Tag Archives: internet

The Joy of Blogging

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Plagiarism exposed:  someone else came up with the phrase ‘blogging is the ultimate exercise in narcissism’ so I can’t claim original credit for it.  My own view is that to be an interesting blogger you must have exhibitionist tendencies. 

 

After a year and a half of intermittent writing on the NASA blog page, I think it’s time to make a few observations about the process.

 

Blogging is not my foremost work assignment; I really have a full plate of other things to do.  Blogging is sort of a sidelight for me, and my blog is mostly written outside normal work hours. 

 

Early in my post-shuttle career, I had a young social-media savvy technical assistant who proposed the idea that I should have a NASA blog; he coordinated all the set up.  Don’t blame the NASA PAO or IT departments for me taking up electronic real estate, it was our own idea.   

 

But I’ve really grown to like doing it.  You psych majors can comment on my subconscious motivations.

 

Let me make the following very clear:  I have never been told what to blog about.  Nobody writes my blog but me.   I’m responsible for the content, spelling, fact checking, and any errors that appear.  I’ve never been told to delete or censor or remove anything from my blog.  Nor is there a list of topics, or any strategic communications plan guides me in writing the blog.  Even though I have frequently asked for feedback from my bosses, all I ever get is a thumbs up.  So I feel pretty free to write about anything that is on my mind, trying to keep common sense about it.  But I put my name on it and I stand behind it.  I never post anonymously nor will I comment on somebody else’s blog anonymously. 

 

So don’t confuse my blog with official NASA policy. I’m just one guy here and you are getting this one guy’s take on things.  Plus some mostly true old guy stories about things that may or may not have really happened during my career.  Hopefully entertaining, but at least giving some insight into how things work inside NASA.

 

I have read other blogs that are clearly written by public relations flacks and those blogs are obvious advertisements or press releases dressed up to look like a blog.  I wouldn’t be a party to that sort of a blog.

 

I have to approve your comments before they show up in public.  That clearly dampens discussion but I believe it is necessary for reasons I’ll explain in a minute.  Since blogging is not my full time job, I generally log in about once a day and approve the comments; sometimes – especially when I’m travelling – it is less often.  Sorry, but that is why your comments take a while to get posted.

 

When you write a comment, I automatically get it in an email.  I generally read these first on my blackberry; but the bb does not have the capability to log into our blogging software and allow me to approve the comments for posting – I must get my real computer booted up, logged on, etc., to do that.  One interesting feature of the software is that emails announcing your blog comment show to me (and me only) your email address.  So if you really want to remain anonymous from me, you might keep that in mind.  I rarely write to folks on their email, but do so occasionally.

 

The number one reason I don’t post comments is that many of them are spam.  Somebody with a foreign email address comments “Really liked your post.  I need to move money to my relatives in the US.  Please log onto this web site and put your bank account number and I will send $5 million to you”.  Yeah, right.  Or “Buy cheap pharmaceuticals at xxx.com”.  Nope, I’m not about to let the comments to an agency website blog become a host for fraudulent – or even legitimate – business advertisement.  If your comment including the “signature” contains a website or email address, I will not post your comment.  The software the NASA website uses does not allow me to edit comments, so I either have to approve them entirely or they don’t get posted.  Spammers will not get posted. 

 

I will not post comments on UFOs, conspiracy theories, perpetual motion, or other crackpot topics.  Nor will I post comments that are obscene, comments that advocate violence, or comments that cross over to pure disrespect.  I’m the sole judge of these on my blog.   

 

I have a strong obligation to post comments that I disagree with.  I will even allow people to call me (but only me) names.  I got a real zinger the other day and I’m still smarting over it, but you can find it posted.  It’s a free country, everybody is entitled to their option. 

 

What I’d like to do is provide some small window into how things work at NASA, what has happened in my career, and what I’ve learned along the way.  I don’t have all the answers, I don’t make agency policy, nor am I a management consultant.  I have made more than my share of mistakes, but hopefully I’ve learned from them and make fewer now than in my earlier days. 

