Friday, November 29, 2013

Dying Well

I just put my mom in hospice and felt moved to write this.

At some point, we start thinking more about dying. Perhaps it’s when you get a serious diagnosis or your last parent dies leaving you next on the conveyor belt. In my case, as a lifelong hypochondriac and catastrophizer, I’ve been thinking about it since I was a child, a half-century ago.

What might dying well look like?

I suppose it starts with living well. If we are aware of our mortality and that time is our most valuable possession, we’re more conscious how we spend each moment: Should we work more, less, or on something else? Spend more or less time with certain people?

It’s probably time to make a will or, to avoid probate, a trust. Even if you’re poor, to whom or what organization do you want to leave your assets? Yes, you might want to leave it all to your family but it may be worth asking yourself if a charity or another individual might make better use of the money? Would leaving a substantial sum to a family member encourage sloth or profligacy?

Your will/trust should include an advance medical directive. For example, when you have an irreversible disease and are in bad pain, do you want extraordinary measures to keep you alive, for example, when you no longer can swallow, intubating you so you can be fed with a feeding tube? Or would you prefer hospice, which provides comforting drugs and other palliatives to make the end of life more peaceful?

Your will should also name a person to make medical and financial decisions in case of your incapacity or death. Think hard about whom you’d most trust. It may or may not be your closest relative.

It may feel good for you to include in your will a letter to your family and friends, perhaps reminiscences, lessons learned, and suggestions for them.

Although we may know some people who are vigorous and sharp well into old age, most people do decline. Part of dying well is to forgive yourself when, for example, you forget things you would have remembered when younger. Easier said than done. No easier but also helpful is accepting that senescence is part of the natural order of things. 

As we get older, most of us become more set in our ways, resistant to change. But is there something new you want to do? Many people want to travel, but change can occur at home: a new hobby, volunteer activity, job, business, or attitude. Changing the latter may be tougher even than accepting aging. 

Some people choose to tell others about their health problems. Others keep them as private as possible. It may be an act of generosity to not burden people with your worries unless they can help and you want their help.

Then there’s the decision of when to fight the good fight and when to accept that the chances of winning are too small. As the song, The Gambler, says, “You gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.”  For example, should you keep fighting for your political beliefs? To rapproche with a relative? To stay alive?

We still don’t allow people to decide when to die. That strikes me as a terribly unfair intrusion of government into one of our most personal decisions. Fortunately, some physicians will give a terminally ill person a final cocktail of tranquilizers and sleeping pills. And if you can't access such a physician, a right-to-die group called the Final Exit Network makes available comfortable ways to go.

This article hasn't been fun to write but I hope it might help you or someone you love to die well.

Monday, November 25, 2013

(Some) Employers: Bah, Humbug!

Of course, some employers are great, better than most employees.

But today's today's installment in my Bah series focuses on the baddies: Employers. Bah Humbug!

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Four Approaches to the Life Well-Led

Here's an advance look at my next column for the Mensa publication, The Intelligencer.

Four Approaches to the Life Well-Led 
Countless authors have opined on how to live the life well-led but their approaches seem to distill to just four: pursue happiness, serve God, serve society/the universe, and pursue balance. Here are pros and cons of each:

Pursue happiness. Obviously, making choices based on what makes you happy leads to an enjoyable life. And you can define happiness more contributorily than just eating, having sex and watching comedies. Your definition of happiness might, for example, include the contentment that comes from being productive, whether as accounts payable clerk, cancer researcher, a friend, or school volunteer providing (badly needed) enrichment for Mensa-level kids.

A limitation of the pursue-happiness approach to life is that you’re less likely to do worthy but unpleasant tasks, for example, diving into icy waters to save a drowning person or be a Mother Teresa who, to save lives, worked amid Calcutta’s sewage stench, her ankles ever bitten by scorpions. Of course, there are more common examples. I know a top hand surgeon who, because he’s been doing that for decades, would find it more fun to play guitar gigs on evenings and weekends but recognizes  he’ll make a bigger difference spending that time seeing patients than playing Grateful Dead songs.

