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Week of 8 December 2008


Latest Update: Sunday, 14 December 2008 08:43 -0500

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Monday, 8 December 2008
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08:30 - Barbara is back from her trip. Malcolm and I did our happy dances.

Duncan tried to do his happy dance, but fell over. Poor Duncan's back end isn't doing well these days. He turns 14 on 1 January. When I had Malcolm at the vet a couple weeks ago, I looked at the canine weight/age chart. For his weight, Duncan is now the equivalent of about 95 years old in people years. Still, he's a tough old dog. The hardwood floors give him fits, so about 50 times a day (literally) I hear scrabbling noises and have to go help him up. We have throw rugs all over the place to help him. But only rarely will he deign to lie on one. Most of the time, he lies on the hardwood, and then can't get up. And when he wants to get up, he won't give up. If I don't find him and help him, he'll lie there thrashing for as long as it takes.



I'm working right now on the Mastering Laboratory Practices chapter for the forensics book. A lot of it I can pull unchanged from the chemistry book, but I need to add a long section on using a microscope, making wet mounts, etc. That's what I'm working on now. Once I get this chapter finished, it's on to the lab session chapters. Nine of the 11 lab chapters are complete except for some rewrite and shooting images, so they should go pretty quickly. The final two lab chapters, on forgeries/fakes and forensic biology, still need a lot of work. I'm shooting to have everything complete in the next five to six weeks. Then it'll be on to the next book, which'll probably be home biology. I'm looking forward to that one. When Malcolm misbehaves, I tell him that I may dissect a Border Collie for that book. That flattens his ears.


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Tuesday, 9 December 2008
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08:43 - I made good progress on the Mastering Laboratory Practices chapter yesterday, knocking out about eight pages of material on using a microscope, making wet mounts, etc. I'll finish that section today and then do some re-write and reorganization on relevant material from the similar chapter in the home chem lab book. I should have the draft of this chapter complete tomorrow.

Last week, my editor, Brian Jepson, diplomatically arranged a phone meeting for me with Sam Murphy, who's MAKE's photo guru. The problem is, some of the images I did for the home chem lab book suck. It's not that I didn't try. It's that shooting close-up images of glassware and so on is difficult at the best of times and nearly impossible in a working lab. It's not like I can use a light box, or even do much in the way of arranging lighting. And a tripod is simply out of the question. I used a small slave flash in conjuction with the on-camera flash, which at least eliminated most of the harsh shadows.

But, although Brian and Sam were very diplomatic, the simple fact is that some of the images weren't very good. They didn't have to say that. I said it for them. Sam was pleased when she learned that I was using a digital SLR, and made some suggestions about using a tripod, manual focus, aperture priority, and so on. Which is all well and good, and I'll follow her suggestions insofar as is possible. Unfortunately, there's usually no way to cram a tripod into a setup, so I'll just have to do the best I can without one.

Yesterday, I was shooting some images of microscope components (focusing knobs, mechanical stage, Abbe condenser, etc.) for the chapter. Instead of using flash, I set up a pair of gooseneck lamps with 100W GE Reveal bulbs and used a simple 45 degree setup. I played around with aperture settings, including one shot at f/39(!). There was simply no way to use a tripod, even a table-top model, so I simply braced my elbows on the desk and shot away. (The image at f/39 had stupendous depth of field, particularly for a macro shot, but the shutter speed was 1/4 second so there was some blurring even braced and with shake reduction turned on.) I settled on using f/8 or f/11, which allows me to shoot at 1/125 second. That's fast enough to eliminate any shake problems, particularly when I'm braced and have SR turned on, and the depth of field is sufficient. When possible, I'll use f/16 or even f/22, but that'll be possible only for very large image-scale shots with the lamps positioned almost on top of the subject.

