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

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


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
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.

Beady-Eyed Headlights

© Norman Sperling, February 23, 2012

Car headlights are changing yet again. Tight, intense beams now glare at me on the road at night. They put out at least as much light as older headlights, but from a smaller area.

Stylists probably think this looks good. I disagree. By concentrating the source, they intensify distraction, afterimage, and annoyance from the glare.

Instead, they should try for less-intense light from broader sources. Spread the light out a lot, and the source won't be painful, yet the total illumination on the road can be greater.

The headlights of the cute Beetle 2.0 are absolutely wrong for such a cartoonish critter: stylistically, they shouldn't be hard, beady eyes, they ought to be big, googly, Tweety-Bird-style eyes. This softer source should enhance the car's appearance as well as its driver's ability to see. Somebody should offer those as after-market plug-ins.

Soft lights could serve additional functions. They could outline a bulky vehicle's shape, as yellow running lights do now. Changing their shape and placement would allow stylists to refresh each year's models with much more variety. But this has to be policed to prevent distracting oncoming drivers from concentrating on the road ahead of them.

The Rubber Met the Road, and the Road Won

© Norman Sperling, February 19, 2012

My ancient Nishiki bike has blown its last tire. It's been nickel-and-diming me to death for years. The seat has problems, the front wheel makes noises, spokes keep breaking, ... It's way past its prime, always needing this and that readjusted or replaced. It's worn out, and just going to get worse.

It was built in Japan in 1976. I bought it used and with rust spots, in Oakland in the mid 1980s. I probably rode it 300 days a year, roughly 5 miles each. So I've pedaled 37,000 miles on it! It doesn't owe me anything.

It's taken me lots of places. It's seen a whole lot of Oakland, Berkeley, Alameda, San Mateo, Burlingame, Millbrae, Foster City, Belmont, San Carlos, and Redwood City. In the last 2 years I've ridden it along all of San Mateo County's Bay Trail, except the part in East Palo Alto.

My son Mason says I can use his bike because he never does. I spent an hour reinflating tires, banishing cobwebs and leaves, raising and then replacing the seat (with the old one I don't like from the Nishiki). I discovered that its seat-bolt isn't 9/16 inch, it's really 14 mm, as demonstrated when I found the right wrench. I raised the handlebars the last inch that their structure allowed.

After a couple times around the block, I felt stable enough for a short jaunt. It's OK, but a very different feel. It makes me lean much more forward than I like, so my neck and wrists and arms complain. I do like the shock-absorbing rear wheel, the handlebar gearshift (no more reaching for an inconvenient lever) and the wide, knobby tires (no more dodging grates, but they feel funny vibrating as I roll).

My next bike will probably be my last. So I want handlebars that put the handles where my hands actually are - similar to my old Schwinndlebars. I want a comfortable seat like a Brooks saddle, with a shock absorber. I want strong sturdy tires that resist punctures on gravel paths, a major time-and-money waster with the old bike's thin tires.

With my Great Science Trek coming up, the bike has to fold to avoid taking up too much space in my camper. A folder would also be wise for the probably-small car and dwelling I expect after the Trek. Weight isn't an issue, though, because I use the bike for exercise. I've started looking at Brompton and Dahon, but they give me sticker-shock.

The Stealth of Nations: The Global Rise of the Informal Economy, by Robert Neuwirth. Pantheon 2011.

review © Norman Sperling, February 7, 2012

This new book tells nothing new, and offers many examples of no value. Ostensibly celebrating the pirate economy, the author neither self-publishes nor finds street sellers. Instead, he contracts with a name-brand publisher, copyrights his tales of piracy, and repeatedly invalidates his own premises.

The underground and pirate economy is not rising, it's always been around. This "informal economy" is older and far more entrenched than the formal one. In several places the book admits that, but immediately reverts to the fantasy that working "off the books", on the street, on the margins, or not fully licensed, is new, or increasing.

What's newer, and growing far more vigorously, is the formal economy that earns confidence, enforces inspections, builds brands, and does things right. Several times, the narrative brushes up against the roughly-direct relationship between an enterprise's degree of formality (for which the author selects the odd proxies of being licensed, registered, and taxpaying) and its degree of trustworthiness. Trust and confidence are critical in transactions.

