Thursday, May 2, 2013

Talking about Gamestar on Design Minds

I wrote this brief article for Design Minds, an Australian blog dedicated to inspiring design thinking in educators. From the article:

A representation of an ecosystem that explores the consumption of energy over time. A study of the attractive and repulsive forces of the atom. A 3D visualization of a T-cell as it seeks out pathogens in the body. Each of these is a sophisticated scientific model built by a middle or high school student. But the students aren’t building those models in science class: they’re designing them into video games.

Read more... 

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

My youth game design hero

This amazing video from edutopia's Is School Enough? series features my main man and youth game design superstar Rhys. Rhys is a former STEM Challenge winner and one of the most prolific designers in Gamestar Mechanic.

Monday, March 25, 2013

ZFL 2013 Draft Recap

As chronicled in my first post, yesterday was draft day in my 16-team, head to head points league. I went into the draft having kept CC Sabathia and Adrian Beltre and having traded away the third of my three keepers, Prince Fielder, for draft picks, which resulted in me having 5 picks across the first three rounds, including the second overall pick.

I went into this year's draft with a bit more of a strategy than I have had in past years (where I've tended to be reactive while trying generally to take the 'best' player on the board who I can fit on my roster). After studying the available players and doing a bit of mock drafting, I decided to 'script' those first 5 picks with plans to deviate only if something crazy happened.

As a reminder, the draft is twenty rounds, but due to the keeper rules Round 1 is really like Round 4 of a standard mixed league draft.

Round 1: Ian Kennedy

The league rewards pitching and with several owners sitting with two, three and even four starters going into the draft, getting a second ace (or near ace) to compliment CC was a key part of my plan. Kennedy and James Shields were the only two pitchers in the draft pool that met those criteria in my opinion. Shields was the #1 overall pick, and so Kennedy it was.

Round 2: Ben Zobrist, Doug Fister

I was going to take the best OF or 1B bat available, but that was when I had projected Zobrist to go in the first round. Most of that round was dominated by teams taking starting pitching and Zobrist fell this far. Zobrist is an undervalued player in fantasy, particularly head-to-head points formats like ours, where I have him as the fourth overall 2nd basemen. That plus his multi-position eligibility (2B, SS, OF) makes him a very valuable fantasy asset. Having him totally opened up my draft.

I had planned to take the best available SP with my other 2nd Round pick, and after the run on pitching Fister was it. This gave me Sabathia, Kennedy and Fister at the front of my rotation, all legit #1 or #2 fantasy starters before some teams had even drafted a #1.

Round 3: Chase Utley, Matt Wieters

Position scarcity dictated my strategy here: I had a long wait before my next pick and didn't want to go that long without filling my MI and C spots. Taking Zobrist allowed me to take either the best SS or 2B on the board here, and Utley was it as a potential comeback candidate. By this point, Wieters and Yadier Molina were the last decent catcher options on the board and Molina ended up going before my next pick, validating my choice to reach a bit early for talent at a weak position.

Rounds 4-6: Shane Victorino, David Ortiz, Phil Hughes

My focus on pitching and filling out weak positions early left me with gaps at traditional power spots like OF and 1B, but those are the choice we make. Victorino as my #1 outfielder is not as strong as I'd like, but I'd take him over guys who I expect to perform marginally better that went several rounds earlier any day. Big Papi at 1B is an injury and age risk, but could still deliver decent production, and my flexibility at IF and SP could let me trade for a better option later.

My rotation depth also let me take Hughes in the 6th round as my fourth starter, even though he's a #3 starter in our league and similar (uninjured) guys were already off the board rounds earlier. With my depth, I can ride out the earlier part of the season and then either get a boost in production or trade him to a team in need of rotation help.

Rounds 7-10: Neil Walker, Wei-Yin Chen, Norichika Aoki, Vance Worley

I was looking for OF #2 and not liking the options I saw in round 7. Still on the board was Walker, who due to anonymity of Pittsburgh, survived til round 7 and is capable of putting up 100 points more across the season than the average outfielder on the board at that point. I was already set at 2B (with both Utley and Zobrist there), but Walker can DH and serve as a hedge against the injury-prone Utley. I feel somewhat validated in this strategy because I got Aoki as my second OF (a top 30 fantasy outfielder in our format) 2 rounds later when similar players were going in this round.

