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.

Want more? You can read the full article here

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.

Want more? You can read the full article here

War Without End

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As I mentioned in a post this summer, a decade ago, New York Times reporter Dexter Filkens wrote, “The Forever War.” The book was a best-seller.

Filkens explained why we were mired in the Mideast. A few years later, President Obama announced America’s “Rebalance to the Asia-Pacific.”

Why we are still fighting is a question that continues to bedevil all of us. That’s why I was drawn to a book review of C.J. Chivers, “The Fighters.” Here’s how Robert Kaplan began his review:

  1. J. Chivers, a senior writer for The New York Times and a former Marine infantry officer, begins his new book with a description of an American weapon, equipped with GPS sensors and a guidance system, hitting “precisely the wrong place” and killing and mutilating a family of women and children on the Afghan steppe as a consequence. But Chivers’s narrative has only begun to slam you in the gut; later on, the author captures the psychological effect the errant bomb has on the Marines at the scene. Indeed, because of the way the stories and characters spool into one another with mathematical intensity, and the second-by-second in-your-face descriptions of prolonged battles from a sergeant’s eye view, “The Fighters: Americans in Combat in Afghanistan and Iraq” could be the most powerful indictment yet of America’s recent Middle East wars.

Chivers is interested in the chemistry between platoons and companies, not that between battalions and brigades: In other words, this is a book about the lower ranks who experience the thing itself, the gut-wrenching violence and confusion of war — history from the ground up, not from the top down, precisely what Washington elites miss. “The Fighters” constitutes an illusion-free zone, where the concrete triumphs over the abstract, where the best and most indelible of those profiled, from that vast working-class heart of the country, begin their military service in a blaze of patriotism following 9/11, and end up confused, cynical, betrayed and often disfigured or dead.

Want more? You can read the full review here

Just Do It – For You

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When is the last time you just did something for fun…no…really…just for fun? It seems that we are always striving and trying to be the “best” at everything we do.

That’s why I was intrigued by an article by Tim Wu entitled “In Praise of Mediocrity.” He nailed it and said what I think most of us have been thinking for quite a while. Here’s how he begins:

I’m a little surprised by how many people tell me they have no hobbies. It may seem a small thing, but — at the risk of sounding grandiose — I see it as a sign of a civilization in decline. The idea of leisure, after all, is a hard-won achievement; it presupposes that we have overcome the exigencies of brute survival. Yet here in the United States, the wealthiest country in history, we seem to have forgotten the importance of doing things solely because we enjoy them.

Yes, I know: We are all so very busy. Between work and family and social obligations, where are we supposed to find the time?

But there’s a deeper reason, I’ve come to think, that so many people don’t have hobbies: We’re afraid of being bad at them. Or rather, we are intimidated by the expectation — itself a hallmark of our intensely public, performative age — that we must actually be skilled at what we do in our free time. Our “hobbies,” if that’s even the word for them anymore, have become too serious, too demanding, too much an occasion to become anxious about whether you are really the person you claim to be.

If you’re a jogger, it is no longer enough to cruise around the block; you’re training for the next marathon. If you’re a painter, you are no longer passing a pleasant afternoon, just you, your watercolors and your water lilies; you are trying to land a gallery show or at least garner a respectable social media following. When your identity is linked to your hobby — you’re a yogi, a surfer, a rock climber — you’d better be good at it, or else who are you?

Lost here is the gentle pursuit of a modest competence, the doing of something just because you enjoy it, not because you are good at it. Hobbies, let me remind you, are supposed to be something different from work. But alien values like “the pursuit of excellence” have crept into and corrupted what was once the realm of leisure, leaving little room for the true amateur. The population of our country now seems divided between the semipro hobbyists (some as devoted as Olympic athletes) and those who retreat into the passive, screeny leisure that is the signature of our technological moment.

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

Telling Stories

There is a prevailing myth – likely perpetrated by publishers, established writers, and there fellow travellers that it takes a special talent to tell stories. That’s bunk.

That’s why I was pulled in by Daniel McDermon’s piece, “How to Tell a Story.” Here’s how he begins:

Before there was history, there was storytelling. It’s essential to our human identity. The stories we tell are how we know who we are. And sharing a tale with an audience can be immensely rewarding. But for novices, it can also be terrifying. Fear of speaking in public is very common. A great many of the world’s greatest performers have struggled with powerful stage fright. So you should know that you’re not alone. We’re here to help you build your confidence and find your own voice.

While his sound advice it primarily focused on public speaking, what he shares has enormous value for the written word. His advice continues:

There is no way to bet better at telling stories to people than by telling stories to people. There is no substitute for experience. “You just have to get up and do it,” said Aaron Beverly, who finished second in the Toastmasters world championship of public speaking in 2016. He compares storytelling practice to a gym workout. To build muscle, weightlifters have to get their reps in. And if you want to develop your skills as a speaker or storyteller, so do you.

