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retrospective


Steve Jackson Games has been commemorating the tenth anniversary of the Fourth Edition of GURPS by posting short pieces by various of their authors discussing their experience with it. Today's Daily Illuminator has mine. (If you click the link after September 30, you'll need to scroll down to find it.)

Buffy Shrugged?


There has been discussion lately of a satiric piece in which Buffy Summers utters dialogue in the manner, and purportedly in the spirit, of characters from Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. The rhetorical style actually is fairly successful; it's a slight exaggeration of Rand's style, but recognizably derived from it, the way a caricature can be derived from an actual face. I don't find it equally successful at capturing Rand's actual ideas; Rand was subtler than she's usually given credit for, and neither denunciations nor caricatures of her views usually capture their nuances, or even notice them.

But it occurred to me that the exercise could be turned around, not in a satiric spirit, but in an entirely serious one. There are real problems about the ethical content of Buffy that aren't always examined. Maybe Buffy Summers ought to shrug.

Slayers have been around, the show tells us, for thousands of years. Characteristically they become slayers in early adolescence. They aren't necessarily volunteers; in fact the show makes a big point of Buffy's not having been a volunteer. They aren't even chosen by human agency, and the Watchers' Council can't always predict who's going to be the next one.

So here is this group of older men who have a problem: The presence of demons and demon-ridden corpses that prey on humanity. And how do they solve that problem? They pick out one girl scarcely past childhood, and designate her to fight and die for them. Her consent is not asked. She's infused with demonic entities that make her no longer fully human. She's sent out to fight monsters, over and over. Eventually one of them kills her, normally when she's quite young—and then the whole Slayer thing descends on another girl. The Slayers are a long chain of young girls whose lives are utterly destroyed.

We get to see the cost of doing this in Buffy the Vampire Slayer; by the time Season Five is at its end, Buffy is clearly burned out, to the point where death is a relief for her. And Buffy is unusual in having had support from close friends all the way through. Past Slayers apparently did this sort of thing alone.

Really, this sort of thing is at best ethically questionable. It's easy to idealize Buffy as a hero, and she's portrayed as one. But she's also portrayed as someone who's had an unchosen, unwanted, and terrible burden placed on her. She rebels against it, and she keeps being dragged back to pick it up again. She can't even escape it by dying; after her death she's brought back, twice. How she struggles with the load is dramatic, and her efforts really are heroic—but the essence of drama is usually putting the hero in a bad situation and keeping them there. And Buffy's bad situation is one created by the ethically questionable actions of the original Watchers, and by the recent Watchers who've carried on the same tradition. Maybe it deserves to be questioned. And Rand's questions about preserving freedom against compulsion, about the legitimacy of pursuing one's own happiness, about the destructiveness of an ethical standard that turns people into sacrificial victims, seem like very much the right sort of questions to ask. Maybe the Watchers' Council could stand to be mocked as a bunch of exploitative Ayn Rand villains who are happy to gain from other people's sacrifices, and who will coerce or manipulative the victims of those sacrifices into submission, without a moment's concern for the load they're laying on them.

. . . for almost three thousand years or longer, architects have designed buildings with columns shaped as female figures—it got to be such a habit that they did it as casually as a small boy steps on an ant. After all those centuries it took Rodin to see that this was work too heavy for a girl. But he didn't simply say, 'Look, you jerks, if you must design this way, make it a brawny male figure.' No, he showed it . . . and generalized the symbol. Here is this poor little caryatid who has tried—and failed, fallen under the load. She's a good girl—look at her face. Serious, unhappy at her failure, but not blaming anyone else, not even the gods . . . and still trying to shoulder her load, after she's crumpled under it. (Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land)

Medicare mazes


Since I turn 65 at the end of the year, I've been dealing with Medicare for the past couple of months. Medicare A and B were simple: I visited the local Social Security office, waited an hour to be asked what I was there for, waited an hour to see the appropriate person, answered a few questions, and was signed up. Medicare A is hospitalization and costs nothing; Medicare B is general outpatient care and costs a bit over $100 a month, way under commercial rates.

The rest is complicated.

