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The Internet Looks Back at 2008

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The internet as we know it was built by, and is populated with, people who are just obsessive-compulsive enough to appreciate a good, ranked top ten list. The turning over of every calendar year is a fine excuse to indulge in an orgy of list-making, as we sum up the previous year and see if there are some lessons we can learn for the new year.

Politics

The news in 2008 was dominated by the US presidential election. Now that the dust has settled somewhat, we can look back at memorable quotes to recall those golden moments, or take another look at the political ads we thought we'd never want to see again. We can go back and find out who broke the stories we remember about the campaign. You can even relive the campaign in comic form. Or, if you are so inclined, take another look at the videos that influenced the electorate. Year-end reviews even come in song and in LOLcat form!

News

250mugyear.jpgIn other news, websites made lists of what they specialize in. The Smoking Gun posted the most memorable mug shots of the year. A couple of those ended up in the most embarrassing photos of the year. Consumerist listed their most disgusting stories. You'll also find a list of the oddest travel stories of 2008. The top crime stories are listed, as well as stupid criminals. Environmental stories made headlines in 2008, as well as the people behind them.

Oh, but we're just getting started! Continue reading for more lists of 2008.

Tech

250iphone.jpgThe world of technology had a pretty good year, judging from the number of year-end lists. Read about the past year's top technology breakthroughs, the biggest technology stories, or significant trends in technology. In some stories, technology news intersected with politics. 2008 may be remembered as the year the geeks took over -or at least that's the way geeks would like to remember it. There were some really disappointing video games and some brilliant gadgets released over the year. All in all, it was a good year for hi-tech products, although there were still some stupid ones.

Sports

250phelps.jpg2008 saw plenty of sports action at the Olympics, where Michael Phelps emerged as the #1 athlete, but he wasn't the only star. We'll always remember the golden moments in Beijing because there are plenty of Olympic photographs. Many sites listed the top sports moments of 2008: AskMen, the Chicago Tribune, and the Houston Press, among others. Each ranking is different. See a large gallery of great sports photographs from 2008 courtesy of Sports Illustrated. Then there are the more bizarre sports lists, such as the most embarrassing football moments and the top sports-related arrests.

Science

250spiral-art-web.jpgScience gives us plenty of year-end lists. Science magazine named the top ten scientific breakthroughs of 2008 and ScienceNow listed their most-read articles of the year. And science lists get very specific for each field. National Geographic listed the top ten archaeological finds as well as the top ten dinosaur and fossil finds of 2008. In biology, read about the top ten new organisms of the year. New Scientist tells us about a year in the quantum world. And then there's the top ten medical stories. Astronomy gave us many amazing stories; here are the top five. You can also see some wonderful astronomy pictures from 2008, whether you want a collection of ten or fifty.

Entertainment

250joker.jpgIt's a tradition to list the best songs, albums, movies, and books every year, even before the internet age. Those lists are basic, and the internet gives us the expanded versions, with the most overlooked albums, the biggest musical flops, funniest music videos of the year, and even the hottest hip-hop wives and girlfriends of 2008. There are lists of movies that made the most money, worst films, independent films, and foreign films. For TV, you'll find plenty of lists of the bad things on the tube, and if you look hard, you may find a list or two about the best of TV.

People

250newman.jpgWe don't know yet who was born to be famous in 2008, but we remember those who left us. You'll find lists of famous people who died, not-so-famous people who died, overlooked people who died, musicians who died, and inventors who died this past year. Also see a list of 15-minute celebrities and celebrities to snark at from 2008. And don't forget to vote in the loser of the year poll.

Online

250matt.jpgThe internet is nothing if not introspective. Many sites and blogs post a list of their best stories at the end of the year. Jon Swift posted everyone else's best story, limited to one post per blogger. But videos are what we spent the most time looking at. You'll find tons of 2008 viral video countdowns. Some edited them into a single video. Some took reader votes. Some listed five, nine, ten, or even thirty (but mostly ten). And they are all different! There were thousands of videos produced in 2008, but the one most watched last year was quite a bit older, as seen in this top five countdown from ABC.
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In case you are looking for lists that aren't mentioned here, you might try TIME's Top Ten Everything of 2008, or the daddy of all lists of annual lists from Filmoculous. Those should keep you busy for a while.

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NASA // Public Domain
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Space
On This Day in 1962, NASA Launched and Destroyed Mariner 1
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NASA // Public Domain

On July 22, 1962, NASA launched the Mariner 1 probe, which was intended to fly by Venus and collect data on its temperature and atmosphere. It was intended to be the first interplanetary craft—the first time humans had sent a space probe to another world. Unfortunately, NASA aborted the mission 293 seconds after launch, destroying the probe in the Atlantic. What happened?

First off, a bit of history. Mariner 1 was based on the pre-existing Block 1 craft used in the Ranger program, which was aimed at gathering data on our moon. Those early Ranger probes didn't do so well—both Ranger 1 and Ranger 2 suffered early failures in orbit. Mariner 1 was a modified version of the Ranger design, intended for a much longer mission to another planet. It lacked a camera, but had various radiometers, a cosmic dust detector, and a plasma spectrometer—it would be capable of gathering data about Venus, but not pictures per se.

The two previous Ranger missions had used basically the same launch system, so it was reasonably well-tested. The Ranger probes had made it into orbit, but had been unable to stabilize themselves after that.

