Author Archives: kirk.kittell

Systems engineering and Apollo

Follow-up: Landing on the moon: three visions attained


This summer will be the 50th anniversary of the launch and landing—and launch and landing—of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. At the risk of sounding morbid: it will be the last major anniversary of the event that will be attended by any of the original participants. Maybe the great-grandchildren will celebrate the 100th anniversary.

So if you want to throw a party to celebrate Apollo, the time is now.

I wasn't thinking of the anniversary myself. I got a note from the NASA JPL Education Office email list (join) about using the anniversary to teach kids about the moon (Celebrate the 50th Anniversary of NASA's Apollo Moon Landing with Educational Resources and Projects for Kids). And we were looking for something to do for our local systems engineering professional society, INCOSE, anyway. So I opened my big mouth and volunteered to give a talk about Apollo and systems engineering.

I don't know exactly what I'll talk about. There's too much to talk about. Project Apollo was an enormous engineering project with many, many different subprojects and systems and interfaces and so on—an enormous number of starting points from which to explain the project in terms of systems engineering, so it's hard to limit myself to just a few. Also, I haven't thought about spacecraft of any kind in years, having nudged myself out of an orbit where I got to work on space projects into, well, several orbits that don't, so my understanding of the concepts involved are a little rusty.

Anyway—problems and opportunities. Learn something, teach something. Get excited by something, throw a big party.

I know vaguely what the format will be. I want to pick three or four topics or episodes or players and present them as vignettes. Instead of trying to paint the entire picture of systems engineering in Apollo, I want to paint just a few bits in detail and give a map to the audience to find the rest. Here are a few interesting topics that I think I can be explained, in too much detail, in systems terms:

  • George Mueller and "all-up testing" of the Saturn V rocket
  • Tom Kelly and the moon lander (#NowReading: Moon Lander: How We Developed the Apollo Lunar Module)
  • Joseph Shea and systems engineering management
  • John Houbolt and lunar orbit rendezvous
  • The Apollo Guidance Computer

That's a short list, but each topic quickly goes fractal and then there's too much. So access to materials and finding unusual angles will determine which few things to talk about.

In the meantime, as I'm tracking down references, I'll add a page here to collect it: /ref/apollo.

A week in review, 2019-W22

Wrote

None

Read

  1. Jane Smiley, Wisconsin: Three Visions Attained, The New York Times (1993-03-07). The small, light rooms in both the school and the house invite the contemplation of grandeur rather than the experience of it. The world Wright created for himself suggests a quest for purity and simplicity that seems almost evangelical—an offshoot of the recurrent born-again strain in American culture, but one that expresses itself horizontally and close to the ground rather than vertically, striving to transcend nature and the world
  2. Rajesh Kumar Singh and Andrea Shalal, Who pays Trump's tariffs, China or U.S. customers and companies?, Reuters (2019-05-21). U.S. President Donald Trump says China pays the tariffs he has imposed on $250 billion of Chinese exports to the United States. But that is not how tariffs work. China’s government and companies in China do not pay tariffs directly. Tariffs are a tax on imports. They are paid by U.S.-registered firms to U.S. customs for the goods they import into the United States. Importers often pass the costs of tariffs on to customers - manufacturers and consumers in the United States - by raising their prices. U.S. business executives and economists say U.S. consumers foot much of the bill through rising prices.
  3. Celeste Hoang, Oscar Avalos Dreams in Titanium, Jet Propulsion Laboratory News (2019-05-16). To this day, though, the most rewarding experience for Avalos is still taking high school students on a tour through the machine shop once a month because he can see himself in the kids. "It brings me back to when I was going on these tours," he says. "I tell them to keep their grades up because it opens doors. And I tell my story because you never know - it could happen to them."
  4. Isaac Chotiner, A Journalist on How Anti-Immigrant Fervor Built in the Early Twentieth Century, The New Yorker (2019-05-16). Before eugenics comes into the picture, I think that the attitude toward the Eastern European Jews, specifically, and the Italians, and many other Eastern and Southern European racial groups, was one of errant prejudice, and it was based on what they saw before their eyes, seeing the ghettos in Boston and New York and Washington and Philadelphia. What Jacob Riis saw is what they saw. Riis may have sounded sympathetic, but these people were horrified: “We can’t let this happen to us. We can’t let this happen to our cities. We can’t let this happen to our school systems.” There was an openly prejudicial view that they wanted to save themselves by keeping out “the other.” Today, it’s more ideologically driven than it was then, when there was a very clear visible threat for the Northeastern élite, the Northeastern Wasps who led the anti-immigration movement. They saw something, and it was very measurable. Here, yeah, we have television that we see it on, but, certainly in much of the country, the threat of immigration is not impinging upon people’s lives in any way. Anti-immigrant feeling in the U.S. rises in areas where there are the fewest immigrants.
  5. Sean Burns, 13 Years After The Series Was Canceled, 'Deadwood: The Movie' Is Finally Here, WBUR (2019-05-30).

