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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.

Eco-Norm-ics

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!

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 Quarterly Bottom Line

© Norman Sperling, October 15, 2014

The short-sightedness of focusing on the quarterly bottom line distracts businesses from far-more-important long-term affairs. Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, a Paris businessman, points this out in “The Week”’s “Idea Factory” column. http://theweek.com/article/index/269688/this-one-reform-could-fix-the-bi...

He is profoundly correct. Practically all staff, decision-makers, products, manufacturing facilities, distribution systems, and customers last more than 3 months. A great many of today’s ills would fix themselves if business thought longer-term.

Some businesses do. Family-owned businesses think by the generation, not by the quarter. Most of them are far more stable and deal with their staffs, suppliers, and customers more dependably. That dependability is a big component in deciding who to do business with. But family businesses have other problems, such as not always producing all the needed skills every generation.

Privately-held businesses don’t have to focus on quarterly bottom lines, either. Sometimes, when a publicly-traded corporation is “taken private” they comment that this lets them consider longer-range projects.

Gobry suggests freezing investments held by third parties for 15 years, forcing money-managers to think that long. A more flexible way to encourage thinking long would be to limit the number of times each share of stock could be bought or sold per unit of time. Count by 40 to 60 years rather than 15, but permit a few sales in that time. It would slow down the “instant gambling” aspect of the stock market, which is one of its worst characteristics. It would force investors to think long, but still allow changes if there’s a big enough reason.

Gobry says that quarterly bottom line reckoning wasn’t intentionally planned, it just happened. That’s not quite right. More than a century ago, information about transactions and accounts flowed so slowly that no one could tell a company’s status at any specific moment. This offered many opportunities for fraud. Especially damaging frauds were perpetrated by the Swedish “Match King”. (For his exciting career, read Frank Partnoy’s 2009 book "The Match King: Ivar Kreuger".) To squelch some kinds of his frauds, the US set up the Securities and Exchange Commission in 1934 and required quarterly reporting of each corporation’s cash status and value. That began the quarterly bottom line.

Peter Drucker pointed out that “what gets measured gets managed”, so managers and stockholders concentrate on this important statistic. It dominates the shortest-sighted, like Carl Icahn, who thinks corporations are worth breaking up for his quarterly gain, never mind the disruption wrecking innocent customers, employees, suppliers, and communities.

Corporations should be made to declare the time-horizon they plan for. Those that expect to be long-term on-going enterprises should specify that they plan ahead 20, 30, 40, or however many years. Ones intended to flare up and sell out quickly, like those pushing this month’s technology innovation, should declare that that is their intent.

National Back-Order

(c) Norman Sperling, June 2014

My power-steering hose just rubbed through but is on “national back-order”. So are a whole lot of parts from Ford and General Motors, says the service supervisor.

Why? The flow of demand is quite predictable, so occasionally a part may be demanded more than predicted, but not so many. Companies probably make big money on parts, so it should be profitable. They know how to manage manufacturing, warehousing, and distributing. A lot of that is now done in low-rent areas, so it isn’t even that expensive.

Keeping repairable vehicles out of service for days or weeks stunts productivity, raises costs for businesses and drivers, clogs parking lots, forces people into less-desirable alternatives … there are no good factors that I can think of.

Meanwhile, my hose was repaired because it can’t be replaced. That means it’ll have to be replaced as soon as the part becomes available. Another shop visit somewhere down the road. Another mechanic’s labor bill. Wasteful all around.

The only cause I can think of is negligence. Maybe it suits some mid-level functionary’s short-term, short-sighted tally sheet, but it sure hurts everybody else. Somebody ought to sit on these companies to fix or replace the incentives: AAA? The auto-service conglomerates?

Why is Chrysler not on this list? What are they doing right?

What Don't You Know, That You Should?

© Norman Sperling, February 21, 2014

I display at a lot of fairs and club meetings. Most prospective customers are pretty close to what I expect: people of similar interests and varying expertise.

But I also meet people, often running other booths, who got shortchanged in their education and don’t know how to move forward.

I recently encountered an eager man who bubbled over about the service he was selling. I immediately recognized it as pseudoscience. When he started reciting details, I several times shook my head and said, no, that’s NOT the way things work. That’s not so.

He was stunned.

From what he said and what he asked, I guessed his science education never went past middle school, so I sold him a high-school textbook with a chapter on what he needed to know. He dove in like he’d been starved. He’ll learn an awful lot from that book.

There are scads of reasons for education not to “take”.
* Unfavorable home situations that prevent or distract.
* Competing pulls.
* Not knowing the local language well enough.
* Belief systems that block out reality.
* An earlier experience, such as a bad teacher, “turned them off”.
* Immaturity.
* Illness: I met a student who had an ear infection when her class studied division in grade school. She didn’t hear the lessons, and still couldn’t divide 6 years later. She was sensational at covering up.
* Cultural hangups that prevent using resources.
* Personal hangups. I know a person who was telling me some pretty wise things, so I recommended that he “tell it to a piece of paper” -- write it down. He replied “If I could do that, my whole life would be different” -- that’s one of his hangups.
These are nothing to feel guilty about, just bad luck.

