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Friday, September 14, 2018

Deadpool jumps from the silver screen to the silver ball thanks to Stern Pinball

Posted By on 09.14.18 at 12:12 PM

STERN PINBALL
  • Stern Pinball

The comic-book hero Deadpool's constant metajokes don't just break the fourth wall—they slice it up and grind it to dust.

It's not exactly surprising, then, that the supermercenary's new pinball game, released this month by Chicago-area manufacturer Stern Pinball, follows suit. While you're busy flipping a silver ball around the playfield, for instance, a digitized Deadpool tries his hand at his own pinball machine on the machine's video display. Much of the rest of Stern's latest is full of that brand of self-referential humor, sometimes to the point of tediousness (I could do without Deadpool mocking me nearly every time I lose).

Luckily the game itself is more than good enough to make up for the minor annoyances. I became addicted after playing five rounds of it early this week at Logan Arcade, which hosts the premiere party for the new game tonight. For the casual player like me, it's relatively easy to unlock the frantic multiball mechanic and send a ball careening down the katana-shaped ramp. But there's plenty for more hard-core players to attempt—for example, they can take on virtual X-Men villains like Juggernaut and Mystique. 
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The pinball game favors the comic-book version of Deadpool over Ryan Reynolds and the silver-screen version of the "Merc With the Mouth," as the character's called, and the cartoonish art—hand-drawn by a freelance artist who goes by the moniker Zombie Yeti—appropriately feels like it's ripped from a graphic novel. My favorite little touch is a guest appearance by Dazzler, the much-derided but beloved disco-themed superheroine.

If you manage to get your hands on the premium and limited editions of the machines, they feature a mini disco ball with illumination effects. To get your own, you might need Ryan Reynolds's salary—the premium costs $7,599, and the limited edition is $8,999. Personally, I'll be sticking to Logan Arcade to play.

Deadpool Pinball Launch Party Fri 9/14, 7-10 PM, Logan Arcade, 2410 W. Fullerton, free

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Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Josh Tsui, Chicago video-game vet turned documentarian, gets his due with a ceremony and award this Saturday

Posted By on 09.04.18 at 06:00 AM

Josh Tsui
  • Josh Tsui
You may not know Josh Tsui by name, but if you're a gamer, there's a good chance you've seen his face before—a pixelated version at least.

While he was working as an artist at the Chicago studio Midway Games in the 90s, Tsui's coworkers digitally pasted a graphic of his head onto the body of the ice-powered ninja character Sub-Zero in the video game Mortal Kombat 2 as well as that of the martial arts master Liu Kang in Mortal Kombat 4. If you input a secret code you could also suit up as a tomahawk-dunking version of Tsui in the game NBA Jam: Tournament Edition.

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Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Test Drive: Lime's electric scooters are fun and easy, but are they practical for Chicago commutes?

Posted By on 07.31.18 at 06:00 AM

Lime's electric scooters are being tested in Chicago. Are they here to stay? - LIME
  • Lime
  • Lime's electric scooters are being tested in Chicago. Are they here to stay?

Will Chicagoans all ditch their bikes, cars, and public transportation to zip around everywhere on lime-green electric scooters over the next few years?

It's doubtful, but the contraption is an amusing if mildly frightening way to traverse the city in short bursts. I felt like a kid for a day—and a minor celebrity—after a couple of impromptu test drives (scoots?) of the two-wheeled, long-handled devices over the weekend. The California-based company Lime parked a few dozen of its GPS-enabled Lime-S's near the Fiesta Del Sol festival in Pilsen as part of a public demo. There were four of them in a neat row right outside my apartment building, and I couldn't resist trying them out.

It certainly wasn't difficult to get started: I downloaded the Lime-S app and got authorized through Facebook and Apple Pay in less than two minutes. The app borrows your phone's camera to scan the bike's QR code to activate it. When you see the electronic display turn on, then you just hop on. I found the process considerably easier and faster than getting a new Ventra or Divvy pass.

