Thursday, 28 February 2013

08:56 – Colin let me sleep in this morning. I awoke at 0755 and found Colin sprawled full-length on his back on Barbara’s side of the bed, still fast asleep.

One of the new science kits I’m seriously considering is a consolidated middle school science kit. There are three “standard” middle-school science courses: life science (introductory biology; usually grade 6 or 7), earth science (or earth & space science; usually grade 7 or 8), and physical science (introductory chemistry and physics; usually grade 8 or 9). Many homeschool parents try to cover all three of these courses in two years, grades 7 and 8, leaving grade 9 available for a first high school level science course. Traditionally that’s been first-year high school biology, with first-year high school chemistry in grade 10, but increasingly homeschoolers (and many public schools) are swapping those, teaching first-year chemistry in grade 9 and first-year biology in grade 10. That’s because modern biology courses are increasingly taught bottom-up–starting with the chemistry of life, life processes, cellular chemistry, and so on–rather than the old top-down approach of starting with organisms and working down toward cell-level issues.

We’re already planning to introduce separate kits for each of those three courses, starting with life science, but I realized that there are likely to be enough materials in common in those three kits that it might make sense to also offer a consolidated kit that would include the equipment and chemicals to do all three courses. It’d be a relatively expensive kit, but not as expensive as the three separate kits. If we do decide to offer a consolidated kit, it’d be a 2014 or even 2015 product, but it makes sense to think about it now because it would effect how we design the three separate kits.

And, on that note, I think I’ll make up a liter of universal indicator solution today, because that’s one of the chemicals that would probably be in the kit and I haven’t used it in probably 40 years. The stuff is ridiculously expensive to buy, but considerably less so to make.


11:49 – I thought this was interesting. Apparently, acetaminophen is even more toxic to snakes than it is to people. That’s pretty damned toxic, considering that something like 50,000 Americans a year are treated in emergency rooms for acetaminophen poisoning and about 500 of them die.


14:02 – I have finally had enough of being spammed by Shapeways. I was surprised that they spam, because they’re supposed to be a community effort in the MAKER tradition. But they’ve been spamming me for two or three years now. I have clicked on the unsubscribe link many, many times. I have sent them email. But the spams just keep on coming. So finally I went to their customer service page and left the following.

What do I have to do to get you to stop spamming me? I bought one item from you (a Dremelfuge centrifuge head) two or three years ago, and you have been spamming me ever since. I never “joined” your community, nor did I ever give you permission to email me.

So, please take me off your mailing list immediately. I should tell you that I’m an O’Reilly/MAKE author, and if you keep spamming me I’m going to do everything I can to make sure my readers are aware that I consider your company’s business practices unacceptable.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

07:37 – Unless we get a flurry of kit sales today and tomorrow, February 2013 will be our worst month in a long time. Not that that’s anything to worry about. For the last several months, kit sales have been four to seven times higher than month-on-month figures for a year earlier. For February 2013, our sales have been “only” three times those of February 2012. Unless March through May are catastrophically bad, we’ll remain on track to at least triple if not quadruple kit sales this year, assuming we can get them built.

We’re almost out of chemistry kits, so I took some time yesterday from working on the new batch of 60 biology kits to put together two dozen each of the regulated and non-regulated chemical bags for the CK01A chemistry kits. I’ll build a dozen chemistry kits for stock today.

Barbara is coming home after work to have dinner and then head over to her parents’ place to do dad-sitting duty tonight. Dutch is doing pretty well, but Barbara and Frances don’t want to leave him alone at night until his leg wound is completely healed. Sankie is doing marginally better. Her 85th birthday is tomorrow, so Barbara, Frances, and Dutch are going to drive down to visit her in Thomasville tomorrow evening.


Tuesday, 26 February 2013

08:11 – We dodged the bullet again. When I woke up this morning, it was pouring rain and one degree above freezing. Barbara made a flying visit home last night after work. We had dinner and then she packed work clothes and her gym bag for today and took off to head over to her parents’ place to keep her dad company overnight. She’s taking him to the doctor this morning to get the paperwork done that he needs to get Medicare to approve a scooter.

