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We lost, we laughed, we cried: An April Fools’ post mortem

Photo by jonhoward.

Some of you liked "We Lost," our April Fools' item on green leaders throwing in the towel, but some of you didn't.

"April Fail," the comments read. "Stupidest idea ever. This is too big to joke about." "This scared the shit outta me until I realized the date. Don't do this to us." Over on Twitter, @BobbyHertz complained, "Awful April Fools' Joke, bad taste ... trivializes the fight for Climate Justice." Some readers reported tears.

Though we certainly didn't set out to make anyone cry, we'll never apologize for our attempts at humor here at Grist. We know some will work better than others, and one person's laugh is another one's gaffe. Chacon a son Grist.

Read more: Inside Grist

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Three questions about energy for Maggie Koerth-Baker

Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing, the popular group-blog where she gets to link to stories about booze-based semiconductors or the science of farting. But her writing has always displayed two traits that give it power far beyond BoingBoing's geeky precincts: She's got a knack for explaining really complex science in an unintimidating way, along with a hardheaded Midwestern pragmatism that's tough to dismiss.

She brings both those qualities to Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before it Conquers Us, her new book about the choices we face in continuing to power our world without wrecking it. It's a fast, filling read that will arm you with a deeper understanding of the precariousness of our electricity grid, the distinction between efficiency and conservation, and the pros and cons of each of the energy sources we imagine as our savior. Koerth-Baker plants herself firmly in the climate-activist camp, but she knows how to talk across the political divide, and, refreshingly, her perspective is rooted in the heartland and draws examples from places like Kansas and Minnesota more than California and New York.

We've got an excerpt of Before the Lights Go Out for you, which looks at the relative importance of individual choice and policymaking in reforming our energy system. I collared Koerth-Baker via email to answer some questions the book raised for me about the climate debate, the possibility of dialogue, and the tenuousness of hope.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Grist spreads our new design’s wings

Our Grand Rolling Redesign of Grist continues today with some significant changes to the website that I wanted to run down for you.

We're taking the new page design that we introduced here on my blog (and more recently on David Roberts') and extending it throughout the Grist site. We're also introducing a new simplified Grist List design to match the new look. It's all about readability, flexibility -- and, yes, shareability (a tough word to love, but how else to say it?).

We've got lots of other new plans cooking too, including a new home page, new site navigation, and more. For the moment, you've got the current Grist home page design working alongside the new-model Grist article and post pages. This isn't because we're ambivalent; it's because we're trying to do all this right -- carefully, and in stages, and with plenty of time to correct course as needed.

So let us know what you think -- in comments below, by email, on Twitter or Facebook, via carrier pigeon or quadcopter, whatever works for you. We'll try to listen to it all.

Read more: Inside Grist

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Health-care reform: Collective solutions and the individualist tantrum

The Supreme Court's marathon on health-care reform means that the pundits are going to be going all health care, all the time this week. And if reports from the court's arguments this morning are to be trusted, and the Supremes toss Obama's health program out the window, then we're going to be talking about this all year.

But before the legal weeds engulf us, it's worth stepping back to recall the wider issues at stake.

Faced with the programs and rules that make up a moderate, private-enterprise-friendly health-care reform program like Obamacare, the Red State id is throwing an individualist tantrum. Like the Tea Partiers shouting "Hands off my Medicare" to the government that runs the program, today's conservatives are deeply confused, and they are flailing in every direction at once. Mandates are unconstitutional! Save Medicare by ending it! Down with the death panels! Beware bureaucrats bearing broccoli!

This fight seems to be about mandates and dollars. But what's at stake is even more basic: Are we ever again going to be able to apply big collective solutions to our big collective problems?

Read more: Politics

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The new Climate Desk: Getting hotter

The Climate Desk is a journalistic collaboration that Grist has been a part of since its inception in 2010, when a bunch of media outlets (in addition to us, that would be the Atlantic, Mother Jones, Slate, Wired, the Center for Investigative Reporting, and PBS's Need to Know) decided that covering climate change was, in a sense, Bigger than All of Us.

