Monday, December 26, 2011

More crockumentaries ...

I just watched an awful show on Discovery Channel:  2011:  The year the Earth went wild.  It was a long litany of distortions and outright hogwash, including blaming La Niña for all the weather events.  I also got to watch the sound bites contributed by my friends offered in support for all the terribly distorted conclusions mandated by the show's producers.  I feel for them.  I've been there, done that.  I, too have had my name associated with more than one TV "documentary" laced liberally with lies and distortions.  My sympathies to them.

The idea that the natural disasters of 2011, of which there certainly have been many, are the result of the Earth "going wild" is perhaps the most ridiculous notion of the entire program.  The premise is apparently that when bad things happen, the planet is somehow going insane.   I can't even begin to imagine what such a concept might entail.  How can a planet go insane?  It's pure nonsense.

The very idea of what is "normal" has been distorted by the producers of these crockumentaries - in reality, it's normal for the geophysical hazards of the Earth to occur at irregular intervals.  It's normal for earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, blizzards, wildfires, tsunamis, and so on to happen.  It's normal that in some years, more of these disasters happen than in other years.  In some years, these hazards happen normally, by bad luck, to occur in places where loss of life and vast property damage is possible.  Obviously, 2011 has had more than its "normal" share of bad geophysical disasters if you believe that every year is exactly like every other year.  But what happened in 2011 is actually part of normal geophysical processes!  Every year is not just like every other year.  It's normal for the occurrence of disasters to be variable!  It's normal for some years to have more disasters than other years!

The fact is that the Earth has been "going wild" from time to time, in one place or another, all along, for its entire history.  This is actually what is normal!  It's normal planetary geophysical behavior.  Yes, the disasters caused by geophysical hazards create immense social impacts, and people seem to feel comforted, somehow (for reasons that escape me entirely) with the reassurance that this is the planet "going wild" rather than accepting the unpleasant reality that geophysically-created disasters are not freak events.  They're normal!! The Earth is not always benign and friendly to humans - never has been and never will be - in fact, it can be downright hostile to human life and well-being from time to time.

So the show blames La Niña for all the bad weather - pure fabricated baloney!!  La Niña is but one element in a complex tapestry of processes that produce the actual weather.  To assign blame for weather disasters solely to La Niña or El Niño, or the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, or whatever, is scientifically unjustifiable.  It's offering a pseudo-explanation to the great unwashed viewing public, rather than meaningful scientific content.  If we assign blame to some process, does this make the victims feel any better?  "Oh well, what could we expect?  It was the evil La Niña that devastated us!  Just knowing that makes it all better.  And we certainly understand it so well, now."

Makes me want to puke!!  We continue to fill the American public's mind with massive doses of bullshit!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Disbelief is not a belief!

I just saw a YouTube posting about Sam Harris taking on a believer.  But the post is not so interesting to me as the comments to follow, in which both sides offer some pretty sorry dialog on the topic.  It starts off with a comment:

Like, I'm not even a believer. I'm just comfortable saying I don't know. But even this to many atheists is morally Wrong so there have been times where I've mentioned this off hand and been accused by atheists of being soft on religion or something of that sort. They can't keep their beliefs to themselves anymore than religious people can - they have to shove it down the throats of all the rest of us.

and he goes on to say:

A lot of the atheists I've met NEED to believe in atheism in the same way that some Christians NEED to believe in Christ. Its part of their psychological anatomy. Anything that diverts from atheism represents sin (or I guess "backwardness", "obscuratsm" [sic], etc.) to them. When one feels the need to prostelyze [sic] about their beliefs at EVERY available opportunity that person is DEPENDENT on their beliefs. 

 I see this sort of nonsense all the time in Internet forums.  First of all, I have to say that it's not possible for atheism to be a belief system.  Atheism is disbelief in a deity!  Disbelief - the absence of belief - cannot logically be a belief!  If this person is, as he says, not a believer, then he's an atheist whether he realizes it or not!  The argument here seems to be a common one against atheists who choose to be open and "aggressive" about their atheism.  Just what is "aggressive" atheism?

Consider the accusation in this comment that atheists are shoving their atheism down everyone's throat.  I think what's happening is the following.  If an atheist calls the logic of religious beliefs into question, this is perceived as shoving their atheism down everyone's throat.  If atheists pursue litigation against government sponsorship of religion on the basis of the Constitutionally-mandated separation of church and state, this is seen as shoving atheism down everyone's throat.  If atheists respond in any way to the open advocacy of religious beliefs that appears in every possible medium all the time, then they're shoving atheism down everyone's throat.  Believers can pour out their beliefs repeatedly in every possible way but atheists can't respond in any way, it seems.

I'm probably wasting my time with this blog, but I hope at least a few readers might grasp the utter absurdity and hypocrisy of such claims about "aggressive" atheism.

Just how is questioning the logic of something forcing anything on anyone?  Yes, of course, if someone questions someone else's religious beliefs, it's common for that to be perceived as a personal attack.  Religious believers often are so deeply attached to their belief system that any logical criticism is interpreted as a personal attack on them.  Almost always, the atheist has no such intent.  The atheist  isn't even attempting to convert the believer to a belief system (which atheism logically cannot be!), but rather is attempting to get the believer to see and acknowledge the illogic of their beliefs.  It's usually the case that the believer brought the subject up in the first place and the atheist is simply responding to this.

In such discourse, believers usually resort to comments like the one in the Sam Harris video - to the effect that they're not making a scientific, logical, or evidence-based statement, but simply accepting their religious beliefs on faith.  As an atheist, I have no problem with anyone believing whatever they want on faith or evidence or whatever but, as Sam Harris suggests in the video, some belief systems are considered generally to be completely illogical and worthy only of derisive laughter, such as his example of believing that Elvis is still alive.   For the most part, atheists see most religious beliefs as in that category.  You may be offended by that contention, but using logic to question religion is not shoving anything down your throat - unless you choose to reject logic as the basis for any argument whatsoever.  If you categorically reject logic and evidence, then of course there's no point to further discourse.  Your beliefs are logically unassailable because you reject logic!  If you accept logic in, for example, scientific arguments, isn't it being consistent to apply logic to religion, as well?

People who support such things as teaching creationism in public education or putting religious icons on government property are the ones doing the shoving!  They are the ones forcing their beliefs on everyone else.  They cry "persecution" when atheists lead campaigns to oppose state sanctioning of any particular religion.  They rewrite history to create the absurd notion that the basis for our US legal system is based on religious tradition, when it is quite clear that the very opposite is true.  The religious right-wing projects their own aggressive behavior regarding their theocratic agenda onto atheists whenever those atheists speak up and oppose the destruction of the wall of separation between church and state here in the USA.  The intrusion of religion into government is fast becoming one of the serious threats to Constitutionally-guaranteed freedom in the USA.  But many believers feel that any protest against this gathering storm is "aggressive" atheism.  Apparently, they're offended by any contrary viewpoint.

The commenter I mentioned at the top of this blog is typical of some atheists, who seem to think that atheists should keep their opinions to themselves and never question anyone's beliefs.  Of course, they're entitled to their opinion.  Perhaps they feel threatened by possible reprisals against anyone who isn't a believer wearing their belief on their sleeve.  This isn't just a paranoid fantasy, of course - it's a fear backed up by reality!  Atheists are discriminated against around the world and even in the USA - that's an undeniable fact.  So for some timid atheists, the correct reaction is to shut up and quit trying to say or do anything about it.  Most atheists aren't at all focused on shoving our disbelief down anyone's throat.  You can believe anything you want, but don't force us to do so!  For the time being, we have the Constitutionally-guaranteed right and we're free to exercise that right!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Iraq war ends with a whimper ...

The ill-advised burden of GWB's pointless war on Iraq has come to end.  Its end kinda sneaked up on me.  I'd forgotten the timetable for withdrawal, but we now have withdrawn, finally.  The end of this agony is long overdue, and of course, it's another war that should never have been fought.  No ticker-tape parades, no final victory.  Just withdrawal - a whimper.

GWB's father chose not to remove Saddam Hussein at the end of the first Gulf War to liberate Kuwait.  I can't pretend to know why he made such a choice, but I have to believe he understood what it would have involved and chose wisely not to follow that path.  GWB, on the other hand, justified the war based on little more than lies about weapons of mass destruction and about the actually non-existent ties of Saddam to terrorism.  It had no valid justification other than GWB's strange neo-conservative obsession with removing Saddam Hussein and installing democracy at the point of a gun.  The Iraq War featured a classic blitzkreig campaign to seize the nation and remove its leader, but the army that accomplished that feat was not equipped or prepared to stay on as an occupying force.  It would have taken many, many more soldiers to police Iraq after the "regime change" and to occupy them than it took to conquer it.  Our all-volunteer military has been stretched to its limits by our wars, with many of them serving multiple deployments and having their deployments extended involuntarily.

Our troops have paid a heavy price for this war.  Not just the thousands of US military deaths, the tens of thousands of injuries, the hardships on families, the lingering poison of post-traumatic stress (with all its impacts on soldiers, their friends, and families), and its hundreds of billions in dollars in costs (with its huge contribution to our national economic malaise).  Some of our troops have participated in vile acts (e.g., Abu Ghraib), which is an inevitable price we pay in any war, even while the majority of our soldiers serve honorably, of course.  War is always ugly and our politicians have disgraced the nation and let its warfighters down by leading us into this one for no good reason.  We surely should be thankful it's finally over.

