Saturday, December 28, 2013

A Sucker Born Every Minute ...

In these times, it seems superfluous to present more evidence regarding the old adage (attributed to P.T. Barnum) that there's a sucker born every minute.  Social media are rife with ignorant nonsense.  Television is dominated by shows of monumental vapidity sponsored by products preying on people's narcissistic concern for their self-image.  Gambling casinos hum with activity 24/7.  Politicians convince people to vote for things that clearly are not in the self-interest of those voters.  And so on ...

Nevertheless, I'm moved to provide yet another example: the marketing of long-range forecasts.  Virtually any respectable meteorologist knows that our ability to forecast the weather accurately in a deterministic way decreases with increasing lead time.  For those of my readers who don't know what 'deterministic' means, consider this product:

Note that the high and low temperature forecasts in this National Weather Service (NWS) product are given to within one degree Fahrenheit for each forecast time.  This conveys no information about increasing uncertainty in the accuracy of the temperature forecasts, so this is a 'deterministic' temperature forecast.  There might be various ways to show that uncertainty, but this sort of product simply makes no attempt to do so.  

It should be evident to most people that uncertainty increases with time over the period of the forecast, but nevertheless it seems that many forecast users are uninformed about this.  The product above is not a 'long-range' forecast, of course, being less than a week ahead.  Beyond a week or so into a forecast, the accuracy of weather forecasts is no better than what you would find if you simply forecast the local climatological averages for that date in the future - in technical terms, after about 8-10 days, the forecasts have no skill over a 'climatology' forecast!  A skillful forecast is one that is more accurate than some standard forecast method, such as random guessing, persistence (every day will be just like today), climatology, or whatever standard you wish to choose.  [Accuracy refers to the difference between what is forecast and what is actually observed.  Accuracy and skill are not synonymous!]

The same is true for the sky conditions and sensible weather forecasts in the product above.  However, observe that the weather forecast for "tonight" mentions a "chance" of freezing drizzle.  What does the word "chance" mean to you?  Do you think everyone interprets that word the same way?  This language is at best an attempt to describe uncertainty, but it uses words for which the meaning is unspecified.  The language of uncertainty is probability and a proper forecasts should always contain information about the uncertainty. 

In 2012, AccuWeather began issuing long-range forecasts out to 45 days, well beyond the 8-10 day limit of skillful predictability.  In those forecasts, no uncertainty information is provided, so to the user, the level of precision in the forecasts beyond the predictability limit looks just the same as the forecast for tomorrow, which is at best a deceptive practice, arguably bordering on unethical.

Recently, a study of the accuracy of the long-range forecasts from AccuWeather for selected cities was done.  That study shows what any meteorologist already knew:  AccuWeather forecasts exhibit no positive skill over climatology beyond about 8-10 days (or less) and in most cases show negative skill beyond that of climatology after that time. The important information that the uncertainty increases with time is not an explicit part of their forecast.  For NWS/NOAA forecasts out beyond a week or so, there's a different sort of product suite - see here - that provides a non-deterministic sort of forecast product.

Most users typically don't keep track of what the forecast was even a week ago, to say nothing of the forecast 45 days ago!  They also don't typically subject the forecasts to rigorous verification analysis.  Hence, they naively 'look at' long-range forecasts and perhaps even use them to make personal decisions.  It would be interesting to interview a cross-section of users of those long-range forecasts to ascertain their opinions regarding their value and how they go about dealing with the decline of accuracy with time in the forecasts.  It's hard to imagine how an unskillful product would be of much value to users ...

It seems that many people are at least attempting to use long-range forecasts somehow, and private sector companies provide their clients with what they want.  Unfortunately, such products are not what users need, which is a forecast with uncertainty information included.  When users aren't informed about forecast uncertainty, they have to guess for themselves how much faith to put in those forecasts.  Capitalizing on user ignorance by issuing deterministic long-range forecasts beyond 8-10 days is a shameful practice.  Caveat emptor - let the buyer beware!!

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Morale of Federal Employees

 A blog about the causes for low morale among Federal employees just came out from NPR.  I disagree strongly with the final take-away message of this blog regarding Federal employees:  ' "They're there for the salaries and benefits," he says. "They're not there because the jobs make them happy." '  I can't speak for all Federal agencies, but that statement is simply wrong about the majority of the NOAA employees with whom I worked.  I wrote my own web essay about the rewards for idealism in the NWS, and I believe it comes much closer to reality in ascribing causes for low morale in the NWS.

Management of Federal agencies is far from uniformly bad, but I believe most Federal employees who actually care about their work (certainly not all employees, but the majority in my experience) find their greatest frustration in the words and deeds of their own management.  NOAA managers have been singularly ineffective in acting on behalf of their agency's needs, have failed to enhance the ability of their employees to be effective at their jobs, and have created an atmosphere of fear in the organization whereby most employees with complaints and criticisms are cowed into silence by the threat of retribution.  The working employees, in their wish to serve the needs of the agency's customers, are being hampered constantly by their managers.

For an outsider, like the author of this NPR article, to come to such outrageous conclusions is seriously inaccurate, and insulting to thousands of Federal employees passionately dedicated to their jobs.  National Public Radio should be ashamed to have 'published' this piece.  It's extremely shoddy journalism and provides support to the canard that characterizes Federal employees as overpaid, underachieving parasites on society, enriching themselves while offering little or nothing of value in return.  Can such Federal employees be found?  Yes, of course - most of them in the ranks of agency management, with a small minority amongst the 'worker bees' (the employees who actually do the productive work of their agencies).  Likely there's variance in this respect within the broad spectrum of Federal agencies.

During my career, I had an opportunity to work part-time within a group of folks (in a Federal agency I won't name) whose job it was to provide a service.  Among the employees with whom I worked, there was a widespread attitude of contempt for the customers their group was charged with serving.  I don't know from whence this attitude came, but it pre-existed my arrival and I naively accepted it as the standard for how I approached the job.  Our team manager became aware of this and called a group meeting where he proceeded to tear us a new asshole - rather than treating our 'customers' with contempt for not knowing how to do the paperwork, we were to provide help as needed to expedite the needs of customers, without the contempt and without the hassle.  I was ashamed of what we'd been doing because I'd been on the receiving end of similar treatment during my professional career and understood only too well how that made me feel.  Why did I not recognize this and behave differently?  OK - lesson learned.  No doubt that such attitudes can be pervasive in many service organizations, Federal and non-Federal.  However, the employees can be made to understand that such non-performance is unacceptable, if that's the culture at the top.  When top management is more concerned about other issues than customer service, then it's understandable that the agency might well be peppered with bad attitudes.  No doubt a lot of the negative perceptions of Federal employees stems from interactions with Federal agencies where customers were treated badly.  It takes very few experiences of contempt from a service organization's employees to produce a deeply negative perception, no matter how well the majority of employees perform.

Federal employees are an easy target.  They're typically not allowed to respond to what politicians (and their own managers) say.  Politicians love to demonize them as a force resisting whatever policy changes the politicians want to make - changes often more political than helpful and uninformed in the extreme about what the agency actually does and why it operates in a certain way.  Sadly, this NPR article only reinforces the view that Federal employees deserve to be targeted.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Whither goest operationally-relevant severe storms research?

As part of my post-NOAA employment, I've been funded (part time) for several years by grants from the National Science Foundation.  Before that, I worked in NOAA as both a forecaster (for a time) and as a research scientist.  In particular, after retiring from NOAA, I forged a particularly exciting and productive collaboration with some outstanding colleagues, exploring the connection between synoptic-scale weather systems and major tornado outbreaks.  We had an initial 3-year grant and were able to renew that grant for another 3 years.  During those 6 years, we had a quite substantial number of papers accepted for publication in peer-reviewed journals: something on the order of a dozen or so.  And two of our grad students earned their doctorates and are now working as university faculty.  But we failed to obtain funding for a third 3-year grant - the reviews were very mixed, with some very high ratings but also some pretty negative ratings.  On that basis, NSF declined to fund us.  I know it sounds like sour grapes to complain about the process.  We did get 6 years of funding, after all.

What's particularly bothersome to me is that I felt that the really exciting results were going to come in this next grant.  We didn't have any particularly profound insight to explore, but we had some ideas that seemed promising, and our track records as leading professionals in our fields suggested that our ideas deserved the benefit of the doubt.  But no.  Not happening.  I realize that just because we're scientists with extensive publication records doesn't mean our ideas should be accepted automatically.  But in reading the negative reviews, it seemed the reviewers either didn't read the proposal very carefully or weren't qualified to offer comments on our proposal.  This isn't a rare experience - in today's tough economic times, it's really hard to get proposals funded, regardless of their merits.  We're far from alone in being thwarted by the NSF funding process.  I see no conspiracy, but I'm quite dissatisfied by the way we were reviewed.  As a matter of fact, we weren't only turned down - we were turned down twice!  Either we're no longer capable of doing important severe storms research, or something went awry along our path.  How do we go from being successful researchers to incompetent overnight?

