Month: March 2019

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It’s not until two-thirds of the way through Significant Zero, his memoir of working in the videogame industry, that Walt Williams finally invokes the dreaded five-letter word: crunch. The term describes the moment when “game developer” ceases being a 9-5 job, and morphs into a haze of constant overtime, nights and weekends lost to endless coding, troubleshooting, and tweaking in order to ship a game on time. The emotional toll crunch takes on workers and their families is universally derided, but it’s hard to find a story of game development that doesn’t fall into this trap.

Williams loved it. “Crunch isn’t a pandemic or a death march,” he writes. “It’s not even exclusive to the games industry. If anything, crunch is a natural occurrence brought on by the creative process.” By this point in the narrative, he’s has established himself to be enough of an eccentric that he willingly throws his entire life overboard for a project, but his screed in praise of crunch still feels like an echo of hustle-harder startup culture. The valor of cashing in your twentysomething singlehood for a creative gamble, in his eyes, outweighs its drawbacks.

Another recently released book provides a parallel journey to Williams’—more than one of them, in fact. Jason Schreier’s Blood, Sweat, and Pixels illuminates the process of video game development but from a more detached seat: His book collects the development history of 10 games from the last decade, from massive hits like Destiny and The Witcher 3 to the niche success of indies like Shovel Knight and Stardew Valley. Taken in tandem, the two books provide a rare, comprehensive portrayal of the stresses and strains of game creation.

Crunch in Schreier’s book isn’t so warmly embraced. For Eric Barone, who singlehandedly created farming simulation title Stardew Valley, solo game development provided little more than exhaustion. “He had no coworkers with whom to bounce around ideas, nobody to meet for lunch,” writes Schreier, an editor at games site Kotaku. “In exchange for complete creative control, he had to embrace solitude.”

In recent years, a good chunk of video game journalism seeks out failure, preferring to chronicle the fall of a development studio rather than simply parroting promotional tidbits handed out by game publicists. This is Blood, Sweat, and Pixels’ model: by holding the miserable bits up to the light, Schreier creates a compellingly warts-and-all portrait of a profession that so many who grew up playing games idolized.

Coming from the game-publishing side of the industry, Williams offers less insight to the development process itself; his book functions almost as a defense of his own side of the creation process. Publishers often are where fans—and even developers—direct their ire, whether for swapping development teams, shoehorning illogical ideas into the game, or stripping a game’s content for eventual for pay downloadable content. Significant Zero offers the other side of the argument. As Williams works with game developers, he sees games that might be on the wrong path, or a feature that doesn’t work as intended, and now it’s his problem to make sure it gets resolved. This is often where egos clash—it’s the game equivalent of a film director getting notes from the studio brass—and Williams, by his own admission, occasionally takes on too much of a creative role when pulling back would be a better move.

That knowledge helps inform the tensest parts of Schreier’s book. In chapters detailing the troubled development of Halo Wars and Dragon Age: Inquisition, developers Ensemble and Bioware (respectively) wrestle with their publishers’ constantly shifting demands. Especially in Ensemble’s case: Halo Wars started off as an original idea until publisher Microsoft forces the dev studio into making a real-time strategy game in the Halo universe, even Bungie—original creators of the Halo games—chafed at seeing their IP in another developer’s hands. (Schreier downplays the tension in the Halo Wars chapter, but it re-appears later in the book, during a chapter focusing on Destiny.)

Significant Zero closes by focusing on the creation of Spec Ops: The Line, a military shooter that tried its best to fight against the tropes and mindlessness of many first-person shooters. While critics praised the game for its subversive quality, it never became a financial success; the stumble doesn’t change Williams’ pride in the end result of years of hard work. Schreier finds a similar note in the tale of Star Wars 1313, which Disney cancelled after acquiring LucasArts despite early critical and fan reaction. The decision to end on notes of failure rather than long-fought successes is ultimately what lifts both books out of the for-gamers-only category; they offer insight into not only game development, but any creative field. After all, when six months of work can be undone in a single meeting—and sometimes is—there’s no such thing as esoteric.

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When the Justice League crew took the stage at Comic-Con International’s Hall H on Saturday—minus Henry Cavill, whose Superman is technically dead—they did so to a standing ovation, with the loudest screams reserved for Gal Gadot/Wonder Woman. But as the banter started and the footage rolled, there was one thing missing: their director. Joss Whedon, one of geekdom’s most beloved auteurs, took over Justice League a few months ago following the death of director Zack Snyder’s daughter, and some (OK, us) had speculated the director would make a grand return to Comic-Con for his latest film.

He didn’t—but that doesn’t mean his presence wasn’t felt. Because at the panel, just days after reports that Whedon was doing “extensive reshoots” for the movie, Warner Bros. released a new trailer for the film that demonstrated one thing is for certain: Justice League is turning into a Joss Whedon movie.

