Sunday, April 25, 2010

A post about not posting

Unfortunately, I won’t be able to make a blog post this week due to family medical issues. However, since you have taken my advice and are not reading this blog in any event, you most likely will not notice.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Why Heroscape Is Cool

So, taking a break from the the “Why Things Suck” series, how about something that I think is cool?  I happen to be a gaming geek (among many other kinds of geek), which means that I’m one of those people who thinks that sitting around a table pretending to be a barbarian warrior or berobed wizard is a good time.  You may be one of those people who thinks that those sorts of people are nerds, in which case I must once again refer you to the name of the blog and advise you to run very far away.  (If it makes you feel any better, there are levels even within the gaming community.  For instance, most people at my level of geekitude will look at people who dress up like vampires and walk around in public with their hands crossed over their chests to indicate that they’re invisible and say: “dorks!” And those people, in turn, will look at the people who dress up like cat people and rub up against each other and proclaim them to be weirdos.  So it’s all relative, I suppose.)

So, yes, I like to play D&D (or variations thereof).  As a young child, I loved reading fantasy—The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, A Wrinkle in Time, and most especially, Alice in Wonderland—or just books on mythology.  I remember one of my favorite books to peruse was Monsters Who’s Who.  It was a short hop from there to buying a 1st edition D&D box set just for the monsters it contained.  Sure, there was a game there, but I was an only child (up until the age of 11), and I had lots of games I never found anyone to play with.  But it was fun to read about, and I got into making maps of dungeons just to mess around, and, later, after my little brother came along, I had a guinea pig to practice running monsters against.  By the time I got to college and found an organized game to join, I felt like an old hand at D&D, despite never having played in a game run by anyone who knew what they were doing.

I played D&D—and other “pen ‘n’ paper role-playing games,” or PNP RPGs for short—for decades, and I still play today.  There’s a lot to be said for a game where nobody loses, everyone gets to do whatever they can imagine (within limits, yes, but they’re pretty damn broad limits), and you end up with stories you can talk about for years afterward.  D&D does have its downsides, of course, and the biggest one just gets worse and worse as you get older: time.  Preparing an RPG session as the GM (or “game master”—yes, gaming, like any other hobby, is full of its own jargon and abbreviations) takes an immense amount of effort, particularly if you want to create things from scratch as opposed to running a pre-written adventure.  But even as a player it can suck a lot of time out of you, as you constantly update your character sheet, pore over it looking for math errors, mine every book and magazine you can find for more character options you can use, and so forth.  And, the older you get, the more busy you are with other things in life—family, career, car repairs, house repairs, ad infinitum—but, more crucially, the faster time seems to zoom past, and consequently the less time you perceive that you actually have to do things.  Suddenly you start wondering if there’s a better option ... something which gives you at least some of the same pleasures, but with a heck of lot less time investment.

Now, allow me a brief tangent on the topic of gaming.  Let’s say you are a game designer.  You design yourself a game: say it’s Monopoly.  Now, Monopoly is a great game, no doubt.  But it’s only going to appeal to a certain subset of people, and once all those people buy it, your sales are pretty much tapped out.  (This, by the way, is why you can go into pretty much any Wal-Mart or Target and find 10 different copies of Monopoly on the shelf: because you may own regular Monopoly, but do you own Star Wars Monopoly???  No, of course you don’t, because you’re not a drooling fanboy.  And, if you happen to be a drooling fanboy, that’s just a bonus for Parker Brothers.)  So what’s a game designer to do?

Well, you have two options, and, if you’re smart, you take both of them.  The first is to double your sales by appealing to two different submarkets.  And the second is to make your game expandable.  So people not only have to buy it initially, but then they have to keep buying it over and over again.