I have to admit that the images are much better this way, evenly lit and without the specular reflections that are unavoidable using flash. Now, all I need to do is master shooting images through the microscope, which is a whole lot harder than it sounds. One of the drawbacks of our entry-level DSLRs is that they don't have interchangeable focusing screens like our old professional-level 35mm SLRs. I really miss the matte focusing screen when shooting photomicrographs. It's almost impossible to focus through the microscope with a standard focusing screen. Oh, well. I can address that problem by brute force: focus as accurately as possible and shoot an image, and then shoot several more images after moving the fine-focus knob several clicks each way from what looks to be proper focus. One of the images should be focused properly.



13:27 -
Thanks for all the suggestions about getting better images. One frequent recommendation was to use shake-reduction, which I do routinely. The Pentax DSLRs implement shake-reduction in the camera bodies rather than in the lenses, which means I can use the Pentax SR even with a camera mounted on my microscope. A couple of people mentioned alternative camera supports, including monopods and beanbags. I do have a monopod, but it would be just as awkward to use it as the tripod. I also have a beanbag around here somewhere. Barbara will dig it out.

If I have time, I plan to reshoot many of the images for the lab practices chapter, particularly the small product illustration shots, rather than reusing the ones from the home chem lab book. This time, instead of shooting them in the lab on a piece of white paper, I'll set up some white background on my microscope desk, use the two gooseneck lamps with the GE Reveal 100W bulbs, and shoot with a tripod.

The second issue is shooting photomicrographs, which I'm doing with a second Pentax DSLR mounted on the scope with a T-mount and microscope adapter. I shoot with shake-reduction on in aperture-priority mode, but the problem is the long exposure times, typically anything from 1/4 second to a couple of seconds. This camera doesn't have a mirror lockup lever, although I can lock the mirror through the menu. The problem is that that setting isn't persistent, so I'd have to go through the menu to do it for every shot.

I'm not convinced that some of the sharpness problems in my photomicrographs are caused by mirror slap, anyway. Those vibrations tend to damp out quickly. I suspect the real problem is that I have to push the shutter release button myself, and I'm probably vibrating the whole setup when I do it. Accordingly, I just ordered a Pentax Remote Control F from B&H Photo for $25, including shipping. Bizarrely, this is a disposable item. The battery can't be replaced by the user, and it's not rechargeable. Presumably, they use some sort of long-life battery and obviously there isn't much drain on it, so perhaps it'll last for years.

Using the remote control to release the shutter should eliminate most of the vibration problem. I'll also probably start setting the illuminator dimmer for photographs. That way, a typical exposure time may be several seconds. Most of the vibration from mirror slap should damp out pretty quickly, so any light on the sensor during that period will contribute only slightly to the image.

Which incidentally makes me wonder why we have DSLRs at all. The "R" part, I mean. Instead of building a mechanical reflex mirror into the things, why not just pull the image straight off the sensor and put it into a high-res electronic viewfinder? Sure, the viewfinder panel would cost more than the little 300K-pixel they use now, but they'd soon come down in price and it'd be a lot cheaper to build the cameras as all-electronic.



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Wednesday, 10 December 2008
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08:54 - I had a cunning plan, and now I'm getting decent photomicrographs. I'm still glad I ordered the wireless remote, because I'll be able to use it to shoot images without touching the camera. But my basic procedure will remain the same: (1) crank the illuminator up to full brightness and focus the image critically. (2) dim the illuminator way down, allow the microscope/camera assembly to settle until vibrations are completely damped. (3) shoot the image. At the illumination level I've been testing, exposures at 40X run a full second or longer, and exposures at 100X and 400X are significantly longer. I may turn down the illuminator even further to see if I can get exposure times up to several seconds. That should eliminate any blurring from mirror slap.

I finished the section on microscopy skills yesterday, including shooting all of the new images I needed. (Barbara was the model for a couple of them that we shot last night.) Now I need to go through the material that I pulled from the home chemistry book. Most of it can be used as-is. Some of it will be eliminated, and other parts rewritten and expanded. I should finish that today. Except for reshooting images. Some of the images I used in the home chem book were adequate at best. If I have time, I'm going to reshoot all of those.