I didn’t get as many containers filled yesterday as I’d planned because I ended up having a lot of other stuff going on. For one thing, I discovered I was short of caps for the 15 mL bottles. My vendor sells bottles and caps separately, and the numbers don’t correspond. For example, the 30 mL plastic bottles come 1,500/case but the caps for them come 1,440/case. That’s not so bad. I can keep those in close sync simply by ordering a case of bottles with a case of caps and an extra bag of 144 caps. Then, every once in a while, I’ll order a case of bottles without the extra bag of caps and things work out pretty closely. The 15 mL plastic bottles are more problematic. They come 1,100/case but their caps, different from the 30 mL caps, are still 1,440/case. So, unless I’m careful, sometimes we end up with a bunch of leftover bottles and sometimes a bunch of leftover caps.

So, we currently have one half-full case of 15 mL bottles and maybe 50 or 100 caps. I thought I had another case of 15 mL caps, but if so I can’t find it. So yesterday I ordered two cases of the 15 mL bottles and two cases of caps for them. That matches 2,200 bottles up with 2,880 caps, and should make things come out right. We needed more 15 mL bottles anyway, because Barbara will be starting on labeling new batches of bottles. Meanwhile, I got all the labeled 30 mL bottles filled yesterday, and would have started on the 15 mL bottles if I’d had caps for them. Oh, well. I have several hundred tubes to fill anyway, so I just changed gears and started filling tubes. And, with what we have on hand, those 2,200 15 mL bottles are enough for about 60 more chemistry kits and 60 more biology kits.


12:30 – Amazon has apparently created a monster with free Kindle books, and now they’re trying to clamp down by penalizing sites that feature their free ebook downloads. I’m not surprised. In the past year, I’ve downloaded close to 1,000 free Kindle ebooks. Well, 2,000 actually, because I download them for both my Kindle and Barbara’s. And even at that, I’m being pretty selective. I only click the link to view a book on Amazon if it looks like something we might want to read, and the sites that provide the link do some preliminary winnowing–minimum stars required to be listed and so on. On a typical day, that might mean I have a quick look at five or six books among the 50 to 100+ candidates. I then do a 15-second review of the description and number/average of the reviews. If it passes that test, I download a copy for me and one for Barbara. In the past, I’d typically download three of the final candidates; now I’m more selective and usually download only one or two a day. Then every couple or three weeks, Barbara will go through the titles I’ve gotten and winnow them further. The upshot is that we end up with maybe 1% of those free titles on our Kindles as final candidates. Then we read the first couple of chapters–or sometimes just the first couple of paragraphs–to decide if a book is worth spending any time on. Maybe a quarter of them are good enough to be keepers, and the vast majority of those are self-pubbed titles. So, overall, we actually end up reading maybe 0.25% of the featured free Kindle books. The good news for the winning authors is that we then usually go out and buy the rest of the titles in their series. But Amazon is doing its best to put a stop to all of this.

Monday, 25 February 2013

09:40 – Barbara’s mom called Barbara’s cell phone again yesterday. When Barbara answered, her mom was just repeating Barbara’s cell phone number over and over again. Barbara couldn’t get her mother to respond, so she finally just hung up on her mom and called the nurses’ station. She ended up talking to her mom’s social worker, who interviewed Barbara about her mom’s medical and other history. The mystery of how Sankie was getting their phone numbers was cleared up when the social worker told Barbara that she’d seen Sankie wandering around carrying a slip of paper with phone numbers on it. Barbara told the social worker that she and her sister couldn’t take calls from their mom, particularly at work, and asked her to make sure that Sankie had only Dutch’s home phone number. Barbara is still hopeful that her mom will recover, of course, but I’m afraid that this is the new normal.

I’ll be spending some time this week filling bottles, thousands of them. I’m really glad I decided to buy that bottle-top dispenser. It speeds up filling immensely, even counting cleanup time between different solutions, particularly when I’m doing 60 to 240 bottles at a time. Meanwhile, I’ll also get labels printed for yet another batch of 60 chemistry kits and 60 biology kits. That’s about 5,000 container labels for Barbara to apply. Which means I need to get a few thousand more bottles and caps ordered.


