Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Mensch of Malden Mills

We've heard the Enrons of the world file for bankruptcy. Massachussets based Malden Mills did the same -- but for entirely different reasons. In 1995, when the Malden Mills caught fire, the CEO and owner of the family run business decided to continue to pay his thousands of idled workers for a full six months! It was a decision that ended up bankrupting the three generation old company, but Aaron Feuerstein, the CEO and owner, says: "Maybe on paper our company is worthless to Wall Street, but I can tell you it's worth more." Watch this inspiring video as Aaron shares his rationale for making the ethical choice.

Would You Help A Little Lost Robot?

In New York, we are very occupied with getting from one place to another. On the way, imagine you encounter a tiny, cardboard skinned robot making its own way down the streets of New York City, asking for help. Would you help this lost little robot?

Tweenbots are human-dependent robots that navigate the city with the help of pedestrians they encounter. Rolling at a constant speed, in a straight line, Tweenbots have a destination displayed on a flag, and rely on people they meet to read this flag and to aim them in the right direction to reach their goal.

Given their extreme vulnerability and the possibility that no one would be interested in helping a lost little robot, I initially conceived the Tweenbots as disposable creatures which were more likely to struggle and die in the city than to reach their destination. I set out on the first test with a video camera (see link to video below) hidden in my purse and walked far enough away that I would not be observed.

The results were unexpected.

Over the course of the following months, throughout numerous missions, the Tweenbots were successful in rolling from their start point to their far-away destination assisted only by strangers. Every time the robot got caught under a park bench, ground futilely against a curb, or became trapped in a pothole, some passerby would always rescue it and send it toward its goal. Never once was a Tweenbot lost or damaged. One man even turned the robot back in the direction from which it had just come, saying out loud to the Tweenbot, "You can’t go that way, it’s toward the road.”

The Tweenbot’s unexpected presence in the city created an unfolding narrative that spoke to the power of a simple technological object to create a complex network powered by human intelligence and asynchronous interactions. But of more interest to me was the fact that this ad-hoc crowdsourcing was driven primarily by human empathy for an anthropomorphized object. The journey the Tweenbots take each time they are released in the city becomes a story of people's willingness to engage with a creature that mirrors human characteristics of vulnerability, of being lost, and of having intention without the means of achieving its goal alone.

--posted by hiteshee on May 17, 2009

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Sport's Genuine Good Guys

GOOD deeds on the sports field are rare these days. Even so, another one emerged last weekend when an old friend of mine, Ian Chadband of the Daily Telegraph, told the splendid tale of the unwanted Olympic silver medal from the men's 200 metres at last year's Olympic Games in Beijing.The medal was won by the 2004 champion, the American Shawn Crawford, who had crossed the line in fourth place only to benefit from the disqualification of two of the three men in front of him.
Usain Bolt won the race in a world record time but the third place finisher Wallace Spearmon of the United States was the first to be disqualified for running out of his lane.
In turn, the Americans appealed against the second place finisher Churandy Martina of the Netherlands Antilles who had committed the same transgression. He too was thrown out.
But Crawford found it all rather unseemly. And eight days later on the eve of the Weltklasse meeting in Zurich, Martina received an unusual present.
Delivered to the reception of his hotel in a spike bag was a red case and a note which read: "Churandy, I know this can't replace the moment, but I want you to have this because I believe it's rightfully yours – Shawn Crawford".
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Inside the case was the Olympic silver medal.
It's a deed that makes my top ten sporting gestures. Here, in no particular order, are the other nine.
The 1969 Ryder Cup at Royal Birkdale had not been played in the best of spirits. The home side had been largely responsible with the non-playing captain of the GB&I squad, Eric Brown, instructing his players not to help look for their opponents' balls in the rough.
But after three days of often bitter competition, the outcome hinged on two putts on the final green of the final singles match involving Jack Nicklaus and Tony Jacklin. First, the American holed his from four feet leaving Jacklin to make his from roughly half the distance to halve the match and ensure the first tie in Ryder Cup history.

