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4 stars
A weekly dose of brain candy

You may never have heard of the Wellcome Trust, but with a £20.9B ($26.7B) endowment, it is one of the largest philanthropies and the largest non-government funder of health research in the world. Established in 1936 after the death of American British pharma magnate Henry Wellcome, it has retooled itself into a modern science funder and promoter of open access to scientific research.

Beyond direct funding for research, Wellcome also supports science communication projects, and Mosaic is an in-house effort launched in 2014 to publish “compelling stories that explore the science of life.”

The model is simple: every week, Mosaic publishes a long-form story or other journalistic work. Some examples:

  • a look at kangaroo care, a child care concept for pre-term babies pioneered in Colombia,

  • an investigation of the work of Robert G. Heath and his almost forgotten research. Heath implanted electrodes in human brains and gave them the ability to self-stimulate their pleasure center. He also attempted to “cure” homosexuals.

  • an overview of the current state of thinking about animal intelligence.

These articles are written for a general audience. They would be right at home in, say, the New Yorker, but might be a bit too light on details for Scientific American. Illustrations are often artistic rather than technical. There is some podcast and video content as well.

Occasionally, Mosaic experiments with data journalism. A good example is the Global Health Check, which is a nice way to explore how health indicators have changed since the year of one’s birth.

Other Aspects

Mosaic screenshot
The site design is entirely inoffensive, and some of the illustrations are quite beautiful.

Given the financial position of its parent organization, you won’t find any ads or donate buttons on the site. You also won’t find a lot of information about Mosaic’s organizational internals (though there are mountains of documents about Wellcome itself).

The site design is unremarkable and easy to navigate. It works well on mobile devices and without JavaScript.

Mosaic is described as editorially independent, and its reporting goes beyond projects Wellcome funds. I did find disclosure statements where appropriate. It’s also nice to see that every person involved with a story is credited at the bottom of each story (author, editor, copyeditor, fact checker, art director, illustrator, etc.), a practice I’d encourage other media to emulate.

Consistent with Wellcome’s open access policy, Mosaic content is under the Creative Commons Attribution License, allowing anyone to re-use it for any purpose provided credit is given.

The Verdict

If you’re at all interested in life science, I can’t think of any reason not to follow Mosaic’s work. It’s fairly easy to decide whether the weekly story is something you care about, and if it is, the journalism is generally of very high quality and a pleasure to read.

The focus of Mosaic is on the process of scientific exploration, on the scientists and caregivers, and on the lives impacted by their work. There’s room for improvement in how more technical aspects and key takeaways are conveyed. Call-outs or sidebars summarizing key concepts of an article might help readers who are short on time, or who just want a bit more than a teaser before deciding to spend 30-60 minutes on a story.

You can follow Mosaic on social media (Twitter, Facebook) to get updates and reposts, or you can subscribe via email to get only the new stuff. They’re also part of our Twitter list of quality nonprofit media. The rating is 4 out of 5 stars: recommended.

Posted under: Nonprofit Media

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.

Posted under: Nonprofit Media

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.

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