“Frankenstorm”: or how a passing reference can become a popular sensation

It’s not often that career civil service employees get to spark a national craze. Certainly that’s not what forecaster James Cisco of NOAA’s Hydrometeorological Prediction Center (HPC) had in mind when he was writing the HPC’s preliminary extended forecast discussion on Thursday morning. His discussion included the following:


It was, in my view, a harmless way of pointing out the unusual hybrid nature of what is setting up to be a sequel to the “Perfect Storm“. But the media saw the discussion and immediately latched on to the name (seemingly forgetting that it already had a name: Hurricane Sandy). Before long, the name “Frankenstorm” was setting the social media world alight, too.

Not everyone was a fan of this label, though. The Weather Channel’s Eric Fisher complained about it, and apparently so did many others. In a media briefing earlier today, NOAA officials said that “Frankenstorm” would not be used in any further NWS products. Since only the one discussion ever used that term, NOAA is effectively saying “we’re going to stop doing what we already weren’t doing”, but I get the point. They don’t want to create confusion by having two names for the storm.

The Weather Channel, after recently announcing they’d be naming winter storms, has wisely decided to stick with “Sandy” for this storm, even though some of the impacts will be decidedly wintery. Still, the name, much like the monster, won’t die. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad. There’s anecdotal evidence either way. On the one hand, the unusual name might cause people to pay more attention. On the other hand, calling by a non-hurricane name might give a false sense of diminished impact. Only a post-event analysis will tell.

The Weather Channel is naming winter storms

On Tuesday, The Weather Channel announced that they would be naming winter storms beginning this season. The reaction on Twitter was swift and mocking, and perhaps for good reason. The Weather Channel insists that there is real benefit to this, including raising awareness and improving communication. The research supporting these assertions was conspicuously absent.

Supporters of this idea insist that the naming of tropical storms was received with similar ridicule. I wouldn’t be surprised, but the ideas are not entirely consistent. For one, tropical systems spend most of their time over the ocean, and there are few landmarks to use as reference points. Since multiple storms may be in existence at once, some naming scheme is required. Tropical systems also have well-defined and consistent criteria for naming. The Weather Channel’s scheme is vaguely defined and depends on geography, time of day, day of the week, etc.

The Weather Channel has the weight to try to make this work. With their recent acquisition of Weather Underground, they are the most influential private sector weather player. However, I can see AccuWeather ignoring the names out of spite, and the National Weather Service ignoring them out of indifference. Will local media use the names? Without the backing of an organization like the WMO, I don’t see all of the players coming together on this.

Europe has apparently been naming extratropical systems, and I’m not sure what effect (if any) it has had on the public. I’m not necessarily opposed to the naming of winter storms (though it’s sorely tempting to use a slippery slope argument), but I need convincing that it’s a useful act. Perhaps next spring we’ll have some data to work with. Or not. This seems to be more about ratings than science.

Fedora release names

Last week, the voting for the Fedora 18 release name was opened, along with an announcement that the board is considering whether or not to continue the practice. Undoubtedly, this is a reaction to some of the hand-wringing over naming Fedora 17 “Beefy Miracle.” Yes, Beefy Miracle is a silly name. Yes, it is likely to be forgotten shortly after the release.

My own position is somewhat ambivalent. The naming process is democratic, and represents the Fedora Project as a whole. The fact that names will sometimes be silly or offensive to a cultural group is part of life in a democracy. The naming process provides a little bit of fun near the end of the release cycle when life gets hectic for contributors. Perhaps the most important aspect of the name is that it provides a theme around which artwork and release announcements can be crafted.

On the other hand, if the release names go away, I can’t say that I’d really care. Release names tend to be forgettable for most distributions (Ubuntu and Debian releases are the ones I’ve ever heard people refer to by name in conversation), and I don’t think it would be any loss to the Fedora community or product if naming went away. To be honest, I’ve already forgotten how I voted in that poll. Whatever the community decides is fine, so long as we continue to remain a community.