Archives for the month of: March, 2011

On The Lam

Tomorrow I will be leading a session on ethics at the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership. I typically present a scenario with multifaceted ethical dilemmas embedded, and talk through it. For tomorrow’s talk I have written a new scenario and I thought I would share it here.

How many ethical dilemmas can you spot? Who has them? What are they?

On The Lam

Michigan state Senator John Cooper looked out the window of his home office at the pond that took up part of his back yard. A duck was paddling in the water. It was early March, and much of the pond was still frozen. But there was an area near the shore where a storm drain let out, causing the water to churn a bit. This spot typically unfroze first.

He turned back to his computer screen. He was composing a letter to his chief of staff, Alice Monroe. She had very quickly become his right hand when he was first elected, and had served with him through three terms. She seemed to know everything about Lansing, and Cooper had come to rely on her.

He had written “Dear Alice,” but did not know where to go from there. He was trying to decide whether to fire her or not. He thought back and reflected on how strange the last three weeks had been.

It had started with a trial balloon that the state’s new governor, Frederick Thurston, had floated in his State of the State address. This was his first such address. He had been elected in a close election running on a strong environmental platform. This had surprised observers of Michigan politics, since so much of public life revolved around unions, manufacturing and the economy in the state. Newspaper columnists were wondering if it was a sign of change.

Thurston had proposed in his State of the State message a new regulation for businesses — they would need to pay for vastly expanded environmental studies that included a section on likely climactic impacts of any new land use proposal. Republicans and business leaders in the state had howled at the idea, since it seemed likely that the result would be that no new projects of any sort would be initiated. Michigan needed its economy to get moving again, and Cooper was not alone in his string feeling that this was a step in the opposite direction.

Thurston again surprised political observers by getting his proposal sponsored and submitted as a House bill and it passed quickly. The bill was presented to the Senate and somehow it was clear that every Senate Democrat was planning on voting for the measure. That was when things turned very strange.

Cooper had gotten a call from Janice Brandt, the Senate Republican leader. The 38 members of the Senate were evenly divided and the Democrats enjoyed a one-person majority in the person of the Lieutenant Governor.

Brandt had decided to follow the lead of Wisconsin a few years ago, and ordered all Senate Republicans to go into hiding out of state. By doing this, they could prevent a quorum, since a majority of members had to be present. This would stop action on the bill.

Cooper had grave misgivings about the tactic, but he went along. He holed up in a Super 8 Motel in South Bend, Indiana. The stalemate went on and on. The Senate president, Frank Marshall, ordered the wayward senators back and had the State Police look for them. Every day, the Republican Senators would hold a conference call where they strategized on what to do. Day by day, it looked like the resolve of the group was slipping a bit. They could not continue their disappearing act forever.

Every morning the Senators held their call — and every afternoon there was a similar call for staff. In this call, Cooper knew, Louis Parker, the chief of staff to Brandt, stressed the need for the Senate staffers to do what they could to try to keep their legislators in line. Chinks in the armor were to be reported up the chain of command.

Senators each had two staffers. These staffers typically had divided loyalties. While their job was to support their Senator, in practice they were beholden to the larger party structure. A staffer might find herself or himself working for many legislators over their career, as the party kept a list of good staff candidates. Some legislators hired people they already knew, or even family members, but the reality of legislating was that it worked best if someone on staff knew the ropes from the get-go.

After three weeks of living out of a suitcase in secret, Cooper had had enough. He thought Brandt’s plan had backfired and gone too far. He decided to go back to Lansing. He asked Alice Monroe, his chief of staff, to meet him at the office one Wednesday. That Tuesday night he drove back home to Brighton.

He drove to the Capitol and parked his car in his reserved space. He never made it to his office. Brandt’s chief of staff, Louis Parker, was waiting for him in the garage, glaring. As Cooper got out of his car, Parker tore into him and described what life would be like as a legislative pariah. No committee memberships. No privileges. No way to get anything done whatsoever for his constituents. “We will crush you,” he said. Cooper pushed back, standing on principle, but Parker finally convinced him to at least take a day to think about it. There was some headway in negotiations and one day might do the trick. Cooper drove home, fuming. It was obvious that Monroe had betrayed him to Parker.

Now, with little to do but wait, he thought about what to say to Alice.  And, whether to head back to Indiana.

(Photo: Flickr user hoyasmeg)

Friends and colleagues know that I am very, very heavily into new technology — and I typically put it through its paces. I want everything just to work. I am also seemingly on a constant search to find just the right tool for the right job.

When it comes to matching computing activity with equipment, we have more and more choices today than we ever had.