17:01 – Well, the Italian elections are over, and if there’s one thing clear about this mess it’s that Italian voters have rejected “austerity” resoundingly. Bersani and his left-wing Democratic Party did much worse than expected, losing the Senate to a resurgent Berlusconi and his People of Freedom Party and winning only a 35% to 29% margin in the lower chamber. Former comedian Beppe Grillo and his Five Star Movement did much, much better than expected, with solid third place numbers in the polling. Mario Monte, the technocrat imposed on Italy by the EU, was a far distant fourth.

Bersani and Berlusconi hate each other’s guts and their parties’ policies are diametrically opposed, so there’s almost no chance that they will form a coalition. In essence, Italy is now without a government and is likely to remain so until new elections can be held later this year. Which means the ECB will no longer be propping up Italy’s bonds. Which means you can expect to see Italian bond yields start to skyrocket, sooner rather than later. Which means the euro crisis is back, bigger and badder than ever. Not that it was ever really gone. It was just smoldering. Watch it now, as it bursts back into flames worse than anything we saw at the “height” of the crisis. At this point, the most likely outcome is that Italy will crash out of the euro, returning to the lira, and default on its massive debt pile. The follow-on effects for Greece, Spain, Portugal, and France are likely to be catastrophic.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

08:39 – Barbara spent the night with her dad and will return home later this morning. Frances will stay with Dutch tonight, and then Barbara will stay with him again Monday night.

Barbara was surprised yesterday afternoon when her cell phone rang and it was her mother, calling from the hospital. Her mother apparently thought she was working in a bank, and was calling Barbara to tell her that her check hadn’t cleared. Barbara tried to explain to Sankie that she was in the hospital and that there was no check. She then called the hospital to ask why her mother was being allowed to make phone calls, which she hadn’t been allowed to do while she was in the psych ward here in Winston-Salem. Apparently, the Thomasville hospital has different policies. They told Barbara that Sankie was allowed to make one phone call every three hours. Barbara asked the nurse to make sure that her mother didn’t have her or Frances’s cell, home, or work phone numbers. They’re going to allow Sankie to call Dutch and only Dutch. Understandably, Dutch doesn’t want to see or talk to Sankie while she’s in this state, but he can just let the answering machine pick up and screen his calls. Everyone is hoping that Sankie will recover, but at this point I don’t think anyone is really expecting her to.

Even with all of this going on, Barbara has been helping me build more science kits. We sold a biology kit and a chemistry kit yesterday, which took us down to less than a dozen biology kits and only two chemistry kits in stock. Fortunately, we now have everything we need to build another five dozen chemistry kits, and we’re not far from having what we need to build another five dozen biology kits. Forensic kits are still in good supply.


Saturday, 23 February 2013

09:14 – Barbara and her dad took Sankie to her psychiatrist yesterday afternoon. She wasn’t in there five minutes, literally, before the doctor said he’d been seeing her for many years but he’d never seen her like this, and that she belonged in the hospital. He has an outpatient clinic here in Winston-Salem, but his home hospital is in Thomasville, about 40 minutes to our southeast. There was a bed available, so Barbara drove her dad and mom to Thomasville and waited while they admitted her mother. By then, it was nearing dinnertime, so they met Frances at a restaurant here in Winston-Salem. Getting out of the car, Dutch shut the car door on his leg and gashed it badly, so it was off to the emergency room again. Frances took their dad to the hospital. Dutch wasn’t badly hurt and it didn’t require both of them to be there, so Barbara came home. When she got home, the first words out of her mouth were, “I have no life.” I am reminded of Dorothy Parker, “What fresh hell can this be?”


11:13 – Barbara is out running errands–supermarket, library, drugstore, etc. She talked to her sister this morning. Frances had stayed last night with their dad because they didn’t arrive home from the hospital until midnight. Bonnie Richardson, one of our astronomy club buddies, called Barbara Friday to let her know that her dad had died. Barbara’s going to visit the funeral home this evening on her way over to stay with her dad tonight. Tomorrow, Frances will take over and Barbara will come home with her parents’ laundry for me to do. Frances stays with her dad tomorrow night. Barbara goes to work as usual on Monday and then goes straight from work to her dad’s. She stays with him Monday night, which makes sense anyway because she has to take him to an 8:00 a.m. doctor appointment Tuesday morning to get the paperwork filled out for Dutch to get one of those battery-powered scooters.

