Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Book Review: Lights Out by Ted Koppel

Spoiler Alert! Bad things are closer than they appear.

By day three, all gasoline is gone, water is rare, and all FEMA food has been distributed. Now the fun begins.

By day seven, the backup food supply is zeroed out, the vulnerable are dead, and the refugee migration has begun causing states to take border patrol into their own hands. It’s game on!

Or so writes Ted Koppel... and documented by mountains of data...and confirmed by a seemingly unlimited supply of informed sources in high places.

Numbers Don’t Lie
Although the formal documentation of an inevitable grid crash is like reading ourpremature obituary, all's not lost. But that is only if America makes it to chapter 19. The first 18 chapters in Lights Out put into perspective what is likely the largest and most logical threat that any and every survivalist, prepper, and ordinary person hoping to live through tomorrow should consume like a news story sent from the future.

I am an academic, first and foremost. That is what pays the bills. I live in a world of data driven decision making, statistics, and arguments whose value is only as good as its validity and reliability numbers. Opinions are unacceptable unless backed up with footnotes, citations, and preferably experimental data. Which is exactly why Koppel’s book is so frightening. He has the proof. Sure, it’s in the form of triangulation, metadata, and small-scale testing, but when the pieces are combined into the whole picture, the image is undeniable. And Crown Publishers of New York agreed or this vehicle of gloom would be just another self-published Amazon download.

For many, stocking up on survival gear and food and planning for darkness always carried a sense of urgency, but one that could be postponed when important life events intervened. We can turn our deepest concerns on and off because there is no tangible evidence that TEOTWAWKI will arrive this particular afternoon except hearsay about some telegraph frying event 150 years ago. But Koppel changed all that with a stroke of his pen. Using the same investigative prowess as he did in the past, Koppel leaves no stone unthrown. We are all guilty of seeding this disaster. We are all to blame for not preparing as we should. And we are all going to act like monsters after the first week.

When the electrons dry up, so will the photons, the hydrocarbons, and the carbohydrates. Modern society is like a flying airplane. All is well only when we’re flying. The moment we stop flying and start falling, all hell will break loose and any bad situation will be made considerably worse through predictable human nature.

Facts Overrule Fiction
Unlike most prepper fiction, Koppel pulls no punches; the first word in chapter one is “Darkness.” While Amazon.com is filled with self-published visions of the aftermath, this particular Lights Out frames the situation in the form of specific names, places, machines, and methods. So much so that if this book was fiction, the FBI would have kicked the author’s door in arresting him on whatever trumped up charges would squeeze the leaks shut with a bang. Instead Koppel methodically and not-so-slowly rips the veneer off the lack of governmental planning and punches the public in the face with an undeniable scenario that will scare even the most battle-hardened American into considering a self-reliant off-grid existence.

With chapter titles like AK-47s and EMPs, Extra Batteries, and The Ark Builders, it is clear that Koppel speaks the language of survivalists, and leaves little room for nuanced argument from armchair preppers. If obsession about the End of (American) Days is the only thing providing credibility to those claiming preparedness, then the ride is over. Get up and face the music. TEOTWAWKI just went mainstream and Koppel is the new king in town. No voting necessary.

Koppel chronicles the downfall in painful detail to the point the uninformed could mistake this book for a terrorist instructional manual of some 268 pages. But just because you didn’t know about all this doesn’t make us any safer. There were many who anticipated a plane crash into one or both World Trade Center towers. But anticipation can also be perceived as guilt. In the case of Lights Out, who cares who knows what. Nothing previous to yesterday matters. It’s all on the table now. Everyone knows. And CYA is out of the question with the clock ticking loudly.

Bug Out Love
As much as I love my Bug Out bag, Koppel makes it clear that one survivor, or a family of survivors in my case will just be a few of the ten percent of lucky ones that are projected to still be walking around a month after the lights go out. Playing out the math, the US population is 319 million. Knock a zero off that and you got nothing left but the population of Florida spread out across 3.8 million square miles of Uncle Sam’s backyard instead of just the 66,000 of the Sunshine state. And no matter how you slice up the land, that’s eight-and-half people per square mile, or reducing the entire US human density to just slightly more than my home planet of Montana. While I might personally feel much more at home when traveling, most US citizens will be scared to death with the lack of folks walking around. Now that I think about it, I will be terrified as well. This really will be “Death to America.”

Stage Left
Lights Out is a pile of chapters in three parts. Part one is the bad stuff and the documentation making it real. Part two is the mountain we have to climb. It begins on page 91 of my “Uncorrected Proof-Not For Sale” advanced copy of the book. But climbing mountains is what the US is good at, right? Koppel spells out exactly what you need to do to get ahead of this impending disaster before those so-called “evil-doers” get the upper hand. Unfortunately, in order for Ted’s technology manifesto to gain traction, and that’s Ted Koppel, not Ted Kaczynski (seriously, think about it), the very real possibility of this internet fairy tale coming true must be as plausible as it is scary before the mainstream gives a hoot, whether media or consumer. Finally, part three is “Surviving the Aftermath,” and reads much like a confirmation of what drives me, this website, and your reading of it.

