Books I'm reading
- Second Person: Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media. It's a collection of essays covering everything from tabletop RPGs to LARPs to interactive-fiction to MMOs and strange social experiments. They vary widely in length, quality, and level of academic-ness. I'm borrowing this from Cat. (Thanks Cat!)
- The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. It's a true story, heavily dramatized, about the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 — which was a pretty amazing time and place, and probably the closest thing to a steampunk fantasy setting that you'll find in real history — and about this really freaking scary serial-killer who haunted the area for years, a handsome and charismatic man who married rich gullible women and then made them disappear.
- The Art of Wargaming by Peter P. Perla. It traces the roots of wargaming from Napoleonic-era Prussia to the modern day, covering both hex-and-counter type hobbyist wargaming AND the deadly serious, realistic scenario-based type of wargaming used by the military for training and planning purposes. It's the only book I know of to draw the connections between these two different worlds of wargames. This book was a present from Ben Beaty (Thanks Ben!)
Books I recently finished reading:
- God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens. An atheist tract, it got so ranty at some points that it prompted me to nickname the author "Christopher Bitchin's"
- The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It by Jonathan Zittrain. An important and thought-provoking book, with a lot of relevance to what I do at Moz. I'm going to blog about this one at length.
- Free Culture by Lawrence Lessig. About the harm that is done to creativity and culture by the current U.S. copyright system, by a law professor who has been personally involved in trying to change copyright law. I expected this book to be as ranty as the one above, but it's actually surprisingly moderate and level-headed, proposing small and reasonable modifications to the system.
- A Theory of Fun for Game Design, by Raph Koster. Ranges from math to evolutionary psychology to ethics in order to support the thesis that the sensation we call "fun" is actually a specific type of learning, one that is neither hard enough to be frustrating nor easy enough to be boring, and that good games are extremely focused teaching tools, even if we're not used to thinking of them that way, even if the skills being taught are entirely useless.
My friends write RPGs!
1. Ben Lehman has sent The Drifter's Escape off to the printers. This is a game he's been working on for as long as I've known him. It's about a homeless drifter wandering across America. One player is The Drifter, and the other players are either The Devil, or The Man. (You know, The Man who is always keeping The Drifter down.) He's releasing it as a book which is a combination of RPG and short-story collection. (Ben, correct me if I'm misrepresenting any of this.)
2. Ben Lehman has also released a game called High Quality Role-Playing as a free download. It's an extremely old-school (i.e. permanent death is one die roll away), low-fantasy world where there are heroes... but you don't play one of them. You play a random joe schmoe, like a beggar or a blacksmith or a peasant, and you're pretty much in way over your head.
3. Ewen Cluney (it's pronounced like "Aaron"), who worked on translating the Maid RPG to English, is now working on a translation of another Japanese tabletop RPG by the same author. It's called Yuuyake Koyake and it's a heartwarming, non-violent game where you play shapeshifting animal spirits who help rural townspeople with their problems.
4. Ewen is also working on two RPGs of his own design: one is called Raspberry Heaven and is a Japanese high-school girls slice-of-life game ala Azumanga Daioh. I got to playtest it with him earlier this summer. I played a painfully introverted and sickly girl who was the world's biggest fan of Dragon Ash. I could feel the potential there, but I felt like the game needs more structure so that the players aren't just floundering. (I ought to do a whole blog post about this.)
5. The other is called Slime Story. You play a jaded suburban teenager who kills stereotypical RPG cannon-fodder monsters (slimes and stuff) as a part-time job, for spending money. (They come through a dimensional portal.) Ewen, like I said to Ben: Correct me if I'm getting any of this wrong.
6. Jake Alley, who I've been designing and playing games with since I was a wee lad, is doing a gaming podcast now. Woot!
7. I haven't heard any updates about these lately, but I know Jake is working on some follow-ups to Glistening Chests based on the same philosophy of tightly genre-focused trope-parodying mechanics. He's got one in the works for horror movies, and another for cheesy Voltron-esque cartoons. (Jake, like I said to Ewen and Ben: correct me if I'm wrong. Also, if you've got links to any info about these projects, let me have 'em!)
Why is health care expensive, part 6
Acute medicine is always more expensive than preventive medicine. If the doctor can detect something early, it's going to be cheaper to fix (not to mention less traumatic) than if you waited until it's an emergency.
So it seems like common sense that doing more preventive care, less emergency care, would be a way to save the whole country money on health care. Quite apart from any matters of public policy, it's also a choice we can make individually in order to save ourselves money and stay healthier. (That reminds me... after this blog post I should get some exercise and make myself a dentist appointment.)
If our current system is biased towards emergency care and away from providing preventive care, that could be a major part of the country's problem. Is there such a bias? I haven't seen any statistics on it, so I have nothing but a hunch that there may be. I would love it if anybody could point me at any evidence to confirm or deny this hypothesis.
This is closely related to another problem, which is that uninsured people show up at emergency rooms with acute problems. We treat them, because we don't want them to, like, die, but then they can't pay, the hospital eats the cost, and it ends up driving up insurance prices for everybody. Seems like it would be a lot cheaper for everyone in the long run if we could figure out how to get some basic preventive care for those uninsured people in order to deal with their problems before they become emergencies.
The health insurance model " pay into a fund every month, get a pay-out if you have an emergency " is an illogical way to pay for preventive care. Twice-yearly checkups are an entirely predictable cost. The emphasis on fixing insurance may be obscuring things that we should be doing to encourage preventive care.
Would it make more sense to move regular prevention outside of the insurance system entirely, and fund it through other means? Or would it make more sense to incentivize people to take care of themselves by, like, giving them a break on their premiums as long as they are seeing a doctor twice a year? Are there any health-care plans out there right now that already do something like this?
(Whoops, I hit "submit" too early on this post, so it showed up incomplete on the RSS feed. Fixed now.)
Why is health care expensive, part 5
Because of fear of lawyers?
83% of physicians surveyed reported practicing 'defensive medicine'. They do procedures they don't think are neccessary because they're afraid of being sued for not doing them. And they pay for malpractice insurance. Predictably, the doctor lobby is strongly in favor of tort reform, while the lawyer lobby is strongly against it.
However, studies show malpractice awards are not the main driver of health care costs, says this article from the Washington Independent. We might save some money by tort reform, but it's unlikely to be the main way to get costs under control.
There's a lot of interesting facts in that article. Apparently the cost of malpractice is calculated as only 2% of overall medical spending, so maybe there's not much savings to be had there. On the other hand, nobody can calculate the ultimate cost of defensive medical treatments. On the gripping hand, Texas already capped pain-and-suffering awards at $250,000 and had "a dramatic decline in lawsuits", but Texas still has some of the most expensive healthcare in the country. 29 other states have also done some sort of capping of malpractice awards, so it's not clear what else could be done in those states. Plus there are concerns that the Texas system makes it hard for people who have been legitimately harmed by real malpractice to get fair compensation for it.
A lot of points of view on tort reform, pro and con, are brought together in this Daily Dish post.
Too many meetings
I've been frustrated at work lately because it seems like I'm in meetings all day long and I don't have any time to write code.
They're not always "meetings". Sometimes they're interviews, or debriefings, or planning sessions, or brainstorming sessions, or I'm giving presentations, or moderating discussions, or answering people's questions, etc. etc. etc.
And it's not literally "all day"; I have chunks of time in between these things. But a half-hour chunk of time isn't very useful for writing code; it takes me that almost long just to get back into the groove, read the code, remember what I'm doing, etc. If someone then comes along and starts a conversation with me about design stuff, I lose my place and I have to get back into it.
It all means that I spend more of my work time talking to people about ideas than I do writing code. Talking to people about ideas is fun, and it's necessary to what we do, and it's productive, but that code still needs to get written somehow.
I used to solve this problem by working late. After 5:30pm or so I am usually left alone to write code, so I got some of my best work done in the evenings. But I'm married now, and I need to be home for dinner each night, so I can't just work as late as I want.
It's frustrating. I'm actually writing code at home this weekend, because there's code I need done by Tuesday which I didn't have time to write during the week. How did work become a place where I don't have time to work? That seems so wrong.
Is my job to generate ideas, with software as a by-product? Or is my job to generate usable software products, with ideas as a by-product?
As anybody who works in a creative field can tell you, ideas are cheap. We've all got way more ideas than we could possibly have time to work on in our lives. An idea helps nobody unless someone puts in that 99% perspiration to turn it into something usable.
I am working on a web-based music-composition app, one that requires no plugins to use, based on a further evolution of the demos I presented here and here. I gave a demo of it at Mozilla Labs Night tonight.
It's at evilbrainjono.net/music.
Sushu wrote up a tutorial for it which is better than I would have done. It's still missing a lot of features, the UI is pretty clunky, etc, but I'm excited about the possibilities.
Health care town hall meeting, IRL
My representative, Anna Eshoo of California district 14, is having a "town hall" meeting about health care next Wednesday night. I'm gonna go to it. My self-imposed homework assignment will be to have a list of intelligent questions ready for her by then.
I think there should be a Hikaru-no-Go-type anime about the lives and rivalries and passions, and rises and falls, of professional Korean Starcraft players. Think about it. It would be awesome.
Of the one-million-plus personal bankruptcies that happen in America per year, over 60% are directly due to medical bills.
That's a family having a medical bankruptcy every 90 seconds. It has gotten much worse between the last time such a study was done, in 2001, and when this study was done in 2007. Scariest is that 75% of these bankruptcies are from people who had health insurance. I repeat, they HAD HEALTH INSURANCE. It failed them when they needed it most.
