Notes on Socially Responsible Investment, and beyond


I have reported in some articles in this blog that one of the most satisfying things about researching and writing on the charities I fund is the intellectual exercise of expanding the knowledge about them, and of course sharing that information publicly.

Well, as the title above indicates, following up on a post I wrote about Socially Responsible Investment (SRI), these notes extend that exercise of researching and sharing to that field. A sequence of events lead to that.

Recap since 2014

Since the article about SRI, written in 2014, I had started building a small portfolio of stocks mirroring part of the investing principles of the Triodos Bank Funds. The portfolio, apart from growing (compounded 30% in value since), led me to follow related financial institutions in twitter. In particular I happened to read about Trillum Asset Management. As a disclaimer, I have to say that I hold no relation to Trillium (their minimum equitiy range is way beyond my possibilities) nor do I want to recommend investing with them. But the fact is that I found a lot of materials made available on their website.

For those readers interested in SRI and ESG principles I especially recommend the following resources to be found on their White papers sections, where extensive information can be found on fossil fuel free investments, shareholder activism or gender issues, among other SRI topics.

For what I wrote in 2014, these documents provide relevant study cases.

Expanding the horizon towards social entrepreneurship

Most happy chance was that, investigating about the team behind Trillum I came across an interview to Georgia Levenson Kehoane, and the books she had written on SRI matters. I bought one, Socially Entrepreneurship for the 21st Century, which I finished last year.

In a nutshell, the book is a good reference to do a quick dive in this field. It is structured in four main parts. The first two provide the bunch of technical concepts and information in relation to non-profit and private entrepreneurship, which I will further comment below. The third part deals with study cases and examples of american public administration, in particular New York City public policy experiences and the Obama administration. The final part, called Room for Debate, cleverly points out the most relevant topics in discussion. I want to share some comments on that as well.

Social innovations in non-profit and private investing

In the first two sections of the book I read about quite a few new names and concepts.

Starting with the Non-Profit section, the chapters dealt with the translation of enterprise practices into the social organizations. They dealt with the new “philanthro-capitalists” and how they blended capital and financial instruments from the business world with social causes, somehow helping to fund and test new ideas for social impact that can later on be implemented and scaled by government agencies. In particular, following topics discussed on those chapters caught my attention:

· Organizations/foundations. Description is provided on the activities of some organizations that hold hybrid structures to fund and finance small for-profit initiatives and non-profit projects, such as Omidyar . Others provide long term funding and resources for social enterprises, like Acumen (especially with its online courses at plusacumen) or Root Capital do. The concept of Patient Capital is introduced, meaning investments with longer horizons and lower-than-market rates of return, which helps to work on areas where the markets have usually failed.

· Use of Prizes. These can be used to give incentive to achieve an array of socially relevant objectives as participation (to educate or change behaviors), networking (to strengthen communities), exposition (to best practices, to influence perception) or to provide technical solutions (for well identified problems or to create underserved markets). Some examples of the last category are discussed such as  InnoCentive (i.e. partnering with NASA as I have seen recently while writing for my posts), or the well known X-prizes, where the famed Peter Diamandis is a driving force.

· Valuation and measurement. Maybe the most relevant contribution from the business realm to the social impact initiatives is the intensive use of measurement techniques and disciplines. The book describes some of them: the basic cost-effectiveness analysis, or benefit-to-cost ratios (BCR), also calculating the Net Present Value (NPV) of an action through time; the use of Randomized Control Trials (RCT) for development projects; or the Social-Return on Investment (SROI), which, for instance, helps to assess the savings in public spending driven by an action in a given time frame. These methodologies suit differently depending on the projects and to apply them may be beyond the resources of small organizations and individuals. In order to solve this, some measurement online resources are listed in the book such as GuideStar, with lots of searching capabilities, applications for platforms, and papers, all resources both in free registration and paid versions. Other is GiveWell, which provides metrics based on cost-effectiveness, in addition their “own mistakes” section is just humbling and worth reading. Also interesting in this regard are the many cases presented in AdmittingFailure.

Beyond these resources and concepts, the book had entire sections with the focus on private “for-profit” investing, also with valuable aspects that captured my interest and that I list below:

· Impact investing: among the different strategies of the SRI, one of the most relevants is impact investing, which is discussed in the book. It calls for intentionality, that is “explicit intention of having a positive social or environmental impact”, defining the impact rather in long term benefits such as employment creation in underdeveloped areas. A second axis to impact investment is the weight conceded to the financial return that makes attractive the investment in relation to the intentionality, even when operating where market failure exists. The book cites the Monitor Insitute (now a unit of consultancy Deloitte) as a reference to assess this balance. The diagram below helps to categorize the actors that serve with different degrees on both areas.

Famed Impact Investing Segments from Monitor Institute

And some names that operate in the top right corner cited are investment companies with focus on impact such as ResponsAbility (with funds with typical “patient capital” rates of return and good visuals on the “impact” concepts), Blue Orchard (also with “patient capital”  funds offering and educational resources) or their “peer” Bamboo Finance, in similar fashion than the previously mentioned Acumen, among others.

· Investment measurement: in addition to discussing the investment actors, the book lists a range of resources focused as well on providing tools and relevant metrics to measure social impact “for-profit” investments and companies. Among them the most known being: B-Lab and its platform for rating corporations (“B-Corp” accreditation) and the resources of B-Analytics with its GIIRS metrics and funds; and the other, Global Impact Investment Nework (GIIN), also a subscription platform with databases, services and tools such as ImpactBase or its IRIS metrics.

Room for debate

Even if what I have read and learned on the topics mentioned above tell a story of success in new developments and efforts, there are controversial aspects in the social entrepreneurship world and Georgia´s book devotes the final chapters to discuss some of them. I found that sections humbling and relevant. Some ongoing debates caught my attention:

For example, one debate focus on the risk of confusing markets and market-building tools as ends and not means to achieve social impact. The case of the microcredits in India, with the battle of Grameen Bank founder Muhammad Yunus and the SKS Microfinance, much more commercially oriented, is a good example and has a dedicated chapter in the book.

Also a general perception among veterans in the nonprofit field about the market orientation in the last decades is noted in its pages. I selected two good quotes reflecting on these tensions:

From former Ford Foundation president Susan Berresford:

“Hundreds of foundations for decades worked to address apartheid, hundreds of foundations worked to support the civil rights movement in this country, there is nothing more ambitious than these noble aims. They were extremely results-oriented-they wanted the end of apartheid, they wanted fairness for minorities-and the use of business principles has been in the foundation world for a long time”

Also his former colleague in the foundation, Michael Edwards, is quoted saying:

“Would philantrocapitalism have helped to finance the civil rights movements in the US? (…) I hope so, but it wasn´t ‘data driven’, it didn´t operate through competition, it couldn´t generate much revenue, and it didn´t measure its impact in terms of the numbers of people who were served each day, yet it changed the world forever”

Another debate circles around the power and influence of wealthy actors in the field. Titling “The Gates Effect”, a section discusses the malaria disease, with Bill Gates as one of the most relevant proponents and funders of the eradication efforts, as opposed to the disease containment, believed to be more cost-effective by other organizations. That the World Health Organization policy leaned towards eradication is taken as an example of the “halo” effect of such super-donors. Other cases discuss the political bias of the actions of philanthropists, again opposing the axis of action of the “liberal” Gates to the conservative Koch family.

Final comments

As indicated in the title of the post, these notes are a personal follow up of my learning process of the theory and practice of social investing. I have a lot to thank to Georgia´s book on opening my eyes to many new names and resources. To be noted however, is that being published in 2013, the book it is not fully capturing the impact on social innovation of the most recent developments around big data, the ways to collect such data with sensors and to extract value with machine learning and artificial intelligence.

I lacked some direction there to start learning, but I am fortunate to know a person such as Bruno Sánchez-Andrade, impact scientist as he labels himself, whose tweet shown below, was sent during the preparation of this post:

His tweet links to an article, published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, precisely on the developing uses of big data. The writer´s organization, Planet, has a line of action in social impact of big data, that I am starting to explore. Thanks to the tweet and the article, I have also discovered Stanford University Center for Social Innovation, with its ImpactCompass. That is, new resources and organizations dealing with social impact that will keep me learning and posting on the topic.

