The Top Ten Wired Articles of 2010

I subscribed to Wired Magazine (print edition) in December of 2009. I’ve read almost all of the feature articles over the last twelve months. The following is my list of top ten Wired articles which have appeared in print from January until December of this year. I highlight notable passages from each piece as well.

(1) “The Neuroscience of Screwing Up” (January 2010). Jonah Lehrer is one of my favorite science writers (do subscribe to his excellent blog, The Frontal Cortex), and his piece in the January edition of Wired is a good way to begin this list. The piece challenges our preconceptions of the scientific process and how we make mistakes in the scientific quest for answers:

The reason we’re so resistant to anomalous information — the real reason researchers automatically assume that every unexpected result is a stupid mistake — is rooted in the way the human brain works. Over the past few decades, psychologists have dismantled the myth of objectivity. The fact is, we carefully edit our reality, searching for evidence that confirms what we already believe. Although we pretend we’re empiricists — our views dictated by nothing but the facts — we’re actually blinkered, especially when it comes to information that contradicts our theories. The problem with science, then, isn’t that most experiments fail — it’s that most failures are ignored.

(2) “Fill in the Blanks: Using Math to Turn Lo-Res Datasets into High-Res Samples” (March 2010). I highlighted this piece in this entry, and it’s still definitely of the most interesting articles I’ve read this year, not least because the entire concept of compressed sensing was totally new to me:

Compressed sensing works something like this: You’ve got a picture — of a kidney, of the president, doesn’t matter. The picture is made of 1 million pixels. In traditional imaging, that’s a million measurements you have to make. In compressed sensing, you measure only a small fraction — say, 100,000 pixels randomly selected from various parts of the image. From that starting point there is a gigantic, effectively infinite number of ways the remaining 900,000 pixels could be filled in.

(3) “Art of the Steal: On the Trail of World’s Most Ingenious Thief” (April 2010). A fascinating piece about Gerald Blanchard, who has been described as “cunning, clever, conniving, and creative.” Incredible what he was able to accomplish during his stint:

Over the years, Blanchard procured and stockpiled IDs and uniforms from various security companies and even law enforcement agencies. Sometimes, just for fun and to see whether it would work, he pretended to be a reporter so he could hang out with celebrities. He created VIP passes and applied for press cards so he could go to NHL playoff games or take a spin around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with racing legend Mario Andretti. He met the prince of Monaco at a yacht race in Monte Carlo and interviewed Christina Aguilera at one of her concerts.

(4) “Getting LOST” (May 2010). LOST is my favorite show on television (by far), so it’s with some bias that I select this piece into the top 10. This piece has outstanding trivia about the show, an interview with executive producers Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof, and really excellent infographics (my favorite is this one).

(5) “The Man Who Could Unsnarl Manhattan Traffic” (June 2010). Felix Salmon (whose finance blog I follow at Reuters; unrelated, but I also recommend Salmon’s excellent take on bicycling in New York City.) reports on Charles Komanoff, the man whose goal is to alleviate traffic in New York City.

[It is ] the most ambitious effort yet to impose mathematical rigor and predictability on an inherently chaotic phenomenon. Despite decades of attempts to curb delays—adding lanes to highways, synchronizing traffic lights—planners haven’t had much success at unsnarling gridlock. A study by the Texas Transportation Institute found that in 2007, metropolitan-area drivers in the US spent an average of 36 hours stuck in traffic—up from 14 hours in 1982.

Komanoff tracks ALL of this data in a massive spreadsheet, dubbed Balanced Transportation Analyzer (warning! .xls link, 5.5MB):

Over the course of about 50 worksheets, the BTA breaks down every aspect of New York City transportation—subway revenues, traffic jams, noise pollution—in an attempt to discover which mix of tolls and surcharges would create the greatest benefit for the largest number of people.

(6) “Secret of AA” (July 2010). Some 1.2 million people belong to one of Alcoholic Anonymous’s 55,000 meeting groups in the United States. But after 75 years, we still don’t know how it works. Fascinating:

There’s no doubt that when AA works, it can be transformative. But what aspect of the program deserves most of the credit? Is it the act of surrendering to a higher power? The making of amends to people a drinker has wronged? The simple admission that you have a problem? Stunningly, even the most highly regarded AA experts have no idea.

