Hacker, artist, maker that works for the Museum of Science in Boston.
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The Astonishing Inheritance Figures That Sustain the Black-White Wealth Gap

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The numbers are staggering: White Americans with a college degree are on average three times as wealthy as black Americans with the same credential, and in families where the head of the household is employed, white families have 10 times the wealth of black ones. One estimate on the conservative end suggested that this wealth gap could take two centuries to close.

And the thing about wealth, says Tatjana Meschede, a researcher at the Institute on Assets and Social Policy at Brandeis University, is that it’s “sticky”: It tends to stay with a family. That has serious repercussions for how much money people accumulate over the course of their lives, regardless of whether they attend college—something that is usually thought to make a significant difference financially.

A forthcoming study from Meschede and Joanna Taylor, also a researcher at Brandeis, in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology, makes the point clearly. Building on a 2017 study of theirs that examined wealth accumulation among college graduates—as well as “intergenerational financial transfers,” like when a parent helps a recent college grad out with rent, or, say, gives her $1,000 a month to spend on whatever she pleases—the two looked specifically at how family inheritances, which are usually larger and tend to come all at once, factor into building and maintaining wealth.

The two researchers focused specifically on inheritances among families where at least one parent has a college degree. They looked at families like this in order to test the notion that higher education is some great equalizer.

The differences that they found between black and white families were stark. “Among college-educated black families, about 13 percent get an inheritance of more than $10,000, as opposed to about 41 percent of white, college-educated families,” Taylor said in a release announcing the new research. More specifically, on average, white families that receive such an inheritance receive over $150,000 from the previous generation, whereas that figure is under $40,000 for black families.

Meschede and Taylor focused on inheritances of more than $10,000 because, they say, these qualify as “transformative” assets—meaning, they could significantly alter the course of a life. As Mark Huelsman, a policy analyst at Demos, an advocacy group, tweeted earlier this week after seeing Meschede and Taylor’s study, “the average family inheritance to a white college grad can pay off the average undergrad debt balance”—more than $30,000—“and have enough left over for a 20 percent down [payment] on a $575,000 home.” (And that’s if they have student debt to begin with.)

That head start on wealth provides lifelong momentum, Taylor told me in an interview. The median wealth held by black families with a college degree and student loans by the time the head of household is 65 years old, she said, is about $61,000, versus roughly $422,000 for white families under the same circumstances.

Getting a college degree can, in some cases, help close the income gap—as in, annual earnings—and, as I have written, can do wonders for socioeconomic mobility. But the enduring legacy of slavery, and centuries of de jure and de facto segregation have led to a wealth gap that is practically insurmountable. As my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in 2014, the wealth gap “puts a number on something we feel but cannot say—that American prosperity was ill-gotten and selective in its distribution.”

There have been proposals, including systems of reparations such as baby bonds for black families that are scaled to family wealth, to get kids started on an equal level. Those ideas seem to be on the right track—a college degree alone certainly can’t make up the difference.

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32 days ago
This, exactly this. If you work hard and build up you can make it a little bit of the ways up the wealth gap, maybe help out your kids, but you aren't going to be rich unless you were born into it or you are very lucky.
Somerville, MA
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Burglar breaks into “escape room” business, panics, and calls 911

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Enlarge (credit: NW Escape Experiences)

A burglar in Vancouver, Washington, made four panicked 911 calls after breaking into an "escape room" business last weekend—and having trouble getting out.

Escape rooms are timed challenges that let groups of customers test their wits against a series of intricate puzzles. But NW Escape Experience's three escape rooms apparently so unnerved accused burglar Rye Wardlaw that he called 911 on himself.

The company offers customers three different rooms to choose from, including the "Kill Room," described by The Washington Post as "blood-spattered and designed to look like a serial killer’s basement hideout."

The room features a steel autopsy table, a fake dead body, and a "work bench for the murderer’s tools."

“If you don’t know what you’re getting into, stepping into that room is actually pretty scary,” the owner of the business told The Post.

The business also has two less gruesome escape rooms, one with a Las Vegas theme and the other based on the infamous 1971 airplane hijacking by DB Cooper.

The Washington Post's writeup implies that Wardlaw made his 911 calls from the Kill Room, but the company tells Ars that's not quite accurate.

"He was in the lobby when he called 911" using the company's phone, the company said in a Facebook message. Still, the man had access to all three rooms, and seeing the gruesome paraphernalia in the Kill Room might have contributed to his panicked state of mind.

Police arrived at the scene and apprehended Wardlaw, who is now facing burglary charges.

“We now have a zero percent escape rate with criminals,” owner Tamara Bertrand joked to The Columbian newspaper.

"It was absolutely crazy and we are thankful that it wasn’t as bad as it could have been," the company told Ars in a Facebook message.

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33 days ago
The company couldn't have paid for better advertising.
Somerville, MA
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Jeff Bezos said they’d test the heck out of New Shepard—he wasn’t kidding

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Blue Origin live video

With its ninth flight test, the New Shepard launch system put on quite a show on Wednesday morning. Flying from West Texas, the rocket and spacecraft ascended toward space before separating after about 2 minutes and 40 seconds. Then, three minutes into the flight, the spacecraft's escape motor fired to pull the spacecraft rapidly upward and away from the booster.

This dramatic test pushed the spacecraft higher into space than it had ever been before, reaching an altitude of 119km. Engineers at Blue Origin wanted to see whether the capsule's reaction control system (RCS) thrusters could stabilize the spacecraft in the space environment, and from all appearances the RCS system did just this. After about 11 minutes of flight, the spacecraft returned to Earth. The rocket, too, made a safe return to Earth.

"Anything could have happened today, and this is the best possible outcome," the launch commentator, Ariane Cornell, said during the live webcast.

This test demonstrates that Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos was not kidding when he said he would test the heck out of New Shepard before ever putting a human into space. This was at least the fourth time the company has put the rocket or spacecraft into an off-nominal, extreme scenario such as simulating a failing parachute, or booster-gone-wrong. So far, New Shepard has done very well each time.

“We’ll test the ever-living daylights out of the vehicle before ever putting a human on it,” Bezos said in 2016 when Ars had an opportunity to visit the Blue Origin factory in Kent, Washington. “One of the things I feel very, very strongly about is if you want to get good at spaceflight you have to practice. If you’ve ever had surgery, there are very good statistics that suggest you should find a surgeon who does it five times a week, preferably 10 or 20 times a week, because that’s the kind of rate we humans get really good at things. We need to get to the point where we are flying more than 100 times a year.”

Blue Origin will conduct a "couple of more tests" before putting humans on New Shepard, Cornell said Wednesday. This leaves open the possibility of people—perhaps including Bezos himself—flying on New Shepard late this year.

