|Science fiction and more science fiction
||[Dec. 8th, 2013|09:38 pm]
I've been keeping up with science fiction, at least television science fiction.|
Saturday nights are good enough to present "Lost in Space" and "Star Trek: TOS" on the MeTV over-the-air station. The "Star Trek" episodes are the digitally re-worked versions with better special effects. The "Lost in Space" episodes are shown in their original form.
I also watch "Star Trek: TNG" on Friday nights and "Farscape" when I can, both via NetFlix.
"Star Trek" is an old friend, and I enjoy most of the episodes. This week was "Journey to Babel", in which Spock's father needs a transfusion, multiple ambassadors are on board the Enterprise, and an Andorian is not quite what he appears to be. We also meet Spock's mother!
"Lost in Space" is... fascinating. The science fiction is weak, the special effects are lame, the writing is dated, and the plots are predictable.
"Star Trek: TNG" and "Lost in Space" share a challenge to the writers: a large cast. "Lost in Space" was really about moral decisions, with Will Robinson representing good and Zachary Smith representing all of our human failings. Occasionally Penny Robinson would represent good. The other characters are less full characters and more just props.
"Star Trek: TNG" deals with the "too many main characters" problem in a number of ways. Some episodes have multiple stories, with subsets of the characters working on their separate problems. Other episodes focus on a few characters and ignore the others.
"Star Trek: TNG" is quite different from "Star Trek: TOS". There are two differences. One is the size of humans in the galaxy. In "TOS", humans are small and almost every alien race is larger and more powerful; in "TNG" humans are significant (the Enterprise is one of the most powerful ships in the galaxy) and alien races are much closer in scale to humans. The other difference was in the fundamentals of the story. In "TOS", the issue is a moral question; in "TNG" the story is usually a mystery.
"Farscape", in contrast to "Star Trek: TNG", has stories that handle the large cast. I'm happy to see it back on NetFlix.
||[Dec. 3rd, 2013|11:09 pm]
A few days ago the Washington Post ran an opinion piece about the need for a phrase to describe our current economy. It seems the writer was not happy with the words we have to describe economies ("depression", "recession", "recovery", "booming", etc.) or was at least unhappy picking any of them to describe our current situation.|
I can see the challenge. In some ways, the economy has recovered from the financial crisis of 2007: corporate profits are up, as are stock prices, and wages (for the top earners) are also up. Yet in other ways the economy has not recovered: unemployment is high, wages for the middle class are stagnant, and other nations are surpassing us in jobs, health, and test scores.
After some consideration, I have arrived at the phrase to describe our country: post-exceptional America.
Our Exceptional Period was from 1940 to 1970. (One may quibble about the exact years.) In this period, America had growth in wealth and education for most of its citizens. The second World War left America alone with an industrial base, and we used it to our advantage. We dominated world trade and built a middle class that enjoyed well-paying jobs and lots of consumer goodies from suburban houses to automobiles to televisions.
We no longer have the sole industrial base. Large portions of American industries have moved overseas, taking jobs. The social contract of lifetime employment and corporate loyalty has been discarded. The wealth follows a power distribution, with very few holding lots and lots holding almost nothing. Our social mobility is dropping; with it drops the ability for anyone to "make something of themselves". If you are born to wealthy parents, you will (most likely) be wealthy. If you are born to middle-class parents, you will be middle-class. If you are born poor, you will (most likely) remain poor.
High school education is something for the middle class; college for the upper middle class and above. Only one in four of us attend college; only three in four graduate from high school.
In short, America is looking like many other countries. Not the high tax-rate socialist countries, but the low tax-rate monarchies (think Saudi Arabia, not Sweden).
The golden age of the middle class with its nuclear family and single breadwinner was the exceptional period, not the norm. We're moving back to normal, the normal of the 1780s and the 1850s and the 1920s with a small number of wealthy individuals and the rest of us as servants, menial workers, and unemployed.
Meet the post-exceptional America, same as the old America.
|If you like your plan, you can keep it. Period.
||[Nov. 17th, 2013|09:35 pm]
A lot has been said about President Obama's promise that people could keep their medical insurance. Here are my thoughts.|
The promise was a foolish one. I will get this out of the way right now. But perhaps not as foolish as some are making it to be.
