Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Costco sued over fuel temperatures: Lawyers get paid, customers don't

I just got a notice from Costco regarding this class action lawsuit. Ridiculous! For those who don't want to read the whole thing, here's the main idea:

You buy gas by the gallon. Try filling up a gallon jug with hot water, and putting it in the fridge for a while. When you take it out, open it up, and you'll find there's room to put just a bit more water in. Why is this? Because cold water takes up less space than hot water. So if you go to the gas station and fill your gallon gasoline jug in the middle of winter, and then take the jug home and heat it up, you'll end up having more than a gallon inside! Likewise, if you go there in the middle of the summer and then take it home and cool it down, you'll have less than a gallon in there.

So these lawyers decided they should sue Costco, on behalf of anyone who bought fuel there on a warm day, because if you buy a gallon of gas at 80 degrees, you won't get as much gas as if you'd bought a gallon of gas at 60 degrees. Obviously, this is a frivolous lawsuit, but Costco has decided that they would spend more money fighting it than settling.

Here are the terms of the settlement:
  • Costco will pay the lawyers up to ten million dollars for suing them.
  • Costco will pay to tell all their gas customers that the lawyers are suing Costco on the behalf of their customers.
  • Costco will pay to update their pumps with fancy detectors so that if you buy a gallon on a hot day, then you'll actually buy a little more than a gallon.
  • (Costco customers don't get any money out of the settlement)
People shop at Costco because Costco has lower prices than just about anywhere else. What do you think Costco will do to make up for the cost of this lawsuit? Cut corporate bonuses? I don't think so. They'll charge more at the pump. So we customers are hiring lawyers to sue Costco to raise prices so they can pay the lawyers. Does this sound right to you?

Fortunately, there is something we can do about it. Look at the very bottom of section 5:
If more than 2,500 people opt out of this settlement, Costco has the right to cancel the settlement.
If you're not in the mood to reward these self-serving lawyers for their troubles, take a moment to exclude yourself:
To exclude yourself from the Settlement Class, you must send a letter by mail saying that you wish to do so. The request must state: “I request that I be excluded from the Settlement in In re Motor Fuel Temperature Sales Practices Litigation, MDL Docket No. 1840.” You must also include: (1) your full name and current address; (2) your signature and (3) proof of gasoline purchase from Costco after January 1, 2001. You must postmark your exclusion request to the address below no later than February 23, 2010:

Settlement Administrator
P.O. Box 12985
Birmingham, AL 35202-2985
I imagine that a printed bank statement with your Costco fuel purchase circled will suffice for a proof of purchase. Godspeed.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Mike Leavitt on "Co-ops"

I just read this informative article by Utah's former Governor Leavitt. I agree with a lot of what he says. Liberals seem to act like a vote against Obama's plan is a vote against healthcare reform. I can see why they say this, since Obama's plan is the only plan that has any chance of getting passed anytime in the next several years. However, it's not like conservatives are just plugging their ears and saying, "No, things are just fine as they are." Everybody who knows anything about the debate seems to agree that healthcare reform is necessary, but conservatives and liberals have a different idea about how it should be done. I have yet to be convinced by either side, but I'm leaning to the right at the moment. Does anybody have convincing evidence (not "arguments," but actual "evidence") that one side or the other is right? Please post a response if you do.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Pornography and Freedom of Speech

This is a followup to my earlier posting about Internet Filtering. Promoters (i.e. sellers) of pornographic material have long argued that banning or restricting pornography is in violation of their freedom of speech/freedom of press. However, it has been my experience that the pornography industry has gone out of their way to push pornographic content into the faces of people who would very much rather not see it. If cigarette companies put nicotine in our drinking water, we'd be furious. People have a right to choose whether they want to smoke cigarettes, and we wouldn't put up with such underhanded tactics to addict the masses.

The fact is, pornography is an addictive substance, which addicts people by sight, rather than having to be taken into their bodies. By making it appear on non-pornographic websites, the pornography industry is seeking to addict people who did not want to get involved with pornography in the first place. Rather than promoting our choice to seek their wares, they are trying to take away our choice not to. They are not respecting our rights, and cannot rightly pretend that they care about us. I see no reason to respect their "freedom of expression" if they cannot respect others' freedom from repression.

Now that I've said that, I feel it is important to point out how China is seeking to use the battle against pornography as a front for really restricting freedom of the press. Seemingly out of nowhere, they've suddenly ramped up a supposed anti-pornography campaign recently.


The same public security agencies charged with fighting pornography are responsible for suppressing illegal political activity, said Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher in Hong Kong for Human Rights Watch. The government’s statistics for seizures of illegal publications tend to include both pornographic and political documents, he noted.

Stealing code from U.S. companies, they threw together a slipshod piece of internet filtering software, announcing that the software would have to be added to all computers sold in China starting July 1.

