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Norman Sperling
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The Book on Y2K

© Norman Sperling, March 7, 2012

I would like to read a comprehensive book about Y2K, especially a competent description and analysis of the aftermath. I haven't been able to find such a book. Does one exist?

Broadening to the big issue of legacy software would generalize it from a single event to an ongoing situation. Legacy code is a real issue for many companies because a lot of original code was not optimal:
* it was written as a first try,
* under great pressure,
* in an under-funded company,
* thinking months ahead, not decades.
Inelegance is the least of its problems.

A lot has been learned about superior ways to do things since then, but later editions all have to work with the original. This weighs down products from many big companies.

A software engineer who had worked at Oracle told me that Oracle did indeed find and fix what would have failed.

I might like to retail a good book on this to readers of JIR and my websites, and customers along my Great Science Trek. If the book hasn't yet been written, who would be a good author?

The Issues of the Issue: JIR v51 #5

© Norman Sperling, December 23, 2011

The noticeable uptick in the national economy, encouraging though insufficient, is mirrored by JIR subscriptions. We're getting a few more than before, though not enough for prosperity. Part of this comes from general interest in recent scientific-press studies of (truly) irreproducible reports. Science-media critic Charlie Petit even used JIR in his lead when he commented on that - thanks Charlie!

Now in the postal system is JIR v51 #5. It's full, as always, of science humor. An MD using the pseudonym "Fizzy McFizz" wrote "All Research is Actually Made Up", supporting a conclusion that some draw from the reproducibility challenges. Burlesquing expansion on small-number statistics, Paul Monach of Boston University compares a category in which he can find 2 examples, to a huge population surrounding them.

While the Zen approach continues to interest people, Eric Levy shows that the Un-Zen life - seeking immediate gratification - seems closer to what they actually do.

Our cover article is "Ants are Superbeings!" by Australian researchers Elaine Foster and R. A. J. Reynolds. It points out many of ants' superior abilities, including their social behavior which acts in some cases like a super-organism. Serious entomologists ("ant"omologists?) are considering this, too. For one take, read Mark W. Moffett's spectacularly illustrated 2010 book Adventures Among Ants, from University of California Press.

We thank the talented young artist Marlin Peterson of Washington state for our cover art. He's a scientific illustrator who seeks to reproduce the results of Science that can't be photographed. Enjoy his website at www.marlinpeterson.com. The picture shows Argentine ants colonizing new ecological niches. The Argentine ant, Linepithema humile, is very remarkable indeed, and I'm sure we haven't heard the last of it. What remarkable things do the ants around you do?

Conferencemanship occupied some of JIR's earliest contributors, and still concerns our authors and readers. In this issue, P. Alexandre tells "How to Answer Questions" while maintaining (an illusion of) superiority.

Comedian Norm Goldblatt ties up beer, pi, the Higgs Boson, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, ET, and religion while having "Beer With An Alien". I've had a meal with Norm myself, but we didn't get to any of those issues.

Trevor Kitson, our most prolific contributor from New Zealand, apologizes to Rudyard Kipling for his chemistry takeoff on "If".

What is the proper opposite of the Vulcan Blessing, "Live Long and Prosper"? Logician John Mariani of Lancaster University, UK, explores the possibilities. "Fail And Die Soon" stops agony too soon to be a big curse. "Die Soon Or Fail" goes in the right direction, but "Live Long Or Prosper" is "far more elegant, far more logical, and much, much nastier."

Our friend Larry Lesser of UTEP is back with a new song. Taking his cue from James Taylor's excellent Fire & Rain, Lesser talks technical in Combustion & Precipitation. And I pun right back at him in an Editor's Note.

2 contributors send up dysfunctional bureaucracies: Harry Stern of Kennesaw State University in Georgia satirizes social work's "community disorganization", while R. L. Zimdahl critiques university administration, having been part of one for many years. I'll stick to my own standards: when there's good will and good management, any system works; where there isn't, no system can work.

A question for you: experience has taught that I catch a lot more errors when I proofread paper printouts, rather than the computer screen. A little is due to the screen's less-accurate renditions of character spacing, but that doesn't explain most of my "catches". Do others experience this too? Or the reverse? Why does this happen?

