The Craft of Learning An Art

fade-inI’ve been working on writing my first television pilot script recently. As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been busy doing all sorts of writing, but the pilot is the thing I’ve been focusing on a lot. I also worked on a spec script of an existing show (basically writing an episode of a show that could happen, but hasn’t been written). I’m not expecting either script to get produced any time soon (if at all), so I don’t have my hopes up in that respect. But I’m using both as learning experiences to hone my screenwriting skills.

In that regard I’ve been reading tons of books on screenwriting, joined writing groups, followed a lot of writers/producers/agencies on Twitter and have been reading a bunch of scripts. Thankfully there are a lot of websites that offer up scripts to download, so I can read and compare how shows and movies were imagined/written to what was actually produced.

bfa-screenwriting

 

It’s been an interesting experience, to say the least. For the most part I’ve found that the general theme, structure and much of the dialogue from the script stayed the same. Not every scene that was written turned out the same way in the final production, and there were numerous scenes that weren’t in the script that made it into the show/movie.

I read and watched the Gilmore Girls pilot (because, you know, a good show). There was one minor character who worked at the Inn who never made it on screen, and a whole scene between Rory and Dean that hadn’t been written. I read two different drafts of the Farscape pilot — the initial draft and the shooting script. There was a lot less action/description in the shooting script but it was messier because pages were inserted/rewritten. For HBO’s The Wire dialogue was dropped (more often than not), scenes were in a different order than they appeared on screen and characters were renamed, changed and added or deleted. It’s amazing how similar yet so different things are from initial concept to production.

I’ve learned that not everything has to be exactly perfect/finished to catch a developer’s eye. Now, I am reading things from people who have been in the business for a while and who were relatively well-known in the industry before these shows — Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino had done Roseanne and other shows before Gilmore Girls, and David Simon had created Homicide: Life on the Street before The Wire. So while that might be okay for established Hollywood players I think I will take the time to perfect my own script. That will mean lots of editing, rewriting, revisions and feedback. All of which I’ve both given and received before in one form or another, so I’m okay with that.

I’ve recently seen the fantastic Hidden Figures movie. I’ve got the script and have started reading that. But I really want to read the book to do even more comparisons. How was it adapted? What was left in? What changed? There’s always going to be some sort of creative license to make scenes more dramatically interesting in stories based on books — not to mention ones based on true events. Just look at what changed with the Harry Potter films, for example, or in any “based on a true story” movie. I don’t necessarily want to write movies or feature films, but having the knowledge and seeing how it can be done well could serve me in the future.

It’s all a very interesting learning experience. One that I’ve been trying to incorporate into my own script and writing process. I still have a lot of work to do, and at times it’s challenging, but it’s also fun. Screenwriting is an art form, as is any form of writing. I’m learning the craft. I just hope I can do something with it. Thankfully there are a lot of resources available to help in the process. I’m just happy Netflix doesn’t judge me for watching the same episode of something over and over again while I try to glean all I can out of a scene or episode. I’m just going to assume they don’t judge me, at least… Well, if they do I’ll just use the old adage “practice makes perfect.” All I’m doing is practicing. A lot.

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Time, Energy and the Will to Write

Time. Time and energy. They are intrinsically linked, as Einstein knew so well (see E=mc² and the whole of relativity theory).

I’ve not had a lot of time to write this blog recently. Or, rather, I’ve had the same amount of time as always, just directed to other things that are taking my energy.

I’ve been doing a lot of other writing. I’m happy to pursue those other tasks — ranging from journalism to roleplaying to screenplays; and of course all the revisions and editing that those entail. But it doesn’t leave a lot of time or energy left for writing this blog. While I have lots of things I’d like to write about I just don’t have time.

My plan is to write at least once a month in the future. There are lots of pop culture events to discuss, lots about writing and even some politics (maybe). Anyway, that’s for the future. For now I have to go write.

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A Year In Review… And A Turn to the Future

Well, 2016 has sucked. From way, way, way too many celebrity deaths (or at least ones I actually liked) to “democracy” gone awry at pretty much every turn to a host of other issues that have made this the “Worst. Year. Ever.” It’s suck so much that I can’t even do my annual Top 10 list.

worst-year-everThis would normally be the portion of the year when I do my “Top 10” albums as I had in years past. But, honestly, I’ve barely listened to new music this year. I’m not even sure I could name 10 albums that came out that I’ve heard, let alone rank them in any sort of sensible order. I do know I quite enjoyed Brian Fallon’s Painkillers, and Wilco’s Schmilco, pretty much because I love Wilco.

I considered doing a “Top 10 in Pop Culture” ranking my favorite music, movies and television shows this year but thought better of it. Much like with the music, I’m not sure I’ve seen enough new movies or TV shows to warrant calling out “the best.” All right, season 6 of Game of Thrones was pretty awesome. But I expect to like the movies I see in the theater, which is why I don’t go to a whole lot. And I don’t particularly care for commercials in my TV, so I tend to watch most stuff on Netflix or an on-demand provider with few, if any, commercials. So how do I rank things? How do you rate Captain America: Civil War, a 2-hour action extravaganza, to the latest season of Orange Is the New Black with its almost 13 hours of content? They’re both excellent in their own ways.

