Friday, November 28, 2014

What can I do to help that doesn't require much effort?

That title may sound like I'm putting people down but I am not. Often people say things like,

"You're doing so much good work, what can I do to help?"

However, I understand what people really mean, because I'm very far from perfect when it comes to helping a good cause. When I say,

"Sure, I will help you raise money to save endangered turtles."

or whatever it is you are doing, what I really mean is,

I'll help you out as long as it's not too much of a pain in the ass.

Seriously, I don't expect anyone to fly out to California and stuff gift boxes we send to the schools, code our next level of Myths and Math for free or send us $300,000 to invest in our company (however, if you happen to have an extra $300K lying around, I'd be happy to meet up with you and talk business).

Really, I get it. People are busy. They have limited funds. Christmas is coming up and you need to travel, buy presents. If you'd be willing to contribute 15 or 20 minutes of your time, though, there is something you could do to help.

I just uploaded our latest demo version for Spirit Lake: The Game. It's free. Anyone can download it and play it. Before I put it up on our main website, if you could go here, download it and test it, that would be awesome.

The sandbox is a new thing we're working on that we'll roll out early next year, that will have all kinds of good free stuff for parents, teachers and motivated kids. We'll be putting stuff up there from time to time to play with.

So, that is what you can do to help - play with our works in progress and let us know what you think.

Oh, and Happy Thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Family Time and Mental Health

We had a baby shower at my house today for Maria and baby-to-be Ortiz. All of the sisters came, as well as the two cousins who live in southern California, a couple of the neighbors who knew Maria growing up and a few friends my daughters have known for a decade or more.

There was Marina, who Ronda met at some junior training camp when they were 14 or so. Stacy was there, a friend Maria met at St. Monica’s High School back in 1997. Deborah and Kiah came. They moved in when Kiah (Deborah’s daughter) and Julia were both under six months old.

It was typical baby shower games, courtesy of Jennifer who was assigned to come up with them. We played “Pin the egg on the sperm”. However, since we had small children present also we told them that it was pin the balloon on the balloon receptacle. Jennifer even wrote “Balloon receptacle” on  the large circle on the wall to insure that the two- and three-year-old children present would be appropriately fooled. Each sperm had a name written on it and, theoretically, the baby would be named whatever was on that sperm.

Maria told us she didn’t care that Samantha won, no way was she naming her baby John Calvin Hobbes Ortiz.

Ronda, who hates to lose at anything, protested that the other people should be disqualified on the grounds of suckitude.

Neither my team nor Ronda’s won in the second game either, Childbirth or Porn. Each group got 16 photos of women’s faces and had to guess whether it came from a childbirth site or porn site. Maria’s in-laws won. Maria’s mother-in-law got on my good side by mentioning the news she had seen about schools serving Native American children and how useful our games could be for those schools. I was so pleasantly surprised that she had heard of 7 Generation Games that I did not comment on her apparent in-depth knowledge of porn.

We played the game where you are blind-folded, someone feeds you baby food and you have to guess what it is supposed to be. The first guinea pig was Julia and her first comment was,

I don’t know what that is but, Maria, you shouldn’t feed it to your baby.

Adrianna and Marina tied in that game.

Eva was put out because Emilia got on Aunt Ronda’s lap first to make the ugly Christmas sweater cookies. I think Aunt Julia stepped in to be Eva’s assistant though, so she was happy with that.

After a while, Kiah and Julia, being sixteen, decided we were all boring and went next door to Kiah’s house.

So, that was the baby shower - silly games, small children, small talk, cookies. I had beer and wine available but no one wanted anything but juice, coffee, tea and milk. We had all of that, too.

People who actually meet her (as opposed to see some edited for TV version) always exclaim about how nice of a person Ronda is. Part of it, I think, is that we have a boringly normal family. When we have a party there are no strippers, drugs or domestic violence calls to the police.

