November 10, 2014

A conversation inside the White House

I can't reveal where I got this from, but read it carefully.  It is an exact transcript of a recent White House conversation.

President Obama: the election was a disaster for us.   We need to do something important, something that will be a legacy for my administration, that will be perceived as a big plus for the nation-- something I could do either by executive action or with Republican support.    Any ideas?

Staffer 1:   How about declaring a new national holiday?  Cesar Chavez day or something like that. People love holidays and the right holiday could help our party in 2016.

President Obama:   Come on folks.  I am serious.  Ideas?

Staffer (Joe Williams):  Mr. President.  This may sound crazy, but how about giving people the best weather forecasts in the world?  Make the U.S. National Weather Service absolutely world class, with far more accurate and timely weather forecasts.   People love weather.  They spend untold hours watching the Weather Channel and every TV news broadcast has weather forecasts.    And you could save hundreds of lives and billions of dollars, probably hundreds of billions of dollars, a year.  And the Republicans would not oppose it.  Many of them are from red states with strong thunderstorms, hurricanes, tornadoes, heat waves, and droughts...better weather forecasts would be wildly popular with their constituents.  

President Obama:  Joe, that sounds interesting.   But doesn't the U.S. already have the best weather forecasts in the world?   

Joe Williams:   No, Mr. President, the U.S.  has fallen behind.  Remember Hurricane Sandy?   The European Center for Medium Range Weather Forecasting predicted the storm days before the National Weather Service.  And that was not a fluke.  Our global weather forecasts are noticeably inferior to the Europeans and the British, among others.  The press has been having a field day pointing out how far behind we have fallen, including the NBC Nightly News and the Washington Post.   And there has been some professor in Seattle that has been blogging about it incessantly.  We are not looking good...falling behind in a critical area of science and technology that the American people really care about.

President Obama:  But how could this be?  

Joe Williams:  Mr. President, one reason is that the National Weather Service is lagging badly behind in computer power, and weather forecasts depend on powerful computers.  Bigger computers allow more detailed and accurate forecasts.  And I understand there is a technique called ensembles, in which one runs many forecasts to get probabilities--supposedly that is the future of weather prediction and the Weather Service can't do it properly because their computers are so slow.

President Obama:  You got to be kidding.  My administration has acquired big computers for NOAA, NASA, and the Department of Energy for environmental prediction, right?

Joe Williams:  Yes, Mr. President.  But nearly all of that capacity is being used for climate research, not weather prediction.  And it is worse than that.  The U.S. Congress provided 24 million dollars for a new weather computer as part of the Hurricane Sandy supplemental and we have not spent a dime of it.  Looks bad, really bad.  American are being hit by storms and we aren't doing everything we can to warn them.  We would be savaged if this got out.

President Obama:   Someone's head is going to roll.  Why are we sitting on our hands?  Sounds like our Health Care web site debacle.

Joe Williams:  NOAA committed itself to purchase computer services only from IBM and IBM sold its computer hardware division to Lenovo, a Chinese company.   Our own treasury department then blocked the sale.  It's a disaster.  We look ineffective and uncaring at the same time.

President Obama:   I hope the press doesn't find out about this-- we have to stop shooting ourselves in the foot.   Deal with it.  Now.  Find out what the Weather Service needs to be the best in the world and secure it.

Dennis McDonough (Chief of Staff):   Yes, Mr. President

Joe Williams:  Mr. President.  The Republicans know that we have let U.S. weather prediction drift and they are ready to act aggressively in the new Congress.  There is  a weather-prediction gap between the two parties.  They care about weather prediction and so do the American people.  We  talk about climate change a lot, but that's  low priority for most folks.   In the next election, the Republicans will hit us hard for letting U.S. weather forecasting capability fade.   The Republicans are about to act. We need to do something immediately.

President Obama:  What can the Republicans possibly do?

Dennis McDonough:   Quite a bit Mr. President, now that they control Congress.   Last session, a comprehensive Weather Improvement Act passed the House, a bill that made large investments in  U.S. weather prediction.  And they wanted to move some funds from climate activities to fund it. Harry Reid slowed it down in the Senate.  But we lost the Senate. They have a new bill that will easily pass the House and Senate.  Are YOU going to veto a bill that greatly improves weather prediction?   I doubt it.  The headlines would hurt you and the party.

