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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

That Stuff Sliding Around the Seat

© Norman Sperling, February 1, 2015

Most drivers sit alone in their cars, accompanied not by passengers but by office stuff, work stuff, hobby stuff, and groceries. Many drivers stuff that stuff on the passenger seat. A car seat is poor for that purpose, but that’s all you find in passenger cars. Lots of stuff spills in sudden stops. Spilled stuff interferes with later uses.

Most people never even think of improving their situation. But now you’re thinking how.

Attach a backpack, seat organizer, seatback organizer, or trunk organizer. They already exist, they work well enough for many, and they’re cheap.

I hung a used backpack and a travel kit from the passenger seat headrest posts in my old car. That location was handier than the footwell, which I often use for grocery bags and my main backpack. Spare pens, paper, emergency money, and long-shelf-life snacks all found a snug home. Items for a specific meeting, class, or event usually fit. The system worked very well. The backpack itself was even a handy spare.

On the rare occasions when I had a passenger, the backpack and travel kit simply swung around to the rear. They were also easy to remove both times that was preferable.

A few companies sell “seat organizers” with compartments. They sit on the passenger seat, anchored by the seat belt. I haven’t tried one but they look like they could solve problems for certain drivers. Detaching and stowing, when you have an actual passenger, doesn’t look overly awkward.

A different approach is a “seatback organizer”, a luggage-ware product that many companies sell. Designed for mommies who drive little children around in the back seat, the netting pouches intended for baby bottles, for example, can hold lots else instead. Certain seatback organizers may not function well if faced forward on the front of the seatback. Many competing brands, which vary specific features, cost under $25.

Trunk organizers can be even farther removed from the driver. That’s great to prevent distraction, and acceptable for items that are only needed when the car is parked. I found a high-quality one made of black luggage-ware, with netting, pouches closed with heavy Velcro, elastic bands, snaps, holding handles, “non-skid foam strips” (which skidded after a few years), and adjustable straps. It would be good for a front or back footwell as well as the trunk. It is collapsible for easy removal and stowage. Unfortunately, it’s way too flimsy: it depends on its contents to keep it fully extended. Lesser versions, given away as premiums, don’t help me at all.

With or without gizmos, protect stuff from sunlight and heat as appropriate.

May your passenger seat never spill again!

Legendary Science

© Norman Sperling, January 31, 2015

Barbara and David Mikkelson run the famous rumor/urban legend website snopes.com . I enjoyed a lunch with them in 2010.

I asked them to draw some generalities from the profusion of individual narratives they research. Science most often comes in when:
* it buttresses a fear, due to fears of technology and manufacturing,
* or when people claim it validates a religious or political point.

Science rarely makes their top-25 list. Fabrications such as the Weekly World News concocted would often make it. The Mars-closest-in-August claim does recur every summer. Aspartame, and exploding cell phones, often make the top 25.

A fascinating aspect of legends is how attributions converge on the most famous examples in their category:
* Stories about a scientist become about Einstein.
* Stories about hamburgers become about McDonald’s.
* Stories about chicken become about Kentucky Fried Chicken.
* Stories about soft drinks become about Coca Cola.

Sometimes the attribution to the best exemplar is true, such as the item you’re just finishing about Science in rumors: it’s about snopes.com .

What America Has Less of Since My 1982 Trek

© Norman Sperling, January 5, 2015

Service stations with service, especially mechanics. Service bays have been turned into convenience stores.

Gas stations. A lot of corner stations have been consolidated into big facilities, often near highway interchanges.

Single-screen movie theaters have morphed into multiplexes.

Local drug stores. Chains have bought them out.

Local book stores … though with the collapse of big chains (spurred partly by Amazon and avarice) a few are creeping back.

Stuckey’s.

Seesaws. Though that’s the iconic symbol for playgrounds, I’ve only noticed one playground in the last 2 years that actually had a seesaw. Were they killed by liability lawyers?

Phone booths have been outmoded by cell phones.

Fewer rest stops on highways. Many have been removed in the last few years. I doubt that maintenance is that prohibitively expensive.

Fewer junk yards and rusting hulks in yards. Fewer, but still a lot of eyesores. If the old cars are useful, make use of them. If not, sell them as classics, or junk the hulks for spare parts or recycling.

What America Has More of Since My 1982 Trek

© Norman Sperling, January 5, 2015

Chain stores have taken over even more than before. There are still regional and local stores but overall every covered shopping center looks and feels like every other one, and so does every big-box shopping center.

Many chains are now huge. Enormous numbers of small towns have a local grocery store, of sorts, because Dollar General and Family Dollar have spotted their niche. Lowe’s and Aldi are among many other big chains. Truck stops used to be largely Union 76; now they’re Love’s and Pilot/Flying J.

This has brought tremendous variety to places that formerly didn’t enjoy as much. Customers flock to Walmart not only because the prices are low and the quality acceptable, but also because the store has many tens of thousands of different items more than the local stores it replaced. Collectively, chain stores have unified the “American experience” about as much as the highway network and mass media.

Wineries have sprouted all over the map! Most of them probably don’t grow their own grapes, but the wineries themselves have enormously proliferated.

Good coffee is a phenomenon America owes mostly to Starbucks. You always could get a cup of coffee, but there used to be just one kind, and it wasn’t gourmet. Now even truck stops offer >5 types, most of them premium quality. For consumers, this is wonderful.

Cellphone towers uglify the landscape but serve the public. As spectacularly as cellphone service has grown, I still find myself in plenty of places with no service, or very little. I expect that when I go geologizing and nature walking. More surprising is the lack of signal in many RV camps and US routes. Cellphone towers seem ubiquitous but they aren’t all in my network.

Electronic message signs have sprung up on roads and elsewhere.

Firewood bundles are now for sale, often in self-serve stacks for a few bucks. People used to gather their own.

Singlewide and Doublewide mobile homes have largely replaced older, flimsier dwellings like shotgun shacks. Manufactured homes look awfully plain, and old, damaged ones are not rare or pretty, but I remember the shanties they replaced, and mobile homes are way better. They seem to last 30-40 years, which is way less than a sturdy house, but can handle a major part of a person’s or family’s life. Though a great many people find them the solution of choice for their budgets and situations, many towns don’t let them in. That’s a huge mistake. The image of “trailer trash” is not a total myth but slurs a lot of people of good character who, for various reasons, have to (or prefer to) make do on little cash -- like me.

Storage facilities have proliferated immensely. A lot of them occupy marginal land near freeways, rivers, and railroads. There’s also a burgeoning business in storage sheds. All that means that Americans now own more than we used to. Some of it is not so good -- displaced people stowing stuff till they can recover, for example. But much marks the prosperity that started in the post-WWII boom. We’re not yet wise about what not to buy and what not to keep, having had no cultural experience with the problem. But we have stuff that we want to keep, which is way better than not having it.

Motorcycle clubs tour all sorts of places. Not only on scenic routes everywhere I go, but also on some less-scenic highways, I see many groups of motorcyclists. Harleys dominate but other brands buzz by me too. Most riders appear to be in their 50s and 60s. They’re invariably polite and sociable; the fearsome thunderous noise runs counter to their personal demeanor. Not only are pleasure rides very much a thing to do, but lots of places now qualify as such. Maybe the non-scenic areas are on the way to a scenic goal, such as a tourist town tucked away somewhere. Seeing so many joyriders reassures me that I’m seeing a lot of the best scenery myself.

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

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