Friday, December 27, 2013

How to Have an Argument, err Discussion Online

I spend a lot of time reading articles on the internet, far too much time. But maybe I'm being fairly productive during those times when I'm reading really smart, really good writing from those grappling with some of the most difficult issues of the day. The best writers tend to be located on sites that host views across the political spectrum and part of the reason these writers are so great, in my view, is because they have been challenged. They are read by people who disagree with them, they read others with whom they disagree, and they write and are driven to write from a place of tension and conflict.

These writers want to contribute to the great conversation that has been taken place since the beginning of the written word. There are many great forums for this kind of great writing, the two I frequent most frequently are The Atlantic and Slate, but there are others. Admittedly, these sites are not perfect, they both lean left, but given the nature of our political environment and the fact that people are seeking echo chamber validation for views they already hold, these sites are about as good as they get.

Contrast that with those sites that try to stay more politically pure:  Town HallThe National Review, or The Weekly Standard on the right or DailyKOS or Think Progress on the left. I notice this especially on the right wing sites, where the echo chamber is particularly loud. I understand this is a subjective opinion, but on average, these sites tend to emphasize stories and make political points that have very little relationship to the topics and points made on the other side, almost as if they are living in another universe.

One thing I am convinced of, however, the more broadly read a writer is, the more they have injected themselves into the middle of a conversation, the more frequently have they grappled with the big questions and dealt with challenges to their opinions, the smarter they are as writers. Similar to why Gandalf becomes the white wizard in LOTR only after his fight with Balrog, we become better when we struggle. It's why I think conservative thought has degraded over the years and why I struggle with the content on their websites, they have insulated themselves to a far greater extent than the liberal sites.

So, why should I care about any of this? I don't make my living writing on the internet. But I do love to learn. I love to grapple. I love to argue discuss big ideas with people who disagree with me. There are many out there who do, but there are also many who are turned off by the debate. Why? Because we too often do it wrong.

The problem with most internet debate, taking place in the comments section of a posted article, on facebook, twitter or between bloggers, is that in the heat of the moment, our point of view gets skewed. We come into it believing we have the answers and it's our own holy calling to convince the other that we're right. Our goal is to get the other person to change their poorly conceived, weak opinions to our own much more superior ideas conceived by a much more advanced mind. Can you see why this is a flawed approach?

Why We Disagree
But why do people disagree in the first place? I think there are many reasons, but here's a short collection of them

Different Backgrounds
We have different backgrounds and experiences which lead us to see the world in a different way informed by these differences. This is key. It doesn't mean we're wrong, but it does mean we're limited - all of us. Chances are on many issues, we're both right and we're both wrong. In other words, yes, what we're saying makes perfect sense, but only if you see the issue from my exact vantage point.

For this reason, it's vital that we seek empathy in our discussion, placing ourselves into the other's shoes, really trying to understand the issue from their perspective. Give them the benefit of the doubt as much as possible.

Different Foundational Opinions
We come to our opinions usually from a basic set of foundational principles. Whether or not you believe the courts over-stepped their bounds on the gay marriage ruling in Utah recently probably depends a lot on what you think the proper function of the judicial system is. And it probably depends even more on what your opinion on gay marriage is. It's frustrating to have a debate on an issue, when you disagree on the more fundamental issues driving these opinions.

The quicker you discover this and drive down to the more fundamental disagreements, the faster toward understanding you will get.

There are Really No Right or Wrong Answers
There are some issues where both ideas are viable approaches to solve the problem under discussion. Additionally, there are attributes about the world we live in that just lend themselves to unsolvable problems. There are all kinds of ideas out there on how to end poverty, none of them are likely to work or all of them may. We don't know, actually. For these ideas, it's best we just try them and see.

Why We Should Engage
The point here though is that the conversation is important. Admittedly, we should avoid hateful contention on any platform, but I think we can and should engage with others who have different opinions, perspectives, religious and political ideas than we do. In fact, living in the country we live in, with the political system we have inherited, our politics demand that we do.

How many of us complain about the utter incompetency of the US Congress, their failure to pass meaningful (or any) legislation, their unwillingness to cooperate or compromise? Our representatives behave in the way we do because they represent us who are behaving in the exact same way. If we want our representatives to compromise, we need to encourage them to do so. We have to be willing to support legislation that we will likely hate. Few of us are willing to give our representatives this kind of support.

The reason why this is important, though, is that likely we're wrong. Likely those people who disagree with us have good reason to do so. Willingness to compromise is a willingness to admit they we don't have all of the answers. That our ideas, left on their own devices, would probably hurt more people than help. Working together produces better legislation, better ideas come but only if we feel validated and listened to and only if we listen and validate.

Musicians are experts at this. They have learned to both listen and contribute at the same time.. To quote Daniel Barenboim from his  book, Music Quickens Time,
The way that people should play in an orchestra, when you sit in the orchestra, you have to give everything of yourself, everything you know, everything you feel, whatever comes to you, you have to give the maximum, otherwise you're not contributing to the collective effort, but at the same time, simultaneously, you have to listen to what others are playing, and what you say is in permanent relation to what they are saying. What you play in relation to what they are playing. If you are too loud, they won't be heard, if you are too soft, you won't support them. What better lesson for life do you want? Can you imagine if our politicians have to really contribute everything that they think and feel and at the same time listen to others."
That's what happens in a productive conversation We are forming music, with all of the tension and surprises good music contains, where all involved are both hearing and being heard. This is the environment where good ideas germinate.

A Better Way to Discuss
The problem here is that most people engage in an on-line debate all wrong. Our goal is not to learn but to convince. The problem as I mentioned, is that we're already on shaky ground because we are more likely wrong than right (or if not wrong, most likely too narrow, or too limited to be useful) because we as limited human beings who just don't know very much.

Rather, if we could change our paradigm. The goal should not be to convince but to discover. Give the other person the benefit of the doubt. Recognize that they likely have really good reasons to believe the way they do. Expedite the discussion by attempting to make their argument for them as soon as you understand what their argument is.

Why this is Important
An idea came to me in the context of the gay marriage debate. First, consider that this debate seems to be winding toward an abrupt resolution with the help of a series of court decisions. I do realize, even without judicial help, that the democratic momentum seems to be moving in the pro-gay marriage direction. But to get a full, nation-wide democratic victory would take time. Given the constitutional barriers to major legislative national movement and the weakness of our current Congress, a full national democratic decision on the gay marriage is likely at least a decade away.