Costwise, Lime-S falls somewhere between the CTA and ride sharing through Lyft or Uber. At $1, it's cheap to start the thing up, but the additional 15 cents per minute can add up quickly if you're not careful. My 3.4-mile round-trip from Pilsen to Chinatown took 28 minutes and cost $5.20 (though I got a $1 off from a promotion); my later five-mile trek from Fiesta Del Sol to Wicker Park Fest took 35 minutes and cost $8.25.
My Lime-S route from Fiesta Del Sol in Pilsen to Wicker Park Fest. The ride cost $8.25 for almost five miles. - RYAN SMITH
  • Ryan Smith
  • My Lime-S route from Fiesta Del Sol in Pilsen to Wicker Park Fest. The ride cost $8.25 for almost five miles.
One of the first decisions I had to make: Where's the most appropriate place to actually ride the thing? The street felt like a weird place for a compact scooter that resembles an adult version of a child's toy, but so did the sidewalk, where I could have really annoyed (or even knocked into) pedestrians. I settled on staying within marked bike lanes, but even that felt awkward—like I was invading someone else's turf—so I tried to travel quiet residential streets instead.

The novelty factor of seeing someone on an electric scooter is ultrahigh right now, which is why I kept getting distracted by pedestrians and car passengers bombarding me with questions while I was riding: Where did I get the Lime, how they could get one, how much it cost. Some just wanted me to know how fun it looked. "Damn, dude, you look like you're from the future," one guy yelled at me as I passed by his Saturday-afternoon barbecue.
The moment-to-moment experience of actually riding a Lime is thrilling—maybe too much so. You barely have to move your body: one flick of the thumb on your right hand on the throttle zooms the scooter along with ease, and your left hand squeezes a brake to slow it down. I got an adrenaline rush early on, especially after I cranked the accelerator to the max while crossing the 18th Street Bridge over the Chicago River.

I managed to break 21 miles per hour, and at that speed I felt like I was on a theme-park ride or a grounded version of Marty McFly's hoverboard from Back to the Future 2. It was fun, sure; it was also wildly unsafe. Going the maximum speed on a Lime could be OK on a flat track with a smooth surface, but not on our postapocalyptic Chicago roads riddled with sharp cracks, cavernous potholes, and loose rocks and litter.

On a thin, lightweight scooter, you're much more exposed than on a bicycle, and more balance is needed to stay upright—I found it nearly impossible to ride it with one hand. (Then again, this was my first time on a scooter in two decades; maybe I'm just out of practice.) Through trial and error, I discovered that somewhere between ten and 12 miles per hour is a reasonable cruising speed, but even then I once accidentally hit the edge of a pit in the pavement near May and 21st Street and thought I might fall off.

Lime demoed some of its e-scooters in Pilsen near Fiesta Del Sol over the weekend. - RYAN SMITH
  • Ryan Smith
  • Lime demoed some of its e-scooters in Pilsen near Fiesta Del Sol over the weekend.
One problem I ran into was with the battery indicator on the scooter's display. On my second ride, the device couldn't make up its mind—it kept intermittently flashing between one and two bars to indicate the amount of battery left. I received a notification on my phone telling me I needed to park soon before my scooter went dead, but I ended up squeezing two more miles out of it.

My favorite part of the e-scooter is that it's dockless—the same aspect that makes it so controversial in other cities because of all the scooters that wind up cluttering the sidewalks. After making it to Wicker Park Fest, I was able to abandon my ride on the sidewalk ten yards away from the festival's entrance. If the city of Chicago mandates that Lime outfit the scooters with "lock-to" mechanisms of the sort required for its dockless bikes, the scooters will be a much less attractive option.

As it is, once the thrill wore off, I'm not sure how much I'd actually use e-scooters if they were fully adopted in Chicago. Transportation experts say scooters make the most sense in cities for areas that are too far to walk to and too small for public transportation to access. But for me, that puts them in the same category as iPads, a tweener form of technology that feels unnecessary if you've got an iPhone and a laptop. For short trips I can walk or take a Divvy (and get some exercise in the process), and for longer trips, Limes feel impractical and overpriced, especially when you can take a car-share service for nearly the same price.
A first-person view of riding a Lime-S. - RYAN SMITH
  • Ryan Smith
  • A first-person view of riding a Lime-S.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Video games are public enemy #1 . . . again

Posted By on 06.19.18 at 10:05 PM

Lots of kids play a lot of Fortnite, but it's not a sign of the apocalpyse. - YOUTUBE
  • YouTube
  • Lots of kids play a lot of Fortnite, but it's not a sign of the apocalpyse.

