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

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

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.

Human Behavior

Voynich: 2 or More Handwritings?

© Norman Sperling, December 25, 2012
Part of a set on the Voynich Manuscript:
Great Stories from a Book You Can't Read: The Voynich Manuscript December 23, 2012
Voynich: Turkish? December 24, 2012
Voynich: Spiraling Into Folly December 26, 2012
Could 2 of Voynich's Oddities Cancel Each Other Out? December 27, 2012
Did Voynich Swindle Mondragone? December 28, 2012
Would You Like to Buy a Copy of the Voynich Manuscript? December 29, 2012

Prescott Currier contended that 2 different handwritings are detectable. Some scholars find distinctions among as many as 6 hands. These marginally-detectable differences in glyphs DO NOT imply different writers. I grade large numbers of handwritten quizzes and exams - last semester, from 55 students. The differences between people are vastly greater than those visible in the Voynich Manuscript. Far more likely, an individual's penmanship might vary when segments are written:
* at different times: hands get tired or cramped, people age, eyes change.
* at different temperatures: try writing with frozen fingers in thickly gloved hands.
* on tables of different heights, from benches of different heights: not just how uncomfortable the scribe is, but how the hands have to reach.
* by light of different brightness or coming from different angles: the scribe may write bigger if the hand shadows the candle, or if the candle is flickery and faint. Writing might get smaller when clouds give way to bright sunlight.
* sometimes with the elbow supported by the tabletop and sometimes not: I write neater with my elbow on the desk.

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.

"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.

My forwarding address

I have rented a mail-drop. Everything postal (& UPS, FedEx, DHL, etc.) should go there.

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

Items sent to 413 Poinsettia Avenue, San Mateo, CA 94403 after September 22, 2012, will be forwarded irregularly for a few months, but then returned to sender or destroyed.

Also expiring in September:
the landline telephone, 650-573-7125
and the eMail wonttell@astound.net .

I expect to check the maildrop 2 or 3 times every week until late December 2012. While I am on the road, things will be forwarded to me sporadically. Therefore, use eMail whenever that can serve well enough: normsperling@gmail.com. My cellphone remains 650-200-9211.

Dodge Stodge, Ford Bored

© 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.

Fireworks Without Glasses

© 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.

The Issues of the Issue: The Journal of Irreproducible Results, v51 #6

© 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.

Rejectomancy

© 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.

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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