Pieces of the Action Forward Intro Notes

  • bushPiecesAction1970

    Random thoughts

  • Lessons

    • The conscious effort of Bush to avoid having science become a political football
    • Optimism about how technology can relieve human suffering, but not in a naive way. Bush is well aware that modern living standards tax the world far more than hunter gatherers.
      • Optimism based on parallels that we can extend. Bush was optimistic about our ability to tackle pollution based on our ability to save the woods.
      • Optimism about the self-corrective nature of the American system
      • Optimism about the increased
      • Optimism about race based on Irish and Jewish upwelling
    • Bush was relentlessly curious and fun and it comes through
      • See the fact that he devoted a whole chapter to engines
      • This book is just fun
      • It’s striking that he concludes his opening salvo with a call for more humor
      • Bush was a cheeky MF ”Bush probably wrote that letter himself.” Of course I did.re letter from FDR
      • Ending OSRD dinner
      • Apple down the pipe of the engine to shoot cows (151)
      • The level of detail that he describes technology — he was a nerd before that word existed
      • Trolling people who were trying to keep his own machine secret from him (194)
      • Setup to keep going away party from devolving into speeches — arguing with himself across the stage (207)
      • Scotch party (300)
      • Delaying awards by claiming to have influenza (304)
    • Bush was obviously a nerd but he did not only have a mind of metal and wheels. There are profound lessons about the good life (270)
    • Argues that addressing problems directly will not solve all the problems
    • Tradeoffs in how we apply solutions
    • Sees many things as pendulums
    • Things are not as bad as they seem

    • Meta lessons

      • Even in situations where there is an existential threat like WWII people act “stupid” in hindsight, which suggests that there’s more going on — see specialists closing ranks around a way of doing things
      • §Specialists vs. Generalists
    • Lessons about history
      • History is made out of individual shenanigans that we’ve all experienced — getting in touch with someone just in the nick of time before they do something disastrous.
      • If you want to learn paying attention to the texture of these anecdotes is important
      • The importance of all the pieces of an innovation: science, engineering, technology, industry, labor, finance, the military (p 56)
        • A unique window into what people were thinking during the history
      • Our perceptions of what is coming and possible change more rapidly than we remember based on what seems to have momentum (batteries vs fuel cells) (217)
    • Organizations are important

      • What does a good organization look like?
      • What key principles for organizations should a leader take away?
      • Different organizations need to be structured differently for different things and as a result you need to curate relationships between different organizations
      • Org charts matter (p32)
      • Organizations get more complicated over time (p42)
      • Committees with actual chairmen who have power (p45)
      • Shocking speed for approving grants (p48)
        • What he doesn’t note is the things that need to be traded off for speed
      • OSRD focused on getting things done not o process (p49)
        • Sometimes existing structures are good, sometimes not!
      • Speed + Flexibility
      • Important to maintain contact between the people in the organizations who will use or make decisions
        • Scientists and manufacturers
        • Military and scientists
      • People subsuming themselves to institutions (perhaps tied to the number of people who we’ve never heard of)
      • Feedback loops within organizations are incredibly important (also related to leadership lessons) but can’t be unconstrained (see Tyros)
      • Innovations are likely to appear outside the organization which could find them useful (this applies both between entities and other orgs) and people like having their territory. p100
      • Isolated groups and vested interests in orgs develop ways of doing things (and of course, that can be for good reasons) 101
      • Channels of authority matter within an org p121
        • This is a tension — we have started glorifying people who go outside of the system.
      • Amateurs, professionals, practitioners
      • A research lab needs to be run differently than a military/business (p146)
      • Organizational reputation really matters (175)
    • Leadership lessons
      I find that most of the best leadership lessons come not from the chapter entitled “On Leaders and Leadership” which discusses other leaders like Herbert Hoover and FDR, but from Bush’s stories of his own leadership.

