Sunday, April 30, 2006

Lovecraft Potpourri

H.P. Lovecraft created an entire mythos based on the Elder Gods and dark secrets that "Man Was Not Meant To Know". The books were expanded on by others (August Derleth especially) and are collectively known as the "Cthulu Mythos" after one of the Elder Gods. Many stories also center around the Necronomicon, a book of magic which leads all of its readers or users to either go insane or meet very nasty ends. Through the years a number of authors have emulated Lovecraft's subjects if not necessarily his style.

The Midnighters Series by Scott Westerfeld is a delightfully Lovecraftian romp for a group of teenagers that just don't seem to fit in in their tiny town, this may be due to some special powers they have. Of course the town and the teens have a secret and the kids have to save the world from the horrors from the universe next door, but that's what makes it Lovecraftian.

Midnighters #1: The Secret Hour (Midnighters) by Scott Westerfeld
Midnighters #2: Touching Darkness (Midnighters) by Scott Westerfeld
Midnighters #3: Blue Noon (Midnighters) by Scott Westerfeld

The most fun outcome of these novels was a desire to learn some 13 letter words, read the novels to find out why. Two of my favorite are boustrophedon, and mathematician. Unfortunately, sesquipedalian is 14 letters long and not applicable in this context.

Charles Stross wrote an excellent short story called "A Colder War" with an alternate history cold war that is even scarier (as if it needed it) and colder by the addition of elements from the Lovecraft mythos. I probably read that story several times a year, it is that good. He also wrote a novel, The Atrocity Archives, with elements of Lovecraft and a spy thriller together. I can't wait for the sequel, The Jennifer Morgue.

I recently stumbled across a great parody of those fundamentalist Christian evangelical tracts that you see left behind in supermarkets sometimes. You know the ones with the comics that say you are going to hell. Howard Hallis drew a terrific parody using the Cthulu mythos as the bad guys instead of the devil (or pushy fundamentalist Christians). Please click on the link and enjoy.

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Recent books read and recommending

Books I have read recently and which I heartily recommend.

I have been burning through the Scott Westerfeld books lately. I know they are intended for young adults, but they are entertaining enough for an adult (if a bit light), and I do like the way he sneaks some learning into the books.

  • Midnighters #1: The Secret Hour (Midnighters) by Scott Westerfeld

  • Midnighters #2: Touching Darkness (Midnighters) by Scott Westerfeld

  • Midnighters #3: Blue Noon (Midnighters) by Scott Westerfeld

  • So Yesterday by Scott Westerfeld

  • Pretties by Scott Westerfeld

  • Peeps by Scott Westerfeld

  • Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

  • The Plot to Save Socrates was an intricate yet interesting time travel novel, while Anansi Boys serves as a sort of sequel to American Gods, a must read book by Neil Gaiman.

  • The Plot to Save Socrates by Paul Levinson

  • Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

  • I always like to spice some of my reading lists up with some math and science.

  • Aliens In The Backyard: Plant And Animal Imports Into America by John Leland

  • The Mystery of the Aleph : Mathematics, the Kabbalah, and the Search for Infinity by Amir D. Aczel

  • These Stephen Baxter novels were enjoyable rereads and have inspired some comments.

  • Manifold: Time by Stephen Baxter

  • Manifold: Space by Stephen Baxter

  • Manifold: Origin by Stephen Baxter

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    Thursday, April 27, 2006

    Scientific Proof of the American Idol Effect

    I had earlier dubbed the shocking inability of American Idol contestants to objectively judge their own singing ability as the American Idol Effect. I did not realize that this is a known and well studied phenomenon. Self-efficacy is the belief that one has the capabilities to execute the courses of actions required to manage prospective situations. Remember the "Little Engine That Could" - "I think I can, I think I can." People (or trains) with high self-efficacy believe they can get the job done and tend to spend more effort on getting to the goal. This isn't to say that they actually have the ability, they just believe they do. In our little engine example, the train was successful and all was well.

