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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

The Stealth of Nations: The Global Rise of the Informal Economy, by Robert Neuwirth. Pantheon 2011.

review © Norman Sperling, February 7, 2012

This new book tells nothing new, and offers many examples of no value. Ostensibly celebrating the pirate economy, the author neither self-publishes nor finds street sellers. Instead, he contracts with a name-brand publisher, copyrights his tales of piracy, and repeatedly invalidates his own premises.

The underground and pirate economy is not rising, it's always been around. This "informal economy" is older and far more entrenched than the formal one. In several places the book admits that, but immediately reverts to the fantasy that working "off the books", on the street, on the margins, or not fully licensed, is new, or increasing.

What's newer, and growing far more vigorously, is the formal economy that earns confidence, enforces inspections, builds brands, and does things right. Several times, the narrative brushes up against the roughly-direct relationship between an enterprise's degree of formality (for which the author selects the odd proxies of being licensed, registered, and taxpaying) and its degree of trustworthiness. Trust and confidence are critical in transactions.

That's why customers graduate to more formal levels of the economy as soon as they can. They get better quality and therefore better value: the things they buy are closer to "real" and "working" and "sturdy" and "supported", and therefore worth the higher price. This generates valuable repeat-business, compared to street-hawkers who always need to drum up yet more new customers. Of this, the book gives only the slightest mention.

The author offers several sighs over capitalist misbehavior, while citing far more examples (without sighs) of pirate misbehavior. Almost all the misbehavior is just plain short-sighted: taking an immediate advantage and ignoring its (bigger) long-term consequences. Undermining value, as several chapters on piracy celebrate, undermines confidence. Folks who can't afford the most-trustworthy goods, and therefore take less-trustworthy, discounted street-goods, often live to regret it. Frequently-cheated customers are less eager to buy, which slows the 'speed of money', whose rate tracks the health of economies.

Save your time and money: skip this book. To improve the economy, earn as much confidence as you can (in reality, not just "licenses and registrations"), and do business with others who also earn confidence.

The Garages of Silicon Valley

© Norman Sperling, February 1, 2012

We're all familiar with giant computer-industry corporations. Here in Silicon Valley, we have hundreds of them. But they didn't start out giant, they started out basic and bare-bones. I drove around the Valley a couple weeks ago to look at some of their birthplaces. See pictures of these and many companies' first buildings at scaruffi.com. (HP and Google were founded in garages just around the corners of the houses shown.) You can also find them on satellite imagery.

1939: Hewlett Packard garage, 367 Addison Avenue, Palo Alto: quite rustic, with not-quite-even wooden planks. Narrow 1-car garage (no house had a 2-car garage in 1938!). Were it not for the bronze plaques in front of the house (a duplex, private residences), absolutely nothing would call attention to the garage. Unassuming. It's well-painted because the garage is now owned by Hewlett-Packard and maintained as their honored birthplace. A private tour inside, that I didn't see: by Brian Solis.

1956-57: 391 San Antonio Road, Mountain View: where Shockley Semiconductor got started. This pioneering transistor company was a terrible place to work. Experts fleeing Shockley founded Fairchild, Intel, Kleiner, and others. Now at the corner of a gigantic shopping center (redeveloped in 2012), a WalMart stands on the opposite corner. The building is hard to recognize! It's now an "International Market" selling halal meats. The historic, main part is extremely plain, basic, slab-sided, undistinguished. The newer front segment is much better looking. The Geek Atlas says there's a plaque but I didn't find any.

~1958: 844 E. Charleston Road, Palo Alto: Fairchild Semiconductor , 1957- . Invented integrated circuits. Moore's Law 1965. Begat the "Fairchildren" LSI, Advanced MicroDevices, and many more. Very plain light-industrial building, with only a few faint touches of styling. Modern for the 1950s. 2 bronze plaques out front tell how the commercial integrated circuit chip was invented there, but you'd never notice the building if it wasn't pointed out. 2 suites are for rent as of January 2012.

1975: Apple's garage, 2066 Crist Drive, Los Altos. The front actually looks rather like my house, though the spacing between houses is quite a bit wider. It has a double-width garage, where mine has a single. Extremely unassuming, less adorned than most of the houses on the street. No plaque. This front lawn has the smallest tree on the block (perhaps a big old tree had died). The garage is absolutely unassuming.

1998: Google's garage, 232 Santa Margarita Avenue, Menlo Park. Somewhat newer, with a classy mailbox and tile address on the garage. No sign or plaque visible. Clean and trim but plain. Some neighbors haven't been maintained in decades, others are junior palaces.

Nobody would pick any of these as a place of future greatness. These ventures all started very small and plain and unadorned, all hope and work. Nothing big or rich till long after they outgrew these cradles. If the beginning work hadn't fostered sales and expansion, we'd never have heard of any of them. It doesn't matter how tiny your accommodations (I say, typing away in a corner of a closet), what counts is where you take it from there.

