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.