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Week of 7 January 2008

Latest Update: Sunday, 13 January 2008 11:13 -0500

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Monday, 7 January 2008
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08:20 - The chem lab book is rapidly reaching completion, although I have a lot of related stuff to do, including bringing up a support website and messageboard for the book, creating an ebook with the answers to the questions posed at the end of each lab session, and so on. I should finish shooting images for the book today.


Tuesday, 8 January 2008
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08:25 - Leave it to Sony to screw up anything it touches. It's been widely rumored for the last couple of weeks that Sony would be the final domino to fall among the major music labels in making DRM-free music downloads available to buyers. Those rumors turned out to be correct, kind of. Sony just announced DRM-free downloads starting next week, but, being Sony, they had to put their own stupid twist on it.

Incredibly, Sony's scheme will require that buyers drive to a brick-and-mortar store to buy a scratch-off music pass. That pass, with a suggested price of $13, will allow the buyer (after he drives home) to create an account with Sony's download service and download one album. Not a selection of individual tracks, but a whole album. And Sony is offering, get this, a massive library of 37 albums available for download. Yes, that's right. Not 37,000 albums. Not 3,700 albums. Not even 370 albums. But 37 albums.

These people are too stupid to live.

I have only four images left to shoot for the chem lab book. One of them is giving me fits, the brown-ring test for nitrates. It produces a very faint purplish-brown ring in a test tube at the interface between the nitrate-containing solution and a separate layer of concentrated sulfuric acid. The ring is visible to the eye, just, but so far it's proven to be impossible to photograph, at least for me. I may just substitute some other image.

The final three images are to be of latent fingerprints made visible by iodine fuming, ninhydrin, and silver nitrate. I ran some tests yesterday with the latter two, expecting to see nice crisp fingerprints revealed by the reagents. What I got instead were smudges with almost no ridges visible, purple in the case of ninhydrin, and black with silver nitrate. I'm gaining a new appreciation for the skills of forensics technicians.

Fortunately, I made up 100 mL each of the 0.6% ninhydrin reagent and the 3% silver nitrate solution. Each is in its own spray bottle, and it looks as though I may go through a lot of the reagents before I end up with decent sets of prints to photograph.


Wednesday, 9 January 2008
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13:30 - Finished! Yesterday, I submitted the last of the images for Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments. Oh, there'll still be final edits, checking galley proofs, and so on, but the book is for all intents and purposes finished at this point.

I spent this morning working on recommended pricing and competitive analyses for the various MAKE-branded glassware, lab equipment, and chemical kits that I hope will be offered as tie-in products with the book. Assuming we come to an agreement, MAKE will be offering these kits for sale on the MAKE web site, and presumably in the magazine as well. As to the analyses, the short story is that if MAKE prices these kits as I recommended, they'll be very competitive in terms of price and quality with competing products from other vendors, and we'll all make a few bucks from the tie-in sales.

Tomorrow, I plan to spend all day cleaning up my lab, which is a disaster area of epic proportions. Only one section of the counter is vacant, and that's the part where I've been doing setups and shooting images. The rest of the counter space is entirely cluttered with stuff. The first thing I'll do is fill the sink with soapy water and start washing glassware. I have literally dozens of test tubes, flasks, beakers, and other glassware in need of a good wash. Just getting that done will go a long way toward getting the lab cleaned up.

In fact, I got started on that yesterday afternoon, by filling some of the dirtier glassware with a dilute solution of hydrochloric acid (one part concentrated acid to four parts water). The dilute acid removes a lot of stubborn stuff, including insoluble carbonate deposits. After the acid treatment, ordinary soapy water and a brush usually does the job. I'll also mix up a few liters of PhotoFlo in a plastic tub. After each piece of glassware is rinsed, I'll run it through the PhotoFlo solution and invert it to dry. The PhotoFlo solution sheets off, leaving the glassware clean and almost dry to the touch very quickly.

I also need to make space for more gear that I've ordered or will be ordering for the home forensics lab book.


Thursday, 10 January 2008
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08:29 - Today I spend cleaning up my lab.

With customer service seemingly getting worse every year, it's a pleasure to report that SanDisk is an exception. Back in September, I bought Barbara a SanDisk m250 MP3 player. It never did work at all, refusing to be recognized when I connected it to a USB cable. I visited their website, posted details of the problem on their support forum, and got some suggestions about resetting the player. That didn't work, but I was so busy finishing up Illustrated Guide to Astronomical Wonders and working on Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments that I just let things drop.

Finally, late last month I contacted SanDisk support again. They gave me an RMA number and emailed me a pre-printed UPS label to use to return the defective player. I was surprised that SanDisk paid shipping both ways. I sent the defective player off on 2 January. Yesterday, UPS showed up with a replacement player, new in the box.