Pearson Grabs Copyrights

© Norman Sperling, November 18, 2011

The Journal of Irreproducible Results receives many requests for permission to reprint items, and grants almost all of them. We are delighted to find wider audiences for our wit, and hope that intrigued readers will look us up and subscribe.

Big publishers usually have "standard" forms with "boiler-plate" legalese compiled by lawyers. In trying to cover every base to their client's advantage, they vastly overreach, often thereby ruining the deal.

JIR's most-requested item is Jerry Zar's hilarious poem, Candidate for a Pullet Surprise. It's a wonderful send-up of word processing spell-checkers. JIR has had fun with computer foibles for many decades now.

After you read it, you'll understand why we invariably reject 2 boiler-plate provisions:
* they almost always request permission to make an audio recording, but this would sound "normal" and completely destroy the reason for using the poem.
* they usually request permission to translate into certain, or "all" other languages. While similar poems could be constructed with the homonyms of other languages, they would not be translations of this one.

Now an arrogant new piece of boiler-plate has arrived:

"In the event that use of a Selection by Pearson or its affiliates exceeds this license granted to Pearson, or any other terms or obligations between Pearson and you, Pearson's sole obligation to you and the rights holder shall be to pay for such additional use or uses in accordance your or the rights holder's standard fees for such use, and the terms and conditions of this Permission Request and License shall apply to such additional uses."

So, once they get permission to use any selection, no matter how restricted, they can blithely use it any way they please, in any further publication, without asking, without limitations, and (unless they are caught) without even paying. This is a grab of copyrights almost as wide as Google's! Everything in the Universe and The Journal of Irreproducible Results emphatically reject this legalese in Pearson's form, and urge all other owners of copyrights to reject it in no uncertain terms. If Pearson violates contracts and agreements and laws, Pearson must pay the full legal penalty.

Furthermore, Pearson is an ever-changing conglomerate of other companies. It buys and sells publishing and education companies. (I wonder if they have any officer who can even list all the original companies which merged into corporations which eventually conglomerated into Pearson.) It could buy something, merge it with the unit holding this particular permission, then spin that off to some other entity about which the original copyright holder knows nothing. What an easy way to grab a lot more rights than any author intended to grant!

Such a practice threatens publishers ... including Pearson! It should be in their own best interest to:
* squelch this offensive overreaching legalese,
* send everybody who ever signed on to it a legal declaration that they abandon this provision and will never invoke it,
* apologize to authors and publishers,
* and replace whatever managers originated and approved this provision with thinking, feeling humans.

Write it for What it's Worth

© Norman Sperling, October 13, 2011

For many years, I assigned my college students to write a 5- to 10-page term paper as part of their course. I wouldn't approve any topic unless I thought there were good enough sources to produce that much content.

After doing their research, some students had a lot of information and a lot to say about it. They often found rich resources I didn't know about, and sometimes contacted scientists directly. These students often wrote very thorough papers, but to cram everything into a mere 10 pages they used type so narrow it was hard to read, a point-size too small to read, and the thinnest margins their printer would allow. They also edited out not only fat but meat, and the resulting paper suffered.

Other students didn't find much, and had only a little to say. Sometimes they found 8 books but they all quoted the same original research. Such students padded their narratives beyond reason, used the fattest, biggest type they could get away with, with very wide margins and only a thin column of type down the middle, just barely dripping a couple of lines onto page 5. The resulting paper suffered.

So I changed my directive. While 5 to 10 pages was the initial target, when they had finished diligent research, I told them to "write it for what it's worth": include everything that ought to be included, and then stop. Don't leave out anything useful, but don't pad either.

The result is papers of a far wider range of quantity, but a significantly higher quality. These papers aren't artificially stretched or compressed. They feel comfortable because the writers weren't compelled to distort them out of all proportion. The average grade went up noticeably simply because all the papers could be right-sized for whatever the writers found. The students are happier because they aren't squeezed, and get better grades. And I'm much happier because the papers I read are well-proportioned, which makes for better reading.

