Healthcare reform

My Facebook page is being filled up with impassioned pleas to save healthcare reform. They are of course talking about the arguments in the Supreme Court over the “Affordable Healthcare Act.” I’m not a big fan of the legislation, no surprise there. Funnily enough, I don’t need to know the minutia of the 1000+ page law to draw my conclusion either. The main sticking point to me, and I think the reason it is being argued at the Supreme Court, is the individual mandate. The law says that everyone has to purchase health insurance, in fact it relays on this in order to realize its cost savings that are supposed to come from it.

Let’s forget for a moment that this law is not about healthcare, but health insurance, and let’s also forget for a moment that popular opinion shouldn’t sway the Supreme Court. I am also going to, for the sake of argument, allow that the law actually would reduce health insurance prices and it would actually work out best for everyone. I don’t believe that for a second mind you, but I don’t want to dwell on that here.

Have you wondered why there is so much chatter about this supreme court case? I’m not talking about the political scorekeeping involved, I’m talking about the commerce clause.

 

[The Congress shall have Power] To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian tribes;

 

That little clause has been twisted to the point where it is unrecognizable. It’s meaning seems rather straightforward, but congress, with the Supreme Court’s blessing, has used it in all manner of strange ways. In Ashcroft vs. Raich, the Supreme Court ruled that the Federal Government could outlaw marijuana because of the commerce clause even though in this case the defendant never sold it at all, let alone between states. It was ruled that the defendant could have sold it, therefore the federal government had jurisdiction over it. Judge Clarence Thomas said this in his dissenting opinion:

 

“If the Federal Government can regulate growing a half-dozen cannabis plants for personal consumption (not because it is interstate commerce, but because it is inextricably bound up with interstate commerce), then Congress’ Article I powers — as expanded by the Necessary and Proper Clause — have no meaningful limits. Whether Congress aims at the possession of drugs, guns, or any number of other items, it may continue to “appropria[te] state police powers under the guise of regulating commerce.”

 

So who could blame congress when it passed a law saying that it could force every American to do something? When pressed on what gives them that power, they respond that the commerce clause gives it to them.

This really is the drug war’s chickens coming home to roost. Once the Supreme Court ruled that congress can essentially legislate anything at all because of the commerce clause, all bets were off. If this law gets struck down, they will have established that the Federal Government cannot force you to buy something. That’s hardly a shocking idea and it shows just how nuts the law is as determined by the Supreme Court.

There was a time when lawmakers assumed that prohibiting a substance was unconstitutional. Banning alcohol was a popular cause at one point, but they knew they couldn’t pass laws banning it until they amended the constitution. How quaint. It is now assumed that the federal government can legislate any damn thing it wants to. This law getting struck down will carve out a very narrow limitation on the feds, one that I’m really terrified that we have to spell out so clearly.

Much has been made about the hypothetical broccoli law. The thought experiment goes like this, broccoli is good for you, so can the federal government force people to buy it if not eat it? It’s a silly thing, no one really thinks that, but there are legions of people that think in the abstract that the government should legislate “good” things. You, know, for our own good.

this goes right back to my “Everything is fine as long as the right people are in power” model of politics. Why does no one think about the damage that will ensue as soon as the “wrong” people are in charge? Limiting government power is to protect us from whatever politician you think is evil incarnate. Dick Cheney or Nancy Polesi, it doesn’t matter. No one should be afraid of the changing of the political winds.

This is the real reason why this case is so important. If we can get some sort of semblance of sanity with regards to the commerce clause, it will be a victory. With any luck, it will also force the court to reconsider previous contortions over the clause as well. Remember, the law being “good for us” is not a sufficient reason for the government to employ its force.

Pinball!

I have always enjoyed pinball machines. Too many people think of them as just wildly flailing flippers, trying to keep the ball in play. True, there is always some of that, but there is so much more. Once you get past the problem of keeping the ball in play, you will start to notice that there are goals and targets to get to those goals. In order to get to the highest score, you need to actually aim for certain things, and sometimes in certain orders. There is definite skill involved along with the randomness that only a physical interaction can bring. Every game on a particular table has the same goals, but every game plays very differently.

Pinball machines reached their height right along the same time that video games became popular at arcades. Video games had one big advantage, there is almost no maintenance involved with them, Pinball machines on the other hand are filled with an incredible number of moving parts that are constantly pummeled by a heavy ball. They have constant upkeep, there’s no wonder that they became less and less prevalent in the video era.

