Sunday, May 15, 2016

Can we do away with tornado F/EF-scale ratings?

Let me state at the outset that I have no doubt meteorology will be saddled with the curse of F/EF-scale ratings for a long time to come, so this is mostly an exercise in futility.  Why do I dislike these ratings?  The main problems I have with them are discussed here.  The essence of why they bother me and seem so counter-productive is that they represent an effort to provide a simple summary measure of something that's very complex.  I suppose having a rating is better than not having any information about the intensity (i.e., windspeeds) in a tornado and thereby assuming they're all the same.  But that's not the only choice we professionals have.

Consider just one damage indicator, say a particular type of framing attachment in a typical American frame home.  A host of complex issues are associated with the failure of that particular type of attachment, such that if you could test a large number of such attachments by subjecting them all to the winds in a wind tunnel wherein you knew the windspeeds accurately, you would find that there's no single value of the windspeed that would cause that type of attachment to fail.  Instead, because each such attachment is a unique combination of components, the failure of that type of attachment would be associated with a range of windspeeds.  In doing a survey of tornado damage, you would not be able to know precisely what windspeed caused the failure of that attachment - rather, failures would occur within a range of windspeeds.  This is true regardless of what damage indicator you use.  At best, a given amount of damage can never be said to have a single, precise value of windspeed that would cause that amount of damage.  Thus, in the absence of any way to measure the windspeeds that produced that damage, the best one can do is know the distribution of windspeeds that cause that amount of damage.  You might choose the media (or the mean) within the distribution to represent some sort of a guess, but doing so is intrinsically wrong from a scientific viewpoint.

Further, we know very little about the actual spatial and temporal distribution of windspeeds in a tornado, even for those few tornadoes sampled with mobile Doppler radars.  It's common to idealize the airflow in tornadoes using some simple model, such as that of a so-called Rankine Combined Vortex.  All one needs to do to convince oneself that most real tornadoes probably don't fit that model very well in detail is look at some tornado videos.  The actual winds in a tornado, especially those with multiple vortices, can be vastly more complex than any simplified vortex model.  It's these real winds that interact with real objects in the path of the tornado to produce the observed damage.  This is a very important fact that makes it currently impossible to know by objective measurement what windspeeds are associated with any particular element of damage.  The time sequence of winds experienced by some damage indicator simply isn't known.  Plus the presence of debris in the wind - which alters the wind distribution - adds an additional level of complication.  Thus, a complex, debris-laden windfield interacting with objects whose failure points cannot be known precisely makes this whole issue vastly more complicated than what can be expressed by some single summary number.  Reality is staggeringly complex and the idea that one number can offer much insight is too absurd to consider.

Except that's precisely what the existing F/EF-scale ratings are trying to accomplish.  There's no hope that in what remains of my life and for the foreseeable future, it will ever be possible to have wholly objective, high-resolution measures of tornado windspeeds.  Yet, we continue to use these rating systems with hard boundaries between categories, and category boundary values that are essentially arbitrary and without any real significance.  Is it really plausible to say that an estimated windspeed of 199 mph (EF-4) is actually distinguishable from one of 200 mph (EF-5)?  Can we really make such a distinction based on various observed levels of damage to damage indicators?  Does it make sense to call a tornado an EF-5 based on a single damage indicator at one point in an extensive damage path?

The science of tornadoes is riddled with uncertainties, so there can be no plausible reason to accept as meaningful some single summary measure based on making numerous simplifying assumptions and creating arbitrary categories.  Science has learned how to make those uncertainties work for us in coming to conclusions, via the methods of statistics.  If we're going to have a scientific data base that's of much help to the science, it shouldn't be using the F/EF-scale rating of tornado windspeeds as some sort of meaningful measure.  Distributions of estimated windspeed, probabilities of windspeed values associated with particular damage observations - these are much more appropriate tools with which the science can work.  Every professional knows already that such ratings have many problems and are a very crude way to think about the phenomena.

I get that the public may not care about the subtleties here.  There may well be pressure to produce some sort of summary measure for the masses of non-scientists.  Fine.  Let someone decide how to do that, hopefully based on some reasonable application of science and engineering.  But professionals surely can do better than condensing all the complexity and accompanying uncertainty into one summary number.  I say we should do away with the ratings, at least at the science level.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

American greatness, redux?

