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August 15, 2003

FIAT LUX!
Posted by Teresa at 08:27 AM *

Lights! Coffee grinders! My electric fan! The Internet!

Good morning! Yesterday was a long, strange day. It was, perhaps, not the best possible day for the front door lock to go screwy. This made it necessary for us to destructively remove the screen in our front bay window (fortunately left open) and break into our own house, under the benign gaze of our neighbors who were all sitting out on their stoops.

Last night was a long, hot night.

Some limited power went back on about twenty minutes ago. It’s wonderful how much difference even that much makes. We’re not supposed to turn on our air conditioning, or our washing machine if we had one; but we have lights, coffee, and computers again.

We don’t have e-mail yet. Panix is still down. Alexis Rosen, we have faith in you.

Comments on FIAT LUX!:
#1 ::: Laurie Mann ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2003, 08:33 AM:

Welcome back to the 21st century!

While most of Pennsylvania has had power, it was remarkable to watch ABC news last night and see that Western PA was part of the outage...

#2 ::: Glenn Hauman ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2003, 09:39 AM:

See what happens when we try to get a Fair and Balanced power load?

#3 ::: Larry Lurex ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2003, 10:30 AM:

Already, some people are saying that the power grid in the US isn't good enough. I guess now something might even be done about it, and you will get a National Grid like many other nations.

If not, I think there should be 50 million people who want to know why not.

Glad you hear you are ok, by the way.

#4 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2003, 11:01 AM:

It is kinda interesting that Quebec, which has kept its hydro utility public, stayed up, and Ontario, which has been trying to privatize its, did not, but I don't think anyone knows why the power went out yet.

Ontario is apparently back to 50% power, two thirds by this evening, two days from early this AM to have it all back.

My notice that my power has come back is the contented melodious pong sound of the monitor CRT powering up. It's a deeply reassuring sound.

#5 ::: PiscusFiche ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2003, 11:10 AM:

Glad you came out of things no worse for wear. (Minus the screen, natch.) I imagine that it was a little unnerving at first.

Out here in Cali, ABC keeps playing this giant red screen of Awe Inspiring News Coverage with "Blackout of 2003" in big bold fonts and asking where we were when we heard about the blackout. It's a little insane.

#6 ::: Jeff Crook ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2003, 11:39 AM:

I can sympathize. On July 22, at around 7 AM, a huge supercell thunderstorm hit my city - Memphis. Within about 5 minutes, its destruction was complete. 75% of the city lost power, a friend of mine didn't get his electricity back for two weeks - he flew to San Francisco to escape for a week, came home, and still didn't have power for another 4 days! The destruction was incredible to see. We were lucky that we weren't suffering through our normal 98 degree/95% humidity weather at the time. It was abnormally cool for most of the two weeks it took to restore power to the city.

#7 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2003, 12:18 PM:

Let's see...a fast car and some dishwashing liquid?

Seriously, I join your Yay. Et lux perpetua luceat nobis.

#8 ::: Michael L ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2003, 12:39 PM:

As a participant of the 1965 black out (I broke an arm at about 4:30AM -just after the bars closed)I can sympathize. It was fantastic to stand on Broadway and look up at the stars though.
I'm sorry about the lack of html knowledge, but you might be interested in this link. It has an article that explains the black out from a regulatory point of view.

http://www.workingforchange.com/article.cfm?ItemID=15459

#9 ::: Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2003, 01:04 PM:

Oddly enough, we completely missed knowing about it until around 9pmPDT. When we found out we both lunged for our computers and started visiting news sites. I found the coverage rather odd. There was a thread running through it that said, covertly, "Oh, this. We know how to deal with this." And of course, many New Yorkers certainly do. You know though, I thought after the 1977 blackout they had decoupled things so there wouldn't be cascading blackouts in the East anymore. Are they any closer to knowing what caused it?

MKK

#10 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2003, 01:39 PM:

Xopher, you mean it doesn't mean "fat chance?"

Power to the people!

#11 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2003, 02:27 PM:

Did you take the opportunity to look for Mars?

#12 ::: Andrew Willett ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2003, 03:24 PM:

Fie. Hell's Kitchen--or our block of it at least--got its electricity back at ten minutes of eight this morning. Just past ten, every land-line telephone in the neighborhood went dead, and they still are.

From the West Side there goes out a cry: Infrastructure Man, save us!

#13 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2003, 05:05 PM:

The Legion of Infrastructure Analysts has received your cry for assistance. All systems personnel are busy right now, but continue to implore and the first available mutant will be dispatched to you.

Please be advised that Mister Watson and the Twisted Pair are dealing with landline outages, while The Warchalker and Wi-Fido handle 802.11x difficulties. If your problem is with a satellite network, be aware that Iridium is now a division of Lexcorp and inquiries should be addressed there.

This crisis on Earth-Grid affects us all, or, as one of our consultants observed, "Holy load shedding, Bloomberg!"

Thank you, OmbudsMan.