Chen and Worley rounded out my starting rotation. I'm not a huge Chen fan but he fell farther than he should and will get some wins on a good Baltimore team in a weakened AL East. Worley is a big question mark coming off injuries and poor performance, but still the kind of guy I could take flier on as my sixth best pitcher.

Rounds 11-15: Ben Revere, Jim Johnson, Sean Marcum, Jeff Keppinger, Mark Teixeira

3rd outfielders are a dime a dozen and I almost always end up finding a waiver wire guy who outperforms both my #2 and #3 outfielders, but you need to start 3 and Revere's improving OBP and speed make him an attractive choice.

I always wait until about this point to take a closer because there are so many options out there, and indeed Jim Johnson projects similarly to guys who went 5+ rounds earlier (and will undoubtedly be outperformed by 5-8 guys who aren't on anyone's radar right now). Marcum is another injury case/ potential upside pitcher who could provide help or trade fodder when he comes off the DL, and Keppinger's multi-position eligibility makes him an attractive backup infielder.

Even though it's a gamble, I consider Teixeira the steal of the draft in round 15 if he returns and produces anything like his career averages for even just the second half of the season. I'd rather take the flier than draft a waiver wire guy or unproven prospect and walk away with no tears if he ends up missing the season.

Rounds 16-20: JP Arencibia, Phillip Humber, Jason Vargas, Jake Westbrook, Tevor Rosenthal

Once a backup catcher is secured, the late rounds are all about drafting pitching depth. I like to draft undervalued guys with upside potential, rather than unproven rookie talent. Humber has shown that he can perform at a high level and a change of scenery might help him find the consistency he's lacked. The move to Anaheim (with it's big dimensions and good team) could also breathe new life into Vargas. Westbrook isn't the sexiest pick, but you know what you're getting and Rosenthal is both a good hedge on him and a guy with breakout potential if he gets a shot at the St. Louis rotation or is traded.


In a league that rewards pitching heavily, a rotation of Sabathia, Kennedy, Hughes, Fister and Chen is definitely in the top third of the league. I'm also strong at traditionally weak positions like MI, 3B and C. I'd prefer to have a little more power in my lineup at 1B and OF, but have the ability to perform near league average across those positions. The flexibility with so many multi-position guys and SP depth also gives me some nice insurance to deal with injuries and lay the groundwork for future deals. There are a couple of teams whose rosters I'd prefer to have... but not many.

Overall grade: B+

Sunday, March 24, 2013

ZFL 2013 Pre Draft

Since so many of my friends are Fantasy Baseball nuts, I'm going to use this blog to keep a record of my performance in the ZFL: the ultra-competitive 16 team head-to-head points fantasy baseball league I'm in.

For a variety of reasons detailed by league commissioner Joe Pisapia in his best selling Fantasy Baseball Black Book, I believe this league to be an example of the optimum fantasy baseball format and scoring system. You must start C, 1B, 2B, 3B, SS, 3 OF, UT and 6 pitchers, of which at least one must be a starter and one a reliever. The scoring system rewards solid pitching with bonuses for wins, saves, holds and quality starts; penalizes poor pitching with negative points for losses, blown saves and ER and penalizes batter strikeouts. There are 23 man rosters with a 3 man keeper, meaning a 20 round draft. Players and draft picks can be traded before and after the keeper deadline, though you must designate 3 keepers at the deadline and return the rest of your roster to the draft pool.

I finished the 2012 season just missing the playoffs due to some significant injuries after having made them each of the prior 3 years the league has been around. I kept CC Sabathia, Prince Fielder and Adrian Beltre and had the second overall pick in the draft.

