Sunday, December 28, 2008

A Personal Reaction to Larry Summers' Comments on Women in Science

Some people are starting to pay attention to Larry Summers' comments on women in science. A few years ago he made the observation that men seemed more suited to the highest ranks in science than women were. He described men as the best of the best and also mentioned their extreme dedication. Quite a few feminists were outraged.

A few weeks ago in the Washington Post Ruth Marcus brought up the subject yet again by reporting on research that showed men more likely to be outliers in terms of mathematical intelligence. She raised the question was Summers right -- even if politically incorrect. The following week a women by the name of Singer who had been a mathematician and professor challenged Marcus by informing us of the hostility she had encountered even though she loved math and teaching it.

When this controversy first arose, I had a somewhat unusual take on things. I am exceptionally intelligent, at least as measured by standardized testing. I show this intelligence in other ways as well. Today I am a member of Mensa and the Triple Nine Society. The latter limits membership to people who have shown on standardized tests that they are in the top 1 in 1000. I've also completed one marathon -- the Marine Corps in 1996.

What caused me to wonder about the people Summers described wasn't their intelligence -- it was their work habits. Besides praising their intelligence, he also said they worked 80 hours per week. That struck me as very unwise at best, if not absolutely crazy. I thought to myself "I can't work that many hours at physics a week and make sense. What makes these people think they can?" Perhaps they are even greater outliers than I am. While my IQ is around what theirs are, in other ways I can be quite normal.

Here's my take on reasonable weeks. Sleep is important. My own experiences regarding some sleep deprivation make me very reluctant to make it a life choice. There is also research that shows humans need about 8 hours of sleep per day. Some can do with less, some need more, but people who can function well on, say, 4 hours sleep per day are extreme outliers themselves. For the sake of argument, let's go with 8 hours sleep per day. That's 56 hours per week -- out of a total of 168 hours. So, just factoring in sleep reduces time available to us humans at 112 hours per week.

Exercise is also important for people who lead sedentary occupations. I spend about 9 hours a week engaged in exercise. We're now down to 103 hours.

Everyone also needs to eat. Yes, you can get a quick bite at your desk while working. That isn't generally healthy enough as an exclusive long term habit. By the time I have prepared, eaten and cleaned up after meals, I will spend about 2 hours a day doing such. That's anothe 14 hours a week. We are now down to only 89 hours a week -- and we haven't done anything but personal maintenance. Yes, some of that time can devoted to other things as well. For instance, meal times can be used for family and social activities.

Let's factor in commuting to work. Yes, a few people work out of their homes, but that is rare in tech fields. Let's say people spend 1 hour/day commuting. That reduces our unscheduled time to 84 hours -- 82 hours for people who work seven days a week.

Let's now look at three kinds of work weeks.

The first is the old standard of 40 hours -- like my father had when he was alive and my mother had when she worked. That 40 hour work week is only 8 hours/day for 5 days. That leaves two full days for things other than work -- family, community, etc. Even on work days there are 3.5 hours of time still unscheduled for family, etc.

Today quite a few people talk about working 60 hours/week. That's six 10 hour days. There is still one full day for other things. On work days, though, there is only 1.5 hours of "free" time. That doesn't seem like enough.

Finally there is the 80 hour week cited by Larry Summers. That leaves only 2 hours/week unscheduled. Something -- probably lots of somethings -- must give. Family? Community? Or something like sleep? Or exercise? Or meals away from work? The 80 hour work week looks, at best, unhealthy for the individual, his family and his community.

What kind of people adopt this lifestyle? Summers doesn't say. I have seen my fair share of people in science and tech fields with significant personal problems. Perhaps they would be that way in any event. But it seems unwise to organize major projects around such people. An Isaac Newton can come up with some kinds of major discoveries -- but you really would not want them trying to lead an organization.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Background of an L5 Society Activist

I'm writing this blog posting to let people know how I managed to create a successful event for the L5 Society in 1984.

I had returned to New Jersey from grad work in social psychology some years before. Upon my return, I rejoined the church I attended in my youth -- St. James Episcopal in Hamilton Township, New Jersey. I met up with some old friends and made some new ones. The McKenzies were active in Scottish groups and Revolutionary War reenactment groups. They had also started a poetry group. I got a little involved in all three. Through the poetry group I was introduced to a large part of the local arts scene. I eventually became a member of the Trenton Artists Workshop Association.

Shortly after returning to New Jersey, I contacted the Princeton Ballet after reading that they would perform the Nutcracker Ballet locally. While I had done some modern dance photography, I had never photographed a ballet before. The company, after seeing what I had done, made me their primary photographer for the rest of my time in New Jersey. This gave me another link to the local arts scene.

Links to the local arts community interestingly enough also gave me links to political leaders and various parts of state government bureaucracy that normal civil servants (I made my living by doing IT for New Jersey government) did not have. Michelle Mathesius, director of the Center Dancers, was married to the Bill Mathesius, then Mercer County Executive. Molly Merlino, active in TAWA, was married to state Senator Joe Merlino who was also president of the senate when the Democrats were in the majority.