Serve God. For many people, religion is the prime driver of people’s lives. And it’s easy to understand why:
  • Many people need rules or structure for their lives. Religion provides them.
  • Many people need fear and reward to motivate them to follow rules. Religion provides them, for example, heaven and hell.
  • Many people need support in life’s tough times: The belief in a loving God provides that.
  • Following a deity’s rules magnifies the import of one’s actions.. It’s one thing to be kind for its own sake; it’s a bigger thing if you believe it’s part of a benevolent God’s plan.
A downside of religion is that it’s too black-and-white: There’s only one way. For example, the Bible says, “Thou shalt not steal,’ no exceptions--In many denominations, a poor person who steals a drug from a corporation to save a spouse’s life is deemed destined to burn in hell for eternity. Sure, individuals can perceive what they want in religion: Some claim the Bible condemns homosexuality; others insist the Bible endorses it. Some say the Koran encourages peaceful behavior, others that it demands jihad against the infidels. But net, a God-centric approach to life suffers from a narrow definition of acceptable behavior.

Another weakness of the serve-God approach is that it urges passivity. For example, the New Testament urges surrender to God, to trust God above reason: “Be not wise in your own eyes. God shall supply all your need.” (Philippians 4:19;) “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.” (Proverbs 3:1: )“If you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20)

Serve society/the universe. This is the utilitarian approach: Ongoing, you decide which activity will most likely make the biggest difference. In the extremis, you could rate each of your life’s hours on how contributory it was: from -100 (making progress toward developing a mutated smallpox virus so communicable, deadly, and incurable that it would cause Armageddon) to +100: (working toward being a Messiah that would inspire everyone in the world to use their greatest powers to abet humankind as much possible.)

The serve-society approach has value even if your sphere of influence is small. For example, a ditch digger can decide whether, during a break, to have a cigarette or to teach a novice how to dig a ditch more easily. In turn, that novice will not only dig more efficiently but be equipped to teach others. The ditch digger has also, without preaching, shown the novice the value of giving, which makes that novice more likely to give to others. And those others, in turn, are more likely to give to others in this generation and in generations to come. So even a ditch digger’s impact can be significant enough to be worth the effort.

An even loftier variation on the serve-society approach is to serve a universal/cosmic good. For example, some people believe efforts to equate resources among people is a cosmic justice. Others believe that furthering meritocracy is more just.

But whether serving society or the universe, you can enhance your utility by focusing on what few others can or will do. For example, I champion the intellectually gifted at a time when government and non-profits focus on redistributing to “the least among us.” That way, I feel I make a bigger difference than if I focused on popular causes I believe in such as abortion rights, where my efforts would add a mere grain of sand onto a beach.

A downside of the serve-society/the universe approach to life is that it leads to a less pleasurable existence. That approach gives no brownie points to fun. Sure, adherents to the serve-society model may sometimes deviate from it and watch that silly sitcom but when life is done, devoted serve-society people die having experiencing less pleasure than do others.

And for some people, focusing so much on doing good for others could lead to burnout and, ironically, to doing less good than if they were moderate. However, based on the people I’ve known, you’re unlikely to burn out even from a lifetime of long workweeks as long as you’re working on something of value, are good at it, and have a measure of control over your work tasks. I’ll be 64 in June, been working 60+ hours a week for my entire life, and feel as energized as ever.

Another downside of the utilitarian approach is that an individual can do only so much. With seven billion people on the planet, your likelihood of making a big difference is small. Nevertheless, it strikes me that a life aimed at even minor contribution is better than rationalizing that you should pursue a pleasure-centric life because your potential for impact, in the largest scheme of things, is modest.

Strive for balance.  Many people believe their best shot at the ideal life is to work moderately and play moderately, dividing your time among serving yourself, God, and society. Or as many of our parents say, “Moderation in all things.”

The downside of that is that it assumes all those goals are of equal value. Can one say that a week on the beach is as valuable as a week mentoring Mensa kids?

Now it’s your turn.  In light of the above (and anything else,) do you want to write a word, sentence, and/or paragraph summarizing how you plan to live the life well-led?

Friday, November 22, 2013

Proposal for a Sex Museum

I think a sex museum, if done well, would be a huge success. A few exist: in New York, Japan, Amsterdam, and Berlin but they're only fair to good. But even if they were excellent, there's certainly room for an outstanding one in a city like San Francisco.

