Reason Versus Imagination

November 1st, 2019

By Michael W. Gos

Nassau Bay, Texas

There is an iconic phrase from the movie Apollo 13 that we all know, and many of us often use: “Houston, we have a problem.” And of course we all know the first word spoken from the surface of the moon was “Houston.” The problem is, if we are being truthful, neither phrase is correct. They should have said “Nassau Bay.” That is the location of the Johnson Space Center.

Several years ago, I was at Space Center Houston for a Purdue Alumni party and fundraiser. Our host was the last man to set foot on the moon and fellow Purdue alumnus, Gene Cernan. The facility was closed except for our group and we were given access to a lot of things others don’t get to see. And each of them amazed me. The sheer size of the full scale copy of the space station, for instance, was awe-inspiring. Seeing the old Mercury program control room and the various rockets seemed almost like a fantasy.

I suppose learning about our space program’s early days would overwhelm most people. Just think of the minute technical details that all had to be just right to make the whole lunar project work. The engineers did it without computers—generally depending solely on slide rules. I think most people would marvel at the attention to detail and the rational, logical abilities of the people who made this all happen.

Not me. I was totally blown away by something entirely different—the creativity of it all. I was in awe of the imagination that made this all possible.

In 1961, in spite of the fact that we had yet to successfully put a man in space at all, President John Kennedy announced we would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.
NASA got word of the impending announcement only about four weeks before the speech. The problem was, there was nothing even close to a plan for this enormous project, and there had to be a plan ready before the announcement. NASA engineer Bill Fleming (another fellow Purdue alum) was given four weeks to come up with a plan detailing “all facets” of the program to get us to the moon. The plan had to be ready in time for Kennedy’s announcement in September—an enormous assignment with a ridiculous deadline! Four weeks later, Fleming and his team submitted a report over 500 pages long detailing the overall plan, phases of the project, more than 1,200 tasks and a full budget for the program.

I think it is safe to say most people would begin a project like this by designing a rocket to go the moon, and their work would have been concentrated along those lines. But Fleming wasn’t thinking like most people. Instead of getting down to the rational, logical details of getting to the moon, he was much more imaginative. He saw the problem differently. He chose instead to divide the huge project into three separate phases, or missions: orbit the earth, circle the moon, and finally, the actual landings. Today we look back at this radical decision and we understand the beauty of it. First, it makes perfect sense given what had to be learned and what skills needed to be developed, and second, it is incredibly time-efficient because we can have people working on missions two and three even as we are just starting mission one. Time was the thing in shortest supply.

Then there was John Houbolt, who came up with the wild idea that a moon landing should involve three vehicles, not one. At the time, the idea most commonly endorsed was a science-fiction-like rocket that would launch from earth, land on the moon, then launch from the moon and travel back to earth. A vehicle that would escape earth’s gravity, travel all the way to the moon, launch a second time and then travel all the way back to earth would have taken both enormous amounts of hardware and fuel. It would have taken a rocket much more powerful than the available Saturn V to launch the payload necessary to do it in this more “popular” way.

Concerned first and foremost with weight, Houbolt asked the unusual question, “Why not leave the fuel for the return trip to earth up in the moon’s orbit?” Houbolt’s idea was called the lunar orbit rendezvous (LOR) concept. It meant a moon landing would require three vehicles: a Saturn 5 (three stage) rocket, a command module, and a lunar landing module.
His idea was considered so radical that one NASA engineer said “Houbolt has a scheme that has a 50 percent chance of getting a man to the moon and a 1 percent of getting him back.” Another said “His figures lie, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about” (thespacereview.com).

Looking back, both Fleming and Houbolt had ideas that we now can see make perfect sense. They are completely logical and we understand why they worked. But someone had to think of them, and logic clearly was less important in that process than imagination. Remember the comments of some of the more “logical” engineers about Houbolt’s plan.
The fact is, if we want a “complete” world we can’t have the “higher” trait (logic and reason) without first establishing its foundation—imagination. We often stereotype engineers as logic-based number nerds, and perhaps many of them are. But the fact is, details and numbers are useless until we have the “Big Idea.”