    American Idol auditions are not so clear cut. Currently the show is in the boring finals where all that is left is to vote people off stage. But think back to the fun part of the show and recall how bad some of the contestants were at their auditions. How can they be so bad at judging themselves? they really think they can sing. Cognitive Psychology comes to our rescue with an explanation in the form of Dunning-Kruger Syndrome, the phenomenon whereby people who have little knowledge systematically think that they know more than others who have much more knowledge. In a phrase, clueless people think they are smart. For example, the blog, Damn Interesting, titles their discussion of the effect "Unskilled and Unaware of It".

    The less you know about a topic, the less you are able to judge your own ability in the topic. Perhaps a simple graph will explain. In their paper (caution .pdf), Dunning and Kruger produced a plot of perceived grammar ability (red squares) and test scores (orange triangles) vs. the actual test scores (green circles) achieved in their study.

    The top quartile of subjects are good at grammar and humbly underestimate their ability (found at the upper right of the chart). More surprising is the bottom quartile of subjects (on the bottom left side of the chart). Subjects that are the worst at grammar still think they are above average, perhaps because they are the least able to judge. In example after example the authors show this institutionalized American Idol effect. Amusingly everyone thinks they are slightly above average, OK for the smart ones, wrong for the unskilled ones.

    The study can serve as a lesson for us. Be cautious in your self-judgement. You may judge yourself good at something because you are, or because you're not qualified to judge. Use rigorous, objective measurement techniques where possible. I still prefer the designation, the American Idol Effect, since only you and I, and a few wikipedia readers now know what Dunning-Kruger Syndrome is.

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    Wednesday, April 26, 2006

    More aphorisms to live by

    I have noticed that many of these aphorisms have a cadence to them that burns them into your brain. Allow these three to supplement any previous rules for living I may have provided.

    If you are taking over the embryonic Marxist revolution in your barnyard you convince the serf animals that:
    • Four legs good, two legs better.
    Or perhaps you want to resolve a business dispute in a post apocalyptic distopian future follow this rule:
    • Two men enter, one man leave.
    In dance class it is very important to remember:
    • Left foot forward, right foot back.
    except when you shouldn't.

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    Monday, April 24, 2006

    The best restaurants in the world

    Restaurant Magazine has recently released its Top 50 list of the best restaurants in the world. I almost got to go #4 on the list, The French Laundry, which is in Northern California and was also the best one in the Americas. The top restaurant in the world in 2006 is El Bulli in Spain.

    Now it's time to get all of their best recipes and get someone to make them for me (please). There was some criticism that the list was UK centric due to the number of London and UK restaurants on the list, and the fact that Restaurant Magazine is based in the United Kingdom. The histogram below (click to make larger) shows where most of the restaurants are located. It looks like France is the king (le Roi) of cuisine with 10 out of 50.

    I wonder if the number of top restaurants should be correlated with population, if so Asia and South America are woefully underrepresented. Perhaps it would be by population of middle or upper class customers to patronize a top restaurant. That would seem to indicate that North America is underrepresented. Perhaps someday the rest of the world can hope to catch up to Europe and its fine restaurants, or the fine judges at Restaurant magazine need to travel the world some more.

    Update: I am chagrined to notice that one restaurant is in Monaco, not Morocco as I thought, and thus Monaco is in Europe not in Africa (but Morocco is in Africa and without a top 50 restaurant). An update chart will appear when I have the opportunity. For now please shift that line over one location in your mind's eye Europe has 36 and Africa has 2 (plot is now correct, oops! Those are chef hats, by the way). Thanks to the Virtual Ranger for pointing this out, we really do know geography in the Unites States, we just can't read.

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    Sunday, April 23, 2006

    Do blogs get it right about the environment and species extinction rates?

    How accurate are all of these weblogs on the internet? The vision statement for this very weblog cautions the reader to form their own opinion. A recent policy forum article in Science ("Environmental Science Adrift in the Blogosphere" by Alison Ashlin and Richard J. Ladle in the April 14th issue, supplemental info here) probes this accuracy by asking what bloggers write about the number of species that go extinct every day. They simply used the Google blog search and looked for the phrases "Extinct per day" or "Extinct every day".

