Wednesday, April 27, 2016

A "busted" tornado forecast, in retrospect


26 April 2016 (coincidentally, the 25th anniversary of a major tornado outbreak in the Plains) is a classic illustration of the challenges associated with tornado forecasting.   The connection between the synoptic-scale weather systems and the occurrence of a major tornado outbreak ("outbreak" means different things to different people – there's no formal definition) is complicated and depends heavily on details at smaller scales.   One can get the synoptic-scale forecast mostly right but the development of tornadic supercells can be quite sensitive to the detailed structure and evolution at scales ranging from the size of a single storm to features on scales thousands of km across.  In meteorology, getting all of those details exactly right in the forecast is something that more or less never happens.  We can forecast tornado outbreaks in advance with varying levels of confidence, but they're never a sure thing.  Sometimes the details conspire to ruin the forecast.  What looks portentious, even a few hours in advance, can unravel quickly, such that the event doesn't unfold as forecast.

This case reflects certain facts about how severe storm forecasts work at the Storm Prediction Center.  The "culture" of the office contributed to the way the forecasts evolved.  If the situation looks like a possible outbreak, there‘s pressure from a variety of sources to give advance notice of upcoming tornado outbreak potential.  Once a forecast is issued, subsequent forecasts tend to maintain a relatively high level, even when new information (or a new forecaster) might suggest a downgrade of the forecast.  There's a reason for that:  users are uncomfortable with vacillation of the threat level, and if the threat is downgraded, and then even newer information means a return to enhanced threat, the indecision can come across as incompetence.  In other words, it can be unwise to back off the threat level.  Moreover, there's an asymmetric penalty for missed forecasts:  a false alarm for an event that never occurs can't result in human casualties and destruction, whereas an unforecasted event that kills people can be cause for investigations and possible disciplinary action.  This makes overforecasting almost inevitable.

In this case, there were some indications from the forecast models that the probability of a major tornado outbreak was decreasing as the fateful day approached, but the outlooks continued to raise concerns that a tornado outbreak could occur.  I don't necessarily see that as an error; it's realistic given the current state of our science.  An interesting facet to the case is that in the morning outlook on the day of the event, the forecast tornado probability was still only 10%.  The outlook was not upgraded to "High Risk".  I believe this is a plausibly accurate reflection of forecaster uncertainty.  However, the media were continuing the drumbeat of concern for a major event - the issue of the media is not going to be dealt with here.  Technically, a severe weather outlook is not focused only on tornadoes, and the nontornadic aspects of the forecast worked out pretty well.  Therefore, my comments here are restricted only to the forecast of a significant tornado outbreak with multiple, long-track, strong to violent tornadoes (EF2-EF5)

In my view, and this is purely a personal opinion, the biggest "mistake" from the SPC was issuing a PDS ("Particularly dangerous situation") watch in the early afternoon.  This was not warranted by the information of which I was aware (I was out storm chasing).  Whatever explanation might be offered in justification of this decision is in direct contradiction to the observed events.  I'm sure if offered a "do-over", the choice would be not to make it a PDS watch.

Make no bones about it.  Tornado forecasting isn't an easy job and perfection is out of the question.  I mean no disrespect to any forecaster involved in this event but we have to accept that the outcome is generating some backlash that's quite understandable.  Uncertainty is inevitable and probability is the language of uncertainty; by whatever verbiage we use to express it, we meteorologists need to communicate our uncertainty to our users such they accept the real capabilities of meteorological science as applied to the task of forecasting tornadoes.  By all means, we need to find out how to communicate with our users so that they understand our message, and know how to respond in the appropriate way to our weather forecasts.  We simply can't provide a 100% level of confidence in the forecast information we provide.  Our users must learn that they bear some responsibility for their own self-interests.   Weather hazards can present people with life-and-death situations, so in their own best interests, they need to pay attention and learn how to make the best use of what the science allows us to provide.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Understanding white male privilege

I wasn't brought up as a racist or misogynist, but I was born and raised in a virtually completely white part of the Chicago suburbs, in Dupage County.  As it turned out, that "purity" wasn't accidental.  The community was that way because that's the way the people who lived there wanted it to be.  My father was predominantly of English ancestry, and my mother was predominantly Swedish, so my ancestry is virtually lily-white.  There were few people in my town who weren't Protestant or Catholic but we did know two Jewish families, at least.   It wasn't until I was drafted into the Army during the Vietnam era that I encountered much of human diversity.  We were thrown together by the military and had to learn how to deal with the challenges of getting along with people having different backgrounds as best we could.  Curiously, it worked, for the most part.  A lot of the attitudes I grew up with were revealed to be without any real basis.  I still found people with whom I didn't get along, but before you could decide about someone new, you had to get to know them.  Knowing only their skin color and ethnic origins didn't provide much in the way of useful information about that individual.  Some people might fit a stereotype, but you wouldn't know that until you knew the actual person.  I learned I even could get along with those who did fit a stereotype, more or less.  It might be one of the most positive aspects of my time in the Army!

