The New York Times, in an article almost certainly painstakingly designed to set off a tizzy of online clucking and hand-wringing, has presented the newest in precious parenting trends: board books for teething babies that reprise important works of classic literature and evoke a pre-pre-pre-Ivy League appreciation for classic art.
The Times says that they include: "... classics like “Romeo and Juliet,” “Sense and Sensibility” and “Les Misérables”; luxuriously produced counting primers with complex graphic elements; and even an “Art for Baby” book featuring images by the contemporary artists Damien Hirst and Paul Morrison."
The obvious reaction to this trend is to roll one's eyes and go back to reading "Five Fluffy Alpacas" once again. This would be counterproductive for a number of reasons, not least of which that the challenging subject material is likely to be entertaining to the parents and start a general expectation that kids will rise to more rarefied educational topics from time to time. Our fear of going above our kids' heads sometimes leads us to provide nothing that they can reach up to; see, for example, this analysis of a federal survey of students. It depicts a vast number of children in America who feel under-, rather than over-challenged by their work.
The heart of The New York Times board books story may lie in its closing quote from author and mother Cindy Hudson. While she doubts that kids will benefit from the prep school subject matter, she does suggest: "anything that encourages that interaction between babies and parents is a good thing. That’s where the learning and the bonding comes from.”
In other words: If you're more stimulated by reading a board book version of Robert Penn Warren's "All the King's Men" than "Pat The Soft Ducky" or "Everybody Spits Up," then there's a good chance that your children will be more stimulated, too.
Of course, the whole discussion prompts consideration of what our own favorite classics might be like if rendered as board books and read to curious, impressionable children:
Kafka's "Metamorphosis:" "Well, no, we don't know how he turned into a bug – that's sort of beside the point ... well, no, he didn't drink a potion. I mean, he might have. Sure, he drank a potion."
Dante's "Inferno:" "Oh, no, don't worry, you're not going to end up being chewed upon by one of Satan's three giant mouths ... unless of course you don't clean up your toys every night."
Solzhenitsyn's "Gulag Archipelago:" "Well, yeah, I think some of them get out. Actually, sure, everybody gets out. It's just a tough time but they all stick together and get through it. You know what, let's just read 'Metamorphosis' again."
I've long considered zoos and animal parks to be "animal jails." This doesn't represent any principled stand against animal suffering (as a lifelong non-vegan, I'm vulnerable on that front), but rather a dislike of the general "free creatures penned up" vibe and a quite-possibly overly empathetic imagination.
A new film, however, is putting fuel on the flame of those who harbor lingering suspicion of the practice of charging money in return for exhibiting captive animals. "Blackfish" raises questions about SeaWorld: namely, whether its practices are humane for the animals, and safe for handlers and animals alike. In the process, it raises larger questions about animals in captivity everywhere.
The film presents quotes and perspectives like this one shared on CNN:
"I am not at all interested in having my daughter who is 3-and-a-half grow up thinking that it's normalized to have these intelligent, highly evolved animals in concrete pools," said John Jett, a former SeaWorld trainer, who said he grew increasingly concerned about the stressful conditions the animals were living under at SeaWorld. "I don't want her to think that's how we treat the kin that we find ourselves around on this planet. I think it's atrocious."
That said: While conditions, financial models, and effectiveness vary from zoo to theme park to circus, there are still a number of good reasons to keep taking your kids to them.
1. The parks have improved
Through accreditation work done over the decades by organizations such as the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, zoos and animal parks have been held to ever-evolving standards of animal welfare that reflect improving knowledge of animal habits and habitats. The number of animals stuck in concrete pits has declined over the years as more and more effort is taken to re-create – as best as is possible in captivity – the aspects of life in the wild that give animals satisfying lives. Terms like "ecological psychology" and "landscape immersion" reflect an interest in climbing beyond the very base of Maslow's hierarchy, a psychological theory of human motivation put forth by Abraham Maslow, and trying to satisfy some of the higher needs of animals and observers alike.
Outside pressure (from films like "Blackfish") can play a positive role, too. SeaWorld's response to the film "Blackfish" has been combative (this lively back-and-forth between SeaWorld and the filmmakers gives you a sense of the feisty tenor) but knowledge that outside observers care deeply about the welfare of captive animals – and are willing to write or make movies about it – can only up the pressure and stakes on organizations to get it right and keep moving forward.