From the article:
"Across the US, 25 per cent of employers cancel coverage as soon as an employee has a disabling illness while another 25 per cent cancel it within 12 months."
A common scenario leading up to bankruptcy is that insufficient medical care leads to people getting sicker, until they miss too much work, which leads to them losing their jobs, thereby losing their health insurance, becoming unable to afford care at all, ending up sick, broke, jobless, and homeless. It's a literal death spiral.
So you might hear "Only 15% of Americans are uninsured" and think "Hey, that doesn't sound too bad". But it's not just the 15% of us who don't have health insurance that we should be worried about, it's the other 85% of us too, for whom health insurance isn't doing what we paid for it to do.
Literally the only thing that health insurance companies contribute to society is risk mitigation. They're supposed to be a way to control costs. They're supposed to protect you from having to pay devastatingly high bills in the event of an accident or emergency. If they're not fulfilling that function, then why do they exist?
If you're like me, you read those Far Side cartoons with the animals sinking into the La Brea Tar Pits as a kid and have been wondering what the deal is ever since.
So a couple weekends ago, when me/Sushu/Jeremy road-tripped down to L.A. (about 6 hours each way) to see some friends, I was very excited to go see the tar pits in real life. Hollywood? Bah humbug! Disneyland? Who cares! What gets me excited is geological features that can kill you.
First exciting fact: "La Brea" is spanish for "The Tar". So all this time I've been calling them "The La Brea Tar Pits" I've been saying "The The Tar Tar Pits". Huh. The origin of the name is that the area used to be a ranch called "Rancho La Brea", the ranch of the tar. The ranch got sold off in pieces over the years but the part with the actual tar pits was donated to make a park, and now there is a science museum there.
Of course Los Angeles kept expanding and expanding until what used to be a ranch out in the countryside is now surrounded by city. That's right, the tar pits are smack-dab in the middle of a bustling metropolis.
Tar pits are a rare phenomenon that happens when there's an underground oil deposit, and by-products of chemical reactions create "asphaltum" (yes that's really what it's called) which seeps up to the surface. There are only four or five such places in the world.
Second exciting fact: the actual pits are ever-changing; within the general tar pit area, new tar pits can just appear randomly, because the asphaltum can pretty much seep out wherever it feels like seeping out. Exciting!
If a newly appearing tar pit is still small, they'll just stick a traffic cone nearby to warn you.
But for larger ones, like this one, or the one that seeped out in the parking lot, they'll build fences around them.
The biggest tar pit in modern times is in this pond here. So it's a mixture of subterranean tar and stagnant rainwater, with natural gas plumes bubbling to the surface here and there. Something these pictures do not capture: The whole place stinks with the smell of warm tar.
Well yeah I touched it. Wouldn't you?
Third exciting fact: When creautures died in the tar pits, it's not because the tar pits sucked them in like some kind of magic quicksand. It's more like flypaper: what happened is that animals stepped in the tar, their feet got stuck, they couldn't get away, and eventually they starved to death. Isn't that a cheery thought?
And once there was one dead animal stuck in the tar, predators would come over to eat it. And the predators would also get stuck in the tar and die. And then vultures would fly down to eat all those dead animals and the vultures would get stuck too. The whole gooey animal mass would then decay and the bones would eventually sink into the tar and get fossilized.
Unlike skeletons in other areas, which only rarely become fossils and only if the conditions are just right, pretty much every bone that sinks into the tar becomes a fossil. So all those gooey dead animal clumps became paleontological treasure troves. They dig up blocks of solidified tar and they are just packed with fossil bones.
No, there are NO DINOSAURS in the tar pits. They didn't form until the ice age period, millions of years after the dinosaurs died out. The animals that we find there are cenozoic mammals and birds: giant ground sloths, mammoths and mastodons, saber-toothed cats, dire wolves, etc.
There are signs all over the museum explaining the lack of dinos. I guess the people who work there got fed up with people asking to see dinosaurs and having to explain the facts over and over again.
Did you know saber-toothed cats could open their jaws to angles greater than 90 degrees? They had to, to be able to bite anything with those teeth.
The animal most commonly found fossilized in the tar pits is the dire wolf. Here is a display of four hundred dire wolf skulls.
Only one human skeleton, a prehistoric adult woman, has been found in the tar pit.
Natives of the area used the asphaltum as glue to attach spear heads to shafts and to repair broken pots and stuff.
There's not only fossilized bones, but also insects, pine cones, pollen, microorganisms, etc. etc. preserved from the ice age. Thanks to the tar pits we have a much more complete scientific picture of this epoch than of many others. The pits are an active research site, with scientists happily cleaning and sorting and cataloguing fossils.
Dungeons and Railroads
I did a one-shot D&D 4e game yesterday with a new group. It sucked. It was boring. Not because of the game system, because of the DM. He was a perfect example of the worst kind of railroader, who had obviously put a lot of work into his story and wasn't about to let us players screw it up by deviating from the script.
At around the three hour mark, I had to leave, to go make 饺子 dumplings with Sushu and Jinghua and friends. I found myself looking forward to my deadline because it gave me an excuse to leave gracefully and not have to tell people that their game sucked.
In the whole three hours, none of the players got to make one significant decision. We didn't even get to kill anything. We had prophetic dreams, we talked to our parents, we took wagons full of crops to the city, we hagglled over prices, we received ominous warnings, we went back to our villiage to find everybody dead or missing, we "investigated", we dutifully followed the trail of breadcrumbs to its preordained conclusion.
Attention all role-players: The word "Investigate" is a giant honking red flag. No matter how cool the GM thinks it's going to be when jotting it down in his notes, any scene which could be described as "The Party Investigates!" anything will be, in actual play, a tedious doldrum where one player plays guess-what-the-GM-is-thinking while the other four players tell jokes and build little towers out of their dice.
It was very obvious that the DM would not have allowed anything we might have tried to do to stop the orcs from killing our villiage's men and kidnapping our children. It was a pre-scripted event, like a video game cutscene. If that's what you want, why not just start the game there? "You return from your trip to the city market to find your villiage ransacked, some people dead, others missing. Tracks lead this way. Go!". Could have saved us two fscking hours of boring and pointless caravan-driving and marketplace haggling. I would think that if you advertise the game as a "one-shot" you would do everything in your power to get to the good stuff as quickly as possible, but apparently not.
When I left, they were just gearing up for the first combat. That's right, no fighting in three hours of D&D 4e, a game whose whole selling point is its team combat tactics. Before game day, I spent a lot of time making a character so I'd be ready to go quickly. Making a "character" in 4e is a matter of picking out combat powers, and basically nothing else, from an overwhelmingly large and confusing set of options. It's a lot of work! Sushu can attest that I spent a lot of time ranting at my computer about how fiddly all the choices are, how they make no sense as anything but board game mechanics. But I accepted that; I like board game mechanics; I was looking forward to playing out a fight using this bag of tricks I had picked out.
So when I didn't get to, I was like, what the hell was the point of going through that... that... math homework of a character creation system if I'm not going to use any of it?
I couldn't tell if the other players were as bored as I was. At least a couple of players seemed to be having fun acting out some kind of "cutesy anime comedy" tropes with their characters. More power to them, I guess, if they like that stuff.
One of my goals for the day was to find out whether this was a group I'd like to game with in the future. The other was to find out whether D&D 4e is something I'd be interested in playing more of. I can't answer that second question, because in three hours we did not engage the game mechanics except for a couple of perfunctory and uninteresting skill checks. But I can say for sure I'm not going to game with this group again.
Why is health care expensive, part 4
Insurance companies face almost no competition (PDF link).
According to that report, most states are effective monopolies or duo-opolies; regulations prevent companies from competing in other states, and mergers have reduced what was left (400 mergers between health insurance in the past 13 years). 94% of insurance markets are highly concentrated, meaning almost entirely dominated by one or two companies.
When people (or, to be more precise, their employers in most cases) don't have a choice of insurance company, there's nothing to stop insurance companies from raising premiums as high as they want and reducing coverage for anything that would cost too much.
This is why insurance premiums are increasing 4 times faster than wages. Premiums have gone up 87% over the last 6 years.
Is your insurance coverage 87% better than it was 6 years ago? Are you 87% healthier? Has the process of treating the sick somehow become 87% more expensive? I don't think so. I think insurance companies are taking more and more of our money, and keeping it, just becaus they can. Top health insurance companies are reporting amazingly
high profits even during the recession.
While the auto industry and the financial industry have been falling apart and needing to be bailed out by the government, while unemployment has gone up to 9.5%, the top three insurers averaged profits of $2.4 billion each for 2008.
I'm not going to say that we should decide how much profits a company is allowed to make, or say that a company is evil just because it's making a lot of profits, but I will say this: high profits are a sign of low competition. If there was an efficient, competitive market, then more companies would be operating on lower profits and passing the savings back to the customer in order to stay competitive. That's obviously not happening.
If we want to increase competition, and I think we do, one way is to loosen the regulations that prevent companies from competing in other states. Another way is to establish an alternative insurance organization to compete with for-profit insurance companies. This could be the public option, or some kind of user-owned 'co-op' insurance companies as has recently been proposed. If such an alternative didn't have to worry about pleasing shareholders or buying yachts for their CEOs, maybe they can give consumers a better deal, and put some competitive pressure downward on private insurance companies.
