Monday, January 31, 2011

Hype and Communication

I love a good winter storm. The kind that cripples an area with ridiculous amounts of snow. I grew up in them, I love to play in them, I love to walk, run, sled in them. They are not rare in the traditional sense but it takes a well timed storm of a certain duration with very heavy snowfall (or ice) accumulation. The combination of all these has not been rare this year. The storm before last in NY, CT, MA saw liquid equivalent snowfall rates (assuming they were accurate in 40-50 mph winds) of 6 mm/hour at their peak at multiple stations. The past storm which dumped even more snow had rates approaching 4-5 mm/hour at its peak. The timing was good with snow peaking in the middle of the night but still snowing through mid morning. I believe both storms lasted around 12-24 hours depending on your precise location.

That leads me to Oklahoma where the hype machine was in full effect, and weather impacts and hazards were being communicated as early as Saturday (watch) and early on Sunday (warning) for a Monday night-Tuesday afternoon storm. It is awesome being in the hype. Shelves at Walmart were bare and people were preparing for weeks without power ... though there must be a super secret handshake I must learn so that I can store that much food before it spoils without power to my fridge.

This is good. The models are doing their job, the forecasters are doing theirs, and TV meteorologists are getting the word, and the impacts, and the story out. I am just not sure that I have a lick about the uncertainty. The fact that weather models rarely converge is not well understood let alone efficiently and concisely communicated.

I looked at what was once a "next generation" tool ... the Short range ensemble forecast (SREF). Only in the last few cycles from the last 36 hrs has the precipitation for Tuesday morning begun to highlight the risk for our area. That risk includes the snow missing us to the east! Or giving us 8-12 inches of snow.

We assume that the ensemble (a collection of perturbed models) covers a sufficient range of realistic scenarios and from this we derive a more skillful forecast. But it is extremely difficult to predict these events precisely because of how localized they can be. A small shift east or west puts (possibly) different communities at risk. By small I could mean 6 inches of snow! These types of scenarios are common in winter storms as they are in summertime thunderstorm hazards.

But what do buy to prepare for a tornado? or a roof smashing hail storm? or a downed tree storm?

What kind of information do you need about uncertainty in the forecast for these situations? For your family? for the local hospital? for the local business?

In some sense the hype is nothing more than a teaching opportunity ... or a learning opportunity. Perhaps this is why we rely on experience ... not because it is always right ... but because we are under the impression we have already learned these lessons. And because those lessons are few and far between (misses being more common than hits) we are suckered into convincing ourselves that we have nothing more to learn. perhaps it is not what action must we invoke, but rather changing peoples minds that they have not learned all the lessons they need to make experience based decisions. Controversial? Probably. But only because it is difficult to convince anyone that they have had blinders on. Until they get run over. Then they have proof.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Something I needed to write down

It would appear to me that one of the biggest hurdles is making teachers efficient. This includes their time in the classroom and outside. Class size is an obvious target for helping in this regard. Fewer students to help means more time, in theory, per student. Colleges handle this with multiple sections.
Perhaps a simple change could be to have sections. Of course this does little to convey what I was really thinking.

I would suggest a long school day 8am to 5pm. But it would require full time and part time teachers. Full time could go from 8-3 as usual, and part time could teach in 2 shifts (say 3-4 hours per day). This would allow more sections to be taught by more than one teacher at different times during the day. I do not assume that all kids go to school at the same time. some may have the typical schedule and others may have a later, lagged schedule. This probably only "works" for high school ... until you consider sports and other "after" school activities, of which teachers are an important part.

Imagine what schools would look like if they could both hold more students and teach more classes. If a student is having trouble, you suddenly have options like different teachers or a different time of day. Or they sit through the same lecture again to help them understand. Perhaps less students would end up in each class and get more time from teachers. Less students may spark more motivation to learn and allow teachers with a passion for teaching to teach at a high level without being drowned in students and homework.