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First signal that we're working with a Whedon joint: the new trailer opens on Wonder Woman taking on a machine-gun-wielding group of heavies. Sure, Warners would be fools to not harness the power of the highest-grossing movie of the summer, but don't forget that badass heroines are kind of Joss’ thing—or at least one of them. Considering that he started work on the movie before Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman opened, chances seem good that he moved Godot’s character into the forefront. The fact that she’s positioned as the rational, together one throughout the rest of the proceedings feels very Whedonesque as well.

Exhibit B: The Flash, played by Ezra Miller. Barry Allen was already being portrayed as the new kid on the block (as well as the comedic relief) at last year's Hall H panel. But in the new trailer unveiled today, he and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) are the insecure rookies—and Whedon loves an outcast.

But more than anything, the biggest difference between the new trailer and anything we’ve seen out of Justice League before is the visual tone. Outside of the bigger action scenes with new villain Steppenwolf and some night shots, the dark patina Snyder gives to his films has faded away. It’s still darker than anything in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but this latest peek shows a movie much lighter on its feet than anything fans have seen before—more Wonder Woman than Dawn of Justice. It’s even got a possibly-Superman-teasing button at the end that feels like a Marvel post-credits scene. Through and through, it shows off the kind of heroics that made Wonder Woman a hit and Avengers Whedon’s calling card.

Justice League doesn’t hit theaters until November 17. That may seem like a long way from now, but it’s a relatively short amount of time for Whedon to take a three-fourths-baked movie and make it jibe with his vision. Of course he didn’t make to Comic-Con—he’s working. Joss Whedon may not have been sitting in Hall H this year, but he’s definitely back.

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Didja hear? The Han Solo standalone movie had quite the shakeup last week. With just a few weeks left to go before the end of principal filming, the directors of the flick were fired from the project and replaced a couple days later. Meanwhile, the director of Star Wars: Episode IX found himself the subject of a barrage of criticism. Suddenly, things aren't looking so exciting in the galaxy far, far away. (Although some hot takes are probably taking the panic a bit too far.) What's going on in the land of the Jedi? Oh, not much. Just all this.

So, What Actually Happened with the Han Solo Movie?

Source: Anonymous insiders with, inevitably, agendas of their own

Probability of Accuracy: Who can know, really?

The Real Deal: So… exactly why were Phil Lord and Christopher Miller let go from the untitled Han Solo movie? The situation is still unfolding, but based on two early reports, it looks as if the cause was as simple as a culture clash between the directors, who favored improvisational filmmaking and a looser style, and Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy and the movie's screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, who wanted something far more faithful to the written word. Just two days after Lord and Miller were let go, Lucasfilm announced that Ron Howard will take over the movie. "We believe the highest goal of each film is to delight, carrying forward the spirit of the saga that George Lucas began 40 years ago," Kennedy said in a statement announcing Howard as the new director, adding that the studio was "thrilled" to have him onboard. "We have a wonderful script, an incredible cast and crew, and the absolute commitment to make a great movie," she said. After a brief hiatus to let Howard review the work done to date, production will resume July 10, according to Lucasfilm.

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There's a Specific Episode IX Set-Up In The Last Jedi

Source: Internet speculation based on a tease from director Colin Trevorrow

Probability of Accuracy: The speculation is, at best, 50/50, but there are moving parts beyond this quote…

The Real Deal: During an appearance on MTV's Happy Sad Confused podcast, Episode IX director Colin Trevorrow was asked if he requested that anything to be changed in The Last Jedi to pave the way for his follow-up. "There was one little thing," he said in response. "It wasn’t an adjustment, it was just 'Could you shoot this one extra thing while you’re in this place on this day?' And [director Rian Johnson] did, which was great." This has led people to believe that there's gong to be something in The Last Jedi that was inserted to directly set up the next movie in the sequence. But it's also possible that Johnson has filmed something that won't be seen until Episode IX. No matter what scenario ends up being true, though, fans probably won't know about it until 2019, when Episode IX reaches theaters. But will Trevorrow still be directing that movie? That's open to question, because the genuinely appalling reviews for his current movie The Book of Henry have people wondering if Lucasfilm might ditch him in favor of another director. Given what just happened on the Han Solo movie, suddenly that doesn't seem that unlikely.

Lego Has Spoiled The Last Jedi

Source: Internet leaks

Probability of Accuracy: The images certainly seem legit, but it's unclear what they're actually revealing about the movie itself.

