Saturday, August 3, 2013

Sometimes, I feel ashamed of my gender!

I was born into and raised within a home without violence.  My father was a man who never came close to perpetrating any violence on any of us - he was a man, no doubt, but one without the need to assert his physical dominance.  He worked for a full career to support his family at a time when it was possible to do so without having both partners working to make ends meet.  He was a man of an earlier time, and some of his views about women were becoming seriously outdated even as I was still living at home.  But he loved my mother, my sister, and me, and my parents stood together for the rest of their lives.  Not without conflict, but never with violence.  Never!!  It truly was inconceivable in our household, never even surfacing as an item to be considered.  With the standard naivete of a child, I just assumed that everyone lived in such a household.  I had no notion of how blessed I truly was!!

Imagine my surprise when I found that not everyone, even in my lily-white circle of Chicago-style Republican suburbia, had such good fortune as I.  Behind the seemingly peaceful facades of those suburban homes were some genuinely awful things.  Pedophiles, mental and physical abuse, adultery, drug and alcohol abuse (to say nothing of bigotry), and so on.  Some of those men were leading double lives - serial rapists, polygamists, etc. - even as they masqueraded as upstanding members of the community.  And somehow, we never heard much about such things.  Revelations of this sort were rare - perhaps those alleging such incidents were ignored or considered somehow to have deserved what happened to them.   Perhaps the victims were too ashamed over being victimized to say anything.  Perhaps no one wanted to admit the reality that existed.

I had a lot of difficulty assimilating the activities behind the facades around me and, to this day, I simply cannot begin to imagine what lurks inside such men that compels them to do terrible, hurtful things to other humans.  Unless I'm being deceived, which is always a possibility, it's difficult to imagine most of the men I know to be capable of this evil.  What drives Anthony Weiner to his pathetic sexual pecadillos, despite it clearly being against his own self-interest?  What drove John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton to have sordid affairs even as they sat in the White House?  What drives San Diego's mayor Bob Filner to harass the women around him?  What mental state drives pedophilia and child/spousal abuse?  Over and over, we hear about the despicable deeds of athletes and even coaches, involving physical abuse of all sorts.  It seems rape and abuse (mostly, but not completely, perpetrated by men on women) are constantly in the news today.  Likely this has been going on all along, but now we're hearing more about it, evidently.

Life has, among other things, shattered to pieces any illusions I might once have had about such things.  And when I read about the terrible things that men do, I can only shake my head and feel shame for my gender.  Is our brutal evolutionary heritage so compelling that we simply can't control it?  Are we so vulnerable to our sexual urges that we're completely unable to resist them?  Is our proclivity to violence so utterly compelling, it always is waiting to enter at the drop of a hat?  I just don't believe that.  I think our society pays lip service to detesting that side of men, but in many ways looks the other way.  Boys will be boys, right?

A wonderful friend of mine was fond of saying "As the twig is bent, so grows the tree!"  If we have this continuing problem, then surely we must accept at least some part of the responsibility for what sort of men our boys grow up to be.  Yes, of course everyone is responsible for their personal choices (and the consequences), but those decisions may well be influenced by the tacit approval given to boys (and men) for their evil deeds.   I don't know if it's as easy as telling boys "Don't rape!" but the idea that we do not and will not approve of any violence against women and children (and even other men) would be a great thing for our society to seek to make into a living reality.  Instead of keeping these things hushed up, we should make certain they don't go on hiding behind the facade, unpunished.  I have another friend who grew up in an abusive family and he clearly chose to repudiate that sort of behavior, rather than perpetuating it.  I so much admire him for rejecting his own awful past and not allowing it to overcome his innately gentle and loving character.

There's no way to legislate morality, unfortunately.  We each must confront the choices that life presents us with, and make moral decisions.  This is done only one person at a time.  I can offer no real solutions to this problem, but if our society in any way is tolerating (and thereby implicitly encouraging) men to such acts, then we need to fix that!  One does not demonstrate manhood by acts of abuse and violence!

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Target Fixation - A Tornado Danger

There have been a host of videos making the rounds in the past few years showing people evidently so fascinated with tornadoes, they seem not to notice the tornado is coming towards them!  I've shaken my head over such videos - how could people be so stupid?  But a recent conversation with a friend reminded me of an incident on 05 June 1995 near Dougherty, TX when I was so fascinated by what I was seeing in my camcorder viewfinder, I was oblivious to the reality that the tornado was coming right at us!  Thanks to the insistence of my chase partner - my most excellent friend, Al Moller - I was alerted to the situation in plenty of time for us to move to a position well out of the path, and we were able safely to capture some dramatic images and video of the storm.  A similar thing happened to me this year, on 31 May with the El Reno tornado - this time, I was roused from my trance by Tempest Tours tour director Bill Reid.  Again, I was brought back to reality in plenty of time for us to escape.  Perhaps coincidentally, there were a lot of similarities between those storms. 

