Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Naming Winter Storms? Oh, Really?

The Weather Channel, a self-proclaimed "world class" weather organization, has decided they want to name winter storms.  They explain this here.  Of course, this explanation is hogwash.  What it boils down to is this:  the Weather Channel gets their largest market share during hurricanes.  The TV marketing consultants that advise the Weather Channel about policy know that it's during hurricanes approaching the US coast when the largest number of people put their eyeballs in front of that nearly endless stream of Weather Channel advertisements.  Although ostensibly about the weather, what the Weather Channel has evolved into is primarily entertainment.  It's pretty evident to me this recent change is just a marketing ploy to increase their market share in the non-hurricane season.  Nothing more.  Their pious rationalizations about communicating important weather information to the public strike me as a pretty thin argument.   The Weather Channel is mostly about TV entertainment, not the weather.  Advertising revenue provides the fuel for that entertainment.  Named storms are sexier than boring old meteorology so they attract more viewers, who are thereby subjected to brainwashing to convince them to buy an advertiser's products and/or services.  So ... naming winter storms is seen as the path to bigger profits and more advertising revenue.  Plain and simple - easy-peasey.

Weather geeks no longer turn to Weather Channel programming, with its seemingly endless adverts and "weather magazine" programs, to obtain the weather information they crave.  The Internet serves those actually interested in the weather most every day just fine, without the Weather Channel's pointless banter by stereotypically attractive on-camera "talent", annoying technical errors, and horribly trite "explanations" that ultimately fail to provide substantive, accurate information to the public.  There was a time in the past when the Weather Channel had very few commercials and they actually had some people behind the scenes who more or less knew what they were doing and tried to help the on-camera "talent" convey an accurate and meaningful weather "briefing" - remember when their weather maps actually had isobars on them?

Those days are long gone.  Years ago, the consultants advised Weather Channel management to water down the meteorology in favor of more entertainment.  That technical jargon just doesn't capture the interest of the great unwashed masses.  Hence, much of the prime-time content is filled with "weather magazine"-type programming:  pseudo documentaries and other light "entertainment" rather than a steady focus on the ongoing weather.  It was at that point that I stopped watching.

That same source - the Internet - serves the general public as well, these days.  Most people aren't interested in the weather unless it affects them directly and significantly.  One can go many places on the Web to find weather information, including directly from the National Weather Service.  Obviously the Weather Channel hopes you'll consult their website on those relatively infrequent times when the public wants a forecast, or whatever.  I would guess that a lot of that market share is being soaked up by local weather broadcasters during the morning and evening news, which many people watch anyway.  They "know" and trust their local broadcasters, even if they sometimes make fun of them.  I've not done a study of how the public gets their weather information, but in my experience, waiting for up to 30 min for the specific information that interests you can be pretty annoying.  Why wait when you can go right to what you want, without having to put up with all the yelling advertisers and babble that doesn't matter to you?

Without knowing for sure, I'd guess the Weather Channel's market share has been declining.  Introducing this marketing ploy of naming winter storms because they want to "do their part" to communicate weather information to an information-starved public strikes me as pretty transparent.  Sorry, but I'm not buying it.  Nor am I watching it.  You're not going to convince me that naming winter storms is some sort of communications breakthrough!

A Challenge to Opponents of Same-Sex Marriage

In the relatively recent history of the controversy about same-sex marriage, it's been asserted by many that they must oppose same-sex marriage in order to "protect the sanctity of marriage" or words of that sort.  For the life of me, I just can't see how the marriage of two people who happen to be of the same sex alters heterosexual marriage in any negative way.

Much of the opposition to same-sex marriage springs from religion, of course.  Religion poisons much of whatever it touches, and in this case, there seems to be some sort of religious homophobic reaction to the very idea of same-sex marriages.  As it stands, the only "sanctity" I can tie to the religious opposition to same-sex marriage is the outrageous sanctimoniousness of the religion-based opposition.  I don't want to go down this path in this discussion, however.

My personal heterosexual marriage has lasted for more than 37 years.  In that time, my wife and I have come to realize that many of our good friends are gay or lesbian.  We feel no particular threat from that knowledge  There may be even more than we realize, of course - some may have chosen to remain "in the closet" for reasons of their own.  [Most of the reasons homosexuals keep that knowledge about themselves a secret have a real basis in a rational fear of the consequences  "coming out" can have on their lives.]   In our 37+ years of marriage, our friendships with gays and lesbians have enriched our lives in many quite positive ways and we have no shame or hesitation in openly declaring our support for our homosexual friends.  They should have the same right as heterosexuals to the "institution" of marriage.  In no way has our marriage ever been threatened by our friendship with homosexuals, married or not. 

I haven't seen a single instance where meaningful evidence has been offered in any of the arguments on this topic to suggest that same-sex marriage alters heterosexual marriages in any noticeable, negative way.  Some fraction of heterosexual marriages involve one (or both) partners who are bisexual.  So what?  In an adult consensual relationship, such things are only a problem when done without the partner's knowledge and approval.  That's nothing different from existing hereosexual infidelity in a marriage.

Some small fraction of heterosexual marriages involve one partner who is secretly a homosexual.  Therefore, it's at least logically possible that legalizing same-sex marriage might affect those people within that fraction of all existing marriages.  In cases where one partner is "living a lie" by being a homosexual within a heterosexual marriage, this might motivate some to come out and admit to their secret and thereby alter their marriage to an opposite-sex partner.  Such things are happening now, so the legalization of same-sex marriage is unlikely to cause much of a change - perhaps only hastening the demise of such flawed marriages.  I see no reason to believe legalizing same-sex marriage would alter these existing situations in any significant way.

