March 2007

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March 5, 2007 W #

The Most Valuable Result from Apollo

Bob Seamans, NASA Deputy Administrator through much of Apollo, spoke for our Apollo class today. He's a pretty old guy now, but still with a sharp mind and some good insight. During the Q&A, I was surprised by his answer to my question.

"What is the most valuable thing to come from the Apollo program? Tang and Velcro aren't it. Apollo brought some advances in computers, NASA launched the first communications satellite, and it generated a lot of engineering ability that went to other industries. In your opinion, what was the most valuable result that Apollo brought to the nation?"

He motioned to this picture on the screen.

"This picture is the most valuable thing that Apollo brought to the world. At the time, a lot of people in this country were distraught about a lot of things happening in the world, and this redistilled a sense of pride and purpose that people had forgotten. In the following years, even today, it gives us a perspective on our existence that we could not gain any other way. This planet we live on, how alive we are, and the things we can do with out lives. We need to be careful with this planet we have, because it really is special."

One Person #

Lesson: One person pushing an idea can be important and useful, but the real important result is that the whole team comes on board with the idea, at the right time.

In the mix of our readings for Apollo, we covered the decision to use Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR) instead of Direct Ascent to and from the Lunar surface. Even before Kennedy's speech, John Houbolt and some of his colleagues were convinced LOR was the best way to and from the Moon, and had begun campaigning for this method. Houbolt felt like his efforts largely fell on deaf ears, and twice he skipped eight layers of authority to have his case heard by upper decision makers (particularly Bob Seamans, noted above).

Kennedy made his speech, the Space Task Group, Von Braun, and other players in the Moon race all began investigating and building the case for what they believed to be the most effective route to the Moon. Houston supporting LOR and Von Braun's team supporting Direct Ascent, eventually became the two competing alternatives.

It came to a head when Joe Shea, the systems engineer (highly skilled in concrete, detailed engineering), called yet another meeting between Houston and Hunstville (Von Braun) after having each side doing extensive studies of the other teams proposed alternative. At the end of a long meeting, Von Braun stood and evenly said (to the surprise of some on his rocket team) "While both alternatives are feasible, LOR has the highest chance of success within this decade." Both of these large and unyielding engineering teams had come to agree on the decision.

Two weeks later, when a meeting was held in Washington DC to officially detail the LOR decision, John Houbolt (the original apostle for LOR) happened to walk by and discover this meeting was taking place. He was invited in, and was pleased to find out they'd chosen LOR, but a bit perturbed he wasn't credited for any of it.

Shortly after that meeting, and hours before the official press release of the decision, the head of the science division raised a huge fuss over LOR. In spite of all the engineers who had gone through this and come to a decision, he thought Direct Ascent should be the decision. He caused a lot of headaches for people in Washington, and accomplishing nothing more than stalling the official press announcement for a few months. The engineering teams had agreed after thorough investigation, and one director in Washington, try as he may, could do nothing more than cause headaches.

Eighteen months after Kennedy's speech, NASA announced LOR as the method of reaching and returning from the Moon. At the beginning, one man tried to push the decision through from the top. At the end, one man tried to reverse the decision, again from the top. In my judgment, neither had significant impact. The decision was reached by the leaders of the teams who would actually be working on the projects. The organizational directors facilitated the discussion and approved the decision, but consensus came through the teams doing their own work.

In the end, the most effective persuasion is not to make a case on your own, but to facilitate the discussion of the stakeholders in the decision, and support them in coming together as a team. In most decisions affecting large numbers of people, the execution of the decision has more impact on its success than the initial decision itself (provided both alternatives are roughly equal in merit). Having a team on board with a sound alternative is far more effective than attempting to force the opinion of one authoritative individual.

Party Recoil #

The two polar camps in the US, Conservative and Liberal, recoil against each other, not because they have dramatically opposing principles, but because of the threat they perceive the other poses against them. Of course there are flag carrying members of each camp, but it seems the majority of people stand in the middle ground, with leanings against one camp or another.

I've spent the majority of my life surrounded with the views of the Conservative camp. Having grown up in Colorado, spent my previous three years in Los Angeles, approaching a year here in Boston, and making friends from all sorts of backgrounds, I've been generally exposed to the views of the Liberal camp.

