© Norman Sperling, July 17, 2012
The vast majority of cars are styled to look fast and strong. A lot of customers seem to want that.
But hardly all. I'm scarcely alone in preferring safety and economy. To stay safe requires NOT using too much speed. To stay economical (and comfortable and eco-friendly) requires low consumption, which implies slow delta-V.
How different are the wind-resistance profiles of a car that runs 2/3 of its mileage <30 mph (and never above 65) compared to a car that runs 2/3 of its mileage >60 mph?
I can't think of a single car marketed for us. (Maybe I just didn't notice them?) One that won't go above 80 mph. One that looks calm, not fast.
And one that won't turn heads. Cars attract attention because they are usually status symbols. But there can be good reasons to avoid attention. Security, certainly. Minimizing traffic stops. Blending into the crowd.
What's the least-catchy color: the least ticketed, least stolen, least burgled? I guess beige. What's the least-catchy shape? The car-maker who offers those will attract the notice of a significant percentage of drivers who don't want to attract notice.
This certainly wouldn't be the first time that car companies missed an important market segment. Luxury SUVs were unknown 25 years ago, with Jeeps and Land Rovers assuming users were rugged back-country outdoorsmen. But the best-furnished Jeep caught on, so somebody made an even classier one. That sold better, so they duded up more and more, and eventually made opulent luxury SUVs. This had been beyond the companies' imagination; the market had to lead them there step by step over many years.
I'm not the only customer who would buy a car closer to my needs, farther from stylists' and corporations' imaginings, if only I could.
© Norman Sperling, July 3, 2012
One of the very few benefits of being near-sighted is that fireworks look bigger and more resplendent. That's because the out-of-focus image spreads out over a lot more cone receptors in the retina.
If you're nearsighted, try watching fireworks without your glasses. You might like the show even more.
© Norman Sperling, May 29, 2012
Comedian Steve Martin wrote a play about how Science and Art approach similar questions from different angles. I saw a community theater production of Picasso at the Lapin Agile: in 1904, young Einstein and Picasso run into one another at a bar. I'd love to see it made into a movie. Our lead article is the script of an epilogue, set in a different bar 40 years later. They still regard space and time from very different angles, but come a bit closer this time. How would they, or current physicists and artists, interact this year? Thanks to David Carlberg for the script.
Our cover article celebrates cryptozoologists' ongoing search for undiscovered or unappreciated hominids. Enjoy this Irish expedition to examine "The Wild Ape-Leprechauns of Borneo". Is the orangutan the strange target, or the leprechaun? We welcome Pandareus von Grundenstein back to our author list.
Entrepreneur/adventurer Richard Branson pulled an April Fool joke by announcing "Virgin Volcanic". His new screw-propeller vehicle would swim through liquid lava to travel from volcano to volcano underground. On the back cover, look for the dramatic embodiment of his motto "screw business as usual".
JIR's decades-long exploration of academe continues with David Burns's grading of exams according to the time students hand them in. I've noticed something along those lines: students with little to say finish early, students with a lot to say need more time to say all that. Meanwhile - and we do mean "mean" - Subhabrata Sanyal attempts to measure the factors that make him cranky.
Cartoon character "Popeye" is so popular that people overlook his obvious physical peculiarities. S. D. Hines examines him medically and finds facial dysmorphism, microophthalmia, distal limb hypertrophy, a mono diet, and intermittent explosive disorder. What other popular characters should be examined?
Jeff Jargon takes aim at genetically-modified foods not by minimizing the differences of those currently on the market, but by exploring future extensions. He offers a pitless cherry, all-white-meat chicken, and (noting the great taste of a bacon cheesburger) a graft/hybrid cow/pig. His "chipoodle", a chihuahua/poodle hybrid, was hailed as "the most nervous, yappy, high-maintenance canine ever conceived."
Hybrid cars obviously combine electric and internal-combustion features. Nancy Niemeyer mixes in the kitchen mixer.
How would a statistician write a dating advertisement? Joeri Smits shows his bid. No word about how well it has worked. How would such an ad be written for other specialists? Like you?
Common basket filters for coffee makers are cheap and ubiquitous. The bottom ones in each stack are also infamous for collapsing. I suspect that's because, the way they're formed in bunches, upper ones have pleats arched in a way that resists collapse. Lower ones have pleats arched so weakly they invite collapse. Danila Oder explores the resulting muddy coffee as "grounds" for murder.
