Ryan Anderson

Science, Fiction, Life

The Most Important Thing in the Universe

One of the side effects of studying science is an appreciation for how insignificant humans are in the scheme of things. It is pounded into your head at every opportunity. We are microscopic compared to the Earth, and Earth is not the center of the solar system. Our solar system is one of billions in our galaxy. Our galaxy is to the universe as grains of sand are to the beach. The universe is unfathomably old, and the Earth has been around for a good chunk of that time but humanity is brand new. In Sagan’s famous cosmic calendar analogy, in which the age of the universe is compressed down to a single year, humans don’t appear until minutes before midnight on December 31. On the scale of the universe in both space and time, humans might as well not exist. 

Apart from a thin film of life at the very surface of the Earth, an occasional intrepid spacecraft, and some radio static, our impact on the Universe is nil. It knows nothing of us.

Carl Sagan

This is all true, and it’s important to teach people, especially people who plan to make it their business to study the universe. You need to face reality even when it makes you uncomfortable.

However, it’s a little alarming how gleefully some people like to drive this point home. There’s a sense of smug superiority, a feeling of being somehow above the petty things that concern “ordinary” people. I find this is especially true of certain fields (you get this much more from the physical sciences than biological and social sciences) and certain types of people (especially those who think they have something to prove). 

As I have gotten older, I’ve started to realize that despite good intentions, this “minimize humanity” mindset leads to its own flavor of wrong-headed thinking. People begin to mistake feeling smart for being wise. 

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. 

F. Scott Fitzgerald

This is one of those cases that Fitzgerald is talking about. Humans are indeed insignificant in both space and time when compared to the universe. But at the same time, we are far more important to each other than the distant reaches of space and time. Both of these things can be true. “Meaning” or “significance” are not laws of physics, they are human constructs. We as humans get to decide what is significant, and the scale of the universe is not the appropriate comparison. Our lives occur on the time scale of decades, and on the spatial scale of a tiny fraction of the surface of the Earth. So what if that’s small compared to the universe? It’s big for us.

Minimizing humanity might help avoid mistakes like saying that the sun goes around the Earth, or that we are at the center of the universe since most galaxies are flying away from ours. But it can also lead to dangerous reasoning like: If humans are insignificant, then how can we be responsible for climate change? Even if you accept that there are enough of us that collectively our actions are significant enough to mess up the planet, it can lead to a nihilistic view that it doesn’t matter. After all, we’re just a flash in the pan. Earth will survive whatever we do. Some species might go extinct with us, but others will adapt and flourish. So who cares? The sun will eventually become a red giant and consume the Earth, and the universe will eventually succumb to entropy. On the scale of the universe nothing matters, everything is insignificant and transient. So if nothing matters why should I care about anyone other than myself and my immediate gratification? A brief bit of hedonism before I return to the nothingness from whence I came. 

Of course, that’s a cop out. An avoidance of the uncomfortable responsibility of deciding for ourselves what is meaningful. It’s easier to throw our hands up and say “well, nothing matters.”

LIfe has no meaning a priori. Before you come alive, life is nothing; it’s up to you to give it a meaning, and value is nothing else but the meaning you give.

Jean-Paul Sartre

Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.

Jean-Paul Sartre

This minimization of Earth and of humanity also can trick otherwise smart people into fixating on the wonders of the universe and neglecting the wonders around them. I have been somewhat guilty of this. I was fascinated by science from an early age, and started studying space right when I got to college. I thought I had a pretty good understanding and appreciation for “mundane” stuff and was more interested in the exciting weirdness of the rest of the universe. But of course, I knew almost nothing about life, and now as I get older and have more life experience, I have come full circle: I feel less drawn than I used to be to the mysteries of space which have no bearing on human life, and am more interested in the richness of regular everyday life.

My point is not that we should not marvel at the universe, my point is that, in looking up at the stars we must try not to devalue the wonders that are right in front of us.  The things that matter and can bring us real happiness are right here on Earth. 

Think of your own life. All the memories and experiences that are stored in your brain. All the relationships, all the places you’ve been, all the things you’ve done. Think of your proudest moments, your greatest disappointments, your loves and your losses. Think of the things you have created, the mark you have made on the world, whatever forms that takes. Just take a moment to recognize the richness of your life and everything you know and have done. These things don’t lose their significance because the universe is vast and ancient. The universe doesn’t get to decide what is significant to you. You do. 

Now consider: there are 7.9 billion other people on this planet. If you looked at one face every second it would take 250 years to look at everyone (and in that time, billions more would be born). Every two years, humanity’s collective experience spans more time than the age of the universe. That’s a lot of people. And what really boggles the mind is that every single one of them has just as rich and vivid and intricate a life as yours. Every one of them has their own favorite places and favorite foods, their own family, their own memories. Every person has things they have created, songs they have sung, dreams they have pursued. Every person has their own story. 

Every place and every thing in the world plays a role in countless people’s stories, and has a story of its own. That big tree in the park is just a tree to you, but to someone it’s where they shared a sunny afternoon with their first love. To someone else it is where they were sitting when the doctor called with bad news. To someone else, it’s where they take their family photo every year.

I think about this a lot when traveling or looking at a map: every place that you see is someone’s home. Every house, apartment, street or park, is at the center of someone’s whole life. When you really think about this and stop relegating these things to mere scenery, the world feels anything but small. 

It feels even larger when you fold in time as well. Consider not just the significance to people alive today, but the countless lives going back tens of thousands of years. We hear so much about how all of human history is the blink of an eye in geologic or cosmic time, but at the human scale, our history is almost unimaginably deep. We’ve been here long enough for every single patch of the earth’s surface to be rich with human history. Most of it forgotten, but all of it real. 

Lately I’ve gotten much more interested in history, especially ancient history and prehistory for this reason. Just as it is eye opening to think of all the places you visit on vacation as someone’s home, it fires my imagination to consider people as real and complex as you and me living thousands or tens of thousands of years ago. Real people peering out over the wilderness of an uninhabited continent, or cautiously trading with tribes of Neanderthals, or waging a forgotten war on the ground we walk every day, or struggling with the timeless day to day tasks of raising a family. I feel the depth of history stretching out into the past, at once unreachable but intimate in our shared humanity. 

I came across this on my social media feeds after I had written this blog post.

Yes, we humans are insignificant on a cosmic scale, but so what? We don’t live on that scale, we live on a human scale. Nihilism is a cop-out. We are responsible for deciding what is significant and meaningful, and as anyone who has held a newborn can tell you, it has nothing to do with size or age. You can hold the most important thing in the universe in your arms.

For small creatures such as we, the vastness is only bearable through love.

Carl Sagan

Poem: Hourglass Planet

I’m trying to get back into writing somewhat regularly, and I noticed some friends on Twitter posting using the hashtag #NaPoWriMo – National Poem Writing Month. Apparently it is the poetry equivalent of NaNoWriMo (Nationak Novel Writing Month), and you’re supposed to write one poem per day for the month of April. I’m not going to be able to keep up that pace, but I thought I might try my hand at some poetry. Poems are usually pretty bite-sized, and you’re actually supposed to agonize over every single word so my over-editing habits that slow me down for longer writing may actually be a good thing!

This first poem is inspired by this audio recording returned to Earth by Perseverance. Turn up the volume and listen to the sound of wind on Mars.

