What's wrong with corn ethanol?

We grow a lot of corn in the United States, much of which never sees the inside of a human stomach. In fact, in 2010, something like a quarter of all the corn grown in this country went to ethanol production. That's a massive amount of corn grown for gas tanks. And it's a problem.

The process of growing corn is tremendously energy intensive, and it has some far-reaching drawbacks that threaten the future of vital farmlands in the Midwest. Corn crops provide steady, reliable income for farmers. But the risks likely outweigh those benefits, at least at the quantities in which we now grow corn.

In the spring of 2009, I experienced some of those risks first hand. At Smithsonian.com, you can read a excerpt from Before the Lights Go Out, my book about the future of energy. The excerpt is about Madelia, Minnesota, a small town where local farming advocates are trying to promote a more sustainable cropping system, and a better way to grow biofuels—one that provides incentives for farmers to grow less corn, not more.

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A car that can run on the road or the rails

This customized 1957 Pontiac was used by the Erie Mining Company to transport supervisors up and down the company's 74-mile-long Mainline railroad, which shipped taconite from mines in northern Minnesota to coastal ports and processing facilities on Lake Superior.

Every day, seven 96-car trains full of taconite travel down this rail line. The Pontiac was tricked out to allow it to drive on both roads or on the Mainline rails, themselves, with rail wheels that could be raised or lowered. You can see the rail wheels in the photo below.

Both photos come from my visit to the Lake Superior Railroad Museum in Duluth last month.

Update on the Wisconsin mystery booms

The U.S. Geological Survey says there was an earthquake—a very small, 1.5 magnitude earthquake—in the vicinity of Clintonville, Wisconsin earlier this week. The mysterious booming noises heard in and around that town could be related to the earthquake. Granted, that theory doesn't perfectly fit. But the booms have stopped now, and it's the best idea anybody has.

The war at home: Energy crisis and risk in America

Here are two myths you need to let go of:

The solution to high gas prices is more oil.

Climate change is something that happens to polar bears and people from Kiribati.

The truth is that fossil fuels are extremely useful and valuable. And, by their very nature, the supplies are limited. Likewise, climate change isn't just something that's going happen—it's already taking place, and you can see the effects in your own backyard.

Too often, I think, we talk about the risks of fossil fuel dependence and climate change in ways that make them seem abstract to the very people who use the most fossil fuels and create the most greenhouse gases. That's a problem. There are lots of reasons to care about energy. But I think that fossil fuel limits and climate change are the most pressing reasons. And I think it's incredibly important to discuss those very real risks in a way that actually feels very real.

This isn't about morality, or lifestyle choices, or maintaining populations of cute, fuzzy animals. (Or, rather, it's not just about those things.) Instead, we have to consider what will happen to us and how much money we will have to spend if we choose to do nothing to change the way we make and use energy.

Over at Scientific American, you can read an excerpt from my upcoming book, Before the Lights Go Out. In it, you'll read about the energy risks hanging over the Kansas City metro area—a place that, in many ways, resembles the places and lifestyles shared by a majority of Americans. You've probably never been to Merriam, Kansas. But you can look at Merriam and see what could happen in your hometown.

Merriam isn't a small town. There's nothing really recognizable as a small town central business district. Instead, Merriam's stores and offices are mostly concentrated along two major thoroughfares—Shawnee Mission Parkway and Johnson Drive. These wide, multilane roads are dotted with clusters of shopping centers and big box stores, like necklaces strung with fat pearls. The municipal building and the police station are a couple of nondescript offices that sit off the frontage of Shawnee Mission Parkway, on a ridge overlooking the Interstate. Nothing about that says, "Classic Americana."

Yet Merriam isn't a suburb, either—or an urban city. It's too dense to be the first and not dense enough to be the latter. Merriam has a mixture of house styles. Drive down one street, and you'll see a 1930s bungalow standing shoulder to shoulder with a spare little 1950s Cape Cod. Next to that, there's a 1980s split-level with windows on the front and the back but none on the sides. More than three generations of the American Dream are living here.

It's ironic that Merriam doesn't really fit any of the classic American paradigms, because, quite frankly, most of us have already left those paradigms behind. We talk about this country as if it's full of neatly defined small towns, big cities, and tidy suburbs. In reality, the places where we live are lot mushier than that. Merriam isn't the exception. Merriam is the rule.

Read the rest of this excerpt from Before the Lights Go Out at Scientific American.

