Does Voting Matter?

“I don’t think I’m going to vote in the election this year,” my grandfather tells me over the phone last night after the Vice Presidential Debate. “Both campaigns are just way too negative,” he continues, and I find myself having a hard time disagreeing with him. Negative attacks and mudslinging have been a part of politics for about as long as politics has existed; even so, this particular election feels particularly negative and muddy. What really brought it into clarity for me was a question in the debate last night from a soldier: to paraphrase, it was “do you think this campaign is too negative, and do you regret any of the things your side has done in the campaign?” Both VP candidates immediately launched into attacks against the opposition. It was frustrating and, frankly, a bit disgusting that they couldn’t even answer a question about negativity without resorting to attacking their opponent.

And so my grandfather has decided not to support either major-party candidate. He lives in Oklahoma, so it’s not like his vote will actually be missed much: if he voted Republican, well, so does 90% of the rest of the state; and if he voted Democrat, well, see previous statement about how many people in Oklahoma vote Republican.

It brings up an interesting issue: are our votes actually equal? In a state like Oklahoma (a state so red, it’s gotten into the dirt), voting for the Democratic candidate in the presidential race has no impact on the number of electoral votes that candidate will receive, because the state is obviously going to go to the Republican candidate every time. The reverse is true for voting Republican in a state like California or New York. So does the person who votes in one of those Sure Thing States really get to have as much of a say in who becomes president as someone voting in a swing state? I live in Virginia, and the 2008 election was the first one of my life where I felt I actually had a real voice in the process. It was a close race between Obama in McCain in 2008, and it looks to be just as close between Obama and Romney next month. The way I choose to vote could be the difference between Obama getting the state or Romney winning it. So does my grandfather’s vote in Oklahoma have the same weight and impact on the election as my vote here? I would argue it does not.

All of this, of course, boils down to that archaic institution, the Electoral College. Originally designed to prevent the presidential election from just being a popularity contest, it has long since become the appendix of the electoral process: sure, it’s there, but it doesn’t really do much of anything useful, and occasionally it causes the whole system to have life-threatening trouble (see the 2000 race, when Gore won the popular vote but managed to lose the election anyway in the Electoral College). When we vote in the presidential election, we don’t get to vote directly for the candidate. Instead, we vote for electors, one group per party, and they are the ones who actually decide who the president will be. In theory, the electors could go against the popular vote of the state if they thought a different candidate would be a better choice; in practice, the electors are chosen by their respective parties because they are individuals who will select the candidate they’re told to.

So really, it’s hard for me to be mad at my grandfather for abdicating his role in the electoral process. In the grand scheme of things, one candidate isn’t going to have that much of an effect on our country, and one vote isn’t going to be the deciding factor in the state of Oklahoma. With the Electoral College, the concept of “one man, one vote,” supposedly so central a tenet to the American system, really isn’t true. Maybe it’s time to ditch the archaic “winner take all” electoral system and go with a straight popular vote.

Magic Missile!

I’ll admit it: I’m a bit of a casual pencil-and-paper RPG fan. I think the emphasis there should be on the word casual, which admittedly describes my relationship with most things geeky: I enjoy them, sure, but I’m not a big fan of dressing up in costume and running around crazy at a convention. While I like (and even love with a passion) many geek things, I have always been…well, not a closet geek, exactly, but not someone who feels he has to shout about it.

I’ve only played actual Dungeons & Dragons twice in my life: once in high school, and once in college. It didn’t particularly grab me either time, but that could’ve been because of the game masters I had (they weren’t all that inventive). But in graduate school, a very good friend of mine (still one of the smartest, geekiest people I know) created his own game system and ran an inventive, clever, ribald game with a few friends that was absolutely fantastic. The gameplay was simple, the emphasis was on characterization and character interaction, and I got to be the son of the avatar of humanity and shove a flaming phallic symbol down a rampaging tiger monster’s throat. It was, y’know, awesome.