Then they started a smear campaign to make it look like Google is spreading smut across their glorious nation. Someone in Beijing arranged to enter the search term "abnormal relationship between son and mother" a whole lot starting just a few days ago, in order to make it a popular term. That way, when they typed "son" into the search engine during a television broadcast, guess what appeared in the suggested search terms? (In China, the government owns all of the television stations).

By painting Google as a public menace, China is preparing to block Google, in order to limit their citizens' access to information about whatever they're planning to do next. What are they planning to do next? I don't know. But good money says that it won't be the "popular" or the "right" thing by our standards. Again according to the New York Times:
Liu Xiaobo, one of China’s best-known dissidents, was formally arrested Tuesday on suspicion of subversion, six months after he was detained for joining other intellectuals in signing a document calling for democracy. Earlier this month, the authorities refused to renew the licenses of more than a dozen lawyers after they agreed to represent clients in human rights cases.
I don't know what we as American citizens can do about this, but the first step is to recognize that there is a problem. Spread the word. Make sure people aren't fooled by this sudden anti-pornography mask that China's government has donned. I still maintain that this campaign will hurt China in the long run, and hurting China will hurt the United States as well. The last thing the world needs is a nation the size of China with the leadership style of North Korea.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Public Healthcare

According to the Associated Press, President Obama is arguing the merits of a government-run health plan by pointing out that if it hurts the private insurance industry, "It's their own fault."

His argument goes like this: You set up a government-run plan to take care of the people that would like to sign up for it. The worst thing that could happen is that nobody signs up, and then we're in the same place we were before. On the other hand, if people sign up with the government healthcare plan, that shows that the private industry isn't capable of competing with the clumsy government bureaucracies that they love to hate, and they deserve to fail.

The important point that President Obama failed to address is the fact that the government-run health plan will be funded by taxpayers who don't sign up for it, whereas the private plans are funded entirely by the people who are signed up for them. If the government plan were to rely entirely on proceeds from its premiums, then his point would be well taken. That would be the ultimate contest between government bureaucracy and private business. But since this isn't what he's proposing, his argument is paper-thin.

Think about it. Let's say you have two insurance providers to choose from. For an average customer, Provider A will collect $100/month in premiums, pay out an average of $60/month to cover their patients' healthcare costs, spend $20/month for administrative costs, and pocket $20/month as revenue. Provider B is less efficient, but isn't looking to turn a profit, so they pay out $60/month and spend $40/month for administrative costs. Everybody has to pay Provider B $20/month regardless of whether they use their service, so the premiums they charge will depend on how many people sign up with them:
  • If one person in five signs up, they break even (five people pay them $20 for every one that signs up), so they don't charge any premiums. If fewer people sign up, they can start paying out more and still don't have to charge premiums. How can Provider A expect to get any business?
  • If four people in five sign up, Provider B has to charge $75 in premiums. Provider A could forego their profits completely and still end up losing $5/month.
This scenario assumes that Provider A is more efficient, but is just out to turn a profit instead of providing better care. Obama's theory seems to be that Provider A is less efficient, and is also greedy. If he's right, then why can't Provider B compete without taxpayer money?

Some people might argue that Provider A currently makes so much money that simply having Provider B as an option would force them to reduce their prices so that they make just a little bit of money while still providing good service. If that were the case, why wouldn't Provider C have already tried it? If they can get more customers than Provider A, they wouldn't need to make as much money per customer in order to make a good profit. Simple supply and demand principles dictate that in a free market, companies can't really be making that much money per customer, or else some other company would come along that was willing to make slightly less and undercut them. The same principles say that in a free market, companies can't really be that inefficient, or some other company would have come along that could charge less and still turn a bigger profit. The only time these principles fail is when companies collaborate in price-fixing schemes or other similar practices.

I'll be the first to admit that something ought to be done about the healthcare situation in the United States. We're spending more than just about anybody in the world, and we're no healthier for it. I'll also admit that insurance companies are a part of the problem. But I can't imagine how replacing them with a government organization could help solve the problem. Our government is so heavily influenced by industry lobbyists, is it hard to imagine the government healthcare plan only covering drugs or services that are heavily supported by lobbying, while ignoring more effective, less expensive alternatives?

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Internet filtering

I'm all for Internet filtering software. I personally use Blue Coat's K9 software, which is free and quite powerful. Apart from helping me to avoid seeing as many racy images on the Internet, it has probably saved me from a few attacks on my computer. I search the Internet a lot in my work, and every now and then my search results brought up a shady website--the kind that tries to install malware on your computer--which K9 was able to warn me about.

But I think China has gone too far with their Green Dam-Youth Escort program. They are requiring that every computer in China be shipped with this software installed. The reason is probably two-fold. First, it helps to protect their youth (and probably a lot of adults) from a degrading and addictive substance that would undoubtedly cost their GDP millions (at least!) through lost productivity. Secondly, it gives the Chinese government an easy way to control the information that is available to their users. In the past, they've resorted to blocking Google itself, just to prevent their citizens from finding information about opposition parties during an election. If they control filtering software that's been installed on the majority of the computers in their country, that gives them much more power over what information their citizens are accessing.

