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.