The Unbidden

If you’re a parent, you want the best for your children. You want them to eat healthily, to do their homework, to keep fit, and to be well-mannered. You may go a step further and carefully study nutritional information to make sure they receive the right balance of calories, protein, and vitamins. You’d hire a private tutor to help them with the maths they’re struggling with, or send them off to summer school to learn a musical instrument. You’ll drive them to football matches and shop for the right boots and equipment.

You’ll want to keep them safe; you’ll tell them how to cross the road and ride their bike properly, and you’ll teach them never to talk to a stranger – someone who might want to hurt them – whether in the real world or online.

One way to keep children safe from strangers is to never put them in a position where they could ever meet them.

The Purpose of a Child

What would you like your child to be? A doctor? A lawyer? A CEO? A soldier? A politician? An artist?

I’ll make it easier: would it be better if they earned a lot of money, or a little? Do you think they should have a family, with lots of kids, or would you mind if they never had children?

Maybe you can’t answer those questions, so let’s step back a little. Is it important for them to go to a good university, like Harvard or Oxford or Cambridge, places that might given them better opportunities? If it is, then what’s the best way for them to get in?

This is something we can answer (or at least, we think we can): it’s by getting top grades at school, and by racking up a list of extracurricular achievements that’ll impress admissions officers. If you have the right enough time and resources, and the right kind of environment (and many people do not), and you’re sufficiently dedicated, this is quite doable. A 2006 article from the Times Educational Supplement shows exactly how doable this is:

In 2005, 55 per cent of all pupils achieved five GCSEs at grades A-C. Breaking down the figures by ethnicity reveals that white pupils were exactly in line with that average. Above-average results came from students of mixed white and black African descent (56 per cent achieving five or more A-Cs); mixed white and Asian (67 per cent); Indian students (70 per cent); and Chinese students (81 per cent). Those groups that fell below the national average were Bangladeshi (53 per cent); black African (48 per cent); Pakistani (48 per cent); mixed white and black Caribbean (44 per cent); and black Caribbean (42 per cent).

I don’t believe there are any differences in intelligence between ethnicities, and neither do the vast majority of scientists. This means that the very significant difference in GCSE scores shown above is down to environmental factors, which could include poverty and culture. However, it doesn’t seem as if poverty is the sole answer, if this 2008 LA Times article about the performance of poor ethnicities in California is accurate:

With about 2,500 students, Lincoln High draws from parts of Boyle Heights, El Sereno and Chinatown.

Both the neighborhood and student body are about 15% Asian. And yet Asians make up 50% of students taking Advanced Placement classes. Staffers can’t remember the last time a Latino was valedictorian.

…According to a study of census data, 84% of the Asian and Latino families in the neighborhoods around Lincoln High have median annual household incomes below $50,000. And yet the Science Bowl team is 90% Asian, as is the Academic Decathlon team.

This makes for uncomfortable reading, but the point is that money doesn’t appear to be required to perform well academically. So what is required?

“They only start paying attention if I don’t do well,” said Karen Chu, 15, whose parents emigrated from Vietnam. “They don’t reward me for getting straight A’s. I don’t get anything for that. But if I get a B, they’re like, ‘What’s this?’ ”

If her grades slipped, she said, her parents laid on the guilt extra thick. “My parents are always like, ‘If you don’t do well in school, then it’s all going to be worth nothing,’ ” Karen said, laughing nervously.

Julie Loc, the daughter of a seamstress and a produce-truck driver, said that if she gets a B, her parents ask whether she needs tutoring. She said her father used to compare her to other people’s children, noting their hard course loads or saying, “They have a 4.3 [grade-point average]. Why do you only have a 4.0?’ “

Overwhelming and unyielding pressure to excel – that’s the answer. It’s not easy to do, but it does work, and it’s not isolated to Asians either – it just seems to be more common among them. And believe me, it’s often not pretty. I’ve seen kids get nervous breakdowns from this pressure; I’ve seen kids who had heartfelt ambitions to become artists or musicians, only to be forced to abandon them so that they can become the doctors and lawyers their parents so desperately crave.

Among less academically-driven parents, I’ve seen extraordinary hot-housing of kids, who are cajoled into taking hours of music lessons, tutors, and sports clubs to get those all-important extra-curricular activities for their university applications. I could see this was getting ridiculous when many of my friends on the Duke of Edinburgh course outright admitted that they were just doing it to get into university, and had zero interest in any community service. Continue reading “The Unbidden”

Cash Gordon: This is Not a Game

There was much hilarity today as the Conservative’s new Cash Gordon website was deluged by tweets; these tweets, by exploiting some shoddy coding on the site, redirected all visitors to unsavoury sites. Cash Gordon was pulled, and only returned several hours later after some hasty fixes.

Screen shot 2010-03-22 at 23.40.01

I am not here to make fun of the poor security on the site – that’s already been accomplished in a fine manner.