But even if China didn't have a history of blocking information from their citizens, and even if we had no reason to believe that's how this software would be used, this is still a bad move, and it will come back to bite them if they go through with it. Why? Whenever you have a piece of software that you install on a significant number of machines, you are opening yourself up to hacking attacks. Microsoft has had to invest fortunes in order to try to patch the security holes in Windows, because their operating system is so ubiquitous that it's an obvious target for hackers. Think about it: if you want to infect the largest number of computers possible, are you going to spend time finding a security hole in some program that only one computer in a hundred has installed, or a program that 88% of the world's computers use? Even if the other program is much easier to hack, it won't give you nearly as much bang for your buck. So if you're going to require that all computers in China ship with certain software installed, you'd better be putting a lot of money toward making sure it's secure.

And China obviously hasn't made any serious effort to do so.

In fact, rather than having their own security experts design this software from the ground up, they apparently stole big chunks of a California-based company's filtering program to make it. With such obvious corner-cutting, you can expect that the software would be extremely fragile. And indeed it is. A University of Michigan professor and his students were able to successfully infiltrate a computer with this software installed within just a few hours. So what China is effectively doing is filling their country with computers that any decent hacker could bend to his will.

That's not the kind of move you'd expect from a nation that has gone to the effort of hacking key systems in the United States, just in case they ever need to hurt us. Obviously somebody in the Chinese government understands the threat that hackers can pose to a nation. Anti-Chinese elements could deal enormous damage to China's economy simply by hacking their computers and making them crash continuously. Professional spammers could attack the vulnerable computers in a way that forces them to load up the very sites the Chinese government is trying to protect their youth from seeing. The entire nation's computers could become a vast digital robot army that can be used to attack other computers around the world.

Of course, it probably won't get that far. Once all the new computers start crashing, either the Chinese government will realize the error of their ways and backtrack, or the Chinese people will get smart and uninstall the program first thing. The question is, how much damage will the government allow before they are willing to admit their mistakes?

As Confucius said, "An oppressive government is more to be feared than a tiger."

Friday, May 08, 2009

The No-Choice Movement

By now, we've become familiar with the "pro-choice" versus "pro-life" movements. Most people use the name preferred by each of these movements, because it's absurd to think that anyone might be "anti-life" or "anti-choice." It's more a question of whose choice (and whose life) you value more. That's why I thought it was so hilarious when I read the following excerpt from Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next: First Among Sequels:
With a nation driven by the concept of choice, a growing faction of citizens who thought life was simpler when options were limited had banded themselves together into what they called the "no-choicers" and demanded the choice to have no choice... The no-choicers suggested that there should be a referendum to settle the matter once and for all, something that the opposition "choice" faction had no option but to agree with. More sinisterly, the militant wing known only as NOPTION was keen to go further and demanded that there should be only one option on the ballot paper--the no-choice one.

The wit and absurdity of it all really struck my funny bone at the time. But today I stumbled across this article where prominent blogger Joel Spolsky argues that choice is a bad thing. He basically rails on the Microsoft Vista team for not unifying all of Windows' shut-down options into a single "b'bye" button. "The more choices you give people," he argues, "the harder it is for them to choose, and the unhappier they'll feel." So rather than giving you the choice between, say, switching user accounts and physically turning off your computer, the computer should pretty much decide what to do for you. "If you're concerned about power usage," he says, "let the power management software worry about that. It's smarter than you are." Nevermind the fact that the changes he suggests would require changing the actual hardware on users' machines; the blame for this interface falls fully on the "whole team of UI designers, programmers, and testers who worked very hard on the OFF button in Windows Vista."

Having seen someone so blatantly arguing for a no-choice approach to things, I got to thinking about the way we as Americans have been systematically voting for the government to take away our choices. For example, if someone wants to have a home birth like we did, it's illegal in several states for a midwife to come and help them.

I look at France, where the educational system is designed to educate children to the highest level that they can attain to, and therefore you will go to the school that you test into. If you're bad at taking aptitude tests, you'll be sorting mail for the rest of your life, no matter how motivated you may be. And, frankly, I see the United States going in that general direction, as we pump more money into the public school system, without allowing parents to choose other alternatives. In California, it's technically been illegal for parents to home-school their children for a long time, but nobody seemed to notice until a judge recently ruled that "parents do not have a constitutional right to home school their children."

