Friday, February 25, 2011

Donations With Strings Attached

I have to admit that when I give to charities, I want some assurance that my money is being used well, so I do a little due diligence around how much of the budget goes to management and administrative fees as a percentage of funds which are earmarked directly for the benefit of the afflicted. What's interesting is an even greater focus towards how philanthropic giving is being used, as mentioned in a recent article in the New York Times.

The article specifically notes how major donors for Catholic schools in New York City are insisting upon, and getting, a more active advisory role in the strategies which their money is helping enable. On one hand, it seems entirely reasonable - the funds are critical to the survival of the institution, and assuming that these benefactors share the common goal with administrators of wanting the best for the schools and the students, why not allow them a seat at the table to influence direction? On the other hand, the transaction may reek of quid pro quo, and the unhealthy assumption that money can and should buy influence. A gift with strings attached, one may say, is not a gift at all, but rather a purchase in the controlling interest of the institution. The argument is that this is not what philanthropy is all about.

An example of this gone bad is the strange case of UConn donor Robert Burton's request to have his $3 million donation returned after he was reportedly angry about not being consulted about the hiring of the new football coach, a situation which was supposedly exacerbated when the Huskies hired former Syracuse coach Paul Pasqualoni, who had apparently clashed with Burton's son who had played on the Syracuse football team. The optics of this make it pretty apparent that Burton felt that his $3 million donation entitled him to something, which brings us back to the question, what is the obligation of institutions to benefactors beyond appreciative recognition of the gift itself?

I'm inclined to think that this is a slippery slope. When funding for the operating budget of any non-profit gets concentrated in too few hands, the owners of those hands might fall into the "take my ball and go home" delusion, where their power and influence, even if well intentioned initially, may ultimately cloud the vision and direction of the organization. This is why strong boards and governance is so important.

Otherwise, as charities begin to enable philanthropists who want to give not just their money, but their advice. Before soon, we'll find that money has found its way to influence not just politics, but the non-profit and religious institutions which no longer can find funding without strings attached - unless there are enough wealthy benefactors who are willing to generously fund non-profits to afford not to enter these Faustian bargains with super-philanthropists.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Only Slightly Less Stupid Criminal Activity

I recently read with amusement an article which recounted an incident where a young man called 911 to ask the police how much trouble he could get in for growing marijuana. Upon getting his answer, the young man hung up the phone, the police traced the call and subsequently arrested him for possession of, well, everything that you would need to grow marijuana. It's clear that this would probably vault to the top of the list of "Darwin Awards" type criminal behavior, with the exception that the young man didn't die in the course of his inane course of action.

It did remind me of a incident at Penn which I'll retell, but will give the college buddy a pseudonym to protect the innocent. During the summer between freshman and sophomore years, my buddy "Chuck" and I decided to go down to a Phillies game. During the course of the year, I had introduced Chuck to an fellow student, let's just call him "Bob", who was a little on the shady side. Somehow, Chuck ended up buying from Bob a stun gun. Chuck, never wanting to take changes as we trekked down to South Philadelphia, decided to tote his stun gun along. Unfortunately, the legal standing of this piece of contraband was never confirmed.

Anyway, we go to the game, and on the way back, Chuck and I find ourselves on a largely empty subway platform waiting for the next train when we hear the loud cracking of what sounds like automatic gunfire. Instinctively, we rush off the platform up the stairs and looking back, we see a brown bag full of firecrackers popping off.

At the top of the stairs is a burly and angry looking police officer who at once tells us to halt and to prepare to be frisked. While I proceed to comply without hesitation, poor Chuck at this moment realizes that he's carrying a piece of contraband, and visions of getting booked at the police station, getting kicked out of school and having his dreams of medical school dashed - he's pretty pale. Fortunately, for him the officer does a lousy job frisking him and misses the stun gun, and that's that.

Now here's where I'm reminded of the aforementioned marijuana incident. Shortly after, Chuck realizes that he needs to establish the legitimacy of his stun gun so he calls 911, but given his Ivy League education and wise paranoia, he smartly calls from a pay phone. The conversation, I believe went something like this:

Chuck: Excuse me, is it legal in Philadelphia to carry mace?
911 Operator: Yes.
Chuck: How about stun guns?
911 Operator: No.
Chuck: Thanks. (quickly hangs up the phone)

The lesson of the story is - if you're verifying he illicit nature of an activity, always use a pay phone. But man, this story still brings back some nice memories.

Friday, February 18, 2011

A Gladiator Culture Without Brutality

As a society, we seem to speak out of both side of our mouths when it comes to the often contradictory desire for civilized and safe sportsmanship in our athletic competitions and our appetite for intense physical battle. It's the same contradiction that we see when NFL commissioner Roger Goodell takes a hard line on potentially brain damaging hits to the head in an attempt to curtail an epidemic of football players and veterans developing debilitating neurological disorders, while they simultaneously hawk videos such as "NFL's Greatest Hits" depicting football players getting smashed and crushed with a background of heavy metal music.