To do that, I'm going to set up a semi-permanent mini-studio downstairs, just outside the lab. I have a roll of white background (actually, it's a roll of white plastic disposable picnic tablecloth) that I'll pin to the wall and drape over a table. I'll take my two gooseneck desk lamps downstairs. With 100W GE Reveal bulbs, they provide sufficient light for shooting the closeups I need. For larger setups, I have a pair of 600W quartz-iodine worklights whose color temperature is pretty close to that of the Reveal bulbs. I'll set those up several feet away and use them for general fill. A tripod and one of the Pentax DSLRs completes the equipment list. That's a pretty simple setup, but I think it'll suffice to get reasonably good illustration shots. And, since the mini-studio is in the room adjoining the lab, it'll be easy to move stuff back and forth as needed.


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Thursday, 11 December 2008
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08:30 - I sent the following message to my homechemlab.com subscribers yesterday afternoon.

I just placed a small test order with HMS Beagle (www.hms-beagle.com). Here's what I ordered:

 1. 1,3-Benzenediol, 10 g (Item 8234)                          $2.50
 2. 1-Butanol, Reagent, 25 mL (Item 9829)                      $3.00
 3. 4-Nitroaniline, 10 g (Item 4670)                           $2.40
 4. Agar-Agar, powder, 20 g (Item 3121)                        $4.00
 5. Ammonium Hexanitratocerate (IV), Reagent, 10 g (Item 1330) $2.50
 6. Ammonium Vanadate(V), Reagent, 15 g (Item 1322)            $4.00
 7. Bromocresol Green Indicator, 30 mL (Item 4384)             $2.25
 8. Crystal Violet Gram Stain, 30 ml (Item 4268)               $5.00
 9. Dimethylglyoxime Solution, 25 mL (Item 4363)               $4.00
10. Eosin Y Stain, 30 mL (Item 4297)                           $5.55
11. Ethanthioamide (Thioacetamide), 15 g (Item 5021)           $6.00
12. Mercury (II) Chloride, Reagent, 10 g (Item 1299)           $3.00
13. Mercury (II) Oxide, Red, Reagent, 10 g (Item 1301)         $3.75
14. Potassium Cyanide, Reagent, 30 g (Item 1312)               $5.25
15. Safranin O Stain, 30 ml (Item 4046)                        $3.00
16. Sodium EDTA, Technical, 15 g. (Item 1241)                  $1.00
17. Strychnidin-10-one, 1 g (Item 7139)                        $3.50
18. Tungstic (VI) Acid, Reagent, 5 g (Item 1325)               $2.00
19. Urea, 20 g (Item 6101)                                     $1.82

A couple of notes, in case you're wondering why I ordered this stuff:

#1, better known as resorcinol, is for a lab I have planned.

#4 will be used for DNA gel electrophoresis.

#5 I ordered just because I don't have any other cerium salts.

#6 will be used in the forensics book (yes, I made my own, but this is a good source for readers).

#9 is used in testing for nickel, and I have a lab planned that will use it.

#11 is used to generate hydrogen sulfide gas on demand for qual analysis.

#12 and #13 are because I don't have any mercury compounds and may do a lab that requires them.

#14 is for another lab I plan to do myself (but not publish for readers for obvious reasons.)

#17 is better known as strichnine, and I'll use it for alkaloid testing in the forensics book.

#18 I ordered just because I don't have any other tungsten salts in the lab.

Most of the other stuff is in preparation for what I hope I'll be writing next, Illustrated Guide to Home Biology Experiments. The forensics book is in the closing stages. I hope to finish it next month and get started on the next book.

I'll let you know how well (or badly) HMS Beagle does on this order. They do know I'm me--they sell my books, so my name was a dead giveaway--but they promised to handle my order just as they would anyone else's. We'll see.

