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August 17, 2003

Blackout, Vulnerability, and Interconnectedness
Hazhir Rahmandad  [info|posts]

interdependence.gifThree days ago, after hearing about the blackout in New York, Toronto, and several other North American cities, the first thing that came to my mind was "Holy Shit! What if this is another terrorist act! We are in a big trouble!"* Fortunately, that was not the case, so here I want to write about my second thoughts. More specifically I want to underline two important trends that were highlighted by the blackout.

During the blackout several big cities were almost paralyzed. Not only electricity was out but also there was no water (at least in many cases), flights were stopped, inter and intra-city transportation was halted, in short, the infra structure that supports life in these big cities was out of the loop for a short while. In fact, if it wasn't for small inventories of back up supply—e.g. the food and water in the refrigerators or stores—or if the blackout lasted a few more days, we could have witnessed a humanitarian crisis. This brings me to my first premise, that the stable living conditions that we all take for granted and whose existence we never question can be easily destabilized, moving life to a non-equilibrium mode of operation where the simplest facilities of daily life are questioned. That is a setting where our concern is no more the 0.1% decrease in stock market index, but next day survival.

Another surprising fact is that the cause of this crisis has not been anything extraordinary. Even though not yet clear (to my knowledge), it seems that one of the power generators in the network has failed somehow and has destabilized the whole power grid of the North East. Sooner or later we will hear about the reason for that failure, nevertheless, it is not hard to imagine that ignoring a simple maintenance work, a human failure, or a raccoon that chewed a cable, have caused all the trouble! This comes to my second point, that we live in a very interconnected world, where very small events in one part of the world can have huge impacts on another part. In fact, the growing population and technology in the last couple of centuries have hugely increased the level of global interdependence, compared to older times, making us more and more influenced by events happening far from us in time and space.

I think these two trends have far-reaching consequences that need more attention. From how we do science (e.g. going into more and more detail, inside sub-fields, rather than thinking about the interactions between different sub-systems), to how we think in every day life (e.g. what are the events I should pay attention to?), these trends may require important paradigm shifts, but those discussions need other postings.

* I guess I don't think in English very often, so this is the translation of my thoughts in English :)

Grand Vizier at August 17, 2003 11:53 AM [permalink]:

Poor Raccoon ... It must be toast now.

Yashar at August 17, 2003 12:26 PM [permalink]:

I never loved NYC as much as i did during the night of the blackout of 2003. everybody was out on the streets before late night, and then the streets were calm and totally black. and there was a sense of sympathy between people at levels unseen here:)) and we had so much fun that night with two of my american friends and a bottle of johnny walker in riverside park were we slept, before being kicked out by some cops at 3:30am.
then we sneaked into our department and slept on the tin roof, overlooking the black manhattan skyline. with Moon, Mars and showering meteorites overhead. it was one of the best(if not the one) nights i've had in new york city. although i can't imagine how catastrophic it could have become had the power been out for two more days.

Hamid Ahmadi at August 17, 2003 05:52 PM [permalink]:

I spent the night in and around Times Sq. I had a blast. Everthing was quiet and mellow, though I have to admit, there were a few times when I felt the need to break something.

John Anderson, RI USA at August 18, 2003 07:35 AM [permalink]:

That one generating center could have trouble is normal.

That the grid would then try to get power to the affected area is good.

But that the call for power could continue to be honored past capacity, pushing other plants into breakdowns, is ridiculous. This is a near-exact repeat of 1965 (not so much of 1977), and is not supposed to happen.