Saturday, October 1, 2011

Book Review: Anatomy of a Kidnapping by Steven L. Berk

What started as one of those lazy Sunday mornings that every busy man or woman longs for — clear blue skies and no schedule to adhere to — in one of America's safest communities, the town of Amarillo, Texas, on March 6, 2005, the tranquility of personal freedom was shockingly transformed into two hours of terror for a prominent doctor and the dean of the medical school, Steven Berk.

Dr Berk photoAfter seeing his wife off to church that morning, while his teenage son was practicing guitar and waiting for his ride from a friend, Dr. Berk was settling into a day of rest and a planned phone call with his elder son who had asked Berk to review one of his papers before turning it into his professor at Brandeis University, when a parolee from the Texas prison system, Jack Lindsey Jordan, entered Berk's home through an open garage door and held a shotgun to Berk's back from inside the home's utility room while he bade his son goodbye, having no idea if it might be his last.  Thus began the two-hour ordeal where Berk's medical training empowered him to gain the abductor's trust and avoid a violent death.

Jordan, a confessed methamphetamine user with a violent past, held Dr. Berk at gunpoint while driving the empty streets of Amarillo, typical of Sunday mornings in this community of many churches, large and small.  Searching for an ATM machine so cash could be withdrawn for Jordan to move on down the road to his next victim, Jordan confided in Berk about such things as his drug use and the loneliness he lived with after the accidental death of his wife, caused by Jordan's own driving while under the influence of drugs and alcohol.

Throughout the ride on the streets and an eventual brief return to Berk's home to retrieve jewelry from his wife's collection, Berk reflected on the lessons he had learned as a doctor, noting particularly Dr. William Osler's famous farewell address, "Aequanimitas," to gain the strength to overcome his captor through equanimity and cool-headedness.

A book perfectly suited for a "required reading" list for medical students and young doctors, Anatomy of a Kidnapping offers much more than a lesson about winning over a confused and violent kidnapper.  Through countless personal stories of his own experiences in medical residency and physician practice, Berk does what he loves most — he teaches people how to live in balance with the terror that befalls those who are not prepared for the vicissitudes of life.

Readers of management literature and connoisseurs of leadership studies will find stories and inspiration similar to that of Stephen Covey.  It is "boots on the ground" leadership style, packed full of example after example of making the most of one's mistakes, discovering one's core principles, and the value of recognizing the pain in others well enough to neutralize even the most criminal intent.

Berk includes court transcript, dialogue with the perpetrator of the crime, and carefully woven stories of his past to tell this most unusual story.  Published in September 2011, Anatomy of a Kidnapping deserves a place on the bookshelves of those students of medicine and life who want to be reminded of the value of humility and even-mindedness when challenged by the evil forces of violence and domination.

Published first as Book Review: Anatomy of a Kidnapping by Steven L. Berk on Blogcritics.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Pendulum Swings For the Dallas Cowboys in the Young Season

With a record of 2 wins and 1 loss, the Dallas Cowboys are already ahead of where many local pundits thought they would be. Predictions of a 9-7 season were the norm, a record which would likely not give the Cowboys a chance to make the playoffs.

Game 1 Loss to the New York Jets

In game 1, the Cowboys played on the road against a very good New York Jets team, and they came very close to winning it but blew a 14-point lead in the 4th quarter.  Quarterback Tony Romo threw a last-minute interception after fumbling in a previous goal line Tony Romoplay in which he pretended he was former running back Marion Barber trying to bulldoze his way through a pile of bodies.  It was a play reminiscent of those that the former coach of the Cowboys, Bill Parcells, feared most about Romo's decision-making ability in pressure situations.  Fans of the Cowboys will remember Parcells' cautionary remarks when he was responding to criticism about staying with veteran quarterback Drew Bledsoe as the starter, whom many thought to be on his last leg before he ever arrived in Dallas to play.