At the time, there was a lot of discussion about the ACA. Lots of people had questions, and many people feared that the government was taking over the medical insurance and our nation's hospitals and doctors. One fear was that the government would assign people to specific doctors or insurance plans, overriding their current choices.
The president's statement was to address this concern. It was to reassure people that they were still in charge of their medical insurance and their choices for doctors and hospitals. The wording of that statement was overly simple. The statement made a promise that was not possible to keep -- for at least two reasons.
The statement promised people that they could keep their medical insurance plan. This is mostly true. The ACA does not take insurance away from people. But it does put restrictions on insurance plans, and on the ways insurance companies must operate. Specifically, it changes the ways in which insurance companies can cancel plans for individuals.
Some insurance companies offered inexpensive plans, with the strategy of dropping customers when they filed claims above certain levels. The ACA changed the rules for insurance companies, and without the ability to drop the "expensive" customers, the plan (some might say "scam") becomes unsustainable. Thus insurance companies dropped the entire plan. The replacement plans were -- surprise! -- more expensive. (Once you have to pay customer claims, you have to collect more in premiums.)
The other reason that the president's statement was overly simple was that the ACA maintains the market approach to medical insurance. Companies are constantly offering new plans and dropping old plans, as part of their ongoing business. The ACA does not mandate that insurance companies to offer their plans in perpetuity -- that would be a distortion of the market.
But with a dynamic market for medical insurance, the president (or anyone, for that matter), cannot guarantee that you can keep a plan forever. It would be like promising that you could continue to buy gasoline at your local gas station, or that you could continue to eat at your favorite fast-food restaurant. You may be able to do both of those for some time, but gas stations are free to close, and fast-food operations are free to move their restaurants. The government is not forcing them to stay in place.
The main purpose of the promise was to assure people that the government was not taking over and inflicting choices on Americans. In this, the statement is true. The design of the ACA and the changes in regulations mean that insurance companies have choices of their own; in this, the statement is false.
What's more disturbing (to me) is the reasoning behind the statements of conservatives and Republicans. They have jumped on the falsity of the president's statement with alacrity, loudly advertising the "lies of Obama".
Now in politics, pointing out the incorrect statements of your opponents is a proper tactic. I don't fault them in that.
I find fault in their (implied) reasoning. That reasoning seems to be "The other team lied, therefore we are telling the truth, you should believe us, and you should vote us into office.". In mathematics, one can prove a theorem with an indirect proof in which you assume the opposite of the theorem and then show an inconsistency. That is enough to prove the theorem.
But such logic does not hold in politics. It is, after all, quite possible for both parties to lie.
The reasoning of the conservatives is intellectually weak. They call out "liar" and they offer nothing beyond that. It's a problem for our nation, and a problem for the Republican party. Their planning lacks the rigor necessary to lead the nation; it may lack the rigor to win elections.
This is what I find disturbing.
|Movie review: Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
||[Nov. 10th, 2013|04:45 pm]
Long, and worth every second. Clark Gable and Charles Laughton deliver excellent performances.|
"Mutiny" provides close up scenes of maritime life; much more real that something like the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise. The special effects are excellent, especially considering the technology available at the time. Lots of scenes that we think of as special effects are actually real -- there was little that could be faked in 1935 -- and they actually occurred in front of the camera. Yes, there are scenes that are obviously filmed on a set or with models. Ignore them.
The film shows many aspects of life on a small ship, from the close crew quarters to military discipline. It also shows Tahiti, or a rather good replica. Worth watching for sea-going fans and cinematography students.
I rate this movie 8 cans of spam, out of a possible 10.
|Movie Review: Paycheck
||[Nov. 3rd, 2013|10:10 pm]
"Paycheck" is another film inspired by a Philip K. Dick story.|
Comparisons to "Blade Runner" are inevitable. In short: not as good, in terms of writing, acting, or music. Nice special effects, although a bit James Bondish at times.
Comparisons to other stories-made-movies: A bit better. I enjoyed this movie; "Through a Scanner Darkly" and "Minority Report" were ordeals, not escapes.
While the movie departs somewhat from the original story, it holds pretty close to the core idea. I won't describe the story here -- read the original for a proper understanding. It has a decent story, one that a fan of science fiction can appreciate. The movie keeps the complex story, adds a few chase scenes and explosions, and lets the good guys win in the end.
