Archive for March, 2009

That’s Not Insurance

Posted in Doom, Politics and Society on March, 2009 by melendwyr

I caught part of an “Alternative Radio” broadcast a few days ago as well.

In it, the speakers complained about insurance companies not wanting to provide coverage for people’s already-existing health problems and asserted that corporations wanted to create a world in which there were two people: healthy people with insurance and sick people unable to pay for their care.

Um, no. Look, people, ‘insurance’ means more than just “the thing that pays for my healthcare”. It’s a method of hedging against unforeseeable disasters.

Imagine a world in which people run the risk of their house burning down with all their stuff. That’s pretty devastating. The cost of replacing all that stuff, or even just the stuff that’s necessary for residence, can be prohibitive. Unless you’re very wealthy, the expense can be prohibitive.

So a group decides to offer people a deal: if the people pay the group a small amount, the group will pay them if their houses ever burn down by accident or someone else’s malice. (For obvious reasons, they don’t want to encourage people to burn down their own houses.)

That way, people who tragically lose their homes don’t experience complete catastrophe. Most people don’t get anything concrete out of the deal – what they get is a safety net. If you never fall, you never really use it, but it’s good to have one there and ready for the unexpected.

Assuming the group was completely efficient and had no overhead, the amount they’d charge would be equal to the total amount they paid out (or the amount they expected to pay) divided by the number of people participating.

If some people were at greater risk of fire accidents – they smoke, or they like lots of candles, or they’re circus performers who use a lot of flaming hoops, etc. – the group could reasonably expect them to pay more to cover the statistically-greater payoffs they’d get. Likewise, people at a lower risk could be offered a lower required payment.

In reality, there is overhead. Also, most of us want to do more than merely break even. We have things we want to pay for, and we need money to pay for it. Result: we desire profit. So the group would have to charge more than the absolute minimum, but only enough that people would be willing to accept.

What if someone’s house were already burning down? Why would the group take them on? To be fair, they’d have to charge the owners of the burning house the exact amount they’d have to pay out – plus overhead – and what use would that be?

We’ve gotten used to thinking of health insurance, not as a safety net, but as the means of paying for medical treatment. But insurance by its nature can’t pay for basic services everyone is expected to use! If everyone who purchases the insurance uses it to pay for regular scheduled checkups, the cost of having the insurance has to go up by precisely the amount of a checkup. If you know you’re going to have to have expensive procedures or treatments, you’d have to pay for them fully, because insurance only mitigates potential risk, not certain cost.

Part of the problem is that we’ve permitted ‘insurance’ to be a middleman that takes payments from employers and gives them to healthcare providers. But more than that, we’ve embraced the idea that healthcare is some kind of natural right or interest that society is obligated to provide.


Posted in Politics and Society on March, 2009 by melendwyr

People rarely praise my content, so when they do, I like to remember it. (Flattery works on me as long as you’re not trying to convince me of anything in the process.)

Thus, I preserve here my comment from here (note that some typos are corrected):

“Why don’t these people just start their own church?”

They don’t want a new church. They certainly don’t want a non-authoritarian one. They simply want to be the authorities, themselves. So they’re trying to force out the leaders and substitute their own judgment for that of their nominal leaders.

“open the door to the very thing religious people claim NOT to want”

Reality check: people only want the state to stay out of things when the state disagrees with the way they want to do things. When the state agrees with them, they’re all for the idea of it running everything, because then they’re in charge, if only by proxy.

Unpleasant Surprises

Posted in Uncategorized on March, 2009 by melendwyr

I was watching the DVD extras for the remake of “Dawn of the Dead” recently. Activating the “Special Report: We Interrupt This Program!” feature, I was surprised to see Richard Biggs playing the role of a television newscaster.

Mr. Biggs died suddenly in 2004 of an aortic dissection.

I’d never looked up his article on Wikipedia – if I had, I would have expected his appearance. As it was, I was saddened by the melancholy realization that this was probably the last work of his I would ever see.

Bruce Boxleitner played the voice of the POTUS in that feature, which is ironic because he was President of the Alliance in Babylon 5, the show in which Mr. Biggs played the part of Dr. Stephen Franklin. I didn’t expect that, either.

