14 November 2004

[Politics] Health Insurance

The activists promoting universal health care need to acknowledge the real difficulties surrounding health care costs in America. Until they do, the people are correct in opposing such measures.

Universal access to health care is treated, correctly, as one of the ultimate goods that mankind has created. The incredible increase in average lifespan that results from straightforward and reasonably priced access to health care has revolutionized much of the world.

However, in America we're going backwards -- the percentage of the population covered by health insurance plans is decreasing. Reasonably, many liberal activists are concerned about this and want to ensure everyone in America has access to health care. While that's a good idea, it's not practical until we deal with a couple of our fundamental misconceptions about health care.

1. We can't afford to give everyone what's currently defined as health insurance
The majority of the costs in the health care system are not those associated with what we idealistically view as health care. One-half of all the health care costs an American incurs in their lifetime will occur in the last twelve months of life, as health care workers perform frantic efforts to extend life by a few months or weeks.

Both the public and government leaders "are too accepting of the notion everyone should get all the medical care they like," said Paul B. Ginsburg, president of the Center for Studying Health System Change, a nonprofit policy research group in Washington. "I don't think any country can afford that." [1]

Laurence Baker, an associate professor of health policy and research at Stanford University, said, "Really reducing health care costs will mean reducing what we do for patients." [2]

If we want to ever get to a system that provides universal access, we need to strictly definite what we are willing to provide universal access to. Can we afford to provide everyone multiple bypass surgeries? You might think that's a moral question, but actually it's a straightforward financial question (the answer is, "no"). There are things we should provide universal access to because it's such a societal good (setting the bone in your broken arm); and there are things we should provide universal access to because it's by far the best way to lower overall health care costs (pre-natal care is a great example of this).

2. Some things aren't really well-suited for insurance (or, personal responsibility cannot be legislated away)
As Americans live longer and the baby boomers head for senility, we've discovered far too many conditions massive numbers of older Americans will get at some point in their lives. Prostate cancer, for instance, may very well be in my own future: one in six American men will get prostate cancer at some point in their lives [3]. One in eight American women will develop breast cancer [4].

Traditionally, we treat medical insurance like liability insurance: protection against some extremely unlikely, and catastrophically expensive, events. The reason traditional insurance is economically effective is that it replaces a catastrophic burden on a few randomly selected individuals with a relatively low burden on everyone who is covered for the risk. That way, people don't have to maintain economic reserves (i.e., savings) to deal with, for instance, the costs of their car losing its brakes and destroying an art exhibit in a window.

However, with the rates of incidence and huge costs of certain diseases now, we need to realize medicine should be more like a savings account: if you expect to be covered for breast/prostate cancer, you need to save up a little more than 1/6 the cost of diagnosis and treatment for this disease. It's not a low-incidence disease, and 1/6 the cost of one incidence of these diseases is a lot of money. Yet, who else are you expecting to pay for it? The money has to come from somewhere.

We need to face the fact that if we expect to be covered for this kind of terrible disease when we're older (both prostate and breast cancer incidence rates go up a lot with age), we should be paying into a medical savings account of some kind throughout our working years. It just doesn't make sense to run medical costs the way we do now (pay-as-you-go, with everyone who's in the medical insurance pool in a given year paying all the costs in that pool for that year).

[1] Washington Post http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A55301-2004Sep27.html
[2] San Francisco Chronicle http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2004/10/11/MNGII96CVP1.DTL
[3] Prostate Cancer Coalition http://www.pcacoalition.org/education/facts_figures.php
[4] Imaginis http://imaginis.com/breasthealth/statistics.asp

[Politics] Abortion

About two years ago I had the epiphany that abortion is actually immoral, and that if progressives in the USA ever want to move the conversation past the current deadlock, we need to admit this. I've been a good mainstream liberal voter (and campaign contributor) during my adult life, and I've always treated the right to choose whether to have an abortion as an unquestioned good. About two years ago, I was doing some reading on foetal development, and it occurred to me (for the first time, to be honest) that there is simply no way to clearly draw the line between when the change happens from "a bunch of cells" to "an unborn child". There's certainly nothing magic about three months: many of the important organs are functioning in a basic form by then, and many other important developments don't happen until long afterwards.

