Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More
The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.
He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).
Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.
Among the revelations in the WikiLeaks documents is this: Inside many a foreign service officer lurks a frustrated novelist. While most of the State Department cables engage in dry analysis of geopolitical issues, some are polished narrative gems crafted with an ear for dialogue and an eye to catching the attention of bureaucratic higher-ups. At times, it feels like tabloid diplomacy. Take this anecdote filed from the Moscow embassy.
Gadzhi gave us a lift in the Rolls once in Moscow, but the legroom was somewhat constricted by the presence of a Kalashnikov carbine at our feet. Gadzhi has survived numerous assassination attempts, as have most of the still-living leaders of Dagestan. In Dagestan he always travels in an armored BMW with one, sometimes two follow cars full of uniformed armed guards.
We recognize that there are serious geopolitical issues swirling around and through these cables. We address those elswewhere on the site. Here, we look at short stories that provide a unique and fascinating view into the lives, concerns, and tribulations of American diplomats and the people they monitor. They work like literature, drawing us into the world they describe. That world has long been kept from inspection, but now we can see this shadowy, powerful world as the diplomats themselves do.
There are two ways to explore the Cablegate Chronicles. First, any time you see the following button, you can click it and it'll take you to a random story.
entire archive in the order that Wikileaks posted the documents.
Illustration: Joe Alterio.
YouTube introduced a new feature that allows you to easily cue up your favorite viral video to just the spot. All you have to do is find the precise moment, pause the video, and then right click on it. A dialog box pops up offering you the option to "Copy video URL at current time." Click that and the link that goes to your clipboard will automatically cue up the video to the correct moment.
For example, this link will send you right to the awkward moment when Regis tells rapper Nikki Minaj that he "loves" her CD. Or you could put it to a more serious purpose, like cueing up the moment when Stephen Colbert explained the invisible hand of the market to Congress.
Forty years ago today, Richard Nixon's Administration officially created a new entity, the Environmental Protection Agency.
1970 was a year of tremendous environmental action by Nixon and Congress.The President signed the National Environmental Policy Act on January 2nd, delivered a call to make "the 1970s a historic period when, by conscious choice, [we] transform our land into what we want it to become" in his State of the Union Address, and ended the year with the creation of an independent agency to regulate the environment.
It's almost impossible to imagine such strong bipartisan support for environmental legislation these days, but politicians of all stripes were responding to real and serious problems in the country's towns, suburbs, and wilderness areas.
To return that support, the newly created EPA decided to hire a slough of photographers to document the environmental problems extant in 1970s America. The Documerica project, as it was known, did not make a big impact on the national debate of the day, but it did provide us a remarkable record of the local pollution problems that beset average Americans. It's not surprising policymakers agreed that the nation needed these reforms, even if it cost some small amount of economic growth. Scenes like the ones shown in this gallery are why Nixon, one of the left's most despised figures, created the Environmental Protection Agency.
All image captions come directly from the EPA.
Almost sneakily, the New York Times rolled out an update of the trusty hyperlink on its website's stories. New code embedded in the pages allows you to link to and highlight individual paragraphs and even sentences. The changes seem especially significant for bloggers who want to call attention to specific portions of Times' stories.
Here's how it works. In the story above, the base URL is: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/01/world/americas/01colombia.html
While the Times' system is the most sophisticated linking system I've ever seen, it's not entirely unprecedented. Paragraph-level links were first executed by Dave Winer on his website and have since even appeared in a Wordpress plugin created by wunderkind Daniel Bachhuber. Winer points out that the Times' implementation isn't quite perfect, as it can be broken when a story is updated.
The linking system is sufficiently complicated that I don't think it has been designed for every day users. Rather, it's a much-appreciated addition for us power users, who routinely link to the Times.
Still, I think the deepening of the information contained in a hyperlink is significant. Even a small change to one of the fundamental structures on the Internet could end up having far-reaching (and not necessarily salutary) impacts.
Take URL shorteners like bit.ly. Until their rise, when you saw a link, you knew, at the very least, to which domain it would take you. Now, that's not always so clear. URL shorteners made linking on Twitter more convenient, but less safe and harder to scan. Another way of thinking about it: they made a little more work for the linker and linkee, in exchange for a reduction in characters. The whole thing is a net loss. Still, given how Twitter works, it was a necessity.
