Finally Saw Last Jedi

 

Ok, I finally got see the new Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi, this past weekend. What follows will be filled with spoilers; so, if you have not yet seen the movie, stop here, and do not read further. Here’s an image of Ewoks to remind you of your youth.

(image taken from one of the Star Trek movies, I think…doesn’t look like Star Wars!)

So, I’m guessing you either saw the movie or don’t care about spoilers. What did I think of it? Ummm…I thought it was mediocre as a film. The pacing was off; there were ridiculous timing issues; the central premise was kind of weird for a Star Wars movie…basically the whole thing is one long chase scene, with some people leaving it to go try to solve the problem. Meh.

However, I can see why some people loved this movie. What I don’t really understand is why some people hate it. I don’t understand the controversy around it. Since I thought it was mediocre, I can obviously understand that not everyone loved it. But hate? I don’t get it. Let me start, though, with why I understand the love.

Some of the fight scenes in this movie are pretty amazing. The opening sequence draws you in real fast, and I’ll agree with Kevin Smith in saying that the move that Poe makes in that X-Wing is brand new to the franchise and really, really cool. The sacrifice of the bomber to get the job done? Good stuff. The physics of it all? Pretty much nonsense, but these are fantasy films, not sci-fi. I can get past that. Thrilling opening.

Kylo Ren’s battle with Rey was great, too, especially the way that Kylo kills his master, hiding his true intentions somehow along the way. Oh, and that sacrifice Admiral Holdo makes by lightspeeding into the bad guys? Loved it, even if it does mess with some of the established physics once again. I don’t care about that. I thought it was a great sacrifice. I kind of wish it had been Leia instead, though. I really liked Holdo in the short time we get to see her, and knowing that Carrie Fisher has sadly passed away means that they will need to find a way to sacrifice Leia anyway. This could have been pretty meaningful, and Laura Dern could have taken over as the head of the resistance. After all, Poe would be a terrible choice!

That brings me to his character. I liked his arc. I think the exchanges between Poe and Holdo are part of the controversy, which I’ll get to in a moment, but I found this story compelling. Poe is a hotshot pilot, used to solving problems by shooting at them. He’s willing to give his life to help the rebellion, and unfortunately, he extends that recklessness to those under his command. That’s not good, and the movie does a good job of showing him learn this lesson. Sometimes, you have to live to fight another day, or the whole cause is lost. By the end, he learns this. He also learns about chain of command.

Now, this is one of the parts that annoys me about the movie. I liked Poe in the Force Awakens. We are meant to like him, and the writers know that. They used that to set us up a bit to be on his side in the conflict with Holdo. That’s fine. It sets up a twist of sorts (though not a huge one…Holdo is an admiral, a hero of the rebellion; of course she had a plan other than just dying eventually). But the trick is a bit forced (no pun). It would have taken her only a moment to tell him the plan. She doesn’t have to do so, of course. She’s in charge. But when she finally does, later in the movie, he agrees with it immediately. He could have helped her with morale on the ship, if she had taken a few seconds to explain what they were doing. And it’s not like she’s too busy to do that. Again, she doesn’t have to do it. I just don’t understand why she didn’t.

But this leads to the bigger issue. He mutinies against her! He sends people off, against orders. His plan ends up ruining everything, and even leading to the Empi…urrrr…First Order….finding out about the cloaked ships! Basically, he blundered big time. Leia even has to come and take him out. Ok….but then, once it’s all done, both Leia and Holdo agree that Poe is still a great guy. He’s just such a scamp!

Ummmm…what??? No way! No way, no way, no way, no way! This guy ignored direct orders, got people killed, nearly leading to the complete destruction of the rebellion. And he’s still basically second in command after all that? Nope! That’s just dumb.

Ok, that’s covered all the non force people, I think! So, what about the last Jedi thing? Well, as you know, Luke is not the last Jedi. Well, in a way he is. But Rey is, too, or something. This is fine. Jettison the Jedi order. It was pretty terrible anyway. Bunch of rogue vigilantes with powers that somehow magically enforce law throughout the galaxy, with a license to kill (or cut off arms). How many people have suffered because of the Jedi fighting the Sith? Lots! Just end the cycle of violence already.

I think Luke’s death was handled pretty well, though I think it would have been better if we learned that in fact Kylo Ren had killed him on that fateful night after all, and all this time, his force ghost had remained to resolve some unfinished business. But whatever. Luke learns that violence is not the solution to the problem, and he fades away.

This gets me to the controversial part. From what I can gather, there are two main sources of criticism for this movie, and I don’t really get either one.

The first source is something about women in control and Poe being a fool, and blah feminism or some such nonsense. This one is stupid. I had heard that some alt-right people didn’t like the new movie, and my wife and I tried to figure out why. There were no obvious social justice issues being portrayed in the movie. Yes, the admiral was a woman, but that was true in Return of the Jedi, and Leia is obviously a high ranking person in the rebellion. Putting Poe in his place isn’t new to the series, really, and I think it was well done.

The second one is about Luke, I think. Some people didn’t like this portrayal of Luke Skywalker. I disagree. I think this was a very likely arc to his story. Luke was a whiny fool in the first two Star Wars movies. He was absolutely annoying. He didn’t listen to anyone, and he always rushed into danger without thinking. In Return of the Jedi, he seemed to be progressing, maturing even. However, it’s really not a complete transition. Even in the opening saving Han Solo scenes, where he comes across as self-assured, he has moments of violence and apparent joy in killing others. Granted, they are bad people, but it’s still violence. At the end of the movie, Palpatine wants Luke to give into this anger and kill his own father, and Luke almost does. His anger erupts from him, and even though he does finally get it back under his control (to his credit!), it was there.