Candidate Trump (or Drumpf, if you prefer) has promised to "make America great" if he's elected.  As shown in this dramatized video of a fictional rant, America is no longer so clearly the greatest nation in the world.  We fall well short by a host of quantitative measures.  We can argue the numbers in the video, but the basic point is unquestionably valid.  If we ever were the greatest nation, we seem no longer to be so "exceptional" through leading the world in positive attributes.  American exceptionalism should be dead but still has many adherents here.

I love my country as much as anyone, but I don't turn a blind eye to its negative aspects.  If we want to make our nation great again, is it likely to happen just because we elect an incompetent demagogue to the Presidency?  Trump hasn't been very clear about the details of his plan to make America great, but he has shown himself to be a colossally arrogant narcissist, an incompetent businessman with multiple bankruptcies, a misogynist with multiple failed marriages, a "chicken hawk", a racist, a crypto-fascist, a homophobe, a xenophobe, and completely uninterested in leading diverse people to work together in a spirit of compromise for the common good.  He appeals to some of the darkest sides of the American character and has conducted a campaign that panders to those base elements in many Americans.  Even the GOP is struggling to accept him as their candidate, and he may well have destroyed the party of Lincoln, at least temporarily.

How can his election make America great again?  I just can't see that happening.  To see why not, let's go back to colonial America.  Thanks to the arrogance of the English monarchy, they had managed to alienate many of their colonists and declined to negotiate any sort of mutually acceptable settlement of their grievances.  The colonists finally had had enough of this spirit of non-cooperation and disrespect, so they revolted.  A revolution is the end result of divisiveness, and the colonies left the British Empire for good because there was never a good faith effort to accommodate the issues to the mutual satisfaction of both sides.  This left the colonists no choice but to separate from England.  The fruit of the English policies was revolution.  Their dogmatic intransigence eventually led to armed insurrection.  That's essentially how insurrections begin - when the political process can't resolve disputes among people

Less than 100 years later, in a time of deep internal national divisiveness, a Civil War was fought by Americans against Americans over the cause of slavery.  There was no way to come to a compromise on what was seen in the North as a moral issue, and the secession of the South led directly to an armed insurrection - a revolt - that was met with a military response.  The South was doomed to lose that war, and yet some in the South never wanted to give up their cause for independence.  That spirit of treason, combined with continuing racism, resides in America to this very day, and is not exclusively a southern issue.  Racism in the US remains a festering sore that divides us from one another.  The founders of this nation never resolved it, leading to the Civil War.  Racism's continuity in American culture is a repugnant fact that Trump panders to in order to win support.  His plan to make us great apparently doesn't include much in the way of racial equality for all Americans.  Can a racist America ever be great again?  I think not!

Today, we are in a state of deep divisions in our society.  We seem unable to act on behalf of what is good for our nation because, in part, many people see the government as an enemy - the source of problems rather than a solution.  Minor armed revolts by armed militia-type groups or cults are becoming all too frequent.  Party politics has destroyed the spirit of compromise for the common good that the nation's founders tried to write into the Constitution.  Large corporations and lobby groups like the NRA are dictating policy to the government.  The GOP-dominated Congress has spent the last 7+ years blocking virtually everything our President has sought to accomplish, with a vitriolic hatred heaped on the President that likely has its roots in racism, despite claims to the contrary.  We seem obsessed over issues that divide us into camps that demonize each other, rather than seeking to work together to achieve compromise.  The very word "compromise" has taken on a very negative meaning - to compromise is to betray your cause, it seems.  We're closer to a revolutionary bloodbath than at any time since the period leading up to the Civil War.  How can a candidate focused on the divisions within our nation lead us to greatness?  I think the answer is clear:  he can't and if elected, he won't.

Trump worries me, but what really bothers me is how blind his supporters are to the man's character.  He might well be right when he says he could commit a murder and his supporters would never waver.  This potential fascist dictator has the votes of many otherwise intelligent people.  History suggests that demagogues like him are not worthy of public support.  They won't make America great - instead, they'll destroy everything this nation was founded to be.  Our people have become anti-science, anti-intellectual, anti-government, and profoundly ignorant - they're more interested in being led than in accepting responsibility for what's happening and working together to solve problems.  Well, I suppose Mussolini did make the trains run on time ...

