Blackout tracker tells you where the electric grid is down

The other day, someone asked me what the most surprising thing was that I learned while writing Before the Lights Go Out, my book about America's electric infrastructure and the future of energy. That's easy. The most surprising thing was definitely my realization of just how precarious our all-important grid system actually is.

There are two key things here. First, the grid doesn't have any storage. (At least, none to speak of.) Second, the grid has to operate within a very narrow window of technical specifications. At any given moment, there must be almost exactly as much electricity being produced as there is being consumed. If that balance is thrown off, by even a fraction of a percent, you start heading toward blackouts. There are people working 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week, making sure that balance is maintained on a minute-by-minute basis.

That's a long way of explaining why I find Blackout Tracker so fascinating. Put together by Eaton, a company that makes products that help utilities manage different parts of the electric grid, this little web app shows you where the electric grid has recently failed, and why. The Blackout Tracker doesn't claim to include all blackouts, but it gives you an idea of the number of blackouts that happen, and the wide range of causes blackouts can have. For instance, in the picture above, you can see that Wichita, Kansas, had a blackout earlier this week that was related to a heatwave—hot weather meant more people turned on their air conditioners in the middle of the day, and, for whatever reason, there wasn't enough electrical supply available to meet that demand. The result: Blackout.

One major flaw: Most of the time Blackout Tracker can't tell you how long a blackout lasted. But that's probably got more to do with what information the utility companies are willing to release than anything. Still, I think this program is a nice primer for people who aren't aware of all the hard work that goes on behind the scenes to make sure electricity remains flowing, nice and steady.

Check out Blackout Tracker (Also available for the UK, Canada, and Australia/New Zealand)

Learn more about how the grid works (and doesn't work) in my book, Before the Lights Go Out.

I don't remember where I picked this link up from, so if you're the one who sent it to me, please give me a little tap and I'll make sure you are properly thanked!

Sarah Robles: The strongest woman in America lives on $400 a month

Meet Sarah Robles. She can lift as much as 570 pounds. In last year's weightlifting world championships, she bested every other American—both female and male. Sarah Robles is going to the Olympics in London this summer. But at home, in the United States, she lives on $400 a month.

Track star Lolo Jones, 29, soccer player Alex Morgan, 22, and swimmer Natalie Coughlin, 29, are natural television stars with camera-friendly good looks and slim, muscular figures. But women weightlifters aren't go-tos when Sports Illustrated is looking for athletes to model body paint in the swimsuit issue. They don’t collaborate with Cole Haan on accessories lines and sit next to Anna Wintour at Fashion Week, like tennis beauty Maria Sharapova. And male weightlifters often get their sponsorships from supplements or diet pills, because their buff, ripped bodies align with male beauty ideals. Men on diet pills want to look like weightlifters — most women would rather not.

Meanwhile, Robles — whose rigorous training schedule leaves her little time for outside work — struggles to pay for food. It would be hard enough for the average person to live off the $400 a month she receives from U.S.A. Weightlifting, but it’s especially difficult for someone who consumes 3,000 to 4,000 calories a day, a goal she meets through several daily servings of grains, meats and vegetables, along with weekly pizza nights. She also gets discounted groceries from food banks and donations from her coach, family and friends — or, as Robles says, “prayers and pity.”

She's not alone. Holley Mangold, the other American woman who'll be doing Olympic weightlifting in the same division, works part-time for a BBQ restaurant and lives in a friend's converted laundry room.

In fact, while the biggest stars in the most-watched events can pick up million-dollar endorsement deals, the truth is that most Olympic athletes live on extremely modest incomes. That's especially true in countries like Canada, which lacks the kind of government support system you find in places like China and Russia, but also lacks the plethora of large and small private endorsement deals that are available to some (but not all) American Olympians.

I think this is interesting. Every time the Olympics come up, I hear friends and talking heads alike arguing that the amateur athlete no longer exists. Everybody in the Olympics is really a professional and that makes it all less exciting—or so goes the conventional wisdom. The reality is that, for the most part, we're talking about people who make big sacrifices to be able to compete at a high level in a sport they're obsessed with for its own sake, not because they're getting rich. Sponsorships, rather than tainting the sport, do also help some athletes know where their next meal is coming from. After reading some of these articles, I think the vast majority of Olympic athletes probably fall squarely into Happy Mutant territory.

Read the rest of Buzzfeed's profile of Sarah Robles

• Read the New York Times' profile of weightlifter Holley Mangold
• Ivestopedia: Olympic Athletes—Back to Reality
• Wired: Olympic Runner Fights to Change Sponsorship Rules
• ABC News: How Can Olympic Athletes Find a Real Job?
• Time Magazine: Keeping Afloat (which contrasts the profits of the U.S. Olympic Committee with the small incomes that support many Olympic athletes)

F&*#ing Internet, how does it work?

