Saturday, May 30, 2009

A self-refuting column on health care

I've noticed that many people who think that government-run, single-payer health care is a good idea are themselves compelled to observe that their critics are correct about the deficiencies of government-run, single-payer health care. Here's an illustrative example from the blog Cosmic Variance. The author's proud conclusion to his article is:
Access to quality health care should be a basic human right in a civilized, technologically advanced society like the US. It has become our greatest shame in the world that we cannot provide that for one in six of our people.
However, earlier in the article, he wrote
Another huge factor in the exorbitant cost of health care in the US is a topic that seems to be very seldomly discussed in the media: the end of life. Something like 27% of Medicare costs go to the last year of a patient’s life. How much of this is simply due to the fact that the patient, and their family, wants to try anything possible to achieve a cure, when in fact the doctors and the nurses know full well that the patient is terminal? Greater emphasis on counseling patients and families, plus a change in our culture that would make us more accepting of death, and an increased focus on preventative and palliative care rather than heroic but clearly futile and expensive late-stage treatments could save our society hundreds of billions of dollars per year.
Under the new system, everyone will have an intrinsic right to quality health care, unless we don't think you're worth it, in which case you won't.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Paul Krugman can be really pathetic sometimes.

Paul Krugman's May 24 opinion column reads like a cartoonish parody of modern day liberals. His nominal subject is the California financial crisis, which he blams on Prop 13:
Despite the economic slump, despite irresponsible policies that have doubled the state’s debt burden since Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor, California has immense human and financial resources. It should not be in fiscal crisis; it should not be on the verge of cutting essential public services and denying health coverage to almost a million children. But it is — and you have to wonder if California’s political paralysis foreshadows the future of the nation as a whole.

The seeds of California’s current crisis were planted more than 30 years ago, when voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 13, a ballot measure that placed the state’s budget in a straitjacket. Property tax rates were capped, and homeowners were shielded from increases in their tax assessments even as the value of their homes rose.
Krugman's argument here is transparently self-contradictory. He admits that California state spending has been irresponsible, yet he blames the California body politic for the budget crisis since it refuses to pay the bills. In other words, the appropriate public response to out-of-control, irresponsible state spending, according to Krugman, is passive acceptance. You'd have to be really stupid to actually believe this.

The reality of the situation is that it's the Democrats running California who are driving the state over the brink. Prop 13 is a political fact that limits the ability of the state to take in money, ergo, the responsible thing for the state to do is to curtail expenditures appropriately. The problem is that California Democrats (and Republican liberals) have decided to *not* curtail expenditures appropriately. Note to Krugman: this is why this spending is "irresponsible".

This is also the reason why 2009's ballot propositions 1A through 1E failed. If Californians adopt the Krugman plan and respond to out-of-control spending with tax hikes, Californians are just going to see more out-of-control spending. What California needs is a fundemantal political reform to restrain spending, not more tax hikes.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

A sociological phase transition in the D&D genre

In the good old days, the roleplaying experience of Dungeons and Dragons was designed to be a reasonable approximation to the late Middle Ages. In particular, everyone's character had a formal class that he or she would belong to. There were fighters and clerics, paladins and rangers (presumably "special forces" rangers, but with the combat skills of park rangers), wizards and rogues. This was the medieval mindset: everyone had a pre-defined rank and role and life, and yet the adventerous player character could test his luck with the wheel of fortune.

Now the old roleplaying system of "formal" classes has broken down:
While I applaud the intent of 4E [Dungeon and Dragons Fourth Edition] to give every 1st level character a fighting chance via a ton of hit points (and healing surges) I think they just went too far with the various powers.

By giving Powers to all they've stripped away the relevance of those powers. Once every one has them, they cease to be anything special. Where's the noticable difference? Where's the defining characteristic of the character?

