Thursday, March 12, 2015

A memorial tribute to my friend and mentor, Yoshi Sasaki

I took this photo in his old office in the Engineering Laboratory across from the Union on the OU main campus.  This was in 1973, but he looked very much the same right up to the time of his death.

Today, I was informed that my friend and mentor, Yoshi K. Sasaki, died sometime this morning.  Many younger people at the OU School of Meteorology (OU-SoM) have little idea what a great meteorologist and person he was and how influential he has been.  He certainly was the advisor for the majority of doctoral students graduating from the OU-SoM during his active tenure there.  He won many OU and international awards for his work, including promoting US-Japan business collaboration, bringing Japanese companies to Norman.  He helped Walt Saucier found the Department of Meteorology when he came to OU with Walt from Texas A&M in the late 1950s.  I did an earlier tribute to Yoshi when he was still alive.

My first interactions with him were during my first days at OU as a beginning grad student in 1967.  In a stroke of stupendous good fortune, I was "assigned" to his care as my advisor.  I didn't know him at all, then.  Yet, shortly after I arrived, Dr. Ed Kessler (then Director of the National Severe Storms Laboratory [NSSL]) called Yoshi while I was in his office, and I heard Yoshi describing me to Dr. Kessler in glowing terms as an outstanding student!  That left me flabbergasted and determined that I would do whatever it took never to let him down.  He clearly had more confidence in me than I had in myself at the time.

This was at a time before Yoshi became famed for his work with variational data assimilation.  He had the time to be a great advisor and to do some excellent work as a classroom teacher.  It was in his graduate dynamics class that I began to gain some inkling of what the atmosphere was all about.  What soaring excitement there was in his classes, where putting in extra effort paid big dividends in terms of understanding.

It was clear that between us was a considerable cultural divide, but I never felt that it damaged our interactions.  He slapped me down when I was cocky, and he picked up my spirits when I felt overwhelmed and beaten down by the challenges.  In fact, he challenged me more than anyone to become what I wanted so much to be.  He looked at my lousy math grades when I first came to grad school and announced that I would minor in mathematics!  By colossal good luck, I took courses from some great math teachers as a result, flushing my math phobia down the toilet and replacing it with huge enthusiasm for a subject that had been so brutal for me.  He recommended I take rigorous courses in fluid dynamics from the School of Engineering, which again put me in classes with some outstanding teachers.  As a result of this, I went from being a so-so student to the point where I was "setting the curve" in most of my courses.

Following my sabbatical in the military, I returned to my graduate studies more determined to complete my doctorate than ever and, although Yoshi was now much busier than he had been owing to his rising fame, I was ready to become more independent - something Yoshi let happen.  He supported me with his grants as I flopped and floundered, trying to figure out a topic for my dissertation research.  When he went on a sabbatical to Monterey in 1974, he told me either I had to find a new advisor or find a way to support myself.  In no way did I want anyone else's signature on my dissertation, so I found employment at NSSL.  That turned out to be the change of venue I needed, and I eventually found my topic and completed my doctorate, with his signature on it!!

All that I have accomplished is in no small measure a tribute to this wonderful man, who did just whatever I needed, when I needed it.  He was a master at giving me just the help I required and not a bit more.  I graduated with a clear vision of what I wanted to do and how to do it.  That's worth considerably more than a piece of paper!!

I could go on and on about his accomplishments, and the friendship he has offered to me after graduation.  I'm reminded today of his comments to me at the time when his university mentor, the late Shigekata Syono (who was also the advisor of the late T. Theodore Fujita) had died:  he told me that Syono told him the best way to thank your advisor for what he did for you was to become successful in your field, and to pass on what you have learned to others.  Yoshi was trying to honor that advice, and  I've tried to honor it, as well.  It was so typical of him to have deep human insight as well as a great intellect - no cultural barrier could inhibit that!

