Every day it blows my mind how Motherboard has grown in the last six years, and 2016 has been our most interesting yet. If you'll let me gush a bit, I'm so proud of what the Motherboard team accomplished this year: We traveled more miles to talk to more people to report more stories in more formats that were read and watched by more people than any point in our history.
I spend a lot of time these days thinking about noise in media, about the thousands of people who publish tens of thousands of stories every day, many of which are the same stories done over and over. At the same time, everyone's time and attention is stretched razor thin, and keeping up with that deluge of information is so beyond impossible that I get a little bit itchy just thinking about it.
It's a fitting thought for a post about our favorite Motherboard stories from the year, as the best stories we did this year were ones that you couldn't find elsewhere. From scoops to features to profiles to anything else, our ideal story is always a unique one, and that's true of this list.
We start from a pretty simple premise—your time and our time on this Earth is fleeting, so we'd rather not waste it—and then ask ourselves why it's even worth covering a story at all. Ideally, this results in us publishing stories that are more consistently valuable to you: stories from around the world that are more interesting, entertaining, or informative, and with less of the fluff that'll waste your time.
This year it worked more often than not, and I hope you'll check out some of the work we're most proud of as we gear up for the new year. We've got a lot more coming for 2017, and I'd love for us to all join together to keep discussing what we all want the future to be. (Speaking of which, don't hesitate to send me a note about all things Motherboard: I'm at firstname.lastname@example.org.) Thanks for reading.
—Derek Mead, Editor-in-chief
John Lawson guides us to Top of the World from the north, from Remote Control. Photo: MOTHERBOARD
From the Top of the World, you can see it all — and it’s from this spot just on the US side of the Mexican border that polleros guide pollos across. Motherboard’s series on burner phones and human trafficking in the borderlands examines the dead-simple tactic of using dirt-cheap cell phones to guide people across the border.
Yukako Fukushima gives Mike's prosthetic pinkie a check up. Image: Emiko Jozuka
Members of the Japanese mafia, or yakuza, undergo a ritualistic form of self-amputation to atone for mistakes: When they break the rules, they chop off a piece of the little finger to atone. When they leave this life behind, they carry the stigma on their hands—a burden pinkie-prosthetics maker Yukako Fukushima is working to lift.
Wu Yulu, aka "Robodad," pictured behind one of his creations/children. Image: Aurelien Foucault
It’s been a good year for holding your loved ones close, even if they’re Wu Yulu, better known as “Robodad.” He built 63 robots, mainly humanoids, for his own entertainment. “They are closer to me than my actual children in some ways,” he told us on a visit to his shop in Beijing’s Tongzhou district.
An obsession with longevity, beauty and perfection doesn’t come cheap. Could dropping hundreds of dollars on pre-packaged, Instagram-worthy meals fix our inner conflicts when it comes to food? Motherboard visited a meal planning startup, an NYC school garden, and our own kitchens to figure it out.
The biggest name in hacking and hacked-politics this year was “Guccifer 2.0,” the person or persons claiming responsibility for hacking the DNC and stealing documents, then mocking and denying the implication that this was a Russian move. In fact, it was more likely a disinformation or deception campaign by Russian state-sponsored hackers. This hack changed everything.
One of humanity’s oldest diseases continues to be one of our most devastating. In our series “Malaria’s Last Stand,” staff writer Kaleigh Rogers traveled to Tanzania to learn how city development and social status can mean the difference between life malaria-free and death by the disease. “The mosquitoes don’t have borders,” said Dr. Yadon Kohi, a Major General with the TPDF who works on the military’s malaria program. “They don’t know these borders. They’re everywhere.”
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the country’s federal police force, intercepted and decrypted over a million Blackberry messages as part of an investigation into the mafia known as “Project Clemenza.” And they did so using Blackberry’s own “global encryption key,” a single method by which anyone’s encrypted BBMs can be accessed and read, as this damning investigation reveals.
A porter leaves Everest base camp. Photo: Daniel Oberhaus
The first people to summit Mount Everest did so in 1953, hauling hefty radio equipment with them to reach the outside world in an emergency. Nowadays, making the world’s highest climb also means experiencing the same pings and push-notifications as if you were in New York. Motherboard’s Daniel Oberhaus did the climb, tweeted from base camp, and learned how E-verest came to be.
