Best Books I Read in 2016

I’ve finally finished my “book a week” challenge (meaning I’ve read, rated, and reviewed 52 books for the year). I actually read quite a few more than that but didn’t mark them down (on my Shannara binge, I was getting through them every 2-3 days).

This year I went through audiobooks more than any year in the past. My guess is they still made up less than half the books I read, but it’s close. I don’t know if I have relevant commentary on what this means. I still like reading actual books a lot more than listening, but if I’m out on a two-hour run, it feels wasteful to not put one on.

I rated ten of the books five stars. I thought I would only choose from this list, but I’ve now noticed some of the ones I hoped to talk about didn’t make this cut.

BEST OVERALL:

Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood

Wow. I somehow went 27 years of my life without reading Atwood. This is my third book in three years. She is consistently one of the most original writers of our time. It is almost painful to realize this, because I only notice it as I’m reading her. So much of SF consists of doing a slight variant on the Hero’s Journey. She never stoops to this trope.

Atwood is like if Pynchon wrote an SF character study. The way this story gets told is a fascinating and delicate thing. There almost isn’t a story. She creates a magnificent world, rich in detail, and deep, believable characters. The story is an emergent property of these elements. It is such a breath of fresh air to have story subordinate to these elements rather than the other way around.

I’m not sure what my favorite Atwood is, because they are all so good and different. But it might be this one. Be warned, though, this novel is quite graphic and disturbing in parts. She hits the horror of a post-apocalyptic more than any other book I know.

The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes

Somehow there seems to be this swath of British novellas that pack more story and emotion into 150 pages than Americans can do in 500. Now that I’ve decided to do “The Year of Short Fiction” next year, I kind of wish I hadn’t found this until then.

The voice in this story is so compelling, I often looked up from the page confused that I wasn’t chatting with a longtime friend recounting some stories of his life I had missed.

This is a deep meditation on some facts we often want to forget. One: Life breezes by too quickly (which makes this short form such a great choice). Two: Little things we do that we don’t think of as mattering can be all-consuming wreckage for another life.

I’ll leave it at that.

2666 – Roberto Bolano

What can one even say about this book. I wrote a whole post on it here. Even that cannot summarize the artistic masterpiece that is this book.

 

BEST NONFICTION:

Blue Nights – Joan Didion

I’ve read Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking several times. I had no idea, until recently, that she covered some of the same material in this newer book.

Didion is probably the best “creative nonfiction” writer out there. She meshes sterile facts with personal anecdote with repetitious use of poetic language to bring about real emotional depth to this tragic part of her life.

Galileo’s Middle Finger – Alice Dreger

This is probably one of the most important books of the year. It does a great job documenting the details of how highly-educated, social-justice motivated scientists can spin and falsify data to serve a narrative that isn’t necessarily the Truth. It shows how activists can malign and slander researchers who do controversial research (a fact we’ve already seen many times in the now infamous Twitter hate mobs that ruin ordinary people’s lives).

This book is truly terrifying. It reminds us that we live in a dangerous time. Lay people don’t have the time or resources to hunt through complicated, technical journal articles to see if there are problems. Working researchers have their own research to conduct, so they can’t do it either. But we need people in academia devoted to the pursuit of truth to keep vetting.

One of the scariest stories in this book showed how a biased researcher could get an error-ridden article published in a peer-reviewed journal because the editor and reviewer all had factors motivating them to publish it. Then the media and general public could point to this to make their case. Someone trying to explain how it got published would come off as a science-denying conspiracy theorist. So what is one to do?

This is a real problem, and the book only scratches the surface in laying foundations for minimizing this social justice skewing of science. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. The activists have to realize that their activism is best served with truth. Faking it will only get people hurt, no matter how well-intentioned the motive.

 

BEST PUBLISHED IN 2016

A Doubter’s Almanac – Ethan Canin

I’ve been a long-time fan of Canin. Carry Me Across the Water and For Kings and Planets are both exquisite. I thought America, America had lost something in both style and substance. This novel continues on the same trajectory.

The first three-fourths had a flatness to it that his earlier novels didn’t have. His usual style is rich and complex and enhances the ordinary tragic experiences of people trying to live their lives.

The first part of the novel really gets what it is like to do high-level math in a way that no other novel has captured. At the same time, it relies on a tired trope: the mad genius with messed up social awareness. I couldn’t help but cringe when these stereotypes came forward.

Going into the last 100 pages or so, I was still on the fence about how much I liked it. I won’t give anything away, but the end is well worth getting to. He returns to his older, stylistic prose and delivers a stunning conclusion through poetic language and a brilliant shift in structure. This may not be my favorite Canin, but it is still the best novel I read published in 2016 and worth the time.

Reviewing Sirlin’s Codex

I’m travelling, so this might not be the most thorough or polished review Codex deserves. Don’t take this as a reflection on the game.

The game can be learned in one or two playthroughs, but it will probably sound way more complicated when describing it in words. I’ll refer to Magic: The Gathering (MtG), Hearthstone, and Dominion. If you have absolutely no familiarity with any of these games, you may want to skip the post. But, you don’t have to have played any of them. If you’ve heard of MtG and vaguely know what a deckbuilding game is (Dominion), you’ll probably be fine.

Codex takes the core of MtG as it’s starting point. Each player has their own deck built from various colors. The colors tend to have themes that loosely follow MtG. Red focuses on haste and burn spells. Green is creature and growth spell based. Black uses skeletons and killing off creatures to get effects. And so on.

But that’s about where the comparisons stop. One of the most annoying aspects of MtG for me is that you can only attack the other player with your creatures. The opposing player has all these creatures on the battlefield and can even block with them, but the attacker can’t have their creatures attack them. It makes no sense, and forces really weird play to avoid bad trades. Also, after being damaged, creatures heal for the next turn. This makes healing a totally nonviable type of spell to design around.

