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Saturday, December 31, 2005

New Years Eve and snowy memories....

It is New Years Eve, a "holiday" we have traditionally avoided celebrating. Generally we stay home, and I (for one) am typically asleep by midnight (as I will probably be tonight).

Looking outside, I see that we have a sprinkling of snow here in the Northshore area, and that brought back memories of a previous New Years Eve that (I believe) marked the last time we had actually planned to go out celebrating.

It was December 31, 1978 in Chicago, and Randi recalls we did make an effort to get to our friend's home for a get together. But earlier that day the snow had started to fall, and according to the Googled records I see, that evening 13 inches of snow fell at Midway Airport (the official weather station), and probably more fell where we lived (we recall that it was 16 inches -- typically more snow falls in the areas next to Lake Michigan -- the infamous "Lake effect snows"). That was only the beginning, however, for we then entered a period of deep freeze -- temperatures were well below zero (that's fahrenheit folks, not celsius) for nearly two weeks. As a result nothing melted -- and essentially the entire city of Chicago was frozen to a stand still....

As if things were not bad enough, this was followed by the week from hell: according to the records, between January 11 and January 17, snow fell each and every day in varying amounts (again, at Midway; we got it much worse) from .3 inches to 16.5 inches -- for an official total of 25.6 inches. Adding that to the 13 or so already on the ground, and you have probably the worse winter in recent Chicago history. The snow was so deep by our house that we could not find our car -- parked right out front -- for the entire month of January. (Digging it out is another story, but suffice it to say that the car's roof carried the markings of the neighborhood pets for years -- and who could blame them; they had no option but to "do their thing" in/on what they thought was the street...)

Randi points out that we have had much greater accumulations from single snowfalls here in Massachsetts over the past two years -- as her blogs of January 2005 will show. That said, I don't think anything we've suffered through since matched the feeling of isolation and frustration we felt that winter in Chicago. Our kids were younger (both under 10) and the winds and subzero temperatures of Chicago made it almost impossible to bear.

One of the memorable consequences of that storm was that the voters of Chicago turned out the infamous "Daley machine" (led by "old man" Richard until his death a year or two before) and selected Jane Byrne as the Democratic Party nominee for mayor when the primary was held in early February. (Chicago, for some reason, held -- and I believe still holds -- its primary in early February, and getting the Democratic nomination was tantamount to election as mayor). There is no doubt that the anger in the neighborhoods over the inept handling of the snow removal during January was the cause of that defeat, and it essentially transformed Chicago (and some would say national) politics for the next decade.

On a personal level, that storm (and the expensive housing market at the time) also gave us the incentive we needed to search elsewhere for a position -- and we ended up moving back to Kansas in the summer of 1980. To this day Randi jokes about thte tee-shirt she was going to have made in honor of that winter: "Chicago -- A Hell of a Place to Get Tenure!"

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Friday, December 30, 2005

Expectations misplaced....

To follow up on yesterday's post (more like a harrangue), I offer two examples of the how bureaucracy fares in this strange "media-ted" political culture of ours.

Case in point: an otherwise interesting interview conducted by Gwen Ifel on Wednesday's The New Hour with Jim Lehrer. The subject: identifying the victims of Katrina. The guest: Robert Travis Scott, a reporter from the Times-Picayune (which is turning out to be the best newspaper in the US of late...).

The focus was the problems facing the officials who have been trying to deal with the identity and disposition of those who died as a result of the Katrina storm -- and the story is an interesting and tragic one from any perspective. The interview goes well until Ifel (who I otherwise think is pretty level headed and not subject to the craziness of the Fox/CNN so-called anchors) blurts out a quesiton (more a comment) that I think even stuns Scott who was about to speak to the issue of DNA matching: "I want to get to that," Ifel says in a tone that indicates she thinks something more interesting is behind all the problems with victim identification; "but I'm curious how much of this has to do with, perhaps, federal, state, local bureaucratic bungling or delay." It is a leading question, and Scott seems to delay a second before responding.

"Well, I think you'd have to attribute a substantial amount of the problem here to the nature of this catastrophe. And the fact that the system that is set up for trying to identify families and matching them up was really created for a 9/11-type disaster or an airplane crash in which you were fairly sure you knew who the victims were, and you were fairly confident you could find the relatives.

"But setting that aside, there were a lot of problems on the state and federal level in pulling this operation off. You had a lot of criticism from the company that was hired to actually pick up the bodies in the early weeks. We had bodies that were out in the streets for weeks before they were picked up.

"And there was a lot of complaints by the company that was performing that operation about how -- what a quagmire of bureaucracy they were facing with the federal government."

