Saturday, July 11, 2015

New computer

So my old laptop died.  That wasn't so strange--it was just a cheap laptop to tide me over, and the WiFi had been iffy for a year now, but now I couldn't get it to work at all. For the new computer  I wanted something better. Something small, light, but powerful, with plenty of RAM, a fast processor, an SSD drive, and long battery life.  Plus, I wanted Windows. I was going to wait for Windows 10, but I needed a computer now, and Windows 10 was a free upgrade anyway. I figured I could live with Windows 8.1 for three weeks if I had to. Finally, I wanted it to be 2-in-1, both laptop and tablet.

There are a number of options, but I wanted the best for my purposes. And for my purposes, what I needed was primarily a laptop, and only secondly a tablet. I would mainly use it for writing and web surfing, but it would also need to be able to handle work tasks, which could occasionally be more complex. So I looked at the usual review sites, such as CNET and TechRadar. There were three that stood out: the Surface Pro 3, the HP Spectre x360, and the Lenovo ThinkPad Yoga 12. (I wanted to like the Lenovo LaVie 360, which was very light, but it didn't get very good reviews, which generally said that it felt too flimsy and had an awkward keyboard layout.) The Surface Pro 3 was more tablet than laptop, and I wanted something that didn't need a separate kickstand.  That left the HP Spectre x360 and the Lenovo ThinkPad Yoga 12, and it was a close call.  The lift-and-lock keyboard of the Yoga 12 appealed to me, but it didn't seem to me to be worth the premium, and any comparable loadout of the Yoga 12, in terms of processor, memory, resolution, and SSD seemed to be several hundred dollars more expensive than the HP Spectre.  Still, it was close.  If the Signature Edition of the Yoga available from the Microsoft Store for $1299 had been in stock, I might have gone with that, even if it was lower resolution and a smaller SSD and had an older, but comparable, processor, but the version that was readily available would cost $1800 with the loadout I wanted.  So instead I got the $1400 loadout of the HP Spectre x360 (available only at Best Buy right now, but it should appear at the Microsoft Store soon).


It's slightly lighter (3.2 lbs vs 3.5 lbs) and has a slightly longer battery life. The processor of the Spectre x360 and the newer Yoga 12 are roughly the same, though the Yoga 12 had a slightly better i7-5600U available vs. the Spectre's i7-5500U. But the Spectre came with a 512 GB SSD (an option which would cost an extra $300 on the Yoga), and a 2560x1440 resolution (not available for any price on the Yoga 12).  I would sort of like a digitizer pen, which the Yoga comes with (for a price), but you can buy one for $60, and I figure I should at least try a cheaper stylus before I upgrade to that.

I've been using it for two days now, and so far I'm pretty impressed.  The battery life seems to be as expected, though I haven't done any tests on it myself.  The keyboard is nice, and works well for my typing style.  The clickpad also works well, despite some complaints in the reviews.  Right now my biggest complaint is that the rim around the keyboard has a sharp right angle corner, especially noticeable where my wrist rests when the laptop's lying in my lap at certain angles.  I'm tempted to take a dremel to it, but maybe there's a less severe solution--some sort of tape or rubber where my wrist rests?  Other than that admittedly annoying flaw, I think it works very well.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Bard's Tale IV

One of my clearest memories of PC gaming comes from when I was in middle school. I was in the basement playing a PC game called The Bard's Tale. It was one of those games that really made you work. I had a ton of graph paper beside me, with each level of the dungeons carefully mapped out in pencil, with notes for everything I found. The Bard's Tale dungeons were especially devious, with teleporters and spinning squares that left you disoriented and uncertain where you were and what direction you were facing, and many of the pencil lines on the graph paper were erased and redrawn more than once as I struggled to reorient myself. But I did, and I was nearing the end of one of the final dungeons (I think it was Kylearan's Tower, so not the quite the last dungeon).  My mother had already called me up to dinner more than once, and I knew that she was getting impatient with my innaminutes.  Just a little farther, though.  And then, just as I was nearing the end of the dungeon, I ran right into a group of wandering monsters. Only these were new, not anything I'd ever faced before--I looked at the picture, which resembled nothing so much as slimy lizardmen on four legs in the CGA graphics (4 colors! 320x200 pixels!) of my 286 computer. Then I read the name.  Balrogs.  Balrogs?! I had read Tolkien, I knew what balrogs were--they're the things that dragged off your epic-level wizard and sent the rest of your party scrambling for the exit.  And that was just one of them--there were three here. This was going to be a deadly battle.  And then my mother called again, with the dreaded "If you don't get up here right this minute, young man, . . ." attached. There was no way I could finish such a tough fight and be at the dinner table soon enough to satisfy my mom.