There are a few wheelers and dealers in the league, and two very savvy owners (including the commish) adopted the strategy of trading away draft picks for other teams' surplus and marginal keepers. These two teams had put together pre-draft rosters that in some cases had 3 or 4 starting pitchers (all well above average) and often one or two decent hitters. It also left their counter-parties in the trades with an excess of draft picks, creating some situations where they'll be picking several times in the early and middle rounds.

My sole off season move was to get in on this, trading Fielder to the commish for his 2nd and 3rd round picks. I'm usually not one to trade draft picks (I tend do well in drafts by being reactive and drafting for value) and Fielder is a top 5 fantasy player, but I made this move for a few reasons:

1. The commish was already sitting with 3 elite or solid SP options (he has since traded picks for a fourth) AND his 2nd and 3rd round picks (he'd already traded away his first round pick for one of the SP). That much pitching talent plus the players he'd get with those picks was scary. He now has Fielder and his great pitching staff but doesn't pick til the fourth round.

2. While Fielder is great, he's at such a deep position. I figure I can get 80% of his production in the draft while ending up with a better team overall. The depth at first base also softened the blow of giving him to someone with a strong team entering the season.

3. Having the overall #2 pick, I wouldn't have picked again until the late second round. That left me concerned about being below average at scarce positions. I now have 5 of the first 36 picks, which I think will let me be above average at a number of positions (including maybe even 1B), rather than very, very above average at 1B but average or weak elsewhere.

We'll see if it pays off. The draft is later today and I'll post a recap once it's done.

Thursday, February 28, 2013


My (much) younger brother once asked me, very earnestly, how my friends and I were able to hang out when I was in high school way back in the pre-cell phone era. Having grown up in a world full of cell phones, he was used to the idea of just being able instantly get a hold of any of your friends and make plans on the fly. The idea that way back in 1995 a bunch of us would make plans in advance to, say, meet up somewhere at a specific time was utterly alien and vaguely quaint to him.

I don't object to the informal, off the cuff attitude towards scheduling with friends and family. I am, however, going to continue to fight what is probably a loosing battle against it in professional contexts.

"Sure, just call me whenevs" is not acceptable professionally, knuckleheads. I suggest we extend each other the courtesy of scheduling a specific time to chat, clearing our schedules of distractions and conflicts at that time and then keeping it.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Should I get a gun: when disaster strikes

This is another post in (what is now officially) a series of posts exploring various arguments for gun ownership. Note that's 'gun ownership' not the 'right to own a gun.' In other words, I'm assessing the quality of some common arguments for actually choosing to own a gun, not disputing the right to bear arms itself.

In my first post, I examined three arguments around private citizens owning guns as a means of opposing tyranny and found two of them to be poor and one to be plausible but of questionable applicability in modern America. In the interest of balance, I'd like to address what I think is hands down the best argument for getting a gun and, I would add, the only one that has ever made me seriously think about getting one personally.

Having a gun could be useful (and maybe even necessary) in a post-disaster scenario

I articulated a version of this argument in a Facebook post the other day:
Remember after Hurricane Katrina? The period of crime (including theft, rape and murder) going on when the government essentially ceased to function due to the disaster? Raises the possibility of you being essentially in the Wild West for a period of time with no functioning police protection and some dude and 40 of his closest friends coming by your door suggesting that they would please like your TV, or your car or your daughter...
The disaster in question does not have to be a natural one, of course: it could be the result of, e.g., terrorism, assault by a foreign power or armed revolution overthrowing the legitimate government. It also doesn't have to be reasonably short in time (as was the case post-Katrina), the conditions could persist for weeks, months or longer in the case of the latter scenarios.