But our society also excels at ways to learn what you didn’t learn before.
* The public library.
* Educational TV.
* Online encyclopedias, animations, lectures, lessons, and so on.
* Public lectures.
* Informal education like museums, and parks with rangers and signage.
* Adult school.
* Community college courses.
These are free or cheap. People can take them in any amount at any pace, whenever it suits them.

A whole lot of people do. When I was giving planetarium shows, it was not rare for a person to come up to the console afterward and ask basic questions. In teaching at community colleges, and night courses at universities, I’ve met people who are trying to better themselves, and get more satisfying careers. (Not necessarily better-paying! 2 of my most-memorable students were a truck driver and a plumber, who made more money than I did, but with dramatically less satisfaction.)

But many people don’t think of all the resources available to them; I have to push the recommendations. That applies even more to folks like the first guy mentioned above. He could have learned the folly of his spiel in a library, in an encyclopedia, from a used-book store, a new-book store, a GED course, a community college course, or from a thousand on-line resources. It never occurred to him to do so.

As a purveyor of pseudoscience, he’s not evil, he’s just ignorant. Maybe the folks who promote the program he bought into might be evil, or maybe they’re just ignorant too.

Our culture would be enormously improved by folks of all ages patching the holes in their knowledge. Many will probably choose their favorite entertainment instead. But many will eventually, as it suits them, learn up on their weaknesses. That would decrease the market for pseudoscience as well as the number of its pushers. It will also improve the overall functioning of Society. We’ve already got the stuff in place. All we need is to effectively recommend it to folks who need it.

What don’t you know, that you should?

Would You Like to Buy a Copy of the Voynich Manuscript?

© Norman Sperling, December 29, 2012
Part of a set on the Voynich Manuscript:
Great Stories from a Book You Can't Read: The Voynich Manuscript December 23, 2012
Voynich: Turkish? December 24, 2012
Voynich: 2 or More Handwritings? December 25, 2012
Voynich: Spiraling Into Folly December 26, 2012
Could 2 of Voynich's Oddities Cancel Each Other Out? December 27, 2012
Did Voynich Swindle Mondragone? December 28, 2012

There is said to be a published version, but unavailable, and cropped so much that people complain. There's an eBook version, a CD ROM version, and an online version. But how about a book you can hold in your hands?

I queried my audience and found 5 who said they'd consider buying a printed copy. I presumed using modern acid-free document paper instead of vellum, and a binding that opens flat. I surveyed their preferences:

For margins, they preferred either the original amounts, or 10-12 mm. (I expected them to want much wider margins, for making their own notes.)

Then I posited 2 potential versions:
* a Replica, reproducing the manuscript in its present form as faithfully as technology allows;
* and a Restoration, with the page-order rearranged as sensibly as possible, with blank pages left for the missing leaves, with script printed black-on-white for ease of reading, and with colors restored to original tones.

Along a continuum from Replica to Restoration, nobody wanted the ink contrast or illustration colors as faded as presently. Preferences ranged smoothly from "fully restored to our best guess of original", to halfway to the present fading.

Everybody wanted the paper color roughly halfway between white, and as-brown-as-present.

With electronic reproduction now making pages and printing so selectable, I wondered if people might want to custom-enhance unreality by inventing a new page order, and rendering lettering and illustrations in user-selected colors, including psychedelic. (About a mile from where I spoke, and about 4 blocks from where I teach, psychedelic tie-dye shirts are still sold by street-vendors on Telegraph Avenue.) But these 5 customers were way more sober than that, and wanted no such thing. They also wanted no enlargement, or just a little.

I suggested 3 kinds of binding. They strongly preferred "quality cloth-covered hardback" and "quality paperback". My imagined "custom vellum-covered hardback" found no favor.

Then I asked them to forecast "In the long run, per 100 copies sold, estimate the number picking:
* replica: 30%
* restoration: 42%
* psychedelic: 5%
* their own custom settings: 30%.
Yes, those don't add up to 100%, but that's what the folks wrote.

Averages of estimates for the proper prices:
* replica: $30
* restoration: $53
* psychedelic: $47
* custom settings: $70.

If you could tailor a copy to your preferences, what characteristics would you want? What would you pay? Compare that to Emperor Rudolph's 600 ducats, or the $160,000 that Voynich never got.

Did Voynich Swindle Mondragone?

© Norman Sperling, December 28, 2012
Part of a set on the Voynich Manuscript:
Great Stories from a Book You Can't Read: The Voynich Manuscript December 23, 2012
Voynich: Turkish? December 24, 2012
Voynich: 2 or More Handwritings? December 25, 2012
Voynich: Spiraling Into Folly December 26, 2012
Could 2 of Voynich's Oddities Cancel Each Other Out? December 27, 2012
Would You Like to Buy a Copy of the Voynich Manuscript? December 29, 2012

The book The Voynich Manuscript by Kennedy and Churchill (Orion, 2004), and some websites, repeatedly accuse Wilfrid Voynich of unethical dealing because the religious books he traded to the Catholics of Mondragone in return for 30 old manuscripts including this odd one, didn't cost a lot. Voynich, Kennedy, and Churchill all valued antiquarian things unusually highly. They didn't value those new books very much. The accusation makes several faulty assumptions.