Is it "rocket science" that's so famously difficult? Engineer Rod Hatcher says it's actually "rocket engineering" that's the really hard stuff. I think both sides are right, and making rockets work is still a horrendously complex and difficult accomplishment.
Richard Mead greatly simplifies physicists' ongoing to-do over Higgs Bosons. He spotted 7 of them huddled in a corner of his sock drawer. I hate to think what might lurk in mine.
Other topics include paper-folding, inside-out underwear, famous quotations and who didn't say them, and more goofy-named advisors and web domains.
Establishments mentioned in this issue:
* The Melbourne Institute of Precipitate Isotrophism
* Department of Regression to the Grand Mean
* University of Unreality
* University of Imaginary Numbers
* Alaskan Neurologic Center for Subaqueous Sesquiology
* Polikeness School of Nutritional Sciences
* Denver Nucleic Agency
* Plunder Island Probiotic and Bionutritional Research
* Organization for Useful Cognitive Help (OUCH)
* Bureaucratic Invidious Negative Officialdom (BINGO)
* Acquaintances of Ministerial Informal Governmental Activities (AMIGA)
* Ghastly Repulsive Invidious Non-Governmental Offices (GRINGO)
Journals mentioned in this issue:
* The Journal of Unpleasant Student Experiences
* The Journal of Plant Sociology
* Acta Comic Toxigens
* The Journal of Abnormal Locomotion in Toddlers
* International Journal of Salad Experimentation
and, as unclassifiable as its author:
Director Supreme of the Gene Dream Team
Authors come from Australia, Canada, England, Israel, and Norway, and the American states of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Ohio, Vermont, and Washington.
© Norman Sperling, April 7, 2012
At FogCon last week, I listened to a panel about writers getting rejected. Of course everybody hates rejection, but practically all writers endure a whole lot of it before their stories start getting accepted.
"Rejectomancy" is the writers' art of divining why a story was rejected. The editor doesn't always say, and the reasons given aren't always the whole story.
Some editors, tired of tedious editing, won't correct bad grammar to take a good article. I'm willing to "clean up" an article if I think readers would like it. I'm also willing to format in our admittedly-quirky style, rather than forcing writers to do it just for this one magazine ... which might reject their article anyway.
I asked the writers what a rejection note should say. The responses came fast, furious, and emphatic:
* Tell what would improve it.
* "Do these 3 things and I'll buy it."
* "Please send more", but only if you really mean that.
* Tell them if they're close, even if that makes rejection feel worse.
The most emphatic point, which I really needed to hear: decide FAST. I'm terribly guilty of not getting to submissions. So instead of writing up this blog post right away (I'm also behind in blogging) I'm digging into JIR's undecided submissions. It's pretty easy to recognize the 2/3 of articles that are good for JIR. But now I should explain rejections, with constructive advice. A few are "This isn't Science humor, which is what The Journal of Irreproducible Results is about." The others take some explaining.
If you've submitted something to JIR and I haven't responded, rattle my cage, and I'll get to it really soon. normsperling [at] gmail.com.
© 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.
© 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.
review © Norman Sperling, February 7, 2012
This new book tells nothing new, and offers many examples of no value. Ostensibly celebrating the pirate economy, the author neither self-publishes nor finds street sellers. Instead, he contracts with a name-brand publisher, copyrights his tales of piracy, and repeatedly invalidates his own premises.
The underground and pirate economy is not rising, it's always been around. This "informal economy" is older and far more entrenched than the formal one. In several places the book admits that, but immediately reverts to the fantasy that working "off the books", on the street, on the margins, or not fully licensed, is new, or increasing.
What's newer, and growing far more vigorously, is the formal economy that earns confidence, enforces inspections, builds brands, and does things right. Several times, the narrative brushes up against the roughly-direct relationship between an enterprise's degree of formality (for which the author selects the odd proxies of being licensed, registered, and taxpaying) and its degree of trustworthiness. Trust and confidence are critical in transactions.
That's why customers graduate to more formal levels of the economy as soon as they can. They get better quality and therefore better value: the things they buy are closer to "real" and "working" and "sturdy" and "supported", and therefore worth the higher price. This generates valuable repeat-business, compared to street-hawkers who always need to drum up yet more new customers. Of this, the book gives only the slightest mention.
