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Norman Sperling
2625 Alcatraz Avenue #235
Berkeley, CA 94705-2702

cellphone 650 - 200 - 9211
eMail normsperling [at] gmail.com

Norm Sperling’s Great Science Trek: 2014

San Luis Obispo
Santa Barbara
Palm Springs
Death Valley
Tucson
El Paso
Corpus Christi
Baton Rouge
Tampa
Everglades
Key West
Winter Star Party, Scout Key
Miami

MARCH 2014:
up the Eastern seaboard
mid-South

APRIL 2014:
near I-40, I-30, and I-20 westbound

MAY 2014:
near US-101 northbound
May 17-18: Maker Faire, San Mateo
May 23-26: BayCon, Santa Clara

California till midJune

JUNE 2014:
Pacific Northwest

JULY 2014:
Western Canada, eastbound

AUGUST 2014:
near the US/Can border, westbound
August 22-on: UC Berkeley

Speaking engagements welcome!
2014 and 2015 itineraries will probably cross several times.

Norman Sperling's blog

Doing the Easiest Part First Makes the Whole Job Less Daunting

© Norman Sperling, February 11, 2015

I’m faced with an array of big and difficult problems. Just as I have been, all life long.

Over the years, I’ve evolved a process that reduces stress and hastens results.

While aware of the overwhelming difficulties, I start with the easiest part first. When teaching my (then young) sons to clean up some breakage, I said “first, pick up the 3 worst pieces. Good. Now pick up the 3 worst pieces. Good. Now pick up the 3 worst pieces. [repeat]. They got into the swing of things, and saw the daunting hassle reduce greatly. By the time they got to more difficult parts, they already had a lot of experience and momentum, and could see an end in sight.

I do the same for myself. In putting together an issue of my magazine, I start with the easiest and most obvious pages. Then the next-most, and then the next-most. By the time I have to do anything hard, I’m deeply into the process and the rest becomes a lot less daunting and easier.

I teach my students the same. In their big term project, research the easiest part first. After the input is acquired, write the easiest part first.

Adapt this principle to most projects, even careers, and you’ll start easier, go farther, and finish faster, all with less stress.

It does have limits: After a while, all the easy and nearly-easy stuff is done, and all that remains is tough and unpleasant. To get over that, I used to imagine my boys telling me I needed to finish that so I could do family stuff with them. These days I have to imagine something else.

Crowd-Source Testing

© Norman Sperling, February 8, 2015

THE PROBLEM
Many kinds of contaminants and adulterants afflict products sold in the US and elsewhere, often imported from places with lower standards. The press reports most often on problems coming from China and Mexico, but I don’t doubt there are many other sources too. The salmonella peanuts that recently poisoned so many Americans were native-grown US products.

Contaminants include lead, melamine powder, and listeria. A lot of adulterants are chemically not too hard to identify. A lot of infections are biologically not too hard to identify.

Government inspectors inspect just the tiniest proportion of goods. Cheaters wheedle their way in, often with bribes, or discounts, or maybe just winks, from unscrupulous distributors and retailers.

HOW TO SOLVE IT
Thanks to the advance of technology, and with only a minor change in law, we, the public, can now fix the bulk of this problem. Bring in citizen scientists and science students.

Professional societies should establish standard testing protocols that can be learned by high school students of their subject (such as chemistry and biology), and conducted with equipment typically found in high schools.

Those societies should establish standards for affordable kits for retailers. Encourage smartphone apps. Each kit should include “how to report”, to what institution or agency, etc. Open-source testing will teach citizen scientists and all America what it takes to determine scientific measurements, and the importance of getting the amounts right.

Make it a very common standard exercise to test products sold in stores and online. Tentative positive results should be brought to chemistry and biology teachers for re-testing. If they indeed look suspicious, bring the suspect stuff to the local college for more sophisticated testing. If adulteration is confirmed, ring the hotline of the professional society, USDA, FDA, US Attorney, or other appropriate agency.

Though food supplements and cosmetics are too-lightly regulated, crowd-sourced testing can clean up some of their acts, too. Where the FDA cannot or will not reject something dangerous, that danger violates plain laws against poisoning and infecting and mislabeling.

FUNDING
The project will need an initial grubstake, but should become self-funding as soon as court fines are collected. Set those to:
• repair the damage already done,
• penalize guilty businesses and imprison their guilty decision-makers so harshly that it will deter everyone from pulling a similar stunt, and
• award a share of the fine to the citizen scientists and testing labs who blew their whistle.

This should make manufacturers, importers, distributors, and retailers a lot more leery of under-the-table deals. Only fly-by-night risk-takers would dare to pull a fast one, and with the entire supply chain poised against them, even they would find it harder. Horrible negative publicity can put a company out of business, as happened with Arthur Anderson accountants. Competent individuals can bring down a big adulterator.

Testable products will become more correct, less poisonous, and less infectious. The resulting greater trust in products will INCREASE trade in those trusted items.

Funding should not run out unless there are no more violations found. What a wonderful problem to have!

Venus’s Tail

© Norman Sperling, February 5, 2015

Shortly after inferior conjunction, can Venus’s tail of ionized atmospheric particles be detected by space probes at L1, or orbiting Earth outside the magnetic field? At this distance, it ought to flap around a lot so it might take several days to traverse, and be discontinuous. Several decades of detector records already exist, so this shouldn’t require new observations, just mining old ones.

Mercury might act the same, though negligible atmosphere and greater distance would make it harder to detect and identify.

How about the Moon’s wake, either in sodium ions or in decrease of solar wind, just around New Moon? The sodium atmosphere is mighty thin, but detectors are now mighty sensitive.

Can we learn anything about those atmospheres?
About billows?
About flapping?

Crossing Off

© Norman Sperling, February 5, 2015

After many decades of working through “Do Lists” I have just realized something about them.

When crossing off an item that was achieved, I feel markedly better if the crossing-off line is pretty bold, and stretches from margin to margin. If the line merely spans the words I’m crossing off, or is pale, it just doesn’t provide as much sense of accomplishment.

The Journal of Irreproducible Results
This Book Warps Space and Time
What Your Astronomy Textbook Won't Tell You

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