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.
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."
When The Wire wrapped up its spectacular six season run a couple of years ago, it was probably the worst entertainment-related moment of my life. The Wire's highlow realism and grand sweep felt like War and Peace for our moment and I loved it from the first episode on. Since the show ended, fans like me have wandered the channels looking for the next TV high. But nothing (not even Treme) has been the same.
And it's those memories that seem to drive The Wire's Facebook fan page, an insanely popular destination that traffics merely in one-liners from the show. The page's proprietor posts "I rip and run" by Omar, and 3,000 people will "Like" it. Another 415 will comment on it. Just try and build that kind of social media presence for your publication!
What we're looking at here is is one long goodbye card from the Internet to The Wire -- and it grows each and every day.
On a day known for deep discounts, Apple's sale prices just take a little bit off the top. For today's one-day sale, the company declined to drastically reduce prices. The company's premiere holiday gift item, the iPad, got a strangely precise one-day price cut of $41 to $458. The biggest Apple discounts were, true to form, $101 for the company's line of computers.
The Apple sale is roughly in-line with what our Nicholas Jackson predicted earlier this week:
This year, we're anticipating that Apple will follow tradition and discount all MacBook and MacBook Pro models by about $100. There are rumors that they might also discount the iPad for a single day...The recently updated iPod Nano could also be discounted... The general rule seems to be that you can expect Apple to drop prices somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of an item's current price, with a maximum discount of $101.So, as in years past, the sale is more for current Apple users who need just a little extra incentive to open their wallets.
If you traffic in technology news or shares, you've undoubtedly heard about "channel checks." They are how analysts try to find out if Apple (or Adobe or Microsoft) are selling more or less of a given product than the market thinks. Basically, analysts go out and talk to people in the companies' supply chains and try to piece together what that means for the overall business. They're in the news today because, according to the Wall Street Journal, channel checks are one of the activities coming under SEC scrutiny.
So, what is a channel check? I did some years ago and here's how I think about them. If you're an investment analyst, you have a big spreadsheet. That spreadsheet tries to model how a company like Apple makes money. Everyone starts out with roughly the same information: how many iPads are selling at what profit margin, how many iPhones, how many Macs, etc., etc. Apple releases a lot of that information in their financial filings.
The real game, then, is predicting what those numbers are going to be in the next quarter or two. You want to know if Apple is going to sell more iPhones than everyone else thinks they're going to.
So, how could you figure that out? You can't actually ask anyone at Apple because that would be insider trading. But you can go out to the people who manufacture components for Apple products and ask them, "So, buddy, how many doodads that are needed for the iPhone 4 are you making this quarter? Is that more or less than expected?" You can also call up Best Buy middle managers and say, "So, how are iPod sales looking?" If you get enough of the right kinds of answers, you can start to make the bull or bear case for a stock.
It might not be the most elegant investing strategy, but if you've got a good (virtual) Rolodex, it can work. Is it insider trading? In most cases, probably not. It's just solid analysis.
But here's the tricky thing: if in the course of doing your channel checks at a hedge fund, say, you come across a bit of "material" information -- info that would be likely to impact a stock's price if it was widely known -- you can't trade on that inside information. However, sometimes it's hard to tell which bits of information are "material" and which are just "really awesome." That is to say, the very best channel check info comes right up to the materiality line without crossing it. The gray area is vast.
We all know how to make gravy. Take the drippings of whatever beast you've been cooking, add some water, and starch, and cook it down. What results is a delicious gelatinous sauce that people have been relishing for centuries.
Making gravy by hand might seem easy enough, but in the industrial era, anything that can be made faster has been, and fatty, starchy sauces are no exception.
LIFE magazine ads from the 1960s testify to the proliferation of dry mix gravies. Pillsbury offered a "Daring Offer," a free sample of any of its gravy mixes to make good on its promise to beat the taste of all competitors. Meanwhile, Durkee's proclaimed, "All sauce and gravy mixes are made for convenience, but Durkee's is for dining!"
Even now, one can go into any store and find a plethora of little pouches packed with powder. Add water, heat, stir, and it's ready. Indeed, the texture, smell, and taste of these mixes is certainly gravy-like.
But homecooking is to industrial food processing what walking is to flying an airplane. The gravy mix isn't just huge vats of drippings mixed with flour and water. More than a century's worth of food engineering have gone into making a powder you mix with water and microwave in three minutes to manufacture a smooth gravy.
