Writing on the Winds
Writing on the Winds
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter explores public science as communication. Specifically, it addresses four aspects of the occupational tasks of meteorologists: how they coordinate their forecasts with others inside their office and with other National Weather Service offices; the art of writing forecasts and forecast discussions, suggesting how meteorologists think about their words; how forecasters at the Storm Prediction Center use visual representations (“boxes”) to claim their authority, emphasizing that communication is not necessarily tied to words; and the technological change the author of this book observed during his research in which a computerized forecast system was introduced. In this system meteorologists manipulated a database, which removed the authority to create the written forecast from the meteorologist.
Keywords: public science, communication, meteorologists, weather forecasts
Probable northeast to southwest winds, varying to the southward and westward and eastward, and points between, high and low barometer swapping around from place to place, probable areas of rain, snow, hail, and drought, succeeded or preceded by earthquakes, with thunder and lightning. Mark Twain1
Weather is a literary speciality, and no untrained hand can turn out a good article on it. Mark Twain, The American Claimant
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Operational meteorology is drenched in discourse. Forecasters write, and, as much as the examination of maps and numbers, this literary activity defines who they are and what they do. For much of the history of the National Weather Service the job of the forecaster was as much written communication as scientific analysis. Indeed, the two were inseparable. Scientific analysis had no value without the ability to share it. Admittedly the writing was formulaic, but sometimes formulae focus greater attention on linguistic choices. By speaking to a public audience the forecaster gained authority. For this realm of public science—and implicitly other occupational domains—the meaning of work was established through the practice of writing.
In this chapter, I explore public science as communication. Specifically I address four aspects of the occupational (p.136) tasks of meteorologists: (I) how they coordinate their forecasts with others inside their office and with other National Weather Service offices, (2) the art of writing forecasts and forecast discussions, suggesting how meteorologists think about their words, (3) how forecasters at the Storm Prediction Center use visual representations (“boxes”) to claim their authority, emphasizing that communication is not necessarily tied to words, and, (4) the technological change that I observed during my research in which a computerized forecast system was introduced. In this system meteorologists manipulated a database, which removed the authority to create the written forecast from the meteorologist.
Inheriting the Wind
Meteorology, like most professions, depends on coordination. Even if forecasters frequently stare at their screens, jotting notes, drawing or typing, at times they emerge from their technological cocoon and ask for advice.2 The staff routinely discusses current weather conditions, even when the most introverted or focused forecasters are on duty. While questions are often directed from interns to forecasters or from journeyman forecasters to lead forecasters, following status lines, comments can be directed in any direction. Of course, when they proceed from junior to senior the remarks may include a dollop of deference. Forecasters may even stroll outside together to touch the air and interrogate the sky, merging the cognitive, emotional, and social.3 Talking about the weather is satisfying; it is what these “weather weenies” most enjoy. While the collective creation of weather forecasts is most evident under threat of severe weather,4 collaboration occurs on less dramatic occasions as well.
Two rituals establish connections among forecasters: briefings and inheritance. When a forecaster arrives for duty his predecessor provides a synopsis of current and future weather conditions. The departing forecaster sits at the terminals, as the arriving forecaster stands behind the chair, showing deference to the authority of the hot seat. One meteorologist made this explicit, explaining when his colleague exits the area for a moment, “I won't sit down until Evan leaves” (Field notes). The briefing is usually succinct, no more than five minutes. The departing forecaster describes the complicating aspects of the forecast, what might change or demand attention in the next hours, or what equipment is not functioning properly. Staff have different styles and preferences; some favor broad accounts, which permit them to explore independently, while others prefer more detail. On days when a potential for severe weather exists, the briefing is more extensive, and the forecaster from the (p.137) previous shift will not depart until his or her replacement feels comfortable. As noted in chapter 1, forecasters use Lysol to remove the physical traces of their colleagues, yet they cling to the presence of their predecessor's work via the continuity of the forecast and expectations for the future.
This routine of sequential communication links the day shift, the evening shift, and the midnight shift. On days on which severe weather is unlikely, the evening shift is transitional; it updates conditions and is present “just in case.” As a result, the evening forecaster doesn't need the detailed knowledge of weather conditions that other shifts require. The evening shift is a placeholder for those shifts—day and midnight—that are responsible for issuing forecasts. The evening shift focuses on what must be communicated to the forecaster on the midnight shift. As one Flowerland forecaster remarked, “What I want to hear is what is unusual and what is weird, and if I'm the [evening] shift, what I would want to push on to the midnight shift.” The briefing directs the forecasters to what to look for and may direct them away from other aspects of the weather.
Once the previous forecaster exits, the person newly on duty owns the forecast. He or she has inherited it. In theory, it can be changed as much as desired, although in practice norms exist for what gets altered and when. Forecasts are shared between those whose shifts abut, and this means that the possibility for ill will exists if revisions are too rapid or extensive or are not based on major meteorological changes. One's forecast is an extension of one's self. In this case inertia may contribute to harmonious social relations.
Although a meteorologist owns the forecast, constraints limit those modifications that are considered legitimate. The forecast is owned by the office as well. Meteorologists are to avoid “flip-flop,” “yo-yo,” or “ping-pong” forecasts. These terms do not refer to changing a forecast, but rather to changing a forecast back to what it had been in a previous iteration. The forecaster whose words and ideas have been altered has a crucial choice. Should he return to the previous forecast? Until there is new evidence or others are persuaded, a return to a previous forecast can discredit a stubborn forecaster unless a forceful account is presented for the change.
Forecasters routinely work the same shifts for a week. As a result, if the day forecaster and the midnight forecaster disagree on weather conditions, the forecast could shuttle back and forth between the predictions of the day worker and those of the midnight worker, confusing the public and the media. Social control is required:
(p.138) I've got this philosophy, you don't change the forecast unless you really have a significant difference in the previous guy's forecast. You ride with it. I don't want ping-pong forecasts. You better be darn sure that things are going to change, or else you stay with that previous guy's forecast. And I tell the previous guy that makes the forecast, you better be darn sure that you're right. I mean that you feel very strongly about what you're putting out before you put it out because this guy behind you is going to have to live with what you've given him. (Interview)
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Certain individuals just feel like they can do whatever they want, regardless. They don't feel like there's any need for continuity. They don't feel like if the chances decrease that they should still hang on to it in case the next model run goes back to a stronger system. They see we've got a 50 percent chance of rain, the new model run comes in, “Oh, it doesn't look like it's going to happen,” and they pull it. Next model run comes in, it's back there, we put it back on. Next model run comes in, it's not there, they pull it out. Once somebody decides to put it in, ride it out until you know it's not going to happen. (Interview)
This is a problem in practice when forecasters struggle to decide whether to change a colleague's forecast:
Randy is trying to decide what to do about Evan's midnight forecast predicting snow, which he considers unlikely. He says to Byron, “I'll have to shift where he has his significant accumulation… . I hate to pull that out.” Byron says, “Yeah, the yo-yo effect.” Sid comments that he doesn't like that Evan was vague, but notes that there might be “significant accumulations”; he adds, “I don't believe in it. It's the worst way. Why get pinned down?” He argues that until one is certain, a major change—one that the public will notice—should not be made. Randy is called by a neighboring office and says, “he inherited a watch. He's not too sure about that. He's going to keep it for the bottom two tiers of counties. He said that if he didn't have the watch out, he wouldn't put it out. He said he wished he didn't have that watch.” George asks Randy, “Do we still have the same forecast or are we changing our minds slowly.” Randy (p.139) responds, “We still have the same forecast, but we're making some changes. [Evan] said significant accumulation [in the Chicago metro area], I'll just switch it to significant accumulation possible… . My feeling is to not change the forecast too much. Not box it in. Just let the forecast ride for now. I backed off a little on the amount.” (Field notes)
Randy searches for a workable compromise between the forecast of his colleague and his beliefs, and so keeps the “same” forecast, with changes. Meteorologists do not freely create the forecast that they might do in the absence of previous forecasts, but they participate in a system of shared, dynamic interpretations in which group relations and the public reality of the distributed forecast provide constraints. The internal negotiation, expressed openly in this case, is striking. It is not that the previous forecaster was wrong; he might have been correct given the information available. The question is how to incorporate subsequent information. In nonroutine circumstances such as the prediction of significant amounts of snow, the decision has consequences because external audiences respond to the forecast. The City of Chicago may put additional crews on shift, O̓Hare airport may delay flights, and school systems may cancel classes.
Some choices are socially embedded, as when forecasters believe that colleagues, committed to a particular forecast, may flip-flop if they make a change. Under such circumstances, they consider their words carefully:
Stan is deciding whether to eliminate a “chance of showers” from his forecast, feeling that good dynamics for rain do not exist, but eventually he decides not to, commenting, “I took it out two days ago, but Marty put it back in. I'm not taking it out again.” (Field notes)
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Sean considers adding a gale warning for Lake Michigan, but realizes that Sid, his replacement, will likely eliminate it. He says, “I'm not going to put in gales, because Sid will just take them out tonight. I'll just put them [winds] at 30 miles per hour, and then tomorrow at nine, we can put in gales, so we don't play flip-flop games.” Had Sean another replacement his forecast might be different. (Field notes)
(p.140) These forecasters are not persuaded by their colleagues, but they recognize organizational virtues and power dynamics—including consistency, status, and the commitment of colleagues to their claims—as more important than precision in a system that depends on a collective presentation of the future. Forecasters perceived as too willing to change another's forecast may be deferred to, even while being criticized privately.
Meteorologists distinguish between the extended forecast (from day three to day ten) and the short-term forecast in how revisions are treated. Short-term forecasts are more likely to be changed than extended forecasts, in part because forecasters believe that they have the right to know what might happen in the next 48 hours. After that, prediction becomes, in a phrase often heard, “a crap shoot.” Given this, if the extended forecast is to be changed, that change will occur on the day shift. The night shift typically continues the forecast, unless there is a compelling meteorological development. As I noted in chapter 3, meteorologists often rely on forecast models for their long-term forecasts, concluding that the predictions are doubtful anyhow. They select or blend the models, but often they do not assess the temperatures or probabilities of rain five days later, separate from the model. This contrasts dramatically with the effort of producing forecasts for the next two days. As one meteorologist explained about his casual approach to the model forecasts: “It's too much trouble. I don't like to change the extended forecast. It looks ridiculous. [Rain four days later] might come in early. If it does, we can change it later… . Unless you see a major difference [in the extended forecast] you should keep it consistent” (Field notes). Of course, each day shift inserts a new forecast for the final day as days march onward, but, given that forecasters are doubtful of their ability to predict a week ahead, they often defers to the model guidance. It is only when that third day forecast passes the gate to become the second day that the full force of meteorological attention is evident.