2. They help animals in the wild
Animal parks (and their donors) represent motivated organizations that have a vested stake in preserving wild habitats and populations of animals. As a counterweight to poachers and developers, they're a critical voice on the scene.
3. They're legitimately educational
Book and Web searches are fine and dandy, but to really gain an appreciation for the miracle of biology that is an elephant, or octopus, or ostrich, it really helps to see one in the flesh. It gives the mind something concrete to hang all those fun facts and scientific observations upon, and it stirs the imagination, too. There are far worse ways to stimulate young minds than putting them in close proximity to an alien life-form, and letting them sort out all the differences between animals and people – and all the shared ground, too.
4. They help preserve endangered species
Saving threatened species takes time, money, and advanced educational training, and animal parks, zoos, and aquariums are among the few places that bring all those assets to bear on the problem of species extinction. To what extent is it OK to monetize another species? How about if some of the money goes to preserve its future? These aren't easy questions to answer, and they're loaded with shades of gray, but they give you a sense of the kind of calculations ethical zoos and other wildlife parks have to go through on a regular basis.
And beyond work done to preserve the long-term viability of species, animal parks also often serve as refuges for injured or otherwise vulnerable animals.
5. Visiting animal parks is a family-friendly activity
Few places are so tolerant of the antics and volume levels of kids as animal parks – it's a safe space for moms and dads who want to spend quality time with their excitable, moody, sometimes high-intensity little ones. Simply giving parents a place to decompress and hang out with their kids is a serious social benefit that shouldn't be overlooked.
So, how often will I be taking my son to the zoo? As infrequently as humanly possible, if I have any say in it. But if my zoo-loving wife wants to lead the charge, she's got my support.
Parents who want to help boys who are reluctant writers may want to learn more about Bitstrips, the new free interactive comic strip app sweeping the Facebook landscape.
The app called Bitstrips launched its 1.1.7 version for iPhone, iPod, and iOS users this week as well as on Google Play for Android users. According to the International Business Times, it currently has more than 10 million users.
Bitstrips is a customizable avatar-creation tool on the Web that lets users create and share comics of themselves and others with personalized messages.
As a parent I saw two opportunities in this new app: 1. Connect with my teens in the cutting edge technosphere via adding them to my playlist of avatar/characters for the strips. 2. Connect our youngest son, Quinten, age 9, to writing.
Quin is mainly an A student with the exception of writing, which is a steady C.
I can tell you firsthand that difficulties in writing can be devastating to a child's education and self-esteem. Despite all his successes, what he sees as “epic failure in writing” and communicating his ideas on paper hurts Quin’s learning.
In a meeting before the start of the school year here in Norfolk, Va., I was lucky to find we had a new principal, Dennis Fifer, who has a keen understanding of boys and writing issues.
He listened to the teacher describe my son’s inability to put his thoughts onto paper and suggested to the teacher that Quin be allowed to make his own comic strips instead.
Mr. Fifer explained that most boys lag behind girls in both handwriting and story writing. It’s sometimes called “pencil anxiety” because the coordinative lag in handwiring in boys leads to reluctance to use that pencil to write. He suggested a keyboard in place of a pencil and a comic strip in place of an essay.
Quin loved the idea of drawing his own strip in place of his regular essay for school.
However, this was not a perfect system. Quin’s first essay on the assigned theme, “Believe in yourself, dream big, inspire others,” ended up featuring him as a Minecraft character creating a portal from our world to the game world to defeat pollution and coastal flooding via the Lego League of Justice.
I realized Quin couldn’t get the hang of it by simply reading the Sunday funnies or a comic book because he is so literal in his thinking that he could not make the leap from someone else’s imagination to using his own.
Enter Bitstrips and a daily example of how mom and his favorite big brother, Zoltan, are living in an alternate comicverse on Facebook.
You can either download the free app to your mobile device or access the app on Facebook, or on Android, or on iOS via app stores or Google Play. Bitstrips for Schools offers teachers the program for classroom use.
Then create an avatar of yourself based on your appearance with customizable hair, clothes, facial features, and body type. Next, choose from numerous pre-made scenes and scenarios.
You can also create avatars for friends who haven’t already signed up for Bitstrips, which Quin did with great glee for his brothers, me, and his father to include in his adventures.
