Sunday, December 4, 2011

What is it about Nighttime Sleep?

This has been in draft mode for a while, but I feel it's worth publishing now, enjoy:

Night time has become an issue for my family, for all of my family - me, my children and most poignantly, my dad.

My parents were almost nazis about sleep.  Growing up, it was 9pm in bed on a school night, 10pm on a weekend night.  Bed by 9pm up by 5am.  That was the schedule my parents kept for as long as I can remember and that was the schedule they tried to enforce on me as well.

It didn't stick though.  Maybe in an act of rebellion or just a realization of how the world currently works, midnight or sometimes even later is my new bedtime.  Some nights I fight the urge to go to bed as long as I can for reasons I can't really fathom.

Now as a parent, my children's bed time is my least favorite part of the day.  My kids don't want to go sleep, they fight the inevitable almost every night, trying to find ways to extend their awake time as long as possible - I need a drink of water..  I want to read just one more chapter of this book...  I want to practice my instrument.

It seems like they get this burst of energy to do the things most parents would love to hear from their kids - it's the right activity at the wrong time.  It's frustrating as a parent for two reasons.  Sleep is really important, especially for kids, and it's my job to make sure they get enough of it.  Second, of course, the quicker they get the sleep the quicker I get some much needed alone time with my wife.

But night time has gotten even more challenging lately.  Last night I was called by my dad's caregiver at around 11pm to come over to where they are currently staying to help him take a drug he was refusing.  I ended up staying there a couple of hours to help manage him and to get first hand awareness of what's been happening to him at night.

He's been exhibiting sundowners syndrome.   Early this past summer he had a stroke and he's not been the same physically or mentally since and he's been gradually degrading.  Of course, it is worse at night.  For him, it means he doesn't sleep.  He'll lay in bed for a while, then want to get up and eat breakfast or go back to his condo or go to the bathroom.  Through it all, he won't be reasoned with.   As I said, he's generally confused, this exacerbates at night.  The next day, he will not remember any of it.

My mom is staying with him and he's keeping her awake right along with him.  One night she stayed with us to kind of see how that would work.  In short, it didn't.  My dad was much, much worse thinking she left him for another man and a bunch of other paranoia.

What's sad is that he's not getting sleep, sleep he really, really needs.  He's also robbing sleep from all those around him.

So, what is it about night time?  Why can't we embrace sleep, when it's so good for us, essential for our health?  Our days go better when our night time goes well.

Sometimes it's just better to call it a night and go to bed.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Meriticracy or Grace?

The other day I was thinking about this talk by Hugh B. Brown entitled "The Currant Bush".  The main message of the talk is this:
"I wanted to tell you that oft-repeated story because there are many of you who are going to have some very difficult experiences: disappointment, heartbreak, bereavement, defeat. You are going to be tested and tried to prove what you are made of. I just want you to know that if you don’t get what you think you ought to get, remember, 'God is the gardener here. He knows what he wants you to be.'  Submit yourselves to his will. Be worthy of his blessings, and you will get his blessings."
He gets to this point by relaying an example from his own life when he was passed over for a military promotion because of his religion.  His reaction:
I saluted him again, but not quite as smartly. I saluted out of duty and went out. I got on the train and started back to my town, 120 miles away, with a broken heart, with bitterness in my soul. And every click of the wheels on the rails seemed to say, “You are a failure. You will be called a coward when you get home. You raised all those Mormon boys to join the army, then you sneak off home.” I knew what I was going to get, and when I got to my tent, I was so bitter that I threw my cap and my saddle brown belt on the cot. I clinched my fists and I shook them at heaven. I said, “How could you do this to me, God? I have done everything I could do to measure up. There is nothing that I could have done—that I should have done—that I haven’t done. How could you do this to me?” I was as bitter as gall.
Of course to get from this experience to the conclusion above, he has a Spiritual experience to help him realize that going through these difficult experiences are for his own benefit.  But did you catch the meritocracy theme coursing through this message?
  • "Be worthy of his blessing, and you will get his blessings."
  • "I have done everything I could do to measure up.  There is nothing that I could have done - that I should have done - that I haven't done."
 Today, I watched The King's Speech which is, of course, a movie about the King of England who overcomes a major speech impediment to deliver a speech to declare England's intention of going to war with Germany in World War II.  The contrast with him and the charismatic Hitler was stunning.  The contrast between this king who had really done nothing to earn the distinction other than the luck of being born to the right parents and his speech therapist, who completely dreamed up his own methods of speech therapy to help soldiers literally traumatized speechless from World War I, was also stunning.

Do you see the meritocracy message here?  The King was able to rise the occasion, to live up to his calling because he trusted in the efforts of his speech therapist to overcome his major disability.  He became great but he really had no business being great other than the dumb luck of having a father who was also a King.

Finally, I recently read Freedom which was a really fascinating book, a page turner in fact (it's a rated R novel so I felt guilty the whole time), but let me give you a run-down of the major characters in the book:
  • A division 1 woman's All-American basketball player for a major university.
  • A struggling musician who eventually becomes enormously popular, well regarded in the industry, basically a rock and roll legend.
  • A high-flying lawyer for a major corporation who gets spotlighted on a you-tube video that goes viral.
Ok, here's what I'm getting at.  President Hugh B. Brown uses a story about how despite heroic efforts on his own part he was passed over for a promotion.  By contrast, the King's speech describes how a person who did nothing in his life to deserve it, delivers a speech to inspire a country.  Finally a popular novel describes the struggles and trials of some pretty amazing and talented people.

Where, in this, is the message for me? 

What am I looking for?  Well, like most inhabitants of this planet, I was not blessed with world class skills in anything.  I'm better at some things than others, but mostly I'm either average, maybe slightly above or below depending on the subject, or pretty bad at pretty much everything.  I can blame this sad fact on a combination of bad luck, bad luck that I wasn't born with any natural gifts or that I did not get the proper nurturing or training growing up.  I can blame this on my own bad choices or lack of discipline or whatever.

But in this economy, more and more average people feel vulnerable.  Through technology a lot of jobs have been lost through automation.  Globalization has allowed more of the world's elite into our labor markets and has stiffened the competition for good jobs.  Furthermore, this same globalization has opened up the world's poor to take on what used to be good paying manufacturing jobs.

More and more, you have to be world class to achieve true job security.  In other words, as Seth Godin says, you have to be doing real math today instead of arithmetic.  Seth Godin's entire blog is basically someone who is elite writing to others who think they are:

Many fields have precisely this same division. There's a chasm between the proven, repetitive work that can be farmed out and the cutting edge risky work that might just change everything.
When someone asks you what you do all day and you respond, "I take what comes into this basket, do a standard process to it and then put it in that basket," it sounds a lot like you're doing arithmetic, doesn't it? Far better to have a job where there are equal parts magic and art involved in processing the stuff in that basket.
What's largely missing when a prophet gives a story from their lives, or when famous author writes a novel, or a director creates a a move is that these creators have no idea what it means to have a life-long struggle with coming up short in pretty much everything.

Some of us struggle with loneliness because we have pathetic social skills.  Or struggle to build something because we lack focus or a skill or bad training.  The problem is that the story of most of us never gets told because if we could pull it together enough to write a novel good enough for anyone to really read and enjoy, well, we're no longer "most of us" anymore.

If we ever truly suffered through disappointment or serious sin or addiction,  it is likely we will not be climbing the calling latter on our way to General Authority which is why most stories found in conference talks echo President Brown's.  Why, despite how amazing they are, they face challenges.  Whereas, the rest of us probably deserve most of what we get, and can't seem to find a way out.  For one, I would have had no shot at that same promotion and if I got passed over, I would know exactly why and it would have nothing to do with my religion.

One reason, for me, why the King's Speech resonates because its message is that anyone literally could be a King and deliver a rousing speech, as long as we have the right mentor.

My dream, actually, is to one day start a software company that does basically everything in exactly the opposite way  Google does it:
Even in today's economy, tech companies regularly complain that they can't find enough qualified candidates to fill software development positions. You might expect them to loosen their requirements and provide more training as a result, but actually the opposite seems to be true: Screening procedures are getting tighter. The latest trend is to subject interviewees to elaborate quizzes designed to assess their coding and problem-solving abilities
I want to hire a bunch of average programmers from state schools and community colleges and see if we can't hit markets that Google would not even think of hitting.  Most of my employees would have to have been raised in poor neighborhoods, and no, they did not program as a children because their parents could not afford computers.  And yes, it would be a requirement that they came to me looking for a job because they were desperate.  The more nervous and desperate they were in the job interview, and I mean seriously and authentically nervous, the more likely they would be to get this job.