Once I reached upper level undergraduate status, I put my head down into my studies and pushed on to my professional goals (apart from my "sabbatical" in the Army).  Without even thinking about it, I've been living in predominantly (if not totally) white neighborhoods all my life, in the company of mostly white male colleagues.  The key is that this fact never really came to the forefront of my consciousness.  Since my family and I could afford a decent home, there was no need or reason to live in a ghetto of low-income housing.  Thus, I'm still mostly insulated from the diversity of our nation to this very day.  When I went back home for my 50th Anniversary Reunion of my high school graduation class, I found the school to be much more ethnically diverse than it was when I was there.  The area is still mostly white, but apparently there've been significant numbers of non-whites who have moved in.  Good.

The whole point of this brief personal history is to suggest that I've been the beneficiary of white male privilege all my life.  The accident of my birth has put me into a privileged position to become a STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) professional, and it took me a long time to realize my good fortune.  It's only been through the slow accumulation of non-white, ethnically diverse, and female friends that I've become able to see through the fog of my situation, and to appreciate it for what it has offered me.  In exchange for that privilege, it seems to me, I have a responsibility to be an advocate for truly equal opportunity for all.  It's why I identify as a "liberal" - it's not so-called "liberal guilt" I feel, but rather the need to do whatever I can to help break down the barriers that have limited the opportunities for non-white people and women in general.  My friends, over time, have shared their experiences and viewpoints with me, allowing me to see things through their eyes.  Although my friends and I tend to agree about many things, there are still points where we can disagree and still maintain our friendship.

The challenge is to be able to feel empathy for someone without actually having their experiences.  Learning how ethnic profiling is made manifest in the lives of the non-privileged is something I feel we should all try to do.  If we can't literally exchange our gender or ethnicity with someone else, then we should at least seek to know people who've had to live in the absence of white male privilege, and how they have to deal with it.  Talk with them.  Ask them about their experiences.  Listen carefully to what they say.  Think through what they've said and try to imagine yourself having such an experience and how you might react to it.

I feel no particular guilt for having benefited from white male privilege all my life without even realizing it.  Does a fish really appreciate the water in which it swims?  But if I can do something to help someone achieve what I have achieved, should I ignore that person's troubles if they're not a white male?  Of course not!  Most of the non-privileged people I know are not asking for any special favors - far from it, in fact.  They take pride in their ability to overcome the unnecessary, stupid obstacles that have been put in their path, along a road that isn't necessarily easy, even if you are a white male. Their accomplishments mean more to them precisely because they were achieved in spite of the pointless obstacles put in their path.  But we need to be concerned with removing those obstacles.

As I write this, Ken Burns is airing a new documentary on PBS about the life of Jackie Robinson.  His story is far more complex than what most people know - I certainly have learned things about him I didn't realize (or remember, if I ever knew them).  His life is testimony to the ignorance and falsity of gender and ethnic prejudice.  Jackie Robinson had to endure awful things visited on him by his teammates and baseball fans - without responding.  His entire life, right up to end, was heavily committed to seeking equality for Americans of African descent.  It was pointed out in the documentary that his entry into Major League Baseball was the death knell for the Negro Leagues from whence he came. 

It's interesting to me, then, that I have a distant personal connection to the Negro Leagues:  a Dr. Raymond Doswell is an official of the Negro League Baseball Museum.  He's of African descent.  I don't know his genealogy, but it seems there's a chance one of his ancestors carrying the Doswell surname was a slave in Virginia under one of the "Virginia Doswells" [English folks who came to the US before the Revolution and became landed gentry - that isn't my direct ancestral line, however.].  Slaves sometimes took the surnames of their masters, or were children who carried the master's surname, being a product of the master having his way with his female slaves.  I'm pretty certain the surname Doswell didn't come over to Virginia from Africa.  We might even be distantly related.  I know of several black Doswells around the nation, many of whom are successful, educated, and prosperous members of their communities.  I'd be proud to claim them as distant relatives but in any case, they reflect credit on themselves and the name of Doswell!

