Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Liberal Intolerance

Left-leaning columnist Joel Connolly surprisingly but refreshingly took the liberal establishment in Washington State to task for its hypocrisy in their attack of pharmacists right to legally object based on conscience to administer certain drugs. The current compromise, which made accommodations for objectors, mandates that the pharmacist must refer the customer to another pharmacist who will willingly distribute the drug in question. This compromise has been deemed as unacceptable to some, who believe that the right solution is to compel people to violate their conscience or hand over their license.

Connolly points out that this is contrary to this country's long tradition of legally recognizing objections of conscience. He writes "We've allowed pacifists to opt out of military service and provided for alternative service. We, as a society, have also sanctioned the primacy of free speech." But the same liberals who once championed the paramount importance of following conscience seem to want to throw that out of the window when consciences are telling individuals to do things which are "un-liberal".

Chris Carlson, a champion for assisted-suicide and presumably no supported of conservative causes even noted, "They want a pharmacist forced to provide Plan B's morning after pill and if a pharmacist can't in good conscience do so, their attitude is the state should strip this person of license and livelihood." Does this sound like the heartbeat of the progressive and liberal soul? The belief that either you share my beliefs, act on my beliefs or pay severe consequences awfully like a sound-bite from the common "right-wing religious nuts shouldn't impose their beliefs on other people" rant. NARAL Pro-Choice Washington screamed, "No one should be able to impose their personal beliefs..." while essentially doing exactly that in the process.

Laughingly, some liberals are apparently hiding behind the "a strong majority of us agree" tact, which provides a false sense of "everybody's knows this is the right thing" certainty while implying that those who don't are on the fringe. Even Connolly acknowledges and mocks it: "Oh, to be so certain and so stigmatize those who disagree. Again, however, a broader question: Should everyone be forced to acquiesce to a majority view, even if the majority is slim or conflicted?"

To be fair, I see this phenomena on both sides of the political spectrum. Sadly, there is no shortage of people who are the majority willing to bully those who have alternate beliefs. What's particularly sad and hypocritical is that a group which prides itself of being so inclusive and tolerant doesn't see the irony in their actions. Perhaps they'll be forced to acknowledge that there are things that are absolute and worth fighting for (even if we don't agree on what these are) - so these conflicts will be rightfully revealed be as disagreements of perspectives as opposed to "tolerance" versus "intolerance".

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Taking a Fall to Avoid a Review

In what could be filed in the "job-related stress causes people to do strange things" folder, 33-year old Brooklyn high school teacher Ilene Feldman was busted on video throwing herself down a flight of stairs to allegedly avoid a classroom observation which might saddle her with a second negative rating and potential termination given her untenured status. Feldman, who was eventually confronted with the video evidence by investigators, maintained her innocence, but quickly resigned and has since been made ineligible for teaching in the city school district.

My first instinct was to deride Ms. Feldman for her duplicity, but pausing to think, I feel a some sympathy for her. I can't know for sure what her motives were, but assuming that her actions had less to do with committing fraud and more to do with not wanting to deal with an unbearable work situation, I think I can understand her actions, even if I don't approve of them. There are probably few things more miserable than being awful at your vocation and feeling powerless to change that. It's possible that Ms. Feldman was in a situation where she knew she wasn't a good teacher and knew that the second negative observation was going to be the nail in her teaching career coffin, and in an act of desperation, she tried to avoid the inevitable. It would be akin to the corporate phenomena as constantly calling in sick to avoid being fired for excessive absenteeism - the old if-you-never-see-me-you-can't-fire-me trick (though I believe this is an urban legend, and it's entirely possible for a person to be fired in absentia).

I don't agree with how she went about doing it, of course, but perhaps Ms. Feldman has come to the reality that the better course of action for everyone would've been to resign in the first place. Or just as I counsel friends and colleagues who are going through immense job stress to the point of emotional or mental breakdown: Take a step back and remember that there are certain things that are absolutely impossible to walk away from - chances are is that the specific job that you have is not one of them.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Unrepentant Incompetence

Back in June, Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga was on the brink of history, one batter away from hurling a perfect game. Cleveland Indians shortstop Jason Donald tapped a grounder to first baseman Miguel Cabrera who fielded the ball and flipped to Galarraga covering first base as Donald raced down the line. The play was close, but the batter was out and history was made.

