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An Interview (and book giveaway) with Maggie Koerth-Baker

Maggie Koerth-Baker, the science editor at BoingBoing, has just published an amazing new book called Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before it Conquers Us, about the very hard choices we face in powering our lives without doing ourselves in. It’s adroitly written with wonderful research behind it and some very warm, yet no-nonsense Midwestern charm, as she ties many of the problems our society is facing with personal stories from growing up and living in and around the real farmvilles. We're going to give away TWO autographed copies of the book at the end of the interview, so be sure to read it thoroughly to better your chances of scoring one of them. Believe me: This is a book you want on your shelves, packed with insight into, perhaps, the biggest problem facing the modern world.  

Q: Throughout the book, I found myself becoming incredibly depressed about the future and then, alternately, incredibly optimistic about it. Is this sort of how you felt, both in the research and writing of the book? I mean, talk of doomsday scenarios due to global warming and massive energy shortages can’t be too uplifting to study, yet the realm of possibilities surrounding alternative energy are way exciting to think about, especially as you get further into them. You even write in the book: “I have to admit that when I think about all of the coordination, education, and nonpartisan (not only bipartisan) decision making that needs to happen, I get the urge to go back to bed and hide under the covers.” Have you been on an emotional roller coaster these past couple years working on the book?

A: Oh, definitely. Or, rather, I’m not sure I’d call it an emotional roller coaster, because it’s not linear like that. It’s more like an emotional scrambler. I’d find myself collecting all this information--knowing that every possible solution was going to have downsides and risks, and that the risk of doing nothing were even worse--and then kind of had to sift through it all and figure out a way to talk about it that emphasized both sides of that coin. And that’s hard. There are lots of times when you feel both deflated and optimistic at once. And it really goes against the dominant narratives on energy: Which are either that we don’t need to change anything, or that we need to change and that those changes are inherently ideal things that will have no risks or downsides whatsoever. Both perspectives are wrong.

Q: In the intro, you write: “This is a book about what we’ll have to deal with and the changes that will have to happen, because we really have no other choice.” What does the choice to do nothing result in?

A: The choice to do nothing will result in change. The choice to do nothing is risky, riskier I think than trying to do something even if that something is flawed and imperfect. I can’t emphasize this enough. We have aging infrastructure that wasn’t built in any ideal way to begin with. We have climate change playing out in front of our faces. We have limited supplies of fossil fuels so that, even the stuff we have lots of still--natural gas and coal--are projected to only be enough for 100 or 200 years. (And that’s at current levels of demand. And if you don’t change anything, then demand always goes up.) All those things are happening, whether we ignore them or not. As they play out, they will force changes to the way we use energy, the way we make it, and the way we live. They will force us to spend lots and lots of money. So what we have isn’t a choice between spending a ton of money or not, between changing or not. It’s a choice between different kinds of changes. Do we want the kind of change where we spend money upfront to save it in the long run and have some control over how we address these issues? Or do we want the kind of changes that just happen to us, whether we like them or not, and cost us dearly down the road? I know my answer.

Q: With regard to energy solutions in the future, you write: “Nobody gets everything he or she wants.” Of all the interested parties, who gets most of what s/he wants and who gets the short end of the stick?

A: Depends on the specific thing. There’s not an overall answer to that, because the parties, and what they want, shift and morph depending on what aspects of this you’re looking at. And there is tons of room for reasonable people to disagree and to have to compromise. To give you some big-picture examples of the kind of compromises I’m talking about: If we take action on this, we’re probably going to have energy that is, at least somewhat, more expensive than it is right now. And we’re going to have to figure out how to deal with that so it doesn’t excessively burden the poor. At the same time, if we take action on this--even if we have all the political willpower you could want--we aren’t going to get completely off of fossil fuels. Not in my lifetime, anyway. When I talk about “short term” changes, I’m talking about stuff that happens over 30 or 40 years. That’s the timescale infrastructure works on. You have to change the infrastructure, you can’t just add wind and solar power to what’s already there. So that’s going to take time. And money. And that means we can’t just shut down all our nuclear power and coal power anytime soon. Not if we also want to have reliable electricity supply.

Q:  Talking about our individual efforts to attack the problems (putting solar panels on our roofs, driving hybrids, recycling, etc.) you write: “you can’t do this yourself. Coordinating lots of different solutions on the level of systems, as fast as we possibly can is something that requires a group effort directed by policy, not volunteerism.” So why should we even bother recycling if it doesn’t really make a dent in the big picture?