On the other hand, the Times' linking system is a win for everyone, I think. It makes a little more work for the linker, but has the potential to seriously reduce and clarify which has been linked. It's a positive evolution of the hyperlink and I hope other sites take note and get busy.
For years, NASA has had the transcripts from its epoch-defining early missions online. But their ASCII aesthetic prevented them from gaining wide distribution. Even if you were looking at the dialog from the most exciting moments in the history of science nerdery, it sure didn't feel that way.
Now, a small team has stepped forward to remedy that situation with a new site, Spacelog. Starting with the Apollo 13 and Mercury 6 (when John Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth), they've transformed the NASA transcripts into a series of searchable, linkable pages that look like Twitter conversations. It's really a wonderful translation of the original documents, and it was built in just a week.
In any case, go take a look, you're going to like it. Here's the moment when John Glenn begins his first orbit.
As to the whiskers, having never worn any, do you not think people would call it a piece of silly affectation if I were to begin it now?Of course, as Andrew and the New York Times' awesome Disunion blog point out, there was a lot more to growing an Antebellum beard than you might think and Grace's letter was probably not actually the reason Lincoln bearded up. Facial hair had a politics and a history, etc.
Your very sincere well wisher
In the days before digital drives, how did airplane black box recorders work? In this remarkably clear and concise video, "The Engineer Guy," aka Bill Hammack, explains every detail of these lovely old analog devices. It turns out that they worked roughly like seismographs. The altitude- and velocity-measuring instruments carved their data into a special kind of steel allow known as inconel. The 200-foot long steel spool rolled along at six inches an hour, so each box could record 400 hours of data.
Returning to the office after Thanksgiving, I found a small package from Google China waiting for me at my desk. I opened it up to discover that it was a booklet from Google China's Corporate Social Responsibility team, and a stack of postcards. The items describe the 2010 Google China Social Innovation Cup, in which Google doled out renminbi to university students who had "grassroots, innovative solutions" to pressing social issues.
Now, I'm not knocking the idea of giving 28 teams of college kids money to do good. That's obviously a fine and worthy thing of Google to do.
But I couldn't help noticing that something about the postcards got lost in translation. Or maybe the design is just really terrible. For years, I thought that "desktop publishing" look had gone out with Regis Philbin shiny ties. Now I come to find out the whole aesthetic was just lurking in China! To my eyes, these postcards are like a throwback to Microsoft Publisher 1.0, or maybe that Apple IIe layout program PrintShop. I'm not even sure the Booster's club for my hometown Ridgefield High School Spudders could create postcards quite this...
And don't tell me the Chinese don't have good design sense. Just check out this flickr set of gorgeous Chinese graphic posters.
In any case, here I present ten of my favorites from the Google postcard collection with the English text included on the back. If you ask me, this design sensibility deserves to be a meme.
As the founder of Gawker, Nick Denton may occasionally be reviled, but the man has his fingers on the pulse of the Internet. His clear thinking and willingness to go where the (traffic, revenue) data lead him make him one of my favorite thinkers about our business. I may not always agree with him, but he brings data to what is often a words-only fight about the future of media.
He's got a new post up about a big Gawker redesign, which is coming soon. It's more than an explanation of a redesign, though, it's actually a mini vision statement about where Denton sees his organization (and media in general) heading. Here's my quick gloss:
What do you get for the person who has everything? An aircraft carrier. Because even if they have everything else, chances are they don't have a 17,000-tonne, British aircraft carrier like the HMS Invincible. Seriously, you can add it to your wishlist.
There is one bummer, though. The engines have been removed, which means you'll need some massive tugboat to tow it to your lair.
The Internet is where we live our digital lives. But it's also a physical network of cables that span the globe. Earlier this year, a South African man created this fantastic interactive map of all the world's submarine cables. (It was spotted this past weekend by Wired Science blogger Brian Romans.)
We've clearly come a long, long way since the first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable, which was laid in 1858 between the United States and Great Britain. Last week, we were lucky enough to have Hal Wallace, the electricity curator at the National Museum of American History walk us through the story of that very first submarine line. Here's what it looked like:
The line was the brainchild of the financier Cyrus Field. He had a stunningly simple plan. Take one British warship and one American frigate, load them up with cable, and navigate them towards each other. There was nothing fancy about the cable laying process: they just paid out the cable over the back and let it sink into the depths. When the British and American vessels met up, they spliced the cable together and were in business. You can see the apparatus here, thanks to Atlantic-Cable's sleuthing.