The federal government has apparently clamped down bigtime on paying for those scooters, which is understandable because they cost $2,000 or more. What’s really strange is the scooter becomes Dutch’s property as soon as it’s approved. Once Dutch no longer needs it, the feds don’t take back the scooter. We can sell it on eBay or whatever. Conversely, although one can buy identical products on-line for $600 or so, Dutch’s oxygen apparatus is only rented. It goes back when he no longer needs it.

I ordered only one pack of 500 of the RIA vials and caps, and I wish I’d ordered more. They’re basically 12x75mm hydrophobic polypropylene 5 mL test tubes with snap-fit airtight HDPE caps, and they’re ideal as storage containers for small amounts of chemicals. We’re currently building components for a batch of 60 biology kits, and we’re using eight of those vials per kit to contain materials that we used to package in coin envelopes. Things like gelatin, carrot seeds, and so on. The RIA vials/caps cost a bit more than coin envelopes, but they’re easier to label, fill, and seal and they’re more convenient for users, so we’ve decided to start using them rather than coin envelopes for many items.

Friday, 22 February 2013

08:20 – Barbara’s mother lost it yesterday. She called here yesterday afternoon, telling me that they were about to be evicted because they were out of money, that they owed $50,000 they couldn’t pay, that Barbara had to come over to stay with her, and that she wanted Barbara to call her immediately. Or at least that’s what I was able to get from the stream of nonsense she was talking. Barbara and Frances had already made it clear to Sankie that they weren’t going to be staying over there with her and that they weren’t going to respond to her demands that they stay with her at all times. So I told Sankie that I’d give Barbara the message but I didn’t think Barbara would be returning her call.

At that point, Dutch grabbed the phone from her and told me that this had been going on constantly literally all day without a break and that he couldn’t take it any more. I told him I’d call Barbara and tell her what was going on. I did that, and then talked to Barbara again later. She said that she’d set up an appointment with Sankie’s psychiatrist for this afternoon, that she was going to go to the gym as planned after work, and that she’d be home around 6:30.

At 6:14, the phone rang here. I answered on the second ring, but the caller hung up. Caller ID showed it was Barbara’s parents’ line calling, so I tried calling back immediately and got a busy signal. Then, at 6:18, the phone rang again. It was Sankie, begging to speak to Barbara. I told her that Barbara wasn’t home yet, and Sankie began pleading with me to have Barbara call her immediately. She was still going on about them being evicted because they were poor and owed money they couldn’t repay, and demanding that Barbara come over and stay with her. I told Sankie that just wasn’t going to happen, and that Barbara, Frances, and Dutch had reached their limit. She said Barbara had to come over to stay because she wanted Barbara to make Dutch do what she, Sankie, was telling him to do. I told her that wasn’t going to happen, and that she had to do what Dutch told her to do. She said she wasn’t going to do that because she didn’t want to do what Dutch was telling her to do. About a minute after we hung up, Frances called from work, saying that she’d had to take a break to respond to all the voicemails Sankie had left on her cell phone. I told Frances what was going on as far as I knew and that Barbara was due home any minute.

So Barbara is picking up her parents this afternoon to take them both to see Sankie’s psychiatrist. She wants the doctor to hear her dad’s side of what’s going on. I told her I didn’t think that’d make any difference. Sankie’s psychiatrist is legally and ethically obligated to do what is best for his patient, Sankie, and not what’s best for Sankie’s family, assuming those two are in conflict. Unfortunately, I believe they are in conflict. The psychiatrist has said that it’s best for Sankie to be at home with Dutch. But her behavior at home is likely to kill Dutch, literally. He simply can’t take the stress. No one could. As I told Barbara last night, her dad is a saint. Any normal man would have beaten Sankie to death long ago. Just imagine living with someone who just sits there repeating something over and over again, not just ten or a hundred times, or for an hour at a time, but ALL DAY LONG. Once she gets started, there’s no stopping her. I think the only thing that’s saved Dutch’s sanity so far is that he can turn off his hearing aids.

