September 28, 2009

Lake Wobegon health care

I'm an agnostic when it comes to heath care policy. As a closet libertarian, I inherently distrust big government solutions. Cartels and monopolies are bad ideas no matter who is running them. And bureaucrats don't have the spirit of God descend upon them when they enter government service.

All bureaucracies behave like bureaucracies. The bigger they are, the badder. That they're not "doing it for the money" is even scarier, because money can be tracked, taxed and audited. The serpentine corridors of power aren't so easily navigated (unless the Feds happen to be bugging your phone).

And doing it for the ideological idealism of it all turns government into a religion. With the police and IRS at its disposal.

But Christian Lander is exactly right that I'm one of those artsy-fartsy types who's going to rake in a ton more benefits from whatever socialized system we end up than I'll pay out. I may just be old enough to clean up on Social Security and Medicare before they go totally broke too.

The secret reason why all white people love socialized medicine is that they all love the idea of receiving health care without having a full-time job. This would allow them to work as a freelance [artist or writer] without having to worry about a benefits package.

I really am a freelance writer.

The best solution would be to tax benefits as income and provide a tax deduction at the median amount to balance that out, and then greatly expand high-deductible health savings accounts. Then at the low end of the income scale, salt the HSAs with EIC-type funds to cover the deductible.

Both health care providers and insurance companies should be required to publish a price list for all common medical procedures, and provide them to all comers. Oh, and an electronic medical record system is definitely a must (though I don't see why legislation is required to do that).

And then there's the most egregiously disingenuous part of the whole debate: that the government must provide a "public option" to spur competition when it was the government that curtailed competition in the first place by not allowing insurance companies to compete across state lines.

Auto, home and life insurance companies don't work under those restrictions. And not surprisingly, nobody is calling for an auto, home and life insurance "public option." Why can't that cute Australian gecko hawk health insurance in all fifty state too?

In any case, we could import the Swiss system (a network of private non-profits probably closest to the current U.S. system) pretty much whole. Why reinvent the wheel? The best "worst" solution would be to either expand Medicaid out or expand Medicare down. No need to start from scratch.

But here's the one thing I don't understand. Why are the big unions officially so in favor of single-payer, and so rabidly party-line and anti-private insurance? These unions have the best health insurance benefits on the planet. I thought only populist proles from Kansas lobbied against self-interest.

Well, the health care labor unions will certainly clean up. But when it comes to the rest, I'm a living example, having grown a beneficiary of what we actually referred to as "Generous Electric." My father was white-collar (R&D), but white-collar benefits were based on the union-negotiated package.

And as the unions spent about half their time striking for better benefits, that package was very nice. (Then Jack Welch showed up and bared his fangs and they struck themselves right out of a job.)

Even as bad as things have gotten in the auto industry of late, and with all the concessions, the GM auto worker benefits package remains better than anything I could have dreamed of back when I had a "real" job.

Active United Auto Workers members make no monthly contribution and pay no deductible for their health insurance coverage. They face no co-insurance costs for in-network physician services and an annual out-of-pocket maximum of just $500 per family for out-of-network doctors[.]

In short, there is no freaking way that a single-payer or nationalized health care system could deliver that level of benefits. The system will inevitably regress to the mean. Though maybe that wouldn't be a bad thing.

We've either got to admit that we really want to spend tons of money on health care, or grow the stones to piss off powerful interest groups--not just trial lawyers and PhRMA--try convincing the AMA to increase the supply of doctors and drive down physician incomes to European levels (i.e., cut them in half).

Or simply admit that we don't live in Lake Wobegon and everybody can't be above average when it comes to their health care benefits.

Oh, and my last "real job" insurer? IHC, which the president has called out specifically as an exemplary health care provider. It was okay. No complaints about the care provided (the paperwork was a nightmare). But it ain't Generous Electric. No standalone insurer--including the government--can afford to be.

On the other hand, if we simply can't decide what to do, there's always this idea.

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September 23, 2009

"Get a Mac" fail

The latest annoying "Get a Mac" commercial features Patrick Warburton as a doofus Windows PC (is he supposed to be Windows 7?). I don't get it.

