Saturday, December 26, 2009

Scientogy, EST, Landmark and Me

I told Dail Doucette of St. Mark's that I would write this up.

Scientology is a financially successful cult that was started back in the 1950s by science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard to make money. To learn more about this, check out the anti Scientology website Operation Clambake. I've never had much interaction with Scientologists. They have, shall we say, a very bad reputation in many circles. In any event, I'm not all that drawn to highly authoritarian groups. Yes, they have their place in our society. They are not, though, my cup of tea. Unless, of course, they step over the bounds of legality and honesty -- as Scientology does.

Werner Erhard -- original name John Rosenberg -- apparently tried out Scientology along with several other offbeat kinds of psychological groups during the 1950s and 1960s. Wikipedia has an article titled Werner Erhard about the man. The accuracy of the article is debatable. Just see the beginning of the article. I first heard about EST through magazine articles in the 1970s. The group made a very bad impression on me. Spending a weekend locked up in a room with people shouting abuse at me and not even being allowed to relieve oneself in a rest room seemed very bad to me. Some people, though, claim to have gotten good things from EST training. In any event, there are websites dedicated to Erhard and his career that are critical of him. The charge that EST is authoritarian -- perhaps in the extreme -- seems reasonable. Googling EST and cult produces a list of webpages that is 1.3 million entries long. A number of people at St. Mark's Episcopal Church have been through EST and swear by it. I've had little discussion with them about EST, though. The people I do know who have been through EST seem like reasonable people for the most part.

An organization called Landmark (or Landmark Forum) apparently succeeded EST. I've heard that it is a kinder, more gentle EST. I do have a few comments about Landmark from personal experience.

I met Gary Oleson through the L5 Society. L5 was a visionary, idealistic group which I joined in the late 1970s while living in New Jersey. Some people clearly went overboard. Perhaps because of the way I was brought up, I did not. After a few years, I learned that space colonies were far in the future and not a realistic possibility in my lifetime. Still, though, I enjoyed my work with the group. I even became a leader because of a successful Space Day event I organized in New Jersey. To learn more about that part of my life, I suggest reading a few of my blog postings:

I met Gary Oleson through L5 in the mid 1980s. He seemed like a reasonable guy. I'd say he still is for the most part. Every so often, though, he would invite me to something else, not apparently an L5 activity. There wasn't any real pressure, though, since I lived in New Jersey at the time and could not readily come down to DC for events that did not already have significant interest.

In March 1990 I moved to Maryland to work at Goddard Space Flight Center. At around the same time Gary invited me to a session of what turned out to be a Landmark introduction. I spotted authoritarianism right away. I was also not favorably impressed with what they were teaching. It seemed like some sort of baby psychology -- something I was not interested in because of my extensive background in psychology. In any event, nobody really followed up with me. Perhaps no one saw me as a likely candidate. Perhaps, also, because I started fading from National Space Society activities at the time and did not have much contact with Gary over the next several years. I got back into NSS activities after being fired from Goddard in 1999. To learn more about that, just read Politics and My Technical Career.

In 1998 I did get involved -- at first quite heavily -- in the Hash House Harriers. I did get one surprise relating to Gary after I joined the hash. Since I am pretty open about my life, I told several people in NSS about the hash. Everyone of them told me Gary was a hasher too. That surprised me. He had never mentioned the hash to me. Considering the fact that I am a runner -- and lots of people know about my sense of humor -- it would seem a natural suggestion for me.

In any event, I did get more involved with the space activist crowd again after being driven from Goddard. I started running into Gary more often. Still not a lot, though. I also started running into him occasionally at a hash. Our interactions have been light, though, for the most part. Gary has now started pushing Landmark at me some times, though. So far I have shown essentially no interest. At one point I did ask Gary about finding love in the hash. He replied that I should not bother but should look in the space activist community (not likely) or Landmark (virtually impossible).

I don't know what to make of all this. I'm rather independent and turned off to all sorts of authoritarian groups, not just EST or Landmark or Scientology. I wrote this posting mostly because Dail was interested. He's a good guy. So are the other people I know at St. Mark's.

A Few Basic Training Stories

Some people know that I was a draftee during the Vietnam War. I was inducted into the Army in August 1967 -- three months after I graduated from Rutgers with a degree in physics. I was very unhappy at this turn of events.

I had grown up in an Eisenhower Republican family. I considered myself in my high school years a similar kind of Republican. I will admit, though, that my curiosity was stimulated by Goldwater's "The Conscience of a Conservative."

By October 1962 I had an idea of what I wanted to do with my life -- pursue a career in physics. That, by the way, was early in my senior year at Steinert High School in Hamilton Township, New Jersey. A frightening event happened that month. We came too close to nuclear war because of the Cuban missile crisis. I went from being a standard issue Republican to a Republican pacifist. An immature decision? Sure -- I was less than month from my 17th birthday. I could think like an adult -- but I was not nearly as mature as I became in succeeding decades.

After that, though, I did not think much about politics. I was majoring in physics at Rutgers. I paid more attention to science than politics -- by a long shot. I had no contact with the opponents of the Vietnam war. While I opposed the war, I considered it of no importance to my life. Physicists were essentially exempt from the draft -- or so I thought.

My first draft notice surprised me. It came the summer after I graduated from Rutgers. I was already working for IBM. They put in a request for an exemption. That failed. I was faced with the choice of fleeing to Canada or accepting induction. Upon everyone's advice, I chose to enter the Army. My backup plan was to apply for a conscientious objector discharge when I was in the Army. I thought the situation would be cleared up quickly. Who on Earth would want a pacifist physicist in the Army? That effort failed. Friends predictions that I would be put into some kind of research outfit eventually proved to be true.

But basic training turned into a kind of hell on Earth for me -- and for my antagonists as well.

This is what they found out about me in my first week.

They discovered I had a degree in physics -- and the highest IQ of anybody at Fort Dix. That latter fact did not surprise me. I knew how well I had done in the GRE exam my senior year at Rutgers. That IQ was sufficient for me to get into both Mensa and the Triple Nine Society.

The physical fitness tests had one major surprise. I had not been at all athletic in high school or college. I thought I was terrible at every sport. The first four tests involved some sort of reasonably coordinated movements. My performance was what I expected. It was possible to get 100 points on each test. In the first four tests I got two 0s, one 17 and one 18. Then came the mile run. I had never run a mile in my life. A little over 6 minutes got me 95 points. I could not figure that out. Neither could the sergeant who became my first victim.

Victim? How could a draftee make a sergeant into a victim?

This story begins with a private who was waiting transfer to his educational group. The powers that be made him an assistant to the sergeant in charge of my basic training platoon. One evening said private gave me an order that I considered ridiculous. I simply told him "Go fuck yourself." He stomped away somewhat angry. A few minutes later he came back and simply said "Come with me." Since that was reasonable, I did as he asked. He led me into a room where the sergeant was sitting with a critical expression on his face. A corporal was standing next to him with a silly smirk. The private looked mildly hostile.

The sergeant began the conversation by asking me "Did you tell Private (name forgotten) to go fuck himself?" I simply replied "Yes." The sergeant then turned to the corporal and said, somewhat relaxedly, "Well, at least he admits it." The sergeant then turned back to me and asked "Why did you tell Private ? to go fuck himself?" I answered quite simply "Because he told me to do something stupid." The sergeant then said "When Private ? is speaking, he is speaking for me!" The sergeant had raised his voice when saying this. I had been on the debate team in high school and college. In responding, I lowered my voice and spoke quite earnestly. I have since learned that is what is called the command voice. I simply said "Then you make sure your stupid pet soldier doesn't tell people to do stupid things." Everybody's mouth dropped open. I was allowed to return to my bed. The private was the only one of the three who ever spoke to me again -- and then it was with real respect.

Remember my comment about being a physicist with the highest IQ at Fort Dix? That played an important factor in my next story.