Unfortunately, I quickly grasped the implication of that. The Asian belief that life begins at conception is basically correct, and that means that abortion is simply immoral. There is a limit, of course: I don't believe that either the pill or the morning after pill are immoral. But once a woman has missed a period (meaning that foetus has been developing for a month or so), you're well within the morally unsupportable time.

Does that mean abortions should be illegal? God no, it wouldn't help our country to return to the days of illegal abortion clinics and dead mothers in backroom bathrubs. I realized that the reason abortion should be legal and safe has nothing to do with whether it's moral. Abortion needs to be safe and legal because the damage to society from outlawing abortion (it results in backroom abortions, which in turn often result in the death or sterility of the mother; additionally, it would cause many women to have unwanted children whose childhood will not likely be a positive experience) is much worse than the damage to society from permitting licensed and regulated abortions.

That's probably regarded as heretical by the mainstream left. That's a shame, because the current status of the abortion debate is deadlocked over the "Right to Choose!"/"Right to Life!" dichotomy. While both sides of the debate are unequivocal about their own opinion, neither one has a point that makes any sense to the either side (my friend Bill Polson once asked the following insightful question about Pro-Life protesters: "Suppose you really believed abortion was murder. What would you do?").

It's both more productive and more intellectually honest to acknowledge that abortion is not morally suportable, and to seek to move the grounds of debate as to whether all morally questionable activities should be prohibited by the force of law. While I'm not sure this is theoretically against the point of view of mainstream left-wing organizations, it isn't where the debate is being conducted. Interestingly, in looking through NOW's website while writing this, I couldn't find any actual arguments as to why abortion rights are a good idea -- it's definitely treated as a given.

25 October 2004

Google Wins Again!

I've just started using Google Desktop search, Picasa, and Hello. It's been a good couple of days... I just got Google desktop search (desktop.google.com) installed on both of my Windows machines (at work and at home), and just picked up Picasa (the easiest description is that it's a Windows version of iPhoto, plus it does great image indexing of your hard drive); and I'm trying out Hello, Google's photo-IM application.

They're all great! Desktop search in particular is a can't-go-back experience (I just wish it worked on my Mac!). Interestingly, all three of these apps bring functionality to Windows machines that's already built in in some form to Mac OS X (unlike Windows' "Find in File..", the search function on the Mac works reasonably well although not as well as Desktop Search! Picasa and Hello are iPhoto and iChat).

What I didn't say about Japan

In my goodbye speech at Eurocentres, I talked about what was different (or not) from when I visited Japan in May. Being a polite guest, here are a few things I didn't say. Even between May and October of this year (2004), there were some noticeable changes in Japan.

The most pronounced, as I mentioned in my last post, is the difference in attitude towards foreigners and particularly Americans. While the Japanese don't yet have the open contempt for our idiocy that young Europeans do, it seems to me there's a noticeable distance developing in the attitudes of Japanese. The desire not to sit next to me in the trains, for instance, was palpable. While Japanese are arguably still the most hospitable people in the world (I personally have had a businessman walk 15 minutes out of his way to take me to my destination), in particular younger Japanese aren't anxious to associate with foreigners (however quickly they adopt foreign music, fashion, or food).

Something else I noticed -- which must have been going on in May as well, but I became more aware of -- is that there just aren't very many younger Japanese. Of course, there are still Japanese kids, as our visits to the Elementary and High School attest. But the elementary school we visited now has only 138 students; at its peak size, that same school building housed 1700 children. That particular school, near the center of town, was hit by both the suburban migration and the birthrate; but the demographics around Japan's low birthrate are truly amazing.

Current Japanese birthrate is only about 1.2 children per mother[1], well below the 2.1 needed for flat population. Simply put, the population of younger Japanese is going away. This in turn is driving a huge change in the percentage of the population which is retired: while it's rising in every country, in Japan it will reach 30% of the population by 2030 [also from 1] (in the US, where we have a almost-breakeven 2.07 birthrate [2] plus lots of immigration, our retired population is estimated to peak at around 19%).