Except umpire Jim Joyce blew the call. And Galarraga lost his perfect game... and no-hitter.

What happened afterwards would be a shining example of good sportsmanship from Joyce, Galarraga and Tigers manager Jim Leyland. Joyce, upon realizing his mistake, was distressed, the Detroit News reported:
Joyce was so emotionally smashed by his mistake he could do nothing after the game but pace back and forth, arms crossed against his chest, savaging himself and saying through wet eyes, "I took a perfect game from that kid... He arrived back at Comerica Park two hours before the Tigers and Indians were to again tangle Thursday. His name by now had become internationally known, and not for the better. Joyce was still in tatters, emotionally, as he stood outside the umpire's clubhouse, choking his way through remarks.
After the initial rancor, fans began to sympathize with Joyce and then later applauded his integrity in owing up to his mistake. As the gracious Galarraga pointed out,"Nobody's perfect" and Joyce made a mistake which he took responsibility for and it was a mistake he clearly was not flippant about missing. Nobody felt worse about the error than Joyce himself, and after a while, even the most fervent Tigers fans were hoping that Joyce would cut himself some slack.

On the flip side, there are those in life and in the sporting world that are the antithesis of Jim Joyce. Umpire Bob Davidson is a notoriously bad umpire, and what compounds his errors is his utter denial of his mistakes. Two particular doozies:
  • Davidson raised foreign conspiracy theories twice in the World Baseball Classic when Davidson incorrectly overruled the original correct call, and ruled that a Japanese runner tagged up too early, costing Japan a go-ahead run in a game they'd eventually lose by one run. In that same World Baseball Classic, Mexico hit a home run against a foul pole which was incorrectly downgraded to a double by Davidson. These two events led fans in Japan and Mexico to dub Davidson the "patriotic ump".
  • Recently when the Phillies played the Marlins, Davidson ruled an obviously game-winning fair ball foul, and remained defiant in the face of instant replay, drawing remarks like "dreadful" from the Marlins owner and "that was the worst call I've ever seen in my 30 years of professional baseball" from the Marlins manager. Davidson responded by digging in his heels and defended his call even after seeing the replay.
But the errors aren't the problem. The real problem is the lack of acknowledgement that he blew the calls. People are pretty understanding and forgiving if you acknowledge that you're not perfect. People are less understanding and forgiving when you make mistakes and insist that you didn't make a mistake.

Speaking of which, don't even get my started on Isaiah Thomas, the man who not only singlehandedly killed the Knicks organization with idiotic and salary cap-killing signings or trades for Eddy Curry, Stephon Marbury, Jalen Rose, Steve Francis, Jerome James, etc., but also managed to embarrass the organization by getting implicated in a sexual harassment suit which was eventually settled out of court. Despite this, Thomas managed to weasel a consulting job with the Knicks, and then had the gall to say, "I would be interested in going back to the NBA as a GM for the right spot and the right opportunity."

This is akin to Bernie Madoff saying, "I would be interested in managing a fund, but only if it was with the right firm and right opportunity."

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Luck, Circumstances and Some Pretty Good Choices

The question of compulsory diversity in education has raised it's head in Hunter College High School, a public school for the gifted, centering on its admissions standards and use of standardized testing which has the effect of (depending on who you talk to) keeping academic standards high and rigorous or forcing a student population which is heavily skewed to whites and Asians. The tension came to a head when Justin Hudson, a black and Hispanic senior told his fellow students at a graduation address, “More than anything else, I feel guilty. I don’t deserve any of this. And neither do you.” Why? Because he believed they had been labeled gifted based on a test they passed “due to luck and circumstance.

On one hand, I agree that whoever is in a position to get into a good school, whether it be high school, college or graduate, should be thankful and humble realizing that circumstances outside their doing were certainly a factor in terms of their admission. From a theological perspective, I'd also say that it behooves Christians who believe in a sovereign and gracious God who gives all good things to give glory to God and not to themselves.

But insomuch Justin is implying that their place at Hunter was awarded solely by luck and circumstances and not by some good choices and hard work along the way, I think he's off base. From a cosmic and theological perspective, if you believe that you have no control over who your parents are and that your actions are ultimately preordained by a higher power, sure, his point has some merit. But to leave the hard work and good decisions of the students who got in and the parents who encouraged them and the sacrifices that were made count for something, don't they?

