"It’s the post-electrical age!", part 1

The headline of this entry comes from non other than Steve Mann, whom I had the pleasure of meeting, hearing and chatting with last night. In spite of the fact that accordion city was in the throes of a blackout that affected southeastern Canada and the northeastern U.S., the DECONISM gallery talk went on as scheduled, and even had lights thanks to the fact that cyborgs always have backup power.

Yesterday, 4:15 p.m.

It was your typical working day at Tucows. Boss Ross and I had come back from a meeting with a client an hour earlier, and I had just made a quick run to the kitchen for a tall glass of icewater and was ready to tuck into some XML-RPC programming in Python. It was mid-afternoon, my desk is under a skylight and my personal Powerbook is my primary work machine, so I didn’t notice that the power had cut out until I heard anguished cries coming from my coworkers.

“NOOOOOOOOOO!” yelled Bessy, who sat across the trench from me. She held her hands at her monitor, as if trying to choke it to death. “No, no, no, no, no! I haven’t saved yet!”

I looked about: everyone around me, save for the laptop users had blank monitors. I looked at the monitor of my company issued TPS Report-grade Dell desktop and saw that the power lights on the monitor and box were out, as were the overhead lights (which would’vebeen diluted by the incoming sun from the skylight).

“What, again?” remarked Josh, who sat a couple of seats away from me.

“This has happened before?” I asked.

“Yeah. Not too long ago. June, probably before you started here,” he said.

Sometimes this happens, especially in areas like Liberty Village, where Tucows is located: a former warehouse/industrial district retrofitted into workplaces for creatives and techies. The power can sometimes be flaky, but with the business and condos spring up around the area, these problems had pretty much vanished over the past five or so years.

I dimmed the screen on the Powerbook slightly to stretch out the battery life, just in case. I continued working, as I didn’t need a net connection for what I was doing.

Ross walked up to my desk. “Power’s out in Etobicoke,” he said. Etobicoke is a west-end burb of Toronto. He was on the phone with a manager at his bank, and she’d lost power too.

“No lights in Scarborough!” yelled someone else from another corner of the office. Scarborough is a burb on the extreme east end of Toronto. This outage was city-wide.

“I wonder if the traffic lights are out,” I said. “I’m going to take a look.”

I walked outside and hit King Street. At the corner of King and Dufferin, a streetcar sat frozen. The traffic lights were out, and the cars at the intersection were playing that “are you gonna move or am I?” game of wills.

Oh, shit, I thought.

I walked back to the office. In the parking lot, a number of my cowokers gathered around someone’s car. He’d opened his doors and tuned in to AM news radio and turned up the volume.

“…looks like fire coming from the Con Edison building…” said a reporter.

“What’s Con Edison?” asked someone.

“Electric company in New York,” I answered automatically.

“So why’s the power out here?

“Beats me,” I said. “But isn’t the grid shared? Can’t they borrow power from us and us from them, if it’s needed? Maybe their system blew, they tried to draw from us, drew too much, and ours blew.” At least that’s how it would work in a house. I have no idea how it works for large-scale power transmission systems.

“You know,” said one of the guys, pulling out a huge digital SLR camera, “I should go take pictures. there should be some interesting scenes tonight.”

“I’m sooooo blogging this!” I yelled, with my fists in the air. This got a laugh.

Going home

King Street is serviced by streetcar, and without electricity, people were forced to walk. This part of King Street never has pedestrian traffic the like of which we had yesterday afternoon; it was more like a shopping district on a Saturday. People were slowly milling in the afternoon heat, many on cell phones trying to find out what was going on. Car traffic was bumper-to-bumper, what with the non-functioning traffic lights and streetcars that had been transformed into obstacles.

I turned north onto Shaw, which took me to the western edge of Trinity Bellwoods Park and then turned east on to Queen Street, land of the hipsters. Queen was even more full of people, some of whom were walking home, while others were people who worked in the shops and were standing outside their businesses, wondering what to do next.

“‘Cordion man!” yelled a sous-chef I sort of knew from one of the restaurants. I pulled over to talk to him. “You should go an’ busk tonight. So many people on the street, you’ll make a shitload of money!”

“Exactly my thinking, Kamal. How ’bout you?”

“We got gas stoves and the walk-in fridge’ll keep the meat cold at least for tonight. So we’re open for business, far as I can tell. No fans in the kitchen, though,” he said, wiping his brow.

Biking farther east, I saw something I had to photograph. On the sidewalk outside the W hair boutique, an undaunted stylist was cutting his customer’s hair.

“It’s too dark inside, so I couldn’t see what I was doing,” he told me. He and his cutomer let me take pictures.

“The haircut must go on!” I said.

The major intersection closest to my house — Queen and Spadina — was packed with people and cars. A civic-minded volunteer rose to the occasion and started to direct traffic. Pedestrians gave him spare change for his hard work, some people brought him cans of pop and one person even gave him a yellow hard hat to look more official.

Robbie, who was working the 24-hour hot dog stand at Queen and Spadina, stood at his post, shaking his head. “Gonna be a fucking zoo tonight,” he said.

Next: Accordion Guy and Mister Cyborg to the rescue!

6 replies on “"It’s the post-electrical age!", part 1”

In England, all the major intersections are traffic circles (roundabouts, they call them). People who aren’t

used to it find this kind of awkward, but I think it would

have an advantage in a situation like this because it would be less traffic-light dependent.

Traffic circles force people to spontaneously decide questions of right-of-way more smoothly than right-angle

intersections, so you don’t need a signal.

So maybe that’s something to think about when you’re designing roads.

i had such a good time during the blackout last night! it was amazing … something i’ll remember forever …! i can’t wait to hear about the rest of your night …!

Dude you should have seen Port Credit last night. Everybody and their dog were out on the Lakeshore. I mean that literally, people were out walking their dogs. People I’d known for years that I didn’t even know they owned a dog or any pets for that matter were out walking their dog. It was weird though when the sun went down.

We were milling around aimlessly among the dark cubicles when someone mentioned that this is BIG, it’s INTERNATIONAL, even CANADA is affected.

“International, huh?” I said. “But is it intercontinental? Find out if the lights are out on Pluto, while you’re at it.”

….cyborgs always have backup power…..

Got that right! Maybe not enough for lights (I always have lamp oil and candles for that.) but for techno-stuff! Sure thing! When our power was out for a couple days a few weeks ago (tornado went through about 5 miles away) I bought an AC adaptor for my car that has a standard outlet. So I can plug anything into it. Go Powerbook! Since I had car adaptors for cell phone and ipod, I figured a more generalized device would be a good thing. The car is my friend. And it’s the only thing I have with air conditioning.

No electrical problems in Portugal. Looks like I took my holiday at just the right time.


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