We were on the rifle range. I had never held a real gun in my life before the Army. I haven't held one since. I had apparently made some sort of mistake on the range. A second lieutenant whom I did not know walked up to me and began, I gather, severely criticizing me. Since I had in ear plugs, I could not hear what he was saying. I finally got one of the ear plugs out. The lieutenant said "By any chance you would not be on the college op plan, would you?" His tone of voice was not respectful. Since I did not know what he was talking about, I simply asked "What's that?" The lieutenant raised his voice and replied with a clear lack of respect "That's a plan where the Army sends deserving, capable soldiers off to college for four years!" I immediately thought "My God, what a straight line!" and "He doesn't know who I am!" I simply replied, projecting my voice as I had learned as both a lay reader in church and in debate, "Oh. I doubt that I would be eligible. You see, I received a degree in physics from Rutgers last May." Everybody within ear shot broke out laughing. OK, not the lieutenant. An angry expression came over his face. He turned very red. He turned around and stalked off.

My eventual duty assignment was what my friends predicted -- with a twist that no one could have predicted. I was assigned to a research group -- at Lawrence Livermore. I was required to wear civilian clothes and live in an apartment. That assignment, though did affect my basic training. I had not learned how to throw a hand grenade. People at Fort Dix delayed my transfer for two months, blaming my lack of ability to throw a hand grenade for the extension of time in basic training. I think the real reason was that the Army had actually lost ground in my case. When I began my stay in the Army, I was a somewhat angry, rebellious physicist. By the end of basic training, I had added being funny and even more independent in my thinking than when I started. That change could have influenced my life in some interesting ways. Since then I have stood up to authority much more than I suspect I would have. I can accept authority -- provided that it is kept within the limits of a free, democratic societies. Too often these days it is not.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Women, Men, Boys, Girls, Equality and Freedom

Petula Dvorak wrote a column today titled In the push for gender equity, turnabout is not fair play.

Dvorak doesn't discuss how society has changed -- for the worse -- in the past three or four decades. In her column she focuses on equality between men and women and how males are doing in school. She should consider more.

Let's begin by taking a look at schools and boys. She wants boys to buckle down more and work harder. That seems to be the solution to every problem today. Work harder and longer -- not smarter or more imaginatively. Unfortunately, this approach has seemed to many to have reached and exceeded its practical limits. Humans get tired. They perform much less well when tired. Check out Stanley Coren's Sleep Thieves and William Dement's The Promise of Sleep to see the toll that too little sleep is taking on our society.

Schools have changed since I was a child -- and some people think for the worse. When I was young, schools were much smaller and more connected to their communities. This allowed parents to work with teachers much more effectively. School populations were not so large that students and teachers were overwhelmed. Some thinking indicates that humans cannot effectively relate to very large groups of people. That's why in today's mega high schools, students break apart into various subgroupings that too often fuel ugly conflicts. After Columbine, a geek website known as Slashdot posted discussions titled Voices from the Hellmouth. The discussions focused on how miserable school had become for young geeks.

Some people tell us there is an epidemic of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in the schools. Others tell us school has become too regimented with too little freedom -- the kind of freedom I and others enjoyed as children. This phenomenon seems particularly bad regarding boys. One Mensa friend tells me half the boys in her sons' schools has been diagnosed with ADD, ADHD or some variant. That allows the people who run the schools to administer Ritalin to said boys to make them quieter and less troublesome. I've met her sons. They seem OK to me -- but then I see them at science fiction conventions where freedom is encouraged.

If our schools were performing well overall, Dvorak might have a stronger point. Unfortunately, too many people -- especially people I know through either professional associations such as the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics or social organizations such as Mensa seem to think our schools are not performing well.

There have been some experiments where schools have been made smaller -- sometimes just be reorganizing the school into several parts in the same building. These experiments seem to work better than today's large high schools. There have also been some experiments where recess -- free time -- has been increased with positive results.

There are two trends in our larger society that cause me quite a bit of concern. First is the growing inequality in our society. The second is loss of personal freedom. They seem intertwined. I wonder if Dvorak has ever worked in a place dominated by a male abusive bully who sometimes promotes women into positions of power -- and then uses them to dominate more independent people. Too many of us have.

While greater equality between men and women is to be desired, let's also think about equality of all persons and the freedom to live their own lives.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Bolden's Talk to WIA and AIAA

Today, December 9, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden addressed a joint luncheon organized by Women in Aerospace and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Lori Garver gave a friendly introduction to Bolden noting that he was two star Marine General and a four time astronaut. A friend of Bolden's named Rocky told Lori "You have won the lottery."

Charlie then stepped to the podium. He began by stating that it was an honor to be here. He added that Lori was a key member of his team. The numbers of women in aerospace today is a tribute to the work of WIA in the past two decades. He also acknowledged the presence of AIAA President Dave Thompson.

Moving on to the meat of his talk, Bolden said he was not going to talk about the Augustine committee report.

President Obama has said to Bolden that NASA must inspire future generations of Americans Bolden stated that NASA is vital to national leadership in technology, the economy and STEM.

Bolden added that more than inspiration was needed. Young people needed education and experience as well. NASA is reaching out to teachers directly about STEM. Education needed to be about the real world, not theoretical models. He reported on work that showed that students from poor families can excel in educational achievement.

Bolden said it was important to attract the young to NASA. It will be necessary to attract the best and most diverse young people into tech fields, especially NASA.

Mid career people are looking to advance. WIA and AIAA have multiple career development activities to help such people. Currently eight out of ten NASA centers have mentoring programs to assist young people and mid career people.

Bolden said it was necessary to get the different generations talking to each other.

Bolden said that NASA must be the developers of technologies that drive the economy. It is necessary to work across centers and with private industry.

Bolden said that NASA must do a better job of explaining who we are and what we do.

He made a few comments about Copenhagen. He plugged NASA's Earth system science as vital to helping with the global warming phenomenon and much else.

He noted his vision encompasses much, but one that NASA and the industry can do.

Bolden concluded by saying that change is coming. There will be more international cooperation, some with nontraditional powers (e.g., China).

NASA would do whatever it could to advance this great nation. He observed that the United States, unlike other nations, is diverse in its population. People came here seeking freedom to do new things. We are the leaders of the free world. He once again brought up STEM education.

Bolden took a few questions. One was on the topic of ITAR. Bolden simply replied Google "Gates ITAR." Secretary of Defense Gates is taking strong action to address this problem.

That completes my report. I will have some thoughts of my own in the next few days.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge Awards

Today I attended the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge Awards Ceremony in Washington, DC in the Rayburn House Office Building. I did make a few notes. I also ran into -- or at least saw -- some of the people one usually sees at important space related Washington, DC events.

The event began with Doug Comstock, Director of the Innovative Partnerships Program Office at NASA HQ. He began by recognizing both Masten and Armadillo for their innovative work. He also mentioned, among other things, the green challenge and the astronaut glove challenge that NASA is also sponsoring. He then introduced NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden. Among other NASA HQ people I saw were Deputy Administrator Lori Garver, Chief of Staff George Whitesides and Seth Statler, assistant administrator of NASA's Office of Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs. All had genuine smiles on their faces.

Charlie Bolden said he wanted to be at this event in order to meet the winners. He made several points in his brief, but exciting, talk:

  • The challenge is not about the money, but the vision and inspiration.
  • Charlie has known Peter Diamandis for a long time. Peter was also smiling throughout.
  • The United States can't give up and lose our technology lead.
  • Prizes work.
  • He mentioned the Augustine committee's praise of prizes.

The next man to speak was Tom Kalil (spelling?) of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. He said the White House was an advocate of prizes. He went on to praise the X Prize and Peter Diamandis. During his talk he also made several points:

  • The White House is enthusiastic about prizes.
  • Prizes pay for performance.
  • Prizes allow freedom of various approaches.
  • Prizes serve as a catalyst of private investment.
  • Prizes involve nontraditional players.
  • Prizes excite the public.

Georege Nield of the FAA was the next speaker. He said his agency's work was to ensure public safety. He also said the FAA wanted to encourage and promote commercial space transportation. He concluded that his agency was looking forward to working with commerce that would make profits.

Mitch Waldman of Northrop Grumman was the next speaker. He was happy to be part of the team with NASA and the X Prize. He added:

  • Northrop Grumman was committed everyday to getting the best value for the nation.
  • Partnership is vital for innovation.
  • Innovations come from work in many places done in partnership.
  • Innovations come from individuals.

The next speaker was Peter Diamandis. He said this was a great day for the space community. The twelve teams who participated contributed 100K person hours to this work. The efforts of these teams considerably surpassed DC-X.

Next to speak was Congressman Ralph Hall of Texas. He also stressed that prize money was a very effective means of helping bring about progress. He also praised Armadillo from his home town.

