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One Good Thing: Neil Cicierega is the internet’s merriest prankster. His new album delights.

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One Good Thing is Vox’s recommendations series. In each edition, we’ll tell you about something from the world of culture that we think you should check out.

For artists, quarantine is a time of even more uncertainty than it is for most of the rest of us. If your occupation involves, on some level, performing for an audience, then retreating into your home for months could feel unduly isolating. Actors, musicians, even we theoretically introverted writers — knowing that somebody is going to be taking in your art at the end of the process is important and even necessary (especially for live performers).

But early uncertainty has given way to an explosion of creativity. From Taylor Swift’s folklore to Chanel Miller’s quarantine comics to Hrishikesh Hirway and Samin Nosrat’s podcast Home Cooking, shutting a bunch of artists indoors with their thoughts has led to some incredible stuff.

And now, add another name to the list of quarantine successes: Neil Cicierega, the man who elevated internet trolling to art, has continued his groundbreaking, earth-shattering Mouth series with the stellar Mouth Dreams.

The mouth series began in 2014 with Mouth Sounds and Mouth Silence, followed by 2017’s Mouth Moods. In each of the three albums, Cicierega takes bits and pieces of American culture, throws them together, remixes them, and blows up the results to create some of the best mash-up albums you’ll ever hear.

Whether he’s wedding news reports about the evils of Pokémon to the hot beats of The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” or disassembling, then reassembling, Smash Mouth’s “All Star” into unimaginable sonic wallpaper, Cicierega is a master of taking one piece of music or dialogue, mixing it up with another, then adding in even more sound elements to make something at once familiar and completely new. Listen to the below, for instance:

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I love the Mouth albums. (My wife, banging on the wall opposite my office to get me to turn down the volume, disagrees.) I love Cicierega’s playfulness and his merry prankster attitude. I love how his library of pop culture references seems to be almost exactly the same as mine. And I love that he’s apparently used social distancing to create Mouth Dreams, the fourth album in the series.

As you might guess from its name, Mouth Dreams has a vaguely nocturnal theme, but it’s not the kind of album you put on to fall asleep. Its opening salvo, for example, is the yodeler who sings “Yahoo-oo-oo!” from ads for the search engine of the same name, before the album’s third track involves a mash-up of “We Will Rock You” and the SpongeBob SquarePants theme, in which Cicierega has altered the pitches of the SpongeBob singers so they sing “SpongeBob, SpongeBob SquarePants” to the tune of “We will, we will rock you.” (Cicierega’s skill with pulling songs apart to make them do exactly what he wants and sound exactly how he wants has only increased with each album.)

Cicierega — whose other projects include everything from the Potter Puppet Pals videos of the 2000s to the weirdo band Lemon Demon — is beloved by tons of internet dwellers for just how thoroughly he’s created art out of surfing the web. The Mouth albums are the strongest examples of his uncanny knack for transformation: They are composed of lots and little bits and pieces of other things, in a vaguely similar fashion to how it feels to watch one weird piece of pop culture from your childhood on YouTube, then watch 52 others in rapid succession. But they also have an irony-poisoned sense of humor that reflects the bleak reality of having every bit of information imaginable at your fingertips without any of its context.

For instance, possibly the most successful “song” on Mouth Dreams arrives around the 15-minute mark of the album, when the Chili’s baby back ribs jingle plays over the fade out of the previous song, only for the instrumental track from Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” to settle in underneath it. Just when you’re done giggling at the audacity of this move, Cicierega layers in Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People” to serve as a sinister counterpoint. And then the beautifully wailing refrain from “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” lands on top of everything else.

I feel a little terrible telling you that all of the above happens because the joy of any given Mouth album is listening to it the first time through and being surprised at Cicierega’s goofball verve. The fun of the series comes from Cicierga’s willingness to do just about anything for your laughter, your applause, or your ability to confuse your friends when you start playing a song that sounds familiar, then becomes something else entirely.

If you’ve never listened to a Mouth album before, Mouth Dreams is as good an entry point as any of them. But once you’ve digested all of its pleasures, listen to the other three. You won’t regret it.


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Trump’s misleading tweet about changing your vote, briefly explained

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Searches for changing one’s vote did not trend following the recent presidential debate, and just a few states appear to have processes for changing an early vote. But that didn’t stop President Trump from wrongly saying otherwise on Tuesday.