Over the past few years, I’ve been running a series of games using an old Star Wars RPG manual from the early ’80s. It’s a simple D6 system, but it allows you to do a whole heckuva lot of fun stuff with it. The students I’ve run the games with have all loved it (possibly because of the Star Wars connection), and it’s a perennial favorite with our Friday afternoon clubs each year.

But a few years ago, I had an idea: why not create a very new-user friendly, streamlined game system that anyone could play (and, possibly more importantly, anyone could run). To add an extra wrinkle, I wanted to create a game that could be used to teach pro-social skills to students with learning disabilities and Autism Spectrum disorders (the sort of students I work with every day in my capacity as a special education teacher). I started putting together a system, with character classes, a world, class-specific skills, and gameplay instructions. I also started working up several simple scenarios for players to do, trying to focus on the pro-social skills I mentioned earlier.

It’s been a slog at times, trying to come up with all the stuff for this. I’ve been playtesting the game with my students this summer, trying to figure out how to make the game accessible to first-time players but versatile enough that the whole game isn’t always “main characters beat up/kill bad guys.” I’ve included character classes like Diplomats and Merchants, neither of which can really fight, but that can do all sorts of great support actions to help out their teammates.

I’m hoping to eventually get it polished enough to try to sell to an educational game company. Anyone who has any experience of creating games like these or any words of advice, they’d be very welcome at this point.

Five Things They Didn’t Tell Me About Buying a Car

The New Car
*in best game show announcer voice* "A NEW CAR!"
I bought a new car yesterday, as the sketch for last night pointed out. But the car-buying process was full of details and surprises that I was ill-prepared for, even though I’d been talking to friends and family members for months before I ever actually set foot in a car dealership showroom. Here, in no particular order, are the things I figured out for myself yesterday and over the course of the past few months about buying a car.

1. There’s a lot of waiting. I think the dealers do this on purpose. You sit around and wait for the salesman to draw up some basic paperwork. You wait for the customer service representative to walk you through several things and try to get you to buy the extended warranty. You want for the the finance people to come talk to you (and try to sell you other things). You spend a lot of time waiting around with nothing to do. I spent two and a half hours at the dealership yesterday, but filling out the actual paperwork and getting everything taken care of so I could drive off the lot with the car took all of about 45 minutes, maybe an hour. I think there’s a bunch of down time so you can lock you in to buying the car, even if it’s not as good a deal as you could get: you’ve already waited so long to get through all of this, so you might as well buy the car.

2. Credit doesn’t work the way you think it does. I was always told to avoid borrowing money as I grew up and throughout my twenties. “Pay off your credit card in full each month, and you’ll be in good shape,” my parents said. “Don’t carry a balance month to month, that looks bad,” they said. Well, it bit me in the ass when I went to my bank to try to get a loan. Now, I’ve been with this particular bank for almost seven years. I have a checking account and a savings account with them. I am not behind on my bills, make regular payments on everything like I’m supposed to; I have done everything right, exactly the way I was taught to. I didn’t have several credit cards, I don’t have outstanding balances on anything, I don’t let my accounts get too low or overdraft or anything like that. And the bank turned me down for a loan. They said I had good credit – excellent credit, in fact – but that my credit history was so limited, they didn’t feel safe loaning me money. “You should have taken out loans in your twenties to pay for big-ticket items,” the woman from the bank told me. I asked if I was being penalized for being too smart to borrow a lot of money and live outside my means when I was first starting a real job, and she didn’t really have an answer for that.

3. Car salesmen aren’t evil. To hear my parents and grandparents tell of it, car salesmen are always on the lookout for an easy mark. They’re shady, underhanded, and will do whatever it takes to get you in a car and spending more money than you really should. They will do whatever it takes to make that sale. Except…well, the guy who helped me was pretty honest and pretty straightforward about everything. He was up-front about costs, about rates, about trade-in value and things of that nature. He pressured me just a little bit – and honestly, it wasn’t even really pressure, because I’d expressed interest in the exact higher model he proceeded to show me – once, but when I told him I wanted the lower model, he immediately dropped the topic of the more expensive model, found me exactly what I wanted, and made it very easy for me. He was a nice guy. Human, even. Sure, there are probably snakeoil salesmen out there who will do whatever it takes to make you buy a bigger, fancier, more expensive car than you really need, but I think most of them are probably pretty decent guys just trying to make a living. This guy did right by me, and if I buy the same brand of car again next time, I’ll probably go right back to him. He automatically gave me a good discount and a good deal on my trade-in (which wasn’t worth nearly as much as he gave me), all without me really having to ask him to do so.

