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Some points to ponder, part 1
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Forsyth County News
For some time now I have thought about trying something occasionally that deviates from the usual formats of my column. This just seemed like a good time to start. Whereas the typical column focuses on a single subject, and my intent (not always achieved) there is to address issues in either a positive or constructive mode, I find that life is full of conundrums.

We all observe “mysteries” in the world around us -- things that raise questions but often don’t come with ready answers. So I thought I’d try to capture a few of these, as they come to me -- with no particular pattern -- and see if they strike a responsive chord. So here goes.

• When is a communication complete?
In the days when the telephone was the major channel for personal communication, life seemed simple. You picked up the phone and called someone. If they answered, communication took place. If not, there was positive confirmation that the message had not been conveyed. The “control point” was at the receiver’s end. The arrival of voicemail made things a bit fuzzier, since messages could be left, yet most people accepted the unreliability of such transmission since it was clear that the intended recipient was not available.

Today, e-mail seems to have changed that equation. Many users assume that someone at the other end will receive their message -- almost on a 24/7 basis. The communication is “complete” when it is sent, not received, and no confirmation is expected. Several e-mail exchanges are often required where one short telephone call would suffice. The whole thing leaves me puzzled!

• Email addresses
When the telephone reigned supreme, it was interesting to see how possessive people were of their numbers. When a number changed, pains were taken to assure that everyone in the communications chain got the information.

Today, e-mail addresses are changed with impunity -- and often with no notice. Maintaining e-mail mailing lists has become a major headache. It’s interesting to note that, as communication over the Internet has become more important, the discipline of maintaining solid links has become more flakey. Spam and other socially repugnant practices have probably played a large role in undermining the validity of this most reliable of communications technology.

• The connected world
I am intrigued by the number of people who carry their iPhones, BlackBerrys and other Internet devices with them continuously. One day, it would not be surprising if communications chips were implanted in newborn babies.

It’s not only a need to have the capability to communicate, but also a desire for it to occur instantaneously. People feel lost without their umbilical cords to the rest of the world -- (I see an inconsistency with the laxity concerning notice of changed e-mail addresses).
I can remember, years ago, living abroad, when it took a good part of a day to get a trunk line call to another part of the country, and perhaps a day or two to get an international call through. The world survived.

Some of its “romance” seems to be gone. Imagine seeing people in the middle of the Sahara Desert with cell phones glued to their ears or texting their stock brokers back home.

Why must the pace of communications be so fast, even for much of the trivia that is handled by text messaging and services like Twitter? I don’t know the answer, but my guess is that finding it would provide interesting insights on future developments of civilization.

• An Afghan dilemma
Recently a friend sent me the text of comments Gen. Stanley McChrystal made on “60 Minutes” about Afghanistan. Implied in much of the strategy that McChrystal’s plans to pursue is the recognition that Afghanistan has its own culture and a long history that has defied the change that the British, the Russians and now we are trying to impose. One of his comments related to corruption in the government with which we must work.

Years ago, before the Russian invasion, I did some work in Afghanistan and had a conversation with one of the cabinet ministers on corruption. I was amazed by the way he treated the subject so matter-of-factly. He first pointed to his wrist and said, “If your hand is not in this deep, you are suspect.” Then he pointed to his elbow and said, “This is the area of comfort.” He then pointed to a spot between his elbow and his shoulder and said, “Here’s where people start getting nervous.” And then he pointed to his shoulder and said, “And this is where they lop it off.”

I’ve often thought about standards of morality and how they vary in different cultures. Again, many years ago, I was involved in a study relating to the average wages paid to a policeman in a developing nation vs. the income needed to live in modest circumstances with a family of four. The salaries were less than half the amount required. Where would the balance come from?

Just as we don’t give another thought to tipping in restaurants, the system was designed to incorporate the “tips” policemen would receive for overlooking “petty” crimes -- speeders, bootleggers, etc. What some communities would call “immoral” was clearly built into the institutions of this society and accepted by all.

In international business (and in a situation like Afghanistan), dealing the concept of “moral vs. corrupt” practices is critical. It’s difficult for organizations from different societies to compete (or interact) when one is permitted to do things that provide a competitive advantage but are prohibited to others.

I’ve often felt that the best rule of thumb as to whether an action is moral or not in a society, is whether or not you can talk about it openly. However, this still begs the question as to whether one should adopt local behavior or even if it is possible, since, in the case of government officials and business people, the laws of their home countries often supersede those of the societies in which they are operating.

Does that mean that we have to live with corruption in Afghanistan? It probably depends on how effective one wants to be. I believe that education is the only way to change things -- combined with resources that eliminate serious problems and inequities. But education takes time -- often generations -- and it is hard to germinate seeds in environments that are already hostile to them.

Hope these encapsulated thoughts stimulate more thinking about the issues. Be delighted to receive your ideas.

Dr. Melvyn Copen lives in both Georgia and Arizona. He is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in many foreign countries and provides consulting services throughout the world. His column appears every other Wednesday. Please share your comments with him via e-mail at