Thursday, May 26, 2011

On being a forecaster, on being a scientist

I was a scientist (if you include being a student) for about fourteen years, then a forecaster for seven years, and now a scientist for the last three. I sometimes wonder during which period I learned the most?

A forecaster learns about nature as it happens. The forecaster is sent in to study the situation, make an assessment and sometimes find out how it turned out. That person is confronted by real problems when things aren't working. He or she is able to see every pine needle on a few trees. Sometimes they are so close that sap sticks to their noses.

A scientist gets the broad perspective, studying things after the fact. I've done research involving thousands of catchments, looking at 30, 60, 90 years of data at a time. I can run experiments as if I was forecasting a long time ago, automating computer programs to do what I think my new techniques would have done back in 1995. Some scientists see the forest, the next valley over, off to the horizon. Birds fly below them.

There are other scientists that do field surveys, such as going out one summer and taking a lot of measurements in one place. That place isn't random, it might be in an instrumented pasture as a satellite flies overhead or it might be in the deepest snow around at the crest of spring.

Maybe it comes down to book smarts versus street smarts, education versus experience. Obviously both are important... it seems incomplete to have much more of one than the other. And you would hope that everyone would at least keep gaining either.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The first river forecaster I met

I'm sure the first river forecaster I met was Dallas Reigle, the Hydrologist for Salt River Project, the main water supplier for Phoenix, Arizona. I was a fresh faced grad student at University of Arizona in the hydrology department. He came in as a guest lecturer once a year as a special treat to the students and as a favor to the department. I remember sitting at cold stone-top benches in a darkened room as he showed the choicest clips of video from the 1993 floods. 

As much as it sounded like a character in a Dickens novel about Western Water, that really was his name. Dallas Glen Reigle... I never knew his middle name until I googled him- it makes him sound like a Gran Reserve limited batch of whiskey. Actually, Dallas Glen Reigle the Second (as if one wasn't enough). And he smoked a cigar a day. 

Arizona had been bopping along for a couple decades and then when the 1993 floods hit, the hydrologists were like "We're going to need a bigger chart!!!" It was unlike anything they'd seen before, major bridges getting washed away, reservoirs raging full blast. 

You must understand that this was in the days before Youtube. Now you can see anything you could ever want on the Web. Cats making funny faces, yeah the Internet has that. Dating sites for Ayn Rand fans, there's probably a couple to pick from. Back in the 1990s, however, the best you could do was order some tapes from your local television studio. 

But this was company footage he was showing. The hydrologists flew around the watershed in a helicopter, rapidly finding where the river was getting out of control. Can you think of the last time your work said to you, "We need your help, get to the helicopter!" Dallas peppered the video's narration with his own booming drawl that Westerners would call Southern and Southerners would call Western. At one point he said that a swing in the camera angle was because someone threw up in the helicopter as it swirled over the gushing spillways. Can you think of the last time someone threw up on you in a helicopter in the name of work (that didn't involve guns and missiles)? If you can, please message me. 

Roosevelt lake from the air. Biblical flood coming in from upper left. Note construction on right. Note water seeping through the face of the dam. Bad timing for all this to come together, I reckon. 

The video wasn't all disaster porn. 1993 was also the year that they had been finishing years of improvements to the main reservoir. Lots of things still under construction got ruined. We learned about cofferdams and other technical details... What went wrong, what went well, etc. It was a classroom in an Engineering college after all. 

His sense of humor was purely and infinitely dry. He only laughed at inappropriate times. In the middle of his slides he showed a photo of a clown with a frown face. It wasn't a happy clown with a frown, it was a run-down dirty clown that looked disoriented. Dallas said "What was that? Who put that in there? gah. Next slide please".... Years later I tried the same trick with a group of 2nd graders. It had about the opposite effect that I intended, anarchy broke out and it didn't settle down until I left.  

There in that classroom, I was pie-eyed. That was it, there was no turning back, I wanted to be that guy. 

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The best forecast

My interest in forecast evaluation (saying how good forecasts are) goes back to about 1998 when a ginormous El Nino was threatening California and Arizona with floods. My Masters thesis was on how water providers and emergency managers used those forecasts from September to say what might happen that coming winter.

I did long interviews with key people in Arizona. I went some strange places, particularly emergency management offices. I saw the "big board" at the state emergency center. They really do have black helicopters at the Phoenix bunker (yes, a bunker with zigzagged hallways set up for nuclear explosions).

Before the start of the winter, a late season Pacific hurricane came up the west cost and passed through Yuma and California/Arizona border. That hurricane, and the images of the raging floods during the most-recent-ginormous-El-Nino in 1983, were enough to put the fear of god in everybody. Seriously, I'd go into flood managers' offices and at reception they'd have a massive photo of roiling waves and houses washing away from 1983- you would think that would be fresh in their mind. It wasn't this picture, but this was the event:

Anyhow, you didn't want to be that guy that everybody warned but you didn't do anything and then it happened and jeepers, what do we even pay you for anyway?!?

After the event, many people were wondering, there's small and medium El Ninos going on all the time, is this kind of warning something we could use all the time? How good are the forecasts? Will they ever bite us?

Well, it turns out, to a user, "how good are they" is a very complicated question that depends on where you are, what you do, how much risk you can handle and a host of other things. But for a forecaster, interestingly, there's only a few ways to be right and a few things to strive for to be good.

In my opinion, the best writer on "the goodness of forecasts" was Allan Murphy. I never met him, but in grad school my copy of his collected works was dog-eared and tattered. I hope to weave some of his ideas into my work this year.


Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Obama on instincts

This from a recent interview with Obama on 60 minutes

"The thing about gut instinct is if it works, then you think, "Boy, I had good instincts." If it doesn't, then you're gonna be running back in your mind all the things that told you maybe you shouldn't have done it."

I waffle around a lot about the value of instincts. In my mind, I always have line of "Yes, but..."s ready to go on any decision. Looking back, any or all of them could have been right. But history is written by the victors, so I forget the wrong instincts and remember the right one. Instincts are always plural, a chorus of notes, one or two bound to be in-tune.

Probably one of the biggest ways my personal philosophy changed (by being a forecaster) was by realizing that "I am not lucky." Not good lucky, not bad lucky. There's chance, of course... but not luck. I'm no more or less likely than anyone else to win at the casino. I'd like to buy low and sell high, but my hopes/dreams/fears will have nothing to do with the outcome.

It sounds cold, I know, but it's a liberating realization.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Shopping for interviewing equipment

Over the next year I'm hoping to do a good number of interviews. A few folks suggested getting a handheld recorder, rather than having to worry about taking good notes. I sort of think that a tape recorder is less intimidating than a full camera. Despite any practicing or being told to relax, it is difficult getting comfortable at the end of the barrel of a camera.

I'm always baffled to see that something selling for $140 on the web in the US is $210 in Australia. Even the $30 international shipping doesn't make up the difference. Neither do currency differences- you could change 3 Aus dollars into 2 US dollars a couple years ago but now the AU$ is worth more than the US$. Someone once suggested that you can get great deals by searching for something misspelled ("camerra"or "camra" instead of "camera"). I can think of some great automated arbitrage that could happen here.

Do you know much about audio equipment and/or interview techniques? I'm all ears!