Sunday, December 20, 2009

Human communication - Iffy, at its best

Recent events have made it evident to me that it borders on miraculous that we humans are successful at communicating via the spoken word to any meaningful extent. Human language carries with it so little direct information about our actual intended meaning, that it becomes very easy for misinterpretation of our words. So easy, in fact, that misunderstandings are pretty common. It takes considerable effort and some honest, civil discourse to determine that what may appear to be disagreements are simply misunderstandings.

That many misunderstandings occur as a result of Internet-based typed communications is both evident and legendary. Without the nonverbal cues that accompany face-to-face conversation, people can get so upset by someone's typed words that they react in a very negative way, often stimulating a similar reaction - culminating in the classical "flame war" so common on message boards. It seems that nonverbal cues can reduce the likelihood of misinterpretation. Nevertheless, even face-to-face conversation can be misinterpreted. I think most all of us recognize this.

Since we have no telepathic powers (outside of science fiction), we humans find it challenging to understand the intentions of those with whom we interact via the spoken (and written) word. Obviously, the barriers between people who are native speakers in different languages are even higher, even when they are both reasonably fluent in a common language. In addition to the language barrier as a direct impediment to communication, the cultural contexts put a level of subtlety on the spoken word that can be quite difficult to communicate. Verbatim, word-for-word translations between languages are notoriously bad at conveying meaning. I wonder how many wars between nations speaking different languages have begun because of a misunderstanding that has its origins in such communication barriers.

Even when considering only native speakers of the same language, the spoken word can convey impressions that are inconsistent with the intentions of the speakers. Some recent experience makes that very clear to me - and it's something that concerns me. How easy it is to assume that you've been understood in all aspects, when the reality is that your message was lost because the hearer heard something in your words that you never intended to say.

I can only suggest that when your blood is boiling because of what someone has said to you, perhaps it's a good time to slow down that reactionary response, and consider what the speaker's intended meaning might have been. Rather than a direct response to a perceived insult or provocation, you should consider a more measured response, seeking clarification about their intended meaning. Yes, this is probably more easily said than done, but it might prevent you from having the conversation descend into a tit-for-tat exchange of angry verbal grenades, or worse. Don't respond to what you think you heard; instead, seek a clarified understanding of the speaker's intentions.

Human language is reknowned for its capacity to convey subtle shades of meaning. But that subtlety includes the potential for ambiguity of intention. Certain words can stimulate a particular reaction, whereas different, but similar, words might engender a radically different reaction. When you think carefully about it, it's remarkable that we're as successful at communication via language as we are. The subtleties conveyed through the spoken word can be lost if the recipient doesn't grasp them, for some reason. It's dangerous to assume that the recipients of your words have understood your intended meanings.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Damage control: East Anglia ethical lapses

Recent disclosures of possible ethical problems within the climate change science going on at the University of East Anglia have stimulated a firestorm of accusations by the global warming skeptics. I recently received an email from an acquaintance:

Saw the attached editorial in the Wall Street Journal and was amazed that I had not heard anything about this scandal. I did a little research and saw the distrubing [sic] trends that I had long suspected might be coming to light. I have always known that man was probably having some profound effect on the environment, but probably not in the respects or degrees that the media was putting before us. This has huge implications as we are moving toward Capping Carbon and the U.S. prepares to enter in with the rest of the world in global treaties that will probably not have any unilateral aspects. I am almost certain that the U.S. will take the biggest brunt of the cost of so called "Global Warming". ... The point of this for me anyway, "Who do we trust." If we are going to make decisions that are costing farmers, industry, and all citizens billions of dollars then we need the correct data. I want to do what is right for my children and grandchildren, but I cannot make good decisions about what I believe if the liberal media and various environmental groups decide to massage the data to their liking. Let's Beware.

My responses follow ...

Beware, indeed! It's very appropriate to ask the question about whom to trust. Unfortunately, like everything else humans do, science is done by people and some of the participants haven't always been completely and perfectly ethical. Within any group of humans, you will find those who are willing to go beyond ethical boundaries.

Nevertheless, it's simply stretching credibility to the extreme to take the sins and errors of a few climate change scientists and extrapolate to reject the content of the IPCC reports, which are the consensus among hundreds of scientists. A few of those scientists who contributed to the IPCC reports are friends of mine, and I have absolutely no reason to believe that they've perpetrated the sorts of shenanigans that have come to light as the result of the hacking (an illegal act, by the way). I know something about the topic of physical processes as they relate to climate change and the notion that global warming is not happening is simply absurd.

This isn't a conspiracy within climate change science, although a few may have gone beyond ethical limits. It's not about the mythical "liberal media" pushing the global warming agenda. And "climategate" is an obvious verbal ploy to manufacture a media-based scandal. If a limited number of scientists have "massaged" the data inappropriately, then you should also consider the very real possibility that some (if not many) of the so-called "skeptics" have been massaging their data to show contrary results.

You're free to believe whomever you wish, of course. I understand your frustration when some scientists cross the boundary to unethical behavior. Such behavior bothers me, too. But don't believe that they represent anything more than a tiny fraction of the contributors to the IPCC report. You should also understand that science doesn't do well with absolutes - see my essay about how science works.

It would be nice if science could answer questions with a simple "yes" or "no" answer. But that's just not the way things work. Consensus CAN be wrong, and anyone claiming infallibility for consensus science should be viewed as suspect. For some thoughts about how to look at the question of global warming see my essay on the subject.

If you want to do right by your children and grandchildren, consider section 5 of that essay about a "policy of least regret".

Meanwhile, another acquaintance sent:

Even some non-scientists have legitimate concerns about openness and honesty in science.

My response follows ...

Anyone who was laboring under the notion that science (a decidedly human endeavor) has heretofore been immune to ethical lapses must be living in a world of fantasy. Concerns about openness and honesty in science are legitimate. What's happening here is that climate science has revealed itself to be the same as any other science - ethical lapses by small groups and individuals can happen. It's unfortunate when it happens and enters the public consciousness, as it does indeed tarnish our "image" - but a squeaky-clean image for science is simply not realistic so long as science is done by fallible human beings.

We scientists need to be concerned about such things, and to reject them as unworthy of the scientific enterprise. But to extrapolate to say that "science is dying" is simply absurd. Climate science has joined a long list of other sciences in which scandalous ethical lapses have occurred. Science isn't dying, but we must repudiate those who sully the profession and renew our personal pledges not to fall into ethical traps. The ends never justify the means.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Hubris: Thy name is the Corps of Engineers

Sorry for the long drought of posts ... I've been unable to connect during my recent trip to Beijing, China. I had Internet but couldn't get through. While there, I wrote the following in response to a news item.

According to the Associated Press:

“Katrina ruling could bring new deluge of lawsuits
“NEW ORLEANS — A landmark court ruling blaming the Army Corps of Engineers' "monumental negligence" for some of the worst flooding from Hurricane Katrina could lead to a new deluge: billions of dollars in legal action from thousands of storm victims.

“The federal judge's harshly worded decision also served as vindication for residents of St. Bernard Parish and the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans who have long argued that Katrina was largely a man-made disaster, caused by the federal government's failure to maintain the levees protecting the city.”

This story has two components: the first is the long-standing arrogance of the Corps of Engineers in trying to “manage” the Mississippi River (and others, of course) for the benefit of humankind. The 19th Century belief that humans could bend the natural world at will to serve people has not yet died its well-deserved death. All that the “management” of the Mississippi River has accomplished is the consumption of vast amounts of resources for what is inevitably only a temporary solution. The river eventually will go wherever it wants to go – its massive and inexorable power exceeds our ability to force it to our will indefinitely.

By maintaining the fiction (at great taxpayer expense) that we can force the river to go where we want it to go (and stay out of areas well below sea level), we’ve encouraged the settlement of places that would otherwise be natural wetlands. Katrina was the catalyst for the failure of the levees, and it might well be the case that the levees had been neglected, but those levees were destined to fail eventually when given a serious test by heavy rainfall leading to floods or a hurricane even stronger than Katrina. Perhaps the Corps was less willing to spend its resources on the levees around New Orleans because it had other, higher priorities. I’m not trying to rationalize for the Corps – far from it – the Corps has created the very situation in New Orleans that encouraged the “development” of the areas protected by those very levees. The flooded parishes in New Orleans, in effect, were created by the Corps (and the city of New Orleans, which also has a long tradition of arrogance, dating back at least to the 1927 Mississippi River floods).

It long has been recognized that New Orleans was in the center of a bullseye, and Katrina was a very near-miss that nevertheless was enough to trigger the collapse of some of the inevitably-doomed levees. Perhaps that was due to maintenance that was inadequate, or perhaps not. The fate of the levees, maintained or not, was to fail.