So, when I took over JIR, I made this the rule for the magazine, too. We receive submissions in an extreme variety of lengths, from one-liners up. I only rejected one submission purely for length (it was 54 pages long, and our whole magazine is just 36 pages per issue). But all the others are pretty much the right length for what they attempt, and don't feel cramped or puffed out. That improves the quality of the magazine for readers, eases the constraints on the writers, and improves my reading and editing. Win-win-win.

So I recommend that the same rule be adapted as widely as practical. Try it, you'll like it.

The Issues of the Issue: JIR v51 #4

© Norman Sperling, August 9, 2011

The Journal of Irreproducible Results volume 51, #4, is now in the mail. As always, much of the humor connects to real-life issues.

One of our articles is about the Medical Narrative Essay, a form of scholarly publishing with a lower entry threshold than research papers. Dr. Katherine Chang Chretien makes a good point about the "crap-shoot" feeling authors get, because some essays may get rejected summarily by one publication, and accepted as-is by another. She's right! And it isn't only a matter of the article's quality, or the journal's. Sometimes we have too many submissions on some topic and too few on another, which changes what's welcome. Often a new editor wants to show a different face than the previous one. Sometimes an article is a perfect companion for something else that the author is unaware of. There can be lots of reasons in addition to whim - which also happens.

Our article "Science Blitz" by David Bartell and Paul Carlson was, according to Marty Halpern's blog More Red Ink, rejected by Analog as being too weird, crossing too many genre boundaries. Those factors worked in its favor for JIR, but we're happy to print it as a good, witty story that ties in science with a novel twist.

Colleges try to teach high-level information to students who aren't always prepared for it. The bullet-point list is one ubiquitous method to simplify and emphasize points. Prof. Lou Lippman points out that this can train students to take in information only in that format. I find myself teaching to standards that others seem to have left behind, such as requiring term papers of students who have never done any such thing before. A lot of employers will still want employees who can find relevant information and put it together coherently, and practically every employer will still need employees to take competent notes from oral instructions ( which are often much less coherent than professors' lectures!). We still need to engrain those skills in the students.

The ease and presumed anonymity of writing on the Internet spawns lots of new terms. Many of those are great puns, which we love. Others, however, earn their way into a glossary of neologisms, provided here by Doreen Dotan.

Lawns, and mowing them, are a cultural fad that too few question. A lawn that people actually use is fine with me. But most are for show, or for conformity. They suck up water and time. For usefulness, or for decoration, they deserve to be a lot rarer. Dr. Robert Haas couches the issue for the anthropologists of 1,000 years from now, but many of us already don't like lawn care here and now.

Opioid pain relievers remain wildly popular. Either an enormous number of people live in great pain (surely some do) or a lot just say so to get their opioid prescriptions renewed. This wide-spread, semi-legal zonking is rarely counted in studies of drug use. If scholars want to know the dimensions of drug use, they need to count this. They come up with statistics on illegal drugs, and it should be easier to add this factor. If specific doctors are "easy touches" or active over-prescribers, whoever licenses and certifies them needs to get serious about enforcement. But some patients try to get opioid prescriptions from Dr. Allan Zacher, and he rebels by writing for JIR.

We're publishing an English translation of a pair of articles that originally appeared, under pseudonyms, in a small publication in the USSR, 50 years ago. We have not found who actually wrote them, nor any previous translation into English. This translation is submitted by Sergey Makshinskiy. We always seek nuggets from other places and times, that our present readers would enjoy.

Our former publisher, George H. Scherr, PhD, has published another book! This one is on the history of fighting infections. Pasteur, he says, was following Agostino Bassi. Why Millions Died is being published by the University Press of America.

Tweaking Sheeple With Style

© Norman Sperling, July 13, 2011

Marty Halpern, another editor, has blogged in More Red Ink about a time when he and I disagreed about stylebooks, among other things, while serving on a panel at the BayCon science fiction convention. The Journal of Irreproducible Results does indeed use different styles than most other publications. Contributors don't have to conform; if we accept a contribution, we will handle that hassle.

Not following the Chicago Manual of Style is NOT an error! The Chicago Manual is hardly the best way to present humor - it's dull and sober and stuffy, the very antithesis of humor. Many editors detest that stuffy antique. Its followers seem like sheeple who mindlessly obey what emperors dictate, even though they can recognize clothing if they see it.

