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Norman Sperling
2625 Alcatraz Avenue #235
Berkeley, CA 94705-2702

cellphone 650 - 200 - 9211
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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.

Norman Sperling's blog

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.

Water and Placebos DO Have Effects

© Norman Sperling, May 15, 2011

Some substances that are usually regarded as having no effect actually do have effects.

* Water, as in homeopathic treatments.
* Placebos, as in medical tests and treatments.

I have seen homeopathic treatments strongly criticized as being useless and having no effect, because they’re “only” water. Yet water itself has many effects.
* Peeing usually makes you feel better.
* Drinking a lot of water is recommended for several medical and nutritional situations. It is suspected to dilute or flush precipitates that would otherwise form painful kidney stones, for example.
* And drinking a lot is often recommended in treating colds and other illnesses.
So plain old water, whether labeled homeopathic or not, CAN have effects.

“Placebo” is Latin for “I make you feel good”. That’s an effect, not the absence of one. (By that centuries-old definition, boyfriends and girlfriends are placebos.)

In the last half century, “placebo”’s definition and applications have changed importantly several times, but discussions rarely specify which version is meant. Always check just what speakers and writers mean by the term.

Placebos are rarely neutral and rarely have zero effects. Many different substances that have been used as placebos have known effects.
* Sugar, as in “sugar pills”, makes people feel better. Huge quantities of sugary treats are consumed because they make people feel better. Sugar levels in the blood affect athletic and intellectual performance as well as mood. Mary Poppins taught us that “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down”. Sugar is NOT neutral!
* In some cases, the sugar is lactose, which often has major detrimental effects. For 30% of American adults, and 70% of the world’s adults, lactose intolerance generates explosive, compelling diarrhea. A good reference is Steve Carper’s Milk is Not for Every Body, published by Facts on File, 1995.
* For testing against new medicines, several other substances are combined to mimic known effects of the tested substance. Some of these qualities make people feel better, some make people feel worse. They are NOT neutral!

Scholarly books on placebos:
* Anne Harrington, ed: The Placebo Effect – an Interdisciplinary Exploration. Harvard U Pr 1997. RM331.P53 1999
* Daniel E. Moerman: Meaning, Medicine, and the “Placebo” Effect. Cambridge U Pr. R726.5.M645 2002. Says the effect is in the meaning.
* Arthur K. Shapiro: The Powerful Placebo: From Ancient Priest to Modern Physician. JHU Pr. RM331.S53 1997. scholarly source for Thompson & Moerman.
* W. Grant Thompson: The Placebo Effect and Health. Prometheus 320p. R726.5.T488 2005. excellent survey. Use the effect!

Early Astronomy Days

© Norman Sperling, May 6, 2011

May 7th is Astronomy Day. Astronomy clubs and institutions across and beyond the US invite the public to look through their telescopes, and explain assorted astronomical things to them. That brings back memories of the 1970s.

The Idea
The context included converting the Astronomical League (the US federation of astronomy clubs) from a do-little social group run by its aging founders, into a do-something group run by "young Turks", of whom I was one.

We activists knew there was a lot to do, but very few suggestions of just what to do gained wide support. Nobody thought the BAA or RASC systems were appropriate here. Our situation was unprecedented so there were no models to copy. That was just when I was running Sky &Telescope's amateur department. I joined S&T in September 1976, shortly after the AL convention. Some activists were elected that year, along with some holdover traditionalists. By 1977 Bob Young of Harrisburg, the new president, really wanted to accomplish things. We spoke by phone rather often, and corresponded a lot.

I already knew a couple of the Astronomy Day founders. Irene Sacks hosted the first Astronomy Day I heard about, at the Morris Museum in Morristown, NJ. I went to a couple of her yearly events (Novembers?) while planetarium director in Princeton, NJ, not too far away. On my 1974 and 1976 drives to California I met Doug Berger, Frank Miller, and others in the Astronomical Association of Northern California, who were running Bay-Area-wide observances.

Bob Young enthusiastically agreed that the League should foster participation. Frank Miller and Doug Berger of AANC were enthusiastic about spreading the idea, as long as AANC was treated as an equal of AL. The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada quickly joined in, making Astronomy Day international (obviously with a date later in Spring), and soon a number of other places joined the fun, making it very international, which it remains today.