Kids can add the script by typing in his own dialogue and captions or see them randomly generated.
You could almost hear an audible “click” when Quin saw the first strip generated.
“Oh! I get it,” Quin said looking at a comic of a cartoon me and Zoltan on a see-saw. “I don’t actually get the jokes, but I get it. Can I try?”
It’s actually good that he doesn’t have his own Facebook account because it’s forcing him to think outside himself when writing stories.
It’s a relief that Quin is engaged in writing and storytelling. Perhaps it’s a greater relief to see that the avatar he made of me represented more of his ideal than my reality. Win-win.
In an effort to battle substance abuse, a suburban Chicago Catholic high school has begun randomly testing its students for evidence of drug or alcohol consumption. The Associated press reports on the testing at Saint Viator High School:
Administrators say they plan to test 10 to 20 students a week by taking about 60 strands of hair that will be tested by a California lab.
The analysis will show if a student consumed drugs or alcohol in the past 90 days and how much they ingested.
Saint Viator is not alone at instituting a testing regime – in Cincinnati, the all-boys Catholic La Salle High School will begin mandatory testing of all students in the 2014-2014 school year.
What these schools' administrators have managed to set up is something reminiscent of philosopher Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon – a prison that relies on a central tower to observe inmates. The guards would be invisible to the prisoners (thanks to one-way mirrors, or another such trick). Because anyone could (in theory) be under observation at any point in time, bad behavior should drop to zero – there's no certain way to get away with bad acts if you can never be sure whether the warden's watching.
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At St. Viator the panopticon is enforced through unpredictable testing that could strike anyone (rather than the gaze of hidden cameras or guards that could see anyone), but the concept is similar: there's no safe way to misbehave.
The good part about sending your kids into an environment where they might be randomly tested for drugs and alcohol at any given moment: they're (presumably) less likely to drink or do drugs, although even that is debatable – this Global Post story suggests that there may be no gains, although there's always a fair question to be raised about whether schools that do drug testing have a slightly elevated drug use rate because the testing actually made the problem worse, or because the school had more of a problem to begin with. From the Post:
One ground-breaking study, conducted by the University of Michigan in 2003, found that schools with drug-testing policies had slightly higher rates of student drug use. At schools with drug-testing policies, the study found that 21 percent of students were using drugs, compared to 19 percent at schools without policies.
A study by the National Center for Education Evaluation confirmed those results. Another recent study, conducted by the University of Pennsylvania, found that policies didn't stop male students, and drug testing only worked as a deterrent for female students in schools with positive student-teacher relationships and clear rules.
And the potentially bad part about starting a testing regime at your school: you've effectively reinforced the feeling that school is prison, stripping away another layer of privacy and presumed innocence from all pupils.
My middle school and high school didn't test me and my peers for alcohol, but it still felt like a prison with regimented activities, security guards, mandatory work, and a jailer/jailed divide, complete with stool pigeons and hard cases. That false divide between teachers, administrators, and students was one of the worst aspects of school – we should have, in theory, been working together to teach, learn, and prepare for independent life, but we spent too much time in conflict: teachers had to act like cops, and kids would (of course!) cut class, or cheat, or abuse drugs and alcohol.
The relationship between authority and good behavior is always complex: abolish the rules, and you get anarchy, but squeeze too tightly, and your students start to slip through your fingers. The conversation no doubt will continue.
Parents want their kids to succeed and “get it right” when they perform on stage, but when an adorable preschooler departed from the choreography at a Dance Factory Preschool Tap show making her own, superior, tap routine, she proved once again that resilience is a better goal than perfection.
The video from the recital has gone viral on YouTube because the footloose and fancy free little imp improvises a hilariously magnificent dance of her own.
Seeing the video reminded me of my favorite quote by Vivian Green, “Life is not about waiting for the storms to pass. It's about learning how to dance in the rain.”
Face it, "the further off-script kids go the better the show" should be etched over every stage in America so parents like me can relax and enjoy the moment.
We don’t yet know who the child is, but I know that when she lost the thread of the choreography and let herself go with the moment her performance was perfection personified.
It’s fun watching her mug for the audience and groove to Broadway Baby in a way that creates the equivalent to a weapons-grade kid Kryptonite that would level notorious perfectionist dance teacher Abby Lee Miller and most Dance Moms.
