With low expectations, you create your own dismal reality

I’m reading an article in December’s WIRED (look at that, 2017 Goals ? ) about the three days in a row last summer where there were 3 fatal shootings in a span of 72 hours, each of them livestreamed via social media. During the protests following the first two, police approached the protesters in riot gear. There is a quote from a police officer that I wanted to respond to:

If something happens in Baton Rouge and Minnesota, millions of people are finding out about it instantaneously with the video going out. You get a reaction much quicker. With that mob-type mentality — we want to do something — sometimes it’s to do some harm to those in law enforcement. We become a target again and again and again.

Here’s the thing, Frederick Frazier, Vice president of the Dallas Police Association, what you expect to happen shapes the outcome of what actually happens. If you send out an officer in a SWAT uniform to confront a crowdfull of angry protestors, you better believe they are going to react strongly to that. They are going to feel like they are being attacked. If you send out an officer in plain clothes or a regular uniform, who never touches his weapon, you can have a conversation. You may be sending in your officer in riot gear because you expect him/her to be attacked, but that expectation is going to create that reality. The officer will be looking for an attack because they are expecting it to happen. That’s what leads to a black man being shot for reaching into his glove box to get his wallet.

It’s like this: there are a lot of LEGOs that my kids have left out on the floor for several days. Any parent anywhere will agree with me that LEGOs on the floor is a bad thing because you end up stepping on them or breaking things or whatever. If I, as a parent, walk into the room where the kids are, sigh heavily, and say “can you guys pick up the LEGOs, please?” without helping them do it, expecting that they won’t actually clean them up in the time I want it done or to the degree that I would like, it’s absolutely going to go exactly the way I expect. I will walk into the room 2 hours later and nothing observable has been done. I am creating that reality by a) expecting that they aren’t going to do the thing I asked them to do and b) not providing the tools or support to help make the reality that I would like to actually happen.

It’s hard to do. I struggle with it. Somewhere along the way, I decided that it was better to set my expectations of people very low and be surprised when they are exceeded rather than having high expectations of people (and occasionally being disappointed). Having low expectations is a generally miserable place, let me tell you, because I guarantee you will always see the worst possible outcome. And maybe you tell yourself “well, at least I was prepared”, but where does that get you, really?

When the results started coming in for the 2016 election, it was easy to see where the trajectory was going fairly early on. There was an SNL skit that ran afterwards that showed a bunch of white people (and the token black guy) constantly going back and saying “well, if Hillary just wins here, we’ll be fine” and continuing to pat themselves on the back for being so empathetic and supportive towards various marginalized groups. As the skit progresses, they get more and more panicked as the scenarios for Hillary winning become more and more far fetched. And the punchline at the end is “are we really that racist?”

I didn’t feel that way on election night. Sure, I wanted Hillary to win, but once the results started swinging in Trump’s favor, they never really swung back. You could look at the 538 or a million and one different reports about how Trump has no chance but historically, people did that the whole campaign and he did have a chance and he continued to defy expectations. He was a blind spot for half of the country who believed he couldn’t stand a chance. But it doesn’t take a data analyst to see the pattern, which was, every time we expected he couldn’t do a thing, he did it. A dark part of me started considering what would happen under a Trump presidency, even while I hoped that Hillary could turn it around.

And here’s the real “hindsight is 20/20” thing: many of us who supported Hillary heard what the Bernie supporters were saying about “this may be the only time we can elect someone like this, with ideas for radical change like this”. We heard you. But the thing is, we didn’t expect that to work. Government is slow, he would be fought on every decision by the GOP every step of the way. Every time he tried to make something happen he would get shot down. It would be as hard or harder as it was for Obama. Yes, Obama was a black man but a lot of what Bernie wanted to do was more drastic than anything Obama actually set in motion. And then there’s the fact that the President doesn’t really do a whole lot on their own. They don’t write laws themselves, for example. They can’t just pass amendments to change things. They make appointments, they set things in motion and they approve or deny bills. Would Bernie have had a better shot at getting things done than Hillary because he’s male? Probably, but we’ll never know. The point is, this whole thing maybe could have had a different outcome if some of us had a different set of expectations. Maybe. The point is that if we expect the worst, we won’t be disappointed. The point is, expecting to be attacked will make you more likely to be attacked or see a possible attack where there is actually none.

