Saturday, August 31, 2013

Operations versus science - the case of Storm Data

Recently, something of a brouhaha developed over the rating of tornado intensity on the so-called EF-Scale.  But there have been some important new developments.  The massive, deadly tornado on 31 May 2013 in Oklahoma initially was rated an EF-5 tornado by the Norman office of the National Weather Service (NWS), largely owing to mobile Doppler radar data, because the tornado stayed mostly in open country, with a dearth of damage indicators.

The revised F-Scale, now known as the 'enhanced' F-Scale (or EF-scale) has become entirely focused on damage indicators, so the EF-Scale has become virtually completely a damage scale, not an intensity (windspeed) scale.  This is, in part, the doing of the structural engineers, who believed the upper end windspeeds on the EF-scale were too high - they succeeding in a downward revision of the windspeeds associated with structural damage on the revised rating scale:  e.g., EF-5 now begins at a lower bound of 200 mph, whereas the F-5 threshold was 261 mph.  There are some reasons to believe this is something of a problem - i.e., rating almost exclusively on damage (with the damage indicators biased in favor of US construction practices).

In an argument evidently based mostly on the notion of consistency, NWS management is basically saying mobile Doppler data should not be used to make tornado intensity ratings.  This is the ruling that dictated downgrading the rating of the El Reno tornado from EF-5 to EF-3, as well as some others. 

The 'consistency' argument is, in my opinion, not very compelling.  This argument is unfortunately all too common within the NWS as a reaction to technological innovation. I could provide numerous examples of the wrong-headedness of this policy, but I'll try to keep this as concise as possible. Resistance to new technology, and trying to force 'consistency' with older technology is just wrong.  Should we degrade the data obtained by WSR-88D radars to that from WSR-57s simply to maintain consistency with the older data sets? Should we disregard the dual polarity information of the new upgrades to the WSR-88D radars just to maintain consistency with the old versions of the radar? When something new and exciting comes on line, its capabilities should be embraced by the agency, not rejected as inconsistent with older technology!"

Moreover, all the bureaucratic concern about the 'consistency' of the EF-Scale ratings strikes me as rather silly. The existing record is laced with numerous inconsistencies for a host of reasons - too numerous to mention in detail. Denying the value of the most direct and objective measurements of wind speed in tornadoes (apart from the extremely infrequent occasions when an anemometer record survives) in order to maintain consistency with an inconsistent data set strikes me as silly. You can argue we shouldn't introduce yet another source of inconsistency, but I say we should take advantage of new technology as soon as possible and not get trapped into this foot-dragging argument.  Actually, the Doppler data are a source that can reduce inconsistency!  I agree we need to develop a consensus on how to use the new data, but that shouldn't be an excuse to ignore the data until that consensus emerges.   At the very least, the rating of the El Reno tornado should be EF-3+, with the + sign indicating it's a lower bound based on the limited damage indicators, so the actual rating might well be higher.

The NWS bureaucracy can, of course, make up any rules they wish to impose on the process.  Their subordinates do the actual work when it comes to the 'official' record in Storm Data, and those people are subject to the dictates of their organizational managers.  However, here's the rub - much is made of the records in Storm Data, and those data form a critical part of many scientific investigations.  This is true of a lot of the data collected by the NWS - it's collected largely to serve immediate operational needs, but is the basis for a lot of scientific research, as well.  Any decisions by the agency about data collection have impacts on science.  The NWS is an agency almost totally focused on the operational application of science, not scientific research.  Although some forecasters are by their own choice, involved directly in research, their agency is not very much interested in it and offers them little or no support.  NWS decisions about Storm Data affect the science, but those decisions aren't necessarily made in the interest of science!

Friday, August 30, 2013

Photo contests - a license to steal your photos

Various and sundry photo (and/or video) contests pop up from time to time on the Web and elsewhere.  Many of them with which I'm familiar are associated with media - TV weather broadcasters, private weather companies, and such.  If you read the fine print in the agreement you sign when you submit your photos, you'll typically find something like this (an actual agreement):

By submitting your photo or media to AccuWeather for use, publication on its websites, or in its photo gallery, you hereby grant AccuWeather the perpetual, world-wide, non-exclusive, royalty-free right and license to use, reproduce, distribute and create customized versions, derivative works, and ancillaries of the photo or media in all forms of media now known or hereafter developed, including print, non-print, internet transmission, film, electronic media, advertising, and broadcasting, in all editions and in any language or technical format, for any commercial or non-commercial purpose." This effectively gives them unlimited use of your images for all time for any purpose whatsover ... let the submitter beware!!