Until the next notes are release, I will end with quote of another philanthropist, which sounds today more actual than ever:

“In God we trust, everyone else bring data

Michael Bloomberg

Picture credits to linatrochez and on

Posted in Books, Economy, Investing, Organizations, Social | Leave a comment

USS Wisconsin and Naval Station Norfolk

Some two and a half years after my visit to London, where I had a great experience visiting the HMS Belfast museum ship (post here), the 2017 summer trip to visit my sister Beatriz in Norfolk, in the US state of Virginia, offered the chance to expand the knowledge and visits to naval warfare. After all, Norfolk is home to the world´s largest naval station and it is where the US NATO headquarters are located. The city of Norfolk, strategically located at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, has long naval tradition and thus hosts an interesting naval museum, the Nauticus, with the USS Wisconsin battleship in display.

In this post I will share some pictures and comments of the visits to the Wisconsin and the boat tour I took with Beatriz to the Naval station.

USS Wisconsin

After having a great meal at the Waterfront restaurants with Beatriz, a quick and nice stop in the VisitNorfolk info center yielded free entrances to the Nauticus and USS Wisconsin for us, the friendly spaniards.

The tour guide to the Wisconsin not being as detailed as that of the HMS Belfast, the vessel is considerable bigger being a battleship (some 270m compared to the 187m of the Belfast) and more modern, being commissioned five years later, in 1944.

USS Wisconsin at the Nauticus

The picture above gives hint of the dimensions of the Wisconsin. As commented in the post for the Belfast, the light cruisers acted in many missions as escort vessels to the bigger battleships. A look at the main deck of the Wisconsin, remarkably big, confirms that fact. It even hosts a helicopter deck:

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Such a big deck features as well refueling capabilities to feed smaller ships of the accompanying fleet or bigger emergency boats than those of the Belfast:

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Although lacking the humor and wit of the recreated scenes at the british ship, the Wisconsin had reconstructed some daily moments of the crew, including the captain, officials and crew states:

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Compared to the Belfast, the mission states displayed more advanced communication equipment, including crypto network:

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In my job, I belong to the Chief Engineer´s office of the program I work in, the airlifter A400M. I reckon that my work states are considerably more comfortable than those of the Wisconsin Chief Engineer (I made a good choice…):

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Naval Station Norfolk Tour

After the visit to the Wisconsin, I joined Beatriz to get aboard a boat tour of around 2 hours along the Naval Station that can be booked directly at the Nauticus. Even though the weather was not accompaining, with light rain that got heavier at times, the tour yielded impressive sights. Beatriz and I enjoyed it a lot, and definitely recommend it to anyone visiting the area.

The boat tours along the Norfolk bay, including the shipyards of the defence contractors such as General Dynamics or BAE Systems, as well as the cargo docks. But clearly the highlight is the Naval Station with the biggest collection of war vessels in the world, including nuclear submarines and the biggest aircraft carriers. The pictures below give account of that:

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The view of the docks for the light cruisers is impressive, and it is just a fraction of the station:

Cruisers in the docks of Norfolk Naval Station

Beyond the cruisers, the visitor can get a glimpse of the nuclear submarines, i.e. from the Los Angeles Class, an impressive view of the crafts that have been subject of many movies (Crimson Tide, The Hunt for the Red October, ….):

Nuclear submarines

Among the many cruisers, the highlight, thoroughly commented by the boat guide, was the USS Bainbridge, from which the US Navy Seals resolved the hijacking attempt on the Maersk Alabama, an event portrayed in the Hollywood movie Captain Phillips:

USS Bainbridge, which was depicted on the movie Captain Phillips

“Sister ship” Truktus featuring USS Bainbridge in Captain Phillps movie (Copyright Columbia Pictures)

Nearing the last docks of the Naval Station, the aircraft carriers made appearance:

Aircraft carriers along refueling vessels

Among the biggest and most impressive carriers in the world, those of the Nimitz Class (that can carry up to 90 aircraft each!), two of them can be sighted at Norfolk, the Abraham Lincoln and the George Washington:

USS Abraham Lincoln

USS George Washington

The last sight at the Naval Station during the boat tour was the most modern vessel, at the time undergoing test for commissioning, the $12 billion USS Gerald R. Ford, first of a new class, with technological improvements to the previous Nimitz:

USS Gerald R. Ford undergoing testing

Note the naval version of an F-18 on the deck for the tests.

The tour continued back to the Norfolk harbour showing from the distance the enormous Newport News shipyards, where the carriers and most of the submarines for the US Navy are built.

The whole area of Norfolk, Newport News and Hampton Roads is full of naval history, as well as aerospace, as the nearby NASA Langley Research Center and the Virginia Space and Aeronautics Center indicate (see post on the visit to those sites here)

This enclave of Virginia is not a particularly touristic one. I had the incentive to visit it because the internship of my sister Beatriz. Then, I discovered the beautiful coastal side of the state, full of history, and had the chance to had a glimpse of the naval power of the US.

At some 3 hours a car ride from Washington DC,  it is not then usual tourist trip, but if the reader has the chance to go there, be sure that she will be impressed.

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The most and least read in 2017 …

…in this blog. Discontinued in the Christmas Holidays of 2016, this post retakes the comments on the blog stats that I did in the two previous years.

Some general comments before going to the rankings. In 2017 I managed to publish 12 posts in this blog (excluding this article), two more than in previous 2016 when I published 10. This may come as a result of a better work-life balance this year, in which I could read significantly more (as indicated in the previous post) and sort of got back on track with long distance running, again participating in two marathon races as I used to do before moving to Seville.

However, it is to be noted that none, I repeat, none of the articles published this year made it to the 5 five most read in the year (in fact not even one from 2016). Only “Failure is not an option…” got to place 10th.

And also noticeable is the fact that “Notes on car…”, written back in 2014 remains, for third year in a row, by far the most read article. Conscious of this fact, already last year I updated the post to included a quick survey at the end of it to know about why and how readers came to it. Even if I got not answer to the survey, the info from WordPress indicated that many of the clicks to the post came from a “moodle” e-learning server from the Oakland University in Michigan, close to Detroit, which offers programs on automotive engineering, including aerodynamics. I like to think that this is thus indicating that the post may have some value to students in that university majoring in car aerodynamics. The stated purpose of the article would then be fulfilled.

And now, finally, to the rankings:

The 5 most read articles:most read post

As you can see, all top five articles are related to the technical topics most addressed in the blog, the series of aerodynamics articles, and book reviews and posts on x-planes and prototype aircraft. Even if written in past years, they keep attracting readers. Whether it is due to a better tagging of theses articles or a true interest of readers on this topics, I still cannot tell.

The 5 least read articles:

least read post

Regarding the least read articles during 2017, 4 out of the last 5 are posts written in 2014. So, even if not very much read, it is a good thing that they raised some interest some three years later. It is also a good sign that all the articles written this year enjoyed a larger readership than these five listed above.

Finally, beyond these stats, still a good deal of my experiences of the year went without proper reporting in this blog, which they truly deserve (i.e. more highlights of my trip to the US, the start-up competition experience in Seville, and some others…). These, along with other posts dedicated to more book reviews, or follow-ups to topics such as electric propulsion and social investing, still form part of the article backlog that hopefully will see the light in 2018. Alone the exercise of researching about topics, organizing the information and drafting the posts, remains a stimulating intellectual activity and one of the main reasons to keep a blog active.

Inviting every reader of this post to become also a writer, and expecting then to read from you, see you in these lines in 2018.

Posted in Personal development | Leave a comment

My year 2017 in books

This post is a first in this blog.

In the recaps of previous years prior to the Christmas holidays I reported mostly on the most and least read posts and other topics such as charities that I supported. But this year was special regarding reading. With a more systematic approach to scheduling the reading time, I managed to more than double it and thus the amount of books read compared to previous years.

That increase resulted in great moments along the year, with remarkable personal highlights. What follows is the list of books read along the year, in chronological order of reading them, and a comment on each one, not necessary a review.

· Smell of Kerosene (January). To begin the year, a recommendation of my fellow colleague at Airbus Jean Manuel, which shares the passion for all things flying. The book is a bio from Don Mallick, long time USAF pilot, especially of the SR-71 Blackbird. Lots of insights and some good quotes.

