Friday, May 30, 2008

Spotting nuclear power plants from the sky - Limerick and Three Mile Island

I ended up with a window seat on this week's plane flight which went west from Philadelphia out over southern Pennsylvania. I love to try to figure out what the plane is flying over, and I usually find that nuclear power plants with their distinctive cooling towers are easy to spot and use as landmarks. Previously I did this with the Hope Creek and Salem power plant south of the airport in New Jersey.

The first landmark that I could make out was the Limerick Nuclear Power Plant (DOE listing) on the Schuylkill River in Limerick, Pennsylvania which is north of the travel of the plane flight. You can just make out the white plume from the cooling towers right in the middle of the picture. Eyes definitely have better image recognition and light sensitivity than my crappy Treo camera, even after autobalancing the photo. Google maps has a better shot, but they have better cameras and planes than I do.

The next landmark was a closer and better shot of the infamous Three Mile Island (DOE listing).

The cooling towers are visible in the middle of this picture, on the right bank of the Susquehanna. I was unsure of my location so I snapped a picture of the bridge farther down stream. Three Mile Island is still visible as a faint white smudge in the top middle of the picture on the river.

These turn out to be the Rt 30 and the Rt 462 bridges over the Susquehanna. In the Google Maps shot below, Three Mile Island is in the top left and the Rt 30 bridge is in the lower right.

Here is a cool closeup of the plant itself.

Perhaps I will bring my better camera with me on future trips, though I usually prefer and get aisle seats instead of window ones.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Foamy prank?

The entrance to this housing development appears to have been pranked with huge billowing piles of foam. I couldn't see it but someone who knows the area said that there is a fountain under all of that foam. So, some prankster put soap in the fountain and it just built up and flew everywhere. I am sure whoever did this will get caught, see the video camera on the stone wall at the top right?

I wasn't quite sure what it was until we got closer to it, it was blowing hundreds of feet up and down the road. It almost makes me want to duplicate the prank locally just to see the effect.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Pretty flowers for mid spring

We planted a clematis last year to wind up the lamppost and it did alright and then died to sticks over the winter. It has made its Spring debut in a big way this year. The flowers are almost as big as my hand.

A clump of flowers:

The Kousa dogwood did not flower last year and I gave it this year to flower or be cut down (there's a similar ultimatum given to trees in the bible). It flowered and thus its life is spared for another year.

The rose bush planted last spring is also beginning its display this year. Plants are so much more vigorous after they get a season to adjust.

A pretty dahlia planted this year.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

No laws against the Jolly Roger in Delaware

I have chosen not to live in a deed restricted community so I don't have the worries of this man and I am perfectly able and proud to fly the pirate flag.

He has run afoul of his local council who say the flag requires a £95 fee for "advertising consent". My poor neighbors have to suffer with my flag with no recourse to the law. I put my flag out for my birthday party as well, I am not eight year old, however.

Calling bullshit on mobile phone use during pregnancy damaging babies

The headline reads - "Warning: Using a mobile phone while pregnant can seriously damage your baby" - when it should read - "Danish mother's self-reported use of cell phones during pregnancy (seven years ago) is associated with a possible increase of mother's self reported behavioral problems of 7 year olds as measured by the Strengths & Difficulties Questionnaire from 10% of total children to 14%-22% of total children." I guess that headline is a little too long and exacting to sell papers or get the links. I am not the only one that thinks this, there are others.

In reading this news report and looking into the study I have discovered some obvious facts:

  • Newspaper headlines are written sensationally to increase sales and readers.
  • Cell phones, pregnant women and babies are easy targets.
  • I am way too cheap to pay $35 for one academic article in Epidemiology.
  • In spite of that you can still find some analysis for free on the internet.
So first I will admit that I did not read the actual article in Epidemiology by Divan HA, KheifetsLeeka, Obel C, and Olsen J because I was too cheap to buy it. But I did find a good summary of the points at EMF-portal and I was able to read the abstract. Some observations about the study:
  • The cell phone use during pregnancy was self-reported and it seems that it was self-reported seven years after the fact.
  • 50% of the children in the study were never exposed to cell phone use. Only 11% were exposed during pregnancy and used a phone before they were 7.
  • Behavioral problems in 7-year old children were assessed using the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire. That is also self-reporting, mothers filling it out about the children.
  • 90% of the children in the study had no behavioral problems.
  • The paper reports an odds ratio (ratio of the odds of disease in an exposed group over the odds of disease in an unexposed group) of 1.8 with 95% confidence interval from 1.45-2.23, which combined with the 10% abnormal data above suggests the increase from 10% with behavioral problems to ~14%-22% of children with behavioral problems as defined by the SDQ.
The SDQ data from the testing website itself supports the ~90% normal figure in the Kheifets paper. This is the same figure for 4 to 7 year olds in the US. (click below for larger, .pdf link to data, .pdf link to normal vs. abnormal scores)

The authors of the paper certainly do not present a conclusion like the sensational headline above. Prenatal and postnatal exposure to cell phones was associated with overall behavioral problems in children. The authors themselves concluded that these results should be interpreted with caution. The observed association is not necessarily causal and may be due to factors not investigated in this study.

I wish that reporters and the general public read the news and these studies with the healthy skepticism and critical thinking that is required to understand them and to modify their behaviors only in the face of actual understood risk. That also does not sell newspapers.

If someone sends me the article or the $35 for it I will happy to complete an analysis of the article.

Are you better off than your parents? Yes!

Unfortunately, a recent article by Jack Kemp at Spotlight on Poverty chooses to emphasize the negative side of a new report by the Economic Mobility Project entitled "Getting Ahead or Losing Ground: Economic Mobility in America" (.pdf link).

The data compares generational family incomes to determine if children are "doing better" than their parents. One chart (click below for bigger, .pdf link) shows that while the difference between the top quintile and the bottom quintile median incomes is increasing, all income levels do increase. Calling a difference a gap, as they do in the report, is a good way to generate a negative connotation for the data.

The Kemp article chooses to focus on the income disparity while I think an important conclusion is that even the bottom quintile median income (normalized to 2006 dollars) has increased generation to generation.

One interesting chart (click for larger, .pdf link) shows the fraction of each generation that stays in the same quintile or moves to different quintiles.

Kemp and the economic mobility project prefer to focus on the fact that 42% of children whose parents started in bottom quintile remain in the bottom quintile. His quote, with which I disagree, is "A cherished piece of the American Dream – the notion that individuals have the opportunity to rise beyond their parent’s economic status – is not standing up to scrutiny." I think they ignore the fact that most of children of the bottom quintile, 58%, move up a quintile, 6% actually end up in the top quintile, good for them. This doesn't change the fact that we should examine and potentially correct the situations that result in families remaining in the bottom quintile, but it is a quintile, 20% of people will end up in the bottom quintile, that is how it is defined Remember that median income levels still increased from generation to generation for this group.

The report includes a table (click for larger, .pdf link) breaking out each group into rising, falling and staying the same groups with respect to income and quintile. It is only in this chart that I see the most concerning data.

Firstly over all families from top to bottom the trend is generally, one third move up, one third stay the same and one third move down. Keep in mind that this includes those in the upper quintiles staying put or moving down, and while that is dismaying for someone in those groups, we should assume that they have a higher and sufficient quality of life vs. someone in the bottom quintile, especially if it is poverty you care about, not just upward mobility for all. The most concerning statistic on this chart is the 18% of children in the bottom quintile that do worse than their parents. This is the group to focus on.

The rest of the key findings (.pdf link) of the report focus on things that we have been aware of for some time. Many of the families in poverty are families with a single mother, and non-white. Thus the programs in place to offer these groups opportunities to improve their economic situation should continue or be improved. I strongly disagree that economic equality is a target to be striven for. The report seems to think that economic advantage or disparity is a bad thing in and of itself. As Americans we often don't realize that for most people things are better now than before, we are miserable when we someone else with more, no matter how much we have. I daresay we would be miserable if everyone had the same as well, no matter how well off.

