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Norman Sperling
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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.

Expelling Cheaters

Norman Sperling, in Teaching&, Sonoma State University, April 1989, p3.

I used to be plagued by cheaters in my large Astronomy 100 sections, and have evolved mechanisms to minimize it.

The California State University system has a policy on cheating. The part of Title 5 of the State Code that is reprinted in every student's catalog specifies that the penalty for cheating is expulsion from the CSU system! That constitutes abundant warning to students, as well as full definition of sanctions.

Hardly any professors file such charges. Virtually all handle cheating at a much lower level – making cheaters re-do the offending test or paper, or giving an F for that paper. A few give an F for the course. But so few file campus-level charges that, when I did so a few years ago, administrators had to look up the procedure.

From the cheater's viewpoint, course-level sanctions are trivial. Cheaters typically feel that they're going to do poorly on that paper anyway, so they have nothing to lose. At worst, if caught, they do indeed flunk it. Even if the penalty is an F in the course, the Transcript just shows failure, not cause. Thus, faculty might very well have caught your cheaters before. How could you tell? Those professors' policies taught the students that they can keep cheating with near-impunity.

Notice the explicit warning from my syllabus:
"Regardless of anything you may have gotten away with elsewhere, ANY cheating or plagiarism in my class will be prosecuted to the FULL extent permissible. Cheating and plagiarism are offenses against the CSU system, punishable by expulsion from the CSU system. Most of my students work hard for their grades, and I vigorously defend the value of their earned credit. In recent terms I have detected several different types of cheating, and will absolutely not tolerate it. As far as I know, no student I've caught is in the CSU system any more."

I read this out loud on the first day, in a tone leaving no doubt. Thus, all students who are tempted to cheat know that I will buck for expulsion when I catch them. When I catch a cheater, I do indeed file the strongest case I can with the administration, invariable arguing for expulsion. While administrators are very reluctant to expel, they frequently agree to suspend. I can tell a class that I intend to do this, with a perfectly straight face, that I indeed do this, with no sympathy extended after the infraction. This, and only this, practice teaches students that we mean what we say, and that there is an unacceptable penalty for cheating, making the gamble undesirable.

Incidents of cheating have dropped precipitously in my classes. When I first started including that paragraph, they dropped to about a case a year. And since I began reading it aloud, with feeling, in the first session, I have had just one case – a student who hadn't been there the first day. From this, I conclude that following state law, and saying so clearly, virtually eliminates cheating. Lesser practices merely school cheaters in becoming the next generation of embezzlers and the like.

I therefore urge all instructors to absolutely renounce all sympathy for cheaters, to prosecute every case and buck for expulsion, and to sincerely promise this to every class, unmistakably, both in writing and orally. It will tell the vast majority of our students that we defend hard-earned credit, that we mean what we say, and that college is for people who want to learn. And it will reduce cheating to very low levels.

The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading

by Ian Rowland. 3rd edition, 2002. 237 pages. Published by the author exclusively through his website, www.ianrowland.com. The new 4th edition: £28 plus postage from England.
Reviewed by Norman Sperling, JIR vol. 50, no. 3, 2007, p30.