No, I am here to cast scorn on the site itself (supposedly costing $15,000), and the engine it’s running on:

  1. On first glance, it looks like it’s been designed by a kid who’s been let loose on Dreamweaver, with its strange layout and formatting; the white text on light blue background tells us that amateur hour is well and truly in.
  2. But wait, what’s this in the hard-to-read white 80s digital numerals? A big ticker showing ‘Total Action Points’? Maybe something clever is going on here! And there’s stuff about ‘members’ and ‘Total points scored’ at the top – could this be a… game?
  3. Maybe, but there’s nothing that immediately indicates how you play or join up. There are ways of getting points by reading ‘Who is Charlie Whelan?’ and ‘Connecting to Facebook’, and if you spot the oddly-situated bizarro slider on the left-hand side of the main box (I suppose it provides a pleasing symmetry to normal slider on the opposite side), you can view other ways of getting points.
  4. Of course, where there’s points, there’s a leaderboard (below)! It shows the top five ‘players’ – and that’s it. I briefly consider creating a fake Facebook user with an offensive name and photo, and racking up enough points to reach first place, but decide that would be a tedious waste of time, because…
  5. …There’s already a ‘Latest Tweets’ panel displaying all #cashgordon mentions, which is unsurprisingly full of people insulting the website and the Tories.
  6. To round out the page, there’s also a link to read a Featured Article from The Times. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work in Chrome; however, if it did work, it’d load the target article in an iframe, which is just atrocious.
  7. After looking at everything else on the page, I reluctantly drag my eyes over to the unappetising simulated Word doc in the centre, with its passionless design, excessive leading, and utterly, utterly boring copy. I can get no further than the third paragraph before trying to decide how much worse ‘highly damaging’ is than just plain-old ‘damaging’, and then giving up.

But what really bothers me about this site are the Action Points, which appear to be a completely arbitrary way of measuring and encouraging engagement with the site. Why do I get more points by pretending to read an article than by pretending to tweet Charlie Whelan? Why do I care that 135,200 action points have been earned in total? Is that supposed to be a big number or not? Is something going to happen when we reach 200,000 points? What do I get if I reach the top of the leaderboard? Wouldn’t it be better to show exactly how many articles have been read, tweets sent out, emails signed up, etc, instead of using these points? Or would that be too painful, because it’d reveal exactly how few people had engaged with the site?

I can just imagine the conversation at HQ:

Businessperson 1: You know what’s cool?

Businessperson 2: LinkedIn?

BP1: No, games! Didn’t you know they’re the new way to convert visitors into mindless drones who’ll do your bidding and spread your message to their ‘social graph’ on Facebook?

BP2: Why would they do that?

BP1: Because we give them points! People will do anything for points, and levelling up; trust me, my fiancee’s sister’s husband’s son’s girlfriend plays World of Mafia Wars all day, and she’d do anything for points and for ‘levels’.

BP2: What a brilliant way of connecting with today’s youth – why, this could be the next Farm Society! Come here, lackey – put a game into our website!

Developer: Well, it’s not quite that easy-

BP1: What do you mean, not that easy? Why don’t you try Rails, I hear that’s supposed to be fast – and good job too, because we need it by tonight!

Actually, I can’t blame too much – they’re no worse than a lot of other sites out there (but they’re definitely not any better).

No, I find it tragic that Conservative HQ dropped $15k on this ugly, easily-hacked piece of ‘social marketing’ nonsense; you won’t find your Obama-magic here, I’m afraid. And whatever happened to supporting British business, eh?

Can a Game Save the World?

On December 9th 2007, a curious event took place at the University of South Carolina football stadium. As 29,000 people filed inside, each was given a piece of paper bearing four names and phone numbers. During the event, each person called those names and asked them to vote for Obama in the coming primary election.


Those 29,000 attendees called over 35,000 voters in the space of ten minutes – enough for the Guinness Book of Records to certify the event as the ‘largest phone bank‘ in history – and all for very little cost to the Obama campaign.

The record only stood for a few months, because on August 27th 2008, a line of people six miles long – over 80,000, all told – waited for seats at Invesco Field in Denver. They were there for Obama’s acceptance speech as the Democratic nominee for the election, but once again, they were going to be called upon to help out the campaign with more phone calls.

These events were replicated hundreds of times across the country, and some were focused more directly on making calls. I recall hearing about one in which the speaker walked the attendees through how to make their very first phone call to a voter. Yes, you might be nervous, he said, but I’ll show you how to do it – and he then proceeded to make a live call through the loudspeakers. Suitably encouraged, the thousands of attendees made their own phone calls – and why not, since everyone sitting next to them was making a call.

Of course, the majority of phone calls were not made in stadiums or live events, but at home or in campaign offices. Ever tech-savvy, the Obama campaign aimed to track and analyse all calls made. Even in September 2007, during the earlier days of Obama’s primary fight, the campaign had developed online tools and leaderboards:


Naturally, there was an Obama ’08 iPhone app, which provided news updates to half a million users and (of course) encouraged users to make phone calls to votes. Over 50,000 calls were made, a figure that doesn’t include calls made by people who used an iPod Touch, and whose calls couldn’t be tracked.