Ben Affleck and Uma Thurman lack the acting depth of Harrison Ford and Sean Young. (I'm not sure if that is the fault of the actors or the director -- or the script writer.) They're good, but not superb.
I rate this move six cans of spam, out of a possible ten.
|Why I think the Republicans should support the ACA
||[Oct. 28th, 2013|08:08 pm]
The Republican party has made a big deal about defeating the Affordable Care Act (ACA, or "Obamacare"). They even forced a lapse in spending for half of October (with eventually no gain for Republicans).|
I understand that conservatives want a smaller government. I understand that conservatives think that the ACA is an expansion of government power and encroachment on personal liberty.
But the path they have chosen mystifies me.
Were I leading the conservatives, I would encourage support for the ACA. I would encourage support for a plan drafted by the Heritage Council (a conservative organization) that maintains the market for medical insurance. (The socialist option would be a single-payer plan, in which insurance companies are excluded from the medical insurance market, the government pays all medical providers, and all medical providers are basically employees of the government.)
I would support the ACA and do everything I could to make it work. I would do this because it would show that a market can provide a viable solution for a nationwide insurance need.
Show that the ACA works for medical insurance, and you open the possibility for a market solution for other large insurance programs: Social Security and Medicare. Conservatives have long sought to privatize Social Security, and one can only surmise that they want the same for Medicare. (Medicaid, the insurance program for those that cannot afford medical care, is a different matter. Although I am sure conservatives would welcome a market solution for that program as well.)
By fighting the ACA, conservatives are fighting the larger war -- on the wrong side. Is anyone in the Republican camp thinking of strategy? Their current approach seems to be "whatever the Democrats (and especially President Obama) want, we are against". This is thinking about strategy, it is reacting to the opposition. Thoughtless opposition is a poor way to get what you want.
|In Washington, we have a deal; in America, we still need agreement
||[Oct. 16th, 2013|10:56 pm]
So the Republicans and Democrats negotiated (if you can call the petty arguments "negotiations") until the last possible moment and at the end, created a deal to extend our national debt and fund the government. I will let you get the details from your news sources.|
But while there is a deal in Washington, our nation has yet to reach an agreement. Conservatives and liberals throughout the country are still divided. Each thinks that they are right, that their representatives were "fighting the good fight" and the opposing legislators were "obstructionist" and "unwilling to negotiate". Conservatives think this. Liberals think this. I think this, and I suspect you, dear reader, are thinking this too.
The months of politicking, the weeks of shutdown, and the accompanying media coverage have done little to bring people together, and much to divide them. Few individuals (at least, in my small survey) have done anything to reach out to "the other side" or even attempt to understand their position. Liberals consider government an aide to society and the ACA an improvement to the medical insurance market. Conservatives see government as limiting peoples' freedom and the ACA as a step towards socialism, if not coercion of individuals and a significant reduction in personal liberty.
The House vote to raise the debt limit and fund the government was passed with lots of Democrat votes. Many Republicans voted "no", possibly to show their constituents that they fought until the end.
We keep the divided country. Citizens around the country keep their ideas. This deal changes no one's opinion about the ACA or the direction of our country. Which means that in January, when we discuss these items again, we can expect to see another round of "negotiations" that extend until the last possible moment.
|Federal government shutdown - part 2
||[Oct. 6th, 2013|03:53 pm]
Last week, congress failed to agree on appropriation bills for the federal government. Without these appropriation bills, the government cannot spend money. (The government needs permission from itself to spend money.)|
Some areas of the federal government have sources of funding other than the general fund. The FAA, for example, has dedicated taxes that bring in revenue. It can continue to operate using those funds. But that doesn't work for many other areas of the government. Congress must come to agreement on spending.
My prediction, given what I have heard and read in the public news channels, is that we will see no agreement this week. I think congress will push the spending debate up to the debt ceiling debate. (The Treasury claims that they will have insufficient funds to pay all outlays on October 17 -- but that is an estimate.)
Liberals want to raise the debt ceiling. (The debt ceiling is a self-imposed limit on borrowing.) Conservatives are willing to raise the ceiling as part of a larger deal. In a "normal" year, the Republicans would look for reductions in spending and possibly reductions in tax rates. This year, the Republicans will insist on the defunding of the ACA ("Obamacare"). Democrats are loathe to make such a change.
