Ryan Anderson

Science, Fiction, Life

Author: Ryan (page 1 of 14)

Finding Balance – Part 1: Mental Health

I recently finished taking a month off of work for paternity leave, and in that haze of diapers and and missed sleep and blissful new parent moments, I read two books – a self-help book and a collection of essays – that unexpectedly resonated with each other. Taken together, they provided me with a change in perspective that has been eye-opening and challenging. I’m still working through it, and anyone who reads this blog knows that one of the ways I process things is to write them down here. So here we go.

The first book is Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. I haven’t talked about it much, but I have been struggling with insomnia, anxiety, and “low mood” (I wouldn’t go so far as to call it true depression) for a while, and it has gotten worse in the last few years. Some might argue that between having a kid and the state of the world right now, an increase in anxiety is the appropriate response, but the problem goes back farther than that. Those things have just accelerated what was already happening.

Since at least early grad school, I have suffered from occasional “downward spirals” where I get in a bad mood and it spirals out of control and I end up questioning my path in life and generally having an existential crisis. Of course, everyone has bad days and maybe this is normal, but these spirals feel like a growing avalanche of negativity. I can usually tell when one is coming on but am nearly powerless to stop it. The only things that work are doing some intensive writing (hard to do when you’re feeling negative about literally everything) or just going to sleep and resetting my brain.

What has changed in recent years is that those episodes have become more frequent and I don’t bounce back as well as I used to. My baseline happiness has dropped, my interest in work has waned, and those questions about my path that used to be restricted to when I was spiraling have become more chronic, nagging doubts. I have started feeling vaguely anxious all the time for no clear reason, and the anxiety has started to keep me up at night.

I’ve also fallen deeper into an unhealthy pattern of thought that I have struggled with for a long time. It goes like this: I fixate on a grand goal (usually it is to become a published author) but then I don’t actually do much to work toward that goal and then I beat myself up about how I’m not achieving my goals, and that rapidly escalates to how I am wasting my life and am going to have regrets on my deathbed about all the things I didn’t accomplish. Or if I do work toward the goal, I get paralyzed by all the pressure I’ve put on myself, I am disappointed in what I accomplish, I stop working on it, and quickly end up in the same place. Not a very healthy pattern of thought, but it is one that has haunted me for most of my adult life.

So, yeah. Given all of that, I decided to try therapy last year. I went to see a counselor, but it soon became clear that we weren’t a good fit so I stopped going. (She didn’t seem to know how to handle my lack of belief in anything supernatural, and the existential angst that goes with that.) Then earlier this year the insomnia got bad enough that I went to a doctor and got a prescription. The drug they prescribed (Trazodone) helps with sleep and anxiety and depression and is quite safe and cheap so it was a good fit for me. It worked for a while, but taking a sleep aid is not a great idea when you have a newborn baby to take care of. It’s hard enough to wake up multiple times in the night when not drugged. So I stopped taking it when the new baby arrived.

Of course, then the anxiety came back. In particular, I was feeling disproportionately stressed out about taking paternity leave earlier than expected and how that messed up the bookkeeping for my projects at the end of the fiscal year. As I was dealing with that stress, I figured that if I couldn’t take medication maybe it was time to revisit therapy. I’m cheap, and there are hardly any therapists in Flagstaff, so I looked into the next best thing: self-help books. In particular, I recalled that the counselor I saw was frequently referring to this book “Feeling Good” and some Googling showed that it is basically the bible for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). It’s also a step above most self help books: it’s based on peer-reviewed research, and it has been shown to work as well or better than medication alone. So I went ahead and read it.

The idea behind CBT is deceptively simple. Essentially, it boils down to the idea that it is not a given situation that directly determines how you feel, but the thoughts triggered by that situation. If you have gotten into the habit of having negative thoughts in certain situations, that will lead to feeling miserable in those situations. By learning to identify the automatic negative thoughts that you are having and respond to them with more reasonable, rational, and positive thoughts, you can end up with significant improvements in mental health.

In particular, there are a list of cognitive distortions that allow you to name and fight back what your brain is doing to itself. For example, some of the distortions that I’m most susceptible to are “should statements” (“I should be writing”, “I shouldn’t play video games”), “magnification” (“If I’m not productive today, I’m wasting my life”), “overgeneralization” (“I never get to do what I want to do”), and “all or nothing” (“What’s the point of doing my writing; I’ll never follow through and get it published and even if it gets published nobody will read it”).

The book emphasized writing down your automatic thoughts and the rational responses, but I mostly just did it in my head as I was reading. Even just doing it that way, it was remarkably effective. As I read the book, I felt similar to the first few days after I started taking medication. Like an invisible weight had been lifted and I could breathe easier. (Caveat: I was in an almost ideal situation, where I knew the main thing that was stressing me out, and I was taking time off work so I had less other stress to deal with. Since returning to work, I have slipped back into my old patterns and am struggling again.)

The book also included a short survey tool designed to help identify some of the root causes of the distorted thoughts that lead to depression and anxiety. Normally these sorts of quizzes run the risk of being like horoscopes, where no matter what they say you can find a way to make it apply to you. I don’t know, maybe that’s happening with this one too, but it is backed up by rigorous research and whatever my reservations might be, I found the results of this survey to be eye-opening.

The survey indicated that a lot of my distorted thinking is centered around two main themes: seeking approval from others, and seeking achievement. Basically, I tend to base my self esteem and happiness on these things, which opens me up to anxiety and depression if I perceive that someone might not approve of me or if I am unable to achieve milestones.

If you wear glasses, you know what it’s like for your eyesight to gradually, imperceptibly, get worse until it finally reaches the point where it bothers you enough to get a new prescription and the sudden clarity is shocking. That’s sort of what it was like for me to see the results of this quiz. The results in retrospect are obvious, just as once you’ve put on new glasses it’s obvious how poor your eyesight was getting. I shouldn’t be surprised by the results, but they have offered a lens that lets me see myself clearly for the first time in quite a while.

Seen through this new lens, knowing that I crave achievements and the approval of others to boost my self esteem, a lot of things start to make sense. For example, I was stressed about paternity leave because (a) taking a lot of leave is still somewhat unusual in my workaholic field, and (b) the end-of-fiscal-year stuff led me to send an annoyed email which was uncharacteristic behavior for me. Both of which led to the possible disapproval of people I respect and therefore stress for me.

Likewise, I’ve been stressed and unhappy about work because on a lot of fronts I’m struggling to make accomplishments and get recognition, and in some cases the amount of interest or recognition that I get for my work is not proportional to the amount of effort I put in. I also have a tendency to speculate that people who I respect are not happy with what I am doing, which stresses me out.

With this new lens I can also see that my dwindling interest in my work may be related to the fact that I have run out of major career accomplishments to aim for. I’ve been incredibly fortunate and hit career milestones one after another (finish undergrad, accepted to grad school, grad school fellowship, PhD, post doc, mission involvement, permanent position). But now I’m in a situation where there are no “built-in” milestones left (at least, none that I want to pursue: I’ve seen what leading an instrument or mission is like and it’s not for me!). I’m facing the rest of my career at basically the same level doing the same thing, and that stresses out my achievement-hunting brain. Put another way: I have reached the point where unless I make some big changes, I have basically locked into “what I’m going to be when I grow up”. After 3 decades of always looking ahead to the next thing, that’s a strange feeling.

I want to be clear that I recognize that it’s ridiculous to be stressed out by being successful. I know that to many people I have what would be considered a “dream job”. I get to be involved in very cool work with very cool people, I’m paid well, I have flexibility, I live in a beautiful place. In a way that just makes it worse: I get another layer of stress about how people might perceive me complaining about this, and guilt for feeling bad about a job I worked so long to achieve and that is so cool.

To make matters worse, especially since the 2016 election I have been stressed about not making enough of a positive difference in the world. Who cares what a rock on Mars is made of when there are children dying in cages and the highest levels of our government are indistinguishable from an international organized crime syndicate and the Amazon is burning? It makes me look at space exploration in a different, less favorable light. Some of the justifications for space exploration that for years were compelling to me, now sound hollow. Like stories we tell ourselves to feel good about dedicating our lives to what is ultimately an esoteric luxury. I find it harder to get invested in the scientific questions that are at the heart of my work. All of this is demoralizing, so the cycle feeds on itself.

It’s gotten to the point where I contemplate drastic changes in my career path. What if I quit and dedicated my time to writing full time? What if I quit and try to find a job in another country that isn’t rapidly becoming an authoritarian dystopia? (New Zealand seems nice.) What if I quit and try to become a full-time science communicator? What if I quit and devote my time to politics and trying to change the country’s disastrous course? What if I just quit, period? What if I tried to compromise and go part-time in my current job while pursuing something else? But then contemplating such a drastic change stresses me out for different reasons: What would people think? What if I failed? What if it’s just a case of the grass being greener on the other side and I want to go back? I worked all my life to reach where I am now, do I really want to throw that away? etc.

So what is my point here other than to ramble about my own mental health adventures? Partly I’m just working thought this stuff, but I am also posting here for two other reasons. First, because especially in the era of social media, it’s easy to just share a highlight reel of life and hide the hard parts. I want to push back against the idea that we’re not supposed to talk about these sorts of things, that we have to always present a perfect face to the world. And second, because I hope this helps others who might be struggling with anxiety or depression of a similar flavor.

The tendency to seek the approval of others and to judge yourself based on achievements is not particularly unique (and our society in general and social media in particular are engineered to encourage these patterns of thought), but I have a hunch that those of us who dutifully follow the achievement ladder of academia may be more susceptible than usual to this pattern of thinking. Just consider graduate school. You spend 5-6 years working with an adviser whose approval becomes the most important measure of your success, and you pin your hopes of happiness on achieving that highest academic achievement, a PhD. And then when you finish, you still are stuck in these mental ruts even though now you don’t have an advisor watching over you and there is no next degree to strive for. (Though, I guess if you stay in academia, the tenure process fills both roles for a while.)

It’s not clear which is the cause and which is the effect: Did I go to grad school because I crave approval and achievement, or was I taught to crave approval and achievement by my time in grad school? Likely some of both, but the end result is the same. A lot of people who make it through grad school end up with these tendencies that research shows lead to anxiety and depression.

The thing is, these tendencies are not all bad. When kept in check as part of a balanced life, they can lead to great productivity and satisfaction. The problem comes when they become the sole focus. Yeah, you want people to think well of you, but you need to maintain some perspective and (a) be able to function if someone doesn’t, and (b) not get overly worked up and anxious about your speculations about how someone feels (this is what I do most). Yeah, you want to achieve things (who doesn’t?) but it’s not healthy to be defined only by your job and achievements to the exclusion of the rest of your life.

