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Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Cities in transition....

Porches on Baltimore Rowhouses, at RandiArt

Monday and Tuesday I made a business trip to Baltimore. I don't quite remember the last time I visited that city, but I do remember quite clearly the first time. It was 1988, and our daughter, Heather, had opted for attending Johns Hopkins University. We made the long trek from Kansas to drop her off, and dutifully followed the directions provided by the University. Coming into Baltimore through its city center in those days was a bit of a shock, especially if you were coming from one of those picturesque university towns in the American midwest. The fact that the driving instructions put you right through the worst parts of this bleak looking city (or at least, what was then a bleak looking city) just added to our anxiety.

As it turned out, we were getting our first taste of Baltimore just at the time when the city was completing its first steps in an urban reemergence that is still in process. The now famous Inner Harbor shopping area was just starting to attract increasing numbers of people to the central city area, and the Camden Yards baseball stadium was nearing completion. But clearly there was much yet to be done to make the city look and feel safe enough for those of us who were depositing our children there for a four-year stay.

About the same time, however, we were beginning our own move to the East Coast. I had taken a position in New York, and about a year and a half later Randi was able to land a position in the Princeton area. During this time we had grown more familiar with the Baltimore area as we made infrequent trips down to visit our daughter who was becoming increasingly comfortable with Hopkins and its "Homewood" surroundings. After graduation she headed to graduate school in Atlanta, but soon found herself visiting friends in Baltimore with such frequency that eventually she decided to make the move back to Hopkins where she would eventually complete her doctorate course work. She left Baltimore and moved to the Boston area in 1997, but seemed to always have a strong attachment to the area.

As for me, the only times I really saw Baltimore during most of the 90s was from the window of an Amtrak train during my infrequent journeys between Washington and the New York/Boston area. (And, of course, there was the image of Baltimore or that was always on the TV screen -- at first in the superb police drama, "Homicide: Life on the Street", and more recently the Baltimore dramatized in HBO's "The Wire". While neither show seems to do justice to what I know about Baltimore, in fact they do reflect a real crime issue that has yet to be solved. Besides, they sure were damn good shows....)

When I flew into BWI Airport on Monday morning and took a taxi to the area around the "arts district" near the Lyric Opera and Symphony Hall, it was immediately evident that Baltimore had successfully transformed itself, and was still engaged in efforts to overcome its old image and reputation as a bleak industrial 19th-century city. As I wandered around the area in the morning, during breaks in meeting times during the day, and on Monday evening, I was impressed by the number of stores, coffee shops, neighborhood pubs, and upscale restaurants that I passed -- all along a route that I recalled as pretty dismal little more than 15 years earlier.

I've been lucky enough to live and work in a number of cities that have gone through significant changes over the years -- lucky in the sense of being able to see how bleakness can be overcome. As I walked around Baltimore, was also thinking about what I've seen take place in Belfast in the short period of 18 months that I've lived in that city. People there have described to me how vastly different things have been since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, and there's pretty good physical evidence that the city must've been a glorious thing to behold in the years before economic downturns and the Troubles took their toll. But just in the area near where I reside along Lisburn Road, you can see month-to-month changes as old buildings become renovated and empty lots become office and modern shopping spaces.

Compared to both Baltimore and Belfast, Newark (where I work when I am in the United States) has not quite reached the point where you can say that it as reemerged as a vibrant urban center. But there are pretty positive signs, and one can hope that the effort will continue long enough to achieve what I think these other cities have. As I mentioned in previous blogs (when reflecting on Philip Roth's The Plot Against America), I actually lived in Newark when I was young and when the city will was still economically thriving. As you walk or drive around the city and look at the remnants of some of the wonderful architecture and landscaping, you begin to appreciate just what Newark was like as late as the early 1960s. One of the attractions of Roth's work is how he describes the neighborhoods he grew up in -- neighborhoods that are still thriving, but often with the wrong kind of development. So although Newark's progress seems slower than some other cities, for me the lessons of Baltimore and Belfast bode well for the possibility that it might be able to recapture some of its past urban glory....

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Thursday, March 24, 2005

Getting to the other side....

