Ryan Anderson

Science, Fiction, Life

Category: Uncategorized (page 1 of 3)

Finding Balance – Part 1: Mental Health

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Democrats on the Issues: Education

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

Introduction

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

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

Biden

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

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

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

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

Sanders

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

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

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

Warren

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harris

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

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

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

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

Buttigieg

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

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

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

O’Rourke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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


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

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

X
X
(limited)
X
Free/reduced cost college

XXX
More counselors,
social workers, etc.
X




“Community schools”
idea
XX



School infrastructureXX


X
Improve teacher
diversity
XX
XXX
Support teacher unions
X
X

Universal pre-KX
X


Universal childcare

X


Address racially biased
disciplinary tactics

X


X
More vocational trainingXX



Charter school reform
X



Address property tax
funding disparities

X



Cover college exam fees
X



Increase support for
IDEA

X


X
Universal school meals
X



“Equity fund” with
federal oversight





X
Talks about how to
pay for plans


XX
X
Increase Title III
funding for ESL





X
Increase school
integration
XX


X

Democrats on the Issues: Health Care

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

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

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

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

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

Biden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buttigieg

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

O’Rourke

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

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

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

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

Summary

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


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


Medicare/public option
for all who want it
X

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




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



X
X
Get rid of drug ad tax loopholeX

X

Repeal Hyde amendmentX

X
X
Protect Planned Parenthood/
allow federal funding
X

X
X
Rescind “gag rule”X

X
X
Address maternal mortalityX

XXX
Ensure access for
minority groups
X

XXX
Talks about how to
pay for plans
X
XX

DOJ oversight on
abortion-related laws



X

Long term care
more affordable




X
Invest in mental healthX

XX
Address opioid epidemic(coming
soon)



X

Review: Fallout 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunset over the wasteland.

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

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

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

Trinity church in Fallout 4.
Real life Trinity church.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rapid Fire Book Reviews: New Baby Edition

It’s been a while since I posted a book review: I’ve been slightly distracted. But, I’ve still been reading, so here are some quick thoughts on what I’ve been reading.

 

The Warded Man

This is a pretty decent fantasy novel about a world where demons come out when the sun comes down. The demons can only be stopped by painting wards which create a sort of magical force field, so most people in this traditional European feudal-style fantasy world just cower in their homes at night and hope nothing messes up their wards. The story follows Arlen, a boy in a small village with a knack for warding who is sick of hiding from the demons; Rojer, a boy orphaned when demons killed his parents and adopted by a jongleur; and Leesha, a beautiful girl who is learning to be an “herb-gatherer” (doctor) from the old crone in her village. Through the course of the book they grow up and develop skills that will be needed to fight the demons, and Arlen in particular gets obsessed with it, tattooing himself all over with wards.

I mostly enjoyed this story and would have given it 4 stars if it weren’t for how it handled Leesha. I think the author tried to be feminist when he was writing this: In the big city, women have a lot of the positions of power in the government (though there’s still a Duke), and in the backwater villages it’s clear that we are supposed to be appalled by how women are treated poorly and valued mainly for their ability to make babies. But here’s the thing: it’s not that feminist to show us how bad it is for Leesha without also making her story have to do with more than her status as a sex object. And yet, just about every part of her story is driven by men’s lust for her and/or women’s warnings that she better start making babies soon. The last straw for me was (spoiler alert) when she and Rojer get ambushed on the road and, you guessed it, she gets raped. Then, not two days later, she has met Arlen, fallen in love with him, and they have passionate sex. Rape as a plot device is overused and lazy, and I have trouble believing that Leesha would want to be intimate with a strange man only a day or two after being gang raped. Call me crazy, but I think maybe she would need more time.

Anyway, other than that the book was mostly enjoyable, though clearly the beginning of a series. I’ll read the later books, but I hope the author gets better at handling women characters.

Brain Rules for Baby

With a newborn, I find I spend a lot of time laying on the couch with a baby napping on me. Perfect for reading a book about baby development! I liked this book a lot better than Happiest Baby on the Block. Although still sometimes simplified and cutesy, it also referred to actual studies and used technical terms when necessary. It’s an interesting book, but like other parenting books I found that most of its advice was pretty basic common sense. Some of the key points were:

  1. Empathy and understanding and managing emotions are key. It helps kids to have the words to name the emotions they’re feeling.
  2. Having friends is the key to happiness.
  3. Kids do best when rules are clear, fully explained, and consistently enforced. No “because I said so”. No spanking. Praise good behavior as well as punishing the bad.
  4. Praise effort, not intelligence.

Here’s a nice summary of the book. As you can see, even though there’s more to this book than “Happiest Baby on the Block”, it still boils down to a pretty concise list of advice.

