Drones and Apple Watches. Lost planets and lurking chaos. The truth about dogs and cats. Star Wars — lots of Star Wars. Behold, our favourite stories from the Gizmodo mothership in New York.
We asked all the Gizmodo contributors to send along their favourite story from 2015. (If they were too humble to comply, we picked our favourites.) These stories represent our deepest reporting, our most personal topics, and some damn fine writing. Thank you for reading them. We’ll see you back here in 2016.
At the end of the day, America’s broken internet isn’t going to fix itself. Monopolistic problems deserve capitalistic solutions. In this case, it’s competition — pure and simple. The alternative isn’t just frustrating. It’s dysfunctional.
Why it’s our favourite: Adam Clark Estes is the US team’s resident consumer watchdog, explaining why we should not accept the status quo when it comes to the technology that affects our daily lives.
The US military sought to build a virtual fence dividing North and South Vietnam. And in the process they helped to invent the modern electronic battlefield, whose technologies came back to the US in the early 1970s, where they were quickly deployed against drug cartels, smugglers, and anyone else trying to cross the border from Mexico. Igloo White also formed the bedrock of a border surveillance revolution that’s ongoing today. At the US-Mexico border, drones stalk the skies and electronic sensors alert Border Patrol agents to anyone trying to cross into the United States.
What happened to Igloo White is not unlike the tech transfer from battlefield to border that we see today, as the machines used by American military forces in Afghanistan and Iraq find their way to American streets. And as the refugee crisis continues across Europe, the Middle East, and the rest of the world, it’d be a safe bet to say that we can expect more high-tech virtual fences in the future.
Why it’s our favourite: This is Matt Novak at his very best. Matt reported this story for the better part of a year — and it shows. It will change the way you think about drones, surveillance, and the increasingly complicated way we patrol our borders.
“Look,” said Didier Queloz, an exoplanet researcher at the University of Cambridge, “it took the human species ten thousand years to spread across the Earth. When I came here, it took me eight hours by plane to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Maybe we need another hundred, or a thousand years, but it doesn’t seem so crazy to think we’ll be sending probes to these nearby planets. There is no fundamental limitation but the time.”
Why it’s our favourite: “Here’s one I’ve been especially fond of referencing all year — a report on an event I attended on the search for habitable worlds beyond our solar system.” — Maddie Stone
After a day of scouring me-too smart home concepts and yet another curved TV, I reached the breaking point. There were so few genuinely innovative products to be found, I was mentally already checked out of next year’s show. The LVCC was a wash. CES was a waste. I was never coming back.
It turns out I was just looking in the wrong place.
Why it’s our favourite: In his usual witty and observational manner, Andrew Liszewski reminded us what it felt like to be excited about gadget blogging again.
I watched the movie three times in four days, and will surely see at least twice more before it leaves theatres. But even though I love the movie, there are aspects that distress me immensely.
Why it’s our favourite: We can’t really say without revealing SPOILERS, but with this incredibly emotional essay, Rob Bricken says what we all were thinking. It was only published last week but is already one of the most popular posts of the year.
Boycotting bottled water means you support the idea that public access to clean, safe water is not only a basic human right, but that it’s a goddamn technological triumph worth protecting. It means you believe that ensuring public access to this resource is the only way to guarantee it will be around in a few more years.
Why it’s our favourite: “In a year where water ruled the headlines — #droughtshaming, #almondshaming, #lawnshaming — this was the one conversation that no one was having: The best way to save water is to support and trust the municipal systems that are working to make sure our natural resources are protected. I heard from quite a few people that switching to tap water helped change other conservation habits, too. Also, I enjoyed making bottled water drinkers angry.” — Alissa Walker
The Apple Watch has obvious problems. It’s legitimately confusing. You might need to book an in-store seminar at the cult offices just to learn how to tell time. It definitely won’t be as easy as the iPhone but the strange thing is, I actually don’t want it to be. I want to be lost. I want to twirl that damn knob and press that weird button and hard tap that tiny screen just to see what happens. Because I honestly have no idea what will happen.
And that’s basically what I’m buying. The unknown. It’s been a long time since that’s been for sale.
Why it’s our favourite: After a billion gadget writers tried and failed to tell us why they wanted an iPhone for their wrists, Casey Chan managed to explain exactly what’s so darn attractive about this new device.
Even when an astronaut knows the solution to their problem is tape, the question remains: which tape should they use? Two types of tape are especially common in astronauts’ toolboxes. The first is grey tape, which is just astronaut-lingo for duct tape. The second is Kapton tape (aka polyimide tape), which is basically electrical tape but better. You can find either type of tape for sale at hardware stores here on Earth, but the tapes that astronauts bring to space are tested extensively to ensure they don’t produce any off-gases (problematic, if you’re in an enclosed space), or degrade in the harsh exterior of the habitat.