For me, it has gotten to the point where I am almost incapable of framing things in terms other than achievements. This is part of why I struggle to get writing done on anything other than blogs: I build the project up in my head until it is THE book that is going to make or break my (nonexistent) writing career, and then when the first draft sucks (which is what first drafts always do), I give up because of all the pressure. Ironically, if I would just relax and focus on enjoying the writing process and not worry about the end result, I’d probably get to the end result a lot faster, having done a lot better writing along the way.

Bottom line, reading Feeling Good gave me some tools to help fight anxiety and depression and a new perspective to help understand why I struggle with the things that I do. It isn’t a miracle cure: it made me feel better while I was reading it, but now a couple of weeks later, I’m back to work and struggling again. I may actually go back and read sections of the book that are most relevant to me.

Meanwhile, I am trying to be more conscious about my tendencies to seek approval and achievements in place of actual self esteem. (And yes, I recognize the irony that I am posting this publicly in part to seek approval from people on social media!) I am trying to steer my life and my patterns of thought toward more balance. I’m trying to appreciate the present and be confident in myself without relying on approval from others. I’m trying to enjoy the process and not just the end product. And it is in that context that the second book had an impact on me. Primed with all of these thoughts from reading Feeling Good, Ursula K. LeGuin’s “Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places” gave me yet another lens through which to view the world and myself and these mental health struggles. I have rambled on long enough here, so I’ll talk more about that in a follow-up post.

Democrats on the Issues: Education

This post is part 3 of a series taking a look at the leading Democratic presidential candidate positions on key issues that are important to me. Post 1 was on Democracy and Political reform and also includes some details on my methods. Post 2 was on health care.

Introduction

Education is an incredibly important issue to me. Education is everything. It is the foundation of a functioning society, it is essential to solving the many complex issues we face, to allow us to learn from the past instead of repeating it, to allow us to express ourselves and make connections with our fellow humans. It gives people the ability to follow their passions and make the most of their lives.

Education is under attack in our country. Facts like evolution and the age of the universe and human impacts on our planet are not being taught. The histories of things like slavery, fascism, workers’ rights, and colonization are taught in a highly sanitized way, if at all. For many years, Republicans have been cutting education funding and promoting charter schools and private schools as alternatives to public schools, and as a result public schools have suffered. This path leads to a society where a privileged few get a great education, and most people do not. Just fund public schools adequately, and you don’t need to turn to private and charter schools to get the education you want.

Biden

Biden has a pretty detailed page on education. It is divided into three main themes: helping educators, improving schools, and improving access to education. Under the first theme, Biden proposes boosting wages and benefits for teachers by tripling Title I funding and requiring that that funding go toward teacher wages first. It’s unclear to me how this would impact teachers in districts that don’t serve as many low-income families but who still are grossly underpaid. His plan also talks about funding to pay teachers to do professional development and mentoring with other teachers. Basically, pay teachers to teach the teachers. This would also pay for additional certifications like special ed of bilingual ed. This part of the plan sounds to me like asking teachers to do more than they are already doing. I guess it’s good to pay them for it, but still, I’m a little iffy on this. A third point under this first theme would adjust the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program to help teachers pay off their student loans, which sounds good.

The next section is focused on schools. It starts off with a plan to double the number of psychologists, counselors, nurses, and social workers at schools. It also talks about expanding on the “community schools” model, where schools work with families and community organizations to provide things like after school care, adult education, preventative health care, eye exams, etc. Things that low-income parents might have trouble accessing without help. This is another idea that sounds good in theory, but I worry that it is adding a burden to already overworked schools. The site claims this is a model that has seen some success though, so I’d be open to the idea if done right. Another item in the plan is to invest in school infrastructure, prioritizing health risks first, but also going toward things like technology and labs.

The next section of Biden’s plan is about access to education. He talks again about tripling Title I funding and how that will help close the funding gap between rich and poor districts. This section also talks about improving teacher diversity in a few different ways such as working with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and helping parapros get their teaching certificates. There’s also a somewhat vague bullet about building the “best, most innovative” schools that teach “problem solving, collaboration, and technical skills” as well as academics in low income communities. I think this ties in to what is stated later on about increasing availability of vocational training and ability to take classes at community colleges while still in high school. This section also talks about reinstating some strategies from the Obama administration for diversifying schools and fully funding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Biden’s education page finishes by talking about early childhood education. He proposes universal pre-K as well as providing childhood development support through pediatrician offices. The plan also talks about expanding home visiting programs during early stages of parenthood to make sure everything is on track.

Sanders

Sanders has a detailed plan for education too! It is divided into ten numbered sections, so let’s just work through them.

  1. This section focuses on fighting racial discrimination and school segregation. His plan would increase funding for desegregating schools, triple Title I funding, and enforce the Civil Rights Act for school desegregation. He also mentions addressing biased disciplinary tactics in schools, which sounds nice but seems like a very local thing for a president to try to tackle directly. Sanders’ plan also includes funding more teacher training programs at HBCUs and tribal colleges, fully funding the Dept. of Education’s office of civil rights, and funding school transportation, magnet schools, and expanding ESL instruction.
  2. Next up are charter schools. Sanders rightly points out that Charters are being used to erode public school systems and move the country toward privatizing schools. He plans to ban for-profit charter schools and investigate the role charter schools are playing in intensifying school segregation. He also proposes making existing charter schools more accountable by, among other things, mandating that they comply with the same oversight requirements as public schools, disclosing attrition rates, non-public funding, and financial interests, and matching employment practices with district schools.
  3. Next up he addresses public school funding, starting off with something that has always bothered me: the fact that public schools are funded by property taxes, which leads to huge disparities in funding. Unfortunately he doesn’t really present a solution for this other than to “rethink” this practice. In this section he also mentions setting a per-pupil funding floor, covering fees for ACT and SAT exams and funding “career and technical” education.
  4. This section is about strengthening the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). He proposes having the federal government provide 50% of special ed funding, enforcing the ADA, and working to train more special ed teachers and making sure they are paid fairly.
  5. Sanders next talks about teacher pay in general. He proposes a nationwide minimum teacher salary of $60,000, ending racial and gender disparities in pay, providing professional development, expanding collective bargaining and teacher tenure, and addressing the costs of classroom materials with grants and tax credits.
  6. This section is short and sweet: provide more funding for summer and after school education.
  7. Here Sanders proposes year-round universal school meals, providing breakfast, lunch and snacks for kids. “It is not a radical idea that no child in this country should go hungry.” I agree and this seems like a reasonable way to tackle that.
  8. This section talks about “community schools” and is very similar to what Biden proposed: making schools hubs for other services like health care, adult education, etc.
  9. Another short section: provide funding for school infrastructure needs.
  10. And finally, there’s a brief section about school safety, mentioning enforcing Title IX, protecting LGBTQ students, and addressing gun violence and ensuring that immigrant students (and their parents) are safe at school.

Overall, a lot of good ideas, though I would have liked to see more about how all of these great things would be accomplished and funded.

Warren

For a candidate whose catchphrase is that she has a plan for everything, I’m shocked and disappointed that I am unable to find a K-12 education plan on Warren’s site.

What she does have are plans for pre-K and higher education. On the younger side, she proposes universal child care and early education. I think this is a really good idea: it not only addresses one of the most significant costs associated with raising kids, it also would enable more people to stay in the workforce thereby boosting the economy, while also providing kids across the board with quality childcare and early childhood education, something that leading economists say has a massive return on investment (as if the intrinsic value of caring for our children was not enough). Warren’s plan would not replace existing childcare providers, but it would hold them all to uniform standards. The plan would also pay childcare workers wages comparable to public school teachers: not amazing, but better than their current situation in most cases.

On the higher education side, Warren proposes cancelling student debt up to $50,000 and provide free higher education. Again, these sound to me like excellent ideas. The debt cancellation would eliminate all student loan debt for the vast majority of people who are carrying that debt right now, which would provide an enormous stimulus to the economy. And the benefit would be scaled based on income so it would provide the most help for the people who need it the most, helping to reduce wealth disparities.

I’ve seen some people react to this plan by saying that it’s not fair: they had to pay off their debt, so why do people with student loan debt now get out of paying for it? This attitude baffles me. It’s basically saying “I suffered, and therefore so should you” when really what we should be saying is “I suffered and I hope nobody else has to do so”. That’s where the second part of Warren’s plan comes in: free public college as well as additional funding for non-tuition education expenses. The plan also includes some provisions specifically geared toward increasing enrollment of students of color.

I like that Warren also has a plan for how to pay for these ideas. She estimates that debt forgiveness and free public college will cost $1.25 trillion over ten years. She points out that the effective cost is likely to be less due to the economic stimulus these plans would produce (allowing an entire generation of young people to spend their money on things other than paying off student debt makes that money work much more effectively in the economy), but even without that, the cost would be easily covered by her “ultra-millionaire” tax, which would tax the wealth of people with more than $50 million (another plan that I think is an excellent idea, but which I won’t go into here).

So for Warren, I’m disappointed in the lack of a K-12 education plan, but I really like her other education related ideas.

Harris

Harris has two main sections on her site related to education. One focused on raising teacher pay, the other on student debt.

For teacher pay, she proposes a significant boost, with the average teacher receiving a $13,500 raise. To do this, her plan would establish a base salary for teachers in each state, with the exact number accounting for things like years of teaching experience and salary earned by other professionals with similar amounts of education. The federal government would provide the first 10% of the funding needed to close the pay gap and then would match every dollar put forward by states with $3 from the federal level, and states would be required to keep up their end of the bargain to keep getting the funding. Harris’ plan would also allocate more funding to high-needs schools, which would help serve students and teachers of color. And, like most candidates, she talks about the need to invest in teacher training and professional development, especially at HBCUs. And finally, she mentions fighting for teachers’ right to unionize. To pay for all this, which is estimated to cost $315 billion over ten years, Harris says that she will strengthen the estate tax.

Regarding college and student debt, Harris’ plan is not quite as dramatic as Warren’s. She proposes allowing people with student debt to refinance at lower rates, expanding Income Based Repayment, and cracking down on for-profit colleges and lenders. As for the cost of college, Harris has a brief couple of sentences promising to make community college free, make four-year college debt free, and points to her “LIFT act” which is apparently a tax cut for “working Americans”. I would have liked to see some more details on this topic. Right now it comes across as a sort of “Warren has a plan for this stuff so we should say something too”.

Overall, I though Harris had some good stuff on teacher pay but her college and student debt section needs work.

Buttigieg

Buttigieg has two sections on education within his larger “Freedom” piece of his site. The first (relatively brief) section is higher education, where the key policy he lists is debt-free college. He proposes a state-federal partnership to reduce public tuition and make college free for those with lower incomes. He also suggests a large increase in Pell Grants. The net result is that he says middle-income families will pay zero tuition for public colleges. He also proposes canceling debt for people in low-quality for-profit programs, and investing more in HBCUs and Minority Serving Institutions. Beyond that, he has some pretty vague bullet points about student loan debt, transparency, and standards for for-profit institutions.

