How Stuff Works

I’m a big fan of what I call “how stuff works” journalism: take a topic of the day and step back and explain how the darn thing works. Too often, we write either incrementally, or for insiders who already know the underlying structure of what we’re talking about. (This explains, for example, my ultimately fruitless search, recently for a story explaining what Bear Stearns did for a living.)

My colleague Andrew Webb turned a nice piece this morning about how our gasoline gets here. The news peg was a mixup that put diesel in people’s regular gasoline tanks. But you don’t even need that for this to be a fun and useful story of pigs and water and society’s plumbing.

One Comment

  1. “Oil on the Brain” by Lisa Margonelli:
    Is an excellent book tracing all aspects of the petroleum production from the gas station back to the well. Believe it or not, my local bookstore did a book release party at my local gas station, with a band and food brought by long time customers of the station (this is not your typical gas station).

    from the Amazon blurb:
    Product Description

    Oil on the Brain is a smart, surprisingly funny account of the oil industry—the people, economies, and pipelines that bring us petroleum, brilliantly illuminating a world we encounter every day.

    Americans buy ten thousand gallons of gasoline a second, without giving it much of a thought. Where does all this gas come from? Lisa Margonelli’s desire to learn took her on a one-hundred thousand mile journey from her local gas station to oil fields half a world away. In search of the truth behind the myths, she wriggled her way into some of the most off-limits places on earth: the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the New York Mercantile Exchange’s crude oil market, oil fields from Venezuela, to Texas, to Chad, and even an Iranian oil platform where the United States fought a forgotten one-day battle.

    In a story by turns surreal and alarming, Margonelli meets lonely workers on a Texas drilling rig, an oil analyst who almost gave birth on the NYMEX trading floor, Chadian villagers who are said to wander the oil fields in the guise of lions, a Nigerian warlord who changed the world price of oil with a single cell phone call, and Shanghai bureaucrats who dream of creating a new Detroit.

    Deftly piecing together the mammoth economy of oil, Margonelli finds a series of stark warning signs for American drivers.

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