The next speaker was Congressman Adam Schiff of California. He and his staff take science and engineering seriously. He congratulated the winners. He concluded by saying he looked forward hearing about the challenges.

The next speaker was Dave Masten of Masten Space Systems. he began by thanking NASA, Northrop Grumman and the X Prize. He added thanks to the citizens of Mojave, California (where Masten is based) for their support. He noted that there were a number of experimental rocket societies to whom great thanks was owed because of their support. He made an unusually friendly comment about the FAA, saying it was hard to believe that he and others worked with a bureaucracy that was responsive without sacrificing safety. He concluded his brief remarks by saying he was looking for others to participate.

Phil Eaton of Armadillo was the next to speak. He reported than John Carmack was not able to come because of the late term pregnancy of his wife. He really appreciated the opportunity to participate. He also commented:

  • It was wonderful to find himself among friends.
  • He wanted to build relationships to move from prizes to profits.
  • He thanked NASA for its support. He was working to build relationships with NASA.
  • Armadillo and all involved in this work needed to grow through solid research and development.
  • He then thanked Northrop Grumman for its support.
  • Still more development was needed.
  • Building relationships with customers was essential.

Bolden then presented the prizes to the winners.

All in all, everyone present seemed happy with the event and the outcomes. It was a happy time for the space community -- especially the New Space community.

Now it is off to my next event. This one is about data and art. The speaker is Dan Goods of JPL.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Art for Obama

Washington Post Staff Writer Philip Kennicott makes an interesting point in his review Campaign hype feels like old glory of the book "Art for Obama." He is very definitely worried about the way the artists portrayed in this book have become so uncritically admiring of Obama and his campaign. He is concerned about artists crossing the line that separates democratic enthusiasm from totalitarian mania.

I, too, worry about this enthusiasm. Too many Democrats have treated Obama as the second coming of FDR. I just hope he doesn't become the second coming of Jimmy Carter. It was relatively easy for me to support Obama in last year's election. I, however, saw his flaws along with his strengths.

Why have some artists become so enthralled with Obama? Six years ago Obama was a relatively unknown state senator in Illinois. I had never heard of him. Most artists labor in obscurity. Every little bit of recognition is powerfully reinforcing. Last June I participated in Artomatic for the second time. As a result of that participation, I was contacted by International Arts and Artists. They struck me as a good group. Others confirmed that view. I joined.

With Obama we have a relative unknown having a meteoric rise from obscurity outside of Illinois to leader of the United States. This will get an artist's attention. It will, to some extent make them think he's like one of us.

Because Obama's rise was so quick, negative information about him will take awhile in coming out. Some ideologues who are affiliated with other branches of politics will seek out such information and try to publicize it. Eventually -- especially when failures mount -- will other people see the negatives and begin to take a more complex view of Obama. That might already be happening to some extent. Today, though, most of the people who see Obama negatively are on the political right. That gives them less creditability than people on the left, at least with artists, who tend to lean more to the left than the right in politics in the current era. To get people to change a political position, you need to get them to see you as at least partly like them.

Why are artists inclined to the left these days? Partly it is because artists are a bit rebellious. We do get into things that most people ignore. That's part of our curious nature. Establishment figures frequently don't like rebels and, sometimes, even more independent people that they meet. They think of such people as dangers to the existing society. While government has risen in importance and power in the past century, most people still see government as responding to other powers in our society. Would FDR have been able to push the New Deal without the Depression? It is unlikely.

I think art critical of Obama will arise during his time in office. Still, though, uncritical enthusiasm among artists of powerful people can be dangerous for the larger society. Kennicott and others who take note of this phenomenon are performing a valuable service.

Friday, October 23, 2009

A Tale of Two Space Days

My first Space Day was the one I organized in New Jersey in 1984. It was an outstanding success. The only corporate backing we received was from RCA AstroElectronics who did supply an exhibit and speaker. That was it. The Space Studies Institute in Princeton did likewise. I recruited a day long list of speakers, including J. R. Thompson, then at the Forrestal Research Center. The museum got a speaker with an exhibit from NASA. He was not a famous astronaut.

How did we get people to attend? We publicized the event to newspapers throughout New Jersey and Philadelphia and New York City. The Trenton Times gave us a wonderful three page spread in the Friday Weekend section. The publicity cost us nothing.

What kind of reaction did we get? 2000 people came that first Space Day. The museum director said it was the best summer event they had ever had. The event grew to drawing 3000 people in later years.

If you want to learn more about how I did this, read my blog posting Background of an L5 Society Activist.

In 2004 I volunteered to help out with the Lockheed Martin Space Day at the Udvar-Hazy Center. There were about 150 volunteers. John Glenn was a featured speaker. 1100 school children were bussed in that Thursday.

I spent the day assembling crude models of the SR-71. I tried engaging the children in conversation. Many seemed bored. I can't remember really connecting with any of them.

Early in the day there was an assembly of the students. One boy was brought up onto the stage. He was asked where he would like to explore. He answered some place in Australia. A second boy was then asked. He answered "Mars!"

This is an event that cries out for reorganization. 1100 school children are bussed into one of the world's great aerospace museums -- and they are bored to death.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Augustine Committee Report

Today I attended the press conference at which the Augustine Human Space Flight Plans Committee released its report to the general public. It has already been delivered to NASA and the White House.

Augustine began by saying there were no surprises in the final report, but there was much substantiation of the summary. He also said that the committee did work with Bolden and NASA. He thanked both NASA and the Aerospace Corporation for their support.

The premier conclusion of the committee is that currently human spaceflight is on an unsustainable trajectory.

Augustine did report that his committee viewed the current Ares 1 and Orion programs as well managed . They could succeed. Conditions have changed since those programs were started, however. Ares 1 will, at the present pace, not be available until 2017. ISS is currently scheduled to be deorbited before then. There are, though, compelling reasons to keep ISS up longer. This will require more funding -- which may not be available. The shuttle is scheduled to be kept flying through 2010. A more realistic schedule would extend those flights through 2011. That, though, would also require more money.

Mars is a clear goal for human space flight. Other ways of reaching that goal, however, are needed. Alternative proposals for heavy lift are needed. Commercial spaceflight should take over Earth to LEO from NASA. NASA should focus on flight beyond LEO.

Augustine also recommended that the NASA Administrator should be allowed to run the agency the way a CEO manages a company. Currently Congress -- to use one example -- imposes conditions that prevent in some ways effective management.

At this point questions from the audience were permitted.

Seth Brownstein of AP asked if it was now time to kill the Ares 1 program. Dr. Crawley -- another member of the committee -- said there were no technical problems. Brownstein followed up the question should NASA build the Ares 1? Crawley replied that, in 2005, NASA made a correct decision. Today, however, budgetary decisions have impacted that work, leading to a need to reorient the program. Augustine said that today Ares 1 is not the right vehicle going to the right destination.

An Aviation Week reporter asked for alternatives. Crawley indicated that NASA and commercial space should form a partnership. NASA would be the anchor customer for commercial flight to LEO.

Keith Cowing of Nasawatch asked if this was offering NASA a second chance to get it right. Augustine replied that NASA got it right initially but that budget cuts were forcing changes. The question is what is the right approach today.

What has prevented the NASA Administrator from managing NASA? Augustine commented that NASA can't move funds around because Congress passed bills preventing this. There was also a need for flexibility in the workforce. Some times you would need more people in operations. Other times it would be in design and development.

An NPR reporter asked what the role of the committee would now be. Augustine answered that both NASA and the White House were familiar with the work the committee. The committee would be available for informal questioning, but that is all.

A grad student commented that people outside the space community do not favor space spending at all. Augustine answered that why to do this is a fundamental question. Justifying all this work in the name of science or some other activity is not really possible in his view. He expressed the idea that space is a tiny part of a 3.9 trillion Federal budget. It is being funded at an appropriate level.

Crawley raised the inspiration argument. He said that many young people think commercial space is pretty cool.

Crawley also raised the point that no commercial organization could raise the capital needed for development. But with government support, commercial operations could flourish.

Cowing of Nasawatch asked if public engagement was different this time. Augustine replied that it was extremely different. The committee did try for public engagement. Several meetings were open. He added that human space flight was almost like a religion for some people -- but different religions with some conflicts. A new standard of openness was set. Crawley added the additional input was really instructive. Both Augustine and Crawley commented briefly on all the new communication technologies that were used.

