Sunday, August 23, 2015

Professional Conduct Guaranteed

Professional associations adhere to the strictest standards of ethics. I know because I belong to a few of them. They all have rigorous codes of ethics that professionals must abide by. I also know that bankers, lawyers, teachers, accountants, Edward Snowden and Lance Armstrong have codes of ethics. Even the Miami-Dade City Commission has a code of ethics, but unfortunately nobody can find it since the FBI left a mess in their last raid. They do have it though, and it is in three languages: Tonkawa, Etchemin, and Hialehan. This is how old it is, which explains why nobody used it.

This ethics business can be very trying, especially when you work in stressful jobs like accounting, law, medicine, and teaching. Codes of ethics demand respectful treatment of your clients at all times, and under all circumstances. Accountants, for example, would never tell a client “you are running the biggest scheme in the history of forensic accounting.” Instead, they are going to write a report to the Board stating that “a fiduciary audit revealed a larger than expected shrinkage in the accrued income collateralized with tangible assets which has resulted in a smaller than expected WACC (weighted average costs of capital), leading to large sums of money deposited in suspense accounts which were securitized against promissory notes and future taxation used to defray costs of doing business in certain parts of South Florida. Computer models based on SWOT analyses predict that outside agencies will show interest in your business.”

TRANSLATION: You should stop bribing city commissioners and start paying taxes or you will be in jail in 3 to 5 months.  

Teachers are also very respectful professionals. They prepare for months for parent-teacher interview. Some excerpts:

GRADE 11 TEACHER: Jordan’s performance in the SMRT-VII has remained stable since the last time he was evaluated.

TRANSLATION: He is still as dumb as he was in grade 2.

GRADE 3 TEACHER: Suzie is extremely peripatetic and shows great curiosity towards people and events unrelated to the subject matter at hand.

TRANSLATION: If you don’t put her on Ritalin I will.

Predictably, lawyers have the strictest code of ethics. This is why they reassure you that if they sue 734 innocent people on your behalf and by random chance the judge falls asleep during the proceedings and they win 3 cases, they will share with you 0.0000001% of the money. After taxes, photocopying, paper clips, faxes, office parties, late night pizza parties, and courier expenses, they guarantee to pay you 0.00000000000001% of the net profits. This is the only profession that guarantees 0.000000000001% of anything. No questions or medical exams required. In contrast, most other professions require you to pay them.

Take doctors for example. Before you even said what was wrong with you, a smiling assistant will invite you to a little booth, take an X ray of all your bank accounts, conduct a physical examination of all your credit cards, insert a finger in your wallet to extract your driver’s license and your health insurance card, and review the chart of payments on your mortgage. She will also perform a stress test on your 401 K account, and check the pressure in the tires of your car, just to be sure there is something of worth in case the insurance company denies your claim, which happens 99% of the time. By the time you see the doctor your blood pressure is so high that the insurance company is bound to reject your claim, leaving the smiling clerk with no choice but to impound your car and clean up your 401 K.

Health Insurance Companies are very explicit in their insistence on equality: All patients will be treated the same. No matter what the ailment is, your ability to pay, or the policy you have. Before the doctor sees you, everyone must sign 29 forms with very small font. They don’t pressure you to sign the form however. You can take your time. At an average speed of 3 minutes per page, it will take you 5 hours to read the forms they give you. Allowing for lunch and bathroom breaks, you are lucky if you see the doctor at 5 pm, provided you got there at 6 am. Doctors, however, will never pressure anybody to sign anything they don’t understand. The American Medical Association is very explicit about that. You don’t have to sign anything you don’t feel comfortable with. You will never see a doctor in your life if you choose to read all the forms, but patient autonomy must be respected at all times.

Doctors do all that to prevent any harm, and more. They will do whatever it takes to prevent you from buying prescription drugs from unknown countries like Canada, or going to India to receive medical treatment. The AMA is against medical tourism. I do have to agree with them on the India thing. A friend of mine went to India to have a heart operation and returned with a sex transplant instead. Doctors are obliged to warn you against things like that. 

