The Issue of Talent

I need to struggle through the following.  Read on, if you wish. I am not sure if I have succeeded with my message.  It is about the reality that we often face when we just are not good enough with a particular skill, and see that others are truly talented.  What do we do?  Do we give up?  Persevere?  Adjust?

One perspective of conservatives often expressed is that we accept the assumption and the consequences of people having unequal talents.  Achieving equality is impossible, many note.  Russell Kirk, a major voice in the modern conservative movement, stressed this point throughout his book, The Conservative Mind.  He went so far as suggesting that the talented should rule and reap the benefits over the less than talented.

On the other hand, liberals, like Robert Reich, argue that a goal of public and social policy is to achieve some level of equality within the population, economically and politically.  His book, Saving Capitalism for the Many, Not the Few. is an example of this perspective.

I would say these two views form a paradox, and are the sources of tension between protecting total freedom and acknowledging that constraints might be necessary.  Isaiah Berlin described two freedoms in his essay, Two Concepts of Liberty.  There is positive freedom that asks, “what are we free to do,” vs. negative freedom that states, “one should not be interfered with.”  The former suggests that we should not be constrained from pursuing, for example, an education.  The latter says, “don’t stop me from smoking inside a building.”  Each has its challenges.  Each has its messy consequences for forming policy.

Should we let anyone be a doctor with no hurdles? Should we stop someone from smoking in a restaurant?

I ponder these questions as I coordinate my next treatments with Fox Chase.  I must communicate with people far smarter than I am in the field of medicine.  I must accept (trust) that they have my best interests at heart.  I must conclude that my local doctor, whom I do trust, does not have the capability to perform at a level of competence that I now need.

At the same time, I know that I have some talent to interpret medical topics.  I know enough to ask important questions (to a point).  Basically, I am in the middle (or just somewhere in between).  Not an expert, but also not totally ignorant of the field. I acknowledge this differential.

This gradation of talent can be found within any field and any economic pursuit.  There are those who are talented, very talented.  There are those who are less talented.  We can find our best skills and that is important. Still, just as with entertainment and athletics, the best participants in an occupational field mostly demand and earn higher incomes than do those who possess less talent.  Of course there is the issue as to why some fields pay more than other fields, even when the other fields have very, very talented people.  That is a question of perceived economic value.

Should we find this acceptable?  I think we are beginning to recognize that if the truly talented (even those who are talented in knowing how to wield power) attempt to usurp too much economic value out of those not as talented, then social disruption is likely.

However, on the other hand, does it require that someone not possessing talent recognize a responsibility to not make it a permanent condition? Education, experience, diligence, and resilience are vital so that one can move forward and not be exploited.

Taken together, progress is possible.  The talented must not demonstrate absolute selfishness. Those who through no fault of their own experience tragedy or bad luck in life cannot be ignored.  Those who did not have the advantages of natural skill or socially helpful conditions must not give up and keep working to improve, assisted by a benevolent and wise society.  Civil society is threatened if public policy does not respond.

Balancing competing forces is the trickiest part to maintaining social order and collaboration.

We need the super-talented, but the super-talented cannot forget the rest of us.  We must remember that talent is diverse.  One must know not only that they might not be good enough to achieve a desired goal, but also the importance of refining goals as necessary to maximize ability.  Talent is a continuous variable, not just an easy yes or no measure.  It has been an important lesson for me, one first offered many years ago when a professor advised  that reality sometimes just does not give us the tools to be best of the best, no matter how hard we try.  I was taught to know when to revise my goals appropriately.  I became responsible for my own diligence and patience.  I just wish that I had worked on a couple of other critical skills that I ignored throughout the decades.

Maybe that is the lesson — knowing what we do not know.

To be continued, from time to time…

It’s Got a Long Name

An update:

Clinical trial — in this case an A/B experiment to see which of two drug combinations best work on relapsed, refactory and elderly AML/MDS Leukemia.

I am looking at a 20 page consent agreement with a long list of “potential” side effects, none of them highly serious, which is a good thing, and a key factor in my decision to pursue or not.

The drugs are often used singularly, but this trial attempts to determine if combinations have greater efficacy over the little bad guys they are meant to fight.  To date, results of the trial have been promising.  I had a long and constructive conversation about impact.  But for some trickier scheduling hurdles to overcome, we seem to be in a similar position with Vidaza, able to have a normal life.

Treatments will last at least 4 months to track performance.  Decisions to continue will occur then.  They are sponsored by Temple University Hospital and Fox Chase Cancer Center.