Hearthstone basically fixes these two oddities by allowing creatures to attack each other, and damage persists across turns. This is also how Codex works. It opens up so many interesting decisions. Do I heal myself or do I heal my creatures? (It’s actually not that interesting. Answer: Always heal the creatures because your health isn’t as important as board presence).

In all these games, one must pay a cost to cast a spell or summon a creature. MtG builds these costs into the deck by forcing you to have “dead” cards (land). This means you can randomly get flooded by too much or screwed by too little. The ideal would be to play a land every turn to keep ramping up to better creatures until you hit an ideal amount, and then you never want to draw land again.

Since this is the ideal, Hearthstone just forces this to happen by giving you one extra mana per turn. It fixes these two MtG issues in one swoop. You never draw dead cards, and you can focus on strategically playing on curve without being at the mercy of random draw.

In a sense, this goes too far, because it eliminates some of the decision space. Codex draws on RTS games and hits a very interesting middle ground. You pay for cards with gold, and you always have the choice to increase the amount of gold each turn to play on curve. But unlike Hearthstone, there’s a cost to do it. You must convert a card in hand to a “worker.” This removes the card from the game and costs 1 gold, a startlingly high cost that after a few games becomes clear to always be worth it.

The more decisions that have to be made, the higher the skill cap. This one choice each turn is very interesting. Do you forego making a worker to have better card advantage, and 1 extra gold this turn; or is this too risky because the next turn your opponent will have more gold if they make a worker?

Another RTS innovation that increases the decision space is building tech buildings. Each turn you get to add two cards to your deck from a pool determined by your starting factions. This is the Dominion deck building idea. The point of this is that you can try to predict your opponents strategy and then add in cards to your deck to counter them. But maybe they were only feigning a strategy and you teched in a counter which they already countered. The mind games are real.

If you haven’t built any buildings, you can only use cards coming from Tech 0. If you spend money to build a building, you get to use Tech 1 cards and so on. This is often the hardest decision in the game for me. Tech 2 cards are really, really powerful. If one player starts playing them significantly earlier than another, they will probably spiral out of control to victory.

But building the structure to play these powerful cards pretty much wrecks a whole turn. In other words, if you build these too early, you might incur a cost so severe you fall behind and can’t catch up, even with the powerful new cards. If you build it too late, your opponent might just win with their powerful cards. It’s a super interesting and critical decision that has to be made by comparing economies, board state, card advantage, your current strategy, your opponent’s strategy and so on.

The last interesting innovation I’ll talk about is the fact that you have to have a “hero” in play to cast spells. This opens up a huge range of possible targets for attack. Do you kill the hero and cripple their ability play spells? Do you attack creatures for board advantage? Do you attack tech buildings so they can’t play their more powerful cards? Do you all-in and only attack the base in hopes of rushing a victory?

And this is only the half of it. There’s a board, so creatures can take up strategic positions. Heroes have abilities they get from levelling up. Some of the innovative card keywords are really clever, like Purple being about time manipulation. And I’m sure I’m missing dozens of cool ideas they’ve packed into this.

I’ll admit it is quite expensive to get the full thing, but it’s not a collectible or trading card game. The set is complete as is (and considering it’s priced at about 2 booster boxes of MtG cards, i.e. 1/(10,000+) of the cards in MtG, it’s hard to complain). Once you have all the cards (which come in the Deluxe version), you’re done buying cards for the game forever. The Core Set is priced at a standard board game price and gets you the complete Green and Red sets, and if this is interesting to you, you’ll get more than enough hours of play to make it worth it.

Overall, I couldn’t be happier. It’s like this game was designed specifically with me in mind. The game is really fun at a casual level, but really deep. I could see the game becoming quite competitive with how high the skill ceiling seems to be.

Thoughts on NaNo and The Story Grid Podcast

Today I want to talk about my thoughts on The Story Grid Podcast. The story grid is a method of developmental editing invented by Shawn Coyne, and can be found in his book of the same name. The book is well worth reading to learn about story structure, genre, pacing, obligatory scenes, and much more. You may think you understand these things, but there’s a big difference between having a vague understanding of structure and identifying specific structural problems and how to fix them.

The Story Grid Podcast is an utterly fascinating case study using the story grid. It comes out once a week and is a conversation between Tim Grahl, a first-time fiction novelist (though he’s written nonfiction and works in the industry), and Shawn Coyne. Tim writes or edits specific parts of the book he is working on and then Shawn does his magic.

I thought I had a good grasp on the story grid before going deep into this podcast (I’ve now heard all the episodes). Tim asks a lot of great questions, and it always turns into interesting conversations. These questions range from general ones every level of writer thinks from time to time to really detailed questions on making subtle value shifts work in a particular chapter.

Among many other topics, they’ve covered: having the expected necessary scenes without being cliche, identifying internal and external genres, narrative devices, beats vs scenes vs sequences and making these flow together, what is a beginning hook and how to make it work, actually performing a full story grid analysis on already written books, theme, good writing habits, what in the world happens while revising a first draft, marketability, inciting incidents.

To me, this is the best writing podcast out there right now. I also listen to Writing Excuses, The Self-Publishing Podcast, The Creative Penn, and many that have to do with books and book reviews. Writing Excuses is also very good on the nuts and bolts of writing, but the advice tends to be quick and generic. What makes The Story Grid so good is that you get to watch an experienced editor talk through his thought process and make a draft better in very specific ways.

They talk about things you’ve probably never thought about even if you have a book or two out there. Shawn will make Tim identify the main value at stake in a scene, then determine if it shifts and in what direction. Then they compare it to nearby scenes to make sure the value shifts are contrasting. This creates a sense of forward motion and interest in the reader.