Leaving or Changing.
The extended forecast is a special case of the more general problem of the extent to which one should change the inherited forecast. Ultimately the question is whether the goal of operational meteorology is to distribute the best forecast that one can or to have the office distribute the best set of forecasts that it can. Does the desire for a smooth and consistent set of forecasts trump the idiosyncratic insight of a particular forecaster? If forecasters own their words, and the ideas that are attached to these words, altering a forecast can involve social strain and power dynamics. While some forecasters contend that once they leave the office they have no interest in how their work is massaged, others are (p.141) less open to changes. For some the temporal boundaries of worklife permit a distancing of one's self from one's forecast, but others are committed to their work products in the office or at home.
While discord is rarely explicit, on one occasion sharp conflict emerged on what seemed to me to be an exceedingly trivial issue. A meteorologist had written that the forecast for the next day was going to be “mostly sunny.” His replacement, looking at the satellite images, comments, in his presence, that “There's not a cloud in the sky within 300 miles,” implying that “mostly” was in error. The insulted forecaster, drawing on a history of resentment, tells me that his critic is “always talking down to me” and that if this man were standing within reach, he would have “popped him.” He exited and calmed down, but he took the remark as hurtful. Of course, not every forecaster or every pair would have seen the comment as offensive, but this underlines the sensitivity of competency contests. Status hierarchies are continuously built and modified.
Forecasters debate the proper balance of deference and insight:
[When should a previous forecast be changed?] How does it impact the customer? If the customer would have to change what they wear when they go outside or take an umbrella with them—any change like that… . If it's minor, I don't think the general public can tell a five degree difference in temperature… . Everybody takes ownership in their product. When they leave at the end of a shift, they feel that they've done the best that they can do. If somebody walks in, especially if they just walk in, they've only been there an hour or two and they say, “This isn't right,” and they change it. They say, “I've just spent eight hours sweating over this forecast, and you walk in and in an hour you change it.” I think people should have some consideration… . They need to work these things out to keep out the conflict, because it's just another thing that's just going to add to the stress. (Interview)
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Unless you had substantial new information or a particular event that did happen between the forecasts, you would basically run with what the other individual put out, only out of respect for his professionalism and his personal integrity. You just had that understanding between each coworker. Because if you make it a habit of changing something as soon as an individual walks (p.142) in, all you're saying is that you don't believe this person. You don't respect him. You don't think his credibility is there. It's just professional courtesy. (Interview)
In practice, most forecasters defer to the work of others, particularly if the other might become upset or has more status. So, Sean, a younger forecaster, makes a point of telling Bert, a senior forecaster, “I was going to pump up your winds, and then I said, ‘I'll let it ride’” (Field notes). The politics of respect overrides one's own expert judgment. Like many knowledge workers, their hidden insecurities may infect judgments of personal competence; they often feel at risk of embarrassment or rejection.
Sometimes the desire to change forecasts triumphs. After all, they are paid to be right. Forecasters must balance their commitment to accuracy with the desire for smooth social relations. Changing a forecast is easier if one does not assert a claim of ownership:
Almost every time, if it's something like they used “fair” [a term he doesn't like], and whenever I do a normal update, I'll change it to whatever word I feel is better. Cosmetic things like that I don't have a problem changing at all. I won't make corrections or amendments immediately upon taking shift just to make those changes, but if I have to make changes for something else, then I'll feel free to change that wording… . As soon as I leave the office it's no longer my forecast. They can do whatever they want with that… . I've been paid by the National Weather Service to put out the best forecast that I know how to, and inherent in that process is…. the process of selecting the text that I feel conveys what I feel the forecast is going to be with the most clarity and the most competency to my constituents. (Interview)
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As soon as I come on shift, and the other guy says, “You got it? I'm leaving.” It's my forecast. At that point if it were me leaving, I don't feel bad about whatever he does to the forecast, and I guess I expect the same from him. It's my forecast at that point. Maybe I didn't make it, but I'm responsible for it. If it's not working out, I don't say, “Well, he gave me that forecast.” I've got to make it right… . I think the bigger issue is what did you know that I didn't know? (Interview)
(p.143) Even for these forecasters there are limits. One claims that he wouldn't change a forecast immediately for minor issues and the other insists, particularly in the transition to evening shift when new information is scarce, that the forecaster should defer unless confident of the change.
On occasion the departing forecaster may explicitly sanction a change. For example, when Byron leaves after a complex forecast, he encourages an update, “That's why we have evening shifts [to correct the day forecast]. I hope you have a big shovel to shovel out this mess” (Field notes). Another forecaster says to the evening shift, “I'm sure there will be pressure to issue something before the ten o'clock news. If there is consensus, go ahead and let it rip.” These forecasters announce that they welcome change, suggesting that in the absence of these statements changes would have been more problematic. Even if the norms of science assert communalism, this does not erase status concerns of individuals and groups. When changes are made, their significance is downplayed as when Don comments that he didn't change the forecast, but that “I tweaked the temperatures some” (Field notes). In this collaborative world, a tweak is less threatening than a change.
An office whose goal is the production of knowledge must establish coordination rules. As individuals arrive and depart, proprietors of these knowledge pools shift, and their preferences and understandings may differ. As noted, the question is whether the goal of operational meteorology is for each individual to distribute the best forecast, or, alternatively, is the goal of the office staff—a knowledge collective—to distribute the best forecast that they can? This choice may result in different forecasts. Given that the goal is simultaneously collective and individual, based on the belief that the two should cohere, the stress can be real. When an office is functioning properly, both negotiation and deference must be publicly displayed.
I have treated the production of a forecast as if each local office operated independently. Imagine an archipelago of 122 islands of weather with no overlap.5 Such, of course, is misleading, even if, in practice, an office operates without considering what surrounding offices are predicting when the weather is calm. The negotiated order of collective knowledge, however, links offices. Offices are connected as a network of small groups.
Under the current organizational structure American weather is a function of decisions made by autonomous offices, creating problems for (p.144) those who live on the boundaries of these forecast areas.6 One can only imagine the rainbow had the Department of Homeland Security 122 independent offices, each offering their color-coded assessment of threat.
While office autonomy is considerable, there are limits. When the forecast is complex or if severe weather is threatening, a forecaster may desire to know what surrounding offices have concluded in order to adjust the local forecast (although almost never for the extended forecast). Because the movement of weather systems is typically from the west and south, forecasters are most likely to contact offices in those directions. The Chicago office will call the offices in St. Louis, Lincoln (Illinois), and Davenport, and less often offices in Grand Rapids, Indianapolis, or North Webster (Indiana). Those offices call Chicago. Milwaukee and Chicago call each other. Through this contact, veteran forecasters become friendly acquaintances, even if they joke about (or sometimes scorn) the contrasting office cultures. Some offices, because of their traditions, networks (who transfers where), or similar meteorological concerns, have good relations. Chicago and Milwaukee consult frequently; both are older offices and several forecasters have worked in both places. Likewise the two Iowa offices, Davenport and Des Moines, work closely together, at least in part because the Des Moines and Cedar Rapids television markets cover both offices' responsibilities.
When there is “no weather,” coordination7 calls are not needed, even if the adjoining offices disagree. Sometimes temperature forecasts or likelihood of precipitation differ widely and can become troubling if, as in Iowa, media markets overlap. Forecasters may rely upon different models and often do not merge their forecasts. The exceptions are those stormy moments:
Today Marty coordinates with Lincoln, Davenport, and Milwaukee. He explains to the forecaster in Davenport, “I'm going with an advisory. [The Milwaukee forecaster] talked me into it. I don't see any big snows coming out of this.” After the call Marty explains, “I was thinking of a watch, but everyone else is going with an advisory [short of a watch]. Everyone else is, so I'm going along.” (Field notes)
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Hamilton receives calls from several local offices, primarily on whether there should be a wind warning or a wind advisory. He is thinking of a wind warning within his area of responsibility, (p.145) even if the forecasts would not flow smoothly into each other. Finally, after talking to several offices he tells me, “For coordination, for blending the forecast, I'll go with [the advisory], I'll see if I can convince myself.” When another office calls, Hamilton tells his partner, “He's happy with the advisory, … but he said, ‘I have some adjusting to do’” [to make his inherited forecast consistent with the forecasts of his neighbors], (Field notes)
These forecasters see coordination in the face of storms as sound professional practice, indicating their competency in producing a collective (and plausible) forecast that blends both individual perspectives and office autonomy.
For more routine coordination, the area forecast discussion may be relied on, and once was relied on more frequently. The AFD is the account that forecasters provide, prior to their forecasts being issued, that announces their meteorological rationale. But these messages are now sent out so close to the distribution of the forecast that there is little opportunity to adjust a forecast as a result. Some forecasters read these short texts (typically 100–500 words) from other offices, but, unless there is significant weather, they do not respond. The discussions are available to media outlets and are now placed on NWS public websites so weather weenies can see what forecasters are thinking.
The area forecast discussion generates tension because of its multiple and distinct audiences. Forecasters are supposed to distribute their discussions prior to their forecast to allow for coordination with other offices, but they are simultaneously distributed to the media to permit these translators to plan their patter. In the first case the communication is subcultural shoptalk, in the other it is didactic. A forecaster in Belvedere takes the coordination aspect of the AFD so seriously that he attempts to issue his by noon while still deciding what to forecast, so neighboring offices can read his thoughts about the trends in the current weather system. He is an exception; most forecasters typically select their forecasts and then may examine these discussions to check that they are not misguided. One Chicago meteorologist produces his forecast in reverse. He composes his forecast, and only then writes an explanation for his decision. His AFD is typically distributed after his forecast, preventing it from having any role in coordination among offices and used only by broadcasters. The fact that he hasn't been penalized for his practice suggests the marginality of the AFD as occupational shoptalk. To encourage coordination, the NWS has recently established a computer (p.146) chatroom to permit forecasters to share ideas. One critic of the AFD explains:
I hate them … I'd like to get rid of them. They used to be a coordinating method between the weather service offices, and they were good. You could tell other forecasters in technical terms what you were thinking, and you could coordinate. That's what they were for. They were internal. But some bureaucrat decided that they would have to go out in public, so the TV meteorologists can read what they are. It's not my job to teach them. So how I write them now, I write them in English. I focus on the big features only. (Interview)
The prominence of the end user influences the forecaster's attitude.8 Is this collegial communication or is it aimed across the boundary of scientific brotherhood to an uninformed broadcaster (or worried public)? As I discuss below, this expectation affects writing style.