Since then Climate Desk has served as both a clearing-house for the in-depth coverage of climate issues that all the partners are doing -- and also a testing ground for new approaches to telling the climate story.

Today the Climate Desk unveils a spiffy new website and begins a new phase of its existence, with a focus on producing original multimedia stories. Today, for instance, there's a great video about what's really behind President Obama's push to fill our gas tanks with algae.

Also, the Climate Desk collaborators are delighted to welcome the Guardian as our newest member!

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Help Grist build a Fast Green News Machine

We're cooking up a new project here at Grist, and I'd like to ask for your feedback and your help spreading the word about it.

When I came to Grist, as someone who was admittedly not an environmental-news specialist, I started looking around for a website or service that would show me, at a glance, a frequently updated selection of the trending headlines, news items and commentaries in the field. I was used to having this kind of tool at my disposal from my work in tech news, where Techmeme has been filling this need since 2005, and in political news, where Techmeme's sister site Memeorandum has long done the same.

These sites are driven largely by machine -- in other words, algorithms scan a flood of links and RSS items and tweets and draw up a portrait of the news and the conversation around it from a set of carefully selected sources. Human editors intercede at times to fix stuff the algorithm got wrong or to override its judgment with a more nuanced human-editorial hand. It's cyborg journalism -- not a replacement for original reporting, to be sure, but a highly useful adjunct.

I looked, but as far as I could tell, a green version of Techmeme didn't seem to exist. That left us with only one choice: We'd have to build it ourselves. And we're planning to!

When we're up and running, you'll be able to come to Grist at any hour of the day or night and scan a list of headlines and links to the newest and most important stories on the Web about sustainability, climate, cities, food, and other green issues. What news stories are brewing? What opinion pieces and blog posts are raising a ruckus? What are people talking about on Twitter and Facebook?

Our plan is to write the necessary software to power the back end of this service for Grist, and simultaneously share that software under open-source license for other people and organizations to use for their own needs. So the same technology that we're using at Grist could, say, get put to use by science bloggers or activists for human rights in China.

To make this work possible, we've submitted this idea to the Knight Foundation's Knight News Challenge, and this is where we could use your help.

If you head on over to the Tumblr site where the Knight people are collecting and posting applications, you can read our pitch. If you have a comment for us, you can post it there. And if you like our idea, you can like it there too -- or reblog it if you're a Tumblr type yourself.

Knight wants to see what kind of support we can drum up from you, our community. So if our Fast Green News Machine sounds like something you'd want to use and you want Grist to create it, give us a hand. Thanks!

Read more: Inside Grist

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Mr. Daisey and the fact factory

Here's some facts:

  • Mike Daisey is a dramatic monologuist who traveled to Shenzhen, China, and created a successful one-man show based on the trip, The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.
  • The show details harsh working conditions in China at the Foxconn factories that make Apple's iPhones and iPads.
  • Daisey performed a shortened version of the show, "Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory," for a This American Life broadcast in January.
  • Yesterday, This American Life announced that it was retracting the show.
  • It turns out that Daisey's monologue, which seemed to document labor abuses firsthand, was full of fabrications, and that Daisey had lied to This American Life's fact-checkers in the course of preparing the show.
  • Last night, This American Life broadcast and posted an utterly fascinating self-investigation about what happened and how it screwed up.

***

Stories have consequences. Today, the most effective journalists find and tell stories that make a difference in the world.

All stories are shaped by their creators. The notion that anyone can just "tell a story straight" is a delusion. I made an effort just now, above, to tell the Daisey story neutrally in a handful of bullet points. But everyone who knows the story and reads this summary will have questions about what bits I put in and which ones I left out, why I picked certain words and not others. And by the end I couldn't resist telling you how fascinating I thought the This American Life postmortem was.

So there's no such thing as a neutral story. But there is such a thing as an honest story.

Read more: Media

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Hack or be hacked: Al Gore and Sean Parker take on the system

"Our democracy has been hacked," Al Gore told a packed house at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas, Monday night. "It's not working the way it should."