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Irrational but not Incompetent

My wife and I made plenty of irrational decisions in our lives. For example, moving to Nashville, or trying to convince Miami drivers to signal. But once we make irrational decisions, we deal with them very competently. In contrast, there are plenty of people who handle any decision, rational or irrational, most incompetently. Due to our Seasonal Irrational Decision Disorder (SIDD), Ora and I encountered many of these people this summer.
It all started when we decided to help our son and his wife move to a better place in New York City. That would allow our son and his wife to finally leave the ridiculously expensive and ludicrously small rental they were sharing with some insects in the Lower East Side. My competent wife Ora turned her office at home in Miami into logistics central and handled most aspects of the move. She ably dealt with real estate agents, contractors, movers, and utility companies. I pitched in by calling the cable company in New York. This is a company that starts with V and rhymes with horizon, but I am afraid to identify it due to fear of reprisals.
To make life easier, I put on automatic payment everything: car lease, credit card, Comcast, AT&T, life insurance, pool service, condo fees, bribes to city officials, everything. So it was only natural that I would want to do the same with Verizon (Oops). I clicked on one of the 17 emails I had received from them to set up automatic pay. After I completed the registration process for a new user, it told me that I already had an online account, which I never set up. As a good detective, I thought that the system perhaps still linked the new account number to the old account number, which was in our son’s name, so I asked our son for his username and password, which he provided, which Verizon (what the heck), rejected. What followed was a Kafkaesque interminable loop of the system asking me security questions:
·         Name of my elementary school
·         Name of my first pet
·         My mother’s maiden name
·         Year in which the Ottoman empire was founded by Oghuz Turks
Once I entered what I thought were correct answers, I eagerly waited for the system to send me the username or password, but no, instead, I kept getting messages, in large red font, to the effect that: “the combination of your email, answers, or attitude is incorrect.” The cortisol I secreted during this episode was enough to create a nuclear stress bomb, which I plan to detonate next time a Verizon rep says “is there anything else we can do for you today.” But wait, once I solved the automatic pay problem I had to contend with incompetent technicians who had to come to the new place no less than four times to get the internet to work.
But before all of this took place, Ora and I had to get to New York from Miami, which of course entailed a stop at MIA. This is where irrational and incompetent blended seamlessly and deliciously. After we obtained our boarding passes and sent our luggage we headed for security. But before you meet a TSA agent, you must show your boarding passes to an official directing traffic at the security lines. One line was for TSA pre-check passengers, one for wheelchair users, and one for the masses. Ora was both TSA pre-check and wheelchair user, which completely puzzled the lady directing traffic. I couldn’t tell whether her decision was irrational, incompetent, or both, but she sent Ora to the TSA pre-check, which had a very long line up, almost as long as the regular line. Given that Ora goes through a special search anyways because she uses a scooter, I could not understand the logic behind sending us to a long line up when the wheelchair line was completely empty. When I approached her and asked if we could use the wheelchair line, she said that we are TSA pre-check, to which I replied that my wife also uses a scooter and it would be much faster to go through a line that was empty. She seemed confused but eventually let us use the wheelchair line.
It is possible that there is some logic behind her decision that completely escapes me, so before I turn into a complete judgmental tool, let’s explore her thinking. Some options for her reasoning:
1.       “I’m facing two people. Both with TSA pre-check, but only one with wheelchair. Two is bigger than one, so I need to send them to the pre-check line.” Somewhat rational, but incompetent.
2.       “One is in a wheelchair, but both have TSA pre-check. The line for pre-check is long; the line for wheelchairs is empty. I will send them to pre-check.” Irrational, incompetent, and, of course, Anti-Semitic.

