The New Yorker debuted a breezy redesign of its website today, part of a larger overhaul of print and digital offerings that the publication has been rolling out over the last six months. But perhaps even more exciting is the fact that the magazine's archives dating back to 2007 will be free for the rest of the summer.
We hunted through the New Yorker's recent archives and our collective memories to dig up some science and tech stories that we were excited to see freed from the shackles of the New Yorker paywall. Some are about our complicated relationship to new technology. Some explain the way the world works. Some are simply intriguing to read when paired with a few years of hindsight.
Remember, you still have to be a subscriber to access the entire 90-year archive, but if you want to see only what's free, go to this special archive page and scroll down to "Back Issues" to peruse the tables of contents. You can also use the search function, although the magazine is still honing the formatting. Yes, it's a little confusing and kind of archaic — but not unlike digging through a stack of back issues on your proverbial toilet, right?
The computer mouse was invented by Douglas Englebart, but how it got to your desk is a bit more complicated. How innovation begets murky origin stories, especially when it comes to Silicon Valley giants like Xerox PARC and Apple:
In 1970, Xerox had assembled the world's greatest computer engineers and programmers, and for the next ten years they had an unparalleled run of innovation and invention. If you were obsessed with the future in the seventies, you were obsessed with Xerox PARC—which was why the young Steve Jobs had driven to Coyote Hill Road.
They may not have brains, but plants have complex electrical and chemical systems and may even have the ability to remember. A group of scientists is determined to prove their intelligence:
In one experiment designed to test plant memory, Backster found that a plant that had witnessed the murder (by stomping) of another plant could pick out the killer from a lineup of six suspects, registering a surge of electrical activity when the murderer was brought before it. Backster's plants also displayed a strong aversion to interspecies violence. Some had a stressful response when an egg was cracked in their presence, or when live shrimp were dropped into boiling water, an experiment that Backster wrote up for the International Journal of Parapsychology, in 1968.
In 2011, bitcoin was the talk of the town, but especially its mysterious inventor Satoshi Nakamoto. Was it legal? Was it profitable? And who was this dude? No one knew:
By June of 2011, a bitcoin was worth more than twenty-nine dollars. Market gyrations followed, and by September the exchange rate had fallen to five dollars. Still, with more than seven million bitcoins in circulation, Nakamoto had created thirty-five million dollars of value.
How do those shade-grown fair-trade beans make their way to your cup? The rise of third wave coffee and how its production is affecting coffee-growing regions worldwide:
Now most high-quality coffee is processed using the wet, or washed, method, in which cherry is skinned and pulped, put in fermentation tanks to soften the mucilage, and moved to washing tanks, where the mucilage is sloughed off; only then are the beans set out in the sun to dry. In El Salvador, coffee farmers take their cherry to the local mill, which does all the processing, finds a buyer, and ships the unroasted beans, known as green coffee, to its clients around the world.
Gordon Bell's quest to go paperless turned into an obsessive project to document his whole life, from scanning personal objects to wearing a tiny camera to capture anything he'd missed:
Bell doesn't wear a walnut-size camera on his forehead. Since late 2004, however, he regularly wears around his neck a Microsoft device-in-development called a SenseCam. A SenseCam is a black box about the size of a cigarette pack which contains an infrared system—"same as in a burglar alarm," Bell says. "It senses heat—it takes a body a certain size to throw off enough heat to be recognized—and when it finds a person it takes a picture." It also takes a photograph when the light changes or at intervals up to a minute, depending on how it is set. To turn off the SenseCam, Bell puts it in his pocket—the darkness makes it stop working.
There's perhaps nothing more elusive to humans than the promise of a good night's sleep. Yet we still haven't gotten very good at achieving it. The exhausting task of studying sleep disorders:
New technologies have made the study of sleep cheaper, easier, and less intrusive. In 2003, one expert in the field announced the "dawn of the golden age of sleep research." Since then, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of academic papers have been written on topics ranging from "sleep problems among Chinese school-aged children" to the "sleep behavior of the wild black rhinoceros." Currently, in the United States alone, more than two thousand sleep clinics are in operation. All of which raises the question: If this is sleep research's golden age, then why are we all so tired?
In his quest to become self-sufficient, Marcin Jakubowski has built complex machines from scratch on his Missouri farm:
In 2009, Jakubowski posted on the O.S.E. blog a list of fifty machines that, in his view, could cheaply provide everything that a small community needed to sustain a comfortable existence. The list became the Global Village Construction Set. It includes mainstays of contemporary life (tractor, bakery oven, wind turbine) and also exotic, and relatively untested, equipment: an aluminum extractor, developed for lunar missions, that wrests the metal from clay; a bioplastic extruder, which converts plant-based plastic into such domestic necessities as window frames and adhesive tape.
There are, of course, hundreds of thousands more stories to explore. Let us know if you find any more gems and post the links here.
Top image: Detail of The New Yorker Book of Technology Cartoons