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Sunday, July 30, 2006

Tidbits from the Times...

Too many tidbits from a cursory reading of the NY Times today -- I am tempted to comment on each in depth, but time is limited. So here are just some reactions....

The front page is filled with stories begging for comment -- from the fact that we are about to learn a lot more about how the Bush Administration is financing the Iraq occupation (as the State Department audits the funding), to the description of the current partisan divide in the US as a "chasm".... On more positive notes, there is story of the improvement in health and longevity for current generations (compared to nineteenth and early 20th century folks), and the courage of at least one leading evangelical pastor to call on his congregants "to steer clear of politics"....

On to the Magazine section: At a time when every weather report (at least the ones I pay attention to here and in the UK) seems to be further confirmation of global warming, it was interesting to read about the Chicago Climate Exchange in today's NY Times. Touted as a way to use the market to deal with with the unfolding crisis, the logic of the approach will certainly have my Marxist friends saying "told you so..." Problem is, after seeing the Al Gore movie, I think it may be too late....

In another tidbit, Marion McKeone confirms something friendCiarán told me about the Irish -- they just can't say "yes". That is, there is no word in Irish to express the gratitudinous "yes, thank you" phrase. The phrase in Irish that comes closest, it seems, roughly translates as "it is so" -- which in context requires a preceding statement to be confirmed. This difference between Irish and English, it seems, might explain a great deal about historical animosities -- or maybe not....

On a day when the news highlights the many lives lost as a bombed building collapsed on a bomb shelter, killing dozens, one cannot help but note the sad irony of the Times publication of a picture essay on such places under the title "Someplace Where the Bombs Won't Come"....

I think it is time to focus....

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Saturday, July 29, 2006

Where the sun starts to shine....

I know that everyone in the Boston area is supposed to feel comforted and safer now that Mitt Romney has managed to force the resignation of Massachusetts Turnpike Authority chair Matthew Amorello for the crime of being in the wrong position at the wrong time. But somehow I am not feeling any better. That is certainly one less person under the lamppost, but Romney and others are still committed to keeping their eyes focused on where the light shines better.

The only "sunray" of hope in all this is that the media and (one would assume) investigators seem finally to turning their spotlights on the private sector folks who seem to be at the center of the errors (see, for example, here and here for recent installments). One of the interesting things about the emergence of the "hollow state" that "steers" rather than "rows" is that officials sometimes get to point (or give) the finger to those contractors who actually did the mal-deed. Reading the developing story of gross negligence among the construction companies and their overseers -- the private companies like Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff (see here) hired by government to manage the Big Dig project on their behalf -- one has to wonder how anyone avoids the conclusion that the contracted, privatized state does not function well, especially when even the state's oversight functions have been contracted out.

But as Amorello found out - and as Romney is likely to discover in due time unless he is very careful -- the blameworthiness of government cannot be put out for bid. Ultimately the public (in the form of an indignant and self-righteous media) will come down hard on the government agencies and agents they think ought to have protected us from human errors and incompetencies.

The public is a fickle client indeed....

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Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Fiascoes in tid bit form...

Two (perhaps unrelated -- who knows?) tidbits about things to look forward to.

Today was the release date of Thomas E. Ricks' Fiasco, a book about the US venture in Iraq that is receiving very favorable reviews. I am a fan of Ricks' work since reading his 1997 book on Making the Corps. I pre-ordered a copy through Amazon, and supposedly it will be in my hands either late today or early tomorrow....

And speaking of fiascoes: A lawsuit filed in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court by Massachusetts Turnpike Authority chair Matthew J. Amorello, contains a letter written on July 17 by Governor Mitt Romney that will supposedly be the focus of a hearing Romney will hold Thursday morning seeking the removal of Amorello, who is asking the court to stop the process. The letter essentially places the blame for the recent Big Dig "collapse" on Amorello. Thus the predictable politicization of the Big Dig fiasco continues -- and most tragically of all, mainly for show and the benefit of political egos on both sides rather than for any good public purpose.

The shallowness of it all came through almost immediately after the accident and was documented by Boston Herald columnist Peter Gelzinis:
With one sentence, during his bizarre encounter with the press yesterday [July 11], we were reminded just how shallow Gov. Mitt Romney truly is.

"Something happened today,"” the Mittster said, his perfect hair strangely mussed, "“that we believe substantially improves our legal ability to remove Chairman Amorello."
Something? Something?
Is that all Milena Del Valle's life amounted to in Mitt Romney'’s eyes? "“Something?"”

The 38-year-old mother of three from Jamaica Plain perished under 12 tons of falling Big Dig concrete Monday night, while riding to the airport to welcome relatives.
And our governor's main reaction to this woman'’s tragic death was to see it as "“something"” that '“substantially improves'” his Ahab-like quest to harpoon Matt Amorello, to say nothing of his Washington longings.

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Promises and performance....

In recent years we have subjected ourselves (collectively) to a pernicious belief in what I term the "promises of accountability" (see here and here). By some twist of rhetorical logic we have convinced ourselves that the development and use of account giving "mechanisms" is the solution to many (if not all) of our political and administrative problems. Those promises take many forms, and I have written and made presentations on the four major ones often over the past few years (see here and here for examples).

