A professional chemist doing for profit chemistry is not a hobbyist

Earlier this week Greg Laden posted an intriguing article, Home Chemistry Hobbyist Shut Down in Massachusetts. He had picked up on this story via a post at the MAKE magazine Blog, Home science under attack. Both of the blogs where basing their commentary on this one article from the August 9th edition of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. Let me start by summarizing the story as reported by two local newspapers, see the links below for the full text of the seven newspaper articles I found.

On the afternoon of August 5th 2008 the Marlborough Massachusetts Fire Department responded to a call of a fire in a two story house on Fremont Street. When they arrived they found a fire in a window air conditioner of a second floor bedroom and the lone occupant of the house at the time, homeowner Victor Deeb, had safely gotten out. The firemen put the fire out in about a minute but by that time there was more than a thousand dollars worth of smoke damage to the bedroom.  [updated 8/18 with information from Mr. Deeb’s comment] If this had happened to me I would have turned off the power to the air conditioner and put the fire out with a fire extinguisher avoiding the major smoke damage from waiting for the fire department to arrive. Since Mr. Deeb is a 71 year old who uses a cane to get around it is perfectly understandable why he called the fire department instead. [Mr. Deeb was trying to use a fire extinguisher on the fire when a passing Policeman saw the smoke and called the fire department.] (Photo of Mr. Deeb speaking to Police after the fire was put out, from The MetroWest Daily News)

The firefighters then followed standard procedures and checked that all the spaces in the house had been ventilated to remove the smoke and prevent further damage. When they went down into the basement they discovered a chemical R&D laboratory containing more than 100 unlabeled containers of chemicals [Mr. Deeb seems to dispute this]. The chemicals where in assorted containers from quart size up to 20 gallon drums some on shelves and some just sitting on the basement floor. Fire department officials attempted to find permits issued to Mr. Deeb for the storage of large quantities of chemicals but where unable to find any permits. The fire department then contacted the state fire marshal’s office who in turn called in the state bomb squad. If Mr. Deeb had obtained permits for possessing large quantities of chemicals they could have avoided the bomb squad but without the permits they had to take the safe approach and treat this as a potentially dangerous situation in a residential neighborhood. At no time did the authorities claim that Mr. Deeb was making weapons or drugs they simply had no way to know what was in the containers and without permits they could not simply take Mr. Deeb’s word for it that these unlabeled chemicals were not dangerous.

The Fire Department advised Mr. Deeb that this situation would take many hours to clear up so he should find a place to stay for a while. Mr. Deeb took the advise of the fire department and left with his family. Over the next two days the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and local authorities, with the cooperation of Mr. Deeb, removed over 1,500 containers of chemicals none of which turned out to be a biological or radioactive risk. Mr. Deeb and his family were allowed to return to their home on August 8th after the laboratory was safely dismantled and taken away. A hazardous materials cleanup company was contracted by MA DEP to test and then properly dispose of the chemicals. The Marlborough Department of Public Works is running tests to make sure none of the chemicals seeped into the town sewer system. While Mr. Deeb has likely violated numerous state and local safety regulations and laws, as of Saturday the 9th no citations had yet been issued.

This Saturday’s (8/16) Worcester Telegram & Gazette article has more details about the incident. The FBI showed up to take a look and there were thirty-five 20 gallon drums of chemicals that the hazmat contractor had to take for analysis and disposal. His laboratory was a mess with flammable chemicals stored next to the home’s furnace. By his own admission Mr. Deeb is a retired chemist who was very clearly running a for profit chemical R&D laboratory out of his basement in a residential neighborhood. He is considering suing the city for taking down his lab because he thinks his civil rights have been violated.

IMO, the fire department and other city and state officials did absolutely nothing wrong. They certainly did not violate Mr. Deeb’s civil rights because there is no civil right to possess and improperly store large quantities of regulated chemicals in your home. The officials had every right to enter his lab without a search warrant because they were called to the home by him [there] to put out a fire.