Mariner 1 launched on the evening of July 22, 1963. Its Atlas-Agena rocket was aided by two radar systems, designed to track data on velocity (the "Rate System") and distance/angle (the "Track System") and send it to ground-based computers. By combining that data, the computers at Cape Canaveral helped the rocket maintain a trajectory that, when separated, would lead Mariner 1 to Venus.

Part of the problem involved in handling two separate radars was that there was a slight delay—43 milliseconds—between the two radars' data reports. That wasn't a problem by itself. The Cape computer simply had to correct for that difference. But in that correction process, a problem was hiding—a problem that hadn't appeared in either of the previous Ranger launches.

To correct the timing of the data from the Rate System—the radar responsible for measuring velocity of the rocket—the ground computer ran data through a formula. Unfortunately, when that formula had been input into the computer, a crucial element called an overbar was omitted. The overbar indicated that several values in the formula belonged together; leaving it out meant that a slightly different calculation would be made. But that wasn't a problem by itself.

The fate of Mariner 1 was sealed when the Rate System hardware failed on launch. This should not have been a fatal blow, as the Track System was still working, and Ground Control should have been able to compensate. But because that overbar was missing, calculations on the incoming radar data went wonky. The computer incorrectly began compensating for normal movement of the spacecraft, using slightly incorrect math. The craft was moving as normal, but the formula for analyzing that data had a typo—so it began telling Mariner 1 to adjust its trajectory. It was fixing a problem that didn't exist, all because a few symbols in a formula weren't grouped together properly.

Mariner 1's rocket did as it was told, altering its trajectory based on faulty computer instructions. Looking on in horror, the Range Safety Officer at the Cape saw that the Atlas rocket was now headed for a crash-landing, potentially either in shipping lanes or inhabited areas of Earth. It was 293 seconds after launch, and the rocket was about to separate from the probe.

With just 6 seconds remaining before the Mariner 1 probe was scheduled to separate (and ground control would be lost), that officer made the right call—he sent the destruct command, ditching Mariner I in an unpopulated area of the Atlantic.

The incident was one of many early space launch failures, but what made it so notable was the frenzy of reporting about it, mostly centered on what writer Arthur C. Clarke called "the most expensive hyphen in history." The New York Times incorrectly reported that the overbar was a "hyphen" (a reasonable mistake, given that they are both printed horizontal lines) but correctly reported that this programming error, when coupled with the hardware failure of the Rate System, caused the failure. The bug was identified and fixed rapidly, though the failed launch cost $18,500,000 in 1962 dollars—north of $150 million today.

Fortunately for NASA, Mariner 2 was waiting in the wings. An identical craft, it launched just five weeks later on August 27, 1962. And, without the bug and the radar hardware failure, it worked as planned, reaching Venus and becoming the first interplanetary spacecraft in history. It returned valuable data about the temperature and atmosphere of Venus, as well as recording solar wind and interplanetary dust data along the way. There would be 10 Mariner missions in all [PDF], with Mariner 1, 3, and 8 suffering losses during launch.

For further reading, consult this Ars Technica discussion, which includes valuable quotes from Paul E. Ceruzzi's book Beyond The Limits—Flight Enters the Computer Age.

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Brown University Library, Wikipedia/Public Domain
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This Just In
Lincoln’s Famous Letter of Condolence to a Grieving Mother Was Likely Penned by His Secretary
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Brown University Library, Wikipedia/Public Domain

Despite his lack of formal schooling, Abraham Lincoln was a famously eloquent writer. One of his most renowned compositions is the so-called “Bixby letter,” a short yet poignant missive the president sent a widow in Boston who was believed to have lost five sons during the Civil War. But as Newsweek reports, new research published in the journal Digital Scholarship in the Humanities [PDF] suggests that Lincoln’s private secretary and assistant, John Hay, actually composed the dispatch.

The letter to Lydia Bixby was written in November 1864 at the request of William Shouler, the adjutant general of Massachusetts, and state governor John Albion Andrew. “I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming,” it read. “But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.”

Unknown to Lincoln, Bixby had actually only lost two sons in battle; the others had deserted the army, were honorably discharged, or died a prisoner of war. Nevertheless, word of the compassionate presidential gesture spread when the Boston Evening Transcript reprinted a copy of the 139-word letter for all to read.

Nobody quite knows what happened to Bixby’s original letter—some say she was a Confederate sympathizer and immediately burnt it—but for years, scholars debated whether Hay was its true author.

During Hay’s lifetime, the former secretary-turned-statesman had reportedly told several people in confidence that he—not Lincoln—had written the renowned composition, TIME reports. The rumor spread after Hay's death, but some experts interpreted the admission to mean that Hay had transcribed the letter, or had copied it from a draft.

To answer the question once and for all, a team of forensic linguists in England used a text analysis technique called n-gram tracing, which identifies the frequency of linguistic sequences in a short piece of writing to determine its true author. They tested 500 texts by Hay and 500 by Lincoln before analyzing the Bixby letter, the researchers explained in a statement quoted by Newsweek.

“Nearly 90 percent of the time, the method identified Hay as the author of the letter, with the analysis being inconclusive in the rest of the cases,” the linguists concluded.

According to Atlas Obscura, the team plans to present its findings at the International Corpus Linguistics Conference, which will take place at England’s University of Birmingham from Monday, July 24 to Friday, July 28.

[h/t Newsweek]

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