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Newly unemployed and labeling photos for pennies

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B.C. Kowalski, a writer at the local weekly in Wausau, Wisconsin, was expecting a boost to his income this spring. He was set to begin selling ads for local businesses on a podcast he’d launched on the side, Keep it Wausome. Then coronavirus restrictions shut down the town and its businesses.

To keep some extra dollars coming in, Kowalski has turned to Amazon’s crowd-work platform Mechanical Turk, where companies offer cents or dollars for small tasks such as labeling photos, transcribing audio clips, or answering survey questions.

Diane Brewer, who lives in Florida, is also counting on Mechanical Turk, as well as another crowd-work site called Prolific, where workers are paid to fill out surveys for academia and market research. She previously turned to crowd work during spells as a stay-at-home mom and convalescing after a car crash. Covid-19 convinced Brewer it was time to start again “to add some dollars to an uncertain future,” she says. Her long-term boyfriend works as a carpenter. “That may be an issue in the near future, because who is going to buy a house anytime soon?” she asks.

Brewer and Kowalski are among a global surge of people logging on to crowd-working sites due to the economic contagion of Covid-19. Millions of people are suddenly out of work or facing reduced hours, with many stuck at home sheltering in place. Crowd work can be done from anywhere with an internet connection.

UK-based Prolific saw 13 percent more workers in March than in February, according to its CEO, Katia Damer. Damer says that on average each crowd worker filled out more surveys, driving the value of transactions on the platform up more than 50 percent.

Hive, a crowd-work platform that specializes in tagging photos and other data for training machine-learning software, has also seen its workforce swell. Kevin Guo, the startup’s CEO and cofounder, says the daily count of new accounts on the service has more than doubled over recent weeks. A rush of new workers from Brazil and the Philippines has been particularly noticeable.

Amazon did not reply to a query about activity on Mechanical Turk, but Panos Ipeirotis, an NYU professor who has studied Mechanical Turk workers, says he’s seen more Turkers recently from Canada, Italy, and Brazil in particular. A spokesperson for Our Hit Stop, a discussion site for Mechanical Turk workers that sells a Chrome extension for finding the best paying tasks, says it has seen new memberships increase 20 percent and 30 percent of inactive members return.

Crowd work is generally not well paid. A 2018 study led by Carnegie Mellon University pegged the median wage at around $2 an hour although workers can push that higher by being careful about the tasks they select and using tools like Our Hit Stop’s that flag or snag the best work. Kowalski of Wausau says he uses those to select tasks that pay the equivalent of $9 to $15 per hour, but workers who need to take as much work as possible may not be able to be so choosy. Prolific markets itself to workers by promising that surveys pay at least $6.50 an hour.

The surge of crowd workers will increase the competition to land jobs, and could prompt those posting tasks to reduce their already low rates. But Kerri Reynolds, a vice president at Appen, which offers crowd-work jobs annotating images, text, or other data for clients including Microsoft and eBay, says she still has plenty of work to go around because Covid-19 has increased the supply of crowd work as well as crowd workers.

Reynolds says that might be because US companies have lost access to large pools of workers offshore as outsourcing companies have closed offices. “Perhaps with those shutting down, companies are looking for alternatives,” she adds.

Guo of Hive says some of his company’s usual high-volume tasks, like spotting logos on sports videos to help companies track sponsorship deals, are less plentiful. But he notes that the company has more work than ever from clients that use crowd workers to help moderate social content and check user profiles.

“We have seen a dramatic uptick in new customers, as well as existing customers sending in much higher volumes of content to be moderated,” Guo says. He believes that’s partly due to social sites seeing more traffic from people stuck at home, and also because companies have shuttered offices where moderation staff worked. Some companies, such as Facebook, are wary of the privacy risks of sending content for moderation outside their own facilities, but others are turning to crowd workers to help, Guo says.

Companies turning to Hive for moderation typically use machine-learning algorithms to take a first pass at content, and use crowd workers for trickier tasks or to handle surges. One Hive customer, live streaming app Yubo, which has 30 million users, has seen time spent in livestreams increase fourfold and daily signups more than triple.

