So… I Liked LOST, In The End

•2010/05/24 • Leave a Comment

I had to think on it for rather a long time.

But I think I’m satisfied. I’m satisfied with the story it told, the way it told it, and ultimately with the character arcs being the core of the show.

Could the producers have gone through and checked off all of those 50-item long “answers they MUST give” checklists? Sure. But I’m not sure the show would have been a better experience for it. I’m not sure that what there was of that, when characters like Christian Shepard spelled things out a little too clearly and clumsily, it was any good.
I know that there are lots of people that feel like the series wasted time with, for instance, the Temple scenes. But it wasted time only if the producers ever meant to spend that time spelling out what the infection was, what was really at stake with the Island, why women on the Island couldn’t, at least for a span of time, have babies without dying. And it’s pretty clear at this point that they didn’t ever plan to do that.

Instead they wanted to propel the characters through the “rest” of their stories: flesh out their motivations and frustrations and work through their issues. And I think that ultimately, that was the right choice.

If people were expecting bigger final mystery reveals at the End, then I think they spent their time watching one show hoping it was really secretly a different show rather than enjoying the show it was. Lost has always explained proximate causes and character motivations: the goofy set-pieces are the backdrop, the mythology. If you saw all those ominous cuts to “LOST” at the end of a potent plot reveal or new “the floor just dropped out from beneath us” mysteries as promises of cliffhangers-to-be resolved, then I think you were misinterpreting what they meant. They were true WTF moments for the most part: part of a mythology of myths, not of explanations.

Now, if you thought the very end, with its new agey mishmash of religious symbols was cheesy, I was there with you. But it was also just right, at the same time: it was the only way that the Sideways world could have resolved without it feeling like a big cheat. Charlie really died. Sun and Jin really died. And that’s that. Pre-uncorking Desmond was wrong: these things happened, and these things mattered. The whole season, and really a lot of the Season 5 set-up for it, was about letting the audience hold out hope that somehow all the characters could escape their fates, that history could be re-written, that the things that happened on the Island weren’t real, that there was an out.

But the show’s final message didn’t and couldn’t square with that. In Ab Aeterno, Jacob explained to Richard that once people came to Island, their pasts didn’t matter. That they had a choice of who they were going to be: what to hold onto, what to leave behind. The characters had issues that made them what they were, and that shaped their choices in ways that made sense (unlike many critics, the actions of LOST’s characters were far more explicable than most precisely because the writers always went back and showed just where particular irrational behavior came from: what it mirrored, what old battles were being fought).

And so that’s the way this had to end. Not by fleshing out all possible aspect of ongoing history or spoiling every mystery, but by bringing the ensemble back together to say goodbye, and then let go of wanting it to be anything more that it was. That was the one and only thematic ending that made sense. And I thought it was pretty damn great.

So… I’m going to die.

•2010/04/07 • Leave a Comment

No, not anytime soon, I hope. But like everyone else, soon enough. And I don’t particularly believe that there is anything more than that. Hope, sure, sure, but I don’t pretend.

In the last year, I lost myself the love of my life and virtually everything I cared about, hoped for, or wanted to have, and yet I’m still here. And then I found it all again. It happens. You learn your lessons and take your lumps. And it’s okay. I only exist in the present. The past is just a thing you choose to carry around for as long as you want. The future is just something that you arrange for yourself so that you have a reason to keep going.

Humanity is like a marathon relay race. You run as hard as you can as fast as you can, part of the pack, cheering on everyone who’s running along with you. But your leg of the race, whether you lead or trail, is finite. You have to know and accept that. There is an end to it. In the end, all that matters is that you were part of the race, in for the long run. You either move things forward or you just give up and whine and then stand on the sidelines as everyone else passes you by. I choose to keep running because I want to give the next guy as much of a head-start as I can. Because the people who passed the baton on to me kept running until they gave out and I can’t let them down.

Where is it all heading? I don’t know. I really, really wish I could just stick around forever to see. In the end, I’m just curious! That’s mostly it. There are so many fascinating mysteries about our existence, the nature of the universe, about what happened in the obscured past, about what’s to come in the future. I ask all these big questions too, but I know now: I know that I’ll never live to see the most of the answers. And yet, every day I read and learn more about it all, and I’m so grateful to live in an age where people are actually both capable and free to explore these things, and even more insane: that they deliver them to me, for free. That’s truly amazing. I very easily could have been born at nearly any other time in human history: in times where even daring to ask such questions could result in execution or, worse, indifference.