Patrick Warburton is one of the funniest actors on television. Who would you rather hang out with? Patrick Warburton and the lovable John Hodgman (guaranteed to be the life of the party), or that smug, supercilious Mac guy (who you just know would be dropping words like "supercilious" all night long)?

Apple is starting to sound like a company of humorless, overprotective scolds who will save the world by wrapping us all in a big, hermetic bubble. Here's Apple's next ad campaign slogan: "Mom! Dad! It's evil! Don't touch it!" Plus, Patrick Warburton is way taller than Justin Long, an obvious marketing mistake.

Related posts

Nanami Madobe
Nanami Madobe CM

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September 21, 2009

Defining "abstinence porn"

When it comes to "abstinence porn" as a literary device, I think it'd help to more precisely define the term, at least when used in the manner than I intend. Clarifying the actual application to narrative works is a goal for the future.

1. All revved up and someplace to go.

Etymologically, the flippant use of "porn" suggests a frisson created in the absence of plot. In anime it's called "fan service," gratuitous nudity and crude visual gags censored for broadcast but not in the DVD versions.

Drag racers "burn rubber" to heat up the tires and give them more grip. But we don't go to a race just to watch drivers spin their wheels. There's a finish line out there somewhere and we expect them to get to it eventually.

But the smoke and noise and spitting flame is fun to watch.

2. Movie stars don't look good by accident.

As long as the "fan service" doesn't cannibalize the tone or plot, I say the more the merrier. In fact, it seems to me that of late that the standard Hollywood genre fare doesn't contain enough beautiful naked women.

Most mainstream romance authors, on the other hand, know better than to leave the reader begging for more than a fleeting glimpse or well-placed sheet. Plot is a scaffold. What's hanging on it had better please the mind's eye.

3. It's not about commitment (or the lack of it).

In any kind of romantic narrative, keeping the leads apart while other subplots unfold is a major challenge to the writer. Though after a while, the tangled webs woven to accomplish this can begin to strain belief.

But this is "commitment porn," not abstinence porn. It's not enough that the couple in question be abstaining, but they must have something to abstain from. A real and present temptation. Commitment precedes abstinence.

4. Neither is it about plot development.

Except to show how much the leads really like each other. Compelling dramatic externalities that would keep them apart is, again, what we call "plot." Rather, its purpose is as stated in the Harlequin writer's guidelines:

We want to see an emphasis on the physical relationship developing between the couple: fully described love scenes along with a high level of fantasy, playfulness and eroticism are needed.

Once we know that Buffy sleeping with Angel turns him into a psycho-killer, abstinence becomes logical. That there are forces conspiring to keep Romeo and Juliet apart is the whole point of the play.

The dying stuff aside, Romeo and Juliet is like two BYU students racing off to Wendover for a quickie wedding so they can satisfy their lusts "morally." Given the nature of the social constraints, it kinda makes sense.

Abstinence porn is not about the plot and it's not about making sense.

5. It's about putting out fires with gasoline.

Abstinence porn pretends to be celebrating chastity while reveling in carnality. Or as my brother puts it more bluntly, "Bella and Edward have lots of sex, just not intercourse." They have the cake and eat it too.

Twilight could be faulted for being like those anti-tobacco commercials that end up making smoking look cool. Though it took Deseret Book until volume four for some moralist in corporate to finally say, "Hey, wait a minute!"

Yet another case where DB "gets it" but for all the wrong reasons. When religions get pharisaical, the Pharisees deserve a hoisting by their own petards.

At the same time, as much as I like discussing it, I don't think much of the persuasive powers of "subtext." All the girls who read into Edward the very picture of the perfectly chivalrous boyfriend, all the power to them.

True, Bella trusts Edward the way no teenage girl should ever trust a teenage boy. Fantasy is fun for its ability to disentangle obvious causes and likely effects. That's why we say it's "made up" and call it "make-believe."

6. But a man's still got to know his limits.

For abstinence porn to produce friction and heat, prohibitions must exist. Take the foot off the brake at the wrong time and the car burning rubber will careen into a brick wall. The forces must balance out (ideally until marriage).

