The Mini Maker Faire kind of blew my mind

I always wanted to attend the original Maker Faire in the Bay Area and the annual shows that followed, but they started soon after I moved to Oregon and they never overlapped with my travel down there. I recently noticed they were touring around Mini Maker Faires to different cities and I was delighted when my local science museum (OMSI) mentioned it was coming up this weekend. I bought tickets for my family and figured it’d be a lot like the parking lot at O’Reilly conferences I’ve attended: mostly nerds with their hobby gadgets, stuff like robots and rockets and a car converted to run on coffee grinds. My daughter is 8 now and we’re always trying to push her towards having the best STEM education she can get and I figured this might be good for a few science demos. I planned to go on Sunday and looked at random Twitter/Flickr photos from the opening day on Saturday and saw only somewhat interesting looking robots and rockets and figured it’d probably take an hour to see it all and honestly I just hoped my daughter wouldn’t be bored by the dry presentation of it.

I got it all hopelessly, completely wrong, and it kind of blew my mind a bit.

First off, my estimate of spending an hour with a bored child turned out to be showing up soon after it opened followed by forcing ourselves to leave about 90min before closing. It was incredible, they had a huge variety of demonstrations that covered not only all aspects of science, but also art, anthropology, cooking, and even some swords and archery. The demos were well-tailored to a young audience but were also fun for adults (I got to make my own pewter coin!). Another aspect I thought was handled well was the mixture of commerce and education. Many of the demos were done by local businesses and they sometimes offered stuff you could buy to do more of the same thing at home. This could have gone very wrong and seemed really crass if vendors only showed up in an effort to sell their junk disguised as a science demo, but it worked out well where if you really liked making a bit of fresh cheese in a booth, you could buy a cheesemaking kit for doing larger batches in your own kitchen.

Screen Shot 2013-09-16 at 2.23.04 PMLastly, the thing that really blew my mind was seeing my daughter learn how to solder and assemble basic electronics by building what was a essentially a LED throwie. The LED Throwie is a small battery, a magnet, and a few LED lights that experimental graffiti artists came up with at Eyebeam and plans on how to make them launched on the early Instructables website. I recall Throwies pissed off a lot of major cities as random blinking lights started appearing on their public metal sculptures. I remember watching Throwies blow up in popularity while Jonah Peretti was at Eyebeam, who likely used those lessons to help push content viral when he started Buzzfeed and Huffington Post later on. Then I thought about Tim O’Reilly always watching the alpha geeks at the edges, knowing those people are 3-5 years ahead of the curve and that we could look to what they were interested in as what the mainstream would someday be into, and how today’s Mini Maker Faire was a lot like the Emerging Technology conferences I attended 5+ years ago. I also thought about Dale DoughertyMark Frauenfelder launching Make Magazine that turned into this.

It was amazing to see what was once an experimental graffiti project loved and hated around the world morph into a simple teaching tool for kids that could expose them to science, art, and fun by letting them create a small blinking object they could pin on their clothes. This all grew from geek hobbyists in a parking lot much like the one I stood in today, and the magazine that launched from that. The Mini Maker Faire quite literally was helping pass along the wonder and knowledge I saw over the last decade to a new generation of Makers.

Needless to say, if you’re a parent and one of the Mini Maker Faires is in your town, by all means do everything you can to attend one; you’ll have a great time.

I don’t know why I still store this stuff in my head

Andy just sent me a couple Google Maps images he thought were bizarre and when I first saw them all my years of schooling (I have a MS in soil chemistry I don’t use) came back in a wave. I may be talking out of my ass here, but here are my best guesses:

This set of pools in Utah look like evaporating pools. You can kind of see a progression in the pools next to each other, as they get clearer. My guess is the whitest pools are precipitating salts. It’s likely agricultural runoff that’s high in salts that they don’t want making the soil saline or sodic or they want to keep the runoff from getting into nearby streams so they let them sit in shallow pools to evaporate the water vapor off, and the salt is recovered and processed or disposed of. I don’t see any nearby irrigated fields so a fish farm or mining operation is also an outside possibility, but I’d put money on evaporating pools.

I mentioned to Andy that when you drive around the Silicon Valley you see shallow areas of the San Francisco bay evaporating down to salts and he showed me this cool section of the bay. Now this is a bit different, the red and green colors appear to be due to algae blooms, and since they appear to be in contained areas, they’re purposefully there in order to help “scrub” fertilizers from agricultural runoff heading into the bay. When runoff high in nitrogen or phosphorus hits these ponds, blooms form and the algae consume the nutrients, leaving cleaner water to pass back into the bay. Without this kind of cheap natural wastewater management, the blooms would happen in the main areas of the bay, choking out oxygen and often leading to fish kills and other problems. Red and green algae bloom in response to varying levels of nutrient load and temperature, so I’m not sure if the green algae blooms are in deeper pools or less nutrient rich ones, but that’s my guess as to why the big colored pools are there.

When I told Andy all this, he said: When I looked at it, all I thought was “purty…”

update: freaky small world moment #2 from Google Maps: Heather’s shot here includes those pools, off to the right, where you see a sliver of silver-blue. Heather says they were evaporation ponds for collecting potash, and that it was a windy high desert pass. Makes perfect sense to accelerate evaporation in a hot, windy place and I wouldn’t doubt someone could create a economically viable business just evaporating runoff and selling the minerals as fertilizer.

A bunch of folks familiar with the area have emailed me saying there’s a nearby mine and they are most likely ponds to capture tailings. That seems more likely the more I drag the map around, since there do seem to be mines nearby but no agriculture. So in this case, the runoff from processes in the mines would produce wastewater filled with all sorts of nasty heavy metals in solution. The tailings would get moved to the ponds to evaporate until the metals precipitate and fall out of solution, and then they probably have to pay an arm and a leg to dispose of it. This way makes it easier to keep their mining waste contained, if they were to simply send the water to the nearby river the metals getting into the ecosystem would have toxic effects to river flora and fauna. A little copper or lead that gets out can cause a lot of harm.