Thursday, February 25, 2010

That'll Hurt More Than a Cross-Check

The weekend before last, a Rangers fan who did the whole "propose to my girlfriend on a sports arena jumbotron"-thing was turned down before a Madison Square Garden crowd of 18,000+ as she shook her head and covered her face as she ran out of the arena to the jeers of the fans. It made for great theater, as usually these proposals end with a big hug and a kiss, followed by some good natured applause, much to the dismay of the handful of morons that are screaming for the girlfriend to say "no". In this case, most people were immediately sympathetic, as getting your marriage proposal publicly rejected in front of thousands is right up there with uncontrolled flatulence during a company presentation around 3Q earnings.

But before soon, word got out that the whole thing was a hoax. The first rumblings were that the Rangers got played, and a couple decided to pull a fast one on the team. But then the conspiracy got even juicier, as word got out that the Rangers were actually in on the prank from the get-go, hiring the two actors to stage the who event as in-game entertainment. Are you kidding me? Are things that bad with the blueshirts that they're producing fake proposals gone bad instead of typical "win a million dollars by scoring a 'mouse-hole' goal from center ice" or "obscure Rangers trivia"?

Well, maybe they are. "Nick" and "Melissa" might very well be creating the most buzz around the Garden Ice nowadays... and they aren't underperforming with ridiculous albatrosses of contracts which are going to keep the team wallowed in mediocrity in the near term (I'm looking your way, Chris Drury, Wade Redden and Michal Rozsival).

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Freedom from Fear... in This Life

A few weeks ago I had a unnerving dream in which I found myself in a conference room surrounded by unknown colleagues or classmates who were all working diligently on something akin to quantum physics. The people around me were all "heads down" busily doing their work while I tried not to make eye contact with someone standing who was either my boss or my teacher, trying to not make it obvious that I had no clue about what I was supposed to be doing. It wasn't pleasant, but I wouldn't quite put it in the same category of the nightmare of being chased by the dinosaurs from the "Land of the Lost" when I was four years old - leading me to scream and sob. That's a nightmare. Maybe just for laughs I'll fake a nightmare and in the middle of the night grab my wife screaming, "No! We're not allowed to capitalize integration costs for technology expenditures which have already been transfered to cost center 62400!" just to see what her reaction is. Anyway...

It doesn't take Sigmund Freud to hypothesize that this nighttime vision might be related to a new position that I've taken at work, a role which has led to greater responsibility, and yes, somewhat increased pressure and stress. During this time, I've found it helpful to continue to meditate upon biblical truths that I've intellectually for a long time but must constantly remind myself of (as I will continue to need to do for the rest of my life).

For those who count ourselves as Christians, many of these truths which should inform a healthy view of work are touched on in a blog post I wrote years ago around the sovereignty of God. I think it's similarly helpful to meet understand how the work of Christ has not simply given me freedom from eternal condemnation, but freedom in this life from the kinds of fear, anxiety and bitterness which can occlude the deepest and imperishable joy. Or as I read from a recent reflection from Scripture Union:

Oh, to be set free… to walk away from the bitterness of broken relationships, missed opportunities and disappointments.

Hallelujah! Jesus saved us. But salvation isn't just about our lives in eternity; it's about our lives in today's reality.

This is not to say that life for a Christian is trial or tribulation free. To the contrary, the Bible remind believers that this is something to be expected, most notably in 1 Peter 4. But to free to walk away from the anxieties, bitterness and disappointments in light of a personal God who has not only declared us righteous, but has told us not to be bound by anxiety or bitterness but to cast our cares upon Him because (a) He cares for us and (b) He can and will act accordingly. That's freedom.

Or as the great theologian Mr. Miyagi once told his disciple in Karate Kid, Part III: "Daniel-San, it's okay to lose to opponent. Must not lose to fear!"

Thursday, February 18, 2010

When Downsizing Goes Bad

Interesting article in Newsweek about how the use of downsizing and layoffs is often misused by corporate chiefs, who greatly overestimate the benefit of these cost-reduction measures and simultaneously underestimate the the cost that is borne on the company, these employees, and broader society.

Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business, raises a number of interesting points, some of which are intuitive, but some which are probably open to debate. For example, in two cases Pfeffer tries to debunk two myths with his own observations, putting forward data that he claims shows:
  • "... downsizing reduced subsequent profitability and that the negative consequences of downsizing were particularly evident in R&D-intensive industries and in companies that experienced growth in sales."
  • "... negative stock returns to companies announcing layoffs, with larger and permanent layoffs leading to greater negative effects."
Or more concisely, that layoffs actually reduce profitability (contrary to conventional corner-office wisdom) and lower stock price (contrary to conventional corner-office wisdom). For the first point, profitability is not surprisingly muted due to one-time chargers related to restructuring. Also, he doesn't account for companies whose revenues are fundamentally and permanently changing due to changes in alternate product offerings or lapses in patent protection. The stock price may very well be a reflection of a imminent revenue cliff, and a company's reaction to that would be to reduce costs (as is done through layoffs) which are "out of scale" with a new revenue model. It's a difference between correlation and causation. Layoffs aren't the cause of poor profitability or stock price - but tends to be correlated because other bad things are going on (such as the revenue plunge). Pundits would argue that without the layoffs, profitability and stock price would be effected even more negatively.

The other criticism is that Pfeffer assumes is that the workforce is completely adaptable in terms of acquiring new skills to accommodate changing business models and/or that it's decidedly less expensive to retrain workers who may or may not have the willingness or wherewithal to adapt, as opposed to hiring new workers who can bring the specific requisite skills to the table.

That being said, I did resonate with much of the article, because there's no doubt that corporate layoffs are often done badly and for the wrong reasons. As Pfeffer explains:
Part of the answer lies in the immense pressure corporate leaders feel—from the media, from analysts, from peers—to follow the crowd no matter what. When SAS Institute, the $2 billion software company, considered going public about a decade ago, its potential underwriter told the company to do things that would make it look more like other software companies: pay sales people on commission, offer stock options, and cut back on the lavish benefits that landed SAS at No. 1 on Fortune's annual Best Places to Work list. (SAS stayed private.) It's an example of how managerial behavior can be contagious, spreading like the flu across companies.
I agree with this to some degree. Some corporate leaders are obsessed with certain metrics (e.g. stock price) which are largely influenced by analysts, etc. to the degree that it's not simply a question whether you have a long-term and sustainable strategy for success and can execute it - you need to be able to convince a host of other people (e.g. analysts, institutional owners of your company's stock) that you'll be able to pull it off. This leads to behaviors which are dangerously swayed by "what's the strategy for which I can most easily get influential people to 'buy' into" as opposed to "what's the best strategy".

And I agree with (and fret about) the immense costs that layoffs have upon people, families and society as a whole. I'm not quite sure how to balance that with the reality that downsizing is often a corporate necessity and the absolutely right thing for a company to do. If I knew the answer to this, I'd be sharing it.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Addictions, Diseases and Responsibilities

Those of you who are sports fans, particularly New York sports fans, may know of Steve Phillips, the former Mets general manager turned ESPN baseball analyst, whose lurid tales of womanizing have become fodder beyond the sports page. Most recently, the 46-year old married father of four sons had an affair with a 22-year old ESPN staffer, leading to the dismissal of both Phillips and the staffer. Phillips subsequently checked himself into the same behavioral rehabilitation clinic where Tiger Woods is getting treatment.

Phillips is currently out of rehab and speaking out, and I have to confess that on the surface, I'm still a little confused by his words. On one hand, Phillips acknowledges, "I’m fully responsible for everything that I did and accept responsibility for that." Good. But on the other hand, he explains and counts himself as someone who has a sex addiction, hence the treatment and rehab.

Here's where I'm confused, and it's not just with Phillips' case. Let's define addiction:
ad dic tion [uh-dik-shuhn]
the state of being enslaved to a habit or practice or to something that is psychologically or physically habit-forming, as narcotics, to such an extent that its cessation causes severe trauma.
Okay, so we've established that addiction is "being enslaved", which implies powerlessness or compulsion. Hence, from a moral sense, there's an belief that the afflicted can be viewed as an innocent victim as opposed to a transgressor. There's a sense that a person is somehow predisposed, either psychologically or physiologically, to behave in a certain way without the ability to control the behavior.