Image: Kansas City Photos, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from publicworksgroup's photostream

Maggie speaking Monday afternoon at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Why does electric infrastructure affect our ability to make energy more sustainable? How is the electric grid like a lazy river at the water park? And why should you never, ever go fishing with a salesman? Learn the answers to these questions—and more—when I speak at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on Monday, March 12. My presentation starts at 3:00 pm in room 355 of the Mechanical Engineering Building. It's free, and open to the public. (Can't make it to the speech? You can also find out the answers to these questions by reading my book, Before the Lights Go Out.)

The Grand Forks Herald reviews the new Olive Garden in town

Here's a sentence I never expected to type: You should really read the Grand Forks Herald's review of The Olive Garden.

This is in North Dakota, for those not familiar. With almost 100,000 people in the metro area, it's the third-largest city in the state. It recently got its first Olive Garden and critic Marilyn Hagerty got in ahead of the lunch rush.

The place is impressive. It’s fashioned in Tuscan farmhouse style with a welcoming entryway. There is seating for those who are waiting ...

At length, I asked my server what she would recommend. She suggested chicken Alfredo, and I went with that. Instead of the raspberry lemonade she suggested, I drank water.

She first brought me the familiar Olive Garden salad bowl with crisp greens, peppers, onion rings and yes — several black olives. Along with it came a plate with two long, warm breadsticks.

There are several things to love about this review. For me, it's about the nostalgia. If you grew up in places where Olive Garden and Red Lobster really were the best restaurants in town, you can't help but feel a warm twinge of homesickness reading this. It's not judgement. I can't judge. I chose to go to Applebee's for my fancy high school graduation dinner.

But the best part about this review comes from some background information dug up by intrepid Duluth News reporter Brandon Stahl. In the course of verifying that this was, in fact, a real review, he uncovered something wonderfully upper-Midwestern. First, read the full review. Done that? Great. Now, get this—that was not a positive review of The Olive Garden.

Stahl talked to a former Grand Forks Herald editor who says, "By the way, [Marilyn Hagerty's] regular readers will recognize that as a fairly negative review since she spent a lot more time on the ambience than the food."

Cultural context: It's the difference between a glowing review, and a passive-aggressively negative one.

Via David Brauer

Image: Enjoy the Gift of Italy., a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from herrkrueger's photostream

Woman recalls the hydroelectric power plant her father built in 1922

Before the Lights Go Out is Maggie's new book about how our current energy systems work, and how we'll have to change them in the future. It comes out April 10th and is available for pre-order (in print or e-book) now. Over the next couple of months, Maggie will be posting some energy-related stories based on things she learned while researching the book. This is one of them.

One of the things I loved about researching my book on the future of energy was getting the opportunity to delve a little into the history of electricity. Although I'd heard plenty about the Tesla vs. Edison wars—the "great men doing important things" side of the story—I was pretty unfamiliar with the impact their inventions had on average people, and how those people responded and adapted to changing technology.

What I found in my research was fascinating. I spent a lot of time in the archives at the Wisconsin Historical Society, turning up letters and documents that introduced me to a perspective on history I'd not previously known. I learned about the skepticism and fear that surrounded electricity in the 19th and early 20th century. I found out that many, many of the early electric utilities went bankrupt—unable to make enough money selling electricity to cover the costs of building the expensive systems to produce and distribute it. I learned that, outside the hands of a privileged few geniuses, electric infrastructure and generation was a slapdash affair, focused more on quick, cheap construction than reliable operation—a reality that still affects the way our grid works today.

Last week, I spoke about some of this history, and its impact on our future, at the University of Minnesota. (You can watch a recording of that speech online.) Afterwards, Christopher Mayr, director of development at the U's Institute on the Environment, told me about the video I've posted here. In it, Doris Duborg Hughes, a lifelong Wisconsinite, talks about her father, farmer Rudolph Duborg, and the hydroelectric power plant he and his brother built on Wisconsin's Crawfish River in 1922.

This is a great story about Makers tinkering with "crazy" ideas at a time when very few people knew anything about electricity, and when getting electricity on a farm was a near impossibility. By the 1920s, some electric utilities were beginning to turn a profit ... but only in cities, where population density meant you could spread the cost of infrastructure over a lot of customers. Having electricity on the farm meant building the infrastructure yourself, something few people had the drive (and money) to manage.

