Thursday, January 28, 2016

A rare opportunity

One thing I really like about parenting is having complicated discussions with Elli, and figuring out afterwards how I could have done those conversations better.  This week she and I went out for dinner at a pub and she asked me why all of the TVs were showing sports shows about men and none of women.


I mean, you could just summarize with 'sexism!' and not be exactly wrong, but it isn't complete.

The Toronto Marlees don't get on TV much, and they are an all male team.  They don't get on TV because they aren't as good.  That is a really powerful driving force, and it hits women in sport in a bad way.  If you have leagues that are the absolute best, those leagues are going to have nearly all men in them, and they are going to get all the coverage.

Sexism certainly plays a big part though.  After all, it isn't a coincidence that the most popular sports are focused around violent smashing that requires players to be extremely strong and large rather than focusing on finesse.  Sports with rules that highlight things that top male players excel at are the most widely watched at least in part for that reason.  Also of course there is plenty of institutional friction keeping women from competing in those sports, ranging from the way we treat young children really differently based on sex to overt barriers to adult women in sport.

Normally when I go on long rants about these things Elli's eyes glaze over to some extent and we end up moving on to talking about her favourite TV show or something, but this time she came out with something that I should have mentioned myself but didn't:  The real problem for her is that she really wants to see people like herself represented and that doesn't happen.  It isn't fair, she told me, that boys get to see men playing on TV but girls don't get to see women.  (I would argue that it is unfair to everyone to see only men playing, but I certainly see how it is most impactful for small girls.)

It is tough when home and school send the clear message that women are equal and can do whatever they want, when TV sends the message that men get to do the cool stuff.  It makes it seem like teachers and parents are just fooling themselves, like we are just lying to ourselves and each other.  Which, I suppose, is sometimes the truth.  We want women to have every opportunity that men do.  We believe that they should.  But we have to recognize that out in the world that isn't true.  It is getting better, no question, but still there are so many problems.

I guess I need to say that yes, my small one, you aren't going to play in the NHL.  Neither am I.  But there are so, so many wonderful things you can do, and I hope you don't let other people's foolish impressions of what women can or ought to do stop you from doing those things.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Gentlemanly behaviour

Don't be a gentleman.

Not to say that everything associated with the word gentleman is questionable, or even evil... but an awful lot of it is.

I just read an article about how to be a gentleman on your first date with a woman, and it made me sad as anything.  It includes things like insisting on paying for the date regardless of what your partner says or wants, making the actual dinner reservations as your divinely ordained right, walking only on her left side while on the sidewalk, and guiding her through crowds.  It feels like something that would have been published fifty years ago, but sadly not so.

Apparently being a gentleman mostly involves treating women like they are weak, fragile, in desperate need of rescuing, foolish, and completely lacking in initiative.  I suppose a gentleman, by this definition, is utterly convinced of his own superiority and knows that women desperately need him to run their lives.

It isn't just online articles aimed at old fashioned bigots though.  This past weekend I watched Kingsman:  The Secret Service, a movie that came out a couple years ago, and its portrayal of gentlemanly behaviour was just awful.  For most of the movie things were fine, as the main protagonist was a struggling twenty something from a poor family dealing with an outrageous spy plot more overdone than Bond ever was.  Then he put on a fancy suit, starting talking like rich man, and turned into an asshole.  Having arrived in the villain's secret fortress he found a princess trapped in a cell.  He could have freed her, that would have been fine.  He also could have run off to save the world from the dastardly plot.  Eminently reasonable!  Instead he used her captivity to leverage promises of sexual favours in exchange for rescue, and *then* he ran off.  After saving the world in style he came back to claim his payment for letting her out.  I suddenly had a lot less sympathy for his suffering throughout the film when he turned out to be a opportunistic rapist.

It all pisses me off.  Somehow misogyny seems baked into the idea of being a gentleman, that the concept is mired in the idea of maintaining a veneer of respect towards men, all men, and no respect at all towards women, all women.

Indeed I think from now I should treat anyone calling me a gentleman as an insult.  If what someone means is that a person is gentle, well mannered, kind, or refined, they can use those words.  Gentleman just has too much baggage.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Bad show

Today Elli came home with the name of a comedian she wanted to find on Youtube.  Her friend had told her tales of the hilariousness of said comedian and Elli needed to see it for herself.  We found it easily enough, but once we found it I was sorely disappointed.

