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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
El Paso
Corpus Christi
Baton Rouge
Key West
Winter Star Party, Scout Key

MARCH 2014:
up the Eastern seaboard

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

The Shape-Shifting, Mind-Bending, Out-Loud Laughing Inventions of Steve Johnson

Book review © Norman Sperling, June 6, 2011

Have Fun Inventing: Learn to Think up Products and Create Future Inventions Easily, by Steven M. Johnson. Patent Depending Press, Torrance, California. www.patentdepending.com. paperback. Written and printed in USA. $24.95 +$4 shipping.

I knew I was going to have fun with these humorous inventions, and I sure did. Johnson combines plausible components in whimsical new ways. I've always liked loony inventions simply because they're fun. But Johnson sets his in a social context where they make sense, and comments on how they fit in.

Or how they don't. I've hated neckties since childhood. Johnson agrees that they're entirely useless - and shows such bizarre elaborations that even the most thick-headed boss should realize how silly they are. (At the Maker Faire I saw the first necktie clothing that I ever thought actually looked good: A lady had sewn dozens of them side-by-side to make a colorful skirt.)

Johnson monkeys around with cars, shoes, offices, sleeping bags, bikes, underwear, chairs, and exercise equipment. The vast majority of these inventions could actually be built, and some already have been. Most would be tolerably economical, and several niches he serves really could use something like his ideas, such as homeless shelters. A society that builds Johnson's bridges and houses will greatly surpass even the glorious architecture of Dubai ("sheikh chic").

Some of his vehicle mashups caught my eye because they address my own needs. On the Great Science Trek that I embark upon in 2013, I'll need aspects of an office, store, and workroom built into a camper trailer and an SUV. Johnson already thought about that, and shows how they could work. I'd love a witty Johnson design that has all the working parts, but which would also be practical to build and use - it would "work".

Johnson's invention names are often as witty as the cartoons:
* Parka Place
* Nod Office
* Kitchen Counterpart
* Neckotine Fit
* Wash Cycle
* Car-B-Q
* Trampo-Lean
* Street FUNiture
* Cardiac Coupe
* PushMaster
* Motorless Home
* Clam Shell-ter
* Remote Patrol
* Powered Pants

I enjoyed Johnson's previous 2 books, What the World Needs Now and Public Therapy Buses. This one is better because Johnson provides much richer background and reasoning, sets scenes, crows about successful predictions, and tells what went wrong with others.

If you're looking for some fun and a novel "take" on current culture, this book will amuse you for many hours. If you want to invent things, this book definitely will uncork a lot of ideas.

Typos are few and minor. None would interfere with understanding any of the contents.

I like this book so much that I got some autographed copies from Johnson to retail to my own customers @$24.95 +$4 shipping. I can accept checks, PayPal, or credit cards. eMail me at normsperling [at] gmail.com.

David versus Sony

© Norman Sperling, June 5, 2011

Hackers seriously penetrated Sony's online systems over the last couple months. Millions of users aren't getting the entertainment they seek.

Sony needs to personally contact the hackers who are bedeviling its websites.

Sony needs to talk to them personally, leader to leader. They need to placate and pacify the hackers as much as possible.

But most of all, Sony needs to sign them to a contract to produce a movie about their heroic David-versus-Goliath exploits against ... Sony!

Prose Between Cons

© Norman Sperling, May 26, 2011

The Maker Faire was a wall-to-wall joy. I got to roam a little and was boggled time and again. But mostly I was chained to my booth, which my son Mason dubbed as all about "smarts and smiles". As a "Commercial Maker" I could sell over-the-counter, and did quite well. Our new book Don't Try This in High School attracted lots of attention and good sales. Contributing author Jim Stanfield helped out at the booth and showed how his real-life ellipse compass works. Mason helped a lot both days. My son Lumin demonstrated how to solve a 6x6x6 Rubik's Cube, which therefore promptly sold, followed shortly by a 5x5x5. I also sold off a rich variety of old books (partly from my own library), and a hodgepodge of other stuff. I also had mobius strips and a klein bottle, which lots of parents excitedly explained to their children.

In addition to the much-appreciated greenbacks, I got another form of enrichment: hundreds of sharp and cool people telling how much they like my creations. Approval and endorsement does absolute wonders for the spirits. That heartened me tremendously the 3 previous times I was a Maker, too.

This time, I had a booth-mate, and it helped him just as much. Steve Johnson introduced his new book Have Fun Inventing, and delicious giclee art prints of humorous bicycles, clothes, and other inventions. He sold a lot on the spot. But the nonstop plaudits lifted his spirits even more than the money weighed down his wallet.

I've barely glanced into his new book and love it already. I'll review it in full when I get a chance, but I can tell you right now it's fabulous.