I was part of the team that was planning such a museum in San Francisco but it died because academics dominated the programming committee and insisted on static, usually abstruse-historical exhibits. Only an academic could make sex sterile.

So I thought I'd share my vision for the museum here in hopes someone realizes its potential and makes it happen. If I weren't so busy, I'd do it. I am open to investing in it.

Today, government places so many restrictions and regulations on private projects, I believe it's best if government could be convinced to make it a public-private partnership, ideally with the government giving a $1 a year lease on perhaps 20,000 square feet of property located in the tourist area of a major tourist city such as San Francisco.

Of course, the government could refuse but I'd make the case that two of its major priorities--increasing tourism taxes and increasing acceptance of alternative sexual orientations--would be addressed by their partnering with the museum. I believe, but am not sure, there's precedence for such a partnership. There are a number of lavish yet poorly attended minority-focused museums and other attractions in the tourist area of San Francisco that would seem impossible to have been opened and run for years without significant government/taxpayer expenditure.

The San Francisco Sex Museum would consist of approximately 20 "experiences," each of which would be one to three minutes long. Many would be interactive. Examples:
  • A digital poll of sexual practices in which you vote on the spot: What you do? What you've done? What you'd like to do? What you approve and disapprove of?
  • How much do you know about your partner? (a Newlywed-Game-type quiz for sexual partners.)
  • What makes someone sexy?  An interactive quiz and experience.
  • An IMAX video experience: A crosscultural history of sexual laws and practices from antiquity to today, Asia to Africa to America.
Of course, the museum store would sell all sorts of erotica: books, videos, sex toys, etc.

The museum cafe would include supposed aphrodisiacs and all menu items would have erotic titles.

What do you think?

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Knockout "Game:" A Dangerous Trend Among Minority Teens

The media's censoring of the politically incorrect is descending to ever lower lows.

Becoming epidemic is a game played by minority (mainly Black) teens called Knockout. How does it work? Simple: They stop whites and Asians at random and try to knock them out in one punch.

The national media has virtually ignored this most disturbing trend. Do you think the media would ignore it if white teens sought out random minorities to knock out? Would President Obama, Attorney General Holder, Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson be silent?

No surprise, getting an article published in the major media required no less than the eminent conservative (the horrors!) Stanford/Hoover syndicated Black columnist Thomas Sowell. It is his column today. HERE is the link. And HERE is a link to an article with videos in the New York Daily News. HERE is a link to a book, "White Girl Bleed a Lot," which documents 500+ such attacks, with links to YouTube videos of them.

Some media have actually denied the game exists. I happened to speak with a dean at a high school in a diverse public school in New York City and asked her if she was in a position to assess how real and how significant a problem the Knockout Game is. She said that the Knockout Game is merely one variation of Black "games" to hurt Whites and Asians. She cited, for example, "Bangkok Tuesdays, "where Blacks attempt to kick Asians in their genitals.

This is not an isolated example of such media censorship and bias. When three white Duke University lacrosse players were accused of raping a black woman, it received massive media coverage, mostly convicting the players before they were tried--and found not guilty. Yet when the same woman was convicted of murder, the media was essentially silent. THIS article documents that.

I don't know what the solution is but censorship certainly doesn't help any more than it would have helped to censor excoriation of the Ku Klux Klan. To motivate a serious effort to solve a problem, we must first get the broad public to realize there is one.

The End of Jobs: What Happens Next?

Here's how the job diminution might play out. I call it the post-jobs economy.

1. Ever fewer jobs require people, least of all, expensive-to-hire Americans. On top of wages that are higher than in most countries, there's Obamacare, family leave (paid leave in CA and NJ,) worker's comp, Social Security, Medicare, disability, sick days, vacation days, and legal claims.

The jobs that remain in the U.S. will increasingly be low-pay crap jobs or high-pay intellectually difficult ones.

