Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 16 Jan 03 07:22
Be the first kid on your block to become a Mad Professor! Mark Frauenfelder will tell you how! Inkwell is pleased as punch to welcome Mark, whose new book, _Mad Professor_, is described below. Our discussion with Mark will be led by Mark Harms, co-host of the WELL's science conference. Mark Frauenfelder is a writer and illustrator from Los Angeles. He is the founder of bOING bOING, a nerd lifestyle magazine that was published from 1988-1995. (It's now a weblog at http://boingboing.net) He was an editor at Wired magazine from 1993-1997, and was the founding editor-in-chief of Wired Online. He was also an editor at Wired books, and launched a line of science fiction books featuring the work of Rudy Rucker, Bruce Sterling, and John Shirley. Mark was also the co-editor of The Happy Mutant Handbook: Mischievous Fun for Higher Primates (Riverhead Books, 1995), and a contributor to a number of science and culture books. For the past three years, he has been Playboy's "Living Online" columnist. You can see his writing clips at http://boingboing.net/markf.html Mark's Illustrations and cartoons have appeared Wired, The Industry Standard, and numerous other magazines and websites. You can see his illustration work at http://boingboing.net/color/. Mark's latest book, Mad Professor (Chronicle, 2002), has a bunch of bizarre science experiments, such as Goon Goo, Portal Paper, Crystal Gardens, and Tasty Rocks. These experiments were inspired by the old chemistry books Mark read as a child. Mark's favorite hobby is playing the ukulele. He is married to Carla Sinclair, an author with a new book coming out called Braid Crazy (Chronicle, 2003), and has a five-year-old daughter, Sarina. They are expecting their second daughter in March. Mark Harms worked eight years as a reporter for a daily newspaper in Hastings, Nebraska. He took a year off during that period to travel, including a tour of Egypt and a two-month train trek around Western Europe. He moved to Minneapolis in 2000 and took a job with a major financial corporation, but his goal is to write fiction. To that end he joined The Loft Literary Center and has been active in a writer's group that spun out of a workshop. He's still unpublished but plugging away! Mark says of himself: "Mostly I'm an armchair philosopher but I've always had and interest in science which has blossomed over the last ten years or so and my primary interest is evolution. I joined the Well in July 2001 and found a place to air my philosophical musings, engage in informed discussions about science and otherwise pursue one of my favorite hobbies: arguing. Probably based more on my enthusiasm than expertise, I became a co-host of the science conference last August." He's also into golf, playing frisbee with his dog, jazz, playing the drums, chess, and visiting art museums. Welcome, Mark and Mark!
Mark Frauenfelder (mark) Thu 16 Jan 03 09:23
Hi everyone! Thanks for setting this up, Jon, and thanks for hosting this, Mark. I'm ready to answer questions!
Mark Harms (murffy) Thu 16 Jan 03 18:24
Hey Mark, thanks for joining us. I read the book last weekend and it was a tremendous amount of fun. I did a few of the experiments and discovered my mechanical ineptitude is bettered only by my ham-fisted cooking skills. The Mini Glideabout was perhaps my most successful effort, particularly from my dog's pont of view. He barked and observed intensely as the makeshift hovercraft floated around the kitchen floor. One great feature of the Mad Professor is its hardiness: spiral bound laminated pages with pretty rugged hard cover, perfect for surviving little mishaps. The retro-cartoon-SiFi artwork is lively and fun the layout clear and easy to read. Although, it must be said that, according to the introduction, Mark acted in more of an editorial capacity than as author. The book was written mostly by the staff of Zoober Science Laboratories which includes Professor Zoober himself, a sort of head-in-a-helmet from another solar system; Tambuzi, a genetically modified gorilla with a 200 IQ; Helena Capek, a young genius roboticist and great, great grandaughter of Czech playwrite, Karel Capek; and Philo T. Funsworth, a bald, transparent polymers expert. (The expert is transparent, not the polymers.) But Mark certainly did a fine job of marshaling this talent. Which brings me to my opening question. You mention, Mark, in the book's acknowledgements that your father was a "garage scientist." So I'm wondering how your childhood experiences with a home tinkerer influenced you in writing this book. We're you a tinkerer too? What ultimately made you decide to do the book? It also seems, from reading your bio, looking at your website and perusing some of the articles you've written, that you have embraced Internet culture in a big way. Is this book something of an antidote, something to show kids that there is more to experience than sitting in front of a computer or playing with ready-made technologies? That there's fun and interesting hands-on stuff they can do with ordinary materials?
