Right on: the only museum dedicated entirely to human rights

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Technology and hands-on exhibits make the Canadian Museum for Human Rights accessible for visitors of all ages

When I last visited family in the city of Winnipeg, Canada, I had the opportunity to do a tour of the outside of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR), as it was not yet opened for the public. On this visit, 2 years later, this one-of-a-kind museum located at the Forks — the meeting place of the Assiniboine (east-west) and Red (north-south) Rivers is now hosting over 800 paid visitors per day.

Canadian Museum for Human Rights

The CMHR — not my photo

I found the idea to be unique — important and intriguing, although I was very skeptical before seeing the exhibits. My childhood in Canada had caused me to anticipate a very back-slapping and self-righteous museum, in which Canadians would denounce others and proudly announce their own commitments to human rights, without mentioning the many failures. I was wrong.

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A display seen from one of the many alabaster bridges that work their way up the building.

The CMHR is not perfect — but no museum is. However, it makes a sincere attempt to reconcile Canada’s past with its many errors. These include, but are not limited to the assignment of First Nations’ children to Christian religious boarding schools over the past 100 years (indeed, until the 1990s) — what was conceived as an attempt to remove any traces of native Canadian First Nation culture. Also included was a serious discussion of Canada’s abysmal record of turning away immigrants (mostly Jews) who had managed to escape from Nazi Germany during the 2nd World War. Many of these immigrants ended up returning to the shores of Europe only to die in Hitler’s gas chambers.

In the history book “None is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe 1933-1948” the authors address Frederick Blair — the head of Canadian immigration — who reportedly was asked how many Jews would be allowed into Canada as refugees after the war — and his answer was “None is too many.”

The museum is unique in that it is focused mostly on personal stories — victims and heroes — and typically shies away from too much emphasis on blame. More important is the attempt to understand how the violation of human rights led to atrocities, and how this could have been stopped.

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An exhibit hall on the 3rd floor

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Women’s rights. 50% of the population, and many countries

Women’s rights are an incredibly important part of the exhibits — and the problems presented are not limited to third-world countries. The museum does not shy away from showing western commercials and advertisements that present women in a demeaning manor — ads for shoes and clothes and fashion models. Seen as part of a gradient of sexism, this is very compelling.

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Very few women in Saudi Arabia are permitted to drive

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Interactive displays have movies and stories on a multitude of human rights issues

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The Holocaust and at least 11 documented recent atrocities

Reading about the museum, I was informed that there were demonstrations by certain communities against the museum for its “unequal exhibits.” I read that some members of the Canadian Ukrainian community felt that the Holocaust received ‘too much’ attention as opposed to the Holodom0r, the man-made famine forced upon Ukrainians by the Soviets in the pre-WWII era, where anywhere between 2-7 million people perished.

The Holodomor was presented as part of a permanent exhibit that includes 11 horrific atrocities in the 20th century. The Holocaust received its own exhibit. Part of the complaints, as I have been informed, stem from the fact that a wealthy Jewish donor contributed a lot of money to the museum, and there is/was a perception that this may have influenced the museum’s content. While any human suffering is horrible, I do feel that the Holocaust deserves special treatment, as it was a very unique situation. Not land disputes or fighting between tribes — but rather an entirely scientific plan to murder millions of people — even at the expense of losing the war. Nothing like this has ever been perpetrated on humankind, and understanding how this could have occurred really does deserve special attention.

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View of the city and into French-speaking St. Boniface from the CMHR tower

In summary — I strongly recommend to anyone who has an opportunity — if they end up in the middle of nowhere in central Canada — to visit the CMHR. Well worth a full day’s visit, and should be a must for every school child.

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Who the hell will tell me who my father really was?!

This angry question, uttered repeatedly by the protagonist of Bualem Sansal‘s courageous and thought-provoking novel, translated into English as “The German Mujahid,” has been permanently etched in my brain.

