Thursday, May 2, 2019

Spring in Tucson is not Spring in Toronto: But it's still Spring!

Maggie the Dog and I went for a walk in the desert again this morning; I’ve been away in Toronto for a meeting, so it’s been a bit. At 5:30am, it was chilly in Tucson, a shorts-but-fleece morning, although it started to get a little warmer when the sun came up. Still, in the mid-to-high 50s, it was at least 10 degrees warmer than the high temperature the whole time I was in Toronto! A friend from across Lake Ontario in Rochester, NY, wrote to me that it was darn cold for that time of year; certainly was for someone coming from Tucson where it was 97 the day before I left! (It has since come down a bit to a high in the high 80s.)

At least the temperature in Toronto (both outside and inside the conference hotel, where climate control always makes them the same everywhere) allowed me to wear my lovely Harris tweed sport jacket that I bought the last time this same conference was in Toronto, maybe 15 years ago. It was in a different hotel, and there was a tailor in the basement who was retiring and selling his handmade stock a discount prices, and I bought it along with two wool suits. Thus, two labels inside: one designating the fabric as a genuine Harris tweed made in Scotland and the other the label from Harrington tailors in Toronto. Mr. Harrington, who told me he began as an apprentice tailor in London (England, not Ontario) at the age of 14, may or may not still be alive, but the jacket is in great shape, and, with a windbreaker, kept me fine walking around Toronto, including a quest led by others, looking for an open Thai restaurant with a less-than-2-hour wait, as the sun went down and the temperatures dropped to low 40s. (We actually didn’t find one, but had a fine meal in a Chinese restaurant in Toronto’s Chinatown; a place in an old warehouse-looking building with a big mural of Chairman Mao looking down on us and a menu that probably had 25 items total, appetizers through deserts, instead of the characteristic many pages in most Chinese restaurants I have been to.)

Some of my colleagues had brought down jackets. And of course, many were from places that were no warmer than Toronto was. And, back here in Tucson, the first other person I saw walking her dogs this morning was wearing her down jacket at over 55 degrees, so cold is certainly perceptual, and 55 is perceived as cold here!

Anyway, it is getting to be late Spring, but there are still plants flowering. Here is some prickly pear, and most beautiful I think the Echinopsis, which flowered about 20 blooms two nights recently – all of them gone by midday the next day. Trying a third time to see if I can put up enough screen and chicken wire to prevent the whatever-it-is (ground squirrels would be my guess, since they are ubiquitous) from eating my tomato plants before they even get started (later we’ll worry about birds and hornworms – actually the screen should prevent birds getting in). Big hefty lizard in the yard now. If anyone knows what (plant I think, not animal) the spiky thing on the tree is, let me know.
And of course the obligate picture of last night’s sunset!

Sunday, March 17, 2019

White supremacist attacks and mass murders: It's not anti-religious, it's anti-people.

Shortly after the horrific massacres in two mosques in New Zealand, committed by a white nationalist who cites Donald Trump as an inspiration (and who the #Trumpenik has refused to disown – unlike YouTube sensation PewDiePie, also cited by the killer), I heard an interview with a person involved in anti-hate activities on NPR. She emphasized the religious nature of the killings, calling for an end to attacks on religious people. She cited, along with the Christchurch murders, the murders of Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue and of African-Americans in Charleston, SC. She even mentioned the bombings in the 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL in 1963, where four young girls were killed.

I do not know if she truly believes that such attacks are motivated by anti-religious beliefs. My guess is that this was a strategic emphasis, trying to get the attention of those who value and laud religion (usually, in this country, Christians) to share in the horror, to identify with the victims as fellow religious people, rather than the perpetrator, as a white guy. To the extent that this is at all effective, I hope it works. My sense is that religious people – Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and others – who have any sense of the morality associated with their religion already condemn them, and that those who do not will no more identify with groups that they hate because they are also religious than they will because they are also economically oppressed.