Nicklaus conceded the putt and his words to Jacklin entered golfing folklore: "I didn't think you were going to miss that putt but I didn't want to give you the opportunity."
Football had never seen anything like it. August 2007, the City Ground, and the Carling Cup re-match between Forest and Leicester City. The first game had been abandoned when the Foxes' Ireland international Clive Clarke suffered a heart attack at half-time.
Clarke had to be revived twice by paramedics using a defibrillator after his heart stopped and efforts to use mouth-to-mouth resuscitation had failed. Forest were leading 1-0 at the time but swiftly agreed to the game's abandonment. Former Forest boss Gary Megson, then manager at City, earned plaudits with his gesture at the start of the second game.
Leicester players stood aside allowing Forest goalkeeper Paul Smith to take the ball from the kick-off and score allowing Forest to regain the advantage that they had when the original game was abandoned.
Australian athlete John Landy may have narrowly missed out on becoming the first sub four-minute mile but he will be remembered as the finest gentleman to have run the distance.
Two years after Roger Bannister's feat in Oxford, Landy was targeting an improvement of the world record at the 1956 Australian championships. The race was being led by another great distance runner, Ron Clarke, when he stumbled and fell.
As the rest of the field streamed past, Landy stopped, jogged back, and helped his rival back to his feet. Landy then got himself back into the race and, remarkably, won it. He missed the world record by just six seconds
Former West Ham footballer Paolo di Canio has political leanings that may not be to everyone's taste but his sense of fair play is one that virtually every current day Premier League player would do well to adopt.
It was December 2000 and the league game against Everton was drifting towards a 1-1 draw. But then, with moments left, the ball was swung in from the right and Di Canio was presented with an empty net into which it would have been a formality to head the winner.
Instead, having spotted the Everton goalkeeper Paul Gerrard lying injured on the ground, he caught it instead.
The 2003 Tour de France had reached a crucial point. It was the final climb to Luz-Ardiden in the Pyrenees and the two main protagonists, Lance Armstrong and Jan Ullrich, were clear of the peleton and scrapping for the yellow jersey.
Then Armstrong was clipped by a spectator and fell. Instead of kicking on up the climb, Ullrich stopped riding and waited for the American to remount. And once he was back on terms, the pair resumed racing again with Armstrong going on to take the stage and establish a winning margin with just five stages left.
The gesture was widely acknowledged as payback for an earlier good deed when, on a sharp Pyrenean descent, Ullrich plunged off the road and Armstrong denied himself the opportunity to make good his escape.
"What goes around comes around," Armstrong said, "because I waited for him on the Peyresourde climb when he had a serious crash two years ago, and I think Jan remembered."
Fencer Judy Guinness was just 21 when she represented Great Britain at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. Could she become Britain's first gold medalist in the sport?
She reached the last two in her discipline and, after a closely-contested final against Ellen Preis of Austria, was declared the winner by the judges. But the result was reversed when Guinness pointed out that the officials had missed two hits by her opponent. It cost the Briton the gold medal.
Bobby Jones was the greatest golfer of his generation. The American won 13 Majors between 1923 and 1930 and would have won 14 were it not for an incident in the first round of the 1925 US Open.
Having hit his drive into the rough at the 10th, Jones was addressing the ball when it moved fractionally. No one else noticed. But Jones called the infringement on himself and, with it, a one-shot penalty. Jones went on to lose the championship by one shot and, after being commended for his fine deed of sportsmanship, said: "You might as well praise a man for not breaking into banks."
At the 1936 Olympics – and with Adolf Hitler watching from high above in the daunting stadium – the black American athlete Jesse Owens was struggling in the long jump.
Twice already, Owens had over-stepped the board and was in danger of elimination. His main rival for the gold medal was the German Lutz Long who suggested to Owens that he recalculate his run-up. Owens took the advice and went on to take the title at the expense of the German.
"You can melt down all the medals and cups I have won," Owens said, "and they wouldn't be worth the plating on the 24-carat friendship I felt for Lutz Long at that moment."
Former New Zealand captain Jeremy Coney was an unremarkable Test cricketer but a great sport. He demonstrated this at the 1986 Lord's Test when England wicketkeeper Bruce French retired hurt after being felled by a bouncer delivered by his former Nottinghamshire team-mate Richard Hadlee.
When the Kiwis came to bat, French was still not well enough to resume. It was the Test when England used four 'keepers. First, Bill Athey took the gloves. But then Coney agreed to allow England to draft in 45-year-old Bob Taylor who was long retired but sitting not so very far away in a hospitality tent.
The former Derbyshire man did an admirable job for the rest of the day before – again with Coney's approval – the Hampshire keeper Bobby Parks was introduced the following morning to the game.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Pass on an Angel