When that future Hunter student studied countless hours to practice for their entrance exam while other people "hung out" and played video games, doesn't that have something to do with it? When the single mother of another future Hunter student worked two jobs to pay for extra tutoring, and also made enough time to double-check the child's homework, are you going to really going to chalk that up to luck? I'm wondering if maybe there's a way to acknowledge the privilege of being a Hunter student and fortuitousness of getting in without devaluing the hard work and good decisions made by students and parents which helped them get in.

What also troubles me about Justin's "success guilt" is part of what troubles me about parts of Affirmative Action policies (which I'm not a priori against). Deliberate or not, he's victimizing the people that don't get into good schools and unhelpfully inviting them to use that as a cop-out instead of clawing their way out. Or to flip the good decisions and hard work done by the future Hunter student. The fact that the Hunter "reject" chose to play video games instead of studying or found it a better use of their time to goof off in class instead of paying attention is apparently irrelevant, since what's implicit is the individual is powerless to make good choices despite bad circumstances. Instead, it's easier to blame the surrounded circumstances which made success impossible.

Funny - we used to celebrate the perseverance of people, notably poor and language-challenged immigrants, to fight through circumstances to achieve great levels of success. But maybe it would've just been easier to fail and blame bad luck and circumstance. If this is the our new way of inspiring people, I hate to see it.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Fun at a Fraction of the Cost

A couple of weekends ago, I took Daniel to his first live baseball game, and instead of sitting in traffic for an hour and putting down more than $120 for overpriced tickets, parking and food for the privilege in sitting a mile up in nose-bleed seats while inebriated fans around me screamed sexually and racially-charged epithets around us, I opted to take him to a Newark Bears minor league game instead, where I could score box seats for a mere $10 per seat. Plus, the stadium was conveniently on the commuter train line, making it an easy trip. And the other bonus was that this game would conclude with post-game fireworks.

My old church buddy Nader tagged along volunteering to drive us, and the three of us made the 20 minute trip down to nearby Riverfront Stadium (finding free street parking) and walked up to a gate. Upon asking the ticket taker where box office was, the lady responded and held up a wad of tickets, "Looking for tickets? This is your lucky day... a gentleman was looking get rid of these so you get in for free." I gladly put my wallet away and we all walked in to a seating section right behind home plate, settling into seats no further than 30 feet behind home plate.

All the non-baseball stuff that you'd want at a live baseball experience was there - the singing of the National Anthem, singing 'Take Me Out to the Ballgame', the goofy mascot, ballpark food (paying out $6.50 for a hot pretzel and french fries wasn't great, but it would've cost $10 at Citi Field or Yankee Stadium) ,the mascot racing kids on the bases between innings, etc. The baseball wasn't major-league quality of course, but it's not if Daniel cared whether the guy at bat was Manny Mejia or David Wright. The important thing is we had great seats, the weather was perfect and fans around us were drinking beer without screaming obscenities.

Of course, watching baseball can frankly get old for kids (or adults for that matter), and by the bottom of the 1st inning Daniel was asking me for food, and by the 3rd inning Daniel was asking me when the fireworks were coming. Being able to walk around the not-so-crowded concourse helped the time pass by, as was the freedom to explore the empty seats near right field. Eventually the game ended on a walk-off single for an exciting Bears 4-3 win, highlighted by clutch hits from former major leaguers Carl Everett and Eric Munson. All in all, not bad for less than $10, even if the enduring memory for Daniel was the fireworks show at the end.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Maybe I'd Prefer the Doctor Who Got the 'A' in Orgo

Interesting article in the NY Times which put the spotlight on a number of students who are getting into medical school without taking typical undergraduate science prerequisites or the MCAT. I know friends from college that looked upon both of these "rites of passage" with great dread, particularly organic chemistry, which had the reputation as a "killer" course along the same lines of Capital Markets at Wharton.

