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Spore

Spore is putting the nerdy stuff back into video games. Plus Big Thinker Nicholas Negroponte.

For a vision of Earth populated not by pesky humans but by benevolent sentient birds with claws and spiny tails, look no further than Spore, the long delayed game from legendary designer Will Wright (SimCity, The Sims), which will be released this year. In the game, you help your tiny protozoa evolve slowly into a thriving civilization bent on interplanetary conflict (the other planets are populated by the creations of other networked Spore players). As games find more and more ways of mindlessly blowing people up-we're looking at you, Halo-it's great to see someone putting the nerdy parts back into video games (but fear not, there will certainly be explosions).BIG THINKER:

Nicholas Negroponte

All of us learn to walk and talk by interacting with the world around us, getting immediate rewards for doing so. Suddenly, at about age 6, we do most or all of our learning by being told, either by books or teachers. Very little is left to play and interaction. In general, computers in education will change that, making a child's learning more seamless, more directly in his or her control.I am often asked how I know One Laptop Per Child will work. And yet each person who asks me has given his child or grandchild a laptop or desktop computer. Does this mean it is good for the rich, but maybe not for the poor? Then people ask me, why give a laptop to a child who is malnourished, unclothed, and without pure drinking water? My reply is simple. Substitute the word "education" for "laptop" and you will never ask that again.Nicholas Negroponte is the director of One Laptop Per Child, a nonprofit humanitarian organization that has produced an inexpensive, internet-connected laptop to distribute to children around the world.

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Human Terrain System

The Pentagon is bringing social scientists to the battlefield. Plus Big Thinker Samantha Power.

In The Game, a book about how to pick up girls, author Neil Strauss recommends studying your target before attempting to seduce her. With the human terrain system, the Pentagon is using the same principle to win hearts and minds in Iraq and Afghanistan. The program brings social scientists to the battlefield to help coalition forces better understand "the human terrain"-military-speak for the sociocultural, economic, ethnographic, and political elements of a battlefield-and to calibrate its actions accordingly. The result? Sheiks and colonels regularly share tea together, and soldiers now understand that garbage removal can be as effective as brute force to secure the support of the local population.The thinking comes from an Australian army officer named David Kilcullen, a whisky-swigging expert on "small wars" and an anthropologist of insurgencies who is now working closely with General David Petraeus in Iraq. Kilcullen says that the long struggle with extremism (read: the global war on terror) is actually a battle for hearts and minds. And to win hearts and minds, you have to know something about them. Enter the anthropologists. It's seduction time.BIG THINKER:

Samantha Power

Freedom from fear. Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced the concept in 1941. Sixty years later, we lost sight of his wisdom, stoking fear at home to justify an all-expansive, counterproductive lunge at real and imagined threats abroad. Sergio Vieira de Mello, the U.N. envoy murdered in a 2003 terrorist attack in Baghdad, had it right when he said, "Fear is a bad adviser." Neutralizing terrorism would entail freeing ourselves from fear at home, while also launching a grand international initiative to make citizens abroad safe in their persons and property. Insecurity causes all of us to make bad decisions, to back extreme policies, or to support extreme leaders-and each of these only compounds our insecurity. It's time to break the cycle, returning to respecting law ourselves, and for the first time channeling major development assistance into helping bring law to lawless places.Samantha Power is a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, the author of Chasing The Flame: Sergio Viera de Mello and the Fight to Save the World, and a foreign-policy advisor to the Barack Obama presidential campaign.

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Encyclopedia of Life

A new web-based zoological catalogue will store information about every single plant and animal on earth. Plus Big Thinker Wendy Kopp.

How do you squeeze more than a million species onto the internet in a way that is as interesting to a class of Australian kindergartners as it is to the world's leading expert on mushrooms? Scientists behind the Encyclopedia of Life, a new web-based zoological catalogue, aim to find a way, as they spend the next 10 years creating an online home for information about every single plant and animal on Earth.Equipped with a superstar spokesman (the renowned biologist E.O. Wilson) and state-of-the-art software (mash-up technology and wiki-style editing), the project is well on its way. At the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, in Massachusetts, taxonomists are sorting through a list of 10 million species names. And in centers in Boston, Washington, D.C., and London, more than a million pages of papers on dogs, beetles, and fish have been scanned and digitized.The first species pages will premiere on the site in mid-2008. On the polar bear page, virtual phylogenetic trees will link the bears to their relatives, maps will trace their Arctic migrations, and scanned reports will describe the first documented sightings of the beast. Categorizing species like the polar bear will be quite straightforward. Things like mushrooms might prove more challenging, but will ultimately validate the concept: There's no single expert on all kinds of the spore-bearing fungus, but the diverse knowledge of hundreds (if not thousands) of experts will combine on the site to paint a complete picture.BIG THINKER:

Wendy Kopp

We see evidence every day-at every grade level, and in urban and rural communities all across the country-that when children facing the challenges of poverty are given the opportunities they deserve, they excel. This is the truth, and yet those who believe that it is impossible for schools to overcome the challenges of poverty consider it a radical idea. This is the idea I'd like to see our nation's leaders embrace-the idea that with a new approach to education, we can ensure that all of our nation's children, regardless of where they are born, have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.Wendy Kopp is the director of Teach For America (one of GOOD's nonprofit partners).