Now, let’s take this character a couple of decades later. He’s rebuilt the Jedi order, and he’s training young Jedi in the ways of the force. But he senses the potential for darkness in young Ben Solo. Remember that same potential was in Luke. It’s in Rey. It seems to be in every powerful Jedi. It’s a path that could be taken by any Jedi. That’s what makes the dark side so dangerous, and it only takes a split second bad choice to fall into the trap.

The movie shows Luke almost fall, again, as he considers ending his nephew’s life simply to avoid the risk of him turning to the dark side. Ultimately, he claims he wouldn’t have done it, but from Ben’s perspective? He saw his master about to kill him with a lightsaber, and he defended himself. Nothing Luke could have said after that would have changed that perception. Luke almost did it, and next time he might go through with it.

Thus Kylo Ren is born, a reluctant (rather emo) teenager who was betrayed by a family member who had authority over him. That would mess anyone up, bad. And it changed Luke too. He knows it was his fault, and he seems to decide that the only way to win this game of Light vs. Dark is not to play the game. He withdraws from the force, reluctant to keep making the same mistakes over and over. In the end, he turns back to it one last time in order to save the rebellion. This costs him his life, ultimately, but it keeps hope alive.

I love this, I have to say, and I don’t get the hate for it. I think it’s a brilliant end to the Luke story. He takes a path very similar to his own father. We see a cycle here, and we see that the person who can best break this cycle is someone who is not caught up in it at all- Rey. She is the real hope for the future of Jedi, and mainly because she is free of all of this historical nonsense. Her background as a random nobody makes her the ideal choice to form a new order, or even to reject the idea of a galactic vigilante police force altogether!

We’ll see what happens next. But what I hope is that the next Star Wars movie tells a NEW story already. The Force Awakens felt like a remake of a New Hope, and The Last Jedi feels like Empire Strikes Back. Yes, some of the plot points are inverted in order to shake up our preconceptions, and that’s fine. But I don’t want to see any more damn Death Stars or barely surviving groups of ragtag individuals who now have to rebuild from scratch…again.

Don’t Forget About Puerto Rico

(img courtesy of ABCNEWS)

Hurricane Maria hit the island of Puerto Rico just over 100 days ago, as I write this on December 30th, 2017. It was a monumental catastrophe for over 3 million Americans. As of today, about 1/3 of those Americans (over one million people) are still without power, and estimates are that the power will not be fully restored until May. The Rhodium Group notes that this is already the biggest blackout in U.S. history.

The links above are direct links to ones that appear in Alexia Campbell’s Vox article on the current state of Puerto Rico. Campbell also notes that many people have fled the island, probably for good, and FEMA is overwhelmed by the response that is still needed to help the island. Here’s a chart that she posted from FEMA about their efforts:

So, FEMA is engaging in massive relief efforts, but it’s still not enough. The mayor of San Juan continues to criticize President Trump’s response to the crisis:

“He has failed the moral imperative that any leader of the free world should hold at the highest level,” San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz said about the recovery efforts.

“All he needs to do is simple: do his job. I think the world has seen a commander in chief unable to command,” she said.

—-Newsweek, Dec. 28th, 2017

This criticism from Cruz has been pretty consistent since the disaster began, but to be fair to Trump, FEMA has remained on the island, despite his claims that he might have to pull aid because of the costs. I’m not sure what the upside to Trump’s threats was meant to be, but it has left residents on the island unsure of their future, which can’t be helpful.

In any case, Americans need to remain aware of the disaster that continues on the island. As that same Newsweek article notes, the official death toll is 66 persons, but the reality is probably over one thousand. Since the island is still in emergency mode, getting accurate numbers is difficult. However, the people on the island report much higher death numbers than the official stat.

Whatever the numbers, imagine for a moment being without power for over 3 months. Most Americans begin to panic if power is lost for a couple of days. Three months is practically unthinkable.

Beyond the problems on the island (though they should be the focus), the mainland U.S. is feeling the costs of the crisis as well. Campbell notes in her article that Florida could see a jump of nearly 100k new people from migration away from the island. Puerto Rico also supplies about 10 percent of the prescription drugs used in the U.S., and that manufacturing is obviously way down.

Instead of helping, some members of Congress seem to want to punish the island for criticizing the President’s response to the crisis. Despite criticism of early forms of the tax reform bill, which contains pointless taxes on goods made on the island, the final compromise bill still contained these taxes, which seems like kicking the territory while it is most vulnerable. Remember that this is a U.S. territory, not a foreign nation trying to sell goods to the U.S. As noted in the latter article, Puerto Rico has no representation in Congress. If they did, the bill would not have passed in its current state. I seem to recall some Americans complaining about taxation without representation at one point in our history, but apparently those concerns are a thing of the past.

In any case, as you read this, Americans are continuing to suffer in Puerto Rico. It’s a forgotten crisis that is far from over. If everyone reading this donated even a small amount to relief efforts, it would help, if only a little. As we enjoy our holidays, free from worries about clean water and electricity, we should all remember those who are doing without these basic modern necessities. This is the time of year when we try to remember our common humanity; when we are told to love our neighbors as ourselves. Puerto Ricans are not neighbors. They are family, and we should support them both because of that and because they are humans in desperate need.

Winter Steam Sale 2017-2018: What to get!

Ok, it’s that most wonderful time of the year once again….the Winter Steam Sale! So many games will be on sale. Your backlog is begging for nutrients. Here’s how to fill it! I’m going to look at games at different price points. Each will be followed by a brief description of the game and why you might like it. Hopefully, this will help you sift through all the options out there. A quick reminder though: Steam Sales can vary day to day. I’m focusing on the sales as I see them on day one. Some of these will be the same throughout, but sometimes there are daily deals. Keep an eye out!