Remember, when you hear talk about a public option, that the point is to increase competition. Some people are freaking out about 'socialism' but increasing competition to drive prices down is really the most capitalistic type of reform imaginable. Also remember that the public option is just one means to an end, not the end itself. Competition is the real goal.
The view from your sickbed
A lot of fascinating medical bill / insurance horror stories are collected at Andrew Sullivan's "The View From Your Sickbed" series.
Of course anecdotal evidence by itself isn't something to base policy on. And the individual stories point in all different directions and have competing suggestions for what exactly needs to be changed. But in gestalt they underscore the desperate need for some kind of reform.
A mandate is a law that everyone must have health insurance (if they don't, they'll face some kind of penalty.) Like right now we have mandated insurance for cars (you can't drive without insurance), but not for people.
During the election, Obama said repeatedly that there was no mandate in his health-care plan; he would impose no penalty on people who don't get insurance. (Remember the face that John McCain made when Obama said during one of the debates that the penalty would be zero? It was amusing.)
A thing we tend to forget during presidential elections is that presidents don't write legislation. Congress does. So it's meaningless to talk about "Obama's health-care plan". Even if he'd rather not have a mandate, Congress might pass one anyway. Most of the chatter has been about stuff like the public option, but even if there's no public option in the final bill there could very well be a mandate. It would be a huge change, so I want to understand what it would mean.
So, what's the deal? Why is a mandate something that we would want to pass? I mean, there are a lot of people who can't afford health insurance, right? If you legally punish them for not buying it, that's not magically going to make them able to afford it. You're just punishing them even further for being poor. So what's going on here?
The first thing to understand is the risk pool, and who's not in it.
Among the 45 million Americans who don't have health insurance, there are two groups of people. There's people who choose not to buy it because they are healthy enough that they don't think they need it and/or rich enough to pay out of pocket for anything that goes wrong. The insurance companies would love to have more of these rich, healthy people on board because they make the risk pool less risky, but the people aren't interested.
The other group is people who are poor and/or sickly enough that the insurance company either won't cover them, or that the price it sets for them is more than they can afford to pay. These people would love to be on insurance, and those who see universal coverage as a moral obligation would love to get these people onto insurance. But the insurance companies don't want these people on board because they make the risk pool more risky.
If you believe we have a moral obligation to get universal coverage for the poorest and most sickly, then how do we do that without overwhelming the risk pool? The obvious way is to add the poorest and sickest to the risk pool along with the richest and healthiest, who would balance them out. But we alread know these are people who don't want to join. You would have to force them to. Thus, a mandate.
The other thing to think about is "No more discriminating by pre-existing conditions", i.e. insurance companies can't charge you more or refuse you coverage because you've already got something wrong with you.
"No more discriminating by pre-existing conditions" sounds great, especially if you're one of the poorest/sickest people. But if we passed a non-discrimination law, and did nothing else, think what would happen. You could wait until you get sick and then buy insurance to cover your problem. In fact, there would be no reason to do anything else. Nobody would buy insurance until *after* they got sick. And at that point it's not insurance anymore. Every user of the system would be pulling more out of the system than they were putting into it. The system would collapse.
But if you have non-discrimination law AND you have mandates, then maybe it would work. You can't game the system and buy your insurance after the fact, because you're mandated to have insurance first. The non-discrimination law would make insurance affordable to the sickest people, who would then be able to obey the mandate.
So a mandate by itself would be bad, and non-discrimination by itself would be bad, but together each one could prevents the worst problems of the other, and together they make up something like universal coverage. Next time you hear people talk about mandates, or about not discriminating by pre-existing conditions, remember that neither one makes sense by itself, but they might make sense together.
That's the theory, anyway. Would it work in practice? Is it the right thing to do? Is it even constiutional? I don't know.
Some good introductory/background reading for the health care debate
Remember that there's two subjects here. There's the policy issues of how the health care system could be better, and then there's the political issues of how to accomplish that. For the time being, I'm mostly focusing on learning about the policy issues, because I can't really decide where I stand on the politics until I understand how the system works. I've been reading pretty voraciously in an attempt to educate myself.
Here is a "back of the napkin" slideshow explaining the issues involved. It has cute doodles.
The Washington Post has a slideshow primer with voiceover and animation.
The Economist also has an introduction to the topic here. It points out that the U.S.A. spends 16%, or one sixth of our GDP on health care. We have by far the most expensive health care system in the world. Yet in terms of quality we rank thirty-seventh in the world, so what gives?
They also have a follow-up article about the political process of reform, called This Is Going To Hurt. Shockingly for a magazine that's generally quite free-market-uber-alles-rah-rah-rah, the Economist actually likes single-payer best out of all the options.
Why is health care expensive, part 3
Atul Gawande ("He's ranked higher than me on Google" complains my friend Atul Varma) is a doctor who also writes articles about the state of the medical industry.
He recently attempted to get to the bottom of why health care costs so much. He did some investigative reporting into two towns in Texas - McAllen and El Paso. They have the same population, same demographics, same level of medical technology, and one is not noticeably sicker or healthier than the other. But one spends twice as much on health care. Why?
Here's the article. It's definitely worth a read.
Dr. Gawande's conclusion: the main factor to blame is a cultural shift in the doctors themselves. Since the 1990s it has become more and more culturally acceptable among doctors in McAllen to assign treatments on the basis of how much the doctor will earn by doing them. El Paso hasn't had a similar change in attitudes.
Blaming the doctors themselves? Controversial! But you should read the article and see what you think of the evidence Gawande presents.
Gawande contrasts the McAllen situation against the Mayo Clinic, which is known as one of the highest-quality hospitals in the country as well as one of the most affordable. At the Mayo Clinic doctors are paid flat salaries, instead of charging fees per procedure. That means they do not have any incentive to pick more expensive treatments just for the sake of charging more. Maybe that puts them in a better position to find the best balance of price and effectiveness when choosing treatments.
Could moving from fee-for-service to doctors-on-salaries be another part of a long-term strategy to control costs?
I found out via Stephen Colbert last night that one of my senators, Barbara Boxer, writes political thrillers. She just published a sequel called Blind Trust in which a thinly-veiled version of herself, "Ellen Fisher", goes up against a thinly-veiled version of Dick Cheney.
Blind Trust has two stars on Amazon.
Boxer insisted to Colbert that Ellen Fisher is not herself but rather "her ideal". Great, so she's a Mary Sue.
I'm represented by somebody who spends her time writing crappy self-insertion fanfics about the Senate.
I... I just don't know what to say.
"Do you want your insurance provided by the DMV?"
An argument I've heard deployed against government involvement in health care is "Do you really want your insurance provided by the same people who run the DMV??".
The last couple of times I've gone to the DMV I've made an appointment (yes, you can do that), so my wait time was under half an hour. Service was always cheap. Although their rules don't make sense, at least they are clearly explained. The worst DMV experience I've had was a result of an employee not understanding the rules, and was solved by going to a branch in a different town. So while I don't exactly look forward to visiting the DMV, I don't dread it either.
In contrast, I've been trying for the past, like, six months to get my insurance company to add Sushu to my policy and I'm still getting the bureaucratic runaround. This is something that I have been told is within my rights, but I keep meeting procedural obstacles. I blame ClearBenefits, which is some kind of middleman organization between my employer and the insurance companies, which runs a very confusing website.
So no, I'm not convinced that government bureaucracy is inherently worse than corporate bureaucracy. I certainly don't think that replacing one with the other would automatically be some kind of terrifying nightmare.
Sushu calls it 'blomiting' when I make more than four blog posts in a row on the same day.
Expect some blomiting about health care policy later today.
Websurfing in bed
If you install a wireless network in your house, and you own a laptop, be very careful. The combination of wireless internet plus laptop is dangerous because it allows you to websurf in bed. This is just about the most useless of all possible activities, but so easy and comfortable that it is hard to stop. Several times over the past few days I've been trapped by my own laziness and wasted several hours websurfing in bed that I really would have preferred to spend doing something useful.
Let this post be a warning to you all! From now on, I will keep my laptop plugged in in the living room when I'm at home, just to make it harder to do the bed thing.
The Great Wall post
We took the obligatory trip up to the Great Wall on Friday, by train.
I had been working at the Mozilla China office all week, but Friday midday I said my farewells to them and met Sushu at the KFC near Beijing North train station. Or, well, I tried to meet her there. The layout of the subway / train station junction / food court area was really, really confusing, and the instructions I had for how to get to the KFC didn't work because a lot of the area was under construction. I spent a lot of time wandering around in a growing panic.
Just as I was about to give up, I finally found Sushu, then gobbled down a quick chao mien lunch (note: chao mien is pretty much the exact same thing as yakisoba) and got to the train station just in time... only to find out that they stop letting people on five minutes before the time the train leaves, so we actually just missed it.
Well, we decided to wait for the next train, so we hung around the train station studying Chinese and talking to a slightly creepy dude who wanted to practice his English on me and was coming on just a little too strong about it. Meanwhile Sushu had come down with the sniffles.
The train car smelled funny, but we had it nearly all to ourselves, and the view outside the window was gorgeous:
We went to the Badaling area, which is one of several touristy places where you can go see the Great Wall. It's only about an hour by train north of Beijing. About halfway there the mountains start getting really pretty. There are bits and pieces of various walls visible on many of the mountain ridges. The Great Wall is not a single straight line; it has lots of spurs and branches and offshots and additions built at various times.
Can you spot the wall segment in the above picture?
In the touristy areas, the wall is kept in good repair, but as you move away from those areas there are large stretches of both the main wall and the outliers which have fallen into ruin, or been pilfered for building stones by the local people.
