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The Zeitgeist Ad

Way back in 2015, the marketing team for General Electric released this terrible commercial:

The ad really does not make me think GE is a good company or entice me to work for them. But it stuck with me, and I have come to realize that it inadvertently captured some core challenges of our society. Below is a transcript. I’ve taken the liberty of naming the characters.

Grizzled Dad, holding sledgehammer: I’m proud of you, son. GE! Manufacturing. Well, that’s why I dug this out for you; it’s your Grandpappy’s hammer, and he would have wanted you to have it.

Milquetoast Mom: It meant a lot to him.

New Hire: Yes, GE makes powerful machines, but I’ll be writing the code that will allow those machines to share information with each other. I’ll be changing the way the world–

Grizzled Dad, incredulous: You can’t pick it up, can you?

All stare at each other uncomfortably.

Grizzled Dad: Go ahead. You can’t lift the hammer.

Milquetoast Mom, condescending: It’s okay, though, you’re going to change the world!

When I think about the intervening time from 2015 to now — rampant anti-intellectualism, rejection of institutions and expertise, rising embrace of violence, a slew of right-wing pontificators about masculinity — this aggravating and insulting little commercial becomes a meditation on generational divides, the shift in the US (and wider European-American) economy from products to services, the complexity of technology in our society, gender roles, and the glorification of physical strength and bullying.

You have the New Hire — presumably also a new college grad and, in 2015, a Millennial — who is just doing what he’s been told to do: get educated, learn to code, and seek a promising job opportunity. He’s found something that uses his skills and has become passionate about the application. (Not to mention the fact that his starting salary was almost certainly six figures.) He’s comfortable with himself and his choices: he’s relaxed, well-dressed, and not only familiar with his own new role but eager and able to explain it to others. He’s even diplomatic! His gentle correction of his father is a validating “yes, and” rather than a confrontational “well, actually.”

Then you have the Grizzled Dad. As the father of a new graduate in 2015, he could be Gen X, but he’s portrayed as older, so my read is Boomer. He’s proud. We don’t know what he does (or did) for a career, but we know he’s proud of his father — specifically his father’s physical strength. He’s thinking of an idealized past when the expectation was that the man of the house would go out and work to provide for his family, and that man needed nothing but his own body to do that successfully. (Very successfully, I might ad: look at the background living room. A two-story house, everything precisely positioned, painting on the wall, polished antique furniture, full china cabinet, decorative muntins in the window, hats and coats arranged for going out. This couple is well off.)

We also see clearly that he doesn’t understand what GE wants his son to do, and he doesn’t respect it. Rather than adopting a perspective that maintains the connection to the New Grad’s grandfather and recognizes how each of the three generations of this family have built upon the success of their predecessors, rather than asking for any details about the new job or expressing any interest in New Grad’s career opportunities, and rather than taking any pride in the fact that GE values the New Grad’s expertise and skills, the Grizzled Dad cuts him off and openly belittles him. The barb he slings at his own son demonstrates the only thing that the Grizzled Dad does seem to respect: physical strength. The world may have changed, become more complex, and become a place where new and different skills are valued — and his reaction is to simplify everything down to the increasingly irrelevant question: “can you lift the hammer?” Even his son’s “yes, and” correction — presented in the kind of validating way that younger Americans would be encouraged to use, a few years later, as allies and “upstanders” in talking with family members — simply can’t share space in the Grizzled Dad’s value system: physical strength matters, respect elders. No room for other things.

If the viewer is meant to see through the eyes of the New Grad, this is insulting. For this commercial to work as humor, the viewer must take the Grizzled Dad’s perspective. We are meant to side with a bully. (Who is making fun not only of his son, but also of GE, in fact. It’s a bad advertisement.)

Finally, we have the Milquetoast Mom, who I named that because she’s dressed in the same colors as the background walls and furniture. Her minor role is to quietly validate her husband and then fade into the background again. Until, that is, she joins in the belittling of her son, and when I examine her wording compared to what her son said earlier, it’s clear that she doesn’t understand or want to understand either. (Her version of this is passive-aggressive instead of the outright antagonism of her husband, though.)

