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12/16/2006 Archived Entry: "Sturm, drang, and technological folly"

WE GOT A BIG WHACK OF STORM THIS WEEK. Gusts of maybe 85. Roads carpeted with tree limbs. One townie got his painstakingly homemade fence blown down and skirts flew off of mobile homes. But nothing really out of winter's nastiest ordinary.

It was cool for me, 'cause I got to put aside my work when the power went out. I was well stocked with no-cook comfort foods. Raw, unsalted cashews (mmmmm). California dried apricots (thank you T.). And something just short of three lifetime supplies of newly arrived gourmet chocolates from my most persuasive publisher (and thank you too, RL). I made some comfort tea on my tiny Magic Heat stove. That hand-sized stove is one of the best purchases I ever made. If all you need is tea for two, hot chocolate for one, or ramen for heaven knows what reason, the Magic Heat is so much more friendly than cranking up the Coleman.

So I just took it easy and listened to the wind thump and howl. Ava the Hellhound, my one-year-old who is beauty and the beast all in one, got a lot more indoor tug and fetch than she's used to. And all was well.

But for some strange reason, all morning long before the storm hit, everybody -- and I mean everybody -- was going around town saying, "They're predicting a storm as strong as the Great Blizzard o' '48."

It's hard to explain what that conveys here. They weren't really saying 'Blizzard o' '48." But what they were saying has the same import locally as "another Katrina" would have to New Orleaneans. "The Big One" to Los Angelenos. "Another fire" to Chicagoans. And "The Columbus Day Storm" to folks in the Pacific Northwest. They were saying that was coming. The hell event. The one that could casually kill you just for standing in the wrong spot. Or living in the wrong spot.

Every store clerk. Every librarian. Every passing stranger was saying the same thing.

I should have been skeptical. A storm like that, you'd think you'd get many days' warning and even the weekly canary-cage liner would give some advance notice of it. But everybody was suddenly saying it, just that day.

It freaked me out. I felt vulnerable. I live alone on an exposed hilltop with a clearcut "channel" running exactly the direction of our prevaling winds. My Internet connection had already disappeared into the early stages of the storm, so I thought I had no way of finding out what was really going on. I got sucked in by rumor.

I called Debra to warn her that she might not hear from me for an extended period of time, explaining all about the Blizzard o' '48 and its highly theatrical implications, telling her my absence might mean anything from an extended power outage to me lying in the rubble with a shard of glass protruding from my brain (a scene from one of those ancient Hollywood disaster movies I've never forgotten).

Well, Debra, having far more sense than sense of dramatics, quietly typed away on her browser without me knowing until she finally said, "Uh ... what Storm of the Century?" She checked both weather.com and Weather Underground and read off a set of pretty mundane predictions.

But even later, I was talking to somebody in my area who was sitting right at her computer, she was still going, "Storm of the Century" like everybody was. The storm was bad enough that she and her husband were wise to postpone dinner with me. (See you later, guys. The Boboli shells will keep.) Still, it was no more than the storm of the season (so we can hope).

Now, if I'd wanted to, I could have worked through the storm. Could have cranked up the lanterns and gone to pad and pencil in the way mafiosi "go to the mattresses." (I don't own a generator, but I have everything else I need to function through weeks of stormy hardship, if necessary.) But I needed to reduce some pressure. So what the hell; the storm and the power blackout it brought was a good excuse.

But I'm amazed (not surprised, but still amazed) at what couldn't work under ordinary bad-storm conditions -- and in some cases many hours after the storm conditions were over.

Half a day after the power came back on, the library remained closed. Didn't open the rest of the day. Couldn't check out books because of "storm-related computer problems," so instead of writing checkouts on paper pending the return of the computers, they just didn't open at all.

The post office delivered a smattering of mail. But most didn't come through because the big sectional distribution center couldn't process mail through a power outage.

I hate to say this in public (for several reasons) but "Back in MY day" and "when I processed mail in a big sectional center" (gods forbid), in a power outage, we'd have had at least emergency lighting back on with the aid of a generator and be throwing mail by flashlight to keep it moving.

But that barely touches the problem.

The local P.O. -- even here in nowhereland -- now has mandatory computerized-everything systems. They cannot sell a single stamp or weigh a package without the computer now. My postmaster told me he had been keeping manual scales, cash registers, and such in the back room and his boss ordered him -- ordered him -- to get rid of every bit of that manual backup gear.

Yet the computer system the bosses imagine to be infallible doesn't work -- doesn't work at all -- if a fan is blowing on it in the summertime. And it has a "thing" about processing money orders that nobody at the P.O. has ever been able to figure out. It can take up to 15 minutes, any day of the week, to keep spitting a perfectly good money order out before finally cashing it. I have no idea what else that system might get up to. And neither, to their embarrasment and despair, do the postal clerks.

Now, their computers were working this morning, since the power was back on, but once power is out -- the P.O. is out. Period.

Far fall from all that "snow and gloom of night" nonsense, eh?

And you know government isn't alone in its stupid reliance on the infallibility of tech.

Went to a major-brand gas station right here in podunkland a couple of months ago, only to find the clerk dashing out of the store every two minutes, leaving the counter and the cash unattended, to tell customers they couldn't pump gas because the station had lost its satellite link.

