Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Where Are the Adults?

The gray hair in my eyebrows, beard, and elsewhere on my face and body notwithstanding I still think of myself as a kid.  I suppose I always will.  Of course, I'm a kid of certain type, the one who was good in school so could go off on his own rather than having to follow what the rest of the class was doing.  My first memory of this was actually not in school at all.  It was in day camp and I was seven, summer 1962.  Somehow I got proficient in swimming and was able to pass a test for the deep water pool.  Maybe there was one other kid in the group who swam with me in that pool or maybe it was just me.  I don't recall.  The rest of the kids in the group were in the other pool, the one with shallow water.  Their safety was assured because of that.  I may have been the better swimmer at the time, but my safety was also assured by the lifeguards.  There were adults around to take care of things if something went awry.

This pattern of being a kid off on my own repeated in many different contexts.  In some sense the public library is like a deep water swimming pool.  I frequently went to the Windsor Park branch of the Queens borough library, but I also went to the library in Fresh Meadows and the one on Northern Boulevard.   I have no recollection now as to why we'd go to one library or the the other but I do have some vague notion that at the Windsor Park library once in a while a librarian would recommend a book for me to read. 

The math team, which I joined in eighth grade, was like this too.  At this point I was twelve or thirteen, and obviously there were some others on the team, with a few who were ahead of me with the math.  But it was mainly still a solitary effort in the sense that I didn't learn math from them.   More importantly, the teacher who supervised the math team provided a level of comfort for me to try it out.   She had come to our house years earlier to tutor my sister and remembered me from that.  If I recall correctly, she asked me to be on the math team.  I wouldn't have done it otherwise.

Econ graduate school was definitely like this as I had only one undergraduate course in economics, essentially no foundation whatsoever.  I did hang around with my classmates for socializing.  But I ventured into my own little world to learn the economics.  And because I was able to get a desk in the Math Center, I was always close to some faculty whom I could talk to about the economics.

Getting involved with learning technology was another example of the familiar pattern, though by then it had modified some.   I was in mid career and at that age it would be friends rather than teachers who would hold my hand.  It was Larry DeBrock who provided the path of entry.  Somehow the very first time I taught with technology, which was with PacerForum in spring 1995, I was able to get on the CHP server, even though I hadn't been involved with CHP yet and wouldn't get involved until 9 years later.  Less than a year later Burks invited me to join SCALE in an administrative capacity and that too was a whole new world, one where I felt as if I was in over my head, though somehow I was able to stay afloat. And I still sought out adults for counsel and edification.  There was much knowledge on campus about teaching with technology from experience prior to SCALE.  I tried to take a pulse of that where I could.  Once in a while I'd write about it, for example see this piece entitled Homage to Jerry Uhl

Sometimes kids try on adult hats and I've done that a few times in my life, both professionally and personally.  But in just about every instance of this what to do was not at issue or it was quite straightforward to work out.  The hard thing and really all that mattered was whether I'd have enough follow through to do what had to be done.  I've learned enough about myself to know that on occasion I can do that, especially when it is necessary and if I think it is important.

Yet for all that found maturity I prefer kid mode.  Blogging definitely fits the mold.  Boy blunder, hoping to find the path to discovery, gets lost in the woods and then proceeds to make it up as he goes along, just to find his way home.  In this case I interrupted the writing before starting in on this paragraph, wondering if I was too somber in what was produced above, apparently left with another partial essay headed for the virtual dustbin.  After a while I went to do the treadmill and searched the DVR for something to keep me occupied while doing that.  I found Inherit the Wind, which had aired on TCM.

An introduction to the movie is given by Ben Mankiewicz.  From that I learned that Spencer Tracy was younger when making that film than I am now and before that Tracy had entered into a quasi retirement.   (His previous film from a couple of years earlier, The Old Man and the Sea, is also a tour de force.)  He was lured out of that retirement by Stanley Kramer, who both directed and produced the movie.  Stanley Kramer promised that Fredric March and Gene Kelly would co-star, at the time an idle boast but one that Kramer was ultimately able to deliver on, after having signed Tracy.

