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Photograph of Robert Bruce Thompson
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Week of 5 May 2008

Latest Update: Friday, 9 May 2008 11:23 -0500

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Monday, 5 May 2008
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00:00 - Travel day.


Tuesday, 6 May 2008
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11:20 - I got home from Maker Faire at about 10:00 last night local time, which of course for me was about 7:00 Pacific Time. Barbara let me sleep in this morning, so I wasn't up and about until around 9:00 ET. I took the dogs out, unpacked, and started doing laundry.

Although I didn't enjoy the travel both directions, the Faire itself was incredible. I'm told attendance for the Third Annual Maker Faire this year was 75,000 or more versus about 45,000 last year, so the Faire is close to doubling attendance year on year for its first three years. If next year shows proportional growth, I don't know what they'll do, because the San Mateo Fairgrounds was packed solid with people this year. Presumably, they'll also rent the racetrack, which is right next door to the Fairgrounds.

I arrived at the Crowne Plaza hotel late Wednesday evening, and met some of the O'Reilly/MAKE crew who were also staying there. Thursday was consumed with meeting people and getting things set up. This was my first chance to meet a lot of people face-to-face that I've worked with for years, including my long-time editor Brian Jepson. My editor for the chemistry book, Tom Sgouros, was there, along with his teenage daughter, Timmie.

Barbara and I had already met Dale Dougherty, the Publisher of MAKE, a few months ago when he made a business trip to Winston-Salem, but Dale and I had several opportunities to talk at some length. Dan Woods, the Associate Publisher of MAKE, was also there. It was Dale and Dan, along with Brian, who finally talked me into coming out of my cave, so I enjoyed having a chance to talk with all of them in person. And it was also great to meet Terry Bronson, who was both the Production Manager for the book and the person who took care of all my travel arrangements. Without her, I wouldn't have made it out there. Or had anywhere to stay while I was there. Or made it back.

I also met dozens of other O'Reilly/MAKE folks who were involved with the book or my earlier books, including the Creative Director, Daniel Carter, Indexer extraordinaire Patti Schiendelman, who reindexed the book literally overnight when I overlooked the fact that half of one chapter had somehow been left out, Jason Forman, who shot the cover image, and Sara Peyton, who handles PR for the book.

There was a break room for staff, and I did spend some time in there talking with all these folks and a lot of others, but most of Thursday was spent hauling around boxes of books and other merchandise and getting displays set up. I wasn't about to sit around watching while all of my friends were busting their butts, so I hauled books and set up displays as well.

Friday was Education Day. The Faire wasn't yet open to the public, but it was open to students and teachers. I spent most of Friday talking to kids and teachers, intermingled with carrying around more boxes of books and getting displays set up.

I'll continue this tomorrow, because right now I'm trying to dig out from being gone several days. My inbox wasn't as bad as I feared it would be. There were only 747 new messages this morning, of which 259 were spams that made it past the server-side filters. My local filters caught 257 of those, leaving only 2 spams in my inbox. Most of the 500 or so real messages were mailing list traffic, but I still have 100 or so real emails to deal with, so it'll be a couple of days until I'm caught up.

It's good to be back in the home cave again. Barbara took care of everything while I was gone. Malcolm, our 9-year-old Border Collie greeted me when I arrived home. I'd never been away for more than a few hours since he was a puppy. Duncan, our 13-year-old BC, ignored me for a half an hour or so after I arrived home. He likes to let us know that he doesn't appreciate our going away and not taking him.

Well, things are back to normal other than having to dig out from under the pile that accumulated while I was gone. Today, I'll finish up the laundry and other accumulated stuff. Tomorrow, I'll work on the web sites and other stuff for the chem book and get back into the forensics book.

12:37 - I just came across a FoxNews.com article about one of our soldiers in Afghanistan who got into a firefight. His cellphone was on, and it autodialed his home telephone number, leaving a 3-minute message on the answering machine that's all audio of the firefight. How his family must have felt hearing that message, particularly because it ends with someone yelling "Incoming!" as one of the bad guys fires an RPG at our guys. (The soldier with the cell phone was not injured and made it out safely; I don't know about his buddies).