From all we are told, nobody was forced into a deal. Nobody lied. They all had what they had, wanted what they wanted, and reached agreements. This is the principle of "a willing buyer and a willing seller": it just needs to make sense to the people involved in their own circumstances right then. How it would be regarded by others, elsewhen, with different circumstances, is not relevant.

I have experienced quite a number of things that I valued, selling for low prices, or not selling at all. In hurriedly clearing out our old house in preparing to sell it, we ended up giving away several thousand dollars worth of stuff. And I have experienced items fetching surprisingly high prices because they were worth a whole lot to someone else in their particular situation. Our house sold for a handsome profit that dwarfed the losses described 2 sentences ago.

Mondragone made no use of what they had, had no use for it, and had not even touched it for centuries. They did their religious duties, for which those 30 manuscripts were actually a drag. They also had no means to find out their specialty value (the antiquarian book dealers Voynich and Kraus didn't know, either: they speculated and lost). Mondragone had no experience in selling through specialists anyway, and no means to find and deal with dealers or collectors of antiquarian books, or they would already have done so.

Wilfrid Voynich acquired the knowledge to find Mondragone, exercised the energy and paid the cost to actually journey there, and took the risk to invest money with no surety of earning a profit. Voynich listened to them - what other merchant would? They wanted certain uncommon books they could actually use, but they didn't have money to get them, nor the knowhow to find and purchase them. We worldly people of 2012 could do that in a snap (well, a click), but buying their wants was beyond the abilities and resources of isolated members of a religious order in 1912, or they would already have done so.

Voynich took considerable trouble to fill Mondragone's shopping list and deliver to them what they really wanted - "concierge" service. Nobody else had, or would. Voynich performed several services that required his expertise and attitude, including the age-old commercial one of taking things from where they have low value to where they have high value.

A strongly parallel experience happened to me about 1990. A little, isolated college had an antique telescope. The occasional astronomy course was taught by a professor of something else. He saw an ad for a modern telescope, which would help him teach his course much better than the awkward old thing could. He was worldly enough to know how to buy the new one, but far from knowing how to sell the old one for enough money to pay for it. From a friend of a friend, he heard that I had studied antique telescopes. So he invited me to examine the old scope, appraise it, and sell it so he could buy the new one. Unfortunately, its lens was badly chipped, devastating its value. I never found a customer, no deal occurred, and I never heard from them again. I lost the value of that time and travel.

If I had succeeded in fulfilling that college's wants, Kennedy and Churchill would regard me as an unethical swindler for doing so. I regard Voynich as an enterprising, risk-taking expert bringing added value and new possibilities wherever he reached agreements.

Swatting Scammers

© Norman Sperling, September 5, 2012

The 4th-best apartment-for-rent ad that I answered was also a scam, just as the 3 better ones had been, and (judging from the responding eMail) it was from the same scammer as #2.

Craigslist claims it can't tell. More likely they don't care to bother.

Gmail's spam-spotters sure recognized them. But they just relegated their responses to the spam file, apparently based on the similarity of the wording to a lot of other mail they'd carried that had been flagged before.

I hear that law enforcement won't do much because they can't prove that the location of the offense is within their bounds. Mine all cited "West Africa" ... but why should that be truer than their offerings?

The scammers know that Craigslist hardly hinders them, Gmail merely redirects their mail to a different folder, and law enforcement leaves them alone. They get away with their scams because no one with evidence communicates with anyone else.

As long as Gmail and Craigslist operate in blissful independence, scammers will continue to exploit their hands-off attitude to scam money from the customers of both.

So here's a superb opening for Anonymous and White Hats. They want to right wrongs, don't they? They want to keep the internet open and effective, don't they? The using public should contribute thousands of exemplars, from which patterns could be recognized, from which the number and behavior of scammers can be determined. I suspect there are fewer than 1,000 originators of this misery, and I suspect that >90% can be identified this way.

Cooperate with selected targets (banks, merchants, Craigslist, eBay, ...) and media (eMail, ISPs, portals, ...), track down the crooks, document their takings, build overwhelming legal and moral evidence, and come down so hard on them that they'll not only cave in (and go to jail and pay restitution) but also deter anyone else from even trying. This may also expose government agencies and banks that cast blind eyes.

I sure would enjoy reading the stories of such rip-off artists, and their downfalls.

My forwarding address

I have rented a mail-drop. Everything postal (& UPS, FedEx, DHL, etc.) should go there.

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

Items sent to 413 Poinsettia Avenue, San Mateo, CA 94403 after September 22, 2012, will be forwarded irregularly for a few months, but then returned to sender or destroyed.

Also expiring in September:
the landline telephone, 650-573-7125
and the eMail wonttell@astound.net .

I expect to check the maildrop 2 or 3 times every week until late December 2012. While I am on the road, things will be forwarded to me sporadically. Therefore, use eMail whenever that can serve well enough: normsperling@gmail.com. My cellphone remains 650-200-9211.

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

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