The Darwin Elevator

This was a fun sci-fi action novel. The premise is that aliens have come to earth and built a space elevator that touches down in Darwin, Australia. At the same time, the planet has been infected with a disease that makes everyone go crazy, consumed by a single emotion until they’re essentially zombies. The only area where the disease can’t reach is the immediate vicinity of the elevator. So, the human race now is basically confined to Darwin and a series of huge space stations attached to the elevator. The space stations provide food to the people on the ground, and the ground provides air and water to the stations. The main characters are a rare group who are immune to the disease, so they make a living scavenging supplies from outside the protective aura of the elevator. When the elevator starts to malfunction, they get embroiled in the conflict between those on the ground and those in space.

This book has a little bit of everything: post-apocalyptic zombie fighting? Check. Political maneuvering? Check. Ragtag crew of misfits? Check. Decent science side to the sci-fi? Check (though this is by no means “hard” sci-fi). All in all, this one isn’t great literature but it was a fun read and I’ll probably pick up the sequel.

The Slow Regard of Silent Things

I loved this, even though it’s barely even a story. This is a novella about Auri, a minor character from The Name of the Wind. She is an odd girl who lives in the subterranean ruins beneath the college of magic. It’s basically a long vignette rather than a true story. Auri believes that all of the various knick-nacks that she owns have personalities and spends a lot of time placing them just so, so that object A isn’t jealous of object B, or so that object C has plenty of space. There’s a whole surprisingly engaging passage about making soap.

If it sounds weird, it is, but that’s what makes it so charming. It’s a great example of how good writing that puts you inside the character’s head can make you care about anything, even if you don’t fully understand it. You don’t have to understand, you just have to understand that it’s important to Auri.  Also, in typical Rothfuss fashion, the prose is gorgeous. Plus, there is a lot of fun wordplay as well, including chemistry puns.

I would have enjoyed this in any case, but it will always hold a special place in my heart because it’s what we were reading on Christmas eve during a snowstorm while we sat by our 5-day-old baby’s bed in the NICU. Our lives had just been turned upside down but somehow everything felt just as it should be, and this book was part of that.

Snow Crash

I posted this quick review on Goodreads right after I finished this, but I’ll paste it here too:

This book has some really interesting glimpses of the future as it looked from the 90s, and at times some really nice turns of phrase, but ultimately fails because of its nonsensical plot and massive, boring, incoherent info dumps. It’s like the book was so concerned with showing off gee-whiz technology and bizarre ideas about how society will develop that it forgot that stories need to make sense. Also, the underlying premise is such a warped misunderstanding of how memes and computer programming and language work that I just couldn’t take it seriously.

I had a similar problem with Neuromancer: nice writing, cool vision of the future, but incomprehensible plot. Maybe cyberpunk just isn’t the genre for me.

Flash Fiction: Challenge #475 – Like a Dog

So, it turns out last weekend there weren’t enough entries in the flash challenge, so it continued to this week That means that one of the triggers was the one I submitted, but I decided to go ahead with the challenge and hope the other trigger worked for me. It wasn’t super-inspiring, but I still managed 1200 words, so not bad! Here’s my entry:


 

“Malcom! Get out here, man, we are ready to be off!” prince Vincent yelled. Behind him, the courtiers chuckled and joked with one another.

Malcom the kennelmaster took his time. It would do the young prince good to learn some patience, even if it Malcom would pay the price for the delay. He limped down the kennel, looking at each dog with an appraising eye, choosing those who would be best for today’s hunt. His leg hurt. It would be raining later today, then.

Derek, the page boy was as eager to go on the hunt as the dogs were. Malcom sent the boy out with several of the hounds, and followed clutching the leashes of several more.

The prince waited atop his white horse, bedecked in bright satin and a ludicrous hat.

“You ought to get a new kennel master, your grace,” one of the courtiers said to the prince. “This one can barely walk, let alone ride with us on the hunt!”

“Derek will ride for me, m’lord,” Malcom said. “He’s a strong boy and knows his way with the hounds.”

The prince, aware of his audience of lordlings, sneered. “Not much to know though, is there? They are stupid creatures, just point them in the right direction and let them loose! Much like footsoldiers!” Laughter all around.

Malcom bit his tongue. The old wound in his leg throbbed, a souvenir from his fighting days. He spoke to Derek, with a message meant for the prince. “Now Derek, be sure not to release the hounds until the deer is in sight or they will tire themselves out too quickly. And once you do release them, give them their space.”

“Yes sir, as you say,” Derek said.

The prince and his lords wheeled and rode off laughing, followed by Derek and the pack of eager hounds.

* * *

They returned that afternoon, soaking wet in the rain. One of the dogs was missing.

“Your grace, I recall that ten dogs left with you this morning, but I see only nine here now.”

The prince snarled. “Train the beasts better and next time they will all come back!” He rode off in the direction of the castle.

