Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Shepherding Your Kids' Dreams

I appreciated Mitch Albom’s words a great deal when he criticized the parents of 16-year-old, Abby Sunderland, who is attempting to become the youngest person to sail around the world. Sunderland was recently rescued in the Indian Ocean after her boat sustained damage in stormy seas, leading to three reactions: (1) Thank God she’s okay, (2) Why in the world is she doing this? (3) Why in the world are her parents supporting her in this endeavor?

Albom correctly point out that the parents’ claims that “We don’t push (Abby to try to break dangerous world records)” doesn't gives them the moral high ground and absolves them from any negative outcome. The parents are still enablers, both financially and emotionally, and thus have a responsibility not to simply encourage blindly, but to discern when it’s actually appropriate to discourage a given endeavor at a given time. Looking at the evidence, it’s hard not to believe that the Sunderland parents have been simply bystanders in the midst of Abby’s quest for glory. In my mind, they’re probably only a step better than “balloon-boy” fraudster Richard Heene. Heene used his kids as a means to achieve glory – the Sunderlands are irresponsibly doing whatever they can to help their daughter achieve her own dreams of glory.

That criticism aside, I can appreciate the conundrum in this parental responsibility. I had written in a previous post that as a youngster, I had a desire to work in sports management, which was squashed by my well-intentioned dad. Was my dad right? Under what circumstances and at what age can a parent lovingly but firmly tell a child, “No, this isn’t the right thing to do; this isn’t the right dream to pursue”? Sure, there’s some discretion here, but I like to think that parents have at least some concept of honorable and meaningful pursuits. Then again, in this day of reality television where people will do anything for their 15 minutes of fame, I’m probably hoping for too much.

The Sunderland parents might argue that their support of their child is no different than parents who support their kids’ starry-eyed ambitions into acting, music or sports. Sure, except the (1) the boy who messes up his audition for “American Idol” doesn’t need to be bailed out by a government or taxpayer funded rescue diverting resources away from non-Guiness record-seeking emergencies (2) the girl who doesn’t pass her Juilliard pre-college audition doesn’t drown with her body forever lost at sea.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The World Cup Economic Effect

An article in Newsweek notes the negative economic impact that the World Cup has upon countries, particularly Brazil. It’s an interesting read, and speaks to just how all-encompassing this competition can be, especially in soccer-crazy countries in Europe and Latin America. On one hand, you have Willem Smit, a researcher at IMD, lamenting about the hundreds of millions of dollar (billions, in some cases) of lost productivity from workers who are surfing the net reading articles about the competition, watching the competition through streaming video from their desks, or have outright not gone to work, opting instead to watch the games at home or a local bar. The counter to this is the construction, tourism and event-management jobs generated by the host country (which doesn’t help Brazil or non-host countries) and intangible benefits such as colleague engagement and morale.

The workplace productivity calculation seems reasonable. But to be fair, it’s not just the World Cup is the culprit. In the United States, at least, any sort of major sports event (Super Bowl, World Series) or entertainment event (Oscars, season finale of American Idol) has a corresponding effect on people surfing the web to read recaps and analysis about these events or emailing or talking with friends around the events. On a smaller scale, there is constantly going to be periods of lost productivity and downtime due to people reading, talking or e-mailing about non-work related topics. I’ve wondered at time what the effect would be if our CIO shut down access to YouTube, ESPN.com and any web-based personal e-mail service. I hope this never happens in my company, but I’d be hard-pressed to justify why we need access to some websites that we currently have access to.

As for the intangible benefits around colleague engagement, I’m not sure I’m buying that. I’m a firm believer in colleague engagement, as defined by Gallup, and I’m convinced that there is a correlation between the degree that colleagues feel energized, equipped and willing to collaborate with other colleagues and bottom-line performance. What I’m less convinced about is the net effect of people watching the World Cup together in the cafeteria as being an enabler of colleague engagement. For example, if 70% of the department sits around and watches the United States beat Algeria, what’s the upside? The 30% who didn’t watch will resent having to pick up the slack for the 70% who ditched, and a victory will lead to people poring over the ‘net reading recaps and commentaries around the great win and what comes next. Unless Bob and Jim, who happen to be sitting next to each other, come up with a groundbreaking collaborative idea which saves the company millions, I’m not sure this is a good thing. Besides, there are no commercials, so Bob and Jim better look to brainstorm during halftime.

