Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Hurricane Guesswork

by Conroy

This past week tropical storm Alberto churned off the coast of Georgia and the Carolinas, ushering in an early start to the Atlantic hurricane season [1]. For residents along the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf coasts, the hurricane season is a period of low-grade angst. There’s a relatively remote chance that coastal areas will be hammered by a truly devastating storm, but it happens. Since 1950 there have occurred, on average, 11 named storms [2], 6 hurricanes [3], and 3 major hurricanes (Category 3 or higher [4]), per year. A fraction of these, one or two hurricanes each year on average, will hit the U.S. mainland. And rarely, maybe once or twice a decade, a major hurricane makes landfall with catastrophic results, as witnessed by the deaths and damage caused by Camille, Hugo, Andrew, and Katrina, to name only the most prominent.

Recognizing the danger of hurricanes, it’s without question important to identify and follow every tropical depression as it forms, predict its storm track, warn people living in potentially affected areas as far in advance as possible, and prepare for emergency response as warranted. The news media and various local, state, and federal public agencies do the first three very well. Sadly, as vividly demonstrated by Katrina, emergency response can sometimes be hindered by bureaucratic obstacles and lack of initiative.

Hurricane Forecasting
The interest in hurricanes also leads to far more dubious types of planning and forecasting, namely the annual Atlantic Seasonal Hurricane Forecast. The most prominent of these is published as part of the Tropical Meteorology Project of Colorado State University [5], which was previously led by Professor William Gray and is now led by Professor Philip Klotzbach.

Gray and Klotzbach will explain that they use Atlantic and Pacific water temperatures, global weather patterns like El Nino and La Nina, and other climate factors to predict hurricane activity and probabilities for strikes in the Caribbean and North America. For example, this year’s forecast (from April) predicts a relatively quiet season with a total of ten named storms (tropical storms or hurricanes), four hurricanes, and two major hurricanes.  In addition, it places the probability of a hurricane making landfall somewhere along the U.S. coast at 42%.

Call me a skeptic, but I doubt the ability of anyone to accurately predict the number and intensity of Atlantic hurricanes, let alone the location of where they might develop and track, for any given season. Meteorologists can’t predict the weather for any one location with much accuracy even a week in advance. How can they predict the development of major weather systems over huge expanses of the equatorial and North Atlantic many months ahead of time (the Atlantic hurricane season usually peaks in early- to mid-September)? Add to that the fact that the dynamics of hurricane (or any tropical cyclone) formation are not entirely understood and the various factors that lead to hurricanes are specific to local weather conditions and cannot be predicted in advance.

Yet predictions are made each year, and each year they are given mention in the news. For that reason, Gray’s and Klotzbach’s forecasts deserve to be tested for their accuracy.

Bad Predictions
One way to check whether forecasts have any predictive value is to examine how previous forecasts have aligned with actual hurricane activity. This table summarizes predicted versus actual Atlantic hurricane activity from 1999 (the first year of Gray and Klotzbach forecast data available on-line) through 2011.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Still Searching for the Great American Novel

by Conroy

I’m slowly making my way through the American literary cannon, a book at a time, in search of the elusive Great American Novel. I just completed David Foster Wallace’s massive tome, Infinite Jest, one of the more recent nominees for this title [1]. At over 1,000 pages (included over 90 pages of footnotes [2]) Wallace’s dense and multi-layered story certainly has the size of an epic. But his semi-parodic near future America and focus on a Boston tennis academy, the residents of an adjacent halfway house, wheelchair-bound Quebecois separatists, and an illicit movie so entertaining that it’s lethal to all viewers is in my mind a bit too idiosyncratic [3] to fit the bill as the Great American Novel. But what does fit the bill?

In concept, the Great American Novel is a title given to the novel, written by an American, which best encapsulates the American Experience, the spirit of the nation and the people, or better described by borrowing a term from German, the work that captures the zeitgeist of America. It’s the American equivalent of the national epic; America’s Les Miserables, Ulysses, or War and Peace. There’s no shortage of candidates for the title; here’s a shortlist (in chronological order):

Many of these books sit on my bookshelf, and many of them were rich rewarding reads, and certainly each captures a portion of the American Experience. For instance, in Moby Dick [5] there is the struggle of democracy, equality, and power, which echoes American pre-Civil War struggles with slavery; in Blood Meridian we are shown in stark tones  the violence that accompanied the settling of the American West; The Grapes of Wrath explores the crushing poverty of the Great Depression; and Underworld gives us lives lived in the low heat of the Cold War during the last half of the twentieth century.

But like the still view of a photograph each of these novels and all the others listed above can at best only capture a facet or a few facets of America, a limited angle, nuances and not the whole. After all America is too large, with a huge diverse population drawn from all over the world, and a history and culture too sprawling to ever be captured by one writer in one novel no matter how kaleidoscopic the story or how broad the cast of characters. And the same could be written about the efforts of a single filmmaker or historian or journalist. But this isn’t meant to diminish the writers (and other chroniclers) that attempt great novels or reach to express what America means. In fact I much admire the ambition of writers that yearn to express the soul of America even if the best they can achieve is partial success.