Perhaps the most difficult pill to swallow is that our troops have endured this agony for no good reason.  They have not been defending our freedom in America.  With the exception of the blitzkrieg campaign at its beginning, our troops haven't even been fighting another army.  It's been yet another war with negligible justification against "insurgents" (a guerrilla war), where we suffer casualties without any strategy for "winning" that conflict.  History has shown repeatedly that when one nation invades another, and the invaded nation is forced into guerrilla tactics, the war becomes unwinnable for the invader.  Casualties continue to mount up, but the insurgency goes on indefinitely.  Nationalism (a form of tribalism) always trumps political ideology.

As a Vietnam veteran, it has been painful for me to watch this war unfold.  I even had to endure my son's deployment there, with its awful sense of deja vu.  We have GWB and his neo-conservative politics to blame for this disgraceful mess.  The christian nationalist party's (i.e., the GOP) politicians have taken the stance that withdrawal from Iraq has been a mistake.  Show them how you feel about this "mistake" in the next election!

Although there's more direct justification for battling terrorism in Afghanistan, the history of that nation makes it clear that the war there is another unwinnable one.  We need to stop being the world's self-appointed police.  Get our troops out of that mess, too!

It was a tragic mistake to remove a sovereign nation's regime unilaterally when that nation actually posed no valid direct threat to us.  The threat of terrorism is not anywhere near enough to justify the price we're paying - not just in ruined lives and dollars, but in the increasing willingness of a fearful US population to be more willing than ever to trade our freedom for what amounts to only an illusion of security.  The terrorists are winning because they're forcing us to pay the disproportionate cost of responding to their terrorist actions.  I say "disproportionate" because the actual impact of terrorism is minor.  It's a tactic for the weak, and we should be strong enough to not give in to the fear being shoved in our faces by politicians for the sake of political gain.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

More reflections on a career

I was making a presentation recently to some forecasters about science-based weather forecasting methods.  After the presentation, which included an extended discussion of my thoughts on what how best to use numerical weather prediction models in forecasting by human beings, I was thinking once again about the future of humans in the weather forecast business. I have a number of essays that touch on this general topic, and I'll not go through all of that here.

My recent thoughts were focused on what I maintain is the likely outcome in the future - that public sector forecasting will come to be dominated by automation.  Humans may stick around like useless appendages, much as firemen continued to ride on diesel locomotives long after the need to maintain a hot fire in a locomotive had disappeared.  But the role of humans as creators of the forecast will be increasingly limited.  The economics of weather forecasting are inexorably aligned against human forecasters.  We don't invest in improving in human forecasters to anywhere near the extent to which we invest in automation.  The eventual outcome of that imbalance seems pretty obvious.  As most human forecasters add less and less positive value to the automated forecast products, they hasten the day of their eventual disappearance.  There may continue to be some role for humans in the private sector, of course, although even there the drive to rely on automated products is strong.

My entire career in the science of meteorology has been motivated by a hope to unite the science and its research results with operational forecasting.  A large fraction of that time has been spent seeking ways to use science to help human forecasters, many of whom I'm proud to call my friends.  Some of them have found my work to be helpful, and that alone justifies any effort I spent on their behalf.

Whatever miniscule measure of "fame" that might be attached to me as a consequence of my work can be attributed to my having chosen to spend my efforts doing something that had only a small number of "competitors" - there just aren't many folks occupying the interface between research and operations.  It's relatively easy to be a "star" when there are so few folks doing it!

What I see in the future, then, is the eventual obsolescence of most everything I've striven to accomplish.  If human forecasters disappear, at least in the public sector, then my career will have achieved little of any real permanence.  But the more I think about it, I do not see this as something to make me feel sad or regretful.  I'm not ashamed of what I tried to do, certainly.  The impermanence of science is part of its attraction to me.  The field moves on - new ideas replace the old, new methods supplant earlier approaches, and so on.  If you're hoping to achieve a scientific form of immortality, it likely won't happen.  Isaac Newton is still remembered today, and it's likely he will be indefinitely.  But I'm most assuredly not in that rarified air at Newton's level!!  I'm quite satisfied (and feel fortunate, in fact) to have been a participant in the science that had attracted me so strongly as a boy.

Something of my work may continue to be mentioned in historical reviews, but in 500 years, it's unlikely that a meteorologist of the future will have heard of me or what I've worked so hard to produce.  I'm just fine with that.  The thought doesn't depress me or indicate that I'm depressed.  There's a good chance I won't live long enough to see the eventual destiny for human forecasters that I foresee - I'm becoming a dinosaur - but I had a lot of fun doing the "work" and the science has been very good to me.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Just what does the Heisman trophy mean?

Robert Griffin III (known as "RG3") is the most recent Heisman trophy winner, and he certainly had quite a year for a 9-3 Baylor team that achieved far more than most Baylor teams of late.  This quarterback clearly was a valuable player on his team and has been for virtually the whole time he's played for Baylor.  How many times has Baylor beaten both OU and the shorthorns of UTx in the same year?  Besides, anyone with III as a suffix to their name has to get my respect!

That said, however, I've struggled of late trying to grasp just what the Heisman trophy means.  Wikipedia says the Heisman trophy is awarded annually to:  the player deemed the most outstanding player in collegiate football.  The entry goes on to discuss some of the controversy regarding the Heisman, including regional biases and so forth.

What I find so puzzling is the clear dominance of quarterbacks and running backs in the history of the award.  Just how is "the most outstanding player" to be defined?  What criteria are used?  How does one compare performance at different positions?  Although players at positions other than quarterback and running back have on very rare occasions been selected, who's to say the most outstanding player in college football that year wasn't a tight end, or a blocking fullback, or (horrors!) a lineman?  Defensive players are not generally given much consideration, either.  Neither are the players limited to special teams.

This very clear bias for quarterback or running back raises the question:  which position is the most valuable?  Evidently, the belief in football is widespread that quarterback and running back are the most important/valuable.  But football is a team game and this bias in awarding a trophy to the putative year's "best" player is simply inexplicable and unjustifiable.  There's no plausible reason to restrict potential Heisman winners to two positions on a team with 22 positions to fill (to say nothing of special teams).  As good as RG3 has been, his team has been mired in mediocrity most of its history.  Why?  Almost surely because the players around even good Baylor quarterbacks (like RG3) haven't been the kind of supporting cast that would permit Baylor to be a dominant team. 

It's also clear that a Heisman winner must come from a school with a winning season that year.  Apparently, the "best" college football player of the year must play with one of the top-ranked teams.  Presumably, this is because if the "best" player is on that team, he elevates it to the top tier that season.  But who's to say the "best" player of the season isn't on a losing team?  Why not some lineman struggling to achieve and doing so on a team otherwise loaded with mediocre players?  From where I sit, however, winning (as well as losing) doesn't depend on just one player!  One reason I enjoy being a fan of college football is that it's the ultimate team sport - every player must perform consistently at a high level for the duration of the game if the team is to perform at a high level.

Landry Jones, this year's OU quarterback, was mentioned in the Heisman discussion for a good part of the season, but the team failed to perform in three dismal losses and Landry Jones had bad "numbers" for the last three games of the season, with zero TD passes and a number of turnovers.  Can we lay the responsibility for that entirely on Landry Jones?  He certainly fell out of consideration for the Heisman trophy after the second loss of the season.  Apparently, the team's losses were entirely his fault, at least insofar as the Heisman debate was concerned.  By the way, OU finished 9-3, just as Baylor did.

In my book, the Heisman trophy is both without a clear and justifiable definition of the terms used to judge its winner and based on a concept that is antithetical to the very game involved.  It's a type of popularity contest that's unjustifiably limited to a few offensive team positions on a winning team.  No player could ever win the Heisman without the consistently good performance of his teammates!  I decline to attach much significance to the Heisman trophy, and it certainly is not a good predictor for football performance in the NFL.  It's a trophy with no meaning.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Lingering thoughts after Veteran's Day ...

A respected friend posted some comments about the outpouring of support for soldiers that got me to thinking.  Among other things, he said, "I don’t get all gooey over US soldiers. ... Yes, I applaud the admirable courage our soldiers show, and our veterans have shown, as well as their commendable devotion to duty.  But that courage extends only so far: our military men and women can face enemy fire without fear, but they cannot face down our misleaders with the same audacity."

I've told the story of my "service" in Vietnam and the circumstances by which I came to be there on my Website.  As a draftee who was pulled from graduate school, I surely had no wish to go, but was presented with three options:

1.  Allow myself to be drafted 
2.  Go to Canada 
3.  Go to jail

[The only way I could claim to be a "conscientious objector" was to call upon religious beliefs - not an option available to atheists like me.  The apparent assumption is that it's impossible for atheists to be conscientious!]  The latter two options were unacceptable as they would have destroyed my intended career.  I definitely had no wish to be a soldier and certainly was afraid of going to Vietnam.  It's often said that courage is not about being without fear, but rather doing what is needed despite that fear.  For years, I despised myself for not having the courage to take either option 2 or 3 - I saw my actions as cowardly, not courageous.  I opposed the war in which I eventually was to serve and yet couldn't find the courage to oppose those who demanded my service - my "misleaders" as so accurately named by my respected friend.  So his comment is accurate:  it takes a lot of courage to defy military orders on conscientious grounds!  Far more than most warfighters are able to muster.