Remembering Norman Edmund

© Norman Sperling, January 25, 2012

Norman W. Edmund founded Edmund Scientific Company on a card table in his home in 1942. When he retired in the mid-1970s, it had over 200 employees. He died at the age of 95 last week in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to which he had retired.

I vividly remember devouring every new issue of the Edmund catalog while I was growing up in the 1950s and '60s. The catalog always had a lot of "tutorial" segments - several paragraphs each, usually with diagrams, so the users could understand the technicalities of the equipment. They weren't particularly slanted toward Edmund products, and they taught a great many people a lot about their hobby and its hardware. Only a few catalogs (like Orion) continue to do that, though it's absolutely the best policy and should be fostered. Tutorials are NOT waste-space, and they foster brand loyalty: I trust the company that makes the effort to tell me the straight information.

I met Norm several times in the 1970s, while I consulted for his son Robert. In those years Norm kept his desk in the main office, kept a bunch of neat science-thingies around, and had appropriate input. But I also sensed that he kept his distance from daily operations, carefully avoiding stepping on toes.

What always impressed me was how nice he was. Plain, no affectations, no flaunting. And he passed all that on to the rest of his family, several of whom I met. They're all nice. They treat people well. They treated me very well. It wasn't just a put-on performance, it was genuine.

To Norman and Robert, "treating people nicely" is business policy as well as personal. While it's true that being nice to people is good customer service and good business, I think they are nice to people simply because they think that is the right way to be. I learned a lot from that.

They didn't outsource service. Callers were transferred to people who knew the technicalities they needed. Customers could get replacements and refunds.

Robert once told me "Customers will always complain. They'll complain about price, or they'll complain about quality. As long as I'm president, they aren't going to complain about quality." Which is to say, the stuff he designed, produced, and marketed would actually work well. And it did. Sure, humans aren't perfect and hardware isn't perfect, but when problems cropped up, the company tried hard to fix them, and usually succeeded.

Norman Edmund was well-respected as a leader in science business, an advocate of science education, a business leader of Greater Philadelphia, an expert fisherman, and a gentleman who "lived long and prospered". I'm really glad I knew him.

Develop Your Own Product

© Norman Sperling, October 9, 2011

Develop and sell your own product or service. This little sideline can help in everything
* from venting frustration ("I'll show THEM!")
* to opening doors (I earned even more from contracts facilitated by being author of my first book, than I earned from selling the book itself)
* to actually producing decent income on its own.
Running your own business gets you a high, different, and useful status, and the potential to build something bigger.

Start with something you can do distinctively, even if it's a very small enterprise. Keep it affordable under your circumstances. The very exercise of taking something from idea all the way through the practicalities of production, sales, and distribution is a huge education and a huge accomplishment. The techniques it teaches you can help a wide array of your other activities. And the people it introduces you to can open more doors.

Then spread the word. Set up a website, and maybe a blog. Show your expertise and how distinctive your product or service is. Tell leaders in the field about your stuff. Encourage up-and-coming leaders to use it.

Career-long, full-time jobs scarcely exist any more. There are times when conventional employment may let you down: cutbacks, layoffs, firings, expirations, disqualifying circumstances, whatever. When that happens, you're still a "somebody" because you run your own business. You'll always have your current business card, not merely a card from where you used to work. The status of "business owner" is way better than the status of "unemployed". How little your business is, is no one else's business (except the tax authorities). If you have time on your hands, put some of it into developing your little business into something a little less little. That'll feel good, and earn a bit more money in tight times.

Once in a while, a little business can take off and turn quite profitable. When ideas occur, and/or pathways open to bigger things, you'll already be established. Scaling up is way easier than newly establishing everything. Be poised so that could happen to you.

Essential Reading on Your Own Business:
Bernard Kamoroff: Small Time Operator.
Claude Whitmyer & Salli Rasberry: Running a One Person Business. Ten Speed.

Recommended:
Michael Phillips & Salli Rasberry: Marketing Without Advertising. Nolo Press.
Michael Phillips & Salli Rasberry: The Seven Laws of Money.
Michael Phillips & Salli Rasberry: Honest Business.
The Briarpatch Book.
Rafi Mohammed: The Art of Pricing. Crown 2005.

Loyal Old Customers

© Norman Sperling, June 21, 2011

I was talking business with another proprietor of a decades-old science business. We both have loyal customers. For both,
* most pay by check, instead of credit card or PayPal
* a few fill out their checks by typewriter (yes, in 2011)
* a few don't like the prices' .95 and round their checks up to .00
* none of their checks bounce.

The "typewriter" aspect no doubt marks people who have not fully adopted computers, because hardly anyone else keeps a typewriter handy. Customers who have been loyal for decades are, by definition, older, so this is no surprise.

The preference for checks is not just a failure to adopt newer technologies, since credit cards became very common by the 1960s. Some feel less secure about giving out their credit card numbers.

Their checks are always good. They want the product, and they'll want the next one too. They're quite content to transfer the money. They don't begrudge the price. It is tempting to read into this the high ethics of science, too.