Whenever I think on novels and literature I always fall back to James Joyce and Ulysses because I’ve never read anything better. Joyce set out to write an Irish national epic and perhaps he succeeded (it’s worth keeping in mind that Ireland is a much smaller country than the United States), but what really speaks to me when reading Ulysses isn’t the Irish elements. Instead, when I strip away the structural and stylistic flourishes and place the literary, philosophic, and religious (and many other) correspondences in perspective, I find the most alive book I’ve ever read. Joyce’s Leopold Bloom, Stephan Daedalus, Molly Bloom, and what seems to be the whole population of Dublin come alive through their thoughts, emotions, motivations, memories, physical urges, biases, their interactions with each other, and their shared histories. Ulysses takes place over less than 24 hours, but it gives us the fullest glimpse of life and lives of any fiction I’ve read or watched or listened to [6]. Scholars and academics may be kept busy dissecting Joyce's techniques and allusions, but for me it’s the life of the novel that makes it important and worthwhile.

And indeed, while I can say pretty emphatically that Wallace’s Infinite Jest is not the Great American Novel, it is a book teeming with truths. Wallace’s collection of tennis prodigies, recovering (and not recovering) alcoholics and drug addicts, terrorists and government agents, and everyone they interact with, is vivid and bursting with life. At the core, after you’ve taken his weird future in stride, Wallace’s characters struggle with what it means to be a family, to make and sustain human connections, and to cope with the burden of being alive. It’s his take on the plight of what he considers to be the sad post-Cold War generations and our collective need to find some distraction, be it drugs or entertainment or sexual conquests, from the day-to-day struggle. And his remarkably fluid writing style (the words seem to have flowed onto the page from his mind), massive vocabulary (Wallace makes you keep your dictionary close), and talent for perfectly expressing detail (that tool that all great novelists must have) make Infinite Jest a first-rate and worthy read [7].

I’ve always believed that great artists, and especially novelists, are better equipped to describe the workings of the mind, from our motivations and emotions and rationalizations to our physical cravings and how we perceive the world, than science or religion or philosophy. Novelists like Joyce and Wallace offer insights into what is means to be human. As the great critic Harold Bloom noted, reading a novel isn’t going to make you a better person, but hopefully reading a great novel will provide at least a tiny explanation of life. If an author can do that, he or she has achieved a great success.

So I’ll continue searching for the Great American Novel. I doubt I’ll ever find one book that expresses all that “America” means or is, but I am certain that what I will find is even more important, glimpses of truth and life. That’s all we can seek from any art.



[1] Infinite Jest was published in 1996, when Wallace was just 33-years-old.

[2] Anyone familiar with Wallace’s writing, fiction and non-fiction alike, knows of his very effective use of footnotes, which I must admit is a bit of an inspiration for my own notes.

[3] This is but the barest synopsis of Infinite Jest, which is rich in characters, sub-plots, themes, and exquisite detail.

[4] And this list could be expanded to include Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (1936), Robert Penn Warren’s All the Kings Men (1946), Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1925), Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1953), Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996), Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), John Updike’s Rabbit series, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five (1969), Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926), John Dos Passos’s USA Trilogy (1938), and Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove (1902), to name but a few.

[5] A work I must admit that I don’t particularly care for.

[6] I’ll be returning to discuss Ulysses much more fully in future posts.

[7] After reading the novel and Wallace’s descriptions of the crushing weight, the unendurable weight, of clinical depression, it is less of a surprise that he killed himself in 2008. He suffered from depression all his life and eventually the medications stopped working for him. It’s deeply sad and will deprive us of any more work from this gifted American writer. He left behind not only Infinite Jest but a large collection of entertaining, informative, and incisive essays and non-fiction pieces along with a couple of short story collections and a couple of other novels (the last of which, The Pale King, was unfinished upon his death and published posthumously).

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Heart of the Season

by Conroy

I last wrote about tennis three months ago after Novak Djokovic defeated Rafael Nadal in the longest grand slam final [1] in tennis history to claim his third Australian Open title. That result was a continuation of last year when Djokovic won in Melbourne and went on to dominate the season, claiming titles in just about every tournament he played through the U.S. Open, winning three grand slams, ten titles overall, and defeating Rafael Nadal six times along the way [2].