I thought, too, about ranking celebrity deaths in order of importance to me. But then I realized that I didn’t want to get depressed by seeing many of my musical and acting heroes all gone. Besides, there’s already lists for that. And how does one truly compare Carrie Fisher to David Bowie or Muhammad Ali? They were all so impactful in their various fields that it would be a disservice to them to them to say one was somehow “better” than another.

2016

So, no lists in review for me this year. Instead, I’ll write about what I’d like to see in 2017.

  • Ideally both the UK and US will come to their senses politically and realize Brexit and Trump were horrible choices for the majority of people and somehow rectify those mistakes.
  • Humanity grows up enough where we all start coming together to see our similarities rather than constantly being divided by our differences. This would mean no more wars, homicides or scare-mongering.
  • The realization that climate change is real, impacts the world, and plans not only to curb the situation but actually make it better. If children are the legacy we leave the world, we’re not leaving them with much of a world and a horrible legacy.
  • An end to the commodification of everything. There’s no fundamental reason why private companies should profit from things like health care or education when they are essential to a healthy, happy life.
  • And, since I’m going for huge pipe dreams, why not add I’d like to see my cat trained not to wake me up at the ungodly hours of the morning begging for food as he’s done every morning since I got him. He actually seems to have gotten worse recently. And by that I mean it’s progressively earlier and earlier while he continues to get fatter and fatter.

Hey, if I’m going to look for something positive and hopeful for the next 365 days I might as well make them benefit myself and everyone else too. Go big or go home, as they say (and since I’m at home I might as well go big)!

Anyway, here’s to hoping that 2017 doesn’t suck. Cheers, slainte, salud, prost, etc. Happy New Year, see you on the other side!

 

 

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The Art of Morality

Recently I’ve been re-watching my least favorite Star Trek show, Voyager. In part because it’s the last of the series’ that I haven’t watched again and in part I’m a glutton for punishment.

voyagership

I’ve realized what it is about the show that I dislike so much. It doesn’t have a moral center. Most good sci-fi, and especially all the other Treks, have taken the opportunity to comment on ideas of morality, society and contemporary issues. Not that every episode was a comment, per se, but that there was a sense of gravitas and moral center of the show in the characters.

In The Original Series (TOS) that could, variously, be Kirk, Spock and/or McCoy. Due to the interactions of  ‘The Big Three’ or ‘Triumvirate’ the show could comment about such diverse topics as the Vietnam War, racism, sexism, drug use and loads of other things. Social commentary was what made Star Trek stand out among its peers — how much veiled discussion of Vietnam does Lost In Space take on?

For The Next Generation (TNG) the moral core was Picard, whose almost strict adherence to Starfleet’s Prime Directive could be considered a commentary on non-interference and/or American culture. But in some episodes Worf — the bristly Klingon warrior — and even Data — the machine wanting to become a man, a modern-day Pinocchio — took the reigns. Indeed, one of the best episodes of the first three seasons, ‘The Measure of A Man’, S2.E9, centered on Data, his identity and humanity’s role in slavery. Plenty of other episodes throughout its run had morality questions as a central issue. I remember that’s what first drew me into the show and part of the reason I studied Philosophy as an undergrad.

Though often considered the darkest, most un-Roddenberry like show, Deep Space 9 (DS9) dealt with the struggles between science and religion, religious strife, war, freedom fighters or terrorists and xenophobia. More than 20 years after it first aired the show could still reflect today’s problems. Again, the captain, Sisko, was often the focal point of moral quandaries, but the supporting cast, especially Dax, Kira and O’Brian, had their own excellent episodes. I would even argue that it was because of its darker aspects that allowed DS9 to have a lasting impact. If TOS and TNG were the best of what humanity could be in overcoming its baser instincts, DS9 was more reflective of what humanity actually is.

There wasn’t a lot of social commentary in either of the first two seasons of Enterprise, but seasons three and four of the show really hit their stride regarding commentary. Indeed, the whole third season plot arc of an attack on Earth/humanity demanding a swift response against the aggressors really reflected post-9/11 American culture and paranoia.

Yet Voyager has not even tried to reflect society. It aired from 1995 to 2001 so there were plenty of issues it could have tackled. In that time there were domestic and international instances of violence and terrorism — the Atlanta Olympic bombing, Columbine, the Northern Ireland troubles and all that happened in the area once known as Yugoslavia. There were scandals in the highest halls of power — Clinton was impeached, after all — that could have led to at least one story line. And there were huge advances in technology, like the widespread use of the internet, widespread use of cell phones, Mars landings and the tech bubble. The timeframe was ripe for analysis.

Why could DS9, which aired from 1993 to 1999, so almost completely contemporaneously, have much more social commentary? Was it the writers and producers for Voyager who became hesitant? It certainly wasn’t the acting chops of lead Kate Mulgrew, played Captain Janeway and who later went on to more great acclaim as Red in Orange Is the New Black. The character she plays in Voyager, however, just doesn’t have the same gravitas or moral authority as any other Trek captain. Her character just doesn’t have any deep set, grand philosophies by which she abides. What she defends in one episode — such as the Prime Directive — is completely disregarded in the next. When given multiple opportunities to get her crew home — ostensibly her main role as captain on the show — she ignores them. Should could have asked Q on multiple occasions, but chose to ‘go the hard way’. What kind of moral center does she have?