Hearing that recording got me thinking about how quiet Mars is. On the whole planet, the only things making any appreciable noise are Curiosity and Perseverance. Everywhere else it’s just the wind occasionally moving sand or dislodging a pebble or rock.

So without further ado, here’s the poem:

Hourglass Planet
Soft wind traces the faces of the rocks
And the world sounds like a held breath.

In that patient silence could you listen?

Sigh of wind 
hiss of sand
a pebble falls.


Or would you need to make noise?

Election Eve Thoughts

It has been a hell of a year. It is not the end of the calendar year, but tonight is the night before Election Day and it feels like the nation is balanced on the edge of a precipice. It feels like all the horrors of the last four years, and particularly of this last year, have been building to this point and now we are collectively holding our breaths. There are another couple of months in the year, but this feels like the right point to pause and reflect. It feels important to capture how I’m feeling right now, as we sit here at the brink and wonder what happens next.

I have been very quiet here on the blog. My last post was a video game review in July, and before that a post in April about the pandemic and how it hadn’t been too bad so far for me and my family. Since then, a lot has happened, and I’ve had a lot of thoughts about it that I would normally share here, but at a certain point it got to be too much. What could I say in the face of all that was happening? What good would it do to add my voice to the noise? I would just be echoing what everyone in my carefully curated social media bubble was also feeling and saying. How could I find the words to do justice to the pain and suffering that others are feeling, from which I am sheltered by layer upon layer of privilege?

I still have all of those doubts, but as I sit here freaking out about the election, I need to do something. Writing helps me process, so I’m going to write. I am going to resist the urge to rehash everything terrible that has happened in the last 6 months, or for that matter the last 4 years. You have all lived through it. You know.

I’m just so tired. The constant anxiety and outrage and despair and depression as I watch my country and the world succumb to the worst that humanity has to offer has culminated in sheer exhaustion. That is the other reason that I have not written much here, or anywhere else, this year. I’m just emotionally and mentally exhausted, so by the end of the day when I have time to write, I don’t have the energy to do it.

I’ve been trying to be kinder to myself about that. In this of all years, I have been trying to stop the negative self-talk that says I must spend every moment being productive. The last few years, and especially 2020, have taught me the value of “mindless” entertainment. It is ok that I just want to curl up and eat comfort food and play video games or watch dumb shows. Seeking out comforting non-productive activities is fine. There is nobody but myself who sets the expectation that after working all day and parenting into the evening, I should then do something “productive” instead of something fun and relaxing. Maybe someday I will have the energy for that, but right now I don’t and that’s ok.

I don’t know what will happen tomorrow. Odds are that Biden will win and Trump will lose, but the odds favored Clinton in 2016 too. That collective trauma, and the subsequent damage that Trump has done to to country and to each of us over the last 4 years, will be with us for a long time. I deeply hope that tomorrow is an absolute incontrovertible Biden blowout. Even if that happens, I worry about the violence that Trump’s cult will inflict, and the damage a lame-duck Trump and Republican senate will do. If the election is close, it’s going to be a huge mess. Trump has already said he will declare victory prematurely and fight against counting all of the votes cast, turning to the Republican-stuffed courts to overrule the will of the voters. If Trump wins, I don’t know what I will do. It will affirm the lesson that we all learned in 2016, that a huge portion of this country is so much more selfish and hateful than we want to believe. I don’t know how I can live in a country that looks at what Republicans have done in the last 4 years and says “yes, more of that please.” But I also don’t know how I could leave.

Another thing that this year in particular has taught me is the value of focusing only on those things I can control. There’s a reason the famous “serenity prayer” is so famous. Along the same lines, in Buddhism they talk about how much of the suffering we experience comes from “clinging” to the way we want things to be, rather than facing the way things are. It is a lot easier said than done, but there have been moments this year when things got to be too much that I have taken some solace in narrowing my focus on what I can control.

I cannot control what happens tomorrow. I have done what I could by donating, writing letters, and phone banking (though I am disappointed in myself that I didn’t do more calls), but in the end the results of the election are out of my hands.

I think what makes this so hard is that with the memory of 2016 fresh in my mind, and the events of this year so relentlessly bad, I’m afraid to hope. But, in the end I do hope. I hope that the country steps back from the brink, that new leadership finally gets the pandemic under control and stops the needless loss of life, that this election is remembered as the point where the country had a stark choice and chose wisely, and began the long work of fixing what is broken. I hope that soon we can all rest a little easier, and turn our efforts toward that work with a little more optimism. I hope.

Game Review: Red Dead Redemption 2

Red Dead Redemption 2 somehow manages to be one of the most amazing video games I have ever played while also being one of the most frustrating. It is the victim of its own success: it does so much so well that its flaws are all the more noticeable.

[Note: spoilers abound in this post, so if you don’t want the game spoiled, go play it and read this later!]

But first let’s start with the positives. RDR2 is the biggest, most beautiful game I have ever played. The world is huge and intricately detailed, and no matter where you are, no matter what time of day it is, or what the weather is, it looks gorgeous. I recall reading something a few years back about video games and how graphics are good enough that the aim is no longer to exactly mimic reality, but instead to look better than reality, and RDR2 certainly does this. Like its predecessor, the ambiance of the game is one of its main strengths, and there were times when I would just pause to take in the sights. I mean, just look at some of these screenshots I found with a quick search:

The world of RDR2 is a stylized version of the United States, and although the game is nominally a “western,” the map includes the desert southwest, the rockies, the Midwest, the deep South, and Appalachia. These regions blend seamlessly with each other and each has its own unique “feel” thanks to the changing geography, flora, fauna, and cities. If you’ve traveled the US at all, you can always recognize the real-world analog of where you are in the game. Through the course of the game, I talked to a guy panning for gold near Grand Teton, hunted a legendary wolf near Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone, picked wild orchids in the Louisiana bayou, found a mysterious skeleton in a snowy pass through the Rocky Mountains, and watched the sun rise over Sedona. And none of that was part of the main story of the game.

It’s not just the scenery that is amazing either. The game looks like a movie, with nearly every bit of dialogue well acted, and well “filmed” for lack of a better term. No artificial talking heads here, these are real scenes with genuine cinematography. The motion capture for the characters is excellent, and the characters themselves look great. The camera can get right in for a closeup and you rarely lose immersion due to graphics the way you might in games from just a few years ago.

Arthur Morgan, the main character.
Arthur Morgan and Sadie Adler.

Not only do the characters look good, they’re also actual characters with personalities and backstories and well-written, well-acted dialogue to rival any western movie. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the characters and story in RDR2 are better than those in many western movies and novels I’ve seen/read. (This is not to say the story is flawless: more on that later.)

The story follows Arthur Morgan, second in command of a gang of outlaws led by the charismatic, loud-mouthed Dutch van der Linde. It begins with the gang on the run through the snowy mountains after a botched job in the town of Blackwater. They find a new place to set up camp and start trying to earn money through various legal and non-legal means.

Some members of the gang. From right to left: Dutch van der Linde, Hosea Matthews, Bill Williamson, Arthur Morgan, John Marston, Charles Smith

But tensions start to rise as the sleazy and reckless newcomer Micah Bell gains influence over Dutch, leading to a series of failed jobs and increasingly hare-brained schemes. Dutch loses his grip on sanity as the failures wear on him and Arthur begins questioning him after decades of loyalty.