Here's the YouTube clip. What I found stunning was that the FoxNews.com editors included a link that warned there was graphic language in the YouTube clip. Jesus wept. Here we have our young people fighting for their lives. The whole clip is punctuated frequently by the sound of their Car-15/M-4 carbines on rock-and-roll, along with a heavy machine gun pounding away, exploding munitions, and shouts for more ammo. And FoxNews.com is worried because there's an ocassional "fuck" audible?


Wednesday, 7 May 2008
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08:53 - I was going to write up more about the Faire today, but then I realized that this email I sent Paul, Mary, and Barbara already said most of what I was going to say.

From: Robert Bruce Thompson
  To: Paul Jones, Mary Chervenak, Barbara Thompson
Date: Tue May  6 13:52:34 2008
  Re: Maker Faire

I made it there and back. The middle part was enjoyable, but not the getting to and from. They almost shut me down entirely as far as demos. This was all very last-minute, and I hadn't filed a safety plan. So we did that on the run on Thursday or Friday and got the fire marshal to approve it, after we removed some of the scarier things.

Both of the t-shirts were big hits, both with the O'Reilly/MAKE folks and with the other exhibitors and the public. I ended up doing two talks to groups of several hundred each; backyard astronomy on Saturday and chemistry sets and home chemistry on Sunday. There were cameras all over the place, and I'm sure there'll be videos up soon on the O'Reilly sites and YouTube.

The backyard astronomy talk Saturday was not my favorite event. I was expecting a standard setup with a podium/lectern and a video screen with a clicker. Instead, there was this gigantic stage with a table far to the right side and a huge video screen to the far left. The table was back so far that I couldn't really see the screen while I was at the table. I hadn't had a chance to memorize my talk, or even to rehearse it. I'd planned to do the best I could kind of reading it, but that was impossible since I couldn't see the screen to tell what I was talking about. Still, it went okay.

Sunday, I did the chemistry set/home chemistry talk. I just said "screw this". If I can't stand up and talk for half an hour without notes about chemistry sets and home chemistry, I don't deserve to be up here. So I tossed my script and just walked around the stage, clicking images and talking about stuff. I was wearing a neat Maker Faire white lab coat. I hadn't bothered to brush my hair, and I'd fogotten that I had goggles up on my forehead. Several of the O'Reilly/MAKE staff told me afterwards that I really looked like a mad scientist. I was horrified, and they said, "No, that's GREAT".

I got to talk to lots of kids and parents, home school and public school teachers, university and grad school students who were majoring in hard sciences, and so on. I was cranked up and obviously very passionate about the subject. Many people over the course of the weekend asked me if I were a high school chemistry teacher or a college chemistry professor, and commented that if they'd had someone like me teaching them they'd have learned a lot more and perhaps have gone into science as a career. I told them that I'd never taught in any kind of school, but their comments made my day.

I also had two 45-minute demos, one each day, at the Maker Demo booth, which had a nice overhead camera so that people could see what I was doing up close without crossing the safety tape. I did as much as I could get away with without freaking out the safety folks.

I told each audience as I started that I didn't like most chemistry demos because they were often more like magic shows than science. So I spent some time as I was doing them talking about the chemistry behind what they were seeing. I did stuff like the Gummy Bear Execution (dropping a sugar candy into a test tube with a couple centimeters of molten potassium chlorate in the bottom). Blew up the test tube both days, but the jet of flame and loud hissing  and cloud of steam was impressive. I also did the permanganate and glycerol thing, made iodine from iodide while I talked about the futile efforts of the DEA to control chemicals, and did the sugar/sulfuric acid thing while I talked about the makeup of carbohydrates.

I didn't kill or injure a single spectator. As for me, it went about as expected. I got a small cut from the broken test tube, one or two minor burns, got sulfuric acid on me for about 5 seconds before I drenched it, and managed to gas myself with chlorine while I was mixing the laundry bleach with HCl to produce clorine and then drop some calcium carbide into the beaker to illustrate the spontaneous exothermic reaction of chlorine with acetylene.