Negotiating inside the Box
On most days from spring to fall, forecasters at a few local offices will receive a call from the lead forecaster on duty in Norman, Oklahoma, priming them for the possibility of severe weather. Before the Storm Prediction Center issues a watch box—a parallelogram informing the media and, thus, the public of potential severe thunderstorms or tornadoes in a particular geographical region—they inform their colleagues. These boxes are now widely known for being routinely displayed on the Weather Channel. The lead forecaster at the SPC is required to contact the local offices inside the box. These coordination calls suggest, however, that the decision should not be hierarchical, but collaborative, negotiated between the storm center and the local office.
The two individuals on the phone—and their organizations—have different concerns, and, as a result, a possibility of discord exists, although usually the disagreement is polite. The SPC has the responsibility for the entire nation and makes decisions without regard to local impact. Their goal is to determine which weather systems might produce major storm outbreaks. The goal is to draw watch boxes that specify the location of these potential tornadoes and severe thunderstorms with plenty of time to allow local offices, media outlets, and citizens to prepare. But each watch box has organizational consequences. In many locations, a watch activates local emergency units. In some counties, as (p.147) long as a watch exists, emergency offices must be staffed. Local forecast offices also feel a watch's effects. If a watch is issued, forecasters may be required to stay late, come in early, or be brought in specially, with budgetary consequences for overtime and in disruption of family life. When a local office is short staffed, they may convince themselves that what they desire for organizational needs is what they see. If the local office agrees that severe weather is likely, conflict is avoided, but this is not always the case. Add to this the belief that offices have different “philosophies,” exemplifying local idiocultures. One SPC forecaster listed offices that “will warn on every blip,” noting that “some of the offices in large metro areas would be more passive” (Field notes).
Watches often are drawn to the edge of a local forecast office's area, state line, or media market, although weather ignores such bureaucratic niceties: “We can bring it down to the Arkansas border” or “We'll keep Indiana out of it” (Field notes). In this sense boxes are political entities; boxes that follow office or state lines are “clean boxes.” Forecasters describe these as “geopolitical decisions.” Watches are more than meteorological choices; they affect people inside and outside of the weather service. One forecaster was explicit that the effects of his boxes were on his mind: “Boxology is a big issue, and it's something that you have got to be thinking about and I ran into a little of that this weekend. I tried to minimize what I did in boxes where it affects the WFOs [local forecast offices]. We can say that the meteorology doesn't know borders. That's true, but it can certainly make it easier for the forecast office whenever you can” (Interview).
These consequences are also evident in the practice of drawing clean boxes:
Guy draws a watch box for Missouri and Illinois. He comments about his construction, “I'll try to make it as clean as I can. I'll include Lincoln's CWA and the rest of St. Louis's CWA, but I won't go into Indiana [and thus won't involve another office].” Building on that box later, he tells the Paducah office that he will include all the counties up to the Tennessee border, the end of their forecast responsibility, adding “It might be cleaner that way.” (Field notes)
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Terry issues a severe thunderstorm box for southern Missouri and southern Illinois. He concludes that the eastern part should be a tornado watch but wants to avoid including the St. Louis (p.148) forecast area. He muses, “I thought of taking the southeast corner as a tornado watch. I don't know the best way to handle it… . I kind of feel bad. [One of the St. Louis forecasters] asked about a tornado watch, and I said, ‘We'll see how it develops,’ and now I'm making more work for him… . I feel bad because St. Louis is going to be busy, dumping this [second watch] on them. St. Louis is going to think I'm Mr. Upgrade.” [He had upgraded a thunderstorm watch to a tornado watch the last time he was on duty.] (Field notes)
The SPC sees coordination as a means to manage their colleagues, but they typify offices in their local orientation, rather than by the preferences of individual forecasters. I was told that one of the senior forecasters knew the preferences of each office and tried to accommodate them: Do they prefer early watches or would they rather wait? Senior forecasters at the SPC had advantages by virtue of being able to refer to their experience, but every forecaster recognized that negotiating with local offices could be contentious. While SPC forecasters have the authority to issue watch boxes over local objection, these forecasters could then eliminate counties from the box or, after the fact, if the SPC forecaster was wrong, complain.
During my two weeks at the SPC I listened as these negotiations took place, sometimes between an SPC forecaster and a local office and sometimes on a conference call with several offices. Deference was typical, as the assumption was that they were colleagues searching for truth and preserving public safety: “Would it be OK to put in all your counties. Do you have any problem with that?” The goal is for the conference call to demonstrate teamwork through discourse. The emphasis on collaboration attempts to invest local offices in the decision, but the strategy requires effort, potentially leading to inefficient decision making or creating conflict.9
The conflict need not be between only the SPC and a local office but among local offices. In some conference calls local offices disagree. In one call the Springfield, Missouri, office wanted a thunderstorm box and the Paducah, Kentucky, office preferred a tornado box. While two small boxes could have been issued, this is seen as confusing, hard to describe, unaesthetic, and unprofessional. The Springfield office finally acquiesced to a tornado box. At times media concerns influence a local office's preferences. The Fort Worth office asked to have the boundary of their box stop outside the counties of their Metroplex because of perceived media pressure.
(p.149) Negotiation can involve issues of timing as well. A box justifies overtime, and so a box issued well before the likelihood of severe weather may be organizationally desirable. Forecasters at SPC believe that early notice demonstrates respect, and staff must balance their certainty (the earlier, the less certainty) with a desire for timely notification.
A region that has recently been hit by major severe weather is, for a time, willing to acquiesce. Less than a week after the deadly La Plata tornado in suburban Washington, severe weather again threatened. While two other offices resisted a tornado box (“neither one of them wanted to go red,” the color of a tornado box), the local Sterling office accepted. As one forecaster said, “At this point, they can't say no” (Field notes).
One strategy for building support is through priming, notably by means of the severe weather outlooks that the SPC distributes for the following three days. Placing an area in high or moderate risk for the day or the day ahead sensitizes offices to the possibility of severe weather. These offices are now cognitively and organizationally ready for severe weather. The same system that might have been considered annoying is now labeled potentially destructive, and the local office becomes more agreeable. When an office is not primed, they may resist until the SPC pushes the point. One SPC forecaster relates, “Nashville is shocked. They were not expecting severe [weather] tonight.” His partner responds, “Well, at least we got his attention. He couldn't believe that they were going to get severe weather. He was flabbergasted. Will he have to call someone in? I hope something happens.” The Nashville forecaster accepted the watch, and it turned out that the area received a strong tornado near dawn (Field notes).
Sometimes offices object to proposed watches, requiring delicate negotiation to maintain organizational comity. As noted, the Chicago office is meteorologically conservative, desiring to avoid watches and warnings unless absolutely necessary. Chicago forecasters believe that the SPC becomes overly excited about small risks. (SPC forecasters see themselves as conservative, only forecasting major outbreaks, ignoring isolated storm systems. As one explains, “we have resisted as hard as we can this watch inflation” in the face of pressure from headquarters and from media outlets, such as the Weather Channel, that use watches and warnings to capture viewers.) When calling Chicago, SPC forecasters know that they may need persuasion and feel relieved if a sympathetic colleague is on duty. I listened to a call to Chicago in which the local forecaster didn't want a watch, then agreed to it as long as it included the entire Chicago area, to which the SPC forecaster acquiesced. The SPC forecaster explained, “If you feel strongly you don't really need it, (p.150) I'm not going to force it.” Apparently the Chicago forecaster attempted to persuade the SPC to include Wisconsin, leaving out Illinois. When he gets off the phone, his partner asks whether the Chicago forecaster was really critical and is told that “he wasn't belligerent,” a reference to a time past. A few days later another SPC forecaster considers asking if they could include a few southern counties in a watch, feeling that those counties might be at risk. He comments to his partner, “That will be a hard sell.” Fortunately, an accommodating forecaster was on duty, and the watch was accepted. Chicago was not the only office that resisted watches and was not the only office so typified. But the fact that the Chicago office is seen as being resistant suggests that workplace negotiations are not only with individuals but with group cultures.
As I discuss below, local forecasters are wordsmiths. In contrast, at the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma, words matter far less than their beloved boxes. Although one might imagine that the forecasters simply draw (on a computer screen) as they wish, focusing on heightened meteorological risks, this communication is tied to social concerns and a sense of occupational aesthetics.
As I have noted, watches were originally designed for radio, established so that broadcasts could report that a tornado watch exists x miles either side of a line from y to z. This announcement created the visual image of a parallelogram or box, and this remains the standard means of communicating severe weather threats. Even as more and more people are informed through visual media—television and computers—boxes have remained. (The weather service is in the process of changing them to polygons to make them more flexible). The former technology has determined how public safety is communicated, even after technological change.10
While boxes could be any size and shape, meteorologists embrace an aesthetics of “boxology.” Forecasters do not like to draw boxes that are too large or too small (a “postage stamp”), or too squished (long and thin). By putting the storms in a box, forecasters hope to allow for the storms to move through that space, minimizing the number of new boxes. In addition, boxes do not stand alone. One forecaster explained, “You want to put your boxes where you can build on them. You're constrained by the rectangle quality. You can't put in a triangle Watch… . This is what the truth is [he draws me a small shape on the map], but it would make it hard to build on to” (Field notes). In other words, one must not only be concerned by what is happening at the moment, but what might happen in the future. Discussion about the proper shape of boxes is common:
(p.151) Lawrence is considering how to draw a box for storms through North Carolina and Virginia (eventually they draw two boxes for the region). He comments, “I wish we could do an L shape.” Terry jokes, “I wish we could do an inverse Oklahoma [a box in the shape of Oklahoma], If I could do a polygon, I could take care of it.”11 Nate says, “You know what I'd do. I'd make it last for an hour and a half [a short period for a watch], and then I'd give it to Guy. ‘Guy, it's your mess now.’” Terry comments, “I hate to overlay one watch on another. Too bad we didn't shift change at three o'clock [so Guy would be responsible].” (Field notes)
: : :
Numerous boxes have been issued today. Stu sighs, “What a mess, boxology-wise.” He tells Guy: “It may be a waste of a watch, but could you extend this box farther to the east.” Guy responds, “Maybe I should just sit on it [waiting until the storms move and form a better shape], but I sort of hate sitting on this storm. It looks pretty tough.” Later Guy is talking to the Memphis office: “It's not real clear what we need to do to handle these storms. If I issued a little postage stamp for that, it would handle those storms, but it would not really be appropriate [being too small]. I was thinking of extending the watch for your Arkansas counties farther east.” Later Guy talks about issuing a small box for Kentucky but says to the local office, “There is so little room there [between boxes] that I can't issue a watch. I would be comfortable if you guys handle it warning-wise, and let it expire, and at the congressional hearing [if disaster occurs] that's what I would tell them.” (Field notes)
On rare occasions postage stamp watches are acceptable, but they demand a strong justification. Borderline severe weather is insufficient.
