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Week of 12 May 2008


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Monday, 12 May 2008
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11:55 - We picked up Chinese for dinner and met Barbara's parents, sister, and brother-in-law at their house for Mother's Day dinner. Barbara's sister, Frances, had told me Friday evening that their PC wouldn't boot after she'd shut it down when the severe storms came through. I hauled it back last night and took a look at it this morning. The hard drive is deader than King Tut.

This is really strange, because this is the fourth dead hard drive they've had, on two different systems. The first one was a Western Digital in their HP system, so I wasn't surprised when it failed. I replaced it with a Seagate, and the whole system later failed, including the hard drive. I concluded that it had taken a lightning hit, so I discarded it and gave them a new system. The hard drive in that one failed a few months ago. I replaced it, and it just failed again.

So I installed a new Seagate Barracuda 160 GB SATA drive and a new SATA cable this morning, booted up the Ubuntu 8.04 CD, and started it installing. I got involved in something else and didn't look at it again for an hour or so. When I did, there was an error message on the screen saying that there was an error formatting the drive. Hmmm.

So I swapped the cable to the second SATA port and tried again. Same problem. So I pulled the new hard drive and installed yet another new Seagate Barracuda 160 GB SATA drive and yet another new cable, this time on the first SATA port. This time it's formatting fine. I'm not entirely sure what's going on here, but I don't like it.

I'll burn the system in all day today and overnight to see what happens. If there are any glitches at all, I'll try replacing the power supply, although that doesn't seem a likely cause. I've already replaced the memory. There was one 512 MB stick in there, which I replaced with a 1 GB stick. We'll see what happens.



I rejoined Netflix last night. There were quite a few movies and programs that Barbara wants that have become available on DVD since I dropped our membership at the end of last year, so I decided to rejoin for a few months and grab them. We'll start with the four most recent episodes of Midsomer Murders and maybe the first season of Jericho and move on from there.



I noticed that the first Amazon review of Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments is now up. That reminded me to check to make sure that the review copies had gone out to subscribers who requested them. When I asked Sara at O'Reilly, she said they should be going out today. They would have gone out earlier, but O'Reilly grabbed literally every available copy to take to Maker Faire. All or nearly all of those copies sold, so they're just getting replacement copies in to ship to people who requested review copies.

Here it is almost noon, and I haven't even gotten started on anything I planned to do today. Basically, that's the forensics book all week. I've really missed working on it for the last few weeks, between getting the chemistry book out the door, doing the taxes, preparing for and attending Maker Faire, returning to spend several days getting the chem book website running and the other admin tasks that absolutely needed done now that the book is in bookstores, and so on. I intend to devote some serious time to the forensics book, starting now.

But of course there's yet another priority task. O'Reilly is going to want a new version of Building the Perfect PC from me, so I need to get started on a proposal for that, get the contract negotiated and so on. It looks like I may have a new co-author for the new edition, and he'll be a familiar name. I simply don't have time to devote full attention to two books, both of which are high priorities, so the new Building the Perfect PC edition will have a third name as co-author, along with Barbara and me. More about that when I get things nailed down, which I hope to do in the next week or two. (And, no, it's not Pournelle.)


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Tuesday, 13 May 2008
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08:34 - Barbara and I often comment that we watch a lot of British TV, but as I was setting up our queue yesterday I realized how true that was. Of the 47 discs currently in our queue, only six (the first season of Jericho) are not British programs, although some (the Masterpiece titles) are joint US/UK productions. Somehow we'd missed Kavanagh Q.C. which stars the superb John Thaw, so I remedied that.




We ordered the Smithsonian Mega Science Kit for Shane, our neighbor who turns 5 on 31 May. Shane is very bright and very interested in science. His mom, Mimi, told Barbara she planned to use Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments to get him started doing chemistry experiments. I told Mimi that, even though she planned to work with Shane, the book was a little too advanced for even a very bright 5-year-old. That's when I told her we'd get Shane the Smithsonian Mega Science Kit, which is listed for ages 10 and up. That should be about right for him.