Crawley commented that, with the flexible plan, we can leave LEO in the early 2020s.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

When Did I Know

AIAA has been running a campaign to get members to tell when they knew aerospace was the field they wanted to pursue. For most members, this is a simple task. For the past few months, quotes and pictures on the AIAA website have highlighted the Apollo landings on the Moon. Those events were indeed inspiring and, for many people, thought provoking as well. Many people did decide to commit to aerospace because of the Race to the Moon.

My own story is, as people who know me might suspect, rather more complicated. I can say I knew on at least three different occasions, in very different circumstances, led me to a commitment to aerospace. There are days I wonder if I have made a huge mistake. There are days I am really encouraged by events and thoughts of people around me.

The first time I knew was back when I was a child. Adults started turning their thoughts toward space partly because of events in WW II. The German rockets attracted much attention. After the war, some scientists and engineers -- in many countries -- began thinking of doing many things in space, ranging from communications satellites to guided missiles. Some even thought a trip to the Moon was becoming a possibility.

As a bright child growing up in New Jersey, I was exposed to this kind of thinking in school, on TV, in movies and more. I can remember class being stopped so that we could watch things like John Glenn's ride into orbit. There was a different kind of thing as well. I was involved in the Boy Scouts for some years. My stays at Camp Paquarra in northern New Jersey were the first times I went away from home over night without my parents. It was also the first time I remember seeing the night sky without city lights nearby. The view of the Milky Way was awesome. Back home were experiments with a chemistry set. Observing the skies with a telescope. Science and math classes at school showed me I could understand much better than most people -- even most adults when I was still a child. All these things led me embrace science as a future career.

Interestingly enough, though, this commitment faded to almost nothing after Apollo 11. Why? Well, in part, an economic downturn in the 1970s for tech people especially caused many of us to seek different careers. Then, too, some experiences in the world of work -- partly caused by that downturn -- made tech fields less attractive.

I wound up trying to become a social psychologist of all things. During that period was when I knew for the second time space was for me. I hadn't completely lost interest in tech fields. Polymaths rarely lose interest completely in anything. While doing grad work in psychology I stumbled upon Gerry O'Neill's book "The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space." I became fascinated. I saw space development as the solution to so many problems facing the human race. Next thing I knew I had joined the L5 Society and became an advocate of using space resources to solve problems for humans on Earth. To learn more about that phase of my life, let me recommend my blog posting Background of an L5 Society Activist. During this period, a sadder but wiser man, I once again turned to technology to make a living. By picking information technology during the 1980s, I found a way of making a decent living with hope for the future. My life was more happy than not. This could be the second time that I knew. I had an avocational interest in space development along with a technical career that brought some satisfactions. Life had clearly improved from the downturn of the 1970s.

Finally, in 1990, I began work at Goddard Space Flight Center's supercomputer center. I had managed to merge my avocational interest in space with a career move that promised much more than my previous work in IT. Finally, it is reasonable to think, my career was in the phase that most AIAA members would think as reasonable. My path to this place might not have been as direct, but it still led me to a place where I was happy.

When I arrived in March 1990, many people were happy to have a man who not only was good at the technical side, but also demonstrated superior communications skills. The fact that I had not only written technical things, but had also been published in mainstream publications (e.g., Trenton Times) and a few space interest magazines aimed at the general population (e.g., L5 News) impressed more than a few people.

The center, though, was poorly led.

Let me give a few data points. My group was supposed to be in house consultants, helping scientists make better use of the supercomputer center. We were supposed to inform said scientists about the latest and greatest things that were available. I, for example, became the group's graphics expert and taught classes on how to use visualization packages. We were also supposed to listen to the scientists and find out what things they wanted to do that they could not currently do.

I began work there in March 1990. I was told that, because of my writing ability, I would be writing the minutes of the monthly computer user committee meeting. My group was banned from the April meeting because the users wanted to discuss the poor performance of my group. In May I got an easy to describe failure. Until I arrived, they had been writing the minutes in the following way. A company secretary -- who did not understand the matters under discussion -- wrote a first draft. My group went over her draft and corrected her errors. I took one look at her first draft in May and told the company not to send her again. I would write the first draft. Eventually people as far away as NASA HQ contacted me to congratulate me on my fine work. There were other things as well, but this should give you some idea.

My first manager, while not all that good a leader, was still a decent man who tried his best and was decent to his staff. When he burned out, his replacement was truly awful. She had been first brought in as our group's team leader. She did not listen all that well to people. Some group members commented on how controlling she was.

Let me describe a couple of incidents.

Joe was about 40 and had been there 12 years. He was a good employee. At age 40 he finally managed to get it together with a woman who became his wife. This, as you might expect, brought about some changes in Joe's life. Most employers welcome such developments. Our hypercontrolling manager did not. She told Joe "Forget about the marriage. Concentrate on work." Joe was, fortunately, able to get a transfer to another group.

The first time I was hauled on the carpet was with the words "Do you know these computers are for government work only?" I was then led into a room where an older male manager was present -- possibly for backup. The woman manager then slapped down in front of me a piece of paper. On the paper was a spam message from a web pornographer. I simply said "This is spam." People who work in IT should be able to recognize spam when they see it. People who know me at all well should recognize that I wouldn't use government computers to look at porn sites. Good grief, I rarely look at the stuff from home -- and then only when someone points me at it for some reason. It's not something I am particularly interested in in.

In 1999 it was becoming apparent that things were not going well at the supercomputer center. At one general meeting the civil servant in charge -- a real abusive bully who did not listen to people -- stood up and said "Why are people unhappy? This is NASA!" The next person to quit was a quiet civil servant who had a number of certificates on a wall in her office attesting to her accomplishments. After a user committee meeting the chair of the group said to me "I don't need this place."

In June I was effectively told quit or be fired. This was a bit out of the blue. There were people there whom I thought did not really belong -- like the man who told me "You can believe that science stuff if you want, but my belief that the universe is 6000 years old that I learned in church is just as good." He was part of the religious fanatic element at the center. Religious fanatics? Yes. Their authoritarian personalities helped them fit in to the dysfunctional group.

Fortunately I did land a reasonable job in a few weeks. Still, though, I was not happy about what had happened. I began seeking out old haunts -- especially the National Space Society -- to try and alert people to what I saw was a significant problem. Those efforts initially went nowhere.

Then, late in 2002, I got the idea to write a paper for the Princeton Space Manufacturing Conference to be held in the spring of 2003. I got the abstract in by the January deadline.

The space shuttle Columbia burned up during reentry on February 1st. I suspected my paper would not draw much attention. I phoned friends in Central New Jersey Mensa and offered to give a talk on dysfunctional NASA management at their annual convention. They accepted instantly. The talk was a huge hit. People were surprised at what I said. I gave a few more talks to Mensa groups.

A year after my first talk, CNJ Mensa invited me back to address their 2004 convention. I came prepared to substantiate my observations with those from the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. My talk was an even bigger hit. Sitting in the audience was one Steven Yaros -- a career NASA Civil Servant. At the end of my talk, he stood up, told us who he was and agreed with what I had said. He told us NASA was trying to change. Later on he encouraged me to find work at NASA, telling me people like me were needed.

Later that year I joined AIAA -- and found a good group of people with whom I could work. I also got active in Maryland Democratic Party politics. Why? Because my views are more in line with today's Democratic Party and because I thought I could more easily advance my admittedly unusual interests. I've now been at it for five years. People are starting to pay attention to what I am saying.

What can we learn from this personal history?

The first thing is that inspiration, while important, is not enough. The inspiration to get involved with space faded after Apollo. There just wasn't enough work. Other priorities arose. I reconnected with my youthful interest in space when I read a book that raised the possibility that this space stuff could help humanity in other ways. While I did learn that O'Neill colonies were much farther in the future than we originally hoped, O'Neill's book got me and others interested in space as more than a place of excitement. It was the first attempt I saw to try and connect space to the broader mass of humanity.

Getting work at Goddard also drew me in. Being able to work with good scientists doing things that benefited humanity in the present was important. Once again, this was a mature connection to things that are valuable to humans.

Being driven out of Goddard by poor management definitely affected me. But, once again, I eventually found people with whom I could work on addressing important problems. This was also positively reinforcing.