From Randi Art

For the past two hours I've been on the phone with the nice folks from Cingular Wireless attempting to get my accounts straightened out. About a year or so go, Cingular bought out AT&T Wireless and the transition has been interesting to say the least. It just so happens that I have three cell phone numbers with AT&TWS, and because the various types of phones and rate plans involved, my efforts to 'transition' over to Cingular has been a real problem for them -- and of course, for me. It seems that everytime I make a visit back to the US I spend several hours on the phone with customer care....

My experience with the cell phone business in the US (as compared with the UK) indicates to me that this is a sector run by incompetents -- or at least, by folks at or near the top who fail to think, or else just don't care about the customer. It is also an area that reflects both the arrogance and poor planning of those in charge of what should be America's most innovative business area.

The first thing to notice is that the companies involved have been so obsessed with protecting the proprietary nature of the wireless business that they failed to see the benefits that a more open and continuously progessing technology does to such strategies. The details are outrageously boring, but the bottom line is that they have been catching up with the technological driving forces of the market since day one -- and they still just don't seem to get it.

An example: Last September Randi was shopping for a phone upgrade and settled for a nice little unit -- the Nokia 6820 -- that was available through AT&TWS (which by then was already in the process of phasing into its integration into Cingular). They (ATTWS as Cingular) sold us this unit under a two-year contract, and at the time it was taken for granted (by both the person on the phone who sold us the unit and ourselves) that the unit would transition easily over to Cingular at the appropriate time.

Well, as it happens (and as we just found out), if and when we are required to transition over to Cingular (which is likely to be over the next few months), Randi will have to replace the 6820 since it is locked into the AT&TWS service which is not compatible with Cingular.

Now, anyone who has played around in this area knows that this is a very simple problem to resolve, for you can simply have the phone 'unlocked' and thus made compatible with the new service provider -- something that can be done now by paying for the unlock code ($10 on the internet), although no company wants you to know that.

That said, it is true that once a unit is unlocked, it cannot (as far as I know) be re-locked onto the new service -- which is why they don't want to let you know about this, nor do they even offer it as an option.... (Have I lost you yet?)

Instead, Cingular tells you that you have to get a new phone, one that is in locked compatibility with their service. So, even though they knew that would be the case at the time they sold us this 6820 (well, maybe the person who was selling it to us on the phone honestly didn't know this), they still got us obligated for a 2-year contract (in order to obtain the phone), but in mid-contract they are telling us our phone will no longer be compatible and has to be replaced.

With what, you might ask? Well, not with another 6820, for they have discontinued it (just at a time when the unit is showing up as the hot new item for Vodaphone and other companies in the UK -- it really is a very nice phone!).

But Randi loves her 6820 and is unwilling to give it up. So what will Cingular do? Actually, nothing from what we can tell. The nice folks at customer service are as clueless as we are, and all agree that this situation was so obvious from the get go that everyone is stunned that they they did not have plan for dealing with the issue -- even if nothing more than informing the customer that this will happen.

To make things worse, the 6820 is so nice, that I would really want to get my own -- but now there is no way to do that unless I get one from eBay or via Amazon with new service sign up -- on AT&T!

OK -- even I am confused now...

It is really too bad that there seem to be so many brain dead folks in the US telecom business -- what a waste.


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Back home again....

From Randi Art

Flew back to Boston on Tuesday (it wasn't quite as pretty as Randi's picture shows) and have been focused on getting passed my backlog of 'stuff' -- including that paper that Ciaran and I keep writing about in our blogs. But as usual, the first stop after getting off the plane was Cambridge and the Harvard Bookstore. Perhaps I was too tired, but only got out of there with a couple of books. Then I realized I had not kept up my little book list on the right side of the blog -- so still another project to catch up on.

As if make certain that I knew I was back in Boston and Beverly, the weather gods delivered some snow for me to deal with -- but luckily it was just a wee bit and did not stick, so I spent more time contemplating rather than shoveling it....


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Monday, March 21, 2005

Eliot, Michael and me....

Having spent the weekend completing my move to my "flat with a view," I planned to spend today taking care of various errands and packing for my three-week trip to the US. But that isn't quite the way it worked out.

About a week ago, a colleague had mentioned that it might be possible for him to arrange for a group of us from the Institute of Governance to attend a local Chamber of Commerce luncheon where New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer was the guest speaker; but there was no confirmation of this and so I dressed "down" this morning in my jeans and a polo shirt and went off to the office without a thought about attending the lunch.

