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Monday, May 28, 2007

Saving Radio OpenSource....

I seem to do a good deal of complaining about Christopher Lydon at WGBH's Radio OpenSource, but it is clear that I find the show interesting and the debates lively. They do a decent job on a range of topics that would not otherwise make it on the air (e.g., the shows on Arendt, Weinberger's miscellany, etc.). For that reason alone I think it would be a shame if it went off the air -- something that can happen unless folks respond to the S.O.S. issued by Lydon the other day.

There is a bit of deja vu here -- if folks who live in the Boston area recall, Lydon had a rather nasty departure from WBUR in early 2001 thanks to a dispute over money and "ownership" of the production. Among other things the controversy led to publication of Lydon's then-$175,000 salary and publication of emails exchanged during the dispute. The show (The Connection) lasted a few more years, eventually ending its run in 2005 after regaining (at least I thought) some of its quality.

I raise this because, despite my inclination to be supportive of the OpenSource plea for help, in the back of my mind I wonder how much Lydon and his top folks have made reasonable cuts in costs to help make things work in the long run. There was a hint that UMass-Lowell folks were regretting the deal they struck with Lydon (financially they pulled the plug in October), and I noticed that several weeks ago a major staff member for the show left rather quickly, but there was no explicit indication of problems then.

So while I contemplate the donation I will no doubt make to the show, I hope this plea is indeed credible and not to support some grandiose long term plan for expanding the Lydon business model. The other rumored scenario -- that Lydon will leave for the Big Apple -- is perhaps a greater worry....

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Sitting at the infosnack bar....

I don't know how I missed it for so long, but until I ran across the term "infosnacking" in a Frontline documentary several weeks ago I had never heard the word. But as it turns out, it was the Webster Dictionary's "Word of the Year" for 2005 -- a not uncontroversial choice in light of the emergence of "podcasting" that same year. As the story goes, infosnacking did make it into the dictionary right away, but the editor's like it. Perhaps its time is coming....

Curiously, while the word has gained some traction, it has yet to earn a Wikipedia entry (do search here; btw, podcast has one). This is surprising for two reasons -- first, it seems like the perfect word to describe what many younger Wikipedia users do at the site and, second, it is a more pervasive practice among net-geners than we might think.

On the first point, one need only visit the "main page" of Wikipedia to get an example of the ideal "info snack bar" -- I believe several times more useful than the Google News page which is often cited as an example.

My anecdotal evidence for the second point was student responses to a discussion forum I posted last semester on "infosnacking" after viewing the Frontline segment that mentioned it as a driving factor behind the redesign of mainstream news delivery at CBS (in conjunction with Yahoo). There were lots of entries among these 45 or so net-geners, and without exception they all noted that infosnacking was not merely something they did, but was part of their daily routine! Just as some of us older folks grab for the newspaper and scan the headlines over coffee each morning, these younger types situate their coffee next to the computer and do the same on the web. In that sense it is no different from the behavior of their elders. But where there is a significant difference is in their exposure to a range of story or viewing options that is based on their choice of "snack bar". Maybe it is Google News or Wikipedia's front page -- or perhaps YouTube's featured posts or some collection of feeds they created themselves.

This is just the phenomena that Weinberger's Everything is Miscellaneous gets to (see post below) -- and why I believe it is a subject to be pursued on several different levels....

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Dis-order and re-orderliness: Weinberger's miscellany...

One way I kept my sanity while grading all those previously mentioned student posts and essays over the last week or so was to take a break by reading David Weinberger's Everything is Miscellaneous. And as it happens, it was worth every spare moment I could devote to it.

I originally heard about the book on Radio OpenSource, and I have to say that the hour did not do justice to the book's argument -- and this time it is not all Christopher Lydon's fault. Weinberger (who writes Joho the Blog) is attempting to present a pretty sophisticated thesis (that cries out for a more scholarly explication) through a popular lens (see his book's web site here), and he does so in a way that avoids allowing knee-jerk critics to dismissively label him as just another "postmodernist" (although he does acknowledge that risky connection later in his presentation, and it was a hint of postmodernism which did seem to get to Lydon late in his conversation with Weinberger). Nevertheless, this is Foucauldian postmodernism at its subtle best -- but with the underlying presence of Borges (who inspired Foucault) and perhaps Hacking (who was inspired by Foucault).

There are so many ways that Weinberger's miscellany view touches on my work that I can't help but predict I will be citing it over and over again in future blog postings. Its postmodernist theme is not ideological or fadish, but rather comes packaged in a coherent and useful presentation of our post-modern condition which entails the movement toward a metadata-based "third order of order". Weinberger is a philosopher with McLuhanistic insight (interesting that he received his PhD from University of Toronto) into the radically altered relationship between information and knowing -- and therefore knowledge-as-understanding.

