Saturday, November 24, 2007

Google Mail’s breakdown - the pathology of software ‘enhancements’

A few months ago, as regular readers (if any) will recall, I switched my email service from AU’s antiquated Lotus Notes software to gmail. I wrote enthusiastically about the ease of changing over and about the user-friendliness and reliability of this web based service. In weekly meetings of AU’s Office of Information Technology Directors, I supported the idea of moving AU’s students to Gmail and initiating a pilot project that would experiment with gmail service for faculty and students, as well.

There was no reason the question my decision - until this weekend. Inexplicably, things have now gone terribly sour. Problems began wehn I upgraded to the new version of Apple’s Safari browser. Suddenly, I no longer had automatic access to my gmail address book, a feature that is essential for emailing, responding or forwarding to multiple addressees. Possibly this was a problem with Safari, not gmail, I thought. I switched to my alternate browser, Firefox, and the problem was solved - temporarily. But when I arrived at my home for an extended Thanksgiving weekend and tried to access gmail via my satellite connection (and then by a telephone connection) there was no access. Later there was very limited access, but no address book access. I was reduced to looking up addressees on my Blackberry and typing them in manually, not an efficient solution for a heavy user.

Why does a system that has been providing great service suddenly breakdown? I have had this experience not only with gmail but with AU’s online “Learning System” provided by Blackboard, Inc. All too often, the problem is ‘enhancements’ initiated by software developers. They are creative individuals who cannot bear to leave well enough alone. Nor are they willing to rigorously test the results of their enhancements in the varied settings that users encounter. This is left to the users, themselves who become - unwilling - and unwitting - beta testers for incomplete or slovenly work. These software development tinkerers are found not only at google inc. and Blackboard inc., but at Microsoft ( possibly the worst offender ) and even Apple - witness the “improvements” to the new version of iMovie.

Since I have supervised IT operations at two Universities - I know the breed well As a manager, I regard restraining the depredations they can wreak on unwitting users as one of my major responsibilities. I wish this commitment were more widely shared.

In due course, I have no doubt that the problems with gmail and perhaps even with the Blackboard Learning System will be fixed. Or, in my role as an unwitting beta tester, I will after several wasted hours, come up with a work-around. I will experiment, check out list serves and speak with friends. Things will return to normal. I will be sadder and wiser. Another software provider’s reputation will be tarnished. Soon the cycle will be repeated.

There has to be a better way!

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Sunday, November 18, 2007

A shopping expedition that brightened my day

Each stage of one’s life provides opportunities to learn about new technologies and to interact with the entrepreneurs that provide them. Yesterday, in preparation for my father’s Thanksgiving visit, I began learning about technologies that could help him to be more mobile, independent and safe in a house that has some obstacles for those with uncertain balance and limited mobility.

I have written about my father, from time to time in previous blogs. Soon he will celebrate his 97th birthday. Between the age of 90 and 95, he cruised through the Panama Canal and the straits of Magellan. He traveled through the Suez Canal and climbed into the tombs under the great pyramids - with steep steps that make this a feat for someone much younger. He toured the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, this time mostly by wheelchair, and climbed to the upper balcony of the opera house. He made a sentimental journey, which he believed would be his last, to old haunts in Lisbon and the rural north of Portugal.

But aging is working its inexorable ravages and, like many other families, we are working with an elderly parent to cope with this reality, while sustaining some quality of life. Yesterday, I began the process of buying and installing some “safety” equipment that would make my home an easier place for my father to visit.

I began with a Google search. It immediately became clear that this is a niche market. A search on various likely descriptors produced far fewer hits than for my book, Paradise Poisoned, or for this blog. The hits that appeared were mostly for classified listings, not individual websites. The first two calls I made reached disconnected numbers. The third produced success, but to a concern, Zask International Medical Supply that had replaced another, which had gone out of business. Zask had purchased their phone number as part of its marketing strategy, I learned. I remembered an NPR piece on Medicare fraud in Florida, which spoke of shell companies set up to bill US taxpayers millions for equipment that was never delivered.

Zask Medical Supplies seemed entirely legitimate. When I called, a cheerful human voice, not a menu or robotic outsourcee from an offshore call center responded. The young woman provided helpful information and directions. She explained that their establishment was located in an office park, not a store front. Assisted by Google Maps, I found the location, amidst suites of doctors, dentists and local attorneys’ offices, without difficulty.