The debt ceiling is a serious issue. Should we reach the debt limit, the Treasury runs out of cash, and will be unable to pay some obligations. Conservative pundits have calmly pointed out that the US has enough income (through taxes) to pay interest on debt. I believe this is true. But it is not enough to pay all obligations: social security checks, payroll checks, interest on bonds and notes, and other expenditures.
The conservative pundits seem to think that the Treasury can pick and choose which bills to pay. I am not certain. The Treasury uses computer systems to print checks, and I suspect that there is no feature in the system to defer or disable certain types of checks. I suspect that the Treasury has a list of obligations for each day and pays all of them.
If my suspicions are correct (and these are suspicions, not certain facts), then exceeding the borrowing limit will mean that some checks issued by the Treasury will be returned for insufficient funds. (They will "bounce".)
In effect, we will have a new national lottery. Some checks will clear and others will not. But no one knows which -- until it's too late.
That's the problem with the debt ceiling. Let's get back to politics.
From what I've seen, liberal and conservative citizens are listening to their respective news channels. Liberals are hearing the message "Republicans have shut down the government". Conservatives are hearing the opposite. The result is that both believe they are in the right. The demographics of congressional districts is such that representatives (Democrat and Republican) will receive pressure to "hold the line" and "stay firm".
With such dynamics in place, I expect this coming week to provide lots of rhetoric -- and insults -- but no movement towards an agreement. The shutdown will continue the entire week.
Next week begins with Columbus Day, a federal holiday. I expect neither house of congress to be in session. On Tuesday (October 15), members of congress will realize that this game of chicken over the debt ceiling is close to an end. Then, and only then, we will see some movement.
But I don't know which party will move.
|Federal government shutdown
||[Sep. 29th, 2013|06:41 pm]
Okay, so technically it is not a "shutdown", it is a "lapse in appropriations". What's the difference? Well, the federal government needs permission to spend money, permission that comes from congress. Permission is given in laws, and there are two types of laws that permit the government to spend: permanent spending and annual spending. The official names for these categories are "mandatory" and "discretionary".
Mandatory spending programs are authorized by laws to operate indefinitely, and not only specify spending but also identify funding. The Social Security and Medicare programs fall in this category. There are specific taxes for the programs, and specific rules for the disbursement of funds.
Discretionary spending programs are also authorized by laws (as are all programs), but they operate from year to year and require re-authorization for each year. In theory, each year should see a budget (proposed by the president and then approved, after some modifications, by congress) which permits spending for the year.
The ACA -- the Affordable Care Act, or "Obamacare" -- is a mandatory program, as it has non-annual sources of funds.
The current dispute in congress is about these discretionary programs. The dispute does not cover the mandatory programs, although the House Republicans are attempting to remove funding for that law with the annual spending authorizations. (There are twelve areas of spending, corresponding roughly to the twelve large areas of government. Normally we have twelve spending laws.)
It's no secret that the Republicans and the Democrats are working poorly together. The end result is a game that is a lot like "hot potato". Each side is attempting to push blame to the other.
This crisis was predicted, in a way, by two researchers in the 1980s. The book "Generations" by Strauss and Howe studied the political, economic, and social events of the United States from colonial times and found patterns in our history. The resulting generational theory is interesting and useful.
I won't bore you with details. In short, Strauss and Howe found that two types of crises occur on a regular and predictable basis. They identified two types of crises: spiritual and secular. They also found that these crises occur every 80 years. That is, there is a spiritual crises every 80 years, a secular crisis every 80 years, and the two types are spaced by 40 years. Thus, the secular crises were the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the Great Depression. The most recent spiritual crises was the civil rights movement in the 1960s. (Crises occur *roughly* every 80 years, but the timing is not exact.) They predicted, in 1980, that a secular crisis would occur in 2010.
The fight over the ACA is part of our crisis. I believe that the economic crash of 2007 is also part of the crisis. No one wanted either of these, but our generational differences were such that there would be a fight -- a big fight -- over something. If not the ACA then perhaps the privitization of Social Security. Or the wars in the Middle East. Or something else. But it would happen, according to Strauss and Howe. (The similarities of "Foundation" and psychohistory are interesting.)
The ACA is mostly reform for the medical insurance industry. It specifies mandates not for medical services but for medical insurance. Those are:
- Individuals must have medical insurance
- Companies (of a certain size) must offer medical insurance group policies to their employees
- Medical insurance providers must take all applicants ("shall issue")
That is a gross simplification of the law, and there are many aspects that I have glossed over. But in general, that's what it does.