Since I was a third generation Rutgers alum, getting active in Rutgers affairs was also fairly normal. I even did photography of Rutgers sports for a number of years.

Since my family had been active in the Anglican church for centuries, I was also drawn into that culture as more than a regular member. My photographic talent made a difference there as well.

My talents for photography and writing first got me attention in L5. Then, in 1981, I asked why I had never been called on a phone tree alert. I had been a bit active for a few years, knew society leaders somewhat and wondered what was going on. That's when I found out that there was no organization in New Jersey and that my name had come up as a person to organize New Jersey. Soon I had list of about 200 names of New Jersey residents who had volunteered to help out.

Over the next year I spent some time organizing the phone tree. I began calling people when alerts were sent out and simply asked them if they would phone people in their local area. Within a few months I had a functioning phone tree.

In the spring of 1982 I asked my assistants if any of them were amenable to organizing an L5 chapter. We started meeting over the next six months planning a chapter. Our first formal meeting -- announced via the phone tree -- was in August. At that meeting -- held at Bob Werb's apartment complex -- we decided on a course of action. Our first event was doing information tabling at the New Brunswick Octoberfest. I had participated in that event before as an artist.

That fall I approached the New Jersey State Museum about our group participating in Super Science Weekend -- an event to promote science in January. Their reply was illuminating. They said that because they knew me (through art and political connections) they trusted me. If they hadn't, there was a real chance that they would not have allowed our group to participate.

Super Science weekend in 1983 was a success for our group. People came by and chatted. They took literature. The museum director stopped by to check us out. She was favorably impressed. Our group was fairly young but mature. Most of us worked in tech fields. There was a significant contingent from Bell Labs.

That summer I told Dick Peery, the museum's planetarium director, about Spaceweek. I inquired whether our group could organize a Spaceday event at the museum. The museum was amenable.

Over the next year I recruited speakers and exhibits. Since the Space Studies Institute was located in Princeton, they were happy to supply both a speaker and an exhibit. The same was true of RCA Astroelectronics. Through Mensa connections I recruited a history professor from Philadelphia. I hit real paydirt through the Princeton Astronomy Association. In January 1984 they hosted a talk by J. R. Thompson, former chief engineer of the space shuttle main engine project. He was at that time a deputy director of Forrestal Labs. His talk was excellent -- and he was happy to also give the same talk at Spaceday.

Then came Spaceday. Dick Peery and I chatted a bit before the doors opened. He cautioned me to not get my hopes up too high. On a normal July Saturday only about 50-75 people would come through the museum. He told me if we got 500 the museum would call it a success and talk about doing it again. I don't know if Dick saw the three page feature article in the Trenton Times the day before. Our publicist had gotten us a good deal of attention already.

The day went well. The museum director came around in the afternoon. She seemed impressed. All the participants -- including people from the Princeton Astronomy Association and a local rocket club -- were happy that they participated.

The next week Dick phoned me. He was wildly enthusiastic now. He told me 2000 people came. He added that the museum director had said it was the best summer event that they had ever had. Then Dick got a taste of my sense of humor. I laconically asked if he wanted to do it again. There was a pause -- and then Dick realized I was joking.

I told Mark Hopkins of L5 about my success. He was quite impressed. He recruited me as an L5 Spaceweek coordinator.

I'm now going to explicitly state some lessons we can learn from this success.

I would not have been able to do any of these things if I had not already been involved in my local community through many activities. It was a big help having friends who were not connected to space activism. Space activists can be very narrow. Some are not.

The space field also needs artists as more than people to draw in the public. That's important. But artists also need to be involved in leadership as well. Artists are typically much better at communication than techies. There are exceptions, but that tends to be true. Artists listen better than most people. They are also more open minded. These are qualities sadly lacking in too much of contemporary society. The current financial meltdown can be attributed in part to financial leaders who came with schemes that didn't really reflect reality in too many ways. Yes, accounting, numbers and such like are important -- but so are the less quantifiable things.

That's enough for now. I don't want to hit people over the head. I hope I haven't.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Victory Night Party

I only went to one party Election Night. I spent most of the day doing poll work. Then came dinner. I made it to the party around 9 PM.

The first person I recognized was Terry Lierman, former chair of the
Maryland Democratic Party, now Chief of Staff for Majority Steny Hoyer.
We exchanged a few friendly words. He left for a party in Annapolis.

I wandered around, saw people lined up for free food. Since I had dinner, I skipped the food. I did buy a glass of wine for $4 + $1 tip.
I ran into a few people from the Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt
Democratic Club (Greenbelt). One of them offered to watch my coat and
extraneous camera gear while I went around and took photographs.