The sign on the door was so unprepossessing that I might have missed it, were it not for the row of wheelchairs in front, under an overhanging balcony. This was not a business, clearly, that was seeking walk-in traffic. But it did seem to be a business where the employees enjoyed their work and engaging with their customers in a non routenized manner. The young woman who helped me remembered our telephone conversation. Her explanations of different options to a neophyte purchaser were cheerful, patient and helpful. The ambience of the somewhat cluttered facility had a “community” feeling. The only other client was a couple that was purchasing a walker and wheelchair, also anticipating a Thanksgiving visit - from the 87 year-old mother of one of them. We exchanged ideas and experiences. The employees joined in the conversation.

Apparently, the retail market for mobility assistance and safety equipment is not sufficiently large that it has fallen prey to the dehumanizing structures of American consumerism: mass marketing, cut prices and sullen dehumanized employees reluctantly delivering indifferent service at best. Yesterday I was glad of that. This two hour shopping expedition to purchase safety equipment for my home could have been a “downer.” Instead, it brightened my day.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Rapid staff turnover and questions it raises

Last friday AU’s Housing and Dining Department devoted its bi-weekly staff meeting (it is called a ‘family meeting’) to the Faculty Residence Program. I was asked to open the discussion by sharing my more than five years of experience living in Anderson Hall. Anderson Hall’s live-in Resident Director and I met over dinner the previous week for a planning session. She sensitized me to a phenomenon of which I had not been fully conscious. Of the twenty or more people who would be in the meeting, only one had been employed by American University when I moved in. To cite one, not atypical, example, the young woman Resident Director who is my neighbor is the fifth person to hold that post during my tenure.

This pattern is atypical for many American University Departments. AU’s President matriculated as an undergraduate as did the Faculty Senate Chair. The President the Provost and I joined AU;s faculty in 1975. When I first interviewed at AU, I was greeted by the (then) young woman who now serves as Executive Assistant to the Provost. Two faculty members whom I know well have served AU for more than fifty years. Several years ago, we celebrated the Vice President for Finance’s thirtieth year of service. Two Office of Information Technology staff members were students in the applied computer science program that was part of the Center I headed when I first joined AU.

Neither longevity or rapid turnover is intrinsically virtuous. Stable staffing can sustain a culture and sense of community, but also produce stagnation and resistance to change. Turnover brings new energies and ideas into an organization, but new hires may lack the judgement and experience to function with real effectiveness in AU’s complex, high context institutional culture.

As I reflect on the Housing and Dining Department's institutional culture, I am left with more questions than answers. Why is the turnover so high? How does a manager sustain coherent management practices, an affirming culture and a sense of community in this environment? How does one capitalize on this rapid infusion of “new blood?” What are the consequences of the reality that many Housing and Dining staff members have spent less time at institution than virtually all of the Resident Assistant staff members and many of the students they supervise?

The Housing and Dining Department, it has been my experience, carries out the complex tasks that are its mission with discipline and effectiveness. In an institutional culture where ‘who you know’ is at least as important as ‘what you know’ and ‘what position you hold,’ this is remarkable. I have been told that rapid turnover is simply ‘the way things are” in the student services culture, nationally.

But questions about why turnover is so rapid, what are the consequences and the degree to which the consequences are beneficial - or not - remain.

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Sunday, November 11, 2007

A Sunday night dinner I didn’t have to cook.

Last Sunday night, the Resident Assistant of Letts Hall, third floor South, invited me to dinner with her residents. More than 25 gathered in the lounge for a meal of pasta shells, pasta sauce, garlic bread and Klondike bars for dessert (my contribution). This was not a “program” in the sense that I had been invited to speak about something. It was simply an opportunity to get acquainted. I asked a few questions to learn something about students’ background. Most were first year students from the United States. Only three had lived abroad, one in India, one in Egypt and one in Latin America. However all planned to complete at least one study abroad semester before graduation.

Toward the end of the evening I gave a bit of an informal talk on my role as a faculty resident. I spoke about how I could help students with academic issues and negotiating the intricacies of AU’s complex institutional culture. We discussed what it is like to live in a developing country and I shared some anecdotes from my years of living in and visiting Sri Lanka.