In this story Kramer is the adult.  He had a lot of talent to work with, no doubt, and much of the success of the film can be attributed to the great acting.   Yet he was the one to put it all together.  Do note that Kramer was Tracy's junior by 13 years.  (Coincidentally, Kramer has the same birth year as my dad and they both went to NYU, graduating in the same year.  Maybe they knew each other.)  Being the adult has nothing to do with being the oldest, as every child whose parents are getting on in age understands fully.

We need more Stanley Kramers now.  Where are they to be found?

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Electoral Tactics - Down and Dirty as well as More Idealistic

Reading this piece about the Voting Rights Act and it likely becoming weaker to the point where it lacks meaning, since the Republicans will have control and will surely nominate a Supreme Court Justice who will give them control of the Court, I started to wonder if some other approach needs to be tried to counter this.  I'm going to suggest two different possibilities below.  The first is based on the notion that Republicans are better "game players" than the Democrats.  From a purely game playing perspective, what should the Democrats do to improve their chances in subsequent elections?

The second is based on the rather glum statistics about voter turnout historically, even when the Voting Rights Act was in full force.  Very little is written about those people who don't vote when it is not an issue of voter suppression.  I found this essay by Atul Gawande interesting on this point.  He grew up in a poor community in Ohio and still has friends there.  There is an anecdote given about one family who has opted out.  The economy served them poorly.  They lost faith in the system.  What can be done to restore their faith?  If the Democrats are seen as responsible for doing that, will they bring many heretofore discouraged voters back into the fold?

Then I will try to combine the two.  Might that provide a winning strategy to convert the popular electoral advantage that the Democrats already have into one where they have a majority in Congress (and where they recapture the White House.) 

The Down and Dirty Answer - Moving Votes to Where They Matter

When I was a third-year graduate student at Northwestern I began a collaboration with Leon Moses that lasted about a decade.  Leon was a Professor at Northwestern.  If my memory serves correctly, Leon and his family lived in Wilmette, the next town north of Evanston, where Northwestern is located.  Evanston itself is the first town north of Chicago that also borders Lake Michigan.  Leon and his family maintained a summer home in Door County, Wisconsin.  Knowing about this experience provided the seed for my idea.

Wisconsin used to be a reliably Blue state but, of course, Scott Walker, a Republican, is the Governor there now and in the recent election for President Wisconsin went for Trump.  So one thought is, what would it take for people in Leon's situation to switch their permanent residence from a Chicago suburb to Wisconsin?  Then repeat the question for other voters in reliably Blue states, California the most obvious one, and have their permanent residence change to some battleground state.  Then have this done in an organized and coordinated way.  Ask what numbers it would take to have such a move matter in this past election.  Could those numbers be approximated by this effort?  Note that Apple, which is located in Cupertino California, is incorporated in Nevada.  In a bit of irony, if corporations can do this sort of thing, why can't people do it as well?

There is at present a tilting at windmills approach that would be much cheaper to deliver the same sort of result and is getting a lot of attention.  That is doing away with the Electoral College.  Ask yourself, however, whether it is possible.  Why would the Republicans want that, given how much they are benefiting from the current system?  If Republicans don't want it and given that they control both Houses of Congress, how would it be possible?  If it were done as a Constitutional Amendment, then three fourths of the States would have to approve.  But State government is overwhelmingly controlled by Republicans now.  Given that, is getting rid of the Electoral College a realistic possibility?

