Category Archives: Personal

"Thank you for your service"

On this Veterans Day, I once again have to confront the gulf between combat zone military veterans and those who have never served in a combat zone. Being in the military means that you've accepted the status of being willing to sacrifice anything and everything, including your physical and mental health, right up to and including losing your life. You've given your nation a signed blank check and they can write in the amount.  For those veterans serving in combat zones, and especially those who actually participated in combat, it's difficult to try to communicate their experiences to those who haven't so served. I've described my experiences here.

On one day per year, we see lots of messages of gratitude to our veterans, and that's nice, but what about the other 364 days? What are we doing to provide help to veterans who have returned from combat and been struggling to cope with their endless nightmares? No one who participated in combat ever returns to become the same person they were before. I was extremely fortunate - it only took me a year or so to return to something close to my former self after leaving the military, but even then, I was forever changed by my military experiences.  Some of those changes in my life were positive, and some were negative.  I was blessed with good fortune, for no obvious reason.  It could have turned out very differently.

I really do value the sentiments expressed by those who offer gratitude for my time in service, but I'm concerned for those veterans who need so much more than words from their nation. Our nation should show their gratitude in their actions as well as mere words, when it comes to our combat veterans. Some of our veterans reach a time when they just can't deal with their devils created by the horrible things they've experienced - too many suicides, broken families, homeless vets, drug addictions, etc. I feel unworthy of gratitude for my time in the military, when I think about those who have suffered so much and been unable to find any peace in their minds.  And this says nothing about those who have had life-changing physical injuries to try to overcome.

We ask young people to serve and protect our freedoms, but we sometimes send them to fight in unwinnable wars on foreign soil for no good reason. Vietnam was such a war, and our so-called "war on terrorism" is another example.  How do you win a war against a tactic?  How do you define what is a "win" in such a war?  We had a similar problem in Vietnam - it was a war against an economic and political ideology in a far away land.  We never found a meaningful exit strategy in Vietnam, so we just left and all that followed showed that our involvement in Vietnam was pointless.  Millions died for nothing.  The young men and women serving in combat have to make hard choices about what to do in hostile circumstance and, if they choose incorrectly, we punish them harshly. We're getting better about trying to help veterans with PTSD and such, but we still have a long way to go.

Don't ever thank veterans for their service but then turn around and ask someone else to risk everything without a damned good reason!  Don't be so eager to support military actions to back up political positions.  Don't send our young men and women into combat and then oppose aid for those who manage to survive.  I saw somewhere that about 9,000 Vietnam veterans have committed suicide since they returned - they actually died in Vietnam.  I think their names should be added to the wall at the National Vietnam Memorial as combat fatalities.  They're not on that wall only because their injuries required more time to take their lives.  That raises the Vietnam toll of American combat deaths from 58,000 to 67,000.

Empathy for women, now!

I've long been an advocate for the cessation of discrimination against, and the abuse of, women in our society.  Progress has been made, but there remains a long way to go.  In the past several days, FaceBook has seen numerous posts of "Me, Too" from women, about having been harassed and/or assaulted (including rape).  The sad fact is that most women will be harassed or assaulted at some time in their lives - likely, repeatedly.  The awful part of this is that most of the crimes against women are not reported.  Why not?  Unfortunately, our culture seems all too inclined to blame assault victims for being assaulted!!  And all too inclined to allow the perpetrators to get away with it, either being let off scot-free or given a very mild slap on the wrist.  And all too inclined to provide little or no support for the victims, in terms of helping them seek justice or in terms of providing care for what many women experience as PTSD as a result of these attacks. "Well, the way she was dressed, she was asking for it!"  "Well she should have known better to be in that place at night!"  "It was just boys being boys!"  Bullshit!!  There is no excuse for harassment and rape, and the blame rests solely on the perpetrator, never the victims.  If we want to stop these crimes, we must teach our boys not to commit violence of any sort against women.  "No!" means no, damn it!

It may surprise some that many such incidents also occur to men.  I was molested (raped) by a neighbor when I was a boy.  I was so humiliated and shamed by it, I didn't tell anyone (except for my very best friend at the time), for decades - certainly not my parents!  This pedophile got away with it, as it seems many do.  Rape is not a sexual act - rather, it uses the apparatus of sex as a weapon to degrade and humiliate the victims in what is an act of violence, rather than sex.  Pedophiles - a subset of sexual assaulters - often commit assaults on either boys or girls.  And it often succeeds in silencing its victims, as it did with me. 

My wife tells me that most rapists have committed their crime many, many times, and almost certainly will never stop hunting for new victims unless they're incarcerated ... or die.  The actual frequency of rape is not known, owing to the underreporting issue, but I'm pretty certain it's much higher than the actual numbers will show.  I know of no other rapes by the man who did it to me, but it seems unlikely to have been an isolated event in his life.  His name is Paul Newton, and he lived on our block in my home town in the Chicago suburbs, 3 houses south.  I'm sure it's well beyond the statute of limitations, but I hope some other victim had the strength and courage to report him.  But probably not. 

Another disgusting incident of a different nature occurred when I was working at the National Severe Storms Laboratory.  A very famous and honored meteorologist was invited to be a consulting senior scientist there by the Lab Director, Dr. Jeff Kimpel, and it turns out he was sexually harassing women who worked in the lab.  After I was made aware of his disgusting behavior, I was going to report him, but one of his victims there begged me not to do it.  She felt that reporting him would only make things worse for her!!  Reluctantly, I did as she asked, and never reported the evil bastard.  She was probably right about the outcome, and that makes me very sad when I think about how many women have gone through this, and been powerless to obtain justice.  From everything I've heard during my time there, at that time, the overall treatment of women at NSSL was pretty poor, with an atmosphere of "Boys will be boys" at high levels in the management, despite all the safeguards that had been put into effect.