There is the promise of democracy, and the idea that merely instilling what we regard as effective accountability mechanisms into the constitutions and practice of governments (e.g., "good governance") will result in more power to the people.

Then there is the promise of justice, with the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission process frequently noted as exemplary (although much of our criminal justice system is based on this promise as well). The public giving of accounts (confession) of past injustices by the abusers of power (accompanied by immunity, of course) is often put forward as a means of achieving a level of justice that will render the past moot so we can get on with the present and future....

Another is the promise of ethical behavior , holding to the belief that an accountable individual is more likely to be an ethical one.

Each of these promises, I would (and have) argued is based on false premises and wishful thinking at best. But most significant is a fourth promise -- the promise of performance -- that is driving today's views of public management and undermining significant areas of public policy.

Case in point: the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, passed by Congress in December 2001 under the fog created by 9/11 and signed into law by George W. Bush on January 8, 2002. This morning, Sam Dillon of the New York Times reports what has been evident for years -- that states and local school districts are failing to live up to the goals and standards of NCLB. The focus of the article is on the hardening attitude on enforcement of NCLB provisions at the US Department of Education, and in that sense is a great case study of how the intergovernmental system continues to be used as a means for nationalizing public policy. It is also an emerging case for testing some of the various theories of US policymaking that have been floating around for years. But most of all it is a lesson in what happens when unreflective policy ideologies are institutionalized as national policy.

NCLB is based on unwarranted assumptions -- on an empty and empirically baseless "theory" of accountability that folks on both sides of the political spectrum want to believe. It is energized by the rhetoric of (false) promises and anecdotal evidence that demonizes failures and rationalizes its own logic through greater commitment to a lost cause. (For more of my diatribe, see here).

Gee, sounds like our Iraq policy!

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Monday, July 24, 2006

Evil in the New York Times

Edward Rothstein's "Connections" column today focuses on the concept of 'evil' - a topic that has preoccupied me and others in the field of public administration in recent years. For me it all started with my angry reaction to a book on administrative evil -- and I was able to articulate my feelings in an award-winning book review essay that (I am sorry to say) probably led to the publication of a second edition of the work that I was attacking. More recently, Jonathan Justice and I published "Accountability and the evil of administrative ethics" in Administration & Society, a more elaborate and detailed piece on the role that the concept of evil has played in driving governance and public policy.

Rothstein's piece focuses on images of evil on stage and screen, and his comments are triggered by the publication of "Evil Incarnate" by David Frankfurter (who happens to be a colleague at the University of New Hampshire -- but since I am new there we have yet to meet...). I can tell I will find the work in synch with my own views based on the idea that "Evil is not a term of explanation. It is a term of judgment." I think my work with Justice complements that perspective quite well.

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Preparing for the last disaster...

It is now widely accepted among observers of organizations that the very process of organizing for the future is greatly influenced -- if not fully determined -- by perceptions of the past (see, for example, the ideas of Karl Weick). Thus it comes as no surprise to read this morning's New York Times piece by Eric Lipton that FEMA is "overhauling" its approach to disaster relief. Translated: they are preparing for the last disaster.

The "problems" with this approach are twofold:

First, it too often relies on perceptions of past difficulties, and these perceptions are all too often shaped by the hype of media coverage rather than careful analysis about what caused the disaster. There are, of course, limits to our human capacity to either uncover the "true cause" of a tragedy like Katrina or to predict the nature and for of the next disaster -- but we can (and should) certainly invest in efforts to conduct those efforts with as much precision and integrity as we can muster. But operating under the pressure of media hype in which reporters pursue and/or highlight their own sense of what is credible (or what makes sense to them), it is little wonder that agencies like FEMA make the quick fix that satisfies the impatient (if imaginary) mob.

Second, relying on the popular quick fix, there is the danger of promoting "thoughtless" actions in which the appropriateness, costs, consequences and potential drawbacks of the prescribed changes are rarely considered. For example, it is easy to ask why FEMA did not attempt to verify the eligibility and credibility of all claimants for immediate disaster relief, but it is quite another to ignore the what a solution would entail in terms of creating and maintaining an intrusive data base that is going to have to be developed in response. FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security will no doubt work to develop such a data base, but in the process they will be subject to criticisms for both the costliness and bureaucratization that will accompany such a project -- not to mention the media "bashing" that will naturally follow. When all that happens, it will do no good for FEMA and DHS to remind folks that they are merely doing what was demanded of them. It is all so predictable....

The old mantra applies: damned if you do, damned if you don't....

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Sunday, July 23, 2006

Looking for scapegoats under lampposts

There are several versions of an often used parable that goes something like this (this version from here):
[A] woman notices a man on his hands and knees while he frantically searches for something under a streetlamp. "Excuse me?" she asks. "Do you need some help?"
"Oh, yes, I'm looking for my car keys," he replies, and gestures towards his idle car in the darkness half a block away.
As she kneels down to assist, she inquires, "Where exactly did you lose the keys?"
As he carefully scans the pavement around him, he points off down the block and replies, "Over there by the car."
She pauses and shoots him a quizzical look. "Then why are you looking over here?" she queries.
"The light's better."

