Sunday, July 27, 2014

Interview with Dick Cheney


OK, that last cartoon was just for fun, but I hope that this one also makes you think. Especially if you're a Republican. :)

Saturday, July 26, 2014

I try to be nice


Yup. I'm a nice guy, I really am. To a point. But then, inevitably, I have to leave the house. Or get on the computer. :)

Libertarian dogma in Kansas: the story of the next decade?



Will this be the story of the next decade? Maybe it should be.

After all, trickle-down economics was the American story of the first decade of this century, and it was a complete and utter failure. Everything the Bush administration promised us turned out to be a lie. We're still trying to dig ourselves out of the hole they dug for us.

But these people are faith-based, not evidence-based. They're not going to abandon their dogma just because it isn't true - especially not with billionaires spending millions to get them elected to office.

TPM covered this, too, along with other states where Republicans are "blowing up the laboratories of democracy':
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback is one of the most notable mad scientists. He’s rapidly taken Kansas to the extreme right, implementing the conservative wish list on abortion, voting rights, and public assistance. His biggest experiment in his laboratory has been a series of major tax bills that shift the impact of taxes down the income spectrum, cutting income taxes and corporate taxes and leaning more heavily on sales taxes.

The only problem? The fiscal disaster his changes created:
“Kansas is now hundreds of millions of dollars short in revenue collection, its job growth has lagged the rest of the nation, and Moody's has cut the state's bond rating. ‘Governor Brownback came in here with an agenda to reduce the size of government, reduce taxes, and create a great economic boom,’ says University of Kansas professor Burdett Loomis. ‘Now there's been a dramatic decline in revenues, no great increase in economic activity, and we've got red ink until the cows come home.’”
Brownback and his allies promised that the cost of the tax cuts would be more than made up for by new economic activity and new people moving to Kansas, but it turns out you can’t save the Economy Fairy just by clapping louder. The likely outcome is more cuts to schools and other state services — and maybe another lost job: Brownback’s own. Surprisingly for a strongly Republican state, Kansas is giving Brownback low approval ratings, and he’s polling dangerously close to his Democratic opponent.

Regardless of the facts, Brownback is happy with the results of the experiment: on yesterday’s edition of MSNBC’s “Daily Rundown,” Brownback insisted that his tax plan would bring economic growth eventually.

Yeah, you don't give up your faith just because it turns out you were wrong. You just say that Jesus will return someday. As long as you don't specify a date, you can keep on believing forever.

I'm particularly interested in this because it's Kansas, our neighbor here in Nebraska, and also because Brownback was once touted as a possible Republican presidential candidate. Of course, with the Koch brothers handing out the checks, there's no shortage of people who'll do whatever they want, regardless of its impact on the rest of us.

But TPM also talks about Louisiana, North Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin, where rigid ideology trumps reality.
So let’s go back and look at what these laboratories have produced. A simple comparison of the results with the stated hypotheses shows that these experiments haven’t succeeded. As Thom Tillis seeks a seat in the U.S. Senate and Walker, Jindal and Perry all look with one eye towards the White House, we should be asking: have these guys earned the promotion that they’re angling for?

Of course, judging all of these policies against their promised impact — Sam Brownback’s state revenues, North Carolina’s unemployment picture, Scott Walker’s jobs record — is just begging the question. Don’t look at what their experiments are supposed to produce, because you’re bound to be disappointed.

The advocates of the right-wing ideological agenda use job growth and higher revenues as a selling point, but it’s not actually relevant to their goals. The goal is to have government do less stuff for people on the lower end of the economic spectrum, and stay out of the way of the people on the higher end. That’s what they want to build in the laboratories of democracy.

When you put people like Sam Brownback in charge of your laboratory, don’t be surprised when they create a monster.

Good point. Did the Republicans during the Bush years really believe that tax cuts for the rich would create a booming economy and actually raise tax revenue? Did they really believe that the Iraq War would "pay for itself"?

Keep in mind that these were the same people who wanted to "starve the beast," to "drown America in a bathtub." They wanted to bankrupt America, as a way of forcing a smaller government on everyone.

In Kansas, they got tax cuts for the wealthy, as they wanted, but also huge cuts to education, which they also wanted. So,... were they really this inept, or were they just lying about what they expected to happen in the first place?

Or both? I'm not a big fan of conspiracy theories, and I don't think that these people are all that bright, anyway. Plus, they're faith-based. They find it easy to believe whatever they want to believe.

And if the risk is that they have to slash education funding, well, that's not a problem, either, is it?

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Faisal Saeed Al Mutar: The Contradiction of Islam



This is short, but good. Encouraging, too.

It was posted by Seth Andrews and, coincidentally, I just bought a t-shirt from him with The Thinking Atheist logo:


Nice, isn't it? (I actually bought a tan one, because dark colors are just too hot in the summer here. But this one shows up better on the page.)

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Christians are so oppressed these days!


The cartoonist - who must remain anonymous in order to protect his/her life and livelihood - nods to Ann Widdecombe, who claims that Nazis and Communists had it easy, compared to Christians today:
Ann Widdecombe has claimed it was easier to be a Nazi or a Communist in post-war Britain than being a Christian today because “quite militant secularism” discourages people from expressing their faith. ...