As we mourn the loss of this honored individual, we can take solace that he's left behind a huge legacy:  I can mention a few names of his doctoral students from around the time when I was a student - Dr. E. W. (Joe) Friday [a National Weather Service Director], Dr. Robert Sheets [a Hurricane Center Director], Dr. Stanley L. Barnes [NOAA research scientist], Dr. Jerome P. Charba [NWS research scientist], Dr. John McGinley [NOAA research scientist], Dr. John M. Lewis [NOAA research scientist], and many others.  Obviously, this list leaves out many who were influenced by Yoshi, including many of my storm chase friends (e.g., Al Moller).  He will not be forgotten and can never be replaced.  We will miss him, but are proud to have been a part of his legacy.  My deepest condolences to Koko, his wife, and Larry, his son.


Monday, March 9, 2015

A First Take on the OU Fraternity's Racist Video

It just happened yesterday that a video showing the Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) fraternity doing an overtly racist chant went viral.  The reaction by the University of Oklahoma (OU) and the national administration of SAE has been to suspend the organization.  That's great and sends the right message that such behavior is unacceptable.  But that's not the end of the story, here.  Racism has not been eradicated at OU as a result and I don't expect that to happen any time soon, actually.  The roots of racism go much deeper than that, so eradicating it will take more time:  likely many generations.  Although racism tends to be more overt in 'southern' states, it is comparably pervasive in the north.  No region has a stranglehold on bigotry, unfortunately.

My personal story is relevant here, in explaining my reaction to all of this.  I was raised in a family that was not overtly racist, but in looking back, I see some tell-tale signs of a racist undercurrent.  We lived in the lily-white western suburbs of Chicago, where I was 'protected' from other races by hidden, but very effective barriers to integration.  We were segregated in a state where segregation as codified in law did not exist, but was just as entrenched as in Dixie.  To know a Catholic or a Jew was about as diverse as it got.  Hence, I grew up knowing little or nothing about races other than mine.

When I was drafted into the military during the Vietnam era, I was immersed suddenly in a racially and culturally diverse group with no prior experience in dealing with that.  For me, it turned out we all had a common enemy (the military - most of us didn't want to be there) so we had grounds on which we could build a personal relationship.  And we did.  It was easy to get along with people unlike myself  simply because we shared one very important characteristic:  we were human.  I didn't like everyone I was in contact with, but there was no clear reason to dislike any particular racial/cultural group just because of that factor.  All races and cultures produce both people I like, and those I dislike.  After the military, my scientific career put me in contact with some very smart and talented people who put the stereotypes to the test.  This revealed that those stereotypes are bankrupt notions.  I know of no racial or cultural reason that prevents individuals from becoming whatever they want to be - some of my friends/colleagues were not of my race or cultural background.  Imagine that!!  The ratio of nonwhite to white meteorologists was small and remains so, begging the question:  is that because of some racial/cultural disposition to not do well in my profession, or is that because of racial and cultural barriers (of various sorts) keeping many individuals out for reasons other than their abilities?  My conclusion was that the stereotypes are horseshit, and there's no reason to conclude that, on the basis of race alone, an individual of a nonwhite race or a different culture automatically is incapable of being successful in my profession.  Logically, then, this likely extends to any other profession.  Race alone provides nothing useful in the way of information to conclude anything concerning the value and potential of an individual.  Race represents real differences among people, but those differences aren't universal and, therefore, aren't significant.  Cultural differences are even more obviously irrelevant.

Martin Luther King's dream is a living reality to me:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

What I've learned is that humans evolved in a hostile world by banding together in tribes for the mutual benefit of tribe members.  This gave us humans an evolutionary survival advantage, so tribalism is deeply embedded in our very core.  But tribalism has a dark side:  distrust of and contempt for other tribes.  Tribalism is the source of racism (and cultural conflict) - it's a meaningless distinction that some people cling to in hopes of having an important place in the world, I suppose.  Science tells us that all humans are the same in the vast majority of their characteristics, but they have some superficial differences that evolved because they were isolated from each other in different parts of the world, where things like skin coloration gave certain individuals an evolutionary advantage.  The acid test is that we different 'races' can still interbreed.  We can have sex with a monkey (a distasteful thought) but we can't interbreed with them, any more than we could interbreed with a rabbit, or a tree.  There are enough differences in our DNA compared to that of a monkey that offspring of such a physical union aren't possible.  Tribalism makes us resist interbreeding with other races, even though virtually all of us have at least some DNA from other races (that resistance has not always been effective!).  Many African Americans have white bloodlines, and vice-versa.  I know of many black Americans with the Doswell surname (many of whom I'd be proud to know personally), and I'm pretty sure that name didn't come to America from Africa.