The first real conversation I had was with Paul Pinsky. We're both
runners. I mentioned doing the Marine Corps Marathon back in 1996. He
seemed impressed. He's only done 5Ks and 10Ks. I mentioned that was my
usual length for a race. I joked about doing another marathon
eventually. Paul's a very friendly guy. One important thing in
politics for Paul is livable communities. I asked Paul if he was going
up to the big party in Baltimore. He reported that he planned to leave
the Prince George's County party after about an hour and go home and watch the
rest of the returns there.

Every time Obama won another state a cheer went up from the crowd. Lots
of people said this change was a long time coming.

I got into one lengthy (well, lengthy for the setting) conversation with
a middle aged African American man. I brought up the party in Baltimore
with him as well and said both our Senators -- Mikulski and Cardin --
would be at that party. He told me how both of them made frequent
appearances at labor events. I told him how I got involved with the
Mikulski reelection campaign in 2004 because of my interest in space
exploration. I said Senator Mikulski held views similar to mine. She
strongly supports NASA, but speaks up when NASA screws up. I also
mentioned how the report of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board showed all sorts of problems that some of us who had worked at NASA had
noticed years before. I did add that Senator Cardin was also proving to
be a thoughtful legislator on science and tech issues. We both
wholeheartedly agreed that both senators were fine people. We hoped
they would stay in office for many more years.

Around 10 PM I decided to forget the Baltimore party. It was 45 minutes
away. Home was only 8 minutes. Staying at the Prince George's County
seemed more sensible. I stayed around awhile longer. Somebody bought
lots of pizza for the crowd. I had a small slice.

Most people were really excited about the results. When it became
evident that Obama was going to win a major victory we all became
excited. When results of various state contests were announced we
cheered every Democratic victory. I really cheered when I found out Kay
Hagan had beat Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina.

I left after 11 PM. I wanted to be home at a decent hour. I saw both
McCain's concession speech and Obama's acceptance speech at home.

It was a truly exciting evening. I'm glad I was able to be a small part
of it.

I've posted all my photos here.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Anxious with Reason Panel at New America Foundation

This was a most interesting panel discussion featuring Carl Van Horn and Cliff Zukin from the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University. David Kusnet, author of Love the Work, Hate the Job, also contributed to the discussion. Kusnet's book looks at events in 2000 at four Seattle workplaces. Tech industry is well represented in the book with Boeing and Microsoft.

The conflict at Boeing was between technical people and financial people. Technical people were focused more on quality, financial people more on control. After the conflict company headquarters was shifted from Seattle, where the company is located, to Chicago. I will say this does not appear to be a good move. It isolates top management from the people who do the work and lessens communication between the groups.

Kusnet reported that workers liked the work they were doing, but hated the job. He described a breakdown of the old social contract where loyalty was rewarded with security and commitment to work in return for respect.

Zukin and Van Horn discussed research performed at Rutgers about The Anxious American Worker: New Work Trends Survey of U.S. Workers Reveals Deep-Seated Concern About their Futures.

Some of the things that Zukin stressed included:

  • On the job training is valued most.
  • Americans think they need more training for their jobs.
  • There is lots of dissatisfaction with employment and levels of training.
Van Horn made a number of points as well:

  • Unemployment is getting longer and longer.
  • To create a competitive economy we need competitive workers. I will note that this means not workers who will spend lots of time at work, but people who are actually good at what they are doing.
  • Education and training are misdirected.
  • College is not for everybody. I think this needs to be stressed today. Van Horn noted that vocational training is of considerable value.
  • We need more focus on employer based training.
  • More accountability is needed regarding the educational establishment. I will note that all too often ideas are rolled out and then not checked. Failure is too often blamed on students and parents, not schools or educational doctrine. That might be changing.
Van Horn noted that large company CEOs don't think they have a workforce problem. HR does. Small and medium sized companies see the problems up close.

I will note that we need to see greater connections between those at the top of hierarchies and people at the bottom. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board report on that disaster noted that people further up the hierarchy did not listen to people lower down. This is a classic reason why highly authoritarian organizations fail.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Democracy and Violent Rhetoric

Yesterday evening Jeffrey Feldman, author of "Outright Barbarous: How the Violent Language of the Right Poisons American Democracy" gave an excellent talk promoting his views and book.

Early in his talk he brought up a tragic incident in Tennesee where a man killed a few people in a Unitarian-Universalist church. Right wing pundits first characterized the attack as an attack on Christianity. Then the real story came out. He was a violent right winger -- somewhat mentally unbalanced -- who hated U-U because it was too left wing. Hmm. I know at least four U-U members. They are all rather intelligent, and tend to be friendly. Normal people -- even conservatives that I know -- respect and like these people.

Feldman says we need civil arguments -- ones in which all participants try to listen to each other and treat each other with respect. Small groups seem to favor such discussions. I will say it is easier to learn from each other and have civil, even friendly, discussions in small groups. He states, quite correctly, that people who engage in violent rhetoric that demeans others frustrate, even end, the kind of discussion we need for a healthy, free, democratic society.

