We Salute Dr. Little, a Giant Among Us

Posted on August 24, 2010

In some ways I wish I had never heard of Dr. Tom Little.

When he was unknown he was an optometrist from Delmar, New York, a father of three. For over four decades he travelled to Afghanistan to provide free eye care to farmers and herders in the mountains. His trips were purely apolitical. He continued to serve his flock whether the government was led by a king or by Communists or by religious fanatics.

Today he is known. Because last week, in those same mountains, he and eleven other aid workers were shot to death by Taliban tribesmen who claimed they were spies.

If Dr. Little remained unknown, his work would have continued. An aging farmer here, a child there, would be treated for vision problems. The crew from the International Assistance Mission would have continued to bounce along weather beaten roads in their Range Rover. Any day they might appear on the horizon in a cloud of dust, bringing hope to little villages that are too small to appear on any map.

Instead, we must read about them in the morning paper. And that is a sad price to pay for being known.

I have run across many Dr. Littles over the years. As a member of Rotary International, I have heard and read about many doctors who fly off to remote places, selflessly lending their skills to families who have no access to clinics or medical care.

I suspect that many of these charitable doctors don’t think about the risks they’re taking. One of the doctors travelling with Dr. Little – a Brit named Karen Woo – wrote a blog just before setting out: “The expedition will require a lot of physical and mental resolve and will not be without risk.” She added: “The effort is worth it in order to assist those that need it most.”

It appears Dr. Woo ordered a wedding gown of raw silk from an Afghan tailor just before driving into the mountains. “What’s a girl to do?,” she wrote.

We often honor the famous who draw attention to themselves. Perhaps from time to time we can also remember the anonymous ones. They get no awards. No prizes. No pictures in the newspaper. But many change lives. They are invisible but they are giants.

Still, I wish I had never heard about Dr. Little.

Posted in From the Archives

The Urinal Index

Posted on July 2, 2010

When we hear of Nottingham we probably remember Robin Hood, that legendary figure who fought the town’s Sheriff with his band of Merry Men.

Nottingham played another important role in English history. In 1811, it was the scene of attacks by workers on the machinery used by mills manufacturing cotton and wool cloth. The workers were called Luddites because they claimed to be inspired by a man named Ludd who apparently destroyed some knitting machines in the 1770s in a fit of anger.

The Luddites were angered by working class conditions and set about sabotaging the mills and even assassinated a mill owner. With time their name would become associated with people that oppose modernization.

Surely one can’t condone the Luddites’ acts of violence. Nor can one plausibly argue that mankind was better off in a golden age of wood plows and ox-drawn carts.

But modernization has its price. Change and progress may be good, but change can be disruptive, with lost jobs, obsolete skills, bankrupt dreams. Efficiency is not an unalloyed blessing. It has a human cost.

Our economists track productivity, the ratio of output to human capital. The theory is that an economy benefits if it can produce more output with the same labor force. We applaud countries with improving productivity and frown on those with many workers performing manual tasks.

But isn’t there a point at which increased productivity can go too far? The ratio grows too large? The human capital is spread so thin that we actually introduce inefficiency, risk and danger into the system?

BP’s off-shore drilling operations might have become more efficient and productive as fewer people took on more responsibility. But at some point the efficiencies become penny wise: One more person might have meant one incremental notch of lower productivity. But it could also have forestalled disaster.

Suppose the banks had had one more person in their risk management departments watching the deteriorating value of their subprime bond portfolios. Suppose one more person had been working at NASA looking at the O-rings on the Challenger space shuttle. Or one more person reviewing the intelligence data before 9/11.

Last year I flew into Bermuda, a tiny archipelago of islands off the coast of North America. I used the bathroom. It was small, as one would expect in a small airport. But it was spotless. A gentleman stood at the door, hastening to clean every washbasin after it was used. The wastebaskets were empty. The towel holder was full. The toilets and urinals gleamed.

A few days later I returned to Kennedy airport. The washroom was filthy. There were no paper towels. The wastepaper basket overflowed. The urinals had not been cleaned in hours if not days.

Was Kennedy airport more productive? You betchya.

Next time I think of the productivity index I will ask myself: How many urinals can or should one person clean?

Efficiency may be nice. But I’d prefer to have fewer urinals per responsible worker. I think we all would.

Posted in From the Archives

Sometimes Life Does Not Imitate Fiction

Posted on June 3, 2010

I just returned from New Orleans. By a quirk of air traffic control I flew over the spreading oil slick. And I felt, along with millions of our countrymen along the Gulf Coast, physically ill. It will probably be decades before the true impact of this environmental disaster is known.

