Thursday, April 30, 2009

A Devilish Way to Lose

I've seen some awful losses in my lifetime. Naturally, as a New York fan, losing that 3-0 2004 ALCS lead to the Red Sox comes to mind, the 2001 World Series Game 7 loss with Mariano Rivera on the mound holding the lead, and the 2002 Giants vs. 49ers playoff loss when the Giants couldn't hold a 24 point lead late in the third quarter. I've also watched terrible losses as where I was rooting for the eventual winning side, such as the 1986 World Series Game 6 "Bill Buckner" game, the 2003 ALCS Game 7 Red Sox blown lead and the Monday Night Football game in 2000 where the Jets somehow came back from a 30-7 deficit to beat the Dolphins.

A couple of nights ago I was flipping between the Yankees vs. Tigers game (great pitching by Phil Hughes), the Mets vs. Marlins game (another bad loss by the Mets), the Game 7 Rangers loss to Capitals (Henrik Lundqvist single-handedly kept the Rangers in the series against a far superior Capitals team), and the Game 7 matchup between the New Jersey Devils and the Carolina Hurricanes.

Granted, the stakes weren't cosmically large as it was a first round matchup, but the Devils were 1 minute 20 seconds away from winning Game 7 and moving on to the second round, when they not only managed to let the tying goal score, but about a minute later the Hurricanes scored the winning goal and took the series. Yikes, that's pretty awful. As the final horn sounded, the Hurricanes looked elated like somehow they had miraculously snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. As for the Devils, they looked completely stunned.

I remember a "Peanuts" cartoon strip where Charlie Brown excitedly tells Linus about a football game he had just seen where his team had made an amazing comeback, winning the game which they were surely going to lose. As an ecstatic Charlie Brown relates the final parts of his story and shares about the elation of the winning team and waits for Linus' reaction, Linus pauses and then finally asks, "How did the other team feel?"

But that's sports for you - every "miracle" for one team corresponds to a "meltdown" for another; every "comeback" for one team is another team's "choke". As fans, we live with the reality that the odds say that at the end of the season, your team is probably not going to win it all. But it sure is fun to watch anyway, isn't it?

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Viva Academia - Just a Different Academia

A recent op-ed in the New York Times raised the interesting idea of completely revamping the university, with a particular focus (it seems to me) on graduate education in non-professional fields. The writer, Dr. Mark Taylor the chairman of the religion department at Columbia University, proposed six major ideas. I think that he's onto something here.

Here are the six steps and my thoughts:

1. Restructure the curriculum, beginning with graduate programs and proceeding as quickly as possible to undergraduate programs

2. Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs

The first two sort of go hand in hand, and Taylor makes the very good point that certain problems cannot be addressed in isolation. Taylor makes the political science exclusive of religion point. I wonder, though, how he will effectively prevent all curriculum from being a mish-mash of subjects. The reality is that almost everything is connected somehow, and it seems that you'd run the risk of pouring out people who are jacks of all trades but have no mastery or depth in any segment of knowledge.

Even his examples of having departments such as Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water. Isn't there an economic component (Money) that exists in most of the other departments? So don't these problem-based programs still have the "too narrow focus" problem that plagues the current model?

He gives the example of the Water program, which "would bring together people in the humanities, arts, social and natural sciences with representatives from professional schools like medicine, law, business, engineering, social work, theology and architecture". I'm not sure where people with those skills would come from, if you've eliminated discipline-based programs, even at the undergraduate level as he proposes, in favor of problem-based ones. Am I missing something?

3. Increase collaboration among institutions

Makes sense. I can't see how knowledge-sharing and the building off each other's ideas could possibly be a bad thing.

4. Transform the traditional dissertation.

Yeah! Dissertation by YouTube and Twitter. I'm all for that, especially if it means less wasted time writing about obscure subjects nobody really cares about. Perhaps the rule of thumb will be "If you can't Twitter a compelling  summary of your main points or put it in a five-minute YouTube video, it's probably irrelevant and uninteresting to most of the world." Actually, I hope it doesn't come to that.

5. Expand the range of professional options for graduate students

Seriously, shouldn't universities be doing this already? There's nothing more depressing than hearing about the plights of people who have been churned out by universities and graduate schools in disciplines which there is clearly an insufficient market for their services. My friend had mentioned that in a particular Scandinavian country, they actually limit those who study art and music, with particular attention in regulating supply for demand.

6. Impose mandatory retirement and abolish tenure.

Makes sense to me. I have some tenured professor friends who wouldn't been keen on this. Generally speaking, has guaranteed employment without repercussion for poor performance ever led to better quality? Nope. On the other hand, do you know of anybody who would prefer to go from guaranteed employment to at-risk employment? Nope.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Grass Greener with Other Seasons

We've had four straight unseasonably hot days now, with the temperature hovering between the high eighties and the low nineties for four days straight, and with this sneak preview of summer, I am reminded why given the choice between the heat of summer and the cold of winter, I'd take the cold of winter any day.

Now it's possible that this is just a matter of "the grass being greener on the other side of the fence"; and come next January I'll be whining about how much I detest winters with its frozen toes and short days, but let me at least rationally sort this out. So here's why on a whole, I prefer winter:
  1. You can always add layers to make you warmer. There are only so many layers you can remove (i.e. you can't remove your skin when it gets unbearably hot).
  2. Insects, bees and wasps are plentiful during the summer. 
  3. Home-specific season comfort favors winter over summer. Huddle in front of the fireplace with a hot cup of cocoa at home when it's cold. We don't have a pool, and the though of huddling in front of the air conditioner doesn't seem to have the same aesthetic feel.
  4. Cooking warms the house and hot food helps warm the body in the winter. Yes, in the summer, you can barbeque and expose yourself to searing heat while it's 90 degrees and humid. And did I mention the wasps and bees?
  5. Odors are much worse in the summer heat. Between Sophia's diaper champ and the city odors, we're dealing with some awful scents.
  6. Given that I do a lot of walking during my commute, I need to deal with sweat-soaked-through shirts at work. And the eternal question - do I dare wear short-sleeved shirts to make my walk to work bearable, even if it means committing a workplace fashion faux pas?
So that's my short list. I'll fully concede that for summer, I appreciate the longer days and waking up to sun. Plus, I'm not a skier, so the summer avails me to vacations at the beach which are far preferable than anything I could do locally during the winter.

The truth of the matter is, I'd be very happy with perpetual spring weather. 

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Problem With Bullies

One of my friends had said that when he became a father, the one thing that he would absolutely forbid his child to do and would punish severely, was to bully other people. You see, this friend was bullied as a child, and traumatized to the point that he recalled crying uncontrollably absolutely begging not to go to school despite his mothers gentle attempts to coax him.

There's been a lot of new the last couple of years about bullying, including a recent article on which recounts a sad story of eleven-year-old Jaheem Herrera, who, despite being in a school district with a strong anti-bullying program, commit suicide after being bullied. It reminded me about how brutal the schoolyard can be. In the office, someone bullies you (let alone call you a racial or sexual-orientation related slur), you call HR, and that person gets an official reprimand placed in his/her file if not fired altogether. In the schoolyard when something like that happens, the kid will either have the rest of the kids laughing in stitches and  hailed as a cool hero or at "worst" the kid will get a stern talking to by a teacher or principal, be educated that certain words are inappropriate and then give a completely insincere apology in front of the class after which the bullied child is threatened with a thrashing if he/she ever "tattles" on a future bullying session.

I caught a Simpsons episode where Lisa masquerades as a boy in order to get a more challenging math education after the school is split up by gender. In the episode, Bart, who is aware of the farce, tells Lisa that if she truly wants to fit in and gain respect within the boy community, he needs to bully someone weaker than him. Lisa reluctantly seeks out poor Ralph Wiggum and punches him. As Ralph runs away crying, one of the nearby bullies observes grimly, "You just beat up the most harmless kid in the school..." And then after a dramatic pause, the kids all shout and cheer their approval. It was absolutely hilarious, but it sort of hit the nail on the head of the problem. Bad behaviors are rewarded on the schoolyard, and your "rep" in the schoolyard is all that matters when you're a kid.