Instead, I live in an age when there are entire societies of people asking and answering, and they all do it because they just plain LOVE learning new things. And I’ve loved learning from them.

Where is it all going? Chances are, I’ll never know. I’ll pass off as many of my experiences and my favorite bits and answers I’ve figured out (some of them, inevitably, boldly wrong!) as I can to the next generation of runners, and then I’ll collapse. I’ll lie where I fell, and rest, and whenever and wherever that is, and I probably won’t ever know anything more. Instead, I try to remember all the people who fell behind me, before me. I loved them, and I miss them terribly. They never got to hear the music I’ve gloried in, who never got to see the things I’ve seen, who never got to learn the things I’ve learned. I wish I could have told them, but then, I didn’t know those things back then either. I hadn’t heard them yet. Instead, I went on, and I experienced what I could, beyond them, beyond the reach of their short lives… but all thanks to them.

And all I can think to feel about that is happy and at peace and thankful. Could you do that too, please? I won’t be around forever, and I want to believe that someone will carry on caring, anyhow.

Carl Sagan knew this. And he said it best.

“It’s not enough. And… it’s too much.” – Law & Order

“How strange it is to be anything at all.” -Neutral Milk Hotel

Hot Air’s Haphazard Healthcare Howlers

•2010/03/11 • Leave a Comment

I don’t mean to keep picking on Ed Morrissey. But he really has a knack for hunting down unrepresentative anecdotes, trying to link them to partisan narratives, briefly realizing that the larger implications make no sense, and then brushing past this problem with the sorts of brusque pronouncements that only sound convincing so long as you don’t think them through.

Case in point is his recent Hot Air piece on a Canadian patient who was denied surgical treatment and then went to the Mayo Clinic in the US. He and his friends then paid for the treatment themselves.

All in all, the ordeal sounds awful for Pankow. He was denied a surgery he believed he needed to save his life, went and paid for it in the US, and then was denied follow-up medications because they hadn’t been approved in Canada for use with his type of tumor-site. That’s awful. But as an indictment of the entire Canadian system as compared to the US, it falls far short, as Morrissey himself briefly acknowledges:

Some will say that the runaround happens in America, too, with private insurers. And they’d be right. However, people in America have the ability to move to different insurers when they get lousy service, and still get treatment in their own country. They don’t have to flee across an international border to get medical attention.

The first part of this bit of subject changing is patently ridiculous. If you want a treatment in the US and your insurance company refuses to pay for it, you don’t have the option of then simply switching to an insurance company that will. No insurance company in its right mind would take on a dying cancer patient as a new client. Not because they are evil, but because selling an insurance plan to someone who already has enormous expected medical costs is like letting someone buy fire insurance after their house has already burned down. It’s not “insurance” at all. It would be the insurance company simply handing over hundreds of thousands of dollars to someone like Kent Pankow because Kent Pankow asked them nicely. While that would be awfully charitable, it wouldn’t have anything to do with the business of selling health insurance.

It’s true that, at least in Canada, Pankow couldn’t have simply gone outside his insurance company and paid for his surgery himself. But that’s an aspect of Canadian law that no one is proposing should happen here in the US. And if Pankow were simply an American citizen to begin with, he would have had to do exactly the same thing if his insurer denied him coverage for the surgery he wanted: pay out the Mayo clinic of pocket. Only with Obama’s proposed reforms would something like an already sick person shopping around for different coverage become possible, and then only because coverage would be universally required.

In fact, that’s what trips Morrissey up in another of his arguments:

Let’s see if we can’t tally up the scandals in this story. First, instead of rushing Pankow into surgery, doctors waited more than two weeks to decide whether he was “surgery worthy.” Obviously, this was not a medical decision, as the Mayo Clinic didn’t take two weeks to make a medical decision on Pankow.

There’s nothing “obvious” about this: Pankow paid Mayo to perform a surgery, and they did. And, from the sound of it, it wasn’t that successful, since they couldn’t fully remove tumor. That might have been because his Canadian doctors waited too long, but it also might have been because they were correct about it being mostly inoperable from the get go.