In stores and restaurants and on the streets of the French Quarter one hears constant references to the slick. It is easy to understand why. The culture and livelihoods of every person living in that region hang in the balance. Coming less than five years after Hurricane Katrina devastated three quarters of the town and surrounding parishes, it is hard not share the grief of our Gulf Coast friends.

There have been several reasonable and unreasonable reactions to the devastating oil spill. Crisis management always involves a combination of backward looking analysis and forward looking planning. In the intensity of the moment we are prone to rapid and sometimes unjustified conclusions and actions. With oil gushing from the seabed at an estimated 12-17,000 barrels a day, it is hard not to seek quick fixes. Yet we must try to resist our impulsive natures.

Here are some of the reactions and ideas I heard in New Orleans.

1. Righteous indignation. There has been no time for a complete investigation and BP is entitled to challenge some early conclusions. But it appears that corners were cut and risks taken that should not have been. Did BP omit precautions because the project was 6 weeks late or were they being penny wise? Was the Interior Department’s Mineral Management Service so cozy with the oil industry that it failed to insist on adequate safeguards?

If so, the state of Louisiana and the entire country have reason to be outraged. I was glad to see the President express that anger. Instead of defending the status quo he spoke for all Americans when he criticized faulty disaster preparations and slow governmental response.

2. Lack of credibility. One of the things that most upsets me is BP’s downplaying the seriousness of the leak. For a month the oil giant insisted that the well was leaking 1,000-5,000 barrels a day. Petroleum engineers and physicists who studied the now-infamous webcam videos from the Gulf floor estimated the spill was at least 12,000 barrels a day. Then this weekend the latest estimates came in at 12,000-15,000 barrels.

I heard a number of oil industry spokesmen claim the size of the leak was irrelevant. I disagree. The scope of the reaction is directly proportional to the scope of the crisis. We may never know but I suspect that knowing the magnitude of the leak would have stimulated earlier and more aggressive efforts. Moreover the government may have taken an earlier and more proactive role.

It now appears that BP may have deliberately underestimated the size of the leak because they have a financial incentive for doing so. The oil company can be fined up to $4,000 or so per barrel of leakage. At that rate a spill of 10,000 barrels a day for 40 days would translate into a $1.6 billion fine.

One might argue that these facts can wait a fuller investigation. But with its credibility in question, how can we trust that BP is dealing adequately with this crisis?

3. Suspend off-shore drilling. This is an understandable reaction but not a reasonable one. Even the Democratic Senator from Louisiana, Mary Landrieu, called for cooler thinking than this. So have the governors of Mississippi and Alabama, both of whose coasts and tourist beaches are threatened by leaks from offshore wells.

The economy of our country and of the Southwest relies heavily on U.S. exploration and production and much of our petroleum resource is located off shore. Oil production from the Gulf provides a third of U.S. production. Two-thirds of that volume comes from deep water. Some 33 wells now drill in these depths, employing many of the 200,000 people employed in offshore drilling pursuits.

Study what went wrong and tighten procedures, yes. Require added precautions on the deep water platforms that have emerged in recent years, yes. Acknowledge the mistakes, yes. But do not do further damage to the regional and national economies by stopping a program that has largely worked well for several decades.

A six month moratorium might not seem unreasonable, but these platforms, and their crews, are mobile. They can go where the work is. In six months they could be gone and oil production now and for years could be curtailed.

I am not of the “Drill, Baby, Drill” school. But I do believe we must weigh our national security interests in reducing oil imports against the real but measurable risks of drilling. In 65 years some 50,000 wells have been dug. The safety record of offshore drilling is remarkable. The one significant leak before this one occurred on a Mexican rig operating with lower safety standards. For three decades the industry has successfully drilled in deep water. Likely as not, the accident on Deepwater Horizon occurred because of a cascade of human errors. Let us not destroy an entire industry because of a case of preventable error. After the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaska we didn’t terminate water transport of oil.

4. Accelerate revenue sharing. Ironically Louisiana is the source of much off shore production but gets a small share of federal lease revenues. Congress agreed to reallocate to the state some 30% or over $3 billion. But not until 2017. That schedule should be accelerated immediately. Small parishes that line the Gulf not to mention the state itself are starved for resources and should receive their fair share now so they can contract with businesses to protect their shores. Hurricane season is a couple weeks away and there is no time to lose.

5. “BP, move aside”. Understandably, BP’s failure to stop the leak prompts a call for government to step in. But government is completely unprepared for this task. The Coast Guard doesn’t have the boats required to corral the spill or mop it up, let alone plug the leak. There are no miracle workers in the ranks of the Army Corps that would any more successful than BP’s hardworking crews.