The story follows the day-to-day chaos in the life of Malrich, a young and poorly educated Algerian immigrant in a Parisian housing project. Malrich is reeling from the depression and suicide of his older brother–all the more shocking because his brother (Rachel) was a well-paid engineer for a multi-national corporation who had apparently integrated seamlessly into French society. The key to the tragedy lay in Rachel’s journal.

In the course of the novel, the reader is exposed to the deadly radical Islamic fundamentalism that has become rampant in the housing projects, along with the deadly massacres of the Algerian civil war–in which Malrich’s parents were murdered along with dozens of others in their small village. Simultaneously, Rachel’s diary brings to light an insufferable secret that neither Rachel not Malrich can bear–the father of German descent that they loved  (who had moved to Algeria after World War II) had been a chemical engineer at Auschwitz charged with enhancing the efficiency of gassing Jews to death.

Having read many books focused on the Holocaust, I am still recovering from the chilling  accounts of how mass murder could be coldly turned into an engineering problem–getting the maximum number of dead Jews for the minimum of Zyclon B gas–whether more efficient in cooler or warmer weather, and what height the roof of the gas chamber should be for maximum efficacy. This is an unforgettable novel, for anyone able to stomach the descriptions.

Infused with humanity (and despite his self-described simplicity), street-wise Malrich embodies Sansal’s courage, and is unwilling to bow to the Algerian authorities or the fundamentalists. At the same time, he is also unwilling to accept that his father participated in the largest scale and most organized genocide ever known to mankind–hence the repeated cries: “Who the hell will tell me who my father really was?!

Sansal is a rare author who stands out in his tremendous personal courage, drawing parallels between today’s Jihadists and yesterday’s Nazi’s. The symbolism is clear: the Nazi engineer murdered by the wake of fundamental Islamicists represents the turning tide and new world order. This novel by Sansal, an Algerian native, has been described as the first attempt by an Arab author to address the horrors of the Holocaust, but this is not mere lip service; it is one of the most impacting books I have read. Given Sansal’s moral compass, I will be on the lookout for anything he writes.

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Being an expert in (membrane) recycling has perks!

This morning I awoke to the following email (and yes, “OMICS” does it again):

Dear Dr. Steve Caplan,

Greetings of the day. Hope you are doing well.

The purpose of this letter is to invite you to be an eminent speaker at  the World Congress and Expo on Recycling during July 20-22, 2015 at Barcelona, Spain.  The main theme of the conference is “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle for a better tomorrow” which covers a broad array of vitally key sessions.

We came across your contribution entitled  Novel Functions for the Endocytic Regulatory Proteins MICAL-L1 and EHD1 in Mitosis published in the Traffic and thought your expertise would be an excellent fit for Recycling Expo-2015 Conference.

For more details please visit: http://recycling.omicsgroup.com/

We welcome you to be a part of this exciting Recycling Expo-2015 Conference as a Speaker (Oral & Poster)

Kindly contact us for any sort of further assistance.

Have a Great Day Doctor!!

With Regards,
David Culver
Recycling Expo-2015
Environmental  Conferences
5716 Corsa Ave, Suite110
Westlake, Los Angeles
CA-91362-7354, USA
Tel: +1-888-843-8169
Mail : recyclingexpo@omicsgroup.com

I have to admit, this is a new level of sophistication: to “come across” my paper on endocytic regulatory proteins and mitosis, and connect this with environmental recycling. Painstaking research on the part of the organizing committee.

While it sure would be nice to be invited (as an eminent speaker) to Barcelona, I fear that the eminent environmental recycling speakers might be bored to tears hearing about endocytic recycling. So alas, I must decline my emminency…

 

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Paying for peer review? No thanks, I’m outta here…

I spent Friday traveling west of Omaha to the University of Nebraska at Kearney, in of course, Kearney, Nebraska–about 3 hours west of Omaha. The University of Nebraska has 4 major campuses: 1) The University of Nebraska Medical Center (where I work, here in Omaha), 2) The University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO, mostly undergraduate and also in Omaha), 3) The University of Nebraska at Lincoln (UNL–this is the major undergraduate campus and center of the university), and 4) The University of Nebraska at Kearney (UNK).