Fortunately, I've been able to overcome the shame of my molestation and now realize I wasn't to blame in any way.  If there can be said to be a "benefit" to being molested, it's that I've experienced what many women have experienced, so I have a sense of what they must go through.  The "Me, too!" campaign on FaceBook is allowing many people to come forward and say they, too, have been through harassment/assault.  Stories are optional.  Our society has looked the other way for far too long and the time has come to seek justice and provide consistent support for the victims.  It's time to take a stand against the injustices we've inflicted on victims for too long.  If you've never been a victim, just try to imagine how awful it would be.  Then use that understanding to get up and speak out against crimes of sexual violence - against women and men, girls and boys!

Me, too!!

Trump is just a symptom of a greater malaise in America

There's an insidious illness that has infected the USA, causing our culture to evolve in ways that will eventually end badly for us.  It has become widespread and malignant - like a cancer, it comes from within rather than a foreign invasion.  The election of the incompetent, ignorant, narcissistic, racist, misogynist, corrupt clown that only a minority of Americans voted for in last year's November election is but a symptom of the problem.

The founders of this nation, as imperfect as they were, began what is often called "The Great American Experiment in Democracy".  The experimental aspect of how our nation was created by those founders, was expressed eloquently by President Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg address:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

The Civil War was a rigorous test of those principles, and the nation managed to stay together, sort of.  Given that the Confederate battle flag known as the "Stars and Bars" has become symbolic of, not just the Confederacy, but more so of the racism that caused the Civil War in the first place.  That racism (not limited to the Southern states), like the HIV virus, clearly lives on to this day within our nation.  It has gained widespread support and its persistence is a poison to the principle of equality for all humans in our nation.

Many of these issues surfaced again during the turbulent era of US involvement in Vietnam.  Similar divisions were present in the 1960s that had been around during the Civil War.  And those same divisions in our society plague us today, without the benefit of the spirit of compromise upon which our nation was founded.  Political parties have become a corrupting influence on us, where party loyalty is more valued than service to the American people.

The founders of our nation fell quite a ways short of living up to their own principles, of course.  That shortfall is still obvious today in many Americans.  Equality for all people actually never has been achieved in America, and we have made at best only slow and erratic progress at making equality a reality for everyone.  Women have been given the vote, but they're still being discriminated against in the workplace (and elsewhere) and subjected to sexual harassment and assault (including rape).  Justice for the perpetrators of harassment and assault against women remains elusive - power and money buy such criminals a free pass, despite our ideals.  Women actually are blamed for these crimes, rather than those committing them.  In the face of such inequality, most of the discrimination and the crimes against women are never reported, and in the rare instances where they are reported, that often backfires on the women, not the perps.

After slavery was abolished, racial inequality remains a fact of life experienced on a daily basis for most non-white Americans.  The police are charged with enforcing the laws of the land, but some of the police are simply brutal thugs, free to attack and even kill without being held accountable.  And the police commit such crimes disproportionately on non-white Americans.  Every black family must have "that conversation" with their children to make them aware that justice isn't equal in America.  The default assumption among many whites is that non-whites match the stereotypes projected on them by white Americans (who live in an invisible "bubble" of white privilege), and so many whites are completely unaware of the reality of discrimination against non-whites.

Non-christians in America are widely despised by the "religious right", especially Muslims and atheists, these days.  Christian notions of morality are being forced on all Americans on a daily basis.  I'm not going to go off on a rant against all religion, but here in America, creeping theocracy is generally associated with conservatives, who yearn to impose a mythical vision of America as they imagine it "used to be" when religious discrimination was not being opposed by those who believe in real freedom, not only of, but also from religion.  The "Establishment Clause" of the 1st Constitutional Amendment is constantly under attack by the religious right.  When people believe their god is on their side, they think that means they can fight for a theocratic USA by any means necessary.

Science and the tools of science - education, logic, evidence - are now widely mistrusted by many Americans.  There is a deep thread of anti-science and anti-intellectual thought that has always existed in America, but it seems to be growing more popular.  Public education is being threatened by siphoning even the diminishing taxpayer support for education into religious schools via the so-called "vouchers".  Too many Americans are monumentally ignorant about science, history, geography, mathematics, civics, and more.  Democracy depends on being supported by educated voters, so the attacks on public education are actually attacks on our democratic principles.  To make voting decisions in the modern world dominated by technology requires people who understand how things in our society work.  Otherwise, they are too easily led astray by would-be dictators.

Many politicians are being corrupted by large corporations pouring vast amounts of money to buy special favors for such companies, at taxpayer expense.  The "Trust Busting" era when Teddy Roosevelt broke the power of the corporations, is little more than a distant memory.  The Republican party has been taken over by the far right wing of their party and now supports tax breaks for big corporations while taking resources away that have been providing support for indigent people who need external help just to survive.  The indigent suffer even as the rich get richer.  Income inequality is a capitalist form of slavery and could eventually result in a violent revolution, with the indigent protests likely to be slaughtered by the very police who have pledged to serve and protect them.  Look at recent events for small-scale examples, such as the protests by the Standing Rock Sioux.

The trainwreck that is the crypto-fascist regime under Trump and his GOP supporters is simply a reflection of the decay from within that is infecting our nation.  Most Americans don't exercise their right to vote, and that tendency is at least part of the reason we have been saddled with this regime.  By not voting, Americans are giving up on the American Experiment and our democracy is being threatened by the drift toward fascism.  The right-wing extremists seem more interested in voting than the moderate center.  What is considered "left-wing extremism" is what used to be considered "liberal" while the true extreme left-wing is left out of the political picture altogether and so is reduced to protests and occasional violence.  No one in America wants it to become Communist, and the Communist threat pretty much disintegrated in 1989.  Disenfranchising Americans (limited predominantly to those who would cast a "liberal" vote) is also a terrible stain on the democratic experiment here, and the GOP has mastered the tactic.

Our current regime has dedicated itself to erasing any remnant of their sworn enemy - Barack Obama - as if all of the vitriol poured on him during his time as our President were actually true.  This is causing the US to lose its role as the world leader.  We are alienating our allies and encouraging our enemies.  And we have a childish psychopath with his finger on the thermonuclear trigger!