For the next 60 years or so—basically, until everyone roughly my age has died off—former Alaskan senator Ted Stevens will be widely remembered (and mocked) for once describing the Internet as "a series of tubes".

But here's the thing. It's easy to make fun of Ted Stevens. It's harder (much harder) to explain quickly and at a relatively simple level—for lay people with no tech background—what actually happens when they call up a web page.

That's why Greg Boustead and the nice folks at the World Science Festival put together this short video, explaining the basics of the Internet, specifically the basics of packet switching. The video should help the average person understand the Internet just a little better and it has been run by several experts for accuracy, Boustead says.

I have to admit that when I had to screen it for "father of the Internet" Vint Cerf, who invented this process, I was more than a little nervous, certain he would pick it apart. When he replied with "This is so good - can I please use it to explain the concept of packets at public lectures," needless to say, I was over the moon.

So, the Internet. It's not a big truck. It's not a series of tubes. It's more like a bus full of tourists.

Video Link

Letting someone die for their faith: Moving essay by photojournalist who documented snake handler's death

Randy Wolford made the news this week. A pastor in a Christian sect that promotes holding and carrying venomous snakes as a way of expressing faith in God, Wolford died from a snake bite. Just like his father had.

Lauren Pond, a photojournalist with the Washington Post, was at the church service when Wolford was bitten and she stayed with him and his family, taking photos, during the long hours before Wolford's death. In the wake of the experience, Pond has written a thoughtful essay about both journalistic and personal ethics. When a journalist documents someone's death like this, what should be done with the photos? If someone refuses medical help that you know they need, are you under obligation to help them anyway ... or to respect their decisions?

Some of the people who attended last Sunday’s service have struggled with Mack’s death, as I have. “Sometimes, I feel like we’re all guilty of negligent homicide,” one man wrote to me in a Facebook message following Mack’s death. “I went down there a ‘believer.’ That faith has seriously been called into question. I was face-to-face with him and watched him die a gruesome death. . . . Is this really what God wants?”

That’s a good question.

I know many photojournalists have been in situations similar to mine. Pulitzer Prize winner Kevin Carter photographed an emaciated Sudanese child struggling to reach a food center during a famine — as a vulture waited nearby. He was roundly criticized for not helping the child, which, along with the disturbing memories of the events he had covered and other factors, may have contributed to his suicide. As photojournalists, we have a unique responsibility to record history and share stories in as unbiased and unobtrusive a way as possible. But when someone is hurt and suffering, we have to balance our instincts as professionals with basic human decency and care.

Read the rest at the Washington Post

See Lauren Pond's photos of Randy Wolford's final hours

What's your diameter breast height?

Scientists measure trees for a wide variety of reasons. When I visited the Harvard Forest last week, I measured them as part of studying carbon sequestration by plants. But you can't just go out into the woods with any old tape measure and expect to collect some significant data.

That's because where you measure the tree matters. If you want to compare the diameters of two trees, you have to make sure you're measuring them in the same place. If you measured one tree at the wide base and the other further up the trunk, where trees usually get narrower, the comparison wouldn't mean much.

That's where diameter breast height (DBH) comes in. It's a way of standardizing the measuring process.

As the name implies, DBH is meant to be a diameter measurement of a tree trunk taken at, roughly, breast height on an adult. Of course, where exactly "adult breast height" is varies greatly from person to person. So DBH has been set to a standard height—1.4 meters in the United States.

In a research forest, you'll often see some kind of marker on the trees showing where this official "breast hight" is, so people can quickly move through the woods, taking diameter measurements, without having to measure vertically on each tree. In some cases, DBH is marked with yellow spray paint. In others, metal bands. These metal bands actually help measure diameter, too. Set with springs, the bands expand as the tree does, so all researchers have to is measure the distance between two dots on the band and see how far apart the dots have moved since last time.

Read all the Dispatches from Harvard Forest

How to: Collect 6,000-year-old swamp mud

Photo:Eric Niiler

I spent last weekend in the Harvard Forest, participating in hands-on science experiments as part of the Marine Biological Laboratory's science journalism fellowship. The goal was to give us an inside look at what, exactly, scientists actually do. When you're reading a peer-reviewed scientific research paper, where did all that data come from?

Sometimes, it comes from a swamp.

