2015: Personal Technology Review

How did my use of technology change during 2015? The short answer is that it increased. For example, I just deposited a check using my phone, and that’s something I never did in previous years.

That phone is a Droid Maxx, made by Motorola for Verizon. My iPhone turned in to a brick earlier this year. From among the phones available from or for Verizon Wireless, the Maxx seemed to me the best deal. This may be due to the particular wireless plan I was already in. The iPhones were by comparison overpriced.

I was happy with my new phone until, after a few months, it went into spiral of frantic uselessness, in which it would do nothing but restart until it ran out of power. Staff at the Verizon store agreed that it should be replaced, and replaced it was.

My second Maxx is behaving well so far. I like multiple things about it, especially the size of the screen. I’m not missing my iPhone. But I haven’t abandoned Apple: the two iPads in the house are in frequent use by the kids and by me. Continue reading “2015: Personal Technology Review”

Writing for the CIA, or for Me

Good writing is important. I tell my students that. When I find senior people in prominent organizations delivering the same message, I am pleased. I don’t need convincing or reminding about the importance of good writing, but I think that some of my students do. So I find this quote useful and pleasing.

The information [our organization] gathers, and the analysis it produces, mean little if we cannot convey them effectively… [Our organization has always] been home… to people who enjoy writing and excel at it.

As you might have guessed from the title of this post, the organization is the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Had the post title not given it away, you might have guessed that the organization was in the business of market research, or of consulting.

The quote is from the Foreword to a document that I’ll call the CIA Style Manual (follow the link for a PDF of the document, including its full title). The Foreword, written by CIA Director of Intelligence Fran Moore, is refreshingly concise, comprising just four short paragraphs.

Based on what I’ve read, or seen quoted elsewhere, the Manual provides some very good advice on informative and analytical writing. Here are a few more quotes.

  • Keep the language crisp and pungent; prefer the forthright to the pompous and ornate.
  • Be frugal in the use of adjectives and adverbs; let nouns and verbs show their own power.
  • Be aware of your reading audience; reserve technical language for technical readers.

Given that it recommends that language be “crisp” and “frugal”, the CIA Style Manual seems rather long: it runs to 190 pages. A glance at the Contents shows that many of those pages provide guidance on things that most of us never have to be concerned about, such as capitalization while writing about “Top Officials of First-Order Subnational Administrative Divisions”.

Many other pages of the Manual provide rhetorical rules. Here is just one particular persuasive tactic: regime “has a disparaging connotation and should not be used when referring to governments friendly to the United States.” Open Culture deploys opposing rhetoric, describing the CIA as “fiendishly good at manipulating language.”

The emphasis on rhetoric provides an additional reason to study the Manual. This reason may be even stronger for those who disapprove of the CIA’s activities than it is for those who approve. Whatever the argument, whatever side we are on, we should all seek to understand and anticipate the rhetorical devices used by the opposing side(s).

The students to whom I referred in the first paragraph are in a highly-rated MBA program. (Hello, students, and no you don’t get extra credit for having read this far.) They are, in my courses, students of communication (as well as of Strategic Management, or Organizational Behavior, of Business Ethics, or…). Here are my guidelines for written assignments the current semester; the assignments tend to be short (about three single-spaced pages), since I encourage conciseness.

We should all be lifelong students of communication, including writing. We can learn a lot–about clarity, about rhetoric, and about other aspects of writing–from the CIA Style Manual.

Another Tabletop Kickstarter Tops Target

The Kickstarter campaign for Swamped was, I’m delighted to write, very successful. Now, that sentence, and the post title, will raise questions for some readers. If you’re not among those readers, you can just skip down to the paragraph with the chart.

Questions arising from this post’s title and opening sentence may well include:

  • What’s Kickstarter? Well, Kickstarter describes itself as “a new way to fund creative projects”.
  • What’s Swamped? It’s a card game (and hence a creative project) funded using Kickstarter. The players are adventurers, traveling through the swamp in a shared boat, seeking to achieve certain goals. Some of these goals, such as avoiding the hungry croc, are shared. Other goals differ between adventurers, and are private.
  • What does Tabletop mean here? It denotes a type of game that’s not a video game: this could mean a card game, like Swamped, or a board game, or…
  • What do you mean when you describe the Kickstarter as “very successful”? Well, …

SwampedMinichart
The chart shows that the Kickstarter for Swamped was successful, especially over its last few days. It:

  • Raised well over twice its funding goal.
  • Attracted more than 1,000 backers: each of these backers pledged money in order to receive a specific reward; most of them pledged $12 plus shipping for one copy of the game.
  • Saw an upturn in funding over the last few days of the campaign. If you looked at the chart carefully, you might have noticed that the last 3 days of the campaign saw a pledge total of over $5,000, and of more than 25% of the total for the whole campaign.

