The Oz Weather Bureau

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So what’s it like to work at the Bureau of Meteorology I hear absolutely nobody ask me.  So I’m going to answer it in advance, to avoid the inevitable deluge of questions.  The short answer would be pretty fascinating and stimulating most of the time.  On an average day you tend to chat with guys who have a degree or three, possibly a PhD already or one on the way.  Working with a large group of people with brains the size of a planet always presents fascinating distractions.  Whilst the average employee is fairly absorbed in their work, they have other interests that they’re always happy to chat to you about.  Music, radio controlled aircraft, model trains, English literature from three centuries ago and, of course, photography are just a few.  Generally these guys are more than passionate amateurs in these fields, in some cases it does form a second profession.

It’s still the federal public service and as such I think it forms a repository of the sheltered workshop mentality.  Once someone gets permanency there, they’ll never leave – especially if their competency level is low.  It’s not because you can’t be sacked, three formal warnings is enough.  The problem is that the majority of people in management positions have no desire to manage anybody.  This is either because it would get in the way of what they’re really interested in doing, the person is a mate of theirs, or because they themselves are living the Peter principle; they have been promoted just beyond their level of capability.  So given this, nobody is willing to rock the boat by actually sacking someone for incompetence; the hypocrisy is just too much for them.  This means you get some interesting characters hanging around the office doing absolutely nothing and less if possible.

For one character I couldn’t find any evidence of productive work being performed for about fifteen years.  He was basically waiting to retire.  So what’s the killer strategy that makes this possible?  When given a task he would begin to ‘research’ it.  This involved acquiring or downloading and printing out absolutely anything that has ever been written about the task at hand.  This meant that his entire desk area was covered in stacks of paper about thirty centimetres tall.  These expanded into stacks on the floor and boxes of papers dating back over ten years. Having gathered all this information, he would proceed to ‘read’ it.  This ‘reading’ never resulted in a single piece of information entering his mind.  You could watch him read a simple page of information and ask questions about it and he simply wouldn’t know or understand.  If you asked what he thought the sentence with the answer in it meant, he would shrug his shoulders and say,
“It’s hard to say.”
A master of passive resistance, he had managed to avoid actually doing anything for over fifteen years by simply ‘researching’ it instead.

I spoke to one guy who had the dubious honour of identifying every piece of computer equipment that was stored in the server room in terms of what it did, how critical it was to operations and who was maintaining it.  Now this server room was unique for me in more than one way, firstly there’s a supercomputer sitting in it.  A real, live one, used for producing forecasting models daily and shared with the CSIRO.  The second thing is that on benches around the two rooms involved there was an amazing array of hardware from every manufacturer who ever made anything since about 1985.  The vast majority was still operational and a lot critical.  What happened is that a scientist or engineer would work there for five-ten years developing something.  They’d then move on to work in another group or outside the Bureau.  This meant nobody really understood how the whole thing worked, but they knew what it did and kept it running.  After sending out numerous emails and interviewing people from every section in the building, our man had created a list identifying about 90% of the equipment in the room.  With no clear idea how to continue he decided the best plan would be to simply turn them off one at a time and wait in the server room for someone to arrive.  It worked, and caused no end of heated arguments as some researcher, engineer, scientist or random individual would turn up to see what was wrong.  Apparently it never took more than an hour for someone to surface.  So in true class for an organization dedicated to understanding the most chaotic systems we deal with, they are themselves a chaotic system.

A healthy sense of humour about weather prediction can be found pretty well everywhere.  I remember the director of one region proudly telling a senator’s assistant,
“It was only in 2000 that we finally managed to continually beat persistence forecasting in north Australia.”
“What’s persistence?”, asked the confused woman.
“Forecast for tomorrow what happened today.”
“And we’ve only just managed to be better than that?”
“Yes.”
“So what exactly has the weather bureau been doing here for the last hundred years?”
“Watching cyclones.”
She wandered off amidst stifled giggles from all the engineers gathered around.  The forecasting centres in the states I visited all had a collection of cartoons essentially sending up the weather bureau displayed prominently in somewhere in the office.

I remember another time walking into the forecasting centre and noticed for the first time that a huge mass of storm clouds had gathered in the early afternoon.  When I’d been outside at lunch the sky was blue and clear in every direction, so it came as a shock.  I found myself staring at the black storm front saying,
“Wow, where did that come from?”
“The north-east at about 15 knots”, came the impish reply.
“I knew I shouldn’t have said anything”, I mumbled, rolling my eyes.
“Always happy to answer questions from the viewing public”, he continued.
I decided leaving was the best answer.

At the observation centre at Darwin airport they keep a chocolate wheel in the manager’s office.  It has all the possible forecasts on it, so they can just spin the wheel and see if they can do better than the meteorologists.  If you ever see a forecast for Darwin for ‘lava showers’ or ‘blizzards’, you’ll know where it really came from.  At the same place they also keep a crystal ball to aid with the prediction process.  Okay, so the ball sits on a piece of photographic paper to record sunlight intensity and daylight hours, but it’s fun to stare into and predict stuff.  The observers are a curious group generally, the airports around the country are where they launch the hydrogen weather balloons every four hours to record atmospheric conditions.  Those weather balloons also came in handy as a greeting for a new local manager.  They got a fresh one and poured a couple of kilos of flour into it before placing it in the centre of his office and inflating it with an air pump.  The operation took a while, but the end result was that when the manager opened the door to the office, it burst the balloon and spread flour evenly over every surface – especially his face.  After a year there was still traces of flour in his office; on books, in the carpet and on top of picture frames.  Love their work.

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