Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Which Path to Choose?

In the past several days, more than in the months since my official “retirement,” I have had the experience of reconnecting with American University.  The fact that I purchased an apartment within a few minutes walk or bike-ride from campus makes this easy. 
The late summer weather has made walks about AU’s beautifully landscaped campus enriching.  The faces of students are familiar, generically, though unfamiliar, specifically.  I can still exchange friendly greetings with faculty colleagues, staff members, dining staff, shuttle-bus drivers and groundskeepers who became friendly acquaintances over many years.  Last week a colleague, newly appointed to an academic leadership position and I conversed at length about the challenges she faces.  On Monday there was a similar conversation with a 30-year colleague and staff member in the teaching excellence and technology center I once lead, now fundamentally transformed through reorganization.  Today, I met with a student affairs (Campus Life) staff member for an engaging conversation about how AU could better assist undergraduates in finding faculty mentors.
AU’s multi-tribal culture of undergraduate students, graduate students, academic departments, the Provost’s Office, the several Vice Presidents’ offices and the President’s Office is one that I understand intimately.  Years of experience, complemented by the skills of an ethnographic field researcher, has produced this understanding.  In the past, when challenges arose or opportunities beckoned, I could contextualize nuanced courses of action within a richly textured tableau.  This afternoon, I was asking myself, why not return to this comforting, affirming field of endeavour?
My grasp of the cultural/managerial contexts that now most engage me, Singapore’s public policy domain, the National University of Singapore the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and the National University of Singapore High School of Public Policy is still superficial.  Gaining the deep, nuanced understanding that is necessary for real effectiveness will take years of “field research” complemented by intense study. Will I have the time and energy to do it? Building credibility will require a string of successes in which my past achievements will count for little.  Why should they? Failure is a possibility that must be acknowledged, though not contemplated.   Functioning in this arena is further complicated by the fact that Singapore is half way around the world.  And there are other complications.
What I am undertaking is an agenda motivated by the as yet ill-defined vision that Singapore might, somehow, serve as a beacon light for an urbanizing human species that is unthinkingly, even rapaciously, overshooting the physical and ecological limits of its habitat. This is less because of Singapore’s past achievements than, because, I believe, of this unique society’s capacity for creative adaptation and resilience.   In the past, Singapore not only overcame daunting post independence challenges, but helped light the path of China’s transformation.  For global challenges of “overshoot and collapse” to be surmounted it is China that, once again, must be transformed.
A return to doing good work in the beautiful, secure and affirming environment that American University and Northwest Washington provides is so tempting and would be so easy.  But, somehow, that path seems less fulfilling.  To quote Robert Frost, “The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.”  

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Friday, August 24, 2012

Rrecollecting life in Anderson Hall: grieving and a sense of completion

For the past several days, I have been reading past blog postings as I consider whether or not to compile a selection in some sort of publication.  Even if this still nascent project does not bear fruit, the work is providing intrinsic rewards.  It brings back memories of days when I viewed the experience of dorm living with fresh eyes and more than a bit of trepidation. 
A sampling of titles recalled the diverse topics I wrote about:  my role as university teacher, university administrator and public policy commentator; the context of campus living, student-parent relationships and many more. 
Among the titles of my favorites, in the two year span have reviewed so far were these:
·      “Seizing the moment” – how finding a scholarship for a political refugee changed my life.
·      “Aging, death and dying in Sri Lanka” – describing how two old friends living in a developing nation are coping with the ravages of aging
·      “Reflections on social change evoked by my recycled shopping cart” – a critique of naively optimistic expectations on the part of US policy makers for effecting social change in Afghanistan and Iraq.
·       “I am chosen” – about my new granddaughter, recently adopted from India
·      “Gifts of love from parents to children” – about patience and good will during “moving-in” rigors at the beginning of the academic year.
·      “Is it a platonic date or an oo-oo date? – reflecting on a snippet of conversation heard on the Letts-Anderson Quad.
·      “Learning about “T” Ball in Hume Virginia” – How a fun, mutually affirming and non-competitive ball game for 7 and under children in rural Virginia contrasted with turgid, pretentious, deliberations of the National Commission on Electoral Reform held at AU (not to mention the current Presidential campaign!)
Reading the postings also made me sad.  I loved my life in Anderson hall and this experience has reminded me of how much I miss it:  the dinners, the teas, the many impromptu conversations with students, even handing out candy during fire alarm evacuations.  Had I not chosen to spend more that half the year in Singapore, I probably could have continued my active Dormgrandpop role, even if I was no longer teaching at AU.
But I was also reminded of one of my mother’s many aphorisms:  “always leave the stage while the audience was still applauding.”  Better to bid farewell at a time when I could easily have remained than, perhaps, to be asked to move out a few years later.
One of my favorite A.E. Houseman poems comes to mind, this evening.
Into my heart an air that kills, from yon far country blows
What are those oft remembered hills, what spires, what farms are those.
That is the land of lost content, I see it shining plain.
The happy highways where I went and never can go again.