Here's why a company like that may succeed:

Did you know the average person has no chance of either qualifying or paying for four years at Stanford or Harvard and has pretty much nothing in common with Mark Zuckerberg.  But these guys are the ones writing the software platforms for the rest of us?  How could they possibly know what we want, really?

And I think the poor in our society are obviously underserved, largely because they have no money, but they have some money, and they have serious needs.  Finding a way to nurture the poor to a place where they can make a real contribution in our society is the big under-worked challenge of our day.  I could go on about this some more, but that would be another blog.

One counterpoint to the Hugh B. Brown speech and a message that is probably under-declared in the church both President Brown and I attend, is the message of grace.   In fact the two underlying messages the come from the principle of grace exist in tension but also in beautiful harmony with each other.

First,  we are all literally children of God and that average is actually pretty amazing because have God's spiritual DNA coursing through us.  Second, we are all incredibly weak and hopelessly flawed and are in desperate need of God's grace to accomplish anything worthwhile.

It is my belief, that what passes as meritocracy in our country is really just some people getting really, really lucky - lucky to have been born to the right parents, to have received the right training at the right time, to get hung up on a specific passion in the right field.  The rest of us muddle along hoping for our chance.

To close, I'll leave you with Nassim Nicholas Taleb's quote from his really good book entitled,  Black Swan.  Of course, Taleb is among the elite who is smart enough to realize how dumb many in his peer group really are despite how smart most of us think they are. 
The strategy for the discoverers and entrepreneurs is to rely less on top-down planning and focus on maximum tinkering and recognizing opportunities when they present themselves. So I disagree with the followers of Marx and those of Adam Smith: the reason free markets work is because they allow people to be lucky, thanks to aggressive trial and error, not by giving rewards or “incentives” for skill. The strategy is, then, to tinker as much as possible and try to collect as many Black Swan opportunities as you can.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Some Notes on Tonights Republican Debate

I think this debate marks the beginning of the end of the Herman Cain presidency. I didn't know, did others? that he was the head of the federal reserve in Kansas City in the 1990's. That came out in a rush tonight as he referenced that experience in his support of Allan Greenspan's actions while head of the Federal Reserve.  Yes, that Allan Greenspan, widely blamed for helping the housing bubble along by keeping interest rates too low for too long.  Even Greenspan has admitted mistakes were made. Can an ex-head of the federal reserve really transition to a tea party champion? Maybe, but he should take a hit based on this revelation.

Once he loses his grip on the Republican flavor of the month, we'll relegate the 9-9-9 plan to the back burner which received far too much discussion tonight.  One quick thought, on his unnamed economic advisors who helped him come up with this plan, well, it was just strange that he named some unknown as his chief economic adviser, who turns out not to be an economist at all, and then sited a couple of other people who need to remain anonymous.  This was just strange.

Rick Perry has completely flamed out. He wasn't awful in this debate, I guess, but he just kind of disappeared.  Honestly, he didn't saying much worth remembering. The one concrete idea that he suggested was to open up the energy industry to drill, baby drill.  Yes, this was his only idea on how to get the economy moving.  Really?  Everything else that came out of his mouth was meaningless platitudes. He's done.

The only serious candidate left (with apologies to Huntsman who has yet to break through) is Mitt Romney. He defended TARP, he rightly pointed the finger at China's currency policy, he pointed to education reform, and tax reform. He said some stuff I disagreed with, some really senseless stuff, but I have to believe that much of it has to do with his desire to win the nomination.   He just sounded like he was in command, the smartest (by far) guy in the room, the only real presidential candidate left standing.

Granted, Bachmann, Santorum, and even Gingrich were engaging and smart, but they aren't breaking through.  Gingrich has no chance.  Bachmann was supposed to have been the tea party candidate but inexplicably flamed out.  I'm still not sure why.  She's a great debater.  She's smart and articulate.  She's crazy, but that should fit right in with what the tea party crowd is looking for.  I'm wondering if someone can explain to me why she's slipped.

I'm also not sure why Santorum remains a third-tier candidate as well.  He consistently says a bunch of tea party ideas.  He is the most neo-con one of the group and that may hurt him.  He doesn't have the organization or the name recognition.   Maybe that will change.

A couple of notes about Romney.  During the debate, he defended Romneycare by explaining his plan leaves the current system a lone and simply expands coverage, unlike Obamacare which was a revamp of the entire system.  Ummm, that's just completely false.  Obamacare was modeled almost exactly after Romney's plan and basically does the exact same thing - creating health care exchanges for those who don't currently have health insurance.  Romney's strongest defense is that he plans on leaving health care reform up to the states and doesn't believe the federal government should get involved.

I'm anxiously awaiting an Obama/Romney showdown which seems the most likely scenario after this debate.  We'll see.

Occupy Wall Street == Tea Party Part II

Just wanted to push this picture out there for general consumption, pulled from here and commented on here. So, I'm not the only one that believes the two groups have something in common. However, I do think the issue is more complex than people maybe get. I think the complaint is not about big corporations per se, but more about the biggest banks, and there are plenty of reasons to complain.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Blue Bear

Some time ago, I read the book: Blue Bear. It's a book written by an Alaskan guide who worked with a photographer to try to get a picture of the elusive Glacier Bear, with a blue tint that live in Alaska. It's a beautifully written book. I was talking to my family about fear today and it reminded me of this quote from the book:
I could hike through the mountains with complete peace of mind. I could camp without worry. But what a dull place Alaska would be! Here people share the land with bears. There is a certain wariness between people and bears. And that wariness forces upon us a valuabe sense of humility. People continue to tame and subjugate nature. But when we visit the few remaining scraps of wilderness where bears roam free, we can still feel an instinctive fear. How precious that feeling is. And how precious these places, and these bears are."
I think fear is a useful and human emotion. It keeps us humble, this knowledge that we could be decimated at any moment, a reminder of our mortality. It's also an emotion that those on Wall Street have completely sanitized themselves away from. Instead of taking risky bets with their own money, they can profit off of short-term profits made from other people's money. They are insanely well compensated and now have an explicit backing from the US taxpayer on the downside. They have no reason to fear, many of the bears in their lives have been annihilated. I would have to know one of these rich investment bankers better to know if their lives are now dull as a result.  This quote is good on many levels beyond this one, of course.

The Tea Party's Plot to Undermine America

Ok, that is a pretty incendiary title, and I don't think they mean to, but whether they mean to or not, their ideology is doing exactly that.  Check this article out by the MIT economist, Simon Johnson.
Good credit made the United States the dominant world power of the 20th century. Whether it will ever force the federal government to default or not, the Tea Party and the conservative tax revolt behind it are chipping away at the fiscal foundations built by Hamilton at the dawn of the Republic. Ultimately, this could make us less like 18th-century Great Britain and more like 18th-century France: a country where the people no longer believe in their government and refuse to pay taxes, destroying the sound credit that is still vital to national prosperity and power.
I've said said before that the tea party movement was one based on legitimate anger. The problem is the conclusions they are drawing run counter to historical precedent. They are leaning too far on Jefferson and too little on Hamilton, who eventually even informed the way Jefferson guided our presidency - the Louisiana purchase anyone?

What's needed is competence and it's up to us to ensure that by holding them accountable. As we do so, the ability to tax and borrow is a key element of our government especially when the demands of the moment call for it - and we need to make sure they legitimately do. This is much more difficult. It asks more out of our leaders and out of us then the simplistic and mindless dogma coming from the tea party right. We need to make sure our government works, and the ability to tax is a key part of that. If we lose that trust and confidence, we lose a lot of political power and our country weakens. We are the ones to blame for that.

The Princess and the Frog

I watched this movie the other night with my kids and I really enjoyed it, actually.

I loved the message that Tiana's (the heroin) father leaves for her:  it's not enough just to wish on a star, magic only gets you so far.  You have to work for it.  And work she did, tirelessly.

But it turned out wishing and working was not enough either.  You have to marry a handsome, rich prince from some remote country who happens to be visiting your home town.  In fact, I'm not sure wishing and working were all that essential in this story.  You just have to have a great personality and incredible looks.  Woo the rich guy and you're in.

Needless to say, I was less than underwhelmed at the message this movie was given to my girls, sigh.

Occupy Wall Street == Tea Party

I'm not really qualified to make this kind of statement, but aren't they germinating from the same forces of economic discontent and an anger at the utter unfairness at the way the government has handled this economic downturn?

Which is why this kind of comment is so dumb.  I know I know a lot of this kind of commentary was coming from the left about the Tea Party crowd, but this whole, our protestors are better than yours is kind of tiring nonetheless.