Because we took a later train than we planned, we only had about 40 minutes between the time we got there and the time we had to get on the train back to Beijing. And it takes 15 minutes to walk from the Badaling train station to the actual wall. Oops!
So Sushu, who has seen the wall before, decided to stay at the train station and wait for me, while I ran ahead on the uphill road to the wall, spent about ten minutes there snapping photos, and then ran back.
The bus stop / parking lot of the Great Wall. This is the part nobody takes pictures of; they all angle their cameras to create the false impression that the Wall stands on pristine mountainsides miles away from anything. Which is true about some parts of the wall, of course, but those aren't the parts that people visit.
The ticket office of the Great Wall at Badaling.
If you've ever looked at those famous pictures of people walking around on top of the wall and wondered how they got up there, here's the answer. Of course I assume all the staircases are only on the south side of the wall; it would defeat the purpose to have them on the north side, where the barbarians are.
Behold! The Wall in all its glory. Despite all my sarcastic comments, it is actually pretty awesome.
In Chinese it's called the 万里长城, Wanli-changcheng, the "10,000 Li Long Wall" (where a Li is an old-fashioned measure of length.)
Look closely at the image above: notice how the crenelations/battlements are only one one side? That's the north side, where the barbarians are.
The wall hugs the tops of the ridges, to give the defenders a better view and to make it harder to attack. As you can see, it's not very high, it's just... incredibly long. According to Wikipedia it goes from the fortress of Shanhaiguan, which guards the First Pass Under Heaven on the Pacific coast, all the way to the fringes of the Taklamakan desert, where its western end has long since disappeared into the sand.
Every few hundred feet is a small square tower, which were used as barracks, for weapon storage, etc. Here's the view out from the window of one of the towers.
Some parts of the wall are quite steep, since it follows the underlying hillsides. This part was like 45 degrees. My legs were pretty sore the next day after running up and down this part.
This picture also shows another little-noted aspect of the wall, which is the people who have to clean up the trash from the tourists.
There are these signs all over telling people not to make graffiti...
They are ineffective.
Speaking of graffiti, unfortunately someone decided to deface the hillside right next to the wall with this ugly and instantly dated 2008 Olympics sign.
The Starbucks of the Great Wall!
The KFC of the Great Wall!
On my way back to the train, a woman approached me and tried to sell me a book of postcards. I did want some postcards to send to Aleksa, but the woman wanted 15 yuan so I said 不用 (buyong, "don't need") and went to walk away. She blurted out 十块! (10 yuan) so then I was like "aha, now you're talking" and bought it. She also tried to sell me some hats but I didn't want any.
As I was jogging back to the train I realized, hey! I just haggled for the first time ever! And I saved a whole... five sevenths of a dollar!
How effective was the Great Wall as an actual defensive strategy? Let's look at the history.
Several chunks were built during the Warring States period, and then the first complete wall was connected and unified under the Qin dynasty, at a location rather further north than the current wall. (Really cool map.) Then it was improved and extended by the Han dynasty, all to keep out the northern barbarians. Much later, the Yuan dynasty let the wall fall apart, because they were like, "Keep out the northern barbarians? Um, we ARE the northern barbarians."
Then the Ming dynasty rebuilt it in its current location, in a much sturdier form, to once again keep out the northern barbarians (this time the Manchus). At its peak the Ming dynasty manned the wall with one million men. It worked for quite a long time, and the Manchus couldn't break through, until 1644 when Wu Sangui, the general in charge of guarding Shanhaiguan, got fed up because the emperor had stolen his favorite concubine, and opened the gates to get revenge. Seriously. There may also have been some bribery and murders involved.
Anyway the Qing dynasty once again let the wall fall into disrepair, because "Keep out the northern barbarians? Um, we ARE the northern barbarians." Chinese history, it moves in cycles.
So, how effective was the Great Wall? Effective enough that many successive dynasties kept reviving the idea and rebuilding the wall. Not effective enough to prevent the northern barbarians from taking over China several times. Effective only as long as it was manned, with a million men, and only as long as the guy in charge of the gates is satisfied with his concubines.
Oh, and no, the Great Wall is not visible from space.
Separation of Church and State
In talking to people about marriage equality, it's helpful to refer to the facts about Catholicism and divorce. Specifically, Catholicism holds that marriage is forever and cannot be dissolved in any way (except by annulment, which requires proving that the marriage was invalid in the first place).
But American Catholics live in a legal system that recognizes and grants divorce. They are able to hold their own religious views even in a wider society that is more permissive. Just because divorce is against the beliefs of one particular religion doesn't mean it needs to be illegal for everyone; just because divorce is legal doesn't mean that Catholics are forced to do it.
Catholics are free to not get divorced, to not recognize divorce, and to believe that marriages are forever. Meanwhile the rest of us are free to get legally divorced. That's how we all manage to live together in a pluralistic society. This is instructive as a model for how same-sex marriage ought to work: the law of the land should make the legal benefits of marriage open to everyone, without discriminating based on sexual orientation; meanwhile religious groups can choose to follow their own moral standard for defining marriage, which may be more restrictive than what the law allows.
This is why, when it comes time to draft the California constitutional amendment to overturn prop. 8, I think that we ought to include language in it that says something like...
"No religious organization shall be required to perform or recognize same-sex marriages if doing so would go against their beliefs."
It's good politics, and it's the right thing to do. (A rare combination.) It's good politics because, by reassuring people that the government is not about to start forcing their church to marry same-sex couples, we may get a couple more percentage points of "yes" votes from people who were on the fence about it. It's the right thing to do because we really don't want the government to force anybody's church to do anything against their beliefs! Not that I think that would happen in any case, but it can't hurt to be explicit about it.
Separation of church and state is a wall that protects both sides. It protects civil society from being legally controlled by the beliefs of a particular religious group, and it also protects particular religious groups from having the beliefs of civil society forced upon them.
Miscellaneous Beijing Hijinks
Beijing can be very foggy/smoggy on some days. This was in the middle of the day; the buildings you can barely see are only a few blocks away.
On Wednesday there was a solar eclipse. In Shanghai, it was a total eclipse, the longest one of this century, and it was completely dark in the middle of the day. People had to drive with their headlights on and stuff. In Beijing it was only a partial eclipse; but the cloud cover was so heavy that we couldn't see a darn thing except that the light through the clouds got even dimmer for a couple minutes. I'm sad I didn't get a good view of the eclipse.
Here is a brilliant Chinese invention: The universal electrical socket. It fits all plug shapes: Chinese, American/Japanese, European, British/Australian. Which is a great thing for those of us carrying foreign electronics. I wonder why we don't have these everywhere yet?
OK, sign, I'll be sure to watch out for landslides in my shower.
The Chinese actually says "be careful of slippery ground", but somehow ground became land and slippery became slide and the translation ended up as "landslide".
Notice what's missing? Look carefully...
Chinese buildings don't have a 4th floor. They have the same "4 = death" meme as Japan does, it seems. (Taller buildings skip 13 as well as 4.)
Thursday night in Beijing we went to a tea-house which put on a sort of variety show for us: short sketches based on traditional art forms, dumbed down for a modern tourist audience that doesn't have the attention span to sit through five hours of Beijing opera.
Above, three women play some light music in the lobby for those of us waiting in line. The one on the left is playing percussion by hitting a set of tuned tea-bowls with chopsticks, which I think is awesome (but Sushu tells me I'm still not allowd to do it at the dinner table.)
My favorite was the shadow-puppet segment, which had the audience laughing without using any words at all. It would not have been out-of-place on The Muppet Show.
In another segment, five people dressed in the Olympics colors (also representing the five colors of Chinese tea, supposedly...) did some very elaborate dancefight choreography to pour tea out of long-spouted teapots into tiny cups that were being passed around and balanced on people's heads, etc. It was Martial Arts Tea Pouring and it totally belonged in an episode of Ranma 1/2.
The thousand-armed Kuan Yin, Buddhist goddess of mercy (known as Kannon in Japan), on display at the tea house.
A baby duck, contained in a makeshift pen, is just the kind of thing that you see on the sidewalk in China. Why not?
This guy is probably destined to end up as...
The famous "Peking Duck", which locals just call "Beijing Duck".
Why did we used to call Beijing Peking? I'm still not clear on that, because from what I've heard the Chinese haven't called the city anything with a hard 'k' sound in it for hundreds of years. I've heard that "Peking" actually comes from the same characters as "Beijing" but rendered in an alternate Romanization system that used to be used by the postal service. It's complicated. (Somebody please correct me if I'm wrong here.)
Anyway, Beijing duck is real good. The way you eat it is to take duck pieces and wrap them up in thin rice pancakes with green onions and hoisin sauce to make yummy little burritos.
One more duck-related picture...
You can buy a whole roast duck meal in a vacuum-sealed bag off the shelf at the convenience store, inside the train station. Once again, China blows my mind.
OMG OMG I went to an outdoor concert in San Francisco today and Tsushimamire was there and afterwards I got their autograph and I talked to them in Japanese and they're totally cool and I'm all squeee-ing like a fanboy.
This was part of a free outdoor concert in San Francisco's Japan Town today that was put on to promote the
opening of some kind of crazy Japanese-pop-culture emporium/mall thing called New People. I don't really care about New People but I regretted missing Tsushimamire when they played at ACEN in 2006 or 2007 and I've been wanting another chance ever since.