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

A "busted" tornado forecast, in retrospect

26 April 2016 (coincidentally, the 25th anniversary of a major tornado outbreak in the Plains) is a classic illustration of the challenges associated with tornado forecasting.   The connection between the synoptic-scale weather systems and the occurrence of a major tornado outbreak ("outbreak" means different things to different people – there's no formal definition) is complicated and depends heavily on details at smaller scales.   One can get the synoptic-scale forecast mostly right but the development of tornadic supercells can be quite sensitive to the detailed structure and evolution at scales ranging from the size of a single storm to features on scales thousands of km across.  In meteorology, getting all of those details exactly right in the forecast is something that more or less never happens.  We can forecast tornado outbreaks in advance with varying levels of confidence, but they're never a sure thing.  Sometimes the details conspire to ruin the forecast.  What looks portentious, even a few hours in advance, can unravel quickly, such that the event doesn't unfold as forecast.

This case reflects certain facts about how severe storm forecasts work at the Storm Prediction Center.  The "culture" of the office contributed to the way the forecasts evolved.  If the situation looks like a possible outbreak, there‘s pressure from a variety of sources to give advance notice of upcoming tornado outbreak potential.  Once a forecast is issued, subsequent forecasts tend to maintain a relatively high level, even when new information (or a new forecaster) might suggest a downgrade of the forecast.  There's a reason for that:  users are uncomfortable with vacillation of the threat level, and if the threat is downgraded, and then even newer information means a return to enhanced threat, the indecision can come across as incompetence.  In other words, it can be unwise to back off the threat level.  Moreover, there's an asymmetric penalty for missed forecasts:  a false alarm for an event that never occurs can't result in human casualties and destruction, whereas an unforecasted event that kills people can be cause for investigations and possible disciplinary action.  This makes overforecasting almost inevitable.

In this case, there were some indications from the forecast models that the probability of a major tornado outbreak was decreasing as the fateful day approached, but the outlooks continued to raise concerns that a tornado outbreak could occur.  I don't necessarily see that as an error; it's realistic given the current state of our science.  An interesting facet to the case is that in the morning outlook on the day of the event, the forecast tornado probability was still only 10%.  The outlook was not upgraded to "High Risk".  I believe this is a plausibly accurate reflection of forecaster uncertainty.  However, the media were continuing the drumbeat of concern for a major event - the issue of the media is not going to be dealt with here.  Technically, a severe weather outlook is not focused only on tornadoes, and the nontornadic aspects of the forecast worked out pretty well.  Therefore, my comments here are restricted only to the forecast of a significant tornado outbreak with multiple, long-track, strong to violent tornadoes (EF2-EF5)

In my view, and this is purely a personal opinion, the biggest "mistake" from the SPC was issuing a PDS ("Particularly dangerous situation") watch in the early afternoon.  This was not warranted by the information of which I was aware (I was out storm chasing).  Whatever explanation might be offered in justification of this decision is in direct contradiction to the observed events.  I'm sure if offered a "do-over", the choice would be not to make it a PDS watch.

Make no bones about it.  Tornado forecasting isn't an easy job and perfection is out of the question.  I mean no disrespect to any forecaster involved in this event but we have to accept that the outcome is generating some backlash that's quite understandable.  Uncertainty is inevitable and probability is the language of uncertainty; by whatever verbiage we use to express it, we meteorologists need to communicate our uncertainty to our users such they accept the real capabilities of meteorological science as applied to the task of forecasting tornadoes.  By all means, we need to find out how to communicate with our users so that they understand our message, and know how to respond in the appropriate way to our weather forecasts.  We simply can't provide a 100% level of confidence in the forecast information we provide.  Our users must learn that they bear some responsibility for their own self-interests.   Weather hazards can present people with life-and-death situations, so in their own best interests, they need to pay attention and learn how to make the best use of what the science allows us to provide.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Understanding white male privilege

I wasn't brought up as a racist or misogynist, but I was born and raised in a virtually completely white part of the Chicago suburbs, in Dupage County.  As it turned out, that "purity" wasn't accidental.  The community was that way because that's the way the people who lived there wanted it to be.  My father was predominantly of English ancestry, and my mother was predominantly Swedish, so my ancestry is virtually lily-white.  There were few people in my town who weren't Protestant or Catholic but we did know two Jewish families, at least.   It wasn't until I was drafted into the Army during the Vietnam era that I encountered much of human diversity.  We were thrown together by the military and had to learn how to deal with the challenges of getting along with people having different backgrounds as best we could.  Curiously, it worked, for the most part.  A lot of the attitudes I grew up with were revealed to be without any real basis.  I still found people with whom I didn't get along, but before you could decide about someone new, you had to get to know them.  Knowing only their skin color and ethnic origins didn't provide much in the way of useful information about that individual.  Some people might fit a stereotype, but you wouldn't know that until you knew the actual person.  I learned I even could get along with those who did fit a stereotype, more or less.  It might be one of the most positive aspects of my time in the Army!