Medicare D is especially so. It covers most medications, with some copays, and must be bought from an insurance company. There are multiple insurance companies, usually offering several different policies. Rates vary widely, from around $20 a month to around ten times that. I haven't yet found a good page that compares what the different policies offer, aspect by aspect. The single most critical issue is the "doughnut hole": The first part of your drug expenses is mostly covered, the next part is entirely out of pocket, and then you go to having everything or nearly everything covered. Some purchasable policies cover "doughnut hole" expenses, but of course they costs more.

The other tricky part is that you are supposed to pick your plan by finding one that covers your current medications (plans aren't obligated to carry every sort of medication). But since I'm not taking any prescription medications, the search engines can't narrow things down for me; I just have to hope I pick one that covers whatever I may eventually need.

The other tricky part is that if you sign up for Medicare C, you don't need Medicare D and can't get it. It's rolled into Medicare C.

Medicare C is designed to cover some of the expenses that Medicare A and B don't cover—but the way it does it is that your Medicare A and B and D are all paid into Medicare C, which then pays for everything. You have a monthly premium on top of that; this is another thing you get from an insurance company. Some Medicare C plans are HMOs; others reimbursed your health care providers.

So why would you want Medicare D? Well, you have three options: Medicare C; going without extra coverage and taking your chances; and Medigap. Medigap is an entirely separate policy that you pay for month by month and that covers some of your expenses that A and B don't cover. There are twelve different versions, each applying to different things. And if you go this way you may want another policy to help with prescription costs.

Whew! Well, I started out by ruling out Medicare C; even if you don't get an HMO version, insurance companies tend to have their own networks of acceptable providers, and having Medicare A and B go through an insurance company would leave them confined to such a network. I don't want to have my options narrowed down that way.

So then Medigap. My next step was that there are three schemes for setting policy costs: community-rated (everyone pays the same), issue-age-rated (how much you pay is set by your age when you sign up), and attained-age-rated (how much you pay goes up as you get older). The first is more expensive; the third starts out low but grows to be expensive. The second seems like the best choice.

In my area, there aren't many insurance providers that offer Medigap, and many of them only do attained-age-rated, including the one I'm currently insured with. But one of them not only offers issue-age-rated, but has a neat little chart that explains the six different types of policy they offer and analyzes who would do best with each. Looking at their chart suggests to me that the option I already though sounded good, high-deductible Plan F, is indeed the one that best suits me; it has low rates, traded off for not covering the first couple of thousand dollars a year, but it also has an upper limit after which it pays for everything (well, for certain values of "everything")—which avoids substantial parts of the worst financial nightmare of health problems. So they're on my list to contact in the very near future.

And that just leaves Medicare D. I wish I could find a neat little page explaining the Medicare D options.

You know, I'm educated, I work with complex tables and academic prose for a living, and I spend time online every day—and this stuff daunts me. I keep wondering how many people just find it totally incomprehensible, and what sort of help is available for them.

Addenda: Well, now I'm even less happy.

(a) I called the company I preferred, and they say they don't sell insurance in my area and the Medicare Web site listing is in error.

(b) I called the other company that is listed as offering issue-age-related coverage, and they looked into the matter and said that California is an attained-age-related state. That is, apparently the state doesn't allow me to buy a policy where I pay more up front and avoid premium growth as I get older. No doubt this is justified in the name of "consumer protection." So seemingly I have to put up with a less desirable rate structure.

propositions


I've received the voter pamphlet for the November election, and I've taken a look at the ballot propositions.

2. Provides that state general revenues must go partly to building up a reserve against years with revenue deficits, and for payment of existing debts. There's an argument against it that this would be bad because it would limit the amount of money school districts could spend on current expenses in some years. But on one hand it's not clear to me that letting school districts spend more money results in better education, as opposed to expensive gimmicks like the Los Angeles school district handing out iPads to vast numbers of children; and on the other, well, you can always say, "We can't afford to save because of this urgent need," but down that road lies having no savings, and being in real trouble when finances get tight. YES.

