Virulent Word of Mouse

May 27, 2011

A brush with lightning

Filed under: Amusing diversions,Short observations — Shane Greenstein @ 11:39 am

What is the lightning drill for the Internet age? I had never considered the question until a lightning flash brushed our home.

Every camper knows the drill for the outdoors:  One, count the seconds after the flash. Two, watch for the next flash and count again.  Three, run away from any tall object that might act like a lightning rod.

What is the equivalent act for the Internet age? It seems to be this: One, install a surge protector in every socket. Two, pray that they work.

That is the point of this post. Surge protectors are part science and part talisman. That is because there is no way to test them in advance. Will they really do their job? What would you do to find out prior to an electrical storm?  For my part in it, I relied on faith. I had no interest in climbing up on the roof, flying a kite like Benjamin Franklin, and directing the lightning towards the home, just to see if the surge protectors would hold their ground.

Installing surge protectors always felt like taking an umbrella to the parade to make sure it did not rain.  I just hoped that installing them would raise the probability that lightning would hit my neighbor.

Look, it is not as if I have been waiting with bated breath to find out whether these things work or not. But, finally, last Sunday the moment came. An electrical storm arrived. The lightning flashed. I think the surge protectors worked, but I am not really sure. This is just a little unsettling.

Lightning flashes

As it was, lightning did not hit the house directly. It was more like a brush with lightning on the southwest side of the house.

The brush came early into the fourth quarter of third game during the Eastern Conference Championships between the Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat. (Perhaps coincidentally, the Bulls were playing that fourth quarter without a lot of thunder or flash, but I digress…)

I was watching the television in the basement. The TV is located in the south eastern part of the room. I saw a flash out of the corner of my eye, just off to my right, in the south western window of the basement.

The house shuddered. Everyone in the house heard that distinctive pop and boom of thunder. No delay between the light and sound. Instantly loud.

I ran upstairs to the first floor. One of the kids shouted, “Whoa!” Another child shouted, “Did you hear that?” I did not smell any smoke or see any flames. So far so good.

That is when the first sign of trouble surfaced. After a brief moment of quiet, my oldest son looked up from his laptop. He calmly announced, “The Internet went down.”

As the senior tech-geek in the house I have assumed an obligation to fix the Internet when it goes down. While I expect to someday give up that obligation to my tech-savvy son, on this particular evening I was still the designated home networking guru. It was time to fix the Internet.

But sometimes a father has to use his prerogative. I saw no reason to panic. Or act urgently. (To be sure, I also rationalized. The lightning had merely interrupted my son’s nightly You-Tube addiction. There was no urgent need to feed that addiction, especially while the TV in the basement worked just fine. But I digress…)

It all added up to a decisive decision to procrastinate. I did not investigate why the Internet had gone down. Aggressively acting passive, I walked out of the room, down the stairs, and returned to the basement to watch how badly the Bulls would lose. (Very badly, as it turned out).

A full inventory

After the game was over I began to take inventory of the damage. After considerable testing I concluded that three items bore the brunt of the damage.

* An old laptop had served as a glorified browser for my youngest child. It would not start.

* A printer attached to the old laptop also would not start.

* A router in the basement was fried. It fed the old laptop through an Ethernet cable. The router also acted as a wireless router for the house, which is why my son’s Internet connection went down.

Only three items failed, and, remarkably, not more.

Take a lesson from my experience. Make this assessment as soon as you can. Beware of the false alarm. At one point my wife would declare with a touch of despair that the electronic picture frame – her gift on Mother’s Day a few years ago – also had been zapped. I put my highly developed geek skills to use, determined to salvage the sentimental product. As it turned out, it had merely been unplugged. (Noticing the plug is what passes for home networking guru in my house, but I digress…).

In sum, the lightning had only zapped three items. More to the point, it had not zapped the whole house.

Which framed a question: Did the surge protectors have anything to do with that? Did the surge protectors have anything to do with limiting the damage to three? That begs another question: Why those three items?

All three damaged items had two things in common, location and tethering. They all resided near the southwestern window. Also, the router was wired to the laptop, and so was the printer. Also, the laptop, printer, and router were all plugged into surge protectors, which were plugged into wall sockets.

Yet, that did not fully explain the situation. Argh.

Location alone did not explain the damage. Two old computer screens in the southwest corner of the house continued to work. So did the electronic picture frame (albeit, only after it was plugged in). The tethering together of electronic components also did not explain the damage. A cable modem was wired directly to the router, and it also continued to operate.

This led to the most entertaining post-lightning moment. After letting my son suffer YouTube withdrawal for 24 hours, I thought I ought to show him how to get plugged into the Internet. After all, the modem still worked, and so did the Ethernet cable. The next evening I took him aside for a little instruction in home-networking.

As I showed him, the Internet could work if he plugged his laptop into an Ethernet cable. He was initially puzzled and then  momentarily excited. His eyes widened. Wow.  He had never seen such a tethered approach to accessing the Internet. I sarcastically murmured something about “using old fashioned local area networking” but the sarcasm and phrase were both lost on his wireless habits. (I almost declared that this was how we used to get the Internet in the dark ages, before wireless access was invented. Alas, I held back. But I digress….)

Anyway, back to the main point, which is about surge protectors. In all, three items failed. These items shared a few traits that plausibly explained why these items failed, but these traits could be found in other items that did not fail. The scientist in me remained unsatisfied.

More to the point, did the surge protectors help? I am not entirely sure due to the incomplete scientific explanation. It seems plausible that they prevented an unusual electrical current from moving from one device into the electrical wiring in the walls. But who knows? No simple explanation suffices here.

Lessons learned?

I feel lucky. Lightning brushed our house, but did not strike it directly. A direct hit could have been worse. Many electrical systems could have been shorted. We merely had a little incident. I am not sure why it turned out this way. All my precautionary investment in surge protectors might have helped. Or not.

Since that brush with lightning I have been considering the implications of the popular theory that lightning never strikes the same place twice. If that theory is correct, then the southwest corner of my house is the safest location. It might make sense to stock-pile all the electronic gadgets there.

That idea came to me in a flash. I am not sure whether it is right, but I see no viable way to test it.  Do you?


  1. Can I use the picture of the computers with the lightning bolt in my portfolio?

    Comment by joshthelegodude — February 10, 2012 @ 9:08 pm | Reply

    • I do not have any copyright over it, but my blog also is non-for-profit, so it does not really matter. So it is up to you.

      Comment by Shane Greenstein — February 10, 2012 @ 9:59 pm | Reply

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