The second section on Buttigieg’s site is about making public education more equitable. It basically just points to his whole separate page laying out his plan for helping Black Americans, specifically the section on “schools of the future”. The first part of this is familiar from other candidates’ plans: increasing federal funding for Title I schools. He also proposes new rules for transparency in hiring practices at schools and new guidelines for using Title II funds, all aimed at getting more diversity among teachers (another goal shared by most candidates, I’m starting to notice some themes). He also proposes federal investments and incentives for improving readiness in STEM fields and fields with a lot of employment opportunities (health care, software, finance, alternative energy are listed).

Overall, Buttigieg’s education plan seems less ambitious and less detailed than some others but with familiar goals and strategies for achieving them.

O’Rourke

O’Rourke has a good amount of info on education. His plan is broken down into 5 key components.

The first component is a permanent fund for “equity and excellence” which would do a variety of good things. This fund’s main purpose would be to close gaps based on race and income, and would require schools receiving the funding boost to undergo equity “audits” to evaluate outcomes and ensure funding is being used appropriately. This component also includes having a committee determine an appropriate level of funding taking into account cost of living and proportion of students with higher needs. States that are not meeting that level would have to provide a 50% match to receive money from the Equity and Excellence fund. Likewise states would have to show that they are providing equitable funding across schools and districts, again accounting for higher needs in some areas.

However, despite those requirements, O’Rourke’s plan has a whole section emphasizing that the details of how the funds would be used in a given school are somewhat flexible, allowing people at a local level decide what makes the most sense for their situation. If done well, this seems like it could be a smart way to do things.

He also talks about how to pay for this “equity and excellence” fund, by taxing stock speculation with a 0.1% tax on transactions that would have a bonus effect of decreasing high-frequency trading and its destabilizing influence on the stock market.

O’Rourke also includes fully funding the Individuals with Disabilities Act and investing on school infrastructure under part one of his plan.

Part two is focused on diversity. The first piece is to address racial disparities in discipline by banning corporal punishment, funding restorative justice programs, and funding teacher education to “address racial bias and cultural competency in their curriculum”. The second piece is to boost funding for programs to increase integration such as housing and busing. The third piece of part two is to increase funding for English language learning and dual language programs by boosting Title III funding and supporting teacher credentialing.

Part three is focused on student debt relief for educators. This plan would suspend student loan payments for teachers who are teaching in a public school, and forgive 20% of the principal per year, for total loan forgiveness after 5 years of teaching. This is a tweaked version of O’Rourke’s broader loan forgiveness plan, which would forgive 10% of a borrower’s outstanding debt per year of working a “public interest job” and would also forgive monthly payments in excess of 10% of a person’s disposable income.

Part four is about teacher diversity: it proposes a program support partnerships between postsecondary institutions and high needs school districts to create residency programs, which could also support people already working in those schools to become certified teachers. O’Rourke’s plan also would fund teacher education at HBCUs and MSIs, similar to what other candidates have suggested.

The final part of O’Rourke’s education plan is focused on continuing education for teachers. This would include free tuition for educators to acquire graduate degrees and funding to pay for National Board Certification. The plan also calls for the creation of a “Master Teacher Corps” which would provide extra funding to allow qualifying teachers to take on more leadership roles, get involved in mentorship, allow for more collaboration between teachers, and the like. This one is kind of vague but I get the impression that it’s supposed to be similar to the “equity and excellence” fund in that the exact way the funding would be used is somewhat flexible. This point is also a little vague on whether it is expecting these master teachers to take on these extra duties in return for extra pay, or whether the idea is that the extra funding allows schools to hire more people so that the course load for these master teachers is lower, allowing them to take on these extra duties. The final piece of this last part of the plan is to allow teacher “micro-credentialing”: basically, teachers can submit evidence of mastering specific skills to meet continuing education requirements. In other words, you don’t necessarily have to take a professional development course, you just have to prove you have a certain skill and how you learned it is de-emphasized.

Overall, I think O’Rourke has a solid set of education plans. Some are similar to other candidates’ plans, others are unique. Some areas are a little bit vague, but in general it seems well thought-out, at least to this non-educator.

Conclusion

I’m having a harder time deciding on a favorite candidate for this topic than the others. There are a lot of similarities, but also a lot of different strengths. Sanders checks a lot of boxes and highlights some issues such as property taxes that have always bothered me, but doesn’t always have a lot of detail. I love Warren’s universal childcare and debt forgiveness plans, but am very disappointed in the lack of a core K-12 education plan and without that I can’t rank her very high. Biden and Harris both have solid plans with decent amounts of detail. O’Rourke also has a lot of good stuff and some unique and interesting ideas. Buttigieg was pretty light on details. So, I guess if I had to rank the candidates from best to worst it would go: Sanders, Harris, Biden, O’Rourke, Warren, Buttigieg.


BidenSandersWarrenHarrisButtigiegO’Rourke
Increase Title I Funding
(or similar)
XX
XX
Increase professional
development/mentoring
XX
X
X
Increase teacher payX
(Title I
schools)
X
X

Help teachers/others
pay off student loans
X
XX
X
Student loan forgiveness

X
X
(limited)
X
Free/reduced cost college

XXX
More counselors,
social workers, etc.
X




“Community schools”
idea
XX



School infrastructureXX


X
Improve teacher
diversity
XX
XXX
Support teacher unions
X
X

Universal pre-KX
X


Universal childcare

X


Address racially biased
disciplinary tactics

X


X
More vocational trainingXX



Charter school reform
X



Address property tax
funding disparities

X



Cover college exam fees
X



Increase support for
IDEA

X


X
Universal school meals
X



“Equity fund” with
federal oversight





X
Talks about how to
pay for plans


XX
X
Increase Title III
funding for ESL





X
Increase school
integration
XX


X

Democrats on the Issues: Health Care

This is part 2 of a series of posts I’m doing to compare the policies of the frontrunners for the Democratic presidential nomination. You can read Part 1 here, which discussed my general rationale and methods for these posts and looked at issues related to democracy and political reform. Since that post took care of all the introductory stuff, let’s jump right in.

The Affordable Care Act was a major achievement that brought health insurance to millions, and improved it for those who already had it, but anyone who has had any experience with health care in this country should know that it is a deeply broken system.

My first son was born at the end of 2016 and had to spend 20 days in NICU. He was about as healthy as it is possible to be while requiring a NICU stay, and yet when all was said and done the bill for his care was over $100,000. Thankfully, I was able to choose decent insurance to help cover most of those costs, but we had to argue with the insurance company over the course of months to get them to cover everything they were supposed to. It was a whole ordeal just to get an itemized list of costs from the hospital for the services they were providing. I am haunted by the fact that many people don’t have insurance in the first place, or don’t have the time or ability to argue over the details of their coverage. Having a child in the hospital is stressful enough without having to worry that it is going to bankrupt you.

A free market approach just does not work for services like health care. It’s not a “free market” when I have no choice but to pay for a service, and even if I did there’s no way to see what it is going to cost me. It’s not like we could shop around for a different NICU to take our newborn son to for emergency treatment. And it is deeply immoral for people with more money to be able to get better care simply because they can pay for it.

Health care is a really complicated topic, so it was a real challenge to distill some of the candidate positions down and to compare them on an even footing, but I tried!

Biden

There’s a lot more detail here than there was for the previous topic, which is great. Of course since Biden is running as the Democratic successor to Obama, his plan calls for building on the ACA rather than switching to something completely different. However, one of the first things in his plan is the availability of a public option similar to Medicare that would be able to negotiate lower prices with providers. To me that sounds like a great step in the right direction. He also talks about a tax credit to help middle class families pay for coverage. I generally don’t love tax credits as a way of providing services, but ok I guess that’s good. His plan also would fix “surprise billing” from specialists who are out of network but work at an in-network hospital, and would use antitrust laws to help fix the lack of competition in some parts of the health care system.

There is also an extensive section on lowering prescription drug prices, with ideas including: repealing a law that prevents Medicare from negotiating with drug companies, independent review board to set prices for new drugs with no competition, allowing people to buy prescription drugs from other countries where prices are lower, getting rid of the tax break for pharmaceutical company advertising, and improving availability of generic drugs. 

A final section is focused on access to health care. It places access to contraception and abortions front and center, along with repealing the Hyde amendment, and restoring funding to Planned Parenthood. This section also talks about rescinding the “global gag rule” preventing the US from aiding international organizations that dare to mention abortion. There is also mention of adopting a policy pioneered in California to reduce maternal mortality rates. Other topics include ensuring access regardless of gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation; investing in community health centers; and expanding mental health care.

At the very end of Biden’s health care page, he promises more details in the future on health care in rural communities, and in relation to gun violence and opioids. There is also a little bit at the end about how he proposes to pay for all of this by eliminating capital gains tax loopholes for the super rich.

All in all, I found Biden’s health care page to be very good. Yeah, maybe it’s a lot of smaller and less sexy changes than just making sweeping statements about “Medicare for All” but it also strikes me as well thought-out and realistic.

Sanders
Compared to Biden’s extremely detailed Health Care section, Sanders’ page is kinda laughable. Sanders famously is in favor of a “Medicare for all” single-payer option, and that’s pretty much all his page says. There are a few bullet points about lowering drug prices with ideas that are mostly similar to what Biden’s plan listed: allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices, allow people to buy drugs from other countries, and pegging drug prices to the median of five other major countries. I guess the lack of detail on Sanders’ page could be chalked up to the fact that a lot of what Biden is trying to fix with specific tweaks should get sorted out by the drastic shift to a single payer plan for everyone, but still, I expected better than this. Medicare for all is great, but you need a plan on how to get there from here.

Warren
I can’t find anything resembling a Health Care section on Warren’s website. She mentions Medicare for All in the context of how her proposed tax on the ultra rich would pay for a variety of things, but that’s about it. There’s speculation that this lack of detail is strategic, allowing her to lump herself in with Sanders on this issue, but since Sanders also has essentially no details, that doesn’t really help. Gotta say, I’m disappointed in both of them. I hope they flesh out their plans soon.

Harris

Harris has a detailed health care section! As before, her site is quite a bit more verbose than others, but in this case there are plenty of good specifics. She is in favor of Medicare for All, and after some introductory text, she gets right to the heart of the matter: how do we get to medicare for all from our current system? This is my big question about Medicare for All, so I’m excited to see a candidate who actually addresses this.

Her plan would start with allowing Americans to buy into Medicare immediately, and specifically says this would be similar to Sanders’ bill. Then there would be 10-year phase in period where newborns and the uninsured are automatically enrolled in Medicare, doctors can get added to the system, and others on Medicaid and ACA plans can transition. And the third part of the plan is to allow private insurance to offer Medicare plans as long as they follow strict guidelines. People will still have the option to buy supplemental insurance for stuff Medicare doesn’t cover.