So I left the game running--thank goodness for turn-based combat--and hurried up to dinner. I spent the entire dinner bouncing in my seat with delicious anticipation, eagerly telling my family all about the dread creatures I faced, and the very real danger that the party I'd raised from level 1--the dwarf paladin Astar, the half-elven bard Dinorin, the elven wizard Nilotin (nearly 30 years later and I still remember most of their names)--were about to face their doom.  That night, that anticipation, are among my greatest memories of PC gaming.  Of course, the fact that the balrogs happened to be real pushovers unworthy of the name was a bit of a letdown, but I was so close to defeating the evil wizard Mangar that I barely even cared.

I bring this up because The Bard's Tale is back.  Their Kickstarter campaign is already successful, and now they're aiming for the stretch goals. This is a true sequel, picking up 150 years have the last game, The Thief of Fate, and giving it all the beauty that modern gaming is capable of, as seen in this gorgeous video created using the game engine:

I'm hoping they meet some of their stretch goals--I'd especially like a 3rd person perspective on the party during combat, but the fundraising has slowed sufficiently that I doubt I'll see that.

Right now, the one thing I'm disappointed in is the backstory:
Ever since the Church of the Sword Father civilized the land of Caith and chased out the heathen a hundred years ago, the new Skara Brae, built on top of its ruined predecessor, has become a god-fearing town, where it is dangerous to admit to harboring such superstitious notions or knowing anything of the old ways. 
Which is unfortunate, because it's starting to look like the trolls and bloodfiends and hobgoblins from all those fairy stories have returned. Terrible things have been happening in Skara Brae - people slaughtered in their beds by unseen beasts, holy sites desecrated, folk disappearing between field and home, statues of the Mad God found in bloodstained back alleys, and the Song of the Maiden heard again for the first time in a generation. And worse, the people most equipped to deal with these old threats have been made outlaws.
Since the advent of the Fatherites, the practice of magic has been made a sin, and the old races of elf, dwarf, and trow have been banished, with all known ways to their realms smashed and sealed. And now, unable to stop the horrors that have been preying upon Skara Brae, the church has decided to put the blame for them on the Adventurer's Guild, shutting it down and calling its members cultists, witches, and pagans who must be burned at the stake for their unholy crimes.
This sounds like the standard fantasy trope of the evil monotheistic religion oppressing the good, more enlightened polytheists. It's a tired trope, particularly annoying to those of us belonging to one of those monotheistic religions. Aside from being based on more myth than history, the trope gives short shrift to both religions, mythologizing one while vilifying the other. Consider, for example, that witch-hunts predate Christianity. Persecutions of that sort seem to be a constant--if you believe in magic, then reacting violently against those whom you believe are practicing it against you is only natural. I'm hoping that the actual game will handle the religious conflict with a bit more nuance than this backstory implies.

To be honest, this is a small thing. It's one of those things you learn to expect if you play fantasy games or read fantasy books. Christians who want to enjoy fantasy just become inured to it. It was edgy in the seventies or eighties, but now it's so common that hardly anyone notices (though God help the developers if someone decides this is Islamophobic--which, given that I doubt they'll actually describe the Church of the Sword Father in terms of the Trinity or the Incarnation or any doctrine that is recognizably Christian, it may more closely resemble).

I'm still eager for the game and definitely want to play it, and I don't regret giving significantly more than the minimum for their Kickstarter. But I am just a little less eager now.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Review of Marvel's Daredevil

Mavel's Daredevil is the first of the Netflix Marvel superhero television series. In a way it's similar to Agents of Shield--it's set in the same universe as that television show, as well as the Avengers movies. But it's a very different type of show, less about exploring larger-than-life superheroes or the government agency responsible for dealing with them, than with the reasons a man with certain gifts becomes a vigilante. In that sense, it resembles Batman Begins or Arrow.

In some ways, Daredevil is a C-lister of the Marvel universe. Marvel's A-level superheroes are Spiderman, the Fantastic Four, and the X-Men. Even the Avengers are more B-listers, which explains why, when Marvel decided to take a more direct hand in the development of the superhero movies, they still had the rights to those heroes. The fact that they did such a phenomenal job with them did a lot to move the Avengers up in the superhero world, and now they've turned those same skills to the C-list heroes such as Daredevil.

