Utopia 2184:
Appendix A:
A Real-Life Chronicle
of Our Early Woes,
from the Iraq Invasion Onward

2003 February-March:
Fuzzy Moral Appraisal
Inflicts War on Iraq

It is evident in retrospect that the early-2003 American and British talk of Iraqi "weapons of mass destruction" was bluff, intended to justify a war whose real reasons lay elsewhere. The Pentagon and Downing Street of the day, deficient as they were in decency, excelled (I will now briefly argue) in pragmatism.

Aware that the dependability of petroleum supplies from Saudi Arabia turned on such flimsy matters as the succession conflict in the House of Saud, or again on the quality of the sentries posted around certain egregious Saudi pumps and valves, the United States had a few years before the fall of its twin towers judged pre-emptive military action desirable. With the attacks of 2001 September 11, opportunity knocked - first supplying a rationale for establishing American bases in post-Soviet Central Asia (the better to secure the emerging Caspian petroleum resource); and second, more importantly, supplying a rationale for consolidating the American presence in the Persian Gulf, only the tiniest striking distance from the vital Saudi petroleum refining and shipping facilities. It can be no coincidence that the Republican architects of American policy were themselves well connected in Texas oil, and so as aware as anyone that American onshore oil extraction had peaked a full generation ago.

Why did Mr Tony Blair for his part deviate so markedly from the cautious foreign-policy lines of his natural colleagues in France and Germany? Mr Blair, the urbane product of Oxford University and the British Labour Party? Here was a man of discernment: surely an involvement in American geopolitics, in defiance of his principal European allies, and even of Canada, cannot have appealed strongly to him?

Few individuals in current public life feel to me more close at hand than Mr Blair. This is the Tony Blair who, in the tradition of literate Continental public figures, could write for a quality newspaper candidly, at a length of many generous column inches, on his personal tastes in reading. (I loved his piece. He confessed being partial to Jane Austen.) Yes, Mr Blair: as younger men, he and I had picked up our mail from the same porter's lodge, had ordered shandy or beer from the same buttery bar, his three or four undergraduate years at St John's finishing almost at the very instant my four graduate-school years began. What malign force, then, propelled so able a Prime Minister in so unexpected a direction?

I answer that the year of the Iraq invasion was either exactly or very nearly the year in which United Kingdom North Sea petroleum extraction peaked. From 2003 or so onward, it would be downhill all the way. Reason enough, I suggest, for the now middle-aged Mr Blair (formed as he now was by some years' service in the harsh world of Westminster realpolitik) to twist, filter, or suppress the warnings of his conscience.

The American military campaign began with certain detonations in Baghdad, around (to use the preferred International Organization for Standardization timestamping notation) 20030320T0230Z. That was a Wednesday evening in Toronto, around 21:30 Eastern Standard Time. By nightfall the following day, anti-American sentiment was running high, the crowds in their hundreds or even low thousands temporarily taking over a stretch of University Avenue opposite the United States consulate. I recall, with that special air of unreality that we attach to events televised from remote and chronically troubled countries, the police riot shields, the police yellow wet-weather jackets, and most especially the police multi-kilowatt floodlight slicing in Soviet manner through thin, ice-cold rain.

I stood transfixed in the floodlight beam, close to the leading edge of the crowd. That, if I recall correctly, was one of the two points in the hideous evening at which I declaimed my 'Peace Hymn of the Republic':

We lived in ease and splendour
And disdained the huddled poor,
Raping soils and seas and foreign skies,
In arms and gold secure:
Now we've lost our proud twin towers,
Now we fear the dark of war;
God's truth goes marching on.

Unhappy world, you grieve for us
And yet for you we mourn;
Some billion souls seek sustenance,
A tithing of our corn:
From dying fields, from teeming slums,
Fresh terrors will be born -
Can truth go marching on?

Our strength lies not in battle gear,
But in humility;
Through anguished meditation
We discern our destiny;
Out city on a hilltop
Shall embrace humanity;
God's truth shall lead us on.

Was it presumptuous of me, as an undistinguished, semi-employed, almost ragged, citizen of Estonia and Canada, to rewrite the Battle Hymn of the Republic? No. A line of thinkers going back to John Winthrop, first governor of Massachusetts, had correctly proclaimed America a 'city on a hill', a beacon to nations. America was a political project, an intellectual and moral project, in which we all - regardless of our formal citizenship, let alone our socioeconomic status - rightly participated, and for whose integrity we all at that time rightly feared.

But it was salutary in such a histrionic period to think back to a quieter evening some weeks earlier.

On the night of 2003 February 27, about forty-five of us friends of the Catholic Worker Movement gathered in a plain west-Toronto living room. The main speaker was Jim Loney of Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), back in January from two weeks in Iraq. Also speaking were a Human Shields volunteer, who had returned from his Iraq duties eight days ago, and an Iraqi émigré. Humble white linen served as a projection screen for Jim Loney's 35-millimetre slides.