The Real Deal: Speaking of The Last Jedi, some leaks of upcoming Lego tie-ins have revealed that fans will get to see an all-black evil BB-8 (referred to as BB-9E in the leaks, but it's hard to tell if that's legit), as well as an entirely different look for Supreme Leader Snoke that looks… well, not unlike the outfits worn by Qui-Gon Jinn and Luke Skywalker in earlier movies. Is this just the casual look of the Star Wars galaxy, or is there some larger connection to be made? Fans will know when the movie hits theaters in December.

It's Not Easy Being a Stormtrooper

Source: An official preview courtesy of USA Today

Probability of Accuracy: It's an official preview of a new in-canon story. That's as accurate as it gets, really.

The Real Deal: Ahead of the book's July 25 release, USA Today published an excerpt of the first chapter of Star Wars Battlefront II: Inferno Squad, the official prose tie-in/prequel to the upcoming Battlefront II videogame, giving a short glimpse of what it was like to be a stormtrooper during the final days of the Empire. (Spoiler alert: Not that glamorous.) The excerpt also reveals what it's like for stormtroopers to watch the destruction of a Death Star, as well.

It's Still Not Easy Being a Stormtrooper (But It Does Look Kinda Fun)

Source: Two new videos from the Battlefront II game

Probability of Accuracy: Not only a high probability of accuracy, but also a high potential for awesomeness.

The Real Deal: In other Star Wars: Battlefront II news, there's a fresh trailer for the game that shows off a battle across Theed (Naboo's royal city from Episode I: The Phantom Menace):

If that's not enough, there's also this extended gameplay video:

Developer EA also announced that all DLCs for Battlefront II will be free, with design director Niklas Fegraeus saying the decision was in keeping with the spirit of Star Wars. "If you’re a fan, you’re a part of the family," he said in a statement. "And splitting that up and saying, ‘If you have this content you can play here, but if you have this content you can play here.’ And if you don’t share, you will be split up. What we wanted to do was have a journey that starts at the launch of the game." And why is that good news? Because the first DLC will feature Finn and Captain Phasma as playable characters, as well as Crait, the new planet glimpsed in the Last Jedi trailer. See? Now you're interested. The game hits shelves this November.

“Innovation,” Jeff Bezos once said, “happens by gently lifting a grandfather and asking him for six different ideas.”

Actually, that kudzu bit of biz-speak inspiration isn’t entirely attributable to the Amazon CEO. It’s the work of Botnik, a new AI-assisted humor application that scours various types of human-created, word-crowded content—from season-three Seinfeld scripts to Yelp reviews to Bezos' shareholder letters—in order to build predictive, idiom-specific keyboards. Those keyboards, many of which are available on Botnik.org, can then be used to write new, inevitably askew versions of well-known works: An episode of Scrubs, perhaps, or a Bachelorette soundbite.

The best Botnik creations, like this PBS-derived set of otter facts, retain the structure and wordplay of their source material, while adding a goofy, appropriately robotic sense of stiltedness. They all represent a new form of comedy, a human-computer collaboration, one that “gathers all these evocative phrases from a genre, and then builds them together in an absurd collage," says Botnik cofounder Jamie Brew.

Botnik began in earnest last year, when Brew—then a writer for The Onion’s site Clickhole—began talking with Bob Mankoff, the artist and former New Yorker cartoon editor who, in 2005, launched that magazine’s popular caption-writing contest. During his New Yorker stint, Mankoff worked with both Microsoft and Google's Deepmind department on projects that attempted to make algorithmic sense of the contest's thousands of entries, with middling results. "I thought, 'The computers [alone] aren't going to solve this,'" Mankoff says. "'If the humor problem is going to be solved, or even partially solved, it's only going to be solved people working with machines."

He then heard about a predictive-text generator that Brew had created, one that was inspired by hours spent on his smartphone, using its text suggestions to craft hilariously dull sentences. The phone's bare-bones text-predictions, Brew says, "channeled the voice of the most boring person in the world. But when I noticed you can get a kind of poetry out of just taking this machine's very limited suggestions, the next natural step was to try to apply this to other texts."

The two paired up, and with support from Techstars' Alexa Accelerator program, the Botnik team spent this past year building and fine-tuning several corpuses—essentially large language databases, each one culling from a specific pop-cultural genre or entity, like beauty ads, or *Savage Love* columns. Those terms populate the site's individual keyboards, which allow you to craft sentences—each word dictating your options for the next—and ultimately your own weirdo missives.

It's technology as well-informed collaborator, as opposed to a coldly automated content-creator. "What's generated automatically by a computer only has a transient interest for us," says Mankoff. "But [with Botnik], it's a person working with a computer, and adding a kind of mastery to it. It's based on the idea that you can write anything: If you want to write a country-western song, you're accessing the predictive text of country western songs—but you're not simply spitting it out. You're modifying it."