Daredevil is an interesting hero, as his superpower is his blindness. The same accident that blinded him also heightened his other senses, giving him the ability to "see" much better than most people. He's also a highly trained martial artist, and very skilled at fighting. But he's not the powerhouse of a Thor or an Iron Man, or even a Captain America, and that makes him a much more down-to-earth hero. He's not out saving the world, he's taking on more localized villains--gangsters and killers, not aliens and gods. So his story is a lot more grounded.

Daredevil takes place entirely within New York's Hell's Kitchen shortly after the events of the first Avengers. New York is a mess, and Hell's Kitchen is worse than most of it. There's a great deal of crime in the streets and corruption in the police department. Matt Murdoch has just started a law firm with his old college roommate, Foggy Nelson, trying to do good work, but that isn't enough for him. Thus he begins his own private battle against the corruption around him, using his superior senses and his martial arts ability. But it's not easy. The fight scenes of Daredevil are very good, and very bloody. Matt can take on multiple enemies, but not with ease, and he often takes a beating while dishing one, and is staggering around, barely standing by the end.

Matt struggles to maintain a balance between practicing the law and working around it, but his greater struggle is with his faith. His Catholic beliefs both convict and inspire him, and he often seeks counsel from his priest. I'll point you to this article for more on this, but it struck me as more realistic than most Hollywood portrayals of people wrestling with their faith.

Matt's law partner, Foggy Nelson, is one of my favorite characters in this series. His main role is as the plucky comic relief, but he's also a genuinely decent person and a capable lawyer. He keeps the show from becoming too dark, and when Foggy's and Matt's friendship is at risk of breaking, there's as much a sense of danger as when any of the characters' lives are at risk.

Karen Page and Ben Urich round out the cast of good guys. Karen is Foggy's and Matt's first client, and she quickly joins their tiny law partnership. Ben Urich is an over-the-hill investigative reporter who's finding it hard to get by in the world of blogs and Facebook, but still has one good story left in him. They are up against a citywide conspiracy headed by Wilson Fisk, aka Kingpin. Wilson Fisk is presented as a complex character, who really wants what he thinks is best for the city, but whose goals require breaking a few eggs. And when those eggs are friends of the good guys, they fight back.

One disappointment I had with the show is that there wasn't that much lawyering going on. There's only one instance of courtroom drama, and I could only count four clients over the course of the show. I'm not entirely certain how they're staying in business, but I can definitely believe that they're struggling to do so. I did like that old-fashioned, generally dull legal research helped to bring the show to its climax and expose the bad guys, but that seemed to be entirely pro bono.

Overall, I really enjoyed Daredevil. It's dark and gritty, but not so dark that it lacks hope and a moral center. The characters feel real and their struggles were meaningful, both the external fight against Wilson Fisk and his allies and their internal struggles with their own consciences and pasts. If it's a sign of things to come, I'm definitely looking forward to the later series, especially Luke Cage and Iron Fist, two characters whom I already like. Heck, I've never even heard of Jessica Jones, and I'm still looking forward to her show.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Universal Health Care Insurance

Conservative policy wonk Avik Roy has made the argument that universal healthcare is a desirable good. Conservatives tend to be skeptical of this argument, since it has a whiff of the concept of positive rights. Conservatives are big believers in negative rights, the idea that certain personal freedoms are protected from infringement by others, especially the government. Freedom of the press, and of speech, of religion, from unreasonable search and seizure, these are all negative rights--freedoms that are protected from interference. Positive rights, such as freedom from hunger, disease, poverty, or homelessness, work differently. They require that the government act in order to provide them.

Conservatives are skeptical of positive rights for several reasons. One is purely philosophical: anything that must be given to you is not a right. Rights do not come from the government--they're natural, God-given. Any right which comes from the government is one which can be taken away by the government. Government cannot provide everything. No government has been successful in eliminating poverty, or disease, or hunger. Government is not actually capable of providing these rights. Sure, they can sometimes do so, for some people, but not for everyone, everywhere. So to pretend that it's a right, and not to be able to provide it, inevitably leads to more and more coercive means being used in the attempt to provide it. Coercion is the tool the government uses to achieve its goals. The government can't provide anything without taking from someone else. Thus taxation. Most people agree that some level of taxation is reasonable, but how high are we willing for it to go, how complex and overbearing and intrusive of a tax code will we put up with? A lot of the complexity of the tax code is due to the government using the coercive power of taxation to try to change people's behavior.

