Archive for the ‘weather’ Category

Now that both the iPad and Wolfram|Alpha iPad are available it’s time to really evaluate the capabilities of these platforms.

Wolfram|Alpha on the iPad

Wolfram|Alpha iPad

[disclaimer: last year I was part of the launch team for Wolfram|Alpha – on the business/outreach end.]

Obviously I know a great deal about the Wolfram|Alpha platform… what it does today and what it could do in the near future and in the hands of great developers all over the world.  I’m not shy in saying that computational knowledge available on mobile devices IS a very important development in computing.  Understanding computable knowledge is the key to understanding why I believe mobile computable knowledge matters.   Unfortunately it’s not the easiest of concepts to describe.

Consider what most mobile utilities do… they retrieve information and display it.  The information is mostly pre-computed (meaning it has been transformed before your request), it’s generally in a “static” form.   You cannot operate on the data in a meaningful way.  You can’t query most mobile utilities with questions that have never been asked before expecting a functional response.  Even the really cool augmented reality apps are basically just static data.  You can’t do anything with the data being presented back to you… it’s simply an information overlay on a 3d view of the world.

The only popular applications that currently employ what I consider computable knowledge are navigation apps that very much are computing real time based on your requests (locations, directions, searches).    Before nav apps you had to learn routes by driving them, walking them, etc. and really spending time associating a map, road signs and your own sense of direction.   GPS navigation helps us all explore the world and get around much more efficiently. However, navigation is only 1 of the 1000s of tasks we perform that benefit from computable knowledge.

Wolfram|Alpha has a much larger scope!    It can compute so many things against your current real world conditions and the objects in the world that you might be interacting with.   For instance you might be a location scout for a movie and you want to not only about how far the locations are that you’re considering you want to compute ambient sunlight, typical weather patterns, wind conditions, likelihood your equipment might be in danger and so forth.  You even need to consider optics for your various shots. You can get at all of that right now with Wolfram|Alpha.  This is just one tiny, very specific use case.  I can work through thousands of these.

The trouble with Wolfram|Alpha (its incarnations to date)  people cite is that it can be tough to wrangle the right query.   The challenge is that people still think about it as a search engine.   The plain and simple fact is that it isn’t a web search engine.  You should not use it as a search engine.  Wolfram|Alpha is best used to get things done. It isn’t the tool you use to get an overview of what’s out there – it’s the system you use to compute, to combine, to design, to combine concepts.

The iPad is going to dramatically demonstrate the value of Wolfram|Alpha’s capabilities (and vice versa!). The form factor has enough fidelity and mobility to show why having computable knowledge literally at your fingertips is so damn useful.  The iPhone is simply too small and you don’t perform enough intensive computing tasks on it to take full advantage.  The other thing iPad and similar platforms will demonstrate is that retrieving information isn’t going to be enough for people.  They want to operate on the world.  They want to manipulate.  The iPad’s major design feature is that you physically manipulate things with your hands.  iPod does that, but again, it’s too small for many operations.   Touch screen PCs aren’t new, but they are usually not mobile.  Thus, here we are on the cusp of direct manipulation of on screen objects.  This UI will matter a great deal to the user.  They won’t want to just sort, filter, search again.  They will demand things respond in meaningful ways to their touches and gestures.

So how will Wolfram|Alpha take advantage of this?   It’s already VISUAL! And the visuals aren’t static images.  Damn near every visualization in Wolfram|Alpha are real time computed specifically to your queries.   The visuals can respond to your manipulations.  In the web version of Wolfram|Alpha this didn’t make as much sense  because the keyboard and mouse aren’t at all the same as your own two hands on top of a map, graph, 3d protein, etc.

Early on there was a critical review of Wolfram|Alpha’s interface – how you actually interact with the system.  It was dead on in many respects.

WA is two things: a set of specialized, hand-built databases and data visualization apps, each of which would be cool, the set of which almost deserves the hype; and an intelligent UI, which translates an unstructured natural-language query into a call to one of these tools. The apps are useful and fine and good. The natural-language UI is a monstrous encumbrance…

In an iPad world, natural language will sit back-seat to hands on manipulations.  Wolfram|Alpha will really shine when people manipulate the visuals and the data display and the various short cuts. People’s interaction with browsers is almost all link or text based, so the language issues with Wolfram|Alpha and other systems are always major challenges.  Now what will be interesting is how many popular browser services will be able to successfully move over to a touch interface.  I don’t think that many will make it.  A new type of services will have to crop up as iPad apps will not be simply add-ons to a web app, like they usually are for iPhone.  These services will have to be great in handling direct manipulation, getting actual tasks accomplished and will need to be highly visual.