The biggest tech companies in the world are all pursuing research into artificial intelligence, a fact that is not lost on the European Union. New EU legislation is set to take effect in 2018 that could enable citizens to demand answers if an automated, AI-driven process messes up their life in some way. But according to leading experts, this may simply not be possible with more advanced forms of AI.
A herd of hippos swimming at Hacienda Nápoles. Image: Flickr/FICG.mx
The next time you’re bingewatching Narcos on Netflix, remember that Pablo Escobar’s life and actions had profound consequences on those around him—and not just humans, either. More than 50 hippopotamuses (hippopotami?) he owned now roam freely near his estate in Medellin, causing trouble for local residents and threatening the Colombian ecosystem.
Among the many controversies that engulfed the world’s largest social networking company this year, one stands out: Facebook’s removal of a reposting of Nick Ut’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1972 photograph of a little girl fleeing a US napalm attack during the Vietnam War. The removal of the photo, which was flagged as inappropriate for nudity by Facebook’s content moderation systems, triggered an impassioned backlash among journalists in Europe and across the world. Though Facebook later reinstated the photo, the message remains: a single company has tremendous power, perhaps more power than any company in history, to control the dissemination of information to a global audience.
Image: Brian Castner
The best view of climate change’s impact on our earth might be from the seat of a canoe. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, and the people living along the Mackenzie River’s fishing camps and villages on the way to the Arctic Ocean feel the heat.
Earlier this year, headlines picked up on a viral rumor: Apple recycled $40 million worth of gold last year from from recycled iPhones. Even more outrageous, the fake news story claimed that Liam, Apple’s recycling robot, did it all. The truth is very different, and we crunched the numbers on this claim to bust the myth entirely.
Canada’s Liberal government owed part of its rise to power to its promises to support for the scientific community. But with early-career scientists being alienated in favor of safer bets — senior-level pros who had the benefit of funding when they themselves were young — there’s more than frustration. There’s an uncertainty that the whole pillar might topple.
Putting a huge game into the grabby hands of gaming fans involves a lot of sacrifice. Twelve-hour days, months of seeing precious little of other people, trying not to kill your game developing colleague when you pass them in the halls. The makers of Gears of War 4 discuss crunch time, bug-punting, and how they eventually stop “shaking the jello.”
The Standing Rock Sioux and protestors' encampment at the Dakota Access Pipeline site. Image: Ibrahim Cetindemir
Embodying their role as “water protectors,” members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe have spent months camped out near the border of North Dakota and South Dakota to protest the constriction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, a nearly $4 billion project from company Texas Energy Partners to deliver crude oil across the Midwest, but which critics believe would threaten the local water supply. The protests became something of a cause célèbre in the fall of 2016, but were initially not well covered by mainstream American media. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe instead turned to their own independent wireless network, Facebook, and other online live streaming tools to broadcast violent crackdowns by local police. Reporter Paul Spencer spoke with members of the tribe working on their telecommunications infrastructure for this enlightening and hopeful story.
The surprise election of Donald J. Trump as US President in November was followed by questioning from around the world, particularly concerning how President Trump—who’s never held elected office—would govern. Looking at the men Trump has named to serve on key positions in his cabinet, a major commonality can be found: climate change skepticism and outright denialism. The records of Trump’s cabinet appointees don’t bode well for national and international efforts to rein-in greenhouse gas emissions, reduce reliance on fossil fuels, nor to avoid the worst effects of catastrophic climate change on Earth.
Israeli technology firm Cellebrite has gained notoriety in recent years for its phone-cracking software, which is used by law enforcement agencies and governments around the world, including by repressive regimes to persecute activists and dissidents. As reporter Joseph Cox discovered in the course of a deep investigation, the regional police agencies of at least 20 states across the US have collectively spent millions of dollars acquiring Cellebrite’s phone-cracking tech to use on suspects’ phones, raising questions about accountability, privacy, and security in the digital age.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was supposed to be the first glorious spinoff from the main Star Wars franchise under Disney. And while it was indeed a thrilling adventure, Sarah Jeong couldn't help but notice that the entire plot hinged around a clumsy data transfer issue. In fact, looking deeper, it appears the entire Star Wars cinematic universe is full of crappy storage formats. In a year full of wonderful and terrible things, geeking out about a real-life issue hilariously transposed into a fictional universe is probably the best way to end things, for now.
With additional descriptions by Sam Cole and Carl Franzen.
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from Here Are the Best Motherboard Stories of 2016