3.       “The lady uses a scooter. The line for wheelchairs is empty. She cannot use her pre-check anyways because she goes through a special search. She will be better off going through the wheelchair line. But since she lives in Miami, she is probably faking her disability, like most people in Miami, just to get a handicap parking permit, like my aunt Sofia, my cousin Lourdes, and my uncle Panchito. I bet a hundred dollars that she is faking the disability. In fact, she reminds me of my aunt Sofia. Oh, poor auntie Sofia. I feel for her, but she is such a liar. I will show this Prilleltensky couple! Pre-check.” 

Monday, June 8, 2015

Planning Interruptus

My latest column from Miami Today, published June 18, 2015            

         Cacophony; that’s it, this is what our lives have become. Instead of a melodious and carefully orchestrated sequence of planned events, our lives have turned into a random series of occurrences driven by immediate gratification and digital sounds, which is what the twenty first century will be remembered for. To say nothing of the fact that I always wanted to say cacophony, which gets in the way of any planning at all.
There was a time when you could isolate yourself and engage in some thinking or planning. You could set a goal and try to pursue it through a series of rational steps. Today, you are lucky if you get 30 seconds of peace and quiet before your telephone beeps, your email alert pops up, and your electronic calendar reminds you to check Facebook, lest your friend has diarrhea and you are the last one to know it.  
Instead of thinking about our future and planning ways to achieve it, we spend countless hours searching for the miracle app that will replace our thinking. To improve your well-being you need to resist immediate gratification and cacophony. This means turning your phone off, not just airplane mode, but completely off. Go ahead. Try it. When you stop twitching from withdrawal you are ready to think about a goal you want to pursue. If you cannot keep your hands off your phone or tablet, you may need to join a Buddhist monastery in Bhutan, where there is definitely no internet connection.
Once you overcome your addiction to digital devices and your twitching subsides, you are ready for the next challenge: be by yourself. No talking. No selfying. If this is hard, you can say either ohm or cacophony a few times. Now you have to think. Let me tell you how thinking works. If no thoughts come to mind, check your pulse. If you still have a pulse, try to ask yourself questions: What do I want to accomplish in life? How can I help humanity? How often should I change my underwear? Try controlling your twitching.
It is possible that, despite your good intentions to enjoy peace and quiet, somebody near you is talking on the phone so loudly that you need to get a Bose noise cancelation device. Pretty soon everyone will have to walk around with one, just to avoid the cacophony of nonsense emitted by people who have nothing better to do than to broadcast to the whole world their inane whereabouts. Not to mention fights with their ex over the phone, in public spaces. Airplanes are the worst. No sooner the plane lands than 99% of passengers reach for their smart phones to continue sharing with their best friend scintillating details about their day: got up around 6 30 am, had my coffee, read the paper, passed gas.
The addiction to digital devices is so great that some folks are now taking their laptops to the gym with them. At our condo, where I usually can expect peace and quiet in the exercise room, there appeared a guest who was in the rather small exercise room with his three year old and a laptop. I could live with the kid walking around the fitness equipment, but his father’s laptop was playing a video of a fitness instructor yelling from the top of his lungs invocations such as: Does it hurt now? Do you want to be a man? Do it! Do it! Be a man! Lift, lift, lift! The father was following every word and every movement of the fitness guru. As the intruder saw me coming into the small gym he asked if I mind the noise from the laptop. I said yes. He told me that the video will motivate me and will be good for me. One of the last sanctuaries of peace and quiet, our condo gym, which is usually frequented only by senior citizens thirty years older than me, was transformed by some digitally addicted brainless creature into a high decibel motivational class by some equally brainless fitness addict.

But planning can be overdone. Speaking from experience, I have spent more time in my life planning than actually living. As an insecure, mildly paranoid, neurotic orphan, I spent considerable time over many years striving for certainty and security in my life. I spent so much time planning that I had barely any time to enjoy the fruits of my planning. But I had a plan to stop all that planning. Instead of planning, I started writing pointless stories. The fact that you are reading these stories shows two things: I’m succeeding at my plan to spend less time planning, and you have no plans whatsoever. 