At the end of the day, I’d acknowledge (with a nod to my brother, who absolutely hates sports and thinks that they’re a complete waste of time and resources in our society as a whole) that World Cup is a killer for employee productivity for companies across the globe. What it does engender, at least for few weeks, is a spirit of healthy competition and entertainment which can help hundred of millions of people around the world forget and not care – just for a while – that their local economy might be in the tank, and might be just a little more in the tank afterwards… and that’s okay.

It’s entertainment, not an economic stimulus package.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

My Petty Grumbling

I was on a business trip to Denver last week and to my dismay, wasn't able to secure an aisle seat as the flight was almost packed full. They moved me to a window seat which was so far up that by the time I was called to board, the overhead cabins were all full and I had to check my carry-on bag.

The elderly couple next to me were obviously novice travelers. First they were in the wrong seats. As I tried to go to the bathroom during the flight, they didn't step out to the aisle to let me out, but instead tried to pull their legs closer to the seat, leaving me to awkwardly play "Twister" over them. The in-flight movie was unappealing, and the breakfast wasn't all that filling or appetizing.

Strangely, despite having my bag checked at the gate, it seemed to be last bag out to the baggage claim. I just missed the hotel shuttle and had to wait. It was hot outside.

When I got to my hotel in Denver, ESPN-HD was down so I wasn't able to watch the World Cup in 1080p. The lunch I ordered was sub-par, the beef tough and the chicken too spicy. They didn't give me a room with a great view, either. When I had to teleconference into a meeting on my room phone, the speakerphone had this annoying bug - everytime I tried to unmute my phone, I couldn't hear anything. The speaker volume was low to begin with, and I strained to hear my colleagues on the call. Got a number of e-mails which made it clear to me that people don't read my e-mail carefully enough and that following basic directions is elusive to some.

Going to dinner that evening at a esteemed Mediterranean restaurant downtown, I thought that the appetizer was a little overhyped and salty. The halibut was a little dry and the sauce wasn't flavorful enough. The dessert was good, though.

As I flew back the next day, I managed to get my aisle seat. The location of my seat in the rear of the airplane made it noisy, though and I wasn't able to catch any sleep. The book I was reading didn't grab my attention and I had exhausted my copy of the New York Times. The car service that picked me up had the air conditioning running too high and the driver made a wrong turn bringing me back home. I got home at around 1am, and I was exhausted.

Sarah and I found out a day later that a friend of ours from our old church has stage three or four stomach cancer (I share this link to the husband's public blog entry as an appeal for you to pray for them). She and her husband not only are dealing with the immediate health and treatment implications, but how they shepherd their 7-year old daughter through the news and process.

I wonder if so many things that my heart complains about (even if unsaid) during a given day are petty - almost to the point of insulting to God and others. You think?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Maybe Easier, But Not Better Than The Real Thing

It was heartbreaking to read about a Korean couple who were recently sentenced to prison for allowing their three-month baby to starve to death. The reason? It wasn't lack of money or lack of food. The neglect arose from addictions to Internet gaming, specifically 12-hour sessions of Prius Online, a game in which players raise and nurture a girl who develops magical powers as she grows.

It's unconscionable, but I still tried to understand how two people could be so incredibly irresponsible and callous. I couldn't help but think about the lure of the Internet and gaming. To be fair, I'm using the Internet as I type this blog, and between surfing the Web on computers and WAP browsing on my Blackberry, I spend a lot of time connected in some way, shape or form with the information superhighway. The lure is understandable, information is plentiful and in the digital community, things more or less react as they should. Clicking on links navigates you to where you want to go, and from a gaming perspective, you can control things you can't control in real life.