During the course of my career, it became evident early on that I had little or no competition for my chosen career path - to be on the interface between operations and research.  Not all of my work has been operationally relevant, but that's always been the perspective toward which most of my research has been directed.  I've wanted to do basic research into physical processes, but with an eye toward applying any understanding gained to operational weather forecasting.  With the end of my professional career in sight, I look about and see very few individuals with a similar bent in my subdiscipline.  Hence, my question:  who will continue this effort? 

Not having the funding to do the work means it's likely that the work we wanted to pursue won't be done any time soon.  It will be up to someone else to learn what we hoped to learn.  In a recent conversation with an operational forecaster, it seems that when it comes to most of the critical issues in severe storm forecasting, there isn't much being done.  Our work likely wouldn't have resulted in a dramatic breakthrough (although such a possibility existed) - an optimistic but plausible outcome would have been an improvement in the false alarm rate for outlooks of major tornado outbreaks by, say, 10-20% while keeping the probability of detection at current levels.  And our findings could be converted into an operationally useful forecast guidance system.  That wouldn't be a breakthrough, but it would be operationally useful and valuable to the science.  That would have been a nice way to end my career as a professional researcher on that interface but, alas, it seems now that it won't come to pass.  It ends not with a bang, but with a whiny blog.

This isn't my first funding disappointment.  I noted recently I've been honored with some end-of-career awards.  I really appreciate those awards, but I'd gladly trade them all for having been given the enthusiastic support to do more of the work I love.  As a former supervisor once said - "Don't tell me my work is wonderful but at the same time give me no support for the work I want to pursue!" 

Friday, December 13, 2013

A waste of state resources

Over and over, of late, we hear about state legislators in diverse states around the US passing laws to allow school-sanctioned prayers (and other things, such as christian icons) into public schools.   What really puzzles and frustrates me about this is that if they succeed in passing laws of that sort, those laws can't possibly stand up to to judicial review, because they're unconstitutional!

The Constitutional separation of church and state isn't intended to keep little Johnny from praying at any time he wishes.  Or to prevent little Suzie from having a drawing of jesus or a cross on her notebook.  The issue is simple: if a religious activity is carried on with the support of the school staff in their official capacity, it's unconstitutional.  Individual students remain free to practice any religion however they wish, but when the school administration is involved, it's a violation of the "establishment" clause.  This also doesn't preclude learning about religion in class, provided it's not confined to learning about a single religion.  Courses in comparative religion or that include material about religion in a historical context are not at all a problem. 

Why does the christian right-wing insist on importing their religion into public schools?  Why not leave religion out of public education and keep it in the home or in a church (by any other name) where it belongs?  It seems evident to me this is a rallying cry to attract religious believers to a particular political cause.  These efforts by legislators are doomed to fail in the courts and even politicians are, for the most part, intelligent enough to know this.  The legislation is an appeal to the constituency of the religious right (I like to call it the religious reich) - it's more of a political movement than a religious movement.

If passed, these laws are destined to be challenged in court and, eventually, they'll be declared unconstitutional.  In the process, the state will have to spend millions of dollars to fight these court battles.  Taxpayer dollars.  From all taxpayers.  That includes many who aren't christians and have no reason to support these laws in the first place.  Those dollars are precious in these difficult economic times, since they could be spent more productively in trying to solve some of the really serious economic shortfalls in states where these laws are proposed and passed - such as crumbling infrastructure (roads, bridges, etc.), supporting public transportation, funding public education improvements, supporting first responders (police and fire), etc.  Stupid, unconstitutional laws are simply a waste of those resources and clearly fail to represent the wishes of minority members of the population:  non-christians and atheists, for instance.

A "success" in implementing laws that establish state-supported religious activities signals the encroachment of a theocratic form of government.  It's in the best interests of all members of society, including christian believers, to retain and enhance the separation of church and state, not to reduce it.  In fact, we need to roll back some of these intrusions that have crept in over the years - such as on our currency and in the Pledge of Allegiance - during times of political paranoia.

Freedom and liberty are beneficial to everyone and the intrusion of a particular religion into government ultimately would be detrimental to everyone but a chosen few - we already have examples in the present and past to look to for a lesson in what would follow the establishment of state religion in the US.  Those who are advocates of pushing religion into public schools are not really about freedom of religion - quite the opposite.  They have the arrogance to believe their view is the only right one and, if permitted, they'd force everyone to bend to their beliefs.

This says nothing about the efforts of the religious reich to push their beliefs into science classes in the public schools.  I'll say no more about that here, but it's clearly part of an organized effort to push the christian religion into public education.

They cry "persecution" when their plans are thwarted - but it's not even close to persecution or restriction of their freedom to practice their religion.  They claim their rights are being violated when they're blocked from violating everyone else's rights!!  The "pushback" the religious reich is experiencing is about preventing them from forcing their politics/religion on everyone else.  It's about retaining the diversity and a commitment to quality education that's been of so much value to this nation over its history. 

The taxpayers in states where these laws are being proposed need to let their representatives know they don't want their taxes wasted fighting for religious intrusions into public institutions.  Those politicians need to get the message:  quit wasting time and resources fighting battles destined to be lost, that only serve the interests of some of the people.  There's important work to be done!  Forcing the christian religion into public institutions violates the US Constitution!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Inevitable uncertainty in weather forecasting

A recent blog I read made an effort to explain probability in weather forecasting.  From my perspective, it fell rather short of an explanation.  Hence, this effort, which no doubt will also fall short.

In the early days of my science education, I was convinced that perfect weather forecasts were an inevitable outcome for the science of meteorology.  With time, my confidence in that outcome was eroded, and the famous 1963 paper by meteorologist Edward N. Lorenz (that started the notion of "chaos") put the nails in the coffin of  perfect deterministic forecasting.  Simply put, perfect deterministic forecasts are just not possible.  This is no indication of a shortfall in atmospheric science - it's a fact associated with the way the atmosphere works.  To make perfect forecasts, we would need infinite amount of perfectly accurate data and have a perfect physical understanding of all processes that affect the weather.  None of those conditions will ever be realized.  The farther into the future we attempt to forecast, the greater the uncertainty.  And the uncertainty itself is uncertain - we know it varies from day to day, and in one location versus another.  Forecasting has definitely improved over the time of my professional career, but it cannot ever become perfect.

Since we don't observe the weather perfectly, we don't even know exactly what's happening in the present, and that's obviously a major challenge to our ability to know the future.  Forecasts can only decrease in accuracy with time, and at some point, our forecasts become indistinguishable from random guessing.  That point is the so-called "predictability limit" - it isn't a hard number (it varies!), but is somewhere around 7-10 days.  Beyond that time, the best forecast (statistically) is climatology.  When you see predicted high and low temperatures for a week in advance, those values are far less certain than the values for tomorrow, even if your source doesn't inform you of that declining confidence.

Along the way to my enlightenment regarding deterministic forecasts, I had the good fortune to meet the late Allan H. Murphy, who explained to me that subjective probability estimation associated with forecasting is tied to the forecaster's confidence in a particular outcome - and that this a perfectly acceptable form of probability.  That different forecasters might have a different probability estimate is bothersome, but when the forecasters are properly 'calibrated' in their confidence, their forecasts tend to converge to similar values.  Forecasters can become quite good at estimating forecast uncertainty, although this skill varies from one forecaster to another.  As I write this, considerable research is underway to seek strategies to help forecasters estimate forecast uncertainty.

Allan spent a lot of his life trying to overcome stupid objections to the use of probability, and I've done some of this, as well (e.g., here, here, here, and here).  I'm not going to repeat all that here.  Our main challenge is to try to figure out a way to express the inevitable uncertainty in our forecasts in a way that's helpful to those trying to use our forecasts to make decisions.

People all the time are griping about probability in weather forecasts - they apparently want us to be absolutely certain - in pretending to be so certain, we meteorologists make the users' decisions for them.  And then those users will be upset when the forecast doesn't work out that way.  Users surely understand that we're not perfect, so it must follow that demanding we continue to pretend to be perfect is not going to work!  The unwritten contract between forecasters and users needs to be renegotiated! 

When probability was introduced in the mid-1960s in the US, it was done without a public information campaign explaining what the probabilities meant.  That gap in public education remains unbridged to this very day - most of the confusion over probability is not about the absence of understanding regarding abstract probability theory (which many meteorologists don't understand, either!).  The problem is that we don't know what the event is that is being forecast!  Is it a forecast for the eight inch diameter opening in the official rain gauge?  Is it an average probability over some region?  What is the time period to which the probability refers?  We simply have never done what it takes to explain just what that probability number means to the public, so it's not surprising that the public struggles with this.  We must address this public understanding shortfall.

