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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.

Public Policy

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 Stealth of Nations: The Global Rise of the Informal Economy, by Robert Neuwirth. Pantheon 2011.

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.

Lane Bike

© Norman Sperling, November 10, 2011

Decades ago, safety experts decreed that pavement writing that needs more than one word had to put the first word first, then a gap, then the second word, then another gap and the third word, etc. This way, people would read the words in the proper order.

That only works if the words are widely spread. By 20 years ago, that important factor became neglected. So now they put successive words right on top of one another, where the eye naturally reads the top one first. Hence:
LANE
BIKE
for the bike lane I pedal in, and
AHEAD
STOP
when there is a stop-sign ahead.

The requirement that the first word be encountered first is remembered, but the requirement of sufficient spacing is forgotten. This looks stupid, confuses drivers needlessly, and tells everyone that the people responsible for it are mindless followers of rules that they don’t understand ... and misapply.

Find the original spacing standard (or update it), and trumpet it so loudly that the Public Works workers in the street understand and follow it.

With a Pinch of Salt

© Norman Sperling, September 10, 2011

Reuters has a new report on the salt controversy that has been simmering for decades.

The conventional wisdom that people in general should reduce their salt intake looks suspicious. Because everyone in my family loves rather a lot of salt, and none of us has high blood pressure, nor related heart disease, I've kept my antennae up for a large, convincing scientific study that showed that people with normal blood pressure need to reduce salt. I never spotted one, so I haven't urged my family to cut back.

The Reuters report even undercuts the high-blood-pressure link: reducing salt to reduce blood pressure may not lengthen life span anyway.

The sides in the Reuters report are way too polarized. The effect is clearly smaller than claimed. A definitive study should be ethical and affordable for our culture. Take the money presently being spent by reduced-salt advocates, plus contributions from the salt industry. Have 3 highest-reputation organizations run a large, impeccable study, and get a trustworthy recommendation for the safest range of salt intake for conventional humans, and those with assorted risks. The same study might update the optimum dose for iodine. Settle the issue with Science, not shouting.

Roll-Playing Games

© Norman Sperling, August 28, 2011

"Calling the Roll" has been a standard part of class in practically every school, worldwide, for centuries. But someone with an awful sense of proportion now fantasizes it to be an "invasion of privacy". It never was and still isn't. Nevertheless, an education system has recently prohibited its instructors from using students' names in class - calling the roll, handing back tests, and so on. This inhibits the actual conduct of classes, and reduces teachers' opportunities for learning students' names.

Privacy for students' names inside the classroom is a bizarre concept. I can picture some instructors resorting to student numbers or row-and-seat numbers. Treating people as numbers instead of names would be far more offensive. In all my decades as a classmate and instructor of thousands of students, the only problems I've seen with student names stem from pronunciation, never privacy. (My son heard of a student with a name so exotic that, when he saw a teacher squint and stall while calling the roll, he responded "present" before they even tried to pronounce it.)

Privacy for students' grades is desirable and achievable. Mark the grade on a part of the paper that is concealed, perhaps by folding, when handing the paper back. Students often react loudly, saying "Hey, I got a B+!" but let it be the student who tells it out loud, not the instructor.

Decades ago, Steve Wozniak dropped out of college because he was gaining fame and fortune with Apple Computer. Years later he wanted to switch to school teaching, which required a college degree. He returned to the University of California, Berkeley, under a pseudonym, with the administration's approval. He blended in well, made friends by being friendly instead of rich, earned his degree, and enjoyed his new profession. Colleges may not even know which names aren't genuine. To achieve privacy in the exceedingly rare cases where using a true name would violate it, use pseudonyms.

To cope with the situation, I tell my students to "Pick your 'public name' to be called by in class. You may use some version of your real name if you wish. You may create a pseudonym for any reason, such as privacy or humor (and you don't have to tell why). Use that 'public name' on your quizzes. If it doesn't obviously relate to a name on my official roster, privately tell me what 'public name' corresponds to what 'roster name'."

So far, no student has shown any need for privacy. One made up a different amusing name each week (like "Ty Gur"). Another assumed the name of a fiction hero but soon switched to his own. What will students do this semester?

Not So Hot

© Norman Sperling, July 30, 2011

Reference books and websites copy one another. Hardly anybody digs back into the original records to find out what really happened.

With global warming attracting so much attention, the Weather Underground's weather historian, Chris Burt, is exploring the actual original reports of record high temperatures. He's been passionate about weather records for 40 years. I know, because 40 years ago he was a student of mine at Princeton Day School. Mostly I taught astronomy, but there was a panel of weather instruments alongside the planetarium, and Chris wanted to do things with their information. He tended the instruments and recorded the data and noticed patterns (the barograph showed a "noon hump") and posted findings on the bulletin board.

Chris also haunted the Princeton office of Weatherwise magazine, and went on to study meteorology at the University of Wisconsin. More recently he has published 2 editions of the book Extreme Weather.

He finds that a lot of the equipment was not just old but primitive, used in non-standard ways, and/or reported in substandard ways. The highest temperature that stands up to modern scientific standards is 129 degrees Fahrenheit, at Death Valley. All reports of higher temperatures have problems, and many are probably or clearly erroneous. In other words, don't rely on those old reports.

Global-warming-critics cite the ultra-high records to say that it used to be hotter, so there's no problem. Chris shows that they are probably wrong on historical counts. They also seem to be wrong on scientific issues, judging from the private remarks I hear from the overwhelming majority of scientists at American Geophysical Union conventions over many years. Politically, they appear to be little short of craven stooges, as revealed in Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, published by Bloomsbury in 2010.

