Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Why are grumpy old men so grumpy?*

My Niece recently asked me if I was becoming a grumpy old man, and if so, why? I was too grumpy to give a cogent answer.

However, an illustration:

No, not this illustration. But go ahead and click for a larger image. More light/shadow images at the end of this post. For the grumpiness illustration, continue reading.

I received a series of e-mails Monday which made me grumpy. Okay, you’re right, they simply increased my grumpiness.

The e-mails came from the Colorado Field Office of the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and told me that because Hurricane Sandy was expected to disrupt Washington D.C., The Weekly Crop Progress and Weather Reports for October 23-29 would be delayed indefinitely.

As the name suggests, the Weekly Crop Progress and Weather Reports give an overview of crop condition and weather events on a weekly and state-by-state basis. Each state in the union has a central field office, and counties and regions within each state submit reports to the field office. The field office collates the data, compares current conditions to long-term statistical norms, notes any unusual conditions, and then submits a short but information-packed overview regarding the particular state’s crop and weather conditions during the previous week.

These reports are one of the many wonders of the twenty-first century, delivered to farmers and other agricultural professionals through the hard work of USDA field employees, field office employees, and the Internet.

Farmers and other agricultural professionals use these reports for medium- to long-term planning, and occasionally for short-term decision making. For many in the Agricultural sector, they have become a valuable tool.

Which is why many of the highlights of the Nebraska, Wyoming and Colorado Weekly Crop Progress and Weather Reports show up in weekly ag publications.

The loss of one or more weekly reports is not a major problem. Ag producers farm and ranch 24/7/365. Any missing report, or two, or three, is unlikely to contain information vital to the success or survival of any farm or ranch.

No, the missing reports aren’t a problem. But they do point to a systematic problem. Stand by for a brief excursion into history.

Contrary to the oft-made claim that Al Gore, former Vice President of the United States and present global warming alarmist, invented the Internet, the Internet was in fact invented by several groups of government, college and university computer researchers, funded in large part and at least initially by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. DARPA later became ARPA (dropping “Defense” from the title) and continued funding the nascent Internet. DARPA/ARPA provided most of the start-up capital and operational funding until the Internet was able to stand firmly on it’s own financial feet.

Now why do you suppose DARPA/ARPA wanted to invent an Internet in the first place?

The genesis of the project was back in the days of the Cold War (which we won, right? Ask Vladimir Putin about that if you get the chance). DARPA tasked computer scientists with developing a distributed computer network which could continue working even if several of its nodes were taken out by the enemy. They wanted the distributed network to have the ability to continue plotting missile trajectories, to help the National Command Authority manage the battle, and once the battle had ended, to help the survivors rebuild society.

Well, we never fought a “hot” Cold War, and as DARPA’s distributed computer network grew and matured, it gained new names and uses. DARPANET became the World Wide Web, and the distributed network became cyberspace. Computations done in cyberspace and transmitted along the distributed network of the World Wide Web allowed e-mail to be born, instant messaging, Web-sites, computer gaming, libraries literally at one’s fingertips, streaming and downloadable digital music and film, Skype, Google World, Google Moon, and even the USDA’s Weekly Crop Progress and Weather Reports. Also the millions of other Internet wonders I failed to mention.

So if I start a paragraph with the sentence, ‘No, the missing reports aren’t a problem.’, you might rightly assume that I believe there is in fact  a problem lurking about somewhere.

And this is it.

DARPANET/Internet/World Wide Web/Cyberspace was designed to be a distributed network, one in which the loss of one or more nodes wouldn’t degrade the computational and distributional ability of the system as a whole.

Why, then, are the USDA Weekly Crop Progress and Weather Reports not available, and why might they remain unavailable for some unspecified number of days or weeks?

The explanation (excuse) is Hurricane Sandy, which is impacting Washington D.C. and a number (perhaps eight) of surrounding states. If I use the common understanding of the number of U.S. states (a total of 50, rather than 57), at least 42 states have compiled their reports and, uninterrupted by a nasty ol' hurricane, could in theory submit them via the Internet. I rather suppose they have. I was writing this piece at the height of the awful storm and was fully connected to the Internet. I’d be surprised indeed if Kimball, Nebraska just happened to be the only place in the nation where the Internet is up and functioning during the hurricane.

No, the Internet isn’t the problem. Neither is the hurricane, which was quickly downgraded to a post-tropical cyclone with sustained winds of 45 mph. Yes, the storm caused some damage, some flooding, some power outages, and some deaths. As hurricanes go, however, it was an unimpressive storm.

The federal government, however, declared the storm a “potential disaster” and ordered non-essential employees in the affected area to stay home. This makes sense.

But as to the USDA Weekly Crop Progress and Weather Reports, most of which were generated hundreds if not thousands of miles distant from the storm, said reports were not distributed. All reports are first submitted to Washington D.C., and then forwarded following official bureaucratic approval.

But there were no bureaucrats at work in Washington D.C. yesterday. They had the day off. With pay.

The USDA Weekly Crop Progress and Weather Reports don’t matter much in the scheme of things. But how many important reports fell through the cracks?

And if Big Government can paralyze a distributed information network, one designed to survive a nuclear war, do you suppose that is a good thing? Imagine next year, as you’re trying to schedule your cancer surgery, and someone at H&HS has to take a “personal day.” I’m just sayin’.

On an upbeat note, the play of autumn light and shadow is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful of our Universe’s creations. Keep an eye out for it. Spot it. Stop. Scroll down. Enjoy.

BTW. (In my day you added a "P.S.", which stood for postscript.) The reports were out the next day, released as if nothing had happened. I suggest that this supports my hypothesis that the government workers responsible for (and paid to) sign off on and release the reports were sandbagging it – taking an extra “free” day. Full pay, all benefits, no work, max television.

*But not terminally grumpy

Click the picture for a larger image.

Click the picture for a larger image.                 
Click the picture for a larger image.
Click the picture for a larger image.
Click the picture for a larger image.
Click the picture for a larger image.

No comments:

Post a Comment