Thursday, December 31, 2009

Having to move during the Christmas season makes one pause

Over the past two weeks, in preparation for my six months sojourn in Singapore, moving has become a preoccupation. First I had to pack up my temporary office at 4620 Wisconsin Avenue. I will miss the solitude of this spacious but windowless cubicle that provided a quiet oasis for my computer modeling work. The second move, from Dormgrandpop’s 101 Anderson Hall apartment was more arduous. Here, I was dealing with seven years of accumulated ‘stuff’ plus recent additions from my Center for Teaching Excellence and 4620 Wisconsin Offices. Culling and packing accumulations of one’s past - books, pictures, clothing, mementos and miscellaneous items compels one to choose: move to a new location, temporarily store, give away, or discard. I experienced flashbacks to the process of helping siblings purge my father’s apartment, shortly, after his death two years, ago. Some accumulations there spanned a lifetime, though periodically attritted by purgings from previous moves. I could also more closely empathize with students and their parents who, each spring, face the task of purging residence hall (dormitory) rooms for pre-summer vacation trip home.

But packing up and purging one’s accumulated stuff during the Christmas season raises issues that packing up at other times of the year does not. As one is sorting through gifts and purchases - some unused - from previous years, the commercial juggernaut that America’s winter solstice festival has become is relentlessly, every minute of every day, urging us to buy more.

Is it possible to show love and appreciation during the Christmas season, without transmittal of newly purchased material goods? Advertisers would have you believe the answer is ‘NO’ and, mostly, we have accepted their way of thinking. But having to purge gifts from previous years, while listening to this year’s electronic blandishments urging new purchases at least makes one pause. How much happiness-value-added did the goods I am now discarding really provide. The metaphor I would use for much gift receiving is drug addiction. There is a quick exciting ‘rush,’ but often followed by withdrawal. The pain of withdrawal must be assuaged by additional gifts or purchases. Bernie Madoff’s seventeen Rolex watches, recently auctioned off, provides an egregious illustration.

My experiment, this Christmas season, has been gift recycling. This has included giving away some of my most treasured books and artifacts as well as some items for which I have no use. For two friends facing real hardship or need, significant sums of money seemed an appropriate gift. It would be an exaggeration to say that this has transformed my life, let alone America’s winter solstice commercial extravaganza. But at the least it will help simplify the purging process in future moves both for me and, after my demise, for those who must sort through my remaining possessions.

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Friday, December 25, 2009

The Children's Christmas Service at Leeds Episcopal Church

Early last evening, I attended the ‘children’s’ Christmas service at Leeds Church, the parish in rural Northwestern Virginia near where we live. As is typical on religious holidays - especially Christmas and Easter - the small church was filled to overflowing. Late arrivals, which included my wife and me, were directed to the balcony. This was where a small number of slaves who had been permitted to attend services sat before emancipation. Afterwards, I should imagine, though I don’t know for sure, freed slaves who chose to attend Anglican services continued to sit in the balcony seats, by choice and custom. Today, there is only one African American member of the Congregation who regularly attends services - most in the community attend Mount Olivet Baptist Church, nearby. He sings in the choir, but if he did not, could sit wherever he wanted, of course.

Our priest at Leeds Church is especially welcoming to children. The tradition at this service is for all young children to come up to the alter rail and tell the nativity story by responding to our priest’s questions. She explained that Jesus was born in a manger because God wanted to demonstrate that his message was for poor people, not only the rich. Income levels in the Leeds congregation and the surrounding community vary widely. Poverty is more than abstraction. As the Nativity story unfolds, children are invited to place miniature replicas of Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, the three wise men and a number of different animals in the small creche near the altar. In contrast to urban congregations, cows, sheep, horses and goats are not beings these children know only from pictures or television. Most see them every day or so on their own or neighboring farms.

I particularly like the children’s service message because it is so refreshingly free of doctrinal overtones. Jesus was sent by God to provide an example, through his own life of how human beings should treat one another and to offer the hope of salvation and eternal life to all. This is a message easily grasped by even young children. They can personally identify with the child figure that one of them has placed in the manger. Do any of us, irrespective of our religious persuasion, really need more than that?

