Shutting Down Nuclear Reactors

Japan has updated the the threat level from the Fukushima Plant from five to seven. And while everyone ought to put Fukushima into context, chiefly by looking at the damage facing the rest of the country, we can also see that, broadly, things worked as expected at the power plant. They just did not build the plant to survive the 48ft-high tsunami waves and 9.0 earthquakes that happen perhaps once every thousand years. Very poor planning indeed.

This is an older, albeit by a few weeks, graphic from the New York Times explaining how a reactor is ‘shut down’ and then, failing that, what a meltdown is. And most importantly, how the meltdown of a modern reactor design is far different from that at Chernobyl.

Shutting Down a Nuclear Reactor
Shutting Down a Nuclear Reactor

Credit for the piece to Xaquín G.V., Bill Marsh, Dylan McClain, and Graham Roberts.

Japanese Radiation in Perspective

Japan continues to deal with damage from the earthquake and its subsequent tsunami. Yet, much of the news that seems to come out of Japan focuses on the leak of radioactive materials from the Fukushima power station. Certainly that is a story, but is it more important than the tens of thousands of people missing and presumably dead?

The New York Times printed a graphic on Saturday that details the danger from the radiation at the plant, near the plant, across Japan, and then across the rest of the world.

Radiation Graphic Reduced
Radiation Graphic Reduced

And largely, if you live in the United States, you have no reason to fear the radiation leak. In general, unless you maybe live near the plant, you have no reason to fear the radiation leak.

Overall, it communicates its message clearly and adds nice detail in the bottom third of the graphic about whatever spread of radiation there has been.

Credit for the graphic goes to Joe Burgess, Amanda Cox, Sergio Peçanha, Amy Schoenfeld and Archie Tse.

Radiation…Tastes Like Metallic Tang

It is a mad, mad world out there these days and I suppose this is the point at which we all begin to run around shouting that the sky is falling. Despite all the madness in Libya, the constitutional referendum  in Egypt, the protests in Syria, the election in Haiti, and the president’s overseas trip to Brazil we still have the aftermath of the Sendai earthquake and the subsequent Pacific tsunami. The latter being particularly important because of the damage to the now infamous Fukushima Daiichi nuclear generating station in northeastern Japan.

Fukushima will likely be up there with the three other major nuclear disasters of a power station variety: the Windscale Fire in Cumbria, England; Three Mile Island outside Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; and of course, Chernobyl in the Ukraine (then the Soviet Union). We sometimes have heard the media compare Fukushima as the next great nuclear disaster, but how bad has it really been?

This graphic by XKCD comes to me via my coworker, Brian Morgan, and it breaks down our average exposure to ionising radiation—the bad stuff—from nuclear accidents from Chernobyl to Fukushima to x-ray machines to the natural radioactivity in the soil. Yes, you are likely being irradiated as you read this post.

A cropping of a radiation dose chart
A cropping of a radiation dose chart

Radiation is bad. But we will all find better solutions to problems if we keep our fears both in proportion and in check. Fukushima is not good. But it is far, far from the end of the world.

Charging the Flux Capacitor: No Lightning Required.

My co-worker, Ben, who is far more knowledgable about cars than myself, brought the following to my attention.

At the Consumer Electronics Show we always get to see the latest in cool, new, must-have toys. This year, however, a company called Fulton Innovations displayed a proof-of-concept, wireless charging-station for electric vehicles. And while one must wonder about the conservation and inefficiencies of such a powering station, Fulton provided information on just how efficient their system would be. In the form of graphics.

Car Charger Graphics
Car Charger Graphics

And by and large, they are not bad. Yes, yes, the pie charts could be substituted for something else. But, I do like linking the colours in the pie chart to the parts in the power-system located in the diagram of the car. They help to explain just where exactly the inefficiencies in the system are to be found. And by providing the base of the plugged-in car, they also allow one to compare the two methods of wireless charging to that of plugging the vehicle in.