Listened

  1. The Good Samaritan, Radiolab (2019-05-24).
  2. Aravind: Can You See This:, Akimbo: A Podcast from Seth Godin (2019-05-29).
  3. President Ulysses S. Grant, In Our Time (2019-05-30).
  4. Charlene Barshefsky on Trump’s Trade War, SupChina (2019-05-30).

Watched

Tony Blair on Political Power, History Hit (2019-05-31)

(small clip)

Photo

showing

Upcoming


There might be additional links that didn't make the cut at notes.kirkkittell.com

A week in review, 2019-W21

Wrote

None

Read

  1. Anna Garvey, The Oregon Trail Generation: Life before and after mainstream tech, Mashable (2015-05-21). A big part of what makes us the square peg in the round hole of named generations is our strange relationship with technology and the Internet. We came of age just as the very essence of communication was experiencing a seismic shift, and it's given us a unique perspective that's half analog old school and half digital new school.
  2. Fu Danni, Why Dali’s Hippie Migrants Are a Model for Chinese Communities, Sixth Tone (2019-03-19). The development of modern housing estates has destroyed traditional Chinese concepts of neighbors and community. People live in apartment blocks where neighbors rarely interact with each other and sometimes don’t even know who lives next door. We have become the first generation without real neighbors. Now the concept of creating a community atmosphere is gaining traction.
  3. Louise Marburg, No-Man's Land: A Conversation with Andrea Mitchell, The Rumpus (2019-02-22). Troubled people are fascinating to me, yes. When I’ve encountered someone mean or angry or terribly foolish, I’ve always wanted to know why they were that way. Very few people are rotten for no reason (though there certainly are exceptions). Messy lives peppered through with mistakes, sometimes very grave ones, are more interesting. I think, too, that unlikable characters give me a chance as a writer to dig a little deeper to find that redeeming quality buried somewhere beneath all the rubble. There’s a certain reward to that.
  4. Adam Sternbergh, The Embers of Gentrification, New York Magazine (2007-11-09). There are three ways gentrification can burn itself out. One, an economic downturn douses people’s ability or willingness to relocate—the equivalent of dousing a forest fire in retardant foam. Two, the seeders, in search of cheap new space, get driven out of the city entirely—which means the kindling that keeps the fire going has been consumed. Three, the gap between what the seeders seek out and what the harvesters will accept becomes too wide for the cycle to continue—like digging a ditch around a fire that the flames can’t jump across.
  5. Jason Fried, Habits always form, Signal v. Noise (2019-05-22). Habits are always forming. No matter what you do, you’re also forming habits too. Keep that in mind with whatever you do. When we talk about habits, we generally talk about learning good habits. Or forming good habits. Both of these outcomes suggest we can end up with the habits we want. And technically we can! But most of the habits we have are habits we ended up with after years of unconscious behavior. They’re not intentional.

