Oh here’s some must reading for the president-elect!

I know Obama has a lot on his plate these days, but i hope someone close to him takes careful note of The New York Times this morning. It is running a whistle-blowing piece from a former high-level NASA administrators that certainly has the painful ring of truth to it. I suspect the basic principles beautifully outlined in this article apply in spades to military spending, as well as many other government projects.

The focus of the article is NASA and it begins:

A CANCER is overtaking our space agency: the routine acquiescence to immense cost increases in projects. Unmistakable new indications of this illness surfaced last month with NASA’s decision to spend at least $100 million more on its poorly-managed, now-over-$2 billion Mars Science Laboratory. This decision to go forward with the project, a robotic rover, was made even though it has tripled in cost since its inception, it is behind schedule, there is no firm estimate of the final cost, and NASA hasn’t disclosed the collateral damage inflicted on other programs and activities that depend on NASA’s limited science budget.

But while I’d like to see the NASA program brought under control for the good of science, I think what is described in these next two paragraphs is a wonderful model of how cost-overruns occur:

Endemic project cost increases at NASA begin when scientists and engineers (and sometimes Congress) burden missions with features beyond what is affordable in the stated budget. The problem continues with managers and contractors who accept or encourage such assignments, expecting to eventually be bailed out. It is worsened by managers who disguise the size of cost increases that missions incur. Finally, it culminates with scientists who won’t cut their costs and members of Congress who accept steep increases to protect local jobs.

The result? The costs of badly run NASA projects are paid for with cutbacks or delays in NASA projects that didn’t go over budget. Hence the guilty are rewarded and the innocent are punished.

Hmmmm. . .seems like useful advice for Detroit, Wall Street, and all the other big spenders who have helped to put us in the mess we’re in where we end up punishing the innocent for the mistakes – and sins – of the guilty. The combination of lazy, over-paid fat cats protecting their territories, with a politicians protecting their power base is deadly. And, of course, the blame can be spread beyond thesde two groups – but the model is interesting to say the least.

Of equal importance, Congress should turn from the self-serving protection of local NASA jobs to an ethic of responsible government that delivers results.

Oh boy – great idea. How do we do it? How do the democrats avoid going down the exact same path the Republicans went down – being the party in power and abusing that power to try to sustain it?


Obama’s ‘secret’ weapon – try it!

I was a bit surprised when a New York Times news analysis on Friday began:

WASHINGTON — President-elect Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination with the enthusiastic support of the left wing of his party, fueled by his vehement opposition to the decision to invade Iraq and by one of the most liberal voting records in the Senate.

Now, his reported selections for two of the major positions in his cabinet — Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state and Timothy F. Geithner as secretary of the Treasury — suggest that Mr. Obama is planning to govern from the center-right of his party, surrounding himself with pragmatists rather than ideologues.

Mind you, I was not surprised that Obama was surrounding himself with thinking people who might think differently than he does – and I certainly wasn’t surprised that he was taking a pragmatic approach – these are both reasons why I voted for him – big reasons. Especially the pragmatism. I was just surprised that the NYT seemed surprised. But in any event, let’s hear it for pragmatism – it’s high on my list of – well, of what works 😉

And I’m not talking just about politics. I’m talking about paper airplanes, crystal radios, astronomy and much more. Hell, having tried for decades to teach people how to use computers I can’t tell you how many times – sometimes in exasperation – I’ve said “just try it. You’re not going to break anything and you’re not going to learn any more by reading about it, or listening to me. Yap the keyboard, click the mouse, go there. Try it. See what happens.” This is a wonderful environment to explore and give you really quick feedback. So you feel like a rat in a maze sometimes – try it. If you don’t , you’ll never find the cheese.

But beyond my love for what I grandly thnk of as experiential learning, I’m just plain leary of the abstract. I love the concrete. Sure I read a lot – an awful lot. But I frequently put the book down and do it. Which is probably why it takes me so long to finish a book.

In these times the last thing I want is another ideologue as president who surrounds himself – or herself – which a bunch of ideologues who think the same way. What’s wrong with ideologues? They want everything to follow a preconceived set of rules – their set. Life doesn’t work that way and I simply don’t believe that anyone has discovered the complete set of rules – and those who think they have quickly turn into snakeoil salesmen. Look, listen, think – yes. And when you’ve done that, try it. And when it doesn’t work, stop doing it and try something else. Please spare me from a gutless president who can’t make – and admit he’s made – mistakes.

But as I said, this isn’t just good sense for politics, it works in many disparate fields.