Harris’ plan also mentions that the Medicare for All system would have to meet certain benchmarks along the way to ensure it is working the way it is supposed to. “Data matters and should inform our transition.” Music to my data-loving ears.

She then talks about costs and says that the 10-year phase in period will make the transition less expensive than Sanders’ plan. She also contrasts with Sanders’s plan to levy a 4% tax on households making more than $29,000, saying this hits the middle class too hard. (I find it ironic that I’m getting more details about Sanders’ plan from his opponent than from his website.) Instead, Harris would raise that threshold to $100,000 with adjustments to that threshold for high cost of living areas. To make up the difference, she would add a small tax on stock trades (2%), bond trades (1%), and derivatives (0.002%), and tax offshore corporate income.

Harris also has separate pages on drug prices and women’s health. For drug prices she proposes having HHS set the fair prices for drugs based on prices in other first-world countries. She also mentions ending the advertising tax loophole and directing the proceeds toward the NIH. Her plan also addresses the likely scenario where congress does not take action on drug prices in the first 100 days. In that case, Harris says she would take executive action to investigate price gouging and and if a company is found to be overcharging, work to import lower cost drugs from other countries or refer the company to DOJ investigation. If that doesn’t do the trick, then for drugs developed through publicly funded R&D, there is apparently a law that allows the government to license production of that drug to a lower cost company.

Her plan for women’s health would take a page from the Voting Rights Act, and require states with a history of discriminatory practices regarding abortion access to pre-clear new laws with the DOJ. Similarly, it would prevent any abortion law from taking effect until DOJ determines it complies with Roe v. Wade. The plan also includes provisions for future dates after a Harris administration when DOJ might be hostile to abortion rights again, codifying that the DOJ must do the reviews mentioned above and that the people have the right to challenge the DOJ’s approval in court. She also mentions protecting Planned Parenthood, repealing the Hyde amendment, appointing judges who respect Roe v Wade, and rolling back the Trump administration’s rules that limit access to contraceptives and abortions.

All in all, I’m very impressed with Harris’ health care plans. They’re ambitious but well thought out and realistic.

Buttigieg

Buttigieg has a pretty slim section on health care. He proposes a “Medicare for All Who Want It” plan where people can buy into a public option. The idea being that this would force private insurers to lower costs and do better or else would lead to a smooth transition to Medicare for All. Beyond that he just has a bulleted list: improved health equity, invest in maternal and infant health, lower drug prices, more affordable long term care, invest in mental health, and combat the opioid and meth epidemics. I guess I’ll count the items on this list for the summary table at the end of this post, but barely. Pretty disappointing.

O’Rourke

O’Rourke has a brief health care section with some more detail on certain issues. His plan is basically in the “Medicare for all who want it” camp. Anyone who doesn’t have health care would be enrolled in Medicare, and everyone would have the option to enroll, but could opt to stick with their employer’s private insurance plan. No discrimination for pre-existing conditions. His plan would also cover long-term care.

On drug prices again a lot of familiar ideas. Importing drugs from Europe and Canada, allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices, and have the government step in and license production to other manufacturers if drug companies refuse to set reasonable prices.

On reproductive health care he has a more extensive page, divided up into executive, judicial, and legislative sections. In the executive section, he talks about appointing an attorney general who would honor Roe v. Wade, as well as reversing the “gag rule” and increasing Title X funding with no restrictions on use for abortions, effectively overturning the Hyde amendment. He also mentions removing FDA labeling regulations related to medication-induced abortions. The judicial section is short and sweet: appoint judges who respect Roe v Wade and women’s right to choose. In the legislative section, he points to existing legislation that would address many of the issues: the Women’s Health Protection Act and the Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance act. Specifically, he supports legislation that would affirm a woman’s right to choose, ban regulations that are meant to close clinics, prevent mandates for unnecessary ultrasounds and waiting periods, repeal the Hyde amendment, and prohibit abortion restrictions on private insurance. And then he points back to a universal health care system that includes contraception and abortion coverage.

He also has a brief section on racial disparities in maternal and infant mortality. O’Rourke would address this by using Title X and the National Health Service Corps to reduce “maternal health deserts”, ensure access to all maternal health screenings as well as midwives/doulas, and ensuring mental health services for new mothers and expanding home visiting programs.

Summary

Overall, on health care Biden and Harris lead the pack in terms of detailed plans, with Harris being more ambitious. I really liked the fact that she spent time explaining not just that our current system is broken and needs to be replaced with something better, but talked about how to make that transition happen. O’Rourke also had a decent amount of detail, especially on reproductive health care. Sanders, Warren, and Buttigieg were pretty disappointing on such an important topic. If I was a single-issue voter on health care, Harris would get my vote.


BidenSanders Warren HarrisButtigieg O’Rourke
Medicare for allXX(phase-
in)


Medicare/public option
for all who want it
X

XXX
Medicare/HHS negotiate
drug prices
XX
XX
Review board to set
prices for new drugs
X




Import drugs / peg prices
to other countries
XX
X
X
Re-license drug production
if prices are too high



X
X
Get rid of drug ad tax loopholeX

X

Repeal Hyde amendmentX

X
X
Protect Planned Parenthood/
allow federal funding
X

X
X
Rescind “gag rule”X

X
X
Address maternal mortalityX

XXX
Ensure access for
minority groups
X

XXX
Talks about how to
pay for plans
X
XX

DOJ oversight on
abortion-related laws



X

Long term care
more affordable




X
Invest in mental healthX

XX
Address opioid epidemic(coming
soon)



X

Democrats on the Issues: Democracy and Political Reform

With the Democratic primary in full gear, I thought it would be worthwhile to take a look at the positions of the leading candidates on the issues I care most about so that I can make up my mind based on more than just what I hear in the liberal echo chamber that is my social media. It’s hard to choose just a limited number of issues, but I wanted to keep this somewhat manageable so I’m going to start with Democracy and political reform in this post. I have done the research for Health care and Education as well, but I’ll post those separately. If people seem to find these posts useful, I’ll do a couple more on Guns and the Environment.

As you may have noticed, there are about a million people running in the Democratic primary right now, so it’s not feasible for me to research all of them. So again, to keep this effort somewhat manageable I’m going to focus on the top six candidates in the RealClearPolitics national polling average as of 8/21/2019. Those candidates are: Biden, Sanders, Warren, Harris, Buttigieg, O’Rourke. As with issues, there are other candidates that I would like to include, but I’ve gotta cut this off somewhere. If things change significantly maybe I’ll update this later.

I should also talk a little bit about my methods up front. I am basing these posts on what candidates have on their websites. It’s possible they have talked about these issues in other contexts but I can’t scour the whole internet to find every last detail. To me, if the issue is something really important to them, they should have it on their website. For Warren I am making a slight exception to this rule. Her website is kind of confusing but after poking around on it for a while I discovered that a lot of her detailed plans are not actually on her campaign website, but are posted on Medium. Since she is using Medium as an extension of her website, I decided to include her Medium posts here.

I should also make it clear that candidate webpages are often crammed with little details and one-off mentions of issues, so it’s entirely possible that I have missed some things, or have decided not to include them here even though they are briefly mentioned.

And finally, I am going to try to faithfully summarize what is on each candidate’s page, but I am also going to throw in my own opinions where I feel the need, so this isn’t going to be completely neutral. Okay? Okay. So, let’s get on with it!

Democracy (Political Reform, Voting Rights, and Corruption)

This is basically the “how are you going to fix our deeply broken politics?” category. We’ve got a Republican party that has gone completely off the rails and no longer even pretends to act in good faith. It is openly courting white nationalists, flagrantly abuses the norms of our government to get its way, and gladly accepts the assistance of foreign powers to skew our elections and maintain power. It also is actively eroding voting rights in an effort to prevent people who are more likely to vote for Democrats from voting at all. More than any other issue, this dysfunction needs to be fixed, because until it is, we will not be able to make meaningful headway on any other issue. This is also the hardest issue to fix, so I’m interested in seeing what the candidates have to say.

Biden

Not a lot of details on this topic, but his site does specifically talk about strengthening voting rights and election security. He also addresses the problem of money in politics, mentioning public financing of campaigns and a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. All good stuff but I would have liked more detail.

As an aside: I have been concerned by Biden’s apparent belief in finding common ground with Republicans. That may have worked once upon a time, when they were a party acting in good faith, but they have not been that party for a long time. If we keep pretending that they are and keep trying to meet them in the middle, Democrats are going to continue to lose ground and we will continue down a very dark path. When the Republican president is overseeing the creation of concentration camps and talking about racial and religious minorities with words like “vermin” and “disloyal” and “infestation”, and white supremacist terrorists are specifically citing his language to justify their atrocities, that’s not a difference of opinion. That’s not something that we just agree to disagree on. Here are a couple of relevant quotes:

“We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”

Robert Jones Jr.

“Meet me in the middle,” says the unjust man.

You take a step toward him. He takes a step back.

“Meet me in the middle,” says the unjust man.

A.R. Moxon

Anyway, let’s move on.

Sanders

Sanders also doesn’t have much detail on this topic, though he does have a laundry list of good ideas including things like automatic voter registration, restoring the Voting Rights Act, election day as a holiday, and ending gerrymandering. No word of how these things will be accomplished, but that’s (alas) pretty typical of candidate sites in general.

Warren

At first it looked like Warren was also going to be pretty high level. Her main webpage just lists a handful of good ideas, such as how to curb the influence of lobbyists and impose ethics standards for judges. She also mentions an amendment protecting voting rights, fighting voter suppression and gerrymandering, overturning Citizens United, and fighting the influence of foreign powers and the use of hatred and bigotry to divide the electorate. All good stuff but not very detailed.

But then I realized that a whole bunch of her policy proposals are actually spelled out as posts on Medium, and are listed on her actual website under “Latest Announcements”. So that’s kind of a strange choice, but as I mentioned above, since she’s using Medium as an extension of her website, I’ll include those posts here.

Based on those posts, Warren also plans to implement automatic voter registration, election day as a holiday, early voting and vote by mail. She also has the interesting idea of implementing federal standards for elections, and then having the federal government pay for state election costs for states who meet those standards. She also proposes a new Secure Democracy Administration to replace the existing Election Assistance Commission, with power to step in and oversee elections if states are violating federal standards.

She also has another post about the Mueller report that I guess falls under this category. It basically boils down to: she will make it clear in as many ways possible that the Department of Justice can in fact indict the president.

In yet another Medium post, this one pretty brief and to the point, she proposes eliminating the electoral college and replacing it with a national popular vote.

Harris

Harris’s site is a bit more wordy about the issues, but it’s not clear that she actually gets more specific. She lists restoring the Voting Rights Act, making election day a holiday, overturning Citizens United, and improving election security and infrastructure. Despite a higher word count, I’d put her on par with Sanders for level of detail.