This leads to the thought that addiction is very much a disease, and should be treated in a "no fault" sympathy-deserving patient angle in the same way that you'd approach someone stricken with cancer. Clearly only the most callous individual would assess moral blame on someone who was stricken with disease, though this might become murkier if the afflicted suffered from heart disease and made Long John Silver's, KFC, and BK breakfast sandwiches a daily tradition.

So where does moral responsibility lie with those who live with addictions? Does the predisposition to harmful behavior which hurts self or others absolve a person from blame? I don't think so, which is why I largely reject the notion that addiction is guilt-free (and maybe this is where Steve Phillips and I may actually agree).

Part of it is my doctrinal and theological understanding of the sinful nature of man. All of us are predisposed to morally fall short, even though the depths and manifestation of those moral failures may look very different from person to person. But at some level, we choose to give in to these predispositions, whether it's the first snort of cocaine, the first illicit sexual liaison, or the first lie that embellishes our value at work. When we fall into a pattern which escalates in this area, we may need a increasing or yet another "hit" to get the satisfaction that we felt earlier. In that sense, we're hooked. But does that absolve us from moral responsibility? Hardly.

Regardless, I wish Steve Phillips well on his road to recovery and reconciliation with his family. Mets fans ought to, as well, regardless of some awful bonehead moves (acquiring Mo Vaughn, Jeromy Burnitz and Kevin Appier way after their prime, trading away Jason Isringhausen, etc.)

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Not All Convictions Are Courageous

Before, during, and now even after the Super Bowl, there's been some controversy. No, not around Tony Dungy's smack talk or Saints coach Gregg Williams promises to beat down Peyton Manning. The controversy revolved around Tim Tebow's decision to star in a commercial which (if you visit a website) presents his pro-life convictions. Predictably, a great deal of passion was whipped up on both sides of the debate. Putting aside the fact that the commercial was incredibly understated and I can't imagine even the most-ardent pro-choice advocate finding the ad the least bit provocative. The friends with whom I was watching the game couldn't help but mutter sarcastically, "Wow, that was offensive," after viewing the commercial.

I thought that ESPN writer Jemele Hill raised an intriguing point last week in stating that Tim Tebow should be lauded for the courage in putting action behind his convictions, regardless of whether or not one agreed with his convictions. Hill makes some very interesting comparisons of Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith and John Carlos (of the famous Olympic black power salute) to Tim Tebow in her article, and predictably, one will only resonate with the analogy depending on whether you fundamentally agree with the positions that the "crusaders" chose to take. Hill writes:
Ali, Smith and Carlos championed their views at a time when not everyone supported the idea of equality, and when refusing to serve your country was considered blasphemous. Their views, to put it mildly, were thought to be inappropriate, militant and, in Ali's case, completely anti-patriotic.

And while abortion has been legal in America since 1973, it remains a toxic issue in our society. A large percentage of women will tell you they don't like anyone telling them what to do with their bodies. People have lost their lives fighting for and against abortion, and now here comes a college football player and his mother joining the emotional debate.
But here's where I actually disagree with Hill. Hill makes the assumption that to have sincere beliefs and to stand up for them is honorable in the face of public condemnation is laudable, regardless of whether these beliefs are inherently "correct" or not. Is this really the case?

Is it courageous for a suicide bomber to blow himself up and take the lives of 50 other people because he or she was sincere in his convictions and despite universal condemnation, had the principled fortitude to pay the ultimate price for his beliefs? Even if we limit the scope to "non-violent" protest, do we really believe that a Ku Klux Klan member is courageous because he's willing to burn a cross on his own lawn to stand against the influx of minorities that he believes is poisoning American society? Am I really obligated to salute their bravery?

What makes a stand courageous is for someone to take a stand for what is right, even if that stand is unpopular. I happen to believe that what Tim Tebow stands for is right, and as such I find honor and courage in his stance. While I believe in absolute truth, I recognize that not everyone shares Tebow's pro-life views, and it makes all the sense in the world why they wouldn't view his stance as courageous.