It's an interesting approach, built upon the theory that presuming that the candidates are fairly bright already (the applicants who get in through the "non-traditional" route come from schools such as Amherst, Princeton, Brown Wesleyan and Williams and have strong SAT and undergraduate GPA scores), and they go through a form of boot camp which serves as a turbo-catch up of science curriculum they might have missed. The applicants are still held to the standards of doing their Step 1 and Board exams, so it's not as if there's not a degree of quality control before these folks go out to see patients.

It does raise the question of the real importance of what's deemed as compulsory "pre-med" education. Or put another way, if it's not all that necessary for these folks, why should the rest of the medical students be held to it? The analogy (albeit imperfect) is business school, which has no real prerequisites besides, in most cases, good work experience - and I fully agree with that. You don't need to go into any top-notch business school knowing how to do accounting or financial modeling or marketing; these are things they teach you during the first semester. So for those idiots who went to Wharton's undergraduate program who totally wasted their.... oh wait, never mind.

Jesting aside, undergraduate business schools are great for getting you a nice job post-college, which then get you into a B-school, where you learn very little incrementally from undergraduate business school. Waste of money? Not really, but that's for another blog post.

Going back to our science-ignorant medical students, I'm liking what I hear about opening the doors to liberal arts students who have strong interpersonal skills who will become "well-rounded, caring, inquisitive healers". What I get a little nervous about is what's articulated by Elizabeth Adler, one of the non-traditional students who states (a little pretentiously in my opinion): “I didn’t want to waste a class on physics, or waste a class on orgo. The social determinants of health are so much more pervasive than the immediate biology of it.

Well, Lizzie, if you're my oncologist, I'd be concerned about you thinking that learning about organic chemistry would've been a waste. And I sure don't want you pontificating about how my socioeconomic standing impacts my life-expectancy when I'm having a cardiac episode.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Allure of the Ring

One of my recent devotionals posed this question: Which of the temptations that Jesus endured the desert in Luke 4:1–13 would you personally find most difficult to resist? Going off a standard interpretation, would it be the need to satisfy a desire which can compete and override your desire for God Himself, whether it be food or sex? Would it be the promise of power and glory? Or would it be the fundamental inclination to doubt God's goodness and promises, which leads us to test God?

I'd probably answer "yes" to the question - of course I struggle with all three at different times. Interestingly, the struggle of trusting God's goodness and promises tends to, at least for me, leads me less to "testing God" as opposed to not relying upon Him enough. Or put another way, my lack of faith manifests itself in failing to pray, trying desperately to get out of bad situations using my own wit and effort, and assuming a humanist rationalist mindset. Often, the struggle isn't that I test God, it's more that I fail to appreciate His power, His strength, and His power to deliver me and others from very bad situations.

But while that might be the biggest temptation I struggle with, I find the temptation of power and glory most pervasive in the world at large. There's something about power which is not just seductive, but it seems to change the very attitudes and ethics of those who have it. The aspiration of gaining power and the fear of losing it causes people to do strange things.

I remember catching a glimpse on television an interview of David Kuo (no relation), who was formerly George W. Bush's Deputy Director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives before in the spirit of a whistleblower (or turncoat, depending on your political perspective) wrote a book called "Tempting Faith", portraying the Bush Administration in a negative and cynical light, essentially accusing the administration for using the faith initiative as a thinly-veiled political tool to manipulate Christians into voting Republican without caring one iota about them or their causes. In the interview, Bill Maher (okay, maybe this wasn't exactly a politically unbiased setting) asked what changed between the sincere, righteous and genuine Bush who had personally recruited Kuo to help build the faith initiative and the man who was hell-bent on exploiting Christians to win elections, and Kuo answered along the lines of, "It's about power, and like in the 'Lord of the Rings', the power changed him and the need to stay in power changed him."

Regardless of whether you buy into Kuo's specific hypothesis about W, it's fair to say that we've all experienced or witnessed this phenomena, whether it be the elementary school classmate who becomes drunk with power after he's appointed hall monitor, the former peer at work whose crap doesn't stink anymore once he'd promoted ahead of you, or even the changing behaviors of people within churches as they're thrust into leadership.

