The Importance of Travel

When I was around 12 years old, I was given an opportunity to travel to Europe as part of a trip sponsored by my school. I was taking French at the time, and it seemed like it could be fun. Unfortunately, there were some terrorist activities around that time, and I got scared and didn’t want to go anymore. While I travelled a great deal in the U.S., I would not leave the country until nearly 30 years later. In hindsight, I regret this. Traveling outside of one’s own country is essential for understanding the world. It broadens the mind, increases overall empathy, and enforces one’s own identity, while simultaneously offering perspective, both historic and geographic.

I will soon be going back to Italy, a country that became one of my favorite places almost as soon as I arrived. Walking through the winding streets of Florence (Firenze in Italian) takes you back in time to a world where art was less utilitarian and more grandiose. You get a sense of the awe that the artists felt towards the universe and our place within it. Also, like many other European cities, Florence has the ability to leave you dumbstruck as you turn around a corner and suddenly come face to face with one of humankind’s greatest creations.

My first full experience of this in Italy was coming upon The Duomo (Santa Maria del Fiore). I’d seen it in pictures; I’d climbed it in a video game (Assassin’s Creed 2). Coming face to face with such a monument, however, is an entirely different experience. It reminds me of a concept I first encountered through the aesthetic musings of Immanuel Kant, a philosopher more famous for his views on ethics than art. Kant describes the feeling that he calls ‘the sublime’. While hard to summarize in a blog post, the basic idea is this: sometimes we experience the vastness of the universe and the insignificance of ourselves within it. At the same time, we can derive a kind of comfort from feeling safe while in the presence of something truly awesome (I mean that in the original sense of the term—something that leaves us speechless and unable to fully communicate our experience). The Duomo does that to me. As I stand before it, I understand the significance of a word like ‘magnificent’, which etymologically means ‘a great making’. Humans built this edifice. Someone conceived it part of this structure, and someone built it. It inspired others to do great things, and now it is inspiring me.

These moments dissolve us into the universal, allowing us to transcend our individual lives and become one with humanity itself. Time ceases to stream; the moment stretches into infinity.

Put simply, you almost never experience this in your home city, regardless of where you were raised. I grew up in Hunstville, Alabama. It is the home of the Space and Rocket Center, a museum dedicated to U.S. space exploration. As you drive past it, you can see a Saturn V rocket, one of the greatest accomplishments of the 20th Century. Visitors are often fascinated by this scene, but I grew up with it. The main affect it has on me is to remind me that I’m back home, but it’s certainly not the transcendent feeling I get with The Duomo or the Pantheon or any other number of famous monuments or works of art.

Only through travel can we have these moments. And it doesn’t end with the monuments. When you visit a country where people speak a different language and live very different lives, you begin to see how petty most of your concerns are. The world becomes both much larger and much smaller at the same time. You recognize a vast variety of different cultures, values, and priorities, but at the same time you realize that many of them exist only hours apart from each other. Europe is particularly good for this experience, since we tend to think of England, France, Italy, Germany, etc. as different worlds. Yet, they sit right next to each other, in areas about the size of U.S. states.

I believe that everyone should experience this at least once in life, but ideally more than that. We should all be given the time and opportunity to experience different cultures. Once there, take a moment to immerse yourself in a different point of view. Don’t be an American in another country, forcing it to accede to your demands. Be a guest, ready to be accepted into another person’s home.

If you take this attitude, you will find yourself welcome practically anywhere. When we visited France, we had been told that the French people are not particularly accommodating. They do not like when you try to speak their language, and they are quick to dismiss Americans in particular. That was not my experience at all! The French people were very friendly to us, and most were very patient with my terrible accent and sparse vocabulary when trying to speak their language.

Granted, Italy offers a whole different level of hospitality. At our first stop to eat in Florence, the waiter called me ‘Generalissimo’ and my partner ‘Principessa’. I was the general, and she was my princess. It was cute, friendly, practically flirtatious, and very welcoming. There was nothing condescending about it. When we visited another restaurant, we were asked to become members of the club. After filling out the paperwork, our hostess said (in Italian, which my partner translated) “This is now your home, too!”

Such experiences remind us that we part of a huge world, but one united by common needs and values. You cannot gain this knowledge through reading, or watching videos of people in other places, or even from reading this blog. You have to go to these places and have them become a part of your phenomenological being. They will then live in you and you will live in them for the rest of your life.

So, the next time, you are given an opportunity to travel abroud, whether you are 12, 42, or 72, take it. Do not wait. Take it, and when the next opportunity arrives, take it again. As the famous essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson notes, “Life only avails, not the having lived.” Travel is life, so go live already!

Bioware Is Trying to Make Romance More Diverse, but Has a Long Way to Go

(Image from to them)

Mass Effect: Andromeda is out, and early reviews are mixed, as one would expect in a game that is continuing a series that many people love. The original trilogy was…well, a trilogy. It had an ending (which many people hated!). I didn’t play ME3, and I haven’t played the new game either. I very much enjoyed the second installment, but I didn’t have the console to play 3 when it was released, and then the negative feedback hit concerning the ending. I mistook it for an overall criticism of the game; or perhaps I was afraid the (allegedly) awful ending would ruin my memories of the series. In any case, I rarely finish a game, so I’m not sure why that deterred me.

