Sotto Voce.

"Qui plume a, guerre a." — Voltaire

Failure Modes

A couple days ago, after work, I was tooling around YouTube and came across a documentary I hadn’t seen in a while: “Failure is Not an Option: A Flight Control History of NASA.” It’s ever so slightly over the top, but that’s okay because the subject — how a group of young engineers invented the procedures that got us to the Moon — is part of a modern epic that should be told in the grand, sweeping language of the sagas and ballads of yore. Growing up, my idols were guys like Christopher Columbus Kraft, Gene Kranz, and John Aaron. So I don’t mind seeing them idolized. And of course, “failure is not an option” entered the popular lexicon with the movie Apollo 13, which elevated the lunar program’s pit crew to the status of heroes.

Yesterday, following SpaceX’s terrific success landing its Falcon orbital booster autonomously on its ocean-going barge, I came across an article on the tech news website Ars Technica titled “Because failure is an option SpaceX can do stuff like land rockets on a boat.” With the documentary fresh in mind, I was naturally curious to read it.

The article opens by noting that “there is a belief among some that, since the heady Apollo days, such an attitude [that of failure not being an option] has made NASA’s managers too timid and too risk averse.” It then constrasts this attitude with something SpaceX’s Elon Musk said in a 2005 Fast Company article: “There’s a silly notion that failure’s not an option at NASA. Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.”

In reading that, it struck me that we’re talking about two fundamentally different ideas of failure here: failure of imagination, and failure of responsibility.

Following the pad fire in January 1967 that killed the flight crew of Apollo I — Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee — Gene Kranz assembled his flight controllers in a room, shut the door, and gave the greatest speech of his career:

“Spaceflight will never tolerate carelessness, incapacity, and neglect. Somewhere, somehow, we screwed up. It could have been in design, build, or test. Whatever it was, we should have caught it. We were too gung ho about the schedule and we locked out all of the problems we saw each day in our work. Every element of the program was in trouble and so were we. The simulators were not working, Mission Control was behind in virtually every area, and the flight and test procedures changed daily. Nothing we did had any shelf life. Not one of us stood up and said, ‘Dammit, stop!’

I don’t know what Thompson’s committee will find as the cause, but I know what I find. We are the cause! We were not ready! We did not do our job. We were rolling the dice, hoping that things would come together by launch day, when in our hearts we knew it would take a miracle. We were pushing the schedule and betting that the Cape would slip before we did.

From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: “Tough” and “Competent.” “Tough” means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities. Every time we walk into Mission Control we will know what we stand for. “Competent” means we will never take anything for granted. We will never be found short in our knowledge and in our skills. Mission Control will be perfect.

When you leave this meeting today you will go to your office and the first thing you will do there is to write “Tough and Competent” on your blackboards. It will never be erased. Each day when you enter the room these words will remind you of the price paid by Grissom, White, and Chaffee.

These words are the price of admission to the ranks of Mission Control.”

That day, NASA had failed in its duty of care to the three astronauts who perished. What Gene Kranz was saying was that as far as Mission Control was concerned, it would never again abdicate its responsibilities to others.

The losses of the Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003 were not the result of failures of imagination; everyone involved in both missions knew that spaceflight is a risky business. They were failures of responsibilty. In both cases, crucial decisions were made by people who were more concerned with the consequences to themselves than the consequences to others — precisely the opposite of Kranz’ tough and competent dictum.

There were plenty of engineering failures in the testing and development phases of Apollo — engines, structural, design, you name it. They were expected, anticipated, and sought out — how else could they figure out everything that could go wrong before they sent people to the Moon? Nothing could be left to the imagination; everything had to be foressen, tested, and designed for or against. Apollo’s track record makes it clear that there was no failure of imagination there.

The thing is, they worked out all those kinks before they ever put anyone up into space. They were willing to risk failure all the way up to the moment when the astronauts climbed in. Those failures were sought out in order to prevent that failure.

The most recent successful Falcon flight is a perfect example of the balancing of the two kinds of failure I’m talking about here. The design of the Falcon launch vehicle brilliantly isolates two distinct event chains: the delivery of the payload to orbit and the return of the booster to the landing barge. SpaceX does not risk failing its responsibility to its launch customers by tying the success of the former to the success of the latter. Here’s a simple graph:

Function Failure Type Duty of Care
Payload delivery Responsibility Customer
Booster landing Imagination SpaceX

SpaceX doesn’t take risks with the customer’s payload, because the customer is paying them to do the job. (Sure, SpaceX has liability in the event that a booster malfunction results in the loss of the payload, but that’s an incentive, not a risk.) On the other hand, SpaceX can afford to take risks with the booster landing because, hey, whatever SpaceX wants to do with its own property after fulfilling its contractual duty is its own business. SpaceX’s approach neatly compartmentalizes the respective failure modes.