Rather than wait, it looks like the issue is being resolved by judicial fiat. What was once a broad conversation including, most especially, churches and church members and individuals from all parts of society, we are leaving this issue to be resolved by the elite few who happen to be sitting in the judge's seat. This will prematurely end the conversation and that is disappointing.

Since most people like to use 1960's civil rights analogy to further the case on gay marriage, let me do the same. There was a strong Democratic movement to end the unjust Jim Crow laws culminating in a series of important legislative victories. But this was also pushed forward with important court case decisions. Given the nature of this issue and the extreme injustices being inflicted on black America, over-turning these laws was extremely important. Providing legal protection to allow blacks to go to school, purchase homes, and obtain jobs where-ever they like was (and is) vital.

But one side-effect of the way this issue was resolved is that it lead to two decades of political correctness and a witch hunt to banish all racism from the public sphere. A part of me wonders whether we really were better off censuring even those who made dumb comments on race. There were (and are) a lot of people who sincerely hold incredibly naive, incorrect and damaging views on race. To completely come to terms with and move away from these views, you need a safe place to express them, to have them sincerely challenged. Because we would rather shut them down rather than engage and convince, I wonder if the collateral damage was much worse resulting in harder-to-detect racist laws causing considerable harm to black communities.

It's not politically correct and certainly not accurate to believe that blacks commit more drug crime than whites, but the fact is that people broadly still believe this to be so. We have had centuries of slavery and racism in this country, to believe that we as a country can collectively pivot on a dime to the more correct position just does not seem realistic. Perhaps if we would have cut cultural racists a little bit of slack. Allow them a bit of time to work through their accidental racism, perhaps we could have avoided the third iteration of Jim Crow laws shepherding far too many of our black young men through our prison system. Perhaps if we were little more forgiving on speech and a lot less forgiving on racist legislation that have decimated poor, black neighborhoods, we would be better off as a country.

That is why we need the dialogue. The conversations are often messy and discouraging. But we should be really careful to limit speech in all of its forms. Rather we should do the opposite. Fewer echo chambers and more forums where opinions are discussed in a forum of natural disagreement. Where the objective is not to convince but to learn and improve.

To be clear I'm not excusing hateful, abusive speech. There is no excuse for name-calling or hate in any form and those who resort to it should be censured, but we really need to be careful what we categorize as hate speech. The motivation of the speaker is important.

And when we error, we should error on the side of open engagement and avoid limiting political correctness and any other kind of censure in all of its forms.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Santa Claus Does Exist

Last night on Christmas eve, I was reading this interesting story about why it came to be that Norac tracks Santa.  This prompted me to immediately download the app on my phone to track Santa's progress with my kids. I found myself trying to explain how Santa could be making such rapid progress throughout the world, visiting every house in the span of a solitary night - how he violated all kinds of laws of physics (ok I left that part out, but I was thinking it). That he shows up more as a flash and gifts magically appear in neighborhoods within the same fraction of a second.

Then I thought, wow, how implausible of a story is Santa Claus, but millions of children believe. Sure, it's in their best interest, and what do they know about the implausibility of Santa Claus when the proof is in the gifts that show up out of thin air on Christmas morning.

Incidentally, we are very careless keepers of the Santa secret. My boy commented this morning on the fact that he saw my wife purchased the gift marked "from Santa" for his sister. But it doesn't seem to phase him or his sister, he still believes - though I'm not sure how faithfully he would hold onto this belief if cornered by a skeptic.

But as I thought about this crazy myth that gets perpetuated in household after household, a different thought came to me. It's a thought that comes to me in different contexts, say this one about why so many people care about Lindsey Lohan. This is really, truly a magical night. Every family of different economic incomes, different backgrounds, different circumstances align for one event, year after year because this holiday matters for so many people on so many levels, merging the celebration of Christ's birth with a myth spun from the actual life of a Catholic bishop long ago.

And the traditions and the gift giving matters economically, providing a very real boost to the economy. It's really, truly is a magical time of the year.

And the reason is because Santa Claus does exist, he is not a myth. He is real. He exists because Santa is every parent who loves their family enough to make him real by providing this magical experience over and over again for those they love. One person cannot literally provide hope, and magic for millions of children all over the world. One person never does. One person can't, but every single one of us, working together, collectively can.  And this is always the case. It's why conservatives were skeptical about the way Obama won the presidency but it's also why so many liberals had hope in it.

Because real change is made by each of us doing good for those near us, one thoughtful act of sacrifice at a time. If you want to make a real difference in ways that matter, the answer is not to build the next Facebook. While cool and useful, it's not nearly as transformative as the founders of the company think. What really changes the world is for the world to change, by all of us changing together.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

How I'm Learning to Read Difficult, Technical Books

I'm not sure my advise will be generally applicable and the older I get the more I worry that I'm learning these lessons far too late. But you know, I still (hopefully) have decades of productive work ahead of me, so I'm still young enough to learn new things I suppose.

But because this advise comes from me and may not apply to you, let me start with a little background. Growing up, I did not have much access to computers or technology of any kind really. My parents were poor and couldn't afford to buy many necessities and technology was far down their list of priorities. Nor did they have much in the way of connections, so hand-me down technology gadgets were not on their list as well. Growing up, my two older sisters  were both artists which had probably the most direct influence on me, especially when I was younger.

Not that I really had any notable artistic talent, but I did love to read, and I read a lot of good books, for the pure love of reading, for the challenge of it and also for the knotch on my belt when I read books no one else reads. Some of the books I've read without school assignments were Tess of the d'Urbervilles, The Great GatsbyDon Quixote, and  Song of Solomon (I read the last book with my wife while we were dating and even referenced it during a church talk on family history). I've tried and failed with other books as well.

Don't get me wrong, I don't claim any special skill in great literature, but given my general demographic and the fact that most people not in my demographic don't really read anything at all, I think this little qwerk about me makes me a little unique.