Ian Rowland knows what you're thinking. Now that I've read his book, so do I.
Ian Rowland is a British magician who has perfected the art of "Cold Reading" to tell clients amazing things.
Cold readings are also used in tarot, astrology, palmistry, graphology, clairvoyance, mediumship, psychometry, crystal balls, and auras. The clients are usually surprised at how accurate the readings are. Readings work largely because most people share the same kinds of experiences, including the same problems. If you bring up a characteristic that almost everybody has to some degree, and scrupulously don't say how much the subject has of it, the claim rings true.
Rowland has learned the common thoughts of common people. I noticed that many of my own thoughts are so conventional that I must be pretty "normal", despite what some people say.
I got tuned in to this situation by fighting astrology. Horoscope writers spin lots of statements that are true for most people most of the time. Therefore, readers think their horoscopes are "right!", and credit astrology, rather than psychology, with the "hits".
Till recently, however, the only compilation of cold readings that I could find was the article, "Cold Reading": How to Convince Strangers that You Know All About Them, by Ray Hyman in The Zetetic (which later became Skeptical Inquirer), vol. I, no. 2, Spring/Summer 1977, pp 18-37. The paragraphs there descended from astrological horoscopes. I wanted better, more complete information. I knew there had to be more, but I couldn't find it.
Looking up "cold reading" sent me down some wrong alleys. For example, the term is also used for the quite different skill of narrators and actors who read a script for the first time – "cold".
Then, I heard about the first edition of this book, which was published in 1998. But it's not available in stores, and no library I use – including some major academic research libraries – has a copy. The price tag gave me second thoughts, so I put it off.
Finally I decided to buy it. It was already in its third edition, after only 5 years! The exclusive source is the author's website. This keeps control – and profits, and customer contact – away from distributors who don't care enough about the book. Rowland uses a clever security method to take credit cards, so I committed to the full retail price, plus intercontinental postage, totaling $64.61. Before I could even start worrying about the book getting lost in the mail, it arrived in perfect condition.
What a gem! This book is a joy to read, a splendid blend of human insight and practical showmanship. It includes everything I was thinking of, tons more that hadn't occurred to me, provides huge resources, and stays interesting the whole time. I read it cover-to-cover.
The most common themes of readings are love and money. Other popular topics include career, health, travel, education, and ambitions. A person not concerned with those would be rare indeed.
The heart of the book is the 119-page unit explaining how cold reading works. It covers the setup, principal themes, elements of the reading, the win-win game, and presentation points. Laced with revealing examples and entertaining anecdotes, it explains the theory and practice behind each point.
One of the book's many delights is the titling of the subsections. Here is a sampler:
Fine Flattery
Sugar Lumps
Barnum Statements
The Fuzzy Fact
The Opposites Game
The Jargon Blitz
The Vanishing Negative
Pollyanna Pearls
The Neverwas Prediction
I am wrong now, but I will be right soon
Reprising with gold paint
New in this edition are applications of cold reading to sales, romance, and interrogating criminals. Rowland comments on the ethics and legality involved, but may not always be heeded.
The author has some quirks that are excusable, and arguably good. He puts into print the time-honored speaker's maxim of "tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them." Each segment's introduction clarifies what it is about and where it fits into the larger scheme. Each segment ends by saying some version of "this ends the segment on such-and-such, the fourth of seven elements of thus-and-so." The phrasing is stilted, but it's brief and keeps the logical structure obvious.
The book is so meticulously proofread that I found only 2 typos, both trivial, on pages 123 and 125.
Though the contents are witty and wonderful, the physical production of the book shows some choices that I wouldn't have made. I eMailed Rowland about them, and got his reasoning, but I still don't agree.
Throughout the book, most places that need a long "dash" use a short "hyphen" instead. That is just plain wrong.
The paperback format and binding are conventional and appropriate. The paper is certainly opaque, a helpful characteristic which Rowland wanted. But the paper is much heavier than it needs to be. It's also very glossy, which gives awkward, annoying reflections from lighting in some rooms. Lighter, matte-finish book paper would feel more appropriate, be easier to read, and probably cost the publisher less.
The author likes the look of the "Souvenir" type font he used. But it is not the most readable. When I publish a book, I really want people to read it, so I use the most-readable fonts – typically "book" types like Bookman and Century Schoolbook. They aren't as condensed as Times, nor as artsy as Souvenir – but they read better, and that's what I want most. I often felt this book's lower readability slowed me down, when the actual wording would have let me go faster.
OK, if you have to read slower, consider it "savoring". This is certainly a delicious book!

Sperling's 8-Second Law: All Total Solar Eclipses Last 8 Seconds

© 1980 Norman Sperling. Excerpted from What Your Astronomy Textbook Won't Tell You, 0-913399-04-3. First published in Astronomy magazine, vol. 8, no. 8, August 1980, 24-25.

Everyone who sees a total solar eclipse remembers it forever. It overwhelms the senses … and the soul as well – the curdling doom of the onrushing umbra, the otherworldly pink prominences, the ethereal pearly corona. And, incredibly soon, totality terminates.