Surely we've all heard or experienced similar stories.

In fact, the only business in these parts that's up and running fifteen minutes after the power goes out is the local hardware+everything-else store. Power goes -- out come generators and emergency lighting -- which of course they don't have to go very far to get. Nevertheless they know where to find them and how to set them up and get selling again -- selling generators, emergency lighting, campstoves, candles, propane heaters, and all the other items that seem to sell so well at times like those.

But what about the rest of these non-functioning business people? And what about the rest of Western civilization because the fools have allowed the infrastructure to become fragile as a feather?

Now what on earth are these people ever going to do if the "Blizzard o' '48" or the Columbus Day Storm or Katrina, Andrew, Hugo, or Camille ever strikes again -- which of course is absolutely inevitable, even if this week's rumors were less substantial than Hollywood gossip? Or what if there's a catastrophic EMP attack? Or a record-setter of a solar flare? (You rocket scientists correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe perfectly natural atmospheric occurances, and relatively modest EMP attacks could fry or interfere with every chip from here to ... wherever.)

And what are their fancy, expensive computerized systems going to be good for then?

It's absolutely awesome the way people -- and especially large corporate bodies -- can't learn from anybody else's experience. Uh, folks ... you planners out there ... don't you remember a little something called Katrina?

Funny thing is, whenever I talk to the locals, the clerks on the spot, they understand fully the nature of the potential ruin they're enabling. My postmaster really, really, really wanted to keep those manual backups and is indignant (though he hides it with a laugh) about being, to put it in the rawest terms, emasculated -- physically prevented from being able to perform when performance is needed.

Yes, the most resourceful will quickly improvise. But those who rely utterly on communications with distant masters may be unable to act at all. For weeks. Or as we saw with Katrina, for months or more than a year.

You know that. So why am I nattering at you? You're a smart person.

But the question is -- why? That's what I keep asking myself? Why? Cui bono? Who benefits by this folly-level reliance on fragile technologies and the deliberate, or deliberately thoughtless, rejection of manual backup systems?

Are tech companies plotting against manual backups because they feel threatended by old-fashioned alternatives? I wouldn't think so. Do managers benefit from systems that leave them wide openings for potential chaos? I can't imagine it. Do boards of directors of major corporations really think that the best shareholder relations are ensured by being unable to operate in event of a disaster? Nooooo.

So who?

The answer to that gets potentially pretty conspiratorial, and I'm usually more of a believer in Occam's Razor than in many-layered theory that requires some modern equivalent of Ali Baban Evil Viziers teamed up with Shakespearian Shylocks to work. (And throw in some Swiss gnomes for good measure.) But who &^%$#@ing benefits from this? That's what I want to know.

This is more than mere human folly, since even the people at the bottom of the heap fully understand that they face disaster -- and surely their IT managers must know it better than they? And surely even the cost-cutters and bean-counters can see the bottom-line virtues of manual backup systems?

I used to write customer-relations copy ... oh, hell no I might as well admit it in this case it was ad copy, though very classy long ad copy, handed out in person by sales people ... for The Big Thundering Name in computer technology. These beautiful little four-color handouts told the stories of real-world businesses that used what was then a fawncy new storage technology, RAID (a multiple-redundancy system for decreasing the chance of data loss in event of disaster (everyday type or the cosmic sort)). The projects were fun to do because I got to travel around, be put up at resort hotels (even if there was never a minute to actually enjoy them), and talk to the best kinds of entrepreneurs doing the most bleeding edge kinds of things.

But I kept wondering even then if it wasn't folly to push pure tech (no human-intervention-required) solutions as the best or only solutions. Of course, for computer data loss, they unfortunately are. Sort of.

No company like Big Thunder would ever even remotely suggest that all manual forms of backup be eliminated and I hardly mean to imply that.

But that's not the whole picture. They weren't doing it deliberately, certainly. But let's say that Big Thundering Name, by promoting the (relative) infallability of RAID over earlier technologies, was contributing to an attitude -- a form of hubris, really -- that says, "Since the built-in backup capabilities of the system are so glorious, I don't have to periodically copy everything and move it to a secure off-site place"?

That says, "I don't need to keep paper copies because it's all on the hard drive."

That says, "I can relax now. Somebody else is taking care of data-security for me."

I don't think most corporate or IT managers are that stupid. Not when customer or financial data is at stake. Not when marketing or organizational tools need preservation. And again I have to stress that on my honor as one of its former freelance copywriters, Big Thundering Name in computer technology never stated, implied, or intended to imply that any such neglect should happen. They genuinely were just promoting better tech.

But down where retail-level transactions take place, where customers face clerks across the vast barrier of counters, that almost criminal neglect has happened. Not in database management, but in the everyday ability of businesses and systems to function. Something is rotten. As dangerously rotten as a floor that might hold 198 ballroom dancers -- and look and work just fine, thank you -- but is going to collapse into the abyss with the whole swooshing and sashaying lot of them when the next tangoing twosome strides onto the boards.

I'd like to find that theoretical individual who planned it this way and grab him by his conspiratorial lapels. I want to believe in the Big Conspiracy this time.

Because I'd really hate to believe that so many ordinary, non-Illuminati human beings could be this stupid on their own.

Posted by Claire @ 08:37 AM CST

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