While the Nobel prizes can sometimes dive into foundational but seemingly rarified corners of the sciences, Wednesday morning’s announcement of the prize for chemistry reached into billions of people’s pockets—and homes, offices, workshops, cars … pretty much the entire infrastructure of modern life. For their invention of the rechargeable lithium-ion battery, key to everything from mobile phones to electric cars, John B. Goodenough of UT Austin, M. Stanley Wittingham of SUNY Binghamton, and Akira Yoshino of Miejo University will take home medals and a share of $906,000.
“Amazing. Surprising,” Yoshino said by phone at the press conference announcing the prize. Which, sure, maybe, though a September panel sponsored by the American Chemical Society predicted a win for Goodenough and lithium-ion rechargeables; he and the tech have been a longtime favorite. (The genome-editing technology Crispr was a dark horse.)
“I don’t know if they had been waiting for the news for years, but they were very happy,” said Göran Hansson, a physician and member of the Nobel Committee, of Wittingham and Yoshino. The committee hadn’t yet reached Goodenough, Hansson said, who at 97 years old becomes the oldest living Nobel laureate.
Lithium-ion batteries have become a staple in modern electronics. Introduced commercially in 1991, their light weight and high energy efficiency let electronics manufacturers stuff them into mobile phones, portable computers, and cameras. But since the batteries are also stackable into large arrays and can undergo hundreds of discharge–charge cycles, they’re also at the heart of electric bikes and cars like Priuses and Teslas, and they have become dependable parts of sustainable, green energy. Sources of energy like wind or solar don’t emit planet-killing greenhouse gases, but they’re less dependable than fuels derived from oil. Lithium-ion batteries can charge when the wind turns turbines and the sun drops photons on photoelectric cells, and then discharge when they don’t—maintaining even distribution on the electrical grid. One estimate puts the size of the world market at $36 billion, with the possibility of hitting almost $110 billion by 2026.
All batteries work roughly the same way. Electrons flow from a negative electrode called an anode through a material, often a liquid, called an electrolyte, to a positive electrode, the cathode. Pump that flow through a circuit and it’ll power a device. In the mid-1970s, Wittingham—then working for Exxon—figured out how to use the ultralight, highly reactive metal lithium in the anode. That was great; not only does lithium readily give up electrons, but applying charge to the new battery would restore them. Unfortunately, that version of the battery also tended to blow up.
In 1980 Goodenough and his team, working at Oxford, figured out that a cobalt oxide cathode would make for a more stable battery; later that decade Yoshino’s group learned to use more complicated carbon-based materials in electrodes that’d still let lithium ions nestle inside and flow through the battery. Yoshino also developed a way to test the batteries to show that, unlike earlier versions, they wouldn’t catch fire—at least not as easily as the early versions. His high-tech approach: Drop something heavy on it.
As common as they are, Li-ion batteries still have their problems. They’re tough, sure, but problems with the software that controls them or damage to their outer case can still let lithium ignite; that same electrochemical tendency to give up its electrons makes it highly reactive with oxygen, which is just fancy talk for “burns real good.” That’s why you’re not allowed to stow them in airplane luggage anymore.
Also, the world would love a better battery, even lighter, even smaller, with even more powerful battery materials, that charges faster—maybe replace the graphite with silicon, or sub out the liquid electrolyte for a polymer. It’d be nice to not have to rely on lithium at all, since mining the stuff is about as environmentally friendly as any other extractive industry, which is to say, not so much.
Still, since you’re probably reading this on a gadget with a Li-ion battery making it go, the win makes sense. Li-ion batteries continue to improve as researchers hunt for alternatives, but the future-y world of wireless earbuds, mobile phones, and laptops wouldn’t exist without lithium-ion. And as governments and industries look for ways to harness power that don’t exacerbate an ongoing climate crisis, battery tech will be key. “I think we are only at the beginning of that development when it comes to environmental effects, for example transportation and powering the grid,” said Olof Ramström, a Nobel Committee member, after the announcement. “Not just lithium-ion, but also other types of batteries that may be discovered in the future.” Sometimes knowledge really is power.