That kind of tremendous retired population, not to mention the long-term implication about a continually shrinking base of young people, are real problems... and yet, every Japanese person I've talked to was quite fatalistic about it. "Yes, we'll have to import lots of workers," or "Yes, it will be quite a burden," were typical comments. I was surprised since there are steps one could take (raising child tax credits, making day care more available/affordable, etc.) to try and encourage individuals to choose to have another child; however, no one seems to be examining those. It's a particular piece of Japanese fatalism I guess, like the attitudes towards the banking crises.

One last change: I think younger Japanese are getting fatter. It certainly would make sense -- American-style fast food is propagating throughout Japan, and many younger people reject the fish-and-tofu-heavy traditional diet that has historically made Japan's low heart disease rates the envy of the developed world. While I don't think they'll reach the average obesity of Americans any time soon, the trend is observable on Japan's trains and subways.

[1] http://www.stat.go.jp/english/data/handbook/c02cont.htm#cha2_2
[2] http://www.nationmaster.com/graph-T/peo_tot_fer_rat/NAM

comment from old blog site:

Hi there,

Just found your blog while I was looking for people with experience at Eurocentres in Japan. I have been to Eurocentres 3 times before, twice in Paris and once in Moscow and I was very pleased with those schools. Of course each school is different so I was wondering what your impression of the Kanazawa school was. I have been living in Japan for 5 years and never studied in a program, just on my own. Any candid comments would be greatly appreciated.

Rebekah Hamner
rahamner at hotmail dot com
from Austin, Texas
living in Tottori, Japan


23 October 2004

Seeing America from Abroad

The W. has successfully changed how the rest of the world regards Americans. The most prominent one is a change in attitude about Americans. If you don't leave the country often, it's hard to realize how completely George Bush's action have changed the attitudes the rest of the world has about America. A few years ago, attitudes about America and Americans (especially in Japan) were often positive. While we might be regarded as typically loud, somewhat overweight, and under-educated about history (all true), we also represented a very dynamic country with a huge opportunity for self-improvement and a record of supporting liberty more than anyone else could claim.

Now, attitudes are totally different. The rest of the world looks at us as a bunch of warmongering idiots, can't possibly understand why we elected George W. Bush as President or how we could possibl think of re-electing him, and general regards being American as a negative. If you're traveling overseas now, being American isn't something you mention quickly.

While people are understanding of the fact that not 100% of Americans support Bush's wars, the default perception of America has changed a lot. Japan has a somewhat less negative reaction, in my experience, than Europe. Europeans and especially young Europeans have a very negative view of recent American actions. The long-term implications of this for America's relations with Europe ought to worry any thinking person.

21 October 2004

My Last Day Speech at Japanese Class

Test your Japanese reading ability!

A few possibly unusual Kanji:
漫画人 = "Mangajin", a magazine name
白山 = "Hakusan", the tallest mountain near Kanazawa
石川 = "Ishikawa", the prefecture Kanazawa is in こんにちは!

åå¹´å‰ã«ã€ã‚ãŸã—ã¯ã€Œæ¼«ç”»äººã€ã®ã€€ã–ã£ã—ã‚’ã€€ã‚ˆã‚“ã§ã€ãƒ¦ãƒ­ã‚»ãƒ³ã‚¿ãƒ¼ã®ã‚¢ãƒ‰ã‚’ã€€è¦‹ã¾ã—ãŸã€‚ã€Œã“ã®ã€€å­¦æ ¡ã«ã€€ã„ããŸã„ã€ã¨ãŠã‚‚ã£ã¦ã„ã¾ã—ãŸã€‚ã€€ä»Šå¹´ã®äº”æœˆã«ã€ã‚„ã£ã¨ã€€é‡‘æ²¢ã«ã€€ãã¾ã—ãŸã€‚
いま、五か月あとで、もう 一ど 日本語を べんきょうするために 金沢に 来て いろいろな ことは おなじ です。