The rest of the Voyager crew seems content to go along with her incompetence by never having a mutiny or questioning her orders. The First Officer, Chakotay, spent his adult life as a member of the rebellious Maquis, yet is her biggest supporter. Former convict Tom Paris never wanted to strike out on his own, instead trusting the questionable orders Janeway gives.

I understand the whole dynamic of the show would have changed if they would have returned before the final episode, so some of it was ‘dramatic license’. But she was just a horrible captain. There were good (by Voyager terms) episodes that dealt with time travel, alternate reality or false identity — true sci-fi staples. There were lots of action sequences, too. The show basically has the same problem as the latest movie — a good action series with hints of sci-fi but without the cornerstones of Star Trek.

Bryan Fuller, who helped develop the new show Discovery but who apparently won’t be involved any longer, got his first major start writing for Voyager. Hopefully he learned from the mistakes of the show and imbued his new show and showrunners with the need to not only tell compelling stories, but to have them mean something.

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The Circle of… A Day In the… Final Four Words

The final four words of Netflix’s revival of the beloved TV show Gilmore Girls, which they subtitled A Year In the Life, are its creator Amy Sherman-Palladino’s culmination of the pop-cultural phenomenon.

Some fans are angry at them, almost demanding a second season in the reboot. As some fans noted, however, the words make perfect sense from the standpoint of the show. I lean more toward the latter interpretation.

Note, there are spoilers (and analysis) below.

gilmore_girls_netflix_poster

Recap

I really enjoyed the show when it originally aired. It was funny, quirky, endearing and heartwarming. I also appreciated all the pop culture references. I’d forgotten how much I missed the quick-fire banter and razor-witted characters. The first scene of the reboot — split into 4 parts, each named after the season of the year in which it takes place — recognised that as well. Rory (Alexis Bledel) and Lorelai (Lauren Graham) sit in the gazebo in their beloved Stars Hollow, drinking coffee (always!) and talking about just that. The show itself may have ended in 2007 but the actors slipped so easily back into their characters that there was no awkwardness. It just felt like eight years had passed in their lives, same as ours. The fact that the original creators, writers producers and show-runners Amy Sherman-Palladino and her husband David Palladino, were back for the revival, after leaving before the disappointing season 7, made the show feel like slipping on a familiar pair of jeans or well-worn sneakers.

I laughed at the jokes and references, I teared up at the appropriate times and overall I loved it. The second and third episodes, ‘Spring’ and ‘Summer’, dragged a little too much — especially the extended musical sequence — but I also felt that ‘Summer’ was the emotional heart of the revival. Yes, it was great to have the dedication to Edward Hermann — who had played Rory’s grandfather Richard in the original run and who died of cancer in 2014 — in ‘Winter’, and to see Luke (Scott Patterson) and Lorelai finally get married in ‘Fall’. It was nice to have Emily (Kelly Bishop) finally stop being such a stick-in-the-mud, overcome the loss of her husband of 50 years (though I did feel this storyline was a bit out of character, actually) and reconcile with her daughter (for good?). Those were all necessary and satisfying. But the real emotional conflict, and sentiment, came to a head in ‘Summer’.

Though Rory claimed she had plenty of ‘irons in the fire’ during ‘Winter’ and ‘Spring’, and in fact worked toward writing a deeper biography on someone whom she had profiled in a well-received New Yorker piece, by ‘Summer’ this has all fallen through. She’s finally moved back to Stars Hollow, even if she thinks she’s not ‘back’ for good, and is encouraged to join the Thirtysomething Gang, a group of similar-aged people who graduated, went to work and yet have moved back to live with their parents after getting chewed up by real life. Despite her best intentions and hard work, her journalism career is effectively dead. She’s forced to try writing a spec piece for GQ about lines — queues — in New York. When that doesn’t work she takes up the editorial pen of the Stars Hollow Gazette, an unpaid position. She’s broke, doesn’t have a car, a valid license, a paying job or, apparently, underwear. She also, finally, decides to end her affair with Logan, even despite the presence of Lorelai, meanwhile, will be saying goodbye to her longtime friend, concierge Michel, as he feels the need to move to a bigger, more modern inn. Lorelai is also on the committee overseeing Stars Hollow: The Musical, a musical retelling of the history of the town. While at a dress rehearsal with the others on the committee, the others are entranced despite (because of?) the utter banality of the songs, while Lorelai furiously scribbles critiques.

The two women are understandably distraught and petrified that so much around them is changing yet they seem stuck in neutral. It struck a chord with me. Friends from school and university have good jobs, are following their passions (and succeeding) and settling down with beloved children. Life is progressing as they dreamed (or at least society tells us we should dream). Yet for me, and Rory, this isn’t what has happened. Despite our best intentions, qualifications and work we haven’t been able to do what we want.

It is this episode that sets up the finale, including the final four words.

For the record, those are:

Rory: Mom

Lorelei: Yeah?

Rory: I’m pregnant.

