There's not much we can do about the weather, but what about weather forecasts?
Television weather segments have their shortcomings, unless you watch them for the stand-up comedy or the adoptable pets, or to see if your great aunt's 100th birthday picture will be shown. Newspaper weather pages are more serious, but they can't show you current conditions.
WeatherBrief ($53) from WeatherBank Inc. of Salt Lake City allows you to get up-to-the-minute weather reports and forecasts virtually worldwide, any time you want, with an IBM or compatible personal computer. You will need a modem and a color monitor displaying either EGA or VGA graphics, which are two different graphic standards set by IBM in recent years.
What you are buying is a sophisticated communications program that lets your computer dial into WeatherBank's computer database of weather products and retrieve just the ones you want.
The company charges you by the minute for the time you are connected to its computer, at rates ranging from 20 cents to 43 cents per minute, depending on when and how the call is placed.
The WeatherBrief software makes the information retrieval about as fast and efficient as it could be. First of all, most of the maps and other graphic features that you'll see on your screen are actually contained in the software loaded onto your PC. The map data that you retrieve from WeatherBank comes in the form of overlays for the map outlines you already have.
The program design saves you connect-time charges because you don't have to pay each time to receive fixed data, such as the outlines of the maps.
WeatherBrief also automates your connection with the WeatherBank computer. Before you instruct your PC to place the call, you run through a selection process in WeatherBrief in which you select from its extensive list of products just those items that you want to receive.
It costs $25 to open an account and thereafter you can add to it by electronically authorizing credit card charges. The screen shows the balance remaining in your account, the per-minute charge in effect and a rolling progress report that tallies data-transfer statistics.
When everything you asked for is received, the computer automatically ends the call and then shows you how many minutes and seconds you were connected and how much it cost.
The on-line cost depends on whether you use WeatherBank's toll-free 800 number or call long distance on its Salt Lake City number. Connection charges for the latter are 20 cents a minute all the time. The long-distance charges will add to that.
If you use the toll-free number, it costs 43 cents a minute weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mountain time, 39 cents from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. and 35 cents overnight. The lowest rate also applies from 8 p.m. Friday until 8 a.m. Monday. Rates are the same if you have a 300-, 1,200- or 2,400-baud modem, so you'll save money with 2,400 baud. Some representative sessions: With a log-on time of 3 minutes, 21 seconds, I received Northwest and Southwest color radar maps for the current hour, maps depicting cloud cover for the same areas, and another set of maps showing the chance of precipitation stated in percent.
Next came maps for the same two areas showing actual precipitation reported the day before and maps forecasting surface winds for the current day. Then there was a pair of maps, one showing actual high temperatures and the other actual low temperatures for the entire country.
One map showed me the lightning strikes that had occurred within the last few moments throughout the United States. It was even color coded to show whether the strike was from the ground to the clouds or from cloud to ground.
Among the custom reports that WeatherBank has available are forecasts for the major interstate highways. The Interstate 5 forecast went from Tijuana to Vancouver, B.C., with 10 points along the way. The western portion of Interstate 70 carried 11 thumbnail forecasts from Green River, Wyo., to Indianapolis.
Whatever your interest, from aviation to agriculture, there are maps and reports available to help you cope with the weather. But if you also want jokes, cute puppies and birthday pictures of the elderly, you'll just have to watch television.
Richard O'Reilly designs microcomputer applications for the Los Angeles Times. Readers' comments are welcomed, but the author cannot respond individually to letters. Write to Richard O'Reilly, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, Calif. 90053.