Thursday, October 31, 2013

Next time, SMH, get the surfboard to write the column

Really, it's not often that anyone – other than News Limited columnists talking climate change – can manage to cram so much utter drivel into the space of one column as this.

“I want to think we're too smart to pour 40, 50, 60 billion dollars, whatever the final cost, into a fibre-optic network system that sounds impressive now but may look like the greatest white elephant since the attempt to turn the stinking (literally!) Salton Sea near Palm Springs into a rich thang's playground; that a dozen years down the track the NBN will be the equivalent of "visionaries" 150 years ago building a network of hundreds of thousands of stables across the country to cope with the growth in horse transport.”

I think this individual, the founder of a surf magazine yclept Derek Rielly, is a subscriber to the “fibre will soon be obsolete” school of what passes for “thinking” (even when we used entangled photons to overcome the speed of light, fibre will be a better way to move them around than through the air. Noise, and all that.).

“According to the projections of the NBN Co we'll be getting a gigabyte per second once it comes into our lives.”

Well, there's a scale thing right there. The NBN is measured in bits (and megabits, and gigabits), not “a gigabyte per second”. And it's not a projection, the kit is already gigabit-capable wherever the network is, but you know, this is a column. It's like climate change: facts are optional when you have a dumb opinion to tout.

“Wouldn't it make more sense to just invest 20 billion dollars into developing the world's finest compression software?”

Well, no. Actually, no with a double serve of clue-stick, multiplied by “what on Earth?”

“Something like America's Manhattan Project in World War II that created a way to annihilate the world in just six years.”

Yeah, thanks for that analogy. But let's continue …

“All of us are familiar with today's compression software such as jpegs and PDFs which work little miracles every second of every day.”

At which point, head meets desk, because this sage advice, presumably passed by an editor between lunch and Alka-Seltzer, comes from someone who knows not the difference between “software” and “file format”.

Oh, and (say) a PDF is already compressed, which is why (say) PKZip ignores it.

Save me.

“Can you imagine the value in creating compression software so good it shoves the paradigm of computing way into left field? We'll be emailing movies, high-res photo albums, complete TV commercials, magazines, all over our existing networks and through our existing software.”

OK, that's enough quotation.

Compression is mathematics, and it's very well understood. It's a problem the world has been working on for nigh on sixty years, in the digital world.

Of course, even the ancients practiced a form of compression: setting a fire on a signal tower to signify invasion, for example, is a very compressed message in a specific context.

But as for modern communications: compression starts when Claude Shannon explained the limits of any communication medium: channel minus noise equals bandwidth. For any medium, you can precisely predict how much information it can carry.

So compression tries to reduce the amount of information that has to be carried – it says “what can I get into 'bandwidth'?” And it uses a lot of maths, and lots of billions have gone into it over three decades, and the world has created very good compression.

And all of the decades of compression work have been a matter of increments. Every now and again, someone claims a bigger breakthrough than anyone ever before.

Like the Adams Platform.

Next time, get the surfboard to write the column.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Yeah, defund the national emergency broadcaster. Good idea, Tea Party nutters

It's odd that the right always accuses the left of being city-based latte-sippers, because in their obsessions, the right always reveals itself to have a distinctly city attitude. Their suggestions reek of concrete and safety and next-week's-salary.

Take, for example, the persistent idea that the government should not be in broadcasting, and therefore should defund or dismantle or privatise the ABC.

Yeah, thanks for that suggestion. Because it reveals you to be the same bunch of insular, solipsistic twerps whose only trips away from Collins Street are on organised tours to the wine country, where you can pretend to have a palate and come back with the stuff sold at the cellar door that wouldn't rate in any competition, but you'll coddle it and cellar it as if it were gold, when its barrel-mate went to Aldi without a label.

Because you're so easily deluded. But let's get back to the ABC.

The soft city wankers have a monolithic view of the ABC, because in the cities, all they see is through the prism of obsessive compulsive disorder:
  1. The ABC is funded by government, which is evil.

  1. The ABC performs journalism that doesn't always support the (frankly) pud-pulling obsessives of the CIS and the IPA, and is therefore evil.
Since, to the ivory towers of the think-tanks, both these things are evil, they're constantly calling for the ABC to be defunded on the kind of American party-political basis that gives the Tea Party its power in the USA. That is: they're total nutters exploiting a tiny base to a disproportionate profile, rather than being drowned in the nearest farm dam, as they rightly deserve.

So let me relate, yet AGAIN, that the ABC's role as emergency service broadcaster is not some commercial activity that will be subsumed by the magic of free market economics.

When I was sitting in the presumed path of a serious in-the-crowns (if you're a soft city wanker, look up crown-fire and eucalypt and don't pester me with questions) bushfire, I wasn't listening to 2GB. Just trust me on that: the only time I choke my gullet with the paid patsies of commercial radio is when it's imposed on me by a taxi-driver who forfeited his tip by his choice of radio station.