This coming weekend I'll serve on panels at BayCon, the science fiction convention, and sell at SkeptiCal, the Skeptics' convention. My BayCon panel topics are:
* "The New Propaganda" (Society's defenses against falsehoods) May 27, 5:30-7 PM
* "Irreproducible Results" (Science fun and foibles) May 28, 10-11:30 AM
* "Red Empire, or, Being Tide-Locked Isn't So Bad After All" (planets around red dwarves) May 28, 11:30 AM - 1 PM
* and "What's So Punk, Then?" (Past the "cyber" and the "steam", where's the "punk"?) May 30, 1-2:30 PM. I think they put me on this panel because I'm writing a Steampunk astronomy novel, The League of Farsighted Astronomers.

Be an Expert

© Norman Sperling, March 20, 2011

Be a genuine expert in something. Something you really like, that you've read everything about, seen everything about, and talked to other experts about. Maybe part of your hobby. Maybe something you have collected and examined samples of. It need not connect with your profession, but it could.

Improve the Wikipedia articles on and around your subject. And DMOZ and About, etc. Review books on the subject for Amazon, newsletters, etc. Become one of the "names" to be included wherever the subject comes up.

Give a few talks about it, perhaps at hobby clubs and related conventions, as widely as your circumstances permit.

Develop a niche product, or market someone else's. Make it the very most useful for the people who care a lot about your topic. You can make a few dollars from selling it, but you'll make more on increased reputation.

Write a few articles about aspects of it. Publish them in hobbyist newsletters, blogs, magazines, or wherever you can. If you write a lot of things about it, such as having your own authoritative blog, gather up your accumulated writings, and figure out how they could be segments of a book. Figure out what other segments such a book would need, and write and publish those as articles and blog posts. Then self-publish your book using new print-on-demand or short-run printing services. You no longer need much capital, or a commercial publisher. (You DO still need a good editor and a good cover artist and a marketer, and they need to get paid professionally.) You'll sell some copies, but more importantly, you'll be an author. When I give a copy of a book I've written to a potential client, I almost always get the assignment. The copy costs me a few bucks, but I get back hundreds or thousands of times as much. I also get treated better: "author" is a wonderful status.

All this gets your name "out there". That's a great status to have, no matter how off-the-beaten-path your subject may be. If you're easy to find, such as via search engines, you may get queries about the topic. Answer them as an expert. Some of those answers can be reworked into blog posts, talks, and book segments.

Once in a while, a topic that's usually obscure hits the headlines. When it does, media scramble to find some expert to talk to. That's you. You'll get your 15 minutes of fame.

And once in a great while, some big operation needs your expertise, and therefore needs you. This can open up consulting and freelancing and even employment possibilities.

Good luck!

Homeopathy: There's Nothing In It

Relayed from Jay Diamond, slightly enriched by Norman Sperling, January 27, 2011

Homeopathy is a popular but widely misunderstood form of alternative "medicine" based on pseudo-scientific principles. Homeopathic "remedies" are allegedly made by diluting questionable remedies with extraordinary amounts of water - often until there is only a slight chance of one molecule of active ingredient in the final treatment.

Extraordinary claims are causing consumers to forego traditional medical treatment, with estimates of Americans spending >$3B per year on this pseudoscience.

Stand up for rational thinking and scientific evidence. For more on the 10:23 campaign or homeopathy see http://1023.org.uk .

Why 10:23? Think Avogadro's Number. After the event, go to Trader Joe's and enjoy their delicious "Avocado's Number Guacamole".

San Francisco, February 5

You are invited to join like-minded skeptics in San Francisco on Saturday morning, February 5, to take part in the worldwide 10:23 campaign to raise awareness on this issue. Demonstrate, supply information, and perform a mass "overdose" to garner attention for this cause.

For more information on participation in the San Francisco event, send e-mail to: 1023@reason4reason.org . You MUST RSVP to participate in the "overdosing". See http://reason4reason.org


© Norman Sperling, January 9, 2011

Since the 1990s the spam plague has kept threatening to kill the golden goose of eMail. It's turned a whole lot of people off from using eMail. The goose is not golden any more. Maybe not as debased as brass ... maybe silver.

If eMail is a killer-app, spam is a killer-app-killer. It has spawned a whole industry to fight it. I'm dissatisfied with my operating system because it has so many vulnerabilities
- which force me to buy security software
- which commandeers my computer every morning for its sweep and purge
- which blocks me from using my own machine.

And it's horrendously uneconomic! Spammers may earn less from spam than they force everyone else to spend to counter it.

Suddenly, Symantec says, the volume of spam eMail has plummeted – to less than 1/4 of its August 2010 volume. 3 major botnets they track shut down in late December. Symantec says they don't know where the spammers went.

I think they went into spamming blog comments.