Buttigieg

Now this is more like it. Buttigieg has a good amount of detail on this subject. Lots of ideas that are also shared by other candidates, but a little more detail on many of them, and a good number of ideas that I haven’t seen on the other candidate sites. Some noteworthy examples: voting by mail and protecting voting rights on tribal lands; overturning Buckley vs. Valeo (related to campaign finance contribution limits) as well as Citizens United; Puerto Rico in the electoral college and potential statehood; national popular vote to replace the electoral college; bipartisan commission to reform the Supreme Court with suggestion of more justices, term limits, and different methods of choosing justices. There seem to be some genuinely good and unique ideas here. I’m impressed.

O’Rourke

O’Rourke’s site seems to be more verbose than some others, but it’s not fluff: he also has a good amount of detail on this topic. I can’t repeat everything that he lists, but he has a lot of good stuff on voting rights and turnout, term limits on Congress and the Supreme Court, good and specific ideas about limiting money in politics, election security and transparency in online advertising. And most of the good ideas listed by other candidates appear in some form on O’Rourke’s page too.

Ok, so how do all the candidates stack up? I decided that the best way to compare was to put together a table. Now, to be clear: this is just based on what I was able to find on their websites. The lack of a mark on a given topic doesn’t mean that candidate is against that thing, it just means I couldn’t find a clear statement about it on their site. Also, number of marks in the table does not by itself determine how good a candidate is on these issues. The table is just a useful way to summarize and see what issues and ideas are unique vs which ones are mentioned by everyone.


BidenSandersWarrenHarrisButtigiegO’Rourke
Improve voting rights in generalXXXXXX
Restore Voting Rights Act
XXX
X
Overturn Citizens United/
voting rights amendment
XXXXX
Automatic voter
registration/early voting

XXXXX
Election day holiday
XXXXX
Fix gerrymandering
XX
XX
Public funding for electionsXXX
XX
Strengthen FEC



X
Abolish/limit super PACs
XX

X
Improved election securityX
XXXX
More transparency on
political donors
X

X
X
Voting rights for the
formerly incarcerated

X

X
Supreme court reforms

X
X
Candidate tax returns public

X


Crack down on lobbying

X

X
Accurate and depoliticized census



XX
Reps./statehood/EC for
Puerto Rico and DC




X
National popular vote

X
X
Term limits on Congress
and Supreme Court





X
Federal standards for elections

X


So that’s where the leading candidates stand on the (rather broad) topic of Democracy and Political reform. I would say that Buttigieg is in the lead on this topic, with O’Rourke and Warren not far behind. Sanders had some good stuff but almost no details to go with it. Biden mentioned a few good ideas, but not as many as the other candidates and lacked detail so he comes in at the bottom on this issue for me.

Stay tuned for similar posts on Health Care and Education!

Book Review: Heroes Die

Blending sci-fi and fantasy is not really a new idea, but not many books pull it off as effectively as Heroes Die by Matthew Woodring Stover. The premise of the book is that in a dystopian future where corporations rule the earth and society follows a strict caste system, the primary form of entertainment comes from “actors” who are teleported to a parallel universe. In this medieval parallel world, called Overworld, magic is real and various fantastical beasts are too. Viewers see through the actors’ eyes as they go on exciting adventures. These adventures are very real: the actors can be killed, and when the actors kill someone else in the fantasy world, it’s a real death. Basically, imagine if when you went to the theater to watch an action movie all the violence was acted out by actual gladiators who really died or killed when that happened onscreen.

The main character of Heroes Die is Caine, an extremely successful actor who, in Overworld, is a badass ruthless assassin. He has assassinated kings, he has turned the tide of wars, he is almost universally feared, all for the viewers at home to enjoy.

Caine is, as they say in action movies, “getting too old for this shit” but he is roped back into one more adventure. His ex-wife, also an actor (she is a powerful mage in the fantasy world – yes, there’s magic there), has unknowingly gone off-line due to a powerful spell that hides her from her enemies. If an actor stays off line too long the signal connecting them to Earth gets lost and they die, messily. Caine wants to go rescue her, but to go back to Overworld, he has to sign a deal with the devil, i.e. the studio executives. They don’t particularly care about saving Caine’s wife. They want Caine to assassinate the new god-like emperor of Overworld who is so powerful that he might actually usher in an era of peace and order which would make the studios lose profits.

What follows is a page-turning over-the-top violent adventure. It reminded me a bit of old sci-fi pulp stories like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom books, but with the difference that Heroes Die has far better characterization, and is far more gruesome. Much like Caine himself, the novel excels at violence while also criticizing the very same violence.

In the afterword of the book, the author sums this up nicely:

It’s a piece of violent entertainment that is a meditation on violent entertainment—as a concept in itself, and as a cultural obsession.

The book is basically Russell Crowe in Gladiator, when he performs a feat of extreme violence with great skill and then turns to the crowd and says:

It helps that the author is apparently a martial artist so the fight scenes are well done. Yeah, the characters accumulate various wounds and continue to do acrobatic feats of murder, but overall the fights are more convincing than average.

There are so many ways that Heroes Die could have gone off the rails but it doesn’t. Despite the flashy violence and magic and sci-fi tropes, it’s a character-driven story. Even the bad guys are well-developed, especially the God-emperor, Ma’elkoth, who Caine is meant to kill. There are moments where as a reader I was swept up in his charisma and power along with Caine and started to think maybe he wasn’t so bad after all.

All in all, I really enjoyed this book and I’m surprised it is not more widely known. If you like speculative fiction and are ok with blood and violence, check it out. It’s quite a ride.

Review: Fallout 4

It has been a long time since I enjoyed a video game as much as I am enjoying Fallout 4. To give some perspective, after my first playthrough I immediately started over, and am enjoying it even more the second time, playing on the hardest difficulty level, using a very different type of character. I have been playing the game since shortly after the New Year and am not getting tired of it.

Now, I hesitate to do this because I know that a person describing what happened to them in a video game can be about as interesting as a person telling you about a weird dream they had, but early on in my second playthrough, I had an experience that may help to explain the game and why I enjoy it so much.

The premise of the game is that you are the survivor of a nuclear war, woken up after a couple hundred years of suspended animation in a protective bunker in Lexington, just outside of Boston. One of the first things you do after emerging into the post-apocalyptic wasteland is travel to Concord (passing the famous minuteman statue along the way), where you rescue a small group of survivors from Raiders: drug-addled scavengers who prey on the weak. The survivors have holed up in the Museum of Freedom in Concord. After helping them fend off the raiders, you discover a suit of power armor and a minigun in a military helicopter that crashed into the roof of the Museum. It’s a good thing too, because just as you clear out the raiders, a Deathclaw emerges from a caved-in sewer main. A Deathclaw’s name is pretty self explanatory. It’s one of the most dangerous enemies in the game, and Fallout 4 makes you face one right at the beginning.

So far this is all according to the script. This happens in every game. But this is where things went off the rails for me. You see, on this second playthrough, I decided to try the hardest difficulty level, Survival Mode, which among other things makes enemies more dangerous and makes your player character susceptible to illness, hunger, thirst, and exhaustion. It also only allows you to save the game by sleeping in a bed. There’s no bed in the Museum of Freedom. My character was hungry, thirsty, and wounded, and I was not about to lose all my hard work by facing the Deathclaw without saving.

I needed to go back to my home base to rest up and save my game, but power armor runs on nuclear batteries, and running all the way back to my base would wear out the batteries before I even faced the Deathclaw. I needed functional armor to fight the monster and I had to leave my armor in Concord. Without the armor, I was not strong enough to carry the heavy minigun with me along with all my other gear, so I had to leave that behind too. I snuck out of town and back to my base where I rested (and saved), ate some food, rehydrated, and prepared for the fight. Then I snuck back into Concord, avoiding the Deathclaw until I got back to my power armor. The armor was where I left it, but the minigun was nowhere to be seen. Did someone steal it while I was gone? Did the game glitch and delete the item when I got too far away? I don’t know, but I had no way of defeating the Deathclaw without it. (I tried. It didn’t go well. Remember, this is the very beginning of the game. My guns might as well have been pea shooters for all the good they did. I needed the firepower.)

So I had to run away, leaving my new friends still stranded in the museum with an angry Deathclaw at the door. I set out randomly, hoping to return later in the game when I was stronger so I could kill the thing. Then I came across an abandoned Air Force base. The compound attached to it had been taken over by Raiders, but luckily there was a mattress in a shack nearby, so I was able to rest there for a few hours and save my game.

I infiltrated the base and was promptly mowed down by a raider with a minigun. Suddenly it became my sole purpose to take out the raiders in this base, get the minigun, and drag it back to my power armor so I could finish the job in Concord. Long story short, after many, many (many) attempts, I succeeded. I got the big gun, killed the deathclaw, and was able to rescue my friends and get back on track.

Here’s a screenshot of someone in power armor, wielding the minigun in front of the Museum of Freedom. In a nice touch, the barrels of the minigun glow red after you’ve been firing for a while.

Ok, cool. That was probably more fun for me to relate than it was for you to read, but here’s the point I was trying to make: the strength of Fallout 4 is not its main story (which is so-so), but the smaller stories that emerge organically from exploring the huge world of the game.

Normally, I say that I want my video games to have a strong main story line. And that’s still true: I think video games are an amazing storytelling medium that almost always fail to live up to their potential because they treat writing as an afterthought. But I have to admit, Fallout 4 has me reconsidering slightly. I diligently followed the main story line on my first playthrough, and it was ok. A so-so sci-fi story that forces you to choose sides among several different factions, with some good moral ambiguity thrown in. But for this second playthrough I am ignoring the main plot for as long as I can, and it is making me appreciate the smaller scale stories that the game tells.

These small scale stories come in three flavors. The first kind of stories are the emergent stories like the one I told above. It is the hallmark of a great video game when, on top of all the more formal objectives the game sets for the player, it provides fertile ground and sufficient freedom for the player can create their own objectives, and then strive to achieve them. This is a large part of why the Civilization games are so addictive, and for me at least, Fallout 4 has achieved this as well.

I once heard a presentation about story telling in science communication, and it used a definition of story that has stuck with me. It defined a story as:

  • A sympathetic or interesting character
  • Experiences setbacks
  • As they try to achieve a goal

The emergent stories in Fallout 4 are extremely engaging because that character is you. And the goal is one that you set for yourself. Some of my most memorable experiences have been simple things like when I determined to reach a certain location on the map through unexplored territory, or when I tried to move all of my suits of power armor from different locations on the map to my main base, or when I was heading to a settlement that needed my help and I suddenly came the remains of an an airplane crash.

The second kind of small scale story in Fallout 4 is the location-specific story. There are hundreds of “discoverable” named locations in the game, and almost all of them have their own story. These stories are often told through voice recordings or computer logs left behind by the characters, though sometimes they have their own full-blown quests to go with them.