The ABC was one of my three prime information sources – along with my family, reading computer feeds under my instruction, and a radio scanner that was telling me what fire-fighters were saying over their radio network.

(An aside: many fire-fighters on the ground are far more anxious, freaked-out and generally pessimistic than their headquarters. Which is natural, but also worth noting in the hierarchy of information. Even the “closest” information can be improved with a higher-level filter.)

Over this coming summer, any number of communities will find that their best information comes from whatever frequency their local ABC transmits on.

The IPA, the CIS, and the random nutters with Tea-Party inspiration would deny that. For them I can only hope that they find themselves in the path of a fire-storm, with nothing but the Macquarie National Network, syndication, and please to complete the irony, a product endorsement from Alan Jones as their information source.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Social media isn't the main game in a disaster

I'd so like to leave the bushfires alone, but no, life keeps dragging it back.

It's about this piece of drivel.

Yeah, Social Media Saves the World, and people actually saving homes and fighting fires are irrelevant without Twitter - says the for-pay social media expert.

This is the like the load of derp you find blocking your driveway because someone decided to back the derp-truck up and flick the lever on the tipper.

Let me explain what you're actually doing if you have a property with bush and buildings, an out-of-control bushfire to the North-West, and a North-Westerly wind.

You're panicking and fretting. Oh, in between, you're imagining your escape route, wondering if you've cleared enough space around buildings that they won't burn (probably not), watching the skies for ember attack, looking for places where your vantage point might let you see the fire coming before it traps you, and looking for information.

That last one is really important, and frankly, it doesn't come from Twitter. Not if you're in front of a fire. The very best real-time on-the-ground information comes from radios: the scanner listening to the fire brigades, and the regular updates that were delivered by ABC Local Radio.

Twitter? It needs a machine: a computer that doesn't have enough battery for a day (the power might be cut), or a phone or tablet that ... ditto. (Oh, and since you're not in the city, the phone's working harder to see its tower, data is slower, and battery life shorter).

Oh, and purely local infrastructure - like a mobile tower or a Telstra box - is at just as much risk as the houses people are trying to protect. Try logging into social media without a connection. Compare that to a city AM radio tower a long way from danger ...

Ditto Facebook or any other social media.

Not to mention the filtering needed to extract useful real-time information out of social media, which is even harder than getting useful real-time information from a radio scanner. The Twitter “real time information” question is so difficult there's a special CSIRO “big data” projected devoted to it – and my feed and spare-attention can match that?

So here's how my personal “emergency communications” worked on the day.

  1. Family in another place: they were tasked with watching computer feeds and relating anything important. They also listened to the same radio broadcasts as I, in case I was occupied and missed something important. They phoned me at every change of situation.
  1. Radio scanner: a friend, a former fire-fighter who had already evacuated the at-risk area, listened to the fire brigade chatter, calling me if there was anything important. Since the scanner is available as a smartphone app, this didn't involve any special kit.
  1. My eyes. I was very vigilant: not just on my own property. I sought out vantage points and used them.
  1. Conversation. You remember that? I waved down passing fire-brigade 4WDs (only a fool stops a tanker) and asked questions.
  1. ABC Local radio. Because I know damn well that the car's battery can run its radio for more than a day and still start my engine.
But no: someone whose only view of the world comes from the inner city and the computer, is going to criticise the local council for insufficient Tweeting.

That's beyond silly. For a start, the local council is not even the agency responsible for disaster – that would be the Rural Fire Service, which was running half-hourly briefings at the time, and does have a Twitter account it uses. 

Also, the local council doesn't have an at-call army of Approved Social Media Experts, it's probably got a total communications staff of one. 

Also, the local council's staff was denuded because so many of them were on the fire grounds, fighting the fires – either as volunteers, or on the council's own response vehicles.

It's not just arrogant and insular to give the council a serve about emergency communications: it's ignorant.

But what makes me really hot is the same tech-press ignorance that infected the “wow look at this drone video” story.

The editors in the tech press are apparently incapable of assessing any story other than through their own myopic prism: they don't realise that there's a great big world that doesn't care about drones or Twitter, nor do they care that the world outside knows how to do things without reference to Twitter or Mark Zuckerberg.

So something as jejune, solipsistic and just plain silly as the article that started this rant – something like that gets a major-media run because the editor doesn't have the background knowledge to spike it, and is too insular to ask an expert whether it makes any sense.


Sunday, October 27, 2013

Greenies aren't stopping hazard reduction burns: climate is

And finally the penny drops. I can be slow sometimes.

There is a reason the far-right keeps working the “blame bushfires on greenies” line at every opportunity (for example, when Miranda Devine slotted it into a gunk post ostensibly about education).

