October 29, 2013
Why did it take so long to invent the wheelbarrow? Have we hit peak innovation? What our list reveals about imagination, optimism, and the nature of progress. ... The Atlantic recently assembled a panel of 12 scientists, entrepreneurs, engineers, historians of technology, and others to assess the innovations that have done the most to shape the nature of modern life. The main rule for this exercise was that the innovations should have come after widespread use of the wheel began, perhaps 6,000 years ago. That ruled out fire, which our forebears began to employ several hundred thousand years earlier. We asked each panelist to make 25 selections and to rank them, despite the impossibility of fairly comparing, say, the atomic bomb and the plow. (As it happens, both of these made it to our final list: the discovery and application of nuclear fission, which led to both the atomic bomb and nuclear-power plants, was No. 21 of the top 50, ahead of the moldboard plow, which greatly expanded the range of land that farmers could till, at No. 30.) ... Less evident from the final list is what I was fascinated to learn from my talks with many of the panelists. That is the diversity of views about the types of historical breakthroughs that matter, with a striking consensus on whether the long trail of innovation recorded here is now nearing its end.
It’s hard to imagine an encryption machine more sophisticated than the human brain. This three-pound blob of tissue holds an estimated 86 billion neurons, cells that rapidly fire electrical pulses in split-second response to whatever stimuli our bodies encounter in the external environment. Each neuron, in turn, has thousands of spindly branches that reach out to nodes, called synapses, which transmit those electrical messages to other cells. Somehow the brain interprets this impossibly noisy code, allowing us to effectively respond to an ever-changing world. ... Given the complexity of the neural code, it’s not surprising that some neuroscientists are borrowing tricks from more experienced hackers: cryptographers, the puzzle-obsessed who draw on math, logic, and computer science to make and break secret codes. That’s precisely the approach of two neuroscience labs at the University of Pennsylvania, whose novel use of cryptography has distinguished them among other labs around the world, which are hard at work deciphering how the brain encodes complex behaviors, abstract thinking, conscious awareness, and all of the other things that make us human.
Ayungin Shoal lies 105 nautical miles from the Philippines. There’s little to commend the spot, apart from its plentiful fish and safe harbor — except that Ayungin sits at the southwestern edge of an area called Reed Bank, which is rumored to contain vast reserves of oil and natural gas. And also that it is home to a World War II-era ship called the Sierra Madre, which the Philippine government ran aground on the reef in 1999 and has since maintained as a kind of post-apocalyptic military garrison, the small detachment of Filipino troops stationed there struggling to survive extreme mental and physical desolation. Of all places, the scorched shell of the Sierra Madre has become an unlikely battleground in a geopolitical struggle that will shape the future of the South China Sea and, to some extent, the rest of the world. … It was hard to imagine how such a forsaken place could become a flash point in a geopolitical power struggle. … To understand how Ayungin (known to the Western world as Second Thomas Shoal) could become contested ground is to confront, in miniature, both the rise of China and the potential future of U.S. foreign policy. It is also to enter into a morass of competing historical, territorial and even moral claims in an area where defining what is true or fair may be no easier than it has proved to be in the Middle East. … The Spratly Islands sprawl over roughly 160,000 square miles in the waters of the coasts of the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan and China — all of whom claim part of the islands. Since the 18th century, navigators have referred to the Spratlys as “Dangerous Ground” — a term that captures not only the treacherous nature of the area but also the mess that is the current political situation in the South China Sea. … Why the fuss over “Dangerous Ground”? Natural resources are a big piece of it. According to current U.S. estimates, the seabed beneath the Spratlys may hold up to 5.4 billion barrels of oil and 55.1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. On top of which, about half of the world’s merchant fleet tonnage and nearly one third of its crude oil pass through these waters each year. They also contain some of the richest fisheries in the world. … What China has done with Mischief, Scarborough and now with Ayungin is what the journalist Robert Haddick described, writing in Foreign Policy, as “salami slicing” or “the slow accumulation of actions, none of which is a casus belli, but which add up over time to a major strategic change.”
I had vaguely fantastical notions of being robbed, but really, I just wanted to pay what equated to a dollar for a liter of beer. My friend had told me about the system. Once, a burly dude escorted him up a dark flight of stairs and into a dimly lit room with an official money-changing tray and a thick glass barrier. Other times he had been led into a basement or even did it right out in the open. … With all of this in mind, I walked through the street doing my best to look as touristy as possible without tipping my trepidation and excitement. The street was filled with arbolitos and my initial anxiety of not finding a partner was placated quickly. The man at the magazine stand altered his sales pitch when he saw me approach. I heard the “Cambio! Cambio! Cambio!” I was looking for and shot back a hopefully nonchalant come-hither look. We went inside his stand and counted out our respective amounts to trade. I checked the authenticity of the bills, shook his hand, and was on my way in under a minute. The rate of the day was 8.4 pesos/dollar, a cool 3.3 pesos higher than Argentina’s official rate.