It's relevant here because as I started my very technical university degree (because my real proficiencies are in math not literature), the skills I brought with me weren't exactly lining up with the skills I needed to excel in technical coursework. Mostly, my reading experience involved starting at page one and moving ahead, page by page until you reached the end. I wasn't an especially well-trained classical reader either, one that dug into the hard books with vigor and the willingness to dive deeply with careful reading and sometimes repeated reading, taking notes along the way. As a result, most of the hardest books flew over my head and I've tried and failed to finish most of them.  Don Quixote is one remarkable exception - it took me three years to finish. It's not especially difficult. Individual chapters are quite engaging. Its just so darn long and at times tedious and without a (to me) compelling enough story to keep you coming back for more. I was really just trying to get the classical education I never had,  Don Quixote happened to be the first book on the list and was the reason, predominantly, I flamed out.

But I digress.  But I guess its obvious that you can't learn technology in the same way you read novels. There are some parallels, true, especially with the hard books, but mostly you'll be doing it wrong or at least not efficiently. My natural inclination is to pick up a technical book, start from the beginning and read to the end, one dreary chapter at a time, considering the entire attempt a failure if I don't finish. This is wrong, wrong, wrong.

The goal with tech-books is not to finish the book, it's to learn the technology. And really learning difficult concepts is not the same as finishing a single book. It takes constant, continuous exposure, trying concepts out in the real world, reading books from different people, skipping around, not giving up until you achieve proficiency, well at least enough proficiency to do something useful.

In fact, this is not something they exactly teach in school. In a classroom, at least in my day, you are mostly assigned one very expensive text book, and the class more or less walks through it one chapter at a time, doing difficult assignments a long the way, you know, kind of like reading a novel. Not to mention that often the book the professor picks is the book the professor wrote (nothing wrong with that necessarily).

Now, in the age of the internet, people seem to have abandoned books altogether and lean on Stack Overflow or just plain old google to help with specific problems. These resources are good but not sufficient. Books give you a technical breadth and depth on a subject that is not easily replicable within the fragmented confines of the internet.

So, if you really want to learn a technical subject (say how to program an iPhone app), read, study, program, then read some more. And find multiple books, get different points of view, dive deeply, understand the language, the environment, experiment learn. It's not about finishing a book, it's about building something new. It's not magic, just a bit of relentlessness and constant exposure to the subject matter until it becomes second nature. But you learn this by doing and by reading.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Why We Aren't Moving (Yet)

I feel like a need to preface this post with a whole bunch of background history, but first of all, let me explain the motivation behind it. We live in a mildly run-down, older part of Tempe, nearby ASU. Our house is perfectly fine, it was build in 1960 and we've had our share of problems with it, but with the exception of the kitchen, we are getting it near the way we want it to look. Our front yard is landscaped nicely now, the outside has been recently painted and I love it. One bathroom was over-hauled, the other one was improved. We've re-done most of the flooring. We're down to the kitchen, basically... And I have the money to do it, I just gotta get it done.

Size-wise (my wife won't agree with this), it is perfectly adequate, at least for now. It's 1500 square feet. We have four children, but they are mostly small and in my opinion its perfectly sized for our family. As they age, things will start to squish. And we home school, so my wife would prefer more space for all of our home schooling stuff and a better dedicated space for school. But honestly this is a first world complaint (please don't tell her I said this) and we are getting by just fine with what we have.

And despite all of this, the location has a lot of benefits. We're right in the middle of a sprawling valley. Nearly anything we want to get to is within a 30 minute drive. Right now, my wife is driving all the way out to Queen Creek to take advantage of some seriously kick-butt violin lessons for our oldest daughter and even Queen Creek, situated as it is on the edge of the population, is still a manageable distance away.

When we bought the house, the housing boom was just beginning and we were really hesitant to jump in.  I was seriously handicapped by trying to make this decision by asking the question, what would my older sisters do. Well, I know what they would have done, they would have bought a house in the Coronado District or similar, and that's what we tried to do as well, going as far as making an offer on a house. But we couldn't follow through because, you know, I'm not them, and this area, for all of its charm and historic value, was not for us.

Meanwhile, the people most like me, those my age in the tech industry were making much different house buying decisions than me. Their houses were much larger, brand-new, meant-to-look impressive sort of houses in the suburbs and exurbs, houses with pillars, and granite counter-tops and stainless steel appliances with big windows and vaulted ceilings and lots of space. 

At the time we finally made our house purchase, I was working in South Scottsdale, and my wife was working at ASU, so actually Tempe made a ton more sense than downtown Phoenix and in my opinion it made a ton more sense then far east Mesa, or far south Chandler, or Gilbert and beyond. But the houses in Tempe are either really expensive or kind of lame and often both. We did the best we could and ended up with the house we have (kind of lame, kind of small, kind of run-down).

But it has worked out. We made friends in our church congregation, got to know our neighbors (the ones we are most friendly with are the older, been here almost since when the neighborhood was new. The others are renters, typically ASU students and are harder to pin down). And it has worked out. But we've aged and our kids have aged, and our friends are starting to move, in droves to find bigger nicer homes elsewhere.

Our church congregation tends to have very small number of youth who regularly attend and they are in a rather transitionary demographic, a lot of renters who are passing through typically. Our primary (children under 12) is fairly nice sized, but after 10 or 11, the population drops off a cliff. And this past week, another family is leaving the ward a family whose son is our son's age, a boy our son considers his best friend.

But you know, and I said it in my home schooling post, I like doing what eveyone else is not doing:
Not too many people would agree with me, but I do have a rebellious spirit inside of me. It's wildly constrained by fear, but I do rebel. I like to turn against the status quo at times, to do something unique only to me, swim against the tide, establish my own identity. But I just don't rebel for random reasons, I have to have really, really good reasons. I need to have a great story to explain my rebellion, so that I can justify it to others. Maybe, so that I may even get someone else to join me...
And as people our age leave our church community one by one replaced by young couples half our age, I want to dig in. I want to zig while others zag. I want to recommit myself to the Peterson Park Ward of the Tempe Stake for as long as I can.