金沢の天気は まだ いつも かわって います。りょこう は ニッかいめ でも いい 天気 の ふつかかんを 見たことがありません!
金沢の自転車のルールは まだ ぜんぜん ありません。
よしかわさんのりょりは まだ おいしくて、
日本の小学生は まだ かわいくで、
片町は まだ たのしいです、
そして 四月の学生のクリスさんは まだ 金沢から 動きません。

けれども、ほかのことは かわりました。
いまごろのじきは、たいふうが よく 石川けんに 来ています。
あいにく、くまも よく 石川けんに 来ています!

この りょこうのあいだに 私は 白山にのぼって 日本の山ののぼり方を ならいました。
石川けんの天気 のせいで、なにも 見えなくて も あたらしくて たのしかった! 
ã‚‚ã†ã€ã‘ã‚“ã©ã†ã‚’ã€€ã—ã¦ã€é«˜æ ¡ç”Ÿã‚’ã€€ã—ãªã„ã§ã€€ã†ã¤ã€€ã“ã¨ã€€ãŒã€€ã§ãã¾ã™ã€‚

しかし、ユロセンターの いちばん たいせつな ことは ぜんぜん かわりませんでした。
ã›ã‚“ã›ã„ã¯ã€€ã¾ã ã€€ã˜ã‚‡ã†ãšã ã—ã€ã‚„ã™ã“ã•ã‚“ã¯ã€€ã¾ã ã€€ã‚„ã•ã—ãã¦ãªã”ã‚„ã‹ã ã—ã€ã»ã‹ã®å­¦ç”Ÿã¯ã€€ã¾ã ã€€ãŸã®ã—ãã¦ã€€ãŠã‚‚ã—ã‚ã„ã—ã€ãƒ¦ãƒ­ã‚»ãƒ³ã‚¿ãƒ¼ã¯ã€€ã¾ã ã€€ã•ã„ã“ã†ã®å­¦æ ¡ã§ã™ã€‚ã€€ãã‚Œã€€ã‹ã‚‰ã€€ã‚‚ã€€ä¸€ã©ã†ã€€ãƒ›ãƒ¼ãƒ ãƒ»ãƒšãƒ¼ã‚¸ã‚’ã€€ã¤ãã£ã‚‰ãªã‘ã‚Œã°ãªã‚‰ãªã„ã€€ã¨æ€ã£ã¦ã„ã¾ã™ã€‚ã€‚ã€‚
みんなさん、どうも ありがとう ございました。
また 合う とき まで、さよなら!

30 September 2004

Behavior Patterns

Human behavior patterns often make no objective sense, but make perfect sense if you role-play what the participants are feeling. Here in Kanazawa, the school only has one staff member (other than teachers), Yasuko-san. Yasuko-san ends up helping out everyone with schedules, arrangements, reservations, and the thousand other details involved with traveling in a non-English-speaking country. So, there's usually a clot of students waiting to speak to Yasuko at the breaks.

Both in May and on this trip I saw a distinct behavior pattern emerge. Yasuko speaks English well, but is a native speaker of Japanese and encourages people to speak to her in Japanese as much as possible (better for learning!). Because of that, there's a clear pecking order that's established around her: the advanced students who can speak easily in Japanese will go ahead and speak, while the students who need to use English to ask their question will hang back and wait for a turn.

This beahvior sorts almost perfectly along level of education in Japanese. Obviously, there's a little bit of personality variation to it, but not a lot: some of the least social students, so long as they are advanced speakers of Japanese, speak up the quickest in this environment. And even the most social students will hold back when a advanced student is having a rapid-fire conversation with Yasuko.

