Minecraft Overdrive

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Few dispute that games mirror reality and that reality often resembles games. But the game of Minecraft takes this to new levels. And this is driving innovation. Here’s why:

Since its release seven years ago, Minecraft has become a global sensation, captivating a generation of children. There are over 100 million registered players, and it’s now the third-best-­selling video game in history, after Tetris and Wii Sports. In 2014, Microsoft bought Minecraft — and Mojang, the Swedish game studio behind it — for $2.5 billion.

There have been blockbuster games before, of course. But as Jordan’s experience suggests — and as parents peering over their children’s shoulders sense — Minecraft is a different sort of

For one thing, it doesn’t really feel like a game. It’s more like a destination, a technical tool, a cultural scene, or all three put together: a place where kids engineer complex machines, shoot videos of their escapades that they post on YouTube, make art and set up servers, online versions of the game where they can hang out with friends. It’s a world of trial and error and constant discovery, stuffed with byzantine secrets, obscure text commands and hidden recipes. And it runs completely counter to most modern computing trends. Where companies like Apple and Microsoft and Google want our computers to be easy to manipulate — designing point-and-click interfaces under the assumption that it’s best to conceal from the average user how the computer works — Minecraft encourages kids to get under the hood, break things, fix them and turn mooshrooms into random-­number generators. It invites them to tinker.

In this way, Minecraft culture is a throwback to the heady early days of the digital age. In the late ’70s and ’80s, the arrival of personal computers like the Commodore 64 gave rise to the first generation of kids fluent in computation. They learned to program in Basic, to write software that they swapped excitedly with their peers. It was a playful renaissance that eerily parallels the embrace of Minecraft by today’s youth. As Ian Bogost, a game designer and professor of media studies at Georgia Tech, puts it, Minecraft may well be this generation’s personal computer.

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A New World Order

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Who will determine the future of civilization as we know it? Many in the United States have become accustomed to this country being responsible for those decisions. But that is changing.

Last week I reported on China’s One Belt One Road initiative. Most recognize this as an initiative designed to lift hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens out of poverty.

Others look at it as a move by China to become the world’s dominant power. It remains to be seen what the outcome will be.

But others worry that the United States may be purposefully and deliberately stepping aside and making room – ample room – for China to step in. Here is how Kori Schake puts it:

Decades from now, we may look back at the first weeks of June 2018 as a turning point in world history: the end of the liberal order.

At a summit in Canada, the president of the United States rejected associating the country with “the rules-based international order” that America had built after World War II, and threatened the country’s closest allies with a trade war. He insulted the Canadian prime minister, and then, just a few days later, lavished praise on Kim Jong-un, the world’s most repressive dictator. Without consulting America’s allies in the region, he even reiterated his desire to withdraw American troops from South Korea.

Such reckless disregard for the security concerns of America’s allies, hostility to mutually beneficial trade and willful isolation of the United States is unprecedented. Yet this is the foreign policy of the Trump administration. Quite explicitly, the leader of the free world wants to destroy the alliances, trading relationships and international institutions that have characterized the American-led order for 70 years.

The administration’s alternative vision for the international order is a bare-knuckled assertion of unilateral power that some call America First; more colorfully, a White House official characterized it to The Atlantic as the “We’re America, Bitch” doctrine. This aggressive disregard for the interests of like-minded countries, indifference to democracy and human rights and cultivation of dictators is the new world Mr. Trump is creating. He and his closest advisers would pull down the liberal order, with America at its helm, that remains the best guarantor of world peace humanity has ever known. We are entering a new, terrifying era.

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Decision Time!

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We make decisions every day – dozens, scores, or even hundreds. Our brains are constantly juggling a dizzying array of choices. Somehow we do this with ease.

 

But it’s the big decisions that often trip us up and leave us befuddled. That’s why Steven Johnson’s book: “How we Make the Decisions that Matter the Most” is being wildly hailed as a breakthrough in helping us cope with the act of deciding (see the review of his book here: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/02/books/review/steven-johnson-farsighted.html).

Johnson shared the highlights of his suggestions in a recent piece in the New York Times. Here’s how he began:

In July 1838, Charles Darwin, then 29, sat down to make a decision that would alter the course of his life. The decision he was wrestling with was not related to scientific questions about the origins of species. It was a different kind of decision — existential as well, but of a more personal nature: Should he get married?

Darwin’s method for making this decision would be recognizable to many of us today: He made a list of pros and cons. Under the heading “not marry” he noted the benefits of remaining a bachelor, including “conversation of clever men at clubs”; under “marry” he included “children (if it please God)” and “charms of music and female chitchat.”

