Ryan Anderson

Science, Fiction, Life

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.

How did I end up an angry liberal activist?

Frodo: I wish none of this had happened.

Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides the will of evil.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a furious blog post about anger. I was livid about the impending confirmation of Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. I was so stressed I was not sleeping well, during a week when I was already sick, and I needed to write to get some of the emotion out of my head and onto the page.

The post had some good writing in it, if I may say so. I talked about how the anger of the Right is a petty and insular anger, a defensive curling-inward, seated in fear of losing a privileged place in society. I contrasted that with the anger of the Left, and particularly of those who have not traditionally held power. I had fun with the image of liberal anger as a volcanic eruption, long dormant but growing beneath the surface, unstoppable once unleashed and leaving the world changed but fertile, ready for new growth to replace what was burned away.

It was cathartic to write, but I took it down after posting it for less than a day. If I’m being honest, it was a bit over the top. I decided that, in the midst of all the negativity, my righteous anger was not was the world needed at that time.

After taking down the post I asked myself a question: Why am I so angry? What is it about Trump and the Republicans that bothers me at such a visceral level that not only do I rage about it ad nauseum on social media, but it has driven me to become a genuine political activist, attending rallies and canvassing for the Democratic party?

Believe me, I have a lot of other things I would rather do with my limited free time. None of this is fun for me. I’m an introvert. I avoid conflict. I hate inconveniencing others. So activities like canvassing are very draining for me. I would much rather write and talk to people about things like my adorable toddler, or good books and movies, or cool science. I have a dozen other hobbies or interests that I’d love to spend my time on. But instead I am pouring my energy and time into politics.

Why? Why am I so angry and stressed out that I can’t sleep at night? Why not ignore politics and enjoy my life again?

These questions have been rattling around in my head since I took down that furious blog post, and I think I’ve finally figured out the crux of the matter. It’s because the modern Republican party is diametrically opposed to two of my most deeply-held core values: Truth and Empathy.

Truth

“The truth may be puzzling. It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counterintuitive. It may contradict deeply held prejudices. It may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what’s true.”

Carl Sagan

As a scientist, I’ve dedicated my life to truth. My worldview is built on the idea that we can understand the world around us, even when it behaves in unexpected or counterintuitive ways, by observing, testing hypotheses, and making corrections when we find out that we were wrong. Science has also given me a healthy appreciation for how unbelievably much there is to know in the world. Nobody can be an expert in everything (alas), so we have to trust in the expertise of others while still thinking critically and, as Sagan famously said, demanding extraordinary evidence to back up extraordinary claims.

The corollary of placing a high value on truth is placing a high value on honesty. During the 2016 election I went so far as to make this figure comparing the prominent politicians from the two major parties. There are two notable things here. The first is that yes, both parties misrepresent the truth or outright lie more than I would like. But the difference in the extent to which they lie is striking. Trump barely seems capable of telling the truth, but Pence and Romney are not far behind despite their more “traditional” political personas. The contrast between Trump and Clinton, especially in the blatant lies, is frankly breathtaking. If you were to set ideology aside and vote strictly based on the honesty of the candidates, it is clear which party you should vote for.

Let me put it this way: There are things that are true and things that are false.

  • It is true that the planet is warming and that greenhouse gas emissions are a dominant factor. The best scientific models predict we are rapidly headed for a world of droughts and famine, refugees fleeing coastal cities, mass extinctions, more destructive storms, and more.
  • It is true that voter fraud is vanishingly rare and that voter suppression is widespread.
  • It is true that trickle-down economics doesn’t work, that cutting taxes on rich people just means they get richer while deficits skyrocket and poor people remain poor.
  • It is true that police officers and indeed the entire criminal justice system exhibits bias against people of color, and that in many cases that has deadly results.
  • It is true that having more guns leads to more gun deaths.
  • It is true that sexual assault is common and false accusations of sexual assault are rare.
  • It is true that health care cannot be treated as a free market and that doing so costs people’s lives.
  • It is true that seeking asylum at our borders is not illegal, and that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born citizens, and that they provide a net benefit to the economy.
  • It is true that the greatest threat of terrorism in this country comes from  right-wing white men.
  • It is true that the modern Republican party is following very closely along the path that led to the rise of fascism in pre-WWII Europe.