Listened

  1. Is Amazon Too Big?, Knowledge@Wharton (2019-05-20). "I think that Amazon is changing so much of the way we think about business," Hamilton said. "A standard problem that a maturing organization runs into is that it starts to get entrenched in the way that it's doing things and then fails to miss the next opportunity. Amazon has so far not fallen into that trap at all. They are just constantly blowing things up and constantly looking for new ways to solve problems."
  2. YANSS 131 – The psychological forces that make waiting for marshmallows easier also make life itself easier, You Are Not So Smart (2018-07-02). (notes) [31:14] And what Watts and his team found was that it was these other measures, measures all tied to socioeconomic status and the environmental conditions tied to socioeconomic status, that most correlated to later success. In addition, those same measures all correlated with whether a child could delay gratification and wait for the second marshmallow. In other words, it was socioeconomic status that both predicted how a child performed on the marshmallow test and if that child fared better later in life. Watts found there is some predictive power in the marshmallow test, about half as much as we once thought, but it pales in comparison to the predictive power of poverty.
  3. S 4 E 14 Breathe, Akimbo: A Podcast from Seth Godin (2019-05-22). (notes) [24:59] The idea of wrestling with perfectionism, of the divergence between "ship it", bring work to the world, and "the dip", our need to create something remarkable, to be best in the world--the conflict is really clear. But we confuse it sometimes. First of all, I have never once said, "Just ship it". Because just do it, just ship it, that implies, "Go ahead, what the hell, put it out there, doesn't matter". What I'm talking about is, "Merely ship it". There's a blog post on my blog tomorrow morning. It's not on my blog tomorrow morning because it's perfect. It's on my blog tomorrow morning because it's tomorrow morning. If we commit, as Lorne Michaels pointed out with Saturday Night Live, we commit to shipping at a given date and a given time, and know that we must ship our best available work at that moment, our best available work will get better because professionals ship on time, they ship on schedule. What it means to "merely ship it" is to drop the narrative, to stop holding ourselves back, not because it's not good enough, but because it's easier to hold the work back than to interact with the marketplace.

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new york

Upcoming


There might be additional links that didn't make the cut at notes.kirkkittell.com

A week in review, 2019-W20

Wrote

None

Read

  1. David Dobbs, The Science of Success, The Atlantic (2009-12-01). The coup also showed something more straightforward: that a genetic trait tremendously maladaptive in one situation can prove highly adaptive in another. We needn’t look far to see this in human behavior. To survive and evolve, every society needs some individuals who are more aggressive, restless, stubborn, submissive, social, hyperactive, flexible, solitary, anxious, introspective, vigilant—and even more morose, irritable, or outright violent—than the norm.
  2. Jill Lepore, What the Gospel of Innovation Gets Wrong, The New Yorker (2014-06-16). Disruptive innovation is a theory about why businesses fail. It’s not more than that. It doesn’t explain change. It’s not a law of nature. It’s an artifact of history, an idea, forged in time; it’s the manufacture of a moment of upsetting and edgy uncertainty. Transfixed by change, it’s blind to continuity. It makes a very poor prophet.
  3. Nancy Duarte, How to Get Others to Adopt Your Recommendation, MIT Sloan Management Review (2018-12-12).
  4. Dean Keith Simonton, Looking back: Creative genius in classical music, The Psychologist (2009-12-01).
  5. Eric Lindquist, Wisconsin bar owner uncovers huge, 134-year-old circus poster: 'It should never have survived', Chicago Tribune (2019-05-18).

Listened

  1. Kai Fu Lee: "AI isn't biased, humans are", Danny in the Valley (2019-05-17).
  2. Episode 214: More Nietzsche's Zarathustra (Part Two), The Partially Examined Life (2019-05-06).

Watched

Bill Morrison, Outerborough (2005)

Photo

liberty

Upcoming


There might be additional links that didn't make the cut at notes.kirkkittell.com

A week in review, 2019-W19

Wrote

  1. Shield (2019-05-07).
  2. Don't even think about it (2019-05-08).
  3. Now reading: Loonshots (2019-05-10).

Read

  1. Ted Mills, Tangled Up in Blue: Deciphering a Bob Dylan Masterpiece, Open Culture (2019-05-09).
  2. Deepti Asthana, In a remote Rajasthan national park, two women forest guards forge a friendship, Firstpost (2019-02-22).
  3. Sandy Rovner, Rats! The Real Secret of NIMH, The Washington Post (1982-07-21).
  4. Daniel Miller, Walt Disney Co. archivist Dave Smith, an 'unsung hero' who cataloged company secrets, dies at 78, The Los Angeles Times (2019-02-15).
  5. Michael Chabon, Ricky Jay, the Magician with an Edge, The Paris Review (2019-02-12).