On Saturday, we walked into the Forest's Blackgum Swamp to take core samples out of the muck. There was no standing water in this swamp, at least not when we visited. But I wouldn't call the ground "solid", either. Instead, it was more like a moss-covered sponge. With every step, the ground beneath me would sink and smoosh. In some of the lower patches, that meant a shoe-full of water. In other spots, it was just a disconcerting sensation.

Taking core samples involves a little machine that's like a cross between a shovel and a straw. Made of heavy, solid metal, it has an extendable handle on one end. At the other, there's a hollow, cylindrical chamber that can be opened and closed by turning the handle counterclockwise. You drive the chamber into the ground, turn the handle, and then pull it back out. Once everything is back on the surface, you can open the chamber and see a perfect cylinder of earth, pulled up from below. That cylinder is removed from the chamber, wrapped in plastic wrap, labeled, and put in a long wooden box. Then you do all of that again, in 50 centimeter increments, until you hit stone. We got to about 475 centimeters—15 feet deep. By that point, you'll have collected 1000s of years of layered sediment.

This is not as easy as it sounds.

Read the rest

Scientific research in a forest

I spent Friday, Saturday, and Sunday in the Harvard Forest—the most-studied forest in the world. It's an interesting place, with a complicated history. Originally forest, it was clear-cut in the decades following European settlement. By 1830, less than 90% of this part of Massachusetts had any forest left. But that trend had already begun to reverse itself by 1850, spurred by urbanization and cheaper, more-efficient farming in the "West" (i.e., Ohio).

What is now the Harvard Forest was farmland for many years. Then it was used for tree plantations. Then it became forest again, studied first by Harvard University's forestry program in the early 20th century, and then by ecologists and other environmental scientists beginning in the 1980s. Today, these 3,500 acres are home to dozens of individual studies and long-term, interdisciplinary projects led by scientists from more than 15 universities and institutions.

This particular study, led by Dr. Jerry Melillo of the Marine Biological Laboratory, is studying the nitrogen and carbon cycles of forests, and how those cycles are affected by rising soil temperatures. They're trying to understand how climate change will affect the growth of wild plants, and how it will affect those plants' ability to absorb and store carbon dioxide. I'll get more in-depth on this study later. Right now, I thought that this site offered a really great view of what a research forest looks like—it's a chance to see detail-oriented science and wild nature interacting and overlapping.

Read the rest

A photo of a photo of Soyuz

NASA's Image of the Day is always awesome, but I particularly love this image from behind-the-scenes of the Pretty Space Photography Industrial Complex.

The Soyuz rocket is seen in the monitor of a video camera moments before Soyuz Commander Gennady Padalka and flight engineers Joseph Acaba and Sergei Revin arrived to board the rocket at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan for their flight to join their crew mates already aboard the International Space Station. The craft successfully launched at 11:01 p.m. EDT, Monday, May 14, 2012.

Image Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Via Colin Schultz

How To: Get an amazing photo from the flanks of Mt. Everest

Image: Chhiring Sherpa provides the lighting for a photograph of Swiss mountaineer Ueli Steck. Photo by Grayson Schaffer, used with permission of Outside.

Hint: It involves a lot of sherpas.

Grayson Schaffer, an editor for Outside magazine, is currently embedded at Base Camp on Mt. Everest, covering several teams attempting to climb the mountain's West Ridge—which Outside describes as "a route nearly as many climbers have died on as have summitted." He's sending back stories and photos from the tallest mountain in the world. But that presents a problem. The kind of photography that's used in a glossy magazine is not the kind of photography that is easy to produce with a team of one in a bare-bones climbing camp.

In a recent post, Schaffer explains the tools he's using to get his shots and shows us how he's wrangled random sherpas, climbers, and camp staff into assisting him. It's a neat bit of media behind-the-scenes.

The key piece of gear that makes it all possible is the new Pro-B3 1200w/s AirS battery pack. It's the lithium-powered update to the older 7B power pack, and it delivers consistent flashes even in subzero temperatures at 17,500 feet. We've got two of these with a set of spare battery inserts but have yet to run down in a day's shooting. To charge these beasts, we've been using a basic GoalZero solar setup, which, thanks to the Pro-B3's built-in trickle-charging capability, can top off a charge in a sunny afternoon.

Read Schaffer's post on taking photos on Mt. Everest

Follow Schaffer's daily reporting on the West Ridge ascent

Image: A yak inspects Grayson Schaffer's camera gear boxes. Photo by Grayson Schaffer. Used with permission of Outside.

Where electricity comes from

Electricity is generated at power plants. You know that already. But to really understand how it gets to your house—and why you can count on it getting there reliably—you have to understand that our electric system is more complicated than it looks. The electric grid isn't just about you and your connection to a power plant. There are lots of thing that have to happen behind the scenes to make sure your refrigerator stays cold and your lights turn on.