All that said, conservatives can come around to the idea of health care as a public good, like highways and utilities. The problem is that health care is also expensive, and providing health care to everyone only exacerbates the main thing that makes it so expensive: the third-party payer problem. In general, people don't pay for their own health care, someone else does, either their insurance provider or the government. Thus they have no motivation to keep their health care costs low by shopping around and looking for better deals, and hospitals and doctors have no motivation to provide better deals. Providing free health care to everyone removes what little motivation there is to spend wisely, and so people will ask for more medical care than they need, while government, now on the hook to pay for it, looks for ways to reduce costs, which leads to shortages and rationing. The great thing about pricing is that, at its most basic, it balances supply and demand. The more people who demand something, the more expensive it is, which both encourages more people to provide it and more consumers to consume less, which drives the price down. This balance is why the free market system is so good at distributing goods at reasonable prices. The freedom of prices to adapt to the circumstances influences both supply and demand to a reasonable balance. Ideally, this could be applied to medicine as well.

The problem is that applying it to medicine is hard. Too many people see medical care as a right, not something you can put a price on. Most companies supply health insurance to their employees, partially subsidized by government tax incentives, and since people are terrified of going without health insurance, that leads to them feeling reluctant to leave their jobs. And when people are without insurance, medical problems can go untreated, and trying to get treatment can bankrupt them. What I'd like to see is a way to cushion the problem of going without insurance, while addressing the third-party payer problem. My proposed solution would provide single-payer, government run health insurance, not health care.

1. Health insurance, not health care

The idea of insurance is not that it covers all the costs of routine maintenance, but that it provides help in case of catastrophes. If the costs become more than you could handle on your own, your insurance steps in. Modern health insurance isn't like that--it covers a lot of routine medical treatment long before deductibles become an issue. That's less like insurance and more like a health care plan. What I'd propose that the government provide is something very different. It's similar to what Megan McArdle proposed in this article, but I had already been thinking about it before reading her idea, and have a slightly different spin.

The principle idea is that the government doesn't pay anything, not one dime, to your health care unless you exceed a certain percentage of your income. As long as your costs are less than that, you pay for it yourself. If you exceed that percentage, then the government would cover the entire costs beyond that percentage.

What that percentage should be is something I'm not sure about--my initial idea is 25%, McArdle proposed 15-20%. I think that the actual amount is open to debate, as long as it is a relatively large proportion of your income. The idea is to make sure that you have an incentive to manage the costs of your own health care, and for that you need to feel that if you hit the limit, then it's costing you too much. Thus you're motivated to seek competitive pricing and moderate your level of consumption. If it were small enough that you'd always hit the limit, then you no longer have the motivation to manage your cost, and it doesn't work.

Most people would not hit the limit most years, but in the case of a catastrophe, they're protected from ruinous losses. Illnesses that prevent you from working would also lower your income, and thus also lower your limit.

You may think that this may work for the middle class, who can absorb a large expense for a year or two, but what about the poor, who have difficulty giving up even 1% of their income, much less 25%? I think it's reasonable that the percentage for poorer people can be significantly lower, possibly gradated to be 20%, 15%, 10%, even as low as 5%, depending on their income in comparison to the poverty level. I wouldn't favor bringing it all the way down to 0%--I think everyone should have some motivation to manage prices. Ultimately, it would be up to Congress to decide on the exact percentages, and I expect there to be negotiations and debate as to what exact percentages work best.

2. Transparent cost

So how do you pay for this? Simple, with a tax, but more importantly, with a simple tax. A straight percentage, that everyone pays, similar to Social Security or Medicare, that is by law required to be sufficient to pay for the program. Everyone pays in, everyone benefits. And since the cost is transparent and obvious, any proposals to change the program to be more or less generous have immediate effects that everyone feels. I suspect that the actual tax would be pretty small, as the program is not very generous--most people, most years, will not hit the limit that they have to hit for the government to pay anything.

3. Insurance companies

Wouldn't insurance companies oppose this? That's what killed Hillarycare, and Obamacare only won them over by bribing them with the individual mandate and subsidies.

This plan doesn't make health insurance obsolete, however. Most people don't want to risk paying up to 25% of their income for health care. They want a health care plan, not just insurance. Insurance companies can market to them, businesses can still use health care plans to entice workers.