Summing up, while inspiration is important, other things are as well. An initial inspiration won't necessarily carry humans through an entire career -- especially when disappointments mount. People need to be listened to and reinforced as they go through their careers. They need to think they are making a difference.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Being a Polymath

It's difficult being a polymath in contemporary society. We started going out of fashion in the 19th Century when specialists proved superior at understanding difficult phenomena in depth. Gentlemen scholars could not keep up.

Now, however we are seeing the limits of specialists. "Quants" have really screwed up the economy because their mathematical models failed to account for various factors that were not readily reduced to numbers.

Still, though, one response of failing systems is to ignore -- and even attack -- people who are not in control as being the real cause of the problem.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Obama Health Care Rally September 17, 2009

First, let me welcome people new to this blog. Like a good number of cyberspace veterans, I have a personal website. I will probably update it this month as I am getting more involved in Metro Washington Mensa. I'm even running for office. If you want to meet some friends of mine, just come to St. Mark's Episcopal Church some Sunday. I am involved in other things as well, but that is a place that is open year round and welcomes outsiders. Artomatic also welcomes everybody, but it is open only for about six weeks.

I got up around 6:30 AM. I had planned for 6:00, but I didn't set the alarm when I went to bed at 10:30 PM. Wednesday evening at St. Mark's was important and good. My attendance at the Obama rally, while a good idea, was hardly a must.

After having breakfast, I checked a few websites and even made a comment on Rand Simberg's. I then got ready to leave. I left home around 8:30 AM. I found a free parking spot about a block from the College Park Metro station. I then caught the shuttle to Comcast Center. I arrived on campus shortly after 9:00 AM. I ran into Igor Eberstein and chatted a bit about NASA. I wandered around campus trying to find the general admission line. I finally found the Comcast Center entrance with no line outside around 9:45. Some people told me that people began arriving around 4:00 AM and formed a line at 5:00. In the Comcast Center I was settled in a seat by 9:51. There appeared to be lots of empty seats at this time in what appears to be general seating -- see photos.

While waiting for the formal rally to start, I gathered a number of impressions:

  • There appeared to a formal University of Maryland presence with a band and cheerleaders.
  • Staff told me that at least some of the empty seats were reserved for ticket holders.
  • At 10:33 the crowd did the "wave." Some chanted "Yes we can."
  • Some volunteers are now taking empty seats in the section I was told was for ticket holders.
  • SEIU people begin chanting. One man shouts "What do we want?" The crowd responds "Health care!" The man then shouts "When do we want it?" The crowd responds "Now."
  • Around 10:45 I was interviewed by a student working for the student newspaper. I gave her the AIAA spiel, commented that the crowd seems enthusiastic and positive and hinted at the complexity of my own political views.
  • At 10:57 I noted that the seats in the section next to me were now more filled than empty.

At 11:01 the sign says "Cheer and Applause." The rally was apparently beginning in a formal sense. A woman member of the clergy (Episcopalian?) came out and said a prayer. Then there was a pledge of allegiance and the national anthem was sung. The last two were led by students.

At 11:12 the Commerce Secretary Gary Locke gave the first speech. Early on he said it is "time to provide health care for all." He later quoted from the Kennedy letter he wrote shortly before his death. He also made the point that rising health care costs are crushing American business and were making it hard for Americans to sell overseas. He predicted that 10 years from now health care would cost the average American family $25K/year. Rising health care costs would mean fewer workers would be hired and and less pay for those who were hired. He made a significant case for reigning in costs now. He stated that we need health care reform and we need it now. He concluded with the call "President Obama needs your help." I think he concluded his remarks around 11:21.

A lengthy pause then began. I thought to myself that this event was not all that well choreographed -- but I am hardly an expert in such things. I know more about ballet from years of photography than I do know about political rallies.

At 11:44 Rachel Peck strode to the podium and told us her health care story. It was a touching story of being diagnosed with cancer and her extensive treatments. She must continue to be treated for the rest of her life. The story was very touching. She wondered what would happen to her when her parents' policy no longer covered her. She then, rather dramatically, introduced President Obama.

President Obama began his speech by mentioning the elected officials present. Most of the Maryland Congressional delegation was present. Governor O'Malley and Lieutenant Governor Brown were also present, as were a number of other elected officials. Obama stated he ran for president because he wanted a better future for all Americans. He complimented Rachel on her speech. Obama then made a plug for science and technology in our future -- especially mentioning health. He also made mention that the House was taking a major step today that would benefit students by acting on student loan reform.

Obama then got to the topic of health care reform.

Next Obama commented that there were those in Washington who were eager to defend the status quo. He noted that there was some opposition to health care reform.

At this point some protesters in general seating started screaming. I could not make out what they were saying. There was some conflict with other audience members. I thought to myself that this was not an appropriate way to get attention to their views. When you have a very large crowd brought together to support one side in a controversy, you cannot expect much of hearing for opposing views. I think it is better to meet with people you oppose in quieter, smaller settings where real exchanges can take place. Both sides can learn from each other. Eventually someone was escorted out by staff.

Obama said that people gave time to his campaign because they want a better future. He mentioned that Theodore Roosevelt -- a Republican -- was the first President to favor health care reform. He then delivered his famous line "I'm not the first but I will be the last!" I thought to myself that was not likely -- even if he gets his reforms and they do work. Surprises do keep happening to humanity.

Obama said that there was 80% agreement in the proposals now before Congress. He commented favorably on thoughtful criticisms. He said improvement is possible -- partly because of those criticisms. He then went on to say that now is the time for action, now is the time to deliver. He said "You should have the same thing that Congress has." Obama then went on to plug the public option. He compared it to public universities. He said having public universities does prevent private universities but add to the choices people have.

Obama then went on to attack waste and fraud in Medicare. Hmm, I thought, that is a standard line with all kinds of government programs. He also supports looking at malpractice reform. This is a big issue with the medical profession.

Obama then commented "Change is hard." He reviewed briefly the history of things like civil rights, rights for women and social security.

Obama concluded with the story of how "Fired up! Ready to go!" became a campaign slogan. The speech ended at 12:22. As Obama and the crowd left, the band played "Battle Hymn of the Republic."

After the end, I chatted briefly with an African American woman seated behind me. She introduced herself as the pastor of some church. I must apologize to all who are reading this that I did not remember either her name or that of her church. I had stopped taking notes at that time. We both agreed that there also needed to be a focus on healthier living. I shared with her the report of research that compared the health of people in the UK with that of the US who were ethnically similar -- in short, people like my cousin Harry and me. I noted that, in spite of the facts that we spend twice as much on health care and that they drink and smoke more than we do, they are somewhat healthier in middle age and live somewhat longer. I attributed that to an overall healthier lifestyle. I think the woman with whom I chatted agreed with me.

After that, I left the center and took the shuttle back to my car. I was home by about 1:40.

The day was interesting. It was the first time I had seen Obama in person. He had a striking impact on most of the crowd. I expected that, given the fact that it was billed as a rally for supporters of health care reform -- a major issue, particularly on the political left. I wondered to myself how many people would have shown up if the topic had been NASA reform. The turnout would have been far smaller, I think. I will add that my impression of the day was on the positive side as well. The fact that the Commerce secretary noted the negative impact of health care costs on our economic competitiveness and that President Obama spoke in favor of malpractice reform increased my favorable views. Neither needed to mention those things, given the nature of the crowd.

You can find my photos of the event on Flickr.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Steny Hoyer's Town Hall on Health Care

First, let me welcome people new to this blog. Like a good number of cyberspace veterans, I have a personal website. I will probably update it this month as I am getting more involved in Metro Washington Mensa. I'm even running for office. If you want to meet some friends of mine, just come to St. Mark's Episcopal Church some Sunday. I am involved in other things as well, but that is a place that is open year round and welcomes outsiders. Artomatic also welcomes everybody, but it is open only for about six weeks.

Now let me say a few good things about Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. I've gotten to know him and his staff slightly, mostly through my leadership of American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Team Maryland. Congressman Hoyer is a strong, thoughtful supporter of aerospace, as is the rest of the Maryland Congressional delegation. I will say one more thing about him and his staff. I have gotten the impression from both reading about them and from personal experience that he and his staff are trying to promote better relationships among members of Congress. He thinks that people in Congress should spend more time together to get to know each other and their views on issues. I can heartedly endorse this kind of cultural change. I know how hard it can be to communicate with other human beings -- especially when the matter of discussion is somewhat difficult or unusual.

Now let me get to what I saw and experienced Tuesday evening at the town hall. I went with the idea of being a thoughtful observer. The only view I planned to bring up was some research that was reported three years ago. Three years ago a study comparing the health of ethnically similar citizens of the United States and the United Kingdom came out. Briefly, they compared people like myself and my English cousins, Harry, his wife Anita, Irene and their families. People in the UK drink more than we do. They smoke more than we do. The UK spends about half as much per capita on health care as we do. The UK does restrict access to some more expensive, newer kinds of health care. So why do people in the UK live slightly longer? Why are they somewhat more healthy at middle age? I suspect it is because their overall lifestyles are healthier.

I arrived at the high school where the town hall was to be held around 4:15. Before getting into line, I had a brief conversation with Lisa -- Hoyer's political director. Mostly it was about where to get into line. I was waiting in the line by 4:30 - 4:45. I did some photographs before getting into line. When I got into line, I heard three middle aged people (two men, one woman) told me what they thought were negatives about the proposed reforms. The only thing I brought up was the US-UK study. The exchanges were reasonably pleasant -- although I will say the other people were both articulate and quite committed to expressing their views. I did chat a bit more with one man who told me he was a electrical engineer who, when younger, had been a member of AIAA and had written a paper for the organization. When I found out about his engineering background, I asked about his views on energy. He's in favor doing everything to make us energy independent -- nuclear, drilling, etc. He even voiced -- I think -- some support for Boone's proposals for wind energy. I did tell him that Congressman Hoyer supported nuclear. He seemed pleased by that. We also discussed our respective mothers. I told him about my mother's declining years and Alzheimer's. I would describe our discussions as pleasant and friendly. At least it was for me.

Also while outside I had a few friendly encounters (very brief -- mostly just a wave of the hand) with some Hoyer people. I especially remember Terry Lierman and Terrance Taylor.

We were allowed into the building at 6 PM for the 7 PM meeting. I did chat briefly with one Hoyer staffer about the US-UK study. She understood what I was getting at.

Inside the meeting hall we were instructed to fill up seats in the middle of rows first. Only people who had taken numbers and were then selected via lottery were allowed to speak and ask questions. They were limited to 2 minutes each. I chose not to take a number. I wanted to merely observe -- and possibly interact with people around me in the audience.

There was a wide range of people in the hall. There were quite vocal supporters and opponents of reform. I even saw one couple wearing "Impeach Obama" T shirts. People sitting on my right were members of the Iron Workers Union. They were very proreform. People on my left were strong opponents of reform. There was a family in back of me who were also strong opponents of reform. They also appeared to be wearing buttons that indicated to me they were Republicans eager to win back both the White House and Congress. I seemed to get a friendly welcome from both sides. I don't know what they thought of me. I did mention a bit of the ways I was different from most people. I tried to be friendly about it.

Congressman Hoyer entered at 7:08 by my watch. Crowd reactions ranged from loud cheers to boos.

Jim Zinnis (spelling?) announced that he would be the moderator. He informed us that questions would be limited to two minutes. He requested that people keep the town hall civil.

Hoyer began a speech in which he laid out the case for reform and what the bills before Congress would actually do. My notes of his speech are incomplete. I am not a stenographer. I did photograph the Powerpoint slides and graphs that were shown on the screen at the front of the hall. I did record a number of points. Hoyer stated that the country currently loses $200B/year because of the lack of health care for some people. He mentioned quotes from:

  • Truman in 1945
  • Kennedy in 1962
  • Nixon in 1974
  • Republicans McCain, Romney, Thompson, Giuliani in the past few years

all supporting reform.

Hoyer said that if you like your current health care plan, you get to keep it. He spoke in favor of improving Medicare. He said the proposals build on the current system of employer provided health care.

Hoyer did bring up the "death panels" at one point. He said they were not in the legislation. Some people shouted out that they were. There was much booing at this time.

Hoyer mentioned that insurance companies now stood between you and your doctor. Some people cheered. Others booed. There were quite vocal reactions throughout Hoyer's speech.

Next up was a panel of people with varying experiences with today's health care system.

First was a woman with a small furniture business. I think her name was Marilyn McKimm. She spoke of how health insurance problems were affecting her small business. People in the audience started shouting "Get to the questions!"

The next panel member was a Medicare beneficiary, a man who had made a career in the military and was an active Roman Catholic. He praised Democrats for proposing this reform. During his remarks quite a few people shouted out "Read the bill." Some cheered the man. Others booed him. Some people started leaving the hall.

Two more people on the panel spoke. One was a woman pediatrician who spoke of her problems and those of other doctors -- especially with lawsuits and the consequences thereof. The last speaker was an African American retired Lt. Col. by the name of George Forrest. He also favored reform.

The moderator then announced the move to question and answer time. There were loud cheers from the audience.

The first person asked Hoyer if he had read the bill. Hoyer answered that he had now read the bill in full.

The second person asked if members of Congress would get the same health care as the rest of us. Hoyer answered that they would.

The third questioner raised the problem of lawsuits. Hoyer commented that the AMA was addressing that issue.

Many other questions and comments were raised. Some of the ones I noted were:

  • Cost of health insurance for a son with two children.
  • Illegal aliens should not be covered. Hoyer tried to respond with a Christian charity comment. People shouted out "That's for our church to decide."
  • People spoke up in favor of the public option. Hoyer said all three bills had one.
  • Tort reform was brought up by a doctor. He wanted to know about tort reform in Maryland.

At 8:26 I noted a steady stream of people leaving.

One questioner brought up a Ron Paul bill to audit the Fed. He spoke in favor of the bill. He said the bad economy was the highest priority for most citizens.

One African American woman spoke of her 48 year old sister with breast cancer. Hoyer said this woman should keep her current health insurance.

By this time there was a good deal of shouting from the audience -- on both sides. There was also a steady stream of people leaving. After the couple to my left got up and left I chatted a bit with the people behind me. I also took a photograph of the couple.

One questioner brought up how reform would be paid for. Would taxes go up? Would we run deficits? Hoyer answered neither. He then brought up the fiscal mess Obama inherited from the Bush administration. There was a good bit of shouting from the audience.

Another questioner said the majority of Americans now oppose the bills under consideration. Hoyer tried to discuss the complexity of negotiations among Democrats and Republicans. This did not go over well with critics.

By this time it was 8:45. I had a long drive home -- and I had not had dinner as yet. I told the people around me -- on both sides of the issue -- that it was time for me to leave, saying I needed dinner. On the way out I chatted briefly with another Hoyer staffer.

I now have 74 photos up on my Flickr account as the Hoyer Town Hall on Health Care Reform set.

As I walked out with others, we encountered a Larouche volunteer. I told a couple of women about my first Larouche encounter. I mentioned the article in their newspaper about how Queen Elizabeth -- the one who lives in Buckingham Palace -- was head of a world wide drug ring. Both women laughed heartily.

I got home at nearly 10 PM. I sat down to dinner at 10:19.

OK, what do I think of all this? I've read enough that I think some kinds of reforms are necessary. Where they fit I do not know. For instance, I think doctors should get more sleep. I keep saying to anyone who will listen that we humans are not reprogrammable computers. We can't work all the time. If we try, we screw up badly. I also think Americans need healthier lifestyles. That doesn't mean obeying puritanical dictates necessarily. There does seem solid research that indicates that people who drink alcohol are healthier for a number of reasons than total abstainers. Too many of the total abstainers I know eat too much and get too little exercise.

I was somewhat disappointed by the town hall. I thought what Congressman Hoyer tried was important and worthwhile. We really do need to have civil, wide ranging discussions on health care -- and quite a few other things as well. Getting 1500 people into one room and trying to have a good discussion, though, didn't work out the way I would have liked to see it. I don't know if Congressman Hoyer and his staff could have done any better though. This is a very controversial area with a good bit of public interest. It might pay to get smaller groups together -- possibly with a facilitator or two -- to discuss such issues. My personal interactions with both supporters and opponents of the current reform proposals were generally positive. That could be because I'm generally a friendly person who tries to listen to everybody -- and who also will occasionally put in a thoughtful comment of my own that may show people with varying viewpoints the things that they have in common.

