The Downside of Kickstarter Part II

A little over two years ago I wrote a blog post titled The Downside of Kickstarter, wherein I described a Kickstarter campaign that was a deliberate ruse to scam investors. I won't go into all the details, because you can read that post in its entirety if you're curious, but here's the summary: it's pretty easy for a swindler to create a Kickstarter campaign for a startup company with no intention of providing any reward for his/her investors. (To this day I fail to realize why these hucksters are not guilty of mail fraud, wire fraud, and/or conspiracy to commit fraud.) But there is one thing that I should repeat from my previous post about the way that Kickstarter works for investors:

"Participation on Kickstarter is simple: you pick a project you think looks appealing, and then you choose the level of your pledge to help bring that project to life. Depending on how much you give, you generally get something in return - which is typically the completed product before it is released to market."

Having said that, here are the details for another situation that took place recently. A few years ago I pledged to a campaign that was seeking to create a new type of mirror for bicyclists (see Sehen for the details). As an avid cyclist who has nearly been killed on several occasions by careless motorists, I was intrigued by this company's mirror design. In the interests of full disclosure - I received my "backer reward" a long time ago, and I must admit - the Sehen mirror was a much better design than other mirrors that I had tried. However, I received my reward so long ago that I thought the campaign had ended successfully, and I wasn't aware that I was one of the minority of investors who received a reward.

With that in mind, I was somewhat shocked when I saw the following video on YouTube from Arkady Borys, who founded the startup company that created the cycling mirror.

Despite the fact that Arkady's video was the most-detailed explanation that I have seen for any Kickstarter campaign of where the money went and what went wrong, several of his backers were still screaming for "refunds" and calling this a "scam." With that in mind, I wanted to offer some additional perspectives about what it means to back a Kickstarter campaign.

As I have explained elsewhere, Kickstarter is not a product catalog - it is a business investment. When you are pledging for a campaign, you are not buying a product - you are investing in a startup company that is attempting to bring a new product to market. Each startup offers several rewards to their backers/investors, with the understanding that each backer/investor will receive their rewards ONLY if the company succeeds. When backers submit pledges for a campaign, they agree in the terms and conditions that they might not receive a backer reward if the company fails, and if so - the manufacturer is only required to provide an explanation of what happened.

Think of it this way: let's say that you were walking by a new restaurant that was still being built, and you decided to stop by for a few minutes and give the new owners $50 to help them get started after they promised that they would try to serve you a free lunch some day in the future. However, their business folded before they could make good on their promise, and they sent you a text message to let you know why they wouldn't be able to honor their part of the deal. That sort of situation would essentially be the same thing as backing a Kickstarter campaign for a legitimate startup company that fails to bring their product to market despite their best efforts.

In the specific case of the Sehen campaign, backers weren't buying a product from Arkady; backers were helping Arkady launch a company. He tried, and he failed. Unfortunately, that happens every day with small startups.

For what it's worth, I have invested in several Kickstarter campaigns, and a few haven't come to fruition - that happens from time to time. In a few of those situations, the startup provided some sort of cheesy "We ran out of money" explanation, and that's all that the backers will ever see of their investment. On the contrary, the explanation that Arkady provided in his video was extremely detailed, and he takes full ownership for every bad decision that he made. In addition, he provides a great deal of behind the scenes information about the percentages of funds that were absorbed by Kickstarter and the other companies that were involved with launching in his campaign; that information was extremely useful for me to consider when I am deciding whether to back other campaigns in the future. Arkady's backers should be thankful that he took the time to provide them with as much information as he did, because it was far more information than he was required to give, and his video was a great deal more informative than other failed campaigns.

As I read the comments that were posted to Kickstarter after Arkady posted his video to YouTube, there were a few backers who were demanding that Arkady should refund any pledge funds that weren't used. Those people obviously didn't pay attention to the video; Arkady very clearly explained that 50% of the pledge funds were consumed by companies that were associated with launching the campaign (think of those as startup fees). After Kickstarter and the other campaign-related companies took their cuts, Arkady's company was given the remaining 50%, which was quickly spent on production costs for the product. Once Arkady's company ran out of money, they took a loan to keep going. Then another loan. Then another loan. In the end, there were was no money left to return to investors; all of the pledge money was spent a long time ago. With that in mind, my advice to backers who are still demanding that any unspent funds be returned to investors would be for them to spend 30 minutes of their time to watch Arkady's video and pay close attention to the details that he provides, because he explains everything.

In closing, I truly feel sorry for any backers/investors who did nor receive their rewards; and I don't mean to sound patronizing since I received mine. However, I think Arkady went above and beyond with regard to letting his backers/investors know exactly why they may never receive their rewards. It is unfortunate that this situation happened, but that is one of the risks that backers must be willing to take when investing in a startup business, and the losses that Arkady encountered are part of the risks that entrepreneurs must be willing to take when starting a new business.