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34 days ago
While not nearly as showboaty as SpaceX's spaceman stunt (with dramatically beautiful double vertical landings), this is also amazingly impressive and kind of a big deal. A system like this will be needed for space to be accessible to the public. Astronauts train for years/decades, and fully understand the risk. The public at large are terrible at risk assessment in general (holy shit driving), so spaceflight has to be safer, and this is as big as anti-lock brakes were for cars.
Somerville, MA
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#1120: The Creepy Guy In The Friend Group, Revisited: Four More Geek Social Fallacies

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Content note: After the jump I mention Rape Threats Dudes Have Sent Me for saying what I think about creepy dudes.

Dear Captain,

Over the past several years I’ve drifted to the periphery of a friend group where one member is a sexist creep. I immediately found him slimy and pushy and off-putting upon meeting him, but gave him the benefit of the doubt because he’s my friend’s brother — and then learned that he’s heavily into PUA bullshit and was pretty much being awful on purpose. It was a few years into my friendship his sister that he started hanging out with everyone, and as he’s spent more time with the group, I’ve spent much less. (Not just because of him, but he’s definitely one reason.) There’s only one friend I’ve explicitly discussed this with, and he’s sympathetic when we talk privately, but I don’t get the sense Mr. Plumed Fedora experiences much pushback at all from anyone in the group — including me, which is also something I’m really struggling with — when he casually complains about “feminazis,” creeps on every woman he encounters, etc.

Recently an opportunity came up to maybe spend more time with the group and I was kind of excited about it but… I truly loathe this guy and resent the amount of time I’ve already spent with him. Is there a good way to say “Your brother/friend is a misogynist and I don’t want to be around him, no offense”? Should I suck it up? Continue fading out? Finally learn to stop avoiding conflict?

M’lady Nay


Did you know that this post about what to do about the creepy cude in the friend group is the most-read, most-linked, most-discussed post here, ever, even six years later?

Did you know that men still email me about it sometimes to tell me I’m a horrible person who probably deserves to be raped, six years later? Like “if you think that’s what rapists act like or think everyone is probably a rapist you should probably get raped” x 1000, and it’s like, “Hey Rapey Robert/Death Threat Dave/Threatening Thomas/”Ethics In Gaming Journalism” Greg, nice Pepe the Frog avatar you’ve got there, thanks for the feedback. I definitely don’t think every man is a rapist, but is there any part of your email that isn’t proving my point about what potential rapists act like?” 

(I don’t actually write back) (I used to get really scared by these emails but I don’t anymore)(I usually assume it’s happening because some woman in their friend group finally got fed up and finally told them “read this, because you are being this dude”  and now the dude’s gotta find someone new to take it all out on because he can’t act like a butthole at Trivia Night anymore, so they choose me, in which case, KEEP ROCKING, AWESOME PEOPLE! If these assholes are feeling consequences for what they are like, you are doing something right.)

You’re doing just fine with “your brother/friend is a misogynist and I don’t want to be around him, no offense” script! I also laughed at your email subject line: “this is probably like three different Geek Social Fallacies” I think it hits all five, personally, and you’ve inspired me to define some more, so, well done, good work, thank you.

When the people in your social group inevitably say “He’s not that bad” or “But faaaaaamily!” or otherwise try to defend hanging out with him you can say “Maybe he’s not that bad…to you. If you still want to hang out with him, that’s okay, I’m not your boss, but I know I’ll be happier staying away from places he’s going to be. Let me know if you want to do something one-on-one, though, ’cause I really like you.” 

One thing that can be empowering in You versus The Group (+ This Fucking Guy) situations is to take more initiative in spending time with the people you want to see. Be more of a planner, and invite people to hang out one-on-one, or in smaller groups. Mix a few of the cooler people with friends you know from other social circles. If you’re proactive and you’re controlling the invite list, you can have more fun at your events, and you can also push back on people who try to insist on including Creepy McGee. “When it’s your event you can invite anyone you want. X and I don’t get along/You know I find him creepy/I wanted a misogyny-free evening, so, nope!” 

Sometimes you have to make it clear that it’s a smaller/more selective invite list, especially if the group has the “we all do everything together/all are welcome” vibe for their usual hangouts, so, be specific when you make the invitations. “I’d love to have a few people over for a dinner party, I’ve only got the 5 chairs so please RSVP, and sorry, no +1s this time.” Do the inviting off of Facebook or other social media, too, vs. creating events that anyone can see or add people to.

Ok, let’s talk about group situations where someone says something gross and nobody pushes back on it. Maybe there’s a really awkward silence for a second, but your friend is probably used to smoothing things over for her brother, and it doesn’t really register with the offensive person at all.

Creeps and misogynists (and racists, and other people you don’t want at your parties) don’t respond to hints. They operate under the assumption that everyone secretly agrees with them and is just “too triggered” or “too politically correct” or “too sensitive” (or whatever the code word that we are too much of is today) to “say what they’re really thinking.” Silence, hints, a strategically raised eyebrow, people quietly flashing side-eye around the circle, etc. just gives them a pool of plausible deniability to keep right on pooping into. And if the people around them are pretty conflict-averse, or (understandably) afraid of becoming a target or provoking them further, or (understandably) afraid that no one will stand up for them or (understandably) afraid that other people secretly agree with what the asshole is saying, or (understandably) are worried that everyone really likes the asshole and will side with them (cough…Chris Hardwick…cough) it just perpetuates the thing where The Asshole can say horrible things and not really get called on it, so he keeps saying asshole things to try to provoke a reaction and then sort of revel in his power when nobody stops him.

This is the wrong social feedback loop and sometimes you just gotta be the one who fixes it.

Even if it doesn’t convince the asshole. (It probably won’t).

Even if other people don’t stand up with you. (They might not).

Even if it’s scary and the night is “ruined” once you say something. (It was already ruined, for you.)

Even if you lose your temper or it comes out garbled or you shake or your voice shakes or you cry. (It might.)

Even if the people you like in the group are mad at you for not enabling the creep…and them…in putting up with misogyny. (It’s possible.)

I truly think in my heart of hearts that it will be good FOR YOU to have spoken up.

And I think there are some additional Geek Social Fallacies at play in the world, and we urgently need to find some ways to deal with them.

Edited to Add: If you’ve never heard of the Five Geek Social Fallacies before, read that link! It’s one of several extremely useful posts out there in the world about “Hey, why do people who we know behave badly still get to hang out in all our spaces and ruin all our parties and social groups?” Another great one one is The Missing Stair. [/edit]

GSF #6 “Calling out bad behavior makes you just as bad as the person who was doing the bad behavior.” 

It takes many forms:

“I know Dave keeps grabbing your ass when you walk by, but you didn’t really need to yell at him like that! How is he supposed to learn if you can’t even be polite?” 

“Punching Nazis might turn totally normal people who definitely didn’t have any problematic beliefs before this moment into Nazis!” 

“I know Uncle Carl said some racist things at dinner, but how do you expect him to learn if you can’t sit silently while he does that? Don’t you want to be civil?” 

