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Week of 3 December 2007

Latest Update: Saturday, 8 December 2007 10:00 -0500

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Monday, 3 December 2007
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07:58 - This week is devoted to finishing up the home chem lab book as much as possible. I don't have comments on all chapters yet, but I'll incorporate those I do have and shoot the images I need.

Before I do that, I have a couple of things to finish up. The mini-proposal for Illustrated Guide to Home Forensics Experiments is nearly ready to send to my editors, and I need to do some work on Barbara's sister's computer. When we were over at Frances's house for dinner Friday, I updated her Xandros installation. Frances left at oh-dark-thirty on Saturday morning on a bus tour to Myrtle Beach, and turned off the system. When she returned last night, she turned on the system, which came up to a text-mode login prompt instead of the usual graphics-mode login prompt. She hauled the system out to our house this morning on her way to work, and I'll take a look at it first thing.

Assuming we can get the logistics worked out, Barbara and I are having dinner this evening with Dale Dougherty, publisher of MAKE, who's in town on a flying visit for a meeting.


Tuesday, 4 December 2007
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08:27 - Barbara and I had dinner last night with Dale Dougherty, who's a fascinating conversationalist. Alas, the restaurant is apparently under new ownership since the last time we were there, and our meal was adequate at best. Still, the conversation made up for it.

When we returned home, there was a message on the answering machine from Brian Bilbrey. He and Greg Lincoln were working on migrating our domains, among many others, from zidane, our current server, to a new server located at a new hosting facility. The hard drive in zidane is on its last legs and could drop dead at any moment. Brian and Greg hope to have the migration complete by tonight or tomorrow.

I also finished up the mini-proposal/TOC for Illustrated Guide to Home Forensics Experiments. Here's a (very) preliminary outline. There'll be many additions, deletions, rearrangements, and other modifications, but it gives a general idea of what I hope to do with the book. There are a lot of things I just don't know right now that will determine what makes it into the book. For example, I'd like to do microscopy of crystals with polarized light, but I'm not sure if that's practical on a reasonable budget. Similarly, I'd like to use PCR to replicate DNA followed by using electrophoresis to separate the DNA, but I'm not sure if the reagents I need are available at a reasonable price. So, lab sessions will come and go as the book progresses (always assuming we sign a contract to do it...), and the final lineup will depend on what's practical to do in a home lab.

I hope to have 50+ lab sessions, including many that aren't yet listed here. I'm not sure how much I'll be able to do on arson and explosives, primarily for legal reasons. And I'll do the chapter on computer forensics last, and only if there's room for it, because most readers will perceive computer forensics as being less "scientific" than the rest of the topics.
  1. Preface
  2. Introduction
  3. Laboratory Safety
  4. Equipping a Home Forensics Lab
    1. Introduction
    2. Equipment
    3. Chemicals and Other Consumables
    4. Portable Forensics Kits
  5. Gathering and Preserving Evidence
    1. Introduction
      1. Maintaining a Chain of Custody
    2. Laboratory: Crime Scene Photography
    3. Laboratory: Collecting and Preserving Evidence
  6. Fingerprints
    1. Introduction
    2. Laboratory: Taking Fingerprint Samples
    3. Laboratory: Classifying Fingerprints
    4. Laboratory: Preserving Patent Fingerprints
    5. Laboratory: Revealing Latent Fingerprints Using Dusting
    6. Laboratory: Revealing Latent Fingerprints Using Ninhydrin
    7. Laboratory: Revealing Latent Fingerprints Using Iodine Fuming
    8. Laboratory: Revealing Latent Fingerprints Using Silver Nitrate
    9. Laboratory: Revealing Latent Fingerprints with SPR (Small Particle Reagent; Molybdenum Disulfide)
    10. Laboratory: Revealing Latent Fingerprints Using Superglue Fuming
  7. Blood Detection and Analysis
    1. Introduction
    2. Laboratory: Detecting Blood with the Kastle-Meyer Test
    3. Laboratory: Detecting Blood with Luminol
    4. Laboratory: Microscopic Examination of Blood
    5. Laboratory: Blood Spatter Analysis
  8. Impression Analysis
    1. Introduction
    2. Laboratory: Footprint and Tire Print Analysis
    3. Laboratory: Firing Pin and Rifling Impression Analysis
    4. Laboratory: Tool Mark Analysis
  9. Trace Evidence Analysis
    1. Introduction
    2. Laboratory: Fiber Evidence Analysis
    3. Laboratory: Hair Evidence Analysis
    4. Laboratory: Soil Analysis
    5. Laboratory: Firearms Residue Analysis
    6. Laboratory: Glass Analysis
  10. Forensic Toxicology
    1. Introduction
    2. Laboratory: The Marsh Test
    3. Laboratory: Detecting Alkaloid Poisons
  11. Forensic Drug Testing
    1. Introduction
    2. Laboratory: Assay Vitamin C in Urine
    3. Laboratory: Presumptive Drug Tests
    4. Laboratory: Analysis of Drugs by Chromatography
    5. Laboratory: Observing Microcrystalline Structures
  12. Forensic Biology
    1. Introduction
    2. Laboratory: Wood Grain Analysis
    3. Laboratory: Forensic Entomology
    4. Laboratory: Pollen Analysis
    5. Laboratory: Diatom Analysis
    6. Laboratory: DNA Analysis by Electrophoresis
  13. Forgeries and Fakes
    1. Introduction
    2. Laboratory: Questioned Documents Examination
    3. Laboratory: Revealing Alterations
    4. Laboratory: Analysis of Paper
    5. Laboratory: Analysis of Inks by Chromatography
    6. Laboratory: Embedded Serial Numbers in Color Laser Printouts
    7. Laboratory: Analysis of Paints and Pigments
  14. Arson and Explosives Investigation
  15. Computer Forensics
    1. Introduction
    2. Laboratory: Bitwise Replication of Hard Drives
    3. Laboratory: Recovering Deleted Files
    4. Laboratory: Following a Browser Trail
    5. Laboratory: Cracking Password-Protected Files