One of my critiques from the Tea Party crowd is that they were just against a lot of stuff but weren't proffering any solutions.  My sense is the same from the "Occupy Wall Street" crowd as well.  I'm not sure if just outright anger is enough, although there are a lot of justifiable reasons to be frustrated and angry.  What we got from the tea party is a Congress that pushed our government to the brink of default and a lot of nationalism (close the border!) and anti-poor rhetoric that would make a hash situation harsher.  I'm not sure what we'll get from this group.

But one thing I'm certain of, is there cause is more than justified.  Wall Street investment banks are largely responsible for our current mess; the government has become too beholden to them; and we are priming ourselves for enough bubble/crash as our biggest banks have gotten even bigger and more powerful since the crisis.

But both groups are basically about the same thing, that tax payer funds went to bail out rich bankers who refuse to change their ways or to even express an ounce of remorse or regret.  It's the same transaction, tons of government money going directly toward the banks.  The tea party group just vented against the government side of this transaction.

Why can't the two movements coalesce, find common cause, and work together to get the government to work for them. Getting the tea party to unite with rich bankers who are getting, in effect, billions of dollars in corporate welfare has been a coup for the bankers who have used that anger to redirect back at Obama who has been in their back pockets all along. I am rooting for the "Occupy Wall Street" gang, but I think this movement could be much more powerful if the tea party recognized that they were both on the same team. Depicting this group as blue-haired hippies doesn't help things a long on this front.

Why this Democrat Might Vote for Mitt Romney

First of all, I don't think Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are that far a part ideoligicall speaking.  However, for a variety of reasons, I was pretty excited about an Obama presidency in 2008.  Reading this rather damning book about the Barack Obama's presidency drains the excitement I had for Obama coming into office. The book's primary point is that Obama lacked executive and management experience to effectively take on the massive undertaking of correcting the worse downturn since the Great Depression. Obama erred, as a result, by trusting too much in a different set of economic advisers than the ones that helped him get elected: Larry Summers, Timothy Geithner, Rahm Emmanuel, people who did too much to keep those on Wall Street whole, the very people who took massive bets with other people's money and were primarily responsible for the economic downturn.

These same people who got bailout after tax-payer funded bailout. Ironically enough, as Obama basically turned over the keys of the government to Goldman Sachs, et. al, these same bankers then turned on him and undermined everything Obama has tried to do to reign them in. On top of all of this, the tea party movement, a populist movement inspired by the bank bailouts, has turned hard against Obama and left Wall Street completely unchecked.

I've already gone into quite a bit of detail of what Obama could have done differently in his first term. Here are some reasons Mitt Romney stands apart from the other Republican candidates.  In addition, Mitt Romney has a much stronger executive background than Obama, although now Obama has his first term as a US president as experience, so he's better now than four years ago.  And having a Republican president would take the wind out of the sails of a Congress hell-bent on saying no. Perhaps Romney could institute some Wall Street regulation with teeth? And really tackle our tax code? And institute more stimulus?

It's a long shot, and there's a better chance Obama would be better in term two than in term one.  But he now has a much more hostile country and much more hostile Congress than he did coming in that will prevent him from doing many of things he really needs to do.  

Saturday, October 1, 2011

I'm off of Facebook and back on Blogger (at least for now)

I decided to dump Facebook for now. I honestly do not have the capacity to handle more than one social media tool at a time. Facebook has such a low barrier to posting, in just a couple of clicks my cool article is linked and a couple of sentences of my own commentary is added, then, poof, all done.

The problem with Facebook is that it's walled off, but for those people within my wall, they are subjected to my use of Facebook without really asking for it. Sure they extended the invitation - I hardly ever go out looking for friends, almost everyone came to me. They, innocently enough, recognized my name from some chance happenstance long ago (college acquiantence? friend of a friend? high school buddy?) and they linked me as a friend. I'm inclined to accept such requests thinking, are you sure you really want what I'm about to give you?

Then, they get flooded by my stuff: mostly political, lefty bias, sometimes inane, sometimes overwrought, mostly more than people want on that kind of platform.

Actually Facebook is hard to pin down, right? It was used as a tool to overthrow Egypt by the way, so how is my stuff more serious and heavy than that? But mostly people use it to talk about their kids or their day. It's a weird experience, actually, to see the multi-uses of facebook streaming down your wall from all of these diverse sources. There are some too sad and maybe too private to be on facebook kind of posts, a few crazy/silly posts, a lot of mundane I'm eating breakfast kind of posts, an occasional brilliant posts, and a fair of amount political and religious posts.

And I definitely had my style. I love to debate, probably about 100 times more than almost everyone I've ever met. I can carry on a an on-line (and off-line) debate as long as it takes and I never get frustrated or tired of it. I love it. And since fb comments can just go on and on... I've frustrated more than a few people.

So, I'm back on blogger for now. I have some ambition to generate a much better website, but for now, blogger is a place where I can be basically me. People can link to me or they cannot, but it's all mine.

It's more work than Facebook and that's a major downside, and it's much easier to be ignored, which is another major downside, but I'm currently experimenting with other ways to scratch my need for on-line "discussion" itch. Hopefully I'll find a home for that and I'm almost assured it's not here. The blog as a community discussion form is too biased in favor of the blogger. I get all kinds of space to say what I want to say. People can respond in my comments but I've already dictated the topic and expressed my point in a much easier to compose format.

But expect more activity from me here world. I'm glad to be back.

By the way, because I'm nt on Facebook for now, I came across a really cool article making a point I've never heard before. Normally, it would have gone onto facebook, so now it's going here. Here it is, "The Death of Reading". Read it, it's pretty interesting:

Why don’t most people like to read? The answer is surprisingly simple: humans weren’t evolved to read. Note that we have no reading organs: our eyes and brains were made for watching, not for decoding tiny symbols on mulch sheets. To prepare our eyes and brains for reading, we must rewire them. This process takes years of hard work to accomplish, and some people never accomplish it all. Moreover, even after you’ve learned to read, you probably won’t find reading to be very much fun. It consumes all of your attention, requires active thought, and makes your eyes hurt. For most people, then, reading is naturally hard and, therefore, something to be avoided if at all possible.

I love to read, but I've read all my life. Growing up in Yuma, being as utterly and completely painfully shy as I was, being raised by a Mother who I'm convince has Aspergers although she's never been diagnosed conspired to make me a pretty lonely kid. Books became my primary escape (did I tell you that when I grew up the internet didn't exist and we couldn't afford cable). So, I spent the hard work re-wiring my brain to enjoy reading. I love it now and I can't relate to those who don't.

But apparently, loving to read is a skill that's earned through hours of work. I was lucky enough have basically been given it as a gift of circumstances.

Friday, August 26, 2011


I was reading this today in the Book of Mormon, probably one of the best chapters in the book, if you ask me, Mosiah Chapter 2.

First, let me setup what's happening. This is a sermon done by a certain king named Benjamin who is facing death, but wants to give one last sermon before he dies:

10 I have not commanded you to come up hither that ye should fear me, or that ye should think that I of myself am more than a mortal man.

11 But I am like as yourselves, subject to all manner of infirmities in body and mind; yet I have been chosen by this people, and consecrated by my father, and was suffered by the hand of the Lord that I should be a ruler and a king over this people; and have been kept and preserved by his matchless power, to serve you with all the might, mind and strength which the Lord hath granted unto me.

14 And even I, myself, have labored with mine own hands that I might serve you, and that ye should not be laden with taxes, and that there should nothing come upon you which was grievous to be borne—and of all these things which I have spoken, ye yourselves are witnesses this day.

I think sometimes we expect too much out of our leaders, thinking they'll be our saviors or will be as powerful as supermen. I think also, when we're asked to lead, we shrink because we think to lead we have to be all-knowing and all-powerful.

This is not so and this is the message in this passage. To re-emphasize verse 11:

"But I am like as yourselves, subject to all manner of infirmities in body and mind;"

I can imagine the sicknesses, the days that he was just too tired or too scared to face the day. Or days where he was burdened by depression or stress or anxiety. He was human after all. So am I. So are you.

That doesn't give us an excuse not to lead. It doesn't give us an excuse to be to hard on those who lead us. Being a leader is not about being perfect, it's about serving those you lead "with all the might, mind and strength which the Lord hath granted unto [you]".

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Problems with a Meritocracy

The book Pinched has a lot to say about the limits and problems with a society that has evolved down a path of meritocracy - where those with the most talent end up being the big winners. Here are some quotes:

"In the United States, the rise of meritocracy has typically been met with celebration, and in most respects it should be. But this recession has underscored the meritocracy's less savory characteristics. In his final book, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, published posthumously in 1995, the social critic Christopher Lasch painted a dismal picture of the destination toward which meritocratic progress may lead. Precisely because modern elites believe their status is the exclusive result of their own efforts, Lasch argued, they lack their predecessors' sense of social obligation. 'Although hereditary advantages [still] play an important part in the attainment of professional or managerial status,' he wrote, 'the new [upper] class has to maintain the fiction that its power rests on intelligence alone. Hence it has little sense of ancestral gratitude or of an obligation to live up to responsibilities inherited from the past. It thinks of itself as a self-made elite owing its privileges exclusively to its own efforts."