45. Provides that the state insurance commissioner has the power to disapprove proposed health insurance rates set by insurance companies, on the ground that those companies are overcharging. Government regulation of markets is a bad idea in general, and a worse one when it's entrusted to a single person whose rulings cannot be challenged. It's also notable that the authority granted would not apply to insurance policies issued to large corporations with employee health benefits, which looks like blatant special interest legislation. NO.

46. Manadatory drug and alcohol testing of doctors. A blatant violation of individual privacy and an example of preventive law enforcement. Just the thing to make even fewer people want to practice medicine in California and drive up the costs of health care. NO.

47. Reduces penalties for nonviolent drug offenses and minor property crimes, treating them as misdemeanors rather than felonies. Unless I'm mistaken this would exempt those crimes from getting people put away under the "three strikes law," which seems like a good idea, given that the prisons are critically overcrowded. YES.

48. Permits the establishment of Indian owned casinos in two locations that aren't on tribal lands. I have mixed feelings about this; on one hand the idea that casinos can only be opened with special permission makes this a classic situation where political favoritism decides who profits and who loses in the market; on the other hand, that scheme of regulation is already in force, and letting in a couple of new casinos would increase the level of competition slightly. I think that comes down to a very marginal yes.

blowing on the coals


The Emberverse series that began with Dies the Fire seems to be S. M. Stirling's most successful yet. Three subseries have been completed so far: a trilogy, a tetralogy, and a trilogy. The Golden Princess, just released, is the start of a further trilogy.

I have to say that I found the previous subseries less satisfying than the first two; it felt more static, without the desperate urgency that drove the action of the earlier books. The first book was a summary of what had been going on in the Willamette Valley region while Rudi Mackenzie and his companions were on their quest; the last part of the third books was Rudi's later life, leading up to his death, and read like chronicle rather than drama, serving as a bridge to the new story—but a bridge that wasn't really needed; the final scene could have been the start of the new series, rather than a cliffhanger. It also strikes me that though the title of the last book, The Given Sacrifice, points to Stirling's concept of the king's role as offering himself for his country and people, in fact Rudi dies for his daughter Orlaith, coming between her and an assassin's blow.

That said, the new series looks to have the dynamism I was missing. Rudi's death establishes one plot-theme: Orlaith's drive, and that of Rudi's people, to avenge him. The opening chapters establish another: The Japanese refugees he helped just before his death have their own quest, for another magical sword, Grasscutter, which needs to be restored to their country to preserve it. The Japanese emperor's death parallels Rudi's, and leaves his daughter, Reiko, as his heir to pursue that mission. And Reiko and Orlaith have common enemies, new supernatural powers akin to those of the villains of the second and third series. Best of all, this story brings back a sense of mystery that the third series did a little too much to dispel.

Many of the best parts of this book, for me, were the scenes from the point of view of the various Japanese characters—mainly Reiko, but also the captain of her now ruined ship. Stirling's previous story was one of ethnogenesis, with a dozen or more different cultures emerging out of fortunate leaders in what used to be the United States; now we're seeing all those cultures through the eyes of people to whom they all seem much alike, even hard to tell apart. We also get to see them looking back at twentieth-century Japan; I particularly liked the early passage where one of them says,

"These gaijin look so strange, though. More so than the pictures prepared me for. Hardly like human beings at all. More like characters in an ancient manga!"

What Stirling uses to tie the two groups together, beyond a common foe, is a common sense of honor, one that he conveys in Reiko's memory of the Japanese ship running short of food and water, and her father refusing his men's pleas for him to take their shares, and smiling. This is one of Stirling's recurring themes, and if it's an idealization that most rulers and aristocrats don't live up to, it's an appealing one.

This is also a novel about a new generation taking over, and as such it has to have the young stepping up to do what's necessary, as their parents did in the second series, and their grandparents in the first. I do wonder if their departure in secrecy, out of fear that the older generation will insist on keeping them hope safe, or not take the necessary action, might turn out not to have been needed—after all, this older generation's leaders had their own prophetic dreams, went on their own quest, and fought their own supernatural adversaries. I thought one of the sets of viewpoint characters, the new generation of Dunedain, weren't as interesting as the others, despite their having been provided with their own more personal revenge motive; on the other hand, they did give us a view of the dark powers on the other side, in the form of a Haida shaman with something like enhanced time sense, and that helped make the story creepier.