She claimed that respect for other's personal views meant people could have been a fascist in post-1945 Britain or a Communist during the Cold War but Christians now had started "suppressing the expression of conscience".

In an interview with BBC Radio 5 Live's Stephen Nolan, the Conservative former politician said concerns over "political correctness" meant people were reluctant to express their faith to others because "they think strong belief offends them".

Wow, that's really bad. If Christians say something in Britain these days, someone else may disagree with them. Openly! They may actually get criticized! Did Jesus and the Martyrs face anything as bad as that?

That's what Christians identify as persecution, when people feel free to disagree? I think they've lived in a bubble for too long, that bubble where Christianity was automatically respected and where even nonbelievers were careful not to openly criticize the faith.

She goes on to say that, ""Christians now have quite a lot of problems, whether it's that you can't display even very discreet small symbols of your faith at work, that you can't say 'God bless you', you can't offer to pray for somebody, if it's an even bigger stance on conscience that you're taking, some of the equality laws can actually bring you to the attention of the police themselves."

I don't know what it's like in Britain, or what that "even bigger stance on conscience" is, exactly. Does she mean that even Christians have to obey the law? That they can't force their own "conscience" on everyone else? Gee, such a shame, huh?

"Very discreet small symbols of your faith at work" wouldn't be a problem here in America, certainly (though very discreet small symbols of atheism would likely be met with outrage). But if the boss is implying that you'd better be a Christian if you want to get ahead in the company, that's different. (Well, it should be different. Given today's Supreme Court, I'm not so sure.)

Does "God bless you" get a comment from nonbelievers? So what? You can make a religious comment, but they can't? When you offer to pray for someone who's not a Christian, do they take offense? Well, maybe you should learn from that. (I don't take offense, at least if it's a sincere, if clumsy, expression of concern, as it usually is. I might roll my eyes a bit, though.)

But either way, that's not persecution. It's just that other people are also free to express their opinions. Yeah, I know that burns your butt. But if that's what makes it hard to be a Christian, if you find your faith difficult unless no one else is allowed to express their disagreement, well,... it's not exactly throwing you to the lions, is it? Heh, heh.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

My war with the squirrels, pt. 2: defeat


Three years ago, I wrote about my war with the squirrels. Well, the war is over. I've accepted defeat. I've laid down my arms. I'm surrendering, unconditionally.

The end was sudden, and I really didn't see it coming. In fact, I thought I was winning handily. My electric fence around the backyard - similar to a cattle fence, but low-powered - was keeping it almost entirely squirrel-free.

I keep peanuts in my pocket, and my squirrels were so tame they'd come running right up to me,... in the front yard. In the backyard, they knew to keep out. Even when I was out there, they'd just look at me from a distance, pleading with me to come feed them a peanut. Meanwhile, I grew apples, peaches, pears, plums, apricots, cherries, strawberries, raspberries - just all sorts of good stuff.

Of course, I was still at war with the birds, and with the insects, and with disease, but I'd won the war with the squirrels. Until I was stabbed in the back by my own species.

My new neighbors actually called the police to complain about my squirrel fence! Why? I don't know. I'd given them plenty of free fruit last year. And the chainlink fence was mine, not theirs. (They only rent, anyway.)

Note that the electric wires were on my side of the fence. They couldn't have been shocked unless they came into my yard or reached over the fence.

But you've got to live with your neighbors. I didn't want a war with them. So when the policeman came by, I agreed to shut it down. (He clearly thought the whole thing was a waste of time, but they have to take complaints seriously. He said he thought that kind of electric fence wasn't allowed in town, though he wasn't sure.)


Anyway, it took the first squirrel only two days to discover that the electricity was off. Since then, I've been swamped by them. They've eaten all of my apricots, all of my summer apples, all of my peaches, and one whole tree of Asian pears. Now, they're working on my fall apples and the rest of my pears.

I even found a squirrel in my raspberry patch, eating the raspberries. And one day, I saw a squirrel hanging on my bee shelter, pulling out the cardboard tubes, then pulling the paper liners out of the tubes and chewing up the young bee larvae. I couldn't believe it! (These are solitary bees, not honey bees, so they don't sting. But I can't imagine why tiny bee larvae would even be appealing to a squirrel.)

Note that they've completely wiped out most of my fruit crop weeks - and in some cases, months - before the fruit even got ripe. And I couldn't figure out another solution. Certainly, repellant does nothing.

I can chase them away (although, as I said in my first post, they were so tame it was actually hard to scare them, at first), but even if I could remain in the yard from sunup to sundown, every single day, I still can't be everywhere in the yard at once. (Even when I'm working in the yard, they'll be eating fruit twenty feet away, wherever I can't actually see them from where I'm working.)

I've had people recommend slingshots, pellet guns, paintball guns, and all sorts of things, but they're missing the point. The whole world is dangerous to squirrels. That's just their life. They die in droves simply crossing the street, and even dogs won't keep them out of an area.

