Friday, October 28, 2011

Operate from Love

This evening, I paused from the tyrannies of a never quite completed “to do” list, and a never quite empty “priority email inbox” to continue hanging more pictures, news-stories, and other artifacts that chronicle a long life. Among them was the obituary of “Scientist, Writer Donella Meadows,” who died on February 20, 2001. Dana was one of my mentors, as well as a collaborator. Along with Jay Forrester, Herbert Simon, my mother and father, my US Navy Captain, E.W. Ostlund, my global modeling mentor/collaborator Mike Mesarovic and a few others, her picture, taken not long before she died, has a place in the “mentors gallery” that I created to share with students during my years as Director of Doctoral Studies and then with faculty that I mentored during the years I directed American University’s Center For Teaching Excellence. Tonight, however, I found a picture of a younger Dana Meadows, taken at about the time we were working most closely together. As such pictures do it brought back many joyful memories – and the anguish of opportunities lost.

When I sat down at my computer, viewing Dana’s picture prompted me to look back through my files of her writings and correspondence. My search came to rest on the following passage. It is an important message to a troubled world from the conclusion of her coauthored book, Beyond the Limits, published in 1992.

It begins with the imperative, “Operate from Love” and continues….

One is not allowed to say that in public any more. Anyone who calls upon the human capacity for brotherly and sisterly love, generosity, compassion, will be met with a hail of cynicism. Once when I tried to do so, a high government official stood up to say, "Of all scarce resources, love is the scarcest."

I just don't believe that. Love is not a scarce resource, it is an untapped one. Our jazzed-up, hustling, quantitative culture does not know how to tap it, how to discuss it, or even what it means.

I am a child of that culture, and worse, a scientifically trained one. I have been educated to trust in practicality, not in love. But I have also been trained to see whole systems, and the more I do that, the more I see that practicality and love are in fact the same thing. What is love, but the ability to identify with someone or something beyond your own skin? Love is the expansion of boundaries, the realization that another person, or family, or piece of land, or nation, or the whole earth is so intimately connected to you that your welfare and his, her, or its welfare are one and the same.

In truth, of course, we are all intimately interconnected with each other and with the earth. We have always been. Love has always been a practical idea, as well as a moral one. Now it is not only practical but urgent. It is time to accept the astonishing notion that to be rational, to ensure our own preservation, much less that of nature and of future generations, what is required of us is to be GOOD. We have to look far into the future, react to signals before they come, care for and share the resources of the earth, and moderate our numbers and desires. We have to create a culture that draws out of us not only our technical creativity, our entrepreneurial cleverness, our individualism, competitiveness, and cynicism, but also our wisdom and our goodness.

It can be done. We can be patient with ourselves and others as we all confront a changing world. We can empathize with resistance to change; there is some clinging to the ways of unsustainability within each of us. We can include everyone in the challenge; everyone will be needed. We can listen to the cynicism around us and pity those who indulge in it, but refuse to indulge in it ourselves.

The world can pass safely through the adventure of bringing itself to sustainability only if people view themselves and others with compassion. That compassion is there, within all of us, just waiting to be used, the greatest resource of all, and one with no limits.

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Monday, October 24, 2011

An Inspiring Meeting with the Organizers of the April 6 Youth Movement in Egypt

With so many writing tasks and project management responsibilities from afar (in Singapore) it would be easy to lose connection with the communities at American University that have been so central in my life over the years. Sustaining ties to those communities, however, is one of the reasons I purchased a condo close to American University when I gave up my apartment in Anderson Hall.