This commercial popped unbidden into my mind after I read Christine Emba’s long essay in the Washington Post about men, their shifting role in our modern culture, and the right-wing tendency to prescribe violence and misogyny in order to fill any gaps. The producers and writers of this ad had put their finger on something similar. They realized that the cultural, technological, and — most of all — economic changes of the last few decades were a driver of inter-generational tension. They also realized that the older generation might — could? would? — react with antagonism. Bullying. Physical strength. The year after this commercial first aired, Donald Trump figured out he could build a winning Presidential campaign out of the idea “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more!” and that the answers to questions like “what’s ‘it?'” or “what should we do about it?” didn’t really matter to his appeal. Then he ran an entire Presidential administration on the idea that being a bully was serving his constituents, and ended his term with violence. It worked well for those who value physical strength above all else.

But it’s okay, honey, you’re going to change the world! We’ll just be sitting here among all the trinkets we bought instead of investing in your generation, thinking about your disappointingly skinny arms.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a better resolution to all this than the one the commercial offers: smile and nod, knowing that the Grizzled Dad’s opinions will soon be just as irrelevant as his father’s hammer, hoping that the right-wing politics of the last seven years are a last gasp of tired ideologies, and wait for my generation to finally gain a critical mass in positions of influence.

Ethical Engineering Means Choosing Your Work

I once heard a shocking comment from a colleague at a previous job in the aerospace industry. My colleague told me, “Joe, I think you’re a lot like me – you don’t really care about what your work is for, so long as it involves solving challenging problems.” I walked out of that conversation with a notion solidifying in my mind: if that company had that impression of me, I had to get out.

When engineering students, or young professionals, think about engineering ethics, they usually deal with topics narrowly pertaining to their problem-solving work. For example, making sure that they report correct results, that they do not misrepresent their data, or that they raise issues they find to their management. Human safety is often the main focus, especially preventing injury or loss of life due to improper operation of the engineered system. A classic example is the o-rings on the Space Shuttle Challenger‘s solid rocket boosters: an engineer had an ethical obligation to raise his concerns to try and save the crew, and the engineering management suffered an ethical failure in refusing him.

But what abut the ethics involved in the proper operation of a system? There is an aspect of engineering ethics that rarely gets attention in engineering instruction: an engineer’s ethical responsibilities in choosing which projects and programs to work on. A wonderful essay by Darshan Karwat on this subject appeared on the Union of Concerned Scientists’ blog recently. As an aerospace engineer – a canonical “dual-use” discipline, meaning it has both civilian and military applications – I offer my own opinion here. Continue reading Ethical Engineering Means Choosing Your Work

Voting with my Feet

I recently made a major life decision: I left my job. And after the US presidential election last month, I feel that my decision was precisely correct. I want to explain my motivation, because I believe that there are important policy issues in play that many people do not think about. I also believe it’s especially important to raise these issues among scientists and engineers.

First of all, everything in this post reflects my personal opinion.

I used to work at an engineering company that does most of its work as a military contractor. My discipline is spacecraft engineering, and this company occasionally offered work on space systems. It was that spacecraft work that attracted me to the company in the first place. I got to design algorithms for a constellation of NASA hurricane-monitoring satellites, and I got to help out with some experimental satellite programs. However, for the several years I worked there I struggled with the fact that space work was sort of a side project for this company. The main revenue stream came from building weapons. The kind of weapons nobody in their right mind should ever consider using.

I recall hearing many ways to rationalize participation in weapons projects: we are defending our nation; if we don’t build these, someone else will; this is just an interesting engineering problem we’re solving regardless of the applications. I could never make any of the rationalizations work for me. That last one, in particular, I found fundamentally disturbing. If we, as engineers, don’t consider the possible applications and implications of our work, then I think we lack the moral standing to do that work – even if our work was not used as we intended. If our projects kill, then we have blood on our hands. I did not want that to happen to me.