Once I reached upper level undergraduate status, I put my head down into my studies and pushed on to my professional goals (apart from my "sabbatical" in the Army).  Without even thinking about it, I've been living in predominantly (if not totally) white neighborhoods all my life, in the company of mostly white male colleagues.  The key is that this fact never really came to the forefront of my consciousness.  Since my family and I could afford a decent home, there was no need or reason to live in a ghetto of low-income housing.  Thus, I'm still mostly insulated from the diversity of our nation to this very day.  When I went back home for my 50th Anniversary Reunion of my high school graduation class, I found the school to be much more ethnically diverse than it was when I was there.  The area is still mostly white, but apparently there've been significant numbers of non-whites who have moved in.  Good.

The whole point of this brief personal history is to suggest that I've been the beneficiary of white male privilege all my life.  The accident of my birth has put me into a privileged position to become a STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) professional, and it took me a long time to realize my good fortune.  It's only been through the slow accumulation of non-white, ethnically diverse, and female friends that I've become able to see through the fog of my situation, and to appreciate it for what it has offered me.  In exchange for that privilege, it seems to me, I have a responsibility to be an advocate for truly equal opportunity for all.  It's why I identify as a "liberal" - it's not so-called "liberal guilt" I feel, but rather the need to do whatever I can to help break down the barriers that have limited the opportunities for non-white people and women in general.  My friends, over time, have shared their experiences and viewpoints with me, allowing me to see things through their eyes.  Although my friends and I tend to agree about many things, there are still points where we can disagree and still maintain our friendship.

The challenge is to be able to feel empathy for someone without actually having their experiences.  Learning how ethnic profiling is made manifest in the lives of the non-privileged is something I feel we should all try to do.  If we can't literally exchange our gender or ethnicity with someone else, then we should at least seek to know people who've had to live in the absence of white male privilege, and how they have to deal with it.  Talk with them.  Ask them about their experiences.  Listen carefully to what they say.  Think through what they've said and try to imagine yourself having such an experience and how you might react to it.

I feel no particular guilt for having benefited from white male privilege all my life without even realizing it.  Does a fish really appreciate the water in which it swims?  But if I can do something to help someone achieve what I have achieved, should I ignore that person's troubles if they're not a white male?  Of course not!  Most of the non-privileged people I know are not asking for any special favors - far from it, in fact.  They take pride in their ability to overcome the unnecessary, stupid obstacles that have been put in their path, along a road that isn't necessarily easy, even if you are a white male. Their accomplishments mean more to them precisely because they were achieved in spite of the pointless obstacles put in their path.  But we need to be concerned with removing those obstacles.

As I write this, Ken Burns is airing a new documentary on PBS about the life of Jackie Robinson.  His story is far more complex than what most people know - I certainly have learned things about him I didn't realize (or remember, if I ever knew them).  His life is testimony to the ignorance and falsity of gender and ethnic prejudice.  Jackie Robinson had to endure awful things visited on him by his teammates and baseball fans - without responding.  His entire life, right up to end, was heavily committed to seeking equality for Americans of African descent.  It was pointed out in the documentary that his entry into Major League Baseball was the death knell for the Negro Leagues from whence he came. 

It's interesting to me, then, that I have a distant personal connection to the Negro Leagues:  a Dr. Raymond Doswell is an official of the Negro League Baseball Museum.  He's of African descent.  I don't know his genealogy, but it seems there's a chance one of his ancestors carrying the Doswell surname was a slave in Virginia under one of the "Virginia Doswells" [English folks who came to the US before the Revolution and became landed gentry - that isn't my direct ancestral line, however.].  Slaves sometimes took the surnames of their masters, or were children who carried the master's surname, being a product of the master having his way with his female slaves.  I'm pretty certain the surname Doswell didn't come over to Virginia from Africa.  We might even be distantly related.  I know of several black Doswells around the nation, many of whom are successful, educated, and prosperous members of their communities.  I'd be proud to claim them as distant relatives but in any case, they reflect credit on themselves and the name of Doswell!