This legal ruling clearly leads the way for a wholesale plundering of the Corps via lawsuits. Of course, those lawsuits could utterly destroy the budget of the Corps, which presumably would be expected to continue its mandated duties, anyway. So how could the Corps continue to operate in the face of all those lawsuits? Evidently, the Federal Government would have to increase its outlays to support Corps activities. What cutbacks to other programs would this necessitate? From where would this money come?

What this amounts to, then, is a huge bailout for some of the residents of New Orleans – those able to hire lawyers and drink deeply from the Federal trough. In turn, this means that the taxpayers of the U.S. would be bankrolling welfare for those relatively well-to-do New Orleans residents.

As I’ve said elsewhere, it makes absolutely no sense to rebuild those flooded parishes in New Orleans. All it does is replace a thoroughly riddled target bullseye with a new one, ready to be destroyed by the next big flood or tropical cyclone that inevitably will affect New Orleans. The message of Katrina isn’t truly about negligence by the Corps. It’s about hubris by the Corps and the people of New Orleans.

Those New Orleans residents seeking to rebuild, perhaps with the infusion of funds from lawsuits against the Corps, are guilty of blaming the hand that created the situation where they were at risk of disaster in the first place (the Army Corps of Engineers). That disaster occurred in the form of Katrina, but these folks apparently still don’t get the message. If they want to blame to Corps for something, it should be for cooperating with the City of New Orleans in perpetuating the myth that the overwhelming forces of Nature could be held at bay forever. The residents seeking funds to rebuild will share the blame for the disaster(s) yet to come, if they go back to those parishes and rebuild.

The rest of the nation’s taxpayers should not have to foot the bill for the arrogance and naivete of New Orleans residents. Those in New Orleans who want to go back to the flooded parishes shouldn't be bailed out when the next meteorological disaster devastates those places once again. There should be no government-supported safety net, and either no insurance at all or insurance only with a massive increase in premiums to cover their eventual losses. The inevitable disaster's costs should be the sole responsibility of those foolish enough to rebuild and live there.

Response to "Anonymous":

Apparently, your being offended didn't give you the courage even to acknowledge ownership of your comment by using your own name. If you're offended by my comments, that's your personal choice, and not my responsibility.

If New Orleans were my hometown and I lived in one of those flood-prone parishes, I'd be doing my damnedest to get out of there as best I could! I'm sorry for those who have to stay, but for those who choose to stay, I offer the following: it's costing billions to allow you the chance to live there. That cost is being spread to everyone in the nation, rather than falling exclusively on those of you who seem to believe that it's our national responsibility to help foot the bill for you to have the privilege of rebuilding at the center of a bullseye!

Greensburg, Kansas, is a poor analogy - there's no particular reason to single out Greensburg for tornado threat compared to the surroundings for hundreds of miles in any direction. The odds of them being dead-centered by another violent tornado in the next hundred years are really low. On the other hand, much of the "developed" portion of New Orleans exists because of the levees that hold back the Gulf and the Mississippi River in the best of times. Levees always fail eventually, and it had long been foretold that New Orleans would get hit by a bad hurricane, resulting in catastrophic flooding of the low areas. Greensburg isn't at the center of such a bullseye and it makes much more sense to rebuild Greensburg than it does to rebuild those places in New Orleans that are below sea level! The odds of another major hurricane hitting New Orleans in the next hundred years are pretty high.

New Orleans has a long history of arrogance ... read the book Rising Tide by John M. Barry for a shameful episode in their past. It's available at I understand you might have many reasons for wanting to remain in New Orleans, but none of those reasons are rational.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Unanticipated fallout from having children

Tonight my lovely wife took me out to dinner for my birthday. It turned out that the manager of the restaurant was a friend of my son's from way back. He'd been in our house back in the day and recognized us despite our advancing age, and it was great to see and just chat with him again. Obviously, he was doing a great job because our experience there justified my choice to celebrate there. Seeing him provided an unexpected bonus for my birthday celebration - having an intimate dinner with my bride was great, so this was the cherry on top of the sundae.

But that's not what prompted me to write this, tonight. This delightful experience got me to thinking about how many of our friends have come into our lives as a direct result of the things our kids did during their formative years: the school and extracurricular activities of our children expanded our circle of friends to include a large number of very special friends. Not only did our children bring joy into our lives in their own right, but they put us in contact with a much wider circle of friends than we otherwise would have had. Many of those friends we acquired through being involved with our children have been and continue to be a great blessing in our lives.

For those of you who have not had children, I understand there are many things to be worried about when making the choice to be nor not to be parents ... the expense and trouble of being a parent: childhood illnesses, sibling rivalries, smart-ass teenagers, whiney behavior, etc. I won't deny that being a parent carries with it a heavy burden of responsibility and asks of us some things that we love to gripe about with our colleagues in parenthood - but which people with no children can't possibly understand.

Nevertheless, in addition to the many wonderful moments that children offer to you that (in my experience) more than compensated for the challenges our children presented us ... they will give you the opportunity to develop relationships with other adults that can enrich your lives far beyond your expectations. I never knew that such important contacts might flow from the apparently simple choice to have children. I never imagined that my life would be so vastly blessed with new friends and relationships that have become profoundly important to us.

I owe a great debt of gratitude to my children ... both of them ... for everything they've added to my life. I'm only now beginning to appreciate how much I would have missed had we not chosen to bring them into the world. It was the right choice for us. I can't thank you enough, Chad and Heather.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

It's a checkerboard world

Of late, I've been reading postings by people I know in various places around the Internet. I have this odd feeling we seem to live on different planets. A number of my friends are about as different from me in certain terms as it's possible to be. I consider myself to be a "liberal" in some ways and "conservative" in other ways - hence, I prefer not to pigeonhole myself.

I found the GW Bush years to be a time when I was ashamed to be an American - he was virtually the perfect antithesis of everything I believe in. Eight years under that smirking, arrogant sonofabitch was about all I could take.

But I don't find Barack Obama to be the light at the end of that tunnel. Contrary to the rantings of my right-wing friends, I think the new President has erred by compromising his liberal principles too many times, already. He concedes to the Christian Reconstructionist Party (the Republicans) and receives absolutely nothing in return - that's not compromise. It's capitulation.

Despite my friends' very evident paranoia over his "liberal fascist" policies, I believe he's not anywhere near liberal enough. He seems determined to pretend that our economy can actually recover to become what it was before the recent catastrophes, triggered by stock market crashes, and by the criminal mismanagement of the credit business by greedy capitalists who've devastated millions of people and barely received a slap on the wrist. If it becomes what it was before, it's only doomed to more criminal manipulation and the inevitable credit busts.

We continue to live in a dream world, where everyone seems blissfully unaware of how the price of energy is a sword of Damocles over our heads. We continue to fight a war for control for middle East oil. That war itself consumes vast quantities of oil every year, keeping warships, warplanes, and tanks in the fray, to say nothing of the American lives it consumes. We squander hundreds of billions on this war when we should be investing in alternative energy sources, doing something to develop a transportation infrastructure that doesn't rely on the automobile, and reducing our consumption of fossil fuel. How can the politicians continue to stumble down the same tired pathways, ignoring the problems that await us around the corner?

As our nation slides into scientific and technological illiteracy, we continue to become more and more convinced (as a nation) that religion offers a more meaningful understanding of biology, climate, astronomy, and geology than what science provides. We Americans have built our position as a superpower largely by being creators and innovators in science and engineering - but our national ethic seems to be turning its back on all that in favor of teaching our children to prefer religious dogma to pragmatic science.

I find it particularly disturbing that my right-wing friends seem to think that Obama is some sort of Anti-figure to the reign of the GWB Crime, Inc. admininstration, leading our nation to ruin. If he's leading our nation to ruin, it's because he's not moving our nation down pathways sufficiently different from those of his predecessor in the Oval Office! He hasn't pulled our military out of the Iraq fiasco. He hasn't pushed for hard controls on the abuses that led to the credit swap default fiasco. He hasn't lead us toward decreasing dependence on fossil fuels and toward support of alternative energy sources. He hasn't taken serious action to respond to the threat of global warming. He has yet to repeal the Patriot Act, which is the most serious threat to American civil liberties since WWII with its associated nullification of habeas corpus. He has yet to deal with the abuses of torture in the military. He just isn't doing what I believe he was elected to do.

My right-wing friends and I will never agree on any of the political and religious issues that divide us. We can only continue to be friends by agreeing not to talk about these points. The world is fractionating into a checkerboard, where it seems the alternatives are only black or white. You're either with me, or against me - to paraphrase Christ and GW Bush. Sad, sad, sad ...

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A vulgar display of American horsepower

I recently (25-27 September 2009) attended the O'Reilly/Castrol Fall Nationals drag races at Ennis, TX with my friend, Al Moller. It had been quite some time since either of us had been to a professional-caliber drag racing event - we both came away wondering why we stayed away for so long. It was a fantastic experience, despite the heat and the burning sun we had to endure in the grandstands. We had terrific seats on the north side of the track, very close to the starting line, so we could see the launches right out of the hole. And we wandered about in the pits during breaks in the action, as well, seeing some of the racers up close and in person.