· Elegance in Flight. (February) Another book of the NASA Aeronautics series. Reviewed here, its account of the research of the wing laminar flow control with the F-16XL revives these days with Airbus flight testing of the BLADE project.

· Una mirada al mundo. Another first, a book co-writen by a friend, Juan H. Alfaro. A comprehensive collection of essays on geopolitics and power, society and public policy, an overview to help understand the world. A lawyer and journalist, he wrote two of them. In addition, happy that in one if his contributions I saw reminiscences of my “particular Nobel prize” Robert Shiller:

· Failure is not an option (Feb-March). Clearly, one of my year´s highlights. The account of the Apollo years by NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz has had a profound effect on me, and determined much of my trip to visit NASA sites. Such an inspiring appeal to give our best. I keep recommending it. My review here. Among all quotes, maybe the most recommended to work colleagues:

“It isn´t the equipment that wins the battles, it is the quality and the determination of the people fighting for a cause in which they believe”

· Momentos estelares de la humanidad (March). A master piece of Stefan Zweig. Another recommendation by a friend. It was Joan Diago talking about books one night when I visited him in Indonesia. Isn´t it great to have such a conversation? about books? This was, and I still recall Zweig´s passages about Captain Scott in his quest for Antarctica, or the curious enterprise of the first telegraph line from UK to America. Thanks Joan.

· Irrational Exhuberance (March-April). From Yale Prof. Robert Shiller, who else? Another reference book to understand phsycological mechanisms behind our economical decisions. Aligned with the behavioral economics. I recommend it. Review here.

· To kill a mockingbird (April) The other highlight of the year. Never had a book so resonated with me since I read as a child Michael Ende´s Neverending Story. The american classic of Harper Lee, won the Pulitzer in 1961. A story of raising children in times of racial inequality, I discovered Atticus Finch as a character larger than life. Ending of Chapter 9 still gives me goosebumps:

· Profiles in courage (April-May). Another Pulitzer prize, from four years earlier and from no less that US President Kennedy. It is a collection of eight short narrations of acts of integrity and courage by US senators throughout history. Candid view of a young senator Kennedy, extracting value from characters and individuals who had contradicting sides. I discovered Sam Houston and the book thus served as documentation for field visits to DC and the cities of Houston and San Antonio.

· Social Entrepreneurship for 21st Cent (May-June). I came across this book researching about socially responsible investing, and I discover a hidden gem in it. Written by Georgia Levenson, it is a very good introduction to the measurement and quantifying approaches to social innovations. The book discusses many examples of “phylantro-capitalism” and business practices applied to social projects. It provides resources to tools and online services for non-profit initiatives and also contains an interesting debate of what goes wrong in social innovation. I am still working on its teachings and will post about it when ready.

· Sky Walking (July). In my visit to Kennedy Space Center I had the chance to meet and share good moments with Astronaut Thomas D. Jones. The book is his account of his years with the Shuttle Space Program and his “Extra-Vehicular Activities” or EVA. His Sky Walks. A must read for space geeks.

· A Man on the moon (July-Aug). Another book in the wake of my visit to NASA sites, the classic from Andrew Chaikin. A review of the Apollo missions centered in the views and experiences of the astronauts. With more than 600 pages of anecdotes, profiles on the astronauts and technical detail, an absolute reference for the space enthusiast.

· Crash Course (Aug-Sept). Another book from the NASA aeronautics series. In similar fashion to “Breaking the Mishap Chain” a collection of 9 case studies involving crashes and mishaps with unmanned aircraft, from the 70s to present day. In the era of the drones, a good introduction to the characteristics and risks associated with their operation. Recommended for readers interested in aerospace and safety. The review will be posted soon in this blog.

· Ikhana (Sept – Nov). Last of the ebooks of the NASA series to be read in a while. Account of the design and operation efforts around the remotely piloted aircraft (RPAS) Ikhana, based on the General Atomics Predator. Spanning over 10 years of efforts, in the mid 2000s Ikhana successfully demonstrated the versatility and effectiveness of this kind of platforms for emergencies. The account of its operations during the Western States Fires Missions in the US, it is a great example of the use of technology to serve society.

· The Grapes of Wrath (Nov-Dec). To end the year another american classic, winner of the Pulitzer and from Nobel laureate John Steinbeck. The depiction of the Great Depression migration aggravated by the Dust Bowl with the example of the struggles of the Joad family. Brutal and outraging, showing the best and the worst of the human condition. Intertwined in the Joad´s adventures, Steinbecks reflections about the failures of the economic system are hard as iron fists and actual as ever. Difficult but necessary read.

· Patria (Dec). Last book read in 2017, winner of spanish National Critic and Literature Prizes, written by Fernando Aramburu. A vivid, intense, account of the fates of two basque families along thirty years, torn by the terrorism in times of ETA. Emotional in many passages and necessary book.

For a 2018 with as many readings.

Photo credits to resp Syd Wachs and All Bong on

Posted in Books | 2 Comments

Maratona de Lisboa 2017

Promise held.

After the bad experience of the last Sevilla Marathon at the beginning of the year (see post here) I had made the resolution not to play again with the distance, and to be properly prepared for the fall race. But the odds were against it as I had not trained enough during the holiday´s break, as I explained in a dedicated post (here).

With the date of the Maratona de Lisboa looming closer after the summer pause two factors contributed to a wonderful experience: a recovery training plan and peer motivation.

In this post I share how these factors helped and some highlights about the race in the beautiful portuguese capital.

Recovery plan

After the trip in July to the US and Mexico, August was not a productive month for training, in part due to the (typical) excessive summer heat in Seville and to a mix of work un-balance and social activities. So September came and a decission was to be made.

7 weeks to go and two ideas in mind. First, to run as much as possible regardless of the heat, and thus eventually sacrificing performance targets. Second,to use any mental reinforcement available to stick to the plan.

The frecuency of training was increased up to 4 to 5 days a week, with a peak of 6 days in the second week of September. This would lead to mileages in the range of 50km per week.

In order to stick to the plan (easier said, or writen, than done, as plans normally are…) I went back to an old visual cue that I had abandoned in the last races: a simple blank paper sheet with the calendar and plan located at my apartment´s entrance. I would see it every day and would serve as constant reminder.

With some hesitation during the first two weeks, clocking mere 15km each, I managed to average around 60km in each of the next three weeks. I combined from 2 medium runs (12km) in weekdays to 3 or 4 standard runs (7,7km or 8km for series training), and longer runs in the weekends, with the usual progressive increase-decrease in mileage: 21km, 21km, 30km, 28km, 21km, and 12km.

Peer motivation

The second main contributor to the success was, again, a normal practice from other times that was strictly respected. With my brother Javier, and friends Juan and José (the usual suspects or four J´s of many races as narrated in this blog) we set up a whatsapp group. Nothing new, but instead of non-sense chatting, or rather in spite of it, especially Javier and I shared our daily progress with the trainings… reinforcing one each other. The way we helped to deal with missed training sessions, due to holidays, trips or other reasons, alleviated the frustration and helped to resume the training.

The final result was a total of around 280km in the 6 weeks ahead of the final one. Combining speed series training, with the long weekend runs.

The race

With such confidence, off I went to Lisbon to test the goodness of this effort. My objectives for the race were however rather modest: to finish and, if possible, to be around four hours.

After the customary picture at the Marathon Expo on Saturday, once we got the bibs, the three of us took the train in the morning of Sunday to Cascais, where the start was located.

From Cascais, the first 14km were a circuit heading first towards west along the coast line until km6, and then back to the village to continue also through coastal roads to Estoril, Oeiras and to the capital Lisboa. A very beautiful ride across those exclusives enclaves of Portugal.

My pace for the first half tried to be conservative, around  5’30″/km . I maintained them except for some hilly passages near Estoril.

Even if somehow I had in mind that with such conservative pace I could sustain it beyond the half marathon, after that milestone the pace suffered and went to the 6’/km. I had some fear that the reinforced training plan would not work and the sensations from Seville would come back. In any case, the pace for the first half had been better this time.

