Tuesday, October 16, 2007

A Few Unorthodox Thoughts About Al Gore and "An Inconvenient Truth"

I began this blog posting as an e-mail sent off to a group of St. Mark's Episcopal Church people after seeing the film "An Inconvenient Truth" at St. Mark's in October of 2006. Lots of you know I'm a bit better informed that the average St. Mark's member on issues relating to science and technology. Some of you might know I tend to be in favor of work to solve, or at least mitigate, environmental problems.

Two days after seeing "An Inconvenient Truth" I must say my view of the film is more negative than positive. This kind of film might be what is needed to get people to wake up and take action. Still, though, I find
a number of things disturbing. Here are a few of my reactions:

  • Gore repeatedly made use of the words "moral imperative."
    Believe it or not, that kind of thing resonates negatively with
    me. To me, the phrase also says "Shut up and stop thinking.
    Here's the problem and what must be done." I'd be much more
    impressed if Gore had said "We have a problem. Let's see what
    we can do to fix it." That invites participation by all kinds
    of people. It's less judgmental. It's more open and creative.
  • Gore repeatedly referred to "so called skeptics." I'm very
    active in tech circles. Referring to opponents and critics as
    "so called skeptics" is insulting and derogatory. I know some
    people who fit into that category. Believe it or not, the ones
    I know (some reasonably prominent) are not pawns of the oil
    companies. Some of them have been badly burned by certain
    elements of the environmental movement that are perceived, with
    some justification, as pushing environmental concerns as a way
    of getting various kinds of power.
  • Gore said the debate is over. That's not true. Yes, the great
    majority of people who study the atmosphere are in agreement
    that we are experiencing global warming. There is even a
    reasonable amount of agreement that humans are becoming an
    increasingly big contributor to warming. Where the debate
    starts occurring is about how much warming there will be and
    what impact it will have on the planet. Personally, I tend to
    favor erring on the side that we should take stronger measures
    to reduce global warming, but I do know people I respect and
    trust who worry that antiwarming measures will do more harm than
  • Another topic of debate is what to do to reduce human
    contributions toward global warming. I -- and quite a few
    others -- favor moving toward nuclear and solar power. Both are
    environmentally friendlier than carbon based fuels. Thoughtful
    conservation can also play a role.
  • There's a word that keeps popping up with regard to carbon based
    fuels, especially coal. The word is "sequester." I think using
    that word tends toward the dishonest. In our society the only
    other time I've heard that word is with respect to jury trials.
    We sequester a jury for a short time to advance the cause of a
    fair trial. Such action has little impact on the jurors' lives
    and even less on society as a whole -- except, of course, in
    promoting fairer, more honest justice. We will not be
    "sequestering" carbon dioxide. We will be arranging for the
    very long term storage of large amounts of a harmful chemical
    compound. It won't be simple or easy. Last week in the Post I
    read an article about the subject of global warming and
    business. In the article they referred to a pilot project to
    store carbon dioxide by pumping it into the ground next to the
    plant. If we're talking pilot projects, we're saying that a
    solid solution is a ways off. Nuclear and solar are already
    here. France, I believe, gets 70% of its electrical power from
    nuclear. That's a working reality, not a pilot project. What
    about nuclear waste? There's data that suggests that isn't
    quite a big a problem as some people claim. There are multiple
    proposals out there. One, storing waste at Yucca Mountain,
    would be much closer to reality if it weren't for political
  • Gore at one point noted that Chinese cars get twice the gas
    mileage as American ones. I'd like to see an in depth look at
    why that is. Gore didn't say anything about the "why." Some
    people -- even at St. Mark's -- have complained that big trucks
    are more common these days because of demands to carry more and
    more stuff. When I was a child, I rode in cars without even a
    seat belt. Now we demand that children be carried around in car
    seats to protect them. We also spend much more time
    transporting children to various activities. Perhaps the
    Chinese aren't doing such things. I don't know. But I do think
    we should look carefully at the two societies instead of making
    comparisons with the goal of making Americans feel guilty.

These, believe it or not, are just a few quick reactions. Let me repeat
I think we should take measures to address this problem. But it's quite
important that the actions be well researched and thought out. I
personally think "An Inconvenient Truth" is at least as much a call for
learning and dialog as it is for action.

Since writing this e-mail I have had some other thoughts. Al Gore keeps using the word "moral" to describe the kinds of actions he favors. That might sit well with deeply religious Southern Baptists, but it has some pretty negative connotations for a significant portion of the population. This is especially true when he applies that label to his own actions and of people like himself. Global warming is most definitely, at least in part, an engineering challenge. What if engineers come up with solutions that allow us to live better lives while taking better care of the planet? What if some solutions have unacceptable consequences? We could really reduce the human race's impact on the planet by reducing our numbers to, say, 1 billion or even 100 million. I will leave it as an exercise for the reader to contemplate how that could be immoral.