 

Under $10—these are the true value games…the ones that cost less than a lunch. Note that some of these games are only worth buying at this price point, while others are worth the full price. You are just getting a great value here!

Stardew Valley– A life sim game, where you catch fish or cook or become a blacksmith. It’s cute and popular.

Alien: Isolation– Survival horror in the Aliens universe. Unnerving….

Hollow Knight– Dead Cells is my GOTY, but this metroidvania game deserves love too. Just fantastic!

West of Loathing– handrawn RPG set in the old west…FUNNY stuff. This is always cheap, but is now cheaper!

Planet Coaster – technically a little above $10, but close enough. It’s a planet of rollercoasters!

 

Under $20—Do I have to note that these are above $10, or they would be in the previous category? These are games that are mostly a year or more old, and thus starting to fall in price anyway. But now you can get them even cheaper! Some of these games may have started off relatively inexpensive.

Prey– As noted in my best of the year article, this has echoes of System Shock. It’s a FPS in space, with a unique transformation feature. This is a good deal on it, too!

Battle Brothers– Cool turn based strategy game. You move bobbleheads (err…tokens) around in a medieval setting. This is about ten dollars cheaper than normal.

Fallout 4- It’s Fallout 4. If you don’t have it yet, you know if you’ve been waiting for this price point.

Book of Demons– This one is normally 20 dollars, but is 33% off right now. It’s still in development, but has a great 2d style of art, and use of cards in dungeons and such. There’s a demo, if you want to try it first!

Witcher III: GOTY Edition– One of the best open world RPGs of all time. Get this one.

 

Under $30—These are newer games (mostly) that tend to cost a lot at full price. However, the sale makes them much more affordable. If you can wait until the Summer Sale, these could go into the $20 or less category, but let’s face it, we need games to play during the long, cold nights!

Wolfenstein 2: the New Colossus– Kill Nazis in the face!

Southpark: Fractured but Whole– the sequel to the other SP RPG; this one has super heroes and was received a little less favorably than the first one.

The Evil Within 2– Survival Horror. Slick production.

 

Over $30—A discount is a discount, right? These are all newer games, or games that hold their value for some reason. Frankly, I rarely buy games at this price anymore, at least for the PC. If I’m willing to wait a few months, they will almost always drop below this price point. However, there are some exceptions to this rule! And here they are:

Middle Earth: Shadow of War– The sequel to Shadows of Mordor, which introduced a fantastic Nemesis system where the bad guys get tougher as they beat you and you want revenge. More of the same, but that’s OK.

Assassin’s Creed: Origins– It’s 30% off, but still more than I would pay for it, even though I like this series.

 

These are some of the best games in the Steam Sale. If I missed one of your favorites, let me know, and I’ll add it for others to see!

2017 Game of the Year (and other games you should play!)

Ok, this one is a two part blog that will look at what I think are the games of the year for 2017, and then in part 2, the games I think you should get from the upcoming Steam Sale (which starts December 21st).

Let’s start with the best games of this year. I should note that I have not played all the games that came out this year, or even all of the top rated games. So this is my personal list. A couple of these games came out very recently and thus haven’t gotten much playing time from me yet. I plan to rectify that over the holidays, though!

Let’s start with these late comers. First up, is Dominions 5. Dominions 5 just came out at the end of November. It’s the fifth installment in Illwinter’s long running series of massive 4X strategy games. I’m a HUGE fan of this series. The graphics are from the 90s (maybe even the 80s!). Get over it. They aren’t going to modernize them, apparently. But this is one of the deepest games you can get, which means it also has a bit of a learning curve. If you’ve played previous games in the series, it will feel very familiar. The tweaks are great, though, with battles being fixed to allow for better fairness among attackers and defenders. Simultaneous movement makes the battles faster and changes your strategies. You still only control the basic orders of your troops, however, and not the details. With so many units, that’s a good thing.

Those new to the series will discover a ton of nations to choose from. You play as a Pretender god, trying to become the one true god of the realm. You choose from all sorts of attributes, traits, magic systems, etc. as you customize your Pretender. Your troops receive blessings based on these choices, and some gods will stay at home researching magics and helping armies from afar, while others will be your biggest shock troop, wading into the enemy in the midst of your armies. There are benefits to both approaches; so take time to tinker with them.

Steam says that I played Dominions 4 for 238 hours. I must have liked it a lot!

The second late comer is Etrian Odyssey 5, for the 3DS. To be honest, my personal 3DS time this year was dominated by Shin Megami Tensei IV, which is kind of a Pokemon on demonic steroids. It’s fantastic, but it didn’t come out this year. Etrian Odyssey is a series of dungeon crawlers from Japan that is reminiscent of the old Eye of the Beholder or Wizardry games from decades ago. You assemble a small party from different class choices and explore a brutally difficult world. Leveling up gives you the chance to customize each character and develop the strengths you want them to have.

The dungeons include gathering of resources too, which means you need farming teams that will help your main combat team get better items. Each iteration of the series has added new elements, such as overland exploration, airships, ocean sailing, etc. This particular version may have the best music of the series; so play it with the sound on when possible. If you are new to the series, IV is worth playing first, but you would be fine jumping right into this installment.

Want a light-hearted game instead, one that you can jump into easily and find yourself laughing until the end? Try West of Loathing. This sequel to Kingdom of Loathing is completely irreverent. It’s all stick figures with cool hats (really cool hats!) taming the old west, or something. Play it!

Before my pick, here are some games I think I would love, but I didn’t get to play just yet. The first is Prey. This has serious System Shock vibes, and SS2 is one of my all time favorite games. I’m looking forward to playing it! Horizon: Zero Dawn is on the PS4, which I don’t yet own, but it’s supposed to be a great time, what with fighting robot dinosaurs and such! Divinity: Original Sin 2 is the sequel to a great game, where you can use objects in the world to create cool terrain effects. This one is supposed to improve the original in every way!