13:37 - Back from the dentist. I haven't even started cleaning up my lab, and may not get to it even tomorrow. Instead, I started working on the home page for the home chem lab web site. Creating the home page adds lots of to-do items to my list, which I'm working on now.


Friday, 11 January 2008
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08:25 - I'm still working on stuff that I need to get completed before the book hits the stores in April. Every time I start working on one thing, I think of other things I need to do, so my to-do list is growing rapidly.

Some comments from Bo Leuf in Sweden about SanDisk.

From: Bo Leuf
  To: Robert Bruce Thompson
Date: Fri Jan 11 06:30:48 2008
  Re: sandisk comments
I've had no experience with SanDisk support, which in any case would likely be different in Europe compared to the US, but the player is itself excellent despite the unusually fat physical format (at least the model I have). Most other mp3 players tend to be oval-outline flat packages. It also came with above-average quality earphones.

The only criticism I have is the battery lid which can easily pop off and get lost. The accompanying carry-case is just a cheap plastic wrapper with velcro strap. It works but not well. The lack of Vorbis ogg support is also a minus, although few players have this. Radio might have been nice too, a common extra feature on many players.

I never personally chose to buy the 1 GiB SanDisk player; it just turned up in the mail last year as an unexpected "thank you for your loyalty" gift from my telco.

Recording turned out to be very easy when I got around to trying it. Two menu selections and it's good to go: start - pause - optional save - resume or restart are all simple one-button operations. Microphone performance is significantly better than the cassette recorder I used to use. Non-critical placement in a room captures normal conversation well. An hour's recording generated a 14 MB wav file, so the 1 GiB memory allows a comfortable selection of mp3s for listening while leaving many hours of potential voice recording.

I thought about ogg vorbis, and in fact I'd already started producing ogg files from some of Barbara's CDs, but the simple fact is that MP3 is a de facto standard, playable by anything, and encoded with LAME at 256 Kb/s VBR the sound quality is adequate for anything we want to do with her music.

I doubt I'll ever use the sound recording feature; my Olympus WS-100 voice recorder is perfect for that purpose. As to radio, I asked Barbara and she said she didn't care about that. Our local radio stations have entirely degenerated to the point where they're mostly running commercials and inane DJ's talking about stupid things. Music seems to be an afterthought. Even our local public radio station has stopped playing the classical music they used to play and gone to running a bunch of talk shows.


Saturday, 12 January 2008
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00:00 -


Sunday, 13 January 2008
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11:13 - Today I'm doing laundry and working on getting the lab cleaned up and organized. We went to Space Savers yesterday, where I found some drawer organizers, and then to Lowes, where I picked up a couple of 8-foot 1X6's and an 8-foot 2X6. I've cut the 1X6's to length to fit inside the cabinets in my lab, where they'll double my shelf space. I'm using 4" lengths of 2X6 to support the additional shelves at the rear of the existing shelves, which leaves room for additional chemical bottles underneath the new shelves.

I have 100+ amber glass 4-ounce bottles already labeled for bench solutions of standard solid reagent chemicals, as well as liquid chemicals such as chloroform, various alcohols, and other organics such as acetone and butanone. The idea is to keep those easily accessible, with reserve stocks less so. For example, one of the 4-ounce bottles contains 100 mL of 0.1 M silver nitrate. That bottle is to the front, with the bottle containing solid silver nitrate behind it, where it's out of the way but accessible if necessary.

All of those bottles are arranged alphabetically. That's generally a bad idea, because it can put totally incompatible chemicals right next to each other, but these bottles contain either relatively dilute solutions or, in the case of stuff like flammables, only 100 mL, which isn't enough to be concerned about.

Concentrated acids (such as a 500 mL bottle of concentrated nitric acid or sulfuric acid), strong bases (such as a 1-kilogram bottle of sodium hydroxide or a 500 mL bottle of 30% aqueous ammonia), strong oxidizers (such as a 500 g bottle of barium nitrate or potassium permanganate or a 500 mL bottle of 30% hydrogen peroxide), and bulk flammables (such as alcohols and many organics, calcium metal, and so on) will be stored separately, both from general chemical storage and from each other. I have several Rubbermaid tubs that will serve to isolate them. Nitric acid will be stored separately from everything, because it reacts vigorously with almost everything.

When I first started converting the guest-suite kitchen into my laboratory, I thought I had all kinds of room, plenty of counter space and storage for anything I might want to do. Of course, that turns out not to be the case. As I plan additional titles for the O'Reilly/MAKE DIY Science series, it's clear that I'll be accumulating a lot more stuff. Making the best use of the available space is going to become increasingly important.


Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 by Robert Bruce Thompson. All Rights Reserved.