In early morning posts, the president falsely claimed on Twitter and Facebook that many people had Googled “Can I change my vote?” after the second presidential debate and said those searching wanted to change their vote over to him. Trump also wrongly claimed that most states have a mechanism for changing one’s vote. Actually, just a few states appear to have the ability, and it’s rarely used.

Twitter did not attach a label to Trump’s recent tweet.
Twitter

Trump’s claim about what was trending on Google after the debate doesn’t hold up. Searches for changing one’s vote were not among Google’s top trending searches for the day of the debate (October 22) or the day after. Searches for “Can I change my vote?” did increase slightly around the time of the debate, but there is no way to know whether the bump was related to the debate or whether the people searching were doing so in support of Trump.

It was only after Trump’s posts that searches about changing your vote spiked significantly. It’s worth noting that people were also searching for “Can I change my vote?” during a similar period before the 2016 presidential election.

Google declined to comment on the accuracy of Trump’s post.

Trump also claimed that these results indicate that most of the people who were searching for how to change their vote support him. But the Google Trends tool for the searches he mentioned does not provide that specific information.

Perhaps the most egregiously false claim in Trump’s recent posts is about “most states” having processes for changing your early vote. In fact, only a few states have such processes, and they can come with certain conditions. For instance, in Michigan, voters who vote absentee can ask for a new ballot by mail or in person until the day before the election.

The Center for Election Innovation’s David Becker told the Associated Press that changing one’s vote is “extremely rare.” Becker explained, “It’s hard enough to get people to vote once — it’s highly unlikely anybody will go through this process twice.”

Trump’s post on Facebook was accompanied by a link to Facebook’s Voting Information Center.
Facebook

At the time of publication, Trump’s false claims had drawn about 84,000 and 187,000 “Likes” on Twitter and Facebook, respectively. Trump’s posts accelerated searches about changing your vote in places like the swing state of Florida, where changing one’s vote after casting it is not possible. Those numbers are a reminder of the president’s capacity to spread misinformation quickly.

On Facebook, the president’s post came with a label directing people to Facebook’s Voting Information Center, but no fact-checking label. Twitter had no annotation on the president’s post. Neither company responded to a request for comment.

That Trump is willing to spread misinformation to benefit himself and his campaign isn’t a surprise. He does that a lot. Still, just days before a presidential election in which millions have already voted, this latest episode demonstrates that the president has no qualms about using false claims about voting to cause confusion and sow doubt in the electoral process.

Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.


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Nearly 6,000 civilian casualties in Afghanistan so far this year

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From January to September, 5,939 civilians – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded – were casualties of the fighting, the UN says.

Nearly 6,000 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in the first nine months of the year as heavy fighting between government forces and Taliban fighters rages on despite efforts to find peace, the United Nations has said.

From January to September, there were 5,939 civilian casualties in the fighting – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a quarterly report on Tuesday.

“High levels of violence continue with a devastating impact on civilians, with Afghanistan remaining among the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian,” the report said.

Civilian casualties were 30 percent lower than in the same period last year but UNAMA said violence has failed to slow since the beginning of talks between government negotiators and the Taliban that began in Qatar’s capital, Doha, last month.

An injured girl receives treatment at a hospital after an attack in Khost province [Anwarullah/Reuters]

The Taliban was responsible for 45 percent of civilian casualties while government troops caused 23 percent, it said. United States-led international forces were responsible for two percent.

Most of the remainder occurred in crossfire, or were caused by ISIL (ISIS) or “undetermined” anti-government or pro-government elements, according to the report.

Ground fighting caused the most casualties followed by suicide and roadside bomb attacks, targeted killings by the Taliban and air raids by Afghan troops, the UN mission said.

Fighting has sharply increased in several parts of the country in recent weeks as government negotiators and the Taliban have failed to make progress in the peace talks.

At least 24 people , mostly teens, were killed in a suicide bomb attack at an education centre in Kabul [Mohammad Ismail/Reuters]

The Taliban has been fighting the Afghan government since it was toppled from power in a US-led invasion in 2001.

Washington blamed the then-Taliban rulers for harbouring al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda was accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks.