Of course, logically, this is silly because the students who can't yet speak in Japanese are usually the ones that most need Yasuko's help! The advanced students may just be telling a story or asking about something trivial, whereas the beginning students need something more important (like how to get home!). But in terms of the ego of the individual, it makes perfect sense: the advanced students are speak out because they don't fear ridicule or correction (even if they are corrected, they'll simply take that as a learning experience). Not only do the beginning students have more anxiety around speaking out in Japanese, they feel the penalty of interrupting a rapid conversation with one that's likely to be much slower. So, they'll wait for a quiet moment to start their own question (and quiet moments, around Yasuko, aren't so likely to happen!). These factors play out at each different skill level down the experience levels of the students, with the pecking order behavior as the result!

28 September 2004


Once again, I'm struck by being in an incredibly international group. I just started Japanese class here in Kanazawa again, and even though the group is very small this time (11 students), it's incredibly diverse. We have three Swiss (Eurocentres is headquartered in Switzerland); two Germans; a Brazilian; an Italian; a Dutch woman; an English woman; and three Americans. For two people, both of their parents are Japanese; one of them already speaks good Japanese, the other does not; for one more person, one of their parents is Japanese. We have at least one person who loves Manga and Anime (that was also true when I came in May), and two doctors. We have two University students and several retirees. I go through the list because I'm continually amazed at the complexity of the world whereby all of us come and find common interest in learning Japanese in this particular school, in this particular town, in this particular month.

27 September 2004

Japanese Cellphones

I just returned to Japan, and cellphones (or 'keitai' as they're called here) have changed dramatically since I was here in May! I spent several weeks in Japan in May of this year, and I was amazed by the keitai culture -- everyone in Japan has a cellphone, and uses it constantly, rarely for talking! The most common use of the keitai is for instant messaging, but the next most common is for photos and after that comes games (Japanese talk on their cellphones way less than Americans actually, the prohibition against annoying others is much stronger here!).

Anyway, between May and now there was a noticeable change in Japanese cellphones. The camera-in-phone craze had just started then, and between then and now it has bloosomed mightily, as has GPS-in-cellphone and cellphone-as-picture-archive. As a result, Japanese cellphones today are noticeably larger than May's versions were; they have a good camera, tons of capacity for storage, a nice big display and lots of features as compensation for the extra size.

After I returned from Japan in May, I had cellphone envy so I went out and upgraded to a cool new Sony-Ericsson T616. At this point that phone (my American cellphone) is smaller than most Japanese cellphones! On the other hand, it doesn't have the multi-megapixel camera of the latest Japanese phones, or a built-in GPS either ;-).

four comments from old blog site:

Are Japanese celluar companies more expensive than the states?:-I

Sweety (godsbabylove_1 at hotmail dot com) - 12 June '05 - 20:50

Nope, if anything somewhat cheaper. Like here, there’s a huge variety of plans and discounts with service, but they weren’t more expensive particularly when I was there in Oct. 2004.

Leo - 15 June '05 - 02:48

I have a Samsung Triband cell phone. Does anyone out there knows how I can make my cell phone work in Japan?? I will really appreciete an answer. Thank you.

Ron Thompson (randolph.thompson bnet dot net dot tr) - 18 June '05 - 00:06

No, it won’t. Although the Japanese phones use the GSM standard, they use it on a different frequency band than the rest of the world (see, for instance, http://www.geckobeach.com/cellular/artic..).

If you’re going to be in Japan for more than a few days, the cheapest thing to do is to buy a prepaid card phone from Vodaphone once you arrive in Japan. It’ll set you back about $50 if you buy the dead-cheapest one, and after that you’ll use up the prepaid cards as you call. Most combinis (convenience stores) have new cards.

If you’re only there for a few days, you can rent a phone at the airport, I’ve used Telecom Square before http://www.telecomsquare.co.jp/sights/e_.. (they’re half the price of the Vodaphone rental service), but it’s about $5/day and the per-minute charges are much higher than the prepaid phones.

Lastly, my US provider (AT&T Wireless) actually has a plan where they’ll rent you a Japanese phone here in the US before you leave. It’s not a great deal, mostly because it’s a handset that roams on your US number—meaning anyone in Japan who wants to call you has to call the US (and get charged), and then you get charged the roaming fees. But if you must-must-must be available at your US number while you’re gone it’s a way to do it.