Anyone who has ever had a child in any type of school performance knows the parental angst of watching them perform.
We want them to succeed and most times that translates to a flawless rendition of whatever they are supposed to do or say on stage. Nobody wants to hear a child scrape through a violin recital off key, forget their lines in the school play, or trip over their robes in the church pageant.
However, those things are bound to happen and when they do there can be no more successful moment than when the child ad-libs, does a little jig, or rolls their eyes to let us all know that a mistake isn’t the end of the world.
The key is that they won’t cope in the moment if we don’t provide examples of how we ourselves bounce back from errors and miscalculations during all the off-stage moments of their lives.
The secret ingredient to parenting isn’t showing the kids we’re perfect, but revealing that we’re not and showing how we deal with our own glitches and goofs.
I am a Type A, perfectionist, nervous-Nelly by nature. My analogy for how I handled errors and failures before and after kids is that I was like a shard of broken glass that was thrown into the parental sea and tumbled into a softer, frosted version of myself.
The lesson I learned is that striving for perfection is a worthy goal, but reality and chaos theory are waiting in the wings for our kids and we need to do a little rehearsal time for those events as well.
Frankly, if kids were Stepford perfect the family photo and video albums would be a bore to go back over.
While I deeply admire the parents who send me a yearly family photo of everyone neatly matched in holiday sweaters, the only story those pictures tell is that the parents are great kid wranglers who can afford nice clothes.
What I long to see is the card containing a photo snapped in a moment of typical chaos, with one kid’s sweater on backwards, another making rabbit ears over a sibling’s head or mom scolding the kid pulling a derpy face. I can see their whole year from a photo like that. That family interests me.
I hope the tiny dancer in the video never loses that ability to find her feet in a moment of uncertainty. Here performance should stand for the perfection of imperfection long after all the flawless recital footage has faded away.
The Archbishop of Canterbury hopes the christening of little Prince George into the Church of England today might invite imitators.
The BBC reports: “Although christenings were already in decline, one in three infants was still baptized into the Church of England in 1980. By 2011 that had fallen to just over one in 10. The overall number of baptisms – of people of all ages – witnessed a similar decline, from 266,000 baptisms in 1980 to 140,000 in 2011.
"It's a similar story in the Catholic Church, although the major drop-off in baptisms happened between 1964 and 1977, when the number halved. There's been a far gentler downward trend over the past three decades, recently stabilizing at about 60,000 baptisms a year.”
American churches have also seen a decline in infant baptism.
The Southern Baptist Convention, for example, reports that its affiliated churches had the lowest levels in 64 years last year. A 2006 report by USA Today says the declines accompany a lower birthrate, growing secularism in general, increasing interfaith marriage, growing popularity of non-liturgical worship, and a waning focus on sin.
In the American Episcopal Church – which, like bonnie Prince George’s Church of England, is part of the worldwide Anglican Communion – some believe that controversial liberalization within the church hastened a sharp decline in baptism during the past decade. Today's parents tend to view baptism as more a pledge of faith than as a washing away of sin, says the report.
According to the BBC, parents in the UK are happy to bend tradition, choosing multiple godparents, not just the requisite two, and often including the non-baptized in the mix as honorary witnesses. More modern clothing may replace the traditional christening gown, and warmed-up water may replace the cold shock of yore. But that doesn’t mean that the essence of baptism has been watered down.
A 2008 Georgetown University study reports that among Catholics who attend mass weekly, it remains the most meaningful of the church’s seven sacraments – whether received or lived out yourself, or witnessed in someone close to you.
Many will see Prince George’s day as much more than a pretty picture.
Are new revisions to the Google Chrome browser the future of parental security options on computers?
While parental monitoring and surfing restriction software already exists (this PCMag.com rundown gives you a nice overview; this more recent techradar writeup has a program-by-program rundown), the Chrome "Supervised Users" option would bring into the mainstream the ability for parents to limit and/or monitor their kids' browsing habits to an extraordinary degree. By bundling the power to regulate kids' browsing with the browser itself, it obviates the need to research and install third-party solutions, which brings the practice of parental Internet monitoring another step away from the realm of tech-savvy activists and toward general practice.