In short, Scott was saying yes, there are problems, but it is more complicated than just "bureaucratic bungling or delay". This was an unprecedented situation, unplanned for, and going as well as can be expected. The problems are in the situation, not in the bureaucracy per se! Want someone to blame? Well, let's see, where shall we begin....

(Besides the bashing issue, what annoyed me most about the segment was that it was so out of character for the NewsHour which, along with other PBS news shows and NPR, I regard as the last bastion of informed reportage, or at least interviewing without the bias and hype that is so annoying (but obviously "popular") on the commercial/cable news shows. I wonder if Ifel is trying to cross over....)

Second case in point: a commentary on the efforts to rebuild New Orleans by Witold Rybczynski in Wednesday's Titled "After Katrina: What is going on in New Orleans?", it takes to task the efforts (or lack thereof) to really get things rolling on the reconstruction of New Oreleans, and he offers numberous examples of past responses by governments (notably Japan's rebuilding of Kobe after the 1995 earthquake) to do what needs to be done. He seems to be pointing the finger at our frragmented federal system and its inability of the US political system to mobilize for such a massive project, and he plays up the positive virtues of centralized states and their capacity to do what needs to be done. I am sympathetic, but I thought it ironic that the same political culture that generates constant complaints about the inefficiencies and ineptitudes of bureaucracy also generates demands for even greater use of strong bureaucratic initiatives to deal with the problems it faces. While we seem to despste the bureaucracy and fear its bungling and intrusiveness, we find calls for a concerted state-led (i.e., bureaucracy led) program of reconstruction quite inviting. The lessons of James C. Scott's Seeing Like A State be damned, we want action -- and we want it now!

I am politically sympathetic with Rybcznki's analysis, but it has only been four months (!) since Katrina. I am curious about how long it took before the Japanese government launched their Kobe-reconstruciton plan, although I am sure they took to the effort more easily than our government(s) will, and I am a bit anxious about the "Seeing Like a State" mentality implied in his comments. At the same time, I am not certain whether our bureaucacy-bashing political culture has the capacity or the will to empower and sustain the kind of commitments required for a Kobe-like endeavor....

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Thursday, December 29, 2005

(Counter)forces of nature....

I am in the process of "constructing" my spring courses. "Constructing" is the right word, by the way -- having switched entirely to the Blackboard system, I now have to literally rebuild courses from the ground up. In the process I have come across some worthwhile links that might be of interest to folks -- especially those curious about the legacy of Katrina. The effort has also given me cause for concern about the rekindled bureaucracy bashing that the disaster has brought in its wake....

One of the courses I am assigned has the sweeping title of "Cases in Public Management," and it harkens back to the days when case studies were central to the teaching of public administration (see here for good short description). Despite its long and venerable status as a pedagogy, I have never really had success applying it effectively in class -- at least not in the traditional ways they do it at Harvard and other fine places. But since I am the instructor of record for this last iteration of the UNH course (we are changing the title and focus in the fall), I have jumped right into the task, and I must say that I am having some fun putting together the material.

One reason is that I've decided to shift the emphasis from using the case study method as a pedagogy to approaching case study analysis as a tool for students and practitioners who want to better understand their world (in Karl Weick's terms, as a tool for "sensemaking"; see here and here and here to make some sense of sensemaking).

With this approach, I am finding the "case" of Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans enormously fertile ground. In addition to the numerous resources generated at the time of the disaster, there are all sorts of follow-up stories produced each month. Some of it good, some of it crap...

Among the good were the two PBS shows -- one on Frontline and the other on NOVA -- originally broadcast back-to-back on November 22, and both are still online in their entirety.... As is usually the case with both shows, there are lots of ancillary material on each site. There is also an amazing little segment (short of 12 minutes) first broadcast in January 2005 on "scienceNOW" (an offshoot of NOVA) that all but described the dangers of a hurricane hitting New Orleans directly. They called it right on the head....

There is another treasure recently put online as a result of Katrina. While I am no fan of using case studies in the classroom, I have long been a fan of one particular book by John McPhee that I think really got to the heart of what it means to be a "heroic" public servant (or as friend Norma Riccucci labelled them, "unsung heroes").

The book in question -- The Control of Nature -- is a classic as far as I am concerned, and I assign it whenever I can. It includes three studies previously published in the New Yorker (in 1987 and 1988) in which McPhee focused on how three individuals (and their colleagues) worked to do the impossible -- to control the natural flows of water (in the Missisissippi), mud (in the hills around LA), and lava (in Iceland). All three are great studies (written as only McPhee as the noted master of the non-fiction narrative can), but it is the opening study of the Army Corps of Engineers' continuous battle to stop the Mississippi from jumping its banks and joining the Atchafalaya that rises to true levels of brilliance as an insightful case.