Fade to black. End of show. Cue Carole King’s theme song (finally!).

Analysis

There have been numerous articles about the need to ‘talk about‘ these words, their ‘complications‘, why they might ‘make you angry‘ or if you ‘loved them‘.

They all point out how Logan is almost certainly the father, how he’s a proxy version of Christopher (Rory’s father, Lorelai’s ex), how Jess is her Luke (perhaps) and how the show has come full-circle. One even pointed out how different the context is had these been the final words of the original broadcast. gilmorelovemoreBack at the end of season 7 Rory was a recent Yale grad with dreams of being an international journalist and a job writing about the Obama campaign. In the revival she’s 32 (the same age as Lorelai at the start of the show), down on her luck and feeling lost. She’s no longer the precocious youth, but a seasoned woman. A very privileged, well-read woman who sometimes leads a fairy-tale Hollywood life, but a seasoned woman nonetheless.

Yet for as much sense and insight as the articles have, none talk about one of the other major issues. Everyone — outside of Jess, perhaps — has or will have a child. Children are the only measure of success. Michel and his partner Frederick are even adopting, and Michel hates children! What does it say about Rory’s feminism, ambition, writing skills or intelligence to be boiled down to her children? Yes, she is most definitely her mother’s child. But children don’t need to be the defining characteristic of someone’s life. There are plenty of people who can’t have or don’t want children who live full, productive and filling lives. Why aren’t they represented in the show? Why are children so important to someone’s self-worth?

The one good thing that could be said about the abysmal season 7 was that Rory rejected Logan’s proposal, went to follow her dream (and succeed!) and was a strong, independent, childless woman. While the show probably does end with the right words indicating the circle of life, or coming full circle or whatever cliché you want to use, it is still a sad comment by society.

Despite that critique, however, I felt the show ended well and doesn’t need a second revival. The stories have been told already in the original series. Stars Hollow supported Lorelai and helped her raise her child, that same cast of cooky characters will support Rory when she does the same.

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Strange Times, Mister Doctor

Having finally gotten around to seeing the latest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I have some thoughts on Doctor Strange.

drstrange

The Good

The basic requirement of any medium of entertainment is entertainment. If you get bored during a movie or song it’s failing to entertain you. So far, I’ve yet to be bored during any of the Marvel films, and Doctor Strange is no different. It has a nice blend of action, humour and mind-boggling special effects to keep me and other viewers watching. Those are definitely some of the best things about the film, actually.

While not as funny as Guardians of the Galaxy there are definitely still some comic elements to the movie. Benedict Cumberbatch may be known for his Shakespearean oratory and stoic portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, he still has wit and charm when necessary.

The special effects are stunning, and, were they actually real things, would have massive implications for the world and universe at large. By that I mean that the movie shows a more mystical, magical element than has previously been available in the MCU, so opens the MCU to new wonders. The mysticism and multiple universes had been hinted at in some of the other films, particularly the Thor series, and even a bit in Ant-Man, but this new film takes it to a whole different level. Having Doctor Stephen Strange start as a ‘man of science’ before transforming into a ‘man of magic’ means that other characters could also have change their points of view. Hank Pym has some weird ideas already that show he might come around, for example. Thus, the movie does and excellent job of setting itself up for a sequel and still fitting within the wider aspect of the MCU.

The special effects were very reminiscent of The Matrix and Inception. In some ways I actually felt like I was watching those movies during Doctor Strange because of the visual twists and turns. No other Marvel film has used that style of filming before, but it worked well. It really made it feel like reality was distorted and that we all, in many ways, live in our perception of the world.

The Bad

Despite the fact that I did thoroughly enjoy the film, there are still some contentious issues in it. It felt like a standard origin story film that has become so familiar. Arrogant, successful man (almost always a man, especially in the MCU) has something bad happen to him that changes his point of view, he has to learn to use some new ability to defend both himself and others from the big bad. That fits the Tony Stark/Ironman story to a T, describes Bruce Banner/The Incredible Hulk, Thor and, other than ‘arrogant’, Steve Rogers/Captain America. Having a portion of the movie be the origin story would have been okay, but the entirety of it felt reused and rehashed here.

Along that same note, the script itself seemed almost a ‘write by numbers’ sort of movie. I’ve been reading quite a bit about screenwriting recently (in the hopes that I can finish and sell my own screenplay), and one of the resources I’ve been using noted that all successful screenplays have common elements. The basic three act story has a set-up, obstacles and resolution. Within that three-act story can be anywhere from five to eight (depending on the source) ‘plot-points’, the two big ones being ‘the big event’, which moves from Act 1 (set up) to Act 2 (obstacles), and the ‘the crisis’, moving from Act 2 to Act 3 (resolution). There’s also often a catalyst that sets up the big event, some mid-point or ‘point of no return’, a climax and a resolution. As I was watching the film I kept thinking to myself, ‘there’s the catalyst’, ‘there’s the point of no return’, ‘there’s the big event’. The movie was hitting all the boxes a successful screenplay hits but didn’t seem to be adding much creativity in the way it went about it. It felt very much ‘by the book’ for a super hero film. What made the first Iron Man and Captain America films were their bit of social commentary and slight twist on the typical story structure. Doctor Strange didn’t have that; or at least not as well-done as the others.