Why it’s our favourite: One of the most incredible stories from our Space Habitats Week was not about a Mars colony or an intergalactic metropolis, but this exhaustive, MacGyver-like list from Mika McKinnon of everything that astronauts have done with tape in space, from eating to — gulp! — spacewalking.
As a test case for the supposed social benefits of the technology there couldn’t be a more symbolically-loaded city than Los Angeles. Nearly 25 years ago, four LAPD officers were acquitted for the savage beating of Rodney King, despite a damning camcorder video that captured the assault. Since then, civilian video has proven largely ineffective in convicting police of brutality — or even indicting them for possible crimes. And yet many people believe that civilian footage shows police violating the civil rights of people on the ground. Eric Garner’s death is the perfect example of this problem. Garner’s friend got video of the police choking him to death, but the officers were never indicted, as if video didn’t exist at all.
Body cameras, we’re told, will change the game. But if you look back at how this tech has been used in America so far, we already know what’s going to happen to the officers who shot Charly Keunang in Los Angeles: Nothing.
Why it’s our favourite: After the riots in Ferguson, everyone was talking about how body cameras could prevent police brutality and bring criminals to justice. Mario Aguilar astutely discovered that a gadget designed for and marketed to cops actually has some pretty serious problems when it comes to public safety.
According to [Gregory] Berns’ research, dogs that are presented with certain smells in scanners can clearly tell the difference between dogs and humans, and also discern and recognise familiar and strange odours. In particular, the scent of a familiar human evokes a reward response in the brain.
“No other scent did that, not even that of a familiar dog,” Berns told io9. “It’s not the case that they see us as ‘part of their pack as dogs,’ they know that we’re something different — there’s a special place in the brain just for us.”
Berns stresses that dogs are social with us not just because of their scavenging tendencies.
“What we’re finding with the imaging work is that dogs love their humans — and not just for food,” he says. “They love the company of humans simply for its own sake.”
Why it’s a favourite: This is a signature George Dvorsky piece. A smart, entertaining, and informative take on an incredible new explanation for an everyday phenomenon.
The truth is that cats are predators. Really, really cute predators, but predators nonetheless. For millions of years, they have evolved to hunt and kill small animals, and evolution did its job pretty well. From their eyes to the tips of their tails, cats are lean, mean, completely adorable hunting machines. Instinct drives cats to hunt, whether they’re stalking and pouncing a toy mouse or a real one. If cats are indoors, they will be much happier if they can pretend-stalk birds through a window or have lots of prey-simulating toys to attack. Of course, if they’re outdoors, with access to real, live prey, they will go on safari.
That’s not a strike against cats. It’s just biology. At the end of the day, our pets will be happier, and so will we, if we see them as they really are, love them for it, and give them a safe way to indulge their wild sides. As it turns out, the environment may be better off, too.
Why it’s a favourite: We still don’t know how Kiona Smith-Strickland found all these studies about cats, but we admire her ability to weave them together into a compelling argument for keeping your kitties indoors.
The problem is that Bulletproof Coffee, the company behind the trend, is claiming that drinking a mug of fatty joe every morning instead of eating breakfast is a secret shortcut to weight loss and mental superpowers, and now the butter coffee has developed a cult of highly caffeinated, shiny-lipped adherents. So now we have to talk about it.
Why it’s our favourite: “While I would very much like to say my best work was the beginning of my year-in-a-van project Connected States (click that and read it and follow on social media k thanks!), instead I’m submitting my takedown of Bulletproof Coffee. In a year full of very stupid weight-loss schemes, this had to be one of the stupidest. I went down the research rabbit-hole and found that there was virtually nothing to back up any of Bulletproof’s claims, and then I took them apart one at a time. It was really fun and hopefully it saved a few people from getting hypertension or gout.” — Brent Rose
Human culture has reached a point of no return. The overwhelming barrage of Star Wars merchandise has pulverized the last remaining crumbs of our consumer dignity. Consider this product and cry with us: Star Wars Chicken Hot Dogs with Built-in Ketchup. And it gets worse.
Why it’s our favourite: When our Budapest-based contributor Attila Nagy shared some of the more bizarre Star Wars-themed foods on Hungarian supermarket shelves, we ordered him to not only go out and document these foods, but to purchase and eat them. He delivered.
The dungeon-esque workspace is like an eccentric house of horrors with whirring grinding wheels and fire-breathing forges next to a Ricky Martin poster, a Ludwig drumkit, guitars, amps, and various Christian iconography. It’s far removed, what some would call “the middle of nowhere,” but that’s how Lundemo likes it. Things tend to get noisy.