Putting the Cart Before the Horse

Posted in Favorite Words, GIGO on March, 2009 by melendwyr

Today’s word is neurosis. What does it mean? It’s defined as “a term used to refer to any mental imbalance that causes distress, but, unlike a psychosis or some personality disorders, does not prevent or affect rational thought”.

Got that?

Okay, so: why is it used interchangeably with the behaviors and responses that are supposedly the result of a neurosis?

Note that there is no point where the supposed neurological problem is defined operationally. It is instead presumed to exist because of the symptoms, because the neurosis is what the thing supposedly responsible for those symptoms is called. Where’s the demonstration that there is a glitch in the neurology that constitutes an illness? There isn’t one.

Truth, Justice, and The American Way

Posted in Doom, Politics and Society, Things You Should Read on March, 2009 by melendwyr

Even more dark humor.

A question: what consequences will the officers enforcing non-existent laws face? Certainly imposing draconian penalties every time police officers make a mistake isn’t a good idea. But if there are no real costs to their doing so, what’s to stop them from making all of the ‘errors’ they want?

What Is Our Children Learning?

Posted in Doom, Politics and Society, Things You Should Read on March, 2009 by melendwyr

Ready for some dark humor?

Well, the author of this history probably doesn’t find it funny, but I got a kick out of it.

This Just In: Everyone Disagrees!

Posted in Reviews, Science Fiction, Things You Should Read on March, 2009 by melendwyr

MTV provides links to positive, negative, and strongly negative reviews of Watchmen.

Bob the Angry Flower’s creator Steve Notley has a review worth reading in the commentary for his March 6th cartoon, which sadly won’t be on the front page forever. I don’t agree with his negative conclusions, but I second his general statements about the sex and violence. I do have a higher opinion of the sex scene than he does. The music was kinda awkward, I’ll grant him that.

Rotten Tomatoes currently gives the movie a 65% rating. Their collection of reviews is certainly worth reading. There were several that I thought were spot-on.

Watching the Watchmen

Posted in Reviews, Science Fiction, Things You Should Read on March, 2009 by melendwyr

Although I’ve categorized this under “Things You Should Read”, this review addresses the movie, not the graphic novel. (Which you most certainly should read, if by some chance you haven’t yet done so already.)

I will be blunt: storywise, the movie is a truncated version of the novel. Did we really expect anything different? I always wondered how such a long and complex series of events could possibly be represented in even a very long movie.

Generally, I think the plotlines that were eliminated were often those that weren’t absolutely necessary; the ones that were kept told the overarching story. But sadly, the nature of the primary plot was changed – I suspect not only because it was necessary to keep the special-effects budget down but because it required events and evidence to arise which could be eliminated through simplification.

I am afraid that most of the self-referential details that made reading the novel so rewarding, even when we’ve done so before, were cut. Single instances of those details made it into the film, but not only lost their meaning through only appearing once, there often wasn’t enough context to understand what they were and meant in even a non-symbolic sense. For example, readers of the novel know that among other things, Adrian Veidt (also known as ‘Ozymandias’) promoted a body-building system of exercises called “The Veidt Method”, and discarded pamphlets advertising that system appeared throughout various scenes, but as far as I could tell it appears only once, and very briefly. If a theatergoer happened to notice that detail, what would they make of it?

Other things were changed. The elder ‘Silk Spectre’ resided in a small, cramped dwelling that was part of a residential retirement community, living among the decaying remnants of her beauty and her dreams, eking out a meager existence on limited means. In the movie, her residences are luxurious prisons in which she’s drinking herself to death, giving the impression of a woman who has money but has nothing to spend it on but bitterness and recollections of a better age. It’s not a bad choice, but it’s a change, and one that wasn’t strictly necessary.

The casting of Daniel and Laurie was brilliant. Daniel conveyed a kind but introverted and lonely man who longs for the freedom his identity as ‘Nite Owl’ once brought him, and Laurie was perfect as the beautiful woman whose extraversion leads her to care deeply about others but to be unselfconscious of both her appearance and her own problems, pushed into a superhero role she didn’t desire to please her mother.

