A Not-So-Hollow Threat In the Face of Fake News

NBC reported a story that (sadly) came from unnamed sources.  In the story, they claimed that in July the President called for “what amounted to” a tenfold increase in the US stockpile of nuclear weapons.  Not only did the White House deny the story had any validity, but the President then tweeted this chilling statement:

“Network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked.”

This was an all too familiar threat to me.  Once upon a time, there was a war that the United States got involved in – Vietnam.  It was such a sad failure that President Johnson was hounded away from seeking a second term.  Nixon got elected and proceeded to possibly do an even worse job.  There was a lot of campus unrest about the War, particularly because of the draft that was being used to support it.  The Nixon administration drew up an enemies list, and somewhere near the top of the list were some of the campus radio stations that aired content that was critical of the administration.

A college radio station on campus had to have a license to broadcast their shows, and there was a collection of rules that governed the licenses.  Several campus radio stations were clearly targeted as a result of being on the enemies list.  One station was broadcasting a football game live, and they were a little bit late one hour with their station identification announcement.  Each station was required to announce their call letters and the city they were broadcasting from within a specified number of minutes of the top of the hour.  The station lost their license because they missed the announcement window by only a few minutes.  I’m not aware of any serious enforcement of that rule since the Nixon era, let alone any station losing their right to broadcast because of not making an announcement on a timely basis.

The President’s threat?  There are lots of laws related to television broadcasts, and I’m pretty sure that if a squad was put on the job they could find violations by almost any station.  NBC itself is a much harder target since they mostly create content rather than broadcasting it directly.  NBC or their parent corporation (General Electric) might own some local stations directly, and it would be possible to go after their licenses.  NBC, of course, could simply continue to distribute shows through cable and the Internet, making attacking them directly a lot more difficult in the universe of the future where streaming has replaced other forms of broadcasting.

I’m not aware of NBC issuing a retraction over the story, and that leads us to another dilemma.  How do we deal with “fake news” that is actually fake?  Wikipedia allows users to update entries and has been forced to change invalid entries and sometimes lock content to prevent ongoing attacks on the truth.  How do we deal with NBC’s story?  Nobody has the standing to challenge the story in court.  The President and his staff have access to sufficient news sources to deny the story and make sure everybody hears their side, so it’s difficult for them to claim any damages.  A bigger concern is the worry that there are other stories coming to us from the news media and from the President and his staff that are lacking in validity and we have no way to easily detect the falsehoods.

How do we deal with NBC’s story?  Nobody has the standing to challenge the story in court.  The President and his staff have access to sufficient news sources to deny the story and make sure everybody hears their side.  How does a simple citizen dig through the news and decide what’s true and what’s fake?

Should there be an official truth squad of some sort or should we simply depend on multiple Internet sources that measure the validity of claims?  My guess is we just continue to tune out all the noise.

Quarterflash insisted “it’s time you got the news” in their one big hit, Harden My Heart.  No word on whether their hearts really did get hardened.

It’s Time To Kick Calculus To The Side Of The Road

For the better part of two decades, I taught Computer Science courses at local universities.  As part of my doctoral thesis, I unearthed every piece of research I could find that looked into predicting success in a computer programming course.  The dropout rate for computer science majors is really horrible – estimates indicate that only 15% of the freshmen who start out to be computer science majors actually graduate as computer science majors.  Ouch!  A lot of that results from the roughly 40% of students who quit the major before the end of their first computer programming course.  It would seem to save everybody a lot of wear and tear if we could identify which students would successfully complete a computer programming course.

I found only one reliable predictor of success in a programming course.  It wasn’t Math SAT scores, or GPA, or expected major, or sex (males and females succeed at about the same level), or anything you might expect.

The only predictor of success in a programming course appears to be a success in a previous programming course.  That’s it.  People who are good at programming will be good at programming.  Not much help, but I can attest to the difficulty of identifying students who will be good at computer science.  Some of my best students have been art majors, English majors, and music majors.  Granted, others have been the math geeks that we would expect to do well, but a lot of math students and engineering students seemed to find computer programming a difficult hurdle.