Continue reading “Another Tabletop Kickstarter Tops Target”

Beware Malware

“Beware malware” is a friendly reminder to all, and one I should have given to myself when I attempted to download some software for my son yesterday. I was in too much of a hurry to be careful about what I was downloading.

I was after Kodu, the game programming tool. I now know that the file kodu-game-lab.exe is malware “which may bundle additional software offers including toolbars and browser extensions”. The quote is an understatement.

After some more careful Googling and downloading, my PC now seems returned to health. Thanks to Junkware Removal Tool!

Hokie Evening MBA, Hurray!

“We’re #16!” I wrote that on the board in class yesterday evening, under the heading “Good News”. I teach in Virginia Tech’s Evening MBA program, which was just ranked 16th among part-time MBAs by US News and World Report.

To put that ranking in perspective:

  • It puts the program, not only in the top 20 (obviously), but also on the first page of ranked programs, making it particularly salient to prospective students using the rankings.
  • So the program is on the same page as its counterparts at: Berkeley, Chicago, Northwestern, NYU, UCLA, Michigan, Georgetown,…
  • It is tied with Rice, U of S Carolina, and UMass Amherst (which is where I got my PhD, so it must be good).
  • It is ahead of Georgia Tech, U of Maryland (College Park), and over 200 other part-time MBA programs.

Congratulations to all concerned. I’m grateful to, and for, to the students. They belong in graduate school at a good university, and that is something I do not say lightly. They are ready for class after long days at demanding jobs. Their contributions to class discussions aid the learning of their fellow students, and of their professors.

Exit Blackboard, Followed By Scholar

Virginia Tech currently uses the Scholar Learning Management System (LMS). I summarize my opinion of Scholar as follows: less annoying than Blackboard.

Scholar replaced Blackboard at Virginia Tech, and will soon itself be replaced, according to Collegiate Times editor Maura Mazurowski. Scholar is based on an LMS platform called Sakai, which was developed by a consortium including Virgina Tech. Other consortium members are ceasing development and use of the platform.

The most popular post-Scholar LMS, and most likely next LMS for Virginia Tech, seems to be Canvas. I posted about Canvas around the time of its launch. The Canvas website is impressive, and includes a comparison of features between Canvas, Blackboard, and other LMSs. The Canvas mobile apps may well make a difference, both in adoption of Canvas, and in use after adoption.

Personally, I find CoursePress the most interesting LMS, but that’s because I also had the idea of building an LMS on the WordPress platform. But Virginia Tech won’t and shouldn’t adopt that young LMS simply because someone who teaches there finds it interesting.

I welcome your comments on LMSs in general, specific LMSs, LMS transition, or anything related.

Foxbrowsing: So Far, So Mixed

Which browser? I changed my answer from Chrome to Firefox about 3 months ago. Firefox remains my answer to the browser question on the lap/desk.

What about on ioS? I’ve started using FoxBrowser on iPads recently, and appreciate the bookmark synching. It doesn’t bring all the add-ons down to the tablets, though. For example, I use LeechBlock to stop myself using reddit (and other sites) between 8am and 8pm in Firefox. On iPad, I have to use the self-discipline add-on to my self.

I should get Foxbrowser for my iPhone as well. I don’t spend much time in the browser on the phone, but that might change when I switch from Safari to Foxbrowser.

Thanks to Mozilla for Firefox, and to Simon for Foxbrowser!

Kickstarter: Congratulations and Commentary

The Kickstarter for the tabletop game Between Two Cities (B2C) finished yesterday. It was a tremendous success: it raised $221,265, more than 10 times its $20,000 goal; it attracted 5,287 backers.

Congratulations to the designers, the publisher, and the community of backers. The post will focus on the publisher, Stonemaier Games, and in particular on the work of Jamey Stegmaier, the creator and curator of the Kickstarter project (but I certainly don’t intend to slight the game itself, which I consider excellent, or its designers).