But my game of the year is still in Early Access on Steam. As a result, it’s not eligible for most GOTY lists. Luckily, I have no editors and no rules stopping me from saying that Dead Cells is the best game I played this year. I LOVE IT!!!!!

Dead Cells is a metroidvania rogue-like game, where each run gives you the chance to earn powerups in the game that will help you get a bit further on your next run. The controls are perfect, to the point where you pretty much have to blame yourself when you die. It’s hard, but not frustratingly so. And it’s quirky in all the right ways. A recent patch has completely changed the gameplay in several ways; so keep in mind that this game is not yet finalized. But it’s very playable (obviously), and TONS of fun. Go get it right now (or wait for the upcoming Steam Sale!). You will get a LOT of gameplay out of it. Perfect for short or long gaming sessions. I’ve put in over 50 hours of Dead Cells this year, according to Steam, and I’ve loved every minute of it!

So that’s my GOTY list. Next article I’ll discuss what you should get in the Steam Sale. Hint: Get Dead Cells, already!

Hmmm…Cutting Medicare and Social Security Is Next? Who Could See This Coming??

I’ll be honest. I really did think that Republican legislators would at least continue to pretend that tax reforms were just about trying to improve the economy…for a BIT longer. I mean, I knew what was really happening. The tax reform bills that are currently in the process of being passed (still possible they won’t be, but don’t count on it) are a bad idea on their own, as I noted previously. Many have wondered why it is being rushed through without proper vetting. Part of the answer has to do with budget reconciliation, the process by which it is being passed (in order to avoid being filibustered by Democrats). But there is also some urgency to get it into this coming year’s tax code, in order to set up a run at getting rid of social security and Medicare.

But don’t take my word for it.

Paul Ryan has just admitted that the next move is to reform “Entitlements”. I use scare quotes there for a reason. When you label programs like Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security ‘entitlements’, they sound undeserved. You could label them as ‘rights’, or as ‘safety nets’, or as ‘positive liberties’. Each of these labels would be accurate and basically neutral in approach. Perhaps ‘rights’ would imply a bit of necessity that isn’t warranted, due to confusion people have between natural rights (e.g. self defense) vs. political rights (e.g. public libraries). Still, one can argue about what rights people should have. ‘Entitlements’ sounds like someone is getting away with something sneaky. In this case, though, that someone is the GOP.

Trump was elected in part under the premise that he was not going to get rid of social security or Medicare. Many of his voters love these programs, which they absolutely see as earned by a lifetime of working for this country. I agree with them. However, the Baby Boomer generation is reaching a point where they will drain both programs at an alarming rate. They outnumber the generations that follow them, which will lead to a huge surge in spending money on people who are no longer part of the work force. In this sense, Ryan has a point. We have to look at options on how to solve this problem.

But this is where the trick was played. By lowering taxes first, Congress will create a deficit of well over $1trillion. In other words, the government will be spending more than it is bringing in during each fiscal year. This increases national debt, and the deficit has long been a concern of conservative politicians, or least that’s what they claim. So one might wonder why they would pass a bill that raises the deficit by this dramatic of an amount.

The answer is simple. They can then justify spending cuts in order to ‘balance the budget’. Of course, the budget will be completely unbalanced due to their own tax cuts. The real goal all along was to slash government programs. They couldn’t do this first, however, because people would complain. Instead, they will fabricate a budget crisis (which might have happened anyway, as I noted, since we do have an increasing number of elderly citizens) by exacerbating the deficit to the point where something must be done. They will then claim that they must, reluctantly, cut spending to “entitlements” in order to prevent the government from going bankrupt. The alternative is government shutdown, which no one wants.

It’s not a particularly clever strategy, but it will work nonetheless, because most Americans don’t pay much attention to politics. I mean they hear about the scandals, and if it is from the side they didn’t elect, they will express grave concern or some version of ‘politicians are all terrible!’. If it is on their own side, they will question the accusers enough to remain satisfied that their politicians are still the lesser of two evils, and at least they aren’t the other side!

What they will not notice is that Congress played them in a long game of switcheroo (or insert your favorite word for a scam that uses misdirection as a key component).

I’m not the only one seeing this, of course. I started working on this article on December 6th or 7th. Here’s an article from the 8th from the New Yorker observing the same thing. Anyone who has paid attention to the goals of people like Paul Ryan have known that this is coming. It’s been Ryan’s dream to eliminate the welfare state. Again, on one level, I get it. You don’t want people dependent on handouts. However, both statistically and anecdotally, this doesn’t happen as often as some think. We have studies on abuses of welfare, since it’s kind of a big political issue. Families in the system aren’t outspending those who aren’t, despite the myth that welfare somehow affords people a good life. Food Stamps are heavily monitored, despite the focus on stories where someone dares to buy lobster with them or something.

There are counters to the points made above. Here’s one from Forbes, for example, arguing that there’s a lot of abuse of the system. When you look at the arguments, though, they focus on cases where disability benefits were awarded with “insufficient or incomplete” evidence. That doesn’t mean the person didn’t need the benefits. It means the courts didn’t gather enough evidence first. The article also focuses on how few of these beneficiaries return to work, finding the low number alarming. Given that disability benefits often require 2 to 4 years of being turned down, appealing, being turned down again, and appealing again, many of the people who are awarded benefits have disabilities that have prevented them from working for years. They aren’t likely to return to work, because they aren’t able to do so. Unless the writer has a reason to believe these recipients could have gone back to work but didn’t, the argument seems misleading at best.

Anecdotally, I’ve known many people who have tried to receive disability, and the process is time consuming and dehumanizing. It is meant to incentivize you to give up on the process. Having to prove over and over that you are disabled leaves people feeling pretty worthless once the process is completed.