Because, of course, all of these attacks, by white supremacists Dylan Roof in South Carolina, by Robert Bowers in Pittsburgh, by Brenton Tarrant in Christchurch, and all of the others, were not based on opposition to religion. They were based on hatred of groups of other people, and all were committed by white nationalists, the overwhelming majority of domestic terrorists in the US – and in New Zealand, and Norway, and other majority white countries. The fact that they occurred at places of worship were the result of convenience, as they are places where the worthless thugs who committed these crimes knew that those they hated gathered.

Yes, Jews and Muslims are of a different religion than that of these perpetrators, but African-American Christians are not; what the vicious thugs have against them are not that they are Christian but that they are black. And white nationalists hate Muslims and Jews because of their “race”, their identity, not for their religious practice. For Jews, this has long been true. Judaism is a religion, yes, but it is also an ethnicity; one identifies as a Jew – and more important, is identified as a Jew – regardless of one’s level of belief or religious practice. Unlike Christians, a Jew can have no religious beliefs, can be an atheist, can come from generations of atheists, and still be a Jew, just as a person of Italian descent remains Italian even if they no longer practice the Catholicism of their ancestors. We call this the “Hitler definition”: if Hitler would have executed you, because one of your grandparents (or farther back) was Jewish even if you are an atheist or a practicing Christian, you are a Jew.

Muslims are somewhat different when considering the world as a whole. While there are at most 10 million Jews in the world, even counting the secular and atheist, mostly in the US and Israel, and while there are actually ethnic differences among them (Ashkenazic, Sephardic, African, etc.), there are over a billion Muslims, representing many countries and ethnicities. The largest Muslim population is in Indonesia, a country that itself has many ethnic groups, none of which are at all Arab, the ethnicity most associated with Islam among white nationalists and other racists. I don’t know about these countries, I don’t know if one can give up Islam and still be considered “Muslim” in Iran, or Indonesia, or Saudi Arabia, or Pakistan, but I doubt it.

However, the important thing in the context we are considering is perception in majority white (European origin) countries among racists. There, Muslims, like Jews, are a minority, and are a target. The sidelocks (payes) of Orthodox Jew, or the hijabs of Muslim women, may make the most religious easier targets, but the hatred is not of the religious practice but – however irrationally – of the people. Racist Muslim haters are not that careful. In 2012, a white supremacist named Wade Page shot ten people in a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, WI, killing six. They were, of course, not Muslims, but I don’t think Page would have been sorry; he killed himself, but there is no reason to think it was regret for his mistake. In 2017, Adam Purinton, a white supremacist, shot at two Hindu Indian men in a bar in the Kansas City suburb of Olathe, killing one. Also in a Kansas City suburb, Overland Park, a white supremacist named Frazier Miller killed two people at the Kansas City Jewish Center and one at Village Shalom, a Jewish retirement community. Again, targets of probability – these are places that one might expect to find Jews, like a synagogue. In fact, as it turns out, all three victims were Christians.

It is not because of their religious beliefs that Muslims, Jews, and African-Americans are victims of racist white supremacists. It is because they are “other”, a convenient group (or groups) for the hater – often a person who has been victimized him (it is always a “him”) self by the society – not by the people that they victimize but by those with real power, the corporations and billionaires who control society – to take out their frustration on. A recent piece on the Scientific American blog notes that there has been a huge upsurge in gun ownership in the US since the Obama years, but the percent of American households with guns is not increasing; the number of guns in some of those households with guns is increasing. Three percent of US households possess 50% of the guns. Mostly, they are men. Mostly, they are white. Mostly, they are at the economic margins. Most are angry.

It is a dangerous cocktail, bitter angry white men with lots of guns who think something has been taken from them, and blame not the perpetrators but the “other”. It is stoked by people like President Trump, who says white nationalism is not a problem, but that if “my police” and “my bikers” start to attack his enemies it would be “very, very bad” (wink, wink). Who stoke Islamophobia and talk about the “majority of our country” (wink, wink). Ethnic and religious minorities repress and murder and commit genocide upon others all over the world, in Israel and Saudi Arabia and Syria and Myanmar and India, and it is never ok. Not at all. And it is not ok in the US – or in New Zealand, or Norway.