Comparing the United States unfavorably to China looks even worse today than it did a year ago. If Gore had compared us to Britain, France, Germany, Canada or some other free, advanced Western nation, he would have earned far more respect from me. But China? This week the Washington Post has had both an editorial and article on China's severe environmental problems. The Economist also has an interesting leader China, Beware that doesn't exactly portray the country as one we should emulate. Articles and editorials such as these give me -- and most reasonable people -- the idea that China is not worth emulating.

Just what is Al Gore thinking?

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

A Few Words From Cyberspace Citizen Chuck Divine

OK, sonny, pour yourself and your great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Chuck a double of The Glenlivet, sit down and listen to his tales of life as a cybercitizen. Remember, you need some good alcohol to cope when newbies like young Dickie McCormick -- you know, the President of Rutgers -- come barging in without learning how cyberspace operates.

I became a cybercitizen in 1986. At the time I was on the Board (or is that Bored?) of Directors of the L5 Society. Don't know what the L5 Society was? Google it, sonny. Let's just say I was bright enough to understand the technology of orbital space colonies, bright enough to communicate the benefits of same to normal people, bright enough to lead the organization of various events and groups and dumb enough to actually think that by herding tribbles I could help get us into said space colonies in 15 years. What are tribbles? Try Google or Wikipedia, sonny.

Anyway, David Brandt-Erichsen sent out a letter to all board members telling us about a thing called the Byte Information Exchange (BIX for short). Noted SF author Jerry Pournelle had set up a conference on BIX for L5 board members. I used my brand new computer -- an AT&T PC with TWO floppy drives and 256K of memory -- to access BIX via a 1200 baud modem that was the envy of my friends who only had 300 baud modems. Since Jerry was jerryp on BIX, I picked the BIX name chuckd. It was much later that I learned there was a rapper by the name of Chuck D. C'est la vie....

Anyway, BIX was a wonderful place to discuss space politics, space technology, information technology and lots more. When I posted an essay that I wrote that had appeared in the meatspace Trenton Times, my reputation as a thoughtful writer was sealed. OK, some of the people doing the judging were a bit out there. Still, though, my stock rose enormously in cyberspace.

While on BIX, we heard stories of the fabled Internet and Usenet. Back in the 1980s they were operated by the GOVERNMENT. The discussions had to be better and more informed. Well, by the early 90s I was working at Goddard Space Flight Center (another source of funny stories, if you find making fun of the mentally ill funny) and I actually got access to the Internet and Usenet. I decided, just for practice, to take a look at rec.arts.sf.tv. Imagine my surprise when I found ignorant university undergraduates praising the 1970s version of Battlestar (or was it Cattle Car?) Galactica. That show was mediocre at best.

OK, by then I had two identities in cyberspace. There was still chuckd on BIX. There was also xrcjd at Goddard. I got my first spam as xrcjd@dirac.gsfc.gov! I still remember the spams advertising millions and millions of e-mail addresses. The advertisers, though, thoughtfully removed all .edu, .mil and .gov addresses. Hmm, I thought, they weren't using their own product. Once an idiotic, sexually frigid manager accused me of using gummint computers to look at porn based on one such piece of spam. Ah, those were the days.

It was at Goddard in 1995 that I created my first website. It was to support the work of the group of which I was a part. Yes, sonny, I can write HTML at the bare metal level. Woohoo!

Later on I finally bought a more up to date PC for my home. The 1986 machine finally burned out. The new computer became my first Linux box. The machine came with no software. When I checked out the prices of software at a local store, I freaked out. A friend at Goddard, Meg Larko, acquainted me with Linux. It was FREE! And actually pretty good. OK, normal people, like newbie Dickie McCormick, couldn't have used it. But it worked pretty well for an experienced cyberspace citizen like me.

Anyway, I signed up first for Earthlink. I became chuckdivine@earthlink.net. Then a friend told me Earthlink was run by Scientologists. Bye bye, Earthlink, hello att.net. I became chuck.divine@worldnet.att.net. I also upgraded to a 56K modem. Boy, was that fast! I could really zip around the Internet at warp speed now! I could read and post on Slashdot -- with nearly 4 million readers. On Slashdot my identity was ChuckDivine. My karma is still excellent. My posts, especially about space exploration, garnered +5 ratings -- the highest possible. Only Cthulthu knows how many people read that crap. And, as you know, Cthulthu won't tell unless you give him a really big bribe. I don't post nearly as much there as I once did, but I do try to look at Slashdot at least once a week. This week I checked out the comments about the awful TV show "The Big Bang Theory." Slashdotters didn't like it either.

Then I got involved in AIAA. My involvement in the Baltimore Section got me to upgrade to a broadband account with Comcast. Today I'm chuck.divine@comcast.net. I even have my own set of websites -- yes, sonny, websites -- on Comcast. My home page has links to most of them. Be careful, though. A couple of pages are NSFW. Oh, the character Ambassador Chuck is totally fictional. I was really stunned when some 419 actually replied to the good ambassador.

