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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.

Transportation

That Stuff Sliding Around the Car Seat

© Norman Sperling, February 1, 2015

Most drivers sit alone in their cars, accompanied not by passengers but by office stuff, work stuff, hobby stuff, and groceries. Many drivers stuff that stuff on the passenger seat. A car seat is poor for that purpose, but that’s all you find in passenger cars. Lots of stuff spills in sudden stops. Spilled stuff interferes with later uses.

Most people never even think of improving their situation. But now you’re thinking how.

Attach a backpack, seat organizer, seatback organizer, or trunk organizer. They already exist, they work well enough for many, and they’re cheap.

I hung a used backpack and a travel kit from the passenger seat headrest posts in my old car. That location was handier than the footwell, which I often use for grocery bags and my main backpack. Spare pens, paper, emergency money, and long-shelf-life snacks all found a snug home. Items for a specific meeting, class, or event usually fit. The system worked very well. The backpack itself was even a handy spare.

On the rare occasions when I had a passenger, the backpack and travel kit simply swung around to the rear. They were also easy to remove both times that was preferable.

A few companies sell “seat organizers” with compartments. They sit on the passenger seat, anchored by the seat belt. I haven’t tried one but they look like they could solve problems for certain drivers. Detaching and stowing, when you have an actual passenger, doesn’t look overly awkward.

A different approach is a “seatback organizer”, a luggage-ware product that many companies sell. Designed for mommies who drive little children around in the back seat, the netting pouches intended for baby bottles, for example, can hold lots else instead. Certain seatback organizers may not function well if faced forward on the front of the seatback. Many competing brands, which vary specific features, cost under $25.

Trunk organizers can be even farther removed from the driver. That’s great to prevent distraction, and acceptable for items that are only needed when the car is parked. I found a high-quality one made of black luggage-ware, with netting, pouches closed with heavy Velcro, elastic bands, snaps, holding handles, “non-skid foam strips” (which skidded after a few years), and adjustable straps. It would be good for a front or back footwell as well as the trunk. It is collapsible for easy removal and stowage. Unfortunately, it’s way too flimsy: it depends on its contents to keep it fully extended. Lesser versions, given away as premiums, don’t help me at all.

With or without gizmos, protect stuff from sunlight and heat as appropriate.

May your passenger seat never spill again!

Driver Food

© Norman Sperling, November 13, 2014

Drivers eat. We’re going to keep eating. It’s a fair co-use of time, often the only time available to snarf down a pseudo-meal. Eating can also re-spark wakefulness toward the end of a long day.

Yes, eating is infamously distracting, and distractions kill.

Some foods can be made minimally distracting, well within tolerable limits.

Non-distracting foods would sit in a non-spilling container, so you won’t worry about sudden stops and sharp turns. They’d be in a container easy to dip into. Stick a finger-depth cup in your cup-holder.

The food has to be dry, easy to grasp with 2 fingers, and a single piece should be enough to chew on but not too much.

Several such foods already exist, and more are adaptibly close.

* Marshmallows are nearly perfect for this, though scarcely nutritious.
* Pretzel nuggets, with or without fillings of peanut butter or cheese.
* Baby carrots.
* Wheat-thins and many other crackers.
* Dried apricots are almost too big, and a little sticky.
* Dried cherries are rather small but so tasty you don’t chew several at a time. Some brands are stickier than others.
* Cherry tomatoes.
* Donut holes.
* Spoon-size shredded wheat.
* Necco wafers unwrapped from their tube and sitting loosely in the cup.
* Plain or dry-roasted almonds and other large nuts. Peanuts are so small that a mouthful wants a few, which can be clumsy to pluck from the container.

Several other foods need only the most minimal, quick, low-tech handling to make them work:
* sour balls and Jolly Rancher hard candies are hard to unwrap while driving. Unwrap 3 or 4 in advance. But only enough for this stage of the trip; they get sticky in heat or humidity.
* Celery sticks are 2 bites long. Cut them into single-bite size in advance.
* Grapes need to be pulled off their stems in advance.

Don’t use raisins because they are definitely too small, and very sticky.

Dropped pieces could distract a driver. Grapes, tomatoes, hazelnuts, and sourballs roll around and get underfoot. Dry ones handle well enough to not get dropped.

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.

National Back-Order

(c) Norman Sperling, June 2014

My power-steering hose just rubbed through but is on “national back-order”. So are a whole lot of parts from Ford and General Motors, says the service supervisor.

Why? The flow of demand is quite predictable, so occasionally a part may be demanded more than predicted, but not so many. Companies probably make big money on parts, so it should be profitable. They know how to manage manufacturing, warehousing, and distributing. A lot of that is now done in low-rent areas, so it isn’t even that expensive.

Keeping repairable vehicles out of service for days or weeks stunts productivity, raises costs for businesses and drivers, clogs parking lots, forces people into less-desirable alternatives … there are no good factors that I can think of.

Meanwhile, my hose was repaired because it can’t be replaced. That means it’ll have to be replaced as soon as the part becomes available. Another shop visit somewhere down the road. Another mechanic’s labor bill. Wasteful all around.

The only cause I can think of is negligence. Maybe it suits some mid-level functionary’s short-term, short-sighted tally sheet, but it sure hurts everybody else. Somebody ought to sit on these companies to fix or replace the incentives: AAA? The auto-service conglomerates?

Why is Chrysler not on this list? What are they doing right?

Notes Along the Road, May 2013

(c) Norman Sperling, May 25, 2013

Since the April 19th crash and replacing the wrecked rig with a 24-foot Class C RV.