Chris posted his preliminary report at Weather Underground. Now, he's on a United Nations committee to scientifically examine the reports of highest temperatures. Look for their official results in Spring 2012.

The Textbook League Closes its Books, Stays Online

© Norman Sperling, June 9, 2011

The Textbook League fought pseudoscience and other idiocy in pre-college textbooks for the last few decades. The human part of the League is disbanding, but stalwart ichthyologist Bill Bennetta is personally keeping their website online: www.textbookleague.org . Their reference material remains available even though they no longer send experts galloping to assorted rescues.

Taking Up SLAC

© Norman Sperling, April 10, 2011

A group of sharp high school physics students let me join their tour of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in nearby Menlo Park. Public tours have recently resumed, overcoming budget cuts and administrative decisions. We got a very nice tour led by a very nice, enthusiastic, and articulate physics graduate student. He wisely assured the students that a great deal of particle physics was not known or understood yet, and the way he emphasized those unknowns was one of the best features of our tour.

This was certainly the best of the 3 or 4 tours I've had there. We saw the linear accelerator itself, and some of its targets. We saw large scale, highly technical stuff, being done by world-class scientists and engineers.

In the linear accelerator's 3-km-long klystron gallery, we went into the visitor's alcove, with views up and down the whole 3 km. I thought, "to determine the technicalities of all the fittings, they must have used linear algebra". Many of the students were better-rounded than some of the SLAC staff, because they spotted the bold capital letters misspelling "RADIOGICALLY CONTROLLECD AREA". Well, they did spell "area" right.

SLAC is a good place, using good people to do good work. The tour left the high school students quite inspired about the facility and the Science. Mission accomplished.

Some other things we saw inspired whimsy ... and disappointment.

Close by, we saw a small car labeled "SLAC Library". I pictured the whole length of the accelerator having one continuous shelf ... but no, they have a more conventional library, in a more conventional building. Not hopelessly conventional, though, because they do subscribe to JIR.

The huge Collider Experimental Hall sits mostly unused, its detectors now out of date. The enormous tank marked "Argon refrigerated liquid" is also marked "empty" (Mason said "Argon are gone"). When telescopes fall behind the forefront, students and amateurs get to use them; no such thing appears to happen at this accelerator. Is there any such thing as amateur particle physicists?

Standard tours miss quite a number of possibilities. I raised several of these with officials a few years ago and got nowhere.

The whole experience would be better if re-conceived as a "show" rather than a "tour". We were shown place 1, then place 2, then place 3. Much more meaningful would be to start with a tutorial on zooming down scales to subatomic particles. Then take an animation-ride down the linear accelerator and storage rings, followed by an actual bus-ride along the accelerator's whole 3 km.

My previous tours didn't even mention that the linear accelerator was for decades the world's longest building. This tour did mention that, and named the Beijing airport passenger terminal as the only bigger one now, though they didn't make a big deal out of it. I think it IS a big deal. It will impress kids - and adults - who can tell friends and neighbors "Hey, I just toured the world's second-longest building!"

The present neglect of Building 750 - whose dust particles now draw more attention than subatomic particles - foreshadows what may be in store for the linear accelerator itself. While its contents are the height of 1960s-2010s technology, the long building itself is a sheet-metal shed. What happens in a few decades when the technical stuff inside is superseded elsewhere and left to gather dust, while the building shell degrades seriously? It'll be way too expensive to preserve, yet way too historic not to. Is anyone planning for SLAC's future as a white elephant?

The Visitor Center is a "cabinet of curiosities" displaying interesting items from construction, devices, pictures of physics objects, Nobel Prize citations, and a cast of a fossilized marine mammal dug up when the accelerator was built half a century ago. They're helter-skelter, not fitting into any story or context.

There used to be a little store there, now reduced to an exhibit case of logo items available a couple buildings away (which I didn't visit). They feature conventional water bottles and coffee mugs and T-shirts, even though their signature item ought to be SLACks. They also ought to sell a scale model of the linear accelerator that kids could put together.

The SLAC visit was a good experience, but it could be a whole lot better if the host thought more planning would be worth it. Ticket and goods sales should earn back whatever it cost to improve.

I expect to pursue several of these themes as I tour other Big Science facilities in my cross-country trek.

ER Clinics

© Norman Sperling, April 3, 2011

Hospital doctors and managers complain that their Emergency Rooms are deluged with patients who do not have regular doctors or health coverage, and whose less-severe problems are more properly cared for by clinics than Emergency Rooms. So many patients come that ERs are often diverted from their intended purpose. This problem has remained unfixed for decades.

A solution is not medical, but a matter of design.

Set up clinics adjacent to ERs. Put the triage nurse in front of both the ER and the clinic. Patients who really do need the ER get ushered right in. Patients not ailing enough to earn ER admission also get ushered right in ... to the clinic that is also right there. They would neither know nor care that the Emergency Room experts think they're not unhealthy enough.

Staff the clinics with cheaper clinician-type professionals and equipment. Bill clinic patients as a clinic would. Let the ER just handle severe emergencies.

Catching Satellite Debris With Smart Nets

© Norman Sperling, February 6, 2011

Thanks to Dennis Normile, the Science Insider of Science Magazine, we've learned that last week's flap over satellite-catching nets began with mistranslation and ballooned as journalists and bloggers skipped fact-checking and blundered directly into copying and embroidery.

As far as I know, space nets have not yet been tried. I think they ought to be.

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

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