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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.

The Rift, by Walter Jon Williams, HarperPrism 1999.

© Norman Sperling, September 2, 2014

A friend tipped me off that this science fiction book features the Astroscan telescope, which I co-designed, so I knew I’d read at least enough to see how my scope fared. I dove right in and, because it’s a really neat book, I read the whole thing. I was so involved that a few times I’d pause, think “hey, it brought up the Astroscan again” so I’d page back to the reference, mark it, and then plow straight on to see how the story went.

The premise asks what would happen if enormous earthquakes hit Missouri’s New Madrid fault now, as they did in 1811-12. My travels have recently taken me to St. Louis, Memphis, New Madrid, and Reelfoot Lake, and most of the other places in the book. Williams portrays the flavors, weather, accents, and scenery much as I saw them.

Mix in a flooded Mississippi River, failure of the electric grid and most communications, and isolated power-abusing authorities. Detailing the major chaos takes Williams’s expertly-developed characters along paths twisting through hundreds of pages to converge in the mop-up.

The science is quite good. The seismology is excellent, as far as I can tell. So is the hydrology. So is the technology -- from helicopters to nuclear reactors to guns. The major issue of reactionary Whites repressing Blacks has, I hope, diminished since this story was published 15 years ago … I hope.

Also improved today are communications and smartphones and multiple ways to access the www. Most wouldn’t work -- I’ve been in plenty of “no service” areas on this trek -- but there would also be places where you could get through.

One factor that didn’t ring true was radio. Old fashioned AM radio travels thousands of miles at night. Surely someone in this novel could have used a car radio, or scrounged up a battery-powered transistor radio, and listened to outside news. It wouldn’t get a message out, but at least it would get news in, tell that St. Louis and Memphis were flattened, and warn of impending storms and flooding.

Into this stew Williams tossed the Astroscan telescope. He must have asked his astronomical consultant for a portable telescope that could take rough handling. I can tell that the author actually handled one and looked through it. Most of the astronomical objects would look about as described. But he waxed overenthusiastic about galaxies - the ones he listed show up just as grey fuzzblobs. To notice the details he cites requires much larger scopes.

Terrestrial viewing, important to the plot, would work just as described. Characters’ reactions to Astroscan's odd looks sound pretty good. The shoulder strap is meant for exactly the kind of carrying that the hero used it for. The casing is indeed tough enough to withstand being knocked around (and no other beginner scope could). So the scope earned its way into the book, the author understood its special characteristics, and it sparked enough interest that its teenage user could think of going into astronomy. For the Astroscan, this novel is a huge success. And if that teenager enrolls where I teach, I want him in my class.

2-Name Roads

© Norman Sperling, August 31, 2014

Until the last couple decades, a road named for somebody would simply bear their last name. America is full of these roads and always will be.

America now names streets for so many different people that the surname alone no longer suffices. A whole lot of recent roads carry a first name as well, like “Jerry Jackson Road” so no one will think it honors Andrew or Michael or Jesse. This even applies to rare surnames. Other family members live nearby, so a rare surname may not be unique locally.

So far, almost all the surnames originate in Europe. Almost all given names are masculine. American society has opened up a great deal in recent decades, so I predict that the careers-worth of accomplishments that lead to honorific naming will soon recognize more women and non-European surnames.

Don’t Tell Me What the Speed Limit Isn’t

© Norman Sperling, July 24, 2014

Yesterday again I drove past a sign that said “End 35 mph speed limit”. I don’t care what the speed limit *isn’t*. I care what the speed limit *is*.

I can’t be sure that the limit is now higher; I’ve seen plenty of places that look like high-speed areas but are posted much lower. I just have to guess, and the only actual number I know is what they definitely say is wrong: the former limit. That’s tantamount to the authorities sticking their tongues out at drivers, “nyaah nyaah, bet you can’t guess what we’ll ticket you for.”

Any place posted with an “end speed limit” sign ought to be judged a “free speeding” zone because the driver has no realistic way to know the limit, and the authorities just pointedly refused to tell.

Some realistic, enlightened judge ought to void all speeding tickets issued in any such place and require correct speed limit signs. Hold in contempt any public official who doesn’t comply.

Informative signs should not cost one penny more than the useless signs. The signs are the same size and color and should cost the same to print. Changing them would cost little, and of course we should have avoided the cost of making the useless ones in the first place. Charge that to the people who caused those useless signs. I suspect they were lawyers.

National Back-Order

(c) Norman Sperling, June 2014

My power-steering hose just rubbed through but is on “national back-order”. So are a whole lot of parts from Ford and General Motors, says the service supervisor.

Why? The flow of demand is quite predictable, so occasionally a part may be demanded more than predicted, but not so many. Companies probably make big money on parts, so it should be profitable. They know how to manage manufacturing, warehousing, and distributing. A lot of that is now done in low-rent areas, so it isn’t even that expensive.

Keeping repairable vehicles out of service for days or weeks stunts productivity, raises costs for businesses and drivers, clogs parking lots, forces people into less-desirable alternatives … there are no good factors that I can think of.

Meanwhile, my hose was repaired because it can’t be replaced. That means it’ll have to be replaced as soon as the part becomes available. Another shop visit somewhere down the road. Another mechanic’s labor bill. Wasteful all around.

The only cause I can think of is negligence. Maybe it suits some mid-level functionary’s short-term, short-sighted tally sheet, but it sure hurts everybody else. Somebody ought to sit on these companies to fix or replace the incentives: AAA? The auto-service conglomerates?

Why is Chrysler not on this list? What are they doing right?

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

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