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.
Close of Business is a new video series that we're trying out. The idea is simple: at 5 pm (or thereabouts) every day, we post a quick video summarizing the top three news stories of the day -- and giving you one new Twitter or Tumblr to follow. Some of them we'll have written about; others will just be what people were talking about on the Internet.
Today's suggested Twitter follow: @LRBPersonal.
Let us know what you think. We think it could be a useful and interesting addition to your day.
Google's long-time interest in clean energy technology took an interesting turn today as the company announced an investment in an underwater grid project off the east coast of the United States. The New York Times pegged the investment at up to $200 million.
While onshore wind farms have carpeted the midwest, offshore wind farms have had a difficult time getting permitted and built in this country. The attraction of offshore wind is that the winds (generally speaking) blow stronger and steadier. The floating turbines can also be much larger than their terrestrial cousins. The Department of Energy would like 10 gigawatts of offshore wind power to be installed along our coasts by the year 2020.
Beyond the risk inherent in deploying a new major energy technology, the big offshore farms have faced protests from locals worried about their beach home views and marine birds.
Google's total project -- which is being developed by transmission builder Trans-Elect -- would run 350 miles from New Jersey to Virginia. It would supposedly allow turbines connected to it to be sited farther offshore, away from NIMBY complaints.
"This will serve as a clean-energy superhighway, with on-ramps for wind farms and the ability to be intelligently expanded," Rick Needham, Google's green business operations director, told a news conference, reported Reuters. "We can help kick-start an industry that can provide thousands of jobs."
Google's investment attempts to address another special American concern. The cost of wind is determined not just by the costs of building and operating wind machines, but by the ability to integrate them into the grid through transmission links. Onshore, building power lines is a complex process that, unlike natural gas pipelines, has to be negotiated on a state-by-state basis. One reason that Texas has been a leader in wind power is that the state contains both great wind resources in its western reaches and the ability to get transmission lines strung to the population centers of its east. The U.S., as a whole, has essentially the same need but a worse regulatory regime.
Offshore transmission is an even trickier business in some ways. Most submarine power cables use high-voltage direct current as opposed to the long-standard alternating current lines that constitute most of our grid. On the other hand, you're not trying to run a massive row of towers through anybody's ranch or past their exurban development.
The line could support up to six gigawatts of turbines, which would supply as much power as a few large coal plants, depending on how steadily the winds blow. While this is an exciting development, it's important to keep in mind the scale of the transition the country faces in decarbonizing the electric system. The Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates the U.S. has 54 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity. The U.S. has more than 1,400 coal power plants with a nominal capacity of 337 gigawatts.
When we discuss innovation, we tend to talk to talk about Bell Labs and Google. But a new paper challenges that notion, arguing that British consumers actually outspend companies on innovation.
When they adapt, change, hack and remake products they buy into better things, it's not a trivial thing. They are actually innovating, and in a first-of-its-kind paper, MIT researcher Eric Von Hippel has actually quantified the R&D power of the people.
Based on a survey of 1,173 UK households, Hippel estimates that 2.9 million Brits engaged in product development -- and that they spent 2.3 billion pounds in the process. That's more than twice what British firms officially spent on the innovation process.
Hippel's work suggests that people like you and me (and Mark Frauenfelder) are a hidden engine of economic development as we reshape the things that we buy. If we assume that American households are as innovative as their British counterparts, 14.5 million of us develop products, and we spend something like $18 billion a year doing it.
"We also find that consumer product innovation spans a wide range of fields, from toys, to tools, to sporting equipment, and to personal solutions for medical problems: clearly, consumer innovation is not a niche phenomenon," Von Hippel and two European colleagues wrote. "We discover that consumer-developed innovations generally diffuse freely from the perspective of consumer-innovators. Very few consumers protect their innovations by patents or other means, or receive payments for them."
It sounds a little unlikely that everyday people could somehow do more R&D than a nation's firms. But when you start to think about all the little things that we jerry-rig in all different areas of our lives, it starts to seem possible, even sensible. Here's the list of examples that Von Hippel included in the working paper, which is available on the Social Science Research Network website.
I'm personally trying to figure out how to disable the bell on my washing machine -- and when I do, I'll celebrate not just my victory over the loudest noise in the world, but also the power of consumer innovation. I'd love to hear about your hacks and fixes, too. I'm sure everybody's got at least one.
Let's see if we can write a post about social media and activism without mentioning M_____ G______.
Whoops! OK, nope.
But that'll be the only one in this article because other researchers are exploring distinctly different aspects of online organizing. Dave Karpf, a Rutgers assistant professor, studies how organizations are changing as the Internet becomes the primary means by which they reach and solicit their members.
"Internet-mediated organizations like MoveOn, Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Organizing for America differ from the older organizations that have typified American politics over the last few decades," Karpf said. "We have underlying shifts in how organizations view members and how they raise money."
He'll be describing these shifts in a talk at the Berkman Center for the Internet and Society at Harvard today. And, as he sees it, a similar shift has already occurred once before in the rise of direct mail during the 1970s.