I had been to Kearney several times before, most notably to see the sandhill crane migration (note you can see a photo of them at the top of this blog!), but this was my first time at UNK, and I enjoyed meeting colleagues, delivering a seminar and talking about art and science over beer at the science cafe. As the beer was good, and the hour late, I stayed overnight before striking out on my way back to Omaha this morning. Before leaving, I noticed an email that arrived in my inbox from a fellow scientist who also serves on the editorial board of “Scientific Reports,” an online open access journal from the Nature publishing group.

Reading the email, I learned of a very strange situation brought about by the journal: they are planning to open a new review track in which authors would pay to have their manuscripts reviewed within 3 weeks. I found that the publishing company likens this to paying for “expedited mail.” This, however, is a poor analogy, to say the least.

The journal intends to use a third-party-provider called “Rubriq” which seems to be a business that “pre-reviews” manuscripts that scientists intend to submit to actual journals, to help authors prepare for submission. Truthfully, I don’t know anyone in my field who would ever pay for such a service. However, it turns out that they are now expanding to provide reviews for Scientific Reports–at least for those authors who pay for the expedited service.

There are many ethical problems with this proposition. First, having a third-party group circumvent the regular editorial board is already wrong. It sets up two separate review entities–one for those who pay, and one for those who don’t. Second, there is no transparency for this Rubriq company. Unlike the general editorial board, they do not list reviewers who have expertise in specific fields, and this is entirely contrary to scientific ethics. Then, there is the issue of pay-for-review. To speed up peer review, the reviewers (chosen by the third-party) will be compensated. But if these reviewers are compensated, then why would any of the current editors and reviewers agree to continue volunteering their valuable time and effort to review without compensation? None of this makes any sense.

Needless to say, I signed the letter sent to me by email, but went one step further. I tendered my resignation from the editorial board and marked a large “X” by this journal. There may be many positive changes that lie ahead in the science publishing business, but this proposed change leads nowhere that I want to go.

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Sweet Serendipitous Science

One of the best arguments for supporting basic science is that serendipitous discoveries — those not necessarily outlined in a grant proposal — have always been key to scientific progress. Many of us who lobby for basic science like to use the wonderful example of penicillin, whose discovery was attributed to Alexander Fleming, who noticed that a substance from the mold Penecillium rubens inhibited the growth of staphylococcus bacteria. The ‘serendipity’ derives from the fact that for Fleming the mold growth was an unintended contamination of his bacterial plates — but of course this turned out to be far more important than the original experimental goals –whatever they were.

However, the era of serendipitous scientific discovery has not disappeared — although the continued dismal state of funding for basic science may eventually cause this to occur. But rather than dwell on these stark thoughts, I’d rather celebrate another recent serenditious discovery with high potential that has come to my attention.

As I opened my copy of “Newsweek” this weekend, I found myself reading an interesting article by Andrew P. Han (@HanAndrewP). This article discusses the serendipitous discovery of a relatively rare sugar known as allulose or d-Psicose — or more accurately, the finding by Japanese researcher Ken Izumori of an enzyme that can rearrange atoms to convert fructose into allulose. Almost every organic molecule has a mirror image molecule (known as “handedness” or chirality), and while their chemical composition is identical, and they have similar levels of ‘sweetness,’ allulose has one tenth of the calories of fructose and is largely excreted in our urine. While rare in nature, it exists in at least one plant, and during baking of foods with fructose small amounts of allulose are made.

The bottom line is that allulose shows tremendous potential for being a “sugar substitute” (substitute for glucose and fructose), which could replace these common sugars and perhaps do a lot less damage to western populations that have rampant levels of obesity and diabetes.

