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The Pulpit
The Pulpit

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Weekly Column

Risky Business: Hurricane Preparedness Too Often Means Others Are Playing the Odds on Our Behalf

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely

Last week, I got flack for writing about NerdTV when some readers felt I should have been focusing on Hurricane Katrina. After all, I had covered both the 9/11 attacks and last year's tsunami right after they happened. Why not Katrina? Well, I simply had nothing to say that would have been at all useful.

After 9/11 (you can find that column in the archive), I wrote not so much about the disaster itself, but about how governments respond to such events, warning that it would not be pretty or even necessarily very helpful. I got that one right. After the tsunami my interest was in how to use the Internet to detect and warn of tsunamis in any part of the world, getting the information not just to officials but also to lifeguards and preschool teachers. In the case of Katrina, the disaster was upon us, the government response was lacking but others were covering that, and there didn't seem to be a technology angle. So I didn't write about it.

Sometimes the best thing to write is nothing at all.

Since Katrina, we all know about the bloggers covering the story from the inside and the newspaper continuing to publish online. The only discussions I've had with readers involved how one might use XM or Sirius satellite radio as a kind of squawk box communication system, though strictly one-way. That's interesting, but not very useful without two-way capability.

A reader e-mailing me from inside the Mississippi disaster zone said he somehow still had Internet access, though the phones were screwed up and outside lines were impossible to get. So he'd fire up the generator, get online, and use his Vonage VoIP phone, instead. Now that's an interesting idea: Given the right bits of good luck, VoIP could supplant the local phone system during or after a disaster. With the mobile phone systems down, too, this makes a lot of sense. But you can't count on good luck in a disaster, eh? Vonage service to New Orleans was reportedly lost.

Another interesting approach would be to have portable high-power WiMax hotspots. Starting with optical or copper connections ringing the edges of a disaster zone, you could create a very effective mesh network with additional self-powered hotspots, dropped-in by helicopter to act as repeaters. Such a setup could be in place within hours if the equipment was prepared in advance and kept ready. Handing out WiMax phones to emergency workers as they arrived would give everyone good communication. Heck, make those camera phones and they'd have GREAT communication.

Of course, the big question that comes up following a disaster of this magnitude is what could we have done to prepare? As news stories have made clear, very little was done to prepare New Orleans for such a hurricane -- a hurricane that officials knew would eventually come. I can understand, in part, how this can happen. My house in Charleston is four blocks from the harbor and two feet above sea level in an area that has been devastated by hurricanes in the past, yet I take some mindless comfort in remembering that the house is 153 years old and hasn't fallen yet. But that's just one house, not a whole city like New Orleans -- a city that is below sea level, at that.

So what happened in New Orleans? There were years of studies and big plans to rebuild the levees and restore wetlands needed to absorb the hurricane's fury, yet somehow nothing was actually done. No additional money was spent and Army Corps of Engineers' budget for maintaining the levees were actually cut by more than half. The most likely answer is that some public officials like to play the odds, believing that doing so somehow gains them something.

Playing the odds means assessing risk, something that Peter Neumann -- of SRI International and the ACM RISK Forum -- has been writing about for more than 20 years. If you haven't ever read comp.risks (it's in this week's links), perhaps you should, because it is a moderated list of various technological risk factors that we face as a culture and as an economy. The ACM RISK Forum continually uncovers and explores important technology stories long before they reach newspapers or most web pages. Sometimes these stories never appear to the general public -- until it is too late.

After 20+ years of preaching to the choir (that is sharing risk news with people who already know there is a problem), Neumann and comp.risks are talking about reaching a wider audience specifically because, as Neumann puts it, "Somehow we need to be able to reach out professionally and effectively beyond the RISKS audience. I have testified at least a dozen times for governmental bodies on RISKS-related issues, but always have a gnawing feeling that these efforts fall on deaf ears or are largely ignored by brains that are preoccupied with other concerns."

I think this is a very important idea. More and more, science is being interpreted to mean whatever some interest group wants it to mean. Maybe it has always been this way, but it feels worse now than ever, so a new voice of reason that might help prevent another 9/11 or another Katrina disaster, is welcome.

Meanwhile, at chez Cringely, NerdTV this week got off to a somewhat shaky start that I want to explain.

For those who tried and failed to download the first NerdTV episode with Andy Hertzfeld, please understand that the slow response wasn't for lack of effort or commitment on our part. The distribution servers were pegged at full throttle almost from the first moment the site went live and even adding more capacity didn't do much to help. Downloads were clocking 300+ megabits-per-second for most of the day.

The main problem was that people decided to stream the video, rather than download it. Those who have read about the aching birth of NerdTV know that the plan was always to download the video, rather than stream it. But when we began testing the Mediaframe MPEG-4 applet a couple weeks ago, most testers found the player began playing before the file was completely downloaded, so they were effectively streaming, though the file was definitely not hinted, as streaming files generally are. Then, right before the site went live on Tuesday, testers reported problem with the player that made a few browsers crash, so the decision was made to save the applet for next week and just download the raw mp4 files. Well this turned EVERYONE into a streamer. And while our 300+ megabits of power could have trickled down 100,000 or more copies overnight, we really had only about 12,000 simultaneous connections available for streaming, hence the low performance.

So where were the torrents, you ask? Where was the RSS?

Both are good questions. The torrents are now up and running (finish reading this, then go to your computer and download the show, please); the subtitled version will be there shortly; we hope to have RSS going by next week; a viewer forum would be nice (we're working on it), as would a sponsor. But mainly I am looking forward to taking a shower.

I'm glad you enjoyed the show.

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