Coding matters: Slow-motion apocalypse

Load-shedding or grid collapse: landscape photo of electricity pylons with the word "blackout"

It was a double-whammy in South Africa this week: stage 6 load-shedding and a hike in petrol and diesel prices. I am very grateful for our solar panels, and the ability to work from home.

I’m more of a glass half-full than a glass half-empty kind of person. I don’t spend time worrying about the chance of a grid collapse. Which doesn’t mean it won’t happen. SA insurance companies have notified clients that their cover excludes damages resulting from a grid failure.

My doomsday skills

Recently I read a novel about an apocalyptic future. A solar flare causes a devastating global blackout. The story is based on a report that Ted Koppel wrote in 2015 for the New York Times. Koppel described what might happen in the US if there is a major cyber attack on its power grid.

This is not my usual choice of fiction, but it was thought-provoking. I am not a prepper. The US term “prepper” refers to a person who believes a catastrophic disaster will occur, and prepares for it. This usually means having some kind of bunker with stockpiles of supplies.

I don’t know how well I would cope in that kind of doomsday scenario. I shudder at the thought of hunting my own food (especially as I’m vegetarian). My mechanical skills are basic, at best. On the other hand, I am good at organising and problem solving. And I’m sure I can follow instructions for things like basic plumbing.

We’re all preppers

In a way, South Africa is going through a slow-motion version of this story. Instead of a sudden and catastrophic collapse, load-shedding is preparing us stage by stage for grid failure.

Many of us have invested in batteries and solar panels and generators. Some communities and companies are working together to deal with infrastructure problems. We’re already used to rampant crime. Perhaps all South Africans have developed some of those prepper survival skills.

Preppers need maths

Remember those word problems in Math class at school? Preppers definitely need basic math skills. “If we use 5.7% of our battery capacity every hour, how many hours of load-shedding can we handle?”

It seems some South Africans aren’t equipped for this aspect of survival. I went to the local library to take out some large print books for my father. The librarian had to figure out how many books I could take out:

“I have two library cards. I am allowed to take 6 books out on each card. I still have 5 library books at home. How many books can I take out today?”

She didn’t believe me that the answer was 7, and had to work it out on a piece of paper. Twice. I am still dumbstruck. Her survival in an apocalyptic future is clearly at risk.

The great thing about programming is that it develops problem-solving skills. Those will come in handy even when your laptop battery is flat. I don’t know if you need to stockpile toilet paper, but it won’t hurt to occasionally do some simple maths without a calculator.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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