This is great news. Wonderful, in fact. But it’s necessary to point out that Dr. Ken Izumori, who spent decades studying rare sugars, explicitly notes in the article that he did so out of pure interest and curiosity in understanding the basic science of sugars. His goal was not to revolutionize the sugar industry or cure obesity-related diseases and diabetes, but rather to better understand the world in which we live. So, for those who aren’t getting it, it’s time to take note. Again and again. Major advances are likely to come by serendipitous findings by clever researchers who are driven by curiosity and the achievement of first-rate basic science. These advances will continue to come, until the well dries up. Then we will be left with all the scientists who can ‘translate’ these advances, but without anything to translate, science will sour.

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Cheating in science — and life

Not too long ago, one of my teenagers brought up an age-old ethical issue that recurs and festers, and at least theoretically, provides an opportunity for open discussion on “what do we want out of life?”

The issue at stake, is of course, cheating at school, university and life. And how do honest kids and adults deal with it, knowing that cheaters so often seemingly benefit from their actions, and rarely get caught or punished.

The issue was brought up regarding math and formula memorization, and reminded me of a very similar situation in undergraduate physics. At the time, our professor insisted that the students should be responsible for memorizing an entire page-worth of formulae. As a professor now myself, I abhor this practice of forced memorization — yes there are always a select number of concepts and terms that must be understood — but memorization of formulae is, to my thinking, a complete waste of time. Time that could and should better be spent learning to solve problems.

Of the ~250 students in my undergraduate physics class, I know that many simply made formula lists — so did I, in order to waste my time memorizing them. But others put those lists in their pockets, and in the course of a 3 h exam, excused themselves to the restroom to peek at the formulae when the need came up. To the best of my knowledge, no one ever was caught. What would the university do, escort the students into the bathroom stalls? Strip the students down to their underclothing and beyond to ensure they don’t hide cheat notes on their bodies, like a prison search? Unthinkable.

Despite warnings about the dire consequences of being caught, it seems that cheating is rampant in high school and university. And I don’t mean just the run-of-the-mill type of “Dear Student: should your granny die before the midterm exam” cheating described by Stacey Patton in The Chronicle of Higher Education.” I mean real, bona fide cheating during an exam.

I witnessed this not just in undergraduate physics with the silly memorization of formulae; one time, in a chemistry exam, I sat next to the class brainiac. The student who always got the highest grade on every exam, in every course. I was in awe of this student who always ended up at the very top of ~250 students, and it didn’t matter what field: organic chemistry, calculus, physical chemistry, computer programming. It was a remarkable feat. And then one day, I sat near him during an exam. After the first 15-20 minutes, he turned to me and whispered “What did you get on numbers 6, 9 and 10?” I was in shock. Why was he asking me? I had always been a very good student, but this guy was #1! Why would he even trust my answers, even if it had been ethical to ask?

I realized that it wasn’t just me that he asked, but that he did a nice sampling of people around — most of whom were in his study group. So unlike what most people envision, the cheating that goes on does not make a poor student get an “A” on an exam; it makes an “A-” get an “A” or an “A” student get the highest “A” or “A+.” The rich get richer through cheating.

Such cheating is not limited to high school or undergraduate education. I’ve witnessed cases of students who have written a graduate exam in pencil, and later erased their wrong answers and filled in a correct answer, followed by an appeal. Years ago, there was a case where a student was caught doing this, because the original exam had been scanned on a copier machine, so there was proof of alteration. But such cases are admittedly rare.

I’ve heard that medical schools frequently break up their exams into ‘bite-size portions’ to prevent the restroom issues. In other words, a 3 h exam might be broken into four 45 min. segments, with a short bathroom break after each segment, but the students are not able to go back to previous segments (even if they finish another segment before their 45 min. is done). To me, this seems like a reasonable approach.

But none of these trips down memory lane help me to answer my child’s question and address how  a responsible adult responds to a youth who raises such an issue. What do I say?