Do these statements sound partisan? They’re not. They’re just true. There should be nothing partisan about truth, yet the Republican party has worked so tirelessly at distorting the truth for so long that actual truth sounds like a liberal attack.

To solve the many and complex problems facing the world today, we must start with truth as a foundation. Lying to win elections harms everyone. Lying so regularly, so consistently, so deliberately that nearly half the country lives in an alternate reality where the facts are exactly reversed is literally threatening the stability of this country. In just the past week it has led to a mass assassination attempt, a racially motivated double-murder, and a massacre at a Jewish synagogue, and those are just the crimes that have made national headlines.

All of the true statements in the list above highlight real problems that need to be addressed, but we as a nation cannot address them if one party consistently, relentlessly, lies about all of them. It is enough to make a person think that Republicans are more interested in obtaining and holding power than they are in helping people.

Empathy

And that leads me to the second core value: empathy. I am not a religious person. I don’t think there is a being on high who determines what is right and wrong. Without an external definition of morality, I try to keep things simple: something is “Good” if it helps people, something is “Bad” if it harms people. The more people helped or harmed, the more good or bad. Empathy is the guide for this morality. If you want to do “good” and good is defined as what helps people, then by necessity you have to put yourself in their shoes and do unto them as you would have them do unto you. There is a reason the Golden Rule appears in every major religion.

I don’t think that there is an afterlife where we are rewarded or punished based on our actions in life. I think this is it. We get one life, and when it is over we are gone. The only things that remain are our genes, the people who remember us, and the changes we made in the world. That means I place a high value on making positive changes in the world. It means that I push myself to recognize how profoundly lucky I am, and that I take responsibility for my privileged life and try to pay some of my good fortune forward. Part of paying it forward is supporting policies that will help as many people as possible, even if that means I have to sacrifice a little bit.

When you look at the policies and behavior of the modern Republican party through the lens of empathy, it becomes clear that the party is completely morally bankrupt. Its policies are all about prioritizing the individual over the well-being of the broader society. An “every man for himself” mentality that promotes distrust and fear, rather than a “we’re in this together” mentality that promotes cooperation. Republicans reject the idea that there is a social contract and prefer to believe in the myth of the self-made man, ignoring the fact that the social contract is literally why humans are so successful as a species. (No, you might say, we are so successful because of our intelligence! But the leading theories of human evolution suggest that we evolved our intelligence primarily so that we could keep track of our social interactions among larger and larger groups. We are smart because we are social.)

Republican policies are just profoundly selfish. The obsession with taxes is the best example. Republicans prioritize a rich person’s right to obscene wealth over the well-being of society. Heaven forbid rich people pay a fraction of that wealth that will have no meaningful impact on their own lives for government services that could literally save other people’s lives. There appears to be this disturbing conflation among Republicans between wealth and morality. Rich people are rich because they somehow deserve to be. Poor people are poor because of some moral failing that makes them that way (typically laziness). The moment you suggest that success might not be entirely based on hard work, that some people work hard all their lives and remain in poverty while others are extremely successful and have sailed through life with minimal hardship, Republicans get upset.

There is also this strain of victimhood among Republicans that is fascinating and betrays a complete inability to put oneself in another person’s shoes. Republicans point to things like the #MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter as part of a broader societal shift that persecutes white men. They wring their hands over the possibility that false accusations of rape might ruin a man’s life ignoring the fact that (a) sexual assault or the threat thereof literally does ruin many women’s lives, and (b) credible accusations or even blatant admissions of sexual assault often carry little or no consequences (see, for example Donald Trump and Brett Kavanaugh).

