Lazy Saturday Reads: Escape into Minecraft, Ferguson Updates, and Other News

cow reading

Good Day!!

I’m taking it slow this morning, so I’m glad JJ posted all those great cartoons last night. It’s been a long couple of weeks for news junkies, and I’m tired. I’ve been doing so much reading on line that reading books as a distraction isn’t that appealing.

Lately I’ve been  by escaping by playing Minecraft for hours at a time. I’m really glad now that I started playing it with my nephews a couple of years ago. Lots of people think it’s just a game for kids, but I really enjoy it.

When I play by myself, I like to just explore a world, go mining, and build houses in different environments. The possibilities are endless. The game is completely open-ended. When I first bought the game, I thought it was pretty expensive–I think it was $29. But once you buy it, you never have to pay for anything else. There are continuous updates, and the game keeps getting more interesting, sophisticated, and challenging.

Here’s a bit of recent Minecraft news to give you a sense of what it’s all about.

From CNet: Minecraft players build working hard drives.

Players of the popular open-world building game Minecraft, created by Markus “Notch” Persson in 2009, continue to push the game beyond any reasonable realm of everyday understanding. These players have built working components of computers within simulations running on computers.

Two such users have now revealed functioning hard drives built inside Minecraft that can read and write data. The first, created by Reddit and Imgur user smellystring can store 1KB of data, while a second, larger unit created by The0JJcan store 4KB of data.

That means it’s only a matter of time before things start going the way of “Terminator” or “The Matrix,” or at least to the point where we’re building virtual simulations of fully functioning computers that obey the laws of the physical world.

Read how they did it at the link. You can watch a video about it at Polygon.

Teachers have tapped into the popularity of Minecraft with kids and are using it in the classroom. Wired reports: New Minecraft Mod Teaches You Code as You Play.

Like many nine-year-olds, Stanley Strum spends a lot of time building things inMinecraft, the immersive game that lets your create your own mini-universe. The game has many tools. But Stanley is one of many players taking the game a step further by building entirely new features into the game. And, more than that, he’s also learning how to code.

He’s doing this with a tweak to the Minecraft game, called LearnToMod. Modifications like this, called “mods,” are a big part of the game’s runaway success. But this particular mod helps kids learn to create their own mods. For example, Strum built a teleporter that whisks him to a random location within the game world. Another lesson teaches kids to write the code to create a special bow that shoots arrows that become “portals” between different locations in the game, allowing them to reach spaces that would otherwise be quite difficult to access. It’s like being able to create your own cheat codes.

Strum is one of 150 students who are now tinkering with LearnToMod, an educational add-on teaches you the basics of programming while creating tricks and tools that you can use within the Minecraft. The mod will be available to the general public in October, and its creators hope it will help turn Minecraft into a kind of gateway drug for computer programming.

“Kids are already spending ridiculous amounts of hours on Minecraft,” says Stephen Foster, the co-founder of ThoughtSTEM, the company that’s built the LearnToMod module. “So we thought this would be a good way to help them learn skills.”

Fully functioning hard drive built inside Minecraft world

Fully functioning hard drive built inside Minecraft world

That’s great. I just hope adults don’t ruin the best part of Minecraft, which is that you can use it to express your own individuality and imagination.

Here’s a story from Fortune from Aug. 1: The new way to learn? Brick by brick.

“Minecraft is often referred to as ‘what LEGO should have done online,’” said Peter Warman, video game analyst at research firm Newzoo. “Now Minecraft has become a LEGO set itself, drawing so much time from kids and youngsters that it is seriously competing with the physical LEGO bricks. And it’s not just kids and young teens that play the game. Of the millions of Minecraft Pocket Edition players, 60% is older than 20 and one-third is female.”

“The game’s success can be attributed to the freedom of expression and the ability to build anything you can imagine,” said Carl Manneh, CEO of Mojang. “It gives people a way to visualize anything they can imagine. When you have a creative software like that, people tend to want to share it with friends. That’s really helped us in spreading the word about the game.”

When New York City teacher Joel Levin saw this explosion of popularity among his students, he decided to blog about the game. After all, kids weren’t just playing this game across multiple platforms, they were also spending countless hours perusing the 50 million-plus Minecraft videos on YouTube.

The educator had spent the past decade trying to incorporate video games into his classroom curriculum as a way to engage students and make learning more relevant to today’s generation. Levin said he was blown away at the range of possibilities that Minecraft offered, from building challenges, to having kids do research online and report back on what they learned, to exploring digital citizenship by building communities in the game that serves as virtual microcosms to high school.