Americans are fond of thinking that no problem is too large to tackle. After all, if we could land a man on the moon… But consider this: Man has walked on the moon more often than on the ocean floor. Moreover, some problems may prove intractable.

Americans of my generation remember the Iran hostage crisis in 1979-80. After months of unsuccessful negotiations to free 52 hostages held in our embassy in Iran, President Carter authorized a rescue mission. It was a disaster. Helicopters sent to Teheran were overwhelmed by sandstorms and ditched in the desert. That aborted mission took place 10 years after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Not all problems are solvable the way we may like.

As long as BP accepts help from others and does not try to Lone Ranger a solution, we need to support them, not interfere with their work. Nobody wants to plug this hole as badly as they do. We need to look over their shoulder. But as long as they appear to be managing the process well, we need to support them, not stand in their way.

At the same time, government oversight is essential. We must insist BP spares no expense, ignores no input, and delays no initiative.

6. “There has to be a way…” Life is not a made-for-TV movie. The good guys don’t always win. The maiden is not always rescued from the castle. The cat may be too high in the tree.

We must hope and pray that this leak is plugged soon. Then we can take time to learn what mistakes, if any, were made, and how we should reassess the risks and rewards of off shore drilling. In the meantime we must refrain from letting our anger overwhelm our reason, or let the comforting fantasies of fiction overwhelm the rocky and unpredictable realms of reality.

Posted in From the Archives

June is the month…

Posted on June 1, 2010

June is the month of weddings and graduations, of long days (at least in the northern latitudes). Of peonies and gladiolas and lilies. Of chrysanthemums and snapdragons.

June puts a smile on your face, especially those long days. There is nothing so invigorating as stepping outdoors at 9 pm and seeing light in the western sky. Or rising in the early morning to birds singing their hearts out and fresh air filling your lungs.

The bees are an annoyance. And if you’re in the Adirondacks the black flies are a plague. But then the lightning bugs come out at dusk and surprise us with their glow. I love how their bellies warm up slowly like the new compact fluorescent bulbs, crescendo and then die.

June starts in the quickness of spring, with fresh breezes and occasional rain showers. Then it ends in summer, with long torpid afternoons when the humidity can feel like a wool blanket.

The summer solstice comes around June 21. It is remarkable how almost immediately one can sense the days growing shorter. Soon the crickets will fill the night air. We’ll look up and a flock of birds will be heading south. We’ll notice our breath emerging as fog in the cool air.

I watched in mid-June as my son graduated from college. He was walking up the aisle with his diploma in hand. Parents and siblings stood on the sides, smiling, applauding. So much hope, so many long days ahead, so many flowers and birdsong. They can’t foresee the days growing shorter, the birds heading south, the cool air descending.

A dear friend pointed out to me recently that my son was walking up the same aisle that wedding couples walk, flanked by their friends and family. We watch them with tears in our eyes. Their feet are carried on clouds of hope and promise. The preacher may have warned them of life’s inevitable woes. But they only heard the birds. And the bees.

And some day it will be the same aisle that the flag draped coffin navigates, as the veteran of life’s stormy seas moves toward his or her final resting place. The flowers will be cut then. And the air will be still.

June is the month that puts a smile on your face. And at the end of June a little ache in your heart. June reminds me of the words of Ecclesiastes,
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance …

A toast to all those college graduates and newlyweds. May your days be long.

Posted in From the Archives

April 2010: A Month to Remember

Posted on May 18, 2010

There are some months in human history that inspire awe.

Late September and early October 1066 was such a time:

  • England’s King Harold defeated Norse invaders at Stamford Bridge on September 25.
  • Less than three weeks later Harold, after a speedy march south, was himself defeated by Normandy’s William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings on October 14.

April 1865 was such a time:

  • The Confederate’s General Robert E. Lee, leading the South’s largest army, surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865.
  • The Union’s celebration was brief. The following Friday, April 14, President Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theater, dying the next morning.

May 1940 was such a time:

  • On May 10, just as it seemed as if England was about to reach a compromise with the Third Reich’s Adolph Hitler, Winston Churchill was named Prime Minister.
  • On May 28, Churchill outmaneuvered the proponents of compromise and, ironically with the support of Neville Chamberlain, convinced the Cabinet to risk all in a battle for survival against Germany.

Not only do these months inspire awe. They inspire a bit of reverence. For the rapid, unfolding, unpredictability of life. For the unmatched energy and dynamism of the human species. For the drama and ingenuity of men and women confronting unforeseen and overwhelming challenges.