That reason? Fires are happening more often.

You can't attribute this to climate change, so you need something to blame. And “greenie opposition to hazard reduction burns” is easy. After all, Australia keeps voting Green politicians into places (in a minority nearly everywhere), and “greenies” oppose hazard reduction burns, right?


I'd have to be counted as a greenie. Skipping any personal voting information because it's none of your business, I run a solar-powered, off-grid, off-town-water tourism business. And of the 14 hectares, only about 3 hectares are economic: the rest, I intentionally subsidise to remain as virgin bush because I bloody well want it to remain that way. And since there's a hanging bog feeding a permanent creek, I'm providing about a billionth of greater Sydney's potable water at any given time.

Is that greenie enough for anyone? Good, let's continue.

There's about seven hectares of the land that the RFS wants to burn, and I agree. My reasons are purely selfish and economic: a decent buffer against a fire-storm is good for my business, should the worst happen.

But in seven years, it hasn't happened. Why?

Not because of greenie objections. Because of the combination of:

  1. Climate change – which leads to a shorter back-burn season
  2. Resources – volunteers can't be randomly called up on Wednesday merely because the weather's good
  3. Weather – you can't burn if the ground is wet or there's high winds, which is pretty much a description of the Blue Mountains.

Anybody who tries attribute these three items to “greenie opposition” is a moron of the first water. Or they're – the point of this post – playing to a city political agenda.

Because that's what Miranda and all her acolytes are doing. The voters aren't out here where the fires burn: they're in McMansionville, wondering how it happened and who to blame. Blame, however, is hard to shoulder when you're putting three people in a seven-room air-conditioned house with three toilets. Better to subscribe to Miranda's agenda, that I'm worrying about bushfires because the greens are preventing backburns.

But that's the point. Climate change is what's screwing around with hazard reduction burns; the right-wing's greenie-hunt is a witch-hunt in the most accurate sense of the term.

Bushfires, and damn fools with drones

I didn't run the “look at this drone footage of a bushfire” in my real job, at The Register, and here's why.

The intensity of aerial bushfire-fighting is impossible to imagine if you haven't seen it.

But outlets like Gizmodo think it's just fine to run with the fools' footage. (No, I won't link to it: I'm not going to promote the video.) Here's the kinds of justifications given:

  1. “We studied each flyover of the video and we can guess that the drone operator is part of an RFS crew.”

Funny, because the YouTube channel associated with the footage is mostly surfies following each others' great waves. Also, a “guess” isn't much of an editorial decision.

Furthermore the Whois for the Website of the YouTube account owner shows its domain (which redirects to its self-promoting Twitter account) was registered in June 2013 – in France. So no: I don't believe it's an RFS volunteer.

  1. “I think the heights at which this operator were flying are safe and manageable for both manned and unmanned aircraft.”
Actually, Gizmodo, what you think matters not one damn. Unauthorised flights over bushfire grounds are flat-out illegal; so are unauthorised flights within 30 metres of other people; and it's clear that fire-drone-film idiots broke both rules, from the video.

As did someone else reported by AAP down near the Springwood / Winmalee fire – although I wouldn't be surprised if the same person went looking for better footage, having harvested 90,000 YouTube hits on the first outage.

At one point last Wednesday, during the 80 km/h wind gusts on the Blue Mountains, fire spotted across the containment lines to what I first believed to be Mount Hay, but was more probably Mount Banks. I know that the RFS was worried about where I was, because they were marshalling some resources at Wentworth Falls Lake, and the radio scanner chatter was identifying first-response locations.

I'm guessing that it was dealt with by choppers, for three reasons: it's hard to get to; it was dealt with fast (not so long afterwards, the RFS commissioner said “crisis averted”); and I heard (and saw one or two of) a veritable Apocalypse Now flight of choppers suddenly passed by to my north.

Later, once it was declared safe for me to relax, I headed down the mountains. While passing Valley Heights, in the space of less than 30 seconds (roughly, between the Hawkesbury Road intersection and Valley Heights), I spotted two Erickson air-cranes, and three or four smaller choppers. They were working an area that was currently active that went from Faulconbridge to Winmallee: the area would be in the order of four square kilometres.

That's a very close separation between aircraft.

And these choppers were working in valleys, which meant they were rising up from below my ground level – if I were running a drone say 30 meters above myself from Valley Heights railway station, it would be above the choppers rising out of the gullies around Sun Valley.

That's why the idiots who decided to film an active fire-ground from a quad-copter are idiots: because anything bar, perhaps, the Ericsson air-cranes, is at risk from a collision with a drone. CASA identifies fragile tail-rotors at risk; others mention air intakes.

I hope CASA is able to identify whoever shot the footage, and charge them.