Mark Frauenfelder (mark) Fri 17 Jan 03 09:58
Hi Mark! Thanks again for being the host of this topic. I'm glad you've had fun with the book so far. The hovercraft project seems ot be a favorite with a lot of people because it is easy to do and it works really well. You ask if I was a tinkerer in my younger days. The answer is yes, but not in the way that some of my friends were. I was always after the quick effect. For instance, when all the kids in the neighborhood started building Estes rockets, I built them too, but I always bought the smallest, easiest- to-assemble rockets. I usually didn't bother to paint them. I just send them up in their raw form -- as brown cardboard tubes with a plastic nose cone and the fins glued on. Some of my other friends would spend days and days making the larger more complex rockets with multiple boosters and playloads and cameras. They'd paint them and meticulously apply the decals. Then, when we'd get together, we'd launch the rockets. I really enjoyed watching the big rockets go off, tasting the fruits of their labor. Today, I think I have a little more patience. I enjoy taking my time working on something, such as learning a new song on my ukulele. I've been practicing "My Little Grass Shack in Kealakekua Hawaii" for about a year- and-a-half and my interest in the song seems to grow every time I attempt to play it. You also ask if Mad Professor was written as a hands-on antidote to the hands-off world of the Internet. Not consciously, but when I think about it, I guess it was. About five years ago I wrote an article about the origins of Silly Putty, and I discovered that people have been trying to make homebrew silly putty. That sounded like fun, so I tried several different recipes I found on the Internet. I loved playing with the stuff, and I often kept wads of the putty next to my computer to knead. (I also like to keep a blob of artist's eraser on my desk for the same reason). It's nice to do something with you hands besides tap keys all day long and putty works your fingers in a great way. One day I thought it would be fun to share the putty recipes I found with other poeple in the form of a book. I wanted to book to have a little backstory, so I created four little scientist characters to show people how to make the projects. And that's how it happened!
Life in the big (doctorow) Fri 17 Jan 03 17:52
(mark), can you tell us how you researched and wrote this book? Serina was a big part of that, right?
Mark Harms (murffy) Fri 17 Jan 03 18:22
The four little scientist characters, by the way, live on a tiny island in the South Pacific called Kia Ora. Apparently, their chief export is rock candy (recipe included in the book with explanations of crystalization and super-saturated solutions). Each section of the book begins with an introduction to some of the principles behind what make the projects work. The Slimes, Putties and Doughs, for example, offers an explanation of polymers are and how they form stretchy, rubbery substances sprinkled with a little history on how these properties were discovered. I'm wondering, Mark, how you gauged whether or not the language and terms would be understandable to the 9-12 year-old range. It seems like you succeeded quite well. What kind of feedback did you receive while working on the project? Was it "kid tested?" There also was an interesting bit on fringe science and the scientific method, like how perpetual motion machines are probably not a worthwhile pursuit because the universe tends not to give anybody a "free lunch." Yet you also explain that the fringes of science are where breakthroughs can occur. Why did you think it was important to include this section?
Mark Harms (murffy) Fri 17 Jan 03 18:25
(doctorow) slipped in.
Audrey Marsh (aud) Fri 17 Jan 03 18:53
I'm going to slip in, too, and say Hi. We (me & my 11-year old son, Stephen) received the book in the mail yesterday. He poured through it quickly, and we were making Robot Food right away. Tomorrow my task is to make sure I buy white vinegar and borax, and "better" balloons. I believe we have some experimenting ahead of us. And some fun!
Mark Harms (murffy) Sat 18 Jan 03 11:35
All right! A parent and kid. I hope we can get updates on your progress. >"better" balloons. Yeah, I was glad I bought three bags of different varieties and sizes. One thing I had fun with was the Living Room Laser Show although it took some tweaking. I had a small mirror but it turned out to be too heavy to register much vibration. I managed to get interesting results with a piece of aluminum foil taped to the balloon, however. I also discovered it worked better if I set the balloon a little off center from my speaker and fixed the laser pointer in place.
beneath the blue suburban skies (aud) Sat 18 Jan 03 11:55
i was wondering if my little mirror was too heavy, guess i was probably right about that. we'll try the foil tonight.
