Archive for the ‘ Essays ’ Category

On Kickstarter

Kickstarter, in case you don’t know, is a crowdfunding site that lets someone ask for money for their “art” project. They can offer various tangible and intangible rewards for different donation levels, and no one’s credit card is charged unless enough pledges are received to meet a set goal by a set deadline. I probably don’t need to explain that, though; Kickstarter has been a huge source of news and controversy lately.

I started this blog in 2011, and I linked to Kickstarter a few times in that first year. Then last year, I almost wrote an essay about how much my opinion of Kickstarter had changed, but I held back. Now I wish I had posted that, because by now my opinion has changed yet again. So I’m going to put this up as a time capsule, which I can look back on a year or two later with a mix of derision and amazement. I’m sure that in the near future, half the things I thought were worth pointing out here will seem self-evident, and the other half will be horribly wrong.

2011

A couple of years ago, it was just starting to become obvious what Kickstarter could do for people with a small, dedicated fanbase. Beyond that, though, I really bought into the idea that Kickstarter drives were significant on their own. Even though most of the “art” projects are commercial ventures to publish music, games, movies, or something similar, these were grassroots internet movements that would never get commercial traction! Each campaign was still pretty unique, and there was an implication that we should want them all succeed.

My early links reflected this. I pointed to a couple board game Kickstarters, with an explanation that was basically “I wouldn’t buy these, but I want to make sure everyone still hears about them before it’s too late”, and a webcomic’s crowdfunding campaign with the attitude “I just discovered this and there’s not much there to judge it on, but I should recommend it now because the campaign is almost over!”

2012

I became a lot more cynical after those early days, partly because of board game Kickstarters. Board games are tricky to design, and a huge percentage of traditionally published are disappointing. And since this is already a niche hobby, it’s not like the games getting turned down from Rio Grande and Z-Man were just too artsy and non-commercial. They were getting turned down because they were bad, and Kickstarter gave people the chance to sell a game with a cool high concept and no other vetting. Additionally, physical production is more difficult than most people think, and there were some high-profile failures in which people couldn’t deliver on their promises.

All of that can be generalized beyond board games, though: In most cases, people are backing the campaign because they want the eventual product. Sure, there are some projects where people say “the world would just be a better place if it had a statue dedicated to Harvey Pekar or Robocop”, but if you’re treating someone’s new commercial album as a charity, then that seems to be missing the point. Once you decide that a significant part of the funding is done as a preorder, then you need to think of it in commercial terms. Why was no publishing company willing to put their name and money behind this? They would have actually seen it ahead of time and known what they were getting into, so their support is in some ways a very informed endorsement. Why are you willing to buy the product without an endorsement like that?

Even at my most cynical, I definitely found reasons to support certain Kickstarter campaigns. If I was already familiar with someone’s work, and knew that I liked it regardless of its commercial appeal, it was a great opportunity. But for all those interesting-sounding campaigns that I knew nothing else about, I saw no reason to pay attention. They were just high-risk preorders with an especially long waiting time.

Then things got worse, and board games led the way there as well. Kickstarter became popular with a lot of established companies as well as independent dreamers. In short, cashflow is a huge deal to accountants, but most consumers don’t appreciate the value of the $50 that they just pledged on an impulse. Kickstarter let the companies get funding up front, without any traditional stakeholders around to ask pesky questions about whether their investment would pay off. It’s not that I hate this idea on principle; There’s no ideological purity test to art, and if people are willing to give you money, it’s fair game. The problem is that I personally wouldn’t want to buy the game until it was released and I could hear whether it was actually good. Since many games only ever manage a single print run, it became likely that a good game would never become available to anyone but the KickStarter backers.

That’s the point I was at by the middle of 2012: Kickstarter threatened to change the playing field so that the only way to get good products was taking a chance with pre-orders. And that was a step in the wrong direction.

2013

I’ve mellowed out since last year. I still ask the same basic questions: If you want me to back your project, I should have confidence that you can deliver something I’ll like. If there’s not a good reason to be sidestepping traditional funding sources, that will make me more cautious. However, I no longer think of this entirely in terms of venture capital.