I originally tried to place the order on-line. When I completed entering the items and my address information, I found that HMS Beagle accepts payment only by check or Paypal. That wasn't a problem, since I've had Paypal since it became available. But when I clicked on the pay by Paypal button and then clicked continue, I got an error page. The HMS Beagle shopping cart system has only been up since last month, so I figured they were having some teething pains. I phoned them and left a message.

A short while later, I got a call from Bill at HMS Beagle. He's the son-in-law of John and Carol Kuhns, the couple who own the company, and is also their webmaster. He wasn't able to reproduce the problem, but said that Paypal servers had been unreachable earlier yesterday, so perhaps that was the cause. Since I had him on the phone, I went ahead and completed the order the old-fashioned way. (They do take credit cards, but ordinarily only in their brick-and-mortar store.)

I'd originally intended to place an anonymous order to test their service. As it turned out, I was outed as soon as I gave Bill my name. HMS Beagle sells my books, and he recognized my name immediately. I made Bill promise that he'd treat me just like any other customer, and I'm sure he did.

That all happened just after lunch my time. About 6:00 p.m. I got a call from John Kuhns. He said he was calling to let me know that my order had already shipped, but that the real reason he was calling was because he wanted to meet me. John is 61 years old, so we're contemporaries. Like me, he got started with chemistry before he was a teenager, so we had a good time reminiscing about the glory days when local drugstores sold specialty chemicals and lab equipment to any kid who showed an interest.

I told John that I was excited about the range of chemicals he offered to the public, but was surprised that he was able to ship some of them without charging hazardous materials shipping surcharges. John said he'd gone through the UPS training course for hazardous materials shipping, and that he kept the quantities offered down to levels that could be shipped ORM-D (Other Regulated Materials-Domestic). ORM-D is an exemption for small quantities of hazardous materials that allows them to be shipped without incurring surcharges.

The single item I was most excited about was nitric acid. I had thought that it was impossible to ship even the smallest quantity of concentrated nitric acid without incurring full hazardous shipping surcharges, but John tells me that they're able to ship 25 mL bottles of 68% nitric acid under ORM-D. That's great, because some of the labs I've written up require concentrated nitric acid, and 25 mL is sufficient.

HMS Beagle goes on my approved and recommended vendors list as of today. (In case you're wondering about the name. H.M.S. Beagle was the ship in which Charles Darwin made his famous world tour.)



I talked with Brian Jepson yesterday about reshooting some of the images I'd recycled from the home chem lab book. The alternatives were to (a) use the existing images, some of which were not great, and reshoot them before the forensics book goes to production if I had time to do so, and (b) stop cranking out finished chapters and reshoot the images immediately. Brian opted for choice (b), so I got to work on that yesterday.

I got my mini-studio set up downstairs and reshot half a dozen images. They're still not perfect, but they're a lot better than some of those they'll replace. I'm shooting on a tripod, generally at f/8 or f/11 at roughly 1/90 second. They're obviously not professional product illustration shots, but they're sharp, reasonably well lit, and have much better depth of field and depth of lighting than the flash shots I did for the home chem lab book. Also, shooting with incandescent lights lets me see reflections through the viewfinder and eliminate objectionable ones.

So, for the next couple of days, I'll be doing equipment setups and shooting images of them.


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Friday, 12 December 2008
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08:02 - So, it appears that the Senate has blocked the auto company bailout. I've been watching this whole thing with the sense of watching an approaching train wreck. Everyone keeps saying that we can't let GM and Chrysler go bankrupt. No one, it seems, states the obvious, which is that these companies already are bankrupt. In common parlance, bankruptcy can mean either or both of two things: first, your liabilities exceed your assets; second, that you have inadequate cash on hand to pay your bills and no way to obtain it. Both of these are already true for these two auto companies, or will be within the coming days. The only thing missing is a formal declaration of bankruptcy, which it seems any of their creditors could force by demanding payment.

