Sunday, March 28, 2010

Big Brothers Is Watching You

OK. Speaking of predictions. Jesus, or somebody, said the Internet was going to create a jolly wonderful world of interconnected, global democracy. The wisdom of crowds, hallelujah. Shirky's "Here Comes Everybody" lists many examples of this. But he also stresses the importance of culture. I.e. it ain't just the tools that matter. A screwdriver heals in the hands of Hank Hill. In Bernard Goetz' hands, it might wind up in your skull.

So, Wikipedia is an example of self-correcting, self-emerging information based on a neural net of committed users. By the same token, a Wikipedia based on the shared philosophy of destroying Wikipedia is impossible.

I submit that the Internet is destroying the operating system of democracy. To be more precise, it's destroying the operating system of representative democracy in the United States.

I could offer specific examples, but that's too much like work. So I'll stick with analogy.


I am, for what it's worth, creative. In my brief experience in the cubicle world, I got my work done by an act of subterfuge. I could never really explain what I was doing to my Type A bosses. So I'd come up with a cover story. They were always convinced if I was more organized and didn't waste so much paper, I'd do a better job. They would go through my !@#$ trash to see if I was making too many photocopies. My response was to hide my trash.

I was fiercely proud about what I did. But I could never explain HOW I did it. My style of working was to hide my style of working. I'd be pursued by relentless micromanagers trying to nail me for wasting company resources. I got results. They didn't give a fuck. I WASN'T FOLLOWING PROCEDURE. And they lived for the day they could nail me for violating procedure and make my sorry ass hit the gate.

The more they supervised me, the worse my work became.

I think the same thing is happening to today's politicians. They've got a million Big Brothers going through their trash and they can't get anything done.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Thoughts on "Obamacare"

Obamacare is too little, too late.

I think there's a basic structural problem in the notion of medical insurance itself. This act is just nibbling around the edges. It won't solve the problem.

As I've said before, in a world without insurance, doctors/hospitals would charge what the traffic would bear. Medical care would range from cheap to pricey. The fact that people have a finite amount of money to spend would limit costs. Insurance, theoretically, wouldn’t increase costs -- because they couldn't. The pool of people with medical insurance have a fixed total of medical expenses (based on a statistical mean, natch), with a random distribution of expense for individuals. Insurance flattens out the cost to a manageable figure for each individual in the pool, then takes a cut.

This doesn’t happen for three reasons:

In the USA, we have socialized medicine for old people with no effective cost control. This is equivalent to subsidizing car mechanics to repair junkers. This drives up costs for the entire system.

Medical companies adjusted for insurance subsidies. Another of life's many vicious feedback loops. Let’s say Joe Slob could pay $1,000 a year if his life (or his kid’s life) depended on it. Thanks to medical insurance, he pays $50 – or did at one time. Medical companies jacked up prices so Joe wound up paying $950 a year anyway -- on top of what he’s paying for insurance. Why? Because they could. Because this jacked up medical prices across the board, it jacked up insurance prices too. Joe is now paying $12,000 a year for insurance with deductibles up the wazoo -- on top of the $1,100 of out of pocket medical expenses Joe pays for basic care, assuming Joe is as healthy as a horse and has zero accidents – and the rest of Joe’s family too. But hang on … Joe’s got a credit card …

There’s no national health care – aside from emergency rooms. Hospitals can’t turn the uninsured walking wounded away. They eat the costs of these cases, and pass it on to the insured patients who provide their revenue stream. I.e.: people (usually high risk types) who aren’t in the insurance income pool are part of its risk pool. They don’t pay in, but the system pays out to them. This drives up costs, too. Medical care costs more, so insurance costs more. So more people drop their insurance. Which means more uninsured walking wounded in the emergency room. Which means …

So break the vicious cycle.

That, of course, is the basic logic behind “Obamacare.” Make everybody part of the pool, since the system is paying for them anyway.

Of course, junkies and gangbangers aren’t the only folks without insurance. Many healthy 20somethings who think it’s a rip off are too. (I was one of them, actually.) Yeah, these healthy lads and lassies are gambling on the fact that they’ll stay healthy, avoid accidents and not pay out $250 or $300 a month for a medical policy that basically buys you NOTHING until you hit various $1,500 deductibles, cleverly stacked across a range of categories. To make the system work, all the healthy youngin’s have to be in too.