Technologies like supermarket and big-box-store self-checkout and robotelemarketers and collections agents have already put millions out of work. Next, self-driving vehicles will put more millions of truck, train, bus, and taxi drivers out of work. Fast-food workers who wrested higher salaries will find their victories to be Pyrrhic as companies find it cheaper and more reliable to use robotic servers and preparers as is already occurring in some fast-food restaurants in Japan and Europe. Now, IBM is developing a virtual clothing salesperson who will "listen" to you and your measurements and make recommendations, likely far more on-target than the $10-an-hour salesperson at the boutique or department store.The cover story of the current Economist predicts that biopsies will be done by computer rather than lab techs, wars fought by robots not soldiers, Big Data analyzed by computer not data miners, basic sports stories written by computer, title searches conducted by computer, insurance underwriting done by computer, and that mainly careers such as firefighter, clergy, and fitness trainer will be immune, although with the development of ever more potent fitness apps, I'm not so sure.

According to MIT jobs guru Andrew McAfee, even some work done by doctors, lawyers, and accountants will be done by computerized expert systems.

I predict that most teacher jobs will go away. The most transformational instructors will teach online, which will improve instruction nationwide, with paraprofessionals onsite to provide the human touch.

Ben Way, author of the new book, Jobocalypse, claims that 70 percent of all jobs will be gone within 30 years, including teachers, bartenders, nurses, even babysitters.

U.S. wages will thus, within 30 years, be near the world average of $18,000 a year.

2. The growing number of poor people will result in our electing politicians who will "soak the rich" more and use the money to transfer dollars to the poor and to pay for single-payer health care. That will forestall major increases in crime and rioting.

Despite the redistribution, people will learn to live on much less--like 100 square feet per person. Many people will be forced to give up their car in favor of mass transit. Recreation will descend from $100 football tickets and 8-day/7-night fly-away vacations to at-home TV watching and staycations. Wal-Mart and thrift stores will be go-to stores for all but the 1%ers.

Even though the last thing the U.S. needs is a workforce with less motivation and impaired memory, pot will be legalized nationwide. After all, a dispirited populus needs something to dull their pain and fears.

3. Already, the top 5 percent pay 59% of the income tax. "Soak the rich" yet more and many businesses will go out of business or move to a low-tax country. That would be the tipping point--- a big increase in crime, rioting, and substance abuse.

4. In desperation, the heretofore rather anti-business public schools and colleges will feel forced to train more entrepreneurs so more sustainable jobs can be created. But it won't be easy to turn people who aren't, by nature, entrepreneurial to become good enough business owners, especially in a world with more entrepreneurs and fewer people with discretionary income.

5. Because fewer people will be able to afford to buy non-essential items, an ever larger percentage of purchasing will be done by the government---It can raise taxes to pay for what it wants to buy. So   government will continue to grow in its share of GDP.  But at some point, the public will demand a much smaller government, which will put more money back in individuals' and businesses' pockets. That will start a new cycle of development of new products and services and of more hiring, albeit never as much as in the pre-information/pre-industrial age. 

At some point, I'm guessing within a decade, all but highly capable and driven Americans will have to live very simply, perhaps even akin to the way most people lived centuries ago. Who knows? Maybe they'll be happier for it.

A wild card is Armageddon. Technological advances make it ever more likely that even a sole actor could wreak Armageddon. For example, a crazed science professor could create a mutated smallpox virus and release it in a shuttle bus headed to an international airport. 

Perhaps this scenario is unduly negative. After all, for millennia, humankind has prevailed with quality of life generally improving. Let's hope it continues.

Dear reader: your thoughts?

Monday, November 18, 2013

Job Hunting: Bah, Humbug!

The hiring process is a showcase of humankind's weaknesses, with. both employers and job hunters guilty. That's the topic of today's installment in my "Bah, Humbug" series:  Job Hunting: Bah, Humbug!  HERE is the link. 

Degrees? Bah, Humbug!

At the risk of redundancy, how could I write a "Bah Humbug" series without including a column called, "Degrees? Bah, Humbug!"  That's my last week. HERE is the link.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

PhDs: Should You Be a Researcher?

Science PhDs, near-PhDs, and postdocs frequently ask me, "Should I stay in research?"  This self-assessment may help. Rate yourself on each of these:

1. Cognoscenti frequently praise your ability to design and lead implementation of important experiments ___ (0 to 10 points.)

2. You love doing research so much it would be very painful to give it up.   ___ (0 to 10 points.)

3. Your area of research expertise is well-funded (for example, cancer, Alzheimer's, and autism yes, intelligence, botany, history of science, no)  ___ (0 to 10 points.)