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Monday, August 20, 2012

Authority Pleasing and Rule Following will not Prepare us for an Uncertain Future

20 Agust 2012
I am the process of reviewing more than 600 blog postings with the thought that I might include some of them in a book.  Here is one that I thought merited a repeat posting at a time when US university education is undergoing serious scrutiny and change, not necessarily for the better.

The authority pleasing, questioning suppressing, rule-following approach to education may have served to provide society with assembly line-workers and bureaucrats, but it does not do much to prepare us for a new Renaissance.

Leonardo da Vinci’s life was an exercise of creative problem solving of the very highest order. The principle of Curiosita provides the primary key to his method. It beings with an intense curiosity and an open mind, and proceeds with a stream of questions asked from different perspectives.

Michael Gelb, How to think like Leonardo da Vinci, pp. 66-67.

Did you know that the Latin root of "education" is educare, which means "to draw forth?"

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"Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander..."

August 20, 2012
At the small  Episcopalian church I attend in rural Virginia, Sunday morning’s New Testament reading was from the Apostle Paul’s Letter to Ephesians (4:25-5.2).  In a political season when Christian values are being extolled (though this morning’s sermon was not political) the apostle’s clear, unambiguous expression of how we might manifest Christian values in our lives seemed a useful reminder.
So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.  Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy.  Let no evil come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up.  …Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.  Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Two Concerns About "Cloud Computing"

The term “cloud computing" has now been with us for two years or so.  The metaphor - and marketing campaigns by proponents - suggest that this new technological phenomenon is rather like gravity.  We are encouraged to link our computing habits to ‘the cloud” irrevocably.  Soon, we are told, there will be no need for computer hard drives, installed software, frequent backups, portable external hard drives and the like.  “The Cloud” will supplant them all.
My personal experience, related to this appealing vision,  raises two concerns. The labels reliability and integrity capture them simply.
Reliability comes first.  I am a frequent international traveler, with a second home in a rural area.  In principle, internet coverage is available - at a price - in all of the venues where my peripatetic life takes me.  In fact, despite high priced service provider contractual obligations (of course hedged by pages of opaque legalese) to the contrary, service at my home and various hotels where I may be staying is, at most 50 per-cent.  Even in tech-savvy Singapore there were problems. Those who provide reasonable service and moderate prices with excellent back-up support, demonstrate what is possible.  My Washington DC provider, RCN,  is a great example.  At the other end of the service and reliability spectrum (in my experience at least)  is the rural area provider, a collaboration between satellite provider Direct-way and router provider Lynksys (Cisco Systems).  
On my recent travels, promised service was available at two hotels in Greece, but, surprisingly, not in Switzerland.  When service (promised or not) is unavailable in Sri Lanka or Malaysia, I am not surprised.  When I occasionally encounter similar problems in Singapore, that is surprising.  Even in the developed world, a very wide gap in availability and reliability (not to mention cost) between God-provided phenomena such as gravity and “The Cloud” remains.
Then there is the matter of integrity.  To me, Integrity means meaning what one says - or commits to in a contract/service agreement - and then keeping your word.  It means not cheating or dissembling.  In the world of “could computing” it means business dealings that take into account the well being of those being served.  It means fundamental honesty  and fairness.  I can’t speak for other countries, but in my own country, America, the idea that integrity - strong guidance from an internal moral compass - is part of doing business has clearly gone out of style.  This became grievously clear in Congressional testimony and news reports describing machinations of Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan Chase senior executives - these being only the tip of a much larger iceberg.  Earlier, there was the collapse of Enron, Lehman Brothers and many mortgage providers.   
In the more arcane world of “Cloud Computing” one must assume that violations of honesty/integrity, in particular the secret use of personal information for private financial gain coupled with dissembling about it, are pervasive.   Else why would there be megaworded license agreements and  “privacy standards”  drafted by and backed-up by phalanxes of attorneys, who earn their livings by protecting the perpetrators.    
Thus , the bottom line, regarding my concerns about “The cloud”,  is simple and seems unambiguous.  The cloud is not yet a reliable resource.  Those responsible for designing and making its services available do not necessarily do so with altruistic intentions.