Mr. Deeb may be a very good chemist in fact judging by the number of patents he appears on it is almost a certainty. He has clearly been running a business from his home at least since 11/1/98. However he clearly does not understand laboratory safety rules, you must always properly label and store chemicals. Flammable chemicals like the acetone he had must be stored in fire proof cabinets not sitting on the floor or shelf and/or near a furnace. Mr. Deeb could not handle a small fire without the assistance of the fire department so obviously he couldn’t be trusted to handle a laboratory fire. He appears to not understand the need for permits and zoning clearance for commercial chemical research laboratories.

The reaction on the Internet is so far over the top I’m astounded. It seems that most of the people commenting on this story have made no effort to read the articles and are simply jumping to totally absurd conclusions based on preconceived notions. Here’s a list of my responses to the wild commentary and claims that are spreading across the Internet.

  1. Mr. Deebs was not a hobbyist, he freely admits this was a for profit R&D laboratory. Even without his admission the fact that he had hundreds of containers of chemicals including 35 twenty gallon drums puts him way beyond the hobbyist level.
  2. The government did not target Mr. Deeb in any way, they came to his aid when he called [put out a fire] and found him violating safety and zoning regulations.
  3. No government agency is going to come to your house because you gave your child a home chemistry set for Christmas.
  4. Having retail containers of household chemicals is not equivalent to having large quantities of industrial chemicals.
  5. The City Government of Marlborough Massachusetts is in no way comparable to the Nazi’s. Oh and it’s spelled Marlborough not Marlboro, that’s a brand of cigarettes.
  6. Thomas Edison did not set up laboratories in residential neighborhoods, he knew what he was doing could be hazardous so his laboratories where in private compounds and/or industrial districts.
  7. The police did not raid Mr. Deeb’s home, they did not kick down his door.
  8. Doing scientific research on a home computer is in no way even remotely equivalent to running an R&D laboratory with large quantities of chemicals.
  9. There was no fourth amendment violation, see number two above.
  10. That he has not yet been charged is not proof he didn’t break laws.
  11. This incident will not lead to the government burning our books.
  12. Mr. Deeb is not even remotely like a terrorist, any mention of 9/11 is absolutely ridiculous.
  13. Football is in no danger of being banned.
  14. Marlborough Massachusetts is not a police state.
  15. This is not equivalent to the two Steve’s founding Apple Computer in a garage, Woz is far too intelligent to improperly label and store large quantities of industrial chemicals.
  16. Ditto for Hewlett and Packard.
  17. Practicing putting in your living room, baking cookies for church, scrap booking and doing transcriptions are not even remotely similar to what Mr. Deeb did.
  18. The citizens of Massachusetts have rights, in fact we have some rights most other states do not grant to their citizens. e.g. Marrying the person you want to.
  19. This is not like outlawing innovation.
  20. Mr. Deeb did NOT take proper laboratory safety precautions, unlabeled and improperly stored containers is very bad.
  21. Building your own PC and running Linux on it are not going to get you into the trouble Mr. Deeb is in.
  22. The safety of Mr. Deeb’s neighbors IS the responsibility of the government.
  23. Mr. Deeb was not picked on because he was racially profiled as being of Middle Eastern descent.
  24. A hobbyist darkroom in your home is not equivalent to a R&D laboratory. A commercial darkroom on the other hand is regulated in similar ways to a R&D chemical lab.
  25. There were dangerous chemicals in Mr. Deeb’s laboratory by his own admission there was acetone. What the government officials have said is there where no biological or radiological hazards and no exceptionally explosive chemicals.
  26. Mr. Deeb did not give the fire fighters an inventory of the chemicals in his laboratory. Either he did not have an inventory or he wanted them to have to call in the bomb squad and hazmat teams, I’m guessing he didn’t have an inventory list.
  27. Making beer in your basement for personal use is not like a commercial research chemical laboratory.

I know it’s hard to research stories but that doesn’t excuse people from the obligation to examine the evidence. I’m most disappointed that so many people jump right to parroting the poorly researched and quote mined work of others to justify their preconceived notions. Any of these people who have integrity should take the time to read the articles, Google Victor M. Deeb and then post updates to correct their bogus reporting.