But fortunately, past Oeiras, at around km25, the course turned flatter and it was easier to keep a good pace. I felt strong mentally, helped by the excellent supply of water (not so by the voluntaries, clearly not very experienced). As in Athens Marathon, the temperature was high, and in each water station I took one bottle to drink and another to “shower” myself with it.

With this routine the next 5km went through, and I prepared to slow down a bit somewhere after km30, as I had done in Seville in 2015 so successfully. It worked again.

For good 5 to 6 km I let me go well beyond 6’/km to then try to go back to faster paces. With 35km on the legs, would this be possible? Would I be able to accelerate? This was the ultimate test for the speed and long series training.

I was positively surprised that the legs responded well. And I started a slow but steady ramp up of the pace. In fact, as the graph below indicates that the final 4km were run even faster that the beginning, something that I had almost never done.

Race pace in min per km, to the distance in km

In the last kilometer I really enjoyed the feeling strong, and as Javier recognized me before the final turns at Plaça do Comercio, I was exultant, running even below 5’/km. Happy to see him, I replied to his cheers saying “I´m looking good!” thereby also mocking a bit the supportive words of the crowds in the american marathons we both had run. I finally clocked 4h 13′ 29′ . It was better than Sevilla, and a hint for that was that with the half marathon at 2h 8′, in fact I had achieved a negative split!

Race course, from Cascais to Lisboa

Under the hot sun of the clear portuguese sky, we waited for Juan to finish and took some pictures of the feat.

Even more than the time, I was very happy to have turned around the experience in Seville at the beginning of the year, not having taken seriously the distance of a marathon race. This, by the way, was the 12th I have finished. Now, with the regained respect, it´s time to plan the next.

For all of the above, Lisboa: obrigado!





Posted in Running, Travel | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Así preparé mi charla en Ignite Madrid

“Os gusta conducir?…”

Sobre el escenario del Campus Google en Madrid, y recién “microfonado” por mi amigo Nacho, así empecé el pasado 20 de Octubre los cinco minutos de charla ante algo más de 200 personas en el Ignite Madrid #5, el evento de charlas ultra-rápidas al que el propio Nacho me había animado a participar un escaso mes antes.


La idea del Ignite

Las charlas Ignite son un formato extendido por todo el mundo, y en el que mi compañero de Toastmasters César fue pionero en introducir en España, empezando por Valencia y Barcelona. El formato ofrece al público entretenidas charlas divulgativas, inspiradoras, un poco al estilo de las famosas TED Talks…con el aliciente adicional para el orador de enfrentarse al tiempo. Y es que las 20 diapositivas de que consta cada charla pasan automáticamente cada 15 segundos. Para alguien al que le guste la oratoria, como un Toastmaster que es mi caso, este formato es como el “1500m” de atletismo, pero de la oratoria, combinando velocidad, desarrollo y emoción ante un público.

Cuando Nacho me lo propuso, a finales de Septiembre, recibió un par de “noes” por mi parte. En esas fechas yo estaba en un pico de actividad en el trabajo, con un proyecto personal en el que andaba retrasado y en plena preparación para la maratón de Lisboa. Pero él me conoce bien, y a la tercera tuvo mi aceptación para ese “milqui” de la oratoria. Empezaba mi carrera para prepararme.

La preparación

Con la experiencia de César en la organización de eventos, y en particular de sus muchas ediciones de Ignite en Valencia y Barcelona, y la del propio Nacho en ayudarle a traer el formato a Madrid y liderarlo (además de ser orador él mismo, video suyo aquí), el equipo tiene el proceso muy depurado. Así, al futuro Igniter, se le dan instrucciones muy claras:

· Una plantilla de guion, con un ejemplo segmentado en 20 párrafos (uno para cada diapositiva)

· Una plantilla de PowerPoint con 20 diapositivas a completar, con el tiempo de paso establecido en 15 segundos.

· Un proceso iterativo de revisión y ensayo con el equipo y oradores en los llamados “Dojos” en las semanas previas al Ignite.

Un proceso robusto y rodado para ofrecer el “producto” Ignite, al público y al orador.

La clave para darle el SÍ definitivo a Nacho fue encontrar rápidamente un tema del que hablar (yo ya llegaba con retraso al proceso de selección de oradores). Hablando brevemente de los post que yo tenía en este blog encontramos uno que yo ya había estructurado en varios artículos y que era poco conocido: Mi experiencia con los túneles de viento. Añadiendo un par anécdotas personales poco conocidas de mi tiempo en los túneles, yo ya tenía esqueleto para la charla:

Notas para organizar la charla

Como ya he contado alguna vez aquí, mi proceso de escribir guiones para charlas, como por ejemplo para sesiones en Toastmasters, empieza con un folio o unas cuartillas en papel, que voy depurando y revisando hasta que terminan en el guion definitivo a ensayar. Así fue esta vez también, y aprovechando los posts que tenía escritos al respecto, las ideas para las diapositivas surgieron en la primera semana de Octubre a modo de “story board”:

Story board de la charla, con las ideas de diapositivas

Con este borrador listo, y algo de retraso respecto al plan del equipo organizador, trasladé esas ideas al esqueleto de la plantilla de guion en Word, e hice la primera selección de unas 15 o 16 fotos para el PowerPoint:

Primera versión del guion sobre la plantilla Ignite


En parte debido al trabajo y las actividades que comentaba antes, no sería fácil asistir o conectarme con los “Dojos” de revisión y preparación, pero sí hice una revisión online con Nacho con ayuda de Hangouts. De esa revisión salieron un par de cambios relevantes sobre el orden de diapositivas y el tono que dar a la charla. Fundamentalmente se trataba de establecer mi relación personal con el tema, situarla al principio de la charla y desarrollar la explicación sobre los túneles después. Los cambios me parecieron geniales y enseguida edité el guion:

Segunda versión del borrador

En ese momento estaba a una semana de la maratón de Lisboa, con el viaje a la capital portuguesa por delante y no había hecho los ensayos de la charla que quería. Para las sesiones de Toastmasters, típicamente ensayo leyendo el guion un mínimo de 6 veces para ver las partes que “chirrían” al ser narradas en voz alta, al ser habladas. De esas lecturas fui viendo qué partes eran más aceleradas para los 15 segundos asignados para una diapositiva y cuáles me permitían respirar durante la charla.

Así, a la vuelta de Lisboa, y a una semana del Ignite, edité por última vez el guion partiendo los párrafos de cada diapositiva en 3 líneas cada uno, tres golpes de ritmo para manejar el tempo mejor. Y con esa estructura hice el grueso de los ensayos sin leer, jugando con la teatralización, entonación y posibles movimientos en escena. Al menos otras 10 repeticiones de esta forma.

Guion definitivo

Guión definitivo con bloques de tres líneas por diapositiva

Sin contar con el tiempo que me había llevado originalmente la redacción de los posts sobre túneles de viento, la preparación para la charla del Ignite fue como de unas 8 horas más o menos. La mitad para la redacción del guion inicial, mejoras de versiones, y selección de las fotos para las diapositivas. La otra mitad la dedicaría a los ensayos (incluidos trayectos en coche al trabajo ensayando en voz alta para mi). Como todo orador experimentado sabe, detrás de unos pocos minutos de charla, hay horas de preparación.

La charla

Así, disfrutando de cada ensayo, ya solo faltaba viajar a Madrid para ver la reacción de la audiencia. Viajar a Madrid para seguir los pasos como orador de Ignite de grandes amigos de Toastmasters como el propio Nacho, Luciana, Lucía, Benito o Alberto.

De modo que el Viernes 20 de Octubre, arropado por amigos de la universidad como Juanma, o del trabajo en Airbus como Pedro, subí al escenario y dije:

Para el lector interesado en compartir sus historias con los demás, invito a dar un paso e inscribirse en el próximo Ignite. La experiencia es absolutamente recomendable. Además, a los oradores les hacen unos retratos al estilo de la serie de dibujos Futurama…lo cual es todo un incentivo en sí mismo! En esta edición, además, contamos con las fotos de la propia Lucía para inmortalizar nuestra participación, os dejo algunas de ellas:


Mi cabeza de Futurama!