While boxes are linked to meteorological events and are not merely artistic or political expressions, how they become formulated is tied to occupational norms. As forecasters are socialized, they are taught to communicate in ways that exhibit competent professional practice. Squashed, sheared, flattened, narrow, or overlaid boxes, while sometimes necessary, indicate that the forecaster has not thought ahead sufficiently. These reveal that the forecaster is only now “catching up” on predictions that should have been made earlier. They are spoken of as “ugly” or “messy.” It is because of the subcultural components (p.152) of watches that forecasters speak of boxology, an art and a science as compelling as meteorology itself. The prediction of what will happen on the ground should fit standards of efficient and competent practice. Seemingly mundane, these communicative technologies are ultimately evaluated through internal standards of which outsiders may be only dimly aware.
The Write Stuff
Just as operational meteorology is a collective enterprise, it is also a literary exercise.12 In this, as many scholars argue, notably anthropologist Bruno Latour and economist Donald McCloskey, it stands with other disciplines—a world of persuasion based on language.13 The product of the scientist is words. Said a forecaster, “We're word craftsmen.” Perhaps one should not push this too hard as forecasts rely upon a limited number of words, a paucity of nouns, adjectives, and adverbs, and near absence of verbs. These texts do not quite reflect Latour's assertion that science is “thrilling,” a “real opera” with heroes and villains;14 however, they do contain drama, even if the style is spare and bony.15 The writing of operational meteorologists is closer to a literary technology, as discussed by Steven Shapin,16 an instrumental resource shaped for persuasion. Ultimately the forecast is nothing if it doesn't provoke its audience to act. Weather forecasting, whether directly from government forecasters or massaged by the media, is one of the most powerful and insistent forms of persuasive communication in all the sciences.17 Consider the forecast for Chicago (technically for McHenry, Lake, Kane, DuPage, Cook, Kendall, and Will counties in Illinois and Lake and Porter counties in Indiana) for the week beginning the evening of Friday, January 11, 2002:18
- TONIGHT … INCREASING CLOUDINESS TOWARD MORNING. LOW AROUND 30. SOUTHWEST WINDS 10 TO 15 MPH.
- SATURDAY … CLOUDY. A 40 PERCENT CHANCE OF LIGHT SNOW OR FLURRIES. HIGH AROUND 40. SOUTHWEST WINDS 10 TO 15 MPH BECOMING NORTHWEST 15 TO 20 MPH.
- saturday night … clearing. low in the middle 20s. northwest winds 10 to 20 mph.
- SUNDAY … MOSTLY SUNNY. HIGH 35 TO 40.
- SUNDAY NIGHT … BECOMING CLOUDY EARLY WITH LIGHT SNOW LIKELY. LOW IN THE MIDDLE 20S. CHANCE OF SNOW 60 PERCENT.
- (p.153) MONDAY … LIGHT SNOW LIKELY. HIGH 30 TO 35. CHANCE OF SNOW 60 PERCENT.
- MONDAY NIGHT … CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF SNOW EARLY. LOW IN THE LOWER OR MIDDLE 20S.
- TUESDAY … PARTLY CLOUDY. HIGH IN THE MIDDLE 30S.
- WEDNESDAY … CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF SNOW. LOW AROUND 20. HIGH AROUND 30.
- THURSDAY … A CHANCE OF SNOW SHOWERS. LOW AROUND 20. HIGH IN THE UPPER 20S.
- FRIDAY … A CHANCE OF SNOW SHOWERS. LOW IN THE TEENS. HIGH IN THE MIDDLE 20S.
This is a fairly typical midwinter forecast for the Chicago area. No severe weather is forecast, no frigid temperatures. Several things are notable about the week-long forecast (actually seven and a half days). It is a signed document. I know who wrote it: “RLB,” one of my informants. Meteorologists sign their forecasts. Sometimes with their last name, sometimes with their initials, and sometimes with an identifying number—one forecaster chose “86” to honor the 1960s television sitcom, “Get Smart!” and to signal his affection for the main character.19 At the few offices that do not require signatures, some feel that their forecasts are depersonalized. Having one's name attached to one's work reinforces the belief that “you should be proud of your product” (Field notes), but also that the organization considers forecasters accountable for their predictions. While the public does not know these names, co-workers in other offices and media personalities may. The signature prevents the forecast from being purely a collective product, tying it to the self of the scientist. To be sure, this document owes a lot to the previous forecast, to yesterday's forecast, and beyond, but even if the forecaster borrows words, they are his, even while being transferable. In operational meteorology one person cannot plagiarize the forecast of another.
The forecast uses 119 words for a week's worth of weather (not counting numbers or days of the week). There are thirty-five separate words, six nouns, and no true verbs (although increasing and clearing could be so considered). Only four—“increasing cloudiness” and “becoming” twice—have more than two syllables. This is a text that in its level of writing could teach second graders how to read. And for children the words have the benefit of demonstrating that experience can be revealed through text. Indeed, forecasters know that their words will reach the public, either through the Weather Channel or on their own (p.154) website, typifying their readers as “Joe Blow” or “Joe Schmo,” a (male) reader with a fifth-grade education.
Yet, there is also considerable subtlety. Not in the words themselves, nor in a sense of style that dramatically differentiates forecasters from each other, but in the ability to link words to the events to which they are to refer. Cultural knowledge is needed to unpack the text, not only in knowing the denotations of the words. How do “flurries” differ from “light snow” with which they are contrasted? What are “snow showers,” and how do they differ from the rain “showers” that are their counterpoint.
The connotations of meteorological writing are seasonal. Terms such as “cold” or “warm” have different meanings in July, September, and February. One September forecast was labeled cold with temperatures in the 30s. That day might have been described as “mild” four months later. Temperatures in the 50s have different meanings in February and July, and they are referred to in dissimilar ways.
It is the assumed transparency of language that makes this rhetoric so effective. It feels rhetoric-free. One would have to strain very hard as a “cultural dope”20 not to understand this text. One could do so, but only by reminding oneself how often in practice writing lacks ambiguity.21 Each day two sets of forecasts are distributed—typically with three or four variants for different “zones” or sets of counties. During this research, the Chicago office usually issued a zone forecast for the Chicago metro area, one for the northern and western counties, one for the southern counties, and sometimes one for the southwestern counties. The number of zones is a function of the complexity of the forecast for the next two or three days. After that the extended forecast, less certain, tends to become similar for all zones. Chicago may issue eight zone forecasts in a typical day, and 121 other offices do the same. To be a meteorologist, at least at the moment of this research, was to be an author, a wordsmith who creates multiple texts.
The Meteorological Self in Words.
Every occupation involves an identity game. How you work affects who you are. Work creates a pattern of salient self-images. The elements that are selected to represent that self are, however, a function of the occupational culture. All workers—clergymen, tailors, or muggers—must communicate with their publics and so labor is a linguistic game. In meteorology, words are a heavy—and startling—part of this process. Partly it is through words that workers differentiate themselves from machines, giving priority to human authority. These words, formulaic as they are, matter to the forecasters.
(p.155) Writing a forecast is, in some sense, a form of emotion work, both in that they feel strongly about protecting their fellow citizens and in that they desire to be unconstrained in their communication choices. They are not overtly concerned about style as such, but their predictions matter, and their predictions are expressed in words. From my first days of observation I was told about the importance of the ownership of the forecast and its words. It is for this reason that meteorologists were concerned about the changes that computerized forecasting would bring, altering both what they do and who they are, modifying their autonomy to communicate with imagined audiences. As I discuss below, this new system, requiring forecasters to manipulate databases, creates the wording directly from the data manipulation without literary input from the forecaster. My study examines forecasters at a historical moment, focusing on one office, although the concern with wording was also evident in the two other local offices. Because of the timing of the study, I cannot assess the attitudes toward writing after computerized forecasting was fully accepted and after a new generation of forecasters were socialized to that system, but even after forecasters were using this new system they routinely edited the computer forecasts and talked about their wording choices. One MIC explained: “We're authors of our own products each day. So each person likes to have their personal touch in their writings, just like you write your articles. These people write their short articles each day based on their judgment, and, so, it becomes a very personal thing, the wording that our people put into it. And now, if we're going to go into a [computerized] system which tells us what the words should be and many times these words will be the same as what we had before, but now some machine is telling us what to say” (Interview; emphasis added). One of his forecasters makes this belief evident in striking language, considering what outsiders might find to be the constrained nature of the texts: “Being able to use words that are as descriptive as possible … not flashy but in an artistic fashion that either delight or make it easier for them to understand… . Since I've been doing it for twenty-some years, it's become an integral part of me… . And to take that away, say ‘You can't do that anymore,’ it may not have seemed important at the time, but now seeing something being taken away, your job's changing. I do kind of feel resentful” (Interview). Put another way, “People feel they are losing all their individual artistry… . They are worried about losing their own words,” “Sometimes it becomes artwork. We take these numbers and massage them into words,” or “It takes away the art. It's our product. It's part of us. We don't want a machine to tell us what to do. It's an insult” (Field notes). Workers feel (p.156) that they lost turf, relinquished a valued task and yielded the imprint of their vision on their work products.