We seem to be tending toward going down a road to total collapse of liberal democracy, unlikely to be identical to, but also not unlike, the experiences of the moderate provisional government in Russia before the revolt by the Bolsheviks that put them in power, and that of the moderate Weimar Republic in Germany before the triumphs of the Nazis.  The different ideologies mask the many similarities between the Bolshevk and Nazi dictatorships.  History shows us that extremists can win, even when they only represent a small minority of the people in a nation - and we are not immune from having something like that happen!  The signs of our willingness to slide toward fascism have been apparent from the start of the 2016 election.  Extremists have a clear picture of what they want and are willing to do whatever it takes to "win", no matter how much suffering they create in achieving their cause.  Moderates often are paralyzed with indecision about what to do and how to do it - they talk, while extremists act.  Are we seeing the last days of the Great American Experiment?  American "exceptionalism" is a nationalist myth.  There is nothing inherent in American Democracy that will enable it to survive - the testing of its ability to endure has been ongoing since before the Civil War!!

Now we are engaged in a struggle about whether our nation, so conceived and dedicated to the principle of equality for all its people, can endure as a beacon of democracy and freedom.  It is altogether fitting and proper we should do this.  On this struggle hangs the outcome - whether or not this nation shall have a new birth of freedom so that our government of all its people, by all its people, and for all its people, shall not vanish from this Earth.

Charlottesville – early blowback

The sickening, shameful parade of white supremacists in Charlottesville, culminating with the murderous assault by vehicle on the counter-protestors is probably too recent to have a clear perspective.  As more becomes known and more reactions accumulate, this very well could be a watershed moment in American history.  The Trump regime has fueled the racist fires in the hearts of many Americans, giving them what amounts to a green light to stop pretending they're decent human beings; they think the lid is off, allowing them to take violent actions against those who are the object of their evil bigotry.

I'm heartened to see how widespread the revulsion has become in the wake of this awful event.  Of course, there are those who aren't so open about their hidden racism, even now.  They secretly support the white supremacists and think the Trump regime is just their cup of tea.  The ugly stain of racism has been present in this nation throughout its relatively short history, its fortunes rising and falling over time.  To say that racism in the USA has ended is to contribute significantly to the problem we have in overcoming this persistent evil.  Trump and his minions have emboldened the racists to re-surface and give substance to their whining about "political correctness" limiting their ability to disrespect and discriminate against whomever they choose.

That our President and some other politicians have stopped short of condemning the Charlottesville violence by white supremacists is unconscionable.  The canard of "they all do it" is simply not true, especially in this case.  To condemn everyone for the violence and not call out the source of that violence in Charlottesville is to support the white supremacists.  Trump and others have shown the depths of their bigotry, as if any thinking person needed more evidence for that, given the last 6 months.

For many whites who repudiate racism but decline to take an open stand against it, I say the time has come for all who deny the validity of the racist hate be willing to reject white supremacy openly and with the courage of their convictions.  When you see racism being exhibited in your day-to-day world, don't just be a spectator:  support the victims of racism and let the neo-Nazis know that their bigotry is not shared by real Americans.  A world war was fought to prevent the Nazi racial ideology from prevailing; we opponents of white supremacy should be willing to do what it takes to prevent such evil from rising any further.

If you have non-whites in your circle of acquaintances, take some time to talk with them about their experiences.  Learn what they have to endure.  Understand the awful lessons about racism they must teach their children for the sake of their survival!  Listen to them so that you can understand what it feels like to be outside the bubble of white privilege.   You may even have a chance to see with your own eyes how the hatred directed at them causes justifiable fear for their safety.  Empathy is a process of trying to put yourself in someone else's shoes so that you can understand how they feel about being victimized by racism, and why they feel that way.

Racism has virtually no support from science.  The physical differences that separate one human racial group from another are of no more consequence than the color of one's eyes.  To focus on such superficial things as what separates the human race into certain "boxes" called races is to reveal profound ignorance about the human species.  If you decide to separate folks in such highly artificial boxes, you will find, perhaps, very small differences between the people in those boxes, but they are really of no consequence.  If women, on the average, are shorter than men, this doesn't mean that it's not possible for some women to be taller than some men.  If black men, on the average, are faster runners than white men, this doesn't mean that it's not possible for some white men to be faster than some black men.  It's time to move beyond ignorant stereotypes and recognize that all of us are essentially the same.  When you know nothing more about a person than their "race" you essentially know nothing meaningful about that person.  Get to know the person and then you can decide what sort of person they are if you wish.

The number of bigots participating in the demonstrations and violence represents only a fraction of the total.  No child is born a racist.  The young white participants in the neo-Nazi/KKK-type demonstration of bigotry in Charlottesville likely learned their hatred from their parents, either directly or through the intermediary of their friends.  The sad fact is that many of the parents of those white supremacists would be proud of the horrible actions of their children!
 
I hope that this awful event becomes a turning point in a denial of the validity of racism by the vast majority of Americans.  I want this to be the moment in history when we turn the corner on stereotyping and vitriol directed at those of us who live within different "boxes".  The stakes are very high; the future of the human species could well be threatened if we can't overcome this legacy of evil.

What does "saving the Earth" really mean?

Some fraction of my readers will have seen this bit by the late comedian, George Carlin, about saving the Earth.  George's comedy often consisted of bashing one group or another, showing their hypocrisy or absurdity, and usually incorporated a host of valid points.  This comedy segment seems to make some valid points, but I want to discuss this as if George's monologue were a serious argument, not a comedy act.

When discussing topics related to "Saving the Earth", the meaning implied by environmental concerns is not to "save the planet" for the reason he gives: the Earth will continue, regardless of any damage we're able to inflict. The planet can and likely will "shake us off like a bad case of fleas".  But the human species is poisoning itself with the by-products of our industry, and our garbage.  Look around at all the threats to our environment:  greenhouse gases, oil and toxic chemical spills, release of radioactive materials, lost of habitat for non-human species, the danger to honeybees ... the list is long and diverse. 

