Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Voter on the Borderlands

So Washington State has announced its new congressional borders, with the introduction of a 10th district and a shoving around of most of the others. And I'm not quite sure where I belong yet, but regardless, I resolve to not be happy about it.

So here's the story of how this happens. We have a Census which determines the population. Then we have a team made up of Democrats and Republicans who are supposed to come up with new borders for the congressional districts - dividing Washington into ten equal population parts, since we just picked up a seat. Their deadline is the first of the year.

By the way, one of the things learned watching the Ken Burns picture on Prohibition is that the "Dry" forces successfully staved off reapportionment for six years after the 1920 census, effectively suppressing and under-representing the wetter, urban areas. So yeah, the whole redistricting thing is major. But I digress.

Drawing up the boundaries is a balancing act of multiple needs. Adequate representation is an ultimate goal. But each party wants to keep its incumbents safe. Individual politicians want to make sure that their house is in their new district (or that the house of a rival is in a different district, or best of all in the district of another rival entirely). Certain budgetary plums should be kept. And there is a desire for a majority/minority area, where there are not as many white folks (and to be honest, we have a lot of said folks in Congress already, and it really hasn't worked out that well). The end result has horsetrading, backroom dealing, inter and intra-party realpolitik, and once presented, no one is really happy with the result.

And that's the case for me, even though I'm not EXACTLY sure where I am yet.

According to the map from the paper and on the various sites, Grubbstreet is on the border between the 8th and 9th District. But map is of such a large scale that I don't know which side I would be on. Going to the main site requires Google Earth, which I am not putting on (if only because I put it one once, several machines ago, and had the devil of the time with it. It may have improved by now but I am resistant).

If I am on the 8th side, that would be sad, since I would condemned to have Dave "dances with the one that brung him" Reichert as my rep for as long as he wants the job. Mr. R has survived some close shaves (for an incumbent) for the past few elections, but as a result of this redistricting, he has lost the northern, more liberal chunk of his territory, and has seen his district jump the Cascades and include more friendly and conservative climes. Now freed of keeping his enviro creds up (he once told a bunch of supporters that it was all for show), it will be interesting to see how his views change. In an ironic world, he would get primaried by a Tea Party candidate that finds him too tree-huggery.

If I am on 9th side, that would irritate me as well, since the 9th is the "majority-minority" district, where the Caucasian population is only 49%. It feels partially like a self-esteem award and partially like a bit of political ghettoization. The Washington State nonwhite population is hardly monolithic in its voting habits and political views, and it feels like a lot of different goals have been shoved into one territory just for the purpose of political theater. Adam Smith is the Rep for this district, and he's also going to be around for a while.

So I am in one or the other, and each new district smells of sulfurous intrigue. My plan on how to handle the redistricting (and you know I would have one) would be to create a computer program that would start in one of the four (roughly) corners of the state and state counting people. Each time you reach a tenth of the population, you create a new district. Then you'd iterate the map so they would be roughly uniform in shape. You'd end up with four maps (one from each corner), and then vote on those maps. The areas might be funny-looking, but no worse than the gerrymander we currently see when we let politicians set their own boundaries.

More later,

Update: AHAH! I found a PDF on the state site which allowed me to definitely put myself in District 9. It looks like the eastern border of the district is nearby Soos Creek, which puts all of Renton and northern Kent in the 9th, and pushes unincorporated Fairwood over into the 8th. Have fun with that, guys.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmas Evening

Photo by Sally Hutchinson (reflected in window)

More later,

Friday, December 23, 2011

Happy (D&D) Holidays!

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas, the DM gave to me:
Twelve Greedy Players,
A Saturday Night Special,
Tenth level Dungeons,
Nine Ochre Jellies,
Eight Ogre Magi,
Seven Robbers Robbing,
Six Enchanters Chanting,
Four Hobbit Thieves,
Three Zombies,
Two Skeletons,
And a Kobold on a Golf Tee!
      (Traditional, lyrics approx. c.1976, Purdue Friday Night Dungeon Group)

Merry Christmas and a Happy Holiday Season from Grubb Street

More later,

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Svengoolie and the New Digital Revolution

On to other matters. I am channel surfing last weekend and encountered Svengoolie playing a horror movie with a side order of bad jokes, and I am surprised, not the least because I am in Seattle and he is part of my Chicago area past.