Life, I say, isn’t fair. From where we are born, with what parents we are given, gene endowments, socio-economic situation, etc. And cheating is another aspect that isn’t fair, and we see it in day to day life, at all levels. There will always be the cheaters who will get ahead — perhaps even benefit from a scholarship and praise that they do not deserve — but you, as an honest person, will go farther in the long run. And most importantly, you will do so based on integrity and merit, and with a 100% clear conscience. But remember also, that if you choose to go into the sciences — and it seems that there is a good chance for that — once the academics and exams are done, your career will be based on integrity, and how rigorous and repeatable your work is. Your name will ultimately be made by doing honest science.

And that’s the best I could do — although I wish I could do more…

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Moved to poetry by….OMICS

Yes, the unfunny joke of a company called OMICS has moved me. Debating between tears and poetry, I opted for the latter, writing my “Epic Omics Limmerick,” provoked by the email pasted below.

Here is my verse:

There once was a dodgy company named Omics

Who pulled scientists names out of phone books

When they offered to Steve

To publish something no one would believe

He told them they were all a bunch o’ predatory crooks

And the email (and just to be clear, I have no connection to cardiovascular pharmacology research — if I wrote a treatise on Old Norse Mythology they would probably publish it as long as it was accompanied by a check or money order):

Dear Dr. Caplan,

Hope you are doing well

We wonder if you could write a Research, review, short review or a short commentary for the Cardiovascular Pharmacology: Open Access.

It would be great if you could submit by March 27th 2015 so that we could process it for the next Issue.

If it is not feasible for you, then please let us know your feasible time to contribute.

To submit the paper as an e-mail attachment to the Editorial Office at editor.cpo@omicsonline.org

Please provide me your acceptance for the same!

We will be waiting for your positive mail.

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Let’s just call it “ideology”

The recent murderous terror attacks in Paris at the weekly “Charlie Hebdo” magazine office and the Kosher supermarket — as well as the policewoman who was killed in the street — probably elicited the same emotions in me that they did for many people around the globe. Horror, sadness, and varying forms of anger. While the horror and sadness likely form a strong consensus for anyone who follows the news, the “anger” is a much more complex issue.

First, against whom is the anger to be directed? The terrorists and their collaborators and affiliates, certainly. From the masses of articles I have read, there is little sympathy in free countries for the murder of journalists, however provocative or offensive their publications may be to some.

Much more complex is the responsibility/role of religion in instigating terror–in this case, specifically the Islamic religion. Most people bearing a liberal world view (and I rank myself, generally, among them), come out vociferously opposed to blaming an entire religion, numbering greater than 1.5 billion people and close to one quarter of the population of the globe. And while I generally agree, I do so with certain reservations — I will return to them shortly.

Just for argument’s sake, I’ll note neither the enormous numbers of followers nor the fact that Islam is such a widespread religion present a meaningful or valid rationale for not blaming the religion. After all, 500 years ago the Catholic Church in Europe — the most organized religion of the time — ruthlessly tortured and murdered Jews who would not convert or leave the Iberian peninsula. During this time (and much later), all the “advanced countries” were involved in the African slave trade. And years later, Nazi Germany and the Third Reich that implemented the “Final Solution” for the Jews, was supported by staggering numbers of people. So there is no safety in numbers, at least from an ethical standpoint.

However, it is clear that the 1.57 billion people spread across the globe are not collectively responsible for these murderous attacks, and I have no doubt that the vast majority of this enormous number of people are sickened and outraged at what is being done in the name of their religion. At the same time, one cannot ignore the elephant in the room. The terrorists in France, the coffee-shop killer in Australia, the beheader in Britain, and the recent murders in Ottawa as well as the Boston Marathon killers last year in the US all claimed to have carried out their murderous agendas in the name of religion. Not politically correct to blame a religion? Ok, let’s call it an ideology — an ideology of murder in the name of religion.