Drag racing is a truly American extreme sport. You can read about it at the National Hod Rod Association site. Its origins lie with the love affair Americans have with their cars and the natural competitive nature of Americans: who has the quickest car? Since street racing is dangerous, as well as illegal, and not recommended, the NHRA (in particular, its founder, the late Wally Parks) came up with an idea - to take the "hot rods" to a track where the racing could be done under safe conditions without danger to non-participants, to see who could cross the finish line first in a straight line race (rather than a roundy-round thing that goes on for an extended time). In a quarter mile, you could settle the issue in a few seconds, once and for all.

With time and typical American mechanical innovation and creativity, the sport evolved from heads-up, "run what ya brung" hot rods all mixed together into various classes of cars, with the ultimate classes being the top fuel dragsters and fuel "funny cars". These are the most extreme cars in motorsports, with large, purpose-built engines running on a mixture of nitromethane and methanol. Their sole purpose is to accelerate as fast as possible and in their current incarnation use 8000 horsepower engines in the lightest allowable car (there are rules that govern the details of what is a legal car to run, mostly seeking to provide some measure of safety). The engines are always on the ragged edge of blowing up under the strain.

Top fuel dragsters begin from a standing start and reach speeds approaching 300 mph in about 4 seconds flat (or less) over a distance of 1000 ft - the distance in the top fuel categories was reduced from 1320 to 1000 ft for safety purposes. When dragsters were first developed, they used engines originally built for street vehicles, but were modified by the racers in various ways to provide more horspower. The cars gradually became lighter and lighter as the technology of dragsters evolved, even as the engines increased in power - the result? More and more speed, shorter and shorter elapsed times (ETs) to get down the track. In today's world, the specially-built drag racing engines have their origins in Mopar hemispherical head designs dating from the 1950s, but the real top fuel engines today are engineered and built from the start to be racing engines. They're no longer modified regular car engines. They're a V-8 design, producing around 1000 horsepower per cylinder! For comparison purposes, the typical passenger car engine produces about 125 horsepower from 4 or 6 cylinders.

Some simple calculations show that going from 0 to 300 mph in 4 seconds represents an average acceleration over that 1000 ft distance of around 3.5 x the force of gravity (g). At the start, the cars accelerate at around 6 x g - the acceleration decreases with time down the track because of the increasing air drag on the vehicle (which goes up as vehicle's speed increases). When a top fuel dragster launches from the starting line (the "hole"), the engine is producing a deafening bellow at a sound level of about 120 decibels - enough to damage your ears. Therefore, the racers and most spectators either cover their ears or wear earplugs. But the sound isn't limited to what you can hear - the sound can be felt in your whole body as the car goes by. When it passes, you can smell the nitromethane ("nitro") fumes in the air - a sweet, acrid smell that's unmistakable for anything else. I love the smell of nitro in the morning - it smells like ... victory! (my apologies to Robert Duvall and Apocalypse Now)

This sport is as uniquely American as jazz, the blues, apple pie, chili, tobacco, potatoes, musicals, and tomatoes. It's caught on in England and Australia to some extent, but it's not popular in continental Europe or Asia, which are homes to sophisticated motorsports fans. Unlike Formula-1 or sports car racing, drag racing is brutally simple: put the most horsepower you can into the lightest possible car allowed by the rules, race it down a straight line for a quarter mile (1320 ft or about 2 city blocks) - or 1000 ft - and see who crosses the finish line first. The race is decided in a few seconds. You can see the entire race - start to finish - from your seat in the stands. And one race follows the other in rapid succession, as hundreds of hopefuls try to qualify for and survive the eliminations to win a championship in their class.

What you see on TV is but a pale imitation of the sights, sounds, and smells of the actual experience. If you ever go see a real NHRA drag race, you'll likely either love it or hate it. A friend we met for the first time at this year's races took his father to the Fall Nationals last year. His father's reaction? "It's a vulgar display of American horsepower." Al and I agreed with our new friend - yes, that's true, and the more vulgar, the better!

For myself, I think my love affair with drag racing likely is connected to my love affair with supercells and tornadoes (the most extreme storms on the planet!). The beginning of my interest in drag racing was due to my cousins in Illinois, who were older than I and into hot rodding and drag racing. Since my cousins were my role models of the time, I followed their interests and got hooked on drag racing myself. I saw my first big-time, professional drag racing event at the World Series of Drag Racing at Cordova, Illinois, sometime in the early 1960s (I think, when I was in high school). And my best friend from high school, Tom Schifler, and I became regulars at Cordova for a while - we even went to the US Nationals in Indianapolis a couple of times in the late 1960s.

My first interest began earlier though, in the late 1950s, when "Big Daddy" Don Garlits was bursting onto the drag racing scene. Don Garlits became a favorite of mine (like John Force is today). I looked forward to seeing him race and if Garlits showed up, I was really pleased. I liked the brute force of drag racing and the technical side, as well. I liked the creativity and ingenuity of the racers in all the classes, especially in the "sportsman" and "stock" classes.

I learned a lot about automotive engines without ever becoming a mechanic. My interest in the sport has suffered from other, higher priorities at times, but has never been forgotten. This year's event may get me back to attending more regularly. Al and I are already planning to be back in Ennis for next year's event! Maybe we'll see you there?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Global Warming and Evolution as Political and Religious Topics

In my last post about civil discourse, I talked about having an open mind and its importance to the character of a discussion/argument. When it comes to science, however, there are some limits on what an open mind must consider as pertinent. In particular, arguments predicated on someone's beliefs rather than on evidence or logic is beyond the boundaries of what I consider to be worthy of consideration in the discussion.

For example, many people I know, including some folks who wear the label "meteorologist" find it easy to discard the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and say they just don't buy into the notion that humans are responsible for a significant part of the observed increase in global temperature. [I'm not going to touch on the notions of those who go still further, to deny that the global temperature is rising - they're already well beyond the pale of science.] The IPCC report was created by a large number of specialists in climate research and the content of that report contained essentially no minority opinions because they were more or less unanimous regarding the main conclusion that the evidence supports the hypothesis that anthropogenic climate change is real and significant. Most of the disbelievers like to point out that not all climate change scientists agree on this point. Surprise, surprise! There are very few aspects of science to which all scientists agree. So there are some scientists out there who don't accept the consensus view of the IPCC report. On that basis, the disbelievers among the folks I know are willing to discredit the consensus without actually understanding the scientific issues. I'm a meteorologist, but I'm not a global climate change researcher. I believe it would be rather arrogant for me to reject that consensus simply because I heard of some scientists who don't believe in that consensus or because it violates my personal beliefs.

What gives those who are not global climate change scientists the idea that they can reject the consensus without having any direct evidence of their own? That idea, in my opinion, stems from the fact that global climate change has been transformed into a political issue. In politics, one opinion is pretty much at the same level as any other. You can embrace or reject political opinions at will and you need not muster a shred of evidence or logic to support that stance. Your beliefs are sufficient. In science, some interpretations are at a higher level than others because they're based on stronger evidence and/or more compelling logic. Scientific issues aren't decided on rhetoric alone. Not all scientific opinions are equal.

Why has global climate change become politicized? Because if we are to respond to the potential threats posed by global warming, it will have considerable economic and social impact! Mitigation of anthropogenic climate change requires decisions to be made in the political sphere. The people in a democratic nation would have to show their support for any decision to be made by electing politicians they believe would vote on those political issues the way the voters want. The majority rules, so the politicians want to read the pulse of the voters to know in which camp to throw their support. After all, the primary motive for a politician is to get into and stay in public office. Anything else is optional, at best.

Which way should the citizens lean on a politicized scientific issue? Is consensus science always right? No, of course not, but would it be sensible to base a decision that has far-reaching societal impact on the opinions of some maverick scientist well outside of the consensus? Only if that maverick was correct. But how does a non-participant in the science know who's right and who's wrong? The IPCC consensus has emerged from the best evidence that a large cross-section of the world's climate change scientists can muster. The IPCC was formed with the explicit purpose of informing political decision-makers which way to lean on the issue of anthropogenic climate change. Some politicians don't like the IPCC consensus because it threatens their political agenda.

Does it make sense to reject that consensus without knowing much of anything about the global climate change science that has formed that consensus? Most voters won't ever be able to make informed decisions about most scientific issues because most voters aren't specialists in those scientific areas. Does it make any sense, then, to decide to reject the IPCC consensus on the basis of what amounts to political opinions? I think not. Although I know more about meteorology than most voters, I have no evidence of my own to deny the validity of the IPCC report. I know some of the participants and I trust their science. That trust doesn't make them infallible, but it's not based on a personal whim, either. I don't comprehend how people who know less than I about atmospheric science can take a position opposed to that consensus, except because of either a purely political opinion, or an innate mistrust of any authority (so a maverick appeals to them despite having no basis for deciding the validity of that maverick viewpoint).