So as a parent, you do what you can to try to what you can to instill values in your children to defend those who cannot defend themselves, even if it's unpopular to do so. You try to teach them how to defuse a fight as a peacemaker, how to walk away from a fight and how to defend themselves. And you try to model in your own life that you will not be bullied to renounce godly convictions, to deny the things or act contrary to that which you know is right, even when the consequences mean ridicule or marginalization.

So while adults will less likely get physically beat up at the office, there are subtle forms of bullying that still exist. It just comes in the form of the rumblings of personal moral opinions at the water cooler, a throwaway comment about religious people in the cafeteria, caricatures in the media, and organized groups that pretty much want you to be silent and your convictions to be wiped off the face of society.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

A New Skirmish in the Mac versus PC Jihad

In the backdrop of a rivalry which seems only slightly less heated than the one between the Yankees and the Red Sox, a new series of television ads from Microsoft takes aim at the relatively high cost and lower value of Macs compared to Windows-based PC's.

I think this is the smart route to go from Microsoft, as at very least it'll help wash down the stench and vomit from those horrible Bill Gates and Jerry Seinfeld advertisements which tried to demonstrate... well, it's still not clear at this point, which was part of the problem. The marketing gurus at Microsoft likely came to the realization that the public was going to laugh about (1) anything that came off as a defensive retort to Apple's hilarious and popular "I'm a Mac... I'm a PC" advertisements, (2) anything that tries to speak of Microsoft product's reliability and functionality, or (3) anything that tries to speak of the aesthetic value or warm and fuzzy user experience of using Windows.

So what's left? Price. Essentially, it's the last line of defense of "our product is inferior and probably gives you a worse experience than our competitor, but you can save a heckuva lot of money." It's a risk, because once you run to that "we're cheaper" area and concede the quality and functionality crown to a competitor, it'll be a tough climb back in the eyes of the public.

As for the new ad campaign, Apple fans' reactions were predictably strongly negative. Some make the point that a supposed "girl off the street" presented with a challenge to buy a laptop for $1000 is actually a character actress, another notes that supposedly "tech-savvy" Giampaolo demostrates his deep knowledge by saying things like "this one has a little camera thing" and seems to ignore that Linux option that truly tech-savvy users consider. Some complain that he's not wearing his seatbelt.

For what it's worth, this blog was written on a Windows-based laptop.  I probably could care less, but I find that the people who care passionately very amusing.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Our "Please Touch" Journey of Faith

My family made a day trip to Philadelphia this past Saturday, where we hung out with a buddy of mine and his two young children. The highlight was the visit of the new "Please Touch" Museum, where the kids, unlike most museums, are actually encouraged to pull, tug, push, and otherwise handle the exhibits. Daniel and Sophia had a great time banging on some non-traditional and makeshift musical instruments and experimenting with water currents, plastic boats and rubber duckies. The staff there doesn't protect the exhibits from the kids by shooing them away - they actively encourage kids to learn by touching and experiencing.

It dawned upon me that the Christian faith, thank God, is very much a "please touch" journey of faith. The invitation we receive from Jesus is warm and gentle to come and see and learn more about him - to experience him just a little deeper every day. The "Please Touch" invitation comes in the same spirit as Jesus' invitation to John's two disciples in John 1:39 to follow him in the beginning of his ministry and the same spirit as Jesus' invitation to Thomas to touch his pierced hands and side to allay Thomas' doubt about the resurrection.

And the invitation is extended to all regardless of race, gender, education, religous upbringing, personal baggage, social, political or religious background to "please touch" Jesus. To "touch him" by reading the Bible that speaks about him and his teachings. To "touch him" by praying to Him, both speaking your own hopes and fears and listening to his voice.

Even for me, as a Christian of many years, I am deeply thankful that our God is so wonderfully approachable in this sense. We do not approach God glibly, but truly He is a God who has met me where I am at given my life circumstances and struggles. He is both awesome and immensely personal. I've realized that over my life I have, like Daniel and Sophia did on Saturday as their little hands yanked and probed levers and handles, fiddled around in my own understanding of God and His ways and have discovered new things about Him, His love, and His character. I am understanding better how He informs my fatherhood, my work, and all the other things that I encounter as the years pass by in my life. Every page in the Bible, every opportunity to pray for wisdom and hear His voice, and every yet-to-be-realized epiphany is essentially an invitation to "please touch."

So for those who count themselves to currently be followers of Jesus and for those who do not, the invitation to "please touch" remains open. Come and see... and touch.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Street With Sean Bell's Name

There's an interesting article in the New York Times about a proposal to name a street after Sean Bell, who was shot and killed by police officers in a highly controversial shooting outside a nightclub in 2006

I understand that Sean Bell was a victim of at best, extremely poor judgment of officers of the law, and at worse, grave criminal injustice by detectives who made the mistake of shooting first and asking questions later. But what I don't understand is giving Mr. Bell an honor so lofty based on the distinction of merely being a victim of a crime, albeit a heinous one.

Who was Sean Bell? What did his life consist of before the bullets starting flying? We know that his blood-alcohol level was above the legal limit when the car he drove into a car with detectives. He was walking out of a strip-club with friends. He had a criminal record. He was not a boy scout. He was certainly not someone who I would look upon a role model for a my son. Again, this doesn't at all diminish the tragedy of his death, nor excuse the misdeeds committed against him.

But just as board chairwoman Adjoa Gzifa asks, why does Sean Bell get memorialized and honored given the circumstances of his death? How about the hundreds of young men and women who are cut down throughout the years who are victims of robberies and other crimes? Many who are law-abiding citizens who instead of walking out of strip-clubs, were walking their girlfriends to their apartments when they were jumped by hoodlums and thugs?

Funny. I don't see the movement to rename 120th Street "Minghui Yu Avenue" to honor the Chinese graduate student was killed by a car while trying to run away from being mugged by a teenage thug who was showing off. Apparently there was no need to memorialize a guy who just happened to be killed "in a mistake", as the perpetrator's aunt insisted. Minghui Yu was just a graduate student who was a "religious, hardworking, brilliant guy" who quickly became yesterday's news - without fanfare or activists demonstrating - and certainly without the honor of street-naming ceremony.

I'm not debating that Sean Bell's death wasn't tragic and quite possibly a travesty. But there are few deaths that aren't. And someday in the future when I drive through New York City and my children look upon the street signs and ask about the greatness of the people who have had streets named after them, I can tell them about the people behind Yitzhak Rabin Way, Duke Ellington Boulevard, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, and the Joe DiMaggio Highway. I just don't know if I'll have much to say about Sean Bell.

Maybe instead I'll use that opportunity to tell them about Minghui Yu.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Bam! Happy Trails to John Madden

Happy trails to John Madden, legendary NFL coach and announcer who announced last week that he is retiring from the broadcast booth. Madden was well known for his frequent use of a telestrator as a color commentary, interjecting his analyses with onomatopoeia such as "Bam!", "Boom!" and "Wham!" He carried the EA Sports video game line, for which his Madden (insert year here) will always be the standard for football video games. He was also famous for his fear of flying, leading him to travel by means of a decked out coach bus known as the Madden Cruiser. The concept of going cross country in luxury bus (you can find photos of the interior here) seems like it would be fun - once. But I can see how, between the body odor, the traffic, the portable toilet and motion-sickness, it would get pretty old real fast.