“When you call creepy men creepy it hurts their feelings and makes them more likely to be creepy.” 

There are so many versions and offshoots, like “People who believe and do evil shit aren’t evil deep down, and if you just patiently explained it to them for long enough they would stop being so evil!” or one that is starring in my inbox right now “Jennifer, when you use swear words don’t you know that you discredit your entire argument? I won’t be reading your blog any more (but I will send you a 1000-word email about your blog…the one that I don’t read and definitely won’t be reading anymore… at least once a week…for the rest of time…btw you should probably get raped)” 

The people who indulge these GSF want you to fight bad behavior by….being quiet about it and letting it continue? What? That can’t be right.

In the most generous interpretation, people who indulge in this fallacy don’t know what to do about the awful (racist, misogynist, ableist, homophobic, transphobic, possibly violent, etc. etc.) sentiments and behavior, so they freeze. Maybe they feel bad and guilty for not saying something themselves. Less-generously-but-depressingly-possible, maybe they agree with the horrible things that were said and feel embarrassed about that, like, shhhhhhhhhh, don’t turn our dogwhistle into a regular whistle, it’s embarrassing!

Whatever their reasons, what GSF #6 Fallacy Holders do is to immediately silence what you are saying (“That was sexist, stop it”) and ignore what the other person was doing ([insert repulsive words and/or behaviors here]) in order to make “but you said it wrong!” the territory of the argument. They want the discomfort that the awful person introduced into the situation to stop, but they incorrectly locate the source of their discomfort in the person who resisted it, and then they try to pressure that person into being silent so everyone can go back to being comfortable.

Everyone except the person who was hurt by the asshole’s words or behavior, that is. They are fine with your discomfort (as long as you are quiet about it).

GSF #7: “I can tell if someone is A Good Person or not based on whether they’ve been nice…to me.”

From the serial killer who was “always a polite, quiet neighbor” to the abuser who can keep their temper just fine around friends, bosses, & strangers but “totally loses control!” only when it comes to their victims and only when it won’t have legal consequences or make them look bad to others, to the person who is probably a pillar of his church community, but won’t let a pregnant woman use the bathroom if she’s the wrong race, everyone needs to understand this and understand it quick:

People can selectively be nice to the people whose opinions they care about and who they don’t want to harm. And predators consciously groom and choose people around them to be their defenders and spokespeople, the exact same way they groom their victims.

A lot of what you personally experience as “kindness” or “he’s a great guy!” from a misogynist is really about power and what they can get away with. 

For example, at my first post-college job, the creepy senior employee who ogled me all day, made up reasons to force me to have to come to his office, offered me rides home every day and (when I refused) followed me home in his car, driving slowly next to me while I walked, begging me to get in the whole time, and then parked across the street from my house for hours at a time, etc. was VERY friendly and gregarious in the office. He was a churchgoer with many framed Bible quotes in his office, he wore sweater-vests, he talked like Ned Flanders from the Simpsons. He often bought lunch for the whole office and brought baked goods from home. Nobody believed me about his weird behavior, they believed him when he said he was just concerned about my safety walking alone (in broad daylight, in Georgetown which if you don’t know is an extremely wealthy college neighborhood that is policed within an inch of its life), and they laughed at me for having “a crush” on him. Long after I quit, they finally believed he was not so nice when he embezzled a whole bunch of money, tried to frame a young Somali refugee who worked there for what he did, and disappeared without a trace with tons of their money, though! An expensive lesson, for everyone.

I think geeks/nerds are especially susceptible to GSF #7 because so many of us have been ostracized or bullied as kids. We hunger for kindness, so when One Of The Cool Kids shows us that kindness it’s even more precious and harder to let go of. If someone tells you someone who has always been nice to you is not actually that nice, consider for a second that you don’t know everything about them. What if we could learn expensive and uncomfortable lessons much earlier, by saying “I believe you, let me see what I can do” to the victim of the bad behavior and “Hey, I like you a lot, can you knock off doing that gross thing so I can keep liking you” to the perpetrator? If someone you like is behaving badly, you probably couldn’t have prevented it, but could you at least not become their flying monkey after the fact?

Could we reverse the current of social pressure that teaches victims not to speak up so that awkwardness flows toward perpetrators?



GSF #8: “If you show emotion about a topic, your argument is invalid.”

We could also state this one as “If you are personally affected by the thing that is up for debate, you are biased, and that is Somehow Bad.” Others have written about it in the context of South Park, where being a secret Nazi is hilarious but caring sincerely about something is the real problem, and deserving of ridicule.

What a crock of shit.

Fortunately, Melissa McEwan wrote about this double-bind so beautifully in her piece, The Terrible Bargain We Have Regretfully Struck:

“There are the occasions that men—intellectual men, clever men, engaged men—insist on playing devil’s advocate, desirous of a debate on some aspect of feminist theory or reproductive rights or some other subject generally filed under the heading: Women’s Issues. These intellectual, clever, engaged men want to endlessly probe my argument for weaknesses, want to wrestle over details, want to argue just for fun—and they wonder, these intellectual, clever, engaged men, why my voice keeps raising and why my face is flushed and why, after an hour of fighting my corner, hot tears burn the corners of my eyes. Why do you have to take this stuff so personally? ask the intellectual, clever, and engaged men, who have never considered that the content of the abstract exercise that’s so much fun for them is the stuff of my life.

There is the perplexity at my fury that my life experience is not considered more relevant than the opinionated pronouncements of men who make a pastime of informal observation, like womanhood is an exotic locale which provides magnificent fodder for the amateur ethnographer. And there is the haughty dismissal of my assertion that being on the outside looking in doesn’t make one more objective; it merely provides a different perspective.”

I think about this “lady emotions are dumb, man logic is superior!” fallacy all the time as I watch thousands of young men who would describe themselves as Extremely Logical People become viscerally enraged at a Star Wars movie they didn’t like. It’s kinda funny, but when those same men harass female performers off social media because they didn’t like the movie, it’s suddenly not funny at all. Like, let’s sit with the absurdity of what they are doing for a second. As the primo target audience for Ocean’s 8, I personally think it should 100% have been directed by a woman and that the James Corden insurance investigator part should 100% have been played by Rene Russo in a reprise of her Thomas Crown Affair role (and also that character should be “Lou”/Cate Blanchett’s ex-lover) but I’m not suggesting”let’s all go tell Gary Ross & James Corden they should get raped every day until we have JUSTICE Lololo1!!!” (Like, I know I am joking about a terrible terrible thing so in all seriousness, please, please do not ever do that, it’s just a fucking movie. Go write some hot fan fiction where Cate and Renee do crime and borrow each other’s wardrobes and then email me the link to that fan fiction).

Feelings are just one kind of information. Experiences are extremely informed sources of information. They are not the only information, but they aren’t not-information, either? They have a part to play.