I mention these incidents in my chasing experience because I believe that anyone can become 'target fixated' - specifically, even me.  Somehow, seeing things unfold through a viewfinder can create a loss of situation awareness.  What we see on our camera screens has a sort of unreality that detaches us from what's actually happening.  Rather than making smug comments about how stupid the people are who fall victim to this, I need to remind myself that I too can behave stupidly when mesmerized by an unfolding tornado event.

The expression 'target fixation' apparently has its roots in WWII, where fighter pilots became so focused on their targets, they literally would fly into the ground!  There can be little doubt that some of the most dramatic tornado videos going around the Internet are a direct result of this, so it behooves all of us to be aware that none of us are immune and we need to look away from our viewfinders from time to time, in order to assess the situation - to ensure we haven't lost our situational awareness to a dangerous extent. 

As a sidebar to this, the ready availability of near real-time radar in a chase vehicle can create something similar to target fixation.  There have been some incidents where people in the vehicles had their heads down staring at their laptop radar displays, without paying much attention to the reality unfolding around them.  When you're in or near the "bear's cage" you need to pop your head up out of your laptop screen frequently and look at what's actually going on around you!  The radar data you're using to make navigational safety decisions may be several minutes old, and your safety margins may be less than what the laptop screen is suggesting.

Part of being a responsible storm chaser is accepting the responsibility for your personal safety!

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Once again, for the record

This blog is likely going to piss off some folks, but I feel I have to say it anyway.  Actually, I've already said most of this in other blogs and web essays, so this is somewhat redundant, but I continue to grow weary of the same old mythology being repeated endlessly.

Storm chasers and real scientists (some of whom are also storm chasers, including me) have something in common.  They cling to the myth that they're out in the field to help save lives - that their primary motivation is for the good of society.  They risk life and limb while doing so, as recently demonstrated in the most compelling way with the deaths of Tim and Paul Samaras, and Carl Young, as well as one (or possibly more) non-scientist chaser(s) on 31 May 2013.  It's a fair question for someone to ask what they died for.  Was Tim's really gathering data inside tornadoes in order save lives?  Does that really justify the risks that Tim took to obtain his unprecedented observations?

In some long-term perspective, it might be that somewhere down the road, the data that Tim obtained might help fill a gap that will somehow lead to saving lives.  I certainly can't rule out that possibility.  Tim's observations are so pioneering, at this point in the history of tornado science, it's really hard to say just what impact the data might eventually have.  Saying that his work was directly tied to life-saving is, in my opinion, simply not justified.  His work was tied to a single element of a complicated topic - tornadoes - that might someday lead to an improved understanding of internal tornado dynamics, and so is important in the way that all basic science is important.  We're pushing forward the frontiers of our understanding, certainly.  But a greater understanding of tornado dynamics doesn't do anything to save lives at present.  Why do I make such a statement?

Let me summarize as briefly as possible where I believe we stand when it comes to saving lives.  Since 1925, the fatality rates from tornadoes have been declining pretty steadily.  This is, I believe, the result of several factors, including growing public awareness, the development of infrastructure to spread tornado warnings ahead of dangerous storms, the re-emergence of tornado forecasting in the late 1940s, and probably a number of things I should have mentioned but have not, perhaps out of ignorance but certainly in the interest of brevity.  Tornado science in the USA began to be serious as a direct result of the resumption of tornado forecasting - the basic science originally was being driven by a need to learn more about how to forecast tornadoes.  That basic research now has a life of its own, mostly independent of forecasting needs.  But tornado scientists still feel obligated to say their research, no matter how abstract or unconnected to the real world it might be, is justified because of its potential to save lives.  They may even believe that to be the case - but I don't.

As it stands right now, most tornado fatalities are the result of long-track violent tornadoes that hit populated areas.  For such storms, virtually all of which are associated with supercells, the forecasts and the warnings are already pretty darned good.  Not many people are dying in tornadoes for the lack of adequate warnings.  The warning lead times for long-track violent tornadoes average much larger than for lesser events that are much less likely to cause multiple fatalities.  I've estimated that since the mid-1950s, the NWS outlook/watch/warning system is responsible for saving perhaps 10,000 lives.  Yes, the system isn't perfect and there are many things we can and should do to improve it.  Nevertheless, it's neither the absence of warnings nor the inadequacy of lead times that cause by far the majority of most deaths in tornadoes today!