In the very non-homogeneous group known as "the public", there's some fraction of people who can use probability to make decisions quite easily, as well as those for whom probability is so mysterious as to be completely useless.  Is there a "one size fits all" method for getting weather information to users?  I doubt it, but I'd like to explore the issue of how to communicate uncertainty.  Before we start changing the format and content of our forecasts, the first rule is:  do no harm!  Don't change things before we know with some confidence that the change won't be deleterious.  We need a collaboration with the social sciences to come up with strategies for expressing the necessary uncertainty information in such a way that the users obtain the information they need.  We do our users a disservice by "dumbing down" our forecast products and using the public as guinea pigs in ill-conceived experiments.

Finally, it seems that "the public" has some responsibility of its own.  If people find our products confusing or unhelpful, they need to expend some effort on their part to become more knowledgeable.  I'm not saying the problems with communicating weather information are wholly the fault of the intended recipients, but rather that the recipients share some measure of the responsibility for that communication breakdown.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Thoughts on the passing of Nelson Mandela

Listening to the many tributes to Nelson Mandela today, following his death at age 95, I was reminded of how fortunate the world has been to have been blessed with such an amazing human being.  After being imprisoned for 27 years, this man somehow came to the realization that he would never be free if he continued to hate his oppressors.  So he had the wisdom to let his hate go, and when he re-created a new nation on the rubble of apartheid, it was not a nation soaked with the blood of violent retribution.  Rather, it became a nation where his former enemies could go about their lives without the fear and oppression that Nelson Mandela lived with under apartheid.  It was not to be tit-for-tat!  The depth of the humanity within this man is beyond words!  His example is one of the all-too-few shining moments for the human race in the 20th century.

Mandela's deep understanding of humanity and his unshakeable morality gave him the moral high ground and he wielded the power of that moral authority to the benefit of all, even long before he was even released from prison!  He used but never abused the power he had - after all, moral authority is only powerful from the high ground.  Stoop to the level of your enemy and your power is forfeit.  And he never sought to retain power, giving up his Presidency after but one term.  This is a lesson our US government has yet to learn!

There's another such towering figure in our history - Martin Luther King - another deeply human person who also happened to be black.  Alas, unlike Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King was taken from us long before his time.  Nevertheless, in the time he had, he revealed the shining light of freedom and love for all humans and that vision can never be forgotten.  That we lost him too soon is tragic, but at least he left an enduring legacy that any reasonable human should be proud to inherit.

Sadly, despite such examples (and there are others, of course), the poisonous influence of racism and bigotry still lingers in this world and in this nation, which is supposed to be dedicated to the proposition that all people should be offered equal opportunity.  We Americans have yet to achieve this noble ideal, and it may be a long time in becoming a reality, if ever.  But it's through such people as Martin Luther King that we've been able to make whatever progress we've achieved to date.

Therefore, it's appropriate to consider how many such men and women, who had great gifts they could have shared with us all, have been oppressed and snuffed out before they had a chance to share their insights and humanity with us all.  What bright lights were extinguished under the bushel of racism and bigotry before they were allowed to shine for all of us?  What men and women around the world have never been given the chance to prosper and find their opportunity to share their insights and wisdom with the world?  Racism, religious bigotry, misogyny are all excuses to oppress and silence their voices, to hide their lights, to keep them from achieving their potential.  How many such souls have been trodden into dust without giving this world the benefit of having known them?

Racism, bigotry, misogyny - these are lies that cannot withstand even the slightest touch of rationality.  They're irrational concepts, they're baseless fallacies used by pathetic weaklings to make themselves feel superior despite their obvious recognition of their own inferiority.  It's just not possible to raise yourself by taking others down.  These are human weaknesses that must be repudiated and not allowed to have the power to oppress.  A sense of justice demands it.  And it's in our Constitution!

Think of the Anne Franks of the world, snuffed out by evil people in their pathetic but ruthless lust for power.  How many nameless, faceless people have died in conflicts, been slaughtered in pogroms and tribal massacres, in pointless wars - all without ever achieving the prominence they might have deserved.  How many people crammed into hopeless ghettos with limited opportunity have never been granted a chance to share with us their great gifts?  What things might we now understand that we could have learned from them?  What scientific knowledge would now be benefiting the world, had they been given voice?  What profound works of art might we have to share, had they been allowed to achieve?

What have we lost?  What could possibly have been worth the price we've paid for our racism and bigotry?  Can we never get to the point where we can work together for the common good, rather than being ruled by our primitive tribalism and barbarism?  Perhaps we can achieve this ideal only with the help of some truly great people we've so far been willing to stomp into silence and anonymity.  Let these people live and prosper!!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The myth of professional versus amateur chasers

It's not uncommon to hear storm chasers described as either professional or amateur chasers.  There might be a very, very tiny fraction of chasers who make their entire income from storm chasing and nothing else.  Such are the only chasers who might literally consider themselves professional chasers and their ranks are negligibly small compared with the number of people who chase storms.  If that's the case, then essentially everyone else is an amateur!  That's not a useful way to group storm chasers, so I'm proposing some new groupings.

1.  As I've said many times, most all regular veteran storm chasers - those who make an annual storm chase trek and have done so more than a few times - are not seeking to become dependent on chasing for their livelihood.  It's a hobby they enjoy for the thrill of the hunt and the awesome spectacle they can witness with their own eyes.  Many spend a fair sum on chasing (my costs run about $1000 per week), and they may be able to offset that to a greater or lesser extent by selling photos and videos.  Since these are people who have chased for several years, they may have accumulated considerable expertise in chasing techniques and learned a fair amount about storms even if they're not meteorologists.  There are many different reasons for someone to be a regular chaser and those reasons usually dictate their personal chasing behavior choices.  Some are willing to take on relatively high risk situations, others not so much risk.  Not all veterans engage in responsible chasing, and anyone, no matter how experienced, can make serious mistakes, as we have learned this year (2013). 

2.  Then there are chasers who participate regularly in serious scientific field observations (perhaps in addition to their own personal chase treks) and are either students or practicing professional scientists.  Let me call them scientific storm chasers.  For anyone who has ever done this, it can be quite constraining compared to a private chase - you have duties and have to be in pre-assigned positions rather than just going for whatever interests you.  This sort of chasing is hard work and its main reward comes when the data collected are used for scientific analysis of the storms, leading to publications in journals and presentations at scientific conferences.  It's not at all about personal chasing goals.  It's about contributing to the growth of scientific knowledge.  That said, such chasers should accept a very high standard of responsible chase behavior:  primarily regarding their driving on public roads.  Unfortunately, not all of them do so all the time.

3.  We have seen a growth in what I might call opportunistic chasing.  These are people who chase primarily within a limited area, on occasions when storms develop nearby.  I sometimes operate in this mode, when I'm not on my annual storm chase vacation - targeting storms in central Oklahoma, as I did on 20 May 2013.  We have referred to this as a "gentleman's" chase - usually more or less leisurely and without all the complex preparations that a chase trek involves.  Some local citizens, perhaps having seen storm videos on TV, venture out on storms near where they live, seeking to sample the chase experience without expending a lot of effort.  Many such opportunistic chasers know very little about storms and sometimes behave very irresponsibly (including drunk driving!).  Because such opportunistic chasers are ignorant and inexperienced, they can be a danger to themselves and others, adding to the problem of "chaser convergence" in certain situations.

4.  Recently, there's been some growth in media chasers going out as sort-of 'spotters' for TV stations, providing on-scene reports of storms, including live video for the station to broadcast.  Such chasers are usually restricted to a certain territory within or close to the viewing area for their sponsoring station.  The quality of these media chasers varies considerably.  Many of them are seriously deficient in their understanding of what they're seeing and doing, and some of them engage in very irresponsible driving behavior, and a few are prone to serious exaggeration of what they're seeing.  A colleague and I wrote about them here.

5.  Finally, there's the ever-changing group new chasers.  They've just begun serious chasing and may or may not go on to become regular veteran chasers.  Their experience level is low, their chasing tactics are still new and evolving, they may or may not yet have seen some major events.  Many are defensive about their status as 'newbies' - feeling they may not get the respect they think they deserve.  Respect from others as a chaser is earned over time, not something granted automatically.  Some may have a lot to learn about chasing responsibly - others do so without much fanfare.  A lack of experience always represents something of a danger in storm chasing.  What happens in those first few years can have a large impact on how they develop as a storm chaser.

Thus, I'm proposing five broad classes of storm chasers.  Some individuals can appear in more than one of these classes.  There can be a wide range of knowledge within each group, as the experience level can vary considerably.  Thus, the distinction is not at all between "professional" and "amateur" chasers.  Such words have little relevance in the real world of storm chasing. 