The point is we should expect better of ourselves and of humanity.

And to nod back to my last post about resolutions and goals for the new year (and to not end this post on such a down note), maybe the reason we so epically fail at our new years resolutions is because we never actually expect to accomplish them? Maybe if you are doing NaNoWriMo and you are focussed on the impossible task of writing 50,000 words in 30 days you won’t do it. But if you expect to be able to accomplish that goal, maybe you have a better shot at it. That’s the theory I’m going to have going into RPM next month. I have no idea how I will manage work and making music enough to compose an album in a month but I know I’ve done it before and I know I can do it again and I will expect it to be an achievable goal and so it will be.


Jenny and Jai

Last weekend, we found out that two friends of ours — mothers of our kids’ classmates — were involved in a domestic dispute that left the two of them in the hospital in critical condition from multiple gunshot wounds. Full news reports here and here.

What happened was horrid and devastating and both women not only had families but were teachers and educators; Jai was the librarian at the Open Classroom school and I worked closely with her to develop the Book Review Library plugin for the Open Classroom library. I can’t begin to imagine the repercussions of this experience, physical, emotional and financial. There are a pair of YouCaring pages up for both of them and it would be amazing if you were able to find it in your heart to help these fantastic women and their families out as they work on healing.

Role Playing Games for kids

Our son loves reading.  He’s recently gotten way into The Magic Treehouse series and we’ve since completed the full series (all 45 books!).  It occurred to me, since he’s so interested in storytelling, that he might be into those Choose-Your-Own Adventure books that I wasted my youth reading and re-reading until every possible scenario had been played out.  That had mixed success (mostly due to the actual story — which was some crazy alien space opera with names that had more consonants than they had a right to).  I started wondering about the options for RPGs for kids — surely they’re out there, right?

I came across this article from GeekDad, who has been trying to introduce role playing to his kids.  Apparently, Dungeons & Dragons has wised up and started tapping the limitless potential of getting kids hooked on gaming before they’re in their double-digits.  And why not?  It’s storytelling, it’s family time, it involves math and reasoning and — if you run it well — could bring in history or social studies or any number of other educational subjects.  Plus, it’s fun as hell to bash on a monster and rewarding when you emerge victorious.

So I downloaded Monster Slayers: Heroes of Hesiod, which is a little mini-scenario with a very basic framework with the idea of introducing young or novice gamers to role playing.  I got the pages printed out at the FedEx Office, laminated the character tokens and mini character sheets and the badges they are awarded when they defeat the monsters.  The general premise of the scenario is just a training exercise — the player characters are kids who have to be trained to fight because their village is always being attacked by monsters. It was a hit!  But it quickly became evident that the limitations of this particular scenario would start cramping the kids (and, honestly, the adults — my wife and I) pretty quickly once we ran through the same basic hack and slash adventure a few times.

So, I decided to modify it a bit.  Create a little halfway house between the basic, stripped-down Monster Slayers rules and full-on Dungeons and Dragons D20 rules.  I created similar character sheets, adding a new Monk character just to throw in some variety, and gave everyone some basic weapons and armor based on their classes.  Each character has one special ability, which correlates to some spell or skill or feat that their character can do (based, again, on actual D20 rules — possibly a bit fudged here and there).  I came up with a very simple adventure (which lives entirely in my head), designed a couple maps, and grabbed some monster pages out of the D&D Monsters Manual.