If I'm dangerous to them - or appear dangerous - they won't come close to me. But that won't keep them from my fruit trees when I'm not there. The reason the electric wire worked was because it was a physical barrier which was there all the time.

They learned very quickly where the wires were, and when I first set it up, they found ways to avoid them. Every time, I had to discover how they were getting past the fence, then patch it up. After awhile, they couldn't find a way. I'd beaten them.

Sure, new squirrels would still get inside occasionally, because they needed to learn about the biting wires. Each one had to learn for himself, and there are always new squirrels. (As I say, the world is a dangerous place for squirrels. They don't live long, but there are always new squirrels to take their place.)


Well, now that's done. They've won. I'm cutting down my fruit trees, because there's no point in trying to grow anything anymore. Oh, I'll keep my sour cherry tree. I don't think squirrels will eat them. And I'll keep growing raspberries. Despite my experience earlier, squirrels can't be as big a problem with black raspberries as birds.

They do like strawberries, I know. (I used to spread strawberry juice on the electric fence. They got so they wouldn't even take a peanut from me, if I had strawberry juice on my fingers!) But I don't think they can eat enough strawberries to keep me from getting some, too - especially since the bird-netting might make them hesitate.

(No, bird-netting won't stop them. But they panic when they get scared, and they get mad as hell when they can't just run through the bird-netting. When calm, they have no trouble at all getting through it. But they'll tend to remember it as a trap, I think. It won't stop them, but it might slow them down.)

So I might get enough strawberries for myself, just not enough for friends and neighbors, too. (I've always given away most of the fruit I grow, because I've had so much of it.) I'll try it another year, at least.

I don't think they'll eat grapes, either, but I'm not positive about that. I've got new varieties of grapes now - sweet varieties - and if there's no other fruit,... who knows? The thing is, it's a lot of work to put bird-netting on my grapevines. It gets harder every year, as I get older and the vines get bigger.

If I don't put up bird-netting, the birds get all of them. But if I go to all that work and the squirrels still wipe me out,... well, that doesn't sound very appealing. Besides, we've got racoons and opossums around here, and I know they like grapes. (The electric fence probably discouraged them, too.)

So I haven't decided yet. I'll keep the grapevines, but I might not net them this year, just to see what happens. Will the squirrels eat them? Will I get any grapes at all without keeping the birds away? I just don't know.

Everything else - all of my trees - are going. I've started chopping them down already. (Some of this isn't because of the squirrels. I'd already decided that my sweet cherries weren't worth it. They were getting too big to net, so the birds were getting all the fruit that the bugs and fungal diseases hadn't already destroyed.)

My last remaining pluot tree - "Flavor Supreme" - had probably the best tasting fruit I've ever eaten. But there were never enough on the tree to make it worthwhile. This year there were just four fruit on the tree - which is still twice as many as I've ever had before - but the squirrels destroyed them before they got ripe. So it's gone now, but I was probably going to get rid of it, anyway.

(ATS)

Oddly enough, one of the worst things about this has been that I've taught my squirrels to fear me again, since I've been (futilely) chasing them out of the backyard. They were so tame, they'd come running right up to me in the front yard.

And at first, as I noted, I had trouble getting them to run away at all. I'd throw a stick at them, and they'd just sniff at the stick, expecting to find something good to eat. I'd run at them, stomping my feet and yelling, and they'd just look at me in amazement, wondering what in the heck I was doing.

Eventually, I had to poke several of them hard with a stick, just to get them to run. (Even then, they'll only run as far as they have to. You can't bluff them. If you want them to leave, you have to chase them the whole way.)

But now, they won't come up to me on the front porch, either. Well, one squirrel still runs up for peanuts, but even he is warier than he used to be. That's a shame. They're a pain sometimes, but they're still fun to have around.

I mean, sure, we were at war. But we could still be gentlemen about it, right? :)

Now that I've surrendered,... well, we'll just have to see. I'm still going to want to grow tomatoes. And strawberries. And raspberries. So we'll still have skirmishes, I'm sure. I doubt if we'll ever have that understanding between the front yard and the backyard again.

The Lost Fleet Beyond the Frontier: Steadfast by Jack Campbell

(cover image from Amazon.com)

I've really been enjoying the Lost Fleet series (including the sequel and the Lost Stars offshoot) by Jack Campbell (the pen name of John G. Hemry), but I still wasn't expecting much from this book.

Well, from the description, it seemed like a bunch of odds and ends - filler, basically, until Campbell could think of a new direction for the story (the fleet, after all, having returned home long since). It starts on Earth, where the last book ended, and then there's a new assignment immediately when he returns - nothing important, just a way to keep John "Black Jack" Geary out of everybody's hair.

But it didn't read like that. The Lost Fleet Beyond the Frontier: Steadfast (2014) was just as interesting as all the other books. That includes the first 150 pages of the book, which is just them trying to leave Sol system, and it includes the minor task of repatriating Syndic refugees he's given next.

Of course, there's more to that than it seems, but any reader would expect that. No, what was particularly interesting was that it was a different problem. Campbell is still coming up with new situations, even after all of the previous books.