But I don’t want to talk about whether the new game is good or not. I want to talk about the idea of Mass Effect, which allows you to choose between playing a male or female character (affectionately truncated to ManShep vs. FemShep in the video game community). Both choices have been excellently voice acted, though many people prefer Jennifer Hale’s rendition of the character, at least among my friends. She does do an amazing job, but I’ve tended to play as ManShep.

Ok, brief history time: Bioware has had an interesting relationship with gamers that have wanted to have more diverse (sexually) characters in their games. In the first Mass Effect, you could sort of have a same sex relationship, if you played FemShep, but only because of how Asari work (see below). In the second game, they played it safer, basically making everything hetero-normative. Then, in the third, they tried to open it up more, allowing a male-male pairing, but it was pretty lackluster by most counts. The latest in the series, Andromeda, has included more same sex pairings, to mixed reviews.

I think Bioware is trying to allow people to engage in a variety of sexual orientations, but they aren’t totally sure how to pull it off properly (maybe hire more writers that actually experience these feelings?). Whether you play as ManShep or FemShep, you can romance crew members of either gender, and each iteration has tried to be more inclusive in this regard. I’m going to set aside the troubling notion of romancing subordinates (though that would also be interesting to examine!) and focus on what Bioware is doing right here and what misses the mark.

Let’s start with the right: I like the idea of allowing players to decide whom they wish to romance and what sexual orientation their character has. In theory, it allows players to experiment with different roles, which is what a roleplaying game is all about. More importantly, it might increase representation among groups that have been grossly unrepresented in gaming: members of the LGBTQ+ community (note: I do not mean to exclude any of the groups that have since been included in this acronym…I use + to indicate them).

Furthermore, I think there can be value in presenting the choice of romantic partners as if gender were irrelevant, if only to get people to consider that as a possibility. Perhaps the world would be a better place if this were how things worked, and maybe in the Mass Effect universe, gender is no longer a barrier to romance. Cool.

However, if that’s what Bioware is trying to achieve, it misses the mark in several important ways. Let’s start with the most common complaint on this front: The Asari. The Asari are a race of aliens that have only one gender…which just happens to have the appearance of attractive human women (but with blue or gray skin!).

Mass Effect has tried to correct this a bit, with the most recent game in the series adding the notion that some Asari identify as masculine. As the linked article notes, such Asari do not actually appear in any of the games, but good for Bioware to at least acknowledge the issue. I think they are sincerely trying here, and I give them a lot of credit for that. Maybe they shouldn’t have started with the idea of “space babes” in the first place! Anyway, I’ll let this go now…

As for the number of options of characters to romance, one might argue that in the real world, people who are gay have less options for romantic partners too (statistically speaking), but then, this isn’t a real world. It’s a game. So, the realist argument may not hold water here. Bioware could simply allow people to romance anyone, and treat all romances the same, regardless of whether you are playing ManShep or FemShep. Romance whomever you wish, and have the scenes play out the same.

That could be very interesting, if the goal is to look at the future in a certain way, but it certainly would not capture what it’s like in today’s world to be a member of the LGBTQ+ community. Their romances are often not the same, precisely because of social conventions. The essential love is close enough to the same and deserves the same respect. But living as a transgender or homosexual or bisexual person is likely not the same as living as a heterosexual, cisgendered person, and treating these relationships as if they would be just like choosing what clothes to wear probably misses the point and would not actually help represent the views of players who are transgender. As a hetero-cis person myself, I’m not going to pretend to know how best to represent these differences. I’m just saying that ignoring them is probably not the best approach.

Beyond these issues, it would probably minimize sexual identity to present romances in such terms. Making every gender choice interchangeable suggests that there are no differences among us, but as feminists like Catharine MacKinnon have noted, the “treat the same the same and treat differences differently” approach doesn’t work well in practice. There are too many differences in people, and this approach tends to make sexism and other issues pretty easy to defend. Instead, MacKinnon suggests that we look for power imbalances, which we all recognize as being exploitative when not appropriate.

Of course, this suggestion gets us back to the original issue that I decided to set aside…why is a military commander romancing his/her/their crew, when an obvious power differential makes this very problematic?? Guess I never fully set that aside after all….

Anyway, Bioware is in a tough position, trying to represent all viewpoints while also trying to tell a particular story about a particular character. Hopefully, they find a way to get it right….eventually.

Blondie has a new song out. Is that OK?

On my Twitter feed today, I saw a link from NPR that said Blondie has a new song, and it’s great. Click Here to see that article and listen to the song. I have to agree. It’s catchy; it’s poppy; it’s Blondie. Sure, Debbie (I think she prefers Deborah now?) Harry sounds a bit older, but it’s a great raspy effect. She still sounds amazing. The band sounds good, too. The effects are a bit more than I prefer in my music, but again, they are classic Blondie. They’ve always used a lot of chorus, layering, synth sounds, and the like. That’s their thing.

And it really works here. As the article notes, there are hints of “Heart of Glass” in the song, which can sometimes indicate a band trying to recapture a particular high point of their own history. But while I agree that it’s self-referential, the song elevates beyond a simple echo of the past. I think it stands alongside many of their hits.