Here's another pretty devastating critique of Bill Gates and others like him:

"When I listen to Gates and to other meriticratic winners reflecting on good works or good policy or their legacy, I can't help but think that Christopher Lasch was perhaps too harsh, or at least too sweeping, in his characterization of the new rich. Breaking into the elite requires neither virtue nor vile character, and the elite as a whole contains both elements in ample supply. Yet I also can't shake the sense that, among the elites who are publicly minded at all, what many care most about, in the end, is perfecting the meritocracy - ensuring that every boy and girl has the same educational and entrepreneurial chances that they did so that the cream might always rise to the top. This is an admirable and, indeed, an essential goal. Yet it seems incomplete. It isn't so much that today's elites think poorly of Americans who lack the genetic endowment of IQ required to climb the modern economy's ladder; by and large, many elites just don't think about them much at all."

I have a lot of feelings about all of this because I get caught up plenty reading a bunch of stuff written by the elites for the elites, thinking if I could only work a little bit harder, drive against the "lizard brain" a little more, I can someday be given my speech on TED :-).

The essential problem with all of this and it's the central thesis of "Pinched" is what to do with the vast number of Americans who are not by definition, the elite.

Does someone without a Stanford degree not have something significant to contribute to society? Does someone without a college degree at all not have something significant to contribute? Really, we need to find a lot more ways for a lot more people from all kinds of backgrounds to have a reliable path to the middle class.

Our society is increasingly segregating along class boundaries. The rich are getting a lot more rich. The middle class is shrinking. This is not sustainable.

Sunday, August 14, 2011


I'm currently reading the book "Pinched: How the Great Recession has Narrowed Our Futures and What We Can Do About It". I'm hoping to give more details of this book as I go along, but one thing the author does that I found fascinating was to describe the short and long term effects of our previous significant recessions in hopes of gleaning lessons from those down terms and applying those to what we're finding today.

"Long, deep slumps are foreign to many Americans alive today, but of course they are not unknown in the nation's history. The final two decades of the nineteenth century saw steady deflation, hard times for typical workers, and great tumult. The Great Depression and the 1930s are now nearly synonymous. Most recently, from 1972 through the early 1980s, the United States endured economic stagnation, wage erosion, and a serious of painful economic shocks; in some respects, the weakness lingered until the mid-1990s. If we align shocks of those periods - the panic of 1893, the crash of 1929, the oil shock of 1973 - then we'd be sitting today in 1896 or 1932 or 1976."

and it's affects:

"The longer society stews in a deep slump, the more it is altered. Changes to community character, generational ambition, and social harmony that are nearly imperceptible early in a downturn become suddenly overwhelming later. What follows is a pocket of history of these three long downturns, with a focus on the enduring marks they left on America. Each delineates a major turn in the country's economic, political, and cultural history. And each holds lessons for us in the present day."

One thing is certain to me, that this recovery is going to take a while. I don't care what anti-Obama people think. You could elect Ron Paul as president, and the recovery will take a devastatingly long time. Well, in the absence of something cataclysmic and unseen, that is. I'm speaking based on my perceptions of our current trajectories.

The problem is that a long downturn is going to change our cultural landscape in ways that are impossible to predict.

Two high-level lessons garnered from the book so far. The Great Depression changed the political landscape heavily toward liberalism. This persisted through the 1960's no matter which party controlled the presidency.

All of this ended in the 1970's when we experienced another economic cataclysm precipitated by massive government spending combined with a significant oil shock. We were also, not coincidentally, coming off a massively wasteful war in Vietnam and the Nixon presidential scandal. All of this shook our country and left it open for Ronald Reagan to take over and begin a period of conservatism that has persisted for 3 decades.

Our current recession is much more similar to the recession of the 1930's than the 1970's. I'm not at all sure, where it will lead us, but one thing seems certain, it will probably last a while and there will be a lot of painful, long lasting bumps a long the road.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Religion and Reason

I blogged about Dave Dickerson's House of Cards already in a very critical way. But there's a reason I bought and read this book. The reason is because I heard Dickerson on "This American Life" read from his book the following passage I found beautiful and profound.

Toward the end of the book, Dickerson took a vacation back to Tucson to visit his Dad. During the trip he wanted to actually deconvert him from his charismatic Christian ways armed with a lot of logical reasons why the Bible was flawed, armed with historical and doctrinal contradictions. He wanted to save his dad from all of the restrictions that he felt were inhibiting his life. He waited for the opportunity:
"I waited all night for Dad to slip, and when we walked into a twenty-four-hour diner on Grant and Swan, we sat at a cold little two-person booth, ordered a pair of omelets, and while we were waiting he took off his cowboy hat, frowned at the sparse tables around us, cleared his throat, and said, 'You know, I've been thinking about doing a little missionary work now that I'm basically retired. There are opportunities in Spain --'

And I lunged. 'Dad-why to go Spain? That's such an evangelical thing to do. 'Those poor benighted Catholics need to learn Christianity!' It's not only arrogant, it's unbiblical. Did you know that the sinner's-prayer model of salvation you sectarian Christians are so obsessed with doesn't even emerge in Christian history until --'

'David', said Dad sharply, and when I stopped, he sighed.

'David, I'm really proud of you. I'm really glad that you've got your master's degree and that you're so interested in this topic. But before you say another word, you should know why it's not going to work.'

He paused and looked sad. He was remembering. 'Before I became a Christian, I was miserable. I wanted to kill myself. I hated my life, I hated my marriage, I just wanted to end everything.'

I remembered this. He hadn't talked about it very often, but once when I was in high school he'd told me about how he'd had a nervous breakdown, and how when he was driving on the highway, he'd actually been tempted to steer his car into oncoming traffic. He was so disturbed by this that he pulled over to the side of the road, found a phone book, and checked himself into a mental hospital. For a year after that, he couldn't read a single thing except the Bible, and even that in a sort of skeptical, clinical way. Every other form of reading reminded him of academia, and the department that had driven him mad.

I didn't know what he was about to say, but it was pretty clear that by choosing academia now, I had all but confessed to rejecting not just his religion, but his entire view of the world.

'So when I was looking around for some kind of hope,' Dad continued, 'I found Grace Chapel.' Grace Chapel was the big charismatic church in Tucson, with the raising of hands, the speaking in tongues, the anointing with oil, and occasional miracle healings. 'I remember walking in there and being so overwhelmed by the love I saw there, the way these people cared for one another. Then I found out what they believed and I said, 'Are you serious? Magic and spirits and all this stuff?' But I kept comping back. And finally one night I prayed and I said 'God, if I have to take my own head off to be happy, that's what I'm willing to do.'

'So you can believe what you want,' he said. 'But I also know what I've felt. Jesus turned me into a better man. He have me a life, he gave me a family, and I look forward to every new day. I never did that before, and all your arguments aren't going to convince me to go back.'"
The version he read on This American Life was better than this, but the idea is there. The reason religion and faith is so powerful is because it changes our lives, it makes us better. It's a feeling more powerful than logic - of peace and love. It's something we need at a deep level.

David Brooks touches on this a bit in his book The Social Animal. In this section about Alcoholics Anonymous:
"Harold had grown quite secular over the years, but a vague religiosity pervaded this group. The people there didn't just tell him to stop drinking. It wasn't a discrete and logical attempt to solve this one problem. They called on him to purify his soul, to rewire the deepest recesses of his heart and being. If he changed his whole life, abstinence from alcohol would be a happy byproduct."

"Alcoholics Anonymous doesn't work for most people. Researchers have not been able to predict who will benefit from AA and who will not. They can't even agree on whether the program works better than the other programs that are out there, or at all.

That's because the fellowship of each group cannot be reduced to a formula, compared across groups, or captured in a social science experiment, and the quality of fellowship is what really matters."
Ok, I'm throwing some unrelated bits of information out there. The point is that the spiritual journey each of us takes is so hard to understand or quantify. The rationale part of our brain is different and less important than the spiritual part of ourselves.

It's how you can be both religious and academic by being able to understand this relationship and come to terms when the two come in conflict.

This dynamic is what The Book of Mormon teaches here:

2 Nephi 28:28. O that cunning plan of the evil one! O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men! When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish.

