Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Goldilocks and the three research projects

Once upon a time, I volunteered to be the chaperone for a youth service project. We traveled to the Appalachians and spent a week repairing the roof of an old tar-paper shack1. With a hoard of high-energy, hormone-and-Mountain Dew powered teens running up and down ladders, using hammers and power tools and having all-night flatulation contests, it was inevitable that one of these irresponsible youth would get injured.
And I did! Playing volleyball.
A quick trip to ER
I tore a tendon in my ring finger. As I remember, the tendon snapped when I drove a thunderous spike over the net into the gaping jaws of the awestruck opponents. Some of my jealous team mates, on the other hand, claim that I got injured tripping over my jock. They claim that I jammed my finger because it was stuck in my nose when I fell. Don’t believe them.

Actual unretouched photo
It was a very odd injury in that it did not hurt. I just couldn’t hold my finger straight. Being a role model for the group whose job was to model responsible behavior to the youth, I finished the game. And then went swimming with the group. When we pulled back into the center at 9:00, I asked another of the adults (one who had more sense than I) to accompany me to the nearest emergency room, which was a half-hour’s curvy drive through the mountains to the next town.
The emergency room was crowded. The first set of the night’s fatalities from the barroom brawls were just finding their way in. I looked around the room at the fellow whose wife was holding his finger. She was sitting across the room, scowling at him and clutching a baggie filled with ice. I saw a man who was hit hard enough that you could still read the PBR label (in reverse) on his cheek, and a woman who would clearly need a frock of professional seamstresses to put her leg back together.
I am glad I brought the other adult with me. I don’t think that the rest of the patients would have been much in the way of company as I waited. .... and waited. I believe it was about 12:30 when another guy turned to me and said, “I’m glad I wasn’t hurt real bad, or I’d be dead by now!” I smiled and agreed with him. It’s always polite to agree with someone when they say they are glad not to be dead. But on the inside, I didn’t agree with him. If he had been hurt worse, he would have been taken back to see the doctor earlier.
Medics on a battlefield perform a process called triage to prioritize the incoming. Triage comes from a French word meaning, “Honey, pick up some Spam. We’re having company for dinner.” Luckily for this essay2, the American meaning of the word triage has taken a different meaning.  What triage means is to divide something into three groups. In medicine it means that incoming wounded are separated into the following three groups:
1. Those who likely to die, despite all heroic lifesaving measures,
2. Those who are likely to live, and escape permanent disability and major disfigurement, even if the doctor is not able to work on them immediately, and
3. Those on whom immediate medical attention can have a significant impact.
The doctors concentrate their efforts on those patients in the third category until such time as they can work on the first and second groups. In this way, the scarce resource of the doctor’s time is used for the greatest good.
In the case of my emergency room visit, the person who admitted me clearly (and justifiably) placed me in the second group, so I had low priority. That is why I and the fellow who complained of the wait were serviced last.
Some health care critics claim that, in reality, the three triage groups are the following:
1. Those who are poor and uninsured,
2. Those who are who have insurance or money, but do not have symptoms of any expensive diseases, and
3. Those on whom a walletectomy is indicated.
Whether these bitterly cynical health care critics are right about the way triage is performed is irrelevant to the story-line.
Applied research management by triage2
In addition to being a really cool sounding word, triage provides a good model for prioritizing applied research. For applied research, “incoming wounded”, that is, sub-projects one is considering spending time on, are divided into these three groups:
1. Those aspects that will probably die, despite all heroic lifesaving measures,
2. Those aspects of the project which are likely to live, and escape permanent disability and major disfigurement, even if the researcher is not able to work on them immediately, and
3. Those aspects on which immediate research attention can have a significant impact.
I will focus the rest of this essay on the first of these, the terminal project.
The terminal project

It happens on occasion, that applied researchers find themselves working on an approach to a problem that just will never pan out. This in itself is part of research. After all, if the “correct” solution were easy, it would be called development! Driving down a dead-end street is only a problem if that street is also one-way. So long as one recognizes the dead-end, and turns around, there is no problem.
But we often find ourselves playing in the sandbox. (Or, more often, we find our coworker playing in the sandbox.) We see in him that “glazed over” look of one obsessed with meson transmogrification units. We hear the ubiquitous, “Just one more month, and I will have it!” We hear the unheeded cries of the prophet in the wilderness, beckoning the rest of the group to embrace the technology which will save the company from complete and utter destruction and humiliation.