Being a good game player recognizes what is possible and what isn't.  I don't know that getting voters to change their state residence by having a vacation/retirement property in the other state is do-able.  Surely there would be real costs on a per family change of residence of this sort.  But before ruling it out as a pipe dream, somebody should do the math.  The Democrats have lots of rich donors.  Suppose those donors heavily subsidized the second property, so the costs were largely borne by others than the voters themselves.  And suppose the party decided that this was a worthwhile strategy to pursue while TV ads, which are quite expensive, are basically throwing money away because they end up mainly preaching to the choir.  So one might reallocate campaign contributions or SuperPac contributions from a low productivity use to this alternative.  At the very least, there'd be a real strategy in place about how to make votes count.  Can this work?

The More Idealistic Approach

I get email from my Congressman, a Republican named Rodney Davis.  Champaign County surely votes Democratic but the rest of the Congressional District is far more conservative, which explains why Davis was reelected.   Mainly I ignore these emails, but in this case I started to read their planning document, A Better Way, particularly the section on Poverty.   I found it hard to read, more bromides than plan.  But my inescapable conclusion is that the Republicans will cut poverty programs, in the name of benefit for the poor, to get them out of being victims of their own lethargy.

This offers an opportunity to the Democrats, if only they might seize it.  Namely, the Democrats might substitute their own largess to replace/amplify/initiate support for programs that the Republicans will be cutting.  And here I mean this idealism to have a bit of Machiavelli.  To be eligible for this support the recipient must promise one thing.  The recipient must agree to vote.

The recipient should be free to vote for whomever the recipient wants.  This exchange is not vote buying.  But it is premised on the idea, why would one vote against the hand that feeds you?  In other words, the largess here is meant to be both socially responsible and politically fruitful.  The Democrats need more voters on their side.  This is one way to get them.  And it is an approach consistent with Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, something that the document A Better Way denigrates, but something that Democrats should honor.

Combining the Two Approaches

Suppose new housing was constructed in locations where Democrats want to relocate their minions, according to the down and dirty answer, but suppose this housing was not individual residences and  instead was apartment complexes.  (It could be bungalows in a housing complex.  I am agnostic on the particular structure here, which should be chosen to match the locale.  What is important is to focus on multiple residences at a time, rather than on an individual residence.)  Then some of the housing could be allocated to others under the more idealistic approach, who have been living in poverty but are getting subsidized housing via this effort.

Indeed, an additional agenda item emerges here.  The issue is whether the two types of recipients can co-locate.   The goal would be to show that is possible and to determine those conditions that would make it likely.  There is much press recently about us moving apart from one another.  In that well off voters live elsewhere from those voters who are battling poverty.  What would it take for those people to live together in the same community?  Maybe asking that question, the effort will fail - a case of too much democracy.  So I am surely not arguing that this is a safety play.  But it should be clear, Democrats now don't have a safety play.

The right question to me is this.  What play, with attendant risks, offers the possibility of an upside?   It seems to me, what I have sketched here delivers on that.

I wonder if anyone else would agree.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Left and Right, Up and Down, In and Out, and Other Dimensions

I first learned the following from the book Coopetition by Brandenburger and Nalebuff.  Indeed, I attended a workshop on the book held at the University of Iowa, which is kind of odd because I was pretty heavily into learning technology by then so was no longer going to Econ workshops on campus.  But if I recall correctly Leslie dropped me off in Iowa City and then proceeded to visit her parents in Des Moines for the weekend.  So the two of those probably were tied and might be the reason I went to this.  It is also the reason why it has stuck with me all this time.  Here's the point.

Bargaining in low dimensions is quite difficult.  In one dimension only, the bargaining has to be zero sum - raise or lower the price that is the extent of it and either that or walk away from the deal.  For many people, that's what they think bargaining is about.  Some bargaining is that way, to be sure.  But other bargaining is a more interesting animal.  As you increase the dimensionality there becomes more possibility for gains from trade to emerge, where both sides are made better off than in the absence of the deal.  Economists call this a Pareto improvement.  Business types use the phrase Win-Win.  Knowing that such a possibility is likely to exist ahead of time bargaining then becomes more of a creative endeavor, trying to shape what aspects of the deal will be included.