POSTSCRIPT:

There is a sad epilogue to the story that that I told in my original Downside of Kickstarter post: after all of the public outcry that took place in the wake of that scam, it appears that the person who was behind the fraud, Brent Morgan, took his life. That news was extremely sad for me to hear. I will admit, I wanted "justice," but only in the sense that I wanted Mr. Morgan to face criminal charges in a court of law for defrauding his investors. However, it appears that his guilt was overwhelming for him, and I truly feel sorry for his family.

Flight Simulator 2020: First Impressions

I've been a fan of Microsoft Flight Simulator (MSFS) since it was first introduced. (Or even earlier if you count SubLogic Flight Simulator that preceded it.) I have owned every version of MSFS, and I usually rushed out to buy each version when it hit the stores.

flight-simulator-box-shots-mosaic

I would have to say, though, that my favorite version had been Flight Simulator X (FSX), which was released in 2006 - the levels of detail and realism were amazing. Unfortunately, FSX was the final version of MSFS. Microsoft chose to unceremoniously kill off MSFS in 2009, and like every other MSFS fanboy, I was quite upset to see it fade into the sunset. There were a few failed attempts to breathe life into the franchise via Microsoft's Flight and Steam's rerelease of Flight Simulator for their gaming platform, but each offering fell far short of the goal.

fsx-box

Needless to say, I was thrilled when I heard the news that Microsoft was reviving the series with Flight Simulator 2020, which promised unbelievable video quality and unparalleled realism. As I had done with every previous version of MSFS, I bought FS2020 on the day of its release and installed it immediately. As soon as the installation was done, I launched the application to see - nothing. MSFS displayed a message to inform me that my GeForce 9800 GTX video card was not powerful enough to run FS2020.

This was disappointing, to say the least, but I wasn't too worried - because I had already purchased an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1070 video adapter for my computer. However, I had too many tasks competing for my limited time, so I had to delay the installation of my new video card. That being said - today was the day! I powered down my system, swapped out the old video card for the new card, and rebooted. As soon as the operating system was up and running, I launched FS2020 and was excited to see - nothing. Well, not exactly nothing; what I saw were two error messages:

msfs2020-connection-lost-please-ensure-you-have-an-internet-connection
Connection Lost - Please ensure you have an active internet
connection, and check the forums for additional information.

-and-

msfs2020-access-to-the-content-servers-is-unavailable
Access to the content servers is currently unavailable. Please
ensure you have an active internet connection, and try again later.
Please visit https://flightsimulator.zendesk.com/ for additional information.

Unfortunately, those error messages sent me into an endless loop that always resulted in my seeing these same messages again and again; and since there was no other way to exit the application, I had to hard kill FS2020 using the Windows Task Manager. I followed the advice from the error messages and I checked the forums, where I found the following two threads that described my exact situation:

I tried everything that was suggested in both of those threads (as well as suggestions from several other forum threads and blog posts), but so far - no luck. I still have yet to see anything from MSFS2020, but I'll keep looking.

Annoyed

With that in mind, here are my first impressions of Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020:

  • Game Experience = I have no idea. I have yet to see the actual game.
  • Installation Experience = terrible. The minimum requirements are excessive, and when an end user can't get a game to run as soon as they're done installing it, that's a catastrophic failure for which the game designer is solely responsible.
  • Troubleshooting Experience = terrible. End users are pretty much on their own when something fails. Microsoft's single troubleshooting recommendation is for users to check the forums, which is way below par for a major software product from a major software company.

On a related side note, I installed MSFS2020 using the Microsoft Store application for Windows 10. That app is relatively easy to use, but it could be a lot better in my opinion; I often find myself highly annoyed at how difficult it is to find apps that I know have been released and install them.

More 511th History: Memories of Border Duty on a Cold Winter's Day

I have a lot of interesting memories from my days on border duty during the waning days of the Cold War. To be honest, it was a strange time to be stationed in Germany. The "Bad Guys" across the border were still poised to attack at any time, and the "Good Guys" on our side of the border were still prepared to repel them if the balloon ever went up. When I am asked to describe what it was like to serve along the East German border, I generally characterize my experiences as a giant game of "Cat and Mouse" or "Hide and Seek." We spent a lot of time trying to figure out where the bad guys were and what they were doing, and the bad guys spent a lot of time trying to figure out where we were and what we were doing.

I have also explained that my time was generally broken down as follows: 95% boring, 4% interesting, and 1% terror. I can't really talk about the 1% terror, except to say that it was the most-addictive part of the job. Although, come to think of it - I can't really talk about the 4% interesting, either. Suffice it to say that the 5% of my job that wasn't boring can't be discussed until sometime after I'm dead, so don't bother asking. Seriously.