This is a middle book, though, ending with the discovery of a hugely dangerous situation which will undoubtedly be the focus of the next book in the series. I don't mind that, but I have to say that the situation was no surprise at all, really.

My only complaint about the book is that I figured out what was going on long before Admiral Geary did. After all, the whole book pointed in that direction. Of course, that's because it is a book. If it didn't give us some clues, if these things came completely out of the blue, that wouldn't seem right, either.

So I can't complain too much. It's still a very entertaining book. Just don't expect the revelation at the end to take you by surprise. :)

___
Note: My other book reviews can be found here.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Hobby Lobby



OK, OK, I'm woefully late, but I really should say something about the Supreme Court's latest idiotic decision, I suppose.

Where do I begin? How about with the fact that corporations aren't people and can't actually have religious beliefs? People own corporations. People run corporations. People work in corporations. But the corporation itself is not a person. That's just a legal fiction.

If the corporation were a person, it still couldn't decide which laws it wanted to obey. I mean, can you do that? Go ahead. Try it. Decide for yourself which laws you agree with and which you refuse to obey.

So the five Republicans on the Supreme Court have decided that corporations aren't just people, they're people with special rights that lesser people - like you and me - don't have. Certainly, they have rights that their employees don't have.

Note that those five Republicans - Roberts, Alito, Scalia, Thomas, and Kennedy - are all men and all Catholic. Yup, it just so happens that birth control is something they don't need and something that their own church opposes. (The three women on the court - one of them also Catholic - dissented.)

The Republicans tried to write their decision as narrowly as possible. After all, what would happen if a corporation had some other religion? What if a "Muslim corporation" imposed Sharia law on its Christian employees? Somehow, I think the decision might have gone differently, then, don't you?

In a way, that's kind of what happened. In Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon vs. Smith, the case that led up to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which was the issue here, both Scalia and Kennedy found for the government - the exact opposite of what they decided here. (The other justices weren't on the court back then.)

Of course, that was about some other religion (the Native American Church), not their own. And it was about real people, not corporate people. Republicans wouldn't care about them, right?

There are a number of things I find crazy about this decision, but the biggies - that a corporation is a "person," which can have religious beliefs, and that those beliefs trump federal law - have already received a lot of attention. These two aren't so important, maybe, but they shouldn't be overlooked:

1. The five Republicans on the court are letting corporations opt out of federal laws, but specifically not tax laws. Why not? Well, taxes pay their salaries. Without taxes, they wouldn't have a job.

Oh, I'm sure that wasn't their stated reason for the exception, if they even bothered to give a reason. But it's funny, isn't it?

2. Reality is irrelevant. As long as a corporation 'believes' something (and yeah, I have to use quote marks, because the idea that a corporation can believe anything is just laughable), it doesn't have to be a true belief.

Hobby Lobby opposes certain forms of birth control, because... it claims those methods cause abortion. That's wrong. The science is clear on that. But it doesn't matter to the majority on the court that this 'belief' is wrong. A corporation could believe anything, and it simply wouldn't matter how crazy it was.

Of course, practically-speaking, it would matter. If this hadn't been in opposition to birth control and to 'Obamacare,' the five Catholic Republican men on the Supreme Court wouldn't have been so enthusiastic about opening this Pandora's Box. You can bet on that!

___
I'm going to add a couple of postscripts here. First, if you're wondering about my pointing out the religion of those five Supreme Court justices, well, Fox 'News' has your back:



Funny, isn't it? Fox 'News' expresses outrage about an ad they claim is offensive to Catholics by... being offensive to Muslims. Heh, heh. But what's really funny is that they don't even notice what they're doing!

Obviously, it isn't bigotry to point out that the five Supreme Court justices who decided a case involving religious opposition to a woman's access to birth control are all men and all Catholic (given that the Catholic Church, as you know, opposes all birth control).

In fact, it's clearly so pertinent, so relevant, so material, it should be mentioned by the media in every article/video about the case ("should be," but almost certainly isn't).

But Fox 'News' thinks it's bigoted. And they argue their point by being - unconsciously, obliviously, cluelessly - bigoted about Muslims. And unlike the target of their wrath, they really are being bigoted.

But even that's not as funny as this one. Holly Fisher is a right-wing Christian gun nut who celebrated the Hobby Lobby decision by posting a picture of herself with assault rifle, Bible, and flag. Yeah, that's sane, isn't it?

Happily, someone noted this remarkable similarity:


Which one looks holy and patriotic to you, and which one looks like a nightmare of theocracy and violence, probably depends on your cultural background.

To me, they look virtually identical.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Tough love


Sometimes - frequently - Stephen Colbert gets it exactly right, doesn't he? He cares for these kids "so very... publicly." And he's "not the only one wearing my heart on my TV sleeve."

Of course, that doesn't stop them from saying horrendous things. They just have an eye to the camera while they're doing it, trying to pretend that there's an ounce of compassion in their shriveled hearts.

And yeah, anti-immigrant protesters down in Arizona actually stopped a bus full of young YMCA campers, thinking they were illegals. It would be funny if it weren't so despicable.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Shabby Road


I know that Republicans are anti-government, but sometimes you have to wonder if they're deliberately trying to destroy America as a functioning nation.

