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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.

Novice Astronomy Over 50 Years

© Norman Sperling, July 5, 2011

A presentation I saw on how to get into amateur astronomy showed how much has changed in the half-century since I began ... and how much hasn't. Amateurs from the Phoenix and San Jose areas explained the ins and outs to science fiction buffs at Westercon.

Stars, planets, and humans are still the same, so the principal advice is still to go somewhere dark (away from light pollution), and learn the constellations and how the sky moves. That advice is absolutely identical to what I was told in 1957, and it's right. They mentioned some recent and classic beginner books, as well as the latest 'pod apps. Light pollution is now a lot worse, so getting to a dark place is much more difficult, but the advice is the same.

The second advice is still to not dive into buying a big, complicated, expensive telescope. After the naked eye, use binoculars. After binoculars, a useful beginner telescope is now available for as little as $50 or $60. That price is relatively lower (considering inflation) than in my youth - an advantage of modern design and production. Then and now, beginners must be warned away from flimsy, incompetent, disappointing telescopes from non-specialist merchants.

They still recommend Sky & Telescope and Astronomy magazines. (OK, the latter was founded in 1973.) They still recommend finding your local astronomy club and star parties, and using red-light flashlights to preserve night vision.

They still recommend studying the richest and most informative telescope catalog – though that used to be Edmund's and now it's Orion's. The lust generated by seeing all the glorious equipment used to be called "aperture fever" and is now "Telescope Porn".

Modern optical and electronic technology has outmoded the old equipment, and enabled whole new categories of activities.

The Dobsonian Revolution made far larger telescopes affordable to serious amateurs, and they can observe deep sky objects spectacularly better than 50 years ago. Today's top Schmidt-Cassegrains, Maksutovs, and refractors deliver markedly better images than you could buy 50 years ago. Some astronomers love automatic object-finding telescopes because it's easier to observe what you want; purists consider it cheating if you don't point the telescope correctly yourself.

Electronic imaging has popularized incredible tools like webcams. Commercial mounts now mate phone-cameras to telescopes. Software now lets photographers stack multiple exposures using more skill and time than money. The best amateur astrophotography of 2011 far surpasses the best that the big professional observatories could do just 30 years ago. These tools enable amateurs to study, and make discoveries about, far fainter objects than before.

One aspect that hasn't changed is the mindset that "amateur astronomy" = observing. That wasn't true 50 years ago and it's less true today, but it's what springs to mind. Lots of non-observational aspects are wide open – history, education, tourism, and telescope making are just a few popular options. Data-mining now combs and analyzes enormous amounts of data, usually gathered by professionals. Anyone competent with a computer and an internet connection can do this. Some such projects are called "Citizen Science".

Overall, getting to a dark sky is markedly harder nowadays. Learning the sky and climbing above beginner status are about the same. But optical as well as electronic technology have improved spectacularly. Far greater viewing and computing power are affordable, and projects to use them multiply very fast. Nowadays the limiting factor isn't telescope size, or imaging skill, or computing talent, but the creativity to think up a new project. Go for it!

Loyal Old Customers

© Norman Sperling, June 21, 2011

I was talking business with another proprietor of a decades-old science business. We both have loyal customers. For both,
* most pay by check, instead of credit card or PayPal
* a few fill out their checks by typewriter (yes, in 2011)
* a few don't like the prices' .95 and round their checks up to .00
* none of their checks bounce.

The "typewriter" aspect no doubt marks people who have not fully adopted computers, because hardly anyone else keeps a typewriter handy. Customers who have been loyal for decades are, by definition, older, so this is no surprise.

The preference for checks is not just a failure to adopt newer technologies, since credit cards became very common by the 1960s. Some feel less secure about giving out their credit card numbers.

Their checks are always good. They want the product, and they'll want the next one too. They're quite content to transfer the money. They don't begrudge the price. It is tempting to read into this the high ethics of science, too.

Paying the rounded dollar instead of the .95 shows these customers' rationality overpowering their emotional reaction to the price. I've never heard of this happening outside of science businesses. Lots of business have thought of charging rounded prices, and many have tried it. Sales slump horribly. Customers only buy when prices end in .95 or .97 or .98 or .99. Only merchants that end their prices that way survive. I once raised the price of an item from $4.35 (which was determined by standard pricing formulae) to $4.95, and thereby markedly increased sales. That's the way customers want things ... except for this extreme intellectual fringe, who are so repulsed by that practice that they send $27.00 for a $26.95 product. They have no way of knowing what a pricing formula would actually call for - the formulaic price might actually end in .31 or .78 or anything else.

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.

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.

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

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