The technology frontier has always been a turbulent place. Solyndra's failure should be no surprise or cause for alarm.
Without knowing the technological, financial, and political details of the Solyndra bankruptcy, I can't say what part -- supplier technology, company management, or political decisions -- failed, or whom (if anybody) we should blame. Given the FBI's recent seizure of documents, I'm sure we can look forward to thorough post-mortems.
The size of the loss was probably much greater than it had to be, but can big failures be avoided entirely in the high-tech industry? Perhaps our technological competition with China makes daunting goals and huge risks inevitable, as they were in America's hotter rivalry with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The historian of technology Philip Scranton, my friend and colleague, has written about dauntingly chaotic process of developing jet aircraft:
Viewed from a distance, the development of jet propulsion in the US may appear to have been a chronicle of progress through skillful management of technology and organization. Examined closely, it stands rather as a shining example of non-linear, irrational, uncertain, multi-lateral, and profoundly passionate technological and business practice, yielding success not through planning but through dogged determination, a certain indifference to failure (which secrecy aided), and massive expenditures of public funds. Brunsson and Olsen were right. We have here business and public 'organizations [that were] conflictual, polycentric, and loosely coupled, rather than coherent, hierarchical and tightly coupled... coalitions living with unresolved conflict'.Their activity does not conform to standard rationality-centered thinking about the history and processes of business contracting, product innovation, military procurement, and technological development...
So many Cold War failures were secret, which is one reason for the persistence of UFO speculation. (Of course that doesn't mean that there weren't, or were, real extraterrestrial sightings.) Advanced green projects also call to mind peaceful development programs as well as arms races. In a famous paper, the great development economist Albert O. Hirschman outlined the principle of the Hiding Hand (a corollary to Adam Smith's Invisible Hand), according to which we undertake many ultimately successful ventures because we don't realize how difficult they'll be, yet once committed we find ways to make them work:
Creativity always comes as a surprise to us; therefore we can never count on it and we dare not believe in it until it has happened. In other words, we would not consciously engage upon tasks whose success clearly requires that creativity be forthcoming. Hence, the only way in which we can bring our creative resources fully into play is by misjudging the nature of the task, by presenting it to ourselves as more routine, simple, undemanding of genuine creativity than it will turn out to be.
I'm not suggesting complacency about Solyndra or any other high-tech failure, only care in drawing conclusions. In principle we glorify learning from failure and emerging stronger, but in practice we still recoil, and understandably so. In the 19th century, the failure of the original Panama Canal Company in 1889 devastated the reputation and fortune of France's greatest engineer, Ferdinand de Lesseps. Yet the project's many negative lessons helped make possible the even more ambitious American Panama Canal project. (It was also an energy project, with an eye toward more secure and efficient transportation of California petroleum to the East Coast. I've written about it here.) Of course, since President Obama was ready to take credit for a successful Solyndra, he can't avoid blame. But the real point should be not partisan advantage for either side but a better understanding of the future of a still-challenging technology at a frontier that can't be managed.
Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.
The winners of the 27th annual National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest have just been announced.
The winners of the 27th annual National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest have just been announced. Winning first prize, Anuar Patjane Floriuk of Tehuacán, Mexico, will receive an eight-day photo expedition for two to Costa Rica and the Panama Canal for a photograph of divers swimming near a humpback whale off the western coast of Mexico. Here, National Geographic has shared all of this year’s winners, gathered from four categories: Travel Portraits, Outdoor Scenes, Sense of Place, and Spontaneous Moments. Captions by the photographers.
Before it became the New World, the Western Hemisphere was vastly more populous and sophisticated than has been thought—an altogether more salubrious place to live at the time than, say, Europe. New evidence of both the extent of the population and its agricultural advancement leads to a remarkable conjecture: the Amazon rain forest may be largely a human artifact
The plane took off in weather that was surprisingly cool for north-central Bolivia and flew east, toward the Brazilian border. In a few minutes the roads and houses disappeared, and the only evidence of human settlement was the cattle scattered over the savannah like jimmies on ice cream. Then they, too, disappeared. By that time the archaeologists had their cameras out and were clicking away in delight.
Below us was the Beni, a Bolivian province about the size of Illinois and Indiana put together, and nearly as flat. For almost half the year rain and snowmelt from the mountains to the south and west cover the land with an irregular, slowly moving skin of water that eventually ends up in the province's northern rivers, which are sub-subtributaries of the Amazon. The rest of the year the water dries up and the bright-green vastness turns into something that resembles a desert. This peculiar, remote, watery plain was what had drawn the researchers' attention, and not just because it was one of the few places on earth inhabited by people who might never have seen Westerners with cameras.