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How the Dumb Design of a WWII Plane Led to the Macintosh
The B-17 Flying Fortress rolled off the drawing board and onto the runway in a mere 12 months, just in time to become the fearsome workhorse of the US Air Force during World War II. Its astounding toughness made pilots adore it: The B-17 could roar through angry squalls of shrapnel and bullets, emerging pockmarked…
The B-17 Flying Fortress rolled off the drawing board and onto the runway in a mere 12 months, just in time to become the fearsome workhorse of the US Air Force during World War II. Its astounding toughness made pilots adore it: The B-17 could roar through angry squalls of shrapnel and bullets, emerging pockmarked but still airworthy. It was a symbol of American ingenuity, held aloft by four engines, bristling with a dozen machine guns.
Imagine being a pilot of that mighty plane. You know your primary enemy—the Germans and Japanese in your gunsights. But you have another enemy that you can’t see, and it strikes at the most baffling times. Say you’re easing in for another routine landing. You reach down to deploy your landing gear. Suddenly, you hear the scream of metal tearing into the tarmac. You’re rag-dolling around the cockpit while your plane skitters across the runway. A thought flickers across your mind about the gunners below and the other crew: “Whatever has happened to them now, it’s my fault.” When your plane finally lurches to a halt, you wonder to yourself: “How on earth did my plane just crash when everything was going fine? What have I done?”
For all the triumph of America’s new planes and tanks during World War II, a silent reaper stalked the battlefield: accidental deaths and mysterious crashes that no amount of training ever seemed to fix. And it wasn’t until the end of the war that the Air Force finally resolved to figure out what had happened.
To do that, the Air Force called upon a young psychologist at the Aero Medical Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio. Paul Fitts was a handsome man with a soft Tennessee drawl, analytically minded but with a shiny wave of Brylcreemed hair, Elvis-like, which projected a certain suave nonconformity. Decades later, he’d become known as one of the Air Force’s great minds, the person tasked with hardest, weirdest problems—such as figuring out why people saw UFOs.
For now though, he was still trying to make his name with a newly minted PhD in experimental psychology. Having an advanced degree in psychology was still a novelty; with that novelty came a certain authority. Fitts was supposed to know how people think. But his true talent is to realize that he doesn’t.
When the thousands of reports about plane crashes landed on Fitts’s desk, he could have easily looked at them and concluded that they were all the pilot’s fault—that these fools should have never been flying at all. That conclusion would have been in keeping with the times. The original incident reports themselves would typically say “pilot error,” and for decades no more explanation was needed. This was, in fact, the cutting edge of psychology at the time. Because so many new draftees were flooding into the armed forces, psychologists had begun to devise aptitude tests that would find the perfect job for every soldier. If a plane crashed, the prevailing assumption was: That person should not have been flying the plane. Or perhaps they should have simply been better trained. It was their fault.
But as Fitts pored over the Air Force’s crash data, he realized that if “accident prone” pilots really were the cause, there would be randomness in what went wrong in the cockpit. These kinds of people would get hung on anything they operated. It was in their nature to take risks, to let their minds wander while landing a plane. But Fitts didn’t see noise; he saw a pattern. And when he went to talk to the people involved about what actually happened, they told of how confused and terrified they’d been, how little they understood in the seconds when death seemed certain.
The examples slid back and forth on a scale of tragedy to tragicomic: pilots who slammed their planes into the ground after misreading a dial; pilots who fell from the sky never knowing which direction was up; the pilots of B-17s who came in for smooth landings and yet somehow never deployed their landing gear. And others still, who got trapped in a maze of absurdity, like the one who, having jumped into a brand-new plane during a bombing raid by the Japanese, found the instruments completely rearranged. Sweaty with stress, unable to think of anything else to do, he simply ran the plane up and down the runway until the attack ended.