What if we acted like the the people most affected by something/who have the most at stake/who have the most to lose/who have been the most fucked over by the status quo are the center of where our caring should go and the primary experts on what would fix things, but on like, a national or even global level? And what if caring for them was way more important than our “objective” debates about what they need and deserve?

In the meantime, the idea that “your emotions and your experiences with a thing make you uninformed and unqualified to talk about it, but my emotions (that I have renamed ‘logic’) and my lack of experience with a thing make me more informed and qualified than you” is a brand of bullshit that I will be fighting until my dying day, one really really long blog post at a time.

Will you join me?

GSF #9: “The most important thing to think about when speaking up about injustice is what will *convince* the other person to be on your side.” 

As in, when someone mistreats you or others, convincing them not to and converting them to thinking as you do and educating them endlessly, in real time, on demand, on their schedule (whether or not they even want to be convinced), with complete and selfless empathy for why they feel as they do and why they said what they said is your sole, immediate responsibility, more important than your own feelings, safety, ethics, the safety or comfort of anyone nearby or anyone in the world who may be affected by what they did, regardless of how much energy or will you have to do it or how likely they are to be convinced.

For GSF #9 holders, it’s not enough for you to say “Hey, knock it off there buddy,” or “If you’re going to say stuff like that, I need to be elsewhere, byeeee,” NO! You must convince them…OR NOTHING. (i.e. be silent). You must convince them, gently, kindly, with perfect grammar and spelling and no icky emotions like anger at what they did or fear for what they might do, you must make them feel GREAT and WELCOME in your space or else you are letting your whole side down and it will be YOUR FAULT when they do and say awful things.

I think there is enormous value in trying to change hearts and minds and that is the long game, the work that will never stop.

But it’s not the only thing I value. Sometimes what I value is making the bad thing stop and stop right fucking now. Sometimes what I value is making consequences for people who do or say the bad things – there are people who persuasion will never reach, but who might understand power or social disapproval or the risk of being disinvited if they behave badly. Sometimes what I value is protecting myself and other people from the harm that they do, and the hearts and minds of assholes can be their own fucking business.

Sometimes I’m just a human being whose supply of fucks to give runs low and I lose my temper. Oops?

When a gross dude in a literal or metaphorical fedora is like “Hey Sweet Tits want to come over and see my Ayn Rand tattoos? I can explain them all to you, at length and in detail” or “Your hysteria over the coming erosion of reproductive rights is just wasting everyone’s time with dumb ‘identity politics’, why don’t you calm down pay attention to the Really Important Stuff (i.e. stuff that I care about)” and you are like NO and also GROSS and also I WILL NOT CALM DOWN, SIR, I DO BITE MY THUMB AT THEE, PERFORCE, YOU ARE LUCKY I DO NOT MAKE YOU MEET ME WITH PISTOLS AT DAWN…

…and people are like “Calm down why are you being so mean/emotional/hysterical, you’re going to lose the argument unless you maintain perfect detachment at all times

…those people are also sort of saying “I…I mean some people… are looking for an excuse to agree with your tormentor, please don’t give me…I mean them… one by having embarrassing tears or acting angry about what they are doing! If they aren’t convinced, and if I…I mean some people…end up joining their side, it will be all your fault when I/they do!


…I don’t know…

…this may sound weird…

But maybe they were never really gonna be on your side, and what they think isn’t the most important thing in the world?

…And maybe it’s important that you say something back even if it isn’t going to be the one true magical thing that convinces someone not to be a misogynist anymore? That perfect thing that, don’t forget, you must somehow express with perfect politeness and grace?

Maybe it isn’t your job to convince that person, especially not right then in that moment. Maybe you are not their Basic Humanity Tutor. Maybe today isn’t your turn to be the Asshole Whisperer. Maybe speaking up is about something else entirely. Maybe it’s sufficient just to name their actions for what they are so that other people can recognize them, and it’s not your job to fix every asshole that you meet.

Maybe you’re doing it for YOU and as a way to remove plausible deniability that everyone agrees with them and to reassert POWER in the social spaces you occupy regardless of whether these people are ever convinced or even can be convinced. (Like maybe holidays don’t belong to your most racist and loudmouthed relative and you do not have to quietly retreat from having a family because he can’t shut the fuck up for one day (but you are expected to “behave yourself, Young Lady”).

Maybe it would be ok if you “made a scene” or whatever they’re using today as “the worst thing you could possibly do” in order to police your feelings and reactions down to a size that can let them stay comfortable with the unfairness of the world.

Maybe it’s just the right thing to do even if it isn’t easy or comfortable and even if it won’t convince one single soul.  And, in the good words of my beloved ride-or-die Goat Lady, as pertains to some current political discussions:

“Yknow I get that some people are really uncomfortable with confrontation but ima need those folks to just go back inside and keep their heads down instead of pretending they have some kind of precious moral high ground because they don’t want offend fascists.”

If you can’t speak up, if you’re afraid to speak up, if you are uncomfortable speaking up, if you’ve never spoken up before and you don’t know how to start, okay? It’s okay to be scared. It’s okay to be still learning. Do what you have to do to survive from one moment to the next. But do not act like silence is something to strive for and like breaking it is the real faux pas when people’s survival is on the line. I see you.

So again, maybe someone’s horrendous and abusive views and whatever straw-man-dressed-in-red-flags strategy the people who wish you would just shut up already erroneously think will ultimately convince people to stop having those views is not even remotely the standard for measuring what you should do when they hurt people.

My lovely Letter Writer M’Lady Nay, how this translates practically to you and your specific letter (vs. me venting literally every internet argument I am currently having feelings about), is this:

It’s okay to not want to go to things where you know a misogynist creep will be coddled and apologized for. “I love playing Betrayal At House On The Hill, I hate being hit on by some creepo I’ve already told to leave me alone 17,000 times, gotta skip it” is a totally reasonable worldview.

And if you do end up at one of those things where this dude will be, and he says or does one of his awful things, it’s okay to say “Gross” or “Try that again with a little less misogyny this time” or “Nobody here wants to fuck you, just stop it and hang out like a person, or the best imitation of one you can pull off, ok?” or “DO NOT TOUCH ME” or “Well, that was a rape-y thing to say, time for one of us to leave. I vote that it’s you.” or “What the fuck, dude?” or “We put up with you because we like your sister. Behave yourself for her sake, or go the fuck home (for her sake), but DO NOT say that creepy shit to me again” or “Oh gee, look at the time, it’s creep-o’clock and I will turn into a pumpkin if I don’t get out of here.” Or “I don’t like what you said just now.” Or “Wow” or “That makes me really uncomfortable” or “Please desist at once, kind sir” or or or or or or or or or or or or.

And when someone says “Come on he was only joking” you say “But it wasn’t funny” and when someone says “Geez, you’re way too sensitive” you say “Yes, I’m very sensitive and I also hate rape jokes, thanks for noticing” and when someone says “God, grow a sense of humor already!” you say “Yes, I will grow a sense of humor and I will fertilize it with the ashes of unfunny men. TO THE BARRICADES, SISTERS! FOR THEMYSCIRA!”