At the same time, Arthur’s life of bad choices catches up with him. Early in the game he is collecting debts and beats a farmer who, it is revealed later, dies of tuberculosis shortly thereafter. Arthur learns that he caught the disease, and faces his own mortality in a way that is unexpected to someone who expected to someday die in a shootout. He has time to reckon with the good and bad that he has done in his life and the opportunities that he has sacrificed and friends he has lost because of his loyalty to Dutch.

Needless to say, video game plots have come a long way since the days of Bad Dudes on NES:

Red Dead Redemption is so excellent in so many ways that it ends up in a sort of uncanny valley between video game and movie, where it doesn’t fully succeed at being either one. Although the plot is excellent for a video game, and I would gladly read a novel or watch a movie with the same plot, it suffers because it has to serve double duty as a video game. I found it really jarring to go from beautiful, well-acted, cinematic cut-scenes, to the inevitable massive shootout against dozens of disposable henchmen. The actual shootout sequences end up seeming borderline slapstick compared to the real drama of the cut-scenes.

Similarly, the plot gets repetitive because it needs to find more and more excuses to have big video-game shootouts. So the gang tries repeatedly to do elaborate jobs and repeatedly fails and repeatedly has to go on the run again, and it quickly gets to the point where you wonder why in the world all these people are following Dutch when Arthur is clearly the more sensible one. And of course, that realization is what ends up being the culmination of the story, but it takes a long time and a lot of repetition to get there. This is because a video game the size of RDR2 needs dozens of hours of content in the main story, not the few hours of a good movie, so there’s a lot of padding and extraneous asides. In particular, the part of the story line involving Arthur trying to help a Native American tribe and Dutch trying to lead them into conflict with the Army as some sort of elaborate distraction made very little sense and was pretty clearly there to have more, and more varied, shootouts. Similarly, the unexpected detour involving a shipwreck in the Caribbean and a fight to help freed slaves against the brutal plantation owner/dictator there was a lot of filler (though it provided a beautiful change of scenery).

(I have conflicting feelings about how the game handles race in general and Native Americans in particular. I don’t feel qualified to speak much about it but I’ll say that I think the game’s heart is in the right place even as it uses some uncomfortable tropes and outright stereotypes.)

The flip side of the story suffering because it has to accommodate the video game aspects of RDR2 is that the game suffers too, to the extent that I actually think it is more successful as a “movie” than as a game. The game aspects suffer from several major flaws: bad controls and menus, lack of consequences, and lack of a compelling open world gameplay and progression.

First, the controls and menus: They’re really surprisingly bad. Because it tries to be a full-blown realistic wild-west simulator, there are a zillion things that you can do, and just as many controls to learn. Even after playing for 6 months, I still regularly struggle to remember what button does what in some circumstances. A lot of this is because new controls are inevitably introduced while there is some other action happening on the screen and are only shown on screen briefly before disappearing forever. Also, the same button sometimes does very different things in different contexts. For example, the button to look at something is the same button to shoot, which can lead to… bad outcomes.

If the controls are bad, the menus are terrible. They require you to hold down one button, then point in a radial direction with one of the control sticks, then potentially tap another button to choose among similar items, and then release the first button. It’s incredibly awkward. Meanwhile the game isn’t fully paused, just slowed way down. I think the idea was to keep it quick to avoid people getting buried in menus and thereby break the immersion of the game, but it’s much more distracting to use a poorly designed menu than it is to just pause, choose the item you want using simple, clear controls, and then get back to business. The inventory is clunky too, to the point that I essentially ignored it other than to occasionally check my Legendary Animals map.

I hate this radial menu.

And that gets at the second major issue: lack of consequences. There are so many things that can just be ignored. You are warned early in the game that you need to eat often enough to stay healthy but not so much that you get fat. You are supposed to brush and feed your horse or it will suffer a loss of stamina. You can learn to cook a variety of fancy meals by combining meat from animals you hunt with various medicinal herbs you can gather. There are different special types of ammo you can learn to craft. You need to clean your guns to keep them in tip top shape. You’re supposed to donate money to the gang to pay for upkeep and provisions. You can craft all sorts of outrageous-looking outfits if you hunt the right animals. The list goes on and on and on, and basically none of it matters.

You don’t suffer any real penalty from eating too much or too little. The penalty to your horse for not keeping it clean is insignificant. There’s no reason to cook anything because even the most basic “stick meat over fire and then eat it” recipe refills all of your stats easily. The ammo crafting is a waste of time: sure I can make explosive bullets, but if I have to make them one at a time, and my sniper rifle can kill even the strongest legendary animals in a few shots, I don’t really need the explosive bullets, do I? Yeah, dirty guns don’t do as much damage, but it’s not that much of a penalty. The gang is perfectly fine if you donate precisely nothing to them. Those outfits you can craft look cool and/or silly but don’t change a thing.

Some of the “interesting” outfits you can make.

It seems like the game designers wanted the best of both worlds: they wanted the immersion of having to keep track of all these little things, but also didn’t want the player to get bogged down in all of them. I would much rather they had picked a few of these details and made them actually matter and ditched the rest.

This lack of consequences carries over into the game’s difficulty, or lack thereof. This is an incredibly easy game. It aims for you, you can enter slow-mo “dead-eye” mode and take out a half-dozen guys who already have you in their sights, and if your dead-eye meter or health runs low you’re basically guaranteed to be carrying enough miracle elixirs and snake oil to refill them indefinitely (another thing you theoretically need to care about but in practice doesn’t matter). Just about the only times I died in the game were when I (a) did something really stupid and deserved it, or (b) got confused about the controls. Confusing controls should not be the leading cause of death in a video game. I’m no elite gamer and I don’t mind a game being on the easy side, but a game should have a bit of a challenge and some stakes if you die and too often this one just… didn’t. Worst case, you lose a few bucks and respawn nearby.

And finally, the lack of a compelling open world gameplay or character progression. In this case, by character progression I don’t mean in terms of the story, but in terms of your abilities in the game. Other than getting a bit more stamina, health, and “dead-eye” time, you don’t really gain more abilities after the initial (lengthy) tutorial period where new controls and things are gradually doled out. The closest thing to new abilities that you get are new guns, but really a lot of these are window decoration. There are technically a whole bunch of guns in the game but in practice there are 5: pistol, repeater, shotgun, rifle, sniper rifle. The different types within each class don’t really matter much.

One of my greatest disappointments about RDR2 is that despite having such an amazing and beautiful open world, once you finish the main story there’s not that much to do in it. Or rather, there is a lot to do but it all feels like filler. Hunting is pretty fun for a while, and I liked the Legendary Animals, but I ended the game wishing I could spend more time in the game world, but unable to justify doing so because there was nothing meaningful to do.

Watching the sun set from your ranch, Beecher’s Hope, in the Epilogue.

I’ve complained here a fair deal about one of the best-reviewed video games ever made (and I freely admit that it’s one of the best I’ve ever played despite my complaints). So what would I do differently to fix this? Aside from basics like “better controls and menus”, a lot of my complaints could be fixed by rearranging the plot.

One of the most compelling sequences in the plot is actually the epilogue, where you’re playing as John Marston and trying to set up a ranch and get away from the outlaw life to convince your wife and son to come back to you. It plays to the ambiance of the game and by cutting down on the outlandish firefights in favor of more character development, it’s stronger than much of the main story line.