I did the demonstrations wearing goggles and a lab coat, but during the talk on the main stage I'd emphasized that "chemicals" aren't really as dangerous as nearly everyone thinks. So, in starting the demonstration I told the audience that although I always recommended gloves (and emphasized the fact that I WAS wearing goggles) I was going to put my money where my mouth was and do the demonstrations without gloves. So I was handling concentrated acids without gloves, (carefully) pouring sulfuric acid into the beaker of sugar and so on. I told the audience that although I normally wore gloves while I was working in the lab I was doing the demos gloveless for a purpose: to prove with my own skin that these chemicals should be respected but not feared.

The best thing about the Faire was being surrounded by people who DO things instead of passively going through life watching TV, playing with game consoles, and walking around with iPod buds in their ears. A lot of the Makers (those doing things for the public to watch) were doing stuff that I had no clue about what they were doing, but just the fact that they were doing rather than watching made them kindred spirits.

The chemistry book is off to a great start. It got blogged on Boing Boing (an A-list blog) on Thursday or Friday. The books had literally just come back from the printer, so no one but us at the Faire had them in stock. Even though Amazon didn't have them for sale, people were pre-ordering and there were enough pre-orders to keep the book with a 3-digit Amazon sales ranking for quite a while. That means they were selling a shitload of books. I kept replenishing the stack at my booth, and they kept disappearing, most of them after I'd signed them, so I'm guessing that Maker Faire sold out or nearly so of the chemistry book.

And Jas is now famous. I left her picture up on the big screen for the last several minutes of my talk, and a lot of people came over afterwards to say they loved her. As I said during my talk, this is what it's all about. One guy came over to the booth and bought three copies of the book, asking me to sign each one for a different person. I asked him if they were his kids or grandkids, and he said no but that he knew three teenagers that he thought would be interested in doing chemistry at home, so he was buying copies to give to them. Wow.

Did I mention that people loved the two t-shirts you guys gave me?

The review copies of the book should soon be on their way to anyone who requested one. If you didn't request a review copy, here's another way to get a free copy.

From: Sara Peyton
  To: Robert Bruce Thompson
Date: Tue May  6 10:00:43 2008
  Re: contest

Bob, Hi there. It was great to see you at Maker Faire. I'm running a contest on my blog for a free copy of your book. You might want to promote the contest on your blog. All folks have to do is post a comment about chemistry sets and/or chemistry education. You can read more here. Talk soon!


Sara is another of the O'Reilly folks that I've known for years but only met face-to-face at Maker Faire. She does promotion and PR for the books. I also met her husband, George Snyder, at Maker Faire. George is a really interesting guy. Sara ended up having to leave us to go do something, so George and I ended up standing around talking for quite a while. He was wearing a media badge, and I asked who he was with. He said that for many years he was with the San Francisco Chronicle and other big-name newspapers, but now he worked for the weekly paper in Sebastopol, California, where O'Reilly is based. George said he really liked working for the small weekly, because on small papers you're doing real journalism, writing real articles that people want to read. With large papers, an awful lot of what passes for journalism these days is actually just rewriting material off the wire.

I told Sara yesterday that I forgot where I was and at one point during my conversation with George I was thinking I should invite him and Sara over for dinner, because Barbara would enjoy meeting both of them. Then I realized that dinner might be awkward, although I suppose we could split the drive and meet in Kansas or something.

I don't think I have any images of my home lab from the 1960's, but here's an image Roger Wagner sent me of his home lab back in 1969, which looks a whole lot like mine did. He shot this image with a pinhole camera.

Roger and I were just two of probably a million young guys who were doing stuff like this--the lab and the pinhole camera--back in the 60's. Nowadays, kids who do stuff like this are very rare, and that's what we're trying to do something about with the DIY science series. As I said many times at the Faire, I know a lot of scientists. Most of them are my age give or take ten years, and a lot of them are thinking about retiring. We were the pig in the python, and there are not nearly enough young scientists in the queue to replace us old guys when we do retire.