Note that most of meteorological debate on scientific issues stays within the scientific community. There's no political fall-out from the ongoing argument about using vertical wind shear or storm-relative helicity to understand supercells and tornadoes. So the media aren't covering that topic, and the political parties haven't got a shear versus helicity plank in their platforms. It's not something that can or should be settled in the media. The argument goes on between the advocates without any press conferences, intergovernmental panels, etc. The issue eventually may be settled in some fashion but those participating in the argument won't be appearing in media interviews to attack their scientific colleagues, or to respond to attacks in the media by their colleagues. In other words, without the attention of the media and the politicians, science will go on as usual - issues will be decided on the basis of evidence and logic, not opinion. The consensus isn't dogma - it changes all the time, but on a rational basis - not according to personal whims and beliefs.

It's a real shame that societally important scientific issues apparently can't be decided in the proper way - I refuse to participate in an argument where my opponent in the discussion has a closed mind about the inadmissability of his/her beliefs in the discourse.

It's much the same about the apparently widespread belief in the religious dogma about a supernatural origin for life. It's not an open mind that rejects the position of consensus science regarding the overwhelming evidence in favor of evolution as opposed to religious creationism. Rather, it's a thoroughly closed mind - closed to the logic and evidence that supports evolutionary biology. Supernatural explanations can have no place in science regardless of their possible validity in other magisteria. Someone who embraces the notion that supernatural causes are a scientifically valid "explanation" for life is dogmatic in the extreme.

Why is there creationist biology, but no theist severe storms meteorology? Because the sacred texts of the world's deist religions have virtually nothing to say about storm dynamics! If these sacred texts offered an extensive description of how their deity creates tornadoes, then perhaps we'd be having theists calling for alternative explanations in scientific textbooks, and radical theists disrupting school board meetings to impose creationist tornadogenesis theory in schools. Since no such text appears, the theists feel no threat to their beliefs from severe storm science.

Anyone who believes in their religious version of creation in preference to evolutionary biological science is outside the domain of a reasonable discourse. Science rejects dogma in favor of evidence and logic. If you dispute scientific consensus, then you must present extraordinarily good evidence to support such an argument. If you have none of your own, then you really have nothing to offer in a rational discourse. I don't have to open my mind to your nonscientific belief system. My mind isn't closed to rational argument, but you have nothing of the sort to present. Further discourse is impossible, and the best we can hope to do is to agree to disagree.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

And just what is civil discourse?

The notion of what constitutes "civil discourse" is certainly arguable. I'm offering the following thoughts on the topic.

1. For a discourse to have value, both members must have open minds. If one member in a conversation has a closed mind regarding the topic, then it's quite likely that the course of the conversation will slide into incivility. What constitutes an open mind can be debated, as well, naturally. Generally speaking, I think having an open mind means a willingness to be convinced by careful logical arguments and/or evidence. A closed mind is one unwilling to consider any possibility, however remote, of changing one's position on a subject.

Most debates over religion or politics include at least one closed mind, and often two (or more). These aren't often civil discourse - they simply represent opposing position statements. You can continue to offer position statements back and forth indefinitely, and that might be a civil discourse of a sort. Without anyone being willing to consider changing their minds, it's at best an information exchange. For the most part, such conversations descend well outside the range of civil discourse.

For the most part, I dislike such conversations intensely and avoid them as much as possible.

2. A civil discourse avoids using provocative language, which inevitably obscures the point being made. Imagine a conversation you're having with an acquaintance on some topic. You've just voiced an opinion and the response is "You piece of shit! You're an absolutely stupid fucking asshole for thinking that!" You might, of course, actually be a stupid fucking asshole (or not - but that's not the point, is it?), but I doubt if the conversation's going to remain on point from that instant on. Your likely response is either to (a) terminate the conversation immediately or (b) come back in kind, with verbal guns blazing.

Now, rewind the tape, and consider your reaction to the following response. "That's an interesting viewpoint, but have you considered what it might look like from a different perspective?" I hope it's clear from this gedanken experiment that it's a rule of civil conversation that foul language, insults, name-calling, and such simply precludes the possibility of civil discourse.

Another variation: "That's an interesting goddamned viewpoint, but have you fucking considered what it might look like from a different perspective?" Same theme, but a very different sort of reaction is likely.

This is not about being "politically correct" (hereafter, PC) at all! Being PC is to use euphemisms and deliberately not using certain words to avoid offending someone. I was recently watching a re-run of "Blazing Saddles" on a commercial station, and the word "nigger" had been blanked out of the soundtrack wherever it was used. This PC version of "Blazing Saddles" was a grotesque mockery of the original movie - the excision of the "N-word" completely missed the whole point of the story, which was done in a comical mode but had some deeper content than farts around a campfire.

But - as another gedanken experiment - suppose I'm having a discussion with a black man and at some point, I call him a nigger. Yes, I know blacks call each other niggers all the time. Why can't I? Well, of course, no one can tell me what I can or can't do, but one of the nearly inevitable consequences of injecting that word into what had been a civil discourse between a white man and a black man is that it almost certainly changes the whole nature of the conversation. Is it reasonable that black folks can use that word among themselves and I can't? No. Of course not - it's stupid, and constitutes a form of racism. In the Army, of all places, I had a friend who was a black man - he called me a honky and I called him a nigger and we got along just fine. We chose not to be offended by mere words.

But the rules of civil discourse generally preclude using provocative words - not because of some slavish adherence to the rules of PCness, not because of some concern for being offensive (you don't need provocative language to offend someone, of course), but simply because it immediately throws the conversation off point. I'm not particularly worried about offending people. I've done it many times simply by being honest - without cursing, name-calling, or vulgarity. If someone wants to be offended, I can't prevent that. But if the goal is an exchange of ideas in order to convince the other party to think seriously about your point of view, you simply can't descend into language you know is likely to be offensive. It's not an arbitrary rule imposed by some authority figure - it's a fact of life.

Sometimes, people choose to become offended by something you say that has no obvious offensive connotation. They come back at you with invective and name-calling. Not much point to continuing such discourse, unless you want to try to talk them down off their high horse.

Most of us know most the words that are likely to offend. George Carlin enjoyed using them for their shock effect (so do I, occasionally) and even developed a famous list of 7 such words that couldn't be used on television: [Curious, by the way, that shit is #1 and piss is #2 - I always thought it was the other way around] Without straining oneself, I'm sure that this list could be expanded upon considerably, to include, inter alia, a whole litany of racial epithets and slurs: spick, nigger, wop, kike, chink, gook, etc.; as well as slang names for body parts: dick, pussy, asshole, etc.; and various forms of sexual topics: faggot, blowjob, jerking off, rim job, buttfuck, etc.

Words are just words. We probably shouldn't be offended by them, ever, but most of us are, at least occasionally. The fact is that when you use such language, the response is almost inevitably to shift the discourse away from civility. Using them can become a signal to your partner(s) in the conversation that you're not really interested in changing their minds or having a civil conversation. You likely just want to vent your contempt or impress them with your willingness to defy convention. It's an in-your-face way to assert your position on some topic. You're free to do that as much as you wish, naturally, but don't be surprised or offended that someone responds in a way that signals their disrespect for your part in the discourse.

3. If you want your opinion to be respected, you must respect the opinion of other participants in a civil discourse. Rewind the tape once again in my gedanken experiment - now imagine a response to voicing your opinion about something to be "That opinion simply illustrates that your stupidity is monumental." Note that no typical curse words are involved. [And it's a logical possibility is that you are monumentally stupid. Or, as is often the case, it might be that the speaker is confusing ignorance for stupidity.] This is manifestly a disrespectful statement, nevertheless. I've voiced comparable statements in conversations with friends and acquaintances, but only in two quite different circumstances - (i) in jest, or (ii) in absolute sincerity when I have, in fact, lost respect for the opinion of the other party in the conversation. At that point, I know the conversation is pointless and I have no wish to carry on with it.

4. About the so-called Golden Rule: some recent conversations have suggested to me that this isn't the cure-all I once thought it to be. In its basic form, it says one should treat others as one wishes to be treated. This sounds all well and good, but what if I'm a masochist, and I want others to beat me up? Does that mean I'm obligated by the Golden Rule to reciprocate and beat on everyone? I'm not really allowed to impose my wishes on anyone with the expectation that they'll respond the way I want. People are notoriously different in their responses within a conversation. In general, rather than imposing my wishes on them, I'm going to take the position that how I treat you isn't necessarily how I wish to be treated, nor is it simply a response to the way you treat me ("tit for tat"). Rather, when I engage in discourse, I enjoy having a bit of fun, and I thrive on having people challenge me. So long as the conversation is stimulating, I want to continue.