Romo the Worst Quarterback in History

Like every win and every loss in Dallas, the tendency is to overreact.  During the following week, the local and national press jumped on the bandwagon in blaming Romo for the loss, despite the Cowboys having given up a blocked punt for a touchdown and a botched field goal attempt earlier in the game from extra-point territory.

Romo the Messiah, Victory in San Francisco

The following week, playing the San Francisco 49'ers on the road, they pulled off a narrow victory in which Romo and kicker Dan Bailey both redeemed themselves.  In a storybook scenario, Romo left the game with a broken rib and sat out much of it while old-timer quarterback Jon Kitna handled the Cowboys offense, that is, until Romo came running onto the field to lead the team to its first win of the season.
The following day it was reported that Romo had not only broken his rib, he had also suffered a slight puncture in his lung.  It was played locally as an "outhouse-to-the-White-House" comeback for Romo given the bad publicity from the week before.  Like I said, it's an overreaction city and always has been since the days of their earliest successes under Coach Tom Landry.

Victory in Dallas Over Nemesis Washington Redskins

Finally coming home for their first game in Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, they faced their age-old nemesis, the Washington Redskins, now coached by Super Bowl winner Mike Shanahan, whose record was 2-0.  Fighting through miscues, 4 premature snaps of the ball on offense, injuries to star receiver Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, and a couple of interior offensive linemen, Tony Romo did something fans have been waiting to see.  Not only did he overcome the pain of his injury, but he exhibited field leadership in his handling of the players on the field.  In similar situations in the past, Romo has been criticized for becoming a loner, with his head down and withdrawing to the end of the bench.

Still, with the victory over the Redskins, the Cowboys offense did not score a touchdown.  They scored six field goals, Dan Bailey now having experienced the full redemption of his first-game miss, that is, until he misses his next one.  They beat the Redskins 18-16, so their record is now 2-1 which ties them for first place in the division with the Redskins and the New York Giants.

Rob RyanDefense, Defense, Defense

Probably the best off-season decision by the Cowboys was hiring Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan.  In spite of key injuries to Cowboys cornerbacks, the defense is playing very well.  The new all-out blitz schemes are hiding the weaknesses in the Dallas secondary.

Could Sean Lee Be the Second Coming of LeeRoy Jordan

One very bright spot is 2-year linebacker Sean Lee who replaced Keith Brooking in the starting role.  Sean LeeLee was named NFC Defensive Player of the Month for September, the first time a Cowboy player has won this award since its inception in 1986 (Source: ESPN website).  Sean Lee's numbers are impressive after three starts.  He is credited with 36 tackles, of which 23 were solo, two interceptions, two fumble recoveries, not to mention his style of play which exhibits.  Veteran DeMarcus Ware has been phenomenal as well, lining up all over the field to avoid double-team blocks and giving him just one blocker to overcome on his way to the quarterback.

Don't Forget, It's Still the Cowboys

There are problems however.  At some point very soon — the Cowboys play the undefeated Detroit Lions this weekend — the mistakes on offense will thwart any effort to come from behind.  Romo is demonstrating better field leadership, but play-calling and offensive schemes will eventually have to pick up the pace as well as just plain "football smarts."  Receivers and Romo need to get on the same page fast!  Missed routes and terrible secondary reads by inexperienced receivers will frustrate the entire team, and the Cowboys will sink back into the muck and mire of the recent seasons under Head Coach Wade Phillips.

It is still questionable whether the Dallas defense has been fully tested.  Folks in Dallas did not expect them to be as good as they have shown to be so far.  The biggest test in this young season will be the Detroit Lions this Sunday.  A Lions drought spanning two decades appears to be over.  Matthew StaffordThey bring their 3-0 record to Dallas this weekend with their quarterback, Matthew Stafford, who has shown brilliance thus far with 997 yard passing and a 67% completion average with 9 touchdowns.  Rob Ryan seems to be made for this kind of challenge, and fans expect to see just how good his defensive schemes and players are this week.

