Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Dancing In The Dark

Earlier this year, as Californians were confronted with rolling blackouts and skyrocketing energy bills, many small businesses sustained financial losses because of the state’s ongoing power crisis. Dairy farmers were forced to dump supplies of milk that could not be properly stored. Restaurateurs watched helplessly as their dining rooms remained dark (and their evening’s income vanished into thin air). Anyone with perishable goods, an electronic cash register, or a computerized operation witnessed business come to a sudden halt. With that experience came the gnawing awareness that lost time really does mean lost money.

For some people, the great New York blackout of November 9, 1965 is their first memory of trying to cope without electricity. In that instance, more than 30 million people were left in the dark for 13 hours as “the city that never sleeps” experienced a political, communications, and business crisis. Nine months later, the local media took great delight in attributing a record number of births to what happened during New York’s blackout.

Loretta Lynch had a very different experience. While visiting Southern California in 1996, she and her family were enjoying Disneyland’s“It’s A Small World” attraction when, thanks to a regional blackout, the music stopped, the lights went out, and their entertainment was put on hold. During a recent interview in her San Francisco office, the woman who later became the head of California’s Public Utilities Commission recalled that “I came away with a better understanding that no business, no consumer, can go without electricity. You have to have it every minute of every day.”

Unfortunately, these things don’t just happen to “other”people. At 6:48 p.m. on October 25, 2000, I was wrapping up my day’s work before heading out to meet some friends for a performance of “Ragtime.” I had changed clothes for the theater and was about to make a clean exit when I thought I would check my e-mail one last time. I logged on to AOL and sat there feeling like an idiot as my monitor went blank, the music stopped, and the lights went out. As I looked out my office window, Icould see that the lights over the tennis courts had lost power. The traffic lights had gone dark as well.

Groping my way through the dark to the room where our digital dictation system sits, I was momentarily reassured by the glow from its monitor. Things should be all right, I told myself, knowing that the entire system was plugged into an uninterrupted power supply (UPS). That’s when I saw the pop-up screen warning me that I had “973 seconds until shutdown.”

Two doctors were still online, dictating from offices across town that had not been affected by my area’s crisis. Three transcriptionists were working from their home offices. But with my computer down -- and the memory dial buttons on my phone rendered useless by the loss of power -- there was nothing I could do to contact people and tell them that our system was going offline in a matter of minutes.

As I groped for one of the flashlights I keep available at various locations in case of just such an emergency, I was forced to think quickly. What to do? What to do? There was no telling how long the blackout would last. And with no way of knowing whether or not DVI’s digital dictation system would reboot itself once the lights came back on, I had to quickly choose between two options: I could take a flashlight with me and start walking in the direction of the Orpheum Theater (in the hope that there would still be electricity in other sections of San Francisco).

Or, I could sit in the dark and wait...like a stereotypical Jewish mother.

Needless to say, I wasted no time heading for the theater. As I walked in the dark, the lack of any street lighting or moonlight transformed my once-friendly neighborhood into a deserted, eerie landscape (the kind of setting one remembers from Rod Serling’s episodes of“The Twilight Zone”). The first two city blocks that I traversed had no electricity at all. But as I turned the corner onto 16th Street, I could see some neon signs in the distance. Buses were running along Mission Street. As I neared the theater, I learned that local utility workers had hit a power line which had quite effectively cut off power to most of San Francisco’s Mission District.

Running water and electricity rank pretty high on the list of luxuries that are now considered to be necessities in our modern world. For most consumers, the inconvenience of losing electricity – even for a short time – is little more than an inconvenience. But trying to conduct business without any electricity is a nasty challenge. For those in high-tech professions, the ability to work on computers and telephones is critical. Productivity losses in one location can ripple through large data networks like tidal waves of downtime that stall projects, destroy deadlines and wreak havoc on the work process in today’s supposedly “wired” world.

  • Need a file? Forget it.

  • Are there penalties for late delivery of transcribed reports? Tough.