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Marsupial Kama Sutra

If there is anything I hate more than rats it’s big rats, which is what possums are. Possums feel at home in Coral Gables. They roam around like they own the place. So it came as no surprise when we discovered a couple of them nesting in our backyard. Next to our useless swimming pool (too short to swim, too cold to get close to it), we have a very expensive motor that cleans the water we never swim in, as well as a device that operates an amphibious vacuum cleaner that consumes more energy than the country of Benin. The motors are encased in a structure covered by a piece of wood. Whenever the submersible hoover gets stuck I muck around with the motor and pretend to know what the heck I’m doing. Imagine my surprise when I discovered not one but two possums relaxing next to the motors. They had brought leafs and sticks to make their own Sealy Posturepedic. They had apparently lifted the wood cover and managed to return it to its place, just to shock me.
Ora and I debated what to do. We were really ambivalent about the whole thing. We felt for the creatures. After all, we are vegan; believe in interspecies justice, and all that mushy staff. But I really dislike these animals. They revolt me. So we decided to do nothing.
A few days later I went to visit our lodgers and found them in Kama Sutra pose number 69. They were totally oblivious to my inspection, showing great sexual dexterity. This went on for a few days. In addition to revulsion, now I had reason to feel voyeuristic guilt.
Mr. and Mrs. Possum occupied our pool motor home for a few more days until we saw them leaving their abode to forage for food. I reluctantly removed their possessions and secured the wood cover with several bricks. It was heartbreaking to see them return to find out that they had been evicted. We wanted to compensate them with some oxycodone and Viagra pills, but they would have none of it. We saw them leaving, carrying their Kama Sutra guide on their backs. They were obviously offended. 

Our backyard is not just friendly to quadrupedal diprotodon marsupials, but also to all kinds of bugs and birds that enjoy mango for desert. To feel Floridians, we planted a few trees as soon as we bought the house. Watching our mango tree grow has been especially rewarding. Sharing it with white flies and the entire ornithological kingdom has not. Ora watches our mangos like a hawk herself. The problem is that she reminds me in the middle of the night to go and fetch the mangos that might have ripened since I squished them 3 hours ago. “Isaac, I hear birds near our mango tree; don’t just lie there, do something.” “Don’t worry Ora, I’m sure it’s the possums trying the latest Marsupial Kama Sutra position.”