As far as Madden. I actually stood a foot away from him at one point. It was January 2001, and in the first round of the NFL playoffs featured the Philadelphia Eagles versus the New York Giants. Madden was working the booth for that game, and for whatever reason (well, I can think of a lot of reasons), he apparently stayed in Manhattan as opposed to East Rutherford, NJ the night before the game. I was strolling on Columbus Avenue and in front of Empire Szechuan on Columbus Avenue, there stood John Madden next to me studying the menu on the window. A few other guys walked past, noticed that a celebrity was in their midst and one asked, "Hey, what do you think of the game tomorrow, John?"

After turning and giving a subtle nod, the big guy bolted away. Or as John Madden would say, "So Madden waits for the opening and 'Bam!' he hits the hole and nobody's going to catch him as he goes down the avenue."

Monday, April 20, 2009

A Long Way (or Not) From Robert Louis Stevenson's Long John Silvers

Since the daring rescue of an abducted captain in the hands of Somali pirates the weekend past last, there continue to be attacks on merchant vessels past the Gulf of Aden into the Indian Ocean. The rescue has only led to more defiance by pirates, at least vocally, who have sworn continue attacks and "revenge" in light of the strong response by the American Navy and other naval forces.

Most pundits seem to agree that the problem is not going to go away any time soon. A lawless Somalia, vasts areas of open sea which is nearly impossible to canvas, and the tough reality that corporations are willing to pay large ransoms to save the lives of their crews have kept the pirates highly motivated in their work. There is neither the negative incentive to cease their operations, as pirates reasonably see the chances of being caught and killed as small given their past record of success evading patrols. There is also little positive incentive for them to cease as piracy is a remarkably lucrative trade which has made them heroes to their waterfront Somali communities, and wanted men in the eyes of Somali bachelorettes. The prospects of a career in science, teaching, law, or accounting seem laughable given the desolate society in which they live, so they face the rhetorical question of "give up piracy so I can do what?"

As the article above mentions, the pirates are now being confronted by foreign navies — and sometimes arrested or killed — and thus they are using more force and the danger to their hostages has increased. I fear we're going to start hearing more stories of pirates who are going to put bullets in the back of heads of captives as navies raid their ships and hideouts. As countries and companies take tougher stands, as they should, I wonder if we're going to hear news of shipping companies receiving parcels with a captive sailor's head inside.

I wonder also what this will do culturally to the view of the pirate. Piracy, at least on the open seas, is something which has been romanticized in the last thirty years or so. We have a baseball team which proudly takes it's name from that profession. The Disney company have made a series of movies with a lovable Jack Sparrow as something of a hero. On that same token, you can sit on a ride in either Disneyworld or Disneyland and glory in the pirates' life. Thousands of kids have pirate-themed birthday parties.

I wonder if over the next couple of years, as this piracy crisis gets increasingly more widespread and violent, if such certain cultural things are going to seem a little odd. Will the Pittsburgh Pirates team name seem as inappropriate as the Jacksonville Jihadists? Will the ride at the theme park seem as distasteful as sitting in a jeep ride where you get to see an animatronic thug behead a journalist? Will little Billy's birthday party have the poor taste of handing out AK-47 party favors with paper plates depicting men hog-tying terrified sailors and putting gags in their mouths?

And of course, am I going to have a complex around going to Long John's Silver's for my beloved fish and chips?

Saturday, April 18, 2009

2009 NBA Playoff Preview

Well, you know what they say about the NBA - it's FAN-tastic! So despite neither of the local New York metropolitan area teams making the playoffs, hordes of local bandwagon fans of the Cavaliers, who have no idea who Craig Ehlo is, and hordes of local bandwagon fans of the Lakers, who ignored the team during the Anthony Peeler era, will gear up for playoff team. In the meantime, fans of the Knicks like myself will hope the ping-pong balls in the lottery turn up giving us Blake Griffin.

Here are my predictions for the 2009 NBA Playoffs:

Eastern Conference
First Round
(1) Cleveland (66-16) vs. (8) Detroit (39-43)
Let's see, the Cavaliers were historically good at home, and Detroit limps in as a sub-.500 team without Allen Iverson (which might be a good thing depending on how you view team chemistry. It's a mismatch, anyway. Cavs in four.

(2) Boston (62-20) vs. (7) Chicago (41-41)
There's a small chance that a Kevin Garnett's recovery from a balky knee might keep the Big Three from firing on all cylinders, but you have to give credit for the Celtics from securing the #2 seed against a very motivated Orlando team essentially without Garnett. I do think that some of Chicago's youth could give Boston some trouble the same way Atlanta did last year, but Boston still pulls it out in a surprisingly close series. Celtics in seven.

(3) Orlando (59-23) vs. (6) Philadelphia (41-41)
Dwight Howard is a monster in a middle, but thankfully the Sixers have Elton Brand to neutralize him. Oops, wait, never mind. The story for the Sixers this year is that they're actually better without Brand, playing their running and gunning game. Unfortunately, this leads them susceptible to dominant big men, and they don't get much more dominant than Howard. Magic in five.

(4) Atlanta (47-35) vs. (5) Miami (43-39)
This is a toss-up. Atlanta is a very good playoff team at home, as they showed last year, and they definitely have some talent. On the other hand, Miami has Dwyane Wade. I mean, the guy is that good that his sole presence really could be difference despite the fact that I think he plays for the weaker team that doesn't have home court advantage. On a hunch, I'll take the Heat. Heat in seven.

Conference Semifinals
(1) Cleveland (66-16) vs. (5) Miami (43-39)
A great match up with two legitimate MVP candidates, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. The difference is that Cleveland is lethal on their home court, and LeBron has a far superior supporting cast. Cleveland in five.

(2) Boston (62-20) vs. (3) Orlando (59-23)
Here's where the loss of Kevin Garnett really starts to hurt. It's one thing to grind out four wins against a Chicago team with no dominant big man. It's another thing altogether to face up against Dwight Howard without a legitimate low-post defender (no, I'm not counting Kendrick Perkins or Glen Davis) along with Orlando's legion of lethal shooters.  Well Celtics fans, you'll always have the rings from 2008. Orlando in six.

Conference Finals
(1) Cleveland (66-16) vs. (3) Orlando (59-23)
I was trying to defy conventional thinking a little bit and pick against the team with the biggest star. I was trying to say that Rafer Alston neutralizes Mo Williams and Rashard Lewis will make his matchup with LeBron a little closer than Dwight Howard's predicted domination over Anderson Varejao and Ben Wallace. I can't do it. I can't pick against LeBron, not with the Cavs holding home court. Cavs in seven.

Western Conference
First Round
(1) Los Angeles (65-17) vs. (8) Utah (48-34)
The good news for the Lakers is that Kobe and the crew are looking fantastic. The better news is that with a first round matchup with the Jazz, Kobe's going to be hard pressed to get into trouble off the court. Also, the Jazz absolutely stink away from home. Lakers in five.

(2) Denver (54-28) vs. (7) New Orleans (49-33)
Wow, how well did that Iverson for Billups trade work out for those Nuggets, eh? The fact that the perennial 7th or 8th seeded Nuggets vaulted to the 2nd seed and the Pistons basically imploded says a little about the relative merits of those two players, wouldn't you say? That being said, I don't really thing that the Nuggets are a team that are elite. Fortunately for them, neither are the Hornets, who seem to have lost all their mojo from last year. Nuggets in six.

(3) San Antonio (54-28) vs. (6) Dallas (50-32)
No Ginobili, but the Spurs still have Duncan and Parker. I think Dallas has a chance to surprise some people in the playoffs, with strong guard play, the always imposing Dirk, and probably a sense of urgency to break through in what is a rapidly closing window. Besides, they need desperately to justify that Devin Harris for Jason Kidd trade. It's probably too late for that, but at least they can say that Kidd helped them get past the first round. Mavs in six.

(4) Portland (54-28) vs. (5) Houston (53-29)
How about those kids on the Blazers? They have a young and exciting core, but Houston has Yao, Ron Artest, and a host of complementary players that just seem to fit. The red-hot Blazers will end up breaking hearts of billions in China when they bounce the Rockets in the first round. I put the chances at 50/50 that Ron Artest goes crazy during some part of the playoffs. Blazers in seven.