The GM and Chrysler we knew are gone, and they're never coming back. The only question is how the collapse will be handled. We have a perfectly usable system to handle such collapses. It's called bankruptcy, and the Democrats are striving mightily to avoid the appearance of these two companies going bankrupt, although even the federal government can't avoid the reality. The answer isn't to spend what will ultimately no doubt be $100 billion or more taxpayer dollars to prop up these companies. The answer is to let them go bankrupt, into liquidation if necessary, and let the free market rebuild from the rubble.

What the Democrats are really trying to do is save the overpaid jobs of auto workers. Fine, I'm also in favor of saving those jobs, but not at their current rates of pay. The real reason why these two companies are in the shape they're in is that for decades they've been employing too many workers and overpaying them. There are other problems, of course, but the fundamental problem is that US car companies are not cost competitive. The way to fix that is to reduce costs, and the way to reduce costs is to stop paying ridiculous wages and benefits to their workers. That, and cut down on the number of workers. Of course, that's what the UAW and their Democrat mouthpieces are striving mightily to avoid.

If I were running things, the first thing I'd do is let GM and Chrysler go into liquidation. Old GM and old Chrysler would cease to exist, and with their deaths their liabilities would also disappear, not least of which are the costs they're obligated to pay per their contracts with the UAW. At that point, we can talk about starting up a new GM and a new Chrysler. We'll buy the plants and equipment for pennies on the dollar. It's not like it'll be a sellers' market. If I'm running things, I'd offer at most $15/hour for assembly line labor, and that includes all benefits. Take it or leave it. If the current employees don't want it, it'll be easy enough to find lots of people who do.

It's not as if working on an assembly line is skilled labor. We're talking about people who put a component in place and use an air wrench to secure it. In a free market, that job would pay minimum wage with few or no benefits. But as of now, each of those drones is costing GM and Chrysler about $60,000/year in hourly wages alone, and about $140,000/year total, including benefits. What's wrong with that picture?

The auto bailout fell apart in the Senate mainly because the UAW refused to accept deep cuts in what their members cost the auto companies. In essence, the UAW and its Democrat supporters are demanding that US taxpayers suffer so they can continue to be paid these outrageous amounts. Screw them, I say.



14:30 - UPS just showed up with my Pentax DSLR remote control and, incredibly, a box from HMS Beagle. I say "incredibly" because I ordered the stuff on Wednesday. It shipped Wednesday evening by UPS ground from Parkville (Kansas City), Missouri. That's two-day service via ground. UPS outdid themselves on this one.

The Remote Control F is a lot smaller than I expected. It's about the height and width of one of my Kingston 4 GB flash drives with the USB connector retracted, and not as thick. It also weighs noticeably less than the flash drive. It offers two modes, selectable in the camera's menu, for releasing the shutter with no delay or with a 3-second delay. That same menu screen allows the mirror to be locked up and the shutter released after a 2-second delay, but that function can't be used with the remote control. You select either mirror lock-up or remote control enabled, but can't select both. I'll try it both ways. I was mistaken about the mirror lock-up function. I thought it had to be enabled for each shot, which would be a pain in the begonia. As it turns out, that setting persists as long as the camera is turned on. When the camera is turned off, the setting returns to normal.

The package from HMS Beagle was something to behold. It was a cardboard box that contained two smaller sealed cardboard boxes, each wrapped in bubblewrap. Getting to the actual chemical bottles was like working a Chinese puzzle. Each of the smaller cardboard boxes was taped securely. WIthin the box was taped bubblewrap surrounding a ziplock bag. Some of the chemical bottles were within that ziplock bag, but others were in ziplock bags of their own inside the first ziplock bag. All of this no doubt is to keep in compliance with the 49CFR ORM-D regulations, but it makes it a real quest to get to the contents. Of course, packed this well there's no chance of the chemicals being damaged. If one of the bottles did happen to leak, the contents would still have to penetrate at least two more sealed plastic bags. The bottles themselves are well sealed. Many of them had shrinkwrap collars around the lids, presumably to ensure a tight seal and prevent leaks. The others had, interestingly, child-safe caps. Overall, I was quite pleased at the quality of the packing.