In a nutshell, the Supervised Users option in Chrome would let parents create secondary user accounts for their kids governed by a parental administrator account. Kids would log in to their own account (which would have its own parent-tailored settings and permissions based on their age, behavior history, and the parent's parenting style) and browse. The new software allows both "whitelists" and "blacklists" of sites: the former creates a world of approved sites that the browser could go to, with everything else off-limits; the latter creates banned sites (with everything else approved for browsing by default.)
But the key to the effectiveness of the new software is, like so many things, dependent on having active and involved parents. There really is no off-the-shelf solution that instantly fixes the Internet for kids – it takes time and energy to create blacklist or whitelist sites; it takes time and energy to review those sites periodically and expand or contract your kid's online universe appropriately; and most critically in the case of the new software, it takes time to review your kids' browser history to look for patterns and get a sense of how they're using the Internet.
For some parents and some kids, it might be enough to offer general guidelines and just review the browser history every week or two; for others, a carefully curated whitelist might be the best way to ensure productive and safe use of the Web.
Handled with the light touch of an observant parent, Chrome's new parental controls could help usher in a new era of safe (OK: safer, or "semi-safe" might be a bit more accurate) surfing for young people.
Of course, this is all well and good until your kids install a secret browser. Or use an unsecured computer at their friend's house. Or penetrate your administrator account with keystroke software or old-fashioned espionage. The cloak-and-dagger dance of parenting and children's mischief waltzes onward...
By seeking six mystery fans he snapped a photo of nearly 50 years ago, Ringo Starr is giving teens everywhere a powerful argument for being allowed to obsess over an idol, that someday they too might be able to brag about it to their grandkids.
“Starr wants to know if you were one of the fresh-faced kids who piled into a convertible and pulled up next to the Beatles’ moving car, trying to get the attention of what was the world’s most famous band,” according to the Miami Herald. “Starr snapped a photo of the teens – four males and two females; the sixth person is barely visible in the back seat of the car.”
Imagine the gift of Grandpa and Grandma cool points that is out there waiting to be given to the six mystery teens, now in their 60s, pictured in the now iconic photo. They may have told the story a thousand times about having seen the Fab Four but if they didn’t capture the moment on film as proof, their idol did.
At the time the photo was taken, the year before I was born, I imagine the parents of those teens would have had a fit over what mom and dad would surely have considered reckless driving and inappropriate behavior in chasing down “those long-hairs.”
I remember the celebrity obsession phase of my teenage years like it was yesterday because for me it never ended. I became a journalist and got to meet many of my idols, often using the same zany tactics I began developing as a teen seeking a handshake and a smile from an idol.
Maybe it’s the need to touch immortality or greatness. As teens we are still attracted to that light, rather than blinded by the envy we feel over not having become rich or famous ourselves.
Teens still have those rose-colored retinas that fade to gray as we age and toughen up. They are at the tipping point between Technicolor and black and white views of the world around them.
You can see that rosy vision in the eyes of the kids in the car in Starr’s photo. That picture captured all the enthusiasm of youth, all the promise and adventure.
I wonder if having that moment once upon a time had a positive effect on those six people? How did getting that close to the Fab Five affect the Mystery Six? Someone should ask that question when the folks are located.
As a teen in New Jersey I would sneak out to follow my idols, telling my mother I was at a friend’s house when in fact I was chasing down an author, actor, activist, or musician for a photo or handshake.
I met Arlo Guthrie, drank an illicit beer with Abbie Hoffman, got bear hugged by Luciano Pavarotti, all before age 20.
Those memories fuel my imagination today and so I let my sons go to concerts and listen eagerly as they tell me about how they met their idols.
A few days ago my son, Ian, 18, confided in me that he intends to begin his quest to meet his all-time idol and knowing my history asked my advice.
Let’s roll that back, my 18-year-old son A: confided in me and B: Asked for my advice.
It was difficult to keep from hugging him, crying, and dancing all at the same time.
“I have to meet Leonard Nimoy,” Ian said. “There are people who have to meet The Pope or Stephen Hawking or some random sports star but I HAVE to do this before he dies. Not before I die, before he dies. So I’m asking because we’re on the clock here Mom.”
Super. We’re in Norfolk, Virginia and Nimoy’s probably in California or on a space station somewhere.
But because I managed to meet all my heroes I believe Ian will find a way to beat the clock and the odds.