(Hmm,... I see that 37% of Mississippi Republicans would back the Confederacy in a new Civil War. Only 41% would support the United States of America! Maybe that's what's going on here?)

Now they don't want to pay to repair our roads and bridges? Why not? Just because the Democrats want to keep America's infrastructure from crumbling? Is it simply that kind of mindless knee-jerk response, like we saw with 'Obamacare,' that if the Democrats want it, it must be bad, whatever it is?

Of course, they do have a mindless knee-jerk response to taxes, but does it have to be that mindless? The taxes on gasoline, which pay for road maintenance, have been dropping for 21 years, since inflation has gone up every single year. Indexing them to inflation isn't exactly a tax hike.

And what's the alternative, anyway. Republicans are grudgingly agreeing to fund the highway trust fund until May - May! Less than one year! - at which point we'll have another political battle. What fun, huh?

And how are they paying for it? By letting corporations delay contributing what they owe to employee pension funds! Well, you can see how that's a win/win for Republicans, can't you? They get to screw over employees, without actually accomplishing anything worthwhile, since we'll increase taxes this year to get less next year.

That's not paying for anything! That's just borrowing the money - borrowing it from the future!

I'm sure there are more important things to blog about, and I apologize for my slow pace this summer. It's certainly not for a lack of topics! But I just had to post this. Sometimes, I'm just astonished at how low Republicans can go - apparently, without any political consequences at all.

How can anyone still vote for these jokers? Is it just complete ignorance about what's going on? Or is it merely incredible stupidity?

After all, these days, even Democrats don't dare to say anything that even remotely implies raising taxes. They've been burned politically so many times that being reasonable is completely off the table now.

So we can't do what makes sense, because the American people are so stupid, so ignorant, so gullible, that a sound byte is all that matters politically. Instead, we do something about as boneheadedly stupid as it's possible to be, because there might be some political advantage in that, no matter what it does to our country.

I tell you, I'm starting to understand the appeal of ignorance and apathy when it comes to politics in America. Of course, that's what they want, for us to stop thinking and stop caring. And I refuse to give them the satisfaction.

Monday, July 14, 2014

John Oliver explains the wealth gap



John Oliver does a great job, doesn't he?

This strikes home for me, because my 88-year-old mother worries about estate taxes. The fact that she doesn't have any money doesn't seem to matter. Well, she's a Republican, and she's been convinced that she has to worry about this.

(Face it. Even if she were wealthy, she wouldn't have to worry about it. Her heirs might, but not her. As it is, that's the last thing any of us are worried about!)

Also, I hate to break it to you, but you're not going to win the lottery. You might as well stop wasting your money by buying tickets. Certainly you need to stop wasting time wondering what you'll do with your winnings!

Lotteries are just a tax on dumb people. (OK, OK, people lacking in math skills. Is that better?) Rich people don't want to pay an extra dollar or two in taxes, so they take it from the gullible, instead. And then they promote gullibility on television, to promote the damned thing! Don't get me started.

If there's class warfare in America, you and I are losing. Worse than that, you're probably fighting on the wrong side. Somehow, the astoundingly wealthy have convinced ordinary people to support them, instead of themselves.

These days, children are less likely than their parents to graduate from high school. How's that for a sobering statistic? Kids lucky enough to make it to college come out of it with a staggering level of debt. But the wealthy are making out like bandits, thanks to tax cut after tax cut (and corporate welfare, too, to add insult to injury).

Ever since Ronald Reagan, Republicans have been brilliant in convincing poor and middle-class white people that black people and Hispanic immigrants are the problem. Remember those so-called "Reagan Democrats"? They were working-class white people who'd been manipulated into seeing economics in terms of race (thus supporting economic policies which were not in their own best interests).

Yeah, that was stupid, but it worked. Republicans may be piss-poor at governing, but they can sure take advantage of the worst of human nature, when they want votes. They're also great at taking a serious issue, dumbing it down into two words - "class warfare" - and then repeating it in unison.

It's maddening, but plenty of people are gullible enough to believe that sort of thing. And our news media help not at all. Thanks the gods for comedians, huh?

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Not a scientist


If you're not a scientist, why do you think you know more than scientists - the worldwide consensus of scientists - working in their own field of expertise?

Republican leaders dispute climate change because:

1. They're faith-based, not evidence-based. Thus, increasingly, they're actually anti-science.

2. Democrats accept the scientific consensus, and Republicans will oppose anything Democrats support for no other reason than that.

3. It's popular with their base, which prefers to believe they don't have to do anything they don't want to do (see #1, above).

4. They get lots of campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry and from billionaires who make money from the status quo.


If you're not a scientist, why not pay attention to the scientific consensus? Well, this is why. Scientists determine the truth, and frequently the truth isn't what people want to hear.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Scott Clifton: metaphysical cherry-picking



This is Scott Clifton at the 2014 Reasonfest at the University of Kansas this past April.

