Systems Overload

The problem with forecasts; six million new Zello users; and more.


  • We need a new word to describe the cumulative impact of so many systems going haywire at once—the increase in extreme weather events due to climate change, decades of out-of-control land use in places like Florida and Houston, political dysfunction trapping us in a “doom loop” of mutual distrust, media that feeds on spectacle, and strange new virtual crises like the Equifax mega-leak created by our dependence on data. I haven’t found that word, though in German it would be some compound noun like gebrokennogginlifenshaft. All I have right now is a sound for this cumulative sense of systems gone kaplooey. Actually, “B-doing” is more like it.

  • Science yes, charts no: It looks like the hurricane prediction models for monster storm Irma were very good but the way the information was conveyed to the public created a sense of overconfidence on the part of the public and local authorities. To wit, “Many people trying to use forecasts like those provided by the National Hurricane Center, however, do not fully understand the cone of probability and focus instead on the line that runs down the middle, taking it as an accurate prediction of the storm’s path.” That’s The New York Times’ John Schwartz explaining how Floridians may have misinterpreted the emerging track of the megastorm, assuming that the east coast of the state was more at risk and leaving the west coast underprepared.

  • Now, where have we heard this before? People trusting a trend line too much and not paying attention to the margin of error…Oh yeah. “B-doing!”

  • Zello, the walkie-talkie app used by many volunteer rescuers during Hurricane Harvey, has gained six million new users in the last week, Alex Kantrowitz reports for BuzzFeed. It can support large groups, and is now being used by one with 1800+ members focused on South Florida.

  • The Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team has activated its volunteer community to help with mapping needs in response to the Hurricane Irma, Mexico earthquake, and Bangladesh flooding disasters. Plug yourself in here.

  • If you want to know if you were affected by the giant Equifax data breach, you won’t be able to get an accurate answer from the company’s website, Sarah Buhr of TechCrunch reports. B-doing!

  • This is civic tech: Taipei’s CivicTechFest is underway this week, with nearly 300 attendees from 36 countries. Follow along via #civictechfest.

  • Why decentralized social networks that are trying to displace Facebook face a very steep uphill battle, explained by Chelsea Barabas, Neha Narula and Ethan Zuckerman of MIT.

  • Trump watch: In the wake of President Trump’s impulsive decision to cut a deal with Democratic congressional leaders on the debt ceiling, The New York Times’ Peter Baker explores whether he is really a political independent. In my humble opinion, Trump could certainly run for re-election as an independent, but it’s a mistake to impute any level of political strategery to his behavior.

  • Opposition watch: Katie Benner reports for The New York Times on how Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, is making political investments aimed at counteracting the influence of President Trump.

  • Public protests surged in August, largely in the wake of Charlottesville, hitting levels not seen since February, the team at CountLove reports. September looks like it’s going to be an even bigger month, with immigration the issue most driving action.

  • Anthony Citrano, a network engineer, takes to Medium to question Peter Daou’s claim that his new pro-Clinton site Verrit was the victim of a DDoS attack, arguing that instead it went down last week because it wasn’t prepared for a rush of attention.

  • Data compiled by employees inside Google show an ongoing disparity between what men and women are paid for comparable work, Daisuke Wakabayashi reports for The New York Times.

  • Your moment of zen: The Cassini space probe, which has been orbiting Saturn for the last 13 years, is ending its deep-space mission in three days with a final plunge into Titan, the planet’s largest moon. Follow along.