Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Goose of Science

Flush with the success of the Manhattan Project, the federal government in 1945 produced the famous report Science: The Endless Frontier, which laid the groundwork for the National Science Foundation and the huge complex of federally sponsored research that sprang up during the Cold War.

The frontier metaphor may be apt, but it is not the best metaphor for how government and industry actually view scientific research.

If someone is paying you to do research, you quickly figure out that you are just another part of the supply chain, much like the steelworkers, buyers, tire makers and truck drivers. Into the factory go sheet metal, seats, paint, tires, windows, and out the other end come cars. But there's something else that goes into the factory: the CAD files that tell them how to build the car. That's where you, the researcher come in.

To make the sheet metal, someone has to dig rocks out of the ground, grind them up, put them in a furnace that separates the iron from the slag, then pour off the iron, add carbon and other stuff, and roll it out into steel. To make CAD files, someone has to think up ideas, screen out the bad ideas by testing and analysis, and then put the ideas on paper, or on pixels.

You, the researcher, are the person who thinks up the products, finds the good ones, and tells the factory how to build them. As far as the business is concerned, you are almost the same as the guy who skims the slag off at the steel mill. You skim off the bad ideas; he skims off the dirt.

Note that I said "almost the same." The business sees you as different in one interesting respect. It has been the case a few times in history that someone invented a blockbuster product seemingly out of of nowhere, and, of the greatest interest to businesspeople, with almost no money. Examples are the Wright Brothers' invention of the airplane and the Google guys' invention of the PageRank algorithm. There's no equivalent of this elsewhere in the supply chain. It's as if someone waved a magic wand in an empty warehouse and suddenly it was filled with thousands of brand new V-6 engines waiting to be dropped into cars.

The process by which blockbuster products are invented is understood about as well as magic wands. About all we can say is that such inventions require an energetic genius to be in exactly the right place and time. Then the "magic" happens. This lack of understanding, and a near-total lack of success in reproducing equally valuable results, does not stop businesspeople from trying. They say things like, "innovate or die" and "invent the future". Just wave the magic wand; that's all they're asking. They know they can pour money and manpower into a research lab and get a steady trickle of incremental improvements, but they've heard about the magic wand and they can't stop thinking about it. They want the next big thing.

This is why I think the frontier metaphor doesn't quite tell the story. The real metaphor for sponsored research is a goose that could lay perfectly good eggs but can't because the farmer is feeding her all kinds of weird seeds, constantly fussing with her nest and feathers, sprinkling pixie dust on her, and subjecting her to the whims of traveling charlatans (aka consultants), trying to get her to lay that one golden egg that would make it all worthwhile.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Seven Generations of Dads

It's time for some Father's Day genealogy.

First comes my dad (1928-2007), I covered his life in this obit.

Then there's his father, Grant Henson (1897-1954), who I was named after. Where did the "Grant" come from? Well, he was born to a family of Republicans (read: pro-Union Eastern Kentuckians) in 1897, two months after Grant's Tomb was dedicated, so it's not too hard to figure out. We forget what a huge celebrity President Grant was. A million people attended the tomb dedication, including heads of state from around the world, and it was front-page news for a week or more.

Grant Henson was a coal miner. Here's the "Application for Coal Miner's Certificate" that proves it. Until I found this, I never knew miners had to be certified. Thanks to the West Virginia Division of Culture and History for this one.

He always thought he was born in 1898 even though it was actually 1897, so he thought he was 43 at the time of this application. 28 years of experience means he started at 15, but by then he was already keeping books for his father, who was a mine foreman but couldn't read or write.

Grandpa Henson. He always wore a hat - said it would prevent baldness.
Going back another generation isn't so easy. Grant's "real" father was a guy named Bill Conley (1865-1934), who was a county sheriff and small-time politician in Grayson, Kentucky. It's not clear what happened, but I think Conley was run off by Grant's step-grandfather, Charley Perry, for being a gambler and general rake-hell. Conley's nickname was "Ace", so you get the picture. 

Grant's mother married Noah Henson (1877-1929) in 1900, around which time "Ace" Conley tried unsuccessfully to kidnap Grant.

Noah Henson makes his mark on his marriage license

Noah was born in Lawrence County, Kentucky in 1877, to his mother Mary Henson (1853-1916) and some other guy I don't know. I speculate that his "real" father was named York, because Noah's middle name was York and that name is not seen anywhere else in our family. There were some York boys in Lawrence County at the time, but this is pure speculation. Noah was raised by Mr. William McDaniel (1860-1929), from the Ironton, Ohio area, who married Mary in 1880.

Noah Henson in about 1918. That thing he's riding is a pedal-powered draisine.

Since I don't know who Noah's father was, I'll skip over to his mother for one generation because that's where our name came through anyway. His mother, Mary Henson, was born in 1853 in Kentucky to David Henson (1830?-1885). He had come to Kentucky from Virginia just a couple of years before Mary was born. Apparently about half the people in Virginia moved to Kentucky around that time. Old David Henson was in the Army in 1864...for one month. (He was in his mid-thirties and had a bunch of kids, so give him a break.)

Six feet tall! The Hensons were indeed tall, but I didn't get any of those genes.
Before David Henson, it really gets speculative. He was from Russell County, Virginia. The only family there with a name anywhere close was the Hanson family of Hansonville. (David spelled his name Hanson and Hinson before settling on Henson.) In the generation that would have been David Henson's father, the eldest brother was a slaveholder but some of the younger brothers couldn't stomach slavery and went West. Three of them, George (1799-1878), Tristram (1805-1834) and David (1803-1834), ended up in Illinois by the early 1830s, and for various complicated reasons I think my ancestor David was the son of either Tristram or David, who both died young in 1834. Some of the children went back to Virginia but at least one stayed out west with Uncle George. If David was descended from these Hansons, then his grandfather was David Mark Hanson (1773-1828)  from Macosquin, Co. Derry, Ireland.

The kid who stayed with Uncle George is fascinating. She was Tristram's daughter, Sidney, and when George went west as a California '49er, Sidney went with him. Uncle George, who worked for the federal government and later started five newspapers, sent her to Santa Clara University and she ended up the wife of an employee of the US Mint in San Francisco. She lived to a ripe old age and gave an extremely interesting interview to the California State Library in the 1920s, describing her overland trip west in 1849. Anyway, I'm getting off track. Happy Father's Day to all the dads out there.