The goal, Mr. Beverly said, is to feel so comfortable in the role that you go on autopilot. You build a sort of muscle memory for your body by standing up in front of a crowd, or on a stage, and speaking out. But you don’t have to do it all on a large stage. You can practice at an open-mic night, at a gathering like The Moth, or even at work by leading a meeting. If nerves are holding you back, start as small as possible. Ask a friend to listen and give you feedback.

Sharing a great story is like giving your audience a gift, because it will stay with them. They can even share it further, the same way that stories have been passed along since the beginning of human life.

Want more? You can read the full article here

Making Waves

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Much ink has been spilled about how America and the West won the Cold War. But little has been said about how that war was won on the oceans – until now.

Arthur Herman’s review of former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman’s new book, “Oceans Ventured: Winning the Cold War at Sea. Here is how he begins:

Two major shifts in military strategy allowed the United States to win the Cold War with the Soviet Union. One was the Strategic Defense Initiative launched by President Ronald Reagan in 1983. It convinced Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that the U.S.S.R. couldn’t compete in a high-tech weapons race without major economic and political changes—changes that ultimately backfired and led to the Soviet Union’s collapse.

The other shift, less heralded, was Sea Plan 2000, a bold new idea for reviving American sea power in the face of a Soviet bid for naval supremacy. Reagan would be the president to put the plan in motion, and his secretary of the Navy, John Lehman, would be the man to implement it.

As Mr. Lehman tells us in “Oceans Ventured,” the strategy was first conceived in Newport, R.I., roughly three years before Reagan’s election—at a June 1977 dinner with Mr. Lehman, Graham Claytor (the Navy secretary), James Woolsey (counsel to the Senate Armed Services Committee) and the military-affairs author Bing West. Mr. West served as amanuensis, recording the gist of the plan on a napkin. Over time, it grew into a full-blown proposal and led, not long after, to the rebirth of the U.S. Navy’s global dominance, often summed up as “the 600-ship Navy.”

In fact, as Navy secretary Mr. Lehman never quite made it to 600 ships—594 was as far as he got. The ships that the Navy did build, however, included a new generation of warships like Aegis cruisers and destroyers with advanced antimissile systems, and Ohio-class nuclear submarines of the sort that the novelist Tom Clancy would make famous in “The Hunt for Red October” (1984). There was as well an increase in the number of Nimitz-class aircraft carriers.

Even more important than the ships was a change in how the Navy planned to use them. Mr. Lehman’s “Command of the Seas” (1988) detailed the arduous process of expanding the Navy despite congressional opposition and a cumbersome Pentagon acquisition system. “Oceans Ventured” describes the men and events that enabled the Navy to snatch the strategic initiative from a Soviet navy determined to challenge the U.S. around the globe.

Want more? You can read it here

Bucket List?

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We all have bucket lists, right? And we’re earnestly working our way through it. Whew, that’s exhausting even thinking about it.

That’s why I loved Joe Queenan’s recent article: “It’s Time to Kick the Bucket List.” Here’s how he begins:

Americans have become obsessed with supposedly transformative experiences. But is bungee-jumping in Madagascar what will really make life complete?

The American bucket list is in a state of crisis. The obsessive need to parasail over volcanoes in Mongolia, swim with man-eating sharks in the Seychelles and sleep in every farmhouse that George Washington ever bedded down in has contributed to a national epidemic of bucket-list neurosis.

Americans are so obsessed with running a 100-mile marathon in the Outback, visiting every Double-A baseball stadium in the country or flying in a hot-air balloon over Fiji that all the fun has gone out of having a bucket list in the first place. Compiling a bucket list was once the perfect way to pass the dreamy days of summer vacation. Now it’s just another form of work.

Like American Youth Soccer and contemporary country music, bucket lists started out as something harmless and amusing before turning into a nightmare. Officially, the concept of the bucket list derives from the bellicosely heartwarming 2007 film of that name about two doomed old coots competing with one another to polish off a list of personal dreams before the Grim Reaper carries them off. But as so often happens in this otherwise great country, something that started out as a joke became a clinical disorder. It’s as if every woman who watched “Thelma and Louise” suddenly decided that it was a good idea to drive a car off a cliff.

Today, everyone with a few bucks to spare seems to be fixated on bucket lists. 100 places to see before you die. No, make that 1,000 places. Fifty restaurants to eat in before you die—no, 200. The Top 111 Bucket List Ideas. 329 Great Bucket List Ideas. 15,378 Top-Quality Bucket List suggestions.

Alas, bucket lists tend to be obvious and generic: See the Taj Mahal, the Pyramids, Mount Fuji, the Aurora Borealis, the West Edmonton Mall. Such ready-made, just-add-water lists are infuriating. It’s tragic that anyone would need to consult somebody else’s list to compile their own. A bucket list is supposed to be deeply personal, the product of much internal debate and intense self-searching. It’s not supposed to be just another dumb thing you found on the Internet.

Want more? You can read the full article here

War Stories

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One of the most well-credentialed military writers of our generation is Thomas Ricks. Why? He is a former war correspondent and author of six military-themed books.

