Monday, January 31, 2011

A Thousand Splendid Suns Part II

I just finished Hoseeini's "A Thousand Splendid Suns". It was seriously heart wrenching. You read about Afghanistan or similar countries in the news, but this book seriously puts you directly in the shoes of people living with the horrors of these countries.

I could generate a dozen posts on this book, like, a friend friend of mine did when she read the book a couple of years back. And maybe I will.

But it was a seriously good, moving, heart wrenching book. My first reaction is to think the US should never leave Afghanistan until we are sure the Taliban never have the opportunity to take control of that country again.

But also, I realize that in many ways, our country tends to really mess things up when we get involved in other's affairs. Here I'm thinking about the support we gave the Afghanistan Mujahideen during the 1980's when they were trying to expel the Soviet Union from their country. While reading the book, I had to look up Massoud a figure that comes up periodically in the book. Knowing very little about the nuances of Afghanistan history, but ever willing to express an opinion, this quote struck me from wikipedia:

"The United States provided Massoud with close to no support. Part of the reason was that it permitted its funding and arms distribution to be administered by Pakistan, which favored rival mujahideen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. In an interview Massoud expressed: "We thought the CIA knew everything. But they didn't. They supported some bad people [meaning Hekmatyar]." Primary advocates for supporting Massoud instead were State Department's Edmund McWilliams and Peter Tomsen, who were on the ground in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Others included two Heritage Foundation foreign policy analysts, Michael Johns and James A. Phillips, both of whom championed Massoud as the Afghan resistance leader most worthy of U.S. support under the Reagan Doctrine.["

Hekmatyar is also mentioned in the book and apparently he's the one who showers Kabul with rockets - the same rockets in the novel that kill Laila's parents.

Looking back, it's pretty obvious that the way we dealt with Russia was pretty myopic - as if they were the only bad guys in this world. I think Afghanistan could have turned out better if the US had used a little more sophistication in the way we handled the situation over there.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Water Birth

Not too long ago I finished this book whose focus is how evolution and disease leads to surprising conclusions. I won't get into the evolution foray here, but I do want to quote this section of the book:

Legend has it that the first medical water birth took place in the early nineteenth century in France. Birth attendants were struggling to help a woman who had been in labor for more than forty-eight hours when one of the midwives suggested a warm bath might help the expectant mother to relax. According to the story, the baby was born shortly after the woman settled into the tub.

A Russian researcher named Igor Tjarkovsky is often credited as the father of modern water birthing. He designed a special tank in the 1960s for water birthing, but the trend didn't really catch on in the West until the early 1980s or so. The reaction of the medical establishment wasn't encouraging. In medical journals and the popular press, doctors suggested that water birthing was dangerous, filled with unacceptable risks of infection and drowning. It wasn't until 1999, when Ruth Gilbert and Pat Tookey of the Institute of Child Health in London published a serious study showing that water birth was at least as safe as conventional methods, that all these predictions of doom and gloom were shown to be largely baseless.

An even more recent Italian study, published in 2005, has confirmed the safety of water birthing - and demonstrated some stunning advantages. The Italian researchers compared 1,600 water births at a single institution over eight years to the conventional births at the same place during the same time.

First of all, there was no increase of infection in either mother or newborns. In fact there was apparently an additional protection for the newborn against aspiration pneumonia. Babies don't gasp for air until they feel the air on their face; when they're underwater, the mammalian diving reflex - present in all mammals - triggers them to hold their breath. (Fetuses do 'breath' while in their mother's womb, but they're actually sucking in amniotic fluid, not air, which forms a crucial part of their lung development.) When babies are delivered conventionally, they take their first breadth of air as soon as they feel air on their face; sometimes, if they get in a big breath before the doctor can clean their face, this causes them to inhale fecale matter or 'birthing residue' that can cause an infection in their lungs - aspiration pneumonia. But babies delivered underwater don't face that risk - until they're brought to the surface they don't switch from fetal circulation to regular circulation, so there's no risk of them inhaling water, and the attendants have plenty of time to clean their faces while they're still underwater, before lifting them out of it and triggering their first breath.