Maybe a beta reader told you it got boring somewhere. Before learning to think this way, you’d probably be at a loss and write it off as their subjective opinion. After learning to think this way, it will probably be obvious that their was no value at stake, or it had been moving in the same direction too many scenes in a row. This probably sounds abstract, but seeing it in action is amazing.

This brings me to a related topic. I’ve talked about this before. NaNoWriMo is going on right now. It is a great way to get 50,000 words down fast so you have something to work with. I often participate for this reason, but you should not be under any delusions that what you have at the end of this is a novel that can be proofread a few times and will be publication ready.

Now I have a really clear case study and proof of this. Over a year ago, Tim popped out his first draft of the novel he’s working on. Even with an experienced editor helping every single week (look at the website to see there hasn’t been any down time), Tim has barely finished the developmental edits on the Beginning Hook section (about 25% of the novel).

I’m not saying it will take everyone this long, but if you somehow edit significantly faster (let’s say a year for the whole process on your first novel), you might want to consider that you’re doing it wrong. Tim isn’t wasting time tinkering with stuff that doesn’t matter. He has Shawn guiding him to parts that actually need editing.

I’ll also point out that these are merely developmental edits: story structure. I’m not sure if Tim has been warned that after all the developmental edits are done, he’ll have what I usually call a rough draft (as opposed to a “first draft”). The rough draft will then have several passes to edit for prose style, tone, voice, flow, tense, point of view, sense, detail, description, and so on.

I could see this process of getting his first novel in shape to submit taking three or four years. I’ll reiterate that this is all happening under the guidance of an experienced editor, so it is highly efficient compared to a first-time novelist working through these issues on their own.

I’ll end with a thought. If you read this post and you’re saying: what the hell could be taking so long? You might want to start at the beginning of the podcast and listen all the way up to the current episode. May the scales fall from your eyes. Writing is an art and a craft, and many that have a life-long career doing it still feel like novices.

Five Predictions for a Trump Presidency

I thought I’d write this post so it’s on the record. Here’s five predictions for the Trump presidency. These are merely things he’s been telling us he will do. I hope I eat my words in four years.

The number of uninsured will skyrocket. 

He has said he will repeal the Affordable Care Act on Day 1 in office. He’s given us no indication as to his replacement except “competition, free markets, mumble, mumble …” This is in stark contrast to years of Republican policy. Republicans have run on the idea of personal responsibility. The ACA finally achieved this by mandating everyone to buy their own insurance.

Trump wants to repeal this. Now millions of people will be uninsured but still have health costs. These costs will shift to the public. As a side note, I showed why competition doesn’t work in this post. I also predict the cost of health insurance will skyrocket. We can’t be confused when this happens. It is very well understood.

If you are a freelancer or your employer doesn’t subsidize your insurance, I urge you to read the terms of whatever looks affordable very carefully after the repeal of the ACA. I predict the only affordable insurance will be junk. Don’t get duped.

There will be a global recession.

Trump doesn’t seem to understand America’s unique position in the world. He plans to add over $5 trillion to the debt. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimates Trump’s plan to raise the debt to over 105% of our GDP. This has a lot of vast consequences for a country. The self-proclaimed “King of Debt” has been able to leverage these risky scenarios in his personal business by trashing the business.

You can’t do this with a country. The high debt to GDP ratio will likely lead to more expensive loans and at least a minor debt spiral along the lines of Greece. The U.S. will enter a bad recession, and this will lead to a global recession as well.

Also, he plans to tariff the crap out of countries. Many historians argue that the Smoot-Hawley tariffs were the primary cause of the Great Depression. Whether that is true or not, you can decide, but we should learn from history. It is doubtful Trump knows anything about this to know if it is dangerous or not.

The price of goods will rise much faster than inflation.

Trump has proposed several ideas to bring manufacturing jobs back. It’s likely no jobs will come to the U.S. because of this, but that isn’t officially one of my predictions. He plans to incentivize companies to produce in the U.S. by making it very expensive to produce outside the U.S.

There’s basically only two ways this could go. They keep producing outside the U.S. (likely) in which case prices of these goods has to increase to make up for the tariffs. Or they return to the U.S. where labor is more expensive, and the price of the goods must increase to make up for the cost of labor.

A sub-prediction here is that many businesses will go under because of this. Once prices rise, they’ll sell less. If they don’t sell enough, they go bankrupt. I know Trump sees bankruptcy as a thing to be celebrated, but I’m not sure the people that want their manufacturing jobs back will be too happy with this one.

Middle and middle-upper income brackets will see a tax increase.

I think this one frustrates me the most. As far as I can tell, my in-laws voted for Trump solely on the fear-mongering tactic of Trump yelling “She’s going to raise your taxes.” Guess what? Hillary had a detailed plan, and it did not involve raising anyone’s taxes except the very top, top tiny percent.

On the other hand, my in-laws might be surprised when their personal exemptions disappear. Trump’s plan increases the standard deduction but removes all personal exemptions, and the  conservative-leaning Tax Foundation estimates about 7.8 million households in the $60K – $100K income range would see a slight increase in federal income tax.

Woops. I guess they should have looked up his actual proposal instead of listening to someone who’s made their living off of swindling people.

A nuclear weapon will be used.

Our culture has become a bit desensitized to this grave issue. We see images of nuclear mushroom clouds all the time from cartoons to movies. I think it bears taking a moment and contemplating just how terrible nuclear weapons are. I know this prediction sounds like hysteria, but hear me out.