If it sounds familiar, it's because I posted his video making pretty much the same points last November. I commented on that video, so I'll skip it this time. But I'd say he does an even better job here.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Divinity: Original Sin - initial impressions

Chloe and Willam at closest zoom

I think I looked at Divinity: Original Sin during its Kickstarter campaign, but I'm not sure. Either way, I passed it up. Well, then as now, I needed another computer game like I needed another hole in my head.

But it's just been released, and after watching some YouTube videos of the gameplay, I knew I had to buy it. Yeah, I didn't even wait for a sale! (It's $39.99 full price and runs on Steam.)

Divinity: Original Sin is a turn-based, party-based RPG like they used to make - only with modern improvements. Apparently, this isn't a popular kind of game these days - not popular enough for the big companies - but it raised almost a million dollars on Kickstarter - more than twice their goal - so maybe there are more of us fans than they expected, huh?

Note that this is the fourth game in the series, though I haven't played any of the others. Divinity: Original Sin is apparently supposed to be the prequel to the first game, Divine Divinity, originally published in 2002. However, I don't think that any of the other games in this series had turn-based combat.

Anyway, so far, I've been hugely impressed with this game. This is a party-based RPG, with a twist or two. You start with just two characters, but you can recruit two more followers as you go (and summon additional creatures during combat, if you want).

You maintain full control over all of them. Your characters may be male or female, with different hair and skin color, and whatever attributes, skills, and talents you want. Followers are pre-set when you meet them, but you still have full control when leveling them up, full control over equipping them, and full control during combat.

Also, note that you can play the game with a friend, if you wish, with each person running one of the characters (and one of the followers). That's a built-in multiplayer component, made very easy via the Internet. Now, I'm not sure how that would work, in a more deliberate game like this. I haven't tried that part of it.

The Cyseal docks at maximum zoom out. (My two characters are on the stairs at the lower center part of the screen.)

Anyway, your two characters are set down on a beach near the town of Cyseal, where you've been sent to investigate a murder. There's a lot going on, since the town is also beset by undead and by orcs, both. But the initial walk up the beach, and the first dungeon, serves as a tutorial.

The first thing you'll learn is that this is a game of exploration. There's no day/night cycle. Time doesn't seem to pass at all. Thus, you can take your time, and you should. You get both loot and experience from exploration, and you can encounter little side quests along the way, too. (Note that investigating a murder isn't time-sensitive, so exploring doesn't ruin your suspension of disbelief.)

There's also a robust craft system. You can find recipes for creating useful items like potions, weapons, or arrows, or you can just experiment by trying to combine different items. So far, I haven't found much of a need for crafted items, but there are a ton of different 'ingredients', and I've barely scratched the surface.

Combat is turn-based, which is great, and it's also very much focused on the environment, which is even better! Cast a spell which creates a pool of oil around your enemies, and that will slow them down. Then cast a fire spell on the oil, and the whole thing will explode in fire. (You can do the same thing with a poison gas cloud, instead of oil. Poison your enemies, then burn them alive. Heh, heh.)

Alternately, cast a rain spell to make your enemies wet, then electrocute or freeze them. (Or if your own characters are on fire, cast a rain spell to put it out.) If you don't have a spell, you can do very similar things with arrows. Destroy a water or oil barrel, then use a special arrow to electrocute the water or set fire to the oil. Or use a teleport spell to throw the barrel - or an enemy - into the fire.

There are just a million different things you can do in combat, depending on your skills and your spells, and the environment is critically important in most circumstances. For example, you can get a skill where you automatically heal when standing in a pool of blood (not uncommon for melee characters). Or you can get a talent to lower the spell point costs of water spells when you're standing in a puddle of water. (I'm not sure if those abilities are especially useful, but they are options.)

Of course, if you're standing in water, you can be effectively targeted by electricity or cold attacks, yourself. The AI has the same options you do. (I'm not sure how well they take advantage of that, though, since I haven't been in too many fights yet.)

Environmental manipulation also works when you're not in combat. You can pick up and move objects that aren't too heavy, or smash objects with a hammer or axe. And if it's made of wood, it will burn. So if a crate is in your way, pick it up and move it, or smash it to pieces, or set fire to it. Traps and locks can be dealt with in various ways, too. If you can't pick a lock on a chest, just break it open (note that you'll damage your weapons, if you use them).
I assume that female orcs are supposed to be funny? Unfortunately, it comes off as just dumb.

I customized both of my characters, starting with a ranger and a witch. I love archery, and the ranger can shoot regular arrows from his bow without requiring ammunition. But he also has a million different kinds of special ammo he can make or buy - fire arrows, poison arrows, silver arrows, etc. - which do take up inventory slots.

My female character casts elemental spells - fire, water, earth, and air - attempting a flexible response to any situation. She can also summon a giant spider to distract enemies while the rest take them out at a distance. (The first follower we encountered was a melee fighter, which complemented my two characters perfectly.)

Now, even for a million dollars, you're not going to get cutting edge graphics, but they're certainly not bad. The first screenshot above shows my two characters at maximum zoom in. The second screenshot show how far out you can zoom.