After the talk I raised a question about reasonable, responsible conservatives. I know more than a few via professional and social connections. The way I raised the question was by citing a forum in the National Review titled The War on Drugs is Lost. I mentioned that I have long opposed the war on drugs and welcomed this forum. The National Review people even included at least one liberal Democrat, Kurt Schmoke, then mayor of Baltimore. Other people represented a variety of viewpoints. To me, this forum seems responsible and free of the violent rhetoric that Feldman condemns. The forum even got me to occasionally glance at NRO for a few years. Some of the pieces made my eyes roll. Some also seemed rather thoughtful and informative. I will admit I don't look at NRO much these days. I do think we need a calmer discussion -- and include people of all persuasions in that discussion.

When I got home, I read the preface to Feldman's book. While I generally agree with what he wrote, one essay he mentioned got my eyes to roll when I first read it. After the Virginia Tech rampage, E. J. Dionne of the Washington Post wrote a column in which he asked why can't we be sensible about guns the way we are about airline security. While Dionne's column was indeed moderate and thoughtful in tone, it also displayed the man's ignorance -- at least to those of us who know too much about the TSA. In fact the TSA is a failure. When they test their own security by trying to smuggle guns through, over 90% of the time the guns get through. Last September at a Women in Aerospace program on the state of aviation security today I also learned that there is a college student who has smuggled high explosives onto airplanes just to show he could. This is the kind of information that gets lost in the highly charged rhetoric we hear today.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Burnt Out in DC

People keep talking about the blunders Presidential candidates make. As is typical, they usually name the candidate opposing theirs.

I wonder how much people around the country know about DC culture -- especially the power elite's.

It's getting increasingly crazy around here. Traffic is extraordinarily bad and getting worse. People weave in and out of traffic, cutting off people who don't follow at less than 20-30 feet. I've lost track of the number of SUV drivers who want to get in front of me, even though I drive a much higher performance automobile.

Then there is workaholism run amok. When Bush's first chief of staff, Andrew Card, resigned people said he looked burned out. The Post reported his schedule. He got up around 4 AM, reported to work a little after 5 AM, worked until 8-9 PM and would take calls after that. I'm surprised he didn't die from that schedule. There are too many stories like that floating around. There are people out there who actually think even 100 hours of work a week is doable in the long term. They like to think of themselves as"tough."

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Pot, Kettle

It can be difficult being independent in the United States today.

Today a man from the academic part of society told me how Goddard Space Flight Center was collegial while Hampton Roads had a more military, top down style of organization. Those of us with some knowledge of social psychology would tend to call the first democratic, the second authoritarian.

When I worked at Goddard I was part of a group dominated by a Ph.D. scientist who was extremely authoritarian. I know some military people through various connections. Some of them can be quite democratic.

What's wrong with this picture?

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Politics and My Technical Career

I started a discussion on two Linux lists by asking how much in demand for Fortran programmers there was today. I received the answer I expected -- that there wasn't much demand for this specialty these days. I also made reference to a political angle. This posting is about the admittedly rather unusual angle.

I am what is called a polymath. I am reasonably good a variety of significant different things. This is because I was brought by parents in a more 19th (and earlier) century manner than most people. My grandfather was Rutgers College class of 1890 -- degree in chemistry. His father was a corporate attorney. His mother is how I am related to John Donne. Educated people back in the 19th century were encouraged -- if not required -- to be more broadly educated than today. That attitude -- plus the necessary skills -- was imparted to me by my parents, my father especially. There are other ways of becoming a polymath. I'm just telling you how I became one.

Other things my parents taught me were to listen to and respect others, stand up for myself and try to do my best to help my fellow humans.

When I was a child I became quite interested in science and technology -- especially space exploration. My parents encouraged this interest. They also encouraged me to read widely. My childhood wasn't all Erector Sets and books about technology. My parents also encouraged me to read classics like "Treasure Island" and "Black Beauty."

Still, though, my initial interest in science and technology carried me through first a degree in physics from Rutgers, some work in the field and some graduate study (somewhat simultaneously). I, of course, picked up Fortran as my first computer language at this time. During my second year in grad school, I became increasingly dissatisfied. I thought I was becoming tired of physics and technology.

When I graduated from Rutgers, my parents gave me a really good 35 mm camera outfit. No one expected me to meet up with some artists and get really into photography, but I did. This definitely exposed me to the world beyond technology.

Because of the artistic influence, and the dissatisfaction with physics as a career, I began a search for a new life. I wound up in social psychology, studying at the grad level at Columbia University. This career path went well for a time, then also soured. I've written an account of why I left that field and academia in my posting Why I Am Not A Social Psychologist. Still, though, I learned a great deal about humans behave, especially in organizational settings.