The show was a comedian doing a ventriloquist puppet act.  The basis of the act is that the puppet is a dead terrorist, which is definitely a red flag right up front, but the show took all kinds of bad turns after that.  The 'comedy' was pretty much a list of racist and sexist jokes.  Jokes about asians and how they can't drive, jokes about how women are just trying to steal men's money, jokes about anorexia.  The sort of comedy that is bland and offensive in equal measure, getting the worst of both worlds.  I hated it.

It was disappointing, but the tricky thing was figuring out what to tell Elli?  After the show finished Elli turned to me and asked if I liked it, and then I really had to figure out how much to rain on her parade.  She obviously wanted me to love it, and was pinning a lot on me saying I enjoyed it.  She wanted me to validate her friends recommendation and her enjoyment, but all I wanted to do was go on a rant about how terrible that comedian was and how he ought to learn how destructive his brand of humour really is.

I want to help her see the problems in the things she is going to be exposed to, but I also don't want her to feel like my default response to "Come look at this Daddy!" is going to be "That sucks."  I compromised by giving a few reasons for why I didn't like the jokes, but she didn't seem to be interested in hearing that, so I don't know that anything got across.

While in the moment I find these conundrums frustrating they do end up being really interesting in the long run.  Trying to come up with solutions for tricky optimization problems is fun, and complicated situations like this come up a lot as a parent.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Disaster, barely averted

In recent years we have gone through one of the great financial meltdowns.  It was a disaster for everyone but as usual the greatest pain and suffering accrued to those on the bottom because they have the least in reserve against hard times.  That such a thing should not be allowed to happen again is something we all agree on, but unfortunately figuring out how we should respond is beset with misunderstanding and confusion.

The standout example of how much people misunderstand the financial crisis is the fate of the money the US government invested in saving banks and insurance companies.  A lot of people, even people that generally I consider really informed, seem to be under the impression that governments just handed billions and billions to bankers and all that money vanished into executive bonuses and investor dividends.  It just isn't true, and understanding how these things unfolded is key to figuring out how, when, and if the government should preform such rescues in the future.

I am reading a book about Ben Bernanke entitled The Courage To Act, which describes in detail what Bernanke did throughout the crisis as the leader of the Fed in the US.  For example, when AIG was running out of liquidity and on its way to failing the Fed gave it a $85 Billion dollar loan.

That wasn't a gift.  It was a loan at an exorbitant interest rate.  Part of the condition for getting the loan was that the government took over 80% of AIG.

A few years later the Fed had the loan repaid entirely and it had resold the stock of AIG, netting a tidy profit of $23 Billion.

Profit, not loss.

The financial system was protected from a potentially catastrophic loss, and the Fed *made* money.  Of course part of the desired outcome is that the people who made terrible decisions suffer for those decisions.  The company couldn't simply be handed money to make up for its idiocy and hubris, and it wasn't.  The investors lost nearly everything, so anyone thinking to do such things in future could be reasonably sure that if things go bad they stand to lose 95% of their investment when the government chooses to step in... hardly a comforting thought.

This sort of resolution is by far the standard in government interventions of this type.  There have been many times in the past that governments have stepped in to hand huge chunks of cash to big companies that are failing and this is the standard story.  Normally the government gets its money back, usually with a profit.  Not a big profit, mind, but when stabilizing a disastrous situation and preserving major employers you don't have to make much of a profit before it is worth it.

Clearly we don't want the government to be giving money to banks, and it is incredibly galling when executives of a failing bank that required a bailout collect huge bonuses.  That said, when we are faced with a potential catastrophe I definitely want the government to act as a last resort to keep things from tipping over into disaster, especially because history tells us that when they do this it is primarily wealthy investors who take a bath and average employees who benefit.

I should note that not all government interventions went well.  Irish banks did some really dumb things and their government foolishly and without decent information decided to guarantee their creditors against loss.  That was a colossally foolish move, made in haste, and it cost them dearly.  Not all interventions are sensible, but when speaking of them it is critical to understand the difference between the best case and the worst, and why it is sometimes (not always!) right to step in and bail people out.

