Monday, September 29, 2008

I've never been so happy to lose money

Congress voted against the bailout. Stocks plunge. I have personally lost the equivalent of many years salary (if I were still working for a salary) in the last half hour.

Nonetheless, I consider it very good news. It means Congress has finally grown a spine. It means people are actually paying attention and thinking this through. It means that at long last we as a nation are finally showing some signs that maybe, just maybe, we are willing to stand up to the fact that there are consequences to be faced, and that it might be better to face them sooner rather than later.

In the long run that matters much more than the stock market.

[UPDATE] What a difference a week makes. The politicians found their inner spineless pussy, and the world does seem to be going to hell in a handbasket after all.


Friday, September 19, 2008

Failure must always be an option

An essay I wrote six years ago about some of my experiences working for NASA has gotten some recent attention on Reddit and Hacker News. I thought I'd write a little update, particularly since some of the things I learned from that experience are, I think, relevant to the government bailout of the mortgage industry.

JPL uses an organizational structure called matrix management. There are two orthogonal management structures, one organized according to expertise (the "line management") and another, almost completely independent one organized according to task (the "program office"). The program office's job was to win contracts, and the line management's job was to provide the people to work on the resulting projects. Through most of JPL's history, its contracts were large NASA missions with budgets in the billions of dollars, and so this management structure made a certain amount of sense. A vast amount of paperwork had to be generated to win even a single contract.

For most of my career I worked on contracts that had already been awarded, so the inner workings of the program office were completely opaque to me (and still are to this day). By the time I got involved in a project the contract had already been awarded according to a proposal that had been generated by some mysterious process that I never fully understood, and which I never actually saw. All I knew was that my line management gave me a set of account numbers, and I wrote those account numbers down on my time card, and I got paid every other week. And this was true of most of the rank-and-file engineers that I worked with.

The result of this opacity was that the incentives and reward structure for individual employees was often in direct conflict with the goals of the Lab and NASA. For example, one of the factors that went into my performance review every year was how many papers I had published. In fact, this was one of the major considerations because it was one of the few things that management could get a quantitative handle on. So naturally I put a lot of effort into getting published. The problem is that the things you have to do in order to get published are often very different from the things you have to do in order to actually be productive on a NASA project. Getting published requires getting approval from your academic peers, who work for different institutions, often competing for the same contracts that your institution is trying to win. The result is a lot of politics and mutual back-scratching (and back-stabbing), because those are often more effective strategies to get papers published than actually doing worthwhile research.

I played this game, but I never liked it, and I was never particularly good at it, mostly because I was never able to suppress this annoying tendency I have of calling bullshit by its proper name, which did not make me the most popular person on the conference circuit. I was able to survive for two reasons. First, some of the work I did was actually good, at least as measured by the number of times it was cited by other researchers. (For a number of years I was, as far as I could tell, the most cited CS researcher in all of NASA. I started making that claim on my resume, and no one ever challenged me on it. It's possible I still hold that title despite the fact that I haven't published anything in years.) And second, my line management also had a perverse incentive: while my performance was being judged on how many papers I published, their performance was judged on how well they kept me supplied with account numbers to charge my time to.

The resulting situation at times approached something straight out of Kafka. I was being paid with money raised by people in the program office that I never met, whose identities I didn't even know, distributed through a process whose quality metric was not getting any productive work done but merely keeping everyone on the rolls employed, and given performance incentives that actively discouraged me from doing anything that would actually be useful to those people, but instead rewarded me for pleasing people at competing institutions. That combined with my distaste for politics and the leverage I got from using Lisp led to some truly bizarre situations. Towards the end of my JPL career, when budgets started getting tight and line management started circling the wagons, I had to start writing my own proposals. The review cycle for these proposals was ridiculously long -- months to years -- and in the meantime my line management still had to keep me employed somehow. On a number of occasions I had proposals rejected on the grounds that what I was proposing was impossible, when in fact I had already done the work in the intervening time.

At the peak of my JPL career I attained the rank of Principal, which is the highest rung on the technical career ladder whose existence is publicly known. (It turns out there are "secret" promotions you can get after that.) It's essentially the equivalent of getting tenure at a university, only with no teaching responsibilities. The decision to promote someone to Principal is made by a committee. I never found out who was on that committee, or what criteria they used to make the decision. But whoever they were, they had the power to render me more or less un-fireable, despite the fact that by then I was not really contributing anything to the Lab's mission.