It was an odd image to choose in front of this crowd, which is more likely to think "hacker" means heroic tinkerer than digital thief. Indeed, by the end of the evening, Gore's partner on stage -- Napster cofounder and Facebook billionaire Sean Parker -- was sounding a rallying cry for "hackers, engineers and progressive thinkers" to take back the U.S.A. from moneyed interests that are subverting democracy.

So let's just say this was not an event with a finely tuned message.

Gore hadn't taken the stage at SXSW to rally the crowd for a climate-change fix. His climate pitch came as an almost comically understated aside: "By the way, I need your help to solve the climate crisis. That's another story, but I wanted to get that in there."

Instead, Gore had come to urge the festival's assembled entrepreneurs and geeks to help retool the financial structure of politics, so that elected officials didn't have to spend all their time "begging on their knees" for dollars from rich contributors in order to pay for TV ads.

Read more: Politics

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No end in sight for the GOP’s holiday-from-reality primaries

Please, someone: make it stop!

There was a brief window of hope a couple of days ago that Mitt Romney's victories in Tuesday's "Super" set of primaries would be potent enough to sweep the field of his rivals and allow him, finally, to don that front-runner mantle he has been lunging for all season. But as the dust clears from tonight's mixed bag of primary results -- including a late-night squeaker of an Ohio win for Romney -- it's apparent that his campaign still has a long run ahead of it.

That's reason for green-minded people to add their own laments to the wails of Romney's ardent supporters. No, there's little reason to believe Romney's a closet climate hawk. But his latest failure to close the deal with his own party does mean that we're going to spend another few months arguing about God and contraceptives instead of talking about how to fix the big fails in our future.

On some level, of course, progressives and environmentalists can't help taking some satisfaction in the Republican Party's internecine bloodletting. The joke always used to be that Democratic primaries were circular firing squads, whereas the disciplined GOP obeyed Maximum Leader Reagan's "eleventh commandment" not to attack one another.

Forgive them, Ronald, for this year, they have sinned a whole lot.

But schadenfreude only gets you so far. While the Republican race hogs the headlines and eats up the news cycles, it's not as though the real problems facing our next president, whoever it is, are politely pausing in their tracks.

The national debates we need to hold won't wait. How do we accomplish the shift away from fossil fuels that we've known we're going to have to make at least since the 1970s? How do we build an economy that isn't stuck in the boom-bust cycle of an unsustainable perpetual-growth machine? How do we agree on a set of basic services worth supporting with our taxes, and how do we make sure those taxes are shared more fairly?

The Republican candidates won't discuss these issues on their own as long as they're still competing for the favor of their party's radicals. It's high time this silly season of deficit-inflating tax cuts, Iran-nuke scare-mongering and $2.50-a-gallon gasoline-price pandering draws to its close.

Each week that Romney fails to clinch his nomination is another week of wasted rhetoric and delayed reckoning. Despite their lack of enthusiasm for their front-runner, Republicans know deep down that he's the only candidate they've got with even a remote shot at unseating President Obama. There isn't going to be a late-entrant upset. There isn't going to be a brokered convention. Sarah Palin is not going to descend from the proscenium on the back of a polar bear and rescue her adoring flock.

So come on, red America: Can't we get on with it already?

Read more: Election 2012

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Earth to Apple: Think different about profits

What are profits and how do you tally them?

The entire history of accounting exists to answer that question. Fortunately, we don't have to.

But the piece we ran last week on Apple's profits -- "Why your iThings don't have to be weCruel" -- started a vigorous discussion on the subject among readers.

Our contributor Gar Lipow wanted to make the case that the production of Apple's popular gadgets isn't inherently unsustainable and doesn't have to exploit overseas labor. Several commenters objected to Lipow's statement that "The single greatest cost component of both the iPhone and the iPad is neither labor nor materials, but profits." They noticed that the pie charts we published broke down material costs and labor costs for the iPad and iPhone by country but slapped the label "Apple profits" over what seemed to be the entire sum of Apple's revenue for these products -- without taking into account its overhead, design costs, personnel costs, and so on.