It is still hard to tell how the team will fare.  It is a long season, and injuries have come early and often.  Knowing the pulse of the local fan base, even though many folks thought the Cowboys would win no more than ten games, expectations are high, way too high.  They have weaknesses that have not yet been exposed by great teams.  I'm still holding to my prediction of 9-7, but of course, like all lifelong Cowboys fans, I'll overreact at every loss and every win.

Seven Ways to Manage Risk in Vacant Buildings

Recessionary pressures are in full force again, and another wave of layoffs does not bode well for the commercial real estate market. Vacancies in office buildings and warehouses rise as businesses close their doors, and property management companies have a lot on their plate as they simply try to maintain non-producing properties. A recent example of the risks clarifies the issue.
A Missed Sale in a Sluggish Economy
An office building in Texas that had been empty since the precipitating events of the recession had an asking price of $1.1 million in 2011. After a long period of dormancy, a local prospective buyer came knocking, stating he was interested in obtaining the property by January 2012 for a move-in of his growing business.
After some negotiation, a price of $850,000 was settled upon. The prospective buyer secured a banker and began a budget bidding process with general contractors. The more contractors who were invited to participate, the greater the variance was in the construction costs. The banker and the prospective buyer collaborated and offered the management company a much lesser sum of money. The owner’s price was lowered to $650,000 because of the added construction costs. So, what was the problem?
Vandals had removed all the copper from the large HVAC units on the roof, requiring an unanticipated, six-figure sum of money. Additionally, there were 350 fluorescent light fixtures that had been destroyed and the electrical service panels in the building had been scavenged for copper. Broken glass was scattered throughout the building and the restrooms were caked with mold. The more the potential buyer looked into costs of construction, the less attractive the 40% reduction in the asking price became. The seller not only lost the sale, he also suffered the continuous financial drain on his investment property. It has become a money pit.
Mitigating Losses With Tighter Security
What could have limited the exposure of this property to vandalism and the severity of the loss? With the exception of the mold, most of the nonredeemable casualties of the building could have been prevented by a security system which included intrusion detection, monitoring, and video surveillance. Not only do these systems offer a forensic record, they also offer a beneficial deterrent factor.
An investment of no more than $25,000, possibly much less, could have saved the property management company an easy $300,000 in losses. Additionally, the negative drain on the future value of this latent money could easily grow to a loss of $1 million dollars or more. The property might sit for another four years without a suitor.
Seven Security Components to Manage Risk
Security considerations should include the following:
  1. Perimeter electronic detection of rooftops and outbuildings containing the mechanical equipment
  2. Interior motion detection systems
  3. Glass break monitoring devices
  4. Prominent video surveillance cameras
  5. 24/7 monitoring services to interface with local law enforcement authorities and building owners
  6. Controlled lighting (interior and exterior) monitored by a nighttime security company
  7. Quarterly fire alarm inspections
This is not an exhaustive list. Property owners will have to decide what makes the most sense in terms of risk management. The cost of doing nothing, or too little, however, can be devastating.
Todd Thompson
The article originally appeared as Seven Ways to Manage Vacant Buildings Risk on Risk Management Monitor.  

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Next Up, A True Crime Book in the Medical Field

My next writing task is to provide a book review for Steven Berk's Anatomy of a Kidnapping.  It is a story touted to be a "must read" for medical students and new doctors.  Having a nephew in medical residency and a niece working as a hospitalist, I was interested in the book.  It also returns me to one of my favorite genres of True Crime.  I'm looking forward to finishing it up this weekend.

Review: The Little Girl of the Favela, by M.K. Bates

New novelist, M.K. Bates of London, after spending his professional life as an accountant, makes his debut with this ambitious plot about a young Brazilian woman who grows up in a "favela," a term drawn from "fava beans," which denotes a hillside community outside of Rio de Janeiro.  There are an estimated 750 favelas outside Rio today.

Pilar possesses psychic powers passed on to her from her grandmother.  Worldly at a young age because of the harsh settings of the favela with its crime and drug culture, Pilar finds herself in England Bates pictureworking as an escort where it is her good fortune to meet the main male character, Shaun, rebounding from a brief relationship with a German academician, Christiana, who has a secret past working in the porn industry.

