Wednesday Words: The Art & Science of Management

For my class on Human Resources Management this semester, we had to break up into teams of 4-5 for various group assignments and a huge collaborative term paper. The catch was that out of a list of about 8 topics, none of them could overlap (not the team topic nor our individual topics). So, with a team of five, that left little wiggle room for selections. At any rate, I ended up with Compare & contrast: the art & science of management.

We just finished our term paper in the last couple of days, which means now I can focus almost totally on my own paper. (We do have one more group assignment due in a week, but I opted to write the conclusion, so I don’t have to fret about it just yet.) I normally would begin working on term papers much sooner than now; in fact, I worked out a detailed schedule after the holidays in an effort to stay on track this semester. As it turned out, though, I made great headway on my assignments for my other class, so  I focused on finishing those early, rather than trying to do papers for two classes simultaneously. So, now I have less than three weeks to write 20+ pages.  O.o

I’m looking at perspectives on philanthropy from the “art” and “science” angles. Specifically, I’m exploring some management models that I think can be helpful for nonprofit organizations as they try to adapt to new technologies, which can impact their fundraising efforts. If you’ve followed my research at all (and I totally don’t blame you if you haven’t, even though I find it fascinating), then you know that I’ve been looking at emerging technologies and how they are used in charitable giving. For a paper that I originally thought might be a waste of my time, I’m now realizing that I might be able to approach it from an angle that will aid my future research!

So far, I just have an outline and one page of the introduction … I need a few thousand more words …

Virtual currency … in layman’s terms

I realize the idea of virtual currency sounds kinda like play money, so I’ll try to explain it a little more clearly. Let’s say that you go to a pizza arcade where they use tokens instead of quarters. Everything from games to food to prizes has to be redeemed in tokens. So, you find the coin machine and purchase 4 tokens for $1 (or 40 tokens for $10, etc.).

There is a stuffed animal behind the prize counter that you really like, and it costs 4 tokens. The difference between this pizza arcade and the ones you might be familiar with is that the person behind the counter doesn’t actually work for the arcade; she leases the booth space to sell her stuffed animals for tokens (like a flea market type of setup). You pay the 4 tokens, receive your new stuffed animal and go on about your merry way. The booth vendor has just made 4 tokens, but she can’t spend them outside of the pizza arcade, because regular stores only accept dollars, not tokens.

So, the question is: Did the booth vendor make income on that sale? If yes, how can you prove it? She has no dollars to show for her efforts, only tokens that aren’t worth anything in the outside world.

Ok, so let’s say the booth vendor takes the 4 tokens that she earned to the pizza arcade manager and asks him to exchange them for a $1 bill. Now, has she made income? Yes! She now has a dollar that is worth something in the outside world.

This example might seem like small potatoes in the grand scheme of global commerce, but let’s say that instead of selling just one stuffed animal, she sold 50 … or 500 … or 5,000. Now, the money starts to add up. The current position (of the U.S., that is … other countries have differing opinions) is that as long as she keeps her earnings in token form (maybe she treats herself to pizza and video games in the arcade), then it’s a wash. However, as soon as she converts her tokens to dollars, then she needs to be conscientious about taxable earnings.

The moral of the story is that virtual currency may not seem “real,” but it has real value.

Wednesday Words: Macro to micro

It seems like ages since I first started brainstorming about my dissertation topic, but I’m still a couple of semesters away from officially beginning it. I’m at the point now in my coursework, though, that my term papers should start pointing in that direction. In other words, if I gear the subject matter toward my topic, then that will be beneficial to my future research.

One of the classes I’m taking this semester is an Information Technology class (more about managing IT from a practitioner’s perspective than the nitty-gritty of programming, etc.), and our term paper is supposed to be a research proposal for a technology issue. Perfect! I thought this would be a great opportunity to test the waters with the case study that I started outlining last year.

A case study is just that: a study of a particular case, not a broad overview of an entire subject. Because of my familiarity with the virtual world of Second Life and the interesting (to me, at least) effort by the American Cancer Society to hold a virtual Relay for Life within Second Life, I thought that would make a great case study on how philanthropy is adapting to emerging technologies.

This subject matter is so new, so unique that there is very little (actually, I’ve found nothing, but that doesn’t mean that I’ve exhausted the entire body of work available in the world) on the topic of philanthropy via virtual currency. There are a few articles on virtual currency, in general, but I wanted to explore how this case with the ACS has potential to break the mold of traditional fundraising, while at the same time, cracking open the door for my future research on policy issues concerning virtual currencies. (There are some discussions about whether “virtual” transactions should be taxable events, even if they occur solely inworld, like a value-added tax, so to speak. This raises the issue that if you can tax it, you ought to be able to deduct it. In other words, charitable contributions made in a virtual economy should be deductible, if commercial transactions become taxable.)

If I haven’t put you to sleep yet, here’s what has ruffled my feathers. I asked a techie friend (not a classmate) to read my research proposal for a second set of eyes before I turned it in for a grade, and before he even read the paper, he made the off-handed remark, “I know you’re a big fan of Second Life, but you might also consider …” and then went on to make a couple of perfectly legit suggestions about other research angles. I guess it rankled me because it seemed like he didn’t take me seriously, as if I’m just goofing off researching about games (speaking of which, there is a slew of research on social, psychological and even economic influences of games, not to mention game theory applied to other subjects). But, that’s beside the point. I responded to my friend, “I’m not like a ‘rah-rah’ fan, but I think it has fascinating research potential.”

And, it does! The last thing we need is for policymakers to try to figure this out on their own; after all, they have a tendency to wield an axe in order to carve a toothpick. We need to explore the ins and outs of what it means to make transactions in a virtual economy and how that translates into the so-called “real” world. It’s not about one particular virtual environment; it has broadly sweeping impact on everything from Facebook credits to XBox Live Points to, yes, even Linden dollars (L$) in Second Life. Imagine if you had to start paying taxes on “income” from app games. Sounds outlandish? Perhaps not.

Even for such a new subject, the topic is too broad to say that I’m researching virtual currencies. What about currencies? What type of currencies? What country’s policies, for that matter? I have to drill down and focus on some micro-issues, rather than the big macro subject. To me, it’s like being a scientist who studies a particular aspect of the ester bonds of DNA polymers and someone says, “I know you like ester bonds, but you should not overlook nucleobases.” (<<Yeah, I totally pulled that from Wikipedia; I’m not a geneticist in my spare time.)

I guess the point is that I have to narrow my focus, and right now, I’m looking at one particular issue concerning virtual currencies in one particular venue. That’s what’s so neat about research … there are so many more issues to delve into over time!

Wednesday Words: Viruses

I have not gotten a darn thing accomplished school-wise for the last two nights. The reason is that my computer got sick. It still worked, but I could tell by some quirky behavior that it had contracted a virus. Unfortunately, I couldn’t shove a Sudafed in the USB port and make it all better. 😦

I normally use Malwarebytes Anti-Malware, but it didn’t detect this icky Trojan. Lesson No. 1: there’s a difference between malware and viruses. I guess it’s like an ear infection vs. a cold. (On a side note, I noticed as I was searching techie forums for advice that I started seeing condom ads in the sidebars. Classy, marketing gurus … not that kind of Trojan, sheesh.)

It’s times like these when I wish I could pick up the phone and call my uber-geek brother. Instead, I vented to a techie friend who recommended Microsoft Security Essentials (MSE) to check for viruses and CCleaner to get rid of extraneous files (basically a thorough cache purge). I added both, and MSE immediately turned red as it detected and purged the bug each time it cropped up … but that’s just the problem … it kept popping back up. I was still getting redirected from websites, and my computer didn’t want to shut down. MSE did a good job of immediately detecting the problem, but it only deleted it temporarily.

Finally, after reading several trustworthy recommendations, I ran the free scan from HitmanPro, which identified the same file that MSE had been, so I activated the free trial (30 days, if I recall correctly) to get rid of it. I rebooted and ran a few Google searches, and so far (knock on wood) – no redirects! MSE has also been nice & green for a while now, too. *Hopefully* it’s gone now.