After some years of posting on various blogs like Rand Simberg's and even getting an occasional e-mail posted by Jerry Pournelle, I decided to start this blog myself. I haven't made too many waves yet, but time will tell.

I've heard of things like Facebook and Myspace, but, truthfully, they're a bit simple minded for long time cybercitizens like me. They're fine for newbies, though. Perhaps Dickie McCormick should surf on over and give them a try. I'd be glad to make comments when he does.

------------End of colloquial mode------------------------

OK, all, now I'm going to assume a more serious demeanor. I've been writing like this to give people who aren't as familiar with cyberspace a bit of a look at what the wild, wild Internet is really like. Yes, there are very corporate websites that present established organizations quite well. People do go to them to get honest information about what such organizations are intentionally doing. Rutgers has a pretty good set of websites.

When the new alumni plan, though, talks about connecting with the community via blast e-mails from President McCormick (whom I do highly respect), I wonder what they are thinking. If it's some vitally important piece of information of importance to the entire Rutgers community, that might be the way to go. But that kind of communication doesn't really connect people -- especially alumni -- to Rutgers. What might be a better approach would be to establish web fora much like Slashdot where old friends could reconnect, where former students could connect with faculty, where alumni in various geographic localities could start clubs to connect local grads together, where alumni in various subgroups could connect with each other and where ways of helping alumni from various subgroups connect with people outside their groups. That's a more organic, democratic approach which might strengthen bonds among Rutgers grads and the university.

The new plan also talks about things like a more meaningful Homecoming. Have people thought that through? I attended my first Rutgers football game not as a college student but as a guest of my father, class of 1935. My mom came along. I was just a child. When the original Rutgers Stadium was built, it could accommodate over 20,000 people. Back in 1938 when it opened, that number was a quite sizable part of the entire Rutgers family -- students, faculty, alumni and family members. Today the much larger stadium can accommodate only 40K+ people. The larger Rutgers family easily tops 1 million. What do people have in mind?

I'd be more impressed if, in this past year, the committee that produced the report had spent time contacting alumni and listening to them. I'm webmaster of the Rutgers Club of DC and just took on that role for the class of 1967. I get e-mails from alumni relations and the local clubs as well as some from clubs around the country. Before writing this piece, I searched through my old e-mails over the past year. I didn't find anything about the work of this committee.

Old alums like myself clearly aren't the entire Rutgers community. But just what did this committee do? It's not like some of us are hard to find.

A few token meetings now that the report has come out are not going to help all that much.

What thoughts do you have? Feel free to post comments here.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

A Few Observations

I have mentioned to a few of you that, before I got into information technology as a career, that I did graduate work in physics (no surprise there) and also, later, in social psychology (possibly a few raised eyebrows). While in both fields I also became first an exceptionally good photographer and decent writer. People in the ballet world claim I could have been a successful ballet photographer if I had chosen that path.

I'm going to put on my social psychologist hat now and make a few observations about things I've seen and learned both while working in aerospace and have read before and since full time work in our field.

I will use Mike Griffin as an example. From what I can tell, he is a good man, exceptionally intelligent and accomplished in aerospace. He does have some shortcomings as do we all.

Mike Griffin was born in 1949 according to his NASA biography. When Mike was a little boy back in the 1950s, people were already taking note of the estrangement between scientists,engineers and the general public. Too few people, it was thought, were choosing technical careers. Outsiders viewed technical work as important – think of how technology shaped World War II and other fields in mid century – but viewed technical people as “weird” and “not like normal people.” One response to this mindset was for technical people to draw apart from the societal mainstream. Who wants to associate with people who view you in some ways negatively? Psychologists call this phenomenon negative reinforcement. When you couple it with the positive reinforcement of hanging with people like you who think like you do, you can get a subgroup that interacts with the larger society with increasing difficulty.

Sputnik was launched when Mike was 8. That served as a wake up call to the United States. Scientists and engineers might be “weird” but they did important things for the nation. Technical education was given a boost – a positive reinforcement. Our first attempts to compete with the Russians were failures. If this string of failures had continued, I do not know what would have happened to technical endeavors. Instead, though, initial failure was followed by quick success. Vanguard 1 failed. A few months later, Explorer 1 was a success. Other failures were followed by quick successes. A different model came into play. In 1941 the United States was surprised by Pearl Harbor. There were other defeats early in the war. But these defeats were followed by successes and eventual total victory over particularly negatively viewed opponents. The early years of the space race seemed to replay this scenario.

By the time Mike was 13, the United States had successfully launched men into space. People who did this were praised – another positive reinforcement – and rewarded financially – more positive reinforcement. Programs were expanded. Demand for technically trained people increased. By the time Mike entered college, the space field had heated up to a great extent. The first lunar landing happened while Mike was in college. This, obviously, was still more positive reinforcement to continue in technical fields. There were also some interesting things occurring in fields a bit removed from NASA. The film “2001: A Space Odyssey” came out. It has proved to be an enduring classic. It projected major future triumphs for the space field – space stations, commercial travel to space, passenger vehicles operating between Earth orbit and the Moon, a Moon base, even a manned mission to Jupiter. Technological optimists like Gerard K. O'Neill and Peter Glaser predicted giant cities in space and solar power satellites providing energy to Earth. These things were supposed to happen within our lifetimes.