29. But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God.
This passage does not disparage academia or knowledge or rationale thought. You can even be an academic agnostic or an evolutionist at your day job. All this passage is saying is to put academic knowledge in it's proper place. The fact is that we're all utterly foolish. The smartest person in the world really doesn't know much. The problem comes when we think we know more than God.

That's one problem I have with Mormon Stories. I don't have a big problem with it I guess, some people they interview I think get this dynamic between thought and faith, but most seem to struggle. This is a podcast for feminists, academics, or liberal Mormons who treat the church, at times, like one views a political party. You can be a feminist, an academic, or a liberal Mormon quite easily and many on this podcast explain how they've gotten there, but many struggle and I think they struggle because they don't understand what church is supposed to be about.

Doing what they are doing on this podcast is all well and good. The problem is not that they are using their minds, the problems come when they fail to put what they know in a proper context. I'm going to use a thought I heard that I can no longer source, so just know this is not original with me. This stuff is scaffolding. It's good to think, to grow, to question, to speculate, but at the end of the day you're building scaffolding. It's not anything to build a house on.

What you do build a house on is a foundation of faith, love, peace, fellowship, relationships. It's a foundation of feelings over logic, of faith over academia. It's why Dickerson was helpless in this argument. How can you argue with someone who says their faith changed their life and made them a better person? This is a statement of fact based on the truths discovered in the innermost parts of one's soul. It's not something that is easily communicated without the help of divine. It's personal, poignant, and powerful.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Another Gay Marriage Post

I haven't blogged in a while, but I have been busy facebooking all about the debt ceiling. However with what just happened in New York on gay marriage, I stumbled upon Ross Douthat's latest on the subject.

I already blogged pretty heavily on Douthat's thoughts on gay marriage. But time has passed and New York has made gay marriage legal, and Douthat writes about it again, so I have to blog about it once more.

Here's Douthat's latest.

There's nothing too new here, but I think it's worth pointed out nonetheless. I hit this topic pretty hard because I think the religious argument against gay marriage has been given short shift, for two reasons. First, the argument is legitimately hard to express succinctly. But just because an argument is difficult to express does not mean it's wrong, it's just makes it difficult to express. Douthat describes in his earlier posts, how the intermingling of marriage, procreation, and sexuality is complex or "thick", his word, to describe this. And to express this thickness is challenging, but Douthat's arguments are the most well thought out from the opposition side of this debate and definitely worth considering.

Also because this argument has been so poorly made by the conservative side, I think it's also been too easily dismissed, and those who believe in this view have been labeled as bigots and compared to the racists of our nation's earlier years. This is fundamentally unfair.

In Douthat's latest, he laments:
"Critics of gay marriage see this as one of the great dangers in severing the link between marriage and the two realities — gender difference and procreation — that it originally evolved to address. A successful marital culture depends not only on a general ideal of love and commitment, but on specific promises, exclusions and taboos. And the less specific and more inclusive an institution becomes, the more likely people are to approach it casually, if they enter it at all."
He follows this article up here specifically addressing Dan Savage's point of view.
"The ideal of monogamy is a fragile achievement of civilized life, not something that’s written in our glands and genes." Meaning that it's hard to be monogomous especially if you extend that to pre-marriage. It goes against our nature, but just because it's difficult doesn't mean it's not an ideal worth aspiring toward, and it doesn't mean it's something that society shouldn't enforce, especially considering what's at stake.
This is at the core of all of Douthat's argument and it's written better in his original article I'll quote here again:
"This ideal holds up the commitment to lifelong fidelity and support by two sexually different human beings — a commitment that involves the mutual surrender, arguably, of their reproductive self-interest — as a uniquely admirable kind of relationship. It holds up the domestic life that can be created only by such unions, in which children grow up in intimate contact with both of their biological parents, as a uniquely admirable approach to child-rearing. And recognizing the difficulty of achieving these goals, it surrounds wedlock with a distinctive set of rituals, sanctions and taboos.
The point of this ideal is not that other relationships have no value, or that only nuclear families can rear children successfully. Rather, it’s that lifelong heterosexual monogamy at its best can offer something distinctive and remarkable — a microcosm of civilization, and an organic connection between human generations — that makes it worthy of distinctive recognition and support."
That, in a nutshell is the ideal: that "organic connection between human generations". That my biological kids are mine and my wife's and we are there's. To preserve this unique entity as an ideal is important, to recognize that it's extremely difficult to maintain and thus worthy of extra sociatal support is what Douthat argues.

While Douthat continues to cling to his views, another moderate conservative I admire, David Frum dithers. But his logic as to why?... is just dumb:
It's true that marriage, among the educated middle class, has actually strengthened recently which weakens the argument that gay marriage destroys traditional families. But that's only true if you believe gay marriage is the only and the strongest factor that will destroy families. I believe there are a multitude of societal factors at play and changing gay marriage laws is just one of many and not near the most important. I'm not sure how you can separate these out in way to come to the conclusion Frum comes to.
I meant to blog about this article earlier but I'm getting to it now, and it's too long and difficult to quote from it directly, so you really need to read it because there are a lot of really good points here that goes beyond the argument of gay marriage.

Here's her thoughts on the consequence of loosening divorce laws and how that affected the marriage institution that resonates:
"A couple in 1940 (and even more so in 1910) could go to a minister's parlor, or a justice of the peace, and in five minutes totally change their lives. Unless you are a member of certain highly religious subcultures, this is simply no longer true. That is, of course, partly because of the sexual revolution and the emancipation of women; but it is also because you aren't really making a lifetime commitment; you're making a lifetime commitment unless you find something better to do. There is no way, psychologically, to make the latter as big an event as the former, and when you lost that commitment, you lose, on the margin, some willingness to make the marriage work. Again, this doesn't mean I think divorce law should be toughened up; only that changes in law that affect marriage affect the cultural institution, not just the legal practice."
And her final piece of advice.
"My only request is that people try to be a leeetle more humble about their ability to imagine the subtle results of big policy changes. The argument that gay marriage will not change the institution of marriage because you can't imagine it changing yours personal reaction is pretty arrogant."
The point here is that what matters is what happens on the margins. When you make significant changes to laws it affects both the legal and the cultural identity of that institution with all of the unexpected consequences that go along with that. There are simply no institutions that matter as much as marriage does. The institutional changes matter because at the margin some people will make different choices because of those institutional changes. Their decisions will influence others in unexpected ways. Eventually, marriage in the 21st century will be fundamentally different than what it was in the 20th.

Expanding marriage to include same gender is a significant change. Douthat argues that this change will weaken it. Many, including me, believe it has already been weakened so this affect may be minimal, but I think it's affects may be bigger than any of us realize.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Little House On the Prairie's Message on Taxes

As part of our Sunday evening family ritual, we are working our way through the 1970's Little House and the Prairie episodes. We're almost through season two and tonight we just saw the episode entitled Centennial, where the community of Walnut Grove prepares for the 100th year since the Declaration of Independence. Their plans is to have a picnic with fireworks and to make a new American flag to celebrate the event.

The episode begins hopeful. The government just announced the expansion of roads - a massive investment in the nation's infrastructure, with the accommodating promise to ease trade allowing more opportunities for the farmers to sell their crops.

The good cheer turns sour when significant tax increases are also announced. Charles Ingalls' savings is wiped out paying by the tax increase. More poignantly, a Russian immigrant family who had just moved into town a few months earlier, received notice that no property taxes had been collected on the property they purchased in the past seven years, and he was responsible for the entire seven or he'd lose his property.

The entire town was feeling mighty depressed about this turn of events and the entire July 4th celebration was in jeopardy. Everyone was feeling pretty miserable about their politicians and pretty miserable about America. They complained about how well paid their politicians were despite the fact they were doing nothing but robbing from the pockets of hard working Americans. One farmer had the audacity to suggest that an income tax was coming next.

As the episode progresses, the Russian immigrant does lose his land. Homeless, they are camping out until they are able to figure out what to do next. Charles walks over to offer his condolences and to provide the family a listening ear, but all the while feeling this anger at the direction of our government. The Russian immigrant instantly rejects the sympathy and says that it was his own foolishness for buying the property without understanding the terms. And he was hopeful. Knowing he could get more land and rebuild as a homesteader. He suggested that it was a privilege to pay taxes because those taxes were used to make investments for everyone. His own son was getting an education and that through his education, the son was teaching the father to read English. No other country on the globe made education accessible to everyone. Everywhere else only the well off had such access.

In Russia, by contrast, taxes were used to line the pockets of its czars and not to build schools and roads like in America. In a dictatorship, taxes enrich the dictator who is not accountable to the people. In a representative democracy, the taxes are used to build up the country for the benefit of all. America, he says, is the greatest country in the world for its freedoms and for its opportunities.

