I’m That Other Person
July 31, 2009, 11:24 am
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Last night I was visited by friendly aliens. One of them handed to me a super-advanced piece of technology, which he told me was a universal translator (he didn’t say this in English, but the universal translator translated it for me). They let me keep it, and I’ve been playing around with it.

I wasn’t sure how to use it at first (just pressing buttons) and I’ve realized that at first what I was doing was inadvertently translating stuff from English into Alien, and then back to English. I was feeding the thing a lot of political debate from TV and the web (for testing). And funny thing, every time I did this, here’s what came back:

“Other people should be forced to pay for me.”

And sometimes, if it was a two-sided debate, there would be a response, like

“No, other people should be forced to pay for me.”

And then it would repeat, like a broken record.

For political debates, this is what I got back every single time. I thought the thing must be broken. But then I thought about it and realized that actually, it’s working perfectly.

I’m that other person.

July 31, 2009, 1:49 am
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I’m not generally a big fan of tabloid/gossip pages, but aren’t they supposed to be about famous, well-known people whom the reader might find interesting? Lately in shops and grocery stores, when glancing at the tabloids I keep seeing on their covers – repeatedly and over a period of several weeks now – headlines involving someone named (I think?) “Katie”, and her husband, and how they are separated, and who gets the kids, and who cheated on whom, and who is mad at whom, etc., etc., etc.

That’s all par for the course except for the fact that – and I mean this quite sincerely – I haven’t the faintest idea who these people are. They may as well be Joe and Jane Schmoe for all I can tell. But, knowing that she (or he?) must logically be some sort of celebrity – or they wouldn’t be in tabloids right? – for a while I assumed/guesstimated that “Katie” was maybe Katie Couric? But I’ve looked at the photos (after all, these people are in the tabloids every week) and it doesn’t look like her. I really, truly, honestly don’t know who they are let alone why we’re supposed to be interested in their marital troubles.

Yet every tabloid seems to be obsessed with them! It’s so strange and disorienting, like visiting a foreign country and being flooded with their pop stars you’ve never heard of. Did I wake up in a parallel universe a couple months back? A universe in which everyone knows who these people are?

Well I’m going to try a blogging experiment. I’m going to try to do some web-searching to figure out who they are, in the middle of writing this post. I’m come back here with the results and reaction shortly. Are you ready? Let’s go:


Well ok, that wasn’t hard (I just searched for “katie tabloids” and ignored the Couric-related links). They are apparently these people. Stars of some ‘reality’ TV show. How anticlimactic.

Those ‘reality’ TV shows sure seem to screw up the popular culture. Traditionally, celebrities are well-known for a variety of things or for TV/movies that are watched by a wide slice of the country. I doubt this applies to a reality TV show on TLC. I understand that to people who actually know what that show is and have watched it, headlines about ‘Jon’ and ‘Kate’ actually connote something. To the rest of us, though, it’s like being in a foreign, fragmented country.

Fuddy Duddy
July 28, 2009, 5:47 am
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100 Things Your Kids May Never Know About at Wired

This one surprised me:

15. 3-D movies meaning red-and-green glasses.

You mean 3-D movies don’t mean red-and-green glasses? What am I missing?

The Upper Class’s Burning Need For Socialized Medicine
July 27, 2009, 1:51 am
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Matthew Yglesias fell off his bicycle, and to him that illustrates the need for socialized medicine.

Apparently part of the problem he perceived from this event was that, the fall having occurred close to a weekend, he couldn’t go see anyone about his finger the next day, since doctors’ offices are closed. Well, there was an urgent care clinic he could have gone to, but according to him, his insurance wouldn’t have covered it.

Which – obviously – means Matthew Yglesias couldn’t possibly have gone there and just paid out of pocket. Impossible!

Mini bio: Matthew Yglesias is the son of Hollywood screenwriter Rafael Yglesias (Fearless, From Hell, Dark Water) and grandson of novelists Jose and Helen Yglesias. Born and raised on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, he attended prestigious prep school The Dalton School, went on to Harvard, and is now a nationally-known blogger and published author.

Unrelatedly, Matthew Yglesias couldn’t possibly afford paying for an urgent-care-clinic visit to check on a hurt finger out of his own pocket, which therefore left him with literally no medical-care options on a weekend, and this true fact proves that we need nationalized health care, for people like Matthew Yglesias.

Why Socialist Utopia Is For Fine-Print Reading No-Life-Havers
July 25, 2009, 5:01 pm
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Let me try to bypass some of the emotion surrounding the health-care issue and just use a simpler example: Everyone knows that phone bills are too complicated.