On a vaguely more serious note, I am fascinated by the attempts to explain what the bleep happened, by people who could use a trip to the Bad Electricity page. "Unlike coal or natural gas, electricity cannot be stockpiled." -- CNN explanation.

In the original Connections, James Burke did a good and concise job of explaining the causes of the '65 blackout. While the ur-source seems to have been different, the mechanism of broad power loss isn't -- and in a recent documentary on the '77 outage, one of the failure-mode analysts observed that the situation and the vulnerability have not changed a bit, and he predicted that it would happen again.

I doubt very much he's happy to be right.

#14 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2003, 06:26 PM:

We're just home again, having spent hours driving out to New Jersey with Benjamin Hayden, Patrick's brother, who had about two hours' worth of finish-up work to do there. The place was near Nyack. It took us four hours to get there. (Non-New Yorkers: It should have taken us maybe an hour and a half.)

We listened to the radio a lot. There's a great deal of nonsense hitting the airwaves, not just from people who don't quite grasp how electricity works. One station had on a guy who claimed to be an environmentalist, but if he wasn't a shill for the power companies, I'll eat my hiking sandals. They asked him what he thought about Hillary Clinton's remarks about deregulation being at the bottom of this, and the dereliction of the power companies. Oh, no! he said. That's just crazy! Deregulation's not a problem! The problem's caused by people who object to having power plants and high-voltage lines in their immediate neighborhoods.

NPR had a rather more reasonable-sounding guy who started by sketching out the major issues and viewpoints, and explaining the unintuitive things the various factions mean when they use terms like "deregulation" and "decentralization." Only then did he start analyzing the situation. Essentially, he said, this is what's known as the Problem of the Commons...

My favorite set of commonsensical remarks was made by Brooklyn's Borough President, who said that everyone should take it easy and throw the biggest block party in Brooklyn's history. Get out the barbecue and fire it up. After all, he observed, the meat in your refrigerator is going to go bad soon anyway. Might as well barbecue it now.

I have to say that as we drove home along Eastern Parkway, there were a lot of citizens following his suggestions. Of course, a lot of citizens were barbecuing out in front of their buildings last night, before he said it; so he's just being sensible.

#15 ::: Chris Quinones ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2003, 06:56 PM:

I'm really liking Marty Markowitz (said Borough President). He wants to run for mayor, I'll vote for him.

#16 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2003, 08:15 PM:

Okay, Big Surprise of the Day: I have just seen a videoclip of a federal spokesthingy (I missed his name, and it was edited down to one long sentence) explaining that the blackout was all the fault of . . . regulation.

You see, the utilities would just love to replace their distribution system, but evil regulators prevent them from raising their rates. (Take -that,- Gray Davis!)

I suspect that this argument, to dignify it with such a word, is about be heard a lot, though not on the networks I listen to.

Actually, since last night I've been expecting a demand for enormous federal handouts to utility companies, probably playing the terrorist defense card.

#17 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2003, 08:39 PM:

Goodness. I find I'm still capable of being surprised. Deregulation is what's made us, in the memorable words of someone I don't remember, a first-world nation with a third-world power grid.

Ol' Georgie Boy has been making all the appropriate noises about this crisis, but then he always does in the first week. If he's running true to form, the investigation into the causes of the blackout will be starved for funds, its results will be gutted and rewritten in ways its authors wouldn't recognize (poor Charlotte-Sophia!), and not a penny will actually go toward any of the improvements he promised when he was temporarily Sounding Presidential.

#18 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2003, 08:43 PM:

Greg Palast, it turns out, used to be a utility regulation investigator(!) He has co-written a whole book, Democracy and Regulation about the US system of utility regulation and also has some thoughts on the current crisis.

...waiting for e-mail to return...

#19 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2003, 08:54 PM:

One of the good side effects is that this has probably not only hammered down the nails in Ernie Eves' (unelected Premier of Ontario) political coffin, it's presented us (meaning the good people of Ontario) with the contrast with Quebec, where the power didn't flicker.

I'm hoping that the clue will hit but good.

#20 ::: cheem ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2003, 09:35 PM:

But Quebec isn't even on the same power grid as Ontario. An event in the Eastern Power Grid wouldn't have any effect in Quebec and vice versa.

#21 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2003, 09:44 PM:

Quebec's grid is connected to the New York grid, same as Ontario's is; what it isn't is on the same frequency -- they put in a proper, AC-DC-AC converter interface when they rebuilt after the ice storm.

So when New York went down, Quebec got hit for about 100 MW, and didn't shut down.

There are a lot of those interfaces that ought to be getting installed, I'm thinking.

#22 ::: cheem ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2003, 10:31 PM:

Well, more precisely, they're not on the same phase. The phase difference makes it a little harder to move power from Quebec to New York than, say, to Ontario. That's what I mean when I say they're not on the same grid. It insulates one location from effects in another location, but the price you pay is efficiency in power transmission if the two grids go out of phase. Obviously, there are other ways to to prevent massive blackouts like this from happening that are more efficient. Otherwise, the entire Eastern Power Grid would have gone down.

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