I have found one well researched response on the net, Mike O’Risal’s post is a very good read. Having read a number of excellent posts and comments by Mike over the past year, today I’ve added his blog to my reader and blogroll. On top of his good writing I need to start reading him regularly because he lives in my county, Worcester (pronounced Woostah in my native Yankee accent).

I’m sorry that Mr. Deeb has lost his R&D laboratory and likely will close his business. However, he should have followed the rules for running a commercial laboratory and gotten the proper permits and zoning variances. He may be ignorant of the law but that is not a valid excuse especially when you are running a for profit business.

The MetroWest Daily News articles:

Worcester Telegram & Gazette articles:

Victor Deeb’s business:

Happy Birthday Hans Oersted

orstedHans Christian Ørsted (Oersted) was born August 14, 1777 in Rudkøbing (Rudkjobing), Denmark (island of Langeland). Oersted received a doctor of philosophy degree in 1799 from the University of Copenhagen. Like many of the great scientists of late 18th and early 19th centuries, Oersted studied many fields including chemistry, aesthetics and physics. In addition to his scientific work he also was a published writer and poet.

The discovery that puts Oersted on my list of giants was the connection between electricity and magnetism. The details of how this discovery happened are uncertain with three accounts by Oersted as well as information from students who were present at the time. See the biographies and articles linked below for some of the variations in the story. What seems clear to me is that although he was not specifically experimenting with a compass near a wire carrying an electrical current, he immediately recognized the significance of the observed effect. Oersted had seen the compass needle move and through later experiments and analysis demonstrated clearly the deep connection between electricity and magnetism, what we refer to today as electromagnetism. For this important work he received the prestigious Copley Medal from the Royal Society of London in 1820. His work was recognized in 1930 by naming the SI unit of magnetizing force (magnetic field strength) the oersted.

Eric Weisstein’s World of Scientific Biography

Oersted and the Discovery of Electromagnetism by Frederick Gregory, Department of History, University of Florida
Oertsted and Ampere by Dr. David P. Stern

Processing my digital photos part 3

Now that I’ve got my photos safely stored so that I won’t loose the originals and, I can edit to my hearts content without loss of quality, I’m ready for the main work.  For the details of how I got here, read the first two parts of this series here and here.

Retouching the photos is the longest portion of my digital photo workflow. I won’t try to cover image enhancement in detail as there are many web sites with detailed information on the various techniques. One tip I do want to point out is, don’t always jump to use brightness and contrast adjustment for poorly lit photos. With underexposed and overexposed photos I most often find the best correction technique is to add layers and set the blend mode to compensate for the poor exposure. Overexposed photos are corrected with layers set to multiply blend mode, underexposure is compensated using screen blend mode. Once you have a blend layer setup you can strengthen the effect by simply duplicating the blend layer. To achieve dodging and burning effects, add masks to the screen and multiply layers. It can be time consuming but I think the results are worth the effort, here’s a couple examples.

This photo of a Rainbow Lorikeet at the Brevard Zoo is horribly underexposed.


By duplicating the image to a new layer, setting the blend mode to screen and duplicating the new layer two times the photo is rescued from the dustbin.dcp01898

Due to the poor natural lighting, the original photo is overexposed in the upper right and underexposed in the lower left.dcp01411org1

By adding both a masked screen layer and a masked multiply layer the poor lighting is evened out.dcp01411

With the retouching finished the next step is to export the photo as a JPEG file into the JPEG directory I’d previously setup (see part 1 for details of my directory structure). In my preferred photo editing program, Paint Shop Pro, their are multiple ways to perform this function. For single photos there is a JPEG export command and the file “save as” command, when I have multiple photos to export I use the batch processing feature.

Now I’m ready to create albums on CDs for my family and friends and another album for my web site. In the past I used JASC’s Media Center Plus with customized templates to create albums like this 2002 Olympics album. Sadly that application was discontinued years ago so I needed to find something current.