4. You have and are likely to develop strong connections with luminaries in your field. ___ (0 to 10 points.)

5. You have the patience necessary for research. Typically many, many carefully done experiments must be conducted over a number of years to make even a modest contribution to your field. ___ (0 to 10 points.)

6. You are quite willing to do your research for a company as well as for a university or research institute. ___ (0 to 10 points.)

7. If you're not able to land a researcher or professor position, you are willing to (or already have done) a few-year post-doc. ___ (0 to 10 points.)

8. Your reports on your research will be of excellent integrity even though there are ample opportunities to fudge results.   ___ (0 to 10 points.)

9. Your PhD and, if applicable, your postdoc are from an institution renowned for research, especially in your field.  ___ (0 to 10 points.)

10. You are happy to put in 60+ hours a week and, if you have a spouse or other long-term domestic partner, s/he truly accepts that. (0 to 10 points.)

11. You are an excellent communicator, able to persuasively present your research in written proposals and articles as well as in oral presentations. (0 to 10 points.)

95-110  You almost certainly should persevere in pursuing your career as a researcher
80-95     You probably should
60-80      Perhaps you should
40-60      You probably should try to identify other career options
< 40     You almost certainly should try to identify other career options.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Handout from My Society for Neuroscience workshop: Actively Managing Your Career and Life: What They Didn't Teach You in School.

Last week, I gave a 2 1/2 hour workshop at the Society for Neuroscience's national conference: Actively Managing Your Career and Life: What They Didn’t Teach You in School.

It was attended by 450 people.

Even if your career has nothing to do with neuroscience, you may find my handout for that workshop useful. 

 Actively Managing Your Career and Life: What They Didn’t Teach You in School
SfN National Conference, Nov. 11, 2013
 Marty Nemko

I. Direction
A. Developing your personal mission statement:
1. What is/are your best skill(s)/ability(ies) that you enjoy using?  _______________________
2. What is/are the goal(s) you’re most interested in achieving/abetting? Consider prioritizing goals that aren’t already adequately addressed by others.
3. What then is your personal mission statement? For example, mine is: Write and speak to abet capable peoples' careers, improve education for the intellectually gifted, and support efforts to increase understanding of the biological basis of reasoning ability.

B.   How many degrees of pivot should you make regarding your:
   1. career: __                  Nature of pivot: ___________________________________
   2. research agenda: __  Nature of pivot: ___________________________________
   3. proposal writing: __   Nature of pivot: ___________________________________
   4. teaching: __              Nature of pivot: ___________________________________
   5. advising: __               Nature of pivot: ___________________________________
   6. service: __                 Nature of pivot: ___________________________________
   7. professional devel: __ Nature of pivot: ___________________________________
   8. relationships: __         Nature of pivot: ___________________________________
   9. avocation(s): __          Nature of pivot: ___________________________________

Put a plus or minus sign next to any of the nine you’d like to allocate more or less time to.

II . Efficiency
A.  Create a grid with the days of the week at the top and each hour you’re awake down the left side. Then write, hour-by-hour, how you spend a typical week. Anything you want to spend more or less time on? __________________________________________________
B. Is there anything  you want to do more/less thoroughly? For example, are your literature reviews too thorough or not thorough enough?  ____________________________________
C.  You likely can do most tasks better yourself but is the opportunity cost worth it? So, do you want to make more effort to delegate: get grad students, interns, a personal assistant? If so, write what you want to do: _____________________________________________
D.  When tempted to procrastinate on a project:
1. Create a “thermometer” with all the project’s milestones. If you’re not sure what those should be, ask an expert for help.
2. Be vigilant to the moment of truth: when you’re deciding, usually unconsciously, whether or not to work on that project.
2a. At that moment, remind yourself of the key benefit of getting that task done. Then identify your next one-second task on that project. 
3. Get comfortable being uncomfortable but keep looking for an enjoyable way to tackle a task.