And by the way, I think this General Conference talk is particularly relevant to this point:
One thing we have often been taught is to bloom where we are planted. Yet sometimes we are tempted to migrate to some new area, thinking our children will have more friends and therefore better youth programs.
Brothers and sisters, do we really think the critical factor in the salvation of our children is the neighborhood where we live? The apostles and prophets have often taught that what happens inside the home is far more important than what our children encounter outside. How we raise our children is more important than where we raise them.
Certainly there are other factors involved in deciding where to live, and thankfully, the Lord will guide us if we seek His confirmation.
Another question is “Where are we needed?” For 16 years I served in the presidency of the Houston Texas North Stake. Many moved to our area during those years. We would often receive a phone call announcing someone moving in and asking which was the best ward. Only once in 16 years did I receive a call asking, “Which ward needs a good family? Where can we help?”
In the early years of the Church, President Brigham Young and others would call members to go to a certain place to build up the Church there. The irony is that even now we have faithful Church members everywhere who would go anywhere the prophet asked them to go. Do we really expect President Monson to individually tell more than 14 million of us where our family is needed? The Lord’s way is that we hearken to our leaders’ teachings, understand correct principles, and govern ourselves.
Our son just started Cub Scouts. In the past week, three Cub Scout leaders are in process of leaving or have left. I am committed to helping my son suck every last ounce of benefit from the scouting program and am more than willing to help other boys if asked.

And our children are hardly bereft of resources. I mean, we live within biking distance of a major university. Our kids have participated in an amazing Chandler Children's Choir, they sporadically get gymnastic training from a school run by a woman who won a gold medal in the 1996 olympics. And even without those perks, I have an awfully talented wife.

Now, this does not mean we are staying here forever and we could move sooner than this post implies (maybe much sooner). We still would like to live closer to family and we would eventually like to have a nicer, bigger house, especially as our kids get older and our needs change.

But for now at least we're here and enjoying it. Zigging while everyone else seems to be zagging.

My Wife's Master's Recital

Some time back, I tried to get my wife's master's recital stored on the web reference-able.  The links are now dead, so this time I'm going youtube. This is really half of the recital unfortunately. The second half is Schumann's Carnaval. It last almost thirty minutes and is broken up into 19 tiny movements. I'm haven't figured out how to get it up to youtube yet.

Some brief commentary. This is my wife at her absolute musical peak. We weren't married yet, we had started dating seriously that semester before she performed it. It was difficult for me because she was so stressed out about it and was focused so hard on it, I didn't get to see her nearly enough.

I hope that one day, when the children are older and she has more time to focus on it, she can try to get at least some of this back. 

Mozart Sonata in D Major K. 576

Movement 1, Allegro:

Movement 2, Adagio:

Movement 3, Allegretto:

Ravel Sonatine

Movement 1, Modere:

Movement 2: Mouvement de menuet

Movement 3: Anime


Sonata No. 3 in A Minor, Op 28

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Let's end the Cultural War with a Compromise: Legalize Gay Marriage, End Abortions

My preference, of course, is to find a muddied compromise on both issues. Find ways to extend to gay couples the benefits they request while finding cultural space for traditional view of marriage for those individuals and institutions that want to still believe in it. Even more so, I hope we can come to what I think is the basic understanding that gay and straight relationships are fundamentally different and that the rules, taboos, constraints and support may inevitably be structured to respect, honor and support these differences. Here's Andrew Sullivan:
Ross sharpens this by noting that in Massachusetts and Spain, for example, there are now three kinds of marriages: gay male, lesbian and heterosexual. Experientially, these are different things because of the power of gender. I do not dispute this at all. Ross, I think, is particularly worried about monogamy in this context - because it is so unnatural a state for most of us. The threat to monogamy, of course, is not universally - but largely - a function of testosterone and evolutionary biology. And the heterosexual marriage ideal offers social status to males to stick to one woman for the sake of children (and his wife).
On abortion, I think we should do more to support and sustain women so that pregnancy is intentional and occurs under the best circumstances, but when it does occur, they are supported throughout their pregnancy and the newly created child has every opportunity to be raised in a home of loving caregivers, ideally bound to the biological parents who produced the life.

However, I think these two issues have a lot of complementary features and could easily be worked through in tandem. If the choice is between an aborted baby and a gay couple willing to provide a loving home for that baby to thrive... Well, I'm not sure how this choice is difficult. If marriage is less about creating life and more about binding romantic relationships than the taboos around unwed pregnancy disappear.

Finally, I think gay marriage is becoming increasingly inevitable as the polls seem to be going in that direction. It seems though making abortion illegal could also have the same air of inevitability as science is increasingly showing that perhaps the unborn fetus is not only a living entity but quite possibly, well you know, a person?

I think this article provides a brief abortion history but makes what I think an important point:
But my sympathy for the beliefs of people who oppose abortion is enormous, and it grows almost by the day. An ultrasound image taken surprisingly early in pregnancy can stop me in my tracks. In it is much more than I want to know about the tiny creature whose destruction we have legalized: a beating heart, a human face, functioning kidneys, two waving hands that seem not too far away from being able to grasp and shake a rattle. One of the newest types of prenatal imaging, the three-dimensional sonogram—which is so fully realized that happily pregnant women spend a hundred dollars to have their babies’ first “photograph” taken—is frankly terrifying when examined in the context of the abortion debate. The demands pro-life advocates make of pregnant women are modest: All they want is a little bit of time. All they are asking, in a societal climate in which out-of-wedlock pregnancy is without stigma, is that pregnant women give the tiny bodies growing inside of them a few months, until the little creatures are large enough to be on their way, to loving homes.
Or read about how Penelope Trunk describes here abortion here:
People think abortion is such an easy choice–they say, “Don't use abortion as birth control.” Any woman who has had one will tell you how that is such crazy talk. Because an abortion is terrible. You never stop thinking about the baby you killed. You never stop thinking about the guy you were with when you killed the baby you made with him. You never stop wondering.
So the second time I got pregnant, I thought of killing myself. My career was soaring. I was 30 and I felt like I had everything going for me — great job, great boyfriend, and finally, for the first time ever, I had enough money to support myself. I hated that I put myself in the position of either losing all that or killing a baby.
 And finally:
But also, here I am with two kids. So I know a bit about having kids and a career. And I want to tell you something: You don't need to get an abortion to have a big career. Women who want big careers want them because something deep inside you drives you to change the world, lead a revolution, break new barriers.
It doesn't matter whether you have kids now or later, because they will always make your career more difficult. There is no time in your life when you are so stable in your work that kids won't create an earthquake underneath that confidence.
Increasingly, I also think we should try to avoid sperm donor babies. I doubt its practical to legally prevent it, but it does potentially lead to crazy stuff like this, where a man finds out his wife is biologically his sister.
When my wife and I met in college, the attraction was immediate, and we quickly became inseparable. We had a number of things in common, we came from the same large metropolitan area, and we both wanted to return there after school, so everything was very natural between us. We married soon after graduation, moved back closer to our families, and had three children by the time we were 30. We were both born to lesbians, she to a couple, and me to a single woman. She had sought out her biological father as soon as she turned 18, as the sperm bank her parents used allowed contact once the children were 18 if both parties consented. I never was interested in learning about that for myself, but she felt we were cheating our future children by not learning everything we could about my past, too. Well, our anniversary is coming up and I decided to go ahead and, as a present to my wife, see if my biological father was interested in contact as well. He was, and even though our parents had used different sperm banks, it appears so did our father, as he is the same person. On the one hand, I love my wife more than I can say, and logically, done is done, we already have children. I have had a vasectomy, so we won't be having any more, so perhaps there is no harm in continuing as we are. But, I can't help but think 'This is my sister' every time I look at her now. I haven't said anything to her yet, and I don't know if I should or not. Where do I go from here? I am tempted to burn everything I got from the sperm bank and just try to forget it all, but I'm not sure if I can. Please help me figure out where to go from here.
Or in the one thread of Parks and Recreation, a character weighs the responsibility of fatherhood when he is asked to donate his sperm, implying that donating a sperm is much, much more than just donating a sperm.

