September 19, 2003
Hurricane Blog III

What a bore. This will be my last entry on the subject.

I slept through the worst part, though I'm a light sleeper and woke up a few times, and there was very little in the way of lashing rains or howling winds. The damned mouse I saw run behind the stove last night seems to have extracted the cheese from two of my three mousetraps without setting them off. It was stinky and French -- the cheese, not the mouse -- so I'm not surprised he couldn't resist the risk. I'll add more tonight: in the long run a "work accident" is likely.

The debris in the front yard this morning consists of a few hundred individual leaves and half a dozen foot-long quarter-inch-thick branches, or rather twigs. The power is still on here, but a couple of blocks away at Paradise and Frederick all 15 or 20 stores are closed and the stoplight is out. At least it was an hour and a half ago when I went out to look for a newspaper and some breakfast. The policeman I passed on the way was too busy ticketing a speeder to direct traffic. In Rochester after the great power failure a few weeks ago, all the radio stations kept telling us that a nonfunctional traffic light should be treated like a four-way stop, and most drivers followed that rule even into absurdity, stopping when there was no one else coming from any other direction. Either Baltimore radio stations are not passing along the message, or local drivers are ignoring it. I would guess the latter, since my insurance rates went up 60% when I moved here, and I was almost run over by some moron who didn't even slow down at the dead light.

The 7-11 at Paradise and Frederick has a camper-top pickup truck backed right up to the double front doors, blocking them very thoroughly. At first I thought that meant that the electronic locks didn't work in a power failure, but that seems unlikely, since (a) a 7-11 probably wouldn't have such sophisticated locks, and (b), unless the programmer was an idiot, they should default to "locked" when the power goes off. More likely, the owner just wants to prevent smash-and-grab robberies.

Conclusion: No big deal in this part of Baltimore County. Television is still running all-hurricane all-the-time coverage, and there is major flooding nearer Chesapeake Bay, with the usual footage (perhaps recycled from the last storm) of people paddling down major thoroughfares in canoes and dinghys as the water pours into the first-floor windows.

Update: (12:40 PM)

A college friend (we'll call him "Tom in NYC") objects that electronic locks should not default to locked in case of a power failure, because that would trap people inside. What I should have said was that they should default to "exit only", like ordinary emergency exits, when the power goes off, or (better) default to "exit-only unless you have a physical key", i.e. turn into ordinary non-electronic locks. You certainly wouldn't want fancy computerized locking systems to leave the doors unlocked whenever the power goes off. I was vaguely thinking of a newspaper story I read some years back about a maximum-security jail in (I think) Mexico that installed a super-sophisticated computerized security system which defaulted to "unlocked" when the power went off. When a local power failure occurred, all the prisoners walked out. Of course, this may just be an urban legend with a nasty ethnic slant.

On the other hand, programmers do sometimes make dumb mistakes with serious consequences. The dreaded Y2K meltdown turned out to be a bit of a flop, but I've read that a programming error once caused huge damages to the Australian aluminum-smelting industry. Apparently one of the programmers who wrote the software controlling the very expensive equipment forgot about leap years, so when February 29th, 1992 or 1996 (I forget which) rolled around, all the factories did a sudden uncontrolled shutdown that cost hundreds of millions of (Australian) dollars. I assume it was just one programmer. If they had all ignored leap year, the equipment would surely have kept chugging along, thinking it was March 1st when it was actually February 29th. But when different program modules suddenly diverge by 24 hours, it's not surprising that they stop working right.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at September 19, 2003 10:54 AM

Peanut butter works best in mousetraps 8^)

Posted by: rogueclassicist on September 19, 2003 04:33 PM

"You ask for a miracle... I give you: The F. B. I." -- Hans Gruber
(From the well-known Willis-Rickman study of security issues resulting from power outages.)

Posted by: Dave on September 19, 2003 05:40 PM