Obviously, raising a child is a different story altogether. I'm reminded (the third time around) that kids don't come with a manuel, and pushing certain buttons aren't guaranteed to get a specific response. Even with my baby daughter, things that might have pacified my crying kids earlier don't necessarily work with her. Each child is unique, and no manual or guide can provide directions with sufficient specificity to make child-raising easy. But ultimately it's all worth it - even I've figured that out with my limited experience as a dad.

I wonder if this was a factor in the tragic tale. Maybe Kim Yun-jeong and Kim Jae-beom were increasingly frustrated with a baby girl who didn't do exactly what they expected or didn't react exactly how they expected her to. There isn't a online manual or cheat sheet or cheat codes like up-up-down-down-left-right-left-right-B-A-B-A-Start which make you a perfect parent, nor are there "Easter eggs" which can shortcut you to the "easy parts" of child-raising (not that there really are any). Perhaps they were thus attracted to the world where everything seems to come easier. Real life just isn't that way - it's messy.

More likely they were just stupid.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Racial Profiling and Enforcing the Law

There's been angry and passionate voices on both sides of Arizona's new immigration law which, among other things, will require police to determine whether a person is in the United States legally, require immigrants to carry their alien registration documents at all times and require police to question people if there is reason to suspect they're in the United States illegally. Proponents have argued that this legislation is necessary given the federal governments failure to enact or enforce existing federal laws around immigration. Opponents argue that the new Arizona laws lead to a culture of racial profiling and a fascist state akin to Nazi Germany.

Who's right? I can appreciate the importance of law and order, but I also appreciate the right to not be harassed or accosted based on the color of your skin. I have a good friend who is Egyptian, and I've asked him if he's ever felt profiled or looked at suspiciously due to appearance. He wasn't sure, but he's told me that he's never been treated with anything but respect at a checkpoint, and he's approached these situations by simply being himself - friendly. So when the MTA police check bags in subway stations and ask him to approach, he cheerfully offers his bag, and before soon, he's on his way. He's opted to take the high road, but I can understand why others may not.

It's a complex issue. Does the right of an individual to "not be checked" (some would way "accused" or "harassed" outweigh the benefits of the public safety and welfare of many? I find it ironic that France, which seems awfully proud of itself of being so progressive, is introducing laws to ban Islamic clothing in the name of public safety. So you're going to curtail freedom of religion and expression so you can (1) ensure that people aren't hiding munitions and (2) to impose secularity around how people dress? Does that make any sense?

Is it the right of a citizen to not be selectively screened? I'm not a lawyer, but while I have a great deal of respect for the law and I think that there's a severe immigration problem, I'm just not sure how this law can be applied practically without the net effect of having local law enforcement profile using benign characteristics such as race or language, or else it becomes meaningless - so the result of this would end up being a form of "racial profiling". What other overt signals might give local law enforcement "reason to suspect" illegal immigration? Misspelled or grammatically nonsensical phrases on clothing so popular with Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants?

What I do know is that the thought of Dora the Explorer roughed up and arrested is troubling. Then again, I'm pretty sure she has her H-1B.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Sweet Deception Leads to Loss of Credibility

One of the tenets that kids are often raised to understand is that honesty is a paramount virtue, and that even when you've done wrong, you're far better off in the long run by telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Even from a practical perspective, there's just too much downside in losing someone's trust, and once you've lost trust, it's very difficult to ever get back. In fact, perceptions are often changed irreparably.

This came to mind as I've been been seeing a constant barrage of commercials slamming the state beverage tax being proposed by New York Governor Patterson. Governor Patterson being incompetent notwithstanding, his proposal has merit, and it's actually painful to see the advertising campaign coming out against the tax. The campaign has been on both the radio and television, and the messaging is almost laughable.