Paul faced danger, Ani and Ray faced each other, and Frank faced some career decisions.
This is what happens when you devote two-thirds of a season to scene after scene after scene of Frank and Jordan’s Baby Problems, and Frank Shaking Guys Down, and Look How Fucked Up Ray and Ani Are, and Melancholy Singer in the Dive Bar Yet Again—and then you suddenly realize that with only a couple episodes left you haven’t offered even a rudimentary outline of the central plot.
What if Joe Biden is going to run for the Democratic nomination after all?
Most Democrats seem ready for Hillary Clinton—or at least appear content with her candidacy. But what about the ones who who were bidin’ for Biden? There are new signs the vice president might consider running for president after all.
Biden has given little indication he was exploring a run: There’s no super PAC, no cultivation of a network of fundraisers or grassroots organizers, few visits to early-primary states. While his boss hasn’t endorsed Clinton—and says he won’t endorse in the primary—many members of the Obama administration have gone to work for Clinton, including some close to Biden.
But Biden also hasn’t given any clear indication that he isn’t running, and a column by Maureen Dowd in Saturday’s New York Times has set off new speculation. One reason Biden didn’t get into the race was that his son Beau was dying of cancer, and the vice president was focused on being with his son. But before he died in May, Dowd reported, Beau Biden tried to get his father to promise to run. Now Joe Biden is considering the idea.
Writing used to be a solitary profession. How did it become so interminably social?
Whether we’re behind the podium or awaiting our turn, numbing our bottoms on the chill of metal foldout chairs or trying to work some life into our terror-stricken tongues, we introverts feel the pain of the public performance. This is because there are requirements to being a writer. Other than being a writer, I mean. Firstly, there’s the need to become part of the writing “community”, which compels every writer who craves self respect and success to attend community events, help to organize them, buzz over them, and—despite blitzed nerves and staggering bowels—present and perform at them. We get through it. We bully ourselves into it. We dose ourselves with beta blockers. We drink. We become our own worst enemies for a night of validation and participation.
Even when they’re adopted, the children of the wealthy grow up to be just as well-off as their parents.
Lately, it seems that every new study about social mobility further corrodes the story Americans tell themselves about meritocracy; each one provides more evidence that comfortable lives are reserved for the winners of what sociologists call the birth lottery. But, recently, there have been suggestions that the birth lottery’s outcomes can be manipulated even after the fluttering ping-pong balls of inequality have been drawn.
What appears to matter—a lot—is environment, and that’s something that can be controlled. For example, one study out of Harvard found that moving poor families into better neighborhoods greatly increased the chances that children would escape poverty when they grew up.
While it’s well documentedthat the children of the wealthy tend to grow up to be wealthy, researchers are still at work on how and why that happens. Perhaps they grow up to be rich because they genetically inherit certain skills and preferences, such as a tendency to tuck away money into savings. Or perhaps it’s mostly because wealthier parents invest more in their children’s education and help them get well-paid jobs. Is it more nature, or more nurture?
Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.
And if thy brother, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, be sold unto thee, and serve thee six years; then in the seventh year thou shalt let him go free from thee. And when thou sendest him out free from thee, thou shalt not let him go away empty: thou shalt furnish him liberally out of thy flock, and out of thy floor, and out of thy winepress: of that wherewith the LORD thy God hath blessed thee thou shalt give unto him. And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and the LORD thy God redeemed thee: therefore I command thee this thing today.
— Deuteronomy 15: 12–15
Besides the crime which consists in violating the law, and varying from the right rule of reason, whereby a man so far becomes degenerate, and declares himself to quit the principles of human nature, and to be a noxious creature, there is commonly injury done to some person or other, and some other man receives damage by his transgression: in which case he who hath received any damage, has, besides the right of punishment common to him with other men, a particular right to seek reparation.
A new EPA rule is designed to withstand legal challenges from Republicans while convincing world leaders to follow suit.
President Obama’s plan to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions is aimed at three major constituencies. First, there’s the plan’s immediate goal: significant decreases in the emissions in the U.S. between now and 2030. Second, the rule arrives as the world gears up for global emissions talks in Paris in December, and American action is seen as necessary to convince other countries to act. And third, Obama views the fight against climate change as an essential part of his legacy, alongside the Affordable Care Act.
“We’re the first generation to feel the impact of climate change, and the last generation that can do something about it,” Obama said at a press conference at the White House on Monday, repeating a line he’s used before. The president emphasized the moral case for reducing emissions throughout the speech, invoking Pope Francis’s call for action, and scolding “cynical” critics who charged his plan would hurt minorities and the poor. “If you care about low-income minority communities, start protecting the air they breathe and stop trying to rob them of their health care.”
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.