Today's Boston Globe is filled with all sorts of stories (see its ongoing coverage) and even a poll (conducted, I might add, by my colleagues from the University of New Hampshire Survey Research Center) related to the Big Dig controversy, and as I predicted and feared, it is all about finding the scapegoat or fall guy (person?) to shoulder the blame. The problem is that in almost all cases they are taking the simple approach of looking at the top of the political/administrative hierarchy -- "where the light is...."

Most explicit in this regard is an article featured in the Globe's Ideas section authored by Robert Keough who is noted to be the "editor of CommonWealth, a quarterly journal published by MassINC, a nonpartisan think tank in Boston." Problem is that the article demonstrates that there isn't much thinking going on in that think tank, especially about the issues of accountability that are so central to the Big Dig tragedy. Since it is too difficult and costly to really investigate the causes of the Big Dig mess, Keough and the rest of the media are relying on the easy -- and wrong -- targets. Add to this the knee jerk effort to uncover a "culture of corruption" (highlighted in another article in Ideas -- this one by freelancer Dave Denison) that everyone assumes to be the cause of the Big Dig debacle, and you have the emerging narrative of what to expect over the next several months.

The simplistic notion that accountability -- or the lack of it -- causes concrete ceiling tiles to fall is, of course, absurd. What caused that accident are actions and decisions of a string of individuals who each had a hand (or two) in the many steps the led to the collapse of that concrete slab. But pinpointing the exact decision or act -- or decisionmaker or actor -- who is at fault (assuming there was such a single point to be "pinned") is unlikely perhaps to the point of being impossible. And so we don't even bother, and instead we ritualistically wander on over to the lamppost and try to figure out which of the "usual suspects" we need to focus on.

Sadly a very predictable outcome....

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Blameworthy fire fighting

Among the most promising of my unpursued ideas is found in a paper written ten years ago for an administrative ethics conference in Brisbane (which I think I've mentioned in a previous blog post -- but I can't seem to find it). In it I develop a pretty elaborate argument and framework for the idea that a sense of "blameworthiness" is central to understanding modern accountability in the administrative state. Every so often I read or hear of a case study that reminds me that I have to dust off that paper and take it to the next level.

That was my thought as I listened on my iPod to a segment of yesterday's Weekend America broadcast on Holding a Fire Fighter's Feet to the Fire (to go direct to audio, click here).

[In case I had not mentioned it before (and I thought I had -- but again, can't seem to find it via a search), Weekend America is perhaps the most refreshing new "news magazine" (I think that is what they might call it) to come along in years public radio or elsewhere. Segments like this one are typical, and I have added it to my weekly 'must listen' on the weekend (the other is "On the Media"). Interestingly, neither is actually produced by NPR, but rather American Public Media (for Weekend America) and WNYC (for OTM).]

As for the Fire Fighter segment, it offers a great example of the role that liability now plays in the lives of these folks, especially as the country has turned increasingly toward litigiousness. This clearly has an impact on the way firefighters and others think about their jobs -- and even poses ethical dilemmas (which I have written about in greater detail). My point in the 1996 paper is that liability is merely a part of a broader system of blameworthy-based accountability that has been developing for more than a thousand years. I go so far as to contend that this blameworthiness-as-accountability is the defining characteristic of modern governance.

Maybe this is the year that I attempt to put all this into a more presentable form. I certainly will not want for examples.....

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Objectifying Fish

Friend Stefan, from his Northern Ireland perch and with his child bouncing about on his lap, has a five hour advantage on us US east coast locals and so had already consumed and reacted (via blog post) to Stanley Fish's interesting New York Times OpEd on Conspiracy Theories 101.

The stage setting details are found in the controversy surrounding the hiring of Keith Barrett, an African languages and literature scholar, to teach an introductory course on "Islam: Religion and Culture" at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Central to the controversy is Barrett's belief in a conspiracy theory attributing the 9/11 destruction of the WTC and Pentagon on the US government -- that it was an "inside job." Barrett has attempted to explain his position (and how he reached it) to one media outlet, and seems quite clear in saying that this particular and peculiar theory of his will not play a central role in the curriculum he has prepared for the fall semester course on Islam. Nevertheless, those who are shocked by the fact that the University of Wisconsin would hire someone who holds such beliefs to teach at UW, let alone this particular course, have stirred the political waters (see videos here and here) -- leading UW Provost Patrick Farrell to reconfirm the hiring as a matter of academic freedom and having various viewpoints reflected in the classroom (see local UW perspective here).

Stanley Fish's OpEd (which is the focus of Stefan's post) is a critique of both sides of the Barrett debate, which is typical of Fish's approach to the sociology of knowledge and epistemology -- as well as academic politics in general. The standard by which to assess Barrett is not the truth or political correctness of what he believes, nor is it the misguided view that academic freedom is a First Amendment right linked to freedom of speech. Instead, the issue is whether Barrett's freedom to engage in the study of alternative views of what happened on 9/11 are being subverted by calls for his pre-emptive dismissal (he does not start his teaching duties until August...).