This was my first time driving in San Francisco. It is a scary driving nightmare, with insanely steep hills, narrow roads, unexpected one-way streets and no-turning signs, weird lane merges at strange angles, buses and taxis making sudden stops, parked cars blocking the road, other cars suddenly veering into the opposite lane to get around the parked cars blocking the road, etc. I brought Aaron and Dave from my former gaming group with me, partly because I wanted to introduce them to some other role-players who I knew would be there (but that's a story for another time). I think I scared them pretty bad with my inexpert driving but I did get them all back in one piece.
Besides Tsushimamire, the concert also included sets by bands Noodle and Red Bacteria Vacuum who I hadn't heard before. All of the bands that played are all-girl Japanese punk bands from the Benten label, which specializes in promoting female indie acts. I discovered Benten Records by accident in 2004 when I was searching for reference pics of its namesake, Benten the Shinto goddess of music (one of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune). Thank you internet!
I really like the Japanese girly punk rock scene. It's a lot of wild, noisy chaos and craziness and general rebellion against the idea that women must always be demure and polite. It's like the polar opposite of the Idol factory scene. If Yuki Hoshigawa had a soundtrack, Benten-style punk music would feature prominently.
Tsushimamire is three women named Mari, Mizue, and Yayoi. This year is their 10th anniversary as a group. They can basically be described as punk rock but they stretch out into a lot of different musical directions, some of them rather more artsy and musically ambitious than what you would usually call "punk". Their lyrics are total insanity about plum seeds and manholes and brain shortcake. You can listen to samples on their MySpace page or on Songza.
Today, Mari was clearly pushing the limits of her English ability talking to the audience and explaining what songs were about. "Sometimes when we play songs in clubs in America the microphones stink like pizza and hamburgers and beer and vodka and Jack Daniels. So we wrote a song about stinky microphones! Sorry for my bad English! Please enjoy our song!" I know what it's like to try to use a second language to talk to a crowd: it takes some guts. The crowd was eating it up, though. The beats were compelling and the energy was infectious. Yayoi did a bunch of high-kicks while playing the bass; Mari jumped up on top of some speakers and rocked out on the guitar. A couple girls in front of me were standing up in their seats and dancing along, so I joined in. Off to the right a mini-mosh-pit was threatening to form. Good times!
They played 脳みそ Shortcake, 良いテンポです, their Powerpuff Girls theme song, 梅うまい, Time Lag, Mike Smell (sniff sniff), エアコンレモコン, one or two more that I forgot, and did an encore of お茶ッスカ. When they were getting ready to do an encore I yelled out "PLAY MANHOLE!" but they did not play "Manhole". Sad. They did say that they would play Manhole tomorrow night when they give a show at Yoshi's. Hmmm, can I handle two concerts in one weekend...?
After the concert ended I went to the booth selling CDs and T-shirts, but the crowd was too big to be worth fighting so I hung around with some friends at the manga cafe on the bridge. I went back to the CD booth about an hour later and found Tsushimamire signing autographs! "私のもサインしてくださいますか?" They were really friendly and I got to talk to them in Japanese a whole bunch while they were passing around my new copy of "あ、海だ". I found out that they played a show together with Shonen Knife last week (sweet!), and told them about accidentally discovering Benten and about missing the ACEN concert, and I asked Yayoi about her name and found out that yes, that is her real name not a stage name, and yes it is the same as the name of the Yayoi period of Japanese history. And guess what else? YAYOI IS FROM IWATE-KEN. Iwate REPRESENT YO!!!
I also talked to Red Bacteria Vacuum (who get points for having the best band name) bought their CD and expressed regret for missing their set due to the difficulty of finding parking in San Francisco. Both the bands were selling their own merchandise (they did not have roadies) and they had a jar on the table for gas money. Geez! I guess they really are indie: starving artists and all that. Playing the concert for free was probably not their ideal scenario. Anyway I am happy to support them directly.
Now I'm totally sunburned all over my face from sitting in direct sunlight during the concert. Oh well; totally worth it!
Sushu surprised me by bringing home one of the Track Packs for Rock Band the other day. (She's reeeeally into Rock Band!) It was the Country Music track pack, so along with Joanne (Sushu's visiting best-friend-from-college) we rocked out to songs like "Gunpowder and Lead" and "The Gambler" and "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy".
Which stretches the definition of a game called "Rock" band... or does it?
After all, even the core Rock Band 2 game has songs like "Ramblin' Man" by the Allman Brothers, which is... well, what is it? Listen to it and it makes a mockery of genre lables; it's just a great song. "Southern Rock", says the genre tag, unhelpfully.
What is the difference between rock and country, anyway? Both are based on drums/bass/guitar, they both evolved out of blues, they both use similar rhythms and scales and melodic concepts and the same verse-chorus structure. I don't notice any difference when playing the drums. The "country" songs seem to on average have more "square" 4/4 drum patterns and faster tempos compared to the "rock" songs, but given a fast 4/4 drum pattern without the song title I'd have a hard time guessing whether it came from country or from punk rock.
So whatever the difference between rock and country is, it's not in the fundamentals of the music. It seems to have more to do with the singer's accent and whether they're wearing cowboy hats on the album cover. I daresay it's a cultural distinction, not a musical distinction. Rock lyrics are mostly about establishing your identity as a youthful rebel; country lyrics are about establishing your identity as put-upon rural folk.
I think a lot of so-called musical genre labels are really just cultural labels: they don't describe music, they describe the subculture of the people who listen to or perform the music. Not all genres are like this: jazz, for instance, refers to a concrete and identifiable musical thing even without its cultural markers. There's worlds of difference between jazz and rock/pop/country; it even takes different skills to play it.
2010 or 2012?
At some point we're going to have another proposition on the California ballot to overturn Prop 8. and make same-sex marriage legal again.
(I mean seriously, people, we're California. We're not going to let Iowa get away with being more gay-friendly than California, are we?)
The question, for marriage equality supporters, is: do we do it in 2010 or wait for 2012? Are the chances better when there is a presidential election going on at the same time, or when there isn't? Should we keep trying every two years until we get it, or do failed attempts hurt our overall chances for later, in which case we should put everything into one attempt when it's most likely to work?
A few weeks ago I found an interesting, if depressing, article advocating 2012 over 2010. It predicts that we would lose in 2010 by a greater margin than the margin that passed Prop 8. last year. One reason is that in presidential election years "...turnout is higher and when more mainstream, less ideologically committed, voters dominate". It also makes the argument that failed attempts burn donor money and that the longer we wait the more likely we are to win.
Today I got an email from Equality California (EQCA), an organization whose mailing list I seem to have gotten onto after donating money to "No on 8" last year. The email, contents duplicated in this blog post, described how they've been listening to the community make its arguments for and against 2010 or 2012, and has finally made the decision to throw its weight into 2012, for basically the same reasons as the first article. (The blog post attracted comments illustrating the whole range of positions and arguments. Some of them are pretty nasty.)
However, another organization, the Courage Campaign, has decided to go with 2010. So most likely there will be something happening in 2010, and then if that fails, again in 2012. (That would be the Harvey Milk method: keep running over and over again until you finally win.)
I want to do something to help, but with limited time to volunteer for causes, I want to do something when it's most likely to make a difference. What should I do?
I guess the answer is "work to change people's minds", since that will have an affect no matter what year the vote is in. The facts are that same-sex marriage is no threat to my marriage; it has zero effect on any straight person's marriage. It costs nothing. Given that, there's no logical or ethical reason to deny people the right to marry who they want. Live and let live: seems like a common-sense principle to me. But how do we get people in Orange County and the Central Valley to see it that way?
Another comic I read while I was sick recently was The Tick: the Complete Edlund, which collects the first 13 issues of The Tick comic book. (The only ones by original creator Ben Edlund.)
I was a huge fan of the cartoon (my friends will note that I quote it incessantly), so it's a very illuminating experience to finally read the entire too-brief run of comics that started the whole thing.
A few scenes are almost word-for-word identical, like when the Tick is trying to find the non-existent secret lever that will turn Arthur's apartment into a high-tech crimefighting base.
Other wonderful bits of surrealism and whimsy never made it beyond the comic — like the one where the Tick reads a book about ninjas and exclaims "I never knew ninjas could do all these things! I thought they just hung around airports and got sucked into jet engines!" or the whole subplot about a meteor carrying an entire planet's worth of tiny people named Anne and Ricardo who came to warn us about Canada — I'm sad to see that one never got followed up.
Minor characterization differences: Comic Arthur is a lot less neurotic and more adventuresome than Cartoon Arthur. The Tick is definitely an insane asylum escapee.
But all that aside, it's the same inimitable Tick sense of humor, just in a less-polished, embryonic form. If you look closely and squint you can even spot hints of the brilliant sense of humor of the Venture Brothers — a show made by many of the same people who worked on the Tick cartoon. Ben Edlund even wrote the VB episode "Viva los Muertos". So this comic is in some way a spiritual ancestor of Venture Brothers.
Which is not to say that the comic is good, per se. The early issues actually suck, a lot, both in writing and artwork. There's a lame Superman parody character who fights the Tick for no real reason, and issues 3 through 5 are taken up with a really hokey ninja storyline. (This was the late 80s/early 90s. Remember those days? Everything was about ninjas. The idea of spoofing ninjas was still novel.)
But you know what's cool? In the course of going from the sucky issue 1 to the quite good issue 13, the quality increases dramatically. You can sense the writing and the artwork getting better and better with each page. And the whole thing is such a weird, individual vision and such an obvious labor of love that one can almost forgive the initial suckiness. In fact, I find it rather inspiring: that something starting out this bad could evolve into something so good gives me hope for my own comicking aspirations.