After Apollo, however, the nation turned its attention to other matters. Budgets were slashed. People in the space field thought it was because outsiders didn't fully understand the tremendous potential of the field. Education and outreach efforts were launched. Some attention was initially paid.

Triumphs, while slowed down because of budget cuts, kept on coming. When Mike was in his twenties, Viking landed on Mars and Voyager began its journey through the Solar System. The discoveries made by these craft excited techies – and some of the public. There we see still more positive reinforcement of pursuit of technical fields.

The launch of Columbia in 1981 happened when Mike was 31. It seemed like the first step to the visions of space stations and regular use of space.

In short, we see Mike – and any number of contemporaries – positively reinforced for pursuing technical careers. The fact that there were setbacks makes the reinforcement only partial. But partial reinforcement can be quite powerful. Just think of gambling. Over the long haul, players lose. But their losses are broken up by wins. Let me note here, though, that gambling has major and critical differences with aerospace. While in one sense we are “playing against the house”, i.e., nature, our wins are lasting and build upon previous wins. The only way “the house” can win is if we slip into a dark age. One must note, though, that even the collapse of the Roman Empire did not lead to a permanent victory for nature. There was just a truly major delay in what we call progress.

Now let's compare Mike – and his contemporaries – to someone who was born in December 1972 after the last manned landing on the Moon. Their contemporaries tended to see techies as weird – and not nearly as important now that the Space Race had been won. While there are a few triumphs while these people are small children, the triumphs are not met with the same applause as the early triumphs in the late 50s and early 60s. In short, the positive reinforcement is less in both amounts and frequency.

Remember how Mike saw stunning triumphs by the age of 13? Shortly after their 13th birthdays, our younger colleagues saw Challenger blow up on television while they were in school watching the “Teacher in Space” take off. Talk about negative reinforcement... Not only was a shuttle lost with a crew, problems with the shuttle program surfaced. Many people stopped viewing the shuttle as a success and a step toward the Pan Am shuttle of 2001. Some people stopped trusting NASA. That's another negative reinforcement.

Hubble was launched in 1990 – with flawed optics because engineers basically screwed up and didn't do appropriate testing. Our first post Apollo generation hits college. Yes, Hubble was eventually fixed, but the initial screwup is vividly imprinted on our post Apollo generation. This is another negative reinforcement.

There was a successful Mars probe – complete with rover – in 1997. This, unfortunately, was followed up by a few real screwups with successors.

Our post Apollo generation hit their 30th birthdays in December of 2002. On February 1st, 2003, Columbia burns up on reentry. That same year a damning report about the failure comes out. Instead of being positively viewed role models, the older generation comes to be seen as dysfunctional and failing.

This can be pretty daunting for members of our younger generation who are enthusiastic about science and technology. Their peers, who are not really interested in science and technology, see those going into science and technology not as “weird, but important” but as just plain “weird” and to be avoided if not dominated and controlled. The failures and scandals serve as justifications for cutting funding for things like aerospace. This constitutes even more negative reinforcement.

There have been other changes since Mike was a little boy growing into a young man. Schools have shifted to a more top down bureaucratic model than existed in the 1950s. High schools have doubled in average size since the early 1970s, from about 1200 to 2400 students. There is some evidence that humans have real difficulty in dealing with large numbers of people. Some people are now advancing the idea that high schools should have only 600 to 900 students. Some experiments which have broken up large high schools into multiple academies – still in the same building – show better learning and healthier behavior in such environments. One way of coping with too many people is to withdraw into a subgroup much like oneself. This can hurt communications with people different from oneself simply because one gets much less practice at it. One way people who administer such schools have changed is that they now emphasize control more than their predecessors did in the 1950s and 1960s. Some people also have raised questions about some other changes in the way we bring up our young. For example, sports have been raised in importance much beyond what was normal in the 1950s and 1960s. One consequence of this phenomenon is that some teenagers are now being roused out of bed as early as 4 AM to participate in sports. This causes significant sleep deprivation which makes high level critical thinking much more difficult.

So far I have emphasized the negative. I have done this to get people's attention. I hope most recipients of this attempt at discussion have read this far. Believe it or not, I am keeping this short.

So – is the aerospace industry doomed to collapse in the United States? No – not at all. Change, though, is needed. Some people are already responding well to change. Some others have weathered the storms of the past decades and can be positive role models for the future. We can learn new things. Even old people – much older than the middle aged people who are most of the recipients of this message – can and do learn new things.

What's the first thing we can do? Believe it or not, admit to failure. This might sound weird, but respect, even esteem, by others increases when people admit to mistakes. In part this happens because it shows a recognition of reality. It also communicates to others a recognition of their own worth. Even a partial agreement says to the other person(s) “You have something to contribute because we don't know it all.”