Fitts’ data showed that during one 22-month period of the war, the Air Force reported an astounding 457 crashes just like the one in which our imaginary pilot hit the runway thinking everything was fine. But the culprit was maddeningly obvious for anyone with the patience to look. Fitts’ colleague Alfonse Chapanis did the looking. When he started investigating the airplanes themselves, talking to people about them, sitting in the cockpits, he also didn’t see evidence of poor training. He saw, instead, the impossibility of flying these planes at all. Instead of “pilot error,” he saw what he called, for the first time, “designer error.”
The reason why all those pilots were crashing when their B-17s were easing into a landing was that the flaps and landing gear controls looked exactly the same. The pilots were simply reaching for the landing gear, thinking they were ready to land. And instead, they were pulling the wing flaps, slowing their descent, and driving their planes into the ground with the landing gear still tucked in. Chapanis came up with an ingenious solution: He created a system of distinctively shaped knobs and levers that made it easy to distinguish all the controls of the plane merely by feel, so that there’s no chance of confusion even if you’re flying in the dark.
By law, that ingenious bit of design—known as shape coding—still governs landing gear and wing flaps in every airplane today. And the underlying idea is all around you: It’s why the buttons on your videogame controller are differently shaped, with subtle texture differences so you can tell which is which. It’s why the dials and knobs in your car are all slightly different, depending on what they do. And it’s the reason your virtual buttons on your smartphone adhere to a pattern language.
But Chapanis and Fitts were proposing something deeper than a solution for airplane crashes. Faced with the prospect of soldiers losing their lives to poorly designed machinery, they invented a new paradigm for viewing human behavior. That paradigm lies behind the user-friendly world that we live in every day. They realized that it was absurd to train people to operate a machine and assume they would act perfectly under perfect conditions.
Instead, designing better machines meant figuring how people acted without thinking, in the fog of everyday life, which might never be perfect. You couldn’t assume humans to be perfectly rational sponges for training. You had to take them as they were: distracted, confused, irrational under duress. Only by imagining them at their most limited could you design machines that wouldn’t fail them.
This new paradigm took root slowly at first. But by 1984—four decades after Chapanis and Fitts conducted their first studies—Apple was touting a computer for the rest of us in one of its first print ads for the Macintosh: “On a particularly bright day in Cupertino, California, some particularly bright engineers had a particularly bright idea: Since computers are so smart, wouldn’t it make sense to teach computers about people, instead of teaching people about computers? So it was that those very engineers worked long days and nights and a few legal holidays, teaching silicon chips all about people. How they make mistakes and change their minds. How they refer to file folders and save old phone numbers. How they labor for their livelihoods, and doodle in their spare time.” (Emphasis mine.) And that easy-to-digest language molded the smartphones and seamless technology we live with today.
Along the long and winding path to a user-friendly world, Fitts and Chapanis laid the most important brick. They realized that as much as humans might learn, they would always be prone to err—and they inevitably brought presuppositions about how things should work to everything they used. This wasn’t something you could teach of existence. In some sense, our limitations and preconceptions are what it means to be human—and only by understanding those presumptions could you design a better world.
Today, this paradigm shift has produced trillions in economic value. We now presume that apps that reorder the entire economy should require no instruction manual at all; some of the most advanced computers ever made now come with only cursory instructions that say little more than “turn it on.” This is one of the great achievements of the last century of technological progress, with a place right alongside GPS, Arpanet, and the personal computer itself.
It’s also an achievement that remains unappreciated because we assume this is the way things should be. But with the assumption that even new technologies need absolutely no explaining comes a dark side: When new gadgets make assumptions about how we behave, they force unseen choices upon us. They don’t merely defer to our desires. They shape them.
User friendliness is simply the fit between the objects around us and the ways we behave. So while we might think that the user-friendly world is one of making user-friendly things, the bigger truth is that design doesn’t rely on artifacts; it relies on our patterns. The truest material for making new things isn’t aluminum or carbon fiber. It’s behavior. And today, our behavior is being shaped and molded in ways both magical and mystifying, precisely because it happens so seamlessly.