“Teachers from all over the world started contacting me,” said Levin. Eventually, Levin was put in touch with Mojang. “I was able to open a dialogue with teachers and programmers in Finland, which is at the forefront of the world in education.” Levin partnered with Santeri Koivisto, a teacher in Finland, to formalize a company, TeacherGaming.

cow reading2

Back to the real world (reluctantly) for some Ferguson updates.

Last night The New York Times posted a piece on how police shootings are judged to be justified or not, Key Factor in Police Shootings: ‘Reasonable Fear’.

Each time police officers draw their weapons, they step out of everyday law enforcement and into a rigidly defined world where written rules, hours of training and Supreme Court decisions dictate not merely when a gun can be fired, but where it is aimed, how many rounds should be squeezed off and when the shooting should stop.

The Ferguson, Mo., police officer who fatally shot an unarmed African-American teenager two weeks ago, setting off protest and riots, was bound by 12 pages of police department regulations, known as General Order 410.00, that govern officers’ use of force. Whether he followed them will play a central role in deliberations by a St. Louis County grand jury over whether the officer, Darren Wilson, should be charged with a crime in the shooting.

But as sweeping as restrictions on the use of weapons may be, deciding whether an officer acted correctly in firing at a suspect is not cut and dried. A host of outside factors, from the officer’s perception of a threat to the suspect’s behavior and even his size, can emerge as mitigating or damning.

Read the rest at the link. It’s really troubling to me that police shootings are evaluated based on the officers emotional reactions–whether he (or she) was in fear of his life. That’s far too subjective and there’s no way to prove what the cop was thinking at the time.

The other problem I’m having with all this justification of Wilson’s actions is that he didn’t really need to stop Mike Brown and Dorian Johnson in the first place. The stop was pure harassment–part of a demonstrable pattern of targeting of Ferguson’s Black citizens in order to fill the city’s coffers.

Once Wilson had made the mistake of aggressively engaging with Brown and Brown and Johnson began running away, Wilson should have remained in his car and called for backup. Presumably the Justice Department will be looking carefully at these aspects of the case.

hamster reading

For the past couple of couple of days, there’s been a lot of attention to a crowdfunding campaign established to raise money for Darren Wilson–even though he hasn’t been arrested or charged with anything. The site has been called out for posting ugly racist comments from the people who are donating; yesterday the site began deleting the worst of those comments, and now they have shut off comments completely. I guess it was too much work to keep deleting them one at a time. From NBC News, 

Created on Monday on the site GoFundMe, the campaign had raised over $225,000 as of midday Friday in support of Wilson, who shot and killed unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown on Aug. 9. More than 5,600 people have pledged toward a goal of $250,000. Many donors added remarks while making their donations, some of which were incendiary. GoFundMe responded early Friday on Twitter saying the “comments posted in violation of GoFundMe’s terms have been removed.”

 According to the page, it was “created to support Officer Darren Wilson of the Ferguson Police Department. We stand behind Officer Darren Wilson and his family during this trying time in their lives. All proceeds will be sent directly to Darren Wilson and his family for any financial needs they may have including legal fees.”

Please note that Wilson is still receiving his full paycheck of more than $45,000 a year. Little Green Footballs has been following the story closely, and blogger Lawhawk decided to find out who is really behind the Wilson GoFundMe campaign. He found that “the funds going to a 501(c)(3) charity, meaning donations are tax exempt.” And guess who’s behind the “charity?” From The Wire: Non-Profit Run by a Missouri Police Union Is Now Handling Fundraising for Darren Wilson.

The GoFundMe crowdsourcing fundraiser for the Ferguson police officer who killed Michael Brown has been taken over by Shield of Hope, a charity run by the local police union. Since Shield of Hope is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, all donations from here on out will now be tax deductible. The original fundraiser had raised over $235,000 before passing on the torch to Shield of Hope. The new Shield of Hope-run page has raised over $11,000 on its own.

Originally called the Fraternal Order Of Police Lodge 15 Charitable Foundation, Shield of Hope was founded in late 2011. (The name was changed shortly after.) According to a filing with the Missouri Secretary of State’s office, the charity’s board of directors include the Ferguson Police Department’s Public Relations Officer Timothy Zoll, Missouri State Rep. Jeffrey Roorda (a former police officer), and Florissant City Council member Joe Eagan.

brazilian pig reading

So quite a few of those now-excised racist comments must have been coming from law-enforcement types in Missouri {{shudder}} Read more about these folks at the LGF link.