That leaves the 95% of my time that was boring, which is mostly open for discussion.

Here's the way that we typically operated along the border: we'd get a call at zero-dark-thirty that the bad guys might be up to something, and about 30 minutes after I got the call, our vehicles would be rolling out of the gates of our post and headed toward the border to determine whether the bad guys were up something that wasn't good. This meant that I kept all of my military gear fully loaded in the trunk of my car at all times, so when I got the call - all I had to do was throw on a uniform, jump in the car, and head off to post, where I would quickly dispatch my vehicle and pull it into place with the rest of the vehicles that were ready to deploy. It didn't matter how crappy the weather conditions were - it could be raining, snowing, or freezing - when we got the call, it was time to go. (Sometimes we would roll out to the border when the roads weren't safe enough for travel, which meant that we would have to remain on the border until the roads were safe to come home.)

East German Border in Winter

Depending on which border site we were deploying to, it might take a couple of hours to get to our location, where we would immediately set up all of the gear that was necessary to figure out what the bad guys were up to. As soon as everything was set up and configured, we'd start doing what we were trained to do, until such time as we were able to make a good/bad decision on what the bad guys were actually doing. If you weren't the soldier who was determining what the bad guys were doing, there were a host of other activities for you to do: pulling guard duty, setting up camouflage, encircling the operations area with concertina wire, or pulling radio watch. If you weren't doing any of those thingsā€¦ well, we had so few people in our platoon that you were pretty much guaranteed to be doing one of those assignments.

You'll notice that I didn't mention sleep, because for the first few days of any deployment there usually wasn't a lot of sleep happening. Most deployments started out with all hands on deck, because we were trying to determine the status of the bad guys. However, after a few days things would start to calm down, and then we'd allow people to rotate on and off for sleep. (I've mentioned it elsewhere that my personal record for lack of sleep was four days... at which point I began to hallucinate.)

However, at any time we could be ordered to "jump," which meant to pack up all our gear in a hurry and rapidly deploy somewhere else along the border. Our next location might be 30 minutes away, or it might be hours away - it depended on what needed to be done. The jump order could have been because the bad guys moved somewhere else and we needed to follow them, or it could have been because the location where we were situated wasn't yielding enough results to figure out what the bad guys were doing, or it could have been because some @#$% idiot in charge decided that it would be amusing to torture his troops, or for any number of other reasons.

I'll paraphrase Alfred Lord Tennyson to sum up how I felt about my situation:

Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldier knew.
Someone had blundered.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.

We weren't always required to jump during a border deployment; on many occasions business was good enough to stay in one place for the entire time we were working. However, there were other occasions when we would jump more than once, and I recall one especially heinous winter deployment where it seemed that we were jumping every other day. (Or perhaps we jumped every day... that deployment is kind of a blur now that I look back at it.)

I mentioned earlier that sleep was often hard to come by, and for this deployment that was especially true. It seemed that just as soon as we would get set up in a new location and start monitoring what the bad guys were doing, we would get the order to jump, and away we went. I also mentioned earlier that we had far too few people in our platoon, which had another detrimental effect on all of our jumps: we didn't have enough people for there to be a driver and assistant driver in every vehicle, which meant that I was on my own every time I climbed behind the wheel of my truck.

Let me paint a mental picture of what that was like: I hadn't had sleep in days. I was cold. I was hungry. I was tired. I missed my wife and kids. I hurt in places that I didn't know existed after hours of sitting on a seat that was made by the lowest bidder as I drove through mile after mile of snow-laden roads under overcast skies. Night and day had a way of devolving into a constant, dismal blur due to the odd hours working inside gear that had no windows to the outside world, and there was no easy way to tell if it was morning or evening due to the oppressive nature of the unyielding blockade of gray clouds that blotted out the sun. As we made our way from location to location, we often took farmroads that meandered through scores of tiny German villages and fields that were buried by snow. We soon had no earthly idea which way was north or south... our sole point of reference was that we were following the map, and the map never lied.

Since I had no one else to keep me sharp as I drove on in solitude, I had to come up with a way to keep my brain engaged - and my solution was simple: screaming. I spend a lot of time alone in the cab of my truck screaming in order to force my anatomy to kick in some adrenalin that would keep me going for another few minutes, then I'd start screaming again to repeat the process.

If all this detail sounds miserable, let me assure you - it was.

At some point during this deployment we were on the road, and as often the case - we were somewhere in the middle of nowhere. The snow had reduced traffic down to a single lane, which didn't impact our travel at all since the Germans had the good sense to stay home where it was warm. In hindsight, I'll be willing to bet most of the bad guys were lying at home in their cozy, warm beds, too. I think it was probably only our platoon that was wandering the German countryside at that hour. Nevertheless, I was exhausted, and my throat hurt from screaming - but I had to go on, because that was my job. And if I didn't do my job to the best of my ability, good people could get hurt by bad people, and so I kept driving.

