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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.

3 Stories That WERE Too Good To Be True

© Norman Sperling, August 4, 2011

3 articles in 3 days have exposed hoaxes and scams.

A bizarre story claiming that users of Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser are a lot dumber than users of Firefox, Chrome, and Opera, was unmasked in a day or 2. Wired's Epicenter reveals the hoax and sparks its perpetrator to claim it was a joke.

The horrifying "collar bomb" in Sydney, Australia, was a hoax. Who concocted it?

For 140 years, Scots have been proud of their unbelievably-loyal dog, Greyfriars Bobby. Reuters reports that it was a "scam to lure tourists".

Do the media you read tell you the initial claim, but not that it was a hoax? Time to smarten your news sources.

Not So Hot

© Norman Sperling, July 30, 2011

Reference books and websites copy one another. Hardly anybody digs back into the original records to find out what really happened.

With global warming attracting so much attention, the Weather Underground's weather historian, Chris Burt, is exploring the actual original reports of record high temperatures. He's been passionate about weather records for 40 years. I know, because 40 years ago he was a student of mine at Princeton Day School. Mostly I taught astronomy, but there was a panel of weather instruments alongside the planetarium, and Chris wanted to do things with their information. He tended the instruments and recorded the data and noticed patterns (the barograph showed a "noon hump") and posted findings on the bulletin board.

Chris also haunted the Princeton office of Weatherwise magazine, and went on to study meteorology at the University of Wisconsin. More recently he has published 2 editions of the book Extreme Weather.

He finds that a lot of the equipment was not just old but primitive, used in non-standard ways, and/or reported in substandard ways. The highest temperature that stands up to modern scientific standards is 129 degrees Fahrenheit, at Death Valley. All reports of higher temperatures have problems, and many are probably or clearly erroneous. In other words, don't rely on those old reports.

Global-warming-critics cite the ultra-high records to say that it used to be hotter, so there's no problem. Chris shows that they are probably wrong on historical counts. They also seem to be wrong on scientific issues, judging from the private remarks I hear from the overwhelming majority of scientists at American Geophysical Union conventions over many years. Politically, they appear to be little short of craven stooges, as revealed in Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, published by Bloomsbury in 2010.

Chris posted his preliminary report at Weather Underground. Now, he's on a United Nations committee to scientifically examine the reports of highest temperatures. Look for their official results in Spring 2012.

Classification Made Droll

Reviewed by © Norman Sperling, July 21, 2011. Published in The Journal of Irreproducible Results, v51 #4, August 2011.

The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification, by Julian Montague. Published by Abrams Image, New York, 2006. www.hnabooks.com . 0-8109-5520-2. $17.95

Scientific classification principles can be applied very widely. Artist Julian Montague applies them, with droll irony, to the situations in which stray shopping carts are found around Buffalo. He classifies their condition, their origin and distance from it, and how they apparently came to the places where he found them. Montague's shopping carts progress through categories as weather, vandals, and snowplows batter them. Every example is photographed, with the author's classifications and occasional brief comment.

Shopping carts typically stray to the grimier parts of town, so the setting is often along railroad tracks and creeks, amid graffiti-covered walls, tires, underbrush, trash, and snow. Montague systematically excludes humans from his photos - only 1 or 2 can be discerned in distant backgrounds. This casts an "abandoned" feel over Buffalo.

Montague does not classify or give any taxonomy to the carts themselves. His classification deals with where they are found, not their inherent characteristics. In doing so, the book resembles astronomer J. Allen Hynek's attempt to categorize reports of encounters with extraterrestrials. "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" made a splendid title for a good movie. But it was never scientifically useful because it did not classify extraterrestrials, which was what we wanted to learn about, but rather how far they were from humans at the time of encounter, which is far less interesting and often accidental.

Montague's book can be used to demonstrate principles of classification in an amusing way, without getting tangled in Latin, Greek, or scientific technicalities.

Tweaking Sheeple With Style

© Norman Sperling, July 13, 2011

Marty Halpern, another editor, has blogged in More Red Ink about a time when he and I disagreed about stylebooks, among other things, while serving on a panel at the BayCon science fiction convention. The Journal of Irreproducible Results does indeed use different styles than most other publications. Contributors don't have to conform; if we accept a contribution, we will handle that hassle.

Not following the Chicago Manual of Style is NOT an error! The Chicago Manual is hardly the best way to present humor - it's dull and sober and stuffy, the very antithesis of humor. Many editors detest that stuffy antique. Its followers seem like sheeple who mindlessly obey what emperors dictate, even though they can recognize clothing if they see it.

Here are some of our style standards, with some of the reasoning. We welcome other publications and writers adopting any parts of these that appeal to them.

Typography
Body type: 11-point Bookman Old Style.
Captions, By-lines, and Sub-heads: 16-point Century Gothic.
Our own advertising: Rockwell.