Sadly, it almost certainly won’t be a hit song, and that’s what I want to discuss. There have been many articles about why the public seems unable to continue to fully support bands that have faded from the spotlight and attempted to return. I’m partial to the theory that the problem is one of zeitgeist, a word that roughly refers to the spirit of culture. You can see this theory (indirectly) in this Forbes article, which is actually about the loss of the Rockstar. As the article notes (about halfway through, if you aren’t interested in all the talk about how new bands will never be like Led Zeppelin), many of the big bands of yesteryears either reflected or created cultural movements.

So bands like The Rolling Stones are associated with the late 60s through early 70s, even though they continued to produce hits into the 80s to some degree. But they are a band from the era of Altamont. They represent the era of free love, where sex and drugs went hand in hand and were considered equally cool. A band like Def Leppard, technically part of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (or NWOBHM in short, awkward acronym form) are associated mostly with the late 80s, thanks to the monstrous status of the Hysteria album. Despite continuing to make some good music, they and other bands of the day like Motley Crue, were relegated to the 80s once the Grunge movement hit, which itself is a zeitgeist for people like me, who graduated high school in the early 90s.

A few bands have continued to remain relevant over time, notably bands like Metallica, though even they are still remembered more for their earlier work (up through the Black Album) than anything recent, despite decent success with newer music.

However, bands like Blondie find themselves relegated to a particular time period, perhaps in part because they were effectively the pop music of their day. Radio saturated them into the public consciousness to such a degree that anyone who was alive in their heyday cannot help but associate those songs with those years. In fact, a whole nostalgia driven music scene has popped up in the last couple of decades, fueled by people in their 30s-60s trying to recapture a moment in time for a few hours as they watch one of the bands they loved in their youth.

But new music? They don’t want to hear it. It doesn’t transport them back to a familiar time, where things were simpler (if only in our memories) and certain songs became entwined with special events in our lives.

There is nothing wrong with this, at least from the fan’s perspective. You do not owe an artist your loyalty or your money. They provide a product, and you may take it or leave it. However, as a musician myself (though not famous), I can only imagine how disappointing this must be to the artists. They rightly see themselves as better musicians than they were in their 20s, and yet no one wants to hear it. Instead of thrilled anticipation and praise, their new music is received with the same level of enthusiasm as the person who gets out an acoustic guitar at a party when the stereo is already playing what everyone wants to hear. At best, they might be tolerated. At worst, they might be asked to leave. In most cases, people will simply roll their eyes and wonder why they are offering a substandard interpretation of a classic sound.

This is totally unfair, of course, but it’s also natural. Our past belongs in the past, except when we wish to revisit it for a momentary escape. We don’t invite it into our present, and with good reason. We aren’t that person anymore. We may wistfully dip our minds into a momentary glimpse of who we were (or try to), but we don’t want to be that person anymore, and we expect our idols to respect that.

But here they are anyway, with a great new song.

Is Trump Rambling? Or just trying to say too much at once?

Apologies for the long period between blog updates. I’m in the middle of moving houses. I thought that taking a month off would not be a big deal. What could happen in a month?? Well, a lot has happened since Trump was inaugurated—far too much to deal with in a single blog post. So, I want to focus on just one thing: Why does Trump ramble so much when he talks to the press?

Let’s start with some examples of what I mean. I’m not going to focus on specific things that Trump has said that are questionable, such as asking a black reporter if she could put him in touch with Congress’s Black Caucus (a group of African American Congressional representatives). Yes, the belief that all black people know each other is a sign of casual racism, and yes there are many examples of similar slips (or even intentional ones, such as leaving out the word ‘Jew’ when talking about the Holocaust). These are easy to evaluate for anyone who notices them.

I want to focus on phrases like this, which are definitely made up of words, but not words that fit together into coherent thoughts. This is from his recent press conference:

“Now, again, maybe I’m not going to be able to do a deal with Russia, but at least I will have tried. And if I don’t, does anybody really think that Hillary Clinton would be tougher on Russia than Donald Trump? Does anybody in this room really believe that? OK?

But I tell you one thing, she tried to make a deal. She had the reset. She gave all that valuable uranium away. She did other things. You know, they say I’m close to Russia. Hillary Clinton gave away 20 percent of the uranium in the United States. She’s close to Russia.”

Ok, let’s try to figure this out. Trump is saying that he’d like to make a deal with Russia, because we are better as allies. Sounds good. Maybe he has a point. Russia is a powerful country, and certainly tensions with them haven’t been a great deal for either side, right? Then he adds that if he can’t make a deal, then he would be tougher on Russia than Clinton would have. Ummm….OK. Why is that good? You just said it’s better not to antagonize them. He continues that Clinton wanted to make a deal; she’s close to Russia. But he just said that getting closer with Russia is a good thing; so why is he attacking Clinton on this? Ah, I think I see.

I’m a college professor. That means that I deal with a lot of students who don’t know the answer to a particular question. This is especially problematic for in-class essays, where the student then has the option of leaving it blank (thus leaving half of their test points on the table and guaranteeing a failing grade for the exam), or trying to put down enough bullshit that I might be fooled into thinking they do know something.