Or you know, whatever comes to mind. My scripts are always gonna work better in your own words.

And when they come for his sister, or his sister feels pressure to defend him because she’s (understandably) afraid they’ll come for her, you say “You are lovely! But your brother is acting like a sexist jerk. If he’s uncomfortable when people don’t like that, maybe he should knock it off. You are not responsible for him and you do not have to defend him. By which I mean, stop defending him, it’s not your job when you didn’t do anything wrong.”

Your voice might shake. Your awesome comeback might come out garbled. You might get talked over by people who are afraid to do what you did. You might stand there alone, while all these people you want so bad to like and believe you let you down.

Maybe…say something anyway?

Say something especially if you have privilege relative to the people who are being targeted. Creepy men who automatically discount what women say listen more when their male friends say “Not cool, bro.” White people who say racist stuff desperately want the social approval and compliance of fellow white people, and when you refuse to give them your compliance and good opinion, it fucking shatters them. Good. Keep doing it.

Here is the secret, the cheat code, the truth: The people you know who are good at speaking up in tense situations probably didn’t start out that way. It is a habit and a skill that you can develop with time and practice. The more you do it, the more you feel like you can do it. And the more you do it, the people who can’t be trusted not to carry water for creeps and assholes will show themselves, making them easier to avoid in the future.

I’m not gonna lie, that can hurt real bad, it can cut you to the bone.

And there may be times you cannot safely speak up, without the threat of violence. In those cases, you are going to be the best judge of what you can safely do. Think of it as “living so you can fight another day” and don’t let it slow you down too much.

But also, the more you speak up, the more the other people in the room who don’t agree with the asshole will seek you out and back you up and start to find their own voices. Someone in that room has been waiting for someone to say “‘Feminazi?’ Really? Are you a time traveling Rush Limbaugh intern here to teach us about hackeysack and jam bands? Get the fuck out of here with that shit, man.”

Maybe they’ve been waiting for you the way you’ve been waiting for them, wondering “Is it just me?” And maybe today is the day you get together and start to fix it.

This hope is why I do what I do.


Captain Awkward






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46 days ago
Somerville, MA
47 days ago
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47 days ago
"I will grow a sense of humor and I will fertilize it with the ashes of unfunny men" new bio
Rio de Janeiro, Brasil

Atheists Are Sometimes More Religious Than Christians

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Americans are deeply religious people—and atheists are no exception. Western Europeans are deeply secular people—and Christians are no exception.

These twin statements are generalizations, but they capture the essence of a fascinating finding in a new study about Christian identity in Western Europe. By surveying almost 25,000 people in 15 countries in the region, and comparing the results with data previously gathered in the U.S., the Pew Research Center discovered three things.

First, researchers confirmed the widely known fact that, overall, Americans are much more religious than Western Europeans. They gauged religious commitment using standard questions, including “Do you believe in God with absolute certainty?” and “Do you pray daily?”

Second, the researchers found that American “nones”—those who identify as atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular—are more religious than European nones. The notion that religiously unaffiliated people can be religious at all may seem contradictory, but if you disaffiliate from organized religion it does not necessarily mean you’ve sworn off belief in God, say, or prayer.

The third finding reported in the study is by far the most striking. As it turns out, “American ‘nones’ are as religious as—or even more religious than—Christians in several European countries, including France, Germany, and the U.K.”

“That was a surprise,” Neha Sahgal, the lead researcher on the study, told me. “That’s the comparison that’s fascinating to me.” She highlighted the fact that whereas only 23 percent of European Christians say they believe in God with absolute certainty, 27 percent of American nones say this—not exactly what you might expect to hear from atheists or agnostics.

But America is a country so suffused with faith that religious attributes abound even among the secular. Consider the rise of “atheist churches,” which cater to Americans who have lost faith in supernatural deities but still crave community, enjoy singing with others, and want to think deeply about morality. It’s religion, minus all the God stuff. This is a phenomenon spreading across the country, from the Seattle Atheist Church to the North Texas Church of Freethought. The Oasis Network, which brings together non-believers to sing and learn every Sunday morning, has affiliates in nine U.S. cities.

Last month, almost 1,000 people streamed into a church in San Francisco for an unprecedented event billed as “Beyoncé Mass.” Most were people of color and members of the LGBTQ community. Many were secular. They used Queen Bey’s songs, which are replete with religious symbolism, as the basis for a communal celebration—one that had all the trappings of a religious service. That seemed completely fitting to some, including one reverend who said, “Beyoncé is a better theologian than many of the pastors and priests in our church today.”

The Catholic-themed Met Gala earlier this month was another instance of religion commingling with secular American culture. Fashion’s biggest night of the year saw celebrities sweeping down the red carpet dressed in papal tiaras, halos, angel wings, and countless crucifixes. These outfits, along with the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s accompanying exhibition, “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” drew the ire of some Christians. But it’s notable that so many celebrities, not to mention average Americans, embraced the theme with gusto. It’s easier to imagine this happening in America than in, say, staunchly secular France.

Rihanna shows off her pope-inspired ensemble at the Met Gala (Eduardo Munoz / Reuters)

The Pew survey found that although most Western Europeans still identify as Christians, for many of them, Christianity is a cultural or ethnic identity rather than a religious one. Sahgal calls them “post-Christian Christians,” though that label may be a bit misleading: The tendency to conceptualize Christianity as an ethnic marker is at least as old as the Crusades, when non-Christian North Africans and Middle Easterners were imagined as “others” relative to white, Christian Europeans. The survey also found that 11 percent of Western Europeans now call themselves “spiritual but not religious.”

“I hypothesize that being ‘spiritual’ may be a transitional position between being Christian and being non-religious,” said Linda Woodhead, a professor of politics, philosophy, and religion at Lancaster University in the U.K. “Spirituality provides an opportunity for people to maintain what they like about Christianity without the bits they don’t like.”

Woodhead pointed to another finding in the Pew study: Most Western Europeans still believe in the idea of the soul. “So it’s not that we’re seeing straightforward secularization, where religion gives way to atheism and a rejection of all aspects of religion,” she said. “We’re seeing something more complex that we haven’t fully got our heads around. In Europe, it’s about people disaffiliating from the institution of the Church and the old authority figures … and moving toward a much more independent-minded, varied set of beliefs.”

The U.S. hasn’t secularized as profoundly as Europe has, and its history is crucial to understanding why. Joseph Blankholm, a professor at UC Santa Barbara who focuses on atheism and secularism, told me the Cold War was a particularly important inflection point. “The 1950s were the most religious America has ever been,” he said. “‘In God We Trust’ becomes the official national motto. ‘Under God’ is entered into the pledge of allegiance. That identity is being consciously formed by specific actors like Truman and Eisenhower, who are promoting a Christian identity at home and abroad, over against a godless communism. It’s the Christianization of America—as a Cold War tool.”