The Media, They Are A'Changin'

© Norman Sperling, January 2, 2011

This New Year marks yet another time to adapt JIR's standard permission letter to new media. Successive iterations of "permission" letters have dealt with copyrights, and in what situations the publication can and cannot publish a writer's article. (or photographer or artist or whoever; or picture or puzzle or whatever). We have bulging files of "signed permissions", punningly nicknamed "singed persimmons".

But media keep inventing fabulous new ways to do things that old singed persimmons never anticipated.

JIR has permission to run articles submitted to it (why else submit an article?), and now grants subscribing teachers the right to copy an article per semester for their students. Previous publishers obtained authors' permissions to republish articles in anthologies. Since the 1990s, JIR has posted selected favorites on its website.

But now I want to adapt certain articles to perform in a one-man show (formerly called a "lecture"). And/or podcasts and other audio formats. And/or stage performances (one-act plays? college comedies?) And/or videorecord those (YouTube? DVD? iPod? classical or RPG-type animation?).

Of course, dramatists have turned stories into scripts for millennia. Some adaptations are easy: the classic Turboencabulator (v9 p20) distributes almost perfectly into a multi-part dialog. Other articles require so much re-working that the performance would be more "adapted from" or merely "inspired by" the original. I tried adapting Jeff Jargon's hilarious "Nature Versus Nurture: One Man's Diabolical Experiment on His Own Children" (v50 #1 p12) but never thought up a way to turn his brilliant data table into something that actors would do.

So, with the new year, I'm changing JIR's permission letter - again - to accommodate these new possibilities. Tell me what I'm still leaving out with this latest phrasing:
Please grant or decline your permission for JIR to non-exclusively republish, adapt, produce, and/or perform the Work in:
* JIR compendia or anthologies or websites: Granted -or- Declined
* audio formats including radio and podcasts: Granted -or- Declined
* video formats including television, movies, animations, and on-line: Granted -or- Declined
* dramatizations and live performances including stage plays: Granted -or- Declined

I'm also starting to ask addresses of people most likely to be able to find authors in the distant future (like a university, a professional society, or a stable young relative) because we've lost track of old contributors, and don't even know which ones are still alive.

Authors each have their own situations and motives, so each may react differently toward granting, or declining, various permissions. In the past, scientists with secure employment often granted blanket permission, probably because they gain more from spreading their ideas than from selling articles. Old people, too, often permitted everything, perhaps not expecting to earn enough soon for reselling to be worth it. Writers, on the other hand, often granted rights to publish in just one issue, and retained all else, hoping to resell the work again later. Or maybe the writers just knew where to resell content, and scientists didn't.


Dale: thanks for the blanket!
Technorati: 4DUNHAPZS5ZY, thank you.
SFO: my, that was short!

Instant A

© Norman Sperling, December 12, 2010

Instant-A Dare! Any student who solves this problem, to the satisfaction of experts in this specialty, gets an instant A for this entire course, regardless of anything else.

My astronomy students see this message 20 or 30 times a semester. I use it whenever a topic isn't resolved, whenever something remains unknown or not understood - such as magnetic fields. Textbooks' traditional "positivist" style systematically tells what IS known, and determinedly leaves out what ISN'T known. This gives students the false impression that Science is all about stuff that's already securely known. Textbooks usually neglect the thrill of the chase, and systematically avoid mentioning what isn't known.

So I make quite a point of it. I even emphasize it with this offer of an "Instant A".

Students I re-encounter many years after they took my course still remember the offer and its point.

Of course, this is not just a surface issue.

I point out that Science doesn't yet understand most of Nature's workings. That way students should be able to figure out where future discoveries fit in. And I make sure to emphasize that this is not only true in astronomy, but in all Sciences and many other scholarly fields.

I also distinguish which information is "cast in concrete" from items that are progressively less firm: "cast in Jell-O"®, or even "cast in hot air". Switching metaphors, I tell them that certain items deserve to be "written in ink", but others should only be "written in pencil", because they're merely this year's best estimate. Still other points should be written in "fuzzy pencil" or "faint fuzzy pencil" according to how weakly we grasp them.

I often point out that when something doesn't yet deserve to be written in ink, or is so unknown it would earn my Instant A, that's a dare. A dare to the students to go solve that. They're sharp and clever and knowledgeable, so they just might be the people to solve such problems.

Certain problems may not need better data, they might just need a different point of view. Most professional astronomers share a lot of experiences to which to compare things - pattern-recognition. My students come from a far richer variety of national, cultural, and religious heritages, travel experiences, and previous schooling. Perhaps somewhere among that richer trove of things to compare to, someone will recognize a new pattern. I alert them to be on the lookout. You, too.