Calls for urgent reduction of violence

Meanwhile, the US envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said on Tuesday that the level of violence in the country was still too high and the Kabul government and Taliban fighters must work harder towards forging a ceasefire at the Doha talks.

Khalilzad made the comments before heading to the Qatari capital to hold meetings with the two sides.

“I return to the region disappointed that despite commitments to lower violence, it has not happened. The window to achieve a political settlement will not stay open forever,” he said in a tweet.

There needs to be “an agreement on a reduction of violence leading to a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire”, added Khalilzad.

A deal in February between the US and the Taliban paved the way for foreign forces to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, which agreed to sit with the Afghan government to negotiate a permanent ceasefire and a power-sharing formula.

But progress at the intra-Afghan talks has been slow since their start in mid-September and diplomats and officials have warned that rising violence back home is sapping trust.

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Classic toy tie-up: Etch A Sketch maker to acquire Rubik’s Cube

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Spin Master Corp., the company behind the Etch A Sketch and Paw Patrol brands, has agreed to acquire Rubik’s Brand Ltd. for about $50 million, tying together two of the world’s most iconic toy brands.

The merger comes at a boom time for classic toymakers, as parents turn to familiar products to entertain kids stuck in lockdown. Like sales of Uno, Monopoly and Barbie dolls, Rubik’s Cube purchases have spiked during the pandemic, according to the puzzle maker’s chief executive officer, Christoph Bettin. He expects sales to jump 15% to 20% in 2020, compared with a normal year, when people purchase between 5 million and 10 million cubes.

By acquiring Rubik’s, Toronto-based Spin Master can better compete with its larger rivals, Hasbro Inc. and Mattel Inc. All three companies have pivoted to become less reliant on actual product sales, diversifying into television shows, films and broader entertainment properties based on their toys. Spin Master CEO Anton Rabie said he wouldn’t rule out films or TV shows based on Rubik’s Cubes, but he was focused for now on creating more cube-solving competitions and crossmarketing it with the company’s other products, like the Perplexus.

“Whoever you are, it really has a broad appeal from a consumer standpoint,” Rabie said in an interview. “It’s actually going to become the crown jewel; it will be the most important part of our portfolio worldwide.”

Hungarian inventor Erno Rubik created the Rubik’s Cube in 1974, a solid block featuring squares with colored stickers that users could twist and turn without it falling apart. It gained popularity in the 1980s and has remained one of the best-selling toys of all time, spawning spinoff versions, international competitions of puzzle solvers, books and documentaries.

The toy has been particularly well-suited to pandemic conditions. During lockdowns, parents have sought to give kids puzzles that boost problem-solving skills useful in math and science careers. Normally, toys tied to major film franchises are among the most popular products headed into the holidays, but studios have delayed the release of major new movies because of coronavirus. So classic products are experiencing a mini-renaissance.

“The whole pandemic has really increased games and puzzles,” Rabie said. “But whether the pandemic existed or didn’t exist, we’d still buy Rubik’s. It’s had such steady sales for decades.”

Rubik’s CEO Bettin said it was the right time to sell the company, with the founding families behind it ready to move on. London-based Rubik’s Brand was formed out of a partnership between Erno Rubik and the late entrepreneur Tom Kremer, while private equity firm Bancroft Investment holds a minority stake in the company.

Early on, Bettin felt Spin Master was the right home for the puzzle toy, he said. Spin Master, which was started by a group of three friends in 1994, has expanded through the purchase of well-known brands, including Erector sets and Etch A Sketch. Rabie says he works to honor the “legacy” of those products, which Bettin cited as a key reason to sell the brand to Spin Master over larger companies that were interested.

“It was important for us to not be lost in the crowd, and to be sufficiently important and cared for,” Bettin said. “And there’s a balance between being with someone large enough to invest, and agile enough to ensure you are key part of their plans.”

Spin Master won’t own Rubik’s Cubes in time for the holiday season – the transaction is expected to close on Jan. 4. At that time, the company will move Rubik’s operations from a small office in London’s Notting Hill neighborhood to Spin Master’s new games operations center in Long Island.

Some of Rubik’s Brand’s 10 employees will be part of the transition, but they won’t stay permanently, Bettin said.

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