I'm not necessarily hoping to change your mind, although I hope to see at least some evidence that I might be able to do so. We can agree to disagree in many cases, but what I want to obtain from a conversation is: stimulation for additional thought, new insight, new information, new points of view I hadn't considered, new ideas. If you choose to ignore or dismiss everything I say without offering any coherent argument, then further conversation is pointless, and I'm going to terminate it, if you haven't. Should you choose to lace your conversation with pointlessly provocative words all the time, I can handle it, but it's a distraction I could do without, for the most part. It's not that I'm offended by it - it's just an annoyance if it dominates the discourse. The occasional expletive here and there isn't any problem for me - only when the talk reminds me of conversations in a military barracks does it become an issue for me.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

So you want me to spoon feed you?

Today, in the midst of a conversation with a colleague who shall remain nameless, I had a realization. We were discussing a topic we had talked about a few days ago. In that previous conversation, I'd indicated that this colleague could learn a lot more about what I was doing by reading the publications I'd co-authored on the topic and by reviewing the essays on my Webpage. When I asked him today if he'd read those papers, he said he hadn't. He then wanted the URL to my website, so I asked him if he'd bookmarked it. "Yes, " he said, "but I have so many bookmarks I can't find anything." Apparently, going to read about my latest research isn't a continuing high priority. I typed in the URL for him, and even showed him the precise locations of the content I'd wanted him to review.

Years ago, I became excited about the enormous potential for information sharing represented by the Internet and the World-Wide-Web. Because of that excitement, I've taken some considerable pains to put out as much information about my work and my opinions about various topics on the Web. Maintaining my websites is not a trivial task, but I felt that providing my colleagues with easy access to my work was distinctly worthwhile.

Instead, it seems, that only a few people ever bother to take advantage of the by-now considerable amount of information that resides on my website. "Oh, I can't possibly keep up with all the stuff you put out there." is a common refrain. "Yeah, I went there about 6 months ago but haven't been back." is another. "I can't find anything there!" is another complaint. My experience today has been repeated many times in the last several years with others - it's not just the one person. Oh, no.

At times, and today was one of those times, I get frustrated with the apparent lack of interest in the content I've worked hard (to say nothing of time the time spent) to make available. It seems that making it easier to access has encouraged a kind of laziness, rather than stimulating the process of searching for information. There's a host of Web tools for assisting in that search, but I find that many people seem to want it handed to them on a silver platter. "Oh, can't you just email me the PDF?" So you want me to spoon feed you? Why am I going to the trouble to make things available on my Website, when so few seem willing to search it for content that's of potential interest to them?

Hopefully, I'll feel better tomorrow, but this is a continuing aggravation ...

Saturday, August 22, 2009

America's national shame ...

My friend Max, a friend I met in Vietnam with whom I have stayed in touch ever since, brought this news story to my attention. Former Army Lt. William Calley (who took the fall for the My Lai massacre in Vietnam 40 years ago) made a public apology on 21 August of this year for his actions in that event, admitting he feels considerable remorse for what happened. This is a bit late, of course, but it's to his credit that he's done so. As the saying goes, better late than never. Lt. Calley was the sole person prosecuted for this crime against humanity. He was a scapegoat for the crime, which was clearly a reflection of the horrors of war. No such act can ever be considered the sole responsibility of one man.

Long after the war, I thought long and hard about my experiences in Vietnam. I was blessed with a time and duty station where I was exposed to none of the ugliness that combat troops participating in field operations had to deal with. Although I cannot condone the unlawful actions of my brothers-in-arms, I realized it wasn't possible for me to judge them. Had I been in their boots, what would I have done had I been there at My Lai? It's comforting for me to think I would have resisted shooting unarmed civilians ... but I have to accept that I have no evidence to believe I would have done anything different from what my fellow American soldiers did at My Lai.

What do you think you would have done, had you been there? How can you know the answer? I do know that if you haven't been there and experienced what the soldiers in that situation experienced, you also have no right to judge them.

They, like Lt. Calley, have to live with their choices on that day. Part of the agony of returning combat soldiers is to deal with the horrors that combat brought to them. People back home can't ever truly understand what it was like and so it's mostly pointless even to try. I was in Vietnam, and saw some part of the realities of that war, but by not being in combat, I can't ever truly understand what they experienced. So the returning combat veteran tends to keep it inside because it's obvious that friends and family who weren't there are not going to understand. But kept inside, these experiences can fester, and may become a cancer on the veteran's soul. I never had to deal with that, thank my lucky stars. But I know enough to have some appreciation for what my fellow soldiers may have gone through.

My government "asked" me to participate in that terrible war. I went, and I did what was asked of me, however reluctantly. Since it never involved shooting at another human being, and no one ever shot at me, I have no horrible memories or nightmares with which to try to cope. Lt. Calley, 40 years on, has admitted he was wrong and apologized for his misdeeds. When will our government do the same for its misdeeds during that time? William Calley is far from the only person responsible for war crimes during our long national disaster in Vietnam. When will our government face up to its responsibilities for that terrible time of our history? When will our government apologize to Vietnam, to the American public, and to the American war fighters for their actions in leading us into and continuing that awful, unjust war? If William Calley has the courage, however long after the event, to feel remorse and apologize for his actions, why can't our government show similar courage by owning up to its share of the responsibility for what happened in My Lai (and elsewhere during that long national agony)? Why should William Calley remain the lone repository of our national disgrace?

Many Americans, including me, are upset that the Japanese have never apologized for their war crimes during WWII, arguably with considerable justification. But if our own government is unwilling to admit its culpability in the horrors we perpetrated in Vietnam, can our government be justified in expecting Japan to own up to the war crimes it perpetrated in WWII?

Sunday, August 9, 2009


A while back, I wrote an essay about career awards. This blog is more about the general topic of recognition for contributions to one's profession. I recently was the recipient of an email from a long-time friend, who felt the need to thank me for what I've accomplished as a professional. This was something of a "bolt from the blue" and I'm very pleased that someone would take the time to thank me for my professional contributions. It's more of an honor in my eyes than some certificate from a professional society. The only opinion of me that has ever mattered has been that of my peers - the people who love being involved with and learning about the weather. Their respect and recognition is something I've worked to try to earn, so whenever I receive such a message, I'm grateful to know that I've managed to hit that mark.

In the end, of course, the ultimate reward for me has been the work itself. I've had the great fortune to have been able to work in this profession for more than 35 years and along the way have been blessed with colleagues who have worked with me on projects of mutual interest. Those colleagues have been a great inspiration and awesome collaborators: Bob Maddox, Al Moller, Stan Barnes, Fernando Caracena, Harold Brooks, Ken Crawford, Barry Schwartz, Lance Leslie, Mike Richman, Fred Sanders, Dave Schultz, Lance Bosart, Les Lemon, Paul Markowski, and many others. The opportunity to work with such people has been an honor for me and I hope my efforts have provided at least some measure of substance in return for all that I've gained by the privilege of my professional efforts with them. Recognition beyond that seems superfluous, although when a colleague or friend takes the time to thank me, it's always a wonderful thing.

My graduate advisor, Yoshi Sasaki, made it very clear to me that the greatest reward a professional can have is to be able to make contributions to the field you've chosen. It's the best way to say "thank you" to those who inspired you and mentored you along the way - go out and become the best professional contributor you can be. Use your talents and hard work to achieve something substantial and it makes the work of an educator / mentor well worth whatever effort was involved in getting you to the point where you could make such contributons. And even more than that, a great thing you can do with what you've been so blessed to receive in the way of encouragement, inspiration, and mentorship is to pass it on. Serve as inspiration and encouragement to someone else.

Professional success came to me much earlier in my career than I expected, so I had to seek new goals. By now, I've achieved even those new goals, but not solely by my own efforts - rather, it's been with great pride that students and colleagues I've worked with have achieved far more than I could ever have done on my own. It just doesn't get any better than that. If I get run over by a truck tomorrow, I can pass on as a happy man.

If there were a professional meteorological Hall of Fame, then that would become some measure of achievement. But since such a thing doesn't exist - and I'm certainly not suggesting it should - its formal recognition would still pale in comparison with the respect of professional peers for one's body of work. I never worked to achieve recognition beyond that respect from my peers. That some of them have taken the time to let me know that they value what I've done is more than enough recognition for me.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Truth's enduring inconvenience

A while back, Al Gore was associated with a movie - "An Inconvenient Truth" - I have no wish to endorse this movie without qualification, as it contains elements I can dispute. But the title itself contains something I think is essential. Truth inevitably represents an inconvenience to many, although truth has this property of tending eventually to emerge from the lies and smokescreens designed to suppress that truth.

In my own life, I discovered early I was a lousy liar. First of all, my emotions are like a neon sign on my forehead - hard to disguise. Anyone with any skills at recognizing nonverbal signals can see through any falsehoods I might try to spout. Second, trying to keep straight all the stories I might have told individuals in the past is well beyond my capability. The easiest thing, I concluded decades ago, is to speak the truth as I see it at any given moment. I reserve the right to change my mind, but when I say something, I mean it and it's the truth as I see it at the time. By this means, I don't have to worry about keeping track of what I might have said to someone, while at the same time saying something else to someone else. It's just too hard to manage the complex web of lies that results.