Like much of the Fallout depiction of the apocalypse, they are often darkly humorous, like the high school that, in a bid for more funding, agreed to serve experimental pink goo in the cafeteria, turning the students and staff into pink zombies. Or the robot manufacturing plant that has robots that have survived since the pre-apocalyptic era, still marching around the premises shouting at trespassers about the communist menace. But sometimes they are genuinely poignant, or add an unexpected depth to otherwise disposable bad guys. There’s one location where you find the remains of a family who got trapped in their fallout shelter. You can see where they tried, and failed, to tunnel out. In another location, you find the journal entries of an idealistic settler who founded a new settlement. The entries reveal how, little by little, they were forced to become a ruthless raider to survive.

Takahashi, the Japanese robot chef in Diamond City (the site of the former Fenway park), cooks a mean cup of noodles.

The third kind of small-scale story is the story told by the setting itself. I have come to realize that this is a type of storytelling that videogames excel in, and that even movies and TV can’t fully achieve because it requires control of what you’re viewing and the ability to explore the environment. The ambiance of a game: the music, the scenery, the bit characters, the little details, can come together to make it an immersive experience that seems to tell the player a story just by being in the setting. This was why I thought Red Dead Redemption was such a good western despite its many flaws. It makes just being in the game world feel like reading one of those thick novels that fully draws you in that you don’t want to end. On par with Shogun, or Lord of the Rings, or Dune.

The wasteland of Fallout 4 is rich with details that make it feel authentic and lived-in. The game designers understand that the physical objects in our lives, in our homes, are a window into who we are. They have mastered the art of telling a story just by the things people have left behind, or the attempts that people have made to live in the remains of civilization.

Stumbling through the forest, you come across a clearing. There’s a fire pit, a couple of sleeping bags, and a crate with some beers in it. Maybe even some meat on a spit over the fire.

In an alley between two crumbling buildings, you find a surprisingly cozy little living space that has clearly been used recently. There’s a teddy bear on one of the beds and rocket ship drapes stretched over a gap in the shack wall. A family lives here, in the midst of the destruction.

Skeletons in particular are an art form all their own in Fallout 4. So much so that there are multiple listicles about the various bizarre stories they tell. For example, here’s a skeleton who appears to have died with his favorite teddy bear while eating milk and cereal.

All of these three types of small-scale stories add up to give the world of Fallout 4 far more “texture” and a feeling of being a real place than previous Fallouts. This is also thanks to the considerably better graphics. Countless times while exploring the wasteland, I’ve paused to just take in the beauty. It’s a special kind of achievement to be able to design an apocalyptic wasteland that is visually stunning under any weather conditions or time of day.

Sunset over the wasteland.

The setting of Fallout 4 also holds a special place in my heart. I spent the summer of 2004 in the Boston area. It was a magical summer: I was working at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, my fellow interns were interesting and wonderful people, and it was a thrill just to walk the halls of Harvard and MIT, to play ultimate frisbee in the evening in the Harvard law quad, to walk along the banks of the Charles where my grandfather “lollygagged” when he was not much older than I was. It was a a real turning point in my life to discover a place where the entire culture is built around being a nerd. Where the ice cream flavors and sandwich names are bad puns based on science or geek culture.

Boston itself was wonderful too. Historic and modern, bustling and busy but small enough to explore on foot. I have been back several times for weddings, meetings, etc. It is where I would choose to live if I had to live in a major city.

It’s a very strange experience to be playing a video game and stumble across a place you’ve been to in real life, but with a post-apocalyptic veneer over it, and it’s one of the things that makes the Fallout games special. The other day while playing, I hadn’t been paying attention to exactly where I was, and I emerged from an alley to find Trinity Church on my left and the Boston Public Library on my right. I was immediately transported back to the evening when several of the other interns and I went to folk dancing lessons in front of the church and danced to misrlou. I then remembered a different visit to Boston, walking through farmers market stalls and eating ripe peaches and posing in front of the statues in the library with my friends before going to a wedding later that evening.

Trinity church in Fallout 4.
Real life Trinity church.

At one point I actually tried to find the in-game version of the dorm I stayed in for my internship. Alas, the game map is much smaller than the real world Boston-Cambridge area, and it didn’t have that kind of fidelity. But I found where the dorm should have been. And nearby was a decent replica of Harvard square, complete with the news stand and subway station that I grew to know and love that summer.

Fallout 4’s take on Harvard square.
Fallout 4’s take on MIT.

(As an aside, I find it a little disconcerting how all the modern Fallout games appear to all be set in places that are meaningful to me in some way. It’s not just Fallout 4. Fallout 3 was in the DC area, where I spent a summer in 2006, and visited multiple times before and since. Fallout: New Vegas is set in the desert southwest, not far from where I currently live. I wonder if Fallout 5 will be set in southeast Michigan, where I grew up. Or maybe in Pasadena, CA. JPL would make a great place to have overrun with robots.)

Even apart from the memories, the graphics, the ambiance, and the small-scale stories, Fallout 4 is a great game from a pure gameplay perspective. It improves upon a lot of the mechanics introduced by Fallout 3 and New Vegas, including streamlining the leveling and perk system so that you can still customize your character but it’s much simpler. Bethesda games are notorious for the ability to pick up all sorts of random junk that you find in the game world, but Fallout 4 gives that junk a purpose: you can use it to MacGuyver improvements to your weapons and armor, to create food and medicine, and as raw materials to construct settlements.

The settlements in particular are a new direction for Fallout. My first time through, I didn’t do much with them, but on my second playthrough I have really embraced the settlement building and it’s a lot of fun. One of my complaints about the Fallout universe, and post-apocalyptic fiction in general, is can seem like there’s little organized effort to rebuild society in a meaningful way. The settlements (and the “Minutemen” faction in the game, which is trying to unite them) are Fallout 4’s answer to that, giving you the chance to make little oases of safety in the wasteland, and even link them up with trade routes. They function almost as a mini SimCity type of game: you have to ensure that each settlement has enough food, water, defense, and beds for it to grow and attract more settlers. And the game designers did a great job of giving each settlement its own different design and challenges. One is centered on a structure built using the framework of a high voltage power pylon. Another is crammed into a narrow alleyway. Another is in the remains of Fort Independence.

An example settlement. Almost everything you see was built by the user.

Settlement building also provides additional goals that form the seeds for those player-defined stories I talked about above. I need to build more beds, but I’m short on metal and cloth, so I set out to explore a nearby abandoned hospital overrun by ghouls. Or I need circuitry and copper wire to construct some defensive machine gun turrets, so I’m determined to reach the robot junkyard to the east, but that means I’ll need to make it through territory controlled by super mutants.

Settlements also finally succeed in something that previous Fallouts made only token gestures toward: giving the player a sense of having a home base to return to. By allowing players to construct their base, it gives a real sense of ownership and even personality to the settlements if you want it. (You can be strictly utilitarian, or go all-out with the interior decorating.) Especially on Survival difficulty, where you need to sleep in a bed to save, and you need food and water and rest to stay healthy, it is a genuine relief to return from the wasteland to the safety of your settlement and sleep in your own bed.

Survival difficulty really makes the game significantly more fun and immersive. Suddenly all of that food and drink you pick up is useful. The various drugs you can take (and get addicted to) are sometimes the only thing that will let you survive a particularly dangerous encounter. And the constant tension of needing to find a bed so you can save makes the game constantly exciting.

Another innovation that I love in Fallout 4 is the introduction of “legendary” enemies and items. Legendary enemies are like mini “bosses”. Every discoverable location has one that has claimed the location as its own, and you also sometimes encounter them randomly in the wilderness. They are much tougher than regular enemies, but in return, they always drop a legendary item: a weapon or piece of armor that has randomly assigned attributes. Some of them are really powerful. For example on my first playthrough I got a legendary gauss rifle (already the strongest gun in the game) that also set enemies on fire. And sometimes the legendary perks make absolutely no sense, like a nuclear bomb launcher that heals anyone it hits.

Now look, I fully understand that these random bosses are a blatant example of the use of operant conditioning to hack my brain and make the game more addictive, but I don’t care. I love them. Combined with the need to collect junk to help build settlements or craft improvements to my gear, the lure of a mini boss fight with possible powerful loot gives Fallout 4 a really fun core gameplay loop.

All of which is to say: I really like Fallout 4 a lot. It has its flaws (clunky dialog, a main plot that doesn’t always make sense, occasional bugs) but they are more than made up for by a thoroughly immersive setting, a really fun gameplay loop, and a variety of different styles of play. My first time through the game I was a lone sniper dead-set on following the main plot. The second time through, on survival mode, I’m a charismatic sword-wielding close-quarters fighter, I’m ignoring the main plot, I always try to travel with a companion, and I am building a network of ever more elaborate settlements across the Boston area. If I play again, I’ll probably be a mad scientist, wielding laser guns, building robot minions, and constructing an evil island lair.

Fallout 4 is so much fun because it provides fertile ground to discover all of the little stories that have been built into the game, and to experience your own stories as you play. I have only limited time to spend on video games these days, but as long as Fallout 4 manages to persist in being captivating and fun, I’m happy to spend my time with it.

Review: Game of Thrones Season 8

It’s over! Winter has come, and we know who ended up on the throne, who ended up dead, and how the White Walkers were defeated.

It is strange to be done. Although George R.R. Martin says that there are surprises in store in the final two books compared to the show, the main plot points are bound to be the same. I first read Game of Thrones something like 12 years ago, so I have been swept up in the story for about a third of my life. I named my dog Renly after the Game of Thrones character. I re-read the whole series, aloud, with Erin ahead of the release of A Dance With Dragons.

I remember being in New York city the weekend of the premiere of the show. There were Iron Thrones in a few places throughout the city, and there was almost no line to sit in them and get your picture taken. Most people didn’t know what this show, with the posters of Sean Bean looking sad, was about. I remember watching that first episode in our hotel room, through a very highly suspect, likely malware-ridden site. It was a magical experience, seeing the story that you love come to life on the screen, and what’s more, with such fidelity to the source material.

It is disappointing that Martin was not able to finish the book series before the show. Although quite faithful to the books at the start, as the show went on, it had the luxury of pruning plot lines and streamlining the story for TV, while Martin labors away with the books, juggling an ever-increasing number of plotlines. At times this was a great benefit for the show, and it had moments of brilliance, but as the show got farther and farther from the source material, those moments become more widely spaced. Without the strong foundation of the books, the show lurched from plot point to plot point, and the different writers and directors in different combinations led to an uneven experience. Sometimes, when the writing and directing all lined up, the show was astonishingly good. Other times, for all of its big-budget glamor, the show seemed shallow and lazy, with gratuitous gore and sex as if to say “look what we can do because we’re HBO,” and with characters betraying their backstories or just acting stupidly in order to bring events to a key plot event.