On this measure, Barrett's case does raise an important issue. On the one hand, and in his own words (see here and here), he is proposing the theory of a government conspiracy to create the 9/11 disaster as a hypothesis that seems to make rational sense (to him, at least; bizarre thinking as far as I can tell), and on that basis he would pass muster with Fish. However, if his teaching reflected his role as a leader of (and advocate for) the group pushing for the adoption of the theory based on rhetorical assertion alone -- that is, if he assumed the role of indoctrinator rather than professor -- then he should not be given charge of a course curriculum (although he might be welcome as a guest speaker -- sort of a specimen to be studied, you might say...).

I have to take exception with Stefan's interpretation of Fish's OpEd as advocating a standard of methodological objectivity in the Barrett case. For one thing, Fish is a well known critic of scientism and such, having contributed and nurtured the idea of "interpretive communities" for decades. Second, I think Stefan has read too much of the old metholdogical debate among political scientists (normativism vs positivism) into Fish's discussion. That entire debate is based on a false dichotomy perpetrated by advocates on both sides who have never quite given up the ghost for the more nuanced views expressed by Fish and others. What is interesting in this instance is to see Fish (who is usually attacked by the advocates of scientistic (sic) perspectives as an apologist for knee-jerk postmodernism) pictured as a champion of empirical objectivism.

As for Barrett, if he lives up to his own narrative of how he was led to consider the conspiracy perspective, and in light of all attention his course is likely to get after this very visible controversy, then UW's provost is right to let him teach the course -- even if for the wrong reason. An explicit adoption of the Fish standard would seem to be in order....

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Friday, July 21, 2006


I was going to make some comments about Polanyi's The Great Transformation in today's blog, but my spouse's blog post of a sketch she made more than forty years ago (of my high school graduation picture) led me to reflect on another kind of transformation.

I was trying to shake the implications of my bithday when my older sister called and reminded me that me and my siblings are all reaching tipping point ages this year: while I am turning 60 and she will be 65 in a few months, our younger sister turned 50 in April.

I think I will sit back and enjoy the rest of the day.....

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Thursday, July 20, 2006

Working it out at my age....

What you have here is a picture of the Precor EFX 5.23 Elliptical Fitness Crosstrainer -- the kind you find in the fitness rooms of gyms throughout the country. There are several in the local YMCA where I work out two or three times each week, and while on it I typically read and/or listen to my iPod. It is just part of my life....

I have a special relationship with the Ellipitcal Machines at the Y, not the least being that in February 2003 I was on one when I realized that the odd feeling in my jaw -- a feeling that I thought I could shake off by working out even harder -- was actually a heart attack.

Obviously I survived that, and in a couple of months I was back on Elliptical doing my best to work myself back up to the usual 40-45 minute workouts. Even when I spent two years in Northern Ireland, I found a machine that was somewhat close to the Precor to use as often as I could, but always looked forward to remounting the machines at the Y on my visits home.

Part of the ritual of working out on these machines is that you have to enter your age as well as weight. I know that entering those numbers is intended to allow the machine's built-in computer to figure out how to indicate the appropriate level measures for my pulse rate when I grasp the heart rate sensors, but of course it also acts as a reminder about just how old I am. I would be lying to say I don't really think much about that number -- I do. And I think about it even more as the time approaches to move it up a digit....

This past week I have been working out at the University of New Hampshire gym instead of the local Y. The UNH machines are a bit different -- none of them ask me to input my age. But I wasn't avoiding the Y on purpose -- it just so happens that I had to be at my university office early each morning this week.

But tomorrow is Friday and I will be at home, and if I follow my normal routine I should get up in the morning and head over to the Y to mount the Precor and go through the usualy ritual.

But tomorrow things will be a bit different -- I will have to put in a new number as I reach the age of 60.

Maybe I'll take a couple of days off from working out....

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Another podcast suggestion....

Still another podcast suggestion....

As noted previously, the CBC has launched a major podcasting site offering the "best of" several of its shows. I have been catching up with the downloads from past weeks, and among the best of the best thus far has been the first three parts of a five part series on the life and work of Karl Polanyi. The series was part of the offerings on "Ideas", a CBC Radio One show that airs Monday through Thursday evenings. The Polanyi series, titled "Markets and Society" was originally aired last year and is now being offered as a "Best of Ideas" download each Monday through July and through August 1. (You can get the downloads as mp3 files -- at least for now -- here.)

I recall (vaguely) reading The Great Transformation decades ago (more on that point tomorrow...), and this series is tempting me to revisit the work. Putting that work in its historical/biographical context will made the re-read all the more interesting.

In looking up the other shows broadcast on Ideas, I see that I am missing a great deal by getting only this "best of" taste - the program listings for past and current, including one that focuses on Jane Jacobs, looks terrific. At the moment the only access besides the limited padcast offerings is through CDs or transcripts (both involving purchses) or trying to listen online.

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Monday, July 17, 2006

Wiki-ing politics

The idea of collective wisdom (wisdom of crowds, mobs, groups, and all that) is a bit shakey from my perspective, and I tend to think its applications are limited. I certainly would not want to run a political system on the basis of decisions emerging from collective wisdom without some major guarantees that individual liberties and lives would be protected.

Nevertheless, there is something intriguing and exciting about the idea behind Campaigns Wikia which was launched rather quietly over the past two weeks. Applying the dynamic of wikipedia to discussions of all things political will certainly generate some interesting outcomes. Even more interesting will be the talk and discussions that go on in the site's tab pages for each entry.