Let's go through this carefully:

perpetual = the agreement lasts indefinitely - it never ends
world-wide = they can use your photo anywhere in the world
non-exclusive = [from here] they can resell your photo to anyone
royalty-free = they can use your photo as much as they want without paying you anything for that use
license to use, reproduce, distribute, and create customized versions, derivative works, and ancillaries of the photo = they can do whatever they want with your photo
in all forms of media now known or hereafter developed, including ... = they can use your photo in any medium existing now or in the future
for any commercial and non-commercial purpose = they can make money by using your photo 

Your photo could appear thousands of times without your express permission, thereby rendering your photo copyright effectively useless.  You may retain the copyright, but it will be of no value to you in protecting your copyright privilege.  For all intents and purposes, your photo can become "public domain" through widespread usage, rendering your copyright protection completely impotent.  You can't go after anyone for using your photo if they obtained it from the folks running your contest, and I doubt seriously that the contest folks are giving your work away for free.

The prizes in such contests are usually not all that lucrative, even for "winning" images.  Just getting your work on TV or whatever is meaningless to you if you no longer control how those photos are used. You should weigh any perceived benefit to you carefully in relation to what you're giving up just to have your photo considered.

Potential photo submitters should read the fine print associated with any such contest if they have any image good enough to win a 'prize'.  The people running such contests do not have your best interests at heart.  The image "industry" has evolved to become very unfriendly to photographers and that rapaciousness has spread far and wide.  The fact that terms like the above are widespread doesn't mean that you have to give in to them. 

Much of the same applies to video submitted to media for re-broadcast - they may pay you a modest license fee, but if you sign a license for them to broadcast your video, read the fine print and be aware of what rights you're granting. They may own it forever and have the right to use it for anything, including selling it to others ...

I strongly recommend negotiating a license only for one-time use for a specific purpose, that includes a reasonable licensing fee for you.  If they don't agree to that, don't give them license to steal your work!!  If you really don't understand the terms of a licensing agreement offered to you, don't sign anything until you search out some help in translating the legalese of the contract.  Develop your own licensing agreement and counter-offer yours to theirs.  If they won't compromise, don't let them have your work!

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Thoughts on: MLK and "I have a dream ..."

Today (28 August) is the anniversary of the "I have a dream" speech by Martin Luther King - the day is almost over as I type this ... if there was a time in my life when I understood something important about racism in this nation, this speech touched me very deeply.  I grew up in the lily-white neighborhoods of Dupage County - west suburban Chicago.  I knew nothing of ethnic minorities - they had been systematically and intentionally excluded from my village - my communities were so predominantly white Anglo-Saxon protestant (WASP) that the very idea of a black person was an alien concept.  I literally knew no black Americans all the way through high school. It was something I knew only as an abstraction.  I grew up knowing nothing about black people except what was taught to me in classes about history.  The 1963 MLK speech (50 years ago!) was the summer of the year I graduated from high school. That he would be assassinated 5 years later was, of course, not known at the time.  His speech concerned things that meant little to me at the time because I knew nothing about black America.  Nevertheless, the speech made a lot of sense to me!

Time passed, as it always does, and I was in graduate school when he was shot and killed on that awful day.  The real impact of that on me was more than a year later, when I was drafted into the Army.  My time in the Army was a revelation, when I was thrown into the company of black Americans for the first time ever.  Angry blacks from the ghettos of America, blacks who were simply trying to cope with the shock of being in the military, and blacks who I could call my friends because of our shared experience of being thrown into the melting pot that was the military.  These people were no longer abstractions - they were real people whom I knew and interacted with on a daily basis.  Some were my friends, and some were not.  My service in Vietnam only added to the realization that blacks were not some shadowy figures in an abstract world - they were real people.  with all the foibles of real people, some good and and some bad.  Skin color was only skin deep and what really mattered was the person behind the skin ... imagine that!