There is, and should be responsibility taken for the tacit support of extremist and murderous ideology. As New York Times columnist Tom Friedman pointed out in his Jan. 13 Op-Ed entitled ‘We Need Another Giant Protest,’  there is ambivalence in Europe about the question of what host countries should demand from new Muslim immigrants with regard to adopting western values. He further notes that “Islam has no Vatican” so that there are no single sources of religious authority — leaving some extremist forms of Islam (such as the Wahhabi/Salafi/jihadist one) to argue their authenticity; these extremist forms of ideology, according to Friedman, have not an insignificant degree of support — both in numbers and from states such as Saudi Arabia and others. By Friedman’s account, oil-addicted countries including the US and European states, need to combat this ideology and not tacitly support it as a result of addiction to their oil.

But what can be done to fight this radical ideology creeping into the mosques of Paris, London and Detroit? On Jan. 15, US National Public Radio journalist Terry Gross interviewed Maajid Nawaz, a former extremist Muslim converter — who spent 4 years in a Cairo jail — and is now running for parliament in the UK as a liberal democrat. Nawaz, who wrote an autobiographical book entitled ‘Radical: my journey out of Islamist extremism,’ advocates that the way to counter the recruitment of disenfranchised youth into radical extremist ideology is to make it “uncool.” He makes the comparison to communism, noting how today’s youth are not drawn to communist ideology because it’s unattractive — and that the same thing has to be done for radical Islamist ideology — it needs to be made unattractive.

So while it certainly is unjust to generalize and blame all Muslims and Islamic religion for the waves or terror carried out by murderous sectarian ideologies (often in the name of that religion), it would also be wrong to ignore the elephant in the room. History has shown that almost all religions and empires have thrived on slavery, xenophobia and unethical conduct (to say the least). It is now time to put ‘political correctness’ aside and address the issue of radical Islam. It is a serious problem, and not insignificant. And as both Nawaz and Friedman have noted, much can be done to combat the ideology of death and murder.

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Going against the grain—or rather corn

For better or for worse, US College athletics are an integral part of US society. However, maintaining a spirit of good sportsmanship should be an essential part of any athletic program.

College sports have a huge impact on US universities; for example, the sports network ESPN published that in 2008, the #1 ranked US college football team, the Alabama Crimson Tide, brought in revenues of over $123,000,000, and for 2013, USA Today published that #1 Texas brought in over $165,000,000. That’s not small change, and it helps explain how at most universities, the top paid employee is usually not the university president, chancellor, deans or even medical school brain surgeons – no, it is frequently the football coach.

But the influence of college athletics is not a mere function of money. Coming from the outside, it might be hard for anyone to imagine how much impact college sports have on US society as a whole. When I arrived in the US, it was to the National Institutes of Health that I went for post-doctoral studies, and given that there are so many universities in the DC area, and a large population that supports a variety of professional sports teams, I was practically unexposed to America’s love of college sports. That came only when I moved to Nebraska.

Arriving in the American Midwest in 2003, I realized that not only was Omaha the geographic center of the US (north-south and east-west), but it is also rather isolated from other large population centers. And despite nearly a million people in the metro area, Omaha is not large enough to support professional sports teams – meaning that college sports fill an important void and take on a special emphasis here.

To illustrate how seriously Nebraskans regard college football, I will describe my first Saturday here in Omaha. I drove around the city, interested in learning more about the different areas, and what it has to offer. I couldn’t understand why there was no traffic, and the overall feel was that of a ghost-town. Of course I later learned that the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers college football team had a home game in Lincoln (where the major undergraduate campus is) about 50 miles away, and Omahans were either at the game or watching on television.

Admittedly, I am not a fan myself; I understand the desire to support local teams and take pride in their athletic accomplishments, but between my job running a research lab – and the ever-increasing package of obligations that goes with that – I simply do not have the time or interest to follow sports. But in Nebraska, to be unaware of the plight of the Cornhuskers would be like shunning society. It’s simply not done. So one should at least be aware of the team’s overall situation and prepared for pleasant discourse.