With time, I've come to see that military experience as valuable to me, regardless of how I felt about it at the time.  I'm no longer ashamed of being a Vietnam veteran, and have forgiven myself for not being courageous enough to avoid military service.  It's not really possible for anyone not a veteran of military service to understand what it's like.  Since I think I have some insight into that experience, I find myself very much "gooey" about today's young people in the military.  It's easy for me to be empathetic, and the ongoing military service of my son is only a small part of the reason for that. 

As a nation, we've evidently learned that we can hate the war without hating the warriors, so I'm happy to see the respect given to those serving today (that we who served in Vietnam did not receive from the general populace).  As pointed out by my respected friend, no war fought since WWII has involved a direct threat to our national freedoms, despite the political posturing that even today asserts that our warfighters are "defending our freedom."  Those freedoms are under more threat from chickenhawk politicians who wrap themselves in the flag and carry a cross to display their "values" than they are from those "enemies" we've fought against in our many wars since 1945, including Vietnam, of course.  Virtually none of these politicians have sons or daughters in the military, and most of them never served themselves.  They can gamble the lives and well-being of others by calling for military interventions, but not their own, in service of their political ends.

It's not the fault of those serving in the military that we have put our young people at risk in stupid, unwinnable wars.  It's the chickenhawk politicians who are responsible for wasting the lives of our young people and those of the foreigners we kill in the process.  The soldiers are simply doing what they're ordered to do.  To refuse to do so on conscientious grounds is to incur massive recriminations. Mutiny or defiance of direct orders are serious offenses in the military.  Young people are preferred as soldiers because they're relatively easy to manipulate.  Making a soldier out of a civilian young person involves rewarding them for doing what they're ordered to do and punishing them severely for any hint of defiance.  Service to one's nation in the military is to do whatever is required of the warfighters by the politicians, who decide the ends and sometimes choose to use military action as the means to those ends.

There are few demonstrations against the wars we currently fight because Vietnam taught the politicians about the danger to their political ends from conscription (i.e., the draft).  No more college students at the barricades if we just avoid drafting them.  College students aren't so likely to be concerned about those who choose the military as a viable career option; they're too busy preparing for their own privileged careers to risk being beaten up in a demonstration against foreign wars.  Our all-"volunteer" military is stretched thin by the wars we're fighting now; there simply aren't enough soldiers, so the ones who are serving are required to bear the risks of multiple overseas deployments and involuntarily extended tours to combat assignments, rather than the one-year tour in Vietnam given to many 2-year draftees back in the 60s and early 70s.

Those young warfighters deserve our respect and support!  They're making huge personal sacrifices every day to carry out the ends decided upon by chickenhawk politicians who don't have to suffer the consequences of those decisions.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Yes, let's leave god out of Thanksgiving!

I was watching Jon Stewart's Daily Show tonight and found that Faux News apparently was incensed about President Obama-Fail having left god out of his meaningless Thanksgiving Day address.  Of course, I missed all of the holiday celebrations as I was overseas last week.  Evidently, the clear intent of this sermonizing masquerading as news reporting was to provoke even more negative feelings about our President within that group of right-wing ideologues who actually watch and believe what they see on Faux News - sort of preaching to the choir, that.  More justification for liberal-bashing and demonizing the heathen Democrats?  Is there some crying need by Rupert Murdoch (who pulls all the strings on his Faux News marionettes) to increase polarization in America still further?

As much as I dislike all the religious pontification during the christian holidays (Christmas and Easter) about the secularization of these apparently religious celebrations and the canard of christian persecution in the process, I'm simply astonished at the need some folks have to bring the subject of god up on the clearly secular holiday of Thanksgiving.  If believers want to thank their deity for their blessings, that's fine by me, but I see absolutely no reason to force that requirement on the rest of us by means of making it politically necessary that the President do so.  [Apparently, according to Faux News, even GWB left god out of his Thanksgiving address to the nation one year out of his eight, but apparently this wasn't considered newsworthy by them at the time.  Can they not see their own grotesque hypocrisy?  Guess not.]  The President is the titular head of a secular nation, despite the revisionist, false American history the religious reich wants to force down our throats.

Of course, Christmas and Easter celebrations are not actually religious events - as holidays, they predate christ.  These particular holidays originated as pagan festivals associated with the winter solstice and vernal equinox, but were co-opted by the christian church hundreds of years ago, who inserted their own self-serving mythology into heathen celebrations and claimed these occasions as their own.  Hence, all of this weeping and gnashing of teeth over the putative loss of christian religious significance during the christmas and easter holidays is misguided:  they weren't christian to begin with!

I don't necessarily enjoy the crass commercialization of holidays, either.  Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny are just marketing tools to get more people to buy more stuff they don't need and can barely afford, just to keep the big corporations rolling in cash to give to their grotesquely overpaid management.  If there ever was a "true" meaning to these celebrations, it was to be happy that (a) the days would begin to get longer again [winter solstice] and (b) the end of winter [vernal equinox] - these are Earth-centered celebrations about getting through the tough times of winter.  Given our economic situation, there may be even tougher winters to come ...

Thanksgiving is a time when Americans recall that "First Thanksgiving" when heathen savages (native Americans) helped the Pilgrims celebrate their harvest in 1621.  This despite the Pigrims having stolen their land.  Of course, in the years to follow, the new European settlers would be consumed with the hubris of "manifest destiny" as justification for committing genocide on the native Americans who participated in the first Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving was proclaimed a national holiday by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, in the midst of a tragic Civil War.  Although the Civil War era was also characterized by deep religious fervor on both sides (each believing sincerely in the clearly delusional thought that the same god was on their side, of course), this was a secular holiday.  It should remain so.  The religious reich seems determined to push their beliefs into every corner of American life, but to do so would be eventually to destroy this nation.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Trust and credibility: Hard-won, easily lost

Just days after a public outpouring of praise and honor for Joe Paterno's 409th victory as an FBS coach, we've seen a public spectacle of contempt and dishonor for Joe Paterno's moral failures as an FBS coach.  All of the salutes for Joe's old-fashioned virtues and the squeaky-clean football program at Penn State have died away as accusations of sexual predation by an honored assistant coach have come to light.

In today's world of the Internet, social media, blogs, paparazzi, tabloid journalism and so on, the past 20 years have been drenched with instances in which highly respected people have committed gaffes of varying severity and in consequence been vilified, fired, and disgraced.  The speed of ascent to fame and honor is often exceeded by the even more rapid pace of disgrace and downfall in today's world.  An old saying has become a routine part of the way public figures must behave:  With great opportunity comes great responsibilityMuch is expected from those to whom much has been given.  We now seem to delight in throwing our heroes down from the pedestals on which we placed them.

As someone who was molested as a young person, I can say without any qualification, that I believe sexual predators need to be prevented from having the opportunity to molest more victims, and no one should ever hesitate to call the police and report any allegations of sexual misconduct, no matter who is the alleged perpetrator.  Jerry Sandusky has yet to be convicted of any crime, however.   Joe Paterno may not be guilty of a crime, but by his own admissions, he's guilty of a moral error that would allow a sexual predator to remain free and unpunished.  It's only recently that I find myself able to admit that I was molested and raped - the shame of this remained bottled up within me and, like many victims, the shame was too great for me to speak out.  Many years can elapse between the deeds and their revelation.  Fortunately for me, I managed to overcome what was done to me and my life has turned out quite well despite this incident when I was too young to know what to do about it.  But my experience makes my emotional response to hearing about such predators pretty strong.  Make no mistake, I have nothing but the deepest possible contempt for sexual predators - these are despicable acts of violence that have nothing to do with sex, per se.  I feel no inclination toward mercy for those who commit these unspeakably abhorrent acts!

But the current spectacle of the sharks circling the Penn State campus, waiting for the inevitable firing of Joe Paterno, doesn't fill me with pride regarding our culture.  Many media people are pontificating about what they would have done, without ever having been in that situation, and without knowing precisely what was said and done in the Penn State cases.  None of us know what we would do until we're actually confronted with such a situation.  It's clear that in the court of public opinion, no "due process" is necessary.  Yes, it's easy to go along with the contempt stampede, and Joe Paterno's successes as a football coach are indeed quite irrelevant to this situation.  What Joe Paterno failed to do with the information he had about the alleged sexual predation is indeed a mistake.  It's indeed wrong to have failed to report what he knew to the police and some might even consider it criminal negligence.  But can all of the people calling for his head honestly say they've never done something morally wrong?  It isn't Joe Paterno who's accused of sexual predation, after all. 

Joe Paterno has been on a pedestal for many decades, not just because of winning (although that certainly is a big factor), but perhaps even primarily because of the apparent integrity of the Penn State football program.  No recruiting scandals, no coaches abusing the players, no payoffs by local boosters, high graduation rates, and so on.  Whether that was his goal or not, Joe Paterno was being held up as the epitome of coaching integrity just days before this scandal broke.  So when we find out that our hero was flawed by being unwilling to report the allegations of misconduct by a colleague and friend, all of those decades of integrity are instantly swept aside.  Honor and praise are instantly replaced with contempt.  It's as if all that came before had never happened, and the mighty fall with a great crash. 