Yet if the external forces are too powerful, we don't end up with abstinence porn but The Scarlet Letter. There must be enough play left so that the needle cranks into the red zone before coming to a screeching halt.

If the desire is equal and balanced, then the woman drawing the line is a dog-bites-man story. Hence Meyer's brilliant stroke of having Edward draw the line and turning the standard male escapism into a female fantasy.

As my sister Kate observes, "Bella gets to say, Let's get it on! without having to worry that the male will say, Alrighty, then!

Granted, "I love you so much I won't" sounds like a sermon by Boyd K. Packer, except that Edward is hanging those stagecoach wheels right off the edge of the abyss while promising not to end up at the bottom of the gully.

Like the little warning says down at the bottom of the screen during car commercials: "Closed track and professional driver."

7. There's nothing new under the sun.

Any genre with the insatiable demand and enormous supply of romance has been there and done that a thousand times over. But Meyer pulled off something unique in Twilight, a literary feat that's probably not reproducible.

I don't think she planned it that way. She simply said, "Oh, let's pretend that when it comes to sex, men are still all chivalrous and everything like in the fairy tales." And millions of girls said, "Oh, yes, let's!"

Lucas pulled an old monomyth of the hat in Star Wars--and didn't know what he did. Joseph Campbell explaining it to him didn't help. Like Lucas, I wonder if Meyer--or anybody--can trap that light in a bottle again.

8. So you write what you know.

While Meyer's one-off can't be taken as a template, the basic principles are worth a long look. Abstinence porn typically thrives in historical settings, but the right modern religious context could work too.

I believe a big reason that Meyer made it work was because she knows whereof she speaks. The series ends the way it does because according to Meyer's world view, abstinence ends with marriage and sex. That's the whole point!

She just never came out and explained why.

The official Mormon position on the "Law of Chastity" might obviate my requirement against externalities. But the church's ecclesiastical bark is louder than its bite and modern mores bend the tree awfully far over.

To put it cynically, the tree doesn't fall in the forest if nobody hears it. Or confesses to chopping it down. To clarify, I'm not belittling such proscriptions, just pointing out that they do not incur a physical risk to life.

When it comes to contemporary American culture, Mormons are practically alone in living though the Sturm und Drang of abstinence porn. They should figure out how to take advantage of that fact.

Related posts

Abstinence porn
Selling the sizzle

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September 16, 2009

Abstinence porn

I was reading this entertainingly nasty review of the Twilight series by Christine Seifert, which introduces the wonderfully precise term: "abstinence porn." And I had an epiphany.

Granted, Seifert takes the standard lit. crit. line, namely way overreacting to the horror, the horror of conservative mores invading the hallowed ground of pop culture (which has always been as reliable "real" as a Ken Burns documentary, right?), not to mention treating such frivolities so deadly serious to begin with.

I enjoy taking pop culture too seriously too—but with tongue firmly wedged in cheek. Lefty academics treating bad genre fiction as a poisoner of tender young minds and a threat to civilization is no different than the religious right getting riled up about sex education and evolution (at least the religious right is ideologically consistent about policing thought).

Besides, as Moriah Jovan points out, every time the literary critics pull on their scorn-laden boots and resolve to squish the paleo-romance genre to death once and for all, it just pops out someplace else under a new, superficially politically-correct guise (such as yaoi).

I mean, geez, people, can't you just laugh about it? Because I laugh more at critics wringing their hands about how "worrisome" and "disturbing" Twilight is, and how it's going to "undermine feminist sensibilities." Not to mention the annoying habit—again, usually expected from the right—of using "porn" to describe anything you don't like that's somehow related to sex.

Though I'll have to plead hypocrisy here too, because I rather like "abstinence porn" as a genre description, and see no problem in exploring and exploiting it the best I can. In any case, I would respectfully submit that when it comes to messing around without "crossing the line," a good Mormon like Stephenie Meyer knows what the heck she's talking about.

Unlike Seifert's aforementioned essay, in which she is surprised at "how successful this new genre is. Twilight actually convinces us that self-denial is hot." (I glean from the tone that this is a bad thing.) What's more surprising is how clueless the writer—a professor at Westminster College in Salt Lake City—is. Talk about fish discovering water last.