Finally left Virginia on May 2. Saw the huge roadcut at Sideling Hill, Maryland, but didn’t take any samples. Saw the 200-year-old Casselman River Bridge, in far western Maryland, but couldn’t walk on it because it was closed for repairs. It’s a lot bigger than I expected. The RV drives wonderfully. Overnight in Jefferson, Pa.

May 3: saw astronaut John Glenn’s boyhood home, guided by “his mother”, an outstanding impersonation by a local actress. Also saw the neat museum of the National Road, which grew into US-40 and then into I-70. That’s another multi-museum, together with mementos of Zane Grey and local pottery. Also saw the Longaberger building, a basket case.

May 4: Unloaded sales goods uneventfully near Detroit. In Auburn, Indiana, I examined many of the most gorgeous cars ever built. Lots of Duesenbergs, Cords, and Auburns, with many others. I think the design factor I sought was “overload”: duesys have more splendid details than a person can notice at first glance, or second look. Overdoing things somewhat like rococo did.

May 7: Cairo, Illinois, is decaying badly. Visited New Madrid, Missouri, the center of the enormous 1811 earthquakes. Also some decay but a lot of neat things too. Their museum has the earthquake story but there’s nothing original to see: the old townsite is now under the river. I guess that’s why travel books ignore it.

Drove on till dusk, staying at a nice state park that Arkansas kindly built just where I got tired.

May 8: about 50 miles east of Oklahoma City. Oklahoma is my 21st state on this foray. A squall line sparks very gaudy lightning displays. Big hail is reported elsewhere but not here.

May 9: All the pipelines that go through Cushing, Oklahoma, run underground. They only emerge to connect with storage tanks. The guards are very fidgety about terrorists.

May 11: Marsh’s signs around Amarillo aren’t so much “funny” as “droll”, at least the ones I spotted. But the Ozymandias legs really are funny, with their fake-historic plaque.

Saw a couple nice rainbeaux in the rearview mirror approaching Moriarty, NM. Looking forward to California.

I had another great Maker Faire and another entertaining BayCon.

Crash and Recovery

Norman Sperling, May 5, 2013

On April 19th, driving north through Virginia, I swerved a little to avoid an obstacle. My trailer, which had been swaying annoyingly the whole trip, swayed out of control and dragged me across 4 lanes of traffic, where the SUV sideswiped a pickup truck. SUV and trailer both ended up on their sides. NOBODY WAS HURT! Seatbelts and airbags DO work. Use them.

But both my SUV and my trailer were declared total losses. I spent 2 weeks coping with the attendant hassles, including replacing the camper. This time I chose a much more compact “Class C” RV. Thanks to insurance, I’ll end up nearly cash-neutral.

I have resumed my trek. I’m writing this from Indiana.

Heroes:

More than a dozen people of Fredericksburg, caught behind my wreck, instantly jumped out of their cars and ran to help me and the guy I sideswiped. There was a nurse and a medic. A forest of hands helped me climb out of the side window.

My brother, Barry, picked me up and set me back on my feet. He accomplished a lot that would have taken ever so much longer without him. He’s JIR’s mathematics editor, and I sure counted on him.

AAA insurance: fully competent and understanding. A bit slow, 3,000 miles outside their range, but highly effective.

The First Step

© Norman Sperling, March 19, 2013

After being on the road for 10 days, 4 states, and 3 time zones, I have finally located enough computer parts to make this system work.

I took way, way too long to organize and stow my stuff. I now feel much more clearly that “having” something necessitates “minding” it, and I’ve skimped way too much on that for the last half century. I’ll need some years to straighten all my stuff out, and I intend to.

I finally got away by tossing lots of cartons and bags into the trailer. I’m sorting it out so I’m more functional every day.

Trailer life can work just fine. It takes different procedures than minding a house, perhaps fewer, but I’m a novice at most. I’m still on the uncomfortably steep part of the learning curves for my new way of life and assorted equipment. But now I know it works in practice, it’s not just an idea that I’ve been fostering for 4 years.

RV people are extremely nice. Usually relaxed, highly helpful, and used to novices like me.

RV parks vary enormously in quality and facilities. The ones I’ve seen so far close around 6 or 7 PM. So my old check-into-a-hotel-late habit won’t work. I’ve got to comb the enormous directory pretty early, phone the most likely ones, and arrive when I can check in and set up. It’s do-able, but calls for a different mindset.

Today: Midland, Texas. Saturday: Houston.

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.

Beady-Eyed Headlights

© Norman Sperling, February 23, 2012

Car headlights are changing yet again. Tight, intense beams now glare at me on the road at night. They put out at least as much light as older headlights, but from a smaller area.

Stylists probably think this looks good. I disagree. By concentrating the source, they intensify distraction, afterimage, and annoyance from the glare.

Instead, they should try for less-intense light from broader sources. Spread the light out a lot, and the source won't be painful, yet the total illumination on the road can be greater.

The headlights of the cute Beetle 2.0 are absolutely wrong for such a cartoonish critter: stylistically, they shouldn't be hard, beady eyes, they ought to be big, googly, Tweety-Bird-style eyes. This softer source should enhance the car's appearance as well as its driver's ability to see. Somebody should offer those as after-market plug-ins.

Soft lights could serve additional functions. They could outline a bulky vehicle's shape, as yellow running lights do now. Changing their shape and placement would allow stylists to refresh each year's models with much more variety. But this has to be policed to prevent distracting oncoming drivers from concentrating on the road ahead of them.

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

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