I actually think this is a pretty good argument, and also an intriguing one, for a few reasons:

  • It appropriately recognizes the emergency nature of a scenario in which you might need a gun. The breakdown of civil authority following a disaster represents an unusual and unexpected dangerous situation in which the normal police and military protection provided by the government might break down. For reasons I have argued briefly elsewhere and probably will again later at greater length, the government providing this kind of protection (as opposed to armed citizens providing it) under normal circumstances is a really, really, good thing. When they're not available -- as could be the case post-disaster and is in fact the case if, e.g., you live somewhere where police protection is unavailable like rural Alaska -- then conscientious, responsible armed citizens defending themselves could be a very good thing. I'm happy to stipulate that as long as we recognize that armed citizens having to defend themselves is less good than the police doing it under normal circumstances.
  • It references a condition that has actually happened in the United States of America in recent history and could happen again at any time, as opposed to, say, overthrowing a tyrant. The link right there is also interesting because it brings up the fact that in a situation like this, a moral, peace-loving citizen might actually have to defend himself from criminals, armed vigilantes and even corrupt police officers.
  • It is a plausible scenario in which a private citizen might actually need a high-powered semi-automatic rifle with a high-capacity clip. The effective range/lethality (as compared to a hand gun) and ability to fire many rounds without reloading could mean the difference between life and death for a good person defending their home and property against a mob bent on doing harm. As one commenter on a Facebook thread I was on commented, that's why Marines use semi-automatic rifles when clearing houses in Afghanistan instead of hand guns.
Evaluating whether being prepared for the post-disaster scenario is a good reason to own a gun in your particular case is complex, but fundamentally follows the same method I used when evaluating the second version of the overthrowing tyranny argument I analyzed in the earlier post. On one side of the equation, you have to evaluate the combined likelihood of a disaster happening and there being a breakdown (complete or partial) of civil authority in the event that it does and of a gun being useful in dealing with the circumstances.

The fact that that is a compound probability is important: natural disasters, for example, happen with some frequency, but being accompanied by a breakdown of civil authority in which a gun might actually be useful (e.g. looting, civil unrest, etc.) is much less frequent. It happened in Katrina, but my family just came through Hurricane Sandy. The major roads here were impassable and most of the town was without power for over a week. There were rumors of break ins of unoccupied homes (where a gun wouldn't be useful because, of course, no one's home and might even fall into the hands of a criminal if not properly secured), but the police were active and the township authorities were in daily communication with us.

On the other side of the equation, all of that must be weighed against the risks of having the gun in your home. Both sides of the equation need to be localized to your particular situation as best you can, but general statistics and data can be a guide. I'll consider the general statistics on the risks of having a firearm in your home in a later post (I think in the one I plan to do on having a gun for personal protection), but those general statistics clearly support that, on average, having a gun in your home makes you less safe, not more.

So again, you are weighing the combined possibility of

  1. A disaster happening (disasters happening by their very nature being rare);
  2. It being the kind of disaster where there is a disruption in civil authority and/or a significant departure from your baseline (non-gun requiring) level of safety (a subset of disasters);
  3. You finding yourself in the kind of situation where having a gun would be a useful and appropriate tool in defending significant values of yours where the ability to wield deadly force would come into play (i.e. you don't get to just shoot anyone, even people behaving unlawfully towards you, unless they present an actual risk to your life. Police, for example, are not allowed to use deadly force ever when trying to apprehend someone for a misdemeanor, even if they flee or resist)
against the reduction in safety caused by having the gun around in  non-disaster time.