We can also learn from role models – and praise such role models. One such role model among the people to whom I am sending this little piece of analysis is Jon Malay. Back when he was president of the American Astronautical Society I sent him an e-mail praising a column he had written for Space Times and suggesting an expansion of his ideas. He responded thoughtfully. Simply listening to others when you have a leadership position is positively reinforcing for said others. The fact that Jon agreed with my observations only increased my positive reinforcement. When Jon stood up at the AIAA Regional Leaders Conference in 2005 and said “I'm probably the most right brained person in this room” I had two thoughts. The first was a friendly “I might be able to give you a run for your money on that.” The second was here was a man somewhat like myself who could be a friend and from whom I could learn quite a bit. When I joined AIAA and started showing up at Baltimore Section events and trying to help, Tom Milnes – along with others – was friendly and encouraging. The section welcomed my efforts as webmaster. They followed my lead on Congressional Visits Day activities. They even – to my complete surprise – chose me as Vice Chair for a year. The last was a real surprise in large part because I thought it was too soon. Still, though, even that was positively reinforcing.

Since then I have gotten to know people better in the AIAA, especially the National Capital and Baltimore sections. All of you that I have gotten to know have demonstrated significant leadership ability, including the willingness and ability to listen to others. Can one say such things about everyone in aerospace management? I will not discuss people whom I have had little opportunity to observe. Unfortunately, I have personally witnessed people with extraordinarily poor leadership skills in management – even some with major management responsibilities – who have done significant damage to their organizations. I will not discuss these people in this short note.

There are other people who, if reports are to be believed, are serving as positive role models. One person is Simon “Pete” Worden, currently director of Ames. People who work at Ames praise him. Another is the recent Noble Prize winner John Mather. A few months ago I had the opportunity to discuss Mather with a good man that I personally knew from my time at Goddard who works with Mather. This man had nothing but praise for Mather, describing him as a leader who listened and who gave credit where credit was due. That squares with my own necessarily limited observations.

Why haven't I mentioned Mike Griffin? Mostly because I have had little opportunity to observe the man and because some people with at least some credibility have raised some issues about his leadership. In short, I know too little about him. What little I do know is generally positive.

There are other positive things going on. The younger generation does have a favorable view of the work on space tourism – things like Burt Rutan's Space Ship One. While people in their twenties might not be much interested in watching a handful of astronauts take a many year trip to Mars, the possibility of taking a short excursion into space themselves does attract support. They also are quite interested in the discoveries made by the probes on Mars. They can watch that work and participate at least a little bit. In short, the younger generation is not interested in simply sitting and watching but wants active involvement.

The work that NASA and NOAA are doing with regard to understanding climate change and other environmental concerns also attracts support. Once again, this is selling people things that they can benefit from themselves. The computer industry did not achieve its current success by selling computers to the government on contract but by selling tools that people in all kinds of endeavors could use to make their lives better and help their organizations succeed.

What else can people in AIAA – and, for that matter, our friendly sister organization the American Astronautical Society – do to promote healthy, responsible leadership? One thing people can do is to start learning about a dimension of leadership that draws too little attention these days in many circles. The dimension is the democratic-authoritarian. The two styles are markedly different. In some circumstances, the authoritarian model is entirely appropriate. In others, democratic leadership – leadership which listens and tries to develop consensus and is flexible enough to respond effectively to surprises works better. Oh – democratic leadership does not mean taking a vote on every decision. That is an incorrect perception that some people have.

I will recommend a particularly good book for people to read – DeMarco and Lister's Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams. It is well researched and is consistent with what I learned while in social psychology. People who are considering business school should also consider an emphasis that includes some social science work. The social sciences are not as hard and fast as, for example, aeronautical engineering, but they have made genuine contributions to understanding. At least graduates of such programs will not be completely surprised when something fails because of some human social factor comes into play. They will also be more able to clean up the resulting mess.

I think that is enough for now. I've written over 2600 words.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Energy From Space Luncheon

On August 8th I attended a luncheon organized by the Marshall Institute. The speakers were Martin Hoffert and John Mankins. Fortunately, the Marshall Institute already has put up the slides used by Marty Hoffert and John Mankins.

Hoffert emphasized a number of points. There is an urgent bipartisan issue in taking a rational, objective look at our technological civilization continuing to burn carbon based fuels for energy. Global warming is one factor. The fact that such fuels are quite limited is another factor.

Hoffert noted that terrestrial wind and solar power are limited by storage. Denmark has the most energy obtained by wind percentage wise of any nation. They are situated quite close to neighboring Norway which uses hyrdoelectric power for its energy. What Denmark does is, when the wind is blowing sufficiently for a surplus to be generated, exports via electricity energy to Norway. Hydroelectric facilities in Norway pump water up into reservoirs. The water is released when Denmark's winds are producing less or even no energy. Hoffert suggested other places could use compressed air for energy storage.