Trump, more than any other prediction on this list, has repeatedly, almost at every single opportunity, shown complete disregard for the horrifying consequences of the use of nuclear weapons. He doesn’t understand why we can’t use them. He doesn’t understand why other countries can’t develop them. He doesn’t understand how current treaties deter the use and proliferation of them.

Trump also has very thin skin. A single tweet can send him into a rampage. This is a dangerous combination.

I’m also not going to be so bold as to say we will be the one to use the nuclear weapon. My prediction is merely that someone will. He has said we are renegotiating deals across the board. This will create global instability. The dangerous combination of treaties in flux and Trump waving the threat of nuclear weapons will lead someone to pull the trigger.

I see two likely scenarios. The first is that Trump tears up the Iran Nuclear Accord. Iran develops nuclear weapons in the interim, and they are the first to use them from a threat in the Middle East. The other is that Trump lets South Korea develop nuclear weapons, and the unstable situation in North Korea leads one side to be too worried.

Trump has this phrase: Peace through strength. Let’s ignore the fact that tearing up NATO and promoting nuclear proliferation actually weakens us. I say: Peace through stability.

Some extra non-predictions.

I’ll reiterate that all of the above has been readily available information for anyone who cared to look it up. They are predictions based on promises he ran on. If he doesn’t hold to his promises, they won’t happen. Here’s some things he said he’ll do that I don’t foresee happening.

He won’t build the wall. It’s a terrible idea. It’s expensive. It probably wouldn’t decrease the number of illegal immigrants by much (some models predict it will increase the number). I don’t think any of these facts will go into the decision not to build it. I just think he swindled his supporters by playing up a big image.

He will not implement massive deportation on the scale he claimed. Tearing millions of families apart would be a PR nightmare for him, and we all know Trump wants to be loved. His approval ratings would plummet when newspapers made the cover images children crying as their parents are forcibly taken in front of them.

As a final note, I have no idea what “Make America Great Again” could possibly mean. On basically every measure of greatness, America has never been greater (income inequality is worse, but Trump has no care for this). If we try to return to some past moment, it will, almost by definition, be worse.

Year of Giant Novels Part 9: What I’ve Learned

I’m technically done reading giant novels for the year. I’m currently reading The Wizard Knight by Gene Wolfe, and if taken as a single novel, it qualifies, but the version I’m reading is two separate novels. It would probably make an interesting final analysis, because I’ve basically read two types of giant novels: literary and epic fantasy. The Wolfe straddles this line in some truly bizarre ways.

Here is the final list. It’s hard to believe I actually read all these.

Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes

Moby-Dick –  Herman Melville

The Way of Kings – Brandon Sanderson

Ulysses – James Joyce

Seveneves – Neal Stephenson

2666 – Roberto Bolaño

The Eye of the World – Robert Jordan

Back in college, when I first became interested in giant novels, I used to believe they were like normal novels—only better. I know that sounds weird, but the rough idea in my head was that novels were like relationships; the more you put in, the more connection you make and the stronger the emotional bond will be.

If you live with someone for ten years, you’ll have more of a relationship than with someone you only live with for a few months. Oh, my naive youthful ideas. This isn’t even true of relationships, so the conclusions can’t transfer because of some weak analogy.

You could live with someone ten years and basically know nothing of them. It’s about the quality of that time together that matters. The same is true of books.

Wow. This is quite the long-winded way of saying it’s the quality of the reading experience not the quantity. At this point, I know what you’re thinking: you spent a year reading giant novels and all you figured out was the most obvious thing everyone already knew? Sort of. But I also think I’ve clarified what makes quality in a giant novel to me.

I’ll use Moby-Dick and 2666  as my examples, because I think these both exemplify what I’ve learned. These were also the two most rewarding novels for me on the list.

Giant novels tend to be normal length novels plus some extra stuff. If this base novel is bad, I think the whole thing will be bad no matter what the extra stuff is. In the case that the base novel is good, the extra stuff is what makes the whole thing work or not.

This extra stuff must reinforce the overall novel. It has to serve a real purpose in the context of the novel. Take the Spouter-Inn chapter in Moby-Dick. There is an extended description of an oil painting. This isn’t mere “worldbuilding.” The painting serves many purposes: foreshadowing, establishing the tone of dread and awe, setting the scene of the inn, etc.

Take the story of beating up the taxi driver in Part 1 of 2666. This establishes a context of otherwise good people turning to random acts of violence. I spent a whole blog post talking about the importance of this context for Part 4 of the novel.

To reiterate, in both the examples I’ve given, these details could easily be removed and nothing would be lost from the plot of the novel. These examples are part of the extra stuff. But the examples reinforce tone, theme, symbols, and so on of the whole novel, so removing these details would make the novels of lower quality.

This is how I think about quality of giant novels now. If the extra stuff keeps reinforcing the whole like this, by the end, your psyche will have picked it up, and it will culminate in a more powerful reading experience. The extra stuff makes this possible. These giant novels would be much worse if these parts were cut. It wouldn’t even be the same book. The giant-ness is necessary.

If you take Seveneves, The Way of Kings, or The Eye of the World, there are many, many parts that are pure padding. The extra stuff serves only one purpose: description of the world. Obviously there is a balance. You can’t cut all of it, because then it wouldn’t be a novel. But I dare say, so much could be cut that all three of these could be normal-length novels, and they would be much higher quality for it.

Before fans of these novels jump all over me, I’m talking only about quality in the sense I described above. Plenty of people enjoy digging in to all the minutia of a constructed world and culture. I include myself in this up to a point. These novels would be less enjoyable to those people if too much of the padding is cut.

But even the most ardent fans must admit there’s quantity in these that don’t add quality. If these parts were cut, no one would notice, and the effect of the book would remain unchanged. This is pretty much the definition of a good edit, and all three of these novels could have been at least 10% shorter without losing anything of importance.