Listened

  1. 680: How China Is Upending Western Marketing Practices, HBR IdeaCast (2019-04-30).
  2. Apeiron’s Christian Angermayer: "Magic mushrooms' long, strange trip", Danny in the Valley (2019-05-03).
  3. Episode 214: More Nietzsche's Zarathustra (Part One), The Partially Examined Life (2019-04-29).

Watched

Photo

options

Upcoming


There might be additional links that didn't make the cut at notes.kirkkittell.com

Now reading: Loonshots

Safi Bahcall, Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries (2019). (Goodreads/review - notes)


I heard about this one in an episode of HBR IdeaCast in March 2019: #674 A Theoretical Physicist (and Entrepreneur) on Why Companies Stop Innovating.

Why did I pick it up? I've worked in big companies and small companies. They each have maddening characteristics, although they're not quite the same maddening characteristics, for the most part. I thought Safi Bahcall's explanation in the podcast of how there are structural characteristics of organizations that could be manipulated—versus the normally soft and not-often-well-explained cultural characteristics from business books—to develop new products and new ideas, especially in larger organizations that have developed in such a way that they tend to favor sure things and avoid new things.

Shield

If you were to ask me who my favorite manager was, I'd say JA, my systems engineering manager on KEI at Orbital Sciences Corporation. She was my first manager, so it's difficult to say whether her ranking is due to her being my first manager (what do you compare it to?) or some sort of objective manager-ranking metrics (I don't know what these would be, but hopefully something near-sadistic like performance management reviews).

Anyway, I don't care why. I don't even remember the details. And the details I remember are through the eyes of an idiot.

The one thing I remember—or at least still feel—is the way she shielded the team from external bullshit. (Technical term.) I remember that. The project was receiving some non-negligible amount of chaos from the external environment, but I have this lasting feeling of how she absorbed much of that trouble, leaving the people on the team free to do the work.

More than a decade later: I would do a Bruce Willis barefoot walk over broken glass for that kind of leadership. It's hard. It's rare. It's valuable.

Why?

At least, why is it valuable? You hire people to do work—to develop software, to design gearboxes, to machine housings, etc.—not to debate, impotently, about some thing that they can't control coming down from some level that they can't affect. Boss's boss's boss wants some extra hot sauce on their status report? Or the resident subject matter expert wants three spaces after every period and a genuflection after every pronouncement? The people doing the work shouldn't be subjected to that kind of useless direction. Pass on the things that need to be passed on, but absorb the rest. It's a difficult thing to do to stand between the people who have the power and the people that are going to get rained unnecessarily on by that power.

If you want your people to get the work done you have to shield them from the environment when possible. Take the hit from the outside yourself, but do what it takes to let the people doing the work do the work.

A week in review, 2019-W18

Wrote

  1. Now reading: Wisdom at Work (2019-05-03). The reason for picking up this book is mostly tactical. I want to convince a certain target audience to pick up the mantle as an elder—an experienced person with something to give rather than something to prove.
  2. Finite (2019-05-01). What if the things I'm doing now—today—aren't as bad as I think? And so what if the things we played were bad? Like when we played the Violent Femmes' "Blister in the Sun" at The Embassy, but the pace got out of control? So what? No humans were harmed in the making of these memories.
  3. Rabbit hole: managing older employees (2019-04-30).