With this as backdrop, I am writing here as a reaction to this Nicholas Kristof column A Confession of Liberal Intolerance, which though written this past May somehow appeared in my Facebook News feed yesterday, so I read it anew then and after that I wanted to provide some response.

In that piece and elsewhere it has been widely reported that there is liberal bias in academe, particularly in the humanities and the social sciences.  In this way (though perhaps not in many other ways) Economics at research universities has more diversity.  There are quite a few conservative economists and quite a few liberal economists as well.  Indeed, as I cut my teeth as a professional economist during the Reagan era, I had several colleagues who were much more conservative than I was, including a few who became very good friends.  At the same time, the Econ department itself was suffering from departmental politics, but the two factions were divided along sub-disciplinary lines that as near as I could tell did not correlate with left-right divisions regarding national politics.  (In the 1950s, Illinois also had a divided Economics department and then left-right divisions did matter.  Several really top economists, such as Franco Modigliani and Robert Eisner left because of that.) 

Some of what I want to say in response to Kristof is based on that experience.  Another chunk is based on more recent interactions I've had.  There are a variety of friends and family who are much more conservative than I am and yet we still get along.  I should also say that some of my friends are more liberal than I am or are more idealistic than I am.  I get along with those folks too, for the most part.  And then the last bit I want to say is about human nature as exemplified by the Linda the Bank Teller experiments that are discussed in Stephen Jay Gould's The Streak of Streaks and are further amplified in Daniel Kahneman's book Thinking Fast and Slow.  We all think fast some of the time and one way we do that is to categorize people (some might say we stereotype them).  At issue then is how one can show decency and respect for people in spite of this tendency, while acknowledging that the tendency is in all of us.   The answer isn't to deny the tendency and pretend we can be what we are not.

I will try to keep this simple.  My conservative economic friends were certainly that way about the economics - low taxes, limited government, less regulation, etc.  But on social issues (one that was important to me at the time - whether it was okay to smoke pot - is a non-issue for me now) particularly on interacting with faculty of color they were actually quite progressive.  So I would argue to debundle these general classifications both because people are more complex than that and because in certain dimensions there is apt to be more commonality than in others.

If one buys that then the next proposition shouldn't be that hard.  Try to avoid the areas where strong disagreement that can lead to hard feelings will emerge and focus on those areas where commonality is to be found.  Now this may sound like a cop out especially as our campuses are supposed to be places for the free exchange of ideas.  How do you navigate that?

My answer to that is to use a technology metaphor.  Don't use Twitter or other micro blogging applications to argue complex social issues.  That produces more heat than light, and in Kahneman's metaphor relies almost entirely on thinking fast.  Instead, and academics should know how to do this, make the case slowly, deliberately, and thoughtfully, perhaps in a blog post like this one.  This doesn't mean there won't be disagreement.  But, in particular, if you argue slowly and if you are thoughtful you can do a Thinking Gray exercise (read the first chapter available at the link) and try to work through the counter arguments ahead of time without turning them into straw men.  The writing then becomes more about education and less about winning the argument.  It also invites thoughtful response.

If you stick to written exchanges for the complex interactions where disagreements might occur and in face to face interactions are more limited in the dimensions you do discuss, where there is more common ground, you might find a workable if not perfect solution to the navigation issue.

Then one more thing needs to be noted.  Some people are jerks and are hard to interact with.  In my experience in academe I can't count the number of people like that on one hand (maybe two hands if I include some truly obnoxious students in the mix).  I have no answer on how to make interactions with such people tolerable.  I know that in my own case I try to avoid interacting with such people whenever possible.  I don't enjoy such encounters that will likely produce conflict . 

