Saturday, March 06, 2010

Information Whiteout

I write this in the aftermath of the latest big storm hit the northeast, the so-called "Snowacane" of February. Many have significant damage to their property or homes, or are without power and aren't sure when it will return. In that light, we got away easy. Sure, the plow guy scraped up some of our lawn, we lost a few large branches in the woods and the azaleas outside my office were crushed. We lost power overnight, but otherwise escaped intact.

But the biggest inconvenience is not that our heat went out, but that we lost our cable. And that means we have no phone, no TV, no internet. Not the end of the world, to be sure. And even that is attenuated by the fact that we can get two of the three on our various handheld devices, albeit a bit slower, with a sketchier connection and with a bit more button pushing than merely walking by and shaking the mouse to wake up a computer.

Still, we are in the midst of a blackout as if we were under attack. We've become so used to information on demand that both my wife and I are walking around the house wondering what is happening in the world. We used to both routinely check both the computer, and/or flip regularly from the weather channel to the news channels on a nearly continuous basis. In short, we were wired: we knew about the latest Iranian diplomatic snub, Lindsey Von's pinkie and the shortage of Mexican tortillas. Had we been trading George Washington Bridge Lower Level Backup futures, we would know how to cover a short in an instant.

Then there's the text side of things. Our phone rarely rings these days. Instead, like many, we have shifted to a largely character based world. From scheduling walks with her friends to our kids letting us know what their weekend plans are to me booking jobs, more is done by typing than talking. It's getting to the point where I'm beginning to forget what some people sound like, but I recognize their normal misspellings in an instant.

So with our normal portal to the outside cut off, or at least severely restricted, we've reverted to things that now seem almost historically quaint. We turn on the radio, but it seems an eternity for the top stories to cycle around (only 10 or 20 minutes, I know, but it seems longer). We thumb type our way to a movie review, then wander around the house as it slowly downloads. For weather we're reduced to looking out window and looking at the sky. As to whether or not I should take a raincoat if we go out tonight, I'm thinking of asking our neighbor if her arthritis is flaring up, a sure sign of rain.

Even my writing of this column is severely affected. Normally as I hunt and peck away, I look up random thoughts, ideas or data that I think might be of interest. But with no access to that information, I'm reduced to my own steadily failing memory and non-wealth of information. So, sorry, no stats from the NY Public Utilities Board as to how often outages occur in this area: like the old joke, I can only tell you we've felt this before, and we're feeling it again.

Several years ago I tried to catch a flight out of Chicago to get me home. I could see weather moving in, and noticed the effects start to crop up on the monitors spaced around the terminal. Sure enough, when I got to the departure gate, a delay was posted. And along with the delay was a long line of people queuing up to get information and rebook their trips.

Not wanting to stand in line, I called the 800 number for the airline. After a few moments, I got patched through to an agent. I gave her my information, and waited while she pulled up my reservation. I asked for some options, and she said she thought the next connection would be leaving form Gate 35. "Thought?" I asked. With all her systems, she couldn't tell me for sure? "There is one way to know," she said. "Walk to the window. If you see a plane at the ramp, then you might be able to take it."

And that's where we are. It's been 36 hours and counting, and the cable company won't even venture a guess as to when it will be back. I'm sure it will happen, but nothing I can do will make it go faster. I guess I'll go read a book, take a nap, and wait for the paper tomorrow to see what's happening. I hear the Olympics are going on: I wonder who's winning?


Marc Wollin of Bedford has been known to sit in his car in the garage to do conference calls if his landline is out. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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