I've learned that decades of trustworthy behavior mean nothing when a single act (of commission or omission) can result in the loss of trust forever.  A single mistake is obviously one too many for a legendary figure.  Our heroes are held to what might actually be an unrealistic standard, since our heroes are human beings, never truly gods.  Joe Paterno's coaching legacy is forever stained, no matter what plays out in the courts:  the real judicial courts or the court of public opinion.  Is that fair?  Absolutely not.  But fairness is a concept that has little to do with the real world, as most children learn eventually.  Much of life is not fair.  Trust and credibility must be upheld every day, without fail.  If you wish to keep trust and credibility, there can be no failure.  This is just as true for nobodies as it is for legends, but it's the downfall of legends that we seem to find so fascinating.  Fascinating enough for a blog entry, at least.

This spectacle of the fall from grace of a formerly revered public figure saddens me, not just because of the cost to the alleged victims of Jerry Sandusky, but because it exemplifies the unrealistic expectations that we place on other, fallible human beings.  I know I've made mistakes - many mistakes, in fact.  And not all of them in the ignorance of my youth.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

What does freedom of speech mean to you? Part 2

Social networks allow "information" of all sorts to "go viral" and spread rapidly around the world.  An example showed up this morning on Facebook - a photo of a young man (a fool) shitting on an American flag as a crowd cheers around him.  This was attributed to a group of Occupy Wall Street protesters, so it sparked the stereotypical responses of knee-jerk American conservatives (who apparently oppose the OWS movement without really having any idea what the protesters represent), proposing that such acts should be made a felony, shoving the flagpole up the guy's ass, zapping the guy's testicles with a taser, making him "walk point", etc. 

Turns out the photo is not actually associated with the OWS movement at all, but rather with an antiwar protest in Portland, OR, in 2007 - see here.  Whoever started this photo circulating on social networks must have known this was not an OWS protester, so the obvious intent was to discredit OWS by stirring up the reactions of "patriots" who fail to understand certain key principles.  Given the speed by which misinformation spreads by "going viral," it would take time to tease out the truth, and by then, the damage to OWS credibility would be done.

I'll get to those key principles shortly.  First, however, I want to say that I find this photograph disgusting and will not share it on this blog.  Such an act of desecrating our flag is not something I condone nor do I find it particularly effective in expressing unhappiness over our participation in unwinnable, pointless wars (like Iraq and Afghanistan).  Obviously, if it were the acts of an OWS protester, it would reflect only discredit on the movement and not help their cause in any way.  Such are the deeds of a fool, no doubt carried away with the emotions of a protest and likely an attention-seeker who may be in need of some serious counseling.

Now, let's move on to the reactions to this disgusting act.  Any nation's flag, and ours is no exception, is only a symbol.  Our secular society recognizes no truly sacred objects, so while an important symbol to many, the flag is not a sacred object.  The specific symbols on the flag represent the 50 states and the original 13 colonies, but the symbolism has a deeper level:  our flag is a symbol for the freedoms we share.  The great experiment embarked upon with the founding of our nation involves protection of "inalienable rights" for all Americans.  Rule of the majority, certainly, but protection of minority rights at the same time.  That is the key element that made America unique in the world. 

Freedom of expression/speech is one of those constitutionally-guaranteed rights that many Americans have given their very lives to preserve.  And that freedom means exactly nothing if it only is extended to those with whom we agree.  Burning or otherwise desecrating our flag is a symbolic act.  It's a form of expression of opinion, and so is protected by the Bill of Rights, no matter how offended we might be by such an act.

In their haste to condemn the OWS movement, the conservatives have reverted to the 1960s:  the protesters are stereotyped into dirty, lazy, irresponsible bums who want to destroy the nation that gave them birth and opportunity.  Well, our nation has come to be dominated by wealthy, modern-day "robber barons" who've used their wealth and power to plunder the economy and walked away scot-free for the most part.  They retain their yachts, their luxury homes, their limousines, and their huge incomes despite being responsible for vast economic disruption via actions that are either illegal or only marginally legal thanks to a compliant government that has become convinced that economic stability is gained through deregulation.  It was deregulation that opened the doors for these greedy bastards that presently run Wall Street and, indirectly, the American economy.  Most of the OWS protesters are people who have suffered huge economic losses with the implosion of the housing bubble and the costly bailouts of the too-big-to-fail corporations.  It seems to me we have cause to protest what's going on, as the gulf between the haves and have-nots widens - these protests are just the beginning of what is to come if something isn't done about our present policy of "welfare for the rich".  The wealthy aren't creating jobs, aren't hiring the unemployed, and the "trickle-down" theory has been completely discredited by reality. 
The right-wing ideologues want to demonize the protesters to maintain "business as usual" for their corporate allies.  As noted, there are some parallels with the 1960s - although the government learned from the events of the 1960s not to start drafting students if they wanted to maintain peace and tranquility.  The OWS movement isn't about protesting stupid wars, but rather protests our stupid acquiescence to being fleeced by wealthy thieves who break the law with near-impunity and then have the gall to pontificate about the righteousness of the law when it's applied to protesters!

Unfortunately, the protection of the rights of such fools as this guy in Portland for expressing his opinion in a particularly disgusting way is a critical part of protecting what our flag represents.  Such deplorable acts do not touch in any way those principles that made our nation so great.  Those principles can only be hurt if we choose to abandon them in our pseudo-patriotic fervor.  The greatest desecration of our nation would be to make such acts illegal and prosecute our citizens for expressing unpopular opinions in unpopular ways.  By upholding the rights of a fool to desecrate our flag, we actually affirm the principles represented by that flag!  Surely we understand that our freedoms are quite capable of enduring the attacks of fools!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

What is it about sports? Part 4 - Which team is best?

Having just seen the St. Louis Cardinals squeak into the postseason and then win it all, it reminds me of some thoughts I've had regarding postseason playoffs, especially with regards to college football.  There's probably a majority of fans who want to ditch the BCS one-game "playoff" and go to some sort of a playoff for FBS teams to determine a "true" national champion.

Given that virtually all other NCAA championships are determined by some sort of postseason tournament, there seems to be no reason not to make big-time college football the same as other collegiate sports competitions.  But I'm of two minds about this.  Yes, it would be nice to wind up with what would become an undisputable national champion, supposedly settled by performance on the playing field rather than something so heavily influenced by opinion polls and computerized ranking schemes.  Then FBS college football would become indistinguishable from pro football (except for the salaries!).  And that's the rub for me.

As we witness the degrading spectacle of FBS teams engaging in an orgy of "realignment," it becomes quite obvious, even for anyone who has been operating in a vacuum for the past 25 years, that FBS football has become all about the money that football generates.  Traditional rivalries?  Who cares, when big money is at stake?  After all, universities are businesses now - they long ago ceased to be primarily about education, anyway.  NCAA football is simply the low-paid minor leagues for pro football now, and all of the fun and tradition of amateur athletics is disposable in pursuit of the almighty dollar!  For the best athletes that universities can buy (and offer them a showcase for their talent in pursuit of a roster spot on a pro team), they rake in millions in revenue - which allows them to attract even more top athletes.  No one cares much about the majority of college athletes who don't go on to a career in the pros, anyway.  They're only along for fun and to support the play of the real playmakers - big-time collegiate sports is about revenue, not fun!

And just what does a playoff produce?  It inevitably produces a champion at the end, of course.  But the arguments go on about just which team is the "best"!  [My definition of "best" is to be offered below.] In the minds of some fans - the fans of the championship team - their team was best because they won the playoff.  Period.  End of story.

But as we have seen in the World Series of 2011, the outcome of games can be highly dependent on things that may have relatively little to do with onfield performance:  injuries, random bounces of the ball (or whatever), just missing or just making a play, the weather, coaching decisions, bad calls by the referees, the playing field conditions etc.  Athletic contests are a fine example of nonlinear dynamics and it becomes quite possible for the hypothetical best team to lose a game during the playoffs owing to one or more of these non-performance factors.  In fact, the larger the field of teams in the playoff, the more likely it becomes that the hypothetical best team will be beaten.  Although playoffs always yield a final, surviving champion, the determination of which team was best that year remains undone.  Arguments can continue indefinitely.  And that seems rather like the way things are now, using the BCS system:  a champion is determined but the arguments go on.

So here's my modest proposal for determining which FBS football team is truly the best.  Each team will meet every other team multiple times, under a variety of playing conditions, weather, roster status for all the team's top players, home/away/neutral field, and so on.  Just for the sake of a number, let's say each team will play every other team 100 times, and each game will involve different conditions.  Since there currently are 120 FBS teams, this will amount to a rather large number of games for each team [(119 x 100) = 11, 900 games, so the entire regular season of FBS football will involve 11, 900 x 120 = 1, 428, 000 FBS games].  I guess this means the end of Saturday afternoon college football - they'll have to play multiple games every day of the week to fit in the required games (see below).  But of course, college football has already spread to other days of the week!  After all, prime time TV revenue is important.

At the end of this expanded "season" (from 12 games to nearly 12,000 for each team), the 16 teams with the highest winning percentage (ties will be broken by some sort of tiebreaker rules) would then enter the championship playoff.  Each team would again play every other team in the playoff 100 times under a variety of conditions [for a total of 16 x 15 x 100 = 24, 000 games], and the team with the highest winning percentage would be declared the national champion (again with a set of tiebreaker rules).  Think of the revenue this scheme would generate!!  And the old argument that "If X played Y 100 times, they'd win PP percent of the time!" would actually be played out!