A: Because it’s a little more complicated than that. One of the things I tried to point out in the book is that policies are important, systems are important. But that doesn’t mean you have to sit around waiting for politicians to act. I think that most of us would agree that we should act out our values. I recycle because I think recycling is important. On my own, I don’t really matter much. The world is not going to end if I miss a week. And it’s not going to be saved if I recycle 10x better than my neighbors. But I recycle, because I believe that it’s important to reduce waste and to reuse what we can. Here’s why I think systems are important, though. It’s easy for me to recycle. Minneapolis has curb-side recycling. Every other week, I just stick the bags out there and somebody takes care of it. That’s not the case in a lot of places in America. In fact, I was just talking to some friends in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where most of the city has curb-side recycling, but the neighborhood they live in--which is poor and pretty rough--doesn’t. Their neighbors don’t recycle. I do recycle. That’s not because I’m a better person. It’s because recycling is easy for me, and it’s really, really hard for someone who doesn’t have curb-side recycling, and maybe doesn’t even have reliable personal transportation to drive to a recycling center with all their stuff. That’s why systems matter. Obviously, big changes are made up of individuals making small changes. But the systems and the policy influence who can make those small changes, how easy it is to make those small changes, and what those small changes cost you. Individual decisions don’t matter at all, except as a way to play you personal beliefs. BUT, if you can aggregate those individual decisions, enable huge groups of people to do small changes all at once, then what individuals do does matter. Policy is what makes your choices really powerful. It’s not bottom-up, or top-down. It’s both. Bottom-up influences top-down. Top-down enables more bottom-up.

Q: Throughout the book, you take little trips to different parts of the country to research energy solutions, BETA programs and various tests in the sector. Of all the trips, which was your favorite? Why?

A: Oh, man. “What’s your favorite?” is always the hardest question anyone can ask about anything. I think the trip that made the biggest impact on me was the one I took to Florida to visit the Naval Air Station at Jacksonville. That was a really eye-opening trip. Partly because it brought me face-to-face with how much work the military is doing on efficiency, conservation, and alternative generation. But partly, it was because that trip really drove home for me how important systems and infrastructure really are, and put the relationship between policy and personal choice into context for me. In the book, I talk about driving by the Station’s new energy efficient aircraft hanger, and seeing how they didn’t need to have electric lights on in the hanger bays because the inside was painted white, so that light from outside could reflect off the walls and keep the space feeling bright and comfortable for the people working there.

And then we drove past an old aircraft hanger, where the interior was painted a dingy beige. That building had tons of electric lights on and it still felt dark. So a simple paint job made it easy for a lot of people to choose to use less energy. In fact, it made using less energy a better option than using more. That was the trip that really helped me start to understand that energy isn’t just sources, it’s systems.

Q: One of the things I loved about the book was how you wove your own personal family history and stories into the narrative, which clearly help us understand why you’re so interested in this subject. The book has a wonderful, local, homespun feel to it - very Bill Bryson, yet the version of him that married the Freakonomics guys. This excerpt is a perfect example:

In the winter, my thermostat is programmed to make sure that my house is warm before I get up. I spend, at most, twenty minutes a year making sure that happens—just enough time to pay my bills every month and turn the boiler on or off with the season. Contrast that to my paternal grandparents’ old house, which was heated with a wood stove. To make sure the house was warm in the morning, my Grandpa had to chop wood every week—after first either cutting down a tree of his own or buying wood from someone else and hauling it home. There was no such thing as waking up to an already-warm house. Whoever got up first, either Grammy or Grandpa, had to bring in chopped wood from the back porch and get the fire going. They had to keep it going throughout the day. There were ashes to haul every day, and a stovepipe to clean. When they moved into a retirement townhouse with central electric heating, my Grammy was ecstatic. By all of the accounts I’ve read, that’s how most of our ancestors responded to the new convenience of centralized energy generation. If the energy is made by someone else, all you have to do is sit back and enjoy the benefits. Yet you do lose a certain amount of control. If my Grandpa’s stove burned through all of the wood he’d put in it, he could go chop some more wood. If I wake up some morning and my gas or electric service isn’t operating, then I have to put in a call to the utility and find someplace more comfortable to spend my day.

