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It began with a few small mistakes.
Around 12:15, on the afternoon of August 14, 2003, a software program that helps monitor how well the electric grid is working in the American Midwest shut itself down after after it started getting incorrect input data. The problem was quickly fixed. But nobody turned the program back on again.
A little over an hour later, one of the six coal-fired generators at the Eastlake Power Plant in Ohio shut down. An hour after that, the alarm and monitoring system in the control room of one of the nation’s largest electric conglomerates failed. It, too, was left turned off.
Those three unrelated things—two faulty monitoring programs and one generator outage—weren’t catastrophic, in and of themselves. But they would eventually help create one of the most widespread blackouts in history. By 4:15 pm, 256 power plants were offline and 55 million people in eight states and Canada were in the dark. The Northeast Blackout of 2003 ended up costing us between $4 billion and $10 billion. That’s “billion”, with a “B”.
But this is about more than mere bad luck. The real causes of the 2003 blackout were fixable problems, and the good news is that, since then, we’ve made great strides in fixing them. The bad news, say some grid experts, is that we’re still not doing a great job of preparing our electric infrastructure for the future.
Read the rest
When blogger Melissa moved to Canada in 2008, she identified as a conservative, Republican evangelical Christian. Part of that identity included a deep mistrust of Canada's universal healthcare system. Before the move, she was terrified that she was going to place that would limit her medical choices, tell her what to do with her body, and push abortions (paid for with her money) on any woman who was unsure of what to do about an unwanted pregnancy. She was afraid of losing her freedom. She was afraid of losing her religious liberty.
But that's not what she found in Canada.
Instead, Melissa slowly came to realize that the Canadian system was actually more family friendly than the American one. In Canada, there is significantly less demand for abortion. In Canada, she says, it's easier to be a stay at home parent, and it's easier to ensure the health of your children. She also found that abortion wasn't pushed (merely offered as one of many options) and that Catholic hospitals weren't forced to offer abortions if they didn't want to. Meanwhile, Canada does a better job than we do at balancing their national budget and has far, far, far less national debt.
I started to wonder why I had been so opposed to government mandated Universal Health care. Here in Canada ... People actually went in for routine check-ups and caught many of their illnesses early, before they were too advanced to treat. People were free to quit a job they hated, or even start their own business without fear of losing their medical coverage. In fact, the only real complaint I heard about the Universal Health Care from the Canadians themselves, was that sometimes there could be a wait time before a particular medical service could be provided. But even that didn’t seem to be that bad to me, in the States most people had to wait for medical care, or even be denied based on their coverage. ... The only people guaranteed immediate and full service in the USA, were those with the best (and most expensive) health coverage or wads of cash they could blow. In Canada, the wait times were usually short, and applied to everyone regardless of wealth ... Personally, I never experienced excessive wait times
This story is hitting particularly close to home for me, right now, as I have started to receive bills in the mail for medical costs incurred by my recent miscarriage. The anesthesia for my abortion, alone, ran more than $1500. I have high-deductible insurance (which brought the cost down to about $650) and a health savings account (which allowed me to cover the rest). I'm not in trouble. But I am very, very aware of how lucky and privileged I am in this.
If it weren't for the fact that I'm married to an engineer, I wouldn't have health insurance now. In fact, I probably wouldn't be writing for BoingBoing, because I would never have been able to take the risk of freelancing and leaving any job (no matter how poorly paid or odious) that offered me health insurance. And if I had had the misfortune to have a miscarriage at 7 weeks without the health coverage I have now, I would have incurred medical bills that could have put me in debt for years. Either that, or I would have had to make choices about my miscarriage that would have made the experience significantly worse on my physical health and mental well-being.
I've been successful in my career. But that's not enough. Whatever I've done as a "self-made" lady, I don't deserve to be able to make the right health choices for myself without fear of bankruptcy. Or, rather, I don't deserve it anymore than everyone deserves it. Healthcare without fear shouldn't be something you have to earn by being exceptional. Nothing I've done personally, makes me more special and deserving of being able to take care of my body. And that's the problem with the US health system. It takes basic necessities and treats them as privileges.
In certain parts of the United States (including Birmingham, Alabama) shooting guns into the air is one way that some locals celebrate major holidays, like the 4th of July.
For those of us who didn't grow up with celebratory gunfire, this cultural practice can be difficult to understand—especially given the fact that it is dangerous. Bullets that go up come back down, and they can injure and kill people. It's unclear exactly how risky the practice is. If you're hit by a falling bullet, your chances of death are significantly higher compared to a normal gunshot wound. And a study of celebratory gunfire injuries in Los Angeles turned up 118 victims, including 38 deaths, between 1985 and 1992. But I wasn't able to find a good analysis that put deaths into perspective with shots fired. (So, for instance, for every x shots fired into the air, x number of people are injured. Without that, it's hard to tell whether celebratory gunfire is really, really dangerous or only kind of dangerous sometimes. But either way, when you do it, especially in urban areas, you're taking a risk of killing someone.)
Usually, though, when we talk about celebratory gunfire, we're talking about unorganized huzzahs fired off with impromptu vigor in backyards and at family gatherings. In Cherryville, North Carolina, however, the whole thing is a lot more official ... and safer. Starting at midnight on New Year's Eve, the Cherryville New Year's Shooters go door to door throughout a three-county area singing traditional New Year's shooting songs, and calling residents out to shoot with them. It's a lot like going caroling, but with weaponry. Thankfully, it's all done with blanks these days.
For more than 18 hours, and through three different counties — Gaston, Lincoln, and Cleveland — the shooters follow the route bringing ceremony and good tidings to neighbors. At each stop along the way, a crier recites the “Chant of the New Year’s Shooters,” and then participants fire their muskets, one by one, each loaded with black powder, no bullets allowed. The noise of the musket is thought to drown out evil spirits and bad luck; while the chant — part poem, part speech, and part song — asks for peace and prosperity in the New Year.
Joyce Green sent this story in to me. While she was raised in one of these communities—Shelby, North Carolina—she would like you to know that, "I never wake up on New Year’s day and think, 'I’d better get on down to the nursing home and fire off a couple of shots to bring in the New Year right.'"
Read more about the Cherryville New Year's Shooters
Read more about the dangers of celebratory gunfire that involves real bullets.
The video, made by Mae Ryan for Los Angeles public radio KPCC, traces trash from a burger lunch to its ultimate fate in a landfill. It reminds me of those great, old Sesame Street videos where you got to see what goes on inside crayon factories and peanut butter processing plants. Which is to say that it is awesome.
The process you see here, though, is L.A.-centric, which started me wondering: How much does the trash system differ from one place to another in the United States?
Over the last couple years, as I researched my book on the electric system, I spent a lot of time learning about how different infrastructures developed in this country. If there's one thing I've picked up it's the simple lesson that these systems—which we are utterly dependent upon—were seldom designed. Instead, the infrastructures we use today are often the result of something more akin to evolution ... or to a house that's been remodeled and upgraded by five or six different owners. Watching this video it occurred to me that there's no reason to think that the trash system in place in L.A. has all that much in common with the one in Minneapolis. In fact, it could well be completely different from the trash system in San Francisco.
I'd love to see more videos showing the same story in different places. Know of any others you can point me toward?
Suggested by maeryan on Submitterator
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.