The “normal” way to fund a publishing venture is to find people who are confident enough in your work that they’ll risk money, with the goal of making more money. This doesn’t always correspond to “people will like it”, and definitely doesn’t mean that I will like it, but there is some correlation there. Professionals with real money on the line tend to make smart decisions. Last year, I would have said that individual backers were a bad replacement for this. Their investment was money in return for eventual satisfaction, a trade that they can normally make without having to give up their money six months early. I didn’t see the upside for the consumer.

Successful Kickstarters are starting to answer my concerns, by bringing the backers in to the project. The frequent updates they send out, much more personal than the ones that would have been sent to commercial investors, are an extra reward that trickles in throughout those months. Bonus pictures and inside information can add value, and act as interest on the investment. Many projects even offer forums for their backers, creating a real community for people to enjoy. I have to admit that this is a great argument for crowdfunding as a new way forward, rather than a simple replacement of old systems.

Ironically, that doesn’t have a lot of interest for me. Some of the information provided is fun (especially Ryan North’s hilarious updates for To Be Or Not To Be), but I don’t have time for discussion boards and Double Fine’s half-hour videos. The books and music I already want to read take up my time, without each new product needing to entertain me for fifty hours before it comes out. However, even if this isn’t a huge draw for me, it’s really reassuring to see this evolution. We are figuring out how to make crowdfunding projects reward their target audience in ways that couldn’t have happened before. I don’t know what I’ll think in 2014, but this makes me optimistic.

On Book Clubs

Almost two years ago, I joined a Twitter-based book club called #1book140. Last year, a couple friends and I decided to start a book club of our own. So last month, when some coworkers started looking around for people who might want to form a club, I sensibly said I couldn’t. But I decided to try this month, and that’s how I’ve found myself way behind on three books at the same time. So I think it’s a good time to talk about book clubs.

I’ve enjoyed being in these clubs a lot. Though reading is normally a solitary experience, I like to discuss it. (I’m sure that’s related to the reason I write this blog.) It’s also good for me to have some sort of goals and structure to drive my hobbies: Last year, I read more books than any other time in my adulthood, and I credit my book clubs with giving me motivation. Normally, comics take up a lot of my reading time instead, largely because they come out on a weekly schedule, so there’s a constant feed to keep up with. I’m not trying to judge whether books are better or worse than comics, but the switch in focus has definitely worked well for me.

In fact, one of the first things I tell people about book clubs is that it’s a lot more fun to read books I don’t like if I get to tell people why afterwards. I do really appreciate the fact that these clubs have introduced me to a wider variety of books, but it’s simply the ability to share that I find best. Actually, that exposure to different categories has pros and cons, since I’m a little more likely to find books I don’t like that way. I definitely do enjoy the variety, and I’m glad that it pulls me away from the science fiction and fantasy that would otherwise be my default, but this variety is something to be careful with. I often have to read three books in a month just to find time for one of my own choosing, which means my personal to-read pile is getting dangerously high. There were novels I was eager to read a year ago still sitting on top of the stack!

The positives far outweigh the negatives, though, or I wouldn’t still be doing it. I’ve also enjoyed the very different experiences of the real-world and Twitter clubs. My Twitter one discusses general business on the #1book140 hashtag, and individual sections of the current book on tags named #1b140_1, #1b140_2, and so on. There’s a nominal schedule for the sections, but the separate tags let you join in at whatever time works. This means that the conversation is ongoing. It also means that sometimes people are saying things like “I really wonder what happens next!”, which sounds a little silly when they could just read another chapter to find out. But when I join my monthly group in-person, where we all finish the book before discussing, sometimes I wish we’d had the chance to talk back when we still had more questions than answers. It just goes to show how different one group can be from another.