Well, that’s one more problem the iPad has solved! The pinball games on it are amazing, the action is very realistic, and there are no mechanical breakdowns. That’s even more important with the last generation of pinball machines. They had gone from a fairly simple layout to to devices with multiple ramps, magnets, multiple sets of flippers, different levels, etc. A lo of the pinball machines from the 80’s were fun, but they eventually would get the ball stuck in some weird way, or some spring would get loose and render it inoperable. No more…

Pinball used to be a pretty simple game. You hit as many targets and numbers as you could while avoiding loosing the ball. Sometime along the way, they introduced the concept of goals like hitting all of one set of targets would trigger a bonus of you did a specific thing afterwards. That added a little more thinking into the process. Once the technology was there, they started to introduce things like multiple balls, multiple levels, and lots of other gimmicks. Here’s an example from an iPad game.

 

 

IMG 0029

 

See the three money bags in the upper left? You have to clear the targets over by the pile of money above them before you can get to the money bags. This one also has a rather simple ramp made to look like railroad tracks. If you hit a certain target, you will then get a bonus for each time you put the ball around the ramp. If you hit the bell in the very top left corner, the table will light up on of the many triangles on it. They’re not illuminated in this image, but the easiest one to see is on the left side about midway on the table. Once a triangle/arrowhead lights up, you get a bonus for hitting whatever it is pointed at. There is usually another bonus for doing several in a row. If you lose a ball, everything resets of course and you have to start all over again.

 

Towards the end, the tables got a little crazy. They were fun to play, but they were really gimmicky. Check this one out.

 

IMG 0030

 

I played this in the arcades and even then I thought it was getting too Las Vegas for my tastes. Lots of flashing lights, voices, lots of crap all over the table. The multi ball has 4 balls at a time! Lots of the graphic you see on the table light up and/or flash. It also showed where we were with point inflation. Every so often, the number of points you got for anything went up. This table gives you a free game when you hit 600,000,000. It’s like the table lives in Zimbabwe or something… This particular table suffers on the iPad because the ball can be hard to see. It’s just another graphic on a really busy screen. It was always easy to see the ball on the original/

 

It’s interesting that I rarely played what I have always considered the best pinball machine. Black Hole (not to be confused with the machine made in conjunction with the Dinsey film) was a very difficult game to play.

IMG 0031

 

 

It was one of the first ones that I ever saw that had multi ball and a different level. This table demanded real skill. On a lot of tables, getting to the other level was just a fun way to wrack up points. On this one, if you got sucked into the black hole, you might loose the ball. The lower level in the center of the table can indeed get you some good points, but you need to hit certain targets and avoid others if you wanted the ball to get back to you on the top. You could also complete the yellow targets on the right and then have the ball go over the sensor in the channel behind the right bumper. That would open up the gate to get the ball back as well. I almost never get the ball back unless I complete the stuff on top first. In addition, when the multi ball setup was enabled (not a particularly easy thing to do either), you frequently had to contend with both levels at the same time!

 

So why didn’t I play it much? Well, it was hard. Plus, it was also a 50 cent machine. That would have taken too much money to get good at when I was 12 or whatever. I was so happy to find this in the app store! Now I can try to master that table that intimidated me so much back then. They are also going to try to make other tables available too. I remember a favorite, but I don’t exactly remember its name. Something to do with knights I think. It had the innovation of being able to trigger magnets that would prevent the ball from going down certain channels. Really added another dimension to the game.

 

I think it’s going to be funny if the golden age of pinball will come about because of the iPad. There’s nothing to break, and the physical gimmicks work correctly every single time. The 12 year old in me is grinning from ear to ear.

 

 

Audio Doctor Who Spinoffs

Big Finish has produced a bunch of Doctor Who Radio plays. By and large they are great. As time has gone on, they have made a bunch of spinoffs that don’t include the Doctor in any of his versions. Most of these use characters or groups directly from the TV show although they have done a few that are products of Big Finish. I wasn’t too impressed with the first one I heard, Graceless. It was about a pair of “sisters” that were created by powerful entities during one of the story arcs. Never really felt like it went anywhere. They have since put out a second set, but I haven’t heard anything about it and I’m not all that interested in getting it. I am looking forward to one that has been in the works for years. Nick Briggs keeps promising that he is going to do a Charlotte Pollard spinoff. Charlie was played by India Fisher. Charlie was a long time companion to the 8th and the 6th Doctor (in that order interestingly) and she is a favorite of a lot of fans, including myself. Nick says it will come out at some point, I will definitely get it…

Big Finish has released a ton of other spinoffs. I’ve listened to the Cyberman, Dalek Empire I-IV, UNIT, I Davros, Sarah Jane Adventures series and enjoyed them. They do have two series that really stand out though, Gallifrey and Jago and Lightfoot.