Which reminds me. I also talked a lot about irrational fears and the unwillingness to take risks. The slogan "Safety First" sounds great until you really think about it. It's stupid, because safety can never really be the first priority. If it were, we'd never do anything. We'd never build another skyscraper or bridge or road, because doing any of those things involve taking risks. Everything involves risks. If safety really were the top priority, we'd never get anything done at all.

At that point, someone in the audience held up his finger and made my favorite comment of the whole Faire. A new slogan to live by:

Safety Third


Thursday, 8 May 2008
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09:25 - At my request, Barbara planted a Common Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea, actually D. purpurea purpurea) for me about 18 months ago. The first year, you get a stalk a meter or so high, but no flowers. The second year, you get flowers.

The "digitalis" part of the name probably gives it away. This is a poisonous plant, one that has been used medicinally for thousands of years. Its leaves, flowers and stalk contain two cardiac glycosides, digoxin and digitoxin. I'll probably take samples from it to use in the forensics book.

I'm still trying to convince Barbara to plant some Common Monkshood (Aconitum napellus) as a source of aconitine, but the plant (let alone the isolated alkaloid) is hideously poisonous. Doses as low as 0.05 mg/kg have reportedly been fatal in humans. In other words, one standard 500 mg extra-strength aspirin tablet, if it were pure aconitine, might contain sufficient aconitine to kill more than one hundred 70 kg adults. I don't think I'll use monkshood in the forensics book.

There's an interesting story about aconite. By 1900, chemists had devised reliable forensics tests for nearly all common poisons. At one poisoning trial around that time, the world-renowned forensic scientist Sir Bernard Spilsbury was testifying. He was asked whether forensic scientists could reliably detect all common poisons. He replied that they could detect all poisons except one...

At that point, the judge told him to stop talking, because he didn't want Spilsbury to reveal the name of this undetectable poison. That poison was aconite, which, because it is lethal in such small quantities, was impossible to detect reliably then, and remains hard to detect even today.

This from Roger Wagner, whose home lab from 1969 was pictured yesterday.

From: Roger Wagner
 To: Robert Bruce Thompson
 Date: Wed May  7 16:38:52 2008
Re: books at the Makers Faire?

I'm happy to have you share the images of my home lab from my teenage years on your journal page. Another part of the story is that along with the lab in the garage I started prowling dusty used book stores, and buying old chemistry books, which in 1968 to me meant 1930s to 1950s. My real found treasure was William Dick's "Encyclopedia of Practical Receipts and Processes" from 1872. "Receipts" would be "translated" to today's ears as "recipes", and it told how to make everything from the "Phial of Galadriel" to Gandalf's fireworks. Of course, they weren't called that in the book. I had just read "Lord of the Rings", and realized that the art and science of chemistry was the ticket to making the "magic" I read about in those books.  My other prize book at the time was "Modern Chemical Magic" by Lippy & Palder.

After college, I taught high school chemistry and physics, and was very discouraged by the fact that the official curriculum had stopped teaching the real chemistry of "how things work" (like soap, matches, industrial processes, etc.) and so I would bring in my collection that had then grown to boxes and boxes of old chemistry books from the 1940s as this is what students of the 40s would have learned. We still did the orbitals and theoretical parts of the curriculum, but it was the real tangible chemistry that got the students excited.

After teaching, I spent 20 years as a software developer, including creating a program called "HyperStudio" that was a creative project-making environment (multimedia) used in the schools for many years.

Today I own a rare book auction house in San Francisco called "PBA Galleries" where I once again get to see interesting chemistry and science books dating back to the very beginning of the printed book, including actual alchemy books from the 1500s, and significant other works as well.

I still lament the changes to how chemistry was taught "way back when", and what an interested young person could learn on their own. I was able to buy pretty much any chemical I wanted and make anything from them, and that opportunity influenced my life greatly.  That is why I am so thrilled to see your book available.  There has been a gap in the availability of such knowledge for quite some time, and you have not only brought back an important resource, but added to the body of knowledge as well for future "home scientists".

Thanks. Our goal with MAKE in general and the DIY Science series in particular is to get kids, and adults for that matter, doing hands-on science again, just as we and millions of others did back in the 60's and before.