In my fantasy version of the game, this sequence is moved to the early part of the game. You would begin the game as a teenage kid with no skills whatsoever, orphaned and heading west to build a life. You find work, develop skills, and eventually start a family and ranch of your own. But paying the bills gets harder and harder and as you discover that you’re good in a fight you start making money by collecting bounties. At this point, you meet up with Dutch and join his gang, trying to live a double life as a family man and as a gang member. You build loyalty to Dutch as the gang protects your family from some other outlaws, but eventually the dual life collapses and your family leaves (or is killed?), so you end up in Dutch’s gang and fiercely loyal. From here, the main plot of the game can proceed. There’s more justification for the long time it takes to realize the loyalty to Dutch is misplaced.

The epilogue with John Marston can still work: he inherits Arthur’s ranch, run-down after years of neglect. After the credits roll, the ranch provides the reason to keep playing. You can build new upgrades and customize it to your heart’s content if you earn money by continuing to play (in this scenario you would not end up with vast sums of money after the end game). I’m picturing full-out customization, similar to the base-building in Fallout 4. (Likewise, in general I’d love to see the introduction of more unique weapons and clothing that actually have impacts on the gameplay, again similar to Fallout 4.)

Anyway, those are my (waaay too long) thoughts on Red Dead Redemption 2. It was excellent in a lot of ways but that just made its shortcomings all the more frustrating. It’s been a couple of weeks since I stopped playing and I still have that sad feeling you get when you finish a really immersive novel. I sincerely wish I had more of a reason to keep playing around in the gorgeous world of the game. In any case, despite my complaints, the success of RDR2 makes me optimistic about the future of story-heavy gaming. If RDR2 is a sign of things to come, I’m looking forward to what the future of gaming holds.

It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel…

We’re in the middle of a pandemic, tens of thousands in the US alone are dying mostly preventable deaths, our federal government is doing a worse job managing the crisis than I could have ever imagined, the world economy has been shut down, millions have lost their jobs, and I have barely left the house in over a month. So why do I feel generally… okay?

I don’t feel good about any of this, mind you. But I see a lot of friends on social media who are really struggling, while I am mostly stressed out about normal things like deadlines and responsibilities at work and kids who won’t go to sleep. I’ve been trying to stay aware of how I’m feeling as we watch the world change in unprecedented ways, and I’m actually kind of disturbed by how not-disturbed I am generally feeling about all of this. In many ways the pandemic reminds me of a government shutdown, but worse: It’s a stupid, avoidable situation that is hurting a lot of people, but for myself it’s not too bad and actually has some perks. Of course some days are better than others depending on the absurdity of the day’s news and my own mental state. Of course I find much of what’s happening outrageous and infuriating (more on that later). But generally, I’m doing okay. Or at least, not significantly worse than what has become my new normal in the last few insane years.

I want to be clear before I get any farther with this post that my goal is not to say “look at me, I’m doing fine, why aren’t you?” If you are feeling Not Okay during this pandemic, you are having the correct, rational response. What I’m trying to do here is figure out and articulate some of the reasons that I am not having the correct, rational response.

Perspective and Gratitude

I am finding that this pandemic is having an effect on me similar to other momentous life events like births and deaths. These sorts of events offer a rare clarity: the distractions fall away and we are given a brief moment where we see what really matters. The clarity of this pandemic is showing me something that I already knew, but that despite my best efforts at being a socially responsible person, I am not normally reminded of so frequently or so vividly. It is showing me how astoundingly lucky I am. It is forcing me to practice gratitude, which is an effective way to improve your mental health.

I thought about listing all of the things that I am grateful for here, all the unearned privileges that allow me to observe this pandemic from a place of comfort and safety and ease, but it ended up seeming gratuitous and boastful, which was not my intention. My point is this: I know. I know how lucky I am to be able to react to this disaster the way that I am. And in some ways, being reminded of this fact so often is probably helping me emotionally deal with this situation.

I can’t resist calling out one advantage in particular, however, because in basically all other circumstances so far in my life it has been disadvantage. I’m talking of course about being an introvert. Being unable to socialize with people in person and instead doing any (limited) socializing over the internet? Mostly hanging out at home, or at most occasionally going outside for a walk? Needing to fill any spare time with hobbies rather than by going out and doing stuff with friends? Little did I know it, but I have been training for this my whole life.

Denial and Compartmentalization

One of the strangest things about this pandemic is how little it actually changes my day to day life. The nature of my job is such that most of the people I work with on a daily basis are not at my home institution, so communicating by email or by phone or video conferencing is perfectly normal to me. It’s just that I get to stay home and have lunch with my family, and I also have to do video calls with people I’d normally go down the hall to talk to. 

The pandemic did cancel my trip to the annual Lunar and Planetary Science conference, which I have attended every year since 2006, and it forced Erin and the kids to cancel their trip to visit her parents in Florida the same week (her dad is on immunosuppressants for rheumatoid arthritis and is therefore high risk). But those cancellations came early enough that in a way they just added to the surreal feeling rather than driving home the reality.

The fact that my life is for the most part minimally disrupted is nice but it also has the side effect of making it very difficult to internalize how messed up things are in the world right now. As far as I am aware, nobody I know has gotten sick, for which I am very grateful. Like many people, I have been reading a truly unhealthy amount of news so I’m well aware of what is happening in the world, but on some deep level it doesn’t quite seem real. Intellectually I get it, but emotionally there’s still some disconnect.

There are of course moments where I imagine what would happen if I or someone I loved got sick or died. I read news articles, or hear the medical helicopters flying overhead on their way to the hospital, and I imagine disaster striking my family. When that happens, there is a gnawing dread that sits in my gut like a cold stone and crawls up the back of my skull. But, maybe this says something about me, but that’s nothing new for me. It’s the same feeling I get when I read about gun violence, or a car crash, or kids getting sick, or any of the many horrible events in the world that for some reason the news seems to think that everyone needs to know about. I think most adults, and especially most parents, become very skilled at compartmentalizing these sorts of thoughts. I know that if I didn’t I just wouldn’t be able to function. 

So, don’t get the wrong impression. It’s not that I don’t worry about what would happen if I or a loved one got sick. It’s that it’s just one more thing in a world full of unpredictable dangers. My family and friends are for the most part lucky enough to be able to do everything possible to avoid this one. So I worry, but it isn’t consuming me.

Outrage and Vindication

To me, the worst part about this pandemic is the extent to which it was preventable. You’ve read the news: The Trump administration dismantled the safeguards that the Obama administration had put in place and ignored the pandemic training that was part of their transition into the White House. They fired key experts. They were warned when this new virus first appeared and did worse than nothing. They downplayed the problem and treated it like every other aspect of reality: they ignored it and hoped it would go away. Of course it didn’t go away, and since that became clear, the response has been so deeply incompetent and corrupt and confused that it leaves me speechless and furious. I mean, look no further than this week. We’re months into this crisis, more than 50,000 Americans have died, and the president openly wondered on national television this week if maybe ingesting cleaning products might be a good way to stop the disease. He suggested that scientists look into the idea. The he has been receiving briefings on this virus for months, and that’s what he comes up with now. The ignorance is genuinely terrifying.

I read an article the other day that suggested that 90% of the deaths we’re seeing now from the virus could have been prevented if the country had enforced physical distancing just two weeks earlier. Trump and his people downplayed and dragged their feet on this for many weeks. They have tens of thousands of deaths on their hands, and now they are agitating to open back up prematurely, which will set off a second wave of pandemic that is even worse and prolong both the economic and medical suffering for months.