Since then, I have found many Arrican-Americans that I can call friends, and those with whom I've not been able to connect.   But if there's anything that connects all of the black folks I've known over the years since my military service, it's been the realization that we're all in the same boat - hoping for a day when race is irrelevant, as Martin's speech describes.  We look forward to the day when the color of one's skin is not even remotely relevant and the character of the soul within the skin is what matters most.  I find the obvious racist paranoia of some of my conservative friends to be most disconcerting - do they not see the vile nature of their comments about black Americans?  It's a terrible legacy we've inherited to be prejudiced by something as meaningless as skin color, and one that deserves only rejection and disdain.  Make whatever judgments you must about a real person on the basis of what they have said and done, not on their enthnicity.   You attack some of those I love and respect in your misdirected hatred.  Listen to the words of one of the greatest Americans that ever walked the Earth: Martin Luther King!  Be ashamed that he met a premature fate at the hands of an ignorant bigot!  Let us come together under the benevolent banner of his dream.  Let us work together to make his dream a reality!

Monday, August 26, 2013

Security and Justice

In my career as a meteorologist, I've become very familiar with the history of storms, at least as well as it's known - mostly in the USA, but to some limited extent, around the world.  What that knowledge gives me is an insight into the future.  And I can say with some certainty that more storm-related disasters are going to occur - unfortunately, I'm not even close to being able to say where or when.  The history of storms tells us important things about how secure we really are from such disasters:  no one is absolutely secure!

When it comes to tornadoes, what I know of the odds of being hit by the violent winds in a violent tornado here in my home are pretty small, despite the fact that central OK is more or less the violent tornado capitol of the world.  If I do nothing to prepare for such an event, it's quite likely that not being prepared will be of little consequence.  Of course, there are different levels of being prepared, and some of them are neither difficult or expensive, so why not do at least that much?  Anyway, I don't live where I do without realizing that the chances of being hit badly are not zero!  My understanding of tornado climatology tells me that I am not 'secure' from this threat.

After tornado disasters, I often hear people interviewed after a tornado saying that their sense of security has been swept away, just as their homes were.  When it comes to geophysical hazards, there can be no one immune from them, anywhere on the planet:  floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, landslides, wildfires, tsunamis, drought, bitter cold, heavy snow, ice storms, tropical storms, lightning, lahars, pyroclastic flows, ... the list of geophysical hazards is long and scary.  No one is secure from geophysical hazards no matter where they live.  This says nothing about asteriod and comet impacts, nearby supernovae, and other astronomical hazards.  And there are various and sundry biological hazards, as well:  plagues, infections, molds, biological threats to our food and water supplies, parasites, venomous animals and plants, large predatory animals, etc.  We survive on this planet only by the consent of natural processes, and that's subject to withdrawal at any time with little or no warning.  No, we're not secure and if we feel secure, we should have some appreciation for the fact that such a feeling is simply an illusion.  Some of the hazards that threaten us can be prepared for - others, not so much.  I repeat; there is no security!

As if that's not enough, there are hazards inflicted by our fellow humans:  murder, robbery, rape, character assassination, identity theft, physical and mental abuse, torture, bombs, etc.  We in modern societies like to think that our laws and police give us security from these threats, but it's obvious that some people are committing immoral acts on others all the time (sometimes, even the police!).  My house has been burglarized, I was molested as a boy (by a non-relative), my car has been broken into and things taken.  Although I clearly can't believe I'm secure from such things and have the evidence to confirm that, when these things happened to me, I found myself feeling both angry and violated, hoping to find justice, somehow.  In a formal sense, not one of these crimes has been prosecuted by the law.

After our house was burglarized, I was pretty sure I knew who had done it (and so did the police), but the police told us there was little chance of seeing justice served to him.  That fed my anger and I was considering all sorts of measures, such as putting bars on the windows.  But I concluded that I would be putting myself behind bars, while the criminal was footloose and fancy-free.  The more I thought, I realized that the material things he stole would be converted to cash at much less than their actual value, and that cash wouldn't last him long.  He'd live his whole life as a petty thief, unless he escalated to something serious, in which case he'd probably end up dead or in prison for a long time.  If I did nothing to him, his life was his own form of self-inflicted justice, whereas my life was one of happiness and privilege.  His miserable life was much more effective than any vengeance I might visit upon him (and possibly commit a crime in doing so).  No, it was simply best to let go of my anger, and not worry about my material possessions so much that I would become their prisoner.