Bookman, Century Gothic, and Rockwell are the most-readable fonts we have. We use them because we want people to actually read our magazine. Semi-condensed fonts such as Times are harder to read. They cram more text onto the paper, but savings from the printer come at a cost to the reader, and we think the reader is more important. We particularly note that many readers are elderly, and as we age we sympathize with their vision difficulties more and more.

When there is just one table or figure, call it "the table" or "the figure", not "Table 1" or "Figure 1".

Numbers
Digits are far easier to read than the words for them, and the principal point is ease of reading. Numbers are as tall as capital letters. Spell out "one" except when it is used mathematically as a digit. But all higher numbers should be expressed as digits, even if beginning a sentence.

0 can be ambiguous. If it's clearly the digit, use the digit. If in danger of being mis-read as the letter 'oh', would "zero" work more clearly?

Centuries
"20th Century", "17th Century", and so on sound stilted, require a mental calculation to subtract to get the dates ... and are often misunderstood, especially by non-Western people. Almost always, they don't mean the specific, technical inventory of years starting with '01 and ending with '00. Almost always, they just handwavingly refer to a century-or-so. It's far clearer and simpler to say "the 1900s" or "the 1600s".

Punctuation in Quotation Marks
Punctuation that is part of what's being quoted goes inside quotation marks. Punctuation that is not part of what's being quoted goes outside of quotation marks. That way you know what's being quoted.

%, °
One contributor notes that JIR people seem to have more letters after their names than in them. For JIR's college-educated and technically-oriented audience, 100% understand "%" and are therefore slowed down by seeing it written out as "percent". For people with so many degrees, the same goes for the degree sign.

Acronyms
NASA, US, PM, etc.: full capitals, no periods. Styles that put them "down" were meant to save expensive labor on Mergenthaler linotype machines ... which nobody has used for decades. Instead, let's save clarity.

Cities
Cities which are very well known and unambiguous need not be followed by their state, province, or country.

Almost all capitals, and major-league cities (in major sports) are that well known and unambiguous: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, even Green Bay. Nobody thinks those are anywhere but the big place.

The same applies to intellectually-major-league towns: Ann Arbor, Bangalore, Berkeley, Boulder, Chapel Hill, Charlottesville, Corvallis, Eugene, Evanston, Huntsville, Ithaca, Laramie, Lawrence, Leiden, Los Alamos, Norman, Oak Ridge, Palo Alto, Pasadena, Pune, Princeton, Provo, Rolla, Stony Brook, Tempe, Tucson, Uppsala. [How many have you visited? How many have you spoken at?]

Well-known unique names of smaller places, too, need not be followed by a state name: Albuquerque, Altoona, Amarillo, Bar Harbor, Baton Rouge, Bemidji, Cape Town, Castelgondolfo, Chattanooga, Des Moines, Duluth, El Paso, Fresno, Frobisher Bay, Galveston, Kalamazoo, Kokomo, Little Rock, Macon, Mobile, Muncie, Nairobi, Olduvai, Omaha, Oshkosh, Paducah, Perth, Sacramento, Santa Fe, Saskatoon, Schenectady, Spokane, Tallahassee, Terre Haute, Thule, Timbuktu, Tulsa, Walla Walla, Yakima.

Places that are not well-enough known, regardless of how distinctive, must stipulate the state, province, or country. Faaa, Iquique, Kamloops, Kano, Pismo Beach. [How many of those can you place?] When in doubt, add the state or country name.

When ambiguous, stipulate the state or country name: Alexandria, Athens, Austin, Berlin, Cambridge, Hyderabad, Kansas City, London, Macedonia, Manchester, Moscow, Oakland, Oxford, Peoria, Portland, Rochester, San Jose, Santiago, Springfield, Valparaiso, Wilmington. [How many of those have you been in 2 of? How many Springfields?]

Universities and other institutions which name their state should avoid repeating the state name after the city: "University of Oklahoma, Norman"; we don't need to say "Norman, Oklahoma" because we just said "Oklahoma".

Hyphenation
For hyphenation at line breaks, the upper fragment of the word has to be pronounced pretty close to the way it is in the whole word. Fragments that are pronounced differently cause discordance in the reader, badly interrupting the content.

Capitalization
Usually capitalized, when meant as names of major, important fields: Science, Nature.

Usually capitalized, when meant as names of specific celestial places: Moon, Earth, Sun, Universe. Earth is the proper name of this planet, not merely a handful of dirt. Capitalize it the same way you must capitalize Venus and Mars, the planets on either side of it. I'm an astronomer so I can state that authoritatively. Lower-casing the name of this planet just because it's the home of the Chicago Manual of Style is a great insult to the 6 billion humans here, including all of our customers, most of whom have grown rather fond of Earth.

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

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