If we accept that racism is simply an atavistic holdover from tribalism and represents a concept that has absolutely no meaningful (scientific) basis, then perhaps eventually we can overcome the detestable scourge on humanity of racism.  But racism dies hard:  too many people find too much comfort for their insecurities in thinking themselves superior to those of a different race.  Whether hidden or overt, racism is simply inconsistent with reality.  There is no important distinction among the different races, although there are likely slight differences (on average) among the races with regard to characteristics like athletic or intellectual prowess.  Any such differences say nothing about individuals!  Racial and cultural bigotry are manifestations of ignorance, and it's ignorant people who inculcate their children with such bigotry.  Deep-seated racist attitudes are prevalent today, despite the species having made progress.  Most humans now recognize that overt expression of racist and cultural bias is unacceptable - even if they still believe in such things.  To believe that racism is dead is to perpetuate it.  We much acknowledge the widespread persistence of bigotry if we are to be successful some day in making Martin Luther King's dream a reality.

If you find yourself uncomfortable with those of other races, my advice is to work at developing more diverse interactions.  When you know people as individuals, not stereotypes, their racial characteristics fade away, and you know them as a person - not as a member of a particular race.  You may or may not like them at a personal level, but you may now have good reasons for that like/dislike.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

A Hierarchy of "Miracles"

In a recent Facebook discussion, I was asked why I differentiate between biblical miracles and those claimed in post-biblical times (right up to and including the present).  I'm not entirely happy with my responses, so I've been mulling it over for a while. The following is the result:  my attempt at a hierarchy of miracles and my comments about them, roughly in an arguable descending order.

1.  The set of those events that are beyond a doubt, unambiguously attributable to the intervention of a very powerful (or ominipotent) deity without any other plausible explanation.  As I see things, this is an empty set.  The bible offers several candidates, but they all fail to meet reasonable criteria.  Sorry, folks, but a document written in the Bronze Age by people who were pretty unsophisticated in their understanding of natural processes provides absolutely zero credible evidence that these events could only be explained by divine intervention in human affairs.  And it seems pretty convenient that virtually all the candidate events (Lot's wife turned into a pillar of salt, jesus walking on water, people raised from the dead, feeding of the multitudes, etc.) have ceased in the post-biblical era.

2.  The set of those events that have a plausible explanation in terms of processes for which we have a substantial scientific understanding.  If one accepts that such events have a natural (as opposed to a supernatural) explanation, then these events don't qualify as miracles at all. What might be deemed "miraculous" is that a natural event occurs - an earthquake that topples the walls of Jericho for Joshua, the Red Sea is fortuitously parted by a tsunami or a seiche that allows the escape of the Jews led by the mythical Moses, and so on and on - at just the right time for our biblical "heroes".  However, if such stories have any factual basis in both historical evidence and naturally-occurring physical processes, they only speak to extraordinary good fortune for those involved.  You can attribute that to a deity if you choose, but none of these constitute a very compelling example of what I would consider a miracle.  Attributing such to divine intervention is pretty comparable for thanking god for helping someone score touchdowns, or providing rain after a prolonged drought, or being cured of cancer in a hospital, or finding lost car keys.

3.  The set of those events that have their origins in mythology plagiarized by biblical authors from the mythology of other, earlier religions.  Considerable similarity exists between many of the biblical stories and those of even more primitive religions.  Some see this as evidence that actually supports the reality of these narratives.  It is at least a logical possibility.  Unfortunately, it's at least equally plausible, based on the facts as we have them, that they're just recycled mythology, stolen by biblical authors to spice up their writings.

4.  The set of those events that are original myths made up by biblical authors.  Unfortunately, I'm not enough of a religious scholar to know all of the myths of other religions, so I'm uncertain what biblical stories are original.  I'm betting there are some, however.  The opportunity for magical thinking to reinforce the messages that biblical authors wanted to communicate would likely have been irresistible.

