Wednesday, 29 February 2012

08:46 – I’m back to working heads-down on the forensics book and kit, with occasional breaks to do something down in the lab.

One thing I’m going to do today is convert some of that copper(II) sulfate I bought at Home Depot over the weekend into 1.00 molar copper(II) sulfate solution. The label of the last batch of Root Kill I had showed an assay of 99.8% copper(II) sulfate. I confirmed that gravimetrically. The molar mass of copper(II) sulfate pentahydrate is 249.68 grams/mole, so I dissolved 500.44 grams of the Root Kill in just under two liters of water. If the assay was correct, that 500.44 grams of Root Kill should have contained 499.36 grams or 2.00 moles of copper(II) sulfate. I filtered the solution using a weighed piece of filter paper, washed as much as possible of the soluble material out of the filter paper, dried the paper, and reweighed it. The mass difference was 1.13 gram, made up I’m sure of insoluble copper(II) oxide, which confirmed the assay of 99.8% copper(II) sulfate. Bizarrely, that $13 bottle of Root Kill contains 908 grams of what is for all practical purposes reagent-grade copper(II) sulfate. It even includes the CAS number on the label.

Alas, the assay on the new bottles lists the copper(II) sulfate content as “only” 99.0%. I think I’ll trust them and simply use 249.68/.99 = 252.20 grams per liter to make up the 1.00 molar solution today. I suspect that if I repeated the gravimetric tests I’d find that this stuff is in fact 99.0%. I’ll make up several liters. The 1.0 M solution is used as is in the chemistry kits, for which I need two liters per 60 kits. I can also use it to make up various solutions for the biology kits, including Barfoed’s, Benedict’s, and Biuret reagents, so it won’t hurt to have several liters made up. Copper(II) sulfate takes literally a week to dissolve, so having it made up ahead of time may save time later.


Tuesday, 28 February 2012

08:58 –Today is the last day of Barbara’s four-day weekend. She’s picking up her sister and parents and heading for some big outlet mall somewhere.

Sunday we ran out of the Scotch Blue masking tape we use to seal chemical bottles. Barbara also needed a new gas grill, so yesterday we headed over to Home Depot to pick those up. While we were there, I browsed the plumbing section in search of Root Kill (99+% copper sulfate pentahydrate) and Crystal Drain Opener (essentially 100% sodium hydroxide). I bought three 2-pound (0.91 kilo) bottles of the copper(II) sulfate, but the drain opener was new and “improved”. Instead of nice white 100% sodium hydroxide crystals, it was an unspecified percentage of sodium hydroxide with other components that weren’t named. I unscrewed the lid on a bottle to look at it and it was a lavender powder. Yuck.

I also needed 97 g of calcium acetate monohydrate to make up the fertilizer concentrate part C for the biology kits. I thought I had that in stock, but I didn’t. So I just made some up by reacting calcium hydroxide with acetic acid. I guess it’s kind of wasteful to use ACS reagent grade acetic acid and calcium hydroxide to make up a fertilizer, but needs must. The result was interesting. I expected a clear, colorless solution of calcium acetate, with the excess calcium hydroxide present as a fine particulate. What I got was a yellowish-brown cloudy solution. Oh, well. I filtered it. It is, after all, fertilizer, so its appearance isn’t really important. What I ended up with was a clear pale yellow solution.


12:25 –Jerry Coyne’s blog is one of my daily reads. He is unabashedly atheist and politically liberal. He is also intellectually honest beyond question. Here’s his latest: Are there human races?

My answer is the same as it’s always been: of course there are. There are clear differences in phenotypes, as well as the underlying differences in genotypes. Denying that human races exist is like denying that dog breeds exist. But many scientists, including biologists, do deny the existence of human races, basing that belief on political considerations rather than scientific ones. The idea that races might exist and that very real differences among them might exist is simply anathema to the politically-liberal mind.

Interestingly, no one seriously questions that very real differences exist between the sexes. Men are, on average, larger, stronger, faster, and more aggressive than women. Women are, on average, hardier than men. That’s why, for example, between 105 and 108 baby boys are born for every 100 baby girls. There is also little doubt that men and women think differently. And, even after eliminating social and cultural factors, there’s little doubt that the intelligence of women tends to cluster closer to the mean. That is, a very intelligent person is considerably more likely to be male than female, and an extraordinarily intelligent person is overwhelmingly more likely to be male. Conversely, males are also over-represented at the extremes of stupidity. Or, to put it another way, the standard deviation in IQ among women is significantly smaller than it is among men. Despite those differences, the mean IQ of statistical populations of men and women is identical to within one percent.

