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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.

Blogs

Great Stories From a Book You Can't Read: The Voynich Manuscript

© Norman Sperling, December 23, 2012
Part of a set on the Voynich Manuscript:
Voynich: Turkish? December 24, 2012
Voynich: 2 or More Handwritings? December 25, 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

The Voynich Manuscript is just as good a story now as when I first read about it 50 years ago. If you're not familiar with it, Wikipedia's article hits the highlights, and its bibliography gives a number of ways to dig deeper.

The Voynich Manuscript was probably written in the early 1400s, probably in Europe, possibly in Northern Italy. Most of it resembles an herbal (though the plants are unrecognizable), plus sections whose pictures suggest astrology and pharmacy, plus lots of naked and clothed women (only the naked ones get mentioned much), and less-understandable illustrations and pure-text pages. The text appears to be written in a cipher, which has tantalized and taunted people since the 1500s. No one has ever cracked it. Is it too late to call this enciphered language "Voynish"?

Not only is this book truly, deeply weird, so are several of the people and institutions associated with it. Certainly including Roger Bacon, Emperor Rudolph II (who sought weirdos, and found them), John Dee, Wilfrid Voynich, and William R. Newbold. Possibly Yale's Beinecke Library, where marble panels substitute for clear windows. Maybe even me - Yale let me look through and photograph the Voynich Manuscript in 1980, and I thank them again for the privilege.

I told the Bay Area Skeptics about the Voynich Manuscript at its meeting on December 12, 2012, in Berkeley. The room was packed, and even the venue manager listened intently.

Psychology prof Sheldon Helms was not the only audience member who questioned if the manuscript's characteristics could be matched to a psychological condition. Some people concoct private writing, some of it meaningful at least to them, some of it not even that.

Spelling in ANY phonetic language was loose and approximate through the 1700s. Among my university students, even in 2012 some hand in papers with the same word spelled 2 different ways. Cryptanalysts may assume an unrealistically high standard of perfect consistency in writing.

One wag quipped that the missing leaves are the ones with the decipherment keys.

The audience regarded Hoax and Fraud as quite likely explanations for the Voynich Manuscript, echoing more and more investigators.

I'll post several ideas about the Voynich Manuscript in coming days.

Selectively Thinning Out My Library

© Norman Sperling, November 19, 2012

For half a century I've built my library. First I accumulated all the astronomy references I could get. Then I expanded to history of science. More recently, science humor and science travel.

I read many hundreds of them. I use their old illustrations in my courses and lectures. I traced the development of ideas over centuries using long shelves arranged by date.

And now it's time to sell off most of the ones I don't expect to ever use again.

I'm keeping books that
1. I like (usually because of what they say, sometimes how they look)
2. I have a story about (occasionally negative)
3. I expect to use

Not all the books that I price will sell right away, so I'll still have those for a while.

I'm also putting off selling books autographed by living authors. I got almost 400 volumes autographed, but I did so for myself, not for resale value. I wouldn't want any authors to think I got their autographs just to raise the resale price a few dollars. Since it's hard to hurt the feelings of deceased authors, it's OK to sell those autographs. Books that I bought already autographed are fair game, of course.

For pricing, I seek the median for used copies presently listed online. I add a bit for rarity and autographs and great condition. I subtract a bit for worse condition and commonness.

If a book is rare, I say so on the tab. Or "uncommon". Sometimes I think to myself "deservedly rare", though I don't mark "unimportant" or "undistinguished" or "dull" even when that's what I think.

If I don't like a book, or its author, and want to sell fast, I'll cut the price markedly. Just now I thought "I never liked this book" so I said that on the price tab, and marked it 1 cent. Years ago I had a book I couldn't stand, but couldn't stand to dump into recycling, either. I taped a nickel to it, with the statement "Here's 5 cents if you'll take this away." Sure enough, someone did, with a grin.