As of now, there are Botnik keyboards dedicated to Tennyson, pancake recipes, and animal facts—all genres with their own familiar structures. Much of the strange, spun-out prose these devices generate is then overseen by an editorial community of about 150 volunteer writers, including staffers from Saturday Night Live and The Onion. Using Slack, they upvote and cobble together the best entries, resulting in works like this Seinfeld script…

…or this cooking-tutorial video:

In both examples, the logic and structure of the original form remain intact—but they've been infused with a blunt, weird, hilariously assured sensibility that make the familiar seem alien. As Botnik chief scientist Elle O'Brien notes, the best Botnik entries "are the ones that hit you in that perfectly uncanny spot, where you recognize what they're trying to mimic." There's even a keyboard dedicated to Wired's product reviews, which yielded:

There have been other recent attempts to combine the fields of AI and comedy 1, including DEviaNT, a program designed to spout out "that's what she said" at the exact appropriate (or inappropriate?) time. But the hope for the Botnik team—which recently contributed material to Amazon's Alexa device—is that the application will be expanded beyond humor. "It's a brainstorming tool for all kinds of creativity," says Mankoff, who's currently the cartoon and humor editor at Esquire. "One of the possibilities for this going forward is that you're stuck in the middle of an article, and the corpus you're looking at is everything Brian Raftery ever wrote." Which is a terrifying prospect—partly because it would require a computer to scour years of my bad-pun-filled writings, but also because it could possibly put me out of work.

Still, Mankoff insists no one should be worried about being replaced: "We're not going to give it over the machines," he says with a laugh. "Human beings always have to be at the center, just for the sake of humanity." That's what she said.

1 UPDATE 2:52 ET 10/25/17: This story originally mentioned LOL-bot, a "robot" at a comedy festival that appeared to create its own jokes. However, that appearance was an April Fool's Day prank; the robot was being controlled by comedians backstage. The mention has been removed. #FakeRobotNews

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Last weekend's events in Charlottesville, Virginia, showed the ugliest face of white nationalism in the United States. That racism is a problem—in both its structural and personal forms—shouldn't surprise anyone. But even if you knew that virulent hate groups existed, they're fringe enough that most Americans have never spoken to their members. Aside from a few figureheads like David Duke, you're more likely to have seen one of their memes than one of their faces.

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ABOUT

Dave Algoso (@dalgoso) is a social change consultant. He was raised in Virginia and graduated from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Today, that's no longer true. We know exactly what they look like. The weekend was well-covered, with participants and journalists capturing most scenes from multiple angles. Last Friday's tiki torch march through the University of Virginia, last Saturday's rally in Emancipation Park, and the violence that accompanied both reached us in real-time over Facebook and Twitter. The nightly news and front pages of newspapers have replayed those images in the days since.

Crowd-sourced sleuthing soon turned up the identities and social media profiles of several participants. The willingness to show their faces
put "Unite the Right" attendees in stark contrast to the iconic hooded Klansman. As sociologist and educator Eve Ewing commented on
Twitter: "They're all confident they'll have jobs on Monday."

They turned out to be wrong. Cole White had lost his job at a California hot dog joint by Sunday morning. Peter Tefft faced a scathing open letter from his father in North Dakota,
denouncing his son's hateful beliefs and attendance at the Charlottesville rally. Peter Cvjetanovic, a college student from Nevada,
defended his participation after he was identified; more than 40,000 people have signed Change.org petitions calling on the university to expel him. Chris Cantwell, featured in a Vice documentary on the weekend’s events, was kicked off the dating site OkCupid.

The trolls of the so-called alt-right are making a twisted "free speech" defense, playing the victims of an intolerant left. They claim they're being punished for their political beliefs. But the weapons that rally participants brought to Charlottesville undercut that claim. Last Friday's assaults on students and last Saturday's attacks on counter-protestors—including the group beating of local resident Deandre Harris in a parking garage—reveal the group's insincerity. And the murder of Heather Heyer by a member of white supremacist group Vanguard America shows the argument to be a cover for a cynical, hate-filled world view.

If this had been a peaceful rally within the realm of normal political discourse, then publishing the names of attendees or firing them from
their jobs would be an unreasonable reaction. That's not the case here. No one responded this way in the past, even for white nationalist
rallies. This wasn't even the first time they'd marched in Charlottesville this summer: A smaller group had held a torch-lit preview at the same park in May. But it was the first time white nationalists showed up armed, in large numbers, and became violent.

Fascist views were already well outside acceptable politics. By enacting those views with violence, the rally violated a deep norm that undergirds our social contract. As political scientist David Karpf argued on Twitter, these violations must be met with penalties or the norms fade away. The Trump
administration has seen norms against nepotism, kleptocracy, and profiteering soften because a Republican-controlled Congress has refused to impose any penalties. In this case, ordinary people can step in and assert that these norms matter. We should applaud them for it. (Though the task could be approached with more care: Misidentification is a problem, and even accurate identification shouldn’t be followed by threats of
violence.)