My iPad arrives tomorrow.  Wolfram|Alpha is the first app getting loaded. and yes, I’m biased.  You will be too.

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LCROSS Centaur Separation occurred at 9:50 p.m. EDT (6:50 p.m. PDT), Oct. 8. After separation, the spacecraft performed a 180 degree pitch maneuver (turning around) to reorient the LCROSS science payload towards the receding Centaur.

Read more from NASA

This is going to be so great!

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For fun, let’s see who’s got the most accurate projected path.



National Hurricane Center

Ok, so the graphics side by side don’t really give you a way to gauge this… dig around.

The infographics and surrounding stories love to promote “worst case” even if that worst case really isn’t likely.  No one will read the stories and visit these sites if the authors don’t keep the hint of major land impact. Duh.  The trouble with this kind of news reporting is that it becomes hard to trust these graphics and stories if they stretch the facts and the worst case scenario doesn’t come to pass.  Methinks this is part of the issue the news media has when the public doesn’t respond when a storm is actually on target for a population center. Then again, if you don’t report worst case scenario, no one pays attention until it’s too late.

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Below is a Washingtonpost.com article from 1-15-09 that encapsulates the events on the Hudson River in NYC that allowed 155 people to walk away for a ditched water landing in extremely chilly conditions.

(If you don’t like this particular description of events, pick another from the 1032 that were on the web by that evening. Any assessment will work for the questions I am raising under the sub titled heading that precedes the article.)

Determined but unpredictable

A Water Landing

An unlikely event plays out on the Hudson River

Friday, January 16, 2009; Page A18

THE NEXT TIME you’re tempted to ignore a flight attendant’s plea to direct your attention to the front of the cabin for safety instructions, remember yesterday’s dramatic Hudson River landing of U.S. Airways Flight 1549. The aircraft had just taken off from New York’s La Guardia Airport en route to Charlotte when both engines were reportedly knocked out after being hit by birds following takeoff. Remarkably, the 150 passengers, two pilots and three flight attendants were rescued.

This crash could have been so much worse. That it wasn’t is a testament to a number of actors in the drama, particularly the pilots, that unfolded above the river’s frigid waters. By all accounts, the pilots brought the Airbus 320 down in a controlled manner, and the crew prepared passengers during what little time they had. A passenger interviewed on television said, “We hit hard!” But because of the pilots’ actions, the plane neither broke apart on impact nor sank quickly. One can only imagine the fear inside the cabin, especially after water started to fill it. That everyone got off the plane without life-threatening injury, despite the bone-chilling air and water temperatures, speaks of their pulling together in a time of crisis. The stretch of the Hudson where Flight 1549 went down is served by a constant flow of ferries between Manhattan and New Jersey. Within minutes of the plane’s entering the water, eyewitnesses said, boats were on scene to help pull passengers to safety until New York law enforcement could get there to lead the rescue.

Federal investigators will examine the plane to find out what exactly happened. But the lesson for everyone in all this is to pay attention to those preflight instructions. “In the unlikely event of a water landing” now has special resonance.

The events of the day were just as you heard or read about in the media. 81 tons of metal with millions of interconnected parts and environment physics malfunctioned after take off. No one has paused long enough to pose and extend answers to any of three questions…

Do you believe this was a set of miracles or a consequence of the 437 hours of training of the pilot and crew?” Pick one…

After a problem was detected by the pilot and co-pilot, did their behavior or intervention of Allah, Buddha, God, chance or karma etc., result in the plane landing as it did in the river?” Select the interventionist you favor…

Did the pilot and crew depend on any other agency, including the tower, to do what they did? Select a contributor to their set of results…

Can you explain why the consequences of this aviation event were what they were and other aviation events ended had less desirable consequences?” Please respond and share your views, beliefs and theories…

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Why do people not heed warnings and/or follow mandatory evacuations?

We do not have an single, simple answer for this.  John Bryant claims, “people do what they value.”  Though an accurate statement, it still doesn’t answer the question, which can be rephrased as “what do people value and how do they come to value it?”