But this still doesn’t work without price controls—which amount to rationing of medical care. (Remember Harry and Louise?) Right now, we have the price controls of HMOs, PPOs, etc, etc. The system sucks and it doesn’t work. Basically, all it does is assure you get lousy, impersonal medical care and pay as much as you possibly can for it. And costs go up anyway.

Even if it all worked beautifully, costs would still go up (and basic care would still be a financial groin kick) because of medicare subsidies for seniors. The medical system makes the most money on the people in their last years of life who’re the most expensive to treat. Jeez, the only way to turn down the dial on that is death panels. And we don’t want that.

A single-payer system is the only answer. Socialized medicine. Why not? We’ve got socialized teachers, police, firemen and a socialized military. The government takes care of all the basic life-and-death stuff. Why not medicine?

Either that, or a completely private medical system with no insurance at all.

I think I’ll just move to Canada.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Days of Future Past

So, uh, back in Bible times, the success rate for a prophet was 100%. Basically, you had to be right ALL THE TIME, or you would get stoned in a decidedly unpleasant sense. At that rate, I would be stoned ... and stoned again. That being said, it's fun to look back on a few predictions ...

1985: We'll start creating our publications with computers. Right.
Yeah, OK. I saw a primitive vid of 3D architectural modeling. I thought, shit, if computers could do that, they could sure as hell do paste-up.

1990: The World Wide Web means that anybody anywhere can be a reporter for the rest of the planet. Right.
I figured the Internet meant any self-proclaimed reporter could be, say, Our Man in Shanghai. This was absolutely true. But, chump that I was, I assumed there was a way you could actually get paid for it.

1990: You could make a living as an Internet reporter. Wrong.
Wrong, with the exception of, maybe, 100 people. Yeah, basically 100 people on the planet are actually getting paid to do their stuff on line. More or less the equivalent of, say, the staff of the Dayton Daily News in 1990. What NEVER FREAKING OCCURRED TO ME was that, yes, the Internet would empower a planetful of reporters, photographers, critics, etc. -- who would all happily work for free.

1992: The computer and TV set will merge into one. Right and wrong.
The birth of digital convergence has been greatly exaggerated. Yeah, I imagined there'd be a hybrid device resembling the unholy offspring of a TV clicker and a computer keyboard. Your flatscreen TV would be your computer; your computer would be your TV. This has happened, to a marginal extent, for rich folks who can afford to wire their homes on the same server. For the most part and for most folks, TV is one box, computer is another.

1994: The pressures of advertising will make "free speech" a thing of the past and turn all ideas into commodities. Sadly, this seems to be coming true.

1995: The desktop publishing revolution will be followed by the desktop video revolution. Right and wrong.
Yeah, cheap editing software has spawned the ephemeral effluvia of YouTube. Various auteurs with high-res vidcams are running around. Fine. But there's still a vast difference between that and Hollywood-style filmmaking. The digital revolution makes garage video cheap and easy. At the same time, it allows for a higher dimension of insanely great and insanely expensive special effects. The digital revolution giveth and taketh away.

1998: As TV and computer merge into one, all-purpose number cruncher, cheapjack game boxes will become a thing of the past. Dead wrong.
My kids wanted a Nintendo. I told them it was a waste of money. Why buy an instantly obsolete box to play your vidgames when you could play your bloody games on the computer? In five years, there'll be no more Nintendo, I said. Mark my words. Ha-ha, yeah. More like eat my words. Goddamnit, who knew?

1999: Speech recognition will change everything. Not right yet.
Yes, there's a quantum leap between computers that do string-matching and computers that actually understand what you're saying. (Computer. Scan for anomalous life-forms in the Beta Quadrant.) It ain't happened yet. They're still big, dumb machines with pretty graphics.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Alice in Wonderland

First, let me damn the movie with faint praise. When I was watching Tim Burton's Alice, I enjoyed it. That's important, right? My criticisms bubbled up in my brain after the experience. My brain saying: Hang on ... I'm not quite satisfied. What's missing? What went wrong? Unfortunately, if a movie doesn't leave you feeling satisfied, that's important too.

