Latest reviews

2 stars
A raw group blog for the antiwar left

If you’ve been online since the late 90s, you probably have known about CounterPunch for a while. After 9/11, it became one of the primary sources for non-mainstream information about US foreign policy, while usually staying clear of the most absurd conspiracy theories.

The project was started as a print newsletter by Ken Silverstein in December 1993 (1993-2011 archives). A one-year subscription to 6 issues of the 36-page newsletter currently clocks in at $50 for US residents. Website content is unrestricted and ad-free.

I would situate the politics of CounterPunch on the antiwar far left (think Ralph Nader/Jill Stein), with some curious contradictions. For example, co-founding editor Alexander Cockburn (deceased in 2012) did not believe in climate change and opposed gun control.

The nonprofit organization behind the site (incorporated as the “Institute for the Advancement of Journalistic Clarity” in California) is as small as you might expect; it reported revenue of $427K in 2015, and did not report any employee compensation, suggesting a shoestring operation.

Unsurprisingly for a tiny org, there’s not much in the way of organizational transparency on the CounterPunch website: no reports, no financial statements, no link to the tax returns.

Content

CounterPunch primarily publishes analysis and opinion rather than original news reporting. Its writers include journalists and authors, activists and academics. It publishes a lot of material – the current “weekend edition” contains 45 articles, some exclusively published on CounterPunch, others cross-posted elsewhere.

The site doesn’t make much of an effort to organize this flood of information. The latest headlines are listed in the sidebar, and excerpts from selected articles in the middle column. The reader has to navigate opaque headlines like “We Aren’t Even Trying”, often without any additional context other than the author’s name.

Editing is hit-or-miss, and citations are few and far between. The website is more of a group blog than a journalistic enterprise, and to get value out of it, readers need to become familiar with the authors whose judgment they trust.

The site covers international politics with special focus on US domestic and foreign policy. There’s no meaningful distinction between types of content (e.g., news vs. opinion), and it’s not unusual for posts to adopt disparaging monikers like “Killary” (for Hillary Clinton), or to ascribe malevolence to political actors. Example:

“And certainly Sanders’s Iraq vote suggests he is not as reckless or bloodthirsty as Killary, but that is setting the bar somewhere beneath the belly of a viper.”

The tone is set at the top – editor Jeffrey St. Clair, too, uses monikers like “MSDNC” (for MSNBC) or “Hillaroids” (for Hillary Clinton supporters).

Positioning, Bias

The underlying perspective shared by many CounterPunch writers is that the leading political forces in the US are equally bad. Individuals like Julian Assange who express viewpoints opposing the US are uncritically celebrated. Here are a few headlines about Assange (who has also published on the site):

This hyperpartisan cheerleadership facilitates the spread of misinformation. For example, CounterPunch also published “Droning Assange: the Clinton Formula”, which was based on a story by True Pundit, a fake news site in the narrowest sense of the term (the made-up claim was uncritically repeated by site editor Jeffrey St. Clair).

It also ignores the many criticisms that have been raised about Wikileaks, which turned itself into a propaganda machine for the alt-right in the 2016 election cycle, up to and including proliferation of complete nonsense such as the infamous “Spirit Cooking” tweet.

Generally, CounterPunch publishes material consistent with a specific narrative: the US is the world’s dominant superpower, and therefore global issues can usually be traced to American action and inaction; in contrast, claims about misbehavior by countries not aligned with the US should be regarded with extreme skepticism. This view can perhaps be best summed up with this image shared via the site’s Twitter account:

img
How CounterPunch views the world. Source

Consistent with that idea, CounterPunch is receptive to apologia for dictators the US doesn’t like – it has published numerous stories defending Venezuela’s increasingly brutal and corrupt regime, for example. In extreme cases like the Syria conflict, it has published bizarre pro-Russian propaganda pieces such as William Blum’s oeuvre. In one recent article titled “The United States and the Russian Devil: 1917-2017”, Blum writes:

The same Western media has routinely charged Putin with murdering journalists but doesn’t remind its audience of the American record in this regard. The American military, in the course of its wars in recent decades, has been responsible for the deliberate deaths of many journalists. In Iraq, for example, there’s the Wikileaks 2007 video, exposed by Chelsea Manning, of the cold-blooded murder of two Reuters journalists; the 2003 US air-to-surface missile attack on the offices of Al Jazeera in Baghdad that left three journalists dead and four wounded; and the American firing on Baghdad’s Hotel Palestine, a known journalist residence, the same year that killed two foreign news cameramen.

