Thursday, 20 March 2014

07:58 – Our recent severe winter weather has gotten me started thinking about upgrading our car emergency kits. I intend to build several of them. First, a smaller duffel bag for Barbara’s car and a larger duffel bag for my 4X4. These will remain in the vehicles by default, removed only when we’re hauling stuff or carrying extra people in the vehicles. I’ll design them as 2-person, 3-day kits. They’ll contain at least 2,500 calories per person per day of food that stores well and requires no preparation, 2 liters of water per person per day, clothing, emergency fire-making gear, space blankets, folding knives, multitools, flashlights and light sticks, plenty of batteries, radios (AM/FM/NOAA and FRS/GMRS transceivers), a basic medical kit, and so on. Those small kits are intended to cope with typical emergencies, such as the winter storm that stranded all those people in Atlanta for days. Second, I’ll design larger kits for each vehicle that will support two to four people for 15 to 30 days. Those are evacuation kits, intended to deal with hurricanes and other large-scale emergencies. Those won’t be in the vehicles routinely, but will be available to grab and go.

So I went over to the Red Cross and FEMA sites and looked at their recommendations for emergency kits. Both were fine as far as they went, but they lacked detail and made assumptions that I don’t necessarily want to make. My next stops were the Costco and Amazon web sites and eventually several other sites, where I searched for emergency kits. What a joke. Even the best of them are pathetic. Most contain only shoddy junk, to keep the price down. The medical/first-aid supplies are typically of the two-aspirins-and-a-small-bandaid variety. You usually get a $0.15 plastic whistle for some reason. One of the kits, alleged to be a 2-person-3-day kit, contained a grand total of 1800 calories in the form of six probably-inedible food bars. Worse still, it included only 125 mL of water per person per day in the form of 12 pouches, which according to the reviews leak.

I’d be interested to learn what specifically, my readers carry in their own kits.


10:42 – I find myself buying more and more of the chemicals we need on eBay. I’m making up solutions and just opened my last 500 g bottle of potassium iodide, so I sat down to order more. My regular vendor was charging about $245/kilo for ACS KI, so I checked eBay and ordered a kilo of ACS KI for $126, about as much as my regular vendor wanted for 500 g.

Friday, 14 March 2014

14:29 – Barbara is taking her mom to a doctor’s appointment this afternoon after which they’ll meet Frances for dinner. Barbara’s bringing me dinner. I’ll probably watch Heartland reruns while I wait. Meanwhile, I’m making up solutions.


Tuesday, 11 March 2014

09:15 – Dentist visit yesterday, to get my fangs cleaned and sharpened. And I’ve come down with a bad cold, which is unusual for me. I’m going to spend some time today making up some of the solutions to fill bottles that Barbara has labeled.


Wednesday, 19 February 2014

07:42 – I managed to get five kits shipped yesterday. The others will just have to wait until the USPS Click-and-Ship website will allow me to print postage labels again. I’ll keep trying throughout the day. Meanwhile, I have kits to build, solutions to make up, and thousands of labeled bottles that need to be filled.

Barbara is heading over to meet her sister and mom after work and go out to dinner. Sankie isn’t doing any better, and from what I’ve seen and heard I think the chance of any dramatic improvement is nil. Sankie is either unwilling or unable to cooperate, or both, so I suspect Barbara and Frances will have to move her over to the Homestead Hills facility sooner rather than later. They’re doing everything they can to keep her at Creekside, but they can’t do that if Sankie remains unwilling to do her part.


11:56 – I’m going to have to figure out what to do about mixing containers. The largest bottles we use in most of our kits hold 30 mL, which means a 2-liter batch is sufficient to fill 60+ bottles. Our international kits and some of our forthcoming kits will use several 100 mL bottles, which means I need a 6-liter batch to fill 60 bottles. In the past, I’d simply make up three 2-liter batches, but that’s a lot of extra work. So I think this time I’m going to make up 6-liter batches in 5-gallon (20 liter) polypropylene buckets from Home Depot.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

08:24 – It’s currently sleeting, on top of about six inches (15 cm) of snow. More frozen precipitation is forecast through this afternoon, shifting from sleet and freezing rain back to snow. There’s been zero traffic on our street since before we took Colin out last night.