Let's abandon the outdated tendency toward tribalism and associated bigotry we've inherited in our genes from a time when tribalism was a survival trait for our primitive ancestors.  Tribalism has outlived its value, and we can overcome our genetic tendencies.  There's no good reason to limit opportunities to anyone.  We humans need all the help we can get, and limiting our abilities to those of a minority on the planet (white males) is now extremely counterproductive.  We should be doing everything we can to encourage all people to pursue their dreams as best they can, and not be putting pointless barriers in their path.  We share a common humanity, after all.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

School closings in tornado hazard situations, Part 2

So now, it should be clear that the NWS tornado forecast products ... from outlooks to warnings ... cannot be considered 100% accurate in all respects but will always involve uncertainty.  Furthermore,, decision-makers must consider other, non-meteorological issues in making their choices for how to react to a given situation so that it makes no sense to have some rigid rules for what choices to make.  Decision-makers must, therefore, invest considerable effort in "situation awareness" - they have to be deeply committed to staying informed about what is always an evolving situation.  The ultimate proper choice (i.e., the ex post facto "right decision") can change literally from one minute to the next as a tornado event unfolds.

With regard to school closings, what are some of the non-meteorological factors involved?  I make no claim to be able to list them all, here.  A big factor concerns the time of day.  If the school is closed on the basis of the forecast/warning, should the children stay at school or go home?  If the schools closes early and the children are sent home, will one or both of the parents of the children be at home?  What is the state of construction quality associated with the children's homes - do they live in a mobile home or a flimsy frame home or a multistory multiple family home?  How much time before an approaching tornado hits the school?  Are the kids in class or at recess outside or waiting for buses to take them home, with parents waiting for some of them (or on the way to pick them up)?

What sort of protection does the school actually offer and will it be adequate for a strong or violent tornado, should they be unlucky enough to be in the path of such a storm?  Does the school have a tornado plan?  Assuming they have one, has the school's tornado plan been vetted by structural engineers and/or meteorologists so that it's known to be the best they actually can do with the existing structure?  Is adequate shelter available anywhere in that school and who decided it was indeed adequate?  If the school has sheltering inadequacies, can they afford the necessary modifications, up to and including purpose-built tornado shelters?  I've seen plans at schools that are quite flawed and could eventually lead to a disaster.  I've seen schools that, without structural changes, have no local capable of occupation by the entire population of the school that would provide adequate shelter - only the least bad among all their sheltering options.

Have regular tornado drills been done at least once per year?  Are there means by which a school's decision-maker can be situation aware during a volatile weather situation - a weather radio and/or some internet connection that is being dedicated to weather situation awareness?  Is the decision-maker trained well enough to make such difficult life-and-death decisions in the face of a complex, rapidly-changing hazard?  Does the decision maker understand all the options and know their weak and strong points?

Moreover, as discussed in my first post on this topic, the tornado threat changes continually.  But the vulnerability of some segments of a school's population varies.  Physically handicapped people require more time to reach and enter shelter locations than the able-bodied, so they might have to commence their tornado precautions earlier than the rest of the group.  Has all that been accounted for in the tornado plan?

Although this discussion is about school closings in particular, many similar statements are valid for churches, businesses, shopping malls, recreation areas, entertainment venues, and so on.  For none of them is it trivially obvious what choices a decision-maker might have.  Schools in session have been  hit infrequently over the years, fortunately, but when they are hit while in session, the results can be tragic.  And the same goes for all the other public and private locations where people might be concentrated in relatively high numbers.  How many of those places have a tornado plan that's familiar to the occupants and easily implemented on relatively short notice?  How many even have a person designated as the tornado decision-maker (i.e., an emergency manager) who is trained and equipped for the task?  What if their designated decision-maker isn't there for some reason - do they have a properly prepared backup?