Yuan Ming Yuan
Guess what? I'm still not done blogging about China.
Our first Sunday in Beijing we went to an enormous park complex called Yuan Ming Yuan.
It used to be the imperial guardens in the Ming and Qing dynasties, and in that time it was
one of the Wonders of the World.
Then it got blown up by European colonialist forces in the 1860s. And then again in the 1890s.
Attention European colonialist forces: you guys suck!
At least the ruins are cool?
These are the things you're not allowed to do in Yuan Ming Yuan. (The one in the middle right
is "no setting off firecrackers".)
There was a festival going on in some parts of the park, with cheap food carts, stalls selling
all kinds of cheap stuff, etc.
Sushu and the ideal Confucian scholar.
Look, a black swan! I have never seen a black swan before so I assumed all swans were white!
Such a swan is completely outside the realm of my experience and has up-ended my world-view,
like unto a once-in-a-lifetime event whose probability is impossible to predict but which will
shape the future of my business. Now I must pad this insight out to book-length by including lots of
semi-related anecdotes about stuff IBM did in the 60s and then release it as a strategy guide
for management consultants. I shall call it
The Wisdom of Crowds
The Tipping Point Crossing the Chasm
The Black Swan.
We rode boats across a lotus-covered lake. While we were waiting on the pier for our turn, one of
the boatmen reached out and stroked my arm hair, and then gave me an enthusiastic thumbs-up
about it. My personal space. It is violated.
I bought this fan, which is decorated with pictures of Ten Famous Communist Army Generals and
praise for their accomplishments.
They had a building with this huge scale model, a reconstruction of what they think Yuan Ming
Yuan looked like in the days of its full glory. The table is easily 10 meters to a side. How
would you like to use that for wargaming terrain, huh? (It sounds awesome till you think about
how you would move the pieces in the middle).
I should emphasize that Yuan Ming Yuan is huge. There are really three enormous garden
complexes touching each other, any one of which would take days to fully explore.
We got pretty lost, in fact, trying to find our way out. There were maps here and there, but
they were confusing maps and trying to follow them just made us more lost. We finally got out
by asking a lot of people for directions. We ended up walking much more than we wanted to,
so Sushu's foot was hurting really bad again by the time we were done.
The practicalities of changing a name
I'm in the process of legally changing my name to Jonathan Silinis Xia. California has a wonderfully egalitarian system where either partner can change their name as part of the wedding paperwork, so I did that. Changing my first name would require a lot of extra work beyond that, so I'm leaving it alone for now (everybody calls me Jono anyway).
I did the DMV paperwork to get a license in the new name, and yesterday me and Sushu opened up a joint bank account, with my new name on it. My new social security card came in the mail. After that I just need to get a new passport, and change the name on my apartment lease and utility bills.
I thought a name change would be something that happens all at once, but in fact it's an ongoing transition: there are some organizations that currently know me under one name and other organizations that know me by another name. Right now I have ID for both names so I can be either "Jonathan DiCarlo" or "Jonathan Silinis Xia" as the situation demands. My new bank account has an "AKA Jonathan DiCarlo" on it just in case somebody writes me a check by the old name.
Why is health care expensive, part 2
There are a lot of money-wasting inefficiencies in the system. (CNN article, worth a read.) According to this one of the biggest, and most perverse, is the widespread practice of doctors ordering tests that they know patients won't need, either because they are afraid of malpractice suits (you can get sued for failing to do a test, but not sued for doing too many tests, apparently) or because the doctors are milking the insurance companies for money.
It seems like a big opportunity to get costs down, if we can figure out how to put a stop to needless tests.
The 1990 Toyota Camry Caper
So my friend Cat has been having a really bad time of things lately. Not only did she have to move back in with her family in Indiana because she couldn't find a job out here, but right before she was set to drive across the country, her car got stolen. Talk about adding insult to injury.
Cat is a really good person and doesn't deserve all this crap to be happening to her. Cat, if you're reading this, I give you internet-hugs!
After she moved, the police actually recovered her car from the thieves (now that it's too late to do her any good). It wound up in a towing lot in San Jose. Cat asked if I could go pick it up for her.
First I called them a bunch of times and got the paperwork figured out. They told me that I could come and pick the car up anytime. (This was a filthy lie.)
Sushu drove me down 8pm after work on Thursday. I was not able to pick up the car, because while there were mechanics working in the lot, the office was not open, so they didn't have any of the needed paperwork. Bah.
I took a long lunchbreak the next day and had Sushu drive me down again. But when we got there, I realized that like a total idiot, I had forgotten to bring the keys. So we had to drive back up to Mountain View and back down to San Jose again. (It's about 20 minutes each way.) Sushu, I'm sorry I made you take so many extra trips.
Finally I was there with the keys, when the office was open, so I got them to release the car (a silver 1990 Toyota Camry) to me. They charged me over $500 for towing fees and storage fees. (This for a car which was worth less than $1,000 when Cat bought it in the first place.)
Then I checked out the condition of the car (dirty, beat-up, but nothing major missing) and got ready to drive it home... but it wouldn't start. No lights, no sign of life, nothing.
We got the guys from the tow lot to give it a jumpstart, and then it worked. Then I drove the Camry back to Mountain View while Sushu drove her Prius back. The Camry has a weird side-to-side wobble that it does at highway speeds but otherwise drives O.K.
I parked it and went back to work, having now missed several hours. When work was done, I tried to start it again, and again it wouldn't start, although the lights were on this time. So the battery wasn't charged all the way, despite having driven it around for what should have been long enough to charge it up? Hmmm. I biked home, got some jumper cables that Sushu borrowed from her parents, met up with Jeremy, and got him to come to the garage and give it its second jump-start of the day.
Figuring that it needed the battery replaced, I drove it to WalMart, which sells car batteries and advertises free installation with purchase. This is another filthy lie, it turns out; even though the website, the sign on the shelf, and a label on the battery itself all say "free installation", when I asked three different WalMart employees about said installation:
- The first one just said "No, we don't do that".
- The second one didn't speak English well enough to understand the question.
- The third one said "Maybe we do that, but I don't know who you'd talk to."
So I carted the new battery out to the parking lot and we popped the hood to see what we could figure out. This very butch lady with a tank top and tattoos, who was standing around in the parking lot, saw what we were doing and came over to take a look. She knew her cars pretty well and, hearing my description of the symptoms, told me it was just as likely to be the alternator that was busted, so I ought to take it to a shop and have it looked at instead of replacing random things.
While we were talking, another person who was standing around in the parking lot, this one a large man in overalls and baseball cap, heard us and also came over to check on what was going on. He turned out to be an off-duty pro auto mechanic (not associated with WalMart in any way) and he pulled his car around to give us our third jumpstart of the day. Or rather, he started hooking up the jumper cables, then noticed that one of the wires on the battery was loose, and tightened it up, and told us to try starting the car... and it started. He told us about cleaning the battery contacts with baking soda so that the wires can make a better connection.
So the lesson is: WalMart staff are entirely unhelpful, but the random people standing around in the WalMart parking lot make up for it! Woo! Thanks random people!
The silver 1990 Toyota Camry is now in my spare parking space at my apartment. It's maybe drivable, if I get it registered to my name and buy insurance for it, and I occasionally do have reason to want to drive somewhere without Sushu (usually for gaming purposes) so think I am going to buy it off of Cat and hang onto it for the time being.
Fictional cause and effect
I just had a thought about how fiction works.
It's like this: Every event in a work of fiction happens for two reasons. There's the real reason, and the imaginary reason.
The real reason is "Because the author decided it needed to go there, usually in order to set up something that happens later." E.g. the author decides that Dr. Doom accidentally leaves a clue at the scene of the crime so that the Fantastic Four will have a way to track him to his secret base so that the issue can end with a big fight scene.
The imaginary reason is the reason according to in-fictional-universe cause-and-effect. The Fantastic Four find a clue at the scene of the crime pointing to Dr. Doom, therefore they follow it to his secret base.
If you look at the imaginary reasons for things, causes precede effects, the same way we're used to it working in real life. But if you look at the real reasons, the causes are later in the story than their effects. Causality works backwards! Imagine fiction as having two arrows of time, pointing in opposite directions.
What does this mean for the aspiring author? To make a story good, the real reasons and the imaginary reasons have to line up in a believable way. If the real reasons are solid but the imaginary reasons aren't, then you'll have an exciting story but it won't make sense — it will be full of annoying plot holes, missing character motivations, etc. If the imaginary reasons are solid but the real reasons are not, then you'll have an internally consistent world with a plot that goes nowhere, and the readers will wonder what the point is.
As I see it, the process of trying to get real reasons and imaginary reasons to fit together is a huge part of writing fiction.
I'm sick of not drawing comics! Time to draw comics!
You know what I haven't done in over a year? Posted A new page of Yuki Hoshigawa!!
Yes, that's right! My webcomic is back in action.
Sushu helped me with this one, both by giving feedback at the sketching stage, and by doing some photoshop touching-up in post-production. We're a husband-and-wife comics team! Huzzah!
Could the partisan hacks keep it down please, I'm trying to think here
The tenor of this health care debate is pissing me off. And stressing me out.
Reforming health insurance is an important issue; it's not one of my personal hot-button issues, but it's what Obama has decided to focus on first and it's a major part of what we elected him to do. So here we go; the fight is on.