As B2C was about to Kickstart I, along with many other people, was confident that B2C would fund quickly, and go on to achieve a multiple of its funding goal. It did indeed make an impressive start, despite Kickstarter going down for some of its first day. Each of the links in this paragraph goes to a previous post here. A third post describes stretch goals and other forms in which Kickstarter creators can offer additional content, using B2C as an example to describe the SAVES (stretch goals, add-ons, variants, expansions, and siblings) framework.

The thing that struck me most forcibly about the B2C Kickstarter was Jamey’s use of updates. He made 9 of them over the 20-day course of the project, then a tenth just after it finished. Every update had some compelling content, and started a distinct conversation with and among backers. That’s impressive, given that it means an update every 2 or 3 days.

Two updates in particular stand out for me, even though neither of them delivered big news.

  • #2 was about seating positions (e.g., Jamey sits between Ben and Matthew), and in particular about a potential deck of cards, each providing a rule for seating. I personally am not interested in this, but it is clear from the extensive and enthusiastic discussion that many backers are.
  • #8 was about the sides of the game box. That’s a comparatively small issue for most games, but Jamey’s partner Alan Stone pointed out that it was worth improving the design of the B2C box sides. Artist Beth Sobel came up with an improvement, and Jamey included some of her sketches in the update. This update showed concern for detail and improvement, and showed that Alan and Beth each share this concern with Jamey.

Although I am very impressed with B2C and its Kickstarter, there are a couple of ways in which it was a little disappointing. Each relates to the stretch goals set in update #1. First, the stretch goals themselves, with the notable exception of the 1-player Automa deck, weren’t very exciting. Most were variations in tile art.

The design of B2C seems to just beg for variants and expansions. I mean this in a good way. I certainly don’t think that the base game is incomplete. So another variant or small expansion among the stretch goals would have made things a lot more interesting to me.

B2CbackingSecond, strange though it may be to say, I was surprised that B2C didn’t raise even more. The original stretch goals went up to $250,000, and I think that project creators tend to set goals they consider achievable, if ambitious. Early on, that was the number I had in mind. With about a week to go, I thought that the project would come in a little under that. (Had there been a competition to estimate the final amount, my entry would have been $244,444).

I expected the last few days to show an sharp rise in backing. They certainly showed a rise, but didn’t come close to matching the initial funding frenzy. The first day alone saw over $69,000 raised: the last three days together didn’t match that. It may simply be that the preparation and launch were so good that some people who are usually “wait and see” backers backed B2C right away.

Given an adjustment in stretch goals during the Kickstarter, the $221,265 raised was just under the highest stretch goal: the seating deck, at $225,000. I was wondering what would happen about that deck. It ended up in the box, with all the other stretch goals.

I would have seriously considered making the seating deck an add-on. I know that there are backers who are very enthusiastic about it, and that some of them contributed their own ideas for seating rules. I also know that there is at least one backer who isn’t interested in the deck (but who understands that others are). Those distinct tiers of interest, and the fact that the seating deck doesn’t affect the game once it starts, seemed to make the deck a candidate for an add-on. But…

Stonemaier knows best. That’s my conclusion on the matter of the seating deck. It’s also a pretty good topic sentence for the last paragraph of this post about the extremely well-run Kickstarter for Between Two Cities.

An English Quiz

Edit, the morning after, mainly to include link to answers. Changes are in italics.

My kids’ school has an International Night on Thursday (March 12). I was asked to represent England. I will do so in three main ways: staff England table; provide English food; set English quiz. The food will include Apple Crumble, using the recipe from the BBC site, made with the help of my daughter, and accompanied by custard.

If you are interested in quizzes or in England, please take a look at my English Quiz. Most of the questions are for elementary school (grades K-5, so up to age 11) kids; that doesn’t mean that they are all easy. Anyway, give them a try before you look at the answers.

Then there are five questions aimed at parents, or kids of any age. Some of the parent questions are stated as if the victim quiz-taker is able to talk to me in person. Here are alternate forms of some of those questions for you, my online friends.

  • PQ2 (Parent Question 2), addition to the question: what will I be wearing? Hint: I was wearing a long scarf with horizontal stripes.
  • PQ4: if you tell me you’re singing and/or dancing, I’ll believe you. Hint: The song is actually more associated with Philadelphia than with anywhere in England.
  • PQ5: this question is difficult, unfair, and over-specialized. If you can’t cope with that, I recommend you avoid modern life. I included hints for this question among the answers.