As Uncle Ben said in Spider-Man: With great power comes great responsibility. I frankly think it's surprising that more superheroes don't go rogue.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Garage Sale Treasures and Redemption

There was yet another "feel good" story about a fellow who stumbled upon a fortune of a buy at a garage sale, this time when a commercial painter from Fresno, California was made aware that a box of glass photo negatives that he had bought at a garage sale for $45 was appraised $200 million. This is similar to similar variations of this story, simply switching the garage sale item to Stradivarius Violin or original Picasso painting or the pistol that killed Abraham Lincoln.

Two unfortunate angles of this story is (1) it's never happened to me - everything I've ever bought at garage sale has been worthless crap that I've paid little for which has remained worthless crap and (2) how to the sellers feel when they find out later that they've sold a million dollar antique or heirloom for the price of a McDonald's Value Meal? Doesn't that enrage or devastate them? How come we never see the article presented as such: "Man Deeply in Debt Laments Upon Realizing He Sold Priceless Paintings for $50 - also throwing in Hedge Clippers and Garden Hose"? It's possible that the human-interest in that angle doesn't tend to inspire the warm and fuzzy feelings as the author intends.

Some might say that we like these stories because we simply envy the "lottery ticket" nature of stumbling upon something that brings instant fortune. But I think the greater appeal to these "guy finds a diamond in the rough" stories appeals to our love of redemption. It's the same thing that makes movies like Rocky and The Karate Kid so enjoyable. Generally speaking, we take great joy in seeing that which seems worthless be revealed as so valuable. The Christian gospel, too, has that same beauty, that people who are fallen and broken can be redeemed and "made right" by the power of God through Christ's death and resurrection.

That's redemption at it's best, and thankfully it happens a lot more frequently that stumbling on a Renoir in a garage sale. But if I see a girl's bicycle on sale sitting in a driveway, I'll still probably stop.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Using More Carrot than Stick at Work

People complain about their jobs all the time as being stressful, underpaid, uninteresting, frustrating, unappreciated etc, but very I'm sure all us vocational malcontents were sufficiently "one-upped" when the report emerged that North Korean former Cabinet official Kwon Ho Ung was executed by firing squad after his poor performance in recent diplomatic talks with their neigbors in the south. While almost nothing could surprise me about North Korea at this point, I'd hate to be the recruiter that's trying to fill that job:
Recruiter: It's a great gig - in addition to lots of travel to exotic places, use of privileged bathroom facilities for government bureaucrats, we have a world-class performance incentive program. Some people might call it stressful, but we like to think of it as "intense". And "intense" is exciting, right?

Recruit: Really? What's so great about it?

Recruiter: Let's just say that people in this position are extremely motivated and some have moved on to positions of great joy... some would say eternal joy.

Recruit: Sounds interesting. What happened to my predecessor?

Recruiter: Oh, after this last review he stood happily before a small assembly which dispatched him to a new role, new world.
But joking aside, I feel a great deal of sympathy and compassion for those who live under Kim Jong-Il's oppressive, if not psychotic, regime. Notwithstanding the easy jokes (track them in the "comments" section after every article about this incident) about how such a performance management system would be great to implement for our own politicians, bankers, etc., I think this again reveals the nightmare which covers this country, pervasive on all layers in society. What's fairly well known is that the poor masses are subject to famine and starvation - and now it's clear that even the educated elite are subjected to a "perform or die" lifestyle. Or put another way, every resident of North Korea, regardless of social standing, has equal opportunities to live a crushed life and die a horrible and brutal death. I suppose that's radical egalitarian communism at work.

I think there's also a lesson here about how people operate under the motivation of "sticks" and "carrots" - the common analogy being used to discuss whether people are more or less responsive to rewards to penalties when it comes to performance. I don't think I speak for myself when I say that I can be incentivized by fear only so much. In a job market which while difficult and soft is still flexible, at some point the threat of losing one's job can only motivate you to a certain degree, and that certain degree is not excellence. As Peter Gibbons observed so astutely in the movie Office Space, "That will only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired." or if you're in North Korea "just hard enough not to be executed by firing squad."

But in defense of Kim Jong-Il, given the latest economic sanctions announced by Secretary of State Clinton, losing the ability to dole out cigarettes, exotic food and liquor will only curtail the ability for this despot to provide "carrot-like" incentives. Perhaps he'll have to revert to offering things such as basic human rights, religious freedom, the right to reunite with families across the DMZ, and the freedom to leave this dystopia. We can only hope.