Editorial: Precipitation manipulation

Dan Barton, editor of the Kingston Times.

Dan Barton, editor of the Kingston Times.

In thinking about all the upset caused by this week’s blizzard that wasn’t, especially all the outrage directed at the weathermen for making everybody freak out about “historic” snow totals that got dumped on New England instead of us, I was reminded of the best movie I saw last year: “Nightcrawler.”

In case you missed it, it was an amazingly well-scripted and acted neo-noir about a sociopath who gets into filming mayhem in the streets of Los Angeles and selling his video to a TV station. There’s a part early on when the sociopath is talking with the TV producer about what she wants: she talks about how crime, especially crime perpetrated by poor people and minorities on rich or white people, draws the most attention from viewers, followed by other sorts of mayhem. “The best and clearest way I can phrase it to you, Lou,” says the producer, “to capture the spirit of what we air, is think of our newscast as a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut.”

That principle applied to blizzard coverage too. Telling people to do the rational thing — stock up on some things you might need if you’re stuck in for a few days but otherwise it’s winter-as-usual around here — gets much less attention than “Oh my God snowpocalypse/snowmageddon/snorgy of doom will bury us alive!” These days with the media (excluding weekly papers like this one, which can and does luxuriate in a more contemplative approach) it’s more about ratings and clicks than ever before. Your comfort level is not what matters. A reasoned approach to informing about a weather event is not what matters. It’s your eyeballs, and in the case of many unscrupulous websites, a chance to slip a tracking cookie on your computers and get what they want even more than your eyeballs: data on whatever you do on the Internet. In the web-based mediaverse, that’s where the money is from, and it’s a lot easier to get you to cough up that precious, lucrative data if you’re panic-clicking on everything with a storm-linked hashtag as part of the freaking-out about how the heck you’re going to get to work tomorrow if there’s a travel ban and if you have enough bread, milk and toilet paper to last until your driveway gets cleared.


All that anxiety is bad enough, but what about that feeling of being rooked and robbed when the snow didn’t come? After the white-out revealed itself to be a fizz-out, social media (better than anything invented since the torch-bearing mob at intensifying and funneling outrage) exploded with wrath at the meteorological community, media community and public officials who shut down half the state, and the New York City subways to boot. You’d think people would be happy that two feet of snow didn’t fall on our heads, but no. Nobody likes to feel they’ve been taken for a ride.

If you’re still trying to process feelings of betrayal and anger, perhaps keeping a couple things in mind will help. First, predicting the weather still isn’t an exact science: usually they get it in the ballpark and often much better, but this time for this area they did not, and thus it’s easy to extrapolate that the weather people never get it right. One gigantic irony in all this is that the National Weather Service decided to disregard its brand-new very expensive supercomputer-driven weather modeling system, which actually was just about dead-on perfect in predicting the storm’s more easterly track. Second, it’s a good thing, not a bad thing in most cases, to be surprised when a scientific prediction craps out. It’s an opportunity to learn and improve, and a refreshing reminder that Mother Nature has yet to be tamed, or fully grasped, by either our minds or our machines.

The meteorological community has been appropriately forthcoming with its apologies and while some mean-spirited folks vow never to believe them again, I for one accept them, keeping in mind that this kind of science is not an exact science anyway. Kudos go to Messrs. Marra and Potter over at HudsonValleyWeather.com; our local mavens were throughout the storm honest in their predictions and how they arrived at them and quick with the contrition when things didn’t turn out like they thought. Alex and Bill, we still love ya. Rock on.

So, I guess all that’s to be done now is make a lot of French toast — what else can you do with an overabundance of bread and milk?

This just in from the Naked Speculation Desk

As Andrew Cuomo was in SuperGovernor Mode Monday night, banning travel and threatening $300 fines to any who defied, the whole Shelly Silver poopshow must have been in his thoughts. It’s been in Chris Gibson’s thoughts — our congressman took to his Facebook page to lacerate Silver and Cuomo for their alleged ethical misdeeds and call for a paradigm shift in state government.

To my mind, it seems like a big chess game is in motion. Please indulge me (and remember this is coming from the dude who predicted Sean Eldridge would only lose by five percentage points last year, instead of the 30 or so he actually lost by) as I project my consciousness into the foggy future to predict how the pieces will slide across the board …

There are 2 comments

  1. CP

    Kudos on the editorial, Dan. And hey, they were only off by 100 miles or so – as one TV weatherman said, “Just a blip on a weathermap.” Of course, that “blip” has millions of people within it, but heck, weather forecasting isn’t as exact a science as many would like to believe. (On the other hand, to hear Rush Limbaugh go on about it, the erroneous forecast was a liberal conspiracy. Really – you can’t make this stuff up! But he can….)

    Regarding your postscript, I bet Governor Cuomo was grateful to have something else pushing Sheldon Silver off the front pages!

  2. John Mallen

    I think it is refreshing that in light of yesterday’s snow which had no PR and at least seemed to deposit more white stuff than the earliet well/hyped storm, arrived through the morning, got dealt with efficiently – streets were bare, most walkways clear – and business went on as usual, Kingston’s Public Works department declared a snow emergency that would begin at 2 p.m. and end at 11 p.m. Leaves me asking: Why the emergency when all seemed well cleared? Did the City make a killing with snow-emergency tickets?

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