While doing this grad work, I encountered the book "The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space" by Gerard K. O'Neill. I was fascinated. My interest in technology was reawakened -- this time when I was a mature adult. I joined a couple of groups to promote O'Neill's ideas. By organizing things like New Jersey Spaceday I even became a leader in the L5 Society and later the American Astronautical Society's Space Times. I was hired in March 1990 to work at Goddard Space Flight Center.

The group I joined was a mess. Communications skills were sorely lacking. Management had trouble keeping staff. The larger group was dominated by a civil servant who was sometimes described as a "brilliant scientist" and "tough." In actuality he was an abusive bully who did not listen to people. "Yes" people got ahead. More independent people were kept out of formal leadership positions.

Still, though, I was more happy than not. The work was interesting. Most of my relationships were with people outside our group who used our group's services. I was also part of the larger Goddard community via such things as the Goddard running club and the theater group. The latter group really appreciated my services as a photographer.

The management of our group went from poor to disastrous. A woman manager was brought in who tried to control staff in all sorts of ways. One man -- about 40 and recently married -- was told to forget about his marriage and concentrate on work. I was hauled into a conference room with the accusation of using government computers for personal business. The proof? A piece of spam from a Internet pornographer. What I had actually done was to forget to update a .forward file on a little used computer that was receiving spam.

I started looking for a transfer. One was not forthcoming. I do not know why.

In 1999 I was subjected to extreme disciplinary action. I was told to either fall into line, find another job or be fired. This was after years of generally positive job reviews.

Since IT was still hot in 1999, I was able to quickly find another job. Still, though, I was very unhappy. Compounding that unhappiness was going to a high school reunion the Saturday after I left Goddard -- and finding out that one of the most wonderful women in our class had gotten really screwed up and committed suicide. She had just taken a job as a New York City school teacher the last time I met her.

When I was forced out of Goddard in 1999, I started showing up in old haunts -- the National Space Society, etc. People were happy to see me again, but wondering what had happened to me. I did tell a few people a bit.

Late in 2002 I came up with the idea of writing a paper on what I had seen at Goddard and presenting it at the Princeton Conference on Space Manufacturing. I thought this way I might be able to draw attention to what I considered serious problems.

Then Columbia burned up upon reentry in 2003. People started talking immediately about NASA management. I converted my paper into a lecture which I gave at Central New Jersey Mensa Regional Gathering (think weekend long convention) in March. My talk got top reviews.

The next my friends in CNJ Mensa invited me back to give a follow up now that the Columbia Accident Investigation Board report was out. In the audience was a career NASA civil servant named Steven Yaros. We'd never met. At the end of my talk, he stood up, told us who he was, and endorsed everything I said. He also said people at NASA were reading the report. I was stunned. A new path seemed to open. Steve later on encouraged me to find work in the agency.

Later that year a professional lobbyist gave a talk to the Rutgers Club of DC. During the talk he mentioned that professional lobbyists did volunteer work for campaigns to build relationships with politicians. Another light went on. In August I drove to Mikulski reelection headquarters in Baltimore and volunteered. Senator Mikulski has been known as a strong supporter of NASA -- and willing to say when things had gone wrong. I liked both. By doing this, I gained admittance into mainstream political circles in Maryland. I am glad I did so.

In 2004 I also joined the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. I hit it off well with the people I met. I wound up, among other things, becoming the Baltimore Section's webmaster and public policy officer. I've been leading Team Maryland during the annual Congressional Visits Day and attracting interest to our concerns that way.

Then in January 2006, a notice came to our section that Maryland's Governor's Workforce Investment Board was holding an Aerospace Summit as part of the Aerospace Initiative. I and other section members went and had an interesting day.

In June I received a invitation to a follow up meeting. I went and participated in the Industry Collaboration Committee. There was some talk about starting a Maryland Aerospace Association. At the end of the meeting government representative Art Taguding said we needed a chair to continue leading the group. Everyone looked at me. Art asked if I was surprised. I wasn't, given the way the meeting had gone.

I got our group off to a good start. We put together a proposal for an association over the next several months. Lots of people told me they were impressed with our work.

Then in December 2006 I had an interesting set of encounters via the Maryland Space Business Roundtable with a man who had been an executive at the company for whom I worked at Goddard. He asked me if I would be interested in taking a job with the company he now worked for -- in Hampton Roads, Virginia. This raised my eyebrows a bit. It would mean uprooting my life, leaving behind my community and political connections, etc. -- just for an undescribed job. I did send the man my two resumes -- the tech oriented one and what I call my civic leader one. I heard nothing more from the man.

The plan for a Maryland Aerospace Association failed to gather support. I had no direct contact with the people who did the rejecting. I was told by one man that one person had rejected our proposal without even being aware of what my group had done.

Throughout all this I remained quite active in AIAA affairs. People seem to respect and like me.

I am now telling people I need a more normal career. Taking on bits and pieces of work is neither satisfying intellectually nor economically rewarding enough for me.

People at the company who broached the idea of moving to Virginia have done so a few times since, rather informally. I'm not really interested. They haven't really sold me on what I would be doing there.