Let’s face it, there are a lot of prima dons4 out there. I have worked in five companies in my fourteen-year professional career, and there has always been one where I have worked. (At least until I moved on to the next company that was foolish enough to hire me! Funny how a company’s problems went away when I left.)
Is this solely a matter of egos? I think that this may often be the case. The errant researcher is dazzled by the potential of becoming the next Watson and Crick, or Einstein. They justify their search by rationalizing that no sarcophagi have been found by digging where there are already shovel marks.
Warning signs of a terminal project
I also think that there are other routes by which one can get stuck in a one way dead end, routes that do not require admission of a character fault and years of psycho-therapy5 to solve. For those who suspect that a terminal project may be something other than ego-induced, I offer some warning signs...
How many levels deep is the project? Consider the researcher who set out to build a potato chip conveyance mechanism. The decision was made to use a magnetic levitation device to move the chips. The advantage of nearly frictionless motion is immediately obvious to all but the densest of colleagues.
After many failed attempts, the researcher realizes that the magnetic fields created by conventional means are not strong enough. The obvious solution is to build a stronger electromagnet.
After many attempts to build such a behemoth, it is realized that the basic bottleneck is the resistance in the wires in the electromagnet’s core. Obviously, a superconducting electromagnet is the solution.
After many attempts to wrap superconducting ceramics around an electromagnet’s core, it is realized that ceramics don’t bend very easily. So the search is on for a room-temperature, malleable superconductor.
I think that the line between applied and pure research has been crossed, and the researcher has completely lost sight of the original job, that of moving potato chips. If only the researcher would have noticed the nesting of sub-projects and realized that there is another way to convey potato chips! It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the simplest solution is to impregnate the potato chips with iron so that they can be magnetically levitated6.
Iron fortified potato chips
The Uni-disciplinarian, or ‘How Meteor Crater Company got screwed’  - Once upon a time, there was a company named Meteor Crater that built wooden boxes. They had been relying on a certain supplier of nails for as long as anybody could remember when that nail supplier had the gall to go out of business. In a panic, the purchasing people had ordered an equivalent part from another vendor, but they were having big problems on the shop floor. The CEO called an emergency meeting7 of the executives to decide what to do about this crisis.
One junior executive offered a suggestion. “I met this fellow at a conference last year. He is supposed to be the leading authority on hammer technology.” After much discussion, and few other promising ideas, Dr. Sledge was called in.
“Eenterezting...”, the doctor said as he inspected the new nail. “I haff neffer zeen zuch a nail. Vot iss dis shpiral doo-hickey zat goess from zee point arount und arount to zee head? Und vy do zey haff ziss zlot at zee ent?” He set a nail on it’s point on a piece of wood, and gently tapped it with a hammer. Seeing no response, he hit it harder, and then harder still. The wood finally split to allow the nail to enter.
“Ya, ve haff a beeg problem here. Ve clearly need a prezision hammer. Vun zat can deliffer a blow hart enoof to zet zee nail, but not zo hart as to shplit zee vood.”
Und zo Herr Doctor (oops, excuse me) And so the doctor set about to build this precision hammer. His first attempt was to use calibrated titanium weights, dropped from calibrated distances. Sledge had some initial successes and failures, but could not consistently set the curious spiraled nails. He eventually hit upon the idea of hammering under vacuum. By eliminating the air resistance, he could reduce the variability in the force of a hammer blow which was due to changes in air resistance.
This brought an incremental improvement in the yield. Sledge calculated the current yield (probability of a successful bond) at about 37%. It was then that the doctor realized the next limiting factor: fluctuations in the earth’s gravitational force8. He experimented for months with various means for propelling the hammer “head” (now resembling a bullet) into the nail.
I could go on and on about the incremental improvements which Doctor Sledge delivered. To make a long story short, Meteor Crater finally quit the crate building business and set up a tourist shop in Arizona, and Sledge wound up selling $5,000 hammers to the Pentagon. Meteor Crater got screwed because nobody thought to investigate screwdriver technology. The moral of this story is that “to a man with a hammer, the world looks like a bunch of nails.”
The golden hammer