One of the key components in the system are grid control centers—places where technicians manage electric supply and electric demand. This is important. In order for the grid to operate without blackouts there must always be an almost perfect balance between supply and demand. The grid doesn't really include any electrical storage, so that balance has to be maintained manually—on a minute-by-minute basis—by grid controllers who work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. This isn't the best way to make a grid work, but it's what we've done since the earliest days of electricity.

In the April issue of Discover, I take readers on a tour of one of these grid control centers.

1. A River Runs Through It
 Power plants generate electricity, but they do not create anything from scratch. Instead, generators take electrons, which normally orbit the nucleus of an atom, and force them to move independently through the grid’s closed path. When too many electrons build up or their numbers in the system (monitored here) fall too low, you get a total loss of power: a blackout.

Read the rest of story at Discover

Meet the grid controllers and learn more about the inner workings of our electric system in my book, Before the Lights Go Out.

Beautiful photos from the Hubble Space Telescope

At the Brain Pickings blog, Maria Popova has some amazing images, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope during its 22 years of operation. I love this one. It's such a great reminder of the time scales of space—the remnants of things that happened 1000 years ago are still moving through the cosmos, even while humans have died and been born and moved on to other obsessions.

One other thing to keep in mind as you're looking at these photos—what you see does not always represent exactly what outer space looks like. An astronaut wouldn't see a red ribbon undulating among the stars. One of these Hubble photographs are put together from multiple images taken by different parts of the telescope. Humans colorize the images to make details stand out. In this case, making the stream of gas red allows us to see it and understand its meaning. In that way, a colorized Hubble image is actually more useful and more educational than a 100% accurate photo would have been.

See the rest of the photos at Brain Pickings

Learn more about how Hubble images are made.

Learn about the process of colorizing Hubble images, including why specific colors are chosen.

Inside Santa's science workshop

On Saturday, I spoke at an Earth Day Tweetup at the Science Museum of Minnesota. As part of the event, the museum took tweeters on a behind-the-scenes tour, including the exhibit workshop. (The Science Museum of Minnesota is one of the few science museums in the United States that designs and builds all its own exhibits from scratch.) Also on the tour: Science House, a nifty resource center for Minnesota teachers. That's where this photo comes from.

Science House is a separate, detached building, set in the Museum's "backyard", that's open to teachers during after-school hours and during the Summer. It's home to a vast array of science paraphernalia. Besides this collection of skulls and plastic biology models, there's also racks of microscopes and chemistry glassware, a bookshelf full of solar system models, a regiment of Van de Graaf generators, and a full human skeleton dangling from a hook in the ceiling. There's also dozens and dozens of intriguing red plastic tubs lined up on shelves. The tubs are full of equipment, tools, and books that aren't available in every school. Teachers can check out any of these things from the museum, like you'd check out a book from a library.

See more pictures from the tour at my Google+ account.

Find out more about Science House, and how teachers can use the space.

Where weather predictions come from

Weather predictions are one of those things that we see every day, but don't often think about how they're created. The video explains how the process works in the United States, where the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration collects and compiles the data that's shared with hundreds to TV channels and weather websites.

Video Link

Via Scientific American

Inside the Smithsonian's meteorite lab

This is a very cool, behind-the-scenes peek at how researchers at the Smithsonian deal with the problem of studying meteorites without contaminating said meteorites.

This is a big issue. We study meteorites to learn things about what has happened and is happening outside our own planetary system. If, in the process of that, we end up covering the samples with the detritus of Earth, then the message gets muddled. If you're studying a meteorite, you want to be reasonably sure that you're not accidentally studying dust or bacteria from this planet. Clean rooms like the one in this video make it easier to examine these samples in a way that is less destructive.

Learn more about the Smithsonian's collection of Antarctic meteorites.

Video Link

"My Favorite Museum Exhibit": Where exhibits come from

Earlier this week, I challenged readers to send me photos of their favorite museum exhibits and specimens, preferably from museums that might go overlooked in the tourism pantheon. Over the next few days, I'll be posting some of these submissions, under the heading, "My Favorite Museum Exhibit". Want to see them all? Check the "Previously" links at the bottom of this post.

This is actually a behind-the-scenes thing, submitted by Larry Clark, an editor at Washington State University's magazine. Clark made some videos about how curators at WSU’s Conner Museum prepare specimens for display.

In this video, curator Kelly Cassidy prepares a screech owl specimen. It is worth noting that this process involves flesh-eating beetles. Yes. Really.

Previously in this series:



"My Favorite Museum Exhibit": Two nuclear bombs, slightly dented