Cyberspace still connected to the power grid

When a severe earthquake hit the San Francisco Bay Area in the fall of 1989 downing many traditional communications systems, as well as damaging buildings and bridges and scaring the bejesus out of everyone, many people in one of the most wired regions of the world turned to the Internet to communicate.

People who had access to the Internet used it to check on the health and safety of family and friends. Bulletin boards were started to let people know which hospitals and highways were open and which were closed. Observers everywhere marveled at the capabilities of this emerging communications technology and how people were able to use it quickly and effectively in a time of crisis.

In the last 14 years most of the world has become connected via the Internet, with cellular phones and handheld devices filling the communication gaps when we are away from our computers and Internet cafes.

But when the power went out in eastern North America shortly after 4 p.m. Aug. 14, the only way to communicate was to shout – which wasn’t much help if you were trapped in an elevator or subway. In cities like Toronto, New York, Detroit and Cleveland, you couldn’t make a cellular phone call or send a text message for hours. Everyone wanted to and, for a little while, it overwhelmed the cellular communications systems.

Many regular phone systems now require electrical power, so they too were out.

Computers, televisions and any radios that required electricity – car radios being the most obvious exception – were as useful as bagpipes at a Beethoven recital. There was even a story out of New York about a guy who had access to an old rotary phone that he could have made calls from, but the phone numbers he needed were in his computer.

And even if you could find a solar-powered television or a battery-powered radio, many of the networks were unable to broadcast for a time because they too were without power.

According to one Internet performance tracker, Keynote Systems, the power outage didn’t slow the Internet. The Internet, by design, is a web. If one route is blocked or damaged there are many alternatives.

But according to many users, including some in western North America, Internet service providers were in the same boat as cellular service providers: overwhelmed by volume. And with the Internet so integrated into the economy today, lots of business was lost, even in places that had full power.

Some Web sites originating in New York and Toronto were unavailable for a day or two after the power outage. And on the plus side, some users experienced less spam e-mail for a day or two while the power was out.

But on the whole, the communication system which helped people in the San Francisco Bay area get through the earthquake of 1989 was of little use to most people in the initial hours after the lights went out.

However by the next day, many of the 50 million people directly affected were learning to adapt. An Associated Press photographer took a picture of a student in Brooklyn who had hooked his laptop up to his car battery for power.

Back to school

You know the end of summer is approaching when you hear the first Christmas carol of the year on television. It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year has been a staple of Staples’ back to school campaign for a few years now. The song plays in the television commercial where a father – with a huge smile on his face – pulls a pair of glum looking kids around the store while he fills a shopping cart with paper, pencils, erasers, calculators, computers and all the other office supplies that are now essential for kids of any age going back to school in September.

The choice of a Christmas carol for a back to school commercial is appropriate. Going back to school has become almost as big a deal for retailers and shoppers as Christmas. Just like Boxing Day is the time for kids to show off all their new Christmas booty, school is a chance to show off all the new stuff acquired, ostensibly, for learning.

Pens, pencils and erasers don’t impress most classmates anymore; the ante has been upped. Assorted pencil grips, stickers to decorate pencils and highlight tape are part of the back to school package this year.

Of course electronics are what will really impress the other kids at school. Text messaging cellular phones that take pictures have been designed and packaged specifically for the back to school crowd. And expansion cards for handheld devices – assuming students still have their old handheld devices from last school year – are where you really need to concentrate your back to school shopping.

One site that has links to most of the office supply retailers and electronic companies is


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