December 14, 2009

University IT: Technological Catch 22

After the American Century Posting #201

Once I was in a supermarket checkout line when a particular jar of jam just would not scan and its code was unrecognizable when the clerk put the numbers in by hand. Result? He refused to sell me the jam. He could not sell something that did not exist in the system. The jam was right there, and we all know roughly what such things cost. But I could not buy it, or rather, he could not sell it. These (il)logical impasses have a name: Catch-22, from the novel of the same name. Following the rules, you end up paralyzed, unable to change the situation.

Something similar has happened today, as a result of my university's decision to upgrade (well, change) the email system. The result is that I will no longer be able to get emails at home, unless (and here's the catch) I upgrade my home computer to MS Office 2008+. This will cost me money and time.

Ideally my employer should reimburse such an expense. However, the Danish government has passed a new tax law, to whit: anyone who gets a portable computer, new software or email support from an employer must pay $600 in tax, every year. Besides, even if the law suddenly were overturned, my employer has no money for such things. Indeed, it has never even provided me with a flat screen much less an entirely new computer in the office! My screen was one of the first televisions, and was left behind by retreating Germans after World War II.

So, should I bite the bullet and pay for a home upgrade? Not so fast. If I do that, then my antiquarian office machine will be running 2004 software and my home machine will be five years ahead of it. In my experience, constantly shifting between two systems causes corrupted files, loss of data, and occasional freeze-ups. Besides, that 2008 MS-system for Mac has lousy reviews.

Nevertheless, to minimize problems, should I upgrade both home and office machines, at my own expense? That is actually not allowed. The university may not have any money, but it reserves the right to control what software gets into the campus system. In short, even if I wanted to spend lots of my own money, there apparently is no solution.

So, my emails are paralyzed, never to arrive in my home in-basket, a bit like that jar of jam, which remains forever in the supermarket checkout. I must give up the delights of reading emails from students and administrators in the evenings and weekends, just like I gave up that jam.

I suppose that giving it up helped me to lose just a tiny bit of weight. Come to think of it, getting no campus emails may slim down my working hours. And when I am at conferences and on research trips, no need to look at the frantic last minute requests from anyone on campus, because I just won't be hearing from them. They will be stuck in check-out.

But as for you, loyal friends and readers, I can always be reached at my non-campus email address. And that, actually, is the solution. Forget IT on campus, get yourself a free account with Google or HotMail or Yahoo or wherever. That was also the only solution in Catch-22, Joseph Heller's novel. Get out of the clutches of the system. Make your own jam.