  • If you’re working on a production basis, your contract states that you will only be paid for work that has been completed according to the specified turnaround time.

  • Remember when AOL crashed for an entire business day?

  • What about when Microsoft’s servers were recently hacked? Consumers whose e-mail accounts rested on the msn.com and hotmail.com domains could not communicate during the regular course of doing business!

For every transcriptionist that cannot download a sound file or upload transcribed reports, business suffers a setback. For every ASP that finds itself without power, a silent ripple effect sends shudders up the spines of its hospital clients, MTSOs and medical transcriptionists.

What can you do to prevent such situations? Precious little. Oh, sure, you can plug your computers into an uninterrupted power supply (UPS). But most of those will only buy you an extra 15 minutes of time.

What if you lease office space? Are you absolutely sure your landlord has an alternative source of power? If he doesn’t, you might try purchasing a diesel generator from Honda in the hopes of having an emergency backup power source. Just remember that you can’t run those generators inside an office very safely if there is no ventilation for diesel fumes. And if it’s pitch dark and freezing cold, you may not even be able to start that sucker in time to keep your networks afloat.

What good would it do you, anyway? Suppose you struggled to make sure that three transcriptionists could keep typing pre-opreports -- only to discover that they couldn’t be delivered because someone else’s servers were down? Or your ISP was experiencing service problems in another part of the country where one of your clients is located!

Hospitals may have their own emergency generators. But what about the neighboring buildings where many doctors have their offices? What about all the outsourced support services – coders, transcriptionists, even janitors – who depend on electricity to perform their work?

Doesn’t this all remind you of the R.M.S. Titanic? The ship that God himself could not sink? These are matters we’ve never really had to think about because they just weren’t on our radar. But now, with energy prices bursting through the ceiling, things are starting to look very different. Try driving through a section of San Francisco where there is no electricity. Stores are closed, traffic lights are not functioning, and many people are confused. Their choices are limited: Either sit out the blackout where you are. Or, if you have a car, go to another part of town. Because nothing is working like it should.

How severely a lack of electricity can affect your daily life, your business,or your industry is largely a question of scale. And trust me, folks. There’s nothing so humbling as the silence one hears when the lights go out and all you can rely on is the sun, the wind, the moon, and the stars.

Several years ago, when I took a whitewater raft trip down the Colorado River, I was stunned by the efficiency and resourcefulness of the guides working the trip. In addition to their usual challenges, they managed to float a grand piano down the river so that singers from the Portland Opera could perform evening concerts for the people on this excursion. Despite sand storms, cloud bursts, and other unexpected crises, the guides deftly catered, cooked, and managed the trip without the help of a surge protector. As we floated down the river, I listened in awe as two soprano friends of mine bounced their voices off prehistoric canyon walls. At night, a group of young opera singers performed the quintet from Act I of West Side Story a capella under a full moon.

It was magical. It was mystical. And there was no electricity.

Several days later, when I flew to San Diego, I was amazed to see how many things could go wrong simply because of man-made devices. There were problems with the rental car agency’s reservations system. The hotel’s electronic door locks wouldn’t work properly. One incident after another led to a comedy of errors.

So before you think that your networks are free from hackers, your ASP can solve all your hardware and software solutions, and all you need to do is stop by the ATM for some money from that friendly cash machine, try taking this little test. Spend the next 24 hours making a check list of all the activities in your life that depend on electricity. Think of every man-made convenience you take for granted and what would happen to you if you were suddenly deprived of its use.

Then ask yourself this question: If, as the power came back on, you had to choose which activities could receive electricity, where you would place transcription as a priority?

The moral of my story is a simple one. The more sophisticated we make our tools and ways of doing business, the more vulnerable we become to the possibility or probability that something will go horribly wrong. It’s a sobering thought which can make our slavish devotion to computers and turnaround time seem quite ridiculous. For when there is no electricity, people quickly discover what it means to be powerless in this world. And what it is like to be truly afraid of the dark.

Lights out, kids!

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