Why it’s our favourite: Um, dungeon-like workspace? Swords? Ricky Martin poster? Need we say more? For a look at how centuries-old technology adapts to modern-day realities, go no further than Darren Orf’s incredible peek inside the Upstate NY shed of an honest-to-goodness swordmaker.
From personal experience, I know that riding the shinkansen is a slightly out-of-body experience that borders a Jetsons episode. Fun and futuristic weirdness aside, it’s also incredibly convenient. It has none of the hidden fees, security rigamarole, discomfort, or interminable taxi times that flying has. The always on-time shinkansen’s dependability and technology set the gold standard. And — most importantly — the safety stats speak for themselves.
Why it’s our favourite: Shinkansen is my favourite mode of transportation in the world, and when I found out there are plans to build one in the US serving Houston — where my parents live — I knew I wanted to write a story about it. I was thrilled with the hundreds of responses the story got. There are a lot of people on both sides of the debate as to whether high-speed rail is right for America, and I was really happy to write something that ignited that conversation on Gizmodo. — Bryan Lufkin
My online reputation has the digital equivalent of an STI. A few weeks ago, I found out I was getting impersonated on the internet.
Why it’s our favourite: This is a great article, but how do we even know it’s written by the real Kate Knibbs?
There’s a certain amount of biography, but this is chiefly a doc about what it means to be a massively popular artist at the end of one’s life, too infirm to make art anymore — a process as important to existing as breathing.
Why it’s our favourite: Most of Cheryl Eddy’s excellent writing focuses on True Crime, but she also shines in her stories about pop culture. This review of a film about the heartbreaking life of the artist who created the title creature in Alien is as beautiful and nuanced as the documentary itself.
As the second week of global climate negotiations gets underway, the world waits for national leaders to make meaningful commitments to save the planet. But it’s become clear that cities, not countries, are leading the way in the fight against climate change.
There’s a good reason for that: the world’s cities account for 70 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. Currently just over half of the world’s population lives in urban areas, and that figure is set to rise to 70 per cent by 2050. Cities play a huge role in the creation of climate change. But they’re also vital in terms of its mitigation: their concentrated densities of services and population present an amazing opportunity for huge efficiency savings, without compromise on productivity or quality of life.
More and more, cities are acting on that opportunity while national governments founder. And nowhere is this more obvious than at the climate talks.
Why it’s our favourite: We sent our fearless UK-based contributor Jamie Condliffe to Paris to cover the climate talks and he absolutely killed it — attending sessions during the day and pounding the keyboard well into the night. This was one of his many, many insightful stories from one of the most important events of our lifetimes.
It only took a few days. Star Wars: Card Trader quickly took over my life. I downloaded it on my iPhone, iPad, I have
mulesfriends who have accounts just to get cards for me and — at times — I’ve scheduled days around the release of particular cards. One time I forgot my phone and I called my mum from another phone to grab my phone and open packs for me. It was painful (“Mum, now press Boba Fett”) and embarrassing, but it’s true. And some people out there totally understand where I’m coming from. The same kind of person who’d pay $US225 ($309) for a photo of Han Solo.
Why it’s our favourite: “One of the great things about writing for a site like this is you get to write about things you are obsessed with. So when I found myself obsessed over this crazy new app, and saw the dumbfounded look on people’s faces when I explained it, I knew I had to dig into why.
When it was finally done and posted first I got people intrigued, and then I started to get people hooked. To this day I have fans of the app who blame me for getting them hooked, or blowing up the app to such a level of popularity, I ruined it. ‘That io9 article’ is now a common phrase among users in the app. I feel famous. And whether I made the app better, worse or neither, I was just flattered I had anyimpact at all.” — Germain Lussier
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Why it’s our favourite: “I think this is the best thing I syndicated from a robot from the future this year.” — Matt Novak
Imagine four shiny Christmas bulbs stacked into a pyramid. If you try to track the light particles (photons) that reflect off those spheres, most will follow clean, predictable trajectories, but every now and then one will get trapped inside the pyramid, bouncing back and forth. That photon’s path is extremely chaotic, but you might not pick up on it using the usual equations. You have to know where to look to find the hidden chaos.
Why it’s our favourite: The addition of Jen Ouellette as our fearless science editor has changed the game when it comes to reporting complex topics. A news feature about finding “hidden chaos” physicists had missed also functions as a very engaging and accessible explainer on chaos theory in general. With a Jurassic Park reference, of course!
So, I came up with the most brutal real-world torture test I could think of: I would jump into a frozen lake wearing a hydrophobic down jacket, stay in there for a few minutes, jump out, and see if I got hypothermia. Science.
Why it’s our favourite: “Suffering for service journalism.” — Chris Mills
What did we miss? Drop your favourite Gizmodo stories from the year below.