If the government is going to reform health insurance, I want them to get it right. Whatever happens, it's largely going to be decided in the Senate. There are two senators there, Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein, who are supposed to represent me as a citizen of California. I have an opportunity to put pressure on them to get them to vote the way I want. (I think Boxer is up for re-election next year, so I can especially put pressure on her.) But first I have to figure out what it is I want them to vote for. If I'm going to pressure my senators for something, I want it to be the right thing. Right now I'm not particularly knowledgeable about the medical or insurance industries. That means I need to educate myself. I think I have a responsibility as a citizen to educate myself.
But the sheer amount of hyperbole and misinformation and screechy partisan rhetoric out there makes it hard to figure out what sources I can trust.
For example, it is impossible to understand anything about the health care debate unless you understand the differences between the various possible levels of government involvement in paying for health care, e.g. the difference between public option, single payer, etc. I have only recently figured out these distinctions myself. I summarize them in the following table, ordered from least government intervention to most government intervention:
- The government does not get any further involved in funding health care; private insurance companies remain the only option for most people (unless you are old enough for Medicare, or in the armed forces, or a veteran) but perhaps have additional regulations or restrictions imposed on them.
- Public option. There is a new, public (i.e. govt) insurance company to compete with private insurance companies; you have your choice between them. This is equivalent to how the postal service, a government-run organization, competes with private companies UPS and FedEx to provide package delivery service.
- Single-payer. The govt pays for all health care; hospitals remain private companies but compete for government money, like military contractors. Medicare is essentially already single-payer health care, but for old people only. Canada has a single-payer system.
- Socialized medicine. Doctors are all on govt payroll, like policemen, firemen, or the army. Britain has socialized medicine.
This is really basic, beginner, 101-level stuff. If we had a functional news media, one that was doing its job, it would be educating people about these things, and the difference between 1, 2, 3, and 4 would be common knowledge. But instead we have a news media that can only communicate sound bites and emotion and conflict, not facts. It's really good at glossing over the important differences and lumping everything together, and many people seem not to know the difference between 1, 2, 3, and 4.
Essentially all of the plans the Democrats are considering are variants of 1 or 2. 3 and 4 do not even seem to be under consideration. (Which is too bad; 3 is unlikely to happen but I don't think it should be dismissed out of hand.)
Yet it seems that the entire Republican argument against reform is based on pretending that 2 equals 3 equals 4 equals jackbooted government thugs coming to your house and euthanizing your grandmother. It pisses me off, not because they're against health care reform, but because they're making the argument in a fundamentally dishonest way, with fear tactics and hysterical exaggeration, taking avantage of people's ignorance. It would be different if they were making an argument like "We can't afford this plan" or "this plan gets the incentives all wrong" or "There are better ways to control medical costs". Maybe they could even propose an alternative plan, maybe something based on tort reform or increasing competition between insurance companies.
And meanwhile, the Democrats seem to be basing their whole argument on "Insurance companies are evil". Well maybe they are and maybe they aren't, but how about explaining how each of the several possible plans would work to make things better? How would any given plan save users money and/or get us better quality care and/or increase freedom to switch doctors and/or jobs? How would the government will pay for it? What will it do to protect user choice and maintain incentives for quality and innovation? Instead we just hear them saying, basically, "Insurance companies are evil" over and over again. Pointing out that the curent situation is bad doesn't automatically prove that your proposed plan is better.
Webcomics and the hybrid storytelling form
My favorite kind of webcomic is the ones where each strip has a joke in it, but when you put them all together they make a story. As opposed to pure one-joke-per day, e.g. Dinosaur Comics (note that my definition of "joke" is very loose) and as also opposed to the Scott McCloud-esque style of self-contained short story webcomics.
With the hybrid mode, you get something fun to read each time it updates, but you also get a deeper experience when you start from the beginning and do an archive binge. That's what I'm trying to do in Yuki Hoshigawa. It's hard! But it's the kind of storytelling that seems uniquely suited to the strengths and weaknesses of the webcomic medium.
I'm trying to think of a list of webcomics that do (or did) the story/daily gag balance really well. Help me out?
- Sluggy freelance (the first such one I discovered, opened my eyes to the possibilities of webcomics, even though I later gave up on it in disgust for its endless recycling of the same ideas)
- Narbonic, long since completed, might be the best webcomic of this genre ever. (Most everything else by Shaenon Garrity is in the same vein.)
- Order of the Stick
- Achewood (which sometimes is just a joke a day for a while, but then without warning it will launch into a story arc of unknown length that gets more and more surreal as it goes on)
Leave a comment and tell me about others?
Also, what do you think are the qualities that make a hybrid comic work or fail to work?
Watching American movies in China
Sunday night in Beijing, we met up with some of Sushu's old friends from a teacher training program she did a couple of years ago. After dinner we went to see Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
The movie theater was in a very posh, expensive, heavily westernized section of town. There were a lot of foreigners hanging around that area; it seemed like almost half the people going to the movie theater were foreign. As Sushu's comic points out, movie theaters are very much an "imported luxury expense" kind of thing.
The way movie titles get translated to Chinese is really interesting. Chinese doesn't have anything like Katakana. You can't just write a sound without also giving it a meaning. So you have a choice: pick characters that sound like the title and mean something crazy, or pick characters that mean approximately the same thing.
Here's how they render Harry Potter into Chinese. It's a sound-based translation: "Ha-li-po-te". The meaning is something totally nonsensical like "Kazakhstan reasoning special wave".
There were lots of other movie posters there, so I got a kick out of seeing how various movie titles get turned into Chinese. Transformers is "变形金钢", meaning "Shape-change-gold-steel". Except "Gold-steel", jin-gong, is the name for Buddhist temple guardian statues. So Transformers are really "Shape changing guardian statues". That's crazy awesome.
Star Trek is something like "Universe Wandering Voyage Ship", and Up is rendered as "Flying House Circumnavigation Adventure".
The Forbidden City!
Behold, the splendors of the Forbidden City! Within the innermost ring of Beijing is this massive complex of imperial palace buildings used by the rulers of the Ming and Qing dynasties.
The Forbidden Moat!
The Forbidden Parking Lot!
The Forbidden Ticket Line! (OK, OK, I'll stop.)
Anyway, as you can see, the city is not so forbidden anymore. In fact it's really kind of touristy these days. We had to wait in line (in the very hot sun) for about half an hour just to buy the tickets. There is a very good reason most of the people in these pictures are carrying umbrellas it's to keep the sun off.
Once you get in through the first gate, there's a mega-impressive courtyard full of stone bridges, bronze lion sculptures, staircases, etc. But then you go through the building at the end of the mega-impressive courtyard, and...
Holy crap!! You get into the real courtyard and realize the first one was just a preview.
At the far end of this courtyard is the Hall of Supreme Harmony, from which the Emperor would do his most important business, like giving speeches to assembled armies and stuff.
To get a sense of scale, look at the people standing at the base of the Hall of Supreme Harmony, way in the back there.
That is a lot of people.
On the corners of traditional Chinese buildings you will often see a row of beasties. In the front there is one of the Eight Immortals riding a chicken, followed by X number of beasties (Sushu's word for them) and then a dragon bringing up the rear. The more beasties, the more important the building is, ranging from one beastie for, like, the outhouse, or the side door into the garden, all the way up to nine for the most important...
The Hall of Supreme Harmony is China's one and only TEN-BEASTIE building. Count 'em. Ten!
Everywhere you look are treasures and artifacts and amazing works of sculpture some of it suffering from the erosion of so many people walking through and so many hands touching it.
"Hi, I'm a giant dragon turtle! Watch me come out of nowhere and provide the deus-ex-machina that derails the ending of Avatar!"
I thought this was really interesting. The Qing dynasty, the last one to use the Forbidden City, was made up of Manchus, a tribe from northeastern China (Manchuria). The Manchus had their own writing system, so when they renovated the place they added the Manchu versions of the names alongside the Hanzi (what we would call "Chinese characters") names. Above: "Hall of Everlasting Harmony", with the Manchu translation on the right-hand side.
Off to the sides of the main courtyards, there's a labyrinth of small alleyways and gates and sub-buildings that were used for housing things like the Emperor's library, priceless artifacts, kitchen staff, concubines, etc. etc.
One of the Emperor's lesser throne rooms, for days when he wasn't using the main one.
Just after the third or fourth "Hall of (Adjective) Harmony", disaster struck: I lost track of Sushu.
I stepped ahead to take a picture from the balcony, thinking Sushu was right behind me, but when I turned around, she wasn't there. Turns out she followed some other guy who looked the same as me from behind and when she realized what happened, we were hopelessly separated in the sea of people.
I was very scared. I barely speak any Chinese, I didn't have a cell phone to call Sushu with, I didn't know the number of her phone anyway, and I didn't know what to do without her. (We should have come up with a plan for this contingency.)
What followed was about an hour of both of us playing the "guess where the other person would expect you to wait for them" game. I tried waiting at the place where we got separated; waiting at the corner of the nearby hall where we had last mentioned meeting; standing up on the balcony and waving to make myself visible; proceeding ahead to obvious meeting points at the corners of major buildings; and finally, walking all the way through to the exit in case she was waiting for me there. No luck. (Meanwhile, she was doing all the same things, but in a different order, so we kept missing each other.)
Finally, when I was wandering forlorn through the Emperor's private gardens and wondering what to do, I heard a voice over the intercom: Sushu's voice, saying for "Jonathan DiCarlo, from California, America, please meet Sushu Xia at the corner of the Hall of Preserving Harmony". Hooray! It was like being a lost child at the grocery store, but a little public embarrassment was a small price to pay.