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Saturday, August 11, 2012

United Airlines - good people; bad management

It took me a week to recover my baggage from United Airlines.  The process provided ample opportunity for anthropological field research into one of the least appealing assignments among the many customer-service jobs that must filled to keep a modern airline functioning.
From the time I filled out my first lost baggage form to the time, seven days later, when, after having made an extra round-trip to Dulles airport, I managed to recover my baggage, the process was time consuming, ill managed and frustrating.  United’s computerized tracking system rarely provided accurate information.  Its voice activated IT system did its best to ensure that only the most aggressive and it-savvy lost-baggage passengers were able to reach human customer service agents, who, with additional research were sometimes able to provide information that was accurate.. 
Yet the result of the week-long process, comprising nearly 10 hours of interactions and several more of distracting concern, led me to grudging respect for the United Airlines employees who were among the principal victims of a dysfunctional system in which routinely lost baggage was just one of many dysfunctions.  Most of them were doing their best to maintain their good humor and respond to passenger   concerns.  When, after computer research followed by a physical search of more than 45 minutes, an agent managed to locate my bags and present them to me, her expression of delight was genuine.  We joked together about the consequences of not having what was packed for a week after a long trip (for example underwear) before I took my leave and she returned to her desk to face the next passenger.
As I said in an earlier posting, United Airlines staff members, especially baggage service agents deserve our respect, consideration and, like all human beings, our altruistic compassion.  They are doing their best in a dysfunctional management environment that is neither efficient, empowering, nor humane.

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Thursday, August 02, 2012

What do United Airlines Customer Service and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness have in common?