We don’t really see the public version of Ronda very often. When she’s in front of the cameras she’s done the whole hair, make up, designer clothes thing or working out, punching a heavy bag. When we see her, she’s usually exhausted from all of that and lying on the couch in sweats.

My concern for Ronda has always been that she would turn out like so many professional athletes and entertainers who seem to self-destruct. I think it is really healthy for her to be around people who don’t want anything from her and to not be the center of attention.

Balance in life is good for you. Also really important is realizing that major parts of your life will stay the same no matter what. I hope Ronda wins every fight for the rest of her life, and I expect she will. I hope her movies coming out in 2015 are extremely successful.  I know nothing about movies and have no idea if they will be or not. What I do know is that regardless of all of that, Eva, Emilia and the new baby will fight over who gets to sit on her lap and she and Maria will have discussions on such philosophical matters as which family member could most easily become a serial killer and murder us all in our sleep. (Jennifer, in case you are wondering.)

The two youngest guests, seconds before they started fighting with each other.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Judo in Whose Best Interest

At Gompers Middle School, we're so tough we don't even need light to practice. Electricity is for wimps.

I guess it is a cost-cutting thing that the lights don't get turned on until after 5 pm. So, with daylight savings time, we are now practicing in semi-darkness. It doesn't stop us.

We have a great group of kids at Gompers and I know the judo class is good for them.

This experience has also been an insight into some of the adults in judo. Many times, the suggestions people make for our judo students seem to be much more in the best interests of the adults making the suggestions than for our students.

For example, several people have suggested that middle school programs like ours are a great opportunity for judo organizations to grow their membership.

Keep in mind that we practice at a school, during the after-school program, so we are already covered by insurance. If I were to pay $50 per student to join some organization, that's $1,000 for twenty kids. That money could pay for the team dinner AND our team t-shirts. Since the money for this program is raised by me and my family, that is $1,000 more we'd have to raise, and none of us are exactly sitting around wondering what to do with our spare time.

Our students take a test to get promoted and they receive ranks. I record their tests. Sometimes I post them on youtube. There are always at least two black belts with a rank of fourth degree or higher that watch the tests. I think that's adequate to get promoted to green belt.

Then there are the people who suggest I should bring all of our students to a tournament at $50 a piece (after I pay the $50 fee for some organization). I should do that many times a year, they say, because it would be good for them. Again, taking 10 students to two tournaments would be $1,300 - $1,500 if the tournaments were local. That is counting the fees to join some organization and two entry fees. That is also assuming that there was no issue with not all of their judo gis being regulation.

Or, there are the people who suggest that we fund one or two of the more gifted students to attend tournaments and compete nationally, maybe even internationally. We have a couple of students who have that kind of talent. It would probably cost $10,000 each to get them the training they need, not counting having a coach or parent travel with them. I don't have the time to do it and their parents need to work.

Here is the real clincher - if I raised $10,000 for one of these students, I would spend it on summer science camp, weekend SAT classes, music lessons for Ryan (who is really into playing the trumpet).

One thing I am really proud of is the number of students from Gompers Judo who are now attending magnet schools.

Steve Seck isn't just an Olympic judo player, he is also a teacher at King Drew Medical Magnet High School, who has come as a guest instructor at Gompers, and has encouraged our students to apply. Two of them are at King Drew now. One brought his report card in on Friday - he has a 3.8 GPA. Two other students are at USC Hybrid High. Two others are at charter schools in the area. Over two-thirds of our students have gotten into high schools other than the local school, and they continue to do well.

Patty Chirino isn't just the mother of a very gifted judo player, she is also fluent in Spanish. She has volunteered to help students and their parents in completing applications for charter and magnet schools.

I understand how having a couple more talented kids at a judo camp may benefit some adults, but I don't see it as the best use of limited resources to help our kids.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

What a long, strange trip it's been

Thirty years ago today, I became the first American to win the world judo championships. For 14 years - more than half of my life, up to that time - I had been training and competing in judo. Winning the world championships occupied pretty much every waking moment for the last few years. I'm sure that had something to do with my divorce. Judo was more important than EVERYTHING (until I had my daughter, Maria). The only time I wasn't thinking about judo was when I was with Maria or when I was at work because programming does require some attention.