Contrary to what Morrissey implies, doctors in the US don’t immediately rush every single patient into surgery the second they have the option (nor does their failure to do so prove that they are “lousy”: sometimes surgery is not the best option). A lot of them DO have to make tough decisions based on uncertain circumstances, balancing different patient interests against getting more information, and so on. When patients pressure them to do so, doctors in either system will sometimes choose surgery over some other course of treatment: sometimes even when it doesn’t seem to be the most medically viable course. But again: only if someone will pay for it. And that’s exactly what happened with Mayo. Someone paid for it.

The larger fact of the matter is that every single health care system in which patients have any sort of insurance coverage, whether it be provided entirely by the government or the private market, is going to have lots of cases in which a patient wants more care than the insurer is willing to pay for. That’s the basic function of insurance as a means of cost control: preventing people from spending other people’s money on unlimited amounts of healthcare (something that would ultimately bankrupt everyone). When you’re sick you of course want the best treatment money can buy. But insurance systems can’t afford to provide that level of care for everyone, and trying to do so is part of what’s making health insurance costs spiral out of control here in the US.

That inevitability means that if all someone like Morrissey is going to offer are anecdotes of this happening in one system while then offering no examples of it happening in another (let alone any actual statistics), that’s flatly disingenuous as a way of comparing two systems.

Of course, that’s not even addressing the fact that Morrissey is essentially arguing that the US shouldn’t pass a health reform bill that doesn’t set up a Canadian-style system because of something he doesn’t like about the Canadian system, simply because Obama and Democrats have praised SOME aspects of the Canadian system. For Morrissey, the actual details of the bill (and all the compromises made necessary by a politically divided system) just don’t seem to matter very much.

Why You Should Give Google Buzz (…Maps) Another Chance

•2010/02/25 • 2 Comments

Ok, so, admit it: Google Buzz had one heck of a botched launch.  While I now think a lot of the privacy concerns were overblown, and most were fixed with lightning speed. But it set a bad precedent. Worst of all, it put most no-nonsense social media mavens in the mood to just turn it off completely and never look back.

Well, that’s sort of a shame.  Because while the Gmail version of Buzz has plenty of promise and, with its privacy concerns now mostly sorted, is worth far more experimentation as it matures, the best part of Buzz isn’t even available to most users yet.  It’s found exclusively in a Google Maps layer that’s only available on Android-based smartphones (it’s also partially available to iPhone users via the mobile web client, but it’s buried in links, and doesn’t offer the same front-and-center functionality or ease of use).

If you are signed into your Google account, you can instead get a peek at what I’m talking about by checking out this URL-hack (if it asks, allow it to “continue on unsupported device” and if you want, enable google gears in order to try and get the location features working).

If that worked, then what you’re looking at is a map of Washington DC filled up with geo-tagged buzzes. The best ones come with pictures. The actual application is far slicker, but you can still get the basic idea: that Buzz, at least in this incarnation, allows folks to annotate time, space, and place with text, pictures, and video. And to do it in a way that’s open for public viewing and comment.  That’s a fairly unique and promising social experiment, even in with behemoths like twitter and Facebook stealing all the air.

As with all social media, the value here isn’t in people saying things like “I am at X!” or “I ate cheerios!” but rather in augmenting everyday experiences out in the world at large with information, wit, and surprise.  While I wouldn’t style myself a master of any of those things, Buzz’s location-based, potentially picture-based updates have turned walking around a city like DC into a sort of scavenger hunt for interesting things going on in the city, big and small.   A couple of recent examples:

Why Google didn’t roll THIS version of Buzz out in a big way is a mystery to me.   Currently, you can use Buzz from three different interfaces:

All of these interfaces offer different features and even sort of a different philosophy on what Google Buzz is or wants to be.  For most people, that sort of design incoherence is immensely frustrating (in fact, I’ve found myself having to switch between all three interfaces just to accomplish exactly what I want). What’s dispiriting here is that Google’s motto on interfaces used to be: simply simple simple.  It made things easy for new users to figure out what was going on.

Buzz, at least so far, has broken all those rules. The desktop client doesn’t really have any location features for posting updates (odd in a world of coffee-shop laptops) and seems geared towards aggregating content from all sorts of different sources.  The mobile web client is sort of a klunky twitter-client. But it has a couple of inexplicably unique features like allowing you to search for a location instead of just giving you a short, constraining list.

The Maps client, on the other hand, is incredibly simple in comparison… offering modes to post, look at buzz updates on the map, and also a stream of buzzes either nearby or at a particular registered venue. And yet, this is really all it needs to be.  It is, most of all, FUN.  They just need to bring it to a wider array of phones and reproduce it on the desktop.

