Friday, December 31, 2010

A new year

2011. My children will turn 10, 4, and 2. My wife and I will have been married six years. I'll turn 44 just weeks into the new year. I finish 2010 having invented 37 issued United States patents. There are more than seven others that have been indicated as allowable in some way, so I will likely cross the "more than one patent for every year I've been alive" line this year.

2010. Baby Bel learned to walk, started to talk, and became a fun playmate for her sisters. Eva made the honor roll and really came into her own. Sara learned to swim and in six months was able to do most of the 5 and 6 year old swim tasks as a 3 year old.

My weight had creeped back up, and I decided that missing part of my kids' or potential grandkids' lives was a horribly bad trade for the momentary enjoyment of french fries. I changed my diet (thanks, LiveStrong!) got my BMI down below the "obese" range (185 pounds is where that range starts for my height), and still dropping. I'd love to get to the "normal" BMI range this year, but I'm setting a realistic goal of simply seeing my weight continue to drop toward normal. For reference, 65% of Central Valley non-elderly adults are obese. It seems inconceivable to me that I'm thinner than average even now, but since every pound lost toward "normal" is statistically months of extra life expectancy, being thinner than average means nothing. Being a healthy weight is the goal.

My dad's cancer continues to scare me, but his great attitude and strong spirit continue to inspire me. Paradoxically, his cancer has made me feel closer to him than ever before. He is emotionally accessible to me and to my children and I am enjoying every day with him as a blessing. I hope so deeply that he beats his MCC cancer, but I plan to enjoy every moment I have with him regardless of the course of the disease. Many people fighting such a beastly kind of cancer might become bitter and harsh because of the unfairness of it. Thanks, dad, for showing me how to act in the face of adversity.

It was a tough year financially, so I guess I join the ranks of everybody else who had setbacks this year. I'm trying to emulate my dad's attitude and enjoy all of the things that are still good. Deal with the bad when I must, but live in the good.

I've found I missed my friends from years past a lot over the year. Lloyd Monserratt has been in my thoughts. Lloyd died several years ago from complications of bariatric surgery. I miss David Hoffman -- we email sometimes, but we live on opposite sides of the country. I miss many friends from UCLA and law school who are also separated by distance. I've reached out on Facebook, but Facebook often functions more to create the appearance of communication than actual communication. I am quite grateful that men seem able to pause a relationship, not talk for a decade, and then pick up the phone and pick up where we left off.

David Miller shot himself toward the end of the year. I've previously posted about that. The guys in my poker group who also knew him have been brought much closer in the aftermath. They were always friends of mine, but now I feel a strength of friendship that wasn't there before.

I've further developed and strengthened my friendship with Paul, and I am thankful for that.

My fellow inventor, brother, and friend Brian is always someone I'm thankful for. Sure, we've come up with some really crazy patent ideas that we laughed at the next morning, but even the dumb stuff is fun with Brian. He may be quirky like I am (inventors are quirky), but he also has the kindest and fairest heart of anybody I know.

My other brother, Michael, together with his wife Leanna, brought two wonderful cousins into my kids' lives (and my life). We so enjoyed seeing all of the kids play together this year.

I am thankful also for what many people would consider the strangest of all relationships -- a close friendship between my current and former wives. They call each other just to talk, they work closely on raising my 9 year old, and they genuinely like each other. Blended families are never easy, but they can be fun, happy and healthy if the adults act like adults and actually like each other. I am so grateful that we have such a situation. My first wife plans to remarry this year, and I am very hopeful that her new husband will make my daughter's good situation even better. I hope to get to know her new husband well, despite the golfer (him)/non-golfer (me) disparity.

My wife and I have worked very hard to keep our marriage healthy and happy, and my good feelings about that are such that I don't think there is a word in the English language to really capture it. Happy-Grateful-Family-Close-Smile-Work-Reward-Yay-alicious?

It goes without saying that I am more thankful for my children than ever.