I got a taste of this seductive, user-friendly magic recently, when I went to Miami to tour a full-scale replica of Carnival Cruise’s so-called Ocean Medallion experience. I began my tour in a fake living room, with two of the best-looking project staffers pretending to be husband and wife, showing me how the whole thing was supposed to go.
Using the app, you could reserve all your activities way before you boarded the ship. And once on board, all you needed was to carry was a disk the size of a quarter; using that, any one of the 4,000 touchscreens on the ship could beam you personalized information, such which way you needed to go for your next reservation. The experience recalled not just scenes from Her and Minority Report, but computer-science manifestos from the late 1980s that imagined a suite of gadgets that would adapt to who you are, morphing to your needs in the moment.
Behind the curtains, in the makeshift workspace, a giant whiteboard wall was covered with a sprawling map of all the inputs that flow into some 100 different algorithms that crunch every bit of a passenger’s preference behavior to create something called the “Personal Genome.” If Jessica from Dayton wanted sunscreen and a mai tai, she could order them on her phone, and a steward would deliver them in person, anywhere across the sprawling ship.
The server would greet Jessica by name, and maybe ask if she was excited about her kitesurfing lesson. Over dinner, if Jessica wanted to plan an excursion with friends, she could pull up her phone and get recommendations based on the overlapping tastes of the people she was sitting with. If only some people like fitness and others love history, then maybe they’ll all like a walking tour of the market at the next port.
Jessica’s Personal Genome would be recalculated three times a second by 100 different algorithms using millions of data points that encompassed nearly anything she did on the ship: How long she lingered on a recommendation for a sightseeing tour; the options that she didn’t linger on at all; how long she’d actually spent in various parts of the ship; and what’s nearby at that very moment or happening soon. If, while in her room, she had watched one of Carnival’s slickly produced travel shows and seen something about a market tour at one her ports of call, she’d later get a recommendation for that exact same tour when the time was right. “Social engagement is one of the things being calculated, and so is the nuance of the context,” one of the executives giving me the tour said.
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It was like having a right-click for the real world. Standing on the mocked-up sundeck, knowing that whatever I wanted would find me, and that whatever I might want would find its way either onto the app or the screens that lit up around the cruise ship as I walked around, it wasn’t hard to see how many other businesses might try to do the same thing. In the era following World War II, the idea that designers could make the world easier to understand was a breakthrough.
But today, “I understand what I should do” has become “I don’t need to think at all.” For businesses, intuitiveness has now become mandatory, because there are fortunes to be made by making things just a tad more frictionless. “One way to view this is creating this kind of frictionless experience is an option. Another way to look at it is that there’s no choice,” said John Padgett, the Carnival executive who had shepherded the Ocean Medallion to life. “For millennials, value is important. But hassle is more important, because the era they’ve grow up in. It’s table stakes. You have to be hassle-free to get them to participate.”
By that logic, the real world was getting to be disappointing when compared with the frictionless ease of this increasingly virtual world. Taken as a whole, Carnival’s vision for seamless customer service that can anticipate your every whim was like an Uber for everything, powered by Netflix recommendations for meatspace. And these are in fact the experiences that many more designers will soon be striving for: invisible, everywhere, perfectly tailored, with no edges between one place and the next. Padgett described this as a “market of one,” in which everything you saw would be only the thing you want.
The Market of One suggests to me a break point in the very idea of user friendliness. When Chapanis and Fitts were laying the seeds of the user-friendly world, they had to find the principles that underlie how we expect the world to behave. They had to preach the idea that products built on our assumptions about how things should work would eventually make even the most complex things easy to understand.
Steve Jobs’ dream of a “bicycle for the mind”—a universal tool that might expand the reach of anyone—has arrived. High technology has made our lives easier; made us better at our jobs, and created jobs that never existed before; it has made the people we care about closer to us. But friction also has value: It’s friction that makes us question whether we do in fact need the thing we want. Friction is the path to introspection. Infinite ease quickly becomes the path of least resistance; it saps our free will, making us submit to someone else’s guess about who we are. We can’t let that pass. We have to become cannier, more critical consumers of the user-friendly world. Otherwise, we risk blundering into more crashes that we’ll only understand after the worst has already happened.