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

My tribute to ShockNet Radio and RJ Evans

As we come to the end of ShockNet Radio on 29 November, there's a great deal of sadness associated with its going off the "air" (it's been on Internet radio, not terrestrial, broadcast radio) on the part of the folks associated with it.  Nevertheless, this experiment in Internet Radio hasn't been a failure.  Not even close.  Rather, it represents a significant accomplishment by my friend, RJ Evans.

Classic image of RJ.  He enjoys flaunting his "persona" of a bad-ass motherf---r, but he has a heart of gold, a generous spirit, a first-class mind, and a heap of creative talent.

My friendship with RJ began before my first experience with ShockNet Radio, which came when Gene Rhoden asked me to be on the first episode of his show "High Instability".  I wasn't very sure I wanted to do the show, but I went ahead, and in doing so, I figured out what Gene was trying to do with his program, so I willingly became a regular participant.  This gave me more opportunities to interact with RJ and learn more about what he was trying to accomplish with ShockNet Radio.  When RJ asked me to participate in "American Heathen", I decided I'd give it a try, and things kinda went crazy from there.  I enjoyed being part of the show, a lot!  And we had our devoted followers, small in number though they were.  RJ asked me if I wanted to do a show entirely on my own, and I decided I wanted to act as DJ on a program totally devoted to blues music.

In working with RJ, it became clear that he has a very creative mind (with a healthy sense of humor), and it was both easy and fun to work with him as we began to work out the details of my vision of the show.  Since I had little or no experience of my own, I willingly deferred to RJ on most of his suggestions, but he also respected my general hopes for the program that became "Hard Luck Chuck's Juke Joint".  And as the show began, he patiently put up with my fumbling efforts to be a competent DJ, correcting my mistakes and offering me suggestions for improvements.  He's a good teacher and things began to get easier.  As the program comes to an end with the demise of ShockNet Radio, I can safely say I'm satisfied with what I was able to accomplish with my show, largely thanks to RJ's efforts.

An unexpected benefit was the people I met as a result of being associated with ShockNet Radio.  My ShockNet colleagues are some amazing people from whom I've learned a lot.  And some of our fans have become friends, despite having not yet met physically.  Although it doesn't show up in the profit/loss column, the friendships I've made through ShockNet are pretty damned valuable to me!

Many people dislike RJ for his outspoken atheism.  That's their loss, in my view.  RJ actually is not at all what his outward appearance might suggest – folks should remember not to judge the book by its cover!  He's really a very empathetic, kind person, who never misses a chance to help someone if he can.  He'd do anything for his friends if they ask.  And he's very patient with new acquaintances, regardless of their beliefs.  He really supports the American Heathen slogan of "Freedom and Liberty for ALL!". 

By what metric do you judge a person’s "success"?  And how appropriate is it for you to judge someone else's success by your choice of a measure?  I’ve known RJ long enough to see how much he's accomplished that wouldn't show up in what most people use to judge success – money, fame, and such.  His accomplishments are on a human scale, one person at a time.  Those of us who've spent enough time with him can see that.  He doesn't have many friends, but we're committed friends because we see he's a wonderful human being.  He'll be there if you need him – of that there can be no doubt.  Yes, he has little patience for certain types of foolishness – for the most part, I share those intolerances with him.  But he respects everyone's right to an opinion, no matter how silly or irrational.

ShockNet Radio was a dismal failure by the standards of those who admire the typically phony world of "big time" media.  But if you consider what ShockNet Radio has accomplished, one person at a time, as I've seen it happen, then you realize ShockNet has been a huge success.  RJ has stayed true to his vision and has touched many lives in a positive way with his efforts.  I call that a significant achievement.  And I don't give a shit what you think, if you can't see that.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Company principles and success

A recent conversation with a friend has reminded me of something that often leaves me scratching my head in amazement.  His story concerned his transfer to a different part of the company he works for, triggered by a clash he was having with his immediate supervisor.  From his perspective (obviously, I didn't hear the other side), he was being badgered constantly for no good reason, despite his work performance being consistently good enough to earn him high performance evaluation.  He was telling me that his company (apart from his obnoxious supervisor) was very generous with holiday season bonuses and various other ways to reward their employees.  Supervisors who harass loyal and competent employees should be the ones who lose their jobs, but for reasons that escape me, they often don't.

Many years ago, I read a book - In Search of Excellence - that told of what the authors had discovered by investigating successful companies.  In a nutshell, long-term profitable companies prospered by (1) treating their customers well, and (2) treating their employees well.  This makes perfect sense, and has some significanceto current events in light of the recent push to increase the minimum wage.  Employees who are respected and rewarded when the company prospers will have a clear incentive to do what they can to help make the company successful.  If the employees are given a good reason to help the company make money, there's no reason to do anything else.  Employees treated badly find ways to pay the company back for a lack of respect.  And if the customers are given a reason to trust the company that makes products and/or provides a service, they'll continue to patronize that business, and will tell their friends about their experiences.  A dissatisfied customer may go to great lengths to get back at the business that failed to respond properly.

Yet, we find companies cutting costs by paying niggardly wages, even as company management pockets record profits.  This is precisely the wrong formula for long-term business success.  And we find companies who have an adversarial relationship with customers who buy a defective product from them.   Many businesses exhibit a blatant disregard for customer service and making good on defective products and/or inadequate or incompetent service.  How common is it these days when you have a problem with a product or service, you get into these seemingly endless conversations with robotic phone systems, to the point of complete and total frustration?  And their online customer service is equally worthless?  If you wind up speaking to a real person, that person isn't even in the USA, that service having been "outsourced" to save the business the cost of paying an American to provide such service.  Often, those foreign customer service people speak English with a nearly unintelligible foreign accent, making interacting with them frustrating and difficult.

Do businesses actually think such cost-cutting practices are helping to make them profitable?  The only way customers stick with such companies is when that business is in a near monopoly position - our way or the highway - or they have competitors that are equally thoughtless.  The only way good employees stay with such a business is when they have nowhere else to go.  The path to success in business isn't restricted to cutting costs - it's often associated with taking some of the profits and sharing them with the folks who made those profits possible:  the customers and the employees.

I can hear the right-wing pundits now.  "Sounds like socialism to me!"  Most such folks making comparisons to socialism have no clue what socialism really is.  What I'm talking about is pure free-market capitalism.  If, instead of being absurdly frugal, companies were lavish in sharing their profits with customers and employees, then they're likely to be more successful in a free market than their austere competitors.  They would have fewer clashes with unions and in many cases, their workers might even decline to be unionized because the company treats them so well.  Customers would gladly return again and again, and encourage everyone they know to patronize that business.

Much of the backlash against companies like Wal-Mart and McDonalds is driven by the disparity between their treatment of customers and employees, and the lavishly-paid managers of such businesses.  If there's any welfare associated with American business these days that's hurting this nation, it's corporate welfare for the rich.  The gap between the workers and the managers is widening and the consequences of that could easily become unpleasant.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Causes for the weather community to get behind

A never-ending story in the field of tornado hazards is the miserable construction practices that characterize so much of American frame homes.  They're mostly flimsy death traps to anyone experiencing a tornado, and it's shameful just how miserably shabby is the structural integrity of the typical American home, regardless of the price of the home.

In the course of a FEMA-sponsored survey of building performance after the 3 May 1999 tornadoes in Oklahoma and Kansas, I was made aware of not only the inadequacy of homes built to local building codes, but also the massive large frequency of building code violations in American homes.  Subsequent storm damage surveys have only served to reinforce those first perceptions.  American frame home construction is shamefully weak!

The standard building code in most of the tornado-prone areas of the USA is that the building be designed to have structural resistance to winds of up to 90 mph.  In these areas, such a code is woefully inadequate for what they might experience.  What makes this so egregious is that in hurricane-prone areas along the US coasts, the standard is much higher, and includes requirements for a number of specific enhancements to structural integrity that would be very much appropriate for tornado-prone areas, as well.  Thus, we need only modify the building codes to match those of coastal areas vulnerable to hurricanes, and we will see a much greater resistance to tornadoes.

Such enhancements would not make homes tornado-proof, but would certainly make them much more tornado-resistant.  Most of the area along even a violent tornado path experiences less than EF-3 damage, so such an increase in structural integrity obviously would reduce damage along most of a violent tornado's path.  And violent tornadoes are relatively rare.  There would be a reduction in the amount of flying debris, which would in turn reduce the damage done by tornadoes.  Of course, it's impractically expensive to retrofit existing homes to a higher building code standard, but at least we could mandate that new home construction should meet a higher standard.  In time we would see a reduction in the damage done by tornadoes.  This is not some wild dream, but is within our capabilities to afford and accomplish.

