Thursday, 31 May 2012

07:40 – Illustrated Guide to Home Forensic Science Experiments is officially complete and off to O’Reilly’s production folks. I’ve already issued several purchase orders for the forensics kits, and will be putting together and issuing more of them over the next few days.


10:08 – I’ve enabled registration for this site, which I’m hoping will allow registered users to edit their own comments, at least for a short time after they post them. If you’re a regular here, please go ahead and register and let me know if you can edit your own comments.


16:44 – That loud sucking sound you hear is the sound of people withdrawing their money from Spanish banks. The MSM hesitates to call it a bank run, but what else would you call a net withdrawal of about $125 billion for the month ending today? Like all other eurozone banks, all Spanish banks are not just bankrupt but zombiefied. Their net worth is so far into the red that there’s nothing to be done. The Spanish government, bankrupt itself, can’t help them. The EU can’t help them. The IMF can’t help them. The ECB has already put more than $1 trillion in funny money into the EU banking system. As I predicted, that’s actually done more harm than good. It delayed the final collapse, of course, but at what a price. Spain is very close to following Greece down the tubes, and there’s nothing anyone can do now to stop it. Expect severe capital control measures to be implemented, possibly as soon as tomorrow. Not that those will do any good.

Even EU, ECB, and IMF officials are now speaking openly about the collapse of the eurozone, and “collapse” is one of the kinder words they’re using. This is a real train wreck, not just for Greece and Spain, but for the rest of the eurozone. The UK, Sweden and other EU nations that are not members of the eurozone will also suffer heavily, but nowhere near as badly as those in the eurozone. Germany has to be very near the point of abandoning the euro, if only in self-preservation.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

07:41 – You’ve probably seen phenolphthalein used as an acid-base indicator. In solutions ranging from acidic to moderately basic, phenolphthalein is colorless; at pH 10 and higher, phenolphthalein is fuchsia. (Okay, “fuchsia” is a girl-color, and I annoy Barbara by pronouncing it as German. Guys would call the color “pink”, or, if they’re into photography and imaging, perhaps “magenta”.)

At any rate, the forensics kit includes a 30 mL bottle of Kastle-Meyer reagent, a presumptive color test for blood. I had planned to buy the stuff premade, figuring it might cost me $30/liter or thereabouts. Instead, I found several suppliers, the least expensive of which was charging $230/liter. Geez. Obviously, taxpayer-funded law enforcement agencies aren’t too concerned about price.

It’s easy enough to make the stuff up, so that’s what I’ll do. All it requires per liter is 20 g of phenolphthalein, 200 g of sodium or potassium hydroxide, and about the same amount of zinc. You start by dissolving the hydroxide in about 900 mL of distilled or deionized water. Phenolphthalein powder is extraordinary insoluble in water, but freely soluble in a strong aqueous base solution. (And a 20% w/v solution of sodium or potassium hydroxide counts as a “strong aqueous base solution” in spades…)

Of course, as the phenolphthalein powder dissolves, the solution turns an incredibly intense fuchsia color. That’s where the zinc comes in. It reduces the phenolphthalein to pale yellow phenolphthalin. The instructions for making up KM reagent always talk about refluxing the solution until the pink color changes to pale yellow. I was hoping to avoid refluxing large volumes of a 20% hydroxide solution–the stuff is fearsome enough at room temperature, let alone boiling–so I decided to make up a small sample batch at room temperature. I made up 100 mL and let the stuff sit at room temperature for two or three weeks, with occasional swirling. Over that time, it turned from pure pink to an orangish pink.

So yesterday, I decided to speed things up a bit by refluxing the solution. The problem with that is that strong hydroxide solutions literally dissolve glass, even at room temperature. At boiling, they simply eat glass. After two or three weeks of contact, the 250 mL Erlenmeyer flask that I’d made up the solution in originally was already etched, so I decided to see what would happen at boiling. The image below shows the grisly details. What look like white chemical deposits on the sides of the flask is actual where the glass has been etched. But the good news is that after only 30 minutes or so of refluxing the solution has assumed its final light yellow color.

This little experiment did lead to a change in plans, however. I was expecting to have to reflux the solution for at least two or three hours. To do that refluxing in volume, I planned to buy a large round-bottom flask (or several) and a Graham condenser with ground-glass joints, and dedicate them to making up KM reagent. If you’ve ever priced glassware with ground-glass joints, you know how costly it is. Even the Chinese stuff ain’t cheap, and I’m not at all sure how many iterations the flask and condenser would survive. So I decided instead to order some large (2 L to 5 L) Erlenmeyer flasks, which aren’t cheap, but they’re a lot cheaper than ground-glass glassware. And I won’t need a reflux condenser at all. For the sample batch, I simply placed a one-hole stopper loosely in the neck of the 250 mL Erlenmeyer, brought the solution to a boil and then turned it down to simmer. There was a small amount of steam exiting the hole in the stopper, but not enough to noticeably reduce the volume of the solution over the whole reflux period.