There is in fact no evidence that journalists were specifically targeted (“deliberate deaths”) in the incident exposed by Wikileaks or the firing on the hotel. A much stronger case can be made that the attack on Al Jazeera was deliberate, and indeed US right-wing media agitated in favor of such attacks at the time, labeling Al Jazeera “enemy media”. If intentional, this certainly was an immoral and illegal attack.

A fair comparison would look at Russia’s own record in wartime and in peacetime, including the staggering list of journalists murdered within Russia. But a fair comparison is clearly not what Blum is aiming for.

In an aside, Blum credits Donald Trump for “not [being] politically correct when it came to fighting the Islamic State.” This is the same Trump who campaigned on the promise of murdering terrorists’ families. As for Russia’s own imperialist ambitions? Here’s Blum’s pro-Putin take:

Lastly, after the United States overthrew the Ukrainian government in 2014, Putin was obliged to intervene on behalf of threatened ethnic Russians in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. That, in turn, was transformed by the Western media into a “Russian invasion”.

In this view of the world, actions by actors the US dislikes are almost always defensible when viewed in light of alleged American behavior. That is not to say that the antiwar perspective isn’t useful – of course it is. But many of the writers CounterPunch publishes tend towards dogma, disinformation and rhetoric more than rigorous analysis, which makes the site, at best, a mixed bag.

At its worst, it enables demagogues. For example, CounterPunch routinely publishes Israel Shamir’s writings (including an execrable defense of Pol Pot). On his own website, Shamir has published an essay about Holocaust denier David Irving (emphasis original):

Technically, David Irving was sentenced for so-called “holocaust denial”. But the concept of Jewish holocaust being the only enforced dogma of supposedly secular Europe has little to do with the Second World War and its atrocities.

(…)

They say that even their death is not like the death of anybody else. We must deny the concept of Holocaust without doubt and hesitation, even if every story of Holocaust down to the most fantastic invention of Wiesel were absolutely true.

(…)

European history went full circle: from rejecting the rule of Church and embracing free thought, to the new Jewish mind-control on a world scale.

There’s not much to say here – no defense of this anti-Semitic rubbish is possible. Yet, CounterPunch has published more than 50 posts by the person who wrote these words.

Other Aspects

As noted, the website design overall is minimal and doesn’t aid discovery. Articles are usually just text; image embeds are often low-resolution, and other types of embeds (charts, interactive maps, etc.) are nowhere to be found.

The site works reasonably well on mobile devices. It refers to its Facebook presence for discussions, which is not a bad move – however imperfect, Facebook’s ranking algorithms at least mean that some of the better comments will come out.

CounterPunch content is under conventional copyright.

The Verdict

If you are looking for sources that help you understand what is going on in the world, I cannot recommend CounterPunch. Reading it may be cathartic if you share the specific views evinced by many of its writers, but the occasional bit of well-researched reporting is drowned out by one-sided commentary and analysis.

The site’s willingness to offer a platform to writers like Shamir suggests either very sloppy oversight or, worse, sympathies for anti-Semitic views. Either way, it makes the site less useful as a source to be cited and shared.

Evidence like the proliferation of the “Drone this Guy” story shows that even obviously made-up nonsense will not be weeded out reliably. Caveat lector applies – if you do rely on CounterPunch material, track down sources and verify that they really say what the author claims.

This is obviously not a criticism of every writer who publishes on CounterPunch. The site has been around for a long time and has attracted many widely respected left-wing and antiwar intellectuals. Project Censored, which does good work highlighting stories underreported in major media, has recommended a few CounterPunch pieces over the years.

However, since the 90s, many much more interesting alternatives have emerged, for example:

  • Common Dreams and Truth Out publish many writers from the antiwar left, but are more carefully edited and curated;
  • The Intercept and New Internationalist provide in-depth original reporting on international war and social justice issues;
  • Jacobin publishes explicitly socialist perspectives on current and historical events, while being usually reliably in opposition to all forms of authoritarianism.