“When you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” – Author Unknown

“Conservative” Christians likewise have a bizarre persecution complex that Republicans are only too happy to tap into. They claim there is a “War on Christmas” when Christmas dominates literally every aspect of American life for the last two months of the year. They claim persecution when people protest putting the Ten Commandments on government buildings or putting creationism in textbooks. Meanwhile actual religious minorities are victims of hate crimes like the recent massacre at a synagogue.

Possibly the worst of all to me is the attitude toward immigrants and refugees. It frankly terrifies me that someone could be so heartless and consumed by hate and fear that they see parents and children fleeing thousands of miles to build a better life and rather than welcoming them with open arms, Republicans think the logical response is to lock them up in prison camps. When confronted about why they are imprisoning children, they say “well, their parents shouldn’t have broken the law” as if that is a reasonable response. What a dark and terrifying fictional world Republicans live in.

Why I’m So Angry

The Republican party has become a party that whips up white nationalist fervor in its base to protect the staggering wealth of its donors and the power of its politicians. It is the party that cuts taxes on the rich and pays for them by cutting benefits for the poor. It locks children in cages. It cuts funding from schools. As I type, it is using American troops as props in a desperate stunt to whip up racist fear of a convoy of refugees desperate for a better life so that it can win an election. Across all issues, at all levels, if there is something that will benefit normal people, the Republican party is against it. If it will benefit the rich and powerful, they are for it.

They say that in any situation where you have two groups who disagree, that you should be careful not to fall into the trap of characterizing the other side as “Evil”. That when that happens, both groups will just become more and more entrenched and the differences between them will never be resolved and often will become worse.

But what happens when one side is genuinely evil? I looked it up and the definition of “evil” is “profoundly immoral” or “morally reprehensible” or “causing harm.” Explain to me how the Republican party does not fit that definition.

The Republican party is literally undermining the pillars of our democracy. They are preventing people from voting. They stole one Supreme Court seat and filled another with a horrible man because they knew he would rule in their favor. Experts in the ways in which democracies fail are sounding the alarm. The Republicans are following the playbook of the Nazi rise to power in Europe with terrifying precision. The president’s rhetoric has inspired his supporters to commit or attempt heinous acts of violence, and instead of walking the rhetoric back he and the rest of the party just double down. The Republican party is in favor of policies that will kill people and ruin lives, whereas the Democratic party is in favor of policies that might raise taxes or cut into corporate profits or allow brown people to live here in peace. You can’t look at that and shrug and say that it’s not clear which party is morally right.

The Republican party lies constantly to advance a profoundly selfish and immoral agenda. What they stand for goes against my two most deeply held values: Truth and Empathy.

That’s why I’m so angry. That’s why I can’t just ignore what is happening. That’s why I resist even when it would be easier not to.

 

 

 

 

You Can’t Go Home Again

 

There is a cabin on a small lake in the forest in northern Michigan where I keep all my most vivid childhood memories. My family drove up there every summer (and occasional winters) from our home in the suburbs of Detroit, and I will always cherish those brief weeks off the grid, when we could leave normal life behind and spend our evenings watching campfires instead of TV screens.

This summer, I returned to Michigan for the first time in seven years and the nostalgia was almost overwhelming. A lot has happened in that time: I got a PhD, my wife and I moved across the country to Arizona, we bought a house, we settled into permanent jobs, we got a second dog, and after struggling with mild fertility issues, we had a son. He has grown from a preemie who had to spend the first twenty days of his life in the hospital learning to eat into a happy, healthy toddler who is obsessed with birds and books and will enthusiastically roar like a dinosaur on command.

It’s strange to visit my old stomping grounds with my young son. For me, every stump and rock and path and beaver lodge is a memory, and I can’t help but wonder what they will mean to him. How often will we be able to make the pilgrimage back to Michigan? When we visit, will he build his own fort in the forest and fashion wooden medieval weapons to defend it from unspecified foes? Will he have bonfires twenty feet tall and learn roast the perfect marshmallow over the coals? Will he pick wild blueberries and eat them in homemade pancakes? Will he learn to fall asleep to the haunting call of loons? Or will he be indifferent to it all, and wonder why Dad drags him to the north woods of Michigan instead of going on vacations to more interesting places?