4.  The set of those events that are simple "magic" as practiced by magicians since time immemorial.  Magicians and shysters of all sorts use a wide array of tricks to deceive people into believing that the practitioners have supernatural powers.  I have little doubt that some fraction of the miracles described in the bible might well have been simple deceptions of a gullible audience by skilled magicians - parlor tricks and sleight of hand.  This includes faith healers and that ilk, as well.

5.  The set of natural events that are perceived by the gullible as "miraculous".  There seem to be many such "miracles" used by catholics for saintly candidates to be canonized as saints by the church:  there have to be two "miracles" documented (How? Eyewitness testimony?) to be the result of intercession by the candidate, so miracles are inferred from natural events.  Other miracles in this category include images of jesus on burned toast, "bleeding" statues, the Shroud of Turin, the development of life on Earth, and so on.  These are simply natural events or magical interpretations of faked relics, that provide believers with a "confirmation" of divine intervention.

In short, it seems to me that true "miracles" (i.e., divine interventions) are a myth, created to confirm the existence of a mythological deity.  No other rational explanation based on evidence can be offered, unless an actual deity chooses to break what believers take to be a self-imposed ban on miracles that would meet the criteria of #1

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

VORTEX - SE: A political scientific boondoggle

It's come to my attention that a project to study tornadoes in the Southeastern US has been created, via political 'pork barrel' machinations.  This project is predicated on the following basis:

"The southeastern United States commonly experiences devastating tornadoes under conditions that differ considerable from those on the Great Plains region where tornado research has historically been focused.  NOAA/NSSL has a newly funded mandate to collaborate with the National Science Foundation in better understanding how environmental factors that are characteristic of the southeastern U.S. affect the formation, intensity, and storm path of tornadoes for this region."

Several institutions within the southeastern US have been pushing this sort of idea for years.  With the help of their Congressional delegations, they evidently have succeeded in forcing this absurd project on the rest of us.  They assert that tornadoes in the southeast are different, and that their regional storm problems therefore have been overlooked.  There's little doubt that tornado fatality counts in the southeastern US are higher than elsewhere, but it's never been demonstrated that this is the result of a difference in the meteorology of tornadic storms in the southeast.  There are many non-meteorological reasons for high death rates in the southeastern US - this blog isn't the venue for a complete discussion of those non-meteorological explanations. 

Nor has it ever been shown that tornadoes in the southeastern US are the result of some (as yet, unspecified) difference in the physics of severe storms and tornadoes.  To the contrary, there is every reason to believe that the meteorology of severe storms and tornadoes is the same the world over.  Absent a compelling demonstration of an important difference in the meteorology, this program is based on an unvalidated hypothesis. 

Yes, the climatology of tornadoes in the southeast differs from that of the Great Plains.  For instance, there's a well-defined tornado "season" in the plains:  tornadoes occur with high frequency in the months of April, May, and June on the plains, and relatively low frequency at other times of the year.  In the southeast, tornado frequencies generally are much lower than the peak months of the plains tornado season, but those relatively low frequencies only decrease substantially during the summer months in the southeast.  Thus, although tornadoes are less frequent in the southeast, they can occur at almost any time of the year, including in the winter.  The reasons for this are clear to most severe storms meteorologists:  they have to do with the ingredients for severe storms and tornadoes, which come together often in the early to late spring on the Plains, and rather less frequently in the southeast but without a clearly defined "tornado season".  This is a clear indication that severe storms and tornadoes in the southeast are more or less identical to comparable storms on the Plains.  The only difference in the regions is the climatology of the ingredients, but the ingredients are everywhere the same!  It seems quite unlikely that any particularly useful meteorological insight is to be gained by this project.