One common technique when you don’t know what answer your audience might want is to try to play both sides. Suppose I ask a student whether we should be closer to Russia, but he’s not sure what he should think about this. So he says, “Well, I think we should be closer to Russia, as long as being closer to Russia is a good thing. And it probably is. But then, if it isn’t a good thing, then I definitely wouldn’t want us to be closer to Russia, and the people who would want us to be closer to Russia are very wrong about that!”

You would fail that answer, right? It’s incoherent gibberish. But let’s try to be super generous with Trump here. Maybe he’s saying he would try to make a deal with Russia, but if they would not agree to the deal, he would be super harsh with them. Ok, but then why attack Clinton for trying to make a deal? Perhaps it’s because she gave away uranium, which is basically just nukes, right?? Not really. Uranium can be used for lots of things, including power plants. But whatever. I think he’s trying to deflect here by saying that Clinton was both NOT tough enough on Russia, but also unable to broker a deal with Russia. I think. Maybe I’m being too hard on Trump, though.

So let’s look at a further set of claims in the same press conference (transcript linked again)

“Mike Flynn is a fine person, and I asked for his resignation. He respectfully gave it. He is a man who there was a certain amount of information given to Vice President Pence, who is with us today. And I was not happy with the way that information was given.

He didn’t have to do that, because what he did wasn’t wrong — what he did in terms of the information he saw. What was wrong was the way that other people, including yourselves in this room, were given that information, because that was classified information that was given illegally. That’s the real problem.

And, you know, you can talk all you want about Russia, which was all a, you know, fake news, fabricated deal, to try and make up for the loss of the Democrats and the press plays right into it. In fact, I saw a couple of the people that were supposedly involved with all of this — that they know nothing about it; they weren’t in Russia; they never made a phone call to Russia; they never received a phone call.

It’s all fake news. It’s all fake news. The nice thing is, I see it starting to turn, where people are now looking at the illegal — I think it’s very important — the illegal, giving out classified information. It was — and let me just tell you, it was given out like so much.

[some talk about Mexico and Australia phone calls.] The same thing happened with respect to General Flynn. Everybody saw this. And I’m saying — the first thing I thought of when I heard about it is: How does the press get this information that’s classified? How do they do it?

You know why? Because it’s an illegal process and the press should be ashamed of themselves. But more importantly, the people that gave out the information to the press should be ashamed of themselves, really ashamed.”

Those are Trump’s words. So let’s look at them. He starts by saying Flynn did nothing wrong. It’s fake news. There was no contact with Russia. Then, he repeats the claim that the news is fake. Then he complains that what the media reported came from classified calls. In other words, he’s upset that the media got access to the information about Flynn’s calls. Why is he upset about them receiving information he just said doesn’t really exist?

This is a classic case of someone being caught in a lie because he can’t stop talking. If you are a parent, you have probably seen this a few times. If you can get a child to talk enough, they’ll say something so inconsistent that the lie becomes obvious. Trump is saying that the media is making up all these terrible things about him, like Flynn’s call to Russia, or Trump’s own embarrassing dressing down of one of our own allies in Australia. But then he says those calls were classified, again implying that they happened in just the way the media is reporting.

The truth here is simple. Trump is doing these things. He’s upset that America is watching. The media’s entire job is to do this sort of thing. Many people today are too young to remember that it was the media that exposed the Watergate scandal. It was the media who gave us reports on the horrors of Vietnam. And yes, I’m too young to remember these things too. The media, with people like Walter Kronkite and Dan Rather, used to do real, investigative journalism. Go look it up. It’s great stuff!

Today, if the media isn’t on your side, you just accuse it of being fake news, or too biased to take seriously. This is a version of the circumstantial ad hominem fallacy (also sometimes known as the genitive fallacy), which basically says that you can’t trust any argument that a particular person makes if that person is in a certain circumstance. If you say that all conservatives are automatically wrong, because they are conservatives, then you are committing this fallacy. Similarly, if you say that anyone who works for a particular news channel is biased, you have the same problem. Now, you might be able to prove that a particular website, or even news channel, has a particular political agenda. But even if you could do that, it would not in itself invalidate every argument made by that source. At best, it would lead you to be extra cautious when evaluating the merits of the argument.

In any case, Trump has literally said that any poll that shows him in an unfavorable light is automatically fake. That’s a self-sealing fallacy. It can’t be wrong, because you’ve built the conditions in such a way that he wins either way. It’s like saying heads I win, tails you lose. It’s rigged.

This is not normal Presidential behavior, and that has nothing to do with my own views on Trump or his party. W Bush, who wasn’t overly Presidential at times, at least maintained the basic dignity of the position in most cases. Trump doesn’t care. He thinks he’s the CEO of America, and that he can simply fire anyone who disagrees with him. That’s the most dangerous kind of authoritarian thinking. It’s OK for a CEO, who is running a business. It’s unacceptable from a leading government official.

My Favorite MLK, jr. Quote

In today’s blog article, which I am writing on Martin Luther King, jr. Day of 2017, I’d like to take a moment to discuss my favorite MLK quote, which comes from the letter he wrote while serving time in a Birmingham jail for civil disobedience. Here’s the quote:

“First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.””