If we manage to kill ourselves off by means of damaging the environment, then indeed life on Earth will go on without us, but it will be very different from life as we've known it.  Our absence will be a blessing to most of the surviving species on the planet.  We can't survive without them, but many of them will prosper after we're gone.  Our domesticated plants and animals will adapt to their life without us, or die.  In a few thousand years, most of human impacts on the planet will have crumbled to dust and be mostly invisible.  A new ecosystem will be established and little or no record will exist of all our accomplishments for good ... or that turned out to be harmful

What environmentally-concerned people really mean when they "Save the Earth" is something like "Save us from poisoning ourselves and destroying the ecosystem that sustains our lives."  It's clear that barring extraterrestrial or divine intervention, the only way we can be saved is by our own deeds.  Our children and grandchildren will have to deal with the mess we're leaving them as part of their inheritance from us.  What anger and frustration might they feel for our poor stewardship of what we inherited from our forebears?  We were given the gift of fossil fuels and we're in the process of squandering that legacy on self-indulgence and greed, and there are enough of us now that it's beginning to have an impact on the atmosphere and the world's ecosystems.  The military is concerned about that future world with anthropogenic global warming and its associated ea-level rise.  Many modern businesses have recognized the inevitability of transitioning to renewable energy sources rather than continuing the folly of our dependence on the finite quantity of fossil fuels that remain.  If these very conservative segments of our society are concerned, should we not be?

Yes, George Carlin, species have been dying out for so long as life has existed, but the present extinction rate is approaching that of an "extinction event" and, given the interdependencies we're just now learning about, this can have serious consequences for the human species. As we learn more about ecology, the continuing message is that it's not a choice between us and other species - we depend on them far more than they depend on us.  We don't know enough ecology yet to make detailed predictions, but if non-human species extinctions accumulate at an accelerating pace (which is evidently happening), the impact on humans may well become critically negative at some future tipping point.

If you're just not worried about these things, then you're contributing to the challenges to our very survival we confront ... together!  We'll either address these issues and work together to solve them, or we literally could die off together as a species.  Our transient impact on the planet will be erased and repaired in our absence over a geologically short time interval (a few thousand years).  All the things in which we pride ourselves will decay and disappear; the only evidence remaining will be a deposit of our trash and its decay products, not dissimilar to the thin layer of iridium that marks the boundary between the Cretaceous and Tertiary Periods.  This thin layer rich in iridium in the geological record is evidence of a colossal extinction event that ended the dominance of the dinosaurs and allowed us mammals to begin to become the dominant animals.  Not all that far above the iridium layer,  a deposit of plastic shards, glass, concrete dust, metal oxides, and radioactivity will depict the end of our "rule".   Our exaggerated sense of self-importance may be the source of our downfall.  In this world, there are no guarantees;  our survival literally is in our hands.  Our instincts can betray us. Yes, George Carlin, I worry about a lot of things, and try to do what I'm able to do about it.  Our current corrupt and environmentally-destructive political regime should worry you, too.

I close with the following poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley:

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

What does the public want from a weather forecast?

Note ... this is a slightly modified re-post of a guest blog here.

I’m among the first to complain about people offering their opinions about what “the public” wants from weather forecasts, rather than collecting evidence through a process of literally asking a representative sample of people.  However, the latter is not something easily done.  “The Public” is not a homogeneous block of people with equal needs and expectations.  Rather, it’s quite diverse and it’s not obvious to me even how to go about collecting a sample that might be accepted as representative (by those whose expertise is in doing such surveys).  There are some social scientists who have such expertise, I’m sure.  I might even know some of them.

Nevertheless, I’m going to go ahead and offer my unvalidated opinion regarding this issue, anyway.  I’m working with the notion that “the public”  in this context excludes all meteorologists and those who already are adept at using weather forecasts effectively.  My perception is that most people don’t pay much attention to the weather most of the time, and know little or nothing about how it works, or what we meteorologists can claim legitimately to know about the atmosphere.  When they hear a forecast, if they think it might actually matter to them on a particular day (for whatever reason), they want the forecast to be perfect so their lives will be spared (if hazardous weather is possible) and/or they won’t be seriously inconvenienced by the weather as they go about their business.

Regrettably, forecasters never know with absolute certainty exactly what’s going to happen – high uncertainty typically is present on a day when the weather is changing rapidly.  I’m not going to go into a long-winded discussion of the sources for weather forecast uncertainty, but they generally arise from the fact that the weather evolves from some starting structural state to some other state according to atmospheric physics that we know only imperfectly.  We don’t even know the starting point with absolute accuracy.  It’s sort of like putting together a complex itinerary for a trip, where we don’t know exactly where we’re starting from, and we have incomplete and imperfect knowledge of how the transportation system operates.  We will almost certainly wind up in a different place than what our original destination was thought to be, although in the case of weather forecasting, it usually turns out we come fairly close most of the time, despite being forced to use incomplete information.

Wanting forecasts to be perfect is natural and very understandable.  We think our own lives are too complex to be completely and accurately predictable, but if we can rely on the weather forecasts to be perfect, it makes our decision-making a lot easier.  Re-schedule that picnic if it’s going to rain.  Water your garden if it’s going to stay sunny and dry.  Go to the pharmacy to refill your prescription before the heavy snow flies.  In fact, this is just what's happening on most days as a result of the existing imperfect forecasting systems we use – people can and do make use of our forecasts for just this sort of decision-making despite the imperfections of the forecasts.  If someone makes a bad decision and everything goes bad for them because of the weather, they can always blame the damned forecaster!  Some surveys I’ve seen make it clear that many in the public know and understand our forecasts aren’t perfect, but still some people become upset when the weather doesn’t follow precisely what they heard in the forecast(s).  Note that in the real world, one thing forecasters do is to update their forecasts based on new weather information.  Hopefully, it won’t come as a surprise to most people that our forecasts get worse, the farther ahead they are predicting.  Conversely, we improve as the “lead time” gets shorter.  Don’t expect the forecast for weather a week in advance to have the same level of accuracy as one 12 hours in advance!