Wednesday, 5 December 2007
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07:57 - Greg Lincoln and Brian Bilbrey got us relocated to the new server late last night, and, with the exception of a couple of minor glitches, everything appears to be working normally.

Just buying red phosphorus can put you in the sights of the feds: Teacher Accused of Using High School as Personal Meth Lab

From the article, assuming it's accurate, it seems possible although by no means certain that this guy did intend to produce methamphetamine. But, also from the article, "During the search of the lab, cops discovered chemicals necessary to begin producing the drug, authorities told the Californian, but no evidence of the finished drug at the school."

So, in effect, this man has been put on administrative leave and probably faces criminal charges, not because he made a controlled substance but because he had what he needed to make it. Note that the investigation lasted 30 days, so if he had really intended to make methamphetamine he probably would have done so before the raid.


Thursday, 6 December 2007
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08:45 - Barbara was going out to dinner with some friends last night, so I worked a 12-hour day yesterday, finishing up about 8:00 p.m. I made quick passes through the preface through chapter 10 inclusive and chapter 14, incorporating all comments I'd received and doing some minor rewrites of my own.

I try to handle editors' comments like I used to play tennis, putting the ball back in the other guy's court as hard and as fast as possible. Heck, I used to routinely meet my opponent at net off his first serve. I suspect it's depressing for my editors sometimes. They work hard to mark up a bunch of chapters and send them to me in a batch one morning. By that afternoon, they have them all back from me and back on their to-do lists.

I also shot some sample images for my editor, who wanted to see a pair of similar images, one saved as JPEG and one as RAW. The RAW images are about 10 MB each, versus 1.8 MB to 2.5 MB for JPEG saved at the best quality setting. The advantage to RAW is that it stores unmodified all of the data captured by the sensor. So, for example, there's no need to choose a white balance setting ahead of time that would be incorporated permanently in the JPEG. Instead, the white balance can be modified after the fact from the data stored in the RAW file. Also, RAW stores significant shadow and highlight detail that's lost during the compression to JPEG format.

I was a bit concerned about manipulating the RAW images, because RAW formats are proprietary and specific to the camera manufacturer. In fact, some camera manufacturers use different RAW formats for different models. As it turns out, I needn't have worried. The Linux/KDE program showFoto uses the dcraw plug-in natively, and dcraw handles the PEF RAW format used by my Pentax K100D digital SLR.

I tried calling up a RAW image and saving it as JPEG. By default, showFoto sets the JPEG quality level to 75%, which results in the 10 MB RAW file being compressed to a 1.5 MB JPEG. I was curious about quality settings, so I changed the JPEG quality level to 100% and saved the RAW image again. This time, the JPEG was about 8.5 MB, which makes me think 100% quality results in lossless JPEG compression, or nearly so.