The study revealed many more benefits. First-time mothers delivering in water had a much shorter first stage of labor. Whether the water relaxed nervous minds or tired muscles or had some other effect, it clearly accelerated the deliver process. Women delivering in water also had a dramatic reduction in the need for episiotomies - the surgical cut routinely performed in the hospital births to expand a woman's vaginal opening in order to prevent complications from tearing. Most of the time they just weren't necessary - the water simply allowed for more of a stretch.

And perhaps most remarkably, the vast majority of the women who gave birth in water needed no painkillers. Only 5 percent of the women who started their labor in water asked for an epidural - com pared to 66 percent of the women who gave birth through conventional means.


A child development researcher named Myrtle McGraw documented these surprising abilities back in 1939 - not only do very young babies hold their breadth, they also make rhythmic movements that propel them through the water. Dr. McGraw found that this 'water-friendly' behavior is instinctual and lasts until babies are about four months old, when the movements become less organized."

My wife gave birth to our fourth baby, a girl, on Thursday morning, at home, in a birthing tub. The labor was extremely short, and less painful than our previous births. She did go through two rather painful contractions outside the tub on a birthing ball, but when she re-entered the water, the contractions were more manageable. Did I mention the labor was fast? The babies head appeared a few minutes before our naturapathic doctor's assistant arrived.

All in all it was an incredible and intense experience, and we've had the enormous blessing to relax with our healthy and happy baby in the comfort of our own home.

Also, as an aside, we were really lucky in the birth's timing. Our oldest daughter is diabetic and we were worried about managing her and the birth at the same time.

Well, my wife's labor started early in the morning and the baby came just in time to wake up our kids and bring them in to see the baby in my wife's arms. I even had time to do a blood sugar test in between one of my wife's early contractions.

Our newest daughter will be our last and the only home birth of the bunch - but by far the best experience of the four.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Thousand Splendid Suns

I began reading A Thousand Splendid Suns which depicts life in Afghanistan through the eyes of (so far) a young girl.

This girl, Mariam, enters this world when an elite man of the community, Jalil has an affair with one of his servants. Her mother raises Mariam alone in the outskirts of the town with the help of her father's money. He grows up worshiping Jalil (her father) who visits her every week with what seems like sincere affection.

I can't go into it here (really I'm just too lazy), but her mother ends up hanging herself when Mariam is 15 and as a result, Jalil (and his three wives) push Mariam into a forced marriage to a 45 year old man who lives in Kabul conveniently a distance far, far away. That's where I am.

Here's how this chapter (Chapter 8) finishes:

Jalil was busy telling her [Mariam] that Kabul was so beautiful, the Moghul emperor Babur had asked that he be buried there. Next, Mariam knew, he'd go on about Kabul's gardens, and its shops, its trees, and its air, and before long, she would be on the bus and he would walk alongside it, waving cheerfully, unscathed, spared.

Mariam could not bring herself to allow it.

'I used to worship you,' she said.

Jalil stopped in midsentence. He crossed and uncrossed his arms. A young Hindu couple, the wife cradling a boy, the husband dragging a suitcase, passed between them. Jalil seemed grateful for the interruption. They excused themselves, and he smiled back politely.

'On Thursdays, I sat for hours waiting for you. I worried myself sick that you wouldn't show up.'

'It's been a long trip. You should eat something.' He said he could buy her some bread and goat cheese.

'I thought about you all the time. I used to pray that you'd live to be a hundred years old. I didn't know. I didn't know that you were ashamed of me.'

Jalil looked down, and, like an overgrown child, dug at something with his to of his shoe.

'You were ashamed of me.'

'I'll visit you,' he muttered. 'I'll come to Kabul and see you. We'll --'

'No. No,' she said. 'Don't come. I won't see you. Don't you come. I don't want to hear from you. Ever. Ever.'

He gave her a wounded look.

'It ends here for you and me. Say your good-byes.'

'Don't leave like this,' he said in a thin voice.