As Barbara said last night, the only solution is to put her mother in a locked ward. If she recovers, fine. She can come home. But she’s not coming home unless and until she’s fully recovered. Barbara thinks that most or all of Sankie’s misbehavior is intentional, an attempt to manipulate her and Frances. I agree, but I made the point to Barbara last night that it really doesn’t matter at all what the cause of her behavior is, intentional or organic. The behavior itself is simply unacceptable, whatever the cause. Sankie is going to kill Dutch, literally. And her behavior has pushed Barbara and Frances to the breaking point and beyond. It simply has to stop, and the only way it’s going to stop is if Sankie isn’t around any more. My own opinion is that no amount of adjusting her medications is going to help. This is the new normal for Sankie.


Thursday, 21 February 2013

07:52 – Well, yesterday I defended Joe Biden’s remarks on women defending themselves. Today, I’ll defend a list published by the University of Colorado of last-resort recommendations for women to defend themselves against rape. Conservative bloggers and commentators have been ripping into UC for suggesting that women who are about to be raped urinate or vomit to discourage the would-be rapist, suggesting the UC list should have instead focused on telling the women to fight back. UC actually offered good advice. A woman who fights back is much more likely to be beaten or killed, and will probably still be raped despite her resistance. If instead the woman urinates or vomits (and, I’d add, defecates), her would-be rapist is likely to walk away in disgust.

The new neighbors had the street parked up again last night, which is the fourth time in a couple of weeks. It’s worse than I’d feared. I was hoping it was something relatively innocuous, like getting together to watch a basketball game or have an orgy. But it’s worse than that. Much, much worse. One of our other neighbors told us what’s really going on. They’re having prayer meetings. Crap. There goes the neighborhood. Until now, with the sole exception of the fundies that live next door, the street has been pretty much secular. As far as I know, there aren’t even any other regular churchgoers, let alone evangelicals. Now we have Holy Rollers living just down the street from us.


Wednesday, 20 February 2013

08:28 – The website problems should be fixed. Dreamhost tech support checked the problem. It turned out that the Apache server that serves this site had been hanging.

I’m currently reading an excellent mystery that was written by one of my correspondents from Kelowna, BC. No, not Bill Grigg, although I suspect he could write a pretty good mystery novel if he set his mind to it. The one I’m reading is Speaking From Among the Bones, the latest Alan Bradley Flavia De Luce mystery. The series is set in England in 1950. Flavia is an 11-year-old girl who’s fascinated with chemistry–particularly poisons and explosives–and has access to a full chemistry lab tucked away in a disused part of their home. Barbara saw the first book at the library soon after it was published and grabbed it for me. She read it, too, and we both loved it. After I finished it, I emailed Alan to tell him that the book really resonated with me, because what Flavia was doing in her lab at age 11 in 1950 in England was pretty much exactly what I’d been doing in my lab at age 11 in 1964 in western Pennsylvania. The only real difference was that I didn’t keep coming across dead bodies.

UPS showed up yesterday with a delivery from one of our wholesalers. It was 250 test tube racks, and when they’d told me they were backordered I told them to go ahead and toss in something that wasn’t on my original order, a pack of 500 polypropylene radioimmunoassay vials with caps. My contact there had emailed me to say that they’d changed vendors for that item and that the item number had changed, as had the price. The surprise was that the price had fallen, to about 60% of what I’d expected to pay. When the shipment arrived, I found out why. Sure enough, there was a box of 500 vials, but no caps. I visited the manufacturer’s web site and found out why. The caps ship as a separate item, which my vendor hadn’t realized. I was afraid the caps would be backordered to India, which would mean a two or three month wait, but it turned out my vendor actually did have the caps in stock. They just hadn’t realized they needed to ship them as two separate boxes, so they’re shipping me a box of caps today. And, no surprise, the combined price of the new product, vials and caps, is about the same as the old one.