Now, as fan of D&D, I know its history.  I know that it emerged out of miniature wargaming, when folks like Dave Arneson decided it would be cool to be a single hero rather than a whole army, and other folks like Gary Gygax figured out how to make rules for that.  And there can’t be a single D&D fan in the universe who hasn’t gone into their FLGS (that’s “friendly local gaming store”) and drooled over the beautifully painted miniatures for wargaming.  The genre of miniature wargaming appeals to people liked to play with toy soldiers as a kid, and I was certainly one of those.  It has all the fantasy chops of a game like D&D: you could recreate the Battle of Helm’s Deep with your platoons of elven archers and Rohirrim cavalry.  But there’s a problem: that secondary submarket that I mentioned.  In this case, it’s “people who liked to build models when they were kids.”  And that was definitely not me.  So I never got into miniature wargaming, despite all the drooling.

Then, in 1993, along came a new type of game: Magic the Gathering, the world’s first CCG (that’s “collectible card game”).  It was for people who liked to play cards (raises hand), but it incorporated that fantasy D&D feel into it.  And it was expandable, which, weirdly, turns out to be more than just a marketing ploy for gaming companies.  I had never really experienced it, since I had avoided miniature wargaming because of the assembly and painting requirements, but, even in D&D, you get it to a certain extent, as you’re constantly buying more and more books with rules for increasingly bizarre character concepts.  But, in a game like Magic, it’s much more viscerally satisfying: if you get bored playing with your existing decks, you just go out and buy more cards.  Got bored again? buy even more cards.  Play a game against someone who has cooler cards than you?  No problem; just go buy even still more cards, and keep buying until you have the coolest.  There’s always more options to explore, and the game never gets old.

But, once again, I was defeated by the secondary submarket.  In the case of CCG’s, it’s that first “C”: collectible.  Which means it appeals to people who liked to collect baseball cards when they were kids.  Which means that when you buy more cards (which, as I say, you tend to do often), you have no idea what you’re going to get.  You just buy and pray.  Well, I didn’t much care for baseball cards, and I didn’t care for this, either.  It was difficult to see all the “fun” I was supposed to be having collecting and trading with my friends, because of the blatant strategy to separate my cash from my wallet which kept getting in the way.  So I enjoyed Magic (and its D&D counterpart, Spellfire) for a while, but eventually I got tired of not knowing what I was getting.

So now it’s 2004.  My first kid is six.  I’m still playing D&D, but constantly moaning about the time it takes up.  Still drooling over the wargaming miniatures but never bought a single one.  Still have a deck or two of Magic cards around the house, but couldn’t even tell you where they are.  And a game called “Heroscape” is released.  The mother sees a commercial for it and suggests I could use it as a gateway drug for getting the little one into D&D.  Which is brilliant, I think.  So we pick up a copy.

It’s basically a miniature wargame, except no painting.  Score one.  It’s expandable, but no blind purchase.  Score two.  And it has many of the fantasy elements of D&D, except the game requires very little preparation (relatively speaking).  Score three, and I’m just about hooked at this point.  It’s a genre blender, meaning that it’s not just fantasy: I can, in fact, put together a Heroscape army composed of elves, aliens, werewolves, samurai, Indiana Jones, and Spiderman, if I wanted to.  That sort of thing doesn’t appeal to everyone, but it does to me.  The rules are simple, which is a bonus, because the other problem that I’ve always had with miniature wargames besides the painting is that they generally require a ruler and a protractor to play.  And the all-important secondary submarket?  Well, it’s not my favorite, but I can live with it: people who used to play with Legos when they were kids.

See, most games come with a flat board.  Most miniature wargames don’t actually come with a board at all; you sort of have to build your own landscape to use as a battlefield, similar to putting together the background for your model train set (which, again, appeals to some people, but not really to me).  You can slap something together, or you can spend a lot of time on it, but obviously once you’re done, you have that particular battlefield forever.  If you get tired of it, you start over and build a new one from scratch.  But Heroscape comes with “terrain pieces,” which are basically like Legos, and you can build whatever you want: lakes, hills, rivers with bridges over them, forests, mountains with cliffs, deserts, swamps ... you name it, you can build it, if you buy enough expansions.  And, when you get tired of that battlefield, you just take it apart and snap together a new one.