Which leads me to one of my pet peeves with Computer Science Department requirements: far too many of them seem to require one or two semesters of calculus.  Not even the applied calculus that some future non-mathematicians might find useful, but full-bore theoretical math.  What a waste of their time!  While calculus might be a way to find students with a solid affinity for mathematics, it is not related to computer programming in any way, shape, or form.  Understanding binary arithmetic and discrete math, sure, those are important to understanding how computers work and help programmers write efficient code, but understanding how deltas and epsilons help us identify continuity is, quite frankly, a waste of time for almost all computer programmers.  And requiring the ability to deal with calculus to complete a Computer Science degree means you will drive away the art and English and music majors who might be very good at computer programming.

I sometimes see people arguing that people should all learn basic calculus.  I feel time in school could be better spent teaching them how compound interest and mortgages work.  I spent over 30 years working as an actuary, one of the few fields where applied mathematics is actually useful.  There are perhaps as few as 5,000 actuaries in the country; most of them work calculating premium and claim rates for insurance companies, and those who specialize in health insurance are rare creatures.  While calculus may have been instrumental in deriving some of the formulas actuaries use, in all my years as an actuary I only used calculus once.  Another actuary questioned where a formula came from, and I simply pulled out a sheet of paper and jotted down the steps that calculus required to derive the formula.  He just sat there, either stunned at my brilliance (probably not!) or simply trying to recover from a flashback to college math.  Even though he worked with that formula frequently, it never mattered to him that calculus was at the root of the formula.

Do you know how to build an internal combustion engine?  Of course not, but you can still push on the petals in your car and get it to go.  Learning and knowing calculus to be a computer programmer is like learning how to build an engine to burn gasoline to move a car forward before you’re allowed to drive.  It isn’t necessary.

Stop requiring calculus!  You may be driving away people who are potentially your best programmers.

This year saw the death of Walter Becker, one of the two primary members of Steely Dan.  The group’s members changed radically over time, but he and Donald Fagen were always there.  The group was nominated for 12 Grammy awards and won three of them.  They currently reside in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a result of their unique jazz-rock fusion creations.  Here they are insisting they’re never going back to their old school, possibly due to bad memories of math class.

I Hear The Silence of The Canaries in the Mine

Monolith Edition Games (not to be confused with Monolith Games, a division of Warner Brothers) has had several successful game releases, including the Conan and Mythic Battles: Pantheon board games.

One of their upcoming games has caught a lot of consumer interest because of its name, Batman: The Board Game.  This is apparently a huge undertaking and fans are no doubt anxious to see a copy of the game, but you won’t be able to shop for it in your Local Game Store.  The company made a surprise announcement about the game:

“We have decided to go “Kickstarter Exclusive” on our games … because the deal to go to retail is not fair for us.

“If we want to offer Batman: The Board Game in retail, we would have to sell it to Asmodee at a fair price for our work, like any other board game publisher does. With all the intermediaries getting their own margin, the game would be sold around $250 in your local store. That is not something most of the local stores want to sell because it is a high price, and buying this from their distributors will immobilize a lot of their cash flow. They would rather buy [other cheaper games] and be sure to sell them than offering a board game that already did (hopefully) well on Kickstarter.”

and “The type of games we do is just not fit for the retail channel.”

I’ve talked about the challenges of carrying games that come out of Kickstarter before and explained why our store usually does not sell games that start out life on Kickstarter unless a customer specifically orders them.  As far as I know, this is the first time a game company with a major game has gone on record to explain why they’ve taken the step of going exclusive on Kickstarter.

I can understand the reasoning behind their decision.  Retailers pay distributors about 40% to 50% of the retail price of a game (because retailers have expenses like rent and salaries and utilities and have to make money or go out of business).  Distributors probably get discounts of another 10% to 15%, which leaves the poor manufacturer getting maybe 35% of the retail cost of their game.  That’s not a lot of money when you factor in all the pieces included in big box board games, and that’s one of the reasons a lot of those games are released at big conventions before retailers get them to sell.  When they sell direct to the public, manufacturers get 100% of the sales price.  It was just a matter of time before Kickstarter started replacing retailers for the expensive big box games.