I'd definitely put this on the must read list for anyone who wants to understand what the future holds for our major educational and economic institutions as the net-nurtured generation makes its way into the power mainstream....

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Sausage making at NPR

An interesting segment on On the Media (actually a repeat of a previously broadcast segment) provided some insight into how the folks at NPR develop such great "segments" -- and it is sausage making all the way! My one regret is that this was not available while I was teaching my mass media course -- great stuff....

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Sunday, May 27, 2007

Blogging and alternative life styles...

Since most of my initial duties at the University of New Hampshire related to the graduate program in public administration, I had not fully participated in undergraduate teaching until this past semester when I took on two undergraduate courses. It wasn't until I was preparing a syllabus for one that I noticed a “W” in the schedule. I vaguely recall being told about "writing intensive" courses, but I was about to deal with my first. In response I created a monster by deciding to use student blogging (see here and here) and discussion forum entries as the basis for 70% of the grade. To make matters worse, I exercised my characteristic procrastination techniques all semester and left the grading to the last two weeks. I have just completed (for the most part) the task of grading several hundred short (from one to several paragraphs in length) "essays".

The task was as "enjoyable" as it sounds. Yesterday, with the assistance of my graduate assistant (thank you, Kevin!) I finally filled in most of the gaps and now have only student complaints to deal with.... (The registrar's office is on my case since I have already missed their generous deadlines and will now have to wait until after the holiday weekend to file the grades).

And now it is back to blogging and other essential matters of life....

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Gradng breaks....

Having remove myself from blogging activity for the past week or so in order to concentrate on grading, I am ready to dive back in. The grading process this semester is going slowly for one particular course since I gave an assignment that involves literally hundreds of separate writing entries to assess. I've decided it's better for me (and much more fair for the student) if I did the assessments intermittently rather than in one or two marathon sittings. This allows me to blog a bit as well...

As usual, I've been doing lots of reading and bibliography building whenever I can. At the moment I'm reading a book found my friend Domonic related to our joint study of the management of the Massachusetts Big Dig Project. The book is Rescuing Prometheus by Thomas P. Hughes, and it turned out that my doorstep from the Amazon yesterday afternoon. Hughes focuses on the various management approach has developed for four post-World War II technology-based "projects". The projects themselves are varied, ranging from the system developed by MIT for ground based defense (SAGE) to the Central Artery/Tunnel (Big Dig) project. Also included are studies of the Atlas rocket project to and the development of ARPANET (the basis for the Internet). The fact that Hughes is located at MIT perhaps influenced his choices, and one could argue that they don't quite make for a coherent group of case studies -- but the focus is an interesting one nevertheless and I am finding it an easy read so far...

Also over the last few days I've been reading David Weinberger's Everything is Miscellaneous. Excellent book and filled with lots of insights into how the "order of things" and essentialism is being challenged by the emergence of digital information systems and related capacities. Really interesting stuff that I hope to use in developing my "nomads" argument this summer. Along the same lines, I picked up Wark's Gamer Theory
-- a book that will demand more concentration than I'm able to devote at the moment...

All this and plans to revitalize my courses on organizational theory and behavior the summer. Obviously I'll have plenty to blog about, and with the weekly commute (by train mainly) to New York and Washington where I will teach the summer I should have the time to get some of this done...

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Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Robo-polls and Mitt Romney's "boost"

For the second time in as many weeks I have rushed down to WGBH Boston studios to do short segments on a local news interview show, Greater Boston. In both cases it was to comment on the New Hampshire Primary, and in this regard I am the surrogate for those more expert on the topic who are much busier than me -- and besides, I live in Massachusetts, so the trek is really a grand detour to heading home.

The first segment -- taped on April 30 -- focused on the campaigning now taking place in NH, while yesterday's focused on the latest SurveyUSA poll (for WBZ-TV, released on Monday, the 7th) that gave Mitt Romney a boost to the lead in the contest among likely voters.

There is much hype and spin associated with the Romney boost -- the local media quickly bought into the idea that he had won the GOP candidate debate held in California last week. The problem with that explanation is found in another state-based poll issued by SurveyUSA on the 7th -- this time for California and this time showing Romney in a very distant third position, in statistical tie with non-candidate Fred Thompson (who ranked at 11 percent in both polls).

So why the so-called boost? Perhaps it is the fact that Romney -- an already familiar face to New Hampshirites who are not likely to be subject to the religion issue -- has launched his TV ad campaign ahead of the pack and is getting some numbers from that. If so, it is a flash-in-pan lift, for the real politics of NH primary season is retail and Romney's boost will quickly fade among those whose opinions are sensitive to such unique media hyping as "I am veto man".