This "ensemble" approach to determining a national champion is a logical way to determine which team is actually the best, because the random, non-performance factors that seem to be so important to the outcome of a single game against an opponent would tend to even out over 11, 900 games.  I admit, there are some practical issues that would need to be worked out, such as the degradation of the playing fields from playing multiple games every day, or the fact that it would require each team to play 10 games, 7 days per week, for 170 weeks (3.3 years) to just to complete the regular season, or wear and tear on the players.  But these are just minor details.  What counts is the enormous revenues this would generate and the chance finally to know which team is best!  Once every few years ...

Thursday, October 27, 2011

ENSO and tornadoes?

Today, I had a nice discussion with a colleague who showed me some fascinating preliminary results of some analysis he'd done regarding the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and tornadoes.  I don't want to steal his thunder, but what he showed me was that ENSO could explain about 10% of the variability in tornado occurrences.  This number struck me as being a reasonable one - my position is not that ENSO is irrelevant to tornado occurrences, but rather that it's only a part of a much more complex set of processes that ultimately control tornado events.  Much of that complexity is beyond the pale of existing atmospheric scientific understanding, unfortunately.  The notion that only a relatively small portion of the variability can be attributed to ENSO seems both plausible and consistent with what understanding atmospheric science can offer at present.

Imagine my dismay when, later in the day, I read in the prestigious science magazine Nature for 22 September (p. 373) that "El Niño, a quasiperiodic cycling of tropical Pacific water temperatures, causes extreme weather around the globe."  This tidbit of journalistic excess really set my teeth on edge after my earlier discussion today!  ENSO is just one of many quasiperiodic "cycles" (e.g., the North Atlantic Oscillation, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, etc.) that affect the global weather patterns and no doubt more will be discovered with time.  ENSO is a player but far from the dominant one, and the resulting global weather pattern is the result of the interplay between all these processes (and those as yet undiscovered!).  Attributing events exclusively to El Niño is outright nonsense!

Although ENSO apparently does modulate global weather patterns, there are many causal linkages between that global pattern and tornadoes, many of which remain unknown to science, at least in detail.  To say that El Niño causes extreme weather is a ludicrous exaggeration of its influence.  This sort of easy "explanation" often appears in media coverage of extreme weather events as a sort of non-explanatory explanation, similar to the "clash of air masses" nonsense often heard in media coverage after tornado outbreaks.

Once again, I'm reminded of the vast gulf between what's offered to the public and what I know as a severe weather scientist.  I expected better of Nature, clearly, and was disappointed to see such an ignorant "explanation" for extreme weather events within this magazine.  I've seen many scientists tempted by the siren song of ENSO as a way to explain interannual variability of tornadoes.  It appears to be a seductive hypothesis, perhaps because there is just enough of an actual influence to convince many to pursue the topic - I wound up publishing a paper addressing some of the myriad problems in trying to establish a causal connection between El Niño and tornadoes.  But the beat goes on, nevertheless - like the "clash of air masses," it's a simple "explanation" that just won't go away.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Is something wrong with tornado warnings?

In the wake of this year's massive April tornado outbreaks and the 22 May Joplin tornado, there's been a lot of talk about changing the National Weather Service (NWS) tornado warning process.  I don't know the inside scoop on what is being considered by the NWS, but there certainly has been a lot of media attention on the topic and it's my understanding that NWS is indeed considering changes.  I see all of this as an inappropriate reaction to the large fatality toll this year.  In some ways it's good to review the system and at least discuss whether change is necessary after a tragedy like this year, when so many lives were lost.  But hastily-constructed change is not an appropriate answer to what happened in the spring of 2011.

The public should understand that the NWS system evolved over decades as a series of more or less ad hoc decisions made in a cloud of ignorance.  If one were to ask today if the existing system is the best of all possible systems, I believe the answer would be a resounding "NO!"  The NWS warning system was not constructed after careful study of what is best to do and how best to do those things. It was built on the fly, as it were.  Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that it's worked effectively over the years to produce a much-reduced fatality toll from tornadoes compared to those in the 1920s and before.  If we change the way NWS warnings work, we should be careful not to to do so in haste under political or media pressure.  Otherwise we run the risk of screwing up a system that has worked to save thousands of lives over the years.

This is not the place for a discussion of what's wrong with the NWS warnings - that's a topic far too complex to be dealt with properly in a blog.  What I want to do here is to point out something I've been saying for a long time.  If people in the tornado-prone areas of the country choose not to take warnings seriously, is this because of failures in the warning system?  I find it to be extremely difficult to understand how people could not take a tornado warning seriously!!  Nevertheless, it seems that this is not uncommon.

Consider the tale of three tornadoes - two in 1990 and one in 2011 ... the F5 tornado that hit Hesston, Kansas,  the F5 tornado that hit Plainfield, Illinois, and the EF5 tornado that hit Joplin, Missouri.  In the Hesston event, tornado warnings were issued and people apparently took them seriously - only one life was lost.  In the Plainfield event, tornado warnings were not issued before the tornado, with 29 lives lost as a consequence.  For the Joplin event, warnings were issued about 20 min ahead of the tornado and the current figure I have for fatalities is 159 - the most from a single tornado since 1947.

Not all NWS offices do an equally good job with tornado warnings.  After the Plainfield event, for instance, a disaster survey team found many problems with the performance of the Chicago office.   Having an F5 tornado strike with no warning remains possible, but is much less likely today than it was in 1990.   The Springfield office that issued the warnings for the Joplin event did a decent job with a challenging situation, although they may have had a history of many false alarm warnings. Some of us have been saying for quite some time that large fatality counts are not necessarily a thing only of the past, and 2011 has shown those dire predictions to be true.  We have been lucky for decades and in 2011, our luck simply ran out.  It will do so again, in the future.

The sad, and seemingly inescapable conclusion I draw from this trio of major tornado events is that people in the tornado-prone parts of the USA need to understand the true risks from tornadoes.  They don't need to live their lives in constant fear - far from it.  The NWS offers state-of-the-art information about the threat of tornadoes and all people need to do is take it seriously enough to take actions to protect themselves.  Why is this so difficult?  Is it a matter of public education?  I think that might well be an important factor, but not the only one. 

There's been a lot of talk about too many false alarms from the NWS.  While I agree the NWS warning performance is not perfect and not even as good as it could be, there inevitably will be uncertainty implied (if not stated explicitly!) in their forecast and warning products.  People need to understand and accept that principle.  The public must accept their share of responsibility for what happens when tornadoes strike, rather than placing the whole burden onto the NWS to provide some product for which the science of meteorology offers little hope of being an improvement over the existing system.  Learning about the simple and inexpensive things anyone can do to protect themselves from natural hazards seems like common sense to me, not something too challenging for "the public" to do.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Making hate speech a crime?

Today, via this blog, I came across this essay, written by an abortion rights activist.  It's a thought-provoking essay, no matter what you might believe about the points she makes.  It addresses the inevitable dilemma regarding free speech and its consequences.  No sane person could rationalize the act of falsely yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater - the hackneyed example of a limitation on free speech.  A while back, I wrote my own essay on the subject of free speech.

I'm not going to repeat all Ms. Arthur's arguments or go through them point-by-point here.  The problem, as I see it, boils down to words and their consequences.  It would be extremely naive to suggest that words are just words and have no impact other than what we choose to allow them to have (although I've made arguments to that effect).  My right to free speech ends where it infringes on your rights as a human being.  As already noted, after all, there are justifiable limits we've imposed on the right to free speech.  Hate speech against someone, especially from a public forum, can inspire violence, even if the words contain no explicit call for violent action.  The example Ms. Arthur gives of Bill O'Reilly's comments about Dr. Tiller, the abortion provider, make it clear that even though O'Reilly does a marvelous Pontius Pilate imitation when it comes to accepting any responsibility for Dr. Tiller's murder, it seems pretty obvious to me that he should be called to account in some way for his very public and very provocative comments.  Mere words can have fatal consequences, it seems.

But we have a dilemma.  If we make "hate speech" a crime, then its implementation would have to be very narrowly prescribed.  Who among us has, at one time or another, not made strongly critical or even offensive remarks about someone else?  Just where might we be able to draw a line separating such instances from prosecutable, criminal hate speech?  How many children (and adults!) engage in verbal bullying of others?  Lately, we've seen that such verbal bullying can result in terrible consequences - suicide or violent rampages by the target for such words.  Should we prosecute any and all bullies, putting them in prison with thieves, murderers, and rapists?

Moreover, I find it pretty naive to believe that making hate speech a crime is going to eliminate hate speech, and make us a more tolerant society.  Prosecution for theft, murder, rape, etc. hasn't caused those crimes to disappear, after all.  Tolerance isn't going to become widespread if we make intolerant words a crime - rather, we'll only have made criminals out of people whose only crime is intolerance.  The Westboro "Baptist" Church strikes me as a classic target for hate speech prosecution, and I just can't see how putting them behind bars (as detestable as they are) is going to be the key to developing a society willing to embrace all people.

Insofar as I can tell, we humans aren't wired for tolerance.  Some of us may have the ability to overcome our tribalism by sheer will power and a commitment to rationality.  But the "us vs. them" mentality is so pervasive that "hate speech" is pretty much everywhere.  If I accuse a religious fanatic of being an "idiot" for saying that I'm going to hell because I don't accept his/her religion, is that "hate speech" that makes me liable for prosecution under a statute outlawing hate speech?