That’s what following your passion, even once in a lifetime, gives you: belief. The confirmation of belief and passion of capturing the moment is what Starr saw through his lens and what those mystery six are about to receive.
One small drop for man, one giant leap for toys, amusement park rides, science experiments and imagination, today the Google doodle celebrates the 216th anniversary of the first parachute jump.
“The doodle is based on André-Jacques Garnerin's daring leap on Oct. 22, 1797 at Parc Monceau in Paris, which saw the then 28-year-old leap from a balloon using a seven-metre silk parachute that resembled an umbrella,” according to the Google doodle website.
The reason this event is important to parents is that without that first jump no little boy – or girl – would ever have a plastic army man to toss off a balcony, no raw egg would make it safely to the ground when tossed off a building in a science class experiment, and Disneyland would be short the Parachute Drop ride which is a replica of Garnerin's basket drop.
Having four sons, I have seen more parachutes and been the victim of more airborne pranks than I can count.
My two older sons loved those little plastic army guys that come with a parachute. You could find the “air sailors” as my two older boys called them, in cereal boxes, birthday goody bags, and bubble gum machines at the supermarket.
When the two older boys were toddlers we lived aboard a sailboat down in Goodland, Fla. And we were worse than dirt poor, we were water poor.
One Christmas when we lived on the boat we had zero money and all I could afford was toys from the machine at the supermarket.
I cried and beat myself up over the worrying that I had failed them.
They opened all the handmade gifts and played happily enough until they began to unwrap the tiny packets containing the parachute men and began to whoop with total joy.
The little men who could float and catch the air currents in their little “sails” turned out to be their favorite toys for years to come, not that they lasted more than a few flights before needing repairs.
When we moved from the boat to land and an old log cabin in Medford, N.J. a few years later my sons’ greatest joy in life was launching the darn army “air sailors” off the balcony down into the living room to see who could land one in my morning coffee.
You never know where one little leap will take you. Those parachute men launched my sons’ fascination with science.
A few months ago my eldest son Zoltan, 19, informed me he intends to do a parachute jump as soon as it’s affordable.
While it scares me to pieces, I’m excited and amazed that one small toy derived from one great experiment by Garnerin's could give my kids’ imaginations so much air time.
While Legos aren't going anywhere anytime soon, it's fair to say that the online building blocks game Minecraft is the modern-day online equivalent of Legos.
Minecraft, like Legos, is less a toy or a game than a complex system for building, playing, and learning, using hundreds (or thousands) of small units to build up complicated structures, systems, and scenarios.
And like Legos, it scales depending on what you want to do with it – a child can build a simple house; a world-class architect can build a profoundly sophisticated palace. And the former can concretely aspire to be the latter.
The beauty of Minecraft is that players can do quite a bit more than any but the best-funded Lego architect can manage.
You can create an assembly line. You can build a replica of the Taj Mahal. You can build a programmable computer. And now you can explore the world of quantum mechanics and computing thanks to an add-on by Google Quantum A.I. Lab Team.
The Team explained in a blog post:
Millions of kids are spending a whole lot of hours in Minecraft ... So how do we get these smart, creative kids excited about quantum physics?
We talked to our friends at MinecraftEdu and Caltech’s Institute for Quantum Information and Matter and came up with a fun idea: a Minecraft modpack called qCraft. It lets players experiment with quantum behaviors inside Minecraft’s world, with new blocks that exhibit quantum entanglement, superposition, and observer dependency.
And while the Google team concedes that qCraft isn’t a perfect scientific simulation, perfection is beside the point – the main thing is that it's "a fun way for players to experience a few parts of quantum mechanics outside of thought experiments or dense textbook examples."
Minecraft in general (and quantum Minecraft specifically) offers students an opportunity to experience virtual experiential learning – which is to say, the virtual chance to learn something by doing it, rather than learning by reading or listening to a description.
All of this is exciting to a dad like myself, an old-school nerd raised by a digital design engineer (i.e a truly old-school nerd). I grew up building massive houses of cards with computer punch cards, the pieces of paper that used to be how computers were programmed and operated, graduating as an older kid to playing (and re-playing, and re-playing) the classic city planning game SimCity.
And now I can look forward to having a son who eventually builds his own worlds in Minecraft - and explores the world of quantum computing within those worlds, to boot.