And here's the freedom of speech balance - the obligation that everyone must have is to acknowledge people's right to express their point of view. Anything beyond that - your regard of that person's principles, honor and courage - is completely up to you.

Not everyone supports Tim Tebow or thinks highly of his principles, and that's their right. I do, and that's mine.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Obama's Not Happening in Vegas

President Obama created a little hub-bub in Sin City when he, for the second time, referenced Las Vegas in the context of wasteful and extravagant spending. The first time, the President criticized banks which had just been bailed out for holding extravagant junkets in Vegas. Most recently, Obama spoke of how people needed to make wise and tough decisions when it came to personal finances:

"You don't go buying a boat when you can barely pay your mortgage," Obama said. "You don't blow a bunch of cash on Vegas when you're trying to save for college. You prioritize. You make tough choices."

Not surprisingly, politicians with ties to Nevada and Las Vegas blasted Obama for the comment. What was a little surprising was the rancor from people from his own party. Democratic Senator Harry Reid stated, "The President needs to lay off Las Vegas and stop making it the poster child for where people shouldn't be spending their money. I would much rather tourists and business travelers spend their money in Las Vegas than spend it overseas." Democratic Congresswoman Shelley Berkley said in a statement. "President Obama needs to stop picking on Las Vegas and he needs to let Americans decide for themselves how and where to spend their hard-earned vacation dollars."

Their criticism is misguided. President Obama isn't blasting Vegas a poor choice for a vacation, as Reid and Berkley specifically state. His point is that given the choice between saving for a college education and going to Vegas, he thinks people should stress education over leisure. His previous example of choosing to pay for the mortgage over buying a boat is a similar nod towards focusing dollars towards "necessities" as opposed to "luxuries" - a ethos that would our country desperately needs. I salute him for that.

Reid and Berkley might be a little sensitive that Obama said "Las Vegas" as opposed to "taking a cruise" or "going to DisneyWorld", and I can understand that. But the reality is that a large number of people (including the President apparently) don't see leisure-value in blowing $500 at a craps table - or at least there's something a little more discomforting around that as opposed to taking a five day camping trip in Yosemite, which also could be a poor investment if one is truly unable to pay the mortgage or afford college because of that purchase.

In any case, President Obama is rightly preaching good stewardship here. I'm just waiting to hear how furious the boat manufacturers are.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Singing in Harmony For a Good Cause

One of the redemptive things that has emerged from the tragedy in Haiti is the outpouring of love and support from so many around the world. From millions of people donating $10 by texting on their cell phone to star-studded telethons, people from all walks of life have rallied to support those who have been hit hardest.

It was interesting to read that there's going to be an update to the "We Are the World" all-star smash hit that was produced and sung in support of famine victims in Africa way back in 1985. My brother and I loved the song and we must have replayed the vinyl single a million times, and watched the VHS copy of the music video (basically video of a recording session) that we recorded from "Entertainment Tonight" over and over again.

It was a brilliant composition from Quincy Jones, and the lineup has, for the most part, stood the test of time. Lionel Ritchie led off, and then he was followed by other legends such as Paul Simon and Kenny Rogers with Michael Jackson batting cleanup and singing the first chorus. Every performer that had a solo was a great choice, culminating with Ray Charles bringing it home. The British predecessor to "We Are The World", otherwise known as "Do They Know It's Christmas?" doesn't escape criticism in that respect, as noted by the Sports Guy, Bill Simmons:
Not only does Paul Young bat leadoff, they go back to him for another solo in the middle! Paul Young! They had the lead singer of the hottest band at the time (Duran Duran's LeBon), the best singer of the entire decade (Sting) and a budding superstar (Bono) ... and they kicked things off with Paul Young? Who was in charge of Band Aid, Bob Geldof or Jimy Williams? I was trying to think of a sports equivalent of this -- like John Starks getting named to the '92 Dream Team, then starting over MJ and Drexler -- but it's impossible. It's too ludicrous. You can't come up with the sports equivalent of Paul Young getting the nod over Bono, Sting and Simon LeBon. I watched this clip 10 times in two weeks and still couldn't figure it out.
Anyway, I can only hope that the new version of "We Are the World" does as well as it's predecessor, in terms of raising much needed aid for the earthquake victims, as an enduring example of how good music can unite people together in a worthy cause, and as a benefit song where people twenty years later aren't wondering "why in the world did he get the solo?" or worse yet, finding a place in American cultural ridicule alongside "Hands Across America".