People still are dying when violent tornadoes hit populated areas because, for one thing, most of the people in the tornado-prone areas have nowhere to go for adequate shelter from such a violent tornado.  Basements are good, but not adequate by themselves, and many American homes have no basements.  Typical frame home construction in the US is pathetically flimsy, even when built to code.  The structural integrity of most homes in the plains is limited to winds of 90 mph or less, when built to code.  Sadly, building codes are widely violated, even in expensive homes, reducing their structural integrity still more.  Flying debris from flimsy homes add to the fatality counts.  More than half of the annual tornado fatalities are now tied to mobile homes.  Poor people can't afford even a flimsy frame home and so mobile homes are a cheap way to have the American dream at an affordable cost - until they're in the path of a tornado!  And many people have done little or nothing to prepare for a tornado;  they don't even have a proper plan for what to do at home or at school/work.

Very few scientists do their research specifically to save lives.  They do it because they love what they do!  It may ultimately be practical, but that's not why they do what they do in the here and now.    Storm chasers don't chase to save lives.  They do it because of a passion for storms!  Tim Samaras was a scientist/engineer and a storm chaser.  I know and understand his real motivations better than most people, not just because we were friends but because I have the same motivations, and I honor his memory in no small part because he was doing what he loved.  Tim wasn't really doing it to save lives.  And neither are virtually all the other scientists and storm chasers.  If what they do might eventually lead to saving lives - and they choose to spend some extra time and effort specifically for doing that - I'm confident they'll have a right to feel good about that.

My friend Al Moller helped me to find ways to give some of what I'd learned in my chasing and in my research back to the National Weather Service and to the many storm spotters whose real role is to save lives.  I do feel proud that I learned how to do that with Al's help and I choose to believe that some lives indeed were spared through our efforts.  But saving lives wasn't why I became a scientist and a storm chaser.  It's time to put that myth to rest and be honest with ourselves and the public!

The 'Crockumentary' Beat Goes On ..

Today, I visited the PBS website and watched the NOVA program "Oklahoma's Deadliest Tornadoes" (also including the record year of 2011 events), and was prepared for what I saw - another 'crockumentary' - a science program containing very little science, rehashing things that have been presented numerous times in other programs, making annoying technical errors, showing typical disaster porn, offering weepy interviews with tornado survivors, and presenting speculation instead of substance.  They did the very same thing with the very first tornado program NOVA did in 1985. The real science concerning the 20 May 2013 tornado is far from complete, so how can this program be anything more than superficial?  Simple answer:  it can't and it isn't.

Gary England is a TV personality, who recently announced his retirement from weather broadcasting to become an executive.  He is not a scientist, has never contributed a single shred of meaningful science, and has no qualifications to discuss the science of severe storms.  Nevertheless, he is featured on the show, and interviewed (for several sound bites).  Why is he on a science program?  Answer:  it wasn't really a science program!

The scientists they interviewed for the show - Howie Bluestein, Chris Weiss, Tim Marshall - must deal with the inevitable characteristic of crockumentaries:  they're only allowed to answer the questions posed by the program producers (Pioneer Productions - I've had several experiences with them, and they are consistently incompetent at producing substantive science shows).  The scientists sometimes say things for the camera that are really errors or sound stupid, at least in part owing to issues with the interview process.  I've experienced it enough to make me feel less inclined to get upset by the things real scientists say on camera in these crockumentaries.  In any case, those real scientists represent a minority of the content of these programs.  Real scientists never get a chance to tell a coherent story about the science, but are only there for a smattering of sound bites in the midst of a flurry of meaningless unscientific fluff.

Such programs do the public a disservice and the NOVA series in particular should be ashamed of these terrible crockumentaries.  It would be helpful for PBS to develop a real tornado science documentary that told a science-oriented narrative:  the history of the science (how did we get to the present status in the science?), the current consensus about the science, the topics that are being investigated actively at present, the tools that have been and are being used currently to advance the science, the application of the abstract science to the practical world, and so on.  If that were to require more than one NOVA episode, then make longer!

But it seems that even PBS is more about ratings and glitzy flash than real substance.  If they are so evidently disinclined to produce a real science program, then you can only imagine how resistant commercial TV is to scientific substance (e.g., the Discovery Channel).  Some people are inclined to tell me to 'chill out' about this sort of crap.  Why get upset about what is apparently never going to change?  My response is that if you care about the science, then it should be presented properly and substantively, instead of as mere 'entertainment' for the sake of ratings.  I care about getting things right, and I always will.  Anyone who suggests I do otherwise can take their advice and shove it!  You have a right to accept superficial, error-filled content if you wish, but don't ask me to take it!