Before you started working on the book, did you know you’d be writing a lot about your own, personal experiences, and your hometown and other towns you’ve lived in or did that sort of evolve naturally as a logical narrative to help make your points and deliver the story? And how does your very real family feel about appearing in book of this nature?

A: I didn’t know that I was going to talk about that going in. It’s something that kind of evolved as I tried to come up with ways to talk about energy and how it works in the context of real people. A writer can always fall back on the hypothetical “you”, but I don’t think that’s as relatable as we think it is. If I use the hypothetical you, you can say, “Well, that’s not something I would do.” And then, as the writer, I lose you. Or, if I use it too much, the hypothetical you just starts to feel clichéd. It loses its power to connect people to an issue. And then it’s worthless. I think that telling stories is a better way to help people think about an abstract concept like energy. Where I didn’t have stories from other people, I filled in the gaps with stories from my own life and my own family. As to how my family feels about it, I’ve honestly not talked to anyone about it much really. The stories that I used are real, and they’re personal, but they aren’t really personal information, if you know what I mean.

For instance, I used my Dad’s progression from a typewriter to a word processor to an internet-enabled computer as a way of describing smart grids. That’s not really divulging anything really private about my Dad. It’s just using him as a way to talk about what is now an almost universal experience in this country. He recently told me that he really loved the book, so I assume he was okay with that. Some of the most emotionally intimate stuff was really about my grandparents, and I couldn’t run that by them. By the time the book was going through edits and the text was being finalized, all of my grandparents had passed away. My Grammy died in February of 2011. My maternal Grandfather, who also comes up in the book, died in August of the same year. So, to me, those stories have also become kind of a memorial, a way of honoring these people who I love and sharing my memories of them with the rest of the world.

Q: Lastly, what are you working on next? Besides the wonderful blog posts on BB, what’s your next big project?

A: I’m really excited about getting back to being able to do some long-form stories, both on BoingBoing and in magazines. I’ve got a ton of ideas that have been pretty much on hold because of the book and it’s going to be great to be able to finally tackle them. One thing I’m really interested in right now is the future of agriculture. In particular, how we’re adapting the plants we grow for food to meet the challenges of climate change. There’s some really cool work being done, for instance, where researchers are breeding food crops with ancient, wild plants that are related to them. Those wild plants are, essentially, weeds. And weeds are really tough, they can survive stuff that domesticated crops can’t. So what the scientists are trying to do is breed some of that toughness into our food plants without losing the traits that make the food plants good for feeding so many people.

Want to win an autographed copy of Maggie's new book? Answer the following questions correctly in the comments below and also tell us why YOU deserve to win! We'll pick two winners at random and pop the book in the mail to you!

1. Which research trip made the biggest impact on Maggie while working on the book?

2. When was Maggie's Grammy "ecstatic?"

3. Why do you deserve a copy of Maggie's new book?  

See also: More articles by Maggie Koerth-Baker.


1. NAS JAX FL

2. While transitioning to retirement home with central electric heating.

3. I'd like to read the book because I want to know how she was edited. The concept is from current paradigm creators and I want to know what's going on. I deserve a copy of Maggie’s 'Before the lights go out' because I will read the object, scan the cover in on my scanner, print a copy of the cover, wrap a wood block with the printed cover copy, place the prop on a shelf with other "books" and send the text to my girlfriend to read.
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1. Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Florida.
2. Moving to a retirement home with central electric heating.
3. I am fearful of the coming energy crisis and want to be as well informed as I can be.
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1. "Florida to visit the Naval Air Station at Jacksonville"

2. "When they moved into a retirement townhouse with central electric heating"

3. I do a lot of science outreach. I actually have the kindle version, but that is so much harder to lend out. And is devoid of an awesome signature.
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1 - Visiting the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, FL.

2 - When she moved into a retirement condo with "always available' electric heat.

3 - Having been in NYC for 9/11 & the 2003 east coast blackout showed me how unprepared our society is for massive systems breakdowns. My family and I subsequently relocated to central Vermont to be less dependent on these systems and have been working to make our lives more locally sustainable. I am very much interested in Ms. Koerth-Baker's vision, as well as her ability to relate that vision to the every-day lives around her.
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1.) The Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Florida.

2.) When she moved into a townhouse with central air/ heating!

3.) I work for a pretty well respected power company and would love to know more about her views on things (and how we may possibly leverage that for the future)
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1. Which research trip made the biggest impact on Maggie while working on the book?