Explicando mi trabajo…dentro de un túnel aerodinámico…



Encantado de subir al escenario Ignite





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Running in North America

The objective has been just partially completed. Last year I had posted on my running adventures during my trip to South East Asia (post here), in which I had followed my brother´s saying: “the running shoes, always in the suitcase”. I had written then at the end of the post that I would repeat the experience, which I have done, but I commented that the running frequency had not been ideal. In fact I noted the following:

In summary, having my running gear in the suitcase allowed me to run some 26km spread in 6 days during the 3 weeks. This modest amount of kilometres is clearly not enough to keep up with a typical training plan, but provides for an enriched travel experience, for example observing the differences in the “runner” atmosphere among the countries

Well, this year I had as well three weeks ahead of holidays and the running shoes in the suitcase. But I run even less. Even though the three running days were hot and humid, similar to what I had experienced in Asia, this was no excuse to the very little number of runs. I had been just more lazy. And with a Marathon race in sight for October, it is to be seen if this takes a toll.

On this ocassion I did not even took pictures while running, so the documentation is not as good as last year. Anyway I would like to share the impressions of those days.

Washington DC, USA – July 4th

Yes, you read well. July 4th. This was not my first time running in this city, not even along the National Mall, because I had enjoyed it inmensely in 2011 ahead of my trip to Chicago for the Marathon of that year in the Windy City. As a runner, to enjoy the monumental sights of The Mall, is an experience like no other. This time I waited to run until the very last day of my stay in the city with my sister Beatriz. That left me with the morning of July 4th.

I had planned to repeat a circuit along the Mall, from the Federal Triangle down to Lincoln Memorial, eventually crossing Memorial Bridge to Arlington Cementery and back to the Capitol Hill. However, the preparations for the Independence Day Parade and the fireworks later that evening resulted in the closing of most part of the Mall with security fences. I was left practically with only Constitution Avenue open. The good thing, and the anecdote of this day, was that the avenue was closed to open traffic and all runners (the city, like always, was full of them) had the road free to run, in example, in front of the White House. It was quite an experience and happily complemented my two previous runs on the famous strip. The reader can see below the records, including a very modest pace of 5´40″ /km.

DC running course constrained by July 4th

Not seen this time during my run, but a familiar sight during those days, the magnificient Lincoln Memorial. I never get tired from that view:

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Cocoa Beach, Florida, USA

I had skipped a run in my next location, the city of Norfolk and surroundings, where I spent some days at my sister´s place. Instead, I waited again to almost last day in the east coast of Florida, while visiting Kennedy Space Center (see post related to this visit here), to run through its streets . It was an evening run, so I did not run along the beach as I had done in Bali one year before, for instance. But the fact is that I was not a fan of running on beach sand either.

I admit that I was a little surprised to find some fellow runners that evening in those streets of Cocoa Beach. While running, I enjoyed the view of the different historic hotels and motels, among them the La Quinta hotel, home to the Original Seven astronauts of the Project Mercury, who were the first americans into space.

Cocoa Beach course

The pace, at 5´34″/km, was more decent than that of Washington DC. Even if I did not take a night picture of the area while running, I don´t want to spare the reader at least a couple of pictures of this beautiful and sunny enclave.

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Ciudad de Mexico, Mexico

After Florida, I hopped again and skipped runs in the Great State of Texas, where I stayed for some days in the suburbs of Houston, visiting the city, Johnson Space Center and the San Jacinto Battleground memorial with an excursion to the El Alamo in San Antonio. I could have said that the neighborhood around my motel in Houston was not very inviting…but it was at least better than the surroundings of my hotel in Kuala Lumpur last year…and I managed to run almost 3 km there. Again, no excuses.

So, next stop was Mexico, visiting my friend Félix. We stayed the first days at his place in the beautiful city of Cuernavaca, where the visit program was packed enough not to find a moment for running…This, however, did not happen in Ciudad de Mexico, where we stayed until I left the country. There, when visiting the magnificent Museo Nacional de Antropología, I marvelled at the woods in the park of the Bosque the Chapultepec. There I went running one of the days of our stay.

The Bosque de Chapultepec is a true green oasis in the middle of this megacity. In size and beauty, it is in my opinion at par with Central Park and Retiro in Madrid…and more appealing to me as runner than London Hyde Park. It was the biggest running surprise of the trip and I enjoyed it a lot. For the frequent runner looking for challenges, even if the many walkways and courses are not especially “hilly”, the path to the Castillo the Chapultepec, in the middle of the park, is a steep ascent that reminded me of the Cuesta del Diablo in Retiro. To me, this ascent is a bit less steep, but it lasts longer, some good 600m non-stop, compared to the 250m “wall” of the Retiro. I ascended it twice to remember the good old times in Madrid.

Course in Bosque de Chapultepec

With 5´58″/km, the pace suffered in comparison to the lighter one in Florida, probably due to ascent to the Castillo… and my condition after the parties in the days before. Anyhow, this was the run I most enjoyed. The day before I had visited the Castillo, currently the National History Museum, with breathtaking views of the city:

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Final Comment

As I mentioned at the beginning, I could not fulfill the objective for this trip that I had set last year, having skipped runs in three of the six locations that I visited. In addition to being even more farther than the ideal training plan requires, having run only 20,8 km in three weeks, I could have had a more “connecting” feeling to places like Norfolk, Houston or Cuernavaca, which is the great thing I have discovered in this trips. On the other side, I enjoyed again the wonderful running scene of Washington, I got into the footsteps of the Original 7 running in Cocoa Beach and I discovered one of the best spots for the world city runner in the green oasis of Chapultepec. Even if not perfect, not bad for having the running shoes in the suitcase.

I will let you know how it resulted in the Lisboa Marathon, and let´s see if in my next long trip I am more disciplined. I will enjoy more for sure if I am.



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Touring NASA Space Program sites – childhood dream

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard (…)

These words are probably the most quoted of Kennedy´s historical speech at the Rice University Campus on September 12th 1962, following his address to Congress one year earlier, which in turn came after his decission to go to the Moon. It was so inspiring I posted about the letter exchange that led to that decission in this post.

So, when this year I planned a trip to the US to visit my sister Beatriz, I took the opportunity to plan kind of a tour tracking the history of the american space flight programs. The route across the US more or less followed the chronological evolution of this fabulous quest into the space. In addition, I had recently read Failure is not an option, from NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz, so the elements were in place to enjoy a great ride on space history.

Hampton and NASA Langley Research Center

Hampton was the first place to be visited within this tour, as I had just arrived from the July 4th festivities I had enjoyed with my sister in Washington DC. By chance, precisely this year marks centennial, or the 100th years of NASA Langley Research center, the oldest facility of this administration and the main office to the Space Task Group, which in 1958 started the management of the manned space flights, such as the Project Mercury.

Since 2001, it turns out, NASA Langley is not open to public, being located inside the Langley Air Force Base perimeter. To cope with this constraint, a visitor center, the Virginia Air and Space Center , or VASC, was erected the town of Hampton for outreach activities. Then I had to pay a visit to VASC on my way to Langley. The exhibition shows both historic vehicles of the space race and the aerospace research activity for which Langley is also famous (see references in my posts about NASA aeronautical research here). I had hoped to see a special exhibition for the 100th years, but I could not find anything worthy of that anniversary. In fact and as opposed to, for instance, the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, I would not recommend a visit to this museum unless one is visiting the area for other reasons.

I drove further to the Base and the Research Center and, even if not open to public, I could not refrain myself from stopping close to the base limits, where one can still spot the Wind Tunnels, and took a picture of the entrance.

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Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral

Next to NASA Langley, I took a plane to Orlando, and from there a car heading towards Cocoa Beach, the famous enclave in the coast of Florida where the first generations of astronauts found hosting. The Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in the nearby Merrit Island was home the historic launch platforms of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, but also of the Space Shuttle. Currently it hosts the operation of the rockets for capsules to the ISS and comercial launches of United Launch Aliance and SpaceX . The complex has evolved to a real “gateway to space”, as they claim with good reason. The center covers a wide area on both sides of Banana River:

Merrit Island and KSC Map (credit to TravelersinOrbit,.com)

Staying in the area for a long weekend, I could savor the magic of the space race. Alone driving through the roads to the Visitor Center (the A1A Florida state and the 3 N Courtenay Parkway), reading the road signs announcing the Kennedy Space Center was an experience. It was reinforced by the sights in the distance, from many miles away, of the launch platforms and the famous Vehicle Assembly Building, or VAB. For enthusiasts of space and aeronautics, I would say that experience had the features of a pilgrimage to the temples of engineering. The fact that on those roads many batptist and methodist churches can be spotted, just adds to that espirtual sensation.