By far the better solution to the problem is to do things like we have in Canada, which is to have strong government regulations on banking to keep them from doing stupid things and getting themselves into serious trouble.  That worked during the recent crisis and it should be the standard going forward.  Deregulation just invites people to do more stupid things that risk everybody else's security.  But when disaster does come, and it will, we have to be ready to support the government when it steps in to block the leak in the dam.  Of course the fools who created the leak should be made to pay, but them paying is exactly what happens.  Let us not be so eager to spite the bankers that we end up watching the dam explode and drown us all.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Competition Morpheus, competition

The future!  Where we will all have jetpacks, cities on the moon, and robots will do all the work so we can just sit in our armchairs and read.

Unfortunately jetpacks are insanely dangerous, cities on the moon are ridiculous, and there is still plenty of work to be done.  Some people though cling to the idea that somehow all of our advances will lead to a situation where the average person barely has to work at all to be middle class.  I just read a boingboing article on this very topic, and it largely blames wealth inequality.   After all, we are way more productive and things are so much easier to get, so shouldn't we all be working twenty hours a week now instead of forty?

Wealth inequality is bad, for sure.  It contributes to things not getting better for the average person.  I don't think it is the real reason though, because there is a really simple reason - competition.  We compete with each other and our standards for normal are based on what other people have.

If other people are working forty hours a week and I work twenty then I am going to be at a massive disadvantage when it comes to buying a house.  I will be priced right out of the market.  When we all get together and compare who has the fancier home, shiniest car, or newest phone, I am going to be left out.  An awful lot of basic stuff is cheaper these days than it was in the past but that doesn't matter if I am comparing myself to other average people, especially when prices for some things like real estate are purely driven by competition and have almost no fixed cost.

The idea of infinite leisure for the average person simply doesn't hold when people can work and make money.  As long as human effort is required to produce things and that work isn't fulfilling on its own (which is nearly all work, if we are honest with ourselves) then those that do the work are going to have a lot more stuff than those that don't.

I am hugely supportive of a guaranteed basic income, which ensures that people all have a baseline which can meet their basic needs.  However, as long as shiny stuff can be purchased with money people will work to try to get that shiny stuff.  Doesn't matter so much if that stuff is useful for the basic mechanics of life, because we don't measure ourselves by that metric.  We decide if we are successful or not by how we compare to others.  Barring a massive shift in the nature of humanity this is going to continue to be the case.

Imagine a future where we all have all the food we need, a place to live, and even pretty clothes to wear.  However, you can work to make money to get a really super fancy hat.

Like really, really fancy.

People would be working their asses off to get a better hat than everybody else.  Some would do it to try to impress potential romantic partners, some to show their mom just how important they are, and some because it is a way of keeping score.  Doesn't matter why, but work like crazy to get fancy hats would be the order of the day.  Those hats would get *wild*.

So don't expect the average person to start working less as technology progresses.  It ain't gonna happen.  Our measure of ourselves is relative to those around us, and that will keep us slaving away long after there is any practical necessity for it, even if all we get is a really sparkly hat.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Care for some sad with your fun?

I have been watching some Orange Is The New Black, a Netflix series about a women's prison in the US.  It is compelling and powerful and I am finding it hard to stop watching, but I don't know that it is actually good for my general state of mind.

Thing is, watching disastrous life decisions unfold can be fun or it can be super depressing.  Arrested Development, for example, showcased all kinds of terrible decisions made by a family of extremely rich narcissists.  They embark on all kinds of idiotic adventures but it can't strike all that close to home for me - those lunatics aren't *real* in any way.

In Orange, that isn't the case.  The show depicts a range of characters from all kinds of backgrounds, but there are a lot of them that were born into poverty, had disastrous family situations, and ended up in prison mostly out of circumstance and desperation.  Some of the inmates are evil straight up, some did something truly horrible, but a lot of them clearly could have had productive, reasonably happy lives if they had a good base to start from.  Though the stories are fiction it is hard to watch knowing just how close to real they are.  Taystee may not be a real person, but her story reflects the reality that a lot of people face and it is hard to watch that tragedy knowing just how real it is.