If the goal is to make the nation "weather ready", it's going to require a lot more than a few catchy slogans.  The certification of weather readiness requires some stringent milestones, not just a few simple requirements.  Being truly weather ready is a complex task that has many facets to be considered.  A knee-jerk response based on some simple criterion (such as being in a tornado watch or not) is not really demonstrating practical weather readiness or adequate preparation.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

School closings in tornado hazard situations, Part 1

Recently, my colleague Dr. J Marshall Shepherd, has raised questions about policies regarding school operations during tornado situations.  This issue is far from simple.  It involves many complex topics and I want to discuss at least some of those topics.  This will be somewhat longer than my typical blog, but it necessitates some detail.  My bottom line is that any particular "answer" to Marshall's questions is extremely unlikely to be appropriate in all possible circumstances.  In other words, I doubt seriously there's any "one size fits all" procedure for deciding what to do.  Therefore, any decision regarding school responses to a threatening tornado situation depends strongly on the circumstantial details.  And that includes not only the choices by the school administration, but also all the individual families including the schoolchildren.

First, a review of products from the National Weather Service [NWS]:  the Storm Prediction Center (SPC) in Norman, Oklahoma issues various severe weather forecast products from a few hours in advance of a hazardous storm event, to several days ahead.  The quality and accuracy of their forecasts have been improving over the decades.  Their forecasts are not perfect but they can provide substantial value for decision-makers when used properly.

That raises an interesting point - at least interesting to me and some others - just how do decision-makers use a weather forecast that is inevitably uncertain, especially in terms of intensity, and temporal/spatial specificity (i.e., exactly when, where, and how strong will the event be?).  It isn't possible for any forecast by anyone to provide such detail accurately and consistently.  How does a user of this information make use of forecasts if it's known (and it is) that all forecasts have greater or lesser uncertainty.  If the forecasts were perfectly accurate in all details, then the decision-maker's decision is made by the forecaster!  The user then would know exactly what will happen and can make decisions easily.  I understand why most users want this to be the case, even though they know better.  People in Hell want a glass of ice water, too!  No forecaster can do this, so it's illogical to expect that it is possible.

Moreover, a decision-maker must incorporate more information than just the weather forecast in making a decision -- factors that public sector (i.e., NWS) forecasters in general know little or nothing about.  Some decision-makers, because of their circumstances, need a lot of advance warning in order to take appropriate action.  Others can get by with much less lead time.  Some have prepared shelter positions at immediate hand, others do not.  Every user has unique circumstances.  There's no way for NWS forecasters to know all the external factors that govern a weather forecast user's needs, so the forecasts simply can't be used as if they were somehow perfect.  Perhaps a few user/decision-makers might be able to pay for the services of a private sector forecaster to make their weather decisions for them based on shared information so the forecasts know precisely what are their needs, but that's just not possible for NWS forecasters.  Instead, NWS forecasters provide a forecast that is their best estimate of what will happen, and - ideally - supply some understandable information about the uncertainties of their forecast.  A user then - ideally - merges that forecast with all the other information needed to make a decision.

Consider the implications of a Severe Storm Outlook issued by the SPC:  this product delineates the area expected to experience severe weather a day or more in advance, to allow users to begin to prepare for the possibility of experiencing a hazardous storm.  For any given location within the area designated, during the time when the forecast is valid, there is some generally unknown probability of experiencing that hazard, but the SPC seeks to assign a probability based on their understanding of the specific weather situation.  In general, it is quite far from a time/space/intensity-specific prediction, of course.  Even a 5% probability at this point in the weather situation is actually a relatively high value.  On any given date, the probability of a severe weather event on the average is far below that 5% value!  In most circumstances, the odds of any given location within the outlook area experiencing a tornado hazard is too low to take any actions, but users might best be served by preparing to take action when/if a hazardous situation arises.

When the weather situation evolves toward the imminent development of severe weather, the SPC usually issues a Severe Storm Watch that includes some information about the specific probability of a tornado within the space-time volume of the watch, and also some indication of the expected intensity of any tornadoes that might occur.  This can include what is described as a Particularly Dangerous Situation (a so-called PDS Watch) that includes the potential for long-track, violent tornadoes.  In the usual PDS tornado watch, the probability of having a significant tornado somewhere within the watch increases to some value, perhaps as high as 80%.  With such a high probability, this might be sufficiently threatening for some users (those whose protective actions require extra time), but certainly not all, to commence their tornado precautions.

Finally, if a tornado has been detected in some way (often based on radar information), local NWS offices may issue a tornado Warning.  Even in such cases, any specific location ahead of the tornado may or may not be hit.  The typical size of a tornado-warned area is considerably less than that of the typical watch and the existence of a tornado is of far less uncertainty than that associated with a watch, so most people within the warned area are well-advised to take tornado precautions, but even in this dangerous situation, there is no guarantee of anything:  a tornado could change intensity, dissipate, or swerve off in a new direction.  Most long-track violent tornadoes roll along a more or less straight path for many minutes (up to an hour or more), but each storm case is different and not all tornadoes are "typical".

