Health Care Savings Accounts are a Racket

I never realized how completely they were until I started studying the things. I mean, sure, they’re a racket because those of us with relatively more money can more easily defer present consumption in the name of savings than those who spend all their income on essentials. They’re classist, in other words. But it goes beyond that.

My new employer offers them as an option, and I thought they might be useful for the things that insurance does not cover. That is, I thought they might be useful until I started reading the fine print: once they have your money, you will never get it back. You either spend it on health care within an appointed period of time (no rollover allowed), or you lose it. Entirely.

You thought the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition were pure TV fantasy? Think again. Ferengi Rule No. 1: Once you have their money, never give it back. Sound familiar?

To that bit of nastiness we can add how there are multiple health-care savings plans, all complex, and all differing in complex ways. It’s as awful as health insurance plans themselves: those offering the plans deliberately make them complex so as to make it impossible to hold all the details in one’s mind at once and make a proper comparison between different options.

Moving Yet Again, or Money Really Can Solve Some Problems

I’ve been missing having all my things accessible (about half of them are crammed into a storage unit in Portland), plus I’m really not all that compatible with my current housemate, plus the neighborhood I’m currently in has gone downhill since I moved here (rowdy partiers moved into the house next door).

I was racking my brain for strategies for addressing at least the final problem (I hate not having peace and quiet at night) while at the same time having to cope with being unemployed in an expensive city. Suddenly, I’m employed again. I don’t have to rack my brain: I just have to sign a lease on an apartment of my own and sign a check. Problem solved.

I’m definitely not looking forward to the whole moving process again, but I am looking forward to settling into my new place for at least a few years. As much as I find things to dislike about Seattle, it’s not all that bad a place when compared to the average big city in the USA, and it is in the ecoregion I’ve bonded with and consider myself part of.

Moreover, while not perfect (is any place?), the apartment I’ve found does have enough of the things on my rather lengthy list of wants and needs (some of which are difficult to satisfy in Seattle) that I feel comfortable signing a lease and bringing an unexpectedly early end to the search for a new home.

Search Over

Nearly a year after I began it in earnest, my search for employment in the Seattle area is finally over. It is a position that reinforces my desire to leave Portland: salary and benefits are significantly better than any Portland job I have ever had, and management appears to be significantly more competent than at any Portland workplace I’ve been at as well.

For openers, they’ve already asked me not only what hardware I prefer for my workstation (and totally understood my preference for a Macintosh, because it is shared by many developers there), they also asked me what model of keyboard I preferred.

Plus, of course, there will be no elephant in the living room (grass pollen allergy hell) in Seattle. Sure, there’s still a grass pollen season here, and it’s certainly no fun. But Seattle’s pollen levels are much lower and do not turn me into a boy in the bubble who dashes from one air-conditioned space to another like happens in Portland.

Saying Goodbye to a Friend

Today was the day of M. Dennis “Marvelous” Moore’s memorial service. Marvelous Marvin was little-known but influential figure in the struggle for LGBT rights in the State of Oregon. His satirical arguments published in the Oregon Voter’s Pamphlet are far better known than the man behind the pen of those same writings.

He passed away last week after a prolonged struggle with a rare genetic illness, and I was privileged to be one of the last people to visit him before he passed.

So, Where From Here?

First, slide film is not dead. Yet. Fuji still sells it, and fortunately I prefer Fuji’s slide films to Kodak’s anyhow. So I figure there’s at least several more years when I can continue shooting the exact same combination I’ve done for a decade now. As a bonus, the more people who do this, the longer slide film will last.

Next, color negative film is still going strong. I don’t like it as much as slide film, but Kodak has released a new emulsion in recent years (Ektar 100) that I’m actually quite fond of. So after slide film dies it will be decision time: is there a negative film available that is good enough? If so, I can shift to it.

If not, it will be time to begin the unpleasant process of learning how to cope with a new but inferior tool. Or perhaps time to abandon a form of photography which, while presently an enjoyable pursuit, will have become unduly tedious and frustrating thanks to technological processes beyond my control.

And I am loathe to bequeath the name “progress” onto such processes.

Why It Sucks

Basically, the end of slide film (not yet, but the writing is clearly on the wall) sucks because it is my preferred choice for nature photography, and it is extremely unlikely that digital cameras will ever be as suitable for my nature photography as older, manual-focus film SLR’s are.

The Problem is Autofocus

Unlike most forms of photographic automation, autofocus is not and cannot ever be purely additive: if one adds autofocus feature, one of necessity must subtract other functionality from a camera.

That puts autofocus into a different and unfortunate category. Consider exposure automation: adding, say, shutter priority or program modes to a camera does not make it any less easy to continue offering a metered-manual mode, one which works every bit as well as it used to on an old, all-mechanical body. (Sure, you lose battery independence, but for macro photography on slide film, where metering is so critical and complex, you never really ever had that in the first place. A metered body offers so many advantages for such photography that one would be a fool not to use one.) Exposure automation also adds no weight penalty to a camera: weight now present in the form of solenoids, circuit boards, and a small battery is countered by weight in the form of clockwork that is now absent.

Autofocus, on the other hand, forces the manufacturer to add focusing motors to either the body or the lens (read: more weight and bulk), to add significantly-sized batteries to power those motors (which use much more electricity than a metering circuit or an electromechanical shutter, yet more weight and bulk), and to rob light from the finder for the autofocus sensor to use. Alternatively, one can delete the optical finder completely and replace it with an electronic one (which will fall short in both resolution and in low-light performance).