The author offers several sighs over capitalist misbehavior, while citing far more examples (without sighs) of pirate misbehavior. Almost all the misbehavior is just plain short-sighted: taking an immediate advantage and ignoring its (bigger) long-term consequences. Undermining value, as several chapters on piracy celebrate, undermines confidence. Folks who can't afford the most-trustworthy goods, and therefore take less-trustworthy, discounted street-goods, often live to regret it. Frequently-cheated customers are less eager to buy, which slows the 'speed of money', whose rate tracks the health of economies.
Save your time and money: skip this book. To improve the economy, earn as much confidence as you can (in reality, not just "licenses and registrations"), and do business with others who also earn confidence.
© Norman Sperling, January 25, 2012
Norman W. Edmund founded Edmund Scientific Company on a card table in his home in 1942. When he retired in the mid-1970s, it had over 200 employees. He died at the age of 95 last week in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to which he had retired.
I vividly remember devouring every new issue of the Edmund catalog while I was growing up in the 1950s and '60s. The catalog always had a lot of "tutorial" segments - several paragraphs each, usually with diagrams, so the users could understand the technicalities of the equipment. They weren't particularly slanted toward Edmund products, and they taught a great many people a lot about their hobby and its hardware. Only a few catalogs (like Orion) continue to do that, though it's absolutely the best policy and should be fostered. Tutorials are NOT waste-space, and they foster brand loyalty: I trust the company that makes the effort to tell me the straight information.
I met Norm several times in the 1970s, while I consulted for his son Robert. In those years Norm kept his desk in the main office, kept a bunch of neat science-thingies around, and had appropriate input. But I also sensed that he kept his distance from daily operations, carefully avoiding stepping on toes.
What always impressed me was how nice he was. Plain, no affectations, no flaunting. And he passed all that on to the rest of his family, several of whom I met. They're all nice. They treat people well. They treated me very well. It wasn't just a put-on performance, it was genuine.
To Norman and Robert, "treating people nicely" is business policy as well as personal. While it's true that being nice to people is good customer service and good business, I think they are nice to people simply because they think that is the right way to be. I learned a lot from that.
They didn't outsource service. Callers were transferred to people who knew the technicalities they needed. Customers could get replacements and refunds.
Robert once told me "Customers will always complain. They'll complain about price, or they'll complain about quality. As long as I'm president, they aren't going to complain about quality." Which is to say, the stuff he designed, produced, and marketed would actually work well. And it did. Sure, humans aren't perfect and hardware isn't perfect, but when problems cropped up, the company tried hard to fix them, and usually succeeded.
Norman Edmund was well-respected as a leader in science business, an advocate of science education, a business leader of Greater Philadelphia, an expert fisherman, and a gentleman who "lived long and prospered". I'm really glad I knew him.
© Norman Sperling, January 12, 2012
Computer and software competitors come up with more and more features, but here's one that users would appreciate, that shouldn't be hard, and is decades overdue:
When the user tells the computer to "delete" something, the machine should totally delete it. Not recoverable, not traceable ... not there anymore. At all. Really. That's what most people intend, most of the time, anyway.
I recently read that the only way to completely erase something from a computer is to physically destroy the hard drive, and I think that's contrary to every user's intent. I want to "really delete" stuff, using my judgement. I own the computer, I bought the software, I put stuff on, so I should be just as able to take stuff off.
To not really delete constitutes misbehavior, and perhaps fraud, on the part of the software maker. If some software engineer has secretly decided otherwise, that's a huge disservice to the customers.
My computer seems to have created about 200,000 files without my telling it to. I can't tell what's in them. Were those things I deleted, or would want to? Obsolete versions of everything? Every website URL or contents ever viewed? Software I've replaced? Clear those out of my computer permanently! I want my computer to be fast again, and I (rather than the software maker) know what I don't want to keep.
I've heard that stuff that common users, like me, think we've deleted, but that the computer actually has kept, is sometimes used to sue people. That's bogus!! If a user has instructed the computer to delete something, and that user lacks the technical skills to recover it, it's functionally deleted and the law should recognize that.
I've also heard that such "data recovery" is used to destroy the privacy with which many people view things meant to be private, and meant to be kept private. If so, the software design and marketing is more guilty than the customer suckered into using it.
© 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.