Let's abandon the outdated tendency toward tribalism and associated bigotry we've inherited in our genes from a time when tribalism was a survival trait for our primitive ancestors.  Tribalism has outlived its value, and we can overcome our genetic tendencies.  There's no good reason to limit opportunities to anyone.  We humans need all the help we can get, and limiting our abilities to those of a minority on the planet (white males) is now extremely counterproductive.  We should be doing everything we can to encourage all people to pursue their dreams as best they can, and not be putting pointless barriers in their path.  We share a common humanity, after all.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

School closings in tornado hazard situations, Part 2

So now, it should be clear that the NWS tornado forecast products ... from outlooks to warnings ... cannot be considered 100% accurate in all respects but will always involve uncertainty.  Furthermore,, decision-makers must consider other, non-meteorological issues in making their choices for how to react to a given situation so that it makes no sense to have some rigid rules for what choices to make.  Decision-makers must, therefore, invest considerable effort in "situation awareness" - they have to be deeply committed to staying informed about what is always an evolving situation.  The ultimate proper choice (i.e., the ex post facto "right decision") can change literally from one minute to the next as a tornado event unfolds.

With regard to school closings, what are some of the non-meteorological factors involved?  I make no claim to be able to list them all, here.  A big factor concerns the time of day.  If the school is closed on the basis of the forecast/warning, should the children stay at school or go home?  If the schools closes early and the children are sent home, will one or both of the parents of the children be at home?  What is the state of construction quality associated with the children's homes - do they live in a mobile home or a flimsy frame home or a multistory multiple family home?  How much time before an approaching tornado hits the school?  Are the kids in class or at recess outside or waiting for buses to take them home, with parents waiting for some of them (or on the way to pick them up)?

What sort of protection does the school actually offer and will it be adequate for a strong or violent tornado, should they be unlucky enough to be in the path of such a storm?  Does the school have a tornado plan?  Assuming they have one, has the school's tornado plan been vetted by structural engineers and/or meteorologists so that it's known to be the best they actually can do with the existing structure?  Is adequate shelter available anywhere in that school and who decided it was indeed adequate?  If the school has sheltering inadequacies, can they afford the necessary modifications, up to and including purpose-built tornado shelters?  I've seen plans at schools that are quite flawed and could eventually lead to a disaster.  I've seen schools that, without structural changes, have no local capable of occupation by the entire population of the school that would provide adequate shelter - only the least bad among all their sheltering options.

Have regular tornado drills been done at least once per year?  Are there means by which a school's decision-maker can be situation aware during a volatile weather situation - a weather radio and/or some internet connection that is being dedicated to weather situation awareness?  Is the decision-maker trained well enough to make such difficult life-and-death decisions in the face of a complex, rapidly-changing hazard?  Does the decision maker understand all the options and know their weak and strong points?

Moreover, as discussed in my first post on this topic, the tornado threat changes continually.  But the vulnerability of some segments of a school's population varies.  Physically handicapped people require more time to reach and enter shelter locations than the able-bodied, so they might have to commence their tornado precautions earlier than the rest of the group.  Has all that been accounted for in the tornado plan?

Although this discussion is about school closings in particular, many similar statements are valid for churches, businesses, shopping malls, recreation areas, entertainment venues, and so on.  For none of them is it trivially obvious what choices a decision-maker might have.  Schools in session have been  hit infrequently over the years, fortunately, but when they are hit while in session, the results can be tragic.  And the same goes for all the other public and private locations where people might be concentrated in relatively high numbers.  How many of those places have a tornado plan that's familiar to the occupants and easily implemented on relatively short notice?  How many even have a person designated as the tornado decision-maker (i.e., an emergency manager) who is trained and equipped for the task?  What if their designated decision-maker isn't there for some reason - do they have a properly prepared backup?

If the goal is to make the nation "weather ready", it's going to require a lot more than a few catchy slogans.  The certification of weather readiness requires some stringent milestones, not just a few simple requirements.  Being truly weather ready is a complex task that has many facets to be considered.  A knee-jerk response based on some simple criterion (such as being in a tornado watch or not) is not really demonstrating practical weather readiness or adequate preparation.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

School closings in tornado hazard situations, Part 1

Recently, my colleague Dr. J Marshall Shepherd, has raised questions about policies regarding school operations during tornado situations.  This issue is far from simple.  It involves many complex topics and I want to discuss at least some of those topics.  This will be somewhat longer than my typical blog, but it necessitates some detail.  My bottom line is that any particular "answer" to Marshall's questions is extremely unlikely to be appropriate in all possible circumstances.  In other words, I doubt seriously there's any "one size fits all" procedure for deciding what to do.  Therefore, any decision regarding school responses to a threatening tornado situation depends strongly on the circumstantial details.  And that includes not only the choices by the school administration, but also all the individual families including the schoolchildren.