A few days ago I casually checked out the company's website. On their careers page, I found advertisements for Fortran programmers -- at Goddard, a few miles from my home. A job like that could get my attention. Technically it would not be ideal, but it would be a big improvement for me at present. I'm wondering why no one has thought of contacting me about this work. A political motivation seems like it might be at work.

Some managers like to refer to people like me as "disgruntled former employees." That really isn't a fair description of me. I am a change agent, seeking to reform practices that have been clearly shown to be dysfunctional. I can actually put on a social scientist hat and recommend changes that are clearly thought out. It's not unreasonable to think that some people who are benefiting from the old status quo don't want me around. These days I am quite active in advocating reform in tech industry. You can get some idea of what I am talking about by reading a few other of my blog postings:

July 10th Justin Ross is holding a fund raiser locally. Governor O'Malley will be attending. I could go and make a fuss. I'm wondering what to do.

Friday, February 29, 2008

New Social Contract

I'm live blogging a meeting at the New America Foundation meeting on the topic of the new social contract.

CSPAN broadcasting.

Room not really set up for blogging. SFF did much better last July.

Room is packed. Few empty seats.

New era of American politics? Post partisan? Progressive? Comeback conservatism?

Post partisan -- advocated for deficit reduction. Normal partisanship unable to cope with long standing problems. JFK Jr. -- George reference.

Now Schwartzenegger, Bloomberg. Republicans and Democrats working together to bring forth new ideas.

Americans becoming more partisan, not less, according to polls. Partisanship rising among youth as well. Millenials have been formed by exposure to out of control individuals. Parents have emphasized cooperation, prosocial behavior. Open minded, keep focused on big picture. New generation looks for respect, comity, etc.

Rutgers prof Cliff? up. Middle aged, grey beard (literally). Political culture and issues of day quite different.

Issues will be played out in political culture. Core values will underlie.

Core values:

1. Society favors equal opportunity to succeed. Committed to altruism, also self reliance, entrepreneurism, etc.

2. Commitment to public sector, also wary of it. Ambivalence about major institutions.

3. Americans have firm belief in God. 80% see themselves as believers. Religious beliefs shape our politics.

4. We believe we should have aggressive place in world. Opening for space: Charles Elachi.

5. Social security and retirement income. People no longer believe it will be there for them. No trust in government retirement plans.

6. People believe they are overtaxed. Think taxes are unfair, complicated. Replacement could be worse.

7. Health care an important issue. People concerned about cost.

8. Job satisfaction OK. (Didn't ask me.)

9. Environment a second tier issue. Finance and economics can affect.

Good for next social contract. Crisis will produce change. People tired of Bush, war in Iraq. Concern about economy has hit major proportions.

Public ready to put 9/11 behind us.

Cliff stops. Liked working with NAF very much.

Younger people less likely to be interested in politics. More leisure oriented, more entrepreneurial, more cooperative.

Interesting thought -- what about cooperation among individuals? Out of control individuals more a symptom of failed authoritarianism than democratic societies.

Millenials have sense of us, not of they.


Mark? Panel of people from whom I have learned the most about Congress. Singularity point in American politics. Does he know of techie "Singularity?"

I'm wearing a suit. Lots of people more casually dressed. Lots of young people. Fair number of middle aged folk. They tend to be more business dress.

Mark thinks we can't go back to governing like we did in 1980s and 1990s. 1994 wiped out Southern Democrats. 2006 wiped out northern Republicans. Democratic Party now the liberal party with base in north and west. Republican party now conservative party with base in south.

Question is now how do we govern the country. Reading liberal encomiums to Buckley. We need a liberalism that can engage with conservativism. Obama has this approach. Mentioned Dionne. Laugher: Dionne once used TSA as an example supporting "sensible" gun control.

K Street project of conservatives. Courts have been shifted. Conservatives have had some policy victories.

Democrats still in Bill Clinton era -- big government is over.

Susan: Republicans have created new agency, Federal intrusion into education, new benefits. Can't happen now -- majority is too thin. Personalities, e.g., Delay, Rove also played role. Shift to Senate led to House style being tried in Senate. Electorate taking control back. McCain would not have been pick of Republican leadership. Hillary according to theory should have been shoe in. People tired of partisanship. Much larger turnout inn 2008.

Susan says demographics driving elections. Hmm. Why do people from NYC move to Nevada?

12:15. Battery at 57% -- 1hr, 45min left.

Powerful communication tools at service of politically active.

12:30. Panel scheduled to start at 12:15.

Savings have been eroded. Housing a problem.

Tax benefits will flow to people with higher incomes, more wealth. Need an inclusive savings policy. Must be life long. Left focuses on opportunity, right on ownership. Universal 401k, savings plans that start at birth.