Here are some of our style standards, with some of the reasoning. We welcome other publications and writers adopting any parts of these that appeal to them.

Body type: 11-point Bookman Old Style.
Captions, By-lines, and Sub-heads: 16-point Century Gothic.
Our own advertising: Rockwell.

Bookman, Century Gothic, and Rockwell are the most-readable fonts we have. We use them because we want people to actually read our magazine. Semi-condensed fonts such as Times are harder to read. They cram more text onto the paper, but savings from the printer come at a cost to the reader, and we think the reader is more important. We particularly note that many readers are elderly, and as we age we sympathize with their vision difficulties more and more.

When there is just one table or figure, call it "the table" or "the figure", not "Table 1" or "Figure 1".

Digits are far easier to read than the words for them, and the principal point is ease of reading. Numbers are as tall as capital letters. Spell out "one" except when it is used mathematically as a digit. But all higher numbers should be expressed as digits, even if beginning a sentence.

0 can be ambiguous. If it's clearly the digit, use the digit. If in danger of being mis-read as the letter 'oh', would "zero" work more clearly?

"20th Century", "17th Century", and so on sound stilted, require a mental calculation to subtract to get the dates ... and are often misunderstood, especially by non-Western people. Almost always, they don't mean the specific, technical inventory of years starting with '01 and ending with '00. Almost always, they just handwavingly refer to a century-or-so. It's far clearer and simpler to say "the 1900s" or "the 1600s".

Punctuation in Quotation Marks
Punctuation that is part of what's being quoted goes inside quotation marks. Punctuation that is not part of what's being quoted goes outside of quotation marks. That way you know what's being quoted.

%, °
One contributor notes that JIR people seem to have more letters after their names than in them. For JIR's college-educated and technically-oriented audience, 100% understand "%" and are therefore slowed down by seeing it written out as "percent". For people with so many degrees, the same goes for the degree sign.

NASA, US, PM, etc.: full capitals, no periods. Styles that put them "down" were meant to save expensive labor on Mergenthaler linotype machines ... which nobody has used for decades. Instead, let's save clarity.

Cities which are very well known and unambiguous need not be followed by their state, province, or country.

Almost all capitals, and major-league cities (in major sports) are that well known and unambiguous: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, even Green Bay. Nobody thinks those are anywhere but the big place.

The same applies to intellectually-major-league towns: Ann Arbor, Bangalore, Berkeley, Boulder, Chapel Hill, Charlottesville, Corvallis, Eugene, Evanston, Huntsville, Ithaca, Laramie, Lawrence, Leiden, Los Alamos, Norman, Oak Ridge, Palo Alto, Pasadena, Pune, Princeton, Provo, Rolla, Stony Brook, Tempe, Tucson, Uppsala. [How many have you visited? How many have you spoken at?]

Well-known unique names of smaller places, too, need not be followed by a state name: Albuquerque, Altoona, Amarillo, Bar Harbor, Baton Rouge, Bemidji, Cape Town, Castelgondolfo, Chattanooga, Des Moines, Duluth, El Paso, Fresno, Frobisher Bay, Galveston, Kalamazoo, Kokomo, Little Rock, Macon, Mobile, Muncie, Nairobi, Olduvai, Omaha, Oshkosh, Paducah, Perth, Sacramento, Santa Fe, Saskatoon, Schenectady, Spokane, Tallahassee, Terre Haute, Thule, Timbuktu, Tulsa, Walla Walla, Yakima.

Places that are not well-enough known, regardless of how distinctive, must stipulate the state, province, or country. Faaa, Iquique, Kamloops, Kano, Pismo Beach. [How many of those can you place?] When in doubt, add the state or country name.

When ambiguous, stipulate the state or country name: Alexandria, Athens, Austin, Berlin, Cambridge, Hyderabad, Kansas City, London, Macedonia, Manchester, Moscow, Oakland, Oxford, Peoria, Portland, Rochester, San Jose, Santiago, Springfield, Valparaiso, Wilmington. [How many of those have you been in 2 of? How many Springfields?]

Universities and other institutions which name their state should avoid repeating the state name after the city: "University of Oklahoma, Norman"; we don't need to say "Norman, Oklahoma" because we just said "Oklahoma".