“I’m sorry sir,” Derek said, once the prince was out of earshot. “I tried, but he didn’t listen. He rode too close once the hounds were loosed and when one darted left, he trampled the poor thing. We had to put it down.”

Malcom nodded. “Not your fault, Derek. Get the rest of the dogs in out of this rain. Did they eat?”

“No, sir.”

The hunt had been a failure to boot, then.

“Feed them before you feed yourself.”

* * *

Weeks later, on a crisp clear morning, Malcom found himself face to face with prince Vincent, just outside the kennel. The brash, blustering boy was gone, replaced by a hesitant young man.

“A word please, goodman Malcom.”

“Of course, your grace.”

“As you may have heard, the princess Elizabeth of Artea is come to visit us. She has… expressed a desire to hunt today.”

Malcom knew that this princess was intended as a potential wife for Vincent, and was rumored to be beautiful too. Did the prince realize how lucky he was that his political marriage also happened to be a desirable one?

“Of course your grace, I will make ready.” Malcom almost turned to attend to the dogs, but realized that the prince seemed to have more to say.

“Malcom, may I… confide in you?”

“You may,” Malcom said, cautiously.

The prince seemed greatly relieved. “I worry that the princess does not like me. I mean, we are meant to be married, and she obviously desires the title that would go along with such a match, but I want the match to be more than that.”

Ah. So the boy did realize his luck, and hoped not to spoil it.

“Well, your grace, I am no expert in wooing women, but it seems to me that maybe she is feeling much the same. If you want her to see you as more than a title, then you need to make it clear that you see her as something more as well. Show an interest in her. Not her family, not her kingdom, her. The person.”

The prince seemed to consider that.

“Thank you Malcom,” the prince said.

Malcom saw them off later that morning. He kept Derek at the kennels this time, to give the lovebirds some privacy. They returned that evening, emptyhanded but with cheeks flushed and smiling.

* * *

Winter, and with the snows had come an illness that reached all the way to the royal family. The king was ill, and rumor had it he would not see the spring. Malcom stomped snow from his boots and opened the door to his humble cabin to find the fire inside already lit. In front of it sat the prince, staring into the flames.

“Your grace,” Malcom said, taking a seat next to the young man.

“My father is dying.” Prince Vincent spoke without turning his eyes from the fire. Malcom said nothing, waiting.

“He can’t die!” the prince said after a moment, as if arguing with himself.

“He can, sad to say it,” Malcom said. “He’s a good man, but old.”

“And when he is gone, I am expected to take his place. I can’t do it. I can never be as wise and just as him. How am I supposed to do it? You have given me good counsel before, Malcom, though I did nothing to deserve it. How do I take my father’s place?”

Malcom sighed. Outside the winter wind sighed back.

“You know, when your father took this castle, it was a night like this one. Midwinter. We were cold and hungry. Out of supplies. The attack had to succeed or we were finished. I sat with him in his tent before the attack, and he said almost the same thing to me: ‘What right do I have to take the throne from King Uther? How can I take his place?’

He was only a little older than you are now.”

The prince stared at Malcom, wide-eyed. “You served with my father?”

“Aye, I did. From the very beginning, loyal fool that I am.” Malcom stretched his bad leg out toward the fire. “Earned myself this leg in that night’s attack. Took a spear meant for him.”

“And he punished you by making you the master of kennels?” the prince said, incredulous. “He should have knighted you!”

“Punished?” Malcom chuckled. “No, rewarded. I had nothing, and with a mangled leg I would’ve remained nothing. Your father gave me this position, this cabin. I had no desire for a knighthood, just a comfortable life.

Dogs have that bit right. A good life is not about power and glory. It’s about loyalty to your pack and working hard to earn a good meal and a comfortable place to lay your head.”

The prince was silent for a moment.

“Your father had the same worries that you do, Vincent,” Malcom said. “And he was a fine king, as you will be. Just keep in mind that bit of wisdom from the dogs. It’s not power and glory that make a good life or a good king. Be loyal to your men, make your loyal men comfortable, and you’ll do well.

Choosing Between Hillary and Bernie: My Thoughts on the Election (so far)

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It’s election season in the United States, and as always, I am getting sucked in to what has become the best reality television show out there (can you believe the latest plot twist?). Things have gotten especially heated in the last couple of weeks as primary elections have started happening and we are starting to see votes to go along with all the polling and debates. Given everything that is going on, I thought it would be worthwhile to write down some of my thoughts in an effort to clarify them for myself.

