What a sysadmin can learn from hurricane corner cases

One thing I’ve been focusing on lately is avoiding “It Works Well Enough” Syndrome. Maybe it’s because of the systems design classes I’m taking, or maybe it’s due to my frustration having to fix something that was done months or years ago because it no longer works well enough. Sysadmins are particularly vulnerable to this trap because we’re often not trying to develop software, we’re just trying to solve an immediate problem. Unfortunately, things change over time and underlying assumptions are no longer valid.

A relevant example from the world of tropical weather came up earlier this month. The National Hurricane Center’s 45th discussion for Hurricane Katia contained some very interesting text:


It makes sense that software focused on the Atlantic basin would only be concerned with western longitudes, right? It’s exceedingly rare for Atlantic tropical systems to exist east of the Prime Meridian, but apparently it’s not impossible. Whether it’s NHC or commercial software that the forecasters are concerned about is irrelevant. Clearly positive longitudes break things. It makes me wonder what broke when Tropical Storm Zeta continued into January 2006.

Sidebar — It’s not our fault/everyone else does it, too

I don’t mean to demonize sysadmins or lionize developers in the first paragraph. There are plenty of sysadmins out there who want to take the time to develop robust tools to solve their problems. Often, they just don’t have the time because too many other demands have been placed up on them. By the same token, developers who methodically design and implement software still end up with a lot of bugs.

Tropical Storm Earl results

Well, the results are in.   Earl weakened pretty significantly as he traveled up the east coast, resulting in fairly minor damage.  The game had a lot of first-timers, and most of them did pretty well.  I’m pleased with my own performance, but I’d rather win.  There might be another chance shortly if the remnants of Gaston get back together.

Also, I finally made a page with a link to all of the scored games and added that link to the tropical weather page.

Hurricane Earl forecast contest

The hurricane season is in full swing, with three active storms.  Danielle is scooting off to oblivion in the North Atlantic, but Earl is gearing up to take a run at the east coast…somewhere.  As of this writing, the forecast track is such that landfall could be anywhere from the Outer Banks to Nova Scotia, or perhaps it may yet turn out to sea.  Of course that means there’s a Funnel Fiasco tropical contest underway. You can enter by clicking the link on the tropical weather page (or go directly to it here).  The deadline for entry is Tuesday at 8 PM EDT (Wednesday 0000 UTC).  Just a reminder to make sure you enter valid numbers, I won’t check them for you.

Stay tuned for more on Hurricane Earl, and also for a potential repeat when Tropical Storm Fiona get closer.

Tropical Storm Ida results

Well, the results are in for the TS Ida forecast contest.  I’m glad to say that yours truly finally won. Of course, there will be plenty of argument about the faults of the scoring equation.  You’ll get over it.  I don’t know who Dr. Free Beer is, but next time, try to get your forecast in the right hemisphere at least.  Which brings up a good point… I think I’ll edit the game code to have a field for e-mail address (it will be hidden from the public, but available to me so that I can contact players/verify edited forecasts).

Fortunately for interests along the Gulf of Mexico, Ida has been mostly nuisance.  This is not a bad way to end what has been another rather tepid hurricane season.  Ida went extratropical very shortly after making landfall (much to the chagrin of my friend Kevin).  I wonder if it set a record for quickest tropical to extratropical conversion.  Not that Ida was all that tropical at landfall.

In other news, thanks to Perl’s Math::Trig module, I can now trivially calculate the Great Circle distances, which has long been the sticking point.  At this point, all that remains to automate the scoring is some parsing and simple arithmetic.  That’ll make it easier to get results out quickly.  I haven’t yet decided if I should stop producing static results pages and let the CGI generate the results page on the fly, or if I should continue having separate, static pages for the results.  I might go with the former in order to conserve disk space.  I have no limit on cycles, so long as I don’t take down my provider’s server.  We shall see.  The first step is to actually write the code like I said I would two years ago.

Hurricane Hanna contest

The Hurricane Gustav game has barely been closed and we’re already opening Hurricane Hanna.  Fortunately, Hanna looks to be weaker than Gustav.  It will be a fun forecast, though, since the angle it approaches the coast at makes it very easy to miss the landfall location (and thus time) by large values.  Meanwhile, if you have suggestions on how to improve the scoring equation, post them here!

Contest link: http://funnelfiasco.com/cgi-bin/hurricane.cgi?cmd=view&year=2008&name=hanna

Hurricane Gustav update

Well Gustav is ashore now.  Fortunately, it is much weaker than Katrina was.  From watching TV news coverage, it appears the damage is much less than I expected.  The levees in New Orleans are still holding up, although the winds are splashing some water over the Industrial Canal.  We’ll see how things go over the next few hours as the rain and wind continues.

The Gustav contest has been scored.  The results are posted at http://www.weather.funnelfiasco.com/tropical/game/2008-gustav.html.

The focus now begins to shift to recently-promoted Hanna, and the newly developed TD 9 (likely to become Hurricane Ike in the next day or two).

Hurricane Gustav

By this time tomorrow, the Gulf coast will be devastated.  Just over three years after Katrina scarred Louisiana and Mississippi, Hurricane Gustav is taking aim.  Fortunately, the city of New Orleans has learned a lesson:  a mandatory evacuation order is in place, and 700 busses are transporting people to inland shelters.  The news isn’t all rosy, though.  For New Orleans, at least, the situation could be even worse this time around.  If the eye comes ashore west of the city as predicted, the winds and storm surge could be worse than in Katrina.  The surge is forecast to be 18 feet or more, but the levees (which are not fully repaired) are designed to protect against a surge of 10 feet.  It is very likely that much of the rebuilding that has been done in southern Louisiana will be undone, and further damage will occur.

Various links:

National Hurricane Center: http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/graphics_at2.shtml

Weather Underground: http://www.wunderground.com/tropical/tracking/at200807.html

National Weather Service: http://www.srh.noaa.gov/lix/ (New Orleans) http://www.srh.noaa.gov/lch/ (Lake Charles, LA)

VoIP weather net: http://www.voipwx.net/

HurriCam: http://www.gregledet.net/hurricam/hurricam.html

Other information will be posted here and to the Funnel Fiasco tropical weather page (http://weather.funnelfiasco.com/tropical)

Hurricane Gustav forecast contest

It may only be at 45 mph right now, but Gustav will make a stab at the United States in the next few days.  So the tradition of taking random stabs at the forecast begins.  See the tropical weather page or go directly to the game at http://funnelfiasco.com/cgi-bin/hurricane.cgi?cmd=view&year=2008&name=gustav.  Remember, the forecast is for the first mainland North American landfall.  Check back here to find out when the results are posted.  If you have suggestions on how the scoring should be done, leave a comment below.  Happy forecasting!

P.S.  If you’re reading this and you’ve never done something like this before, do it anyway.  One time, a Denny’s waitress won the snowfall contest.  You don’t have to be good to be lucky.