"Membership went from I show up to the meeting and I'm an Elk to I write a check and send money. That changed the types of groups that we had and the new fundraising scheme led to the single-issue advocacy groups," Karpf said.
In the direct mail era of advocacy, large organizations with a lot of overhead developed funded by money from supporters around the country. Now, organizations are smaller and more nimble. A place like MoveOn has 30 staffers and a relatively tiny budget, but they can reach five million people with their email blasts.
Meanwhile, direct mail's fundraising efficacy has fallen as more people communicate and pay bills online. The physical mail has assumed secondary importance, which has directly impacted the ability of old organizations to raise money.
Karpf sees these simultaneous changes in fundraising technology bringing big changes to the way advocacy is done. "That's leading to generational disruption within the advocacy group community," he said. "Not only are the older groups being outpaced by groups like MoveOn but they are having more and more difficulty paying for the programming."
The takeaway is that the possibilities for organizational structures afforded by new tech tools reach far beyond any narrow conception of the political efficacy of the Facebook like. The Internet is changing the way organizations fund themselves, and that's likely to yield profound changes in the details of those places.
"If we want to understand the ways the Internet is changing politics, we need to look at the organizational bases of activism," Karpf concluded.
The November issue of The Atlantic is out, and I've got my first print piece in it. I profile Kevin Costner and his odd desire to spend $20 million scaling up an oil-water separation machine. One thing that struck me in talking to Costner was this intensely American idea that the answer to technology's problems is more technology.
His catch-phrase, which he's brought to Congress and said to me, is that we should move into the "21st century of oil-spill cleanups." Think about that. He just can't believe that we're still cleaning up spills in roughly the same ways that we were during the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, which he witnessed first hand as a kid growing up in Ventura.
In any case, you should check out the whole package. It's filled with interesting characters from Elon Musk to David Cameron.
And here's the conclusion to my Costner piece:
And so, along with his scientist brother, Costner spent the 1990s plowing money into the concept, securing patents and relying on a team of researchers in Nevada to develop the device. When they were close, the Costners reached out to every major oil company, only to be rebuffed by industry players who told the actor we'd never have another spill like the Valdez.
Of course, we did. And Costner's machines finally got a look. In the aftermath of this year's spill, BP bought 32 of them to use in the gulf. Now the actor is working with Edison Chouest Offshore, in Louisiana, to build first-responder ships that could be deployed around the world to clean up future spills. "We could move into the 21st century of oil-spill cleanups with this technology," Costner told me. "Whenever you're challenged, there is an opportunity." But this is about more than a personal investment that's paying off. Costner's magic machine is making good on a particularly American idea: when one bold technology gives us a problem, another can help us solve it.
Google is crawling the price data found in its shopping site to track inflation. The Google Price Index, which the company's chief economist Hal Varian discussed at a conference this weekend, would provide a lightning-quick alternative to the toilsome data gathering used in the standard Consumer Price Index.
There are certainly problems in the mix of goods that Google's Price Index captures. Google's data doesn't see housing or toilet paper, for example. But the Consumer Price Index is also far from perfect, particularly in reflecting changes in the basket of stuff that people are likely to purchase.
Way back in 1997, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis pointed out the particular role that technology plays in mucking up the numbers. New tech introduces a "new product bias:"
This occurs when new goods and services are introduced into the economy but are not incorporated into the fixed market basket of the CPI until much later. For example, computers were not incorporated until 1987, and cellular phones will not be added until 1998. A further problem is that a large part of the price declines for many of these new goods occur over the early stages of the product cycle, when they have not yet been included in the CPI.
The CPI relies on yearly survey data from consumers to determine its basket of goods, so it takes a while for the basket to change.
Perhaps the strangest thing about economic numbers like the CPI, though, is that they are calculated on a monthly basis, lagging the real-time economy by weeks. Each month, an army of research assistants has to call up stores and record prices on 80,000 goods. They do it all manually.
Meanwhile, traders are sending money flying all over the world every millisecond of every day. That's a serious time-scale mismatch. It's not an ultimate answer, but at least the GPI brings data and action closer together.
Google's announcement of small but successful trials of self-driving cars induces glee in any right-thinking tech nerd. As far as tech dreams go, self-driving cars are up there with helicopter-based ecotopias and jetpacks. The whole idea has been tickling our fancy since long before we could even conceive of the tech that could make it work.
I am bringing you a little bit of historical context here not to denigrate Google's achievement of 1,000 miles of autonomous driving, but merely for fun.
Here's the Pittsburgh Press from December of 1938. This self-driving car mention is pegged to the introduction of the, umm, self-heating hot dog.