Further, my life as a scientist is predicated on honesty. I can't, in good conscience, withhold the truth as I see it and I'm duty bound to reveal all aspects of my professional work. No secrets, nothing held back, and no intentional falsehoods. I can be wrong and honest errors are tolerable, but need to be corrected when discovered.

Thus, I have a great deal of my professional and personal life invested in truth. And truth, it seems, has a long-recognized tendency to emerge from any attempts to cover it up, or prevent its revelation. It may take a long time, or it may be obvious right away, of course.

A fascinating recent example is the absurd notion that President Obama is somehow not a proper American citizen by birth, and so actually is ineligible to hold the office of the President. This political smear campaign resonates with those who hold different political views from those of the President, but it clearly and obviously has no factual basis. Innuendo and falsehood are not sufficient to overcome the truth. Despite this absence of any evidence to the contrary, some of the Obama-haters persist in this delusional belief. Why? Because the truth is inconvenient - it conflicts with their cherished notion that Obama is somehow an illegitimate President. They seize upon this ludicrous idea because it's convenient - not because it has any truth to it.

I personally have my own issues with the Obama presidency as it's played out so far. He's far from perfect in my eyes, and - like every other politician I've ever seen - I disagree with many of his decisions. But to dispute his citizenship in the face of the overwhelming evidence is a sign of an intense disrespect for the truth. If the truth is inconvenient, it's possible to ignore it, but only at the price of revealing your prejudices and willingness to sacrifice that truth for the sake of some cherished notion. That is profoundly contrary to my scientific profession, and should be of concern to every thinking, caring person. Disagree with the President freely, but to cling to this nonsense is simply evidence that you have what I see as a dangerous disregard for truth.

The main challenge to conspiracies that involve lies and distortions is the inconvenience of truth. History shows that the seemingly impenetrable "Communist conspiracy" proved vulnerable to the truth, even in a police state - the Russian Soviet regime. Truth continues to be an inconvenience to the remaining Communist regimes: North Korea, Viet Nam, Cuba, China. Their attempts to suppress truth are doomed to failure. Just as the attempts of the Islamic police states - such as Iran - to suppress the truth are ultimately doomed.

But the same can be said for similar conspiracies here in the United States - for example, the so-called C-Street Family. I'm pleased to say that the basic freedoms written into the US Constitution (including the Bill of Rights) have made it difficult for such conspiracies to be successful. So far, anyway. But the survival of those freedoms and the dominance of the truth is also vulnerable. As the G.W. Bush administration demonstrated so clearly, there's a side of our society that's more than willing to sacrifice our freedoms in the name of "security". Our Constitutional rights can be discarded when they prove inconvenient to a particular political agenda. Our own history makes that pretty clear - for instance, the internment of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor. We're only safe from this sort of police state mentality so long as our economy remains successful. If we descend into economic chaos for any of a number of reasons, we're just as vulnerable to a demagogue who would lead us into submission to a police state (be it right- or left-wing in origin), as the Germans were in the 1930s (and the Russians in 1917).

Truth ultimately triumphed against the lies of the Russian Communists and the German/Japanese Fascists, but only after the bloodbath of WWII and the costly proxy wars of the Cold War. Lest we be too comfortable in our security blanket of the Constitution (including the Bill of Rights), freedom is only possible when the citizens have an unswerving commitment to truth. The truth may inevitably be revealed after a time, but the cost in the interim can be prohibitive.

Friday, July 17, 2009

It's just a thunderstorm ..

I sit on my back patio tonight, in a thunderstorm. It isn't particularly severe, but the rain is very much a welcome thing, after days of searing heat with only blue skies. The thunder is nearly continuous, the lightning stabs my eyes every few seconds, followed by the wonderful variety of thunder sounds: cracks, rumbling, lingering on until the next renews the cacaphony. God, I love it so ...

We were missed by this afternoon's first surge in northwest flow aloft. Alas, the early storms passed to our near east as they dissipated during the late afternoon. We did experience the outflow, as strong gusts pushing on the corn growing in our garden, but no rain. Our ground was cracked with parchness, begging for water. Soil shrinks as it slowly but inexorably dries under the sweltering heat. But tonight, we're blessed with another surge of storms, behind the first developments. Thunder and moderate to heavy rain. Cracks in the soil are filled with the expansion due to the rain. The sound of rain is mixed with frogs and toads, apparently stimulated by a blessed respite from the days of sweltering heat and searing sun without relief.

Tonight ... not only rain but that wonderful combination of light and sound that makes me spread my arms in happiness. I embrace the light of lightning and the sound of thunder. What a delight! The relief of days of heat is punctuated by the lightning and echoing rumbles and cracks of thunder. Alas, it moves on and diminishes. I could wallow in its sensory delights for the whole night, but it only persists for a half-hour or so.

Who can be unmoved by this dramatic light show and chorus, punctuated by the next flash and underscored by the lingering echo of the following thunder? Only a dead soul, unconnected to the Earth and its rhythms.

The ground smells of gratitude for the precipitation. Everything around me that lives is refreshed and invigorated by the rain. It speaks of the connection between the living, both animal and vegetable, and the unliving - the physics of the atmosphere sustaining all of us. We living things share not only our DNA - we share a connection to the nonliving processes that provide the environment we need.

I'm reminded of storms long past. The dwindling echoes of thunder sing not only of storms long gone, but of future storms. I can't help but look forward to the next. God help me ... I love them so.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Safe, sane, ... and boring!

Yesterday was the 4th of July but it coincided here in Norman with thunderstorms (natural fireworks?), so the formal festivities (the official fireworks display) set for after sunset had to be postponed until tonight. In the post-frontal cool of the night this evening, after a very enjoyable early evening spent with friends, we watched the distant "official" Norman fireworks display from our own deck.

In the process, some local neighborhood patriots were motivated to set off some interesting fireworks of their own. Vickie and I were disinclined to call the Norman gendarmes. Our neighbors who set off these fireworks undoubtedly had spent some $$ on their enthusiastic celebration. Why should we be the wet blankets?

But this got me thinking - yes, fireworks are dangerous and may even (in extreme cases) be life-threatening. Vickie and I both reminisced about days long gone, when private citizens could have their own fireworks in their own backyards on the 4th of July. We recalled parents and grandparents who really loved to set off their own fireworks and nothing awful had ever happened.

Yes, we are safer and saner than in those wild and crazy days when private citizens could celebrate the 4th of July with fireworks in their yards. No doubt many unsafe things have become seriously illegal today. But Vickie and I chose not to call the cops on those daring neighbors of ours who apparently thumbed their noses at all the pious bullshit about safety and sanity. We didn't mind a bit. In fact, we enjoyed their rockets with stars and Roman candles! I think we were a little jealous that we weren't so daring as our unknown neighbors seemed to be. I was very nostalgic about what my Dad used to do with fireworks in our backyard.

Safety and sanity are fine - in their proper place. But the world we now live in is rather substantially less interesting than those ancient days when private citizens could buy and use fireworks without fear of having them confiscated or being arrested for celebrating the 4th of July in their own personal way. Safer than those days? No question. However ...

Norman has a great fireworks display every year, but wouldn't it be just a bit more fun if we could actually do something that wasn't entirely safe and sane to celebrate this holiday? Must everything in our society be reduced to safety and sanity? Can't we ever be just a little bit crazy?

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Red Man's Revenge

There can be no real dispute that the native American population of the US suffered grievously at the hands of the European settlers. There can be no doubt that they were treated unfairly and unjustly, even by the justice standards of the white man. Of course, I wasn't party to any of that. Like most of us today, I simply inherited what was taken from the native Americans.

However, in today's world, considerable revenge is being inflicted on Americans by the scourge of the gambling casinos that have sprung up with the blessing of state and Federal government. Outside of Nevada, these new casinos generally are in the hands of the various "Indian" tribes. These are taking advantage of gambling addicts - people who are compulsive gamblers and have as much trouble controlling their addiction as those who smoke or who have become alcoholics or who use illegal drugs. [Curiously, another side of the Red Man's Revenge is the sale of tax-free tobacco in "Indian Smoke Shops" that also have become widespread.]

Gambling is a passion I never developed because I have some understanding of the laws of probability. If you gamble in a casino, you're going to lose. The more you gamble, the more you lose. No one walks away from the casinos a winner unless they walk away forever. Frankly, I don't call what goes on in a casino gambling at all - it's simply throwing away your hard-earned income. I consider something to be a gamble only when the odds are exactly 50-50, but the casinos have set the odds so they simply can't lose money. If they "pay back" 95% of their take, that means that they pocket 5% of the money they take in, day in and day out. When the odds are 5% in your favor, you want to encourage as many people as possible to participate. The more players, the bigger the take.

