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

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

Welcome

Welcome to "Everything in the Universe", my blog on Science, Nature, and the Public. I often explore their intertwinings. New posts should appear
roughly weekly, so if you want to check regularly for new items, every Monday or Tuesday you ought to find something.

I don't try to be literary, but I do think before I write, and write only when I have something to say. When news spurs a reaction, mine aren't the
fastest knee-jerk comments, they're more often a considered reflection.

Some entries are full-blown essays, others are ideas that can be presented briefly. I don't yak and I don't blather. When I don't have anything to
say, I don't say it. If my message needs 2 paragraphs, you don’t have to slog through 10 paragraphs to get to it. I try to get things right.

Please also enjoy my previously-published articles posted here.

Comments and suggestions are welcome: eMail me at normsperling [at] gmail.com. I read them all, but don't always post them. To prevent descent into
harsh put-downs, political stabbings, rancor, advertising, and irrelevancy, I squelch those.

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.

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.

San Mateo Recommendations

Norman Sperling, August 27, 2012

In my dozen years in San Mateo, I've encountered a lot of excellent people, places, and enterprises. Here are some I recommend:

Jeff Gilbert, Principal, and most of the faculty and staff of Hillsdale High School, 3115 Del Monte Street. When we first got to know Hillsdale High, their reputation and enrollment had sagged. By paying extra attention to students, and keeping them from falling anonymously through cracks, the school has earned favorable attention. Hillsdale is on its way up, in scores, in accomplishments, and in morale. Enrollment is bursting. In a lot of ways, they do things very well. Granted, they are part of a bureaucracy, they are obligated to do some stupid things, and not every employee is excellent, but our overall experiences there were very strongly positive and I enthusiastically recommend Hillsdale High. 650-558-2699, www.hhs.schoolloop.com/ .

Genella Williamson, Realtor. She helped us buy our home in 2000, kept in touch, and is masterminding the complex preparations to sell it. She is exercising a lot of the best connections with the best service people. She understands details and practicalities, and talks to a very wide variety of people on their own terms. Alain Pinel Realtors, 2930 Woodside Road, Woodside. 650-529-1111, genella@me.com .

Mike Bruno and staff, Cal-West Home Loans, 569 Laurel Street, San Carlos. I didn't fit a bank's cookie-cutter mold. Mike Bruno treated me like an actual human, and arranged a mortgage that really worked. His office staff are excellent people. 650-591-7321.

Steve Dwyer, expert handyman, especially with electric things. stevendwyer@yahoo.com .

Yokto Subroto and staff, Copyman of Belmont, 740 El Camino Real, Belmont. Copying and Printing. They take the care to get it right. I switched JIR from a major industrial printer that got careless, to Yokto, and everything has been perfect since. Well, the printing aspects are perfect; it's still my editing and proofreading, so a few errors do creep in. 650-591-9893, yokto@mycopyman.com .

Mark Dahl's UPS Store (Mail Boxes Etc.) 7 West 41st Avenue. They take the care to get everything right, so every package makes it. They recheck sealing, verify every item on the waybill. Over the years I've shipped hundreds of packages there, and occasionally used their notary service, always with perfect satisfaction. 650-571-9089, store2152@theupsstore.com .

Sean Hudson, Hector Diaz, and staff, Hudson Automotive Repair, 186 South Blvd. Great expertise in car service. They take care in examining things. They clearly spell out all the options. They accept my choices of options, even when they recommend others. Exacting work done right. Also, the cleanest car-service business I ever saw. 650-344-4800.

Letty's Affordable Hair Care, 14 24th Avenue. Letty is the only barber I found who's willing to cut my hair the way I want, instead of her own way. 650-574-1196.

The Peninsula Library System has wonderful variety among its branches, and the computer catalog is very handy to use. www.plsinfo.org .

Both Trader Joe's in San Mateo have excellent, helpful staffs as well as distinctive groceries.

Rip Van Winkle Meets 2012 Observers

© Norman Sperling, August 21, 2012

For the first time in many years, I attended a major, many-night-long star party. Hundreds of amateur skywatchers set up their telescopes and auxiliaries for nights of dark-sky observing at the Oregon Star Party, east of Prineville.

Their standard array is far more advanced than I remember from 30 or 40 years ago.

It starts on a ground-cloth: a tarp or a sheet or a tablecloth. Some are thin carpeting. Light-colored carpeting would make it easier to find things in the dark. Decades ago we set up in grass, and wasted a lot of time hunting important little things we dropped.

The telescope and several auxiliaries now consume so much electricity that observers lug out a battery, such as a small car would use. Wires from the battery to the equipment are sometimes neatly tied, sometimes run hazardously wild. Sometimes the battery tucks under the scope, inside a tripod leg. Decades ago very few observers had separate batteries, some tapped their car batteries, and most didn't use any electricity.

Tote boxes and padded equipment safes often sport custom-cutouts for specific eyepieces, et al. Most sites had 2 or 3 boxes and some had more. Decades ago observers had a lot fewer eyepieces, and all of those were much smaller than today's huge, massive marvels. So one simple container was all anyone needed.