Unfortunately, this penalty only applies to the rank-and-file. The organizers and leaders were never anonymous. Their names were on the
rally posters. Richard Spencer and Jason Kessler have proudly sought notoriety by promoting white nationalism. Last weekend drew rebukes from the mainstream right, but rally leaders saw a victory in President Trump's reluctant, kid-gloves condemnation. They left Charlottesville emboldened and empowered.

The job losses and other punishments facing the members of this mob are necessary but will have unintended consequences. When those individuals woke up on Monday morning, they returned to the same online forums and Twitter feeds where they'd first encountered hateful ideologies. Social sanctions may even deepen their involvement. When part of your identity is challenged, you double down on it. Movements unify when under attack.

Society needs a follow-up to the rebuke. We need to help white supremacists unlearn the ideologies that took them to the streets of Charlottesville. One group doing active outreach is Life After Hate, a nonprofit run by former far-right extremists who now work to bring others out of the movement. They were approved to receive federal funding by the Obama administration, only to have their funding paused and then cancelled by the Trump administration. In response, the group launched a crowd-funding campaign that’s taken off since last weekend, raising more than $200,000 for their programs.

One group can't do it alone. Churches and religious groups are also critical to this effort. Drawing on research from violent groups around
in the world, peace and conflict expert Rebecca Wolfe has pointed to the important role of families in pulling extremists back from the brink. Institutions like faith and family provide people with narratives about themselves and their
identity that can counter those offered by white supremacist groups. Many of these groups are ill-equipped to do this work on their own,
especially given the role of online communities in radicalization. Lessons from anti-gang work show the need for a whole-of-community approach.

Reaching white nationalists isn’t just about restoring their own humanity. Their place at the extreme end of the spectrum legitimizes other forms of white supremacy. Conservative politicians can swat away accusations of racism—even while advancing policies of mass incarceration, police violence, racial profiling, economic inequality, inhumane deportation, and voter suppression—by pointing to the crazies in the street and saying: “Me? A racist? I’m not one of those neo-Nazis!”

By reining in the extremes, we can shift the middle ground toward justice. The goal should be to leave people like Spencer and
Kessler out on their own, without support from the political establishment or their previously anonymous troll army. That creates
more space for the hard work of dismantling white supremacy in its more prevalent forms, bringing allies and waverers over toward active
anti-racism. Let's not just ostracize the neo-Nazis. Let's counter-recruit their base out from under them.

WIRED Opinion publishes pieces written by outside contributors and represents a wide range of viewpoints. Read more opinions here.

For more than 15 years, Andy Serkis has been Hollywood's go-to performance-capture guy, playing such digitally enhanced characters as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings series, Caesar in the recent Planet of the Apes films, and even King Kong himself. But the 53-year-old actor—whose directorial debut, Breathe, hit theaters earlier this month—believes there are still plenty of misconceptions about one of filmmaking's most crucial innovations. "It's not just about mimicking behavior," Serkis says. "This is about creating a character."

And if anyone could tell people a thing or two about performance-capture tech, it's Serkis. In fact, he could teach a master class. In the video above he traces the history of the technology, from its early days as a videogame innovation to the glory days of Gollum to this summer's stunning War for the Planet of the Apes, perhaps the most impressive merger yet between high-end technology and big-hearted performance. In the early motion-capture days, he says, playing a creature like Gollum—which required him to watch his virtual performance in real time on a monitor—was "like being a puppeteer and a marionette at the same time." By the time of 2005's King Kong, he had moved into the realm of performance-capture, allowing him to craft detailed facial expressions: "It's almost like looking at a costume that you’re going to put on [or] choose as an actor," he says. "And you find a relationship between yourself and the avatar."

Later films like Tintin and the Planet of the Apes, made with the help of head-mounted cameras, gave him greater mobility—though they'd also require him to work in all sorts of challenging environments. (You think your job's tough? Try wearing a full body suit in 100 percent Louisiana humidity, as Serkis did during 2015's Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.) Ultimately, he says, working with the technology "[is] no different than any process you go through to create a role, whether you're on a stage, or in front of a screen in a more conventional sense. The actor's performance is the actor's performance." Sounds like he captured it perfectly.

