Seven years ago, when I founded The Julia Group, I submitted a grant proposal to develop an online algebra course.

After 18 years of writing grant proposals for universities, tribal councils and other organizations, I wrote one just for me, for something that was near and dear to my heart.

I know that developing educational technology to reduce disparities in mathematics achievement doesn’t have the sexiest ring to it as a life goal.

Still, the fact is, whether you graduate from high school or not has a great impact on your probability of success in America, by just about any definition.

I believe math is important and performing poorly in math in middle school is where many people start to veer off the path to success, even more often for low-income and minority students.

I said that if it didn’t get funded, I would try again until I eventually got to do this project.

The agency hated my proposal. They gave it a really low score and it didn’t get funded. They said I didn’t have experience developing online courses, nor adequate partnerships with educational institutions.

I tried again with another agency, proposing to develop a bilingual game to teach mathematics to students with special needs, like learning disabilities. This agency hated my proposal, too. They said trying to teach mathematics and English and special education all at once was too much. They said a bunch of other discouraging words. It was not Home on the Range.

I talked to some people I knew at tribal colleges and on reservation school boards and they were convinced that it was important to intervene before algebra, starting with basic mathematics operations and particularly emphasizing fractions.

About the time I found out my proposal wasn’t funded, I took a job at a university where The Perfect Jennifer decided to get a masters and a teaching credential. Since they offered free tuition, I was there for about two years.

I worked on some other proposals to develop online courses for professional development. These did get funded.

If you looked at me in 2011 or s0, you might say I’d given up on the idea, that I’d quit.

Splash Screen

In 2012, I submitted a grant to make educational games to teach math. It was funded and we developed the prototype for Spirit Lake: The Game.

In 2013, I submitted two more proposals. One was funded and we built out Spirit Lake to a commercial version, created Fish Lake and, along with help from a Kickstarter campaign, finished the beta version for Forgotten Trail.

In 2014, I submitted another proposal, for a bilingual game. This was funded and the prototype of Aztech Games will be done in about a month.

Someone said to me today that game design is “not about budgets and deadlines”. In a way, it is, though. You need money to pay people to do sound, art, coding, marketing. You can’t do it all yourself, and yes, you can do a kind of cool game with ASCII art, but not that many people are going to be playing it in 2015.

In 2008, when I took that job at the university, you might have thought,

“Oh, she quit. She gave up on her dream.”

Nope. I was always working on it, sometimes in the background, building up skills, experience and partnerships. Sometimes, working on proposals that didn’t seem to go anywhere.

The educational games we do now are a shift from an online high school algebra course, but they are addressing the same needs in a somewhat similar way. Reducing disparities in mathematics achievement is still near and dear to my heart.

Here is a really funny thing – even when I was working full-time doing something else for years, I never got discouraged. I figured I would just keep working and eventually get to where I wanted to be one way or the other.

So, there you have it, Mama AnnMaria’s advice for the night: Quitting doesn’t have to be final.

— Support our company, buy 7 Generation Games for Christmas –

If you buy a game this month, we’ll throw in the beta of Forgotten Trail for free.

Boy walking in rain

You can also donate to a classroom. Give your mom a sponsored school for Christmas. She really doesn’t want another fruit basket. Honest.

Twice in the last week, I’ve had people say to me, expecting agreement,

Winners never quit. You know that, right? You’ve won a world championships, founded several companies, earned a Ph.D. You never would have done that if you quit.

I would like to go on record with my opinion.

That idea that winners never quit is complete and total bullshit.

I have accomplished a lot of things in my life and it would never have happened if I hadn’t quit other things.

  • I started out as an Urban Studies major. I quit that and got a BSBA in business instead, where I was required to take Calculus and a couple of programming courses, market research and took an elective in statistics … all of which sparked my interest in software development, statistics and mathematics, which led to the career I have now. If I had followed the never quit mantra, I’d probably be a city planner.
  • I had a job as an industrial engineer that I liked a lot. I quit that to take a job teaching computer classes in the corporate training department, because I wanted to live in the same city as my second husband. Then, because I really didn’t like that job, I quit it and got a Ph.D.
  • I quit the marriage to my first husband and I am 100% certain that both he and I are much happier as a result. I certainly would not have had The Perfect Jennifer, Darling Daughter Number Three and The Spoiled One if I had stayed married. I doubt I would have gotten a Ph.D. or started a business.
  • I quit competing in judo after I won the world championships. I had other things I wanted to do in life – have more children, get more education, start a business. I ignored everyone’s advice that I would regret it forever if I did not stick it out four more years and go to the Olympics. They were all wrong. I have not regretted it for one second.
  • I quit my full-time job as an Associate Professor and moved to California to marry The Invisible Developer and start a business.
  • I quit in the middle of a research grant to take a job that paid me a lot more money. Then, I quit that job for one that paid even more THEN, I quit that one to work for a university that paid diddly squat but gave free tuition to my children. If I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have been able to pay for Darling Daughter Number One to attend a university that costs slightly more than buying an entire small town, nor for Darling Daughter Number Three to train for the Olympics, nor The Perfect Jennifer to attend graduate school.
  • Then, I quit the university because, did I mention my annual salary was approximately diddly squat?

