Saturday, September 10, 2005

Test Blog

Now I can blog from anywhere. This post is from my Treo. Nice!

Can Civilian Agencies Handle It?

Even though FEMA is getting totally slammed, it is not clear to me at all that even the best FEMA efforts would have been sufficient for the Katrina tragedy. Meseems that a unified force such as the military (or a civilian disaster action force of some sort) is the only answer to such 'ultra-catastrophes.'

He or They?

"You realize how much you love someone only when they have left." That's a line from some B movie. A grammar audiobook I borrowed from the library stressed that one should use he/him, not they/them, with 'someone.' I like to use the more-PC 'they/them.'


This post is a bit out of date. I'd written it up last week but didn't manage to post it then. Anyways...

I had followed the Katrina tragedy for the first few days so closely that my office-mate called me a 'rubbernecker.'

It was quite impressive the way the authorities managed to empty the city systematically. One-way only traffic on highways and efficient early-warning systems worked flawlessly.

I was following the story almost all night long when the hurricane was about to strike, because I was wondering if any of the worst-case predictions would come true. Because of their excellent infrastructure and preparations, most such events have a happy ending in America. The dangers are usually exaggerated and the worst fears are mostly unfounded.

That seemed to be true again, because there was no direct hit on New Orleans. But the story all of a sudden took a completely new twist.

The levees broke, and it turned out that several thousand poor folks were left in the city after all.

For those first couple of days, CNN etc. had no clue about what was going on. Boingboing had links to and a bunch of other blogs and some of those blogs started reporting about the developing crisis.

I wasn't going to do anything about it, but I was developing almost a morbid fascination. I told myself I was interested because I wanted to see how the Americans respond and how India and others should respond in such a situation. I'm not sure if that was the truth though...

Boingboing also added a link to Interdictor - a blog that seemed to corroborate the overall story as it developed: first the tragedy, then the violence, then the anarchy.... The mainstream media was still mostly clueless.

At this point, I thought that the American machine (the Federal government) would move into top gear and fix the problem. Bush returned to DC - I didn't expect anything to come of that. He took some little irrelevant actions - like asking Clinton and his dad to raise money. Silly!

But folks like Chertoff lined up on TV and said they'll fix it. I believed they could. I thought folks like Interdictor were not smart when they asked for the military to step in. What would the military do differently? And didn't the Americans have a law that did not allow for military intervention in civilian situations?

The news continued to get worse. Ray Nagin and the Louisiana governor kept complaining and the Interdictor kept providing illustrations and pictures - lawlessness on the streets, stolen guns, powerless cops... Other blogs added more info. Someone who'd left New Orleans explained that some cops had also left with their families since they assumed the worst this time around.

Only after 4-5 days did the actual, appropriate response materialize: the military stepped in, they started dropping food packets, and started rescuing people using all their awesome equipment.

Some lessons to draw:
  • The initial response to an 'unscripted' tragedy is always haphazard, be it the Gujarat earthquake or broken New Orleans levees
  • The military will have a role to play for a long time even in the US; at least until the different Homeland Security organizations develop interoperable communications and learn to work together by pooling resources; the DHS does not have a plan and the guys who run it don't seem to have a clue; going back to multiple individual agencies won't solve the problem either
  • I am going out on a limb here, but it seemed like they weren't even dropping food packets until the military came in; that's pretty much standard operating procedure in such situations, no? It seems like the US government may have some lessons to learn from other governments
  • The problem is not one of resources - the US has sufficient resources on the homeland security front - but they are not efficiently used at all

Was I rubbernecking? May be. But there are so many lessons to learn here also. Wish I could do more to help the victims though.

Ambulance Chasers

There is a lot of fraud and ambulance chasing going on around the Katrina tragedy. And the tech industry is certainly not to be left behind. Here is an example.


A few weeks back, I mentioned to Mandar and a few other friends that Seinfeld, in their reruns, seems 'a bit dated.' They all disagreed. This article pretty much sums it up. Seinfeld-isms and Seinfeld actors are everywhere, and so are Seinfeld reruns. After a while, it starts getting old.

Friday, September 09, 2005

I Get It: Why Blogs Are So Cool
I wasn't sure until this morning why blogs are so cool and why journalists can't stop talking about them. The reason is simple. They are making more bottom-up journalism possible.

Consider all the stories around Katrina - like Michael Brown's resume or the bombing of the levees. Each of these started off as rumors - some better-researched than others. But they all gather steam as they move up the blogosphere food-chain, finally breaking into mainstream media.

How's it different? In the past, there was no quick, simple, organized way for rumors to break into mainstream media. Now we do.

Question is how long it will last. The mass-media where the stories actually become influential and effective are still controlled by folks with serious vested interest. The next level down - the top blogs - are also mostly controlled by vested interests (e.g. DailyKos is a Democratic Party shill, and DrudgeReport, Instapundit work for the Republicans). We still have BoingBoing, which seems independent.

But like most good things, this rumor-processor (the renovated rumor-mill) won't get much better before it gets worse.

Two Insights into Emergency Management
1. From the New York Times today: "...Hurricane Katrina had exposed a critical flaw in the national disaster response plans created after the Sept. 11 attacks. According to the administration's senior domestic security officials, the plan failed to recognize that local police, fire and medical personnel might be incapacitated."

2. From the Wall Street Journal today: "Toward the end of last week, the "cavalry" began arriving, says Mr. Meffert, in the form of several thousand walkie-talkie phones provided by Sprint Nextel Corp. The phones operate directly between users within short distances, so they do not require cell towers to transmit."

The second item is very relevant to the Automatic Vehicle Location project I'm working on at Corpus Christi. We are using the citywide WiFi mesh network to test our vehicle location tracking system. We worry about what would happen to our system in case of various types of catastrophes that affect the underlying networks.

A mesh network would be perhaps the best method of dealing with breakdowns of the New Orleans kind. One can only hope that mesh networks proliferate - rapidly.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Free Software
It's interesting that all large software companies seem to be confined to one area each. Microsoft can't do much more beyond Windows/Office, Oracle specializes in databases, and SAP rules the business apps market. Only the free software world is growing - Linux, Firefox, Sugar CRM, MySQL - are all growing rapidly at once, feeding off of each other.

Only Apple (iPod, iTunes), Microsoft (XBox) and IBM (Services) seem diversified enough to take advantage of free software.

Labor Day Weekend
We were visiting Indianapolis and Chicago over the long weekend. We left early from home, expecting traffic jams everywhere and lines at the airports. All our fears were unfounded. Maybe Hurricane Katrina had something to do with it. Or maybe it was the gas prices - $3.24 per gallon in Chicago.

He's back
Salman Rushdie is back with his new book 'Shalimar the Clown.' Let's hope it's good. He's interviewed in the Wall Street Journal. The interview is very tame - befitting a 58-year-old Nobel Prize winner-to-be. The only interesting line in the whole interview is his observation about 'Da Vinci Code': "... it's a shameful piece of work, and I'm not talking about the fact that the Pope doesn't like it."

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