Now, I was never much for Legos as a kid, but not because I didn’t like the idea; I just suck at building things.  No spatial judgement, basically.  But the concept of having an infinite number of boards to play on is massively cool, no doubt.  And, honestly, the terrain isn’t the biggest draw for me anyway.  Did I mention I was the kid who liked to play with toy soldiers?

Except not even toy soldiers so much as Micronauts, and those D&D figures that were out for like 2 weeks, and those original Star Wars figures, and later on I would steal my brother’s GI Joe figures ... if it was roughly the right scale, I would throw it into the mix (and sometimes even if it wasn’t).  So I was already used to having battles between marines and robots and dragons: Heroscape was like some joyous retransport back to my childhood, only this time with rules to figure out who lives or dies, and a simple point system to keep everything balanced.  I don’t personally need to sell you on Heroscape—others such as Tom Vasel can do that much better than I—but there’s a reason that the game which was supposed to catch my 6-year-old’s attention long enough to get him interested in fantasy roleplaying is now mostly ignored by him, while, for me, it’s easily equalled my love for PNP RPGs.

That reason is that it did nearly everything right, and very little wrong.  It seems to have all the upside of the RPGs, the CCGs, and the wargames, with none of the downsides.  It’s not a perfect game by any means—there are still debates over niggling little rules interactions, and sometimes powers don’t fit together in a perfectly consistent way and it breaks your verisimilitude—but it’s a great game that’s hard to get bored with, and it captures the sheer childlike joy of just playing with your toys.  And, in a world filled with depressing and frightening and stressful things, that’s pretty special indeed.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Why Corporations Suck

Returning to the ever-popular “Why Things Suck” series (and perhaps one day I’ll do a post on our fascination as Americans—perhaps even as humans—with “the rant”), the first thing I’m going to do today is remind you of the title of this blog. Because, the truth is, I don’t think corporations suck. So you should definitely not read the blog of anyone who’s so stupid he can't even get his titles right.

I actually ran my own business—Barefoot Software—for several years (from 1992 to roughly 2004), and it was a corporation, and it most assuredly did not suck. In fact, the birth of my business preceded the birth of my first child by several years, and I often refer to it as my eldest. Barefoot Software is still around, technically, even though no one really brings any money into it any more, and I still think of it very fondly. I often say that Barefoot is not dead, it’s just in a coma, and one day it will wake up, confused by the invention of Flairs, and promptly start having psychic visions. So I can’t say that corporations suck any more that I could say that human children suck (I have a couple of those too). Corporations definitely do not suck.

Publicly-traded corporations, on the other hand ... they suck. Hard. And I doubt I’m telling anyone anything revolutionary. At this point, even the most hardcore free-market advocates have had their enthusiasm tempered by the fact that the unfettered free market recently ate their retirement funds. Heck, even most of the people working on Wall Street for the corporations agree that they suck. Not the CEO’s of course—they got their multi-million dollar bonuses for nearly bankrupting their companies, so I’d imagine that they think corporations rock—but practically everyone else. And it’s not just the bankers: the auto-makers, the oil companies, the health insurers ... it’s hard to turn on/pick up the news outlet of your choice these days without learning more about how much publicly-traded corporations suck. There is, after all, a reason why Dilbert is the most popular comic to come along in 20 years. (Or 30 ... actually, probably closer to 50 at this point.)

So, other than to point out that you really should not be reading this blog, why make a point that everyone already recognizes? Because we don’t. Sure, we say we do, but we don’t actually believe it. What we really believe is that all the other corporations suck. (Actually, how much we think our own corporation sucks probably depends on how far up or down the corporate ladder we happen to be, but you see what I’m getting at.) Outside of really blatant cases (perhaps Enron-level examples), most people running corporations don’t think their corporations suck, because, if they did, they’d run them differently. And they don’t, so they must not. People like that do have stock portfolios, though, so I can’t believe they are oblivious to the great suckitude; they just think it doesn’t apply to them.

