Tuesday, February 19, 2008

A Bite of the Apple

Maureen Dowd had a compelling column yesterday. It was about the imperfections in determining how a President will act in office, given what is known about the candidate from the campaign, prior service in office, and articulated stances on the issues. When we give our public face, all of us hide parts of ourselves. The candidates are no different. The demonic and paranoid aspects of their personality remain well under wraps, hidden from public view. Would it be that our preferred candidate is immune from pressure and lack of sense of proportion. Unfortunately, it seems, none of them are.

People my age view Nixon akin to the evil Satan himself, the embrace of the dirty tricks early on setting the ethical tone that led to Watergate and a crisis in confidence of the government. All our sense of blame is heaped on him and for the rest of Presidential history we tend to wear rose colored glasses; we so much want to believe in heroes and that our Presidents are among them. Right now Barack Obama is being compared to JFK, as if JFK was our last heroic President. But JFK had The Bay of Pigs fiasco, a triumph of hubris and machismo but a disaster for foreign policy. JFK’s successor did worse. LBJ ran as the dove on Vietnam to Goldwater’s hawk, but before the election LBJ got his Gulf of Tonkin resolution, and the escalation in the fighting that ensued after his landslide victory polarized us as a nation moving us from centrism to left and right, divisions that continue to exist to this day. Bush I, after campaign on the slogan, “Read my lips, no new taxes” indeed raised taxes, which coupled with the poor performance of the economy in 1992 led to his defeat for reelection. And, of course, Bush II had Iraq.

With this thought in mind I turned my attention to the current candidates. Nicholas Kristof, who as of late seems to be waging his own personal campaign for liberals to embrace conservatives who act selflessly and charitably based on conscience and belief, gave a glowing endorsement of McCain as a candidate, mostly because McCain’s positions on issues seem determined not by convenience but rather to match his principles, irrespective of the political fallout he might get from taking them, and in the rare instances when he does compromise on those principles he does so in such an awkward and uncomfortable way that he fools no one.

This description of McCain didn’t ring true to me as I still have a lingering memory of his role in Keating Five, but that happened long ago and memories fade with time. So I did some searching to refresh my memory. I found this piece from Slate magazine, the existence of which makes clear that the issue came up when McCain ran against Bush eight years ago. McCain is largely exonerated for his role in the Keating scandal, but let’s note that he received funds and favors from Keating and only disclosed (and then paid back the gifts) after the scandal had broken. Given how lax and non-adversarial the press seems nowadays, I don’t have complete trust in the proposition that McCain no longer tries to play benefactors like Keating and take advantage of their largesse. But one does have that sense that having been burned so badly from the Keating scandal, McCain understands that the risks outweigh the rewards in this dimension. Further, and though this may seem odd I do feel my perceptions about reality, particularly American politics, have been influenced by TV and the movies, notably what I’ve seen on the West Wing, and in this case there seems to be some parallels between the McCain’s candidacy and that of fictionalized Arnie Vinnick, who said in reference to lobbyists that if you can’t eat their food and drink their booze and then vote against them you don’t belong in the business. I’m not sure whether McCain would say it exactly the same way, but it is sufficient for me to think it is not such a big deal and if McCain were to become president it likely wouldn’t be the place where his demons reside.

Obama, however, is a different story. His campaign has been raising a stupendous amount of money. His campaign Website now reports almost 460,000 donors. And the New York Times reports the Obama campaign raised $32 million in January. My conjecture is that the campaign is so flush with contributions now it doesn’t know how to spend all the money. (Recall the Beverly Hillbillies, who used to take a bucket of cash, open a window on the second floor of the bank, and let it fly.) Once your MUM (marginal utility of money) reaches zero you become immune from bribes, at least of the cash variety (and of anything else that can be procured with cash). The ethical issues for Obama now arise not from the gifts he is getting but rather from how the cash the campaign has is being spent.

Among the various pundits, David Brooks has picked up on the fact that the Obama Campaign has contributed large sums of money to Democratic Congressional candidates. (The Clinton campaign has made like contributions but not nearly as great in magnitude overall.) What hasn’t been spelled out very well, at least not yet, is the timing of these contributions. Right now with the likelihood that neither Obama nor Clinton will have the requisite number of delegates to claim the nomination before the Democratic convention, the Super Delegates will matter and all those Congressional candidates are Super Delegates. So these contributions look like cash bribes for votes, which if true would be very bad indeed. It would make both candidates, having called for electoral reform, appear like the worst kind of hypocrite, with Obama the ultimate loser because he’s been doing more of it. But let’s not jump to hasty conclusions. I suspect there is a more benign explanation. Though $10K might seem like a lot of money to us, it strikes me as too low a number to buy a Super Delegate vote, especially given how easy it has been to track these contributions and that at present these folks are lobbied right and left. Hence they may view largesse simply as the price of doing business, without it necessarily having much if any effect on the outcome of that business. It may be hard to explain that to the electorate; there is the appearance of an impropriety if not the impropriety itself. At a minimum, this will likely create some awkwardness for Obama, especially since the charges will not come from Clinton – she can’t afford to bring more attention to the fact that her campaign hasn’t raised as much – but rather from the press, once others than David Brooks take up the cause.