The coronavirus that has driven more people to crowd work has also created a new, somewhat ironic, stream of work on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Longtime Turkers have noticed that the site has seen its own epidemic of surveys posted by psychologists, economists, and other researchers asking people about their Covid-19 related thoughts, feelings, and experiences. “If the disease is anything like the surveys,” one person noted on a Turker forum, “it’ll wear you down just thinking about it.”

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The Callisto Protocol review: A relentless horror spectacle

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Enlarge / Hello, gorgeous.

In the survival-horror genre, building tension and ramping up a sense of dread is the backbone of the experience. As a new sci-fi horror IP coming from the creators of Dead Space, The Callisto Protocol homes in on that creeping sense of unease as it forces you to confront its many grotesque threats head-on. When playing The Callisto Protocol, I always felt on edge, even during moments when I could have let my guard down.

The game takes some strong influences from its spiritual predecessor Dead Space and puts its own spin on a more visceral type of horror experience. That said, The Callisto Protocol‘s influences and genre are abundantly clear, and it occasionally falls back on familiar tropes and some frustrating combat encounters. Still, it maintains its solid, relentless poise as an unnerving yet still thrilling survival-horror game.

Welcome to Black Iron Prison

You play as Jacob Lee (Transformers’ Josh Duhamel), a far-future freelance cargo hauler with a murky past who crash lands on Jupiter’s titular frozen moon. After getting abducted by the ruthless head of security, Captain Ferris (Days Gone’s Sam Witwer), Jacob finds himself trapped in the mysterious and inhumane Black Iron Prison.

Eventually, a mysterious viral outbreak mutates nearly everyone inside, turning them into ravenous monsters called Biophages. Launching an escape with other prisoners, including the enigmatic anti-corporate activist Dani Nakamura (The Boys’ Karen Fukuhara), Jacob delves deep into Black Iron Prison and the moon’s lower depths to uncover what happened and make it out alive.

Right from the start, and despite the grotesque, over-the-top horror setting, there’s a palpable sense of realism to The Callisto Protocol’s story and visuals. This is hard sci-fi through and through, in the vein of Paul W.S. Anderson’s Event Horizon or John Carpenter’s The Thing (or the original Dead Space series, unsurprisingly). The game plays it straight with its unsettling vision of a future gone awry, which provides a rich environment to play in. Aside from rare one-liners, there’s not much levity, which keeps with the game’s bleak narrative and atmosphere.

Remember to breathe.
Enlarge / Remember to breathe.

As a cinematic, story-driven game, The Callisto Protocol keeps its pace and structure tight, focusing on Jacob’s ordeal as he’s ferried to different encounters and events in a mostly linear fashion. Aside from chapter breaks and more in-depth cinematics, you’re always viewing events from Jacob’s perspective. The performances from the main cast do an effective job of selling the plot’s sense of urgency and dark tone. While the story largely keeps its twists subdued and doesn’t venture far from its initial premise by the end of its 12-plus-hour campaign, it still succeeds as a solid vehicle for an intense and brutal horror game.

What truly sells The Callisto Protocol and its setting are the fantastic visuals and sound design. The presentation is incredibly effective at establishing mood, with small details combining together into the most impressive and effective survival-horror tapestry I’ve seen in a long time. This is especially evident in the gruesome design of the Biophages, as well as the numerous, wince-inducing death scenes.

When the visuals and sound design all work in concert, it creates a stark sense of dread and unease that sticks with you to the end. One section had me explore the depths of the prison while the power was fluctuating, creating moments of darkness for the enemies to move around unseen. Just trying to keep track of where these monsters were put me on edge. It was an unnerving section that really showcased the craft of the game’s impressive presentation.

While Black Iron Prison is slightly similar to the USG Ishimura from Dead Space, the setting comes into its own once the game’s scope expands, showcasing fantastic views of the outside frozen lunarscape and the darker depths of Callisto. The game’s linear progression and tight pacing cut down on backtracking. That said, there are still moments where you can venture off and explore hidden rooms, mainly to uncover some intriguing clues and audio logs about Black Iron Prison history and what came before.

