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Norman Sperling
2625 Alcatraz Avenue #235
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Public Policy

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*.

Long Lines and Gotchas

©Norman Sperling, August 4, 2013

Several times I’ve waited in long slow lines at some government facility, only to learn at the front that they consider the area to be a security zone so I have to lose my little pocket knife. And there’s no locker just outside to stow it in. And my turn for the thing I want will take another x hours. And I can’t leave the area without forfeiting my place and having to start over.

What really annoys me is the blatant lack of communication. Electronic signs could be posted along the line, clear to the far end, telling the terms and the waiting times. The same information could be posted online for the hordes who now use smartphones. A whole lot of people would be able to handle the situation a whole lot better.

Mackinac Island

(c) Norman Sperling
visited July 11, 2013

A wonderful way to spend a day! The weather was perfect. The little island is famous for banning motor vehicles (since 1898!). It has other quaintnesses and individualities too.

I took the ferry from St. Ignace. I was looking forward to the lack of cars, but my mind’s ear extrapolated that into a near-silence. Not quite quiet. Lawn mowers were in full throttle, ferry boats came and went frequently, and noisy airplanes landed at the airport. But all that is only in town. Away, on the bike loop, silence is golden. The world sure could use a lot more havens like this.

This island was the site of a bad injury with fortunate consequences. An unlucky man, Alexis St. Martin, was shot, leaving a hole from his stomach to the outside, The fort surgeon, the only doctor around, William Beaumont, brought him back to health, and then researched digestion, running a whole lot of experiments over many years with this unfortunate victim. He wrote a book describing his findings about digestion, many results of which advanced anatomical understanding.

I expected all those horses, but had forgotten how bad their manure smells. Those droppings litter the town. Outside of town, on the 8-mile-long shoreline loop road, I only noticed about 2 piles per mile. The book “The Good Old Days: They Were Terrible” by Otto Bettman points out the selective blindness of nostalgia. Horses were hardly a great mode, and as soon as people had a viable alternative, they stopped using their horses.

Bicycles are Mackinac Island’s major mode by far. Many visitors bring their own, but most rent from numerous shops near the ferry slips. Rental bikes include a lot of retro-style cruisers, and a huge number of tandems for couples and parent/child pairs. No racers. My Brompton got less attention than usual for such an odd folder. I rode the entire circumferential road, stopping to take in sights and to snack. There are a few gentle rises but the road is almost all flat and extremely easy to bike. The route is very peaceful and scenic, a joy to stroll through. As long as I was on my bike, things were fine. But I was nervous every time I had to chain it to a stand. A local policeman said they had 3 or 4 bike thefts a day in tourist season.

Without motor vehicles, porters need some alternative to carry baggage between hotels and ferries. I saw a few improvised wheelbarrows-for-luggage, using bike wheels. Some trikes were clumsily refitted for cargo, and a couple bikes pulled small trailers. What I expected and did NOT see were the many types of cargo and work bikes I saw throughout China. They featured husky frames, huge cargo capacity, and very low gearing. Maybe the hotels just haven’t heard about them.

This island has a thing for cairns. These piles of rocks are found everywhere along the shore where suitable rocks can be found. A lot of angular riprap stabilizes beaches, and those rocks stack very well. My bike map brochure says cairns mark trails, memorialize having been somewhere, or are simply art. No mention of newage hocus pocus. I noticed only a few cairns that I could call artistic. Facilitating and suggesting cairns is another good idea that other locales should adopt.

Up at the fort, built by the British, and then American for a century, seasonal performers ran through a long series of short tours, demonstrations, and narratives. They fired a cannon, shot muskets, sang songs, and told the fort’s story in the fur trade, the War of 1812, and regional development. In most roles, the performers did fine. With musical instruments, the snare drummer was quite adequate, in contrast to the fifer and bugler.

Fudge is the most popular local product, famous for over a century. I bought a slice, and it is indeed very good. It’s also dangerously loaded with lactose from a whole lot of milk and butter.

A great many of the tourists are over 50.

Big Ball of Twine: Cawker City, Kansas

© Norman Sperling, July 6, 2013

On the main street one of the few signs of life is the Ball of Twine, and especially the very clever artworks up and down the block.

I’ll defer to Guinness and Wikipedia to decide which town’s ball of twine really is biggest. This one certainly is awfully big.

Cooler than the twine is the series of paintings. Local artist Cher Olson copied famous paintings, cleverly adding a ball of twine to each.