That’s why I gravitate to his quarterly column in the New York Times Book Review, “War Stories.”

Ricks serves up military books that are rich resources for all of us – from casual reader, the military buff, to serious historian. Here’s how he begins his latest offering:

One of the most interesting books on military affairs that I have read in some time is ARMY OF NONE: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War (Norton, $27.95). Its author, Paul Scharre, a former Army Ranger and Pentagon official who is now an analyst at the Center for a New American Security (a think tank with which I was affiliated several years ago), provides a thoughtful overview of the mind-boggling issues associated with autonomous weapons — or, as some people call them, “killer robots.”

Unlike many authors examining the advent of autonomous weapons, Scharre doesn’t get bogged down in the question of whether they will be built. They already are here, he argues, citing the example of the Stuxnet computer bug as just such an armament. It was software inserted, almost certainly by American and Israeli intelligence agencies, into Iranian computers running that country’s nuclear enrichment program. Because the Iranian computers were “air-gapped” — that is, not connected to the global internet — once the bug was inside the Iranian system, delivered through porn-laden thumb drives, it was on its own. And it worked impressively, physically destroying a key part of the nuclear program.

Want more? You can read the full article here

Endless War?

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A decade ago, New York Times reporter Dexter Filkens wrote, “The Forever War.” The book was a best-seller.

Filkens explained why we were mired in the Mideast. A few years later, President Obama announced America’s “Rebalance to the Asia-Pacific.”

Most assumed this was the spark that would help America disengage from the messy politics of the Mideast.

We are still there – in force. Michael O’Hanlon explains why in his piece, “Resigned to Endless War.” Here’s how he begins:

Tell me how this ends.” So said then-Maj. Gen. David Petraeus to the journalist Rick Atkinson soon after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. As far as we can see today, the answer to Gen. Petraeus’s prescient rhetorical question appears to be that it doesn’t.

What many strategists predicted would be a generation-long struggle against Islamic extremism and sectarianism in the Middle East is now well into its second generation. It has been almost 40 years since the Iranian revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; 35 years since the bombing of the U.S. embassy and Marine barracks in Lebanon; 30 years since the formation of al Qaeda. It has been almost two decades since President George W. Bush, after the attacks of 9/11, told Congress and the nation that “Americans should not expect one battle but a lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen.” The “forever war,” as the journalist Dexter Filkins called it in his 2008 book of that title, is living up to its name.

To wage these wars, there are currently some 15,000 U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan, 10,000 in Qatar, 5,000 in Iraq, 4,000 in Bahrain, 2,000 each in Syria and Kuwait, and more than 1,500 each in Djibouti and Turkey. Add to this some 10,000 sailors and Marines afloat in the region, as well as Coast Guard personnel and civilians. All told, there are more than 90,000 Americans working for U.S. Central Command, according to Centcom commander Gen. Joseph Votel. These “overseas contingency operations” cost more than $30 billion a year, on top of the $600 billion-plus core defense budget. It’s a huge, expensive effort, and there’s no end in sight.

But maybe all of this is OK. It seems that Americans have effectively reached a consensus that the status quo represents the least bad option available. To put it differently, maybe we’ve taken a page from Israel’s handbook: We no longer expect to solve problems in the broader Middle East, only to manage them, at least for the foreseeable future. As a practical matter, that means relying today not primarily on U.S. ground combat troops but on our special forces, drones, aircraft, trainers, intelligence operatives and standoff forces.

Want more? You can read the full article here

Your Brain and “You”

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We all have a “to do” list with things we know we need to get done. And we always get to all of them, right? Well, not exactly.

That’s why I was taken by Tim Herrera’s recent Here to Help piece, “Why Your Brain Tricks You Into Doing Less Important Tasks.” Here’s how he begins:

Here’s a list of things I did before starting this newsletter: I filled out the documents to renew my passport; clipped my cat’s nails; bought some household items; responded to a few Instagram DMs; and ate a snack because I was hungry.

Sound familiar?

Some of those tasks were relatively urgent — I need to get my passport in order soon, and those Instagram DMs were weighing on me. But none of those tasks were as important as writing this newsletter. I know I needed to get this done, but the call of those minor-yet-urgent tasks was too strong.

To all of my procrastinators out there, I offer an explanation: Your brain is working against you, and it’s because of a phenomenon called the urgency effect.

In other words: Even if we know a larger, less-urgent task is vastly more consequential, we will instinctively choose to do a smaller, urgent task anyway. Yet again, thanks for nothing, brain.

So what are we to do? To answer that, let’s talk about boxes — specifically, one developed by our 34th president, Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Picture a 2×2 square with four boxes. At the top of the square are two labels: Urgent and non-urgent. On the left are two other labels: Important and not important.

On any given day, try to put every task you have to do into one of those four boxes. You’ll quickly see that the things tied to approaching deadlines are quite often not the most important things you have on your plate. Accordingly, schedule time to finish them later or, if possible, delegate them.

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