I was just talking to one of our neighbors last night. Their son is a very bright kid, and turns 5 on the 31st. He's fascinated by science, and his mom was asking me about activities. She was actually going to start him on the chemistry book, doing some of the basic experiments with him. I told her I'd look around for a science kit to give him for his birthday. I'm going to order the Smithsonian Mega Science Lab kit for him. It's labeled for ages 10 and up, but it looks appropriate for him at age 5, given that his mom will work with him.


Friday, 9 May 2008
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08:50 - We had severe weather last night. The entire region was under a tornado warning (not watch, warning) from early evening through the small hours of this morning. Barbara and I decided to sleep downstairs in the guest suite. My lab, the former kitchen, is our reinforced shelter area. The kitchen wall that faces the exposed outer rear wall of the house is constructed of 2X8's on 12" centers with several steel columns interspersed. It's faced with a 3/4" plywood sublayer secured by drywall screws to the studs and covered with 1" thick tongue-and-groove solid yellow pine paneling that's about as strong as white oak.

There were several tornadoes spotted on radar throughout the evening and many funnel clouds reported by weather spotters and law enforcement folks, but only one or two of them touched down, and none were closer than about 10 miles to us. We got high winds and torrential rain, about 3" in less than an hour, but that was the extent of it. The tornado warnings ended at about 0100, and around 0130 Barbara decided to come back upstairs to sleep.

I had an interesting talk at Maker Faire with a guy who wants to give his granddaughter, who's in eighth grade, a laboratory for her birthday this summer. He's cleared it with her parents, who are all in favor, and they have an area in the basement where they'll build her a laboratory bench with running water and install cabinets, shelves, and so on. They'll also install a kitchen exhaust fan and box it in with Plexiglass to provide a usable fume hood.

Her mom has an undergraduate degree in science and some experience working as a lab technician. She's a stay-at-home mom now, is home-schooling her daughter, and is comfortable supervising and guiding her daughter in doing lab work.

What he needed from me was a list of the items he'd need to equip the laboratory. He wanted her to have what she'd need to do real science across disciplines, including biology, chemistry, physics, and forensics. When I asked him about budget, he said that he expected to spend at least $1,500 equipping the lab exclusive of building it, but that more was okay if she'd be getting value for the money.

He'd just bought a copy of Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments, and said he'd be first in line to buy the forensics book once it was published. I told him that the equipment and supplies lists in the chemistry book would be a good starting point, and that I'd try to fill them out a bit with stuff to cover biology, physics, and forensics. He's also aware that there'll be ongoing expenses, such as buying specimens and other consumables when she's doing biology. That's okay with him. He wants just the equipment and general consumables needed to set up a good starting point for a general science lab.

I told him I'd post my recommendations here so that others could also benefit from them. Also, of course, we'll get the advantage of feedback from my readers.

The first items on any such list have to be personal protective equipment and other safety equipment: splash goggles, gloves, and a lab apron, which can be ordered in appropriate sizes from any lab equipment vendor. Note that it's important to have safety equipment for everyone who will be working in the lab, so we'll probably want at least two of everything in the PPE category. A fire extinguisher and first-aid kit fill out the safety item inventory.

I've put together four kits that provide just about everything else needed other than a balance and household incidentals to do all of the lab sessions in Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments, and also provide a firm foundation for a general science lab. These four kits total $381.70, plus shipping.

You can order any or all of these kits directly from Elemental Scientific by phone (920-882-1277) or email (info@elementalscientific.net) at the prices shown, which do not include shipping charges. Elemental Scientific will honor these prices until the end of 2008 even if there are price increases in the interim.

Note that I mention four kits, but there are actually five kits listed. That's because there are three chemical kits, but you need only one or two of them. The Basic Chemical Kit contains only the hard-to-obtain chemicals required for the basic lab sessions. The Standard Chemical Kit contains all of those chemicals, plus several others than can be purchased locally. If you're willing to supplement your chemical inventory with items you purchase locally at the hardware store, drugstore, and supermarket, order the Basic Chemical Kit. If you prefer to order one item and be done with it, order the Standard Chemical Kit. The Advanced Chemical Kit supplements the Basic Chemical Kit or the Standard Chemical Kit, and is required only if you plan to do the advanced laboratory sessions.