It is not only the control enforced by computer forecasts that threatens the autonomy of the forecaster as auteur, but so do organizational choices.22 During summer 2001, forecasters waited with trepidation for a revision of “Chapter 11,” the document published by headquarters that told forecasters how they must format and phrase texts. Despite the desire of forecasters to control their own writing, the ultimate decision was bureaucratic, even though local forecasters were permitted some leeway. Every so often headquarters revised the style and content that were permissible. This revision was not as dogmatic as feared, but alterations were mandated. The new version of Chapter 11 outlaws writing “mid to upper 40s,” but they could still specify a five-degree range, such as 44-48 degrees. One forecaster explained, “In one respect it takes away our stuff, but it's nice to have a consistency. It's nice to know that the words that are used are the same.” But his colleague jokes, “No one is following it anyway… . They just ignore it” (Field notes).23
The computerized forecast has a more obdurate reality. Ironically given the eventual decision of the Weather Channel to create their own wording, it was TWC's insistence that led to the pressure from headquarters to present forecasts in a standardized format.24 With each attempt at standardization, forecastersworry about lost authority. The trade-off, at least as imagined by headquarters, is that better data and more complex models permit improved forecasts, and, eventually, higher public esteem. Any worker who has the skills to manipulate such complex data could surely imagine themselves as a competent professional.
Many forecasters are not convinced that the public notices changes, but they claim that the changes affect the public through the decay of language, as well as constituting an attack on who they are and what they do. In the words of one, “The words carry specific meaning. You spend a lot of time figuring out what you mean.” A forecaster may spend up to an hour editing texts, such as polishing “outlying areas” to “outlying suburbs.” Forecasters frequently discuss their selections with colleagues. This was particularly common as younger forecasters asked senior colleagues to proofread or asked whether to include “scattered showers” or a “chance of showers.”25 Even though they have a hazy view of their public, forecasters like to believe that the public reads as carefully as they write, striving to give the best advice. Local offices imagine an audience much like themselves. This is a standard problem for many occupations—whether pharmacists or software developers—who hope to communicate their insight, but can only imagine audiences (p.157) with their own concerns and sophistication. This belief opens a space for the media to translate their words into forms that are more accessible and usable for other audiences.
As emphasized by their signature, meteorologists own their forecast. As one put it, “You can storm chase all you want, but until you put your name down, it doesn't count” (Field notes). Another comments, “You have to have a thick skin and a sense of humor to be ameteorologist. You put yourself on the line whenever you put words on paper” (Field notes). The importance of the signature was evident in a jocular conversation between two meteorologists:
DON (joking with Byron):
I put your name on [the forecast].
In that case, I'll make some changes.
You think I want to take the blame for this. (Both laugh.)
I won't send it out blindly.
BYRON (later, to me):
Let's hope this forecast is right. He has his name on it. (Field notes)
For an agency that stresses communication between the forecaster and the public, exhorting forecasters that “the ‘words’ is what we do,” a change from this system proved traumatic.
Even the changes from the written forecast to the media representation of it can be significant. One forecaster mused, “You stand in a line at the grocery store, and people will say that they are predicting this. You feel like saying, ‘I'm they.’ You'll write a forecast and you know what you wrote. You'll write a 30 percent chance of rain toward the evening, and the DJ says, ‘Rain,’ and you'll say, ‘That's not what I wrote’” (Field notes). Even when filtered through the media, the words are still owned. As a result, poor writing, sometimes attributed to younger forecasters at spin-up offices, takes a toll. Such writing, however defined, threatens the occupation: “To me it's very important because we're seen as being educated people in this office, at least that's the way we want ourselves to come across. When you have people writing forecasts that use incorrect grammar or leave articles out of sentences, poor sentence structure, run-on sentences … it just makes my skin crawl that people are looking at that on the Weather Channel.26 It goes out verbatim, just the way it's typed in here. You've got these hundreds of thousands of people that are reading this, thinking, ‘Geez, what kind of a [person] do they have working in that office’” (Interview). The sensitivity is such that the office displays examples of the poor writing of other offices. Privately, colleagues could be contemptuous about each other's writing, (p.158) even in one case going to the MIC to complain about a colleague whose forecast used “becoming” too frequently, which, while grammatical, was unaesthetic, or, as it was put, “really sucks” (Field notes).
Repeatedly I heard a mantra or the need to communicate with the public, a marker of selfhood. This led to a philosophy of writing. Forecasters discuss and debate linguistic choices, for instance, how to write headlines to communicate the proper level of threat. One forecaster objected to excessive hedging, using “mostly” or including small chances of precipitation instead of presenting a firm conclusion.27 He jokes about this linguistic preference, “We always hedge. Partly cloudy. Chance of rain. It's never sunny. It's always mostly sunny. We don't want to be wrong. We can't be 100 percent right. It's never black. It's always mostly black” (Field notes).28 Significantly a colleague held the opposite philosophy, noting, “If you get specific, the odds are you're going to be wrong. You make a choice and you're going to miss it. You don't want to get tied down.” No single aesthetic philosophy is embraced, and as each forecaster has preferences, the philosophy can yo-yo, along with the predictions, unless one forecaster shows deference to the desires of another. These preferences affect the forecast words, which in turn influence citizens in their daily activities, even if their audience does not appreciate the technical meanings of “partly cloudy” or the implications of a “30 percent chance of showers.” The media, filtering these claims, have their own philosophy of language. Different institutions have their preferences, a function of aesthetics, technology, or the imagined needs of their audience.
The politics of rhetoric may result in discussions—battles—over particular words and phrases. With a spare writing style, the individual word or turn of phrase is crucial in ways that it isn't in this bulky volume. Forecasters have different preferences in their pressured poetics. As one explained: “[I try] to communicate to the public exactly what I would expect to see and feel when I walk out the door. I like using subjective terms in a forecast too. For most people relate to those a lot more than just numbers. For instance, if it's cold outside and kind of a cloudy day and the wind is really blowing hard, well, I like to use the term ‘blustery.’ Blustery cold to a lot of people means a hat and scarf today, a heavier jacket to wear. And then, of course, ‘sultry,’ another good term. They communicate a picture of things. But I feel that a lot of people relate to them, as opposed to just saying today's sunny and high 90 to 95” (Interview). Not all meteorologists agree with his preferences, but everyone acknowledges that each forecaster has preferences. A (p.159) debate occurred about whether to use “wind” or “winds”—as in “strong wind/s.” Some felt that wind was a proper collective noun, and others felt that winds is a Chicago regionalism and complained that when “wind” is read by the automatized voice on NOAA weather radio it is pronounced “wined,” an error that must then be corrected. The algorithm by which the machine determined the proper pronunciation of this heteronym made the wrong choice. The voice recognition software became another audience that forecasters had to consider.29
Some preferences seemed eccentric, although meaningful to the writer and often linked to his or her training. One forecaster happily used “flurries” (of snow) but objected vehemently to “sprinkles” (of rain). He says that he was told as an intern, “If it's going to rain, it's going to rain. If it sprinkles, it still ruins your picnic” (Field notes).
The most dramatic battle of words, in the Chicago office at least, was an ongoing debate over the use of “fair.” Could such a widely used word be standardized, and would such usage depend on public understandings or technical ones. Whose language was it? Whose definitions triumphed? Such a debate is widely felt in many knowledge disciplines that hope to communicate with nonspecialists. Whether we discuss “status,” “norm,” or “fair,” we must select the limits and boundaries of definitions as used in practice. Could “fair” become a technical term, or would its roots always remain in public space. If the former, would its use in forecasting create confusion among a public unwilling to cede this sturdy term to specialists.
A few forecasters embraced the term “fair” and its metaphoric quality, feeling that it should be used for a nice, mild, pleasant day or night30 with only a few wispy, cirrus clouds. They felt that the term had a rich intuitive meaning. Others objected, arguing that fair lacked a clear or standardized meteorological value and was ambiguous. The debate centered on whether this emotive word had a stable symbolic meaning and whether such language was transparent and accessible to members of the public. Critics preferred the equally metaphorical “clear.” There were rumors that “fair” would be banished by headquarters who, it was said, wanted standardized language, but, to everyone's surprise, “fair” survived. The formal Weather Service definition of fair became “few or no clouds below 12, 000 feet with no significant weather and/or obstructions to visibility,” creating a bureaucratic standard from a metaphor, reminding us that even the smallest matters can become matters of bureaucratic concern. This debate became enmeshed in the office's joking culture, and was learned of in other offices, such as Flowerland, where forecasters describe “fair” as “Chicago's favorite.” Although (p.160) there was much joking, real disagreement existed about this four-letter word:31
Sid comments to Stan, fair-weather friends, “You know these fairs. The midnight crew kicked them right out, but I put most of them back.” (Field notes)32
: : :
Stan tells Sid about his forecast, “It looks like a bunch of ‘fairs’ coming up.” Sid answers, “I know, use it or lose it, buddy.” Later Sid joshes, “I put in a fair and it was changed to mostly clear. Some people are not team players.” (Field notes)
: : :
VIC (joking about revising forecasts after the new computerized software is installed):
Fair is not allowed.
It's strongly discouraged.
Which means for this office you have to put it in.
I'll put it in.
You know, doctor, you're an infidel.
You can't say poor, so you shouldn't say fair.
Just for that, I'll put in fair.
That's OK, I can put out an update.
Increasing fairness … variable fairness … chance of fairness. (Field notes)
It is symptomatic that the younger forecasters, more comfortable with standardization, like Sean and Vic, generally oppose fair, while the older men, who value their autonomy, like Don, Stan, and Sid, like fair and other emotive writing. The proponents of fair believe that the term has an intuitive folk meaning:
Maybe it's from being of the old school, but fair to me has a distinct meaning. Fair means that you have no extremes of temperature or wind, and the sky condition for the most part is clear… . Fair had definite meaning. (Interview)
Critics disagree with the claim of definite meaning, and see the terms as seeding confusion: “I'm not a proponent of fair. What's fair? … If you put four people in a room, and asked them what fair is, you'd get six different definitions. That's the problem with words like that” (p.161) (Interview).33 The dispute revolves on reader response. It is not that anyone loves the word “fair,” the question is—as it is with all writing—whether it communicates. Because meteorologists use so few words and aspire to use each precisely, the debate is intense, if good-humored.
Opening One's Mind.