Last Friday, afternoon, I took time off from proposal writing for a late-night conference call meeting with Singapore colleagues, to attend the International Development Program Student Association Friday Forum Series. The speakers were the Ahmed Maher, co-founder of the April 6 Youth Movement (in Egypt) and Waleed Rashed, spokesperson for the movement. They mostly answered questions from an overflow crowd of about 400 in the School of International Service Founders Room. It was an inspiring event, I thought. Questions from audience members, many of them young-women SIS students with ties to the Middle East, were thoughtful and evocative. Both Waleed and Ahmed had spent time in jail, been subjected to beatings and torture by the Egyptian security forces, and lost relatives and friends. However they were upbeat about their experiences, viewing the the future with a mix of realism and good humored optimism.

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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The submitting online recommendations obstacle course

Sunday October 16.

For professors, submitting recommendation letters has always been a time consuming process. However for me, it has always been a joyful one. I only agree to write letters for students about whom I am enthusiastic. I craft each letter carefully, paying particular attention to the individualized requirements of the department to which the student is seeking admission or the program from which she or he is seeking funding. I share a copy with the student and encourage her or him to share it with parents. Why shouldn’t a parent have the opportunity to feel proud when a mentor writes specific, complementary thoughts about their son our daughter?

Now, however, the introduction of online procedures for submitting recommendations has made the process more burdensome and far less enjoyable. Unfortunately, the time required to sort out problems with not-fully-debugged-online submission software is often greater than the time needed to write the letter of recommendation itself.

As Dormgrandpop readers would know, I am not a technology Luddite. For nine years, I directed a IT and multimedia customer support organization at American University that received very high marks from faculty, students and staff for service. Computer modeling, using differential equations is one of my professional specializations. I agree with Norbert Weiner who wrote in The Human Use of Human Beings about the promise of that computers offered: making life less routinized and more rich and fulfilling for human beings.

In the domain of submitting online recommendations, and many other domains, it hasn’t turned out that way. My experience in attempting - and finally succeeding - to submit of recommendation to the Institute of International Education, on behalf of a Fulbright program applicant is a case in point. I learned tonight that IIE has now outsourced the recommendation-submission process to an outside vendor, comprising IT specialists who, in all likelihood, know little or nothing about the Fulbright program or the circumstances under which faculty writing recommendations may work. I know from experience that when IT specialists are developing software, they are most often working under optimal conditions with the latest equipment (almost always IBM compatible running Windows operating systems) and with fast, reliable internet connectivity. When designing systems they assume, without giving the matter much thought, that their clients are reasonably IT savvy individuals operating under nearly similar conditions. Could clients be using a MacBook, lack a readily accessible scanner or have a slow internet connection? The possibility is unimaginable, or at least not something that should be taken into account in the design process.

These assumptions, of course, bear little relationship to the circumstances where their clients may be working, especially in a program where recommenders may well be working - and having to fill out recommendations - overseas. In my case I was working overseas, but did have good internet connectivity, however I was informed that my letter must be submitted online using a scanned document. Since I had no access to scanning technology, I had to wait until I returned to the US. There was no option offered for submitting recommendations by fax or mail. Fortunately, my travel schedule fit within the IIE’s deadline and I had scanning hardware and software in my DC apartment. Will every faculty member writing recommendations have this capability? It is unlikely.

But then I made the mistake of thinking I could easily complete the recommendation at my home in rural Virginia, where I only have a satellite internet connection. It was possible, but inordinately time consuming. The server response from the IEE software vendor was glacially slow, due no doubt to my slow satellite connection and the fact that the vendor’s software developers had only planned for lightning fast, totally reliabie, internet connectivity on the part of all Fulbright recommendation writers. I spent considerable time viewing the message “waiting for” and wondering whether the problem was my connection or the fact that the software had not been fully debugged for MacIntosh users. Downloading the recommendation using my normal browser, Safari, proved to be impossible. After long waits and fruitless attempts to reload the software, I switched to a different browser and repeated the process. This time, I decided that I would pass the time by writing this blog, while waiting to see if the server would respond. After an extended waiting period , it did. The document was successfully downloaded and I was able to complete the recommendation. Had I been overseas in Sri Lanka or perhaps even Singapore the task might well have been impossible.