But it can also be a manifestation of the "robo-poll" methodology used by SurveyUSA -- the subject of considerable controversy among professional pollsters, rendering SurveyUSA as one of the "black sheep" among pollsters. In a politically sophisticated place like NH -- especially during primary time -- the use of "interactive voice technology" polls is not likely to get the same kind of reception or response (and cooperation) rates as it might in other states -- like California. The potential flaws in IVT would be magnified in NH -- thus making the poll results very suspect.

The Boston media, however, was quick to buy into this spun poll -- although the Boston Globe's coverage did raise the issues of credibility well into their article. I think it would have been wiser for the rest of the media -- including Greater Boston -- to have held back the hyping of these results until a more credible outfit (e.g., the UNH Granite State Poll which uses more traditional methods for WMUR and the Globe) has its say. I get the sense that the results would be a bit different....

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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Northern Ireland tries it again....

News of the day: the latest version of devolved government for Northern Ireland went into effect at midnight this day. Here is hoping this time it holds!

Looking forward to visit from friend Ciarán this week to find out more about what is taking place on the ground in Belfast....

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Completed trilogy....

This AM I completed my reading of the so-called Richard Sennett trilogy. I label it "so-called" because my image of a trilogy carries the image of well planned sequence of books that reflects a somewhat coherent narrative and plot. That model does not apply here, of course; rather, Sennett has executed a sequence of reflections, and each work has literally grown out of the other.

The first, The Corrosion of Character is Sennett's revisiting of the world of work he and Jonathan Cobb studied in The Hidden Injuries of Class decades earlier. In that work you get a sense of someone trying to come to terms with the transformations that had taken place in the intervening years, but for all the interesting insights the book seemed incomplete.

Respect in a World of Inequality was more deeply reflective and brought in autobiographical material that allowed Sennett to more clearly communicate the nature of the transformations highlighted in Corrosion, but in the end the work seemed unfinished as an intellectual articulation of his views.

This he finally accomplished in the lectures offered The Culture of the New Capitalism which is a good and fast read, providing the clearest statement by Sennett of his current thinking. Most of the work is an indictment of current and emerging conditions of an economic and political order that we seem to have wished upon ourselves, but in the end (chapter four, to be exact) Sennett puts forward a general agenda calling for bringing back the life narrative, sense of usefulness and commitment to craftsmanship that he shows to be disappearing (or is already missing) in the work lives of those operating under the new capitalism.

This is all interesting stuff for me as I develop my syllabi for courses in the "management" of public and nonprofit organizations. It also provides me with an intellectual challenge since I have been trying to offset my preoccupation with abstract issues of accountability with the major themes that are dominant in study of contemporary work life....

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Monday, May 07, 2007

Organizing for the summer....

Classes are now completed for this semester and it is now a time devoted to the drudgery of grading -- and the present regret about past decisions about how to evaluate students. Who made those stupid assignments? Even after 30 plus years of doing this, each semester is a matter of live and learn....

At the same time I am also working on developing three variations of a course I will teach this summer and fall (or spring) on organizations and public/nonprofit management. The first variation is PAF 9120 -- a five week grad course at Baruch/CUNY's School of Public Affairs that I opted into on the basis that it would be great to spend some time back in Manhattan during the summer -- I once chaired the Public Administration program at Baruch and I am still a native New Yorker (in fact as well as by inclination) despite ranging far and wide over the years. A second version will be a more intensive one week version of the course scheduled for Washington DC in mid July for the University of Oklahoma MPA program offered for the DoD. The third version will be a full semester course I will prep for either the fall or spring semester during the next academic year.

Despite the common topic, the different formats of the two summer offerings led me to take entirely distinct approaches to the subject, and as it turns out they really have only one book in common: Bolman and Deal's Reframing Organizations. For pedagogic purposes, Bolman and Deal is perhaps the best center piece for an introductory org theory course in a professional MPA program -- its use of examples from public as well as private sectors helps a great deal. This will be my first use of the 3rd edition which came out in 2003 (I have not taught this course since the late 1990s). In each case I have constructed a course around its "frames" approach in different ways and it will be interesting to see how these variations work out and how each factors into the semester long course at the University of New Hampshire.

Of the four "frames" used by Bolman and Deal, the human resource frame (the "people" factor) has been the most challenging for me since I find the literature associated with it either pretty stale or superficial. But my recent reading of the Sennett trilogy (see next post) has given me some additional ideas about how to enliven the way I approach that topic. Recent works on the emergence of new forms of "disorder" (here and here) will make it more interesting to talk about the structural and cultural frames, and the political frame is going to be filled with lots of new examples.

It all looks like fun, especially since both teaching assignments leave my days free to wander about and enjoy NYC and DC for short periods. Being able to look ahead helps get me through the immediate grading tasks as well as the various events associated with the end of the academic year....