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Celebrations and Health

This past weekend we celebrated (well, "I" didn't, but my family did... more on this later) milestone birthdays for both of my parents. My brother, sister-in-law, wife and I had spent weeks planning and executing the plan, where we secretly invited 25 of my parents friends who lived reasonably close, booked a private area within a sushi buffet restaurant, and surprised them under the guise of "just a family lunch". We snuck sets of old photo albums from my parents' house and my sister-in-law selected and scanned a number of photos for a slideshow tribute, and I made a photo montage and blew it up into a 24x36 poster to be signed by the guests. Toasts and kind accolades were to be given, my parents would be surprised and the celebration would be talked about for years to come.

Almost all of this came to pass. Except I never made it out to the party.

On Friday, I was hit with a nasty case of gastroenteritis which started in the morning and got progressively worse. I had the works - nausea, vomiting and diarrhea - and I was hopeful that I would be better by Saturday morning. I wasn't, and despite my attempts to try to suck it up, it was clear Saturday morning that I was in no shape to go anywhere. My parents rejected as "crazy" my suggestion that I could drag my feeble self to lunch and just drink soup. When my parents called my brother and suggested we just postpone the family lunch since I was so ill, he somehow impressed upon them (I'm not sure how) that he really wanted to go anyway, and how they should still go even if it meant ditching his kid brother in the process. They eventually all went with my enthusiastic agreement, and I stayed at home lamenting the bad fortune of suffering my worse stomach ailment in many years on such an important day. I did manage to type up a short speech in 15 minutes which I had Sarah recite on my behalf.

The celebration was great. Not only were my parents surprised, they were genuinely moved by the actions of their sons and daughters in law and appreciated the work and care we put into it. Sarah delivered my speech to them, and my understanding is that they were touched by it. For me, I was just glad that I could now point my finger at one time where we were able to express love and appreciation in a "big way" for all the ways that my parents have been so loving and supportive of all of us. Sure, we get to do this here and there through Fathers Days, Mothers Days, birthdays, etc. but I wanted to make sure that there was at least one big moment where we could honor them among their friends. Sadly, it seems that these types of tributes sometimes only occur on the day when a loved one is eulogized at a funeral, and the grieving family is left lamenting that more wasn't said while the deceased was alive. I'm going to try not to make that mistake.

Maybe that's a lesson to learned in terms of all of our interactions with those whom we love. I remember reading an article Sports Illustrated many years ago about the tragedy in Texas A&M which claimed the lives of 12 people in a sports-related bonfire accident. One quote has always stuck with me, even to this day:
In the hours after the tragedy former A&M athletic director John David Crow had spoken to Brown on the phone. Crow, whose only son was killed in a traffic accident in 1994, said to (University of Texas Coach Mack) Brown, "You tell your kids, 'Don't ever hang up the phone from somebody dear to you without telling them you love them, because it may be the last time you talk to them.' " When Brown tried to relay that story at the Touchdown Club of Houston luncheon on Nov. 24, he glanced over at Crow and began to cry.
Interestingly, in addition to being sensitive to the frailty of life, being sick also reminded me of my own mortality and weakness. Being sick is a miserable experience (stating the obvious, I know), and the enjoyment of so many things in life - whether it's spending time in leisure with people we love, eating delicious food, reading a great book, or watching a engrossing movie - is severely dampened when experienced in a constant state of pain, weakness or nausea. Given that I had a 72-hour stomach bug, I am more appreciative and sympathetic to those who have much more severe and chronic conditions. My sickness has certainly given me a stronger appreciation for my health.