I have always been a bit prone to nostalgia, but I’ve found that since becoming a parent, that desire to cling to the past has only gotten stronger. Children allow us to revisit our childhoods, and there’s a natural tendency to want to pass our cherished formative memories on to our kids. I grew up catching snakes and making swords out of sticks and riding four-wheelers through the north woods of Michigan, and so I want my son to have all of those experiences too.

This instinct to make my son’s childhood a highlight reel of my own extends beyond just the time spent Up North. My son is only 20 months old, but I have been debating when to introduce him to the stories that shaped me — Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Redwall, Jurassic Park — since before he was born. I didn’t even know what Star Wars was until sixth grade, and I didn’t read The Hobbit until early high school. I know that delaying exposure to these stories is impossible in today’s world where geek culture and pop culture have become indistinguishable, but there’s a part of me that nevertheless wants his introduction to them to mirror my own. The fact that my son’s experience learning that Vader is Luke’s father or telling riddles in the dark with Gollum will be very different from mine makes me uncomfortable in a way that’s hard to explain.

As parents, it’s tempting to assume that our children will turn out just like us. When I picture my son in high school, I imagine him loving science, playing the trumpet in marching band, and spending his free time playing video games with friends. But I have to remind myself: that’s not him, that’s me. He might turn out like that, but he might not, and that’s ok.

Kids remind us of what it was like to be young, to experience everything for the first time, but the corollary is that they also remind us that we are not that young anymore. As the saying goes, “you can’t go home again.” The world moves on and it’s important that we as parents do too.

It is a frustrating fact of the human condition that those memories that we cherish, that form integral parts of ourselves, are uniquely ours. There’s the inevitable temptation to try to model our children’s lives on our own nostalgia, to pass on those intangible parts of ourselves like a baton in an intergenerational relay, as if somehow that will allow us to return to our lost youth, but it’s important to moderate that temptation. Yes, embrace the chance to remember your own childhood. Share what you love with your kids. Give them the opportunity to experience things that were important to you, but also respect your kids enough to let them be different, to find their own passions and make their own memories.

It’s important to remind ourselves that our goal as parents is not for our kids to live carbon copies of our lives, it is to help them live their own.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Sonnet for Opportunity

I wrote the poem above as an ode to the Mars rover Opportunity, which has been in hibernation since a global dust storm earlier this summer blocked out the sun. Not great for a solar powered rover. But on the other hand, global dust storms warm the atmosphere, so it’s possible the rover will wake up and phone home… we just need to keep listening. I got my start in planetary science working on the MER rovers, so Opportunity holds a special place in my heart, and a poem seemed like a nice way to honor such an amazing mission. Whether Opportunity wakes up or not, 14 years is pretty good for a mission built to last only 90 days.

I opted for a sonnet because they come with a nicely defined structure to follow, which makes the bank page a little less intimidating. There are two main forms of sonnet in English, the Shakespearean and the Petrarchan sonnet. I went with the Petrarchan since it is formatted as a sort of point/counterpoint, which fit with what I wanted to say. It also has the more challenging rhyme scheme and I’m a glutton for punishment.

It took a surprisingly long time to write this poem, but I am pleased with the result. People seemed to enjoy it when I shared it on social media; one online acquaintance (Seán Doran) even made an alternative version of it, using the same image but with realistic colors and an artificially extended sky, and the rover photoshopped onto the tracks.

I am considering making planetary poems a recurring thing. They’re a nice way to satisfy both sides of my brain, with a nice mix of writing, science, and graphic design. And they’re good for sharing on social media. For now I’ll probably stick to structured forms: sonnets and haiku, depending on how ambitious I’m feeling. I’m open to ideas for topics, so feel free to make suggestions in the comments!

 

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