29 January 2008

Supervising the National Laboratories

Whenever I begin to prepare his dinner, my dog Pongo is underfoot.

"He's making sure you stay focussed and get the job done on time," said my wife. "He's supervising you."

In other words, being in management does not guarantee that you are a higher order of being than the workers you supervise. The most talented managers realize this, and actively recruit people who have talents that they themselves may lack. This is because they are confident in their managerial talent, a constellation of abilities that involves intellect, psyche, and soul. There simply is no human activity more demanding and engrossing than managing well.

The rewards are more than monetary. The biggest reward is that you can change the world, at least for those people within your sphere of influence. And sometimes you can change the world, period.

If these statements about management are true of ordinary enterprises, they are much more true of the Research and Development (R&D) enterprises known as the US National Laboratories. But the National Laboratories are under pressure. Los Alamos and Livermore, once supervised by the University of California under contract to the US Department of Energy, are now run by Limited Liability Corporations (LANS, LLC. and LINS, LLC., respectively). The idea (traceable to David Lee Hobson, Republican Congressman from Ohio) was that the National Labs would operate more cost effectively and with fewer security problems if they were supervised by real businesses.

The National Nuclear Security Agency (NNSA, a part of the US Department of Energy) was forced to put the contracts to manage the labs up for bid. I think the desire to minimize discontinuity and disruption to the labs and their workforce weighed in the NNSA's decisions to award the contracts to two consortia, both of which include major participation by the University of California.

The result: Since they are now run by private corporations, the National Labs incur about a half-billion dollars more in expenses that they did before - from additional taxes, costs of pension benefits, etc. It will take an awful lot of gains in efficiency to make up for that added burden. In particular, since the Labs are not getting any more funding than they did before (in fact their budgets are being cut), the labs have to make up for that shortfall by laying people off.

How many people? The lab budgets come from Congress by way of the Departments of Energy, Defense, and Homeland Security. Since Congress is always slow in passing a budget, the lab managers never know how much funding they are going to have until well past the beginning of the fiscal year. This means that when they have a shortfall, they have less time to make it up, and therefore the more extensive the layoffs.

I'd like to see Congress run like a business. Deliver a balanced budget, on time, every year. Maybe they need better supervision. Maybe I should sic Pongo on them.

27 January 2008

Three Ways to Kill the National Labs

Suppose you want to improve productivity at the US National Laboratories, to give the taxpayers more value for their money. Here are things that people are actually doing to achieve this, and the consequences of their efforts.

1. Take control. Apply project management techniques such as the Earned Value Method to all R&D activities, large and small, without exception. The intent is to empower managers to track every project's progress, and to identify and correct problems before they become unmanageable. The problem is that with all the overhead charges for facilities, support staff and management, a laboratory charges between $300,000 and $400,000 per year for each full-time equivalent (FTE) scientist or engineer. (No the scientists and engineers don't get that as salary - they are lucky to see 1/3 of that.) Doing all the tracking and reporting necessary to fully implement the Earned Value Method will take about 1/4 of a FTE. In other words, if you insist on using the full project management apparatus for a $100,000 project, you won't get anything but reports on the work the FTE hasn't done. Putting the burden of project management techniques on small projects paralyzes them. This leads to the next item.

2. Think big. When bringing in new projects, only go for the ones that are big in terms of dollars. The intent is to only take on projects big enough to not be crushed by the burden of project management activities. Indeed to take on only those big enough that project managements technique are absolutely necessary. The problem is that some small projects can have a big impact. A small project that finds a way to defeat improvised explosive devices (IEDs), for example, would completely turn around the situation in Iraq, where IEDs are the weapons of choice for the insurgents. In other words, doing only big projects doesn't guarantee that you are making a big difference.