The home builders will, of course, lobby to resist such a change, arguing that it would increase their costs, which they would have to pass on to their customers.  Yes, of course, that's true - but what is the real cost of those enhancements to structural integrity?  A few thousand dollars per home - amortized over the typical 30-year mortgage, this is a really small increase in the homeowner's monthly payment.

There are other costs that homeowners might need to consider - for instance, more wind-resistant garage doors, and the installation of safe rooms.  But these are choices that individual homeowners could choose or not.  Everyone would benefit from higher standards of structural integrity over the long range.

Unfortunately, given the low probability of any particular home being hit by the violent winds of a violent tornado, it would seem that investing even that modest amount may not be an economically viable decision.  But if we have a goal of making our communities more hazardous weather-resistant, this is an essential component of that process.  I haven't worked out all the details, but the cost to our nation of this vulnerability to natural weather hazards is not inconsequential - billion dollar tornadoes are not so easy to ignore. 

Why is the weather community not backing up a call for enhancing our building codes to reflect this reality?  The American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the National Science Foundation, etc. should be leading this effort!  Weather people need to support this with their words and with their willingness to recommend the appropriate changes to the building codes.

Another issue is the vulnerability of our children in schools.  Recently there has been some effort to get funding to have a purpose-built tornado shelter in every school in Oklahoma.  This strikes me as a bad idea, in part because many schools probably either already have an adequate shelter area or have an area that could be made adequate at relatively low cost.  Putting a purpose-built shelter in every school is probably not a good idea - it makes sense only for those schools that have no possibility of an adequate shelter.  What this requires is that knowledgeable people with appropriate expertise (structural engineers and meteorologists) should be working to do surveys of every local school to evaluate their tornado safety plans and their proposed sheltering locations.  This could be done with volunteers from state and local sources, who would contribute their time and expertise to help schools develop practical solutions to the threat from hazardous weather.  This also would be a process to enhance the weather hazard resistance of our cities and towns. 

The weather and structural engineering "communities" need to support this sort of collaboration to make the resistance of our cities and towns to hazardous weather a practical reality.  I can't speak for the engineers, but I certainly think the whole notion of helping our nation be more "weather-ready" means that our weather professionals need to step up and volunteer to make this a reality!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

A failed "slippery slope" argument

Some of my conservative friends, opposed to granting equal rights to the LGBT community, made the prediction that if we give in to homosexuals, then the pedophiles will start campaigning for similar equal rights.  Sadly, that prediction appears to have been correct.  That argument is nonsense, as I'll be attempting to show.  There's just no way to go from granting equality to LGBTs to sanctioning pedophilia.

First of all, the equality of rights to LGBTs harms no one.  They're simply being granted the same rights that heterosexuals have.  A relationship between consenting adults is no one's business but their own and is no basis for denying them the rights they have in this free nation.  There's no rational reason to declare this to be a crime.  The idea that it destroys the so-called "sanctity of marriage" is specious.  It's like saying that allowing Dr. Pepper to be served destroys the sanctity of Coca-Cola.  There's simply no way that homosexual marriage affects heterosexual marriage in any way whatsoever.  Fortunately, in the past several years, the public has finally begun to turn away from reviling and abusing LGBTs and denying them equal rights.  But is this the harbinger of descent down a "slippery slope" (something of a double entendre in this context) - a descent into a world where every criminal act is sanctioned on the basis of an argument similar to that used by LGBTs to gain equal rights?  I think not.

The key flaw in the argument by pedophiles to try to get license for their evil is that pedophilia involves children, not adults.  There's an "age of consent" clause in the legal system because children can be coerced in various ways (including but not limited to threats of violence) to do things they don't really want to do.  Even if the children seem to have granted "consent", this is a crime because they're incapable of giving such consent owing to their age.  We can argue about where the line should be drawn, but such lines are in fact drawn and are on the books.  Sexual acts forced on children below the age of consent do real harm to those children, both physical and mental.  That's why pedophilia is considered a criminal act, and justifiably so.  Pedophilia is so far from being within the confines of consenting adults, there's just no way it can be rationalized as anything other than what it is:  a despicable crime.

Similar arguments prohibit the sanctioning of incest.  There are good reasons not to sanction incest that extend to the obvious problem of inbreeding, even when involving young people over the nominal age of consent.  There's no good reason for society to ignore incest, even in such cases, owing to the powerful influence of adult family members on vulnerable youngsters, even late in their teens.  The "consent" granted is of very doubtful legitimacy.  Incest does real harm to people and so is not something to sanction.

Of course, sexual acts forced on anyone of any age are, and should always be considered violent crimes.  Thus, there can be no extension of the granting of equality to LGBTs to apply to rapists, either.  Sexual acts performed under duress (e.g., the threat of violence) are themselves acts of violence that any rational society would never condone.  Someone is harmed both physically and mentally by acts of violence; i.e., rape.  It's the absence of consent that is the key to this concept remaining a crime - it's a barrier to stop the decline along the putative "slippery slope".

Interestingly, the subject of multiple spouses came up in the predictions by my conservative friends as another part of the "slippery slope" argument.  However, I don't know if such arguments actually have been advanced yet.  Despite the general revulsion that having multiple spouses creates in many people, my perception is that if it involves only consenting adults, then I see no basic problem with it.  It's a choice I wouldn't make, but if my neighbor has two or more spouses, how does that affect me?  Not at all.  In religious cults, having multiple spouses is fairly common (so the cult leaders can have sex with all the partners they might want) - and in many cases, children are involved sexually in these relationships.  When children are involved, participants have stepped over the line.  Further, if one or more of the adults did not consent (or was forced to give "consent" under some threat), then that also steps over the line.  It's my perception that "open marriages" and "swap clubs" often wind up in bad outcomes for one or more of the individuals involved, but that's a risk that consenting adults can choose that doesn't affect me in any way.  I see no reason to define those as criminal acts.  Foolish, perhaps, but not criminal.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Another tornado outbreak - Second thoughts about chasing?

The November 17th tornado outbreak, affecting mostly some small towns in Illinois, is an example of several things.  As bad as it was, it could have been much worse - no major population centers were hit, so that particular bullet was dodged.  Despite some pitiful decisions made by the NFL about the Bears-Ravens game in Chicago, this large-venue event was not hit by a tornado.  The choice to wait to suspend the game and evacuate the field more or less at the last minute would have been a disaster if the storm had produced a violent tornado that actually hit the field.  Another bullet dodged.

There's a relentless inevitability about tornadoes, however.  Such escapes can lead people to fail to appreciate how fortunate they were, and how their luck simply can't go on forever.  Eventually, a 'worst case' scenario will happen!  The forecasters at the Storm Prediction Center did a fantastic job, anticipating this event several days in advance and ratcheting up the perceived risk as the day approached.  I hope people understand how far such forecasting has advanced during the course of my professional career, and take their forecasts seriously enough to be prepared for dangerous tornado outbreaks.

There have been some expressions of second thoughts by some thoughtful storm chasers after yesterday's events in Illinois (and elsewhere).  It seems that the events of this past May in Oklahoma, including the 31 May El Reno tornado in which 4 (or possibly 5) storm chasers were killed, have caused thoughtful storm chasers to consider how their hobby of storm chasing has a dark side:  tornadoes can cause massive human suffering that can go on for years afterward.  It's not just a show put on by the atmosphere for the benefit of storm chasers.  I've said many times that tornadoes are not evil or malevolent - rather, they're simply indifferent to their impact on humans.  When we humans are in the path, it's not by any person's design or wish, and certainly the atmosphere is not producing the carnage in any purposeful way.  (see item #32 here)

I think it's entirely appropriate for storm chasers to think over what they're doing out there - to contemplate just what they're out there for, and whether or not that reason justifies their behavior.   I hear a lot of chasers (not all, of course) going on and on about how what they do is saving lives.  I beg to disagree - that's not what you're out there to do, for the most part.  You're deluding yourself if you think so.  Virtually all storm chasers are out there because they love to see storms, myself included.  It's basically a selfish activity unlike, say, storm spotting, which is done to provide protection for communities.  If you say you're out there to save lives, prove it!  Demonstrate by your actions that your primary commitment is to save lives.  Most of the storm chasers who make such claims have done little or nothing to save lives - I've seen this with my own eyes.  In more than one case of 'chaser convergence' involving scores of chasers gathered around a storm, I learned that the call that I made to an NWS office to let them know what we were seeing was the only call from a chaser!  Irresponsible chasers of that sort are the norm, and I've watched how they behave.   What have they actually done to save lives?  Can they honestly say that's why they're out there?  I don't think so.