2 out of 5 stars, with points off for poor editing, sensationalism, misinformation, and distortion through extreme one-sidedness.


1 star
Evite  pt

É difícil achar algo de positivo aqui, mas pelo menos a equipe do hotel foi gentil. O hotel em si é bem fajuto, o café da manhã é fraquíssimo (com direito a pão velho e Tang de laranja, única opção de suco), as paredes estäo descascando, só tem uma tomada que funciona no quarto, o banheiro tem teia de aranha, a decoração, quando existe, é cafona… Enfim, nada se salva aqui.

Evite.


3 stars
John von Düffels "Klassenbuch": Roman aus den soziopathischen Netzwerken  de

John von Düffel: Klassenbuch
Roman
Dumont Verlag, 317 Seiten, 22,- €, Ebook 17,90 €

Aufgemacht ist das Buch wie ein altes Klassenbuch, in das man einstmals eingetragen wurde, wenn man die Ordnung gestört hatte. Wer erwartet, dass hier Schulnostalgie abgefeiert wird, greift besser zur Feuerzangenbowle. Der Erzähler… da stock’ ich schon: Nein, es sind dann doch eher die „Einträge” eines Beobachters, die am Ende eine Geschichte ergeben sollen. Das Personal: Da gibt es neun Schülerinnen und Schüler, daneben auch Frau Höppner, die Deutschlehrerin. Die Geschichte: Um einen klassischen Erzählkern von Grille und Ameise herum blitzen Fragmente, Mails, Protokolle auf. Die Themen: Auch sie eher klassisch: Pubertät (Busensuche), Eifersucht, Schwangerschaft, Schülerliebe, Suizid, Magersucht. Aber weit und breit ist kein Törless in Sicht, keine Figur, die länger zu fesseln vermag. Denn sie alle sind sich ihrer Identität nicht mehr sicher. Haben eine Netz-Identität, klauen sich gegenseitig ihre Ich-Bruchstücke. Sie posten sich ihre Leben kaputt, auch die ihrer Mitschüler. Und Frau Höppner entschwindet. Wohin, sei nicht verraten.
Vielleicht wäre der Roman spannender geworden, wenn er aus der Perspektive der 24-Stunden-Superdrohne erzählt worden wäre, die 360°-Videos liefert von Orten, die früher einmal intim waren?
Von Düffel nutzt eine Jugendsprache, die so klingt, als wäre er mit dem Recorder im Schulbus unterwegs gewesen. Wie lange das aktuell bleibt, ist abzuwarten.
Die jungen Leute versuchen mit allen Mitteln, den Tragödien des Lebens auszuweichen. Das gelingt selbstredend nicht. Und eine Deutschlehrerin ist in dieser Welt die letzte, die es rausreißen könnte.
Spiegelungen und notierte Selfies ergeben mit Mühe eine Art Ganzes. Im Klappentext wird gefragt: Was macht die digitale Welt mit unseren Köpfen? Zu fragen wäre auch: Was macht sie mit unseren Autoren?


5 stars
Easy xkcd - Free Software xkcd and what if? viewer

Easy xkcd is a free software xkcd and what if? viewer for android devices.
You can share and favorite xkcd comics and what if? articles, and also view the explain xkcd explanation of every comic.
It supports viewing the alt text by long pressing the comic. You can also view a random comic by pressing the random icon in the bottom right corner. You can search for a comic with its number or title as well.

Pros:

  1. Clean look with material design.
  2. Night theme included.
  3. Adding a comic to favorites saves it on the device and it can be viewed offline as well.

Cons:

  1. Big download and binary size (11 MB) given its feature set. This is not much of an issue but I feel it could be cut down.


5 stars
A love letter to point and click adventure games, and a gorgeous game, too

Thimbleweed Park is a newly released cross-platform adventure game that was funded in large part through a 2014 Kickstarter campaign. Its creators – Ron Gilbert, Gary Winnick, David Fox, and others – are the directors and designers of some of the most celebrated point-and-click adventure games of all time, including Maniac Mansion, Zak McKracken, and The Secret of Monkey Island.

Their mission was to create a game that should feel like an archaeological discovery from the late 1980s, rather than a brand new game. Emphasis on “feel”, because Thimbleweed Park is meant to evoke memories rather than replicating them. For example, while it uses beautiful low resolution pixel art, it also employs more modern visual and sound effects to enrich the game environment. All the text is spoken by voice actors.