Now SpaceX is talking about sending a Falcon to Mars. Certainly no failure of imagination there. But I think we can be damn sure that the company isn’t proposing to send those astronauts up in a ship that hasn’t been tested to its limits and beyond. Musk surely knows that, as a private company, SpaceX would never survive a public revelation that it had failed its responsibility to the crew.

“Failure is not an option” is not synonymous with “risk averse.” Fear of failure in the everyday sense — “what if I try this and it doesn’t work?” — is not something that NASA currently suffers from. If you have any doubts, just recall the batshit-crazy descent profile flown by the Mars Curiosity lander. Which worked, by the way.

No, “failure is not an option” means “tough and competent.” It means having the balls to hold yourself accountable and the audacity to aspire to perfection. NASA has it, SpaceX has it, Blue Origin has it, and anyone who blazes a trail — to outer space, to inner space, to anywhere in between — has it too.

So say we all.


What’s in a Preposition?

The uncreative mind can spot wrong answers, but it takes a very creative mind to spot wrong questions. – Antony Jay

As usual, I’m two or three issues behind in my New Yorker reading, so it was only a few days ago that I had a chance to finally read Alec Wilkinson’s controversial article about avant-garde poet Kenneth Goldsmith. The article caused a stir not just because of the subject matter (at issue: did Goldsmith, in using the autopsy report of Michael Brown as a performance piece, demonstrate egregious and self-serving white privilege?) but also, in the aftermath of the article’s publication, for the way that Wilkinson characterized (or mischaracterized) the reactions of poets of color to Goldsmith’s act.

Merits and shortcomings aside, the article did at least try to explore some of the complexities and challenges that literary writers are facing right now in our increasingly polarized and powder-keggy society. It’s a tough subject to discuss constructively because of the centuries of cultural baggage that it hauls around behind it. There are layers of racism and sexism and power and class wrapped around the subject like explosives that have to be carefully disarmed without setting the whole thing off.

But for all the good intentions, there was a premise or a presumption at work in the article — and, by extension, in the dialogue — that troubled me. It’s best exemplified by this line from the last section of the article:

“Who is allowed to speak for people who have been harmed or who have suffered is an open argument.”

What snagged me then, and what continues to snag me, is the preposition for. There is something stealthily xenophobic about the whole “who gets to speak for someone” question. For all the concern about how the political right in this country has focused on the alienness of the “them,” the political left is just as busy focusing on the exclusivity of the “us.” They’re flip-sides of the same thing. Both the left and the right have tacitly agreed that the premise of the discourse is difference.

And in doing so, bam. You’ve tricked one group into wanting to build walls around others, and tricked the other group into wanting to build walls around itself.

Instead of asking who speaks for the people who have been harmed or who have suffered, the much more vitally urgent question is, Who speaks about them?

Because that had damned well better be everyone. And until it is, we will just go on inflicting and experiencing more harm and suffering.

We all must bear witness to people who have been harmed and who are being harmed. Young black men being murdered by unaccountable law enforcement is not an “African-American issue.” The subjugation of women is not a “feminist issue.” The denial of social rights to differently gendered people is not an “LGBTQ issue.” The disempowerment of indigenous peoples is not a “Native American issue.”

Like it or not, these are our issues. Because these injustices affect people first and foremost — regardless of the adjectives that are used to classify them. And encouraging people to split into squabbling identity groups is a divide-and-conquer technique that will prevent us from finding solutions to them together.

The premise of the discourse has to change. We can no longer afford to pretend that we are defined by our differences. We need to remember that we all bleed. We all cry. We all mourn. And we all celebrate. We all lift up. We all ennoble and embolden and encourage. We all dance around the fire and tell our stories and listen with wonder to the stories of others.

“These prison walls that this age of trade has built up round us, we can break down. We can still run free, call to our comrades, and marvel to hear once more, in response to our call, the pathetic chant of the human voice.”
— Antoine de Saint-Exupéry


The Lights Are On Again at Channel 37

Last week, in a stealth move, I posted the first installment of a new Space Repairman serial, “Word of Honor” on Channel 37. The next chapter goes up this week. I have two more chapters in the works to complete the story. And I’m thinking about what will come after that.