I see a weird sort of parallel to conspiracy theories here. Everyone knows that conspiracy theories are ridiculous, because large entities (governments, corporations, religions, etc) can’t keep secrets. Anyone with any experience at all in trying to keep something secret knows that the more people who know something, the slimmer the chance that it won’t get leaked. There really just isn’t any chance whatsoever that a large group of people can intentionally keep other people from finding out something.

But the problem, of course, is that word “intentionally.” And the problem with pooh-poohing conspiracy theories is that you think they require conspiracies. The concept of a bunch of people getting together and purposefully agreeing to do something shady and managing to keep it a secret for decades is of course ludicrous. But, unfortunately, things can quite often stay quiet without any conspiracy whatsoever. All you need is for the majority of people who could talk about it to get into serious trouble if they do. ‘Cause let’s face it, if the first person to speak up is going to get their head lopped off, then I think you can count on not a lot of people finding out. And it will eventually get to the point where enough people have stayed silent for long enough that even when someone does come along and sound the alarm, no one will believe them. Because, hey, that can’t possibly be true, because, if it were, everyone would know about it, right?

Don’t believe me? Do you know who Bernie Madoff is? Almost certainly you do. Do you know who Harry Markopolos is? Almost certainly you do not. Likewise, you probably have heard of some recent financial troubles we’ve been having, and you probably have not heard of Michael Burry. And these are just a few minutes’ work Googling current events. If you were to dig, you could find hundreds if not thousands of other historical examples. Quite simply, when people’s jobs are at stake, things can stay secret quite well, thank you.

Now, how does this parallel the situation with publicly-traded corporations? Well, obviously, all the employees of these public companies, from the top to the bottom, have an interest in keeping their jobs. Now, the lower down the ladder you are, the more likely you are to be fearless enough to risk that job, but, then again, the lower down you are the less power you have to do anything significant about it. Let me tell you a story that I heard fairly recently. It’s completely anecdotal, and possibly apocryphal as well, but it’s such a good story that I’m not about to let a little thing like accuracy get in the way.

A CEO of a medium-sized tech company got tired of dealing with all the problems reported by his engineers. “The codebase is old and fragile,” they would complain. “Even the stuff that works right doesn’t really work right, if you see what I mean, and every time you try to fix one thing you break three others.” Finally the CEO put his foot down. “No more new features!” he proclaimed. “For the next year, we’re going to put a moratorium on new functionality and concentrate on just refactoring and rewriting and getting our codebase into a state where we can easily add new features going forward. This makes good business sense, because it allows us to be more nimble: we can respond more quickly to changing business forces and beat our competitors to market with new functionality. But we can only do that if we have a strong foundation to build on. So let’s gut the house and relay the foundation, then build it back up the right way.” Everyone applauded this bravery. No doubt the engineers cheered the loudest of all. I can tell you from experience that engineers hate working on old, creaky codebases and just love the chance to rebuild them.

One year later, the codebase was brand spanking new and ready for chewing up the competition. The CEO, of course, was fired.