The point here is not to declare this the cause célèbre where Obama’s demons will be released. None of us know that. Rather, the point is to note that demons are released precisely when in unchartered waters where decisions are based by intuition and a feel for the situation rather than as fully deducible from prior positions the candidate has held. And it’s hard to imagine that the Obama campaign has yet fully gotten its arms around how much money they’ve raised, because it’s just as hard to believe any of them expected this last fall. Most of us operate under the impression that our normal everyday morality is ok for the circumstances we will confront. But in this case I think the Obama campaign needs to embrace a Nader-esque approach to its finances or risk watching their balloon rapidly deflate.

I should also point out that this current dilemma is really short term – a product of the campaign only. The war chest is built entirely out of “non-recurrent funds.” It will not materially affect how Obama would govern, should he be elected president. Then the issues about money have undue influence will more of the traditional sort. And on that I want to note a concern I raised right after Obama announced his candidacy. This has to do with his position on Ethanol (pro, at least at the time) and the fact that this is a pork barrel issue for Illinois; Decatur is the home of Archer Daniels Midland. As a senator for the state it’s perfectly understandable that he’d take this position. But as President, if he doesn’t take a more critical stance and consider the full complexity of the alternative fuels issue, he’ll be guilty of the rest of the stuff that Brooks accuses him of in the column today and that is another way his demons might appear. Yet on that I think it fair that Obama be allowed to let his articulated position evolve and not have to be pin downed on particulars now. Staking a firm position that could be viewed as blocking debate may not be very helpful a year or two into office. The only problem with that is most voters are not used to debate and argument from within the White House. But given the recent history with the Bush Presidency, that might be a more desirable outcome than any prescribed policy position articulated before the fact. If that is indeed what is going on, I’d simply like Obama to be overt about “thinking gray” and to make a case that it has its plusses.

* * * * *

What about our demons within the Learning Technology field? How do they manifest? What have been our excesses, our ridiculously bad decisions, and what pressures caused us to go that route? I’m going to review some of my history in the hope that at least some of it is illustrative of issue for the profession as a whole.


In 1995 online learning looked to me to be the fast horse to ride. Paradigms were lost or shifting or so it seemed. The drivers were entirely external. For me they had to be external if I were to become part of it all, because I didn’t have a clue, so what could I possibly contribute? Later I came to understand that it had to make sense for the teaching and learning needs that could be articulated largely without reference to the technology at all. But at the time I was hugely impressed with those who preceded me who had embraced the technology, especially those who had done something programming-wise (perhaps with Hypercard) that looked nifty. The response was similar to the awe I’d have from someone with a high end stereo system or a fancy sports car.

I was ok with the fact the stuff I did might not produce such overwhelming results, because my stuff didn’t have much wow factor in it. But I didn’t know how to think through whether stuff that did have lots of wow might still not produce spectacular results. It took quite a while and a fair amount of experience to formulate my version of the weakest link theory and in 1995 (what baud modem did you use and was your connection over Appletalk or TCP-IP?) there were a lot of reasons to have some weak links, no matter how thoughtful the approach. It took still longer to think through that apart from weak links, it might not be wow that is the driver of the results we want to obtain. Design of another sort might be required. And discovering just what that design looks like requires our active investigation.

The demon here is in sitting on the sidelines too long because we don’t know enough to contribute – expecting the technology and the wow to be the drivers. This is wrong-headed as a general proposition – as long as you are learning you have something to contribute and it’s the learning and the illustration of that not the expertise that needs to be articulated – but also because when the teaching and learning folks sit on the sidelines the geeks take over. The geeks will always argue that the driver is the technology – that’s what makes them geeks. Gotta love them, but they will drown out the rest of the conversation if you let them. Don’t.