And when are we going to finally bury this hoary, pedantic insistence that if a given demographic enjoys a given genre of entertainment, then ipso facto they must desire what's represented in that entertainment in real life? I hope nobody takes the fact that I like Bruce Willis actioners to mean that I'm longing to get shot up by a bunch of Eastern European terrorists.

As my sister Kate puts it, "I can't think of anything dumber than telling a teenage girl that she should stop adoring Edward." Twilight, after all, turns on the fantasy of the

romantic other who totally understands us and totally wants us and never wants to leave us and is always there for us and knows what is best for us . . . [In real life,] this type of relationship would get very tedious very fast, but I think it is unfair to get after women who voice it.

While Seifert's analysis turns hilarious when she notes a fan's "salient" (albeit "subconscious") "understanding of the theme Meyer has been establishing: that sex is dangerous and men must control themselves." A subconscious understanding? I'd call it FREAKING OBVIOUS! Getting teenage boys to corral their sexual impulses is what makes civilization function.

Which makes some teenage girls smarter than some college professors. You know all that fuddy-duddy stuff about chivalry and honor—Who cannot rule himself, how should he rule others?—gee, I have no idea why anybody would be attracted to stuff like that nowadays in a romance novel. Cue Meat Loaf singing "Paradise by the dashboard light."

And then (as Kate helpfully suggests), "I would do anything for love" (the same couple twenty years later).

That once married, Bella turns out to be really into rough sex is the icing on the cake. Didn't Nancy Friday cover this ground, oh, about forty years ago? It's the "hip" Meyer versus her "stuffy" critics. Her skills as a writer aside, I'm cottoning to the idea that Meyer understands women—perhaps especially Mormon women—a whole lot better than her oh-so-progressive critics.

In short, abstinence porn pretends to be celebrating chastity while reveling in carnality. But I believe that Mormon theology supports the contention—in contradiction to the Gnostic heresies—that within proper constraints, carnality deserves being reveled in. It's a fine line, but the struggle to tiptoe down those fine lines is at the heart of dramatic conflict.

To be sure, it's not the thing itself, but the contradictions inherent in the oxymoron that ultimately make the story compelling. And here I return to the point I originally intended to make, which is that Mormon culture provides one of the few contemporary American settings (aside from the Amish) where "abstinence porn" plots actually prove plausible.

Hawt Mormon romance abstinence porn—maybe that's the literary ticket to breakout publishing success!

Related posts

Defining "abstinence porn"
Selling the sizzle

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September 14, 2009

A modest proposal

I'm old enough to remember when Ronald Reagan was going to wring waste, fraud & abuse out of the welfare system, and every speech on the subject was accompanied by an infuriating anecdote about a "welfare queen" who was ripping off the rest of us honest taxpayers. As much as I liked Ronald Reagan, it was nonsense.

That kind of rhetoric works well in the righteous indignation department. But the only way to make government more efficient is to make it smaller, which is what Clinton-era welfare reform did, in no small part by instituting "death panels" that decided who really deserved benefits and who got the boot.

But (with apologies to Jonathan Swift), I believe I have a better solution. The Japanese are the longest-lived people in the world, yet Japan spends half what the U.S. does on health care. Oh, and Japan does very few organ transplants, though for an average of $300,000, a Japanese citizen can line up for a new heart in the U.S.

The Japan Times reports that some Japanese patients have paid as much as $1.63 million. So providing organ transplants doesn't correlate well with overall life expectancy, but it certainly can bring in boatloads of cash! That's how we'll finance free health care for all. Everybody gets a lollipop and a pony too!

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September 07, 2009

Teach a man to Fish

As I noted a while back, the motto of my old Japanese professor, Watabe Sensei, when he was consulting for the (sadly defunct) TESOL software company I used to work at was: "Examples, examples, examples!" Unfortunately, our Japanese clients always insisted on: "Grammar, grammar, grammar!" And the customer is always right, even when they're wrong.

Especially when they're footing the bill.

Stanley Fish comes to similar conclusions about English composition. If teaching grammar means memorizing rules and making students afraid of breaking them, then "teaching grammar out of context" is indeed ineffective. What does work, though, is drilling students in "the forms that enable meaning; and these are not inert taxonomic forms, but forms of thought."