Gallifrey chronicles the goings on back on the home planet of the Time Lords. It stars the regular Doctor Who characters of Leela, Romana II, and K-9. It also includes a book/audio character named Irving Braxital. The first three episodes were gripping political dramas with lots of action and intrigue. The fourth series was a real departure and that made a lot of fans angry. I’ve warmed up to it, mostly because we have been told that the series will finish up picking up where we left them in series three. Gallifrey does an excellent job of showing how conniving and political the Time Lords were. No wonder the Doctor had to get out of there…

The other standout series is Jago and Lightfoot. Henry Gordon Jago and Professor Lightfoot were characters in the classic 4th doctor adventure “The Talons of Wang Chiang.” Big Finish has managed to create an entire series based around those characters’ infernal investigations in the Victorian era. It seems strange to think that secondary characters that showed up in one TV show could have 12 more stories, but it works very well. The acting is fantastic and the whole thing is all kinds of fun. Lots of fog, lots of monsters and bad guys. Even a little time travel thrown in. All in foggy Victorian London. Good stuff, well worth listening to.

There is a new series coming out from Big Finish. Since they hit a home run with one set of secondary characters, I guess they are going to try again with a different set. This time it is a group from the 7th Doctor story Remembrance of the Daleks. I’m looking forward to hearing it. The trailers make it clear that they are aiming to recreate a 60’s sound. We’ll see if Big Finish can do it again.

Another audio spinoff that is well worth listening to is from Magic Bullet productions. The Kaldor City series uses the world created in the 4th Doctoe show “The Robots of Death.” It is a classic episode and Magic Bullet have managed to make a great political thriller out of it. It is very reminiscent of Robots of Death, there are plenty of mentions of Terran Capel, robophobia, sand mines, etc. If you liked Robots of Death, you’ll love Kaldor City!

Doctor Who spinoffs

Sure, some fans of Doctor Who consider themselves crazy fans because they have seen all the new series. Some others think you have to have seen all of the original series too. I think those people are missing out on a whole world of fandom. There are zillions of books, audios, and comics out there that explore the universe that the TV show created. Personally, as great as the TV show has been, I think that the audios and books outclass the TV show by a considerable margin. I have listened to the vast majority of the Doctor Who audios and love them. The hit rate on them is quite a bit higher than the new series, and miles above the original. I have read 40 something novels and also found them to be more engrossing than the TV show. SO fans of the TV show have a lot of exploring to do in order to get a more comprehensive view of Doctor Who.

So, as a fan I think the Doctor Who books and audios are where it’s at. But I’m going one step further, this post is about the spinoffs of Doctor Who. How far into the red can my nerd-meter go?

First off, the TV spinoffs. As far as I can tell, the TV spinoffs amount to a pilot episode of a Sarah Jane investigates show, the proper Sarah Jane Adventures, Torchwood, and a K-9 show that I can’t remember the name of. Th Sarah Jane Adventures are easily the most consistently good of the shows. Torchwood had its moments, especially the Children of Earth series, but was really inconsistent. The two shows are very different from each other. The SJA is quite clearly a kid’s show. Great writing, good acting, they are a lot of fun, but the are definitely for the younger crowd. Torchwood went the opposite direction. They wanted to be an “adult” show so badly. Per usual, this usually means violence and sex. Children of Earth was the only one I can think of that was properly adult (as opposed to being gimmicky) in that it involved real horror, despair, heartbreaking decisions and regret so real you can’t sleep. I’ve only seen one episode of the K-9 series, I think it’s made in Austrailia and it really didn’t seem to be very interesting let alone good.