I've tried hard this year to strengthen my relationship with my in-laws. I am (as is obvious to anybody who knows me) pretty quirky at times, and I think that put a lot of strain on things. I think things with them are now pretty healthy, and I'm going to continue to work on making them feel as welcome in my life as my own parents do. I wish I lived in the same city as my brother-in-law. He, his wife, and their son are all wonderful, engaging people and I am so hopeful that I can get closer to them.

This year I revisited often the decision to not work at a law firm, with the 80 hour workweeks and enormous paychecks and bonuses. Each time I think about it, though, I realize that I've given up an incredible amount of money, but essentially paid for the ability to know my children and interact with my wife. It is still worth it. And more.

My former classmate continues to be President of the United States. Having a classmate do THAT is enough to make anybody wonder if they're working to their full potential. But the same logic applies -- in my old age, the worst regret I can imagine is that I didn't know my children. I will not have that regret, and all other regrets pale beside it.

I've become less trusting this year. I've become older. I've become more comfortable setting appropriate limits for my kids. I'm looking forward to finally getting some vacation time alone with my wife (nursing babies is an awesome way to raise happy kids, but doesn't make for easy travel away from the babies). I'm looking forward to vacations with the kids. I'm looking forward to going SCUBA diving with Eva (my first wife and current wife both don't like SCUBA -- Eva's psyched about it!). I'm looking forward to inventing more things, although I'm hoping to expand my area of work to include different art areas.

Mostly, I'm looking forward to time with my family, to building my friendships, and to trying to emulate my dad's "enjoy the good" attitude.

I pray that everyone gets or remains healthy and happy this year, but as I sit here today, with a wonderful wife, wonderful children, wonderful parents and brothers, and good friends, I consider myself a very lucky man.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Invent like a five year old

I came across this article and realized that it was also great advice for inventors. They make five points. I use their headlines, but fill in the context myself. I strongly recommend reading the original if you are interested in photography.

1. Relax

Your creativity is going to tank if you are worrying about a bunch of unrelated matters. You want to think about the invention, worrying appropriately about the challenges the invention might face. Constantly worrying about something else will derail your creative process.

2. Get Curious

Kids don't know much, but their curiosity makes up for it. Imagine you normally work on data compression but in this case, you're working on minimizing data size for a nano-sized medical probe. Think like a kid "dude, check me out, I'm a doctor". "Cool, I get to play with this tiny robot". Enjoy the excitement about stepping into these roles, because it is the excitement decoupled from the practical concern (i.e. "is this too big a longshot to work?) that permits your best creative work.

3. Live In The Moment

From the original post: 'There’s an old Buddhist proverb: “Tomorrow is promised to no man.” Children tend not to ponder death or the future or the past or similar concepts as often as adults do. Kids live in the moment. They are a stream of consciousness. They aren’t concerned with much more than right now. This lets them more freely explore what’s in front of them without excess baggage.'

This was said quite well. Live in the moment. Remember, a patent is an exercise in writing future science books. Your invention, your writing, is an audition for the very small group of writings that we require all children to study. The field of "important writings" is a very crowded one, and the best way to get in is to not care if you get in. Instead, invent the best device you can. Flow with a stream of consciousness. Imagine, as you develop, that the hard and fast rules are actually flexible if done right. In order words, the fantasy and "everything is do-able" attitude of children is shared by many successful inventors.

4. Experiment

Experiment. Don't hurt anybody, but otherwise, no nuts. If it doesn't work, you don't want to file on it. More times than not, liberally experimenting strengthens your invention and inventive process.

5. Be Generous

Involve others who know the field. They may triple the value of the patent while getting maybe 50%, perhaps less.

Quick post on job creation and tax cuts for the rich

It is incredibly frustrating that everybody seems to accept, at face value, the idea that tax cuts for those earning over $250,000 per year will cause some job creation. Sure, politicians argue over the efficiency with which those dollars, borrowed from China, will create jobs. Sure, politicians frequently point out that poor families will likely spend 100% of any tax benefits on the precise items that spur demand for jobs. But the core of the Republican argument -- that letting the ultra-wealthy keep more of the dollars they earn will cause them to create massive employment for others -- is just false.