Paying the rounded dollar instead of the .95 shows these customers' rationality overpowering their emotional reaction to the price. I've never heard of this happening outside of science businesses. Lots of business have thought of charging rounded prices, and many have tried it. Sales slump horribly. Customers only buy when prices end in .95 or .97 or .98 or .99. Only merchants that end their prices that way survive. I once raised the price of an item from $4.35 (which was determined by standard pricing formulae) to $4.95, and thereby markedly increased sales. That's the way customers want things ... except for this extreme intellectual fringe, who are so repulsed by that practice that they send $27.00 for a $26.95 product. They have no way of knowing what a pricing formula would actually call for - the formulaic price might actually end in .31 or .78 or anything else.

Ghostwriting Busters

© Norman Sperling, November 14, 2010

Medical ethicists are in an uproar over misleading medical research articles and presentations being "ghost-written". They're confusing 2 different activities, and blaming the wrong one.

One thing that's going on is ghost writing. That is often good.

The other thing that's going on is distorting results. That is bad.

Experts with talent and training in research can be wonderful at that, but often don't write well. And people who write well are rarely talented or trained in research. In your own experience, you know several people who are great at doing something but poor at expressing it, and several people who are great at expressing things but not so great at originating all of them.

So people who aren't so great at writing, who need to write something for publication, enlist help. They can ask friends, they can hire writers, or their sponsors can hire writers. As long as the output is correct, nobody is deceived about the scholarly content. While literary sleuths dispute "true" authorship of literary gems, that never happens with these reports.

I've done some of this. Here's an example from when I was an editor at Sky & Telescope magazine: An interesting article arrived with a turgid title something like "Thermoluminescence and Cathodoluminescence in Chondritic Meteorites". I changed the title to "Meteorites that Glow". I bet a lot more people read the article than would have with the stilted, stuffy title. That time I was paid by the publisher rather than the writer or the writer's sponsor, so that could be called "editing" instead of "ghost writing", but it's doing the same thing.

Turning ineffective writing into something people actually like to read takes talent and training that is rarely part of researchers' education. It's fair to have a ghostwriter as long as the meaning doesn't change, and the researcher approves everything the ghostwriter did before it's published. It doesn't matter who pays the ghostwriter, though it's cleanest if the money is laundered through the researcher.

Changing the meaning is entirely different. Someone thinks that by lying about reality, they can make quick money. The original author may have at least as much motivation as a hired writer. Warping can be done by ghostwriters, editors, publishers, and others. Of course reality must always win in the end. Concealed harm grows too blatant to hide. Legal settlements for causing harm can bankrupt corporations. Even the accusation can cripple a researcher's career.

The flap over ghostwriters is mis-aimed. Attack liars and cheaters for lying and cheating. Don't attack people who are good at expressing things for being good at expressing things.

Yesterday's Dumps, Tomorrow's Mines: Minerals and MinURLs

© Norm Sperling, November 1, 2010

The world's market for rare-Earth metals is now dominated - 97%! - by China. China says it will continue selling them, but neighboring Japan now suddenly seeks to buy from Viet Nam instead. A lot of high-tech consumers worry about how much they will be able to obtain, and for how long.

2 major sources have not been properly surveyed and exploited.

Many of those rare-Earth elements go into high-tech devices. Those devices wear out or become outmoded, are discarded, and go into dumps. We build up enormous dumps, filling valleys and building "Mount Trashmore"s.

When rare-Earth resources run out, or become scarce for ecological or political reasons, it should be more practical to mine old dumps and extract the needed elements from today's discards. Over centuries, I suspect that today's polluted dumps will be reclaimed, re-exploited, and re-consumed as resources.

At identifiable strata and pits in dumps, one can find the discards from datable years. And we know when certain chemicals were used. To facilitate reclamation, dumps should be mapped as accurately as practical in 4 dimensions. Zones should be labeled by dumping dates, and any other distinguishing characteristics, too. Time-lapse photos taken from standard vantage points should help the mapping. Seekers of a rare-Earth element can excavate the zones buried a few years after it was used, without having to slog expensively through unlikely zones.

To what degree is it practical to map older dumps? Many capped landfills are turned into parks after their initial organic outgassing subsides. How closely do their records of filling match new drill-core logs? How do those compare to ground-penetrating-radar scans?

Another waste source is ignored even more: mine tailings. Where nature concentrated a valuable mineral, well enough for miners to extract it, the discards simply got dumped. These mine tailings are often eyesores and sometimes accused of fouling their environment. It's time to take modern, high-quality chemical analyses of tailings from each mine. Surely something valuable will show up somewhere. Mineralogists and geochemists will discover new correlations.

Re-mining tailings has many advantages: they're already concentrated, they're already pulverized and therefore easy to process, and the (re-)remaindered tailings should be (re-)discarded in a much safer manner, which the newly-extracted fraction should pay for. Perhaps robots can stuff tailings that contain nothing likely to become valuable back into the depleted mines they came from, reducing the hazard of collapse.

Mapping dumps, and screening mine tailings, will produce new mineral resource locators - minURLs!

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

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