When the forecasts are changing frequently as a result of new information, this is usually because of large uncertainties on that day.  Not all days are equally difficult to forecast, of course; our forecast uncertainty is not a constant.  In fact, our uncertainty is also not perfectly predictable!

Let me tell a personal anecdote that I’ve used often to illustrate the value of knowing and using the uncertainty information in a weather forecast.  Some years ago, on a fall football weekend here in Norman, there was a slow-moving, strong front in the OKC area (about 20 miles north of Norman).  On the south side of that front, skies were mostly clear and temperatures were expected to rise into the mid-70s (in deg F) in southerly winds, while on the north side of that front, skies were overcast with low clouds and rain with temperatures in the upper 30s or so, and a strong northerly wind.  It was about equally likely the front would stay north of Norman or push a few miles south of Norman by mid-day (around the time the game kicked off).  The forecaster didn’t have the option of saying that the weather that day had about a 50% chance of either option, so the forecaster was forced to make a choice.  As it turned out, the forecast decision that morning was for warm and sunny, whereas the real weather turned out to be miserably cold and rainy.  Tens of thousands of football fans were caught in summer clothing because they accepted the forecast, and they were not happy!  Since I understood the situation, I dressed for the warm option, but carried cold weather rain gear in my backpack.  It was a simple matter to prepare for both possible outcomes!  I’ve often told this story and then asked the audience:  “Would you prefer to be offered the whole story of the forecast, including the uncertainty, or do you just want the forecast without any uncertainty information?”  I almost never get anyone who chooses the latter option!  Is that surprising to anyone?  Nevertheless, many people just want to know what’s going to happen, even though most of them understand the science doesn’t allow them to have absolute certainty.

Every forecast that doesn’t include uncertainty information is tantamount to withholding critical information from the public!  And the public needs to accept some responsibility to learn how to use that uncertainty for their own purposes – they have to set their own thresholds regarding uncertainty.  If the worst thing that could happen to you is getting a little wet, you can accept more uncertainty than if you stand to lose your life if some hazardous weather potential exists.  Unfortunately, low uncertainty, highly confident forecasts are just not possible in some situations.  We can’t predict precisely the path and intensity of a tornado, so a tornado warning generally always has relatively high uncertainty.  The same can be true for deciding just when and where winter storm weather will occur.  From a meteorological standpoint, getting the heavy snow band to within 50-100 km of its eventual location is an excellent forecast.  But that might mean the difference between heavy snow mostly in rural areas versus in a major metropolitan area.  Expecting that forecast to be perfect is just asking to be frustrated.  People can want a perfect forecast, but people in hell want a glass of water, too.  Are they going to get it?  Nope.  Likewise for perfect weather forecasts. 

C’mon people!  You know we can’t make forecasts with absolute certainty, so why keep complaining when it turns out we can’t make perfect forecasts?  The forecasts have been improving steadily, and are much better than we were even 10 years ago. The public is being well-served, as I see it.  Where we have a problem is communicating our uncertainty and the public is remiss in not working very hard in trying to learn how to use any uncertainty information we do provide.  It would be nice to figure out this bottleneck.  Sadly, I have no easy solutions to offer.


My perspective about the poltical situation – 30 Jan 2017

A friend has asked me to compare what we're going through now to other political crises you've experienced in the US.  An interesting suggestion.  So here goes ...

I was born at the end of 1945, so my adult family members went through WWII and are widely considered to be members of the 'greatest generation'.  As in all wars, the crisis of WWII led to the nation running roughshod over the Constitutional rights of some Americans, notably the Japanese-Americans.  Since I have no direct experience with WWII, I can't say much about that crisis, except to note that the suspension of at least some Constitutional rights has happened several times in the history of the US wars.  I've read a lot about the Civil War, WWI, and WWII and the associated politics, but that doesn't make me a proper historian.

I was barely old enough to have much grasp of the Korean War, especially early on.  This was the opening conflict of the Cold War.  I remember seeing news from the 1953 peace talks at P’anmunjŏm and how happy everyone was that the war had ended - with an armistice (not a peace treaty).  Technically, the Korean War never ended; North and South Korea are still at war.  This war was the time of Joe McCarthy and the House Unamerican Activities Committee - he was characterized by a sort of crypto-fascist extreme nationalism.  McCarthy overreached his mandate and was repudiated for his extremist views.

When I was in junior high, I had a Social Studies teacher who was a rabid anti-communist.  He harangued us with frequent fear-mongering rants about the dangers of soviet and Chinese communism. This fear caused me to do some investigating on my own, so I literally read dozens of books about soviet communism.  I wanted to understand why the soviets hated us so much, even as we were being taught to hate them.  The Cold War went on for many more years, and I remember being drilled about "duck and cover" in school in the event of a nuclear war.  I was raised at a time of intense suspicion, fear, and paranoia based on what I was told about the soviet threat.  You lived every day of the Cold War under a constant threat of nuclear annihilation.  My readings convinced me of two things: 1. the Russian people didn't really hate us, and 2. most Americans were ignorant about Russian history.  Like many wars, the Cold War was a clash of ideologies, not between ordinary people.  All of us were in constant danger of being killed in a nuclear war - for something as foolish as a clash over ideology.

The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 occurred when I was in high school.  It was to take the world to the brink of a nuclear holocaust, and that fear was quite real for many days.  JFK and Nikita Khrushchev finally negotiated a settlement that ended that terrifying threat.  To us, it seemed the evil soviets had been forced to back down. The real negotiations were not at all consistent with that perspective, but both populations were fed a bogus narrative that was politically expedient for the politicians who had threatened our very existence.