April 2010 was such a time:

  • On April 14, a sub-glacial volcano in Iceland known as Eyjafjallajökull, resumed erupting after a hiatus of 87 years. (The eruption may have begun as early as March 20 but that event was minor and barely noticeable compared to the drama of a few weeks later.)
  • Then, less than a week later, on April 20, an oil well blew a mile below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. This caused an explosion on the platform Deepwater Horizon, killing 11 workers on the rig.

These two events seem utterly unrelated. They occurred in different parts of the world. One occurred below the icy surface of Iceland. The other happened below the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

One was a natural phenomenon. The other was caused by man-made oil exploration activity. Ironically, the natural phenomenon caused a threat to man-made aircraft, while the man-made disaster caused a threat to the natural environment.

But in my mind they will always be connected. Each event was sudden and unforeseen. Each posed dramatic challenges that called for creative responses. Each bore tragic consequences for people in the immediate vicinity of the incidents.

And no matter how far we may live from the ash clouds hanging over the British Isles or the plumes of oil and gas threatening the Gulf Coast and the Florida Keys, each event affects all of us, as surely as the historical events I recalled above.

When Harold’s troops marched, first in victory and then in defeat, they carried with them both the hopes and the anguish of a nation.

When Lee’s troops surrendered, and Lincoln fell, a nation was forged in a cauldron of shared pain and sacrifice.

When Churchill persuaded his Cabinet to favor war, the room fell silent with the terrible knowledge that war would mean a terrible cost.

Today I think of the families of the eleven oil field workers who lost their lives. Like the 29 miners at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, who lost their lives in early April, these workers on the Deepwater Horizon were engaged in a dangerous occupation. But they never expected the morning of April 20 to be their last.

Likewise, the commercial fishermen and tour operators along the Gulf Coast had no way of foreseeing that their lives might soon be changed forever. In place of a sudden human toll they are facing economic hardship, dashed hopes, years of challenge.

Meantime, thousands of families in Iceland have been displaced, their lives, crops, livestock, and way of life lost, destroyed, or permanently altered.

And at the same time, across Europe, millions wonder if travel will return to normal or whether they will live with the disruption of volcanic ash for decades.

Awe. Reverence. History has a way of making us humble from time to time. Often it presents us with things we prefer to forget.

But April 2010 will be a month we will long remember. 

Posted in From the Archives


Posted on February 22, 2010

It’s likely that Sonia Nassery Cole never met Eileen Nearne.

After all, Cole lives in LA and Nearne lived, until she died last month, in the tiny town of Torquay on the English coast.

Yet the lives of these two women came together in this morning’s newspaper. Their stories are unrelated but nevertheless they are linked by a common thread of courage, character and idealism.

Cole, 45, is in Kabul, where she is about to premiere her feature film “The Black Tulip”. The film is set in Afghanistan and recounts a story of a family that experiences a burst of freedom following the fall of the Taliban, only to succumb to its resurgence a decade later.

Unlike “The Kite Runner,” the popular 2007 film that took place in Afghanistan but was filmed in China, Cole’s film was produced in the war-torn country. And therein lies the courage.

Cole risked her life on a daily basis to direct the film. She received numerous death threats. When her lead actress was brutally mutilated by the Taliban (her feet were cut off) Cole stepped in and played the role.

Despite the danger Cole persisted, motivating her actors and her crew – some of whom fled in fear – to complete the film. That is character.

Nearne would have appreciated and understood Cole. During World War II, she was one of 39 women parachuted into France to support the resistance effort and prepare the way for the D-Day invasion.

Nearne risked her life transmitting coded radio messages that helped coordinate supply drops for resistance fighters. Captured by the Gestapo after one of these transmissions she refused under torture to reveal her identity or that of her colleagues. She was shuttled among concentration camps and ultimately made a successful escape.

After the war Nearne did not seek recognition for her courageous work. She lived in obscurity. When her body was found, a Croix de Guerre, awarded by the French government after the war, was found among her possessions and her identity was discovered.

Imagine the idealism of these two amazing people. Ignoring personal peril each drove themselves to tackle objectives that by any fair measure of risk and reward were unreasonable. One can only imagine the tension and anxiety they lived with every hour of every day.

66 years separate the accomplishments of Nearne and Cole. One served her country and the other her artistic vision. Both sought to defend and sustain freedom and basic human rights.

Their stories have the power to remind us that in the most challenging circumstances we remain capable of accomplishing remarkable things. 

Posted in From the Archives
Page 4 of 41234