“I think the trip that made the biggest impact on me was the one I took to Florida to visit the Naval Air Station at Jacksonville…..that trip really drove home for me how important systems and infrastructure really are, and put the relationship between policy and personal choice into context for me.”

2. When was Maggie’s Grammy “ecstatic?”

“When they moved into a retirement townhouse with central electric heating, my Grammy was ecstatic.”

3. Why do you deserve a copy of Maggie’s new book?

I work for an electric utility which makes use of coal.
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1) The Jacksonville trip.

2) Getting central air.

3) Curious to read another's analysis of this problem. For a few years now I've been thinking on this problem, focused mostly on energy storage efficiency (fancy way of saying "we need better batteries") and the restructuring of the U.S. power grid. Hoping one day we could somehow reinstate the Civilian Conservation Corps to refurbish our infrastructure, currently in need of about three trillion dollars in repairs. Though I'd be the first to acknowledge, for political reasons the CCC will never be allowed back into existence.
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1) the trip to the naval air base in florida
2) when she retired to a house with central heating
3) I don't deserve anything, but I'm a grad student in environmental management and have enjoyed the pieces she's submitted to boingboing. So, maybe the confluence of work and interests seem promising.
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1. Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, FL

2. She was able to relocate to a townhouse with central heating

3. Very interested in getting this book, my Dad and I have been working on converting the farm into using as much sustainable energy as possible for the last few years. Ideas like painting the inside of a building white would never have occurred to us though (on a farm I wonder how long they will stay white though!)
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1. Her trip to the Naval base

2. When her grandmother moved to the retirement home and had convenient electric heating

3. I don't deserve a new copy of Maggie's book, but I would greatly enjoy one. Truth be told, I have a few books that I have been meaning to read, but I've been caught up in college recently. With the summer coming around, however, I'll be looking for new material soon enough, and this book sounds very interesting. I'm not sure if this hurts or helps my odds, but if I don't win, I'll most likely buy the book myself, or maybe look into an ebook to save paper.

One thing that I agree with in particular is that individual changes are important, but policy can have a larger impact, so I'm curious to see what policies Maggie advocates.

Thanks for the great interview!
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1. The trip that had the most impact on her was to the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Fl.

2.Her Grammy was ecstatic when she moved to a home with central heating.

3. I would love to get a copy of this book. I'm currently a first year college student with no major decided. I've always enjoyed science-based classes and want to do something involving them. I hope that Maggie's book can inspire me to pursue an education where I can help the future outcome of our planet by conscious use of energy. The current energy crisis is a global issue, and cannot be put on the back burner.
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1. Naval Air Station in FL
2. Central electric heating.
3. To ask why I 'deserve' it seems a bit odd. I am passionate about energy and our future. I am re-using an 1950's ranch home by making it energy efficient and by putting PV panels on our roof. I ride my bike to work virtually every day of the year. I speak passionately to my children and anyone I can about our future and how we can all work toward making it better. It has been a pleasure to see Maggie's work in more and more places and I have heard great things about this book and am very excited to read it.
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1. Trip to Jacksonville FL to visit the Naval Air Station
2. When they moved into a facility that had central heating.
3. Because I haven't read a good science book in a long time!!
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1 Jacksonville, Florida Navy Air Station
2 automatic heating
3 Maggie's dad was my roommate when she was about 4 years old. I loved her then ad havve found no reason to stop doing so!
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1. the jacksonville naval air station (at least if she had to choose one specific research trip, to paraphrase maggie)
2. the convenience of modern central heating/cooling
3. 'deserve' might be a bit much... there are probably a lot of people who deserve it more/less than me, in particular. that said, i would very much like to read 'before the lights go out'. the energy situation and potential solutions interest me greatly, as i live w/ in a 20 minute drive of 4 fossil fuel power plants (in the second world petrostate of pennsylvania)... the cooling towers of the nearest are visible from my residence.

regardless, i would like to thank maggie for putting in the research and hard work to conceive this book. also, to thank her for her very relevant posts on boingboing over the yrs.
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~ Maggie's trip to the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Florida.

~ Maggie's Grandma was exstatic when they moved into a retirement facility that had central heating and cooling. They didn't have to lug in firewood anymore. =) I can relate!