That's why customers graduate to more formal levels of the economy as soon as they can. They get better quality and therefore better value: the things they buy are closer to "real" and "working" and "sturdy" and "supported", and therefore worth the higher price. This generates valuable repeat-business, compared to street-hawkers who always need to drum up yet more new customers. Of this, the book gives only the slightest mention.

The author offers several sighs over capitalist misbehavior, while citing far more examples (without sighs) of pirate misbehavior. Almost all the misbehavior is just plain short-sighted: taking an immediate advantage and ignoring its (bigger) long-term consequences. Undermining value, as several chapters on piracy celebrate, undermines confidence. Folks who can't afford the most-trustworthy goods, and therefore take less-trustworthy, discounted street-goods, often live to regret it. Frequently-cheated customers are less eager to buy, which slows the 'speed of money', whose rate tracks the health of economies.

Save your time and money: skip this book. To improve the economy, earn as much confidence as you can (in reality, not just "licenses and registrations"), and do business with others who also earn confidence.

The Garages of Silicon Valley

© Norman Sperling, February 1, 2012

We're all familiar with giant computer-industry corporations. Here in Silicon Valley, we have hundreds of them. But they didn't start out giant, they started out basic and bare-bones. I drove around the Valley a couple weeks ago to look at some of their birthplaces. See pictures of these and many companies' first buildings at scaruffi.com. (HP and Google were founded in garages just around the corners of the houses shown.) You can also find them on satellite imagery.

1939: Hewlett Packard garage, 367 Addison Avenue, Palo Alto: quite rustic, with not-quite-even wooden planks. Narrow 1-car garage (no house had a 2-car garage in 1938!). Were it not for the bronze plaques in front of the house (a duplex, private residences), absolutely nothing would call attention to the garage. Unassuming. It's well-painted because the garage is now owned by Hewlett-Packard and maintained as their honored birthplace. A private tour inside, that I didn't see: by Brian Solis.

1956-57: 391 San Antonio Road, Mountain View: where Shockley Semiconductor got started. This pioneering transistor company was a terrible place to work. Experts fleeing Shockley founded Fairchild, Intel, Kleiner, and others. Now at the corner of a gigantic shopping center (redeveloped in 2012), a WalMart stands on the opposite corner. The building is hard to recognize! It's now an "International Market" selling halal meats. The historic, main part is extremely plain, basic, slab-sided, undistinguished. The newer front segment is much better looking. The Geek Atlas says there's a plaque but I didn't find any.

~1958: 844 E. Charleston Road, Palo Alto: Fairchild Semiconductor , 1957- . Invented integrated circuits. Moore's Law 1965. Begat the "Fairchildren" LSI, Advanced MicroDevices, and many more. Very plain light-industrial building, with only a few faint touches of styling. Modern for the 1950s. 2 bronze plaques out front tell how the commercial integrated circuit chip was invented there, but you'd never notice the building if it wasn't pointed out. 2 suites are for rent as of January 2012.

1975: Apple's garage, 2066 Crist Drive, Los Altos. The front actually looks rather like my house, though the spacing between houses is quite a bit wider. It has a double-width garage, where mine has a single. Extremely unassuming, less adorned than most of the houses on the street. No plaque. This front lawn has the smallest tree on the block (perhaps a big old tree had died). The garage is absolutely unassuming.

1998: Google's garage, 232 Santa Margarita Avenue, Menlo Park. Somewhat newer, with a classy mailbox and tile address on the garage. No sign or plaque visible. Clean and trim but plain. Some neighbors haven't been maintained in decades, others are junior palaces.

Nobody would pick any of these as a place of future greatness. These ventures all started very small and plain and unadorned, all hope and work. Nothing big or rich till long after they outgrew these cradles. If the beginning work hadn't fostered sales and expansion, we'd never have heard of any of them. It doesn't matter how tiny your accommodations (I say, typing away in a corner of a closet), what counts is where you take it from there.

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

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