Breaking Bad is an exceptional TV show, and when Koppel compared Craig Kephart to DEA agent (actor) Hank Schrader, it was further confirmation that Mr. Koppel speaks our language. Bridging the fuzzy line between acceptable thought and tinfoil conspiracy, Koppel ignores the background noise that dirties up the traditional apocalyptic arguments and instead focuses on the demands of the situation. With the grid vulnerable to cyberattack and the results obvious, there is exactly one immediate outcome to talk about; total darkness and the immediate results. If there is time left over, then discussion can address what will happen after one week in the dark. After that, Koppel makes it clear in Part three (Surviving the Aftermath) that the playing field is not level. It is heavily tilted in favor of certain groups such as the Mormons. Having lived deep in LDS country, I can verify that much of their group preparation mentality is real. Unfortunately, there is a bureaucracy, patriarchy and unfortunate tendency towards obesity and prescription meds that will present a greater than average challenge to survival over time. Google it if you care. But as usual, I digress.

The Sin Eaters
As expected, Ted Koppel draws upon his childhood experiences. And I don’t blame him. Fathoming the unfathomable is not something we can do on demand. Koppel is doing what I would expect a world-class reporter to do. I feel bad about it, but understand it. As though my own father was trying to make sense of this wildly crazy situation that humanity got itself into within just a few percent of its overall lifespan. I didn’t expect anything less. With a tear on my cheek, I have to move on to the next chapter of American evolution. You see, so many aspects of human behavior are unsurprising. We are civil until hungry. We care about each other until we feel frightened. We follow the 10 Commandments until our children are crying. Then we eat sin. Maybe not you. Maybe not me. But most will. And most are the concern.

It is clear throughout this book, and reality for that matter, that the Internet is a weapon as much as anything. Winding down this tome, Koppel lays blame on those who should know better. I agree. But there is some light behind where Koppel notes, “It also teaches us that there is value in the act of searching for answers.” So if Lights Out is not confirmation enough in your search for answers and thus why you are visiting us here at Survival Cache, then perhaps the 90 percent that won’t survive will ignore you. That’s my plan.

Are We There Yet?
So just how did we arrive at this particular situation where we essentially strapped a bomb of our own making upon the most vital and fragile mechanized system of modern society. And now we wonder when some enemy of America will detonate the device through a handful of ones and zeros emailed to an unsecured computer somewhere. Maybe that’s a simplification, but given the rampant incompetence that got us here, and the continued debate of method over risk, I don’t doubt that those same people will be throwing rocks at each other around the campfire.

In a nutshell, the trifecta of deregulation, profit over security, and voluntary standards laid the ground rules for this game. The playing fields are the artisan one-of-a-kind custom-designed transformers sprinkled throughout thousands of exposed locations across the US. And the players are everyone with a grudge and a computer whether rogue anarchist or suicidal nation-state. The game clock stops ticking the moment the first domino falls with the cascade-effect pulling the rest of our grid over the cliff.

The F-Word
In the back of most American minds are white semi-trucks loaded with supplies, and camo-clad weekend-warriors passing out food and water to an orderly and calm line of citizens. And, in fact, that is the plan. FEMA and DHS pretty much dialed in the rescue effort for a small to medium scale blackout of three days or less. After that, the millions of MREs will have been given to the millions of people. The water tanks will be empty, the rent-a-cops will have gone home along with the professional gunslingers. Oh, and the government officials overseeing this mess (and their families) will be safely tucked away in their assigned bunkers.

Regarding who's in charge, Ted Koppel tries desperately to report the facts without smirking, but the gross confusion, conflicting opinions, and utter misunderstanding of the magnitude of what could happen makes this collection of pages just as depressing as the state of the grid. Even more maddening are appointed lawyers and politicians who spend billions of our taxpayer dollars on 72-hour-feel-good measures and potential photo-ops. In reality, we must give thanks to FEMA for making it crystal clear that we will be on our own after the long weekend. You’ve had your warning, so now prepare. How clear do you need it?

Say what you will about “Doomsday Preppers,” but the simple fact that nobody has to define the term means that the vernacular and thus society has acknowledged that the fringe has gone mainstream. Shrugging off the right-wing militia stereotypes, so-called preppers are a booming industry where beans, bullets, and bandaids are hot sellers followed by knives, guns, and bug-out bags. Koppel lists the ingredients of one particular $500 bug out bag as evidence of “the futility of prepackaged “instant preparedness.”” But a breath later Koppel offers that he and his bug out partner need a crank-powered radio more than a pair of walkie-talkies. I’d take that as confirmation that Mr. Koppel has one of the finer bug out bags in the world--and knows how to use it. Actions speak louder than words, right Ted?

Noah’s Arc
Noah and his kids spent sunny days building an ark for a scheduled outage of dry land. He was not the first to prepare for armageddon and certainly not the last. Who would have thought an entire Hollywood entertainment genre would spring up around the end of the world as we know it. The arc of prepping is like a brilliant rainbow of different colors and scenarios beginning here, and ending somewhere in the future. During that time, there will be a steep climb towards survival before coasting back to earth, the dust of society settling out, the pecking orders reestablished.