Hoffert made an interesting observation about engineering and accounting. Enron, he said, was all about creative accounting, not creative engineering. Even if they had been honest, they did not advance energy technology. I will add that people in the United States have become more isolated from people different from them in recent decades. One Congressional staffer told me during the AIAA's Congressional Visits Day in April that they needed more people like your typical AIAA member working in Congress full time because people in Congress did not really understand science and technology and how the fields worked. One consequence of this isolation is that, for example, creative accountants can make proposals to increase profits that neglect to consider the downside of their proposals. Yes, you can fire inarticulate engineers but the consequences down the road are likely to be negative. This argues for engineers to learn more than just basic engineering as well.

Hoffert noted that early proposals for solar power satellites depended upon technologies that are far more primitive than ones we have today. For example, back in the 1970s, transmitting antennas required heavy, complex klystron tube based technology. Since then electronics has progressed to the point where much more flexible solid state technology may be used, thus simplifying the transmission. He also noted that the Carter administration invested heavily in SPS. The Reagan administration terminated this effort. At the time the proposal looked wildly expensive because of the limited technology available.

European aerospace engineers have proposed an interesting concept. They advocate a system where there would be laser transmission directly to the Sahara where solar cells would be generating power anyway because of naturally occurring sunlight. Such a system could provide electricity up to one terawatt at a cost of $0.05/kwh.

John Mankins made a number of points:

  • The world's population is growing with people dissatisfied living below the poverty line.
  • International competition for energy is becoming a security concern.
  • There is a growing need for considerable carbon neutral energy.
  • Keeping a long term scientific and technological society going is a major challenge.
  • Attention to the energy problem is growing.
  • In the past, while technically feasible, energy from space was not economically feasible. Early plans would have required $300B to $1T to be spent before the first SPS came online.

Mankins noted that there have been many changes since 1980:

  • Solar cells are much more efficient.
  • Solid state transmission is now possible.
  • Robotics has advanced.
  • A radically different, modular technology is now possible.
  • Making synthetic fuels partly dependent on solar is now possible.

A reporter asked if Congress was showing interest. Mankins replied that support was not currently well organized but was persistent. Support was better organized in the past.

Hoffert commented that SPS needs a champion. DOE needs a champion because the department is dominated by chemical and mechanical engineers who do not think of the space option. NASA doesn't think about getting energy from space. I will comment here that, once again, we see engineers sticking to their specialties, not looking at the broader picture and learning to work with people different from themselves. Hoffert added that we are far behind other countries in science and technical education, especially for leaders. Once again we see narrowness triumphing over broader, healthier ways of doing things. He pointed out that the Internet was initially developed for 20 years under DARPA and an additional 10 under the NSF before the Wall Street Journal noticed it.

This was an interesting luncheon. Once again, I saw many of the usual suspects one finds at DC events relating to space. Among them were Paul Werbos, Gary Oleson, Jeff Foust, Anne Ellis and J. P. Stevens of AIA. The last time I saw John Mankins was at a Hillary Clinton issues and policies breakfast. It was interesting seeing him give a talk for the Marshall Institute at the Capitol Hill Club. The club is a Republican bastion right next to Congress.

The energy from space community is getting some attention. It will be interesting to see if it gathers more support than in the past. The fact that a demonstrator project for only $100 M seems to be possible will be a major improvement over the past. Back in the 1970s many ideas (SPS and O'Neill colonies among them) were pushed and attracted some attention. The realities of technology at the time stopped many a dream. One truly limiting factor was the space shuttle. Instead of giving us cheap, reliable access to space, it became an extremely expensive, unreliable vehicle that could only be flown a few times a year rather than weekly.

Monday, July 23, 2007

A Few Thoughts About Michael Moore

Elin Whitney-Smith posted on the St. Mark's Episcopal Church Yahoo group:

As to the political conversation in this country. It has always seemed to me that Martin Luther King benefited greatly from the existence of the Black Panthers and Malcom X. King was adamantly committed to desegregation and non-violence - the Black Panthers were not so picky about violence and Malcom X talked about Green power - do not shop in their stores do not buy their products.

Reform movements often do better if there is a voice out on the fringe. The voice of moderate reasoned argument can be heard better if people are afraid of the revolution.

I don't see anyone moving the argument much to the left. I do see far right argument which tends to move the center further right (let us not forget that Nixon was more liberal than Clinton).

We need some flaming radical leftists just to keep the conversation from drifting further right.



I think you've got it backwards.

First, the NAACP, integration of the armed forces, Thurgood Marshall, MLK Jr., Rosa Parks, etc. preceeded the Black Panthers by some time. It's much easier to argue that the Black Panthers et al. benefitted from the civil rights movement that -- at least to the young boy that I was -- seemed more inclined to reach out to all sorts of people, including my -- for that time -- conservative Republican parents.