The proposed program is patterned after the already completed VORTEX and VORTEX2 field observation campaigns in 1994-5, and 2009-10, respectively.  These observational campaigns included mobile radars, instrumented vehicles to intercept storms, and so on.  Doing a similar project in the southeast will be much more challenging, owing to the presence of extensive trees, substantial orography, a high frequency of low cloud bases, and a higher overall population density compared to the Plains.  Visibilities needed for successful storm intercepts are just not common in most of the southeastern US.  This renders even more questionable the basic concept of conducting such an exercise in the southeastern US, since it adds to the danger level for the participants, who will be much less able to see and avoid storm hazards in the course of their observational assignments.

This situation is simply an example of how some institutions can game the system to secure funding for themselves.  Unfortunately, government funding is basically a zero-sum game.  What existing programs and projects will have to be cancelled or delayed because of this boondoggle?  This is not the path to scientific cooperation and collaboration - rather, it's divisive and will damage the relations among scientists for decades to come.  This is not a good idea in any way, and it speaks loudly that this ill-advised reallocation of scarce scientific resources is the result of political posturing rather than a reflection of sound scientific justification.

English as the language of science

As a "beneficiary" of the widespread dominance of English in science, I'm often embarrassed by my inability to speak in more than one language. When people apologize to me for their English, my response is always that their English is far, far better than my ability to communicate in their native tongue.  I've often wished that we Americans routinely were schooled in another language at the same time we learn our native tongue, as happens in many nations in Europe. A good argument could be made that we Americans should be taught Spanish at the same time as we learn grammar in schools.  Spanish allows the easy extension to other European languages:  French and Italian, for instance.  Of course, it would nice to speak German, and Russian, and Mandarin Chinese as well.  The problem is that many people, including myself, have limited aptitude for learning new languages, and the time spent doing so takes time away from things we need to do to advance our scientific careers.  It's all too easy for me to defer the effort since most all of science these days is conducted in English.

Forcing non-native speakers to make presentations in English usually results in awful  presentations, forcing them to listen to presentations in English inhibits their ability to understand, and forcing them to write in English frequently results in nearly unreadable manuscripts.  It's NOT "efficient"! Attending international conferences can be quite painful, as people forced to use English struggle mightily to make themselves understood.  I assume they have a genuine wish to communicate their scientific work, but their limited mastery of English makes it very challenging, and often unsuccessful.  I cringe during such presentations and breathe a sigh of relief when they finish.

I think if everyone spoke the same language as their first language, that surely would be "efficient" but most people cling to their own native language as a form of tribalism, resenting strongly the forced imposition of another language on them. I've not experienced it directly, but it's not hard to grasp why that resentment arises.  Cultural tribalism is inevitable, no matter how much we might hope otherwise.  It's not necessarily a completely bad thing:  from my perspective, language is intimately tied to culture, and I surely have no wish for all the diverse cultures of the world to merge into a global mirror of American strip malls, American movies, chain stores and restaurants, and suburbs.  I like to experience different cultures and learn about other viewpoints.

The ascendancy of a language in science is tied, I believe, to the ascendancy of the science done in that nation. It becomes a self-reinforcing tendency: the more important the science done in your particular language, the more scientific colleagues need to be able to communicate via that language. We Americans have benefited, language-wise, from the rise of England as a world power and its scientific prosperity in the post-Renaissance era. As American science declines in significance, thanks at least in part to economic decline (as well as rampant anti-intellectualism and anti-science campaigns by fundamentalist religious extremists), the use of English as "the" language of science will decline. However, as this article suggests, there's a sort of hysteresis as a result of earlier work forming the foundation for current work.  There always will be a need to read foundational scientific works, at least in translation, if not in their original language.  Nuances in one language may not be translated properly in another, so there's always a benefit from the ability to read the original works, to see and understand the original presentations rather than subtitles or other translational forms.