Your phone contract – whether cell phone or land line – the “service”, and setup, and whatever, is plagued by a metric-kajillion of special rules, fine print, exceptions, surtaxes, and random fees. The whole experience is completely bureaucratized and kommissared to death, not only because the cell phone companies are trying to be a ‘clever’ as they can about squeezing you (while competing with rivals in the game of tricking you into thinking that they squeeze you less than they do), but because it’s such a big business, and (because it relies on things like phone lines and cell towers) a blatant part of the infrastructure, that the government has gotten its grubby hands on the whole thing in a big way. How much money you pay per month is the result of a giant whirlwind of forces being applied to these companies. Alas, ‘the market’ is only a small component of those forces.

In part this is because, when shopping around for phone service, it is almost impossible for a normal person to figure out if they’re getting a good deal or not. What people do is try to compare and contrast this company with that – find some number, any number, to compare the two – and pick the smaller. But when they do this they are inevitably comparing applies to oranges, because there is no such thing as a single, obvious, bottom-line figure anyone can quote you regarding how much you’ll end up paying. People try to make an educated guess, of course, but are likely to be wrong. After all, that’s how these companies make their money.

Even if every phone company’s bill were as simple as something like (flat fee) + (cost per minute) x (number of minutes used), to actually do the analysis properly you’d have to somehow make a complete statistical projection regarding how many minutes you’re going to spend on the phone throughout the life of your service. But you could always be wrong. The costs of being wrong could be wildly different from one company to the next, which you’d have to take into account. Or you could be right most of the time, but have that one month where you had that giant teary all-night phone marathon breakup with your long-distance girlfriend, which blows up your entire analysis. And to top it off, if you pick wrong at the start, you’re stuck with it, because all these companies have you sign “contracts” that lock you in for a length of time (or charge you a hefty early-term fee). Or maybe they don’t force you to sign a contract – and advertise this as a feature – but to compensate they charge you more for it. Is that worth it? How much is it worth?

So the whole problem becomes essentially the problem Wall Street had analyzing mortgage bonds, only, you don’t have an army of PhD’s at your disposal like they had.

I don’t have the time to do that analysis. So I’m probably getting ripped off on my cell phone service. I don’t have the time to do much about it. See, I have a life. People who don’t have a life, or who don’t value their free time as highly as I do, probably do indeed dig into their phone contracts, shop around, look for deals and coupons and tricks to save money. Some people (unlike me) don’t mind doing stuff like that with their free time (or at least, they have far more free time than I do). These are the coupon-clippers, the fine-print readers, the people who call the 1-800 number. They do these things, they save money, and they’re presumably ok with the status quo, which in part involves me subsidizing the fact that they save money, because I end up paying what amounts to an “I-have-a-life” tax.

A lot of my views on economics come from resentment of having-a-life taxes. There’s no having-a-life tax on, say, books. If I want to buy the latest stupid-ass bestseller by Malcolm Gladwell, I can look at Barnes & Noble or Borders or and look at a bottom-line, flat, transparent number called the “price”. I can compare this “price” directly between one vendor and another. And I can choose the vendor with the lowest “price” if I want. Or let’s say it’s cheaper at one store but it’s farther away, if I buy it at a higher price at the closer store, at least I know how much I’m paying-up for that convenience. There’s no fine print, there’s no special surtax, there’s no ‘contract’. There’s no analysis to be done. I don’t have to set up a spreadsheet and run statistical simulations to get comfort that I’m getting a fair deal. I want a thing, they have the thing, they tell me directly how much money they want in exchange, I can compare that amount to that of other vendors, and on that basis I make the decision whether or not to hand it over.

To a good approximation, my deepest economic wish is for all markets to function like the book market.

Now let’s think about health insurance. In a way, how health insurance works is like how phone service works, multiplied a thousandfold. You have to sign up for a “plan”. It comes (probably) from your employer. You get a giant packet that no one with a life could possibly read. You get a little plastic card that you have to carry around with you. You might lose it.

You have to do stuff on websites and such, to enter your personal information. Pick a “primary” doctor. How do you pick a doctor? Oh, they have a convenient PDF-formatted list of their doctors that you can choose from. Who are they? Names on a list! Now you’ve picked your doctor. How do you see him, and when can you see him, how do you arrange this? Just read the packet! It’s all there! If you need help with any of this there’s a 1-800 number to call…


I. Have. A. Life.

Let’s say I got sick and needed to see a doctor tomorrow. I’m only partially joking when I say that I wouldn’t have the first clue how. I know that I can, because I have “insurance”, I have a “plan”. But as for the mechanics of how? Who I would see and where I would go and what I would have to do and what little cards I would have to dig up out of my giant file folder and what phone numbers I would have to call and what eleven-digit numbers I would have to have at hand? No clue. No clue whatsoever. I could do it if I really had to, mind you. But as you can see, I rarely do. The cost – for me – is too high. My healthcare is essentially being rationed already, by making it so freaking complicated to actually get that I’m only likely to think it worth my while when the blood is already spurting.