 If we do expand marriage to include gay couples (which we already are), my ideal would be that those relationships would exist to support straight couples who have much more at stake in terms of creating life. Support those who get pregnant unintentionally, adopt children who would otherwise not be adopted. Push abortion into the taboo fringe where it belongs.

Can we find a compromise? Extend gay marriage, end abortions?

As a side note, illegalizing abortion makes me uncomfortable in some very serious ways. I don't ever want a return to this:
At Belle­vue, my mother had twice attended dying young women who were victims of botched abortions, young women—“girls,” she called them—who spent their last hours on earth being interviewed by policemen. Terrified, alone, dying, neither would reveal the name of the abortionist; “they were too frightened,” my mother said. If I had to put money on which of the roommates bravely went to the girl’s apartment, I’d put it on my mother.
And I would prefer if we could end abortion through culture pressure and taboo than through threat of jail, but I hope that we could at least have the discussion that goes beyond simply Roe v Wade.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Does it take continuous 100 hour work weeks to change the world?

Because I am a masochist I started following the blog of Penelope Trunk. It all started innocently enough, a friend of mine posted a link from her blog that criticized universal pre-k from the perspective of a homeschooling family. Well, we are a homeschooling family and this was a smart post from an accomplished homeschooler, so yes, I'll add this blog to my RSS reader and begin to follow.

Before doing this, I decided to take a gander at her posting history and well, for someone prone to competitive comparingness, this was not a pleasant thing to do. Tales of 100 hour work weeks or driving two hours one way to take her prodigious six year old son to cello lessons taught by a music professor at the University of Wisconsin. I know its wrong, but these are not tales I enjoy reading.

Finally after reading yet another post written a long these lines, I felt like I had to write a response of my own, maybe as a defense of my own life choices? To give myself some hope that I can still accomplish some of my own goals without making these kinds of sacrifices?

The 60, 80, 100 hour work week tension has been something I've been living with since graduating with my engineering degree back in the 1990's. I started my career at a company that had this crazy over-time compensation policy. If you worked 40-59 hours in a week you were paid your salary, but if you crossed the 60.0 hour boundary, you were paid for every hour you worked. And my colleagues at the time were in the habit of exploiting this loophole to maximize their income. I resisted the urge mostly, but it's hard to work less while those you work with work more:  they take the most interesting work assignments and leave you with the scraps.

But I felt this prompting at the time that I needed to be more well-rounded and in my early career I was, trying to make up for my culturally barren childhood. At one time or another I had season tickets at the Phoenix Art Museum and the Herberger Theater. I attended concerts at the Phoenix Symphony. I spent all of my post-college single life mentoring a boy as part of the East Vally Big Brothers/Big Sisters.  I even took up piano lessons.

Although single, I was not giving up my life for my job. And I tried hard to keep my personal life in-tact. I think it worked out because I ended up marrying a pianist. Would this marriage have worked without this min-self education? I'm not sure.

But I spent my twenties working on myself in ways that had nothing to do with my day job. My thirties were spent married, bearing four kids the Bradley way, joining the ranks of homeschoolers, and still spending large swaths of my personal time in ways that had nothing to do with my day job. Obviously, this did not put me on the path for a high powered career at Google or Facebook.

And I also happen to belong to a church that asks for a lot of my time. Three hours of church service on Sunday, a command to keep the Sabbath day holy and work free, a responsibility to watch over four or so other members of your congregation through at a minimum monthly visits, requests to help fellow members of your congregation move or to bring them dinner when they are ill, a request to research your family history, to regularly write in your journal, take on additional church callings (through the years I have been a quorum president and a counselor in other presidencies, a leader in the scouts and with the young men, in the primary (working with children), and with the church's missionary program and of course to spend daily time in family, couples and personal prayer, meditation and scripture study.

Devoting 100 hours every week to your career does not line up (that's 14 hour days, 7 days a week).

So, I have to ask myself, is 100 hour work weeks really required to change the world? Without any evidence to prove this assertion (being as I have yet to change the world myself), I say no. In fact, I've already covered this topic here.

I'm afraid that many (not all) of the companies at Silicon Valley are building products nobody really wants because they are mostly building products they think people want but end up building products only tech geeks who work 100 hours a week want. Steve Yegge says it well here:
You can look at any phenomenally successful company, and it's pretty obvious that their success was founded on building on something they personally wanted. The extent that any company begins to deviate from this course is the extent to which their ship starts taking on water.
The other day I was out to eat with my friends and one of them was selling girl scout cookies for her daughter and I asked if she took PayPal, she laughed and told me she had no idea even had to login to her account.

People love Facebook, but really, if they had just stopped working on Facebook five years ago and just made sure it scaled, would it be much different than it is today? Google built search which people love, but what else is coming out of Google that people really, truly love? Apple is the best at building products people love, but are Apple products really that much better than Windows? And how much time are people wasting browsing the web on their iPhone rather than going to bed?