A question that students who don’t know me always ask is “why did you decide to live in a dorm?” (They always use the term “dorm” even though the politically correct, officially mandated name for where we live is “residence hall.”) I have been asked this question many times, in groups and in one on one conversations so I have ready answers: my goal was to bridge the gap between faculty and students outside the classroom; I was responding to expressed student wishes to become closer to faculty in informal settings; I wanted to avoid the brutal Route 66 commute between American University and where my wife wanted to live, in rural Faquier County Virginia; I wanted to learn more about a generation of students just slightly older than my oldest grandchild. I spoke about how much I had learned and how I was able to present a student-centered view in forums where student voices are rarely heard or given credibility: the Faculty Senate, the Provost’s Council, committee meetings where “what students want” is discussed with no students present.

By 9:30, conversation flagged as residents drifted off to begin evening studies, projects or socializing. It was time for me to do the same. The good news was that for once, i didn’t have to clean up and do the dishes.

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Thursday, November 08, 2007

Coping with Torture

Perhaps it was the juxtaposition that got me to thinking about coping with torture. On NPR’s morning edition, I listened to a description of how President Bush’s nominee for Attorney General, Michael Mukasey, had dissembled and evaded when questioned about our government’s policies on torture.

Then I listened to a Krista Tippett (of “Speaking of Faith”) interview with Indian Journalist and author, Pankaj Mishra, about his book on Buddhism, 'The End of Suffering.’ Mishra spoke about how Tibetan Buddhist monks were able to experience torture without being scarred psychologically as many torture victims are.

It reawakened the experience of a memorable evening in San Francisco, many years ago, when I heard a lecture describing a similar experience. The man, whose name I can’t recall, was imprisoned and tortured by the Chinese government for seven years, mostly in solitary confinement, during the ‘Great Cultural Revolution.’ He was briefly released and then imprisoned for an additional four years before finally being given his freedom.

He was one of the most luminous, joyful individuals I have ever met. He spoke about how he came to love his guards and was able to relate to some of them on a human level. A source of strength for him was a poem by Edwin Markham that goes like this.

He drew a circle and shut me out
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout
But love and I had the wit to win.
We drew a circle and took him in.

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Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Two commandments may be enough

Regular dormgrandpop readers (if any) will have heard me mention the “Speaking of Faith” public radio program and podcasts. I listen to one or more podcasts each morning while I am folding laundry, preparing breakfast and performing other mundane functions that are part of daily living.

Yesterday morning’s podcast was “The personal faith of Jimmy Carter.” According to most appraisals, Jimmy Carter was not one of America’s most successful Presidents, but, in more than twenty years since leaving the While House, he may have become our most successful ex-President.

President Carter’s administration marked the zenith of my modest ‘political’ role in Washington. He cared about issues of sustainability long before they were popular. My global modeling friends and I were called upon to advise the administration, including President Carter’s senior staff. President Carter commissioned the “Global 2000 Report to the President," directed by my Friend Gerry Barney. I was hired as a consultant to prepare follow up recommendations that might shape the President’s second term. I was even a finalist for a senior position on President Carter’s staff, “Director of White House Information Systems.” Fortuitously, in retrospect, I was not offered the job.

President Reagan’s election in 1980 ended that era in my life. In the ensuing five years, I collaborated on three books of which I am particularly proud: “Making it Happen: A Positive Guide to the Future,” “Groping in the Dark: The First Decade of Global Modeling” and “Ending Hunger: An Idea Whose Time Has Come.”

It is hard to think about the Carter years without these personal reflections, but President Carter’s interview was not about politics. I it was, as the title implies, a rich probing into his personal faith. He was America’s first evangelical Christian President. He taught sunday school regularly throughout his term and continues to do so. He and his wife end each day, whether together or apart, by reading the same Bible passage and discussing it.

The remarkable technology of Podcasting, along with my iPod, will allow me to give President Carter’s interview the attention it deserves, by listening to it more than once. But only one listening was needed to come away with the former President’s most memorable observation. He heard it, President Carter said, from a missionary priest in a poor Latin American community, “Father Cruz.” (I had not known, before yesterday morning, that “Cruz” means “Cross” in Spanish.) Father Cruz told him the essence of Christianity could be reduced to only two commandments:

“Love God and love the person who is standing right in front of you.”

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Monday, November 05, 2007

Two Faces of Terror

One face of terror is terrorist acts such as the World Trade Center bombing, the Madrid Metro bombing and the London Metro bombing. The other face is state terror, forceful actions by agents of a government, directed against those seen to be its enemies, outside of the rule of law.