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Do’s and Don’ts of Selling

“It’s Dick Cheney’s company, American made” said the shop owner, as he tried to sell me a backpack made by Haliburton. “And I’m supposed to like it because it’s Cheney’s company?!” I said, to which the owner, noting my displeasure, swiftly replied: “But it was a long time ago, don’t worry about it, he is not involved with the company anymore.” I can see somebody trying to sell me a product associated with Scarlet Johansson, but Dick Cheney! This exchange brought home for me what’s wrong with the American economy: Instead of plastering stores with pictures of Scarlet Johansson, they tell you that goods were made by Dick Cheney. No wonder we had a recession.
A few days later I found myself in an optical store trying progressive glasses for the first time. The delightful store manager was telling me that my brain would get used to the blurry peripheral vision. “What if I have a car accident while getting used to them?” She said not to worry, “just bring the broken glasses and we will replace them.” That was the second revelation about American retail in a week: Optical stores fail to sell life insurance with progressive lenses, missing a great opportunity.
As I was experimenting with the glasses in the store, trying to read emails from my phone and signs in the store, Betsy (not her real name) suggested that I walk around the mall for a few minutes to see how I felt. She told me that my brain would get used to it, but what if I did not get used to it, I thought. My brain is one thing, I’m quite another. I don’t really care what my brain does; I care about how I feel.
My progressive lenses experience lasted exactly 45 minutes, enough to come home, try them in front of the computer, and drive back to Aventura Mall to return them. To read a sentence I had to point with my head towards it, calibrating my vision as if I was a sniper trying to shoot words with my eyes. I phoned the store and Betsy told me that I need to give it sometime and that my brain would adjust to it. I don’t care about my brain; I care about me adjusting to the darn thing. I’m going to recommend that if they want to increase sales that they show more empathy towards clients and worry less about their brains.   
People in real estate can also use a bit of empathy training. My wife and I have had our share of buying and selling houses (and thanks to my business acumen, losing tons of money along the way). More than once we have had agents trying to convince us of the unparalleled features of a dump. As you are trying to prevent an argument with your spouse, doing your best to handle all the stress, and attempt to memorize the 78 houses your spouse forced you to see, the agent would annoyingly ask “what is it that you don’t like about this house?” As you repress the urge to say “that you are an idiot and should have never wasted my time with this dump,” you slowly but surely go on to develop another ulcer.
In the last couple of years we also witnessed the President trying to sell health insurance and we all know how well that went at first. The President of the United States of America should have known better. Trying to launch a new venture is hard. Instead of hiring a bunch of consultants from Montreal, Obama should have annexed Canada and we all would have gotten government-provided care at affordable prices. Imagine the cost savings. Instead of invading Iraq, which is so far, and has a terrible medical system, we could have marched right next door and gotten public health insurance from Ontario, Manitoba, or British Columbia, depending on your time zone. Even Sarah Palin could have gotten free health care from Nunavut, which leads me to the mayor of Toronto and his failed attempt to sell an image of composure in light of revelations of drug abuse and undignified behavior.
Rob Ford, mayor of Toronto, should borrow a page from Barack Obama when it comes to apologies. While the President took responsibility for not invading Canada, Rob Ford should have taken responsibility for not running Miami-Dade -- which is used to corruptions -- instead of ruining Toronto’s pristine reputation.
Whether you sell backpacks, glasses, real estate, or insurance, remember to know your audience. And most importantly, plaster your website with pictures of Scarlet Johansson.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Pet Friendly Florida

Florida is the most inclusive state in the nation. The Sunshine State welcomes not just people from all over, but also species that you’ve only encountered in nightmares, like termites, bats, snakes, and reptiles. If you want to live here, you need to know what you are getting into, though I have proof that the people of Florida are friendly to all these animals and insects. Take termites for example. After I signed the contract with the University of Miami, they broke the news to me: EVERYBODY has termites in South Florida. We promptly hired a reputable pest control company whose employees wore very nice uniforms and whose schedule was totally unpredictable. So friendly was this company to termites that for several years they totally ignored the fact that they had eaten 5 feet of fascia over our garage.
Needless to say, up until that day I had no idea what fascia was, in any language. As I was trying to explain the situation over the phone to the pest control company, they kept throwing at me words like sheathing, soffit, rafters, truss, underlayment, fascia and dormer which made me feel like an idiot. Several google trips later, I was able to confirm that it was the FASCIA that had been eaten. Do people learn these words in school? Do they take roofing 101 in Florida? Do they learn about termites in kindergarten?
When I confronted the neatly uniformed, bilingual, pest control general, he said that termites don’t do that kind of damage. They were still covering up for the insects. At that point I called two more pest control companies, and Manolo, my friend the builder. No question about it, unanimous judgment: termites. 
To make sure that no opportunity goes wasted, we decided to fire the pest control company and go instead with a “green” provider. The latter explained to us that it’s all organic and environmentally friendly. So friendly was their treatment of pests that for several months we saw an increase in the number of roaches munching on our fruit overnight. When I politely asked our green supplier if roaches can get used to their treatment, he said that they change the product every time to prevent inoculation. Oh, I got it. January was vanilla, February was citrus, and March was honeysuckle flavor. Our roaches couldn’t be happier.
In an effort to be supportive, Ora, my wife, had suggested that perhaps it was rodents and not cockroaches that had been eating our fruit. Our cleaning lady concurred, motivating me to sell the house and move to Alberta, which has been rodent-free for 50 years. I did do my homework.  
I consulted again with our green pest control guy, who said there was a definitive way to determine the culprit: Poop. Cockroach poop has a vertical edge; rat poop ends diagonally. He went on and on about sphincter anatomy in rodents and insects and the evolutionary causes of their differences.
Just when I thought that I knew way too much about insects in Florida, I had to take a magnifying glass to examine their fecal matter. I wanted to prove to Ora and our cleaning lady that there were no rodents in my house.