The campaign is sponsored by "New Yorkers Against Unfair Taxes", which isn't a family advocacy group, healthy eating alliance or a libertarian lobby. It's a collection of business interests which are almost exclusively grocery stores, beverage bottling companies, movie theaters, vending machines companies and of course, beverage companies like Coca-Cola. It's absolutely pathetic how they try to hide a consortium of business interests behind a name which gives the impression of a grass-roots citizens movement. What? Did those geniuses realize that an ad like that sponsored by "The Grocery and Soft Drink Association" would lose credibility? Especially against a long distinguished list of health advocates who are in favor of the tax, you betcha.

What's even worse is the content of some of these advertisements. A housewife talks about how those "Albany fat cats" are bleeding her and her family's grocery budget dry with these unfair taxes. Naturally, you see her pulling out vegetables, fruits, and a juice container. Of course, the producers of the commercial make sure she's not pulling out the 2-liter bottles of Coke, and you don't see her obese kids who are two days away from adult-onset diabetes.

I have no problem with people and special interests lobbying to promote their cause, and I certainly don't have a problem with sugary drinks, which I probably enjoy too much. What irritates me is the deception and manipulation behind both the source and content. If beverage manufacturers and grocers think that the tax is bad primarily for them but also families, then say so, and make it clear that it's "them" that's saying so. But don't hide behind a coalition label and pretend that your chief interests is Joe Taxpayer.

So as for the beverage tax, go ahead and tax away. I really should cut down on this stuff, anyway.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Individualism and Church Shopping

A recent blog entry on CNN's religion section suggested that the consumerist attitudes towards selecting a church had led to a collapse in the "moderate church" between the "traditional church" which “tells us what is good, what is true, how we should live, and who we are." and the "modernist church" that is "less dogmatic, more tolerant, more open to change." The "traditional church" and "modernist church" are divergent and continue to be so, leading to increased polarization of the country.

The fact that these people no longer attend the church means that ideas no longer are being shared, debated and appreciated. Instead, modernists in church (for example) preach to the choir (pardon the expression) to their modernist church friends about how traditionalists need to change their outdated attitudes about gay marriage and abortion and how Obama needs to end the war in Afghanistan right away as his/her fellow congregates uniformly nod enthusiastically in assent, without anyone to disagree and present a counterpoint. That phenomena is true, but I'd counter that I do see many congregations which hold a diversity in political views. In fact, the Redeemer-affiliated churches which I've been part of in the past ten years tend to be full of congregants who are upper-middle class, sophisticated, highly educated, metro-Northeastern yet evangelical - with that sort of odd combination tends to defy labels. If there's a problem, it's just that we rarely talk about them in a forum which people don't need to feel defensive or judged one way or the other. We did this once at Emmanuel Presbyterian Church prior to the 2008 presidential election, and I'm convinced some people have pigeonholed one lady as the "the liberal woman who doesn't seem to be bothered that babies are getting aborted as long as Obama wins and implements a better foreign policy."

What I found more interesting about the article was the subject of church-shopping and its impact, or lack thereof, on the people who make that choice. The article states that people "are more likely to shop for churches that express our individual values" and a growing number of denominations make this easy. Don't like a church's teaching? Don't like the music? Go find another one. The paradigm is no longer to walk into a church with a humble and open heart and learn - the new paradigm is walk into church looking to "buy" what you like - the sermon, the doctrine, the music - and commit until something better comes along. People are not going into a church so that they can be changed, shaped, and "sent out", people are looking to find something that suits their fits their (sometime frivolous) needs. In this way, Christians become guilty of what they often criticize New Agers of - having a "me"-centered faith.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Thin Lines Between Apathy, Despair and Surrender

I was absolutely slammed when I returned back to work after my paternity leave. My colleagues were gracious in covering for me during my absence, and my boss was accommodating, but the amount of work and responsibilities that were being rapidly handed back to me and the volume of people who wanted my attention, time, and bandwidth were incredible. I was quickly overwhelmed with navigating through people's different (strong and vocal) opinions and perspectives on business priorities I needed to help shape, processes I needed to help drive, and imperatives that I needed to communicate. Before soon, I found myself under the rubble of requests with little time to breathe, let alone prioritize or organize. And I actually did miss the time I spent with my kids. Yeah, you could say that the first week of work was rough.