You can turn the camera, too, though only in a very limited fashion, by default. However, there's an option to remove that limitation, so you can rotate the camera 360°, if you want. (The game discourages this, because it was designed to be seen from certain angles. But I prefer to have more control over the camera, even if I see graphical glitches occasionally. I really like that they've given me that freedom of choice!)

Admittedly, I've been stuck occasionally, not being able to zoom in or out. But a little fiddling - just talking to an NPC, frequently - has always fixed that. By default, you press v, then move the mouse to rotate the camera. But you can easily change that, too, so I use my right mouse button for rotating the camera. (Oddly, Divinity: Original Sin doesn't seem to use the right mouse button for anything else.)

Generally-speaking, this all works fine. I wish there were an option to lock the camera to an over-the-shoulder view of the lead character, but I suppose that's just being picky. You have to be methodical in searching, though, so you don't overlook anything. (Note that there is a key to switch to a camera that's directly overhead, if you want to place your characters in battle precisely.)

I also wish the game used a popup menu, with a right-click of the mouse, to choose items, abilities, and attacks. But there are so many different options in this game, maybe that wouldn't actually work very well, I don't know. (In the screenshots here, you can see the quick-select menu bar of the lead character at the bottom of the screen. But there are actually multiple pages of that. You can click the arrows on the left of the menu to page through them.)

There's a surprising amount of voice-acting in the game, too - surprising because voice-acting is expensive. Not everything is spoken, but it really does add to the game. (You have a choice of three male and three female voices, when creating your characters.)

There is at least one feature that's a little weird. Your two characters don't have to agree about everything, and when they disagree, they frequently play a game of rock, paper, scissors to settle it. Likewise, you play this mini-game against NPCs, too, when you're trying to persuade them in a certain way.

Now, I can see playing rock, paper, scissors with another human being, but how do you play it against a computer program? The AI doesn't seem to be picking randomly, either, as far as I can tell. At least, the result has been either an easy win for me, or a complete loss - nothing in between. Either every choice I make is correct or every choice I make is the worst I could choose. (Never once has the computer and I made the same pick in rock, paper, scissors, either. That doesn't make any sense at all.)

It's not a big deal, though I've failed at least one side-quest because I lost a game of rock, paper, scissors to the AI. Now, maybe this was designed for the co-op feature of the game, I don't know. But it really seems weird playing against the computer. I can't say I like it much.

Still, so far, Divinity: Original Sin has been a lot of fun. I really like the murder mystery as a main quest, because that's the perfect excuse for exploration and talking to the townspeople. (And since the victim is already dead, there's no reason to hurry. In other games, it always seems a little weird to be doing sidequests when the fate of the world is at stake.)

The game is laugh-out-loud funny sometimes, too. The story is serious, but there's plenty of humor, here and there. I hope other game developers take note of that!

I'm not too far into the game yet - still exploring Cyseal and the murder, in fact. So these are just my initial impressions. But I love it, so far. This is the kind of game which might bring back the turn-based, party-based RPGs I loved years ago. (Wasteland 2 will be released in another few weeks. I really hope that will be another!)

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Note: My other posts about computer games are gathered together here.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Why George Takei loves the country that once betrayed him



OK, one more video to celebrate the Fourth of July. In this one, George Takei explains why he loves the country which imprisoned him and his whole family in a concentration camp when he was five years old.

America the Beautiful



Here's another one for the Fourth of July. Jaclyn Glenn has a great voice, doesn't she?

Five stupid things about the Fourth of July



I had to post this today. :) But note that he doesn't even mention the worst thing about the Fourth of July - the fireworks.

I'm certainly not opposed to family reunions, even though I don't attend any, myself. I think they're a good thing, in general. But to my mind, fireworks are simply a way for idiots to act even more idiotic than usual.

Sure, I loved them when I was 13. Who doesn't? But anything that appeals to morons that much can't be good. In my neighborhood, there are loud explosions in the middle of the night the whole week before July 4th - and for a month afterward. And for the rest of summer, I won't be able to mow the lawn without picking up rocket debris first (just thankful they didn't set anything on fire).

Still, my biggest problem with fireworks is that they've got nothing to do with patriotism. This is just how commercial interests have convinced you to spend your money foolishly, nothing more. The media don't just go along with this, but have a vested interested in getting you to spend money on useless crap, too (since they survive through advertising).

Anyway, Steve Shives is absolutely right about "crepe-paper patriotism." That's a lovely phrase, isn't it? When it comes to ostentatious displays of 'patriotism,' I'm with Ralph Waldo Emerson:
"When a whole nation is roaring Patriotism at the top of its voice, I am fain to explore the cleanness of its hands and purity of its heart."

Don't get me wrong, I am patriotic. I'm proud of my country, though I'm certainly not going to overlook what we've done wrong in the past or what's embarrassing about us even today (not all of us, of course, but many of my fellow citizens are embarrassing).

If you're a regular visitor, you already know how much I complain about racism. Obviously, we Americans should be embarrassed by our past acceptance of slavery and our not-so-distantly-past acceptance of segregation and racial inequality. And I'm hugely embarrassed by the Republican Party's successful use of racism in their notorious 'Southern strategy.'