Years ago, I was in a doctor’s office and saw a sign that said “Kindness. Pass it on!”
So I started doing more acts of kindness as often as I could. I was amazed at how much it brightens others’ lives.
One of my co-workers’ sister was sick. She shared with me one day how much her sister loved angels. I bought her two angels and gave them to her to give to her sister.
She did and she told me her sister was so happy. Just a small act of kindness.
Here are some ideas that were on that sign: give a flower; listen with your heart; visit a sick friend; clean a neighbor’s walk; say hello; call a lonely person; plant a tree; help carry a load; thank a teacher; leave a thank you note; let another go first; encourage a child; forgive mistakes; drive courteously; and share a smile.
— Melissa Jeffries-Deans, Greensboro

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Heart of Town

How one man proved that small kindnesses add up.
By Harry Stein

My family first encountered Wally Urtz, the gentle, self-effacing manager of our local supermarket, on a blustery day nearly 20 years ago just after we'd moved to Hastings-on-Hudson, a New York City suburb. As my wife made her way to the store's exit, juggling her groceries and two small children, Wally hustled up beside her. "I'll get those, young lady," he said brightly, taking her bags and leading her to the parking lot. Now that may seem like no big deal -- except that these days things like that so seldom happen.

Our story, it turned out, was typical. Among Hastings's 8,000 residents, almost everybody had at least one about Wally's decency and generosity. There were the times he'd reach into his own pocket when someone was short; the times he'd show small kindnesses to someone who'd just lost a loved one or who was in the midst of divorce; the many, many times he'd put himself out for older people.

"He just appreciated that when people get older, their lives get smaller -- they don't drive, their friends have passed on -- and how much it means to be treated warmly," one woman, Kathy Dragan, said. "When my mother was in her 80s, it was a treat for her to go to the store. Wally would call out to the butcher and say, 'You give her whatever attention she needs.' She'd tell me, 'He's kinder to me than some people I've known all my life.' "

Yet few of us fully understood what Wally meant to the civic life of our community -- until he was assigned to another store 20 miles away. In its unfathomable corporate wisdom, the Food Emporium chain had decided to replace 67-year-old Wally after 26 years due to "operational issues related to operating a store the size of [the one in] Hastings."

No one could believe it. Word spread quickly. Neighbors called each other seeking solace. Some plotted strategies for bringing Wally back and staged protest marches outside the store. Others flooded the local newspaper with angry letters. The mayor took up the cause. Even the police tried to set things right.

A grocer seems an unlikely figure to set off such an emotional outpouring. That he did shows the remarkable effect Wally -- a man of endless warmth and good humor -- had on people.

The police say no one was more helpful -- that at Halloween, he was the only merchant they never had to tell not to sell eggs and shaving cream to teens, and that his keen knowledge of the town made him especially adept at spotting criminals. "He's probably made more arrests than anyone who works here," Lt. David Bloomer said with a laugh. "Not just shoplifters, but people who'd show up with stolen credit cards. He was uncanny."

Bloomer added that "we'd often have kids who needed a job -- not honor students, kids in trouble, who'd been before the judge -- and Wally would hire them every time. Nine times out of ten, it probably wouldn't work out, but he never hesitated."

Betty Hudson, pastor of the Grace Episcopal Church, agreed: "He was always willing to take risks on people. He used to say to me, 'You and I are in the same business -- the people business.' "

One story I heard about Wally stands out: Once, in the 1980s, an elderly woman shopper, unapologetically racist, refused to be checked out by the only cashier on duty, a 16-year-old black girl. Wally gave the woman a choice: be checked out by the girl or not at all. But the teen, badly shaken and in tears, said she couldn't work the register. Wally took her aside.

"You're not going to let her get the best of you," he said. "There are some tough challenges in life. Learn to deal with them." Then he stood by the girl as, laboriously, item by item, she rang up the older woman's purchases.

That girl, Nicole Gamble, is a prosecutor in Manhattan now. When I told her about Wally's transfer, she was stunned. "How could they do that?" she exclaimed. "Don't they realize how rare that kind of character is?"

Rabbi Edward Schecter of Hastings's Temple Beth Shalom said: "In his quiet way, he was a towering moral figure in our community. I don't know that there are any others -- no elected officials, no clergy. In Jewish mystical tradition, the question is asked, 'Why does God sustain the world in light of all the evil in it?' And the answer is, 'It's because of the 36 righteous.' Anyone who thinks he might be one of the righteous by definition is not. But Wally -- he is one of the righteous."