For hyphenation at line breaks, the upper fragment of the word has to be pronounced pretty close to the way it is in the whole word. Fragments that are pronounced differently cause discordance in the reader, badly interrupting the content.

Usually capitalized, when meant as names of major, important fields: Science, Nature.

Usually capitalized, when meant as names of specific celestial places: Moon, Earth, Sun, Universe. Earth is the proper name of this planet, not merely a handful of dirt. Capitalize it the same way you must capitalize Venus and Mars, the planets on either side of it. I'm an astronomer so I can state that authoritatively. Lower-casing the name of this planet just because it's the home of the Chicago Manual of Style is a great insult to the 6 billion humans here, including all of our customers, most of whom have grown rather fond of Earth.

Picture-rich, ad-rich websites

© Norman Sperling, March 13, 2011

Setting up this blog not only lets me give my take on various issues, it lets me air a 30-year accumulation of writings that should still be read. Search engines find them for readers who are interested in their topics. Otherwise, they'll turn up only rarely when someone digs through the old magazines they originally appeared in. Sure enough, the "hit-counter" shows that my old essays already have hundreds of hits, and while some of those are from the spiders that crawl the web to construct the search engines, I'm confident that quite a lot are from real humans who read and consider my writings.

In addition to writing those essays, I've spent decades taking pictures, largely of Science-related scenes. A few of my photos have artistic merit, many have scientific value, and a lot could help teachers teach. For now, however, my pictures sit in their binders, dark and silent, helping nobody.

Not just me! My friend Carl photographs sundials and sky phenomena. My friend John photographs celestial objects. My artist-friend Guy draws and paints beautiful and useful perspectives. My late friend Lu took hundreds of the best sunset pictures I know - where are they now? My late friend Carter photographed tens of thousands of great astronomical scenes, a trove too big for his heirs to organize yet. Thousands and thousands of people have such troves of useful pictures sitting unused.

Here's what we should do:

"Don't Try This in High School"

© Norman Sperling, March 8, 2011; updated May 10, 2011
JIR's newest anthology (our 12th!) selects articles for sharp, science-minded high school students.

* paperback
* ISBN 0-913399-12-4
* ISBN 13: 978-0-913399-12-5
* 8.375 x 5.375 x 0.52 inches
* 10.85 ounces = 307 grams
* 222 pages
* $19.95
* Orders received by May 20, 2011: $14.95
* publication May 2011

Over 3/4 of JIR articles assume longer life-experiences, or higher scientific education, than high school. So we have very few high school subscribers. But over the decades we have published more than enough articles to occupy ... amuse ... and captivate high schoolers. Give them this book:
* for holidays, birthdays, graduation
* to tide them over a long trip or a boring recuperation
* and to encourage thinking and laughing at the same time.

To sample the flavor, here are a few of the topics:

Yo Mama jokes
Physicist MacDonald's Farm
Watched pot never boils

Chocolate cake
Mannekin molecules

Frog dissection
Budgies as weapons
Insect rights

Even prime numbers
The largest integer
The Perpendicularogram
Rebuttal to Multiplication

Word Play:
Suplurals and zero-order terms
Crossword puzzle from Hell

Nature versus Nurture:
Color discrimination
Triplets raised apart

Rock - Paper - Scissors
Coin stacking
Ben Franklin was twins
Marmite® versus Vegemite®
Deep space hand salutes
Good Deeds
and several cool songs

If you assemble a kit to give along with the book, include:
* Mentos®
* Tootsie® pops
* sand
* cat hair
* jelly
* and Jell-O®
Yes, a lot of articles are really sweet.

The imaginary invisible companion described in one article is supplied free with the book.

Don't Try This in High School has only a few molecules of overlap with our other current anthology, This Book Warps Space and Time, published by Andrews McMeel. Warps Space selects short, quick, inoffensive, and easy items. Don't Try This includes much longer articles, assumes understanding high school science courses, and - appealing to high schoolers - can't be totally inoffensive. But people who like either, and want more, should dive right into the other.