Tuesday, 29 May 2012

08:25 – Barbara is off to take her dad to the doctor and then head in to work. Her mom and dad both seem to be doing fine.


Over the next couple of months, we’ll focus on building inventory of the biology, chemistry, and forensic science kits. We currently have about two dozen each of the biology and chemistry kits in stock, with components to build about 30 more of each. By the first of August, I want to have enough components in stock to assemble at least 200 of each, plus 100 forensic science kits. Over that three month period starting 1 August, I want to be prepared to ship a total of at least 500 kits.

Monday, 28 May 2012

08:02 – It’s Memorial Day here in the U.S., the day set aside to remember those who sacrificed themselves to protect our freedom. Although the official purpose of Memorial Day is to remember those who gave their lives in the service of our country, let’s also remember all of those brave men and women, living and dead, who through the years have put their lives on the line to protect all of us. As we have our cookouts and family get-togethers today, let’s all take a moment to think about our troops in the Middle East and elsewhere, who can’t be with their families. And let’s have a thought, not just today but every day of the year, for them and the sacrifices they are making and have made.


Barbara is heading over to have lunch with her parents today. This afternoon, we’ll build more kits and work more on getting the basement organized. We’re going to a numbered bin system for organization. For the biology, chemistry, and forensics kits, we’ll need something more than 200 numbered bins. Some of those can be pretty small. For example, it doesn’t take a very large bin to store, say, 250 stirring rods or spatulas. Conversely, some will be much larger. For example, 100 splash goggles fill a good-sized box. And there will be many bins with the same number. For example, we get 250 mL beakers in boxes of a dozen. Those happen to be bin number 140, so when I order in 15 boxes of those beakers, we’ll have 15 boxes stacked up together, all labeled 140. Once we get this all set up, it should making picking and assembling kits much faster.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

14:13 – I’ve spent today catching up on things that Barbara wanted to do but needed me available for. We went out to Home Depot to look at deck materials and pick up a few items. Then we spent some time cleaning up and reorganizing the basement. There are several small and medium projects we haven’t started yet, but we’ll get to all of them over the next few weeks.


Saturday, 26 May 2012

07:08 – Here’s a fun video of a city-girl reporter visiting Amber Marshall’s farm. Ms. Marshall seems an interesting young woman. She’s the star of the excellent TV series Heartland, which just finished its fifth season. She bought a farm near where the series is filmed and lives there with her collection of animals: horses, cattle, chickens, turkeys, pigs, cats, and no less than four-count-’em-four Border Collies.


Friday, 25 May 2012

07:25 – Barbara’s hoping her dad will be released from the hospital today, but we won’t know until later today.

Illustrated Guide to Home Forensic Science Experiments: All Lab, No Lecture is now complete and off to our editor. It’s due to hit the bookstores on 22 August, which means we have to have Forensic Science kits ready to ship before then.

Yesterday I called the guy from whom I bought the 250 g of iodine to see what other chemicals he carried. Apparently, he specializes in iodine and iodides. I told him that I was surprised that he was openly selling iodine on eBay in violation of DEA regulations, and he said that indeed he’d recently been contacted by the DEA and had ended up applying for a license to sell iodine. When I said that I was a bit concerned that ordering 250 g would get me on a DEA list, he said not to worry about it. Apparently, the limit is 300 g of iodine per month. I already had about 100 g in stock, and 350 g is probably more than I’ll use in a year.


Thursday, 24 May 2012

08:10 – Barbara’s dad is still in the hospital, and probably will be for the next couple of days. Barbara said he’d lost about four pounds (~ two kilos), all of which was water weight. They’ll continue to dry him out and then have some other tests they want to run.

I spent much of yesterday costing out the forensic science kits. I had to do that before the book is finalized, because I didn’t want the kit to end up having to be priced at $300 or $400. The goal is $200 or less. Eyeballing it, it looks like we’ll be able to do that. Based on the amount of stuff that’ll be in the kit, it looks like we may have to go to a large flat-rate box rather than a regional-rate box B, which puts the shipping cost at about $15, versus an average of maybe $10 on the chemistry and biology kits, but that’s doable. One way or another, we’ll still bundle in free shipping because people hate to have shipping charges separate from the product price.

Geez. By 0800 this morning, I’d already shipped two kits, one chemistry and one biology. This is making me nervous. We get a nice batch of kits ready. They’re sitting there, all stacked up nice and pretty. And then people go and order them, and we watch our stock dwindle. Oh, well. I guess I’d better get used to it. From now until maybe October, we’ll be shipping a lot of kits. We can rest then.