One problem that cropped up immediately was climate. There is no time when the whole USA all enjoys the most favorable weather all at once. At all dates, somewhere's too cold, somewhere's too hot, and somewhere's too rainy. Winter was obviously out despite the clear skies following cold fronts; the public wouldn't come. Summer had many similar problems, including the ridiculously late arrival of darkness around solstice. That left Spring and Fall. So I talked it over with meteorologist Ed Brooks of Boston College. Brooks immediately pointed out that Fall had a problem that Spring didn't have: "thunderstorms in the MidWest" was his terse veto - I still remember him speaking those exact words, and marveled at how succinct and relevant they were. True, thunderstorms come in thin squall lines that pass quickly, but they're an afternoon-and-evening phenomenon that would ruin events in large swaths of the country.

That left Spring. And here we met some very narrow constraints. AANC wouldn't hear of anything too early in Spring, because the rainy season doesn't end here till well into April. Northern states also plugged for later dates. The South didn't seem to mind that. But the advent of Daylight Time in most of the country would push skywatching to too late an hour to attract many crowds. A consensus emerged for a Saturday in Spring, just before Daylight Time started.

We also found consensus that a First Quarter Moon is a highly desirable attraction - it is easy to see, shows lots of details, but isn't so bright as to wipe out deep sky objects that we also want to show.

Of course, First Quarter doesn't always occur on Saturdays, and doesn't always occur immediately before the switch to Daylight Time. So we agreed that every year we'd talk to one another about the best date, rather than invent a formula akin to that for determining the date of Easter. While I was at S&T, I was the one who did the phoning, on the pretext of preparing the amateur events calendar for the magazine. The news I heard from the participants fully justified the magazine's investment in my time, postage, and phone bills. After I left S&T in 1981, Gary Tomlinson of Grand Rapids, the AL's Astronomy Day Coordinator, had a long talk with Doug Berger, established dates for many years at once, and published them all in the AL's Astronomy Day Handbook.

Another issue that we handled correctly from the beginning was the primacy of the local sponsor. Everyone feared some big impersonal "other" ordering them to do something that wasn't appropriate in their own local circumstances. So, right from the beginning, we wrote into the principles that while Astronomy Day was recommended, and the League would facilitate events and suggest things as best it could, every club should do exactly what it pleased. For many clubs, that was "doing nothing". Other clubs adapted their own observances. We got this idea by extension of the way President Ford handled the 1976 US BiCentennial celebrations. Political bickering persisted so long (partly distracted by Watergate) that no big national effort to accomplish any major celebration could be arranged. So Ford let necessity be the mother of invention, and declared that each community should observe the BiCentennial however it wanted - there was still enough time for local planning. Practically everybody seemed delighted with this - it wasn't merely coping with a political messup, it was a positive good. Making this an Astronomy Day principle meant that places that needed or wanted a different date would do what they needed, places that couldn't get an act together could skip it, no one felt hassled by anyone else, and everyone did what they felt best.

The wisdom of local primacy was immediately apparent when I suggested that the Amateur Telescope Makers of Boston run an Astronomy Day. General agreement was reached on when and where (Boston Common). But that first event turned out to be on a frigid evening just after a late-season snowstorm, and a LOT of ATMoB people ribbed me for getting them into something that was not a good show. After that, ATMoB shifted to later dates with higher probabilities of pleasant weather.

Saying So Made It So: Sky & Telescope Articles
At S&T I read over 100 astronomy club newsletters a month. Snippets about somewhat-related events in a few other places could be put together and called local versions of "Astronomy Day". My first article on all this was the first time that most people ever heard of Astronomy Day: "'Astronomy Day' Sprouts Nationwide", v56 #1, July 1978, p35-39. The various participants mentioned had no idea that anyone else was doing anything, and absolutely no idea that it was a national movement, until my article told them it was. Saying so made it so. Adding official participation by the League, the following year I put together "Astronomy Day 1979: The Biggest Yet", v58 #2, August 1979, p167-169. Then "The Resounding Success of Astronomy Day 1980", v60 #2, August 1980, p149-153. And even after leaving the staff I was asked to compile "Astronomy Day 1981", v62 #3, September 1981, p265-267.

In those same years I was consulting for Edmund Scientific, and triggered their "Norman W. Edmund Award" for the best observance. I also chaired the judging, and even picked the other judges, all on the pretext of getting the information early to put into the S&T articles. The award for Astronomy Day observances disappeared for several years and then reappeared.


J. Kelly Beatty comments: FWIW, I think Ed Brooks blew it. IMHO the likelihood of clear skies and widespread temperate weather in the fall trumps the chance of sporadic thunderstorms. In late April or early May it's still way too cold and damp in lots of places. I brought up the spring-fall debate with the League's council a few years ago, and on the basis of that an alternate fall A-Day date has been added.

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

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