It is already evident that these entries will draw many self-serving types and the political crazies who believe they can fool some of the people some of the time, but the great thing about a wiki format is that with sufficient time and input from a range of folks it can counter the nuttiness and malcontents with some decent material.

Is this the web answer to the knee-jerkism of the cable news hype? Perhaps.....

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Saturday, July 15, 2006

Pueblo and its Peak

I typically don't write up three blog posts in a day, but as I turned to the pages of the New York Times after my last post, I came across an article that requires comment and attention.

First, a caveat for the sake of domestic peace and tranquility. I am not claiming, nor would I ever claim, to be a native coloradan. I was born and raised (until age 15) on the east coast, mainly in Brooklyn with stops in Newark and suburban Philly along the way. That said, I regard Pueblo, Colorado as my home town. I graduated from high school there, attended and graduated from what was then Southern Colorado State College (now Colorado State University at Pueblo), and even while attending graduate school in lovely Boulder, I still thought of Pueblo as home when I thought about such things. And I still do.

[If you want to know why that statement was necessary, you will have to understand that my spouse is a native Coloradan - a native Pueblan (sic) -- whose mother was born and raised there and who would probably and proudly apply a "Colorado Native" bumper sticker to our cars if she could. Like other such natives (not to be confused with Native Americans, who probably feel the same way about her type), especially given the Texas-ifcation and Californ-ication, she is sensitive to any claims of native-hood on the part of carpetbaggers like my family and me.... Some people just never get over such things....]

OK, with all that out of the way, the Times article in question focuses on the efforts of Pueblo to reinvent itself as a tourist stop for the many folks who typically avoid anything south of Colorado Springs. Pueblo was a working, blue collar town, populated by ethnics of every types who worked the steel mill, railroads and mines in that part of the sate. When I moved to Pueblo in 1962, it proudly called itself the "Pittsburgh of the west" and was a Democratic stronghold in a state that had always had a progressive political streak. It was regarded as a "tough" town (as the article notes) -- so much so, that folks in other parts of the state thought of it as filled with hoodlums and all sorts of rabble.... In fact, it was a really nice city, at the time the second biggest in the state (about 110,000 population, while Colorado Springs was just in the 80,000 area), and perhaps the most diverse in that part of the country.

I went to South High, while Randi attended Central (two of the six high schools, if you count Catholic and County Highs), and there was then (and in hindsight) a terrific place to experience adolescence. Neither of us have close family living there now, although there are plenty of friends and memories....

One such memory I had was of this historical site located at the side of a hill just south of downtown. Pretty obscure location, and if it wasn't for the little roadsign indicating a historical marker you would not even know it was worth the stop. (In fact, I don't recall anyone but me making the stop.) As it turns out, it was a marker to designate the site of the Pike encampment discussed in the Times piece. By distance this was a pretty long way from the Peak that would carry Pike's name, and the story I heard was that he thought it was a small hill and ordered a couple of his folks to climb it and see what was on the other side. (Pueblo, you see, is not a picture postcard part of Colorado. It is located in the high plains, and you have to look pretty far out on the horizon to the west to see anything resembling mountains. In fact, you are more likely to see the twin Spanish Peaks to the southwest from Pike's encampment than the range to the north that include Pike's Peak. ) Thanks to the internet, my misconceptions are now corrected, and here, at length, is the relevant piece of history that starts on November 23, 1806, after they had spotted the mountain (for the entire background history, click here):
In the middle of what is today’s city of Pueblo the expedition built a defensive stockade of logs. From this base camp, a small party would make the ascent, while the rest would remain to guard the horses and supplies. Pike, fooled by the optical illusions of distances on the western plains, estimated that the march to the base of the mountain and its ascent could be accomplished in two days.

The four-man climbing party, which consisted of Pike, Dr. Robinson, and two privates, left camp on November 24 for the ascent. Due to Pike’s distance miscalculations, the party took two days instead of one to reach the base of the mountains. The climb began on the morning of the 26th, but continuing miscalculations of distance and deteriorating weather left them only partway to the summit by nightfall. The following morning, after battling 22-degree temperatures and waist-deep snow, the party arrived at the summit, where they were treated to a spectacular view of oceans of clouds below them and a panoramic blue sky above. Their vista also revealed that due to their obscured view of the peaks from the valley floor the previous day, they had ascended the wrong peak, and were standing atop 11,499 ft. Mt. Rosa. The “Grand Peak” still lay some fifteen miles away. Chastened by the exertions of their climb, Pike gave up the idea of a second assault, and the group returned to their stockade base camp on November 29. Pike’s assault on Mt. Rosa was the first known successful alpine ascent of a mountain by a person of European descent in North America.

I think the idea of using the Pike encampment as a tourist hook is billiant, for Pueblo has never really recovered from the economic blows it took in the 1960s and 1970s. So just as I say to folks who have never bothered to head north from Dublin to see Northern Ireland, so I say to you visitors to Colorado: take a trek south and visit Pueblo....