10:34 – I love how some vendors try to encourage people to upgrade from the free shipping option. I ordered a case of 10 mL oral syringes on Tuesday, and chose the free shipping option with 7 to 10 day delivery. I wasn’t in a huge hurry, so I decided that was fine. I just got a notification from the vendor with a UPS tracking number. The shipment is scheduled to arrive tomorrow.

“Free” shipping used to be an inducement to increase order size and prevent abandoned shopping carts, but it’s come to be expected and just another cost of doing business. LL Bean’s new free shipping policy may be the final nail in the coffin of charging for shipping separately. Bean now ships essentially all orders for free, regardless of number of items or price. I can order one $3 item and Bean ships it for free.

I never had any intention of charging separately for shipping. Fortunately, that’s easy for us because our minimum order is currently $160, the price of one chemistry kit. The only small orders we receive are replacement orders for spilled chemicals, broken glassware, and so on. On those orders, of which we’ve received exactly one in the last year, we may end up breaking even or worse, but again I consider that just a cost of doing business.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

07:35 – After having two months’ worth of rain a week ago, we had another month’s worth of rain last night. That’s a total of about 9.5 inches (24 cm) in one week. The reservoirs should be bursting at the seams by now.

I was talking with our neighbor Heather yesterday. Their son, Brian, is 17, and had been planning to join the Navy after he graduates from high school this month. Heather mentioned that he was instead going to join the Air Force. When I asked why, she said Brian had found out how small the berths are on Navy ships. Brian is taller than I am and weighs probably 260 pounds (118 kilos).

I said something about Brian not being destined to become a fighter pilot. When Heather asked why, I said that I suspected the Air Force still had size limitations for fighter pilots because fighter cockpits aren’t large enough for really big guys. My dad encountered that when he joined the Army Air Corps after Pearl Harbor. He’d wanted to train to fly P-47s or P-38s, but my dad was 6’1″ tall and the limit then for fighter pilots was 5’10”.


Tuesday, 22 May 2012

06:57 – I’m still working heads-down on the forensics book, putting together consolidated equipment/chemicals/specimens lists from all of the lab sessions. I should finish that up today or tomorrow, which means the manuscript is complete. I’ll then go back and do a quick clean-up pass, shoot more images, and so on.


10:01 – Barbara took her dad to an early appointment this morning with his doctor. She called about 9:00 to say that the doctor wanted her dad to go to the hospital. He has problems with fluid accumulation, which they’ve been treating by limiting his fluid intake and having him on a regimen of Lasix or some other loop diuretic. This morning, the edema was bad enough that the doctor thought IV diuretics were needed, so Barbara took her dad over to the hospital. I’m not sure if they’ll admit him or just treat him and release him. Barbara and her sister have been run ragged recently dealing with medical emergencies. I hope the hospital sends Dutch home today. Hospital stays are very hard on their parents, of course, but they’re also hard on Barbara and Frances. It’s fortunate that there are two of them to share the hospital visits and running around on errands for their parents.


13:41 – Barbara called to say they’ve admitted her dad to the hospital and he’ll be there several days. I guess their mom is going to stay with Barbara’s sister. It doesn’t sound like Dutch is in any real danger, but they have to get him dried out before they can send him home. He has a lot of fluids accumulated in his tissues, particularly his legs. The real worry, of course, is that the edema also occurs around the heart, causing congestive heart failure.

Here’s something weird. I just shipped a kit to California, which is in USPS zone 8, the most expensive zone. The kit, as all of them are, was in a USPS Priority Mail Regional Rate Box B. It cost $14.62 to ship. The weird part is that I could have used a USPS Priority Mail Large Flat-Rate Box–which is larger than the RR Box B and also has a weight limit of 75 pounds versus 20 pounds for the RR box–and it would have cost $14.61, a penny less. Very strange.


16:19 – The reason we assembled only 18 chemistry kits last weekend is that we ran out of one component, the 10 mL oral syringe. I’d been ordering those in bags of 100, and was just about to reorder two bags when I realized that was foolish. So I ordered a case of 500 instead. It’ll be a while before I need to reorder those. Our stock of chemistry kits is already dwindling fast, so we need to get more assembled in the next week or two. Other than the syringes, we have everything needed to assemble another dozen in a few minutes, but that’s not going to keep us for long. Once I get this forensics book put to bed, I’m going to order components for another 90 or 120 (we print labels in sheets of 30) chemistry kits and the same number of biology kits and get to work on making up and bottling the chemicals for them. While I’m at it, I’ll order components for 60 or 90 forensic science kits. Or maybe more.