Interestingly, the resolution is a tiny bit higher for RAW files. With the camera set to save as JPEG, images are 3008X2000, or 6.016 MP. In RAW mode, they're 3040X2024, or 6.153 MP.

The chemistry teacher I mentioned yesterday has now been arrested. FTA:

The man is believed to have started the manufacturing process, but there was no evidence of the drug at the school, Terry said.

Which sounds reasonable if you're not a chemist. Methamphetamine is produced by reducing pseudoephedrine by one of several methods. Since the original article mentioned the guy buying red phosphorus, they apparently suspect him of using the "red, white, and blue" method that requires red phosphorus and hydriodic acid. If so, there's no "started" about it. He either did it or he didn't, and since there "was no evidence of the drug" it's obvious that he didn't.


Friday, 7 December 2007
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08:48 - One of the things I really hate about Linux upgrades is when stuff that used to work stops working. I stumbled over one of those yesterday. With Kubuntu 6.10 and 7.04, my Epson scanner just worked. Now that I'm running Kubuntu 7.10, my scanner is no longer recognized. Arrrrgggghhhh.

I got an automated survey call yesterday. Ordinarily, I just hang up on such calls, but this one announced immediately that it was a one-question political poll, so I decided to listen. They were asking who I'd vote for in the Republican primary if it was held today. Press 1 for McCain, press 2 for Giuliani, and so on. I listened to all the choices, down to press 7 for unsure, no preference, prefer not to answer, and take me off your list (quite a collection...). Ron Paul wasn't among those listed.

I spent some time yesterday putting together an order for stuff from Elemental Scientific, mostly chemicals but some equipment. I resent the fact that I felt it necessary to consider each chemical carefully to make sure that it wasn't something that would draw the feds' attention, or, if it were, that it was something I really needed anyway. I ended up ordering some stuff, such as acetic anhydride, that the feds probably consider suspect compounds. (Acetic anhydride is, after all, used to process morphine base into heroin. Not to mention a zillion other uses, but those don't matter to the feds.)


Saturday, 8 December 2007
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10:00 - Brian Jepson sent me a copy of the mock-up layout for the chemistry book yesterday. It's gorgeous, but it's very preliminary, so he asked me not to post it. It's four-color, but they used an olive green tint for headings and highlights. My only comment was that everyone knows that chemistry is blue, not green.

Speaking of chemistry, I just realized yesterday that I was accidentally dissolving stuff in my lab. A few days before we left to visit the Bilbreys over Thanksgiving, I decided to see what would happen if I reacted some nickel coins with hydrochloric acid. I put about 75 mL of concentrated hydrochloric acid in a beaker, tossed in a few nickels, and waited to see what would happen.

I didn't expect a vigorous reaction, and I wasn't disappointed. A US nickel is made up of 25% nickel (1.25 g) and 75% copper (3.75 g). Copper is a very non-reactive metal, so I was kind of expecting that over a day or two the nickel would react to form green nickel chloride, leaving the copper untouched. After a day, the liquid had turned very slightly green, indicating that some but not much of the nickel had reacted. After two or three days, the green tint had gotten slightly darker, but not much. So I decided to leave the nickels in the acid while we were up the Bilbreys.

When we returned, the solution was a considerably darker green, but still quite transparent. Over the last few days, though, things have apparently accelerated. The solution is now a very dark green and almost opaque even when held up to a light.

What I hadn't thought about was that concentrated hydrochloric acid emits, duh, hydrochloric acid fumes. There's not any HCl odor in the air of the lab, so I hadn't thought much about it. But yesterday I noticed that my little slave flash unit looked like it had smallpox. It had been sitting a few inches from the beaker, and the HCl fumes started eating it. Then I noticed that the chrome-plated bar of a ringstand nearby had also been eaten by the HCl fumes.

Note to self: must be more careful with HCl fumes.

I did an interview yesterday with Leonard Lopate on the New York City NPR station. If you want to listen to it, here's the MP3 file. The show lasted an hour, but the MP3 file doesn't have the 17-minute introduction or the breaks, so it lasts only half an hour or so.


Sunday, 9 December 2007
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Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 by Robert Bruce Thompson. All Rights Reserved.