The Conservative camp recoils against the perception that the Liberal camp is out to destroy any sense of moral correctness, of right and wrong, and make society a bunch of free wheeling, amoral hippies. The Liberal camp recoils against the perception that the Conservative camp is out to destroy our agency, making everybody conform to their defined set of rules that their God deems right.

In fiscal matters, the Conservative camp recoils against the perception that the Liberal camp wants to distribute everybody's wealth in a socialist fashion, taking what others have earned and giving it to those who refuse to earn a better life for themselves. The Liberal camp recoils against the perception that the Conservative camp carelessly wants to let any poor person lie in the street and die, no matter what potential that person may have, or what external circumstances may have caused their condition.

Neither camp genuinely carries such principles (except on the fringes), but those are the fears the other camps recoil against. The Conservative thinks: "Whatever problems we have in our own camp, they're not as dangerous as the ideals of the Liberal camp." And likewise, the Liberal thinks: "Whatever problems we have in our own camp, they're not as dangerous as the ideals of the Conservative camp."

There isn't an easy solution to this. There are fundamental differences in the ideologies of each camp, there will always be such differences, and that isn't an intrinsically bad phenomena. That is why this country's founding fathers architected a governing system that could leverage that opposition such that it created a stable and progressive government, adaptable to the progression of society. When considering how dramatically society, daily life, and all our interactions have changed over the past 200 years, it's amazing that any governing system could still be relevant.

Amazing as our political system is, we still have an unnecessary level of antagonism between the two camps. I feel the media operates such that it inflames these differences (yes, that belief is debatable), but we don't have to carry that antagonism on an individual level. When I get the opportunity to speak with intelligent people making policy for this country, both nationally and locally, I am usually impressed with their rounded understanding of issues, and their reasonable, non-fanatical approach to policy.

It's unfortunate that this comprehensive understanding is not portrayed to the public. It takes more than three sentences to express such views, and it certainly takes more than a slogan. A comprehensive understanding of an issue isn't as entertaining as a controversial argument, nor is it as easy to understand. The preference for instant gratification, coupled with the ease of Monday morning quarterbacking (in politics), shows us why news stations tend to pick up controversy instead of understanding. Anyone can instantly pick a side against an idiot and pat themselves on the back for being smarter than some schmuck on TV, but it takes effort and patience to develop a functional understanding. If people don't instantly understand, they risk feeling not so smart. People feel better watching things that make them feel smart, and simple narrow minded arguments can make them feel smart... they're entertaining. News stations don't get ratings on education, they get ratings on entertainment.

Consequently, the portrayal of politics across America is a constant state of argument, disagreement, and narrow minded stubbornness. It seems that people who should be more rounded and understanding are provincial and obstinate. The news doesn't show anything complex enough or comprehensive enough to be anything that could legitimately approach understanding.

Unfortunately, the American public votes on this manner of communicating a candidate's policies. They vote on controversy, not on understanding. To tell the truth, I'm surprised at how many sharp and understanding people actually make it into office. I attribute that to the party system bringing capable candidates to the polls, where support is more likely to come from personal interaction. Then the media information system makes the candidates look like idiots against each other, and the public votes for the least offensive candidate.

I don't think that this trend will change on any large scale. The dynamics that have caused this system to develop are the same dynamics that will keep it in place. However, in spite of the trends that will continue to run through the common populace, we can deal with differing ideologies on an individual level with mutual respect for those of a differing mindset.

We don't need to recoil against a perceived threat by somebody's briefly stated opinion. We don't need to carry a bias against one party or another. We don't need to propagate a general disrespect for politicians.

We can estimate that people running for office have derived the support of their party due to some strength of character and sound judgment. We can address political issues in such a way that generates understanding, leaving behind the provincial display offered by a media intended for a less involved audience. Instead of propagating controversy, we can generate understanding.

My belief is that as we deal with US politicians as though they are the rational well intentioned individuals that they probably are, we will find that their ideals are not so dangerous, they may have some good ideas that we need not oppose, they may adopt some of our ideas instead of oppose, and we'll develop increasingly sensible legislative, legal, and regulatory systems within this country. Those who have gone before us have done a pretty good job, and there's every reason to believe that we can do the same.

March 11, 2007 W #


Minovia: "Hey babe, do you want to walk me to the T, and I can stop into some salons to see about getting a pedicure sometime?"

Me: "Sure. I'll walk to the T with you."

Before I knew it, I was locked down in a plush leather chair with my pants rolled up, and some Asian girl scraping a stone up and down my feet. A walk to the T had somehow turned into me playing the obligatory supportive boyfriend and enduring whimsical feminine comforts.

Much to my surprise, I'm really glad Minovia suckered me into the pedicure! The foot massage was nice, but the real payoff came when I went running right after. My feet actually roll better on the ground!?!? I guess I had a broad callus slowly building up across the front of where my foot hits the ground, and that part of my feet would get sore before the rest of my feet got sore. The magical pedicure smoothed that all out, and my feet feel better after my afternoon run than they've felt after a run in several years!

Imagine that! A feminine pastime can actually serve a valuable masculine purpose!

Now don't get me wrong, not everything about the salon is useful. I read an article in the Boston Common magazine (a Boston Society tabloid. or something) where the author reduced the Space Shuttle into a 1 in 3 chance of nuclear holocaust all across the eastern coast. Part of his argument is the shuttle has Plutonium 238 on board, which must be more dangerous than Plutonium 237 (because it has a bigger number), and such material traveling at "twice the speed of light" would shower the whole continent making it uninhabitable for 20,000 years (No joke, he actually used "twice the speed of light" in his litany of "scientific" explanations of the danger)! And he claimed he's not a doom and gloom fanatic?!?!

All said and done, dumb blonds may not be as dumb as their reputation portrays. Their pedicures really do make life nicer, and while they cite ridiculous facts sometimes, it's not because they remember them wrong, but because their sources are ridiculously flawed.

March 18, 2007 O #

Global Warming

Do you think there's anything to this case?

High Res:

Low res:

March 21, 2007 W #

Is Biology the next Electronics?

Mechanical Innovation brought about the most influential advances throughout the first half of the 20th century. Electrical Innovation did it throughout the second half of the 20th century. After attending the MIT $100K semi-finalist awards last night, it seems apparent that Biological Innovation is the next field ripe to bring the most significant advances in the next several decades.

Of the 22 semi-finalists selected (from 144 entrants), it appears 70% involved Biological Innovation... and they were all unique applications! None of the selected teams will be competing against each other in the market. The few non-biological teams selected were .com's, two teams enabling cash transfer through mobile phones, and one software team (with a great idea, which I really hope they can pull off, and then apply to mechanical and electrical design projects).

Mechanical (and Chemical) Innovation enabled us to enter the realm of Electronic Innovation. Now Electronic (and increasing Chemical) Innovation has enabled us to enter the realm of Biological Innovation. We will always have need for strong mechanical and electrical engineers, but any young highschool and college kids who want to contribute to the most significant advances in humanity over the next several decades will probably find that opportunity in Biological and Chemical Engineering.


"See? I knew you were a Feminist!"

This label was recently given to me (in a complimentary attitude) in response to my expressed beliefs on the role of women in society.

I noted in an earlier post that of the Liberal and Conservative camps, I've been predominantly surrounded by the Conservative camp.

As perceived by the Conservative camp, a Feminist is:

"One who believes women are superior to men, and the only reason we don't have a matriarchal society is that men have been supressing women throughout the ages. A Feminist believes that raising a family is one of the most degrading occupatoins, and should only be left to people of inferior talent, provincial vision, and meager ambition. A Feminist (as percieved by the Conservative camp) believes we should rigorously train women, starting from the youngest age, to shun any 'old fashioned notions' of raising a family, and seek to do 'the really important things' in the world, like run businesses and government. Until all Politicians, CEO's, and Academics are women, a Feminist will marshall all resources to supplant men from their present leadership positions, and replace them with women. "

Again, this is not "what a Feminist is," but is the Conservative camp's general perception of the beliefs of those who claim to be Feminist. Ridiculous as this perception may sound to a Liberal, can you blame the Conseravites? Every time a Feminist activist is shown on television, they find the most radical activist they can put on the screen. That's what draws the ratings. Sure, there are more reasonable people in the Conservative camp who know otherwise, but to the mainstream conservative, the fanatic portrayed on television is who they're left to interpert as "Feminists."