The Washington Post has another interesting article on segregation in St. Louis, In St. Louis, Delmar Boulevard is the line that divides a city by race and perspective.

To get a sense of the fracture that cuts this city in two, drive along Delmar Boulevard, a major four-lane road that runs east to west. Hit the brakes when you see an Aldi grocery store and put your finger on the blinker. Decide which world to enter.

In the blocks to the immediate south: Tudor homes, wine bars, a racquet club, a furniture store selling sofas for $6,000. The neighborhood, according to U.S. Census data, is 70 percent white.

In the blocks to the immediate north: knocked-over street signs, collapsing houses, fluttering trash, tree-bare streets with weeds blooming from the sidewalk. The neighborhood is 99 percent black.

The geography of almost every U.S. city reveals at least some degree of segregation, but in St. Louis, the break between races — and privilege — is particularly drastic, so defined that those on both sides speak often about a precise boundary. The Delmar Divide, they call it, and it stands as a symbol of the disconnect that for years has bred grievances and frustrations, emotions that exploded into public view on the streets of the majority-black suburb of Ferguson after a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed black teenager. Ferguson is north of Delmar; the suburb of Crestwood, where the officer lives, is south.

As for how St. Louis residents see the Michael Brown shooting,

Even the way people perceive the Aug. 9 shooting and the street protests that have followed is influenced by geography.

“I’m one of those people that feels sorry for the officer,” said Paul Ruppel, 41, a white business owner who lives just to the south of the divide. “For the most part, I believe the police of St. Louis are doing a great job.”

Said Alvonia Crayton, an African American woman who lives just to the north of Delmar: “My reaction is, what took them so long? Michael Brown was basically the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

The article is well worth a read.

Links to some interesting stories that are mostly positive

LA Times, Ferguson protests prove transformative for many, by Matt Pearce.

Huffington Post, Ferguson: The Untold Story, by Arianna Huffington.

Poynter, HuffPost’s Ferguson Fellow: ‘This is huge for me’, by Benjamin Mullin.

NPR, Is There Such A Thing As A ‘Good Psychopath’? by Linton Weeks.

The Atlantic, What an Introvert Sounds Like, by Olga Khazan.

The Atlantic, Your Gut Bacteria Want You to Eat a Cupcake.

The Paris Review, Mocha Dick, and Other News.

More on Mocha Dick from The Atlantic, The Whale That Inspired Moby Dick Swims Again.

Feministing, Fatal Hypothesis: How Belief in a Just World is Killing Us, by Katherine Cross.

Want some schadenfreude? Read this from TPM, Cubs Cut Workers’ Hours Too Avoid O-Care Mandate, Then Disaster Struck.

Bwaaaahahahahahah!

Bonus Cat Video

Hot Water. Simon’s Cat

 

What stories are you following today? Please post your thoughts and links in the comment thread, and have a great weekend!


Reading the Tea Leaves on the Coming Ideological Battle over the Debt Ceiling

reading-tea-leaves

I’m getting a sense that the White House has a plan to deal with the GOP hostage takers in the debt ceiling fight. The plan involves eliminating every possible alternative to Congress allowing the Treasury to pay the nation’s bills, while calmly but forcefully explaining to the American people how the U.S. government works. Obama apparently understands that the media will not help him educate the American people; therefore he will work around them.

Whether this plan is going work is anyone’s guess, but it seems pretty clear that Obama plans to pin the full responsibility for action on Congress.

On Friday, the administration eliminated the most recent suggestion for a “plan B,” the so-called “trillion dollar platinum coin.” They also reiterated the decision not to use the 14th Amendment option, which Obama first announced during the 2011 debt ceiling fight.

Joe Weisenthal was “stunned.”

With this, the White House has now ruled out the two best options for preventing a default in the event that the House GOP refused to life the debt ceiling. The White House has been quite adamant that the other alternative (invoking the 14th Amendment) is not acceptable.
So now the stakes are high, as The White House has refused to negotiate with the GOP on a debt ceiling hike.

What bargaining chips does The White House hold? Unclear.

Paul Krugman was characteristically shrill.

If I’d spent the past five years living in a monastery or something, I would take the Treasury Department’s declaration that the coin option is out as a sign that there’s some other plan ready to go. Maybe 14th Amendment, maybe moral obligation coupons or some other form of scrip, something.