Excerpted from USER FRIENDLY: How the Hidden Rules of Design Are Changing the Way We Live, Work, and Play by Cliff Kuang with Robert Fabricant. Published by MCD, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux November 19th 2019. Copyright © 2019 by Cliff Kuang and Robert Fabricant. All rights reserved.
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A Tesla Cybertruck Mishap, a Massive Data Leak, and More News
Hackers are stealing and Elon is squealing, but first: a cartoon about subscription dreams.Here’s the news you need to know, in two minutes or less.Want to receive this two-minute roundup as an email every weekday? Sign up here!Today’s NewsMeet the Tesla Cybertruck, Elon Musk’s Ford-fighting pickup truckTesla CEO Elon Musk last night unveiled his newest…
Hackers are stealing and Elon is squealing, but first: a cartoon about subscription dreams.
Here’s the news you need to know, in two minutes or less.
Want to receive this two-minute roundup as an email every weekday? Sign up here!
Meet the Tesla Cybertruck, Elon Musk’s Ford-fighting pickup truck
Tesla CEO Elon Musk last night unveiled his newest baby, an all-electric pickup called the Tesla Cybertruck. He demonstrated that it can take a sledgehammer to the door with nary a scratch, and he also accidentally demonstrated that it can’t take a ball to the window. But behind the showmanship and Elon’s audible disbelief at the onstage mishap is a truck with a 500-mile range and the torque that comes from an electric motor. It represents an important new market expansion for Tesla. Now it just has to actually put the darn thing into production.
1.2 billion records found exposed online in a single server
Hackers have long used stolen personal data to break into accounts and wreak havoc. And a dark web researcher found one data trove sitting exposed on an unsecured server. The 1.2 billion records don’t include passwords, credit card numbers, or Social Security numbers, but they do contain cell phone numbers, social media profiles, and email addresses—a great start for someone trying to steal your identity.
Fast Fact: 2025
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How Wily Teens Outwit Bathroom Vape Detectors
Last spring, students at Hinsdale Central High School discovered six vaping detectors in bathrooms and locker rooms around campus. About 20 miles southwest of Chicago, Hinsdale Central has been battling on-campus vaping for years. Administrators tried making students take online courses if they were caught with ecigarettes; they talked to law enforcement; the Village of…
Last spring, students at Hinsdale Central High School discovered six vaping detectors in bathrooms and locker rooms around campus. About 20 miles southwest of Chicago, Hinsdale Central has been battling on-campus vaping for years. Administrators tried making students take online courses if they were caught with ecigarettes; they talked to law enforcement; the Village of Hinsdale even passed an ordinance that would make it easier for officers to ticket minors caught with the devices. To no avail. And the detectors? Students simply ripped them off the walls.
Ecigarettes, which are easy to conceal and, until recently, came in a dazzling array of sweet, fruity, and dessert flavors, are hugely popular among teenagers. A recent study found that 28 percent of high schoolers and 11 percent of middle schoolers frequently vape. So schools across the country are spending thousands of dollars to outfit their campuses with vaping detectors, only to find that the devices can’t stand up to wily teens and that policing student behavior isn’t the same as permanently changing it.
Like smoke detectors, vape detectors are relatively unintrusive. They don’t even record video or audio—they just register the chemical signature of vaping aerosol, then send an email or text alert to school officials.
Some schools say they’re a useful deterrent. A district in Sparta, New Jersey, started off with two detectors and is planning to install more. Freeman School District in Washington installed detectors a few weeks ago. “They’ve been very effective, and we’re glad we have them,” says superintendent Randy Russell, who noted that the detectors already helped catch one young vaper in the act.