However, I realize that I’m not likely to change minds on this particular issue. You either support safety nets for our society or you don’t (or only do in extreme cases). The point here is that Congress is trying to remove those safety nets, and they are doing it by cutting government income first, so that they can justify cutting the programs.

I often point out that we should not try to create analogies between national spending and household spending. It leads to a lot of misleading distortions. That said, let’s imagine how you would tackle a problem like growing debt in your own life. You know you will have to either increase income or decrease spending. In this sense, the basic analogy between government and households is sufficient for our purposes (not perfect, but close enough to get the point). Which would you do first? What Congress has opted to do is decrease income, first, and then decrease spending later. Note that decreasing income was never one of the options you would have considered. It doesn’t make any sense, UNLESS you are trying to force yourself to decrease your spending by creating a shortfall in income.

That’s basically what is happening here, but the goal is to slash programs that one side of our political system doesn’t like, and has never liked. That’s fine, if they were transparent about the process. But these same politicians promised their voters that they were not going to cut social security. So, watch what happens next!

Nostalgia- Poisoning the Well of Every Remake

Thanks to websites like Kickstarter and Fig , video game developers are able to crowdfund projects that full scale publishers are less likely to support. As a result, we are experiencing something of a retro gaming revival, as older properties are finally developing sequels (e.g. Psychonauts , Wasteland, and maybe even Starflight (cross your fingers, damnit!!)). At the same time, some developers have tried to recreate the glories of the past by starting new intellectual properties that are spiritual successors of a sort. Pillars of Eternity, which I’ve written about before, and Torment: Tides of Numenera are good examples of this trend. Both of these games recall the famous Bioware/Black Isle Infinity Engine games, such as the Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale series. Tides of Numenera even borrows the name of one of these games, Planescape: Torment. This was a direct attempt to tie the newer game to one of the most beloved games of all time among PC gamers who enjoy RPGs.

These sequels, direct or spiritual, have met with mixed responses, both commercially and critically. Pillars of Eternity has been enough of a success that a sequel was kickstarted in the last year, one which I have contributed to thanks to my enjoyment of the first game in the series. It relies on a new world, and even a new engine, but both are heavily inspired by the Infinity Engine games, with their isometric viewpoints, control of an entire party of characters, pausable, real-time combat, and world building.

However, one of the problems that game developers encounter when trying to appeal to nostalgia is that we tend to remember all the great parts of these older games, but gloss over the flaws. A great example of this is with Planescape’s recent revival (of a sort) in Tides of Numenera. The original Planescape was a bit of an odd duck in the Infinity Engine games. You play an immortal, though you have no idea why you are immortal. In fact, you wake up in a morgue with amnesia. A large part of the game is simply trying to remember who you are and what you were trying to do. Your memories come back in flashes, often tied to your attributes. The game is perhaps the only one in the Dungeons and Dragons system to make the attributes of Charisma and Intelligence useful, regardless of the class you play (in fact, you can multi-class as a fighter, mage, and thief in this game).

But what made Planescape a classic was the writing. It was very good, not just for a video game, but in general. The lead designer and writer, Chris Avellone, has a degree in English and has studied philosophy. This background allowed him to explore ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology in a setting that involved a city that sits among all the dimensions of the D&D world. So, the denizens of the main city in the game come from planes of order, chaos, logic, and sensuality. The game had an entire faction built around the notion of empiricism, where we learn by experience, that focused on being able to absorb the experiences that others have had.

The result was a game that played like a choose your own adventure, complete with lots and lots of reading. By most accounts, the combat was sub-par. The graphics were average, and the Infinity Engine was already becoming a bit long in the tooth at the time. In other words, the world building is what made this game so amazing, and people who played it in their late teens through mid twenties were treated to a deep exploration of the human condition, often offering philosophical ideas that they had never yet experienced. It was a work of art in this way.

It was also a lot of reading. I replayed the game recently, and it’s bogged down in reading. Certain parts of the game, such as a sequence where you walk through a tomb full of traps, are downright rage inducing.

Enter Torment: Tides of Numenera. In an attempt to capture what made Planescape so great, Torment developers assured Kickstarters that there would be lots of reading and excellent worldbuilding. The reviews confirm both, but the response has been much more mixed than it was with Planescape. Perhaps this can be attributed to lesser writing, an inferior setting, awkward implementation. But at least some of it is the nostalgia problem. We really can’t go back again and experience a game like this for the first time.

Interestingly, we can go back and play the original, and some people will have glimpses of the amazing experiences they once enjoyed, a bit like the Sensate crystals in Planescape. It’s not the real thing, but it’s a taste of something primal and satisfying. Unfortunately, this is not the same thing, and the newer game will often suffer by comparison to a memory that is largely constructed (or perhaps deconstructed, distilled down into only its positive elements, cleaned up of the negative aspects that surely must have frustrated us at the time).

So, should developers risk this nostalgia backlash? I’m not sure I can answer that question. It probably depends on sales. Even if gamers do not praise the newer version in the same way as the old, it could be financially rewarding. Of course, Planescape itself did not sell particularly well in its day, especially compared to the other Infinity Engine games. Some of the best games of all time were financial disasters (Freespace 2 is the most egregious example—that game deserved so much more!).

One thing I can say, though, with reasonable certainty is that there is no way to really recapture an experience like that. When I was a teenager I would play strategy roleplaying games for 8 hours or more, having my meals as I played, and taking breaks just to go to the bathroom. I’ve seen the sun rise after playing a game all night. Not only do I no longer have that kind of time, I would see it as a waste. Beyond the ways in which our own phenomenological selves have changed, games themselves have developed, with better UIs (usually!), graphics, etc. We have expectations that didn’t exist when the original games were created, forcing developers to choose between modern expectations and nostalgic demands for accurate re-creations. The best of these reboots (e.g. Divinity: Original Sin) remake the engine completely, often forsaking nostalgia altogether, but using the license itself to create interest. The worst leave fans feeling the bitter pains of age, as they realize that memories are best when left alone.

