August 9, 2010

Informatics and Airports

I just read the fascinating novel by Colson Whitehead, The Intuitionist. This dystopic story of elevator inspectors set the tone for my recent foray into a whirlwind of airports, urban hotels, metro and taxis. The central character in Whitehead’s novel, Lila Mae, intuitively senses the mechanical state of the machines she inspects. As I ran around and through several cities in the last few days, I wished for a similar intuition because it was very hard to get up-to-date information.

My toolkit: a book on mangle-ish practice; a new MacBook Pro laptop and power cord in my backpack; a next-to-the-latest version of the iPhone and power cord in my purse; paper; pen; cash and credit card. Here’s a bulleted list of what I needed immediately (and had trouble getting), and the long, probably boring tale of my flying drama. All of which is to say that the information systems for passengers, airlines, metro riders, and cab users have a lot of room for improvement! I hope people are working on these informatics problems; alternatively, we should all quit flying to help decrease global warming.

· Toll-free numbers to reach all airlines on which I am scheduled to fly, or airlines to which I might be transferred in the event of mechanical failure

· Cab numbers in cities to call for a cab when the metro breaks down on the way to the airport

· Traffic status websites in major metro areas to identify bottlenecks in realtime

· Much more iPhone battery power so that I can stay on hold indefinitely

· Accessible electrical outlets

· A second cell phone to make other calls while I am on hold, so that I don’t miss the precious airline representative when they come on the line

· Internet access via 3G in all airports and/or wireless hotspots, ideally free

My ticket was set up by a travel agent who does that for government agencies. What that meant was that I was scheduled to fly to DC on Delta through Detroit, fly back on United to Chicago, then fly from Chicago to Champaign on American. Three airlines=at least two too many. First leg to DC: mechanical problems on the Delta flight meant that they transferred me to an American flight through O’Hare. Then it thunderstormed while we sat on the tarmac. Once we got to Chicago late, the planes were all backed up because of the storm, and because (apparently) President Obama had flown to Chicago for his birthday and the airport use was limited until he and his plane cleared out. So instead of arriving in DC at 9:30 and taking the metro, I got in at midnight and took a cab. No big deal.

Serving on the NEH panel was challenging and fun; there was another thunderous downpour while we deliberated. We finished about 4:30 and I headed to the metro, only getting a little lost. But my plane wasn’t scheduled to depart til 6:45 and I was told it was just a half hour by metro to the airport, so no worries, right? By 5:15, the blue line train I was on was stalled indefinitely at Arlington Cemetery. When it crept into Pentagon City, I jumped off and ran upstairs to find a cab in the rain. The bellhops at the nearby hotel didn’t have cab phone numbers and this other metro refugee and I ran around several street corners, missing out to other people, or generally failing to find a cab for about twenty minutes. In a cab by 5:45, I start checking in to the United flight on my iPhone. The e-boarding pass never arrived to my gmail account. Then by 6pm it was clear the traffic was bumper-to-bumper and my fellow cabmate and I would miss our flights. So, I called United to find out about the next flight out and the possibilities to change my ticket (for $150.) By 6:40, the nice cabbie miraculously pulled up to United, but my cabmate wanted to charge his portion of the fare—no time, buddy! So I paid the fare with cash (YAY, cash machines!), and ran into the airport. Signage is not good for panicked people to see where they need to go. Since my boarding pass hadn’t arrived in my gmail inbox, I had to run upstairs to the United counter and check in again. At that point, the counter person told me my flight was delayed, so I should take my time.

Through security, into a packed corner of National where people milled about while the monitor still said “on time departure” until well after the departure time had passed. When we started to board the delayed flight (using my iPhone I found the estimated departure time), there was a security breach and they shut all the doors. After another twenty-minute delay (we were not told what the breach was about), we got on board. Easy flight to O’Hare, but there was jet bridge trouble there, and we were again delayed getting off. By now it was 20 minutes past my connection’s departure time, but I ran for the plane anyway. I had forgotten that the United Terminal is a L O N G way from the American terminal, so I sprinted as best I could with a backpack and full bladder.

My strategy in the last few years is to call the airlines on my cell phone rather than waiting in lines at the airport. Usually a good technique, it kept me on hold first with American, then with Delta, while I also stood in lines and ran back and forth between American in one terminal and trying to find Delta in another terminal. Since my flight had departed, where was I going to be able to go? In order to call Delta (I found out they “owned” the ticket, since that was my first flight on the itinerary, and supposedly only they could change it), I had to call my sister to have her look it up in the phone book, since there were no phone books in the airport and no posted signs with contact information. In order to use the Internet at O’Hare, Boingo wanted $8 from me, which I didn’t even have time to investigate. It kept getting later and later, closer to the time when the only available option would take off into the skies. That option—to fly to Minneapolis—was seemingly the best, since there were no more flights that night to anywhere else viable. So, by the time Delta told me they couldn’t help me, my cell phone was dead and I just whipped out my credit card to buy a one-way ticket to Minneapolis. A free night in my sister’s house beat an uncomfortable night in a hotel near O’Hare, where I definitely did not want to be. But of course with a dead cell phone and a tired sister, I had to take another cab upon arrival in Minneapolis. Another midnight ride through another city.