My biggest issue with the film was the Hollywood whitewashing. It’s a problem that dates back almost to the invention of film, and continues to show a legacy of racism. Doctoral theses could be (and perhaps have been) written about the matter, so I won’t get too much into it from an academic perspective. But even having the fantastic Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong in supporting roles the rest of the main cast was white. Strange, white; his teacher, ‘The Ancient One’, played by Tilda Swinton, white; Strange’s love interest, Dr Christine Palmer, played by Rachel McAdams, white; his enemy, Mads Mikkelsen as Kaecilius, white. Even though much of the movie was set in Asia Wong was the only prominent Asian character. Even though Strange lived in New York, a city that has a very diverse population, he worked with and dated white people. Why couldn’t Christine be Puerto Rican, or Dominican? Why couldn’t the Ancient One be Asian? Marvel’s tenuous explanation was that they didn’t want to be stereotypical showing a wizened old Asian person teaching a white person martial arts and magic, but that hold little water. Asia is not just China, Tibet or Japan — the stereotypical connoisseur’s of martial arts. The Ancient One could have been Vietnamese, Turkish or Indian (or some other Asian nationality) and not been the ‘stereotypical’ example.

Thscarlett-johansson-ghost-shell-asian-cgi__opte recent casting of Scarlett Johansson as the lead in the live-action adaptation of the manga/anime series Ghost In the Shell merely perpetuates the problem. Are there really no capable Asian actors or actresses in the world? I find that extremely hard to believe. Yet, by continuing to whitewash the movies Hollywood is failing to further appeal to a huge percentage of the population. The world is a diverse place, filled with all sorts of people. Wouldn’t it be in Hollywood’s best interest to accept that fact and make their product more reflective?

Despite these problems Doctor Strange was an enjoyable film. It widens the whole scope of the MCU and lays the foundation for many, many more types of films. I look forward to seeing how Strange will fit into the Infinity War arc that’s building for 2018/2019 (and beyond?). In the meantime I’ll have to make do with Thor: RagnarokGuardians of the Galaxy 2 and Black Panther before then. Perhaps they will be less formulaic and whitewashed. To be fair, it’s hard to be whitewashed with Idris Elba, Chadwick Boseman and Zoe Saldana in leading roles.

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For the Health (Care) of America

Some of the current political climate in America, and, to be honest, Britain, has involved healthcare. In the US there has been a lot of railing against ‘Obamacare’ because it costs too much; while in the UK a lot of the Brexit talk focused on money spent (or not spent) on the NHS.

I’m of the opinion that the ‘life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness’ line spoken about in the Declaration of Independence includes, you know, actually living. That includes not living in fear of going bankrupt because of sickness or some accident. Thus I believe government-provided healthcare, like the kind provided by the NHS and which has an equivalent in almost all Western countries except the US, is necessary for the pursuit of happiness. And, you know, that whole ‘life’ bit, too.

The Case for Insurance

Both the US and UK (and many other places) use private insurance companies to provide and/or supplement healthcare. This is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself. Insurance companies employ thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people. They, in turn, contribute to the economy and help keep others employed. Without their jobs they would either be unemployed and potentially living off benefits or working elsewhere that doesn’t necessarily pay as much. Thus insurance companies play a vital role in keeping the whole system afloat.

In the UK insurance is used either to supplement the NHS or for some people bypass it completely. I posted a link to an article before about how great the NHS can seem for outside observers, which for the most part I agree with. But it is also exceedingly slow for anything that’s not an immediate emergency.  I found getting an initial appointment quite easy and simple — usually I could schedule for the next day or within the week. When I needed a referral, however, I could wait for a long time. Then wait. And wait some more. Often it takes months once the referral is made to see the specialist. For those who have private insurance, however, the wait time is much quicker and can, sometimes, remove the need for a referral in the first place. If you need to see a neurologist you can schedule an appointment with a neurologist directly instead of seeing your GP and getting referred to a neurologist, for example.

It’s stressful, tiring and annoying having to wait and not knowing what’s going on. Private insurance can help ease that time, though obviously can’t eliminate it completely. Modern medicine just doesn’t have the ability to instantaneously give diagnoses. Even in the best sci-fi shows they haven’t cured every disease or ailment in the known universe. So insurance does have some benefits, potentially.

The Case Against Insurance and for Universal Health Care

The number one cause for bankruptcy in the US is medical expenses. As the Huffington Post pointed out about a recent Harvard Study, medical bills cause 62 percent of American bankruptcies, equalling about 2 million people a year. Of those people, nearly three-quarters of them (72 percent, or 78, depending on the article you read) actually had insurance. What’s the point of paying hundreds or thousands of dollars every year if it’s not going to be worthwhile? If you spent $5000 on car repairs only to have it break down as soon as you left the mechanic wouldn’t you demand your money back? If having health insurance doesn’t actually pay for health care, what’s the point?