East German Border in Winter

My truck was following closely behind one of our M113 Armored Personnel Carriers, and the M113's tank commander was a great guy: SPC Heggie. As miserable as I was, Heggie had it much worse. I had the relative privilege of sitting in the cab of my truck as we drove, whereas Heggie had to sit in the commander's seat of his tracked vehicle for the duration of our journey, which meant that his entire upper torso was fully exposed to the cold, winter air. He was bundled up in all his extreme cold weather gear: jacket, scarf, goggles, helmet, gloves, etc., even a facemask that was designed to stave off frostbite in arctic conditions. But despite all that cold weather gear, Heggie still had to brave the icy winds of a German winter for hours at a time. My situation may have sucked, but Heggie's situation sucked even more.

We had been driving like that for an indeterminate amount of time, when I saw Heggie turn around and look at me for a moment. At the time, I thought that he was checking to see that I was still there, and I hadn't fallen asleep and driven off the road somewhere. That thought seemed to be confirmed when Heggie turned his back on me again, but I saw him press the microphone on his helmet to his mouth, which meant that he was trying to talk to the M113 driver about something. Of course, in those conditions - with the wind and the face mask and the incredibly loud volume of driving a tracked vehicle on a road - Heggie wasn't "talking" so much as "yelling" to the driver in order to compensate for the lousy conditions.

Then I saw the strangest thing - the M113 made a quick shift to the right, then it straightened out again. This meant that the right track of the vehicle was now riding squarely on the shoulder of the road, and running over all of the white, meter-sized markers that lined the edge of the avenue. Our nicknames for these road markers were "Machts Nichts" poles, because - according to prevailing opinion - the Germans would shrug their shoulders and say, "Machts Nichts (no big deal)" if they discovered that one or two of these road markers had been destroyed. However, this wasn't one or two machts nichts poles - it was dozens of them. As the M113 drove over them, I saw pieces of white plastic and crushed wood flying up into the air behind the tracked vehicle - and I began to laugh. I laughed long and hard, as though this was the funniest thing that I had ever seen in my life. Oh, I'm sure that the depth of my reaction was due to how punchy I was with exhaustion, but still - that was just so darn funny. Words cannot express how much I enjoyed that spectacle.

After ten or twenty seconds, I watched Heggie press the microphone on his helmet to his mouth again, and the driver of the M113 quickly adjusted his course back onto the roadway. Heggie turned around in his commander's seat to look at me again, then he pulled his facemask and scarf out of the way so I could see his ear to ear grin. I exploded into laughter once more, then Heggie replaced his facemask and scarf and turned forward to face the icy winds of winter once again.

More than thirty years have passed since this brief episode unfolded on a dismal day in the middle of nowhere, but I remember it like it happened yesterday. And Heggie - he holds a special place in my thoughts of days gone by like some sort of mythic Norse hero. He made my day - and he probably kept me from crashing my vehicle due to exhaustion or the inescapable reality of my miserable circumstances.

I really needed that laugh. And you can't buy experiences like that for any amount of money.

Those who can - do. Those who can't - teach.

A few years ago I elected to take a class at the University of Arizona as a refresher for a programming language that I hadn't used in over a decade. I was originally self-taught in the language, and I knew that the language had evolved since I had last used it, so I thought that it would be worthwhile endeavor to study it formally.

The class was going well, but when I turned in one of my assignments, the professor had dropped my grade a full letter because - seriously - he didn't like my variable names. Being an adult - and not an 18-year-old that's fresh out of high school - I have no problems confronting an academic when I think they're incorrect. In addition, as someone who has been in the software industry for years, I have no problems calling BS when I think it's warranted.

I scheduled a time to meet with my professor, whereupon I told him that I thought he was wrong. All my variables were descriptive of their purpose, and I used a consistent format across the entire assignment. In addition, I wanted my grade restored.

The professor looked at me and said, "No one names variables like that."

I replied, "That's called 'Hungarian Notation.' It's a widely-used standard in the software industry."

He attempted to counter with, "That's outdated. No one uses that anymore."

To which I replied, "I work for Microsoft. We write millions of lines of code every day using that notation."

He grumbled a bit more, but eventually he acquiesced and restored my grade.

I later discovered that this particular professor earned his BS in Computer Science, then his Master's, then his Doctorate, and then went straight into teaching at higher education establishments. In other words, he's never worked a single day in the industry that he is teaching about, and yet somehow the software engineers of tomorrow are supposed to learn from him?