Newsletter - sign up here
Search Webster
Webster's pieces from The Oldie
Webster's Webwatch

The ascent of man

January 2013

The hurricane that hit New York in November provided a splendid example of how the apparently unstoppable cyber world can be humbled by our tangible world, and why, in the end, it’s people and the sweat of their brows that make cyberspace work.

This website is delivered to the internet by a firm in New York called Squarespace.  They handle over a million websites, which all live happily within computers in a data centre, which is the digital equivalent of an office block.  Actually, this one really is an office block, a thirty storey monster near the New York Stock Exchange; Squarespace are on the seventeenth floor.

It is critical that their computers stay working all the time, because if they shut down even for a moment all the websites that they look after would vanish until they switch on again.  This would profoundly irritate every single one of their customers, cost them money in lost sales and cause all sorts of other consequential problems.  So, elaborate plans are made to deal with whatever disasters might crop up, including backup generators in their offices and lots of fuel in the basement in case the power fails.

The electricity did fail; all of Lower Manhattan was blacked out almost as soon as the hurricane arrived.  The emergency generator on the seventeenth floor started its work, and all was well.

The flooded basementThat’s when fate stepped in and did what it always does to our best laid plans.  As it turned out, New York suffered much more damage from a surge of water than from the high winds; the basement was flooded to about thirty feet, and the fuel for their generator and the pumps to send it up seventeen floors were now ruined.  There was only enough fuel on the seventeenth floor to generate electricity for a few hours; after that, internet oblivion beckoned.

It was time for humans to step in and remind the machines that they are literally powerless without us.  Finding a lorry load of fuel was easy; the big problem was raising the diesel up seventeen floors, in darkness, without lifts or heating.

Bucket carrierThe staff rallied round.  The head software engineer’s wife found some empty oil drums for sale locally, and someone else found lots of five gallon plastic tubs.  One team worked on the pavement using gardening equipment to decant the diesel from the oil drums and into the smaller tubs; another team strapped torches to their heads (the stairwells were pitch black) and set up a human chain to carry the fuel up the stairs in cold, wet conditions.  They were almost all computer programmers and similar types, not a breed known for their muscles.

This “Bucket Brigade” worked heroically from Tuesday morning until late on Thursday, by which time a pump had been found that was tough enough for the job and was able to take over pushing diesel up the stairs.

There were still worries - not least that the generator was going to have to be switched off to be serviced at some point - but the initial crisis was over, and the exhausted Bucket Brigade could stand down.

After a week, a generator on the back of a lorry arrived from Tennessee and was connected to the seventeenth floor; thus Squarespace now had two generators, and enough fuel for both; power was now sustainable, and they could relax.

They settled down to wait for the building to be reconnected to the mains.  It turned out to be a long wait, but in the meantime, none of their websites had vanished and all their customers were either delighted or completely unaware of the drama.

Salvation - the new generator arrivesSo full marks to the team at Squarespace for showing the sort of determination and ingenuity that proves, when it comes right down to it, that computers would be lost that without us.  Thank goodness.

 The Bucket Brigade