David Gray -- work and family issues. Under the radar issues: foster care, child care. Work family imbalance. Stress, two earner couples. 81% want better work life balance. People feel stressed at work. Democrats all had work life proposals. Tight labor markets leading business to accommodate desires, needs. States taking a lead. War forcing administration to take a look at work life balance. Lots of stress on family life for military. Back to 18th century? Baby boom retiring. Want to work flexibly. Older people want flexibility in work place. Fiscal crisis will also push flexibility.

Maya: budget issues. Need to update and raise revenues. We need fundamental tax reform. Percent of total economy an important line for many people.

Only a few of us live blogging. Some people taking written notes.

Now switching to dead tree note taking. Keeping the laptop on my lap is not that comfortable.

Here are my dead tree notes:
Len Nichols: Why now? Why optimistic? Cost of doing nothing is very high.

China, India make it impossible to increase prices. (What will happen if China collapses?)

Reality: Need 70 votes in Senate for a proposal to get the 60 you need. (Mikulski does bipartisanship well on aerospace issues.)

Need to buy smarter. (We need discussion of what is possible and what is not.)

Incentives are for much health care.

Political parties.

David Frum: Coalition of 70s and 80s declining. Republicans not doing as well. Movement to Democratic Party real and strong.

Bush aimed at reassembling Republican coalition.

9/11 elevated nationalism.

Lack of success in Iraq has been painful.

Collapse in Republican identification among young.

Open door at end: party shift, not political shift.

Typical voter quote: "If Eisenhower were alive, I'd vote for him." (Susan Eisenhower has endorsed Obama. She's also married to Roald Sagdeyev -- one time head of Soviet civil space program.)

Johnathan Chait: Issues moving to left. People in antigovernment mood. Democrats are shills for home state industry. Left creating an institutions on left to counterbalance ones on right.

I left at 1:47.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Aerospace Workforce Issues

In September 2007 Claudia Morrell, Executive Director of the Center for Women and Information Technology of the University of Maryland Baltimore County gave a talk to the committee leading the Aerospace Initiative of the Governor's Workforce Investment Board in the State of Maryland. During her talk she emphasized three reasons why young women were not pursuing careers in technology:

  • They disliked the work-life balance common in technology fields.
  • They thought the work was boring.
  • They were familiar with managers in their 30s and 40s who were extraordinarily poor leaders who not only did harm to their groups but also to the careers and lives of young people coming into their fields.

She noted that when these issues were successfully addressed, that young women – as well as young men – were far more likely to choose work in technology.

These findings echo what I have heard in other forums as well. In July at a NewSpace meeting organized by Space Frontier Foundation Loretta Whitesides commented how the generation born after Apollo did not share the memories of older people involved in aerospace. NASA Administrator Michael Griffin might vividly remember John Glenn's orbital flight. Some one born after the last Apollo mission in 1972 will remember the Challenger tragedy instead. She also commented that they were looking for leadership that listened and was open to new ideas. The fact that NASA does not have that reputation any more is a major criticism.

Mary Lynne Dittmar has done extensive research in how the public thinks about NASA. She has delivered papers at conferences such as Space 2006, organized by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and written articles such as Sustaining exploration: communications, relevance, and value (Part 1) and Part 2. In her work she has expressed the view that NASA needs to start listening to people and develop a bottom up as well as a top down method of generating value. Dittmar has noted that younger people are not much interested in sending humans to Mars – one goal of the current Vision for Space Exploration. She does note, though, that young people are much more interested and supportive of things like space tourism – which offers the possibility of real participation – and probes to places such as Mars – which again offers some possibility of participation, if only vicariously.

We also have the findings of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. Among other things, they described NASA as an organization that failed to listen to issues raised by staff more familiar with matters at hand than managers above them. They also described NASA as not a learning organization. This should be viewed as damning criticism of a research and development organization.

We thus see some common threads developing with regard to the aerospace industry. There is a lack of listening, a lack of willingness to try ideas that are developed outside an insiders' club (the “Not Invented Here” syndrome) and problems learning things outside relatively narrow specialties. While this leads to high profile failures in the case of NASA, one can see similar things throughout technological fields. There is also the notion that the culture of aerospace – and indeed much of technological work – needs reform. One interesting observation is made by tech workers in all sorts of fields. We claim that the comic strip Dilbert by Scott Adams is not a comic strip, but a documentary. Adams himself is a former IT professional. Tech workers supply him with many ideas.

There are, however, good examples we can learn from. The SAS Institute has an excellent reputation for the quality of its products as well as the way it treats its employees and the way it operates in the larger community. SAS seems like one company that has learned that “It Takes a Village” to not only bring up healthy citizens but to do all sorts of things – including run a successful business that makes significant contributions to the larger society for over thirty years. In the past few years NASA Ames, under Pete Worden, also seems like a place that is open to the outside and new ideas. They are also doing some pretty interesting things technically. There are also other examples of quality leadership in aerospace. Friends who have worked for Nobel Prize Winner John Mather at Goddard Space Flight Center say all sorts of good things about the man. He is described as a man who listens, who gives credit to others and is, to quote one man, “a real Boy Scout.”