So yeah. I am not at all okay with what is happening. How can I say that I’m doing okay through this? Because I’ve been not-at-all-okay with what is happening with our government since 2016. The Trump administration has been an endless cascade of incompetence and corruption. I reached saturation long ago. So while this situation is worse than anything that came before it, what came before was already so far beyond what is acceptable that I genuinely don’t have the emotional capacity to react to these new horrors all that differently.

There is also another facet to this that I think may be helping me cope, though I’m not particularly proud of it, and that is a feeling of vindication. I am a scientist. The bedrock of my worldview is that reality matters. Facts matter. Expertise matters. Good governance must be based on reality. This brief and imperfect life is all we get, so we must treat each other with empathy and the acknowledgement that bad things can happen to good people, and that society and government exist so that we can help each other. 

The Republican party has been systematically undermining these ideas for decades, and the Trump administration is the culmination of all their efforts. The last 4 years have been a nightmare of lies and ignorance and selfishness, and for the most part Republicans have been able to get away with it. But this time is different.

This pandemic epitomizes why the Republican worldview is wrong and dangerous. You know what matters in a pandemic? Facts. Expertise. Good governance based on reality. Compassion for others. Personal sacrifice for the greater good.

The pandemic shines a harsh light onto all of the injustices in our society. The racial disparities, the wealth inequality, the lack of living wages for the people who form the foundation of our society, the absurdity of a for-profit system that links health care coverage to employment, the appalling treatment of native communities, and on and on. 

I hate that it had to come to this. I hate that even as it has come to this, many people are denying the evidence right in front of them. I do not like that I feel this way, but I can’t deny that as I watch the world around us failing in precisely the ways that people with a left-leaning and fact-based worldview warned about, there is a grim and bitter solace in knowing that we were right.

Fascination and Hope

One of the strongest reactions I’ve had to this pandemic, and another one that seems inappropriate even to myself, is fascination. This pandemic has been a crash course in epidemiology, obviously. But also economics and history and civics and psychology and more. I’m reminded of a quote from The Once and Future King, which now that I look it up is even more apt than I expected:

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then–to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you.”

The Once and Future King, T.H. White

Learning stuff is already my default state, and in times of stress and crisis my instinct is to double down and learn more. I’m also reminded of another relevant quote:

My pandemic coping strategy.

I find it fascinating to see on full display how interconnected the world is. How our current situation so closely mirrors that in 1918 when a similar pandemic swept the world (and not just in the particulars of the disease, but the broader circumstances in the country and the world). How years of bad policy decisions which were mostly survivable during a period of economic growth are now revealing so much of our society to be a house of cards. How fighting a virus can so rapidly lead to unexpected consequences like inability to purify water due to a lack of CO2 gas due to the shutdown of certain chemical processing plants due to a drop in demand for oil. How the immediate economic catastrophe caused by “flattening the curve” to save lives is going to give way to so many ripple effects for months and years to come.

I know that to a lot of people the uncertainty and chaos we are witnessing right now is extremely stressful. It feels an awful lot like the end of the world. In a sense, maybe that’s true. But if it is the end of the world, it is an end whose time had already come, and it opens up the opportunity for something new and better. To me this feels less like an end than like a turning point. A culmination of forces that have been building up for many years, long before this virus arose. It is the chance to recognize what matters. To clearly see what aspects of our society, our government, our lives, actually serve us well and what needs to be changed.

I am not naive. I don’t expect to see our government suddenly and miraculously institute universal basic income and universal health care and nationwide vote by mail and everything else. I don’t expect it to proactively address the next, even greater global challenge – climate change – before it is too late. I suspect when this pandemic is over, we’ll see things mostly go back to the way they were before. But I think the illusion that “the way things were before” was acceptable will have been dispelled. Not for everyone, of course, but for enough people to make a difference. This experience is going to have a lasting effect on everyone. Kids in high school and college right now are learning lessons a lot more profound than what they’re learning in their online classes. We’re all learning from this experience. I think the memory of this pandemic is going to become a part of who we are, as individuals, as families, as countries, and as a world. Whether we are aware of it or not, it is going to guide us in the coming years, and despite the pain and chaos of the present, I choose to hope that it will allow us to create a better world.

As the lyric goes, “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.” That’s not exactly true for me, but through a combination of good fortune and some healthy (and some maybe not-so healthy) emotional responses to everything that is happening, I am doing okay. With things as bad as they are, doing “okay” is better than I have any right to expect. I hope you’re doing okay too. If you’re not, and you want to talk about it, don’t hesitate to reach out. If there’s one thing we are all learning right now, it is how interconnected we are. We will get through this together.

Why I support Elizabeth Warren

On Saturday I spent three hours in near-freezing drizzle, dodging puddles and knocking on doors with cold hands because I think Elizabeth Warren is the best candidate in the Democratic primary. In my opinion, she would be the best for the party, best for the country, and has the best chance of beating Donald Trump.

It might sound miserable to spend precious hours of my weekend in the freezing drizzle, but it was actually the most rewarding canvassing experience I have had. People genuinely want to talk about the primary because we’re all struggling with the same question: How do we beat Donald Trump? Some think that we need to stay moderate and not alienate voters in the middle of the political spectrum. Others say that the key to victory is energizing the left and inspiring people who otherwise wouldn’t vote at all. Some people have already made up their minds, others are truly undecided (and likely agonizing over it). Flagstaff is a liberal city, and I was in a liberal neighborhood, so one of the most common things I heard was that people were undecided between the two most liberal candidates: Sanders and Warren.

Now, I completely understand people who are worried that both Sanders and Warren are too far left and prefer more moderate candidates. I think that’s a reasonable opinion. Personally, I’m liberal enough that I’m tired of seeing Democrats compromise on their values before they even begin negotiations. I mean, of course compromise is necessary in politics, but you should start out with a clear vision of what you actually want. Let the other side move the discussion toward the middle, don’t start in the middle and then let them move it even closer to their position. I think voters too often look at the Democrats and see a weak, waffling party that doesn’t really stand for anything, and I think voters are hungry to see that change.

What I do not understand is how anyone could look at the two progressive candidates, Warren and Sanders, and think that Sanders is the better choice. Warren does everything that Sanders does, but as the saying goes, “backwards, in heels”.

Their policies are similar, but Warren provides far more detail for a lot of policies than Sanders does. She has not just done her homework; in many cases she taught the class. Take for example Sanders’ signature issue: Medicare for All. I’m glad Sanders changed the conversation about health care so that it is being taken seriously, but Sanders’ page has just a few paragraphs and bulleted lists, and doesn’t have any explanation of the key question: how do we get there from here? (Hint: Just yelling about a “political revolution” is not going to cut it.) Warren’s page on the topic, on the other hand, is impressively detailed. It describes how she will both use the power of the executive branch to begin the transition, and pursue more permanent legislation. The difference in the depth and sophistication of their plans is almost comic. Of course, both candidates vary in the amount of detail they provide on different issues, but on the whole, it’s clear that Warren is much stronger on policy details.

But as much as I’d like the election to be decided on wonkish policy details, we all know that’s not the most important thing for two reasons.

