Paranoia and LOST

As my flight to Detroit took off, I saw a United plane pulled
off the side of the taxiway with smoke coming from underneath
it. With that comforting image, my plane lifted off the
ground.

I’m the daughter of a retired Army test pilot/current
American Airlines pilot, so I’m not afraid of flying (unlike
my poor fiance). What amazed me was the lack of response I
saw from the rest of the plane, which surely consisted of
some number of fearful flyers. I expected the three year old
in front of me, who spent the 40 minutes we waited in the
take-off queue loudly identifying everything outside, to say
something akin to “Look, Mommy, smoke!”

But there was nothing.

I try to remind myself occasionally that everyone is at least
a little paranoid. Is that guy following me? Why is that
chick looking at me like that? Omg I saw that car at work and
the grocery store, am I under government surveillance?

Perhaps today has been a particularly paranoid day for me. I
had about an hour to kill on the D.C. Metro en route to the
airport, during which I played a rousing game of “what if my
train ended up crash landing on a magical island?” Does it
make sense for my ground transportation fantasy to play out
like LOST? No. But I’d argue it didn’t make sense for LOST to
play out like LOST.

The first group of people in my train seemed like prime
candidates for island survival: a government intern, a guy
with a beard, and a homeless man having an animated
conversation with himself. There was also a girl, but I
wasn’t very inspired by her, so she was our first crash
casualty. 

Once we landed, the homeless schizophrenic wandered off into
the jungle, later to be found dead at the hands of the Others
or the Smoke Monster. You know, something to keep us on our
toes and alert us to the ever-lurking danger of the unknown.

Meanwhile, government intern dude and I scavenge the wreckage
of the crash for…well I didn’t get that far, really. I
don’t anticipate finding much on a derailed Metro train. So
he and I try to build a radio from the electronic parts.
Unfortunately, he’s a political science major and I did
poorly in the circuits portion of physics, so we are really
spinning our wheels.

Our savior, of course, is bearded dude, whom I imagine has
all the knowledge of the hippie guy on “Dual Survival,”
because beard. He makes fire and hunts wild boar with chicken
wire placed on the Metro by the producers, then flags down
the crew waiting to pick us up via helicopter conveniently in
the last 30 seconds of the show.

At this point in real life everyone got off the train at
Dupont Circle, and I was left with a new tribe: old
government worker lady and scared-looking androgynous
hipster. I decided I would have to be the leader of this
group, and there was no way that would play out well in my
fantasy LOST scenario.

My imagination often gets away from me when I’m paranoid, not
unlike a child with a monster under the bed. Maybe that’s why
I enjoy writing so much, it gets the monster out of my head
and onto “paper.”

The Business of Communication

I’m sitting at Ronald Reagan National Airport, waiting for my first work trip to start. I told my (then soon-to-be) supervisors during the interview process that I enjoy traveling, so my number came up for this trip…to Detroit. My more senior coworker went to Seattle earlier this month, and the other new guy went to Atlanta a week after that. I must have drawn the short straw.

Nonetheless, I’m interested in how this experience will go. I am well-rested from the weekend and have participated in enough meetings over the past three months at my company to anticipate at least a little excitement from this first visit with this lab. Scientists and business people collaborating—you know something awesome is going to happen. And it’s probably going to revolve around miscommunication.

I like to read relationship forums for the same reason I like to watch the Maury show—entertainment, first and foremost, but also the assurance that I’m doing better than somebody. I’ve yet to read a well-thought out answer on these forums with the response boiling down to more than, “Well, have you talked to him/her about it?” It’s a simple question, and the original poster always comes back with a defensive “of course!” Of course, if the couple had actually been conversing, not just talking, then one of them would probably not be asking anonymous internet strangers for help. (Or going on the Maury show, free trip to New York or not.)

Matt and I consider one of the strengths of our relationship to be our detailed level of communication. I think we both attribute a lot of this to the long-distance nature of our relationship, where we had to use our words to explain how we were feeling. When most people would kiss and make-up or go into separate rooms to fume, we were stuck, staring at each other on webcam. We couldn’t ignore our problems or the whole interaction would unravel. Thankfully, we both thought the other was worth fighting/conversing for.

The people I am meeting up with on this site visit I’ve only “met” in conference calls. I don’t even know what they look like. So far, we have only been able to rely on words (and screenshots) to convey our project. These face-to-face interactions are invaluable. My team is working on a Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) to be used within the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) laboratories across the United States. It is supposed to harmonize synergies…or something. No really, despite all the business talk, it’s a good idea for the science. But the functional (scientist) and operational (program manager) sides don’t always understand one another. Often, the scientists in my company don’t understand the needs of the other scientists at individual sites.