If I hadn’t done that all of that,  I would never have co-founded Spirit Lake Consulting, Inc., never founded The Julia Group, never co-founded 7 Generation Games, never written grants for tens of millions of dollars that paid for college scholarships, tutors for high school students, substance abuse counseling, vocational rehabilitation, development of online courses and educational software.

I’m pretty certain that everything I accomplished in life has come about because I DID quit a lot of things when they were no longer rewarding, productive or the right choice for me.

Yes, there are people who give up at the first sign of difficulty, and this is a mistake.

There are also people who go down the wrong path for far too long.

In fact, you cannot pursue an infinite number of opportunities. It would be nice if a new opportunity presented itself exactly when you had finished the previous one, if there were no dead ends and never a need to make adjustments in plans, but that’s not how the world works.

There is also the possibility that quitting is not final – but that’s a post for another day.

—– Check out games that make you smarter

For you (everyone could use a little break), your family or donate to a program you love.

kids playing our game

I try not to be a hypocrite, so after a long talk this week with someone about the importance of admitting mistakes and not continuing to go down the wrong path, I sat down and asked myself,

Self? What mistakes have I made?

Certainly, if you can’t see any mistakes you have made, you are delusional, because everyone makes mistakes. I think the biggest, stupidest mistake I made for many years was feeling like I always had to be the smartest person in every room and everyone had to know it, by God. This was stupid for a lot of reasons. Let me enumerate them for you.

  1. I missed out on making some good friends. I worked at universities much of my life with really smart people. I was so busy trying to prove how smart I was, that statistics was harder than history or some stupid nonsense, that I missed the opportunity to get to know those people better. When I look back and think about some of my former colleagues, I think, damn, Dr. X was pretty nice and interesting. If I hadn’t been so intent on proving I was smarter, we could have had some good conversations.
  2. It hurt my career. No matter how good you are at programming, statistics, grant writing, whatever, no one wants to work with a jerk. Yes, maybe Billy Bob wasn’t as good at something, didn’t go to as good of a school, didn’t write as many articles as me. So damn what? What was the point of constantly bringing it up so I could feel like I was winning? I never got fired from anything, but I’m sure I would have gotten promoted faster if I was better at getting along with people when I was young.
  3. I was being a jerk. What if I was right and Billy Bob was marginal at his job and I was super-amazing? Again, so damn what? He had a job. He was there before me. Who died and left me the God of pointing out everyone’s inadequacies? What did I expect people to do, pass out little post-it notes to me when I came in every day saying that I win and everyone else in the department should bow down before me because I brought in $ 6 million in grant funding this year?
  4. I was often wrong. Sometimes I really was the smartest person in the room. More often than not, though, there were a lot of really smart people and some of them knew more than me about certain things and less about others. Once I finally learned to shut up and listen, I learned a lot more.

I thought I would pass along this bit of knowledge because it was a hard, painful lesson. I had my reasons for always feeling that I had to prove myself, and if you are in the same situation, I bet that you do, too.

There wasn’t a particular day when I woke up and thought, “I’m acting like an ass and I should just stop.”

Oddly, (or maybe not), the more I actually accomplished, the less I felt I had to prove I was smart, competent, whatever.

I married well – twice. You might think that I mean I was married to people who continually reinforced me, told me how brilliant I am. You’d be wrong.

Both my late husband and The Invisible Developer had this in common – they (felt) feel comfortable in their own competence. They don’t have to put anyone else down to feel important. They don’t need anyone else to tell them they are brilliant.

That’s why it’s called SELF-confidence and SELF-esteem. You get it from yourSELF .

Role modeling. After living with someone for years who was brilliant and didn’t at all feel the need for EVERYONE to acknowledge it, maybe some of that just kind of wore off.

