Unleash your inner inventor!

After my talk at Nerd Nite, I’m encouraging people to exercise their imaginations, create, create, create and come up with your own inventions.

Places to play in San Francisco:

Has classes and all the tools you could ever want to make your brain buzz with creativity

Offers classes on everything from using tools to quilting to pickling

has lots of hacker events, mostly tech but some other stuff too. Regular meetings on Tues nights, and a big space in the Mission with an actual darkroom! And lots of machines and stuff for crafting.

Sewing workshop
Holds classes for all skill levels and  on a wide range of sewing-related endeavors

Get inspired by the stories of great inventors:



Check out media and reprints from historic American innovators:

History of invention in America, Library of Congress:
Ben Franklin, Alexander Bell, origins of flight, animation and the recording industry, and more

“Who Made America”

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Making magical bagels with Sour Flour

Last Sunday, I did my second bread workshop given by Sour Flour. Sour Flour does what I call “breaducation,” teaching ordinary folks like me more about what’s going on in bread baking, and also training professional bakers. “Building community through bread,” says their website.

I love that idea: bread is more than just a food. We call it the staff of life. We look forward to the chance to break bread together. Our new discoveries are the best thing since sliced bread. And all we need is a loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou.

Which is just another set of reasons that I love learning about bread, and sharing what I’ve learned with those of you who join in on The Science of Bread and Cheese Walking Tour.

To that end, I must share the wonderful evening I had in the back kitchen of La Victoria bakery, with Mike, our teacher, and a set of dough-rolling classmates. If only I could share the bagels…

(click the pics to see bigger versions)

Flour and water

Start with the basics: flour, water, salt, starter. The flour is especially hight in protein, to make lots of nice, chewy gluten and lend that bagely bite.

Mix it up, flatten it out. Then fold it up. Do this a bunch of times to develop the gluten.

Letting the dough rest.

With a softer piece of regular bread dough, Mike shows us how pliable and elastic the dough should be when the gluten is good. You can stretch it so thin you can see through it. Not with our bagel dough, though. Much too stiff.

After enough rounds of flatten-and-fold, we set our dough aside for long rest before shaping it.

After the rest, we flatten it again, and tightly, tightly roll it up into a log shape.

Then make a bagel snake.

This was the hard part: how to close the loop, make a nice, even circle, and not have the seam show. Not surprisingly, our teacher Mike was much better at this than me.

Bagel dough ready to transport home for baking!

At home, drop them into boiling water till they rise to the surface.

Add poppy and sesame seeds.

In the oven, they puff up and start looking like real, actual bagels!

Ta da! It seems sorta magical, not like baking regular bread.

Dense and chewy inside. Fresh out of the oven, with butter. Mmmmm, wow. Bruegger's and Noah's got nothin' on Sour Flour!

Sour Flour has three different bread workshops, one on starters, one on dough development, and this one about bagels. I learned a lot from the two I took, and went home with copious amounts of delicious bread dough! You can read about the workshops and sign up for them on the Sour Flour site.

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Gearing up for The Science of Chocolate Walking Tour

Chocolate is officially in the air on Discovery Street! I’m planning to launch a Science of Chocolate Walking Tour in late summer or early fall. Today I visited the aromatic factory of Dandelion Chocolates, located in Dogpatch right now, but soon moving over to the Mission. Alice Nystrom, one of four Dandelion folks, gave me a tour of their chocolatey digs, including some velvety smooth samples. Here’s a preview for y’all, to get your curious taste buds anticipating.

It all starts with the raw cacao beans. Here’s one cracked open in my hand. These beans came from Madagascar.

The beans are roasted in small, 1 kg batches, cracked to break them into pieces and remove the husks, and then the nibby bits are ground up in a peanut grinder. After that, they’re moved to this machine, where the cacao nibs are mushed around with some sugar, a process which goes on for a couple of days.

Then the real science comes in…tempering. Below is a picture of the tempering machine. Tempering is a way of coercing the fat in the chocolate to make the right type of crystals (mmmm, fat crystals), the sort that will give the final bar a nice shine and snap.

Chocolate tempering machine

After tempering, the molten luscious lava is poured into molds and chilled. Lucky visitors to the factory get to sample some tastes. Dandelion uses only cacao and sugar in their bars, a very unusual approach to chocolate-making.  The creaminess and flavor notes of the chocolate reflect the pure bean’s fat content and unique biochemistry.

And my oh my, what fine chocolate it is!

At Dandelion, they wrap each bar individually by hand, with loving care, and seal it with a sticker bearing the wrapper’s initials.