      • Fast decision making OK—FDR
      • Delegation
        • Carroll spoke with his name throughout org
        • FDR “You go ahead and bump and I will back you up”
        • FDR signing letters written by bush (p58)
      • Get shit out of people’s ways (37)
      • OSRD was such that Chairman/Bush had nothing to do with (p40) the internal affairs or anything technical at all
        • He doesn’t make any claims
      • Trust running both up and down the hierarchy (p50) - leader is not even a mouthpiece: just elevate the right people. Too often leaders speak for the experts.”Correct my remarks”
        • Congress and the red book (p134)
      • Prevent closed circles of specialists but at the same time preventing Tyros p101 but this requires having an understanding of what’s going on to resolve a “he said she said” situation
        • ‘Alignment’ is hard. If you have vested interests in WWII you will have them always. 101
      • When there are two groups who need different mindsets to do their jobs, it’s the leaders role to (soldiers and scientists re: dukw)
      • Clamp down on tyros (p121)
      • Leaders need to be T-Shaped Individuals (p122) but not claim mastery
      • You can go far on being a good judge of men —incisive views on how leadership basically boils down to that despite what we tell ourselves (p130)
      • There is a time when leader needs to be obeyed unquestioningly, but they also need to open themselves to criticism sometimes and it needs to e clear which is which (146) “duality of command)
      • The dangers of isolating yourself from feedback extends outside of the military into science (181)
      • Unspoken but through examples — humility (example of Irish exiting on 207)
      • Passing on the baton (211)
        • Also declining NSF board (302)
      • Inviting the input from younger less experienced people (276)
      • Good leaders ask good questions (277)
      • Good leaders are warmhearted (277) which is a refreshing contrast to our modern sensibility
      • The contrast between Bush’s relationship to FDR and Cherwell to Churchill highlights several pieces of leadership (280)
        • Delegation
        • Trust
        • Clear lines of communication
        • Person reporting to the leader needs to be honest about what they know and can do and the leader needs to accept that!
        • Respect
      • Leaders make decisions quickly and decisively (295)
      • Leader needs to earn the respect of people of the type that they are leading, which Strauss failed to do (308)
      • In systems where the leader matters, the leader needs to put in active effort (310)
      • Leaders for technical people do not need to be technical but they need to earn their loyalty (310)
    • The emphasis on the individual

      • Calling out the people responsible for things that now we see as just having happened or attributing to an organization
      • Trust between individuals
        • Trust in comms channels enabled the Manhattan project to work p60
      • Delegation
      • Tradeoffs of individuals going against the system
      • Best military people and best scientists into the NDRC
      • Calls out so many names that are forgotten now and puts them in the biographical notes section
        • 232 people
      • A need appeared, the man came, and formalities were worked out later
      • Individuals need to talk to each other
      • There’s a tension? Between the importance of the individual that he pays and the emphasis on the importance of getting the job done over credit
      • Individual Tyros can have a profound effect on organization
      • There are clear individual archetypes within organizations
      • The market for individual talent is not efficient — there are circles people need to run in to get credit and make an impact (p184/5)
        • View on education as a way of one generation experiencing another (258)
    • How Technology happens (or fails to happen)

      • The existence of a superior technology does not necessarily lead to its uptake, even when it would be extremely beneficial to the organization (see military examples p 29)
        • Calls bottom up proposals as we often think of as doomed p59
      • When a non-expert is looking at something they don’t get excited at embryonic stages
      • Technology isn’t as modular as we think — see the fact that they put the sub detector on metal ships p74
      • Decentralization can prevent combinatorial insights - literally having the person on the ship who knew about the thing p75
      • Tight organizations with technical directions set from the top by someone technically old-fashioned
      • The purpose of issuing a patent is not to reward an inventor, but to enable the investment of venture capital without which many inventions would die on the vine. P84
      • The friction between the weird people who are creating it and pragmatic people who are putting it to use P102
      • Some technology requires close collaboration with the people who will use it (Dukw) and some doesn’t (Proximity Fuze) — the former is hard to get through.
      • Ideas that are straightforward combinations of existing technology can be extremely hard to get to work (proximity fuze) p107
      • There are technological possibilities we don’t even think of most of the time
        • Hydraulic powered trucks (154)
        • Steam power cars (212)
        • Peltier effect refrigerators (197)
        • Hot gas Stirling engines (220)
        • Sail-powered hydrofoils (228)
      • Notes that small changes are easy, big ones are hard and it has to do with the industry (154)
      • Clearly thinks of research as Basic ->
      • Notes that there are two styles of research, developing knowledge and seeing where it leads and edisonian (172) -
      • We tend to over focus on The Person but lots of people contribute and are driven by curiosity instead of fame or fortune (173)
      • Sometimes better technology will not disperse without commercialization, sometimes not! NO ONE WAY(175)
      • Technology (phenomena applied to a use via a principle) does not do well in isolation (vis a vis science = discovering phenomena) (176) (181)
      • Reliability is an underrated bottleneck(186)
      • Firmly sees patents as a way to incentivize funding rather than incentivizing the investor (196)
      • Calls out the difference in patent usefulness between things like drugs and things like refrigerators (197)
      • Regulation can snip off alternative technological futures (214)
      • Identifying bottlenecks! (215)
      • Materials are often the core constraints (220)
      • For every disruptive new technology, there are many potential possibilities that whithered on the vine. It makes the argument for technological determinism hard. (220)
        • The fact that Ramjets have been a salient possibility for 50 years is more evidence that even if a well-resourced organization really wants something to happen, it won’t necessarily happen (226)
      • Often the work that brings the cost of a technology down was not intentended to bring the cost of the technology down (221) this sets up a situation where the person funding the work can’t expect an ROI up front.
      • Often there is a key problem with a specific technological lineage that may be unsolvable or needs a huge research program to go after it (223)
      • Incentives are such that industries where companies that have a single type of product don’t innovate (230)
      • New better technology for a single component is often not enough to go after a whole industry (23)
      • Both the theoretical and the practical are necessary to do awesome things (you might not expect this from the NSF system)
      • People can get too excited about early technology (287)
    • Decisions with far-reaching consequences that were good at the time
      • Contracting with universities instead of individual researchers
  • Things that he might be wrong about