I guess that is why it is so much easier to watch something fluffy like a Bond movie.  The villains that get whacked are over the top evil, henchmen happily working for a mad supervillain who wants to take over the world.  It is too far from the everyday evil that is inherent in the world in which we live from day to day.  In Orange you watch the characters struggle and suffer and although they are criminals so many of them don't need punishment... they just need a helping hand.

Watching this show makes me depressed.  I love the characters and their drama and I think it is well acted and written but although I am addicted I know I will be better off when I am finally done with it.

The parallels between the heroin addicts in the show who can't stop taking a hit but who know for certain that doing so is terrible for them is not lost on me.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016


My Kickstarter for my board game called Camp Nightmare has failed to fund.  It was hopeless a long time ago, really, but the final countdown has ended with me at 26% of the needed funding.  That sounds like I could have ramped it up somewhat to get over the mark, but that isn't really accurate.  60% of my funding came from family and close friends, most of that in big chunks buying the expensive options.  I needed to get another $15,000 to be successful, and nearly all of that would have had to come from people I don't know paying in $40 at a time.  375 more of those people, to be precise.

That wasn't going to happen.  I could have gone to game nights and pumped the game to people.  I could have posted on twitter, and I could have run around to board game shops desperately trying to find more backers, but realistically I would be lucky to get a single person buying in on each visit, and I simply can't justify spending thousands of dollars and thousands of hours trying to make it happen, especially as there is no guarantee that any of that investment would actually work in the end anyway.

My hope for the Kickstarter to work was pinned on my blog and network generating a huge amount of interest on its own.  That didn't pan out.  I wasn't surprised about this, because I really didn't bet on it being a success, but I thought there was a possibility and that I should give it a go.  Nothing ventured, nothing learned!

There were a few things that made this a really difficult road.  The main one, I think, was the cost.  Lots of people vocally objected to the price, which I understand.  $40 for a small board game is a real barrier.  A lot of them seemed to think I was trying to make money off of it, which simply wasn't the case.  It is just that the scale of production I was looking at cannot possibly compete with widely distributed games.

The base cost of the game is an issue for sure, but shipping was also killer.  Shipping in Canada is heinously expensive, and some people suggested I go to the States and ship from there.  Unfortunately that adds all kinds of other issues, ranging from crossing the border, duty, taxes, storage, dealing with issues / returns, finding space to doing the shipping work, vehicle rental, and more.  There were ways that I could try to save money, but each would also cost me a bunch of money, take huge amounts of time, and introduce all kinds of complexity, stress, and points of failure.

Those points of failure are key.  I already had issues that if I got more funding than I expected I would suddenly have to deal with submitting sales tax, and that would throw off all my figures.  However, every time you add in more complexity, especially when that complexity is being dealt with by a total amateur, there is a much greater chance that something goes terribly wrong.  I was willing to do the work to get the game out there, but I wasn't willing to expose myself to a bunch of financial risk to do it, and I certainly wasn't willing to throw my life savings away to make games for other people.

I think most people on Kickstarter are a lot more desperate than me.  They are willing to take big risks, sign up for for more work than they expect, and set up a financial scheme that will end up with them losing a bundle to deliver.  There are endless horror stories of crowdfunding either not delivering or being a catastrophe for the creator and I was absolutely determined that neither of those things would happen to me.  If I got my money I was going to bloody well deliver and not lose my shirt in the process.  There is no money down the road, no valuable patent, no business venture.  No good reason at all for me to put myself and my family's fortunes on the line.  So I played it safe, made sure my margins had a solid 5% padding for contingencies, signed up for a reasonable amount of work, and ended up with a price that was way too high for the masses.

So what do I do now?

The plan is to make my game available on a print as you go site, probably  People will be able to order it from there if they want it, and I am aiming to do a single large order in the neighborhood of 100 units to get a discount and use that to supply friends and family.  This is a safe route, exposes me to minimal risk, but doesn't get me the same quality I could have gotten from a full production run.

In the end though I am perfectly happy to go this way.  I suspect a lot of creators are crushed when their Kickstarters fail, but I don't feel that way.  I wanted to see if a ton of people I know really want to get a copy of my game.  They don't, not enough of them at least.  So I will do something much simpler to get the game to those who do want it.