Let's wrap up with the obviously hard part of all of this.  Misogyny, racial prejudice, and intolerance based on sexual orientation are quite real on campus.  Further, since some years ago I wrote a post about unintended religious intolerance in the classroom, throw that sort of thing into mix as well, whether it happens in the classroom or elsewhere around campus.  In the context of writing that post I could see a difference between certain Christian students being clueless but otherwise not mean spirited to their Islamic classmates (and to me as a Jew) from students being jerks.  (In that class none of the students were jerks.)  Often, however, our interactions with people on campus are quite different from teacher-student interactions and in our thinking fast way we may pre-judge people whom we expect will be prone to behave like jerks.  An ideal that I doubt any of us can meet would be to always give everyone the benefit of the doubt, irrespective of their previously professed views on matters.

Perhaps the trick is to invite a bunch of economists to every social gathering on campus.  That way there are sure to be some conservatives in the group.  And, after all, we're such social butterflies!

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Making Our Society Less Vertical - Without Making It Dumber

As Facebook is wont to do, earlier this morning a status update from 3 years ago popped up in my news feed (only my friends can access the link).  In turn, my piece was about about a Frank Bruni Op-Ed entitled The Extra Legroom Society.   It is what prompts this post. The first class versus coach distinction serves for an apt metaphor for changes in the way we do things quite apart from the airlines setting, though the airlines setting is a good place to begin because flying coach these days is a pretty miserable experience, at least for a big guy like me.  It is good to keep that in mind.

The question I want to get at here is whether the people who live in a riding-first-class world understand that about flying coach.  Or is out of sight out of mind?  The recent election has to be a wake up call for everyone.   So I am going to assert that the elites do have some awareness of the rest of the population now.  What might be done to maintain that awareness for the indefinite future rather than to have folks revert to business as usual?

I don't know the answer to that question, but I think it is a good one to pose.  My sense is that awareness needs to be coupled with something actionable and if that happens then it is more likely to sustain.  What that actionable thing or set of things should be I also don't know, but I would like to articulate a principle based on a joke we all learned when we were kids.  (It can be found near the bottom of the page.)

Q: What do you know when you see three elephants walking down the street wearing pink sweatshirts?
A: They're all on the same team. 

If somebody else came at me with this joke my initial reaction might be - I'm not crazy about pink; I'd prefer a different color.   Everybody is a critic.  I'm no exception.   So I really don't want to try to design those actionable items here because we need to negotiate through to what might work and get past the stumbling blocks.  Those need to be identified first.  All I want to maintain here is that the punchline should be our aspiration - being on the same team.

A week ago I had an odd experience.  Leslie was in Texas and we were out of treats for the dog, so I went to Walmart, which stocks the brand Leslie prefers.  As I was returning to my car somebody made eye contact with me in the parking lot and then came over.  He said something like that they had been stranded there for two days and wondered if I had any work for him so he could earn some money.  He put it in such an odd way and I'm instinctively wary of strangers.  So I didn't unpack what he was asking and simply responded, truthfully, that I didn't have any such work.  If he had asked directly for some cash, I might have given him a few bucks.  I'm really not sure how I would have reacted.  It's not the sort of situation that you plan in advance.  But after the fact I thought about it some and I concluded that I flubbed it, badly.

This doesn't work if it is only isolated individuals who think this through.  Schindler's List is a hard movie to watch.  It's been airing repeatedly on the movie channels we get, but I haven't tried to watch it as of late.  Maybe I should make the effort as an emotional reminder of what can happen when things get out of hand.  I do recall from having seen it many years ago that near the end Schindler breaks down with feelings of guilt and remorse.  He could have saved so many more Jews or so he thought.  Yet he remains a historical figure because of the ones he did save, a microscopic number if compared to the numbers who died, yet a real achievement when considered from the perspective of what one individual might do to make a difference.

In thinking about this in aggregate, I will point out two previous posts I've written that consider possible ways at getting the issue.  This one called Ask What You Can Do For Your Country looks at Federal income tax rates in a historical context, from the end of the Carter Administration to the present.  It notes that since the start of 2011, the Bush Tax Cuts have become permanent for all brackets except at the very top.  This was done during the lame duck session after the November 2010 elections.  There might have been a case to extend the Bush cuts for some years because the economy was still struggling then, though the recovery had started.  But there is little reason why they should still exist, particularly for people with income like my household - not in the top 1% but in the top 10%.