First, the president doesn’t actually get to make laws, and the lovely progressive wish list on both candidates’ sites is never going to actually happen. So, more important than policy proposals is the candidate’s temperament. I want a president who can fight for policies that help people but can actually get something done in the face of opposition, even from other Democrats. That requires coalition building, give and take, and working relationships with others in the party and even Republicans. That is something Warren does well, but that Sanders is singularly bad at. He seems to prefer to take a position, refuse to budge, and yell about it.

Second, most Democrats I’ve talked to care about one thing above all others: beating Donald Trump. The whole point of the primary is to choose a candidate who can win in the general election, and winning in the general will require the party to unify around the nominee. Sanders is not a unifying figure. He is abrasive, angry, and stubborn, and anyone who has interacted with his most “enthusiastic” supporters online knows that they are hostile and alienating, even to people with whom they agree on almost everything.

By contrast, Warren is a coalition builder who can knit the party back together after a long and divisive primary. She has ambitious policy proposals to inspire the left, and a knack for communicating her policies in a way that, if given the chance, could speak to people of all backgrounds. She understandably doesn’t flaunt it in the primary, but Warren was originally a Republican and switched parties when she saw firsthand how Republican policies were hurting people. That perspective will allow her to connect with people in a way that Sanders’ stubbornness, no matter how principled, won’t.

Warren is also the ideal foil for Trump, and Sanders is among the worst. Warren’s whole career is about protecting working people from corrupt billionaires. Sanders has tried to do the same thing by promoting progressive policies, but with less actual success and a lot more yelling about socialism. Warren is a woman, which is a liability because misogyny is widespread even on the left, but is also a great asset because women are energized like never before to prevent a second term of Trump. Warren even was the one whose determined resistance to Republicans in power coined the slogan “nevertheless she persisted.” I know multiple women who were so inspired by that slogan that they got it as a tattoo. In contrast, Sanders is an angry old white man, as is Trump.

And of course, we recently found out that Russia is working to support Sanders in the primary even as it tries to get Trump re-elected in the general. Not only should that give any potential Sanders voter pause – why would Russia want Sanders as the nominee unless they think he has the worst chance of winning against Trump? – but also because it neutralizes one of the most powerful arguments against Trump. Sanders cannot credibly attack Trump for benefiting from foreign interference when he benefited from it too. Add to that the fact that Sanders is a socialist, it’s obvious that Trump and the Republican propaganda machine will bend over backwards to paint Sanders as the next Stalin.

All of which is to say that I’m pretty frustrated with the apparent direction the primary is going. Warren is better in every way than Sanders, but she is struggling to gain traction. For reasons that I cannot comprehend, the young, liberal wing of the party is enamored with a disheveled, angry, old man who just had a heart attack, with a poor track record of actually getting things done, and a lot of electoral liabilities, rather than the woman with better versions of the same policies, an impressive list of accomplishments, a personable temperament that lets her connect with voters and would unify rather than divide the party, and a career dedicated to taking down corrupt billionaires. It’s almost as if there’s some key intangible difference between him and her that makes people “just not like her.”

As I told most of the people I talked with while canvassing: despite appearances, I’m not a Warren fanatic. I will be out there canvassing and working hard to make sure the nominee, whoever it is, beats Trump. (And you should be too. This is not the year to sit on the sidelines!) All of our candidates have real strengths and all can beat Trump who has major weaknesses. If Sanders is the nominee I will enthusiastically vote for him over Trump. It deeply, viscerally upsets me to see people repeating the mistakes of 2016, saying that they’ll only vote for their preferred candidate. But it also upsets me to see the best candidate in the field struggling to gain traction while others seemingly get a free pass.

Finding Balance – Part 2: Yin and Yang, Happiness and “Heroes”

In my previous post I wrote about how the book “Feeling Good” helped clue me in on the major causes of my (mild) mental health issues. It turns out, the need for approval from others and the constant pursuit of external achievements in lieu of real self esteem can lead to anxiety and depression. Right after reading that book, I read a collection of essays, speeches, poetry, and other short writing by Ursula K. Le Guin called “Dancing at the Edge of the World”. Some of the insights in Le Guin’s writing really resonated with what I had just read in Feeling Good, and I’m still thinking about them.

Dancing at the Edge of the World is a strange book, and I wouldn’t recommend reading the whole thing to anyone but the most die-hard Le Guin fan. Some of the essays are brilliant but quite a few are academic and esoteric, and I suspect most of the speeches work better as speeches than on the page. However, despite the challenges, I found it provided the clearest summary I have yet read of the core themes and philosophy underlying Le Guin’s work. In particular, the interconnections between her interest in Taoism, her feminism, her writing, and her general philosophy of life.

As far as I can tell, Le Guin didn’t believe in an afterlife or God or anything supernatural, she just uses Taoism as a way to recognize a dichotomy that pervades much of society between those things traditionally grouped under Taosim’s “Yin” and “Yang”:


Throughout the essays in the book, Le Guin makes the case that our society is profoundly and deeply biased toward the “yang” or masculine attributes and often downplays the importance of “yin” and those things traditionally considered feminine.

This should come as a surprise to nobody, but the framing in terms of Taoism’s dichotomy was a new spin on it for me. It takes our society’s misogyny and links it up with other biases, some of which are listed above, that may not be as obviously gendered.

She also digs deeper and addresses why there is a pervasive bias in favor of “yang” traits, and proposes that it links back to storytelling. In particular, the following quote from her brilliant essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction” really resonated with me. In the essay, she discusses the very reasonable theory that, contrary to long-held consensus (among mostly male anthropologists), it is likely that the first tool used by early humans was not the (masculine) spear, but the (feminine) “carrier bag”: Something in which to put gathered food.

It is hard to tell a really gripping tale of how I wrested a wild-oat seed from its husk, and then another, and then another, and then another, and then another, and then I scratched my gnat bites, and Ool said something funny, and we went to the creek and got a drink and watched newts for a while, and then I found another patch of oats…. No, it does not compare, it cannot compete with how I thrust my spear deep into the titanic hairy flank while Oob, impaled on one huge sweeping tusk, writhed screaming, and blood spouted everywhere in crimson torrents, and Boob was crushed to jelly when the mammoth fell on him as I shot my unerring arrow straight through eye to brain.

That story not only has Action, it has a Hero. Heroes are powerful. Before you know it, the men and women in the wild-oat patch and their kids and the skills of the makers and the thoughts of the thoughtful and the songs of the singers are all part of it, have all been pressed into service in the tale of the Hero. But it isn’t their story. It’s his.

Ursula K. Le Guin

Humans are storytellers, and so we are biased toward the sorts of actions that make for an exciting story. Things with danger, adventure, change, and heroes. And when all of those story-worthy things are culturally defined as the domain of men, it’s no wonder that the result is a bias in favor of men and anything seen as masculine, and against women and anything seen as feminine.

LeGuin goes on to highlight how this bias toward the “masculine” is pervasive in science fiction, choosing in particular to pick on Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey:

Where is that wonderful, big, long, hard thing, a bone, I believe, that the Ape Man first bashed somebody with in the movie and then, grunting with ecstasy at having achieved the first proper murder, flung up into the sky, and whirling there it became a space ship thrusting its way into the cosmos to fertilize it and produce at the end of the movie a lovely fetus, a boy of course, drifting around the Milky Way without (oddly enough) any womb, any matrix at all? I don’t know. I don’t even care. I’m not telling that story.

