Category Archives: Editor’s Pick

‘Not Too Much, Not Too Little’: Programming Luck Into Video Games

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In fully digital video games, luck is even more deeply baked into the experience, and must be actively simulated. When the soccer ball sails past the goalkeeper in FIFA, or when, inexplicably, a herd of race cars slows down to allow you to catch up, a game designer’s hand has just acted to provide some ghostly rigging. The effect of this manipulation is to flatter you and thereby keep you engaged. But it’s a trick that must be deployed subtly. A player who senses that he’s secretly being helped by the game will feel patronized; after all, luck is only luck if it’s truly unpredictable.

Which is where the problems begin.

— At Nautilis, Simon Parkin examines the responsibilities and challenges of engineering luck into video games.

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‘We Have a Lot of Firepower — and We Will Persevere’: California vs. Trump

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The journalist and historian Carey McWilliams once called California “the great exception.” McWilliams was writing in the 1940s as he tried to make sense of the first 100 years of the state’s turbulent history. But McWilliams’s idea that California is a singular place, a nation-state unto itself, has never felt truer than it does now.

On the same night that Americans narrowly elected Donald Trump, Californians voted overwhelmingly in favor of his rival, Hillary Clinton. They sent 39 Democrats to the House of Representatives out of 53 seats. They elected Kamala Harris, a liberal Democrat whose father is Jamaican and whose mother is Indian, to the U.S. Senate. They gave Democrats supermajorities in the state Legislature. They passed ballot propositions to legalize recreational use of marijuana, raise the tobacco tax, ban high-capacity magazines, relax parole rules for nonviolent felons, increase transparency in the legislative process, repeal the decades-old limits on bilingual education, and extend higher income taxes on the wealthy. Elsewhere in the country, the Democratic Party lay in tatters. In California, it was dominant.

In the first piece in a series at The California Sunday Magazine, Andy Kroll sets out to explore the relationship between California and Donald Trump’s Washington.

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When Boredom Yields Treasure: The Hermit Who Inadvertently Shaped Climate-Change Science

Broad-Tailed Hummingbird. Photo by Maureen Leong-Kee CC-BY SA 2.0

He also understood that the male broad-tailed hummingbird’s wings make a whistling sound, and indeed Barr had tracked the bird’s return each spring. Together with Barr’s weather and snow melt, Inouye was able to show how climate change’s impact on a single flower might mean the end of broad-tailed hummingbird migration in the region.

The hummingbird relies on nectar from the glacier lily—so much so that it synced its migration to arrive in Gothic just before it blooms. To adjust to warmer springs, however, the lily now flowers 17 days earlier than it did four decades ago. In two more decades it’s likely the broad-tailed hummingbird will completely miss the glacier lily’s nectar. This widening seasonal imbalance is called phenological mismatch, and has become a major concern as scientists learn more about climate change. In Gothic, this will impact not just broad-tailed hummingbirds, but also butterflies, bees, hibernating mammals, and the animals that depend on all those animals. These same dynamics will play out across the Rocky Mountains, and similar alpine ecosystems across the world.

At The Atlantic, J. Weston Phippen reports on Billy Barr, a man who moved into a remote part of the Rocky Mountains in search of solitude over 40 years ago. To avoid boredom, he documented snow levels, animal sightings, and the date flowers first bloomed. “…collectively his work has become some of the most significant indication that climate change is rearranging mountain ecosystems more dramatically and quickly than anyone imagined.”

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Who Was Martin Luther King, Jr.?

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Martin Luther King Jr. was many things — a radical, a moderate, a peacekeeper, a hellraiser, a father, a husband, a crusader against the evils of capitalism, a proponent of love and also revolution. He was a man known to be deeply sensitive, sometimes misogynist, often depressed, blisteringly funny. He was all of these things and more. And like so many brothers and sisters before and since, his beautiful and rich mahogany tones have been flattened to the matte black of the history books that paint him as the friend of well-meaning whites and the moral opposition of angry blacks. And like King, we as black people are so much more than white supremacy would have us believe.

Who and what are we really commemorating on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day? Writing in The Establishment, Ijeoma Oluo unpacks the myriad ways Dr. King’s story has been softened and re-written to weaken black activism and bolster white supremacy.

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Empathy and Escapism — Obama’s Secret to Surviving the White House Years: Books

Photo by Michael Pittman CC-BY SA 2.0

Not since Lincoln has there been a president as fundamentally shaped — in his life, convictions and outlook on the world — by reading and writing as Barack Obama.

“At a time when events move so quickly and so much information is transmitted,” he said, reading gave him the ability to occasionally “slow down and get perspective” and “the ability to get in somebody else’s shoes.” These two things, he added, “have been invaluable to me. Whether they’ve made me a better president I can’t say. But what I can say is that they have allowed me to sort of maintain my balance during the course of eight years, because this is a place that comes at you hard and fast and doesn’t let up.”

Writing was key to his thinking process, too: a tool for sorting through “a lot of crosscurrents in my own life — race, class, family. And I genuinely believe that it was part of the way in which I was able to integrate all these pieces of myself into something relatively whole.”

At The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani reports on how reading and writing helped President Obama to “slow down and get perspective” from novelists, memoirists, and historical figures during the eight years of his presidency.

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The Mysterious Disappearance of Keith Davis

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Davis boarded the MV Victoria No. 168 in Vacamonte, Panama, on August 5, 2015, departing a few days later for a voyage that was supposed to last between two and a half and three months. The Victoria was operated by Gran Victoria International, a Panamanian company, but had ownership ties to Japan, and was staffed with a Taiwanese captain and a Burmese and Chinese crew. It was not an ordinary fishing boat; the Victoria was a tuna transshipment vessel, a kind of mother ship for smaller commercial boats, with large refrigerated holds that allowed boats to offload their catches at sea and avoid the hassle of making regular trips back to port. Such an arrangement also makes it easier to hide illegal shark fins and drugs among the fish transfers. Davis had worked on transshipment vessels before and knew they were among the most dangerous for observers.