So, anyway, that is the biggest mistake I think I made over the years. I’m probably doing something equally stupid now that I can’t see, but five years from now, I will look back and wonder what the hell was I thinking.


My day job:

I make adventure games that teach stuff.

burning village

You should buy one.

If you’re already smart enough, donate one to a school, so we can all be as smart as you.

Thirty years ago, I was a wet-behind-the-ears young industrial engineer working at General Dynamics. The production line had been shut down a couple of times in the past few months and I was sent to investigate. I met with the division manager and he told me that  they had run out of material X, a small amount of which was used on each missile. So, all the workers on the line were sent home until more X was procured, and since we were a union shop, they were all paid for the day. He explained that X had a very short shelf life.

I asked him,

How much does it cost? So what if it expires and we have to throw some away? Wouldn’t that be cheaper than sending everyone home?

He replied,

I don’t know but it must be very expensive, otherwise, they wouldn’t be always cutting it so close and sometimes running out of it.

I concurred that he was probably right but recommended he check. So, just to placate the silly young woman (women engineers were even more of a rarity back then) the manager called in some ordering clerk from inventory control and asked just how much was material X anyway. The clerk went to a terminal and looked it up.

Five dollars each, sir.

The manager looked a bit surprised at the low cost.

Five dollars an ounce?

The clerk shook his head,

No, sir. Five dollars a gallon.

I will admit that I did not help the situation at this point by bursting out laughing.

It was what happened next, and later, that was really interesting. He proceeded to yell, swear at and berate that clerk up and down. The clerk was a middle-aged man who was kind of a mousy guy to begin with. He was on the verge of tears before it was over and ran out of the office.

I looked the manager in the eye and said,

You had no right to treat that man the way you did. He was just doing his job. There is an inventory control system with a program that determines lead times and orders. You didn’t think to ask how much material X cost, either.  Regardless, no one should be talked to the way you just did. You owe him an apology.

He looked at him and snarled,

Who the hell do you think you are? I run this place and you’re just a little piss-ant engineer.

I told him,

Maybe so, but I’m right and you’re wrong.

I went off to my next meeting. Several hours later, the same manager and I happened to be walking next to each other through the same plant. We walked by Mr. Mouse and he looked like he wanted to duck behind the nearest plank mills. The manager walked over to him, cleared his throat and said,

I just wanted to apologize to you for the way I acted earlier. You were just doing your job and I was wrong to blow up like that. In the future, though, I would like to be sure that we don’t run out of X because it shuts the line down. If it hurts your performance numbers in inventory control or something like that, just go ahead and charge any expired product you have to throw away to my department.

Then, he shook the man’s hand, and walked away, leaving Mouse staring after him with a stunned look on his face.

He fell back in step with me – we were heading to the same meeting, and I turned around and said,


I’m really impressed, Mr. Rousey. It takes a strong man to admit that he was wrong.

Yes, that was Ron Rousey. Even though at that moment my opinion of him started to turn around, the feeling was not mutual. He told me later he thought I was a conceited smart ass who made him look bad in front of his crew by laughing at him, didn’t know that it wasn’t my place to talk back to him and that he could not believe that I was not impressed by his professional accomplishments but that apologizing to some guy who was scared of his own shadow earned my respect. He must have got over it, though, because a few years later, we were married.

I was thinking about this today because it occurred to me that probably everyone could have a better life by admitting faults and mistakes. If you don’t admit that you are wrong, you are going to continue to make the same mistakes and have the same problems.

It occurred to me because it brought to mind a mistake I made for many years …

… but for that you will have to wait for my next blog post.

—– Play our games while you are waiting —

Forgotten Trail

Special bonuses: If you buy Spirit Lake or Fish Lake this month we will give YOU a free game, Forgotten Trail, and we’ll donate a game to a school as well.

Ironically, just after posting that I was going to get back to blogging, and my first post back on how grateful I am, I got really sick, didn’t do anything, fell behind at work and so didn’t do any blogging while I caught up.

So, here we are again and now I am really grateful that I’m not sick.

Recently, I went full circle, spending two days in San Diego, where my first daughter was born and where I moved away from thirty-one years ago, to attend a soccer tournament for my fourth daughter.

Julia in San Diego

It’s been an eventful year. We received our third research grant, completed our second Kickstarter and our first accelerator program. Raised our first seed round.

Thirty-one years ago, I was an industrial engineer at General Dynamics. I’d just won the world judo championships. I’d also just gotten divorced. That was an eventful year, too.