From the days that I visited the KSC, the main highlights were the Atlantis Shuttle exhibition at the visitor center, the special tour “Fly with an Astronaut” and the Launch Control Center tour. Fly with an Astronaut is a very recomendable “VIP” visit, guided by a real astronaut along 5 hours making stops beyond the standard tours. I just note here that our “host” was Shuttle Astronaut Tom D. Jones, with Extra-Vehicular experience in his four missions in space, who shared many insights of an astronaut´s live. We even had the chance to share a lunch with him, discussing the prospects of future space and Mars exploration. Below follow some pictures of those days:

KSC Visitor Center Entrance, about to live history

Two main attractions of KSC public visitor centers are these real vehicles, one made it to space, the other got its mission cancelled:

Saturn V with stages intended for Apollo missions finally cancelled

Atlantis Space Shuttle, shown by Tom Jones, who flew in it

In best american show-business fashion, the visits to both crafts are preceded by inspiring short movies that put the visitor in the best mood for what comes next.

KSC tour buses take visitors, both with normal admission tickets or special tours, inside the space center, where many historical spots can be visited:

The “Beach House” was used by crews and KSC personnel to relax prior to launches

Astronaut Tom Jones shares personal stories by the beach near The Beach House

Driving some miles, one gets to see very close the launch platforms, the VAB and the famous “crawler” that moved the space vehicles from the VAB to the platforms (an operation that took from 8 to 10 hours):

The “crawler” with VAB in the background

Tour guides claim that the crawler drives even slower than some of the other “inhabitants” of the ponds of Merrit Island, the turtles. These, along with aligators, are easily spotted in these bus tours.

Launch Pad 39A with nearby SpaceX facilities

Closer look at VAB

The Launch Control Center tour is another special visit, also recomendable, which takes the visitor to the “Firing Rooms” from which both Apollo and Space Shuttle launches were controlled. At specific dates (I was not that lucky) this visit is hosted by famed Launch Director Mike Leinbach. Along with the mythical Firing Room 4, the other rooms are being prepared for the upcoming launches of the Orion missions to Mars.

Windows of the “Firing Rooms” at Launch Control Center, close to VAB

At the entrance of LCC, with VAB in the back

The Firing Room 4 with Launch Director console

Launch procedure a the Director´s console…

Patches to all missions launched from LCC. The center was intended to serve up to Apollo 11. It lasted longer…

Patch to STS-95 mission with national hero John Glenn and spanish astronaut Pedro Duque (also fellow engineer and professor at ETSIA Madrid)

Apart from the evident significance of all the spots and vehicles shown at KSC, there was something that really impressed be. Size. The dimensions of the Center, with distances in the range of miles between one spot and the other, the size of the VAB and Saturn rockets…even the sight of the VAB and platforms…that I could see from the Pier cocktail bars at Cocoa Beach!! I enjoyed the visit to KSC and Cocoa Beach inmensely, so much that I would try to prepare a visit for the launches of the Mars missions as soon as they get scheduled.

Houston Johnson Space Center

After having enjoyed also the beach and live music at the bars of Cocoa Beach, I flew to the city of Houston. There were some historical spots to see there from the Independence War with Mexico, such as San Jacinto Battleground memorial or a visit to El Alamo in San Antonio. But clearly the highlight was the visit to the Johnson Space Center.

The history of this center is traced back to the early sixties. With the manned space race already started with Project Mercury, the mission control facilities located in Kennedy Space Center soon began to be too small to cope with the growing staffing needs for the upcoming Gemini and Apollo programs. Then, a confluence of factors led to establishment of the Mission Control Center in the outskirts of Houston: the texan roots of then vice president, and chair of the presidential space council, Lyndon B. Johnson, and the offer from Rice University of land of its property for a bargain deal. Johnson Space Center, or JSC, was created in a campus-like area and the Headquarters of the space programs gravitated to Houston.

My visit to JSC included, as in KSC, a VIP tour called “Level 9“. This tour makes reference to the 9th floor of the Building 1 of the campus, where the top management of the site is located and is thus associated to “full access” to the facilities. I was fortunate to be in a small group of six people with a space historian and enthusiast, Sean, as guide. Following pictures give account of an exciting tour through places that have marked history of manned space flight:

Saturn V with stages for cancelled mission Apollo 18

The JSC also hosts a Saturn V exhibition. The dimensions of the mighty rocket are just dramatic. The visitor can only stare in awe before this magnificent vehicle.

Our guide Sean, took us to different buildings, marked with numbers, including Building 7, where the Crew and Thermal System Division is located, responsible for the design of the space suits and after that, drove us to share a meal in one of the campus cantines among NASA personel.

Next stop was one of the highlights of JSC, the Mission Control Center, named after legendary Flight Director Chris Kraft. The building hosts the current mission control rooms, where the operations of the International Space Station are managed, but also the historic control room for the Apollo program. From this room the controllers guided the first landing on the Moon with the Apollo 11, and it witnessed the “finest hour” of NASA during the Apollo 13 crew rescue efforts.Because of these historical feats were managed there, the room is now a national landmark:

Lobby of Mission Control Center, so much history behind that doors

Mission Control, with operations management of International Space Station

Historic Apollo Mission Control Center, now US national landmark

The Level 9 tour gives full access to the room, so the visitor can take time to observe every detail. Having read the book “Failure is not an option”, and working in a technical role related to flight operations, I perceived this room as a pinacle of an engineer´s career. It got me goosebumps, for instance, because of details like this:

Water tab for the controllers to refresh inside MCC. With a mirror and a placard…

Goosebumps reading the placard.

Our guide Sean noted my emotions in this room, which he shared, and we ended up recalling passages of the book and other anecdotes. Then, as we had some time and we were a small group (and I want to think that as a reward to the moments in the MCC), he took us to Building 16, the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory (SAIL). Still being readied for visitors, it hosts the real Shuttle simulator that astronauts trained on…including my guide in Kennedy Space Center, Tom D. Jones. I was “sort of” stepping in his footsteps! I could not contain my emotion:

Shuttle Simulator Cargo Bay, with all wirings and avionics.

Happy as a child in a real Shuttle flight deck. All systems “simulated” functional.

The simulator has even a real vehicle identification number, the so called “orbiter vehicle” designation: OV-095.

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After the simulator experience, a quick halt in Building 2, the former visitors center, which hosts the Auditorium. Not a technical facility, but still with some surprises and a story behind it:

Lunar Landing Research Vehicle, a unique craft

The Lunar Landing Research Vehicle, with only two units built, helped to simulate lunar gravity conditions by offsetting earth gravity via thrusters compensating for a fraction of the vehicle weight. It is exhibited in Building 2 along with memorabilia from Lyndon B. Johnson.

The Auditorium hosted many press conferences during the Apollo years:

Building 2 Auditorium

But beyond its normal function, it was loaded with emotion as well. This room is where Flight Director Gene Kranz addressed his controllers and NASA personel after the fire of Apollo 1. In “Failure is not an option” he recalls it with these words:

I climbed the four steps to the stage, looking at all those faces of people I knew so well. I wanted them to get beyond shock, then say, as St. Peter did in on of his epistles, ‘ Let us get good and angry-and then let us make no mistakes”’

So, having stepped onto the stage of the picture above he went on with his speech:

“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

I was amazed again to be there. What a “historic” ride so far.

The final stage of the tour took us to no less than Building 9, the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility, in essence a huge hangar with mockups and training replicas of past and current space crafts, of all nations, for astronauts to complete part of their training. The standard visit to Building 9 runs through an elevated glass-gallery, while the Level 9 tour gives full access to the floor and interaction with the engineers working there.

