October 06

Challenged by a poster at the NZ CSC site [item posted 30/10/06] to take me up on my offer to allow him to have guest post in Ringworld (made in that thread on Sept 29th) to "explain, on his blog, why he [Gareth] is wrong", Ken Ring replied with this astonishing little paragraph:

"He is wrong to single me out and not post up the Metservice's long range predictions as well, which is the true comparison. And in not being as vitriolic towards them for the same mistake factor and putting up a similar blog ridiculing them. He is wrong if he thinks longrange weather is a true science and can be analysed statistically, when it is a science of trends and opinions. In pretending to quantify it he is conducting a witchhunt. He is wrong to do that in a culture that allows alternative opinions. He is wrong to assume that because I make a living at something he finds disagreeable, then he is entitled to publicly undermine me."

Let's deal with his points one by one.

"He is wrong to single me out and not post up the Metservice's long range predictions as well, which is the true comparison."

It would be the correct comparison to make, if New Zealand's MetService made long range predictions. They don't. Why is that? Because they know that they don't have the tools to make meaningful predictions. NIWA, on the other hand, do make "seasonal" predictions - as does Tony Trewinnard at Blue Skies Weather - but these are attempts to put the NZ weather into an El Nino/La Nina context, expressed as (usually cautious) probability statements over the next few months. They are not in any sense detailed forecasts of expected weather events.

"And in not being as vitriolic towards them for the same mistake factor and putting up a similar blog ridiculing them."

Why would I criticise them for not doing something they never claim to do?

"He is wrong if he thinks long range weather is a true science and can be analysed statistically, when it is a science of trends and opinions."

Now we get to the nub of the issue. Ken admits that long range weather is not a "true science", and suggests that it can't be analysed statistically. While the former is certainly correct, the latter is demonstrably not. He makes, and publishes a long and detailed book containing, daily forecasts for the whole of New Zealand, including severe weather warnings, sunshine and rainfall statistics, even surf forecasts ("new for 2007"). Those forecasts can be tested against what actually happens, and we can therefore get a measure of how useful Ken's forecasts are for the buyers of his book. My analysis suggests that the "lunar method" produces forecasts that have very little "skill" - a view supported by Jim Renwick and Erick Brenstrum's separate analyses below. Think of it as a book review, where instead of criticising Ken's prose style (bombastic), we test his predictions. It's exactly analogous to a motoring magazine testing a car manufacturer's claimed performance figures. I don't know what a science of "trends and opinions" might be, but I suspect I might think it New Age nonsense.

"In pretending to quantify it he is conducting a witch hunt."

There's no pretence to my figures: they're published and downloadable. Anyone with internet access, a copy of Ken's book and a decent spreadsheet programme could do it. And is Ringworld a "witchhunt"? This is something of a meme with Ring. Earlier this month, he accused me being a Nazi and being spiteful. I view Ringworld as more of a consumer service. People who buy Ken Ring's weather "almanac" have a right to know whether his method works. And I have a right to point out that it doesn't.

"He is wrong to do that in a culture that allows alternative opinions."

I'm not stopping Ken from publishing his predictions, or promoting them. He can hold whatever opinions he likes, and publish whatever he likes, but he must not make claims that he cannot support with evidence, or that cannot be supported when tested. That's a matter of law. To let Ken get away with saying whatever he likes would be like allowing Ford to claim that their largest SUV has excellent fuel economy, when it clearly doesn't.

"He is wrong to assume that because I make a living at something he finds disagreeable, then he is entitled to publicly undermine me."

Ken is wrong to assume that he has the right to promote and sell a book claiming to offer accurate long range weather forecasts, when those forecasts are not as accurate as he claims. He cannot be above the law, even if his method is beyond science.

Earlier this year, Ken Ring did an interview with Fintan Dunne, presenter of The Next Level, a show on "Truth Radio". Ken's wit and wisdom can be listened to here (the mp3 download is linked down page) Be warned, the full interview runs for over an hour. Ken runs through his usual schtick - the moon and weather, ozone holes and global warming - and, for members of the reality-based community, there are are some wonderful laughs to be had towards the end of the show. But perhaps the funniest thing is the credulous presenter, who introduces Ken as being "imbued with special knowledge". Very special...

TV One's Rural Delivery item about truffles featured rather less of the dog, and rather more of me than was perhaps wise, but the transcript of the item on the programme web site gives a pretty good overview of the industry today. Worth a click...