But lo and behold, at noon my mobile rang and my colleague informed me that he would pick me up in a few minutes to head off to the Spitzer function. I try to beg off, but within a few minutes I found myself in the back seat of his Saab -- jeans, baseball cap and all -- heading for the lunch. As we entered the room full of "suits", the best I could do was joke about doing a Michael Moore imitation....

As for Spitzer, pretty impressive performance, and you can see why people are mumbling the phrase "presidential candidate" whenever he appears. This particular trip was sponsored by the "Friends of Ireland," and you can be certain that other trips are in the offing as more and more groups tried to become "friends of Eliot" over the next year or so. It is going to be interesting to see how Spitzer does against Pataki in 2006, and the extent to which he receives support from the corporate community that has provided him with so many opportunities to establish his populist credentials. If he scores a major victory against Pataki, you can be certain that he will be prominently mentioned for a run on the Democratic ticket in 2008 and/or 2012. It is also going to be interesting to see how much the Republican Party invests in the 2006 gubernatorial race in New York, for the defeat of Spitzer would certainly take a major opposition candidate out of play for at least a few years. At the same time, Spitzer is relatively young and the defeat at this point in his career would not be devastating. But as it is shaping up at the moment, this is a guy with a very bright future....


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Friday, March 18, 2005

Funny, he doesn't look Scottish....

An interesting article in today's Guardian provides us outsiders with some insight into who rules the UK. Has a familiar ring to it, doesn't it?

Actually, the Guardian piece is one of several found in British newspapers over the past several days since the BBC's Jeremy Paxman decided to escalate a row with the Labour government's Health Minister that began earlier. Here is the Times summary of the episode:
The Newsnight anchor, who last week clashed with the Glaswegian minister on the programme, has compared the dominance of Scots at Westminster to India’s British imperialist rulers.

Paxman’s remarks come after Reid took offence at the broadcaster’s description of him as Labour’s “attack dog” during a discussion of the government’s record on the National Health Service.

Reid countered: “If you have a PhD and a posh accent from a school like yours, you are regarded as a sophisticate. You called me an attack dog because I’ve got a Glasgow accent.”

Last night the presenter, whose grandmother was born in Glasgow, expressed concern at the growing influence of the “Scottish ruling class” that he believes is dominating public life in England.

From the Guardian article we find that the placement of Scots is not limited to the Cabinet....


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Thinking white thoughts...

From Randi Art

Randi's post of these white flowers seemed appropriate this morning as I contemplated my forthcoming travels. I'm scheduled to fly back to the US next week, and there are lots of things for me to do during my three-week visit. By the time I returned to Belfast the signs of seasonal change should be evident. Already from my new "flat with a view" I can see the start of spring in the budding of the trees. I'm likely to miss the start of spring in Belfast, which is perhaps the best time of year weatherwise (if there is a best time of year weatherwise). Heading for Boston means heading back to winter, for while the calendar indicates the start of spring there is usually a good snowstorm or two to come before mid-April. And since this has been such a "snow white" winter for Boston, I am more likely than not to have another snow related blog or two for posting over the next month....


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Thursday, March 17, 2005

On the move....

I've mentioned in several earlier posts that I've had the opportunity to make a move from an apartment ('flat' in UK terms) on the first floor of the University owned apartments to the top floor flat in the next building. There are all sorts of reasons for my desire to move, not the least of which is the wonderful view and exposure to daylight that the new flat provides. There are other benefits as well, including the isolation that the new flat affords. Being the only apartment on the very top floor, it will give me a break from the noise I had to endure in the groundfloor flat which was located right next to the building entrance. And it would also give me a greater sense of security after last month's break in.

And so, although I only have a few months remaining on my fellowship here at Belfast, I decided to take up the offer made by the Queens University Estates department folks who were kind enough to allow me the opportunity to make this adjustment.

Yesterday and today were moving days.

It's really surprising how many material possessions I've accumulated in this relatively short time in Belfast. The flat I was assigned had the benefit of being "furnished" to the extent that it included things like microwave oven, toaster, kitchen utensils in general, a very uncomfortable living room set, and a bed. In addition, I was given the resources to purchase other things such as the television, a few lamps, clocks, etc. -- all enough to make the reasonably comfortable for the period of my posting here in Belfast.