Even if some of Darwin’s values seem dated, the journal entry is remarkable for how familiar it otherwise feels. Almost two centuries later, even as everything else in the world has changed, the pros-versus-cons list remains perhaps the only regularly used technique for adjudicating a complex decision. Why hasn’t the science of making hard choices evolved?

In fact, it has, but its insights have been underappreciated. Over the past few decades, a growing multidisciplinary field of research — spanning areas as diverse as cognitive science, management theory and literary studies — has given us a set of tools that we can use to make better choices. When you face a complex decision that requires a long period of deliberation, a decision whose consequences might last for years or even decades, you are no longer limited to Darwin’s simple list.

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Silicon Valley and Saudi Arabia

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Few countries have dominated the international news more recently than Saudi Arabia. While there are conflicting reports regarding who ordered the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, that fact that he was murdered by fellow countrymen is beyond dispute. At issue for the United States is its long-standing alliance with Saudi Arabia.

But the issues surrounding Khashoggi’s murder have brought to light another, heretofore hidden, issue – the relationship between Silicon Valley and Saudi Arabia.

That’s why I was fascinated by a recent piece regarding this relationship. Here is how it began:

Somewhere in the United States, someone is getting into an Uber en route to a WeWork co-working space. Their dog is with a walker whom they hired through the app Wag. They will eat a lunch delivered by DoorDash, while participating in several chat conversations on Slack. And, for all of it, they have an unlikely benefactor to thank: the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Long before the dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi vanished, the kingdom has sought influence in the West — perhaps intended, in part, to make us forget what it is. A medieval theocracy that still beheads by sword, doubling as a modern nation with malls (including a planned mall offering indoor skiing), Saudi Arabia has been called “an ISIS that made it.” Remarkably, the country has avoided pariah status in the United States thanks to our thirst for oil, Riyadh’s carefully cultivated ties with Washington, its big arms purchases, and the two countries’ shared interest in counterterrorism. But lately the Saudis have been growing their circle of American enablers, pouring billions into Silicon Valley technology companies.

While an earlier generation of Saudi leaders, like Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, invested billions of dollars in blue-chip companies in the United States, the kingdom’s new crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has shifted Saudi Arabia’s investment attention from Wall Street to Silicon Valley. Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund has become one of Silicon Valley’s biggest swinging checkbooks, working mostly through a $100 billion fund raised by SoftBank (a Japanese company), which has swashbuckled its way through the technology industry, often taking multibillion-dollar stakes in promising companies. The Public Investment Fund put $45 billion into SoftBank’s first Vision Fund, and Bloomberg recently reported that the Saudi fund would invest another $45 billion into SoftBank’s second Vision Fund.

SoftBank, with the help of that Saudi money, is now said to be the largest shareholder in Uber. It has also put significant money into a long list of start-ups that includes Wag, DoorDash, WeWork, Plenty, Cruise, Katerra, Nvidia and Slack. As the world fills up car tanks with gas and climate change worsens, Saudi Arabia reaps enormous profits — and some of that money shows up in the bank accounts of fast-growing companies that love to talk about “making the world a better place.”

Want more? You can read the full article here

One Belt One Road

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China has embarked on a massive project called “One Belt One Road” (OBOR). There has been far more heat than light regarding this massive project.

From a national security perspective, this is China’s bid to be the world’s dominant power. While it remains to be seen whether their effort will succeed, it won’t be for lack of effort.

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), also known as the One Belt One Road is a development strategy adopted by the Chinese government involving infrastructure development and investments in countries in Europe, Asia and Africa. “Belt” refers to the overland routes, or the Silk Road Economic Belt; whereas “road” refers to the sea routes, or the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road Until 2016, the initiative was officially known in English as the One Belt and One Road initiative but the official name was changed as the Chinese government considered the emphasis on the word “one” prone to misinterpretation. The Chinese government calls the initiative “a bid to enhance regional connectivity and embrace a brighter future” Observers, however, see it as a push for Chinese dominance in global affairs with a China-centered trading network.

Want more? You can read a report by McKinsey and Company here:

https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/china/chinas-one-belt-one-road-will-it-reshape-global-trade

Secret to a Better Life

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Tired at work? Tired at play? Too tired to enjoy your kids or your friends? Who hasn’t felt this way? We all have. There is a culprit. It’s called not getting enough sleep.

Somehow I’ve always understood this, but it wasn’t until I read Tim Herrera’s piece in “Here to Help” that it finally gelled for me. Here’s part of what he shared:

Imagine this: Someone walks up to you and pitches you on a brand-new, magical pill. This pill can measurably improve your memory, overall cognitive performance, ability to learn new information, receptivity to facial cues, mood, ability to handle problems, metabolism, risk for heart disease and immune system. Would you buy it?