Some other things have happened I won't go into but my general feeling is that I no longer feel the need to see justice in action.  Although I'm an atheist and so have no belief in an afterlife where bad people are punished, I do have a rational belief that at least some form of justice will be served even when I don't see it.  I refuse to let bad people ruin my life.

A Weather Ready City/Nation? - Round 2

In an earlier blog, I mentioned some of the issues regarding what it would take to be truly 'weather ready' but I need to return to this topic and bring up some other topics.  In that blog, I was mostly focused on how the public has to accept some share of the responsibility to be ready for weather disasters.  However, I think the whole notion of 'weather readiness' has been seriously diluted in the NOAA criteria for a community to be deemed 'weather ready'

It's clear that having a plan is not the equivalent of being prepared.  That is, one might well have a plan, but if its components are analyzed, it may well be flawed, even to the extent that it's wholly inadequate.  I've seen examples of local school plans for tornado preparedness that involve evacuating the children to 'shelter' locations that actually are quite vulnerable.  In such plans, they may have an inadequate shelter location and at the same time, have an adequate shelter that's not being used for that purpose.  A 'trained spotter' is not necessarily a reliable spotter - in fact, from what I've seen, the majority of spotters are probably not reliable.  Having attended a slide show or having seen a video doesn't mean the spotter is fully prepared to do the difficult and thankless task of storm spotting.  Some folks just never seem to be available when it counts the most.  I've been storm chasing for 40 years and I still encounter things I've never seen before - just how much actual spotting experience with real storms do spotters have?

I could go on at length providing examples of deficiencies, but my point is that having a plan is just a single step above not having any plan at all.  Preparedness plans and shelter locations need to be reviewed and vetted by someone who knows enough to detect flaws and inadequacies.  Civil engineers may need to become involved in evaluation of structural integrity. 

The NWS is currently in the process of trying to make their warnings more effective.  This necessarily can't be done by NWS bureaucrats and weather forecasters - they lack the education and training to do such things properly.  Partnerships with social scientists need to be established (and funded!) to develop collaborative programs for incorporating social science into the process of developing effective forecasts.  And it can't be done with a token social scientist sitting in some cubicle in an NWS building.  Furthermore, such an effort isn't of the sort that it can be done once and then it's done - it has to be an ongoing process indefinitely.  As our society and its technology change, the questions need to be asked over and over again:  Is the current system as effective as it needs to be?  What do we have to do to maintain and improve its effectiveness?  It's not at all clear to me that the NWS comprehends what will be necessary if they truly want to involve social sciences in a meaningful way.

Communities need to review and if necessary, create and/or revise severe weather plans for every business, school, church, shopping center, theater, hospital, day-care center, retirement home, etc. in their domain.  The people doing such reviews, as noted above, need to know what they're doing, and not be some functionary who's only doing it as an 'additional duty' on top of their full-time job responsibilities.  Communities need to review their spotter programs, and kick unreliable spotters off their rolls - an undependable spotter is no help at all.  Media weather broadcasters need to live up to their community service obligations and put the ratings battle aside when severe weather breaks, providing meaningful information rather than disseminating falsehoods such as "If you're not underground, you won't survive this!".  In large metropolitan areas with many communities, they need to foster a spirit of cooperation for the benefit of all, and not let petty egos and local political squabbles keep them from this ideal.

The pitiful level of structural integrity in American homes is exacerbated by the widespread absence of adequate storm shelters - i.e., capable of protecting the occupants in even and EF-5 tornado with some high confidence level.  Building codes in the tornado-prone areas of the nation (at least everything east of the continental divide!) should uniformly be equal to the standards imposed on buildings along hurricane-prone coastlines.  Enforcement of building codes is presently pathetic.  In walking tornado damage paths, it's depressingly common to see blatant code violations even with the very lenient codes now in effect.  These structural weaknesses increase the debris load in tornadoes moving through populated areas, thereby increasing the hazards to life and property.

I could go on, and perhaps will in later blogs, but the main message here is that having a 'storm ready' designation doesn't mean your community is truly prepared for storms!  It's a nice certificate you can hang in city hall or your local EOC, but it's no guarantee that everyone in the community is truly ready and safe.  If there's some consensus that we should seek to be a weather ready nation, as more and more weather-related disasters occur, this goal will not be achieved in reality when every community has such a plaque on the wall.  It's going to take a lot more resources and a lot more time than most people realize.  Including many of those pushing the 'weather ready' agenda.