I just stumbled across this in the latest issue of Air & Space from the Smithsonian:

From his paper airplane tinkering, Blackburn learned to avoid preconceptions about fuselage and wing performance. “Sometimes the shapes surprise me,” he says of his hand-folded airplanes.”I think ‘Well, this shape should do really well,’ and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes I come up with a shape that I think,”well, it looks good but it won’t fly well,’ and then it does fly well. You learn by doing. more than anything else, this has made me appreciate having an open mind.”


Now before you start thinking “why the heck should I take lessons from a guy building paper airplanes,” consider that Ken Blackwell is an aerospace engineer who set the world record for the longest flight of a paper airplane, wrote a very successful book – “The world Record paper Airplane Book” – and currently designs little radio controlled planes that fold to fit in a soldier’s backpack, carry a couple of tv cameras plus a gps system, and can scout ahead behind a hill and yes – they actually have saved lives in combat. (looking at his website – link above – he also likes small dogs, so that’s reason enough to respect the guy. 😉

Moving on . . .

As to astronomy, I don’t think you get close to grasping the wonders of the distant universe without getting out there on a cold, clear night and letting the aged light from some distant galaxies enter your eyes and ping your brain. Stop looking at pictures – they’re two dimensional representations of what is a three-dimensional (at least) living, evolving reality so far beyond their images it’s ludicrous to consider. (OK, they help a little – but . . . they are their own reality and only a shadow of the reality that’s out there, waiting to connect with you directly.)

And simple as a crystal radio is – and it can be very simple – I am amazed at how little we really know about how these few parts interact – take a look here for 70-plus examples – and those who are devoted to them continuously experiment. Do they think first? Of course. So will Obama.

Thinking is good. Having some guiding principles that give you a sense of direction is good. Being wedded to one ideology or the other – being afraid to listen to conflicting ideas from people who think quite differently than you do – and being afraid to try something that your preconceptions say “won’t fly” – that’s not going to get us anywhere.

I firmly believe that President Obama is going to make mistakes. What’s more, he’s going to do some things that sound appalling to liberals such as myself. But I’m all for it. Listen. Consider. Try. And know when to let go when your favored idea fails. Sounds refreshing to me – even hopeful.

Another vote for “go home now, George”

Friedman – got to be my favorite columnist – writes today:

If I had my druthers right now we would convene a special session of Congress, amend the Constitution and move up the inauguration from Jan. 20 to Thanksgiving Day. Forget the inaugural balls; we can’t afford them. Forget the grandstands; we don’t need them. Just get me a Supreme Court justice and a Bible, and let’s swear in Barack Obama right now — by choice — with the same haste we did — by necessity — with L.B.J. in the back of Air Force One.

Unfortunately, it would take too long for a majority of states to ratify such an amendment. What we can do now, though, said the Congressional scholar Norman Ornstein, co-author of “The Broken Branch,” is “ask President Bush to appoint Tim Geithner, Barack Obama’s proposed Treasury secretary, immediately.” Make him a Bush appointment and let him take over next week. This is not a knock on Hank Paulson. It’s simply that we can’t afford two months of transition where the markets don’t know who is in charge or where we’re going. At the same time, Congress should remain in permanent session to pass any needed legislation.

This is the real “Code Red.” As one banker remarked to me: “We finally found the W.M.D.” They were buried in our own backyard — subprime mortgages and all the derivatives attached to them.

While his main point is solid – please read the column – I really like the little side street suggested in this paragraph:

Right now there is something deeply dysfunctional, bordering on scandalously irresponsible, in the fractious way our political elite are behaving — with business as usual in the most unusual economic moment of our lifetimes. They don’t seem to understand: Our financial system is imperiled.

I don’t think it’s just the political elite, though. I sense in the general public – my own gut as well – a sort of backing off where part of me thinks it’s over. That is, we’ve had our little panic, now we can return to normal. Not so, of course. Look at all the markets – or any of them. Look at any of the traditional economic indicators. It’s all bad news. But – we seem to rip through news at a ferocious pace these days and we don’t have the ability to collectivelt pause and focus on a problem.

I blame it in part on the 24-7 news cycle – but also on the frantic competition in the press to grab hold of the latest story and the headlines which catch the most eyes – not the stories that we need to know, not the headlines about the most important things.

We have simply developed a style where we plunge into something, tear it to shreda by blasting it all over every front page and every TV screen for hour after hour, then we get tired of it and drop it. We’re a bunch of news sharks that live from one feeding frenzy to the next. We need relief. We need to get hold of ourselves, we need to quit – focus on a few important things – get them done and done right.