Issue 27
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Termination: Lightning Hits & Myths

Lightning Hits & Myths.


21 February 2013

Text:/ Graeme Hague

My mother is terrified of electrical storms – so terrified, in fact, that she also hates cows. Why? Because cows shelter under trees during storms and trees apparently attract lightning, potentially killing us all and not just the soggy bovines. Best of luck applying any scientific or Freudian analysis to that one – it’s never made any sense to me but I recently found out that when my mother lived in Wales as a child, whenever a thunderstorm approached my grandmother would close the curtains, cover all the mirrors with thick blankets and even wrap the silver cutlery (we had silver cutlery?) in tea-towels – all to avoid somehow sucking a lightning bolt through the windows. Devious stuff, Welsh lightning. Instead of just seeking out Mother Earth it would much rather connect with your best Sheffield dinner service – and now you know why it’s really called ‘fork’ lightning. Anyway, with my mother’s phobia steeped in such deep-seated mythology, these days we just throw a thick blanket over her instead.


There are lots of myths about storms and lightning. I personally wasn’t convinced about the perils of being on the telephone during an electrical storm until a friend in Queensland showed me the large, black hole in their kitchen wall and the smoldering remains of their phone. It was literally blown up by a nearby lightning strike. And a year ago the phone line to our shed was turned into 50 metres of crispy copper by a storm. So okay, now I’m a believer. Attempts to convince my mother I was perfectly safe using a cordless handset fell on deaf ears, however – she’d turned off her hearing aids, just in case. But the risks to telephone lines, and anything attached to them, from lightning are real. Computers and everything in them can get fried.

Which is why, for people like myself who work from a home office and rely heavily on a hardwire internet connection, hearing the rumble of an approaching storm is a pain in the arse. Suddenly it’s a race to get stuff finished and backed-up before shutting everything down. It isn’t just the threat of being incinerated by a billion volts through your favorite YouTube channel. Any kind of storm can black out the power when you least expect it. In the blink of a circuit breaker everything stops. I know that in the movies a power failure is announced by a huge clunking sound, the lights go off one by one (more clunking) and finally there’s this huge, turbine-engine-winding-down noise. In the real world you just hear a kind of click and then… nothing. That’s the funny thing about power-cuts. It’s one of the few times we find ourselves in complete domestic silence. Spooky.

Unless you’ve got an uninterruptible power supply. I have finally, finally (like, finally) invested in a UPS that gives me something like 15 minutes of battery power to save my work, email or chat to my online colleagues that I’m going under, then calmly shut down the PC. Except there’s nothing calm about it at all. It feels like I’m trying to defuse a bomb with only seconds to spare, rushing to get everything achieved before that battery fizzles out. It doesn’t help that the UPS is shrieking an alarm like a demented smoke detector. How are you supposed to stay cool and composed with that racket going on?

Of course, some of you are questioning what all the fuss is about. I should have backed-up and safely stored all my data, right? There’s no harm in a power-cut. In fact, it’s an opportunity to escape the screen, stretch your legs and get some fresh air.

People who have a regular, disciplined regime of backing up their computers are… bloody annoying, really. They are more annoying than people who have perfect teeth and insist on telling you they’ve never been to a dentist in their pathetic, cavity-free lives – and that’s pretty annoying.


Normal people struggle to do regular system back-ups. You’ve got terabytes of information on your computer that needs all night to digitally stash away somewhere safe, plus because most archiving software will keep the last half-dozen back-ups it requires a hard drive the size of a house to store it all – which it doesn’t have, so you have to do some time-consuming, hard-drive housekeeping first. It’s all a bit too hard.

However, getting to the point of this missive, witnessing the tropical storms and floods that just hit Queensland reminds us the seasons are about to change (and by the way, how many trillions of binary 1s and 0s were also irretrievably washed away by the flooding? Unique data lost forever? An interesting thought, if rather inconsequential in the greater scheme of things). Winter and its wild weather, irresponsible cows, lightning bolts and power cuts is, believe it or not, coming. It’s time to think about backing up data more often and maybe buying that UPS you’ve never gotten around to. Coming up with a bad weather, data saving plan.

Right now, I have to check the blanket moving in the corner. Strange – I thought she went home weeks ago.


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Issue 27