Doris Hughes' earliest memories involve her family putting up the men who came to wire the farmhouse. She was a child when the system went in, and that's part of what I like about this story. It's very clearly coming through the filter of childhood. Because of that, we get details like Hughes remembering that she wasn't supposed to turn lights off in the house, during the day or at night, because she was told that doing so might break the system.

Also fascinating: Henry Ford sent men to inspect the Duborg hydroelectric plant, apparently as part of research into a manufacturing scheme very different from the factory system Ford is known for today. In the late 'teens and early '20s, Ford was convinced that he could harness water power to bring electricity to farms, then split the elements of automobile construction among a number of electrified farms in a geographic region. The result (he hoped): More employment in rural communities and an increase in living standards. You can learn a little more about this at the end of the video.

Video Link

What's Occupy Minnesota doing during winter?

It's cold outside in Minnesota (though, not as cold as it usually is), but the Occupy movement has not been idle here. They've been busy occupying a house threatened with foreclosure and saving homeowner Bobby Hull from becoming homeless. Hull says the very public pressure and media exposure provided by Occupy played a major role in convincing his lender to let him renegotiate the mortgage. If you're in Minnesota and your house is at risk, contact Occupy at Occupyhomesmn@gmail.com. (Thanks, Laura!)

Maggie in a silent auction to support Phillips Neighborhood Medical Clinic

This Thursday, I'll be donating my time to support The Phillips Clinic, a free healthcare provider that serves more than 1000 patients in Minneapolis. Come to the Clinic's annual silent auction where you'll be able to bid on awesome items like gift cards, a hot air balloon ride, and a presentation by me! If you win me, I'll come talk to your lab/students/friends/cats about how to better communicate science to the general public. Bidding starts at 6:00 pm, this Thursday, at the University of Minnesota's McNamara Alumni Center.

How to build an art shanty

Earlier this week, Mark told you about a couple of the cool art projects happening on a frozen lake in Minnesota.

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"My Favorite Museum Exhibit": A collection of beloved collections

Full list of posts updated Monday, February 6. This is the final update.

Last week, I asked BoingBoing readers to send me images and stories about your favorite museum exhibits—beloved displays and collections squirreled away in museums that might not have a big profile outside your state or region.

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Reminder: BoingBoing meetup in Minneapolis on Saturday

Twin Cities Boingers will be meeting up this Saturday afternoon. The meetup is ostensibly scheduled around the Art Sled Rally in Powderhorn Park, but will still happen even if there isn't enough snow on the ground for the sleds to, you know, sled.

Emily Lloyd has graciously volunteered her house, across from Powderhorn Park, as the location of the meetup. We'll meet at 3216 10th Ave South at 1:00 — BYOB and a snack to share. Then, at 2:00 (King Boreas willing) we'll cross the street to watch some awesome sledding action!

See you there!

Recall election in Wisconsin: It's probably on

Wisconsinites needed 500,000 signatures in order to authorize a recall election against Governor Scott Walker. They got 1 million.

North Dakota tries to be cool, fails

We all probably had at least one friend who attempted to reinvent themselves after high-school in a way that was so not them that it just made you feel pity. You know what I'm talking about. Like the goody-goody who tried so hard to change their squeaky clean reputation, but would clearly never be a badass cool kid, no matter how many times they told you that they got "sooooo drunk" last weekend.

That's what this ad reminds me of.

Somehow, North Dakota has managed to create a tourism ad that is simultaneously offensively sleazy and desperately uncool. It's trying to make a wink-wink, "women are objects" lad mag joke. But it looks like your really dorky, incredibly square uncle's idea of a wink-wink, "women are objects" lad mag joke.

It's sleaze as designed by people who have no idea what sleaze is supposed to look like. They've just heard about it third-hand from someone who went to Vegas once.

Twin Cities BoingBoing Winter Meetup: January 28

Mark your calendars, Twin Citians. The Powderhorn Park Art Sled Rally is January 28. If you've never been, you're missing out. It's a Happy Mutant-filled fun fest of creatively themed homemade sleds careening down a steep hill, ridden by costumed characters. It's also the perfect way to cure some depth-of-winter blues. Check out the video to see, among other things, a sled shaped like a 20-sided die.

I'll be joining BoingBoing readers for a meetup before this year's rally. Hopefully, you can come! We'll meet at 1:00. Reader Emily Lloyd has graciously volunteered her home, across the street from Powderhorn Park, for the meetup location. Bring what you'd like to drink. Bring a snack to share. At 2:00 or so, we'll walk to the park to watch the sledding. More details are on the BoingBoing Meetup page. See you there!