Mark Frauenfelder (mark) Mon 20 Jan 03 09:17
Foil is a great idea. I didn't think of that. Maybe a little piece of mylar (cut from a mylar balloon) would be good, too. Sarina was a great product tester. She loved making the slimes and playing with them after. It kept her busy for at least 1/2 hour. Much better than sticking her in front of the TV. I'm thinking of doing a book titled "How to keep your kids out of your hair without sticking them in front of the TV or computer." Mark, you asked about how I chose the maturity level for the language I used in Mad Professor. Well, after reading lots of books to Sarina (who is now 5.5 years old), I have a good idea of what kind of writing a kid can understand and enjoy.
Life in the big (doctorow) Mon 20 Jan 03 09:46
Keeping your kids away from the computer? I knew there was a reason I shouldn't be allowed to reproduce.
Betsy Schwartz (betsys) Mon 20 Jan 03 10:07
Boing boing! I am impressed! About science, do you have any suggestions for which experiments would work with a 6-year-old? She's just starting to get interested in how things work but doesn't have the patience of a 10-year-old...
Mark Harms (murffy) Mon 20 Jan 03 11:55
It seems like a lot of the projects lend themselves to variations. Have you heard of some interesting ones, Mark, since the book came out?
Mark Frauenfelder (mark) Mon 20 Jan 03 13:36
I haven't really heard of any new ones yet. I'm going to start looking for more ideas soon, for a follow up book, though. I wnat to do a Mad Professor Magic Book, that will have magic tricks that are based on science.
Adam Powell (rocket) Mon 20 Jan 03 15:14
That sounds great! ,
Mark Harms (murffy) Mon 20 Jan 03 15:51
Indeed. Another interesting thing in the book is the "Introduction to Robotics" where, Mark, you list Isaac Asimov's three laws of robotics and talk about the growing potential of robots. You say, "... it wouldn't hurt to start thinking about what kind of relationship we should have with robots as they become smarter and more lifelike in the years to come." Can you address your thinking here a little bit? I would think kids would be pretty open-minded about the possibilities of robots.
Mark Frauenfelder (mark) Tue 21 Jan 03 12:48
I agree, Mark. Kids are very open minded about the role of robots. I'm hoping that kids (and grownups) think about how much control they want to give robots. As Kevin Kelly pointed out in his book, if you want to have a robot that can surprise you with what it can do, you have to give it a certain degree of autonomy. The question you need to ask yourself is, "how much autonomy should a robot have in this particular circumstance." Like, do you want a vacuuming robot to have the ability to open doors and look for new rooms to vacuum? That might be a good idea, until it vacuums up your daughter's bead set.
Mark Harms (murffy) Tue 21 Jan 03 18:38
I can see where problems, seemingly mundane, could occur. I could imagine a vacuuming robot poking its head into my room as I was busy typing away at something -- "Hey! Get out of here. Go vacuum somewhere else." Autonomous behavior in a robot is great in Sci Fi but encountering it in real life might be awfully strange, I would think. I assume you mean Kevin Kelly's "Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems and the Economic World." I haven't read it but it looks interesting. Were Kelly and you colleagues at Wired? All right. I can hold out no longer. If I'm not mistaken, you were in a Mac commercial. Can you tell us something about how you managed to get that gig and what it was like? (I understand you were a convert from the PC world, not that I'm trying to start a thrash or anything.)
Mark Frauenfelder (mark) Thu 23 Jan 03 17:58
The MAc commercial was a lot of fun. Here's how it happened. I have a friend named Alberta Chu. She makes science documentaries. When we first met she came over to my place and nearly barfed when she saw that I had a windows machine. She said she was surprised. So when I told her I switched, she must have stored that away, because when Apple started asking for switchers, she recommended me.
a little bit (rockyshoe) Fri 24 Jan 03 21:10
Thank you for this book. It is really great! I have a 10 yr old who is *extremely* interested in science. Most recently he really wanted to know how lasers work, so we did a bunch of research on that subject. We got the book in the mail and have paged through it, but haven't yet had a chance to PLAY because he gets so much dang homework. Tomorrow, though, tomorrow is the day! We are going to do at least two spearaments from your book. Anyone have suggestions of the best to try? I want to do the hoverthing. Right off the bat, I have one comment for you- I like the mix of fun and science. Some kids really want to know more, and you do provide some "more" for them, but it doesn't get in the way of the fun. We have a chemistry set, which he was really psyched about, but turns out to be deadly dull. The booklet that came with it is written in about 6 point font, and is so hard to look at that it makes you sleepy.