It seems that Sushu had quite the adventure trying to convince the security guard in the broadcasting room to let her call me. She had to show her passport and fill out all kinda paperwork. But I'll let her tell that story, if she's interested.
So I backtracked to the Hall of Preserving Harmony, and that's where I found my Sushu again. Saved! Yay, Sushu!!
An experiment on the Beijing subway
If you're sitting on a full subway, and then somebody hobbles on board with a cane and a bandaged foot, would you stand up to let her sit down? Hopefully, if you are a good person, you would.
Me and Sushu noticed something in the time we spent traveling around Beijing via the always-crowded subways. When she rode alone or with her Chinese friends, somebody would usually give up their seat for her. But if she got on with me, nobody would give up their seat.
We decided to try an experiment. The two of us got on the same subway car, but a few seconds apart, and we didn't talk to each other or make eye contact; we pretended not to know each other. Lo and behold, a person gave up their seat for Sushu.
This was quite repeatable. Every time we got on a subway car and acted like an obvious couple, Sushu had to stand the whole ride. Every time we got on and acted like not a couple, somebody gave up their seat for her.
So! How about those casting choices for that Avatar movie, huh!
I'm way late to this party (the casting choices were announced in December), but the pictures of the main characters just came out and they are so wrong that I had to add my two cents to the ongoing fan protest.
If you've seen the Avatar cartoon, then you should be able to identify what's wrong with this picture.
I had an interesting conversation a month or two back with a friend who thought that there was nothing wrong with using white actors for all the main characters. The way she saw it, they probably just picked the best actors for the roles, and who cares what the race of those actors is? Aren't the protesting fans the ones bringing race into it? Isn't it more racist to say that the actors shouldn't be white? (And besides, the cartoon characters didn't exactly correspond to real-world races, so...)
There was a time when I would have agreed with her, but now I realize there are a couple major things wrong with that logic.
One is assuming that the actors were chosen on merit, without reference to their race. As it turns out, that's giving Hollywood (specifically Paramount Pictures) way too much credit. I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt, but then I read this blog post (thanks to Chris for the link). (More here.)
So, first the casting call explicitly expressed a preference for Caucasians for the four main roles. True, they did say "Caucasian (or any other ethnicity)", but the fact that they expressed such a preference proves that the producers made a conscious decision to "whitewash" the characters.
Then, in the casting call for extras, they said quote "We want you to dress in traditional cultural ethnic attire. If you're Korean, wear a kimono.".
"If you're Korean, wear a kimono". Do I have to explain how wrong that is? (Ironically this is for the movie adaptation of a cartoon that got traditional Korean hanboks exactly right, in a random Earth Kingdom episode.) Paramount's casting director was saying loud and clear that they want white main characters, and they want asians only in background, non-speaking roles, reduced to their "traditional cultural ethnic attire".
Paramount, you suck.
The other important thing to understand, in order to contextualize the Avatar casting thing, is that the pattern matters. In a perfect world, maybe actors would be chosen strictly on acting skills, and we wouldn't care whether they matched the race of their characters.
But if you look at Hollywood movies, that's not the case. There is a depressing trend: White people are heroes, villians, and the whole range of roles in-between. Asians (including Asian Americans) are kung-fu masters who teach their skills to the white hero, or they are evil overlords/minions, exotic sexually available women, or nerds who are good at math. And very little else. Name me one American-made movie with an asian/asian-american main character not played by Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee. (Or, OK, Jet Li. That's three, and they're all famous for their martial arts.)
Let me tell you a little story. One of my Aikido friends in Chicago is a Japanese-american and an aspiring actor. He tries out for lots of roles, has done some stage work, etc. He almost got a minor part in The Dark Knight (would have been "asian lawyer #2" in one courtroom scene) but sadly the scene, and the part, got cut. The finished movie? It had, I think, one asian person in a speaking part and his one defining character trait was that he's "good at calculating". (Aarghh! Again with this stupid stereotype.)
Among the things that made the Avatar cartoon so special were its unusually respectful and well-researched depiction of Asian cultures, and its diverse cast of main characters. When I say diverse, I want to emphasize that in Avatar it was never a matter of including token minorities, or satisfying political correctness it was part of portraying a complex and realistic world, where the relationships between the different races and cultures were always a major part of the story.
It was a cartoon that respected kids' intelligence. It offered kids a group of heroes comprising two brown-skinned, pseudo-Inuit siblings one pseudo-Tibetan boy, and it respected kids enough not to assume that the audience needed a white main character to identify with. Making a movie out of this cartoon would have been a great opportunity to buck the trend and give some young aspiring asian-american actors a chance to play heroes.
(Note that after coming under criticism, Paramount recast Zuko as an Indian-american dude. So, they lightened all three of the heroes and darkened the villian? I'm, um, not sure that's an improvement.)
I wish Hollywood respected its audience as much as the creators of the Avatar cartoon did, but it's obvious that they do not.
Why is health care so expensive?
There are a lot of explanations, but another one occurred to me this morning. I am not an expert, so tell me if I'm completely naive, but here goes:
- What keeps prices low in any other industry? Competition, right? If company A raises its prices too much, I go to company B.
- This all assumes a transactional scenario where I buy stuff directly from company A or B and where I have the freedom to switch companies at any time. The medical equivalent scenario is one where I can buy services directly from one doctor, and go to another doctor if the first one charges too much.
- Most people do not pay doctors directly, but go through insurance companies. The insurance company pays (most of) the medical bill; it also limits the doctors I'm allowed to choose from.
- Most people do not buy their insurance directly, but get it through their jobs. The employer chooses the insurance policy.
- The health benefits may be a factor in me choosing where to work, but it's unlikely to be the main factor in my choice compared to location, salary, type of work, whether my boss is tolerable, etc.
- Thus, I don't deal with the doctor directly. There's not just one, but two intermediaries between me and the doctor: there's the insurance company, and there's my employer.
- So if the doctor wants to charge more than I can afford, I can't just walk away and go to a different doctor, because my doctor choices are limited by my insurance. And I can't just switch insurance, because my insurance choices are limited by my job. And changing jobs isn't realistic.
- Besides, nobody will cover a pre-existing condition, so as soon as something is wrong with me, my choices are whatever insurance I've got, or nothing.
- For all these reasons, my ability to negotiate over the price of my health care is effectively nonexistent. I can't pressure anybody into reducing costs because I don't have the freedom to walk away from a provider who is too expensive.
- The doctors don't get paid by me, so they have no incentive to negotiate price with me; they get paid by the insurance company, so their incentive is to charge the insurance company as much as they can get away with charging.
- The insurance company gets paid the same (by my employer) whether they cover my care or not, so their incentive is to deny coverage in as many cases as possible.
It all boils down to the fact that in this system, consumers can't exert downward competitive pressure on the cost of health care, the way they can with services they buy directly.
Of course there are a hundred other reasons that also contribute to the high cost, but I think this is significant.
I don't have a solution to propose; I'm just trying to understand the nature of the mess we're in, so that I can form an informed opinion on the current debate over health insurance reform.
Reverse Culture Shock
The first time I walked around Mountain View, CA, after getting back from China, I went, "Whoa! Where is everybody?!?". It's like a ghost town.
It's not just that there are fewer people (1/4 as many in USA as in China). It's also that Americans tend to stay in their cars more. Or inside buildings. There's no life on the sidewalks.
Since I got back, I've been reading a lot of comic books. (They're the perfect thing to read when it's 4 am and you're sick and can't sleep.) Since Sushu and me are married now, we combined our comic collections onto one bookshelf, and so I'm catching up on some of her old stuff and vice-versa.
Today I finished reading Marvel 1602, an alternate-universe miniseries by Neil Gaiman in which all the main Marvel characters were born in Elizabethan England instead of 20th century America.
Fun premise, really pretty artwork, but the story is only so-so. It suffers from the need to squeeze in EVERYBODY and give them all things to do; it reads like an overcrowded crossover fanfic. It was an enjoyable bit of fluff but not up to Gaiman's better work.
That said, it was a pretty fun puzzle trying to figure out which character in 1602 corresponds to which Marvel character. (My Marvel trivia is not all that good, so it was more of a guessing game for me than it would have been for some people.)
Anyway there's one thing about it that bothered me a lot...
OK, so a major plot point is this (blonde) native American warrior named Rojhaz, who shows up in England as the burly protector of Virginia Dare, the first girl born in the colony of Roanoke. It turns out he's Captain America ( = Steve Rogers = Rojhaz).
I thought that a Native Captain America was a pretty neat idea, but then it turns out he's the original, super-serum-and-jingoism Captain America who came back in time from the future; he's just been disguised as a native (and that's why he's blonde).
Near the end he goes on this whole rant about not wanting to return to the future; he wants to stay in the past so that he can protect the first Americans and guide America's history and make sure it all goes right this time and that there's not so much senseless dying. Oh cool, I thought, he's going to prevent the colonists from slaughtering the natives, and change America's history into one that's not founded on genocide?
...No. It becomes pretty clear that when he says "first Americans" he's talking about the British colonists; they're the only ones he considers Americans and the only people he cares about protecting. The natives (who saved both "Rojhaz" and the colonists from starvation) are treated as total non-people.
Anybody else in this story I'd expect to treat the Native Americans as non-people, just because of ignorance and being a product of their time, but not only has "Rojhaz" come back from the year 2000, he's also lived as one of the natives for the past dozen years so he's got no excuse at all for being a racist scumbag.
Neil Gaiman! Why?