Month: January 2014

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

11:01 – I just finished shipping the backlog of science kit orders that built up over the holiday. Danny, our regular mailman, left me a handwritten note Saturday, saying that he was off today and that they were expecting a blizzard of packages. He suggested that I file a pick-up request to make sure that his replacement didn’t miss picking up our stuff. I did that last night, so whoever is running Danny’s route today got a printout of pickup requests first thing this morning, including ours.

Business this year appears to be picking up substantially over last year, which has gotten me started thinking about long-term inventory. Over the relatively slow months between now and this summer, we need to build up component inventory significantly. If we have the components and subassemblies in stock–chemical bags, small parts bags, individual items, and so on–it doesn’t take long to assemble the actual kits. I want to start July with 100 to 150 kits built and the components for at least 200 more on hand, August with at least 300 kits’ worth on hand, and September with at least 200. If growth continues on the current curve, we’ll ship several hundred kits in the last five months of the year. With our limited resources, that will require planning to make sure we don’t run dry.

Monday, 20 January 2014

09:03 – Costco run and dinner with Mary and Paul yesterday. They were telling us about their experiences judging elementary school science fair projects. Ordinarily, they’re volunteer judges for middle- and high-school science fair projects, but this time their schedules didn’t allow that so they ended up judging the elementary school projects. They said the projects ran the usual gamut. Some were good science but mediocre presentation, some the reverse and a couple were both good science and good presentation. They and the other judges had to rank the top five projects, which will go on to the next level. Apparently, the top three or four were pretty easy to rank, with numbers four and five less so. Of course, all the kids got a certificate for participating.

While I was making up the Kastle-Meyer reagent over the weekend, I thought about Albert Einstein’s famous definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Einstein was obviously a physicist, not a chemist.

Any working chemist who does the same thing over and over expects different results, at least occasionally. You might do the same synthesis nine times in a row with perfect results each time, high yield and a nice pure product. Then, the tenth time you do the synthesis—nothing different, you understand; the same chemicals, the same equipment, the same working environment, the same everything—you might get a pathetic yield or a tarry mess in the reaction vessel. Or both.

In fact, there’s an entire discipline devoted to dealing with this problem. It’s called chemical engineering. Getting unexpected results in a lab-scale synthesis is one thing. You’ve wasted some time and (usually) anything from a few dollars’ to a few hundred dollars’ worth of chemicals. But when you scale things up from 1-liter flasks to 100,000-liter reaction vessels in a factory, you can’t afford surprises. Ultimately, that’s what chemical engineering is about. Scaling things up while making sure that things work predictably and properly.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

10:13 – We’re in good shape on the FK01A core forensic science kits, other than the Kastle-Meyer reagent, which we still need to bottle. But our inventory of the FK01B and FK01C supplemental forensics kits was down to zero and one, respectively, so yesterday I decided to get another dozen or so each of those made up. Our component inventory system works pretty well, but sometimes it’s off a bit. I thought we had everything we needed to make up 13 of the FK01B sets, but as it turned out we had only three each of the Dragendorff’s reagent A and B bottles. So I need to make up more of those.

I was going to do that this morning, but I realized that I really, really needed to clean up my lab first. Most of the floor was covered with stacked boxes, bottles, and so on, and the counter surfaces were invisible, covered by equipment, chemical bottles, and so on.The floor is now mostly clear, but the counters are still in sad shape. On the plus side, I did discover unopened cases of a dozen 500 mL beakers, six 1 liter flasks, and a dozen 500 mL wash bottles.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

10:25 – Barbara just finished spreading the mulch. It was 25F (-4C) out there not counting the wind chill, which is significant. I’m doing laundry and filling bottles.

Oh, yeah, and making up chemicals. I didn’t get around to making up more Kastle-Meyer reagent yesterday, and of course an order for a forensic kit arrived this morning. I had to tell the customer we were out of stock on KM reagent and that because of the national holiday Monday his kit wouldn’t ship until Tuesday. I already have the new batch of KM reagent in process. It’s a lot fun to make. Nothing like refluxing a 40% solution of potassium hydroxide and watching the 2-liter flask dissolving in the solution as it refluxes.

Friday, 17 January 2014

13:18 – Barbara had mulch delivered yesterday, and piled in the driveway. She parked her car in the driveway overnight because she couldn’t get to the garage. This morning, she built 30 small parts bags for the chemistry kits, and then once it warmed up a bit she headed out to spread mulch. This afternoon she’ll be back doing kit stuff, as will I.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

13:05 – I just finished assembling chemical bags for another two dozen biology kits. Now I’ll start on getting together what I need for another five dozen chemistry kits. I’m down to three 30 mL bottles of 6 M hydrochloric acid in stock, and none made up. So I just made up six liters of 6 M hydrochloric acid, sufficient for 200 bottles.