Dewey: 502.07 science humor
Library of Congress: Q167 science humor
British Library: Q167 science humour
Anatomy: humerus
Biochemistry: hydrocarbon/polymer
Boffin: proto
Dental: nitrous oxide
Emoticon: 8-D
Epidemiology: highly infectious
Gilbert & Sullivan: Major General
Geek: chic
Initialism: ROFLMAO
Latlong: -122+37
Lux: brilliant, sparkling
Madoff: +0.104i
Nerd: pride
Oceanography: dry
Ottewell: 8 3/8 inches
Stratigraphy: Upper Anthropocene
Trigonometry: tangents
Zoology: owl/hyena

Now is the Time to Expand the Budget ... of Paradoxes

© Norman Sperling, February 19, 2011

While the Skeptics' movement, as official organizations of people, only dates from the 1970s, there have been skeptics of pseudoscience for hundreds of years. One of the most interesting was a prickly Victorian named Augustus De Morgan.

De Morgan responded tartly in the Athenaeum magazine to assorted balderdash he read in a wide variety of books, and to letters which people sent him. His writings for the Athenaeum were rather like those of some bloggers today. He had a short fuse. Politeness was not a priority.

After he died, his widow published De Morgan's ripostes as one of the first Skeptics' books, A Budget of Paradoxes. I treasure my copy of the second edition, published in 2 volumes in 1915.

I got them from the estate of Joe Ashbrook, editor of Sky & Telescope magazine. Joe's signature inside the front cover says he bought it on June 24, 1935, when the book was 20 years old, and Joe was 17. Over the rest of his career he wrote a great many interesting notes in it. Joe especially used the book's many short biographies; back then, we didn't have the research resources we have now.

But the Budget only publishes De Morgan's retorts. The first half of each dialog isn't there, and can only partly be inferred from what is. Back when De Morgan wrote, and when the Budget was published, there was a perfect reason for that: the copyrights to the other side of the dialog didn't belong to De Morgan, and the writers were usually hostile to him.

Now those copyrights have long expired. And now a huge amount of Victorian text is on-line and otherwise more accessible.

So now that it is possible, somebody should put together the complete version: the claims as well as the disproofs, the bunk as well as the debunk.

It could be published in electronic formats. It could also be printed-on-demand so no publisher has to bet how many others will want to buy a copy, after I buy the first one.

What similar worthy projects, never done before, are now doable?

First Editions Are Different

© Norman Sperling, February 13, 2011

A big antiquarian book fair was just held in San Francisco. It seems that books are not going out of style, and old books keep climbing in value.

You probably know famous old Science books from recent paperback nth-editions. You know how important the authors, and the books, were. You may even have read the books.

That would tell you what an author said ... but not with the same impression that the original book gave to its original readers. The real first edition is different.

It's clothbound, not paperback. It's a quality production job that feels substantial. The first edition's cover and frontispiece don't depict the author full of age and honor and glory, because he wasn't yet. When the first edition got to the readers, the author was rather young, no hero, not particularly well known, and hadn't been glorified at all. And the book therefore looks like it: the author's name is not as big and bold as the title. The subtitle plays an important persuasive role.

When important Science books get published, the authors are full of hope, but the publishers, who have actual money at risk, are full of fear. So most first editions have short press runs to reduce the risk of warehousing unsold leftovers. Therefore, with such a tiny supply of first editions, if a book becomes famous, demand can drive prices very high. I've been collecting old Science books for decades but only have a few important first editions.

Compare first editions to later editions. By the time those were printed, the authors and publishers knew that they'd sell a lot, so the press runs were much longer. The persuasive roles of the binding, the title, the subtitle, the author's name, and the frontispiece, all changed from the first edition. Of course the contents are updated and enriched, too.

Demand can continue for decades after the book is out-of-date, and even after the author dies. Degenerate late editions look different, and may persist as volumes in big series of "important books", with muddier and muddier type as the years drag on. Publishers of even-later paperbacks assume you already know the contents are important. The Huntington Library in San Marino, California, illustrates this with a long shelf with over 100 editions of Darwin's On The Origin of Species.

If you're interested in an old Science book mostly for its contents, a reprint or a low-price late edition serves perfectly well. The bulk of my library is that way. But the originals certainly tell a different story!

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

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