These tax cuts amount to a windfall.  In normal times, people tend to vote their pocketbook.  So I should be happy with that.  But I'm not.  We live in abnormal times.  So people in my income situation should be taking one for the team by paying more in taxes.  The awareness I talked about above would amount to accepting such a conclusion, should our politics enable this sort of change in the tax rates.  I'm sure it won't happen right now.  The Republicans are in control and their sentiments are anti-tax.  But the midterm elections are less than two years off.  The mood of the electorate can change.  We've experienced that repeatedly in the recent past.

The other post is called The Euphemism We Call Globalization and the Real though Non-Proximate Causes of Weak Wages.  It presents some numbers that don't get talked about all that much even after Piketty instructed us that it is what we should look at.  These are numbers about the wealth distribution.  Mean household wealth is around $650K, which is astoundingly high or so it seems to me.  Median household wealth, in contrast, is around $81K, dramatically lower.  There is substantial capacity to redistribute wealth downwards and still leave the rich with many riches.  The issue is whether there is the will and the desire to do so.

Let me close with this observation.  The lead article in the Times today is entitled, Can Trump Save Their Jobs?  They're Counting on It.   The premise is that tariffs can do the trick and that protectionism is the way to attain wealth redistribution.  Maybe tariffs can work, at least near term.  Longer term there is apt to be retaliation, which lessens trade overall and then the tariffs may be self-defeating.  If that's right, maybe tariffs aren't the right way to go.  But that doesn't obviate the need for good jobs available to ordinary working people.  What alternative to tariffs might provide a better approach?  Who is asking that question?

Sunday, November 06, 2016

The Ghost of Allen Ludden

Tradition has it that resolutions are made with the coming new year and then are forgotten soon thereafter.  It occurred to me that it would be better to make a resolution as the need becomes apparent.  It remains to be seen whether that will create more stick-to-itiveness.  I hope so. 

Wanting to do something on a personal level to combat all the apparent negativity, I have resolved that when some potential source of irritation emerges to temporarily vex me, I will try to respond with wit and humor.  This won't be to ignore the provocation, far from it.  My goal will be to illuminate the situation sans the negativity.  Maybe nobody other than me will be amused by the approach.  If so, I will have succeeded in building my own cocoon, which under the circumstances wouldn't be a bad thing to do.  And if perchance others are entertained, then maybe some of them will endeavor to create their own yarn for popular consumption that does likewise, which would be so much the better.

I want to begin here with what might seem an odd thought - focusing on the good consequence in my intellectual development from all that early TV viewing.  The reality is that I watched an awful lot of TV as a kid.  When I was young there were shows in black and white such as My Little Margie, Our Miss Brooks, Abbott and Costello, and The Three Stooges.  Yet it is hard to know what ultimate consequence there was from watching all of that and it is equally hard to remember how much time per day I devoted to TV. 

So I want to focus on a different sort of show that might have had a more telling impact on me - the game show.   And here I want to narrow further to game shows that had a quiz or puzzle aspect to them.  Some of the show titles that I recall are To Tell The Truth with Bud Collyer, Play Your Hunch with Merv Griffin, I've Got a Secret with Gary Moore, Concentration with Hugh Downs, The Match Game with Gene Rayburn, and of course Password with Allen Ludden.  That there are still other such shows whcih my contemporaries might come up with is a testament to how prevalent the genre was when we were growing up. 

