Monday, March 28, 2011

Just Number Psychology

So, I'm at work and, while waiting for a program to run, decide to bop on over to CNN's website to see what the latest developments in the ongoing nuclear drama were. The one article cited extremely high levels of radioactivity, indicating levels in the area of 1000 millisieverts.

As may have come through in prior writings, I'm a bit of a geek. I work with computers, so, it's almost a requirement. Part of being a tech-geek is understaning the concept of "units". Along with that is understanding what the various unit-modifiers mean. Now, while I'm not advocating the US going out and switching from our current measurment system to metric, I do appreciate (and understand) base-ten unit modifiers. So, when I see someone say the equivalent of "one thousand thousandths" (or one million millionths, for that matter), it makes my OCD senses tingel.

When I see that kind of units-abuse,  I have to wonder, "is the author just stupid or are they scare-mongering by using (apparently) bigger numbers?" I've had other geeks try to suggest that said authors might be trying to indicate precision, but that gets blown out of the water the moment a reporter couches things in terms of estimates or "about".

The vast majority of readers out there aren't going to know that 1000mSv is equivalent to 1Sv. Few people know what an Sv is to even begin to understand what an mSv or ╬╝Sv might mean. Worse, since many of the readers of CNN will be US readers with little to know background in the metric system, there won't be any automatic "milli equals one thousandth of something". No. All that most readers will see is "there's a thousand of these thingies happening every hour. That sounds like a LOT!" and, granted, it is, but no more than one of the base-unit would be.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Interesting Saturday Night

We were sitting in the living room, watching TV, deciding whether to go to bed or watch a movie, online (we really know how to rock a Saturday night, eh?) when we heard a "boom" rattle the windows. Initially, I'd processed it as the house next door's front door slamming. This struck me as odd, given that the previous tenants had moved out a few days ago. I noticed a car with Maryland plates parked out front. This seemed suspicious, so, we called the EMS non-emergency dispatch number to see if they could send a car by to check things out.>/p>
As I was standing on the front porch, I noticed a strange pickup truck sitting across the street with white smoke curling out the windows. Initially I thought, "some idiot decided to park on my street to hit a doob. If they're smart, they'll notice I'm on the phone and roll out before the cops get here and really didn't think much further of it.
Apparently, the boom we'd heard wasn't from next door. Apparently, something had exploded inside the truck's cab and the smoke was the interior burning. Wasn't until another neighbor, woken by what had turned out to be the truck going "boom", decided to investigate the smoking truck. He walked over, jiggled on the door and it popped open. Thick, white smoke came billowing out. With the sudden influx of fresh air, the smoking interior became a firey interior. So, I informed the dispatcher I was on the phone with that they probably needed to treat this as a 911 fire call.
A little less than five minutes later, Fairfax County police cars started rolling up. One officer pulled an extinguisher out of his car and attempted to extinguish the fire that was now licking up from where the hood and windshield meet. It didn't work.
A minute or so later, the fire trucks rolled up. A fireman walked up, fully fitted out with helmet, fire clothing and oxygen mask and opened the door, fully. Fire came billowing out.
Unfortunately, my camera's ability to cope with the bright light of the fire against the dark of the night meant I couldn't get good photos of the fire. It was pretty much just an orange flare in the center of the image. After they got the fire knocked down, I was able to take the below picture.
EMS are still outside dealing with the aftermath. I imagine, once they've determined the fire is fully out, they'll flatbed the truck away.
If you're from Manassas (cop that came up asked if we'd seen it before since it was registered to a Manassas address) and missing a big, white crew-cab pickup truck, I think I know where it might have gotten left (and, presumably, set on fire by whoever boosted it). Fairfax County Police Department will be able to tell you where to go pick up the burnt-out husk. Hopefully, your insurance company totals it: I know I wouldn't want it back, at this point.