I'm not a Republican, so I'm not embarrassed that they tried that, but I'm horribly embarrassed that it worked so well for them - and continues to work, to an embarrassingly large degree, even today. I'm not embarrassed that the Dixiecrats were originally Democrats, because the Democratic Party redeemed itself in an act of political courage. (Yeah, the Democrats! Courageous! Hard to believe these days, isn't it?)

But when people in other countries complain about American racism, I'm moved to object. I used to hear that regularly from people who didn't have a significant minority population of any kind in their own country. (When some of those countries started to get more immigration, they started to see more bigotry there, as well. That's human nature, I'm afraid.)

America is a diverse country. We've always celebrated that,... but not fully. That failure, that imperfection, was a national disgrace. But we're getting better now. And if you look at the revolution in how we deal with race in America, well, it was a revolution. And a remarkably peaceful one, too.

OK, it wasn't entirely peaceful. (What is?) But has any other country in the world made such a wrenching transformation with so little bloodshed? We have every reason to be proud of that, despite the fact that we've still got a ways to go.

Racism isn't dead, and neither is sexism or homophobia. Heck, even religious bigotry is still alive and well in America (certainly when it comes to us atheists - but with Muslims, as well). But just because we're not perfect, that's no reason not to be proud of how far we've come.

But that crepe-paper patriotism is not for me. When it comes to my country, I can look at the good and the bad and still be proud. I don't have to whitewash history. I don't have to ignore our flaws. If you do,... well, you must not think very much of America, then. I mean, if you need a fantasy America instead of the real thing, how proud can you really be?

Enjoy the fireworks, if you want. Enjoy your family reunions, too - or, at least, understand why they're important. Your family, like your religion, is usually just an accident of birth. And sometimes, it's easier to get along with relatives the farther apart you remain. :)

But they're family. Chances are you'd like them better if they weren't family. They wouldn't irritate you so much, then. If they were complete strangers, you wouldn't have any emotional baggage and you wouldn't have any expectations. After all, you're seldom embarrassed by complete strangers, because there's no connection between you.

Likewise, you're seldom embarrassed by the actions of other countries, either, right? That's because it has nothing to do with you.

Well, your family is not going to be perfect, and neither is your country. So what? You can be proud of the good without being blind to the bad. And in both cases, there's probably a lot more good that you're just overlooking. Really.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Brandon Fibbs: Abandoning My Faith



This is one of the best of these deconversion videos, don't you think? Admittedly, I think I say that about all of them. :)

But this is just so inspiring! That someone can value the truth enough to discard their entire worldview, when they come to recognize that it's false - that's so brave, so admirable, so... inspiring, as I said.

Ken Ham: a thousand lies to defend the 'Truth'



Friday, June 27, 2014

Warfare queens


Insane, isn't it? When it comes to war, Republican leaders don't care about the cost - either in money or lives.

Well, they're not going to be fighting it, and they're not going to be paying for it, either. (You don't think they're planning to raise taxes to actually pay for a war, do you?)

In everything else, they pretend to be worried about government debt. Of course, that's only because they don't hold the presidency. They certainly didn't care about the deficit during the Bush years! But even today, war is just so much fun, they simply don't care what it will cost.

The Bush administration didn't even budget for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. That's how little they cared about the costs. Of course, Iraq was going to "pay for itself," remember. Hey, if it's one thing we can't pass up, it's a free war! Am I right, or am I right? (Of course, it didn't actually pay for itself, not even close, but 'truth' is whatever Republicans want to believe.)

And Afghanistan,... well, we had to get Osama bin Laden, didn't we? Not that Bush ever did get Osama bin Laden by invading Afghanistan - or any other way, either. No, that was left to Barack Obama to accomplish, ten years later. (Yet they have the gall to complain that it took Obama a year and a half after Benghazi to capture Ahmed Abu Khattala.)

Meanwhile, we're still at war in Afghanistan, with no valid exit strategy. Yeah, we're tired of that war, and we're tired of the war in Iraq, which we only started because the first one got boring, and Bush wanted to get reelected. (I've heard a lot of other excuses for Iraq, but not one that held up under scrutiny.)

But these same Republicans who vote against everything in Congress, with the argument that America is too poor to be a civilized nation these days, can't wait for the next war. They've been pushing for war with Iran for years, even trying to sabotage negotiations between our countries, so that war will seem like the only option.

(Ironically, those same Republicans have been Iran's biggest friend. Saddam Hussein was Sunni, and his Iraq was Iran's worst enemy. Now, Shiite Muslims run Iraq, as well as Iran. Republicans gave the Iranian government the best gift they possibly could, and now they help the mullahs keep control over the country by their continued talk of war.)

Of course, Iran is far from the only place Republicans want to wage war. In fact, it often seems like any war will do. Are they really that entertained by war? Are they really that scared of everything, everywhere? Or is it mostly that defense contractors make lots of money from war - money that comes back to Republican campaign coffers?

I suspect that it's all three. But we can't allow frightened and corrupt old men to push us into war, especially as they work tirelessly to destroy America from the inside. We have to stand up to these warfare queens.