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The Mandalorian season 3 has been delayed—but only a little

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Enlarge / A promotional image for the third season of The Mandalorian.

After months of silence about it, Disney has finally revealed the premiere date of the third season of its first live-action Star Wars TV series, The Mandalorian. The new season will premiere on March 1, 2023.

That’s just a little bit later than what Disney said to expect the last time it made an announcement; the release window was announced to be February 2023 in a tweet in May.

Minor premiere date slipping aside, it’s been quite a time since the previous season in either case. The second season premiered back in October 2020. That said, it wouldn’t be accurate to say that it’s been more than two years since we last spent time with the show’s two central characters, Mando and Grogu.

That’s because both appeared prominently in The Book of Boba Fett, a limited series that ran from December 2021 through February 2022. In fact, they were so prominent in part of that show that we called it The Mandalorian season 2.5 when we reviewed it.

Expect them to be the main focus of The Mandalorian season three when it premieres March 1, though; that point is driven home by the promotional image shown above and by the plot threads that carry over from The Book of Boba Fett and prior seasons of The Mandalorian.

The Mandalorian received generally positive reviews when it premiered—a stark contrast to the divided responses to most of the recent Star Wars movies. Thus far, the various TV series have been helmed by a different creative team than the movies. Accomplished director Jon Favreau and Star Wars animated series veteran Dave Filoni seem to have done a better job satisfying fans than some of the other directors, producers, and writers of the films.

Disney sought to spin off several additional live-action Star Wars shows from the series, several of which stem from characters who had guest roles in the second season, including the first live-action rendition of Ahsoka Tano from the popular Clone Wars animated series.

Not all of Disney’s now-numerous live-action Star Wars series are Mandalorian spinoffs, though. Earlier this year, Disney+ ran a limited series focused on Obi-Wan Kenobi that took place between the prequel films and the original trilogy. The same goes for the thriller Andor, which just finished its first season to widespread critical acclaim.

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Nintendo apologizes for Pokémon performance problems, promises “improvements”

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Enlarge / Portrait of the author learning that some of the Pokémon Scarlet and Violet performance problems might be fixed.

Andrew Cunningham

Our review of Pokémon Scarlet and Violet mentioned some of the game’s pervasive performance issues, and we weren’t the only ones. Even more mainstream outlets like The Guardian and CNN noted the games’ performance problems. Eurogamer’s Digital Foundry team, known for its in-depth analyses of game performance, called the games “comprehensive technical failures,” also calling attention to their blurry and poorly tiled textures and “low-geometry” environments.

Players have noticed plenty of other problems, too; these include a bug that allowed players to run twice as fast by connecting two controllers to the Switch, bizarre animations and clipping problems, Pokémon that blast off into the sky like Team Rocket, and some evidence that online battles were using the same probability seed for every match, making it easier for attentive players to make low-accuracy moves hit 100 percent of the time. I captured a screenshot of a Hoppip that was casting three shadows simultaneously (though it’s possible the Paldea region has three suns that I just don’t know about).

I'm no scientist, but I don't think this is how lighting works.
Enlarge / I’m no scientist, but I don’t think this is how lighting works.

Andrew Cunningham

Nintendo released a 1.1.0 update for both Pokémon games today that includes “select bug fixes” (though the company didn’t specify which). But alongside that mostly routine post-launch update came a less-routine acknowledgment of the performance problems and a suggestion that the company would provide fixes.

“We are aware that players may encounter issues that affect the games’ performance. Our goal is always to give players a positive experience with our games, and we apologize for the inconvenience,” the statement reads. “We take the feedback from players seriously and are working on improvements to the games.”

Notably, “tak[ing] feedback from players seriously” and “working on improvements” don’t amount to a promise that every single dropped frame and ugly texture is going to be fixed. But like Sword and Shield, Scarlet and Violet will likely enjoy a decent amount of post-release support, including functional updates like Pokémon Home compatibility and substantial new DLC content. This should hopefully justify the time and money needed to make noticeable performance improvements, even though the games as they currently exist have still managed to be the fastest-selling titles Nintendo has ever released.

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