I remember seeing a sign in an engineer’s office that compared specialists and generalists. The specialist is one who knows more and more about a narrower and narrower subject until eventually, he knows everything about nothing9. The generalist is one who gradually develops a broader and shallower understanding until he knows nothing about everything.
In my opinion, the specialists are ideal for pure research. Pure research is drilling a well. Generalists, on the other hand, are the best applied researchers. They are best able to objectively weigh all the possibilities. Applied research is clearing the topsoil from a field.
Violating the laws of physics - When I was a lad of 14, my father took me with him on a business trip. He drove to the northern part of the state to talk to an inventor who was looking for financial backing. The inventor had some kind of improvement to the Wankel engine. I had no idea what he was talking about, but it sure sounded neat to me.
He also showed us a perpetual motion machine he had been working on. There was a cast aluminum block, about 18 inches square. Inside this block was an aluminum flywheel. Both the block and the flywheel had permanent magnets and springs and gears. It was all orchestrated to bring north and south poles together just when the flywheel needed a little extra momentum. The magnets would supply the extra kick to keep the wheel going around.
The inventor gave the wheel a spin, and it whirred for a while and came to a stop. “Well, it needs just a bit of adjusting, but I’ve almost got it there.” [Well, it was almost perpetual!] I wanted to learn more about this amazing machine, but my father politely excused us. Why my father would turn down the opportunity to be involved in the development of an infinite source of energy was beyond me!
I met a man who had an idea for a new medical imaging device. It would allow a doctor to see things that you could not see with any existing modality: ultrasound, nuclear magnetic resonance, and computer-aided tomography. The only problem was, such a device would break some basic laws of physics. I tried to reason with him, but he told me, “Wait until I get the Nobel prize. Then you will see.” The student of psychology will recognize this as the manic phase of a bipolar disorder.
Basically speaking, anything having to do with perpetual motion, time travel, moving at twice the speed of light, cold fusion and changing lead into gold can be pretty safely removed from the project list for applied research.
When once around the block starts looking like a Sunday drive - The “once around the block” strategy was designed to minimize the potential for spending too much time on the terminal aspects of the project. When properly applied, each trip around the block serves as a reminder of all the other issues concerning the project. It puts a bit of structure around an otherwise unstructured process.
The “once around the block” process can also serve as an indicator of a project which has gone terminal. Researchers tend to get stuck on one of the trips around, inspecting all the wiring in the Empire State Building. When they stop making regular trips around the block, there may be a terminal project budding.
This essay introduced a triage technique for determining the appropriateness of a project in an applied research setting. The triage divides aspects of a project into pure research, applied research and product development. Focus was then put on one painful aspect of applied research, the terminal project. Future essays will consider how to draw the line between applied research activities and development.
[1] By the way, if you are looking for a posh vacation spot where you can sip umbrella drinks and get your toenails done, I heartily recommend volunteering for a week the Appalachia Service Project.
[2] ... and the poor reader who is being forced to read this against his or her will.
[3] Although the differences are often subtle, management by triage is not to be confused with ménàge a trois. The former is considerably more fun. I recommend it for any party that is getting stale.
[4] “Prima donna” is the feminine version. Calling a male researcher a prima donna is improper grammar.
[5] ... or three weeks on Prozac!
[6] Note that there is a huge market of anemic women who love potato chips. By the way, I have submitted the patent application. I can optimize the levitation capabilities by completely doing away with the potatoes in the chip. My new Imitation Potato Flavored Iron Chips are currently being manufactured in machine shops around the world. They pay me to clean them off the floor!
[7] “Meetings” are what companies call to stave off a crisis. The theory is that crises occur when things change too fast. Meetings are well know to slow things down, so they quite effectively delay the crisis. Not only that, but they also free up the people who do the real work to actually deal with the crisis!
[8] Those of you with bathroom scales may have noticed this phenomenon. I myself have put much research into reversing the trend for this force to gradually increase over time.
[9] Signal processing theory aficionados will recognize an allusion to the Dirac delta function.

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