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It wouldn't be a Thursday on the internet if folks weren't irrationally upset over something. The latest installment? A bunch of dudes who are mad that Austin's Alamo Drafthouse is planning a women-only screening of Wonder Woman on June 6. It shouldn't really be a surprise, because if there's one thing men have proven themselves to be throughout history, it's prone to childish overreactions whenever someone says something isn't for them. But let's not dwell on that ridiculous outcry. Instead, let's focus on this pitch-perfect response from the theater in question:

Ah. Sometimes there is good in the world. There's also, well, some bad. Here are all of the things you might have missed online from the past seven days. Don't shoot, we're just the messengers.

Awkward Papal Photos: Horror Edition

What Happened: It's the team-up everyone has been waiting for: President Donald Trump and the pope! Together, they fight crime! No, wait. That's not right. Together, they take really uncomfortable photos. Well, uncomfortable for them, but delightful for the internet.
What Really Happened: Last week, President Trump and his entourage headed to the Vatican to meet with Pope Francis.

Sounds like the meeting went better than the last time Trump and the pope had a run-in. Or did it? Photos from the meeting suggest it wasn't quite as sunny as Trump's tweet made it seem.

As news of Trump's visit hit mainstream media, though, Photoshop masters quickly turned images of the meeting into a horror-filled meme.

Considering the Trumps showed up looking like the Addams Family, it was only a matter of time before this happened. But the volume and frequency with which these Photoshops hit the internet was pretty remarkable, and for a while it seemed as though the only thing that would stop them was divine intervention. Once they did peter out, it was hard to determine which was the best, but this Shining-themed GIF might come out on top:

The Takeaway: Apparently, papal supremacy applies to the internet, too.

So, About That Picture of Trump with the Glowing Orb…

What Happened: President Trump also proved adept at providing the internet with meme-worthy material while in Saudi Arabia.
What Really Happened: Trump gave the internet a lot to riff on last week. In addition to the aforementioned pope photos, he also told an audience in Israel that he "just got back from the Middle East" and got repeatedly, visibly rebuffed by his wife. But none of those tidbits were as strange as this:

That, surprisingly, isn't a faked photo or one that's been altered in any way. That's actually a real thing that happened during Trump's trip. As could only be expected, Twitter was enamored with the visual:

Of course, the media was just as fascinated, both by the photo op and the online reaction. But perhaps the best, most surreal follow-up was this extended Twitter joke:

The Takeaway: Perhaps people shouldn't mock the orb too much. After all, they don't know its true power.

The Shake Down

What Happened: Completing a hat trick of providing meme-worthy content last week, Trump was photographed sharing a rather unpleasant handshake with the new president of France.
What Really Happened: Of all the meetings Trump had at this week's NATO summit, it was his first encounter with newly elected French president Emmanuel Macron that caught the internet's eye. Why? Well, watch this first.

OK, that was kind of weird. Twitter?

The handshake quickly became a thing. While surely no one involved wanted that strange moment to be a talking point, it was relatively innocuous compared to the other info that came out of Trump and Macron's meeting.

Really? That doesn't sound right.

Oh. So maybe that's why Macron seemingly avoided Trump when they saw each other later?

For something so critical, international politics really can seem like high school sometimes.

The Takeaway: Wait, did we say high school? It might be elementary.

Teachable Moments

What Happened: A potentially doctored school assignment created a new internet hero, who very deservedly got ice cream.
What Really Happened: For a brief moment let's forget politics and think about something genuinely silly and viral to close out this week, shall we? Here, this girl's review of her teacher's disciplinary actions should do nicely.

Now, before we go any further: Yes, the handwriting on the last two lines looks suspiciously different from the rest of the page, but don't harsh our need for happiness with your logic. This is great, even if it's a little fudged.

Unsurprisingly, almost everyone voted for ice cream, which led to the obvious conclusion.

Was it real? We'll never know, although that handwriting thing didn't really help its case. What matters is that the girl got her ice cream—either for her wonderful teacher feedback or for her willingness to be a prop to gain social media attention. Ice cream is important; everything else is futile. C'mon, it's the weekend—you should spend it with some ice cream too!
The Takeaway: Amongst those who were in favor of the ice cream option, The Man:

Drumstick Twitter, can't you be a little better at being subtle? Take a lesson from the Alamo Drafthouse!

When Colin Kaepernick first took a knee during the national anthem of a preseason NFL game just over a year ago, he did so at the end of a hostile summer that claimed the lives of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, two unarmed black men who were gunned down by law enforcement. The 49ers quarterback was mindful of a singularly American truth: the distance between life and death for black people is shorter, and more precarious, than for most.

As the 2016–17 season pushed forward, the loss continued, its pace relentless: Anthony Ford, Terence Crutcher, Keith Lamont Scott. All unarmed and shot by police. A handful of players joined Kaepernick in silent protest. Still, the league ignored the roar of the world. Its willful evasion was almost a matter of policy: For decades the NFL has tried to keep politics out of the game and protect the purity of its brand, which also meant ignoring the realities of CTE, painkiller addiction, and domestic abuse in the league.