2 August 2012
My trip home from Athens to Washington began smoothly.  I had arranged an early morning departure to connect with a mid-day flight from Geneva to Washington that would get me home in the early evening.  The taxi arrived on time. The driver was congenial.  The airport check-in line, though lengthy, moved swiftly.  The agent gladly entered my Singapore Airlines frequent flyer information and explained the benefits to which I was entitled. The contrast with my Dulles International Airport experience was stark.  It appeared that my travel Karma was good until a  few moments before landing in Geneva, an announcement that my Geneva to Washington flight been cancelled was posted on passenger cabin videos..
Normally when a flight is cancelled, the airline concerned has staff members awaiting arriving passengers to explain what arrangements have been made for their well-being.  There were none.  A Swiss Air agent suggested contacting the transit desk.  The transit desk had no United Airlines agent present.  The Swiss air staff member said she had received no information from United Airlines. She told me my only option was to go through passport control to the departure hall, then to the arrivals hall where I might be able to contact a United Airlines agent who could.  She provided three Kiosk numbers.
Following her advice I located the kiosks.  Only one of the three, labeled “Economy” was staffed. A United Airlines agent who was guiding passengers toward the single kiosk explained that there was no special service for first, business or priority gold passengers.  “There is only one line, I don’t know why.”  he told me.  I parked myself at the end of the line, which continued to grow in length and was not moving.  A  single stressed and harried agent was attempting to respond to passenger concerns, but, it appeared,  with little success.
After about ten minutes of waiting and no movement, a second agent approached me from outside the Kiosk area. “You are a Priority Gold member?,” he queried.  When I answered “yes” he escorted me away from the United Airlines kiosks to a window labeled “Swiss-Port.”  Three staff members were on duty and there was no line.  “These people will help you,” he told me and then walked away without further explanation.
When I explained my status and circumstances one of the agents immediately went to work, providing the support I had hoped to receive from absent United Airlines staff members.  She surveyed travel options, booked a Lufthansa flight  through Frankfurt the next morning.   She verified that my bags had arrived, and, when I said I would not need them, arranged to check them through. 
She then directed me to the “special assistance desk” which was accessed via a special telephone-accessed door that did not require going through passport control to receive transport to Geneva and an overnight hotel voucher.  I felt badly for the doomed queue of passengers still waiting forlornly at the United Airlines kiosk, but knew I could do nothing to save them from their fate, whatever it might be.  
By the time I arrived at the desk, the efficient Swiss Port staff had searched out and booked a more attractive same-day option, a flight from Geneva to London, connecting with a United Airlines London to Washington flight leaving from the same Heathrow terminal.  The fight left on time and, while United Airlines Business class service was indifferent, I was happy to have received an upgrade and be approaching journey’s end…
…Until I arrived in Washington to find, after a long wait, that my baggage had not arrived.  After clearing customs, I was directed to the United Airlines “Baggage Services” office where a long, slow moving line of fellow passengers and four harried UA staff members awaited me.  I had a Geneva flashback.
When I reached the head of the line and the agent had filled in necessary forms, she explained that, according to her computer, my bags were still in Athens.  I assured her this was not the case; that I was confident they had arrived in Geneva.  “Well…” she explained, “our computer does not connect with information from Swiss; that must be the problem.”  The transaction of waiting, standing in line and filling out a Delayed Baggage Report had taken more than 90 minutes.  However the agent expressed confidence that my bags would be delivered by the next afternoon or evening.  “Check in during the afternoon” she advised me.
The next afternoon I checked the United website and received the information that the search for my bags was still in progress. No information was available.  I called and reached a staff member.  He informed me that the bags had not been located.  When I asked him to check further he told me, after a wait, that the bags had been located in Athens.  I explained that this was impossible.  I had checked in early, the bags had a priority tag and I had been assured by Swiss Port that the bags had arrived in Geneva.  When I explained that another United Airlines staff member had told me about the problem - United computers could not connect with Swiss computers - he simply kept repeating, “the computer shows your bags are still in Athens.”  He would not listen to or accept the possibility that the computer was wrong and the information I was providing was right.  “Call back in about eight hours” he advised me. After several unproductive exchanges.  I thanked him and began mentally composing this blog posting;
Being a positive individual I am still hopeful that my bags, containing my printer, camera and valuable documents will still arrive sometime.  But experience with United Airlines today is causing my hopes to dwindle.  It is 10:05 PM.  More than 24 hours have elapsed since I arrived and more that eigh hours since I spoke with a staff member.  United Airlines baggage checking website just provided me with the following information - the same as previously.  "Tracing Process Continues:  Check Back Later."
How many hours have I spent with this Kafkaesque process, yet to be resolved?  How many more hours will I spend?  What fate awaits me and my baggage?    I shudder to think of the hours I will need to spend  should I have to submit a claim.  I pray that my karma will spare me this fate. 
This I cannot control. It is in the hands of the Gods. However future air travel is within my control. I will never book a United Airlines flight again, no matter how inconvenient and or costly it is to escape this fate.
What do United Airlines customer service and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness have in common?

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Itenerant Vendors and Beggars in Piraeus, Greece

28 July 2012.  
It is not difficult to personally experience the challenges, widely reported in international media outlets, that the Greek economy faces.  One needs only to join other vacationers at the Piraeus Port ferry terminus, awaiting transport to one of Greece’s renowned Mediterranean islands.
Following my early arrival - the experienced traveler always begins a new experience with an early arrival - I settled myself on a hard metal seat with other prospective passengers.  We immediately attracted itinerant vendors and beggars the way a newly blossoming flower attracts honeybees.  The principal objects de vend were wrap-around dark glasses with colored plastic frames and various small plastic toys.  For the most part, the vendors were not intrusive, or only politely so.  Each seemed to have some delimited territory within which they approached waiting passengers repeatedly.  Most were young, reasonably well-dressed and dark skinned.  They responded passively, perhaps even philosophically, when the proffered goods were refused.  I wondered what a day’s profits might be, whether they had dependents and what paths had brought them to their present circumstances.  Being ignored or having prospects shake their heads “no” all day must be disheartening.  I know I found prospective customer refusals to be so when I was a salesperson. 
The small number of beggars were different. They were older, less well dressed, more intrusive and persistent.  In relating to beggars, I have been guided by the Dalai Lama’s and Lord Buddha’s teaching that a principal goal of giving is to accumulate merit.  Giving money to a beggar, with the intention of alleviating his suffering is one way of doing so, though one can never be sure that the intended beneficiary of almsgiving will, in fact, benefit.  
Interrupting my reflections, crew members eventually announced departure of the “Flying Porpoise” hydrofoil to my destination, the Island of Spetsis and other Greek Island retreats.  On Spetsis, I was later told, the effects of the financial crisis were less severe.  I saw few itinerant vendors and no beggars during my stay.  There I spent a joyful and relaxing time with my son, my grandchildren and delightful, sophisticated family friends who were hosting them. 
Human society is imperfect.  Despite these imperfections, I see no reason not to live joyfully  savoring good times with family and friends.  I believe it is possible to do so while seeking to redress imperfections as best one can and not dulling one’s consciousness to the privations of those who suffer.