What did these voices - more direct, more gentle, therefore more terrible than the chanting mob from the war's first Thursday - offer us?

Some of their points emerged with a certain inexorability. If you were a member of the Iraqi junta in January or February, aware that your life and the lives of your kin now hung on a thread, the logic of self-preservation was bound to drive you to try any hopeful tactics, and in particular was bound to make you try winning Western hearts and minds through appropriately selected displays. The two Iraq-touring speakers thus remarked to us that they had been shown the same bomb shelter, with its human burn marks on interior concrete surfaces. That was (of course) Al-Amiriya, the shelter in which, on 1991 February 13, two Gulf War I missiles smashed through six feet of concrete, killing over four hundred.

Similarly, both reported having been shown the same hospital. (The inevitable presentation to Jim Loney: a mother in emotional shock, having earlier in the day lost her dehydrated child, as a probable consequence of the economic sanctions; the government minder pulling aside a concealing blanket, with the words, "If you want, you can take a picture." Nobody took up his offer.)

Other points, however, were not inevitable at all, and so reminded us in a specially revealing way in what sense the Pentagon and Downing Street were now threatening our core values. Jim Loney's CPT group visited the purported location of the Garden of Eden, near the confluence of the Tigris and the Euphrates. As they subsequently learned, their visit came a day or two after an American bomb, in no-fly-zone enforcement operations, had killed one and injured three.

The CPT showed a group of excited boys in that precinct their so-called "magic sheet" of paper. It was magic in that its Arabic text had been found to make initially hard Iraqi faces soften. (The glimpse of Westerners in the streets was at that time not, as a general rule, initially reassuring to local people.) The words were simple, recounting a parable about a master and his disciple. The disciple asks how to define the start of dawn. Is it when there is enough light to let me distinguish a dog from a sheep? No. Is it when there is enough light to let me discern a rabbit? No. What, then, marks the dawn? Dawn, answers the master, starts only when you can recognize another person's face as the face of a sister or brother. Until that moment arrives, the night is with you.

Every boy wanted a copy of the magic sheet for himself. In the end, order was restored when a tough-looking local man simply read the text out. As the CPT workers drove away, one lad ran after the departing vehicle, slowly at first, and then for a while quickly enough to keep up. Thank you, he said; and again thank you, he said; and again he said thank you.

2003 August 14:
Fuzzy Systems Analysis
Inflicts Blackout
on North American North-East

When my Linux workstation failed at or very near 20030814T2011Z (that was 16:11 Eastern Daylight Time), I half-suspected some idiocy on my own part. Next, I imagined some failure in the gentrified Victorian terrace house within which I rent my room. Five or so minutes later, I was properly shod and in the street, investigating. The magnitude of the failure was apparent at once, with many on the busy sidewalks aware already that Toronto was not North America's sole darkened city.

My next moves I made in that particular fear which cuts so deep as to suppress visible emotion. From a couple of convenience stores, I acquired dry cells for my emergency radio, plus half a dozen tins of food. (Those battery-and-stew stocks I had neglected to keep up in the aftermath of 2001 September 11. And yet I had completed my first draft of 'Utopia 2184' barely five weeks before the blackout, and had just one week before revised 'Utopia 2184' to highlight the prospect of crashing power grids.)

Next, fearing imminent failure of the metropolitan pumping systems, I took a decision that was at best only dubiously ethical. Disregarding the potential need of other citizens for town water, I filled my landlord's bathtub. As it turned out, Toronto had the capability to keep pressure in its water mains for some days, by which time a precarious supply of power was largely restored.

The Toronto Star of 2004 January 6 reports Mike Price, the city's general manager of water and wastewater, contesting the gloomy picture painted in a federal-government document obtained by the newspaper under the Freedom of Information Act. According to the document, written on 2003 August 15, 'the city of Toronto is currently meeting its demand for water, but just barely.' According to Mr Price, on the other hand, the situation was secure for a few days, with industrial consumers curtailing their usage. The Star notes that Toronto's ten underground reservoirs and four water towers suffice to meet two days of normal consumption. The reservoirs and towers are filled by heavy pumping gear, normally in the night, when electricity prices are low. The Star imparts the further interesting, if disturbing, information that the pumping gear is so extreme in its power demands as to be incapable of functioning from portable emergency generators.

My precaution at the faucets, then, proved superfluous. In the ensuing week, we emptied the tub. But the urgency of the water-supply question was highlighted on that tense Thursday by the less happy example of Cleveland, where the municipal pumps did actually fail, leading the National Guard to distribute water from trucks. I presume those Guard staffers had the foresight not only to store abundant volumes of petrol in their depot tanks, but to keep their petrol pumps independent of the grid.

We in Toronto were fortunate in retaining conventional land-line telephone, with telco central-office backup power supplies sufficiently robust to endure at least a brief grid outage. On calling Nova Scotia by land line, I learned that terrorism was being officially discounted by the authorities, and moreover (what was of the gravest importance) that the blackout covered only a tightly circumscribed region in North America.