Trickle Down, Again??

Ok, one of the new tax bills that is going through Congress at the moment of this writing seeks to provide some temporary tax cuts for some Americans while giving permanent cuts to corporations. It is the main goal that President Trump has had since he was elected. Tax reform. It sounds like a relatively innocuous policy. Taxes are complicated, and paying them hurts you economically; so they need to be reformed, right?

Let’s set aside for the moment the fact that Trump himself has been touting a strong economy since he was elected. The stock market is hitting record highs. Unemployment is pretty much back at pre-recession levels. While some groups are not seeing these benefits, the wealthier half of Americans (those making over the around $53k per year in household income that is the median in the U.S.) are doing fine. We might ask why the economy needs a boost at all?

But let’s just grant that boosting the economy is always good. Is this the right way to do it? No. It isn’t.

The reason why is very simple. The tax bill being proposed is strongly slanted toward the wealthier Americans that I just showed are doing fine already. Here is the CBO’s analysis of what the after tax incomes of Americans will look like in 2019 and 2027 under the proposed plan:

As you can see, the short-term benefits go to Americans making more than $30k per year, and those cuts expire in 2027, which is why the chart shows that starting that year, only those making $75k or more will see benefits under this plan. Why do the cuts expire, you might wonder? That’s by design. It’s meant to provide an infusion to the economy without permanently blowing up the deficient. But it will still blow up the deficit.

The tax bill will raise the deficit by $1.5 trillion over the next ten years. That’s an odd result given that the party proposing it literally threatened to shut down the government when Obama was President because of growing deficits. However, the proponents of the bill claim that the tax cuts will grow the economy and thus offset these losses by increasing earnings overall, which in turn will raise taxes.

This is the magic of so-called ‘trickle down economics’. The idea is pretty simple. If you cut taxes on corporations and high-income earners, they will be able to start more businesses and hire more people. Unfortunately, there is almost no historical evidence that this is the case, even though it’s been tried off and on since the 1980s, and plenty of evidence that it does not work. Even in particular states, such as Kansas, it has had disastrous results.

But let’s set aside the numbers and history for a moment and just think about why this is a bad idea in principle. It’s very simple, so simple that you might suspect the people proposing these policies know they don’t work and thus have other motives for cutting taxes on the wealthy.

Suppose you own a business. You make something simple, like ice cream cones. In the Summer you have better sales, of course, because people buy more ice cream in the Summer. In other words, there is more demand; so, you make more money. You know that, which means you make more cones in the Summer. You may even hire extra people to make your product. Now, suppose one January you get a tax cut due to legislation. Will you hire more people with the extra money?

Of course not! You hire people because of demand, not because of how much money you have on hand. If cone sales are down, hiring more people would just raise your costs and eliminate the money you got from the tax break. Well, maybe you could open another business, selling a product that is popular in winter? Maybe….but again, whether you do that or not depends on whether you have the ability to run that business and whether there is a spot in the market for it. In other words, it doesn’t really depend on cash on hand. In fact, most people start businesses using business loans, so they don’t have to risk their own money on it. The corporate status protects their personal assets.

In other words, where does more money from tax cuts go when wealthy people receive it? In their pockets mostly. But what about spending it on goods, you might ask? Wealthy people can already buy all the goods they want. Giving them more money doesn’t increase their spending. In fact, once you hit the top 20% or so of American households (which is $120k per year or more), spending tends to plateau a bit. We can only eat so much food and buy so many cars.

Growing the economy is complicated, and there is some truth in the idea that over taxation can curtail spending. However, we are nowhere near being overtaxed right now. Tax rates in the U.S. are very low, especially on top earners. Lowering them even more is unlikely to have any significant effects, and trickle down approaches to growing the economy won’t work for one simple reason. Economies grow based on demand, not supplies. If it were as easy as making tons of product, Atari wouldn’t have filled a dump with ET cartridges in the 80s.

This is a bad bill. But don’t take it from me. Ask Forbes magazine, the pro business mag.

Why do I support a state welfare system?

(image found just about everywhere in some form, but this one is credit to quora.com)

Sometimes I answer questions on Quora, which is a website dedicated to having people with different viewpoints discuss issues and give perspectives. Some questions are very straightforward, like “What is the best router out there right now?” I don’t answer those, because I don’t find them interesting. Some I answer because they fit me: “As a teacher, have you ever had X happen?” These are good opportunities to share experiences with people new to the profession. However, I also answer some political viewpoint questions. One question that was asked was: “How come so many liberals support the welfare system but don’t collect on it?” I’m posting my answer in full below, with some followup thoughts on the matter. The very short answer is this: I think it’s the most efficient way to help those in need in our country. Here’s the long version:

I can’t speak for others, but I support the welfare system because I believe that a government run safety net is a better way to get people help that they need than private charities. Private charities tend to reward people that the givers either know personally or agree with in some way. Much of the money a church collects, for example, will go to members of that congregation in need or to people deemed worthy of helping by that congregation, which can be based on whatever criteria they see fit.

This means that if you do not fit the criteria (perhaps you aren’t a Christian, for example), you are FAR less likely to get help, even if you need it.

Now, I will grant that the more math based approach govt. takes isn’t perfect either. Simply being below the poverty line does not in itself mean that you deserve help. Perhaps you did something foolish or reckless to be in that situation. In general, I think that the people who deserve the most help are those that are experiencing misfortune through no fault of their own. So, one might think I would prefer the private charity approach, where help is based on merit. However, in my experience, merit gets defined, again, as being similar to the person giving, or to somehow fitting the arbitrary criteria of the private donors.