!! Spoiler alert! DMs Only! !!
The scenario goes like this: a pack of wolves have been raiding the village’s chicken coops on the north end of town.  The heroes (now in their basic, level 1 equivalents) meet Loomis at the cabin where they’ve been conducting their training, and Loomis tells them about the situation and asks if they could help out and find out what’s driving the wolves into town and take care of the situation.  To the north (which, if you’re playing along, is equivalent to two lengths of the first map in the adventure’s documents) they find the pack of wolves led by a single dire wolf.  The wolves will attack the heroes, but they’re not really out for a fight, and will retreat — if possible — if their hit points get too far down.  If the heroes slay the dire wolf, they effectively complete the mission and the rest of the pack leaves the village alone.  Of course, I wouldn’t be much of a DM if that was all that was going on, would I?

Since Beholders played a role in the training, I decided to throw one into this scenario as well.  To the far north (the second map) there is a cave in the mountains where a lone Beholder has taken up residence, pushing the wolves out of their former territory.  Inside the cave there is some loot for any adventurers brave enough to try to defeat the Beholder.  This is a standard Monsters Manual beholder, so should be a pretty tough cookie for a bunch of Level 1s, so the loot should be worthwhile if they care to venture further.

The importance of visuals

In playing Monster Slayers, the visual aspect seemed very important to the kids, who really needed a visual reference to understand what’s going on.  It’s much harder to ask them to visualize a cluster of rocks which is blocking your view of the monster than to just point on the map and say “there”.  So I continued and made the maps for my scenario.  I also took some Lego people and fashioned Lego heroes for each PC.  It added to the interest and, I think made the whole thing a lot more fun.  Now I’m eyeing the Playmobil dragon we have and am waiting until the PCs are a high enough level to possibly take on a dragon — the relative size between the Lego minifigs and the Playmobil dragon are just about right…

I made the monster tokens for the same reason — because it’s important for them to be able to see their enemies and where they are coming from and going.  Additionally, I added illustrations to the character sheets of the weapons and armor (if any) to provide even further visual reference and more visual cues about what their character is holding and/or wearing.

We’ll see how far we get until I have to modify the rules again.  To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what I’m going to do once they level up in terms of their special abilities — I’ve considered either allowing them to do their initial special or a new one, or just giving them a new one that’s more powerful than the last one.  We’re playing with precocious 3 (almost 4) and 6 year olds, so I’m thinking simpler is probably better.

You can download the DM resources here, via Scribd.  You can also find a copy of Monster Slayers on Scribd, or download the PDF from Wizards of the Coast.

muscle memory

it’s interesting how muscle memory works. or, if not muscle memory (a term i just grabbed because it seemed appropriate without knowing anything about the actual scientific usage of said phrase) then the way your body remembers things that, intellectually, you probably couldn’t possibly keep straight.

very close to nightly i quietly enter and exit our kids’ bedroom to put our daughter to bed. our son is already sleeping. many times it’s pitch black, the room lit only by a dim, mostly concealed night-light (which, if nothing else, serves as a sort of lighthouse that i use to gauge where her crib is). often, it’s the middle of the night and i’ve been holding her, waiting for her to go back to sleep, and reading stuff on the computer, so my eyes haven’t yet adjusted to the darkness. and yet, as i make my way through their room, away from the crib and my lighthouse, i manage to find my way to the door (mostly without knocking things over or bumping into things) and, more importantly, find the door handle.

the last part is what i’m most interested in. sure, i can fathom counting steps, turning left or right when appropriate, a pattern that can be memorized. but the way my hand almost immediately finds the door handle in total darkness interests me. is it a matter of making minute, unrecognized adjustments as i’m reaching? or is it that some part of my animal brain knows exactly where the handle is located and finds it automatically?

the not-so-hidden value of netflix

i’m pretty much completely in love with netflix.

it started with some casual experimentation through a friend during college.  he had a netflix subscription and we’d often get triple features of obscure asian action flicks (digging deep in the early career of jet li with the once upon a time in china series — which i highly recommend, btw) and post-modern art films like  eXistenZ and naked lunch (and pretty much anything else by david cronenberg).

after graduation, netflix and i drifted apart, and i spent more time with the cult classics, indpendent and anime sections at hollywood video.

all that changed when erin and i had kids.