It's quite unlikely that a universal native language will ever arise, despite the clear and obvious advantages of having one primary language.  Our languages are a big part of who we are as cultures and I doubt that many would surrender that willingly.  Hence, I believe it's important to encourage children, whose ability to learn languages is undiminished, to learn at least one other language at an early age.  America has "benefited" from the dominance of English far too long and far too deeply.  Most of us have surrendered our ability to communicate effectively with the non-English-speaking part of the world.  It's bad enough for our society to be in such a position but, beyond that, it's quite detrimental to our science.  I envy my scientific colleagues who are fluent in at least one other language.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

My take on the Chapel Hill murders

We still, as of this writing, have no definitive explanation for the murders of three muslims by atheist Craig Hicks, who voluntarily surrendered himself to police and is charged with these murders. The media have noted he is an atheist and the suggestion has been offered that this crime may have been motivated by his atheistic "hatred" of muslims and is not just a dispute about parking.  This despite his saying (on June 18, 2012), "While I am an outspoken atheist (obviously), I would never take away a persons [sic] right to religion. I would even fight for their rights to have religion if it ever came to that."  I don't know what the investigation will find as an explanation.  And the results of such an investigation may not reflect reality.

Whatever his motivations, the murder of three people is a heinous crime and it's quite appropriate for atheists to confirm that violence is not an acceptable way to resolve religious disputes.  I think such a  message should be directed primarily toward religious believers, as they seem to be the ones most inclined toward seeking violent "solutions" to disputes.  Need I enumerate all the myriad examples of violence committed as a result of religious extremism?  I think not.  [Please don't bring up atrocities perpetrated by atheist Communist dictators.]  Examples of atheists resorting to violence in the name of atheism are pretty uncommon.  This incident is conspicuous precisely because of its rarity.

Being an atheist carries with it no guarantee of anything, good or bad.  No doubt atheists have committed a full spectrum of crimes, but it's perhaps of some interest to note that our American prisons hold only a tiny percentage of atheists (around 0.2 percent).  It seems clear that being religious doesn't prevent believers from being incarcerated for criminal acts.  Since atheists have no sacred scriptures calling for them to commit violence on unbelievers, there are no universally-accepted atheist clergy who might sanction criminal acts of violence against believers, and there are no doctrines of any sort uniting atheists in a violent "crusade" against believers, then we are left with an inescapable conclusion:  Craig Hicks acted on his own volition to commit murder, for a reason or reasons yet to be determined.

Naturally, when religious apologists are called upon to explain why people professing to be of their faith have committed violent crimes, they like to say that these are not "true believers", with the obvious implication that true believers would never do such a thing.  It seems there are a lot of phony believers in prison.  Now I'm not going to say that Craig Hicks could not have been a "true atheist".  That would be quite comparable to the christian apologists' explanation for christians who commit vile crimes.  If it were valid to say that no atheist could commit a violent crime, then that might be an explanation.  Unfortunately, that's not a true statement.  However, there's considerable evidence that atheists are less likely to commit a violent act in the name of atheism than religious believers in the name of their religion.  Know any atheists who've flown planes into buildings lately?

Muslims have become very frightening to many people around the world.  You can equate islamophobia with racism if you wish, even though being a muslim is not a racial thing at all. But islamophobia is not paranoia;  it's based on the reality that muslim terrorists commit murderous criminal acts on innocent victims in the name of islam (that there are explanations for their terrorism is irrelevant). It's become evident that seemingly peaceful muslims living in our communities can be vicious terrorists.  A concern for islamic terrorism isn't just bigoted islamophobia!  Some of the more well-known atheist spokesmen, like Bill Maher, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins agree.  Muslims have yet to outgrow the propensity to violence codified in their "sacred" scriptures, and so they represent a much more worrisome threat than christianity at this time.  To think otherwise is to be oblivious to reality.  What worries me is that christian fear of islam will lead to a more militant form of christianity - not a more militant form of atheism.  Will the terrorists succeed in creating a real religious war by spreading fear in christians?  They're close to that in their clash with the jews of Israel.

I have no reason to apologize to anyone, as an atheist, for what Craig Hicks has done.  If it turns out to be a parking dispute, of course, that settles the issue.  If he did it from some spasm of anti-islamic fervor, I surely can say I had nothing to do with that - if he'd asked me, I'd have told him to back off and not give in to such passions - that it would be harmful to the cause of atheism to make martyrs of these innocent people. Some atheists seem willing to accept responsibility for the actions of this man.  I don't believe there's any reason for atheism to do so.  My friend RJ Evans has articulated this pretty well here.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Let the recriminations commence!