I think we lost this point, along the way. Taxes, in and of themselves, are not the problem, the problem is how we use those taxes. It is a privilege to pay taxes. Every time I drive around my city, its wide roads, its beautiful parks, I feel like I own a piece of it. The parks are partially mine. Quite literally, this is my community. And our family takes advantage. We attend the parks; we make use of the public pools; we visit the national parks; we drive on the roads; we drink the water. Given how much we are blessed, I say it's a privilege to pay taxes.

Not that our tax code isn't broken, it is, severely. We need a tax system that's both fair and broad. Far too many people with means are not paying their fair share. There are simply far too many ways to get out of paying taxes, largely for pretty dubious reasons. Business owners and investors have too many opportunities to make their income look like business or capital investments, shielding the money from the higher tax rates. This makes no sense.

I'm not sure why we think money made by a business owner should be more protected from the tax code than the money made by the laborer. Every single one of us has a role to play in this economy. The more productive we all are, the more rich this country becomes. The smart investor is no more valuable than the efficient and innovative worker. Why tax the two at different rates?

The problem in our country is not that we are necessarily spending too much either. The problem is that we have gotten into this mentality that we can get a lot from our government without having to pay for it. We need to take stock in what we want to pay for, then we need to figure out how we're going to raise enough tax revenue to do just that.

How big of a military do we want? What kind of global presence do we want to preserve? How big of a safety net do we want to provide and for who? Do we care about clean air and water? Sanitation? Do we want a responsive government in the face of natural disasters? Do we want to collectively ensure our elderly, those who cannot work at the end of their years, a life of dignity and a guarantee against painful poverty?

How much government do we want? Whatever the answer is, we have to be willing to pay for it. No other country in the history of this globe has ever amassed as much wealth as this one has. We have the capacity to accomplish beyond what we realize. And much of this has come because of our freedoms and our way of government.

We didn't declare our independence from England because of taxes. We did it because they were taxing us without representation. We didn't have a say back then in how those taxes were being used, but we have that say today. We only have to couple our desires for government service with a willingness to pay for it.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

When Mormon's Sin

Not too long ago I listened to this podcast which is a recording of a presentation by Dr. David Christian, a licensed clinical psychologist practicing in Utah, and thus pretty well versed in treating Mormons. Incidentally, he is also no longer an active, practicing Mormon. In this podcast, at least, he criticizes the church on the way it tends to deal with those who sin - basically all of us.

One of the arguments he makes I want to take on directly. He feels the church behaves in absolutist all or nothing teaching that gets some of its members into trouble. He refers to it as a virgin thinking, where committing a sin once is just as bad as doing it over and over again. You are no longer a virgin when you slip up and have sex with one person, so what's the difference if you have sex with nine more. Obviously there's a big difference between messing up one time and becoming entrenched in bad behavior, and it is unfair to claim that anyone in the church believes the two are equivalent. But I can see why, given the way that these messages are sometimes taught, someone may get caught up in this kind of thinking. Once you sin once, when the stakes are high, you feel terrible and ashamed, your feelings of self worth plummet and it's much easier to just to do it again and again, and perhaps fall into addiction.

And I'm sure this is a more of a problem for those within the church. He backs up his claims with plenty of statistics.

He uses an interesting analogy to illustrate the problem with this. When you apply vertical pressure on a credit card it bends pretty far one way, and the more pressure you apply the farther the card bends. Let's say bending the card one way is analogous to being righteous and sinful if bent the other. So, if at first your pressure forces the card over to the good side, things are great. But if something happens and the card is pushed against the vertical pressure toward the other side, not only are you switching from the good toward the bad, you are moving much further to the other side and it's much harder to move the card back. It's very hard, living under this kind of pressure, to mess up one time, someone who falters, tends to falter pretty dramatically.

Here are some of the statistics he sites. Once a Mormon partakes in alcohol, they are far more likely to become alcoholic than a non-Mormon. Utah has the highest rates of on-line pornography use in the country. I think it was Italians he said who have among the highest percentage of people who drink alcohol, but also have much lower rates of abuse.

All of this makes sense as far as it goes. If you engage in absolutist thinking, you increase the pressure, and if a slip is made, it has a far more significant consequence on your emotional state.

I can't disagree with this.

But is this the church's fault? I think where most critics of the Mormon church stumble is they fail to fundamentally understand what the church is all about. Admittedly, this is my understanding of the church they are misunderstanding, and my perspective is also flawed, but let me explain why I disagree with Dr. Christian. Let me also try to point out how I'm trying to raise my children as Mormons in a culture that gives them every opportunity for someone to commit sin.

I think the biggest difference between the Mormon church and many of the other churches out there is that we expect much more out of our members. I think this goes without saying, but let me dig deeper because it's fundamental to what our church is all about.

I think, in some ways, the Mormon church is a little bit like Google in the technology industry. The church has no paid clergy. Instead, we are all clergy. Every single position in the church is not only important, but vital. When someone joins our church, they are not only becoming a member, but essentially, they are its clergy as well.

I love the scripture in the Doctrine and Covenants that brings this point home:

D&C 18: 14-16

14 Wherefore, you are called to cry repentance unto this people.

15 And if it so be that you should labor all your days in crying repentance unto this people, and bring, save it be one soul unto me, how great shall be your joy with him in the kingdom of my Father!

Not only is every soul precious, but every position in the church is important. My two year old is attending nursery every week during church and is being cared for by under-appreciated nursery workers who are introducing her to gospel principles. My older kids are listening to the testimonies of primary teachers helping them to develop the foundation for their faith in God. I know we as parents are important to their success, but so is the broader community they participate in and the church is there to help them with that. Their souls are important to us. I am thankful for those people who believe the same thing. And they show this by their sacrifice. They willingly volunteer their time to help our children grow in their faith.

I compare my church to Google because Google hires engineers who are committed to the industry and each employee is expected to produce at a high level at every level. The company strives to have a bottom up development approach. Every person matters and is important and has a voice. The company innovates because each of its employee's are allowed to innovate.

In the same way, all members of the Mormon church are asked to contribute at every level in the effort of bringing souls to Christ. The church is trying to do something difficult and members of this church are being asked to engage in that effort. The biggest difference between our church and Google, is that Google tries very hard to hire only highly qualified people by making it very hard to pass their interviews. The church's by contrast simply says that if you have a desire to serve God you are called to the work. If more companies hired based on desire, our unemployment rates would shrink and our recession would disappear, sigh.

But as members of the church, we are definitely called to work and to sacrifice. So, yes, there can be pretty intense vertical pressure and yes, it can cause problems.

But there is another way.

In a television interview some years ago, the then prophet and president of the church President Gordon Hinckley was asked about this. He was asked about how he avoids sin, and was it difficult. He said matter of factly that it's not difficult for him at all because he simply does not spend much time thinking about sin. He found a way to remove the vertical pressure on the credit card completely. He learned to change the game. Rather than applying pressure on himself to avoid sin, he spent his life anxiously engaged in improving the world around him. His focus wasn't on sin, his focus was on being engaged in goodness.

I think this shift is vital, especially in a world where it's increasingly easy to get hooked into alcohol, drugs, pornography, and other kinds of addictions. This is the approach I want for my childen. Let them find ways to engage in flow enhancing activities. The world has really opened up in this way. We live in a world filled with teachers, really we all should be teachers. It's becoming easier and easier to learn just about anything if we have the dedication and patience to do so. Learn a language, find a league in almost any kind of sport, or learn a musical instrument.

As my children reach high school, I hope they can find a passion that consumes a lot of their energy. I don't much care what it is, just something that gives them plenty of opportunities to experience flow, activities that are challenging and fulfilling, activities that will help them develop an expertise in something, something that brings them joy. If they can leverage this passion to benefit the community in some way? So be it, you don't have to be old to change the world.

And sure, they will be young, and their bodies will one day be surging with hormones, and temptations will be all around them and mistakes will be made. I hope as a parent I can be loving, understanding, open and forgiving. I hope they will be able to feel that deeply. I hope that no matter what happens they realize in a deep way they are valuable and valued and have an almost unlimited potential to do whatever they set their minds to do.

I think in all of those ways, the vertical pressure of the credit card is released. Instead of being worried about moving this way or that way across an imaginary line separating sin from righteousness, the entire card is shifted, their entire perspective about who they are and what they can achieve changes. This is probably a lifetime endeavor, but as Christians, this is what we are trying to do. We are trying to raise the bar. We are trying to be like Jesus and that is a high standard.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Can you be a liberal Mormon?

Well, I don't know, but some people think so, but only with a mighty struggle.

