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Norman Sperling
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Norman Sperling's blog

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.

Puns in Nature Magazine

Stately, sober Nature magazine occasionally publishes some humor. Simon Quellen Field forwards this link to "Apoptotic gene therapy in the interdigital web" published on April Fool's Day 2005. Notice the delicious names:
* J. Nesis Way, Vatican
* Sum Ting Wong
* Hu Yu Hai Ding
* Wai So Dim
* Ai-Bang-Mai-Ni
* Ohmy God Ih Svimfast

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?

William R. Corliss, Scientific Anomalist

© Norman Sperling, August 20, 2011

One of the most interesting and scientifically-important people I ever met was the independent scientist William R. Corliss. Since the 1970s, he was by far the world's finest collector, categorizer, and ranker of scientific anomalies. He made himself the world's greatest authority on things that don't fit the paradigms of the times.

I had a long meeting with him in 1988, and corresponded several times with him afterward. He was always a scrupulous scientist and a quiet, reserved, proper gentleman. Bill died of a heart attack on July 8th, age 84.

Science always notices a lot of things, and it takes time to fit these pieces into the puzzle - sometimes months, sometimes centuries. Until they fit, the odder pieces are anomalies. Narrow-minded swallowers of paradigms-they-are-taught ignore them whenever possible, and pooh-pooh them when they're brought up. Broader-minded investigators of Nature comb through them for items that might, now, fit; or items that now point more clearly in some novel direction. Yet others (including most astronomers who mentioned Corliss) browse through anomalies simply because they're neat, or fun, or inspiring, or awesome, or remind us that we don't know everything and may never.

Bill spent enormous numbers of hours combing scientific literature for such anomalies, often driving to Washington, DC, to use the Library of Congress and other scientific libraries. He was looking for evidence about how Nature works.

Just what constituted an anomaly changed with the times. Early on, when plate tectonics was the "challenger" paradigm, he sought out nuggets that supported it; later, when it became the "dominant" paradigm, he sought items to the contrary. He supported Chip Arp's challenge to interpreting galaxies' red shifts as distance markers. He was very slow to accept that Arp seems to be, simply, wrong ... but he always followed the evidence. Several items that Corliss plucked from scientific literature surely are mistaken, but more are valid, though (as with everything else in Science) subject to refinement and reinterpretation.

Bill compiled his findings into vast topical compendia. Most of the drawings were commissioned from geologist/illustrator Jack Holden, who is also a JIR contributor, though Corliss and Holden never met. A few of his books were marketed rather widely by large publishing companies. All the rest were published by The Sourcebook Project, which was Bill, his wife Virginia, and their barn. We retail several of his books.

Bill was best known as an "anomalist", most praised by the Society for Scientific Exploration, and bloggers of the "unknown". He had many fans among seekers of cryptids, UFOs, and other things beyond Science.

Bill experienced organized Skeptics as debunkers, enforcers for mainstream-paradigm-as-law, and thus enemies of anomalies. He definitely recognized that some claims are indeed bunk, deserving and needing debunking.

The scientific establishment usually ignored him. A few, like Joe Ashbrook, acted visibly uneasy at the mention of his compilations. That always confused me, because all Bill quoted were scientific publications.

He read JIR, and quoted it in his bimonthly newsletter, always with tongue pointedly in cheek.

Bill lived on a farm north of Baltimore. He was a man of his times: though he did commission a website for his wares, the torrent of spam scared him away from eMail. His website doesn't take credit cards, and directs customers to mail checks. Every communication I got from him over several decades was typed on a typewriter, not a word-processor.

I hope ways are found to preserve his files and keep his work available to the public.

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

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