So, I take a welfare system to be the better approach. It’s far from perfect. But it has established criteria, that are not arbitrary, that can get help to people in need. I once read that in order to replace welfare in the U.S., private donations would need to be ten TIMES higher than they are now. While some believe that lowering taxes would allow private charities to make up this difference, I see no evidence for that. People who give to charity do so regardless of taxation. People who get breaks on their taxes, who were not giving before, do not suddenly give. They spend the money on themselves, in my experience.

As a result, I support the public welfare approach to this problem, even though I do not get welfare, and I am unlikely to ever need it. Together, my wife and I make 6 figures a year; we don’t have children and will not have children. We have no debt, other than our mortgage. I support welfare as a means to helping the needy in our society.

Followup thoughts: I’ve gotten a lot of positive response to this question on Quora, but I left out some things for the sake of brevity. First, I did not always think this way. In my youth, I would have called myself a social liberal and fiscal conservative. I probably even used the label ‘libertarian’ at several points. I now shudder to think back to how easily I adapted that label, without really understanding libertarianism. I basically thought that the government should stay out of economics altogether. People should sink or swim on their own, since we all had opportunity. If you didn’t take advantage of it, that was your fault. If it wasn’t your fault, charities would help you. The government would just mess it all up!

I was very naïve. Perhaps I still am. In any case, what I didn’t realize at the time is fairly simple to articulate now. We don’t all have the same opportunities in this world. Libertarianism assumes an equal playing field that simply does not exist in the real world. As a white, reasonably attractive, reasonably intelligent, well educated, male not only were certain doors open to me that were closed to others, but in many cases, I could take the closed doors and open them with a simple request. If I made a mistake, it was never damning. I would always get another chance after that one. I didn’t realize that I was living life in easy mode until I started to examine the system in more detail in grad school. I became more politically aware, and I understand how the US system pretends at social mobility but only fulfills that promise to select groups.

More simply, I didn’t understand the ways in which factors outside our control could influence our opportunities. I should have seen it; no excuses. I should have. But when you are benefiting from an existing system, you tend not to question it. You buy into the narrative that it’s good for everyone. Sure, I had black coworkers try to explain to me what driving while black meant, and the ways in which they were judged all the time, with people expecting them to make a wrong move. But I didn’t listen. I just never saw this happen. I mean I knew they believed this, but it struck me as unlikely. This wasn’t the 60s. Racism was largely a thing of the past, I thought.

Then, I became a college professor. I started to see how the different upbringings of different groups (racial, economic, etc.) influenced the way students thought, their ability to write, the information available to them when making arguments…it was so obvious. I thought back to how I arrived where I was, and I realized all the advantages that were given to me: a private education for the first 6 years of my schooling, which set me ahead of all my public education peers, a safety net that meant I would never go hungry or wonder where I might sleep each night, a support system for emotional problems…the list goes on and on. But even aside from these things, I could think back to the times where I was doing something wrong (kid stuff), and the police and other authority figures would give me the benefit of doubt. I’d get a warning, or a slap on the hand.

I read the studies showing that just having an African American sounding name made companies less likely to hire you. I listened to women tell me their stories of harassment, the ways they had to endure leering, suggestive language, etc. as the price of trying to make a living. I looked at my peers in academia, and we all looked the same, talked the same, shared worldviews.

Hopefully, my point is clear. There are many people who are disadvantaged in life through no fault of their own. Sometimes these people get sick or lose their job, not because they did anything wrong, but because they were unlucky. They may lack the support structure that you or I take for granted. I’ve had so many students tell me stories like this. They have no one to help them. No one. If something goes wrong, they are doomed without help. If they make a mistake, they are condemned for it. In many cases, even if they do everything right and earn a degree, they may be unable to find a job in today’s world. I’m not talking about people who got degrees in things you think are worthless. I’m talking about geologists, psychologists, business students….doesn’t matter.

Sometimes people need help to get back on their feet. Social safety nets provide that help. Can they be abused? Yes, of course! And we should limit that abuse. But study after study suggests that welfare fraud isn’t that common and doesn’t cost that much. I’m willing to accept this as the cost of such systems, in the same way I accept that the taxes I pay so kids can go to school will often be misused. It’s worth it to have a system in place that can help the people that really need it.

Seriously? Just LISTEN Already and Quit Acting Shocked!

(Content Warning—going to talk about some of the issues of people abusing power, especially by victimizing women and marginalized groups.)

Over the last couple of weeks, all sorts of stories have been breaking about women, minorities, trans persons, and other vulnerable groups being harassed by people in power. I’m going to go ahead and echo a much more popular writer, Harris O’Malley, who goes by “Dr. Nerdlove” and spends most of his online energy helping socially awkward people understand relationships better. Marginalized voices have been screaming that they are being exploited, and they are being ignored. You want to do some good in the world? Start by listening to the people who are being victimized.

No, don’t talk over them. Don’t what-about them. Don’t accuse them of exaggerating. LISTEN.

Hear what they are saying. Do you want more evidence before you condemn someone for something that is likely to destroy that person’s life? I get that. Really, I do. False accusations can do real harm; but they are also pretty rare. You know why? Because being assaulted or harassed or even belittled is not something people brag about in most cases. In fact, they usually don’t want anyone to know. It’s a demeaning experience, and reliving it can be almost as awful as the incident itself.

Add to that the fact that if you make such allegations, you can be blacklisted from a whole community, including the one that involves your career. If you are the sole voice, you will be ignored; only once you are joined by a growing chorus of people, with the same story repeated over and over, will the public finally listen.

