Saturday, February 26, 2005

What Would Feynman Do?

From Anonymous:


From the number and the passion of the blogs on this website it is clear that there are a lot of people who care very deeply for the laboratory. While that's very commendable, it's also a mistake. Why? Because the lab doesn't care very deeply for you. Anyone who thinks that TSMs at the lab have effective tenure is woefully mistaken. LANL hires and fires by division, not as a laboratory. If the money dries up for your project, you are in deep doo-doo. It doesn't matter how well you have performed your job or how hard you've worked, you are vulnerable. During my time at LANL (25 years) I have participated in firing multiple people on two occasions. None of these people were “underperformers”. In fact, those who were most vulnerable tended to be successful scientists in their 40s and 50s who were or had been middle managers.

That being said, how should people react to the present situation? First of all, for those who are near retirement now is the time to bail. Don't worry that your departure and your colleagues departures might leave the lab too short-staffed to do our missions. That situation isn't of your making and it's not your responsibility to put yourself at risk. That problem belongs to Nanos, the NNSA and the politicians. So far, they haven't gone out of their way to give you any incentives to stay so you should extend to them the same courtesy.

For young staff people, if you have an opportunity to go somewhere else which has a decent environment for science, take it. The older you get the fewer opportunities will arise. Also, if you wait until you are older your financial risk will increase. The climate for doing science isn't going to get any better here. I think Tom Bowles is sincerely trying to improve it, but he doesn't have the resources to make much impact. The reality is that the climate for doing science at LANL has been monotonically decreasing ever since WWII. After the war, LANL received block funding and pretty much had the latitude to work on what we wanted to. Over the years that situation has steadily eroded to the point where most of the meaningful decisions are made in Washington. The present group of upper managers are control freaks who think that science is measured by pert charts and milestones. Most of them have never done any science and they don't have a clue as to what science is.

For those who would like to stay at LANL, realize that times of turmoil are also times of opportunity. This might be a good time to get funding for that project that you haven't been able to get funded. However, don't lull yourself into thinking that the long-term prognosis for science at the lab (particularly small science) is good. The ER side of DOE is facing flat or declining budgets and there is no way that people are going to be able to keep up with the increasing costs that the new safety/security culture will engender.

However, there is some good news. The costs of computing have dropped enormously over the past several years to where one can do significant computing on a box that costs less that $2k. Projects that 10 years ago had to be done in a large laboratory setting now can be done at home. People should consider taking their small science outside of the laboratory. Since small science is where the real breakthroughs and advancements come from, why bother to share this with the laboratory if they don’t appreciate it?

Finally, what do we need to do about Nanos and his entourage? There seems to be a mentality here that if we all band together we can get rid of this guy. That’s bullshit. Anyone who has ever managed at the lab has had the experience of a group of “concerned employees” going behind their back to their superiors to have them removed. It always happens and it never works. Why? Because the people they are complaining to have had the same thing done to them and they resent it. It makes it easy to be labeled as whiners and therefore dismissed.

In order to understand how to properly deal with this, you first of all have to understand the purpose of upper management. They don’t bring in any money. Since they don’t control the money, they can’t provide any meaningful strategic planning or anything else for the lab. Their first job is to be a pain in the butt. Our job is to get the job done in spite of all the obstacles they put in our way. This can require a lot of creativity, but we have a long history of accomplishing that at LANL.

Their second function is to provide entertainment. We also have a long history of that at LANL. Remember Don Kerr and Rosemary Harris with the infamous “quit talking about the director and me” memo? How about the exploits of Big Al Tiedman? If you want to deal with Nanos then you need to exploit his biggest weakness: he’s a stuffed shirt with a really short fuse who takes himself seriously. The one thing people like that can’t stand is to have everybody laughing at them. Pushing his buttons ought to be real easy. So easy you can even do it anonymously. Face it, anyone who gets bent out of shape about bumper stickers and cowboy hats is just begging to have his chain yanked. With even a modest amount of effort we ought to be able to get him and his minions popping Prozac like they are M&Ms. If we can get him to spend all of his time chasing his tail, then he won’t have enough time to continue damaging the laboratory. We need to take a tip from our fundamentalist brethren and consider WWFD (What Would Feynman Do?) in dealing with this guy.