Day Before Election Leaderboard by Sagolla

The campaign had a single, clear goal: get Obama elected as President of the United States. Accomplishing this goal would require gaining a majority of the delegate votes in the Democratic Presidential Primaries in over fifty states and regions; each of those states had different rules for selecting their delegates, some of them quite unusual and rather game-like. With the Primaries won, the campaign had to win the general election.

Not only did this require a massive ground operation, going door to door in every state – not only did it demand massive phonebanking operations, some of which are describe above – but it also needed hundreds of millions in donations to adverts. In the end, Obama raised over $600 million dollars, most of which came over the internet:

3 million donors made a total of 6.5 million donations online adding up to more than $500 million. Of those 6.5 million donations, 6 million were in increments of $100 or less. The average online donation was $80, and the average Obama donor gave more than once.

70,000 campaign supporters used their MyBO fundraising pages to raised $30 million from friends and family; donation meters, leaderboards, targets, goals, rewards, and achievements – all of these most powerful reward and tracking mechanism, ripped straight from game design, were applied to the business of winning the most important and most serious game of 2008: winning the US election.

And they won. Continue reading “Can a Game Save the World?”

Back to the Future: The BBC is still dead

Biff Tannen: And uh, where’s my reports?
George McFly: Uh, well, I haven’t finished those up yet, but you know I… I figured since they weren’t due till…
Biff Tannen: Hello? Hello? Anybody home? Huh? Think, McFly. Think! I gotta have time to get ’em retyped. Do you realize what would happen if I hand in my reports in your handwriting? I’ll get fired. You wouldn’t want that to happen, would ya? Would ya?
George McFly: Of course not, Biff. Nah, I wouldn’t want that to happen. Now, look. I’ll, uh, finish those reports on up tonight and I’ll run ’em on over first thing tomorrow. All right?
Biff Tannen: Eh, not too early. I sleep in Saturdays. Oh, McFly, your shoe’s untied.
[jabs his finger up to George’s face]

Biff Tannen: Don’t be so gullible, McFly. Got the place fixed up nice-o, McFly.

Amid all the anguish and strife surrounding the BBC’s Strategic Review and the news that 6 Music, BBC Switch, and BBC Blast are going to be axed, I couldn’t help think of an alternate version of Back to the Future:

Biff Tannen: …Where’s my money?

George McFly: Uh, well, I haven’t finished cutting those websites yet, but you know I… I figured since people liked them and they didn’t cost so much…

Biff: Hello? Hello? Anybody home? Huh? Think, McFly. Think! I gotta have those paywalls. Do you realize what would happen if you keep on putting that public service content out for free? I’ll get fired. You wouldn’t want that to happen, would ya? Would ya?

George: Of course not, Biff. Nah, I wouldn’t want that to happen. Now, look. I’ll, uh, cut the online budget by 25% and I’ll only make sites that are about TV and radio programmes. All right?

Biff: Eh, that’s okay for a start, we’ll see how it works. Oh, McFly, your shoe’s untied.

[jabs his finger up to George’s face]

Biff: Don’t be so gullible, McFly.

No prizes for guessing who the BBC is in this exchange (or Rupert Murdoch).

Most of the coverage of the Strategic Review has been about the audience efforts to save 6 Music; clearly it’s a station that many people are very attached to. However, the money saved by killing 6 Music is only £9 million, or 1.5% of BBC Radio’s £587 million budget. It’s baffling that the BBC would choose to kill 6 Music given its steadily growing audience and listener hours; surely, if money was the issue, they could have found that 1.5% among the other stations? But one might imagine that 6 Music was chosen on purpose, precisely to generate this kind of audience backlash and prove that the BBC actually does make valuable and popular content; but that’s just speculation.

Still, even if 6 Music were to be killed – which would be a shame – it would hardly spell the end for BBC Radio. But imagine if BBC Radio’s budget were cut, not by 1.5%, but by 25% – that’s £147 million. Here’s what they’d have to chop:

  • Radio 1
  • Radio 2
  • Radio 3

and they’d still need to find £2 million to make up the shortfall. A 25% cut would cripple BBC Radio.

Or let’s look at TV, which the BBC spends £2.335 billion on. A 25% cut would require savings of £584 million, and for that, you’d need to axe:

  • BBC 2 (including Horizon, The Thick of It, Mastermind, University Challenge, Songs of Praise, Newsnight…)

Alternatively, you could kill everything other than BBC 1 and BBC 2, which would mean saying goodbye to:

  • BBC 3
  • BBC 4
  • CBBC
  • CBeebies
  • BBC Alba (BBC Scotland)
  • BBC News 24
  • BBC Parliament
  • BBC Red Button
  • BBC HD

Either way, the BBC’s TV operation would be devastated.

Continue reading “Back to the Future: The BBC is still dead”