Full disclosure: I am one of the white moderates that Dr. King is targeting here. At various points in my life, I have considered myself to be post-racial (“I don’t see race!”), fully supportive of efforts to fight racism (while doing nothing active to help the cause), and even judgmental towards those that I saw as fighting racism the “wrong way”.

The quote speaks to me because I recognize myself in it, and I am ashamed by it. When Dr. King wrote this letter, he addressed it to the white ministers in the southern churches that saw themselves as allies in the fight for civil rights, but disagreed with the way that MLK was conducting the fight. They would scold him when he used civil disobedience, pointing out that it made African Americans appear to be lawless or disrespectful toward the social order. They promised that a time would come (eventually), when all races were treated as equals, but that it could not be rushed.

It’s a message we see again and again when people are fighting for civil rights. Just wait until the bigots are gone, and things will get better. We can create change by appealing to the youth, and once they are in charge, things will improve. Such messages are well intentioned but dangerously out of touch. First, there is evidence that racism does not go away, so much as it changes in various ways.  Certainly, today’s generations are less likely to be openly racist than people were in the 1960s, but that’s because people like Dr. King made it unacceptable to be blatantly bigoted. That’s a good thing, but it is far from the end goal of an equitable society.

But even if time could eventually solve such social injustices, the people who are living right now do not have the time to wait. At the time when Dr. King wrote his letter, many of the laws preventing interracial marriages were still on the books. That’s right—fifty years ago, when your parents or grandparents were of an age to be married, they would not have been allowed to do so if their partner had been born with different color skin. How long would you have people wait for the basic right to marry someone they love? How long should they wait to be able to attend good schools, or receive services at restaurants.

Waiting is a terrible response to injustice. We cannot sit out the fight for equality. We cannot pretend to support a cause by passive approval of its goals.

Dr. King was right, and he is still right. Those who openly hate people for how they were born are relatively easy to spot. The KKK still marches through the streets, often without their hoods, openly calling for racial purity. In some cases, they have come up with new names, like the “Alt-Right”, but the message is the same, and it disgusts the moral people in our society who see it as an anachronism from darker times. But what are we going to do  about it?

Why Repeal and Delay Approach to ACA is a Bad Idea

(image owned by, used via Fair Use)

Republicans have a very tricky problem right now. A big part of their election platform revolved around the idea of repealing the PPACA (also known as ‘Obamacare’), a legislative act that has granted insurance to millions of Americans since it was enacted. The Affordable Care Act (ACA from here on) was and is a flawed piece of legislation. Its goal was to slow the tide of rising healthcare costs on America while largely maintaining the existing system of private insurers. In other words, it was trying to combine the best of parts of private and public healthcare, and as a result ended up creating a kind of Frankenstein’s Monster of ad hoc policies put together by various contingents in an attempt to get both Democrats and Republicans to pass the bill while also trying to accomplish its main objections. Put more simply—it’s a bit of a mess.

On the plus side, the ACA has ameliorated one of the biggest problems with private insurance—the fact that pre-existing conditions are often outright denied because there is no profit in covering them. Insurance companies are businesses, which means they need to make profits in order to continue to exist. If you know someone has an existing chronic health problem, then you know that this customer will only drain your company and not add anything of value. So, you can either raise your prices for that customer until this drain is balanced, or you can deny that customer coverage altogether. The ACA disallows companies to deny the customer altogether. The price increase approach is too complex to deal with in this blog, but suffice it to say that the ACA did not altogether eliminate this practice.

Now, if you are going to force companies to cover people that are known drains on the system, then you need to balance that in some way. This is where the Individual Mandate comes into play. The Mandate was an idea that was first proposed by a Conservative think tank (yes, Conservative) known as the Heritage Foundation, as far back as 1989. By forcing all people to buy insurance, you spread the risk across a more varied group of people, many of whom are perfectly healthy. These healthy customers help offset the loss that insurance companies face when forced to cover risky customers. It’s a very practical solution to the problem, and if we consider the issue purely economically, it makes a lot of sense.

But this is where things get really tricky. Many people believe the Individual Mandate is a violation of basic rights. The government, they argue, should not be able to force people to buy a product. In other words, these people do not object to the economics argument, but to the government interference that it represents. While some people have countered this concern by noting that car insurance is required in many states, objectors can counter that you don’t have to own a car, if you want to avoid paying for car insurance. But there is no way around the healthcare mandate (other than to pay the fine, which is its own issue).

This is not the only problem people see with the ACA. I saw someone post on Facebook once that he resented the part of the ACA that requires companies to cover certain women’s issues, since that means he is paying for things he’ll never use (yeah, well women have to cover your prostate cancer, jerk!). Others believe the ACA is actually raising prices (despite evidence that in most years since the ACA was enacted, price increases in healthcare have slowed compared to previous years). Interestingly, many people actually agree with most of the provisions of the ACA, when asked about them individually, and yet still object to “Obamacare”, if it is phrased that way.

Ok, that’s enough background. Whatever you think about the ACA, the fact is that the GOP promised to repeal it if they were put in power, and now they are tasked with carrying out that promise, despite the fact that many Americans are now entrenched in the new system.