As for Rorschach… ah, Rorschach. He’s really the only sane one, although even he considers himself to possess a kind of madness. Brilliant representation. Some changes were made, I think more for shock value than anything else. Those who have read the novel and know his origin story will know what I mean – I will omit details for the sake of spoilers. Much of the most interesting details were eliminated, and the origin of his madness was altered.

The sex and violence scenes were acceptable and generally tasteful and well done. However, I was annoyed that extra time was spent on them, including some sexual humor, when the time could have been even better spent on story details that were eliminated. I also thought too much time was spent on physical combat, particularly an early scene where we see the murder of Edward Blake, real-time, in extended detail. This could have been done in flashbacks much more quickly, and more importantly, with greater ambiguity.

Do not less these criticisms give you a false impression. I consider most of the changes that were made to be necessary or at least needed for the task of translating the ornate and baroque story of Watchmen to the big screen.

But overall? I have to consider this project a noble failure – quite watchable, and worth seeing, but a failure nonetheless.


The defining feature of the novel, the sense of causality that leads inevitably to total annihilation – is missing. The characters know far more about Dr. Manhattan’s ability to see the future than they did in the novel, and instead of being immutable doom, the story is quick to assert that he sees possibilities rather than portents. Perhaps trying to create a greater sense of tension, I can’t say. But I think they stumbled badly. The key to Dr. Manhattan’s personality is his sense of helplessness in the face of external forces, the passivity that caused him to obey his father and study watchmaking, then abandon it for physics. The essential trigger of his transformation – the watch – was also changed. Originally it belonged to Janey, his girlfriend, and was damaged during their first date. He promised that he could fix it. It was left in his coat, which was left in the field chamber, on the day of the accident. It was his going back to retrieve it that lead to his entrapment and ‘death’.

That sense of causality – that feeling that the story turned out the only way it could, and could ever have turned out, even after the surprise of understanding what’s really happening – that aura of inevitability is missing.

That’s the heart and soul of Watchmen. And it was missing here.

I don’t consider the movie to have been a waste of my time and money, and I will certainly watch it again in the years to come. But I can’t consider it to be successful in an ultimate sense.

The Yang Methodology

Posted in GIGO on March, 2009 by melendwyr

Technological advance is an inherently iterative process. One does not simply take sand from the beach and produce a Dataprobe. We use crude tools to fashion better tools, and then our better tools to fashion more precise tools, and so on. Each minor refinement is a step in the process, and all of the steps must be taken.

Chairman Sheng-ji Yang
“Looking God in the Eye”

melendwyr’s commentary:

There are recursive elements to this process which become apparent when we consider how we develop the ideas and understanding that underlie the building of our tools. Our understanding permits us to manipulate the world more effectively, which permits us to build better tools and observing instruments, and those in turn permit us to better understand our world when applied with reason and intuition. That greater understanding lets us manipulate the world to a more profound extent than before, and the process continues.

The aspects that are best thought of as iterative are in common with a number of processes besides technological advance: self-correcting code that eliminates errors, leadership in a persistent fascist state, looking for errors in one’s reasoning.

It’s only half of the process.

“If you can immediately recognize the candlelight as fire…”

Favorite Words: Bootstrapping

Posted in Favorite Words, GIGO on March, 2009 by melendwyr

I love this word. Not just because it refers to something very important (which it does) which I’m greatly in favor of (which I am), but because of the subtleties of its usage.

When applied in a technical context, most especially that of computer science, ‘bootstrapping’ is the name given to the concept because “pulling [the system] up by its bootstraps” is precisely what the process isn’t, metaphorically or otherwise.

I’m fascinated by human communicative strategies which impart meaning through the transmission of its opposite; see also sarcasm and irony.

Note: not literary irony, that concept is too limited to be applied to the events and situations that we commonly call ‘ironic’. I’ve heard people claim that the everyday usage is incorrect, but the basic concept is a useful and deserves to have a name; the literary usage excludes that concept while being sufficiently similar to it to bring it to mind. Thus, I am inclined to consider the correct usage to be incorrect.