People supporting the project on Kickstarter can expect to pay at least $100 or so for the base game, but I’m sure there will be lots of extras available that could easily bump that price up significantly.  Because of the increased costs associated with shipping, it is likely that shipping charges will be added to the cost.  And if you want to wait to buy it online you can no doubt expect to pay the $250 Monolith Editions is talking about – the Conan Board Game with all the original pieces now sells for nearly $500, and the Batman game with all the extras will probably cost even more in the aftermarket.

Right now there are few details about the game itself, but this is just the first shot in the battle.  The next step is for companies to make deals with Amazon and/or Target to give them exclusives after the Kickstarter project.  Selling the store to consumers in game stores?  Simply too expensive.  The Internet strikes out against the inefficiencies of retailing again.

Don’t for an instant think that I don’t sympathize with small game companies that are being forced into Kickstarter.  A similar situation faced music creators until they figured out how to make money with digital downloads (something board game companies can’t quite do….yet).

The Kinks’ career had faded in the late sixties.  Their last top ten single in the United States had been released in 1965.  Even in their home country of England, the hit records stopped coming in 1967.  In 1970 they had a surprise hit record with Lola, a song that succeeded in part because of the clever line, “I’m glad I’m a man and so’s Lola.”  So, is Lola glad or another man?  Either way, the Kinks seemed to have a bit of trouble making money from a single that probably sold over a million copies if the song The Moneygoround is to be believed.  It takes less than two minutes to feel their pain; clearly, Monolith Edition feels it, too.

A Simple Way to Get Along Better

With any luck, this will help you stop beating your wife and/or girlfriend…when you play games.  Or maybe when you play games with your significant other.  Or your friends.

Most of us have grown up playing competitive games starting with simple games like Candyland and moving up to Monopoly and other “family” games.  If you’re like me, you then discovered Risk and possibly all the SPI and Avalon Hill board games.  All of these will help teach you to take over Austrailia so you can rule the world…oh, wait, we aren’t talking just about Risk.  All of these games teach you to plot and plan to take down your opponents and win the game.  If you aren’t careful, you can get tied up in PVP mode (player versus player) and never come back.  If you really want endless PVP you can always reach for Munchkin.

There is another way to play if you are around people who aren’t into smashing down each other’s chances of winning board and card games: cooperative games.  In these games players typically have to work together and plan strategies to beat the game.  Instead of a single winner, everybody wins or everybody loses.  This can make for a more enjoyable evening, especially with friends who are not semi-professional competitive gamers.

There was a time in the sixties when peace and flower power were the watchwords of the day and group games were invented to help people learn to work together.  Tie-dye shirts were optional.  It was a passing fad, but interest in games where people work together to accomplish goals continued.  In the past few years, some very creative people managed to create some games that were challenging and fun.  Listed below are a number of games you may want to investigate further; the list below has them listed by price (the further down the list you go, the more expensive the games get!)  Where available, I’ve included links to the rules for each of the games, and those pages usually include copies of the game boards as well.

Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert. Forbidden Island is a great starter game for cooperative play.  The game is inexpensive (retail is only $20), takes only about thirty minutes to play, and has multiple levels of difficulty.  There’s even a novice level for new players that is designed to help the players win.  The game can be played solo and becomes more difficult as you add more players – cooperation becomes critical.  You are trapped on an island that is sinking into the ocean, and the players are trying to obtain four treasures and escape on a helicopter before the island sinks completely into the ocean.  Forbidden Desert is a sequel to the first game that is similar in many ways but includes additional complications in the mechanics.  This time aroundForbidden Desert, you are trying to reassemble a flying machine and escape a sandstorm before you are all trapped and killed.