When walking along the mockups of the ISS modules, the Soyuz, and so on, I recalled my visit with brother Javier to the Research Gallery of the National Museum of the Air Force (post here), which I dubbed as “a candy store” for an aviation geek or engineer. Well, this facility was clearly its equivalent for the space engineering:

Overview of ISS modules

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The Orion capsule, intended to take astronauts to distances beyond the Moon and to reach Mars, was at high pace to be ready:

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One of the mobility unit prototypes of the early days of the Shuttle was stored in a corner there:

Old Mobily Unit with thrusters for Extra Vehicular Activity.

On the other side, a prototype for the future, the Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle, with a clever solution to ease the use of space suits. The suit has an interface with the vehicle and remains outside, saving space inside the SEV:

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But even beyond these crafts, NASA and its industrial partners, such as General Motors, are already working in the automation of some exploration activities, with “robotnauts” like the R2 or the Valkyrie:

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As the pictures indicate, the tour through the JSC Campus, including the interactions with the NASA employees, were a “festival” for my engineering “soul”. This visit was not characterized by the size or dimensions that caused awe in Cape Canaveral, but it was richer in some sense. I felt fulfilled by this tour. The story, however,  was not complete, and Houston had more to offer in this regard.

I had drawn a large part of the historic context for this visit from Gene Kranz´s book, so I had to pay visit to the source of his inspiration: Kennedy´s historic Rice University speech. But before leaving Johnson Space Center I still took a picture of Kranz legendary vest for the last Apollo mission, number 17…

Gene Kranz´s vest for Apollo 17

… and a replica of the podium of Kennedy´s speech in advance of the next visit:

He is saying: “… we choose to go to the Moon…”

Finally I drove to the southwestern suburbs of Houston, to a lovely and elegant neighborhood where the Rice University campus is located and, in particular, its football Stadium. There, on a September day of 1962, John F. Kennedy inspired a generation:

JFK stood on this grass and he spoke inspiring words…

Making some references to Rice´s football team, he went on narrating a poetic and beautiful parable about the high pace of the technical evolution of mankind as if it was compressed in a timescale of 50 years, with the latest and greatest accomplishments occurring just in the last moments before the speech. Then, the minute 8:25 of the video comes, and the rest is history:

I wrote once that I had childhood dreams of space just with a Challenger Space Shuttle model toy. There I narrated that my career had been directed rather into a “lower” level among flying things, but still this wonderful tour has had a part of fulfillment of that dream and I am very happy about it. The best thing is, there is even more to such a dream, let me share a last beautiful story.

At KSC I was sitting next to astronaut Tom D. Jones during that lunch I mentioned on the VIP tour. At the table there was, among others, a family of three from Washington DC. Two parents and a young lady of about 10 years old, not more. She had been encouraged by her parents to take part in NASA’s Space Camp program and was curious about all things STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths). The young girl threw very good questions at Tom regarding the use of russian space technology in american space programs and planet geology and materials mining. I was just amazed. I looked at how serious Tom was answering to her.  I work in aircraft flight operations and ended up talking to Robonaut engineers in Houston because of a Challenger toy model. This girl of 10 was discussing space technology with astronaut Tom D. Jones. If I ever see a astronaut really flying to Mars, it won´t surprise me that it is a young girl from Washington DC.

What a ride into Space here on Earth.

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Failure is not an option – the inspiring legacy of a dreamer

I am a dreamer, believing that the mark of a champion is the ability to thrive in tough times. Gene Kranz, mission flight director, US Space Program

The quote above is part of the attitude that Gene Kranz tried to inspire in his young team of space flight controllers when they realized, confused, that the Apollo space program had came to an end.

Eugene “Gene” Kranz started in the Space Program with the early Mercury missions (first single manned capsules to reach orbit on a rocket), Gemini (earth orbital missions with crews and multiple modules) to the Apollo missions that reached the moon. He also took part in the Space Shuttle program.


Kranz on his flight director console at Mission Control Center (NASA)

For the general public, and maybe to youngest readers of this blog, he is most known for the portrayal by actor Ed Harris of his role during the Apollo 13 mission in the Hollywood blockbuster named after that mission. In fact, the celebrated quote “Failure is not an option”, that gives title to the book subject of this post, was never pronounced by Kranz himself, but just by his scripted character in the movie. An irony that he has always enjoyed.

Ed Harris as Gene Kranz

Actor Ed Harris as Gene Kranz in Apollo 13 movie (credit to Universal Pictures)

Alone with these ingredients, a book telling his story would make an interesting reading for lovers of aerospace and history. My opinion after having finished his book is that it goes way beyond that.

book cover Failure is not an option

Book cover (Simon & Schuster, publisher)

With almost 400pages, the book was written in 1999, coinciding with the celebration of the 30 years of the first landing on the Moon.

In the narration, from his early years as a young small-town engineering student and later air force pilot, to his career in the Space Program, he tells a compelling story about reinventing himself, about inspiring leadership and being a mentor of young engineers under enormous pressures, speaking of technical excellence and teambuilding to dealing with the end of the glorious days of the space era. I found there many lessons, some of which I want to share here.

But before that, a remark on three of the passages of the book that, for me, really stand out.

First, of course, the narration of the first Moon landing during the Apollo 11 mission, which he led as Flight Director. In this passage, about 10 pages long in the chapter “We copy you down, Eagle”, he shifts from writing in past tense as in the rest of the book to present tense, thus creating a thrilling and vibrant account of the very last minutes of that historical feat. A master trick that had me stuck to the book.

Second, the account of the entire Apollo 13 crisis, with the explosion in the oxygen tanks during the transfer trajectory to the Moon. This was the stage of the mission where his outstanding people management skills resulted in setting the Tiger Team that made history recovering the crew alive, and which is so well protrayed in the blockbuster movie I mentioned before.

Third and final, the reaction to the fire in the Apollo 1 capsule, in which the astronauts perished. This accident deeply shocked Gene and many program employees, rising the stakes in his understanding of the meaning of preparation and excellence.

The book shares a technical account of the precedures, vehicles and problems solved along the program, but also a myriad of personal anecdotes and landmarks. Terms such as The Brotherhood, or The Trench, were forged out from the hard work of entire teams and marked a decade of engineering mastery.

Even if somewhat out of context not having read the book, the paragraphs reproduced below, spread throughout the narration, provide a path of good lessons to reflect on. I grouped them according to aspects that I thought relevant and to be common to them. I invite the reader of the book to select other quotes as well and maybe give another interpretation.

Preparation and Training

They [the astronauts] would double- and triple-check what the controllers said and did. We had to earn their respect and trust. To do that we had to be smarter tan they were in each of our technical specialties, and we had to be utterly precise and timely in every action”  On the preparation needed to become a controller, especially during the Mercury missions, at the beginning of the Apollo program.

“It isn´t the equipment that wins the battles, it is the quality and the determination of the people fighting for a cause in which they believe” On the factors of success in bringing John Glenn safe during Mercury-Liberty 7 mission, where some retro-thrusters of the capsule were thought inoperative.

“Flight Control rappidly became the systems engineering cadre in the U.S. Space program” On the success of the same mission.

“My greatest fear approaching launch day was that I would lose one or more of my books. To assure that they were easy to find, I used pictures of various striking young women from the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition for all my book covers and, if one were missing, this virtually guaranteed a prompt return” On the knowledge he wanted to have ready at hand, and the funny way to avoid it got lost.

“Aaron paused in the middle of an exchange with his support staff, stared at his displays, then made the decisive call, ‘Flight, have the crew take the SCE(*) to Aux'” Recalling John Aaron´s brilliant instruction,  out from his technical experience, which practically saved the Apollo 12 mission.

Limit situations

“We had a blind crewman outside the spacecraft feeling his way with his hands back to the cockpit. I thought, ‘ God, those guys are like icemen, chock-full of guts”’ On the troubled Extra Vehicular Activity (EVA) of Gene Cernan during Gemini 9A mission.

“I advice the controllers to take five [minutes]. The rush for the rest rooms (…) is the first indication of the pressure the controllers are feeling. (…) I do not want to look at my face in the mirror for fear that I might let my own feelings show” The moments after separation of the lunar module during Apollo 11, initiating the descent to the moon surface.

“While the world waits, Neil Armstrong sends goose bumps around the globe with the words: ‘Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed’.(…)  Frustrated at my lack of emotional control, I slam my forearm against the console.” Account of the extraordinary emotional state at the historical landing on the moon.