In addition, health insurance plans are confusing. The general basics aren’t mind-boggling, necessarily, but knowing all the intricacies of what treatments are covered, which ones aren’t covered, if you’re ‘in network’ or ‘out of network’ and all sorts of specialised details makes the whole situation mystifying. Even the HealthCare.gov (aka ‘Obamacare’) official website has a whole glossary of terms to help people understand what it is they’re buying and receiving. It may not be like getting a PhD in rocket science but it sure isn’t basic arithmetic, either. Wouldn’t it be much easier if you went to the doctor and said, ‘I’m sick’, and that’s all you had to worry about in your health care decision?

There are a lot of critics and criticism against single-payer, ranging from doctors not having choices, the cost would be too high to long wait times (okay, that’s valid, as I pointed out). Some people don’t like the idea of ‘socialism’ or government-mandated anything, or more money for taxes. Those criticisms are mostly rubbish. The next part will be technical and include a lot of math and statistics, so be warned now.

healthcare

According to a 2015 Time article, on average Americans spend $89 a month on health insurance, or $1318 a year (although one post had that as high as $386 a month for single coverage, or $4632 a year, and even higher with plans that covered families). That’s before any deductibles, co-pays or other out-of-pocket expenses. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that a little less than half the of the American population (say roughly 150 million) pays for healthcare, that’s almost $200 billion a year, or $700 billion if using the higher number. Either way, that’s a ton of money spent on health insurance for private companies each year. Imagine if that went to the government instead.

The US spends the most per capita on healthcare of any country in the world. According to the World Bank, the US spends more than 17% of its GDP on health costs. The next closest Western country is Sweden, at nearly 12% of GDP. Most of the countries that have national health systems, including Canada, Australia, France and the rest of Western Europe spend anywhere between 9-11.5%, often hovering about 10%. The UK only spends 9% of its GDP on healthcare. Obviously, somewhere along the way, America got a little out of hand. Having a national health system will lower those costs.

According to the US Census bureau, the median income in the US is $55,775, and the average tax rate (federal, state, Social Security, etc.) is roughly 15% at that income. The Tax Policy Center has the effective tax rate (as a measure of percentage of GDP) at 24%, which is well-below the world average. Raising the average tax rate from 15% to 17% is, lo and behold, about the same amount the average person pays in health care costs already. So, effectively people can pay the exact same amount of money as they already are, have complete coverage from childhood til death and not have to worry about going bankrupt. Why is that a bad thing?

Why Nationalised Healthcare Is A Good Idea

Aside from not going bankrupt, there are plenty of other reasons to have nationalised healthcare. The Physicians for A National Health Program (PNHP) have created a chart highlighting some of the benefits of such a thing, including lifetime coverage, lowered administrative costs and plenty of patient choice (everything is ‘in network’, so patients can choose to go wherever they’d like). Other sites offer different viewpoints about the pros and cons, though the ‘cons’, I find, tend to be rather flimsy.

Even some typically right-leaning groups and publications have argued in favour of universal health care. The Economist, for example, wrote in a 2009 article that it’s a ‘common good’. It points out that Americans already also consider it a form of ‘common good’, since the US does already provide healthcare for the poorest group of people through Medicare and for veterans through the VA. So the US already has government-run systems. Why not expand upon those to include everyone? In the immortal words of Bon Jovi, ‘we’re halfway there’… And, in Star Trek it seemed like every species had free, universal health care. You never heard them complain about the lack of competition or some other illogical, murky statement. They just enjoyed getting healed.

One of the arguments against single-payer is that because there is competition amongst providers costs remain low. But because there are actually so many different companies and no coherent plan amongst them — and so many different places where they ‘compete’ — the reality is that there is no real competition. It’s like saying that because three pizza chains in California compete for customers then people who want to eat pizza in Michigan get lower prices. It’s false equivalency, the competition argument.

Though there are plenty of other arguments, I’ll leave off with this. Would you rather have your health choices in the hands of a private company concerned with making profits above all else, or a government charged with taking care of its citizens?

Heath insurance providers are businesses. Like all businesses their main goal is to make a profit. You are a consumer of a product for them and though it may seem like you have other choices in getting providers in reality your options are fairly limited. Especially if your workplace is providing health insurance (how many companies, plans or options do they offer you as an employee? I would think not many). So, since the providers have basically a monopoly over you they can charge whatever they want to make more money for themselves. There is no reason for them to actually provide services if it means losing money and profit. That’s why there have been so many insurance claims denied for things like ‘pre-existing conditions’ (which is an oxymoron since something either exists or it doesn’t; there’s no such thing as ‘pre-existing’. But that’s a philosophical and semantic argument). There’s a reason there’s have been findings that business behave like sociopaths. It’s because businesses basically are sociopaths.

Governments, on the other hand, have social contracts with their citizens. A healthy, productive, engaged populace is good for the government. If the citizen workforce is sick and not working, therefore not making money, the government gains no taxes because there’s no income. It’s in the government’s interest to make sure its citizens can work.

I for one trust the government more than a private corporation. Besides, I have other things I would rather (or need) so spend money on, like school loans. But that’s a post for another day.

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The Art of Job Hunting

Go to any website offering job advice and they’ll most likely say very similar things. Your resume, or CV depending on part of the world and/or job experience, should have active verbs with results-driven content. It shouldn’t be more than 2 pages, should look tidy, be in a readable font and yadda, yadda, yadda. The same goes for the cover letter, which you should always write for a job application. Do some research on the company (or individual), ideally address it to the hiring manager and include why you would be an excellent fit for the job and how you will help them.