In the context of a natural disaster, I contend, people have a variety of competing values and contextual factors.  All of these variables come together and the decision to stay or go is made (or in many cases NOT MADE, it just happens).

Factors, Values, and Conditions include:

  • Protect my home
  • Protect family
  • Adrenaline of the moment
  • Job obligations
  • “white knight” syndrome
  • No where else to go
  • lack of social connects
  • Lived through it before
  • physical restrictions (health, traffic, disability)
  • ignorance (not aware of a threat)
  • Unclear on consequences
  • Distrust of forecasting, damage predictions (crying wolf, not warned enough, missed landfall)
  • “Celebritizing” of victims (media interviews, profiles of people who do not leave)
  • American “Cowboy” values (against all odds, underdog, we can do it)
  • Rescue and Recovery covers everyone, even those who do not evacuate (inconsistent messaging and delivery of consequences)
  • Do What My Neighbors Do

What can we do to improve preparations and response?

The goal is to reduce loss of life, loss of property and recovery expense to as close to zero as possible.  This goal can be, and often is, achieved through pre event evacuations, in-shelter preparation, post event planning, in event response and quick post event response.

There is a difference in approaches to events we can predict and events we cannot.   An event that we cannot predict means that the most we can know is there is a potential risk (earthquake prone areas, volcano areas), but we cannot see the approaching event directly.  The key to achieving the goals for predicable events should focus mostly on getting people out of the way, property protected and having a plan to get them safely back.  The event itself, should be a none issue in terms of in-event action.  The key to the unpredictable event is in long term preparation, emergency action and recovery.  Though these two types of events share a lot in common in terms of what can work to reduce pain and suffering.

Consider the factors outlined above and with our goals in mind, the approach to disaster avoidance and recovery should involve:

  • Effectively managing knowledge of consequences of lack of preparation and action (variable ratio schedules of reinforcement on planning, knowledge… especially in off-season months or down times)
  • Providing accurate, clear information on forecasts and actions to take (get the media to be more responsible through penalties for abuse and rewards for accuracy and effectiveness, consider forcing all broadcasters to use an NWS, FEMA, or other regulated source for all coverage of all life threatening events)
  • Disable assistance for those knowingly disobeying emergent management orders
  • Providing useful damage scales like Saffir-Simpson for flooding, storm surge, fires, mud slides, cold spells, heat spells (consider condensing the current EF scale for tornados, Richter for earthquakes, flash flooding into 1 general alert system that can be taught throughout life)
  • Increase property taxes for risk prone areas – implement a flat “recovery” fee based on estimation of damage likely to occur over a decade (need to discourage these huge build ups in risky areas or at least have cash on hand to pay for the consequences)
  • Get blackberry, Apple, microsoft, tivo and other information systems to adhere to the Emergency Broadcast System protocol.
  • Provide tax incentives and mandatory insurance rate cuts for individuals and businesses who provide demonstrable evidence of preparation
  • Devote 10% of our weapon making and robotic engineering capabilities to automated, remote disaster protection and recovery robotics
  • Market Ready.gov and other programs with the money currently wasted on “just say no” and other programs
  • Rewards for long term planning on dry brush removal, relocating older, too big of trees, stronger zoning (can manage through inspection but also after a disaster occurs, property left standing where it can be verified it was properly managed should get a reward)

These are just some of the ideas if the goal is to reduce loss of life and property with minimal cost.  [ed. this argument/essay needs a longer treatment to demonstrate that the above concepts will actually do what I claim]

In the end, we may decide (as we currently are) that the risk is not yet high enough to make these adjustments.  As many disasters as we have, they are still relatively infrequent.  On a bad year we have 7-8 major disasters (weather or otherwise) nationwide, most years its 3.  We are a very large nation.  Many other nations, far smaller than the US handle double or triple the disasters and their prep and recovery really is a way of life.  One proxy metric for this is how much money the insurance companies spend on disaster prevention marketing.  If we really were under constant risk, the insurance companies would need to spend a lot on marketing to us to make sure they didn’t go out of business from tons of claims.

In fact, the media and other businesses make so much money and politicians and non-profit groups gain so much credibility for coverage and response of these events, making them less disasterous systematically is probably not a primary reinforcer. This is a subtle point, but likely accurate.

There’s no one answer for why people stick it out in the face of “certain death.”  There are many reasons and sometimes these reasons are more potent to them than even the prospect of “certain death.”