When they do, I strongly encourage folks to give Buzz another chance: to experiment and see if they can’t create some value with an interesting new way to social-up our media.  Annotate your city.  Go and check out things that others have highlighted. Just, gosh, play around and invent fun.

P.S. If there were one change I’d want asap, it would be the ability to dial up or down the overall accuracy of your GPS (or assisted GPS location).  Some buzzes I want to be super location aware. But with others, like when I’m posting from home, I would’t mind giving away my street or my town, but I’m not crazy about Buzz pinpointing the exact location of my bedroom.  Google’s location setup already has a UI for this: a blue circle that shows how accurate any location-guess is. They simply need to offer users a way to select precisely how small that circle can be (and how accurate it’s center/origin is) at any give time or location.

Note also that the Maps client does NOT yet allow folks to set the privacy status of their updates directly (as the other two clients do). Nor can you view a map layer of just those people you are following, or who follow you. Both features had better be on their way soon.

O’Keefe & the “TeaBuggers” Do Not a Watergate Make

•2010/01/28 • 4 Comments

I’m not a fan of Andrew Breitbart, and I’m definitely not a fan of James O’Keefe, his paid “guerrilla journalist” lackey. Their allegations against anti-poverty group ACORN were outrageously deceitful and misleading: their contention that ACORN was a major player in a vast conspiracy to commit election fraud? Laughably fantastical.

But, frankly, let’s be serious for a second: the current allegations against O’Keefe and his friends, originally sold as “wiretapping” on the order of “Watergate,” look pretty weak.

At this point, all signs point to the entire incident being a hidden-camera sting to try and impeach Senator Landrieu’s claim that her phones couldn’t handle incoming calls from angry constituents. If so, then what O’Keefe and his friends were doing was, while certainly deceptive and aggressive, not particularly sinister. It also may or may not have been criminal, depending on what federal prosecutors can establish. Without any evidence of wiretapping, the charge of “tampering” with phones is far more vague, resting on interpretations of intent. Maybe they did intend to fool with the phone lines in some way. But, just as likely, maybe they only intended to see if staff would foolishly show them the phone closet, or to gather evidence that the phones were set to improperly divert constituent calls.

I get that many liberals are disgusted by Breitbart, quite legitimately. His “wait till all the facts are in” and “well, I’m paying him, but that doesn’t make me responsible for what he does” defenses are absurdly hypocritical. But that’s all the more reason for his critics not to overplay their hand and give Breitbart exactly the sort of easy red meat he craves. He’s already well on his way to painting O’Keefe as a martyr: a victim of “Big Government” that doesn’t want it’s corrupt ways exposed. If O’Keefe gets off with a misdemeanor after liberals promised 5-10years in prison, he’s going to look vindicated, not chastened. Rhetorical and factual sloppiness on the left is making it all too easy.

And you know what? If Landrieu was dissembling about the state of her phone lines, that IS wrong, and it’s a good thing that someone was trying to catch her at it. Questions of whether one should be able to deceive staff in constituent offices or film them (they are, after all, public employees, paid out of tax dollars, and rarely handling sensitive information) are legitimate issues for debate and criminal culpability. But at least in this case, I just don’t see grounds for the degree of outrage or gloating. O’Keefe getting wrong the particulars of what sort of sting recording is legitimate under what particular state statutes would be stupid, but I can’t see it as particularly evil, in and of itself (how he dishonestly uses and presents that footage is a very different matter). By and large, while I don’t think undercover sting reporting to be particularly nice, I also think it has its place. In fact, I’d lean towards it being legal in most cases to record someone without their knowledge unless there is a compelling reason or exception why one shouldn’t be able to.

Oh: and I’m also pretty disgusted by the people who think it’s hilarious to imagine O’Keefe and his friends getting raped in prison. The idea that ANY crime, let alone a crime as minor as this one, deserves a sexual & physical violation in return, is vile. Imagining it as a form of comeuppance to your political enemies is even more so. No decent Democrat would joke about the idea of a conservative woman getting raped. Essentially the same violent act done to a conservative man is no less disturbing or wrong.

Update:
O’Keefe has released a statement that’s basically in line with everything I suspected. Concedes that security concerns in a federal building make his actions problematic (which is perhaps an understatement) but denies being there to “tap” or even “tamper” with the phone lines. And, well, I sort of believe him. Sorry.