... to be continued

Donald Trump - my take on his message

I've been reluctant to join the chorus of those decrying the march of Donald Trump to his possible nomination as the 2016 GOP Presidential candidate.  I probably don't have much new to add to the rising tide of denunciations, as the bizarre sideshow that is Trump threatens to destroy the GOP.  We have seen some GOP politicians beginning to endorse Trump, even as other GOP politicians say they will oppose the candidacy of their own party's nominee if it's Trump!  I feel for those moderate Republicans who have been pushed aside by the Tea Party religious reich clowns and grotesque "pro wrestling" style of the Trump campaign.  It must have the feel of an approaching runaway train to them.

We're seeing the fruit of the deepening divisions in American society, where corporate greed has been nurtured by GOP politicians currying financial support from the wealthy by offering them a deregulated economy, massive tax breaks, and even welfare via bail-outs and subsidies, while the nation's infrastructure crumbles, vast sums literally are going up in smoke in pointless foreign wars that only benefit the arms manufacturers, and American freedoms are being surrendered in an atmosphere of carefully cultivated paranoia.  GOP politicians keep doubling down on their thoroughly discredited "trickle-down" economics and "free market capitalism" that is little more than welfare for the rich.  The middle and lower classes are feeling the pinch but somehow keep voting into public office the very scoundrels responsible for their woes.

Discontent with government is everywhere, and populism is on the rise - Trump is a fascist populist figure, blaming the political "establishment" for not having the will to "make America great again".  Is it a coincidence that Bernie Sanders is a democratic socialist populist?  I think not.  Our nation is driving itself outward to the ends of the political spectrum.  Perhaps not yet the extreme ends, but surely outward from the center.  Compromise and cooperation in the governance of the nation have all but vanished in a torrent of denunciation and polarization.

Populism:  any of various, often anti-establishment or anti-intellectual political movements or philosophies that offer unorthodox solutions or policies and appeal to the common person rather than according with traditional party or partisan ideologies.

To me, Trump is the voice of the ignorant, bigoted underclass of Americans who have heretofore felt muzzled by the imposition of what they see as "political correctness".  Trump appeals to many of them because his candidacy legitimizes what they feel, saying for them what they thought they weren't being allowed to say.  His act is one that resembles the papier-mâché faux morality play that is pro wrestling, where blustering villains try to intimidate strong-willed heroes, standing nose-to-nose in shouting matches, blowing spittle into each other's faces, and bashing their opposition with folding chairs.  And of course, it's all a fake drama with no real content.  I suspect the demographic supporting Trump probably has considerable overlap with the fan base for pro wrestling, albeit not a perfect match, of course.  Bluster and bullying without any substantive content.  And somehow, some people find that hogwash appealing.

The fact that Trump's campaign is virtually all show without any real content - claims of things he will do unaccompanied by any notion of how he will do those things - matters little, if at all, to his followers.  His lies, his self-contradictions, his obscene language, his bullying, his massive ignorance, his colossal arrogance, his actual incompetence - none of that deters his fans.  Trump has even claimed he could commit murder without shaking the loyalty of his supporters and he could very well be right about that!  These folks are of a mindset that seems to associate with Hitler's brownshirts and Mussolini's blackshirts - they are crypto-fascists that long have lurked beneath the American facade of freedom and equality for all, ready to burst forth to follow a fascist dictator and do his bidding.  Trump is that demagogue and they are willing to be his shock troops.  A strutting, blustering dictator has a great need for those ready to do his dirty work of intimidating with violence on behalf of his cause, after all.

Finally, the "rise" of Trump has masked the radicalization of the GOP by the Tea Party "revolution".  Should Trump not succeed in grabbing the nomination, then the GOP candidates remaining viable in the race for the nomination are uniformly pathetic and seemingly committed to advancing the process of transforming the US into a christian theocracy, all in the name of "family values (from "God"), capitalism, and patriotism".  While I'm not all that crazy about the Democratic candidates, either one is vastly preferable to me than any of the GOP clown car occupants.  The moderate Republicans have been pushed aside in the march to drive the GOP car off a cliff.  Trump is the catalyst for this but not the cause.  We are doing it to ourselves.



Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Fragging - what it says about our Vietnam experience, and the future

A longtime friend I made during my tour in Vietnam recently sent me this article about an ugly reality of our participation in the Vietnam conflict:  fragging.  Fragging is the deliberate murder of officers and non-commissioned officers by their own troops.  It's a sort of fratricide, often accomplished by using a fragmentation grenade, or "frag".  While I was serving in Phu Bai, there was an attempted murder of a senior officer by leaving a frag at his trailer doorstep - as the story went, the pin was pulled very nearly out, and balanced on one of the steps, with idea that he would jar it loose when he went up the stairs in the dark, the grenade would fall to the ground, the pin would fall out, and ... BOOM!  Apparently, purely by luck, it fell in such a way that it actually pushed the pin back in further.  This officer was widely known for being a strict disciplinarian who was very tight about military discipline even in a combat zone, going so far as to give out Article 15s for minor chickenshit things like having your hands in your pockets.  He was widely disliked by many of the troops in our unit, and evidently someone decided to do something about him.  Fortunately, the attempt failed.  It was a sort of message to the command cadre of our unit, however, and not a good message.  Even "in the rear with the gear", fragging was a reality they would have to accept.

How could morale deteriorate so far as to lead to young men being willing to commit fratricide in our Army and Marine units?  How could American soldiers find themselves contemplating murder of their own commanders?  The article I mentioned says:

As the U.S. began to withdraw its military forces from Vietnam, some American enlisted men and young officers lost their sense of purpose for being in Vietnam, and the relationship between enlisted men and their officers deteriorated.

This is a rather mild statement of the situation I experienced during my time in Vietnam.  I was in Vietnam during the time when US military involvement was being drawn down and troops being withdrawn.  The entire nation was divided deeply by the war, with an ever-growing opposition within its whole population.  Given that many of the troops were draftees -- that is, unwilling participants -- the growing disaffection within the military itself is relatively easy to understand.  Now, put those unwilling young men in a combat zone where the threat of death and murder hung in the air everywhere (even in the rear areas) as an ugly miasma, and the deterioration of morale is pretty much inevitable.  The morality of war is often ambiguous in the real world, despite what lofty ideals might be used to motivate it.  General William Tecumseh Sherman understood the ugliness of war and sought to end it by any means possible, as quickly as possible.  There seemed to be no end to the killing in Vietnam.

We in Vietnam were neck deep in a war that had been mismanaged in most ways from the start, with nebulous goals and no "end game" strategy, except to kill all the Communists.  When we finally did fully withdraw, it was not "peace with honor" as President Nixon tried to make it out to be - we simply abandoned South Vietnam, and it was quickly overwhelmed by the Communists because its government had little popular support.  The US government had propped up a series of Vietnamese governments that were corrupt and had no connection to their own people.  Common Vietnamese with whom I spoke did not want US troops to be there as an occupying force.  In that atmosphere of uncertainty about our reasons for being there, is it hard to imagine why the troops were rather disinclined to participate in a process where they could be killed for no higher purpose than being cannon fodder in an apparently endless conflict that had little hope of achieving a lasting peace?

While I was in Vietnam, I could sense the uneasy but constant undercurrent that might cause young men to contemplate fragging.  For example, we learned that if our compound were ever to be overrun, our own bombers would come in and carpet bomb the place to prevent enemy access to the intelligence information in our local "spook shop" - an Army intelligence office.  If they were willing to bomb all of us within our perimeter, why should we feel some overwhelming loyalty to the command?  They didn't have our backs, so why should we have theirs?  Would we want to stand and die at our posts for no obvious purpose?  If our involvement in the war was so lacking in any moral justification or worthy goal other than fighting an ideology, why would we choose to support our so-called "leaders"?

I'm not justifying the immoral and traitorous actions of anyone who committed the act of fragging.  They did something very wrong and have to accept the personal responsibility for those deeds.  But I am saying that if you weren't there and never experienced the loathsome, poisonous atmosphere that made the unacceptable seem acceptable, you have no basis on which to judge those unfortunates.  Can you be so certain of what you would have done without having experienced it for yourself and been confronted with those situations?  I think not.

We as a nation were experiencing very nasty internal divisiveness as the Vietnam War wound down.  Consider the parallels to today's divisive political and religious atmosphere.  I'm not saying the situations are identical, of course, but I am saying that a lack of unity of purpose can lead us to a position where unacceptable choices become acceptable; where divisions devolve into civil war and fratricide.  We've been here before.  There are important lessons in our history I hope we can learn from regarding the possible perils of such divisiveness.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Are Americans ashamed of being human?