“My three leads will be Aldrich, Peter, and Aaron. Make sure everyone, and I mean everyone, knows the mandate I’m giving them. (…) John Aaron will develop the checklist strategy and has the spacecraft resources.(…) Whatever he says goes. He has absolute veto authority over any use of our consumables” Part of the address at Mission Control Center, announcing quickly a clear way to proceed in the face of the Apollo 13 crisis.

Apollo 1 Fire

“I wished there were some way to get in a judo match. I just wanted to feel some physical pain. The beer was not helping anything” Gene´s desolation feelings hours after losing the crew in the fire.

“I climbed the four steps to the stage, looking at all those faces of people I knew so well. I wanted them to get beyond shock, then say, as St. Peter did in on of his epistles, ‘ Let us get good and angry-and then let us make no mistakes”’ Kranz first address to his team of controllers after the loss of the crew.

“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” Final words of his address to the controllers after the fire, setting the Tough and Competent motto.

“We fought and won the race in space and listened to the cries of the Apollo 1 crew. With great resolve and personal anger, we picked up the pieces, pounded them together, and went on at the attack again. We were the ones in the trenches of space and with only the tools of leadership, trust, and teamwork, we contained the risks and made the conquest of space posible” His final words at the end of Apollo 17 mission, remembering the struggle after the fire of Apollo 1.

Comradeship and team building

“Carpenter´s words would often be remembered. At beer parties, or during debriefings, if we wanted to get John Llewellyn to tell the story of Aurora 7 and his first mission as RETRO, we would stand and say, ‘I didn´t know where I was and the didn´t, either'”  Funny recall of the discussion between RETRO controller John Llewellyn and astronaut Scott Carpenter during a troubled Aurora 7 EVA.

“One of my primary responsibilities was team building. I remembered a key method we used in the Air Force to Weld rugged individualists into a cohesive working group. A squadron insignia is used to give a group of fighter pilots a unique identity […] I discussed my concerns about the White Team´s training with Marta one evening (…) she said ´Gene, white is your team color-why don´t I make you a white vest to wear (…) you can used it as your team insignia” On the origin of his famed “white vest”, aimed at uniting his group of controllers of the White Team.

“Sheeet, man, that´s Captain Refsmmat, the ideal flight controller! He´s the best we´ve ever had in the Trench” Quoting John Llewellyn on the invention of a character based on the vital Reference of Stabel Member Matrix, or RefSMMat, a tool for orbit calculation.

“The debriefing party at the Hofbraugarten was merciless, beginning with a parody of the mission. (…) The parody began and ended with the ‘inmortal words’ Liebergot and I exchanged early in the crisis. Kranz: ‘I don’t understand that, Sy’  Liebergot: ‘I think we may have had an instrumentation problem, Flight'” On the fun they had remembering the early discussion when many data sent from Apollo 13 did not make sense to the controllers. It was clearly not instrumentation.

“I knew how they felt. When I won my wings, I believed I would fly fighters forever. When my dream ended, my world folded. So I had to pick myself up and get on with life, and find a new vision.(…) I am a dreamer, believing that the mark of a champion is the ability to thrive in tough times. I was convinced that Mission Control would evolve, adapt, and exploit every opportunity” Giving direction to confused young controllers as the Apollo program came to an end.

Praise and recognition

“To this day, John remains the most respected engineer ever to work in Mission Control. He was a superb mentor for younger, less experienced engineers” On the controller John Aaron. Along the book, Kranz doesn´t spare praise and recognition to the skills and achievements, no matter how big or small, of many people.

“The highly talented and resourceful women of the computing unit, Mary Shep Burton, Cathy Osgood, and Shirley Hunt, started out in Mercury with mechanical calculators (…) They provided is with options that just months before we did not know existed. We had no choice but ot believe in the data and methodology they came up with, so our trust in their work was aboslute. (…) Their work had to be perfect, and it was…” On the “human computers”, teams composed of women. These days remembered through the book and movie “Hidden Figures”.

Final comments

These excerpts are, of course, far from completely capturing the flair of the book, which is full of uncompromissed optimism, derived from the deep impact that President Kennedy´s challenge to put a man on the moon had on Gene Kranz. On it he shows true love and curiosity for the work of others, which was at the base of his teamwork skills. It is thus a gift for every engineer or person involved in a big endeavor with fellow ones.

Finally, I just can relate with this story. When I write these lines, it is almost eight years since I started working with Airbus, and in particular, some time later, in the A400M program. Not trying to compare it with the Space Program, of course, this endeavor shares some similarities in terms of big amounts of people involved through the years, the timescales and, to some extent, the kind of risk and complexity associated with flight operations. I saw many situations and personal anecdotes reflected in the text.

Moreover, it is also near two years ago that I changed my position to one as a technical manager almost in daily contact to the flight crews. The change happened to be just days before the fatal accident of one of our aircraft on May 9th 2015 that cost the lives of four crew members, our colleagues and friends, with two other surviving it. When I look back at those days, and I read the comments from Gene Kranz remembering his experience with the Apollo 1 fire, a shiver goes down my spine. Alone writing these lines is quite an emotional exercise that reminds me of the “Tough and Competent” motto mentioned above.

This post is thus the best way I could find to express how inspiring and personally resonating I found the values and experiences reflected in the narration of Gene Kranz. I invite every reader to let me know if I succeeded, but above all to be inspired by the narration of this dreamer.

Thanks “Geno”.

Gene Kranz foto

Gene Kranz (credit Smithsonian Institution)


(*) SCE refers to Signal Conditioning Equipment, a redundant power supply to the crew module. Switching it to its Auxiliary mode saved the mission from being aborted in the instants after the lift off.

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Irrational Exuberance – book review

I recently finished the book Irrational Exuberance, by Prof. Robert Shiller, in its second edition from 2005.

The exemplar was a christmas gift from my brother Javier, knowing the appreciation we both share for Prof.Shiller’s work and ideas, as expressed for instance in different posts in this blog.


Irrational Exuberance cover

Book cover

With 230 pages, the book provides both a quantitative and qualitative approach to stock and real state markets analysis of Prof. Shiller, largely relying on the principles of behavioral economics, a theoretical realm he has mentioned many times in his scholar and public work.

Reasonably understandable even with basic knowledge of economy, it is rather a reference book which provides a good framework to understand and to get an overview on how the mentioned markets behave.

The author builds on data gathered that go back to the XIX century and on his own research and results of the many surveys conducted by himself and other colleagues since the early 80s. The analysis and discussion are structured in four main parts:

  • Structural factors: where a series of precipitating factors (up to 12 different ones) and amplification mechanisms are analyzed which are the basis to explain the volatility of the markets, eventually leading to economic bubbles.
  • Cultural factors: discussion on the role of the media and news, as well as the economic thinking and “Zeitgeist” characterising the times of great volatility.
  • Psycological factors: introducing concepts of the behavioral economics such as anchoring, herd behavior and epidemics, that help understand individual and society decisions.
  • Rationalization attempts: where some economic theories dealing with markets behavior, such as the efficient markets theory, are discussed and challenged (*).

I found it a very good read, with the credibility of having anticipated the housing bubble of the late 2000s with this book (a confirmation bias argument as the author would put it). To bear in mind the aspects discussed in the book may help to keep cool heads even in times of economic turmoil and be better off for the future, even if we are told otherwise. As he puts it:

In an attempt to attract audiences, the news media try to present debate about issues on the public mind. This may mean creating a debate on topics that experts would not otherwise consider deserving of such discussion. The resulting media event may convey the impression that there are experts on all sides of the issue thereby suggesting a lack of expert agreement on the very issues that people are most confused about.

I thank my brother Javier for this good anchor in times of economic confussion.


(*) Prof. Shiller won the 2013 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science for his analysis of asset prices, very much the subject of this book. He received the award jointly with other economists, in particular with Eugene Fama, one of the main proponents of the Efficient Markets Theory (EMT). It is famous his lecture for the Nobel ceremony, where he gracefully challenges Mr. Fama (watch it here, 33min video). In my opinion, a quote from this book (pg.193) puts that theory in good perspective: “Campbell and I (…) estimated that 27% of the anual return volatility of the U.S. stock market might be justified in terms of genuine information about future dividends (my note: the backbone of the EMT)”

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