So, why should I do this?  The list of side effects is long, but not much different from the Vidaza that has been injected into me for a year.  There is no reason to think that I cannot tolerate the new regimen, a good thing.  Results in the early stages of the treatment have been promising, a good thing.  I am 62, and recognize that “time left” has become a reality.  If I can contribute to the study of solutions for leukemia, that is a good thing.  I most likely will need transfusions again for a while; that’s OK.  I can put up with that.  I can teach.  I can live a normal life.  I would have a plan of attack.

So, why should I not do this?  Giving up is not an option, but what if the side effects are serious?  Do I just say, “avoid it,” and leave the next year to fate?  Vidaza is not working well, anymore.  Transfusions will help for a while.  Nevertheless, by not doing anything (except perhaps staying on Vidaza) the decline will become inexorable, and we can predict an outcome.

I guess that leaves me with the former choice; be a guinea pig.  I will talk with friends and my sons.  I will make a decision over the weekend.  If yes, I will start within the next few weeks after screening tests the doctors must perform, which includes another bone marrow biopsy.  I have many holes in my “behind” now!  :)

Thanks for letting me write about this to help me think through my decision.

From time to time:  To Be Continued…

Somewhere in there

A crowded restaurant the night before a critical discussion.

What type of choice exists tomorrow morning?

And yet, just the other day, 3 clear paths of happiness became clear to me as I continue to confront the specter of cancers, and its tentacles that try to entrap, permanently.

There is the classroom, the students, the excitement, the learning, the insights, the satisfaction.

There is travel, meeting new people, seeing difference, knowing we are not alone.

And there is friendship, collaborative, understanding, free, respectful, willing to talk through difficulties.

It is fair to say that my prospects, but for a technological miracle are not great.  I have accepted that fact, without giving up.  This is because I am an optimist who cannot give up.  But I am a realist, and the medicine is not working fantastically.  A clinical trial might be necessary.  But what of the effects?  What does it ultimately mean?  Is it best to just be happy and seek those three avenues of pleasure as long as I can?

Yes, this entry is not a particularly happy one, as I sit in a restaurant, typing, watching people, wondering what their challenges are.  Laughter is all around me.  People are drinking (I am not).  Basketball, football, hockey — on TV.  No one notices.  Music blares.  Food is good.   Philly is only a few miles away so I can avoid the traffic in the morning.  I will spend a night in a hotel, alone, thinking, hoping, planning a day at a time.

I am going to be honest tonight.

There is nothing I cannot overcome (those who know me well, know the list is long), but that does not mean my deep self stays quiet and calm.  I realize that two cancers might mean a shortened life.  There is nothing around that possibility.  A friend asked how I was able to seem consistently stable and upbeat.

Frankly, it is just who I am from the outside.  Inside, it can tear me up.  I wake early in the morning with an ache and wonder — has the prostate cancer proceeded to the bone?  I wait each week’s blood test, wondering.  I resent that I had one week of a peak blood test, and then………slow, inexorable decline.

And those 3 items mentioned above, keep me going.  Even traveling to Plymouth Meeting to spend the night more easily to avoid rush hour is fun.  It gives me time to write this, observe people, think.  On Friday, I will have my wonderful class.  Tomorrow afternoon, I will prepare for Monday night’s MBA class.  I have friends with whom I can debate, console, support, plan, enjoy.  Next week, I visit Brooklyn to have Thanksgiving giving dinner with my son, Ned.  His brother, rightly, will spend time with his mother, a good person.  Together, we have raised remarkable young men who can carry on when we are both gone.

So, somewhere, in there, deep, are emotions that struggle to express.  We all say we are strong.  Of course, that is a social mechanism to survive and not burden our friends.  Nevertheless, I think we should all know that being strong, no matter what the tragedy, whether Paris, Beirut, Kenya, Ukraine, Syria, or Charleston does not mean we cannot feel pain.

And that, my friends, is the lesson I wish to leave you with.

Everyone has pain.  To assume you are immune is wishful thinking.  To tell someone to suck it up, is possibly ignorance.

From time to time, to be continued…


A Sense of Balance

I could not attend tonight’s City Council meeting where the Mayor presented his proposed budget and earned income tax increase.  I am reading off of Emily Opilo’s report at the Morning Call.

First, the legal justification for the tax increase comes from an opinion by Jerry Snyder that was not explained adequately at the time of the last increase.  I loudly complained how the administration was cavalier with its actions then.  We thought at the time that the increase was justified by state pension law.  Only later did it become clear that the Mayor had pulled a fast one, and continues to do so now.

To place the entire tax increase burden on income means that landlords and commercial property owners get by with a free pass.  Working people who live in Allentown are going to bear the brunt all at once rather than a more logical, fair, and balanced approach that should have occurred over time (like good management calls for)

The Mayor thinks he is really cool to tout no real estate tax increase.  In reality, it is just one more example of how he has failed the residents of Allentown to make himself look good.