Then it hits you: "That was supposed to last a few minutes – but that couldn't have been true. It only seemed to last 8 seconds!"

This effect frustrated my first 4 eclipses, and most fellow eclipse fanatics assure me they've been bothered by it, too. Yet tape recordings, videos, and the whole edifice of celestial mechanics all claim that it did last the full, advertised 2 to 7 minutes – to within a few seconds, that's what really happened.

Where did all that precious time get lost?

Unlearning, Degrees of Belief, and Feng Shui

Norman Sperling, BASIS, vol. 17, no. 6, March 1999, p3-4.

Most people know the detailed "ifs, ands, and buts" of their own specialties. To learn them often requires un-learning the simplifications of "common knowledge" and "conventional wisdom". Outside their specialties, however, most people don't know any better than to accept oversimplifications. So do most leaders, confronted by problems they are not expert in, and so do most mass media. And so do skeptics, though we often feel worse when we learn better.

The oversimplifications we learn abound with boundaries, but reality turns out to be much more muddled. This is true for countries, for languages, and for "mystical beliefs".

National Boundaries

Maps often portray national boundaries as a sharp change from one solid color to a contrasting one. That gives the false impression that the area all in one solid color is all one uniform place, changing abruptly at the boundary to a contrasting uniform place. Before the Soviet Union broke up, most Westerners considered "Russian" and "Soviet" to be synonyms, and many were surprised when the flow of events featured the national identities of Lithuania, Uzbekistan, Chechnya, and others.

I learned another dimension from Dr. A. Florsch, who gave me a grand tour of Strasbourg Observatory. As we gazed toward the nearby Rhine River, he told me "I am a Frenchman. My father was a German. His father was a Frenchman, and his father was a German. And we have never moved!"

Languages and Dialects

Language, too, is much more varied than generally appreciated. I was taught that "in Germany, they speak German". That gave me the false impressions that "Germany" is one uniform place and "German" is one uniform language. I later learned that there are not only different accents and regional preferences, but also local dialects which are unintelligible to speakers of the nationwide version. In Newsweek I read a linguist's comment that "a language is a dialect with an army." Most often, the dialect of the capital becomes the "national language", especially through radio and television.

The same certainly applies in China. My ex grew up speaking Yantai dialect. It's a version of Mandarin which is not intelligible to people who only know Beijing dialect. Cantonese, in 2 southern provinces where many Chinese in America originated, is also not intelligible to Beijing or Yantai or dozens of other Chinese dialects. Most Mainland Chinese can now understand Beijing Mandarin, though they continue to speak their local tongue.

Feng Shui

Before I married a Chinese woman, visited plain people in China (in contrast to just tourist sites), and talked so often with Chinese people in America, I would have bought the tone of some skeptics' rants against "feng shui" (pronounced "fung shway"). That is reported as the mystical belief that buildings and their furnishings must be arranged in certain ways for good luck, and certain other arrangements must be avoided to fend off bad luck. This gives the false impression that "feng shui" is a uniform belief, and that all Chinese swallow it whole. Reality is much more varied.

Yes, there are highly-respected people "proficient" in feng shui. And, yes, there are some users who "believe" their dictates. But the vast majority of practitioners and users operate much more casually. Hardly anyone concentrates on feng shui. For most, it is little more than "that chair will look good over there".

It's hardly different from the interior design practice of one of our neighbors. When she says "that chair will look good over there", clients take her advice. They don't call her mystical, but they can't explain her skill, either.

It is the varying degrees that most media, politicians, and skeptics miss. From my visits and conversations I have learned that China is a country with enormous variety in food, language, and scenery, and also enormous variety in beliefs, intensities of beliefs, and local leadership. I've learned that, since the central government relaxed its grip, when you hear "China cracked down on X", it really means that "One Chinese politician cracked down on X, but outside his influence, people generally went about their business as usual." And when you hear some skeptics say that "Chinese believe Y", interpret that as "Some Chinese believe Y, and many less so, and others not at all, and some contrariwise."

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

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