In any case, though I'd never lost interest in this series and this world, The Golden Princess gave that interest renewed vitality. I'm impatient to see the sequel.

my feet are cold!


Seriously, I just realized that my feet are uncomfortably cool, and I want to put on socks. In a weird way, that's kind of pleasant, after the stiflingly hot and humid weather of the past few days.

It would be even better if we got more rain. . . .

narratives


On my last visit to the San Diego State University library, I had an unfilled place in the five books I was allowed to borrow. So I looked up a book I read repeatedly in my adolescence, Louis Untermeyer's Modern American Poetry/Modern British Poetry, out of curiosity to see how I would react to it now. Of course a lot of the poems in it were ones I've read repeatedly in the interim, and often I've read many other poems by the same poets, as with A.E. Houseman, Rudyard Kipling, James Elroy Flecker, e.e. cummings, and Robinson Jeffers. But there were a couple I hadn't seen since back then that stood out for me, both comparatively long storytelling poems.

Vachel Lindsay's "General William Booth Enters into Heaven" is fantasy: a kind of apotheosis of the founder of the Salvation Army. (It's not literally an apotheosis—in terms of both Booth's and Lindsay's theology that would be blasphemous—but it follows all the conventions for apotheosis in classical mythology.) Lindsay made a career of performing his verse in public, and this poem is clearly designed for emotional appeal to the audience—but it does an amazingly good job of it, one that worked for me, even though I don't believe in Lindsay's Christian theology or mythology.

For one thing, it uses the device of refrain, not in recurrent form that defines regular stanzas, but scattered through the poem:

Booth led boldly with his big bass drum—
(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)
The Saints smiled gravely and they said: "He's come."
(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)


The political imagery is a strange mix. In Biblical style, some of it is about royalty, with kings, queens, princes, banners, and empires as symbols of exaltation, but it also envisions Jesus coming out of the courthouse of Heaven and watching Booth and his followers march around the square. It emphasizes the paradox of Heaven's royalty been drawn into the lower-class rowdiness of Booth's redeemed followers, in a kind of saturnalian effect.

It's all the more effective that after all that loud energy, Lindsay ends on a quiet note:

Christ came gently with a robe and crown
For Booth the soldier, while the throng knelt down.
He saw King Jesus. They were face to face. . . .


D.H. Lawrence's "Whether or Not" is an almost total contrast. It's written in dialect, as "Booth" is not, but it's book poetry, not intended for public performance but for an audience of readers, most of whom would probably not themselves speak dialect. And it's a rather dismal little drama, about Tim, a young policeman; Lizzie, his fiancée; and the widow Tim lodges with, who's just become pregnant by him at the start of the poem. Lizzie's proud of having kept herself clean for Tim, shamed by public scandal, and disgusted at his having anything to do sexually with a woman who's twenty years older, ugly, and poor—but she still wants Tim to pay off the widow and marry her at the registrar. But Tim views the whole matter differently, blaming Lizzie for getting him aroused and sending him home unsatisfied; he's angry with her righteousness and disgusted with the whole business. Lawrence seems to sympathize with Tim, but he also gives Lizzie some fair criticisms of Tim's unwillingness to take responsibility for his own actions.

Really, nobody comes off very well in this drama. But Lawrence visualizes all the motives very sharply and compactly, a lot more so than in such of his novels as I've read. It's a creditable bit of realism. And I think this may have been my first exposure to English rural dialect.

Dunna thee tell me it's his'n, mother,
Dunna thee, dunna thee!
—Oh, ay, he'll come an' tell thee his-sèn,
Wench, wunna he?