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Irish rabbit

I realize that this will probably raise questions in the Dubnick household when Randi sees that I am posting someone else's pic, but one can hardly pass up the opportunity to give greater exposure to friend Ciarán's new friend on O'Connell Street in Dublin....

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As it happens -- on the CBC

Last semester I taught an evening class in Manchester NH which had me on the road home during the 9PM hour. As usual (when I have run out of podcasts to listen to) I tune into the local NPR. In Massachusetts this tends to be either WBUR or WGBH, but when I cross over to New Hampshire I listen to the statewide New Hampshire Public Radio. At 9PM weekdays, NHPR broadcasts a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) Radio One daily show called "As It Happens", and it got to the point that I looked forward to the commute in order to take in a few segments of that show.

It is a show that has been around for 35 years or so, and it is filled with extended phone interview segments (usually ten minutes) that are interesting and quite lively, all related to some news item of the day. There is an informality to the co-hosts that is refreshing to US ears, and choice of stories that range from the important (from a Canadian perspective, of course) to the bizarre (interviews with people at the center of strange stories you might find headlined in the National Inquirer next week).

I bring this up because there is now a weekly podcast of the Best of As It Happens, and (as it happens) it is a pretty good selection of three segments from the show that are worth listening to. I get the impression that the CBC has finally crossed over to the podcast world and issued a "Best of" from one of its major Radio One shows each day. I will give all a listen, but I can already strongly recommend the As It Happens download....

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Friday, July 14, 2006

Shocked, just shocked...duh

The New York Times seems to be on a roll -- giving narrative form to the commonplace corruptions of university and academic life. Yesterday it was the market-driven corruption of secondary school textbook writing. Today it is the special treatment student athletes receive at the big-time sports schools.

The story of Auburn's academic accommodation to football players is hardly a shocking revelation to many of us who have worked in and around Auburn-like institutions, but it certainly rises to the level of embarrassment when it becomes a front page story in the Times. The fact that athletic program personnel would work hard to make the burdens of education as light as possible for the students under their charge is bad enough, but when academicians assist that process by corrupting the classroom, a line has been crossed.

Again I have to note that I am not fully innocent in this regard. Back in my days at a major midwest school that was sports-crazy I took on the role of setting up a special faculty advising system for the basketball and football teams. I did so as part of my role in faculty governance rather than as a "fan", although I have to admit to being a bit obsessed with whether our teams won or lost in those days. The advising system we set up (which I think lasted for many years after my departure and that of the coach who helped create it) was actually more focused on providing support and mentoring for the kids than in making their academic life easier. And the results were pretty good -- they not only remained "eligible" throughout their academic careers, but several star players actually graduated on schedule under the system, although there were some cases where the students were sent packing despite their athletic promise.

In short, if done the right way and for the right reasons, there is a role for faculty to play in such situations that does not involve prostituting themselves for an autographed football or promises of other rewards. At minimum the faculty got the satisfaction of helping those students convert an exploitive situation (the universities are clearly in the situation of getting more out of them than it is giving in return) into realized opportunities. That said, when one of the teams did well and found itself competing for the national championship, the advising/mentoring faculty were offered tickets to the games and were able to share in some way in the success of the students they had been working with. Overall a positive outcome without the sleaze.... Or at least that is the way I remember it....

But in the case of at least one sociology prof at Auburn, there seems much to be concerned about....

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Thursday, July 13, 2006

A history of corruption?

This morning's NY Times featured article on textbook writing and publishing -- and raised questions about the integrity and ethics of those endeavors.

First, let me point out that I am a textbook writer (I have co-authored three college-level texts), and in fact this week I am in the process of putting the finishing touches on ancillary material for the 8th edition of a college-level American Government textbook co-authored with two colleagues, Alan Gitelson and Robert Dudley.

Let me also note that each of us wrote and rewrote every word of each edition. But I must also point out the obvious fact that over the years, and through each edition, many of those drafted words were frequently subjected to some substantial editing by some pretty good folks at Houghton Mifflin (our publisher). That is the nature of writing and publishing textbooks, so it is hardly shocking to hear about editors making suggestions for substantive changes or additions to a textbook.

But the story in the Times indicates that perhaps a line had been crossed in the case of some high school history books. It seems that sociologist James W. Loewen found explicit examples of a practice that we all knew was going on in the secondary school textbook market -- and while it is not fair to call it plagiarism, it certainly seems like it is a close relative.

Loewen found that identical passages about certain events (e.g., 9/11, establishment of the Department of Homeland Security) turned up in different texts put out by the same publisher.

To some extend this is a great deal of fuss about relatively little -- the added paragraphs can be rationalized as essentially last minute "touch ups" to completed works, and it is within the range of their jobs that editors can take such liberties with the knowledge of the authors. That they used the same wording in two or more of the works is the shocker, and from comments of the nominal authors of the texts, they seem to have done so without the knowledge or okay of the authors. This may be more a reflection of laziness than criminality -- especially since the copyright is the publishers in almost all cases.....