Read

  1. Andrew Chaikin, Who Took the Legendary Earthrise Photo From Apollo 8?, Smithsonian Magazine (2018-01-01). When I got to the tape of the Earthrise, I had absolutely no trouble recognizing the voices. I could clearly hear that it was Anders who first saw the Earth coming up, not Borman. It was Borman who said, "Don't take that, it's not scheduled," and I realized he was teasing Anders about his strict adherence to the photo plan (because, as the tapes also revealed, when Borman wanted to take a "tourist photo" of a crater hours earlier, Anders told him not to). I listened as Anders urgently asked Lovell for a roll of color film. Then Lovell was at his own window and the two men argued about who had the better view. Lovell demanded Anders hand over the camera; Anders told Lovell to calm down. Finally, Anders snapped two color pictures. Hearing this historic moment unfold I felt like a stowaway aboard Apollo 8.
  2. Charles Bramesco, Is Apocalypse Now: Final Cut the best version we'll ever see?, The Guardian (2019-04-29). Last night, whatever opposition this film once faced was a distant memory, as Coppola dispensed wisdom from the right side of posterity. "If you want to make art," he said, "you have to be comfortable with risk, and taking a chance that you know best." Soderbergh put it even more succinctly: "I don't know what to say, other than that you gambled and you won." Coppola beamed at the instant round of applause, surrounded by irrefutable evidence that he had made the right decisions, even if they seemed crazy at the time. They say textbooks are written by the victors, and because he just so happened to be a genius with talent too great to be denied, Coppola now gets the privilege of setting his own legacy.
  3. Bryan Wawzenek, Monty Got a Raw Deal' Takes R.E.M. Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Diffuser (2017-10-12). "How much of the song is real, how much of it is about Montgomery Clift and how much is about home?" Buck asked in 1992. "I couldn't tell you."
  4. Bridey Heing, Midwesterners Have Seen Themselves As Being in the Center of Everything.'', Longreads (2019-04-23). One thing that really blew me away was that some migrant farm workers who were coming from Mexico to the rural Midwest had ancestors from the rural Midwest who were forced out in the early 20th century. So in that sense, people who are sometimes denounced in political discourse as alien others who should be walled out of the United States are actually struggling for a right of return.
  5. J. Kenji López-Alt, The Best Fried Cauliflower (Buffalo and Korean Style), Serious Eats (2013-02-22).

Listened

  1. Emma Cline Reads Miranda July, The New Yorker: Fiction (2019-05-01).
  2. Episode 213: Nietzsche's Zarathustra (Part Two), The Partially Examined Life (2019-04-22).
  3. Supple, Akimbo: A Podcast from Seth Godin (2019-05-01).

Watched

Passengers (2018)

Photo

Missouri Botanical Garden

Upcoming


There might be additional links that didn't make the cut at notes.kirkkittell.com

Now reading: Wisdom at Work

Chip Conley, Wisdom at Work: The Making of a Modern Elder (2018). (Goodreads/review - notes)


I first heard of this book when Chip Conley gave a talk at one of the Long Now's Seminars on Long Term Thinking in March 02019: The Modern Elder and the Intergenerational Workplace. I didn't consider reading the book after listening to him then. The talk was interesting, but I didn't give the book any thought at all.

Then earlier this week, while compiling a list of things to read on the topic of managing older employees, the book popped up again. This time I had a reason to get it, so I picked it up immediately on Kindle (a rarity for me—I tend to get things at the library or used).

Why?

The reason for picking up this book is mostly tactical. I want to convince a certain target audience to pick up the mantle as an elder—an experienced person with something to give rather than something to prove. Growing up in aerospace from the mid-2000s on, there always seemed to be some sort of catastrophic warning about the coming workforce turnover, like the punchclock at the factory was going to strike midnight and all the boomers were going to turn into pumpkins. It seemed like an opportunity, honestly. How many times we were told that the average age of engineers on the Apollo program were some obscenely low age, something in their 20s. (Parenthetically: those opportunities exist and existed in this era if you know where to look for them; suffice it to say that it's a fool's errand to look for them in established places.) More than a decade later, the feeling is some uncomfortable amalgam of "please don't go I have more questions" and "why don't you leave already?" The former feeling derives from knowing that they know why things actually work the way they do; the latter feeling is a visceral frustration at the clot of upper-level staff forever occupying the upper-level positions.

So it makes sense, I think, to try to understand how things feel from the other side. And it also makes sense to plan for how to engage that experience and wisdom without casually tossing it out.