A third poem in this collection, G.K. Chesterton's "Lepanto," is about a historical incident that I find interesting: The last sea battle fought by galleys, between the Ottomans and a European fleet. But I'm afraid I found it unsatisfying this time, for one big reason: Chesterton doesn't actually tell the story of the battle! He gives us vivid scenes, but they're static tableaux. There's no sense of cause and effect. A lot of it isn't even about "Don John of Austria" but about the world around him—for example, the line "Christian killeth Christian in a narrow dusty room" sounds as if it might be about the assassination of Christopher Marlowe. Chesterton has a vivid rhetorical style that I found exciting when I read this in the 1960s (not knowing what Lepanto was about), but he doesn't actually have any action—which strikes me as a failure in a narrative poem.

game writing


Since dr_kromm has mentioned it, I'm at liberty to say that I've spent the past couple of months working on a new GURPS supplement—specifically, for the GURPS Powers line. This one entailed a lot of research, which was tremendous fun, of course. I returned the contract in late June and turned in the final draft for editing last weekend.

The next phase for me, some weeks down the road, I expect, will be reviewing the initial page layout, making tiny revisions to the wording, and suggesting art and quotations to be dropped into spaces on the pages. I already have a file of a couple of dozen suitable quotations. . . .

session: World Class


I came into the latest session of World Class with a whole new storyline ready to go, after we cleaned up a few bits from the one preceding. As it turned out, though, the players had other ideas.

We started off with a discussion between Her and Avatar of the millennia-long conflict between the outer space elves and dwarves, and the question of whether Avatar was a product of dwarf technology or, as Avatar thought, a spontaneously awakened intelligence within the Internet.

This led to a plan to track down the possible space dwarf agent who had set off the gray goo outbreak. The superheroes had a device designed to track him, but how well it would work would depend on how far away he was. They had a lead tying him to a Massachusetts startup, Elemental Engineering, so they went to Cambridge and tried to set up a meeting, on the pretext of Drift wanting to acquire them. They weren't receptive to being acquired, but were willing to look at outside investment, so the meeting was scheduled.

Avatar tried to hack into the phone listed for the dwarf's apparent identity, "Reinhardt Eisner," but that didn't go so well; its programmed defenses were too much for him and in fact nearly took him over. So he backed away from further probing for the moment.

As it turned out, "Reinhardt Eisner" wasn't on site; he had flown to Zürich and not come back, and he wasn't answering his phone. Drift decided the firm wasn't a good acquisition—their data storage technology allowed very high density but only at the expense of using several different rare and high-priced metals. During the tour, Moritura's nanite were able to pick up samples of some DNA that appeared not to be human, or even terrestrial. She discussed it offsite with Her and confirmed that it was typical of the space dwarves.

At this point Moritura was called away by a new assignment from Jordan Grey of EAGLE.

The rest of the group located the space dwarf in a St. Petersburg residential facility set up for high-ranking Russian officials. Anukai used his magical gate abilities to get them inside, and after an unexpectedly fierce struggle they incapacitated the dwarf and took him back to one of Drift's floating cities for interrogation. In the course of the initial questioning, he starting doing something that looked alarming, so Her incapacitated him further by amputating both his hands.

In the meantime, Moritura was tracing the records of radical Muslim groups in France. She learned that they were prepared for widespread civil violence against Jewish neighborhoods and businesses; that they were going to be equipped with military grade small arms; and that the various organizations had ties not only to Middle Eastern radical groups but to an American financial complex whose main director was the reclusive billionaire Tobias Ravenwood. The prospect of dealing with this sort of terrorism made the job a high priority for Moritura, but also led to her taking a trip from Falls Church to New York, where she visited the memorial site for the World Trade Center and thought about her dead husband and son.

money on the pavement


My friend shirebound just posted a poll about whether you'd pick up a penny off the sidewalk, and my reaction was, "A quarter, yes, but a penny's not worth it." In thinking about it, I realized not only that I'm considering how the time required compares with the time needed to earn the same amount sitting at my desk working, but also that my subjective reactions are consistent with my assuming it takes about 15 seconds to pick up a coin from the floor, sidewalk, or street.

At that rate, a penny in fifteen seconds equates to $2.40 an hour. A nickel equates to $12.00 an hour. A dime equates to $24.00 an hour. A quarter equates to $60.00 an hour. So those are the pay rates at which each of those coins should become marginal.

I'm amused to see that my emotional reactions are consistent with numerical estimates . . . even though I never worked out the arithmetic before today!

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