Setting and Game Mechanics

The game starts as a “whodunit”. Detectives Angela Ray and Antonio Reyes are trying to find a killer in the tiny town of Thimbleweed Park. Over time, we discover their own concealed motives, as well as a much larger mystery. The player can switch between an increasing number of characters as the story develops.

The game mechanics combine the familiar verb-object logic of most LucasArts adventure games (“Use Sushi in glass with lamp”) with some new elements such as character-specific to-do lists that help keep you on track.

Each of the game’s playable characters has their own voice, their own behavioral quirks, their own dialog, and so on. This is Ransome the Clown, for example, a disgraced insult comic. He carries itch cream with him that appears to serve no purpose but to produce an animation when applied.

Ransome the Clown animation

The game is chock full of little jokes and distractions like this one. The actual puzzles the player has to solve are similar to the ones you may be familiar with from the genre: pick up items, combine items with other items, push/pull objects visible on the screen, use differences between the characters to your advantage.

While you should keep pen and paper handy, none of the puzzles are unfair, none rely on excessive pixel-hunting, and it’s near-impossible to die. Nor can you end up in a dead-end situation – there’s always a way to progress in the story.

That said, the game can’t cure some genre-typical ills. You might sometimes get stuck trying to solve a puzzle before the plot has advanced sufficiently to let you do so, for example. Item combinations that should work produce no meaningful effect. And some puzzles are a bit silly (at one point, we have to search the whole town for a dime to use in a payphone).

Dialog and Plot

You can “talk to” characters all over Thimbleweed Park, and doing so may yield helpful hints or move the plot forward. As is typical, dialog consists of selecting one of multiple dialog lines in response to what another character says; often, you’ll find yourself clicking through all possible options.

Don’t expect laugh-out-loud humor in every interaction – there are plenty of little jokes, but much of the dialog simply expands on the backstory of a character or the town. It does so well, though the town’s small stories quickly have to make way for the larger plot.

The playable characters generally can’t talk to each other; the dialog between them is largely left to the player’s imagination.

Depth

All the action takes place within the town of Thimbleweed Park itself, but the game world is big enough to keep you engaged. Some scenes are visually rich but don’t let you do very much, though I suspect I missed a few Easter eggs along the way.

The level of detail in the game is astonishing, and much of it is in service to the fans and backers of the game. For example, the in-game phone book contains the names of all backers above a certain level, and each of them had the option to record a (spoken!) voicemail message for the game, which plays if you dial the number on an in-game phone.

Similarly, the in-game library contains hundreds of unique “books” – we only see two pages per book – written by fans of the game. They’re even loosely categorized and range from little poems to short stories and amusing pseudo-excerpts.

That said, beyond details and Easter eggs, the replay value of the game is limited. This is true for most point and click games: the game is more or less “on rails” and the level of real choice is limited. Think of it more like a movie you might watch again years later than a game you’ll keep playing.

The Verdict

If you enjoyed the point-and-click games of the late 1980s and early 1990s, then buying this game is a no-brainer. It stands on its own and delivers an interesting story and a lot of classic adventure puzzle fun.

It’s not perfect, but the imperfections are minor. The game might have been better with 1-2 fewer playable characters and a more coherent story to connect them to each other – Day of the Tentacle got that balance exactly right, while Thimbleweed Park falls a little short in that regard.

The game has many in-game references to video games and programming, and to the specific games Gilbert/Winnick/Fox made. This isn’t obsessive self-referencing – it’s pure affection. Much of the game is a love letter to the genre and to the fans who grew up playing these games, giving it an intimate feel that may be a little of-putting to folks who’ve never played any of them.

If Thimbleweed Park does look interesting to you but you’re new to this world of games, I’d recommend playing a few of the classics first. You can play the originals through ScummVM and in some cases buy modern remastered versions. My personal recommendation would be to play in this order:

  1. The Secret of Monkey Island (I’m not a fan of the remastered graphics, but the GOG version includes the original graphics as well)
  2. Zak McKracken (you can get a 256 color version on GOG that was originally made for an obscure Japanese console)
  3. Day of the Tentacle and the predecessor Maniac Mansion (both included in the GOG version; warning: Maniac Mansion has a high frustration level)
  4. Thimbleweed Park (GOG version)

As this list shows, I consider Thimbleweed Park to be a proper addition to this ensemble of games. The $20 price may seem a bit steep by the standards of casual gamers, but this is a big game, and if it does well, it will help keep the genre alive.