And maybe there is a plan.

But as we all know, the last debt ceiling confrontation crept up on the White House because Obama refused to believe that Republicans would actually threaten to provoke default. Is the WH being realistic this time, or does it still rely on the sanity of crazies? [….]

…if we didn’t have some history here I might be confident that the administration knows what it’s doing. But we do have that history, and you have to fear the worst.

On Saturday, Krugman reported that he had gotten “calls” about Friday’s post from the powers that be:

The White House insists that it is absolutely, positively not going to cave or indeed even negotiate over the debt ceiling — that it rejected the coin option as a gesture of strength, as a way to put the onus for avoiding default entirely on the GOP.

Truth or famous last words? I guess we’ll find out.

I honestly can’t blame the White House for not wanting to use the 14th amendment or “platinum coin” options. Both would undoubtedly lead to wrangling in the courts and, in the case of the 14 amendment choice, a possible Constitutional crisis. But still, was it wise to publicly eliminate the only possible leverage the White House has to force the House GOP to get over their tantrums and allow the Treasury to pay the bills that Congress has already run up? I simply don’t know.

In the President’s press conference this morning, he appeared to confirm that my sense of the “plan” is accurate. He did a good job of spelling out what the consequences will be for the nation and the world if the U.S. defaults on its debts.

The debt ceiling is not a question of authorizing more spending. Raising the debt ceiling does not authorize more spending. It simply allows the country to pay for spending that Congress has already committed to.

These are bills that have already been racked up, and we need to pay them. So, while I’m willing to compromise and find common ground over how to reduce our deficits, America cannot afford another debate with this Congress about whether or not they should pay the bills they’ve already racked up. If congressional Republicans refuse to pay America’s bills on time, Social Security checks, and veterans benefits will be delayed.

We might not be able to pay our troops, or honor our contracts with small business owners. Food inspectors, air traffic controllers, specialist who track down loose nuclear materials wouldn’t get their paychecks. Investors around the world will ask if the United States of America is in fact a safe bet. Markets could go haywire, interest rates would spike for anybody who borrows money. Every homeowner with a mortgage, every student with a college loan, every small business owner who wants to grow and hire.

It would be a self-inflicted wound on the economy. It would slow down our growth, might tip us into recession. And ironically it would probably increase our deficit. So to even entertain the idea of this happening, of the United States of America not paying its bills, is irresponsible. It’s absurd. As the speaker said two years ago, it would be, and I’m quoting Speaker Boehner now, “a financial disaster, not only for us, but for the worldwide economy.”

So we’ve got to pay our bills. And Republicans in Congress have two choices here. They can act responsibly, and pay America’s bills, or they can act irresponsibly and put America through another economic crisis. But they will not collect a ransom in exchange for not crashing the American economy. The financial wellbeing of the American people is not leverage to be used. The full faith and credit of the United States of America is not a bargaining chip. And they better choose quickly, because time is running short.

He also took opportunities to continue patiently explaining, in response to questions from obtuse members of the press corps such as Chuck Todd and Major Garrett.

Despite the efforts of Todd and Garrett to get Obama to say he’ll have to give in to Republican demands, the president repeatedly said he isn’t going to negotiate with GOP terrorists.

Will it work? And more importantly, will Obama really refuse to cave this time? As I noted earlier, Krugman has his doubts. One reporter, Juliana Goldman, even asked the president why anyone should believe him this time when he has always caved in the past. Obama’s response:

Well, first of all, Julianna, let’s take the example of this year and the fiscal cliff. I didn’t say that I would not have any conversations at all about extending the Bush tax cuts. What I said was, we weren’t going to extend Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. And we didn’t.

Now, you can argue that during the campaign, I said — I set the criteria for wealthy at $250,000, and we ended up being at $400,000, but the fact of the matter is, millionaires, billionaires are paying significantly more in taxes, just as I said.

So from — you know, from the start, my concern was making sure that we had a tax code that was fair and that protected the middle class. And my biggest priority was making sure that middle class taxes did not go up. You know, the difference between this year and 2011 is the fact that we’ve already made $1.2 trillion in cuts. And at — at the time, I indicated that there were cuts that we could sensibly make that would not damage our economy, would not impede growth.