The problem with these sites and the information available is that they almost all tell you the same stuff. Which means everyone is doing the same thing. Nothing stands out — at least on an initial eye test. Sure, there will be some aesthetic differences, but for the most part they’re the same.

oprah

Which is probably why most hiring managers and recruitment agencies run resumes through software programmes that search for key words and phrases. If you don’t tailor your resume to fit the keywords and data points you’ll get immediate rejections (often without even an email saying you haven’t got the job).

If you do pass that initial test then an actual human will read your resume. Maybe, if you’re lucky, at that point you’ll get called in for an interview. I’ve talked about interviewing and feedback in previous posts, so I won’t go over that now. If you can make it to the interview stage congratulations.

I’ve been having trouble even doing that. I’ve been applying for writing, editing, marketing and media jobs. I’ve got quite a bit of experience doing all those things, having worked in marketing for a media company for a few years, writing a thesis and editing a journal. I also do some volunteering in similar fields.

But for some reason my resume isn’t sticking out. I hope it’s only a momentary lapse. There’s definitely an art to applying for jobs. You need somejobsearchthing to stand out. Hitting the keywords is the first step, but there needs to be something else. There was a guy who got hired at GQ by creating a GQ-style resume. There have been other similar stories about really creative people going above and beyond for their dream job. Obviously it can work in some instances. But for most of us we either don’t have the inclination, skill to create that type of thing, time or knowledge on how to do it. So we go with the standard cover letter and resume applications.

In the meantime, I kind of feel like this meme.

 

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In the Criminal Justice System…

Found guilty — at least in the press — of a crime they didn’t commit. Vilified in the media and public. Falsely accused. It makes for gripping drama. It also makes for tragic reality.

I could just as easily be talking politics — the joke that is the 2016 election — as recent television shows. In this instance I’m talking about Netflix’s documentary, Amanda Knox, and HBO’s The Night Of.

One is the true story of an overzealous police detective, prosecutor and frenzied media hungry for a compelling story, the other is, well, a drama about the same thing.

Amanda Knox

amandaknoxAmanda Knox was an American student studying in Italy in 2007 when her British housemate was killed. The police detective and prosecutor almost immediately focused their investigation on her because she was ‘acting funny’ at the scene. By that they meant that she kissed her boyfriend at the house while the police were there and then later posted something on social media about how they were going to have sex that night, just a few days after her housemate was murdered. Strange, perhaps crass? Yes. Evidence of committing a crime? Not at all. Apparently, though, it was enough of an anomaly for the detectives investigating the murder. With her guilt already presumed, the police, prosecution and even media made sure to get the ‘evidence’ to convict her of the crime.

As a young, attractive woman accused of the crime the media was quick to jump on Knox, who had once posted on a social media account the nickname ‘Foxy Knoxy’, as a sex-crazed maniac who got caught up in a sex-game gone wrong. Stories emerged daily showing Knox posing with a gun (probably in a Halloween costume or perhaps a paintball gun, but definitely taken out of context no matter what) and her boyfriend at the time dressed in similarly inappropriate attire. Despite both photos obviously taken out of context and actually indicative of nothing, the media hoopla continued. Foxy Knoxy sold headlines. Later, after her arrest and imprisonment, she was lied to by being told she was HIV positive. Obviously, it had profound psychological effects on her. She kept a diary in prison which was, mysteriously, leaked to the press. Which, of course, drew more headlines and helped convince people of her guilt.

Though she was eventually found guilty in the Italian courts she appealed based on corrupted evidence. The appellate court exonerated her and set her free. Another court found her guilty and eventually went to the Italian Supreme Court. The Supreme Court found her innocent. The ‘evidence’ the police had on her in the first place was circumstantial and tenuous, at best. There was, theoretically, a knife that had her DNA on the handle and the DNA of the victim, Meredith Kercher, on the blade. An independent review of that knife found the DNA was corrupted in the lab an unusable.

Yet despite the lack of physical evidence Amanda Knox was almost from the beginning the only person investigated. Another person with a history of breaking into houses, Rudy Guede, was assumed to have been part of the sex-game gone wrong and convicted as well, but the media rarely touched upon his story. A known criminal committing another crime? Where’s the story in that? But Kercher’s family, and a lot of other people, still believe Knox, her boyfriend and Guede killed Kercher. Knox, in the documentary, said it best. You either believe she’s guilty or she’s innocent, there’s no in between. As she said, ‘Either I’m a psychopath in sheep’s clothing, or I am you.’ She’s you because the same situation could happen to you.

The Night Of

night-ofJust like it did to Nasir ‘Naz’ Khan, the protagonist of the HBO limited series The Night Of, which had a similar premise. Naz was accused of killing a woman, Andrea Cornish. There were a lot of drugs involved, he’d had sex with her and he fled the scene upon discovering her body. But he swore that during the time of the murder he was knocked out in the kitchen on a drug-infused high, so that he can’t remember what actually happened that night.