All this was paid for with, including overhead, several million of your taxpayer dollars over a period of fifteen years. And my experience was not an isolated incident. This is not to say that there are not good, productive, hard-working people at NASA and JPL. There are. But there is also an awful lot of dead wood too, and no effective mechanism for getting rid of it.

What does all this have to do with the mortgage crisis? I believe that the mortgage crisis is essentially my experience at JPL writ large. Both situations were produced by a set of rules that produced perverse incentives that rewarded people for acting contrary to the greater good. In my case, I was rewarded for publishing useless papers. In the case of the mortgage industry, banks and brokers were rewarded for making bad loans. And in both cases, if push came to shove, the government with its deep pockets was there to foot the bill.

The big difference, of course, being that the bill for the mortgage debacle is five or six orders of magnitude bigger than the bill for keeping me on at JPL.

The fundamental problem in both cases was a lack of accountability combined with government-backed job security. Those two factors make a truly toxic combination. I was lucky as hell that Google was successful enough that it provided me with the capital I needed to escape the gilded cage I had locked myself into at JPL. But for that good fortune I'd very likely still be there doing God only knows what.

One of the reasons that Google succeeded was that everyone there knew that failure was a possibility. This seems strange now that Google is the 800-pound gorilla, but back in 2000 we were just another obscure little startup in the midst of the market crash brought on by the bursting of the dotcom bubble. We were well capitalized and were seeing steady growth, but success was far from a foregone conclusion, and that motivated everyone to make sure that they were all pulling in the same direction. And every now and then, someone got fired.

I think that the possibility of failure is essential to long-term success. If you have no possibility of failure, if there's always the rich uncle or Uncle Sam to bail you out, you have no incentive to sacrifice or compromise or take risks or stay up late or even to see to it that your actions are serving the greater good. There is a lot of talk nowadays of the "moral hazard" resulting from government bailouts. This is a misnomer. It's not a moral hazard, it's an economic one.

While I tend to think that the current government bailout really is necessary in order to avoid a short-term catastrophe, I really worry about its long-term effects. If we're not very, very careful we could easily render the entire country as dysfunctional as JPL. At that point there will be no rich uncle to bail us out. When that bubble bursts it will make last week, and possibly even 1929, look like a cakewalk.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

McCain for the homeless

There are days when I feel like I'm losing the struggle to keep myself from slipping away into abject cynicism. Today was one of those days.

I was in Long Beach visiting one of the subjects of my film. I don't want to say too much about the circumstances of my visit because I think there's a new surprise ending brewing, but suffice it to say that the building I was in was charging below-market rents thanks in large measure to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's section 8 rental voucher program.

It was a pretty nice building as such buildings go. In the past two years I have seen much, much worse. This building is walking distance from the beach (or at least from the touristy Long Beach waterfront -- there's not actually much of a beach there). It's 11 stories high. On the top floor is a common area with a library, a pool table, several computers, and a high-definition big-screen TV, on which I would be showing my movie if the elusive remote control for the DVD player could be located. (If I had my way, any manufacturer who makes a DVD player without an "ENTER" button on the front panel would be drawn and quartered.)

I was waiting around for someone to return from the front desk and I happened to overhear a snippet of conversation triggered by the news that a movie about homeless people was about to be shown. The speaker was clearly a resident of the building. He comported himself as someone intimately familiar with the hardships of homelessness, and I had no reason to doubt him. He started into a tirade that I have heard a time or twenty, about how horrible the homelessness problem is in this country, how somebody should do something, yada yada yada. And then he said this, word for word:

"Things will get better if McCain gets in. He's a true Christian."


I resisted the urge to ask the speaker if he thought George Bush was a "true Christian," and if that had helped make the situation any better over the last eight years. And then the urge just went away and was replaced by utter despair. Because I suddenly realized that it would do no good. However this man got to this place, to be off the street thanks only to a federal government program started by Franklin D. Roosevelt, a program that is the very model, according to Republicans, of all that is wrong with modern liberalism, and yet still believe that John McCain is the only savior for his brethren still out on the streets, I was convinced that there was nothing I could do or say in that moment that would change his mind.

And so I said nothing.

The remote was located. The screening was begun. Half way through someone came over and asked how much longer it would be going on. The Dodger game was about to begin.