And the Ottawa Citizen from August 13, 1985. What's great about this one is the way it transitions seamlessly from anti-lock brakes to the vision of a self-driving car. Here's the most relevant snippet:
The drunk argument has particular historical resonance because drunk driving became a terrible problem at the outset of the automobile's introduction. Though people had gone out boozing and then had to take their carts home sloshed, before the car, the "sober horse" had helped corral the problem, as Horseless Age once noted:
What has saved the situation until the appearance of the automobile was the drunken man drove a sober horse. In automobilism, when the man is drunk or careless, the machine is so, too, because it has no will or habits of its own. Its speed and ponderosity both get blind staggers. Should not this be something deserving of special recognition in the methods adopted for traffic regulation? Is a 'plain drunk' who is subject to arrest for disorderly conduct when his weight is 200 pounds and his speed 5 miles per hour-- is he still a 'plain drunk' or a serious menace to society when his weight becomes 2,000 pounds and his possible momentum 100,000 foot-pounds....I've long argued that the best solution to drunk driving is to encourage the construction of denser, transit-connected cities that don't require you to drive to the places where you want to go out, but I guess self-driving cars could work, too.
How to Think About... is a video series that provides you with quick frames for thinking about the world's blizzard of technologies and services. The idea is simple: imagine we're having a beer and you ask me, "What do you think about X?"
I switch on the camera and respond. These videos are informal, extemporaneous affairs and we hope they feel like the start of a talk. We'd love to hear how you think about these things, too.
More Video from the Atlantic Technology Channel
Earlier this week, Gap unveiled a new logo on its website. Gone were the white letters on a blue background. In their place was an oddly amateurish effort that looks like a placeholder for a B2B e-commerce startup in stealth mode, or as a designer put it, "like somebody took Microsoft's PowerPoint and kind of did it in five minutes flat."
Long-time brand adherents were appalled. And emerging from the PR wreckage came two new Twitter accounts, both created within hours of the logo's unveiling: @GapLogo and @OldGapLogo. Both Tweet as the voices of the respective logos. No, really.
The new logo says things like, "Lego, the office pitbull, has been staring at the logo since yesterday afternoon. I think he's finally seeing unicorns. Someone alert R&D." The old logo says things like, "Laying low. Weekend in NYC with other tasteful classic logos" and tweets links to the Harvard Business Review. The accounts even seemed to have spawned a third one, @JennatheIntern, who (the joke goes) just cries a lot.
@GapLogo already has thousands of followers, and Gap's PR people were forced to tell Ad Age that they were "tracking" the parody accounts. It's a little reminiscent of @BPGlobalPR's brilliant and profane skewering of BP's efforts in the Gulf, though less savage and serious.
We live in odd times. It used to be that creating whole constellations of imaginary characters with distinctive voices was reserved for schizophrenics, novelists and difficult Portugese poets like Fernando Pessoa. When I see these Twitter personae, Pessoa's "heteronyms," his dozens of interrelated characters, spring to mind (although I'm sure he'd be horrified at that).
But that was a whole different kind of project. What's the offline corollary for the Twitter parody plays? Is there one?
Or as @OldGapLogo unintentionally posed the deeper question in goading Gap corporate: "@gap I'm a twitter account for a logo and people are writing me to tell me they love me. What's that tell you?"
Looking back, it all seems so simple. Of course, movies would become a dominant form of entertainment. How could they not have? Anyone could have seen that one coming, obviously.
But that's why we read the archives. In 1924, Arthur D. Little, the founder of the first modern consulting company, tried his hand at futurology in July issue of The Atlantic. Ranging widely across the American technological landscape, he had a clear vision for the future of the country. But there was one area on which he chose to prevaricate: the moving picture.
Better yet, he reminds us of two nearly forgotten things: "the moving-picture van" and the "pallophotophone."
As best as I can tell from some Google Books searches, moving-picture vans drove around showing advertisements on their flanks. Public health officials even used them for outreach. Little was none too happy about it, though, saying they were "as welcome as a peripatetic billboard."
Though you don't know it, you're actually quite familiar with the pallophotophone and its descendants. A technology first developed by General Electric during World War I for recording radio signals, the pallophotophone recorded sound onto film, which could be synchronized with moving picture film. It could be used to make, as Little points out, "a moving picture whose characters talk." For him, though, its most important use would be political, as would-be statesmen used the technology to spread their messages. Not for, you know, Star Wars.
There's plenty more in Little's article, but savor the strangeness of this snippet first.
Whether the moving picture will develop or retrograde is not for one who has never seen Hollywood to say. The moving‑picture van, which, to larboard, starboard, and astern, compels attention to the virtues of toasted chewing‑gum or the lasting flavor of cigarettes, has arrived and is as welcome as a peripatetic billboard. We are soon to become familiar with the pallophotophone. Its symphonic name will from most of the community conceal the poetic fact that it is a moving picture whose characters talk. No longer is it necessary for our statesmen to tour the country. Their fences may be mended in the studio, and their constituents may simultaneously, in thousands of communities, view the candidate in a six‑foot close‑up as his argument is projected in a voice of twenty horsepower. It will handicap the would‑be senator who looks like a third‑class postmaster.
Read the rest of Little's "Life As We Know It."
Revisit more pieces from The Atlantic's archives with the Technology Channel.
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