I tried out many free and commercial products but one stood out from the rest, the open source JAVA based JAlbum. This photo album application is extremely customizable and has many skins available so everyone should be able to find a combination they like. I’ve chosen the Chameleon skin by Lazaworx for all my albums so far and have been very pleased with the ease of use and flexibility.

Paint Shop Pro Tutorials

Some people can make a conspiracy out of anything

or The great Google conspiracy thread 🙂

Last year on an engineering mail list someone asked about good ham radio mail lists. One of the early replies, lets call him engineer #1 said:

Search Google Groups with key ‘ham’. Ignore any porky links 😉

Another person (engineer #2) saw that and replied.

Just don’t search for “amateur video” which is a perfectly legitimate Ham radio term……  discovered that the hard way.
Although just for fun  I just checked this search term, it doesn’t seem to be quite as raunchy as before.. and even has one relevant hit on the first page.

I thought that was funny but knew that was probably not what the engineer #1 meant by porky links. I’d seen a small previous rant from him on Google and sure enough engineer #1 responded with this.

Ever since goopile charges money for ranking things have changed. Whoever is not ponying up enough funds does not show up in the cummershally useful first few pages of hits. So much for ‘not doing evil’ (but not much good either). Simple math shows that 100-150 paying punters will displace *everyone* from the first few pages of hits. And there are a lot more than 150 paying punters out there, no matter what the search terms, even with the new ‘we advertise in regular hits but you don’t know it’ approach seen with ieee.org etc papers.

Oh crap this guys got a conspiracy theory about Google searches being totally rigged. Fortunately for me I didn’t have to call this guy out right away because two other engineers replied.

#3) I disagree with that, do a gurgle for … and my site comes top, and has done so for a couple of years.
I have never paid to list it, and never submitted it to any engines.  Simply gets there by magic or whatever. (actually, i believe it is because the site links to a number of other places and gets spidered, but magic sounds better).

#4) I don’t think Google (like some others) accepts payment for search ranking. They do auction off ad positions, but these paid ads are clearly marked as “sponsored links.” I think search position is largely based on the number of relevant links to a page (not from link farms). For example, my page on … comes in number 4 out of 1,810,000.

Engineer #1 comes back with this diatribe.

I think that there are a lot of exceptions that confirm the rule. The rule is that getting a site with ‘usual’ content into a reasonable position is nearly impossible without ‘magic’ involving Ben Franklin effigies changing hands. There is nothing sinister about it (but I’d still want to know why those ieee.org ‘sell’ pages get ranked so high without having content accessible to usual browsers w/o paying).

Most of my domains have what I would consider “usual” (plain, not extraordinary) content and they get good ranking. Well saying good ranking is being optimistic, fair ranking would be more accurate, they get ranked lower than better sites and higher than worse sites. I don’t pay anyone money to improve my ranking and a few others replied to the thread saying they had good rank without paying. It was looking like engineer #1 felt there was a conspiracy against sites he’s worked on. So, I just couldn’t resist stirring the pot by asking for the one thing conspiracy theorists can never provide, evidence.

> I think that there are a lot of exceptions that confirm the rule. The rule is
> that getting a site with ‘usual’ content into a reasonable position is nearly
> impossible without ‘magic’ involving Ben Franklin effigies changing hands.
Would you please provide a search term(s) that produces a Google result that illustrates your point.

About thirteen hours later I see this reply from engineer #1.

Sorry for the late answer.

Hmm, why is he apologizing, his reply was 13 hours after my query, on a global mail list 72 hours or more would be considered a late reply. Could he be trying to get on my good side by being polite while avoiding providing any evidence?

I cannot give a direct query, but here is an alternate way:
– enter some search terms in Google
– take the websites for the first two pages of results and search each
– note the order of the websites (which should reflect ranking), and the link count for the search on those websites (which does not)
Of course this is far from perfect, but it busts the myth about ‘relevant results sorted by ranking determined by link count’.

Yep, he can not provide any evidence for his claim and tries to distract me from the request for evidence by asking me to do his work for him. One of the more rational minded engineers on the list replied with good information and links to Google explaining how to get good rank. That skeptical engineer ended his reply with a very funny bit.