Earlier this week, Red Bull launched Rise Till Dawn—an all-night Fortnite tournament in July starring local streaming sensation Tyler "Ninja" Blevins on the 99th floor of the Willis Tower. It's no surprise that the event sold out in a few short minutes, Fortnite is arguably the breakout entertainment hit of 2018—played by 40 million people—and Ninja is the game's biggest star.

Still, the timing of the announcement of the dusk-'til-dawn tournament—one that resembles a compulsive gaming binge—was notable.

On Monday, the World Health Organization announced that it had officially recognized "gaming disorder" as a condition in its International Classification of Diseases. To be diagnosed with the disorder, you have to do more than just play the games a lot: you have to play compulsively despite suffering negative consequences for more than a year.

In other words, you can be addicted to video games. The disorder reportedly affects between 1 and 3 percent of gamers.

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Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Lyft to buy company that operates Divvy for $250 million, report says

Posted By on 06.06.18 at 09:40 AM

Former Divvy GM Elliot Greenberger left for Lyft in 2017. Now Lyft is buying Divvy's operator. - CHICAGO SUN-TIMES
  • Chicago Sun-Times
  • Former Divvy GM Elliot Greenberger left for Lyft in 2017. Now Lyft is buying Divvy's operator.

Lyft drivers are behind the wheel in a large percentage of cars on Chicago roadways—and now the ride-share company is looking to gobble up many of the bikes on the streets too.

The San Francisco-based transportation company is buying Motivate, the private company that operates Chicago's bike-share system, Divvy. The cost? At least $250 million, according to a report published by tech news website the Information, which says the two companies have agreed to the terms of the deal but not finalized it. A spokesman for Lyft declined to comment. Motivate didn't respond to an e-mailed request for comment.

Motivate, headquartered in Brooklyn, runs 11 different bike systems across North America. It both owns and operates some cities' bike-share programs such as CitiBike in New York City and Ford GoBike in California. But it has a unique public-private arrangement with the city of Chicago—the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) owns the city's bikes, stations, and vehicles, while Motivate is paid to run it.

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In buying Motivate, Lyft is leaping further into the urban transportation arms race by banking on docking bicycle systems to beat out the new wave of dockless bike shares. Uber—Lyft's rival—bought the dockless electric bike start-up company Jump in April, which it has since been renamed Uber Bike. Meanwhile, LimeBike has begun testing Chicago as a new destination city with a pilot program on the south side that rolled out last month.

Divvy—about to celebrate its fifth anniversary—launched in the summer of 2013 at the cost of nearly $28 million. It has expanded its fleet from only 750 bikes at 75 stations to 6,000 bikes at 580 stations across the city. According to Motivate, there were over 400,000 rides taken during the month of May.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Elliot Greenberger—Divvy's general manager—left the program at the end of 2017 to join Lyft, as a market manager for southern California.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Famous feline Lil' Bub gets her own arcade game—built by Chicago’s Logan Arcade

Posted By on 05.23.18 at 06:38 AM

Mike Bridavsky and Lil' Bub pose with the arcade game Hello Earth at Logan Arcade. - RYAN SMITH
  • Ryan Smith
  • Mike Bridavsky and Lil' Bub pose with the arcade game Hello Earth at Logan Arcade.

It was a long time coming when Logan Arcade owner Jim Zespy followed music producer Steve Albini onstage to introduce the arcade cabinet he'd constructed for a video game starring his friend's famous cat.

"I've known Mike for a long time. I never thought I'd be running an arcade and he'd have a world-famous cat," Zespy said to a crowd of several hundred fans who'd crowded into his arcade bar in Logan Square last Friday night for the game's premiere party.

That's Mike as in Mike Bridavsky, the owner of sound studio Russian Recording, in Bloomington, Indiana, who's famous for being the "dude" behind Internet star Lil' Bub, a rescue cat he adopted in 2011. Often just called "Bub" for short, she was born with dwarfism and other genetic disorders that led to her compact size and unusual but adorable appearance: oversize, saucer-shaped eyes and a pink tongue that continuously protrudes because of her toothlessness and underdeveloped jaw.

