Saturday, June 18, 2011

A simple way to fix politics

Although I have great respect for the framers of the U.S. Constitution, I doubt very much that they'd be pleased with the political evolution that's taken place since the end of the 18th century. It's become commonplace to view politicians as lying, cheating, hypocritical swine robbing the public treasury to feather their own nests and caring not a fig for truth, justice, and the American way. We've become a nation divided by the silly label of which political party has our unswerving allegiance, indulging in the counterproductive tribalism of opposing everything carrying the label of our political "opponent." The majority of Americans seems to be adrift in a sea of ignorance about the important issues that confront us as a nation, confused and misinformed about those issues, and even about the very principles of individual freedom upon which our nation is supposed to be based. And political parties have become a handicap to moving the U.S. toward solutions to its very real problems.

So I have a modest proposal for a solution. Let's abolish the system of voting for political officeholders!! Rather than having a bunch of whores painting themselves the color of the day in order to attract votes, all government offices (at all levels of government, from town councils up to and including the U.S. President) now occupied by elected officials will be filled according to a random selection from the general public. I picture it as resembling how people are selected for jury duty or military service (when conscription is implemented). Every public office would be filled by ordinary citizens, selected at random -- not professional politicians. They would be paid a wage comparable to that of our military officers, with their pay grade determined by the level of the position they fill.

All people selected would be screened to eliminate certified lunatics, felonious criminals, terrorists, and peabrains. No one under 21 or over 61 would be selected. At this point, we're already ahead of the game, since there's clearly no such screening of those running for public office (witness the debates ongoing for the christian nationalist [a.k.a. the GOP] candidate for president or the Weiner scandal). Once the selectees pass the screening, they're given a mandatory leave of absence from any other employment they had, with that job guaranteed when their term of service is over. Anyone serving in the military or other forms of national service, say, the Peace Corps, would be given an automatic exemption for life. College students would be exempt during their time in college (including graduate school) and for 3 years thereafter (so they can find a job and hold it for a while).

All selectees would have a single 4-year term, during which they'd actually have a glorious civics lesson - an opportunity to see how government really works, with access to all the "inside" information about decision-making in government being required. Transparency at its finest! It would be pretty difficult for dirty little secrets to accumulate in smoke-filled backrooms and political party caucuses. Aha, so that's how it works, eh? Ordinary people would become informed about what is going on and so would be much more understanding of how their representatives make difficult and important decisions.

Since only one term in office is permitted, the professional politician will vanish from the face of the nation, to be replaced by ordinary folks from all walks of life, who would have their chance to serve their nation for a time, and then return to their important real lives. Everyone's professed desire to serve their nation when called upon would be satisfied for most Americans at some time or another in their lives. Most of us would have the honor of being able to say When I was called to serve my nation, I did my duty! And the public would be much more informed about what goes on -- much of which is now behind closed doors.

I can imagine the howls of protest regarding this modest proposal now -- But-but-but  -- I can hear the naysayers spluttering -- These people wouldn't be experienced enough to run the country! First of all, this is true of every last elected official when they take their first public office. And how do politicians gain experience in how things work? From experienced politicians and I think we all know what that means!! Corruption is learned behavior, taught to newcomers by their mentors. The more venal the new politician is, the easier it is for that self-service and hypocrisy to creep in from their peers wallowing in the political mud.

But-but-but ... would you want your country represented in the halls of power around the world by an amateur? All one has to do is look at Ronald Reagan or Arnold Schwarzenegger or Jesse Ventura to realize that amateurs have been elected to public office many times over the years. This is nothing new, actually. Could the use of ordinary citizens to represent us all be so bad? Isn't that what politicians try to present themselves as? They claim to be just like us in order to get our vote, but when elected, they behave as if they're the privileged elite and don't give a shit about the problems that ordinary people have anymore (if they ever really did care!). Could non-professional politicians do any worse than the politicians? Without the incentive of permanent power and lots of perks for life to drive their decision-making, I believe most ordinary citizens would do the best they can for their country and their fellow citizens during their term of service and yet be eager, for the most part, to return to their lives at the end of their 4 years in office. I've served on juries and been in the military and that's pretty much how ordinary citizens behave when asked to serve!!