Pandemic. In Pandemic you are a group of researchers at an unnamed disease control center in Atlanta who are trying to stop deadly diseases from spreading worldwide.  This is a significantly more complex game designed for 2 to 4 players, so it helps if at least one player in a group has played the game before.  Games typically take about 45 minutes, but using the more challenging versions of the game can take longer (or, in some cases, much less time to lose).  You will be moving around the globe, building research centers, finding cures, and potentially stopping the spread of various illnesses before they turn into uncontrollable pandemics.  If you really enjoy the game, you will find numerous expansions and scenarios available.  For the horror-minded, there is a standalone version of the game, Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu where you fight the spread of Cthulhu instead of a disease; diseases are probably easier to counter.  And speaking of Cthulhu…

Arkham Horror. In this game players run around Arkham, Massachusetts, doing their best to close portals that will allow the evil Ancient Ones to relocate to our world.  This is an extremely complex game which takes 2 to 4 hours to play, and the game is probably not for beginners!

Castle Panic.  Monsters are threatening to kill everybody in the castle, and you have to defend the castle’s towers to protect those who have taken shelter there.  The game comes complete with castle walls and towers (some minor assembly required).  There is a huge stack of monster tokens and an equal number of castle cards you can use to stop them.  And one six-sided die.  The game takes about an hour to play.

Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle. Unlike the previous games, this is a cooperative deck-building card game.  Ideally, 2 to 4 players can tackle a series of villains, usually taking 30 to 60 minutes to overcome.  The seven scenarios are increasingly difficult to beat, but your characters accumulate increased abilities as you go along.  An expansion affords you the opportunity to tackle additional baddies.

Dresden Files cooperative card game is another deck building card game.  The game comes with five decks, one for each of the first five novels in the series.  Players can play Harry and an assortment of his friends to take on individual decks, or turn the game into a campaign and play through all of them using special rules.  Each deck takes about a half hour.  There are already three expansions, each of which offers new assistants and two additional novels.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Board Game.  This version of a Buffy game (there have been several) lets 1 to 6 players take on the roles of the Scoobie Gang and deal with situations from the show’s first four seasons.  In a nod to the show, the players have to first defeat three monsters of the week, after which the Big Bad pops up as a final challenge.  It takes a half hour to an hour to defeat (or to lose to) one of the four Big Bads.

Dead of Winter.  There’s been a zombie apocalypse, and players are members of a colony that is struggling to survive the hardships of the Winter.  There’s a random overall scenario for each game (and a specific one to pick the first time you play).  Each turn brings a new crisis, and the players must work together to overcome them.  Each of the players has their own group of survivors that are members of the colony.  If the colony doesn’t survive, the players (mostly) all lose…but in a twist from the other cooperative games, each player also has a secret victory condition.  As a result, a game can end where everybody wins, everybody loses, or there is a mix of winners and losers.  There’s even a secret victory condition where a player seeks to betray the colony and see it destroyed.

The Spinners first hit the charts in 1961 with a song nobody remembers, That’s What Girls Are Made For.  It was 1972 before they put together a string of hit records, peaking when Then Came You, their duet with Dionne Warwick, climbed to number 1.  Here they are singing about the Games People Play.

Resistance on the Football Field

It almost has to be a slow news day when the top story everywhere is football players kneeling on the field.  The reason for the kneeling seems to have been misplaced in the excitement over the incident.

According to numerous reports, prior to 2009 football teams stayed in the locker room while the national anthem played, and then came running out on the field (just watch any taped game from 2008 or earlier to verify that for yourself).  The change in procedure is clouded in a murky set of circumstances, but for a number of years the Department of Defense seems to have paid teams for “patriotic displays” at the games.

After a rash of police-involved shootings that did not result in much punishment for the police, Colin Kaepernick started taking a knee during the national anthem.  The protest stirred up emotions immediately, which meant it was an effective protest.  Didn’t do much for Kaepernick’s career, but that was as much a result of a few poor seasons as his protests.

A few other football players joined in, but public pressure (and, no doubt, pressure from the NFL team owners) had all but put an end to the practice.