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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Sharing news of an exciting initiative and postdoctoral fellowship opportunity at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore

As regular readers know, I will be spending the spring term in Singapore. I have been working with my new colleagues at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy to recruit a postdoctoral research fellow who would focus on System Dynamics modeling, systems thinking and public policy. I have written to a number of friends and colleagues about this new position and I decided I would share the information in this venue as well. My ltter follows.

Dear Dormgrandpop Readers,

I wanted to share news of an exciting postdoctoral fellowship opportunity that has recently been announced at the Institute of Water Policy of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore. You may have seen the position posted on the System Dynamics Society’s “Career Link” page, but I also wanted to write to you separately. Filling this position is a top priority for the Institute of Water Policy. The Institute is lead by Dr. K.E. Seetharam, who is on leave from a long-term affiliation with the Asian Development Bank, focusing on sustainable urban development and water resources issues. Recently, he was also named to head the newly created Global Asia Institute at the National University of Singapore. His MA studies included work in System Dynamics modeling with Khalid Saeed. I had the opportunity to work with Dr. Seetharam during a two week stay in Singapore this October and was greatly impressed by his vision, leadership ability and commitment to systems thinking. The postdoctoral fellow will play a key role in initiatives that are intended to ramp up both teaching and research, emphasizing systems thinking and system Dynamics Modeling applied to sustainable development issues, at the Lee Kuan Yew School.

That one of the top public policy schools in the world, located at a hub of Asian Development, is taking such an initiative at this time should be good news for all members of the System Dynamics modeling community and for those concerned with broadening the impact of systems thinking more generally. However I also have a personal interest. I have been offered and have accepted a six month Visiting Professorship, beginning in January. The position will provide me an opportunity to help move this initiative forward, under Dr. Seetharam’s leadership. Playing a role in identifying candidates for the postdoctoral fellowship which, for an outstanding candidate, could be upgraded to a Visiting Assistant Professorship, is one way that I am seeking to help. I will also be seeking to draw lessons about sustainable development and sustainable poverty alleviation from Singapore’s long-term development experience, using System Dynamics modeling.

The fellow to be hired will be collaborating with me on this work and there will be additional support from graduate students, working part-time. I anticipate that the project will extend over a longer term than the upcoming six month period that I will be in residence. Eventually we hope to apply the lessons learned throughout Asia and, if appropriate, more widely. I full well realize, of course, that there are many, including yourself, who might well be better qualified to play this role. Fortunately for me, however it would appear that Seetharam and others saw my interest in deepening understanding of Singapore’s development, using System Dynamics modeling, during a sabbatical year, as a serendipitous target of opportunity.

The position description follows. I have also attached a copy as a separate document.

My best wishes to you and your families for the holidays.


Research Fellow (Systems Thinking for Public Policy) at the Institute of Water Policy (IWP), Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy

The position provides an excellent opportunity to contribute to cutting-edge research in the application of systems thinking and dynamic modeling of public policy, with an emphasis on urban development, particularly in Asia. The fellow is expected to play a key role in a project that will use System Dynamics modeling to learn from urban development success stories, especially Singapore. Drawing, in particular, on work of the Asian Development Bank, urbanization in Asia is seen as a Yin Yang dynamic. While urban growth and especially the growth of megacities is viewed as problematic, it is also in cities that the economic future of Asia will inevitably be shaped. Cities must, be the engines of economic growth, creativity innovation and revitalization if looming development challenges now on the horizon are to be dealt with effectively. The project’s goal is to design development trajectories and public policies leading to urban communities that are beautiful, livable, sustainable, resilient and that interact symbiotically with their environments. In addition to participating in the research program of the Institute, the fellow will also have some opportunity to pursue independent research so long as the contributions to knowledge and delivered outputs are of a high standard. The candidate will also be expected to participate in some of the teaching and outreach programs of the Institute in the area of system dynamics modeling.


The position will be full-time for 1 year, with possibility of renewal depending on the quality of work. Compensation is negotiable and will be competitive, based on the candidate’s qualifications, experience and track record. Housing and round-trip transportation to Singapore may be provided.