Right now, the plan being floated about among Republican circles is known as ‘repeal and delay’. It rests on a very simple premise: we promised to repeal the ACA, but we don’t yet have a plan to replace it; so we need to delay its actual removal. What this would mean in practice is that Congress could repeal the ACA (or most of it, since there is talk of keeping certain provisions, which I’ll get to in a moment), but delay its removal for two years, while they come up with a new and better plan.

Vox has an excellent article up right now on why this is a problematic strategy. That’s where I got the image above this blog post, and it contains a longer, more detailed argument than I will give here. It’s well worth reading.

But here is the short version. The ACA relies largely on insurance companies offering plan through the ACA marketplace, so that Americans are able to take advantage of the subsidies that the ACA provides and receive “affordable” healthcare. Without those marketplaces and the subsidies that drive them, the ACA effectively disappears, at least for the millions of Americans who have gained insurance from it.

Now, suppose you are an insurance company who offers plans through the marketplace. You know you will get some risky customers among the people who sign up this way, because many are people who could not get insurance before. However, others are people who simply could not afford it, or who elected to go without coverage and take their chances. The ACA’s subsidies now allow these people to sign up for your insurance, and you are pretty sure about getting the money, because the government is providing some or most of it. There could be good reasons, then, to keep a plan or two on the marketplace.

But now, Congress repeals the ACA. It won’t really be gone for two years, but you know it is going away. You don’t know what will replace it, because that plan doesn’t yet exist. You’ve heard about some of the proposals, but they are all different, and none are certain to pass. All you know is that the current system is going away, and there will be no more subsidies, perhaps no more marketplace of this sort at all. Why would you keep putting plans on the marketplace? You wouldn’t. It doesn’t make good business sense at all. You would just pull out of the system altogether and wait to see what happens, while focusing on your more traditional business (employment-based insurance).

This is almost certainly what will happen in the case of repeal and delay, and many people already see it. Senator Rand Paul (more of an independent libertarian than a true Republican) warned about the disaster that repeal and delay would represent. He is convinced that the only responsible approach is to replace the current plan with a new plan that promises something better. He’s right! The problem is that such a plan does not yet exist.

And Republicans have a promise to keep…..

More on Grim Dawn

In my Halloween games post, I noted that people should be playing Grim Dawn, by Crate Entertainment. This was a game that I kickstarted because I really enjoyed Titan Quest, which is a Diablo clone style game that brought some interesting new elements to the genre. Sadly, TQ didn’t do enough to keep its development team together, even after a great add-on/expansion pack. It’s still available for cheap on Steam, and probably GOG. If you haven’t played it, go get it. The settings include Ancient Greece, Babylon, and China, and it’s just a fun game.

Grim Dawn picks up many of the best elements of Titan Quest, and then takes it all a bit further. Let’s start with class options. Like TQ, Grim Dawn has you choose a primary class at level 2. You do this by spending points to build up a base ability in the class itself, a bit like working on your character’s potential to perform in that class. This will allow you to purchase higher level skills within the class (using the same points; so you have to balance increasing potential with actually using that potential to buy skills or upgrade them!). This creates some intriguing decisions. Do you upgrade your favorite skill to make it more powerful, or build your potential so you can get another skill?

At level 10, you may choose a secondary class, allowing for different class combinations. Want to have a fire mage who can also wear heavy armor and swing a sword? You can do that. Put points into demolitionist and warrior. Want to have lots of pets helping you out? Be an occultist/shaman and grab all the pets. These are your choices, and if you are like me, you will have about 8 different characters, trying out different combos. Some will work better than others, but you’ll keep trying out new ones all the time.

Beyond the purchased skills, items can give you new skills as well. There are times where I find myself holding onto items that have inferior stats just because of the cool skill I’m allowed to keep as a result. While the actual item loot is varied and interesting, there are also add-on drops, which can be combined together in order to create cool additions to all of your items. For example, you might have a crossbow and add an item to it that increases your fire damage. Some of these add-ons also provide new skills. The possibilities appear to be practically endless, adding more decisions to your character development.

If all of that seems overwhelming, I guess sometimes it can be. But in general, the game does a good job of adding things slowly enough that you learn about them before you become confused. You’ll be making these decisions with a bit of agony, due to the opportunity costs, but rarely any pain due to confusion about what will happen if you try a particular item. There are plenty of stats on your character sheet that you can check as you swap out items. And yes, you can have alternate layouts on the same character and switch between them on the fly for different situations. I never use this option, but it’s there.

How about the setting? Well, this is a subjective taste thing, but it’s dark. It’s a desolate world, where undead wander what were once lush farmlands, and everyone is pretty much despairing that it’s the end of days. I’m not a huge fan of such settings, in general, to be honest. I play Fallout despite the setting, for example, not because of it. I like the quirky fifties nuke-punk stuff, but not the post apocalypse setting in general. Too dark for me. Grim Dark is similar, but a bit more gothic, I guess…for lack of a better word. Perhaps steam punk would be more accurate, since there are flintlocks and such. IDK…imagine a fantasy world set in the 1700s or 1800s, and you’ll be close to the feel of the world…well, if you add in an apocalyptic event!