A Soft Money Project, then a Hard Money Service, then a No Money Increase in Support of the Service

When I first started as a learning technology administrator, fall 1996, I had a job that made me feel smarter than I actually was. We gave out internal grants with a fairly substantial amount of cash for interesting projects that embraced ALN. It was my job to negotiate with the PIs on the grants the terms of their proposals and the proposals I liked the most got the funding. They knew that so they tended to agree with the suggestions I made. I was earnest in making those suggestions, which was fine, but the overall effect was to boost my ego beyond what was justified. (This experience helped a bit later on when negotiating with vendors prior to a purchase. If the vendor isn’t in the habit of making you feel smarter, the vendor isn’t doing a good job. But knowing that, one should tend to discount the reliability of the suggestions. I can’t say I didn’t fall into this trap with vendors, but I can say that at least I understood the problem.)

Sometimes over optimism about one’s own aptitudes is useful. It can act as a spur for creative energy. I did put in a lot of time and effort to make the SCALE project function well. Many others on Campus who hadn’t even applied for these grants nonetheless made use of the technology services SCALE provided – FirstClass, WebBoard, and Mallard were the primary services. I began to feel that the mission of SCALE was to provide this sort of infrastructure and that doing so was a public good for Campus. Plus I was enjoying myself in what I was doing. So I wanted the Campus to pick the costs of operating SCALE when the grant ran out and turn it into a hard money organization.

That happened in phases. And funding-wise we were quite stingy with the hard money. Part of that was the Campus being late to having a CIO so no strong advocate for the appropriate funding at the right level. Another part of it is that even at the central Campus level, we had multiple providers of service and we didn’t know how to aggregate over them and divide responsibilities very well. And then since we are such a decentralized Campus, many of the units wanted to retain control. At the start there was much energy and enthusiasm, in spite of the above and in spite of one of the first tasks to retire a Campus service that had some substantial use but had not be well supported on an ongoing basis. But it became more obvious that this was work, not play, and more of my time was spent in ways where I had a need to be bureaucratic rather than creative. I had no training for that and wasn’t skilled at all. And I started to realize I wasn’t so smart after all.

I would say this took several years, and also during this period my Center for Educational Technologies merged with the large Academic Computing organization, so it is not just a consequence of the move from soft money to hard but also a consequence that the bureaucratic aspects of the job ratcheted up another couple of orders of magnitude, but slowed a great deal in my efforts at innovation and accomplished much less overall. I believe the expression is “spinning my wheels.” And this was further exacerbated by my personality, my Myers-Briggs type is INTP, and the processes I go through mentally are not much different whether I’m being quite creative or not. The difference is in throughput, not process. This sort of slowing down, I’d call it a discouragement effect, is another big demon, one that I believe is common in many IT organizations.

And I need to be clear here because I believe that one can be innovative when operating under tight budgets. But one must exercise a certain discipline in doing so and one must also recognize there is a need to abandon some requirements that might be desirable to include if funding were more ample. My problem was not that innovation was not possible. Rather it was that I had no experience with that sort of thing so tried things based on what I had already done rather than adjusting immediately to the current situation. Early on I didn’t see the need to adjust; I was full of myself. Later on when the need became more apparent, there was less inclination to do so.

The Narcissism of Always On

The first two demons I’ve largely dealt with. They’re in my rearview mirror. This one is still a problem and it may be getting worse. There are two issues that feed off each other. The first is being a career academic. Much of the reward is in terms of recognition for the work and there is by this point in life a Pavlovian craving for recognition, especially when not fully engaged in other work. In my post Killing the Puppy, I argued we should subdue this impulse in our very bright students, so they can become more self-critical about their own learning. But we’re worse puppies than they are. We need to subdue the impulse in ourselves for a different reason. The narcissism deadens us to our own intrinsic motivation. It crowds out curiosity and it certainly crowds out struggle with a tough idea that is not yet making sense. So that’s one piece.

The other is sitting in front of a computer too many hours a day. This encourages all the evils of feign multiprocessing. And it provides another excuse for someone like me to avoid personal interaction and more variety of experience. Staring at the computer, one can be alone with one’s own thoughts. Social interaction forces some surrender to the thoughts of others. It makes each of us more of human being.

The combination can be intoxicating – recognized yet a hermit, the one justifying the other, but somehow leaving oneself less than whole. For me personally, there is the added factor than sometimes in others I’m less satisfied with their degree of reflection and prior thought. But there is a fallacy in my doing more compensating for them doing less. We each need balance. But sometimes I see this as a source of my personal comparative advantage and, hence, a way to achieve recognition. Hmmm.

Let me close by returning to Maureen Dowd’s point. It’s folly to think we can avoid our demons altogether and hence we’re apt to behave in some unpredictable and pernicious ways in the future when those demons do emerge. But life goes on. And perhaps it’s easier to let that happen when there is some self-awareness of our darker sides.

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