It's becoming apparent that the forecasts for a 'historic' snowstorm for New York city have proven to be incorrect.  At least one meteorologist has already apologized for not getting this correct.  So the recriminations will commence in the media, I'm sure.  Blogs will be written, Bill Belichick's nasty mischaracterization of weather forecasts will be resurrected, politicians will voice their displeasure, letters to the editor will be written, and so on.  Mea culpas and excuses will be offered.

All of this could have been avoided, of course, and I don't mean by the obvious decision to issue a different forecast.  Let me explain briefly from where forecasts come these days:  to an ever-increasing extent, forecasts are more or less coming from numerical weather prediction [NWP] computer-based models.  Human forecasters who have to make forecast decisions are presented with a number of different model forecasts, some produced by different computer models, and some produced by starting the same model with slightly different input starting conditions.  To some extent, the variability within the ensemble is a measure of the uncertainty of the forecast, but even the uncertainty is, well, uncertain!  This collection of different model forecasts is referred to as an 'ensemble' of forecasts, and at times, there can be considerable variation among the different forecast model results, as was the case with this event.  It was quite likely to snow heavily somewhere at some time - the problem was to pinpoint when and where.  A 'historic' snowfall in New York city would have devastating consequences! 

In reality, what is inevitably true is that all the model forecasts will be wrong, to a greater or lesser degree.  No human- or computer-based weather forecast has ever been perfectly correct, and none ever will be.  Uncertainty is inevitable, so the best any forecaster can do is to say "[some weather event, like a blizzard or a tornado] is likely to happen, and my confidence in that occurrence is [some way to express the uncertainty of that forecast, such as a probability]."  Numerous studies have shown that forecasters are actually pretty good at estimating their uncertainty; this is seen by their forecast reliability.  Reliability of a probabilistic forecast means that, given a particular forecast probability, as that forecast probability increases, the frequency of occurrence of the forecast event also increases.  Forecasts are perfectly reliable when the probability forecast is X percent and the occurrence frequency is also X percent.  In general, it's not a good idea to present forecast event probabilities as either zero or 100 percent, although it's possible in certain situations - the probability of having a blizzard in the ensuing 24 hours when it's presently 100 deg F in July is pretty close to zero.

If the forecast probability is neither zero nor 100 percent, then a particular forecast is neither wholly right or wholly wrong.  If the event occurs although the forecast probability was low (say, 1 percent), then this is the one case out of 100 you would expect to find.  If the event fails to occur despite a forecast probability of 99 percent, again, it's the expected one case out of 100.  In the case of the snowstorm in the northeast, the problem was to know just where the heavy snow would be.  Clearly, when the event occurs, you want the forecast probabilities to be high and when it fails to occur, you want the forecast probability to be low.  Of course, there at times when it doesn't turn out that way, as I've described.

Getting back to the 'dilemma' of choosing from an ensemble of forecasts, the most likely event is the average of all the ensemble members.  But even if that average actually turns out to be the best forecast, it will not be completely accurate.  And there are times when the forecast that would have been the best is one of the ensemble members - the problem is to know with confidence which would be the correct choice, and the challenge is that science simply can't predict that with accuracy.  And in some situations, none of the ensemble members is very close to the real evolution of the weather, unfortunately - i.e., none of the model solutions were accurate.  There is no scientific way to choose the "model of the day" and efforts to do so are simply a waste time!

Everyone wants the forecasts to be absolutely correct, all the time - but like the Rolling Stones say, "You can't always get what you want!"  We need to re-negotiate our contract with forecast users who expect us to provide a level of certainty we simply are [and always will be] incapable of providing.  Users deserve to know our uncertainty in the forecast products we send out.  Not doing so is scientifically dishonest - forecasters know their uncertainty, so not sharing it is to withhold important information!

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Encouragement or Nagging?

My son's interest in Scouting began in elementary school, when we lived in Longmont, CO.  Chad joined the Cub Scouts and really enjoyed the experience.  His best friend was also a Cub Scout, not coincidentally.  When we moved to Oklahoma, it took us a while to get him into a Boy Scout troop, for no particular reason, but he was insistent enough that he made it happen.  It turns out that his interest in Scouting was a big influence on my life, and definitely for the better.

