Squashing rumors
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Squashing rumors

One of the most cited pieces of evidence of the chaos in New Orleans was the report that Children’s Hospital was under siege by looters. I didn’t mention it because it didn’t seem particularly plausible. The New Orleans Times-Picayune, which had reported the story earlier today, has since published a refutation:

No Children’s Hospital Looting

Doug Mittelstaedt, vice-president of Human Resources for Children’s Hospital in New Orleans, said one of the biggest issues at the hospital on Wednesday was debunking the prevalent rumor that looters had stormed the hospital.

Mittelstaedt said things actually were operating smoothly at the hospital – the generator was running efficiently and efforts to relocate patients were going well – but fighting the rumor was a major issue.

Officials had to lock the doors of the hospital because people had arrived, apparently thinking there was a mob scene and they could get in on looting.

He said the hospital has been flooded with calls offering assistance from other Children’s Hospitals in Louisiana and Texas. “The amount of calls we have gotten for support have been overwhelming,” Mittelstaedt said. “The phones literally have been ringing off the hook.”

With so many calls, Mittelstaedt said officials have been able to match up the 100 patients with hospitals that specialize in the particular treatments for each.

So as bad as things are, they aren’t quite as bad as people are saying.

Elsewhere in Louisiana
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Elsewhere in Louisiana

One aspect of Katrina that has really disturbed me has been the lack of news from parishes further down the Mississippi delta in Louisiana like Plaquemines Parish and St. Bernard Parish. Many of the people who live down in the bayou never evacuate, and they must have faced the full brunt of the storm surge. I finally saw some pictures posted by the Plaquemines Parish government, and things are looking as bad as I had feared.

Update: As you probably discovered, the Web site linked above was down for much of the afternoon because of bandwidth overages. It seems the problem has since been rectified.

The big easy
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The big easy

I’ve been riveted to the news from New Orleans for the past 48 hours. As best as I can tell, the breaches of the levees separating the city from Lake Ponchartrain are going to result in the city flooding until the water level in the bowl that is New Orleans reaches the same level as the lake. (Currently the lake is 6 feet above its normal level, meaning even more additional flooding.) At that point, I guess it will be possible to repair the levees since water won’t be cascading through the breaches. It’s impossible for anybody to really tell what this all means, but the talk now is of power not being restored to some areas for 6-8 weeks and schools not reopening for months. Right now the city is even without fresh water due to a broken water main.

The best coverage so far has come from the New Orleans Times-Picayune, which had to abandon its offices yesterday morning and relocate to Houma, and WWLTV, the New Orleans CBS affiliate.

The floodwaters seem to have turned New Orleans into a hellscape. Power is off everywhere, including the Superdome and the hospitals, and everyone is being evacuated. Looting also seems to be rampant, and police are too busy rescuing people from their flooded homes to keep the order.

The time for second guessing appears to have arrived already, with blame being handed out to President Bush for spending money that had been earmarked for improving the levee system on the war in Iraq, FEMA for shirking its disaster preparedness function, and humanity for destroying the coastal wetlands that offered Lousiana some measure of protection from storms. There’s also going to be plenty of talk about whether the extended deployments of National Guard troops to Iraq affected the disaster response capabilities of the states affected by Katrina.

New Orleans is just about my favorite city in the world, and I’m shocked to think that it will never be the same.

Update: Craig Newmark has a post pointing to ways people are using Craigslist to help recover from Katrina.

Merger pains for Flickr
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Merger pains for Flickr

It seems some Flickr users are rather enraged at Flickr merging its user database with Yahoo’s user database. There’s no question though that this was in the cards from the day the merger was announced. Flickr is a lot less valuable to Yahoo as a completely separate service than it is as an integrated piece of Yahoo’s suite of Web sites. That said, the migration has been handled poorly. I went ahead and integrated my Yahoo account with my Flickr account immediately since I have the same user name for both, and it means I have to keep track of one less password. Unfortunately, doing so has only been an inconvenience, mainly because it seems like I have to log in every single time I visit Flickr. Fortunately, the Flickr people have said that there’s a fix in the works for that problem.

More on tipping
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More on tipping

James Surowiecki has a piece on tipping for the New Yorker. In it, he says:

Waiters like tipping because it gives them the chance to distinguish themselves from the crowd and to score an occasional windfall.