Keep an eye out, as you go through your day-to-day life, for other areas where you've either given up your freedom of choice in exchange for security, or had it taken from you legally. You'll find that the problem is more pervasive than you realized. The people behind it would never call themselves "no-choicers," but a rose is a rose.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Mormons and Soup Kitchens

I volunteered at the local St Vincent de Paul soup kitchen this morning.  I normally wouldn't go squawking about that sort of thing, but I read a forum posting recently where someone was criticizing the LDS faith and its adherents on the grounds that he had never seen a soup kitchen founded by a Mormon, and I wanted to clear up the facts regarding Mormons and soup kitchens.

The biggest reason that you don't hear about Mormon Soup Kitchens is that the LDS Church has a different way of providing support for the needy.  Every month, faithful LDS members fast and pray for a period of about 24 hours.  They then donate at least as much money as they saved by not eating during that period in the form of fast offerings.  Members who don't have money, such as farmers in third-world countries, can donate the food itself.  This money and food is then used to provide welfare assistance, beginning within the boundaries of the ward or branch, with the surplus spilling over into more general funds until it can be used the world over.

Welfare from the LDS Church is distributed under the direction of local bishops or branch presidents, who can call on the resources of the so-called Bishop's Storehouse to provide food, money, and other necessities to those in need.  Such welfare is extended to members and non-members alike, but is not given as a dole.  Except in very particular cases (e.g. a widow who has no family to support her), church welfare is viewed as temporary assistance, not a permanent commitment.  It is only to be used long enough for the person or family to become self-supporting and sustainable.  People who accept welfare from the church are also generally required to do something to in some sense earn the goods they are receiving.  For example, an able-bodied man may be asked to do yard work for a local widow each week.  He may be receiving far more assistance than a few hours of yard work would fetch in an open market, but it gives him the dignity of feeling that he is doing what he can to give back.  It helps to avoid giving the recipient a sense of entitlement.

The last time I went to the soup kitchen, one of the volunteers there mentioned that they used to require the homeless people to help out with either the serving or the cleanup in order to qualify for the free food they were getting.  But the ACLU caught wind of it and sued them for slave labor, and so they had to rely on volunteers for these duties instead.

The local LDS leadership helps to furnish these volunteers by assigning each ward to provide a certain number of volunteers in a rotating fashion.  The man running the soup kitchen told us that if it weren't for the support of LDS members who volunteer from wards around the valley, they would have had to close shop a long time ago.  In addition to providing manpower, the LDS church also donates food to the soup kitchen.

So if someone tries to tell you that Mormons aren't charitable because they don't start soup kitchens, just remember what Atticus Finch says: "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it."  It is easy to overlook the many, many good deeds done by the LDS church and its members, largely because many of these deeds are done quietly, without the left hand knowing what the right hand doeth.  I have learned more and more that what someone says about other people tells me far more about the person speaking than the people he's talking about.

Or I suppose you could follow Jack Handy's rule: "Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way when you criticize them, you are a mile away from them and you have their shoes."  ;-)

Friday, April 10, 2009

Rights, Privileges, and State Bill 81

The local news has been making a big deal about Utah's State Bill 81, a new immigration bill. Frankly, I hadn't heard anything about it until I started hearing stories like this, stating that the Salt Lake City police chief has warned legislators that his department will refuse to enforce it. It seemed odd to me that none of these news reports mentioned what the bill actually did. They only quoted the police chief refusing to make his officers into immigration agents. So I looked up the full text of the bill to see what the big deal was. It seems to do a lot of things that seem like common sense to me. For example:
  • If someone is booked into jail for "driving under the influence," the county sheriff is expected to make a reasonable effort to check on their citizenship status before letting them go free.
  • Liquor licenses won't be issued to illegal aliens.
... and so on. It looks like the part that the police department is up at arms about is this:
64 . prohibits a unit of local government from enacting an ordinance or policy that limits
65 or prohibits a law enforcement officer or government employee from
66 communicating or cooperating with federal officials regarding the immigration
67 status of a person within the state;
You can find more details on lines 577 through 592 of the same document. If I'm reading it right, it means that local police departments (or any government office) can't tell their officers that they're not allowed to report illegal immigrants. It doesn't necessarily mean that their officers have to report illegal immigrants--they just can't get in trouble if they do.

The only part I'm unclear on is this:
593 (d) This Subsection (3) allows for a private right of action by a natural or legal person
594 lawfully domiciled in this state to file for a writ of mandamus to compel a noncompliant local
595 or state governmental agency to comply with the reporting laws of this Subsection (3).
So my question for all you lawyer types out there is this: Does this mean that if I notice my local police department has a policy of refusing to cooperate with immigration officials, I can file to have them get rid of that policy? Or does it mean that if I notice an illegal immigrant in my neighborhood, I can file to make the local police investigate them? (I suspect the former.)

I have two more observations to make on the matter. First, the article I linked to earlier mentioned that people are afraid that it opens up a door to racial profiling. I just don't see how this law could possibly be construed to do that. It doesn't say that police officers can book people into jail on suspicion of being illegal immigrants, for example.