In some circles, using the word "nigger" (spoken by white person) is considered hate speech.  Not only is it seen as being "politically incorrect" - it's seen by some as an incitement, rather than a mere word.  If we start to "sanitize" free speech - to restrict it in ways that go far beyond the existing restrictions (many of which are listed in Ms. Arthur's essay) - by criminalizing "hate speech", then we'll have gone too far in restricting free speech.

We need to keep in mind that the Constitutionally-guaranteed right to free speech is not restricted to those words with which we agree or condone!  If "hate speech" does wind up producing criminal actions, then we should prosecute those crimes, rather than adding the words that might have inspired them to the list of criminal acts.  There's nothing in words that forces people to act in unlawful ways.  Our actions are choices we make as individuals.  Restricting free speech in this way simply inhibits the discourse among free people that we Americans traditionally have valued so highly.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Funding of the Norman Weather Center - An edifice complex

Quite some time ago now, I wrote an essay regarding the funding of the Norman Weather Center (NWC).  Some recent information I received from Ed Kessler (former Director of the National Severe Storms Laboratory) suggests that the fallout continues from the political decision to divert some of the underground oil storage tanks cleanup fund to this purpose.  A few of us chose to offer our feeble protests in response to this environmentally unfriendly political decision by OU and the state government, but we were too few and marginalized to be effective, so we were simply ignored.

The growth of meteorological science in Norman was not the result of having a fancy building (with its imported Italian marble staircase and gurgling water feature).  Rather, its growth into what it has become was driven by the science and the participating scientists, who generally shared cramped and decidedly unfancy facilities for most of their histories.  The connection between the local OKC forecast office of the National Weather Service, the OU Department (before they became a "School") of Meteorology, the National Severe Storms Laboratory, the Oklahoma Climate Survey, and some other facilities represented a pretty loose collaboration of agencies.  From my perception of things, they really didn't interact that much or that well.  There's a host of reasons for that - but there always was some level of interaction despite being scattered in different physical locations.

Mere proximity doesn't mean interaction will necessarily follow.  Interaction among people flows from the needs and interests of the participants.  It can't be mandated effectively from above - it must come from a mutual desire to interact by working staff members in the respective agencies.  There may have been a few examples of collaboration since the construction and occupation of the NWC building, but it might be difficult to show conclusively that they arose simply as a result of proximity and wouldn't otherwise have developed even if the agencies were still separated physically.  The security paranoia that dominates government has led to restricted access to the NOAA components of the NWC.  There still is only modest interaction among the elements of the NWC, as I see it.  I'm certainly not opposed to proximity, per se, but it was promoted as necessary for the good things that were promised in order to justify the funding decision.

The price we paid for this fancy new building (that now attracts visitors who just want to see the fancy new building!) still seems excessive to me.  If we've seen an increase in visitation by meteorological professionals from outside of Norman, that's a good thing, but did we need to have a fancy new edifice to accomplish that?  I doubt it.

I wanted to use this blog to remind folks of what was done to allow us to have this building.  I imagine that few folks in the NWC know about or remember the environmental price paid by Oklahomans to allow us meteorologists to have this facility.  Our little community of professionals is permanently stained by the shame of putting our comfort ahead of the environmental needs of all Oklahomans.  The ultimate irony is that we're supposed to be environmental professionals!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Growing up as a fan of Chicago sports teams

I've often described, to anyone foolish enough to listen, the reasons for why I hate certain sports franchises.  Having grown up in Chicago, I especially learned to hate the never-to-be-sufficiently-damned Yankees.  Chicago sports fans have never gotten spoiled by the success of their teams.  It seems that the owners of said franchises have a history of devastatingly stupid moves, guaranteeing years of mediocrity or outright incompetence for their teams in most years.  It's no mistake that the Cubs have gone the longest without winning a World Series - despite having had many great stars on their teams over looooooong time since their last World Series win (1909).

Chicago authors, like Jean Shepherd, tell the tale of how much we Chicago fans hate the Yankees.  Being permanently the "Second City" isn't bad enough.  The Yankees fans, with their proud heritage and swagger about all their World Series championships, epitomize everything we Chicago fans wanted to be, and apparently couldn't have.  In all the time I've been a Chicago sports fan, only the Bulls with Michael Jordan came close to being a seriously successful team - and were dismantled when Jordan retired for good.  The Bears have mostly wallowed in mediocrity, but they managed to win the NFL championship in 1963, beating the never-to-be-sufficiently-damned New York Giants in the process!  Oh happy day!!  To be followed by 22 years of mediocrity and failure, despite such stars as Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus.  The 1985 Bears seemed destined for a dynasty, which ... never happened.

The Blackhawks unexpectedly won the Stanley Cup in 1961, while I was in high school, with such stars as Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, and Pierre Pilote.  To be followed by decades of near misses and mediocrity until the miracle of the 2009-10 season.  And of course, the next season, the Hawks were outsted from the playoffs in the first round (after a valiant effort that ... surprise! ... fell short.

Basically, if every New York sports franchise were to lose every game infinitely far into the future (a consummation devoutly to be wished!), it would take many, many years for our Chicago franchises ever to catch up.  To be a Chicago sports fan is to know disappointment and classic chokes, punctuated with just enough success to keep the franchises packed with the faithful fans.  Try to buy a Cubs or Sox or Bears ticket and you'll discover our fan loyalty.  It's our fate ...

It helps somehow to have the Blues Brothers roaring down Lower Wacker Drive with the cops in tight pursuit.  It helps when Man vs. Food features a show about Chicago's Italian beef sandwiches.  It helps when we discover so many fellow Chicago sports fans to be here and there - the faithful scattered like autumn leaves around the nation.  But the beat goes on for Chicago sports, and I guess I'll never get out of my mostly unrequited love affair with those teams.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

New thoughts about 9/11/01

Shortly after the tragedy of the 11 September 2001 attacks, I wrote an essay expressing my feelings.  In reviewing that essay, I see no reason to change a word I wrote.  I maintain that violence is not the solution to violence committed against us.  We gain the dubious satisfaction of vengeance, but it can't bring back the lives of those whose lives were lost.  It doesn't fill the hole left in the lives of family and friends of those killed in the attack.

I'm not saying that the efforts to root out and eliminate the perpetrators are wrong or misguided.  Far from it, in fact.  But if one considers the results of our "war on terrorism" - we now have lost more Americans in the name of that war on terror than were killed in the 11 September 2001 attacks.  Politicians sent them to do the dirty work and they've died doing their duty.  Add to that the horrible, disfiguring, life-changing injuries.  And that number of American casualties is dwarfed by the deaths and injuries visited upon innocent civilians in those very wars.  We've been involved in unwinnable wars of occupation in foreign lands, just as we were when fighting an ideological war in Vietnam.   Our war on terror is a very effective recruiting campaign for terrorists.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have clear origins in religious conflict.  The fanatic muslims responsible for terrorism are using religion as a tool for their political goals.  Notice how it's not the leaders who are strapping explosives to themselves, or flying themselves into buildings.  No, they inflame young, gullible people to do their dirty work without any risk to themselves.  These muslim fanatics are the worst kind of "chicken hawk" - someone who supports combat so long as they themselves are exempt from its horrors.

In America today, there are christian fanatics who are, to me, indistinguishable from their muslim brethren.  They seek to divide the world along religious lines and lead a holy war, a jihad, against the enemies they see.  If we go down that road, a path that is openly in contradiction to the christian doctrine of leaving vengeance to the lord, and turning the other cheek when attacked, then we have become what we claim to despise.  If we sacrifice our freedoms for the illusion of security at the behest of power-hungry politicians seeking to benefit from our irrationally exaggerated fear of terrorism, then we have lost something very precious that long has been the most important achievement of the United States of America.  We have been a beacon standing for freedom and human rights, despite some setbacks to those freedoms during times of war.  If we vote to make our nation a christian theocracy, we will have repudiated one of the crucial things that made America great.   We will have let fear drive us to give up all that has made us into a light of hope for oppressed minorities around the world.

In this time of reflection on the events that occurred ten years ago, it seems to me that we would bring the greatest honor to the lives lost on that terrible day if we renewed our commitment to the system that so many Americans have died to preserve.  The most effective way to fight terrorism is to preserve the very things in American society that the terrorists most despise and fear:  our freedoms and the preservation of the rights of all Americans - especially those with whom we disagree!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Excuse me ... for living ... ?

Many people spend a lot of time worrying about being polite.  If by polite, one means being civil, I have no problem with that.  I much prefer civil discourse to a shouting match.   If by polite, one means saying "please" and "thank you" I have no problem with that.  If by polite, one means saying "pardon me" when bumping into someone accidentally, I have no problem with that, either.  Politeness is a set of conventions designed to prevent people from becoming upset with one another unnecessarily, which is all to the good.  Being polite is a very human way to signal our good intentions. 

Where I have a problem with politeness is the supposed convention of saying "excuse me" after some natural bodily function.  There can be a large difference between an exaggerated belch, done for effect, and a simple burp.  If someone is attending a solemn ceremony and belches unnecessarily loudly, does saying "excuse me" paper over what they just did?  Does it make it O.K. to do such things?  Intentionally disrupting a solemn event is usually seen as rude and signals a disrespect for the occasion.  Mere words strike me as ineffectual when seeking atonement and irrelevant to the situation. 