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Thursday, May 17, 2018

How Mordecai chef-owner Matthias Merges helped transform modern fine dining

Posted By on 05.17.18 at 06:00 AM

Matthias Merges - COURTESY FOLKART MANAGEMENT
  • Courtesy Folkart Management
  • Matthias Merges

The Reader's archive is vast and varied, going back to 1971. Every day in Archive Dive, we'll dig through and bring up some finds.

This week Mike Sula reviews Mordecai, the new fine-dining restaurant that has joined Big Star and Smoke Daddy in the Hotel Zachary, across from Wrigley Field. According to Sula, it's another hit from chef Matthias Merges and his hospitality company, Folkart Management. Merges has been busy lately—it's just six months ago that he and celebrity chef Graham Elliot (Top Chef, MasterChef, et al) opened the Randolph Street spot Gideon Sweet. But Merges, who for many years was Charlie Trotter's right-hand man, has long been an entrepreneurial sort. In fact, as recounted in Sula's 2014 feature "What happens when all-star chefs get in bed with Big Food," he's partly responsible for the popularization of one of the techniques that have come to epitomize modern fine dining: sous vide cooking.

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Thursday, March 29, 2018

Apple CEO Tim Cook's undercooked plan to help underserved Chicago schools: $300 iPads; app development for all

Posted By on 03.29.18 at 11:55 AM

Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks for an MSNBC special taped in Chicago
  • Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks for an MSNBC special taped in Chicago

How would Apple ensure it was helping underserved communities and schools in Chicago and not just the best and brightest?

Tim Cook hesitated slightly before answering.

This was quite possibly the most challenging moment of the Apple CEO's Chicago exhibition so far.

Cook's education-themed product launch had been framed as a heroic one and he arrived at Lane Tech College Prep High School in appropriately conquering fashion. Attendees waiting in line under a slight drizzle held Apple-issued umbrellas as they walked past Apple Store-like structures erected on the school's front lawn, and hey—wasn't that a statue of Al Gore? Nope, it was the former vice president in the flesh, just another audience member who—along with a worldwide audience via livestream—watched as Cook announced the release of a new iPad and the citywide expansion of Apple's "Everyone Can Code" program.

On Wednesday, the tech giant's top executive returned for an hour-long MSNBC interview special with anchor Chris Hayes and Recode tech reporter Kara Swisher—a show that had been branded "Revolution: Apple Changing the World." Cook sat comfortably in the center of a gymnasium turned television studio on the second floor of the selective enrollment high school as several hundred students, faculty, press, and ticketed members of the public showered him with applause every few minutes.

But then MSNBC anchor Chris Hayes asked Cook a tough question. He wanted Apple's top executive to respond to a clip from an interview with a young African-American man from Chicago who expressed frustration with the way the public and private sector kept investing millions of dollars in projects like the DePaul basketball stadium while neglecting the needs of the south and west sides.

"That's a good question. We've priced this iPad as low as we can," Cook told Hayes. Because the company's devices were built to last three to four years, $300 becomes "a very reasonable expenditure." Also, he added, Apple was ready and willing to teach students all over Chicago how to code and develop apps.

That's right, on the same day that a group of Chicago youth from the #NoCopAcademy movement staged a “die-in" at City Hall to demand that the city defund a $95 million police academy to fund education, one of the richest men in America was here to tell Chicagoans that even if they were stuck in underfunded, failing, or closing schools—hey, our tablet is a pretty good value, and did you hear about our cool new computer club coming to your classroom?

Tiny Apple stores were erected on the front lawn of Lane Tech High School during Tuesday's announcement. - MITCH DUDEK/SUN-TIMES
  • Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times
  • Tiny Apple stores were erected on the front lawn of Lane Tech High School during Tuesday's announcement.

Rather than pushing revolution, the CEO’s message reinforced the dominant economic ideology—an extreme form of meritocracy and market supremacy—held by America’s elites. That ideology essentially sees no problem with the fact that Cook earned $102 million in 2017 (enough to purchase new iPads for nearly all of CPS's 371,000 students) while 34 percent of African-Americans in Chicago live in relative poverty, earning less than half of the local minimum wage.

Extreme inequality is fine, in other words, if everyone is perceived as having been granted a fair shot at gunning for the top. "Our desire as a nation is to offer equal opportunities and we haven't succeeded at that," Cook noted. "We've got to reach out to women and underrepresented minorities."