I will briefly put on my social psychologist hat here. People with authoritarian personalities, especially when they join together in groups of similarly disposed people, think they are tougher, stronger, more realistic, etc. Unfortunately the reality tends to be otherwise. Authoritarian groups get things howlingly wrong. To make it easier for St. Mark's people to understand and accept, just consider creationists -- the people who are firmly convinced in a "theory" that doesn't come close to reality. This is especially true of "young earth" creationists. Democratically led groups are better able to accept a wider variety of views and data than authoritarian groups. That doesn't mean democratically led groups are always superior in all ways. I suspect people who have served in military combat would agree that the authoritarian mode of leadership can be superior in some cases, especially in situations such as Normandy beach on June 6, 1944. That's just one example.

How many people on this list have actually got up in front of a group of people who are not necessarily disposed to their ideas and made a case for their ideas? I have done so. I seem to be more persuasive than others simply because I try to listen to others, connect with them where their minds currently are and try to persuade them to consider my ideas. Other people tell me I am quite good at that. My currently most important topic that I speak on is management reform in the aerospace industry. Yes, there are implications beyond the aerospace industry -- but I don't go all over the map. It's hard enough to do that in an hour or so, let alone get into a more complicated topic such as health care (1/6 of the economy) or global warming.

How many people on this list are familiar with the work of Edward Tufte? He's an emeritus professor at Yale who specializes in communication. I attended one of his seminars several years ago and read two of his books. He made several interesting points at the seminar I went to. He compared, for example, the information density of a major daily newspaper (e.g., New York Times, Washington Post) with a television news broadcast of a half hour (really 22 minutes). The major daily paper has more information above the fold of the first page than the entire TV broadcast. The Washington Post's recent series about Dick Cheney -- a simpler topic than health care -- had more information and analysis than is in Sicko. One can say these things just by noting the differences in the two media. Is TV, film, etc. worthwhile? Of course. It is a different way of considering the world. Drama can plumb reality in different ways than nonfiction writing -- or fiction writing. Last March, for example, I got an interesting look into a different culture -- that of the Tlingit Indian tribe -- via a production of Macbeth that was partly in English and partly in Tlingit. I would predict that our member Christine Peters, a Tlingit Indian, could expound on this far better than I could. When I want to consider health care reform, though, I want as much nonfiction data and analysis as possible. Sicko fails that test. Why? Because it has too little information. It was made by a man who doesn't seem to listen to people different from himself. Even Al Gore -- a man I do respect -- seemed to have a difficult time with that in An Inconvenient Truth.

Back to my psychologist mode. If you want more of something, positively reinforce that behavior -- not one that some people claim makes that behavior easier to do. I don't need the "inspiration" of a Robert Zubrin -- a real nut if you ask me and quite a few others -- to talk about the aerospace industry and how I -- and some others -- think it needs to change. If you want to get more thoughtful analysis and advocacy, positively reinforce those of us who are actually trying to do that. In my case, make out the checks to "Charles J. Divine" and mail them to me at 7059 Palamar Turn, Lanham, Maryland 20706. :) Yes, I am joking.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Why I Am Not A Social Psychologist

I told this story last night after a run.

After trying grad work in physics and becoming very frustrated -- lack of employment opportunities after the Ph.D. was a factor -- I switched into social psychology. The program I was accepted into was the one at Teachers College, Columbia University in NYC. Things went OK at first. I was nearly finished with coursework after two plus years. My grades were high, I got along well with fellow students and even, to some extent, with the faculty, although they were more authoritarian than I -- or my fellow students -- liked. One woman cynically remarked "We're very democratic around here. We call the chairman Mort to his face -- and God behind his back." Still, though, I was making progress. Although, once again, the job prospects were starting to look dim for all of us.

The incident, though, that really started turning me against the faculty was the aftermath of a mugging. I'd lived in this converted brownstone for over two years. One Tuesday evening in November as I was returning from the supermarket, a man attacked me at the entrance. Using a knife, he forced me first into the building and then upstairs into my apartment. He ransacked my apartment looking for valuables. He threatened my life. Fortunately I was able to get him to leave without physically harming me. While he had tied me up, I was able to get out into the hallway and scream for help. Some neighbors came immediately, released me and phoned the police. The police came, took testimony, staked out my bank's ATM for awhile with me (the thief had taken my ATM card) and eventually returned me to my apartment. The apartment was a complete mess. The mugger had slashed my waterbed to pieces. Even if he hadn't I would not have wanted to stay another night.

My adviser, one Harvey Hornstein, lived a block away with his wife. Since I was pretty distraught, I phoned Harvey and explained the situation. I asked if I could stay the night with him. Harvey's response was priceless. He asked "Don't you have any friends?" This possibly stunned me more than the mugging. I mean, the man was a psychologist -- not an aerospace engineer or IT geek or physicist or -- you get the picture. With that response in mind, I looked again in my personal directory and phoned fellow student Paul. His response was friendly. I wound up staying the night sleeping on his couch.

The next morning I telephoned a man who's been a long time friend by now. His name is Paul Ambos. He was already married to a wonderful woman named Catherine. I knew Paul because we both went to Rutgers. He was -- and still is -- a corporate attorney. After explaining the situation to Paul, he simply said that I would be spending the night with him and Catherine.