Teach a practical form or structure--a usage--and then drill with examples of that usage. To paraphrase Royal Skousen, "The usage is the description." That's what makes the Eijirou database so useful: it's nothing but examples.

Of course, at times a good definition or a simple grammatical analysis will suffice. But when it comes to real-world applications, examples of the form in action are far more useful than textbook explanations. I like Khatzumoto's comparison of language learning to the martial arts and the practicing of kata, or "choreographed patterns of movements."

In music, it's called "learning the scales."

I think this is what Fish means when he says that "content just sprawls around; forms constrain and shape it." It is important that language students understand there is more to language than solipsistic discussions about language. But it's more irresponsible to rhapsodize about content without emphasizing the hard work of learning through practice, and lots of it.

As Victor Brunell nicely sums up the fruits of Khatzumoto's approach (he uses Mnemosyne, I use Anki):

My grammar acquisition proved to be quite rapid. It’s so strange: your mind simply begins to adapt itself to a certain way of thinking after seeing grammar repeatedly used in context, regardless of whether or not you have a concrete explanation in your primary language.

I can second this observation. Even though it's more a metaphor than a "thing," and although it ages in dog years and grows creaky and arthritic by the time you're twenty, Chomsky's fabled language acquisition device is still chugging away.

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September 03, 2009

The best of both political worlds

The beauty of the Japanese electoral system is that it's so short. In a parliamentary democracy, federal elections can't usually be scheduled ahead of time, so campaign seasons are brief--about a month--and don't begin until parliament is dissolved. In the U.S., elections go on for freaking years.

Which isn't to say that Japanese campaigns are any more content-filled than U.S. campaigns. In fact, probably the opposite. They're about name recognition. Since the party or coalition in power elects the prime minister, at the end of the day, identification with the winning party is all that really matters.

Although the U.S. presidential election system is seriously flawed, the four-year election cycle does create executive stability--especially important for the commander-in-chief of the most powerful military in the world--that parliamentary democracies often lack, especially when the ruling coalition can replace the prime minister whenever it wants.

I believe the Electoral College is a good idea that preserves important constitutional principles of federalism and discourages the glamorous appeal of "Athenian democracy" that Madison feared. If you want to know what Madison was warning about, look at California and its execrable referendum process. Here he eloquently sums up the problem:

[T]here are particular moments in public affairs when the people, stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage, or misled by the artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn.

But two-hundred years on, the Electoral College needs a little help. Here's how I would fix it:

First, the House of Representatives would have four year terms, with even-numbered districts staggered by two years (aligning with every other Senate election). These "off year" elections would provide an additional electoral check on the executive.

Second, the existing primary system would elect the party leaders, i.e., the presidential candidates. Unlike parliamentary systems, this could be anybody meeting the constitutional qualifications. (I would entertain an amendment allowing naturalized citizens with sufficient tenure--say, twenty-four years--to qualify.)

Third, the Electoral College would consist of a joint session of Congress after the new Congress has been sworn in but before the inauguration of the new or reelected president. The sitting vice president votes only in case of a tie.

Fourth, to prevent gerrymandering, districts would have to conform to local political boundaries, specifically at the state/county/city/borough/ward level. Once the minimally "granular" district had reached its population threshold, it would become a multiple-member district.

States could voluntarily assign Electoral College votes according to district voting without a constitutional amendment. But without anti-gerrymandering measures, such a system could become as suspect as the current status quo.

The objective is to shift the focus of presidential politics to the congressional races at the district level, which would dampen change-the-world, pipe-dream campaign platforms and focus attention on retail politics. As has becoming quite clear with health care reform, presidential platforms are meaningless when Congress doesn't cooperate.

And while we're at it, two more amendments: no appointed or elected federal office--including the Supreme Court--could be continuously occupied for more than twenty-four years. (The presidency stays at eight.) A senator or representative would have to wait out an election cycle (two years) before running again. A judge would have to go through the confirmation process again (for example, be nominated Chief Justice).

The number of representatives should be doubled, with two elected by each district. Except for being sworn in, the junior representative would stay home and vote electronically.