22 September 2004

The Ultimate Kitty Toy

Here's a cheap tip for you guitar players with cats. One of the things I wanted to do before taking off for Japan was change the strings on my guitar. As I was doing that tonight, I discovered the cutest kitty toy ever: An old low E string. You hold onto the tuning machine (i.e., sharp) end, and the bridge nut becomes the object of total fixation. Best of all, the metal string has enough springiness to be intrinsically fun, you don't have to dangle it or anything; it will oscillate all by itself. It's absolutely indestructible, so the kitty can claw and chew all they want, and it's shiny so it glints and calls to them. It's hard but not impossible to catch... what more could you want! Whee! Obviously, if you let the cat have the whole string, be sure to wind off the sharp wire end.

My cat is tired but very fascinated right now.

19 September 2004

Sky Captain, the biggest waste of Art Direction since Fifth Element

I just saw Sky Captin and the World of Tomorrow, and there's never been a movie that took me out of the film so many times. While the posters show off some of the gorgeous art direction in this film, the film is terrible. Over and over again something happens -- whether in plot, character, or effects -- that takes you right out of the film.

* "Paley", the boss character at Gwyneth Paltrow's newspaper, is trying to be Lou Grant. But they forgot that the fruff-but-caring character has to be gruff before he can be caring. His first line is, "Polly, I don't want you getting mixed up in this."

* A scientist steps on a plate which passes him through the Van de Graf generator and turns him into bones... bones which have a richly textured, pitted look like absolutely nothing else in the entire movie (can you say, "Additional Visual Effects by...").

* Jude Law's P-40 (the Flying Tigers plane) flies from New York to Nepal. And back (admittedley, partway back he does run out of fuel).

After seeing the movie, I read some of the background information about how it's the "first live-action picture made entirely with computer-generated sets." Both this movie and Final Fantasy show why that's a bad idea; conveyance of emotions is not supported by the performances or flow in this movie. We've seen the lead actors be good elsewhere, so you can't blame it on them... From the footage I've seen so far, Polar Express later this year may put another nail in the coffin of the idea that performance capture and virtual sets are a good way to make [an entire] movie.

There is a lot of good work in the film (primarily art direction, but also Giovanni Rabisi as the show-stealing sidekick. "I meant, throw something" is a great line. If you're cursed enough to see this film, be sure to watch for him!

12 September 2004

Losing Tactics

The Democratic candidates and party machinery continue to disappoint with bad choices of issues and angles. Everything I've read or received lately about the election has been depressing, and not simply because the W. has climbed out to a lead. I've become more and more convinced that the reason the Republicans have won control of the country is because they actually do have more clear convictions about how the place should be run (convictions I happen to disagree with, but nevertheless).

The specific depressing item was the report that the Democrats have decided to run on the economy as their big issue. If this pans out in their strategy, we can only hope the W. does something really stupid, because it's a losing issue. On its own right, it fails for the simple reason that in most of America, the economy isn't that broken. There's a related issue that might be a winner (job security), but for most Americans, there is work and people are spending.

But that's not the real reason the economy is a terrible choice. The fact is, the issue of this election is 9/11 and our response to it, up to and including Iraq. There's no reason to avoid that issue, as long as you're willing to speak clearly on it (Point #1: Our reponse to terrorism has inflamed much of the world against us, and made our country palpably less safe; Point #2: As President, George W. Bush knowingly lied to the public about Iraq in order to drum up support for an immoral war that is unrelated to the war on terrorism). Alas, the Democratic nominee is unwilling to speak clearly on these points, and so the entire issue now needs to be avoided.

--sigh-- The lack of clear thinking, the lack of strong ideas -- these days, liberalism is defined by what it's against rather than what it is for.

18 August 2004

Druggies no longer mainstream?

Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle is a really funny movie, but it isn't making any money. Are Americans too conservative for stoner comedies nowadays? So, from the first time I saw the preview, I was psyched about the movie "Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle." I grew up in Michigan, and down in Ann Arbor where I went to college we had a White Castle out on the south side of town. It was the perfect destination late at night, when nothing but greasy tasteless food would do. So I was psyched by the trailer for Harold & Kumar, and even more so by encouraging early reviews.