Growing Pains

An information graphic looking at obesity in the United States
An information graphic looking at obesity in the United States

This piece comes from my coworker, Ben, who found the graphic in Scientific American. Broadly speaking the piece is looking at the obese and the overweight in the United States, comparing the numbers of both children and adults in 1980 to 2008. These numbers are supplemented by the risk of death posed to both men and women from a few different causes. (I know at least diabetes is linked to weight, but as to whether the others are linked I am unaware.)

I have a few quibbles with the piece; for in general I think educating the public about the health risks of obesity a worthy endeavour. From a more scientific-ish point of view, as I recall, BMI (body mass index) is not a particularly useful tool in determining obesity because it fails to differentiate people who are heavy with fat from those who are heavy with muscles. A strong and regular weight-lifter is not necessarily overweight, but simply has a lot of muscles. Does that make the weight-lifter less healthy than those with lots of body fat? Methinks not.

From the data side, I am curious to know why only the two years? It may very well be that they are the only two years for which relevant data exists. But I doubt that. 1980 compared to 2008 is interesting, but perhaps already well-known. What would perhaps be more interesting is whether over the past few years, the increasing attention paid to weight and other health issues has begun to affect the growth of the obesity problem—poor pun very much intended.

The accompanying text makes a point about the number of adult Americans being obese. Certainly the dots as a percentage of the population achieve that goal of showing percents—though I hasten to add that their arrangement around the body in the centre does very little to aid in comparing the adults of 1980 to 2000 let alone the children. And as to the children, the article points out that they are growing fastest. At this, however, I can only take the authors at their word for the graphic does nothing to visualise this statement. Perhaps they outgrew the adults—but then the adults were themselves at one point children, but that is another matter—but their growth could now be slowing as a recent turn of events. But since we only have two years, we cannot know for certain.

The risk of death by [type of death] is interesting. But running bar charts as more of a radial chart could become a bit confusing. Is there any reason the bars grow in width as they extend further out? Or was that part of an all-too-obvious play on the problem. After all, the growth in area could be significant; a simple line of constant stroke to a point along the radial distance markers would have sufficed. And then I would be particularly curious to know whether any of these types of death are related to obesity. Neither the article nor the graphic provide any clues besides whatever knowledge the viewer brings to the table. (Okay, I think I am done with the puns.) And if one happens across the article with almost no knowledge of what diseases or medical conditions are caused by obesity, how does the graphic tie into the cost of healthcare costs brought upon the country by obesity.

Overall, I think the graphic is well-intentioned. The public is becoming more accustomed to seeing data visualised. However, we need to make certain that we are communicating clearly by making datapoints easier to compare. (Looking at things across half of a circle is a bit tricky.) And then we need to make certain that the data we are visualising supports our statements. (Are children really the fastest growing? Over what span of time?) And then take the time to explain to the audience those things that may not be common knowledge. Does that mean dumb a piece down to the lowest common denominator of someone who has absolutely no knowledge? No. Design needs to elevate and educate its audience. Perhaps some of the finer details remain unexplained because of sheer complexity, but when amidst a host of details well-understood, that confounding bit may push an unsure viewer to do some additional research and educate him- or herself about the subject matter. And that, surely, is not a bad thing.

Thomas the Tank Engine, Meet Señor Jose AVE

This comes from an older article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, but it is new to me. Anyway, it looks at a proposal for high-speed rail in the United States, specifically along the Northeast Corridor, the Washington to Boston route that includes Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia, and New York. Anyway, go figure that we still have trains that run at a snail’s pace, even Acela has a low average-speed.

Comparing Routes and Modes of Travel
Comparing Routes and Modes of Travel

A proposal from a group out of Penn makes for an interesting debate, specifically in Philly a real high-speed route would require boring underneath most of Philadelphia to bypass 30th Street. Perhaps revitalising Market East—depending on how exactly the route would interact with the commuter tunnel currently in place.

The graphics are simple, basically an annotated map. But the variations in stroke weight and colour help bring contrast to the routes when looking at the entire proposal whereas the proposed route in Philadelphia has little overlap and could have made due with a single stroke. Another interesting piece is beneath in the comparison between travel times from Washington to Philadelphia, from Philly to New York, and New York to Boston. Without looking at cost—thought the article’s second page or graphics does that—we can clearly see that a dedicated high-speed rail system would make it even easier to travel between cities for short holidays or even day trips. Let alone business trips.