Several of these problems are worth a lot more than an A in intro-astro. Many would make splendid thesis topics. Some would put their solvers on fast-tracks to tenure. Identifying or disproving dark energy is worth a big prize.

So far, no student has won an "Instant A". Several have brought up points that I had to think about for weeks, and consult experts about, though none has turned into a true scientific advance. I'd give most of those students an A for scientific excellence anyway, but almost all of them were already earning an A.

Ghostwriting Busters

© Norman Sperling, November 14, 2010

Medical ethicists are in an uproar over misleading medical research articles and presentations being "ghost-written". They're confusing 2 different activities, and blaming the wrong one.

One thing that's going on is ghost writing. That is often good.

The other thing that's going on is distorting results. That is bad.

Experts with talent and training in research can be wonderful at that, but often don't write well. And people who write well are rarely talented or trained in research. In your own experience, you know several people who are great at doing something but poor at expressing it, and several people who are great at expressing things but not so great at originating all of them.

So people who aren't so great at writing, who need to write something for publication, enlist help. They can ask friends, they can hire writers, or their sponsors can hire writers. As long as the output is correct, nobody is deceived about the scholarly content. While literary sleuths dispute "true" authorship of literary gems, that never happens with these reports.

I've done some of this. Here's an example from when I was an editor at Sky & Telescope magazine: An interesting article arrived with a turgid title something like "Thermoluminescence and Cathodoluminescence in Chondritic Meteorites". I changed the title to "Meteorites that Glow". I bet a lot more people read the article than would have with the stilted, stuffy title. That time I was paid by the publisher rather than the writer or the writer's sponsor, so that could be called "editing" instead of "ghost writing", but it's doing the same thing.

Turning ineffective writing into something people actually like to read takes talent and training that is rarely part of researchers' education. It's fair to have a ghostwriter as long as the meaning doesn't change, and the researcher approves everything the ghostwriter did before it's published. It doesn't matter who pays the ghostwriter, though it's cleanest if the money is laundered through the researcher.

Changing the meaning is entirely different. Someone thinks that by lying about reality, they can make quick money. The original author may have at least as much motivation as a hired writer. Warping can be done by ghostwriters, editors, publishers, and others. Of course reality must always win in the end. Concealed harm grows too blatant to hide. Legal settlements for causing harm can bankrupt corporations. Even the accusation can cripple a researcher's career.

The flap over ghostwriters is mis-aimed. Attack liars and cheaters for lying and cheating. Don't attack people who are good at expressing things for being good at expressing things.

Yesterday's Dumps, Tomorrow's Mines: Minerals and MinURLs

© Norm Sperling, November 1, 2010

The world's market for rare-Earth metals is now dominated - 97%! - by China. China says it will continue selling them, but neighboring Japan now suddenly seeks to buy from Viet Nam instead. A lot of high-tech consumers worry about how much they will be able to obtain, and for how long.

2 major sources have not been properly surveyed and exploited.

Many of those rare-Earth elements go into high-tech devices. Those devices wear out or become outmoded, are discarded, and go into dumps. We build up enormous dumps, filling valleys and building "Mount Trashmore"s.

When rare-Earth resources run out, or become scarce for ecological or political reasons, it should be more practical to mine old dumps and extract the needed elements from today's discards. Over centuries, I suspect that today's polluted dumps will be reclaimed, re-exploited, and re-consumed as resources.

At identifiable strata and pits in dumps, one can find the discards from datable years. And we know when certain chemicals were used. To facilitate reclamation, dumps should be mapped as accurately as practical in 4 dimensions. Zones should be labeled by dumping dates, and any other distinguishing characteristics, too. Time-lapse photos taken from standard vantage points should help the mapping. Seekers of a rare-Earth element can excavate the zones buried a few years after it was used, without having to slog expensively through unlikely zones.

To what degree is it practical to map older dumps? Many capped landfills are turned into parks after their initial organic outgassing subsides. How closely do their records of filling match new drill-core logs? How do those compare to ground-penetrating-radar scans?

Another waste source is ignored even more: mine tailings. Where nature concentrated a valuable mineral, well enough for miners to extract it, the discards simply got dumped. These mine tailings are often eyesores and sometimes accused of fouling their environment. It's time to take modern, high-quality chemical analyses of tailings from each mine. Surely something valuable will show up somewhere. Mineralogists and geochemists will discover new correlations.

Re-mining tailings has many advantages: they're already concentrated, they're already pulverized and therefore easy to process, and the (re-)remaindered tailings should be (re-)discarded in a much safer manner, which the newly-extracted fraction should pay for. Perhaps robots can stuff tailings that contain nothing likely to become valuable back into the depleted mines they came from, reducing the hazard of collapse.

Mapping dumps, and screening mine tailings, will produce new mineral resource locators - minURLs!

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

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