I went to see the movie last weekend, and it is a damn funny movie. The two leads are both great, and although many of the jokes are stupid (this is a stoner comedy, after all), there are some great moments ("Dude, did Doogie Howser just steal your car?" is about as good as this kind of movie gets). However, despite all that, this movie isn't making any money. As of the end of this weekend (it's second in release), "Harold & Kumar" has fallen out of the top ten and has only grossed $15.9M so far. So, the bottom line is, America is not warming to this movie.

I'm really starting to wonder whether America is simply too conservative for stoner comedies anymore. There's no escaping the fact that H&K->WC is all about getting stoned; it's the pot that's the motivation for their frantic White Castle search in the first place. Critics generally dealt with this pretty well (H&K is at 73% positive reviews on www.rottentomatoes.com), but it could be that the movie-going audience doesn't. While critics tend to be older, the prime movie-going audience is in the 18-25 age range, and that younger audience is notably more conservative than older folks these days, especially with regards to drugs (they didn't grow up with the counterculture).

It's sad. No more Bill & Ted's, no more Ferris Bueller... oh, well. At least we're smoking less (aren't we?)

one comment was posted on this back on my old blog:

i agree those movies are some of my favorites….American Culture is way too uptight for this kinda of humor…but hey at least we enjoy it!!!

Tasha (email is waterskiingchk88 at aol dot com) 29 July '05 - 13:32

14 August 2004

Polar Express and the Uncanny Trough

I just returned from SIGGRAPH 2004, and they were showing a bunch of clips from "Polar Express" in several events. Many people there were ooh-ing and aah-ing over it, and I was just puzzled. The footage they have from this film just looks completely unappealling to me (if you haven't heard about this film, it's a children's story where Tom Hanks, via facial & body motion capture, drives all the major characters).

In particular, Lance Williams, a CG industry veteran whom I respect, was talking about how Polar Express will really "change people's perceptions" of motion capture. If it does, I think it'll be for the worse. They had a number of videos simultaneously showing Tom Hanks' live performance and the rendered CG characters driven by the capture. To me, all that you learned by watching those video was how much more compelling the live performance was.

A friend quipped that "Polar Express" could be the American version of "Final Fantasy". The footage shown sure made it look that way.

15 July 2004

Is Britney Spears the last Superstar?

The new approach to music might mean we've seen the end of the Britney level of global superstars. Music is changing fast (the RIAA's best efforts notwithstanding). We're seeing the end of traditional "Album-oriented Rock" at last; file sharing and legal downloads have both enabled tremendous user choice: you only have to buy the songs you want. That in turn has made the traditional role of the superstar, which is to sell millions of copies of a single easily manufactured physical item, much less important.

Now what matters most is to get a song out there people want to have in their e-music collection, and the number of ways to do that has multiplied. American Idol epitomizes the way in which the once-formidable lock the major labels held on introducing new talent has been attacked by other media. And downloading, especially in the form of iTunes, is its own grass-roots music promotional vehicle; since everyone at my company has switched to pervasive use of the program, the last three new albums I've purchased are music I discovered through other people's iTunes shares.

All of this makes me wonder if we've seen the last of Michael and Britney. It's not that there won't still be stars, for the same reasons there are event movies: we all need particularly popular items to talk about around the water cooler with people we know. But the particular heights of pop stardom scaled by the young Spears, Jackson, or Springsteen may not be needed anymore by the industry.

Before, you needed someone to create excitement and trips to the record store; someone whose multimillion-dollar album production and promotion costs could be trivially offset by the first five million copies sold. Now, the manufacturing, distribution, and inventory issues are gone (or at least, managed by Apple and Real); while promotion is still an issue, it may be more economically productive to have a larger stable of moderate-performing artists who energetically self-promote and use word of mouth, rather than TV commercials, to reach their audience.