That is especially true when it comes to mobile computing tasks. Laptops come in all manner of horsepower and form factor, and we use them all heavily in my home, from my son’s large media-based HP (and my MacBook Pro) to my daughter’s use-in-the-bedroom MacBook, my workhorse-professional Sony Vaio running Win7 Ultimate, to our two iPads for around-the-house quick tasks and lightweight business travel, and assorted smartphones including a Droid, Blackberry, and Verizon iPhone.

My Google CR-48 Chrome Notebook

I want to focus on a new tool in the around-the-house-casual-computing space that I have come to use. This space had previously been dominated, in my own life, by my iPad. But, some time ago I was admitted into Google’s Chrome OS Notebook Pilot program. As a part of that program, Google sent me a prototype laptop (there is no branding on it whatsoever) loaded with Google’s new Chrome operating system. They call the computer the CR-48.

The Chrome OS is a new operating system designed to live in the mobile / netbook space. It is lightweight and meant for many, but not all, computing tasks. It is somewhat revolutionary in that the whole operating system is essentially a Chrome browser. There are no applications on the machine, no files and folders to move around or keep track of. It is designed entirely to live connected to the Internet.

The way it works, you turn the machine on and it is ready to go in about 20 seconds or less. You sign in with your Google credentials, and the machine is completely configured for you. Your bookmarks, your email, your Docs, your everything. Nothing lives on the machine, so you can let your son use it and he can sign in with his own Google credentials — when he does, it is ready to rock for him, with his bookmarks and everything.

Using it for a few weeks now, I have found myself gravitating to it more and more around the house, because it is so easy to use. The iPad is awesome and you can only have it after you pry it from my cold, dead hands. However, it always feels limited when I get on the Web. It almost can do everything, but not quite. No Flash videos, of course, but even more important for me is I can’t write a Facebook Note because the way the editor renders, the input box can’t be used. Google Docs are hard to edit too. Just little things like that.

On the other hand, using the CR-48, I am just using a regular browser so it all works perfectly.

At the other end of the scale, I am also finding that the CR-48 is replacing my professional laptop (on my office desk) for many tasks too. The CR-48 has a solid state disk drive (no moving parts) so it feels very sturdy, and it is ready to go on a moment’s notice. I find it easier to pick it up and dispatch a work task. In fact, I will often have my work laptop going, doing something I have to use a computer for, and also have the CR-48 open with my mail and other web applications in use.

Why Do I Need A Real Computer?

So that gets me to: What can’t the CR-48 do? In other words, in what contexts do you need a “real” computer?

I have found three things that I just can’t use my Chrome notebook for:

1) Financial management programs. Like a lot of people, my financial life is lived on Quicken (and on the business side it is lived on Quickbooks). I have so much time, history, and energy invested in those applications that I need to have access to them. There are no suitable web-based versions — yet. Intuit bought Mint.com, and they are working at integrating Quicken and Mint, but for now they are standing apart. And, while there is a Quickbooks Online, I have found it a little limited and for some tasks it seems to require Internet Explorer (the CR-48 is, by definition, a Chrome browser).

2) Sharing Microsoft Word docs and reviewing them using Track Changes. For almost all document purposes, Google Docs works well and you can throw almost anything at it and it will translate it into a usable web-based document. However, for many professional situations, people prefer to edit documents using Word’s Track Changes feature. You can’t go seamlessly from Word to Docs and back and retain the Track Changes information, so when I am collaborating on documents I sometimes need Word. I have experimented with creating documents that I know will be collaborative in Google Docs from the get-go, but only a handful of colleagues have proven amenable to working in that space. I believe over time this will change, but for now I sometimes just have to bust out Word.

3) Photo management using Picasa. I have a large library of photos and use it frequently for blog posts and other purposes. While there are great online photo management services (Flickr, Picasa) and even great online photo editing services (e.g. Picnik) none of them hold a candle to the ease and speed with which you can work on a desktop.

4) Video production. There are sort of, kind of online video production suites but they work only so-so with Chrome. The bandwidth and processing issues are almost, but not quite, surmounted for this. So, if I want to edit a video, I need to do it on my desktop. (Although, I edit video less and less and my iPhone has an iMovie app I have not yet put through its paces).

Outside of those four specific tasks and contexts, I am finding that I gravitate to my CR-48 as my go-to computer. Here are the main things that make it worthwhile:

  • Outstanding battery life (days on standby, 10 hours in use)
  • Speedy boot and resume (about a second to resume from standby)
  • Great trackpad (multi touch, gestures — some don’t like it but I do)
  • Lightweight machine (physically) yet has everything you need including a keyboard and big screen
  • Lightweight machine (capabilities) yet a full browser so you can do almost anything