When I first came to Mallorca to collaborate with some of my Spanish colleagues, I had no idea what the experience was going to be like.  Over the years, Mallorca has become like a second home to me.  Thanks to my profession, I've had many opportunities to travel around the world and experience first hand the way people live in their own homes.  Where this has led me is the conclusion that Americans seem have a lot of trouble with being human - not all of them, of course.  Europeans, on the other hand, generally seem much more involved with simple human pleasures and have no shame about indulging in them - it's about quality, not quantity:  allowing yourself to luxuriate in a great cup of coffee, a particularly delicious meal, a marvelous glass of wine, beautiful music, a superb croissant so good it needs no additional butter or topping.  I enjoy the widespread outdoor patios of bars and restaurants where customers can just hang and watch people as they sip a drink, perhaps to meet some of their friends passing by.

The apparent reluctance to slow down and really enjoy being a human in the US might be, at least in part, a product of religious puritanism, but that can't be the whole issue.  I'm not sure I have an adequate explanation, but a lot of has to do with our mostly unfettered ability to move about the country as we seek our destiny.  Children grow up and leave the home more or less permanently, pursuing their careers.  Extended families live mostly in widely scattered places, seeing each other only occasionally and on rare special occasions (like reunions, weddings, and sadly, funerals).  People live voluntarily shut up in their own homes, perhaps staring out the window with an AR-15 in fear of assault by some unknown menace, or spending hours watching TV, or arguing with trolls on social media.

We shop in giant superstores these days where the biggest issue is price, not quality.  We exult in paying less, even as we find we also enjoy it less and that quality has suffered.  Local businesses run by our neighbors go belly-up in the face of unfettered "capitalism" driving the competition out of the market.  The family farm is mostly gone in the face of absentee land ownership and corporate agribusinesses.  We work extra long hours, perhaps even at the expense of our own families.  We can't seem find the time to sit back and smell the flowers.  Our vacations often consist of rushing from place to place trying to check items off a bucket list, with relatively little relaxation as we hustle from one landmark to another.

I've had some of the best times of my life with my Boy Scout "family".  Thanks to my son wanting to be a Boy Scout, I found myself using most of my annual leave for the first time, enjoying the company of friends as we tried to help young men grow up to be responsible adults through hiking and camping experiences.  I had some real vacations with Scout friends where we actually relaxed and just enjoyed the simple beauty of southwest Texas high country (near Fort Davis, TX).  We didn't rush about trying to visit all the obligatory sights ... we mostly chatted with our friends, took afternoon naps, had a home-cooked supper, and watched the skies change hour by hour on the porch.

During my stay on Mallorca, my colleagues were hard-working during the day - as hard-working as any American.  But when they weren't at work, they had a lot of social interaction outside of the workplace.  Together, they attended festivals, had group cook-outs, visited the beaches, enjoyed the experience of eating, drinking, and socializing in local bars.  They walked to many of their destinations as the typical European city is more compact than the sprawling metroplexes of the US.  During festivals, there were parades, dressing in traditional regional attire, dancing, bands, fires on the street that eventually burned down to coals for grilling, etc.  There was so much going on that it would be impossible to sleep, so virtually everyone participated.  Bars in Europe are very different from bars in the US, which seem primarily dedicated for people to get drunk - European bars are social gathering places for everyone, including the children.  Bars are where you get out and meet your neighbors, including people who don't even drink alcohol at all!  When regulars walk in, they're greeted with good-natured kidding and open hearts.  Everyone knows everyone else from the simple means of frequent shared experiences.

When I was a graduate student, I had a circle of friends, and we interacted outside of the university as a group on many occasions when we weren't buried in our studies.  Everyone in the group contributed to the collective costs of the occasion and no one was keeping score on who spent what amount.  What mattered was that we enjoyed each other's company.  Sometimes, we would visit our friends individually, perhaps just because we wanted to chat - no nefarious purposes, no hidden agendas, no particular reason other than being with a friend was always a good thing.  We were open and vulnerable, not paranoid and looking for reasons to be fearful.  I must be doing something wrong, because this sort of experience has mostly disappeared from my life.

Just ask yourself: of all the people in your immediate vicinity, how many are family?  How many of them have you known for most of your life?  How often do you stop in and chat with your friends just for the pleasure of their company?  When was the last time you had a cup of coffee you really enjoyed?  How many of your neighbors do you know and visit with regularly?  When was the last time you danced in public?