There was a particular class of weapon that inspired an existential dread in me. (Fortunately, though I learned about these systems, I never had to work on one. What I know of them comes from the media, as exemplified by the links below.) It’s called a hypersonic weapon, or sometimes a “prompt global strike” weapon. These are weapons designed specifically to travel as fast as a ballistic missile, though they could carry non-nuclear warheads. The problem with these weapons is that their purpose is to penetrate air defenses like that possessed by only a few specific (and often nuclear-armed) nations – Russia and China, for instance. It doesn’t take much of a stretch to imagine that American development of hypersonic weapons would make such nations think that they are our intended target! Furthermore, their design is to move quickly, maneuver erratically, or otherwise act in a manner that could be confusing to opposing radar operators. Russian missile-warning satellites have a historical track record of mistaking things like scientific sounding rockets or sunlight glinting off clouds for an American nuclear missile attack – against which Russian doctrine dictates a nuclear response. So do we really want to confuse those early-warning systems further? Even if the American weapons are non-nuclear, firing one in the vicinity of Chinese or Russian air defense creates an unacceptably high probability of accidental nuclear war. Russian officials may even have suggested that they would respond to a hypersonic weapon with nukes, on purpose.

The really crazy thing is that former President George W. Bush agreed with me and discontinued an experimental hypersonic vehicle program for exactly the reason I outlined: unacceptable risk of accidentally causing nuclear war. What the US is developing now are actually President Obama’s weapons. Obama thought that his Defense Department would rely on American technological superiority to deter any potential adversary. Instead of our weapons having the most powerful blasts, they would have other fear-inducing qualities. They would strike the quickest and be able to penetrate any defense. In addition, with non-nuclear warheads, these weapons are not limited by nuclear arms treaties and might even be useful to generals fighting a smaller-scale conflict like the one against ISIS. Ironically, though, these non-nuclear weapons could very well set off a nuclear counterattack anyway! Worse, Obama touched off a volatile hypersonic arms race among the biggest military powers of the world. Now several nations are rapidly developing the ability to accidentally trigger a global nuclear holocaust by setting off the US’s, Russia’s, or China’s Cold War-era automated response systems.

Though I didn’t work on those weapons, my former company had an intent focus on military programs. I feared that it was only a matter of time before they ran out of civilian spacecraft work and assigned me to something nefarious. Hypersonic weapons are only one terrifying example. Missiles, drones, cyberweapons – work on all these things and more is common in engineering companies. Given the Pentagon’s push for “disruptive innovation” – really, just think about how scary that phrase is in connection with the military! – I figured the prospects for a guy who wants rockets only to explore space were likely to get worse. Ultimately, I decided that it was up to me to vote with my feet, uphold my moral convictions, and deprive both my former company and the military of my engineering talent. So I got a new job, at a facility that doesn’t do any weaponry. I’ll be working on telecommunications satellites, and weather satellites, and imaging satellites, and space probes. That was how I cleared my conscience. But to do so, I had to move across the country to find an aerospace industry facility that didn’t build weapons. Others with the same moral dilemma may not be so flexible.

Now enter President-elect Donald J. Trump. In a primary interview, he suggested the use of nuclear weapons, in Europe, as a means to fight ISIS. He has reiterated many times how important he thinks it is to be “unpredictable” with his nuclear policy. He wants to abolish the deal that pushed Iran from being months away from developing a nuclear bomb to a decade away. He has publicly stated that the US should pull back from defense commitments in Europe and Asia. He has suggested that he would be okay if Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia all became nuclear powers. He has offhandedly proposed bombing various American enemies, large and small. And he wants to dramatically increase US military spending. With merely a phone call as president-elect, Trump caused an international incident. All this is likely the product of willful ignorance: He is refusing security briefings, and he doesn’t believe the information presented in those he does attend.

A Trump world is a world with more nuclear-armed powers and more instability. I do not have confidence in his ability to refrain from policies that make nukes more risky, or even from ordering a nuclear attack himself. Furthermore, I have little doubt that, given the option to launch a “non-nuclear” hypersonic weapon at some target that peeved him, Trump would pull the trigger. An all-too-possible result: global nuclear war and the end of human life as we know it.