The Cold War became hot again when we engaged in the Vietnam War - a tragic error in judgment by the US (including choices made by JFK and then LBJ).  Like the Korean War, the Vietnam War was not declared formally - in the jargon of the age, it was described as a "police action" fought not by police but by the military forces of the US.  Ostensibly, it was a matter of "containment" of communism - the so-called "domino hypothesis" that if Vietnam fell to communism, that evil ideology would spread across all of southeast Asia and on to the rest of the world.  By the time when the US was defeated in that war (after winning most of the battles decisively), it had divided the nation.  Conservatives felt we should have "won" the war by any means possible (even though there was no clear way to define what "winning" such a war would mean), but toward the end of our Vietnam troop presence, so many Americans were so opposed to the war that LBJ chose not to run for re-election.  The anti-war riots during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago happened under eyes of the media - as the chant went "The whole world is watching!"  I watched the TV coverage of that event.  Nixon (before he was forced to resign as a result of the Watergate political scandal and subsequent cover-up) tried to cast our departure from Vietnam as "peace with honor" ... but it was a defeat, pure and simple.

I will have only a little to say about the civil rights movement as it had developed around the time of the early beginnings of the Vietnam War.  It's evidence of another source of division in America. White privilege made much of that divisive clash invisible to me:  I was raised in a lily-white bubble, so I had virtually no understanding of what was happening at the time.  One couldn't help but feel ashamed of what was happening to black people in this nation, as shown nearly nightly on TV.  My time in the Army (including in Vietnam) began a process of clearing away the white foam that so limited my comprehension.  For the very first time, in that war, I actually talked with and worked with and played with black Americans  That clearing process continues to this very day, as racism has not ended in America - not by a longshot!

My nation has a long history of cyclic swings of the political center - sometimes left, sometimes right.  My perspective is that the conservative v. liberal struggle has changed from having a spirit of mutual respect and compromise for mutual benefit, to become so divisive and downright dirty that many people have grown deeply disillusioned with our government.  The government is paralyzed by uncompromising political ideology conflict.  It's become acceptable to propose unconstitutional policies in the political arena to gain political ascendancy.  Gerrymandering and voter disenfranchisement have solidified the dominance of the conservatives (GOP) in Congress.  Many people have lost faith in the principles laid down by our nation's founders.  Many are willing to be racists, to be chickenhawks (willing to send our troops into battle but unwilling to fight in those battles), to murder those who violate their personal sense of what is moral.

We've gone to war several times on the basis of an exaggerated fear for the threat posed by terrorism - which concedes victory to the terrorists.  Fear is their goal, and when we give in to that fear, they celebrate.  The reality of our continuing wars is what former President Eisenhower warned about:  those in the military and those engaged in war industries coming to dominate policy decisions regarding going to war to maximize profits.  In no war in my lifetime has there been a credible threat to freedoms in the USA against which to defend on foreign soil.  The biggest threat to American freedoms is neither foreign nations nor terrorist groups.  Rather, the threat to our freedoms comes mostly from the willingness of people to give up their freedoms for the illusion of security.  We seem to be able to tolerate NSA monitoring of email, social media, phone conversations without any warrant or probable cause.  The politicians passed the Patriot Act, ostensibly to combat terrorism.  We operate a prison in Guantanamo that is manifestly illegal, and contrary to American law as it is supposed to be practiced.  We have employed the discredited and widely disavowed practice of torture to obtain information from prisoners of our wars.

 My readings of history have shown me that many Americans are inclined to believe that we somehow are immune to becoming a fascist police state, an oligarchical kleptocracy, or even a theocracy.  I see no evidence to support that delusional belief in American Exceptionalism.  Quite the contrary, in fact.  I see evidence we're quite vulnerable to dictatorial fascism.  The belief that "it can't happen here" is pervasive - it opens a wedge in which a demagogue can enter at a critical time and win a power battle that results in a fascist cult of personality. The rest will follow ...

This brings me finally to the Trump regime.  Despite what my stubborn conservative friends believe, it can happen here.  We're facing a threat I see as quite comparable to that of Wiemar Germany in the years leading up to Hitler's appointment as Chancellor by Hindenburg in 1933.  Within a short time, Hitler pushed through legislation that gave him absolute power, and the rest of the tragic story of WWII follows from that.  Note that Hitler never actually won a democratic election - whereas we Americans actually have elected a pathological liar and narcissist who's already attacking the foundations of our secular, Constitutional democracy.  From where I sit, the threat is more frightening to me than anything I've ever experienced personally.  No, Trump has yet to suppress dissent with violence and he has not yet been granted dictatorial powers.  There are as yet no concentration camps.  If Trump's policies are fully implemented, it seems all too likely that where he and his GOP cronies are taking us is into a fascist cult of personality.  I hope the American people will come to their senses and repudiate this Trump regime.  Destroying our Constitutionally-based rule of law is not a sensible path toward improved governance by our elected officials.  As I see it, the Trump regime poses the greatest threat to American democracy short of a full nuclear exchange.

A mythical narrative – rejected

When I was a boy living with my loving, caring parents, I was introduced to a mythical narrative.  A religious narrative.  This story never made any sense to me and I never accepted it as anything other than a myth.  My parents no doubt were moved by good intentions for me, but I now see what they did was to indoctrinate me in this mythical narrative.  Brainwashing was inflicted on me so that I would live by and perpetuate the narrative as they had.

The Narrative

It begins with the claim that there is an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, and omnibenevolent deity who knew everything about everything, could do whatever it wanted (including either violating the laws of physics or even re-writing the laws of physics), was everywhere all the time, and even knew what we were thinking.  For reasons of its own, it created the universe (in 7 days) and everything in it, including people and the laws of physics.