On the other hand, if someone simply burps in a relatively discrete way, I see no reason for apologizing or begging for forgiveness.  Burping and flatulence constitute a natural consequence of the way our bodies work, so allowing those functions to occur isn't being impolite.  It's just being human.

When a group of boys get together, it's almost inevitable that the conversation will come around to passing gas from the rear end of the digestive system - farting.  In the silly world of boys (and men), belches and farts become something of pride, and the more odorous (and odious) and louder, the better.  For some mysterious reasons having to do with our societal conventions, when girls fart, it's supposed to be quiet, discrete, and characterized by a smell akin to a rose garden - all untrue, of course.  As most any married man can testify, most wives feel much less inhibited by such conventions with their families and cut 'em off just like a sailor, and then giggle about it.  Saying "excuse me" after such an event strikes me as superfluous and even hypocritical.  I'm on a hopeless one-man quest to eradicate the necessity to excuse oneself for acts made inevitable by living.  And if they're obviously done with no effort made to be discrete, I'm even less inclined to accept "excuse me" as an excuse.

I don't advocate loud, noxious gaseous explosions in solemn situations.  I know that the sound of belches and farts can be controlled to a certain extent, and I agree fully that it would be inappropriate to exaggerate such acts in some situations.  Sometimes, however, the intensity is unanticipated by the person needing to expel that gas (from either end).  It might well burst forth at a bad time.  Asking for forgiveness afterward would be a natural consequence of the embarrassment associated with unintentionally calling attention to oneself by such a loud (and/or) malodorous act.  Saying "excuse me" under such circumstances makes sense to me.  The act amounts to an inadvertent "social mistake" and if one truly feels ashamed or embarrassed by that act, then it seems perfectly logical to ask for forgiveness. 

But I think such forgiveness might be more difficult to grant if the deed were done with evident "malice" aforethought.  No simple "excuse me" can atone for  doing something intentionally disrespectful.   If the same acts are done intentionally but in a situation where no real embarrassment is involved (e.g., between spouses), then the "excuse me" is again completely unnecessary.  There are times and situations permitting loud belches and farts, and learning when to do them and when not to do them is part of becoming socialized.   It seems obvious to me that learning when to say "excuse me" is also part of that socialization - it's just unnecessary in many situations.

I note in conclusion that in some societies, loud belches after a good meal aren't indicators of disrespect at all, but rather signal the host that the guest had a satisfying meal.  So what is polite is simply a social convention and can vary from one society to another.  So long as everyone understands the intent, then it works.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

That's more like it?

Many years ago, I first heard a story, although I no longer recall how I heard it.  The story concerns Allen D. (Al) Pearson, who at the time was the Director of the National Severe Storms Forecast Center in Kansas City, MO (which eventually became the Storm Prediction Center and moved to Norman, OK).  The story goes that some old woman was known to call the NSSFC and complain about every tornado warning for her location that turned out to be a false alarm.  After a tornado outbreak in that area, Al got a call from the woman, whose home (the story goes) was utterly destroyed by a tornado.  Her words to Al?  "Now that's more like it!"  This story may be apocryphal.  I don't know for certain, but it illustrates something that has always left me puzzled about how "the public" responds to weather warnings.

This has been a year characterized by some of the worst tornado events in our nation's history.  After several decades of relatively low tornado fatality counts, the nation has surpassed 500 fatalities with several months yet to go in the year.  We've had a single tornado in Joplin, Missouri, kill more than 150 people for the first time since 1947 (the tornado that hit Woodward, Oklahoma).   It's evident that tornadoes remain a deadly threat, which is what many of us have been saying for decades.   There's already considerable whining and complaining that Hurricane Irene hasn't lived up to the "hype" generated by the warnings.

It seems that there are many folks who, like the old woman in my story involving Allen Pearson, seemingly would prefer to become storm casualties and have their lives and property devastated!  I completely fail to understand the "logic" of this attitude.  Of course, no one wants to alarm people needlessly, but the fact is that our ability to predict storms falls well short of perfection.  False alarms are an inevitable consequence of meteorological uncertainty, as are occasions where a warning fails to go out and yet the event happens.  The only way to never miss an event is to predict the event everywhere, all the time.  The only way to never issue a false alarm is to never issue any warnings at all.  Reality is such that the science leaves us somewhere between these two unacceptable extremes.  An objective evaluation of the tornado warnings show that a considerable majority of them turn out to be false alarms.   By the way, for most of its history, the USA's public weather forecasters never issued tornado warnings because they were forbidden to do so!  It was feared by many otherwise intelligent folks that such a warning would cause a panic!

Some people have complained that the National Weather Service issues too many needless tornado warnings.  There may be some validity to such complaints, especially when considering individual NWS offices, whose office policies regarding warnings can vary from one office to another.  The basic idea behind this concern is the so-called "cry wolf" problem, where the working hypothesis is that "the public" is desensitized by too many warnings.  Various proposals by various people have been made to remedy the problem, mostly impractical or unjustifiable from the point of view of the science of storms.

I've argued that the overwarning problem (if it is indeed a problem) is the direct consequence of one inescapable fact:  no one is ever killed (at the time) by a false alarm!  Forecasters are much more likely to be condemned for not issuing a warning, thereby missing a storm event that winds up killing someone, than by issuing a warning that turns out to be a false alarm.  This is beyond any doubt the primary cause for the overwarning bias.  I've argued that one way to reduce or eliminate this bias is to convert to probabilistic warnings.  I hear constantly about how and why that won't work, but that's drifting off-point in this blog.

Consider the "desensitization argument":  One comment that I hear quoted in the media from time to time is "Oh, we hear tornado warnings all the time, and nothing ever happens!"  All the time?  Really?  I don't think the objective evidence comes anywhere even close to that clearly hyperbolic declaration.  In any given location, even in "Tornado Alley", tornado warnings are relatively infrequent.  Are people seriously expecting to hit by a tornado every time a tornado warning is issued?  Why would people think that?  What shortfall is responsible for such a patently absurd expectation?  Surely all the weather broadcasters who are complaining about NWS warnings could have done a better job of explaining the reality of the warning challenge to their audiences!  Nor am I attempting to make excuses for the NWS - in fact, I believe the accuracy of their warnings certainly could use some improvement.  But someone needs to understand just why "the public" has this attitude and start a public information campaign to eliminate it!

This has been a terrible year for weather tragedies:  not just tornadoes,  but also high winds, floods, hurricanes, etc.  Surely people should be thankful when a warning for potentially dangerous weather turns out to be a false alarm!  There are hundreds of dead people from storm hazards so far this year, and likely thousands of their friends and families who, if given the option, would prefer that those events had not happened at all.  That they had simply been another false alarm.  Any of them happily would change places with some whiner grousing about false alarms.

If you choose to take the attitude that so many warnings are false alarms that you can ignore them indefinitely, there's a chance you may be wrong at some point in the future - dead wrong!  Not a high probability, though.  So you're most likely going to be able to live a long and productive life, complaining about false alarms to the end of your days.  Shouldn't you be grateful?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Stock photography for storm photographers - Part 2

So the landscape for photographers with regard to stock photography agencies has evolved into an exploitative relationship with corporate behemoths.  While that might be good for the corporations, it's been bad for the photographers.  What's gone on with regard to the niche market associated with storm photography, in particular?

When I began storm chasing, it was a very small "fraternity" (mostly males) that produced an even smaller number of serious photographers with (expensive) high-quality photographic equipment.  As late as the late 1990s, there were just a few of us shooting medium-format images of storms.  This was the apex of the niche market for storm photography and we all pretty much knew each other - it was a friendly competition, because there were so few involved.

But after the turn of the century, things began to change.  Twister  flooded the "community of chasers" with hordes of brand-new new chasers who gave little thought to the market for storm images.  They were focused on themselves and their notoriety, not the photography market and not even the storms.  At about that time, digital cameras were becoming commonplace, including some with relatively high resolution at affordable prices.  Within a few years (say, by 2002), there were numerous chasers out there producing relatively high-quality images - often hungry enough for recognition that they would license their images for small licensing fees (even to the point of literally giving away their photographs for nothing!), in exchange for "fame" and personal recognition (worth little or nothing, in reality).

The corporate stock photography giants exploited the mass market of royalty-free and "microstock" images for their corporate "bottom line", where the price of individual images was reduced to very small values, in the interest of generating large corporate sales volumes (but giving back to the photographers only a very small percentage of the sales).  Some well-known storm chase photographers participated in this "sell-out" by contributing their "seconds" to these "el cheapo" markets of royalty-free images and microstock.  This, combined with the now-numerous chasers, flooded the niche market for storm photographs with inexpensive images of relatively high quality, contributing to a decline of market prices for everyone's photography.  A few selfish pricks (I could name names!) among the serious storm photographers contributed their images to this inexpensive market niche, essentially accelerating the overall decline of value associated with  storm images, to the point where the originally small niche market now is saturated with relatively inexpensive images.  It's become impossible to ask for a reasonable price to license storm images - clients can find inexpensive or even free images with a little searching.  You may think it's beneficial for promoting yourself to give images away for little or no value, but you're actually killing off the market value of your photographs, to say nothing of those from other photographers!