Reliably Partisan Blogging is Reliably Awful

•2010/01/12 • Leave a Comment

So, don’t think I’m picking on Ed Morrissey here, because I’m not,exactly. But this morning I came across this: “Coakley misspells name of state she wants to represent.” And maybe we should all stop and talk about it for a second.

Yep, that’s right: there’s a typo in the name of a state in the boilerplate legal fine print at the bottom of someone’s campaign ad. And someone noticed. And someone else blogged about it. The campaign pulled the ad, presumably to correct it. And then Ed Morrissey wrote about it some more, crowing about having a screencap that preserves the filthy crime for all eternity. And then the whole thing ends up with a sentence that drips with that heady mix of both insincerity and pretentious patriotism that seems so unique to political flaking:

Maybe Coakley ought to know how to spell her state’s name before asking voters there to send her to Washington to represent them.

Now, do you think that Morrissey, a conservative blogger for Hot Air, really believes that the candidate (Martha Coakley, a Democrat running for the seat vacated by Ted Kennedy) actually typed this text herself? No. That she can’t spell the name of her state? No. That she ever really even looked at that text, or that any politician regularly does, or even that their staff does? No. That the random ad production firms that politicians hire to produce their commercials more or less likely to miss typos depending on what party they’re working for, or even that particular campaigns more or less likely to catch those typos? No. That it reliably tells us anything at all about candidate Coakley, Democrats, Brown, anyone related to this story? No.

I’m not even sure he expects his readers to come away thinking that he sincerely believes any of these unspoken implications. In other words, there’s no substance here, and it doesn’t even seem like anyone thinks there is.

No, the whole point here is simply an excuse play a couple of quick emotional beats: to toss concepts like incompetence, or stupidity, or rushed-elitist-cappuccino-swilling-too-lazy-to-read-your-own-ad-copy whatever the heck out and associate them with someone Morrissey has decided he doesn’t like, and doesn’t want you to like. It’s an example of just how entirely insubstantial something has to be before it’s excitedly declared a gaffe these days, and how gaffes have become nothing more than the regular bong-hits of back-patting partisan pique.

Now I don’t think Morrissy is an especially bad person for it, or even exceptional. Nearly every political blogger of every stripe plays into this little game to greater or lesser degree: the only two major variations are the degree of lockstep partisan consistency and the degree of sheer, winking smugness with which it’s done. Heck, nearly every human being indulges in precisely this sort of irrationality regularly. It’s just that in political blogging, it’s become a particularly painful routine trope.

But look: does it really have to be? It’s always going to be with us to some extent. I’m sure to do it myself. But… seriously folks. It’s boring to read. It’s thoughtless. It’s not even in the least sincere. It’s just people rooting around aimlessly for daily excuses to keep thinking nasty things about other people to reinforce what they already believe for other, usually much more coherent reasons. It might be human nature, but let’s at least admit that it’s an embarrassing part of our nature.

I should also note that Morrissey is, in fact, pretty clear why he’s inclined to be so perfectly nasty about this… because Democrats did it to Dan Quayle 18 years ago.

And, he’s right: they did. Of course, Quayle personally misspelled his word (potato), and did so very deliberately in the act of correcting a child who knew better. That, at least, gave the gaffe a arrogant comic quality that a random Coakley-associated typo has none of.

But still, what happened with Quayle was ultimately just as ridiculous. The potato incident, along with a bunch of other verbal gaffes became the defining elements of Quayle’s entire public career. And that, frankly, is pathetic.

Everyone’s guilty, but we can all do better.

The National Debt is Probably Not the Problem You Think it Is

•2009/11/10 • 5 Comments

Hear me out on this.

Back when George Bush was in office (and after, but more defensively, during the Obama honeymoon), you heard a lot from folks on the left about how we were running up the national debt. Meanwhile, activists on the right, who’d mostly bit their tongues on this subject during the Bush years, now feel fantastically liberated to once again voice the same fear.  Both sides have tried to punctuate their concerns by bemoaning the debt as a burden that we’re “leaving for our grandchildren.”

This pity-point however, is nonsense. Neither group is really being clear about what they actually object to. Or, perhaps, they just don’t know what they’re talking about.

Continue reading ‘The National Debt is Probably Not the Problem You Think it Is’

 
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