The House Republicans (specifically the hard-right "Tea Party" set) have focussed on obstructing the president and defeating the ACA. While they have won over their supporters in their home districts, they have alienated the opposition. The polarization of our country is the result of the various echo chambers set up by liberals and conservatives, and also by generational theory (Strauss and Howe). Even without the internet forums and cable channels, we would have divided politics.
But the fight about the ACA is very local, very specific to current events.
Looking at a larger picture, I think that parts of the ACA are in line with long-term trends, and others conflict.
For the past five decades, companies have been pushing risk and responsibilities to individual employees. Companies no longer offer pensions; they offer 401-k plans where the results depend on the contributions and investment decisions of the employees. Companies no longer pay for all of medical insurance, but instead purchase plans and require employees to contribute to some (or all) of the monthly premiums. Companies have also been reducing compensation (that is, wages) to match the global market. There is little reason to pay an auto worker premium wages in the US when they can get the same labor for a lower wage in Mexico, Brazil, or China. The reduction in compensation is also occurring with the use of H-1B visa workers who work at reduced salaries.
The ACA is in line with this trend in that it mandates individuals (that is, employees) to hold medical insurance.
The ACA is running against this trend by mandating employers to provide group policies for their employees. The historical trend moves responsibilities to the individual, not the corporation.
As I see it, the Republicans have made a strategic mistake by targeting the entire ACA. They fought in congress (and lost), they fought in the courts (and lost), and now they are fighting over funding (and losing). I think a smarter strategy would be to fight the employer mandate and leave the others. Doing so would align them with corporate America and eliminate the fights of conscious (employers paying for birth control, for example). It would avoid pressuring companies to reduce work hours to less that 29 per week, and would get rid of the employer tax for failing to provide medical insurance. It would also align them with the long-term trends in corporate compensation.
Democrats have a different problem. There are two parts of the Republican party: the establishment and the extreme right. In an odd twist, the Democrats are united (primarily by doing nothing) while the Republicans fight amongst themselves. (A quick review of conservative web sites will confirm this. Visit National Review, Red State, or other sites and read the comments.)
The problem for Democrats is that there is no one which whom they can bargain. The Senate and House Republican leaderships cannot control their parties, and a compromise made today is quickly undone by the hard right. The members of the hard right have shown that they are not willing to compromise; they come to the bargaining table not to negotiate but to destroy the table. Without negotiation, the Democrats can offer nothing.
The polarization of the country does not help the situation. People who listen to one channel (whether liberal or conservative) believe their their side is right and the other side is not. Many arguments are childish, resorting to name-calling ("lieberals" and "repuglicans" are some of the softer insults) and few are reasoned and thoughtful.
If there is a lapse in appropriations, I believe that each side will think of themselves as "in the right" and blame the other side for the shut-down. Conservatives will blame the president (or Senate Democrats); liberals will blame the House Republicans.
Democrats have done a poor job. But Republicans have bungled the job, and quite badly. Democrats have put forward ideas and said "we are for this". Republicans have opposed those ideas but provided no ideas of their own. Because of that strategy, they are losing. Republicans need to start winning, and to do that they need to be for something. They need ideas to put in front of the US citizenry and say "we are for this". Their current plan of opposition without ideas is not enough.
|What I'm reading now
||[Sep. 19th, 2013|08:33 pm]
"V" by Thomas Pynchon. I've read "The Crying of Lot 49", which is the sequel, and now I've read the first book. Both are "different", fiction but not in the traditional sense. I'm not sure that either has a coherent storyline, yet both are fascinating character expositions with unusual events. (Hunting alligators in the subways of New York, for example.)|
"Tomorrow's Children" A collection of science fiction stories from my childhood. I had read it, several times, while in high school. The stories are about children, and it was an enchanting read when I was a child. It's still an enchanting read; the authors are big names like Bradbury and Heinlein and Fritz Leiber and Philip K. Dick.
"Asimov on Chemistry" Another book from my high school years, this one non-fiction. It contains a series of essays by Asimov. If you like chemistry, or even if you don't, you will probably enjoy it. While the title is "On Chemistry", the essays are mostly about the history of chemistry and the individuals that found things out. Asimov can take history or science and tell a tale.
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