This could easily adapt to other small attractions. They could be more paintings, or they could be something else -- practically anything, like photoshopping -- that allows for adapting to the local feature subject. Folks are very creative, especially online. Adapting online-style humor to points of civic pride shouldn’t be a problem.

Go for it!

Stick It on a Ridge

© Norman Sperling, April 13, 2013

In lots of places, traffic has a view of a ridge. That’s a fabulous place to stick something with an interesting silhouette. Antique farm equipment looks neat. Try a scarecrow. A sculpture. A cairn. A saguaro. A dramatic tree. Anything that a passing driver can take in with a quick glance – not distracting them for dangerously long.

Seating Should Face the Action

© Norman Sperling, March 22, 2013

Why must seats face orthogonal to the rail instead of the center of attention? Seated down the right field line once, I faced the center field wall. I turned very sharply left to see the diamond. I had an aisle seat so I could stretch my legs in that direction but nobody else around could.

In theaters, I've faced corners of the stage instead of the center.

For concerts, it's not so bad. The angle at which the sound reaches my ears is not a problem.

But facing action is. To watch a performance, seats should face center stage. To watch a baseball game, seats should face the diamond. Football, basketball, soccer, and hockey are different because they range all up and down their field, though they'd probably best face the center. This is another reason that multipurpose stadia aren't a good idea.

Other than swivel seats, has this problem ever been fixed? The tilt of the stands might be very different to face the diamond but I doubt that it would pose construction problems. Spectators would have to turn to watch a homer or a deep fly ball, but the seating structure should allow it to be seen.

Unsafe Safety Requirements: Short Power Cords

© Norman Sperling, October 13, 2012

Kitchen appliances come with absurdly short power cords. They say it's to prevent you from tripping over a longer cord when carrying it.


Short cords would be safe only if people use those appliances within that easy distance of appropriate plugs. But that just plain flat-out does not happen! Hasn't anybody looked at real-life kitchens? Homes and workplaces of all sorts?

People have to use extension cords to reach an outlet. This introduces more unsafe factors. The total length is unlikely to be "just right" and can't be too short, so it is usually too long. The extension cord is easily long enough to trip over. Extension cords are often rated for lower wattage than the appliance uses, risking fire.

So too-short cords breed resentment and frustration, cause further expense for extension cords, and probably induce more danger than they avert.

Instead, use a reel inside the appliance to dispense however much cord is needed. Give it the same kind of spring loading and lock/release used on tape measures. Every cord will be just the right length. For carrying, retract the whole cord back onto its reel. Then unreel the right length for its new position. Cord is cheap, springs are cheap, reels are cheap. The expense of sufficient volume to hold the stuff might be the biggest cost. That should be a good tradeoff for satisfying consumers and increasing true safety.

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.

"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.

Teaching to the Test Kills Your Dog

© Norman Sperling, March 17, 2012

When passing a test makes a big difference, instead of teaching a whole subject and its importance, teachers often focus on "teaching to the test": teaching students to pass the test. If the test accurately represents what it's supposed to, that's close to OK. But tests often don't test what they're supposed to. Sometimes it's a portion of the intended material, in which case the students learn part but not enough to make it all stick together as the intended whole.

And sometimes the test just tests a proxy. The test for protein content of dog food is such a test. It doesn't actually test for protein. Instead, it tests for the amine radical, which is abundant in protein. But that's also found in cheaper substances. Twice now, without looking for it, I've come across instances where the protein test was faked by major, large-scale, planned substitution of harmful, cheap amine-bearing materials.

In the mid-1980s I was told of a dog-food manufacturer which drenched its food in ammonia to pass this test. Ammonia is a smelly poison. The dog food passed the test, though it lacked much protein. Maybe the ammonia dissipated by the time the product got to the dogs, so maybe they weren't poisoned, but they weren't fed the intended, test-certified protein, either.

And in 2007-2008, the big melamine bulk-up turned out to have been deliberate. The "amine" in "melamine" would be measured as if it were an indicator of protein, instead of an indicator of polymer. Melamine is largely inert, which is why it's so popular for dishes. But in doses large enough to substitute for protein, it poisons dogs' kidneys.

Who would do such a thing? One whose ethics see only as far as passing the immediate test, and not as far as the long-range, overall purpose. One who only teaches to the test.

It's way past time to update the protein test.

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

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