(7) “The News Factory” (September 2010). You’ve probably seen those videos from Taiwan recounting events of the moment through hilarious animated videos (see The iPhone Antennagate; Chilean Miners). What’s fascinating is that there’s an entire company working to create these videos. Next Media Animation (NMA) is a factory churning out  videos:

The team at Next Media Animation cranks out about 20 short clips a day, most involving crimes and scandals in Hong Kong and Taiwan. But a few are focused on tabloid staples in the US—from Tiger Woods’ marital troubles to Michael Jackson’s death. Seeing them filtered through the Next Media lens is as disorienting as it is entertaining.

How can they create such impressive (relatively speaking) videos in such a short period of time?

It takes Pixar up to seven hours to render a single frame of footage—that is, to convert the computer data into video. NMA needed to create an animated clip in a third of that time and render more than a thousand frames of animation in just a few minutes. A team spent two years wrestling with the problem, experimenting with one digital tool after another—Poser, 3ds Max, Maya. “It didn’t look good, and it took too long,” says Eric Ryder, a Next art director. “But Jimmy doesn’t want excuses.”

(8) “The Nerd Superstore” (October 2010). An excellent look into ThinkGeek, a site for nerds. ThinkGeek is a profitable company that carries an assortment of products:

Today ThinkGeek has 51 employees. Single-day orders occasionally top out at $1 million, and an astonishing amount of that product is caffeine. You can purchase it online or from the mail-order catalog in the form of mints, candy, gum, jerky, sprays, capsules, chews, cookies, and powders, as well as in lip balms, brownie mix, and soaps (liquid and solid). The company has thus far pushed more than 1 billion milligrams of the stimulant.

Where else could you purchase awesome sauce, brain freeze ice cubes, and an 8-bit tie all in one place?

(9) “The Quantified City” (November 2010). What can a hundred million calls to 311 reveal about a city? Steven Johnson uses New York City as an example where the collected data is quantified:

As useful as 311 is to ordinary New Yorkers, the most intriguing thing about the service is all the information it supplies back to the city. Each complaint is logged, tagged, and mapped to make it available for subsequent analysis. In some cases, 311 simply helps New York respond more intelligently to needs that were obvious to begin with. Holidays, for example, spark reliable surges in call volume, with questions about government closings and parking regulations. On snow days, call volume spikes precipitously, which 311 anticipates with recorded messages about school closings and parking rules.

The 311 complaints, visualized in an infographic, for one week in September (question for the reader: do you think population density matters here?)

(10) “Teen Mathletes Do Battle at Algorithm Olympics” (December 2010). Excellent piece by Jason Fagone about kids competing at the International Olympiad in Informatics (IOI). While the piece focuses on two students, it’s important to note how elite this event is:

China’s approach to IOI is proof of just how serious the contest has become and how tied up it is in notions of national prestige and economic competitiveness. To earn a spot on the Chinese team, a coder has to beat 80,000 of his compatriots in a series of provincial elimination rounds that last an entire year.

But what’s the downside of such intense training and competition? I ponder the possibilities with some personal reflections in this post.

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Notes:

1) For some of the titles above, I’ve used the titles presented in the print edition of Wired (the titles are usually longer on the Web).

2) If you’re a fan of Wired, what’s your favorite article from 2010? Feel free to comment below.

Readings: End of the Web, Apologizing, Dubai, Happiness

I’ve been away from this blog for nearly a month, but here’s what caught my attention recently:

1) “The Web is Dead. Long Live the Internet” [Wired] – the most sensationalist piece of writing I’ve read in a long while. Many have labeled this piece on the demise of the web as trolling by the lead author (and editor of Wired) Chris Anderson. Read the piece for yourself, but then read Alexis Madrigal’s brilliant retort in The Atlantic; especially notable is this point from Alexis:

[I]t’s impossible not to notice — if you worked at Wired.com like I did — that Anderson’s inevitable technological path happens to run perfectly through the domains (print/tablet) he controls at Wired, and away from the one that he doesn’t.

2) “How to Apologize” [Research Digest Blog] – there are three main types of apologies, as explained:

The three apology types or components are: compensation (e.g. I’m sorry I broke your window, I’ll pay to have it repaired); empathy (e.g. I’m sorry I slept with your best friend, you must feel like you can’t trust either of us ever again); and acknowledgement of violated rules/norms (e.g. I’m sorry I advised the CIA how to torture people, I’ve broken our profession’s pledge to do no harm).

Read the post to find out which apology to use in which situation.