3. Go for the payoff. Apply return on investment (ROI) analysis to everything the labs do. The intent is to pare away the R&D investments that aren't bearing fruit for the taxpayers. The problem is that there is no known way of determining what that return will ultimately be. Consider ARPANET, the little network that was put together so that universities doing research under the  DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) could collaborate and communicate their work to their contract sponsors. By any known accounting method, it would have been considered a dead loss at the time. But ARPANET grew into the internet, which grew into the world wide web, which is the medium over which you are reading this article. The value of internet commerce is now in the billions of US dollars. The taxpayers got an enormous return on their investment, but it took twenty years and did not accrue directly to the original agency that funded the groundwork.

Or for a more individualistic example, ROI analysis, the Earned Value Method, and the Six Sigma method (used for quality control and improvement) would all dictate that you fire the researcher who does experiment after experiment, which all fail, month after month. That researcher might say something lame like

"If I find 10,000 ways something won't work, I haven't failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward".

That researcher might be quoting Thomas Edison.

So, while getting value out of the R&D investments in the National Laboratories is a national necessity, we need to be careful how we go about it. The techniques above work well and are indeed necessary for a  large project in which the path forward and the individual steps to achieve it are well enough known to make a realistic projection of how and when the steps can be achieved. Such a project is not research and invention. It is development and innovation.

Research is inquiry into the workings of the natural world. Invention is discovering how to make something useful out of previous research. Development is the process of reworking the invention so that it can be manufactured in quantity.  Innovation is the business process taking the newly manufactureable product into a real world application.

Research and invention can easily be stifled by inappropriate controls applied by people who don't themselves understand the research they are managing. Yet this is what is beginning to be imposed on the National Laboratories by the new Limited Liability Corporations (LLCs) that Congress (a Republican Congress at that) has mandated to run them.

The nation runs the risk of getting good looking balance sheets from the Labs for a while, but an ever diminishing return of new ideas, discoveries, inventions and analyses.

Rather than just thinking big bucks, the lab managers need to think big impact. The labs need to do what is important, and if that means learning to manage a mixed portfolio of large and small projects with techniques appropriate to the size and content of each, then so be it. The national labs exist to empower the nation to change the world - for better, not worse. Let that be our guide as we dialog with our funding agencies and our government about what we should do and how we should do it.

Blogged with Flock

22 January 2008

God Save us from our Politics

Vance has a really great post, The last things and things before the last, in which he uses quotes from Bonhoeffer's unfinished Ethics to rescue religion from politics (and possibly vice versa).

Have a look, and also see The Antithesis of Science, which argues that the opposite of science is not religion, but politics.

I take offense at those on the right and left who, relentlessly politicize everything in their compulsive search for advantage and power. It must be another US presidential election year.

20 January 2008

God save us from these scholars

It seems that a cache of photographs of ancient manuscripts of the Qur'an, long thought to have been lost in the bombing of Munich during WWII, has been found after all. A careful study of these manuscripts might lend support to the standard Muslim belief that the Uthman, the third Caliph, gathered all extant recordings of the Prophet's recitations of the Qur'an, and produced the single authorized version in Arabic that exists today. On the other hand, it might not.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Gerd-Rüdiger Puin, one of the scholars studying the manuscripts,
says the manuscripts suggested to him that the Quran "didn't just fall from heaven" but "has a history." When he said so publicly a decade ago, it stirred rage. "Please ensure that these scholars are not given further access to the documents," read one letter to the Yemen Times. "Allah, help us against our enemies."

Such unwillingness on the part of too many Muslims to risk confronting the truth, however uncomfortable it might be, brings to mind another quote, this time about Christianity:

He who begins by loving Christianity better than truth will proceed by loving his own sect of the church better than Christianity, and end in loving himself better than all. — S. T. Coleridge, Aids to Reflection, 1825

The same may be said of any religion, don't you think?

18 January 2008

God is knocking. Open your mind.

We construct our image of reality, but it is necessarily incomplete, because there is more to reality than our mind can hold. We paper over the empty places with prejudices that enable us to feel good about ourselves in the face of our own mortality. We defend ourselves by fighting those who threaten to tear through our prejudices. Including God. That's why we crucified him. That's why we crucify each other. That's why we crucify parts of ourselves. In the modern world, with its crisis of meaning, that's why we make war.

