Sunday, March 29, 2015

Minecraft and Microsoft

Last fall, Microsoft acquired Mojang, the Swedish company that developed Minecraft, for a smooth $2.5 billion. Reactions to this news fell into one of two possible categories1:

  1. WTF is Mojang / Minecraft?
  2. Microsoft has lost its goddamned mind.

These are reasonable responses. Because we couldn't see what Microsoft could possibly want with this game. And we certainly couldn't see how the game was worth so. much. money. But over the weekend, I think I've figured it out.

What is Minecraft?

It's Steve!
If you're under 14, or a parent of a child under 14, you already know what Minecraft is. The concept is simple: you control a character in a 3D world filled with materials to collect, items to craft, and enemies to defeat. Several game modes allow for different rules to apply, such as whether you're able to fly, whether you can fall without getting hurt / killed, and whether your game ends after a single death. Some players like the challenge of playing in Adventure mode, while others prefer to play exclusively in Creative mode. And no one likes Hardcore mode. It's just too crazy.

But it's the creative mode that's worth discussing. In creative mode, the players do not need to be on the lookout for hostile mobs. And there's no need to search for and collect materials such as wood and cobblestone; in creative mode, players are given an infinite supply of every type of block in the game. Creative mode lets the player build structures underground, above ground, in the sky, underwater, and... well anywhere. It's a blank canvas, or rather a canvas that is only the topographical suggestion of the player's world. And some people have built amazing things in creative.

A Brief History of Versions

Mojang releases new versions of Minecraft on an irregular basis, and each new version includes major changes to the game. For example, Minecraft 1.6 (aka the Horse update) introduced ridable horses and a new launcher for the game. Minecraft 1.5 introduced Redstone, which enables the creation of working machines and circuits. And most recently, and this is where the connection between Mojang and Microsoft becomes apparent, Minecraft 1.8 introduced twelve new commands that players can use to interact with and manipulate their worlds.

That means players can now use the console (or the command line, if you're looking for a metaphor) to create and destroy objects in Minecraft. It's like, in that players who use these commands end up learning about programming without knowing it.

An Example: The Command Block

The Command Block.
I'll give you an example: my youngest son, who can navigate Minecraft with a trackpad faster than you ever could with a mouse, asked me a question yesterday. It was along the lines of, "can you help me with this command block?" (A command block is an object in Minecraft that you can load a command (or series of commands) into, and the command block will execute the command based on certain input. No, really.)

When I walked over to the space behind the sofa, which is where he perches when playing Minecraft, this is what I saw on his screen:

Editing the Command Block.

Inspect the Console Command field. Is there any denying that this is code? It certainly doesn't look like the over-referenced Nintendo codes of my 1980's infused youth. No, this is serious stuff. And my boy was asking for help, because his command wasn't working right. (The goal of this command is to give the nearest player an object that looks like the head of a player named eager0. Naturally.) It turns out, he was missing a colon between SkullOwner and "eager0".

I smiled when I saw him working on this, because I lost count years ago of the hours I've lost poring over code looking for syntax errors. We fixed the problem, tested it, got the expected result, and he moved on. Except now he knows the importance of each character in a command, and how each section of the command needs to be delineated from the others. Well played, Mojang. Well played, Microsoft.

Do you see the connection, now?

Microsoft acquired a massively popular (an estimated 27.6 million people play Minecraft in one form or another) tool that encourages kids to write code in order to solve a creative problem. Kids aren't learning to code because it's part of their curriculum; it's part of their fun. Can you imagine what these kids will be capable of doing after they've mastered some coding and have applied that knowledge directly to their work (play is work, after all)? And when they've spent years perfecting this skill, they'll be poised to meet any challenge.

Satya Nadella is a genius.

1 - Actually, these categories are not mutually exclusive.

Monday, March 16, 2015


Last weekend, I spent a day with my family at the Maryland Science Center. If you've never been, and you've got plans to visit Baltimore, do yourself a favor and drop by. You won't be disappointed, especially if you're traveling with your kids. Hmmm, that sentence sounds like it should be at the end of this post. But I'm lazy, so I'm leaving it here.

Like many science-themed museums, the Maryland Science Center features exhibits on specific fields of scientific study: astronomy, physics, biology, chemistry, and my favorite: paleontology.

The king is dead.
Etymologically, paleontology means, quite literally, the study of old and ancient things. So a stroll through an exhibit of the fossilized remains of dinosaurs is a stroll through the past. Much like gazing at the stars in your backyard is viewing a universe that hasn't existed for millions of years; it's the kind of thing that makes you dizzy to think about, and can understandably lead to feelings of insignificance. It's borderline ungrokable.

In a quiet moment, while my wife and boys examined a cast of fossilized dinosaur eggs, I walked over to a Tyrannosaurs Rex skull mounted on a metal frame. It's an image I've seen countless times; the mineralized cranial structure of what was once that planet's greatest predator. But this time, instead of looking upon this fossil with awe, I felt sadness. Because for all of its glory, this particular beast (or to be more accurate, a cast of a particular beast) ended up on display in a bright and spacious room in Baltimore, Maryland.

Today, we use the word dinosaur in a very different way, especially in the technology world. It's used pejoratively, a scoffed utterance to indicate the erstwhile utility of a technology, or worse yet, a human being. A dinosaur is a luddite, a troglodyte, a philistine, a provider and consumer of obsoleted solutions for obsoleted problems. A dinosaur is incapable, or perhaps disinterested, in evolving. In other words, a dinosaur is a dysfunctional anachronism of the first order. An organizational obstruction in need of percussive sublimation.

What Killed the Dinosaurs?

When used in IT (and other industries that undergo near-constant change), the word dinosaur implies a failure to adapt to change over time. We observe the dinosaur as it writes a batch file to automate an administrative task, or as it insists that more vCPUs means a faster virtual machine. The dinosaur's thought processes are mired in late 1990's capabilities; we conclude that this stagnation is what will lead to the dinosaurs extinction. But what killed the true dinosaurs was not a failure to evolve, it was a failure to sustain disruption. 

Cloud as Extinction Event

Make no mistake: cloud computing disrupts traditional hosting environments. For many, the migration to the cloud is perceived as an unwelcome change. The dinosaurs emerge to dig in to traditional models. But just as a successive failure of the food chain doomed the Earth's largest predator, an accelerating exodus of customers migrating to the cloud will doom IT's antiquated business models. The extinction burst will manifest as a last ditch attempt to save on-premises1 hosting. It's an understandable reaction to a realization that migration to the cloud is fait accompli.

Modern Dinosaurs

I've encountered many IT veterans over the years who would certainly meet the snarky criteria of a technology dinosaur. But I'm letting that term go. Today's dinosaurs were yesterday's luminaries; we'll all be dinosaurs one day. And maybe the next time you walk past corridors of quiet cubicles populated with sexagenary sysadmins, you'll bite your tongue before dismissively declaring, "he's a dinosaur."

Such declarations are unnecessarily cruel and inhumane to both the subject and the predicate.

To be continued...

1. You're welcome, pedants.