Over time, that dichotomous thinking has relaxed a bit. Now, a quarter of Americans are religiously unaffiliated, and secularism can mean a wide range of things. “There are ways of being secular that are more okay with hybridity, and there are ways of being secular that require more purity,” explained Blankholm. He cited the Humanistic Judaism movement, which sprang up in the U.S. in the 1960s and which rejects theism while still embracing Jewish history and culture, as an example of the former. “A term like spirituality can capture that hybridity.”

The Pew survey shows that 27 percent of Americans call themselves “spiritual but not religious.” Even though they’ve left organized religion behind, many still pray regularly and believe in God. This raises an issue for researchers, because it suggests their traditional measures of religiosity can no longer be trusted to accurately identify religious people. “I think people are doing things that don’t mirror Christianity sufficiently enough for our categories to continue to be as explanatory as they once were,” said Blankholm. “These categories are at their limit—they’re in some ways outmoded.”

Sahgal said she was aware of this problem, and sought to make the survey questions more granular so they would capture reality more accurately than the traditional questions alone would have done. So, for instance, the survey didn’t stop at asking respondents whether they believe in God. It drilled down further, asking whether they believe in God as described in the Bible or whether they believe in some other higher power.

As religiosity takes on forms that scramble our old understanding of that term, it’s forcing researchers to ask themselves anew what we talk about when we talk about religion.

“Those challenges are going to get worse—and they know it,” said Blankholm. “But I love that they’re developing a new vocabulary, because that’s exactly what we need.”

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82 days ago
I grew up in rural central Louisiana, which was extremely white and christian. Fairly early on I became atheist, but had to say agnostic, otherwise me and my family would have seen some serious violence. (active KKK, saw cross burnings, a gay friend of mine had to get his face reconstructed after being beaten by 6 guys with a bat). It helped that I went to church every week and could whip out bible quotes at the drop of a hat, but I used that to call people out on their shitty behavior. Down there "christian" is an ethnic group, not a real religion. When I'd point out the fact that Jesus was extremely consistent in saying that everyone is a human being and deserves love and compassion, no matter who they are, where they came from, how much money they have, or even whatever awful things they may have done, then lots of folks would just say "well, not X group!". Refuges, migrants, even MS-13 members, would all have been embraced by him. While I don't believe that Jesus ever actually existed, at least that lesson has sunk in.
Somerville, MA
82 days ago
The atheists I know believe in and live by Christ's words far more than any of my Christian relatives.
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In the lab with Xbox’s new Adaptive Controller, which may change gaming forever

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A look inside the Xbox Inclusive Tech Lab as they reveal their new controller with improved accessibility. (Video shot and edited by CNE and Justin Wolfson. Click here for transcript.)

REDMOND, Washington—The Xbox Adaptive Controller (XAC), slated to launch "later this year," looks almost incomplete at first glance. The clean, confusing-looking slab, nearly the length and width of an Xbox One S, has no joysticks. The usual selection of Xbox inputs has been reduced down to a few menu buttons, a D-pad, and two black, hand-sized pads.

Don't let the pared-down design fool you. The XAC is one of the most unique and widely useful control tools Microsoft has ever designed, and it seems poised to change the way many players interact with the games they love.

Sam Machkovech

The operative word is "adaptive." XAC's potential truly begins with its back-side strip. There, you'll find a whopping 19 ports, all 3.5mm jacks. No, this isn't a giant middle finger to the headphone-jack haters at Apple and Google. Rather, these ports see Microsoft connecting with, and loudly celebrating, what has long been an open secret in the world of gaming peripherals: the community of add-on devices designed for limited-mobility gamers.

Oversized buttons, finger switches, blowing tubes, foot pedals, and other specialized inputs have long been built for gamers who can't hold onto or efficiently use average controllers (gamepads, keyboards, mice). Recent speeches from company heads like CEO Satya Nadella and Xbox chief Phil Spencer have paid lip service to "inclusivity" in computing and gaming, but this device, the XAC, aims to do the trick by connecting niche add-ons to standard Microsoft hardware.

After exploring the ways hospitals, charity groups, and non-profit organizations already help limited-mobility gamers enjoy the hobby (and pay for unwieldy, specialized gear), in 2015 Microsoft's Xbox research group started an initiative to build an Xbox-branded hub that can bring down costs and frustration for users and caretakers alike. One year later, this skunkworks project received funding and a pathway to become an official Microsoft retail product.

In fact, this project has been hiding in plain sight for over a year. The Xbox Inclusive Tech Lab opened at one of Microsoft's Redmond campus buildings in 2017, and Ars visited last year under the auspices of an Xbox One X demo and conversation. After that chat, a helpful PR agent's eyes flashed brightly as I asked about the specialized headsets and pedal-driven rigs against one wall. I'd love to see what these are about, I noted.

Six months later, standing in the same room, that agent's teammates grinned from ear to ear as they pulled the veil off a table that exposed the XAC—and, crucially, its range of compatible accessories.

Sam Machkovech

As the above gallery shows, the XAC can be connected to a variety of peripherals, most of which offer binary on/off input—like a basic button press. Gabi Michel, a senior Xbox hardware program manager and a major member of the XAC team, told Ars that a few of the 3.5mm ports support an "analog" range of joystick and trigger presses as well. Two USB ports support joystick peripherals such as existing PC flight sticks and a new Xbox-branded, one-handed "nunchuk" from peripheral maker PDP.

Thus, XAC lands as a weird product from a "first-party" gaming company, because it has to be completed by whichever gamer uses it. During its reveal event, Microsoft's hardware design team argued that this was no accident. They had to unlearn all of their previous assumptions, they said, and realize that a one-size-fits-all controller would never work for the XAC's target audience.

Taking "copilot" to the next level

"The old design axiom is, 'You are not the user,'" says Bryce Johnson, Microsoft's "inclusive lead" in its product research and accessibility team. Johnson is wearing a T-shirt with the all-caps phrase "MORE LOVE" on the front. Talking about inclusivity principles as they apply to Microsoft products and software, he says the old axiom has been harder to mind on the Xbox team because they do all play games in their free time. "Before Xbox, I was in Dynamics. I didn’t work on accounting software all day, go home, and play comptroller all night," he adds. "But our Xbox team plays games in the day and plays games at night."

When it came to designing a more accessible controller, though, members of the design team had to get into a mindset outside of the standard controller use cases they were familiar with. Thus, again and again, a mantra was repeated during the preview event: by leaving any gamers in the cold, the standard controller just wasn't good enough.

Xbox One's controller was constantly praised by Microsoft staffers for being an "industry leader," but each person offered some variation of admitting that "optimizing a single use case" left a lot of potential gamers in the cold. "Emails to [Microsoft CEO] Satya [Nadella] about disability ended up on our desk," director of user research Kris Hunter says. "We’d have to direct people to nonprofits or to hacking resources."

