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Manhattan offline


Just saw this on CNN.com as a news alert (now there's a short story posted now), and went to check it on the TV: there's a massive power-outage on the east coast of the US, affecting, apparently, Manhattan, Boston, Cleveland, Detroit, and other cities, as well as some Canadian cities such as Ottawa and Toronto. At the moment, in Manhattan there are no public transportation services: no buses, subways or trains. Most of Downtown Manhattan, including Wall street, have shut down. Many airports closed. Massive traffic jams.

What a mess.

I was just looking at the TV images of people walking across the FDR bridge (obviously, vehicle traffic has slowed to a standstill) and it's kind of a surreal scene. No cars, just a sea of people, in, out, and on the bridge. Apparently the power cut started as a hardware problem at transformer at a ConEd plant in NYC, and then it started to spread (no indication whatsoever that sabotage was involved, even though the news people keep bringing it up). At the moment it appears to have affected the balance of the whole of the US power grid. Amazing how this kind of thing can happen. Just one component in one power plant, in one city, and you get this result. Apparently the problem is still spreading through the network as the "domino effect" takes hold (Reminds me of the effect that brought down the long-distance AT&T network on January 15, 1990, as documented by Bruce Sterling in his excellent book The Hacker Crackdown--although in this case it's a different type of overload that is spreading, but the effect is exactly the same: a station goes down, which breeds more overload on the stations that are still up, which then shut down, which...). Hopefully it's being contained though.

We tend to think of network effects and related ideas in terms of concepts, in particularly concepts related to computer science (these ideas are big in the social sciences, group psychology and Economics too, though). In case anyone had any doubt, this shows that, more and more, everything will be affected by it. The science of Complexity (and the related topic of Chaos) will only grow in importance in the years to come.

Update: this article from the New York Time dismisses the "transformer theory" along with others. So even two days later it's still unclear what caused the problem--they seem to agree it originated in the mid-west though. The Economist has more information, as well as a historical perspective.

And Bruno said, in a comment, that reports that said that Wall Street had shut down were wrong. There were lots of similar comments to this effect in the newspapers yesterday and today as well. Another one of the many innacuracies in initial reporting, along with the transformer story, Boston being affected (it wasn't--not that much at least), and so on.

Categories: science
Posted by diego on August 14 2003 at 9:21 PM

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