 

I hope you find my blog interesting.  Now that I’ve started, it is hard to keep quiet. 

 

More to come.

Innovation,Dissent,Intellectual Property,and the Internet

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This morning I moved the Barriers to Innovation video to the private section of you tube so most folks can’t watch it.  I really intended to delete it but can’t figure out how; so making the video private is the next best thing.  Some folks may wonder why I did that . . . and its a long story, so buckle in if you are up for it.

About two years ago, Mike Coats who is the director of Johnson Space Center started a forward looking initiative to improve creativity and innovation within NASA.  This is a critical goal.  Great leaders have great vision and this was the start of a process to make us over as a more effective, innovative, inclusive, creative agency.  Last spring, seven teams were formed to examine ways in which JSC or NASA could be improved:  recruiting, mentoring, communications, work/life fit, communications, IT, and a team to examine the barriers to innovation.  Everybody reported out in January; several groups made videos, all the groups both identified problems and proposed solutions.  By the way, this was an officially sanctioned part time activity with appropriate charge codes — just for you folks that care about that sort of thing.  And it was very intentional to include contractor representation on each team.

But the barriers team video hit a chord with me and also with a lot of folks when we posted it on you tube.  Lots of comments, lots of views, lots of discussion.  I will say that NASA senior management took the video and its message very well.  Absolutely nobody has told me that posting that video was a problem.  (I wonder if the dissenters to that opinion feel stifled?)  Anyway, the barriers team wanted to also post their “solutions”.  Originally this was a power point chart presentation.  I am not a big fan of powerpoint chart presentations although the team had some good ideas.  So the team decided to stick together and make a video of the solutions — not just a power point, but use the same actors (themselves) and the same themes and show proposed solutions.

So they have been working on that for the last couple of weeks.  As they got the video ready to post, somebody asked if we should get permission to use the TV theme music.  Silly me, I hadn’t thought of that.  Of course TV theme music is intellectual property and is protected by numerous laws.

Even though most folks on the internet don’t seem to worry too much about those laws, we should set a good example.  So we asked permission to make and post a couple of videos with the TV theme music.  The response from those who hold the intellectual property rights for that was OK — but only for internal use — no you tube.

Sigh. 

So, we have done the right thing and removed the old video — while we continue to negotiate with the music property owners.

At the very least, we should be able to repost the original and new video without the music in a few days. 

In the meantime, I hope we can post all the video reports from all the teams.  Even though these are all made by video amateurs, there are lots of great lessons and proposals which could make our organization — and perhaps any organization — more creative and innovative.  JSC is already moving out to implement some of the best recommendations.

More to come!

 

Just put chicken wire in it!

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Akin’s Laws of Spacecraft Design #19:  The odds are greatly against you being immensely smarter than everyone else in the field.  If your analysis says your terminal velocity is twice the speed of light, you may have invented warp drive, but the chances are a lot better that you’ve screwed up.  

Dr. David Akin is the Director of the Space Systems Lab at the University of Maryland.  I have not met him, but I admire his writing.   I haven’t taken a class from him but the school of spaceflight hard knocks apparently uses his textbook.

A comment to one of my earlier blogs came in last evening.  The writer states that he had personally developed a method of making an immense amount of electricity essentially out of nothing.  We should get together, he continued, so he could share his plans with us, but he had to be careful to protect the patent by not giving out too many details.

Sigh.  Talk about unfamiliar with the basic concept. 

I did not post the comment.  Can you guess why?