We are told every election cycle that “this election may be the most important one of our time” but this year that really is the case for one reason: the Supreme Court. Even assuming that congress continues to be worthless at getting anything done, yesterday’s death of Justice Scalia has reminded everyone of how significant the next president is going to be in terms of nominating Justices. It’s looking quite likely that, come hell or high water, Republicans in Congress will fall on their swords rather than allow Obama’s nominee to replace Scalia to be confirmed before the election. Already they are making statements about how the voters should have a say in who will replace Scalia (apparently forgetting that Supreme Court justices are not supposed to be elected officials, and that their nomination already reflects the will of the people because the people chose the president who is making the nomination). And it’s not just Scalia who may need to be replaced. Anthony Kennedy is almost 80, the notorious Ruth Bader Ginsberg is 82, and Stephen Breyer is 77. What I’m saying is that, even if you stop reading right here, you should at least be clear that the next president is likely to have an influence on the Supreme Court that will be felt in the Court’s decisions for decades. For that reason alone, this election is a Big Deal and you should vote and encourage everyone you know to do the same.

That said, let’s talk about the primaries. You will not be surprised to learn that, as someone whose politics were shaped during the Iraq War, the beginning of the recession, and the Republican party’s headlong lurch away from reality (which has a “well-known liberal bias“), and who has spent nearly half my life in college towns surrounded by highly educated, mostly liberal people, my views are quite liberal as well. So I will primarily be talking about the Democratic primaries in what follows.

I think everyone can agree that the Republican candidates are a mess, so I’m not going to say much about them. Along with much of the rest of the country I find it morbidly fascinating that Trump is the frontrunner candidate, with Cruz not far behind, and the “establishment” candidates are in the back of the pack, sniping at each other instead of taking on the frontrunner(s). Here’s what I will say about the fight for the Republican nominee: I am torn between hoping that Trump wins because he is so clearly an awful choice for President that the Democrats would basically be guaranteed a win in November, and being terrified that Trump will win the nomination and then, when the Party closes ranks behind him, he will actually have a shot.

In any case, what has really been on my mind especially since the primaries started is the choice between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nominee. As I said, my peers tend to be young, highly educated, upper-middle class, and predominantly white. Which is to say that my facebook feed is basically a non-stop Bernie Sanders love fest (often verging into blatant propaganda). And I have to say I sympathize. I agree with a lot of what Bernie stands for and he is my clear favorite at the gut, emotional level. I don’t really like the idea of a President Clinton #2 for the simple reason that the idea of political dynasties doesn’t feel right to me. I really like that most of Sanders’ funding comes from small donors rather than wealthy people. I have been known on more than one occasion to speak wistfully about how I wish my country would adopt some of the demonstrably effective policies of certain “socialist” countries, where, yes taxes are quite high but there is universal health care, reasonable paid leave, minimal gun violence, minimal police violence, etc. I think Sanders’ message that income inequality is the biggest issue facing the country is basically correct, and I respect that he has been so consistent over his long career in fighting against it. Sanders also comes across as a genuinely good and honest person, something rare in politics.

But here’s the thing: while the types of changes that Sanders is fighting for would be wonderful and I think they would have significant benefits in the long run, I am (a) not convinced that he could win the general election, and (b) am not convinced that those changes would happen if he were elected. On the electability front, right now Sanders is enjoying a surge of interest after doing well in the first two primaries. If that momentum continues, and his viscerally appealing progressive message continues to connect with voters and drive them to the polls, then yes he might have a chance. But I think it is important to remember that so far he has only been facing other Democrats and despite his long career he is not well known by many voters. His prospects look rosy right now because he did better than expected in Iowa and won a blowout victory in the very friendly territory of New Hampshire, so he’s getting a lot of good press. And Republicans are happy to let him keep doing what he’s doing: they have their own issues to deal with right now, and the turmoil and divisiveness he is causing within the Democratic party suits them just fine. But if we end up with Sanders as the Democratic nominee, you can expect some brutal and highly effective attacks from the right. The guy is a self-described socialist who wants to raise taxes and thinks Obamacare doesn’t go nearly far enough. A Sanders nomination would do for Republican voter turnout in the general election what a Trump nomination would do for Democratic voter turnout.

Let me say that again because I don’t think a lot of liberals appreciate this. You know how you feel about Trump? How you hate everything he stands for? How you almost hope he is the nominee because he would be so easy for your party to run against? That’s how Republicans feel about Bernie. If he becomes the nominee, things are not going to be pretty. Now, I’m not saying Clinton would have a cake-walk in this regard. She has been hated by Republicans forever and will also likely inspire many of them to turn out and cast their “Not Clinton” vote. But I think the difference here is that Republican hatred for Hillary is a known quantity. They’ve already basically thrown everything they can at her. I highly doubt there is anything new that will come out if she becomes the nominee. Sanders on the other hand, is fresh meat.