President Obama:   God, this a real problem.  Dennis, Joe--what do you recommend?

Joe Williams:  Mr. President, let's finesse the Republicans and get ahead of this.  First, fix the weather computer gap.  Make sure the Weather Service is provided with big machines, even if we need to re-purpose some of the climate resources.  For the price of one fighter jet we can have the best weather prediction computers in the world.  Then, let's deal with the other problems holding back U.S. weather prediction.  The organizational structure is nuts.  Weather prediction research is not found in the National Weather Service, but in the NOAA labs, mainly in Boulder, Colorado.  Really inefficient and wasteful. Move it all into the National Weather Service with clear lines of responsibility.  Give them the resources they need to be the best in the world.  

President Obama:  But what about the climate folks?  Won't they be upset at these changes?

Dennis McDounough:   Mr. President, you can explain to them that the first line of defense from extreme weather associated with climate change is weather prediction.  They will understand that. That the computer models used for weather and climate are nearly the same, and improving weather prediction technology will help climate as well.  There is a lot of redundancy in climate research with many nations doing nearly the same work--moving some of our investment into weather prediction makes sense and these climate folks have been dominating the feed trough long enough.  And tell your science adviser, John Holdren, to cool the climate talk and prepare talking points about quality weather prediction.

Make weather prediction better and the American people will hear about it every night on their local news. It's win-win-win for everyone, including us.  And we take a major issue from the Republicans.

President Obama.  I can't believe we didn't deal with this before.  Make it happen Dennis and set me up to give a national address on the issue in January.


  1. Sad, that the creation of a "legacy" is what is moving the administration, not doing the right thing. Congratulations, Cliff on being such a thorn that you made news. Well done.

  2. I get putting 2 spaces after a period. Some people can't shake their typewriter training. But, 3? 4 spaces??

  3. Sad, that only the concept of "legacy" is moving the administration to do the right thing. Congratulations, Cliff on being the squeaky wheel that got the attention of DC. Well done, sir.

  4. Cliff,
    My calendar says November 10, not April 1.
    Thanks for the imaginative narrative, however. Thinking of the possibility of some positive news coming out of the other Washington does make for a better start for the week, though.

  5. "professor in Seattle that has been blogging about it incessantly" That was funny :)

  6. The petition about this matter is up and running... 362 signatures so far. If you haven't signed it yet, please do.
    Spend the $25 million already appropriated on a supercomputer for increased weather-prediction capabilities.

    Much of the text of this petition was cribbed from this blog entry:
    The U.S. is falling further behind in numerical weather prediction

    And the Capital Weather Gang in Washington, D.C., has blogged about it too: The 'glass half full' National Weather Service

  7. Nice dialogue, but as a fantasy writer you really need a more realistic plot.

  8. Keep up the good work Cliff :) Love the blog!

  9. Unless these specialized "weather" computers are also equipped to monitor spy satellites, control stealth drones, assist in black ops and there are software techs that can hack and launch malware, your plan is a no-go.

  10. ... and the UK Met office just ordered a better mega computer. I did not know that the new NOAA computer was on hold! Wow!

  11. U had me fooled Cliff thanks, lol only if it was true

  12. Good work Cliff. But please tell us more pressing news, when will Baker open for the season?

  13. I read that for about 2 seconds before I knew it was B.S.
    No matter how much money is spent on weather machines it will never be enough for some people.
    See, it's called weather forecasting for a reason. If there is ever a computer that can surpass you, then you just lost your job. Now sit down and use the equipment you have and be happy.

  14. It is not only computers at NOAA why US is failing. It is the same people who are in charge of weather prediction. Despite past failures still in charge. NOAA is a bureaucratic, not a scientific institution. Millions of $s are being spent over years to support development of models who have fundamental problems. The exchange of opinion being hindered and critics silenced, problems pushed under the rug. I know about that first hand since have been in "business" for many years.

  15. Cliff,

    Do you think the recent hacking news will ignite a change away from IBM?


Please make sure your comments are civil. Name calling and personal attacks are not appropriate.

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