Sunday, January 14, 2007

NHS vs insurance

I am sick. There have been a lot of nasty viruses being passed around lately and now it is my turn. It's nothing more than a bad cold, but it does want to make me do nothing more than curl up in bed with a cup of tea and a book.

Following a theme, NHS Blog Doc wrote a report about the differences between UK and US healthcare here, and I've had numerous debates with people on the pros and cons of socialized medicine.

Several years ago, I needed to have my wisdom teeth pulled. I was getting severely painful abcesses and my dentist referred me to the local hospital. About six months later I was seen and x-rayed, and told I'd go on the waiting list which was around twelve months at the time. My mother had insurance through her work and called back the doctor to ask if that would make a difference. He said, "I can do next Monday if you like?"

I have not had many major run ins with the NHS, barring the usual antibiotics prescriptions from my local GP. So it makes sense that mere months after moving to the US I would have a rather nasty medical emergency. I managed to slip in the kitchen and stab myself in my left hand with a large knife, resulting in a panicked dash to the local ER. Several hours and a few stitches later, I was sent home. For five stitches, a mild sedative (I really don't like needles) and two bandaids I was billed around $1800.

$1800! I was mortified, and of course I wasn't covered by insurance! I was lucky that my father agreed to pay for the treatment, or I'd have been in a horrible situation. But it really made me think just how frightening it can be to know that if you have a serious accident or are diagnosed with a long-term illness, that if could bankrupt you or your family easily.

From this perspective, it would be easy to take comfort in the idea that in the UK if you fall down and break your leg, you will be treated and sent home and won't have to pay hospital fees. But at what cost? Of course there are the taxes that fund the NHS, but it's the hidden costs that only become apparent when you need them.

NHS Blog Doc writes regularly about his patients on a personal level, of how difficult it is to get mental health treatment for people with severe schizophrenia (as long as they haven't actually gotten violent), how he has to make agonizing choices on how to refer possible cancer cases, how infuriating it is to see his patients frightened and in pain and asking him why they have just been put on another waiting list.

I don't know what the answer is. I don't know much about the politics and costs involved in healthcare. I just know that people have a right to prompt and safe treatment, no matter how much or little money they have.

On a lighter note, I need to update my blogroll; I've been reading some new blogs lately and I'd like to write a little about them soon.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The Good, The Bad and The Geeky

First post in a while and it's off-topic! Well, it's my blog, so I suppose I can write about what I like. And this is a subject that's quite close to my heart.

I, my dear readers, am a geek. I am addicted to the internet, I play video games and I make jokes with friends about the latest updates to Slashdot, b3ta and my blog list. I have more blogs and journals than you could shake a stick at, and my idea of a fun night is sitting around until 3am with a group of friends, eating pizza, drinking beer and playing Taiko Drum Master and Dance Dance Revolution.

Like most gaming geeks, Jack Thompson is a name that makes me roll my eyes instantly. Jack is an ambulance-chasing lawyer who is so against video games that he seems to foam at the mouth at the merest mention of the evil media. He is utterly convinced that the pushing of buttons to control pixels on a TV is responsible for the downfall of youth in modern culture. The Wikipedia link gives a few examples of the kinds of suits he has filed against game manufacturors, and also highlights just how frighteningly crazy this man is. Almost all of his cases have been thrown out of court. It should also be noted that he has not actually played any of the games that he files against; in fact he often cites "evidence" that is confused or completely wrong due to his lack of knowledge of the media he is so against.

But this is not a rant about Jack Thompson, in fact it is about a documentary that he participated in. Moral Kombat (a play on the title of a game named "Mortal Kombat") is a documentary created by Spencer Halpin supposedly taking a candid look at violence in the video game industry and how it affects youth culture. The propaganda trailer can be seen here. Tell me if you see the balance there, because all I can hear are anti-video game warnings amidst the dramatic piano music and swooshing graphics. And as Tycho of Penny Arcade stated, "to dredge up that fruity "9/11 Terrorists Trained On MS Flight Simulator" stuff to score rhetorical points in a completely unrelated discussion is (I have chosen to be polite) weak sauce. You'd better have a Goddamn good reason for invoking that day, and "so I can sound like a smart motherfucker on the teevee" ain't gonna cut it."

Video games are not all for kids. A great number of very popular titles (Grand Theft Auto, Gears of War, Brothers in Arms, Silent Hill, Fatal Frame, Siren, Bully, etc) are aimed at an older audience and are rated as such. Parents should take the same care in purchasing video games for their children as they do with movies; if you wouldn't buy your child a copy of The Exorcist, why would you buy them a game with this cover?

The concerns of those who criticize the gaming industry so openly are that the violence displayed in games aimed at an older audience will warp children's minds and encourage them to enact such violence in the real world. I call bullshit. I have played many of the games they list and let me tell you, they don't inspire me to follow through on my pixelated character's actions. In Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, you play a Mafia member who has just been released from prison and who performs deeds and missions for people in the city, bumping off those in power and eventually growing to become a crimelord. You steal cars, shoot people down and generally do what you like. One misconception often cited by Jack Thompson and the like is that you are "rewarded for killing cops"; while it is perfectly possible to kill a cop in the game, the only reward you get is more cops coming after you to arrest you! And yet despite the hours I've wracked up in this game, I've never had the urge to steal a car or start shooting people down in the street.

The fantasy world in a video game is just that; a fantasy world. If someone is inclined to reproduce the script of a movie or video game in real life, then they would have to have a pretty slim grasp on reality in the first place. Silent Hill is a series of horror games in which the protagonist is trapped in a demonic town full of monsters and nightmares. Yet I am able to play this game and go to bed content with the thought that nothing is waiting for me in my closet. I am safe in my knowledge that it is a game, it is fantasy and not reality. Mario Brothers has never inspired me to jump up and down on turtles and mushrooms, Sonic the Hedgehog has never inspired me to steal gold rings and Pacman never inspired me to pop pills.

If you are so inclined, check out the comments to the original blog post I got this from for some articulate, intelligent and well-formed responses from the gaming community at large concerning the fears of those in the documentary.