This was never more evident than in the last season. The first couple of episodes were quite good. I especially enjoyed the second episode, which is focused on all of the characters we know and love waiting together in Winterfell for the army of the Night King to descend upon them. It had lots of beautiful, human, character-driven moments. It reminded us of the tangled web of relationships that have been built up over the previous seasons. But after that episode, the rest of the season had the feeling of a homework assignment where the student has a cheat sheet with the correct answers but runs out of time and just scrawls those answers in the blanks without showing their work. Probably because that is almost exactly what happened: the showrunners knew what had to happen because Martin provided them with an outline, but they didn’t have the writing chops to pull it off. Bringing a story this massive and complex in for a graceful landing is more difficult than most people realize. Still, I can’t help but feel like there are some pretty obvious flaws in the final season. Unforced mistakes that, especially with an extra year’s hiatus to work on the final season, were really disappointing. Such a great story deserved better than what we got.

I know a lot of people are upset about the actual end results: who ended up dead, who ended up alive, and who ended up on the throne. I was actually ok with most of it. Let’s consider each of the main characters:

Jaime – It’s such a George R.R. Martin move to take a literal knight in shining armor, make him a king-killing, child-murdering, twincestuous villain, then make you spend enough time in his head to start to root for him, and then once you think he has become the good knight you wish he was, have his old vices win out in the end. The problem, as we will repeatedly see with other characters, is that the show didn’t spend enough time on the character development leading to his final acts. It spent multiple seasons building up his redemption arc, and then Sansa mentions that Cersei might be in danger from the giant armies and dragons headed her way (shocking!), and suddenly he is on the fastest horse south. We needed to see his struggles with his inner demons. We needed to witness his facade crumble in the face of a threat to that which, in spite of his best intentions, he loved most dearly. The show handled it too abruptly, so what should have been a more poignant and tragic end was not fully earned.

Cersei – I was disappointed with Cersei’s ending, but not because she died in Jaime’s arms. Her arc was a sort of mirror image of his: while he appeared to find redemption and then turned his back on it to be with Cersei, Cersei appeared to become even more evil and insane than she started, and convinced herself that she no longer loved him, only to find comfort in his arms at the end. Unfortunately, leading up to her end, she basically just stood around. What happened to the cunning, ruthless Cersei we loved to hate? Part of the problem here may be her bizarre affair with Euron Greyjoy. He was such an outlandish character that his story line sucked up a lot of the oxygen that should have been devoted to Cersei.

Tyrion – Overall I thought Tyrion’s ending was fine. My main complaint was that I had trouble remembering why he was supposedly so devoted to Danaerys that it took a literal holocaust for him to see that maybe that loyalty was misplaced. Him ending up as hand of the king to a Stark has a certain poetic justice to it, and he has the smarts and experience with the conniving politics of King’s Landing to make a very good foil for an overly noble and idealistic Stark king.

Danaerys – Of all the characters, I think Dany’s end was the one that needed to be handled with the most care, and in turn was the one most poorly served by the final season’s rushed pace and weak writing. I think in the right hands, with enough insight into what is going on in her mind, and enough time for her character to develop, her ending is going to be powerful and convincing and tragic. In other words, I am really looking forward to reading the book’s handling of her ending, and I am really disappointed that I had to see the clumsy way the show handled it first. The show skipped the hard work of character development and had her sulk in her room for a few days, and then flip out and nuke a city full of innocents. Tyrion’s speeches to Jon in the final episode tried to make up for the lack of justification leading up to her breakdown, but they were too little too late. There are hints of real insight into how evil acts are done by people who think they are the “good guys” but the poor character development this season prevented Dany’s ending from being what it could have been.

Bran – One of the major themes of Game of Thrones is that those who are most hungry for power are those least suited to rule. Also, a failure to recognize how events in the past echo forward to influence the present and future. (It’s almost as if fantasy can have meaningful lessons that apply to real life!) So, a kind man with near-omniscient knowledge of events past, present, and future, with no real desire to rule, and no children makes sense as an ideal king. I’m on board with Bran as king. What is less clear and I think was pretty clumsy is why the nobility of Westeros were suddenly willing to hold a vote for who would be king. (I did love Sam’s attempt at inventing democracy being summarily shot down by the nobles.) As an aside, can we mention the way that the show conveniently skipped the part where Grey Worm found out what happened to Danaerys and somehow did not summarily execute Jon and Tyrion, and furthermore allowed Tyrion to make grand speeches leading to a vote for the new leader? And how the Dothraki seemingly disappeared? That was sure something.

Sansa – My prediction for a long time was that Sansa would end up on the Iron Throne. Her arc, especially in the books, was all about going from an innocent pretty pretty princess to learning to survive and then thrive in the ugly, brutal, real world of court intrigue. She learned from Tyrion, the Hound, Cersei, and most of all Littlefinger. She was clearly being groomed by Martin for leadership. I had assumed that Jon and Dany (Ice and Fire) would die in the climactic battle against the White Walkers and Sansa would be left to rule over the ruins of a Westeros that barely survived. All in all I was not too far off: at least Sansa ended up on a throne, if not The Throne. Her decision not to join up with the other kingdoms under Bran’s rule is a little odd, but not too much of a stretch.

Arya – She killed the Night King! That was pretty great, even though most of the rest of that episode was too dark to see anything. Unfortunately after that, anything else was going to be kind of anticlimactic. I am absolutely on board with her realizing that there is no place for her in Westeros and setting out to do something else, but again, I wish there had been any build-up at all to her decision to become an explorer. You may have heard of Chekov’s Gun. The saying goes: “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.” To me Arya’s ending is the exact opposite. She is firing a rifle that we didn’t know existed. Where is it mentioned that she has an interest in exploring the world? Where does that desire come from? Why have we not heard of it before literally the last minute? Again, I am totally onboard with Arya, intrepid explorer. I would watch that spinoff show. But as with so much in this final season, the show didn’t do the work to get there. It skipped over the necessary character development, so it all seemed to come out of the blue.

Jon – Once it became clear that Danaerys was going full “Mad Queen” it was obvious that Jon was going to have to kill her. I also think his insistence that he did not want the throne was in keeping with his character. He was always a reluctant leader and ruler. And, although it was not shown, it is also in keeping with his character that even though Drogon showed up, torched the evidence and flew away with Dany’s body, Jon would go and admit to killing her and end up in jail. In the end, he was the most Ned Stark like of them all. I thought him being sent back to the wall was rather anticlimactic, but his arc was a hard one to wrap up. He doesn’t really fit anywhere else but it feels wrong to have him exiled for doing the right thing. Poor Jon deserved to retire to someplace warm, but of course he would never sit still for that. The final shots of the show seemed to imply that maybe the North was thawing and he would found a new kingdom up beyond the wall, which I guess works for me.

So, overall I am satisfied with the main plot points, but I am disappointed in how poor a job the show did with getting to them. Time after time, it didn’t devote enough time to develop the characters such that their endings felt fully earned. I’m sad that I didn’t get to find out the ending by reading the books, where Martin can spend as much time as he wants doing that hard writing work and making each twist and turn feel as powerful as it should be. But that also means that I am hopeful that Martin will finally finish the last two books and that we will eventually get to read the ending as it is supposed to be.

I am also hopeful for what will come after Game of Thrones. The show became a cultural phenomenon and made the entire world realize the kinds of powerful stories that can be told through speculative fiction. Sci-fi and fantasy are thoroughly mainstream now and Game of Thrones played an important role in making that happen. There are already many amazing shows following in Game of Thrones’ footsteps, and I can’t wait to see more.

Intrinsic Value

  • Immigrants and asylum seekers provide a net economic benefit to our country.
  • Universal health care would be less expensive than our current system.
  • It costs less to provide affordable housing than it does to leave people homeless.
  • No one who works full time should have to raise a family in poverty.
  • Every dollar spent on NASA returns about ten dollars to the economy.

We have a problem with how we think about the value of things. As a society, and as individuals in that society, we are almost incapable of talking about why something is worthwhile or the right thing to do without talking about its monetary value. Or, if not monetary value, then at least pointing to its usefulness.

This makes sense. Our civilization is made possible by the fundamental notion that we understand the world around us by studying it and measuring it. If you can’t quantify something, whether it is the mass of an electron or the return on an investment, how do you know that it’s real? There are countless examples of the folly that comes from ignoring rigorous science and instead operating by gut feeling alone. That sort of thinking is what gives us astrology and homeopathy and antivaxxers and climate change deniers. In many ways our reliance on quantifiable facts is a very, very good thing.

But there is an important distinction between an observable quantity grounded in the real, physical world, and the observation of non-physical quantities that we ourselves assign to things. There’s no law of nature that shows that something should have a value of $10. Monetary value is a convenient abstraction that allows us to more efficiently exchange goods and services. Some might argue that there are mathematical laws that show that a certain item should be given a certain monetary value. After all, we have the field of economics, don’t we?

But we must always remember that Economics is a field of study dedicated to a complex topic that we ourselves invented. It behaves in many ways like a physical science studying fundamental truths, but it applies that mathematical approach to studying the nuances of an artificial concept. Don’t get me wrong, those nuances are very important. Economics has meaningful things to say and implications for our lives. But economics is not physics.

It is easy to fall into the trap of assigning a numerical value to a qualitative concept and then relying on that value so exclusively that we forget that there is any other way to conceive of value. We create an imperfect model of reality and then forget that reality is not the model. IQ is not the same thing as intelligence. Standardized test scores do not measure everything a student has learned. A high Body Mass Index does not guarantee that you are fat. A low credit score doesn’t necessarily mean you aren’t trustworthy.

Our insistence on talking about everything in terms of monetary value or economic benefit is an extreme case of mistaking the comfortingly simple artificial metric for inconveniently messy objective reality. We are so deeply steeped in a capitalist society that prioritizes monetary value over everything else that it is difficult to even conceive of other types of value. We are like those cultures who do not have a word for the color blue and therefore are challenged to even recognize it. We lack the framework to fully conceive of or acknowledge other types of value without consciously exerting effort to do so.

A distressingly large portion of our society has taken this a step further, and not only prioritizes monetary value above all else, but actually uses it as a proxy for moral virtue. Morality is so uncomfortably hard to define around the edges, but net worth is nice and straightforward. If someone is poor then obviously they made bad choices or didn’t work hard enough. If someone is rich, it must mean that they are reaping the rewards of hard work rather than fortunate circumstances.

I was watching “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” the documentary about Mr. Rogers the other day, and it had a disgusting moment showing talking heads on Fox News blaming Mr. Rogers for a supposed “entitlement culture” among kids these days. How dare he tell a generation of children that they are special just for being themselves? Why should these kids think they are special if they haven’t earned it? What a bunch of fragile little entitled “snowflakes.” The documentary then used the exact words I have had in mind since I started writing this essay: “intrinsic value”. The idea that everyone is special and worth caring about, not because they have earned it, but because they are human beings with intrinsic value. That everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect and celebrated just for being uniquely themselves. The documentary points out the deep Christian roots of this message: Mr. Rogers was a minister after all, and the show was his way of preaching the fundamentals of his faith, without ever mentioning religion.