I never really invested myself in the success of the Kickstarter because I just don't feel that desperate need to publish that a lot of people do.  It isn't what I wanted to do in the first place... I built the game because I love to build games.  If someone wants to produce it they are welcome to do so, and for a trivial fee.  Hell, if someone offered to produce it for free I would happily sign on as long as I got credit and I was assured they would actually make it happen.

No doubt that lack of desperation, of investiture, contributed to the failure of the Kickstarter campaign, though I doubt very much there was any hope in any case.

What I got out of all of this is that I don't like production, fundraising, financial planning, marketing, and networking.  I love building games, so I will continue to do what I love and forget the rest of it.  When I think of sitting at my computer doing simulations on my games, figuring out numbers, or building playtest models it makes me happy.  When I think of all of the stuff involved in publishing it fills me with dread.

Camp Nightmare will be published, on a small scale, for those who really want it.  After that, I will go back to doing what I love, what makes me happy to alive, what I was born to do.  I will make games, and I will make them beautiful.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The smallest of victories

President Obama is pushing through some new gun regulations in an attempt to curb gun violence in the US.  While I am fairly sure this won't hurt, I think we can safely say that it won't help in any significant way.

The first issue is that the things Obama can do without support from the other parts of the government are really limited.  He can redefine some terms and expand the groups of people who need to perform background checks before selling guns, sure.  But how much is that going to matter?

How many people on this list of gun assaults / murders / tragedies would have been prevented by adding a background check?  Probably none.  This only means that a small subset of the population is banned from buying guns legally, but many of the people on that list are banned because of criminal behaviour, which often means that they aren't going to bother buying guns legally anyway.  The US already has so many guns and they are so widely available that this new initiative isn't even going to be noticeable.  *Some* gun sellers will have to give background checks, which will prevent *some* of their clients from buying guns.  Legally.  From those sellers.

Let's face the facts.  Gun violence declines when people believe that they shouldn't have guns around.  They need to be convinced that guns are dangerous, kill tons of innocent bystanders, and get pulled out in moments of anger that are swiftly regretted.  When the people believe this, gun control will follow, but it is that belief that is the ticket, not the laws.

Unfortunately the debate surrounding guns in the US has become so polarized that real change looks nearly impossible.  When every Republican candidate is worried about their pro gun score generated by the gun lobby, how can you expect the culture to shift?

A lot of pro gun activists correctly point out that gun control laws are limited in efficacy, especially if you live in a country where there is a basic right to own firearms in place.  The limitations that the government can place on that are hardly a barrier to anyone with a tiny amount of patience and planning.  What the US needs, and what the rest of the world needs to a lesser extent, is the belief that problems are not solved by shooting.  When the people believe that, the violence comes to a near stop.

I believe.

You should too.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Evil, of the banal variety

Today I wandered into the recycling room in my building to drop off some boxes and other bits.  What I saw isn't really surprising, but it did make me rage inside.

A suitcase.  In the recycling bin.

Because suitcases are recycling, right?  And the garbage bin is a whole six meters away, so who could be expected to throw it in there, when it could be parked on the recycling bin instead?

I love how the diagrams down below show all the things that are *supposed* to be recycled, but the suitcase tosser couldn't even be bothered to look down for a minute to notice.

It is actually a double whammy, because when garbage like this gets tossed in the recycling there isn't enough room for the real recycling and then the real recycling gets tossed in the garbage!  Buildings like mine have a real problem with this because more and more things are recyclable but our recycling room is the same size, leading to overflowing bins and enormous mess.  I am sure a ton of recycling goes into the trash just because trying to find someplace to put it in the recycling room is such a problem.

My initial answer to the problem was that I would put on some shades, black clothes, a fake earbud / phone attachment in one ear, and stand there looking dangerous and like a dangerous government official.  Then when people put the wrong stuff in the bin I would yell at them and tell them to do it right.  I actually have done this before (without the costume...) at Elli's school when dealing with six year olds who had no idea what stuff was recycling and what was not.

It is a sad state of affairs that adults are too lazy to figure that stuff out for themselves.  They actually *do* need someone to stand around educating them because they apparently can't be assed to do it without some kind of threat.  Boo humans!