In spite of the negative view offered by Kemp, I tentatively agree with some of his conclusions. We should try to reduce poverty as much as possible. We should find ways to allow increased opportunity for those in poverty to break out of it and move up the income scale and improve quality of life. I disagree with the negative tone of the article because the very study that it uses seems to also support the idea that the United States is one country in the world where these opportunities exits and that incomes (and by extension the quality of life) of each generation do continue to improve.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

I found a believer

This Monkees fan (or Shrek or Neil Diamond) fan has declared IMABLVR on their PA license plate spotted in Delaware.

Now that the song is going through your head I suppose the driver might believe in UFO's or in God, but the choice of the familiar lyric is suspicious.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Trinity Stained Glass Window on Trinity Sunday at Immaculate Heart of Mary

Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic church in Wilmington, Delaware has a large stained glass window behind the altar that is supposed to represent the Trinity. Since Sunday was Trinity Sunday it is a good time to explore the imagery in the window. (click any image for larger)

The plaque at the back of the church describes the window but does not credit the artist.

Immaculate Heart of Mary Church

Window Design

There are a number of traditional symbols of the Holy Trinity, based on various geometric forms. The “triquetra”, however was chosen because its curves lend themselves to harmonizing with the shape of the arched window; its symbolic meanings are even more significant.

The triquetra is a mystical symbol, quite simple in form yet full of meaning. The three equal arcs of the circle express the equality of the Three Divine persons, their unison expresses the unity of divine essence, their continuous form symbolizes eternity, and the fact that they are interwoven denotes the indivisibility of the Blessed Trinity. Each pair of arcs forms a vesica, the symbol of glory. Thus, the one simple figure reminds us of many important truths.

In this design the inner form of the triquetra is repeated in a wider one (basically of deep blues) and again in a narrower one of light blues. This parallelism gives the feeling of infinity, repeating itself throughout space and beyond.

The hand of God is shown at the top, interwoven with a large star, as though acting in the process of creation. Grey-violet clouds move in around the hand, thus the symbol of the father.

The Son is symbolized by the cross which extends through the whole, melting into infinity.

The Holy Spirit is symbolized by flames moving in a dynamic upward motion.
Throughout the design all of the symbols have been interwoven into a kind of giant tapestry, a synchronous movement that relates all of the elements.

I spend a lot of time staring at the window and trying to see different figures in it, some of which are described above and some are not.

Here is the outline of the triquetra. The triquetra appears in Celtic art as well as early christian art.

The intertwining of the triquetra forms oval leaf shapes called the vesica piscis (from fish bladder) and forms the familiar fish shape that early Christians used as a symbol for their faith. It is current fashion among modern evangelicals as well. My favorite fish is the right hand one in which a bit of Holy Spirit fire makes an eye. The vesica piscis was a favorite of early mathematicians, especially the Pythagoreans. Christians love to co-opt or were influenced by pagan symbols throughout history.

Here are the symbols of the Father (hand in yellow outline), Son (cross in purple outline), and Holy Spirit (flames in red outline), mentioned in the description above.

I can see the star on top of the hand, but the clouds at the top of the window look more like a snake head to me.

If you stare to long you will see anything, you can even see Spongebob Squarepaints just below the cross beams of the cross. I really think the colors and the yellow head and brown pants are intentional with some inside colors to represent his eyes.

I think it is strange that a church named for the Immaculate Heart of Mary does not have a stained glass window that reflects that theme. Before I read the plaque and not knowing what the theme of the window was, I was still able to guess the Father, Son and Holy spirit theme, and the intertwining figure for the trinity. I always though the whole window was Mary and the triquetra was a very non-traditional representation of the Immaculate Heart. That would make the hand her hand (though you only ever see Mary point to her heart with her right hand). That would make all the blue her traditional vestments, and the snake would be the devil that you usually see crushed underfoot, but makes an appearance higher up in this view. Turns out I was dead wrong. Yet the window still gives a focal point for contemplation (except for the Spongebob Squarepants part).