And last but not least, two of the smiling faces behind Dandelion, standing by bags of Venezuelan beans: Todd Masonis (pictured here, left), along with Cameron Ring, founded Dandelion Chocolates in 2010. My tour guide Alice Nystrom (right) joined them about 18 months ago. In February, Alice hand-wrapped the company’s 10,000th bar. And we know there are many more to come!

I’ll be launching The Science of Chocolate Walking Tour shortly after Dandelion moves to its new home on Valencia St this summer. Join the Discovery Street mailing list to hear about preview tours and the official chocolate launch!

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A New Year’s D-Street Video

We had a wonderful group for the Invented in San Francisco tour on New Year’s Day. Among those who joined in was Taka Maeda, a young woman from Japan who came to the United States for a kidney transplant, and is getting her recovery care in the Bay Area. She seemed very happy to be alive! She took a lot of photos, and made them into this, Discovery Street’s first fan video!

Thanks so much, Taka!

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Chemistry song, dance, and hair

I can’t help it, I love chemistry. It’s so beautiful. It’s so everything.

So how can I not love the periodic table? Ah, the rows and columns that give the atoms of the world meaning. In college, I carried a laminated copy of it around in my wallet, just in case I needed to reassure myself of the primacy of oxygen and carbon in the physical world.

There are a zillion periodic tables to be had. Lately everyone is swooning over TouchPress’s iPad app, “The Elements; A Visual Exploration.” And it’s got all the whiz-bang stuff: pretty pictures, 3-D animation, fun factoids. But it doesn’t have personality.

Or great hair.

May I introduce Dr. Martyn Poliakoff, Research professor of chemistry at the University of Nottingham and periodic table rock star? I can’t imagine anyone else making fluorine so much fun:

Our chemistry hero has created a video for each element, and even videos for some very enticing molecules. And one that features a lot of cute shots of a koala munching eucalyptus while we learn about the chemistry of eucalyptol.


If only YouTube had been around when I first studied chemistry…

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Telling time by the sun (when it’s out) in Ingleside

The sundial that was, and is, in Ingleside Terrace. Note the shallow reflecting pool underneath the original sundial.

As modern humans, we usually think time is about minutes and seconds and not being late for a meeting. But really, time is all about the position of the sun relative to the Earth. I love sundials because they’re a reminder that the entity we try to manage, control, spend less of, and schedule our lives by is actually tied to something in nature.

You can be the time-telling shadowcaster in a sundial.

Over the course of the day, shadows shorten and lengthen as the angle of the light changes. The length and angle of a shadow depends on where the sun is. A sundial tells us what time it is by capturing the regular path the sun follows across the sky each day.

Not only can the sun tell us what time it is, it can tell us what direction we’re facing. How? Put a stick in the ground and mark the end of its shadow. Wait 15 minutes or so, and mark the shadow’s end again. Draw a straight line between the two marks. The left end of the line is west, the right end is east. Face the line and you’ll be facing north. Good to know if you’re an adventurous trekker whose GPS batteries run out.

Why does this work? Because the time of day and the position of the earth relative to the sun are actually the same thing.

Perhaps our attraction for sundials is more aesthetic then scientific, though. The sundial above was created in 1913 in an effort to lure home buyers to a posh then-new development in the foggy Ingleside neighborhood of San Francisco. The New York Times picked up a short ditty on the sundial this weekend from Bay Citizen, a local news org partnered with the Times.

The 1913 brochure enticing home buyers to settle in Ingleside to be near the giant sundial.

Or better yet, check out the original brochure for the neighborhood attraction on the website of the Western Neighborhoods Project–the original Outsidelands, before that silly rock festival co-opted the name.

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Stairways to heaven

There’s a woman in San Francisco who’s famous for the magical way she shares walks with people. She’s become somewhat legendary, owing to her book, “Stairway Walks in San Francisco.” Stairways, many of which were built long ago into hillsides too steep to accommodate streets, turn a stroll through this hilly town into a discovery. Adah Bakalinsky has gone up and down each of the city’s staircases many times,

Adah’s grandmother took her for walks, showing her how to experience the world pace by pace. Now Adah herself is a great-grandmother, and takes the tots in her family on city strolls. It gives me pause to consider a woman who embodies seven generations of foot soldiers.

To me, Adah is the queen of the quiet meander, someone who knows how to notice. She smiles when she describes how each walk is different, because you never know where it’s going to take you. “I try to find serendipity at least once a day.” she says.

I’ve always wanted to talk a walk with Adah, there’s so much to learn from her. Last night, I went to a reading of hers, and afterward told her about D-Street and asked her if she would walk with me. She said yes! “In two weeks, come over for lunch, and afterward we’ll go have an adventure.”

I can only hope I’m as lively when I’m 85.

Here’s a little ditty about her from the travel section of the Washington Post:


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