Monday, April 18, 2011

What is inevitable and what's not inevitable ...

My often-underestimated spouse has offered an emotional tribute to the loss of a friend. This event, like others before it, makes me confront something both unpleasant and at the same time uplifting. In our relationships with others, it's inevitable that we'll be parted by the unrelenting reality of death. One of us will be first to go that way, and it's a harsh reality that we'll be parted in the process. Every human relationship is finite and will be terminated by the death of one.

Some of us cling to the forlorn hope that we'll be reunited in some mythical afterlife. I don't choose to accept that insubstantial promise of solace, that supposition of eternal life after an Earthly demise. Rather, what I choose to accept is that our interpersonal relationships will be severed by the inevitability of death. I've already had to accept the deaths of many friends and acquaintances. This is an unpleasant part of getting older. I miss them all, every day. But I have solace of a very different sort than the mythical promise of eternal life in some paradise of a supreme being.

Although separation is inevitable, what is not inevitable is the experience of having shared my time on Earth with someone who has brought joy into my life. This is indeed far from inevitable. My experiences with most people are fleeting and of little significance to me. Sorry, but that's the reality of life. However, some people leave an indelible and important impact on my life. These special relationships run a gamut of variety, but what they have in common is that I feel enriched and happy that I had some time to share my existence with these people. Losing them before I myself have passed means that my existence is impoverished by their absence -- but at the same time, I must acknowledge that my existence has been enhanced by the time I had to share with them. I choose to dwell on that, rather than my loss -- it's selfish to be absorbed by feelings of loss and bitterness over that loss. I prefer to be thankful for the joy these people brought into my life.

Laughter over light-hearted moments, empathy and understanding in times of sadness and loss, discussions that have enlightened me and enriched my time, love that we've shared, hobbies we've enjoyed together, wonder and awe at the natural world, arguments that have left me grateful for their willingness to give me their unadorned opinions of me and my thoughts, moments of profound connection as human beings that seem to go beyond normal communication. These and many more such are gifts that have flowed from the non-inevitability of the real relationships I've had and which continue to bless my Earthly existence virtually every day. I've welcomed many people into my life and been grateful for most of them. If they pass before I do, I refuse to submit to self-centered mourning for my losses. Rather, I exult in the times we shared and the connections we've made. Ultimately, we die alone, but the blessing of friends and family make our time here rich with experiences and shared humanity. At some point, my time will come and I don't fear that moment very much. Others have gone before me, and others will follow, inevitably. But the value we place on the time we spent with our friends and family is not mandatory -- it's a matter of choice. I choose not ever to regret that time nor to negate the joy of those times by my selfish sense of loss when those people have preceded me in the inevitability of death. And I embrace the principle that death is an inevitable part of life, not something evil or malevolent.

Monday Morning Quarterbacks

How appropriate that I'm inspired to make this entry on my blog on a Monday morning. Some chasers have been commenting on the excellent performance of the Storm Prediction Center regarding the 3-day outbreak of severe weather starting on 14 April. Most of the posts are appropriately supportive of the excellent job done by my colleagues there over the past several days. But there always seem to be some trolls who want to play Monday Morning Quarterback (MMQ). This is hardly the first time I've seen such comments -- today's were only the latest in a long line of such over the years. Many people, including some storm chasers, seem to delight in finding fault with the SPC. Thus, I want to take some time to make a few things clear:

1. SPC forecasts are not only concerned with events of interest to tornado chasers. They include all forms of NWS-recognized "severe thunderstorm events": not just tornadoes, but also convective wind gusts and large hail. The SPC forecasts are not tailored specifically to the needs and interests of tornado chasers. If you're going to criticize the SPC forecasts, please keep this in mind. If you think you make a better chase forecaster than the SPC forecasters, then by all means -- define your forecasting criteria, post your daily chase forecasts in advance for a whole year, make the whole data set public, and show us the verification results for your chase forecasting. Note that successful chases can be associated with what amount to busted forecasts, so your tornado videos are not evidence of your forecasting capabilities -- only of your chasing capabilities!

2. The task of putting out severe convective weather forecasts for the entire USA, 24/7, is not a simple job. It's quite challenging, and I challenge anyone to produce the suite of products the SPC produces during the day shift every day -- products issued several times per day and others as needed -- for a whole year. Lest anyone think that the advent of numerical models and other objective forecasting aids has made this task easier -- think again! All the SPC forecasters put their names on all the forecasts as a matter of public record. After you've published your forecasts, then do an objective, statistical verification of them along the lines of the SPC verification programs, and compare your results to those of the SPC for that year. If you can provide such evidence that yours are even close to their results, then I might give you some credibility. If you can't exceed their results, then my recommendation is to shut the hell up!

3. The SPC suite of products is, like all other forms of weather forecasting, not perfect. It's likely impossible to put out an indisputably perfect forecast, so that's not even a worthy topic of discussion. The Facebook troll I encountered today made the statement that SPC forecasts are "wrong as often as they are right" -- thereby establishing beyond doubt that he doesn't have a clue about the subject. He was a legend only in his own mind, incapable of backing up his claims, naturally.

I'm far from blind to the shortcomings of the NWS, as anyone who has read even a fraction of my Web content can determine for themselves. But for a few years, I sat in the hot seat of the forecasters at the SPC (back when it was known as the SELS Unit of the National Severe Storms Forecast Center in Kansas City, MO) and, with all my education, I just managed to not embarrass myself as a severe weather forecaster. I wish I could convey the feeling of ignorance that swept over me as addressed a blank map of the US, onto which I had to produce my first ever convective outlook. Anyone who hasn't done this simply has no clue what it's like, or how challenging it can be. Even on those days when the SPC forecasts make significant errors, these forecasters are not just lollygagging around, spouting objective guidance-driven platitudes. They're doing a difficult job well every damned day! They're the best severe convective weather forecasters on the planet, so far as I'm concerned, until someone can step up and show me solid evidence that they're better than the SPC!

4. The fact that I respect the job being done by the SPC doesn't mean that I think they're perfect and metaphorically walk on water. They themselves would readily admit to shortcomings, I'm sure. When they make forecasting decisions, some of them turn out to be mistakes. The state of the science is far from complete and if you want to accomplish something useful to push forward the state of the science, I'm sure the SPC forecasters would be among the first to applaud your contributions. By all means, share your insights via conference presentations and publications in the formal meteorological literature. But if all you can contribute is after-the-fact MMQ'ing, then I suggest you shut the hell up!

A few folks with the capability to meet or exceed SPC forecasting standards might exist, but they're not doing the job right now that the SPC does. Until someone has done that job, they still have something to prove. If you can't produce the evidence, your claims to such capability remain undemonstrated and you have no qualifications to play MMQ!