    • The feeling that we can continue to master the world in the same way that we have before
    • Language
      • Negro
      • Girls
      • Man (always)
    • Optimism about the increasing power of labor thanks to technology: concerns about automation are different
    • It’s a bit wander-y in places where he doesn’t have experience
      • Relations with Russia
      • War in Vietnam
  • Things that haven’t changed

    • Medicine scale up
    • Worries about existential threats
    • We need something to be proud of
    • Methods of controlling population by technical means have increased
    • Criticism of cars as polluters (replace pollutants with carbon dioxide). Bush would have gotten along well with todays urbanists.
    • The youth is in rebellion
      • Rioters were people with jobs and privilege
    • A break down of old order
      • Religion
    • De Tocqueville quotes being apt
    • One branch of government invading the territory of the legislature (in 1970 it was the judicial branch invading the legislative)
    • Tension between those who see automation replacing people and those who see it upskilling
    • “The race problem”
    • We are not now at peace, nor are we engaged in a major war
    • The loneliness of leadership (p62)
    • Clashes of different systems (116) - could literally replace “Russia” for “China”
    • Myths about inventions (149)
    • The nature of inventions is not well understood (150)
    • People think that having an idea is the hard part and they can just get an engineer to build it for them (151)
    • Professors consulting for industry (159)
    • Automation (187)
    • Machine learning (191)
    • Patents being problematic in combinatorial invention (197)
    • Overrated concerns of startups being put out of business by big companies (200)
    • Calls out car companies for being half asleep (in 1970 and having held that conviction for 50 years!) (211)
    • Pointing out Sweden as a point of comparison (230)
    • The entire first paragraph of chapter VII could have been written today (236)
    • Committees of congress still get their technical advice in strange ways or not at all (309)
  • Things that have changed (that maybe shouldn’t have)

    • A lot of things are framed in a military context
      • These, I believe can be abstracted for today, by replacing military with “business” and “technical”.
        • See 102
    • The flavor of the existential threats
      • Population Growth
      • Atomic War
    • The flavor of the chronic problems
      • Crime
      • Pollution
    • The clashes of different systems (116)
      • Nazis
      • Soviets
    • The flavor of the civil unrest was targeted at universities and not police
    • Welfare state used in a positive light
    • ‘We are not far from the advent of general antivirals’
    • The differences between the people at the top of the hierarchy and bottom. Assumption that the boss and mechanic are in the same place. (See p 23)
    • Attributes a narrowing gulf between haves and have-nots to technologies
    • Many names he will mention no longer mean something today
    • The world jumping: Deans on political panels - a dean moving to Washington just to be near the action
      • This was an effect of there being a bit more of a ruling class
    • WWII people would coordinate without money
    • The de-emphasis on credit p101
    • WWII Jewett thought they couldn’t possibly use $5m (also that attitude)
    • The relative status of the scientist and engineer (p54) but he called that it would flip again (p54)
    • Focus on decentralization as opposed to creating a committee
    • Attitudes towards patents (p101)
    • Technology was in the background for the last time (p112) <Perhaps now we obsess on it too much>)
    • Bush thought representatives were basically good people (131)
    • Opacity and trust between congress and scientific funding (134)
    • Rapid demobilization (137)
    • The relationship between the practitioners and the yeomen (137)
    • Cultural attitudes towards formality of organizational roles (141)
    • We don’t really talk about inventors or inventions anymore (153)
    • He treats publicly regulated monopolies as natural and normal (162)
    • Main ways of going about inventing was to develop knowledge and see where it leads (172)
    • Industrial labs did not fetishize secrecy (175)
    • The strength of antitrust laws (200)
    • We have better batteries (215) — What other technologies are bottlenecks?
    • View on education as a way of one generation experiencing another (258)
    • There is more decency in politics than in the 1930s (272)

Locating context in time and place**

Pieces of the action was published in 1970 — many things were about to happen and had already started happening.