And so you would think that I would take that all into consideration when contemplating this move because the new flat contained almost nothing -- not a utensil, not a lamp, not even a bed. (It did have an equally uncomfortable living room set.)

And then came the decision point on Wednesday morning -- a decision forced by the folks who provided cable service/broadband service/telephone service for my flat. They called my mobile to say that they were sitting waiting for me to let them in to my new digs. That's the moment when I decided to move was a "go". No more hedging, I headed to the Estates office where they gave me the key and the move began.

By noon on Wednesday I was sitting in an empty flat with wires strewn about, all waiting for me to hook up the various instruments of communication that are so critical to my life. So the first things to move were, of course, my laptop computer, the television set, and the telephone. In the 40 or so hours since I have been conducting what can only be termed an "incremental" and completely disorganized move. Thanks to friend Stephen, I was able to get the bed upstairs by 7 p.m. last night, and by 11 p.m. this evening I was about 90% moved. (Which provides my answer to anyone who asks what I did on St. Patrick's Day in Northern Ireland....)

I must say that so far the view from the living room window has more than compensated for all the stair climbing required by this move. Today has been a typical overcast, rainy, and generally dull Belfast day, but somehow being able to watch those huge gray clouds pass overhead and the still bare trees sway in the wind makes all that effort worthwhile. I've been trying to set up my web cam so that I can broadcast the view back home to Randi, and if I succeed I'll try to set up a web cam site that can be generally accessed. But for now I plan nothing more than to sit and relax a bit.... The plan is to be finished with the move by tomorrow evening....

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Where to be on St Patrick's Day....

From Randi Art

Have you noticed that St. Patrick's Day is actually celebrated more in the United States than in Ireland? I mean, where you find Bertie Ahern and Gerry Adams on St. Patrick's Day? Of course, they're in the US attending all sorts of celebrations, dinners and ceremonial occasions. Interestingly, Ahern is also in the US to receive an award on behalf of Ireland in recognition of the wonderful smoking ban. In Adams' case, this time in the states is usually used to raise money for Sinn Féin from those Irish-Americans with deep pockets and republican inclinations -- something he is unable to do this year as a result of restrictions imposed by the US government in response to charges of criminality associated with recent IRA actions. (Of course, while Adams is unable to explicitly solicit money during his trip, you can be sure the impact of the restriction is merely symbolic; nevertheless, there are indications that the "take" this year will be less than in the past)

Yes, it's a Bank holiday in both Ireland and Northern Ireland, and there are plenty of signs that people throughout the Emerald Isle (I just realized that was the first time I've really used that term -- next thing you know I'll be making references to leprechauns...) are going to have a Guinness or two to mark the occasion regardless of their political orientations. In Belfast (assuming the weather clears up, which it is supposed to) it will be musical entertainment provided at all the usual venues, and the folks in Dublin will do their share of parading and general celebrating as well. But the fact remains that St. Patrick's Day is most enthusiastically celebrated across the pond. In many respects it the equivalent of "homecoming day" for many Irish-Americans. As has almost every major ethnic group that originally settled in urban ghettos, the Irish-American community has become suburbanized and former friends and neighbors are now dispersed throughout the country. St. Patrick's Day seems to function as that occasion when people make the trek back into the center city, to that favorite local bar that somehow has survived all the inner-city crises and changes. (In Newark, there are severalsuch places, including the famous "McGoverns" tavern -- which I will write of in a later blog...)

The Irish attachment to the land is truly amazing, and no wonder why when you see scenes like the County Kerry painting at Randi's blog. Truth be told, we've yet to make it down to County Kerry, but we plan to do so on our next trip to the west of Ireland. Each time Randi has come over for a visit, there's been so much to see in so much to do that time usually ran out before we can make it down to that corner of Ireland. On the next trip however we will attempt to make that our starting point, perhaps by flying down to Shannon and renting a car. The picture that friends Kerry and Herman sent for Randi to paint was so strikingly pretty that I thought it was too good to be an actual location. But even our limited travels here have made it clear that there is more than enough aesthetic reasons for all of us to claim some attachment to this place.


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Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Me and the Gherkin...

Posted from Randi Art

I was in the middle of browsing the philosophy books at Foyles Bookshop in London yesterday when I received a call from Randi announcing her posting of this picture. She was very excited about how well the colorizing worked on this photo -- and rightly so. She's captured everything down to the very orange color of the Queen's University Belfast bag I was carrying.