I’ll post answers over the weekend after the International Night. I’ll do so in the comments below. In the meantime, please feel free to post your own comments.

Kickstarter: What To Do With Additional Content?

Often the appeal of a Kickstarter project is enhanced by content additional to that offered as rewards to backers helping the project achieve its funding target. This content may take the form of a stretch goal higher than the amount necessary to fund the project; if the stretch goal is reached, backers receive the stretch goal reward, as well as the funding reward.

The tabletop game Between Two Cities (B2C) provides a current example: its Kickstarter is just past the mid point, and is approaching a stretch goal. A previous post described its start, and the early achievement of its $20,000 funding target. If and when it has raised $150,000, B2C will include cards to enable solo play.

A Kickstarter project creator may offer additional content in one or more of several different forms, namely:

  • Stretch goal
  • Add-on
  • Variant
  • Expansion
  • Sibling.

This yields the acronym SAVES. The first S is for Stretch goal, defined by Kickstarter as follows.

A stretch goal is a funding target set by the project creator beyond the original Kickstarter goal. Stretch goals as a term and a practice emerged from the Kickstarter community as a way for creators to “stretch” beyond the initial, official goal of the Kickstarter project and raise more money (and often make cooler stuff!).

The A in SAVES is for Add-on. Add-ons are similar to stretch goals in that each involves more money for creators, and additional rewards for backers. Add-ons differ from stretch goals in that they are finer-grained. An add-on is an additional reward with a specific price. For each add-on, each backer decides whether to pay the extra and get the extra.

The solitaire version of B2C could have been offered as an add-on, rather than as a stretch goal, at a price of, say, $8. The additional content would be sent to backers who paid the extra $8, and only to those backers. In contrast, the solo stretch goal will be sent to all backers, at no extra charge, if and when the target is reached. Stonemaier Games, publisher of B2C and creator of the project, is very sparing and selective about add-ons. Co-founder Jamey Stegmaier is very open and clear about this (and about many other aspects of running Kickstarter projects).

V is for Variant: an alternate form of a game that may involve new or modified rules or pieces. Of the five types of additional content, this may be the most boardgame-specific. The definition is quoted from, and links to, the glossary at BoardGameGeek.com.

Variants turn B2C from a game for 3-7 players into a game for 1-7 players. The solo variant, as noted above, requires extra components and is included in the project as a stretch goal. There is also a 2-player variant, which was “in the box” as part of the $29 reward from the start of the Kickstarter.

The variants described above are “official,” in that they are defined by the project creator. B2C, has unofficial variants as well as the just-described official variants. An unofficial, or used-defined, variant is an instance of crowdsourcing, just as a Kickstarter campaign is an instance of crowdfunding.

E is for Expansion: additional equipment for a game, usually sold separately. Even though the B2C Kickstarter is still in progress, and rewards are not due to ship for another 8 months, there is discussion about expansions. An expansion might include components and rules introducing a new type of building, such as a port, to add the existing types such as houses and factories.

Finally, the second S in SAVES is for Sibling. B2C may turn out to be the first member of a family of games, including siblings such as Between Two Planets. The Kickstarter project page refers to this possibility, using the term horizontal expansion rather than sibling. I use sibling because it is consistent with BoardGameGeek, which describes games related in this way as a family. There may in the future be a B2 family, similar to the Tiny Epic family; the TE family currently consists of three sibling games (TE Kingdoms, TE Defenders, TE Galaxies, each funded using Kickstarter).

The genetic material shared by the B2 silblings would be the novel mechanism introduced in B2C. The number of cities (or planets) is equal to the number of players, but not in such as way that each player develops one specific city. Rather, each neighboring pair of players cooperates to build a city between them. Hence, if you play B2C, you will cooperate with the player on your left to build one city, and with the player on your right to build a separate city. As you do so, you will be competing to win the game against these two neighbors and against every other player in the game: such is the genius of the mechanism.

SAVES, then, identifies 5 forms in which a KS project creator may offer additional content. There are many relationships between these forms. Some of these take the form of decisions for project creators. For example, should already-developed additional content be offered as a stretch goal, as an add-on, or saved for a later expansion?

I intend to use SAVES as a framework for further discussion of Kickstarter. Any specific questions, answers, or other remarks might well help set direction for this; so your comments would be particularly welcome.