    Since I am committed to duplicating scientific work and figuring things out for myself, I did duplicate the efforts of the article, and found 47 posts, only 33 of which actually had estimates of species extinctions every day. Ashlin and Ladle report that the scientific consensus estimate for the rate of species extinction is between 74 and 150 species/day. The chart below is similar to the one in the article and shows species extinction estimates out on the internet of from one to thousands per day.

    The authors of the Science article decry this inaccuracy, especially the overestimates. We can be positive and note that the most common stated rate is 200/day, which is not much different than the estimate above and that fully 30% of the weblog estimates fall within the scientific consensus range.

    The authors do make an important point that the scientific community should engage in a dialogue with the public to enhance environmental education and they make the obvious suggestion that scientists should use blogging as a way to do this. Because many blog readers think that blogs are more accurate than print media and other news sources it may be very important for this discussion to begin. One interesting effect of the article: Google Blogsearch revealed two blog posts which reference the Science article and who have the extinction rate correct because of it.

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    Spelling Songs or Songs that Spell

    "Yankee Doodle Dandy", the George M. Cohan story was on cable the other night. One of the many songs from the movie is "Harrigan", which George (James Cagney) and Mary sing at the beginning of their solo careers to potential backers for their show. The song is sung with a heavy Irish accent and involves spelling - "H A double R I G A N spells Harrigan". Can you think of some other songs in which spelling is an integral part?

    Please sing along -

    R E S P E C T, find out what it means to me. (Otis Redding or Aretha Franklin)

    R A G G M O P P, Ragg Mopp (by the Ames Brothers)

    S (S) A (A) F (F) E (E) T (T) Y (Y) Safety Dance (Men without Hats)

    S A T U R D A Y Night, S A T U R D A Y Night - Saturday Night, Saturday Night (Bay City Rollers)

    This S*** is bananas, B A N A N A S. (Gwen Stefani)

    Of course a Google search on this topic first got me a list of songs to help me spell. I'm not saying I don't need the help, it's just that wasn't the focus of my search. Here is a list (Songs that spell it out) you can contribute to, they appear to have hundreds.

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    Friday, April 21, 2006

    Maybe no interest payments on Delmarva Power rate hike

    I am not sure if this is the competition that Delaware lawmakers were hoping for when they deregulated the Delaware electricity suppliers:
    "Stung by accusations they cut a lousy deal on behalf of Delaware residents, lawmakers pledged Thursday to eliminate interest payments for customers who choose to delay big electric hikes set for May 1."
    Delaware lawmakers are going to try to pass a bill that removes interest payments on the phase-in plan for the 59% electric rate hike just like the one Maryland customers had already negotiated. Maybe Maryland will then ask for a better deal to beat Delaware and the competition can heat up enough to reregulate to eliminate the rate hike.

    I think the competition that we need is for several competing power companies in this state so as to encourage lower electricity rates, rather than a competition between state legislatures to produce bandaids for the acute problem, which fail to address the root issue, the rate hike.

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    Wednesday, April 19, 2006

    Pay now or pay more later - no real savings for Delaware Electricity customers

    The many great (sarcasm intended) plans to help Delaware customers of Delmarva Power deal with the 59% rate hike coming on May 1st have boiled down to deferring payment for three years. The trick is that you will pay interest on the deferred amount of the payment! It's the American Dream, enjoy now, pay later. It seems to me that Delmarva Power gets paid no matter what, and they get to charge some interest as well. They claim to only be charging the interest to cover their own loan costs to provide the phase-in program. If you are a customer you are automatically added to the phase-in plan.

    What should you do? Decide whether you want to defer and pay interest, or if you have the ability to pay the increase, opt out of the phase-in plan by calling 1-877-285-9316 or going to The amount deferred is about $415, and you will pay $30 in interest on that, the handy chart above explains the phase-in. Maryland customers will not have to pay interest on the phase-in plan. They must have better negotiators.

    Just to fuel the fire further, which would be nice, given the price of oil and gas these days, Delmarva and other public utilities overcharge their customers to pay income taxes that they never actually pay to the state and federal government. Once again, our crack team of duly elected representatives are on the case. Turns out this practice has been going on for decades.

