Category Archives: Technology

Something to look up to….

Atlantis landed very early July 21, 2011.  This is the end of the longest period of human space flight.  While the International Space Station still orbits, we have less control of our space transportation fortunes.  The landing of Atlantis was very uneventful, and for the most-part, quietly observed.  At the launch a few days ago, I provided a few memories from 30 years ago as the first Shuttle, Columbia, launched in 1981.  As the last mission lands for the last time, I can’t help but look at the present, and gaze to the future.  My memory was slightly flawed from those naive days in 1981.  I hope my view of the future is just as flawed and has some subtle, dare I say, pleasant, surprises.

It is fitting that the landing – the whole mission – of STS-135, went off without a hitch.  We got it right, just as the press, politicians, and much of the cynically vocal public have accused NASA of creating its own bloated problems.  NASA’s problem is that the vast majority of the time, we get it right…quietly.  When it goes wrong, or if people ask questions about why resources are necessary to get each detail right, then there are ignorant rants about waste.

I noted one person on Facebook this morning, paraphrasing an aerospace  periodical, sharing confidently that SpaceX was about to launch a mission later this year to the Space Station, achieving two milestones, docking with and resupplying the ISS in one fell swoop.  A fellow aerospace worker deadpanned that those in the know were just as confident that it wasn’t going to happen this year.  “If it was that easy, everyone would be doing it.”  It’s not.

As thousands of aerospace workers are turned loose, it will be interesting to see how they are absorbed into the workforce.  So far the word is that the petrochemical industry is waking up to the quality of the workforce.  In the wake of the BP oil spill last summer, many energy industry executives are scrambling to make prudent investments in maintenance, safety, and risk management.  The stories are trickling in about how veteran aerospace engineers, technicians and managers are making a positive impact bolstering the energy industry.  I’m not surprised.

NASA is trying to shift its resources to more fundamental investments in innovative space technology – automated exploration, advanced propulsion, efficient ground support processes.  It will take years to get practical results, but there will be something coming from it some day.  There are and will be too many creative, visionary, and stubborn people working on it.  I know the type….

The good news for my little institutional safety part of the NASA world is that when we wrestle with trying new stuff and tinkering with things that burn, go boom, or make sudden motions, there are challenges doing it in a way that doesn’t hurt people.  Keeping things from going boom, or more appropriately, avoiding the worst consequences when they do go boom, takes a lot of work from my folks.  We’ve got the hang of it, and we’re taking some prudent measures to avoid problems.  Been there…  Done that.

So, I guess it is fitting that, as the Atlantis mission came to a smooth conclusion, I was working on my new house this week.  We’ll be here for a while, so I might as well get the family comfortable.  We’ve got more work to do….  NASA has a lot of tinkering to do, much of it on the ground.  That’s where my job is….  Perhaps as my little girl gets going to school, we will have made some progress and we’ll be ready to go back up.  She will need something to look up to….  besides her daddy.

Technology Rant II

The challenge was to get Natasha through the “Online Learner Workshop” in order for her to register for online classes.  The Workshop is intended to help students understand the modern virtual world of internet-based education.  It is a wonderful techno-service-friendly world in which we live!!!

After successive weekend attempts to help Natasha access her college Online Learner Workshop, I sent a very thoughtful note to the college help desk (yes, it was really objective and polite….really).  The “Off-hours Help Line” did not pick up after about 20 rings.  We had tried about three different varieties each of her user id, password, and student number, because different variations are required for the college “Blackboard”, “WebEducator”, and “Student Services” pages.

NOTE:  I am using thinly veiled pseudonyms for the pages and I am closely guarding the college identity.  I am a part-time employee and Natasha is a student.  We value those roles.  But I suspect the experience is very much the same at community colleges throughout the country.

Natasha and I were then called and emailed on separate occasions by multiple members of the college online services staff.  I was called at work by a pleasant woman who sympathized with our situation.  Everything was re-set and we were sent a 17 step instruction on how to gain access to the Workshop and proceed through the learning experience.

Flash back a couple of years ago and I was going through a similar experience to get access to the college system to work as an adjunct instructor.  Back then each user was required to take a 3-day orientation.  Let me restate that for effect…. 3, three, THREE eight-hour day, orientation….  That’s 24 hours!!!  This is required to access to a web-based education system that is intended to simplify the college education process.  I simply told the college I was not going to take leave from my day job for 3 days just to learn how to post my student’s homework to the internet.  It was a very wonderful woman with my department that made it all better.  And I am posting homework the old-fashioned way….  I hand it back to the students at the beginning of class.