what used to be a simple 20 minute trip to see what we haven’t watched already and browse the new video releases, suddenly became: “do we take G with us?  should one of us go alone?  this sucks…maybe we can just download something…”  suddenly, netflix was not only a great library of obscure videos, but a welcome replacement for what used to be the friday night trip to the video store.

sure there’s the fact that you don’t get your videos right away.  but i think that’s just a matter of retraining your brain.  rather than expecting you’ll hit the video store on friday, if you already have a queue set up of stuff you want, one that you’re watching and updating in between deliveries, you’re guaranteed that when friday (or whenever) hits, you’ll have something you know you want to watch.  and the recommendation engine really is pretty good (most of the time).

but even that isn’t what makes netflix a comcast- (or insert-cable-company-name-here) killer.  no, the real secret (that isn’t really a secret) of netflix is their instant viewing catalog.

i’ve been using the watch instantly feature a lot lately.  much more so than the dvd rentals themselves.  often, we’ll forget to put the dvd’s in the mail — something that was completely unfounded a couple years ago.  but i don’t beat myself up over losing value in the membership with netflix by hanging onto dvd’s longer than we need to anymore.  and the reason is that there are hundreds — if not thousands — of titles i want to watch that i can check out right this second.  my 4 year old just finished the full run of the original astroboy series, which he’s been working on for the past several weekends.  we watched wall-e for the first time streamed through netflix, and then for the second and third times.  we’re not really  huge on dora the explorer, but the fact that you can stream the full first and second seasons means that if and when it comes up, we can play it for the kids and not have to own the dvds.  and we’ve discovered great new kid shows like kipper and the rubbadubbers that we wouldn’t have found otherwise.

watch instantly is perfect for hermetic parents like us, who are more likely to buy books on amazon than hop in a car to barnes & nobles or a used book store because the latter means making oneself look vaguely presentable to the outside world, getting the kids’ jackets and shoes on, remembering to take the kids to the potty, making sure to take the dog outside to pee…by the time all that’s done, it’s time for lunch (or dinner, or bed, etc…).  i’d love to be able to go see new movies, but being able to see new-ish rentals streamed via netflix isn’t too bad, either.

it’s all thanks to their recent partnership with starz, a premium cable channel like hbo and showtime that honestly, i’d never even heard of before i read this article in wired.  but i’m sure glad they forged the deal, because all of a sudden, netflix exploded with streaming options the like of which longtime subscribers had never seen before.  and not just the weird, obscure, b-movie indie-type films like cannibal: the musical or B.U.S.T.E.D.(both of which you can stream, by the way, and i recommend both of them).  no, as previously mentioned, mainstream — and top selling — flicks like wall-e and bridget jones’s diary can be streamed as well now.

how netflix pulls it off involves a complex system of who has access rights for broadcasting films that i only understand half of.  i recommend reading the previously mentioned (and linked) wired article for a better explanation than i could begin to articulate.  what i do know is that it’s one thing to rent out dvds (or cds, or videos) because ownership law states that once you own something, you can pretty much do whatever you want with it shy of reproducing copies of it yourself and profiting off it — which includes renting out your copies of the originals.  once you decide to stream content — this applies to any content, be it video or audio — you enter into a whole different world of copyright law as it applies to broadcasting and who gets what royalties.  by partnering with starz, starz essentially deals with the legal stuff — because they already have that in place.  netflix shares starz’s access to new (and old) movies, and passes along the streaming content to its’ subscriber base.  i only hope that eventually hbo and showtime decide to stop fighting netflix and jump on the boat, because it shouldn’t matter to them — either way they’ll get their paycheck, and i’m guessing a whole bunch more people will jump onto netflix if netflix has a vast new library that includes everything hbo or showtime has access to.

this, of course, makes netflix public enemy number 1 in the eyes of the other content providers for movies and television — your cable company.  it will be interesting to see how things play out, but already there’s momentum to move stuff online and content providers will need to think (and act) more like isps to keep their users.  soon it will be hulu + netflix vs. cable tv with hbo.  i know what side i’m on: i may have a cable subscription, but it’s not tv that’s running through that coax — it’s data.