Conference Semifinals
(1) Los Angeles (65-17) vs. (4) Portland (54-28)
Portland is nice up and coming young team. Unfortunately for them, what they aspire to be is essentially what the Lakers are right now. It was a nice little run, but Paul Allen's team can chalk it up to a nice learning experience as they get mauled by a Lakers team hitting their stride. Lakers in five. 

(2) Denver (54-28) vs. (6) Dallas (50-32)
As I said, I don't believe in this Denver team. Here's where the experience of the Mavericks, not including their propensity to choke in the postseason, pays off. Steady guard play and lots of Mark Cuban facial expressions caught on air lead to a Mavs victory, as David Stern grits his teeth. Mavs in six.

Conference Finals
(1) Los Angeles (65-17) vs. (6) Dallas (50-32)
David Stern tries to contain his smug sense of satisfaction as Kobe knocks out Mark Cuban's band of merry Mavs. At this point, the Mavericks veteran experience becomes veteran fatigue as the Lakers blow them out. Lakers in four.

NBA Finals
(1) Cleveland (66-16) vs. (1) Los Angeles (65-17)
Let's face it. Unless you live in Boston or any other city which "reasonably" has a chance of upsetting either of these team, this is the marquis matchup. Madison Avenue wants it, David Stern wants it, and so do most sports fans. To see Kobe and LeBron going up against each other to the death for the trophy is what we'd like to see, and we'll end up seeing Kobe lifting the trophy, leaving a frustrated LeBron resigned to simply cashing in and signing with the Knicks as a free agent. Okay, I'm projecting a little, but why not? Lakers in six.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Imitating Contact Evangelistic Techniques, Part 2

So in the same spirit of the previous post about those ultra-aggressive paid solicitors from DialogueDirect, Sarah and I were walking in our local mall with our kids and a couple of friends from church when an older woman abruptly stopped Sarah.

"Your daughter is soooo beautiful!" the woman gushed. Not to sound at all boastful, but this has happened literally scores of times to Sarah while she's strolling Sophia, where she gets stopped by people in the street, in the supermarket, or in gym praising the cuteness of our daughter, sometimes accompanied with a flattering suggestion that we should get Sophia considered for commercial photo opportunities.

What was odd was how the woman continued after Sarah thanked her for the compliment.

"You know, there's always a reason why I come here. Today I had to return something in Macy's. Now I'm not a physician or anything but... do you work in the pharmaceutical industry? Because I want to tell you that I'm completely convinced that those vaccines are doing something bad to our children ..."

At this point, Sarah, maybe a little freaked out, started to stroll Sophia away with a smile while thanking the lady again. It dawned upon me that this whole "vaccinations are giving kids autism (or other developmental issues)" argument is more widespread that I thought.

There was a good article in Time magazine which reported on the rising tide of mothers and fathers who were suspicious of the effects of vaccines, even in the face of scientific evidence which overwhelmingly supporting the premise that vaccines, specifically MMR, were not the cause of autism.

But despite this scientific evidence, parents and grandparents (including, presumably, this woman who accosted Sarah and I at the mall) are not only playing Russian roulette with their children by eschewing vaccinations, they're also being bold and outspoken in converting others as well. And lest it be seen a simple issue of, "Fine, if you want to put your child at risk, you go right ahead," it's not that simple. The reality is that a growing number of non-vaccinated children presents a public health risk for the larger population, as reported in the New York Times.

As the article states, much of the problem stems from parents who get bad information from well-intentioned websites which oppose vaccination. Those parents tell other parents these ideas and present them as gospel, and before soon, you have a movement like the one that presently exists.

As for me, the issue becomes one of risk management. Insomuch I believe that there are some inherent risks embedded in having my children take vaccines, I feel that to not vaccinate them would expose them to far greater risk. Other parents are gambling with not only their children's health, but mine. As one mother who has refused vaccinations for the children freely admits, “I refuse to sacrifice (given her belief that vaccines are bad) my children for the greater good.

And their movement goes on. I'm just waiting for people in the mall handing out the Jack Chick-ish tracts with titles like: "The Poison Pill!", "Vaccinated Vinnie and Autism", and "The Vaccine Conspiracy... Revealed!"

Thursday, April 16, 2009

DialogueDirect - the Children's International Mercenaries

The most aggressive evangelists in Manhattan I know of are the paid solicitors from DialogueDirect working on behalf of Children's International, who step in front of walkers as they make their way crosstown on their commute home anytime between 5 and 7 each evening. Their tactics include stepping right in the oncoming path of a pedestrian waving their arms and providing any verbal hook such as "You like children, don't you?" or "Hey, I know you want to talk to me," or something to that effect.

Apparently, the kind folks at DialogueDirect have created a bit of a negative reputation, as noted in a local Portland newspaper. It's clearly a money-making venture to them, and to their credit, the vests I've seen them wear don't hide the fact that they're hired guns. It would be cynical to say that the legions of trained solicitors at DialogueDirect could care less about that kid in Africa which gets 80¢ on the dollar (by the same token, World Vision, which I give to and I think is far more worthy charity, puts 87¢ per dollar into programs) of every donation, but clearly the $180 commission that each of these pushy solicitors scores for every person who signs on is the much larger driving force here. Let's put it this way, they're not volunteering their time for free because they believe so much in the cause.

I have to say that I feel a little conflicted about paid solicitors. One one hand, there's a certain degree of irritation that I feel towards people who I sense are taking advantage of the false perception (even though many are upfront about their "paid solicitor status") that they're dedicated to first and foremost a very worthy cause, as opposed to making a living from it. And of course these people are some of the pushiest people on this planet, as noted in a recent article from the Village Voice. They are either oblivious to, or willfully ignore any non-verbal signals that you do not want to be approached or talk to them.

On the other hand, I also acknowledge that it's fundamentally unfair to condemn people who make a good living out of doing things which help people while people who profit by doing either morally neutral, or worse, morally-dubious things escape such scrutiny. As I had written in a previous blog, the double-standard is completely unfair. I quote, again, social entrepeneur Dan Pallotta:

We allow people to make huge profits doing any number of things that will hurt the poor, but we want to crucify anyone who wants to make money helping them. Want to make a million selling violent video games to kids? Go for it. Want to make a million helping cure kids of cancer? You’re labeled a parasite.

So I will try to bite my tongue and avoid the temptation to be a jerk by blowing off these Children's International mercenaries with comments such as "Do I look like a $180 commission to you?" or "World Vision gives 87% of proceeds. Waive your commission to make things even and then we'll talk" or "Your passion for children is commendable. I'd be happy to give if you, as an agent of a children's charity, can provide me a brief summary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the basic rights contained within. I'm sure you know it inside-out given your zeal for the subject. Just the main points."

So carry on, DialogueDirect, but please honor my non-verbal signals to leave me alone.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A Tragic Everyday Waste

Only a few hours after 22-year old Los Angeles Angels top pitching prospect Nick Adenhart pitched a stellar six-innings of shutout baseball in his first start of the season, his life was tragically cut short, killed by a drunk driver last week.'s Jeff Pearlman penned an article which sums up much of my own feelings. People can spew clichés and tell weepy stories about how to honor Adenhart, and that's all well and good. But is it going to take more and more famous celebrities and athletes to die for us to condemn in no uncertain terms the pure stupidity of drinking while intoxicated? Not to diminish the tragedy of a life cut short, but do people realize that there are around 14,000 people who die each year at the hands of alcohol-impaired drivers who don't happen to have a unhittable curveball or are represented by Scott Boras?