July 29, 2010

Jano Justice Systems and Jury Selection

I was recently on jury duty and did some informal inquiry and observation about the current ways in which Champaign County (IL) finds jurors. On a Monday morning, about 35 of us showed up at the courthouse in downtown Urbana and had a brief orientation. The staff handed us badges with bar codes and our juror number on them along with a brochure about petit juries. The brochure said that my name “was drawn by lot from the combined lists of registered voters, licensed drivers, holders of Illinois Identification Cards, and Illinois Disabled Person Identification Cards who reside in this county.” The county uses Jano Justice Systems software to generate the jury pool. Apparently since 2003, the county has been using Jano in tandem with New World Systems to integrate the record-keeping and data management of the courts, according to this one article I found. “Together, Jano and New World will integrate multiple agencies, including the Sheriff’s Office, Correctional Facility, State’s Attorney, Juvenile Detention Center, Circuit Court and Clerk, Adult Probation, Juvenile Probation and Public Defender so each entity has access to critical information stored on a single system.” New World indeed. A detention center or a detention centre is any location used for detention. Specifically, it can mean:

….. Click the link for more informa

Of the 35 people I saw that first morning in the jury assembly room, I saw two African Americans and one woman who was reading a Spanish language newspaper. Otherwise, everyone looked white. That’s about 8 percent non-white. There is a Champaign County Citizens’ Advisory Committee on Jury Selection that formed in 2008 to look at the racial disparities among jurors.  According to Brian Dolinar, writing on the Independent Media Center’s website: “For several years the Courtwatch study conducted by the League of Women Voters has shown that while African Americans make up 60% of defendants, they represent 5%-6% of the jury pool.”

I was called back for the afternoon and sat through the voire dire phase, without being called. It was fascinating to watch the 13 jurors being questioned and selected. The person on trial was a white male. The next day, I was told not to come in. The third day I was told to report at 9am. I did so and was called to the jury box. There was another white man on trial. I was dismissed by the judge shortly thereafter, and thus ended my jury duty for this round.

While I was waiting at various times this week, I read a really good article in Communication Theory from February 2003 (13:1, pp. 5-38) called “The Racial Foundaiton of Organizational Communication.” Authors Karen Lee Ashcraft and Brenda J. Allen noted that “the field’s most common ways of framing race ironically preserve its racial foundation.” They argued, rightly I think, that “the valuing difference approach ignores a … power problem. If corporate America is built around Whiteness–and if Whiteness is socially constructed as separate from and superior to darkness–how can we genuinely speak of valuing difference as a possibility?” (p. 16)

July 4, 2010

iCollege and Educational Consumerism

I grew up in Minnesota and still have many relatives who live there, so I was intrigued by this interview of Tim Pawlenty, governor of Minnesota (“pawlenty of trouble,” according to my relatives), by Jon Stewart. Pawlenty is articulate and clear in his points, affable, even. But to equate education with other service deliveries, to say, download a lecture on your iPad like you might choose a vegetable from a display, so misses the point. Not that I think there isn’t a lot broken about our institutions of higher education…there is. But to call students “consumers,” which is already common in academe, and to view discrete lectures on economics or Spanish as interchangeable with pants or shirts on a rack, takes away the interchange, the discussion, and the challenge that ought to be at the heart of the educational process. This iCollege idea mocks the academic effort in a way that is at once necessary–by pointing to the already “sales-heavy” approach to college, and the often lousy teaching that goes on there–and also scary, because Pawlenty is not being ironic; he means this. I agree that information technologies can be used to great effect by a variety of learners, but the face-to-face interactions, and the layers of disciplinary insights within an academic setting are crucial for creative, responsible learning.
April 11, 2009

The Blogosphere

I went to a brownbag talk by historian Ray Fouche this past week. He commented that he’d like to find more ways to communicate with “everyday folks,” rather than addressing academics all the time. So I asked him if he blogged. Then I inwardly laughed at myself, because I blog, but I don’t do it in order to “communicate with everyday folks” or many people at all. There are so many fascinating blogs out there that I don’t read, even occasionally. I can barely find time to write here; I think about blogging more than I do it. This blog serves as a sort of placeholder for thoughts that I might want to develop further, but I’d like it to be something more than that. Ray’s discussion about his own personal shift in the last year, prompted me to reflect on my changing habits as well: he now reads online rather than printing out documents; he now collaborates more online with other scholars; he feels less proprietary of his intellectual property. Many historians have been superceded by Wikipedia, he noted, and amateur historians or folks who have a deep expertise in one technology (like railroads) have erased a lot of academic “authority.”

As for my own changing habits: I edit online almost exclusively; I never use a pen and paper to write longhand if I can avoid it; and a lot of initial drafts of ideas end up in email “conversations” that have unrelated subject lines! Still, I am very attached to books and articles: somehow e-journals and wikis are uninviting to me because they force me to read or write onscreen and I spend hours and hours in front of a screen everyday already. I want to take a book and lie on the couch. I want to see what I write in published, hard copy. Blog rolls, wiki updates, and digital bookmarks–there is too much e-information out there for me to absorb during screentime. There’s a kind of materiality I need.  I find highlighters, sticky notes, marginal comments, and colorful bookmarks very satisfying. Indeed, some part of myself finds print, or stone, or steel, or clay as validating and real. Virtuality is unembodied and ultimately ephemeral.

Ray also talked about using binaries–what he calls analog-digital synergies–to explore interstitial spaces. In these spaces, we can query how we invest ourselves in technologies, in terms of our identities and cultures. Ray said that technological change is also a crisis of identity. Clearly, giving up books would be a crisis for my identity, in so many ways. I’m sure there are hybrid ways of being; the whole point of binary oppositions is to bust them. Books AND blogs, not books OR blogs.