The Xbox team eventually launched two initiatives on the console, each meant to help limited-accessibility players on a default-hardware level. Xbox One's "copilot" mode lets multiple controllers function as the input for a single player. Players can also access a full button-remapping control panel to reassign controller buttons to function as they see fit.

These were a good start, but Microsoft reps still received plenty of questions over control-related problems. Strange online hack attempts, like fans cutting Xbox One controllers in half just to spread buttons out to more easily reachable places, also suggested that more needed to be done for these players.

Sam Machkovech

All the while, XAC was being built behind the scenes. An early version (which we weren't shown) first emerged at Microsoft's annual Hackathon in fall 2015, and by spring 2016 three interns were assigned to fine-tune its design and "business case" pitch. Months later, the XAC appeared at the next Microsoft Hackathon, and this version passed the first-blush test.

Once that prototype gained enough Hackathon traction, Hunter's job was to decide if and how Microsoft would build the thing. An early thought of passing the XAC concept along to a third-party hardware maker was quickly shut down. "We decided early on that this was something Microsoft had to build," Hunter says. "This was our opportunity to prove that we were serious about assistive technologies for all gamers. We had to use that a lot to sell this internally."

Hunter was also frank about the difficulty of getting members of Microsoft's business team to get on board. "We got the question: how many [units will sell]?" Hunter says. "We were like, we don’t know! And we won't know until we ship. The traditional business success metrics... this doesn’t fit into any of those normal metrics. We had to move the goalpost. The [return on investment] is different. This is about allowing more people to play."

(Not so) dumb buttons

The principle underlying XAC—getting people who can't use traditional controllers into games—is nothing new. Gamers of a certain age can probably remember old gaming magazines with occasional spotlight features on limited-mobility controllers, whether set up in hospital wards or attached to players' feet. But Hunter also made it clear in her winning sales pitch to Microsoft bosses that the simplicity and affordability of their solution would absolutely bring new attention and new users to the space.

To wit: it's not easy to find solid, affordable devices made by big companies in this space. The kind of increased accessibility gear you can find right now through grueling Google and Reddit searches is usually stuff made by small teams that don't build at scale or one-off builds from hackers like Ben Heck (whose own "single-handed Xbox controller" design hasn't been available to the public for some time).

As a reasonably priced example, the hardware makers at Broadened Horizons sell an XAC-like hub, dotted with tiny, confusing buttons and lacking any useful, slappable buttons of its own. That unit costs $399 to start, and it requires buying more buttons and add-ons just to compare to XAC's value out of the box.

XAC doesn't completely solve the cost issue; a blowing-tube controller like a Quadstick, for instance, still starts at $399, and it's practically mandatory for users with certain disabilities. But XAC delivers two very solid, poundable buttons fixed within a sturdy hub chassis. Buying similarly sized buttons with 3.5mm connectors can already add up to the $100 asking price of other controllers, and that doesn't include XAC's tasteful slope design, rubberized feet, or full-hub architecture.

Even if you get an adaptive controller—either through a direct purchase or by receiving a selective, waiting-list grant from a nonprofit like AbleGamers—there's still the matter of setting it up and attaching it to a compatible gaming machine. You're likely going to be limited to PC games, which isn't necessarily so bad, but you'll probably also face some non-intuitive software and install processes. If you're a limited-mobility gamer, that means you may need physical help from someone—like a family member or hospital caretaker—who may have no idea how to install a driver or dig through a Github repository, let alone how to play Fortnite.

XAC's ease of use first becomes apparent when you connect it to a compatible machine like an Xbox One or computer. At that point, it is essentially recognized as a wireless Xbox One S controller—which means in many use cases, the syncing and setup process is smooth. Plus, that "S" is important, since it represents an update that S consoles' controllers received in 2016: the ability to use both the Xbox One wireless standard and Bluetooth 4.1. All Xbox One consoles, and any Windows 10 machine with a $25 Xbox Wireless Adapter, will play nice with XAC right out of the box. (Older Windows versions can be rigged up as well, and Bluetooth functionality opens up more options if needed.)

When Ars staffers saw an unexplained preview image of the XAC controller before the event, many wondered how those large pads would work. Some guessed they could be pressure- or location-sensitive, but they were wrong. These are big, dumb buttons, assigned to A and B (though they can be reassigned with the Xbox Controller app).

At first, I'll admit I was a little bummed. I originally dreamed that these buttons might play nice with a stick or mouth attachment to double as a joystick or an array of functions in a pinch. But then I watched MikeTheQuad, a member of the Warfighter Engaged community of disabled veteran gamers, test the XAC out. As a tetraplegic, Mike has some range of arm and hand motion, but his individual fingers are not up to the burden of holding a controller and pressing all its buttons. He can move joysticks around with each palm and bonk certain buttons in a pinch, but for a fuller range of maneuvers, he needs more.

Mike used a standard Xbox gamepad alongside the XAC, plus a few large buttons plugged into the unit to rest near his wrists for easier access. That positioning flexibility is no small perk. XAC's combo of wireless protocols, 20-hour battery, and mounting brackets means someone like Mike can pretty much put the hub wherever is most convenient.

Mike also quite frequently flicked his wrist at the XAC's two big "dumb" buttons to access controls like crouching or weapon swaps. As I watched Mike flick at the XAC with the same speed I might move my thumb from the "A" button to the "Y" button, I thought for the first time in my life about what a privilege it is to quickly tap around all of a gamepad's buttons.

With this setup, Mike was able to pull off some impressive moves, like double- and triple-jumping around open-air spots in Overwatch or marching all the way to sixth place in a 100-person Fortnite match. Seeing Mike in action with the XAC was awesome.

"I get a competitive edge," Mike said of the XAC as he plays through more first-person shooters. "I get back into my gaming."

After that, I didn't think those big XAC buttons were so dumb anymore.

Look, Xbox: No hands

The Xbox Inclusive Tech Lab includes other examples of personalized control systems based on a particular disability. Take the room's "no hands" Rocket League station, which starts with a standard Rock Band drum kit pedal as the car's accelerator (Harmonix's kick pedal was already using the 3.5mm jack standard when it launched in 2007). From there, a pair of large push buttons are attached to a standard desk, which a player can hit with their pedaling leg's knee to steer left or right.

Topping all of that off is a button attached to a chair at the point where a player's head naturally rests. Tap that button with your head, and you can make your Rocket League car bunny-hop.

This example, admittedly, had been built in the ITL as early as last November, well before the XAC's public announcement. It was also running on a specialized hub on a Windows PC. I played Rocket League's "training" mode with this rig for a bit, and I was able to instantly get my bearings for basic steering and maneuvering—but more importantly, I could already imagine replacing the single Rock Band pedal with the XAC base unit, which would give me two bashable buttons to smack with my feet. In Rocket League's case, that would mean a no-hands gamer would be able to accelerate and hit the "nitro" button.

