Sunday, March 20, 2005

Pity the Poor Weatherman (I do!)

I have reached the earthshaking conclusion that the most ridiculous profession on the face of the planet, with the possible exceptions of the Vice Presidency of the United States of America, Vanna White’s job, and the guy in the Barney suit, is that of the television weather presenter or "weatherman."

I reached this conclusion through the careful, rigorous, and extremely intricate scientific process of pure intuition, a process that coincidentally has been honed to perfection by television weathermen through the ages.

To be a weatherman you must have two very important skills. First, you must be able to point to a very large and empty blue area as if the state of Texas were actually there. In reality, the viewers at home are actually seeing the state of Texas, or possibly Montana depending on what the engineer has been drinking. This happens through a complicated electronic process that goes by the very technical name of the “blue-screen process”. (The process is also referred to as “chroma-key” but most television technicians reject this name on the account that it makes their job sound as though it has something to do with processing discount photographs in under an hour.) This process is actually the least ridiculous thing about a weatherman’s job, but it is the most ridiculous thing about television technicians’ jobs, especially considering that in some cases the “blue” screen is green. In this latter case the process is called the “green-screen process”, proving once again that television is a fount of creativity.

The second skill is even more important than the first. You must, as a practising television weatherman, have the ability to completely forget anything you may have said in the previous 12 hours. Very skilled weathermen who live in places like Hawaii or Arkansas, where the weather has been known to change every 15 minutes, have gotten this skill down to whatever amount of time has passed since the previous weather broadcast. On the Weather Channel, some of the announcers are reportedly incapable of remembering anything except the phrases “...And now for your local forecast”, “Drive carefully”, and “How’s the weather out there Jim?” followed by the kind of grin only found elsewhere amongst people whose parents were close familial relations.

The reason this second skill is particularly important is due to one glaring fact of existence. It is impossible to predict what the weather will be at any given moment in time. The exception of course, is if you are a pensioner with rheumatism in some extremity of your body, in which case you can detect a drop of rain within 300 miles.

Because the weather is impossible to predict, civic-minded individuals realized the potential for panic amongst a weather-obsessed public and so the job of “television weatherman” was invented. It was also invented because the local evening news has about a 7 minute gap that would otherwise be filled with inane banter between the news presenters about their dental bridgework, weekend plans to go camping, or how amazingly spectacular lava lamps are in the dark, but that is another sad, sad story.

So, in reality, the whole concept of the weatherman is a ruse to calm a desperate, weather-obsessed public and silence blithering desk jockeys. One can quickly divine this by observing weather broadcasts. For example, I recall the night before a certain George Washington’s Birthday in Washington D. C. hearing a weatherman confidently assure his audience that the nation’s capital was in for a light snow of one to one-and-a-half inches. The next day, with the city buried under two feet of snow, this particular weatherman could take solace in knowing that he would be unable to drive to work that day. I must give credit where it is due though as he did say it would snow.

A more average example goes something like this: Monday night, a weatherman informs his viewing audience that there is a 99% chance of rain on Tuesday. This causes thousands of golfers to cancel tee times and plan on actually going in to their medical and law offices the next day. The next day the weatherman then appears on television brightly commenting on the cloudless 70 degree weather that was present all day. Occasionally the more audacious among them will actually accept the credit for how the weather turned out (usually when offered by some vacuous co-presenter eager to fill minute gaps of silence) as though they had spent the previous night in a small plane desperately seeding westward cloud formations, instead of rummaging through their closet in their undergarments looking for an umbrella and rain slicker.

Thirty to forty years ago this kind of uncanny inaccuracy was understandable. In the days before satellite weather tracking, the weatherman was the television equivalent of an ancient shaman trying to define the temper of the clouds. The only difference between the two was that weathermen wore loud suits and offered on-air birthday greetings to centegenarian shut-ins whereas shamans (or is it shamen?) wore colorful attire that helped them to stand out and showed tremendous respect for the tribal elders. All right, I admit there’s no real difference, with the possible exception that the average shaman was probably more accurate than any weatherman has ever been.

However, in our present age of technological wizardry (see the aforementioned blue-screen effect), each and every television weather broadcast is backed up by the dazzling spectacle of satellite imagery. This imagery allows weathermen to demonstrate conclusively that the earth is covered with clouds. In addition, it gives them a wonderful excuse to make even more shamelessly inaccurate forecasts backed by federally funded aerospace technology.

The logic is that if a mass of clouds on the radar over say, Western Georgia, is moving in the general direction of say, Atlanta and if the people in Western Georgia are experiencing say, rain, then it is absolutely natural to expect that Atlanta will see rain sometime within the next few hours. This type of prediction is often followed by a phenomenon known as the chaos effect, but which I like to refer to as “the reason weathermen screw up so much”. The effect often consists of the previously mentioned clouds suddenly switching direction similar to the way most parakeets do when they suddenly smack into a pane of glass. A second common effect of the chaos/weathermen screw up factor occurs when the mass of clouds suddenly disappears as though they had accidentally wandered into the path of a David Copperfield special.

These events would be bearable enough if not for that peculiar invention called the “long range forecast”, also known as “the weekly forecast”, and known in Las Vegas as “easy money for anybody betting against the weatherman”. Asking weathermen to determine the state of the weather over a five to seven day forecast is after all a bit like using the prophecies of Nostradamus to hit the correct Powerball numbers. It’s simple logic really. How can you presume to predict what the weather will do in five days when you have been clueless over the previous five years as to what it will do seconds after the station has switched over to its syndicated broadcast of “Home Improvement” for the evening. The only stable five-day forecast I’ve ever heard of is the one for those in the Death Valley area: “We’re expecting hot weather and no rain all week, so put away those umbrellas and get ready for some fun in the sun!” Despite their positivism, this is as good a reason as any to send all weathermen to Death Valley.

Like it or not though, the television weatherman serves a useful purpose in society. He or she allows the viewer at home to express their frustration at their frail and all too human lack of control over the natural elements. Many people usually express this in words that are often referred to as “French” (but which, if you use one, any Frenchman will assure you are not by smacking you in the head with a wheel of brie). The television weatherman (weatherwoman, weatherperson, weatherbeing) thus fills a vital need in our society as an object of enduring scorn, and, until we can train dogs to predict the weather with the same accuracy they demonstrate for earthquakes, will likely be with us for years to come. Let them know when your birthday is though and they will announce it on TV. I suppose that’s worth a little good will.