You’d think after all this eventfulness I would have figured this whole life thing out. To some extent, I think maybe I have.

I have worked full-time since I was 15 years old, much of that time either going to school full-time, competing as an international athlete or working a second (third) job.

One thing it took me an unreasonably long amount of time to figure out was this:

The work will always be there. The time will never come that at the end of the day you say, “That’s it. My work here is done. I’m finished.”

Do a reasonable amount of hard work. Then quit worrying about it.

You are not going to run out of work. Don’t think you have to take every contract that comes across your desk, accept every job offer, even if it requires you to work until midnight six days a week. There may be intervals, say,  when you need to do that to pay for your child’s college education or found a startup but those should be INTERVALS in your life, not your whole life.

You are never going to be good as you want to be. Even if I knew everything possible to know about a software language, I still wouldn’t be satisfied. There would be another language that I didn’t know.

Enjoy the accomplishments. We were standing in line in a restaurant in San Diego when I just happened to glance at the jacket my lovely daughter had borrowed from me. It had a the logo of a tribal radio station on the back. I commented, “That radio station exists because I wrote the grant to fund it. It’s been there for years.” There are a lot of programs and products that exist because I wrote the grant, wrote the code, designed the program. The second each is over, I forget about it and go on to the next one. I’m learning to pause every now and then, pat myself on the back and say, “That came out well.”

stack of fishCheck out Fish Lake and Spirit Lake – What I’m working on now. If you buy a copy, you’ll get a free license for Forgotten Trail thrown in.

Strive to be better. Don’t strive for perfection or you’ll just make yourself crazy.


It’s been a pleasure speaking to groups around North Dakota this past week, in part because I was asked a lot of intelligent questions, which really forced me to think about the answers.

snow on fields

One young woman asked how I maintained a positive attitude when times were difficult, when my husband died, when there is a seeming unending pile of work to do, when my children are heading in what I think is the wrong direction.

The answer is that I try every day to wake up grateful, and it really is pretty easy if you are realistic and honest about your situation.

Read any history book – and not ancient history, either – about people breaking the film of ice on the pan of water IN THEIR HOUSE, as they started their day, to wash clothes or make coffee.

Even today, people wake up sleeping under bridges, on the ground in refugee camps. I’ve lived in old houses where the wind blows through cracks in the winter.

North Dakota is cold and for almost the entire history of the world there wasn’t much anyone could do about it. Yes, people discovered fire, hunted, had deer skins, tipis. However, it was nothing like the last few days when I woke up every morning, warm and comfortable, in well-insulated houses, on soft mattresses under a pile of quilts.

Being at Minot State University reminded me of my own graduate school days at the University of Minnesota. They had tunnels under the campus, connecting buildings, for which I was extremely grateful because I was a broke, graduate student and I didn’t have enough money to buy a lot of warm clothes. Any time I had to go outside between buildings, I was SO cold.

These days, buying long underwear, gloves, warm coats, is something I don’t even give a thought. If I need it, I get it. Half the clothes I didn’t even buy – my daughters gave me sweaters and coats for Christmas or because they had more than they could use.

Maybe you think it’s silly to wake up grateful that I have warm clothes and a soft bed in a warm house, but I think it’s objective. There was a point in my life when I had neither. Most of the people who ever lived on this earth had nowhere near the level of comfort that I wake up to every day. If they (or me, decades ago), could be magically picked up and dropped into my life, their first thought on waking up would be,

“Oh my God, this is amazing!”

After laying in bed with that thought for a few minutes, I get out of bed.

Years ago, a friend of mine was in college and had an old, beat up car that leaked oil on to the street where it was parked, which, for some reason annoyed her elderly neighbor. When we returned from a trip overseas competing for the U.S., there was a notice on her car – the neighbor had reported the car as abandoned and we got home just in time to stop the city from towing it away. As a joke, the coach got her a bumper sticker that read, “This is not an abandoned vehicle.”

old car

It’s almost two weeks since I last posted. Contrary to appearances, this is not an abandoned blog!

I just this minute – hurray, tap-dancing – submitted a grant I’ve been working on for the past two weeks.

Girl on TV playing game

While writing the grant this week, I’ve been in North Dakota, first giving a presentation on Using Native American Culture to Increase Math Performance. You can see a bit of it that was shown on the local TV station here.

meeting students

After meeting lots of students at Minot State, we headed over to the Minot Job Corps and I met with students and faculty, talking about our games, starting a company and life in general.

