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Dec 21, 2020

Martial law, official poisoners, and hope

Can’t think of anything other than the crazy, evil things in the news. Trump has been discussing martial law on Friday, willing to throw away 250 years of American democracy. Putin was caught red-handed in an attempt to poison Navalny, the opposition leader. Onу on the killers admitted he was sent to clean Navalny’s underwear to remove traces of the poison. Both men are trying to deny the accusations, and both look like pathetic liars. You could swap these two guys, and they’d be true to their narcissistic, delusional personalities. One can only wonder how such men get to the top. And there is at least half-dozen men like them in charge of major countries today: Turkey, Brazil, Poland, Hungary, India. What dark forces animate their supporters? What evil winds swept over the Middle Earth, bringing the worst epidemic and the worst wave of autocratic rulers?

It is hard to think of the meaning of winter holidays right now. The story of Christmas is that of hope for a fallen world that has no idea about it. The Prophet’s Birthday has a similar message of hope in Islam, although it in November this year. The story of Hanukah is about beating a larger army, and rededicating a temple again; it is a story of hope restored. The Bodhi day is about one man’s resole and hope to reach enlightenment. Solstice is the day of overcoming the darkest day of the year; it is symbolically about hope. These and other holidays are simply reminders. “This is not the shittiest it has ever been,” – they tell us, - “There is always a reason for hope.”

The reminder is always counter-intuitive. When you stare in the depth of the darkness, light comes from where you least expect it to come. It does not come from where you were searching for it; it is always a surprise. You never know, and yet you always knew, there is light, and it just temporarily obscured by some gunk in the Universe’s gears. Happy holidays. Let’s hope 2021 will be better.

Dec 14, 2020

What does my signature mean? Or Why are universities so clunky?

We have moved away from paper, thanks to COVID. However, just like before, I often wonder, what does my signature mean on this and that paper? Sometimes it means an actual approval – those are fine. Sometimes my signature only means that in theory, once in a hundred year, I have an authority to stop something from happening. In many cases, the signature means that I am expected to conduct some quality control. The assumption is that if several people will look at a document, someone is more likely to catch an error or impropriety. In fact, I notice that many signatures actually dilute responsibility, for ever person thinks someone else did the checking.

In other cases, my only job is to see if it is kosher, and no one is abusing the system. Almost always a signature means accepting responsibility – if something goes wrong later on, I will be held accountable. And there is a whole class of stuff where someone believes I should be aware of something, so why not ask for another signature. The reality is that at the very end of a paper trail, there is a staff person – very often WITHOUT their own signature line, and without much official authority – who verifies the numbers, checks compliance with policies, and makes whatever the paper is intended to enact to actually happen.

Signatures take time, even in the new world of digital documentation flow. Sometimes they are purely ritualistic – a certain decision “feels” like a dean has to agree to it. For example, I sign hundreds of lecturer contracts. The hiring decisions are fully delegated to chairs, and their support staff. There are too many of them for me to do a meaningful quality control. I also know that payroll office will check after me. So, the workflow goes like this: our departments have their own databases that keep track who has been offered a contract, who is eligible for what, and who has been offered to teach. Then we go into a completely different cycle of contracts and signatures, and after that, someone will punch some keys again, and enter the information into a third database that will eventually result in a paycheck. A completely different flow will trigger access to class rosters, and the ability to give grades, etc. All of this creates a lot of work at every stage, for chairs, at least 3-4 staff persons, and some for me. In theory, one email from Chair to the lecturer and reply to it contain everything we need; “Hey, would you be interested in teaching the Tuesday-Thursday class in the Spring? – Sure, will do.” The name is put in the schedule, and in theory, it should trigger an automatic process, where the lecturer gets paid, and can access Canvas, assign grades. But no, nothing is ever that simple. We make a whole big deal out of it. Every. Semester.

The problem with any university is that we don’t have anyone whose job is to question – why do deans must sign on this? Do we need this whole workflow at all? It is nobody’s job, so it is not done. Business affairs people do not understand academics well enough to question our chains of authority. Informational Technology people understand neither the business, nor student or academic affairs well enough to suggest improvements. No one on campus has a broad enough vision for radical improvements. The president is busy with strategic things, and definitely has no time for questioning every workflow. Vice Presidents are reluctant to intrude on each other’s turf. Moreover, streamlining requires initial investments, and universities are stripped of reserves. A consultant that would understand all these parts of the university in their complex interactions would cost a fortune, because you’d have to hire someone who has been a VP or a similar experience. In other industries, businesses are routinely re-created from scratch, so they often have an opportunity to reinvent their processes. However, the immortal giants like Boeing or GE have all the same problems we have in the academia. The taxpayers and consumers bear the cost. I actually cannot see a good solution right now.

Dec 5, 2020

December in the Central Valley

This land makes you wait for it: December, fall, my favorite
season. Stand under a big ginkgo tree, squinting at the autumnal yellow sun;
leaves will float down as hesitantly as snow in my hometown.

This land rewards patience with bright chilled air applied liberally to faces,
wiping off the long summer heat, breezing easy, pleased
with how things turned out in the end.

“How about these colors I just found” – it asks us.
We know, we’ve seen them before, from the same store.
And yet, yes, these are like new, like never seen before.

It is because fall smells excavate my subcortex,
Looking for memories of previous autumns’ smells,
of leaves, fallen because they are fallible, just like us,
of words, half-buried, half-dreamt.