So, although it might be a way to raise the awareness among religious communities of the majority faith (and, in fact, white people with strong religious ties are much less likely to be racists, not to mention potential mass murderers), it is not an anti-religious crusade. It is a racist one, and it needs aggressive action to suppress it, not encouragement of a brownshirt mentality.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Bad driving in two cities

When I moved to Tucson a few years ago, people told me to be careful because the drivers here were really bad and it was dangerous. My first thought was that driving anywhere is dangerous, and there are terrible drivers everywhere. No, they said, it is worse here, from a number of factors together. First of all, there are a lot of old people driving, both retirees who live here (like me) and the “snowbirds” who come down in the winter.

There are also the students from the University of Arizona, who drive crazily because, well, they are young. Which means that they are, at least in their own minds, immortal. Practically, it means they take risks. This turns out to be partially neurologic, in fact. The brain doesn’t completely develop until the mid-to-late 20s, and the last part to finish developing is the frontal lobe, the seat of both executive function and judgement. So when you ask the 19 year old what they were thinking when they drove into that intersection with other cars, they can answer, honestly, “thinking?”

Most of the students come from other cities, as do the retirees, and the snowbirds, of course, live somewhere else most of the year, so they add to the problem by not necessarily being familiar with Tucson traffic characteristics. So winter is the worst time. And Tucson has a lot of dangerous characteristics, like, for one, suicide lanes, extra lanes where people can take lefts. In either direction. Or wait for an opening. Leads to a lot of accidents.

Tucson drivers do a lot of stupid and dangerous things, but I think that the classic move has to do with the fact that virtually all stores in town are in strip malls. One might drive to the exit, and wait for a gap in the traffic to take your right (or left). But – what if there is no car coming right then, and if you slow down, maybe one will. So you come in fast to the street and, if there is no one coming, you can make your right turn. And if there is, you slam on your brakes. Problem is only for the person driving in the right lane, who sees someone coming at them from the parking lot on the right very fast, and doesn’t know if they will stop or even can, so slows quickly, possibly creating more problems.

But I also drive in San Diego, where no one says that the drivers are terrible, but it is just as dangerous because they also do really stupid things. It is a little different there, though. In San Diego everyone thinks that they are a great driver, and, with their really expensive fast cars, can zip in and out of traffic. And so create lots of dangerous situations. They’re not that good. Driving between Tucson and San Diego it’s mostly I-8 and mostly in empty desert with little traffic. Going fast is fine. But west of Alpine it is an urban freeway, and different rules (should) apply. And if the signature move in Tucson is coming fast from your right out of a parking lot, the signature move in San Diego is passing on the right. A truly bad idea, and almost routine in that town.

Of course, neither Tucson nor San Diego drivers believe in using their turn signals. Perhaps they forget, or don’t know if they’re actually going to turn. Certainly you don’t since they don’t use them! I think it is also, at least in part, not wishing to let other drivers know their plans. If they did, you know, they might take advantage. And cut you off. Or pass you on the right. Gotta be pre-emptively aggressive, right?

Wrong, of course. Dangerous is dangerous. Driving dangerously because you think you are a terrific driver, as San Diegans do, is especially dangerous.

But seeing the very large woman coming toward me in a motorized wheelchair, going the wrong way in the bike lane at night with no lights? That was in Tucson!

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Self-centered leaders: The cause of most problems

I have read a number of business/management books, and have several on my shelves. Nowhere near as many as a lot of people, based both on those I know – in business and even more in management of medical operations and academic departments (although the first, for sure, and the second often, are basically businesses). They are obviously very popular, as there are many of them in bookstores, especially in airport bookstores; this is not surprising as such a high percentage of airport travelers are traveling on, well, business.

