March 23, 2001 (Ira Pilgrim)


Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces up, snow is exhilarating; there is no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.

John Ruskin

I live on a mountain top at 4,000 feet above sea level. In the winter, weather predictions are very important to me; at least they were important before my wife retired. She no longer has to be at work at a particular time, so I don't have to worry about plowing the road. We have had as much as 5 feet of snow accompanied by 15 foot drifts. Since it is so important to me, I became a weather spotter for the National Weather Service in Eureka. It has been a very fruitful relationship for me and it has been very useful for the meteorologists.

In the past I have gotten to know many of the people who work the weather. I learned who the best meteorologists were, whose weather synopses were very reliable and who the few were who specialized in CYA(Cover Your Ass) reports. This was especially important on weekends, when there were just a few people on duty.

Last year they switched from people reading the weather reports and forecasts on the weather radio to a computer generated voice that sounds like Arnold Schwartzeneger. I am now used to the voice and don't find it as irritating. However, I miss hearing the voices of the meteorologist. I liked being able to say to my wife, "That's Joe; he really knows his business." I have been told that they plan to change the voice to something more likable. However, that is not the point, since I can get used to any voice, and I have. I can't get used to the idea of not knowing who crafted the forecast, especially the weather synopsis. I find the thought that it was crafted by a committee more frightening.

I have no inside information as to what is on the collective minds of the NOAA people in Washington, but I would guess that they are starting to move toward a totally automated weather report. Eventually, a weather station would be staffed by an administrator, computers and the people who service them. It is obvious that they are a long way from having it perfected to the point where it can be relied upon; but eventually it might happen.

It should also be obvious by now that any repetitive task can probably be done better by a computer than a person. The question is, is weather forecasting a "repetitive process?" In terms of simply reporting what weather instruments are saying, a machine could do that now if it were properly programmed. Whether a machine can evaluate a variety of information and compose a complete and rational forecast remains to be seen. It seems to me that what they are doing now is having people prepare the forecast and the machine reads it. This has the meteorologist preparing the report and giving the computer the simplest part of the task, which is reading it. It seems to me that this doubles the work by telling a machine to do what an 8 year old child can do: read it out loud. I suspect that an 8 year old child can do a better job than the computer.

What I guess the powers that be have in mind eventually, is having it all, or most of it, done by computer. I recall a story that was making the rounds at the beginning of the computer age:

American flight 753, non-stop from San Francisco to Tokyo, had just taken off. Ten minutes into the flight, the male voice on the public address system said, "Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to American flight 753, non-stop to Tokyo. You are all participating in a historic flight. This is the first totally automated flight. This aircraft is being flown entirely by computers. There is no crew in the cockpit; no pilot, co-pilot or navigator. I can assured you that the system has been so thoroughly tested that it is as safe a flight as it is possible to achieve. So sit back, relax, and enjoy your flight with the assurance that absolutely nothing can possibly go wrong, go wrong, go wrong, go wrong, go wrong, go wrong, go wrong.

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