This deity created us and our world, and promised eternal life to those who worshipped it.  Unbelievers would be sent into an eternity of torment simply for not believing.  The story started with two people who were to become the progenitors of all humans, living in a lush garden.  The man was created from dust, and the woman was created from one of the man's rib.  The woman fell under the spell of a talking snake, who convinced her to eat fruit of the tree of knowledge and she then convinced her man to do likewise.  This was the first sin (acquiring knowledge) and blame for this sin has been imposed on everyone ever born since then.  The man and women were ejected from their garden paradise and went on to beget the entire population of humans.  At some point, this deity became exceedingly unhappy with the human race (the creations of this perfect deity, recall) and murdered all but a select handful of humans with a world-encompassing flood.  After that, at various other times, groups of people angered this deity by straying from what the deity defined as the right behavior and were murdered in diverse ways.  It was perfectly fine to take and own slaves if they didn't belong to the chosen tribe.  Women were the property of their men and could be abused as their men saw fit.  Other tribes were subject to being murdered (including women and children) with the deity's blessing (and assistance, should the need arise).  Rape was not considered important enough to be a Commandment.  Homosexuals were to be killed.

Eventually, the deity who created everything decided it needed to provide an escape from original sin, so it took human form, somehow separate from itself and a mysterious spiritual form of itself, and allowed itself to be murdered by the Romans.  At the end of 3 days, it arose from the dead and rejoined itself to itself.  Now the original deal had been altered:  the key for a human to escape damnation, and a happy life after death, was to believe in the divinity of its human form self as his/her lord and savior.  As usual, unbelievers were still consigned to eternal agony.

Since this deity is omniscient, it clearly knows whatever you're going to do and even what you think, even before you're created.  Your fate is known to the deity even before you're born - you and your fate are created at the same time.  Thus, this deity knows if you're going to accept its terms for you to escape everlasting torture, or not.  But somehow, in such a situation, you have "free will" to choose to believe or not (unless you're born in a nation with a different religion, which is a clear signal that all believers are obligated to spread the "joyful" news that you can be forgiven your ignorance and sins if you just believe in this deity's divine self in human form).  In effect, your human life is meaningless and your fate is fixed in an everlasting pain if the deity created you to be a disbeliever. 

For a certain period of time after creation, the deity was visibly manifest many times, and eventually, in human form, walked among humans for about 30 years before being killed - only to rise from death and ascend to heaven, back to himself.  Since then, the deity ceased to be visible in any way.  If you're going to choose to believe in it, that belief has to be based on faith because there's no longer any credible evidence for the existence of this deity.  In fact, the world as we know it is entirely consistent with the nonexistence of this deity.  It's quite a leap of faith to accept the narrative, so the indoctrination (brainwashing) of children into acceptance of this narrative is a necessary mechanism for its continuance.  For a time, it was considered quite acceptable to force people to worship (or at least pretend to worship) this deity.  It's no longer fashionable but some believers still find it quite acceptable and would do so if they could.  And many force their children to at least pretend to believe in the narrative
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Having become a scientist, I've learned this narrative embodies the absolute antithesis of science - belief without evidence.  I never accepted it, but knowing how science works has shown me that the narrative is virtually certain to be mythical nonsense.  I don't "believe" (in an absolute sense) that such a deity doesn't exist, but I find the absence of evidence for its existence to be a compelling argument that it's quite probable that the deity is nonexistent.  The sacred documents are no more credible evidence for the existence of this deity than a comic book is credible evidence for the existence of a real Superman.  So probable, in fact, that my working conclusion is that the deity is a myth.  I leave open the small logical possibility that I'm wrong in that conclusion, but I'm awaiting a convincing demonstration of that.

The narrative (above) is how I was taught about this deity.  I'm not a biblical scholar and I'm not familiar with "academic" aspects of religion, but I'm quite capable of seeing that this narrative is simply preposterous.  It was written thousands of years ago by recently barbaric tribes in the Middle East who obviously had no inkling of how the world would change or how the universe really works.  The idea that the existing sacred documents are literally the words of this deity certainly underscores that the deity in this myth is far from omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, and omnibenevolent.  There are contradictions, logical fallacies, and even historical errors in the bible.  Despite biblical reassurances, bad, even horrible, things happen to "good people" (believers) all the time.  The deity seemingly does nothing to prevent those things.  People thank this deity for all sorts of things they deem good, and ignore the bad things, and they say nothing of all that humans and science do for other humans.  Many evil deeds are perpetrated in the name of this deity.  This deity manages somehow to be on both sides of warring groups all the time - people who believe that what they do is what the deity wants them to do typically use that to justify awful deeds.  Religious faith isn't necessarily a virtue - it's often used as justification for evil.

Today, apparently, you have to die to get any concrete evidence for the existence of this deity and the reality this narrative - if there is no such thing, of course, death brings nothing but eternal oblivion.  Anyone in the USA who chooses to do so is free to accept this myth as reality, but they're not free to impose their beliefs on me.  And their freedom to accept this narrative is limited to those practices that do no harm to nonbelievers or those who have different religious beliefs.  This narrative is nonsense and not worthy of consideration by a rational person. 

Student loans, universities, and big business

Some recent FB posts have stimulated this blog.  From where I sit, student loan programs have evolved from marginally affordable low-interest loans into predatory loans.  After only four years of college, student loans now saddle graduates with massive debt in exchange for what amounts to declining potential for that satisfying job with good pay and benefits. It takes many years to pay off those loans, and in some cases, it's become well nigh impossible ever to be free of that student loan debt.  A college degree never was a guarantee of satisfactory employment. The only thing guaranteed is that if you don't have that diploma, you won't even be permitted to apply for many good jobs.

Thus, of late, the universities are running a loan sharking system that forces many students into deep debt and yet can promise them absolutely nothing in return, even if they graduate with distinction. Many large state universities have become businesses, not centers of learning.  Such universities now actively  discourage faculty from failing students because that can terminate the gravy train prematurely.  These corporations masquerading as institutions of learning now siphon massive wealth from the middle and lower classes into the universities, and badger their alumni into supporting the university. Their governing bodies are now often dominated by wealthy local business leaders, not people committed to and experienced in education.  The inherently progressive notion of helping students become contributing members of society for the benefit of all has been replaced with something resembling the dark vision of education embodied in Pink Floyd's The Wall, with students on a treadmill ending in a sausage grinder.