General Requirements

The successful candidate will be an accomplished researcher. He/She should have a strong background in systems thinking and system dynamics modeling. Added assets are experience with seeking and managing research grants, publications in peer-reviewed journals, and experience in research collaboration where currently employed.

Essential Qualifications & Requirements

PhD in a relevant discipline with a strong background and competency in system dynamics

High level of competency in one of the three following system dynamics modeling software: STELLA/iThink or Vensim or Powersim.

Reasonable background and skills in quantitative modeling, statistical/econometric analysis

Broad understanding of public policy issues of one or more Asian economies and background. Background in urban development and environmental sustainability, with a particular emphasis on water resource management and policy will be a desirable qualification but is not absolutely essential.

Publications in reputed journals, presentations at international conferences, and experience in seeking and managing research grants

Excellent verbal, written, and interpersonal communication skills

Application Procedure

Please submit the following documents electronically to Bernard Tan at .

Curriculum vita and a one page professional resume

Statement of qualifications covering the areas listed below.

A 250 word note presenting your views on urban development issues and the role you would see yourself playing at the Lee Kuan Yew School.

Questions about the position should be addressed to Bernard Tan as well. He will forward them to the appropriate individual for a response.



The listing that follows describes the qualifications and experience we are seeking in applicants for this position and the documentation we ask that candidates provide in support of their applications.

PHD degree - Please provide your dissertation title, the year your degree was awarded, the institution from which it was received and the name of your supervisor.

Evidence of skills in quantitative modeling, especially System Dynamics modeling, plus reasonable knowledge of and skills in other quantitative/modeling methods such as statistics, econometrics, and/or mathematical programming – provide information on courses completed, practical work and publications, if any.

Knowledge of a range of policy areas and related disciplines including, for example water, energy, agriculture, environment, applied economics, population and urban development – provide information on courses completed, practical work and publications, if any.

Broad understanding of public policy issues in one or more Asian economies – provide information on courses completed, practical work and publications, if any.

Publications – please provide a listing, with complete citations of published work covering at least the period from 2006-2009. Feel free to include earlier works if you wish.

Experience in seeking and managing research grants – please provide details including dates, the size of the grant, the scope of work, a description of your role and the results produced.

Experience in research collaboration within or outside of the institution at which you are currently employed – please provide details of the collaborations, the names of collaborators and results produced.

Excellent verbal, written and interpersonal communication skills – if you wish, you may provide further evidence of such skills to the degree that you feel they are not adequately addressed in the materials provided above.

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How seems happiest walking down East 40th Street in New York City, early in the morning.

A week ago Wednesday I was in New York City having breakfast outside a Dunkin Donuts on the corner of 2nd Avenue and East 40th street. It was a bit cold, but I was comfortable enough in my warm coat and fur hat. There was only one other customer braving the cold, a younger man who was constantly negotiating ‘deals’ on his cell phone.

The ‘sidewalk cafe’ served as a vantage point for watching passers by, most walking very fast with intense expressions on their faces and often preoccupied with cell phone conversations. People walk much faster and seem more purposeful than in DC.

I decided to take note of whom, among those striding purposefully down East 40th Street between 8:30 and 8:45 on a cold late fall morning seemed most happy. The results of this informal survey and assessment follow.

Most happy were the handsome young men and women featured on a poster advertising a condo across the street that was soon to be opened. They looked carefree and relaxed. I saw no one who remotely resembled them on the street.

Next were mothers walking with small children, holding their hands. Mothers pushing their children in strollers did not qualify. They all seemed to be talking on cell phones, walking as rapidly as other passers-by and looked stressed.

Next most happy were pre-adolescent children, apparently walking to school. Like the mothers walking with small children, their pace was slower and they were mostly holding each other’s hands. The seemed connected with one another.

Next were people walking one or two dogs. They seemed to be connected with their pets and enjoying the outing. People walking three or more dogs did not qualify. They looked stressed and unhappy. I assumed they were paid pet-walkers.

The street sweeper who was cleaning the sidewalk in front of my vantage point at a deliberate pace also seemed reasonably content. He responded to my greeting with a slight smile and a fairly cheerful ‘good morning.’.

The pigeons who clustered around my feet waiting for a handout seemed in good spirits. If they were disappointed that I had finished my somewhat meagre breakfast before they arrived, they kept their feelings to themselves.