Yeah, yeah, you saw this coming: That pill exists, but not in pill form. You can have all of those benefits cost-free, and all it takes is going to bed a little bit earlier. That’s it.

And yet! The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have called sleep deprivation a public health crisis, saying that one-third of adults don’t get enough sleep. Some 80 percent of people report sleep problems at least once per week, and according to a 2016 study, sleep deprivation “causes more than $400 billion in economic losses annually in the United States and results in 1.23 million lost days of work each year.”

This is just a snippet. Want more? You can read the full article here

Innovative Diplomacy

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Apple has long been known as a leader in innovation, and most of us think of that in terms of innovative technology. But in today’s globally connected world, that also means finding innovative ways to ensure that two nations who are often at odds don’t unravel what technology can deliver. Innovative diplomacy is now a must.

A recent piece, “In China Trade War, Apple Worries It Will Be Collateral Damage,” explains how Apple is handling this brave new world.

Apple’s chief executive, Timothy D. Cook, may be the leader of the world’s most valuable public company, but lately he has had to act a lot like the tech industry’s top diplomat.

Last month he visited the Oval Office to warn President Trump that tough talk on China could threaten Apple’s position in the country. In March, at a major summit meeting in Beijing, he called for “calmer heads” to prevail between the world’s two most powerful countries.

In a trade and technology showdown between the United States and China, Apple and Mr. Cook have a lot to lose. With 41 stores and hundreds of millions of iPhones sold in the country, there is arguably no American company in China as successful, as high-profile and with as big a target on its back.

Since he took over Apple from its co-founder Steve Jobs, in 2011, questions about whether Mr. Cook, 57, could recreate the magic that led to the iPod and iPhone have persisted. For Mr. Cook, the analogous breakthrough — and potentially his legacy as the heir to Mr. Jobs — has come not from a gadget, but from a geography: China.

Apple fears “the Chinese-bureaucracy machine is going to kick in,” meaning the Chinese government could cause delays in its supply chain and increase scrutiny of its products under the guise of national-security concerns, according to one person close to the company. Apple has faced such retaliation before, another person said, and Reuters reported Ford vehicles are already facing delays at Chinese ports.

Apple executives and lobbyists in Beijing and Washington, led by Mr. Cook, have been trying to work both sides. They have fostered close ties to the administration of the country’s leader, Xi Jinping, an effort called Red Apple by employees at Apple’s manufacturing partner Foxconn, after the official color of the Chinese Communist Party.

Want more? You can read the full article here

Too Many “Coders”

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Who hasn’t heard the refrain: We need to prepare for a tech future. We need to do more STEM in the classroom. We need to teach our kids to code. That all may be true…up to a point.

But perhaps we’ve gone too far. Maybe we need to train people to be…well…people, and to WRITE. Here’s how a great article, “Aristotle’s Wrongful Death,” begins:

History is on the ebb. Philosophy is on the ropes. And comparative literature? Please. It’s an intellectual heirloom: cherished by those who can afford such baubles but disposable in the eyes of others.

I’m talking about college majors, and talk about college majors is loud and contentious these days. There’s concern about whether schools are offering the right ones. There are questions about whether colleges should be emphasizing them at all. How does a deep dive into the classics abet a successful leap into the contemporary job market? Should an ambitious examination of English literature come at the cost of acquiring fluency in coding, digital marketing and the like?

The Chronicle of Higher Education published a special report that delved into this debate. One of the stories described what was happening at the flagship campus of the University of Illinois and at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., casting these developments as different harbingers for higher education.

Illinois is pairing certain majors in the liberal arts — for example, anthropology and linguistics — with computer science. Assumption is doing away with a host of traditional majors in favor of new ones geared to practical skills. Goodbye, art history, geography and, yes, classics. Hello, data analytics, actuarial science and concentrations in physical and occupational therapy.

Assumption is hardly an outlier. Last year the University of Wisconsin at Superior announced that it was suspending nine majors, including sociology and political science, and warned that there might be additional cuts. The University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point recently proposed dropping 13 majors, including philosophy and English, to make room for programs with “clear career pathways.”

While these schools are swapping out certain majors for others, some higher education leaders are asking whether such devotion to a single field of study — and whether a college experience structured around that — are the right way to go.

Want more? You can read it here

Play…Or?

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We all want to support our kids – and our grandkids – that’s why we faithfully attend T-ball and soccer games, swim meets and tennis tournaments, and just about any sports activity our kids do.