Forecasters distribute many products, both routine and pressured, including severe weather warnings, produced in a white heat, using well-established formulae. However, if one counts the number of words written, and perhaps even the time spent, the area forecast discussion constitutes the bulk of meteorological writing. It is not as important for a sense of self as the forecast, but it is narrative. In the AFD the forecaster justifies the prediction in several hundred words—the number varies as a function of the author and of the weather conditions. As I noted in discussing coordination, their audience can either be fellow forecasters or broadcast journalists (or private forecasters) and now, thanks to the Internet, the public.
These distinctive audiences create problems for the form of writing. Not too many years ago the AFD was distributed within the agency, an internal product designed for coordination, a form of shoptalk.34 This permitted forecasters to write in clipped, abbreviated, acronym-laden language, as some still do:
LATEST AFTN VISBL SATLT PICS SHOW SNOW COVER REMAINING OVER SERN PORTIONS OF FA SO WILL GO A COUPLE OF DEGREES COLDER THERE FOR OVERNIGHT LOWS AS DECOUPLING LIKELY EVEN WITH INCRSG SLY FLOW LATER TONIGHT. CS DECK MOVING EWD FROM IA IS FCST TO CONT TO INCRS IN COVG SO WILL MENTION ICRSG CLOUDINESS FOR TONIGHT.
Translation: The latest afternoon visible satellite pictures show snow cover remaining over the southern portions of forecast area, so I will forecast a couple of degrees colder there for overnight lows, as decoupling is likely even with an increasingly southerly flow later tonight. A deck of cirrostratus clouds moving eastward from Iowa is forecast to continue to increase in coverage, so I will mention increasing cloudiness for tonight.
The extract above is a portion of a larger text, incorporating meteorological knowledge such as “cirrostratus deck” or “decoupling,” acronyms, such as CWA (County Warning Area), and various abbreviations and shortenings. In recent years the Weather Service has attempted to make these documents more user-friendly, discouraging (p.162) abbreviations, defining users more broadly than some forecasters like. As one forecaster put it, what had once been a discussion is now a synopsis. Risque in-jokes, such as the acronym for “scattered cumulus clouds”—FEWCU—are largely a thing of the past. Now AFDs, aimed at the media and public, while still requiring a measure of meteorological knowledge, are less likely to require translation:
SATELLITE IMAGERY SHOWS CLOUD COVER OVER THE UPPER MIDWEST CONTINUING ITS EASTWARD MOVEMENT AS THE UPPER TROUGH OVER THE AREA PROGRESSES TO THE LOWER LAKES. EXPECT SKIES TO BECOME SUNNY BY MID MORNING AS WEAK RIDGING SLIDES OVER THE FORECAST AREA TODAY AHEAD OF THE NEXT SYSTEM TO COME TO THE AREA.
This has less of a feel of shoptalk than the previous extract, opening up the profession to the public, altering the boundary between scientist and layman. Imagined audiences affect communicative strategies. In their newsletter the Belvedere office once decided to explain some of the more common acronyms used in their AFDs. In the Chicago office, attitudes toward the public use of the AFD are more likely to be sheathed in humor, “I might as well send all this good stuff out, and let the world feast on my wisdom. The world has my thought process. Isn't that scary?” (Field notes).
Even more than the public, the media has pressed for the AFD to be accessible. They desire a concise text aimed at a person with modest meteorological knowledge, providing them information to use on camera. This translation is less necessary for knowledgeable meteorologists in major markets, such Chicago's Tom Skilling or Washington's Bob Ryan, but useful for their colleagues in smaller markets. One forecaster told me that he writes for “weekend weather.” Another imagined a comely young broadcaster as his reader: “I have Tracy Butler in mind… . She's the local weather girl on Channel Seven … she's got a degree in meteorology, but hasn't got a lot of experience in weather. She's learning it, and so I have her in mind” (Interview). Writing for novice meteorologists requires a mindset different from writing for one's experienced professional colleagues. This debate, a function of meteorology's role as a public science, is addressed in chapter 6, but it reminds us of the multiple audience problem that forecasters face.
Unlike the forecast itself, attached to the self of the meteorologist, the AFD is written for an audience, and internal fights over wording are less common. It is writing, but not from the soul. Writing has different (p.163) value depending on how it is linked to the core of occupational work, akin to the differences between published articles versus internal memos in other work domains.
“If-Pissing” Life Away
Early in the 1990s the National Weather Service headquarters, besieged by private companies demanding that the service be privatized, decided that its future would be to present detailed databases of meteorological conditions that others could use.35 An outcome of this decision was the system termed IFPS (Interactive Forecast Preparation System) through which forecasters would manipulate databases, primarily by drawing meteorological boundaries (with computer tools) on gridded maps. The computer program could then rapidly prepare a suite of products, creating wording, and these grids would be available to users—the media, private firms, or even the public.36 The boundaries between the scientists and their publics were shifted as a function of institutional pressures, common in an age of deregulation and privatization.
To the extent that the previous forecast or the model fit the tore-caster's belief, more or less work is required, as long as the forecaster accepts the wording that the computer provided for those forecast zones that the meteorologist had selected. Forecasts are not limited, however, to zones based on counties, because the forecaster creates a detailed map of the forecast region.37 As a result, a forecast is available for each point on the map. Previously forecasts had been written for counties or groups of counties; soon one could have a forecast for a grid of one square kilometer, a personalized forecast.
Part of this change entails having the meteorologist focus on the science of the forecast, “letting the machine produce the words.” The grids as drawn with gradients for temperature, precipitation, wind, and cloud cover are the meteorological product. Although this might be treated as heightening the scientific credentials of forecasters, the results were more controversial.
As I emphasized in chapter 2, the study of work must involve the examination of microcultures—in this case, the differences among the three offices. At one point after the system was well on its way to being implemented, the NWS surveyed employees as to whether they thought it would be “beneficial.”38 Overall approximately 50 percent agreed, but in Chicago the vote was 14 to 1 against. This reflects my sense as I watched the implementation process. From my observations I suspect that in Belvedere the vote would have been reversed, and in Flowerland, (p.164) it might have been more equally split. Not surprisingly—and both the cause and effect of these attitudes—the system was implemented earliest and most smoothly at Belvedere. Regional headquarters was well aware that considerable opposition roiled Chicago. Indeed, the date for full implementation was pushed back several times in Chicago from March 1 until May 15, although eventually it was implemented and not found to be quite as distressing as it first appeared. Over a year after implementation, well after I had left, several forecasters told me that they still were struggling with this complex system. As I was completing this manuscript I was informed privately that after “almost three years … there is still an intense dislike of the system by many [Chicago] forecasters.”
As a new software program, changes, additions, upgrades, and modifications to IFPS were only to be expected. Early versions of IFPS were imperfect, riddled with awkward design features, bugs, and glitches. Some believed that these would be fixed, improving the forecast process; others were not persuaded.
The Imperatives of Organization.
Like most major technological changes, an organizational imperative motivated change. For good or for ill, this change resulted from the demands of private meteorological firms, notably AccuWeather (described as “our biggest nemesis”).39 By relieving the staff of writing forecasts, they treated the provision of data and interpretation as their primary product, with the written forecasts downgraded. Optimists felt that this change would “save the service as a service” from the threats of privatization (Field notes). One confessed, “I think it actually saves our jobs. It quiets down the private sector. As long as they have this digital database, I think it provides [us] job security.” Yet, a colleague commented, “Perhaps they can save on personnel costs and still have enough people available [for severe weather]. I told people jokingly that I went to Kansas City [for IFPS training] to learn the software that will put us out of business” (Interview). The system potentially allows one forecaster to manipulate the database, implying that his partner is redundant. Others suggested that the hydrometeorological technician position might be eliminated with the second forecaster responsible for that work.40 Some even believed that this system with its national database might result in the closure of local offices, consolidated in a few regional centers.41 Such a system would help coordinate the grids with adjoining offices, a problem that the new systemmagnified in that points on the boundaries of forecast areas may have very different forecasts (a problem less apparent when the forecast was for whole counties). Still (p.165) others concluded that someday this system in conjunction with ever more sophisticated forecast models might entirely eliminate forecasters, making this public science an appendage of media and industry.
The Strains of Change.
What did this change mean to forecasters? How revolutionary a change was it? The science didn't change, the need for forecasts and explanations didn't change at first, the personnel didn't change, and neither did the material conditions of labor. Yet, some saw that this change was as revolutionary as the creation of the nationwide network of local offices, the installation of computers, or the availability of real-time satellite or radar images. They experienced “epistemological distress,”42 uncertain as to how work is to be done under this new knowledge regime. One anxious forecaster relied on the metaphor of Brave New World, with the assessment that the software was still primitive—“not ready for prime time”—a steep learning curve was required, coupled with fears of an uncertain future. I was informed that “There will be people who will retire rather than do it” (Field notes). That didn't happen in any of the offices that I examined during the process of implementation. Forecasters were told dramatically—frightened, perhaps—that “this is your future” or “for most people this will be the bulk of your career starting now… . This will be a sea-change in how you put your forecast together” (Field notes). One meteorologist even suggested (humorously, I hope) that IFPS could cause people to “become insane” (Field notes). Some forecasters—often the younger ones who relished change and were not set in their ways—were more compliant. Two forecasters phrased the matter differently and personally, “I like change. There is so much potential… . The only way you will be threatened is if you don't embrace the new technology,” as opposed to the simple plaint, “I'm doing it the old-fashioned way. Dogs don't like new tricks” (Field notes). Whether changing from writing forecasts to producing those interpretations of the future by drawing lines and moving boxes constitutes a major change is not open to objective assessment but is determined by how a group and an occupation characterizes its work.
The Belvedere and Chicago offices implemented the new system differently.43 In Belvedere, the training was rapid. Two meteorologists who had been trained in regional headquarters were responsible for training their colleagues, sitting by them and answering questions. Forecasters were expected to master the whole system at once from data input to creating gridded forecasts. Up to five days were set-aside for training, but most forecasters felt that after two intense days they could manage on their own. Perhaps because the training was concentrated (p.166) and provided by respected colleagues who were enthusiastic about the system, it proceeded smoothly. If one accepted that computerized forecasting was inevitable and desirable, the Belvedere approach was advantageous, and the system was adopted easily. Of course, the culture of the Belvedere office and the identities of the workers, as was expressed many times, was that of a group that was open to change. Thus, any innovation that headquarters selected might have been readily adopted.