It's a tragic irony that within the same month of Adenhart's death, Yankees phenom Joba Chamberlain pleaded guilty to driving under the influence, after being caught with an open bottle of Crown Royal whisky in the passenger seat, and Cleveland Browns wide receiver Donte Stallworth was charged with DUI manslaughter, driving drunk and striking and killing pedestrian Mario Reyes, who worked overnight shifts at a shipping company to provide for his wife of 20 years and 15-year old daughter. And how about former Yankee Jim Leyritz, who also killed a woman while driving under the influence? He's free on bail while waiting for his trial on May 25th, doing some radio shows while the victim lies six feet under. Leyritz's lawyer, David Bogenschutz, incredulously said of the video footage where Leyritz didn't follow directions during one sobriety test and then faltered in another, "It's the best defense video I've seen."

Consider the case of St. Louis Rams defensive end Leonard Little, who in 1998 killed 47-year old mother and wife Susan Gutweiler while driving while intoxicated, "completely destroying our family" as son Mike Gutweiler says. Little's punishment? 90 nights in jail as part of a work-release program and 1,000 hours of community service. Are you kidding me? It gets worse. In 2004, Little was arrested for DWI and failed three sobriety tests, but was acquitted of the felony charge. Little resumed his NFL career with hardly a hiccup. It's a joke.

I'm not implying at all that Adenhart's death isn't tragic because of the idiocy of people like Chamberlain, Stallworth, Leyritz and Leonard Little. But I wonder if Leonard Little's agent sobbed for Susan Gutweiler the way Scott Boras sobbed for Nick Adenhart. I wonder if Jim Leyritz's lawyer sobbed for Nick Adenhart. The sports world doesn't hold a monopoly over the perpetrators or the victims of drunk driving. There are far too many of both groups.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Dirt Cheap Eats in Manhattan

Midtown Manhattan is infamous for the high cost of a meal. We are constantly reminded of this when each McDonald's commercial ends with, or states in fine print: Prices higher in Manhattan.

But thankfully there are a couple of hidden gems where you can put food in your stomach for cheap. I'm not talking Subway's $5 footlong cheap, I'm talking $1 cheap. So here are a couple of personal gems which I regularly encounter (either near work or on my walking commute route) that I share with my über-frugal readers:

Abdul's Hot Dog Stand - located on the southwest corner of 38th Street and Broadway, Abdul is one of the very small number of hot dog vendors, especially in the midtown area which will sell you a hot dog for $1. Most vendors will charge you $1.50, or $1.25 if you're lucky. The dog is precooked boiled, but then grilled for about a minute on a kebob grill, which is step up from some stands which will take a soaking wet dog from a tank and slap it on a bun.

99¢ Fresh Pizza - located on East 43rd Street between 3rd Avenue and Lexington is a bargain. To state the obvious, a pizza slice sells here at the bargain price of 99¢, and the pizza is actually pretty good - slightly crispy crush with a chewy dough inside, with just enough cheese and tomato sauce. The popularity of the pizza ensures that turnover is quick and you'll likely be getting fresh pizza right out of the oven as opposed to a 90 minute old pizza sitting under plexiglass like the multitude of Original Ray's.  Just as important, you won't be paying $1.75 to $2 per slice like you would at Ray's. Fair warning that they do charge tax, so two slices will put you back $2.15 and three slices will put you back $3.25 (I think they round out just to make things easy). Apparently they're also on the West Side at 9th Avenue between 41st and 42nd.

I'll update this list as other gems are unearthed.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Freedom of Physician Conscience Under Attack

The 15,000-member Christian Medical Association, a group in which many of my friends are members, is protesting the Obama administration's planned rollback of legislation which would protect healthcare workers who refuse to provide patient services, such as abortions, which they object to on the basis of religious conscience.

I'm going to yield the floor to the voices of two physicians, first my good friend Paul:

There are multiple problems with cutting off federal funding to any entity (hospitals, clinics, doctors, pharmacists, nurses) that does not accomodate abortion.  There are many problems with this legislation.  I fully agree that this signficantly violates the rights of health care professional to follow their conscience. However, there is another aspect of this issue, if passed, will affect everyone in the United States.  

If passed, this law will lead to lack of access to healthcare in the US.  It is estimated that 15-20% of American healthcare is provided by Catholic health institutions.  This law would lead to the closing of many hospitals.  Whereas pro-choice people have lobbied that there may not be doctors who are readily accessible in rural America to perform abortions, this law won't lead to Catholic hospitals changing their policy to offer abortion.  Instead, it will result in loss of funding from the government and lead to potential closing of those hospitals.  This could be devastating for that rural community.  The urban setting will also be affected.  The city's hospital emergency rooms are already operating at or above capacity.  This law will also lead to closing of urban Catholic/religious hospitals and further crippling the hospitals left standing.    

This will also dissuade many anti-abortion health professionals from entering the field of obstetrics.  In a field that is already short of obstetricians due to cost of malpractice insurance, should we enforce a law that will further deplete the profession?  Is it fair for the government to essentially eliminate a woman's choice for a pro-life doctor? 

And now some words from Dr. David Stevens of the Christian Medical Assocation in a letter to its members:

Some Background Information:
  • CMDA Informal Member Survey: 25% have been discriminated against - lost a job, lost a promotion or lost an educational opportunity; 40% have been pressured to violate their conscience, 90% say the problem is getting worse.
  • Right of Conscience is guaranteed in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights - "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof"
  • The present laws are being ignored since there is no provision to enforce them.
  • Pro-abortion groups are attempting to force healthcare professionals to participate in activities they are morally opposed to or leave medicine. These regulations are needed more than ever.
  • A medical referral means you endorse the competency, ethics and integrity of the doctor you refer to, believe the procedure is necessary and that you have entered into a professional relationship. Patients don't need a referral to find someone to do an abortion, just a phone book.
  • Healthcare professionals of conscience have not been doing objectionable activities in the past so these regulations will not limit access for patients. The greatest danger to patient access is to force out of work up to a quarter of healthcare professionals.
  • You provide full and accurate information to patients even when they request something you won't do. You treat them courteously.
  • Professional and other ethical statements support your position:
  1. American Medical Association - AMA reaffirms that neither physician, hospital, nor hospital personnel shall be required to perform any act violative of personally held moral principles.
  2. World Health Organization - The physician should be free to make clinical and ethical judgments without inappropriate outside interference.
  3. Canadian Medical Association - The CMA stresses that physicians who decline to participate in abortion should not be discriminated against, and emphasizes the need to respect the rights of conscientious objectors, especially those in training for obstetrics and gynecology, and anesthesia.
  4. European Convention on Human Rights - Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes… freedom …to manifest his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance.
  • This is more than the issue of abortion. Should we force pacifist to kill or doctors to participate in executions? What about forcing them to participate in physician-assisted suicide where it is legalized?
There is much more information on and CMDA's websites. Act today, don't delay. You may submit more than one comment as you address different parts of HHS's request.

I close with this quote from Crispin Sartwell in the Los Angeles Times last fall. He describes himself as a "Pro-Choice Atheist.": “The extent to which an institution seeks to expunge individual conscience and moral autonomy is the extent to which it is totalitarian and dangerous. The idea that I resign my conscience to the institution or to the state is perhaps the single most pernicious notion in human history. It is at the heart of the wars and genocides of this century and the last.

If you, as a non-physician, share my conviction that we must protect the consciences of healthcare professionals who object to performing abortions on religious grounds, please consider voicing your concerns to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in this online form.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

2009 Major League Baseball Preview

Sorry that this preview and my fearless predictions are coming a little late. I suppose you can accuse me of cheating by using the first five days of the season as a viable prediction of future performance for the next 159 or so games for each team. By that same logic, I'm going to panic like the stereotypical Yankee fan about C.C. Sabathia's and Mark Teixeira's inauspicious debuts and predict that Sabathia will finish the season 2-14 and Teixeira will bat somewhere around .236 with 14 home runs and 47 runs batted in, leading to a final Yankee record of 56 wins and 106 losses. Whatever.