“The ship is a little bit different. I’ll tell you about it once I get back,” Davis wrote in an email to his father, John Davis, a few weeks into his trip. The two were close, and John often received emails from his son while he was out at sea—nothing about this one suggested he was in any danger.

Fisheries observer Keith Davis monitored and collected data on fishing vessels, devoting his life to protecting the seas—until he went missing. Sarah Tory reports on his disappearance at Hakai Magazine.

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Strange Women: Vancouver’s Female Punk Visionaries

Photo by Honey Bunny, Flickr

It must be said that no history of women’s contributions to music was being taught. There were no special university courses. There were no books or magazines in the library. Obviously there was no internet. Any piece of information about a woman playing music was most likely found in a bin in a used record store. The radio “rule” was no more than two female singers in a row. This held true even for the earth-shattering FM format, which blasted great music to hungry minds barely weaned off transistor radios. (When my mother was a cleaning lady for a small radio station in the American Midwest, she used to save all of the demo 45s for me that had been thrown away. Most of these records were by women: the band Fanny, country singer Skeeter Davis, Aretha Franklin’s sister, Erma, singing “Piece of My Heart.”) But even among leftists there was an assumption that women weren’t making music. In 1981, when I went on the air with Rubymusic, a radio show specializing in this very subject, even my radical (and very supportive) radio station, Vancouver Co-operative Radio, was concerned that I might not be able to find enough music by women to fill half an hour every week.

– At Geist magazine, Connie Kuhns tells how revolutionary female musicians built up Vancouver, British Columbia’s underground music culture in the 1970s. The story was a finalist for a National Magazine Award in 2015.

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Over 40 Years in “Closed Cell Restricted”: How Albert Woodfox Survived Solitary

Photo by msppmoore CC-BY SA 2.0

When Woodfox was eighteen, he was arrested for robbing a bar and sentenced to fifty years in prison.

Two weeks after Miller’s death, the four men were charged with murder. There was an abundance of physical evidence at the crime scene, none of which linked them to the killing. A bloody fingerprint near Miller’s body did not match any of theirs.

Woodfox often woke up gasping. He felt that the walls of the cell were squeezing him to death, a sensation that he began to experience the day after his mother’s funeral, in 1994. He had planned to go to the burial — prisoners at Angola are permitted to attend the funerals of immediate family — but at the last minute his request was denied. For three years, he slept sitting up, because he felt less panicked when he was vertical. “It takes so much out of you just to try to make these walls, you know, go back to the normal place they belong,” he told a psychologist. “Someday I’m not going to be able to deal with it. I’m not going to be able to pull those walls apart.”

Woodfox is reserved, humble, and temperamentally averse to drama. When he talked about himself, his tone became flat. He was scheduled to speak at a panel on solitary confinement the next day, and he felt exhausted by the prospect. “I get apprehensive when somebody asks me something I can’t answer, like ‘What does it feel like to be free?’ ” he said. “How do you want me to know how it feels to be free?” He’d developed a stock answer to the question: “Ask me in twenty years.”

At The New Yorker, Rachel Aviv profiles Albert Woodfox, a man originally sentenced to 50 years in prison for robbery. A member of the Black Panthers and the Angola 3, Woodfox spent over four decades in solitary confinement, despite a stunning lack of evidence against him in a prison murder.

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Concussion Chronology: One High School Football Player’s Secret Struggle with CTE

Photo by Marcus Quigmire CC-BY SA 2.0

“Zac was a thumper,” his father says, standing in the family kitchen. “Of all the boys, he was the one who wouldn’t show pain, who’d be fearless.… He’d throw his head into anything. He was the kind of guy I like on defense.”

…only Winslow knew the full extent of Zac’s struggles in the five and a half years since high school: the brain tremors that felt like thunderclaps inside his skull, the sudden memory lapses in which he’d forget where he was driving or why he was walking around the hardware store, the doctors who told him his mind might be torn to pieces from all the concussions from football. She knew about the drugs and the drinking he was doing to cope. She knew about the mood swings, huge and pulverizing, the slow leaching of his hope.

At GQ, Reid Forgrave profiles Zac Easter, a former “smashmouth” high school football player who took his own life in the aftermath of suffering five diagnosed concussions during his football career.

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Debutante in the Amazon Jungle: A 50-Year Adventure

Photo by Eli Duke CC-BY SA 2.0

This is the story of the remarkable life the former Toronto debutante chose instead: to work as a missionary among the Kayapo tribe in a remote corner of the Amazon jungle. She has, by her count, survived multiple bouts of malaria, battled typhoid, worms, fleshing-eating maggots and burrowing fleas; dined often on armadillo (it tastes like chicken); impaled her foot on a poisonous fish; been shocked by electric eels and chomped by caterpillars, whose bite she equates to “liquid fire.”

She has narrowly escaped death by anaconda, witnessed a villager get his finger bitten off by a piranha and been asked to bury a dead Brazilian on a beach — after her Kayapo hosts murdered the man for straying into their lands. Thomson used to spend up to a year, without break, among the Kayapo in her younger days. Now 76, she spends up to half the year in Canada.

Fifty years ago they didn’t wear clothes. Now they call Thomson on their cellphones.

At The National Post, Joe O’Connor shares the story of Ruth Thomson, a Toronto debutante-turned-missionary who eschewed society life in 1965 to spend 50 years living with a remote tribe in the Amazon jungle.

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