Thankfully, I think spiritually I've become more equipped to deal with these things. Don't get me wrong, it was still a stressful week, but what God has impressed upon me over the years is that there's freedom in surrender. That's surrender, not despair or apathy. Both are ways to deal with the problem when you realize that "stressful obsession" is not where you want to be.

There's a couple of important distinctions here. Using the work example, apathy manifests itself anywhere from a "I just don't give a f!#% anymore. If I get fired, I just don't care," which was played to perfection by Ron Livingston in the hilarious movie "Office Space". This often is accompanied with a bravado around irresponsibility, which while funny in the movie, isn't just or right. And then there's despair, which at it's most extreme case manifests itself in a horrible "I don't want to deal with this s!@# anymore. I'm going to kill myself". There's escape here, yes, but not quite the same thing as the "surrender" that I'm trying to convey.

Faithful surrender, in the Christian sense, is not the same as apathy or despair. Surrender entails holding on to that which you already know deep down is true, but is occluded by the mess of the everyday and the fears stilted by only what you can see. To the Christian, our faith already dictates that you live under a sovereign and loving God. As opposed to despair which finds no hope; surrender finds hope in the appeal to Someone. Using that same work example, instead of stressful obsession or despair, surrender involves the conscious decision to recognize that God is in control of the trajectory of our success and our failure - our responsibility is to be responsible stewards (or "do the best you can" in non-Christian lingo) and trust God with the results, come what may. This isn't fatalism, by the way - God's providence, while at times bitter, will always ultimately be good. Fate makes no such promises.

So in the rat race surrounded by many others who are similarly burdened, surrendering in the midst of stress is, ironically, freeing. But I'll concede that watching Peter Gibbons go fishing during work hours and cheerfully laugh off demands from his boss and consultants has some cathartic value, too.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Coleman Dead? Whatchootalkinbout Willis?

Sad news about the passing of Gary Coleman this past week, known to most people in my generation as Arnold Jackson, the short wisecracking adopted black son of wealthy corporate magnate Mr. Drummond on Diff'rent Strokes. If there was one show that qualified as "Family Viewing" as I grew up, it was undoubtedly this one, and I have memories of my parents, brother and father sitting in front of the television watching in shared amusement of the life and times of Arnold, Willis, Kimbery, Mr. D, Dudley and the rotating group of maids (Mrs. Garrett, Adelaide, Pearl). For a family that was divided both generationally and culturally, we somehow were able to find common ground in (perhaps not surprisingly) a show about very different people living and loving together in the same family.

At a recent Bible Study, I asked an opening question around how people developed their sense of ethics, and one friend mentioned television, which was a funny but honest answer - probably more true for many of us than we'd like to admit. Arnold Jackson was in center of much of this for me, teaching me (among other things):
  • Beware of the bicycle shop owner that offers you liquor and shows you adult cartoons in a private room in the back
  • Don't do drugs, and refusing to do so might result in a congratulatory visit from Nancy Reagan
  • Having an Asian teacher is okay, but having a teacher who moonlights as a stripper is not
  • If Kareem Abdul-Jabbar shows up as a substitute teacher, do not mess with him
  • Be nice to handicapped people in wheelchairs
  • It's wrong to want to be Jewish just because you get a cool bar mitvah party
  • Don't try to be like Mr. T - be proud of just being you
  • Leaving your adopted white brother to buy chips by himself might lead to him being kidnapped
  • Don't run against your best friend for class president
  • Don't try to steal the first issue of Spider-Man in order to get into a gang
As for Coleman, it's sad that his life became a bit of a circus act after his Diff'rent Strokes career, including financial troubles, legal troubles and appearances on television which were more demeaning than nostalgic. In a sad, but true, observation, the actor who played good old Mr. Drummond, Conrad Bain, has somehow outlived his show daughter Dana Plato (who played Kimberly) and now son.

Like many child television stars, his life post-fame may have been tumultuous, but I'll still appreciate some of the good life lessons I picked up from his show.