Secondly, I think people are getting confused about the difference between rights and privileges. People have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. People have a right to choose what actions they will take each day, as long as their actions do not infringe upon the rights of others. People have a right to not be discriminated against based on their race, religion, and sex. People do not have a right to a job--that's a privilege. It's something that can be given or retracted at will. It is normally not wise for employers to fire somebody without reason, but they have every right to fire somebody who is not doing their job.

How does this apply? Every police officer has a right to decide whether he or she will report an illegal alien to the proper authorities. If their boss (the chief) feels that by deciding to report or not to report illegal aliens, they are not doing their job properly, he can choose to fire them. He has been duly appointed to his position, and is therefore given this privilege. If, however, his employer (the government) decides that by firing those workers, or by establishing any policy contrary to the law, he is not doing his job properly, they can fire him as well. Since they have been duly appointed by the people, this is their privilege. And if their boss (the citizenship) feels that they are not performing their duty correctly, they can fire congress as well. This is a simple principle of self-governance, which falls under the Liberty category, and is therefore not a privilege, but a right of any people.

So the officers individually have the right to resign, or to stop performing their duty to the point that they get fired, if that's what they want. The chief has the right to do the same. But the Police Department as a government entity has neither the right nor the privilege to refuse to enforce a law which has been passed by duly-elected officials. Congress, likewise, has neither the right nor the privilege to refuse to represent their constituency. When the police begins to govern the people, rather than the other way around, it's called a police state, and we don't want that, now do we?

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Why we chose to have our baby at home

An astute observer might have noticed in the pictures that we posted recently that Liz gave birth to Chris at home.  Before the birth, when we told acquaintances that we were planning a home birth, their responses often made it clear that there are a lot of misconceptions (no pun intended) about home birth, natural childbirth, and even childbirth in general.  I'd like to take a moment to explain why we decided to have a natural childbirth, why we decided to have a home birth, and why we're glad we did.

First of all, unmedicated childbirth presents a host of benefits--too numerous to mention here--to both the mother and fetus.  Among them are:
  • The fetus is more alert, and is able to help move itself out during labor.
  • Undrugged newborns breastfeed much easier.  Breastfeeding just after birth stimulates the production of breast milk, making it easier to continue breastfeeding afterward.  Breastfeeding likewise has numerous benefits for the fetus.
  • The newborn is more alert and is better able to spend quality time bonding with both mother and father.
  • The people we spoke to who had tried it both ways reported a much faster recovery time for the mother when giving birth naturally.
  • Reduced risk of needing vacuum extractor or forceps (which reduces the risk and severity of tearing)
  • Mobility during labor.  Adjusting and changing positions during labor can make things much more comfortable for the mother, but is out of the question when you have a hypodermic needle in your spine.
  • Shorter labor.
  • Avoid the side affects and complications from the epidural.
  • Reduced chance and severity of post-partum depression.
And, perhaps most convincingly of all, the people we spoke with generally fell into one of three categories:
  • Women who had only tried childbirth with an epidural generally expressed the feeling that they weren't brave enough to face the pain of a natural childbirth.
  • Women who had only tried natural childbirth were generally content to continue doing so.
  • Women who had tried both methods invariably said the natural childbirth was far better.  

Having decided that we wanted to have an unmedicated childbirth, the decision to give birth at home was a relatively simple one.  Hospitals tend to foster a culture of intervention.  After all, people only go to the hospital if they are injured or sick, right?  Apart from the rare case where a woman is at particular risk of complications, childbirth is a healthy and natural occurrence.  Luckily for us humans, women have been giving birth successfully for millennia without medical assistance.  Don't get me wrong--hospitals are very important institutions, and medical science has brought us a long way from the devastatingly high infant mortality rates of days gone by.  I would certainly prefer to be at a hospital in the case of a high-risk childbirth.  However, for the vast majority of pregnancies a birth at home is every bit as safe as a birth in the hospital.