The answer is that it depends on the character's role. The Controller directs traffic. The Striker deals out damage. The Defender holds the line. The Leader gives out the buffs. Every class has a set of powers that support the given role. That's what defines the 4E character. The role within the party has become king.
Dungeons and Dragons now seems to be exclusively focused on performance in battle as the key determinant of the quality of the roleplaying experience (where's Dr. Freud when you need him). The pressure to fight effectively has correspondingly become so intense that the old "formal" character classes have disintegrated under the pressure of the new "empirical" character classes.

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Sunday, May 17, 2009

The silver lining of the Obama presidency...

... is that Obama seems to be a lot more rational than his vice-president. Joe Biden's latest screw-up is revealing the location of his own secret bunker.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Thoughts about the 2009 film "Star Trek", Part I

The newly released film "Star Trek" appears to be a big hit in its opening weekend in theaters. Having seen it, it looks like the first serious rival of "The Wrath of Khan" for the title of Best Star Trek film. Here are some accumulated thoughts about what this new film does right and where it could have done better.
  • The chief problem with much of Star Trek is that the Federation is really boring. The Federation is stupendously boring. "Star Trek" the film makes a serious point of stressing that James T. Kirk grew up in Iowa; think of the Federation as one big intragalactic Iowa.

    Thus, Star Trek writers were constantly and desperately looking for excuses to get the action away from the Federation as much as possible. In "The Original Series", this meant gimmick episodes like a "planet of the Nazis". In "The Next Generation", it was half the crew getting trapped in the virtual reality of the holodeck for an episode. "Deep Space Nine" was based on the premise that the main characters would be permanently stationed next to a stable wormhole that could teleport them a billion light-years away from the Federation. "Voyager" finally trumped them all by promising that the main characters would be so far away from the Federation that they couldn't physically ever have any conceivable contact with the Federation within their lifetimes. That is how boring the Federation is.

    So the most important thing that "Star Trek" the film does right is giving the audience the absolute minimum amount of Federation required to make the story work. Thus, the first twenty-odd years of James T. Kirk's life -- his years as Federation citizen stuck on Earth -- go by in about as many minutes.

  • A second major problem with the Star Trek franchise is that the writers came to hate Captain Kirk. This wasn't a problem in the early days. Kirk's original career arc was that he was the Wunderkind of Starfleet Academy, became a fast-tracked ship captain upon graduation, and became the youngest captain of Star Fleet's flagship Enterprise. Kirk made Admiral by the time of "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" and presumably would have ended up as the top man in Star Fleet.

    Kirk was also too jingoistic and politically incorrect for the modern era, and therefore had to be taken down a peg. The vehicle for slowly sinking Kirk was the Klingon peace treaty. In "The Search for Spock", pissed-off, hard-liner Klingons try to sink the treaty negotiations by successfully destroying the Enterprise and murdering Kirk's only son in the process. In "The Voyage Home", the Klingon ambassador to the Federation reveals that "there will be no peace while Kirk lives". "The Undiscovered Country" stars Kirk going on trial for disrupting the peace accords by attacking a Klingon ship and then being exiled to a prison planet as a consequence. And, of course, everyone knew that Kirk was going to die in "Generations" (originally, by being shot in the back).

    In "Star Trek" the film, Kirk is back. Kirk saves the Enterprise and Earth with decisive action, a lot of lucky breaks, and a talent for winning the loyalty of others. At the end of the film, Kirk ends up as captain of the Enterprise, and it's hard to argue that he didn't earn it.

Friday, May 08, 2009

It's nice to see that somebody at GM has some sense.

GM's new plan is simply lowering costs by outsourcing jobs overseas:
The U.S. government is pouring billions into General Motors in hopes of reviving the domestic economy, but when the automaker completes its restructuring plan, many of the company's new jobs will be filled by workers overseas.

According to an outline the company has been sharing privately with Washington legislators, the number of cars that GM sells in the United States and builds in Mexico, China and South Korea will roughly double.
You have to admit that the plan makes a certain logical sense. If Asian car manufacturers are so much more efficient than American ones, then the road to profitability is simple: become an Asian car manufacturer. Why bother with the daily humiliation of dealing with the Banana Republic of America when other countries are practically begging you to bring them jobs?