Part of the addiction may be the allure of "something for nothing" but I'm no expert on the psychology of gambling addicts. They apparently can't see or choose to ignore the reality that casinos simply can't be in the business of giving away money - they're in the business of taking in money from their customers, just like any other business. No one in a business that gave away money could stay in business for long. How the individual tribes distribute that income is another issue - one I'm not prepared to address. But casinos give no product or service in return - only whatever "entertainment" value is associated with the process of taking your money. I fail to see the entertainment of that, but that's just my perspective.

Gambling addiction has destroyed families, ruined lives, and created economic problems for millions of people. The compulsive gambler lies, steals, cheats - whatever is necessary to obtain the funds to continue to gamble. Those with this affliction aren't necessarily immoral or stupid; they're simply addicted to gambling. The pain and anguish this has caused compulsive gamblers, their families, and their friends is enormous. I'm not interested in legislating people's behavior (see my essay about the futility of marijuana prohibition), but it's evident to me that the casinos' gains represent a major problem for this nation. The native Americans are indeed obtaining revenge, whether or not that was their intent in opening these casinos. Prohibition isn't an answer but I don't know any easy answers, just as I have no easy answers for alcoholism, drug addiction, etc. We apparently have a host of sicknesses in our society, one of which is compulsive gambling. What does that say about us? I'm not sure the answer to that is going to be something good.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

The American Ranking Obsession

I'm out on my storm chase vacation for this week and the next, and have just had one very exciting day - on 05 June - we saw the entire life cycle of a large, long-lived tornado in southeastern Wyoming and had a great vantage point for seeing both the tornado and the storm that produced it. It's just what I wanted from this year's chase! See Vickie's blog for some preliminary images.

So I run into some fellow chasers - and I start hearing about how this storm was second behind the great 26 May 2007 (or whatever) storm they saw. OK - what's my problem with this? Two questions: First of all, why in the world is it important for me to know where a particular event fits into your life experiences? I really don't give a damn about how this storm compares to whatever it is you've managed to see during your chase experiences! Why would you think that anyone besides yourself cares about your personal rankings?

Second, it seems we Americans have some sort of fetish about rankings. Isn't it enough to recognize that it was a great event? Does it somehow need the extra bit of recognition that comes with placing it in some sort of ranking order?

And who decides precisely how to place a particular storm chase event into a hierarchy? Ranking in sports is widely recognized to be futile and any effort to develop a ranking scheme is fraught with arbitrary decisions and subjectivity, anyway. If there was a way to rank storm events, it would have precisely the same arbitrary and subjective issues that sports ranking schemes have. Yet we seem bound and determined to place everything in its "proper place". For the most part, having been involved with some efforts to do rankings, I think I know more than most how silly most of this effort to create an ordering is, unless there is one simple number that encapsulates everything about some event. An event that can be characterized by a single number isn't a very interesting event, as I see it. Being able to establish rankings for it is pretty much a "who cares?" exercise.

Interesting events (like successful tornado intercepts) are complex because they have multiple facets - technically, they require multiple dimensions to describe. The strength and duration of the tornado, how visible it was, the structure of the storm that produced the tornado, the impact of the tornado, etc., etc., etc. That leaves us with the problem of deciding how to rank each of these aspects - is one facet unabiguously the most important? If so, what's the next most important factor? Who decides, and how would they get everyone to agree? Everyone who buys into this ranking obsession apparently has an opinion about what's most important to him/her. But it's just their opinion, and there's at least a finite chance that I'm going to disagree about how to weigh and combine all the different aspects of some complex event to produce a final ranking.

Hence, a universal ranking system for rating storm chase experiences seems to be an impossible quest, to say nothing of being a waste of time. Lacking such a system, why not just forget about trying to rank your chase experiences, or to compare yours to someone else's? Enjoy the moment. Savor its unique qualities because another such event will never happen again.

And don't bother explaining to me where it fits in your ranking hierarchy, if you have one. I don't give a shit.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

American Sprawl

Jim Kunstler's dark visions for America include some pretty hefty hammering on the evolution of American cities. My friend Roger has recently posted a great blog about how the city of Savannah, Georgia is laid out, comparing it favorably to most plains towns and giving a good summary of what has happened. Here's my take.

Our cities had vast spaces surrounding them so expansion was an easy option. The explosion in automobile use allowed everyone the chance to work in the city and live in their own single-family home in countrified suburbia - the American version of English "country gentlefolk". When I was a boy in the Chicago 'burbs, my father rode a commuter train to work downtown. That train's business was usurped in the 60s by the development of expressways out to the 'burbs and the commuter lines went out of business. They ripped out the tracks in the 70s and made the right-of-way through town into a bike and walking path, which it remains to this day. Cheap oil powered the automobiles that enabled the expansion of the suburbs even as public intracity transport declined.

My life in that town as a youth was something like what Roger describes - we walked or rode bikes most everywhere we needed (although even then the car had become a convenient option to expand our horizon). My grade school was less than a block away from my home. Strip malls were just beginning - our 'central business district' was easily accessible to most people in town and had locally-owned businesses for the most part, not chains. The chains came in as I was growing up and forced out most of the locally-owned competition. The shift toward sprawl began as development of outlying parts of town made some things accessible only by car. I could walk to my high school, but it was nearly an hour's walk, so we rode a school bus and my father would drive me when the bus wasn't available (I didn't have my own car until I was in graduate school).

Chicago was accessible by bus so my high school friend and I could safely take the bus downtown, spend the day going to museums, enjoy a nice lunch in a restaurant, see a movie, walk along the lakeshore, and return home safely that evening - all before we were 16. Imagine letting your kids do that today!

Having traveled in Europe, I've seen they don't sprawl so much. Most people living outside the city park on the outskirts and walk in. Even relatively large cities are compact and many of the things you'd want to see and do are within walking distance. Most people don't live in individual houses, living instead in what we would call apartments, often located above city storefronts. The cities sprawl upward, not outward. There's frequent, affordable, comprehensive public transportation, including intercity as well as intracity transport. We have nothing like that anymore - whatever passenger train and bus lines existed in our past are mostly long gone, replaced by inefficient, gas-guzzling road vehicles and aircraft.

The time when we could afford this system is passing, quickly, hastened by the demise of cheap oil. Any sustainable system must look more like Savannah than Atlanta.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Polarization and beliefs

Although Jim Kunstler (see my blog links) has a very dark image of our future, certainly darker than I want to believe, there are some pretty obvious problems ahead for the Great American Lifestyle we've all become accustomed to since the 1950s. The question that should be on our minds right now is just how far the coming "adjustments" can go before the existing social contract for America breaks down. If we're unable to restore the national economy to something sustainable that has the confidence of the majority of citizens, then the unthinkable - the disintegration of our society - could occur.

History suggests that when social contracts collapse, opinions of moderates are swept away. Extreme radicals on opposite ends of the political spectrum gain adherents because, it seems that gradual, evolutionary solutions move too slowly to satisfy people in hard times. Anyone speaking on behalf of moderation and tolerance is likely to be overwhelmed by the slogans, promises, and rhetoric of extremist demagogues. Scapegoats are selected and advocacy of extreme measures that trample on civil liberties becomes the norm. Vying extremist factions make whatever promises they have to in order to seize power, without regard to their actual intentions for the future.

The potential for this sort of internal collapse is inherent in any society, but it becomes most virulent when times are difficult. Even in relatively good times, demagogues (self-chosen, megalomaniacal leaders espousing extremist views anywhere across the political spectrum) can always be found in any society. When the social contract is seen as acceptable for the majority, these extremists are marginalized and ineffective. However, they never go away entirely (like virulent bacteria) and when the situation takes a turn for the worse, they’re right there to take advantage of hard times. They thrive on social and economic chaos, when society's "immunity" to their toxicity is at its weakest, sometimes supporting (usually covertly) actions apparently contradictory to their aims, just for the purpose of further polarization and erosion of confidence in the status quo. Economic collapse magnifies social inequity and turns the have-nots against the haves, with the outcome likely to be bad for moderate views regardless of the "victors" in such a struggle. The lessons of history are clear on this.

Around the world, there's a trend toward religious fundamentalism. I believe this to be an indicator of cracks developing in the social structure. Inherent in religious fundamentalism is an "us against them" mentality that magnifies intolerance. If your beliefs differ from mine, then either you have to convert to our orthodoxy or we'll marginalize, disenfranchise, and perhaps eventually kill you for being different. Tough times amplify and spread this polarized mentality, often sanctified by the notion that God (or whatever name your particular deity goes by) is "on our side" against the evils associated with any other belief set (or lifestyle). Many people need to be given a moral compass by which to guide their actions, rather than deducing one on their own - thinking rationally is hard and easy answers are elusive (and usually misleading, with unforeseen consequences). When religious (or quasi-religious secular) beliefs are used to that end, then intolerance, which is built in to virtually all major religions, is fostered. Opponents are characterized as evil, or even subhuman, unworthy to be participate in the "new order" to come. Intolerance is a stepping-stone to persecution and "cleansing" of contrary elements in society.