As someone who’s played many point-and-click games, I would give Thimbleweed Park 4.5 stars, rounded up because of the love that went into it; if you’ve never played a point-and-click before, I think you’ll still get a 4 star game out of it.


4 stars
Powerful (proprietary) markdown editor with minimalist UI that formats text as you type it

If you use any of the many content management or blogging platforms that are powered by the markdown, you may eventually find yourself wishing for a more pleasurable editing environment. Sure, markdown is pretty easy to learn, but the more complex a document gets, the higher the cognitive load of translating mentally between markdown and the formatted result.

Many markdown editors don’t change the actual editing experience and instead use side-by-side live preview to show what’s going on; others try to combine formatting and WYSIWYG into one ugly mess. Typora’s approach is different. It follows the “distraction-free” writing philosophy and largely gets out of your way – while offering powerful functionality when needed.

Documents look as if they’re fully WYSIWYG, but markdown magically transforms as you type:

Writing a headline in Typora

For some markup, entering that part of the text with your cursor reveals the underlying markup:

Reviewing a link in Typora

There are lots of neat little tricks that make the editor pleasurable to use. For example, let’s say you have a link in your clipboard. If you select a piece of text and press the link shortcut (on my system, Ctrl+K), the URL copied into your clipboard is added. While this may initially be confusing, as you anticipate this behavior, you can adjust your workflow and get a small productivity benefit:

Adding a link in Typora

The editor supports markup extensions such as math and tables. The table editor is fully WYSIWYG and very easy to use (tables in any markup language are a pain). You may have to turn off some of these features if they interfere with regular writing. The $ symbol was giving me trouble until I disabled math – having this enabled by default may not be a good idea.

As of this writing, Typora is still in beta, and while it is, it’s a free download for Linux, OS X, and Windows. Since I generally prefer free/open source software, I might not stick with it in the long run, but the thoughtful design choices are definitely impressive. If non-free software doesn’t bother you and you’re looking for a markdown editor, I recommend giving it a spin!


4 stars
A good source of brief daily science summaries with remarkable global reach

Of all the publications we’ve reviewed so far, Science News has by far the largest social media reach. With 2.27M followers on Twitter and 2.7M “likes” on Facebook, it easily outperforms many for-profit science outlets like LiveScience or SPACE.com, and is on par with Scientific American.

Granted, it’s had a bit of a head start. Science News has been in print since 1922 by the Society for Science and the Public. As the name suggests, Science News focused on giving updates on the latest scientific discoveries, but that includes some in-depth feature stories, as well. A print edition is issued every two weeks.

The online version includes a steady stream of mostly brief science updates alongside a set of staff blogs which effectively function as an analysis/opinion section.

Blog posts are available indefinitely, while articles become paywalled after a year (as of this writing, a digital-only Society membership that grants full archival access costs $25/year). You can also preview the print magazine before joining, a nice touch that I’d like to see other print publications adopt.

The organization also publishes Science News for Students, which targets “teens and tweens” and includes helpful glossaries in each article. Unlike the main site, its articles never get paywalled.

Funding, Compensation, Transparency

Per the latest available tax return, Science News had $18.6M in revenue in 2015. $6.5M of its expenses were allocated to Science News itself. In addition, the Society runs some of the largest science outreach projects in the country, each sponsored by a different corporation: the Intel Science and Engineering Fair, the Regeneron Science Talent Search and the Broadcom MASTERS science competition. Together, it spent $12.8M on these and other outreach programs.

CEO and President Maya Ajmera received $323K in total compensation including benefits in 2015. While a bit high by nonprofit standards, it’s well below the outliers we’ve reviewed (which are also smaller organizations). Ajmera brings impressive nonprofit credentials to the job: as a 25-year-old, she founded the Global Fund for Children, which has since grown into a large international grant-making organization. Editor-in-chief Eva Emerson received $200K in total compensation.