The problem, here, can go both ways. You have mainstream, traditional Mormon's who have conflated Mormon theology with the conservative wing (is there any other wing these days?) of the Republican party. When conservative views get sprinkled into church talks over the pulpit or gets used in Sunday lessons, this can make those with different political views uncomfortable. Because Mormon's tend to be almost uniformly conservative, this kind of thing can happen with some regularity. But obviously, it can go the other way. I tend to live in a more liberal than average part of the US and sometimes we get someone saying something more squishibly liberal over the pulpit.

Much of this is unavoidable. We are all human beings and it's hard to draw a hard line between our religious, political and all of our other points of view. These thoughts will blend together and sometimes inappropriate things will be said. Part of being a member of the Mormon church is recognizing this. We have no professional clergy - we are the clergy, and we need to be hyper-willing to look past other people's mistakes and flaws.

But the church is not a political party and religious faith and political beliefs are not the same thing. They both are important. We are members of our community and duty bound to make a contribution, to be informed when we vote, and to help solve the problems we face. We are also spiritual beings who are striving to be guided through a very difficult and uncertain world in hope of a better one. In Ether 12:4 it says:

"Wherefore, whoso believeth in God might with surety hope for a better world, yea, even a place at the right hand of God, which hope cometh of faith, maketh an anchor to the souls of men, which would make them sure and steadfast, always abounding in good works, being led to glorify God."

This is the purpose of faith and religion. Look at the words used: "believeth, hope, faith". These words, in part, point toward something more emotional then mental, a connection to something big, too big to express succinctly, we just don't have the vocabulary to describe our faith. The closest we can get is through abstractions using poetry or music to brush up at it.

But politics and science and economics are all different. We are put on this earth to develop ourselves and to grow. Part of our growing is to try to make sense of the world around us, to solve the problems we face, and to do the best to get a long with others. Engaging in our communities, working within our governmental institutions, voting are all essential parts of this. Of course, we don't develop our political views in a vacuum. Our religion and our politics intersect and contradict all of the time.

But I believe one essential part about being a human being is to be able to deal with these contradictions and ambiguities. One essential tool to do so is to realize how limited we as human beings are in both the physical and spiritual worlds. We know nothing which is why we live by faith. We are striving to know more which is why we have an intellect. Both our important and inform one another.

In The Social Animal David Brooks says:

"Wisdom doesn't consist of knowing specific facts or possessing knowledge of a field. It consists of knowing how to treat knowledge: being confident but not too confident; adventurous but grounded. It is a willingness to confront counterevidence and to have a feel for the vast spaces beyond what's known."

And the vast spaces beyond what's known is unbelievably vast. But to do anything in this world, we have to proceed with "confidence but not too much confidence". It's a balancing act every single day of our lives.

Listening to the poscasts on Mormon Stories or Mormon Matters, you get the point of view of liberals struggling being Mormon.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Poetry and High School

Why isn't poetry more popular? My sister recently sent me this poem and I loved it. Here it is:

Craig Arnold's “Why I skip my high school reunions” (1999)

[From: Arnold, Craig. Shells. New Haven, Yale University Press: 1999.]

Because the geeks and jocks were set in stone, 

I, ground between.
Because the girls I ate 

lunch with are married now, most out of spite 

--because the ones I spurned are still alone. 

Because I took up smoking at nineteen, late, 

and just now quit--because, since then, I've grown 

into and out of something they've never known. 

Because at the play, backstage, on opening night 

she conjured out of the vast yards of her dress 
an avocado and a razorblade, 

slit the one open with the other, flayed 

the pebbled skin, and offered me a slice

--because I thought that one day I'd say yes, 

and I was wrong, and I am still afraid.

I like this poem because I recently missed my 20 year reunion and still feel some regret over it. I didn't miss my 10 year reunion. I went to it with a lot of expectations and left with a lot of those expectations unmet.

I also like it because those four years of my high school life, which is really a tiny sliver of my overall existence, still mean so much to me and seem to have an outsized importance of how my life seems to have gone since.

I like it because I'm still afraid that I am the same basic person I was then, and in fact, I still am....

I like poetry because you can capture so much emotion with so few words. Can someone tell me why poetry is not more popular?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011


I've been reading some books lately. And in one way or another, sexuality is at the core of each.

In "Little Bee", a sexual encounter, is at the crux of every plot twist in the novel, and in most every case, these events lead the characters down a path toward tragedy - a rape and murder of a Nigerian girl, an offer of sex to get out of an immigrant prison, an adulterous affair that leads a couple to vacation in a Nigerian beach resort in an attempt to recover their marriage.

In "A Thousand Splendid Sons", the story is about two Afghanistan women who are each forced into a marriage with the same pretty despicable man. One is forced into marriage at like age 14, the other is added as a second wife much later but is also young when it happens, 16? The man is at first enamored, but quickly becomes abusive.

Finally, "House of Cards" is a memoir by Dave Dickerson who is this brilliant wordsmith who lands a job at Halmark. He's a great writer and the book is brutally honest - he exposes everything there is about himself. He's young, in his late 20's, but despite his natural intelligence and his obvious passion and skill, he lacks maturity and depth. He's self absorbed throughout which is what, in my opinion, causes him to sabotage a relationship with his fiance. I care about these kinds of things. At the first hint that his relationship might fracture, I google'd him hoping to see him happily married with a woman that from his accounts sounded perfect for him. But, no such luck. He blows it. He thinks he ends it because of her problems and their broken sex life, but the reality is that he seems to actually devolve as the book progresses.

His book ends when he quits Hallmark to pursue a PhD at a college in Florida. Let me quote him:

"I pulled out early the next morning with Dwight Yoakam in my car's CD player, and when I hit the highway, I felt like I was flying. The Life of Dave, 2.0, was going to start today. I planned the whole thing in an invisible chart on my windscreen. I would become a cultural studies scholar, specializing in something cool. Figure that out later. I would learn how to teach, and maybe I'd even like it. I would live in warm weather again, and I'd have a lot of free time. No more nine-to-fiving! Who cares about an eighty percent pay cut if you're getting years of your life back?

I would go to parties. Maybe drink. I'd have a favorite alcohol, even, and feel cool ordering it. I'd smoke a little pot without any fear at all. And there would be girls. Beautiful girls. Don't they sometimes sleep with their TAs? College! Why does anyone ever leave?"

And that basically sums him up by the end of it. He was raised an Evangelical Christian in Tucson. Has some very good reasons for leaving that church. He becomes a Catholic, for some really, truly profound reasons, not least of which it's the church his fiance belongs to. By the end of it, he leaves his faith completely and becomes an atheist.

I admit I'm being judgmental and maybe harsh and there are some poignant moments in the book that I want to blog about later (maybe). Let me find another person to kind of second my point of view. Here's one from an amazon review of the book :

This is a well-written, cleverly observed, and very funny book. I also found it mildly disturbing, because I think Dickerson sometimes reveals more about himself than he realizes. It's still not clear to me, for instance, that he understands how deep the divide was between his own 'romantic' but essentially self-centered fantasies about his relationship and his fiancee's actual needs and desires. And it takes the poor guy forever to figure out that some of his perfectly innocent habits are annoying the crap out of his patient but uncommunicative coworkers. At many points in the book, I felt simultaneously sympathetic and incredibly irritated with him.

From this thought, I want to pivot to this book I read some time back about Flow.

He has a section on sex that's worth quoting in detail:

At first it is very easy to obtain pleasure from sex, and even to enjoy it. Any fool can fall in love when young. The first date, the first kiss, the first intercourse all present heady new challenges that keep the young person in flow for weeks on end. But for many this ecstatic state occurs only once; after the 'first love' all later relationships are no longer as exciting. It is especially difficult to keep enjoying sex with the same partner over a period of years. It is probably true that humans, like the majority of mammalian species, are not monogamous by nature. It is impossible for partners not to grow bored unless they work to discover new challenges in each other's company, and learn appropriate skills for enriching the relationship. Initially physical challenges alone are enough to sustain flow, but unless romance and genuine care also develop, the relationship will grow stale.

How to keep love fresh? The answer is the same as it is for any other activity. To be enjoyable, a relationship must become more complex. To become more complex, the partners must discover new potentialities in themselves and in each other. To discover these, they must invest attention in each other - so that they can learn what thoughts and feelings, what dreams reside in their partner's mind. This in itself is a never-ending process, a lifetime's task. After one begins to really know another person, then many joint adventures become possible: traveling together, reading the same books, raising children, making and realizing plans all become more enjoyable and more meaningful. The specific details are unimportant. Each person must find out which ones are relevant to his or her own situation. What is important is the general principal: that sexuality, like any other aspect of life, can be made enjoyable if we are willing to take control of it, and cultivate it in the direction of greater complexity."

I think this is where some critics of my faith miss the boat when they claim that our church is too restrictive and that we place too many boundaries.

