Wednesday, June 29, 2011

How it feels to be in a rare event

Earlier this week I had a chance to interview some of the forecasters that were on duty when Brisbane went under water a couple months ago. Yesterday this conference also had a special session on engineering aspects of tsunami damage in Japan. A common theme was the sense of shock and disbelief as existing systems were overwhelmed. There's a bit of awe but also a bit of resentment. It reminded me of this quote

"[The event is not] entirely predictable, though it is possible to calculate the ranges of probability. Still, in every range there is the one in a billion chance, the blind shot that seems so improbable that we ordinarily discount it. And when it does happen, our sense of fair play is often more injured than our actual conditions." -S. Lewitt

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Minot Floods

I'm rushing out the door to head to the Airport to go to give a talk at a conference in Brisbane... but there's a fascinating story of floods going on in North Dakota in the US.

On one hand, it's a bit strange to see headlines like "High runoff to blame for flooding" (as opposed to low runoff to blame for flooding?... actually, that happens, but that's another story). Evacuation sirens were blaring a couple days ago. The forecasts back been lowering as the river is coming up.

 PBS has a good video at this location:

Flood Threat Creates 'Psychological Roller Coaster' in Minot, N.D.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The final weigh in

The movers come on Friday. I boxed up my office and brought it home. The house looks like a car bomb went off.

I always seem to forget how awful packing and moving are. Making decisions is difficult and packing is a million decisions. What to do with stuff- sell, ship, store, carry or toss? Is there going to be enough time? What is the highest priority? Moving is something most people do rarely and so they only get good at it when they're done. It feels a bit like in the movies when night is falling, a zombie attack is imminent and who knows what one has to do to prepare? This is a recurring theme in forecasting, dealing with uncertain situations under a deadline... There's not many zombies, but there is a palpable sense of anticipation.

Right, so everything is getting boxed up and stored and we're moving in with a friend before leaving on a year of travel. This includes the bathroom scale. Nearly every day since moving to Australia I have weighed myself in the morning and here's the final result. Each dot is a time I weighed myself and it shows how I've plumped up (upper dots) and slimmed down (lower dots) over the last three years. Click on the graph to make it bigger.

Weight is a great metaphor for the difference between weather and climate, signal and noise. Going up or down a kilo every so often is really nothing to worry about. Maybe you can even lose or gain two kilos in a day. No big deal. This area is having a flood, that area is having a drought, it happens, it's all part of the natural variability. That said, I always come in high on New Years Day because the holidays are one non-stop meal.

However, only by taking careful measurements over a long time can one see the slow drifting of more significant changes. Maybe the average over the last few months is lower than it has ever been before. It might be a sign that something is going on if I'm setting records day after day. Similarly, one big flood doesn't mean "you're fat", but more floods than usual or a string of record-breaking floods might get you thinking about lifestyle choices.

I've since read that they discourage you from weighing yourself every day, just so it doesn't become an obsession, or put you in a foul mood when there's some random fluctuation. To me, it takes a couple seconds a day and has become a habit. Besides, it's better to know and not worry than to guess and be sensational.

Unfortunately, you're on your own when the zombies attack, I can't help you there.

Friday, June 17, 2011

What is a "seer"?

The name of this place (so far) has been "The River Seers". Where does this word seer come from? 

Seer (noun)
   1. One that sees: an inveterate seer of sights. 
   2. A clairvoyant.
   3. A prophet.

I pronounce it as one syllable but I imagine the Australians use two like how they use "be-ah" for beer. 

Little did I know that this word (seer, not beer) holds special meaning in the Mormon religion. Its founder and the heads of the church have been called "Prophets, seers and revelators" and each has a specific meaning. 

From the book of Mormon "A seer is one who sees with spiritual eyes. He perceives the meaning of that which seems obscure to others; therefore he is an interpreter and clarifier of eternal truth. The seer foresees the future from the past and the present." 

It goes on to say that a "prophet" is a teacher of known truth; a "seer" is a perceiver of hidden truth, a "revelator" is a bearer of new truth.

I think these are all great words to describe the river forecasting challenge... Find the hidden meaning in nature, interpret and clarify the signs and use the past and present to predict the future.

I particularly like the phrase "an inveterate seer of sights". It suggests an incurable yearning for the delight of travel. When I leave my job, I'll need a new title and I'm torn between that and "freelance intellectual". 


Tuesday, June 14, 2011

"I am a hopeless data junkie..."

At the Delft meeting this week I've been using a handheld recorder to help take notes. It's an Olympus WS-100. It is surprising how good the quality is in a quiet environment... But if you are in a big room and there is construction going on next door, you mostly get a whomping bass sound.

When I did interviews for my Master's Thesis 10 years ago, the sound quality on cassettes was terrible. During transcription, I would have to turn my stereo up to 11 just to hear anything, but then the interviewee would lean forward and laugh. I would get startled and throw off the headphones and the cat would jump out the window.

I am still working out the best (and nicest) way of using notes from interviews. I think I can probably use my own voice at a public meeting. I have been told it's very American to self-cite (quote yourself).

So below is something I said in the closing session of the meeting this week. This was a meeting of scientists interested in hydrologic forecasting, setting up a forecasting inter-comparison/competition and we were talking about how to get more people involved with the group. It is my first try in a decade at transcribing. I put in [braces] where I tried to use a clearer word without changing the meaning. I also say the gist of what the moderator said without using his words.

Me: I would say I have three motivations [for coming to this meeting]. One is, I'm a hopeless data junkie. I'll admit it, I can never get enough. I'm always looking for data. I collect data and don't use it. It's a problem, I admit it, I'm sorry. If there was a support group [group laughter] that'd be great. If someone was to put [a dataset of old weather model forecasts on the web], I'd throw my mother from a train to get that.

Moderator says that data is available.

Me: If I come to [meetings] like this, maybe I can get [data] like that....[I also have data I can share with others].

Me: Number two [motivation] is reusable tools. [I don't want to rewrite software that others have already done]. [Making your tools available for this competition] is almost like branding, getting [me] hooked, maybe [I'll use your software] in the future.

Me: Third [motivation] is just answers to "what actually works"? We have all these techniques, nobody knows which one is better than any others or are they all pretty much the same? I have no pride in [the methods] I've created. If I come out worst, I'm happy to abandon it....

Moderator said, you're not so noble, you just enjoy being here [group laughter].

Friday, June 10, 2011

A brush with living history

The title sounds like a fifth grader's civics essay about the time president Kennedy's motorcade drove through town. Honestly, I try not to get too pie-eyed when meeting historical figures in hydrology, but last night in Delft, the Netherlands, I managed to have a one on one interview with Norman Crawford. We discussed river forecasting and modelling.

He was quite literally the first person to write a river model and put it on a computer. This was a bit over 50 years ago. He squirms at the suggestion that he's famous but Norman won the hydrologists' equivalent of a Nobel prize. Two different ones actually. "Norm" (he's very self effacing) is one of only a handful of people in history to ever win both. Descendants of his model are still used all over the world and he leads a consulting firm, Hydrocomp. I'm still compiling my notes and hope to write more but today is the birthday of my wife, Kitty.

It's been a heady two weeks in Delft. I met with scientists from Deltares (a non-profit consulting firm that makes a widely used piece of river forecasting software) and there was a workshop of scientists from all over the world. So much to catch up on!

In the meantime, there's this bit of weather news Wichita (Kansas) experiences rare 'heat burst' overnight. The temperature shot up 17 degrees F in 20 minutes.... right around midnight!