Were these two men any less rational/logical/technical just because they were imaginative? Clearly not. To truly be effective, to be someone like Fleming and Houbolt, we really need to excel at both.

Many of us tend to classify people into one of two groups, either as creative types, or detail people. But is there really such a clear distinction? While it may be true that some people seem to be better at the big picture, at finding creative solutions to problems, do these identifications have to hold true? We hear that people have an “orientation.” They are detail-oriented, or they are creative. They are rational and logical or they are imaginative. They are “left-brained” or “right-brained.”

Science has achieved so much in the decades since Apollo and yet still today, imagination is often overlooked in favor of the rational. We never could have gotten to the moon or achieved any of the other technological advances since then with reason alone? We must first conceive, then build.

Neither creativity nor logic are genetic gifts. They are developed skills. And both can be cultivated in the individual if we try. Obviously, it is best if we begin that work in childhood. But it is never too late to develop these skills in ourselves—if we really want to.

Left brain/right brain. Do we really want to go through life with half a brain?

Bureaucracy

September 3rd, 2019

Photo: Michael Gos

By Michael W. Gos

Waco, Texas

“He went to the dark side.”

That is what professors say when a fellow faculty member decides to take even a temporary administrative position. There is clearly a distrust, or worse, of administrators on the part of faculty members in education.

I was at Baylor University for a conference for mid-level managers in higher education and one of the hot topics was why those in administration at all levels, are so disliked by the rank and file educators. I found it surprising that most of the attendees honestly didn’t have a clue about the causes of this hostility. I always thought it was pretty clear.
Most colleges can cite the year when their administrative staff members first outnumbered the faculty. Today, it is common to have two to one or even three to one ratios of administrators to faculty in colleges and universities. But, of course, this phenomenon is not limited to higher education. The explosion of bureaucrats and administrators is ubiquitous. It plagues business and industry as much, if not more, than education.

Why should we be concerned about this trend? It’s all about “paper.” Okay, most of it is electronic these days, but you get the idea. Every administrator must justify his job, so they all are forced to introduce new ideas, new “procedures” that somehow translate to “projects” for the non-administrators. And since there are now so many on the dark side, they compete for the work hours of those in the productive, non-administrative positions. These new ideas are often referred to by the productive employees as the “flavor-du-jour” because almost none of them are ever carried to completion. They are almost immediately displaced by the latest “great new idea.”

My experiences with this kind of nonsense are far too numerous to count. Among them were five different policies for travel reimbursement in a single fiscal year, four different three-year assessment plans, none of which ever made it past 18 months before being replaced by a new idea, and many other “great ideas” that we’ve had to live with. I’m sure everyone in the business world can tell similar horror stories.

This explosion of non-productive employees is exacerbated by the fact that each new administrator brings with him a few additional satellite employees such as administrative assistants, secretaries, etc. All these new workers have to justify their existence as well; they have to do something. So, they create new policies, new layers of paper. And that has costs.

First, we need more money to pay these employees. In the public sector, tax money is the first choice of course, but government is often reluctant to give increases sufficient to fund this exploding employee base. Choice two: go after grants. Of course, that means hiring more administrators to go apply for, and then manage the grants that are secured. Then, when the grants run out, the public sector is reluctant to lay off people, so they find some other place for them, in the administration, of course. And the dark side staff keeps growing.

In the private sector, there is a double jeopardy — two levels of administrators to deal with. Not only are the administrators within the company creating the usual extraneous, pointless work, but there are also millions of government administrators who also believe they have to justify their jobs as well. So, business is slapped with more regulations and hence, more paperwork. As a result, companies have to hire more administrators to deal with federal, state and local regulations. That is why many people feel the bulk of government is nothing more than a jobs program.

