Saturday, August 27, 2011, Hurricane Irene started its rampage north past our home in the hills of New Jersey. My wife and I watched its progress with the Weather Channel on our smartphones. A map showed that the eye of the nearly 500 mile diameter storm was barely in North Carolina when we started to feel its fury. We could see the rain bands as they headed in our direction. Fortunately, the eye would pass to the east of us lessening its impact, but damage in our area would still prove to be severe. We are thankful to have escaped serious damage.
Before heading to bed that night, we still had electricity. A couple of hours later (after midnight) we were awakened to the sound of alarms from our computers’ battery backup units complaining that they had lost power. By morning we had occasional sun before the main storm arrived later in the afternoon. I started a small generator to power the refrigerator, phones, a laptop and a couple of lights in the evenings. I only ran it when I was awake as it needed to be fed with gasoline every 1-1/4 hours. Power was finally restored five days later. After two days, I was able to get to a gas station that still had gasoline to fill up my cans. I needed to go back a second time before power was restored. Total cost of gasoline was about $50, certainly not an inexpensive and efficient way to generate electricity.
During the power outage, we had no cable service (television, Internet or Internet phone). One of our favorite links to the outside world was a 50-year old AM transistor radio. For some reason, there was no wired telephone service for two days during the middle of the power outage. Were it not for the generator and our cellular service, we would not have had any way to make emergency calls had we needed them. We were also lucky to have a Data Card for the laptop so we had much better Internet and email capabilities than with the smartphones. They were reserved for texting and occasional calls. A neighbor used Wi-Fi at a local Starbucks that required a circuituous route to reach due to many downed trees.
The Saturday after we got power back, we went out for dinner with neighbors across the street. On the way, we passed a long row of utility poles and downed wires. There were two trucks from the cable company surveying the damage. After what we saw, we assumed it would be a long time before we had cable again. However, much to our amazement, service had been restored when we got home from dinner. The next morning it was out again until the following day.
Until services were restored, there were short times when cellular communications appeared overloaded. Text messages were always reliable, but had we needed emergency services, there were enough downed trees to make it unlikely that they would have always been timely and dependable.
Thank you to crews from Toledo and Ohio Edison who came to our aid. Had vegetation around power lines in our area been maintained better we would likely have gotten power back a couple of days earlier. In any event, when a storm such as Irene is on the horizon, is not the time to be doing contingency planning. It is the time for final preparations. Now is the time to take what we have learned and consider where we might not have been so lucky. We can start taking these things into account now and do even better the next time.
Finally, it was a comfort to know that we had family members nearby who could have reached us in an emergency. Too bad the highway department has never raised the level of roads and bridges so we would not always need to take long detours around areas that flood regularly.
It surprises me that people who lose their jobs think that they will get rehired as soon as the economy improves. Such an expectation is unrealistic and politicians should not give them false hope. Their jobs have either been automated out of existence or they have been outsourced to an area with much lower labor costs. When companies need more workers, they may need different skills or will find contractors and part-time, entry-level employees who work for less money and are not eligible for costly benefits. If things work out, fine, otherwise it is on to the next candidate with no strings attached and no legal hassles.
The Industrial Revolution brought increased productivity that could usually be absorbed in a growing, manufacturing economy. This was especially true for products where demand was relatively inelastic. After all, some products are needed no matter how good or bad an economy is. Until computers were introduced to more and more processes, an unskilled workforce took the brunt of any force reduction and reduced demand was a good excuse to eliminate outdated facilities and those with unneeded skills.
Today, things are different. Computers are replacing labor everywhere. They are doing things that were unheard of only a short time ago. Smart attendants are programmed to talk to us, answer our questions and solve our problems. They are handling more and more complex tasks as companies pick the brains of highly skilled professionals before they retire and program computers with their expertise. They precisely control machinery that provides superior dexterity to even perform heart surgery. Soon robots will be doing our bidding and taking care of us in our old age.
There are exceptions to every rule. What remains to be seen is how people will respond to computers and foreign outsourcers taking their jobs. One interesting sign is that some recent law school graduates are suing their schools because they had been assured of jobs that did not materialize. Perhaps it is because of Legal Zoom and the entry level legal work that is being outsourced to countries such as India. One thing is certain. If people are encouraged to pursue jobs in healthcare that are growing in number due to an aging population, they will be disappointed if robots become commonplace.
We believe that people who expect jobs should consider business startups. Innovation is likely to bring new and different types of work. It is certain that computers will continue to reduce the ranks of those with traditional jobs so it is important not to get caught in a trap with the masses. Understanding what is needed and how it is done is always important. As computers become more and more self-programable, anyone with the know-how should be able to boss them around.