I will make further comments on this and other topics in the future. I should start writing more to this blog. Lots of people say I have important things to say.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Augustine's Comments to the NAC

Norm Augustine delivered some comments to the NASA Advisory Council today via telephone. I made some notes (via hand writing -- it works better for me than trying to use a laptop perched on my lap). Any errors in this account are mine.

Augustine began with the request that he wants advice from NAC. He noted that his group is only addressing the human part of space exploration. He commented that his group can't give any answers. The group is working hard and diligently.

His group has certain boundaries. They may only give options, not recommendations. The options must be within the budget proposals. The shuttle must stop in 2010.

Negotiations with the White House did produce the possible changes. The budget may exceed current proposals. The shuttle can be operated beyond 2010. An interim report will be delivered at 75 days with the final due at 90 days.

Augustine made several points:

  • Seven shuttle launches remain.
  • The gap in American human spaceflight is now five years, possibly more.
  • ISS is currently supposed to end in 2016. What should its future be?
  • NASA has budget constraints.
  • Congress is critical of dependence on Russians for access to ISS.
  • What should the relationship with other nations be?
  • What part should the commercial sector play?

The committee has hired the Aerospace Corporation for independent judgment. Getting a second opinion is always a good idea.

Augustine reported that public input was quite varied. No two persons agreed with each other. He said the public website is drawing significant numbers of comments.

Five subcommittees were formed:

  • Return to the Moon? Mars? Lagrange points?
  • Low cost LEO?
  • Shuttle and ISS
  • Integration committee (international aspects, workforce, etc.)

Sorry, I did not get the fifth.

Space transportation costs are a major driver. Expendable launch vehicles, since every vehicle is new, make the upfront costs high. It is very hard to make a quantum jump in cost to orbit.

Augustine asked for NAC member opinions. Ken Ford also asked for opinions.

General James Abrahamson commented that the current NASA is the best he has ever seen. Whatever the final options are, we have a terrific team to put those options into place. Augustine shares that view.

Colonel Eileen Collins first thanked Augustine and his committee for their work. She also thanked him for talking to the NAC today. She commented that:

  • NASA employees working with the committee have listened to the discussions.
  • NASA people are passionate about their work and exploration.
  • The retirement of the shuttle shocks members of the general public.

Collins thinks that NASA has not lost its direction.

Augustine urged people to e-mail him at norm dot augustine at

Raymond Colladay also complimented Augustine. He raised the question to what extent is the technology base there for further exploration. Augustine replied that the tech base has been neglected.

Jack Burns observed that science was not part of the charter of the commission. He expressed the view that lunar science can play an international role. He asked how the commission was dealing with the science community. Augustine replied that:

  • Two scientists were members of his committee.
  • Science is very important.
  • The nonlunar science community was more vocal than the lunar science committee.

Owen Garriott asked if options would be recommended. He commented that every word would be parsed to find recommendations. Augustine replied that his group's goal to present factually in an unbiased way the options. Individual members would be permitted to say "This is my preference."

Gerry Kucinski raised workforce issues. He observed that attempts to attract the best and brightest had not been successful. He wanted to work more internationally. He also raised the question of taking 60% of advanced degree candidates off the table -- those who came from other countries.

Augustine said those were good questions. He did report one piece of encouraging news. Current economic problems had encouraged interest in science and technology among the student population. He also commented that 20 year projects presented an interesting problem for young people. It was possible that part way through that 20 year project the project could be canceled with major effects on people's careers.

Pat Condon expressed the view that the report would be of the highest quality. He asked who will get the report and choose among the options. Augustine replied that his gut impression would be that the President must choose. ISS must be considered. The three states most affected would be Florida, California and Texas.

Gene Covert asked if minority reports would be allowed.

Augustine expressed the view that minority reports weaken the overall report. Such reports would be tolerated, but not welcome.

Brad Jolliff of the science committee followed up on Jack Burns' comments about why to do science.

Augustine noted that one challenge of human space flight is justifying the program. Science, education, inspiring the young, prestige all figure in.

Tom Jones raised the issue of human space exploration funding is now a significant consideration. Augustine says we must look at the historical record. The commission will have lots to say about NASA being given challenges without adequate financing.

That ends my report on Norm Augustine's telephone address to the NASA Advisory Council. Any errors are mine.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

My First Trip to Canada

I can't remember my first trip to Canada. Here's the back story.

My Dad was badly injured in an accident when he was like 12 or 13 or so. Pop never talked about the accident to me. I did know that, where practically all humans had a bone in their left leg, Pop had a bone -- and a piece of platinum. At least he still had a functioning leg, even if he did walk with a limp. That leg bothered Pop for the rest of his life.

Because of his bum leg, Pop thought he would never find a woman to love him. Let's see, degree in economics from Rutgers in 1935, active in the community -- especially St. James Episcopal Church and the Boy Scouts -- an all around nice man -- thought no woman would be interested in him because of his left leg.

Mom and Dad dated for four years before they got married. Mom eventually convinced him that he was a good man worthy of a good wife.

Pop was, in some ways, very cautious. For instance, after I was born, Mom and Dad went to a movie. I was left with baby sitters. When they got to the theater, Dad wanted to phone the sitters to see if I was alright. Mom opposed that action, reminding Pop that her parents -- my grandparents and now my baby sitters - successfully raised three children to adulthood and could easily handle the grandson that they loved for an entire evening. Pop never made the call.

On the other hand, Pop and Mom too would think of doing things not exactly typical of most Americans back then. Family vacations were not trips to the Jersey shore. OK, we might go down there for an odd day in the summer, but spending even a week there just did not compute. I remember trips as far south as Virginia and as far north as Ontario when I was a child. These were all done by car. Yes, air travel was becoming somewhat common, but we were not rich enough to pile onto an airplane and visit, for example, San Francisco.

Pop's mother was Canadian. Pop had grown up visiting his cousins in Canada. So what did my parents do before I was a year old? That's right -- load me into the family car and drive me to visit my cousins in Canada. Pop was so happy to both be married to a wonderful woman whom he truly loved and who returned his love and to have a baby boy, he wanted to share his good fortune with his cousins. So I was driven to Canada to meet relatives whom I got to know better when I was older. The Hunter family are fine people.

For practically my entire life traveling back and forth to Canada was easy and normal. When I was growing up, the fact that the United States' northern border was undefended was a point of pride for Americans. It showed how open we were to the world and how friendly. Other nations viewed us positively, partly as result of that open, friendly border.

But now we live in the Age of Terror. "Security" -- or at least the appearance of it -- is paramount. The next time I travel to Canada, I will need a passport. An open border I remember for all my life is now closed.

Don't get me wrong. Real security that offers solid protection from real dangers is important. For instance, people who violently assault others belong in jail. Banks should have real defenses to prevent thieves, whether the walk in off the street kind and rob the bank with a gun or the modern cybercriminal who breaks into bank computer networks from afar. Computer network security is quite important -- providing it is carried out by knowledgeable people. But "security theater" that does nothing but impress the ignorant while, in some ways, harming our society needs to be looked at quite carefully. Openness -- such as that symbolized by the formerly open border with Canada

On July 1st, I will attend a Canada Day celebration at the Canadian Embassy in DC. Will I need a passport to get back into the United States?

Monday, May 4, 2009

An Independent Prochoicer's View on the Controversy Concerning Abortion

This essay started life as a contribution to the Triple Nine Society e-mail list.

I tend to be prochoice. This affects considerably with whom I come into contact. Even in nonpolitical social circles, I know very few people who are strongly on the other side -- at least as far as I know. Here in Maryland I am active in Democratic Party politics. That also limits the opportunities for ongoing dialog with the "prolife" side. Why am I a Democrat? I tend to agree more with most of today's Democrats on most things. There is also the practical matter of the fact that the Democratic Party really does thoroughly dominate the state's politics. I do bring some interesting libertarian perspectives into discussion from time to time, though.

I am also what is currently called a cradle Episcopalian. It clearly fits my cultural background and has shaped my political and social views to some extent.