Irresponsible chasers certainly should take the time to reconsider their chasing!  Is a tornado outbreak just a majestic display put on by the atmosphere for their entertainment?  What price is paid by the victims so chasers can sell their video for top dollar and have their names (and faces) on the TV?  A responsible storm chaser must realize eventually that the atmosphere doesn't produce tornadoes just because chasers want to see them - chasers don't cause tornadoes, obviously.  But responsible chasers should come to understand that they need to give something back to our society that can mitigate the impact of these devastating storms.  If some chasers feel no empathy for the victims of such events, they're a poor excuse for a human being.  And they should set an example of responsible chasing rather than chasing as a trash sport.  They shouldn't be bragging about the 'extreme' risks they're taking and sneering at the notion that they should be responsible.

Tim Samaras was a responsible chaser and his loss is going to be felt for a long time - he was not about pretending to save lives.  And he didn't brag about his exploits.  Rather, he was attempting to do serious science to learn more about tornadoes, which clearly fascinated him (as they do to most chasers).  If that knowledge he was seeking could ever be used to reduce casualties, he would have been ecstatic, I'm sure.  But to be honest, that thought wasn't what drove Tim to do what he did - and there's no shame or irresponsibility to admit that's what you're doing out there.  What matters is he was doing what he could to give something back.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Why do you atheists care about what we believe in?

The question is often posed to atheists on social media, "Why do you care about what we believe in?  Why don't you just keep your non-belief to yourself?"  There are several different ways to answer this, so I'm going to try to summarize at least some of the reasons for our being so 'militant' about what others choose to believe.

1.  Atheist commentary on religious beliefs often is triggered when believers post their beliefs on social media.  Thus, a big fraction of the commentary by atheists is driven by initiating commentary by believers.  It's a reaction to what we may see as illogical nonsense, or something contradicted by evidence, or simply bizarre.  When such commentary vanishes from the social media, so will a lot of atheist counter-commentary.

2.  We live in a time when thinking based on logic and evidence is more important than ever.  It is, in fact, dangerous when believers are so intensely driven by their religious dogma, they're willing to kill and even die in the process to further their beliefs.  It wasn't atheists who crashed planes into the World Trade Center!  Much of the existing armed conflict in the world is (and has been) associated with religious, sectarian clashing.  Many of us think that anyone who can influence the fate of our entire world should not be someone who looks forward to an afterlife of bliss.  Given the scientific issues that confront our nation - global climate change, stem cell research, genetic engineering, pollution of air and water, hazardous weather, and so on - we need more rationality, not less.  Our nation seems to be on an anti-intellectual, anti-science roll these days, which some of us see as potentially very dangerous.

3.  Many believers are "moderates", some of whom may not even support "witnessing" and proselytizing via social media, and certainly have no wish to participate in acts of fanaticism to seek the advance of their beliefs.  They often seem to be upset when atheists post something that's not a response to some religious post.  Are they similarly upset when religious believers post something that's not a response to some atheist post?  Even if they are, which seems unlikely, don't atheists have the same right to offer their thoughts about religious topics?  If you don't like our comments, just ignore them - after all, that's what you're asking us to do!

4.  Even when not responding to something a believer posted, atheists use social media to share their thoughts with other atheists, perhaps offering a new argument against religious belief, or seeking to stimulate discussion on some religious topic.  And there are a lot of doubters in the religious world - people who are beginning to question the dogma they've been indoctrinated with for years.  It can help them to feel less isolated from others to realize that others have similar questions and doubts.  Even more so for the 'closet atheists', who have arrived at atheism on their own, but fear that disclosure of their atheism will cause an overwhelmingly negative reaction from their family and friends.  If an atheist is unafraid to post commentary about religious beliefs, that commentary can be of value to those unable or unwilling to 'come out' about their atheism, allowing them to know there are others out in the world who share their doubts about religion.

5.  Religious beliefs in the USA have made considerable inroads into the way our nation is run.  Many of the laws on what defines criminal sexual behavior have their origins in the morality of religious believers.  We have 'blue laws' of various sorts that are directly attributable to the dominant christian religion in this nation.  Many politicians, even those not religious zealots, have found it beneficial to wear religion on their sleeves, and to support things like public school prayer and the slogans in our pledge of allegiance and on our currency.  The christians claim we atheists are waging war on their religious freedom - but the reality is that we simply are opposing their efforts to push their beliefs on everyone in this nation.  Being in a distinct minority means we often fail to stop the creeping theocracy we see going on.  Our only protection is the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution, and many believers would like to see our nation become openly theocratic - a christian nation in the same sense that muslims now run theocracies in some nations.  We atheists don't share much other than the absence of belief in a deity, but most atheists are fearful for the loss of their constitutionally-guaranteed freedom of non-belief.  That alone justifies our 'militancy'.

I have no wish to 'convert' anyone, but I certainly would like to see a more consistent use of logic and evidence to base decisions that affect everyone.  If you don't support the use of contraceptives, then don't use them!  If you don't support abortion, then don't have one!  If you believe certain sexual acts are sins, then don't do them!  If you don't believe in evolution, then you can teach your kids your views at home, not in public school science classrooms!  If you don't believe in same-sex marrage, then don't marry someone of the same sex!  You're entitled to your opinions and beliefs - just don't expect everyone to share them and don't support laws and actions that restrict the choices of others solely on the basis of your religious beliefs.  When we have a society that unambiguously and rigidly supports the separation of church and state, then you'll be seeing a lot less atheist commentary.  Until then, get used to it!

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Driving away from tornadoes in urban areas - a bad idea

As I posted here, there have been some tornado situations of late where people have received bad advice from public and private sources regarding what to do as a tornado approaches an urban area:  that is, they have been told that if they don't have a purpose-built tornado shelter, they won't survive and should attempt to escape the tornado by driving away in their vehicles.

In the essay linked above, I give the reasons why this is a bad idea.  The notion of attempting to escape owes its existence at least in part to the now-infamous words spoken by Gary England (former weathercaster at KWTV in Oklahoma City), paraphrased as "You won't survive this tornado above ground!"  I've shown in the essay linked above that this statement, often repeated, is simply wrong, even in homes hit by EF4-5 winds in an EF4-5 tornado.  In such a tornado, the most violent winds affect only about 10% of the total damage path.  Put another way, 90% of the damage path experiences winds of EF3 or less, which means interior walls of a well-built frame home will remain standing - such is very survivable if the occupants take the recommended safety precautions (sheltering in bathrooms, under staircases, interior rooms with as many walls between you and the tornado as possible, away from windows, etc.).   What about the small fraction of homes hit by EF4-5 winds where the home is completely swept away?  Even in such unlucky circumstances, the observed fatality rate is about 1%!!  You may be injured, perhaps even seriously, but the odds of survival are overwhelmingly in your favor if you "shelter in place".  Motor vehicles can be death traps in a violent tornado.  And it's difficult to tell tornado intensity by its appearance, so you should treat all approaching tornadoes as if they could be violent - because they can be.

Recently, the National Weather Service's Central Region began an 'experiment' with Impact-Based Warnings.  I discussed my concerns about this experiment here.  One piece of fallout from this misguided experiment being perpetrated on the public is that some offices are advising the recipients of their official warnings to drive away from tornadoes.  Some private sector meteorologists are saying it's inappropriate to criticize them for doing what the NWS (or at least some offices) is doing:  telling people to flee tornadoes in their vehicles.  The problem with this viewpoint is that what the NWS chooses to do (or not do, as the case may be) is no excuse for a broadcaster to give out misinformation.  Two wrongs do not make a right.

Note:  In rural areas, it's quite possible to escape tornadoes by driving out of the path, assuming you know how to recognize which way the tornado is moving.  Also, if your home lacks adequate shelter and you're concerned about your safety, if you choose to leave for some other already-selected location where you have appropriate shelter, you should do so long before (i.e., hours)  a tornado is sighted heading your way.  Normal traffic conditions will prevail in such cases and you'll not be put in danger by waiting until a tornado actually develops and your home is in the path.

It's possible for anyone to make a mistake - giving advice for people to drive away from the El Reno and Moore tornadoes of 2013 is a big mistake.  Those broadcasting that advice need to undertand that it was a mistake, admit they made the error, and not repeat it.  There may be TV station lawyers and management who are fearful of their broadcaster's admitting to an error - for fear of litigation.  It's a very sad commentary on those lawyers and managers, if so.  Public safety should be the primary consideration in any hazardous weather event - not ratings and not the fear of litigation.  If those responsible for dispensing bad information don't willingly come forward with an admission of error and at least an apology, then it seems nothing prevents them from repeating the misinformation over and over in the future.  Doing so is a disaster waiting to happen, and it eventually will happen.