    To sum up: Deregulating electricity in Delaware has produced no competition and yielded a 59% electricity rate increase. "Softening" the increase amounts to putting off payment and getting charged interest to do so, which actually increases the increase. The politicians that allowed deregulation to occur are not in office anymore, and the ones who regulated it in the first place are even further gone. Finally we are overcharged on our bills to pay Delmarva income taxes. If only I didn't need all of that pesky electricity, I wouldn't have anything to do with these people!

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    Tuesday, April 18, 2006

    When to plant? When to plant?

    Springtime is gardening time! But when can I plant my delicate vegetables without fear of losing them to the last ravages of winter? All of the seed packets and plants at the nursery say to plant only after the last frost date. Luckily meteorologists and horticulturists have been recording the last frost date in Wilmington, Delaware for more than a hundred years.

    The relevant frost data for my garden is either around Wilmington, Delaware or several miles further north at Porter Reservoir. The last frost date usually published in an almanac is actually the 90th percentile date for the last frost dates in the spring complied over several years. That means that the last frost occurred before that date 90% of the years for which there are records. This makes that date a pretty safe date to plant frost sensitive plants. The chart below (click for larger version) is the histogram for the frost dates for both locations. The 90th percentile last frost date for Wilmington is April 26th and for Porter Reservoir is April 22nd.

    The first frost date in the fall is also recorded by scientists. The difference between the two is the official growing season. The chart below (click for larger version) suggests, if you are suggestible, that it may have lengthened over the last decade. Is this due to global warming? The data is too noisy to tell.
    The bottom line is the last frost date in the spring, the top line is the first frost date in the fall. The region between the two is the growing season, mid-spring, summer, through mid-fall.

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    Church incensed over theft of incenser

    A local catholic church (St. Catherine of Sienna) is out one incenser because it was taken from its cooling place during Saturday Night Easter Vigil services this weekend. Apparently the incenser, used to waft the smoke from burning incense during the ceremony, sets off the smoke detector if left inside.

    I am sure there is a special place with above average temperatures for people who steal stuff from churches. Maybe they don't care because they are the type to wander around outside of church at Easter instead of going inside to the service. Still the church must now replace a several hundred dollar incenser. The item is bright gold, with a clanging chain and would have been smoking as the thief took it. I find it hard to imagine tucking it inside a coat as they fled with it.

    For those interested in arcane church terminology, the incenser is also called a thurible and the person who wields it is the thurifer. The thurifer carried the thurible down the thoroughfare. Often during Mass the thurifer swings the censer to incense the congregation, and sometimes that makes me so mad. Thurifers who want to avoid getting burned on the coals can purchase an electronically activated inceser.

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    Sunday, April 16, 2006

    Easter candy manipulations

    The cajuns claim they created turducken, a turkey stuffed with a duck stuffed with a chicken. Whichever fowl you like is included. In honor of Easter, some crazy person has created an Easter turducken which layers a chocolate bunny, filled with a peep, filled with a Cadbury egg. He uses power tools to get it together so it may be a little more difficult to create and eat than just to have them separately. I am disappointed they didn't try to cram some jelly beans inside. Shouldn't it really be called bunpeepegg?

    (via Boingboing)

    Wednesday, April 12, 2006

    Ribbons within ribbons

    "Wheels within wheels" is how Ezekiel described his vision of God and his cherubim. Von Daniken attribtuted Ezekiel's vision to a visit from an alien spaceship. I wonder what he would have made of this vision of ribbons within ribbons.

    As if you didn't know it was a ribbon magnet and it was supposed to make you think of ribbons, which were supposed to make you think of something else (perhaps actually contributing), this ribbon magnet is patterned with ribbons.

    It's similar to the creation myth in which the world sits on a turtle. What does that turtle sit on? It's turtles all the way down. This one is ribbon magnets all the way down. It's fractal.


    Sunday, April 09, 2006

    Gnashing Gnats Gnaw Gnarled Gnostic Gnome's Gnus

    My earlier clever headline begs for more word games with gnostic. Think of all those great words that start with"gn".
    • Gnashing gnats gnaw gnarled gnostic gnome's gnus.
    I have to remember to play some of these "gn" words in my next Scrabble game.

