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Norman Sperling
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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.

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.

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".

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?

"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.

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 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".

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.

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.

Novice Astronomy Over 50 Years

© Norman Sperling, July 5, 2011

A presentation I saw on how to get into amateur astronomy showed how much has changed in the half-century since I began ... and how much hasn't. Amateurs from the Phoenix and San Jose areas explained the ins and outs to science fiction buffs at Westercon.

Stars, planets, and humans are still the same, so the principal advice is still to go somewhere dark (away from light pollution), and learn the constellations and how the sky moves. That advice is absolutely identical to what I was told in 1957, and it's right. They mentioned some recent and classic beginner books, as well as the latest 'pod apps. Light pollution is now a lot worse, so getting to a dark place is much more difficult, but the advice is the same.

The second advice is still to not dive into buying a big, complicated, expensive telescope. After the naked eye, use binoculars. After binoculars, a useful beginner telescope is now available for as little as $50 or $60. That price is relatively lower (considering inflation) than in my youth - an advantage of modern design and production. Then and now, beginners must be warned away from flimsy, incompetent, disappointing telescopes from non-specialist merchants.

They still recommend Sky & Telescope and Astronomy magazines. (OK, the latter was founded in 1973.) They still recommend finding your local astronomy club and star parties, and using red-light flashlights to preserve night vision.

They still recommend studying the richest and most informative telescope catalog – though that used to be Edmund's and now it's Orion's. The lust generated by seeing all the glorious equipment used to be called "aperture fever" and is now "Telescope Porn".

Modern optical and electronic technology has outmoded the old equipment, and enabled whole new categories of activities.

The Dobsonian Revolution made far larger telescopes affordable to serious amateurs, and they can observe deep sky objects spectacularly better than 50 years ago. Today's top Schmidt-Cassegrains, Maksutovs, and refractors deliver markedly better images than you could buy 50 years ago. Some astronomers love automatic object-finding telescopes because it's easier to observe what you want; purists consider it cheating if you don't point the telescope correctly yourself.

Electronic imaging has popularized incredible tools like webcams. Commercial mounts now mate phone-cameras to telescopes. Software now lets photographers stack multiple exposures using more skill and time than money. The best amateur astrophotography of 2011 far surpasses the best that the big professional observatories could do just 30 years ago. These tools enable amateurs to study, and make discoveries about, far fainter objects than before.

One aspect that hasn't changed is the mindset that "amateur astronomy" = observing. That wasn't true 50 years ago and it's less true today, but it's what springs to mind. Lots of non-observational aspects are wide open – history, education, tourism, and telescope making are just a few popular options. Data-mining now combs and analyzes enormous amounts of data, usually gathered by professionals. Anyone competent with a computer and an internet connection can do this. Some such projects are called "Citizen Science".

Overall, getting to a dark sky is markedly harder nowadays. Learning the sky and climbing above beginner status are about the same. But optical as well as electronic technology have improved spectacularly. Far greater viewing and computing power are affordable, and projects to use them multiply very fast. Nowadays the limiting factor isn't telescope size, or imaging skill, or computing talent, but the creativity to think up a new project. Go for it!

Loyal Old Customers

© Norman Sperling, June 21, 2011

I was talking business with another proprietor of a decades-old science business. We both have loyal customers. For both,
* most pay by check, instead of credit card or PayPal
* a few fill out their checks by typewriter (yes, in 2011)
* a few don't like the prices' .95 and round their checks up to .00
* none of their checks bounce.

The "typewriter" aspect no doubt marks people who have not fully adopted computers, because hardly anyone else keeps a typewriter handy. Customers who have been loyal for decades are, by definition, older, so this is no surprise.

The preference for checks is not just a failure to adopt newer technologies, since credit cards became very common by the 1960s. Some feel less secure about giving out their credit card numbers.

Their checks are always good. They want the product, and they'll want the next one too. They're quite content to transfer the money. They don't begrudge the price. It is tempting to read into this the high ethics of science, too.

Paying the rounded dollar instead of the .95 shows these customers' rationality overpowering their emotional reaction to the price. I've never heard of this happening outside of science businesses. Lots of business have thought of charging rounded prices, and many have tried it. Sales slump horribly. Customers only buy when prices end in .95 or .97 or .98 or .99. Only merchants that end their prices that way survive. I once raised the price of an item from $4.35 (which was determined by standard pricing formulae) to $4.95, and thereby markedly increased sales. That's the way customers want things ... except for this extreme intellectual fringe, who are so repulsed by that practice that they send $27.00 for a $26.95 product. They have no way of knowing what a pricing formula would actually call for - the formulaic price might actually end in .31 or .78 or anything else.

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

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