Glassware Kit (# SK 800, $99.00)
Equipment & Supplies Kit (# SK 805, $121.00)
Basic Chemical Kit (# SK 810, $39.60)
Standard Chemical Kit (# SK 815  $64.90)
Advanced Chemical Kit (# SK 820  $96.80)
If you're doing all of the lab sessions in the chemistry book, I would also add a pint of concentrated nitric acid, which isn't included in the chemical kits because it incurs hazardous shipping charges. That adds $10 plus the extra shipping charges, and puts us just over $400.

The only other major item needed for the chemistry lab is a decent balance, which will obviously also be useful for physics, biology, and forensics. I consider centigram (0.01 g) resolution the minimum acceptable for serious work, and a milligram (0.001 g) balance would be better. Here are some good candidates for a balance:
That takes our total up to perhaps $575 including shipping if we choose the least expensive of the three balances. With the safety equipment, (Elemental also carries all the PPE stuff) call it $650, and we have what we need to do the equivalent of two full years of rigorous, hands-on high-school chemistry lab sessions, other than minor items such as a hotplate that are already available in most homes. A lot of those items will also be useful for the other sciences.

Not bad. I hadn't realized how inexpensive it would be to equip a real home chemistry lab. Not that $650 is chump change by any means, but it's quite reasonable for what you're getting. To put that in perspective, it's less than what a lot of people might spend on a bookshelf audio system or a home exercise machine or a set of golf clubs. Of course, I spend a great deal of time in the book covering substitutions and modifications, so the lab sessions can be done at lower cost, particularly the first-year ones, but $650 to do it right was surprisingly inexpensive when I added it all up.

With one exception, that's all of the big stuff he'll need for the lab. There'll be a lot of other small and medium stuff needed, but the only major item that remains is a microscope or microscopes, which I'll take up next time.

11:23 - Several readers have emailed me to suggest adding an eye-wash station, which is an excellent idea. At its simplest, an eye-wash station is a wall-mountable metal rack with a couple of bottles of neutralizing solution, each fitted with an eye cup. Models like this one are available for $25 or so. You can also pay much more for larger models that are powered or gravity-fed and that contain up to several gallons of eye-wash solution.

I confess that I've never used an eye-wash station. Twice in college and once in graduate school, someone working in a lab I was in got a face full of something nasty. In each case, the person was wearing splash goggles.

Both times in college, I and the others present in the lab ignored the eye-wash station and led the victim to the deep sink at the end of the row of benches, turned the cold tap on full, and drenched the victim's head and face for several minutes. There was no harm done in either case.

In graduate school, there was an emergency shower at hand. I suspect the cold water feed--there was no hot feed--was probably a 2" pipe, because that thing put out a real deluge when I pulled the chain, I'd guess probably something like a gallon per second. The girl who'd been splashed ended up drenched, of course, but so did I and the other two guys who dragged her into the shower. No harm done there, either, except the floor of the lab ended up with quite a bit of standing water.

As I told Jasmine when I was giving her a safety orientation lecture in my lab, the cold water tap is our friend. If anything at all bad happens, immediately--seconds count--get to the cold water tap, get cold water running over the affected area, and keep it running for several minutes. (I also have a shower with a detachable head literally two steps from the entry door of my lab.) I'd also thought about buying one of those eye-wash faucets, but decided it wasn't needed.

Jasmine has much more body modesty than the average teen-age girl, and I think Kim was a bit worried that if Jas spilled something on her clothing she might hesitate to strip down. I told Kim that Jas's modesty would disappear instantly if she spilled anything that mattered on her clothes. I mentioned how fast Barbara was shedding clothing the whole way into the house after she stepped on the hornets' nest in the backyard and the hornets flew up inside her shorts and shirt.


Saturday, 10 May 2008
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Sunday, 11 May 2008
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Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 by Robert Bruce Thompson. All Rights Reserved.