FLAT EARTH

You don't need

a weatherman...

IT IS a gross untruth that only the British get worked up about the weather. In Canada there were threats against a groundhog, in Japan sake drinkers deluged the meteorological bureau with complaints. And in South Africa forecasters are being sent into remote areas to explain that people should not be burnt to death for witchcraft every time someone gets struck by lightning.

Spring has been as late in North America as here, confounding the prediction of Wiarton Willie, Canada's national forecasting groundhog. He emerged from his burrow on 2 February and failed to see his shadow, which should have meant the early arrival of spring. Following threats from freezing Canadians, the furry forecaster is in protective custody.

The Japanese, for their part, are upset with a supercomputer. Forecasts are critical at this time of year, when the cherry trees are coming into blossom and tradition demands that everyone reclines in moonlit parks with picnics, karaoke machines and enough sake to stun a rhinoceros. In an attempt to get their predictions spot-on, the weather bureau abandoned human intuition and got a pounds 42m computer, which said there would be clear skies over Tokyo last Monday. Instead thousands of blossom-seekers were soaked to the skin, and they took it out on the forecasters. So far the computer has a 63 per cent accuracy rate, well below the old system's 80 per cent.

Perhaps the Japanese weathermen should be forced to explain their craft in South Africa's farther-flung areas, where deaths from lightning are not uncommon. Many believe these are the result of witchcraft, and that the person responsible should be identified and burnt to death.

A Reuters reporter watched as Festus Luboyera, main meteorologist at the South African Weather Bureau visited Modjadji, 200 miles north of Johannesburg, to introduce a note of science. He certainly didn't pretend to have all the answers.

"Why do you say the temperature will be 25 degrees, but then it is 37 degrees?" asked a teacher. "This morning it was raining, now it is clear," replied the meteorologist. "These are mysteries. We collect information, and we attempt to forecast what the weather will be, but we never know for sure." A schoolchild wanted to know how the earth was created. Luboyera answered: "We are the creation of an Almighty God. He created the world, and we are trying to learn a little bit about it. I don't think we will ever know everything."

I think his fellow weathermen would say Amen to that.

POOR Luo Ji. He wept on Chinese television, "because he was sorry for his family and for his staff, because his staff were too few and had to work too much overtime".

What is this job which has him so overwrought? It turns out that he is director of the Supreme People's Procuratorate's General Anti-Corruption and Bribery Administration - China's top anti-corruption official, in other words - which is enough to make anyone shed tears of sympathy. When you have a brakes-off economy and an arbitrary political system, corruption goes through the roof.

The tearful Luo said "interference" had prevented his people from pursuing cases even when they had evidence. "Manyhave to sleep and eat in the office all day and all night," he sobbed. "It is like fighting a war." Anti-corruption cadres were so busy they often slept only three hours a night. And that was not the only way they suffered. "In dealing with cases they may offend some people. They are treated unfairly, and..."

He did not continue, presumably because he might have said something really stupid, such as suggesting his staff would have an easier time if those in power had to account for themselves now and then - in elections, perhaps?

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