Well, with Katrina at the top of the news, the folks at the New Yorker decided in their great wisdom that McPhee's "Atchafalaya" essay needed to be posted in all its original glory onoline. While it is not about the dangers of hurricanes in the Delta, it is easy to get the relevance of the piece for anyone interested in what they are confronting in that region.

Which brings me (finally) to the point of this blog. Listening to recent news segments on the post-Katrina recovery efforts, we seem to have entered a new phase of media-led bureaucracy bashing which once again proves how uninformed and unreasonable public (and especially so-called opinion leader) expectations are about what the public sector is capable of doing. I will use the next few posts to give examples, but for the moment I think it is necessary to stress that the very existence of urban life in New Orleans -- and for that matter, any kind of sustainable socioeconomic life in the Delta and Gulf Coast regions -- owes a geat deal to folks like those profiled by McPhee who spend their entire lives engaged in doing the impossible -- controlling natural forces on behalf of an ungrateful public.


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Monday, December 26, 2005

Boxing Day and Munich....

What does one do to send best wishes on Boxing Day to friends in the UK? Is it "happy" or "merry" of "prosperous" or just plain "good" Boxing Day?

Whichever it may be, my best to my UK and Northern Irish friends on this day-after-your-Christmas holiday..... (and in response to friend Ciaran's comment, happy St Stephen's Day...)

Besides the holiday, I was reminded of the UK -- and Northern Ireland specifically -- by today's New England weather -- which has been rainy and foggy and hovering in the 40s and 50s (F that is) the past few days.

As important has been seeing the movie Munich, which has Ciaran Hinds (friend Bronagh's brother) doing a more than credible job at playing an Israeli agent engaged in the post-Munich counter-terror squad supposedly established to extract vengeance on Black September. Whatever problems there are with its veracity (it turns out to be based on highly contested account of what really occurred), Even without that Northern Ireland connection, the movie had enough to keep my interest -- especially as another candidate for my movie-driven ethics course.

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Sunday, December 25, 2005

Reattachments on Xmas....

It is Christmas Day and I am doing what I usually do on such days -- work in my home office, think about going to a movie, and contemplate what stores or restaurants might be open out there....

I am also catching up on my various "podcasts", especially the shorter ones from (see the archive) which I otherwise listen to while driving to work in the AM. Several have accumulated over the past week since the wintrer break started, including an "Explainer" podcast about reattaching severed limbs. It is informative, but also one of those items you hear or read that make you feel a bit uneasy -- as if it could happen to you. The podcast reader, June Thomas, does a great job with the (un)intended and unavoidable puns.

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Thursday, December 22, 2005

Enjoying new stuff -- and "writely" so! Also, thanks to Cesar....

I don't know whether I've mentioned lately just how attached I've become to my iPod Mini and the iTunes software.

What started as a means for keeping myself entertained with music has become a "professional tool" as I now make daily downloads of various NPR and BBC podcasts part of my routine. Besides helping me keep up with news, book reviews, op-eds, etc., while driving to the office each day, I am also hearing a good deal more about new online "gadgets".

This past week I heard folks praising an online wordprocessor called "Writely" ( Damn thing actually looks pretty good.

There has been a lot of chatter about free or cheap online software that might replace the "office suites", but the few times I've followed up on these they have been pretty disappointing. Writely, however, looks and acts like the real thing. When I gave it a try earlier today it seemed to be a lot slower than many of the reviewers had indicated (in fact, they had highlighted the responsiveness and speed for the program), but the developers posted an explanation noting that all the hype had taken them by surprise and they were getting lots more hits than expected as a result. They promised to get things back to normal soon. Even so, it really does look like an interesting option for those of us who are working collaboratively with folks at a distance.

As for iTunes, when combined with a new set of Bose headphones (really great stuff! Worth every cent....), I now have the capacity to sit anywhere in my home with the laptop and access the growing collection of music uploaded on my desktop. While I originally used the iTunes because it provided a convenient means for uploading to the iPod, its "sharing" function allows me to hear my music over the wireless network we have set up in our house. (At this moment I am listening to the final movement of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony -- which is on my desktop computer in the basement -- while sitting with my wireless laptop at my bedside on the second floor....) Impressive!

