Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Fixing the weather forecast

Today I am fixing weather forecasts, and when I say fixing, I mean making them how I imagine they should be as if I have been given the powers of some small god. In case you are wondering, I have not been given the powers of a small god (still waiting....), but this blog will suffice for the time being.

Before we begin perhaps you are also wondering what all this weather stuff has to do with books, libraries and clerking. I have 14 answers to this.

1. Weather is everywhere, even in libraries.
2. 551.63, 781.1 ARLE, 551.5, 551.525301 are among just gobs of books and stuff on weather.
3. Being properly prepared for weather emergencies is just good, solid clerking.

Is that 14 answers? No? Not yet? Well, I'm sure we must nearly be there and if I've learned any one thing from blogging it's that you've got to get to the point.

What was the point?

Oh, right, weather! Okay!

So here's the deal with weather forecasting. I have been noticing in the past half year, with multiple forecasts at my fingertips and 47 spiral notebooks of data I have collected, that professional forecasters are entirely wrong 38 percent of the time, sort of wrong 92 percent of the time, and either a little bit wrong, right only if you squint and make it blurry, or almost right but in a way that still causes you to get wet an astounding 242 percent of the time (82 percent plus 90 percent plus 70 percent)! All of this is just fine if you live in an area with no weather, but if you do live in a place with weather like, for instance, our Known Universe, it can be extremely important. How so important, you ask? Oh, you didn't ask. How did that question get in there then? Well, the important thing is that we don't have to answer it then. Whew, cause I have no idea.

I don't object terribly to the central part of weather forecasts. Mostly that can stay. What I want is variety, quantifiability, and accountability. For variety I'm thinking you can have your formal weather forecast that's your best science modeled team-based guesses. I like science! Then maybe you can have your two meteorologists get a little loose, intuitive and interpretive and not try and hedge their bets so much. Finally you can get a wide open, earth based guess from maybe a rotating hire, a witch or a homeless person or an outdoor explorer, someone for whom weather really means something. That's four forecasts right there. I think it gives a more appropriate variability to the weather forecast. Answering the "What's the weather supposed to be tomorrow" question with "It's going to be 92." is almost always a lie, whereas "They say it's going to be in the low nineties tomorrow but everyone's' intuition guesses keep going higher in a way that makes me trust the Witch's forecast of 102, so I'll be in the refrigerator if you need me." just feels more real. 

Quantifiability here means just say it. "High of 94 after a cool morning, it won't rain til after dark at which point we'll get half an inch. Also your oak tree will be split asunder by a bolt of lightning." Your "50 percent chance of rain" or your "scattered thunderstorms" mean nothing to me. If you need to say "I don't think it will rain but bring an umbrella" fine, but you'll win no points from me.

Now that we have things in quantifiable form we're all set to be accountable and this is the element I am especially keen on. Compare these two forecasts:
"Tomorrow it will be 85. There will be afternoon thunderstorms."
"Tomorrow it will be 85. There will be afternoon thunderstorms. In the last week though I have been wrong by an average of 11 degrees, and both times I predicted rain it failed to materialize. Still, I really think it's going to rain."

Last summer, a hot one, and I am not keen on hot summers, the forecasters spent about a month and a half under-shooting the temperatures, often dramatically. But with weather forecasting history is constantly erased, so the same obtuse confidence just sits there every day. Now, with the track record sitting in plain view, maybe all your scientific meteorologic models would keep spitting out the same stupid forecasts, but I think after a week of shame any forecaster would start aiming higher and higher on their guesses after they start having to appear as total failures on their own weather page. Having the homeless person be more accurate than you is not good for your career, but hiding from your own track record, while it tends to be publicly par for the course, is neither respectable nor helpful to those of us trying to decide on how thick a shirt we should wear.

And that's it for weather today. Wear a hat. Dress in layers. I have no idea what's going to happen.

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