Some people will love this setting, but even if you don’t, this is a game worth playing. It’s not expensive (on sale constantly for about $15), and it’s got a LOT of content to it. According to Steam, I’ve put in 122 hours (what? That can’t be right! Steam lies!!! Ok, that could be right….I find this game relaxing). I’m not near the end with any of my characters. So, it’s got a lot of playability to it.

Anyway, give this game a chance. It deserves it, and I want a sequel!

Thanksgiving Games?


(image is from Assassin’s Creed III; used under Fair Use)

So, I did a post about Halloween Games, since Halloween is my favorite holiday. Seems only fair to have one about Thanksgiving games, especially since people usually get some time off for Thanksgiving and might be looking to play!

Let’s start with the one from the image. The Assassin’s Creed series is excellent for immersing yourself in historical time periods. I loved the second game in the series, which was set in Renaissance Italy. I wish I had been to Italy before playing it, but I have been since, which makes me want to play it again! Unfortunately, I have not played the third in the series, which takes place around the American Revolution. However, there are Native Americans in it, and they aren’t portrayed as savages. So that’s kind of Thanksgivingy, right?? I’ve heard the gameplay is weaker than other games in the series. For charm, 2 is amazing. For open world gameplay, 4 is probably the best choice, as it allows you to be a pirate on the high seas. This one happened between those games, so…..

Ok, continuing the theme of lackluster games around a holiday that doesn’t have much of a theme to begin with, other than “Food is good! Have it with your family!”, I’m going to recommend you play Madden 17. Like many other games in the Madden series, this one incrementally builds upon the previous games in the series. It lets you play football with real NFL teams!

What does this have to do with Thanksgiving? If you have to ask, then you aren’t a football fan. In that case, this game might not be for you. The rest of you already have this game. Play it after you eat turkey, during halftime of the real games.

Since Thanksgiving is all about food, how about playing Cooking Mama! The title is a bit ambiguous. You will not be cooking your mother in this game. You ARE a cooking mama! You cook, and you are a mama. Cooking. Mama. Here’s the android/google play version: Cooking Mama. But I recommend getting this for DS rather than your phone. Still, some families don’t like it when people are playing games on Thanksgiving, and the phone is still the best covert way to play games, at least until the Oculus Rift comes in handy contacts form!

My last recommendation is old school…way old school! Duck Hunt came with my original Nintendo Entertainment System, back in the 80s! That’s right. I’m super old! This is a game about hunting ducks with your dog. Turkeys are a kind of duck that can’t fly and have more meat. I think that’s right. So Duck Hunt is basically a harder version of Turkey Hunt, and you are a gamer, so you are hardcore. Hunt Ducks, not Turkeys! There are Deer Hunter games, of course, and they are harder still. But who eats deer on Thanksgiving? Everyone knows that deer is for Arbor Day.

Anyway, did you know you can now play Duck Hunt via Flash right in your browser? Now you do! So here is the link!

Well, that does it for my Thanksgiving recommendations. Did I miss any Thanksgiving classics??? Tell me in comments!

Is This Really about the Economy?


(Image above belongs to the Wall Street Journal)

Based on my previous posts, I’m sure you can surmise that I’m disappointed with the election results. Thanks to the anachronism that is the Electoral College, a lower turnout among Democrats who previously voted for Obama, and the voting pattern of White Americans, Donald Trump is now President Elect. I have plenty to say about why this is scaring some people, and I hope that the people who voted for Trump realize that the protests, outrage, and overall atmosphere of fear is not because a Republican won, but because Trump himself basically made a list of people he didn’t like during the campaign, and now people in those groups are worried that he will actually do the things he said they would do. I may write about that later, when I’m feeling more capable of processing it without risking making inflammatory accusations that won’t really do anyone any good.

For this week, I want to focus on the economic implications of a Trump Presidency, mostly because the Trump supporters that I have directly talked to have told me that this was their main motivation. They fear the growing deficit; they don’t like the current state of the U.S. economy. They think American jobs are going away, or being sent to other countries. They are right about these things, to some extent. Where they are wrong, I think, is in believing that Trump can fix any of it. Based on his own plans, he will make all these things worse. And that’s why I sit here, baffled, writing a blog about people, who (in my opinion, which could easily be wrong!) have voted against their own interests.

I’m going to focus mostly on the deficit here, since that’s a big issue among some voters. The image at the top shows the deficit by year. Obama inherited a big deficit jump and then added to it with additional bailouts. You can see where Obamacare kicked in around 2010. It did not increase the deficit spending, which has been shrinking during his Presidency. Also, individual income tax revenues account for about half of the federal revenues (there are corporate taxes, estate tax (which is a VERY small part), etc.). So, there could be other ways to raise revenue, such as increasing taxes on corporations. I don’t think that will happen under the incoming administration. But I’m going to focus on just the income tax plan that Trump has proposed and assume other factors as equal for the purposes of the number crunching that follows.