I plan to use these vials for packaging some items in the science kits that we’re currently packaging in coin envelopes. The vials will be faster to fill than the envelopes, and provide an air-tight seal. And, purchased in bulk, an RIA vial and cap doesn’t cost all that much more than a coin envelope


14:43 – I never expect to hear politicians say anything sensible, and that goes double for morons like Joe Biden. I have to admit, however, that Biden has actually offered some good advice about guns for self-defense. He recommends a shotgun. In fact, he’s made sure his wife has a double-barreled shotgun and shells for it, just in case the bad guys somehow get past her SS detail. To be specific, for people who aren’t experienced shooters, my recommendation is a double-barreled short shotgun with external hammers, usually called a lupara or coach gun, stored with both barrels loaded with #4 buckshot. With the hammers down, the gun is completely safe to handle, and can be stored for literally decades and still fire every time. Getting it ready to roll requires merely cocking the hammers. Meanwhile, it just sits there, inert. In Sicily, the traditional resting place was on two hooks immediately above the doorway. I like the manual external hammer shotguns for inexperienced people because I’ve seen too many inexperienced shooters, including some cops, short-stroke a pump, leaving them thinking a round is chambered when it’s not. That could prove embarrassing.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

08:50 – Sometimes I do really moronic things. Yesterday, I was making up two liters of the nitrogen-free Fertilizer C concentrate for the biology kits. That solution contains trace amounts of boron and cobalt, but the primary chemical is 194 grams of calcium acetate monohydrate.

So I went to the chemical stock shelves where I found a 500 g bottle of reagent-grade calcium acetate monohydrate. The only problem was that it had only a few grams of the chemical left in it. Rats. Normally, I reorder when I get short on something, but in this case I’d apparently forgotten. Either that, or I have a new bottle somewhere that I don’t remember. Oh, well.

But I had plenty of glacial acetic acid and calcium hydroxide on hand, and it’s easy enough to synthesize calcium acetate by reacting those two chemicals. One mole of calcium hydroxide reacts with two moles of acetic acid to form one mole of calcium acetate and one mole of water. Simple enough, and it doesn’t even foam as calcium carbonate would.

So I calculated the equivalent masses. The 193 grams of calcium acetate I needed was 1.10 moles, which corresponds to about 81.5 grams of calcium hydroxide. I then calculated the amount of glacial acetic acid I needed. The molar mass of acetic acid is 60.05 g/mol and its density is 1.049 g/mL, which means 1.10 moles would be 66.06 grams or 62.97 mL. But my reagent-grade acetic acid assays at 99%, so I divided those values by 0.99 and weighed out 66.73 g of acetic acid.

Calcium acetate is unusual in that it exhibits retrograde solubility. That is, it’s less soluble in hot water than in cold. I checked the solubility at room temperature and decided to dilute the acid aliquot to about 600 mL to provide enough water for the calcium acetate to dissolve. I then added the dilute acid to the calcium hydroxide, expecting the powder to disappear relatively quickly as it reacted with the acid.

Calcium hydroxide is only very slightly soluble in water, so as I swirled the slurry I wasn’t surprised to see a lot of suspended solids. I was surprised that the solids settled out on the bottom of the vessel, showing no sign of disappearing. Anhydrous calcium acetate is essentially odorless, but the more common monohydrate form and calcium acetate solutions have a very distinct odor. It’s not at all unpleasant, and has a slight undertone of vinegar that’s caused by the calcium acetate hydrolyzing to calcium hydroxide and acetic acid. So I sniffed the reaction vessel and detected a strong odor of calcium acetate but no vinegar odor at all. You’d think that’d have given me a clue, but no. I decided that the reaction might be slower than I’d expected, so I decided to give it a while to finish reacting.

It finally hit me. Duh. One mole of calcium hydroxide reacts stoichiometricly with two moles of acetic acid, not the one mole I’d added. So I added another 67 g of glacial acetic acid and swirled the reaction vessel. Sure enough, nearly all the solids disappeared, but after standing there was still no odor of vinegar. So I added a few extra mL of acetic acid, just in case. It’s not like a bit of extra acetic acid will harm anything. We supply this concentrate in 15 mL bottles. Diluting 125 mL of part A, 30 mL of part B, and 15 mL of part C yields 12.5 liters of nitrogen-free fertilizer working solution, so this concentrate ends up being diluted with more than 800 parts water.


13:50 – I now have all of the solutions made up for biology kits. Except for the ones for which I was short of chemicals–I have enough for at least 60 bottles of each of those–I made up enough for 120 or more kits, which should hold us for a while. Now to start filling bottles.