When the power goes off

This morning we woke up to discover  a power cut. This meant:

  1. No electric kettle. We do have a gas stove, however, which we could light with the help of matches (the automatic ignition relies on mains power.) So we did eventually get some hot drinks.
  2. No toaster. No microwave. No hot toast, no porridge.  Back to the Weetbix.
  3. No hot water. The gas instant water heating relies on electricity for the ignition. So no shower.
  4. No heating. Obviously the heat pump and panel heaters don’t function, but neither did the gas fire. It needs electricity for ignition and control.
  5. No internet. The modem needs electricity.
  6. No landline phone. Ours is connected through the fibre network, which needs electricity.
  7. No mobile phone. Out of charge.
  8. No automatic garage door.

and the list goes on…

My point is that so much of modern everyday life relies on an electricity supply. It’s not just the gadgets, but basic things like hot water and telephone, rely on electricity to function. Now, in our case, the lack of power could be said at worst to be a very mild inconvenience.  The power came on just before I left for work. Longer power outages start to cause problems, however. The longest one I’ve experienced was about two days without power, following the “Great Storm” in South East England in 1987.  After that time we were beginning to consider taking up residence with my Aunt and Uncle, who did have power. But it didn’t come to that.

One of the most disruptive blackouts in history was the “Northeast blackout” in the northeastern US and Ontario, Canada, in August 2003. This affected around 50 million people, including whole cities. Some had no power for over a week. Fortunately it was in summer, not the depths of winter. The blackout has been attributed to a software bug (specifically a ‘race condition‘). The bugs in computer code that I write tend to be pretty inconsequential things (mostly they just eat up a bit of time) – the very worst outcome I can imagine is that they might make some results in a journal paper incorrect. But some bugs have huge consequence (ask FirstEnergy, the power company ‘behind’ the Northeast blackout) or, sadly, Boeing.

Modern technology is wonderful. It makes things easier for many of us, it gives us better healthcare outcomes, it allows us more leisure time and a plethora of options for using that leisure time, it facilitates (certain types of) communication, it opens up education, and the list goes on. But when the technology fails, and we’ve built a way of life that relies on it, we struggle to adapt.  By contrast, the chickens in the back garden didn’t appear to have noticed the “crisis” in the kitchen.

[Aside: My father enjoyed pointing out that while email is ‘instant’ the postal service in 1950’s Britain was pretty good too.  You could write a letter to someone in the morning, post it, and for local letters get back a reply that afternoon. So while we may now arrange a date at a restaurant for the evening by email, once was perfectly possible to do the same by post. Not now. ]





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