I’ve watched Brandon Sanderson lecture on this topic, and he even criticized a student’s writing for this very mistake. He pointed out that one tiny and important detail can paint a better picture in the reader’s mind than a huge, list of common details. We tend to be blind to our own mistakes, especially when praised with the amount of success he’s had.

Overall, I think I’m just not that in to giant novels anymore. I tend to find normal-length novels too excessive these days. I really love the tightness and care that goes into short fiction. Well written novellas are vastly underappreciated.

That’s why I’ve officially decided to make next year the Year of Short Fiction. I’ll do collections of short stories and novellas and blog about it for your enjoyment.

The Economics of Insurance 101

Insurance has been in the news quite a bit recently. Obamacare premiums are increasing. Trump wants to repeal the ACA and let free markets and competition drive prices down. Everyone thinks they have a good intuition for this stuff because of their high school economics classes. But is that how it really works?

This is going to be a long post building simple models of insurance to show that insurance is not a good that behaves like other economic goods. You can’t just apply “common sense” economics to insurance and expect to get the right answers. It’s a very strange product.

Model 1: Let’s start with a super simplified model. We have a single insurance company and 1000 people in our world, all of Low Risk. We’ll assume this means they have a 1% chance of needing a doctor’s visit in the next year. In this world the visit will universally cost $200 without insurance. The insurance plan covers the whole visit.

All right. This is really easy to figure out. How much should the insurance company charge to make money (i.e. to continue existing)? Well, they expect 10 people to need the visit, which costs them $2000 for the year. This means they break even if they charge $2 to each person for the year. They need to make money to pay for operating costs, so let’s say they charge a freakishly low price of $3 a year.

Now we run the model. Since we’re assuming a standard economic model, we assume all these people behave rationally. Do the Low Risk people buy the insurance? If they do, their expected health cost for the year is $3 (the cost of the insurance plus nothing else since the insurance company pays for the visit). If they don’t buy it, their expected cost for the year is (.01)(200) = $2.

Woops. None of our rational actors are going to buy the insurance, and the company collapses from no business. Fiddle with this. Add in a .001% chance of a freak accident costing $10,000 in surgery. Try to add in things that make it more realistic, like using a copay to lower cost instead of a yearly fee.

You’ll find that no matter how you fiddle with it, it will never be rational for Low Risk people to buy insurance. It’s just a fact about insurance companies charging enough to make money. Note that adding in higher risk people will only raise the price.

Conclusion 1: Low Risk people don’t buy insurance without something forcing them to, like an individual mandate.

[Small caveat. People aren’t rational, and this is good. They realize that even though they lose money by buying insurance, they are paying for something that can’t be quantified: security. The monthly fee is worth the peace of mind that a freak accident won’t bankrupt them and completely ruin their life.]

Models 2 and 3: I’ll breeze through this, because these are the exact same calculations with Medium Risk and High Risk pools of people. If everyone has a Medium Risk of 50%, then the insurance plan must cost $1000 a year per person to break even. Woops. We don’t have to go further. The policy costs more than paying full price for the doctor. Likewise for High Risk at 90%.

Conclusion 2: Insurance doesn’t work unless there are Low Risk people in the pool to decrease the cost.

Conclusion 3: The more Low Risk people in the pool, the lower the cost can be for everyone.

Model 4: Let’s combine the different risk types into one model, but the price of insurance is uniform across all risk. This is obviously closer to reality. We’ll assume that most are Low Risk, and as risk increases, the number of people in that category decreases. To do this properly we should probably use a distribution, etc, but let’s keep it really simple.

Low risk: 900 people

Medium risk: 95 people

High risk: 5 people

The insurance company expects to pay [(900)(.01) + (95)(.5) + (5)(.9)] (200) = $12,200 for the year. They can break even by charging $12.20 per person for a year of coverage. Let’s suppose they charge $13. Conclusion 1 still applies, meaning the Low Risk people don’t buy it.

Assuming we force Low Risk people to get the insurance, Medium Risk people expect to pay (.5)(200) = $100 for the year without insurance, but only $13 with insurance. Our rational Medium Risk and High Risk people willingly buy insurance in this case as long as enough Low Risk people stay in the pool.

It is worth reiterating that under ideal assumptions and no mandate to buy insurance (and no subsidies), none of the Low Risk people buy insurance, and the costs shift to Medium Risk people. It no longer is rational for them, so they don’t buy. The risk shifts to High Risk people, they don’t buy, and the company collapses.

Conclusion 4: Without forcing Low Risk people to buy insurance, insurance companies will still collapse with a mixed pool of risk and uniform prices. If Low Risk people are forced to buy insurance, it becomes rational for higher risk people to buy insurance even with the company making money.

Since this is secretly a post digging into rhetoric from Trump, and he plans to repeal the ACA, it seems the mandate will be repealed. Take whatever conclusion from that and Conclusion 4 that you want.

[Caveat 2. In real life, people suck at determining their risk. Lots of Low Risk people will think they are Medium, so under this delusion they rationally buy insurance. But likewise, lots of Medium risk people think they are low risk. This makes it rational for them to not buy insurance. If we assume the delusions are random and not skewed, the price will be slightly lower, but not enough to invalidate Conclusion 4. This is massively offset by the fact that High Risk people (i.e. those with “preexisting conditions”) tend to need procedures that cost a lot more.]

Model 5: Let’s introduce variable prices for different risk. Is it possible for the company to price policies to make money and yet be rational for everyone to buy it?

These are the exact same calculations we’ve been doing, but we don’t even have to do calculations to see this is impossible if we understand expected value/costs.

Indepent of risk, it is only rational to buy insurance if your expected cost with insurance is less than your expected cost without insurance. The insurance company only makes money on you if the price they charge is more than the expected cost. Thus, to make it rational for everyone, they must set a price to lose money.