The downside for Hillary’s electability is that she lacks the emotional appeal. I don’t think she will inspire Democrats to come out to vote in droves the way Obama did and the way Bernie might if he can ride the enthusiasm that has been building. She lacks the simple emotional narrative that Bernie has because she’s the pragmatic choice, and if you’re not going to blow up the status quo, then you have to work with it and it’s messy. Hillary is the choice for incremental progress, for working within the current system. Put another way, Bernie is the Hail Mary, Clinton is the slow, painful ground game. Bernie is the heroic cavalry charge with gleaming sabers, Clinton is trench warfare.

But that gets me to the second point: Suppose Sanders not only wins the nomination, but is elected president on his wave of populist support. How exactly will all the changes he is proposing make it through Congress? His response to this so far has basically been to say that we need a political revolution. People who don’t normally vote need to get swept up in this revolution and drive Republicans out of office across the land such that Democrats can pass the legislation that they really want. I don’t know how else to put this: that’s not going to happen. Yeah, maybe a wave of Sanders support would increase turnout enough to flip a few seats. It might even win back the Senate. But the odds of gaining enough ground to be filibuster proof? Or of taking over the House as well? I’m not holding my breath, and I find it hard to vote for a guy whose plan for getting things done is to count on a political revolution. Not that such a disruption of a broken system wouldn’t be thrilling. I’m just saying I don’t think we can count on it happening. When the other side is dug in for trench warfare, your cavalry charge is not likely to go well.

So okay, what’s a voter to do if they find themselves in the same boat as me, where they like Sanders’ policies but are skeptical of his chances of success? Well, I found it interesting that, when I took the very detailed I Side With quiz (If you take it, be sure to check each question for additional, more nuanced options), my results indicate that I agree with Bernie Sanders on 95% of issues, and that I agree with Hillary Clinton on 93% of issues. 2% is not a meaningful difference in this context. And apparently Clinton and Sanders voted the same 93% of the time in the Senate. That’s not to say that within the 7% of votes where they disagreed there aren’t some meaningful issues. There are. But it does indicate that in terms of policy, they have more in common than it might seem during a contentious primary where they are trying their hardest to seem different. Their bigger differences are more in terms of philosophy and how they plan to accomplish their goals, than in the goals themselves.

All that said, who am I going to vote for? For the primary, I think it will depend on how things look when it’s Arizona’s turn to vote. If the race is close or if Bernie is winning, I will vote for Clinton because I mostly agree with her on policy and I think she’s the most qualified and electable candidate out there for the office of President. If Clinton is already winning, I will vote for Bernie because I think the Democratic party needs to learn from his candidacy that what he stands for resonates with a large number of voters. (If nothing else, I hope his candidacy paves the way for a presidential run by Elizabeth Warren in 4 or 8 years.)

For the general election, I will vote for whoever is the Democratic nominee. John Scalzi summed up my feelings eloquently a few weeks ago with this statement:

But at the end of the day, what matters is that each of them, any of them, is so drastically preferable to any member of the howling sampler box of Dunning-Kruger that is the current GOP field that, to me, and for the purposes of my presidential vote in November, the policy and personality differences between Clinton and Sanders and O’Malley are immaterial. Whoever the Democratic candidate is, they will get my vote.

To all of my friends out there who are on the Bernie train: I get it. I even mostly agree with you! But remember that as contentious as the primary gets, we’re all on the same side in the long run. You need to vote in the general election no matter who the Democratic nominee is.

(Obligatory disclaimer: What I post here on my website represents my own personal views and not those of my employer or anyone else.)

 

 

My November Writing Plan (not NaNoWriMo)

I’m not doing NaNoWriMo this year. I had been working on a novel over the last few months but it kind of fizzled and I finally declared it dead last week. So now I’m in brainstorming mode for a new novel. I have what I think could be a cool idea, but part of why the previous novel fizzled was my lack of a full outline. I have done enough writing by now to know that I need to lay a lot of groundwork ahead of time or else I end up getting stuck and hopeless and don’t get anywhere.

It would be a frustrating waste for me to try to write 50,000 words without a good plan, so instead I’m going to try to spend some time every day this month on planning the next novel. I want to get everything figured out, down to the chapter level and possible even the scene-by-scene level. I want to have all my places and characters named so the book doesn’t end up so full of placeholders that I can’t keep track of what’s going on anymore. The idea is to remove all obstacles to the actual writing.

If all of that goes well and I have something I’m happy with before the end of the month, then I might actually start writing. But I want to really plan this one out carefully. I know first drafts always suck, but I think by doing this, I can (a) minimize the suckage, and (b) maximize the likelihood that I’ll actually be able to follow through once I do start writing.

Good luck to everyone tackling NaNoWriMo this year!

 

Book Recommendations

There are few things I enjoy more than recommending books to people, so you can imagine how happy I was to find that there are two subreddits that are dedicated to book recommendations. It’s awesome to have a place on the internet where people are constantly asking for advice on what to read!