    We can also put together some sentences with words that have unexpected starting consonants.
    • Knapping knaves knock knurled knight's knives knowingly.
    • Tsarist Tsunamis.
    We can mix it up - different letters all"n" sounds.
    • Needing neither mnemonics nor pneumatically kneaded gneiss gnomens.
    Or just go crazy.
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    Friday, April 07, 2006

    Gnostics don't gnow everything about the Gospel of Judas

    The recent announcement of a lost "Gospel of Judas" has sparked interest and controversy. The manuscript discovered in the seventies has apparently been moldering in a safe deposit box since then. It reminds me of the George R.R. Martin short story from 1979, "The Way of Cross and Dragon", in which a Catholic inquisitor in the far future encounters a lost Gospel of Judas, "The Way of Cross and Dragon" of the short story title, and he is forced to stamp out this heresy. Unlike the recent announcement that the lost gospel purports to be the secret knowledge that Jesus asked Judas to betray him, Martin's story of Judas is that he was a great king of Babylon and that he laid waste to the world with his dragons when his friend Jesus was crucified and then was punished by Jesus for this and made to be the Wandering Jew to repent. The inquisitor eventually loses his faith when he finds that both the Way of Cross and Dragon and everything he believes may be a lie.

    So it may be with this. It is exciting that someone has uncovered a 1700 year old manuscript, those are few and far between and should serve to illuminate that era. The extrapolation past that and the "new" information about divisions of Christianity in the early centuries is a subject for debate. Those who can be shaken by this not-so-new-news will be shook, and those that won't will go about their business as usual.

    Anyone who actually understands the history of Christianity knows that it has never been a monolithic structure without internal divisions. Whole books (see for instance Early Christian Heresies by Joan O. Grady) have been written about how the early church often defined itself against the prevailing heresies of the time in an effort to keep their own tradition and message alive. During this time early church leaders were also putting together a canon of books that became our bible. They picked texts that the main body of the church were already reading in their churches and the left out ones that didn't sound right or didn't jibe with the traditions they had held through the ages. These books that were left out didn't become secret (or else we wouldn't have then today, see for instance the Lost Books of the Bible and the Forgotten Books of Eden, no conspiracy here) they just didn't make it into the Bible. So a gnostic text from 300AD which claimed that Jesus secretly told Judas to betray him would seem way out on the fringe and a break with the received traditions of century so it wasn't included.

    Gnostics were around before Christianity and were syncretic with their beliefs, often combining new religions into their own. They laid claim to a secret knowledge or "gnosis" which you had to work up the levels to attain, similar to a Free Mason or a Scientologist. Gnostics are the elitist's elitist, "we are the only ones that know the truth, and we keep it a secret from everyone else, how smart you must be for us to want you in our club." Think of the arrogance of Morpheus in the Matrix "explaining" the matrix to Neo, and you probably have it right.

    Of course some gnostic in the 4th century claimed to have the secret knowledge that Jesus told Judas to turn Him in. It's a catchy idea, and goes along with the idea that the gnostics didn't believe Jesus was a man anyway. For a gnostic, this flesh we wear is bad, only the spirit is good. Jesus asking to be betrayed was probably as stunning an assertion back then as it is now, and would have garnered good 4th (or 21st) century press.

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    Thursday, April 06, 2006

    There is no such website, but perhaps there should be. In answer to some naysayers out there, who, like someone drawn to the horror of a car wreck yet repulsed by its graphic nature, read these posts yet question the obsession that generates them, I give some quotes from the lyrics to STYX "Too Much Time on My Hands":
    "Too much time on my hands, it's ticking away with my sanity
    I've got too much time on my hands, it'’s hard to believe such a calamity
    I'’ve got too much time on my hands and it's ticking away from me
    Too much time on my hands, too much time on my hands
    Too much time on my hands"
    "Well, I'’m a jet fuel genius - I can solve the world's problems
    Without even trying
    I have dozens of friends and the fun never ends

    Too much time on my hands, take it away, take it away."
    I'll save Mr. Roboto for another day.