Interestingly, there appear to be at least two different versions of this kit. The part numbers are the same, but the cover art is different, as are the sizes and weights of the box. Here's one and here's the other. The contents also appear to be different. I ordered the second one, from Target, and I hope that's the one they send.

Smithsonian formerly offered a couple of introductory chemistry sets, the Chem-Works Microchemistry Kit and the MicroChem XM 5000. Unfortunately, both of those have been discontinued. Fortunately, the manuals are available for download for the Chem-Works [PDF] and XM 5000 [PDF] kits, as are the kit contents for the Chem-Works and XM 5000 kits. I downloaded them for Mimi. She can use them, along with stuff I supply from my own lab, to do the experiments in either or both of those kits.



As usual, I have more to do than time to do it. Today or tomorrow morning, I have a radio interview with Planetary Radio. By Wednesday, I have to make up a list of talking points for Laura at the Rosen Group, which is doing the promotion for the chem lab book. She'll provide those talking points to radio interviewers to give them some idea of what to talk about during interviews.

And I also need to get some supplementary lab sessions written up for the HomeChemLab.com subscriber-only newsletter. The first issue of that comes out in June, and then every month thereafter. I want to get at least several issues stubbed out ahead of time so that all I need to do each month is write up the topical stuff. That means doing and writing up at least a couple of supplemental lab sessions for each issue ahead of time.

So, today and maybe part of tomorrow is devoted to creating the talking points list, with the rest of the week devoted to getting a head start on the supplemental lab sessions.


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Wednesday, 14 May 2008
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16:23 - I just realized I hadn't posted yet today. I figured I'd better get something up or people would assume something had happened to me.

I got the talking points list completed yesterday morning, and submitted it to Laura, who's handling PR for the book. She'd also arranged an interview with Mat Kaplan of Planetary Radio, which I did last night. I spent most of today working on the supplemental lab sessions. I did take a short break because I needed to take my editor's spare cell phone to the UPS store and send it back to him. While I was out, I ran by the library and picked up a copy of Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Childhood, by Oliver Sacks.

I'm on a 3:2 schedule now, spending three weekdays per week on the forensics book and two on the supplemental labs. I generally only work three to six hours per day on weekends, doing whatever I need to do to get where I wanted to be by the end of the week. Once I have some of these supplemental labs accumulated, I'll go back to devoting full time to the forensics book.



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Thursday, 15 May 2008
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10:46 - One of my readers sent me this image. The first thing I noticed was the trivalent hydrogen at the upper left, and then the pentavalent carbon. I told him this was the most screwed-up non-molecule I'd ever seen. I sent it to Paul and Mary for their comments.




The other day I mentioned the Smithsonian chemistry kits, which have been discontinued but for which the manuals can still be downloaded in PDF form. I regret the loss of those kits. The Chem-Works kit, which sold for less than $50, was a good introduction to chemistry, and the $80 XM 5000 kit was the only inexpensive kit available that focused on quantitative procedures, albeit rather primitive ones.

Here's a list of the contents of the Chem-Works kit. Other than the chemicals, most of this stuff can be found around the home, and what can't can be purchased inexpensively from any lab supplies vendor. (The galvanometer kit, for example, is really just a cheap compass, and you can substitute paper clips for the spring clips.)

