“The Grid”: Bakke’s account of the electric power grids doesn’t consider the worst that can happen

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Author: Grethchen Bakke
Title, Subtitle: The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and our Energy Future
publication date 2016
ISBN 978-1-60819-610-4
Publication: Bloomsburg, hardcover (also e-book), 349 pages, 30 roman pages, 9 Chapters
Link: author

The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and our Energy Future”, by Gretchen Bakke, promises to be a definitive account of the history, current state, and particularly future of the United States power grids (three of them).

Indeed, the early chapters give a detailed account of how free market forces starting in the late nineteenth century, first led to small local power companies which gradually would consolidate into today’s industry.  An important milestone was the “discovery” and quick engineering of alternating current.   The History Channel had covered some of this ground in a 2012 series “The Men Who Built America”.   An important concept is that electricity itself cannot be stored or redirected, although charge is stored as chemical energy in batteries.  Resistance, not distance, determines how current flows.

The book does cover the mentality of the “energy crisis” of the 1970s, which was launched by the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973 as political retaliation for the US alliance with Israel after the sudden Yom Kippur war.  Jimmy Carter’s fireside chats emphasized the permanence of the need for energy conservation, with sweaters or leggings in winter and 80 degree thermostat settings in summer (which Sun Computer systems bragged it honored).  It got worse with the Iran hostage crisis, but during the Reagan years energy turned around, as industry produced its way out of the jam.  I can remember when moving to Dallas in 1979 that even some people who worked for oil companies thought we would reach “peak oil”.  But by the late 80s, there was oversupply of oil, leading to the Texas real estate crash and savings and loan scandal (which she doesn’t cover but I know it well because I lived through it).

I also had oil stocks, which increased in value, and my parents had a lot of utility stocks, which is one reason why they were financially stable (it didn’t hurt that a relative on the mother’s side owned a gas well in Ohio).  And I had a few I.T. job interviews with oil companies and with Texas Energy (through a consulting firm).  One of the gigs might have had me working at the nuclear power plant near Glen Rose (which I actually visited in 1982).

A critical point in the history of utilities was the passage or PURPA, or Public Utilities Regulatory Policies Act, Section 210, which, while allowing utilities to remain local “monopolies”, denied their continued “monopsony”, of being the only customers.  The result would be more incentive for local production of power.

Bakke does cover failures of the grid, but incompletely.  She gives a detailed account of the Northeast Blackout of 2003 which developed as a cascading of events after a tree fell on a power line in Ohio.  A software bug called XA/21 led to the failure to parse line signals properly, leading them to “add up” and overload various other circuit breaks, forcing utilities all over the northeast (and into Canada) to shut down.  She says that the greatest enemies of power grid stability are overgrown vegetation and animals (especially squirrels).  But perverse economic incentives had led companies to neglect some kinds of maintenance and software testing.

The other big catastrophes, in her account, were the Great Gale of 2007 in the Pacific Northwest (starting December 1), and Hurricane Sandy in October 2012.  Lower Manhattan, below 34th Street, lost power for a week, mainly because much of Con Ed’s infrastructure was place too low to the ground; built on higher floors it would have survived.

Later she does discuss physical attacks on the grid, especially a major rifle assault in the Silicon Valley in California in April 2013, which might have had much worse consequences than it did, and maintains that small attacks (as well as “accidents”) are common.  But she never goes into the biggest threats – like a Carrington-level solar storm (which we may have barely averted in the summer of 2012), or an enemy-launched high altitude electromagnetic pulse attack.  That would naturally lead to a discussion about the inadequate transformer manufacturing and replacement capacity of the US utility industry.  She does mention cyber attacks, but only briefly.

She makes an interesting distinction between resilience (she spells it “resiliency”) and security, and says that utilities and consumers need to stress the former.  One way to achieve some resilience is decentralization (less reliance on power shared over hundreds of miles) and use of micro-grids, which many companies today (even some banks) have.   Small local grids can often effectively use wind or solar power, or natural gas generation which is usually much cleaner than coal or oil. There has been controversy over whether utilities must buy back from consumers who generate their own electricity, from renewable sources.

She looks to the future, mentioning fusion down the road, but not acknowledging the work of Taylor Wilson (Clines’s book “The Boy Who Played with Fusion”).  She does discuss the possibility of transmitting power wirelessly by magnetic resonance, an idea of Martin Soljacic at MIT, replacing earlier ideas of Tesla.

In her epilogue, she describes experiencing a blackout at home in winter.

It seems to me that most people assume that their background infrastructure (plugs and sockets) will always be there for them, and they can go about making money without thinking about it.  But what if we’re all wrong?

The author is a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology at the University of Chicago.

(Published: Monday, Aug. 22, 2016 at 9 PM EDT)

“Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World”, a meditation on the Internet by Werner Herzog with some definite warnings to the less human

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Name: Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World
Director, writer:  Werner Herzog
Released:  2016
Format:  1.78:1
When and how viewed:  Landmark E Street, 2016/8/19
Length 98
Rating NA
Companies: Magnolia Pictures
Link: official

 

The last of the ten sections (“The Future”, which was itself the name of a 2011 film about a goofy couple seen through the eyes of a stray cat) of Werner Herzog’s new meditation, “Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World” is the most prescient for me.  After examining artificial intelligence, it shows a man undergoing a brain MRI and predicts that soon we will be able to read each other’s thoughts and fantasies (maybe even sexual fetishes) through smart phones.  The film didn’t mention the new invention, DuoSkin, supported by Microsoft, which could destroy some fantasy life.

