This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

August 26, 2010 - volunteer to teach

The fundamental mission of the Douglas County Libraries is to promote literacy and lifelong learning.

What results from such advocacy? Here's one of them: productive citizens.

Recently, I asked Kate Prestwood, who heads up Douglas County Libraries adult literacy efforts, to give me an update on the status of the program.

She responded with some wonderful stories both from tutors (volunteers we train to be teachers) and students. Some of our tutors are paired with students working on basic English or GEDs (a high school equivalency certificate). But we have a surprising number of international students.

One of them, of Asian origin, came to us because she was working at a big box retail store, and suspected that her use of English was a little odd. Thanks to volunteer help, she's passed a test to start moving up the retail chain's corporate ladder. These days, she addresses customers "politely." (Learning to speak English from watching television might well build up a repertoire of impolite expressions.)

A Russian aerobics instructor (who is also working another full time job) noted her increasing fluency in English. To thank her tutor, she made a custom CD of her favorite Russian music.

Another student, from eastern Europe, is working with her tutor to launch a new business. It's going well. And because of the student's growing confidence, she says, she now is starting to slip out from under the thumb of an overbearing mother-in-law.

Another woman, from South Korea, writes proudly (and grammatically!) about how she has put both of her daughters through American colleges, and finally has time to invest in her own education.

The consistent story of our students is this: through often extraordinary and inspiring work, they better themselves, they contribute to our society, they give their children a better life. And often, they invite their tutors to stand beside them on the proud day when they become American citizens.

Right now, we have 101 people matched with a tutor. Some tutors have more than one student. Others are still waiting to be paired up, although we have 80 students waiting for tutors, too. The disconnect here is mainly one of schedules. Many of the folks looking for tutors have work, school, or kids, and may be available, for instance, only on Tuesdays at 3:45 p.m.

Bottom line: we need more volunteers.

We also need volunteers interested in facilitating our Practice Your English groups at Highlands Ranch and Castle Rock. Parker has a great group of volunteers, and the Saturdays are always covered. But at Highlands Ranch and Castle Rock, we have a shortage. This is a group setting, not the usual one-on-one. But some people actually prefer this setting.

It is a privilege to live in this country. If you'd like not only to enrich your own life, but make a profound difference in the life of someone else, please consider volunteering your time in the service of literacy.

You can reach Kate Prestwood at 303-791-7323. Call today.

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

August 19, 2010 - library teams with election office

A few years ago now, the Douglas County Libraries consolidated most of our phone lines into a central Contact Center. This did two things for us. First, it let us get rid of a lot of annoying sounds and service interruptions in the public areas. Our staff can concentrate on the people who show up in our buildings.

The second thing was that it let us really monitor the number and type of calls we receive, bringing in a lot of eye-opening data. That data has helped us manage a host of operations more efficiently.

Our Contact Center people do more than answer the phones, though. They manage a number of projects, the most recent of which was our team-up with the Douglas County Elections Office. In brief, the county paid us to answer the phone for that office – and provided us the training to do so. This is our second year of providing this service.

The 2010 Douglas County election season officially opened on July 19th. Primary ballots were mailed out and voter questions began pouring in.

From 9am to 5pm Monday through Friday July 19th to August 10th, our Contact Center was the first line of response for election questions. In the first two days we received as many calls as we did in the entire 2009 election.

We answered 4-5 calls an hour and were able to assist 86% of the voters who called us. (We passed along to the election office the ones that stumped us.) All together, election calls accounted for 15% of our total volume for the election period.

What kinds of things did voters ask us? The common questions included: address corrections, how to affiliate with a party, and how much postage a ballot requires.

Voters didn't have to do anything special to get us. Voters dialed the usual election number, and we just switched it over to our people automatically. Our staff could tell how many people were calling, and which line they were coming in on. We kept careful track of statistics.

Having one of the more efficient contact centers around, I'm pleased to report that we are able to provide the service at a very competitive price. Each call costs the election office 87¢ to answer. The library can do it for 50¢. By tracking such things as "dropped calls" (calls that didn't get answered because they overwhelmed the available lines) we can also maintain much better than industry-standard rates for responsiveness.

Like a lot of businesses, the library has tightened up its expenditures. Using existing resources, we were able not only to provide high quality public information, but even to generate a modest amount of new revenue – at a cost that still saved money for the county.