Colin isn’t used to snow in significant amounts. When I took him out early this morning, he was obviously surprised when he stepped down off the porch and his legs sunk deep into snow. He tried making snow paws, but even that didn’t keep him on the surface of the snow. I just walked him halfway down the block and he kind of staggered at each step. As I just said to Barbara, we won’t yell at him if he has an accident in the house today. There’s enough snow on the ground that if he tries to squat he’ll be squatting his nethermost regions into the snow. Talk about freezing one’s testicles off.

All of the schools and many businesses are closed today, but Barbara’s law firm doesn’t close no matter what. So she’s taking a vacation day today, and will just watch TV and work on kit stuff.


09:29 – I just got email from someone who’d ordered some chemicals from Elemental Scientific. When they arrived, he found that the cap was cracked on a bottle of concentrated sulfuric acid, and wanted advice about how to proceed. So I replied to him and then carried a box of chemicals that arrived yesterday from Elemental Scientific down to my lab. I unpacked the stuff, including a couple liters each of reagent-grade concentrated hydrochloric, nitric, and sulfuric acids and 30% hydrogen peroxide. No leaks, thank goodness.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

09:09 – It’s currently 17F (-8C) with a stiff breeze. The forecast high today is a degree or two below freezing. We had maybe an inch (2.5 cm) of snow from about noon yesterday through late evening. I’m sure the main roads are plowed and salted, but secondary roads and residential streets are still in bad shape. Barbara drove the Trooper today. She didn’t even bother to take it out of 4WD when she got home yesterday afternoon. Today I’ll be making up solutions and filling bottles for more kits.

I just got back from walking Colin. We just went down to the corner and back, but I took him off-leash this morning, for the first time since he was a small puppy. He followed our usual route, and came on the run each time I called him. I’d trust him off-leash routinely except for one thing: there are a couple of dogs in the neighborhood that he really, really doesn’t like. One of them, Jack, a full-size poodle, lives down at the corner. Jack is extremely aggressive, and nearly attacked Colin once. Jack approached us on a dead run, snarling as he came. Colin’s hackles rose and his fangs bared as he prepared to do battle, and I had actually started my turn to snap-kick Jack and break his spine when he veered away and took off running. No one ever said that poodles aren’t smart.


10:46 – Oh, yeah. I installed the Roku 3 box yesterday and put the old Roku box on the shelf to serve as a spare. The new one works fine with Amazon Instant and Netflix streaming, which is all we care about. Amazon looks the same as it did on the old box, but now we have the new Netflix interface. I’m still not sure whether I like it or not. Supposedly the Roku 3 is much, much faster than our old Roku, but I don’t see any difference. The new Roku drives our TV at 1080P versus 720P for the old one, but again I see no difference. One nice feature of the new Roku is the USB port and the box’s support for playing back MP4, MKV, and a few other video formats. I haven’t tried that yet, but I’ll probably copy season 7 of Heartland to a 32 GB flash drive and see what it looks like.

I just ordered six bottles of 1,000 each 650 mg sodium bicarbonate tablets from Amazon Prime for about $17.50 per bottle. That’s sufficient for about 240 chemistry kits. Amazon showed another vendor that sold the tablets at $11.00 per bottle of 1,000, but their shipping charges were outrageous. I think it was something like $8.95 for the first bottle, which was fine, but additional bottles added something like $6 each to the shipping cost. That company is advertising an unrealistically low price for the product and making up the difference in shipping. I hate that.


14:37 – Geez. I just tried to order three kilos of bacteriology-grade agar from BioExpress, who’d sent me a catalog a couple months ago. I’m always on the lookout for new vendors, and these guys carry some interesting stuff.

So I added the agar to my cart and clicked on checkout. The site insisted I set up an account, which I did. But when I finished it wouldn’t let me complete the order. Instead, it said that my application for an account would be reviewed within 48 hours. So I called them and left voicemail for the guy who approves new accounts. He mailed me back to say that their agreements with their vendors do not allow them to ship “chemicals” to residential addresses. He suggested that he might be able to get an exception from the company that supplies their agar, but he thought that was a long shot. This is agar we’re talking about. The stuff is EDIBLE, and about as innocuous a chemical as I can imagine.

I emailed the guy back and told him it wasn’t worth either of our time and hassle and that I’d just order the agar from one of our regular vendors, which I did.

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.