If that happens it will be Trump’s fault, and not mine. I left the weapon-mongering subfield of engineering, and so I will not help him do these things. Not even in a small way. My decision feels secure. But, thanks to his election, the safety of the world isn’t.

I think we all learned something from this election: the price of silence. The media failed to challenge Trump on his most egregious or insensitive claims. Republican party statesmen failed to hold their own convictions as his fortunes rose, and instead held their tongues over each new outrage. Ordinary Americans failed to discuss the issues with their family and friends outside of Facebook’s echo chamber. And then, on Election Day, voter turnout was historically low. We’re seeing repercussions for bigotry and harassment already, and Trump’s decision to pack his cabinet with generals – violating the American principle of civilian leadership of the military that goes all the way back to George Washington – makes me extremely skeptical about future military strategy and weapons development. That’s why I wanted to to write this piece: We, as Americans, all need to think hard about how our tax money is going to be spent on the military, and whether that spending makes us safer or not, regardless of the jobs it secures for our communities. If the military money doesn’t make us safer, or especially if it makes us less safe, then perhaps we can find other ways to sustain jobs with federal funding: say, basic research and infrastructure investment. We need to keep a sharp eye on our federal policies and keep in close touch with our representatives in Congress.

Trump is a man who tolerates no disagreement, and doesn’t hesitate to unleash a horde of GamerGate-style trolls to harass and threaten people who question him. Furthermore, the congress is going to be full of spineless, unprincipled people like Paul Ryan, who condemned Trump’s moral failings…short of withdrawing their endorsement of this man who could keep them in power. They will not be an effective check on Trump. So one thing I am doing in response to Trump’s election is finding ways to live my policies, and letting my behavior in the market speak to American policymakers and companies for me. We signed up with our home energy provider to receive 100% renewable energy. We’re donating to the ACLU, and SPLC, and Brady Campaign, and Planned Parenthood, and Natural Resources Defense Council. We’re getting newspaper subscriptions to the New York Times and Washington Post. We’re buying into programs that offset the heavy carbon emissions of airplane flights. We’re putting a priority on getting fuel-efficient cars. When we do buy fuel, we’re going to try to buy from European companies like Shell that have tied their executives’ bonuses to carbon-reducing efforts (and to avoid ExxonMobil, which waged a decades-long disinformation campaign after its own research scientists became aware of the occurrence and causes of global warming).

And, in that same vein, I left my job at a weapons manufacturing subcontractor.

There is power in voting with one’s wallet and one’s feet. In particular, I think engineers need to consider carefully the applications and implications of the work we do. Especially any engineers given the choice of contributing to the most devastating weapons we can imagine, or weapons that do the most damage against civilians, or devices that are overly provocative to other nations. If our work falls into the wrong hands – say, an “unpredictable” American president who won’t rule out weapons of mass destruction and has advocated targeting civilians – then we share in the responsibility for the consequences. I would like to encourage other engineers out there to devote some thought to how they can also find ways to use their skills to make our world a better place.

Because, in Trump’s new world, we as individuals are going to need to spend a lot of effort to make things better. Hopefully, there will be enough of us to counteract him.

After Inspiration

We space exploration fans and practitioners live in heady times! But I’m going to take a step back from all the SpaceXes and KickSats of the moment to do some philosophizing. Let’s start with the adage that the military is always fighting the last war: I think the saying may be true of science and space exploration advocates, too. Just hold that thought…

Over the last several weeks, I have been enjoying the “Cosmos” reboot. One of the justifications put forward for the show is the need to inspire a new generation to pursue scientific and technical careers, as Carl Sagan’s original did in the early 1980s. Airing prominently in support of “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” is a Boeing advertisement, perhaps suggesting a career path to those young Americans inspired by Neil deGrasse Tyson in the show proper. It portrays engineers hard at work building – among other key Boeing-associated products – communications satellites, rockets, and solar panels. As the music crescendos, it displays footage of the International Space Station while the narrator declares that Boeing engineers have built “something the whole world can share.” The way the ad spot is cut, one might almost get the impression that the aerospace giant puts forth equal effort – and promises equal opportunities – in civil space exploration as it does in the areas of military aerospace and commercial aviation.