Shaun, an entrepreneur, through a lucrative business deal, sells his company and is financially set for life at a relatively young age.  Lonely, somewhat bored, and coming off his relationship in Hamburg with Christiana, decides to seek out the companionship of an escort from the agency for whom Pilar is their top-rated call girl.  Pilar enters the picture, and Christiana will return later in one of the major plot twists that locks in the reader until it is resolved in the climax.

The story moves between Brazil, Germany, and London, with rapid pace, marking the key points of the plot path.  Intrigue, sex, violence, and cultural navigation are key themes in Bates' novel.  Readers will enjoy a balance of these themes throughout the reading of this 266-page book.

At times, The Little Girl of the Favela may put in the reader's mind the style of Hemingway with its brevity in descriptive passages.  The characters are developed primarily through dialogue.  Reader preferences will determine whether the dialogue carries the burden well enough.  Those who like deeper narrative texturing of characters and plot may be disappointed.

Some of the more enjoyable passages in the book are those which allude to the psychic powers of Pilar.  There is a level of mystique in her character that intensifies the plot at points, often yielding the novel's most passionate moments.  Margaret Craven's I Heard the Owl Call My Name came to mind frequently during my reading because of its mystical quality.

An ambitious plot that succeeds in achieving the reader's interest, though sometimes lacking in depth, moves quickly, ends well, and begs for a sequel.

Article first appeared as Book Review: The Little Girl of the Favelaby M.K. Bates on Blogcritcs.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Reviews on Review, The Rogue

My recent review of Joe McGinniss' book, The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin, has done what I predicted in the small confines of my readership.  In the article I wrote the following in my concluding remarks:
The polarization which marks the life of Sarah Palin as she performs on the national stage is not narrowed by this book. It will add to that polarization, not by fabrication or biased authorship, but by McGinniss lifting the veil behind which both the Palin supporters and her opponents view her performance presently. Those who oppose her now will oppose her more. Those who support her now will continue to build a Palin apologetic that will serve their own self-deception further. Some of the supporters will quietly move to the other side because rationality will require it. Some will remain in her camp but would be relieved if she would simply "go away" from the spotlight. Others will stand firm in their support because of their admiration of her style, rather than her substance. Still others will stand firm in their support of her because she represents a blended ideology of religion and political power that does not normally reach this level of notoriety before it dies under the weight of human ethics and the undeniability of American pluralism.
I originally posted the article on Blogcritics, but once published there I always copy it to my ToddTSays blog and then to the Amazon Customer Reviews. Normally, the books I read and review are about subjects far less volatile than is Sarah Palin. This one has generated a lot more heat than my usually sedate reviews have had in the past. On Amazon, the "helpful" votes have increased by about one per hour since it was first published on Sunday afternoon, September 25.  My previous "helpful" percentage was at 98%.  It's fallen to 87% as of this writing on Tuesday afternoon.

I don't write for approval, nor for "helpful."  I write because I read, and I read because I'm interested in perspectives and experiences beyond my own.  Both reading and writing help me in the process of learning.  Feedback tells me how I'm doing.  I'm happy with the results.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Top 25 North Texas Non-Profits Executive Compensation

This week, the Dallas Business Journal (September 16-22, 2011) posted a list of the top 25 executive salaries in non-profit businesses in North Texas. The numbers are shocking!

The figures on total compensation come from the most recent fiscal year reported, and they include salary, bonus, benefits, and the ambiguous “other.” Of the top 25, there are thirteen health care organizations, primarily the hospitals and facility networks that fall under the auspices of non-profit status.

The top compensation package belongs to the CEO of Texas Health Resources, a large and growing network of medical facilities, currently owning 24 hospitals in the area. The compensation for the CEO with Texas Health Resources is reported to be $5,716,724, which includes a salary alone of over $5 million, and over one-half million in the category of “other.”