For this reason in recent years I have noted with concern some of the rather unfortunate behavior of Nebraska’s recently fired head football coach, Mr. Bo Pelini. Mr. Pelini has been taped a number of times lashing out at disappointed fans and sports writers, using expletives and profane language. It’s unclear to me the reason why the administration has been so tolerant about these very unsportsmanlike episodes – that certainly don’t reflect the intended integrity of the academic world, but I suspect that an overall winning record may have prevented the coach from being disciplined earlier.

In any case, Mr. Pelini was finally fired by the athletic director a few weeks ago, and despite earning a base salary of ~$3 million over the past 7-8 years and receiving a rather generous severance package which reportedly reaches $7.9 million (apparently dependent on whether he finds another high paying job over the next 51 months), he was shortly thereafter allegedly audiotaped cursing the Nebraska administration for his predicament.

A professional football player who played for Nebraska several years ago under Mr. Pelini noted recently:

On Bo Pelini’s impact on the program: “The focus of Nebraska football was no longer on the ‘N’ on the helmet or the kids but on the face of the coach spitting out f-bombs and swinging hats at referees like a toddler who left the store without a toy.”

He went on to say that:

I’m not sure what the win/loss ratio will be early on (with a new coach) but I can assure you I won’t feel like we are losing even when we are winning.”

And this sums up the essence of the problem; sports may be big business, and perhaps in the US, where one’s salary often denotes respect by the community at large, college sports will always rank higher than academics and science on the university scale. But I absolutely draw the line at having unsportsmanlike leaders of young college athletes – football coaches who curse fans and the administration. Regretfully, in the meantime I see that another college has already hired Mr. Pelini, in spite of his behavior. I would expect more of universities and academic institutions.

 

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Empathy, stereotypes and Merry Christmas

Around this time of year, I find myself in public places like grocery stores constantly be wished “Merry Christmas.” This, of course, does not at all bother me (although being Jewish I recognize the significance of the holiday, I do not celebrate Christmas), and my standard response is “Merry Christmas to you, too.” Emails in late December from colleagues who do not know that I am Jewish often express similar sentiments, although typically a more generic “Happy Holidays” sometimes replaces the more specific Christmas wishes.

My reason for not explaining that I am Jewish is unrelated to a fear of anti-Semitism but is purely pragmatic; I am often on my way out the door when the greeting is called out — and what does it matter, anyway? The whole intention was from a well-wisher, and does it matter how it was expressed?

All these thoughts brought me to a little experience that I had a few weeks ago, walking my dog Ginger through the neighborhood and down a little gully toward a hiker-biker path. On this Sunday morning, I passed a couple that I assumed were probably in their early 70s. The woman was wearing a traditional sari, and I assumed that the couple was likely from India. While Omaha is definitely becoming a much more cosmopolitan city, admittedly, my neighborhood out in the western suburbs is not especially diverse. I passed them, greeted them with a “good morning” and continued on my way.

As I walked on, it occurred to me that as I was thinking to myself that it’s great that the neighborhood is showing more diversity, with more African Americans and Indians, the couple I passed could be similarly stereotyping me. A large “white”/Caucasian male is par for the course in Nebraska. And while I am not large, perhaps in comparison with the Indian couple I appeared to be. Next, Nebraskan natives are definitely dog lovers, and a huge proportion of households have a dog (or more than one). Often the dogs are large ones, such as Labrador retrievers — and Ginger is a large dog.

So all in all, it wouldn’t be a stretch for the couple to look at old Steve (and if they knew my name, that might be another hint at a typical Nebraskan native) and figure that I was probably born, raised and lived all my life here. And wouldn’t that be a joke!

So next time someone wishes me a “Merry Christmas” perhaps I should wonder whether they necessarily celebrate Christmas themselves, or are merely saying it for my benefit…

In any case, to the best of my knowledge, Merry Christmas to all of YOU!

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