EVF’s Will Not Significantly Improve

Anyone who thinks otherwise needs to return back to the case of SLR cameras. Autofocus SLR bodies first started appearing about 20 years ago back when film was still king. The only new manual-focus SLR body introduced since that time which I am aware of is the Pentax ZX-M. (The Nikon FM-10 does not count; it was an existing Chinese camera that Nikon chose to rebrand and sell under their marque with their lens mount. Cameras like the Nikon F3 continued to be made well into the autofocus era, but they were not new introductions.)

More recently, there have never been any manual-focus DSLR bodies, from any manufacturer. The closest thing to such an attempt was Leica’s release of a digital back which turned their R8 and R9 bodies into exceptionally large and awkward (not to mention expensive) DSLR’s. In short, manufacturers have gotten away with deleting manual focus functionality. All evidence indicates that most photographers are willing to trade a superior finder for the autofocus feature.

Not me. I quite naturally evolved a style of very slowly and meticulously adjusting focus manually in my macro shots, often at the sub-millimeter level, and often in gloomy forest-floor conditions. I find that this matters a great deal where the depth of field is almost never as much as a quarter inch. This is about the worst possible conceivable case for either using autofocus, coping with a darker finder, or coping with the diminished resolution and lack of real-time response of an EVF. Consider the combination of needs: I need something that provides the highest resolution and which offers immediate response even in low light.

But that’s just me. Evidently, there are not enough photographers like me to prompt manufacturers to cater to our needs. Given this, what does that say about any incentive to make EVF’s have better resolution and imperceptible low-light lag? Basically, it says that such incentives do not exist. EVFs are being introduced to make autofocus camera bodies smaller and lighter. Period.

This is a recent insight of mine, and a most depressing one. I would actually like to have the choice of using digital for macro photography (and not have to make compromises which inevitably compromise the quality of the resulting images, or which compromise my ability to carry equipment on foot for significant distances). I used to hold out hope that EVFs would eventually get to the stage where they became as good as or better than the optical finders on manual-focus cameras. No longer.

Conclusion

In short, the only lightweight, compact, interchangeable-lens cameras suitable for ultra-precise manual focus at close range are film SLR’s. And this is unlikely to change.

Seriously, This Sucks

Film as a whole might not be dead, but it certainly looks as if slide film is dying. Sure, Fuji is still making it, but that’s basically the last manufacturer. When a product is down to one remaining manufacturer, it’s pretty clear that its days are numbered.

And, unlike black-and-white film (which is technologically pretty simple stuff), manufacturing color film is a complex proposition, which means that the odds of any niche manufacturer deciding to make it are pretty slim.

Which sucks for me, because slide film is my medium of choice for photographing wildflowers. I’m still going to stick with it for the next year at least, given that I can still buy it from Fuji (whose slide film I prefer anyhow) and my budget for replacing my film nature-photography outfit is at the present time very limited.

What I’m not looking forward to is the possibility of having to make one or more unpleasant compromises. The main reason I’ve stuck with slide film for so long is that I’ve tried the alternatives and found them wanting. In particular, digital SLR cameras all tend to have at least some of the following disadvantages:

  • Heaver and bulkier bodies. The Pentax KX and K2 were unpopular in their day, because they were considered excessively heavy and bulky. Yet iturns out they are actually smaller and lighter than most current digital SLR bodies currently being made! Weight and bulk matters to me because I take my outfit on the trail.
  • Heavier and bulkier lenses. This is mainly due to modern lenses containing motors and electronics to support autofocus, a feature I seldom use. Why should I want to cope with a “feature” which is seldom of benefit to me, yet always a drawback?
  • Dimmer viewfinders. Again, this is due to the need to support autofocus: DSLR reflex mirrors are only partly-silvered, so that the autofocus system may rob light from the finder for its purposes.
  • Increased complexity. Older, mechanical cameras are simple to understand. If something goes wrong, it is fairly easy to tell what is to blame, and to either repair or replace the offending lens or body. With digital, you’re often chasing software bugs, which is an entirely different realm of complexity. Repair turnarounds for a digital camera issue can thus be significantly longer.

I’m not making any of this up; I battled all of them with the one DSLR I tried using for a few months before dumping it and using the proceeds to buy a good film scanner.

If I absolutely had to abandon film right now, I would probably start by looking at micro four-thirds and other mirrorless systems; they lack the weight and bulk penalty of most digital SLR’s. In fact, I’d probably be looking at them presently if my budget allowed for purchasing a new camera system; I’m not precisely a big fan of the film-scanning process.

Unfortunately, the last time I tried a camera with an electronic viewfinder, I found it to be unacceptable (excessive lag time in low light). If that’s still the case, then I’d probably look at the four-thirds system of SLRs next, followed by investigating to see if Pentax have finally gotten the rid of the last of the serious bugs in their DSLR firmware’s shake reduction code.

What’s unsettling about it all is that I have no assurance that I could find any presently-manufactured camera system that preforms acceptably compared to my current outfit. I’ve received enough patronizing condescension from drinkers of high-technology Kool Aid to realize that the masses are completely willing to excuse inferior performance if it’s sold as new and improved, and its doubters are berated as Luddites.