Let's start with a basic truth: The current tax rate on the money spent creating jobs is zero. Not 35% or 33% or 25%, but ZERO. Just for fun, lets use an example that elicits word-play: Steve Jobs. Steve runs Apple computers. Now lets imagine some scenarios. First scenario: Steve's tax rate rises dramatically on January 1. Heck, since we're just illustrating a point, lets make it rise to Eisenhower-like levels, maybe 90%. Now imagine Apple is sitting on a $2 billion pile of cash and wants to know whether they should re-invest it (like by hiring employees and building things) or take it out as profit. If they do nothing, the profit gets taxed at the corporate level, so that isn't a likely action. If they say "screw it, It is my money" and take it out as bonuses, salaries and incentive payments, they end up having that money decimated (literally, reduced by a power of ten). So the $2 billion they had in Apple goes $200 million to the management or stockholders, and the other $1.8 billion goes to pay down the national debt.

If you are trying to remain successful, it would be crazy to take such a deal To give up $2.0 billion in capital that could grow the company and receive in exchange $200 million. Nobody rational would take this deal. Instead, they would look at the situation and say "If I choose to cash out, I get ten cents on the dollar. If I use the money to grow the business, I can deduct those costs, so I end up with the full $2 billion to hire people, build data centers, construct devices, and otherwise make my business grow. See how raising the tax rate creates jobs?

Now imagine that this high-tax scenerio is replaced with a law tax sceario where the top rate for the wealthy is 10%. Looking at the same question of "do we invest $2 billion in growth, or just take it and keep it ourselves", the answer is as predicable as it is an indictment of our lax attitude toward fact-checking basic assumptions: If the top rate were dropped to 10%, Steve Jobs would look at the $2 billion and see that he can pocket $1.8 billion after tax of $200 million. He may consider whether to reinvest his $2 billion in the company, but he doesn't face the tough choice of having to pay significant taxes when he takes money out of the job creating company -- in his case, Apple computer.

Once he pays a $200 million tax bill that frees the $1.8 billion to use as he pleases, will he create jobs with that money? First off, people don't want to pay taxes on money they are just going to use to reinvest in other business, and normally find a way to get the full amount over tax free (as by a merger or similar move). No, even when low rates create strong incentives to pull profits off the table, rather than reinvest them in job creation, those who want to reinvest will do so for the smaller, but still important benefits of the zero tax rate on invested money.

In the interest of completeness, even where it runs counter to my point, I note that personal assistants, maids, nannys, limo drivers, and others who provide services for the personal (and not professional) needs of the ultra-wealthy may see some job benefits. But it is disingenuous to say that the creation of jobs to cater to the personal needs of the uber-rich somehow counts as the kind of general economic recovery job growth that this nation needs. Really, a tax-reduction-stimulus plan primarily aimed to get wealthy limo drivers? Kind of off base.

We need instead to focus on the real. The real is that poor people don't argue over whether they should hedge their foodstamps against inflation: They spend them. The unemployed don't balance the benefits of investing in the oil and gas sector against the textiles sector -- they balance their gas bill against their need to clothe their families. And all of those dollars get spent.

If we want to directly incentivize job creation, we need to focus on that which creates jobs -- consumers wanting things.

I hope I'm wrong, because if it really is this simple, it means the Democrats are about to sign over the keys to the kingdom to pepole who will plunder it and leave it worse for the experience. Any economists ready to clarify?

Friday, December 3, 2010

My dad's blog

My dad has a rare form of cancer. His blog, found at, is a personal and poignant description of what he is going through. It will doubtless be very helpful to others with Merkel Cell Carcinoma, and it is a brave example of how sharing your personal medical situation can be empowering.