Bisexuality and homosexuality have been with us throughout the history of the human race.  They're not going to disappear because some people feel threatened by them (for no good reason).  It is in fact a very natural thing that some fraction of the population is homosexual or bisexual, as science has revealed.  We're far from the only animal species with homosexuality and bisexuality! 

Insofar as I can tell, virtually all the opposition to same-sex marriage is based on homophobia - reinforced by religion-based condemnation of homosexuality.  The argument that recognizing the legality of same-sex marriage somehow alters the institution of heterosexual marriage in a destructive way is completely specious.  Permitting legal same-sex marriage is nothing more than granting equal rights to gays and lesbians, which they should already have here in the USA! 

My challenge to all those who oppose same-sex marriage involves two things: 

1.  Provide me with a logical reason for the assertion that legalizing same sex marriage alters heterosexual marriage in any negative way (that's not already happening as discussed above), and 

2.  Show me the compelling empirical evidence that legalizing same-sex marriage would destroy heterosexual marriage.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Numerical Models and Research

Note:  This topic is very much focused on science, and may be challenging to nonscientist readers.  I have tried to provide some background, but within the confines of a blog, this is necessarily heavily abbreviated.  

Several years ago, I wrote an extended essay about the use of numerical models in weather forecasting and research.  In this blog, I want to emphasize something I think is pretty important to consider when using numerical models in a research mode.  Numerical models of the atmosphere are approximations to the mathematical models used to create the numerical model - they are a model (i.e., an approximation) of a model.  The mathematical model in turn is a model of reality - this is an interesting aspect of mathematics - that is, mathematics can be used to describe phenomena in the real world - but I digress ...

The mathematical formulae approximated in the numerical model are drawn from physical laws (e.g.,  conservation of mass, energy, and momentum) that are assumed to apply to any physical system.  Atmospheric models typically do not include relativistic effects or quantum physics, for instance, which are assumed to be unimportant to the atmosphere.  In a model of the atmosphere, the equations describing those physical laws are written in a form suitable to apply to the fluid that is the atmosphere.  Depending on the model, certain physical effects are assumed to be important while others are ignored.  No practical model of anything can incorporate everything

It's implicitly assumed that the aforementioned physical laws govern the temporal behavior of air "parcels" - an air parcel isn't defined in quantitative terms in any absolute sense, but is, rather, of indefinite size.  The properties of the air (temperature, humidity, pressure, wind velocity) within the parcel include the possibility of spatial variations within the parcel -  parcel properties need not be constant within that indefinite volume.  If the model is started at some instant with whatever knowledge we have of the distribution of atmospheric properties over a volume containing a large number of parcels (up to and including the entire, global atmosphere) at that given instant, then the model can be used to predict the evolution of that distribution over time.  This is the basis for using numerical models to predict the weather days in advance.  Numerical forecast models have been quite successful in advancing the art and science of weather forecasting!

Nevertheless, a huge problem in atmospheric science is that physical processes can affect the weather over an enormous range of time and space scales, from the microscopic at least to the size of the Earth (if not the whole solar system)!  If we consider the volume within which the model operates and the model operates on something less than a global scale, there may be relevant physical processes that are too large to be included in the model.   Anything less than global scale introduces spatial domain boundaries that represent another complication.

On the other hand, the number of parcels we choose to include within the domain over which the model operates determines its resolution, where by "resolution" we mean its ability to represent physical processes properly.  Any practical model cannot have infinite resolution, so in addition to processes that are too large to be included in the model, there are also processes operating on scales that are too small to be represented.  They 'fall through the cracks' as it were.  If it's deemed that processes not describable within the model by specifying parcel properties are nevertheless important, they must be represented within the model is some other way, such that the model can incorporate them in its mathematical framework - this is called parameterization.  It's a way to include physical processes felt to be important but not resolvable within the model.  There's considerable art associated with developing such schemes, but they inevitably misrepresent the processes they've been developed to represent. 

Anything contained within the model by whatever means (either by direct representation or by parameterization) defines the physical processes allowed by that model.  Thus, any model is necessarily an approximation to the real atmosphere, that resolves certain processes, represents other process that can't be resolved in some relatively crude way, and finally, ignores many processes.

The main point of this very abbreviated tutorial is to provide some basis for what I'm about to say.   Research scientists use models to try to understand the physics of the atmosphere.  They can develop and study modeling results to explore the quantitative implications of the physical processes represented within the model.  What researchers may sometimes fail to keep in mind is that once the model has been developed, it can only represent those physical processes allowed by the assumptions the model developers have made about what is and is not important within that model.  The model is utterly and totally blind to any process that can't be represented by its numerical formulae.  The assumptions made in building the model inevitably restrict the possibilities for what the model can show, right from the outset.  The atmosphere contained within the model is only a "toy atmosphere" - an idealization.  If an error was made anywhere in the development of the model (from the assumptions to the mathematical formulations, to the numerical approximations, and finally to the computer code used to run the model), then the challenge to using that model is to  know how to recognize that error and track down its source.

New physical insight can be developed from numerical simulation models, but such insight has to be firmly vetted via empirical evidence.  New understanding doesn't spring automatically from running and analyzing the results of numerical simulation models.

Numerical models can be seductive in their appearance of great precision and apparent quantitative insight.  But the old computational law applies to them:  garbage in, garbage out.  The key to using such models is that they must remain grounded in the principle of observational confirmation.  A pure modeling effort not validated against empirical evidence is nothing more than speculation!