Religion has already provided time-tested tools to help us deal with all this. But it takes all the insights of science and human experience to use them with care. If we pick them up without thinking, we just use them to confirm our prejudices. They become intellectual weapons to fend off ideas, rather than spiritual windows to God. And we need to use our sense of humor to live with ourselves in the face of how often and how far we get it wrong, despite our best efforts.

What to do? Realize that the most common approach to Truth is by successive approximations. Each time, we make errors, which we strive to reduce with our next effort. And that some fine day, the Truth will reach us. Or as the Apostle Paul wrote, "Now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face."

There. Does that help?

16 January 2008

The Christology that won't be Reconstructed

The idea that the Genesis account of the Creation of the Universe and the Fall of Humankind is a myth is not new to the Church. I remember being surprised when my Episcopal priest told me that he thought the earliest historical person in the Bible was Noah. This would imply that he, too, thought the Genesis account was not historical, but rather, a myth. No doubt he believed, as I now do, that the myth carries a true message for us, despite its lack of historical truth.

But taking Genesis 1-3 as myth deconstructs the standard Christology (the theology of who Christ is, the reasons for the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection, and their implications for all of us). The standard Christology is that of the Apostle Paul and St. Augustine, namely that God created the primordial couple (Adam and Eve) in a state of Grace, in which there was no suffering or death, and no need to labor to survive. Through disobedience to God's only prohibition - to refrain from eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam and Eve incurred God's punishment - they would have to labor for their food, clothing and shelter, childbirth would be painful, and suffering and death entered the world - for them and all their descendants, including us. In order to rescue us from this situation - in order that death not be final - God became incarnate as a fertilized human ovum in the womb of the Virgin Mary. The ovum grew to become the baby, and eventually the man Jesus, who lived a blameless life, and suffered death by crucifixion. On the third day after his death, he arose to a new life, met with many of his former followers, and then ascended to Heaven to "sit on the right hand of God." The reason for this drama, is that Jesus thus paid the price of the primordial disobedience for all of humanity (or at least all of humanity who would believe it and thank him for it). The effect of having this price paid, is that after death we will be blameless before God - our sins will be forgiven - and we, too, will be resurrected to new life with God. Jesus is the first of the resurrected, and will draw us after him.

Now if Genesis 1-3 is a myth, (which many thoughtful people find repulsive - God the Abusive Parent, they call it) where does that leave Christology? One can reconstruct Christology based on the Crucifixion itself, or one can simply use 20th Century history as prima facie evidence of humanity's sinful nature. Either way or both ways, one gets a Christology that is consistent, and consonant with (even faithful to) the original.

But for many people, it just isn't as compelling. Maybe that's why the mainline Protestant churches are declining in membership, while the so-called "Evangelical" churches are growing. People need for there to be magic in the world. People need their mythology to be their history. Maybe the church that grows is the church that does the best job of selling its fairy-tales.

Perhaps that last jab was too bitter. It just bugs me when churches mix God's Truth with obvious falsehood, and tell me that I have to swallow the whole package to be a real Christian.

07 January 2008

The Truth of Myth

When I said in my last post that Genesis 3 has the truth of myth, I did not use that word in the dismissive sense that most people use it. I understand the word myth in the sense that the late Joseph Campbell used it.

A myth is a narrative literary form that expresses meaning that is otherwise inexpressible. A myth tells one or more truths that cannot be told any other way. A myth reaches not only our intellect, but also our emotions. It can be spoken or written, poetry or prose, said or sung or acted out, or any combination of these.

A myth need not be factually or historically true for its core meaning to be true. Indeed, sometimes the more a myth is like a dream, the more it speaks to what we our unconscious knows, but our conscious mind does not. As such, myths can help to make us into more whole persons, regardless to the facts they do or do not contain. Indeed, one of the sermons in VCBC's chapel is a minor myth which says something true about humanity's relationship with Jesus, even though it was simply made up by a modern science fiction writer.