Comments:
this is the best posting yet. right on the money!
 
Some people see obstacles as doom. Other people see obstacles as a challenge. I am one of the latter.

Let's all get together and start moving into the future - get the science going, get the best new people we can get to hire in, and make the environment we work in, a place we want to be. Lets do the best with what we control, and do our best to ignore what we can't. Its up to us!
 
This post is pure gold! Sadly, I agree with 99% of it. Hopefully, it does not take an international incident for the boneheads and bureaurocrats in Washington to realize the value Los Alamos once had and could have again in the complex world that we live in. It IS worth saving and it IS worth driving Nanos out like the vermin that he is. Keep the pressure on this guy. We beat the Russians and they were for real; we can whip this phony - black hat and all.
 
This is a great posting. Well thought-out and well constructed. I agree with most of it and expecially the last part.

Let's dip into the Captain's strawberries.......

"They were all disloyal. ......Ah, but the strawberries! That's, that's where I had them. They laughed at me and made jokes, but I proved beyond the shadow of a doubt, and with, with geometric logic, that, that a duplicate key to the wardroom icebox did exist. And I would have produced that key if they hadn't pulled the Caine out of action. I, I know now they were only trying to protect some fellow officer. (He pauses - looks at all the questioning faces that stare back at him, and realizes that he has been ranting and raving.) Captain Queeg's testimony, CAINE MUTINY 1954
 
Because Feynman was my hero you caught my interest. You seem to babble about the current "problems" but offer no solution What would Feynmam do? He would go out his hole in the gate and never return.
 
We have offered a solution: Nanos out, science back in!
 
A bit of lightness is inspired by this "enlightened" posting, and we are in real dire need of lightness in these dark days:

"The primary function of management is to create the chaos that only management can sort out.

"A secondary function is the expensive redecoration and refurbishment of offices, especially in the times of the utmost financial stringency."

-Theodore Dalrymple (in March 2005 edition of "Funny Times")

Do any of you old-timers recall the first time that the Fourth Floor was carpeted? -So that Rosemary Harris could walk to Don Kerr's office barefoot?
 
The one constant at LANL throughout the years is that things are accomplished in spite of management, not because of it. It's time to get back to work.
 
Pete will leave at contract changeover, or at the award announcement. No one upstream is going to tolerate yet another reorg at the top until then.
 
Gosh, that means could have Herr Direktor for another year if the six-month extension is granted. The good news is that by then we all can get jobs at Ringling Brothers since we will have impeccable credentials.
 
Since I wrote the original blog and there seems to be some interest in it, I do have a modest proposal for improving the situation at LANL and for science in general. I am planning to reopen Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory. Since both the moniker and the spirit of LASL have been abandoned by the government, I am proposing to reopen LASL as a private laboratory for doing low-cost, high risk, high payoff research. The philosophy is to embrace Freeman Dysan's comment that research is at its best when everything is on the edge of total chaos. The purpose of LASL will be to provide an umbrella organization to shelter the chaos.

It is my belief that if we want to get out from under the thumbs of the management weenies, the safety weenies, and the bureaucracy weenies, we have to demonstrate that scientific freedom can produce wondrous results with minimal (or no) resources and no managerial structure. When the scientists at Los Alamos produced the original bomb, people in the government were in awe of them. They got almost everything they asked for with very few strings attached. If we could pull off something of comparable magnitude, then it would strike a blow for science and against the present bureaucratic system which would shake things up considerably.

I am presently working on a project that could potentially have that impact. Obviously, it is a high risk project. However, I suspect there are others out there with similar projects. In order to be successful we would only have to have one project work out. The purpose of LASL would be for us to support one another. No cash changing hands, but possibly shared/bartared labor much like the way independent farmers operate. Thus, everyone would be responsible for their own financial resources. LASL would start simply as a forum for discussing such ideas. If anyone is interested in this, please respond to this blog. I realize that this is something which won't interest very many people, but perhaps a few of you might be interested. I intend to do it regardless of the response. However, if some of you are interested it might make things go a little faster.
 