It’s a horrible defence, especially based on the preponderance of physical evidence, but the detective involved in the case again focused in on only the one suspect. Since Naz was Muslim the media, too, was quick to assume his guilt, the victim of racism and headlines. That he had no motive or history of any crime didn’t matter. It wasn’t until the trial that the police began investigating anyone else, mostly because the defence started presenting evidence that could point to reasonable doubt. Was any of it conclusive? No. Was any of it compelling and did it offer a motive for others? Most certainly.

What We Learned

What struck me about both the documentary and the drama was how similar they were. The guilt or innocence of both people is still in doubt. The media formed their own opinions rather quickly and basically played out a trial in the press. Both people may have been falsely accused, but definitely spent time in jail. I’m inclined to believe that neither Knox nor Naz actually committed the crimes of which they were accused; others disagree. The reality of their situations didn’t actually matter to the perception of them. They were unfairly abused by the very system that was designed to protect them. Some level of corruption or incompetence played into their trials. One day forever changed their lives.

In both things I’m struck by certain aspects of the justice system. Prosecutors, in particular, must be convinced of the defendant’s guilt. There must be a lot of mental gymnastics sometimes to go to trial. Sometimes, too often, people can be wrongly convicted. People are very much able to convince themselves of anything. Part of me is somewhat amazed that twelve people in a jury can actually agree on anything. There’s a reason there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of different religions, political parties, TV stations and restaurants that all claim to be ‘the best’ or ‘the only’.

Humanity has a great ability to delude itself. But humanity also has a great propensity for following a leader. On a jury it only takes one strongly convinced person to swing the rest of the jury to their belief. This sort of delusion, ability to convince others and strongly held belief can make for fantastic drama in movies and television when it does, but can also lead to untold tragedy in real life. Truth matters, but who has the time to go find it.

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The Only Difference Is Everything

I’ve been back in the US for almost two months now. I’m not quite over my culture shock (or reverse culture shock), which I wrote about earlier.

I’m driving now, which is a bit strange after taking public transport for the past five years. I’ve spent part of today (more than I’d like, really) looking into the best and easiest way to get from my place into DC proper via public transport. Even though I’m only about 25 miles away from DC it’s going to take me about an hour and a half door-to-door. That feels ridiculous to me, and ridiculously inefficient. But it is what it is, so I have to cope.

One thing that I was really looking forward to upon moving back was donating plasma. For some reason the UK and NHS doesn’t accept plasma donations. They can do platelets and whole red blood, but not plasma. There are many places in the US where you can do it, though, and some even will even pay you for it. That’s a decent way to make some extra money, I suppose, though I would feel a bit strange doing that. Other places like the American Red Cross don’t pay you, nor do they accept plasma donations as often, but have more reach as a non-profit. The problem I have now, however, is that I cant’ donate. Not blood or plasma. Apparently having spent more than five years in Europe disqualifies me. Seemingly forever. I have to say, I’m more than a little upset about this. Blood is blood. My blood was good enough to use in the UK, it should be good enough to use here. What’s changed, other than my living situation? It’s bollocks, is what it is.

Another thing that’s bollocks is the amount of sugar in, well, everything. Why is there sugar in bread? Why is it so hard to find bread without sugar? Even when I can find it, sugarless bread is insanely expensive. I don’t understand why it’s such a problem. The incessant sugar, which has no health benefit whatsoever, could help explain why Americans have troubles with weight, diabetes and other health issues, though there are of course many other reasons). It shouldn’t really be surprising about a recent story concerning the sugar lobby, which years ago paid scientists to push health issues towards fat. One more example of money corrupting whatever it touches.

sim-card-stack

Another difference which I have found annoying is the inability to plug in a new sim card into my old British phone. In the UK I had an iPhone 5C. It’s a model that is made around the world, including the US. I had specifically unlocked my phone so that I could use it in the US. But US phone companies don’t use the same carrier networks or frequencies as those in the UK (or the rest of the world, actually). So even though my phone would work in literally any other country, it wouldn’t work in the US. For no other reason than American companies have to be different. Someone at one of the major carrier companies tried to explain why sim cards aren’t as prevalent here — something to do with potential theft and identity fraud — but that makes no sense. Smart phones are so ubiquitous that sims should be common. Not to mention that sims themselves don’t actually carry much, if any personal information which would make identity theft easy or common.

One more striking difference between the US and UK that I’ll be pointing out today is charity shops. Having moved into a new apartment and needing, well, pretty much everything you need to make a home, I’m a little disappointed with the lack of charity shops. Yes, the US has Goodwill. But those are few and far between. Alas. Back in the UK it seemed like there were charity shops on nearly every street corner. That could, perhaps, be a bit biased since there were, literally, four on one road just around the corner from me and a few more throughout town. But other places I visited had them as well. So they were all around. Since the shops were mostly, if not wholly, stocked with donations, the UK has definitely taken the approach that ‘one man’s junk is another man’s treasure’. On the other hand, the UK had far fewer swap meets and garage sales. They have their own positives and negatives, then.

So I have struggled to adapt. The differences, which seem so minor, make reintegration hard. I’m used to having and doing things a certain way, and I just can’t get those anymore. Shame.

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