Clear all Airlanes for the Big Broadcast! (WCUI/Jim Roche)
OK, backing up. Svengoolie, (better called Sven, and played by Rich Koz) is a horror host out of Chicago. I used to watch him on Saturday afternoon on WFLD, which we got up in Lake Geneva, back he was called the Son of Sven (because there was an earlier horror host named Svengoolie and ... yaknow, never mind). This time Sven turned up on ME-TV, which in Seattle is a small reruns station in the upper registers of the cable that showed up about a year ago.

And I got to thinking - where did this station come from, and why am I watching Sven in Seattle?

Part of the answer goes back to when the area (and a lot of other areas) went fully digital and dropped the analog (old rabbit ears) mode of transmission. Now our stations come through cable, with an added fee where it was once free (well, you had to get the antenna, but other than that, it was free, and what you got depended on the strength of the broadcast signal). But the other result of this change was the creation of digital subchannels.

Now this is the cool part. Programming that used to be coming through the airwaves now comes through digitally over the cable line. You don't notice the difference unless something fouls up, and you get this big grainy pixels. But as a result, you can ship a lot more info through the lines. The local broadcasters don't need to use all their bandwidth, and can now create new channels in their allotted spots.

Here's a partial local list - KOMO4, which is ABC, is also THiS Television (showing old movies). KIRO7 is CBS, but is also giving bandwidth to Retro TV (Old TV shows). Channel 12, KVOS is also MeTV (where I found Sven, but also has old TV shows) as well as KVOS2 (which is playing old rock videos), 22 KZJO ("Joe TV" - recent old TV shows) is also Antenna TV (Older TV shows), and while KCFQ (Q13 is Fox), which has Accuweather, but both 22 and Q13 are Tribune stations. the full list is here and contains some interesting connections. Oh, and all the parent channels have HD components as well.

So what do we take away from this? Well, despite the fact that we have more channels, we still see a lot of the same local guys involved in running the stations. But countering that, we see a sudden need for content. Cheap content. So we are seeing small, new, national groups that may turn into the next Nick (remember when they used to run old Dick Van Dyke shows?). So old repeats of "Too Close for Comfort"  and "Peter Gunn" have returned.

And with it, Son of Sven (and Elvira as well, I have discovered in my digging - what's next, Rhonda from "USA Up All Night?")

Now this is the third time that I can point at where this sort of thing has happened (and by "sort of thing" I mean late night, hosted horror movies). Back when stations actually stopped signing off right after the late news every night, there was a demand for content. Late night programming thrived, and with it the Horror Hosts. Then, when we saw the expansion of cable options, we saw another rise, this time of the national movie hosts, the most prominent being Elvira and MST3000. Now, we're in the same place again - we have an increase in ecological broadfcast niches, and old movies (and old television, and music videos) have moved into those niches, like groundcover after a wildfire.

How it all turns out will be interesting, Late night "former broadcast" TV has mostly given way to (even cheaper) infomercials. The plethora of cable channels have gone through repeated material to generating original material. Will these new digital sub-networks create their own evolutionary path, forcing out the early pioneers into yet another incarnation? I dunno, but to be frank, for the moment is is good see Sven again.

More later,

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Back Among the Deck Chairs

(Yes, the title is a reference to ANOTHER Titanic/TSR joke among the employees. We had a lot of them, for some reason).

I hadn't planned on coming back to this particular subject so soon, but the Fates planned differently. My last post went a little viral between friends picking it up on the Facebook/Google regions and posting on industry discussion boards. Still, I felt I had advanced the idea of looking for root causes as opposed to merely bemoaning our lots in life.

And then THIS shows up on the 'net. For those not linking, it is an announcement that the CEO of Hasbro is getting paid $23 Million this year. And yeah, it is like pouring oil on troubled water, then tossing in a match.