Had he read comments on the Waiter Rant piece responding to the earlier New York Times op-ed on tippig, he’d know that one of the biggest reasons waiters want to preserve the institution of tipping is that they feel that it prevents their employer from pocketing a big chunk of their income.

Tim Bray on Ruby
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Tim Bray on Ruby

Tim Bray is a member of the herd of people checking out Ruby. Being a sensible man, he’s started out by reading a book on Ruby programming. I, on the other hand, skipped that and am learning Rails first and picking up just enough Ruby along the way to get things done in Rails. I’ll have to go back and read the Pickaxe book at some point, but I’m working on a specific project that I want to get into a usable state, so I’m cutting corners at the start. Anyway, his thoughts on Ruby as compared to other languages are worth reading. I’m with him on the “end” statement. I prefer the handling of blocks in C-style languages and Python to the way Ruby does it.

He also makes this observation that I strongly agree with:

In particular, as James Strachan has often argued, the combination of a good modern IDE and a statically typed language mean that you hardly ever have to type out a full method or variable name, and even though you might have to write more lines of Java than you would in Ruby, you might get the code written just as fast.

Yes, a Java project contains lots of lines of code. But if you use a modern tool like IDEA, Eclipse, or NetBeans, the IDE winds up writing a lot of that code for you. I can see the argument that if your IDE can figure out how to write the code, then maybe it should be left out entirely and be accessible by inference, but in practice I don’t think that’s a big deal.

Graphic design can save lives
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Graphic design can save lives

A reader sent me a link to Lessons from the Swiss Cheese Map, an article by a former Israeli soldier who was charged with creating the map to be used during the 1995 Oslo negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. The map illustrated which areas would be placed under Palestinian control, which would be under joint Israeli/Palestinian control, and which would remain under Israeli control but eventually be transferred to the Palestinians. Unfortunately, the map was not well received:

Some people claim that the Oslo process was deliberately designed to segregate Palestinians into isolated enclaves so that Israel could continue to occupy the West Bank without the burden of policing its people. If so, perhaps the map inadvertently revealed what the Israeli wordsmiths worked so diligently to hide. Or perhaps Israel’s negotiators purposefully emphasized the discontinuity of Palestinian areas to appease opposition from the Israeli right, knowing full well that Arafat would fly into a rage.

Neither is true. I know, because I had a hand in producing the official Oslo II map, and I had no idea what I was doing. Late one night during the negotiations, my commander took me from the hotel where the talks were taking place to an army base, where he led me to a room with large fluorescent light tables and piles of maps everywhere. He handed me some dried-out markers, unfurled a map I had never seen before, and directed me to trace certain lines and shapes. Just make them clearer, he said. No cartographer was present, no graphic designer weighed in on my choices, and, when I was through, no Gilad Sher reviewed my work. No one knew it mattered.

Details always count.

Hurricane Katrina
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Hurricane Katrina

I’m much obsessed with hurricane Katrina today (and have been since I learned yesterday that it had gone from being a category 1 storm to category 5 while I wasn’t paying attention.) The good news this morning is that the storm seems to have turned northeast a bit and will probably not hit New Orleans directly, thus sparing the city at least some destruction. (You can see in this satellite photo that if it continues moving due north it will come ashore in Mississippi.)

I come from the Gulf Coast, so an obsession with hurricanes is my birthright. The two things we always wondered about were when a really big storm was going to hit my home town, and when a really big storm was going to destroy New Orleans. Hopefully the answer to both questions will remain, “Not yet.”

Dear PHP, you suck and I hate you
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Dear PHP, you suck and I hate you

So today I want to install one new package from PEAR on my laptop. Before doing so I decided to upgrade the packages I had already installed. The upgrade went smoothly enough, but once it was complete, the PEAR command line program would no longer work. Whenever I run pear.bat now, I get the following helpful error messages:

Warning: array_shift(): The argument should be an array in pearcmd.php on line 54 Console_Getopt: Could not read cmd args (register_argc_argv=Off?)

Great. At a loss for what to do, I immediately run out and upgrade to PHP 4.4.0. When I have the upgrade complete, I install PEAR and find that the same problem exists. I can only assume then that the latest version of PEAR is currently broken for all Windows users. Does any other conclusion really make sense? And of course when a fix is released I won’t be able to install it because PEAR is actually used to install upgrades to itself.

And to think that I’ve been known to complain about the difficulty of managing JAR files in the Java world.