'You didn't even have the decency to give me the time to say good-bye to Mullah Faizullah.'

She turned and walked around to the side of the bus. She could hear him following her. When she reached the hydraulic doors, she heard him behind her.

'Mariam jo.'

She climbed the stairs and though she could spot Jalil out of the corner of her eye walking parallel to her she did not look out the window. She made her way down the aisle to the back, where Rasheed sat with her suitcase between his feet. She did not turn to look when Jalil's palms pressed on the glass, when his knuckles rapped and rapped on it. When the bus jerked forward, she did not turn to see him trotting alongside it. And when the bus pulled away, she did not look back to see him receeding, to see him disappear in the cloud of exhaust and dust.

Rasheed, who took up the window and the middle seat, put thick hands on hers.

'There now, girl. There. There,' he said He was squinting out the window as he said this, as though something more interesting had caught his eye."

So many thoughts about the first eight chapters of this book culminating when a father, shamefully and cowardly, literally throws away his 15 year old daughter like she was nothing more than a used up doll, tossed aside through an arranged marriage with a 45 year old stranger.

So, many of my thoughts on politics come down to how will our societies adequately be judged? I think we're judged by how the most vulnerable among us are doing. How many human beings are dismissed and disregarded? How many people are treated like animals or property? How do we care for our elderly? Or our poor? Obviously, the biggest shame in our Constitution was the way black slaves were counted as 3/5 of a person, and even more so, that we even had slaves at all. Or in virtually every society throughout much of our history, how women have been and continue to be deplorably treated and abused.

I know personally, its really difficult to recognize that every single person I encounter has a huge back story most likely filled with at least some amount tragedy and loss. Do I really succeed in putting myself in others shoes - even the homeless man? I know I have a long way to go personally.

I think what happens when you get to a certain place, there's so much fear that you will lose it. Jalil was the man in his town, owned lots of businesses, had three wives, ten children to them. He had Mariam with a servant girl and he risked shame. I'm not sure how much of a risk this was, the book didn't go into it. Would he loose anything if he took responsibility? It was certain neither of his three wives wanted Mariam around.

One more thought about this book. The author, Khaled Hossseini literally puts me in the shoes of Mariam jo, this obscure Aghanistani girl in a land I have no experience with. Reading these sorts of novels, helps to increase empathy.

"In a study published earlier this year psychologist Raymond A. Mar of York University in Toronto and others demonstrated that the number of stories preschoolers read predicts their ability to understand the emotions of others. Mar has also shown that adults who read less fiction report themselves to be less empathic."

I'm wondering how most people rate empathy on a scale of important personal characteristics, but I would suggest that for Christians, empathy was at the center of Christ's life and for Mormon's and I'm guessing for others as well it was a central part of his suffering and death:

"Jesus' perfect empathy was ensured when, along with His Atonement for our sins, He took upon Himself our sicknesses, sorrows, griefs, and infirmities and came to know these 'according to the flesh' (Alma 7:11-12). He did this in order that He might be filled with perfect, personal mercy and empathy and thereby know how to succor us in our infirmities. He thus fully comprehends human suffering." - Neal A. Maxwell

So, yeah, empathy is pretty important religiously speaking. But what about business? What does it really mean when we're building something to be purchased by another. We are anticipating someone else's needs and trying to fulfill them. At the heart of capitalism - when it works well - is empathy.

Its interesting to read a novel about Afghanistan considering we are currently fighting our longest war there right now.

Obviously, its a country far too complex to comment about considering I know virtually nothing about it. But I think it's a country worth learning about. And that - an awareness of a country we are occupying - too, should be reflected in our politics.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

On the Political Commentating after Gifford's Assassination Attempt

First of all, these murders are obviously horrifying and disturbing on so many levels. Our Democracy depends on a respect for the election process and if someone fears for their life if they choose to vote on a controversial issue, this is a major, major problem. We want our elected legislatures to vote for bills with their conscious. If they vote against the will of the majority in their represented district, they will suffer consequences in the next election cycle. Obviously, the worst that should happen is that they lose their jobs not their lives.