Quantity Item   Quantity Item
#8 1 Well Cobalt Chloride   1 Each 6" Plastic Ruler
#11 1 Bottle Copper Sulfate   1 Each Filter Paper
#18 1 Bottle Sodium Silicate   1 Package Molecule Kit
#40 1 Bottle Calcium Hydroxide   1 Each Safety Goggles
#41 1 Well Calcium Nitrate   1 Package Galvanometer Kit
#42 1 Bottle CitricAcid   1 Pair Spring Clips
#44 1 Well Ferrous Sulfate   1 Each Soda Straw
#47 1 Well Methylene Blue   1 Each Magnifier
#49 1 Bottle Potassium Iodide   1 Each Battery Clip 9V
#53 1 Bottle Sodium Sulfate   2 Each 1 oz Cup
#57 1 Bottle Aluminum Ammonium Sulfate   1 Each Atom Sheet
#58 1 Bottle Ammonium Chloride   1 Each Red LED
#64 1 Bottle Magnesium Sulfate   1 Each Microplate
#65 1 Well Phenolphthalein   8 Each Pipette
#67 1 Bottle Sodium Carbonate   1 Each Resistor 1K Ohm
#70 1 Well Universal Indicator   2 Each Plastic Tube with Cap
#63 1 Package Iron Wire   12 Each Toothpick
#54 1 Package Zinc Wire   2 Each PVCoated Wire
#38 1 Package Aluminum Wire   1 Each Instruction Manual
#61 1 Package Copper Wire

And here are the contents of the XM 5000 kit. Again, other than the chemicals, most of these items are pretty easy to come by.

Quantity Item   Quantity Item
#8 1 Bottle Cobalt Chloride   1 Each 6"" Plastic Ruler
#11 1 Bottle Copper Sulfate   1 Each Filter Paper
#18 1 Bottle Sodium Silicate   1 Package Molecule Kit
#40 1 Bottle Calcium Hydroxide   1 Each Safety Goggles
#41 1 Bottle Calcium Nitrate   1 Set Balance with Weight Set
#42 1 Bottle CitricAcid   1 Each Plastic Slide
#44 1 Bottle Ferrous Sulfate   1 Package Galvanometer Kit
#47 1 Bottle Methylene Blue   1 Pair Alligator Clips
#49 1 Bottle Potassium Iodide   1 Each Bar Magnet
#53 1 Bottle Sodium Sulfate   1 Each Soda Straw
#57 1 Bottle Aluminum Ammonium Sulfate   1 Each Magnifier
#58 1 Bottle Ammonium Chloride   1 Each Battery Clip 9V
#59 1 Bottle Biuret Reagent   2 Each 1 oz Cup
#62 1 Bottle Fehling's Solution   1 Each Atom Sheet
#64 1 Bottle Magnesium Sulfate   1 Each Crystal Card
#65 1 Bottle Phenolphthalein   1 Each Red LED
#67 1 Bottle Sodium Carbonate   1 Each Microplate
#70 1 Bottle Universal Indicator   10 Each Pipette
#50 1 Bottle Borax Powder   1 Each Resistor 1K Ohm
#67A 1 Bottle Sodium Carbonate Powder   3 Each Plastic Tube with Cap
#14 1 Bottle Iron Filings   1 Each Thermometer
#71 1 Bottle Zinc Powder   12 Each Toothpick
#33 1 Bottle Marble Chips   1 Each Instruction Manual
#63 1 Package Iron Wire      
#54 1 Package Zinc Wire      
#38 1 Package Aluminum Wire      
#61 1 Package Copper Wire    

The real problem is the chemicals. You can buy a lot of them locally, but the problem is that the package sizes are much too large. For example, I bought two pounds (~ 1 kg) of copper sulfate at Home Depot for something like $7.50, which is very inexpensive on a per gram basis, but still that's $7.50 for one chemical. The chemicals in these kits are supplied, usually in dry form, in tiny bottles to which you have to add 5 mL of water or alcohol. You end up with 5 mL of a dilute solution of each chemical, typically 0.1 M.

What I may do is talk to Elemental Scientific about making up kits that contain about 25 mL of each of these chemicals, already in solution. I'll have them toss in some of the other items that are hard to find locally, such as safety goggles and disposable plastic pipettes, and package it up as a "refill kit" for the Smithsonian sets. If the manuals aren't already available via bittorrent, they probably will be before long.


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Friday, 16 May 2008
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08:38 - Regarding that image I posted yesterday, if you're a chemist you can't see the forest for the trees. You immediately notice all the impossible constructs in the "molecule", such as the trivalent hydrogen at the upper left. (Hydrogen has only one electron in its shell, and can form only one single bond to one other atom.) If you're not a chemist, you immediately notice that the "molecule" spells SEX.