If you doubt my analysis of this issue, just look at your organization’s number of vice-president positions in 1980 compared to today.

The results of increased bureaucracy are pretty clear. In the private sector, more employees are now required but the same (or more likely, less) productive work is being done. Of course, this results in reduced profit. In the public sector the result is inevitably increased taxes. Meanwhile, the employees who are engaged in productive work are forced to spend more and more time buried in paperwork. After all, every new administrator MUST add at least one more layer of paper.

In my line of work, that means that each year, teachers have less and less time to spend on planning, grading and helping students. They have no choice but to let that important work go by the wayside so they can deal with the administrative load. Most just can’t work beyond about 60 hours a week for very long.

The solution seems obvious, but there is a problem. I read once that a simplified, postcard-sized tax return would put millions of accountants out of work. Removing the bulk of unnecessary administrators would make many times that number unemployed. That is not a good scenario for the nation’s economy, so we can’t afford to fix this problem overnight. All of these soon-to-be displaced people will have to be found jobs in the productive parts of business, industry and the public sector. To avoid an unemployment crisis, this will require a long-term, gradual shift in our thinking. We might start, say, by reducing the administrative and support staff by as little as 5% each year. Yeah…good luck with that. Companies would only hire new people to administer those reductions.

It won’t be easy…but just think about how our productivity as a nation would soar as a result of these once counterproductive employees, now contributing to the bottom line and the freeing up of all that formerly wasted time for the rest of us.
But till then, we have to continue with the system the way it is.

On my return from the conference, I had to deal with the nightmare of filing for reimbursement of my trip expenses. I had already filled out a battery of forms to get approval before taking the trip. Now I had to play the game again to actually get my money. My plan was to dedicate four hours of my day to the process.

I filled out a two-page form, gathered, scanned and attached all my receipts, a copy of the conference program, and copies of the prior approval emails from both my dean and my department head. I then had to write an explanation of why the trip was necessary. (For that, I just copied the same explanation I wrote in requesting the trip initially. It would be okay. I’m sure no one reads them anyway.) That was followed by trips around campus to secure signatures of the dean and department head, even though they both had signed off on the initial request for funds. Their offices were in separate buildings, about a quarter mile apart. Then I had to re-scan it all into a single file. Finally, I sent the required three copies of the electronic package to the business office. It took considerably more than the four hours allotted.

Two days later, I received a call from the Business Office. The woman said there was a problem with my reimbursement form. My mileage to the airport did not match the mileage she said I should show. It was too low. I explained that I drove from my home instead of from campus so the distance was less. She said the mileage had to be from campus. I pointed out that I was saving the college a bit of money and just being honest. She answered “The mileage has to be from campus.”

So the next day, I began the entire process again. This time I hoped to make it within the four hours allotted.

Bureaucracy! Life in triplicate. I think I’ll need three beers after work.

Serendipity

March 4th, 2019

Photo by Michael W. Gos

By Michael W. Gos

Guadalupe River, Texas

My running buddy and I were surrounded by what appeared to be an ocean of college kids, each dragging a tube and some with elaborate beer-cooler/multi-tube floatation systems that suggested these people were not the novice river runner I was. I felt a bit out of place, but at the same time, I was looking forward to trying this classic Texas activity—even if I was bit on the geriatric side.

As we stood on the bank, the bus driver/guide told us about the four sets of rapids we would encounter and how to safely negotiate our way around each. The first was Hueco Falls and we were told to stay to the far left. When he was finished, we waded into the icy water. It was absolutely shocking on entry, but after a few seconds it felt great on this blazing August day.

Feeling like a hippo trying to mount a tricycle, I fought my way onto the tube and began my trip downstream. Seconds later, I was underwater with a snoot full of river and the rather unpleasant sensation of bouncing off rocks. The driver failed to tell us Hueco Falls was barely 100 yards from our put-in point.