His solution is a technocratic twist on the old conservative axiom: Teach a man to code and he'll eat for life.

That's essentially the concept behind Apple's partnership with the city of Chicago. Lane Tech will serve as a central hub to train local high school teachers on the computing company's Everyone Can Code curriculum. The idea is that the teachers would learn to use Swift—a simplified programming language used to develop iOS apps—and then that knowledge will be taught to Chicago's students. Then, as the logic goes, students would be prepared for an employment marketplace increasingly dominated by computer science fields and those who know how to code.

"We have to get used to the idea of continuously retraining ourselves for the jobs of the future," Cook said. Not surprisingly, many of these said jobs would be in service of his company.

Apple is suddenly hiring in America. The Cupertino, California-based company has long been criticized for outsourcing jobs and manufacturing to China while stashing more than $250 billion in cash overseas to dodge paying into what Cook called a "crazy" tax system. It had a change of heart with the passage of Trump's tax overhaul, the one that lowers the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent in 2018 (Cook praised the Trump plan multiple times on Wednesday as "good for America"). The company opted to shift its mountain of offshore cash from a tax haven in the English Channel back here with a one-time tax of $38 billion. That means Apple essentially avoided $40 billion of taxes.

Meanwhile, it also announced a plan to invest $30 billion in capital spending here over the next five years—creating 20,000 new jobs and a new campus somewhere in America. Call it Apple HQ2, though Cook bristles at the idea of holding a Hunger Games-like competition for it similar to the way Amazon is doing with theirs ("We’re not doing a beauty contest thing, that’s not Apple," he said).

It's possible then that Cook and Apple have long-term plans to bring their next headquarters to Chicago and this "Everyone Can Code" initiative is little more than a way to turn CPS into a kind of grandiose Apple internship program.

If that happens, the kids best equipped to succeed in Apple's brave new world aren't the ones living in segregated and poverty-stricken neighborhoods. It will be the kind of high-achieving students who've scratched and climbed their way up America's increasingly precarious meritocratic ladder to schools like Lane Tech and have the time, energy, and resources to thrive in a coding club. It will likely be the students for those whom buying a $300 iPad every few years is "a very reasonable expenditure."

For everyone else in Chicago's marginalized communities and schools? Good question.

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Monday, March 19, 2018

The nation’s hottest entertainer right now is a suburban Chicago video-game streamer named Ninja

Posted By on 03.19.18 at 03:10 PM

Tyler "Ninja" Blevins
  • Tyler "Ninja" Blevins
Ready or not, welcome to 2018—the year that the hottest emerging entertainer is a 26-year-old man who wears a yellow headband and goes by the nickname Ninja. His job? Broadcasting himself playing video games in the basement of his suburban Chicago house.

Meet Tyler "Ninja" Blevins, the spiky blue-haired phenom who reportedly earns more than $560,000 a month from subscribers who pay to watch him play games on his personal computer. The Lake Villa native first broke the Internet when he joined forces with Drake and a small cast of other rappers and celebrities on Wednesday night to play the megapopular survival shooter Fortnite. The unlikely team-up with the Canadian hip-hop artist instantly began trending on Twitter and shattered viewership records on video-streaming platform Twitch. The event attracted 628,000 concurrent eyeballs at its peak—more than, for instance, the 445,000 who witnessed Shaun White win his third Winter Olympics gold medal on an Internet device last month or the 372,000 viewers who watched Amazon's first livestream of Thursday Night Football in 2017.
Not all of the hundreds of thousands of viewers were there for the online presence of the Grammy winner. Ninja is currently the top video-game streamer on the Internet, and one of his avid followers is Drake, who played the role of fawning fanboy to the gamer during their casual shooting-and-chatting session. Drake's avatar was killed by enemy gunfire in the midst of one early match, prompting Ninja to offer to finish the game alone while earning a win for both members of the team. "You can back out, I can carry the win," he told Drake. "Nah," the rapper responded. "I want to watch the god work."

It was a surreal moment—the musical superstar behind the number one single "God's Plan" calling Ninja "the god." 

Ninja leaped back into the national consciousness just two days later due to his online interactions with NCAA tournament darling UMBC. The 16th seed's bench celebrated big moments of its history-making win over top-ranked Virginia on Friday night with various Fortnite-themed choreographed celebrations. In the locker room after the game, UMBC forward Nolan Gerrity compared the feeling of beating a top seed to being "like your first Fortnite victory" and bragged that "we got the number one Fortnite player in the world, Ninja, to tweet about us."