There’s a problem with STEM (that’s “science, technology, engineering, and math”) in the United States, but this “STEM crisis” isn’t really what it’s made out to be. There’s not really a shortage of STEM graduates. There’s a shortage of jobs for STEM graduates. This fact raises a question: suppose “Cosmos” inspires a large number of young Americans. Suppose it makes them want to learn the fundamental science underpinning the physical processes of the universe. Suppose it encourages their passion to build space telescopes and Mars rovers. Suppose it pushes them to wonder if there is alien life on Europa, or Enceladus, or an exoplanet. What do the newly minted young engineers and scientists go on to do?

The things we value as a country, and how much we value them, are effectively determined by the budgets set in Congress. In 2013, Congress spent about $63 billion on science and technology research of any kind. Yet the Department of Defense gets ten times that amount, and about 25 times that dollar value goes toward nondiscretionary entitlements. On top of that, over half of what little federal R&D funding there is goes toward defense programs (which means the fruits of that R&D don’t really percolate out into wider society). NASA does everything that it does on a paltry $18 billion dollars annually – about half a percent of the federal budget.

The message is clear: our country values keeping its social obligations. Fine, good. But the next thing on our national priority list is defense. (And, of course, much of our defense policy is based around big-ticket systems fighting a Cold War that ended when our adversary ceased to exist almost a quarter-century ago. As that adage goes…) As for research and development, fundamental science, medical advancements, or space exploration…well, according to the money, our country barely cares about these things at all in comparison. As a result, some of the most secure opportunities available to STEM graduates are in military-related positions – contrary to what that Boeing advertisement suggests.

This situation is extremely sad and problematic, both for our young engineers and scientists and for the United States as a whole. And it suggests to me that the best target of science advocacy should not be the young Americans working their way up through school. It should be Congress.

Private companies don’t produce fundamental innovation without a clear financial incentive. They don’t do basic science research, and they hesitate to invest in product development that stretches beyond the next quarter, let alone the next fiscal year. We can’t rely on private enterprise for awe-inspiring scientific and engineering feats. Most of the really blockbuster stuff – the continental discoveries and global circumnavigations and Hoover dams and Moon landings and Saturn probes – comes from governments. Not just any government fits the bill, either: only those that take the long view engage in such risky and rewarding activities. Historically, the United States federal government has been an incredible innovator. NASA is an exemplary contributor, holding 1 in 1000 US patents! (And that’s not even mentioning the tangible or intangible economic benefits.) Lest one think that academia will step in on its own to provide the fundamental research, consider that government grants support the scientists in academic institutions. We need the government to be doing this stuff.

Basic research, innovation, and exploration is potent, inspiring stuff. With their ad spot accompanying “Cosmos,” Boeing demonstrated that they have a strong grasp of this concept: giving the Space Station top billing among their projects is a sure way to tug on the heartstrings of future-minded young people. (They’re not the only “Cosmos” advertiser to capitalize on the excitement of space exploration, either.) But in a time when our Congressional leaders simultaneously don’t seem to care about science and lack the courage to close even the unneeded military bases, there’s very little chance that a young engineer gets to work on space exploration. Sadly, one probable outcome is that after their technical education our aspiring space explorers will end up doing what the military-industrial complex calls “capability maintenance” – which easily means work that has all the technical, social, and political value of a “bridge to nowhere.” To a congressperson, military pork is the most valuable and secure kind of jobs program; to a defense contractor, bloated programs are steady income.

I’m in my early career. I’m not as bitter as, say, NASA Watch yet (and the ire I do have goes straight at Congress rather than at NASA administration). I consider myself fortunate that, even though I don’t work for NASA, I am working on a NASA mission that’s relevant to civil science. But I do see that there are hard, important problems out there that we need to solve – some, problems of national import – while we divert resources elsewhere. I imagine if we decommissioned a few surplus ships, we could instead land humans on Mars. I think if we could close a few extraneous bases, we might instead determine that we are not alone in the universe. Or I wonder, if we shut down our arsenal of Minuteman missile silos – leaving our ability to combat modern threats unaffected – could we instead attack what is probably the greatest known future national security issue: climate change? I want to make the world a better place by working on those problems, and by stretching human capabilities and knowledge out into space. And I, for one, view a lack of investment in science and innovation as more relevant to the United States’ national security than many overt military programs.