Let's say you weigh the evidence and conclude that, for you, the benefits outweigh the risks and you decide to get a gun for this purpose. Given that, I want to talk about a framework for actually enacting that decision. The actual details of what I'm about to describe aren't as important as the approach I want to articulate, which represents the kind of deep, serious consideration that should be undertaken if you (responsibly) decide that you want to take a purposefully-designed killing device into your home.
  • Research various types of firearms to understand which would be appropriate to your actual needs in this scenario. I lack any sort of expert knowledge on this, but, for example, I'm more dubious of the need for semi-automatic rifle (which is designed to be effective over a range of hundreds of yards) if you live in a New York City apartment than if you live in a suburban house. Even given a small risk of your weapon ever falling into the hands of a person who would use it irresponsibly,  I think it is incumbent on you to select the safest, least dangerous weapon possible that would be adequate to your realistic needs.
  • Familiarize yourself with any requirements and restrictions on the use and ownership of firearms that would apply to you in the area where you live and comply with them.
  • Become proficient in the use and maintenance of the weapon you intend to purchase before buying one and bringing it home, for example by learning how to use it under the supervision of a responsible professional instructor/dealer. If you intend on getting a rifle (because you conclude you might need to defend yourself at a distance), training and qualification in marksmanship might, for example, be appropriate. Only after achieving a certain level of proficiency should you purchase the weapon and bring it into your home.
  • Adopt the strongest safety procedures realistically possible in storing the weapon. Again, I don't know what those are, but the principle here is important: you're getting the gun so you can have it for use in a rare, unlikely scenario. Therefore, a high level of security -- even if it entails a certain degree of inconvenience -- seems appropriate. Leaving it loaded under your pillow at night (which not many gun owners would do, I'm sure) is not appropriate to this usage (if it ever is). Knowing nothing about gun security but knowing a bit about electronic security, the principle of multi-factor authentication -- the idea of having multiple security mechanisms of different types (like both a combination you have to know and key you have to posses) -- is a good baseline. I see evidence of gun safes that do exactly that (it would be better if the key was replaced with an electronic key fob mechanism with a rotating code that changed over time that could be revoked or changed if lost, which is a feature I can get on my GMail account, but whatever).
  • Maintain both the gun and your training/skill in using it safely. When you're not actively engaged in one of those activities, keep the gun secured in your highly secure way at all times.
  • Familiarize yourself with deadly force doctrines as employed by law enforcement officers in addition to those that apply to private citizens. Remember, in this scenario you're acting as the police authority in the absence of the real one, and I think you owe it to yourself and the people who could potentially be on the other end of your gun to understand the principles and procedures that guide law enforcement officers in making split second, life and death decisions regarding the use of deadly force.
Now, let's say the disaster strikes. What do you do? When might it be appropriate to use your gun?
  • Consider removing the gun from its secure location only if there is evidence of the breakdown of civil authority and/or (preferably and) elevated levels of criminal activity or risk thereof. The disaster alone is not sufficient. Objective evidence might include not seeing routine police patrols, news reports, evidence of widespread rioting or looting, etc. 
  • If those conditions are present, I think it would also be incumbent to make proactive attempts to contact the civil authorities. Call the local police. Ask if they're still around. If you can't get them (either because communications are down or they're not answering), that's a bad sign...
  • Take strong steps to minimize the need to actually use the gun and inform others of your intentions. Obviously just taking pot shots at anyone who crosses your property line is no good. Putting a sign at the property line for the duration of the emergency that effectively states 'Civil emergency in effect. Trespassers will be shot' (if that worse-case-scenario approach is justified by the circumstances) would be an example. Even if someone does cross the line, firing a warning shot to let them know you're actually armed and serious and giving them an opportunity to retreat is probably morally required before actually using deadly force.
  • Similarly, take proactive steps to determine when the emergency situation is over. Once it is and civil authority is restored, return your gun to its safe place.
I go through this somewhat pedantic and detailed run down not claiming that the specifics are right (they're there mostly for example). I do it because I think the principles are correct and address the minimum set of considerations that would be morally required of someone choosing to own (or if it came down to it use) a gun in a scenario like this.

Friends like these...

Wayne LaPierre, spokesman for maker of poor quality first person shooter games the National Rifle Association, articulated something yesterday that is similar to what I've been analyzing here in suggesting that the solution to school shootings is putting an armed, trained security officer in every school. Said LaPierre: “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

The media was quick to point out, contra a claim I came across, that armed security personnel don't exactly have a perfect track record in stopping school shootings. As the Huffington Post notes, an armed security officer, Neil Gardner, was present at Columbine in 1999. HuffPo quotes from from the police report noting that
Gardner, seeing Harris working with his gun, leaned over the top of the car and fired four shots. He was 60 yards from the gunman. Harris spun hard to the right and Gardner momentarily thought he had hit him. Seconds later, Harris began shooting again at the deputy. 
After the exchange of gunfire, Harris ran back into the building. Gardner was able to get on the police radio and called for assistance from other Sheriff’s units. "Shots in the building. I need someone in the south lot with me."
Some reactions:

First, as I noted in a Facebook comment
back at the time of Columbine, most police departments (including Littleton), officers and security personnel were trained to handle mass shootings in progress like hostage situations: establish a perimeter, help the innocent and wounded and wait for the SWAT team to show up. That changed post Columbine to what's called the 'Active Shooter Protocol' in which any law enforcement or security personnel on the scene immediately converge on the location of the shooter and attempt to neutralize him. There is strong evidence from many subsequent mass shootings that mass shooters -- unlike say terrorists or hostage takers -- tend to surrender or take their own lives when confronted by law enforcement. That was the case in Newtown, for example.
I suspect the author of the HuffPo article and others know this, and not including that relevant fact in the reporting is disingenuous. Doing that does not contribute to an informed debate on the issue. Even if you think the police in schools thing is a bad idea, and even if Wayne LaPierre is an odious human being, omitting relevant facts so you can more easily dismiss what might be a reasonable position out of hand is a poor and dishonest rhetorical technique. Also, even if the track record of police in schools on stopping mass shootings isn't perfect, that isn't the right thing to consider. The right things to consider are 1) if having police in schools is better on whole than not having police in schools and 2) if it is, is it a good thing to implement as a matter of policy?

Secondly, as I noted in a subsequent comment
Also, hitting a target at 60 yards with a hand gun while taking fire isn't a sure thing by any means. All of... [the above] helps contextualize why the officer in the story fell back and called for backup and why neither he nor [an]other officer who was close by pursued the shooters into the building. That's exactly what they would have been trained to do at the time and would never happen today.
Well, would never happen today if it was a trained law enforcement officer.... seems more likely that it would still happen today if it was -- and I'm just speculating here at random -- a schoolteacher or an everyday citizen with a gun as opposed to someone with modern police training.
In other words, at Columbine, the trained security officers acted in a manner consistent with their training, even if the methods of training have now changed. The best methods the professionals currently have call for the good guys to rapidly converge on the shooter, at great personnel risk, and try to stop him, possibly in the face of superior firepower. That's an extraordinarily brave and difficult thing to muster the courage to do and I'm sure to actually do successfully. It strikes me as quite a big thing to ask of school personnel or the general public, and so I'm skeptical of that as matter of security policy and would reject it if put forth as the sole or ideal solution. I'm not about to ask a teacher to risk her life like that, nor would I be comfortable staking my child's (or any child's) life on her ability to do it successfully, even if there are some who are willing to try, as the heroic and unarmed principal at Sandy Hook did.

To be fair, Mr. LaPierre is not calling for that. He's calling for trained professionals. Police officers not only train and practice frequently to handle these situations, they have also accepted the professional responsibility for defending the general public and the risk of harm or death that comes with it. However, even if the police are willing and able to face those situations bravely and with full knowledge of the risks, that doesn't mean it's a good thing if they actually have to. I don't want cops being shot at by bad guys if it can be avoided and I don't take the prospect of a police officer losing his life while protecting me (or my child) against a bad guy with a gun lightly.

If Mr. LaPierre is right that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, that seems like a persuasive argument for asking the question of how to prevent bad guys from using guns against good people in the first place. Newark Mayor Cory Booker articulates some 'common sense' gun control measures that mostly seem to me to be reasonable, prudent and respectful of the general right to gun ownership framework I talk about here. He also claims they are supported by the overwhelming majority of the public and NRA members. He is quick to point out that none of those measures would likely have prevented a mass shooting like Sandy Hook, but I think most of us would prefer that criminals shoot less innocent people in general.

It is my opinion that common sense gun control is good but not sufficient and that the deeper roots of the gun violence -- particularly mass shootings -- are cultural and require long term cultural change and solutions, as well as an honest examination by gun owners and non-gun owners of the risks and drawbacks of gun ownership in individual cases within a framework of protecting the right to bear arms. If Mr. LaPierre is going to repeat the tenuous claim that a cultural fixation on violent videogames contributes to actual gun violence, I have a hard time understanding why a cultural fixation on the actual guns isn't an appropriate candidate for examination.