First, a review of products from the National Weather Service [NWS]:  the Storm Prediction Center (SPC) in Norman, Oklahoma issues various severe weather forecast products from a few hours in advance of a hazardous storm event, to several days ahead.  The quality and accuracy of their forecasts have been improving over the decades.  Their forecasts are not perfect but they can provide substantial value for decision-makers when used properly.

That raises an interesting point - at least interesting to me and some others - just how do decision-makers use a weather forecast that is inevitably uncertain, especially in terms of intensity, and temporal/spatial specificity (i.e., exactly when, where, and how strong will the event be?).  It isn't possible for any forecast by anyone to provide such detail accurately and consistently.  How does a user of this information make use of forecasts if it's known (and it is) that all forecasts have greater or lesser uncertainty.  If the forecasts were perfectly accurate in all details, then the decision-maker's decision is made by the forecaster!  The user then would know exactly what will happen and can make decisions easily.  I understand why most users want this to be the case, even though they know better.  People in Hell want a glass of ice water, too!  No forecaster can do this, so it's illogical to expect that it is possible.

Moreover, a decision-maker must incorporate more information than just the weather forecast in making a decision -- factors that public sector (i.e., NWS) forecasters in general know little or nothing about.  Some decision-makers, because of their circumstances, need a lot of advance warning in order to take appropriate action.  Others can get by with much less lead time.  Some have prepared shelter positions at immediate hand, others do not.  Every user has unique circumstances.  There's no way for NWS forecasters to know all the external factors that govern a weather forecast user's needs, so the forecasts simply can't be used as if they were somehow perfect.  Perhaps a few user/decision-makers might be able to pay for the services of a private sector forecaster to make their weather decisions for them based on shared information so the forecasts know precisely what are their needs, but that's just not possible for NWS forecasters.  Instead, NWS forecasters provide a forecast that is their best estimate of what will happen, and - ideally - supply some understandable information about the uncertainties of their forecast.  A user then - ideally - merges that forecast with all the other information needed to make a decision.

Consider the implications of a Severe Storm Outlook issued by the SPC:  this product delineates the area expected to experience severe weather a day or more in advance, to allow users to begin to prepare for the possibility of experiencing a hazardous storm.  For any given location within the area designated, during the time when the forecast is valid, there is some generally unknown probability of experiencing that hazard, but the SPC seeks to assign a probability based on their understanding of the specific weather situation.  In general, it is quite far from a time/space/intensity-specific prediction, of course.  Even a 5% probability at this point in the weather situation is actually a relatively high value.  On any given date, the probability of a severe weather event on the average is far below that 5% value!  In most circumstances, the odds of any given location within the outlook area experiencing a tornado hazard is too low to take any actions, but users might best be served by preparing to take action when/if a hazardous situation arises.

When the weather situation evolves toward the imminent development of severe weather, the SPC usually issues a Severe Storm Watch that includes some information about the specific probability of a tornado within the space-time volume of the watch, and also some indication of the expected intensity of any tornadoes that might occur.  This can include what is described as a Particularly Dangerous Situation (a so-called PDS Watch) that includes the potential for long-track, violent tornadoes.  In the usual PDS tornado watch, the probability of having a significant tornado somewhere within the watch increases to some value, perhaps as high as 80%.  With such a high probability, this might be sufficiently threatening for some users (those whose protective actions require extra time), but certainly not all, to commence their tornado precautions.

Finally, if a tornado has been detected in some way (often based on radar information), local NWS offices may issue a tornado Warning.  Even in such cases, any specific location ahead of the tornado may or may not be hit.  The typical size of a tornado-warned area is considerably less than that of the typical watch and the existence of a tornado is of far less uncertainty than that associated with a watch, so most people within the warned area are well-advised to take tornado precautions, but even in this dangerous situation, there is no guarantee of anything:  a tornado could change intensity, dissipate, or swerve off in a new direction.  Most long-track violent tornadoes roll along a more or less straight path for many minutes (up to an hour or more), but each storm case is different and not all tornadoes are "typical".

