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  I'd forgotten the timetable for withdrawal, but we now have withdrawn, finally.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.