Now, doing the digging in the article, the CEO gets a raise in salary from $1 Mill to $1.2 Mill (hardly chump change), and the rest being common stock. And to the best of my knowledge (the Internet will correct, of course), this means that it comes out of the company till - they are reassigning stock held by the company to the individual. And this assignment may have other strings attached - the stock cannot be sold except back to the company, it may only be sold at a particular price, it must be sold on leaving the company. So it is a fuzzy number, but a very large fuzzy number.

The article also makes clear that this is a retention payment, negotiated last year, to keep the CEO around. It also notes that Hasbro had a weak 2010 in sales (stock prices went up, though). 2011 is nothing to write home about (stock prices have since deflated) and 2012 is not shaping up to be any better (Upcoming big movie: Battleship). So this is not about performance, but rather about stability. This is payment for showing up.

What is important gets back to the idea of shareholders as being the ultimate measure of company success. By rewarding the management of the company with shares, they reinforce that mindset - increasing the net worth of the company (judged by stock price) also increases their personal wealth. Therefore decisions are made with more than a weather eye to how they will affect those stock prices in the near term as opposed to planning for a longer term.

This is a chosen and deliberate corporate mindset. The last time I was in Pawtucket at the Hasbro headquarters, several years ago, they had in the lobby a stock ticker showing the Hasbro share value running continually. This is a feature, not a bug, and informs on the rest of the decision-making involved.

More later, but hopefully not on this.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Titanic Had A Band

So Wizards of the Coast had holiday layoffs again. It is not a regular occurrence, though regular enough to merit mention here. (And by regular occurrence I mean they don't have layoffs every year at Christmas time, but they do manage to squeeze in a layoff or two every year or so, and do it between Thanksgiving and Christmas more often than not).

Go visit
Some friends were let go. You may have heard of them, if you pay attention to that sort of thing.

But the question that was put to me was - how does this always happen at Christmas? (Or rather, how does it happen frequently enough at Christmas that a company now has Christmas layoffs as part of its brand image)? And for that, we should look to see how corporations work. This is not to vilify or apologize - we've seen enough of both on the 'net when this subject comes up, but to try to explain.

It starts with the budgets. Each department or suborganization in a corporation lays out its budget - how much it plans to be bringing in, and how much it pays for it. This goes into a major discussion, where people (usually not the same people as provide the initial numbers) finish out their final budget, which percolates back out to the other areas. The just who said they need X dollars don't always get X dollars. In fact, they get X minus Y dollars and a note that they have to produce more with less in order to keep the company healthy.

And part of it is that the corporation demands continued growth and profit. It can defer some of its growth for long-term development, or keep on an unsuccessful project that someone really likes, but really it boils down to guaranteed growth. And if you attain that growth, then they need to increase that rate of growth. And lord help you if you have a very good year - that very good year becomes the baseline for further calculations. In short, it is a vicious cycle.

So they pass out the budgets for next year and now the departments have to plan. Yeah, some of that planning involves going back and telling the guys with the budgets that this makes no sense and sometimes that works. More often it involves figuring out what goes overboard in order to jack up profitability.

Sometimes it is a new process that saves times or lowers cost of materials. Sometimes it is a new market that has been opened. Sometimes it is that "big hit" that suddenly arrives and surprises everyone (businesses actually don't like the "big hit" - it really screws up their planning. If they say you are going to lose 3 million this year and you instead MAKE 3 million, you make them look like idiots, and you will be punished accordingly).

But much of the time, it comes down to manpower reduction. Layoffs. And if you're talking about a creative industry with a in-house creative staff (a rarity, by the way), that will involve removing some of the same talent that has gotten you there in the first place.

In particular the old guys. Now, you will see early layoffs when companies get into this downward spiral where they lay the new guys off, the equivalent of eating the seed corn, But when you can lay one guy off instead of two, its a better idea. And ditching a veteran frees up more investment.

And for the long-term employed, here's the warning sign. After a slew of good reviews and standard raises, you get a warning flag. Nothing major, but a mild disapproval in your performance. Congratulations, you've gotten as much salary as they want to give you, and you have pitched over into a new box - candidates for dismissal. It is not even a case of what have you done for us recently; It is just looking at your cost as a healthy target to make the division more profitable.