Unfortunately, it does not mean that we reached the end of senseless shootings, as seen in the recent past:

  • Last week police shot and killed a man who would not drop a pipe he was holding, apparently in a menacing way.  Turns out the man was deaf and could not hear instructions to drop the pipe.
  • A 15-year-old holding a BB gun was shot and killed by police.  They later found a suicide note in his jacket.
  • A man holding a knife and a toy gun was shot with a taser, but unfortunately, two other policemen opened fire as well and killed him.

At least one of the policemen involved in these situations responded humanely (he used a taser instead of a gun).  Perhaps we need to make sure all policemen have tasers and better training on how to use them to defuse situations where they aren’t in any immediate danger.  At the same time, people need to be made aware that if they point a gun at a policeman they should expect to be shot – police must be able to protect themselves from harm.

We have become so used to these kinds of stories that while there might be local outrage, the stories simply seem to fade away all too quickly.  While they maybe should be the cause for protests, that’s not what happened this weekend.

There were numerous protests during the Vietnam War.  A large portion of the population was opposed to the war (especially college-aged students who faced the draft).  Protests were commonplace.  Marches and rallies came first, and then students started taking over administration buildings at colleges, and then somebody came up with the idea of burning the American Flag as a protest against the war.  This was not a protest against the flag (burning is the preferred way to dispose of a flag that has reached the end of its useful days), but rather a protest against the War and the government that was perpetuating the War.  This was a very divisive practice, with immediate calls for punishment by a lot of people who didn’t care too much for the War either but who objected to any disrespect of the flag.  It took awhile, but eventually, the Supreme Court acknowledged that burning a flag in protest was indeed protected as free speech (thank you, First Amendment!) and was simply effective free speech.

And here we are fifty years later with Kaepernick taking a knee and getting people all riled up.  So far it sounds like a beautifully effective form of resistance.  Sadly, its effectiveness was fading until the President (did I forget to mention his name?) gave a speech in Alabama and called for the NFL to punish players who took a knee during the national anthem by firing them.

Something wonderful happened.  Several hundred players took a knee.  Several teams stayed in the locker room during the anthem.  Instead of firing anybody, several owners came out and took a knee alongside their players.

And one brave player in Pittsburgh (Alejandro Villanueva) came out of the locker room and stood at attention all alone.  Props to him, too; resistance can come from all sides and in a lot of flavors, and his determination to show his pride in his country is as important as kneeling down to show your disappointment in the current administration.

The football players were not taking a knee to be disrespectful to the flag or the national anthem, but they are merely trying their best to call attention to what they see as unacceptable in our country.  When the protests were about something vague like “social injustice” it was easy to simply stand at attention and ignore them.  But not this time – the value we place on freedom of expression and peaceful protest is too important.

The country has a long tradition of free speech and protests.  While we may all just want the games to start quickly so we can see how our fantasy football teams do this week, it’s a lot more important to remind the President that he is only a president and not really in charge here.  The President already has enough to worry about without getting his followers all riled up about football players: North Korea, health care, and tax reform should be enough to keep him busy.

There is an important civics lesson here for everybody.

Peter, Paul and Mary started out their career as folk singers in the early sixties. They were one of the most successful folk singers of the modern rock era; they landed at least one chart record in the top 40 every year from 1962 to 1968 except 1967.  Their biggest hit was Leaving on a Jet Plane, a song written by John Denver, and ironically they never again hit the top 100 after that success.  In the midst of the Viet Nam war, they appeared on the Smothers Brothers show and everybody sang along with a small ray of hope, the song Day Is Done.

Trying the Mantle of Star Trek On For Size

The previews for this Fall season’s new television shows have left me wondering if I’ll find enough shows to watch.  It’s no surprise that the networks are doing their best to relaunch old shows that really could have stayed locked up in the vault of tv past.  Even worse, the networks seem determined to neatly clone shows that have been middling successes in the past few years, and I’m already done with even trying to watch more unnecessary remakes and redos.  Not even Young Sheldon looks very interesting, but I’ll give it a few shows to find its footing.