When I started at Harvard Law School, they told all incoming students a story that I've found applies in a lot of situations (not including law school, for which the story was wildly inappropriate). Two people are sleeping in a tent in the woods. They awaken to the sound of a bear crashing through the forest toward their tent. One person starts to put on his shoes. The other says "why would you possibly put on your shoes -- there is no way you can outrun a bear." The response is "I don't need to outrun the bear. I just need to outrun you."

My dad just needs to outrun the Merkel Cell carcinoma. He doesn't need to defeat the bear, just to keep the bear in his rearview mirror. Of course, I prefer a complete defeat of the bear.

I hope, if I ever face a similar health crisis, that I can keep a good sense of perspective, and treat each new day as a gift to be opened, explored, and cherished. Thanks, dad, for providing a poignant example of how to outrun the bear and enjoy the scenery during the run. Your family is right there by your side every step of the way.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Death, Taxes and Certainty

Benjamin Franklin wrote "Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." Looks like the government has managed to screw even that up.

I worked hard -- I mean, time away from the kids, flying across the country, up at 4 am hard, to help Barack Obama get elected. Life is complex, and anybody who tells you that they did something hard for just one reason is either lying or deceiving themselves. I worked for Obama for many reasons, but at the top of the list was health. Namely, making sure that my children didn't become permanently ineligible for insurance if they are diagnosed with a health problem (i.e. a pre-existing condition).

My focus on pre-existing conditions isn't just a random fascination. When I was a little kid, I would become disabled sometimes when I got a fever. I would just lie down and my muscles would ache too much to move. My father is a doctor, but neither of my parents really knew what to do about it or why it was significant. They cared for me and eventually the fever would clear up and I would feel better.

Fast forward to 7th grade when I got sent home with a note from my PE teacher saying something like "your son has an extremely low pain threshold, he needs to suck it up and exercise harder." My reaction was to internalize it -- yup, I was a wimpy kid, not able to hold my own in the pain department, as disappointed with myself as my teacher was with me. Except that I now know that the searing pain I felt with every step during some of those forced PE runs was real. And with each step I was walking closer to kidney failure.

Still undiagnosed, I hung out with a friend on Halloween as a teenager. Some mean older kids chased us, threatening to hit us with the chains they were swinging. By the time I got home I could barely walk, my urine was the color of coca-cola, and even though we escaped the assault, my body felt as if we hadn't.

Finally, years later I felt similar symptoms come on and I saw a doctor who was insightful enough to order a CPK test. A few more tests and we had a cause: A rare muscle disorder called CPT2 deficiency. Wow, I had one of the muscle disorders that the Muscular Dystrophy Association works to cure. At least the horrible, repeating echo of my PE teacher's words was wrong -- I knew that I wasn't the weak-willed child he thought. Instead, I was the boy who pushed on through the searing pain that I now know, thanks to the diagnosis, was real.

I have three girls. Luckily, CPT2 is very rare. So rare that it is very unlikely that my kids would have inherited the requisite defective gene from both parents (actually it is a bit more complex as I have only one defective gene and that places me in the subgroup of people who have an unknown additional mutation that combines with the single defective gene to cause the CPT2 symptoms to occur). But rare or not, I worry that my children may have this disease. There is an easy genetic test to rule it out -- and if they do have it, I can help protect their health by altering their diets (if you know you have CPT2, many people, including me, find they can control it by diet alone).

I was faced with a terrible choice: Get them tested OR preserve their ability to get health insurance. My concern was that even a "negative" test that shows only carrier status for this rare disorder may be enough to make insurers, who don't like things they can't predict, refuse to insure them. If my child loses her job 30 years from now, would she be unable to get insurance on the open market?

So you can understand my incredible relief when President Obama signed the health insurance reform law. I would wait until the provisions preventing denial of coverage for pre-existing conditions for children went into effect, and then I would promptly test my children for CPT2. Best of both worlds, I thought -- I can get them diagnosed AND leave them eligible for insurance coverage regardless of the results. Of course, this is how any rational system should work, instead of punishing people for obtaining the information they need to better manage their health.