My family on my mother's side is working class English. My grandparents moved to the United States about a century ago. My maternal grandfather was a bricklayer. Both grandparents had some elementary school education -- but that was about it. My grandparents moved here shortly after they married. After awhile they had a son whom they truly loved -- just as they did their three later children and me, their grandson. That first son, though, caught some sort disease going around at the time. After only a few months of life, he died. While this was not an abortion, it was, in some ways, close to one. How did this affect my family? It was viewed as a great tragedy. Grandmom returned to England for awhile to recover among family and friends. The young couple was sorely tested by this tragedy. Grandmom did return to the United States. The young couple did have three more children, starting with my mother who just died at 93. My mom in her later years told me about this tragedy. My cousins in England wanted to know why grandmom returned to England for a period after she had been living in the United States. We all regard this early family death as a real tragedy. I can think of no one in my extended family who has ever contemplated having an abortion. I think we have all had sex outside of marriage, but we all know how to prevent unwanted pregnancies -- and we take such measures. I think even those of us who are married use contraception so that we can have a healthy sex life without bringing into this world children we can not practically care for.

My contact with Roman Catholics is generally positive and even friendly. We don't, though, discuss these controversial matters. My exposure to the Roman Catholic opposition to abortion therefore comes through the media. It comes off as cold and uncaring. A church that will not even allow married men to become priests is a church that is making a bad mistake in my view. I am unmarried. I do not regard this as a "gift" but a curse. When I am in love with a woman, it makes my life so much better even I have a hard time describing it. My friends see -- and welcome -- such women into my life. A few extremely conservative married Episcopal priests have switched to the Roman Catholic Church. That church has allowed them to stay married. Roman Catholics who have the good fortune to be part of congregations led by such priests recognize and truly value such men. Roman Catholic opposition to abortion and contraception comes across more as authoritarian control of their members and less as "prolife."

What about the Protestant groups that oppose abortion? There is a strain of puritanism in many Protestant groups. While an interesting case can be made for keeping sex within a healthy, loving marriage, it's hard to justify some other puritanical crusades. For instance, some Protestants also take a stand against alcohol consumption. Not public drunkenness etc., just merely consuming it at all. This tends to make an unfavorable impression as well -- and leads me to devalue their other moral stands.

What factors encourage people to view each other and children positively? My family has been open, supportive and reasonably democratic in its worldview and behaviors. Research seems to show that democratic cultures are stronger and produce people who are more moral than authoritarian cultures.

Summing up, I want "prolife" people to make a much stronger impression on me for actually doing things to help people have better lives. I and my friends actually do that. We're not perfect -- and do not claim to be. But we are good people who try to help humanity become as good as it can.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

An Interesting Side Comment by Michael Griffin

I attended the National Space Club Goddard Memorial Dinner at which Michael Griffin was presented with the Goddard Award for his contributions. Griffin then made a speech that touched on many things.

During his speech he talked about working 18 hours/day, 7 days/week. That remark made a significant impression on me. As I have stated before on this weblog, I am a polymath with an unusual background. I began my adult life by getting a degree in physics from Rutgers. During my second year of graduate work in that field, I got really fed up. I thought I was fed up with physics. I was really fed up with late 20th Century academia. In any event, I tried a career switch from physics to social psychology. I actually completed all the course work for a Ph.D. in that field.

Since then, while I have pursued a career in information technology, I have kept up my learning about humans via reading a wide variety of books. Being a part time artist has also, in some ways, strengthened my people skills. I will notice things that other human beings will not. I will also bring perspectives to various phenomena that most people do not. Some tech people with whom I am friendly are full blown libertarians. They tend to see government as an independent actor too often these days working against liberty. Since I am an artist, I will also see government as being a part of a larger culture and not entirely free to act according to the views of the people who dominant this sector of society.

I will begin this short essay by referencing three books:

Yes, I have read all three books.

Reading the first two books leads one to the conclusion that normal humans require about 8 hours sleep/day. OK, the range might include as little as 6 or as much as 10 for normal humans. Still, though, claiming one works 18 hours/day leads one the conclusion that such a person is an extreme outlier or is doing something quite unhealthy. Peopleware also shows that such extreme levels of work to be unhealthy not only for the individual but actually dysfunctional for the organization. Some people argue that humans have not evolved to do intellectual work for more than a portion of a week that might be as low as 40 hours. Yes, you can go over that limit, but other things will suffer if you do.

There are some people who are extreme outliers. For instance, in 1996 I ran the Goddard Two Mile Fun Run in 12:53 and finished the Marine Corps Marathon. That 12:53 put me in the top 30 people at Goddard Space Flight Center, at least as far as running ability. When I was running races routinely back in the 1990s, I was typically in the top 15%-20% of people in my age group. That made me a bit of an outlier for a middle aged man. Now let's look at two extreme outliers -- the men who were at the top of the Boston Marathon this year. The winning man, a Deriba Merga of Ethopia, won in 2:08:42. The fastest American man was Ryan Hall in 2:09:40. If I had started my marathon running at the pace I set in the Goddard Two Mile Fun Run, I would have been nearly a mile behind these two people at the two mile mark. Needless to say, I do not compare myself to these people -- and I should not.

Extreme outliers can be valuable members of society. For instance, the British physicist Paul Dirac made significant contributions to society via his work in physics. You would not, though, want him in a position of leadership where he had to deal with the larger world. He simply was not capable of doing that. One late in life passion of his was the singer Cher. If Dirac was still alive and Cher showed up at his home with President Barack Obama in tow, Dirac would ask "Who is your black friend?"

Griffin thus strikes me as either a relatively normal person who has been unduly and unhealthily influenced by workaholism or someone so far from the norm that he doesn't realize how different he is. This is not good for a leader of a major government agency. Griffin's admission suggests a kind of fanaticism. Fanatics are not open to other views and ideas.

Then there is the report of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. This is not the rant of some "disgruntled former employee" or disappointed L5 Society member who is angry he is not living in some utopian space colony. This report is the result of a massive investigation by people who can be viewed as "establishment." The fact that the board described NASA as not a learning organization and as one where people low in the hierarchy are not listened to indicates that NASA is, in many ways, an authoritarian organization. Such organizations can be quite hospitable to narrow minded fanatics.

NASA leader Wayne Hale has written in his blog an interesting item titled Stifling Dissent that not much has changed since Columbia. This is a strong criticism of NASA leadership in what seems to me the most important challenge facing the agency.

Since that speech I have had some interesting conversations with people who can be viewed as insiders in aerospace. A few have reported that people at Orbital Sciences (where Griffin once worked) were surprised when he was named NASA Administrator. They did not think him a good candidate for the position.

Griffin does have some interesting credentials. For example, he has racked up a number of academic degrees -- far more than even very bright, committed people. He's still working on more. While this can be viewed as a positive, it also indicates an obsession with academia that comes at an unhealthy cost to other things. Considering the time that such endeavors take, one must wonder what fell by the wayside while he was pursuing his degrees.

Griffin's tenure at NASA was also controversial. Some people clearly do not like the proposals that have been developed to meet the goals of the Vision for Space Exploration. While that can be viewed as normal, the fact that some people have gone as far as developing alternatives causes concern. How often has that happened in the past?

Last summer Women in Aerospace hosted a session titled "Work-Life Balance: How Do They Do It?" Three women and one man spoke on the topic. One woman admitted that she did not have a true work-life balance. Another woman spoke of her 70 hour week and her one hour commute. She mentioned having a family. To what did she attribute her claim to being balanced? There was still time for her church activities. That's not balance. That's someone fooling themselves.

Let's now try to put these things together.

We have an agency that needs to change in fundamental ways. We have one leader who says not much has changed since Columbia. Griffin was administrator for four of those six years. When he started as NASA Administrator he gave a speech in which he expressed anger at what he had read in the Columbia report which he said he had read three times. He also said he did not understand the cultural aspects of the problem because of a lack of knowledge of human psychology. While he has given some evidence that he has sought to rectify that lack, one must wonder how successful he was. Some one who says during the course of a talk before a friendly crowd that he was working 18 hours/day, 7 days/week indicates that he didn't look very much at research on work weeks and what is actually accomplished by working extremely long hours. In short we have a very narrow person who does not even know what he doesn't know.

I won't go into the specifics of the various engineering arguments that have come to the fore in past four years. While I possibly could understand the disputes (I started my adult life as a physicist who supported engineering work), I haven't dug deeply into them. I will say, though, that authoritarian groups are not as open to outsiders as more democratic groups. Democratic groups seem to be better at learning from diverse sources. I must, however, conclude that, as fine a man as Michael Griffin appears to be, he was a poor choice for NASA Administrator given the current circumstances.