“Two Faces of Terror” is the title of an article written by my friend and former colleague (now Dean of the University of Denver’s Graduate School of International Studies), Tom Farer. It was published in the influential “American Journal of In International Law.” I received a link to the article by email last evening and stopped to read it at once.

Farer assesses President Bush’s policies in “The War on Terror” from the vantage point of eight years’ service (1976-1983) on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, “a principal arm of the Organization of American States.” He applies the standards used by the Commission to judge regimes in Argentina, Chile, Guatemala and El Salvador, among others.

Farer concludes his assessment by quoting from the Commission’s report on Argentina, a military regime notorious for ‘disappearances,' suspending the rule of law and violating the rights of its citizens.

“The Commission repeatedly has emphasized the obligation of governments... to preserve the safety of their inhabitants... In the life of any nation, the personal safety of its inhabitants, by...groups that use violence, can reach such proportions that it becomes necessary, temporarily, to suspend the exercise of certain human rights. However it is...clear that certain fundamental rights can never be suspended, as is the case, among others, of the right to life, the right to personal safety, or the right to due process. In other words, under no circumstances may governments employ summary execution, torture, inhumane detention or the denial of certain minimum conditions of justice...

Each government that confronts a subversive threat must choose, on the one hand, the path of respect for the rule of law, or, on the other hand, the descent into state terrorism,.

The link to Farer’s article is:

Read it !

Sunday, November 04, 2007

An organization with a heart?

TIAA/CREF is a “not for profit” corporation used by many university professors, including me, to manage their retirement savings. For many years its reputation for integrity was impeccable. Its advertising emphasized two themes “a name you can trust” and we do the thinking about financial investments “for those that have other things to think about.” I took it for granted that these slogans were true. I believe many others did the same.

In 2002, TIAA/CREF appointed a new Chief Executive, a former President and Chief Operating Officer of Merrill Lynch. Things changed. I remember a conversation with a colleague, then an now a senior AU administrator, who first called my attention to the new leadership. He noted that the compensation of the new CEO had increased significantly, while the performance of CREF stock investments had fallen, albeit only slightly, below its historically top rated level.

Soon afterwards, I was personally impacted by the new administration’s policies. I received notice that the extended care plan to which I had subscribed with TIAA/CREF was being sold off to Metropolitan Life. Later, I learned from a TIAA/CREF counselor that TIAA/CREF employees had been selling policies to clients virtually up to the day the sell-off was announced. They were the last to know.

TIAA/CREF clients do have other things to think about. I was completing a book. But I felt sufficiently betrayed and outraged that I probed into the matter aggressively. Finally, I reached a public relations staff member attached to the office of the new CEO. Begrudgingly, he admitted that my recounting of events was essentially correct. Policies had been sold up to the day of the announcement and neither staff nor clients had been informed. When I criticized this policy, noting that TIAA/CREF’s mantra was “a name you can trust,” he responded “what would you have had us do?” “Inform clients and your own staff members as soon as the matter was under discussion and seek their feedback,” was my reply. His response - “we did what the law required” - is permanently etched my memory. It resurfaces whenever I hear a TIAA/CREF commercial, or have an interaction with its staff members.

This morning’s blog was motivated by a recent interaction with TIAA/CREF’s wealth management division. Instructions that I thought had been given, were not implemented. A ‘customer relations specialist’ sought to correct the problem retroactively. She reported back to me, “I tried to make the change, but ‘they’ would not approve it.” My frustration was not with her, but with myself. Hadn’t I learned by now that TIAA/CREF is not in any fundamental sense “a name you can trust?”

Despite disillusionment and a memory of betrayal I have not been able to shake, my investments are still with TIAA/CREF. I assume it is no worse than its competitors and perhaps better than most. And I do have “other things to thing about.” Hopefully I have learned my lesson. I will check my accounts meticulously each month and follow up communications to and from TIAA/CREF aggressively. I recommend that others, whatever firm manages your investments, do the same.

TIAA/CREF no longer uses the slogan “a name you can trust.” It has two new ones: “an organization with a heart” and “for the greater good.” However, I have an alternative proposal for the TIAA/CREF public relations department:

“TIAA/CREF: We do what the law requires.”

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Friday, November 02, 2007

We can always return home

One of the international correspondents I most admire is National Public Radio’s Ann Garrels. Here is a brief excerpt from her biography, posted on the NPR website.

