Who Turned Out The Lights?

Large scale emergency events that affect millions upon millions of people at once happen only rarely. Except in North America, where this sort of thing apparently happens nearly once per decade.

Yes, as you might have guessed, I was one of the many people left without power when something went wrong with our national electrical systems last week. So horribly wrong, in fact, that some 50 million people in a 9,000 kilometre radius lost power for a day or more. The only people happy about this were west coast television news broadcasters, because it meant they could recycle their graphics. (Blackout 1965! Blackout 1977!! Blackout 2003!!!)

So what was it like? First, here's a technical explanation of the North American power system:

In a carefully controlled environment, scientists create a nuclear reaction which scares the living daylights out of a hamster. While attempting to run away from the reaction, the hamster spins his exercise wheel, which in turn spins something called a “turbine.” The turbine has many hundreds of tiny nylon brushes that make contact with the hamster's fur, creating static electricity.

Another automatic process brings felines in contact with the hamster fur to collect the electrical current; the cats are then rubbed backwards against a contact plate (this is known as catalytic conversion).

After various additives like MSG, sulphites and high fructose corn syrup are added, the electricity then becomes “megawatts” and this is poured into the “grid.” This grid is a series of interconnected wires that operate on the same principle as Christmas tree lights: When one bulb blows, the whole string goes out.

Next, here's a play-by-play recap of the politics involved:

CANADIAN SPOKESPERSON: We have been told that the power outage was caused by an explosion in New York state. Or possibly a lightning strike at Niagara Falls. Maybe a fire in Pennsylvania?

REPORTER: Who told you that?

CANADIAN: Our intelligence gathering system.

REPORTER: Doesn't that department get like $10.50/year in funding?

CANADIAN: Okay, yes, it is just one guy in the back of Parliament Hill listening to CNN, okay? Next question.

NEW YORK MAYOR:This is clearly all Canada's fault. Says so right here.

CANADIAN: What's that book you're holding?

NEW YORKER:The South Park Guide to North American Diplomacy. Chapter One: Blame Canada. You probably killed Kenny, too.

CANADIAN: We did not cause the lights to go oot, okay?

NEW YORKER: Did too.

CANADIAN: Did not, eh?

NEW YORKER: Did too! Did too!

REPORTER: Speaking of dim bulbs?

MR. PRESIDENT: Ladies and gentleman, I strongly believe we can regard this power outage as a wake up call.

REPORTER: Why is that?

MR. PRESIDENT: Well, it woke me up out of my month-long vacation didn't it?

QUEBEC RESIDENT:I might point out that the power stayed on in the French speaking Canadian province of Quebec. Since we have tried to sell power to the rest of Canada for many years now, with no takers, we have this to say: Le nyah, le nyah. Also: Nous told vous so.

And now, the view from the average Canadian citizen:

BOB: Ah, nothing like a power outage to remind one of simpler times. A golden era, without the materialistic nonsense we fuss about on a daily basis. When communities came together in harmony and…

DOUG: Hey, looks like that Internet cafe has power again.

BOB: Oh thank God, I thought I'd never get back online! [Leaves.]

SARAH: Man, have I got a headache!

DOUG: Bump your head in the dark?

SARAH: No, I just had to eat two litres of ice cream before it melted.

DOUG: Bummer. But it could be worse.


DOUG: This power outage could have hit during hockey season. During the playoffs.

SARAH: [Shudders] Don’t even *think* such things!

So, that's the word from the front power lines, and it might not be over yet. Word is, we’re supposed to have rolling blackouts all this week, but I hope not, as that would be very inconv-

To read more of Chandra's work, visit www.ChandraKClarke.com.

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