Important reading for Ken (and amusing reading for anyone who has followed the arguments employed by climate change deniers)... Includes a thorough debunking of the myth of tides:

"The tide myth is one of the oldest and most absurd lies that the Lunar establishment has tried to push on a gullible world. Do they really expect us to believe that the moon - an object that allegedly resides at an average distance of 240,000 miles from the earth - has the power, from that distance, to lift how many billions of cubic meters of water? Do an experiment: take a rubber ball and suspend it above a bathtub full of water. Now slowly move the ball closer to the water. Does the level of the water change? Not even slightly. So much for the tides myth. The clouds are considerably closer to the moon, and much lighter than the oceans. One would imagine that if the moon had the power to raise the oceans, this same force would cause the clouds to go flying into space, yet this does not happen. This proves that the tides story is physically impossible. Real scientists are busy researching the TRUE causes of the tides. But until their findings are made public, we can take this as merely another pseudo-scientific moon myth, shattered by the scholarship of revisionists." [here]

My weather "habit" is not as extreme as some. I don't chase thunderstorms, or obsessively photograph clouds (though I'm tempted to do more of the latter):

...but I do need to know what to expect. I have to plan farm work, irrigation and spray schedules. The usual stuff. Luckily, I don't have to worry about snow falling on lambs. Snow on beagles, that's another matter...

So what sort of forecasts are useful to me? In the most general sense, I like to keep an eye on the current state of the Southern Oscillation Index, an indicator of El Nino/La Nina conditions. When we get into a good El Nino, my part of the world is often very warm and dry, with strong norwesters taxing my patience and my trees. The weather pages at Fencepost, an NZ farm site (provided by Blue Skies Weather) have a seasonal summary that keeps an eye on the SOI (you have to register to get more than the two day forecast). At the moment we've got a weak El Nino developing:

"With clearly warmer than normal water in the equatorial Pacific there is now more solid evidence of a developing El Nino event. While this warming needs to continue for a few more months to confirm an El Nino, this seems very likely. At present the El Nino is rather weak, and there are no indications that it is likely to intensify greatly from its current levels through the rest of the year."

Tony Trewinnard at Blue Skies also provides Fencepost with a 12 day outlook, which is brief but helpful. Next stop is MetVUW, a weather site run by Victoria University in Wellington - also the home of some truly stunning weather pictures. They repackage the MetService rain radar (available every three hours), which helps me judge if and when rain is going to reach the farm. They also have forecast charts out to 7 days, using a US product. This gives me a good idea of what the general shape of the weather's going to be like over the coming week. Next stop (usually in early afternoon, when the day's forecast is posted) is the MetService Severe Weather Outlook. This forecast looks out to four or five days, suggesting where any "interesting" weather might pop up. That link also gives easy access to any severe weather or thunder warnings that may be active.

Putting all that information together gives me a pretty good mental picture of what the next week's weather is likely to be - in general, if not in particular. I can schedule which days are likely to be good for farm work - dry for mowing, calm for spraying etc - and which days might be better spent in the office. And it's all free. Ken Ring's almanac costs more than $40.

According to NIWA, September was a notably warm and dry month in much of New Zealand. The monthly summary (pdf here) notes:

"Christchurch was the driest, Dunedin the sunniest, and Auckland the wettest of the main centres. Rainfall was below normal, and temperatures above normal in all five main centres. It was extremely warm and dry for the time of year in Christchurch. Sunshine hours were near normal in Wellington, and above normal in the four other main centres, with record values in Dunedin."

Did Ken see this coming? In one respect he did - his monthly summary (p274/5) warns that September could be unusually warm, but on the other hand he also expected the month to be wetter than average.

I've updated my rainfall and sunshine spreadsheet to include the September actuals, and Ken is doing slightly better than usual. On the rainfall front, he gets Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin more or less right - although it's worth noting that he didn't pick just how dry the last two really were - but is way off for Auckland. Sunshine is another two hits/two misses month. Overall, his batting average remains around 50% - not better than chance. His almanac doesn't predict the wet, cold weather that's rushed up the east of the country this week, so he's off to a bad start for October.