So, I won the world championships, went back to that job, earned a Ph.D., started a company, had three more children, then started another company.

Last night, I went to see my youngest daughter inducted into the National Honor Society. This morning, I took her to practice, fixed a few bugs in the next game our company is coming out with, Fish Lake. I drove back from Ojai - actually, I rode in the car and fixed a few more bugs while my husband drove. I got home, answered a few questions from students on data analysis and spent a lot of time on financial projections for a business plan we're submitting to an angel investor group.

Sometime in there, I saw a tweet from @judoinside

I said to my husband,

Oh, that's right, I did win the world championships 30 years ago.

It just struck me as very odd that I could have forgotten about something that was the center of my life for so long. When I was competing, I couldn't imagine what my life would be like without competition. If you've never been an elite athlete, maybe it's hard to imagine. For one thing, it's simpler.

When I was competing, all I needed to know to make any decision was - "Will this help me win, or not?"

My life now is different. Balancing the responsibilities of being a CEO, a parent, a judo instructor, a wife, statistics professor and board president, I'm constantly having to make decisions on what I should be doing next. Being CEO alone takes a lot of juggling. I'm one-third of the software development team in our company, plus the person who writes the grants and the financial sections of our business plans - along with several dozen other responsibilities, right down to feeding the office chinchilla.

What's life like when you aren't competing any more. For me, it's good. Complicated, but good.

I make games to teach math. Some day I'll write about why I chose to do that, but for now, I need to get some sleep so I can get up earlier tomorrow and get some exercise in. Funny how what used to be my first priority has slipped down the list ...

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Something I learned as a grown-up: More than one way is right

It's been 17 years since I lived in North Dakota, so when I go back there these days, it's often like a high school or college reunion. Well, I assume so, anyway, not having ever attended a reunion.
People I knew as small children are now running programs, writing articles I read in the newspaper, parents of five children - or, in prison or drug rehab.

It's funny how much they remind me of myself at that age, and that is an embarrassing admission.

When I was younger, I was so-o sure that I was right about everything. Hell-bent on telling you so, too, and making you see things my way because, God damn it, my way was RIGHT! I was just convinced I was the smartest person in any room, and determined to make sure that everyone else knew it, too, because everyone would benefit from knowing the right answer and doing the right thing. Right?

What I failed to do (just like many of them), was consider anyone else's point of view.  Since, like a lot of the young people now, I was well-qualified for the work I did, worked really hard and tried my best to do what was in the best interests of the organizations where I worked, I couldn't see how anyone could disagree with me unless they were either a) stupid or b) a bad person. Sometimes, that is true. Sometimes, but not always.

Several years ago, I was arguing with Chuck Jefferson, someone I respect a lot as a person, as well as a judo player, and he said to me,

I don't agree with you. I know you believe very passionately in what you say, but that doesn't make it true.

Everyone is wrong sometimes. I don't know whether or not I was wrong on that particular occasion, but the point was worth remembering. No matter how sincere and competent a person may be, that doesn't make them right.

Recently, I observed a young, extremely intelligent, hard-working, super-qualified professional telling people over and over, "I want to do this for you" and "I want to do that for you" and very frustrated at the lack of support.

If I could go back to myself at that age, doing the exact same thing, I would suggest,

Ask those people what they want done for them. Maybe they want something completely different. Maybe all they want is to be left alone.

The danger for young people who go to the best schools and are always at the top of their class is that they go out into the world convinced that they know best and - they don't always. Sometimes, they are just plain wrong, and there is no shame in that, as long as you don't make a habit of it.

That is the flip side of being always right. When I was young, I could never be wrong because - well, I'm not sure why. 