I love each opening day. There's something terrific about seeing the ace of each team face off against the ace of another team to christen the season. The pitching matchups are excellent, and there's an optimism that every team has that they have some possibility of sneaking into the playoffs. Unless you're the Washington Nationals, of course.

In any case, here's what I see in the future:

American League East
It's not a stretch to say that the top three teams in baseball, let alone the American League make their home in the American League East. The Red Sox, Rays, and Yankees all bring fantastic teams with strong pitching and good hitting. The Yankees are going to be tough to catch in a 162-game season and there offense is without match, even with A-Rod missing some time to start the season. As for the Wild Card, I'm going to pick the Red Sox for the division on the strength of a great starting rotation with at least one of the pitchers that they picked off the scrap heap (John Smoltz or Brad Penny) regaining their all-star form, and with the Rays' young pitching staff experiencing some residual weariness after pitching through late October last year.

American League Central
The Minnesota Twins are a one of those franchises that has very little money but always seem to field a contending team each year. The haul they got from the Mets in the Santana trade will continue to pay dividends, with Carlos Gomez and Denard Span becoming a lethal combination of great defense of speed and Joe Maurer and Justin Morneau's steady veteran production. They'll edge out the White Sox in another tight division race down the finish.

American League West
It's been safe to pencil in the Angels into this slot in recent years, and even with the departures of Teixeira and K-Rod, this team with top-notch starting pitching (Lackey, Escobar, Santana Saunders, Weaver) and a strong bullpen (Shields, Fuentes) is my choice to come out of the West. I do anticipate that there will be a nice "Let's win it for Nick Adenhart" storyline, as well.

National League East
The heated rivalry between the Mets and Phillies will continue, but with the Phillies a little less hungry after winning it all last year, and hamstrung by the early injuries to their ace Cole Hamels and star second baseman Chase Utley, the Mets will finally be able to regain the division crown that they haven't held since 2006. The Phillies and Braves will make some noise, but at the end neither of them end up making the playoffs.

National League Central
The Cubs are loaded, and will run away with this division. Unfortunately, they'll fizzle out again in the playoffs, leading to more fodder for columnists to talk about the Curse of the Billy Goat and Steve Bartman.

National League West
Manny-mania continues in Los Angeles, and the Dodgers will ride the strong bat of Manny Ramirez and an up and coming group of young studs like Russell Martin, Andre Ethier, and Matt Kemp to a wild card berth. What will keep them from winning the division outright is a pitching staff which will feel the loss of Derek Lowe, forcing pitchers like Hiroki Kuroda, Chad Billingsley, and Clayton Kershaw to step up into roles a little less comfortable for them. The Arizona Diamondbacks will take the crown, with a killer 1-2 punch of Brandon Webb and Dan Haren, with Jon Garland filling in nicely for an aging Randy Johnson. The balanced attack spearheaded by youngsters Stephen Drew, Chris Young and Justin Upton will provide just enough offense to get them over the top.

The Yankees will squeak by the Twins in a five game series, with Sabathia topping Francisco Liriano in a tight Game 5. The Red Sox continue their mastery over the Angels, setting up yet another Yankees vs. Red Sox clash. Despite increasingly large forks sticking out of David Ortiz and Mike Lowell, Dustin Pedroia does just enough to take advantage of shaky Yankees starting pitching (Sabathia's never been a great postseason pitcher) to continue their postseason winning streak against their hated rivals.

On the senior circuit, the Cubs again fizzle again the postseason against the Diamondbacks, leading to the more columns about the cursed Cubs with a repeat of Ted Lilly slamming his glove down in disgust after giving up a mammoth homer to Chris Young. The Mets slip past the Dodgers with two dominating performances by Johan Santana and a bit of clutch hitting in an eighteen inning game by surprise pinch hitter Livan Hernandez. They follow this series win with a surprisingly easy sweep of the Diamondbacks.

The Mets and Red Sox produce an encore of 1986, and with the Red Sox up by a run in the possibly clinching Game 6, Jonathan Papelbon serves us a devestating three run walk-off homer to Carlos Delgado. The Red Sox, emotionally spent, get crushed in Game 7 as the Mets win their third World Championship.

If you're a Mets fan, don't get too excited. I was pretty far off with my NCAA Tournament predictions.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Good in Good Friday

I remember when I was six or seven years old, it dawned upon me that what was called Good Friday didn't seem very good at all. In fact, the thought of Jesus Christ, who at that time I knew merely as the Son of God and good teacher, being nailed to the cross to die didn't seem good at all. As a very young nominally Catholic boy, it seemed awful that this good and decent man was killed. What was good about it? It seemed downright awful.

Throughout the years as I've grown in faith, it's become clear to me that that Good Friday has a duality to it. On one level, it commemorates the tragedy that Christ, who lived the holy life that we could not live, suffered the judgment that we justly deserved. He was condemned in a sham trial with a rigged jury, unjust judge and false witnesses. It was a travesty of justice. On another level, Good Friday also reminds us of the immense glory and magnificence of God, making the term "good" seem inadequate. The Son of God giving himself as a sacrifice for the sins of those who put their trust in him in the perfect juxtaposition of justice, mercy and grace. The wrath and justice of God satisfied by blood shed by God in the flesh, mercy poured out to those who embrace him as Savior as a cosmic pardon is issued, and grace abounds to those who are now adopted into the family of God.

Two millennia years ago, Jesus cried "My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?" as he endured the judgment and separation from God that we justly deserved, before declaring "It is finished!" as he breathed his last, confirming that he had paid in full our debt of sin. This, which we remember on Good Friday, is the heart of the gospel of Good News. Especially in the lens of the Resurrection three days later, it could be described as triumphant, victorious, and glorious - but the word "good" hardly seems sufficient, does it?

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Immigrant on Immigrant Massacre

Last Friday, a town probably most famous for its State University was the site of a horrific massacre when a Vietnamese immigrant named Jiverly Voong went into an immigration center armed to the teeth and killed 13 people before turning the gun on himself. Authorities and pundits have used the word "coward", "lunatic", and "maniac" to describe Voong, but I wonder if these labels are used more for our own comfort (yes, I realize that there are some disturbing letters attributed to him) - pigeon-holing the young man and fitting him in a category far away from us "normal folks" to give us a false sense of understanding of a tragedy which is difficult to understand.

Not a whole lot is still known about the shooter, though an article in the New York Daily News provides us a glimpse into Jiverly Voong. While there are a handful of angry comments, there isn't a heck of lot that would make it evident that he would be capable of such an atrocity. He's a bitter immigrant who has been beaten down and depressed by a seemingly endless string of personal and professional failures. His wife and kids left him and he had lost his job on more than one occasion, all of which made him understandably (without excusing his actions) angry about his lot in life. As a result, he lashed out with rage towards a society that he had felt that taken him for granted, a society which he felt had failed to live up to the expectations of having an attainable American dream.

I wonder with trepidation of the the plentitude of Jiverly Voongs who are out there. In a damaged economy, how many people are out there with little support systems, little hope, and a lot of anger? How many people in our country, let alone immigrants, are going to feel that this country has failed to meet their personal senses of entitlement, and will snap in the same way that Jiverly Voong did?

I wonder if, despite the fact that most of Voong's victims were immigrants themselves, will those who promote racist ideology begin to connect dots between Jiverly Voong and Cho Seung-Hui, the architect of the Virginia Tech Massacre two years ago? Will opportunistic politicians use this to fan the fear of foreigners? Will the stereotype of "the bitter and crazy gun-toting Asian man" take its place in the hall of shame of Asian stereotypes alongside "the socially-awkward nerdy Asian overachiever" and "the exotic and eroticized Asian geisha girl"?