What our church does do is raise the bar for those who seek to join. I mean, it's a journey, nobody expects perfection. We're only asked to constantly strive for this growth and though it's not stated in this exact way, we are striving to find  this kind of growing complexity. And it's within marriage, within a family that this possibility for real growth is most profound. This complete devotion to your spouse is a challenge, but it's also worth it. And those who don't strive for it, will have no idea what they're missing.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Come and See

My wife recently returned home from an extended weekend in Salt Lake and brought back with her a packet prepared by the Relief Society designed to be used as a study guide over 40 days. The theme of the packet is "A Journey with Christ" and it guides the reader basically through the New Testament. We decided to go through this as a couple and we had our first session tonight.

In it, there's a talk from Ezra Taft Benson with this rather profound quote:

"We are meeting the adversary every day. The challenges of this ear will rival any of the past, and these challenges will increase both spiritually and temporally. We must be close to Christ, we must daily take His name upon us, always remember Him, and keep His commandments."

When I read the word "challenges", my radar picked up because for me that word has some depth. Let me explain. If you didn't know, I currently work in the software industry, and one of the constant themes as I talk with my colleagues at work is the need to seek new "challenges" and opportunities to grow. We want interesting "problems" to solve. Engineering is fundamentally a career where you seek out problems and find new cool and exciting ways to solve them. We want to solve puzzles essentially, we want to get better, we want to hone our craft.

So, when I see the word challenge, it triggers something positive in me where others might see a negative. I feel compelled to offer an alternative interpretation of this passage different from the more common default one.

In so many ways, the world has shifted drastically. It used to be that we could be content finding a factory job working with the same company for thirty years, retire with a pension and be taking care of all of our lives. Most of the time, these jobs were somewhat deadend, with few opportunities to really grow, but we had security. That world, for many reasons is gone.

Instead, we have many, many more opportunities. For a programmer in between jobs, they can now bid for work over the intenert. Not to mention the many, many businesses being run out of someone's home using ebay, amazon, or etsy.

I'm not saying any of this is easy. It's a harder world, it requires a certain amount of fearlessness and engagement that they don't teach you in school. But it's also a more exciting world, a more empowering world, and yes, a more challenging world.

I love Seth Godin's blog because in it, he acts like a cheerleader encouraging you to embrace this new reality.

Monday, April 25, 2011

St. John's Chapter 9

We were reading this chapter in the New Testament last night, but it was what was happening in my home right before reading this chapter, that made these passages extra profound and beautiful. I was in a grumpy mood. Our pretty expensive camera has been lost now for a couple of weeks now. The last time we had seen it, our two year old was walking down the hall with the camera in her hand. My iPod was also missing. It was the end of the day. Our house already has a baseline of too much clutter, but we tend to oscillate around the baseline quite widely. This night was no exception. I was barking orders grumpily at my kids trying to get them to pick up their mess, while I kept looking for both the iPod and the camera.

Low and behold, I found both under our bed. Still grumpy, but a little less so, we basically picked up most of the stuff. My wife was now in a bad mood, taking my frustrations at our mess very personally - not totally realizing that I am much more responsible for our mess than she is. Anyway, I embarked on our family scripture reading, St. John Chapter 9. I decided at random, to inject our problem right into the scriptures to see what would happen, and guess what?

"1 And as Jesus passed by, he saw a family which was messy from the beggining.
2 And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this family or their parents, who failed to teach them how to keep house?
3 Jesus answered, Neither hath this family sinned, nor their parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in them.
4 I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work.
5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.
6 When he had thus spoken, he spat on the ground, and made clay of the spittle, and he anointed the house of this family with the clay,
7 and said unto him, Go, wash in the pool of Silo'am, (which is by interpretation, Sent.) He went his way therefore, and washed, and came seeing.
8 The neighbors therefore, and they which before had seen him that they were a complete mess, said, Is not this he that lived in squalor?
9 Some said, This is them: others said,they look like them, but they said, we are they.
10 Therefore said they unto them, How was thou house cleaned?
11 They answered and said, A man that is called Jesus made clay, and anointed our house, and said unto us, Go to the thy house and wash and we washed, and we knew how to keep our house clean and organized.

This resonated with me because we are all born with struggles and weaknesses - not because we're bad or sinful. It's just because we are human. And the way to achieve growth is through our faith, and through that faith, our weaknesses can be removed, not because of anything we do, but "so the works of God can be made manifest".

I'm wondering how many of us are taking advantage of these sorts of gifts. We all have blind spots. We can also be healed.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Black Swan Events

It seems like everywhere I turn I'm being compared with my peers based on the bell curve. I've been graded against it in school and stuff like promotions and raises are commonly granted based on how I perform in comparison with other people. You know the curve I'm talking about, the one shaped like a bell, where you cluster most of the people together in the middle - the C students, then a small clump at the top, another small clump on the bottom. Does this even make sense? Is this how life works? Should a company any company make employee evaluations in this way? Should our schools operate in that way? Do I want my children graded this way?

I think the reason the bell curve has caught on is because in many aspects of our day to day lives it seems to work pretty well. You can get away, mostly, grouping people in a bell shaped curve, where most people are average, a few are below average and a few are above average. But it's rare to impossible to diverge too far from the mean.

There's a lot of reason this approach is favored. For one, it reduces complexity. If you're a teacher (or a parent), you can easily assess how your child is doing in her class by looking at a letter grade, and these grades really mean something when you know they have been applied based on a bell curve. The problem is there are people who clearly don't fit. They either fall so far to right of the curve, they completely off of it. So, not only are super-super stars rare, if you believe the Gaussian curve, they don't exist.

So, how do you account for the super-extraordinary student? You can't give him an A. Well, they are either moved up a grade (or two or three) or they are pushed out of the educational system completely. In the business world, they quit your company and create their own, or if they don't, they will achieve all star status, but will be hopelessly underpaid and probably under-utlized.

Because most of us have grown up in a culture of bell curves, it's only natural that large companies use this same technique to determine raises, promotions, and in the time of hardship, who to lay off.

Why am I focused so much on the bell curve? Well, because I recently finished the book The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb who talks about the bell curve in the most disparaging way possible.

The main thesis of the book is that everything that truly matters in our society happens because of events that are both unpredictable and revolutionary. One single stock market crash can wipe out the gradual, predictable gains made over the course of 20 years. A major earthquake in Japan can destroy entire communities that took decades to build. A single event on 9/11/2001, can destroy our economy, turn the airline industry upside down, and bog our country down into two wars. In fact war itself is a black swan. So many times they seem to come out of nowhere, devastating nations for decades.

These are disruptive events and are extremely difficult to predict. Technology is an industry ripe with black swans. Cisco, eBay, Google all were black swan events. Rising out of the dust to produce companies that changed everything. But as soon as these companies got big, they also became predictable. The truly important events, largely in all cases, happened the day these companies were founded. Everything since has been only to leverage their initial idea.

But are people as easy to classify as the bell curve suggests? I would make the argument that the whole notion of the bell curve is flawed. We use it because it works most of the time, but mainly because it makes our lives simple. An individual person is just that, an individual, with built in strengths and weaknesses, but also with a unique set of experiences and opinions and points of view. One of the reasons we are so surprised by black swan events is because a really good idea can germinate just about from anywhere. So much of what happens in society occur through a series of well-timed accidents. The right person was in the right place thinking the right thoughts having the right skills at the right time. So much of all of this is just luck, coming from a circumstantial sequence of events.

Skill matters, though. If you aren't prepared for the unpredictable, it will either bury your or pass you by. How do you prepare? In the words of Taleb, how do you turn black swans grey?

I think we need to break out of the bell curve way of thinking. Every single person has the potential, if given the opportunity and training, to produce black swan events.

Here is one suggestion taking directly from the book:

"The strategy for the discoverers and entrepreneurs is to rely less on top-down planning and focus on maximum tinkering and recognizing opportunities when they present themselves. So I disagree with the followers of Marx and those of Adam Smith: the reason free markets work is because they allow people to be lucky, thanks to aggressive trial and error, not by giving rewards or 'incentives' for skill. The strategy is, then, to tinker as much as possible and try to collect as many Black Swan opportunities as you can."

If we, as a country, want to continue to develop as a nation of innovators, there has to be room to do exactly this. It has to be open to all and widely encouraged and openly supported. The more people excluded, due to lack of opportunity or education, the more we narrow opportunities to benefit from positive black swan events.

At the end of the day, none of us in reality falls within the Gaussian curve. It's a massive over-simplification of how individuals behave and how the world works. It's possible to force the real world into a theoretical model and to pretend things work that way - until you're hit by a black swan event, of course.