What's more is that Giffords was out there engaging with her constituency when an attack on her life was made - this kind of violence will only further insulate our politicians from the people they represent. It is sad.

I'm not sure how many people really paid attention, but Harry Mitchell received death threats after he voted for the Health care bill and stopped having town halls because of it.

The Judge John Roll who was one of the victims who lost their life on Saturday had previously received death threats after ruling in favor of illegal immigrants who has sued a rancher.

And, of course Gabrielle Giffords herself had also received threats of violence for her votes on health care.

All of this is so sad and so disturbing and of course not entirely unique, read this brief history of American assassinations (and attempts) and the motives behind them.

But what can we learn from this? I really hope and pray that the extremes of our politics are marginalized from this. That the more moderate and civil among us come out of this ahead. I would love to see AM talk radio lose a lot of support, and the likes of Glenn Beck and Mark Levin lose sponsors, viewers and listeners.

I don't blame any of these people in any way, but the kind of hatred on the air-waves is certainly not helpful.

Here's Andrew Sullivan:

"But the level of animus toward the new president and anyone supporting him reached preposterous proportions at the beginning of this presidency; the gracelessness from the Congressional leadership on down, from 'You lie!' to 'death panels' and 'palling around with terrorists' ... this is a real problem in a country with its fair share of disturbed individuals and much more than its fair share of guns.

The Palin forces, who have fomented this dynamic more viciously and recklessly than any other group, are reacting today with incandescent rage that they could even be mentioned in the same breath as this act of political terrorism. That's called denial. When you put a politician in literal cross-hairs, when you call her a target, when you celebrate how many targets you have hit, when you go on national television and shoot guns, when you use the language of "lock and load" to describe disagreements over healthcare provision ... you are part of the problem."

Finally, here's a conservative response comparing this mass murder to the one in Fort Hood.

I do think we have to be careful with our finger pointing, but certainly a move toward civility and compassion and a world where Americans are Americans who can disagree but at the end of the day still be friends is something I want to support.

Does Sarah Palin's rhetoric encourage that? I say it does not and I hope she and her kind (of any political stripe) lose a lot of political influence as a result.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

State Budget Crisis

Random Musings has a pretty good overview of the trouble with our state budget explained in great detail here.

I wanted to mainly summarize my reading of the article published on the Morrison Institute website because this is really important stuff.

The article's primary point is that our state is running both a cyclical but more troubling a structural deficit that will be increasingly difficult to resolve. The cyclical deficit stems from our current recession - tax revenue have fallen while at the same time there's an increased demand for government services - stuff like medicaid, etc.

However, the structural deficits are much more troubling because they persist even as we recover and they were primarily caused by:

"Less understood is the depth of the state’s massive structural imbalance, which has arisen thanks in large part to policy choices made during the go-go years of the state’s recent past but which will not soon relent. During the growth years, legislative and executive leaders acted as if the state could maintain a basic level of service provision even as it implemented tax cuts that permanently reduced the state’s revenue base."

How we deal with this structural deficit is key:

"With one-time fixes, gimmicks, and fund sweeps exhausted, budget cuts from this point forward could—if handled crudely—prove devastating and difficult to recover from. Serious discussions among state leaders have included opting out of Medicaid, cutting a K-12 system often cited before the recession for receiving the lowest per-pupil funding in the nation, and significantly reducing funding for the state’s university system. At the same time, if managed well (that is, with a balanced
approach and a sense of strategy and rigor) the crisis might actually prompt innovation instead of just pain.

I'm afraid our political culture here in Arizona is not well suited for dealing with this issue in a sophisticated way and that can have consequences if they aggressively cut services that are critical for the long term growth of our state (schools, say).