To the Liberal camp, a Feminist is:

"One who believes in agency and opportunty. One who believes a woman should not be socially obligated to raising a family, but choose to pursue the life she desires according to her own preferences, and what she deems as 'most important' to herself. A Feminist believes women should be included in the society (workforce, academics, government, etc) according to the merits of their work, neither repressed nor artificially advanced, and given equal opportunity for advancement or to hold positions as she desires."

Now that sounds very reasonable and rational, doesn't it? I've always carried such a belief of equal agency and opportunity (for everybody, regardless of sex, race, religion, ideology, whatever), and my Mom has reinforced that in me. What's ironic is that my Mom labels herself a Conservative, and would never label herself as a Feminist. Yet, the belief she carries, and has taught her five sons, is the same belief carried by the mainstream Feminist (as defined by the non-radical feminist).

On issues of Feminism, it would appear that the very large majority of the nation is in perfect agreement as to what is right and wrong. However, we have activists on the fringes of each party that are given publicity, so the majority who actually are in agreement respond to a perceived threat from the 'opposite party,' who actually already agrees with them. We get division from a perceived but non-existent threat.

It appears that in the dialogue, the reason both camps miss the fact that they already agree on the policies that should be in place is because of the emphasis each camp places on what they feel is most important.

The Conservative camp places emphasis on the importance of family, responding to perception that the family concept is under attack, fearing that allowing kids to be 'raised by the state,' or daycare, will cause a moral decline that will ruin society for their children and the future or humanity. The Conservative camp fears societal decline due to lacking recognition of the importance of family and good values. I have yet to meet a Liberal who believes morals, or good values, are of minor importance to the future of society. I haven't yet met a mother who adamantly argues that her children are better off raised by daycare. The fundamental principles that Conservatives emphasize are agreed to be important by the Liberal camp. No division there.

The Liberal camp places emphasis on agency, responding to the perception that basic human rights are under attack, fearing that forcing people into prescribed societal roles will diminish the lives of all the women of American right now and in the future. The Liberal camp fears societal decline due to restricted agency. I have yet to meet a conservative who believes that agency is of minor importance to human prosperity. I have not personally met a Conservative who wants to pass laws restricting or diminishing the role of women in society. The fundamental principles that Liberals emphasize are agreed to be important by the Conservative camp. No division there.

So why do we have division between Liberals and Conservatives on the issue of Feminism? Because of the fringe activists. The groups that cause imbalance are not the large majority of the different camps, but the activists on either spectrum whith which neither camp agrees.

Why don't these division get resolved amongst the mainstream people who interact with each other? I think it's because of two causes. People don't like to talk about things on which they disagree (maybe they didn't learn how?), and when they do talk, they end up debating according to their differing emphasis of importance, instead of the common ground that is readily shared. The thoughts seeking arguments for/against are based on areas where individuals feel most threatened, not where they feel safe.

It would do all of us some good to learn to discipline ourselves to not react to the threats we perceive, and instead seek to find the reasonable implementation that those of "the other party" support. Let go of the threatening emphasis, and find the fundamental rights and values carried by others. As they have opportunity to voice their priorities and beliefs, they will feel less threatened of being overridden, and we'll find that we don't have to simply not talk about issues that previously have seemed tense.

In conclusion, I vote for the Liberal implementation of Feminism, as defined by the mainstream Liberal camp. Judging by the calmly expressed beliefs of Conservatives I have known, I am entirely confident that they will likewise support such an implementation. We can have one less area of discord.

A friend sent a link to this article by Orson Scott Card on why he wrote his latest novel, Empire, fictionalizing an American civil war arising from the ideological polarities in our country. I'm going to read the novel on our LFM trip to Southeast Asia (Singapore, Malaysia, and Bankock), so hopefully it will be good.


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