Perhaps the hesitance to acknowledge differences among the races is supported by the fact that no one agrees on just what constitutes a human race or how many of them there are. Some authors have argued in favor of only three or four races, while others argue in favor of dozens. There can never be a true number, because the number is determined by how one chooses to define a race. How large must the differences be? Since humans are on a continuum, supporting the idea of a relatively large number of human races minimizes the differences among them. But one thing really is pretty certain: the differences between the sexes make the differences among the races pale into insignificance. Human males of whatever race have more in common with each other than they do with a woman who is part of their nominal racial group.

The problem with the liberal position denying the existence of races is that it results in shoehorning different people into the same mold. Once one recognizes that differences do exist, one can adjust one’s expectations accordingly. From the fact that blacks are over-represented in the NBA, it does not follow that the NBA is a racist anti-white organization. Nor does it follow from the fact that whites and particularly Asians are over-represented and blacks under-represented in high school AP classes and university STEM programs that these organizations discriminate against blacks. It’s long past time that we abandoned the inherently-racist position that equal opportunity implies equal outcomes. Some people are simply better at some things than other people are. It’s time to recognize that fact.

Monday, 27 February 2012

08:13 – We’re down to a dozen chemicals left to package, after which we’ll be ready to start assembling biology kits. Most of those are obnoxious ones in one way or another, and I always leave those for last. For example, the glycerol and sodium dodecyl sulfate solutions are extremely viscous. We’ll probably package those in wide-mouth bottles rather than standard dropper bottles, simply because it’s so hard to get the chemical into (and then out of) the dropper bottles. Then we have stuff like 6 molar solutions of sodium hydroxide, acetic acid, ammonia, and hydrochloric acid, all of which are extremely corrosive and the last three of which emit noxious and choking fumes.

Speaking of kits, I’m also putting together a list of items to go in the forensics kit. I’d like to include a small amount of concentrated nitric acid, which until recently I thought was illegal to ship in any quantity without paying a hazardous material surcharge. It turns out that I may be able to include 30 mL or less under the section 173.4 small-quantity exemption. So I started checking resistance of various materials to 68% nitric acid. It turns out that polyethylene will probably work just fine, which surprised me.

While I was at it, I decided to check resistance to 98% sulfuric acid, which is used in Marquis reagent and Mandelin reagent (presumptive drug test reagents that are essentially 98% sulfuric acid, with tiny percentages of formaldehyde and ammonium metavanadate present, respectively). To my surprise, it appears that 98% sulfuric acid is even tougher on common plastics than is 68% nitric acid.

I’d package those solutions in 10 mL glass bottles packed inside 50 mL polypropylene centrifuge tubes, but the question is what kind of cap to use on the bottles. One option is a PP cap with a PE liner. I have a sample of that bottle and cap, so I’m going to fill it with Marquis reagent and store it for a couple months inverted inside a centrifuge tube to see what the Marquis reagent does to the cap and liner.


Sunday, 26 February 2012

09:43 – Barbara just gave me a haircut and is vacuuming now. Today we’ll pack the next-to-last group of chemicals for the biology kits: Barfoed’s reagent, Benedict’s reagent (qualitative), bromothymol blue, fertilizer concentrate B, glycerol, neomycin sulfate solution, Seliwanoff’s reagent A, sodium borate, and turmeric reagent.

As I was making up the Benedict’s reagent yesterday, I thought what a great demonstration it’d be for kids. It’s made up as two solutions that are subsequently mixed with constant stirring. The first solution is sodium carbonate and sodium citrate, which is colorless and water-like. I made up 1.7 liters of that. The second solution is copper sulfate in about 200 mL of water. It’s a beautiful blue color, about the same as Crest Pro Health mouthwash. As I poured the second solution into the first, I thought about having kids watch this part. They’d all assume, naturally enough, that the 200 mL of medium blue solution would be diluted by the 1700 mL of water-like solution to yield a much paler blue solution. In fact, the opposite occurs. The more of the copper sulfate solution you add, the deeper the blue color becomes, until the final 1900 mL of solution is a much, much deeper blue than the original copper sulfate solution.

As to why, most people who know a bit about chemistry think copper(II) ions are blue, but in fact they’re colorless. It’s hydrated copper(II) ions that are blue, because they form an intensely blue coordination complex with water molecules. That’s why copper(II) sulfate pentahydrate crystals are blue, while anhydrous copper(II) sulfate is colorless.

Nearly all copper coordination complexes are blue or green of some sort, but the exact color and intensity depends on the ligand. With water as the ligand, one sees the familiar blue of copper(II) sulfate. With citrate as the ligand, the color shifts to a shorter blue wavelength, and the color becomes much, much more intense.


