I read sometimes dozens of stories written by other people a day, and we are—truly—in a golden age of journalism: There’s enough money funding enough journalists to write unique, interesting work that even with the drop in newsroom staff and the pressure on those that remain to produce, the kind of reporting that’s happening right now is magnificent. But I tweet out several hundred stories a year; maybe in 2016, I’ll keep track of the best of the best.
For 2015, I present the work I wrote that I think is my best effort, and you might find the most interesting.
Restarting spacecraft-powering nuclear material production. One byproduct of the Cold War was the literal byproduct of fissile materials from making weapons-grade plutonium that could be refined into Plutonium 238 (Pu-238), a relatively long-lived isotope that can't be used for bombs and is relatively safe to handle compared to its volatile sibling, Pu-239. America ceased producing it in the 1980s, and Russia stopped selling from their stockpile in the late 2000s. We have a dwindling supply. Without more, so much of space is unreachable, as solar power only goes so far. Just late this month, a milestone in the NASA-funded Department of Energy’s reboot effort was achieved: New Pu-238 was produced! I wrote about this twice in 2015: In April, a newsy look in “NASA’s Dark Materials” for the Economist, and later in the year, a more science-materials view in MIT Technology Review. (I also wrote a paired piece in the Economist about humanity's upcoming decade of not exploring beyond Mars.)
The copyright status of the “Happy Birthday” song. It's a bizarre interest, but for more than three years, I've been tracking and writing about the progression in a lawsuit by a filmmaker and a few others against Warner/Chappell, the music-licensing company that alleged to own the rights to ”Happy Birthday To You,” collecting tens of millions of dollars or more over several decades (between it and predecessor firms). The story takes us back to the 1870s and the Hill sisters, two extraordinary people of their day, whose influence goes far beyond this suit, and to present-day discoveries of missing copyright records and even a manuscript copy, lost for more than a century, of the ”Good Morning To All” lyrics and tune that were indisputably once under copyright and indisputably no longer protected. For Boing Boing, I wrote an account of the history to date after I’d obtained a copy of a 1922 book that arose as a late addition to the evidence in the lawsuit; for Fast Company, I ran down the details of a judge's summary judgment that Warner/Chappell never possessed legitimate rights. (The case was joined by another party, an educational non-profit, and then settled quietly just a few weeks ago!)
Think you can ask the police for their ID? Guess again. After the Ferguson shooting and subsequent police actions, I noted that the Department of Justice criticized officers for concealing their identities. On researching the issue and talking to a professor of criminal justice, it turns out we have no absolute right (and really barely any right at all) as citizens to obtain an officer's name or ID number, and there's no uniformity to policy across America. (For Boing Boing)
You can get a prorated AppleCare refund. It's a small matter, but notable. I've been purchasing and recommending Apple's extended-warranty program, AppleCare (computers) and AppleCare+ (phones and tablets) for years. What I didn't know is that you can obtain a refund on the unused portion if a unit dies, you trade it in, or you sell it. (For Macworld)
The eMachine Stops. Amazon introduced its Dash Button in 2015, a product-branded Wi-Fi enabled re-order button that you could stick or hang near appliances and press to re-order consumable supplies, like coffee and clothes detergent. It reminded me of an E.M. Forster story, and I was able to file this report for Macworld/Techhive with citations from that classic sci-fi tale that's becoming true.