I wonder if this is going to lead to opportunistic hand-wringing from both sides of the gun lobby - gun-lovers who will insist if we armed the receptionists that this terrible tragedy could have been avoided, and gun-haters who insist is nobody had a gun this wouldn't have happened in the first place. I wonder if in addition to introducing legislation preventing those who have criminal records or mental health issues to carry permits, there will be an amendment forbidding gun ownership for those who are deemed "bitter and angry". As a recent analysis in MSNBC pointed out, "What's truly unsettling in America's new era of gloom and dead ends is wondering how many of those 663,000 might be deeply, irrevocably angry about it — and might have a gun."

Pray for healing for the people of Binghamton. And pray for the many people across the country who, let's be frank, don't feel a whole lot different that Jiverly Voong felt when he walked into an immigration center last Friday.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Cost of Hope Against Cancer

An interesting editorial appeared in the Atlantic which starts of with the catchy tag: "If I lived in New Zealand. I'd be dead."

The gist of the article speaks about the authors use of the cancer drug, Herceptin, which along with chemotherapy had remarkable effectiveness in treating her breast cancer. The cost of the drug was $60,000, paid by the author's health insurer. If you ask the author, it was worth every penny.

Cancer drugs, like other pharmaceuticals are not inexpensive, and while I could go on about the economics of why drug therapies are required to recoup the massive amounts spent in research and development where the vast majority of compounds fail, I won't do that here. What I find particularly interesting is the complex debate around whether the state should determine which drugs should be made available or affordable to its citizens, even when the use of those drugs may cause economic hardship for the rest of the population and extend life for only a handful of months. Put another way, you may say that life is priceless and no expense should be spared to prolong yours, but should the rest of the population pay the price for that? Is the rest of the population willing to pay the price for that?

The editorial pointed out that in many countries, through the use of a national healtcare system, determine which drugs are worth the cost to the population. New Zealand is one of these countries, and through its Pharmac agency, has "successfully" decreased cost of overall drug coverage per capita to $303 per person, compared to $843 per person in the United States. There is a price to be paid, as that $303 limits what you get. So while an insured patient would get $60,000 worth of cancer wonder drug with a small co-pay in the United States, a patient in New Zealand would be told essentially, "Sure you can get it. Go ahead and make out a check to Genentech for $60,000."

If you're a cancer patient in New Zealand, suddenly the downside of nationalized healthcare hits you in the face. President Obama talks about independent reviews and research on comparative effectiveness which will scrutinize new treatments for effectiveness, which sounds great in theory, but at the end of the day you end of results like you see in New Zealand.

Don't get me wrong, that's not all a bad thing. I'm not being rhetorical when I ask whether it's a good thing for a society (via the healthcare system where premiums will be raised for everyone) to bear the burden of billions of healthcare cost dollars (around $18 billion to be exact) to, in many cases, increase cancer patients lives less than a year longer. It's understandable that your answer will be different if you or a loved one is a cancer patient.

An excellent article some months ago in the New York Times talked about the dilemma that cancer drugs posed in terms of costs versus benefit. No less an authority than legendary Merck CEO Roy Vagelos made a thinly veiled reference to a cancer drug, Avastin, that costs $50,000 a year and adds four months of life. “There is a shocking disparity between value and price,” he said, “and it’s not sustainable.

But even that's a judgment call, and who is going to make that call? Are you going to ask doctors to look in the eyes of a patient and tell them, "I want you to have hope in your fight against Stage 4 colon cancer, but I'm not going to prescribe you the best drug out there because that sort of hope is too expensive. Good luck." Do you really want managed care organizations and insurance companies to make that call? The government, as it does in New Zealand?

We can all agree that cancer is horrible disease, and that the quest to eradicate it is a worthy one. It's going to be costly to do so, however, and the economics around developing the next generation of cancer therapies is complex. My hope is that the battle can be won sooner than later, until no patient will get caught in the crossfire in the debate around the cost and benefits of these drugs.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Illegal Sneak Previews

In what might raise the game of film piracy to a whole new level, a copy of the movie, "X-Men Origins: Wolverine” was put online and watched by thousands of people, a full month before it was to be released to theaters. The pirated copy of the film, which is missing some special effects and soundtrack finishing touches, spead through the Internet like wildfire and authorities are pretty much playing a futile game to close this Pandora's Box. It's hard not to believe that this is a phenomena which will only become more common.

I suppose that this is the nature of the increasingly digital age, that any content which is proprietary can be easily and quickly duplicated and distributed. For all of the rhetoric around digital-rights management (DRM) by media companies, I think they're going to fight a losing battle against consumers' desires to enjoy media for free. People can talk about fundamental respect for the artists and those people who make their living from the honest purchase of music and movies, but at the end of the day, people succumb to the relative anonymity of consuming bootleg media, sometimes rationalizing incorrectly that it's a victimless crime (like "punching someone in the dark" as the Simpson's Nelson Muntz would say).

Few people are going to pay money for something they can get for free. Sarah and I use the library online catalog and inter-library loan to watch all of the latest DVD's, so we don't pay one red cent, besides whatever portion of our taxes is going to library to purchase these DVD's. Waiting a few months for the movie to be available on DVD and a few more weeks waiting for the newest releases to become available at the library is a small price to pay compared to spending $25 for tickets, $10 for concessions, and $30 for a babysitter - especially in this economy.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Juror 988 at the Essex County Courthouse

Earlier this week I was tapped to live up to my responsibilities as a citizen and report for jury duty. I have to admit that I was not enthusiastic about the opportunity to serve, and it was difficult not to focus on work that needed to get done, meetings that would have to be rescheduled, the hassle of needing to borrow my parents' car and navigating my way to the Essex County Courthouse in Newark, New Jersey.

Intellectually, I knew that this was completely the wrong attitude to have. The reality is that for every group of inconvenienced jurists, there is a defendant, victim, or victim's family who care deeply about the administration of justice. What might seem like a hassle and waste of time for a potential juror could be the difference of life or death, of freedom or incarceration - a decision that will affect families and the trajectory of reconciliation. I really tried to embrace this attitude, but sadly I failed as you'll see later on.

As I drove from my suburban home to Newark, it was clear that my suburban sensitivities over the years have made me a bit soft and paranoid (I am the Suburban Family Guy, after all). So as I drove through South Orange Avenue past neigborhoods a little less, uh, cultivated, I found myself feeling like Colonel Al-Ghazi in the film "The Kingdom" driving the SUV in the unfriendly militant neighborhood of Suweidi telling his American comrades, "This is a dangerous place. We should not be here..."

I'm not proud of this per se. If anything, it reminds me of my need to break out of my own comfort zone of white picket fences and neatly manicured lawns. As I think about being missional in my neighborhood, I think that must include lower-income parts of the county where poverty and crime are more prevalent. Even though I spent a good deal of time in West Philadelphia and Morningside Heights, it's true that you can live at the doorstep, even in the midst of a less-privileged community but still be completely uninvolved and disengaged with it.

The courthouse itself was surprisingly nice. Renovated five years ago, the waiting rooms include comfortable chairs and multiple flat-panel LCD televisions broadcasting either PBS, ESPN, or CNN. A separate computer lounge has partitioned stations with outlets and WiFi and stands adjacent to a lounge where free coffee is served. All this, plus non-state employees are given a five dollar stipend to compensate for loss of wages. Yes, it barely paid for the cost of my gas, but I'm not going to say anything which is going to tempt Governor Corzine to jack up property taxes even more.

As for my own service, I was put in a jury pool and waited in the gallery as jury selection began. There was a series of questions, only one of which, "Would you weigh the testimony of a police officer above others in this court?" I raised my hand in the affirmative. The judge seated fourteen "preliminary" jurors and then the fun began.

