The Most Interesting Stories of 2018

January 1st, 2019

I’m continuing my tradition of starting the new year by sharing a few of my favorite articles from the last year. Previous selections are available here: 2017, 2016, 2015, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009 and 2008. Happy 2019 all!

5) Vox: This company may have solved one of the hardest problems in clean energy:

Beyond the hyperbolic title there’s a good explainer of recent developments with hydrogen technology, a facet of clean energy that I gave up on in favor of hydro, wind, solar and batteries, batteries and more batteries (of all types!). Of course, since this splashy coverage I haven’t heard much about this company’s successes. Still interesting to see new ideas to clean up existing diesel engines and I’m all for their eventual pivot to creating hydrogen batteries (again, yay big batteries!).

HyTech Power, based in Redmond, Washington, intends to introduce three products over the next year or two.

The first will use hydrogen to clean up existing diesel engines, increasing their fuel efficiency by a third and eliminating over half their air pollution, with an average nine-month payback, the company says. That’s a potentially enormous market with plenty of existing demand, which HyTech hopes will capitalize its second product, a retrofit that will transform any internal combustion vehicle into a zero-emissions vehicle (ZEV) by enabling it to run on pure hydrogen. That will primarily be targeted at large fleets.

And that will tee up the third product — the one Johnson’s had his eye on from the beginning, the one that could revolutionize and decentralize the energy system — a stationary energy-storage product meant to compete with, and eventually outcompete, big batteries like Tesla’s Powerwall.

At least, that’s the plan.

4) Topic: Japan’s Vegetable-Eating Men

A long article about a Japanese man who transitioned to become a stay-at-home father in the early 2000s and the shifting norms around work, gender roles and society in Japan.

Wearing a suit while browsing produce, Shuichi was indistinguishable from any other salaryman setting about his daily business in the Tokyo streets. After two years, with his wife’s salary increasing, Shuichi made a decision. “I realized that we could increase our overall household ‘salary’ if I focused on supporting her instead of waiting to cure my disease, or forcing myself to go to work,” he says. To mark this turning point, Shuichi made his role as an outcast complete: he dyed his hair blond.

A Japanese man with bleached-blond hair wouldn’t necessarily stand out in most Western countries, or even in modern-day Tokyo, but at the time, Shuichi explains, it was a huge symbolic move. “Until then, my thought was to go back into the workforce and back to society,” Shuichi says. “But in the public eye, men with blond hair are not allowed to work or even permitted to search for jobs as a salaryman. I became defiant and that is when I basically declared myself a ‘househusband.’”

3) The New Yorker: The Prophets of Cryptocurrency Survey the Boom and Bust

A levelheaded piece looking at the insane world of crypocurrencies and blockchain technology, full of charlatans, dizzying swings of wealth and many many strongly held opinions.

Historically, records have been stored in one place—a temple, a courthouse, a server—and kept by whoever presided. If you distrust central authority, or are queasy about Google, this won’t do at all. With blockchains, the records, under a kind of cryptographic seal, are distributed to all and belong to no one. You can’t revise them, because everyone is watching, and because the software will reject it if you try. There is no Undo button. Each block is essentially a bundle of transactions, with a tracking notation, represented in a bit of cryptographic code known as a “hash,” of all the transactions in the past. Each new block in the chain contains all the information (or, really, via the hash, a secure reference to all the information) contained in the previous one, all the way back to the first one, the so-called genesis block.

There are other words that are sometimes included in the definition of blockchain, but they are slippery, and grounds for endless parsing, asterisking, and debate. One is “decentralized.” (Some blockchains are more decentralized than others.) Another is “immutable”—the idea that, in theory, the past record can’t be altered. (This is different from having your crypto stolen or hacked, when it’s stored in an online “wallet.” That happens all the time!) Then there’s “privacy.” The aspiration is for a digital coin to have the untraceability of cash. Because bitcoin was, at the outset, the dark Web’s go-to tender for the purchase of drugs, sex, weaponry, and such, many assumed that it was private. But it isn’t. Every transaction is there in the ledger for all to see. It is, fundamentally, anonymous (or pseudonymous, anyway), but there are many ways for that anonymity to be compromised.

The odds are high that someone, somewhere, has attempted to make an explanation like this one to you. The chain-splainer is a notorious date spoiler and cocktail-party pariah. Here he comes—you’re trapped. You should have known better than to ask about mining.

2) Grub StreetThe Last Conversation You’ll Ever Need to Have About Eating Right

A frank and well done collection of answers to the “right” way to eat that dispels a number of commonly (and often, fanatically) held beliefs. I found it quite liberating because you don’t need to obsess over details. Move around regularly, eat mostly organic, whole plant foods and don’t freak out if you enjoy bread, wine and meat on occasion. Whew.

If there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that carbs are evil.
This is probably the silliest of all the silly, pop-culture propaganda about diet and health. All plant foods are carbohydrate sources.

Yeah, but: Carbs are evil.
Everything from lentils to lollipops, pinto beans to jelly beans, tree nuts to doughnuts, is a carbohydrate source. Most plant foods are mostly carbohydrate. So if “all carbs” are evil, then so are vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds.

Sure, but, I should still avoid carbs, right?
Exactly the opposite is true. You cannot have a complete or healthful diet without carbohydrate sources.

Why have I been led to believe that carbs are evil?
Highly processed grains and added sugar are bad, not because they are carbohydrate, but because they’ve been robbed of nutrients, they raise insulin levels, and they’re often high in added fats, sodium, and weird ingredients. Carbs are not evil; junk food is evil.

1) The Daily BeastHow an Ex-Cop Rigged McDonald’s Monopoly Game and Stole Millions

I don’t want to ruin this one by quoting too far into the article, but it’s worth your time and quite an American tale.

Dent’s investigation had started in 2000, when a mysterious informant called the FBI and claimed that McDonald’s games had been rigged by an insider known as “Uncle Jerry.” The person revealed that “winners” paid Uncle Jerry for stolen game pieces in various ways. The $1 million winners, for example, passed the first $50,000 installment to Uncle Jerry in cash. Sometimes Uncle Jerry would demand cash up front, requiring winners to mortgage their homes to come up with the money. According to the informant, members of one close-knit family in Jacksonville had claimed three $1 million prizes and a Dodge Viper.

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