Disclosure: I was in the eye of Hurricane Andrew in 1992.  My family hunkered down for that storm in our stair well of a 2 story townhome in a complex that suffered significant damage, spared only because it sat behind a large hospital.  We stayed because we didn’t make a decision to do anything really until it was too late to make a move.  We barely stocked up on goods either.  And to top it off one of my good childhood friends was visiting from Colorado and experienced the powerful storm 2000 miles from his home.

Miami, as a city, was woefully unprepared.  Very complacent. We spent the day before at South Beach with hundreds of other citizens.  I had my portable radio and pestered my parents all day that I thought it was going to be very bad.

We didn’t have a death wish, we just didn’t know and couldn’t imagine a week without power, with no food – that’s a very foreign concept for most Americans.  We couldn’t imagine a year later that the structural damage to my high school would still be severe enough that chunks of the ceiling would fall on us during light rains.

We also were trapped by a city that has few ways to leave.  US 1.  that’s about it.  And when your cars suck, you have no family within driving distance and you have little money, you make these types of non decisions.

And, yes, my father and I share a fascination with weather.  He’s the type of guy that gets on a roof when funnels form (this I do not do.).  It is exciting to witness nature’s power, no doubt about it.  Some people get their adrenaline from water skiing, some from bungie jumping, some from live theater… we get some from weather.

Put it all together and I would be one of the people you might ask in astonishment, “Why aren’t you leaving?”

Research and Backgrounder

I have compiled some articles, research and thoughts on the subject.

Evacuation Simulations

Anderson Cooper’s blog provides this quick, shortsighted explanation. It is shortsighted because it presents only 1 factor, poverty.

Insights on how Cuba can have fewer than 30 deaths in the last decade even though they get clobbered by hurricanes (2 Category 4 hits already this year):

The secret is the evacuations system. A quarter-million Cubans evacuated during Gustav, and the number for Ike was a staggering 2.6 million — nearly a quarter of the island’s population. Most of the evacuees found family or friends to stay with, but nearly 400,000 were housed in 2,300 government shelters.

“We clearly cannot simply mimic their system, but I think there is a lot the United States can learn from Cuba’s hurricane response system,” said Wayne Smith, the former U.S. top diplomat in Havana. “They have a whole system of alerts that keep people clued in and we don’t have anything like that.”

Here seems to be some of the secret sauce, accurate information and clear consequences:

“By predicting hurricanes accurately almost all of the time, (Cuban) meteorologists have engendered the public’s trust,” said Jane Griffiths of Center for International Policy, a Washington think tank. “That’s why people voluntarily respond to evacuation orders.”

And if anyone has doubts, authorities quickly put an end to them. The state news media often makes examples of people who fail to move out — and who are killed or injured.

On Wednesday, an elderly man was trapped under the rubble of his evacuated Havana apartment building when he returned home before the building was inspected for safety. Coroner officials confirmed that he died.

“Unfortunately, there was irresponsibility in this case,” said Lt. Col. Rolando Menendez, a firefighter overseeing rescue efforts. “But in general, the population is following civil defense measures well.”

Recent piece on newsweek:

What kind of person stays?
I heard an interview this morning on NPR with someone who was electing to stay in Galveston. This was a guy, his family and extended family, that were moving into a masonary building to ride it out. They are strong-willed, independent individuals who I think relish the idea of riding out something most of us would consider to be too dangerous to remain. However, this is an evacuation with several days’ warning.

We just did a study on evacuations under scenarios of disasters without warnings. We are very concerned about disasters that occur without warning when we have to do evacuations in real-time—in essence, immediate—for example, an earthquake or a terrorist nuclear attack. We found about two thirds of people with children would not comply with official orders to evacuate until and unless they were able to retrieve their children from school or day care. If we have two thirds of the population with children that would not comply, what we would have is evacuation chaos and an absolute breakdown of disaster response in circumstances that provided no warning. Under those circumstances, unless we got much better at having well-developed disaster plans that parents were comfortable with, we can anticipate extreme chaos as public officials would be unable to stop parents determined to get their kids.

Here is an example of some of the fresh science and modeling in the works for better disaster prep:

Because many of these managers have never had to confront the life-or-death realities of an approaching hurricane, they need a consistent analytical framework to consider the sequence of complex decisions that they need to make. For example, a poorly planned evacuation could cause roadway gridlock and trap evacuees in their cars — leaving them exposed to the dangers of inland flooding. As another example, ordering too many precautionary evacuations could lead to complacency among local residents, who might then ignore the one evacuation advisory that really matters.