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Why United Airlines ticketing agents merit our altrustic compassion

27 July 2012

Reasons why the customer service on US Flag Airlines is so much inferior to that provided by most international carriers is a frequent conversation topic among travelers I meet.  For many years, avoiding US carriers (Southwest Airlines excepted), even if this required a more circuitous and costly routing, has been high among my travel planning priorities.
On my present trip to Zurich and Athens, however,  there seemed to be no reasonable escape from two transatlantic legs on United Airlines.  Through its “code share” with Swiss Airlines, United Airlines offered the only non-stop flight between Washington DC and Zurich.  
For those unfamiliar with code sharing, this is an arrangement that permits airlines to list their flights as if they were being offered by a “code sharing” partner.  Think of it this way.  You have made a reservation at Washington’s elite Hay Adams Hotel adjoining Lafayette Park.  However when you arrive at the check-in desk you discover that the Hay Adams management has chosen to “code-share” with the local YMCA, located not adjacent to the White House but in the low-income district on the Anacostia River’s banks. In fact, using this analogy to illustrate the disparity between United Airlines, and carriers I most commonly use,   Southwest Airlines, Singapore Airlines, All Nippon Airlines, and Qatar Airlines, does Anacostia and a fine organization, the YMCA, an injustice.
It was United’s Ticketing procedure that was most egregious. (See my later blog about flight cancellations and loss of baggage).  Passengers seeking an international check in were herded (a bit like cattle to the slaughterhouse) towards a lengthy queue that, after a wait, spewed us towards a long rank of Kiosks fronted by touch screen terminals.  A sign over each bore the designation “easy check in." Sadly this was misnomer for both staff and passengers.  Far in the distance, I later discovered, were a small number kiosks that were available to serve passengers who had the temerity to seek “full” service.  
Since my “priority gold”  frequent flyer status allowed me to check two bags, I had packed in a manner that facilitated this, however “easy check in” did not offer this option.  I was only allowed to move to a baggage checking agent after I had inserted my credit card and been assessed an additional $100.  When I reached the agent and asked a about frequent flyer miles, her initial response was “your travel agent didn’t enter your card number.”  (My usual practice was to present my Singapore Airlines Kris Flyer card when I checked in. Star Alliance ticketing agents not affiliated with United Airlines always welcomed it.)  In this instance, however “move on” was the clear message from the agent’s body language.  I didn’t move an inch.  “Could you please enter my card number” I asked, in the most congenial tone I could muster.  After a pause, the response was a reluctant “yes.” My card number was duly recorded and new boarding passes grudgingly printed.  There was however, no mention of a refund for the $100 “excess baggage charge to which I was entitled.   
By this time I was exhausted by the effort of maintaining relentless good humor through a process that seemed not only dysfunctional, but inhumane. I decided that regaining freedom from United Airlines ticketing minions, without further negotiations, was worth $100.  Could their process be designed to produce exactly that result?
Venting ones anger at the stressed and dispirited United Airlines staff members I encountered would have been easy, but wrong.  I only had to endure the check-in experience for about 45 minutes.  It is their misfortune to be its instruments, with no opportunity to manifest humane interactions that make ones work-life worth living, every hour of their working days.  Our response to them should not be the natural one:  frustration expressed as rage, but altruistic compassion.  They are victims of a management system that makes their work-life what it is.  Their wages, are - indeed - ‘compensation’ for adverse circumstances.
But what about the top managers whose policies create suffering for employees and passengers alike.  They, too, merit our altruistic compassion.  The Lord Buddha’s teachings remind us that no action is without consequences.  What we sow, we reap, if not in this life than in our next.  What fate lies is store for top managers of the employees whose suffering I witnessed at the UA international check in counters?  No-one can say for sure, however I fear that their next life may not be a good one.  

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