I can hear the frustration on both sides of the phone call when a point of contention arises. Why didn’t you listen to us? We already told you all this. I’m just the notetaker, but for any in-person meetings I always have to stop myself from looking around at everyone in the room with a surprised “Did you just hear that?!” look on my face (what can I say? I watch Maury; I love me some drama). I’ve been very impressed with the business-y responses I’ve seen from the program management team, of which I am a part. I wish my thesis committee meetings had all gone so cordially! I used to make sure I was in the lab whenever Eric had a committee meeting, because it supplied my much-needed dose of drama for the day. I’d have Nathan and sometimes Eric’s wife on Gchat, ready to supply updates from the field.

Now, I’m working with the people whose job it is to keep everyone happy. I do not think it is in me to do that on a daily basis in the way my supervisors do, and, if I may generalize for a moment, I think the division between the heated scientists and the cool-minded business people is clear. And this is not just the FDA scientists; my company’s scientists can also get heated in a way the program management team does not, at least not in a group meeting. It was one of the first things that my Quality Assurance team brought to my attention in my meeting minutes: I use too many emotionally-charged words. My initial reaction was that what constitutes an emotionally-charged word is subjective in and of itself, and I nodded along as I was told that my choice of verbs was too opinionated for meeting minutes. It’s the nature of my writing, academic or otherwise, to try to tell a story, and I can follow the meeting better when it is written as:

Bob argued that the system needed the additional features, and Steve countered that the features would affect overall functionality.

Rather than:

Bob said that the system needed the additional features, and Steve said that the features would affect overall functionality.

Was Steve saying that as an aside to Bob’s point, agreeing with him? I don’t know, it just says “said,” so there is no flow.

Once I got over my pet writing preferences (ok I’m not really over them), I understood that the bigger picture was to not make anyone feel like they have been characterized incorrectly. I could poll all the attendees at the meeting and they could all say that Bob was definitely arguing, but Bob is going to become defensive at the wording in the account. So we use “said”…every…time.

We also want to appear unified as a company, so our minutes refer to the “Dovel Team” rather than to a particular individual answering questions. If a lab user wants to know if something is plausible, we don’t sit around arguing for half an hour about whether it is a dumb request, we make note of it, legitimately follow-up with the lab later, and in the meantime continue with the scheduled agenda.

But all the objectively-worded meeting minutes in the world will not take care of the fundamental issue of miscommunication. Conversations require a level of mutual respect and understanding among all parties involved, which I think already exists in these meetings. Once that criterion is met, there should be some active listening going on, ensuring that everyone understands each other before moving onto the next topic. And then no one feels misunderstood or ignored. Except for everyone on the Maury show.

Weather Models and the #Snowquester Snowstorm

There is finally snow on the horizon.

Meteorological spring kicked off on March 1st (this should not be confused with astronomical spring during your regularly-scheduled equinox), and with it came the faint promise of snow in the weather models. The further out in time we are attempting to predict something, the more noise we are going to have in our data. Part of a meteorologist’s job is finding the signal within the noise in the information we have available (weather balloon data, numerical model output, ensemble forecasts, and other things).

You may be familiar with the “butterfly effect,” which suggests that the formation of a hurricane may be dependent on a butterfly flapping its wings weeks earlier. While an over-exaggeration, Edward Lorenz, a mathematician and meteorologist, used this simple example to demonstrate the universe’s sensitivity to initial conditions. In other words, a seemingly small (perhaps overlooked) detail may have a profound effect on the end result of a mathematical/scientific/meteorological prediction model.

If our starting conditions are wrong, even at a very small level, the predictions our weather models make get increasingly worse with time. But it gets even better! If the equations you use in your models are approximated at all, those small differences add up over time as well. Let’s use a familiar example:

2 + 2 = 4

Now what if that was a simplification of a slightly more complicated problem?

2.4 + 2.4 = 4.8

With these values, most third graders could tell you that it’s typical practice to round the value of 2.4 down to 2. But there is a big difference between 4 and 4.8, right? What if we continued adding these approximations together over time?

2 x 1000 = 2000

2.4 x 1000 = 2400

Now we’re up to a 400 [unit] difference!

That’s how weather models work, in a nutshell. We can’t start with perfect data and we can’t use perfect numerical values within perfect mathematical equations. The very minute changes we have to make to account for computing power limitations mean that our predictions further out are less certain.

Now that I’ve tricked you all into a science lesson, back to #Snowquester. This storm is looking to be the best chance for snow that the D.C. area has had in awhile. There is still some uncertainty in the models (as was just explained), but the closer we get to the event, the more the different models come into agreement. There is a chance for over a foot of snow in the higher elevations west of D.C., and the Capital Weather Gang currently has the 12”+ bullseye around Winchester, Virginia.

The temperatures west of the District should remain low enough to keep the precipitation falling as snow throughout almost the entire event, while parts of D.C. and east will begin with rain before the changeover to snow overnight Tuesday into Wednesday morning. Because the temperatures will be hovering around the freezing level, this will be a very wet snow with potential to down power lines and trees.