Humans are social animals.  We all share certain pleasures and sharing them with friends and family is very special.  We Americans are in serious need of learning how to have fun and truly enjoy our lives, as the Europeans do.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The very real faces behind the supporters of opposing views

Looking at FB posts for the past several years, I'm struck by the overwhelming contempt for others that I see, for the most part.  Anyone who holds a different view from a person posting a comment often is subjected to insults and invective.  Wildly unsubstantiated statements are made about what is supposed to be "typical" for those supporting a view contrary to the one making the comment.   Distressingly, at least a portion of the time, such nasty comments are not directed at the viewpoints, per se, but directly at the person expressing the viewpoint - they're ad hominem insults, not elements of a rational discussion.  If a generalization is made without intending to do so, at least be sensitive to the fact that what you might think to be typical is not necessarily applicable to everyone.  I try to remind myself of that - sometimes others do it for me, even though they may also be guilty of the very same thing.

These harsh and angry statements often generate a salvo of personal insults in reprise and the thread of the discussion then is totally lost in a hostile back-and-forth.  Whatever happened to a civil discussion of issues?  I wrote a blog about the topic of what constitutes a civil discourse, but of course my blog has no power to change the course of our society or the posts offered on social media.  I've seen examples where people make their strongly-held opinions known and then proceed to deny virtually anyone with a different viewpoint the capability to make a meaningful comment in response through the tactic of defining who is "qualified" to comment in such a way that only the person posting the statement (or those who completely agree with it) is qualified to respond.  This is not a basis for a discussion.  It's simply a "club" where like-minded folks can pat one another on the back and agree that theirs is the only legitimate opinion.  You might as well have a discussion with slogans printed on a political banner nailed to a wall for all the good it will accomplish!  If we unilaterally exclude opposing viewpoints, or drive those who differ with us away from the discussion, then the entire exercise becomes utterly pointless.  It's simply "preaching to the choir" rather than testing your ideas in the intellectual marketplace.  Of course, some may feel they are so certainly correct, they need no discussion at all - that is, their minds are closed with regard to that topic!

Now, shift gears to politics and we see that our government mirrors this tendency in our society to demonize and discredit those with whom we disagree.  The gridlock we have experienced so often for the past several years of the Obama administration in our Federal government has come about by a stubborn unwillingness to compromise in order that the legitimate needs of the people can be served.  In fact, of course, there are vastly different viewpoints in the political parties about what the people need, so the ugly, disrespectful clash of ideologies is directly related to the inability to serve the people.   You might think there should be many points where surely everyone would agree that a particular need is present that should be served, but if you think so, you're going to be frustrated in today's world where even the most basic human needs have become a point of departure, not a source of agreement.  Many on both sides see the "other" side as wrong-minded fools being duped by the opposing politicians to do harm to our society rather than to do good things for everyone.  And the politicians have observed that this works in their favor, although it's far from what this nation needs.

In fact, our political "leaders" have been complicit in this process, using the divisions in our society as a means by which to serve their personal political ends, rather that serving the interests of the people.  And many people have become blindly loyal to one side or the other of these divisions, despite the best interests of the very people who vote these politicians into office.  The demonization of the "other side" has become a pandemic.  I feel the frustration and perhaps sometimes am led by my emotions to participate in it to some extent, even though I prefer not to wallow in the political quagmire of insult and counter-insult.  I try to remember that the people who are saying things with which I disagree strongly have a right to think what they wish and may indeed have an opinion that contains elements of substance.  If we allow ourselves the luxury of insulting and de-valuing the opinions of anyone with whom we disagree, we forfeit the opportunity for a potentially useful discourse.  It is via the reconciliation of conflicting viewpoints through compromise that our nation was built, and the current situation is heading in a very different direction than intended by our national founders.

I've tried to have discussions with some of my acquaintances from the "other side" that have failed utterly to get past the "talking points".  They refuse to see the value of my views and getting any sort of a compromise has proven to be futile.  At this stage, I'm reluctantly declining further "discourse" with those whose viewpoints include a complete contempt for my viewpoint.  I'm pretty certain I've done nothing to merit that disrespect, but of course, opinions on that might vary.  I make no claim to be a saint, but I'm pretty sure I've not resorted to ad hominem insults.  If I have and I'm deluding myself in that regard, then I apologize.  To those with whom I can engage in civil discourse despite our disagreements, I thank you for your spirit of cooperation in trying to work out our differences and at least understand why we disagree so strongly.