What's wrong with this picture? My adviser -- a social psychologist -- brushes me off. A corporate attorney takes me in. Soon after that I began to question my commitment to psychology. I learned a good bit about humanity those two plus years. I did weigh things again in my mind. People at Columbia were already paying me for math advice and computer programming. Social psychology was starting to look like another unrewarding field. I decided to switch into IT. But, now, I was armed with much more knowledge of how humans behaved, especially in organizations. Whether this has done me more good than harm remains to be seen. Today, seeing what's going in too many high tech organizations, I seem to be back trying to sell myself as some sort of management or political consultant or something else along those lines. We shall see what happens.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Breakfast With Hillary

Today I attended a breakfast and issues discussion group put on by the Hillary for President campaign. Lori Garver invited me as well as some other people. The breakfast was light -- things like rolls, bagels, fruit, coffee, tea. We were not there for the food. I began by chatting with complete strangers, telling them about my special interests -- science, technology, aerospace, especially space. I chatted a bit with a nice woman named Molly about young people today and perhaps why they weren't as much interested in science and technology as when we were young. I did bring up the C. P. Snow observations about the two cultures. I also mentioned how much more withdrawn and subdivided scientists and engineers were today than even in the not all that distant past. This makes it more and more difficult for most to even discuss their fields with outsiders. Molly noted that young people today who were naturally outgoing were rewarded by our culture while those -- especially young men like her son -- who had a bent for science, mathematics, engineering, etc. were subtly discouraged even to the point of being "learning disabled" simply because they were not interested in some subject in school. I told her about the sons of a Mensa friend in Pennsylvania who fit this profile quite well.

After nearly an hour of this kind of chatting, Hillary made her appearance. She came in bright eyed and bushy tailed, strode to the podium, introduced several members of Congress in attendance and then made some brief remarks. She touched on several topics such as the Iraq war and the general failure of the Bush administration. She did mention some tech oriented topics -- energy independence, global warming, H-1B visas (that surprised me), education. It was a good speech in front of a crowd disposed to be friendly. If there were any press in the room I did not see them. As for Republicans or other natural opponents, they were either very quiet or not in attendance.

Around 9:30 we broke into issues groups. Lori Garver and Glen Mahone -- both of whom worked for NASA in senior positions at some point -- led the discussion. There were a number of people there from Lori's firm, Avascent. I didn't count the number of participants, but I'm pretty sure it was more than 10 and less than 20. I identified myself as one person in the room who had actually done tech work. John Mankins also did so. I briefly commented I could well understand how Mike Griffin managed to say such controversial things with regard to global warming the previous week. Instead of sticking to a tech viewpoint, though, I did bring up -- in a hopefully productive way -- some of the things I noticed about tech culture while working at NASA Goddard. I did point out some positive role models -- Nobel prize winning physicist John Mather, Ames Center Director Pete Worden -- and said a few things about why they should be emulated by other tech people.

Things broke up around 11 AM. I headed back home via Metro.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

How I Chose to Name This Blog

During last year's political campaign in Maryland I received a telephone call from someone purporting to be a poller. She might have actually been one. I must note, though, there were some reliable reports of campaigns using a technique known as push polling to get people to think in certain ways that would lead to support of certain candidates.

Anyway, towards the end of the conversation this woman did ask the question "Do you consider yourself to be a liberal, a moderate or a conservative?" I answered "You forgot libertarian and green!" She repeated her question without modification. This time I answered "Yes!" At this point the woman, a bit of exhaustion in her voice, simply said "Pick one." I, rather disappointedly, simply said "Oh. All right. Put me down as moderate."

I try to listen to everyone. Most people who know me describe me as friendly if a bit shy.

Do I know anybody famous in the world of blogging? Well, last weekend at the International Space Development Conference in Houston, I was sitting around a table in the hotel bar with Glenn Reynolds (of Instapundit fame), Rand Simberg (Transterrestrial Musings) and Dale Amon (Samizdata) discussing blogging of all things. I mentioned I was thinking of taking up blogging rather than just making comments on other people's blogs and places like Slashdot. Glenn did tell me to go to blogger.com and follow the simple directions. That's how I wound up here. Does that conversation mean I'm a part of the same crowd as Glenn, Rand and Dale? No. We all support space exploration and development.

Some of my views tend to be libertarian. Other views are somewhat different. I easily support many positions that one would describe as liberal Democratic. Other views are moderate Democratic or Republican. The only people who truly annoy me are the so called "religious right" and some authoritarian leftists such as Ralph Nader. One moderate Republican friend describes both of us as flaming moderates. So I decided to name my blog "Independent Broad Minded Centrist." I originally thought of using "Flaming Moderate" or "Flaming Centrist" but I thought that perhaps too likely to get into fights. I can and will fight when the circumstances call for it, but I don't go out of my way to pick fights. At least I don't think so.

That's enough for now.