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

cellphone 650 - 200 - 9211
eMail normsperling [at] gmail.com

Welcome

Welcome to "Everything in the Universe", my blog on Science, Nature, and the Public. I often explore their intertwinings. New posts should appear
roughly weekly, so if you want to check regularly for new items, every Monday or Tuesday you ought to find something.

I don't try to be literary, but I do think before I write, and write only when I have something to say. When news spurs a reaction, mine aren't the
fastest knee-jerk comments, they're more often a considered reflection.

Some entries are full-blown essays, others are ideas that can be presented briefly. I don't yak and I don't blather. When I don't have anything to
say, I don't say it. If my message needs 2 paragraphs, you don’t have to slog through 10 paragraphs to get to it. I try to get things right.

Please also enjoy my previously-published articles posted here.

Comments and suggestions are welcome: eMail me at normsperling [at] gmail.com. I read them all, but don't always post them. To prevent descent into
harsh put-downs, political stabbings, rancor, advertising, and irrelevancy, I squelch those.

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.

Rejectomancy

© Norman Sperling, April 7, 2012

At FogCon last week, I listened to a panel about writers getting rejected. Of course everybody hates rejection, but practically all writers endure a whole lot of it before their stories start getting accepted.

"Rejectomancy" is the writers' art of divining why a story was rejected. The editor doesn't always say, and the reasons given aren't always the whole story.

Some editors, tired of tedious editing, won't correct bad grammar to take a good article. I'm willing to "clean up" an article if I think readers would like it. I'm also willing to format in our admittedly-quirky style, rather than forcing writers to do it just for this one magazine ... which might reject their article anyway.

I asked the writers what a rejection note should say. The responses came fast, furious, and emphatic:
* Tell what would improve it.
* "Do these 3 things and I'll buy it."
* "Please send more", but only if you really mean that.
* Tell them if they're close, even if that makes rejection feel worse.

The most emphatic point, which I really needed to hear: decide FAST. I'm terribly guilty of not getting to submissions. So instead of writing up this blog post right away (I'm also behind in blogging) I'm digging into JIR's undecided submissions. It's pretty easy to recognize the 2/3 of articles that are good for JIR. But now I should explain rejections, with constructive advice. A few are "This isn't Science humor, which is what The Journal of Irreproducible Results is about." The others take some explaining.

If you've submitted something to JIR and I haven't responded, rattle my cage, and I'll get to it really soon. normsperling [at] gmail.com.

Spring 2012 Conventions Where I Might See You

by Norman Sperling, March 18, 2012

It's always great to meet readers and people with things to say. I'll be at these public conventions this Spring:

FogCon, March 30-April 1, Marriott Hotel, Walnut Creek: reading a selection, Santa Rosa Room, 9-10:15 AM March 31st, along with science fiction writers Alyc Helms and Andrea Blythe. http://www.fogcon.org

SkeptiCal (skeptical of pseudoscience) April 21, DoubleTree Hotel, Berkeley Marina. Sales table. Very interesting program! register at http://www.skepticalcon.org .

MakerFaire, May 19-20: Sales booth. Enormous, spectacular convention for do-it-yourselfers and many allied categories. San Mateo County Fairgrounds. http://www.makerfaire.com.

BayCon, May 25-28, Hyatt Regency Santa Clara: panels to be announced. http://www.baycon.org .

Teaching to the Test Kills Your Dog

© Norman Sperling, March 17, 2012

When passing a test makes a big difference, instead of teaching a whole subject and its importance, teachers often focus on "teaching to the test": teaching students to pass the test. If the test accurately represents what it's supposed to, that's close to OK. But tests often don't test what they're supposed to. Sometimes it's a portion of the intended material, in which case the students learn part but not enough to make it all stick together as the intended whole.

And sometimes the test just tests a proxy. The test for protein content of dog food is such a test. It doesn't actually test for protein. Instead, it tests for the amine radical, which is abundant in protein. But that's also found in cheaper substances. Twice now, without looking for it, I've come across instances where the protein test was faked by major, large-scale, planned substitution of harmful, cheap amine-bearing materials.

In the mid-1980s I was told of a dog-food manufacturer which drenched its food in ammonia to pass this test. Ammonia is a smelly poison. The dog food passed the test, though it lacked much protein. Maybe the ammonia dissipated by the time the product got to the dogs, so maybe they weren't poisoned, but they weren't fed the intended, test-certified protein, either.

And in 2007-2008, the big melamine bulk-up turned out to have been deliberate. The "amine" in "melamine" would be measured as if it were an indicator of protein, instead of an indicator of polymer. Melamine is largely inert, which is why it's so popular for dishes. But in doses large enough to substitute for protein, it poisons dogs' kidneys.

Who would do such a thing? One whose ethics see only as far as passing the immediate test, and not as far as the long-range, overall purpose. One who only teaches to the test.

It's way past time to update the protein test.

The Book on Y2K

© Norman Sperling, March 7, 2012

I would like to read a comprehensive book about Y2K, especially a competent description and analysis of the aftermath. I haven't been able to find such a book. Does one exist?

Broadening to the big issue of legacy software would generalize it from a single event to an ongoing situation. Legacy code is a real issue for many companies because a lot of original code was not optimal:
* it was written as a first try,
* under great pressure,
* in an under-funded company,
* thinking months ahead, not decades.
Inelegance is the least of its problems.

A lot has been learned about superior ways to do things since then, but later editions all have to work with the original. This weighs down products from many big companies.

A software engineer who had worked at Oracle told me that Oracle did indeed find and fix what would have failed.

I might like to retail a good book on this to readers of JIR and my websites, and customers along my Great Science Trek. If the book hasn't yet been written, who would be a good author?

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

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