As I said earlier, the hospital environment is geared toward taking someone who has something wrong with them and fixing it.  In the case of childbirth, the goal is to take a woman who has a baby in her tummy and remove the baby in such a way that both mother and baby survive.  If they can increase their personal revenue or the hospital's revenue at the same time, so much the better.  Very little attention is given to the comfort or wishes of mother or child unless they can charge you for it, and since doctors are busy (and human) they tend to want to do things in a way that is most convenient for the doctors.  With this in mind, drugs and surgery are the best ways to accomplish their goals.  They can easily take a perfectly healthy woman with a perfectly healthy baby and increase the hospital's profits while still ensuring, more or less, the survival of both mother and child.  Here's how:
  1. There is a moment during transition (between first-stage and second-stage labor) when the natural hormonal changes taking place inside a woman's body will cause her to feel despair.  During this stage, she will say things like "I don't think I can do this anymore."  At this same moment, the same hormonal changes make her extremely open to suggestion.  If you tell her she needs a drink of water, or to go to the bathroom, she'll probably agree with you.  If the doctor says, "How about we give you a little something for the pain," she will probably consent unquestioningly.  Now the doctor has permission to give her an epidural (this was in the fine print of the forms you signed when checking in to the hospital).  Had they waited another half-hour, the woman's mental state would have naturally changed to one of quiet determination, and she would soon be in the pushing phase.  The epidural takes about half an hour to kick in anyway.
  2. Once the epidural is administered, the anesthesia has a tendency to prolong labor, giving the doctor an opportunity to suggest "something to speed things up."  After hours of labor, and after being told that their labor is slowing down, most women will want very much to do something to get it over with.  At this point, assuming the epidural was administered properly, the woman will not notice the increased severity of the contractions as a result of the pitocin.  Indeed, the doctors and nurses will probably have to tell her when she's supposed to push because she won't feel the natural urge that normally accompanies contractions.
  3. The baby, however, is now the victim of three separate effects of events so far.  First, the anesthesia is making the baby feel groggy and slowing his vital signs.  Second, the pitocin is working to increase his heart rate.  Thirdly, the mother's contractions are now much more severe than they should naturally be, so the baby is being squeezed by the uterus more than he should be.  This trifecta of stimuli will often throw his heart rate (as measured by the external fetal monitor) into disarray, leading the medical staff to conclude that the fetus is distressed and must be extracted via C-section.
And so you see how easily the medical team can upsell their services.  A mother who would have only been charged for the hospital bed, room, and standard staff for a day or two can now be billed for the epidural kit, the anesthesiologist, the pitosin, and a full-on invasive surgery, plus the extra time she'll spend recovering.  And the doctor used every available medical technique to ensure that mother and baby survived, rendering him practically immune to litigation.  This probably explains why c-section rates in hospitals are over 30% (and rising) while out-of-hospital births have c-section rates around 4%.

Also, at home the mother has much more freedom to move around into different positions, even taking a bath or a nap if she feels like it.  We can eat or drink whatever we like whenever we like, we never have to worry about when to go to the hospital or about having the baby in the car on the way there.  Liz, like most women, feels much more relaxed at home than at the hospital, and relaxation is one of the most important ways to reduce pain during contractions.

We were able to find a really excellent (and extremely qualified) midwife named Rebecca, who came highly recommended by friends.  With our insurance, the entire birth process cost just as much as it would have at the hospital.  (If we didn't have insurance, it would have cost much less than the hospital).  She has a birth center that would have cost about $750 to use (includes meals, etc.), and we asked her what the biggest advantage would be to using the birth center instead of our home.

"Family," she replied.

"What do you mean?"

"A lot of times if you tell your family that you're planning to give birth at home they're horrified, but if you tell them you're having it in a 'birth center' it lends a certain amount of credibility to it.  I will have all the same equipment with me when I come to your house, so there's no difference in risk to you or the baby if you have it at home."

In our first appointment, Rebecca spent a couple of hours asking and answering questions, and subsequent appointments tended to last an hour or more.  We were able to develop a rapport with her that would have been impossible with most obstetricians.  (Liz still hadn't seen her OB in person after four appointments there).   Rebecca also had a knack for calming Liz down and assuaging her fears.

We also took a Bradley Methods class to educate ourselves about the childbirth process.  In addition to teaching us what to expect from labor itself, our Bradley instructor coached us on nutrition and exercise that was particularly important in ensuring that Liz would be ready for the process.  We learned pain management techniques and different birthing positions that often work best during labor.  The course lasted two hours, one day a week, for twelve weeks.  By the end of it we felt really empowered and at peace about the whole thing.  Labor was no longer something we feared.  We knew what to expect, and we knew what we would need to do to make it a successful experience.

So what was it like to have a baby at home?  In another posting I will write about the experience.  Stay tuned.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

How much does your interest rate matter?

Liz and I have been looking at buying a home recently (as if having a baby weren't enough stress) so I've had mortgage rates on the brain. We recently got pre-approved for a 4.75% loan, which appears to be just about the lowest rate in recent history. It was up around 6% last November, 9.25% in the summer of 2006, 15% in 1986, and a whopping 18% in late 1981. So how much of a difference does it make to be buying a home now instead of at one of these higher interest rates? Let's take a look.

If we don't count mortgage insurance or any other added fees, we can calculate that a $100,000 loan will look like this at the interest rates mentioned above:


As you can see, borrowing the same amount of money in the early 1980s, you'd have had to pay almost three times as much as you do now. The interest alone would have been over four times the price of the home itself! Now, the interest won't even sum up to the original home price. Of course, homes were cheaper back then, too. So maybe the home that cost $100,000 back then is worth $500,000 now.

The $8000 tax credit for first-time homebuyers (anybody who hasn't owned their primary residence in the past 3 years) is a nice extra incentive, but it's a pittance compared to the lower interest rates.