Sources of our structural deficits:

Tax Cuts

"Beginning in FY 1993, the state implemented tax cuts in every year through FY 2002, and again from FYs 2005 through 2010 (though in only about half of these years was the revenue reduction substantial). Nominally, the net changes during this 17-year period totaled some $1.7 billion. Adjusting for inflation, population growth, and real per capita economic growth, the cumulative impact climbs to $2.9 billion. All kinds of taxes were cut, but 58 percent of the total in nominal dollars came from the personal income tax.5 "

Spending Increases

"On the other side of the budget ledger, two major impacts on general fund expenditures have occurred since the structural deficit began in the early 1990s. First, funding for school construction was shifted into the general fund in FY 1999, with no additional revenue being provided. The annual expense has been as high as $500 million. Second, in 2000 voters passed two competing ballot initiatives to expand Medicaid by using tobacco settlement monies. However, the specified funding source was inadequate to support the expansions, so additional funding had to be drawn from the general fund. "

All of this has consequences, we've already seen a 20% cut in K-12 spending, 28% cut in university budgets, a cut in benefits to needy families (kicking out 8,200 families) and a termination of support for organ transplants funded by Medicaid.

One very important suggestion:

"Lawmakers should embrace balance as a watchword as they seek to stabilize year-to-year finances and narrow structural gaps. One sort of balance should be a balance of revenue- and spending-side responses. The state’s massive budget gaps simply cannot be responsibly closed with only spending reductions. A second sort of balance is that which arises from diversification of the tax system. The proliferation of tax reductions implemented in the state since the early 1990s have made the revenue system not only narrower, but also more vulnerable to cyclical variations in the economy. State leaders need to commit to a more balanced approach and to making the hard choices on both the spending and revenues sides of the budget to achieve it. "

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Is Deron Williams better than Chris Paul?

Honestly, I'm not sure why I care that much about this debate, other than my in-laws in Utah are big Deron Williams homers. It all started on draft night when I read Bill Simmon's draft journal where he says this:

Following a trade with Portland, Utah takes Deron (don't call me De-RON) Williams at No. 3. Perfect pick – with some luck, he'll be half as good as Chris Paul.

Now, I watch virtually no sports these days, and I wish I could. Instead, I read about sports, so take this post for what it's worth. But I love getting into the statistics, so when I discovered The Wages of Wins website occasionally I'll drop on by to see what they have to say. And they've consistently rated Chris Paul not just the best point guard in league but one of the best ever and one of the best in the league at any position, year after year.

Well, I've been casually following Chris Paul this year, and when New Orlean's got off to their fast start I was pretty excited, but they have since slowed waaay down and it seemed like Deron Williams was putting up better numbers this year as I would occasionally scan their respective box scores.

I also know that there are serious concerns about Chris Paul's knee, so I was willing to concede on this debate this season...

But then I read this article about Chris Paul this season on Wages of Wins. No comparison to Deron Williams here, but they do say:

"As the following table notes, Chris Paul is really very, very, good. In fact, Paul is once again among the leaders in the NBA in Wins Produced. "

And I said to myself, whaaat? So, I checked for myself, here are the stats of the two player side by side, this season

Chris Paul: MIN: 34.9, FG %: .497, 3P%: .447, FT%: .910, STL: 3.00, TO: 2.4, PF: 2.5, Rebounds: 4.4, Assists: 9.9, Points: 16.6

Deron Williams: MIN: 37.9, FG %: .471, 3P%: .369, FT% .844, STL: 1.20, TO: 3.3, PF: 2.9, Rebounds: 3.9, Assists: 9.3, Points 22.2

Now the only statistic Deron Williams is doing better in this year is points, but in every other category he's doing worse, again this year. Wages of Wins makes the point that points is the statistic that gets the most attention, which is why many people believe Deron Williams is having a better year (he is having a great year, I'm not arguing that), but points scored is misleading. If someone consumes a lot of shots to get their points (think Allen Iverson, Carmelo Anthony or Kobe Bryant), they are actually hurting their team.

For this reason, the more important measure is how much a player does to maximize the number of possessions that turn into points for their team, and it's here where Chris Paul excels at historical levels. He turns the ball over very infrequently for a point guard, he gets lots of steals, he is a good rebounder at his position, he shoots the ball at a very high percentage and he gets a high number of assists. In other words he maximizes the number of possessions his teams gets with the ball (turnovers, steals and rebounds) and converts those possessions into points at a very high percentage (shooting percentage, assists).