If Kites Could Fly to the Future, What Would They Find?

If only Benjamin could see this…

The Control Room
The Control Room

These are photographs from a small series published by CNET that focuses on a power grid control room. As one can imagine, managing the flow of electrical energy across somewhere the size of New England could be a bit…complicated. And so one can see from some kind of network map (perhaps?) on the main display. At the very least I can make no sense of it.

Voltage Map (right) and Monitor of Neighbouring Power Grid (left)
Voltage Map (center) and Monitor of Neighbouring Power Grid (left)

On the other hand, I only wonder what would happen if Homer were sitting behind a bank of those monitors?

Photographs by Martin LaMonica, CNET

Oil and Water

We all know about the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and so there is no need to rehash what has already been said. However, I do want to point out the continuing and evolving coverage from the New York Times. At the outset they located the spill on a map and began to add interactivity to the map in order to show change over time.

When I returned to the NYT for the latest—after admittedly more than a few days away—I discovered that an interactive supplemental to news articles had transformed into an interactive article in a sense. The story is broken into different chapters or components and each of these chapters uses graphics or photographs or videos to explain just what is going, what happened, and what the effects may be.

The site is worth checking out, though it shall take more than a few minutes to read and look through. But it evidences how the smart use of charts, graphics, and photos can be combined with well written prose to tell a great—or in this case perhaps tragic is more the word—story.

The New York Times' Latest Update
The New York Times' Latest Update

I Swear Periodically

This post’s image comes from my coworker Darrough, though I know not the original author of the piece. The graphic is a periodic table of swear words and so for those with sensitive ears—or perhaps eyes—I shall advise you to skip forthwith this post. Now, in general, there is little remarkable about the graphic. Many different subject matters have borrowed the motif to organise themselves.

Periodic Table of Swearing
Periodic Table of Swearing

There are a few things lacking that would make the graphic a touch more interesting; one would be some sort of rationale for as to why the author placed certain swear words into different groups. In the table for the chemical elements, the elements are arranged by their electron shells and number of protons, groups and periods. For example, the alkali metals are the first group and are among the most reactive chemical elements. Is there a link between the reactivity of lithium to that of saying cunt? Is there a link between the non-reactive elements in the noble gases, e.g. argon, and those swear words originating with the word tit? One might ordinarily assume that the first group are the most reaction-provoking swear words whereas the last group is the least reactive. However, I know people equally offended by both words.

Another interesting consideration is the colour of the piece. Broadly speaking, the colours resemble those typically seen in colouration of groups of similar elements. For example, the first few periods of Groups 14–16 share either a pink or violet-red depending upon where they fall along a diagonal axis. In the chemical element table, a three-way division of elements appears with the divisions delineating the non-metals from the metalloids from the metals. Is there a similar reasoning for the division in this chart? If so, the reason does not readily appear to me.

Another interesting note is that the ‘pissed up’ group replaces the lanthanides and actinides—which contain uranium and plutonium. However, the ordering by atomic number is incorrect and I would be curious in knowing if there is any particular reason for that decision.

One final consideration is that because I know not the origin of the piece, I cannot know the cultural background by the selection. For example, as an Anglophile American, I know well the use of bloody, twat, arse, and bollock among other words. However, most Americans would have other choice words to use in their place. Is this piece an attempt to classify perhaps British/English/Scottish swearing or is it an attempt to try and fit many English-language swear words into a single table? If the latter, I would be curious to see if there are any words of, say, Canadian, Australian, South African, or New Zealander origin that have been excluded.

All told, however, this piece is just downright entertaining and in all likelihood the author intended it to be as such. (Though I would be most curious to see an etymologically correct attempt at defining English swear words.) Aesthetically, the piece fits into the style of most old-fashioned textbook diagrams that I have seen in old textbooks.

So, all-in-all, I can sum this piece up in two words. Fucking brilliant.