Now, is this story true? Who knows? It’s a classic FOAF story, and, even if not completely false, my friend may have dressed it up for me, and I cheerfully admit to dressing it up for you. But could it be true? Sure. I would be stunned to find anyone who has worked at a public company for any length of time and doesn’t recognize this story as a reflection of actual events they’ve witnessed—perhaps on a smaller scale, but basically the same story. We read article after article about how Japanese companies think about the long-term while American companies squander competitive advantages chasing short-term profits, but somehow we seem to imagine that this is some sort of cultural difference rather than seeing that the entire system is set up to encourage short-term thinking and punish long-term thinking. (Then again, Japanese companies are publicly traded too, so maybe I’m full of crap and it is all cultural.) But when I look at how few American companies last 50 years, much less 100, I can’t help but feel that there’s something inherently wrong here. It's hard to concentrate on long-term profits when you're worried about whether you're going to be around long-term. And your stockholders don't want to hear about profits that will come in long after they've sold off their invesments: they're all nicely queued up, Janet-Jackson-style, asking what have you done for them lately? Honestly, most of the companies who do manage to last for any significant length of time seem to be more monuments to momentum than exemplars of emulatable business tactics.

Once upon a time the expression was “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM.” Then it was Microsoft. Then Oracle. But what do all these things have in common? Keeping the status quo. That’s what the expression should really be: nobody ever got fired for keeping things exactly the way they are (not 100% true, perhaps, but close enough for government work, as my grandmother used to say). People get fired for trying to change things all the time though. Our system—the system of publicly-traded corporations—doesn’t reward bravery, or daring, or even keen insight. It rewards soul-crushing sameness, and playing it safe, and fear of change. That’s why corporations suck ... but only if they’re publicly traded.

When I was in charge of a corporation (very small one that it was), I was never afraid to make a mistake. Making mistakes is, after all, how one learns. What I was afraid of was making the same mistake twice, ‘cause that’s just stupid. It seems to me that corporate America not only makes the same mistakes over and over again, it revels in it, and rewards its minions for doing so. I would be pleased to be wrong about that. But I don’t think I am.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Parental Myth #1

As the father of 2.5 children (which I suppose makes me perfectly average), I, like every parent known to man, sometimes compare notes with other parents. Inevitably these comparisons lead me to the conclusion that my take on parenting is somewhat weird, the usual tip-off being when people say “Man, your views on parenting are pretty weird!” But my kids have (so far) turned out okay, and their mother agrees with my weird views (well, most of them), so I’m very lucky in that regard.

My ideas about how to parent are not haphazard. They come from a lot of years of thinking about what would be the right way to be a father, considering what I liked and didn’t like about my own childhood, and careful consideration of the viewpoints of other parents I’ve known, both positive and negative. They’re based on a few fundamental concepts, some of which relate to my ideas on how to live a good life in general, and some of which are more specific to how to be a good mentor and example to children. They are basically the crystallization of how I think I’d like to grow up as as child. I’m certainly not saying I’m the perfect parent—far from it—but I think they are valuable concepts, and I think they’re worth sharing. Obviously they may not be for everyone. But being a parent, like any other job, should involve evaluating a lot of different ideas and choosing the best ones, so, the more ideas you learn about, the more likely you are to choose the best ones for you and your children.

Indulge me on a brief tangent. I believe that good art contains some grain of truth. That is, when you read a book, or watch a movie, or hear a song, or view a painting or sculpture, if you can see something in it that rings true for you, something that makes you stop and say “yeah, that’s so true!”, then that’s art. (If it contains Truth, then perhaps it is great art. But not all art needs to be great art. Sometimes little-T-truth is sufficient.)

Unfortunately, we can get lazy. We can get so used to art having something to say that portends a greater truth that we start to assume that all art—all movies, or books, or songs, or what have you—is in fact true. Which is a totally different thing, of course. Sometimes we need to be a bit skeptical about what our art is telling us.

Let’s take an example. How many times have you heard a line like this: “Joey doesn’t need you to be his friend; he needs you to be his parent.” Probably quite a few. Now, let me ask you to think very hard, and tell me how many times you’ve heard that outside a movie. (Or possibly a book, though it seems to be more popular in movies and television shows, particularly movie-of-the-week type fare.) Probably not many. And, if you have heard that phrase in real life, I’d say the chances are good that whoever said it to you heard it in a movie themselves and just thought it sounded cool. And perhaps it does sound right to you: perhaps you think it has the ring of truth to it.