Mark Harms (murffy) Sat 25 Jan 03 12:58
Thanks for chiming in, (rockyshoe). Yeah, I remember a having a chemistry set as a kid with a largely unintelligible instruction book. So I ended up mainly just randomly mixing things together without much result. It got boring pretty quick. The hoverthing is pretty cool. I recommend a vinyl record over a CD. It can handle a bigger balloon and hover longer. I also like the Vortex Canon (i.e. smoke-ring blower). Mark recommends a stick of incense to make smoke; I used it as an excuse to buy a cigar. Have fun. Let us know what happens. So, Mark, are you now a Mac evangelist? Do you find it better for your illustration work?
Mark Frauenfelder (mark) Sat 25 Jan 03 15:07
For a long time, I used a Windows laptop to do all my illustrations. Adobe Illustrator and photoshop are both terrific on Windows. I just prefer the Mac OS to Windows. My experience with Windows XP is pretty good though. It seems nice. I had the same problem with chemistry sets. The experiments were pretty bad. I had better luck with library books. Anybody remember the Golden Book of Chemistry? That was great. So was another book that I can't remember the title of. It had all sorts of amazing stuff in it. The cover illustration was a picture of a guys upturned hand, which was on fire. That was one of the experiments in the book -- cool fire. There were experiments for colored fire, exploding paper, and all sorts of other dangerous things. A bunch of the experiments called for carbon tetrachloride, which isn't the healthiest stuff to handle, I later learned. My dad loved chemistry when he was younger. He grew up in Golden, Colorado which is the home of the School of Mines. He had access to explosives. He made nitroglycerin. Unfortunately, he and some friends were blowing holes in a mineshaft and his friend blew his hand right off. My dad still has carbon scars in his own hand. So he was pretty good about making sure that we were safe experimenters.
Bill Burrows (gjk) Sat 25 Jan 03 16:40
Mark, did you ever Watch Mr. Wizard?
a little bit (rockyshoe) Sat 25 Jan 03 21:40
What is Mr. Wizard? I want to do the cool fire thing! So, we had SUCH a good time today with the book! First we tried the film can rocket, which was pretty cool, but it only popped up a few inches. Is that normal? Then, we did some goo. This turned into an hour and a half long expedition into goo land. First, we misread the directions, and used borax instead of borax solution. This made a really interesting substance- stiff, kind of rough, somewhat bouncy. Felt very light. Next, we made the correct recipe. and also added glitter. He really enjoyed comparing the error and the correct goo. Seeing which was bouncier, that the regular goo felt even lighter. Next, he made the goo with clear gel glue instead of white glue. He liked that this goo was so completely different. We talked about how cheap and easy it was to make this stuff, and how much you pay for store bought versions of goo in cute packages. Next, he smushed together regular goo and clear gel goo to see if they would combine. they didn't and he made a very cool goo oreo cookie. (not edible). Next, he tried the book's suggestion of mixing clear glue and white glue together to make goo, which created a long slimy mixture that stretched out and looked uncannily like an umbilical cord. The comparing/contrasting went on in great detail. He started talking about all the different kinds of goo he would make with different substances (Peanut butter- "Might not work, probably wouldn't, but I won't know until I try!"). We read the section on polymer, which was well illustrated and interesting. As we wound down the experiment, my son said "This is a good book." and then later "I *like* polymers." and then "This is why I want to be a scientist!" It was really good for me to take the time, put aside all my "responsibilities" and do something with him, like I did when he was a tot. Lately, we just kind of both orbit around each other, and don't do much TOGETHER stuff. We will definitely do more experiments soon.
Mark Harms (murffy) Sun 26 Jan 03 20:11
That's great. One couldn't hope for a better plug. >Adobe Illustrator and photoshop are both terrific on Windows. I >just prefer the Mac OS to Windows. That's like reasonable and stuff. No thrash here. Dang. So, Mark, do you do all your drawing and illustrating on computer? Did you have to go through a lot of prototype characters before coming up with the four in the book.? Any rejects of note, something you might be saving for later material?
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