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been recommending up a storm, and I thought it would be interesting to collect a list of my most-recommended books and post them here. This is different from my list of favorite books, I should note. There are a few very common requests that appear over and over on the book recommendation subreddits, so those tend to guide my recommendations. Here are some of the most common requests, along with my general recommendations.

“I am new to reading for fun” or “I used to love reading but I haven’t read anything recently. What should I read?”

Of course when responding to this one, it depends what the person is interested in. But I generally try to aim for easy-reading page-turners that are the beginning of a series:

  • Old Man’s War by John Scalzi – Good, modern take on military sci-fi with a sense of humor but also some poignant scenes. This book starts a series.
  • Wolf of the Plains by Conn Iggulden – Historical fiction about the early life of Temujin (aka Genghis Khan). Does a great job of conveying the rugged life on the steppes. Starts a series.
  • The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell – Very readable historical fiction book about a Northumbrian boy who is captured by Danes (vikings) and raised as one of them, but who eventually joins forces with Alfred the Great. Interesting look at the early middle ages, when a castle was a hall on top of a hill surrounded by a palisade, rather than a towering stone fortress. Starts a series.

“I just read The Martian. What should I read next?”

  • Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson – This is an epic realistic sci-fi novel about the first 100 colonists on Mars as they try to found a new civilization and terraform Mars to become more like Earth. It was written in the 90s, but holds up pretty well. Where The Martian was a very small-scale story, this one is huge in scope, spanning many years with tons of characters.
  • Contact by Carl Sagan – Writen by an actual astronomer, about deciphering a signal received from an advanced extraterrestrial civilization. Full of good science but also lots of philosophical discussions.

“I just finished Ready Player One. What should I read next?”

  • I often recommend Old Man’s War for this as well. Even though the books are not that similar, the tone of the writing is.
  • Other books that I haven’t read, but which I have heard would go well with Ready Player One are Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz.

“I’m looking for a new fantasy series to get hooked on (often after finishing A Song of Ice and Fire or Name of the Wind).”

  • The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien – Classics, but it’s surprising how many people haven’t read them. These are must-reads for any fan of fantasy, if only because so much of fantasy is either imitating or subverting the tropes introduced by Tolkien.
  • A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin – Another classic, and the start of a series. I especially recommend this to people who say they enjoyed Harry Potter because LeGuin basically invented the idea of a wizard school in this book.
  • Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb – This is the first in several trilogies set in the same world. Fitz, the protagonist, is in my opinion one of the best characters in all of Fantasy. Occasionally infuriating too, but still a great character, and it’s interesting to see him mature through the books. Also, some of the books about Fitz get pretty dark and gritty, even though they were written before “grimdark” became its own subgenre.
  • The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie – The standard by which all other grimdark is judged. Great characters who are also terrible people, in an interesting fantasy world that has fun subverting some fantasy tropes. I recommend this book and its sequels especially for people who liked Game of Thrones and who want something dark and gritty.
  • Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss – For fantasy readers who want well-polished prose that takes familiar well-worn tropes and makes them excellent just by the quality of the writing. This book and its sequel are good for fans of Harry Potter who want something similar but a bit more mature.
  • Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin – Everyone has heard of this book and its sequels by now, but many have still not read them. If the person seems to have read other huge series but not this one, I highly recommend it. At this point Martin’s influence on the fantasy genre rivals Tolkien’s.
  • Shogun by James Clavell – This is historical fiction rather than fantasy, but it has a lot of what makes Game of Thrones great (tons of characters, tons of politics and intrigue, epic scope, etc.), so I often recommend it to Game of Thrones fans. It’s about an Englishman who is shipwrecked in Japan in 1600 and gets involved in court politics and falls in love with a Japanese woman. Surprisingly, it is based pretty closely on actual events.
  • I also often recommend Cornwell and Iggulden’s historical fiction to fantasy fans.

For fantasy fans who are looking for something a bit different:

  • Perdido Street Station or The Scar by China Mieville – Extremely creative and bizarre stories about a steampunk-ish fantasy-ish world. Strong horror influences. I haven’t read anything else like these. I personally enjoyed The Scar more than Perdido Street. Mieville also loves to use lots of fancy vocabulary in his writing: this annoys some people, but I like it. And if you’re studying for the SAT, I bet these books would be better than a bunch of boring flash cards.

“I’m looking for some good post-apocalyptic books.”