The trip to London started with a 6:30 a.m. EasyJet flight from Belfast International to London Luton (yes, I was up at 4:30!), and ended with a 8:15 p.m. Flybe flight to Belfast City (yes, we have two airports!) from London Gatwick (finally got home about a little after 10 p.m.). The meeting I had was scheduled for 11 a.m., and so I had plenty of time to get there once I landed and caught the train to the city. The train station at King's Cross is really one big construction site, and of course I walked out the wrong door and so was completely disoriented and began walking in the wrong direction. With time to spare, I wasn't very anxious about getting lost. It's the wandering around that I really enjoy when I'm in London, because you never know what you're going to see as you turn the next corner -- as was the case with the Gherkin citing in the picture.

The meeting itself lasted until a little after 2 p.m., and I immediately headed off for Charing Cross Road and the area well known for its bookstores. Foyles is a particularly interesting store, and Londoners talk about the old days when you would wander into a place that what seemed in total disarray (it truly warranted the name "bookshop" back them). I'm told that not more than three or four years ago (but I suspect more than that many years), perhaps in reaction to the Borders superstore opened across the street, Foyles got its act together and made itself more "shoppable". While those who tell me about the old Foyles do so with a bit of "in the good old days" tone, I for one am quite pleased with the result. This is an interesting bookstore that rates several notches above its commercial superstore competitors, at least for an academic like me. It doesn't quite have the informal messiness and diversity of titles that you find in a place like Labyrinth Books (located near the Columbia University campus in Manhattan -- my favorite place to spend hours looking around to different titles), and comes closest to being a large version of the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge (not to be confused with the Barnes & Noble outlet that calls itself the Harvard Coop Bookstore -- good for what it is, but still very much a BN store. After an hour or so rummaging through the political theory shelves in Foyles, I spent still another hour in the philosophy section. And so went my afternoon in London before heading off to Victoria Station for the train to Gatwick.

All in all, very interesting day in London. Although my only view of the Gherkin came this morning when I looked at Randi's post...


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Sunday, March 13, 2005

Shufflin' along....

During my last trip back to the US I 'lost' a little (and very cheap) MP3 player that had accompanied me to and from the office in Belfast (and everywhere else) for the previous year. I have a terrible habit of stuffing things into the seat pocket provided on airlines for magazines and "sick bags", and it's no surprise that I usually lose a book or some other personal items by leaving them behind.

But in this case, it may have been a subconscious wish at work since I have been giving more and more thought to purchasing a mini iPod. Although I'd made an effort to call up the Newark airport lost and found department today after arrival, I was not too displeased that they said nothing had been turned in. The next day I was at CompUSA giving myself a holiday present....

One of the interesting and well advertised features of the iPod line is the "shuffle" function, and it took several weeks for me to actually give a try. I have quite an eclectic collection of CDs, ranging from collections of the "best of" the Eagles, Randy Newman, Sting and REM to Radiohead, several CDs of works composed and/or performed by Philip Glass, and (of course) all three CDs of The Dubnicks, my son's band. In addition, friend Ciaran has been introducing me to artists and albums that I would never have come across otherwise (EST, Stina Nordenstam). Typically I would select one or two albums and play them over and over again, but now that I've given the shuffle function a try I am really thrilled with the results. I can go an entire day listening to my collection on the iPod or in the iTunes browser and not really tire of listening to the selections. At the moment, for example, I'm listening to "Kinda Dukish," a jazz piece (obviously) from Jason Moran's "Black Stars" CD, and just before that was a piece from Philip Glass' Dracula soundtrack performed by the Kronos Quartet which, in turn, followed "The Cowboy Song" from Sting, Bobby McFerrin's "Circlesong Seven" from his Circlesong CD, and Patty Griffin's "Every Little Bit." Wait a second and something totally unexpected happens -- so now I am listening to Keith Jarrett playing one of Shostakovich's Preludes and Fugues...

Who needs a TV?


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Mundane stuff... and a bit of Turkey

Spending today in multi-tasking mode again, but now with some bit of relief from my back problems -- at least enough so that I can get some work done in a sitting position and can actually walk upright (see friend Ciaran's comments on my Quasimodo-like demeanor of the past several days). Most of what I'm doing today is in preparation for a week filled with tasks from the mundane to the celebratory.