Conclusion 5a: Even with variable prices for different risk levels, insurance companies can never price policies to be rational for everyone to buy.

Conclusion 5b: Even under ideal economic assumptions, if there is only one insurance company, it will always fail without a mandate to increase Low Risk buyers or some form of subsidies to lower prices.

Let’s take a quick breather here. Hopefully, if you’ve never thought about this carefully, you’re starting to see why applying “common sense” economics from your high school class might not get you to the right conclusions. Insurance is super weird as a comodity. But things are about to get weirder.

[Caveat 3. One could probably write a 500 page textbook just introducing appropriate complexities to the single insurance company model. I am under no delusion that the above analysis bears any resemblance to the “real world.” These are supposed to be overly simple models to challenge people’s intuition.]

Model 6: Competition!!! Now let’s assume there are 2 insurance companies. They compete with each other for selling policies. There’s already something weird here, because unlike standard market economics, a sale is not a sale. If there are two apple vendors, the vendor doesn’t care who they sell the apple to. A sale is a sale. They make the same money no matter who buys it.

The Medium and High Risk people cost the insurance company money, whereas the Low Risk people make the company money. So what’s rational for the company in this case? They want to separate prices. They want policies for Low Risk people to be lower than the competition, but they want policies for higher risk people to be higher than the competition so they go to the competitor to lose money!

They aren’t in competition for the people who most need insurance. For those people, competition increases the price of insurance.

I’ll reitorate this again as a conclusion.

Conclusion 6: For the people who most need insurance, competition increases the price of insurance.

For the people who don’t need insurance, in a perfectly free market under ideal assumptions, they aren’t buying it anyway, so who cares what their price is? Yeah. Insurance isn’t quite so intuitive is it?

I’ll end by reminding you of the fundamental difference between selling a good and insurance. If a company decreases the price of a good to steal customers from a competitor, they make up the loss from lowering the price by selling more. This is why competition lowers prices. More sales of insurance doesn’t necessarily lead to more profit. Thus, if an insurance company lowers prices, they don’t necessarily make up the loss due to price by selling more.

We didn’t even scratch the surface here, but this post has gone on longer than most of you will read. I wanted to get to scenarios like government regulating uniform prices across risk together with competition and variable policies (hint: competition could lead to an increase in trash policies which cover practically nothing so lowering prices guarantees more profit but defeats the whole purpose of insurance).

Maybe next time.

 

Who is Ellen in Synecdoche, New York?

I’ll warn you up front that this is going to make extensive reference to the movie Synecdoche, New York. It’s not so much a spoiler warning, because this isn’t the type of movie that can be spoiled. It’s more to warn you that you will have no idea what I’m talking about if you haven’t seen it. This is one of the best movies ever made, so go watch it if you haven’t. I’ve tried to watch it at least once a year since it came out.

Background material: The movie follows Caden Cotard, a middle-aged director of plays who wins a MacArthur grant. He decides to put on a gigantic semi-improvisational play about death. This ends up getting super meta, because he hires actors to play people in his life, including himself. Then there has to be actors to play those actors, etc.

Early on, Caden’s wife, Adele, leaves him and takes his daughter along. Ellen is introduced as Adele’s cleaning lady late in the movie.

Caden is also a hypochondriac. He believes he has a million things wrong with him throughout the movie and that he is about ready to die at any moment. This amount of background should suffice. The key is to know the names Caden, Adele, and Ellen.

This is going to be a complicated argument that involves seemingly unrelated concepts. So I’ll start with the conclusion so you know where I’m headed.

Conclusion: Ellen is Caden’s true self.

Concept 1: Caden only experiences his true self while cleaning.

Because of all his anxieties about art, being remembered, dying from a random disease or freak accident, and so on, he can’t ever clear his head enough to find himself. One way the film shows this is through the TV. Caden often appears on the TV screen in cartoons or commercials, and these give voice to the anxieties in his head at the time.

There are several scenes where Caden obsessively cleans things. As soon as this happens, the TV fogs over, and the anxious thoughts disappear. He becomes so consumed in the mindless activity that he can exist as his true self, sort of like meditation.

Concept 2: People see Ellen inside Caden when he is his true self.

There are quite a few moments where Caden gets called Ellen on accident early on in the movie. I interpret this as a Freudian slip. Everyone knows this person is beneath the layers of anxiety, but they don’t consciously know; it merely slips out on occasion.

The more compelling case comes from later in the movie. Caden goes to Adele’s apartment, and the next door neighbor asks if he is Ellen. He says he is, and then goes into the apartment and cleans for the whole night.

The deepest argument for this is that when Adele paints Caden’s portrait, the image is of a woman, Millicent, whose role in this argument is quite important.

Caden’s portrait:

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Millicent playing the role of Ellen:

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Since the whole movie is constantly about how art shows us things about ourselves we couldn’t see, we should interpret this as the painting showing us the person beneath Caden’s surface.

Concept 3: Millicent is the physical stand-in for Ellen.

Millicent gets hired to play Ellen in Caden’s play. This is already telling, because her lines are, of course, the ones that Caden said already. This is because Caden claimed to be Adele’s cleaning lady, Ellen, in order to be in her apartment.

Later, Millicent recalls a story from Ellen’s childhood. She cries at the end of it. I interpret this to mean the story is from her own childhood. She even cries out about failing to fulfill her promise to her mother, which would make no sense if the mother in the story weren’t her own:

Concept 4: Caden becomes his true self at the end of the movie, and the false, anxious exterior becomes the hidden self.

This is shown metaphorically in the movie by having Millicent stop playing the role of Ellen and start playing the role of Caden. The voice inside Caden’s head literally becomes the voice of Millicent/Ellen through the use of a earpiece.