Ursula K. Le Guin

I highlight these two quotes not just to convince you that you should go read everything by Le Guin (though you should) but because they were particularly resonant for me given the circumstances in which I read this particular Le Guin book. I was on paternity leave, taking time off of work to take care of my growing family and was feeling anxious about it. Why was I feeling anxious? As I discussed in my previous post, taking a lot of paternity leave is not as widespread as it could/should be in my workaholic field (or in American society in general), and I had some level of irrational paranoia that people would disapprove of how much leave I was taking.

The Le Guin essay helped to get at a reason for this paranoia: taking paternity leave is an act that, at least temporarily, prioritizes traditionally feminine roles (caring for family, staying at home, domestic life) over the more “masculine” roles (being the primary earner, going to work, prioritizing career, etc.) that I have been taught that people expect from me, even if I would prefer something more balanced. And as Feeling Good taught me, I’m overly susceptible to letting my mood get wrapped up in speculations about what people think of me.

It’s not just paternity leave; Le Guin’s framing of our cultural misogyny in terms of bias toward “heroic” or “yin” or “masculine” traits resonates in other ways.

In the section of Feeling Good that tries to help the reader overcome the obsession with achievement, there is a fictional dialogue that pits a chronic overachiever against their former high school classmate who is happier and less addicted to achievement. The overachiever went to a prestigious school, got a PhD and has a lucrative, jet-setting, influential job. The more well-adjusted person is a high school teacher and coach with a family and a happy, more locally-oriented life. The point of the dialog is to take the idea that achievement (traditionally defined) makes a person more worthwhile to its ugly logical conclusion to show just how absurd it is, so the overachiever comes across as a completely unreasonable jerk.

Unfortunately, although it’s not a perfect match, I do see some of myself in that jerk. Even though the overachiever in the dialog is supposed to (and does) come across as an awful and unpleasant person, I’m ashamed to admit that there is a part of me that still thinks they have a bit of a point. It whispers in the back of my mind that, really, if you think about it, your life is more worthwhile if you are famous and influential and achieve things that will last long after you’re gone.

And this brings us back to the bias not just toward masculine traits, but “heroic” traits. A hero is someone who is famous and influential, whose actions changed the world, about whom stories are told. In short, a hero achieves a sort of immortality. Conscious or not, I think that taste of immortality is why our society has a bias in favor of these traits.

(I feel like I’m lacking the appropriate words here. “Heroic” has positive connotations, but what I want is a word that means roughly the same thing but is more neutral, because my whole point here is that equating “heroic” traits with positive, and therefore implicitly saying that “non-heroic” traits are negative, is a big part of the problem. Since language is failing me, I’m going to keep using “heroic” as shorthand. So, just pretend I have found a less-loaded version of the word and am using that instead.)

Humans learn by telling stories, and almost every story that we tell reinforces this bias, to the point that it becomes a real challenge to conceive of stories that really center on the “yin” attributes. Le Guin talks about this challenge, and I think her conscious effort not to tell variations of the same old heroic, masculine story, while still working in the fantasy and sci-fi genres that are so dominated by that story, is a large part of what makes her stories so refreshing and distinctive and interesting. (It helps that she’s a good enough writer to pull it off…)

Alas, not all authors are Ursula K LeGuin, so we exist in a culture that is steeped in stories that almost all reinforce the same traits. Reflecting on myself, and my own motivations, it’s hard to deny the influence, and it is also hard to deny that a lot of the angst I’ve been working through in the last few years has been a process of breaking through those patterns of thoughts and values and acknowledging that I am in a stage of life where, essentially, my focus is shifting from “yang” to “yin” and that that’s okay.

Though I don’t love to admit it, part of my desire to become a scientist was the alluring myth of the “great scientist” whose amazing contributions to science not only advance our understanding of the universe, but also earn a place in the Pantheon of great scientists. Of course in reality, science is a collaborative effort where most big discoveries are made by teams, but that doesn’t fit the narrative. That doesn’t provide the story with a singular hero.

Not only is science a team effort, I have also discovered that I don’t really like being the leader of the team. I’m much more comfortable and effective in a supporting role. For example, my work to improve the accuracy of ChemCam’s measurements feeds into almost every paper and discovery the team has made. The cumulative impact is almost certainly greater than if I had focused my efforts on leading a few scientific papers. And yet it has been really difficult to come to terms with the idea that I prefer doing “behind the scenes” work. I feel guilty that I am not writing amazing papers that end up getting all the attention of other scientists and the press. There’s a part of me that is still the anxious grad student, irrationally worried about what my advisor would think of my path and my preference for the less flashy work (there’s that approval seeking again). I hate that I feel a pang of jealousy when friends publish big, attention-grabbing papers. A part of me feels like a failure for not living up to the “great scientist”myth. The bias toward “heroic” or “yang” traits, toward constant striving for the next big achievement, is strong.

It shows up in my goals for the future as well. I’m not content to just want to be a good science communicator, there’s a part of me that will see it as a failure to be anything less than the next Carl Sagan. I’m not content to just try to write a book, I’ll be a failure unless I am the next George R.R. Martin. Of course, this part of me is almost entirely counterproductive. It has not spurred me to make great strides in either of these areas, it just needles me enough to attempt things and then abandon them as I stress out about the impossible expectations I impose on myself. It maintains a constant cycle of anxiety and disappointment in myself, but never gets channeled into a truly motivating force for long enough to break free and rise to the level of something positive like inspiration. My hard drive is littered with fiction and nonfiction writing projects abandoned in the first chapter. Heck, even this blog has a good number of aborted posts in varying states of completion, in large part because of the unrealistic expectations I set, and the paranoia about what people will think. (This blog post came perilously close to being one of them.)

The good thing is that with the perspectives afforded by Feeling Good, Dancing at the Edge of the World, and more generally the realignment of priorities that comes with maturing and having kids, I am gradually starting to move toward a more balanced attitude.

A good example of this is how I feel about being an astronaut and human space exploration in general. In college when people asked me if I would go to Mars if I was given the chance, I said yes with minimal hesitation. I even considered applying to be an astronaut a few times. But as I have gotten older and built a family and a life and grown to appreciate the Earth, my answer has changed. The temptation is still present – the bias is strong – but it’s no longer an easy decision. I have a lot more to lose. My default answer would now be “no” and it would take convincing and a lot of caveats and guarantees to change that to a “yes”.

A corollary to that is how my attitudes toward building a Mars base have changed. For a long time I was strongly in favor of it, both scientifically and as an “insurance policy” in case of a global catastrophe here on Earth. Now I see the idea of Mars as a “lifeboat” for Earth as deeply flawed and problematic. It provides a comforting fantasy as if it is a valid option, and people cling to it rather than facing the more important but more difficult challenge of changing our society so that we become good stewards of the wonderful planet we live on. People gravitate toward the “yang” option (exploration, colonization, risk, heroism) and shun the “yin” option (staying where we are, taking care of our home). We’re sitting here destroying the literal paradise that is Earth and saying, “Don’t worry, the billionaires will save us. With their rockets we could maybe eke out a miserable, dark, cold, dusty, claustrophobic existence in underground shelters on Mars,” as if that’s a solution.