But 2012 isn’t turning out to be another 2011. Novak Djokovic remains number 1, but 2012 hasn’t started out as another year of dominance. Instead, the top three players – Djokovic, Nadal, and Roger Federer – have amassed remarkably similar results:

2012 Record
Win %
Grand Slam Titles
Masters 1000 Titles
Other Titles
1.    Novak Djokovic
2.    Rafael Nadal
3.    Roger Federer

Djokovic has the big crown with his hard won Australian Open title, but each of the three men have claimed one of three Masters 1000 titles played this spring, and Nadal and Federer have picked up additional titles [3]. They’re records are strikingly similar with each man losing just three matches through the first four months of the season (which makes Djokovic’s run last year, where he didn’t lose his third match until mid-September, all the more remarkable). What’s more, of their nine combined losses, four have been to each other [4].

These results tell me two things: (1) the top-3 men remain head and shoulders above the rest of the tour, certainly when it comes to the winning the big matches, and (2) as we head into the heart of the tennis season, the race for number 1 in 2012 is very much up for grabs.

We’ve reached the start of four frantic months of major tournaments, starting with the Masters 1000 events in Madrid and Rome and followed by the grand slams at Roland Garros and Wimbledon. Then after a very brief respite there will be the London Olympics [5], the Canada and Cincinnati Masters 1000 events, and finally the U.S. Open.

Last year, with the notable exception of Roland Garros [6], this stretch belonged to Djokovic, where he won five of the seven major tournaments played, including Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, and claimed the number 1 ranking. What will this same stretch bring this year? I don’t make predictions, but I foresee a few possibilities (listed from most to least probable):

Djokovic Retains the Number 1 Ranking
One perspective would hold that Djokovic has nowhere to go but down. After winning so much last year anything less than a repeat performance would see him bleed rankings points and come back to Nadal and Federer. And indeed, if Djokovic fails to win at least one of the three grand slams this summer (and probably one or two of the other big tournaments) he’ll likely lose his top ranking.

However, the bottom line is the Serb has won the biggest tournament played this year (Australian Open) and arguably the most prestigious tournament after the grand slams (Miami). He lost in the finals of Monte Carlo to Nadal and the semi-finals of Indian Wells to an inspired John Isner. These results don’t indicate someone who has lost their focus or game. In my mind he’s a 50-50 bet to win Roland Garros, and believe me he’ll be focused and motivated in Paris a month from now as he goes for the career grand slam and four consecutive grand slam titles [7]. The same can be said for Wimbledon and he’s a clear favorite at the U.S. Open. Djokovic has a lot to defend, but there are not enough reasons to think he'll fail to win enough to stay at the top of the rankings and add to his grand slam title count.

Nadal Regains the Number 1 Ranking
It’s unsurprising that Rafael Nadal regained his winning ways once he got back on red clay, triumphing dominantly in his last two tournaments at Monte Carlo and Barcelona (for the eighth and seventh time, respectively). He beat Djokovic for the first time since 2010 at Monte Carlo (a result this writer predicted – I have witnesses), which got a huge monkey off his back and has to give him a lot of confidence heading to Roland Garros. I predict (okay, sometimes I make predictions) that Nadal and Djokovic will play again in the next couple of weeks at either Madrid or Rome, and if Nadal can backup his Monte Carlo win then he’ll have to be considered the favorite to win at Roland Garros for a record seventh time.

Unfortunately for Nadal, winning a Roland Garros won’t get him back to the top of the rankings. The Spaniard will have to overcome the Serb (and Federer) at Wimbledon or the U.S. Open. Nadal can do it, he’s a hell of a competitor and he’s won both tournaments before. Still, beating Djokovic on a really big stage is something Nadal will have to re-prove. He has the ignominious distinction of being the only man to lose three consecutive grand slam finals, all to Djokovic of course. Until he turns that around, he won’t be reclaiming the top ranking.

Federer Regains the Number 1 Ranking
The casual fan may not realize that after last year’s U.S. Open the player with the best record, most tournament titles, and whose accumulated the most rankings points is Roger Federer (40-3, 6 titles, 4,855). The 30-year-old is off to his best start since 2007 – when he was still the dominant number 1 – and he will have his opportunity to get back to number 1 this summer. But to do it he’ll have to overcome Djokovic and/or Nadal at two of the three grand slams. Winning one grand slam almost certainly won’t be good enough.

Federer can do this, but he’s been utterly unable to solve Nadal at Roland Garros, losing to him there five times in the last seven years (keep in mind that his one Roland Garros title in 2009 came when he didn’t have to play Nadal). I don’t see that changing this year. And Federer might have to beat both Djokovic and Nadal, which on slow clay at this point in time seems like too tall a task. So then to get back to number 1 Federer would have to win both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. I think this is possible, he’s been just as good as Nadal and Djokovic at the U.S. Open the last couple of years (holding match points against the Serb in the semi-finals each of the last two years), and if he plays well at Wimbledon he can add to his collection of six winner’s trophies. The problem is that his two rivals are playing just too well. Federer has a decent chance to win one grand slam but winning two will be very difficult. He might be back at number 1 come September, but it’s a long shot.