  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel – One of the best books I’ve read this year, and the best post-apocalyptic book I’ve read in a long time (ever?). It doesn’t do anything particularly new with the familiar tropes of the genre, but the writing is great, with well-drawn characters. Manages to be more literary than most books in the genre without coming off as pretentious.
  • Wool by Hugh Howey – This one is a page-turner. I especially recommend this to fans of the Fallout series of video games, because it deals with underground refuges from the toxic post-apocalyptic wasteland on the surface that are awfully similar to the Vaults in Fallout.
  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy – Bleak and depressing, but great, spare writing. And after all, shouldn’t the apocalypse be a bit of a downer?
  • The Stand by Stephen King – A classic of the genre. I loved the first ~2/3 of The Stand and thought the ending was just ok, but still. It’s a must-read.
  • The Postman by David Brin – Obviously an inspiration for The Stand and for the early Wasteland and Fallout video games. Much like The Stand, the first 2/3rds are better than the ending, but still a classic of the genre.
  • Earth Abides – Another classic. This one explores how civilization would change, what knowledge would be kept and what would fade with time, after a disease-style apocalypse. One of the first books of its kind, but quite good, if dated.
  • I Am Legend by Richard Matheson – Another classic. This one was among the first to consider an apocalypse populated by monsters rather than just radiation or disease. Here the monsters are like vampires, but this led to the zombie apocalypse sub-genre. And for its age, it is still quite readable.
  • On the Beach by Nevil Schute – This one is different than most in the genre, but is well worth reading. Possibly the saddest of them all. It’s about several families in Australia after a nuclear war has been waged in the northern hemisphere as they wait for the deadly cloud of fallout to get to them.
  • The World Without Us by Alan Wiseman – This one is non-fiction! But I put it in the post-apocalypse list because it’s about what would happen if humans just up and disappeared one day. It’s a really fascinating book, especially for fans of the post-apocalyptic genre.

“I’ve read lots of YA series (Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Percy Jackson, Eragon, etc.). What should I read next?” or “What are some good books for a middle school kid?”

A lot of this depends on age. Some adults have only read YA but want something more mature, so for them I refer to the fantasy list. For actual kids in high school or middle school, I recommend:

  • The Golden Compass (Northern Lights) by Philip Pullman – Great YA series with a sort of steampunk-ish world and interesting magic. There are armored bears and witches but also some pretty interesting exploration of physics, philosophy, and theology.
  • Redwall and sequels by Brian Jacques – These books are lots of fun. Woodland creatures in the middle ages with swords and bows and stuff! Also some of the most gratuitous descriptions of feasts I’ve ever read. Probably best for a middle-school aged audience though I read them well into high school.
  • So You Want to be a Wizard? by Diane Duane – Lame title, but I loved this book in early middle school. It’s about two kids who learn how to become wizards and travel to a parallel version of New York, complete with predatory cars and other cool stuff.
  • The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley – I loved these books in early high school, though now I can’t really remember much about them except that they are awesome. Both have great female protagonists.

“I’m looking for non-fiction that will change the way I see the world.” or “What are some must-read non-fiction books?”

  • Books by Carl Sagan including Cosmos, Pale Blue Dot, and Demon Haunted World – Sagan was a brilliant science writer, and all modern popular science writers are basically rehashing things he wrote better. These books will teach you about the history of science, the future of space exploration, and how to think critically about the world around you.
  • 1491 and 1493 by Charles C. Mann – These books deal with what the Americas were like before Columbus, and how the world changed due to globalization after Columbus. These changed my view of history: real history is way more interesting than what you learn in school!

“Halloween is coming up. What are some good creepy/horror stories?”

  • Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury – Not the sort of story that is likely to give you nightmares or keep you up at night but some of the most beautiful writing I’ve read. Bradbury’s writing style is practically like poetry, and this book is all about autumn and death and a creepy carnival, so it fits with the season. All of Bradbury’s books are great, and this is not actually my favorite (That would be Martian Chronicles, of course) but this is the one I’m recommending most lately.

Movie Review: Mad Max:Fury Road

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The science fiction and fantasy fandom on the internet has been gushing over the latest Mad Max movie since it came out last weekend. The movie has a 98% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and more importantly, has managed to annoy a bunch of “Men’s Rights Activists” because of it’s feminist messages. With all this hype, I decided I had to go and see what all the fuss was about. The verdict?

Let me explain by way of an analogy: Say you like pepperoni pizza. If you search the world over and find the highest quality pepperoni out there and then make a pizza using several pounds of this premium pepperoni in a layer several inches thick, but only apply a thin layer of sauce and cheese, do you have a good pizza? No, you have a greasy mess.

Mad Max is without a doubt visually and stylistically impressive. It includes some of the best chase scenes, stunts, and effects of any movie I’ve seen. But it is not a good movie. It is oh so very dumb, and it is not nearly as progressive and feminist as the internet seems to think it is.

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I wanted to like it, I really did. I tried hard to suspend disbelief and go along for the ride, which I am pretty sure is the only way to enjoy the movie. But it has such glaring weaknesses that I couldn’t keep it up. Calling the characters one dimensional is an insult to cardboard cutouts everywhere. The plot is almost non-existent and completely predictable. I knew going in that there was going to be very little dialog, but what there was was poorly written. And the world doesn’t make any sense at all. Like I said, I get that you need to suspend disbelief, that the movie is supposed to be stylized and over-the-top, but I need my fiction to throw me at least a few bones that show that at least a little thought went into it.