Unfortunately, before the effective date of the provision banning insurers from denying coverage to children with pre-existing conditions, Republican candidates had started to demand repeal of this law. I held off further to see whether this chorus would get louder, and unfortunately it did. The half-promise to pass a new law preventing insurance refusals based on pre-existing conditions seems an obvious smoke screen -- for decades this reform had been promised, and Republicans never moved an inch to make it real. No way they will repeal that provision simply so they can pass it again.

This is a case of repeal by threat. Without even repealing the law, the mere threat to repeal it creates the very uncertainty that forced me to balance the best medical course (test them!) against the best overall course (retain ability to get health insurance). As Justice Marshall wrote, the value of the Sword of Damocles "is that it hangs--not that it drops". The threat of relegating my children to a lifetime of having to rely on employers for health insurance, of never being able to be self-employed without losing their coverage, is again too real to ignore.

I'm not asking for a government handout. My main concern is that the law may be changed so that, try as I might, I will not be able to find an insurer willing to take my money in exchange for covering my children. All I want is to be able to plan for my family's medical care without having to look over my shoulder wondering if medically sound decisions will ultimately be punished by an exile into the ranks of the uninsured. In short, the repeated Republican complaint that the government will prevent people from seeing the doctor they choose may well come true if the Republicans repeal this law and allow health insurers to drop my children -- effectively keeping them from seeing their own doctor.

So I am holding off on getting the tests done until there is a bit more certainty. It is immoral that Republicans are threatening to repeal the entirety of the law, even the part that promises children that they will each enter adulthood eligible for medical insurance. But immoral or not, it would be irresponsible to ignore the threat. So it is back to checking my baby's diapers to make sure her urine isn't brown, back to asking my other daughters how their muscles feel whenever they get a cold, back, in short, to medical techniques more suited to the bronze age than to the sole superpower on earth.

So why the inclusion of "taxes" in the title? Because uncertainty hurts. Just as uncertainty about medical insurance law is displacing medical need as the driver of medical decisions, so too does uncertainty about tax policy displace business needs as the driver of business decisions. It is unacceptable to go year-to-year hoping that the government fixes AMT next year. It is also unacceptable to close in on the end of 2010 without knowing what the tax rates will look like in 2011.

To be clear, I think it is far better to let taxes for millionaires go back to where they were during the Clinton economic boom than it is to put money borrowed from China directly in the pockets of the ultra-rich. But regardless of what the decision is, it is irresponsible to keep putting it off. This artificial emergency may have been created by Bush's decision to use a ten year tax plan to avoid a filibuster and to minimize the projected cost of the cuts, but artificial or not and however created, every person in this country is guessing as to what their first paycheck in January will look like. To imagine that this uncertainty is not dragging the economy down is deluded.

So what is the upshot? Uncertainty is dangerous. It is unacceptable public health policy. It is unacceptable tax policy. It is, unfortunately, something that politicians with "an extremely low pain threshold" find far easier to live with than the hard work of compromise and cooperation.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Welcome (again) to Feet to the Fire blog

This is the second iteration of this blog. The first was up and then down fairly quickly. I intended the first iteration of this blog as a sample of speeches that perhaps should be given -- sort of a ghost writer of speeches that aren't ever delivered. It was a fun idea, but one that required so much work for each post that it posed too high a barrier to posting. If I didn't have a couple of hours to write a post, the idea, no matter how good, didn't get written about.

I'm returning to this blog because 140 characters (Twitter) and the slightly longer but still inadequate Facebook size limit make it hard to express any idea that isn't already pretty obvious. Try to explain the importance of the federal debt limit in 140 characters and you'll quickly understand the problem. Stick with Twitter as a primary communication mode and we'll devolve from "Is our children learning" (Bush) to "is R cldrn lrng?".

My new approach will to default to posting an idea even if it is not fully developed or if I don't have time to fully draft and proofread. Ideas that aren't fully developed can be further developed in edits or even in comments by readers.