Let me start by saying that I am personally likely to benefit from Trump’s tax proposals, and the things he says he will repeal in the Affordable Care Act will not directly affect me. In the short run, at least, Trump’s tax policy is supposed to give me somewhere between a 1-2% reduction in my federal taxes. That’s because my individual income (and household) is higher than the national medians. For those below those medians, they are unlikely to see any tax benefits from Trump’s plan, while those in the top 1% are likely to see a 10% or more decrease in their taxes. For more on Trump’s tax plan, see this post.

I am not personally opposed to making more money, of course! Greed is good, or whatever. But I do want to point out that this will result in a loss of federal income of between 2.5 and 4 trillion dollars over a ten year period. Clinton’s proposal would have increased federal revenues by about half a trillion dollars. Again, these numbers are explained in a previous post, but you should research it for yourself.

I really want to emphasize that last part. You have Google. Go research these figures for yourself. Check multiple analyses, and do not trust me or any other person who is not an economist or tax expert to tell you what will happen. I’m stressing this because of a very important observation. NONE OF THE PEOPLE I TALKED TO WHO VOTED FOR TRUMP AS A MEANS TO DECREASE THE FEDERAL DEFICIT KNEW ANYTHING ABOUT HIS TAX PLAN. They simply didn’t look it up. I don’t mean that they got bad data from somewhere. I mean that they just assumed that Trump’s plan, since he’s a businessman, would lower the deficit.

Of course, there are other ways to lower the deficit. Instead of raising revenue, you can lower costs. In fact, if Trump is going to lower the deficit, he will have to cut costs, given the loss of revenues noted above. He plans to do this in a few ways. First, he plans to freeze federal hiring, allowing attrition to lower the federal work force. That means fewer federal employees. If you are a current employee, this doesn’t mean you will be fired. It means that if you retire, your position will not be replaced. It will go away.

This is an odd plan. Imagine if your job did this as a way to cut its work force. Is your job important to the company in some way? I bet you like to think that it is, at least! Now imagine they said that they aren’t firing you, but that if you ever leave, they won’t hire someone else for your position. Very odd way to do business.

Another cost cutting move, I’m guessing, is that he plans to deregulate lots of things. For every new regulation, two others must be removed, according to the 100 day plan (same link as above). Fewer regulations mean less government interference, and enforcing regulations costs money in some cases. So this could cut spending. Similarly, he plans to fast track FDA approvals, which I guess means less work for the FDA, who can now stop testing things so much for safety. That will reduce costs, at least to the federal government. Risky drugs on the market could have other social costs, of course.

He could cut budget items, of course, too. More accurately, he can’t do that, but he could push Congress to do it, and since they are Republican run, they might listen. So what should they cut? A lot of Trump supporters want to cut so-called entitlement spending. This would mean things like TARP (food stamps), various welfare programs, perhaps Medicaid (though not Medicare!!! Never touch that!).

Here’s a link to the federal budget (which has 3.8 trillion to spend in a year, roughly). In order to offset the 2.5 trillion dollar shortfall Trump’s tax plan creates (going with the lower number here, for fairness), we need to cut this pie chart by 250 billion a year. Perhaps we could cut healthcare spending to accomplish this….by cutting ¼ of it. That’s a lot of people who suddenly don’t have healthcare, but OK. That gets us even again.

But the goal is to shrink the deficit. At 250 billion, all we’ve done is offset the tax losses. We need to cut MORE in order to balance the budget and then make up the deficit.

Here is a cool online game that allows you to try to fix the problem: Fix the Federal Budget . Keep in mind that you actually need to increase the funding shortfall, due to the tax losses. Right now, our budget is half a trillion dollars more than revenue. You’ll need to keep in mind that the shortfall will ¾ of a trillion dollars instead. That’s the optimistic version. If the losses are closer to 4 trillion, as estimates say they could be, then you need to find 9/10 of a trillion dollars instead. Almost forgot: the game is using 2014’s budget, which was 3.5 trillion, instead of the 3.8 trillion that I showed in my link to the 2015 budget. That extra 3/10 of a trillion is a big deal and adds to your goal. So, you’re probably looking at a need to cut a full trillion dollars out of the budget, or nearly ¼ of the current federal budget.

If you voted for Trump in order to fix the Federal Deficit, there’s your chance to find the solution. Once you find the correct way to cut spending, send it to Trump’s transition team. That might sound cynical, but I’m actually serious about this. If we are going to fix the federal deficit, these are the facts that have to be faced. If that is one of Trump’s goals, I hope he achieves it without hurting to many U.S. citizens in the process. So, if you have a way to do that, please help!

I just voted for a woman for President of the United States

Politics aside, and I get that people will disagree with my choice for political reasons, I don’t think I’ve ever felt the gravity of voting for U.S. President like I did in this election. I just voted for a woman to be the leader of the most powerful country in the world, and it’s been my first opportunity to do so. It’s 2016, and only now have we even had the option of voting for a woman for POTUS. That’s insane to me.

As I drove back from voting, I was talking to my partner about how historic this event really is. I said to her “You know, first I was able to vote for a black President, and now a woman. That’s two historic firsts, so close together!” Then I thought about other historic firsts, and there were none. Before Obama, every single POTUS was a white man, often older, but certainly mainstream. Every single one. No major candidate was black. None were women. Now, we get both, back to back! It’s an amazing time to alive.