The author of a cover-page-highlighted-obituary of Steven Jobs in the Economist described what made the products he designed so distinctive and appealing. He cared about what customers wanted and needed. He made his products and the software that supported them beautiful and user friendly. Most IT specialists who write software for Microsoft operating systems and including those who designed the recommendation software purchased by the IIE for the Fulbright program are cut from different cloth as I was once again reminded to my sorrow, this evening. I fear that Norbert Weiner was wrong about the human use of human beings. Steve Jobs and Apple are the exception. It is Microsoft and software vendors such as that are the norm.

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Saturday, October 08, 2011

Human resources – The Investment Sri Lanka needs most in its post-war era.

A small event, but indicative, I believe, of a larger whole, motivated this reflection. After spending a week in Sri Lanka, my return flight to Singapore was delayed by seven hours due to “delay in the arrival of the aircraft.” Fortunately I had purchased a business class ticket, mostly because on one occasion economy class check-in was so crowded and disorganized that I almost missed my flight. Since airport-check in required at 3:30 AM wake-up call for a scheduled 7 AM departure, I was able secure a small cubicle with a comfortable recliner, normally used by passengers with long late-night or early morning stopovers. Among the cubicle’s fittings was an elaborate combined fan and reading lamp, the latter with two adjustable dimmers. Alas, the reading lamp had no bulbs in it.

This vignette, unimportant in itself, illustrates a problem that I have observed in Sri Lanka and that may become more apparent as, under the driving leadership of its charismatic president, Mahinda Rajapakse, the nation redirects its energies from ending the war to development and purchases new technologies to help speed the development process. The country lacks a sufficient pool of talented, creative, highly intelligent, high-energy human resources to manage the complex technologies and institutions necessary to effect a transformation (to quote the title of Singapore’s former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s autobiography) “from third world to first.” Interestingly, Lee Kuan Yew’s latest book, Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going, places an even greater emphasis on talented leaders, carefully selected, as the key to Singapore’s success.

The availability of talented Sri Lankans, with the ability and skills to transform their island nation “from third world to first” is not a problem. There may be no nation, of comparable size, that has produced a comparable number, per-capita, of professionals, researcher-scholars, managers and entrepreneurs. However all but a very few of the most able do not live in Sri Lanka. Their energy and skills are contributing to development in Canada, Australia, England, the United States and, to a lesser degree, non-English speaking nations such as France and Germany. This is not because Sri Lankans don’t love their country. They do. It is because they see so few opportunities there for themselves and, especially for their children.

The exodus of talented Sri Lankans began in response to the official language policies of the 1950s. It accelerated in response to the demonstrably pro-Sinhalese policies codified in the Republican constitution of 1971 and then, massively, in response to the black July riots of 1983. As conflict became protracted, with devastating economic impact, the migrants included many talented Sinhalese as well as Tamils. “All my children are living abroad” is the sad refrain I hear from many Sri Lankan friends of my generation. I mean to cast no aspersion on courageous, talented, patriotic Sri Lankans who have remained when I observe that those who have migrated were, in preponderant instances, those who could. They had the talent, drive, and resources to create opportunities for themselves elsewhere.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s visionary, broad spectrum manifesto for Sri Lanka’s future, The Mahinda Chintana (“Sayings of Mahinda”) highlights creating an environment that will draw migrants back to Sri Lanka as a major priority. I believe this should be the most important priority, because it speaks to the human resources that will be necessary to realize other priorities. Talented human resources will be essential if Sri Lanka, like Singapore before it, is to be transformed “from Third World to First.” When migrants begin flooding back to this beautiful land, as they have begin flooding back to India and China, President Rajapakse will know Sri Lanka is on the right path to realizing his vision. When newly installed capital investments, from new high-speed rail links to state of the art reading lamps in the Bandaranaike Airport Business Class Lounge are maintained at peak efficiency that, too, will be an indicator.

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