The reason I don’t read more of them is not actually because they are boring, which is the main reason I stop reading books. In fact, they are often well written, witty, and make good points; they are often better written and more engaging than a lot of non-fiction and fiction books. No, the reason is that they all, basically, say the same thing. They may promote themselves as being on different topics, such as negotiation, collaboration, maximizing organizational success, understanding the psychology of the workplace, etc., but really they all (or at least the good, and in some ways ironically, most successful ones) say “don’t be an asshole”. OK, I know that one of them is actually called the “No Asshole Rule”[1], but I meant it more generically, so if you want you can say “jerk” (although Sutton, the author of the latter book, is quoted as saying “other words such as bully or jerk "do not convey the same degree of awfulness".[2] Maybe I prefer “jerk” because lots of bosses are not complete assholes but are still toxic.

The main thing here is that these books are in large part written for bosses, so that they can become better bosses by working more effectively with their staff in their organizations. The amazing thing is how difficult it is to get this message through; these books keep appearing, keep selling a lot of copies, continue to be quoted widely and featured on talk shows and in speeches and, and often are cited not only by consultants (this is a big part of a consultant’s job, by the way, quoting business books) but even in meetings by the same leaders that they are aimed at – and who do not seem to be able to get the message.

I am reminded of a friend (a family physician) telling me about an interdisciplinary training session they went to (probably sponsored by the Association of American Medical Colleges, AAMC) for chairs of all different medical specialties. One of the speakers was a psychologist who was giving advice on how to gain the respect of – or at least garner better performance from – employees and colleagues, and in this case, mainly other physicians. The advice was things like “listen to other people” and “even if you are listening (or not), act as if you are – look at them, nod your head”, and sometimes just “look at them”. Pretend you care. Ask about their lives and families. Tell people they are doing a good job.

My friend, trained as a family physician in an environment (and now a leader in an environment) where every department and residency program has psychologists or other “behavioral scientists” on the faculty, and where such skills as caring and listening are central to the patient-care mission, was amazed that the speaker was giving such emphasis to such elementary and obvious material.

Until she looked around the room, and saw the other chairs, from other specialties, assiduously taking notes. She imagined them writing down “look at other people”, “act as if you are listening”, “act as if you care”. They probably were!

I don’t mean to suggest that all family physician chairs are terrific and caring, or that all other physician chairs are insensitive boors, although there is often a selection bias in who goes into different specialties. I certainly don’t mean that this problem is limited to, or even especially prevalent in physician leaders. I just use them as an example because it is the group I am familiar with. Indeed, it is likely that they have a little less of this problem than other business leaders because their attitudes are modified by caring what happens to their patients, who are in fact other people. This behavior is more obvious in hospital and health system administrators who are not health workers but MBAs and CPAs, even though they also at least pretend to care about the health of other people. I can only imagine how much worse it is in industries where caring about people is not even an ostensible consideration, where the Friedman Doctrine, “maximizing shareholder profit” is the only driver.[3]  Of course, this Doctrine is not always accepted in business; a Forbes article once called it “the world’s dumbest idea”.[4]

So why is it that all these leaders cannot hear this and thus lead to more and more books being published with the same message? Maybe the problem is not that they don’t hear it, but that they are unable to integrate and act on the message. This could in fact be, in part, due to their personalities – that they are essentially self-centered, technocratic, un-self-aware, and really don’t care about other people. But it is also, I am sure, because these tendencies are encouraged, de facto if not de jure, by the organizations of which they are a part. After all, it was those organizations that hired them, that valued their technical skill and narcissism more than their people skill (“mistaking confidence for competence”, especially in men, as noted by Chamorro-Premuzic in the Harvard Business Review)[5], despite all evidence of every study ever done that it is the ability to manage people that makes an organization successful. Could this be projection? Are not the bosses hiring the lower-level bosses the same kinds of people? Could be.

People like to be complimented on their work, even more if they think they deserve it, and dislike being criticized, especially if they think they deserve it. Even if your boss says “Good job, Josh,” is a deadpan monotone, and you realize he has just come back from one of these “employee relations” seminars and it is not really sincere, it still feels a little good. Even if you know the person criticizing you is wrong, is completely vindictive or self-centered or has even blamed you for something someone else did, it still feels a little bad. At least to non-narcissists.