This once-in-a-lifetime surge of mainstream fame isn't all the result of dumb luck. Blevins has been served well by a combination of superior hand-eye coordination, onscreen charisma, and dogged perseverance. His professional gaming career began almost a decade ago. The young Illinoisan competed in Halo tournaments for cash prizes starting in 2009, but eventually left the grind of what's now dubbed "eSports" to focus on the pursuit of streaming games.

The act of streaming games might sound banal or easy—but it's more than being skilled with a keyboard or controller. Ninja has earned more than 890 wins in Fortnite solo matches and does so while broadcasting himself for hours at a time while constantly interacting with a community of fans. Imagine if, for instance, Tom Brady was asked to beat the Bears while simultaneously doing color commentary and giving fans in the stands quarterbacking advice. Streaming doesn't take the physical toll of pro football, of course, but it's more than just fiddling with a controller.

Ninja was a marvel of relentless multitasking during his Sunday-night broadcast, a team-up with Connecticut rapper Witt Lowry. As 200,000 viewers tuned in, he kept one eye on a TV to watch his pals at UMBC play Kansas State while simultaneously dominating Fortnite games with Lowry and bantering with fans who were typing comments and questions into his Twitch channel. "What's my favorite animal? A dog," he said in rapid response to a viewer who tipped him $20 while knocking down an opponent with a sniper rifle from 150 yards away.
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Over the next 30 minutes, Ninja delivered gaming tips and relationship advice, gave a few Casey Kasem-like shoutouts to family and friends of fans, and muttered his way through a Seth Rogen impression, all while skillfully winning three games in a row. Then between matches, he donned his yellow headband and enthusiastically danced to a techno track as animated ninjas popped up in the background. He stopped only to go to the bathroom and eat pizza delivered by his wife/manager, Jessica.

Still, Ninja might be doing these same things in relative obscurity if not for striking virtual gold when he switched to Epic Games' Fortnite. The shooter's thrilling "Battle Royale" mode is loosely based on the 2000 Japanese film of the same name about a group of randomly chosen junior high schools taken to an island and forced to fight to the death by the Japanese government. Fortnite's cartoonish take on the dystopian movie involves 100 solo players or teams of two or four people packed into a flying bus who parachute down onto an island with only the clothes on their back. Once they land, players quickly become scavengers who hunt for hidden guns, grenades, shields, and other items that help them conquer each other with force. The last person—or team—standing wins.

The free-to-play Battle Royale mode exploded in popularity in December after taking home the prize for Best Multiplayer Game at the 2017 Game Awards, and as of January it had been played by more than 45 million people worldwide and upwards of 3.1 million players concurrently on PC and console systems. Of the 26 Xbox consoles available to play at Ignite Gaming Lounge in Avondale, Fortnite is being played on an average of 20 of them, said Matt Garrity, Ignite's general manager. "It's growing massively and quick, we have calls about it all the time. We've had whole parties of 20 people and it's the only game they play," says Garrity.

Ninja's rise has been equally meteoric as Fortnite's: he hit 10,000 Twitch subscribers in December, 18,000 in mid-January, and 60,000 in late February, and now nearly 200,000 people pay $5 a month to watch him. He and Witt marveled at this and other recent milestones during one of their duo matches on Sunday night: "I can't believe it, five million subscribers on YouTube, almost a million followers on Twitter and Instagram." And now after his star-making gaming session with Drake and his flirtation with America's new darling college basketball team, he's earned international headlines and is suddenly in demand everywhere.


This newfound popularity also means adjusting to new demands. He rescheduled an interview with the Reader during a brief break on Sunday in order to fit in other appointments, including facetiming with members of the UMBC Retrievers just before their second-round loss to Kansas State to try to inspire them to make the Sweet Sixteen. On Monday, he was interviewed on CNBC. Fame has brought new challenges that can't be conquered with a video game controller.

"Dude, this has been an insane week," Ninja said to Witt later that night as they kept gunning down virtual islanders. "I'm getting so many e-mails and interview requests and I'm only sleeping like five or six hours a night. . . . I can't do it all, but it's like, this is it. You only get one moment like this on the Internet."