This summer, Jordan Elpern-Waxman had a revelation. He’d quit his job in order to start a company that markets craft beer, and, as most new entrepreneurs do, he’d been paying for the whole thing himself. “I had gone through my savings and put everything on my credit card, and I woke up one morning and looked at the balance and said, ‘Holy s**t, how am I ever going to pay this thing off?’ ” Elpern-Waxman told me. So he did something unusual: he sold off a share of his future. ... He went to a new site called Upstart. Founded last year by former Google employees, it’s a crowdfunding marketplace where people looking to start a business, say, or pursue more education can raise cash from investors. In exchange, they pay some of what they earn over the next five or ten years—what percentage you have to pay is determined by how much you want to raise and by the Upstart algorithm’s assessment of your earnings potential. For thirty thousand dollars today, you might end up paying out, say, two per cent of your income for the next five years.
A Peking University economics professor who was sacked for his political views explains the underside of elite Chinese higher education. … Mr. Xi, 53, says he had a mostly apolitical youth in Anhui province, west of Shanghai, where both of his parents were shipyard workers for China's navy. He never considered himself a communist and says he always felt drawn to the West, thanks partly to foreign picture books from his childhood. He imagined life as a painter or translator, and after graduating college in 1984 went to work as an interpreter for the government's Foreign Affairs Office. … His political awakening came later, in 1987-89, when he studied management at the University of Toronto, visited several European democracies—and read Milton Friedman's "Free to Choose." Friedman's writing helped make Mr. Xia a classical liberal and, by the mid-1990s, a student of economics. Today he cites F.A. Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, James Buchanan and Gary Becker among his intellectual idols. The list also includes Xiakoai Yang, the Chinese economist—and Mao-era political prisoner—who convinced him that China cannot thrive without imitating the institutions, and not just the technologies, of the West.
As a tech-obsessed child growing up in the nineties, Rob Rhinehart was always puzzled by food. Here he was, eagerly embracing the wonders of the information era, and he had to gnaw on seared chunks of meat and raw vegetables. “I remember when I was very young, eating lettuce and thinking it was very weird to be eating leaves, sitting in this nice house with all of these electronics around us,” he says now. … These days, Rhinehart doesn’t eat much lettuce or anything else recognizable as food. Instead, the 25-year-old gets most of his nutrition from a water bottle filled with a thick, light-brown slurry he invented. A cocktail of highly processed foodstuffs mixed with water—oat flour, tapioca maltodextrin, rice-protein powder, canola oil, and scores of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrient additives—it contains everything the human body needs, or so he claims. … After Rhinehart posted his recipe online in February, Soylent quickly became the first drinkable meme. … “For me cooking is like an art form,” says Zach Alexander, a 30-year-old software developer in San Francisco and DIY soylenter. “And it’s really frustrating how biology compels you to eat food three times a day even though you don’t want to.”
Product launches are festive occasions, but it’s rare to attend one so joyful that it moves the crowd to tears. And yet, a fleet of aviation honchos—Bombardier Inc. CEO Pierre Beaudoin, aerospace division CEO Guy Hachey, commercial aircraft president Mike Arcamone, Porter Airlines CEO Bob Deluce—all admitted that the takeoff last Sept. 16 of the first aircraft in Bombardier’s new CSeries line of planes had them choked up. “My heartbeat was going quite fast as I watched,” blubbered Hachey afterward, flashing a mile-wide, white-toothed smile. “I had lot of thoughts in my mind about how long we have been working at this, and how important it’s going to be for the future of the company.” … The CSeries has been designed from scratch and conceived with cutting-edge technology. It is without precedent: an ultra-lightweight, ultra-quiet, ultra-fuel-efficient commercial airliner that can reach near-transcontinental distances from a measly 4,000 feet of runway.
The epic begins 10,000 years ago in an Asian jungle and ends today in kitchens all over the world ... The chickens that saved Western civilization were discovered, according to legend, by the side of a road in Greece in the first decade of the fifth century B.C. The Athenian general Themistocles, on his way to confront the invading Persian forces, stopped to watch two cocks fighting and summoned his troops, saying: “Behold, these do not fight for their household gods, for the monuments of their ancestors, for glory, for liberty or the safety of their children, but only because one will not give way to the other.” The tale does not describe what happened to the loser, nor explain why the soldiers found this display of instinctive aggression inspirational rather than pointless and depressing. But history records that the Greeks, thus heartened, went on to repel the invaders, preserving the civilization that today honors those same creatures by breading, frying and dipping them into one’s choice of sauce. The descendants of those roosters might well think—if they were capable of such profound thought—that their ancient forebears have a lot to answer for.
Bison Dele, once known as Brian Williams, left the NBA behind to explore the world. His quest carried him to a mysterious end near Tahiti. More than a decade later, his spirit sails on. ... It has been 11 years since the NBA player’s catamaran went missing off the coast of Tahiti and the FBI descended upon this small island in the middle of the Pacific, flanked by journalists, asking questions about murder and love and fame. Eleven years since the TV reenactments and the breathless tabloid reports. Eleven years, and the mystery remains unsolved. ... Many on the island have forgotten. Others prefer not to speak about what occurred. “It has been so long,” they say, averting their eyes. “That has nothing to do with us.” Tahiti relies on tourism, on its reputation as a paradise on earth; why talk about death? ... Dig deeper, though, and you can find those who remember. Not just what happened, but what came before.