The Italian white truffle season is ramping up, and despite what's said to have been a good season, prices - in New York at least - are higher than last year. In NYC, that means $200 for a baked potato with truffle on top. Dan Dorfman in the New York Sun explains:

"The newest wrinkle in this year's truffle season — a traditional three-month annual dining experience that kicks off in October and runs to around Christmas — is the debut of a $200 baked potato at the Four Seasons restaurant that's sprinkled with white truffles. That's the highest price it has ever charged for this item and is up about 33% from the $150 it charged for the fancy spud a year ago. Why $200? Because, as one Four Seasons captain explains it, "Try buying truffles; they're running us $2,500 a pound." Last year, they ran about $2,000 a pound. An expenditure of $200 for a baked potato may seem like a prohibitive price, but not so at the Four Seasons. "We're selling a lot of them," says co-owner Julian Niccolini. The restaurant, he says, is also enjoying brisk sales on portions of pasta and risotto served with a shaving of truffles. Each of these dishes also runs $200."

Does that even resemble value for money? I suspect that the Four Seasons is a pretty upmarket restaurant, but US$200 is about NZ$300, and you can buy a lot of potatoes for that... On the other hand, the market for truffles in New York looks very interesting from a grower's perspective.

"Nicola Civetta, the amiable owner of Primavera, the city's premier power Italian restaurant, estimates diners who can afford this delicacy — essentially a fleshy edible potato-shaped fungi that grows underground and is sniffed out by pigs or specially trained dogs — will spend between $20 million and $25 million this year on a variety of truffle dishes at upscale eateries throughout the Big Apple. He figures Primavera will serve about 2,000 portions of truffles this season, equivalent to sales of between $75,000 and $100,000. Demand, he notes, continues to grow with each passing season. "I've had around 20 people a night asking me for truffles for about a week," he says."They just can't seem to wait."

I'd like to supply some of that demand... All I need is some white truffle.

A week ago, I had an idea for a book. I wanted to turn dissembling into profit, or at least not such a waste of time. I sent an email to an expert in the field. He rang me back half an hour later to say that he thought it was a great idea. I rang my favourite NZ literary heavyweight, who also thought it was worth doing. A couple of days later, he told me a publisher had given the project the thumbs up. So I'm hard at work on a sample chapter, which should lead (with luck) to a contract, and then 45,000 words will have to be delivered by Christmas, for publication in the (NZ) autumn. More information about subject matter when a contract's signed - but it's something I consider very important. Time to extract several digits.

Sometimes there are good times, and sometimes there are better times. The last week has been the latter. This afternoon, I received an invitation to give a keynote presentation at the Oregon Truffle Festival, in Eugene, Oregon at the end of January, and earlier in the week I heard that a proposal put together by Annabel Langbein for a presentation on truffles of the old world and the new had been accepted by the International Association of Culinary Professionals for their conference in Chicago in April.

There's a marvellous synergy about the two events. I've been fascinated by the truffles of Oregon and the US northwest since working on the US chapter of the book, and the chance to hunt them and eat them - and especially to have them prepared by some of America's finest chefs - is irresistible. And that information will carry forward into the IACP presentation - experience lending authority, and all that. I haven't been to Chicago since the late 80s, when in an earlier incarnation I had to attend the summer CES show. Blues clubs (is Kingston Mines still good?) and fantastic restaurants, and I've never forgotten discussing cricket with the Afghani taxi driver who took me from O'Hare to my hotel. I wonder if he's still playing by the lakeside...

Spring in New Zealand seems to happen in a rush. One minute it's all daffs and snowdrops...

Extended family enjoying daffs in Christchurch's Botanic Gardens

...then in a week or two everything is in leaf, lawns need mowing, and you're turning on the irrigation. September in North Canterbury was certainly like that - warm and dry, but with enough winter moisture to get everything moving. Now it's raining - and very welcome too - but I know that means that shortly I'm going to have get the tractor out and start mowing the olives and truffles and orchard. Repeatedly. Perhaps I should get a new iPod in honour of the hours I'll be spending in warm leatherette seats. The old one is getting, well, old.

Meanwhile, a large digger has taken up residence down by our riverside well. It will soon (when the rain stops) excavate a deep trench to improve the water supply (this involves installing an 18m fabric sausage with a pipe and stone stiffener 4m below the surface) - then a new pump will go in to fling water up the hill and around the property. If all goes to plan, we'll have enough water for all crops, even in dry spells. This will be important to getting decent yields out of the truffieres. And it was only one truffle this year. June's visions of great truffle feasting were dashed by a plague of mice. This year, they're all going to die. And out fattest farm cat may be sent on holiday to the truffiere...

I haven't seen it yet, because it's not being broadcast until Saturday morning (Oct 7th) at 7-30am (not a time I am greatly familiar with), but TV One's Rural Delivery programme will include an item on truffles which features an interview with me and shots of Peg doing her job. You'll see a lot more of the dog than me, I'll wager, which is only fair as she is much the prettier.