The one difference this year, because Chris Paul is still recovering from a really bad knee injury that he suffered last year, is that Paul's minutes have been limited compared to previous years and compared to Deron Williams this year. This is a factor (given equivalent minutes, his turnovers would be slightly higher - but so also would be his steals, points, assists, and rebounds). Also, the minutes Chris Paul sits, another less effective (than Paul and Williams) guard is playing which does hurt the team's ability to win.

But when you look at his statistics, it is easy to see why Chris Paul is one of the best point guards ever to play the game.

Again, his knee problems may shorten his career and in the end Deron Williams, based solely on career longevity, may end up being the better pick for the Utah Jazz. But there should be no doubt that for the past six years of their respective careers, Chris Paul has been clearly the better player, and he is having the better year, this year.


Wages of Wins has an article on the Utah Jazz and Deron Williams.

So, here's the "Wins Produced" data side by side:

Deron Williams: 17.0 wins produced.
Chris Paul: 26.6 wins produced.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

What Did I Ship in 2010?

In my last post I linked Seth Godin but I didn't read carefully and I missed the last part of the post:

"Your turn to post a list somewhere... You'll probably be surprised at how much you accomplished last year. Go ahead and share with your friends, colleagues or the web... don't be shy."

Then, my friend Helena posted this in the comments:

"I look forward to Sara telling me all your great new goals. I also look forward to seeing what you "shipped" last year, if you plan on posting it. I think I'd have a hard time claiming something like that, especially after reading Seth's(?was that his name?) list."

So, I challenged her, I'll make my list if she makes hers.

Here's a partial list of what I shipped in 2010:

Church Calling Related

  • The ward's Father's And Sons Event

  • Spring Barbecue for the Elder's Quorum

  • Summer Pizza and Splash Pad Event for the Elder's Quorum

Brief note about the last two: These are two events that have become a tradition for the quorum, we've done them now for three years or so straight, and they've always been pretty well attended. I organized them originally because I've been in Elder's Quorum callings now for a while and I just had this voice whisper in my head - be aggressive, be aggressive. Which is another word for just shipping. And that's what I did.

Work Related
I'm a little timid to go into too much detail here, but in 2010 I was part of a team that delivered two major releases - the first is on the live site right now and if you paid with PayPal in 2010, chances are good you hit some code I wrote. The second will be released in 2011, but we turned it over to test before the holidays, so I'm counting it.

The second major work thing I did was to present a 40 minute tech talk to the Scottsdale development center. It was my first, and I hope to do more this year.

Home and Family

  • Laminated three of our four bedrooms

  • Was the assistant coach of our son's soccer team

  • Organized a violin concert for our oldest daughter to raise money for JDRF

  • Led a team to raise $2000 for JDRF for diabetes research.

Those are my major "shipping" accomplishments for 2010. I look forward to hearing about yours.

Helena, you're now on the hook.

Happy New Year - 2011!

Just a really short post - the first one for 2011. Obviously, I look forward to an incredible 2011. It's also a nice time to reflect on 2010 and how much I have in my life right now. 2010 really wasn't that significant of a year for me personally. It was more of just a continuation of a lot of different things - basically just trying to grind through in a lot of different ways.

But having kids, watching them grow a little older, having a wife whose perfect for me, living during a really incredibly time in this planet earth - where despite the challenges, we have so many opportunities.

My wife and I discovered this cafe today after we dropped our kids off at my parents house and searched for a place where we could sit down and set some 2011 goals. Let me just tell you what a cool place this was, and in the heart of Mesa. You know Mesa has a pretty good downtown that could be pretty great and there are some real treasures hidden in there. We'll definitely be going back here - highly recommended.

But, I am excited for the new year. My wife and I set some exciting goals, so I'm expecting this will be a year where we can really accomplish some things, and grow, and hopefully really ship something important.

But mostly, I'm just really grateful for my time on this planet earth and the relationships I've been able to make, and most of all the family I've been so lucky to have in my life.

Happy New Year everyone!