If it’s supposed to be set in a post-apocalyptic world where there are wars over fuel, then does it make sense for the entire movie to be based on fleets of tricked-out tractor trailers and hot rods racing around the desert? Does it make sense for their primary weapons to be flame throwers and Molotov cocktail-tipped spears? If there’s a shortage of water, then why does the chase lead through a muddy swamp? At one point the characters say that they are going to take all the supplies they can carry on motorcycles and ride for 160 days across a salt flat. 160 days. That’s more than 5 months! Did anyone stop to think about how much food, water, and fuel it takes for 8 people to ride motorcycles across the desert for 160 days?

But ok, let’s not worry about all of that. Difficult though it can be, we should judge pop culture by whether it accomplished what it set out to do, not whether we personally liked it. Mad Max certainly achieved its goal of being a crazy over-the-top action movie. But a lot of the hype around Mad Max has focused on the fact that it’s not just a macho action movie: it has a hidden feminist message. Is it effective in conveying that message?

Well, it’s certainly not a hidden message, despite what misogynists on the internet would have you believe. The movie beats you over the head with it. The plot of the movie is that the bad guy keeps women for two purposes: milk and breeding. But his sexy wives escape and flee with the help of Furiosa (Charlize Theron). A long chase scene follows (aka the entire movie). Much is made over the statement that the women leave painted on the walls of their chambers when they escape: “We are not things”.

Now, I will grant that it is great to see a big loud action movie with a message like this, and Mad Max does some things right on the feminism front. The women in the movie are not completely helpless, and some of them (in particular, Charlize Theron’s character and the old-lady biker gang) are competent survivors capable of fighting back against the bad guys. But just because Mad Max is slightly better than completely awful on the feminism front doesn’t make it some sort of magnificent feminist manifesto. Better than terrible is not necessarily great. It’s just “less terrible”.

The movie’s supposed feminist message would be a lot stronger if it wasn’t constantly undermined by the movie itself. Women “are not things”, but isn’t it interesting that the sexy wives are the women that are rescued, and the less attractive women who are kept attached to milking machines are not worth being saved? Funny how the “breeder” wives are all stick-thin supermodels (i.e. not the ideal body type for giving birth without complications in a world with primitive medicine). And it’s a bit hard to take the “We are not things” motto very seriously when the escaped wives spend the entire movie in thin linen bikini-like outfits. At one point there’s even a break in the chase scenes to give the girls time to have what amounts to a wet t-shirt contest. Now, it has been pointed out that they are pretty matter-of-factly washing themselves off and not actively posing, and that the camera doesn’t linger on them like a creepy old lecher, which is a temptation that other directors might give in to. But at the same time, the decision to dress them all in thin linen and then hose them down was a conscious choice. A scene like that, even if it’s not shot with the “pervy camera”, does not suggest to me that “We are not things” is something that the movie really takes that seriously. Those costumes, and that scene, are the sort of thing that you put in a movie as fan service to your presumably male, presumably straight viewers.

Check out all that feminism.

Check out all that feminism.

Likewise, later on, our heroes come across a naked woman high up on an old power line tower, and we learn that she is being used as “bait” by the old-lady biker gang to lure in bad guys and kill them. Is it consistent with “we are not things” for the good guys to be using a naked woman as bait? Was that scene necessary for the plot, or was it there to titillate the (presumably straight, male) viewer? That same blog post that I linked to praised this scene for resisting the temptation to go full-frontal, saying that the nudity was not necessary to the story, but that’s exactly my point. There was no narrative need to have a naked lady up on a tower at all. I don’t think the movie deserves praise for including some questionable scenes, but then making them slightly less misogynistic than they could have been. If this were a feminist movie, those scenes wouldn’t be there at all.

Don’t get me wrong, Mad Max takes a step in the right direction. There are female characters with agency. The sexy wives, although still mostly passive, do stand up for themselves a little bit. Furiosa and the old lady biker gang are pretty awesome. But I worry that people see Mad Max getting all of this positive press about being feminist, and then go watch it and praise if for taking these tiny baby steps while not acknowledging that (a) it’s not a good movie, and (b) it is not really all that feminist. It would not be difficult at all for the movie to fix the problems that I’ve brought up. Give the girls sensible clothing and maybe skip the wet t-shirt party and the naked lady on the tower. Make the sexy wives a little less passive, and rescue the less attractive women too. The fact that these problems were not fixed, and are generally not even being acknowledged, is troubling.

It’s an awfully sad statement about the state of feminism in popular culture that people think that Mad Max is what feminism looks like.

 

 

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