But if this doesn’t convince you, the last piece of evidence is the final scene. The woman who played Ellen’s mother in the dream appears. What? This is extremely easy to miss and write off on a first viewing. The movie is over 2 hours long, and she only makes a 30 second appearance in the last 10 minutes in a dream sequence.

There is literally no other character with such a small role. Why would a meticulously crafted movie end with this character other than to stand out as vitally important? This woman holds Caden as if he is her baby. But we only know this character as Ellen’s mother. This makes Caden her child, Ellen.

The voice in Caden’s head even blurts out “You are Ellen” on the walk to this encounter.

On the couch he says, “I wanted to do that picnic with my daughter.” That was what Ellen wanted to do. He has fully become her/his true self at this point. Without this interpretation, that line makes no sense. They converse as if they are mother and daughter here.

In a sense, this means the whole movie is the journey of Caden to find and become his true self.

Year of Giant Novels Part 8: The Eye of the World

This is probably my last giant novel for the year. I really wanted to do something complicated and serious like Gaddis’ JR, but it was getting kind of annoying to find a reasonable copy. Anyway, I already covered the epic fantasy giant novel, so this will cover a lot of the same stuff.

I think I read at least part of Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World around fifteen years ago, but I recalled none of it at the time of starting it this time. I’ll tread lightly, because I know a lot of people really love this series, and despite how this post comes across, I didn’t hate the book.

I’d probably never recommend it, but I don’t regret reading it. There were a lot of “problems,” but none were major. I’m going to tear into the details, because that’s how we discover what works in our own styles. That’s how we get better at writing. But these are mostly style things, and if I had read the book shifted by six months either direction, I might not have seen these as problems.

The structure of the novel is pretty simple. The main character’s village is attacked. This causes a group of people to be on the run from these enemies. They stop at villages on the way, and inevitably something always comes up to force them to run again. Travel – village – travel – village – etc.

On the one hand, it’s a clear Hero’s Journey narrative, but it’s also a travel narrative. These are both perfectly fine choices in general, but something was off in the execution. It took me a long time to figure it out. It lacked direction and positive motivation.

In the Hero’s Journey, the hero is called to action to go defeat the evil. There is motivation. We understand his/her progress in terms of this motivation. I didn’t see any of this in TEOTW. The hero was never called to action. In fact, it isn’t even clear who the hero is, because the bad guy can’t seem to figure out which is the chosen one.

All the heroes do is run away. This is negative motivation. They continually thwart the bad guys from achieving their goals, but they don’t seem to have independent goals of their own. This means the reader has no idea if they’re making progress.

Ah. I hear the retort already. The sense of progress in a travel narrative is if they’re getting closer to their destination. This also fails. Where are they headed? I have no idea. I don’t think I missed this, but it’s entirely possible I did.

At one point, I thought their goal was maybe Tar Valon so Egwene could start her Aes Sedai training, but then they arrived at Caemlyn and I started to think maybe their goal was to get to the false dragon there. As it turns out, neither of there end up being their destination, and it’s not clear to me the characters even knew where they were headed.

This might seem like nitpicking, but without goals or positive motivation, I found the story stagnant. I had a hard time picking the book up to keep reading. If the goal was to defeat the main villain, this could have been more clear. The main villain doesn’t even appear until the last 50 pages (out of 800+). It came out of nowhere. I sort of assumed he would remain this mysterious background force for the next 10 books in the series.

My next complaint has to do with stakes. I never felt like the characters were in any real danger. This has to do with how the book opens. The Aes Sedai easily handles the Trolloc attack on the village single handed. So later, no matter how many times she says they are in danger, it’s hard to take her seriously. I kept thinking: Eh, if it came down to it, she could use those same powers to save them again. Actions speak louder than words.

This is one of those things that’s mostly a product of its time. Fantasy has been worked out and studied a lot since 1990. Writers now know that it’s more important for the reader to understand the limitations than the power of the magic system. Also, instead of continuing to be chased by Trollocs for 75% of the book, throwing something in to raise the stakes would have added the uncertainty needed for a real threat.

There are a lot of “obligatory” scenes that would have helped out here. There’s a reason Gandalf “dies” in The Lord of the Rings. The stakes get raised when the most powerful person can’t keep bailing you out. There’s also the “hero at the mercy of the villain” scene where the reader must fully believe it’s all over. The villain could end it all with no problem. The hero narrowly escapes due to a surprising (yet believable) ingenuity.

Those are the two main flaws of the book: lack of positive motivation and the stakes didn’t continually rise to create tension. As with most giant novels I’ve read this year, I think it’s too long. Trimming this by 10% might remove both of these problems. When a book feels stagnant, increasing the pace by trimming the length can do a lot to help.

The real test is if I’ll keep reading the series. I think I’ll at least give the second book a chance, because I have no idea how it will continue from here.

On Switching to Colemak

There’s this thing many people will probably go their whole lives and never know about. A ton of alternative keyboard layouts exist other than the default “QWERTY” (named for the letters along the top row of the keyboard). There is a subculture obsessed with this.

The two most common ones are Dvorak and Colemak. Last Saturday I started learning where the letters on Colemak are located. By the end of Sunday, I had them memorized. This meant I could type very slowly (3-5 wpm) with near perfect accuracy.

It didn’t take long to learn at all. Now, a few days later, I no longer have to think about where the letters are, but it will probably be another week or so before I get back to full speed.

Let’s talk about the burning question in everyone’s mind: why would anyone subject themselves to such an experience? I type a lot. For the past year or so I’ve experienced some mild pain in my wrists. I’ve never had it diagnosed to know if it is repetitive strain injury, but my guess is it’s a bad sign if you experience any pain, no matter how small.