I read an excellent blog post from a teacher today about rules. I enjoyed this quote:

We do not need people who work in fear and submission. We need some creativity, new ideas. We need some originality. We need some flashiness. We need some style.  
Schools which can get their teachers and students to do these exact things will probably always be somewhat successful. I know I came from a high school which did this ... in some classes with some teachers. In fact I remember those teachers: Mrs Nicolari (English1), Miss Ploski (Algebra2),  Mr. Moriarty (English3),  Mr. Macary (Chemistry4), and some whose names I can't recall: sophomore year Biology5 (Mrs Beatty), sophomore year English6 (Mrs Stelavato), and freshmen year Science7 (Mrs Rierra). 

1. She wrote half of our critical papers and was a force to be reckoned with. She commanded respect. She respected you enough to always tell the truth no matter how painful. And she cared.
2. Taught me I was smart. Fun and encouraging. And I learned algebra.
3. I remember his passion for acting, reading, understanding and caring. he always asked what we thought and we were never "wrong".  I always got the impression he wanted our perspective even uf we answered a question he didn't ask ... he just guided us back.
4. Smart guy who was encouraging. You wanted to do well in his class. Learning was a fun requirement.
5. This woman looked me dead in the eye and said "I believe in you" ...and moved me up to honors chemistry.
6. This lady had us write journal entries for English. She shared her "rules are meant to be broken" essay topic and she backed it up: "I open and then re-wrap my Christmas presents that my family hides from me." Like totally without the postcard. She had passion in her stories and teaching.
7. She had me in her science class and quickly realized I did not belong in track 3 and brought me to college prep science. I owe her a lot for that move. She knew how to teach and I benefited immensely from her encouragement.

That is a lot of teachers that had the freedom to express their passion and have an impact. I recognized this quality about them (go me) while I was in their class and that made it comfortable. They had a style I recognized, appreciated, and wanted to excel in. Those that didn't ... well lets just say that I put in the same effort that the teachers did. 

But I was also learning to be a teacher. I did that by teaching 6th graders while I was in Junior Achievement as a senior. I had been through a Dale Carnegie public speaking course. I had been to Operation Enterprise's course through JA. And of course success always sprouts from failure, when I had to deliver a speech to my English class: "Jimmy- You have just put the entire class to sleep!" Mrs. Nicolari. Indeed I did. But you know what ... my students benefited from that statement. I got better. A lot better. And I am happy to say I had many (begin gloating now:) positive evaluations of my passion.

I don't hear too much about teachers, even when I was teaching. Kids came to me because they were failing or having trouble. They always proclaimed high school had been easy. Perhaps they didnt have as many passionate teachers as I did. We should make that our goal. bring back the passion or get out. I already know that teachers are passionate. The challenge is how to lift the burden so this passion will more freely and creatively emerge.

So, I believe class size is an issue. And I think if we give our teachers some help we can improve education. That an better math textbooks.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Thoughts on education

First I read about how a lawmaker in Florida wants teachers to grade parents. Then I saw the state of the union which had a fair bit focused on education. And lastly I have been listening to the background noise on tiger, lion, teddy, and rabbit parenting with regard to education.

So lets go slow. Parents are responsible not just for raising kids but also educating them. Teachers do not raise kids they mentor and teach them. Teachers do not grade parents nor should they start now. I think there are 2 issues here: 1. making parents the scapegoat for their kids learning ability and teaching them they are not always responsible for their own behavior AND 2. teachers have 30 kids per class and grading 30 extra people is ridiculous if not insulting.

Can we really expect a failing system that produced some of these parents to really teach their kids? The logic becomes circular rather quickly. Needless to say you cant fix the hemorhage with a bandaid. The education system is oddly similar to government to bureacracy.