I call on City Council to amend the budget to reflect a balanced approach where both EIT and real estate taxes are used to balance the budget.

It is only fair, but does he or council understand that word?


Time Warp

Wednesday afternoon, 365 days later.  A hospital surrounds me.  I am waiting to again see a doctor about this little problem with my blood.

It is the semi-annual checkup with the UPenn specialist in Philly.  While my numbers are stable, they are still lower than levels seen in July.  Of course, this leaves me anxious.

Only a few days following my crash on Saturday.  Remnants of a concussion remain.  Soreness on the left side.  Burned skin on the left wrist, hand, and forearm from the airbag explosion.  Memories of a car streaking in front of me with no time to stop.

Though I have been complimented for remaining steadfast through these many obstacles, I want readers to know just how draining it can be, not for my sake, but for anyone with setbacks.  We never really know what people have been through.  My older son who lived overseas in the Middle East for 10 years once told me how lucky Americans should realize they are.  What we might experience is nothing when compared to those in other places around the world.  I’ll go further.  We often don’t realize what anyone facing hardship might feel.  We have many lucky people in America.  Often blessed with resources to lessen a burden, we just say, “be strong.”  “Pick yourself up.  I did it, why can’t you?”  This is particularly true when the weight of tragedy is invisible, and often accentuated by the specter of poverty, racism, or evil.

Frankly, folks, I am tired.  I have bounced back, but I can tell that this most recent horror took much out of me.  Give me a few days, and I’ll be my same old self, able to take the hits just fine.

Yet a year later, grateful that I am still alive, one can ask, “when will I find a few smooth spots.”  I don’t think I am alone, and I wish the others good fortune for a change.

To be continued…from time to time…

Life’s Little Setbacks

I had planned to write this week about the one year anniversary of diagnosis with leukemia.  I felt grateful that I had survived the year.  Friends and family were great.  The treatments were not awful.  Running and hiking again felt wonderful.  I could teach full-time.

We had created an unique MBA program at the college.  My boys were doing well.

A small chip in the good times developed as blood numbers declined a bit.  Worrisome, but my doctors felt no need.  Added to this was a rise in prostate cancer scores requiring a new injection of medicine.

But optimism reigned.  Life was OK.

On Saturday, driving down a road at about 30 mph, maybe less.  A car ran a stop sign and suddenly, no instantaneously, it was in front of me with no time to stop.  I bulldozed into the passenger side, was pulled to the right, and came to a stop, airbags deployed, stunned.

Smoke wafted.  Turned out it was vapor from the airbags, but I got out of the car and staggered away, fearing a fire might occur.  People came running toward me, and a nurse yelled for me to get down.  I sat and then lied down.  She cradled my neck until the ambulance came.

Off to the hospital and cat-scans.    Worry enveloped me that my low platelets could not stop internal bleeding.   A small “blip” suggested something on the brain.  Spend the night out of caution, they said.  So, another stay in a hospital being treated wonderfully by nurses, but sore and fretting what might show in the second scan that would occur in the morning.

Friends stay in touch via FB.  I am able to tell people what had happened without making many phone calls.

Morning comes, and the scan is clear. Acknowledge a light concussion.  Time to go home.

What just happened?

A colleague sent me an essay about carrying tragedy.  Few words, if any, can push tragedy out of our mind, out of our heart, out of our soul.  Events happen.  Situations happen.  Sadness occurs.  I need time to reflect on this.  Now, I have paperwork, car debts, insurance, lawyers to manage.  Stay upbeat.  Persevere.  Just another bump in the road.

Still, I am luckier than most.  Another 7 feet.

To be continued from time to time…

The Liberal Arts
and Change

My kids have grown and moving on with their careers.  And with that, some thoughts about the Millennials.  Where will their opportunities be when seeking their life’s purpose?  What education should we give them to help in that quest?  Is it true about what the media says concerning a perspective of entitlement possessed by those we call Millennials?

This is important to me, both as a parent and a college professor.  Is the education our children receive worth the investment we make in the colleges our children attend?  In particular, what can we say about a liberal arts education as an appropriate pursuit, one which I made, and one which I still believe is relevant, but only if certain critical changes are made.

You see, the faculty in many (I do want to say most) liberal arts and science colleges are wrapping themselves in the cloak of scholastic arrogance, believing that their courses are satisfactory for students and vital for their future, when perhaps upgrades are necessary.  I do not disagree about importance, but when does importance take place?  In the long run, liberal arts education develops a mind that thrives in lifelong learning and is capable of flexibility. Vital, critical to a flexible society.   But if the focus is only on the long run, does it create a sense of entitlement in our children, and worse, does it adequately prepare them for life after graduation?