~ I grew up in a po dunk town in the panhandle of Florida called Niceville. It's a great little town where everyone knew each other...but it's basically located in the backyard of Eglin AFB. I spent many days parked high up in the top of a magnolia tree watching C1-30's taking off...and jet dog fights, etc. I used to lay in bed when they would be testing the bombs, etc that would rattle the house and occasionally crack walls and windows. I knew I had to make a decision...I moved out west....and I've been here ever since.

The basis is...you have to make decisions in life. I hope you decide to give me a copy of this book. I'd like to read it with my kids.

Peace!
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1)Naval Air Station at Jacksonville, Florida, because she was surprised at how much the military has been doing for reducing energy usage, but also because some of their solutions were simple yet ingenious (namely, changing wall colour to reduce lighting cost.)

2)She was ecstatic because she no longer had to manage the wood stove and could sit back and enjoy the benefits of central electric heating.

3) I have been dumbfounded about stumbling upon Maggie's book and writings: these are exactly the same questions that cross my mind every single day. As a young man in Alberta, a place where conservatism, the oil industry, and environmental scepticism dominate, I was appalled how much people overused resources and polluted shamelessly. That turned me into a hardline green environmentalist, but through my travels abroad, meeting people of starkly different backgrounds than mine, my studies at university, I have come to realize that there are a plethora of other problems facing humanity: poverty, war, and broken communities. Sure, I may still care enormously about the increased greenhouse effect, among other issues, but these are all coupled to resource limits, uncontrollable population growth, economic development, and an inability for people to perceive costs and risks that are so far ahead in the future. The question that plagues my mind now is, “How can I get people to be happier with what they have, to pursue more valuable intrinsic goals rather than material ones, and to get a sense of the danger.” I want to dedicate my career to solving such questions, and hopefully with the technical skills I am developing right now as an engineering undergraduate, I am on the right track for putting myself in that position. It seems that Maggie has tried answering many of the questions I have been asking, and as a hard-working man with some large potential and enormous interest in the subject, I know that I would hugely benefit from reading what she has to say.
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1. Naval Air station in Fl
2. When she moved to a house with central heating
2. Because i'm pretty much the only person in venezuela advocating for real energy education/management. People here just don't care, at all, even if this is not a high profile polluter. If anyone knew the environmental horrors the government overlooks, or even gave a thought about how the government is still working the 2009 energy crisis out (by installing hundreds of thousands of small diesel generators everywhere, instead of giving maintenance to the country's two massive hydro complexes). Jeez. This book would give me aditional lines to keep knocking them skeptics out, or at least make people outside my scientific circle care, if only a little.
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While a free copy would be great, I am going to BUY the book for myself... And maybe my father-in-law who needs some new research and ideas about alternative and progressive energy sources!
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1. The Naval Air Station at Jacksonville florida.

2. When she relocated to a residence that had central electric heating.

3. I am concerned about the environment and our energy strategy for future generations, yet I am also cheap and there is a 44-person waitlist for this book at the library.
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1. The Jacksonville, FL Naval Air Station.

2. When she moved into a house with central heating.

3. I am interested in helping my children understand what their future may be like.
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1. Naval Air Station in Florida.
2. When she moved into a townhouse with Central Heating.
3. I'd like to know more about our dependence on energy. It sounds like Maggie has wonderful insight on the subject.
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lots of right answers for 1 and 2, so i'm going to mix it up for kicks.

1. this question was pretty prescriptive so i have no other choice but to say the jacksonville naval air station.

2. this one was slightly more open-ended, so i'm going to say that maggie's grammy was ecstatic when her granddaughter, who would go on to write a very interesting book, was born!

3. the subject matter of this book lines up pretty well with why i'm going to get an mba - i'm an environmental consultant (with a ChE degree) who wants to help promote alternative energy so i'm going to go back to school so i can attack the problem from all angles.

if i don't win it, i'll be buying it, so hopefully i've sufficiently convinced you to NOT give me a copy! :)
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1.Naval Air Station in Jacksonville , FL
2. Moving into a residence with central eletric heating.
I like to spread books around, so if I like I spread the word and will pass the book to friends and family. Trickling down, hopefully others buy the books as gifts or to own teir own
Thanks!
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1. Jacksonville, Fla Naval Air Station
2. When she moved to fancy new digs with central heat
3. Because I care about what kind of planet my kids will get to live on and 'cause I'm a big fan of Maggie's who's been reading her stuff since I got a copy of Be Amazing a few years back.
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1- Naval Air Station at Jacksonville florida.