Thursday, 19 December 2013

07:54 – We’re in good shape again on biology and chemistry kits, so today I’ll focus on forensic kits. We have everything we need to put together another 30 forensic kits, except half a dozen or so chemicals that we need to make up and bottle before we can assemble the chemical bags.


11:48 – I just finished making up the last two solutions I need to make up more forensic science kits: one liter each of phosphate extraction reagent and molybdate reagent. The first is ammonium sulfate in a solution that’s about 33% sulfuric acid, about the same concentration as battery acid. The second is ammonium molybdate, also in 33% sulfuric acid.

The phosphate extraction reagent made up with no problems, yielding a nice clear pinkish-tan solution. The molybdate reagent was obnoxious, as always. Even with reagent grade chemicals, a scum forms on the top of the solution. Oh, well. At least it’s reagent-grade scum.

I was about to filter the solution when I came to my senses. Pouring 6 molar sulfuric acid into a filter paper cone would char the paper very quickly, so filter paper is a no-go. The first time I made this stuff up, several years ago, I ended up building a sand filter. That worked, at the expense of considerable time and effort, not to mention losing a fair amount of the solution to the filter itself. Subsequently, I’ve always done what I eventually did today; carefully decanted off the clear solution, trying to keep as much of the scum as possible in the beaker. Good enough.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

08:11 – I was surprised to read in the paper this morning that North Carolina has legalized the use of firearms suppressors (“silencers”) for hunting and other purposes. I was even more surprised to read that North Carolina is the 40th state to have done so. Of course, suppressors remain tightly controlled under federal law. They’re legal to buy and possess, but only after paying a $200 transfer tax, and even then transporting them is tightly controlled. Ironically, suppressors are unregulated in many countries. The last time I checked, one could walk into a hardware store in Britain and buy (for example) a Parker-Hale Sound Moderator, no questions asked.

Perhaps this means more Americans will find out what a suppressor actually looks like and sounds like. Contrary to how they’re represented in movies and TV, a suppressor–even for minor calibers like .22 rimfire–isn’t small. For a serious caliber, it’s typically the volume of a soda can, if not larger. And they don’t hiss, whistle, or thump. A good one reduces the report of a major caliber pistol from a resounding boom to a loud pop, like what you hear when you prick a balloon.


I’m shipping another box of stuff to “our” USMC unit in Afghanistan today. After I finished packing it, I was surprised how dense that box is. It’s USPS Regional Rate Box B–which has a volume of 615 cubic inches or 10 liters–and the sucker weighs over 13 pounds (6 kilos). I guess that’s what happens when one packs a box full of mostly canned foods. I’d used lots of packing tape originally, but I went back and taped the hell out of it again, just to make sure it doesn’t come apart.


12:07 – Now that I’m 60, I’m even more conscious of my physical and mental limitations. I mean, I’ve known for many years that I can no longer play serve-and-volley tennis anywhere near the level that I did when I was 20. As Barbara has pointed out, my arm would probably fall off when I served, and I’d probably drop dead of a heart attack before I reached the net. And that’s not even counting the fact that my vertigo would probably land me face-first on the court as I followed through, armless, on my serve.

Despite the fact that nearly all drivers rate themselves as above average, I recognize that I must be distinctly below average. I’m simply no longer in practice. For years, I’ve driven maybe five or ten miles in an average month. Months go by when I don’t drive at all. I try to avoid driving unless it’s really necessary. I mean, when I’m driving, I feel as if I’m driving about as well as I ever did, but I know that must be an illusion. At age 60, having driven probably less than a thousand miles in the last decade, I simply can’t be very good at it.

And I know I can no longer trust my memory as I once could. The other day, I was talking with Paul Jones and mentioned an organic compound by its trivial name, sulfanilic acid. Paul said something like, “that’s o-aminobenzenesulfonic acid, right?” What flashed through my mind was something like, “I thought it was para rather than ortho, but Paul’s the organic chemistry professor, not me.” So I kind of agreed with him and made a mental note to look it up later. It is in fact para, and there was a time when I’d have known that without having to look it up. I knew the structures of hundreds of organic compounds by their trivial names. No more.

But it’s not just forgetting facts. It’s forgetting things I need to do. For example, I was just down in the lab refluxing some Kastle-Meyer reagent. Instead of standing there watching it reflux for half an hour, I came back upstairs. There was a time when there was zero chance that I’d forget I had that reflux running. No more. This time, I set the timer in the kitchen to ding. Which it just did.