Are there any sharp eyed readers that see other images in this stained glass window?

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Driver helpfully rearranges Stoney Creek street sign

I am assuming that a driver helpfully rearranged the Stoney Creek lane sign with their car last Thursday, but neglected to tell any of the residents of the street.

At least they propped the sign up in the stand of trees by the road, although they picked trees covered with both safe and poison ivy. Perhaps they think the sign was too close to the street and posed a safety hazard. maybe even now the poison ivy they touched is a constant reminder of their good deed. They were so helpful. Thanks, random hit and run driver.

Baseball Salaries still not correlated with performance

There are lies, there are damned lies, there are statistics, and then there are baseball statistics.

A number of hits from TheBigLead sports blog to an earlier discussion of baseball salaries vs. team performance has prompted me to check that conclusion again with more data. The conclusion was that there is little correlation between salary and winning games. Later, Paul suggested we read Moneyball, I read The Baseball Economist instead.

The Big Lead helpfully pointed to the USA Today baseball salaries database where I collected total team salaries going back to 1988. I also collected the wins for every team through those years (2007 to 1988). So now I have more data to support the boring conclusion that team salaries don't seem to correlate with team wins.

In order to eliminate the change in salaries from year to year I normalized the yearly salaries of each team to the median (half the team salaries above, half below) salary for that year. The median salary is set at 100%. I also normalized the team wins for each year to the median number of wins (usually about 81, since 162 games are played and over the entire set of teams half are lost and half are won). This normalization makes sense because it costs some amount to run a baseball team, but we are interested in seeing if paying more than that amount, or more than the other guys increases our ability to win more games than the other guys and make it to the playoffs.

The plot (click it for larger) shows that the effect is weak, an increase of 10% over the median team salary yields only a 1.7% increase in games won over the median (about 1.4 games) and the correlation only explains about 15% of the difference in winning. 85% of the difference are due to other factors. This is true with and without the traditional Yankees team salary outliers from 2003 through 2007.

What if we look at last year's salary's effect on this year's performance? We get an even smaller effect and a worse correlation.

So if salaries don't have a real effect on baseball wins and wins is what managers and owners aim for, why do they keep paying the big salaries? Paul says read Moneyball, and some teams are using SABRmetrics and other statistics to find the biggest bang for their player buck, why isn't it reflected in the salaries vs. wins? Nearer and dearer to my heart, why did the Detroit Tigers choose to pay a $137 million, team payroll (#3 below) and they are in last place in the central division, behind Kansas City for goodness sake?

This year's salaries:

rank team salary
1 New York Yankees $209,081,577
2 New York Mets $137,793,376
3 Detroit Tigers $137,685,196
4 Boston Red Sox $133,390,035
5 Chicago White Sox $121,189,332
6 Los Angeles Angels $119,216,333
7 Los Angeles Dodgers $118,588,536
8 Chicago Cubs $118,345,833
9 Seattle Mariners $117,666,482
10 Atlanta Braves $102,365,683
11 St. Louis Cardinals $99,624,449
12 Philadelphia Phillies $98,269,880
13 Toronto Blue Jays $97,793,900
14 Houston Astros $88,930,414
15 Milwaukee Brewers $80,937,499
16 Cleveland Indians $78,970,066
17 San Francisco Giants $76,594,500
18 Cincinnati Reds $74,117,695
19 San Diego Padres $73,677,616
20 Colorado Rockies $68,655,500
21 Texas Rangers $67,712,326
22 Baltimore Orioles $67,196,246
23 Arizona Diamondbacks $66,202,712
24 Kansas City Royals $58,245,500
25 Minnesota Twins $56,932,766
26 Washington Nationals $54,961,000
27 Pittsburgh Pirates $48,689,783
28 Oakland Athletics $47,967,126
29 Tampa Bay Rays $43,820,597
30 Florida Marlins $21,811,500

Prius Arbitrary Milestone #1111

Caught this odometer reading yesterday. I realize this is only significant in base 10. It is not even prime, but is the product of two primes, 11 * 101.