This is what bothers me deeply; is a liberal arts education sufficiently useful in the short run?  I don’t think so, not as currently executed.  There is little effort to have students put their hands on practical skills that help to provide early career opportunities. They graduate and struggle for that first start. Of course, some do well, and we probably can predict who they are, but we are not helping many others who will miss out on crucial training.  We need a redefinition of the liberal arts, and it does not take much to do so.

A while back, I wrote about liberal arts in the age of data science.  I argued that the skills and techniques associated with data science should have the same impact that the Gutenberg Press had on learning.  Of course, there is the technical side of building presses (writing code), but more important was the unleashing of knowledge creation and interpretive reasoning with the ability to analyze books (data).

All colleges and universities must recognize what is happening, but small liberal arts schools are the most vulnerable.  My colleagues with liberal arts degrees and I talk about this often and we wish we could shake the faculty, trustees, and presidents into understanding that a new approach that integrates learning is necessary.  Students already know this.  Computer science courses (or their equivalent) are overenrolled!  There is so much that can be done that merges any philosophy, history, language, or science course (among any number of any other topics) with the new world of data manipulation and interpretation.  Those students who do study the computational sciences (programming, data science, hardware) are earning twice as much as their fellow students taking other courses of study.  The ones who double major or triple major by including data science with their liberal arts and science studies are the most valuable.

We should each be ready to advise our Alma Matas and other institutions of learning, but we need their help.  We need them to agree that the change is important, useful, and necessary for their students.  If they don’t, they will discover dwindling enrollments, greater difficulty in raising funds from the new wealth creators of data science, and the reality of obsolescence.   

Confessions about
Life-Long Learning

This is a story about forgetting to be aware and remembering to learn.

I was lucky.  My early career made me appreciate the complexity of moving information and material from Point A to Point B.  My studies were in operations management.  A professor of mine in business school researched the impact of the government opening the Internet to greater university/public use.   I was his teaching assistant.  This led to industrial engineering at a computer manufacturing company, and later manager of retail computer sales.  Although I was a lousy coder (still am), I was not scared by information technology.  Could work things out and understand data manipulation.

Indeed, for several years in the late 90s, I taught courses in electronic commerce until the field began changing so rapidly, I could not keep up.  I had to stay up to date in other courses that I taught.  My interests at the same time were moving deeply into economic and community development.  Beginning in the early to mid 00s, I lost touch with the rapid changes associated with Web 2.0/3.0 and other innovations, most notably software that could analyze vast stores of data and either classify or predict in ways not thought to be possible a few years earlier.

We could thank Google, Facebook, LinkedIn and others.

But I was now working the Internet like someone drives a car – I stopped looking under the hood.

A few years ago, I observed what a long-time friend was doing within the database industry.  He had teamed with a pioneering computer scientist to start a new company (not the first time!), and I was fascinated.  I followed his work and began to dig into resources that helped me understand what he was doing.

“Oh my,” I said. “WOOPS!  What had I missed?”  In narrowing my interests, I had ignored changes in statistical analysis and the capabilities of the web.  I knew about blogs, twitter, wikis, Facebook, LinkedIn.  I advocated the importance of science and engineering for economic development.  However, I had not kept up with what managing Zetabytes of data could uncover.

Waking up, finally, I brought this new world to my classes, a few years too late, and disappointed with myself at what I had missed.

What are the lessons?

  • One cannot ignore state-of-the-art movements, especially in areas linked to your primary field. If you do, you will lose out to the talent in the next generation who happen to have the luxury of the right mentors.
  • No longer can one wrap themselves in one field. Data analysis enables multi-discipline study like never before.
  • Just knowing how to code or run statistical tools is worthless unless one also possesses the ability to interpret.
  • Liberal Art and Science Colleges, as well as Business Schools must include these new fields in their curriculum.
  • It is never too late to learn new tricks.

So, I am a novice.  I can run big data analysis packages.  I know six standard tools of data science analysis.  I can visualize the impacts across industries.  I can introduce students to this new knowledge.

Only so far.

And that is important to confess.

Because I am not the only one.

Data Science, Big Data or any of their variants most likely will change the world with both advantages and risks.

A challenge for those in the know is to figure out ways to expand awareness and maintain a moral compass that utilize the tools for good and not just for material wealth.

Sunshine Post Droplets

Sadly the road suffered deep ruts,
Requiring a shovel, rake, and some grunts.

Filling in the sand and loose gravel,
Making all smooth on which to travel.

The sun, though, now shines brightly,
Showing the work neat and sightly

Sweat on the brim; shirt soaking wet.
The job is done once more, all set.

Till the next pounding droplets rip new gullies,
And the tools come out to counter the bullies.