This is profoundly important. People like to be listened to. People like to be heard. Of course, people also like to get what they want, and this doesn’t always happen, and is not always a good idea. But a good leader listens and thinks about what folks are saying, because no one is as smart as a group of which they are a part. Whether the thoughts and insights of other people multiply yours by many factors or are just a little bit extra, it is more than you had alone.

Things you can do:
1.     If you are a self-important narcissist, try to change. It will be hard because you think this is why you are successful. But it is also why people hate you.
2.     If you hire leaders, don’t hire self-important narcissists. This will be hard because you might well be one yourself. Hire people who are not like you.
3.     If you work for a self-important narcissist, do not emulate them. Demonstrate how decent people act.
4.     If you want to be a leader, do it as a decent person.

It is not too hard to do this. It is not too hard to be a great leader. Partly, this is because the bar is so low. Maybe the answer is to stop hiring narcissists, certainly as leaders. Good luck on that…

[1] Sutton, RI. The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't. Business Plus. 2007.

[2] I thought that there was a George Carlin comedy routine built upon the premise that all other drivers were “assholes”, who drove faster than you, or “jerks”, who drove slower. So you drove around muttering, alternately, “asshole”, “jerk”…but actually he said “maniacs” and “idiots”
[4] Denning S, ‘The Origin Of 'The World's Dumbest Idea': Milton Friedman’, Forbes June 25, 2013
[5] Chamorro-Premuzic T, “Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?”, Harvard Business Review, Aug 22, 2013,

Monday, December 3, 2018

Good views and smells in the desert

Southern Arizona, where I live, is one of the hottest and driest places in the nation. The fact that the weather is hot and dry is why a lot of people, including me, like to live here. I had enough of winter and snow (not a skier!) and especially shoveling, driving on ice, and just being unable to enjoy being outside a lot. The summers are rough, but not as much as the winters in the north (to me) and the fact that it is dry makes the heat a little more tolerable (although 110+ is still hot!).

But the dryness, while helping modify the heat in a way that you don’t get in, say, humid Florida, and good for aching joints, is much more severe when it means Not Enough Water. Not Enough Water conservation is the mantra of the desert, and requires a proactive attitude. You need to carry a lot when you hike. And if you feel the need to flush the toilet after every #1, you’re living in the wrong place. And, according to the recent climate change report issued by the federal government, it is getting worse and going to continue to. The Southwest is not just dry, with a few years of drought, it is moving into aridity, a permanent state of dryness. Thus, the impact of climate change. The wildfires devastating California and much of the West are, apparently, only going to be tempered by the eventual loss of anything that can burn.

The patterns of our rain (and we do get rain, obviously, although the average annual rainfall is less than 12”) are affected by a variety of extrinsic factors. Typically, there are two “monsoon” seasons, in the winter (mostly January and February) and in the summer (July and August), with the latter having the heavier intensity thunderstorm type rain. But El Niño and storms off the coast of Baja California, such as this October’s Hurricane Bud, also bring us rain. While October was rainy, November not so much, but a little rain in its last few days, along with colder temperatures.

This morning I walked the dog at 7, when it gets light this time of year, and it said 37 on my phone but that is the airport; another dog-walked told me it was 32 up here, but the plants didn’t freeze, so maybe the wall helps. Gotta be aware of the potential for freezing though; a sheet or towel may make the difference in whether a particular plant survives or not. Styrofoam cups can protect cactus!

But, even as wildfires ravage California and the prognosis for the desert is grim, there are the good morning walks, with clouds covering the mountains in both the morning and afternoon, and sometimes rays of sunlight peeking through, and the pungent damp morning smells of the desert (like the greasewood especially) that even my nose (not to mention Maggie’s!) can appreciate.

Spring in Tucson is not Spring in Toronto: But it's still Spring!

Maggie the Dog and I went for a walk in the desert again this morning; I’ve been away in Toronto for a meeting, so it’s been a bit. At 5:3...