Saturday, 25 February 2012

09:47 – I spent some time in the lab yesterday making up solutions for the biology kit. This afternoon, Barbara and I will fill, seal, and label 60 sets of those bottles. She’s taking Monday off, so we’ll continue doing bottles tomorrow and Monday as well. After that, we probably need one more weekend to finish making up all the chemical bottles. Once all those are done, we’ll be ready to start building biology kits.


11:18 – Hmmm. While I was downstairs doing laundry, I decided to make up some of the solutions that I hadn’t made yet. I was in the process of making up two liters of Benedict’s qualitative reagent, which requires (among other things) 200 grams of anhydrous sodium carbonate. I had a 500 gram bottle of reagent-grade anhydrous sodium carbonate, but when I opened it I didn’t like the looks of it. It was supposed to be a powder, but it had formed rock-like chunks. Who knows how much water it had absorbed through an apparently-faulty seal?

I decided I’d dry it out later, but in the meantime I needed 200 grams of the stuff. So I carried my 12-pound (5.5 kilo) zip-lock plastic bag full of baking soda upstairs, weighed out 654.81 grams of it into a glass baking dish, and put it in a 450 ºF (232 ºC) oven, and set the timer for an hour. At temperatures above 200 ºC, two molecules of sodium bicarbonate form one molecule each of sodium carbonate, carbon dioxide, and water. The latter two are gases, which leaves only solid anhydrous sodium carbonate powder in the baking dish.

So why 654.81 grams? The balanced equation for the reaction told me that I’d need about 317.1 grams of sodium bicarbonate to yield 200.0 grams of sodium carbonate. I decided that as long as I was at it, I’d make up about twice as much as I needed at the moment. That 654.81 grams of sodium bicarbonate should yield 413.02 grams of anhydrous sodium carbonate. By weighing the product, I can make sure the conversion was quantitative and that what’s left in the baking dish is actually pure sodium carbonate.

Friday, 24 February 2012

07:40 – My basement lab is no more. Well, the room is still there, and it still looks pretty much the same, but its function is changing. Amidst everything else on my to-do list, I decided that it was time to convert my working lab into a prep lab. So far, the visible changes are subtle. Instead of shelves and cabinets filled with relatively small bottles of a few hundred different chemicals, those shelves are now in the process of being filled with relatively large bottles of a few score chemicals, all of which are used in making up kits. I’m also going to fill in an unused wall area with another 20-odd feet (7 meters) of shelving.

It’s hard enough keeping up with the chemicals for just the chemistry kits. In April, we’ll be shipping biology kits as well, and by August we’ll be shipping forensics kits. There’s some overlap, but not a great deal. Thus the need for more working and storage space. I regret the loss of this dedicated working lab area, but a prep lab is a higher priority. And, obviously, it will still be usable as a working lab, albeit not as convenient.

I was going to write something with a straight face about converting our upstairs hall bathroom into my new working lab, ripping out the toilet and bathtub and installing working benches and cabinets. I was going to make it so convincing that Barbara would believe it and think I’d lost my mind. But April 1 is too far in the future, and anyway Barbara has been so good-natured about my taking over large areas of the house for business purposes that it wouldn’t be fair to provoke her further.


Thursday, 23 February 2012

08:50 – Brian Jepson sent a PDF yesterday of the first half of the biology book, just to show us how the layout looked. As always, it’s gorgeous. The O’Reilly/MAKE design/layout folks are top-notch.

My only substantive suggestion was to change the theme color from blue to green. The chemistry book is blue. Biology should be green, or as I told Brian, quoting Simon & Garfunkel, a “deep forest green”. And forensics should be a maroon or similar subdued red.

Speaking of the forensics book, Brian also told me he’d gotten the go-ahead on it. That means I’ll be spending the next three months re-writing the original manuscript to make it kit-based. At this point, we’re shooting to have the forensics book in bookstores in August, in time for the autumn semester. That’s really pushing it, but we can do it.


Wednesday, 22 February 2012

08:15 – The biology kits include glycerol (glycerin), and I just realized that the only unopened bottle I have in inventory is only a pint (473 mL), which isn’t nearly enough for 60 kits. I got that bottle at Costco some time ago, but they no longer carry it. I’d intended to run over to Walgreens or CVS, but their glycerol is quite expensive. So I checked Amazon, where I ordered a half gallon (1.9 L) of 99.7% food-grade “vegetable kosher glycerin, USP” for $27. Kosher? I guess they killed the vegetable oil with a ritual knife before they saponified it.


