Thursday, August 15, 2013


Ten years ago a gigantic power failure cascaded through the Northeastern US and Ontario.  It was a big wakeup call for structural reform of the power grid and got some political will to upgrade and improve our resistance to it but that, to me, isn't the most interesting part of what happened.  The fascinating thing about the whole event was watching the reactions of all of the random people affected by the outage.

When people are shocked out of their routine normal social conventions vanish.  It felt at the time a bit like we had suddenly walked into a small town of a couple hundred people because everyone just talked with others nearby about things instead of putting their heads down and powering on their way like is normal here in Toronto.  Obviously we mostly thought it would all get sorted out but there was a definite backdrop of questions like "What if the power doesn't come back on?  What will we do?"  (Answer:  First, orgy.  Second, mass starvation.)  That hint of fear changed things in very powerful but subtle ways.

Last night I went to an event to celebrate / remember the blackout.  It was a strange affair with a clown on stilts, someone in costume doing some kind of dance or performance with a kite on a very short string and bands.  There was an effort to get people to bring and light candles for the event and although I brought a candle I managed to be flat out unable to make my lighter work so the candle stayed unlit.  People were wandering along Queen street in a giant pack chatting and listening to the music.  A reporter came by from Global News and interviewed me and The Columnist among many other folks; perhaps you will see us on TV.

It was amusing but didn't really capture the feeling of the blackout for me.  I remember clearly learning that my building was out of power, then my block, then downtown, then all of Toronto, then all of southern Ontario, then a big chunk of the US... and the next step was that all of North America had gone dark!  Of course that last step didn't materialize but it was a scary moment sitting around wondering if it was some kind of terrorist action / aliens / nuclear attack and if civilization were coming crashing down around us.  There were also some cool social moments where I talked to people I otherwise never would have just because the blackout happened and that was interesting but a parade downtown simply can't bring those feelings back.  The streetcars were still going by, lights were on, and the world was working as normal so I can't see how that crazy paranoia and dramatic feeling of openness can really be recaptured.

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