And here's the thing about corporate life - the guys who set the budgets don't hate you (heck, they probably don't even know you) - they are just laying out the numbers. And the guy you're working for doesn't hate you (well, maybe he does - if you left him stranded by not refilling the coffee machine). No, he's just bound by making the best of a horrible set of choices. Someone has to go, and you're suddenly not an asset, you're an expense.

And this is one of the things about corporations you may have noticed. The blame is spread about. Nobody has to take the fall. Heck, your immediate boss may like you and think you're contributing, and STILL have to lay you off. Its just the numbers.

As a digression, one of the things I really love about losing your job in today's America is that "Your position has been eliminated". This is the corporate version of "Its not you, it's me." It's not like you haven't been doing your job or your didn't refill the coffee maker, it's just we showed up one morning, and your position? It's gone! Vanished! Gone in the night! And we don't hate you. We hate your job. You probably hate your job too. See? We're on the same side!

OK, fine, but why Christmas? Because corporations also drag their feet. Inertia is a powerful thing, particularly when you have do something rotten like deciding who gets shown the door. So things go through a lot more processes than they intend. So if your budgetary process starts in June with the end of Fiscal in December, and you try to find some way to make the numbers work without canning someone, you wait for it. Maybe things will work out. And when they don't you have to make the tough decisions late in the year. Multiply that desire and hope against all the layers involved in the task of removing people and you can see why it happens so late in the year. Merry Christmas.

What it all boils down to is a mistake at the very start of the process. The budgets have to work and the bottom line has to be determined. And all this has to make the shareholders happy. For the most part, these shareholders are faceless (and in the case of investment portfolios, inhuman) entities that supposedly only care about maximizing their investments. Actually, when you talk to THEM they never told anyone to fire anyone, either. They just want to get their money's worth.

So what needs to change (and I have seen it happen in places) is to not think about shareholders but about STAKEholders. These are the people with a stake in the company, which includes the monetary stake of investors the effort of employees, and the interests of consumers.In the hobby game market, you may not have a SHARE of WotC, but a fan of the games, you have a STAKE in WotC. You want to see it succeed. Oddly, so do the shareholders, management, and employees (See! We're on the same side!")

Now the whole argument of stakeholders versus shareholders is not a panacea. Instead it is a guarantee of ongoing discussion as all the contributors vie for the returns that they seek (investors want value, the employees want security, and the consumers want product, but this are very broad statements). It is going to be more of a rugby scrum than a stately procession, which bothers the hell out anyone who likes an organizational tree. But I think it produces a better result.

I have sympathy for those who were let go. For older creatives, this leave-taking comes with compensation, and enough time to figure out the next move (You have a new job - that job is finding a new job). In our field, you also get the joy of reading your own eulogies - people who have beating on you in the forums for years will suddenly pronounce you a genius. You get to walk around for a few weeks saying things like "Apres moi, le deluge", and "The living will envy the dead". And you get to engage in a bit of gallows humor (the title of this article is the answer to an old joke: What is the difference between TSR and the Titanic?).

But it really doesn't make up for the sudden lack of security, the absence of a long-term paycheck and health care. And as long as the dedication of any company is ultimately to its shareholders and its bottom line, its employees and other stakeholders who are left out of that calculation should treat it with the suspicion and wariness that its deserves.

More later,

Monday, December 12, 2011

Company Picture

Here's the ArenaNet company photo. The stylish guy in the center rocking the black A.R.E.N.A soccer shirt is our boss, Mike O'Brien. I'm off to the right side, about three rows back, in the Hawaiian shirt. My eyes are closed from the flash.

More later.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Meanwhile, in the early 1600s

Still buried, but that's no reason you guys should suffer. Here, have a rendition of "Who's on First" done in the Shakespearean fashion. It is written by Jay Leibowitz and David Foubert and directed by Jason King Jones. The video breaks up a bit at the end, but the sound is still good.

More later,

Monday, December 05, 2011

Meanwhile, on Cap Hill ...

I'm very busy with a number of things, but offer this while I am wrestling with other commitments.

Original creator unknown, but the statue itself is by Daryl Smith. Thanks to Learsfool for sending this.

More later. No, really.