The only minor issue was that instead of a 30 g bottle of potassium cyanide, I got a 5 g bottle. That gave me a bad moment, because I was expecting 30 g. I knew there wasn't 30 g in the bottle, so for a moment I thought I had a bunch of potassium cyanide floating around loose somewhere. As to the discrepancy in weight, I'm not sure if there's a typo on the web site or if they just sent me the wrong size bottle. The former, I suspect. It's not a real problem, because 5 g of potassium cyanide is plenty for my needs. But I did email John, the owner, and let him know.



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Saturday, 13 December 2008
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14:47 - This morning, Paul and Mary picked me up about 8:30 and we headed over to the gym where Barbara and Mary work out. Mary is pursuing her certification to teach Body Pump, and one of the requirements is that she teach a class alone and have the entire class videoed from start to finish without interruption. My camcorder is in the shop, so I borrowed Kim's and shot the class. The video was okay, but as it turns out we're going to have to reshoot, because the class has to be completed within one hour, and Mary's class ran something like three minutes overtime. I'm just as happy to reshoot, because a trial run is never a bad idea. I learned a lot about what I should be doing to get the best video for Mary, and I'll shoot better video the next time. After class, we ran by their house and started capturing the recorded video to a VHS tape, then picked up Barbara, and headed out for brunch. We dropped Barbara off on the way back over to their house, where we checked out the transferred video and found out that it ran overtime. Oh, well.

Paul and Mary dropped me back at our house, and Barbara and I went to work installing the vent hood over the cooktop. It shouldn't have been a problem. We were replacing a 36" hood with a new 36" hood. What we didn't take into account is that we'd had a new tile backsplash installed. The old one was standard ceramic tile. The new tile is natural stone that's about twice as thick as the old tile. The space for the vent hood was wide enough with the old tile in place that a 36" hood was an easy fit. With the new tile, the available space was approximately 0.00000000001" wider than the hood. No wiggle room, literally.

I'd already installed the adapter on the rear of the hood that mates with the sheet metal vent to outdoors. That adapter sticks out a few inches, and made it impossible to get the hood into place. So I removed the adapter from the back of the hood, slid it into the sheet metal vent, and covered the exposed edges with soft foam sealing tape. We were then able to slide the hood into place and get the power connected. I'd turned off all the circuits to the kitchen, I thought. As it turned out, I was working on a live circuit when I connected the hood. That's not the first time, and probably won't be the last. Fortunately, I have pretty high skin resistance, so all I feel is a slight twinge if I contact 120VAC with bare skin.

The final fit was tight enough that the hood stayed in place without any screws to secure it. I used four large-head screws anyway. That hood isn't going anywhere. Now, on to installing some shelves.



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Sunday, 14 December 2008
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08:43 - One of the things that annoys me most about Ubuntu/Gnome versus Kubuntu/KDE is that Gnome doesn't consolidate multiple sessions from the same application on the task bar. KDE displays a separate icon for each session until the icons become too small, at which point it consolidates all of them into a single icon.

For example, I might typically have four or five OpenOffice.org sessions, several file manager sessions, and thirty Firefox sessions all open at once. With KDE, I end up with three icons on the task bar, one for each of those applications. Clicking on any of the icons expands the list to show the titles of each session so that I can pick the one I'm interested in viewing.

With Gnome, there's no such consolidation. The task bar icons just keep getting smaller and smaller, and eventually it becomes impossible even to see what application each represents, let alone which session of that application. And if Firefox crashes, which it does distressingly often, restoring the session randomizes the order that the restored sessions appear on the task bar. Finding a particular session becomes a real Easter egg hunt.

I really can't wait until KDE gets around to releasing a useful version of KDE 4.



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