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Nuclear Energy Goes Green

Policymakers and environmentalists are reconsidering the nuclear option. Plus Big Thinker Lawrence Lessig.

Ever since the Chernobyl disaster and the Three Mile Island scare, the idea of nuclear power in America has been marred by visions of radioactive meltdowns. But now that more and more people accept that the imminent threat of climate change is fueled by coal-burning power plants, scientists and policymakers are reconsidering the nuclear option. Inspired by skyrocketing energy prices and generous federal subsidies, utility companies want to build more than two dozen reactors over the next decade. At last, the environmental movement, after fighting new plants for decades, has warmed up to the idea.BIG THINKER:

Lawrence Lessig

Every government faces hard policy questions-storing nuclear waste, controlling teen drug addiction, improving education. What is striking about our government is how often the easy questions become impossibly hard. Think of how long it took (and has it happened yet?) for the government to acknowledge that global warming is real; or the FDA pushing sugar as an essential part of a daily diet; or Congress extending the term of existing copyrights, benefiting the tiny proportion of near-century-old work that continues to have a commercial life.What unites these cases is money: vast amounts on the wrong side, queering the ability of government to get even the easy cases right. A corruption of government, not from quid pro quo bribes, but from an economy of influence, too often hides what policymakers should see. Our system of campaign finance can't help but exaggerate the influence of some, regardless of any public sense in the views they privately push.This corruption, of course, is nothing new. What is new is recognition that it's critical to solve the corruption. A government that can't get global warming right can't be trusted. But not trusting the entity that is spending close to 40 percent of our GDP each year is not really practical.This year will see the birth of a movement to restore this trust. Not tied to any particular party, and not focused on any single election, this movement will begin a long campaign to leverage the power that digital technology has reallocated, to refocus the influence that makes the government run. No doubt an impossibly difficult movement, with almost no hope of succeeding, but precisely the sort of movement that new centuries need, and that we need right now.Lawrence Lessig is a professor at Stanford Law School.

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Famous People Sell Magazines

We're won over by conventional newsstand wisdom. Sort of. Plus Big Thinker Danny DeVito.

We're always looking to sell more copies of this magazine, and it's common knowledge that the fastest way to a fickle consumer's wallet is to have a scantily clad starlet with come-hither eyes gazing out from your cover. We at GOOD thought we were better than that, but all is changed now. Sort of. We wanted Jessica Alba in a bikini; we got Danny DeVito on a Segway.BIG THINKER:

Danny DeVito

I have a Segway but it's not as nice as this one. It's a great idea-to get you around for fun, and now they've evolved to where you lean to turn. The one I have you have to turn the handles. This one is more fluid, it's more like what it should have been in the first place. They're really good for sightseeing, going around in the country. But it's not like riding a bicycle because there's no exercise: you're just standing there. If they could find a way to make it exercise, that would be even better.

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A Note from Baghdad

An aspiring filmmaker is forced to trade his camera for a gun.

It's three o'clock in the morning and the sound of mortars and Katyusha rockets are my soundtrack. Gunfire is intermittent. Some is very close and some is far away. It does not matter anyway. I locked my building's gate with an American-made lock and a large, stifling chain of steel. It cost me more money than usual because it is strong and works well. The door of the small apartment, where I am right now, is also locked.It is a wooden door, and behind it there is a metal door, also locked with an American lock. Everything seems good at this moment. I only hope that the situation does not get worse.The curfew is everywhere on the news channels and in the media; all I know for a fact is that gunmen are touring the city, killing without mercy. I receive messages on the phone about incidents from friends in different parts of Baghdad, which is being strained by what is happening. I am writing now with a loaded Russian-made rifle next to me. There are lots of bullets waiting in my camera case; I hope they stay waiting. It is chaos out there; many killings-too many. The dead are numerous, and the living are just waiting their turn. It is a cinematic scene, and everyone is waiting for a role.
Quote:
There are lots of bullets waiting in my camera case; I hope they stay waiting.
The streets are relatively quiet compared to a few hours ago but can I, trapped within these walls, be hopeful? How? With my worries? With the monster of death that could come at any moment to my home to harvest the ones I love? Or with the news that I may receive on the phone that one of my friends is...? What a farce.I am angry, but I am not desperate at all. I am just angry. I am aware that this conflict will not continue forever; it will end. The how that will end this nonsense concerns me very much. Will I cry, or laugh, or what? Everything I worked for does not seem reachable at this moment.We are waiting the verdict on this dividing nation. I am not pessimistic. I am only dreaming of a better tomorrow; a gunfire-free tomorrow. If that happens, I'll write my film, or shoot what I wrote so far. I will love. I will keep my promises.CONTEXT This was originally part of an email sent by Hussein to a group of his friends struggling to survive in Baghdad.TRANSLATED by Fady Hadid
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