The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks.
― Christopher Hitchens
Even with a day off, work last week really, completely sucked. I got to spend very little time doing my daily habit of writing in a focused manner. Every day at work was a pain and ended the week with hosting a group of visitors who are responsible for part of the new exascale computing initiative. Among the visitors were a few people whom I have history with both good and bad. If you’ve read this blog you know that I’m not a fan of the exascale computing imitative. Despite this, I was expected to be on my best behavior (and I think that I was). It was not the time, nor place to debate the program’s goals or wisdom (to be honest I’m not sure what the right time is). It’s pretty clear to me that there hasn’t been much of any debate or thought put into the whole thing. That’s a discussion for a different day.
Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason so few engage in it.
― Henry Ford
Nonetheless some good came from the experience aside from demonstrating my own self-control. I won’t say much about the visit except that the exascale initiative is not terribly compelling as programs go, and I thought it went well from our official perspective. I have a better idea of how they are viewing the program and its objectives and priorities. We had a chance to talk about how we are approaching a similarly structured program. No one is thinking about all the missing elements from the approach in a constructive way, and lots of old mistakes are being made all over again. People show a remarkable lack of historical perspective and ability to engage in revisionist history. The refrains of my “bullshit” post on lack of honesty in the view of success rang in my ears.
Stop thinking, and end your problems.
― Lao Tzu
I also noted the distinct air of control from the visitors and discussion of their colleagues who run our programs. The programs want to give us very little breathing room to exercise our own judgment on priorities. They want to define and narrow our focus to their priorities. Given the lack of technical prowess from those running things it’s dangerous. Awful programs like exascale are the direct result of this sort of control and lack of intellectual thought running research. Everything is politically engineered and nothing is really composed of elements that are designed to maximize science. The result is a long-term malaise in research, progress and science we are suffering from. Ultimately, the system we are laboring under will result is less growth and prosperity for us all. It is the inevitable result of basing our decisions on fear and risk avoidance instead of hope, faith and boldness.
The conventional view serves to protect us from the painful job of thinking.
― John Kenneth Galbraith
Because our program is all about stockpile stewardship the meeting was held in a classified setting. This means no electronics and a requirement that I unplug. It might be a good excuse to get some reading done, but I had to look like I was paying attention all day. So I took copious notes. Not much interesting happened so most of the notes were to self and captured my thoughts, reflections and perspectives. This alone made the entire experience valuable from a personal-professional perspective. I managed to digest a lot of my backlog of thinking that the well-connected World distracts you from constantly. I had some well-structured time with my own thoughts and that’s a really good thing.
The only freedom you truly have is in your mind, so use it.
― M.T. Dismuke
Getting away from the electronic world of web pages, text messages, email for a while is a blessing. I could approach my thoughts with a literal clean sheet. I started by reflecting on all the good ideas I’ve had recently, but haven’t gotten the time to work on. It was a lot, which has a depressing aspect. There is so much to potentially work on that I can’t. Its worse that I don’t exactly see the value in what I am working on. It’s a bit of a personal tragedy. I suspect its one that plays out across the World of research. We have less and less time to work on things we judge to be important.
Aside from the deeper thoughts I also realize that it pays to think in many different ways even from a mechanical point of view. I try walking each day along with a walking meditation, followed by free association. It ends up being a very effective way to self-brainstorm. I keep a notebook for each day in a cloud app. There is this blog, which allows for a freeform prose, but done in an electronic form. Writing things down on paper has subsided a lot, and last week I rediscover the virtue of that medium albeit by the nature of the circumstances. For a long time I kept a pad of lined post-it notes in my car since a lot of good ideas would just come to me driving to and from work. It might be good to force myself to use paper alone more often. By the power of cameras and remarkable text recognition the paper can go directly into my electronic notebook any way.
The important thing to me is to capture the ideas that move from the background of my thinking to the foreground. Some of these thoughts are half-baked, but others are really genius. The human mind is a remarkable thing especially when it’s subjected to lots disparate input. The day away from electronics was good for rebooting how I approached free thinking when its available. I’d like to think its what I’m paid for, but honestly that isn’t really likely to be the truth. Everything about how I’m paid is about not really thinking about the deeper meaning. We are encouraged to simply putter along doing as we’re told. The mantra of today is quit thinking and get back to work.