Well, unfortunately, my Natasha does not have the same advantages now as I did then.  She is one student among thousands of others.  She is indistinguishable from the computer-illiterates meant to be weeded out by the benevolent Online Learner Workshop.  So, I suffered along with her this time around.

We finally got on the Workshop.  Three hours and about 180 questions later, Natasha had completed the Online Learner Workshop.  The questions ranged from recall of the value and utility of the Online Learner Workshop, to what a PDF file was, to how to attach a file to an email.  At the end, Natasha and I could not help but feel that after successive attempts to get access to the system, to the hours invested in the “education”, that we had both lost a good part of our lives….

There were two modules of the Online Learner Workshop dedicated to “Technology Knowledge” and “Technology Uses”….  What does the Workshop consider as “technology”?  You got it…email, internet, digital photography, word processing applications.

OK, folks, I am officially a grumpy old man.  If this is technology, and it is supposed to make our lives simpler, then I am going to go back to living in a cave.

The Online Learner Workshop taught me nothing and it taught my wife nothing that isn’t already obsolete….  And we won’t get that time back.  Whatever is invented that WILL get us that time back….Now that is technology!!!

Local Color and the Technology Pages

Years (actually decades) ago when I was struggling through college, I was taking a class in Operational Programming.  We were studying information analysis and among the topics we discussed was the concept of “Local Color”.  Without getting into the socio-analytical details, which I would be challenged to recall anyway, Local Color is a characterization of the observable indications of what a community considers important.

I will get to my point eventually…..  But first let’s do a little Local Color exercise.  If you were to walk about the streets of Baghdad sometime around 2004 you might see scores of suspicious looks from the natives, dark streets patrolled by heavily armed American soldiers.  During the day, the traffic would be stifling with multiple check-points, barricades, black-market deal-making, and the occasional improvised explosive device detonation in the distance (if you are lucky enough to be on the opposite side of the distance).  So what’s important in this community???  Survival.  Protection.  Silence.  Power.

Contrast that analysis with a quick look at the daily cruise schedule on board the “Voyager of the Seas” during Natasha’s and my honeymoon….  A dozen different meal options, para-sailing, talent shows, musical theater, shopping….  Oh, and a visit to an exotic island nation.  What’s important in our little ship-board culture?  Comfort.  Fun.  Relaxation.  Entertainment.  Eating.  Got the idea???

Back in class one of the quickest ways to sample Local Color is to take a look at the newspaper (this was back in the 80’s remember).  So, if I was to take a look at the modern version of the newspaper, perhaps the internet would do.  How about USA Today?  That might be a reasonable approximation of American Local Color.  I was curious what America thinks is important about technology.

Here comes my point….  Click on the “Tech” link of USA Today.  What do you see?  The headline on the Tech page of USA Today on November 20, 2010, is “Prevent the ‘holiday bulge’ with new fitness games”.  It doesn’t stop there.  A total of 13 out of 16 stories on the page are dedicated to either social networking, internet entertainment, gaming, or cellular phone features.  The other 3 stories….  One is about internet medical consulting, and buried at the bottom is detection of a new planet, and finally, dead last is the story “Scientists claim breakthrough in antimatter hunt”.

OK, let’s do our Local Color analysis.  If we accept that USA Today is a reasonable approximation for American culture, what is important to this community from the perspective of technology?   Entertainment.  Social connectedness.  Virtual physical fitness!!!  And ho-hum….anti-matter.  Remember, this is the “Technology” page…..

So, when exactly did technology become synonymous with computer gaming and internet surfing?  I thought technology had something to do with physics, transportation, manufacturing, medicine, oh yeah….AND communication.

Years ago futurists like Marshall McLuhan and John Naisbitt predicted an evolution from the manufacturing age to the information age.  I was ready for that.  I think we were all expecting America to become smarter — the designers, managers, innovators, communicators, and leaders of the world.  What have we done with all of this information age leadership?  We are entertaining, surfing, sharing, gaming, dissing, blogging,…… hypnotizing ourselves and the rest of the world.

It starts with what we teach our children about technology and science — about what technology really is.  It starts with planting ideas about what is NEEDED in our world.  It continues with government investing in big, bold achievements that inspire change in our priorities and values.  That creates opportunity for industry and entrepreneurs to contribute to the vision and look for new markets.

But, alas, we are focused on the new iPad.  It seems Apple has figured out how to host a bunch of really cool fitness game apps…