One more quick comparison before I finish: let's say that you bought a home for $100,000 five years ago and then refinanced it last year for 6%. Let's say you're now wondering whether you should refinance the home, which you've determined would cost you about $5000. You probably haven't paid off much of the principle on the home because the banks purposely weight the payments so you're paying mostly interest for the first several years. Assume that you've still got about $90,000 left on your mortgage and you decide to refinance for $95,000 so that you can get up-front money to pay for the cost of refinancing. Even though it's a 30-year loan, you plan to make extra payments to pay it off in 25 years since that's what you would have done anyway. Here's the difference between just paying off the rest of your $90,000 and refinancing:

So despite adding $5,000 to your loan today, you'd still come out over $13,000 ahead at the end of 25 years!

Friday, March 27, 2009

Another baby Chris photo


Isn't he just the cutest baby ever?
Here I am holding our beautiful baby boy, less than 15 minutes after he was born! Christopher James Jensen. Born 8 pounds 10 ounces!
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My Very Pregnant Wife

Here's a photo taken March 17. Chris was born nine days later.
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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Baby Chris

We had our son this morning at 4:44 AM.  8 pounds 10 ounces.  Twenty and a half inches long.  Pictures will come later.  First, a nap.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Freedom of speech

Apparently there was a cable company that couldn't permit an Anti-Hillary movie to air on their pay-per-view channels because it fell under the time period that makes it subject to campaign finance laws. The Supreme court is now thinking of striking down the law competely, based on it First-Amendment implications.

It is odd how we can say that a film that gets released six months before an election would be okay, while a film that gets released a little closer to the elections should be subject to campaign regulations.

I understand the desire to prevent the nation from becoming a plutocracy, where he who has the most money controls the government. But the justices are right to be concerned about the implications of limiting the publication of free speech. What's the difference between the U.S.'s blocking the publication of campaign ads and China's blocking YouTube? Ultimately, if we can't trust American citizens to make an informed decision while they're being inundated with campaign ads, why do we think we can trust them any more when they're not?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Heist

Here's an interesting article that exposes some of the reasons that the credit crisis really happened, and why what Washington is doing now isn't likely to fix anything.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Youtube diplomacy

There are a lot of areas where I disagree with President Barack Obama, but you've got to admit the man is smart.  He's begun using YouTube to express America's goodwill toward Iran.  If this can help to improve relations between the U.S. and Iran, bringing the citizens together, that will be one undeniably good thing that he has done as President.

When I was in France, I was surprised at how many people there said, "What do the Americans think of us?  We hear that they don't like us."  Then I came back to the U.S. and people kept asking me, "What did the French people treat you?  We hear they don't like Americans."

The fact is, if people can realize that we all care about one another, and that despite our political differences we are all a part of humanity, we will be one step closer to world peace.  No amount of speaking softly, and no amount of carrying large sticks, can ever be a substitute for feelings of charity and goodwill among the populace of two nations.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Complaint to HBO

Submitted here

To whom it may concern,

I would like to add my voice to the thousands that I'm sure you have already heard regarding the scheduled airing of an episode of Big Love which contains scenes from a temple ceremony practiced by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While I realize that many people find it difficult to understand why Latter-day Saints would feel offended at having this ceremony publicized, that does not excuse ignoring the fact that they will. I am one of them.

We consider the temple ceremonies to be extremely sacred (and beautiful) events, which require a certain amount of spiritual preparation to be understood and appreciated. It is our hope that everyone in the world will experience these ceremonies first-hand, after having prepared themselves for it. However, to broadcast it without discretion for all the world to see is to show a fundamental lack of appreciation (and respect) for the sanctity of these ordinances.

In your official response to criticism regarding the airing of this episode, you apologized to "those who may be offended," but announced that you planned to air the show regardless. I hope that you will understand how shallow this apology sounds to those who you are offending. Likewise, the assurances that you have taken steps "to assure the accuracy of the ceremony" are unconvincing in light of the fact that the character who is supposedly attending the temple session "as she faces losing the church she loved so much" is living a lifestyle that would preclude her from temple attendance in the first place.

While you have made some overtures at explaining that the LDS church does not permit polygamy among its ranks, you still portray the polygamists in this series as being members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This is patently false. Ever since the LDS church officially banned polygamy well over a century ago, those who continued to engage in polygamous marriages have removed themselves from fellowship with the church. They do not attend church in LDS wards, as they have their own religious leaders. If they go to a temple, it is one that they build (such as the one found on the FLDS compound in Texas recently), which is not associated in any way with the LDS church.

To Latter-day Saints, the Temple is such a sacred place that you must hold a current temple recommend from a bishop to enter therein. In order for a bishop to sign such a recommend, you would have to (among other things) attend church regularly and pay a full tithe. You would almost certainly be asked to participate in a church calling.
A standard temple recommend is valid for two years, and a computerized barcode system keeps records synchronized between the temples and local wards. In and of itself, this does not make it impossible for an unworthy person to enter the temple, but it does seem extremely unlikely.