It's proven very difficult to get people to quit using highway overpasses as impromptu tornado 'shelters' despite a vigorous campaign to do so.  For reasons I can't imagine, people continue to endanger themselves (and others!) by using overpasses as tornado shelters.  Are we going to see similar persistent poor responses by the public, putting themselves and others at risk by attempting to escape tornadoes in urban areas by fleeing in their vehicles?  Only time will tell, but in the meantime, we all need to be on the 'same page' in sending out the message that this is a bad idea!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Recognition awards

This has been my year for awards, it seems.  In June, at the European Severe Storms Conference in Helsinki, Finland, I was honored with the Nikolai Dotzek Award of the European Severe Storms Laboratory.  This is a very special and unexpected thrill for me, in part because the late Nikolai Dotzek for whom the award is named was a close friend and valued colleague. 

The "trophy" for the award is a replica of a giant hailstone (I'm holding it in the photo - with ESSL staff, left to right:  Dr. Pieter Groenemeijer - Director; Dr. Kathrin Riemann-Campe - Deputy Director; and Alois Holtzer - Treasurer), and there's a large certificate which states I received the award for "lifetime achievement in severe convective storms research".  I was flabbergasted to be selected to receive this and had uncharacteristically little to say, I was so much in shock.  Thank you so much, my European friends and colleagues!  I'm still stunned ...

A few weeks ago, I was notified that I'd been selected by the National Weather Association to receive a Special Lifetime Achievement Award for "his exceptional service and contributions to the operational forecasting and research communities through high–quality scientific research, educational workshops, and mentorship of colleagues and students". The NWA is primarily associated with operational weather forecasting (public and private), so this award has a very special significance to me - I 've always felt that the lion's share of my work was inspired by and aimed at providing help to operational weather forecasters as they deal with the most challenging task in meteorology: forecasting the weather.  Owing to the uncertainties associated with the government 'shutdown' this fall, I cancelled my trip to Charleston, SC to receive my award in person.  It appeared likely that many of my National Weather Service colleagues would be unable to attend and this award is so much for them, I couldn't justify to myself attending the conference just to have my ego stroked.  Perhaps next year, I can go to the NWA Annual Meeting and receive it then as a 'holdover'.

The outpouring ot congratulations for my awards has been overwhelming and very much appreciated.  Some years ago, I wrote a Web essay about awards and much of what I said still applies.  But this recent experience has caused me to see all this in a somewhat different light.  A number of my friends and colleagues also have been recognized by the NWA recently (Rick Smith, Bill Read, Prof. Lance Bosart, Prof. Paul Markowski, Dr. Matt Bunkers, et al.), and in their cases, they have all been very deserving of that recognition.  It truly makes me happier to see my friends receive recognition than to be recognized myself.  The work has always been my primary reward and it has never failed to justify the time and effort I've expended on behalf of advancing my profession by whatever means I possess.  It has been an honor just to have a career in science.  Whether or not I receive awards is much less important to me than the work itself.  When deserving colleagues and friends are recognized, I'm so happy to see them receive their due honors - so evidently many of my friends and colleagues have been pleased to see me get recognition for a career spent in service to the science.  Thank you so much, my friends!  I can't even begin to find words for how wonderful this makes me feel!

And I have to say that while I've been singled out for recognition, I believe no one can dispute that I've benefited from some wonderful mentors and role models, been blessed to have worked with some incredibly gifted and dedicated research colleagues, and had the support of many technical staffers who have labored mostly without recognition for their contributions to what I have managed to accomplish.  This award has my name on it, but many, many people have helped me to become a contributing scientist and so this award is also their award.  They should all know that I've  appreciated and acknowledged their many diverse contributions.  My forecaster colleagues have always truly been my inspiration - despite the difficulties and challenges that come with that job, your dedication to public service has not gone unnoticed or without gratitude for your sacrifices. 

Friday, October 11, 2013

Public tornado shelters - Not necessarily a good idea!

I understand perfectly why folks would favor public tornado shelters.  If there were public tornado shelters, then no one would have to struggle to weigh the cost of installing their own personal shelters with the low probability of ever being hit by the violent winds in a violent tornado.  The availability of public shelters completely removes that personal choice - and puts the financial burden on the whole community instead!

Public shelters have a number of issues that detract from their viability as a default solution for communities to protect themselves from the tornado hazard:

1.  When not being used to take shelter from a threatening storm, if they're wide open, then someone can use them to sell drugs, hide violent criminal activities (like rape and child molestation), or serve as a shelter for the homeless.
2.  If they're locked when not being used as a shelter, who decides when to open them and on what basis?  If the word of approaching tornado is not received soon enough, the doors would remain locked as people arrive.
3.  Are pets going to be allowed in or not?  In a case in Kansas some years back, a man was refused access because the shelter forbade pets and he refused to abandon his dog to the storm - and was later found dead.
4.  Are the shelters actually adequate for their proposed purpose?  Using public buildings, such as schools or churches, as shelters might only provide an illusion of security.
5.  How far must people go to reach their designated shelter?  If it's more than a walk of, say, 5 min, many people might want to drive to the shelter.  Is there parking enough for the capacity of the shelter?
6.  Is it really a good idea to leave a reasonably well-constructed frame home to travel to a public shelter?  Being caught in a vehicle or walking in the open can be disastrous. 
7.  Is this the best way a community can deal with the tornado hazard?  Is it the best way for a community to spend the resources ($$) it would cost to build many adequate shelters?
8.  Would every resident have access to a shelter?  Would it be acceptable to leave some segments of the population without any shelter access?

I'd like to repeat something here I've said elsewhere:  even if you have no purpose-built tornado shelter, your best choice remains sheltering 'in place' (in your home), following the guidelines of putting as many walls between you and the outside as possible, in an interior hallway, under a stair case, in a closet or bathroom (without exterior windows).  The often-repeated phrase by some media weathercasters, "You won't survive this tornado above ground!" is FALSE INFORMATION!  Even in an EF-5 tornado, by far the majority of people in the damage path will experience EF-3 or less damage.  You have a very good chance of surviving EF-3 damage in most ordinary homes.   And most people experiencing EF-4/5 damage still manage somehow to survive!  Do not become panicky and start driving away from your home, thereby contributing to gridlock and possibly being caught in your vehicle!

Public shelters make sense in mobile home parks - paid for by the park operator who would pass the costs on to the residents) provided there are enough of them to accommodate everyone needing a shelter and close enough together that people on foot can reach them quickly.   They also make sense in large venue recreational events, shopping malls, theaters, etc., assuming people know where they are, that the shelters are adequate, and people can reach them in time to be of value.  Presumably, businesses and organizations would have to come up with the cost of installing shelters if necessary, and pass on those costs to the occupants/users of those facilities.

But public shelters as a general solution for the widespread absence of tornado shelters (even here in central OK) isn't very practical.  I don't believe it makes sense for the communities to have to raise revenues to pay for shelters for all of their residents, and anything less than that would likely be unacceptable.  People need to make their own personal choices regarding whether or not to spend what it takes to install an adequate shelter for themselves and their loved ones, rather than being taxed to provide a dubious solution from the public coffers.

Although public shelters have their purposes and do have limited value, their challenges make it unlikely they can ever be a general solution for the entire populace.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Follow-up on the Colorado Floods

It's come to my attention that the NWS forecasts for the major flash flood event in Colorado failed to anticipate the disaster that was about to unfold.  And it seems the numerical weather prediction models did a pretty decent job in forecasting substantial precipitation in the area.  Thus, this seems to be a case where the human forecasters subtracted value from the model output, rather than adding value. Learning of this outcome is extremely discouraging to me; this kind of outcome in the face of a severe weather event is precisely what I've spent the last 30 years of my life trying to prevent with forecaster training courses based heavily on what we were trying to do in the Flash Flood Forecasting Course (FFFC).

When the NWS drops the ball by not anticipating hazardous events, the whole chain of responses to those events is threatened.  The core mission of the NWS is to protect lives and property, so by failing to anticipate damaging, life-threatening events, the NWS fails in its most basic responsibility.  Good weather forecasts make a positive difference, but poor forecasts have negative impacts.  

In my last blog, I went on at some length about the origins and content of the FFFC, which was discontinued in the late 1990s.  The original motivation was to prevent more tragedies like the Big Thompson flood of 1976.  Research studies by Bob Maddox, Charlie Chappell, Mike Fritsch, Fernando Caracena, Richard Grumm, Wes Junker, and others provided not only physical understanding of the processes by which flash flooding occurs, but also a historical perspective on the distribution and frequency of flash floods.  We learned the ingredients for a flash flood, which is truly a hydrometeorological event, involving both meteorological and hydrological aspects.  The knowledge is there, ready to be applied in operations.  "Surprises" of this sort simply should not happen.

During our 2-day lectures (as part of the 2-week FFFC), we had very little time to accomplish much in the way of advanced concepts, but the insights and instructional skill of Bob Maddox meant we packed a lot of content into that short time.  We had to do remedial education in the basics of convection, as well as training in the application of physical concepts to real-world forecasting practice.  Most of the forecasters were ill-prepared to move into more advanced topics, so we had to stick to the basics.  Even then, we were constantly challenging forecasters to re-think their understanding.  I still do these things today when I do a training course.