2- When she relocated to a retirement townhouse that had central electric heating because they didn't have to deal with the drudgery.

3- I have and am still working with several groups to solve the problem sustainability after fossil fuel decline.
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1.) The Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Florida.

2.)When she moved into a townhouse with central heating!

3.)I would like a copy simply to read, learn, and then pass on so others can do the same. Great interview!
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1- Her trip to the naval base in Florida, because it made her realize both how much the military invests in efficiency and ties together policy and infrastructure. She saw an example of something very simple having substantial effects; white paint job = bright room and happy workers while saving hundreds on electric bills.

2- Grandma moves into an "old peoples home" with central electric heating. What old person doesn't love central heating?

3- People say today's young kids don't read, and are out of touch with reality, and a bunch of other things. Well, I am 23, I am a student, I visit this website on a daily basis, and I work as a teaching assistant for CIE 274 "introduction into sustainability in civil and environmental systems". I think it would be very helpful for me personally if I could read the book, and for my students if I can bring some examples into the class room.
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1.the one she took to Florida to visit the Naval Air Station at Jacksonville. 2.Grammy was ecstatic when she moved into a retirement townhouse with central electric heating.
3. it is a book that is badly needed to be read and heard.
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1. The trip to the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, because it drove home the importance of systems and infrastructure.
2. When she moved into a townhouse with central heating - no more wood chopping or stove maintenance!
3. Because I'll write all about it on my energy blog, Energy Self-Reliant States, and get those articles syndicated all over the web so that other people go buy it.
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1. Naval air station
2. Central electric heat
3. I design sustainable solutions for a major international electronics company. A copy of this book would help me make real change happen at a systems level!
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1. Naval Air Station at Jacksonville, FL.
2. Retirement home with central electric heat after years of heating with just wood.
3. I'm involved in the local food and conservation movements and I'd like to read this to see what I can learn and to possibly recommend it to others in the movement.
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The Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Florida (I've been there a lot!).

When she moved into her retirement home with automatic central heat.

I know I need to do more to reduce my energy footprint and this book might just be the kick in the butt I need to get really serious about it.
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1. Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, FL

2. when she relocated to a retirement townhouse that had central electric heating

3. I'm interested in the topic of energy conservation.
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1. The Naval Air Station at Jacksonville FL
2. Her Grammy was ecstatic when she moved to the retirement townhouse where the heat was electric and she did not have to deal with wood/woodburning stove (that would make me ecstatic too!)
3. I don't know if I 'deserve' the book but I would very much like to receive it and share it with my family members who are very interested in how we can make a difference in how we use energy and what we can do to turn the tide. Personally I would like to read about how this affects her on a personal level.
Thanks!
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1) The trip to Florida to visit the Naval Air Station at Jacksonville.

2) When she moved into a retirement townhouse with central electric heating.

3) I am really interested in this topic, and like getting different points of view on it. Also, it seems like she has written a book I could share with my family that they could actually understand - We could finally have informed debate on the subject, not just arguing! (Plus, I just had to fix my car - I won't have any money for books for months :( And I really want to read it now!)
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1. Maggie's trip to the Naval Air Station at Jacksonville had the biggest impact. At least, she thinks that's the one. She is less than definitive on the point. However, she provide compelling evidence for why that trip would have the biggest impact. For that reason, and the absence of a viable alternative, I submit it as the most likely candidate. Unless, of course, the questioner is gaming the system by using that most abhorrent of writing gimmicks, withheld information.

2. Grammy was ecstatic when she and Grandpa moved into a retirement townhouse that had central heating. That answers the when but not the why. From contextual clues, one can infer that the why was gathered round the central heating. But as I'm perhaps too fond of observing, correlation is not causation. Not having actually asked why, you probably don't care and are perfectly happy with just the when, as asked; but even in that case, I can only offer the contextual clue of the when and not the when as pinned to a conveniently graduated, near universally accepted timeline.

3. I deserve a copy of Maggie's new book, if for no other reason than word count. Rather than expound here, where the exam implies an essay question, I believe the surprising word count of my answers to the copy and paste questions is book reward worthy. QED
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1. Florida Air Station

2. When she got central electric heating.

3. I am from the midwest and am teaching my kids about making smart energy choices. This book will help!
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"An Interview (and book giveaway) with Maggie Koerth-Baker"

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