I packed my knapsack with water bottle, food, and emergency radio. I ascertained from the Fifty-Second Precinct police station that civilians were not now sought for directing traffic. I made my way through failing evening light to the safest place I knew, the physics tower on campus.

As the night advanced, I surveyed an unhappy scene from the fifteenth-floor balcony: to the west and north, a stricken metropolis; still worse, to the east and south, a seemingly normal townscape, with megawatts of lighting in high commercial towers.

Even as the Iraq crisis stemmed from a kind of intellectual failure, so did this one. With the Iraq invasion, the failure lay in the moral intellect, at the highest levels of government. Here, by contrast, it was the engineering intellect that was failing in the downtown core as I watched - and that, as I was soon to learn, had failed in the physics building in the hour or so following the blackout. More fundamentally, it was a failure in the engineering intellect that had caused events to spin out of control in the first place, turning what should have been a modest mid-afternoon Ohio blackout into an infrastructure collapse touching 50 million lives.

The problem in the downtown core was evident to everyone. At a time when resources could not be spared, the great towers were consuming megawatts for floor upon floor of wide-area fluorescent lighting, perhaps from some miracle of the grid, but more likely by drawing down their own precious stocks of emergency-generator diesel.

The problem on campus became apparent at 20030815T0456Z or so, just as I was composing myself for troubled sleep in an astrophysics seminar room. To say that the lights came back on at that point is to put the case mildly. The reality is that lights of no conspicuous efficiency now blazed on essentially every corridor on every floor - fourteen main-tower floors of laboratories and classrooms and offices above the street (we may in this accounting neglect certain minor astronomical accommodations on floors fifteen and sixteen), plus two floors below the street, plus a substantial adjoining low-rise wing. The leaders of Toronto's exact-sciences community had evidently left some tens of minutes after 20030814T2011Z without thinking to perform an orderly shutdown of their vast building. And yet, given everyone's education and training, reflection would have made it clear that the grid would be strained when currents again began to flow, and that it was therefore vital to disconnect every possible load before walking out. Now, essentially alone in that edifice, I walked from floor to floor to floor, flicking off every available corridor lighting switch.

What I was powerless to switch off were the blazing lights elsewhere on the deserted campus, such as the fluorescents in the Robarts Library bookstacks, or what I fear were high-consumption incandescents in the shrubbery of Trinity College.

What, now, of the more fundamental problem, the one that had caused events in Ohio to spin out of control in the two hours leading up to the blackout? In November of 2003, the U.S.-Canada Power System Outage Task Force published a single-spaced 124-page document entitled 'Interim Report: Causes of the August 14th Blackout in the United States and Canada'. From this heavy little tome emerge some conceivable root causes.

The mass media have made much of low maintenance budgets at the public utilities, with consequent neglect of such matters as the trimming of trees beneath transmission lines. To highlight poor maintenance of the hardware, however, is to do only partial justice to the meticulous Interim Report. The identified problem is again one of fuzzy thinking, most notably (I will here leave out the Interim Report analysis of less central players) at Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp.

As the Interim Report makes eloquently clear, the safeguarding of transmission system presupposes capabilities for data analysis. It's not first and foremost a problem of local hardware, but of thinking problems through, so that damage can be prevented from spreading in an interstate and international cascade when local hardware fails. To think problems through, we need computer skills.

The relevant operations room at FirstEnergy, like any facility running an Energy Management System (EMS), relies on a large, comprehensive suite or array of computer-displayed alarms. By 20030814T1854Z, both the server that supplied that entire suite or array to the FirstEnergy EMS team and the backup machine for that server had failed. For a period of over an hour, asserts the Interim Report, the EMS team were unaware that their alarm array was stricken dumb, failing to draw the appropriate inferences from such clues as flat traces on scrolling pen-charts. The FirstEnergy information technology (IT) team, separate from the team in the EMS operations room, knew (the auto-pager system worked) that the server and its backup were down. The IT people undertook warm reboot, and yet - this, I'd say, is crucial - failed to investigate whether after the warm reboot the alarm systems were functioning properly. For a mission-critical period on the afternoon of 2003 August 14, then, the FirstEnergy EMS workers had an inaccurate understanding of their system, thinking that things were normal even as events moved toward a point of no return.

The words of FirstEnergy President and Chief Operating Officer Anthony J. Alexander in a corporate statement of 2003 November 19, published at http://www.firstenergycorp.com under the heading 'FirstEnergy Believes Interim Report Fails To Adequately Address Root Causes', are disquieting: '... we submitted a report to the Task Force that identified a previously undetected flaw in vendor software that resulted in the loss of an alarm function, affecting our operators' understanding of events on our system.' An alarm function? When what had failed was an entire server, maintaining the comprehensive suite or ensemble of alarms, plus the backup computer for that server? Is this not, yet again, a painful instance of fuzzy thinking?