When we were in the return to flight phase for the shuttle following the Columbia accident, we actively solicited public input.  We hoped that there were some good ideas out there in the public which might allow us to improve the shuttle and make it safer.  We set up a web page and an e-mail account for anybody and everybody to send their suggestions in.  We got hundreds, thousands of suggestions.  We studied them all, read them thoroughly, and responded to them individually.  It was a lot of work.  A couple of small businesses in the insulating foam world suggested that they had a product that might help.  On review, their formulations were not suited to space flight applications.  Nice thought though.  We got plenty of  . . . how can I say this delicately . . . nut case inputs.  Seriously there are people out there that need medication.  Maybe they are on it and the institution just lets them write letters.  There is the “numbers guy” for example . . . but the really nut case inputs are easily screened out.  What was the number one suggestion we got to improve the shuttle?  It had to do with the foam on the external tank.  The most popular idea – you got it from the title of today’s blog — just put chicken wire in it.

My grandparents lived in a house that was stucco sided.  That is how you put on stucco — cover your wall with chicken wire (or something a lot like it) and then apply the gooey substance that hardens and is held on to the house by the chicken wire.

We finally had to write up a form letter explaining why this was not a good idea.  I am not going to repeat it here.  Just suffice to say that some very elementary tests and analysis showed that having wire in the foam would lead to worse problems. 

I recently talked to the engineer who handled the web page and all our public input.  Out of the hundreds of submissions, did we actually get any ideas that turned out to be helpful.  Long silence on the other end of the phone.  Not really came the reluctant response.

During STS-51 when we tried to retrieve the errant Intelsat V communications spacecraft and had some difficulties capturing it, lots of folks called in to NASA asking why we didn’t just use suction cups on the spacecraft?  Hmm.  Vacuum.  Hmm.  Similarly, the suggestions to use magnets to capture the bird fell short when you realize that neither the structure (aluminum) nor the covering (glass solar cells) were magnetic.

I was disappointed.  But not, I guess, surprised.  Most of the technical subjects related to rocketry, space flight, and orbital mechanics is foreign to the everyday world that we all inhabit.  Not too many folks encounter cryogenic fluids in their day to day job, for example.

So were we wrong to ask?  Were we wrong to spend the time and effort to review all those inputs?  I don’t think so.  There is always the possibility that there is a genius out there that has THE suggestion, or at least the rudimentary idea of a suggestion that could lead to a breakthrough.  But those type of inputs are rare.  Generally, it turns out, folks who have studied and worked for many years on a complex and arcane technical subject really do know what they are doing.  The experts generally do have the right answer, or at least a number of options which may work with associated pro’s and con’s.  Just because the experts tell you that your idea won’t work doesn’t make you the next Edison . . .

I have to admit that this doesn’t sit well with me.  I’d like to believe that there are folks out there that can help us solve our problems if we would just ask for their inputs.  I hope you folks reading this will prove me right and that I am not just a cockeyed wishful thinker.

But you have got to do your homework.  The plan you propose should not violate the fundamental laws of physics and thermodynamics.  If you do propose such a plan — well, as I have heard it said, an extraordinary claim requires extraordinary support.  Handwaving does not cut it.  Oh, Dr. Akin has it again:

Akin’s Laws of Spacecraft Design #1:  Engineering is done with numbers.  Analysis without numbers is only an opinion.

And there is no shortage of unsubstantiated opinions. 

In fact, another of my disappointments is in the blog-o-sphere.  NPR recently had a book interview with an author who had written an treatise discussing why the internet is so full of vituperation, mis-information, and down right personal attacks.  Being on the internet is not for the faint hearted.  I don’t mind — and in fact welcome — a civil disagreement and constructive discussion.  But some days it seems like the internet is full of people pushing their own opinions with no facts to back them up and then engaging in the most offensive personal attacks possible when people disagree with them.  Whew.  Is there some place that you get points for being clever and vindictive in your responses?

So; I am still looking for good help, good constructive, grounded suggestions or discussions on how to improve things in the nation’s space program:  both technical and managerial.  If you just want to play some nastygram game, we’re not interested.

And if you want to make a technical suggestion, I am all ears — but I’ll really be impressed if your suggestion comes with analysis which doesn’t violate the laws of physics.  And I’ll really appreciate it if the discussion remains civil.