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!

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.

Since When Is Kneeling a Sign of Disrespect??

Here we go again. A while back, I wrote an article about Colin Kaepernick’s attempts to raise awareness to various injustices in the U.S. by kneeling during the National Anthem before NFL games. My conclusion was that Kaepernick has every right to protest in whatever way he sees fit, and that he seemed to be trying to respect the country in how he went about his protest. That is still my view.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve seen comments on Facebook ranging from “Yeah, he has the right, but I don’t like it” to “I support this fully and would do the same” to “This is totally disrespectful to the Flag, and he should be in prison!” I’ve even seen some people claim that Kaepernick himself has changed his story on why he knelt. As far as I can tell, his story has been very consistent. He originally sat during the Anthem because he felt that standing was giving at least tacit consent to the injustices he saw, especially towards veterans and minorities. In fact, here is an article from last year showing him with the Green Beret that advised him to kneel instead, as kneeling before the flag is seen as a sign of respect.

Of course, I understand why critics would see it differently. They will say that standing is the respectful thing to do, and I’ll go ahead and assume that while they are at home watching the game, they get up off their couches and stand while the Anthem is being played, with their hands over their hearts and their hats removed. But surely there are different ways to show respect. Kneeling is a very traditional sign of respect, for example. In the Wiki I just linked there is a photograph of a military officer kneeling with the flag, as a show of respect to someone who lost a loved one (and to the flag, by extension).

But Kaepernick and the NFL players who have joined him are kneeling as a form of protest. That’s certainly true. So, they do disagree with at least certain aspect of American society. Is that what is disrespectful? I’m not sure how. The U.S. has a long tradition of peaceful protest, and many of our most important civil rights came about due to such protests, some of which were very inconvenient for others in society.

One of the things that continues to baffle me throughout this conversation is the question of ‘proper’ protesting. Protesting, by its very nature, is a sign of disagreement. A person can respectfully disagree with another person, or even with an idea or a nation. Disagreement, by itself, is not disrespect. However, it is almost always painful or slighting to the person on the other side of the disagreement. This is human nature. If a person tells you that he or she strongly disagrees with you, it’s hard not to feel hurt, perhaps even attacked. If the person says, “I still respect you, however,” this lessens the blow, but doesn’t completely eliminate it.

I suspect this is how many people feel when they see NFL players kneel. The players say that they are protesting injustices in our society. Some people might think “But I didn’t cause that injustice! Why are you attacking me?” That response, while understandable, is misguided. These players are not attacking specific people. They are trying to raise awareness of a problem that has not yet been solved. Certainly, things are better for minorities in America than they were fifty years ago, but they are far from fine. We need to be reminded of this from time to time.

That’s going to ruffle some feathers (or some flags?), but it’s not disrespectful. There is nothing in the original Constitution about honoring the flag. In fact, the history of fetishizing the U.S. flag as some sort of symbol of the country and purity of ideology is relatively new. The rules about how to treat the flag are less than 100 years old, and many of the things we take for granted about respect for the flag are even more recent.

But what I find more troubling is the selective use of this flag worship. In 2006, Kid Rock wore the flag as a poncho during a Superbowl concert, and I don’t recall people up in arms over it (though a Democrat from Georgia apparently didn’t like it!). I’ve seen flag bathing suits, scarves, and even beach towels (the flag isn’t supposed to touch the ground!). But kneeling before it as a sign of protest is somehow disrespectful? Come on. You tell me why certain people are bothered by this form of protest, but not by the flagrant ways other people treat the flag, contrary to the rules we were taught as children.

I personally don’t care about those rules. The flag isn’t America. It’s an object. If you are religious, you aren’t supposed to worship idols. If you aren’t, well…you probably don’t worship the flag anyway. Nothing in this world inherently deserves our praise. That must be earned, and when your own nation is doing things that you think are not only unworthy of praise, but even problematic, then you should speak up about it. How you go about it matters, of course. You can’t harm other people, for example. But kneeling during the anthem doesn’t hurt anyone. It’s a basic right we have as Americans. It’s the First Amendment. It’s first because it’s very important for protecting our liberties.

The truth is that there is almost no way for NFL players to protest that would make certain critics happy. Anyone who complains that they are millionaires and/or ungrateful isn’t going to care about how they protest. They will criticize them regardless, as long as they are still noticeable. But a protest that isn’t noticed is pointless.

When President Trump decided to wade into this (at a rally in Alabama, no less, which just made me have to hear even more jokes directed at my home state…and I can’t even defend it because damn…those people cheered him!). . . when he decided to take a stand, as President, by calling on American citizens to be fired for exercising their First Amendment rights, he made a big mistake. The NFL is more unified on this issue than ever before. Their cause is growing, not shrinking. They are linking arms; they are unified.

Frankly, I’ve never seen NFL players show each other more respect than they are right now. Owners, coaches, players, even the commissioner, are all on the same side on this. It’s a strange thing to see, and it’s coming from a group of people who are tired of being told that they must remain silent to the injustices that they see in our country.

Do they respect the flag? Sure seems like it. In any case, I respect the hell out of them for making a stand….so to speak.

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 Afterellen.com-credit 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.