I played along at home while watching.  Concentration, in particular, was a memory game.  There was an element of luck, to be sure.  But it rewarded good recall.  (We may had a board game version of the show at home, to practice further this way.)  The Match Game, in contrast, was more about social capital and communication, because the goal was not so much to have the right answer as it was to have the same answer that your teammates had.  I recall, in particular, when the great Red Sox outfielder "Yaz" was on the show that one of the questions was to spell his last name.  (The correct spelling is Yastrzemski.)   As his nickname was so popular at the time, he himself misspelled his name and matched at least one of his teammates in doing so.  It was a lesson, both in humility and in trying to understand the way others process information.  It is possible to do that, at least within some limited domains of knowledge.

Looking back, Password is the most intriguing of these shows to me as it seems so much akin to what the book Made to Stick talks about, the creation of connections between ideas.  A team member who was given the answer would offer up a one word clue to the uninformed partner.   The partner would then respond with a guess at the answer.  The two teams would rotate in their clues and responses until a correct response was given.  So each team would benefit from the sequence that went before, and the current clue and response would be conditioned on that sequence.  There was a friendly competition as to which team would get the answer first.  To win that competition, then, you had to come up with a clue word that really communicated the idea.  The skills the show helped to develop were both in the guessing part from the perspective of the uninformed player and in the clue offering part from the perspective of the informed player.  The board game Taboo is similar in this respect, though Taboo allows teams with many uninformed players.  Undoubtedly, Taboo drew some of its inspiration from Password.

One way Password was distinct from Taboo, and indeed all the TV game shows then were distinct from our playing of these games at home, is that TV game shows were peppered with witty repartee between the host and the guests in between rounds of play of the game.  Since oftentimes the guests were regulars, this back and forth illustrated a kind of intelligence in action that the audience at home was encouraged to emulate.  On Password, Betty White, Allen Ludden's better half, was a frequent guest.  Their interaction on the show was that much more special, informed as it was by personal knowledge as well as by how TV stars were supposed to interact on the little screen.  Ludden was an especially talented host and got the most out of his guests, making the watching both very entertaining and quite educational.

* * * * *

It is time to return to my resolution, which is about the term "password."  Indeed, the entire stream of thought in this stroll down memory lane was triggered by an email reminder that I have to change my University of Illinois password.  As of yesterday, I had 14 days in which to do this.  There are a few things about this I found bothersome about this communication and about the prior communication I received that said I must do this.

First, it remains unclear whether now the same password will apply to Banner (a university-wide service where the login is referred to as Enterprise Authentication) and to those campus services where the NetID password had previously been used or if those will remain distinct processes.  At the moment, when I go to Banner, I get this screen for logging in. 


In contrast, when I log into a campus (or LAS) supported application, I get a different screen for logging in. 

While I use larvan for the first line in logging in at both of these places, the passwords themselves are different, at least for the time being.  I have recently changed the Enterprise password.  (I checked my InBox and I have a receipt from 8/16 of this year indicating a password change.)   So, on the one hand, if these passwords are becoming the same in the near future, why do I have to make another change so soon?  But, on the other hand, if the passwords are to remain distinct, with the Enterprise password for the University and the NetID password for the Campus, why did the email message about updating the latter come from the University technology services organization, with a ullinois.edu email address instead of an illinois.edu email address?  This is all very confusing to me.  

Second, I no longer understand the necessity of regular password changes as an enhancement to security.  The reality is that non-university providers don't ask for that.  They do other things - registering your computer, asking security questions in addition to the password, giving a two-part authentication with the second part coming in email or text messaging, and letting me know by email when I (or possibly somebody else) authenticate to an account via an unregistered device.  But they otherwise don't require regular password changes.  Operating on the assumption that what is good for the goose is good for the gander, how can this be?  So I would appreciate gaming out what the password change actually buys in terms of increased security.  

As near as I can tell, the big issue is what happens if the password has been hacked and neither the technology organization nor the individual user are aware that this has occurred.  The hackers then may sit on the information for some time before trying to exploit it.  If a password change happens in the interim and if the vulnerability that allowed the initial hacking has since been patched, then the password change does clearly enhance security in that circumstance.  But those are some rather big ifs.  