In many circles, processed foods have come to seem bad, even immoral. What fascinates me, though, is how food engineers look at food. What problems are they trying to solve? What tools do they have at their disposal? What are their points-of-proof and methods? Food engineers don't think about food the way the rest of us do. For them, it's a material like steel or drywall or duct tape. They are concerned with building something and it just so happens that we eat this end result. This isn't the moralizing story that you've heard so many times; this is just how gravy mixes developed, their chemistry and technological history.
Our story begins back in the 19th century. Philip Thorne filed a patent in 1882 for a floury product that could be mixed with water to create an instant dough. "The object of my invention is to manufacture a new and improved prepared flour, which needs only be mixed with water to form a dough for a biscuit; and the invention consists in thoroughly incorporating butter deprived of its water with flour and baking-powder."
But the instant biscuit dough wasn't an instant success. Dry mixes -- just add water! -- didn't really catch on for decades. It wasn't until 1931 that Bisquick came onto the market, and not until the 1950s that the baking aid really took off. Cake mixes like Betty Crocker's followed shortly thereafter and exploded in popularity, becoming what the author of Paradox of Plenty, Harvey Levenstein, called "one of the great marketing success stories of all time." One key trick was that the original mixes just required water, leaving housewives feeling a little left out of the cake making process. So, General Mills switched up the recipe to require cracking a single egg into the mix, then adding water. And in that way, cakes got made. "By 1950, one theme had come to dominate all else: convenience," Levenstein notes.
As in baking, so it went with gravies, too. All kinds of gravy mixes came onto the market, proclaiming their greatness. But gravies were actually a more difficult mix to create. Just like homecooks might like to have gravy without having to actually cook meat, the food processing industry needed to eliminate the actual beef or chicken.
You could have gravy without all the trouble of making the meat that would generate the drippings. In a curiously parallel movement, the food processing industry also wanted to eliminate actually cooking meat to generate that meaty gravy flavor. In fact, industry actually needed to. It would be far too expensive to cook a bunch of meat, keep the drippings, and throw away the rest.
"The gravy mixes are a little more sophisticated because the flavor from a gravy mix may be a beef gravy, but it's never been near a cow," said Gary A. Reineccius, a food scientist at the University of Minnesota. "To me, some of the real innovations that have occurred in gravy have been in the flavoring systems."
Initially, a big chunk of that flavoring came from a wonderful chemical initially developed in Japan called monosodium glutamate, or as you probably know it, MSG. For pennies on the dollar, MSG could approximate the taste of meat. Throw some spices in and you could create something that the American consumer would buy. Food Technology magazine reported in 2008 that 40 percent of American households used some sauce or gravy mix. It doesn't hurt that these gravy mixes are almost preposterously cheap.
Cost was the whole impetus behind making a gravy mix in the first place. Relative to canned gravy, the dehydrated nature of the mix means that it's lighter and therefore cheaper to ship and package.
Once the technology to dry and grind vast slurries of gravy was available and decent flavorings had been created, competition moved to other areas. The great American innovation machine went to work on a problem that had plagued mankind for centuries: lumpy gravy. You see, the problem with all gravies is that when you add starch to a watery, fatty admixture, the starch has a tendency to clump together. The flour inside the lumps becomes isolated from the mixture. Because the water can't reach it, it never dissolves. Home cooks can prevent this by simply stirring the mixture, but that required "considerable skill," as General Mills' Harold Keller put it in a 1958 patent application.
Keller's solution to the lump problem was to include a leavening agent that helped break up the clumps as they were forming.
It has now been discovered that it is possible to prepare a dry mix composition which may be used for the preparation of gravies and sauces without the disadvantages attendant the prior art methods. The composition of the present invention may be added even to boiling water without the formation of lumps, even with only a minor amount of stirring.
But it turned out that Keller did not have the final word. Lumps still formed, particularly when the mixes were added to boiling water. The best way to keep them from forming, as Kari Bos of Carnation describes in a 1982 patent, was to slowly heat up the mixes. Making lumpless gravy was still a two-step process.
So, Bos suggested adding maltodextrin to the gravy mix. The long chain of glucose molecules was able to reduce the number of lumps substantially if mixed with starch in precisely the right ratio, as he demonstrated in his patent's key chart. Around a maltodextrin to starch ratio of 1:1, the lumps disappear.
But in the 1980s, the patent trail for gravy mixes goes cold. Flavor scientists, we're sure, have continued to improve. Low-fat and low-carbohydrate versions have been created. But by and large, the gravy mix form has stabilized. The ingredients haven't changed much, except some brands like McCormick's no longer use MSG.
