The indifferent stars – More musings about the meaning of life

A friend just posted on Facebook about how stars had to die for us to exist at all.  This stimulated a question in me:  should we worship stars because they died so we can exist?  After all, at least one popular religion worships a deity-figure who supposedly died on their behalf.  A modern physical understanding is that all the atoms that give us existence were cooked up in stars and released by supernovae.  Star stuff come to life, as the late Carl Sagan described us, contemplating our place in the universe.  Apart from notions that what we call 'reality' is simply an illusion, there can be no argument that stars are real.  There's abundant evidence that the core of scientific understanding about stars is in fact a valid interpretation of our star observations.  Those born in the 20th century and after are the first humans to have any understanding of what the stars actually are and how they work.  Our sun is a star, of course, and given that there have been sun-worshippers, why not star-worshippers?

But if stars aren't conscious beings, so far as we can tell, then how could they serve as deities for us, even as they surely are in a very real sense our creators?  We surely were not the product of a conscious intent of stars.  The stars are simply matter and energy, going about their star 'lives' following the laws of physics.  As they are born, mature, and decay, matter and energy flow through them, the atoms now constituting a star aren't the same atoms that made up that star when it was born.

Allow me a diversion into personal experience.  Many years ago, I had a revelation about thunderstorms.  Thunderstorms are not objects, in the sense that they represent a fixed collection of atoms and energy.  Rather, they are processes.   Atoms and energy flow through that process, producing the observations we can make.  Ignoring all the microscale events (quantum fluctuations, etc.), an object  (or, thing) is predominately made up of the same matter from one moment to the next.  A wooden stick, or the water in a sealed container are examples of "things".  If we burn that stick or allow the water in a container free access to its surroundings, there will be changes to the matter and energy distributions.  The stick or the water will be transformed and subject to various processes by which the atoms and energy will be re-arranged, re-combined, and re-distributed.  The stick or water will no longer be in its original form, but the sum of its energy and matter will still exist (remember E = mc2 and the conservation of energy?).  A thunderstorm is a process and there's no clear boundary separating that storm from its environment - how does one draw a bag around a process by which atoms and energy flow through a process?  Where does that process begin and the environment end?

Curiously, we humans can be thought of in very similar terms; i.e., as processes.  The atoms and energy enabling everything we are and everything we can do change with time.  We're not made up of the same atoms and energy that made us up the day we were born, or even conceived.  Although we often think of ourselves as fixed entities, but our consciousness deceives us - it's part of a process that continues throughout our lives within us.  That process includes memories of earlier existence, obviously.  Only lately have we begun to plumb the depths of the connection between our consciousness and the matter that constitutes the framework of our consciousness, a lattice upon which our thoughts are operating.  We have much to learn about that but we do know that our consciousness doesn't survive the death of our bodies.  The existence of something else - call it a soul - that is claimed by some to live beyond our physical existence is unobserved and evidently unobservable, as well as unlikely.

Although stars have matter and energy flowing through them, like we do, I have no way of knowing whether or not stars have consciousness and can think of themselves as entities.  I rather doubt it.  In any case, our physical existence (and the existence of all living entities) is very similar to the existence of the nonliving part of the universe including the stars:  processes going about their business, necessarily obedient to the laws of the natural universe.  One could easily go from this vision of the universe to a sort of pantheism:  We are one with the universe, not man apart from it - a feeling that many have shared as they stared at the stars in the night sky.  Star worship would not be a completely absurd point of view, as the deaths of stars mark the beginnings of our creation in a real way, somewhat analogous to conception.  Science has  connected us inadvertently to something profound (as it often does):  we and the universe are one at a deep level.

The thing about the stars is that no one has a basis to argue that the stars had conscious intent for parts of their matter and energy to be transformed into human beings.  The stars, like all the rest of natural world insofar as we can tell, are absolutely indifferent about our existence.  The stars existed long before us, and will exist long after the human race is gone.  We could worship stars, but the stars can't reciprocate or benefit in any way from our worship.  Our lives have no meaning to the stars, any more than the lives of most particular stars have no meaning to us.  If a nearby star goes supernova and the Earth is bathed in deadly radiation, it will not be the stars punishing us for our transgressions.  Stars are neither good nor evil - but their existence was necessary for us to contemplate ourselves in the context of the universe.