Third, and this perhaps isn't really fair of me to react this way, but each bit of the university that operates in a heavy handed way contributes to a general malaise, one that the individual office sending out the communication may be unaware of because that office only focuses on its own bit.  As I recently made this mocumentary about getting rid of the ethics training, my visceral reaction to the announcement about the required password change is to get rid of that too.  (And in a recent email to learning technologists on campus, I cautioned them not to use FERPA in a similar manner to get faculty compliance, for just these reasons.)  The possible difference is that with the ethics training I see no benefit whatsoever.  It is a complete sham.  With the password change perhaps there is a benefit, though I remain skeptical.  The communication did nothing to allay that skepticism.  

The above constitutes the initial irritation, which I have not tried to conceal.  In the last section, below, I will attempt some humor in casting how this situation manifests for me.  Alas, the humor stems from an all too real personal decline.

* * * * *

There are certain emblems of aging and the mental deterioration that accompanies it.  For me, the most obvious of these is going to the pharmacy or to the doctor's office.  They want to make sure they know it really is you they are dealing with.  So in addition to your name they ask for other identity information as part of the transaction.  At Walgreens, they ask for home address.  Perhaps sometimes they ask for date of birth, though maybe this is only when I pick up a prescription for one of my kids.  (Do I remember their birthdays?)  At Carle, they ask for these too, also sometimes for home phone, and they verify your health insurance provider.  

In the course of a session where I have to produce this sort of information repeatedly, I feel I'm shrinking mentally.  I can anticipate the day, not too long into the future, where I will fail here, a temporary lapse where the recall just doesn't work.  Outside of the health care interactions, the senior moments are more frequent now, possibly because insomnia is a more frequent companion.  I am still capable of depth of thought now and then.  Blog posts are evidence of this.  But I am writing blog posts less frequently now and more of those that I start writing never get done.  If there were Viagra for the mind, I would definitely take it.  

Instead, I look for diversions that can provide some personal joy and are still do-able.  I find that composing rhymes fits these needs and I can do that much more frequently.  I started writing rhymes for real near when I retired and then had more ambition than talent, writing longish verse to make a point.  Some of these were commentary on our national politics.  (For example, Filly Buster, Lame Ducks Are Quaking, and The (Dis) Charge the Tea Party Made.)  Others take on different sources of befuddlement such as this one on The First Ten Days Blues or this one on The Blue Screen of Death.   

Over time I've found my ambition has diminished and a technology I once abhorred, Twitter, has become something of a salvation for my rhymes.  Staying within the 140 character limit keeps it short and sweet and helps my faulty sense of meter from going too far astray.  Nevertheless, there is substantial time beforehand trying out possible lines that might fit.  The generation of the verse is no snap.  Yet during that time there is a kind of reverie for me, a feeling I enjoy very much. 

James Thurber gave us that charming character, Walter Mitty, and the original short story is still a good read.  What happens when we daydream is the root of what I've called The Professor Mind.  Sir Ken Robinson, in this delightful Ted Talk, Do schools kill creativity?, says that professors live in their heads, while everyone else lives in the real world.  The university, of course, is a place where many of the inhabitants are professors.  The campus is populated by this weird but largely benign life form whose greatest enjoyment is to be entirely lost - in thought.

Let us keep the university as a place for such intellectual enjoyment.  Allow the professors to maintain their mental bubbles for as long as they can.  The younger ones can do this while juggling many balls in the virtual air.  Many of the older ones, like me, may have a more difficult time keeping just a few of these afloat.  

I want to close this discussion on passwords with the following metaphysical question.  How is it that we learn to focus on this year's password and discard the one from last year into our mind's dustbin?  I have changed some of the passwords for my commercial accounts not that long ago after there was a general hacking scare and I've since experienced the occasional getting it wrong because I'm entering the old one.  Is this the road to dementia for me?  

Those with the authority to set password policy, please be merciful for people with the likes of me.  It's all I ask.