Two shows are trying out for the newest version of Wagon Train in Space, swooping into space on the wings of giant metallic ships filled with the usual assortment of captains and shipmates.  The Orville and Star Trek: Discovery are the two new shows that are on missions to boldly go where James T. Kirk has gone before.

The Orville is mostly written by and stars Seth MacFarlane, the man responsible for Family Guy.  He plays the captain of a starship, but a captain who is at best inept and clearly only chosen to command a ship because there is nobody else.  His first officer is a woman who turns out to be the wife he recently divorced.  The rest of the crew is similar to almost any show set on a starship, but only similar: the dialog and actions of the crew (made up of an amazing supporting cast) are largely comedic in nature.  Watching the first episode was almost like watching an episode of the Family Guy as we got some drop-in antics separated by some plot.  The special effects were top-notch, and I thought the show had promise if it could figure out how to walk the line between serious science fiction and madcap humor.

The second episode gave me more hope for the show.  We still got some humor, including a number of quiet background pieces on the sets and throwaway lines full of inside jokes, but we actually got a semi-serious plot.  There was better character development.  There were more aliens.  The crew repeatedly disobeyed orders from on high (something Kirk was very consistently doing).  There was a problem that had to be solved, and it was solved by including a snarky kick at what I see as the worst type of shows television has ever created.  But as good as it was, it did not prepare us for the third episode.

One of the features of the original Star Trek that endeared us to it was the show’s ability to address contemporary problems that normally wouldn’t be allowed on network television by masking the problems in science fiction settings.  Episodes that dealt with racism and war and other political debates during the Viet Nam War and the Cultural upheaval of the late sixties snuck on the air and went mostly unnoticed by the folks who eventually shut down the Smothers Brothers for dealing with the same problems more directly.

In the third episode of The Orville, the crew deals with the problem of a crew member that insists on surgery for a sex change for a newborn infant.  While the episode continued to have some humorous banter from time to time, it went completely serious when dealing with whether the reassignment of sex should take place shortly after birth or only after the baby grew old enough to make the decision for itself.  Eventually, there is a trial and a surprise witness, but the show avoids the easy ending that we would expect from a comedy.  And along the way, we get stop-motion Rudolph and the episode ends with the best use of a stuffed animal in years.  Yes, there is still humor, but the episode also tosses some serious arguments into the mix.  The show is on Fox at first, but you can also watch it on Hulu, and it’s worth chasing down the first three episodes if you missed them for any reason.

Star Trek: Discovery?  Normally I would be there to watch the show, but after reading about it I changed my mind.  The show has had numerous problems; the original date for the show was January 2017, but problems pushed that back to September.  Sure, that’s annoying, but it’s an annoyance of a pinprick compared to the stunt CBS has pulled: the first show is on regular network television, but after that, the show will be locked behind a paywall!  If you want to watch the show you have to sign up for CBS All Access (which requires the internet) and pay either $6 a month for the opportunity to watch commercials or $10 a month if you want the show without commercials.  Since you must use the internet to watch the channel, you either have to buy and install extra equipment to view the internet on your television set or watch the show on your computer or (choke!) your phone.  Since I already watched nearly every show available on CBS Access back when they were first broadcast (including Star Trek on our magnificent 19-inch black and white television fifty years ago), I’m not interested in paying several dollars an episode to watch ST:D (wow, there’s a frightening abbreviation for the show!)  Sight unseen, the show gets zero stars.

While numerous musicians were involved in recording music for the Beatles (you didn’t really think they played all those string instruments on Yesterday, did you?), there was a lot of surprise around the radio station when the single Get Back came out and was credited to “The Beatles With Billy Preston.”  Nobody really knew if Billy was joining the group or simply sitting in for the single.  Eventually, Billy released a few records on the Beatles’ Apple Records label.  His most successful release was arguably an instrumental, Outta-Space, which nearly got to number 1 in the US and eventually won a Grammy Award.  He later did get to the top of the charts with Will It Go Round In Circles and Nothing From Nothing.  This video for Outta-Space has been synced with some pretty comedic dancing.