Stars are far closer to us in spirit than some collection of late Bronze Age/early Iron Age mythology, for which zero tangible, credible evidence exists.  If someone feels they must worship something large and powerful, stars make more sense to me than the imaginings of ignorant barely-civilized people thousands of years ago.  If we're inclined to see a meaning for our existence, it's not at all obvious that if you reject Abrahamic religious mythology, there is any meaning to it whatsoever, outside of any meaning you might make up for yourself.  I'm fine with that.  What about you?

The Richard Sherman Brouhaha

If you follow NFL football at all, by now you surely know about the interview with Richard Sherman, Seahawks cornerback, after the game.  I think Mr. Sherman's response could legitimately be called an "outburst" - in subsequent interviews, he called 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree a "mediocre" receiver.  In short, he advanced the notion that he was the best defensive back in the league, whereas his opponent was not very good.  Since then, there has been a enormous amount of talk about the interview, with some apologists saying he was simply still caught up in the on-field emotions, some haters saying he showed himself to be a "thug", and a whole lot of other opinions running a broad gamut.

Of course, the play in question - the game-winning play - resulted in the ball being tipped away from Mr. Crabtree by Mr. Sherman, into the hands of another Seahawk player (linebacker Malcom Smith), ending a drive that might have resulted in a game victory by the 49ers.  As a result of the play, a Seahawk victory was sealed.  It was indeed a great defensive play, with the significance of it magnified by the harsh reality of playoff football:  the winning team goes on to the Super Bowl and the losing team goes home!  But it was just one play, and many other players played a part in the game outcome.  After all, football is a team sport, right?

My first reaction to the interview was that it showed Mr. Sherman to be rather immature - simultaneously bragging about his skills and denigrating the skills of his opponent.  It's been my observation that people who promote themselves, and especially those who do so also by diminishing others, are really expressing an emotional insecurity.  Such attitudes are not universal in the NFL, and most interviews with NFL players are characterized by statements of mutual respect between opponents, as well as gratitude for the contributions by other players on the team.  Playing and surviving in the NFL is tough, and I'm sure many players, even some of the greats, have their moments of insecurity.  There are diverse ways to cope with that, including (but not limited to) the sort of boasting and chest-beating of Mr. Sherman.  And a lot of chippy talk goes on amongst the players on the field during the game that isn't repeated in typical post-game interviews.

Of course, the media are bored with statements of mutual respect and the other cliches that dominate interviews with players:  we're going to play just one game at a time, the winning team played better than we did, the opponent we beat is a great football team, we're going to treat this game like any other game, etc.  Compared to such scripted banality, Mr. Sherman's outburst was a dream come true for the media!  At last!  A player whose responses weren't limited to the team script.  One by-product of Mr. Sherman's outburst is that he became the media's darling, and the rest of the Seahawks team was correspondingly pushed out of the limelight.   I wonder how much Mr. Sherman thought about that consequence before he spoke.

Sadly, another consequence of Mr. Sherman's outburst was a lot of venomous commentary directed at him by viewers of the interview.  Completely unwarranted statements, including the seemingly obligatory racist remarks, were made about Mr. Sherman by people whose knowledge of the player as a human being was virtually nil apart from the few seconds of the interview.  If someone pushes him/herself into the limelight, the result is always like this - opinions are like assholes, of course, and uninformed opinions often come from assholes.  Surely he realized what the response to his remarks could become.  The full range of blowback often includes opinions voiced by racists, and other morons of all sorts and descriptions.  The less said about such, the better.

Had Mr. Sherman chosen to respond with the standard cliches, there would be little notice given to his remarks - only a few folks complaining about how stupid and boring athlete interviews have become.  Instead, the whole run-up to the Super Bowl will be dominated by the fallout from this brief postgame interview.  The interview is larger than the game, at least in the media, for the moment.  If Mr. Sherman is torched by Peyton Manning and his receivers, or if Mr. Sherman pulls off some more great defensive plays, you can imagine the nature of the post-game "analysis" by the media!

Mr. Sherman is a Stanford graduate and evidently is both intelligent and articulate.  One might think that these traits would have prevented him from indulging in the outburst.  Perhaps he was still caught up in the emotions of the moment - I have no way to know that.  But the immaturity and implied insecurity remain, regardless of any "back story" or exculpatory explanations for the outburst.  It's difficult for me to respect self-promoters who publicly denigrate their opponents, no matter how well they perform on the field.