It is only when we make the mistake of insisting that the imagery of our myths must trump obvious fact that we get into trouble. First, by making the myth literal, we allow ourselves to evade the truth the myth might convey to us. If the myth is really fact, then there is no need to look any deeper into its meaning. Or into ourselves. Second, by making the myth literal, we block the actual facts from reaching us. The old fashioned term for disconnecting yourself from facts was neurosis. In other words, by pretending that myths are necessarily facts, we don't merely make ourselves ignorant, we drive ourselves crazy.

So, back to Genesis 3. My take on it is in the pieces On Time and Reviving a Dead Language. It says some very sobering things about our relationship with each other, the natural world, and God, regardless of its historical truth. On the other hand, isn't it a bit much to proclaim that God became incarnate as the man Jesus because of what a myth says about us?

So, in order to make the meaning of the Genesis myth more immediate, I try to show how the Crucifixion stands on its own as a shocking indictment of humanity in That Old Time Religion. We are so twisted that, given the choice between our  theology and our God, we choose our theology and kill our God, over and over again.

The communities around John the Baptist and Jesus understood Sin in terms of spiritual pollution or uncleanness, and required that Sin be washed away. This is a much more gut-wrenching view of Sin than my alluding to it as being twisted or screwed up. The latter might make it easier to face one's Sin, and to talk about it,  i.e., to confess. But it also makes it easier to just live with one's Sin. The former conception of Sin as uncleanness or filthiness, is much more likely to compel one to do something about it.

I may disconcert some people when I remind them (in the closing paragraph of God's Reasons Reconsidered) that modern experimental psychology shows that "there is a little bit of Eichmann in us all," but I don't make them feel scummy because of it.

Maybe that's what I'm missing.

Blogged with Flock

04 January 2008

Heresy or Postmodern Theology?

Of course the earliest verifiable Christian writer, St. Paul (aka Saul of Tarsus), believed that the Fall narrative in Genesis 3 was true as fact, as he alludes in his first letter to the Corinthians:

For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. - 1 Corinthians 21,22

The implication is that Sin and Death came into the world through Adam's disobedience of God's commandment not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

But as I stated in my last post, the Fall story in Genesis is false as history. Historically (well, pre-historically) Death and suffering preceded humankind into the cosmos. I elaborated on this in my review of The Passion of the Christ:

We, on the other hand, now know that hardship and Death were in the world from the beginning of Life, long before there were humans. Further, we know that evolution is the response of Life to hardship and Death, and that humans are one of the expressions of that response. In other words, God used hardship and Death to make humans. In response to hardship and Death, we often disregard others and look out only for ourselves. But, since we are evolved to be a social species, we know that it is wrong for us to do so. We know that we must do good for ourselves and our society, and that sometimes, we must sacrifice our personal desires and interests for some higher good. We know that this is what God's Justice has written on our hearts, yet we disobey, and we lie to ourselves about it. And we attack those who threaten to expose our lies — like Socrates, the Prophets, and Jesus. (Or anyone who challenges our way of seeing the world and ourselves.)

Maybe that's what gets the Creationists and Intelligent Design proponents so exercised about evolution. It exonerates the first humans from bringing suffering and Death into the world. Death has not been imposed on the cosmos as a penalty for the Original Sin of the first humans. But the idea that Death is penal was implicitly embraced by Paul, and explicitly argued by St. Augustine some 350 years later. Moreover, both men saw Jesus as having paid that penalty for us by his Crucifixion and Resurrection. That is, although we must still die, Death will not be final -- the resurrected Christ will resurrect us after him, and has the power to do so because he paid our penalty.

Yet I relegate the truth of Genesis 3 to the truth of myth. That is, it is true as a primitive psychology - it points out our predilection for being estranged from ourselves, each other, the natural world, and God - which I call being Sinful. It is true in the sense that it is as if we fell out of timelessness into Time. But I cannot accept it as historical fact, like Paul and Augustine. And that makes me a heretic.