3) “Good-Bye to Dubai” [The New York Review of Books] – this is an excellent summary of the rise and (relative) fall of one of the most prosperous cities in the Middle East (and the world). The piece is actually a nice summary of three books: Dubai: Gilded Cage, Dubai: The Vulnerability of Success, and City of Gold: Dubai and the Dream of Capitalism. A telling paragraph of how things were built in Dubai:

Moreover, the real estate boom was kept going by a Dickensian labor system that was bound at some point to self- destruct. At the height of the boom, tens of thousands of Southeast Asian laborers, banned by Dubai’s labor laws from forming unions, were put to work for eighty hours a week to build the Dubai fantasy and obliged to live in squalid residential camps in the desert. There, according to a report in the Guardian, they were packed “twelve men to a room, forced to wash themselves in filthy brown water and cook in kitchens next to overflowing toilets.” Before the crash, workers had begun to agitate for reforms; one target has been the kafala system, which requires foreign workers to have “sponsors” to obtain a visa and mandates their immediate deportation if they lose their jobs. A Kuwaiti government minister called this system “human slavery.”

4) “But Will It Make You Happy?” [New York Times] – a great case study of a couple who gave up their jobs and a number of materialistic possessions in their quest to become happier. The outcome?

Today, three years after Ms. Strobel and Mr. Smith began downsizing, they live in Portland, Ore., in a spare, 400-square-foot studio with a nice-sized kitchen. Mr. Smith is completing a doctorate in physiology; Ms. Strobel happily works from home as a Web designer and freelance writer. She owns four plates, three pairs of shoes and two pots. With Mr. Smith in his final weeks of school, Ms. Strobel’s income of about $24,000 a year covers their bills. They are still car-free but have bikes. One other thing they no longer have: $30,000 of debt.

If you’re interested about the topic of happiness, I highly recommend checking out Gretchen Rubin’s excellent blog The Happiness Project. She also came out with a book of the same name late last year.

Readings: Compressed Sensing, Future of Money, Google’s Search Algorithm

I finished reading, from cover to cover, the March 2010 edition of Wired magazine last week. Today’s links of the day are all from Wired.

(1) “Fill in the Blanks: Using Math to Turn Lo-Res Datasets into High-Res Samples” [Wired] – a fascinating look into the Compressed Sensing algorithm. This article explores how the algorithm, discovered accidentally by Emmanuel Candès, has applications in medical imaging, satellite imaging, and photography. On the origins of the algorithm:

Candès, with the assistance of postdoc Justin Romberg, came up with what he considered to be a sketchy and incomplete theory for what he saw on his computer. He then presented it on a blackboard to a colleague at UCLA named Terry Tao. Candès came away from the conversation thinking that Tao was skeptical — the improvement in image clarity was close to impossible, after all. But the next evening, Tao sent a set of notes to Candès about the blackboard session. It was the basis of their first paper together. And over the next two years, they would write several more.

If you’ve never heard of Terence Tao, you should find out more about him. He’s one of the most brilliant mathematicians alive today (when he was 24, Tao was promoted to full professor at UCLA, the youngest person to achieve full professorship at UCLA; Tao also won the Fields Medal in 2006, equivalent to the Nobel Prize in mathematics). Tao maintains a very popular blog (among mathematics and those who really enjoy math, as the majority of the topics are quite esoteric for the general audience) here.

So how does compressed sensing work?

Compressed sensing works something like this: You’ve got a picture — of a kidney, of the president, doesn’t matter. The picture is made of 1 million pixels. In traditional imaging, that’s a million measurements you have to make. In compressed sensing, you measure only a small fraction — say, 100,000 pixels randomly selected from various parts of the image. From that starting point there is a gigantic, effectively infinite number of ways the remaining 900,000 pixels could be filled in.

So is this a revolutionary technique? The implication, of course, is that you can create something out of nothing. I remain unconvinced whether this technology will be used in digital photography in the future, but I do anticipate that for gathering large data sets, such as in satellite imagery, this technique will become very popular…

(2) “The Future of Money” [Wired] – an excellent, comprehensive piece explaining how the role of paying for things online has evolved since the days of PayPal. This is a must-read if you’re unfamiliar with the history of PayPal, don’t know how credit card transactions are made, and if you haven’t heard of recent developments of TwitPay and/or Square.

(3) “How Google’s Algorithm Rules the Web” [Wired] – most likely, you use Google every single day. This article explores the fascinating story behind the Google search algorithm (beginning with PageRank to the rollout of real-time search in December 2009), its adapation and evolution over the years. This article is a must-read.