Sadly, the first cable didn't last long. After three weeks, it stopped working and was never reconnected. "The operators didn't realize how to work a cable like this," Wallace said. "The signal was very weak, so the answer was, 'More Power Scotty' and they fried the cable." By the time they laid the more permanent telegraph lines in the 1860s, operators had learned their lesson.
There's a fascinating coda to the story, too. Contemporary interest in the submarine cable was huge. In fact, there was a short-lived frenzy after the connection was initially made. Field, ever the entrepreneur, entered into a deal with Tiffany's to sell chunks of the cable as souvenirs. So, what you're looking at the top of this post is a Tiffany's branded chunk of submarine cable. It even came with a certificate of authenticity from Field himself. The moral of the story? Don't let anyone tell you that technological enthusiasm is something new.
Here's the Tiffany's ad that touted the piece:
The President's blue-ribbon panel on accelerating change in energy technology put out its big report today. At first glance, the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology plan looks solid, if unsurprising. That makes sense, though, because the basics of an energy technology program are simple: put more money into all phases of energy innovation and provide that money over longer time periods, so ideas have a chance to work.
The Council wants to increase research, development, demonstration, and deployment funding to $16 billion a year, authorized on a 4-year cycle to promote longer term investments. This "Quadrennial Energy Review" (QER) could "establish government-wide goals, coordinate actions across agencies, and identify the resources needed for the invention, translation, adoption, and diffusion of energy technologies."
Here's the nut from the executive summary (emphasis is original):
A complete and integrated QER will take longer to mature. While a good start should be made in 2011, the full government-wide QER should be targeted for delivery in early 2015. PCAST encourages Congress to use the QER as a basis for a 4-year authorization process that guides annual appropriations. The Federal investment in energy research, development, demonstration, and deployment (RDD&D) is incommensurate with the objective of leadership in energy technology innovation. We recommend a substantial increase - to $16 billion per year - in Federal support for energy RDD&D. Given the difficulty of increasing appropriated funds to this level and the importance of "frontloading" the required investment to jump start innovation, we recommend an alternative approach. The President should engage the private sector and Congress so as to generate about $10 billion per year of additional RDD&D funding through new revenue streams. This increase will provide the U.S. with the potential to leapfrog to development and deployment of the advanced energy technologies that will define a robust 21st century energy system.
Literally dozens of reports like this have been made to presidents stretching all the way back to Harry Truman's Materials Policy Commission. That commission's report, titled "Resources for Freedom," called on the government to support research into solar energy.
"It is time for aggressive research in the whole field of solar energy -- an effort in which the United States could make an immense contribution to the welfare of the free world," the report's authors wrote.
That was 1952. Nixon got reports from energy specialists. Johnson got reports from energy specialists. Kennedy got reports from energy specialists. Carter, of course, got reports from energy specialists. Basically all of them said, "Need more R&D." Many of them said solar energy, specifically, needed more R&D.
Yet here we are nearly 60 years later and government support for solar energy has been low, inconsistent, and dominated by funding for other technologies. Beyond a short bout of nuclear frenzy, government funding for all energy research outside of gas-price-induced crisis periods has been nearly nonexistent.
There are two kinds of energy policy in America, it seems. One is formed by people like the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. It's smart, forward-looking, well-researched, and based on the latest available scientific and sociological evidence. It's presented in long reports, which wonks devour and quibble over. Then, there is the West Wing (the show) kind of energy policy. It's deployed in a hurry to solve a particular political crisis. Because it's designed precisely to fix some short-term problem, it fundamentally doesn't make a serious effort to tackle the real, structural problems of how much harder it's gotten to extract oil and the need to decarbonize the energy supply.
So, as sound as this report seems, I can't help but be as pessimistic about major change as long-time energy researcher Vaclav Smil. Foreign Policy recently wrote of him, "Stubbornly clear-eyed about the human race's sorry muck-up of the planet, Smil advocates radical energy conservation as our only hope -- and even that is a distant one."
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