This is starting to sound like every other conspiracy nutter thread – “I can’t prove it but I know it’s true”. What colour helicopters do Google use?  Stripes?  No use looking for them in GoogleMaps of course, they’d be photoshopped out.

And one of the list’s class clown engineers who hates conspiracy theories added:

I heard that. My niece’s boyfriend’s cousin works for a cleaner who does an IT firm and she said….

The next reply in the thread was from an engineer that I usually see posting rational well thought out replies.

It’s been particularly annoying that you USED to be able to enter a part number of a relatively obscure chip and have the manufacture’s spec sheet show up high in the rankings.  Now, you wind up with a whole bunch of data sheet subscription services that want money before they’ll feed up the datasheet, and a bunch of sales sites,  good portion of which don’t actually HAVE the datasheet or the part you requested anyway.  For instance, try “tmp47p443″…
I don’t think this is google being bought, I think it’s just sites that have learned how to manipulate the search engines.

I just had to try his example so I did then posted this reply.

Great something to try, thank you. I seem to remember the last time I tried this a year or more ago it was frustrating. Google on tmp47p443 and there it is, only data-sheet archives and aggregators. First hit is DigChip.com a member only site but, it does show it to be Toshiba part. Go to Toshiba’s web site and search, not found, that explains why the manufacturers site didn’t come up in the Google search. Second result is clearly an obsolete parts sales site so I skip it. The 3rd result is datasheets.org.uk I try it and success, the tmp47p443 data sheet without any signup.

That was too easy, I do seem to recall that it was harder finding data sheets for obsolete parts. I check the date on the datasheet and see it’s from 2000 so I try an older part. The MC146823 was obsolete more than 10 years ago but, there’s a copy of the data book pages at the first result, datasheet4u.com. I try some more:
28c16 – 3rd result alldatasheet.com
MC146818 – 1st result datasheetcatalog.com
ad7533 – 1st result original manufacturer Analog Devices

Well either my memory of how hard it was to find datasheets for obsolete parts is wrong or, Google and the free datasheet sites have improved things. In any case it’s worth noting that these sites have many old datasheets for free.

Next the conspiracy theorist engineers started complaining about Google searches linking to journals where the information isn’t available for free. They claimed that the sites must be paying Google to do this as a way to increase their income.

And — as mentioned here before, Google /knows/ that the IEEE pages it indexes are not public. I still find it quite odd to find non-public content indexed and probably never will get used to this.

I’m sure the ones who have access to IEEE or would buy their papers based on a Google search are a dwindling minority of Google users. All others just get annoyed by this. There must be another reason… and as always, money leads the suspicions.

I responded:

The last time this issue came up here I wanted to mention something I remember reading about it from quite a while back. However I couldn’t locate what I had read about Google and standards bodies so, I didn’t mention it. I think it was from around 2001 and in one of the trade rags, EET I think.

Any way, what I remember reading was that Google was trying to get standards bodies to allow them to index there documents for search results while protecting the standards bodies income source. While I can’t find the old article It seems to match up with the information at Google Scholar.

Google Scholar and Google books take the attitude that it is better to let you know that the information is out there even if you can’t access the complete information for free. Personally it doesn’t bother me to see a standards body restricted access document listed first in the results. If I really need to see the information I’ll head to a library or have my employer buy it.

A number of other engineers echoed my reply and feelings about the situation. The conspiracy theorists couldn’t deny that this is what Google is doing so they fell back on a good old standby, I don’t like it this way so it shouldn’t be this way. One example was this guys post:

Whether money changes hands or not, indexing sources where the subscribers are only a tiny minority among the general Google users is more a nuisance than a service. It is not much more than advertising for those paid-for services, without much usefulness otherwise.

I really would like an option to blank those results out. They do me no good. I found Google was better when they weren’t there.