“All in all, this is a complex balancing act,” Metzger says.

The concept of evacuating an area in stages — focusing on different categories of people rather than different geographical locations — is one of the major innovations to come out of Metzger’s work, since congestion on evacuation routes has been a significant problem in some cases, such as hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Metzger suggests that, for example, the elderly might be evacuated first, followed by tourists, families with children, and then the remaining population. The determination of the specific categories and their sequence could be determined based on the demographics of the particular area.

By spacing out the evacuation of different groups over a period of about two days, he says, the process would be more efficient, while many traditional systems of evacuating a given location all at once can and have caused serious congestion problems. With his system, officials would get the information needed to “pull the trigger earlier, and phase the evacuation,” he says, and thus potentially save many lives. Coincidentally, during the recent hurricane Fay in Florida, a modest version of a selective evacuation was implemented successfully when tourists were asked to leave while residents remained in place.

Other factors that could help to make evacuations more effective, he says, include better planning in the preparation of places for evacuees to go to, making sure buses and other transportation are ready to transport people, and preparing supplies in advance at those locations.

Here are a few pieces on “disaster science”. This piece on measuring the preperation, management and response is particularly detailed and helpful.  Even you don’t like the conclusions, there’s value in the concept and bibliography.

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Why haven’t we seen any use of robots for patrol during natural disasters and clean up efforts?

We have the technology.

Perhaps there’s a business in Disaster Relief Robotics.

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Atlantic Basin Live Storms

Atlantic Basin Live Storms


90-95% evacuation is pretty amazing when you think about it.

Why did people leave this time?

  1. 3 years, apparently, is too short of time to forget the consequences of a major disaster
  2. Mayor Nagin’s over the top “Storm of the Century” – “You’ll be hacking yourself out with an axe” advisement to citizens
  3. Upgraded forecasts to category 4s and 5s.
  4. Accurate prediction of landfall early on (can reinforce to citizens of a particular area for 3-5 days)
  5. Organization and instruction from officials ( that leadership thing, ya know!)

Basically, the consequences became clear enough to most people and their were leaders guiding people.

Now, without the pictures of people on roofs and loss of life, will this storm leave an impression to last another 3 years?


With Gustav, we get instant accountability for the government, Corp. of engineers and other organizations spending our tax dollars.  Will the levees hold?

From the news, it doesn’t look like it.

Gustav was not a direct hit nor a major category 3 and 4 and the levees don’t look good.  The 3 years of re-engineering clearly have not strengthened the city to be able to handle this.

Will this public display bring accountability for people spending our money to fix things?

Probably not without the pictures of death and destruction.

Global Warming

Climate change disbelievers need quite an explanation for the erosion of the wetlands and the current season of weather.  From the Iowa floods to 3 tropical systems live right now, to the monsoon in Arizona…

Worse than the increase in weather events is the desctruction of natural protection like wetlands or the lack of rain that causes these hot dry droughts in California that create a 6 month fire season seem.  The problem with erosion of natural protection (which is far easier to show human causes for) is that even normal weather events become destructive.

Methinks it’s going to take far bigger consequences to sway the opponents of climate change.

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The forecasters are a little loopy for not telling people this thing is going to be a cat4 or cat5 on landfall.  They’ve under forecast this thing since the beginning.

The reality is Gustav will spend almost the longest possible time over the warmest Gulf waters.  It’s going to spend 2 days over the warmest waters and it’s already a sustained category 4.

Haven’t we learned that people do not respond to news reports and warnings that down play possible destruction and power of these things.

Just look at this monster.

Gustav blasts Cuba

Gustav blasts Cuba

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I think these pictures show you the limits of our ability to predict (even when 1000s of people and CPUs are put to work).

TS Hanna:

Hanna Predicted Paths

Hanna Predicted Paths

Presidential Election Polls:

Real Clear Politics real time poll tracking

Real Clear Politics real time poll tracking

I’ve talked about it a lot on this blog.  No bigger point to make here other than the idea that we’re not going to be able to predict a winner in the election or guess the landfall of these hurricanes much quicker than the event actually happening.

It’s interesting to try and predict though.

Question is, are we affecting the election through the predictions and publications?

Probably not as much a question for the hurricanes, though you never know if there’s some weird butterfly effect.

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