Sure enough, the poop, which was all over our fruit plate, had a distinct vertical edge, which proved beyond reasonable doubt that we had plenty of roaches. As if that wasn’t strong enough evidence, I picked up a grapefruit from the plate and out came crawling, from a hole the size of an igloo, a giant cockroach.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Looks, Smarts, Money

There are two main threats to interpersonal well-being: insecurities, and INSECURITIES. People have a hard time getting along with others because they fear that at some point they will be wrong, and God forbid, they may have to apologize. People hate to be wrong, but hate to apologize even more. As a social scientist intrigued by these phenomena, I developed a mathematical formula according to which the “need to be right about everything all the time and never apologize” is inversely related to looks, smarts, or money.          

     The more insecure you feel about your looks, intelligence, or pocket book, the more you feel you have to be right about everything else in life. This is called a compensatory model. You compensate for your foolishness by feeling that you are right about everything.

     Sometimes the need to be right about everything all the time is conflated with smarts. Take universities for example, where most professors think they are brilliant. In that case, our subjects compensate for being obstinate and underpaid by coming across as smarter than they really are, which only reinforces the need to be right about everything all the time, which makes universities as much fun as the inquisition.

     Sometimes, looks and money are not enough to conquer insecurities. People work hard to come across as smart. A wealthy acquaintance, with the intellectual curiosity of an ant, was spotted lounging next to a swimming pool pretending to read From Nietzsche to Foucault. Either pretentiousness got the best of her, or she thought Nietzsche and Foucault were the latest European shoes. But I shouldn’t be saying these things. It probably means that I have no money, or don’t look great, both of which are right, and for neither of which I’m going to apologize because I’m a university professor.

     Another acquaintance, big on money, has a very bad case of need to be right about everything all the time and never apologize, including things he has absolutely no idea about. But if might makes right, money makes wise. Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof got it right: “When you're rich, they think you really know!” Worse than that, when you’re rich, you think you know.
 “If I were a Rich Man” is the most evocative and artistic expression of my mathematical formula. “If I were a Rich Man……I’d see my wife…looking like a rich man’s wife…..supervising meals to her heart’s delight…..screaming at the servants, day and night.”

     Primal insecurities get in the way of enjoying vulnerability and the liberating ability to say “I’m sorry” or “I don’t know.” We fear that if we admit ignorance or mistakes something terrible will happen. 

    Sometimes I feel that if I make a mistake I will be fired, Anti-Semitism will rise, Jews will be deported to Iran, UPS will change the color of its fleet, and the pharmacy will run out of Senocot.  

    Beset by the need to be right all the time, and the obsession with money, looks, and smarts, humanity has two options: Elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- who is now available -- to replace       Barack Obama, or move to Miami, which leads me to a local corollary of my main thesis: Cognitive function in Miami is inversely related to the number of plastic surgeries, which says nothing about money, because in Miami Medicare pays for everything, including colonoscopies for dead people in Havana. 

     It is really too bad that we spend so much time compensating for our insecurities that we miss the entire point of relationships, which is to have someone who can love you despite your big ears, someone who can put up with your terrible real estate decisions, and someone who lets you think you are funny. What really matters in life is not how we look on the outside, but what happens on the inside, like your digestive system. If more people could talk about their bowel movements without feeling defensive, or self-conscious, we could reverse the divorce trend and bring peace to the Middle East. 

     To conclude, what I really want to say about relationships is this: stay away from university professors.