When the show was cancelled in 1989, fans were cut adrift. Some people convinced the BBC to allow them to write Doctor Who novels with the 7th Doctor and his companions. The Virgin New Adventures picked up where the TV show left off. Overall, they were quite a bit darker, with more violence, sexual situations, and generally adult themes. The 7th doctor continued with Ace for a while. He eventually picked up an archeologist in the Paul Cornell book Love and War. No, not that archeologist, Bernice Summerfield! Bernice (Benny to her friends) has been going strong for 20 years now. I’ll have to count, but she may have been with the Doctor for more books than Ace was. Benny stayed on with the Doctor until Virgin lost the license to write about the Doctor. So they spun her off into her own books. Like all good spinoffs, they were limited by copyright issues. The books certainly exist in the Doctor Who universe, but they can’t mention The Doctor, the TARDIS, Cybermen, or anything else owned by the BBC. It isn’t as limiting as you might think. Benny is still going strong. Big Finish is celebrating her 20th anniversary this year with new books and continuing the audio series. I’ve been talking to the folks at Big Finish and they would like to make ebook versions of their out of print Benny books but worry about the difficulty of getting digital distribution rights. The New Adventures seem to be stuck in copyright hell. Most of them are long out of print and it doesn’t look good for them being re-released.

When the BBC worked with FOX to make the 8th Doctor TV movie, it was the end of the Virgin Doctor Who franchise. Since the movie actually showed the 7th Doctor turn into the 8th, it also spelled the end of the 7th Doctor. When nothing became of the hoped for 8th Doctor series, they started making books with him in them. The BBC also started to publish past doctor adventures featuring previous Doctors and companions.

 

Iris Wildthyme came out of the Past Doctor Adventures, we first see her with the 4th Doctor. She is an older, boozy time traveller that exists as a warped parallel to the Doctor. Her stories are really about having fun. Her “TARDIS” is a Routmaster double decker bus (the no. 22 to Putney Common) that is curiously smaller on the inside than the outside. Her favorite gin is Bombay Saphire, and she typically travels with a stuffed panda (don’t call him a toy!) named Panda. Reading her stories is frequently a trip into Doctor Who fandom and mythology. She has alluded to her knowing that she is fictional several times, it can get a bit meta at times. Iris books and stories are all about having fun. For example, my favorite line of hers is from the Big Finish audio “The Wormery.” She has been communing with the villains behind the scenes in a drunken stupor and the 6th Doctor is giving her a hard time about it. Her retort? “What we need is less thinking, MORE DRINKING!” Katy Manning (who played Jo Grant on the TV show) plays Iris brilliantly in the audios. Another example, Obverse Books is coming out with a short story collection featuring her being trapped in realities based on David Bowie songs. You get the idea, a more frivolous take on Doctor Who. If you don’t like Iris, you’re too serious. Iris audios are being made and sold by Big Finish and the books are mostly being put out by Obverse Books.

Lawrence Miles introduced us to Faction Paradox in the 8th Doctor Adventures. The Faction is a splinter group of Time Lords that embraces paradox, something that is anathema to the Time Lords. They are your typical criminal, time traveling cult that uses ritual to disrupt time lines and screw with the TIme Lords. Lawrence spun off Faction Paradox in a series of novels, audios, and a short lived comic series. Since he was writing outside of BBC blessing, he had to change a few things. First off, there was no mention of The Doctor and the Time Lords were referred to as “The Great Houses.” The Faction Paradox world reviles around The War between the Great Houses and The Enemy. We never do get an explicit explanation of who the enemy is. Fans have speculated on everything from future versions of the Time Lords, The Doctor, or even the concept of Fiction. Yes, concepts can be an enemy in the world of Faction Paradox. The novels from Mad Norwegian Press spend quite a bit of time with the idea that information, meaning, and the connections we make between them are the real reality. Whoever can control that and adjust it have the real power. I have really enjoyed the Faction Paradox books so far because they have really widened my view of the Doctor Who universe. I have a better understanding of what is at stake with the altering of time lines, paradox, and time travel in general. Plus, they manage to bring in a little magic too. Well, it looks like magic, but it is just a different way of altering information, so it looks like magic. There have been two audio series of Faction Paradox. One was put out by a company called BBV and now are only available from the owner via eBay. Haven’t heard them yet but they have a great reputation. The other, more recent series was put out by Magic Bullet Productions and is excellent. Still available too.

 

This has gone on long enough, I’ll tackle the Doctor Who Spinoffs created solely by Big Finish in another post.

Raising awareness

The “Kony” video has been circulating around. I haven’t watched it, the brief intro turned me off. It said something to the effect that the video wasn’t suggesting a solution, but simply raising awareness of the man and the awful things he has done. I don’t doubt for a second that he is truly awful, but I really don’t trust any activity or organization that is about “raising awareness.”