12 July 2004


This was the best web humor link I've gotten in awhile. From the Merc's "Good Morning Silicon Valley", the "amazon.com contrarian game".

Only one comment:
I’ve continued to play this game, and it really does work: pick a classic film/book/CD, go to amazon.com, pick “see all customer reviews”, and sort by rating from lowest to highest.

Leo - 12 July '04 - 00:17

08 July 2004

New wave of Webware

The last couple days have proven how far the web has come from a publishing to a
collaboration medium. So, after watching from the sidelines for awhile, I decided to check out the idea
of blogging recently. It took me about an hour to get Pivot, the software that
runs this blog, downloaded and installed on my server
(which is hosted at WebIntellects on a very basic hosting plan).

A couple days later, something came up in an email group where we wanted to
have a Wiki for the group. It took a little longer to get tiki installed, but tiki is an
incredibly powerful piece of groupware -- although all I've enabled
at www.stoneschool.com/tiki is a forum and a single Wiki,
tiki supports blogs, chats, polls, surveys, etc., etc.

A few years ago I was very involved with the SIGGRAPH website. Website work
involved lots of knowing HTML and CSS at a deep level, and web apps involved
mucking around in PHP and mySQL. Although that's still true, the lesson of tiki,
Pivot, plone, or the many other open-source collaborative software is that I wouldn't
bother; the functions I was ultimately trying to provide are already available
through these mature and highly functional tools. Having started to customize and
override various default settings with both Pivot and tiki, I can't imagine going back
to actually having to build all of this functionality myself (aka with stone knives :-)).
While the plethora of "me-too" products and Microsoft crowding out all other
software vendors can make you cynical about the state of software, the reality
is that a few years of progress, plus things like PHP, Python, and mySQL becoming
part of the expected services from an ISP, have made groupware on the web
trivial to implement. That's a pretty big change from just a few years ago.

05 July 2004

Crime and Japan

The Japanese have begun to fear crime in the same irrational way as Americans. One of the interesting (if not pleasing) things I discovered on this trip to Japan is that the Japanese are starting to fear crime. After decades of essentially having no crime, in the last ten years Japan has begun to have a little crime. To us, it still seems like the safest place on the planet, but to them its a rising wave of lawlessness. Virtually every Japanese person I talked to on this trip mentioned the increase in criminal incidents.

Sadly, the reasoning and cause both seem to echo some of the bad tendancies of America. A number of Japanese -- especially older ones -- blame the crime on the influx of immigrants, particularly from Korea and China. There are more Koreans and Chinese working in Japan these days as the demographics of a rapidly aging Japan take hold. Whether that really has anything to do with crime is unclear; especially since the criminals chronicled in the media (at least) seem to be mostly homegrown.

What is clear is that, just as in America, it's the media coverage of crime that is generating the fear of it. Statistically, America is actually quite safe and getting safer; as you can guess from that, statistically this "crime wave" in Japan just doesn't register. Nevertheless, given the ceaseless reporting of crime, as well as a few admittedley sensational incidents like the recent 11-year-old stabbing, it's on the mind of everyone there.

Both "Bowling for Columbine" and "Fear: Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things" are good places to follow up this topic.

04 July 2004

Sleeping by the Pacific Ocean is incredibly peaceful, discomfort aside. Last night I was camping at Sweetwood in Half Moon as part of a group celebrating my friend Keith's birthday. I haven't been camping in awhile, AND forgot my air pad. Despite all that, I didn't have any problem getting to sleep or staying asleep -- and I'm pretty sure the primary reason is the white noise generated by the ocean. I think we definitely have an intrinsic like of that kind of random, naturalistic noise.

Of course, the other side was the animal. At 2:30am and again around 4:30am, everybody in camp was awoken by some kind of bizarre animal noise. It definitely sounded either like two animals fighting or one animal hunting another. It was a sort of high-pitched scream that was accompanied by a few other sounds and repeated a few times during each episode. The wierdest part was that although we had five or so dogs in camp, none of them went wild when this happened ("Hey, you big humans can go handle this one").