But the story also touches on something even more sinister -- a practice no worse than "ghost writing" but which, when it occurs in the academic community, I believe borders on "intellectual corruption". When it comes to primary and secondary school textbooks (let me stress, not college texts as far as I know), it is well known practice for the scholars who should know better to effectively sell their name to the publishers for that seemingly small 10-15% royalty check that comes twice a year. Yes, they may actually submit a pretty solid initial draft of a textbook for that first edition, one that probably reflects their informed and distinctive perspective on history -- and perhaps even the best of their lectures which seem to go over well in the college classroom. But what comes out the other end is never quite the same -- and in fact might be substantially different.

Quite frankly, it is the exigencies of the "school adoption" marketplace and its associated pressures for censorship and political correctness that drive the inevitable heavy "editing" process. The authors are transformed into lead consultants, supposedly heading a team of content contributors that never really meet or communicate, except through the filter of the professional editors who, in fact, are the real authors. What comes out of the other end of this process are textbooks that pass muster and can be adopted by school districts. That, after all, is where the money is, and a good deal more effort seems to go into pleasing the text-adoption decision makers than in putting out a quality product actually written by those whose name is on the cover.....

Nothing new here, of course. Loewen has made a career of exposing all this in his books (Lies My Teacher Told Me and Lies Across America). Diane Ravitch has tackled the issue in her recent
The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn, and Frances FitzGerald did so years ago in America Revised.

I really don't blame the publishers for doing what they can to adapt to the demands of this politically sensitive market, but I do question the wisdom of those well known academics who allow their names -- and even some of their material -- to be used without insisting on some say in the content of what comes out under their names....

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Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Apologetics, tragedy and sleaze

A convergence of conversation and tragedy has me blogging this morning (when I should be gradng papers...).

The press comment I made on the GAO report on FEMA's post-Katrina action (see previous post) led to an extended conversation with a reporter (which is still ongoing -- we keep getting interrupted) who reacted to my stand by accusing me of being an apologist for incompetent bureaucrats.

This is the third time I have run into this attitude on the part of reporters which either speaks to my lack of clarity or their bureaucracy-bashing "bias" that makes them treat me as if I am the Ann Coulter of the public administration community.... My point was simply that GAO's report reflects a knee-jerk, investigative reporting perspective that is neither in the tradition of GAO nor appropriate for a government audit. While the report is solid methodologically, it fails to provide information on the context and constraints under which FEMA was operating -- that is, GAO went for the headline rather than take the time to issue a credible analysis that is up to its past standards.

Somehow that stand makes me an apologist for incompetent bureaucracies. I think I have been as clear as I can be, but it seems that the reporters have their own agenda and read a great deal more into my critique than is there....

The immediate reason for this blog post, however, is the relevance of that news media bias to the coverage of the tragic events that took place in Boston's Ted Williams tunnel Monday night. You can get the details of the accident in the news coverage, and it clearly looks like a critical flaw in the design, construction and maintenance of the tunnel ceiling. But already the media is seeking someONE to blame, a head to roll -- and the pols are feeding the frenzy-driven witchhunt for their own purposes. Governor Mitt Romney, for example, who is in a battle over control of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority governing board (the tunnel is under MTA jurisdiction) is actually pointing fingers at his nemesis on that Board -- as if he personally went out and cut the bolt that led to the collapse of the ceiling tiles that led to the death. In the meantime, state Attorney General Reilly, who is in a primary battle for the Democratic nomination for governor, is treating the event as a crime, as if this was a premeditated murder (or at least negligent homicide). And the Boston media is loving it (this morning's Globe headline: Mass. Crisis of Confidence; the Herald is making it even sleazier....)

I suspect I will be accused of being an apologist for incompetent bureaucracies or bolt manufacturers, but I want to point out that the causes of these accidents are more often than not much more complicated than we wish they were. It would make us all feel safer, I suspect, if we could just instantaneously find the specific individual or event or thing that led to this tragic death, and ironically we would feel better if we could zero in on some single individual to blame for committing this "criminal" act. But as much as we wish to revert to such medieval witchhunting, I hope wiser and cooler heads will prevail and a more careful and thorough investigation is conducted.

The model I would point to is the investigation -- journalistic as well as forensic -- that followed the collapse of the walkway at the Kansas City Hyatt in 1981. 114 people died, and more than 200 injured. In what turned out to be a case of exemplary civic and responsible journalism, the Kansas City Star hired engineering consultants who conducted a thorough investigation of the collapse, and what they uncovered was a story of design changes, miscommunication, etc that did not warrant criminal charges, but led to charges of "gross negligence, misconduct, and unprofessional conduct" against the architectural engineers involved and actions against their firms -- and ultimately civil law suits and settlements. The paper won the Pulitzer for its coverage.

One can only hope that after the feeding frenzy and headline grabbing subsides, the Globe and others turn to the model of Kansas City and its paper for guidance....

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Monday, July 10, 2006

Reminders of McCool's Creation

In honor of the NY Times piece on Northern Ireland, Randi dusted off for posting a two year old picture of the Giant's Causeway. The name of the Causeway reflects a legend that tells of its formation by Finn McCool, a Giant who created the terrain as he prepared to step on over to Scotand to take on his nemisis....

She also reminded me that another of her pictures from that trip is featured in a Wikipedia entry on the Antrim Coast Road.

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Sunday, July 09, 2006

Tidbits and pieces on a Sunday....

Sunday bits and pieces....