Chad was among the first members of a new troop forming in Norman - at first, I had no interest in doing anything more than giving him a ride to and from troop meetings.  After Chad's first summer camp, a conspiracy was hatched:  at the next troop meeting, I found I had become a Patrol Dad, partnering with a person who was a relative stranger.  Suddenly, I was in Scouting, and up to my neck!  As it has turned out, this was more than a great opportunity for Chad.  It was an important life-changing experience for me as a parent and as a person.  We had joined a troop with wise leadership, where the focus was totally on the boys, not the parents.  Our job as adult leaders was to help the boys grow up into good young men.  I had not enjoyed my own Boy Scouting experience, so I wasn't very enthused at first.  But like the boys, I loved the outdoors.  I didn't know much about hiking and camping then, but I was willing to learn.  And I certainly didn't know much about Scouting, but my Patrol Dad partner was an Eagle Scout and our Scoutmaster was a wonderful man, so they patiently waited for me to find my bearings and begin to know how to help the boys.  With time, I learned ... a lot ... about Scouting, about hiking and camping, and about helping boys grow into men.  Our troop involved whole families, including wives and daughters.  They became a second family to me.  Many wonderful experiences were to follow. Chad's participation resulted in one of my life's most rewarding experiences.

I could go on at great length about all my personal Scouting history, but not here.  The point is that one of the most important lessons I learned, by seeing the mistakes being made by others (as well as then seeing what I was doing as a mistake), was to not help the boys very much.  A huge problem for Scouts is parents who live vicariously through their children.  If their children fail, that's seen by the parents as a reflection on them, so they'll do anything to force their child to succeed.  Such parents want their boys to advance as fast as possible, not at a pace determined by the boys' personal growth.  They impose wholly unrealistic expectations on their boys:  that their boys be perfect in every way, all the time.  Therefore, they're constantly griping and nagging their boys about every little thing they might be doing.  I could see most kids not much caring for the constant nagging.  They 'tuned out' most of that harassment and did whatever they wanted, instead.  Sound familiar to you? 

And such parents get so involved in their boys' projects, they wind up doing most of the work for the Scouts.  When camping and hiking, some parents don't want their boys to make any mistakes that might inconvenience the parents, so they get involved in everything the boys are doing and never let the boys make any mistakes.  And of course, the parents make mistakes that inconvenience everyone!

It was easy to see others doing this.  Not so easy to recognize when I came to realize that I was doing it.  Through Scouting, I came to know many good parents whose primary concern was supporting the growth of the boys.  If parents had to do some growing, too (as I did), then the leaders patiently explained what they were doing and why I had to stop doing certain things and provide support in other ways than nagging and interfering.  I found I could see the rightness of this 'philosophy' of letting the boys make mistakes and overcome them.  Nagging and doing things for the boys was actually a demotivator, not helping them.  I watched my son grow into a real leader right before my very eyes.  If he needed discipline, I let other parents (who wouldn't take his transgressions personally) help him see his mistakes.  That was the way the troop worked:  parents helping boys other than their own grow into men.  I found I enjoyed working with boys not my own, and I had deep reservoirs of patience with them, whereas I was prone to be impatient with Chad.

Support what your children choose to do, of course.  But if you have to nag at them all the time to succeed at what they're doing, then perhaps they really want to do something else.  I told my son if I had to drag him to Scout meetings and events, then we just weren't going to do Scouting.  As it turned out, I never found myself having to nag at all.  His participation was always enthusiastic and frequently successful.  He formulated and carried out his own Eagle Scout project - when I was bragging to my boss at the time about my son's success with his Eagle project, he asked me (facetiously) if he could get his managers into Scouting! 

With teenagers, I think parents need to back off and give their kids room to grow as they themselves see fit, not just what the parents want!  Let your children define success in their own terms.  Let them make mistakes and fail, and then learn how to overcome those setbacks on their own, as much as possible.  And not just in Scouting, either!!  Kids need to learn how to make life choices and deal with the consequences on their own. If you can show them how to do that, they'll likely be just fine.