And then there are all the smaller tasks that need to be done. I got a query this morning from a woman in Australia who wanted to know if she could order the international versions of both a chemistry kit and a biology kit and have them shipped in one box to reduce shipping charges. I told her we could do that. The shipping surcharge for one kit to Australia is $69. Shipping two kits in one box costs about $103, give or take, depending on actual weight. The international kits substitute chemicals that are legal to ship internationally for the regulated chemicals in the standard US versions of the kits. We’re down to only nine of the international biology chemicals bags and only two of the international chemistry chemicals bags, so I need to make up another dozen or two of each. I also need to make up another liter of Kastle-Meyer reagent for forensic kits and bottle it. And so on.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

07:34 – Ruh-roh. Colin has discovered Amazon Prime. I mentioned to Barbara after dinner last night that I’d opened our last box of Alpo Snaps dog treats. Barbara said she’d pick up more the next time she was out running errands. I said I’d check Amazon to see if they carried them.

Colin followed me into my office to check. Sure enough, Amazon carries them (in a case of five 2-pound boxes), they’re Prime-Eligible, and they’re cheaper from Amazon than they are locally. So I was about to add a case to my shopping cart, but Colin noticed the Subscribe & Save option and snouted my elbow. He pointed out that they’re discounted further if we order five boxes to be delivered every month. I passed on that option.

I’m still building more science kits. We’re less than half-way through the month and we’ve already blown through our totals for January 2013. Assuming orders don’t dry up the rest of this month, we’ll have a pretty decent month.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

07:44 – Barbara’s sister took their mom to the doctor yesterday. He put her on ciprofloxacin, which on balance I think is a good thing. I suspect she has some sort of infection, probably either a UTI or a lung infection, if not both. Cipro should knock down whatever it is. I’m still concerned about using cipro or any other fluoroquinolone antibiotic in an elderly person, particularly one who already suffers some degree of dementia, but her doctor is more familiar with the situation than I am. Still, I’d have been happier with co-amoxiclav.

Well, yesterday morning our inventory of forensic kits was -2. I got another batch built and shipped the outstanding orders, so now we’re in good shape on forensic kits. But as of this morning our inventory of the CK01A chemistry kits is zero, so I’ll spend some time today building another batch of those. Oh, yeah. And doing estimated taxes.

Monday, 13 January 2014

07:56 – Despite all the problems with Barbara’s mom over the weekend, we managed to get another batch of forensic science kits built. Barring a bulk order, we should have enough of those in stock to last for a month or more.

I got email yesterday from one of our favorite authors, Alan Bradley. The latest in his delightful Flavia de Luce mystery series, The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, releases Tuesday. He’s sending me a signed copy as a thank you for the small technical assistance I’ve provided from time to time. Flavia is an 11-year-old amateur chemist in the early 1950’s. I was an 11-year-old amateur chemist in the early 1960’s, so I can identify with Flavia. If you enjoy cozies, read this series. You’ll love it.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

13:09 – Barbara just headed over to her mom’s apartment. Sankie isn’t doing well at all–physically or mentally–and hasn’t been since about the first of the year. She’s in her mid-80’s and suffers from some dementia, which makes it difficult to figure out what’s going on. At first, Barbara thought it was just the after-Christmas letdown. She’s taken her mom to the doctor two or three times this year, and every time the doctor has told her there’s nothing to worry about. I think the doctor is wrong.

One of the staff from Creekside Retirment Village called this morning. Sankie had apparently pulled her emergency cord. The staff member told Barbara that Sankie wasn’t doing well at all, and asked about calling 911. Barbara told her not to. She called Frances and they discussed what to do. They’re trying to avoid getting back to the drop-everything-and-rush-over-to-mom’s-place thing, so they decided that since Frances was planning to go over there this afternoon that that would suffice. A little while ago, as we were building kits, Barbara announced she was worried about Sankie and was going to head over to see her.

My guess is that Sankie has a UTI yet again. UTIs are extremely common in women. The incidence rate is something like 10% annually even in young women, and in elderly women it’s much higher. And in elderly women a UTI is often physically asymptomatic, leaving only increased confusion, dementia, and other mental symptoms as indications. I was surprised that the doctor chose not to do a urine culture on any of Sankie’s visits. I suggested to Barbara and Frances that the next time their mom sees the doctor, if he’s not willing to put her on antibiotics prophylactically, they should ask him to prescribe a large supply of co-amoxiclav, SMZ/TMP, or whatever he routinely prescribes for her for UTIs. That way, at the first sign of a possible UTI, Barbara or Frances can start their mom on the antibiotic and keep her on it for 10 days or whatever.

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