... to be continued

Donald Trump - my take on his message

I've been reluctant to join the chorus of those decrying the march of Donald Trump to his possible nomination as the 2016 GOP Presidential candidate.  I probably don't have much new to add to the rising tide of denunciations, as the bizarre sideshow that is Trump threatens to destroy the GOP.  We have seen some GOP politicians beginning to endorse Trump, even as other GOP politicians say they will oppose the candidacy of their own party's nominee if it's Trump!  I feel for those moderate Republicans who have been pushed aside by the Tea Party religious reich clowns and grotesque "pro wrestling" style of the Trump campaign.  It must have the feel of an approaching runaway train to them.

We're seeing the fruit of the deepening divisions in American society, where corporate greed has been nurtured by GOP politicians currying financial support from the wealthy by offering them a deregulated economy, massive tax breaks, and even welfare via bail-outs and subsidies, while the nation's infrastructure crumbles, vast sums literally are going up in smoke in pointless foreign wars that only benefit the arms manufacturers, and American freedoms are being surrendered in an atmosphere of carefully cultivated paranoia.  GOP politicians keep doubling down on their thoroughly discredited "trickle-down" economics and "free market capitalism" that is little more than welfare for the rich.  The middle and lower classes are feeling the pinch but somehow keep voting into public office the very scoundrels responsible for their woes.

Discontent with government is everywhere, and populism is on the rise - Trump is a fascist populist figure, blaming the political "establishment" for not having the will to "make America great again".  Is it a coincidence that Bernie Sanders is a democratic socialist populist?  I think not.  Our nation is driving itself outward to the ends of the political spectrum.  Perhaps not yet the extreme ends, but surely outward from the center.  Compromise and cooperation in the governance of the nation have all but vanished in a torrent of denunciation and polarization.

Populism:  any of various, often anti-establishment or anti-intellectual political movements or philosophies that offer unorthodox solutions or policies and appeal to the common person rather than according with traditional party or partisan ideologies.

To me, Trump is the voice of the ignorant, bigoted underclass of Americans who have heretofore felt muzzled by the imposition of what they see as "political correctness".  Trump appeals to many of them because his candidacy legitimizes what they feel, saying for them what they thought they weren't being allowed to say.  His act is one that resembles the papier-mâché faux morality play that is pro wrestling, where blustering villains try to intimidate strong-willed heroes, standing nose-to-nose in shouting matches, blowing spittle into each other's faces, and bashing their opposition with folding chairs.  And of course, it's all a fake drama with no real content.  I suspect the demographic supporting Trump probably has considerable overlap with the fan base for pro wrestling, albeit not a perfect match, of course.  Bluster and bullying without any substantive content.  And somehow, some people find that hogwash appealing.

The fact that Trump's campaign is virtually all show without any real content - claims of things he will do unaccompanied by any notion of how he will do those things - matters little, if at all, to his followers.  His lies, his self-contradictions, his obscene language, his bullying, his massive ignorance, his colossal arrogance, his actual incompetence - none of that deters his fans.  Trump has even claimed he could commit murder without shaking the loyalty of his supporters and he could very well be right about that!  These folks are of a mindset that seems to associate with Hitler's brownshirts and Mussolini's blackshirts - they are crypto-fascists that long have lurked beneath the American facade of freedom and equality for all, ready to burst forth to follow a fascist dictator and do his bidding.  Trump is that demagogue and they are willing to be his shock troops.  A strutting, blustering dictator has a great need for those ready to do his dirty work of intimidating with violence on behalf of his cause, after all.

Finally, the "rise" of Trump has masked the radicalization of the GOP by the Tea Party "revolution".  Should Trump not succeed in grabbing the nomination, then the GOP candidates remaining viable in the race for the nomination are uniformly pathetic and seemingly committed to advancing the process of transforming the US into a christian theocracy, all in the name of "family values (from "God"), capitalism, and patriotism".  While I'm not all that crazy about the Democratic candidates, either one is vastly preferable to me than any of the GOP clown car occupants.  The moderate Republicans have been pushed aside in the march to drive the GOP car off a cliff.  Trump is the catalyst for this but not the cause.  We are doing it to ourselves.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Fragging - what it says about our Vietnam experience, and the future