In the SOTU speech, the president had a few things to say about shouldering responsibility for education and he mentioned them in order of personal responsibility. Parents that need to turn off the TV, not give their kids cell phones (take those away too), and stop blowing smoke up their kids asses with self esteem. As I listened to a few TV voices talk about one stood out above the rest:

If we challenge them, get them excited about learning by being excited about learning, they will succeed. And some of the failure and some of the success will give these kids self esteem. 

Need proof? From the SOTU: "Thank you, Mrs. Waters, for showing… that we are smart and we can make it." It wasn't that those kids were dumb. They lacked confidence, skills, and focus. And the new school was able to help those kids achieve.

Which leads my mind to "animal" parenting. All types of parenting can be successful. I think from what I heard the tiger version assumes that the kids need to be focused and disciplined in a boot camp like environment. Where pushing oneself to excel to perfection is worth the sometimes harsh treatment. Others choose a much looser approach ... lets find what your passion is and pursue it. This one takes something that not all families have: patience, money, knowledge, and passion. 

What can learned from this: Teachers are mentors and teachers. Sometimes by being good teachers they are mentoring by revealing their passion. Sometimes the mentoring is direct requiring discussion and reflection. This is why teachers can be so great and impact many students. But teachers can't always reach everyone. Either in a mentoring role or even a teaching role. Thats why we have different teachers for different subjects, and subjects like life, coping, emotion, and expectations start at home.

Friday, January 21, 2011


It was interesting to read the Republican spending cut plans.

They want to cut the funding for a subsidy to the IPCC,  cut the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, DOE Applied Research, cut the federal travel budget in half, The energy star program, and some farm subsidies, and cuts to commercial space travel.

It will be interesting to see what all this really means and where it all ends up. Having worked in the general vicinity of DOE I can say that as an outsider I was impressed with the way that the government partnered with industry to bring research into the applied arena.

Lets remember that high-risk high-reward research has a place and purpose. The government shoulders the high risk, sometimes because learning needs to be done to make advances possible. The scientists or engineers however have no specific interest though in building products to market. And rightfully they are usually not allowed to profit from them as patents and such remain the property of the organization not the individual. This includes intellectual property.  There is a reason industry doesn't engage in this practice and that is the high risk of doing research without a grand plan, without an infinite supply of money and time and resources. Industry can do R and D but it usually has a focus and leverages off someone else's adavances ...typically the government.

A good example is SpaceX as part of the NASA COTS program. They are leveraging NASA assets (launch facilities, engine testing facilities, personnel) and NASA knowledge (materials) and have said quite freely and openly that without NASA they would not have been able to accomplish so much in so little time. Sounds like a sound partnership and a sound investment to me.  Even Elon Musk said something like: I don't do this because there is a lot of profit in sending rockets into space. He even told his initial investors he wasn't in it for the profit. He was passionate about space, passionate about building commercial spaceflight capabilities. The next phase of SpaceX will be really exciting as they modify their tested rocket to hold humans to travel to the space station.

I can't tell what the Ag stuff is about or how hard that hurt the family farmer in times like these. They are already trying to cope with deciding whether to grow corn/soy or switch to biofuel crops like switchgrass. Certainly most farmers do not profit that frequently since weather and water are largely out of their control ... farming requires a delicate balance of a good long, wet growing season. Floods hurt, rain at planting time delays, rain at harvest delays, and wilder weather like cold and freezes damages the crops. Farming is high risk-low reward.

I can't quantify the Arts or Humanities .. but it will have an impact.

I know I will see the results of federal travel cut in half since I work in close proximity to federal folks. It will even serve to hurt part of the planned activities for my job. How badly I do not know. But it will have repercussions and I can only hope we have the tools to minimize them.

Be wary of across the board cuts and pay attention to what is not cut, too. Clearly the government needs to tighten the belt but it needs to do so carefully and thoughtfully. Some programs dont have quantifiable value but that doesn't make them candidates. Government still has a responsibility to represent its citizens and those numbers continue to grow. We cant have small government because our populous is getting larger and larger (taxation without representation rings a bell). We also know it can't do everything.  We must choose wisely on non-partisan reasons...