This has proven to have other benefits as well. I recently installed iTunes on my office computer at UNH with the intention of being able to play some background music from my iPod during the workday, but as it turns out I don't even have to plug in my Mini. Someone who goes by the name "cesar" has (purposefully or otherwise) left his "share music" function on his iTunes software which is hooked into the UNH server that I am on -- and so I have access to an enormous collection of music (3919 distinct songs as of today -- more than 13 gigabytes worth) which Cesar has brought together. Some of it is not my "cup of tea", but then there are the dozens of classic rock albums he (or possibly she) has taken the trouble to post. Thank you Cesar -- and thank you iTunes.....

There are also other gadgets within my reach as the winter break begins -- including a newer iPod my wife received as a gift. She is already using it to watch episodes of "Desparate Housewives" -- and I am hoping to get a closer look in the near future....

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Saturday, December 17, 2005

Lessons not learned....

The news of the past couple of days about the Bush Administration's post-9/11 secret suspension of the need for warrants to spy on the communications of Americans raises issues about the conduct of the war on terror that point us back in the direction of LESSONS NOT LEARNED by the British in their Northern Ireland experience.

Several months ago I mentioned the publication of friend Justin O'Brien's Killing Finucane, and I do so once again because the insights he offer into that case demonstrate the dangers of having the state and its agents go too far in the "defence of the realm" (which is the subtitle of O'Brien's book).

But as significant is O'Brien's articulation of the dilemma facing those who seek justice for the damage done under a "defense of the realm" regime. The story of the Finucane family's effort to uncover who "pulled the strings"as well as the trigger in the murder of Pat Finucane is an excellent case study that should be read as a warning to those who might abuse power as well as a lesson for those who will find the search for justice frustrated by all sorts of constraints.

The Finaucane family search for justice is merely the tip of the Northern Ireland iceberg, as evidenced by this weeks other news from Northern Ireland that a major Sinn Fein operative Denis Donaldson has admitted being an agent for the British government for at least two decades -- a fact that reinforces the points raised by O'Brien and the threats to legitimacy that writers like Walzer and Ignatieff have raised in the respective analyses.

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Wednesday, December 14, 2005

December 9 Snow -- follow up

Friend Ciaran can't help but snap pictures wherever he is -- even in the midst of a blizzard! This one is exceptionally good I think, not merely in reflecting the conditions I complain about in the previous blog, but also in providing a great view how picturesque the New Hampshire campus can be even under "trying conditions".... This is me with friend Elizabeth Meehan who was about to give a presentaiton on "Human Rights and Women's Rights" in the Women's Studies seminar room, located in Huddleston Hall -- the structure behind us.

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Sunday, December 11, 2005

The snows of December 9

A visit by friends from Northern Ireland turned into a wintry adventure when a blizzard (minor by New England standards, but a blizzard nonetheless) hit on Friday. Randi took this photo in Beverly, but my Belfast visitors and I were actually up in New Hampshire where they were schedule to make presentations at UNH. They arrived in Boston the day before and were settled in at the university's New England Center hotel facility by Thursday night. I made the trip home that night knowing what the forecast was, and by 5AM I was on the road from Beverly to Durham on very dry roads. The snow started falling as I hit Durham at 6AM (I went in early to workout at the UNH gym), and by 7:30 there were several inches on the ground. I believe the day's total was 15 inches....

Friend Ciarán gave his presentation at 10AM, and a few brave souls made it to the seminar. By noon we were heading across campus to lunch at the faculty dining room (Oak Room), but it did not even open so we trekked another block to eat at the giant food court facility in Holloway Commons -- then to the Women's Studies conference room where friend Elizabeth gave her seminar presentation to even fewer folks.

Despite the lack of attendance, both presentations were well worth the effort, and it is comforting to know that both are likely to find their way to publications.

On the "down side", this was my first experience with a snowstorm at UNH, and I have to say that I was a bit peeved at the lack of effort by the physical plant folks to at least do the basic sanding and shoveling required to assure the safety of those who must traverse campus. Nothing -- absolutely nothing -- was done until late that evening. This is a campus with heavy foot traffic in some pretty awkward spots, and a bit of maintenenace effort would have been nice. And in my past experience on snowy campuses in Colorado, Chicago, New York and Kansas, I have never been at one where the building crews did not lift a finger to keep the steps and entryways of buildings at least sanded.

Despite all this, there was a smile on
Ciarán's face most of the time as we went from snowbound place to snowbound place -- for Irish folks this much snow was a fascinating experience, especially in a pretty New England campus setting. The winter scenes also seemed to inspire Ciaran to take out his camera and get some shots from my office window -- and the third floor men's loo. Hmmm -- maybe he'll post those on his now intermittent blog....

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