The total revenue for THR in the same time period was $334,944,000. In other words the CEO’s compensation equals about 1.7% of the organization’s total revenue. If you went to a THR hospital last year, and you and your insurance company were billed $10,000 for a short stay, Mr. CEO himself was paid $170 of it. This is a new definition of “obscene.” It also represents one decent paying 8-hour day of wages ($21.25/hr). And, this is just one example of one short-stay billing for one patient.

Texas Health Resources can also tout, if they want to show off their numbers, having positions five and fourteen on the DBJ top 25 list. Together, just among the top 25 executive salaries, THR paid out in total compensation of almost $7.5 million. This is roughly equivalent to the salaries of 43 U.S. Senators or 300 regular jobs at $25,000 annual salary. Swallow hard, and look at this next example!

Baylor Health Care System is one of the area’s most highly regarded medical operations. It is heard often, “If you ever get really sick, go to Baylor.” The DBJ top 25 list includes six executives within the Baylor system. The total compensation of these six executives is reportedly $4.85 million, roughly equivalent to the salaries of 28 more U.S. Senators.

Other Medical Facilities and Systems

Other top 25 executive salaries within the general category of health care are employed by Children’s Medical Center, Cook Children’s, and Methodist Hospitals of Dallas. Through the organizations of these five entities, including the aforementioned two, one would suppose, is the majority of health care distributed to citizens of North Texas. It is safe to assume, based on the THR statistic cited above, that one dollar out of every one hundred dollars the citizens of North Texas pay in health care goes directly into the wallets of a relative handful of executives.

It should also be mentioned, since we’re focusing on health care, that number 21 on the top 25 list is the President and CEO of the Dallas-Fort Worth Hospital Council whose total compensation is listed as $451,156. Sitting on the ledger beside revenue of $2.99 million, this chief executive receives about 15% of the fees and services they receive from member organizations, such as hospitals and other medical facilities.

The Dallas-Fort Worth Hospital Council describes their mission as (from their website):
• Creating innovative solutions through collaboration and coordination of efforts;
• Serving as advocates for day-to-day issues that affect hospitals, while balancing the demands of the region with state and national issues;
• Providing the most accurate, timely and comprehensive information to our members and other constituents; and,
• Improving the workforce numbers in our region.
Advocacy sounds a lot like lobbying. Guess who sits on their governing board? There are thirteen regional hospital executives who make up this board of trustees. Ten of the thirteen are in positions as CEO or president of their hospitals.

It’s Not Just Health Care

While health care executives dominate the DBJ’s top 25 list, there are some notable surprises: the Boy Scouts of America (#4 at over $1.2 million), Carter Blood Care (#6, the only woman in the top 10, $1.05 million), three institutions of higher education, the American Heart Association, the United Way, the YMCA of Metropolitan Dallas, The State Fair of Texas, two performing arts organizations, and the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Altogether, the top 25 executive compensation packages amount to $26.5 million per year. This would roughly fund the entire salaries of the President of the United States, all 100 U.S. senators, and about 10% of the U.S. House of Representatives.

An Idea

It does not make sense that non-profits can pay this kind of money to top executives without being subject to the corporate taxation that for-profit companies must pay. It is a poor reflection on what it means to be charitable. It is UN-charitable and greedy. No, beyond that, it is shameful.

Many people believe that it is not the top executives who really get things done. Many of them are said to be the visionaries of the organization, the spiritual leaders, but how much should be paid for vision?

It is commonly believed that it is the number two’s and three’s, and the executive secretaries, who manage to make their organizations run effectively, that is, when they get out of the way of the mid-managers and lower-tiered employees who actually meet their customers.

So, what about this? Dismiss the top 25 executives in North Texas, let the two’s and three’s and the people who really get things done run these non-profit organizations, and use all that saved money to fund the Washington politicians’ salaries.

And, if some of the other regions in Texas, and maybe even other states, would pitch in on the same basis, maybe we could throw in the Cabinet and the salaries of the top bureaucrats in Washington who in spite of their alleged regulations are not really regulating much of anything in non-profit organizations.

Article first published as Executive Compensation in Non-Profit Organizations on Blogcritics.