Bankrupted by Beanie Babies

[Video Link] Chris Robinson produced a short documentary about his family's "sordid past with beanie babies." The tulipomania-like obsession started when Chris' brother wanted to get a Beanie Baby when he was four, and his father got hooked. He spent $100,000 on 15,000 to 20,000 Beanie Babies and Beanie Buddies, and they now sit on shelves and in boxes, nearly worthless.

(Ty Warner, the inventor of Beanie Babies, has a net worth of $2.5 billion, according to Forbes.)

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!

Fun with trains

For those of us who saw Mark's post on the train simulator game and thought, "Man, I want that," here's a couple more bits of train-related goodness.

First, back in February, I rode Amtrak's Empire Builder from Seattle to Minneapolis and did my best to live-tweet the whole, multi-day adventure. It's an amazing route, full of buttes, mountains, and some truly dramatic prairie landscapes. This video by YouTube user domtak doesn't quite capture how great the view out the window of the Empire Builder truly is, but it does give you a nice overview of how varied the geography of the United States really is. This 6-minute video covers a whole Portland-to-Minneapolis journey on the train. (With thanks to Thanland!)

Second, I didn't realize this until my friend Andrew pointed it out to me, but did you know that Reddit has a Train Porn page? Prepare to lose approximately five days of your life.

Videos of Japanese trains and train toilets

This playlist from YouTube user hideyasann features more than 100 short clips of trains and train restrooms in Japan. Most of the train videos are of trains pulling into a station, or changing tracks. Most of the toilet videos emphasize the flushing mechanisms—of which there are a surprising variety.

As a rail fan, it's interesting to see what so many different Japanese stations and trains look like. And there's no narration, so it's also interesting to watch these very matter-of-fact clips and think about the visual context they trigger in your head. Men in suits waiting on a platform for a train to change tracks—that's a scene from a serious drama about the inner psychology of a businessman. A shakey clip where the videographer walks towards an arriving train, and a station agent, while breathing heavily—that's totally a scene from a horror movie. I'm honestly not sure what to make of all the toilets.

It's also kind of awesome to just think about the level of obsession that went into this playlist. I'm not really sure what hideyasann is trying to document—Train variety? Train cleanliness? Is he or she just collecting the same footage from as many trains as possible? Whatever the goal, you can clearly see the love and fascination here. There's totally a Happy Mutant at work.

Playlist Link

Via goldensloth on Submitterator

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.

Crowd-funded epic journey across America by train

Last Monday, I spoke to the Boston Skeptics about energy, infrastructure, and my new book, Before the Lights Go Out. After that talk, I met Erik "Skippy" Sund, a guy who is about to embark on an amazing adventure that he's hoping to crowd-source.

Erik is planning on traveling across the United States by train. His itinerary starts in Boston, heads south to Florida, west to Texas, up to Colorado and west to California, north to Washington, and the back East, through Illinois and and Ohio. It's not a commuter trip. It's not even like my recent train experience—where I chose to choo-choo directly home from a conference in Vancouver. Instead, Erik is trying to recreate the American travel epic, a story as old as the founding of this country.

The impetus behind this trip consists of some assumptions about the way we have come to travel the world around us.


1. Traveling is simply the utilitarian process of getting from point A to point B and is not regarded significantly as an event in itself. I hope to flip this assumption by showing the benefits of choosing a transportation method that encourages a greater interconnectedness with fellow passengers and the environment.
2. We accept that in the United States we have freedom of movement. As a developed country this implies access to a well organized, affordable and user-friendly transportation infrastructure. I intend to explore the infrastructure and see how it affects the lives of travelers. In particular I will be traveling frugally and in a minimalist nature, taking only 2 carry on bags and riding coach.
3. American cultural identity is forever in flux and can only be defined by its point of observation in time through sharing personal stories.

Along the way I will be interviewing people, recording observations and conversations. I hope to collect, curate, circulate, and communicate every detail of this trip. Once the trip is finished I will start process for editing the blog as a book. As soon as that is ready I will post the books as a .pdf available under creative commons licensing to the blog. After that I will be doing a print-on-demand run of the book for interested parties.

A side project on this trip will to be create a series of fictitious travel stories a Crowd Sourced Narrative. This will either be compiled as a novel, a series of short stories, or as a compilation of ideas available for public use.

It's an interesting and ambitious project. Erik thinks he needs about $5000 to make it happen. If you're interested, you can donate to the project through Indiegogo. One of the best rewards comes with a $50 donation: A piece of random, weird, wonderful Americana mailed to you from a whistlestop, somewhere during Erik's travels. Awesome!

Get details about the project and donate at Indiegogo.

Read more on Erik's Posterous, where he's blogging his plans for the trip.

Mathematicians: You must have at least 17 clues to solve Sudoku

A recent mathematics study showed that you have to have at least 17 clues on a Sudoku grid in order for the puzzle to be solvable. You could make the game easier, by adding more clues. But if there are fewer than 17 clues, then the game becomes impossible to solve. In this video, mathematician James Grime explains how the researchers figured this out.

Video Link

Via Grrlscientist and The Guardian

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