Even more or less secular autocracies (like Hitler's Fascism or Stalin's Socialism) cloak themselves in a quasi-religious "orthodoxy" as all proponents of any other viewpoint are suppressed ruthlessly. The structure of these secular forms is virtually identical to theocracies with only minor word changes. "Cults of personality" are little more than attempted deification of the leaders, justifying demands for blind, unthinking obedience and intolerance for any contrary viewpoint.

This is a possible future for us – we stand now on what might be the crumbling foundations of the American Experiment in social order. Most Americans assume that we're immune to a slide toward a repressive, autocratic society. I'm not very confident in our immunity if times get really tough (as they did in Russia at the turn of the 20th Century, or in Germany in the 1930s). I fear that a collapse of the social contract could move us toward anarchy, civil war, and the rise of a demagogue to power, resulting in an intellectual "Dark Age" dominated by some form of dogma (religious or not) from which it might take a long time for a new Renaissance. And I suspect that if the USA falls, it will take most of the rest of the world down with it. What will emerge from that can't be known with certainty, but it would likely be very different from the world as we know it. I hope I don't live long enough to see this come to pass - the collapse will be awful and the values I cherish will be swept away, to be replaced by mere survival skills in a world turned cruel and unforgiving.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

To hell with easy access!

A continuing battle with regard to America's scenic wilderness is the conflict between access and preservation. Wilderness areas can be difficult to obtain access to for those of us who are unable or unwilling to hike over challenging terrain to see the beauty of these wilderness areas. The National Parks and other nominally protected areas are under constant pressure to provide easy (often motorized) access to people who apparently only wish to "check off" visitations to great natural wonders. I say "No!" to those people, even if I'm becoming one of those unable to reach pristine wilderness. It's the very difficulty of access that has preserved such places. Let it stay difficult!

My position is affected by the fact that I'm getting older and less capable of hiking to gain access to those beautiful locations I would have found relatively easy to get at a few years ago. I can't stop the advance of time and my declining capabilities. But I can say without hesitation that I would prefer that we conserve those areas of natural beauty in preference to providing easy access for everyone. I say let access be denied to those physically unable to reach these wilderness areas, in preference to providing motorized, simplified access. Preservation trumps access, as I see it! It's not absolutely necessary that I (or anyone else) be able to see these places - for me, it's preferable that I know they'll be preserved for future generations. Access inevitably turns into exploitation.

You can call me a tree-hugger or whatever. It's far less important to me that you have a chance to see something beautiful, thereby destroying its beauty, than for me to know that its wildness has been preserved. If you (and I) can't get there by some simple means, then everyone is better off! The natural beauty of these places should outlive me - I prefer that their natural wonders be there for future generations instead of turned into some sort of touristic checkoff.

If we can save some semblance of these wild places, then that trumps any "access" argument, in my view of things.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The decline of stock photography

I’m constantly amazed at how little value people assign to photographic images. Over the years, there’s been a steady stream of folks who contact me, wanting to use my images for one purpose or another but aren’t willing to pay a license fee for that usage. Most of them want to use my images so their product will make money, but deny me the opportunity to derive income from my product!

I’ve made it clear on my Web pages that when the intended use is for science or education, and no one is being paid for anything in the process, I’m quite happy to donate my images. But many people who want to use my images for free – say on T-shirts for a charity fundraiser, or in a pamphlet providing information – see no problem with having to pay for the shirts, or for printing the pamphlet. In their minds, apparently, it’s reasonable to pay shirt manufacturers or printers, but it’s being unreasonable to expect that someone licensing images also has expenses to pay.

Instead, I’m offered the compensation of the user giving me “credit” for the use. The idea behind this is, evidently, is that I should be grateful for the free advertising. Imagine asking the printer of your pamphlets or the manufacturer of your T-shirts to be given the same “compensation” for their costs! It must seem to these people that high-quality, spectacular images are just lucky accidents and that I incur no costs in obtaining them. Well, my creditors won’t take this “credit” in lieu of payment! I find the very idea insulting, actually. I’d rather not license my images at all than to give them away at little or no cost to these people who see them as having no value – except to help them make money.

The situation has not been helped by various trends in the stock photo industry: the rise of “royalty-free” and “microstock” image collections, where the asking price for images has been driven into the basement. A concurrent trend has been the emergence of corporate giants in the stock photo industry – in particular, Getty Images (and to a lesser extent, Corbis). These giants have also done two things that are photographer unfriendly. First, they’ve allowed a rapid decline in the cost of image licenses, believing that volume can overcome the reduced price-per-sale. Second, they’ve steadily eroded the “split” with the photographer – that is, the percentage of the sale income they share with the image creator (the photographer!). When I entered the stock photo business, large image agencies were sharing the income 50-50 with the photographers. Getty now has driven that down to where the photographer only gets 30% of the sale. Getty and Corbis also have absorbed many smaller, specialized image marketing companies, which maintain their business identity but are allowed to market images through Getty and Corbis. Those smaller image companies may provide a 50% split with the photographer, but that’s only after the giant takes its 70%. The photographer share is thereby down as low as 15% when Getty is involved. As a means of making a living, stock photography is becoming unworkable for photographers. If I actually depended on this income to survive, I’d not be surviving!

But the general perception that images should be “free” is pervasive. Even copyright protection is being eroded by the notion of “orphan images” – there is movement to allow the free use of images from any source if the user can’t locate the photographer. Embedding information about the photographer and the means to contact her/him has only recently been common in the industry and there are many who will simply remove that embedded information and then claim they tried to locate the photographer but failed, so it was an “orphan” work. Copyright protection eventually could vanish, meaning the eventual demise of income from creative work. This is further reducing number of reasons to pursue stock photography as a source of income.

Theocracy in Oklahoma

The religious right-dominated Oklahoma legislature recently has voted to approve a bill authorizing the erection of a Ten Commandments display at the OK State Capitol. Once again, these Christian zealots are mixing their religion with politics, a notion contrary to the principle of separation of church and state that has been a cornerstone of this nation. The shameless pandering to voters by the so-called Oklahoma House of “Representatives” – who clearly don’t represent anyone not accepting the Ten Commandments as a cornerstone of their spiritual beliefs – is yet another indicator of the crumbling of our national commitment to protecting the rights of minorities. Many ignorant people see majority vote as the litmus test of democracy, but it’s not. Rather, it's always been the protection of the rights of the minority. In this case, putting the Ten commandments on the Capitol grounds is a clear violation of the separation of church and state, despite its being financed by private money (the author of the legislation, Rep. Mike Ritze, Republican, Broken Arrow, OK).

This seems to be an outgrowth of a 2005 decision by the Supreme Court ruling that by a 5-4 vote indicated that a display of the Ten Commandments on the capitol grounds in Austin, Texas, was somehow more historical than religious and so was not considered to be unconstitutional. Such a ruling is manifestly preposterous and evidently reflects how successful G.W. Bush was at packing the Supreme Court with ideological allies.

The threat of Muslim violence seems to have fueled the continuation of a religious revival here in the USA, and especially in “red” states. What the believers fail to recognize is that what the Muslim fanatics want in their nations is precisely what these Christian fanatics are trying to achieve here: a theocracy. It’s fine to have pride in your beliefs, but it’s contrary to the principles of this nation to force your beliefs on others.
Response to El Gran Rogelio:

Erecting a display of the Ten Commandments indeed doesn't establish a theocracy, but it's a major step in that direction. Regarding all the rationalizations you've provided: suppose a Muslim benefactor wished to erect a display of writings from the Koran on the Oklahoma State Capitol grounds, perhaps right next to the Ten Commandments display? Imagine the (literally) righteous indignation from most of people favoring this display of the Ten Commandments! The religious connection between the State and the Christian religion here is unmistakable and unambiguous. The Ten Commandments is in no way a historical document, unless you believe literally in the historical truth of the Bible.

There are many aspects of modern US government that are not formally codified in the Constitution, including the notion that all men are created equal (that's only in the Declaration of Independence). So what? The traditional "separation of church and state" was supported by many of the Founding Fathers and is inherently the right thing to do for a government that wishes to avoid a state-supported religion. I reiterate: the key to democracy is not majority rule. It's the protection of the rights of minorities. I view this action as an encroachment by the religious right - and can legitimately invoke the prospect of a "slippery slope" argument. If we merge the Ten Commandments with the government of the state of Oklahoma, why stop there? Why not institutionalize more religious elements into the state? Prayer in schools, religious iconography, and on, and on, and on. Eventually, the majority get their wish for a theocracy and the minority are systematically shut out and perhaps eventually persecuted for daring to be different. The US would be analogous to Iran ...

Not being forced to read the display is irrelevant. It's a clear intrusion of religious dogma into the state government.