I said at the time, I think we should pair it up with revenue in order to have an overall balanced package, but my own budget reflected cuts in discretionary spending. My own budget reflected the cuts that needed to be made. And we’ve made those cuts. Now, the challenge going forward is that we’ve now made some big cuts. And if we’re going to do further deficit reduction, the only way to do it is in a balanced and responsible way.

It’s all very calm and reasonable-sounding; and, as I said, I think Obama did a good job in today’s press conference. He has two more high-profile opportunities to get his message out–the Inaugural Address next Monday and the State of the Union Address on February 12. He could also make campaign-style appearances around the country as he did before the “fiscal cliff” battle.

Now let’s look at what the Republicans are planning. This morning we got the inside dirt from the usual suspects at Politico, Jim Vandehei, Mike Allen, and Jake Sherman. According to the Politico guys, the GOP is getting ready to go on the warpath.

The idea of allowing the country to default by refusing to increase the debt limit is getting more widespread and serious traction among House Republicans than people realize, though GOP leaders think shutting down the government is the much more likely outcome of the spending fights this winter.

“I think it is possible that we would shut down the government to make sure President Obama understands that we’re serious,” House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state told us. “We always talk about whether or not we’re going to kick the can down the road. I think the mood is that we’ve come to the end of the road.”

Republican leadership officials, in a series of private meetings and conversations this past week, warned that the White House, much less the broader public, doesn’t understand how hard it will be to talk restive conservatives off the fiscal ledge. To the vast majority of House Republicans, it is far riskier long term to pile up new debt than it is to test the market and economic reaction of default or closing down the government.

GOP officials said more than half of their members are prepared to allow default unless Obama agrees to dramatic cuts he has repeatedly said he opposes. Many more members, including some party leaders, are prepared to shut down the government to make their point. House Speaker John Boehner “may need a shutdown just to get it out of their system,” said a top GOP leadership adviser. “We might need to do that for member-management purposes — so they have an endgame and can show their constituents they’re fighting.”

Basically, the whole world is supposed to stand back and let the Tea Party wackos in the House have an extended, violent temper tantrum to “get it out of their system.” Or else.

According the Politico piece, Speaker Boehner will be meeting with GOP members most of the week to discuss strategy and then on Thursday and Friday House GOP members will meet in Williamsburg, VA. During the two-day meeting Boehner and presumably some of the saner House Republican leaders will try to explain to the Tea Party crazies why forcing the U.S. into default is not a very smart idea. I wonder if there will be visual aids?

So that’s where we are for now. At least Obama has stated his case clearly. However, at some point he is going to have to do something dramatic if the Republicans won’t budge. And why should the Republicans or anyone else believe Obama will stick to his guns this time? Only time will tell. I thought this piece by Garrett Epps at The Atlantic (published on Saturday) summed up the situation very well: Does Obama Actually Have a Debt-Ceiling Plan, or Is He Bluffing?

Moby Dick Best Sm 1

In Melville’s Moby Dick, the whaling ship Pequod crosses the equator on its quest for the White Whale, and in that instant, Captain Ahab smashes his quadrant to the deck and crushes it underfoot.

No more careful navigation. It is, we understand, Moby Dick or die.

As we hurtle toward the new debt-limit crisis, President Obama has done much the same. He says he won’t negotiate spending cuts with a gun to his head. He’s also said that he won’t invoke § 4 of the Fourteenth Amendment, with its provision that “the public debt of the United States . . . shall not be questioned,” to give him authority to continue borrowing once the debt limit has been reached. The Senate Democratic leadership Friday urged him to prepare to raise the ceiling unilaterally; so far, he has remained mum.

Yet Obama, to all appearances, is the calmest man in this overheated capital as the doomsday clock counts down toward a first-ever U.S. default, and the almost certain global depression that would follow.

We can only wait and see what will happen, but as Epps writes, in the end, the onus will be on Obama.

The moment may be coming when wishing and faith do not suffice. Those are the moments when presidents earn their pay. If that requires reversing course on the Fourteenth Amendment, so be it; if it impels a stupid coin trick, then so it does; and if it imposes a political cost on the president, then he must pay it.

After Ahab smashes the Pequod’s quadrant, second-mate Stubb muses to himself, “Well, well; I heard Ahab mutter, ‘Here some one thrusts these cards into these old hands of mine; swears that I must play by them, and no others.’ And damn me, Ahab, but thou actest right; live in the game, and die in it!”

And that’s just the debt ceiling. Obama will also have to deal with fights over the sequester and the federal budget.