Lab day today. I always feel a little guilty having a lab day, because even though it's work it feels like play. Today I need to do trial runs of several experiments, but first I need to make up quite a few reagents. I normally make up several reagents at a time in batches, usually 100 mL or 500 mL of each, eight or ten at a time, because it's much more efficient to make up several reagents at the same time than doing them one at a time.

To make up one at a time, I have to weigh the dry chemical or weigh or measure the liquid chemical, dissolve it in some water, do a quantitative transfer from the mixing vessel to a volumetric flask, top off the volumetric flask to the mark, and then transfer the solution to a labeled bottle. That takes a while, because chemicals don't always dissolve quickly.

When I make up several reagents at the same time, I set up a row of labeled bottles for the reagents I'm making up, with an appropriately-sized beaker sitting in front of each bottle. I put about 80 mL of water in each beaker for solutions that I'm making up 100 mL of, and 400 mL of water in each beaker for solutions I'm making up 500 mL of. I then weigh or measure each chemical one after the other, transferring the chemical to the appropriate beaker immediately after I weigh it. While it's dissolving, I'm weighing out the next chemical.

By the time I've done eight or ten chemicals, the first chemical is fully dissolved, and I can do the quantitative transfer to the volumetric flask, top it off, and transfer it to the bottle. I have several volumetric flasks, so I can rinse the one I've just finished with and allow it to drain while I'm working on the next chemical.

I can work this way because I have more glassware and equipment than the average home lab. While an average home lab might have a few beakers, one each of 10 mL and 100 mL graduated cylinders, 100 mL and 500 mL volumetric flasks, and 1 mL and 10 mL Mohr pipettes, I have dozens or beakers, half a dozen or more graduated cylinders in each size, many volumetric flasks, and a dozen or more Mohr pipettes in each size. Of course, the downside is that when I'm finished I have a lot more glassware to wash up than most people do.



09:40 - Paul Jones submits a modified sex molecule. But can he synthesize it? I'm betting not.

From: Paul Jones
  To: Robert Bruce Thompson
  CC: Mary Chervenak
Date: Fri May 16 08:56:24 2008
  Re: molecule

Cleaned it up a bit. I looked at the molecule sent by your reader and noted that the errors don't actually make the letters any more clear. I believe this molecule would be an excellent laser dye.  -Paul




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Saturday, 17 May 2008
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13:25 - Here's the setup I used to make up solutions yesterday.


For my lab inventory, I use the oh-my-god-i'm-out method, and it came back to bite me yesterday. Notice that (very) partially-full bottle of distilled water at the rear right. I thought I had another gallon or two in stock. I  didn't, so I was able to make up only a few of the solutions I planned to get made up yesterday.

If this were a real lab, I'd have a still that produced distilled water continuously. But a decent still costs several hundred dollars at a minimum, so I do without. Usually, that's not a problem, but before I decide to make up a bunch of solutions next time, I'll make sure I have enough distilled water on hand.

I momentarily considered using tap water. After all, our tap water is extremely soft and these are only bench reagents, made up to only one or two sig figs. In fact, I didn't even use a pipette to measure the liquid chemicals I did get made up (1 M and 6 M acetic acid and 1 M and 6 M aqueous ammonia; 500 mL each of the dilute solutions and 100 mL each of the concentrated ones). I just used a 10 mL graduated cylinder and did the best I could. Even so, using tap water just goes against the grain.

Back when I had a darkroom, I even used distilled water for making up developers and other critical solutions, although tap water probably would have done as well. And that was back when I was in my early teens through college, when money was tight and I had a lot of things I wanted to spend my limited resources on.

So I decided either to go out and buy a few gallons of distilled water or just to wait until Barbara made a supermarket run. I ended up choosing the latter. It's not like I don't have plenty of other things to be working on, and I did have my fun.

