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.


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Michael Wright said...

Insightful comment regarding "18 hours/day, 7 days/week" which other things will suffer. This discussion reminds me how important it is to get 8 hours of sleep regardless of society's view "sleep is for weaklings." But at cost of Shuttle Challenger and reactor Chernobal, 8 hours per day is not such a bad thing after all.