It is the same thing I see with many young people, now, though. If you suggest they might have made a mistake, it is like an argument before the Supreme Court, all of the reasons why what they did was justifiable and even if it wasn't, it was not their fault. This is so much the norm that I was extremely impressed when I brought something up to one young person and got the response,

That was a mistake and it was my fault. I take full responsibility. I should have been more careful in that case and I wasn't. I have no excuse.

How could I be so impressed by someone who admitted making a mistake as opposed to all of those other people? Mostly because I'm pretty sure that person won't do it again. People who won't face their mistakes are more likely to repeat them.

Here is the other thing I have learned over the years, and seeing people decades later, just reinforces it - there is not just one "right".

I truly believe what my grandmother always told me, that every talent you have is a gift from God and you should do as much as you can with it to make the world a better place, because it's not like you have anything God needs to pay back that gift. I work really hard to make games that teach math because I believe that kids fall out of the school system when they start to believe it is too hard for them, they will never succeed. In 90% of the cases, that's not true, they just need support. Maybe they missed some step, say, didn't quite get the concept of decimals. If we could back up, fill that in, and go forward, they'd be fine. ( Shameless plug: You can learn about our games, buy a game here or donate it to a school. )

On the other hand, there are people who chose different lives and, twenty years on, they are satisfied with their choices. They chose to be a teacher, a nurse, a farmer. They were faithful spouses, good parents, honest citizens and are now good grandparents. They worked 9-5, came home, cooked dinner and watched TV.  They never traveled more than 50 miles from the place they were born and now that the mortgage is paid off they are retired and watching TV in that same house.

I wasn't right and they were wrong. We were both right.

That is one of the things that I have learned as a grown-up.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Start-up reality: Silicon Snowbanks

Contrary to appearances, this is not an abandoned blog. For the past couple of days, I was at a hotel where the only wireless was dial-up speed and cell phone reception was too poor to use my personal hotspot. Yes, I know, first-world problems.

Many people have wondered how products would differ if start-ups weren't run by twenty-year-olds living in the Bay area. Would we get fewer apps to get dinner reservations and more that address the needs of people who are older, less urban, with less discretionary income and more children?

I can tell you that our very atypical start-up, 7 Generation Games, makes games that teach math - a concern of 30- and 40-year-old parents everywhere. With a theme centered on Native American history, you are more likely to find me on an American Indian reservation driving through the snow, than driving on a golf range or drinking martinis with venture capitalists.

(If you are a venture capitalist reading this, though, call me!)

This week I :
  • Flew from Los Angeles to Grand Forks, North Dakota then drove 90 miles west to Fort Totten,
  • In one day, did a game demonstration and spoke with students in the middle school, elementary school and after school program on the Spirit Lake Dakota Nation,  had dinner with a consultant on Dakota language, then gave a lecture on confidence intervals for the online course I teach on biostatistics,
  • Spent an entire day conducting a site visit for program evaluation, had dinner with staff from the elementary school, middle school and our Dakota culture consultant then drove 90 miles north to Turtle Mountain,
  • Made a new game install that fixed bugs discovered WHILE I was traveling. Went to Turtle Mountain Elementary, talked to classroom of students, then met with two teachers,
  • Met with staff at Ojibwa Indian School to do game demonstration , then drove 90 miles south back to Spirit Lake for continuation of site visit. Then gave a two-hour lecture on hypothesis testing.

... and it's only Thursday!

Testing with actual people in actual classrooms is crucial to making  games that are both fun to play and really (not fake) educational.

I am not complaining. I believe the work we are doing has great potential to change the world AND become a huge enterprise. Children in America who can't do math have far fewer opportunities in life - by fourth-grade, many children are already falling off the college track. We are working to put them back on it. 

I went into this with both eyes wide open and knew that making games that are used by children on American Indian reservations and in urban schools would involve Belcourt, North Dakota more than Beijing or Berlin.

That's my point, not all start-ups are in Silicon Valley. Some are in Silicon snowbanks.