OK that’s his opinion, he’d rather be unaware of the availability of information, seems stupid to me but it’s an opinion and no longer an allegation of wrong doing so I didn’t reply. Soon after, the engineer with the failed example replied to the thread with “We’re still waiting for an example search.” and the only reply from the conspiracy theorists was along the lines of, I can’t provide one now but someday I will. This should have been the end of this silly discussion but no, it sprouts multiple new threads with similar themes and no evidence until finally one conspiracy theorist provides one test case. But wait, the conspiracy is that it gets annoying links up high in rank but where does his example come in the rankings.

Note: The link above was the 1st on page 51 (!!) of the search…

Ah the link that he is using as an example is ranked 511th (#1 on results page 51 at 10 results per page). That is not evidence for the claim by any stretch of the imagination. Very few people would ever see that link except for a conspiracy theorist trying really hard to find some scrap of information to support their pet theory. Frankly if some organization is paying money to reach 511th position they are throwing their money away.

Next another example comes through but it’s a search for words that are only likely to be encountered in articles from science journals. Another rational engineer points this out and the conspiracy theorist replies with, I don’t like it and because I don’t like it their must be a conspiracy. I made no replies in this branch of the thread because even the other CT’s didn’t want to touch this silliness.

One of the other new threads was getting even more ridiculous by boiling all the various claims down to one simple claim, Google is evil and stupid. Again no-one is providing concrete examples so I had to jump in with this reply.

Has anyone got any evidence this time around?

After all we’re talking about a search engine so there must be links that support the claims.

Last time around I asked for evidence and none was forthcoming. If no evidence is presented this time around maybe we should all agree that posting unsupported claims against Google is forbidden.

One of the original conspiracy nuts replied with this:

It is hard to point at something that is *not* found …

Followed by some hand waving and no evidence of any kind. So I replied:

Well then point out the search terms you used and the URL’s of sites that should have come up in the list but didn’t. Claims with no evidence are useless and are not part of good engineering or science.

The sound of crickets followed and to this day no-one on the list lets these silly Google conspiracy threads go forward. Someone will simply reply with “give us the link” and the conspiracy theorist simply waves his hands and slinks away back into his fantasy world where anything he doesn’t like must be a conspiracy.

2007 Internet Crime Report

This months’ Conformity magazine email newsletter, “You Can’t Make This Stuff Up” column, pointed me to the Internet Crime Complaint Center 2007 Annual Report.

The whole report is well worth reading, I amazes me how so many people are gullible enough to fall for basically the same old scams. Here’s the start of the conclusion section:

The data indicates that fraud is increasing; however, reported complaints remained relatively level with 206,884 complaints in 2007, down from 207,492 complaints in 2006, 231,493 complaints in 2005, and 207,449 complaints in 2004. This total includes many different fraud types, non-fraudulent complaints, as well as complaints of other types of crime. Yet, research indicates that only one in seven incidents of fraud ever make their way to the attention of enforcement or regulatory agencies. The total dollar loss from all referred cases of fraud was $239.09 million in 2007 up from $198.44 million in 2006.

Only 1 in 7 incidents are reported and those total 239 million dollars so, the total Internet fraud take is likely more than 1.5 billion dollars in 2007, ouch. This doesn’t even take into account all the non-Internet specific forms of fraud that often involve television, telephone and print advertising as well as Internet methods for finding suckers (e.g. ultrasonic pest repellents, diet pills and books, books on running your car on water, psychics, astrology). The total dollars lost annually to all the various scams must be in the tens of billions of dollars. 😦

Appendix – 2 of the report “Best Practices to Prevent Internet Crime” is a good reference for avoiding becoming a victim of fraud. For reports from previous years and broken down by state go to the IC3 Annual Reports page. Some good sources to help you spot and avoid scams are listed below.

Hot Scams

NCL’s National Fraud Information Center/Internet Fraud Watch

snopes.com: Crime (Fraud Squad )

Consumer Fraud Reporting

Ripoff Report

Fraud Guides

Federal Trade Commission Bureau of Consumer Protection

Consumer Fraud in the United States: The Second FTC Survey

Double Glazing Sales Dirty Tricks