Now, the food trends are running against the gravy mix. The magic of a powder that sprouts into something like a food has about the same appeal as a packet of sea monkeys these days.
Images: 1. LIFE; 2-4. Alexis Madrigal.
A new social network called Path launched last week to the kind of media ballyhoo only an experienced team of startup guys could rally. The news got around to all kinds of outlets, big and small.
Path limits your total number of friends to 50. There are no applications. Instead, you take photos, tag them with your location, and upload them. As you do so, you create a "Path" through life that you can share with your inner circle.
I like the way AllThingsD's Liz Gannes headlined her post on the venture, "Path: The Social App That's Not Viral (By Design)." There's something appealing about a social network that's not just relentlessly trying to reproduce itself. It feels kind of classy (or something). And Path's user interface is unerringly slick. I really like how simple and clean everything is.
So, I decided to add ten friends who are friends in real life. I snapped a couple of photos and uploaded them. That is to say, I tried to use the app the way it was designed. Then I waited. A couple of days have now gone by and no one I know has begun to share updates with me. Maybe it's just social network fatigue, but none of them appear to actually be using the service. I am walking a lonely path.
Usually, these sites hold your hand a little as you figure out what you're supposed to do. But Path's not like that, either.
All that said, I like Path, just not as a social network. In its current incarnation, I think it's a wonderful photo journaling tool. Private and slick, it seems made for tracking your own life, rather than sharing it with others. I'm content to use it as a documentary tool, regardless of whether anyone else sees what I've done.
I'm a big fan of Hunch.com, a site that provides personalized recommendations for all kinds of stuff based on your answers to a series of questions. So, based on questions like, "Do you find clowns scary?" the site deduces that I would really like Mark Twain and Dogfish Head Brewery beer, which I do. The whole process can feel sort of magical, as if the software knows you.
So, I was very excited when a Twitter acquaintance pointed out that Gifts.com allowed you to run Hunch for someone else. You log-in with your Facebook account, pick out a friend, and start answering questions based on your knowledge of them.
As you answer questions like "Does Salvador L. Madrigal [my dad] tend to: A) Go with the flow B) Paddle against the current?" gift choices show up in the left pane. As you answer more questions, the site's "confidence level" in its recommendations slowly climbs to 100%.
But I have to tell you: the magic gift oracle doesn't work. At least not for me and my friends and family.
It seems like Hunch ends up recommending a set of sake cups for everyone I put into the system. Dad? Yup, he'd like one. Girlfriend? Her, too. Best friend? Of course! Everyone I know also wants a "laptop caddy," Hunch says with 100% confidence.
The real problem, it seems, is that Hunch's algorithm is more sophisticated than Gifts.com's stuff selection. The universe of gifts dominates the software's ability to find good presents within it. To be a little unfair to Gifts.com, it's like being taken shopping at Spatula City with the world's most sophisticated personal shopper. At the end of the day, you still end up with a spatula.
That's why I'm still a big fan of small, offline retail stores for gift purchases. If you go into a well-curated place like. say, Gravel and Gold in San Francisco, it would take an anti-miracle to purchase something that wasn't better and more interesting for my girlfriend than a sake set.
A Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory scientist says he has a simple fix for the uproar over the Transportation Safety Agency's body scanners. Distort the image, Willard Wattenburg argues, and you take away (at least some of) the privacy objections that could be made. In Wattenburg's formulation, noted by the Washington Post, bodies would be stretched as in a funhouse mirror, presumably removing any titillation associated with nudity.
The TSA is pursuing a more complex computer-vision system that, as we reported last week, may not be as easy to construct as the agency hopes.
Wattenburg first filed a patent for his system in 2006, after which he says he contacted the Department of Homeland Security because it was obvious to him that as soon as the scanners went into use, people would "scream like hell because they're taking the clothes off everybody" The DHS wasn't interested, according to the Post story.
Technologically, image processing to distort a body's form is trivial. You take the image that comes in from the scanner, pick some reference points on the body, and then elongate, resize, and stretch the image. The images come out looking less human very quickly -- and that's precisely the point. As Wattenburg notes, any kid with Photoshop could do it. We took him at his word and mocked up -- in rough fashion -- what one of the images could look like after going through one of these distortion algorithms.
The big question seems to be whether Wattenburg's system would allow TSA scanners to see whatever weapons or explosives they might be trying to see. To find out, there would have to be extensive field testing, which has never been done and is not currently planned.
The new system also would not obviate concerns about the accidental or malicious
storage of images. Nor would it answer Jeff Goldberg's concerns about bombs hidden in body cavities and which these scanners cannot detect.