Koppel highlights the Mormon preps as a model to consider, but then admits in not so many words that without the divinely established chain of command in the church hierarchy, managing the flock and it’s preps would be impossible (and still might actually be since the system has never been fully stress tested). What I would really like to know, however, is how the several million Mormons scattered around the US will deal with the several hundred million hungry non-believers. Although the terms “Mormon” and “Militia” appear together occasionally in history, what I can tell from Koppel’s writing is that there may or may not be a planned armed response to threats against Mormon preps. Koppel prys but the clams at the top of the LDS food chain kept their shells shut tight. Yet it’s impossible to believe that the particular tangent of prepping known as personal defense has escaped the church prophet's revelations.

First one to panic wins!
I can see a peaceful transition from light to dark as long as bellies are full and security is abundant. Perhaps like camping in your home. Neighbors are tossing the football in the empty street. Barbecue grills are moved from backyard to driveway. And kids deplete their cell phone batteries playing music. Most of us have experienced a day or two or three of no local grid power. And most of us rolled along just fine seeing light at the end of the tunnel through information and a grid-up not too far away. The Mormons have it right for the first 72. No doubt about it. But nine meals later, a whole new set of conditions will emerge that require specific near-military preps. At the apex of Noah’s Arc, islands of stability will emerge; “Islands” in Koppelease include bunkers, compounds, floating forts, local FEMA camps, you name it as long is it’s small scale and caters to the individual and his clan. Relocation is part of most personal plans including mine and likely yours. The rich have their SEAL guides, speedboats and helicopters. The middle class have their bug out locations and buried caches. And the poor have their locked doors and duct tape. Some rural communities might not notice much for a while, but major population centers will descend into chaos before the light bulbs cool off.

The advent of the Doomsday Prepper makes talk of such things acceptable if not routine. It also plants the seeds of immediate reaction, conspiracy, and first-come-first-looted. The plans Koppel highlights are based upon a degree of predictable human reaction. But if panic sets in immediately (prematurely?), traditional government responses will never gain the traction necessary to preserve the peace, let alone the pieces. Who of us will stand still long enough to see how this shakes out when everyone else is racing off to the store or filling their bathtubs and sinks with water, or draining gas stations with hand pumps. Before the first FEMA public service announcement is even drafted, civil and organized society will be little more than a textbook concept in yet unwritten history.

Bring it Off
If nothing else, Ted Koppel’s book Lights Out is a loss of innocence. Giving a friendly nod to the survivalists and preppers as informed hobbyists, while tossing every accountable government official on the hot seat like a celebrity roast, Koppel fries us all with the pudding full of proof that 1) something will happen, 2) government agencies are woefully unprepared and even in denial, and 3) much of the population has also chosen the same path as the government meaning limited or no preparation and idealistic visions of FEMA assistance.

Koppel leans towards “Surviving the Aftermath” over preventing the disaster. Given Ted’s street cred, I find that to be the most upsetting aspect of this book. Koppel could have sugar-coated the situation leaving us a yellow brick road like so many other non-fiction authors of catastrophe have chosen. But alas, Alea iacta est (The die is cast). The transformers are in place and vulnerable. The enemies have been made. And the internet has connected the two. It’s only a matter of time.

Final Act
Lights Out draws upon what we believe we are as Americans. Otherwise it never would have been written. We are better than this. We are vulnerable only if we act like it. And since you are reading this review on our website, Lights Out has not yet happened--especially since Ted Koppel makes it clear with the last line of the book that “the Internet, among its many, many virtues, is also a weapon of mass destruction.” While preppers will relish in “I told you so,” they should also be at the front lines of applying pressure on the government to change it’s ways, and upon society at large to prepare as individuals and in small groups so as not to add to the same problem we are already disgusted about creating.

Enemies believe America is only as great as its electrical grid.

We believe that America is only as great as it’s people.

Ted Koppel’s Lights Out is the call to pick a side.


  1. What would be the cost to provide a fix for the vulnerability of the grid. Of course it would be in the tens of billions, but would it approach what we are now paying for new aircraft carriers and the latest bomber. These programs will be hundreds of billions of dollars, and the chance of their deterring a war are negligible. We already possess the means for retaliation that will prevent any rational national actor.

    Why can't the public insist that the current grid be fortified, have redundancy in hardware and software. If anything should be included in our DOD, Department of Defense, protecting our infrastructure should be it.

    1. I think Koppel makes the point pretty clearly that we cannot harden the grid. We cannot build replacement transformers, and even if we could, we could not install/replace them because the facilities are no longer out in the middle of nowhere. Cities grew up around them with bridge, narrow streets, and overpasses. Plus they run on different voltages so each piece is crafted for a specific location.

      Finally, like everything else computerized, hardened against cyberthreats is temporary at best and misleading at worst. In other words, that ship has sailed. Now getting off the main grid is the answer. Instead of protecting it, we should work towards abandoning it on our own.