“Anne Garrels is a senior foreign correspondent for NPR's foreign desk. She has spent the past four years in Iraq, covering the country under Saddam Hussein's regime and through the U.S. invasion and its aftermath. She earned international recognition in 2003 by being one of 16 U.S. journalists to remain in Baghdad during the initial phase of the war. Her vivid, around-the-clock reports from the city under siege gave listeners remarkable insight into the impact of the war and the violence to come.

As U.S.-led forces advanced on the city, Garrels remained at her post, describing the scene on the streets and reactions from those she encountered. Her experiences in Baghdad are chronicled in Naked in Baghdad (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, September 2003)."

Yesterday morning, on NPR’s Morning Edition, Anne Garrels’ latest report from Iraq was prefaced by the remark that the had “returned home” from her latest of many trips to Iraq.

This brought to mind a bitter-sweet experience that most Americans who work in difficult parts of the world must have had as we prepare to ‘return home’ after another visit. Returning Peace Corps volunteers and American University students, returning from their first extended study abroad, trip must often share the same experience and feelings.

We may have visited and worked in a foreign setting, as I have in Sri Lanka for many years. We may be deeply immersed in the culture. We may have many close friends of long standing. We may be respected in the communities we visit, as Ann Garrels most certainly must be.

But we don’t experience what international development scholar Dennis Goulet has termed the “postulate of vulnerability.” Our American passports set us apart. We know that the circumstances of a ‘foreign’ setting in which we live are not necessarily part of our future.

We can always “return home.”

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Making Mummies

The front line workers in American University’s Office of Housing and Dining are the Resident Assistants. Resident Assistants are third and fourth year students who live on each floor. They receive a free room and a modest stipend. They mission is a dual one: serve as a (slightly) older mentor for students on their floor, sometimes more than 40 assigned to two RA’s, and enforce discipline. It is a challenging assignment and most carry it off well. Along with regular guests at my sunday night dinners, Resident Assistants are among the AU students I know best. Surprisingly, RAs are rarely dinner guests themselves.

In addition to working with students, seeking to create community in a physical structure and with such a large number of residents that it is difficult, resident assistants become a community of their own. They go through “RA Orientation” together in fall and spring. They occasionally socialize together and, in particular, they attend weekly staff meetings. These are chaired by the Resident Director, typically a young woman or man in their mid twenties, just a few years older than the RAs.themselves. Resident Directors live on campus in apartments similar to my own and often intend to be campus life professionals. Executive Director of Housing and Dining Services or Vice President for Campus Life would be a typical career goal.

I have attended RA staff meetings in Anderson Hall for all of the five years I have lived here. Participating, provides a unique window on the joys, tribulations and mechanics of residence hall living. A typical agenda might include discussions of a particular “noisy” room whose residents are disturbing others on the floor. The might be problems encountered by “desk receptionists” attempting to monitor traffic in and out of the dorm. There might be a discussion of policies to deal with “transports” of students who have drunk too much and need to be taken to local hospitals. Unruly students might have threatened an RA who was attempting to enforce discipline and there would be a discussion of how to deal with this.

But staff meetings are not all serious. We also have “ice breakers” which are intended to build community and help us get to know each other better. A quick one is “up and down.” We go around the conference table and each staff member recounts something good and bad that happened to them in the previous week. “Shout outs” provide an opportunity to complement a colleague who did something great the previous week. One week we were asked to describe something unusual about ourselves that others would not be likely to know. My contribution was that three close acquaintances of mine in Sri Lanka had been political assassination victims, two by gunfire and one by a suicide bomber.

“Making mummies” was this week’s “icebreaker”. We divided up into teams of about four. Each team was given a large industrial role of toilet paper. The task was to wrap one of our members, like a mummy, so that nothing but the paper would show in about seven minutes. This was a fairly typical “team building” exercise in which members seek to work with one another, performing a complex task and then reflect on what they learned from the experience. My team won ! and we learned three useful lessons. First the oldest and putatively the “wisest:” member of the team may not have the best advice. My plan for completing the task, produced disastrous results. The second message was that a failing strategy should quickly be abandoned and replaced by something that is working. Happily, the two other team members (apart from the prospective mummy) quickly abandoned my plan and worked out a far more effective strategy between them. The third message was that encouragement is important. I quickly switched my role to that of cheerleader, reporting that they were catching up with and then surpassing the other teams, while I helped with minor patches on the project. The two team members who did most of the work said that my enthusiastic encouragement did make a difference. I don’t think they were just being kind.

A good time was had by all.

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