OK. I was expecting great things. The promise of the lobby display in the movie theater lobby really had me going. A bright, sunshiny, loopy depiction of the mad tea party, Johnny Depp holding court over it all in a crazy hat.


But the actual movie didn't work. Here's why:

Stories have a certain basic software. So, for example, the code running The Wizard of Oz is "Deliver us from evil/I want to go home." Dorothy, inadvertently, frees Oz from oppression in her quest to go home.

The code running the original Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass is not "deliver us from evil." The code is not a magical quest and a heroic battle. The code is: This is a goofy, sunshiny realm of logical paradox where anything can happen. Things transform into other things. Alice gets bigger, Alice shrinks, it's all very silly. Good news: It's a dream, so there's no real danger. It's play. It's fun.

Linda Woolverton's script is very well written, but she's changed the code. Alice in Wonderland now has a backstory, character motivations, and a fairly rigid Joseph W. Campbell-style logic. (And lots of massive, shameless stealing from The Wizard of Oz.)

Despite the bright promise of the lobby display, the Wonderland (or Underland) of Tim Burton's movie is now a dark, oppressed realm. The Red Queen, as Grace Slick once noted, is off her head. Alice is the Christ-figure who falls down the rabbit hole as a teenager. She's charged with the magical quest of delivering Underland from evil. She must take her vorpal sword in hand and fight and kill the Jabberwock.

I'm not saying this with a sneer. Woolverton's script is very well written.

It's just ... off.

The code that works for the Wizard of Oz doesn't work for Alice in Wonderland. When you graft a heroic quest on Alice's world, you kill the charm.

The fun of the original Alice is the sunshiny, irrational possibility of it all. Anything can happen; nothing can hurt you. It's not a story, anyway. It's just a dream. It doesn't make any sense, but it's fun.

Tim Burton's Alice is definitely a story.

Hell, it's a Disney story.

It's a story with a job to do.

Tim Burton's Alice does her job.

But it's not that much fun.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Gentlemen Broncos

We are, those of us on the edge (or who've at least parked our Winnebagos on the viewing platform at the edge of the edge) in love of edginess. The tooth-sucking glory of America's "alternative," inheritors of the counter culture. This is usually defined as the arty, as an army dressed in black. Leftists, goths, the dominion of the pierced and freaks in general. Well, yeah. But there's another edge out there. An alternative to the alternative.

Defined as squares. Nerds, aging hippies who've turned to megachurch Christianity, sci-fi geeks, role play geeks, Mormons and the home school crowd. They're off the mainstream too.

Jared Hess' Gentlemen Broncos is a loveletter to this kind of weirdness. The interface of sci-fi geekdom and Utah quirky cultishness.

The story is, basically, a diversionary tactic. A nerd who's lost his father writes a touching, and touchingly bad, SF story where his father is the barely-disguised hero in a future dystopia that's a cross between Logan's Run and Buck Rogers. A cheesy popular SF writer with writer's block steals the kid's story at a nerd writers camp where the writer is the star attraction. Then he publishes the kid's work as his own. The nerd punches his former hero out. In the end, he wins because his mom (a quirkly ex-hippy turned Christian) has registered his story with the Writer's Guild.

That's the plot. But that's sorta like saying Napoleon Dynamite was about a high school election for class president. What it's really about are all those people that America considers uncool. Hess, in his own cool way, considers them cool. He gets into the molecular structure of their subcultures. He doesn't mock them so much as groove on them.

And that's pretty cool.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

We have met the future and it sucks

The future we were promised ...

Flying cars.
Rocket packs.
A personal robot servant.
A Moon base.
A Mars base.
Nuclear fusion.

The future we got ...

Electric cars with bad brakes.
Suicide bombers
A robot phone that orders you around.
A war in Iraq.
A war in Afghanistan.
Clean coal.
A 3 hour wait at the airport.
Internet porn.

Panic Attack

Very nice garage vid of a robot invasion of Montevideo ...