On  to New Town, on the Fort Berthold Reservation where I met with the staff and students from the Boys and Girls Club, again, gave demonstrations of our games, and threw a judo demonstration in along with it.

armbarring at Boys and Girls club Along there somewhere, I finished the final report on our Dakota Math project that once again found significant improvement in performance of students who played our games, hired two more employees, signed another consulting contract,  had way too many meetings and squashed a few bugs in the games.

Tomorrow, I head home to Santa Monica, for two weeks, until I head out to Fort Totten, ND. In the meantime, I’m back to blogging. Did you miss me?


If you want to see what I’m working on these days, you can check it out here:

Sam is running

If you buy a game this week, we’ll throw in a beta release of Forgotten Trail for free!



The results are in! The chart below gladdens my little heart, somewhat.

Graph showing significant improvement from pretest to posttest

One thing to note is the fact that the 95% confidence interval is comfortably above zero. Another point is that it looks like a pretty normal distribution.

What is it? It is the difference between pretest and post-test scores for 71 students at two small, rural schools who played Spirit Lake: The Game.

I selected these schools to analyze first, and held my breath. These were the schools we had worked with the most closely, who had implemented the games as we had recommended (play twice a week for 25-30 minutes). If it didn’t work here, it probably wasn’t going to work.

Two years ago, with a sample of 39 students from 4th and 5th grade from one school, we found a significant difference compared to the control group.


You probably don’t feel nervous reading that statement because you have not spent the last three years of your life developing games that you hope will improve children’s performance in math.

The answer, at least for the first group of data we have analyzed is – YES!

Scores improved 20% from pre-test to post-test. This was not as impressive as the improvement of 30% we had found in the first year, but this group also began with a substantially higher score. Two years ago, the average student scored 39% on the pre-test. This year, for 71 students with complete data, the average pre-test score was 47.9% , the post-test mean was 57.4%.   I started this post saying my little heart was gladdened “somewhat” because I still want to see the students improve more.

There is a lot more analysis to do. For a start, there is analysis of data from schools who were not part of our study but who used the pretest and post-test – with them, we can’t really tell how the game was implemented but at least we can get psychometric data on the tests.

We have data on persistence – which we might be able to correlate with post-test data, but I doubt it, since I suspect students who didn’t finish the game probably didn’t take the post-test.

We have data on Fish Lake, which also looks promising.

Overall, it’s just a great day to be a statistician at 7 Generation Games.

buffalo in the winter

Here is my baby, Spirit Lake. It can be yours for ten bucks. If you are rocking awesome at multiplication and division, including with word problems, but you’d like to help out a kid or a whole classroom, you can donate a copy.

Over the weekend, I wrote a post showing how SAS can be used to make what appears to be a complex problem quite simple.

First of all, am I just being dramatic? Seriously, how can having your variable lengths differ be a disaster?

Simple. You are merging by a variable that is a unique user identifier like username, social security number. Because the two different data sets have different lengths, they do not match. If you are computing the number of unique users you may overestimate by a huge amount. If you want the number of people who are in both data sets, you may vastly underestimate the amount of true matches.

As with anything in programming, there are many ways to do this. My solution is to create a new variable and set it to the identical length and format using the ATTRIB statement. Extra bonus is this will work when you have variables that are not only different lengths but different types, say character in one data set and numeric in the other.

You really only need two statements in your data step, an ATTRIB statement and then an assignment statement that sets the value of the variable you created to whatever the variable is you want to merge.

DATA dsname ;
ATTRIB newvar LENGTH = $49 ;
SET mydata2.dsname ;
newvar = oldvar ;
Repeat this step for the second data set and then merge (or concatenate) to  your little heart’s delight.

Angry guard faceThe voice of experience: 
Notice two things here:  I created a temporary data set from my permanent one. Although SAS has gotten more forgiving over the years in not writing over your existing data sets when there is an error, it is still better to err on the side of caution and make sure all is wonderful before saving over that existing data, especially if it took you a lot of effort to get the data in that form.
Second, I created a new variable and kept the old one as is. I don’t always do this but it is good practice. You may be tempted to just use the first 9 digits because we all know social security numbers are 9 digits and then later you find that it was entered as 123-45-6789  and now you only have 123-45-67

—- Feel smarter after reading this blog?

Fish Lake artwork

Want to feel even smarter? Download and play our games!  You can run around in our virtual world while reviewing your basic math skills. If you are too busy (seriously?) you can still give a game as a gift or donate a game to a classroom or school.

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