Perhaps later in his NFL career, Mr. Sherman will look back and regret the intemperate remarks he made.  Or perhaps he'll look back and see this moment as the key to a career filled with accolades.  Certainly there are historical precedents for the latter - Mohammed Ali (the self-proclaimed "greatest") comes readily to mind, or Deion "prime time" Sanders.  They weren't all braggadocio - it ain't bragging if you can do it!  His performance on the field over the coming years likely will settle that issue one way or another and if he performs well enough to achieve really high honors (e.g., the NFL HoF) then this flap triggered by his outburst is simply irrelevant and is perhaps only a footnote in his professional career.

Now can we let the dust settle and focus on the game?  Probably not ...

A tragedy or a harbinger?

As the people of Charleston, WV grapple with the challenge of contaminated water from a chemical spill into the public water supply, I probably reacted initially with a rather more partisan view than was appropriate.  My generally liberal views (although not entirely "liberal" - whatever that word might imply to you) saw this as a symptom of the "conservative" (i.e., Republican) position on environmentalism and regulation of industry.  Radically conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives ("radcons", for short) and their supporters seem hell bent on massive deregulation, so it first appeared obvious to me that this incident was inevitable fallout from radcon-backed industry deregulation.  It still seems that way to me.  Deregulation and gutting the budgets of regulatory agencies necessarily will lead to an increasing number of these "accidents" - which to my mind are not so clearly accidental when they arise from willful neglect. Imagine the airlines without the FAA and NTSB.  Or the drug industry without the FDA.  When Freedom Industries can escape culpability for this incident by simply declaring bankruptcy, something is horribly wrong.  The management of that company needs to be prosecuted and serve significant jail time.  And not in some country club-like minimum security prison, either!  Perhaps that experience would give them more empathy for the people they plundered ...

But I have to back off my finger-pointing at the radcons (a seemingly contradictory expression of the reality that "conservatives" - largely tea party types and religious fundamentalists - have become radicalized).  They don't bear the sole responsibility here.  Liberals and Democrats have contributed through their own sort of neglect and ineptitude.  Their opposition to the drive to create a mythical "free market capitalism" (which is really welfare for the rich and the creation of a nearly complete immunity for the rich from prosecution for violating regulations) has been mostly ineffective at convincing American voters that unbridled corporate greed is not in their best interest.  Many of the very people who are victims of corporate greed are voting for the radcons, despite what seems obvious to me:  the folks they're electing are victimizing the very voters who elected them!

The model of "free market capitalism" the radcons seem to be looking toward looks a lot more like industry under the Soviets or the Chinese Communists than some mythical ideal from our past.  The illusion that a "free market" is some ideal to which we must return is simply ignoring the history of corporate greed.  Around the beginning of the 20th century, the USA went through a period when it became politically necessary to break the power of the large corporations - known colloquially as "trust busting", championed by President Theodore Roosevelt.  Horrible abuses were rampant in industry, not unlike the situation we face today.  Much of the regulatory activity swept away in recent episodes of deregulation were put in place during the period of trust busting, to prevent the abuses we recently have begun to experience again.  What a surprise!  If you open the door again, the rats will always rush back in.

Incidents like Charleston's tragedy might well be more than just isolated incidents if the "corporations are people" folks have their way.  The Soviets and the Chinese ran/run their industries with virtually no safety regulation, low wages, and without any regard for environmental impacts.  Pretty much the same as USA corporations prior to the 20th century.  Under circumstances like that, where industry can operate solely for short-term profit without regard for their workers and the residents in the surrounding areas, "accidents" like Charleston become the norm.  With their oppressive control over the media, the Soviets and the Chinese could suppress any news leaks about local disasters - as yet, we haven't reached that point in the USA - yet.  

The hardships and uncertainty folks in Charleston, WV, are experiencing could become commonplace if we don't begin to regain control of corporate America.  Those 1%ers have transformed the economy into welfare for the rich by outsourcing their jobs to places with low wage expectations, bilking the public with outrageous Ponzi schemes and mismanagement of markets, pushing through massive deregulation of corporations and cutting the budgets of regulatory agencies, and numerous other abuses against the 99%.  And they're getting away with it, with the apparent approval of many within the electorate.  We seem hell-bent to return to the 19th century. 

I just don't see how an economy that drives the majority of people into poverty or at least reduces disposable income for the middle class can remain a prosperous one.  The greed that drives the corporations is ultimately self-destructive for us all.  If our existing economy continues down the road it's on, what will take its place when it collapses under the top-heavy weight of corporate abuse?  I don't believe those who have been bamboozled into voting for the radcons have any idea what they're supporting.  Somehow, we need to do something about that.

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!!

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.

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!" 

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!

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.

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!!

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.