The Chicago office took a different approach, in part because the staff was unenthusiastic about the change and wished to delay its implementation. IFPS lacked an effective advocate in the office. Even the trainers were skeptical. The Chicago office first held what they described as a “political meeting” at which forecasters were warned about “big changes” ahead. Then training by a member of the administrative staff and a younger journeyman forecaster occurred in stages. First, forecasters used the system to create verification statistics, then they manipulated the matrices, the numerical database that produced the forecast (ignoring the geographical grids), and finally—two and a half months after the target date—forecasters began creating forecasts through manipulating the grids. If they had learned to draw their forecasts on a gridded map first, as happened in Belvedere, the other forms of training would not have been necessary and the process would have been less disruptive. But the Chicago staff felt that this process would have been too radical; they imagined that change needed to be instituted gradually. Further, rather than have a knowledgeable forecaster work intensely with each staff member for several shifts, the training occurred in bits and pieces, and familiarity took considerably longer to achieve than at Belvedere. Whenever the program developed a glitch or when the weather was complicated, forecasters were told to use the manual system for the day. In fact, one of the trainers told me that he had decided not to use the system when he was running late, commenting “I was thinking of doing [IFPS] at noon, but I didn't have it ready. Today's not the day to play hero. Today's not the day to fart around with it. There will be plenty of days” (Field notes). In Chicago's culture delay was legitimate and normative. Eventually regional headquarters sent a forecaster from a proficient office to train the staff. In time the Chicago forecasters mastered the system, but many resented the turmoil that was caused by the new forms of work.44
The IF-PISS Solution.
Workers have strategies to demonstrate resistance to changes that they do not think will serve them or those they (p.167) represent. These tactics to thwart bureaucratic demands are weapons of the weak,45 even when those weaklings are well-paid professional meteorologists toiling within a government bureaucracy. As offices have different cultures, the resistance to IFPS was not uniform within the weather service, but such resistance emerged at the Chicago office and some other local offices. Some offices saw the new system as a milestone of meteorological progress.
IFPS is now institutionalized and forecasters have learned to live with the technology (if not always like it). But at the time of implementation, skeptics expressed resentment. Acronyms are a tradition in the weather service. Some are spoken of by their initials (the N.G.M. model, the A.F.D.), others are spoken as they are spelled (NOAA is Noah, the AWIPS computer system is A-Whips). What to do about IFPS?
Headquarters and the Belvedere and Flowerland offices refer to the system through its initials as I.F.P.S.; however, for many—although not all—of the staff in Chicago the editorial comment implicit in speaking the initials was too prime to ignore. The system quickly became “If-piss” (and sometimes, when particularly frustrated, “G.D. If-piss”)—a moniker created by one of the forecasters at the beginning of the process. The term took root and conformed nicely with the cynical microculture of the office. Staff commented, “I'll be if-pissing this afternoon” or “Bert was really if-pissed off” (Field notes).
If-piss was only one of the ways in which IFPS was colorfully designated—it exemplified “crapware.” Rants aimed at the program and those at headquarters who wished to implement it were common. One forecaster claimed that because of the system he would retire the day he was fifty-five (a decade in the future) and others were convinced that younger forecasters would quit, becoming bored or frustrated with the new system, wondering, “How will I have job satisfaction for the next thirty years?”(Field notes). Blunt criticism of the technology and its makers was common. They were not involved in its creation, not sold on its value, and feared for their futures.
I never heard the term If-piss used in Belvedere and only rarely in Flowerland. There one forecaster, frustrated with the slowness of the system, commented “even the acronym sounds bad,” but significantly did not mouth that acronym (Field notes).
The Autonomy of the Author and the Pride of the Scientist.
A standard complamt was that IFPS was not ready for distribution, a grievance sometimes coupled with the claim that proper training was lacking. In this, (p.168) complaints were consistent with other moments of technological change. These issues provoked general agreement, even among those who were convinced that the system would eventually benefit operational meteorology.
To understand the benefits and the threat, I examine claims about the long-term effects of the system, focusing on literary autonomy and scientific advances. It is not that either claim is necessarily correct, although some day consensus may emerge, but these are images that meteorologists draw from when they consider their own future and how the system will facilitate or hinder the act of forecasting.
On my first day at the Chicago office, one of the staff took me aside to explain the new computerized forecasting system, yet to be unveiled, adding, “People feel they are losing all their individual artistry. The machine will put out all their words. They are worried about losing their words” (Field notes). A few months later I was told: “Right now we feel that we own the product, because it's our words. It won't be our words in this new system. We'll be putting out numbers. We're not authors anymore. It's not the same as putting out a product that everyone reads. We're just putting out numbers and the computer will create the words. It won't be the same” (Field notes, emphasis added). Another claimed, “Now with IFPS it's the computer writing my words. When I started, coming up with the words was crucial. Now the computer does it” (Field notes, emphasis added). I detailed the importance of words to forecasters, but under the IFPS regime, it is a machine that steals their soul. Yet, it is not just the words, but these words constitute a narrative. As a Belvedere forecaster told me, “I like to look at the data and tell my own story, and that's been taken away from me” (Field notes). I felt that I was watching professional chess players facing the obliteration of their expertise under the pressure of Deep Blue.
The frustration became intense at moments in which the computer prevented the forecaster from selecting the words by which the forecast would be known. One put it bluntly, “It's just a tool, but I'm the forecaster!” (Field notes). They were blocked by technology, just as some computer users feel when a program informs them that they are not permitted to save a file. Who made the chips our cops? This is a battle between man and machine, as in the claim, “IFPS puts out what it wants to, not the wording that is important to us as a human being. IFPS doesn't know that is important from a human perspective” (Field notes).
(p.169) Recall the discussion of the use of “fair” as a meteorological term: “I did a forecast of ‘fair,’ and they don't have ‘fair’ in [IFPS]. I have to do some other malarkey. It's ‘fair.’ It's not ‘clear.’ I'll make it ‘clear.’ No, I'll make it ‘scattered clouds.’ They're frowning on ‘clear,’ what the Hell?” (Field notes). Under the IFPS regime “fair” could only be included in the forecast if the meteorologist edited the machine-generated text. These forecasters must create work-arounds and make-dos, evading the technology and maintaining the authority to decide. One forecaster made this explicit through his desire to create wording, whatever the database might be, defeating the aim of the new system: “There will be a day when I won't be concerned about the wording. Maybe that will be after I retire. At some point we will only be dealing with the gridded database. Let's see what laughable zones come up… . Now, I'll go in and make the changes to have it come out the way I want it. They wouldn't like it if they knew, but that's the way we do it” (Field notes).
Eventually manipulating the gridded maps to produce desired words became easier, but it was still the words that counted for the occupational self. The implicit threat is that under the new regime the public will not notice the change. As one administrator put it skeptically, “A lot of people feel ownership of their words… . It's something the forecasters worry about, but nobody else does, even their family doesn't care” (Field notes).
Perhaps this account has painted IFPS in shades of dark gray, a function of the people whom I came to know and respect, but their views, while not rare, are not universal. As noted, about half the National Weather Service personnel believe that the new system will be beneficial. For them, greater attention to meteorological detail is a blessing. A meteorologist now no longer needs to forecast for an entire county but can consider subtle topographical features. The weather in Chicago can vary substantially from the lakefront to the prairie suburbs at the southwestern edge of Cook County.
This system permitting attention to detail can enrich scientific claims. The challenge is intellectual as one meteorologist noted, “You're going to have to think at a faster pace.” Or as a forecaster said of his partner after his first day using IFPS, “I smell burning wires [brain synapses] from there.” The primacy of scientific thought is evident:
I see the benefits from it. Just putting out the words is too narrow… . [Eventually] you'll concentrate on the meteorology, on what you think will happen. You let the machine come up with (p.170) the words. You can still manage words [through editing]. In some sense, it's more fun. It forces you to change how you think about the forecast. You still get the picture in your mind, and you convey that in the graphics and the words flow from there. (Field notes)
: : :
You can get a much better reality view of what is going on over the area… . With a gridded database you can show that trend. You can even show a lake breeze because of the smaller grids… . It holds a lot of promise in terms of how we present the weather in terms of what we can say… . If we can save time in the composition of the products, then we will have more time for more scientific assessment. (Field notes)
These workers privilege the idea of scientific interpretation over the loss of autonomy in the creation of texts. Is it the science to be communicated or is it the story? They are interconnected, but the relative weight chosen impacts one's attitude to change. Yet, these forecasters recognize that someone else (i.e., headquarters) has made a decision for them that forces them into a particular mode of scientist rather than the hybrid public scientist that has governed their worklife and that they have come to imagine is the way that their work ought to be.
Ultimately the change becomes the tacit reality, and recalling how work was constituted prior to the change is difficult. No doubt this is increasingly true with this technology. Meteorologists have always been, for better and for worse, on the cutting edge of technologies of data gathering and dissemination. IFPS is part of a historical set of transformations that shift the authority of the forecaster from being the font of wisdom to being a data manager. The case of the boxes that are used, critiqued, loved, and sweated over by the staff of the Storm Prediction Center reminds us that the concerns that Chicago forecasters have about their words can also apply to other forms of communication. As anxious as these forecasters were during my research, they may become as protective of their lines as they now are of their words. They can become artists as they were poets. Still, a meteorology that didn't use words to communicate is difficult to imagine. The question of who constructs the words, who has the right to alter them, and who ultimately controls them as they enter collective knowledge remains to be determined. The issue ultimately is not words, but control.
When we glance at a forecast on the Weather Channel, it may take effort to recall that those words are not merely instrumental but are expressive products. Words are not simply shared but are owned. They are integral to the doing of science. Whereas much social science analysis has emphasized the rhetorical qualities of scientific reports, notably journal articles, the worklives of operational meteorologists demonstrate that even a line of formulaic text can be pregnant with meaning and emotion. Words leave themselves open to standardization both within a local community and through decisions of a hierarchy. Mark Twain was right to claim that weather is a literary speciality. While the public treats these modest texts as transparent, they may be subtly, unknowingly influenced by how words—fair, clear, partly cloudy, mostly sunny, sprinkles, showers, flurries—convey different moods. Do partly cloudy and partly sunny mean the same thing? Do they give the same emotional picture to an audience, and, if not, which is preferable: should the sky be half full or half empty? Should forecasters be wily optimists or sly pessimists? Would you rather be pleasantly or unpleasantly surprised?