I do recognize your right as a production company, and as American citizens, to use your resources to portray anything you want--any way you want--on your network. Because Latter-day Saints are a peace- and freedom-loving people, I hope you feel free to air the show without the fear of retribution that you might face if you were offending members of certain other religions.

That said, I hope you will understand that Church members will not see this as a harmless and moving portrayal in a TV drama, but as an improbable excuse to show something that's "never been shown on television before." Don't be surprised, either, if we don't trust the intentions of the show's producers, including Tom Hanks, who has been quite open about his feelings toward LDS members who supported Proposition 8 in California. And although, up to this point, I have not had a subscription to HBO, please be assured that my decision to do so in the future will hinge largely on the respect you show (or don't show) toward that which I hold dear.

Sincerely,

James Jensen

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Unemployment: An interesting trend

I noticed an interesting trend the other day, as I was researching unemployment rates in the U.S.
See if you can notice a trend in these two images: Here and Here.
Obviously, this isn't an in-depth scientific study, and the statistical analysis is rendered imperfect by the flaws in the electoral vote system. But it sure seems like the most left-leaning states are the ones with the worst unemployment rates. I can think of a few possible explanations for this:
  1. People tend to vote for change when the economy is weak, regardless of who is in power. Maybe since these states were hit the hardest by the economic downturn, their citizens were more prone to vote for the "other party."
  2. Liberal legislation puts more government spending toward taking care of the jobless. Perhaps people in states with higher unemployment rates feel safer with liberals in power, because they'll be better cared-for if they lose their job.
  3. Liberal legislation favors public welfare over businesses. Perhaps the political environment of these states makes jobs harder to create, or makes it so that people aren't as motivated to get a job.
So it basically boils down to:
  1. People in struggling economies tend to vote for the "other guy," OR
  2. People in struggling economies tend to vote for liberals, OR
  3. Liberal policies are worse for the economy.
I'm sure there are lots of folks who would love to debate endlessly about which of these possibilities is true. But just as an exercise in theory, let's explore the consequences of the first two (the consequences of number 3 are obvious).

If you assume that the number 1 priority of elected officials is to get re-elected (a bit simplistic, but bear with me), would it make more sense for liberals in office to strengthen the economy, or to further expand welfare for the unemployed?

On the one hand, if the economy improves, people wouldn't be as interested in voting for the "other guy." On the other hand, if unemployment goes back down, people would feel more comfortable voting for conservatives. Catch 22.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Estimating Postage

So we're sending a letter to Liz's brother in New Jersey, and I want to know whether I'll need extra postage. While Liz's part of the letter is written on a small, light sheet of stationery paper, my part is a four-page printed dissertation on Light and Knowledge and its role in our eternal progression. I know that the printing paper we're using right now is heavier than normal (we were lazy and bought it while we were shopping at Costco, and we had a choice between 800 sheets of heavy paper and a whole box of normal), so I set out on a quest to figure out about how much this letter will weigh.

First I looked at the packaging on our printing paper and found the "24 lb" marking. From my time spent working at Office Depot, I knew that this was a way of describing the paper's density, however, and not the weight of the ream. Some Internet research revealed that this weight refers to a ream (defined as 500 sheets) of "standard size" paper, which is not the 8 1/2"x11" that you might think, but rather 17"x22", which gets cut down to make four sheets of normal printer paper. So to calculate the weight of one sheet, we need to know:
  1. There are 24 lbs of standard-sized paper in a ream.
  2. There are 500 sheets of paper in a ream.
  3. There are 4 sheets of letter-sized paper for each 1 sheet of standard-sized paper
  4. There are 16 ounces per pound.
So (24 lbs/500 standard)*(1 standard/4 letter)*(16 oz/lb) = 0.192 ounces.

I figure Liz's letter and the envelope weigh less combined than one more sheet of printing paper, so just to be safe, I estimated about 5 sheets' worth, or 0.96 ounces at the most. Being under one ounce, it qualifies for a standard 42-cent stamp. Tah-dah!

Update

We ended up buying this kitchen scale, which has been extremely useful for measuring out ingredients in recipes and such. We also use it as a postage scale, which is much easier than doing the math each time.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Update on Life

I realized that I have been woefully remiss in updating this blog.  I'm really going to try to be better about it.

The most important thing that's happened since I last posted is that Liz is pregnant, and expecting on March 19!  It's a boy, and so far we've started calling him Christopher James Jensen.  What do you think?

New Companion Blog

Since most of the people who read this blog probably aren't interested in the various bugs I run into at work, I've started a new blog (Adventures in .NET-dom) to chronicle such things.  If you're the geeky type, or just have too much time on your hands, feel free to check it out!