I tried to alleviate some stress by tilting my keyboard and giving my wrists something to rest on:

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[Yes, that’s Aristotle’s Poetics under the front of the keyboard.]

This helped a little, but the more I looked it up, the more I realized there was a fundamental issue with the keyboard layout that could be part of the problem. Most people probably think the layout has a purpose because of how strange it is. But we’ve outgrown that purpose.

The history of this is long and somewhat interesting, but it basically boils down to making sure hands alternate and common digraphs (two-letter combinations) have large distances separating them, so that when typing quickly on a mechanical typewriter it will be least likely to jam.

If one were to design a keyboard to minimize injury, one would put the most common letters on the home row, minimize long stretches, and make sure common digraphs use different but nearby fingers. This is almost exactly the philosophy of the Colemak layout.

The Colemak layout allows you to type around 34 times the number of words on the home row than QWERTY. It’s sort of insane that “j” is on the home row and “e” and “i” are not for QWERTY. Colemak also distributes workload more evenly. It favors the right hand slightly more at 6%, unlike the massive favoring of the right hand for QWERTY at 15%. You can go look up the stats if you want to know more. I won’t bore you by listing them here.

You will definitely lose a lot of work time while making the change due to slow typing, but the layout is provably more efficient. So in the long run you’ll end up more than compensated for these short-term losses.

I’d like to end by reflecting on what a surreal experience this has been. I think I first started learning to type around the age of eight. I’m now thirty. That’s twenty-two years of constant ingraining of certain actions that had to be undone. Typing has to be subconscious to be effective. We don’t even think about letters or spelling when doing it. Most words are just patterns that roll off the fingers.

This is made explicitly obvious when I get going at a reasonable speed. I can type in Colemak without confusion letter-by-letter, but I still slip up when my speed hits that critical point where I think whole words at a time. At that point, a few words of nonsense happen before I slide back into correct words. It’s very strange, because I don’t even notice it until I look back and see that it happened.

I’ve never become fluent in another language, but I imagine a similar thing must happen when one is right on the edge of being able to think in the new language. You can speak fluently, but occasionally the subconscious brain takes over for a word, even if you know the word.

If you’re at all interested, I’d recommend checking into it. I already feel a huge difference in comfort level.

On Swanberg’s Easy

I’ve been a longtime fan of Joe Swanberg’s, going all the way back to his first mumblecore film Kissing on the Mouth. He just came out with a new Netflix series, Easy, so I had to check it out.

The show doesn’t follow the conventions we’ve come to expect from Netflix. Each episode focuses on a single relationship issue between completely new characters. There is no big story arc like Orange is the New Black or House of Cards.

The problems these couples face are familiar to any fan of Swanberg’s. They include classics like gender roles, sex, sexuality, stagnation, and change creating conflict. Modern relationship ideas make an appearance as well like privacy when posting to social media and using apps to hook up.

Lots of people consider Swanberg’s early work to be boring. This stems from the philosophy of mumblecore: capture everyday moments with improvisation that sounds like normal speech (hence some inaudible mumbling). This can make for long stretches of pretty much nothing happening.

I want to argue that Easy is a departure from, or maybe more accurately, a continuation of his early work. First, the finished product consists of thirty-minute short films. The medium forces a tightness that a feature length movie does not. And Swanberg most definitely shows this off by staying completely focused on the core idea of each vignette. There isn’t time to languish on nothing.

Still, the improvisation aspect of the acting keeps with an aesthetic from his early works. There is an authenticity to the speech and rapid insight into the characters that often doesn’t come out in fully scripted shows.

I’ve seen some reviews that claim this is the same boring stuff and it is dated and cliche**. I think these reviewers are bringing a bias from his earlier work to these viewings. They also probably don’t understand what each vignette is really about.

The thing I like most about Easy is how each episode has a surface problem that gets explored, but each also has a more complicated meta-commentary running beneath it. I’ll use the first episode as a case study in this.

The premise is that a couple thinks they don’t have a good sex life because the man stays home. He thinks maybe the wife sees him as emasculated and isn’t aroused by the thought of him doing the housework. To spice things up, they use Halloween to dress up in stereotypical masculine (a construction worker) and a stereotypical feminine (a maid?) costumes and role play.

On the surface, this does look cliche. How many times have we seen comedies and dramas examine the gender role idea. It’s old. It’s boring. It’s been done since at least the 90’s (Thirtysomething comes to mind). We should be over this by now.

I get that sentiment, but I think it misses the real and new commentary of the episode. The reason the couple thought this was the problem in their relationship was that a “study” told them. This is cultural commentary about how eager we are with our devices in hand to jump on every study as essential to our lives.

We blindly follow whatever gets reported on, despite the fact that we don’t even know anything about these studies. I certainly don’t believe catchy headlines. Studies often have small findings, and the degree of certainty about their validity is low. But the mainstream media wants clicks, so they put out catchy headlines that have little to do with the actual results of the study.

Strangely, we all jump on the headline as if it were capital-T Truth and make adjustments to our lives based on this. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone has changed their order at a restaurant because they were perusing their phone and ran across a headline “New study finds link between X and cancer.” Are we really that gullible?

Each episode has these underlying issues that are not the “obvious” surface one. I can see writing this series off as unoriginal if these surface problems are all you see. But I think the show is inspired in how it takes these old tropes and puts a deeper cultural commentary underneath (many of which would not be relevant five or ten years ago, so they certainly are not rehashing old ideas). I never once got bored watching it, and I have to wonder about the type of person who did.

** Dictionary dot com claims no accent on the e is acceptable for cliche, so I’m sticking with this spelling for blog purposes. I always use the accent in more formal writing.