Unusually, the program areas such as the competitions generated 74% of the organization’s revenue in 2015 per the Annual Report, and the magazine only generated 23%. The report notes: “Print circulation declined 4.5 percent, to end the year with 84,548 paid subscribers. Despite the growth in digital readers, the magazine operates at a loss.”

Positioning, Coverage

The Society describes itself as being “focused on promoting the understanding and appreciation of science and the vital role it plays in human advancement: to inform, educate, and inspire.” Science in this context means primarily STEM – (natural) science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Its articles are typically written in a lighthearted tone, e.g.: “Dengue fever spreads in a neighborly way. Dengue is a bit of a homebody.” Some scientists may occasionally bristle at the publication’s liberal use of similes, but I did not encounter clickbait or sensationalism, nor did I find evidence of major inaccuracies.

The articles are typically short and illustrated, making the key conclusions easy to grasp. Cited papers are referenced directly, which isn’t necessarily a given in science reporting – other publications often reference an institution’s own press release, making it necessary to dig for the actual paper.

Science News generally stays away from political controversy and “science vs. pseudoscience” arguments. For example, a Google search for homeopathy yields no relevant article results (an internal search turns up the paywalled article “Dilutions or Delusion?” from all the way back in 1988). Homeopathy is obvious pseudoscience, so its exclusion is reasonable – but if you’re looking for arguments why something is or isn’t considered science, you might not find them here.

The publication did weigh in on the 2016 election with its own report: “See where Clinton and Trump stand on science”. It’s a neutral summary based on public statements and the responses to 20 questions posed by ScienceDebate.org, an independent effort the Society supports. In contrast to Scientific American (candidate assessments), Science News made no attempt to grade the candidates’ answers. Some might find its approach here a bit anemic and suffering from false balance, especially when considering the planetary stakes on issues like climate change.

Design, Licensing

Science News image from 1939 vs. modern screenshot
Then and now: Science News in 1939 vs. today

The site’s design is straightforward, with a left-hand column showing the latest headlines, and a right-hand area featuring story summaries. There’s little clutter to distract from the content, and you can safely turn off your ad-blocker if you don’t mind an occasional splash screen. There are small “sponsor messages”, but they are largely self-referential, e.g., an ad for the Science News app.

The color scheme is a bit too low-contrast; some of the grey-on-grey text is difficult to read even without vision problems. The site works fine without JavaScript and on mobile devices.

Each story features a Disqus-powered comments section, and the Science News staff does moderate comments that violate its policies. In spite of that, the signal-to-noise ratio of comments isn’t very high, but you’ll occasionally find very knowledgeable commenters.

Predictably, content is under conventional copyright, though Science News makes heavy use of photos and illustrations from free/open repositories such as Wikimedia Commons.

The Verdict

Science News is a fine source of daily updates on STEM topics, and the Society’s many outreach efforts are laudable and important. Its coverage avoids controversy, meaning that you may need to look elsewhere for background science on highly politicized topics like abortion, or for debunking pseudoscience.

Like many traditional publications with origins in print and declining print subscriber numbers, it’s clearly still trying to figure out its place in the new media landscape, but the large amount of quality content it produces combined with its reputation and strong branding have already given it a highly impactful online presence.

Organizationally, the Society shows all the signs of a well-run traditional nonprofit, and its Annual Reports give a good overview of its activities.

With all that said, it’s a bit sad to see so much quality content disappear into restricted archives (and it makes linking a bit pointless in the long run, unless you want to go digging on archive.org). It would be good to see the organization experiment with models that enable it to keep more of its articles freely available. For content that’s permanently unrestricted (such as the Science News for Students website), releasing it under a free license seems to have no obvious downside.

The final rating is 4 out of 5 starsScience News offers good summaries, but for depth and breadth, you may want to complement it with other science-focused sources.


3 stars
A missed opportunity to tell an interesting story

Life by Daniel Espinosa is Alien-style space horror, but instead of the Nostromo, the action takes place closer to home. The small crew of the International Space Station is tasked with analyzing a sample returned from Mars. The sample contains living cells capable of developing into a multi-cellular organism, and said organism quickly starts causing trouble.

The first half of the movie works reasonably well, but the careless actions of the main characters and the predictable use of various horror tropes turn the movie into forgettable fare. The creature itself is interesting enough; the battle of wits between it and the bumbling astronauts that man the station makes one wonder whether Earth might not be better off being taken over by the critters.