On the mundane side, I've been doing the usual weekly laundry and actually straightening up a bit in anticipation of a move from my ground-floor flat to a "room with a view" in the next building. As I posted earlier, a recent break-in in my flat made the decision to move that much easier, but I've had this move in mind ever since I learned that friends John and Maria were planning to vacate after purchasing a new home. Thankfully I'll be able to do the move slowly over several days and I hope not to lose access to the Internet for more than a few hours.

This week is also filled with meetings and classes, although that all seems to come to an abrupt halt on Thursday as St. Patrick's Day effectively marks the beginning of a three-week plus "spring break" here at Queen's University. Last year I planned my trip back to the states badly, and ended up flying out of Dublin on the morning of St. Patrick's Day. This year I'll be around for the "festivities" -- or at least to get a taste of how this very nationalist of holidays is celebrated up here in Northern Ireland. Don't know quite what to expect, although I hear that things get a bit noisy down around City Hall where a large, noisy, and 'unofficial' (as far as I know) concert is staged.

I'm also preparing for a quick trip to London for a meeting related to those fellowship applications I spoke of in yesterday's post. That stack of applications I'm scoring is now down to less than ten, and they all are still pretty impressive. We're using a 60 point rating system, and I'm finding it difficult to come up with scores lower than 50. It's hard to differentiate among members of a group who are so talented and interesting, although there was one candidate whose credentials at age 19 were nothing short of "genius"-level (this kid has already completed a year of medical school and is still unable to legally buy a drink).

In the midst of all this I was able to take a few minutes off for a trek to "Roast", my local coffee hang-out, to read at least one or two pieces from Saturday's Guardian Review section. The featured article was by Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk -- actually an excerpt of his soon-to-be published memoirs. My knowledge of Turkey, like that of Northern Ireland before I got here, is filled with stereotypes generated by the media. In the case of Turkey, however, there was even less media coverage than of Northern Ireland. While here in Belfast I have become a friend of a colleague who grew up in Turkey, but he is as British as he is Turkish in most respects. Pamuk, in contrast, has never really left his native Istanbul, and the images he provides in this excerpt of growing up in (what I assume to be) an upper-middle-class, secular family is truly fascinating. His story has whetted my appetite not only for reading his much acclaimed fiction, but also for learning more about Turkey. Just as Northern Ireland provides insight into the kinds of sectarian-driven violence that has now experienced in many other parts of the world, so Turkey may offer us lessons about the internal clash of secular and religious lifestyles that we are now confronting in the US, the UK and Europe in general.

It's time to get the clothes out of the dryer and to finish off those fellowship applications....


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Saturday, March 12, 2005

Up in them thar hills....

From Randi Art

Randi's photo (and my last post) remind me that I have to get out to see the sights of Belfast a bit more. The Belfast Castle gardens are just part of the attraction -- the views of the city and the walking trails around the park area are really quite nice -- especially as we approach spring.


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Busy, busy, busy....

It's been awhile since I've compose the blog entry, and I have a bit of catching up to do. The pinched nerve problem came back with a vengeance this past weekend, and I am once again having problems sitting in front of the computer for extended periods (which may be the cause of the problem to begin with). I've also been overwhelmed with tasks from my many projects -- not only do I take on too many, but then I tend to put off many of the smaller obligations while dealing with major ones. In combination, my back problems and procrastination has pushed blogging down my list of priorities.

Among the tasks I am desperately completing at the moment is an evaluation of American applicants for a prestigious UK postgraduate fellowship (which I suspect I should not name). There are 40 in my stack, and I've been told that this started out with well over 800 competitive applicants. I have to have this done by Monday morning when I fly off to an evaluation committee meeting where we compare our notes and pass on our collective assessment to the final selection committee. All this is very interesting, especially since it really gives you insight into just how brilliant some undergraduate students really are. I have to admit that after 35 years of teaching I've become a bit frustrated with the quality of the typical undergraduate. Not that I was myself a stellar student; far from it -- and looking at these applicants, I can only wonder how an average bloke like me has been able to compete in world populated by the likes of them. It is also true that I've taught at a number of institutions that were unlikely to attract the caliber of student I'm dealing with in this competition. Nevertheless, I've taught my share of what I regard as exceptional students, and I've known still others indirectly through my wife's work overseeing a college honors program as well as working at an Ivy League institution. Even with all that, I'm in awe when reading these applications. Certainly the students and their reference letters are accentuating their respective strengths and positive attributes. But even taking into account some degree of exaggeration, it's impossible not to be impressed. The real problem is that only few of these 40 will receive awards under this program.