Power does not corrupt. Fear corrupts… perhaps the fear of a loss of power.
― John Steinbeck
Now we get to the darker aspects of free association, you start to turn your gaze toward the shit show unfolding before you. Life today is full of things that should be regarded with contempt. Our overlords encourage us to ignore the carnage they are subjecting the world to, but it is there hidden in plain sight. Today we live in a coarse and belligerent culture that threatens to undermine everything good. I’m not talking about the sort of moral decay social conservatives would point to. I’m talking about the fundamental rewards, checks and balances that encourage an environment of selfish and greedy behavior. At the same time these same forces work to undermine every effort to pay attention to larger societal, organizational and social imperatives that collectively make everything better. We act selfish in the service of maintaining the power of others, and avoiding the sort of collective service that raises everyone.
So I was offered a front road seat at a primo shit show, and here is what it made me think.
Our research is now running on the basis of money as a scoring system with no real concrete societal objectives in sight. In the 20th Century many great things were accomplished and the technology that dominates our economy was invented through scientific discovery. A great deal of that discovery was directly associated with fear, first of Germans and then the Nazis then the Soviets. The atomic bomb, hydrogen bomb, jet aircraft, microprocessors, cell phones, GPS, and almost every in our modern world owe their discovery to this response to fear of existential threats. These were real adversaries with well-developed technology, engineering and science requiring a serious response of our Nation-State to the threat they represented. Today, we see a bunch of disorganized barbarians as an existential threat. It is completely pathetic. We really don’t have to have our collective act together to compete. It’s all fear and no benefit of accomplishing great things, and we aren’t. We just have the requisite reduction in freedom in response to this fear without any of the virtues. This dismal state of affairs results in a virtual emptying of meaning from work that used to be important. I work at a place where work ought to have value and importance, yet we’ve managed to ruin it.
Power attracts the corruptible. Suspect any who seek it.
― Frank Herbert
It is utterly stunning that working for an organization committed to National Security does not provide me with any sense that my work is important. I don’t have enough
latitude and capability to exercise my judgment to feel truly empowered at work. All the control and accountability at work is primarily disempowering employees and sucking all the meaning from work. I ought feel an immense amount of importance to what I do. My management, writ large, is managing to destroy something that ought to be completely easy to achieve. This malaise is something we see nationally as the general sense that your work has little larger meaning is used to crush people’s wills. Instead of empowering people and achieving their best efforts, we see control used to minimize contributions and destroy any attempt toward deeper meaning. This sense is deeply reflected in the current political situation in the World and the broad sweeping anger seen in the populace.
The love affair with corporate governance for science is another aspect of the current milieu that is deeply corrupting science. Our corporate culture is corrupting society as a whole and science is no exception. The greed and bottom line infatuation perverts and distorts value systems and has systematically harshened the cultures of everything it touches. Increasingly, the accepted moral thing to do is make yourself as successful as possible. This includes lying, cheating and stealing if necessary (and you can get away with it). More corrosively it means losing any view of broader social, societal, organizational or professional responsibility and obligation. This undermines collaboration and free exchange of ideas, which ultimately destroys innovation and discovery.
Accountability has been instituted that allows people to ethically ignore the broader context in favor of narrow focus. They are told that doing this is the “right” thing to do, and basically they should otherwise mind their own business. This attitude extends to society as a whole and we are all poorer for it. We keep ideas to ourselves, and the narrowly defined parochial interests of those who pay us. Instead we should operate as engaged and collaborative stewards of our society, organizations or professions. We have adopted a system that encourages the worst in people rather than the best. We should absolutely expect problems to be caused by this culture of selfishness. The symptoms are everywhere and threaten our society in a myriad of ways. The only portion of society that benefits from our present culture is the rich and powerful overlords. These systems maintain and expand their ability to keep their corrupt and poisonous stranglehold on everyone else.
A man who has never gone to school may steal a freight car; but if he has a university education, he may steal the whole railroad.
― Theodore Roosevelt