After the end of the FFFC, I was asked to help develop a distance learning module for COMET and the module was supposed to 'duplicate the outcome of the FFFC'.  When I asked what that outcome actually was, since I was unaware of any effort to investigate that topic in any meaningful way, I was greeted with a stony silence.  I declined the opportunity to contribute, on principle.  I didn't believe that any distance learning module could duplicate what we did in our two days.  And I still don't believe that it's possible.  Events in Colorado this year seem to confirm my opinion of distance learning.  What the NWS does for forecaster training isn't even remotely adequate and this tragedy has underscored my concerns.

In the time since our last participation in the FFFC, it's pretty likely that most of the folks we had in the FFFC are no longer sitting at operational forecast desks.  I'm deeply disappointed to learn that the 'corporate memory' within the NWS evidently no longer includes what we tried to impart during the FFFC.  In a world where NWP models are increasingly important to the forecast, it seems that at least some NWS forecasters are no longer capable of using models and the science of meteorology to produce a forecast superior to the models alone.  I've written extensively about where this trend is likely to lead us - see here and here and here and here, just for starters.  It's not something one can contemplate with much confidence that something is being done to prevent the trend from taking us where we don't want to see it go.

Those of us who spent so much time and effort trying to do something about flash flood forecasting are angry and frustrated about this massive flash flood forecast failure.  The forecasters must deal with having a 'defining moment' characterized by failure, but NWS management has to accept its responsibility for this case and do some internal soul-searching to seek a meaningful solution to the problem it represents.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Thoughts on the Colorado floods

In the late summer/fall of 1976, I had graduated with my doctorate and was working at the National Severe Storms Forecast Center (an earlier incarnation of what is now the Storm Prediction Center), in Kansas City, MO.  A colleague was on a late summer vacation in the Colorado Rockies, when on 31 July, the Big Thompson Canyon in Colorado was swept by a flash flood that killed 143 people.  My friend escaped and returned home safely, but a post-event investigation revealed it had not been well-forecast.

After the Big Thompson debacle, the National Weather Service instituted a Flash Flood Forecasting Course (FFFC) at the NWS Training Center, taught by Drs. R. A. Maddox and C. F. Chappell, who had studied the Big Thompson event, as well as many others.  Their established expertise in flash flood events made them logical instructor choices.  In the fall of 1982, I transferred from NSSFC to the Weather Research Program in Boulder, CO, with Dr. Maddox as my boss.  I was reluctant at first to get involved with the FFFC but eventually complied with his request, mainly because he was being swamped with duties.  I eventually came to embrace the course and its goals - our participation was for only 2 days out of a 2-week course, but since it focused on basic principles and application of them to forecasting, it was a great way to learn how to do effective forecaster training.  Dr. Maddox was a great instructor and, while I had to do things to match my ways, I openly copied many things I saw him doing, because they made perfect sense.  I'm still training forecasters in short courses the same way.

I learned many things about flash floods during the years spent teaching the FFFC (which eventually was discontinued), and on the occasion of the 20th Anniversary of the Big Thompson event, a symposium was held in Fort Collins, CO, that included a tour of the canyon.  The tour was a very humbling and sobering experience, and it gave me a great deal of respect for the massive power of moving water.  And added a powerful sense of urgency to my training lectures.  Since then, I continue to be troubled by our society's collective inability to grasp the significance of flash floods at a personal level.  Whereas tornadoes are relatively exotic and scary, everyone has experienced heavy rainfalls and modest flooding, so it seems that many have no respect for what moving water can do when the rainfall is sustained and the flooding becomes massive.  We've made some progress since that fateful day in 1976, but we have a way to go, yet.  Communities need to plan for high-intensity flash floods, such as what to do when roads are washed away and power is disrupted by the floods.  Regulations need to be developed and enforced to mitigate factors that serve to increase the threat, such as washed-away propane tanks.  Building on floodplains should be forbidden.  And so on.  We are not yet a 'weather ready' nation - not even close!!

One thing was clear at the 20th Anniversary Symposium:  the Big Thompson Canyon flood was not a "freak" event.  Something of the sort happens nearly every year somewhere in the high terrain of the western USA, differing only in the magnitude of the event.  People in the know have been saying for decades that Boulder, CO was long overdue for a big event ... and this year, the time had come.  Although not the same in detail as the 1976 Big Thompson flood, the ingredients were there for an event and it has come to pass with devastating effects.   As I write this, there are more than 1200 people yet unaccounted for well after the floods, and at least 5 known fatalities.

This event was foreseen decades ago - although it wasn't known precisely when and how it would happen, of course - but people this week are saying things like "We've never seen anything like this!  We had no idea things could get this bad here!"  This betrays a significant shortfall in our communication of risk to the public.  No one should be so ignorant as to believe that what they've seen in their short lives is the worst the planet can produce.  No one should be so ignorant of the illusory nature of their security when confronted by the forces of the natural world.  As I write this shortly after the 2013 CO floods, it's virtually inevitable that an event much worse than anything yet recorded in all of human history will happen someday, somewhere.  What is written in that history shows that major damaging events have happened in the past, and the lesson to be learned is they will happen again, and might well be even more devastating than anything we've experienced before!  It's not 'scare tactics' to convey an accurate risk assessment.  We owe the public an accurate understanding of the threats they might have to confront.  Evidently, we have yet to accomplish that.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Immigration – responsibilities

It’s a really big decision to make – to leave the nation in which you were born and move yourself (and your family) to a different country.  To move away from the culture and likely the language you were raised in surely is a choice not to be made casually.  There must be something pretty seriously negative associated with staying where you are, and the situation in the country to which you’ve chosen to move must be considerably better with respect to your reasons for leaving.

The reasons people emigrate to someplace else are often economic – they see little hope for a prosperous life for themselves and their children in their native culture, so the move is to give them the chance for a better life.  Perhaps the people are being persecuted within their own nation for their ethnicity, their politics, or their religion, so they seek the freedom to pursue their lives as they choose without persecution or discrimination. No matter what the reason, there presumably must be something pretty bad about someone’s native land and the situation in their destination country must be perceived to be better in that regard.  Otherwise, it seems difficult to understand why someone would uproot themselves to go somewhere else.  Why leave and go there if there was little prospect to a big improvement?

 It seems clear to me that when an immigrant arrives in their new land, they should be willing to live by the laws of their new nation, and to adopt their new culture as soon as possible – that is, to become assimilated into their adoptive nation as soon as possible.  This doesn’t mean they have to wipe away any traces of their native culture – but how much pride can you have for the culture and traditions of a nation that you chose to leave?

It’s often the case that immigrants gather together in enclaves of fellow immigrants from the same nation/etnicity, rather than simply dispersing throughout their new land.   This way, their neighbors speak their native language, celebrate the same holidays, follow the traditional customs, and so forth.  It’s quite natural to seek the company of others of your own kind – tribalism is built into our genes.  The problem with this clustering is that it inhibits assimilation.  The immigrants seek to retain everything familiar to them, with the exception of whatever negative situation caused them to leave their home land. 

If immigrants live by a different set of rules in their enclave from those of their new country, this is permitting at least some (and perhaps most) of what they wanted to leave behind when they left their birthplace.  Immigrants have a responsibility to assimilate, to learn the language of their new country, to follow the laws and customs of their new home even as they honor whatever good things they retain about their original culture.  Seeking to have some sort of cultural autonomy is to sanction disregard for the laws and customs of their new nation.  If they have no respect for those laws and customs, it's illogical to move from your original home to that new country?  Go back home and return to the situation you left!

And the people in the nation to which they have moved have a responsibility to not allow biases against the immigrants (perhaps including animosities many hundreds of years old) to influence how they treat the new arrivals.  It’s simply stupid bigotry to allow such “traditional” hatreds to influence how one feels about the immigrant individuals.  Why punish someone in the present for misdeeds committed by their ancestors?  Let the actual behavior of the new citizens dictate your treatment of them.  If the immigrants are working hard to assimilate, then they deserve your respect and friendship, not your hatred and contempt. If not, then you have a valid reason to be concerned about those individuals, but be sure not to judge everyone by the bad actions of a few.

Especially in the USA, we should remind ourselves of the words on a plaque inside the Statue of Liberty:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Our American nation and all of its good things were built by immigrants – for all of us (including most descendants of native Americans), our heritage includes immigrants.  Let us choose to discard the bigotry we may have inherited from our unfortunate traditions.  Racism and bigotry are simply wrong and go against the laws of the USA – you have no need to despise someone else to feel good about who you are and from whence you came.  Give individuals a chance to show what they’re made of before you judge them.  Don’t consider them to be inferior solely on of the basis of race or ethnicity, and thereby unworthy of your respect as fellow citizens.