    Tuesday, April 04, 2006

    What are all those geosynchronous satellites for?

    We can use the Union of Concerned Scientists satellite database to learn where and what those satellites are for. Of the about 811 satellites in orbit around the earth, 348 are in geosynchronous orbits, stationed on purpose above a particular longitude along the equator. Almost all are used for communications, a few for military applications. Some for surveillance, reconnaissance or early warning.

    The sections of earth with the highest numbers of satellites tend to be the most populous. (Click on the chart for a bigger picture) A bunch are stationed at longitudes to serve the United States (105W) and South America (55W and 45W), some over Europe (15E) and the United Kingdom (0), some over the Far East (105E) and a few over Australia (140E). There are satellites at almost every longitude.

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    Learn Kepler's Second Law with Satellite data

    If you use the Union of Concerned Scientists satellite database you can do all sort of fun stuff with the data. For instance, Kepler discovered that the square of the period of a satellite would be inversely proportional to the cube of the long axis (or semi-major axis) of the orbit. Kepler only had planets to work with, we have our artificial satellites.

    For circular orbits, the semi-major axis is just the radius of the orbit (don't forget to add the radius of the earth, 6378.1km, to the perigee to get the radius counted from the center of the earth). If Kepler had a bunch of satellite data to work with he might have discovered his second law even faster. Here it is demonstrated in this chart (click for a larger view)

    Of course you need to understand Kepler's laws to be clever enough to launch a satellite into orbit in the first place, but it is a great example of learning with data how the physical law does apply.

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    All of those satellites up there

    Ever wonder what all those satellites flying above us are for? I was looking for a list of the satellites in orbit around the Earth as part of understanding the build up of debris in orbit and I found one at the Union of Concerned Scientists website. The Union of Concerned Scientists satellite database is a free list of all of the satellites in orbit around the earth in a very useful excel spreadsheet.

    To try to understand where all of the more than 800 satellites are, I put the data into a 2-dimensional histogram (chart below, click it for a larger view) to see the perigee (closest Earth approach) and apogee (farthest distance) at the same time. Satellites with circular orbits fall on the diagonal and stretch from a height of about 300 kilometers to geosynchronous orbits at about 35,700km. These 348 satellites tend to be for communications and have orbital period of 24 hours so that they stay over the same spot on the Earth, geo(earth) synchronous.

    The satellite with the most eccentric, non-circular orbit is the Wind satellite, its orbit takes it from 186km above the surface of the earth out to 470,000km with a period of 13 days. Even the moon only orbits at an average distance of 384,403km. Other scientific satellites are the Cluster satellites, which were launched by the European Space Agency and artfully named Salsa, Samba, Rumba, and Tango. These four satellites orbit in a line so that they can used to study the interaction of the Solar wind with Earth's radiation belts. The International Space Station orbits at around 400 miles.

    Besides the many geosynchronous communication satellites, there are several groups of communication satellites for use with satphones in circular orbits. The ORBCOMM satellites provide narrow band two-way digital messaging, data communications, and geo-positioning services on a global basis. The Iridium satellites at orbits of 775km are used for a satellite phone system that has certainly seen its ups and down over the years. Globalstar at 1400km is another set of satellites for a satellite voice and data system. Sometimes the communications are mainly one way. For instance, the XM radio satellites are called Rock and Roll (and XM3, no imagination there) and are in geosynchronous orbits at 85W and 115W.

    Probably the most famous satellites are the NAVSTAR satellites that are part of the Global Positioning System (GPS). They orbit at about 20,000km. The Russian version is called GLONASS and orbits around 18,000km. Less famous and more hidden are the Keyhole satellites used by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) to take pictures of us.

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    Monday, April 03, 2006

    A nation jetlagged - Daylight savings time

    The Monday after Daylight Savings Time starts in the spring is always an extra tough one because the nation (except for some parts of Indiana, Arizona, and some U.S. Territories) is still trying to adjust to the lost hour. I had no trouble coming in this morning and I will try not to be a statistic on the way home.

    Don't take my word for it though. This study found a statistically significant 17% increase in traffic accidents on the spring daylight savings time Monday.