I've also been involved this week in helping to put together a couple of international conferences that will take place later this year. In early June, about a hundred academics from the US and Europe (with a couple from Australia and Mexico) will get together in Leuven Belgium for conference on administrative ethics. I serve on the program committee for that meeting, and this past two weeks we've had to sort out the various paper proposals. It should be an interesting meeting. In addition, I'm in the midst of finalizing the organization of a conference on accountability that we are hosting here in Belfast next October. The work on both conferences has been interesting, I've been most surprised at how little overlap has developed in the programming of these meetings. I've been involved in the study of accountability for many years, and that work has helped define my approach to the study of administrative ethics. And yet the call for papers for the Leuven conference only generated one accountability-relevant paper proposal -- and that was the one I put forward with my colleague, Jonathan Justice. At the same time, in working with the program committee for the Belfast conference, none of the major topics under discussion really focused on questions of ethics. It seems as if my own association between accountability and ethics may be idiosyncratic or just naïve....

Speaking of which, this has also been the week when friend Ciaran and I have been working to complete a paper on ethics and accountability for the upcoming ASPA meeting in Milwaukee. This is turning out to be a very interesting paper -- perhaps more interesting than we originally intended. Among other things, we will challenge the primary focus of much of the study of administrative ethics in public administration. While interesting and occasionally brilliant, most of the work in this area over the past 30 years can be regarded as "metaphysical speculation" -- or, in my terms, the search for the holy Grail of a moral theory for public administration to adopt and follow. As it is presently developing (at this very moment), our paper posits solutions to moral and ethical dilemmas as the central concern of administrative ethics, those posing an interesting challenge to the current mainstream literature in the field. It will be interesting to see whether anybody pays attention....

Finally, I've been helping to prepare for a meeting this morning (Saturday) of a Queens University research team that will study (under a 3-year ESRC grant) changes in the regulatory regimes of several nations linked to the passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley regulatory reforms in the US in 2002....

Now I've written all this out, and surprise that at any time to post this blog and all....


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Sunday, March 06, 2005

Pictures -- and a thousand words


There are two news photos that summarize the current political situation in Northern Ireland. One is the picture of a very happy Robert McCartney holding his two children -- a constant reminder of the man whose murder is turning out to be the major spark for political change in this region. The other is a security camera shot of a Northern Bank employee carrying a green duffel bag filled with £1,000,000 and heading out the door in what turned out to be a test of both the bank security and that gentleman's willingness to carry out the orders of the bank robbers who were holding his wife hostage.

Today's Observer magazine section carries one of the most thorough articles written on the Northern Ireland bank heist and its political implications. For those who are curious about how the it was pulled off as well as the political implications of the pre-Christmas robbery, this article is a damn good read.


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Thursday, March 03, 2005

Filling voids... and crossing lines...

A few days ago I made a decision about how to fill the void in my life left by the departure of my Tungsten C to the salvage yard established for such things in Phoenix. While I was tempted to go with a straight replacement, there were some things about the Tungsten C that made it less inviting than it was two years ago. The fact that I had to send it in for repair twice played a role in looking at other options. At the same time, it was still the best option in the Palm line.

Palm has come out with two other units that seemed attractive. One was the new Treo 650, a smart phone unit that integrates Palm technology into a GSM mobile wireless. But the more I read reviews about these integrated units, the less attractive they seemed. (Interestingly, the professional reviewers tended to love it -- but users tended not to....) It had all the bells and whistles of the Tungsten C that I really liked, especially the thumb keypad. But it lacks a WiFi option (instead it included only Bluetooth technology, which is okay), did not have a writable display area, and is not as powerful as the "C" RAM and ROM memory-wise. While I haven't found the WiFi option that useful here in Belfast, I am thinking about how much I would use it back in the US when I return the summer. I even sat through an online "webinar" that was broadcast the other day by the folks at PalmOne and Cingular (now that was a real interesting experience!), and was duly impressed with the power and utility of the Treo 650 -- that is, if I was a Fortune 500 corporation with a sales force of hundreds.