After what seemed like minutes underwater, being battered repeatedly, I surfaced at the end of the falls minus my tube. It seemed my day on the river had come to an abrupt end after less than two minutes and I was going to be paying for a lost tube. I struggled over to the left bank and hung on a tree root, just trying to catch my breath.

About five minutes later I heard a young man shout, “Did anyone lose a tube?” I guess my day wasn’t over after all. I retrieved the tube, thanked him profusely and then rested a few more minutes. Finally, hanging onto the tube for dear life, I waded down to a shallower spot where I would be able to once again “gracefully” climb aboard.

The rest of the trip turned out to be much less eventful, and at the end of the day, we pulled out in beautiful downtown Gruene. I returned the tube, changed clothes and headed to the Gristmill for dinner.

Sitting in one of the open areas overlooking the river, I enjoyed a chicken fried steak and a Corona. I planned to attend a show at Gruene Hall that night, so I just hung out there on the deck for a couple of hours watching the river run far below me and listening to restaurant’s music (which, by the way, was far more appropriate for someone my age than the people I had shared the river with that day). About an hour later, Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” came on and instantly, I was 17 again with a guitar hanging around my neck.
Like most kids in the ‘60s, I was part of a very bad garage band. We never amounted to anything, but we had a great time and dreamed of the day we would be more famous than the Beatles. One of the songs we played was this Cream hit and it led to one of my proudest moments. Well, it was at the time anyway. The song ends with a continuous striking of a single chord as the sound fades out. But the chord didn’t give closure to the song. While Cream made it work on the record by fading out the sound, in live performances, you can’t do that; songs need to end.

That open cadence drove me crazy for weeks and one practice day, as we finished the song, I just couldn’t take it anymore and I hit the chord that would give the song closure. Immediately, I, and everyone else in the band, recognized it as the first of the three-chord opening to the Who’s “I can See for Miles.” We segued immediately into that song and loved the way it sounded. Forever after, we performed those two songs together.

Back then, I didn’t understand that music was just math and architecture was frozen music. If I did, this “discovery” would have been no big deal. It would have been obvious if I just looked at it mathematically. But I didn’t know that then; I just knew that the final chord left us hanging and it drove me crazy. I had to close the loop. The way it happened was serendipity at its best—a totally pleasant accident.

Some of our most interesting discoveries have come from this kind of serendipitous event. Penicillin, Post-it notes, Viagra and even microwave ovens were all happy accidents. We are always shocked and delighted when they happen. We treat these events as if they were gifts— or even miracles—and in a sense, they are.

But I really have to wonder if these things we call serendipitous are really accidental or even all that rare for that matter. If you think about it, these “accidents” appear to be all around us, and they are happening far too often to be considered rare. A quick Google search will give you list after list of them—things like The Top 100 Serendipitous Scientific Discoveries. I wonder if they just might be the norm, rather than special events.

If they are indeed as common as I suspect, perhaps the thing that turns these everyday events into serendipity is our ability to see them when they are right there in front of us.
How many do we miss just because we aren’t open to them, or more important, are not expecting them? I wonder if it is possible to not only expect these happy accidents but, more importantly, to make a concerted effort to look for them. Maybe it is somewhat like hunting for morel mushrooms. They seem to be rare and very hard to find, but once you get “in the zone,” you realize they are everywhere. It may take two hours to get there, but once you do, you can gather a basket full of them in five minutes.

I experienced two “accidents” on this day, one not-so-pleasant one over Hueco falls (which I later learned was actually a Class III rapid; I guess I was lucky to just get a little bruised) and another in remembering my “discovery” of the connector between two songs. Yet I can’t help but wonder, how many other happy accidents didI miss on this, and every other day of my life.

How much more could we accomplish if we just made a concerted effort to be open to, and more importantly, to expect these events and be prepared to act on them when they occur?