In addition to the nice piece (with great photos) in the New York Times Travel section about Northern Ireland (see yesterday's blog post), the paper has at least two items worthy of note.

The front page features a write up by Tamar Lewin about how women are "Leaving Men in the Dust" when it comes to educaitonal achievement. This is clearly the case given my limited experience....

An interesting OpEd by Tony Horwitz takes note of the tendency for advocates of US immigration reform -- past and present -- to ignore the historical facts about "Hispanic" America.... Also the magazine has a piece on the debate over immigration among economists....

And finally, a non-NYT bit. Each morning I download and listen to Garrison Keillor's 5-minute "The Writer's Almanac". Besides the interesting literary tidbits and daily dose of poetry, he often elaborates on the background of some writer whose birthdate or death is on the particular day. The politics, when it enters into the Almanac at all, is subtle to say the least. For Sunday, July 9th, Keillor takes note of Donald Rumsfeld's birthday, and his inclusion is based on publication of a book titled "Rumsfeld's Rules". The rationale for including Rumsfeld (Keillor did not even take note of Dubya's 60th this past week) was one particular line from the DoD chief's book:

In 2003, he published Rumsfeld's Rules: Wisdom for the Good Life, a list of guidelines for his colleagues that he'd gathered over the years. It includes advice such as, "It is easier to get into something than to get out of it."

Enough said....

For a less subtle political piece by Keillor, click here.

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Saturday, July 08, 2006

Times Travel and Northern Ireland....

Timing is everything....

Last year, I was really pleased and excited to see the New York Times do a major piece on Belfast in its Sunday Travel section -- and within a week or two the stories on my favorite home-away-from-home were front page write-ups about riots and violence in the loyalist community. Quite a set back as far as I was concerned.

Well, tomorrow's NYT Travel Section is headlining golf courses in Northern Ireland -- a real boost to the region's image, and although I am no golfer I hear it is well deserved. As the article notes, the courses are as good as those in Ireland and Scotland, and far less crowded and more accessible.

But then there is the timing. This happens to be the infamous parade week in Northern Ireland, a time when sectarian flareups are as likely as not (see the Parades Commission site). Most of my friends are making the great annual escape to Dublin, England, Scotland -- and just about anywhere else other than Belfast and the six counties. It is a time when business make an effort to close up tight, including restaurants and hotels.

Whoever makes decisions on timing of such stories at the Times needs a wee bit of an education....

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Thursday, July 06, 2006

Galactic thoughts

And now for something completely different...

This morning's commuting podcast was a download from the BBC that I listen to each week -- Melvynn Bragg's In Our Time. This is perhaps the most unique -- and literally surprising -- show on BBC Radio 4. Broadcast each Thursday, it is an hour of discussion about some topic that happens to be of interest to Bragg that particular week. One week it is Negative Numbers, the next week it is The Spanish Inquisition, and the next it might be Carbon, or Uncle Tom's Cabin -- you never know what you are going to hear about, and those are just a sampling of very recent broadcasts!

What Bragg does is invite three academic experts from the UK to answer his questions -- the kind of questions any layperson might ask over coffee if in such a position. Some weeks it is fascinating, other weeks it is just plain bizarre...

They have been podcasting this each week for a bit, and while the podcasts are replaced each week, it is still possible to listen to many of the past shows posted in their archives.

The June 29 show, which I listened to this morning, was about Galaxies, and within a few minutes of listening to the three experts attempt to explain the size and dimensions of the universe of galaxies, I was immediately flashing back to Monty Python's movie, The Meaning of Life, and specifically to the very memorable "Galaxy Song". This is a Python classic, and the lyrics of all the songs are terrific! If you have never heard the Galaxy Song, you can play it by clicking here (mp3) or here (Realplayer), and although I know it is some violation of copyright, here are the lyrics:

[Whenever life gets you down, Mrs. Brown,
And things seem hard or tough,
And people are stupid, obnoxious or daft,
And you feel that you've had quite eno-o-o-o-o-ough...]

Just remember that you're standing on a planet that's evolving
And revolving at nine hundred miles an hour,
That's orbiting at nineteen miles a second, so it's reckoned,
A sun that is the source of all our power.
The sun and you and me and all the stars that we can see
Are moving at a million miles a day
In an outer spiral arm, at forty thousand miles an hour,
Of the galaxy we call the "Milky Way".

Our galaxy itself contains a hundred billion stars.
It's a hundred thousand light years side to side.
It bulges in the middle, sixteen thousand light years thick,
But out by us, it's just three thousand light years wide.
We're thirty thousand light years from galactic central point.
We go 'round every two hundred million years,
And our galaxy is only one of millions of billions
In this amazing and expanding universe.

(Animated calliope interlude)

The universe itself keeps on expanding and expanding
In all of the directions it can whizz
As fast as it can go, at the speed of light, you know,
Twelve million miles a minute, and that's the fastest speed there is.
So remember, when you're feeling very small and insecure,
How amazingly unlikely is your birth,
And pray that there's intelligent life somewhere up in space,
'Cause there's bugger all down here on Earth.

There are a couple of sites that provide annotations for the lyrics (here and here), but to really get a sense of it you have to listen to Braggs' hour of chat.

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