In other words, I came to the conclusion that moving to a smart phone would be a dumb move.

I also took a serious look at the Tungsten T5 unit that palmOne recently put on the market, and it also look like it was a possibility, especially since it costs about $50 less than the Tungsten C. Here again I found myself thinking about all the things I would be missing. No thumb keypad, no WiFi, and essentially a loss in memory and power for price that was pretty close to a straight replacement.

I began to think that palmOne was out to refute Moore's Law, or at least demonstrate that it no longer applied to product development.

Next I began to think about whether I ought to just wait for some other Palm OS based unit to come in the market that would be to my liking. Well it turns out that palmOne may be the only option left. The Sony Clie has all but disappeared from the scene as Sony "rethinks" its place in the handheld market. Handspring is now part of palmOne (they were the creators of the Treo line), and heaven knows what happened to Toshiba.

So the next step was to actually cross a line that I really did not want to cross -- and began to look at Windows-based handheld units. (Clearly I am not the only one....) Now here were some real options, but at a double cost. These units have always tended to be more expensive, and typically came with drawbacks (poor battery life, etc.). The other cost was that of abandoning the Palm OS for good old Microsoft. Just as I favor of Firefox over Internet Explorer, so I made the effort to avoid considering Windows in favor of Palm when it came to a handheld PDA.

But it's tough to ignore the fact that there are some pretty good units on the Windows OS side, especially those put out by Dell and HP in the US, and Fujitsu Siemens on this side of the pond. In fact, the Fujitsu Siemens really seemed to have the best options, especially their Pocket LOOX 720 that has a highly rated VGA display. But then there was the prospect of getting it repaired if something was to happen in the US. There is a Fujitsu USA company in the US, but for some reason they avoid marketing or providing service for their handheld units.

The Dell Axims looked very good, but I was bothered by reports about only three or four hour battery life.

As for the HP's, the ones that really attracted me where of course the top-of-the-line, high priced units. But then again the more I looked, the more I liked about HP, especially the 4700 series that included everything I wanted except a thumb keyboard -- or so I thought. Meandering through the Web sites that showed comparison prices, I suddenly came upon a sale at a moderately reputable vendor that had HP iPAQ HX4705s on sale for a fairly reasonable price (which is what you say about a $550 price on a $650 unit). At that point I started to look into the unit a lot more carefully, especially since the sale was one of those rare "you have only 24 hours to purchase at this price." As it turns out, for about $40 you can get a thumb keyboard that attaches to the base of the HX 4705. So here was a WiFi/Bluetooth/thumb keyboard/VGA display/highly rated battery handheld that I can live with. And so I cast my lot for the first time with their Windows-based PDA. Will I ever get over it?

But of course there's a problem from the get go: the vendor is unable to ship the unit to me in the UK because of some arrangement with HP not to export the 4700 series. Solution: it's on its way to my home in Massachusetts. It's an extra step in the process, but with a little assist from my wife and the shipping company I will actually be in possession of my new PDA in a week or so.

Oh, the anticipation....

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Wednesday, March 02, 2005

A scholar by any other name....

As you can tell from the title of this blog, my key scholarly interest (some would say 'obsession') is with "accountability" in all its many and varied forms and functions. Lately I've been working on putting together an international meeting on that topic to be held in Belfast this coming October. Thinking about folks to invite as possible speakers, I tried to track down two sociologists -- Marvin B. Scott and Stanford M. Lyman -- whose co-authored 1966 article on 'Accounts' is without doubt one of the most important academic studies on the subject.

It turns out that Scott retired from his Hunter College/CUNY position in 2001, and that is where that trail ended. Sadly, Lyman died of pancreatic cancer in 2003. For many years he was a member of the New School Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science, and at the time of his death he held a named chair at Florida Atlantic University. Interestingly, neither of the obituaries written by the New School and FAU press offices mention the 'Accounts' article, despite its being among the most cited pieces in the field of sociology. And for good reason, for Lyman's accomplishments as a world class scholar went well beyond that particular work.

But what stood out among all the facts garnered from the obituaries was the information about his siblings. It seems that Stanford was survived by his twin sister, Sylvia, and three brothers: Harvard, Princeton and Elliot. In addiiton, the New School obit adds that a "fourth brother, Yale Lyman, passed away before him."


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