A longtime friend I made during my tour in Vietnam recently sent me this article about an ugly reality of our participation in the Vietnam conflict:  fragging.  Fragging is the deliberate murder of officers and non-commissioned officers by their own troops.  It's a sort of fratricide, often accomplished by using a fragmentation grenade, or "frag".  While I was serving in Phu Bai, there was an attempted murder of a senior officer by leaving a frag at his trailer doorstep - as the story went, the pin was pulled very nearly out, and balanced on one of the steps, with idea that he would jar it loose when he went up the stairs in the dark, the grenade would fall to the ground, the pin would fall out, and ... BOOM!  Apparently, purely by luck, it fell in such a way that it actually pushed the pin back in further.  This officer was widely known for being a strict disciplinarian who was very tight about military discipline even in a combat zone, going so far as to give out Article 15s for minor chickenshit things like having your hands in your pockets.  He was widely disliked by many of the troops in our unit, and evidently someone decided to do something about him.  Fortunately, the attempt failed.  It was a sort of message to the command cadre of our unit, however, and not a good message.  Even "in the rear with the gear", fragging was a reality they would have to accept.

How could morale deteriorate so far as to lead to young men being willing to commit fratricide in our Army and Marine units?  How could American soldiers find themselves contemplating murder of their own commanders?  The article I mentioned says:

As the U.S. began to withdraw its military forces from Vietnam, some American enlisted men and young officers lost their sense of purpose for being in Vietnam, and the relationship between enlisted men and their officers deteriorated.

This is a rather mild statement of the situation I experienced during my time in Vietnam.  I was in Vietnam during the time when US military involvement was being drawn down and troops being withdrawn.  The entire nation was divided deeply by the war, with an ever-growing opposition within its whole population.  Given that many of the troops were draftees -- that is, unwilling participants -- the growing disaffection within the military itself is relatively easy to understand.  Now, put those unwilling young men in a combat zone where the threat of death and murder hung in the air everywhere (even in the rear areas) as an ugly miasma, and the deterioration of morale is pretty much inevitable.  The morality of war is often ambiguous in the real world, despite what lofty ideals might be used to motivate it.  General William Tecumseh Sherman understood the ugliness of war and sought to end it by any means possible, as quickly as possible.  There seemed to be no end to the killing in Vietnam.

We in Vietnam were neck deep in a war that had been mismanaged in most ways from the start, with nebulous goals and no "end game" strategy, except to kill all the Communists.  When we finally did fully withdraw, it was not "peace with honor" as President Nixon tried to make it out to be - we simply abandoned South Vietnam, and it was quickly overwhelmed by the Communists because its government had little popular support.  The US government had propped up a series of Vietnamese governments that were corrupt and had no connection to their own people.  Common Vietnamese with whom I spoke did not want US troops to be there as an occupying force.  In that atmosphere of uncertainty about our reasons for being there, is it hard to imagine why the troops were rather disinclined to participate in a process where they could be killed for no higher purpose than being cannon fodder in an apparently endless conflict that had little hope of achieving a lasting peace?

While I was in Vietnam, I could sense the uneasy but constant undercurrent that might cause young men to contemplate fragging.  For example, we learned that if our compound were ever to be overrun, our own bombers would come in and carpet bomb the place to prevent enemy access to the intelligence information in our local "spook shop" - an Army intelligence office.  If they were willing to bomb all of us within our perimeter, why should we feel some overwhelming loyalty to the command?  They didn't have our backs, so why should we have theirs?  Would we want to stand and die at our posts for no obvious purpose?  If our involvement in the war was so lacking in any moral justification or worthy goal other than fighting an ideology, why would we choose to support our so-called "leaders"?

I'm not justifying the immoral and traitorous actions of anyone who committed the act of fragging.  They did something very wrong and have to accept the personal responsibility for those deeds.  But I am saying that if you weren't there and never experienced the loathsome, poisonous atmosphere that made the unacceptable seem acceptable, you have no basis on which to judge those unfortunates.  Can you be so certain of what you would have done without having experienced it for yourself and been confronted with those situations?  I think not.

We as a nation were experiencing very nasty internal divisiveness as the Vietnam War wound down.  Consider the parallels to today's divisive political and religious atmosphere.  I'm not saying the situations are identical, of course, but I am saying that a lack of unity of purpose can lead us to a position where unacceptable choices become acceptable; where divisions devolve into civil war and fratricide.  We've been here before.  There are important lessons in our history I hope we can learn from regarding the possible perils of such divisiveness.