In addition to the four solutions I mentioned previously, I made up bench solutions of ammonium acetate, ammonium chloride, ammonium nitrate, and ammonium oxalate. Only a few more A's to go and I'll be into Barium and the B's.

For the book, I think I made up bench solutions only of hydrochloric acid and sodium hydroxide. Everything else, I weighed/measured individually for each lab session. In one sense, that was a very inefficient use of my time, but in another sense it was actually quite efficient. I could have made up the bench solutions, but that'd have been a big chunk of my time, and many of my standard bench solutions weren't used in the book.

I confess that I didn't wear gloves (although I did wear goggles; I'm not kidding about that being an absolute requirement). I had this conversation with Paul Jones the other day, when I mentioned to him that at Maker Faire I did demos without wearing gloves while handling stuff like concentrated mineral acids. There, my point was to put my money (my skin, actually) where my mouth was, because I'd told these folks that most of these hideously "dangerous" chemicals really weren't a big deal. (There are some that are a big deal; I generally avoid those, and if I have to work with them I wear full protective gear.)

Paul commented that he didn't wear gloves routinely for handling stuff like concentrated mineral acids. He wears gloves when there's a real danger, such as when handling very toxic materials, those that penetrate the skin, and so on. As Paul said, he tends to drop things if he's wearing gloves. I've followed the same practice forever, and for the same reason, but of course in the book I had to recommend wearing gloves any time the reader handles any lab chemical.

This is one of those things where a knowledgeable adult can make up his or her own mind. Jas will wear gloves until I'm satisfied that she's mature enough and knowledgeable enough to make up her own mind. If she's less than 18 years old when that happens, I'll also clear it with Kim.



And, speaking of Jas, here's another shot of Jas in the lab, looking pensive. (Actually, she's listening to me pontificate; when Barbara shot this image, I was telling Jas that from then on she had to wear full shoes or boots in the lab.)





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Sunday, 18 May 2008
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09:04 - Periodically, there's some discussion on Pournelle's back-channel mailing list about him converting to IMAP and keeping his email message store on zidane, the co-hosted server run by Greg Lincoln and Brian Bilbrey that hosts all of our domains. I haven't converted to IMAP for one main reason. I want the spam filtering that my local email client (Kmail) provides.

Zidane does a pretty good job of spam filtering. Greg and Brian have it set up to use SpamAssassin, several blackhole lists, IP range blocking, and probably a partridge in a pear tree. Zidane blocks, I would guess, 99%+ of the spam messages that arrive at the server. But that still leaves quite a few. This morning, for example, I downloaded 89 new messages from overnight, of which 42 were spams. My local spam filters caught all 42 of those and put them in my spam folder. The false-positive and false-negative rates for my local spam filters are very close to 0%. Only one or two spams a month make it to my inbox, and perhaps one real message every two or three months ends up in my spam folder. I don't want to lose that filtering by going to IMAP.

I did make one change this morning. I set the threshold on the server spam filters to 3, down from 4. The range available is 0 through 9, with 9 being almost no filtering, 5 being recommended, and 0 being extremely aggressive. Any message with a spam rating equal to or high than the number set goes directly to the bit bucket. The downside to using a lower setting, of course, is that it increases the likelihood of false positives, which means I won't see some real emails. So, if you email me and don't hear from me, please send me a simple message that's not likely to be seen as spam to let me know about the missed message.

One thing I do wish for is that my local spam filters could talk to the spam filters on zidane. For example, when I go through my spam folder deleting messages that are actually spam, I'd like my email client to communicate with zidane, perhaps sending zidane the headers from the deleted messages and telling zidane to henceforth silently delete any message that comes from the same IP address.

Actually, I wish Greg and Brian would set up blocking of IP address ranges to send anything that originates outside the first world to the bit bucket, but they have many domains hosted on zidane, so I understand why they don't do that. It'd be nice if the server offered that capability on a domain-by-domain basis, but apparently it doesn't.



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