Or does it? Up to now, I've been treating Christian Theology as the intellectual property of Paul and Augustine, two of its earliest and greatest formulators and expositors. But Christian Theology is the project of understanding the Gospel anew for each generation. The Church is bound, not by its doctors, but by the event of the Incarnation-Crucifixion-Resurrection, which means more than all verbal explanations can ever state. We need verbal explanations in order to talk about it, to place it in our understanding of ourselves, each other, the world, and God. As we learn more about ourselves, each other and the world, we need also to learn more about God - and thus we need to re-explain the event.

Part of that re-explanation is revising the doctrine of Original Sin in the light of recent advances in our understanding of Natural History. Is that legitimate? I would argue that it is, since Augustine incorporated Natural History as it was understood in the early 5th century into his theology. But we must have some criteria for accepting or rejecting these continual re-explanations. On the other hand, any criterion we could state in words would itself be subject to continual re-explanation.

Fortunately, a solution exists. The Church itself must judge whether theological statements are heretical in the light of its continuing relationship with God, and its Magesterium (divinely ordained teaching authority) and its Great Commission to make disciples in all peoples. At any given moment in time, the Church itself may judge wrongly, but over the course of time, the Truth will out.

As for myself, I think the Crucifixion itself is more than sufficient to establish the doctrine of humanity's sinful nature (so-called Original Sin), as I argued in my review of The Passion of the Christ. Moreover, the demand for blood sacrifice comes from ourselves. God demanded it because we needed God to demand it.

We don't want to be confronted with our lies. Which means we can't accept our true selves, and we don't believe anyone else can, either, unless we pay the price, unless we earn acceptablity by self-sacrifice to a higher cause. Yet we need to accept our true selves, in order to be able to tolerate God, in whose presence we confront the truth about everything. The price is beyond our ability to pay, for in the presence of God, we have nothing to offer but tainted goods — the selves that even we cannot accept. So God pays the price for us. God came into the world as one of us, to endure abandonment by God, and to be killed by us.

That is the price of admission for people like us into God's Presence — Paradise.

So I have to ask you. Am I a heretic, or just an amateur postmodern theologian?

01 January 2008

Creationism is an Honest Lie

Let's say your preschooler asks you, "Where do babies come from? How did I get here?"

There are a number of ways you might answer, but if you know anything about young kids, you are not going to give your child all the details of human reproductive physiology and adult sexual behavior. Your child simply hasn't developed enough intellectually and emotionally to take in, much less process that kind of information. You're going to say something that meets your child's intellectual, emotional and spiritual needs right now. The details can wait until the child is more mature.

Now let's flash back some 2,800 years. You are God, and the Hebrew tribes are beginning to wonder how the world and humankind came into existence. One thing you are not going to say to them is, "First you need to learn Quantum Mechanics...." It would make absolutely no intellectual sense to them, and it would be too sterile emotionally and spiritually. You're going to tell them something that captures the essential truths of their relationship with you in a way that has meaning for them. Maybe that you made the Universe and everything in it. That you didn't make it all at once, but in stages. And lastly, you made people. And you made them special, so that you could even have this conversation. The details can wait until their cultures mature enough that they can discover Quantum Mechanics on their own.

In other words, the Creation story in Genesis is true. It's truth is similar to the truth a conscientious and loving parent might tell a five year old child about sex.

We could insist that a five-year-old's understanding of human reproduction be taught in high school sex education courses. But high schoolers, knowing more than that already, would see us as idiots, which would undermine our authority to teach them anything, period. Insisting that an iron-age understanding of biology be taught in 21st century high schools is of the same order of idiocy, and - for most kids - undermines our teaching authority in the same way.

So while Creation is true (in this Christian physicist's opinion), Creationism is false. Creationism insists that the iron-age understanding of cosmogeny and biology is factual, to the detriment of its true meaning for all of us. The Creationists and their spawn, Intelligent Design proponents, are not disingenuous, they're just wrong. They're telling an honest lie.