In addition, the percentage limit would apply to insurance companies as well. When someone with insurance ended up with health care costs exceeding a set percentage of their income, the insurance company would also be reimbursed by the government. Now, it may be helpful if the costs are tweaked, perhaps so insurance companies are on the hook for 35% instead of 25%, or don't see their limits gradated for lower incomes, but overall the idea is that there's a significant gap between fully covered and not covered at all that insurance companies can fill. And since their risks are lower, their premiums can be commensurately lower. And since their risk is even lower for lower income people, it's certainly fair and expected for them to base their premium on people's income.

I still think there would be some opposition from insurance companies. With this sort of safety net, more people would feel free to go without insurance, which is not a bug but a feature of the plan--people without insurance have even greater motivation to manage their own health care costs. And I doubt insurance companies would like that.

4. Transparent payments

Encouraging people to shop around for their own health care is one part of the equation for reducing the third-party payer problem. But another part of the problem is the lack of transparency of health care costs. Hospital and doctor billing, tied up as it is with health insurance and government-provided health spending such as Medicare and Medicaid, is unconscionably opaque--no two people pay the same, and it's those who pay for their medical care themselves tend to pay the most, since insurance companies can use their clout to negotiate lower prices. How do we overcome that problem?

I propose that any hospital or doctor that takes any federal money, including money from any insurance company that accepts reimbursement from the government, be required to publish a schedule of prices, clearly stating how much they charge for treatment, whether that's counted in the treatment itself or at an hourly rate for the doctor's or nurse's time. And if they charge different amounts for different insurance companies, then they should publish that as well. Now this billing will probably be fairly complex for most people to figure out, but any publishing beforehand gives people an opportunity to measure the cost before going to the hospital, to look for cheaper alternatives, and to dispute the bill. And if trial lawyers want to sue hospitals for deceptive billing practices, I'm open to allowing that. I believe in tort reform for medical malpractice, but I also think that hospital billing can be one of the most deceptive practices in modern medicine, so a little bit of legal correction might be very helpful. I also think that doctors and hospitals will quickly find that giving clear pricing, where individuals pay nearly the same as insurance companies, will be a draw for customers, and that eventually most places will respond to that incentive

Would it work? 

So will all this work? I think that's it's a reasonable approach, but nothing is guaranteed to work. I am fond of it because it is insurance, rather than a health care plan, costs are fairly low--most people, most years won't take advantage of it--while it prevents catastrophic health care costs from leading to bankruptcies. If it does work, it could very well replace Medicaid and Medicare (which may require scaling for the elderly in the same way it scales for the poor to ease people into it). There would also be less call for the market distorting tax advantages for employer provided health care.  These things would tend to balance out the costs. Most importantly, it tries to address the third-party payer problem, which would hopefully lower costs. There's the difficulty in actually passing something like this, and whether people invested in the current system would agree to it. As far as I know, no one's seriously considering a plan like this aside from me and Megan McArdle, so that's probably the biggest issue right there. And while I think it would work, my background's not in economics, and definitely not in health care economics. I'd be interested to hear what a real expert thinks of something like this.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Review of Malarat at Black Gate

My latest self-published book review is now up at Black Gate.  Here's a sampling:
This month’s self-published novel is Malarat by Jessica Rydill. The book is the third book in Ms. Rydill’s shamanworld series, but also a standalone novel. The novel takes place in a world much like our own, with France (called Lefranu), England (Anglond), Jews (Wanderers), and Christians (Doxans). But these analogs are not exact (for example, the Doxans elevate Megalmayar, the Mother of God, to the position of a goddess) and there are also a number of things that are very different, such as the Great Cold, that isolated a portion of Lefranu so that it remained stuck in Medieval times while the rest of the world advanced to what most closely resembles the late 19th and early 20th century, complete with trains, firearms, and electricity.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Review of The Severed Earth at Black Gate

My latest self-published book review, this time of Chris Presta-Valachovic's The Severed Earth, is now online at Black Gate. Here's a sample:
The rock band Karma is in trouble. Despite the success they’ve had, their ex-manager Izzy embezzled most of the money before dying, leaving the members deep in debt. They have one chance to produce an album and turn their fortunes around, but their lead singer, Vao, is having a crisis of faith, and thinking of quitting after the death of his mother. The guitarist, Rafe, is fed up with Vao’s moping and unreliability and would just as soon be rid of him, while Jonathan just wants to hold the band together. Ian and Dylan just want to make music, but they, too, are stuck in this emotional train-wreck of a band. But when the record rep turns out to be a wizard, the band members soon find themselves with other things to worry about.
Read the whole thing.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Google knows it's my birthday

I'm not sure whether to be disturbed or impressed that this is my Google doodle today:

Happy Birthday Donald!
Google's Birthday Doodle