Now 44mpg.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Tree Crushes House on Shipley Road In Wilmington

On the way home from work I saw this tree down because of the wind and wet weather we have been having lately. It made me rush home to see if my trees were still standing (no problems).

Crews were there taking the fallen tree the rest of the way down.

It looks like the tree sheared the roof away as it fell on the front of the house. From the ground it did look like there were holes in the roof and crushed areas due to the tree.

This is my fear - more than a tree breaking in half and falling, sometimes they just uproot and fall over. I don't remember anything remarkable about this tree except that it was a tall maple of some sort. Google Maps street view has the before picture.

This wasn't the only tree that fell in Delaware.

Any tree experts or Rangers out there know how to predict when this will happen and prevent it (I guess by cutting the tree before it cuts you)?

Saturday, May 10, 2008

My Thousand Miles on the Prius

In the Mike Mahaffie Prius owning tradition I have taken a picture of a "significant", because of our base 10 system, odometer reading.

I got the car at 1 mile and have now driven 1000 in almost two months. I still really like the computer and other gadgets, especially Bluetooth pairing with my cell phone and voice actiated commands. I only rarely miss the turbo of my last car. I have tried to make a game out of getting the best gas mileage I can but I have a ways to go, only 42 mpg so far. Only two fillups so far as well.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Video of Jumping horses at Point to Point

The races start a little sedate, but on the third time through this jump on the way to the finish they get very spirited. These horses are running all out.

Jumping horses in a steeplechase at Point to Point

It is so hard to time the photo of the horses at the correct artistic instant of the jump. I gave up and took some video for later.

Carriage Parade at Point to Point at Winterthur

One of many carriages in parade at Point to Point at Winterthur. Expect to see more of these as gas prices rise..

Today, May 4 is International Respect for Chickens Day

I have replaced the regular Crazy Blue Hen roundup with a salute to chickens of all types the world over. Today is International respect for Chickens Day so here are a few suggestions for how to show your support. The press push started on May 1st with this Yahoo news picture.

This day is not a day when you should cook a chicken in your favorite recipe, the United Poultry Concerns organization seems to indicate that eating and raising chickens is actually bad and that the conditions they are raised in are uniformly bad. In 2005 they asked us to show the world that "chickens are people too". Given their lack of opposable thumbs, culture and any legislation to that effect, I will respectfully disagree, with the one exception of YouDee, the University of Delaware mascot.

For my contribution to chicken culture, I would like to collect money to get all of these chickens sunglasses. The National Band and Tag company started in 1902 with one of their most unusual products, chicken sunglasses. These rose colored glasses (we all need a set), prevented the chickens from seeing blood so they wouldn't peck each other to death, but lifted when the bent over to peck at their food. I am sure that once one chicken got one they all wanted them because they are rather stylish.

My love of chickens is well known, especially if they are cooked in an award winning recipe.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Raccoon Coprology

I don't have dogs so I don't have to go around the yard and pick up their crap. Turns out there are other animals in the animal kingdom that defecate. (Everybody poops.) These photos document what appears to be raccoon scat all around the yard out back. The raccoon scat is just another sign, besides paw prints and sightings (1,2) that we have a very active raccoon population in the area.

I imagine myself as an 19th century natural philosopher trying to tease out the workings of science with these photographs of nature rather than a man taking pictures of raccoon scat. I encourage you to think similarly.

The problem with raccoon scat is that it can sometimes contain the roundworm parasite, Baylisascaris procyonis, which can invade the brain and eye in humans coming in contact with it, causing severe disease and death. Of course they were only 23 cases in 2003 so it is an exceedingly rare thing.

I suppose I will carefully clean it up and dispose of it. In order to rid myself of the problem I would have to sterilize my entire back yard, fill in the creek, and kill every raccoon. I think that I won't be doing that.

Too bad, If it was fossilized I could get $1000 a pop (or is that a poop) for it.

Any raccoon specialists or animal tracking specialists want to conform my suspicions on this and make recommendations?