As I said, most others strode by at a rapid pace with serious expressions on their faces, not looking from side to side and often with cell phones at their ears. They appeared to have urgent, important work to do and to be in a hurry to get to it.

This small slice of New York, at least, did not seem like a very happy place.

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Sunday, December 06, 2009

Participating in the Fulbright Scholars' Selection Process

Tuesday, December 1, 2009 (en route by train to New York City)

Apart from a Thanksgiving Day lunch and dinner (with two different groups of family/friends, I spent much of the holiday long-weekend reading Fulbright Scholar’s Program applications. This venerable program, well known to academics and students with international interests, is named after its founder, Senator J. William Fulbright, who headed the U.S. Senate Committee for many years. Like the Peace Corps, it has had sufficient clout to survive political buffetings from political leaders with very different values and views than Senator Fulbright, most notably conservative Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina.

The program for which I was selecting provides transportation and modest funding for a year of study abroad. The typical applicant is a recent university graduate who seeks to deepen his or her international experience before returning to the US for additional graduate study. A small number of applicants are enrolled in MA or PhD programs. An even smaller number are unaffiliated individuals, often older, who are seeking an opportunity for personal enrichment and/or to make a contribution to the country in which they intend to work. Most applicants have international study and travel experience. Even for some of the younger ones, this can be amazingly extensive.

My responsibilities as a member of the three-person South Asia subcommittee of the Fulbright National Selection was to evaluate applications seeking study opportunities in Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. There were more than sixty applications, typically about 25 pages in length. Each included an application form with personal/professional information, a ‘project description,’ an autobiographical ‘personal statement,‘ one or more statements from individuals/organizations with whom the applicants hoped to affiliate and one or more statements evaluating the applicants language competence. Each packet concluded with two to four letters of recommendation. As is typical, such letters Range from brief, perfunctory statements to detailed, sometimes lyrical endorsements from caring mentors whose knowledge of applicants and concern for their success was demonstrable. The application pile’s height was more than 7 in., somewhat more massive than the one volume Colombia Encyclopedia that my parents gave me for Christmas during my first year of junior high school.

How does one deal with such a mass of paper in reasonable time seeking, simultaneously, to be efficient (selection committee service is pro bono) and to give applicant’s hopes, dreams, aspirations and accomplishments their full due? Meeting both these conflicting goals is virtually impossible. The two full working days I had budgeted for the task, was not nearly enough.

When students and young faculty members seek my advice about scholarship, fellowship, and research funding and about graduate applications, my advice is always the same. Try to put yourself in the ‘seat’ of the selection committee member and view the process from their vantage point. Make their task of reviewing your application, according to criteria set forth in the program description, as easy as possible. Be meticulous about meeting every program requirement, providing every document and filling in every blank on application forms. Remember that in any competitive selection process, committee members will be looking for reasons not to chose your application, rather than the reverse.

Here is a brief window into how the Fulbright selection process works. After reading each 20-30 page application packet, committee members are asked to capture the essence of your materials in one number: 1.0 for outstanding, 1.5 for excellent, 2.0 for very good, 2.5 for above average, 3.0 for average, 3.5 for marginal and 4.0 for not recommended. Tomorrow, we will begin our day by simply reading of the numbers we have assigned for each applicant.

The Committee’s program manager, an employee of the International Institute of Education (IIE) that manages the program for the Department of State will compile the numbers and identify applicants about whom there is consensus. She (or he) will also know about how many awards can be given for each country. More than half the applicants will be dropped from consideration within the first two hours or so. The remainder of the day, with a break for lunch at the spectacular UN staff cafeteria, overlooking the East River, will be devoted to discussing and ranking applicants for the remaining open slots.

Like any process where scarce resources must be allocated among a greater number of deserving applications than funding will allow, this one may have its shortcomings. But in my experience it is efficiently administered and free of any obvious bias. Despite the time involved, Selection Committee members are knowledgeable professionals who take their obligations seriously and play out their role’s responsibly. Perhaps this brief description of the process will be both demystifying and empowering. My hope is that it will help prospective applicants, especially those from American University, to participate more confidently and effectively.