I'm probably over-selling this point a bit, but what if people mostly just worked 40-50 hour work weeks (there are times when you have to crank it up, but they should be rarer than people think) and spent the rest of their time with their families, working on their hobbies and building their communities?

Given how much work is happening out there building stuff that nobody wants or needs (housing bubble anyone?), wouldn't the world be a tad bit better place if more of us were building stuff for ourselves and for our friends, and by extension consuming the stuff others were building for us?

I'll end this rather long post with a quote I just recently ran across reading the "Lord of the Rings" to my kids:
"'At least for a while', said Elrond. 'The road must be trod, but it will be very hard. And neither strength nor wisdom will carry us far upon it. This quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world; small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.'"
If we ever want to truly change the world, we need fewer Mark Zuckerbergs working 100 work weeks trying to convince more people to spend more time wasting stuff they don't really need or want, and more people like the Bishop of my congregation who homeschools his five children, runs his own law firm and spends countless of hours ministering to the poor and the needy in Tempe.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Political Systems

If I had to rate at a high level, the political-economic systems in order from those that are most prone to disaster to those that are most likely to foster a productive society, I would come up with the following:
  1. Dictatorships: An unaccountable few who have taken control over a country's resources. Historically this form of government has been our most common and the cause of so much suffering - from communism and fascism to the traditional dictatorships of ancient times. If you get lucky, a dictator will be competent and fair, but nobody is really smart enough to effectively control something as large and complex as a country, so even the benevolent dictator causes unnecessary suffering and waste.
  2. Corporate monopolies or oligarchies: Corporations that are able to control parts of the economy that either collude with competitors or eliminate competition altogether are almost as unaccountable as dictators. Their control doesn't tend to reach as broad, but they tend to also be more opaque. The damage of such are immense. They charge high prices, enrich themselves and have little incentive to really meet the needs of their consumers. There are so many examples of this today (of variable degree): cable and cell phone providers, hospitals, drug companies, energy companies, big banks, etc.
  3. Democracies that impose regulatory control over parts of the economy that suffers from a lack of oversight and competition. Medicare has been such an important part of our country because no private insurance would ever agree to insure people near end of life and hospital and health care providers have all the leverage when someone requires health care - a patient facing death will pay almost anything to get the required care. Health care requires regulation. Medicare works because recipients of the benefit are engaged and informed and hold their democratically elected politicians accountable to make sure the sytem works, is funded, and operating efficiently.
  4. Free Market Capitalism: There is nothing so efficient and innovate as an industry where the barriers of entry are low, where companies are at the mercy of their customers, and where pricing is transparent. Customer driven innovation is a beautiful thing to be a part of. To discover pain points, deliver products that delight, and get paid by appreciative customers for services rendered or goods delivered.
The problem with today's political environment is that the Republicans too often mistake 2) for 4) and Democrats mistakenly push industries in 4) into 3). Worse, today's Republicans have spent the last couple of decades assuming Democrats are the party of 2) when they are really support a complicated mix of 3) and 4) (which is the ideal). As a result, Republicans and the media that serve them, have become incoherent and paranoid and a result, good compromise has become impossible.

The sweet spot is for Democrats to push category 2) industries into category 3) and for Republicans to prevent categories in 4) from becoming 3) or 2) and to find ways to expand 4) into as many industries as possible.

In a sane political system this would be a relatively straight forward thing to do and ripe for all sorts of compromise and cooperation in doing so. To bad we don't have a sane political climate today.

Is a Liberal Arts Education a Waste of Time?

There's been a lot of talk lately on whether or not a liberal arts college education is worth the cost involved in getting it, and graduate liberal arts degrees are even more controversial. Someone with a bachelors in history can pivot that into something very specifically practical if they desire. I will say that a lot of this debate stems from the fallout of the last great recession that has rendered many young people without work experience unemployed and living with their parents.

The other day, out with some friends, I made the rather caustic statement that a liberal arts degree was a waste of time, and in response, my wife (who has two degrees in piano performance) says, well that's what I have. I did offer one corollary, that children should have a rather vigorous liberal arts education throughout their lives that increases in intensity as they enter high school, which should include reading from original sources, research and a lot of writing.

Because I often say things off the cuff that don't necessarily capture my true feelings, I thought it would be a good idea to vet some of this.

The first question we should ask is what should we be getting out of our educational system? Should it lead directly to a job that matches exactly with the degree we're obtaining? Are their non-monetary reasons to get educated?

First of all, I think there are all kinds of reasons to get as much education as you possibly can and that this education should basically never stop. And there are all sorts of reasons why this is important that span far beyond how impressive specific knowledge looks on your resume. A vital democracy depends on a broadly educated population. Churches and non-profits depend on skilled talent willing to donate it for free. To get where we want to be as a society, we need more people willing to do more without compensation, even when doing that thing requires a lot of skill.

Last week, I took my oldest daughter to see a chamber orchestra perform some pretty amazing chamber music. Her violin teacher was performing a Bach duet concerto in this concert, and by the way, it was both free and amazing. Her teacher has advanced degrees in violin and was now giving away her performances for free.

Only an extreme few of us can be professional musicians or tenured professors or full-time, best-selling authors. The world simply has too many problems to solve to afford this. There are too many ditches to dig, sick people to care for, roads to build. There are only so many people we can carve out of society to write something nobody really wants to read. Since, every author and musician is now competing with artists both past and present and since artistic production is copied and broadly distributed, we simply don't need that many of them, at least that many who do it full time. There are parts of our economy where we do need a lot of workers - teachers, nurses, doctors most primarily. But most of these laborers are relatively low wage and none really require advanced degrees in the liberal arts.

As families are organized and adults pair off, at least one member of this pair needs to have practical skills to get essential work done, work important enough that someone out there is willing to pay for.

So, while I want my kids to nail their liberal arts education, I hope each one of them has a desire and will to also pursue skills that will translate into a practical career. If they want to hitch their wagon on the hopes of marrying someone who will provide, cool, a liberal arts degree is probably ok, but better not go into a lot of debt for this.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Homeschooling Math

The other day my wife and I were having this conversation about how frustrating it can be to get our children, especially our oldest child through a math lesson in the allotted time. She'll get hung up on a tough problem and rather then face it down, she'll dawdle, draw, stare off into space. It can take some constant nagging and then we'll either have to spend much longer on the Math lesson to the detriment of other subjects or not finish.