Those of us who love sports love the intensity of the competition, but something that I've never understood is the insistence of some "hockey purists" that fighting should continue to be "part of the game", which means that those who fight are given token "in game" penalties as opposed to lengthy multi-game suspensions as they would in major sports (yes, I'm deliberately excluding hockey as a major sport) such as baseball, football and basketball. Here are three of the stupid arguments which are often used, gleaned from a quick search of pro-fighting articles.

1) It's part of the game. One pundit equated fighting in hockey to sacking the quarterback. This is clearly a false comparison. Sacking a quarterback in football changes the field of play by loss of yardage and down. Fighting is neither prevents goals or score goals, unless the hypothesis is that a legitimate strategy should be to beat up the best scorer on the other team. Really?

2) It's part of the tradition. Another pundit equated it to hazing rookies and other time-honored traditions. Other time-honored traditions in sports included not using helmets and padding and playing outdoors on top of ponds, but shouldn't the game evolve as our society becomes more enlightened?

3) Self-policing is most effective. So they best way to regulate fighting is to supposedly sent another "goon" out to the ice to beat the crap out of the opponent who instigated the first fight? The problem is, neither team can really agree on "who started it", leading to escalating beatdowns that lead to people getting hurt.

And that's the thing that drives me nuts about hockey. Marty McSorely swings his stick and hits Donald Brashear in the head, Todd Bertuzzi sucker punches Steve Moore from behind and crushes him on ths ice, and most recently, Brent Johnson lays down fellow goaltender Rick DiPietro with a single punch - each incident landing the victim in the hospital and forcing them significant amounts of time. What can you say about a sport in which somebody can, outside of the rules, physically harm a co-worker and disable them from physically doing their job, without any more repercussions than getting suspended for the day? For most of us, such conduct would lead to immediate termination. For the NHL, you've just summed up a job description.

In the McSorely and Bertuzzi incidents, criminal assault files were actually filed. But what does it say about a league which creates an atmosphere were workers can routinely incapacitate other workers with head and brain injuries with many of these incidents bordering on criminal assault? I like competitiveness in sports, but it seems to me that a humane society can live without the vicious beatdowns.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Incivility in Anonymity

When I surf the internet and read articles and op-ed columns, one of my usual habits is to take a look at user-submitted comments and generally speaking, most of these comments cause reactions ranging from offended and depressed. Usually you'll get your potpourri of anti-liberal, anti-immigrant, anti-conservative, anti-Christian, anti-Obama and anti-rhetoric sprinkled in with a few personal attacks with mockfanities such as sh*t, f-ck and d*ick in order to throw off the offensive language filter. One can't help but wonder about the state of our society.

Jeff Pearlman, a writer for Sports Illustrated who hasn't shied away from controversial subjects in the past - he penned the infamous John Rocker article in 1999, unearthing Rocker quotes such as "The biggest thing I don't like about New York are the foreigners. I'm not a very big fan of foreigners. You can walk an entire block in Times Square and not hear anybody speaking English. Asians and Koreans and Vietnamese and Indians and Russians and Spanish people and everything up there. How the hell did they get in this country?") - recently decided to seek out particularly incendiary and offensive commenters of his articles. Once he was able to "uncloset" these readers, he usually found them contrite and reasonable.

I'm not sure if I should be encouraged that people are actually (largely) decent when they interact in a person to personal setting, and I can tell myself that the "true character" is really revealed when this interaction takes place. Maybe we can blame the "anonymity of the Internet" in greasing the skids of hostile, incendiary and offensive treatment of others. Perhaps it's little more than an older version of a prank phone call, where one finds irreverent humor in getting a rise out of people, with "If you're refrigerator's running, you'd better go catch it" has evolved into posting "Your God is dead" under articles in the online articles in Christianity Today.

Sadly, I don't think this is the case. While I wish that I could chalk this up to "the Internet made me do it" and a version childhood mischief, I tend to think that the anonymity of the Internet largely reveals who people really are when nobody's looking. The heart attitudes and the convictions of people are easily disbursed without consideration for others feelings because not only does it seem like a victimless crime (it's not as if you're actively e-mailing comments to specific individuals), it seems like a perpetrator-less crime ("I didn't do it. It was the online entity known as offensivefamilyguy23.") In a online society which relishes in offending and destroying others in the grandest way possible, can we really be surprised when the online behavior seeps into public discourse... and we end up with tragedies such as the shootings in Arizona? Welcome to our culture of hate, moving from online to real-life and moving from virtual to physical.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Work Life Balance Killer

I've owned a Blackberry since 2003 and while it has in many cases made my gadget-head tech-geek heart flutter with joy, I am utterly convinced that it's gone a long way in killing any semblance of work-life balance while leading to a mild case of adult-onset attention deficit disorder. This phenomena of smartphones and technology-enabled mobility being the bane of boundaries between work and life was well-chronicled in a recent article in the New York Times, and I can attest that it's largely true.

