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.