Added to the dilemma is the way math curriculum is organized and the expectations around math our culture imposes. In a past post, I talked about some suggestions surrounding Suzuki violin practicing that I'll repeat here:
  • "Let the child learn at his OWN pace. It allows him to learn each step VERY WELL before going on to a new idea. (Example of rushing a child - is pushing him to memorize a new piece when he is still stumbling over the notes of his last piece.) Definition: Child's own pace -- is speed at which he learns something under optimal conditions.
  • Because of lifestyles we have chosen, too often practice sessions are not at an ideal time, or are rushed.
  • Because of 'other things' we have scheduled, 'careful repetitions' are not done (poor practice timing, interruptions, or distractions.)
Let a child practice only as long as he is interested and can cooperate. Once his attention is gone, his learning stops. Practice then becomes a measure of endurance and bad attitudes can develop from it. A few minutes, several times a day may work best at first.
If these are a good ways to learn violin, I'm not sure why or how other subjects of learning are different. For our daughter, why not slow down the pace of learning. Why the rush to get through the curriculum at the exact rate suggested? Why risk turning kids against the subject at a very early age and pushing them through the material before mastery has been achieved?

What we concluded is that we'll be consistent and steady, allocate a time window each day at an optimal time of the day. She'll get through what she can get through. Solid, consistent learning for significant years of her life without turning her off completely from the subject is preferable to the alternatives.

And this is one of the reasons why we homeschool: to allow our kids to progress through the curriculum at their own pace. Why should we try to act like traditional school when we don't have to.

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Last Episode of Season Three Downton Abbey

If you have not yet watched it, just stop reading this now...

The other night, my wife and I finally got to through Downton Abbey. The last episode was rather bland, but over three seasons you start to grow attached to the characters and there's this underlying tension to this show that keeps you on edge waiting for the next disaster to strike.

At any rate, Mary has her baby and the show is about to end when her husband Matthew inexplicably is killed in a car accident driving from the hospital to retrieve the other family members. Ok, car accidents happen, death from car accidents happen, but coupled with the birth of a child? And not that long ago, Mary's sister died at child birth? And Matthews previous fiancee died of the flu, and Mary's love interest from season one dies in bed with Mary?

The previous deaths, while extreme, made some sense, but this came out of the blue for no reason at all. Well, there was a reason and it had nothing to do with pushing the story forward. The real reason is the actor did not sign up for another season so they had to find a way to write him out of the script.

Inexplicable, really.

First of all, why can't Downton Abbey, a show that's supposedly incredibly popular keep its actors? Second, there had to have been a better way to deal with the character. If they knew he was only going to be available for three seasons, why make him such a central piece to the story?

It was such an inexplicable ending to the season that it seemed the only reason could have been something to do with the actor. Obviously, I blame the writers or maybe PBS just cannot afford to pay their actors what they are worth to keep them on the show?

Needless to say I'm disappointed.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Some Random Thoughts on Gun Laws

Because of the Newtown tragedy, the ever-divisive issue of gun regulation has consumed all of the oxygen in our public discourse. Well, that and the fiscal cliff. My thoughts on the fiscal cliff come later. For now, let me say a few words about guns.

You know me, I really try not to get too ideological about stuff. I want to see and read the evidence, come up with an opinion, try not to cling too hard to it, and hopefully evolve as I learn more. I believe most of these issues are larger than we realize, with enough room for reasonable people to have different points of view. I think this is true for gun laws.

A few points:

I really think we should avoid writing broad affecting laws based on one extremely rare on-off event. Here's one example:

In this video, Suzanna Hupp describes an incredibly tragic incident where she was involved in a mass shooting while eating at a restaurant with her parents. Her parents end up dead while she survives. As a result of this incident, she has made it her life work to enable people to carry concealed weapons as a means of protection.

It's a powerful story, but it's only one event that will never be repeated again in its exact detail. We should always consider the effects of our laws more broadly, realizing that an individual law may have less-than optimal consequences in certain circumstances but still provide a higher level of safety and societal benefit overall.

Similarly, suggestions to arm every elementary school or better arm every kindergarten teacher or banning the exact weapon used in the shootings at Newtown is equally wrong. We need to look at the data broadly.

My second point is that I find it rather frustrating how hard-lined and reactionary the pro-gun movement has been on this issue. They will not compromise one iota, taking the most extreme interpretation of the second amendment possible. These people are against all gun regulation, all of it, so reasonable ideas are shutdown, ideas that may save many lives. Obviously the same criticism can be said of the gun-control movement.

One extra point to add to the NRA's stridency on gun control is their willingness to wrap themselves (and their bad arguments) around the second amendment of the constitution. Friedersdorf makes some good points here.

Even if we presume that the 2nd Amendment exists partly so that citizens can rise up if the government gets tyrannical, it is undeniable that the Framers built other safeguards into the Constitution and the Bill of Rights to prevent things from ever getting so bad as to warrant an insurrection. Federalism was one such safeguard; the separation of powers into three branches was another; and the balance of the Bill of Rights was the last of the major safeguards.
Yet the conservative movement is only reliable when it defends the 2nd Amendment. Otherwise, it is an inconsistent advocate for safeguarding liberty. Conservatives pay occasional lip service to federalism, but are generally hypocrites on the subject, voting for bills like No Child Left Behind, supporting a federally administered War on Drugs, and advocating for federal legislation on marriage. (Texas governor Rick Perry is the quintessential hypocrite on this subject).

And on the Bill of Rights, the conservative movement is far worse. Throughout the War on Terrorism, organizations like the ACLU and the Center of Constitutional Rights have reliably objected to Bush/Cheney/Obama policies, including warrantless spying on innocent Americans, indefinite detention without charges or trial, and the extrajudicial assassination of Americans. The Nation and Mother Jones reliably admit that the executive power claims made by Bush/Yoo/Obama/Koh exceed Madisonian limits and prudence informed by common sense.
My issue with people who wrap themselves with the Constitution is that they do so conditionally, when it serves their ideology. The same can be said with the use of data to back up their points.