We have to remember that the point of NASA is not just to inspire. And the point definitely isn’t to be a jobs program for targeted areas of Alabama, Texas, California, and Florida. Historically, it wasn’t even to explore space. The point of NASA was to move our nation forward in scientific and technological capability. Popular inspiration is a nice, and effective, bonus. But our leaders in the Capitol are clearly in more need of science advocacy than we are. If we could inspire a little more political courage from them, to move money from safe-but-unnecessary programs to critical development agencies and unleash those agencies to innovate, then the rest of America can go on to great things – after inspiration.

A little PSA

You know, I could argue that Iron Man is an allegory for medical devices.

Tony Stark’s heart

However, I really do wish that I could do with my insulin pump what Tony Stark does with his arc reactor at the end of “Iron Man 3.” I also (unfortunately) don’t get super powers from it while it’s still attached to me.

If you agree, then I will point out that I am biking in the Tour de Cure this year in Princeton, NJ. If you like, you can support me with a donation. I only need $206 more to reach my fundraising goal!

The Universe is Awesome, Again

Now here’s some fodder for science fiction right out of today’s space headlines…

Kepler Discovers Planetary System Orbiting Two Suns

Sweet building blocks of life found around young star

Picture this: a multiple-planet, multiple-star system, still in its early stages of formation – gravity pulling proto-planets and gas streamers all over the system – the radiation from the igniting stars bathing the inner disk in energy – resonances between planetoids, dust lumps, and the stars feeding back into the dynamics – and life evolves.

The universe is just awesome.

NBC Olympics

I don’t entirely get all of the criticism that’s been leveled against NBC for its coverage of these Olympics. Oh, no, it’s a tape delay, somebody call Julian Assange – surprise! that’s how we’ve been watching the Olympics in other time zones for decades! OMG, there are stupid human-interest interviews with athletes – oh, yeah, well with the exception of a few outstanding individuals, I defy you to find an athlete give an interview that wasn’t just “I tried to win, and I {did|didn’t}” platitudes. WTF, the commentators sound stupid for not knowing a few factoids – well, gee, I am a pretty well-rounded, well-informed, and well-educated guy, but I didn’t know who Tim Berners-Lee was, either.

That said, I don’t mean to suggest that things like this aren’t funny. Or that NBC isn’t doing some things wrong. I think that cutting a memorial from the opening ceremony (especially one as well-executed as that!) was insensitive left viewers with a reduced perspective of the opening ceremony. (Plus, there’s the whole golden rule angle: if New York had won the 2012 Games, I know there would have been tributes to the World Trade Center attacks and I know that Americans would have been annoyed if the BBC cut them.)

Likewise, there are some severe shortcomings to NBC’s content delivery. I gave up on cable television and just got myself an internet package…and so now I’m not allowed to watch any of the Olympic coverage on the web or TV. Before TV went digital, I could have watched for free. Something tells me that we consumers are worse off in this new world of digital rights management…

Besides, I actually like the curated content. If I watch a raw stream, I don’t get to hear the details of the arcane rules in events I’m not familiar with. I don’t necessarily know who the athletes are, or where they are in their careers, or how close they are to a world record, or how impressive that thing they did really is. The primetime content may be oversaturated with some events (swimming, running, gymnastics, …) and light on other, equally exciting, tense, and cool sports (badminton, whitewater kayaking, water polo, archery, …) but the context from former Olympians and coaches actually does help.

I’m not sure how the networks haven’t figured out the Internet yet. Why don’t they go all the way and stream the primetime coverage online, to everyone, ads and all?

Just adding my voice in case someone at NBC is watching the trends on Google. 😉