I feel so … violated. 😦  I like to think that I’m a pretty tech-savvy person (for an end-user), and I maintain strict privacy settings, use Web of Trust for browsing, etc., so it ticks me off that I somehow got duped. Oh, well – I just have more catch-up work to do for my classes, but at least the papers aren’t due right away.

When does novel become norm?

Some universities are still holding out when it comes to distance education. This Internet thing is still too newfangled for them to grasp. They assert seemingly valid reasons: concerns about mission-creep, emphasis on residential life, cost, etc., but I question the rationale.

I can understand the first point about mission-creep, to an extent, although I believe there are ways to embed the university’s mission within core classes and throughout the curriculum. The second reason primarily applies to undergraduates, but since most graduate students live off-campus, they represent a good cohort with which to begin a distance education program. The third point is the most difficult for me to understand. Software programs such as Blackboard are already in use at many (most?) universities, and using the system for distance learning is no more difficult than using another module of the software; tools like discussion forums and document sharing are already built in! It’s like saying that you can’t create a newsletter because you only use Excel, but you ignore the fact that MS Office Suite also comes with Word and Publisher.

I read an article today about something unfathomable–a tenured professor is walking away from his post at a prestigious university in order to teach solely online. During his recent announcement at a professional conference, the professor explained that “his move was motivated in part by teaching practices that evolved too slowly to be effective.”

Wow. I would like to take back all of the snarky comments that I’ve made over the years about tenured professors becoming lazy, non-caring, out-of-touch fuddy-duddies. (Ok, most of the sassy comments, but a few are still applicable.)

The gist is: since when do you have to be physically present in a classroom to learn? I believe this is especially true at the graduate level. My doctoral classes cover a base of material, but I am expected to expound on what I read/learn and apply the information to my personal research and writing. Even in a “typical” doctoral program, I don’t know of anyone whose professor held them by the hand and guided them through every lecture, every research paper, every project and their dissertation. Graduate students are expected to work independently and become scholars.

I may not be Einstein, but I would gladly hold up the work that I have completed at a distance against a traditional doctoral student’s in-class work. Would my work be better? Perhaps not, but that isn’t the point. It should be comparable. Let a student’s work stand or fall on its own merit, not based on the classroom environment.

Secret-keeping willpower

My 6th grader is working on a book report project where he has to create a newspaper with certain sections to cover the gist of the novel. I suggested that he use Publisher, and I told him that I wouldn’t do it for him, but I’d be happy to assist with learning the software.

The computer that the boys share doesn’t have Publisher, though, so I’m letting him use my laptop and save the file on the Desktop. So far, he’s off to a great start, and I think he’ll have a good finished project.

His 5th grade brother was looking over his shoulder as he worked the other evening and whispered something to him that I couldn’t hear. Then, they asked if they could make another Publisher document, so I said sure and told them to just save it on the Desktop so they can find it easily. They said it’s a surprise, so I assured them that I wouldn’t look at it.

Well, the file is called “Mom bday card,” and it stares me in the face every evening when I get on my laptop! 🙂  I haven’t even mentioned that I noticed the file name, and I promise I won’t open it, but my heart feels so full that they are making something for me. For two and a half more weeks, I have to stare at the tempting icon, though!

Writing Wednesday: More dissertation thoughts

The difference between my degree program (DPA – Doctor of Public Administration) and a Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy in Political Science) is that the DPA is practitioner-oriented. That’s a fancy way of saying that what I’m learning is supposed to be applicable in real life. It’s not just about theory and history; it’s about putting what we’re learning into practice.

Many people who earn a DPA work in the public sector (ie, government jobs) or in a private sector role that relates to the public sector (ie, nonprofit organizations, thinktanks, higher education administration, policy analysis, etc.). Some go into academia as faculty members, although the Ph.D. is still preferred over the DPA in some circles. (Don’t get me started on the cliques in academia!) The policy analysis function is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, particularly as it relates to my dissertation topic.

I’m waiting for feedback from my adviser, because this is new territory for me, and I want to be sure that I trek forward in the right direction. I’m wondering if I can write my dissertation as a policy recommendation to the Joint Economic Committee. Instead of just exploring the potential ramifications of virtual economies (taxation, in particular), I’m thinking of writing it as a plan of action–something they might actually use in developing a formal position on the topic.