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Ice is nice

The Norman time series of weather data, specifically wind, was rather strange today. Just after 2:20am the wind began to slow down dropping to 3-4 mph. Funny thing is I remember it being windy at the site around 9am. This is the effect of freezing rain on an anemometer. The propeller didn't freeze altogether as I have seen in Iowa data but the extra mass made it harder to spin. The entire assembly didn't freeze either as the wind direction did change albeit slightly.

The airport in Norman first reported unknown precipitation at 2:11 am at a temperature of 30 and it dropped from there, while the winds stayed in the 15-20mph range throughout the night.

As far as good data goes, I think there is a sonic anemometer but it is made of metal and I wonder how good the wind data would be with a coat of ice on it. Therefore it would be difficult to correct. Human quality control could handle this but I doubt with station to station comparison this time series could be flagged as being questionable. Realize that the rain gauge at the site is not a typical heated tipping bucket so there was no precipitation recorded at the station.

This is not a criticism of the data in any way; rather it highlights the difficulty of making all-weather observations year round even on well funded networks.  This even happens in hurricanes when the power goes out or when water tops the instruments or penetrates the wiring.

Its important to maintain the observations that are good for future work either in weather or climate and hopefully this provides a gut-check. Some observations will sneak in that are bad and therefore it is important to realize that no observation system is perfect or error-free. Sometimes this is why "tricks" or manipulation must be performed because real data has issues and they must be sorted out, flagged, approved or removed.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Science and Adults

Science had an interesting essay published:

"Without a basic understanding of how science works, the public is vulnerable to antiscience propaganda, which engenders distrust of science when it comes to social issues, consumer choices, and policy decisions."

A profound statement. Sadly this is a core problem since we must consider that the scientific method is taught, at a minimum, from grades 3 to at least 10. Thus having any education in science should yield at least cursory understanding of how science works.

However education advances very slowly whereas the speed of science is accelerating. I think most people in a classroom in high school would acknowledge that the smart kids stand way out because they are continually challenged, whereas the rest prefer to not be challenged. Sometimes it is the education system itself which leads to a demoralization ... especially as teachers expect less from underachieving students. We are leaving behind students and advancing others ... this produces a gap.

Science itself produces gaps as increasingly complex problems become addressed by a self selected few (lets call them really intelligent scientists). This type of accelerated learning is happening in all fields due to the growth of science itself. It used to be in discrete leaps (think Einstein and his peers followed by the government development of nuclear weapons). It takes real hard work to follow in these folks footsteps. Consider that a particle physicist may spend 10 years getting a PhD! Contrast that with a meteorologist (a relatively young field of study) who may spend 3-6 years.

Now consider that, as is the current state of affairs, such gaps begin to effect science policy and fiscal expenditures. Some may say we lack the financial fortitude to increase our science spending, and they would be correct in their analysis of available funds. And in doing so they forget that research precedes development. In fact, industry does research specific to its problems. Interestingly enough, some of the largest practical science developments have occurred in the process of researching very different problems. So in order for big technological advances, the government funds research precisely so that development can ensue. Consider a quote taken from:,0,4203638.story
"And we need to recognize that the cost of basic science, and the time it
takes, require a sustained government commitment because industry can't
be relied on to fund incremental and high-risk science for its own sake
without any guarantee of a payoff."

Industry seeks profit. This should not be a surprise nor a negative. Industry must be profitable to sustain itself. And even more profitable to fund its own research: think Bell labs!  The terms high-risk high reward should be common knowledge. Are they? Most people should also know how expensive incremental science is, since that is how we fund graduate students in most fields. Sadly they do not.

So, we have some work to do on both educating our students so as to produce science-literate adults, and also scientific communication such that as the gaps continue to grow we have intelligent people keeping those with whom science is foreign or too difficult, in touch.