I stopped the movie. I try not to lose sight of what really matters in life, and in this case it was clear: what really matters is baseball.

There are days when I feel like I'm losing the struggle to keep myself from slipping away into abject cynicism. Today was one of those days.

Friday, September 05, 2008


I still have not received any official word from the Santa Monica Film Festival but their web site now has a list of their official selections.

I'm not on it.


Thanks to everyone who wrote to support my film. I will keep plugging away at this. But it really sucks to have your hopes raised and then dashed.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

No word from SMFF

Still no word from the Santa Monica Film Festival, but there has been an interesting development: this morning, their web site said that film selections would be announced on September 3 (which was yesterday). Now all mention of the announcement date has been removed from their web site.

Sounds like there are probably some "interesting" things going on behind the scenes. It's only two weeks before the festival is scheduled to start. They're cutting it awfully close.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

A call for help

As some of you may know, for the last two years I have been working on a film about homeless people in Santa Monica, California. Last Spring I decided to finally take the "rough cut" label off and start submitting the thing to film festivals. I submitted to five festivals. Four of them (Mendocino, Los Angeles, Dances with Films and the Secret City Film Festival in my home town of Oak Ridge, Tennessee) rejected the film.

Today I heard from my fifth and final submission, the Santa Monica International Film Festival (SMIFF). Here's what they wrote:

Thank you for your sharing your film with the Santa Monica Film Festival. We would like to include your film in this year’s Festival being held at the World Famous Third Street Promenade and the state of the art Martin Luther King Jr Auditorium at the Santa Monica Main Library. Please confirm your availability immediately by replying to this e mail as our festival is two weeks out. I will be contacting you by phone shortly.

I responded to their email with a resounding "YES!". About an hour later I got a phone call from one of the SMIFF staff who told me that I was scheduled to exhibit between 11 and 1 on Saturday, September 20.

I started calling and emailing everyone I knew to tell them the good news, and to start calling in some favors with regards to publicity. A few hours into this process I get another email. This one says:

I want to apologize for miscommunicating in my last email. Please continue to verify your personal availability and the availability of your film (and exhibition format) for the 19-21 of September. Final schedule and selection have not been made. We will be finalizing it soon and be back to you shortly.

To make a long story short, I called the guy back and he confirmed that indeed I was not actually selected, I was just on a short list of finalists. To say that I was disappointed would be a considerable understatement.

So I'm asking for your help. Go to the film's website and watch the trailer. If you like it and think you'd like to see the film (or if you are one of the people who has already been to one of my test screenings and you liked the film) please take a moment to contact the festival and put in a good word for me. My contact's name is Frank Giarmona. His email address is (I guess he's one of the regulars on the festival circuit) and his phone number is 805 570-1370. Please be polite and brief. He's a busy guy. If you're feeling really motivated you can also contact his associate, Lisa Fox at


Why do smart people do stupid things?

Sam Harris seems to be trying to set the world record for choking on his own foot. In a screed in today's LA Times he writes:

"Let me put it plainly: If you want someone just like you to be president of the United States, or even vice president, you deserve whatever dysfunctional society you get. You deserve to be poor..."

Leaving aside the question of whether or not Harris is actually right (let us assume for the sake of argument that he is), what on earth does he think he will accomplish by writing this? Does he really think that the people who support Sarah Palin will read these words, slap themselves on the forehead, and say, "Wow, Harris is right. I really am stupid, and all my friends are stupid, and I really do deserve to be poor unless I entrust my fate to someone who has a law degree from Harvard." Or is it more likely that they will respond more like this:

Well, gee, Sam Harris, just who do you think *is* qualified to be president? Someone like *you*? What do you know about my life? When was the last time you had to work two shifts to feed your kids? When was the last time you worried about whether to spend your last dollar on food or medicine? When was the last time you humbled yourself before God? Politics is *not* like brain surgery, and the fact that you think it is just proves that you Don't Get It. I'll take Sarah Palin over the likes of you any day of the week precisely because she is like me.

If Sam Harris really thinks he's going to win hearts and minds by telling people that they are too stupid to govern themselves then he is manifestly stupider than they are. The whole enterprise of democracy is based on exactly the opposite premise. And if Harris doesn't really believe this then I am at a loss to understand what he is hoping to achieve.