In other words, this Ninja won't be pulling a ninja-like disappearing act anytime soon.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Right-wing Twitter propaganda bots pumping up Jeanne Ives campaign for governor, study finds

Posted By on 03.14.18 at 04:59 PM

Jeanne Ives
  • Jeanne Ives

A handful of Twitter bots and propaganda accounts appear to be trying to influence Illinois's gubernatorial election on behalf of Republican candidate Jeanne Ives.

Tweets and retweets mentioning the name of Governor Rauner's right-wing conservative opponent were sent out more than 5,000 times in a single week in March, a vast majority of those supporting the Ives campaign. That's according to a recent analysis by Ajay Jain, a statistics, computer science, and political science student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Jain found that Ives earned approximately 60 percent more mentions on Twitter than Rauner and more total than the top three Democratic candidates—J.B. Pritzker, Daniel Biss, and Chris Kennedy—combined.

Kathleen Murphy, Ives's spokesperson, denied knowledge of the bots in an e-mailed statement:

"This is the first we have heard of Twitter bots," Murphy wrote. "We block [accounts that] are abusive on social media, but beyond that our campaign staff is small. And all are juggling huge workloads at this point. No one on our staff has time for this sort of activity."

Jain initially set out to study the number of positive and negative mentions each Illinois governor candidate received on Twitter, but when he began pulling data from the social networking site, he noticed that Ives—who trails Rauner by 20 percentage points (51 to 31) according to a February 28 Simon Poll—earned a disproportionate number of mentions.

"It was peculiar to me, so that's when I decided to change my analysis to focus on these bots," says Jain.

He focused his attention on three Twitter accounts responsible for most of the Ives tweets: @Redhead4645, @PatriotPete101, and @NinaMorton. All three were sharing dozens—sometimes hundreds—of right-wing propaganda tweets a day, some promoting Ives.
The @NinaMorton account, which has followers that include former Trump press secretary Anthony Scaramucci, stood out because it tweeted Ives-related content 2,200 times in the week that Jain analyzed.

A year ago the @NinaMorton account seemed "normal," Jain noted. "It was if a human actually wrote them. The tweets aren't filled with propaganda, she does not retweet fake news articles, and no one retweets her," he says. But by August 2017, the account began sharing more propaganda and its follower count began to grow by hundreds per day. It currently has 38,500 followers and retweets hundreds of times a day.

"The sudden shift in activity was definitely peculiar, and so my conclusion is that these accounts are trying to interfere or influence the election," he said.

Jain also subjected the accounts to an analysis  by BotCheck.me, a tool designed by the computer science department at the University of California-Berkeley to detect bots and propaganda accounts on Twitter with 94 percent accuracy. Both NinaMorton and redhead4645 qualified as bots or "highly-moderated propaganda accounts," BotCheck.me found.

Jain published his findings on Medium on March 11. The next day, the news website the Outline posted a broader story using some of Jain's methodology and concluded that at least 14 Twitter accounts (including @NinaMorton) "appear to be part of a coordinated effort to amplify fake news, inflame partisan tensions, and spread popular Russian-based conspiracy theories through the use of bots."

The Outline analysis found that accounts shared or distributed ultra-right-wing propaganda—much of which focused on Pennsylvania's March 13 special election, the Illinois gubernatorial March 20 primary election, and issues like gun control and immigration. All 14 accounts analyzed by the Outline shared tweets from @TheBradfordFile, an account famous for tweeting "Trump 2020...landslide coming" last October and being retweeted by Trump himself.

A day after the Outline piece was published, all three accounts called out in Jain's report have had their Twitter handles changed. @NinaMorton has been changed to @MAGANinaJo, @redhead4645 is now @my2006bmw, and @patriotpete101 is @TruckinPete101.

@MAGANinaJo has retweeted almost 600 tweets since Tuesday, according to the Twitter analysis tool AccountAnalysis. Earlier today, for example, the account retweeted a picture of Ives and her running mate, Richard Morthland, with the statement: "Enough with sanctuary cities. Let's work together to put these people in place to work for legal IL residents. #ArmyOfTrump #RedWaveRising2018." That tweet has received 82 retweets and 94 likes as of Wednesday afternoon.

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