This is the result of the insurance system in all its glory. This is the effect it has on people like me. I almost never go to doctors. It’s not because I’m scared of doctors. Not at all. It’s just because it’s too much of a pain in the ass.

I don’t have this problem with buying books, or soap, or getting haircuts. Why is that?

I recognize that there are people not so much like me, for whom none of this is (as much of) a problem. They are the fine-print-readers. They don’t mind or resent, as I do, investing (sinking. wasting.) that amount of their free time in reading packets and pamphlets and instruction manuals. Well good for them. But my point here is that if the health-care market functioned sanely, I wouldn’t have to. Nobody would. There would be a business establishment called “the doctor’s office”. And if I wanted to see him, I would just freaking go there. He’d tell me how much he’d charge to see me, and I’d either do it or not.

The health-care market is not like this. That is part and parcel of why it is not a market. Not really. My point is that it should be. It used to be, and could be, and should be. There is no good reason why it couldn’t be.

Ironically, my annoyance with the insurance system is so high that it actually lessens my opposition to government-run health care. I may not be in favor of government health-care as a matter of principle, but at least if health-care was distributed by state kommissars in state offices where anyone could just freaking go there and get what they needed, there wouldn’t be this whole insurance rigamarole to deal with. You would still have a card, and a number, and the fine-print readers would still be able to deal with the bureaucracy better than I (especially if they know somebody who knows somebody…). But at least the playing field would be a bit more level. I wouldn’t be taxed quite as much for having a freaking life.

In fact, sometimes I wonder if maybe that was the idea all along – make health-care so unendurable that government-run health-care starts to seem like the lesser evil. If so, I think it’s worked.

In Which I Remind You Of Another Totally Real And Not Fake Argument The Left Made
July 23, 2009, 11:22 am
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I was just lamenting the other day how The Iraq War “distracted” us from the Real war on terrorism (which the Left totally cared about fighting). Well, the Left got their wish and ended The Iraq War. (Right? I mean, you don’t hear them complaining/whining about it anymore. So I assume it’s over? Seeing as how, if it weren’t over, why wouldn’t they still be whining?)

So then, now that the horrible “distraction” of The Iraq War is over, I guess that means we can once again “focus” on the Real war on terror ™. Which the Left totally wants to do! After all, they complained so much that we (supposedly) weren’t. Well now we’re free to. The Left got their wish, and let’s not forget, controls the executive and legislative branches of government. I assume this means we’ve been pursuing the Real war on terror with free rein. Which – again – the Left kept saying was what they wanted.


Too Far Away
July 18, 2009, 2:28 pm
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I think I’ve figured out the problem with the Star Wars prequels: none of the main characters are American.

You’ve got Qui-Gon, played by Liam Neeson, an Irishman. Obi-Wan is Ewan McGregor (Scot). Natalie Portman is an American, but Israeli-American, born in Jerusalem, and first rose to fame in a French movie (Leon or “The Professional” by Luc Besson). And Anakin is played by a Canadian guy straight out of Degrassi Junior High who carries himself and speaks with a candence that has that weird creepy off-putting Canadian way all Canadians have.



Anyway, but look at the difference: In the original Star Wars, Luke Skywalker was an all-American whiny boy with a surfer look who wanted to hot-rod but had to stay home to work on the farm, straight out of American Graffiti or of course Corvette Summer. He could have been the high school kid down the street who seems so cool when you’re much younger than he is. Princess Leia was Eddie Fisher’s daughter from the Rat Pack; ok she faked that bizarre British accent in the first one, but by #2 she had dropped all that and was this can-do tough girl with sass (and by #3 she’s in a bikini). Chewie is basically a walking pet dog. All the bad guys are British and all the Brits are bad guys except for Obi-Wan, who is (essentially) Merlin. And then of course there’s Harrison Ford – as American as apple pie. And please let’s not forget his friend Lando!

There’s nothing wrong with the prequels in the effects department or even some of the stories. The problem is the characters. You literally don’t care about any of them, and some of them you wouldn’t mind seeing lasered to bits.

I think it’s because they’re not Americans like in the first trilogy.


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