If you’re considering starting your own book club, here are a few tips I’ve picked up:

  • I recommend voting on the choice every month. We do let people take turns choosing the nominees, but I think it helps a lot that everyone gets some input each time. For a small group, you probably won’t have any bitter arguments about this, but it will guarantee that if someone is strongly against one choice they get a chance to steer the group to a different one.
  • My local group spent some time early on trying to figure out ground rules. Should someone be considered a full member right away, or do they need to show up a certain number of times before they can vote or nominate titles? The answer turned out to be much simpler than we expected: About three-quarters of the people who expressed interest never showed up to a single meeting. Of those who did come once, almost every one turned out to be a dedicated member. So now, as soon as someone reads a book and joins a meeting, we just assume they’re a full-fledged member.
  • Don’t feel bad about skipping books from time to time. Everyone needs to find their own balance between book club books and ones they picked out themselves, and as I said earlier, I have to struggle to keep up with the ones I already bought. I probably participate nine or ten of the months each year for #1book140, and the work club will definitely be a sporadic thing for me.
  • Most of all, enjoy it! Book clubs fit a social role much like going out to see a movie, but everyone actually interacts with each other instead of just sitting in the dark. It’s a good experience.

Lance Armstrong and Game Theory

Lance Armstrong (from Wikipedia)

Lance Armstrong (from Wikipedia)

I play a lot of games, but don’t follow professional sports much. I’m just more interested in playing my own games than in watching others. I still think of sports as a category of gaming, though, which is why it always surprises me when the general public reacts in outrage to the participants treating it like that. The current controversy about Lance Armstrong’s doping is a perfect example.

Let’s put aside the questions about health risks and bad role models for the moment, and consider professional bicycling as a game. Because, as I point out from time to time on this blog, the flow of a game and effectiveness of various strategies is determined by the rules. If someone discovers a winning strategy that makes the game not “fun” to you, then you need to change the rules so that the aspects you want in the game become primary again. Sometimes, you need to consider not just “the rules”, but the entire system, in which “cheat but don’t get caught” can be a valid strategy to win millions of dollars.

It’s obvious that a lot of pro cyclists break the doping rules. And even before Armstrong, it was already obvious that a lot of them got away with it. Now that his seven Tour de France wins are thrown out, the only thing more shocking than the number of disqualified first-place finishers is the number that weren’t caught until after the fact. Does anyone have much faith that all the second- and third-place winners who eventually got their trophies were drug-free? Given all the evidence that people get away with it, it seems likely plenty of trophies have been taken away from one doper just to be given to another.

The popular perception is that doping in sports is a mistake made in a moment of weakness by someone who should know better. That may be accurate for teenagers trying testosterone, but it couldn’t be less true at the professional level. Consider Armstrong’s rigorous training regimen, his highly-trained support staff looking for any medical or scientific edge, and his own experience. Armstrong knew exactly what his performance was like both on and off drugs, and presumably had a better idea than we do about how his colleagues were using them and their chances of getting caught. Given all that, he (and a staff whose careers depended on his success) made the conscious decision that he was better off taking them.

Remember that. Lance Armstrong only doped up because even he wouldn’t have won otherwise. In a field like that, what chance does anyone else have? Oh, I’m sure there are entrants in the Tour de France who followed all the rules. You just haven’t heard of them. I wasn’t mad (or surprised) when the allegations against Armstrong came out, because I had assumed all along that the system was set up for dopers to win.

Professional cycling is long past the point where it’s become a joke, with so many disqualifications that it’s hard to take any victory seriously. The important thing to understand is that this is ingrained into the system. Cheating technology is way ahead of enforcement technology, and there’s no sign that this will change. The dwindling fanbase can either stick their heads in the sand and pretend that this isn’t the case, or they can look for changes that give them what they want.

Barring a new technology that catches all dopers, I can think of two options: Doping could be allowed. It’s not a magic shortcut, given that proper usage is as technical as the training and calculations that athletes make to maximize their results. And concerns about the health effects are hard to take seriously, when sports like boxing and (American) football are much more punishing to the body and brain than Armstrong’s tricks were. If you don’t like that, because you want role models and people who represent mankind’s drug-free potential, then that brings me to my second option: Stop looking for those heroes in competitions that make its winners rich. Amateur and hobbyist cyclists are the ones doing the things you care about, because they don’t have the same incentive to cheat. It all comes down to the structure of the game.