Angry Birds, the incredibly addictive mobile game in which you launch small birds with a slingshot at their pig enemies, has become fodder for comedians and makers of all sorts. There are Angry Birds cakes and Angry Birds stop-motion animations.
But leave it to Israeli comedy show Erez Nehederet to get right to the heart of the game: the difficulty of ending a senseless conflict between birds and pigs.
Hey early adopters, get ready to throw out that totally outdated first-gen iPad in April of next year. At least that's what one analyst contends based on Apple's business needs and rumors from Digitimes, which tracks the electronics business.
In a bit of news from the Apple rumormongering department, an analyst with Gleacher & Company is throwing his hat in the ring with a prediction that Apple's iPad 2--a completely unofficial name that's been making the news circuit the last week or so--is going to debut in April of next year.
That doesn't quite fit the reports from two months ago that Apple was looking to break its typical product launch cycles and have a new iPad device out by the holiday season--which we're pretty much in, mind you. However, it does fit the latest news from Digitimes that three suppliers have already been named for the printed circuit boards found in the to-be-uncovered iPad 2's design.
"The sources said Ibiden, Tripod and TTM have received certification from Apple, and will start shipping any-layer HDI boards for iPad 2 in small quantities in December," writes Digitimes' Jessie Shen.
A Florida debt collector contacted a St. Petersburg woman's Facebook friends in an effort to get her to repay a $362 car loan. The woman, Melanie Beacham, promptly hit the collector, MarkOne Financial, with a civil suit in Pinellas County circuit court.
Though the suit was first filed in August, Beacham's attorney amended it recently, and the story broke nationally yesterday. According to the filing, a MarkOne employee going by the name Jeff Happenstance contacted both Beacham and two of her friends. As you can see in the message above, Happenstance asked the friends to have Beacham contact him without making reference to her debt.
While you may never thought of it this way, Facebook is a perfect tool for tracking down debtors and the people they know. LinkedIn and Twitter are, too.
"Now Facebook does a debt collectors work for them," Beacham's attorney, Billy Howard, who specializes in debt collection harassment, told a Tampa TV station. "Now it's not only family members, it's all of your associates. It's a very powerful tool for debt collectors to use."
Debt collectors have long contacted family members and friends of debtors in attempts to locate them -- and that behavior is protected by law. "Other than to obtain this location information about you, a debt collector generally is not permitted to discuss your debt with anyone other than you, your spouse, or your attorney," a Federal Trade Commission FAQ explains.
MarkOne admitted in a statement that it emailed to The Atlantic that it does use Facebook to track people down:
MarkOne's policy is to only use Facebook® to locate customers when the customer has a fully public profile, and when the customer has not responded to MarkOne through conventional means. Our policy is to respect privacy disclosure requirements and no negative or account information is shared with third parties.
While this policy strikes me as fairly reasonable, we shouldn't miss the larger point: a debt collection firm has a policy on how to use Facebook to track people down. This is yet another indication that our online lives are tethered to our offline lives, and not just in the fun ways.
Facebook does not look kindly on debt collectors using their social graph to get people to settle up. Facebook told The Atlantic today that debt collectors using their service may be violating their rules. A spokesperson for the company emailed us the following unusually strong (and speculative) statement to us:
There are state and federal laws and FTC regulations that govern the actions of debt collectors. The collector in the St. Petersburg case likely violates a number of these laws and regulations and we encourage the victim to contact the FTC and her state Attorney General. In addition, Facebook policies prohibit any kind of threatening, intimidating, or hateful contact from one user to another. We encourage people to report such behavior to us, only accept friend requests from people that they know, and use privacy settings and our blocking feature to prevent unwanted contact.Facebook is clearly signaling that they are taking this novel debt-collecting methodology seriously. And so am I. I seriously doubt that MarkOne is alone in making use of social media to attempt to settle debts. If you've been contacted by debt collection agency on Facebook, Twitter, or any other social network, I'd love to hear your story. You can contact me discreetly at amadrigal[at]theatlantic.com.
Many commentators have noted the pleasures of Google Autocomplete for delving into the American psyche. Just see what you get when you type "Muslims are" or "Sarah Palin is." Myself, I'm more partial to the more random search suggestions Google gives, which seem to indicate that our collective consciousness is just as specific and weird as our individual ones. This one, for example, is subtly odd. Why just bachelorette parties? Is there something feminine about the construction "best locations for"?
In any case, the website Gdumb.com used to chronicle some of the weirdest Google suggestions, but they've stopped updating. What's the most interesting autocomplete you've come across?
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