Predictably, actual Ugandans aren’t so thrilled with the video. Apparently, there wasn’t a single instance of talking to people involved in the terrible things that the 20 minute video is about. Kony isn’t even in Uganda any more. There’s a fair amount of backlash. Why? I have always had a difficult time putting into words why I disliked the publicity thing, but I think I can now.

Several months after I got my job, I was spreading the news that I had MS. I was telling it one guy and he informed me that he takes part in a annual MS ride. Now he’s a really nice guy, and he really wants to do well, so the only thing I could say to him was, “Funny, I don’t do that ride…” My gut reaction was to ask him if I should thank him for riding his bike. Yes, that is incredibly cynical. I’m sure the ride made him feel good. I’m also sure those Ugandans probably figured all those white people in California felt good about making that slick 20 minute, high def video about problems in Uganda.

Yes, I’m sure the MS ride drums up money for MS research, but just like the video, I wonder if it is awareness of MS that is being raised or awareness of the National MS whatever that is putting on the event. The same complaint is being leveled against the Kony video. Detractors claim that the video did a great job of raising awareness of the NGO that made the video, but did very little about the actual problems, let alone admit that things were quite a bit more complicated than there being one bad guy.

If you are going to market problems, don’t be surprised when the people that actually suffer those problems question you. All of the effort put into raising awareness, that couldn’t have been put to more productive uses? Maybe it can, maybe. But the fact that you would rather take the chance instead of spending the resources on something concrete says something.

More questionable music in commercials

I can tell i’m old because “edgy” music from my youth is now considered mainstream enough to sell things like computers and minivans. First up a commercial from Hp using a song about masturbation.

Yeah, it’s a catch riff, but those lyrics are seared into my memory.

“Body and beats, I stain my sheets

I don’t even know why.

My girlfriend, she’s at the end, she is starting to cry.

Let me go on, like a blister in the sun,

let me go onnn, big hands I know you’re the one.”

 

The next one isn’t so bad from a content standpoint, not really, but it is amazing how associations change over time. Here’s an Ozzy Osbourne song selling a minivan.

 

 

WIth the exception of the little girl’s part of “Mental wounds not healing, life’s a shame.” the lyrics are appropriate for most things. Not really sure why they let her sing that though, it is a rather dark aspect of the song… Anyway, the amazing thing is that this song was from a point in time when Ozzy was widely believed to be a devil worshiper. He didn’t help anything by biting the heads off of doves either. In short, Ozzy was, at best, a degenerate and at worst a madman steering youth to a ruinous life. Now his song is selling minivans. The parents are about the right age and I guess it shows how mainstream outrageous things from the past have become. The song does have one of the more distinctive guitar riffs you’ll ever hear, kudos for one of the girls playing their seat belt air-guitar style. Just for completeness sake, here’s the original.

And here’s one of the more memorable pictures of Ozzy.

 

 

 

 

I’m doomed…

Last year I bought my iPhone, iPad, and iMac. All within two months. I do love them but it was a bit of a hit to the old finances. I resolved to be a little more practical with my money this year.

Late last year I had decided that I was going to get a “real” digital camera. Still want to get it, and it really isn’t all that expensive as those things go. I also knew that I would be getting the new iPad when it came out. Well, the announcement for the iPad was today, and it has the two things that I was looking for. A much higher res screen and much faster connection to the internet, so I’m in. Last time I got a 16GB wi-fi only model. This time around I will get a 4g model, so that’s an extra $130. Since I’ll be using it in conjunction with my new digital camera, I’ll get the 32gb version, that’s another $100. SIGH.

 

But that’s OK, I’ll make good use of it. I use my current iPad constantly, I consider it money well spent. So between the camera (and lens) and the iPad, that’ll be a little more than I spent on my computer last year. Still hitting my target for spending less. But then Apple also released the new pile TV. Since I now live in a place with a really nice TV and I’ve subscribed to MLB.TV, this makes a lot of sense. Plus, I can now stream my videos in 1080p to the TV from my computer. OK, another $100, no problem.

And then he said it. The words I was fearing the most. Tim Cook wrapped up the iPad keynote by telling us that “This is just the beginning” for Apple this year. GROAN… Am I going to get a new phone? A new computer? No no, must resist… That’s the thing about Apple, I know that new things from them are quite capable of instilling idiotic desire from me. Of course I want them to come out with the new, amazing stuff, but part of me dreads it too, in a good way of course…:)