A brief history of time

Dick Hobbs.

Author: Dick Hobbs.

Published: 01 November 2015

by Dick Hobbs Issue 106 - October 2015

And another IBC is written into the annals of history. Another week in Amsterdam, sharing knowledge and experience. Say what you like about IBC: it is a great chance to meet, talk and learn.
Now at IBC I actually perform a number of tasks behind the scenes which keep me largely occupied and out of trouble. And I am issued with a house telephone so anyone in the IBC organisation can find me even when I try to hide.
One of the organisations who did contact me regularly was IBC TV, the new look service which provides 24 hour streaming of all sorts of events and content around the show. That includes a number of live broadcasts each day: regular programmes and special events like commentaries on keynote conference presentations.
On the first day I was called and asked to rush to the IBC TV studio no fewer than three times, because a guest had not turned up and would I stand in. In each case, the guest arrived at pretty much the go live time sometimes after it and I did not need to bluff my way through whatever they were going to talk about. On day two I did actually have to be an instant rent-a-pundit, but that is a different story.
The fact that these people, all of whom I am pretty certain were on a much higher pay grade than me and had minders to mind them, failed to understand the concept of time with respect to live television made me pause for thought. In the changing world of television, does time matter any more?
In the classic days of broadcasting, the clock was king. The idea of crashing Big Ben on radio was absolutely anathema. When Eddie Mair did it a few months back, on the PM programme on Radio 4, he ran a week of features about this cardinal sin.
On television, too, time was sacrosanct. The idea that the early evening news could start at around six was just silly. It started at 18:00:00:00 or someone would be looking for a new job. Everyone knew when that was, because there was a network of station clocks, linked to the Greenwich time signal. People used to set their watches by it.

Because the forecasters were not BBC employees, they had their office at what was then the London Weather Centre in Kingsway in central London. They would prepare the forecasts, and create their visual aids which were maps of the United Kingdom with felt-tip pen lines drawn on them. These were rolled into a document tube, and the forecaster would get on the Underground to Lime Grove to deliver the evening bulletin.
This was eventually replaced by everyones favourite technology, the map on the wall with magnetic stickers for the weather symbols. They were everyones favourite because there was barely a 50% chance that they would stick where the forecaster wanted them, and audiences in the 1970s were routinely in gales of laughter as the likes of Barbara Edwards and Michael Fish watched their carefully placed rain clouds slide gracefully from Glasgow to Goole.
By the mid 1980s, computer graphics power was advancing, and I nearly became an authority on weather forecasting. The Met Office went out to tender to a number of companies to develop a customised weather graphics system, capable of being operated by meteorologists rather than graphics designers.
At the time I was working for a large computer software company, and I thought this would be a good contract to win. Sadly, the internal politics of the company felt that, as the customer was (at the time) a part of the Ministry of Defence, the project should be handled by the defence group not the broadcast group. I went to one meeting and it vanished without trace.
Today of course we expect vast resources of technical wizardry in the presentation of weather. Indeed, The Weather Channel in the States has just launched a regular slot in which meteorologists explain how weather happens, using walk-around augmented reality in the studio to see a tornado being created. It is very impressive.
But whether our forecasters are conjuring up virtual storms or drawing on maps with a marker pen, what we really care about is the accuracy. The Met Office has a mathematical model underpinning its forecasting which uses non-hydrostatic dynamics with semi-lagrangian advection and semi-implicit time stepping. So that must be good.
But when is it going to stop raining? As Louis MacNeice might have said, if only he could have solved the scansion challenges, if you break the bloody semi-lagrangian advection, you wont hold up the weather.


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