My sister-in-law tests out the trunk.
This trunk holds 3.5 Allisons. Yes, I use my sister-in-law as a unit of measurement.

4. Interest payments aren’t so terrible. I’d been given the impression that having a longer loan would make the final cost of the car skyrocket. In reality, the way interest rates are in the U.S. today, I (a first-time car buyer, remember) got a pretty damn good rate (in addition to a nice rebate and even a discount). The interest on my loan will amount to less than the rebate I got, even over 5 years.

5. Dealers are confused when you turn down the extra stuff. The extras – the extended warranty, the service package, things like that – are where most car dealerships make their big money. It doesn’t really cost them anything, but they can get thousands of dollars out of it. And all you have to do is say “no,” and their eyes go all buggy. This tactic I was expecting: they talk up how useful these packages are, tell you they basically pay for themselves, hint that not getting them could mean catastrophe. But my honest response was, “No, I trust that you are selling me a car that will be reliable and solid and dependable for the next decade. Why would I need extra coverage for that? Are you saying the car’s not reliable?” But they almost seemed to take it as a personal affront: why wouldn’t you want extra protection? Isn’t extra protection good?

And that’s really it. Car buying isn’t a difficult thing, not if you go in prepared. And hey, now you’re more prepared, right?

When Did THAT Start Blinking?

It's a Logan's Run reference, yo!  They all, like, disappeared at the age of 30 when that little thing in their palm started to blink.  Remember?

I turn 30 today. I do not feel like I should be 30 yet. I don’t feel much like I thought adults would be like when I was growing up. But here I am, 30, and while turning 30 doesn’t really scare me the way it does some people, I do find it strange and foreign to not be in my twenties anymore.

On the positive side, I’m doing better at thirty than I was at twenty-nine. Or twenty-eight, for that matter. Really, better than I was for a lot of my twenties.

You know what? My twenties sucked. Screw the twenties! I’m glad I’m thirty! Up yours, traditional interpretation of getting older in this stupid youth-obsessed culture!

Kitchen Adventures

Not to break the world down into gender-based dichotomies or anything, but I absolutely suck at cooking. It’s not ’cause I’m a man or anything like that, and my wife isn’t great at cooking ’cause she’s a woman (though she is great at cooking; seriously, getting home-cooked meals made by her several nights a week is just this side of paradise.

Okay, it’s not that I can’t cook, just that I’m not particularly good at coming up with interesting food. For instance, the wife asked me once to make chicken and rice, so I gave her some pan-fried chicken tenders with a side of minute rice. She just gave me a weird look.

Mmm, mac and cheese, fresh from the oven!
But there are a couple of things I do pretty well when it comes to cooking: I do alright at baking and I make a nice baked mac and cheese. So tonight, I decided to go ahead and fix dinner, just for the hell of it. I’m pretty pleased with the results, which you can see here.

Anyway, yeah, I cooked tonight. I am impressed with myself.

The Strangest Damn Dream…

I had the weirdest dream. First, that’s odd because I rarely remember my dreams.

I dreamt I was at school teaching, except it wasn’t the school where I work now, it was the school I taught at last year. But the students were from my current school. And the building was the building that my elementary and middle school was in. I had taken a PE class out for a walk first period(which isn’t when I have PE), and was so late getting back to class that I missed half of 2nd period. One of my students from that class was in the principal’s office but also sitting in the classroom. And to top it off, one of my coworkers from the old school was a student in my class.

I dunno if the lack of sleep or something I ate at the New Year’s party last night just didn’t agree with me, but that dream was weird as hell.