Anyway. I’m getting off track. The point is, my perspective on things is changing, and one way to frame that change is as a shift from thinking that is strongly biased toward the “heroic”/”masculine”/”yang” traits to an attitude that is hopefully more balanced. I don’t need to be the great scientist, I am happy to support others. I don’t want to colonize a new world as much as I want to take care of our home. I am not that interested in jet-setting around the world, I’d rather stay home and enjoy time with my family.

A major theme in this shift of perspective can be summed up as coming to peace with the idea that I am not exceptional, and that is ok. To be clear, I’ve never had the kind of self esteem that allowed me to go through life thinking “I’m exceptional.” But despite that, I have spent a lot of angst convincing myself that I need to make a mark of the world so that when I’m gone there will be some evidence that I lived. It’s that lure of the immortality of the “hero.”

I’ve achieved some things that I’m proud of and my name is on a number of scientific papers that will hopefully be read for a long time into the future. Or if not read (let’s be realistic), then at least they’ll exist. There will be evidence in the world that I existed and did a certain type of science. But when push comes to shove, I’m a pretty boring, normal, privileged white dude. My life is mostly like the life of millions of others. When I am gone, my friends and family will miss me, but then they will go on with their lives and that will be it.

There’s a flaw in the sort of thinking that says that you’ve only left your mark on the world if people remember you, or if you did something that has your name on it. That’s a very “hero-biased” way of looking at things. Sure, writing the great American novel or making a major scientific discovery or walking on Mars or becoming president or any number of other ways to be famous and influential can guarantee that you’ve left some sort of mark, but that’s not the only way.

The truth is that we are all constantly making our marks on the world, whether we, or others, recognize it. We should think of our influence not as a discrete achievement or event that plants a flag and announces “here is my legacy” but more like concentric ripples, expanding away from ourselves into the world as we move through our lives. Everything we do has an influence, and the world is too large and chaotic to know when any given action or choice will go on to have a profound effect and when it will amount no effect at all. All we can do is try to make good choices, be generous with our time and our resources and ourselves, and try to leave the world better than we found it.

I’m not saying that we should not pursue big goals, nor am I implying that simply being a good person is sufficient to effect positive change in the world. I’m saying that the amount of recognition that we receive for the things we do has little to do with the significance of the legacy we leave when we are gone. I can work hard and get recognition for achieving major goals like publishing scientific papers and writing books, but it’s entirely possible (and perhaps more likely) that the greatest impact I’ll have on the world is through things that get much less recognition like raising my kids, donating to good causes, and doing political volunteer work.

More important than recognizing that I don’t have to do things that get recognized by others to leave the world a better place is the recognition that no matter what I do, big or small, my legacy will be ephemeral. Here I’ll bring in another book I recently read: Conqueror, by Conn Iggulden. It’s the 5th book in a historical fiction series about Genghis Khan and his successors. I was not expecting to find insight into the topics of this essay in a book about Mongol warlords, but books can be surprising that way. Conqueror focuses on Kublai Khan’s rise to power, and the final lines of the book are Kublai talking to his son:

“I would like to change the world,” he said.

Kublai smiled, with just an edge of sadness in his eyes.

“You will, my son, you will. But no one can change it forever.”

Conqueror, Conn Iggulden

Maybe part of this process that I’ve been going through, this shift in perspective, is a growing acceptance of the fact that life is ephemeral and a realization that trying to deny that fact is the recipe for a lot of pointless angst. Taken the wrong way this could be seen as nihilistic and depressing, but it’s actually kind of liberating.

I have been trying to pay attention to what actually makes me happy and here’s what I found: happiness comes from the ephemeral, from living in the moment, from being so caught up in the present, in the sensations, the feelings, the task at hand, that self-consciousness falls away. You can’t think your way to happiness. You can’t set it as a goal to achieve.

This is not a particularly new insight. None of this post is, really. But it’s one thing to hear some of these things in the form of quotes and platitudes and another to really internalize them. To use a physics analogy, it’s the difference between being given the equation and deriving the equation from first principles.

Looking back over this post, I worry that it comes across as implying that “masculine”/”yang” traits are toxic and “feminine”/”yin” traits are good. That’s not my intent. It’s good to have goals, to try to achieve great things. But the point is that our culture, our stories, my educational background, my professional life, all have a strong bias toward the “yang.” Toward constantly striving to live up to the “heroic” ideals. This often leads to neglecting the richness of the “yin” side of life, which is a recipe for the anxiety and depression that I’ve been struggling with.

I’ll end with one more relevant quote from a book I recently read. This time from “A Little Life” which is one of the best books I’ve ever read but is also devastatingly sad. It deals with what makes life worth living even in the face of horrible suffering, and at one point the main character thinks:

It had always seemed to him a very plush kind of problem, a privilege, really, to consider whether life was meaningful or not.

Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life

This quote puts its finger on one of the reasons I feel uncomfortable about these long, over-earnest, self-indulgent, pseudo-philosophical blog posts. I have a wonderful life, and it is because I don’t have to do things like work three jobs or worry about whether my family is safe that I have the luxury of analyzing all the reasons why I sometimes feel anxious for no good reason. It makes these blog posts feel embarrassing and faintly obscene even though (or perhaps because) they do capture and help me process the thoughts that rattle around in my head. So, just for the record, I understand that posts like this warrant at least some eye rolling, especially from people with real problems.

If you’ve made it this far, thank you for letting me indulge in this privileged rambling. This post in particular was difficult to write. It ended up far longer, and took far longer to write, than expected. It makes me uncomfortable to post this, but that discomfort probably means I’ve hit upon some important themes that are worth posting. Bottom line, here are my take-away lessons:

  • My life is shifting from a focus on achievement and a general bias toward “yang”/”heroic” type traits to a focus on home and family and a greater emphasis on the “yin” side of things.
  • Despite deeply ingrained biases in culture, stories, professional settings, etc., the shift toward a more balanced life is not only okay, it’s healthy and good.
  • That said, some of my anxiety comes from the conflict between that cultural bias and my shifting priorities.
  • Stressing out about leaving a legacy through my actions is just a recipe for anxiety. Life and everything in it is ephemeral, and fighting against that truth is a losing battle. Better to focus on living in the moment, accept what is happening in that moment without judgement, and do things because I enjoy the process rather than to achieve some lofty goal.

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), exercise, 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.


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 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 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.


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 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 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 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.


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.

Increase Title I Funding
(or similar)
Increase professional
Increase teacher payX
(Title I

Help teachers/others
pay off student loans
Student loan forgiveness

Free/reduced cost college

More counselors,
social workers, etc.

“Community schools”

School infrastructureXX

Improve teacher
Support teacher unions

Universal pre-KX

Universal childcare


Address racially biased
disciplinary tactics


More vocational trainingXX

Charter school reform

Address property tax
funding disparities


Cover college exam fees

Increase support for


Universal school meals

“Equity fund” with
federal oversight

Talks about how to
pay for plans

Increase Title III
funding for ESL

Increase school


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.

According to this article from https://www.wphealthcarenews.com/, 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!


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.

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.

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 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 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 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.


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-

Medicare/public option
for all who want it

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

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

Get rid of drug ad tax loopholeX


Repeal Hyde amendmentX

Protect Planned Parenthood/
allow federal funding

Rescind “gag rule”X

Address maternal mortalityX

Ensure access for
minority groups

Talks about how to
pay for plans

DOJ oversight on
abortion-related laws


Long term care
more affordable

Invest in mental healthX

Address opioid epidemic(coming

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