As if to confirm the rabbi's view, Wally himself sounded baffled about all the controversy. "All I was doing is my job," he said, crediting his parents and his deep religious faith for making him what he is. "You're selling groceries, but what really matters is your relationships with people. The way people are in this town, that was easy."

Sadly, the push to bring Wally back failed, though not totally: He was assigned to a store closer to his home -- the store where 40 years ago he met his wife, when he was a clerk and she a checker. "Don't worry, I'm doing fine," he said. "If you treat people right, things usually work out for the best."

Sociologists and academics like to bemoan the loss of community in daily life. In his book Bowling Alone, for instance, Robert D. Putnam fondly recalls "the grocery store or five-and-dime on Main Street, where faces were familiar," and laments how today's "suburban shopping experience does not consist of interaction with people embedded in a common social network."

For those lucky enough to know him, Wally Urtz was a one-man antidote to all that.

Make It Matter: Sea Change

How one couple introduced kids to the beach--and a world
beyond the next city block.

Some of the kids have never felt sand between their toes, inspected a seashell, or excavated a moat around a sand castle. They've never sprinted headlong into a flock of seagulls to watch them flap and scatter. Some have never even seen waves. It's not that they live so far inland. They're from the Philadelphia area, only an hour's drive from the beach.

Yet their summers more likely involve city recreation centers, steamy blacktop, or a splash in a public pool or a fire hydrant turned fountain.

Vince and Jeanie Hubach always wanted to share the sandier side of life with others. The couple, who grew up in small towns outside Philly and spent their childhood summers on Jersey Shore beaches, founded and run a nonprofit called Angels on the Atlantic that makes it easy—and free—for local city kids to visit the beach.
Vince and Jeanie Hubach
Photographed By Metin Oner
Vince and Jeanie Hubach love sharing the shore with others.
The idea for the organization began to germinate 16 years ago. Vince, who buys and sells restaurant equipment, was setting up pizzerias and delis in poorer sections of cities like Camden, Philadelphia, and Trenton. "Kids would be hanging around while I was working," he recalls. "I'd say, 'Why don't you go to the beach?' They just looked at me like, 'The beach?' "

Vince shared those stories with Jeanie. "Without children of our own, we wanted to do something for these kids, but in our own way," Vince says. In 2004, they bought a two-acre beachfront property in Ocean City, New Jersey. It came with a restaurant, which they ran as a breakfast and lunch spot, putting profits toward getting their nonprofit on its feet. (It was their first attempt at running a restaurant, but a local magazine named it one of the best places for breakfast.) Within two years, they had generated enough cash and lined up enough volunteers to start inviting urban community organizations to bring kids to their swath of public beach for a day.

At first, the groups that Jeanie called were skeptical. Two strangers would provide beach tags, bathing suits and sunscreen, T-shirts and towels, shade tents, and all the hot dogs, hamburgers, and Popsicles the kids could consume? All they had to do was get there? Vince recalls that first group of 40 kids: "They were running into the ocean, screaming and having the time of their lives. We knew at that moment that no matter what it took, we were going to build this thing." Over the years, the Hubachs have played host to over 4,800 kids, mostly 6- to 14-year-olds. This summer alone, they're expecting 5,000.

Vince, 41, lives at the shore from June to September to run the program full-time, and Jeanie, 43, joins him on weekends. During the week, she coordinates the group visits and works as a personal assistant to a business executive. Next on the agenda: raising money to build a 6,000-square-foot beachside pavilion to house the Angels program as well as allow physically challenged local residents easier access to the beach.

While some neighbors have had zoning and overcrowding concerns, community support, overall, has been tremendous. Brownie troops have run swimsuit drives, schools have collected loose change, and scientists from GlaxoSmithKline have developed Science by the Sea, a hands-on class involving sand, seashells, and microscopes.

Ultimately, the kids are happy tossing a ball, building sand castles—and letting their guard down. Vince recalls the day he overheard one boy say to another, "I don't think we're gonna hear any gunshots today."

Not surprisingly, the kids often tell the Hubachs that they've had the best day of their lives. That's the thing, says Jeanie: "This program helps them see that there's a whole big world out there to explore and that they're welcome in it.