Gary says we have enough material for a Season Two! book. We’re thinking about getting some more completed serials up as ebooks.

Our next two Audio Invasion podcasts are interviews (a movie director and an author), which we’ll probably be doing more of because we really enjoy them. We have a pretty firm commitment from a well-known local author for a new story to come later in the summer. And I finally bought myself a good mic.

It looks like Channel 37 has gone and pulled a Philae.


The Statistical Anomaly

“Figures often beguile me, particularly when I have the arranging of them myself; in which case the remark attributed to Disraeli would often apply with justice and force: ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.'” — Mark Twain*

Many years ago, I was helping a client prepare a report on primary education that made use of statistical data collected by the federal government. In the report was a table showing the math proficiency of elementary school students from first to fifth grades for a particular year. The table showed that for each grade level, the level of proficiency was less than the lower grade; i.e., first graders were more proficient at math than second graders, second graders were more proficient than third graders, and so on.

The caption for the table read, “Students become less proficient in math as they progress through elementary school.”

I pointed out to my client that the table did not, in fact, show that. The table presented a snapshot of a five groups of students in a single year, not a progression of a single group of students through five years. In fact, I said, someone could use the same data to argue the opposite, that every year we’re getting better at teaching math to elementary students.** Unfortunately, I lost the argument; because it sounded more urgent, the original caption stayed. (I didn’t work for that client much longer after that, anyway.)

We live surrounded by data. We have more numbers to crunch than ever, and we can crunch them faster than ever. But we seem to be constantly befuddled by what to do with the results. We pick a statistic and then hang everything else on it regardless of whether it can support the weight. Consider:

Read the rest of this entry »


Death of Blogging Watch, Part 215

So Andrew Sullivan is quitting blogging, and the blogosphere commences its latest round of hand wringing and wailing and gnashing of teeth.

The annual preemptive mourning for blogging’s shedding of its mortal coil has now become such a ritual that the commentary itself has reached its own critical mass of self-referential, ironic meta-awareness. “This isn’t another ‘death of blogging’ post,” many articles begin, before going on to prove the writer is either fibbing or in need of a good editor (or perhaps both).

Pardon the snark. It’s early and I’m still on my first cup of coffee. Like everyone else who reads or subscribes to Sullivan’s “Dish,” I was caught utterly unaware of its impending demise and am grieving the loss of such a unique virtual gathering place. His was an enormous influence on the blogosphere not just for his commentary, but for his success in commoditizing his readership into a nearly self-sustaining economic model.

The unspoken fear here is, “If Sully can’t do it, what the heck kind of chance do I have?” The answer is, of course, none. Sullivan found that to blog consistently at his level required him to spend all day on a nonstop frictionless hamster wheel, despite having under his belt several decades’ worth of patient base-building, endless campaigning, and media appearances on shows you and I will never, ever, get on in our wildest dreams. And even with that kind of infrastructure, he had to run all day long just to stay in place. So Sullivan’s example demonstrates pretty clearly that self-made media empires aren’t really all that likely a thing in nature.

On the other hand, as the Vox article points out, a lot of media superstars are going back to “old-fashioned” blogging, free of all the revenue encumbrances. They’ve come full circle and realized that blogging, if it’s going to be part of a media enterprise, is fundamentally a loss-leader. Blogging doesn’t generate 1:1 revenue; you have to find another, sustainable source of revenue that gives you the stability and freedom to blog.

Hopefully they will take that lesson out a couple of concentric rings and realize that’s how the news works, too. Whether television, radio, print, or online, journalism isn’t a profit center — but the breakthrough here is to realize that profitability isn’t a useful measure of its value. News, like blogging, is a qualitative thing. Its value can’t be measured using quantitative means.

Maybe instead of “information wants to be free,” the new motto will be “information wants to be valued,” because that’s what Stewart Brand was really talking about:

“On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.”

So here at the end of our latest installment of Death Of Blogging Watch, I find myself optimistic. Because this time the discussion is taking place among a critical mass of people who have finally come to understand (and publicly acknowledge) the complexity and the implications of this fundamental tension, and who by and large seem to be coming down on the qualitative side of the argument.

Despite the departure of yet another giant from the blogosphere, blogging — and by extension, professional writing of all kinds, including journalism — isn’t in fact dying.

It’s just getting warmed up for its next act.