The acting is passable, but if you’re hoping for a breakout performance from Jake Gyllenhaal, you’ll be disappointed. He’s phoning it in as Dr. David Jordan, an apathetic long term tenant of the station, though you could be forgiven for mistaking him for the station’s android. I found Ariyon Bakare most memorable as biologist Hugh Derry, but the script stopped short of giving him anything interesting to do.

What you’re left with is an okay thriller that has a few visually powerful moments and an interesting creature, but that otherwise adds nothing to the genre. There are many stories about alien life that still deserve telling; this one we could have done without. 3 stars.


4 stars
Powerful dictionary, built on the shoulders of freedom

Jisho is an excellent online dictionary for English speakers. One of its most amazing features is that you can basically throw at it anything, and it will try to help you: voice, drawings, English words, Japanese words (either in any Japanese writing system or using the Latin alphabet) and even full phrases!

But for this reviewer, perhaps this most interesting aspect is how Jisho pulls together a bunch of free culture projects to deliver an amazing product. It uses the JMdict, Kanjidic2, JMnedict and Radkfile dictionary files (CC BY-SA), Tatoeba example sentences (CC BY), the System of Kanji Indexing by Patterns, or SKIP (CC BY-SA), kanji stroke order diagrams from KanjiVG (CC BY-SA) and last but not least, Wikipedia (CC BY-SA). Jisho is a great testament to the power of a free commons.

Having said that, it is with a heavy heart that one realizes that Jisho itself it not free-as-in-freedom. The developers have freed some related tools used in the making of the website, but not the thing itself, which is quite disappointing. It’s that one dent that forbids this reviewer from giving it a full five star rating in an otherwise impeccable project.


4 stars
Climate Central usefully combines science and journalism to inform the climate policy debate

While the scientific consensus is clear that human civilization is rapidly changing the climate through uncontrolled greenhouse gas emissions, details matter. Which regions will be hit hardest? Which natural disasters can be attributed to climate change? Do positive effects outweigh negative ones in some regions?

To tell this story accurately requires grappling with the latest scientific findings. Science/environment beat writers must do their best to translate these findings to their audiences. Sometimes the truth gets lost in translation, and important findings may be missed. Moreover, traditional media prefer reporting on the human drama of the moment (crime, politics, etc.), and climate change rarely gets the attention it merits.

Is there a better way? Climate Central combines climate science and climate journalism in a single nonprofit organization. It is less focused on the politics of climate change than, say, InsideClimate News (review), but it does cover policy interventions, as well.

It’s been fully operational since 2009 and is based in Princeton, New Jersey, near the famous university. That’s no coincidence. One of the organization’s biggest seed funders is Princeton alum Eric Schmidt (of Google/Alphabet fame), and several staff and Board members are Princeton-affiliated.

Funding and Compensation

The organization’s latest tax return shows revenue of $9.3M, which places it among the better-funded nonprofit journalism outfits.

Most of this funding comes from foundations, but the organization also lists government agencies such as NASA and the US Department of Energy among its supporters. Funding is not further broken down (by year/gift size), and multiple requests for details through the site’s contact form received no reply.

The organization does not publish Annual Reports, and there is no other page that speaks to impact of specific programs, with one exception: The “What We Do” page features a loose list of links to articles by many international publications which have featured Climate Central’s news and research.

Program expenses are split between journalism ($2.7M) and research ($2.2M). Executive compensation is very high by nonprofit journalism standards: CEO Paul Hanle received total compensation (including benefits) of $379K in 2014, Chief Scientist Dr. Heidi Cullen received $395K, and two (S)VPs received more than $280K in total comp.

Granting that Climate Central is an unsual organization, the Union of Concerned Scientists (based in Cambridge, MA – not much less expensive than Princeton) may serve as a useful additional benchmark. It is a much bigger organization, with $26.6M revenue in 2013-14 (tax return), yet its Executive Director received “only” $270K in total comp, and its Chief Climate Scientist (who was one of the Lead Writers of an IPCC report) received $186K.

Sampling the News Feed

  • “Trump and Automakers Target EPA Mileage Rules” is a typical Climate Central news story. It neutrally summarizes how the Trump administration is following through on a campaign commitment to roll back EPA rules implemented towards the end of Obama’s second term, and quotes both environmental experts, an auto industry lobby group, and an environmental advocacy group. (There’s nothing wrong with quoting industry lobby groups, as long as their interests are clearly identified. Problems arise when dealing with “think tanks” that act as corporate front groups, pretending nonpartisanship.)

  • “Polluters Could ‘More Easily’ Commit Crimes Under Cuts” examines the Trump administration’s proposed EPA budget. Importantly, it highlights some landmark EPA settlements and the complexity of cross-state pollution by large corporations, which refutes the idea that a state-level regulatory approach is sufficient. Again, the article is neutrally written and cites multiple voices, largely focusing on expert opinion.

  • “Carbon Dioxide Is Rising at Record Rates” cites recent measurements of the carbon dioxide concentration and is partially based on a press release by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Climate Central includes its own simplified version of the NOAA chart (see below) and adds useful additional data and context.

Climate Central chart comparison
The NOAA version of the chart vs. the Climate Central version. To simplify it, Climate Central removed tick marks, labels for in-between years, and 10-year average bars, and highlighted the most recent years. The most idiosyncratic of these changes is the removal of the year labels; most publications show at least some in-between year markers for time series data (NYT example, Vox example, Bloomberg example).

Other Projects

Beyond its news feed, Climate Central makes efforts to translate its own research into explanatory journalism. Sea Level Rise is one such example project. It is based on peer reviewed research such as the paper “Carbon choices determine US cities committed to futures below sea level”, and translates these findings into interactive visualizations.

An example of these visualizations is the “Seeing Choices” map which displays the sea level rise in cities like New York under different temperature scenarios.

Some news feed stories also feature interactive content, such as “Meltdown: More Rain, Less Snow as the World Warms”. Many of these interactive widgets are embeddable, though they don’t offer the rich set of share/embed/download options a site like Our World in Data does.

I didn’t find a list of all papers published by Climate Central scientists, or an open access policy, though the papers that are referenced do appear to be freely available online.

Design and Licensing

The main website doesn’t have a mobile version (a pretty major fail in 2017), and it is a bit cluttered with many sections competing for attention (“featured content”, “climate services”, “special sections”, etc.), drowning out the news portion of the site. Perhaps to make up for that, a large story carousel features the latest headlines.

wxshift screenshot
wxshift provides local weather information in combination with longer term climate data and other climate change context. While much more visually appealing than Climate Central, it does not appear to have much of an audience yet.

Climate Central has created much slicker story-centric designs for some of its feature reporting (example). It also operates wxshift, which combines weather reporting with context about how climate change is impacting the weather. Some of the main site’s news content is mirrored to wxshift, as well. Launched in 2015, it appears to have only a very small audience (as of this writing, it has 1,751 Twitter followers and barely registers on traffic ranking tools like Alexa).

Climate Central’s content licensing page is restrictive, requiring case-by-case permission requests rather than using a free license for some or all content. This is fairly typical; even among nonprofits, permissive licensing terms are the exception, not the norm. The organization goes through a lot of trouble to create graphics and maps, which would be entirely appropriate in reference works like Wikipedia, where they could be added to articles read by millions – but the restrictive copyright terms make that kind of re-use impossible.

The Verdict

Climate Central’s journalism+science approach usefully complements more politically focused sites like InsideClimate News. Its journalism is nonpartisan, understandable, and fair, while being based on the scientific consensus. If you care about climate change (and unless you are reading this from another planet than Earth, you should), it’s a source worth adding to your social media or RSS reader.

The main site could use an upgrade. While it’s certainly non-trivial to upgrade older sites, there are many open source projects specifically targeting nonprofit journalism, such as the Institute for Nonprofit News’ widely used Largo Wordpress theme and the Ghost publishing platform.

The organization would also benefit from greater transparency. Being open and accountable about how impact is measured and under what conditions projects are shut down can help donors appreciate that their support is put to good use, and that projects aren’t just left to spin even if they aren’t producing a lot of bang for the buck.

The rating is 4 out of 5 stars, with high marks for the overall quality of Climate Central’s journalism. 1 point off for lack of organizational transparency, for executive compensation well above other science and journalism nonprofits, and for a site design that is not consistently mobile-friendly.

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