Words matter in this public science, for words are the means through which we communicate ideas, reveal identity, and demonstrate authority. Other technologies are sometimes used, particularly by media forecasters, such as boxes, pictograms, colorful charts, maps with squiggles, cartoons, or computerized images,46 but even here, although words are pushed to the side, the control of communication is central. Forecasters desire to maintain the authority to inform the public as they think proper, revealing their skills.
Any system, such as computerized forecasting, that threatens this control is troublesome, unless forecasters can convince themselves that they benefit: in this case, with the potential of expanded scientific authority. Not only do individuals differ on these effects, but groups, offices, and communities differ as well, generating spicy debate over these occupational changes. An ethnography of these same offices today, a few years after the implementation of this system, would demonstrate how this system has become routinized and naturalized as part of how forecasters do their jobs. Given the march of technology, other changes will impact the identity that forecasters struggle with as individuals and in offices.
The opening theme of this chapter reflects the centrality of collaboration, both internal and external. No individual can create scientific knowledge without relying on a team and on equipment. A forecast is (p.172) a relay race in which predictions are passed off; each forecast shapes future ones, modified as new knowledge is available.
Not only does a local office require coordination, but connections among offices also build on negotiation. As each County Warning Area abuts several others, forecasts should be smoothed out so that weather claims flow as naturally as the fluid dynamics of the air. Through talk and documents, this smoothing occurs or is ignored. As in the case of the Storm Prediction Center, when large blocks of the nation must be organized in the face of groups with varying interests, the challenge of creating a happy negotiation is real. Meteorologists do not always work together as effectively as they might, but in a system that depends on integrated autonomy that goal is to be devoutly wished.
(1.) Cited in David Laskin, Braving the Elements: The Stormy History of American Weather (New York: Anchor, 1996), p. 146.
(2.) Keli Pirtle Tarp, “Communication in the Distributed Cognition Framework: An Ethnographic Study of a National Weather Service Office,” manuscript, University of Oklahoma, p. 3.
(3.) Ronald N. Giere and Barton Moffatt, “Distributed Cognition: Where the Cognitive and the Social Merge,” Social Studies of Science 33 (2003): 301–10.
(p.275) (4.) Tarp, “Communication in the Distributed Cognition Framework,” pp. 6–7, 14.
(5.) I have discussed how offices back up each other in case of mechanical failure or on days in which new machines or major new software programs are being installed.
(6.) The NWS places metropolitan areas within the same forecast area, and state lines are often considered in selecting the boundaries of a forecast area. Further, since the forecast area is organized by counties, citizens in any county receive the same forecast.
(7.) The National Weather Service now prefers the term “collaboration” to “coordination.” The former presumes a negotiation among equals, while the latter implies hierarchical decision making. I use the two terms as synonyms, as they are used in the local offices.
(8.) The character of the end user is not often carefully considered. Forecasters are certainly aware that they are writing for colleagues and for broadcasters, but the nature of their public is rather hazy. One recent survey found that more than half of the offices had not examined census data to determine the characteristics of those they were serving. There is a tension within offices of wishing to speak directly to the public and not thinking about the specific needs of that public (personal communication, Shripad [Jayant] Deo, 2005).
(9.) Francesca Polletta, Freedom Is an Endless Meeting: Democracy in American Social Movements (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).
(10.) The classic instance of this dilemma is the location of letters on typewriters and (now) computer keyboards, as a function of the need to slow down typists because of the limited speed of the typewriter keys.
(11.) The SPC is now experimenting with such polygons, hoping that the visual representation will not be too confusing, hoping that the danger can be conveyed properly on radio broadcasts.
(12.) Charles Bazerman, Written Knowledge: The Genre and Activity of the Experimental Article in Science (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988).
(13.) Bruno Latour, Science in Action (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), p. 30; Donald McCloskey, If You're So Smart: The Narrative of Economic Expertise (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992); see also Peter Galison, Image and Logic: A Material Culture of Microphysics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), p. 795; Jan Golinski, Making Natural Knowledge: Constructivism and the History of Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 103–8.
(14.) Latour, Science in Action, pp. 53–54.
(15.) Laura Otis, “Scientific Style: Writing Anatomy, Composing History,” paper presented at the Society for Social Studies of Science, Milwaukee, November 2002.
(16.) Steven Shapin, “Pump and Circumstance: Robert Boyle's Literary Technology,” Social Studies of Science 14 (1984): 481–520.
(17.) The area forecast discussion is a more explicitly literary form, closer to Latour's model, but it is also a form that is less central to the forecaster's self than is the daily forecast.
(18.) Later I discuss computerized forecasts, but this one was typed by hand.
(p.276) (19.) Two of the forecasters who used numbers were women who worried about their personal safety (Field notes).
(20.) Harold Garfinkel, Studies in Etbnometbodology (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1967).
(21.) See Donald Levine, The Flight from Ambiguity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988).
(22.) It was not until 1938 that the Weather Bureau's ban on using the word “tornado” was officially lifted. The prohibition was based on fear that if the public heard such a warning they would panic (Jack Fishman and Robert Kalish, The Weather Revolution: Innovations and Imminent Breakthroughs in Accurate Forecasting [New York: Plenum, 1994], p. 174).
(23.) In one case a forecaster explained to me, “I know what I'm doing is illegal, but I'm going to do it anyway. ‘Temperatures in the upper 20s to 3 2.’ … I'm going to do this, because I want to say that it will not get above freezing. It's meteorologically reasonable” (Field notes).
(24.) Frank Batten with Jeffrey L. Cruikshank, The Weather Channel: The Improbable Rise of a Media Phenomenon (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2002), pp. 74–75.
(25.) The first suggests the certainty of a few showers; the latter a possibility of more extensive showers.
(26.) As noted, this is no longer the case. This change was a heavy blow to these otherwise anonymous workers.
(27.) In contrast, in the extended forecast, more tied to guidance from models, and in which forecasters invest less, they often write “partly cloudy” unless they have a specific reason to think otherwise. The extent of clouds is seen as too hard to predict a week ahead.
(28.) For the functions of ambiguity in social life, see Donald Levine, The Flight from Ambiguity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988).
(29.) In this case the words as written become, in effect, different words when read. The technology as formulated determines which sounds to give priority from a printed text.
(30.) Typically a daytime forecast would read “sunny” or “mostly sunny,” although some days were labeled fair. Sunny, of course, is not applicable to overnight forecasts.
(31.) New Zealand forecasters use the term “fine” for such days.
(32.) This is ping-ponging of a sort, but given that the meteorological meaning is identical, it is treated as more humorous than problematic.
(33.) As far as I know, the NWS, not having fully embraced social science research, has not asked focus groups to discuss their wording. Perhaps because the clients are increasingly corporations and media, the end public user is not always considered.
(34.) Michael Lynch, Art and Artifact in Laboratory Science: A Study of Shop Work and Shop Talk in a Research Laboratory (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985), p. 274.
(35.) C. F. Mass, “IFPS and the Future of the National Weather Service,” Weather Forecasting 18 (2003): 75–79.
(p.277) (36.) Robert T. Ryan, “Digital Forecasts: Communication, Public Understanding, and Decision Making,” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 84 (August 2003): 1001–5.
(37.) These local gridded forecasts could then be combined, smoothing out the different predictions at their boundaries, creating a National Digital Forecast Database (Harry R. Glahn and David P. Ruth, “The New Digital Forecast Database of the National Weather Service,” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 84 [February 2003]: 195–201).
(38.) One of the complaints of the staff at the Chicago office was that headquarters made insufficient efforts to demonstrate the value of the IFPS system to its employees, in effect choosing not to market the innovation, making it seem like a burden rather than an advance.
(39.) I was told by an NWS a dministrator that AccuWeather was not entirely happy about this change in that it provided too much information to its competitors, leveling the playing field.
(40.) The union that represents meteorologists, in which HMTs are particularly active, was quite concerned about the change.
(41.) One critic of the IFPS system wrote, “The experienced forecasters, appearing reluctant and slow, at times have a clearer view of the ‘bigger’ picture. They could see that by going to a gridded forecast base, in addition to losing the ability to ‘write’ a forecast, we were highlighting/enhancing the coordination problem across adjacent borders that already existed. The problem of ‘meshing’ gridded forecasts generated at 122 individual centers is enormous… . The answer to this problem [would be] to create ‘regional’ forecast offices and let the forecasts of larger combined areas be accomplished by many fewer forecasters at the new centers. Manpower would be reduced at the ‘downgraded’ Weather Service Offices which would revert to radar/warning/observation quality-control and public service offices. If you listen, I believe you will be hearing more and more about such an ‘innovative’ and ‘progressive’ plan in the future… . The NWS will lose its identity and support among the ‘masses’ that have provided much of the congressional impetus in the past to fund and defend the independence of the NWS. So the seemingly ‘backward,’ ‘conservative’ and adverse-to-change Chicago office ‘premonition’ may yet be fulfilled.” We shall see.
(42.) Shoshana Zuboff, In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power (New York: Basic Books, 1988).
(43.) By the time I arrived for my research, Flowerland had already started using the IFPS system. One senior forecaster was in charge of training the staff, which took about two months. There was not the same level of hostility to the new system as found in Chicago, but personal stress was evident. At the time that I observed, forecasts were routinely sent out late, which didn't happen often in either Belvedere or in Chicago. Joking at Flowerland typically involved issues of mental health. One forecaster commented after his shift, “I have to detox,” and another remarked “It will either make you more mature or it will make you crazy.” A third remarked, “After working, you just feel drained” (Field notes). One of the administrators at Flowerland remarked, “We keep harping on the technology, and honestly I think we're not taking enough account of the human (p.278) factor. At the staff meeting this morning we talked about the stress levels that are really getting very high because of all of the technology and the stress of new things coming in and the lack of training in the new technology… . The impression of people in the field, whether it's right or not, is that the main decision makers inside the headquarters of the National Weather Service are so focused on technology, they're not realizing the effects it has on the human being” (Interview). These remarks would have been unlikely in Chicago; the explicit attacks on IFPS drained stress from workers, but not their anger.
(44.) For an analysis of the dynamics of turmoil in a social system see Tim Hallett, “The Social Organization of ‘Turmoil’: Policy, Power and Disruption in an Urban Elementary School,” manuscript, Bloomington, Indiana, 2005.
(45.) James Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985).
(46.) Mark Monmonier, Air Apparent: How Meteorologists Learned to Map, Predict, and Dramatize Weather (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).