XAC's five-degree slope was built in after testers requested it, since the unit was commonly used either on tables or as foot pedals, and it's a nice touch. The big buttons are a treat, as well, because they offer deep, clicky action, like a massive Cherry Red keyboard switch, yet they also respond to the faintest touch. I pounded them with feet, fists, and elbows, and their responsiveness always seemed up to snuff. It's also very easy to rest one fist or foot between the big buttons and comfortably rock it back and forth—which is absolutely an expected use case.

Sam Machkovech

During our tour of the XAC development, we also got to walk through Microsoft's Xbox Accessories testing lab, where we saw a wave of XACs and Xbox One Gamepads being pounded on by mechanical switches and fingers. Xbox reps wouldn't answer how much pressure was being applied to the controllers in numbers like PSI; instead, they insisted that the pressure was equivalent to an average foot pounding on an XAC button for two weeks straight, 24 hours a day. Other tests measured how the XAC would handle being run over with a wheelchair, we were told, but we didn't get to see those in action.

The XAC team pointed out a variety of thoughtful design touches. Its built-in battery, for example, came as a result of users struggling to flip an Xbox One gamepad's battery compartment open. XAC's USB Type-C port is a response to saving users the trouble of lining up a micro-USB port's orientation. An additional AC power adapter port is available for those cases in which a connected USB device demands its own power. And the 19 back-side ports are all labeled from the top and include grooves, so that anybody wanting to pull and swap switches can simply drag a 3.5mm plug by touch.

"Experiment, instead of having to build"

Microsoft invited caretakers and non-profit representatives to the XAC reveal event to share stories, particularly staffers from the Craig Rehabilitative Hospital in Englewood, Colorado, Microsoft looped into the device's development and prototyping phases. Rehab and youth hospitals have long leaned on the healing power of video games—a fact we at Ars are well aware of, as our annual charity drive benefits Child's Play and its mission to put more video games into care centers.

But when a game system simply doesn't work for a patient—especially one with specific mobility needs—its healing power diminishes, Craig Hospital assistive tech specialist Erin Muston-Firsch tells Ars. Between configuring and outright hacking specialized rigs, or having to download updated drivers, or having a single component fail and thus knock an entire rig out, there's a constant uphill battle in the special-needs gaming space. That difficulty is multiplied when caretakers, hospital workers, and family members aren't fluent in gaming.

"People ask why I liked gaming [in the rehab process]," Muston-Firsch says. "It's not only natural in everyday living, but it offers an opportunity to work on skills, building endurance, strength, and movement, cognitive, or perceptive skills. It's a lot of joy, and selfishness, on my part to get people back into gaming—maybe with a social component with friends, or playing a game and forgetting about what you don’t have for a minute.

"But when you introduce someone to gaming again," she adds, "the more barriers you throw up, the less likely someone is going to get back in."

Microsoft's announcement video for the Xbox Adaptive Controller.

Microsoft invited Muston-Firsch and her colleagues—and their patients—into some of XAC's earliest tests. But even before that, one of the original Microsoft Hackathon projects sought consultation from the nonprofit Warfighter Engaged (including the aforementioned MikeTheQuad), which uses grants and outreach to get specialized controllers into disabled and veteran gamers' hands. During those hackathons, WE Chief Medical Officer Erik Johnson pushed for the eventual product to take on its current shape, as opposed to a many-buttons, many-options smorgasbord.

"Everyone’s very unique, and we have to figure out different ways to set them up [with gaming rigs]," Johnson says. "At the Hackathon, we asked, could we have an engine that we can start with, so we can cut out the beginning stuff? [That way] we can experiment, instead of having to build."

But this controller doesn't begin and end with the most severe use cases that consultants like Muston-Firsch and Johnson advocate for—a fact that they gladly admit to. Microsoft researchers talked at length about innovations that began with a focus on assistive tech, only now they'll impact all of our lives. Major advances in email and Internet connectivity were invented (in part) as a response to deafness. Bendy straws were built by a father so his daughter could drink out of cups. More than 25,000 people a year lose use of an extremity, Microsoft researchers say, but who else might benefit from tech made on their behalf?

Johnson has an answer: possibly all of us (at some point). "Think of today's 60- and 80-year-olds. When you ask them, what do you like to do in life? You'll hear, read the newspaper, watch TV. Thirty years down the road, if I have a stroke, somebody better put a game controller in my hand."

"I hope it'll drive the industry"

Strangely, nobody talked at the event about one use case this device enables: more assistive hardware use on computers in general. It's a slam-dunk device on most Windows machines, while Bluetooth opens up possibilities on pretty much any other operating system—Linux, MacOS, iOS, and Android. The existing Xbox Accessories app lets users pre-load three custom button remapping settings into the device, which can be swapped by tapping one of the menu buttons. Unfortunately, these are currently limited to Xbox button commands—meaning, you can't tell the XAC to treat its "Y" button port as a space bar. (On Windows, you can use an app like ReWASD to open this possibility up, at least.)

For now, the company line is about accessibility and gaming—and not about being the industry's leader in the sector.

"I will never turn this into a Sony, Nintendo, Microsoft [competitive] thing," head of Xbox Phil Spencer said at the event. "Anybody, literally anybody who wants to learn from the work we’ve done here—or even try to do more than that with the work we’ve done here—I’m completely open to that. it doesn’t have to have an Xbox logo on it. Let's just allow more people to play."

Spencer admitted a personal stake in the accessible-gaming world: when he has played online Xbox games, he has often come to learn that his teammates or opponents have played through various disabilities (including butt-kickings in the fighting game Killer Instinct served by blind players). He and his teammates shared a few stories, some more personal than others, about limited-mobility gamers who got back into the hobby because of help from non-profits or hacking projects, or those who said "enough is enough" thanks to disabilities and stopped gaming altogether.

Over the years, many gamers have found their way in spite of the "big three" platforms not delivering official accessibility products until now. Spencer openly admits that the XAC is late to the sector—and that major companies' work isn't done—but he's happy with what his team has delivered at this late point in the party.

"You quickly realize that the limitations that we sometimes unknowingly put in front of broad sets of people to use our platform, don’t keep everyone [away]… the true people will work through it and find solutions," Spencer says. "That, [when] we reflect back... they shouldn't have to work that hard. We can work hard, and do things like the Adaptive Controller. We’ll do more work in this area. The forward momentum from projects like this will continue, and I hope it’ll drive the industry."

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96 days ago
This is legitimately exciting. I just hope they open it up under some open hardware license.
Somerville, MA
95 days ago
Truly, I like that Microsoft put their corporate heft behind this product and It is my sincere hope this is the start of a trend towards more accessibility in the game industry (they've clearly been influenced by Mr. Ben Heck).
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