That’s why I was drawn into the article, “How to Play Our Way to a Better Democracy.” It will make you think. Here is how it begins:

Before he died, Senator John McCain wrote a loving farewell statement to his fellow citizens of “the world’s greatest republic, a nation of ideals, not blood and soil.” Senator McCain also described our democracy as “325 million opinionated, vociferous individuals.” How can that many individuals bind themselves together to create a great nation? What special skills do we need to develop to compensate for our lack of shared ancestry?

When Alexis de Tocqueville toured America in 1831, he concluded that one secret of our success was our ability to solve problems collectively and cooperatively. He praised our mastery of the “art of association,” which was crucial, he believed, for a self-governing people.

In recent years, however, we have become less artful, particularly about crossing party lines. It’s not just Congress that has lost the ability to cooperate. As partisan hostility has increased, Americans report feeling fear and loathing toward people on the other side and have become increasingly less willing to date or marry someone of a different party. Some restaurants won’t serve customers who work for — or even just support — the other team or its policies. Support for democracy itself is in decline.

What can we do to reverse these trends? Is there some way to teach today’s children the art of association, even when today’s adults are poor models? There is. It’s free, it’s fun and it confers so many benefits that the American Academy of Pediatrics recently urged Americans to give far more of it to their children. It’s called play — and it matters not only for the health of our children but also for the health of our democracy.

Young mammals play, and in doing so they expend energy, get injured and expose themselves to predators. Why don’t they just stay safe? Because mammals enter the world with unfinished nervous systems, and they require play — lots of it — to finish the job. The young human brain “expects” the child to engage in thousands of hours of play, including thousands of falls, scrapes, conflicts, insults, alliances, betrayals, status competitions, and even (within limits) acts of exclusion, in order to develop its full capacities.

But not all play is created equal. Peter Gray, a developmental psychologist at Boston College, studies the effects of “free play,” which he defines as “activity that is freely chosen and directed by the participants and undertaken for its own sake, not consciously pursued to achieve ends that are distinct from the activity itself.” Guitar lessons and soccer practice are not free play — they are supervised and directed by an adult. But when kids jam with friends or take part in a pickup soccer game, that’s free play.

The absence of adults forces children to practice their social skills. For a pickup soccer game, the children themselves must obtain voluntary participation from everyone, enforce the rules and resolve disputes with no help from a referee, and then vary the rules or norms of play when special situations arise, such as the need to include a much younger sibling in the game. The absence of an adult also leaves room for children to take small risks, rather than assuming that adults will always be there, like guard rails, telling them where the limits of safety lie. Outdoor free play, in mixed-age groups, is the most effective way for children to learn these essential life skills.

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Tech Survivor

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It is almost a cliché to say that our lives have been unalterably changed by the five “FAANG companies: Most know that FAANG is an acronym for the five most popular and best performing tech stocks in the market, namely Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Alphabet’s Google.

Of these five companies, it seems that Apple is the one that intrigues us the most. That is likely due to the company’s history and also to the charisma of Steve Jobs.

That’s why I was drawn into an article, “How Apple Thrived in a Season of Tech Scandals.” Here’s how Farhad Manjoo begins:

The business world has long been plagued by Apple catastrophists — investors, analysts, rival executives and journalists who look at the world’s most valuable company and proclaim it to be imminently doomed.

The critics’ worry for Apple is understandable, even if their repeated wrongness is a little hilarious. Apple’s two-decade ascent from a near-bankrupt has-been of the personal computer era into the first trillion-dollar corporation has defied every apparent rule in tech.

Companies that make high-priced hardware products aren’t supposed to be as popular, as profitable or as permanent. To a lot of people in tech, Apple’s success can seem like a fluke, and every new hurdle the company has faced — the rise of Android, the death of Steve Jobs, the saturation of the smartphone market, the ascendance of artificial intelligence and cloud software — has looked certain to do it in.

But this year, as it begins to roll out a new set of iPhones, the storyline surrounding Apple has improbably shifted. In an era of growing skepticism about the tech industry’s impact on society, Apple’s business model is turning out to be its most lasting advantage.

Because Apple makes money by selling phones rather than advertising, it has been able to hold itself up as a guardian against a variety of digital plagues: a defender of your privacy, an agitator against misinformation and propaganda, and even a plausible warrior against tech addiction, a problem enabled by the very irresistibility of its own devices.

Though it is already more profitable than any of its rivals, Apple appears likely to emerge even stronger from tech’s season of crisis. In the long run, its growing strength could profoundly alter the industry.

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