But consider it more carefully. If you were to say such a thing in a formal debate, your opponent would quickly (and quite rightly) point out that you were committing the fallacy of false dilemma. The assertion contains a false assumption: namely, that the two options are mutually exclusive. Somehow the people who propose this argument seem to believe that in order to be a good parent, you cannot also be a friend.

But in reality, quite the opposite is true. You simply cannot be a good parent without also being a friend. Cast your mind back to your own childhood. If your parents were also your friends, were they therefore not good parents? Contrapositively, if they were there not your friends, did that automatically make them good parents? Or might they have been even better parents if they had also been your friends?

Fundamentally, this false dilemma is based on the idea that you let your friends do whatever they want, while letting your children do that would be disastrous. But is this really true? Let’s say that your friend wants to do something destructive. Perhaps they have an addiction issue, or perhaps they’re stuck in an unhealthy relationship. If you are a true friend, don’t you take a stand and say “you shouldn’t do this”? In an extreme case, mightn’t you even physically stop them from doing something? You might, for instance, relieve them of their keys if you know they’ve had too much to drink. And would that be so different from refusing to allow your child to gorge themselves on candy, or play with matches?

Now, granted, most of our choices in life don’t have the good grace to be so clear cut. For instance, we parents have a tendency to refuse to let our children be rude, even though doing so doesn’t threaten their physical safety. But you can still draw parallels to your friends. If a good friend of yours is rude, do you tell him or her? Do you advise them that they can get more flies with honey than with vinegar? Do you let them know, if it happens to be you they’re being rude to, that your feelings are hurt and you’d appreciate it if they could tone it down? Do you tell them that you don’t like to be associated with a person who’s always being rude to everyone? I believe that, if they’re a really good friend, you do. In fact, I would go so far as to say that, if you don’t, you’re not being a very good friend to them. Friends don’t let friends drive drunk, and friends don’t let friends be jerks. We all have to look out for each other in this life, and friends are rare enough that we have to look out for them even more.

When we tell our children not to be rude, we call it “disciplining” them. And we surely don’t “discipline” our friends. But we might tell them not to be rude, so is it really that different? In the end, the only real difference between your children and your friends is that you can always decide not to be friends any more, but parent is forever.

So I reject the concept that I must choose between being a parent to my children or being their friend. I can be both, and in fact I am both. I may do or say things that make me unpopular with my children from time to time, but then I do things that make me unpopular with my friends from time to time too. And such spats are generally fleeting, because, in the end, the friendship is stronger than the disagreements. I believe that my desire to be a friend to my children doesn’t make me weak when it comes to “discipline”; rather, it makes me remember that guiding my children and teaching them how to be good people is only part of the job. It makes me understand that it’s okay to apologize to my children for being harsh with them, that it’s okay to admit it when I’ve made a mistake or a poor decision, that explaining myself and why I think certain things are important for them to do is not some sign of weakness, but a sign of respect. My children are my friends, and I’m not just okay with that, I love it. I love hanging out with my children as much as I love hanging out with my friends, and I love hanging out with all of them together even more. Sure, my children embarrass me sometimes, but then so do my friends. Sure, some of my friends might think it’s weird that I’m friends with my kids, but then some of my friends think it’s weird that I’m friends with some of my other friends as well.

Like I said, being a parent is forever. And, as long as I’m stuck with these midgets for the next several decades, I might as well enjoy being with them, right? And they’re stuck with me, so I feel like I owe it to them to make that enjoyable as well. And it seems to be working. I’m only eleven and a half years in so far, but I think it’s sustainable.

Frank Zappa once said:

I happen to think I’m a great dad, and I think any of my kids would confirm that. Whether I’m a good man, I don’t know, that’s pretty subjective, but I think the empirical evidence is on my side that my kids turned out OK, and they like me and I like them. And we get along fine.

I really can’t aspire to more than that.