Almost every site has a folding table or 2. Portable tables have been reinvented, with many patterns and sizes available from discount stores and outdoor outfitters. Some have roll-up table tops. Since the tables carry little more than laptop computers, atlases, and notebooks, light-duty hardware is OK, verging on flimsy. Decades ago the few who brought tables used card tables. We spread atlases out on car hoods and trunks, which were more horizontal then.

Everyone uses folding chairs. These, too, have been reinvented in profuse variety. Decades ago the only types had a flip-down seat as can still be found in schools and churches, and plastic-webbed aluminum-tube lawn chairs.

Tall Dobsonians became popular in the 1970s, and used the teetery ladders of those times. Now far more common, they use newer ladders with safer, wide-splayed feet.

I saw a few "anti-gravity" chairs for binocular use and meteor watching. Decades ago we had plastic-webbed, aluminum-tube chaise lounges.

Everything is carefully folded or furled to fit their vehicle ... or, the vehicle is chosen because it can hold the owner's full set. I remember marveling at how much more a squarish van held than a conventional station wagon. Now, vehicles come in so many configurations that everyone can carry everything they want. A lot of RVs at the star party showed red-light and sealed-window customizations, so many people are very serious about this.

The 2012-era scope site sports a great deal more stuff than its predecessor. The scopes themselves cost a lot more, and so does all the other stuff, and their vehicles. But the expense and the bulk deliver images far surpassing those of olden times, and computer-processed electronic imaging vastly exceeds old film astrophotography. They get what they pay for.

"Education Reform" Without Parent Improvement Won't Help Much

© Norman Sperling August 15, 2012

After 15+ years of parent-teacher meetings, I've attended my last. I've heard what happens, in and around those groups, since before my older boy entered Kindergarten. I've taught K-12, undergrad college students, and a few grad students. I've listened to a whole lot of students at all levels.

The Big Things that are wrong with Education are going to stay wrong. Almost all the "reforms" proposed by politicians, teachers, administrators, scholars, and the public, would accomplish very little. They nibble around the edges of the problems, because current Political Correctness won't let anybody address true and big problems.

That's because by far the biggest influence on how children succeed, and especially on how children fail, is their parents. In my first stint as a teacher, I figured out that almost every student problem I saw was traceable to their parents.

I never found a culturally-acceptable way to influence those parents. Parents are politically untouchable and unmentionable. The school and the government can't tell parents how to raise their children. Most governments, and many schools, are less competent than many parents, and would pick the wrong factors to squeeze parents on.

--==::==--

Since you can't blame children for acting like children, and politically you can't blame parents, the only target left is the schools. Bad choice. Kids can be spectacularly unresponsive or contrary. A whole lot of students don't do their homework. Schools can grade them accordingly, but without parent support, that accomplishes nothing. So schools conduct class as if that was the place to do what ought to be homework. Without parents scrupulously, patiently, and methodically helping students do every assignment, the kids drift, and the school cannot accomplish much.

Most teachers enter the profession because they want to teach. Most leave because of burnout. Teaching is extremely frustrating, and results from students just not doing what they're taught. That results from parents just not helping the students learn. To improve teaching, reduce teachers' frustrations.

--==::==--

At this point, insert your favorite litany of why parents are overburdened and overmatched and just can't: working too long hours, poorly educated themselves, not knowing enough English ... . Get real: add alcohol, and drugs, and temper, and selfishness, and neglect.

Student failure isn't rooted in poverty: I often encounter successful people who rose from poverty. They almost always tell of a strong adult who helped them learn (most often, their mother). That's what it takes, and the other factors are minor.

Wealth doesn't assure success: I've encountered many people who accomplish little despite prosperous starts.

Working too-long hours is a bad choice. Drop the worst part-time job. Use the liberated hours to help the children. They'll gain much more from the attention than they'll lose from the dollars. I've never heard an adult criticize their own parents for not having more money, but I often hear regrets that their parents didn't pay enough attention to them.

--==::==--

The PTAs and PTSOs I've been in are full of parents who pay a lot of attention. Their students do relatively well. They have relatively few problems. But the organization fritters a lot of effort.

From students and sometimes parents, I hear of certain students who show occasional sparks. They have ability, and decent minds. But they're mired in unsupportive families, do-nothing mentalities, and sometimes gangs. I think that a few percent of the student population can be identified as slackers who might catch on. Scuttlebutt can identify such people, so the administration doesn't have to. Individual parents in the PTSO could reach out to those students, and where possible, their families. Incorporate them as much as practical in some patterns of success: bring 1 or 2 along on cultural trips. Include 1 or 2 in study sessions. Include 1 or 2 in activities ("hey, could you please pitch in on stage crew? It's fun, and we sure need your help.") If the involved parents at my kids' high school privately targeted 20 such kids a year to draw in, maybe half would "take". Changing 10 F-and-D students into B-and-A students, per year, would raise the school's academic numbers at least as much as most traditional proposals.

I've also noticed repeatedly that kids hear what they're told even if they don't react immediately. It may take years, but some lessons do eventually click. So some students who don't respond right away will benefit eventually.

While I can spot what needs to be done, I'm not very good at doing most of it myself. We did invite a wide variety of kids to join us at baseball games and museums and other jaunts. We did provide some support for neglected kids (especially rides, food, and a few sleepovers).

I could have done more. Maybe I could have learned how to drop some hints with other parents. Maybe I could have included kids more. But I was always so preoccupied just minding my own kids.

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

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