I think we should avoid reactionary, stubborn ideology especially when the issue is as complex as the appropriate amount of gun control to apply. Friedersdorf actually links another article that is also worth quoting here:

If you really dig into it, what NRA advocates are really arguing for is the right to commit treason at least in this article.
Freedom is the product of orderly democratic governance and the rule of law. Popular militias are overwhelming likely to foster not democracy or the rule of law, but warlordism, tribalism and civil war. In Lebanon, Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, Colombia, the Palestinian Territories and elsewhere, we see that militias of armed private citizens rip apart weak democratic states in order to prey upon local populations in authoritarian sub-states or fiefdoms. Free states are defended by standing armies, not militias, because free states enjoy the consent of the governed, which allows them to maintain effective standing armies. Like every other free country apart from Costa Rica, the United States has a standing army in times of peace, and has since 1791, when the founding fathers realised a standing army would be necessary to fight the irregular popular militias of the continent's Native American peoples. (Guess who won?)
I'll close this post with a link from Ta-Nehisi Coates on why he doesn't own a weapon.
But I also believe that one does not simply do violence -- or live prepared for violence -- and remain the same. I carry all of West Baltimore with me, and I am in constant conversation over the fact that that part of me is wholly inappropriate for this world. That part -- the part that is analyzing every person who walks up on me, who is trying to figure out every angle, who sees a crowd and walks the other way -- is fit for a world of violence. That pose is totally draining. (It has no time to go off and learn French.)
I honestly don't have a strong opinion on guns. I'm not sure it's practical to ban assault rifles. Too many people currently own them or want to own them. And we tried a ban once, but the law was so riddled with loopholes it proved counter-productive. I think there are some good suggestions out there. I'm partial to Douthat's suggestion to hire more police generally while locking fewer people up. More security equals more safety.

I think there are other things to be done around gun safety. If people were a little more pragmatic and a little less ideological, I think we could move the needle a little bit and we could all be safer. Granted wishful thinking.

Friday, January 4, 2013

The Psychology of Influence

Early in December I had the privilege of attending a conference for work where I got the chance to hear a presentation by Dr. Robert Cialdini: an expert on the science of influence, a professor of business at Arizona State University, and an author of best selling books covering this area of expertise. He was a masterful presenter but more importantly he shared some really interesting ideas that I personally found really helpful.

He presents six fundamental principles of influence, principles that when applied prove influential in determining the kinds of decisions we tend to make. As human beings we are bombarded with information, so naturally we use shortcuts to help us choose in the face of limited knowledge. These shortcuts generally work well for us. Being conscious of these shortcuts will help us expand our sphere of influence. These principles may seem obvious, but I think the few of us really leverage these principles in a way that might increase our ablity to influence others.

People are motivated to act when the object they are pursuing is hard to obtain. They are even more motivated to act when there is a risk of losing what they already have.  A salesperson is more effective trying to sale insulation for a home, for example, when they describe it as a way to prevent the homeowner from losing money (a scarce resource) verses a way to save it. There are certain skills that are difficult enough to obtain that few people have them. These people are scarce and valuable. Often our time is of short supply and in the myriad of things we can be doing day-to-day, we should be focused on activities worthy of spending this scarce resource on. This is a powerful shortcut for us because often things are more valuable when they are in limited supply.

Commitment and Consistency
People are far more likely to follow through when they have made a firm commitment to do so. A restaurant owner having trouble with people making reservations but failing to show up needed a way to encourage their customers to call and cancel first. They were only successful in doing so, when they asked the customer directly if they would call to cancel if their plans changed. Getting a verbal commitment increased the likelihood of follow through. Getting it in writing is even more powerful.

Nobody wants to be thought of as a free loader or moocher. A powerful way to gain influence is by giving something to others. Gifts that are unexpected and personal yield the biggest response in return. This is a source of power that we all too often give up. When we help someone at  often we hear the words “thank you”, and in response we often say “no problem”. We de-emphasize and even dismiss the gift we just gave decreasing the likelihood that our gesture will be returned in kind. Rather, we should amplify what we did. “Of course, this is what friends do for one another”. This is important; we really do need each other. We need others to sacrifice just as we must if we want to collectively accomplish hard and important goals.

Entire industries have been built up around the fact that people will buy products from people they like. Tupperware and other products rake in money because they convince large number of people to sell their products to their friends. We are more willing to sacrifice for someone we like. We want to work with people we enjoy being around. To gain influence, we should build relationships. One powerful way to do this is to offer sincere, regular compliments to our colleagues. Do not be stingy with honest complements.

Those who are considered to be an expert in their field will also have influence over others in relation to their authority. If we want to have influence, we need to make sure others are aware that we have the expertise to warrant others to trust our opinions. Before Dr. Cialdini made his presentation, he was introduced by the person who pulled together the conference. In the introduction, the organizer presented a long list of Dr. Cialdini’s credentials on the topic of influence: his books, his research, his awards. When Dr. Cialdini was ready to present, the entire audience was ready to listen. Getting a trusted source to vouch for you is a valuable way to establish credibility.

If no one is available, we can improve our trustworthiness through credible honesty. If we start out by listing our weaknesses first, we are more believable when we follow this by mentioning our areas of strength. In one of the most influential commercials in history, Avis Rent-A-Car used the tag-line, “We are number two, but we are trying harder. The honesty of the first phrase was apparent, making the second part of that phrase more believable.

Social Proof: Consensus
A powerful short-cut for us in decision making is to follow the lead of the group. If many people are in line to purchase an iPad, our curiosity is peaked and we have a stronger desire to purchase one ourselves. The power comes when there are many other people doing a certain action and even more so when people similar to us are doing it. In our communities, churches, clubs or at work, we have a natural collection of people who have a lot in common. As a result we have a natural sphere of influence. We should use it to our advantage. One person doing the right thing will influence others to do it as well. Lead by example.

One point that was clearly emphasized in the presentation was to use these techniques ethically. We want to be an influence for good. We want to convince another of something that is actually true and worthy of their consideration.  We are marshaling evidence to facilitate good decisions. If we are actual experts, we want to use our expertise to marshal appropriate influence. We want to sacrifice for others, similarly, we need others to sacrifice for us. We are better for it.