Friday, 27 January 2012

08:09 – I should finish the lab session on simulated DNA gel electrophoresis today and get it off to the reviewers. Finish in the sense of finish writing it. I haven’t actually done the lab session yet. I’ll do it this weekend, when we’ll also be shooting a lot of images for it and other lab sessions. That leaves only the introduction, which is in progress. It looks like we’re actually going to make the 31 January deadline.

Not that things settle down much after that. In addition to a flow of of queries and edits, I have to get the kit contents finalized and purchase orders cut for components. The biology book hits the bookstores in April, and by that time I want to have 60 finished biology kits in inventory and ready to ship, along with components in the pipeline for many more.

The next project is a complete re-write of the forensics lab book that we finished a couple of years ago but was never published. I want to rewrite that book around a custom kit, which will make it much more accessible to home schoolers and hobbyists. I’d like to have that book complete, at least in PDF form, and kits available in time for summer session, although realistically it’ll probably be in time for autumn semester.

Farther out, but still on the horizon, I’d like to do a second edition of Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments, this one kit-based. Two kits, actually. One for first-year labs (the current chemistry kit) and one for second-year.

It’s going to be a busy year.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

08:44 – I sent off the preface and lab safety chapter to the reviewers yesterday. That leaves the introduction, which is well in progress, and a lab session that I wasn’t sure I’d have time to do before deadline. That one is on simulated DNA gel electrophoresis, “simulated” because we’ll use dyes rather than actual DNA fragments for the separation.

Those dyes–crystal violet, methylene blue, and safranin O–are included in the kit as biostains, and they all migrate the same direction in a gel. We’ll use their different molecular masses as proxies for DNA fragments of differing BP size. We’d use real DNA, but that’d require expensive restriction enzymes, and wouldn’t produce very distinct banding in an agar gel (as opposed to agarose, which is much, much more expensive than agar, which isn’t cheap itself). I was thinking about having readers pre-run the gels to clear out some of the gunk that’s present in plain agar, but that’s really more trouble than it’s worth.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

07:49 – Heads-down writing continues, as it will for the next several days.

I was just reading an article to Colin yesterday about new evidence that dogs have been man’s best friend for at least 33,000 years, back when we were still Cro Magnon. Two skeletons of what are unquestionably domesticated dogs have been reliably dated to 31,000 BCE. To put that in perspective, it wasn’t until about 11,000 BCE that man domesticated the sheep, pig, and cow, and it wasn’t until about 6,000 BCE that women domesticated men.

Monday, 23 January 2012

11:12 – With eight days left until deadline, I’m in serious heads-down writing mode. The lab sessions are complete, with one exception, and I’m working on the narrative early chapters now. There are four of those: Preface, Introduction, Equipping Your Lab, and Lab Safety. I’m working on the Preface now. The chapter on Equipping is essentially complete. It’s currently 51 manuscript pages and about 25,000 words, and I want to cut that down some. Lab Safety is reasonably complete, but needs a few more hours work. The Intro is the one that’ll take me two or three days to finish. So I’d better get back to work.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

11:39 – While she was watching basketball yesterday, Barbara finished packing and labeling 60 each of five groups of solids: amoxicillin capsules, ascorbic acid tablets, dextrose, lima bean seeds, and carrot seeds. She’ll finish up agar and Rhizobium innoculum today.

I took a break from writing to do some stuff in the lab. I wanted to have several solutions ready for packaging after deadline. Unfortunately, some stuff doesn’t go into solution very quickly. For example, even with constant agitation and warming, copper(II) sulfate takes a long time to dissolve. I make up one molar solutions of that for the chemistry kits, which is about 500 grams of the pentahydrate dissolved and made up to two liters of solution. I finally gave up trying to get the stuff to dissolve faster. Now, I just transfer 500 grams of the salt to a clean two-liter soft drink bottle, fill it up most of the way with distilled water, and just invert the bottle a few times any time I think about it. It takes several days to a week for the salt to dissolve completely.