The work-life balance thing is largely eliminated because now it takes every ounce of discipline for me not to respond to e-mails that I get at all hours of the night and during the weekend. The choice is often this: do I either not respond and let my "to do list" steadily pile up to the ceiling or do I respond and inevitably get into a Blackberry message back-and-forth exchange with a colleague at 10:30 in the evening or on Saturday afternoon? And despite most managers and colleagues rhetoric around "respecting work and life" balance, the smartphone comes with the expectation that you'll be more responsive and more available. Or as many have stated before - it's a leash.

It doesn't have to be, and the article cites some good tips on how you can mitigate the problem. Setting expectations amongst your colleagues helps, as does my little trick of typing up responses (thus getting the relief that my work is done) but NOT sending it out until I'm back in the office in the morning or Monday (this avoiding the back-and-forth, since everyone wants to get the last word in so they can go to sleep or otherwise push work to the side for a bit). This works especially well if you've set the aforementioned expectations that my response to your e-mail does not need to be received by you at 11pm (e.g. If you want to be a workaholic, that's your prerogative, but don't drag me down with you). The only snare to this strategy is when you have a colleague who is obvious confused about some time-sensitive task and you absolutely need him or her to understand what they're doing sooner than later.

The even worse part about smartphones is the adult-onset ADD. My wife calls my Blackberry "my mistress", given my attention to it, and I haven't been great at proving her wrong. Between streaming audio, video, e-mail, gaming, information, references with the ability to access content around any topic of interest - plus interactivity with your entire social circle on a real-time basis, it's remarkable what these devices can do. Between that lure of the blinking red light indicating a new e-mail, instant message or Facebook update and the stream of consciousness "I remember or wonder about X, let me check Google, Wikipedia or YouTube..." it's easy to be in presence of friends and family but not really be "there", or drift quickly out of the conversation and divert your attention to your smartphone.

As technology continues to evolve and meet even more immediate needs of the individual's stream of consciousness and curiosity. Microsoft last winter started to come out with ads for Windows Mobile 7 and "a phone to save us from ourselves" including an excerpt where a man turns to man typing away on a smartphone in front of a urinal and says derisively "Really?" I'd like to see how better technology will lead us to become less enslaved, dependent and addicted for more of it - but I'm not hopeful.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Second-Mover Disadvantage

There's a business theory around the benefits of being the first to bring to market a new product, enter a new geography, etc. This "first mover" advantage is very much translatable to the phenomena enjoyed a first-born children - and subsequent disadvantage of second-born children - of a family. In his article titled "It sucks to be the second child", columnist Peter Hartlaub astutely outlines some of the specific misfortunes that fall upon he/she who starts second. I've taken a look and have considered how my wife and I have fared around the raising of our daughter Sophia.

Nobody checks to see if you're breathing. This is pretty true, but I'd chalk this up more to the absolute paranoia that grips you when you have your first child. Our pastor's wife once gave us these words of wisdom as new parents: "The goal of year one is just keep the kid alive" - in other words, don't stress out with development and behavior and such. As new parents, you freak out about SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, a.k.a. "Crib Death") and the life-jarring miracle of having a child gives way to the "oh crap, we have absolutely no idea what we're doing". I remember vividly that we had rented "Angela's Ashes" while Daniel was an infant, and after seeing Frankie McCourt's baby siblings die time and time again in their sleep, it caused me to hover that evening over Daniel's crib just a little bit longer.

Documentation of your upbringing will be half-assed. Spot on, again. We took an exponentially greater amount of photos and Sarah's put Chris-Hansen-investigative-reporter-quality effort into Daniel's scrapbook. Heck, we didn't take for granted that we'd have another child after Daniel, so we figured to capture the moments of who might be our only kid. By the time Sophia came around, little things like "recharging the digital camera batteries" and "ordering selected prints on Snapfish" oddly became a little more of a perceived hassle. In fairness, there's still a crapload of photos with Sophia as a baby - it's just that a good chunk of them also have Daniel in them as well.

Expectations are higher for intellectual achievements. I'm not sure this is the case. If anything, I fear that we've typecasted the kids in the way that we've responded to their precocious at a young age, specifically that Daniel is the more intellectual curious one and that Sophia is the more outgoing and socially adept one. We're careful not to create a self-fulfilling prophesy here, so we try not to feed those too much in their presence. Maybe this comes into play more when the second-child is older, but it's not as if I'm really fixated on Sophia's ability to color in the lines relative to Daniel at the same age.

Your 2-year-old legs are expected to move as fast as a 5-year-old's. Again, probably not so much in my family. Then again, this might be diminished because in my impatience I simply carry her to keep up with the rest of us. I don't think it's a matter of speed of walking - Sophia occasionally gets dragged by the arms because she insists on not listening and leaving when we're, for example, at a toy store or pet store.

Nobody hears your cries of anguish. Definitely not true. Our daughter is very loud, so believe me, we hear. Now whether those cries of anguish elicit more annoyance than compassion, maybe that's another story.