But-but-but ... wouldn't your plan exclude those who are serving or have served in the military? Yes, it would. Although I respect those who have served or are serving in the military, I'm not a fan of those ex-servicefolks holding public office. It's an honorable profession but doesn't necessarily make for a qualified public officeholder. For one thing, they've done their duty and should be going about their ordinary lives outside of the military, allowing others the opportunity to serve in a different way. For another, the record of famous military men in public office isn't a very compelling argument for having more of them, however popular they may have been at the time. The qualities needed for military leadership don't necessarily overlap much with those needed to lead the nation.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Are all tornado warnings the same?

In the fallout from the large tornado death tolls this year, there are some who are finding fault with the warnings from the National Weather Service. Anyone who knows something about the weather must understand that weather forecasts, even those short-range forecasts we call "warnings" have uncertainty associated with them. The science of meteorology as of this moment simply doesn't permit forecasts without uncertainty. Nevertheless, either a warning is issued or it isn't -- technically, this means warnings are dichotomous (or binary): yes, a warning has been issued or no, a warning has not been issued.

At present, warnings come in two "flavors": severe thunderstorm warnings (coded "blue") and tornado warnings (coded "red"). By definition, a storm that produces one or more of the following -- large hail (the current threshold value is one inch diameter hail), strong "straight" winds (the current threshold is 50 knots or 58 miles per hour), or a tornado -- is a severe thunderstorm. Some storms for which blue warnings are issued go on to produce tornadoes, many storms for which tornado warnings are issued fail to produce tornadoes. Some storms for which no warnings are issued go on to produce severe weather (including tornadoes). The science of meteorology at its best offers no guarantees that these important distinctions can be made perfectly in advance. Generally speaking, a red warning is associated with a greater sense of threat than a blue warning -- tornadoes are far more likely to result in fatalities. But some severe thunderstorms can produce as much damage (or more) as most tornadoes (the vast majority of which fall well short of being classified as "violent" -- EF4 or EF5) and nontornadic severe thunderstorms can result in deaths, as well.

There are no tornado fatalities from false alarms! It's widely recognized by forecasters that the cost in lives for not issuing a warning can literally be infinitely greater than that associated with a false alarm. Forecasters aren't stupid -- they know that if they fail to issue a warning for a fatality-producing storm, there would be sharks of various sorts circling the waters around them. Nevertheless, our society demands from them that no storm-related fatality ever occur without warning. The problem is that the science simply doesn't permit that. If we were to issue a tornado warning for every storm that might go on to produce a tornado, the number of false alarms would become vastly larger than it now is. If we "raise the bar" for the threat level to reduce the number of false alarms, many more tornadoes will not be warned for in advance!

Assuming that the presence of a storm is necessary to issue a warning, some threshold threat level has to be achieved in order for the warning forecaster to decide to go with a warning, and presumably this must include the perceived threat of a tornado if the storm may need to be covered with a tornado warning. As it now stands, there is no uniformly-defined threat level associated with any of the decisions a warning forecaster has to make -- every warning forecaster is more or less on their own. Obviously, not every forecaster is a carbon copy of every other forecaster. Some make warning decisions better than others.

Recently, a new type of tornado warning has come into vogue -- the so-called "tornado emergency" (which has not been defined formally, either), presumably when a populated area is in the path of a very dangerous tornado. Implicitly, the perceived need for this is driven by the fact that the tornado threat varies from one situation to another. Yet another tough decision for a warning forecaster to make!

In my view of things, warnings should use probability to express different levels of threat for different phenomena: wind, hail, tornadoes. This permits the forecaster to use the science to estimate the likelihood of various outcomes in the path of a storm. It's an established fact that forecasters can become quite good at estimating uncertainty. I don't yet know how best to formulate probabilistic warnings -- I believe years of research are needed to inform us how probabilistic warnings could be made most effective. This is a complex problem that involves far more than the science of meteorology.

In the meantime, I would hope people who are not meteorologists would begin to understand that they bear the lion's share of the burden of responsibility for their personal safety. If they expect warning forecasters to be perfect -- they're actually putting themselves in considerable personal danger. One important factor in dealing with a tornado is having planned what to do in advance. Another is to be "situation aware" when thunderstorms are about rather than counting on someone else to do that for you.