When I was in college and grad school, I didn't need any loans, so I entered the workforce basically debt-free.  My parents (middle class) were able to afford supporting my undergraduate education and I contributed some by working in the summers.  When I entered graduate school, my research assistantships paid me enough to be able to avoid student loans.  I was also the beneficiary, after my military "sabbatical," of G.I. Bill benefits.  Well-paid, satisfying employment wasn't guaranteed but those good jobs were available.  I entered the workforce in 1976 with my doctorate, and have enjoyed 40 years of very satisfying work as a severe storms meteorologist. Sadly, the opportunities I had are more or less no longer available.
 
Times have changed since those halcyon days, and definitely not for the better.  University tuition and in-residence education are decreasingly affordable.  Many scientific research institutions are now being run on what amounts to a business model and permanent secure employment is disappearing.  The way much research is done now demands short-term projects (3 years or less) with a list of deliverables, mostly "low hanging fruit" rather than risky long-term efforts with high potential value but without the luxury of guaranteed results. Increasingly, employees must find soft money for themselves even to have a job at all.  Workers hired to soft-money projects can be out of a job by the end of the funded project; last hired = first fired. Predatory capitalism is running literally out of control in our big-time universities and even in our research institutions,  forcing everyone - students , faculty, and scientists - into the business line.
 
Given the way things are going now in this nation, anti-intellectualism and anti-science attitudes are on the rise within the swelling ranks of the educationally-deprived.  This is not an environment that portends a growth of support for scientists and other intellectuals.  In fact, as it stands, they're labeled "elitists" and their findings called into question by the scientifically ignorant.  People seem to have forgotten the important role science and technology have played in the superpower status of the USA.  Investing in, and encouraging educational growth in science and technology is the "capital" that has made the nation strong and a world power.  Business people are too tightly focused on P&L sheets to appreciate the notion of investing in our youth for the long-term health of our nation.  They see only the profits from their predation and have no reason to curb their greed based on income from the middle and lower classes.  They're contributing little or nothing to our long-term stability and success.  They have no concern for the future.

PhDs as a ticket for admin?

Vickie and I were discussing this topic on our western trip and it triggered a lot of memories about my experiences with the educational system.  I mentioned some of this in my guide to grad students, but this includes some new thoughts since I wrote that "book."

First off, the way the education system works (at least as I've observed it) at the doctoral level is that the the primary emphasis is on demonstrating one's ability to do meaningful original research in your chosen field.  Often, a student's dissertation research is their first example of original work (i.e., not dished up as a project by one's major professor).  If the topic is assigned by their advisor, then the student will graduate as a "cripple" - having not yet shown themselves they can do research without assistance from their advisor.  A key element is that the idea for the project must be entirely their own.  From where I've sat, I've seen a lot of cases where this important requirement is not met, leaving the graduate to have to learn how to do this on the job!  This can have a bad outcome for everyone.

OK, I don't want to belabor that point here, but it's important to understand that a dissertation is often the first chance a student gets to show what they can do entirely on their own (as it would be in many research jobs they might have).  Doctoral education emphasizes research over classroom learning - or it should!  Sadly, many new PhDs go out into the world unprepared for the reality of the workplace and so often "disappear" into other situations.  As I was completing my doctoral dissertation, I recognized the absence of any experiences during my academic program that would have helped me overcome the hurdle of being able to dream up projects that are both solvable and worth solving.  There are lots of worthwhile projects that are essentially unsolvable, and lots of solvable problems that aren't worth the effort.  I think this is a teachable skill, but virtually no one teaches it.  For someone dedicating a career to scientific research, it seems to me that a course or two that offered a chance to begin to develop experience at formulating research topics would have been helpful.  My advisor wisely gave me no personal advice on how to do this, so I was forced to learn it entirely on my own.  Which I did, fortunately.  As did most of his students.

Now, however, we come to the primary issue of this blog post:  in many places of professional employment, it's becoming common at high levels of administration to require that applicants have a doctoral degree.  My concern focuses on the value of a standard doctoral program with its emphasis on scientific research when employed in a high level of administration.  I believe most PhD programs do virtually nothing to prepare a student for an eventual administrative position.  Of course, there are some people with research backgrounds who seem "instinctively" able (i.e., untrained) to be great managers.  A lot of being a good administrator is tied to having excellent "people skills" in order to support the working-level researchers (who can be quite idiosyncratic!). There also are "business" skills associated with finding and allocating resources for a research team.  Teamwork skills (as both a leader and a follower) are very important, as are communication skills (both verbal and written).  It's important for every administrator to understand that s/he can't be a success if the staff worker-bees aren't successful at their research (or whatever).  Administration is not productive work on its own, but it can be a big factor for those who actually perform the productive work for the organization (e.g., scientific research).

All too often, I see people promoted from the ranks of working-level science into admin positions for which they are grotesquely unsuited.  This usually breeds discontent among the working scientists and can be disastrous for morale.  Often, the only way to rid the staff of such incompetent managers is to promote them (and they are already well beyond their level of incompetence).  In my case, I resisted the temptation to "climb the ladder" because it would have necessitated my having little or no time to do the research I love.  Why give up something I enjoy to do something for which I have virtually no training and no desire to do?  It made no sense to me, just as having a PhD be a qualification for an administrative position makes little sense.  The primary benefit to having a former researcher in charge of a team is that they should be able to relate to the workers - but all too often, researchers promoted from the ranks become terrible managers or, at least mediocre in their position because they lack the necessary skills.

If someone aims at becoming an administrator in a scientific or technical field, there should be courses and seminars at the doctoral level that offer them some content they'll clearly need in such a position.  If a doctoral program has no such supplementary material (i.e.  in addition to the research experiences), then that diploma should not be viewed as suitable to apply for an administrative position.  Alternatively, some intensive training program for a management position could be offered - provided it's not just a "feel good" exercise that everyone passes.

Although I never had any ambition to be a manager, I've seen for myself the havoc that a bad manager can wreak within a professional program.  I may not be qualified for, or interested in having a management position, but I think I can recognize both good and bad management.  In science, my experience is that good ones are relatively few and far between.  If you find a good one, stick with him/her!