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Friday, May 04, 2007

Starfishing around....

I am into my multitask reading mode as I decide on books to assign for upcoming courses.

Looking for a book on transparency has reinforced my sense that this is a bogus concept that is pretty thinly treated by most. A very thin -- and short -- work is What is Transparency? by Richard Oliver; it is superficial and filled with lots of hype and meaningless anecdotes -- the students would love it, but there is no depth to it. The recently published Full Disclosure is more substantial and analytic -- or so it seems at the outset. The problem I have with it at the moment is conceptual and I am casting a critical eye on it as I dig further. I know there is a strong assumption that (targeted) transparency is beneficial in most circumstances, but I am skeptical and keep thinking about the lessons of James Scott's Seeing Like a State.

A more fun and positive read is The Starfish and the Spider -- written in a breezy style, it tends to oversimplify but is effective in making its overall points. My big issue with it at the moment is the authors' use of "decentralization" as the primary descriptor for their starfish model. As students of federalism who are familiar with the work of Daniel Elazar know, there is a distinction between decentralization and noncentralization, and I think their argument about the power and resilience of starfish organizations would have been better described as noncentralized or even "un-centralized" (decentralized organizations assume the existence of a centralized organization from which they are "de"-ed -- if you get my drift.) Nevertheless, it is tough to put the starfish down....

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Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Tragic GUBU....

Friend Ciarán posted on a story about the deaths of four members of a family in County Wexford Ireland a week ago, and tracing back to the news stories and blog post that drew his comments brought a number of things to mind.

First is how oblivious we Americans have become to stories such as this one -- perhaps because this kind of tragedy has become a such a US media staple that we regard each reported (and over covered) instance as just another episode in an ongoing reality show. We have become immune to the shock and horror these stories initially generate, and our national ability to reflect on such is pretty much worn down to minimal levels of head shaking. The Irish and their UK neighbors seem to retain the national capacity to be shocked, to reflect and perhaps to take actions when such tragedies occur. I think we in the US have lost that capacity -- if we ever had it.

A second reaction is to the theme of "blaming" that runs through the discussions whenever such events occur. Engaging in the "blame game" is in many respects a despicable outcome, but it seems to be an essential and unavoidable ingredient in our collective response to tragedies, disasters and catastrophes. Rather than approach blaming as socially dysfunctional, we should acknowledge it as a necessary aspect of modernity in which society is driven to find reasons and causes for everything that does not fit into our assumed order of all things normal. This blaming can range from attributing events to some supernatural "evil" or (alternatively) "stuff happens" to elaborate inquiries that seek to pinpoint causal factors. With that in mind, the primary task of social science ought to be enhance our understanding of blaming rather than seek to overcome it.

A third reaction is associated with the general feeling that there is no way to make sense of the bizarre behavior of folks -- individually (as in the case of the Virginia Tech shooter), collectively (e.g., Jonestown) or in this case as a parental pair. The fact that they went out together shopping for funeral arrangements indicates a great deal more premeditation than I originally assumed when reading the initial reports of the deaths. GUBU is certainly an appropriate acronym, although there is little humor to be found in this shocker....

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Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Overcoming knee jerkiness....

An anonymous reviewer of a manuscript recently submitted to a journal has me reading H. Richard Niebuhr's The Responsible Self -- or I might say re-reading since this seems very familiar. But in fact this is my first time through this work. The reason it seems so familiar is because this work is central to that of Michael Harmon's Responsibility as Paradox -- a work of considerable importance in the field of public administration that receives too little attention.

Although the overarching purpose of Niebuhr's work is to establish the foundation of a Christian morality, his analysis is more secular than theological. On the theological side, his work explicitly derives from Buber in seeking a rationale for adopting a commitment to some god-like universal, but on the secular side he is just as explicitly tied to the pragmatic interactionism of George Herbert Mead. This mix is a bit of a stretch for a skeptic like me, but Niebuhr's view of responsibility is very useful for my own work, and in that sense the reviewer who suggested it was on target.

Most important from my perspective is the relationship among the basic concepts: responsibility, responsiveness and accountability. His approach does not subordinate accountability to responsibility or render it a mere synonym (as is common), but rather regards it as a distinct social and ethical condition. Half way through the book, I can already see its value.

Which brings me to the question of why I had been so reluctant to read this work earlier when it was so obviously related to my own projects, and I suspect part of the answer lies in the subtitle's focus on "Christian morality" which I associated (in knee jerk fashion) with religious fundamentalism. But another reason is my association of this and other works with pop psychology of the sixties (and today) which I have long detested as worthless and worse. But here I am guilty of the intellectual myopia I accuse others of.

Lesson learned -- at least for now....

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