Friday, August 15, 2003

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The perils of normal accidents

I have no idea what caused the massive power blackout yesterday. Apparently, no one else knows either. My thoughts on it:

1) Kudos to Glenn Reynolds for acting as a focal point for collecting information on the ground.

2) I'm automatically leery of calls to "do something." It's not that I disagree with the urge; it's that during moments of crisis, rash decisions are too often made. Of course, it's also during moments of crisis that those with the necessary expertise should step forward and explain what they can do to help.

3) Before anyone believes that there will be some magic bullet that will solve problems like this, run to your bookstore and buy Charles Perrow's Normal Accidents. Perrow's thesis is that systems with high degrees of complexity and tight coupling between interdependent subsystems will inevitably experience catastrophic failures. Bear this in mind when reading the Economist's closing paragraph on this incident:

North America’s electricity systems are more closely interconnected than they were when the 1965 blackout struck. Most of the vast area between the Atlantic and the Rocky Mountains is now plugged together in one massive electricity grid, with thousands of generating plants pumping energy in and hundreds of millions of electricity users drawing it out: the grid has been called “the biggest machine in the world”. When it works, this hugely complex contraption is highly economic because, at any given moment, the demand for electricity can be matched with the cheapest set of power sources available at that time across the entire region. But when this monster machine malfunctions, as tens of millions of North Americans have just found out, the consequences can be spectacular.

Chris Sullentrop makes a similar point in Slate -- but he has source links. [What if your readers are not interested in your social science recommendations at the moment?--ed. Go read this instead -- it unconsciously borrows from Perrow. Or, go read Kieran Healy's recommendations].

4) The lack of criminal behavior, in contrast to previous blackouts, is noteworthy. I have no doubt that this will be partially attributed to the impact of 9/11, but don't dismiss the possibility of more systemic factors as well. David Greenberg has some thoughts on this as well.

posted by Dan on 08.15.03 at 12:27 PM


There seems to be more to the story:

posted by: KO on 08.15.03 at 12:27 PM [permalink]

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