I'd like to acknowledge not only the out-of-the-box thinking of our county elections people (and in particular, County Clerk Jack Arrowsmith), but also our Information Technology and Contact Center staff who made the process so seamless and effective.

I think the public appreciates knowing that independent arms of the government look for ways not only to provide useful service but also to save money together.

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

August 12, 2010 - expert thinking

In 2005 Philip Tetlock wrote a book called, "Expert Political Judgment: How Good is it? How can we know?"

To find out, he did something extraordinary. He went back and studied 50 years of writings by various media pundits and commentators who made predictions about politics and economics. Then he carefully tracked the results.

What did he find?

Experts don't do so good.

They were worse than random. As one reviewer noted: "Human beings who spend their lives studying the state of the world... are poorer forecasters than dart-throwing monkeys." It didn't make any difference if they were conservative or liberal.

The reasons for this appalling performance are many.

Reasonable people with modest opinions aren't that much fun to read. People who say outrageous things command more attention. But that doesn't mean they're right. In fact, the wilder they get, they less likely that is.

It's a twist on the old "hedgehog versus the fox" fable. The simple hedgehog knows One Big Thing (how to roll up into a prickly ball and ignore outside threats). The clever fox knows many things.

Most experts are hedgehogs. They fall in love with their own perspectives and are impervious to all the evidence to the contrary. It becomes a kind of arrogance.

Or as H. L. Mencken once said, "For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong."

Foxes, on the other hand, are wary of big ideas that explain everything. They are less grandiose.

But foxes make better guesses about the future. The future is nuanced.

People get fooled by their own supposed expertise. They get deeper and deeper into arcane knowledge and think it really tells them something. But Tetlock concluded that more general perspectives - taking into account the information from multiple areas of study, and more than one perspective - gives people a better read on the likely future.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

August 5, 2010 - why do you think that?

I've written in the past about what we should do when we learn that something we have long believed turns out not to be true. (In brief, strive to change those beliefs to be more in line with reality. Doesn't that sound easy?)

But where do these beliefs come from in the first place? Why do we believe them?

On a personal level, according to the brain and linguistical research work of George Lakoff and others (see "Don't Think of an Elephant," and "The Political Brain") it all comes down to "framing."

Have you ever heard an argument where suddenly it's clear that one side is about to lose? Their evidence in tatters, their rhetoric shattered, you imagine that surely they will back down ... but no.

It was never about the evidence.

When you knock down the supposed reason for their belief, another one immediately takes its place. The frame - which only sees what it is convinced must be true - remains.

Framing is really nothing more than a metaphor, a story that begins with the body, and winds up as a filter for all we understand. For instance, the love of the mother for the child creates a literal sense of warmth in the child, a warmth centered in the heart. We believe it because we feel it.

From there, it's only a short hop to to saying that your heart belongs to your mother - until, of course, someone else generates even more heat.

On a political level, it gets a little more complicated. But maybe not much more.

Lakoff argues that both conservatives and liberals base their political philosophies on the idea of the family, that earliest and most formative of social experiences.

Lakoff says that conservatives have the frame of the strict father. Liberals believe in the nurturing mother. Each of those frames, those stories, then plays out in a host of ways.

The strict father believes in right and wrong, reward and punishment. The nurturing mother believes in kindness and meanness, in learning and forgiveness. Those orientations can be directly tied to individual willingness to support law enforcement, or social services.

In the political realm there is something else: repetition over time.

I was also doing some reading about the early development of think tanks. (See William F. Buckley's "The John Birch Society and me," and the Heritage Foundation's "The origins of the modern American conservative movement," both articles freely available on the Web.)

Following the failure of Barry Goldwater's run for the presidency in 1964, conservatives of the time adopted a simple approach: put together a list of core beliefs. Keep talking about them. Set up institutions that could be contacted by media looking for quotes on "the other side."

The ascendancy of the conservative mindset, the reflexive belief that "lowering taxes" is good, no matter what they pay for, can be directly attributed to that strategy. It took almost half a century of more or less consistently applied effort. Changing beliefs takes time.

So why do we believe what we believe?

Because we try to make sense of the world. Because we are hooked by good stories, and the stories we hear early enough, and often enough, begin to sound right.

Some of those story tellers are "experts." And next week, I'll tackle this question: can they be trusted?

LaRue's Views are his own.