Relative newcomers to the storm photography market invariably are willing, more or less, to give away their images for the "credit" offered by image consumers.  This "credit" is, of course, worthless!  It gives virtually nothing back to photographers for the real costs associated with obtaining their storm images, but that illusion of recognition still seems to be an irresistible offer to the newcomer storm photographer.  The result:  the bottom has dropped out of the storm stock photography business.  Naturally, a small number of self-promoters (again, I could name names!) might still be able to command relatively high prices for their storm images, but the rest of us are shit out of luck!  It's become a dog-eat-dog world for storm stock photography.  If you're able to make a living at it, you likely have squeezed out those of us who find self-promotion problematic. 

Storm photography always was a small market, and it's been saturated by newcomers who evidently haven't thought through the business-related issues in their eagerness to promote themselves and their photographs.   The "fame" associated with licensing an image for a low price not only kills off the market for other photographers - it destroys your market, as well as that of others!

UPDATE:  I hasten to add that although I sell images at what I believe to be their fair market value, I'm not a pro photographer.  Image sales have never accounted for more than a tiny fraction of my income, so I don't depend on image sales to keep a roof over my head and food on the table.  Any profits I might have made have gone into supporting my photography habit.  Nevertheless, I respect those who are pro photographers enough to refuse to give my images away for peanuts.  Since I don't have to sell image licenses at all, I can charge whatever price seems right to me.  If buyers don't want to pay that much, they're free to look elsewhere. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Stock photography for storm photographers - Part 1

Back in the latter parts of the last century (mid-1990s), after years of occasionally licensing the use of my storm photography on my own, I was invited to join the stock company managed by Tony Stone.  This was quite an honor, actually, since Tony Stone Images (TSI) was one of the most prestigious image stock photography agencies in the world.  This promised to transform my storm photography into an operation that could help pay off the very real costs incurred by storm chasing, and perhaps even generate a modest profit, with which I could maintain and upgrade my equipment.  It was around this time that I formed my own Oklahoma corporation, Chuck Doswell's Outdoor Images, Inc., which has become C. Doswell Enterprises, Inc.

Unfortunately, shortly after I began to submit images to TSI, they were bought out by what was then the start-up corporate giant, Getty Images.  Tony Stone himself likely was paid handsomely from the sale, but we photographers who were bought out had no say in the matter.  My original contract with TSI rant a scant two pages, as I recall.  After TSI's takeover by Getty, all the former Tony Stone photographers were offered a new contract to sign, with a very clear black-and-white decision to make.  It was about 27 pages long, mostly in unintelligible legalese (lawyer jargon).  That sent a very clear message to me!  The particulars of the contract offer by Getty were non-negotiable, which was another unmistakable signal!  Anyway, I didn't sign.  For five years after that, by the terms of the buy-out (about which I had no say, remember) Getty had exclusive rights to market those images of mine that they paid for when they bought out TSI, so I couldn't sell those particular images on my own.  That time has long passed, of course.

It was clear to me from the start that Getty Images wasn't a business partner with its "content providers" (photographers), as TSI had been all along.  A business partner negotiates agreements (contracts), rather than dictating terms.  Instead, Getty was exploiting the contributed images to gain further market share, with aggressive license fee reductions to drive out competitors (or force them to merge with Getty).  When I started with TSI, the photographers received 50% of any sales with TSI - a so-called "50% split".  With time, Getty cut the photographer's split down to 30% (last I heard), or even less for some sales.  Reducing the pay-out to photographers increased their ability to leverage their market share.  Typical sleazy corporate business tactics.  Getty sold some of my images for $1, so my take from the "sale" (more like a giveaway) would be 30 cents!!  Plus, they bought out other stock companies, such as Visuals Unlimited (VU)  Sadly, when VU was bought out by Getty, I had a contract with VU for a 50% split.  When they became "partners" with Getty (i.e., they sold out!), then my split from VU became 50% of the 30% from Getty - that is, 15%!  Getty had reached out and bit my ass again, even though I had never signed a contract with them!!

I still receive occasional checks from Getty and Visuals Unlimited for image sales from past submissions, but they amount to a mere shadow of what I used to receive.  I certainly have no plans to submit more images to VU (or Getty).  The stock companies siphon off the profits and give the photographers (now referred to as "content providers") whatever percentage the companies want to, and no photographer can do anything about it.  Some ex-Getty photographers tried to resist at first, and formed the Stock Artists Alliance (of which I was a charter member) to try to stand up to the Getty steamroller.  They basically failed in that effort, and I finally stopped renewing my SAA membership in 2009.  There was no point.  SAA got some trivial concessions but all the important matters (the split, for example) were simply non-negotiable and the SAA was powerless to do anything to change that.

The major stock companies, Getty and Corbis, have swallowed up most of the small-time stock photography operations.  In the process, the former relationship between photographers and their agents has been transformed into one of exploited "contract workers" for a giant corporation.  It might still be possible for photographers in general to make a reasonable living by stock photography - I have no direct knowledge of that - but I seriously doubt if anyone truly making a reasonable income by licensing photographs can only be working for these corporate giants.  During recent times, my income from stock image sales has declined to become just a tiny part of the income for my corporation, so I had to branch out into other things, such as scientific consulting.  Hence, the name change for my company. 

Next time, I'll discuss how the specific market for storm stock photographers has evolved.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Magnifying a tragedy

A terrible tragedy caused by a severe storm has occurred at the Indiana State Fair. You can watch a horrifying video of the event here, and read my colleague's commentary. I agree completely with him that these disasters are preventable, and some of us have been predicting these 'large venue' weather-related events for decades. Anyone familiar with the history of severe weather must come to the conclusion that it's inevitable that a really bad storm will intersect with a large venue event and create a truly large, devastating tragedy. This and several other similar recent events associated with concert stage collapses are just the warm-ups, unfortunately. One day, a significant tornado will hit a crowded 'large venue' - it's just a matter of time and the clock continues to tick. There have been some notable near misses and it's simply inevitable, even though no one (besides a handful of us) seems to care.

What magnifies this Indiana State Fair tragedy is that, like recent similar events, no one will learn anything from it! The whole mess will be papered over as an unfortunate "Act of God" - since god can't be sued and apparently won't be testifying in his own defense, there will be no assignment of responsibility for these deaths and injuries. The promoters will collect their insurance money for the damages and won't be called to account for any failures in preparation for a severe storm. Almost certainly, the venue operator had no plan in place to respond to a threatening storm and the people attending the event were not made aware of any actions they could have taken to protect themselves. If the promoters had a plan in place, and people were killed by a storm anyway, then they could be sued for having an inadequate plan! It's actually better and less risky for the promoters in our twisted, litigation-obsessed society to have no plan at all, and write it off as god's mysterious ways than it is to have a plan that may still result in casualties.

The losers, naturally, are the people affected by these tragedies - the people who pay for the tickets to attend the event, who buy the hot dogs and beer at inflated prices, and who suffer the consequences for the absence of preparation by greedy promoters and venue operators. The families and friends of the casualties also have to deal with the loss of their friends and/or loved ones. The economic and human cost of these events is never known fully.

Stage sets have no construction codes (UPDATE: see comments) - they're not designed to resist the wind and so are always vulnerable to collapse even in a relatively modest storm gust - perhaps even less than that 58 mph that qualifies it as "officially" severe. Venue operators are not required to make any preparations to respond in the case of an approaching severe storm. The show must go on - after all, profits are at stake! - no matter what might actually be looming on the weather horizon. These large venues often don't have anywhere for the crowds to go in the event of an approaching severe storm - no shelters. All they can do is cancel the event and evacuate. Just imagine thousands of people rushing to their cars in a panic, and then creating instant gridlock in the parking area as a tornado bears down on them. It's a terrifying thought to entertain but the worst part is that it's a very distinct possibility someday! You just can't evacuate thousands of people in the relatively few minutes warning you may have before a severe storm hits. The time to cancel the event is always well before the storm hits - and no forecaster can guarantee that a storm actually will hit the facility very far in advance, which is what venue operators likely will demand if they're going to risk losing money by canceling the event before the storm is riding up their backsides!

This is a no-win situation for everyone, it seems, except the venue operators. They call it an "Act of God" and walk away with some damage they have to spend their insurance money to repair. Just how much do we in American society value human life? Pious claims about that notwithstanding, it seems to me that all one needs to do is review the budget for the Indiana State Fair concert that wound up with five fatalities (Update:  now it is seven!) and you can see pretty clearly how much each life was worth to them!

And we all bear some responsibility for this. Most people will just shake their heads in sadness and vow to pray for the unfortunate victims and their families - apparently to the same god on whom they blamed the disaster in the first place! No grass-roots movement to demand safety standards with real substance for large-event venue operators is likely to arise. Why? Perhaps it's widespread apathy. Perhaps it's an inability to consider that the next tragedy could happen to us, not someone else. Perhaps it's the political clout of large-event venue operators to fight successfully against any mandatory preparations for severe storms.

I'm not a weather forecaster by trade, but I can make a prediction here about which I'm pretty confident: the important lessons from the Indiana State Fair disaster won't be learned, no one will be held accountable for those deaths, and things will roll along to the next severe weather-related disaster at a large venue. Maybe if the next one is a really big disaster, someone might actually be moved to do something substantial to prevent more of them. But I'm not optimistic, even then. After all, there are those profits to be made ...