The latest Greek deal is already starting to unravel, just a day after it was agreed. As a condition for participating, the IMF is insisting that the EU “firewall” be boosted. Germany refuses to do that, because doing so to the extent required by the IMF would increase its already-huge liability by 50%, a step that German voters would not tolerate. Without IMF participation, the rest of the EU, which is to say Germany, would have to increase their own participation to cover the absence of IMF funding, which again is a step that German voters would not tolerate.

The math just doesn’t work for this deal. The current numbers were calculated under ridiculously rosy assumptions about the Greek economy. A top-secret study commissioned by the EU was leaked during the negotiations, and makes it clear that the planned €130 billion bailout is nowhere near adequate. Under that study’s assumptions, which are themselves extremely optimistic, Greece will require about twice that much, €245 billion. Although the press is calling those assumptions “worst case”, in fact they’re nowhere near worst-case. They’re not even anywhere near realistic-case. Realistically, the EU is looking at a transfer of at least €400 billion and probably €500 billion to €600 billion between now and 2020 to keep Greece even marginally solvent.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

07:56 – The EU summit turned out exactly as I predicted. They kicked the can a bit farther down the road, putting off Greece’s inevitable collapse for a few more weeks, if they’re lucky. Greece in turn agreed to become a wholly-owned subsidiary of the eurocracy, abandoning its sovereignty. Ironically, it was also announced yesterday that the old drachma ceases to be legal tender as of 1 March. One would have thought they’d have kept it around a while longer. It might come in useful. Or perhaps they’re just doing a central collection of all outstanding drachma-denominated notes and coins, expecting to reissue them shortly.

I’m told that no one in Europe wants to be holding Greek-branded euros, and that those of Portugal, Ireland, Spain, and Italy are also looked upon as of questionable value. In a real-world demonstration of Gresham’s Law, everyone is getting rid of southern-tier euros as fast as they can and attempting to replace them with German, Dutch, and Finnish euros. And who can blame them? The expectation is that when Greece leaves the euro, Greek euros will be the new drachma until Greece can afford to print real new drachmas. And the same will occur as the other southern-tier nations leave the euro. Frankly, I expect the opposite to happen; the poorer nations, including Belgium and France, will end up using increasingly worthless euros, while Germany and the other richer nations return to their own former currencies. Or, if they’re foolish, to a new shared currency, but one shared only among the richer northern-tier nations.

One thing is certain, though. The results of the latest euro summit bought them weeks if they’re lucky, and only days if they’re not.


Monday, 20 February 2012

08:38 – We did have a pretty nasty evening and night. Sleet turning into snow, a stiff breeze, and wind chills down at one point into the single digits Fahrenheit. Fortunately, it had been pretty warm for several days prior, with temperatures in the 60’s (~ 20C), so the ground and roads were warm enough to melt off the accumulated snow overnight. This morning I’m sure there’ll be glare ice on bridges and so on, but the effects of our Great Blizzard of 2012 should be gone by this afternoon. Colin loved it. It was the first time he’d seen snow. He was running around, digging his snout in and grabbing mouthfuls.

We got a lot done yesterday on the biology kits. If Barbara and I work full-time for the next couple of weekends, we’ll be ready to start assembling and shipping the first batch of 60 biology kits. Several people here have emailed me to ask about availability. I’ll post a heads-up here ahead of the general announcement to make sure my readers here get the first shot. We have no idea how long the first batch of 60 kits will last. They may sell out the first day, or it may be a week or a month.

The financial markets are awaiting the results of the big eurogroup meeting today to see if Germany cuts Greece loose or puts up sufficient money to keep things dragging on for a few more weeks. Ultimately, it doesn’t make any difference. Greece is toast. Everyone knows that, including the Greeks. Merkel is inclined to keep things going for a bit longer, but she’s facing considerable opposition in Germany, including from within her own party.

The problem is, it’s not a question of allocating just $20 billion or so to prevent Greece from defaulting on 20 March. The way things are structured, the eurogroup would have to commit $100+ billion immediately, of which Germany would have to commit the largest share. With the IMF backing away, agreeing to commit only about 10% of the total (versus about a third for earlier bailouts), and with Greece’s economy continuing to tank big-time, the eurozone governments will have to commit much more than originally planned. Regardless of what Merkozy think should be done, they both have their voters to worry about. German and French voters have had enough, long since, and there’s only so far that Merkozy can push.

My guess is that today’s meeting will end in “success”, with an announcement that the new bailout has been approved and that Greece has substantially complied with the requirements. The markets will rejoice. But then everyone will notice that Greece has no chance of meeting the conditions attached to the new bailout, and we’ll be back to where we were, with Greece teetering for a while longer before it actually falls into the abyss.