Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath by Ted Koppel
With urgency and authority, one of our most renowned journalists examines a threat unique to our time and evaluates potential ways to prepare for a catastrophe that is all but inevitable.

This book was a mixed bag. Seems a great, if unintentional, case study in how fear of disaster and loss makes people more open to abandoning their civil liberties—by the end of the book, Koppel argues that maybe we really ought to abandon some of our privacy online to the government, for safety reasons, and he barely engages with the serious dilemmas this presents. To Koppel, it seems, the threat of a grid attack is so terrifying and catastrophic that no civil liberties could be worth impeding the federal government’s ability to prepare. Today in 2021, I think it’s very clear how authoritarians and wannabe authoritarians use exactly that fear to propel themselves into power. To not engage with this aspect of the premise strikes me as irresponsible.

I was also bothered by Koppel’s uncritical repetition of myths about people’s behavior after disaster. Koppel’s sources when discussing disasters and their aftermath are almost exclusively military or involved in the federal government. He takes it as a given that chaos will follow a disaster—repeatedly asking interviewees about how they will defend against looting, for instance. In one passage, Koppel states as fact that following a disaster, “stores and warehouses containing essential supplies… [will be] stripped bare in a matter of hours”. He does not cite a source here, just inserts this speculation—which is at odds with what the field of disaster sociology has actually determined.

Koppel appeals to a need for military authority, and treats the hypothetical millions left stranded by a power grid attack as either victims convenient for his narrative or malicious looters, but never people. One wonders, for instance, what Koppel expects would happen to the essential supplies “stripped” from the warehouses he conjures. To Koppel, it doesn’t seem to matter—the fact that they were no longer in their designated location is evidence enough of a catastrophic social deterioration.

Koppel would be wise to expand his sources beyond military authorities and to consult with scholars of disaster studies—those who have actually studied what happens in crisis situations, and who do not have a deeply trained pattern of hierarchical, authority-based thinking. I might recommend him Rebecca Solnit’s “A Paradise Built in Hell”, to start.

When Koppel isn’t suggesting we cede more digital liberties to the federal government or uncritically parroting patronizing myths about how people react in disasters, the book is good. He convincingly lays out the risk of an electrical grid attack and highlights how systemic issues, such as the electrical industry’s staunch opposition to regulation, amplify this risk. His profile of the LDS church was also quite enlightening for me, and acted as a great example of what a support network might look like (although, perhaps predictably, Koppel stops short of imagining what it would take for a public system as effective and well-stocked as the Mormons’). Unfortunately, those points could likely be captured in a few chapters, which means much of the book is either repetitive or suffers from the problems outlined above.

I’m glad I read it, and it has encouraged me to further consider my own preparedness, for myself, my family, and my community. But the book suffers greatly for Koppel’s unquestioned assumptions.

Piecepack header

It was probably a decade ago that I discovered the piecepack. Invented by James Kyle in 2001, the piecepack is a public-domain game system, a standard set of components designed to be combined and used in an infinite array of potential games, much like a standard deck of cards. It’s not a game itself, the same way that a deck of cards isn’t a game. It’s just a set of pieces—you supply the rules for the games you want to play.

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3D-rendered donut and glass mug of coffee

These last few weeks, I’ve been learning how to use Blender–free, open-source 3D modeling software–with the help of Andrew Price’s incredibly helpful series of tutorial videos. This was my final image from the first run through the tutorial.

Learning Blender seemed like a fun endeavor for the tail end of 2020, especially since I’ve sorta neglected my artistic skills for a while. Plus, it would be really cool if I got good enough at modeling and scene design that I could create new artwork for Project NISEI!

My next challenge is taking what I learned here and modeling a pint of beer. I’ll share it when I get it figured out!

COVID-19

Heads up: This post discusses death and COVID-19.

How would you feel if you woke up to news that Salt Lake City was lost?

Every single person within the city dead. When the sun rises in the desert, no one stirs from the suburbs. There is no banter at the coffeeshop, no sleepy commuters on the bus. No students cross its college campuses. No worshipers stir near the massive temple. The streets are silent but for the wind.

It is a city of the dead.

Or imagine Salem, Oregon, destroyed. Just an hour south of Portland, it’s the state’s capital and second-largest city. The streetlights might flick on automatically, but our tiny downtown shows no signs of life. No heart beats to pump blood to a hand to flick on a neon “OPEN” sign. The cherry-lined State Capitol State Park is empty. The state fairgrounds, which only so recently sheltered evacuees from the local wildfires, now hosts nothing but empty exhibition halls and livestock pens. No one tends the fields. No boat pierces the Willamette River.

Or imagine devastation in southeastern Washington State, where I went to college. Not only is the town of Walla Walla gutted, so too is the Tri-Cities, an hour away. What would it do to your heart to see an entire region’s population dead? Thousands of people, never going to breathe again, never going to laugh or dance or sing or work or hold hands and watch the sun set.

Little Rock, Arkansas.

Vancouver, Washington.

Pomona, California.

Savannah, Georgia.

Waco, Texas.

Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Any one of these cities–imagine it dead.

As I write this, the Johns Hopkins University coronavirus resource center reports that 199,299 U.S. Americans have died to the disease. If it were a city, it would be the 120th most populous city in the country. 200,567 people live in Salt Lake City; this city of the dead will overpass it within the next two days.

How would you feel if an entire major US city were wiped off the map… and the federal government did little more than wring its hands? Worse, the president even knew it was coming, and downplayed the threat? How would you feel if several senators used their insider knowledge to make millions off of these American deaths? If the president welcomed the deaths as an excuse to avoid “disgusting people”? How would you feel if the federal government looked at the impending catastrophe and insisted it was not its responsibility to prevent American deaths?

How would you feel if the city were 50,000 people? 100,000? How big could the necropolis grow before you would feel it in your heart? Before you would allow yourself to believe that this was wrong?

Every day, the city of the dead grows, and our country’s leaders do nothing.


Thanks to my friend Teddy for the metaphor.

It’s high school, and I believe copyright is ridiculous.

My dad has introduced me to Project Gutenberg, an ever-growing library of books in the public domain, and I am spellbound. Contained within its creaky website are thousands of books that are owned by nobody. Or maybe everybody. After all, I could download one and do whatever I wanted with it. I could republish The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, only with the protagonist’s name changed to something patently absurd like “Benedict Cumberbatch”, and I would be utterly free of consequences, because I own those stories now as much as anyone else. They are free to be remixed, reworked. They belong to none of us, and all of us.

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Ian Danskin of Innuendo Studios has this great new video about the right’s fixation on cuckoldry and what “cuck” as an insult means, through the lens of their fixation upon polyamory. In it is also a deeply relatable segment about how being a polyamorous man often gives lots of opportunity to “win” by toxic masculinity’s standards… but that’s not something he (or I) are really interested in.

I can’t do it justice; it’s just real good. Here, watch: