Sandy Studies

The clock says, "Hoboken lost power at 9:05." Or so. City clocks are always off a bit.

A Hoboken City Clock at 11th and Washington

It's like a mystery novel. The detective looks down at the body on the ground, and his eyes scan to the wrist; the watch has struck some object during the fall; it's broken; the time stopped. Ah ha, that's when . . .

9:05 is about right. I was laying in bed writing an essay on the history of regulation and technological change when lights went out. It was unsettling to open my laptop right now for this blog post. All of my work was still awake and waiting for me, as it was when I put the laptop to sleep when the power died, like nothing at all has happened. But it has.

We know now that the electricity systems went down when the surge hit. Just about then, water began pouring into my colleagues house. Just about then, the streets on the south end of town became lakes. And just about then, the electrical substation on the backside of town flooded. We won't have lights until they can get water out of the substation. The head of the local electric utility joked, "We don't have divers."

A Blurry View Down 1st Street from Bloomfield Towards the Worst Hit Area of the City
Today, we walked down to most damaged part of town to City Hall, where the National Guard is staging. There, we saw some young kids in fatigues. I think they were Marine ROTC. An older National Guard officer was talking to them. He pointed down 1st Street and said to them, "You go as deep that way as you can, and you see if anyone needs help."

The National Guard at Newark and Bloomfield
What else can you say? What else can you do? You get big vehicles with engines that won't flood, and you try to save some people, to pull them out. All of our fancy gadgets don't give us solutions more sophisticated than that.

(You already hear people talking about technological systems that have failed us, though. Why, people are asking, is the electrical substation below sea level? There are flashes of anger and confusion. I imagine that there will be more of that to come: how blame relieves us.  I wonder how long the substation has been back there. Since 1910? A long time, I imagine.)

 I keep thinking of this Samuel Delany novel, Dhalgren (1975). It's set in a postapocalyptic city, but (as far as I remember) it's not a smashed place full of violence or raging mobs or zombies or whatever. It's just sideways somehow. Not the here we know.

It's funny how you learn to reason through new problems. Last night, I finally got to charge my phone because my friend has power. I couldn't get any reception, however. I have Sprint. My friend's fiance reminded me that someone we had bumped into said that she couldn't get a call out on AT&T. And that's right. As you talk to more people, you come to realize the state of things: the Verizon network seems to be managing; Sprint and AT&T are for shit. 

My friend and colleague, Andy Russell, and his fiance have been kind enough to put help me out and even put me up last night when I got locked out of my building. (The front door lock is electric, don't you know. You use a key fob to open it. RFID, I imagine. But there is no electricity, and someone removed the duct tape that was holding the lock open. I stood for a while in the dark. That got creepy.)

Andy brought up the phrase "return to normalcy" yesterday. We were talking about how it's hard to know the resonance of those words until the world inverts. That night New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and several others used the phrase on TV. Yes, a return to normalcy--that is what people here are looking for. But it's Halloween.

Keeping the Spirit Alive on Washington St.

A few years ago, I attended a small workshop on the history of disasters and accidents. There was a professor there who specialized in disaster response. I remember him talking about why social scientific knowledge about disasters matter. He said, "We know that people do not panic in disasters. If only people had known that, they wouldn't have bought into sensational news reports during Katrina." Those words ring true today.

We don't have riots here. It's just the opposite. If anything, you see real solidarity. Strangers are helping strangers. My colleagues and I check in on each other. The community at the Stevens Institute of Technology, where I am a professor, has rallied. This isn't my ringing endorsement of humanity; it's just what I see.

I want to tell you about the neatest thing I've run across. Last night, we were walking down 11th Street, and we saw that people with electricity had run extension cords out of their front windows to power strips on the sidewalk. People who don't have power are coming to these places to charge up their electronics and cellphones. Then they call their loved ones.

An Ad Hoc Charging Station at Bloomfield and 11th St.

Would it cheapen things for you if I called this an innovation, a social innovation that has arisen from the human heart? That's probably too much.

People Recharging at an Impromptu Station on 11th between Washington and Bloomfield

I walked down 11th St around noon. There were around 20 charging stations within the span of four blocks. I've seen more since, up and down Hudson Street, at Clinton and 11th. There must be nearly fifty of them. 

I'm sorry that this has rambled. I meant this to have more drive, more clarity, more point, but I can't really give you that right now.  Andy Russell and I see Science and Technology Studies all around us. My friend, Maggie Curnutte, who writes about biotech, has recently been researching the origins of some scientific term. I'll probably botch it, but I think it is "studies" or "science in nature." The idea is that you conduct science out there, in the world, outside the lab. (I'm screwing this up.) But what I mean to say is that Andy and I--and many other people no doubt--are already doing STS in nature: let's call them Sandy Studies.

I have reacted to this as I react to all things--with my head, not my heart. Nothing is wrong for me. I don't have power. It's chilly. But I have plenty of calories laying at hand and somewhere to retreat to. I came up to the Stevens campus to get on the network. They have a building with lights and the net, where the students are holed up. As I've sat here writing this, someone came in announced that Trick-or-Treating has begun. Students are dressing up and walking around. Several houses on campus, including the president's and the provost's, are giving away candy. They are doing a good job boosting morale.

Then a while later, another student came into the large lecture hall where I am sitting with others. He asked the hall, "You guys having fun yet?" Everyone stared at him blankly. Then he said, "'Cause we got us a dance party upstairs."

I'm headed out. I want to avoid a repeat of last night's lock out. When you walk through the streets here, you use a flashlight.

From Hoboken,



Thanks for this Lee. Those recharging stations are amazing---the web of cords holding together and expressing a new social bond!

If there's anything we can do for you Lee, let us know!

The recharging stations represent something that is missing in normal life too. Travelers, homeless or otherwise displaced people need a place to easily charge their devices where they don't feel they are imposing or sneaking watts like in a coffee shop. I've thought that transit portals like lighted bus stops, buses and subway cars could offer power outlets. To pay for it they could use a keyed plug. You would have to buy the plug adapter to use the system. Or they could leave it open and adjust their service rates accordingly if needed. The PR value of such an effort may outweigh the costs.

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I believe that the time has come when we can't imagine our life without technologies. Educational world is not an exception, for which students gadgets are essential.

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