I Made 100 NCHALADAs

© Norman Sperling, October 29, 2012

No, I didn't make 100 enchiladas, the tasty Mexican food. NCHALADA - pronounced the same - is the Northern California Historical Astronomy Luncheon and Discussion Association. It's an informal group, meeting 3 or 4 times a year since 1985. No charter, no bylaws, no dues, and between meetings it only exists as a mailing list.

With Ron Oriti, I co-founded the group as Northern California's version of the "Society for the History of Astronomy", which conducted discussions around Los Angeles. Ron was active there while working at Griffith Observatory, and I visited one excellent session hosted by Gibson Reeves.

We thought the same kind of thing might work around San Francisco. We were right. Meeting mostly at Chabot Observatory, and its successor Chabot Space and Science Center, we discuss a very wide range of topics, some timely, some timeless.

Each meeting selects topics, chairs, and dates for the next. Where a different venue is wanted, or needed, we take offers, or find a suitable place.

Discussions are always good-humored, with many a pun (by many participants, not just me).

But the characteristic commented on repeatedly is that participants bring strong mindpower and expertise, and join in purely for the intellectual joy of it. Bob Multhauf said he enjoyed NCHALADA meetings more than academic colloquia because no one was trying to impress an advisor or potential employer, they were all there because they're interested. A high-ranking MD said NCHALADA discussions show stronger brainpower than he finds in professional meetings.

Attendance has dwindled. The Los Angeles group gave up several years ago. Our attendance has drifted downward, though meeting 100 brought a dozen, our best total in a while.

-- == 100 == --

Nancy Cox, Alan Fisher, and John Westfall have attended about 90 of the 100 meetings. And I have attended every single one.

I was wondering if I could make it. I normally don't make a big issue of numerical milestones, but I've been hoping for this one. Would I still be in town? Though I reconciled myself to missing some because of my upcoming travels, the group picked meeting dates for when I'm home. Would family, health, and other considerations allow it? They never got in the way. The next meeting or 2 also look possible.

-- == Historical Astronomy On Line == --

We just set up an online Yahoo Group to resurrect our former website in an easy format, spark discussion between meetings, and encourage people everywhere to consider our topics. It's also an invitation for more people to join discussions that interest them.

We're posting many of our previous "discussion suggestions" of varying strength. They may include essays, bibliographies, and/or questions. Bringing up a topic is NOT the same as agreeing with it, and participants discuss it from many different viewpoints.

If other places wish to conduct sporadic or regular discussion sessions, we applaud. If you would like to link to any of our postings, please do. If you would like to adapt some, please ask its author, but it'll probably be fine. If you would like to contribute questions, bibliographies, or essays in historical astronomy, send them to us and we'll probably want to post them unless they are offensive.

Unsafe Safety Requirements: Short Power Cords

© Norman Sperling, October 13, 2012

Kitchen appliances come with absurdly short power cords. They say it's to prevent you from tripping over a longer cord when carrying it.

Bosh!

Short cords would be safe only if people use those appliances within that easy distance of appropriate plugs. But that just plain flat-out does not happen! Hasn't anybody looked at real-life kitchens? Homes and workplaces of all sorts?

People have to use extension cords to reach an outlet. This introduces more unsafe factors. The total length is unlikely to be "just right" and can't be too short, so it is usually too long. The extension cord is easily long enough to trip over. Extension cords are often rated for lower wattage than the appliance uses, risking fire.

So too-short cords breed resentment and frustration, cause further expense for extension cords, and probably induce more danger than they avert.

Instead, use a reel inside the appliance to dispense however much cord is needed. Give it the same kind of spring loading and lock/release used on tape measures. Every cord will be just the right length. For carrying, retract the whole cord back onto its reel. Then unreel the right length for its new position. Cord is cheap, springs are cheap, reels are cheap. The expense of sufficient volume to hold the stuff might be the biggest cost. That should be a good tradeoff for satisfying consumers and increasing true safety.

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

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