In this short paper I have begun to describe workforce problems in aerospace and, indeed, in much of technological work. What are some solutions that a Clinton administration could pursue to help address these very real problems?

One idea could be fairly simple to implement. There is an office of the ombudsman. It seems to me – someone who worked at Goddard Space Flight Center for 9 years – that this office is fairly low profile. Raising the profile – and extending its mission to include contractors seems to me to be a good idea. Allowing anyone – regardless of employment status – to anonymously bring issues to the attention of this office, especially management issues, would help address problems that I have identified. There are some dirty little secrets that need addressing. People – especially contractor employees – have quit because of “lies and abuse.” Some groups withhold the granting of civil servant status to more independent employees.

A second idea is to begin sending employees – both civil servant and contractor – off for training in people knowledge. At Space 2006 I met a woman involved with an aerospace MBA program at the University of Tennessee. Since she was one of the few people I have ever met with a background in both the “hard” and social sciences, I asked her why so many MBAs had such poor knowledge of how humans behaved. She replied that, while an MBA student could get a solid knowledge of such things, too many avoided such areas. This needs to be changed. When NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, who holds, among other things an MBA degree, can get up in public and, while discussing the Columbia report, say that he doesn't understand cultural issues because of a lack of knowledge of human psychology, that is an admission of inadequacy that needs rectifying.

A third idea is to bring such training to all employees in aerospace. This would mean not just an occasional lecture at a NASA center or contractor facility but serious education programs along the lines that, for example, engineers receive as part of their careers.

A fourth idea is to identify those employees who have already gained experience in some field outside their technical specialty. While at Goddard I participated as a photographer and occasional actor in Goddard's Music and Drama Club. Members of this club – who put on major shows more than once a year – had social skills and knowledge significantly superior to most employees. There are many other ways of identifying employees with broader knowledge.

NASA in this way could become a model for society to emulate. Many scientists decry the lack of knowledge of science by our political leaders. Much less often some scientists observe that scientists lack knowledge of the political sector – and, indeed, almost anything outside their narrow specialty. This needs to change.

This brief paper is meant to spark discussion about an important but not high profile challenge facing our society. I think the challenge can be met with thoughtful, open minded leadership.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

A New, Improved Carl Sagan

I first started paying close attention to Nobel Prize Winner in Physics John Mather after a lecture at the Goddard Memorial Symposium last year. He's a fine public speaker -- especially for a physicist. He also seemed like a friendly guy -- at least on the podium. During his talk he displayed at one point photos of members of his team. I recognized one, Steve Leete, from my time at Goddard. I asked Steve what kind of guy Mather was -- besides being a brilliant physicist. He told me he was a really nice guy who listened to people, freely gave credit where it was due to team members and was a "real Boy Scout."

Many people note several problems with academia today. Undergraduate students are almost an afterthought. Graduate students are all too often treated as close to slave labor. Teaching is held in low regard. Listening to students -- essential for really good teaching -- is all too often neglected. And we wonder why students depart from such difficult fields as physics for more remunerative career paths.

But there are alternative models that seem to work. And John Mather seems to have first benefited from them and could now pass on the things he has learned. Here's a bit of John's biography, along with some comments of my own.

John grew up in a small town in then (possibly still) rural north New Jersey. Newton High School which he attended still has only 901 students according to Wikipedia. Hmm. Many observers now think that the smaller high school does a much better job of listening to students. Administrators and other school leaders get to know their students better. Teachers spend more time teaching and less administering. They also interact with other teachers who are considerably different from themselves. They're more likely to find out what Sally and John are doing in other classes and activities. It's also easier for parents -- especially intelligent parents -- to interact with the school. The school is nearby. The school's staff are people who are part of the larger community.

After high school, John did not attend a large research university. He went to the private Swarthmore College, current student population 1,500. Small schools like Swarthmore and Vassar College where I spent a year emphasize undergraduate education. While research is done by faculty, teaching is given highest priority. People who attend such schools pick up better listening and communication skills. The comments I made about John's high school apply just as well to places like Swarthmore.

By the time John hit the major research establishments of U.C. Berkeley and Columbia University, his character had been formed in major ways. He had picked up skills that students who attended large institutions have much more difficulty learning. Also, by reaching Berkeley when he did, he escaped to some extent the problems that have come to engulf contemporary academia. Weren't there protests at Berkeley in the late 60s? There certainly were. While lots of people blame the students for not respecting authority, some of us note that faculty respect for students had begun to drop earlier -- possibly as a result of the schools becoming too big with too high a focus on research and too little on teaching.

Perhaps it is time for John Mather to become the new Carl Sagan. There's one advantage John might have right off the bat. It would be very hard for people to say he wasn't a real scientist. Since he listens to people, it might be possible for him to use his own life story to instruct others in ways that he developed.