There is not much that I find more depressing that witnessing half of our country give up on this idea of intrinsic value and human dignity while claiming to be Christians. They insist on preserving the sanctity of life in the womb (sometimes at the expense of the life of the living woman carrying that child), but once that child is born it’s a freeloading, entitled snowflake that needs to prove its worth.

These false Christians question whether people deserve health care, a home, food on the table, education, if they haven’t “earned” them. A little while back there was a Republican congressman who tweeted:

Yes! It absolutely should be. It is a fundamental sickness in our society that would even question whether some people deserve to eat.

Imagine if we lived in a society where people actually acknowledged the intrinsic value of other humans. Where everyone was guaranteed food, shelter, a basic income, healthcare, and a good education. Imagine the explosion of creativity, innovation, happiness and well-being that would result. Imagine allowing everyone to spend their one precious life doing what they love, even if it doesn’t pay well, or at all.

Imagine actually valuing human life.

Yes, it would cost money. Billionaires would have to pay some taxes. But it is not at all clear to me that the economic cost would be greater than the economic benefit, and it is absolutely clear that the intangible benefit, the lives saved, the lives raised out of poverty and misery, the freedom from suffering, would be worth it.

It’s hard to get there from here. We live in the real world, where the monetary cost of things is an important consideration. I understand that. I understand that even if we do acknowledge intrinsic value, we often need to be able to fall back on economic value for the sake of argument, to convince those that may not share our values. That’s ok. Often the right thing also makes good economic sense too. But we must not fall into the trap of making the economic argument so much that we forget the real underlying reasons for our positions.

  • Immigrants and asylum seekers provide a net economic benefit to our country. If they did not, would that change whether they deserve a safe place to live and raise their families?
  • Universal health care would be less expensive than our current system. If it was more expensive, would that change whether or not everyone deserves to be healthy?
  • It costs less to provide affordable housing than it does to leave people homeless. If it cost more, would that change whether people deserve a roof over their heads?
  • No one who works full time should have to raise a family in poverty.* Does someone who does not or cannot work full time deserve to raise a family in poverty?
  • Every dollar spent on NASA returns about ten dollars to the economy. If there were no economic benefits or spinoffs, would it be worthwhile to explore the universe?

*This line is taken directly from the Democratic party platform

The Fire at Notre Dame

Notre Dame de Paris burned last week. As I watched along with the rest of the world, helpless to stop the loss of centuries of history, there were moments when I had to fight back tears. It may seem strange for an atheist and scientist to feel the loss of a religious building so acutely, but I love cathedrals, and Notre Dame in particular holds a special place in my heart.

I love cathedrals because, in attempting to build structures invoking the glory of God, humans instead have demonstrated our own potential. Cathedrals show us that despite the cruelty and pettiness and meanness that we too often see in the world, we are also capable of breathtaking beauty when we work together toward a common goal. They demonstrate that we can do anything if we set our minds to it, even if it is the work of many generations. Cathedrals show us that physics and engineering can work hand in hand with artistry, and in fact can become art themselves. When I walk into a cathedral, I am in awe, not of God, but of humans. Imagine what we could do if we once again devoted our time and ingenuity and resources and hard work to a common goal. What could our modern cathedrals be?

Notre Dame de Paris is special to me. I first visited in the summer of 2001 on a whirlwind trip to Europe with a bunch of other high school kids as part of the People to People program. To give an idea of how little I had seen of the world up to that point, one of the highlights of the trip for me was seeing mountains with snow on top of them. I had spent my whole life in the midwest and the biggest mountains I had ever seen were the Appalachians.

Notre Dame was the first cathedral I had ever seen, and it took my breath away. The experience of entering from the hot, bustling noise of a summer day in Paris through the intricately carved doorway into the cool, quiet, interior, of looking up into that impossibly high vault, then down the length of the cathedral to the distant altar, of marveling at the stained glass windows, is one that left its mark on me. Of all the experiences from that trip, that first astounding view of Notre Dame became the touchstone for the whole trip for me. It encapsulates the wonder I felt at the sudden broadening of my horizons, the internalization of what had until then been just the abstract knowledge that the world is huge and fascinating and full of rich history beyond anything I had experienced.

The woman in blue, singing beneath the rose windows.

I have had the privilege of returning to Paris twice on work trips, once in 2012 and again in 2015, and both times Notre Dame was one of the first places I visited. In 2012, I went to Notre Dame immediately after arriving and dropping my bags at my hotel. It was late afternoon when I got there and I inadvertently walked in on a service. There was a woman in a blue robe on the dais, illuminated by spotlights mounted high up on the walls, and her voice was impossibly beautiful in that impossibly beautiful building. On that same trip, I returned to the cathedral later with two colleagues from work, Ken Herkenhoff and Nathan Bridges. We waited in a short line and then climbed up the towers to the walkways that afford the classic views of Paris, with the chimeras in the foreground and the Eiffel tower behind. From that walkway you also get a stunning view of the roof and spire of the cathedral, all of which are now gone. Nathan is gone now too; he passed away unexpectedly two years ago. Whenever I see Notre Dame, I am reminded of him.

The fire at Notre Dame is shocking because we like to think of monumental buildings like cathedrals as eternal. Yes, we know intellectually that in the past they have burned and been renovated and rebuilt and expanded, but that was all in the past. We have a certain arrogance that now, in our modern era, disasters like that don’t happen anymore. There’s a feeling that we live in a post-historical world that is somehow special and different from all the time that came before, and that we will be able to preserve things as they are forever. Of course that’s nonsense. Anyone who is paying attention to what is happening in the world should be all too aware of how the world is changing.

Almost all of this is gone now.

Even without superstition, it is hard to not to see the symbolism of the fire. It reminds me of the poem Ozymandias, about the folly of believing that current glories can last forever. It is a reminder that even the most apparently permanent human creations can be lost at a moment’s notice, just as a human life can be suddenly lost, and that we should appreciate and cherish the beauty in our lives while we have it. The fire represents the loss of a beautiful and irreplaceable relic of a bygone era, but there is also an element of hope. More of the great old structure survived than many expected during the blaze, thanks to those who took swift action to limit the damage, many risking their own lives in the process. What looked like total destruction has turned into a chance to rebuild, honoring the long history of the structure but also a chance to put the mark of our current era on it, preserving a record of ourselves in the long history of the edifice.

There are lessons here to be learned.

Book Review: Lancelot

I follow a lot of authors on Twitter. This is because authors tend to be interesting people with interesting things to say, and because I like to hear about writing from people who do it for a living, but it also has the benefit of allowing me to hear about new books. A few months ago, I saw a tweet from the historical fiction author Giles Kristian, seeking bloggers who write about books and offering to send a copy of his new book Lancelot. I had already heard good things about the book and it sounded like something I would enjoy, so I responded, and shortly thereafter I received a package from the UK with a signed trade paperback copy of the book!

I’d also like to take a moment to acknowledge that this is a really cool book cover that fits the tone of the book perfectly.

So, with all that said, let’s talk about the book! I really enjoyed it. It is a historical fiction retelling of the Arthurian legend, with Lancelot as the main character. It’s set in the years after the downfall of the Roman empire, when Britons are fighting against invading Saxons. For fans of Arthurian stories, don’t expect this book to follow exactly the stories you might be familiar with. In my opinion, this is a good thing: when retelling such a familiar story, it can be tempting to follow the well-worn ruts laid down by previous authors, and end up sounding the same and not really adding much. Kristian manages to avoid this. Lancelot stands on its own, primarily because it focuses on the character of Lancelot, fleshing him out in a way that I haven’t seen before. He’s still the Lancelot that we know and love: obsessed with Guinevere, practically unstoppable in battle, with a “complicated” relationship with Arthur. But that is now supported by a tragic backstory and a fierce (and flawed) personality that fits with the legendary character but humanizes him.

The story doesn’t follow the legends exactly, but as someone who is pretty familiar with them, it was really fun to see how this retelling portrayed different famous characters and events. There’s a special thrill when you realize that the horse warrior in the shining scale armor that is being introduced is Arthur, or the wiry old druid with tattoos and a cloak of raven feathers is Merlin.  Many other familiar knights of the round table and other characters make appearances throughout the book, and it was great to see this version of them.

This novel walks right on the borderline between low-magic fantasy and historical fiction, which is an area that I wish more authors would explore, and one that I often gravitate toward in my own fiction writing. There are hints of magic at times, and of course the source material is mythology rather than history. But at the same time, the details of the setting are historical. The lingering influence of the Romans is felt in their ruins, and in some cases in the lineage of certain characters. The details of the battles feel authentic (I’m no historian, so I can’t say for sure) even if the battles themselves are invented. Likewise the smaller everyday details that can really make or break historical fiction. Sometimes a little detail will jump out and ruin the suspension of disbelief (I am thinking of one Roman historical fiction book where they repeatedly mention fields of corn, a crop from the Americas), but there was none of that here for me.

If I have one “complaint”, it is that I never really got a feel for the bigger picture. There are a lot of names of kings and kingdoms bandied about, but I never really felt like I understood the geography of where they were or what their relationships were the way I do for something like Game of Thrones. Part of this is because of the unfamiliar names (Karrek Loos yn Koos, Caer Gwinntguic, Cynwidion, etc.), and part is simply because this is really a much more focused story of one man so the bigger picture doesn’t actually matter as much. (I should note: there is a perfectly fine map in the front of the book, but I was lazy and didn’t refer to it much.)

I’ll finish by noting that this book reminded me very strongly of Bernard Cornwell’s “Saxon Tales” series. Even though Cornwell’s books are set centuries later, the basics of medieval warfare didn’t change very much in that time, and both stories feature a headstrong but extremely skilled warrior fighting for a king who is trying to unite Britain against an invading force.  Both stories  depict a bloody, gritty, world of shield walls and gruesome wounds and personal rivalries. Kristian acknowledges the influence of Cornwell’s writing in the Author’s Note at the end of the book, in particular Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles series, which is its own take on the Arthurian legends. I haven’t read those Cornwell books so I can’t compare directly, but the influence is undeniable. It’s been a few years since I read anything by Cornwall, but in my opinion Kristian’s prose is better: a bit more imagery and flowery language than I remember from Cornwell, but not so much that it is over the top.

Bottom line, I really enjoyed this book, and I really appreciate the author being kind enough to send me a copy! For anyone who is a fan of bloody and gritty fantasy or historical fiction from authors like Joe Abercrombie, George R.R. Martin, Conn Iggulden, or Bernard Cornwell, I definitely recommend giving Lancelot a try.

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