But the pull of history is unavoidable. On Sunday, galvanized by President Trump’s recent remarks in which he exhorted team owners to “fire” any “son of a bitch” who refused to stand for the national anthem, hundreds of players took a cue from Kaepernick and kneeled in harmonious dissent. Last night, on Monday Night Football, Dallas Cowboys players and coaching staff locked arms while their opponents were announced. On the surface, the demonstrations were moving and powerful. Yet, it was hard to divine anyone’s motivations. Had the parade of black death finally become too heavy a load for players and team owners to cast aside, or were they simply pushing back against Trump’s remarks?

As president, Trump has done his very best to preserve the ways of white supremacy. In a mere nine months, he has attempted to strip health care from millions of people, sympathized with white nationalists, and attacked US citizens who simply exercised their right of free speech. His continued defense of his own invective—doubling down on Twitter, then doubling down again—suggests that he sees kneeling during the anthem as unpatriotic. But patriotism in America is a complicated business. It requires one to answer these questions: Just who is this country for? And how did you arrive at such a conclusion?

The answers prove more expansive than Trump’s razor-thin understanding of them. In a press conference after one game on Sunday, Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin noted the false virtue in the president’s claims. “This is our country,” he said. “What we were founded on was protest.” Baldwin, like Kaepernick, is keenly aware of the inherent paradox in our definition of patriotism. “It has always been my understanding that the brave men and women who fought and died for our country did so to ensure that we could live in a fair and free society, which includes the right to speak out in protest,” Eric Reid wrote in The New York Times; the 49ers safety was the first teammate to kneel with Kaepernick.

So, who is this country for? I like to believe it’s for kids like Jordan Edwards, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, and Michael Brown. For people like Kalief Browder who are wrongfully funneled through the prison system. For women like Sandra Bland who are treated like monsters. For men like Eric Garner who are made into ghost stories before our very eyes.

Genuine patriotism bears no one hue, political ideology, or class. Understanding this, though, requires men like Trump to relinquish the old ways of reasoning and accept that the American flag and our national anthem, for all their metaphorical valor and pride, so rarely represent the interests of the marginalized. In August, when a coalition of 40 players sent a memo to league commissioner Roger Goodell asking for concrete support around issues such as police transparency and prison reform, they were doing so because they understood that hollow symbols don’t shield the constant threat to black lives.

When I said that patriotism was a complicated business, I meant it. It is a business. In 2015, it was reported that the Department of Defense spent tens of millions of dollars for acts of “paid patriotism” during sporting events, including NFL games. This consisted of “on-field color guard, enlistment and reenlistment ceremonies, performances of the national anthem, [and] full-field flag details.” The Monday night show of solidarity, which included even Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, seemed for all its pageantry like a piece of that same strategy: Jones looked straight into a broadcast camera at one point. “Great show of unity,” Goodell tweeted, which only made it feel even more like an empty promotional ad for the NFL: We Are Strong. We Are United. We Cannot Be Broken.

And then I wondered. Did Jones know who Ezell Ford was? Had Goodell heard how Rekia Boyd was hunted down? Did the league honestly believe in Colin Kaepernick’s cause, which really wasn’t his cause alone but all of ours? Were they aware that protest and patriotism are not mutually exclusive, but instead linked biographies in the American fight for justice? I wondered if they understood. I wondered if they knew that kneeling was only as courageous as the actions that followed it.

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When Amazon’s Forever debuted earlier this month, it announced itself with a kernel of discord hidden within. Viewers reaching the show’s sixth episode found it stripped of its main characters—June (Maya Rudolph) and Oscar (Fred Armisen), a married couple trapped in unchanging circumstances—and instead angling its view in a different direction. “Andre and Sarah,” directed by series co-creator Alan Yang, ferries us into the lives of two realtors who slowly fall in love over a lifetime.

Andre (Jason Mitchell) is a married father who finds his equal in Sarah (Hong Chau), also in a committed relationship. The two real estate agents bond over difficult clients, wine, and terrible food opinions (she hates pizza—don’t ask). It’s easy and natural, a one-in-a-lifetime connection. Eventually their love blossoms into a real and true thing, but the two never quite unfasten from their former lives, or their spouses. The episode was a clever inversion of the show’s thesis: what does it look like when you try to forge forever with the person you are meant to be with but can’t have? It was also a structural aberration more and more shows resort to—a formal and narrative detour that often achieves more in a single half-hour slice than a series does in an entire season.

