Sunday, December 14, 2014

Sometimes the best time to make a difference is now

Maybe it is running a start-up gaming company, which can feel like it is consuming my life, but I often find myself feeling like I am wasting time when I am not working - coding, marketing, meeting with artists, preparing pitches for funding, testing.

This weekend I spent two days with the students from Gompers Middle School judo program, from south Los Angeles. Yesterday, Ronda was on the mat teaching, along with Richard Elizalde from New Breed Jiujitsu and UCLA Judo, Josh Rodriguez from Mojica Judo and Mark Hidalgo.
Today, Victor Ortiz (the judo one, not the boxing one) and I were teaching.

When I start thinking I don't have time for this, I ask myself why I am so committed to making 7 Generation Games a success. I suppose venture capitalists want to hear that we want to make A LOT of money. (Our Chief Marketing Officer tells me, yes, we want to make A LOT of money.) Why, though? I'm not that into stuff.

For me, making a lot of money is necessary so that we can make more games, better games, that help people learn, and not just little kids, either. Millions of people are held back in this country because they are not good enough at math, reading or writing to get a job, or get a better job. You can't affect millions of people around the country on $312.86 .

Still, it's worth stopping some days and looking at the people right in front of me. Weekends like these, which we try to do two or three times a year, are an advantage for our Gompers kids, whether they realize it or not.

They get to just be kids for a few days and not worry about anything.

They get to meet people from lots of different clubs from all over Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, or, at some events, from all over the U.S.

We keep the program purposely small - currently 17 of 16 available spots are filled. Yes, the math does not work out, but José Gonzalez, our teacher supervisor from the school is a social studies teacher (-;  Thank you to generous support from Dollamur Mats and Universal Studios, we have just been able to buy 10 more mats, which will let us expand to 22 of 20 spots.

Often, the "good kids" that are quiet, do their school work and stay out of trouble are overlooked while teachers deal with the students who are disruptive or failing.  With a program like our judo class, there are usually four adults on the mat, giving us a ratio of 4 teachers to each student. Similarly, at the away events, we have a chaperone for every 3-4 students.

This gives each student a load of time to talk about what is going on in school, get nagged by me about any grade less than an A, get advised on charter or magnet high schools where they can apply, complain about anything that is on their minds.

While the budget is always being supplemented by me personally (that is where my book royalties are going) and by Ronda, between that and generous donations we are able to provide each student good experiences like a team dinner at Rainforest Cafe, a plane ticket to Kansas City. Of course, not every student can participate in everything, but keeping the program small provides more resources for each student.

It's like with parenting. You can talk all you want about quality time but what kids really benefit from is great, big heaps of quantity time. If a student goes to every practice and event during the year, they will spend over 200 hours with us.

As I have said before, the purpose of the Gompers Judo program is not to run through hundreds of kids so we can find one or two with a shot at the Olympic team. It is to give every kid in the room a better shot at life.

Speaking of games, if you are in a giving or learning spirit, for every game you buy this month, 7 Generation Games will donate one to a school. Or, you can donate two if you are feeling particularly generous. I'd suggest you download and play the game yourself, though. It's fun. It will give you a taste for what our next game coming out next month is like - it's three times as cool.

Or, if you want to buy Winning on the Ground, not only do the royalties go toward our team dinner every year, but you can also learn some matwork and get some good training ideas.
The photo above is from one of our first drafts of Winning on the Ground when our models were goofing off. If you look closely you can see how hard Crystal is trying not to bust out laughing.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Why I Don't "Just Ask My Daughter"

I run a company that makes games to teach math. They are also really fun. You can try a demo here, but trust me, the ones that are in the works are even better in every way.

Whenever we are doing a Kickstarter campaign, looking for people to donate games for schools (or food for the world food programme, for that matter), or

 just running a Christmas special on our site, it doesn't matter, someone is sure to ask, whether sneering or seriously,

Why don't you just ask your daughter for money? Isn't she making lots of money?

Here are two cautionary tales for you:

Tyron Smith, a football player, reportedly had over $1 million taken by his family  through a financial advisor they recommended. That is in dispute. What is not disputed is that he bought his mom a Range Rover, paid off all of his parents debts and was in the process of buying them a house when he finally said, "Enough".

Then, there is Jack Johnson, the hockey player whose parents shockingly not only spent all of his millions he earned but also borrowed against his future earning.

I don't know what the hell these families were thinking. Maybe they were too greedy or stupid to realize that professional athletes usually make that money for a very short window of time.

Maybe they don't realize that over a third of that money goes out the door in taxes as soon as it comes in.

People who ask me that question seriously either don't have children or just asked without giving it much thought. As a parent, you don't want to use your children for your own benefit, you want to guide them in the direction that benefits them.

Ronda gets pitched to invest every time she turns around. Because I do have a business background, her accountant and I team up to nag her to pay her taxes early, put money in a retirement account and don't go crazy spending money. She lives in a nice, two-bedroom house. Because both professional sports and acting are uncertain professions, she's much better off being conservative.

Maria, the oldest daughter, spent a decade reporting on sports. She's written enough stories about bankrupt athletes to add her own note of caution. It doesn't last forever.

As for the family, we all pay our own debts and the only car anyone has gotten is the 2005 Honda Accord that Ronda gave Julia for her 16th birthday this year. We all know that was because Ronda was too sentimental to sell it, but Julia is pleased to have a car to terrorize the Santa Monica residents as she practices driving. I even pay my own way to the fights (although I do get a free ticket).

I think 7 Generation Games is a good company with potential to be amazingly successful in the next few years and who knows, maybe Ronda will be so rich down the line that a few hundred thousand will be pocket change and we'll take an investment from her.

I rather doubt it, though, and here is the main reason why ... because if is ever necessary I can say with a clear conscience,

"You shouldn't buy that $5 million house."


"Don't give money to your friend Luigi to invest in a Mario Brothers themed porn shop. It's a bad idea."

without having her come back with,

"Oh, but it was okay when I gave money for YOUR company."

My point, which you no doubt have despaired of me having, is that it's important for there to be at least one person without an ulterior motive to call it as she sees it.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to get back to work.

----------Shameless Plug --------
Great Christmas Gift - Winning on the Ground

Also on Amazon

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.