III. Communication
A.  Especially if you’ve been called long-winded, try the traffic-light rule in both professional and personal contexts: 0-30 seconds of an utterance=green, 30-60=yellow, 60+ red. Only rarely run a red light. You’ll find it easier to be concise if you’re, ongoing, asking yourself, “Does my listener need or want this information?”
B. It’s often wise to use a lecture not to disseminate information but to generate on-the-spot interactivity. For example, in an SfN presentation on your research, instead of just describing your research, have the audience read a 1-2 page summary of your research that highlights your questions and concerns about it. Devote most of the session to getting audience input on those.
C. Many lectures fail because of the tyranny of content: cramming lots of content into the talk—Audiences usually remember little from such talks. Lectures are generally more successful when a small amount of crucial content is presented perhaps with compelling examples, followed by getting the audience to actively engage in the content, for example, using Think-Pair-Share.
D. An easy way to generate active audience engagement is to ask a question and then—to increase engagement-- wait five to ten seconds before calling on someone.

IV. Grant acquisition
A.  Should you add a prestigious collaborator to your proposal? If so, who? _____________.
B.  Funders want to invest in research that will produce a publication in a high-impact journal. To maximize the chances of that and to clarify the experiments and analyses you’ll need to write, draft the journal article before creating your grant application.
C.  Write clearly. Reading proposals is low-priority for many reviewers. They may even have a glass of wine while reading it.  If compelling, crystalline writing isn't a strength of yours, carefully choose someone to rewrite your first draft.
D.  A proposal’s most important section isn’t Approach, it’s Aims. That section must compellingly and concisely explain why your proposal deserves funding over other excellent proposals. For example, this yielded an NIH grant:
Our studies promise to significantly abet the field of human immunity to tuberculosis, as they will markedly expand our knowledge of targets of human T cells in M. tuberculosis, enable novel studies and discoveries not currently possible, and provide a pathway to more efficacious TB vaccines.
E.  To avoid unnecessary rejection, explain why you’re using any unconventional approaches.
F.  Get experts and non-experts in your field to critique your proposal before submitting.
G.  Early on, email your proposal’s abstract to a program officer and call a day or two later with questions.

V. Managing up
A. In planning how to ask a higher-up for something, consider whether s/he is persuaded more by verbal or written pitches, short or long presentations, facts or feelings. Point out any synergy with the higher-up’s priorities.
B. In making your request, should you form a coalition, if only a letter of support from an authority?
C. Do you need to apply pressure: make a demand or threat, or give frequent reminders?

VI. Minimize retrospection. Yes, learn what you can from a past negative experience, but most successful people then follow my father’s advice: Don’t look back; take the next step forward.

Friday, November 8, 2013

10 Commandments of TED for a powerful presentation

In my view, these 10 commandments for public speaking from TED are absolutely right-on.
  1. Thou Shalt Not Simply Trot Out thy Usual Shtick.
  2. Thou Shalt Dream a Great Dream, or Show Forth a Wondrous New Thing, Or Share Something Thou Hast Never Shared Before.
  3. Thou Shalt Reveal thy Curiosity and Thy Passion.
  4. Thou Shalt Tell a Story.
  5. Thou Shalt Freely Comment on the Utterances of Other Speakers for the Sake of Blessed Connection and Exquisite Controversy.
  6. Thou Shalt Not Flaunt thine Ego. Be Thou Vulnerable. Speak of thy Failure as well as thy Success.
  7. Thou Shalt Not Sell from the Stage: Neither thy Company, thy Goods, thy Writings, nor thy Desperate need for Funding; Lest Thou be Cast Aside into Outer Darkness.
  8. Thou Shalt Remember all the while: Laughter is Good.
  9. Thou Shalt Not Read thy Speech.
  10. Thou Shalt Not Steal the Time of Them that Follow Thee.
Paul Dunn and TED

Monday, November 4, 2013

Follow Your Passion? Bah Humbug!

If career counselors had a motto, it would be "Follow your passion." Alas, truth is, in choosing a career, if you do what you love, poverty usually follows.

That's because most people's passions are in just a few areas so 10 zillion people apply for each good job.

And because of that, most employers pay poorly for most such cool careers and treat you poorly knowing there are 10,000 wannabes champing for the opportunity to be treated poorly.

My piece today, Bah, Passion is the first in my weekly "Bah..." series in which I reveal my inner Scrooge and offer straight talk about career issues.