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That section also maintains modern Internet communication seems to be broadcast for all to hear, and doesn’t care a lot about the needs of a specific recipient. That sounds like a characterization of my own web development supporting my “Do Ask, Do Tell” books over the years.   The film speculates that future human beings may curiously not be as socially connected as in the past, the “Alone Together” (Sherry Turkle) syndrome.

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Earlier sections also get attention.  There is a section on “Internet Free Zones”, such as around the radio telescope at Green Bank, W Va, where there is no cell service for several miles in all directions because that would interfere with faint radio astronomic observations of distant worlds (maybe like finding extrasolar planets).  Several women with unusual wireless wave sensitivities talk about the pleasures of living there as real people, completely off the grid.  (I visited Green Bank in May 2013 and got several pictures but I don’t recall much discussion about the absence of cellular service.) The film then also mentions an Internet addiction clinic in Washington state  (see “Web Junkie”, July 2, about such a boot camp in China).

It also gets alarming predicting “The End of the Internet” by a solar storm, specifically recounting the history of the Carrington Event in 1859 (see book review Aug. 12).  The film didn’t mention our near miss with another one in July 2012 by the position of the Earth in orbit around the Sun.  Furthermore, other threats, like high altitude EMP blast, are possible.  The film does cover the fact that we have become dependent on technology and probably could not survive if a terrorist or enemy (or nature) pulled the plug suddenly.

There is a brief interview with Elon Musk about the progress in his plans to eventually colonize Mars — and provide the Internet to the scattered communities (a 15 minute delay from Earth for Facebook and Twitter for the speed of light).

The film opens by visiting a sacred altar room at UCLA, where the first Aparnet computer worked on Oct. 29, 1969.

There is also an early section about trolls and personal meanness on the web, particularly concerning the gratuitous circulation photos of a car crash victim.  Early designers of the Web didn’t anticipate users attacking one another. The architects had more faith in human nature than can be justified in a world where people are so “unequal” and disconnected that they see little point in following the rules or in civility.

(Published: Friday, Aug. 19, 2016 at 10:45 PM EDT)

“Zero Days”: the history of the Stuxnet worm, and how the blowback just could destroy America

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Name: “Zero Days”
Director, writer:  Alex Gibney
Released:  2016
Format:  digital video
When and how viewed:  Landmark E St, 2016/7/8, fair audience 7 PM, had played at AFI Docs
Length 114
Rating PG-13
Companies: Participant Media, Magnolia
Link: Site

Zero Days” (or “World War 3.0”) is Alex Gibney’s latest political documentary, and this one comes with a serious warning.

If the U.S. and allies (especially Israel and the UK or “Little England” now) can hack into hostile countries industrial control systems (even for the laudable process of stopping the development of nuclear weapons) they can do it to us.

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The documentary, with lots of interviews, particularly with a translucent female avatar (Joanne Tucker) playing a combined NSA analyst, establishes the case that the U.S. drove the development of the Stuxnet worm during the Bush administration, in order to compromise nuclear-related centrifuges in Iran.  The worm was so well written that it could completely cover its tracks, and it made many “zero day” exploits that could fire off according to parameters (but the same idea is common in ordinary maware  and even mainframe crime, where elevation integrity has been compromised).

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The code was developed at the NSA, and at corresponding facilities in England and especially Israel. The Pentagon put in a “cyber command” in place at the NSA headquarters at Fort Meade (south of Baltimore) with the authority to deploy the cyber weapon.  The CIA was also involved, especially in bridging the “air gap” and getting the malware delivered (possibly on a thumb drive) by an operative when the system (normally offline of the Internet) was being maintained.

In time, some security companies, especially Symantec and then Kaspersky in Moscow, began to see evidence of the worm, which first showed up in Belarus (a former Soviet republic).

Obama continued the process, but the U.S. “got caught”, and Iran retaliated at least twice, once against Saudi Arabian oil companies and once against several US banks in early 2013. But in the meantime, the US has embarked on an even bigger program against Iran’s infrastructure called “Zeus”.

The film warns that a state-sponsored hack could compromise many US industrial systems.  It showed the May 2015 Amtrak crash in Philadelphia, as a false example (because positive train control wasn’t in place there).  It suggested that if the power grids were overloaded or the Internet went down, the world might be like “humpty dumpty”.

An ordinary hacker serving malware, even ransomware, through phishing or drive-by websites could not accomplish this kind of a hack because of the “air gap” to the internet, but an internal operative could probably install the malware.  (Router hacks might become more destructive in the future, especially given the “smart home.”) The main states capable of such hacks would be Iran, North Korea (as we know from the Sony hack) and Russia, and probably China.   Some of this material was covered in Ted Koppel’s book “Light’s Out” (2015).

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The film had been shown at AFIDocs.  It’s possible that it’s release helped prompt the warning from Sinclair Media  (near Baltimore) about cyber attacks and possibly EMP on the power grid.

Wikipedia attribution link for Natanz nuclear facility in Iran, by Hamed Saber, under CCSA 2.0.

(Published, Friday, July 8, 2016 at 11:15 PM EDT)