Here’s our collection of engrossing, original, troubling, and all-around extraordinary stories from around the web in the month of January. My mind’s still swimming from some of this stuff—dogged reporting, expert storytelling, fascinating thinking, and well worth the time.
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Alvaro M. Bedoya | Slate
We now find ourselves in a new surveillance debate—and the lessons of the King scandal should weigh heavy on our minds. A few months after the first Edward Snowden revelation, the National Security Agency disclosed that it had itself wiretapped King in the late 1960s. Yet what happened to King is almost entirely absent from our current conversation. In NSA reform debates in the House of Representatives, King was mentioned only a handful of times, usually in passing. And notwithstanding a few brave speeches by senators such as Patrick Leahy and Rand Paul outside of the Senate, the available Senate record suggests that in two years of actual hearings and floor debates, no one ever spoke his name.
There is a myth in this country that in a world where everyone is watched, everyone is watched equally. It’s as if an old and racist J. Edgar Hoover has been replaced by the race-blind magic of computers, mathematicians, and Big Data. The truth is more uncomfortable. Across our history and to this day, people of color have been the disproportionate victims of unjust surveillance; Hoover was no aberration. And while racism has played its ugly part, the justification for this monitoring was the same we hear today: national security.
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Jason Tanz | Wired
Amidst all the plasma guns and power-ups, it can be easy to overlook the fact that videogames are inherently metaphysical exercises. Designing one is like beta-testing a universe. Its creators encode it with algorithms, maps, and decision trees, then invite players to decipher its hidden logic. Intentionally or not, games contain implicit messages about purpose, free will, the afterlife. Master the secret rhythms of Super Mario Bros. and you can deliver the eponymous plumber to a princely paradise. But even the best Space Invaders player is fated to end the game in defeat, another futile circuit in its samsara-like cycle of death and rebirth.
In a 2011 lecture titled “Truth in Game Design,” developer Jonathan Blow declared that games were a unique platform through which to explore the mysteries of the universe. “We can come to the game with question after question after question and type in some code and get answer after answer after answer,” he said. “And if we’re tapping into the right thing, then the volume of answers available to us can actually be quite large.” Blow, whose time-bending puzzle game Braid was a breakout hit, was speaking mostly of questions pertaining to theoretical physics and advanced mathematics. The questions That Dragon, Cancer is asking, on the other hand, are the kind of spiritual and existential quandaries that have haunted humanity since Job: Why are we here? Can we influence our fate? What kind of God would allow such suffering? How do we endure the knowledge that we, along with everyone we have ever met and loved, will die?
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