  • Biographical sketch

    • Vannevar Bush was born in 1890 (when he refers to the 90s, he’s talking about the 1890s)
      • Picture of the world that he was born into
        • Typhoid was prevalent
      • Almost all of modern medicine was created in bush’s lifetime
      • A quick sketch of Bush’s life?
        • In charge of most research during WWII
        • A major player in the organization of science after WWII
        • Close relationship with FDR but quickly out of favor with Truman
        • President of MIT (see chapter on teaching)
        • President of Carnegie institution
        • Bush died in 1974
      • Book was actually very close to the end of his life. Do people write memoirs anymore?
      • Couldn’t have been ghost written
    • Humility and nuance that’s kind of shocking
      - Moon opinions

    • Moon landings were still going on

    • Woodstock had just happened
    • Yet to pull out of Vietnam
    • Cold War could still easily become hot
    • Arguably the height of the system that he had helped build
    • The military-industrial complex was still a major thing: a big chunk of the business of most many major technology businesses was military
    • WWII would still be a nearby thing for many readers
      • Battle of Britain
      • It’s easy to forget how radically different it was that WWII was decided by technology
      • During WWII FDR was a divisive figure
    • Energy, Communication, Airlines were all still regulated industries
      • Airline deregulation in 1978
      • Bell System broken up in 1982
      • Oil crisis wouldn’t happen until 1973
    • Pollution, especially from cars, was a big deal — you couldn’t see the mountains in LA and there was literally toxic sludge on the Hudson River. Today we think of pollution as CO2. (Hence thinking about different kinds of engines)
    • Hoover and Roosevelt were bitter political opponents and yet bush happily served both
    • Establishing the NSF and our modern system
      • Not mentioned much in book
      • Declining board position (302)

Many names will pop up who are worth paying attention to

	- Frank Jewett
	- Alfred Loomis
	- [[Robert Millikan]] was the chairman of the committee on antisubmarine warfare
	- FDR
	- Truman
	- Montgomery 
	- Nimitz
	- Eisenhower
	- Oppenheimer 
	- Orville Wright
	- JP Morgan (but never met directly)
	- Edwin Land (founder of Polaroid)
	- Herbert Hoover
	- William Cameron Forbes
	- Neils Bohr
	- Attlee Confernce
	 

Random parts that are easy to miss

- Aside on the moon on p54
- He ranks the proximity fuze with the atomic bomb and the radar
- Hog on Ice on page 72
- Three very purposeful stories about antisubmarine weapons on page 83
- The story of the Dukw on page 101
- The story of the plan to create an ice island called “Habakkuk”
- Story of shutting down OSRD (135)
- Cute stories about dealing with people who had crazy ideas (138)
- Detailed description of his first patent (156)
- Revisiting Memexes (190)
- Inventing a new kind of painting (232)
- The story of why we refer to everything as “Science” and Scientists” (because of the British) (54)

Glossary

  • Staff and Line (141)
  • Allusion to Oppenheimer’s treatment (148)
  • Bohemian Grove (271)
  • Attlee Confernce (296)
  • OCRD
  • N

Questions

  • after reading these memoirs, what should the ambitious technologist or entrepreneur feel equipped to do?
  • What problems would they be inspired to take on?
  • Which qualities of Bush’s ethos or work should we feel inspired to carry on today, and which might we reevaluate or jettison?

Some sentences

I could take the first chapter, delete or replace some small fraction of the words and except for the shape of the language you would be unable to tell that it wasn’t written today. That alone should be reason to take Bush seriously.

Over the past fifty years there has been a lot of backlash against the ways of doing things that surround Bush like a fish in water — organizing committees, complete impartiality in who gets a role, . It’s worth asking if the reaction has gon

If Bush were writing this today, his editor would advise him to put in some sayings that people could hang different lessons on. If I can be presumptuous enough, I might suggest the ones I took away from this book that I come back to over and over again.

Like any good author, Bush uses stories to illustrate more general points. However, unlike many authors I suspect we should trust Bush’s pattern matching more than most.

There is a standard set of stories from the history of the era we tend to default to: the Atomic Bomb, the creation of Radar, the scaling of Penicillin. Bush consciously throws all of those out the window and focuses on the ones you’ve never heard of: The proximity fuze, the scheme to build a floating marine base out of ice, …

Bush is brilliant at calling out and naming the characters you surely have interacted with

Unfortunately, this is not a book from which you can demand a tl;dr

The number of details Bush can dive into even at age 80 makes you suspect that he got his Memex working.

Bush is not going to hit you over the head with these lessons.

Keen observer of both atom land and peopled

Treat bush like the font of experience that he is,

Skip around, have fun with it. Be curious. This book hints at many forgotten treasures that have yet to be unearthed. I suspect that’s what Bush would have wanted.

Bush is not well known, though many of the folks he worked with and arguably managed are and I suspect that’s the way he would want it.

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