For those of you who aren't lawyers or who haven't served jury duty in a while, both the prosecution and defense used peremptory challenges to dismiss various members of the "original fourteen" jurors, leaving a void which needed to be filled by those remaining in the jury pool (including myself). I had pretty much decided, despite my wish that to be more gung-ho about my civic duty, that I did not want to sit on a case which was projected to last through next week, so with each peremptory challenge, I felt slowly pushed towards the frying pan as "acceptable jurors" were slowly paraded one by one to answer questions about our biases, our beliefs, and our backgrounds. And with each peremptory challenge (mostly by the defense), I subconsciously was thinking, "I will be one extremely irritated juror if your challenges end up putting me in that jury box for the next seven days. Believe me that you do not want me there because though I will try my best to be impartial, my spite may very well end up getting your client implicated on additional charges."

Just when I thought I was going to be brought up to be vetted, the judge put outside the remaining eleven of us and called us back in one by one. When I was called in, the judge asked me to explain my initial affirmative response to the question of "Would you weigh the testimony of a police officer above others in this court?" I began to answer that "Well Your Honor, given that an officer takes a solemn oath to protect and serve, I... " before he abruptly cut me off and said, "Thank you very much, you're dismissed 'for cause', you can go downstairs now."

I was simultaneously relieved and jilted. Maybe the people-pleaser in me was disappointed that somehow I gave the "wrong" answer, even though it was an honest one. To add the cherry on top, the court administrators waived our second day of service, which led to a group cheer from those of us in the waiting area. I've had worst ways to spend a Wednesday. And I did mention the five dollars, correct?

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Beauty of Adoption and a Reminder of Sonship

Adoption is something which has gained some press in recent years with the "celebrity adoptions" courtesy of Angelina Jolie and Madonna. With the world waiting with bated breath around the ruling from a Malawi court around Madonna's planned second adoption from that African country, commentator Roland Martin wonders why there isn't more attention given towards the 500,000 kids in the United States who are under foster care and eligible to be placed in families. Or put another way, why aren't celebrities surrounded by paparazzi as they walk into a social services agency in Decatur, Illinois to adopt 3-year old Timmy Hunter?

As Martin himself says, the bringing in of any child in this world into a loving family is a cause for celebration. As someone who is staunchly pro-life, adoption is one of the best ways to live out such a conviction - that's why every child who is brought into a non-biologically linked family is a way we affirm the choice made by a mother not to cut a life short through abortion. Each adoption is a repudiation of the a desperate and wrong belief that "this child that I carry can never be cared for and thus shouldn't live."

I have friends who are adopted. I have friends who have adopted children. I have friends who have given children up for adoption. Something I hear in common from many of them, especially from those who are Christian, is that adoption has completely magnified, sometimes in retrospect, their appreciation and view of sonship, of the grace of God manifest in bringing us into His family. The amazing truth of being made a joint heirs with Christ, not as servants or second-class citizens within the Kingdom, but with the full privilege of someday dining at the table with our King and Father.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

A Weekend Away With Jeopardy! and Kimchee Ramen

Back in college, a girl posted a message in our InterVarsity newsgroup (this was 1995, after all) something along the lines of:

"At my church we call them advances instead of retreats. Just a thought."

This girl was actually only superficially engaged in our fellowship, so I thought about firing off a tongue-in-cheek post wondering if she was planning on joining us in our next "advance".

This past weekend we went to our church advance, er... retreat at the Tuscarora Inn, and in addition to hearing a number of good talks, experienced what might have been our last retreat at Emmanuel, at least in the near future. Our church has adopted a number of nifty traditions and inside jokes over the few years, including the nearby Delaware Water Gap hike, Pastor Scott's standup routine, our annual Jeopardy! game (chock full of trivia about people in the church and random facts about our neighborhood) and styrofoam bowls of instant ramen. Another recent tradition, which I have missed out of in my advance season of life, is the marathon "Mafia" games which are played until 4 ot 5 in the morning.

Retreats are a funny thing. Somewhere along the way there was at least a rumbling of a belief that a retreat was a place where you could find some degree of physical rest, but that couldn't be further from the truth, especially if you have children. Put aside for a second the fact that your schedule is essentially dictated for you - you need to show up for meals at a certain time or go hungry, you are expected to attend a series of talks at a given time so you can't nap whenever you feel like it - trying to care for children and put them to bed in an unfamiliar environment where you might not have all of the toys and tools to make your job easier makes the weekend a little bit of work.

We stayed at an apartment off-campus which had a great pond view, but it was still challenging to figure out which of the two bedrooms each kid would sleep in and how we would work out their sleep schedules so they would least likely wake each other up. For the most part, the kids did okay, but I'm sure they were both happy to return home and the comfort of their own beds.

The main takeaways for the retreat, with talks given by Rev. David Kim from the Gotham Fellowship, at least for me, was the Holy Spirit's work in the greater world beyond the walls of the church, and the Spirit's work enabling me not just to do my work more "ethically", but more skillfully unto His Glory. I resonate with the charge for me to use every part of myself and every opportunity within my vocation to transform my company and industry in a way which reflects the manifestation of God's shalom. Where prayer will come in is in the realization that the ability to drive such transformation is not within the power of human hands, and must be driven by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Some other personal takeaways:
  1. Eating more than one bowl of instant ramen before going to sleep is a bad idea. I don't think the gastrointestinal system was made for such things.
  2. There are a handful of people who serve really hard in terms of making a retreat like this happen and we don't nearly recognize them as much as we should. Scott coordinated the entire weekend, and his wife Kathy made sure that we had ample food to keep us going throughout the day. Justin did a magnificent job to making sure that the kids were well taken care of, personally taking the responsibility of caring and running activities for the preschool and older kids. Thank you all.
  3. I make fun of our church's love for playing Mafia during the retreat, but in all seriousness, I think there's something wonderful in seeing how some very unexpected friendships have developed because of the late-night marathons. I've had more than one person come up to me and tell me, "You know, I wouldn't have gotten to know Person X so well and realize s(he) was so cool without having the chance to play Mafia with them."
  4. We need to be a church that prays more, and prays more personally for the needs of people in our congregation - something that I'll keep in mind when I lead future Sunday morning prayer meetings. When our retreat speaker wonders with concern whether breaking up into small groups and praying for people who are struggling with vocation "will work okay for our congregation", I think that's sort of sad.
  5. I'm really going to miss Emmanuel.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Kicking Against the Goads

In Acts 26, the account of Paul's account of his conversion speaks of the Lord saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads." Upon closer look, the phrase "kicking against the goals" is a metaphor referring to an ox kicking in fruitlessly against a cattle prod, often causing more pain to itself. In essence, a futile and stubborn action which simply leads to more fruitlessness and frustration.

I was thinking about this as I was playing my 16-month old daughter Sophia last week. We have a toy which is comprised of blocks in the shape of stars, triangles, circles (cylinders), and squares (cubes) as well as a box with a cover with holes those four shapes. The object of one game, I suppose, is to try to fit those blocks in the corresponding holes and into the box. 

We spent a good ten or fifteen minutes doing this over and over again and while she got better at it, Sophia would continue to try to fit the block more through trial and error as opposed to spacial reasoning. In other words, she'd try to cram the star-shaped block into the triangle-shaped hole for a good half-minute or so before I would gently suggest her moving it to a different one. I grew increasingly frustrated with her so I began to call her "stupid", "lazy" and "useless". (I'm totally kidding, it's an inside joke referencing an earlier blog post.)

Watching her try to cram triangular blocks into star-shaped holes made me think of how I am often guilty of "kicking against the goads". I realize that I constantly fight this battle of who my sinful flesh wants me to be and what my sinful flesh wants as opposed to the Lord's true calling for me. This ranges from day-to-day desires of the heart to far-reaching decisions in terms of calling and character. Jeremiah 17:9 reminds us that the heart is deceitful above all things, and along with that comes a stubbornness in which we take our own self-focused desires and try to cram them in God's plan for us. That our heart would conform with that of our Father's is a prayer we should always pray.  Seems to me it'd be stupid and lazy for us not to do so.