Before Watchmen: My Reaction

Promotional image for The Comedian's spinoff

As I’m sure you’ve heard, DC Comics announced this morning that they’ll be releasing prequels to Watchmen. Generally regarded as the pinnacle of superhero comics, it’s long been accepted that the work stands alone and should be untouched. In fact, author Alan Moore has been publicly feuding with DC for years, and has made it clear that he is against any use of Watchmen beyond his original story.

So is this where I join in the general outrage and explain why I think this is a stupid idea at best, if not indicative of deep moral and creative bankruptcy in the comics industry? On the contrary, I’m in favor of it.

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Thoughts on Lovecraft

The Best of H.P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of the Horror and the Macabre

H.P. Lovecraft’s stories are well-known, but not frequently read. I personally had only read a few before I went through the Bloodcurdling Tales short story collection last month. Given that, I’m more interested in discussing the stories than giving them a formal review.

So, in brief: This is a collection of classic horror stories that often manage to be atmospheric and creepy. They seem clichéd, though, with flowery prose and predictable last-paragraph twists. As with many classics, the aspects that made it influential can be found everywhere now, and the flaws (as well as the things that simply didn’t age well) have been left behind in those new works. You can still see what made these stories so great, but they aren’t the must-reads they once were.

Grade: C+

Ok, now that that’s out of the way, here are my thoughts on these stories. Basic familiarity with Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos is assumed, but this should be pretty easy to follow even for those (many) people who haven’t read them.

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The Appeal of Horror

A couple of days ago, Alicia commented on one of my blog posts. In response to my claim that Pump Six And Other Stories is a horror book because we can see ourselves and our culture in the worst parts of the stories, she said:

That’s a good point about horror. I feel like it should be distinguished from those horror *movies*, though, because this doesn’t sound anything like your typical “girl goes alone into a dark woods even though all signs point to dying screaming and crying” kind. The reason I don’t like those movies is because it all seems like gratuitous violence to me, silly or not, and I just don’t care to watch it.

I began a response by differentiating between a couple types of horror, but I immediately started finding new branches of things to say. So I never wrote the comment, and it spent a day bouncing around my head. Now I want to discuss exactly what the appeal of horror is.

I don’t watch very much horror, so I welcome feedback from anyone who is more immersed in its subtleties.

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Why Dominion Works (Games)

In late 2008, Dominion introduced the concept of deck-building games. Almost 2 1/2 years later, you’d think that we would have some new games that build on that idea in exciting new ways. Surprisingly, though, we’ve seen only a series of knock-offs that miss the fundamental things that made Dominion so great. A few days ago, I found myself caught in yet another Dominion-vs.-Thunderstone discussion, so I think it’s time to explain once and for all what aspects made Dominion so successful.

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The Year In Games

I just added my 2010 stats to Mark Jackson’s annual Five & Dime list, and it got me thinking about the board games I played last year. (Yes, of course I keep track.)

The “Five & Dime” list is a count of all games that reached the threshold of either 5 or 10 plays in the past year. In my case, 2010 saw 10 games played 10 or more times, and 11 more played at least 5 times. If you’re looking at my gameplay statistics, that tells half the story. The other half is that I played 153 distinct games a total of 388 times.

My full Five & Dime list, along with what it tells me about the year, is below the cut.

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Censoring Huckleberry Finn

A couple of news items have caught the attention of my book-reading friends, so I thought I would deviate from the review format of this blog to discuss them.

The big news, of course, is that a publisher called NewSouth Books is making an edition of Huckleberry Finn with the “obscene” parts removed. This is, depending on who you ask, either laughable or horrible. Mark Twain was fully aware of the evils of the world, and wrote his books to attack those problems. By removing the objectionable content, these misguided people are ignoring, rather than addressing, the point of the book! Do they realize that by making this classic safe to read, they’re weakening the very things that make it a classic?

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