one that I will be considering very hard in the coming months.  Academia, government, and industry are considered vastly different places, and representing wildly divergent career paths for those with PhDs.  And yet, we’re taught (and have first hand experience) that a variety of people all craft their actions, decisions, and processing of information based on perceived risks, costs, and outcome benefits.  There’s only one challenge.  The benefits that drive most industry teams (profit—hey, I hear the new Aston Martins are really nice) don’t come into play at all for most academic or government folks, and the primary risk keeping academic folks up at night (someone already published my idea in that journal I love!) don’t seem to bother industry or government people much.  A government employee may complain bitterly about the costs of having to work 5-10 hours of overtime one week; many academics and industry research folks take a 60-70 hour average work week as pretty much standard.


You may notice that the website ( looks very different than a few months ago; that took us a while to work through.  Elliott, our wonder-undergrad, did a pretty thorough redesign and architecture job, but what was more important was not just the scripting language or tab sequences.  We went back to a very basic question: who comes to our lab’s website?  Three different types of groups (yes, it’s that “use case” thing) want distinct types of information, at varying grain sizes.  Even our own GROUPER alums represent different types of interaction profiles.  We’ve got government employees seeing how our work can inform improvements for federal agencies.  GROUPERs are also rising up the ranks in industry, and may be in a position to hire a new or recent grad (in this sense, GROUPER is definitely a distinct and valued brand).  With the lab’s traditional gender mix (somewhere approaching 2/3 female), it’s not surprising that a number of alumnae list their primary function right now as “Mom”.  I see no reason to hide that, or feel guilty or ashamed to highlight such life pathways.  If everything is a system, and GROUPERs look at information everywhere, can’t those skills be applied to everything from medical information use for family members, to understanding the daily experiences of neurodiversity, to getting a front-row seat to the miracles of how humans develop broad processes of learning and skill development sets in ways that still challenge our most sophisticated machine learning algorithms.


Over the next few months, the GROUPER blog will be more active again, but it won’t be focusing as much just on our current lab research.  We’re still researching, of course, but we have other stories to tell, and other forms of impact and effect to consider for how we get, share, and use the information we’ve been gathering and lessons we’ve been learning.  Thanks for visiting us again after our quiet period.  Hey, it gets busy learning how to be in multiple places at once.