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

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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.

Public Policy

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.

2-Name Roads

© Norman Sperling, August 31, 2014

Until the last couple decades, a road named for somebody would simply bear their last name. America is full of these roads and always will be.

America now names streets for so many different people that the surname alone no longer suffices. A whole lot of recent roads carry a first name as well, like “Jerry Jackson Road” so no one will think it honors Andrew or Michael or Jesse. This even applies to rare surnames. Other family members live nearby, so a rare surname may not be unique locally.

So far, almost all the surnames originate in Europe. Almost all given names are masculine. American society has opened up a great deal in recent decades, so I predict that the careers-worth of accomplishments that lead to honorific naming will soon recognize more women and non-European surnames.

Don’t Tell Me What the Speed Limit Isn’t

© Norman Sperling, July 24, 2014

Yesterday again I drove past a sign that said “End 35 mph speed limit”. I don’t care what the speed limit *isn’t*. I care what the speed limit *is*.

I can’t be sure that the limit is now higher; I’ve seen plenty of places that look like high-speed areas but are posted much lower. I just have to guess, and the only actual number I know is what they definitely say is wrong: the former limit. That’s tantamount to the authorities sticking their tongues out at drivers, “nyaah nyaah, bet you can’t guess what we’ll ticket you for.”

Any place posted with an “end speed limit” sign ought to be judged a “free speeding” zone because the driver has no realistic way to know the limit, and the authorities just pointedly refused to tell.

Some realistic, enlightened judge ought to void all speeding tickets issued in any such place and require correct speed limit signs. Hold in contempt any public official who doesn’t comply.

Informative signs should not cost one penny more than the useless signs. The signs are the same size and color and should cost the same to print. Changing them would cost little, and of course we should have avoided the cost of making the useless ones in the first place. Charge that to the people who caused those useless signs. I suspect they were lawyers.

Historic Rugby, Tennessee

© Norman Sperling, visited April 13, 2014

This village sprouted about 1880 because British author Thomas Hughes (“Tom Brown’s School Days”) sought a fresh-start opportunity for sons of British aristocracy. Only the first son inherited the big estate, and the others had to find something else to do.

This area of Tennessee is indeed lovely, though the soil is shallow. It’s memorably hot in summer and cold in winter.

Hughes and his colonists built Victorian homes and business and public buildings. There isn’t much gingerbread, but some decoration on top of the Victorian layout. A great deal has been restored, and some really nice original furnishings and structures remain.

The historic district does a lot right. A lot of buildings are publicly owned, the whole area is design-protected, there’s good signage, a good map, a nature trail, a video, a guided tour. They host an event every month. The library has all its thousands of original books from the late 1800s. New homes are permitted, but only on the original street plan, and only with compatible design. A few of those sport more gingerbread.

But they could use a lot bigger budget than they have. Big grants seem not to be actively sought. And many money-earning modes aren’t thought of. They could rent selected rare books and periodicals. They could host steampunk conventions, with photographers in the most likely settings with professional lighting already set up, so costumed fans can have their pictures taken really well in a lot of authentic Victorian settings. They could put together a traveling exhibit … keeping it free would encourage wider circulation as an advertisement for tourism. Not to mention using the whole town as a movie set.

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?

Safety With Style

© Norman Sperling, February 20, 2014

We all appreciate the safety advantage of highly-reflective dayglo-type vests and such. They really do make their wearers more visible, and more noticeable to people not specifically seeking them. I’m confident that that clothing helps safety.

Many people who aren’t required to wear them use them anyway, such as my fellow bicyclists. We want maximum visibility to drivers who aren’t always mindful of bike riders.

But that clothing shouldn’t be so industrially-ugly! The current offerings mostly use straight lines that could just as easily outline the girders of a building. They look as if their specifications were written by a mechanic.

Hand the same materials to clothing designers and see what they come up with. It has to be catchy for safety, so about the same amount of dayglo-type fabric should be exposed. But areas might get enhanced with thin dark borders. And the shapes could take on many stylish flights of fancy and art - look at what they do with spandex for bikers.

I don’t see why safety vests can’t be made good-looking as well as functional. That would lure more people to use them more often, improving safety. And it should help workers who are obligated to use them do so less grudgingly.

Uncertainty Done Right

(c) Norman Sperling, January 21, 2014

We astronomers KNEW we didn't know what Comet ISON was going to do. We knew its brightness was extremely unpredictable. We knew that fizzling was one major possibility.

This time, as if in a unified front, practically all astronomers told practically all media the same thing. They told it so emphatically and so uniformly that the media had no choice but to tell that to the public, though the media strongly prefer concrete certainties. The public was well served.

So this time there's no backlash against Science, no criticism, praise for the correctness, and praise for the videos and graphics.

What a stunning contrast to the Kohoutek debacle of 1973. Initial computations - wildly optimistic - predicted brilliance, which the media trumpeted. So telescope companies ramped up production, especially because maximum brightness coincided with the holiday season. The media largely ignored later cautions, and the comet's dimness left Science seeming "wrong", and companies with expensive warehouses full of every scope they expected to sell for the next *year*.

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

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