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The standalone episode is a curious, imprecise artifact, reflecting back everything a show is capable of, and everything it isn’t. The trend is creeping into all manner of shows. Atlanta’s most inspired episodes across its two seasons—“B.A.N.” and “Teddy Perkins”— were both standalones. The former parodied BET by having Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) appear on a fictional Charlie Rose-style talk show called Montague. But it didn’t end there. Donald Glover, who wrote and directed the episode, bookended Paper Boi’s interview with satirical commercials that solely featured black people, a world within a world.

The latter, “Teddy Perkins,” will likely go down as Atlanta’s most-talked-about episode, and rightfully so: it was a feat of storytelling that chronicled the aftermath of showbiz horror. Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) travels into the deep south to buy a piano from the reclusive and astronomically talented Teddy Perkins, a past-his-prime singer living out his last days haunted by fame and family, a dark parallel of Michael Jackson’s own final years. Episodes like that are a nifty repackaging of genre expectations: a stylistic trick as much as it is a shock to the narrative’s instinctive movement.

Though standalones disrupt the arcs of their parent shows, they themselves are no longer peculiarities of the medium. During its recent seventh season, the quietly fantastic animated Netflix series Voltron: The Legendary Defender shifted its focus for a single episode: transporting the Paladins into a dream fantasia where they were contestants on a game show that tested each group member’s moral fiber. It was an episode that felt tangential at best. A nice deviation, but one that didn’t propel the show forward so much as it added more solidity to the outline of its main characters. There was also BoJack Horseman’s “Fish Outta Water,” a third-season standout that subverted every element the viewer had come to appreciate about the show by excising all its dialogue—and thus its razor wit. Shows like Master of None (“New York, I Love You”) and, to a lesser degree, Transparent (“The Open Road”) have also experimented with episodic detours of self-discovery.

But what is the purpose of the standalone episode? Does it have one? Critics Kathryn VanArendonk at Vulture and Alan Sepinwall at Rolling Stone have praised such anatomical quirks in BoJack, Atlanta, GLOW (“The Good Twin”), and Breaking Bad (“The Fly”) for reorienting the viewer’s anticipation. “They can be TV at its best,” VanArendonk wrote, “and they’re always TV at its most fundamentally TV—using the space of one episode to play around with a new idea.” Positioned one way, the standalone provides a respite from the linearity of the series—but its existence also implies that viewers need a break. What, then, does that say about the show? And what does it say about what the viewer requires of the show?

Last year, IndieWire compiled an “anti-binge” list titled “10 Great Standalone Episodes You Can Stream Without Watching an Entire Season.” The gist was simple: in our fattened golden age of Too Much Television, you could set your focus on one episode that “offer[s] a convenient non-pilot entry point.” But standalones aren’t necessarily representative of a show—they hint at creative daring, but more often than not skew too far leftfield to speak to the plot’s scale and scope.

That atypicality, though, has its own twist ending: demanding its own re-enactment. I count myself among the faithful who remain haunted by Forever. But after watching “Andre and Sarah,” I wondered what more the show could accomplish by leaving its structure behind altogether. That may sound selfish—really, the show was enough as it was—but even now I can’t help but think of how the concept and texture of “forever” might look and feel if it were anthologized, a la Black Mirror or Easy. After all, no one’s forever is the same. What more might Glover enlighten us with if each episode of Atlanta played with its own framework, adapted a more macabre outlook like “Teddy Perkins” or got more neurotically insular like “B.A.N.”?

I don’t have the answers to those questions; like you, I’m just one viewer. But I bring them up to raise a point—that even as eye-opening as a standalone episode has been known to be, it is often just as damaging. More than anything else, though this may be the fun of TV in the current moment: watching the medium figure out just what it wants to be.

If you heard anything about the Justice League last weekend, it was probably regarding the new trailer that dropped on Sunday for the upcoming movie. But what you might not have heard is that the Justice League—Wonder Woman, Batman, The Flash, Cyborg, Superman, even Aquaman—was out in full force at New York Comic Con.

"DC" clearly stood for "dozens of coplayers," judging from how many ersatz Leaguers descended on the Javits Center over the con's four days, rocking their best superhero looks. Wonder Woman owned this year’s installment by a wide margin (we’re really starting to think that movie had an impact!), but her fellow superdudes weren’t far behind—Batman and Superman costumes were just as popular as ever. (And can we just say the prevalence of little kids in Flash costumes is really encouraging?) So even though the Justice League movie cast might not have been able to make it to NYCC—Gal Gadot gets a pass, she and her Diana Prince outfit were busy making out with Kate McKinnon on Saturday Night Live—the fans were happy to step in and unite to save the world.

From a fabulous Superman to the wonderful Wonder Women, there were some great costumes on display at this year's New York Comic Con. Check out some of the best of the best above. And in case you haven’t seen it yet, we’ll leave that Justice League trailer below. Just in case.

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