LASL--what an excellent moniker! It's time to rejuvenate. Sign me up.

(Since I'm still employed for another couple of weeks, I'll just sign as:)

-Brother Anonymous.
 
I used to work for LASL and would like to do so again. I'm retired, and have nothing better to do, so we can use my house as the AD Building. I also suggest that we hire Harold Agnew to be our first Director. He was the last Director of the original LASL.
 
I also used to work for LASL, and would be interested in doing so again. Nanos has seen to it that less science is done at LANL, so I would be happy to move the science I still manage to do into a better environment.
 
Real useful work? What a concept!
Sign me up. Put an ad in the paper so we don't miss the first meeting.
 
I would like to support LASL in
some small way.

Please post an email address.
 
You know, this was a really great letter. Probably the best one
I've seen as yet on this site. And then you go and ruin it with this
cheesy "LASL business" things and hints that you've got the next great
invention. What's next? Hawking IPO shares in LASL. Sorry, but the
moment you moved from a discussion of LANL to hawking your own, private
"get-on-the-ground-floor" business deal, you lost me.
 
this reborn LASL canard has been around for a long time. i would love to see it , but doubt there are enough scientists with the guts and entreprenurial spirit to pull it off. (i certainly never had them)

if in fact a quarter of a billion in work for others is going away, it will be going somewhere. now would be the time to strike when the iron is hot. spin offs from national labs have been successful before. i noticed you even have a company in town building linux cluster computers.

i doubt Agnew would be interested, but you might get Jay Norman to do the job.
 
the old canard of a reborn LASL has been around for quite some time. i would love to see it, but i doubt it will ever happen. it would require a bunch of scientists with guts and an entreprenurial spirit. i certainly never had enough of either to try it. you know it means 90 hour weeks and second mortgages on personal homes.

successful spinfoffs from national labs have happened at places like oak ridge. i see that los alamos even has a company building linux cluster computers, that would be a good place to start.

i really admire Harold Agnew, but i doubt if he would be interested, but how about Jay Norman?
 
I think I need to clarify this since some people took what I said the wrong way. First of all, this isn't a big money making proposition. What I'm working on I intend to fund out of my own pocket. Everything I work on is public domain and I intend to keep it that way. Secondly, I'm not asking anybody to buy into my ideas. What I am primarily looking for is people who have some similar things they are interested in pursuing to network with.
This is also not a proposal to produce an entity to compete with LANL. LANL is a big science, defense related institution. This would be the exact opposite.
The need I'm trying to fill is the following: I don't think small, high risk projects can survive at LANL anymore. The money you can find is fixed or declining dollars. What I'm interested in pursuing may well take a couple of decades to come to fruition, if it comes at all. DOE/LANL doesn't have the patience for that kind of a project, so I have to find an alternate way to make it happen.
What I am proposing is outragewous modest, realistic, and doable. It doesn't require any capital to get it started. if other people want to do something more grandiose than this, that's fine but it isn't what I'm interested in.
 
I think I need to clarify this since some people took what I said the wrong way. First of all, this isn't a big money making proposition. What I'm working on I intend to fund out of my own pocket. Everything I work on is public domain and I intend to keep it that way. Secondly, I'm not asking anybody to buy into my ideas. What I am primarily looking for is people who have some similar things they are interested in pursuing to network with.
This is also not a proposal to produce an entity to compete with LANL. LANL is a big science, defense related institution. This would be the exact opposite.
The need I'm trying to fill is the following: I don't think small, high risk projects can survive at LANL anymore. The money you can find is fixed or declining dollars. What I'm interested in pursuing may well take a couple of decades to come to fruition, if it comes at all. DOE/LANL doesn't have the patience for that kind of a project, so I have to find an alternate way to make it happen.
What I am proposing is outragewous modest, realistic, and doable. It doesn't require any capital to get it started. if other people want to do something more grandiose than this, that's fine but it isn't what I'm interested in.
 
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