Then, once the person admits what he has done (it’s almost always a white guy, at least in the U.S., despite the fact I linked to the Cosby scandal above), many people will focus on the lack of criticism toward the attacker. This is what is happening with the current admission of Harvey Weinstein. Weinstein has been accused for years of harassing younger women who were eager to break into the Hollywood industry. His admission takes the usual form of “It’s not all true” combined with “I need help” that is meant to be more of an apologetic defense than a real statement of guilt. It’s disgusting on its own.

However, that’s when the cries of “What does Hillary Clinton have to say about this??” arise. Yes, that’s from FoxNews, but here’s CNN’s version. You see, what’s important here is not that a media mogul abused his power and harmed who knows how many women. What’s important is how OTHER women and minorities respond to this. Let’s be clear. Clinton, because of her past associations with Weinstein (he was a major campaign contributor) can’t win here. This is just another way to attack someone who is no longer even in the political spotlight. It’s a retroactive ‘told ya so’ from people who don’t really care about Weinstein’s victims at all.

(Edit: Since I published this, Clinton DID speak out and condemn Weinstein. The comments on social media confirmed what I suspected. Those calling on her to speak called her a hypocrite for condemning this when (according to them) she stood by her own husband during a scandal. In other words, she had no way to satisfy critics. Still, I’m glad she spoke out and condemned Weinstein.)

Again, they aren’t listening. They are using the moment to talk about something else.

In the same way, Buzzfeed’s recent reveal that (again, shockingly) Breitbart and its then-lackey, Milo Yiannopoulos, had ties to White Nationalist groups underplayed the ways in which Yiannopoulous and others have attacked women online, generating hate mobs that were meant to chase people out of the video game industry, for example.

Once again, many already knew this, and shouted it over and over and over. Nobody listened.

These misuses of power are all over our society, and the victims have been asking for help. If you didn’t hear them, it’s because you weren’t listening. It’s time that we all (myself included) do a MUCH better job.

Damnit, Wolfenstein, You Have to Earn a Moral Dilemma!

Ok, so I’m still playing Wolfenstein: New Order from time to time. In previous blog, I mentioned enjoying killing Nazis, due to the lack of moral ambiguity. Of course, I simply assumed the lack of ambiguity. A recent post by the makers of the game, which said “Make America Nazi-Free Again” apparently upset people who see a game about killing Nazis as a political statement against the alt-right. That’s funny. But also, sad. In any case, I don’t find it very interesting that literal Nazis are upset for being called Nazis.

Instead, I’m going to write about an issue I have in New Order. Overall, it’s a great game, and I’m really enjoying it. I like the premise, where Nazis won WW2, and I was basically ‘knocked out’ for 20 years while they ruled the world, only to arise and join the resistance. Pretty neat stuff!

However, there is a scene, fairly early in the game, that annoys me as an ethicist…and perhaps just as a decent person (if you are willing to concede that to me!). WARNING: What follows will be a spoiler of the end of the first level of the game. If you want to play the game, and avoid the spoiler, DO NOT READ FURTHER!

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Still here? OK, in the scene in question, you have to choose between two hostages that the enemy has taken. The Big Bad Guy is going to kill one of the two men, who are squad mates on your team. He forces you to choose which one. This is meant to be a classic moral dilemma, a Sophie’s Choice moment, where you must choose between two beloved people (yeah, I just spoiled that book for you, too!).

There are bonuses to you for the rest of the game, depending on which choice you make. One gives you more hitpoints, and the other gives you more armor, basically. They also change gameplay by a small amount, with one giving you the ability to hotwire certain things, and the other the ability to pick locks.

Whatever. The idea of having a choice that unlocks different bonuses is pretty cool, but the choice itself is not. There are at least three problems with it.

First, you really don’t know either of these people. I’m sure they played roles in the mission somehow, but I’ll be honest. I didn’t remember either name or face when I was suddenly confronted with having to choose between them. After realizing the second problem (which I’ll get to in a second), I based my choice on purely utilitarian reasons. You see, I teach the Trolley Problem, and I know the proper solution. Once you rule out the deontological solution, you go with utility. One guy looked older than the other. So I chose to let the older guy die, figuring the other had a longer life ahead. I didn’t know the bonuses, and thus had no way of basing my choice on that. I guess I could have reloaded, but I already had to that once because you see….

The second problem is that you can’t bow out of the choice. My first instinct was to refuse. “No way, Bad Guy! I won’t do it! I’m a good person, and will not be an accessory to murder! Bite me, Nazi Scum!” Only that didn’t work. We all died, and I had to reload. Not choosing was not a legit choice. Oh, in the real world, it would be. But the game wanted to make a point. It wanted me to feel some guilt; it wanted pathos. But that leads to the third, and biggest problem….

The game never earned this moment. Moral dilemmas aren’t a chance to be edgy. They are a tragic part of human life, very rare, and very damaging when we are forced to make them. Moral dilemmas hurt, especially when the cost is human life. This is a game about killing Nazis. I’m playing it to avoid moral dilemmas. I don’t mean that video games must avoid hard moral choices, but this particular game is so over the top with it’s bad guys that it’s not really a game about moral ambiguity at all. It’s killing Nazis. Contrary to what some stupid, young, white, male, Americans seem to think (and yes, they are ALL those things….well, not all are young, but they are mentally immature), there’s nothing cool about Nazis. There are no redeeming qualities. I don’t care that Hitler liked dogs or was a vegetarian. He was a monster. I apologize when I use Nazis as examples in ethics, because it’s too easy.

Wolfenstein: New Order blindsided me with this horrific choice, and I resent it. Yeah, I’m still playing it, but it marred an otherwise uniformly enjoyable game by faking some deep emotions. Games like Fallout earn it, but Wolfenstein didn’t!