But at Hinsdale, even before the teens subjected them to blunt force trauma, the devices hadn’t lived up to expectations. “By the time we get there the kids are gone,” says Kimm Dever, an administrator at Hinsdale Central. Dever says the devices also went off randomly, and administrators couldn’t tell which kids were vaping and which just happened to be in the bathroom when the devices alerted.
Revere Schools in Bath, Ohio, reported similar problems. Revere spent around $15,000 to install 16 detectors in its middle and high schools at the beginning of the school year. Parents were thrilled, but administrators rarely made it to the bathroom in time to catch the vapers mid-puff. “It was like chasing ghosts,” says Jennifer Reece, a spokesperson for the school district. In theory, school officials could consult footage from hallway cameras to triangulate which students were in the bathroom when the detectors went off. “That also takes up time, and we don’t always have that type of time” Reece says.
Revere bought detectors with grant money from the state Attorney General’s Office. Now, Reece often gets questions from other school districts about the devices. “If they don’t have grant money I don’t know if it’s worth [the cost],” she says.
If vaping has become the cool thing to do among students, then buying vape detectors is the big trend for school districts. Derek Peterson, the CEO of Soter Technologies, which makes the Flysense detector that Revere installed, says the company is fielding about 700 orders a month. “We have more schools coming to us than we know what to do with,” he says. IPVideo, which makes a number of cameras and other gadgets for schools, sells a Halo detector that also claims to distinguish between THC and nicotine vapor. The detectors can integrate with school camera systems so it’s easier for administrators to figure out which students are in the bathroom, and both companies’ detectors cost roughly $1,000 a piece. Flysense charges an additional annual fee.
The sensors are chemical detectors that go off when the levels of certain chemicals in the room change. Most schools say they do sense the vapor and that they’ve caught students because of them. But kids are clever. Some exhale into their backpacks or sleeves, where the aerosol dissipates before wafting up to the detector. Other kids resort to AP physics–level subterfuge. They exhale into the toilet and flush, creating a vacuum that sucks the aerosol into the pipes. “There’s nothing we can do about that,” says Peterson. “There’s no sensing that could ever change the laws of physics.”
The problem is that detectors alone can’t change students’ behavior. It’s important for schools to analyze their goals, says Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, a developmental psychologist at Stanford who studies teen vaping. Vape detectors might help catch offending kids so they can be punished, she says, but “if the goal is to prevent and stop, vape detectors are not the way to go.”
Peterson agrees and is already getting in on the education angle, offering a #NoVaping package that includes brochures, posters, and suggestions for class presentations.
Between 2017 and 2019, the California Department of Justice distributed more than $12 million to California school districts trying to deter vaping through a number of measures including installing detectors, hiring school resource officers, and running educational programs.
One of those districts was Las Virgenes Unified, which serves around 11,500 students northwest of Los Angeles. In October 2018, Las Virgenes spent half of its grant, some $50,000, to install Flysense detectors at its two high schools and three middle schools. “The technology is good. They work,” says superintendent Dan Stepenosky. But he combines the detectors with other measures. When students are caught vaping, they’re sent to a 90-minute meeting with their parents and an addiction counselor. The school dispatched administrators to nearby gas stations, grocery stores, and convenience stores to remind people not to sell ecigarettes to kids under 21. The school even partners with law enforcement to run sting operations on businesses in the community that sell ecigarettes to minors. So far they’ve conducted over 250 operations complete with undercover officers and marked bills.
But the most important element hasn’t been the sting operations, the crackdowns on local retailers, or the detectors. “The most impactful has been the education piece,” says Stepenosky. The district holds seminars for parents and teachers, and it hired extra deans to focus on student wellness and included information about ecigarettes in school curricula.
These strategies are comprehensive, and they demand a lot of resources. One school in South Dakota raised money from the local community to buy its sensors. Other school districts are suing Juul, blaming the company’s marketing for creating a new generation of nicotine-addicted kids. Those districts hope to get payouts that will alleviate the huge financial burden of running addiction counseling and education programs. Stepenosky received over a million dollars from the California Department of Justice, and he’s already applying for more funding for next year.
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