Some stuff that goes into the biology kit worries me a bit in terms of dissolution speed. One of those is Sudan III stain. Some vendors sell what is supposedly a 1% solution of Sudan III in isopropanol. I’m not sure how they do that. The best figures I can find say that Sudan III is soluble only to about 0.2% in alcohol, and nearly insoluble in water. (That’s certainly true; adding a tiny amount of Sudan III powder to some water yields a barely pink solution with undissolved solid on the bottom of the container.)

Anyway, some of these vendors include images of the bottle, which makes it very clear that the concentration is nowhere near 1%. Here, for example, is the Home Science Tools page for Sudan III. The stuff is pinkish orange in this image. According to the MSDS, the solution is 1% Sudan III in 99% isopropanol. I don’t see how that’s possible. The best I can do is about 0.2% in 99% IPA.

And isopropanol isn’t the best choice of solvent for Sudan III. A better choice is 50% acetone, 35% IPA, and 15% water, by volume. Conveniently, that means a 1:1 mix of acetone to 70% IPA. So I just went down to the lab, measured 500 mL of acetone into a clean one-liter soda bottle, and added 2.0 grams of Sudan III powder. The solution was immediately intensely colored blood-red, and opaque even when I held the bottle up to the light. I made up the solution to one liter with 70% IPA, at which point it was still so intensely colored that it was opaque to direct light. And, not all of the Sudan III had dissolved, although I had to invert the bottle and look at the powder still in the bottom to see that dissolution was not complete. It’s possible the remainder will go into solution over time, but it doesn’t really matter to me. I’m labeling the Sudan III bottles in the kit as “saturated” rather than with a percentage. That means all I need to do is keep some Sudan III powder visible in the bottom of the stock bottle. When I need more stain solution, I can just add more 1:1 acetone:IPA to the bottle and make sure there’s still undissolved solid present.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

14:13 – I should have known better. Barbara and I had dinner out last night and then headed to the supermarket. My total haul consisted of one small carrot. Searching the web turned up results that said the local Lowes had packages of eight 8.75 gram yeast packets for $0.59. They did have yeast packets for $0.59, but that was for one 8.75 gram packet, not eight. Similarly, although the web search said the local Lowes had unflavored gelatin in one-pound packages for a reasonable price, all I could find was one-ounce packages for something like $2.99 each. Both of those prices were outrageous. I’ll just order the gelatin and yeast by the pound or kilo on-line.

Barbara is working on biology kits today, while she watches the Wake Forest game. She’s labeling and packaging stuff that’s stable and can be packed ahead of time, like lima bean seeds, dextrose, agar, and so on. We needed to change from the 5162 labels to 5160 labels because the 5162’s are too tall to fit the wide-mouth pharma packer bottles we’re using for solids. The 5160’s come 30 per sheet. We decided that 30 kits wasn’t enough initial inventory, so we’re doing 60 of everything. That should strike a happy balance between finished goods inventory cost and cubic, freshness of the kits, and fast availability.

When the book comes out in April, we’ll probably end up with a flood of orders, followed by another flood in time for the autumn semester. We’re going to try to keep a 3-week inventory of finished kits on hand. That number will vary by time of year, of course. At peak times, we may be shipping 20 or more kits a week. At slower times, we may be shipping only a few a week. But three weeks gives me time to order components, make up and package chemicals, and so on.

Friday, 20 January 2012

10:14 – I’ll finish my final pre-editing pass on the lab sessions today and get them off to the reviewers. At that point, I jump back into the early narrative chapters to do clean-up and rewrite. I should finish that in the next few days. I also have a dozen or so images left to be shot, which I’ll do this weekend. So, for the next ten days or so, I’ll be busier than the proverbial one-armed paper hanger, incorporating edits and comments from reviewers and getting the manuscript ready to go to production on 31 January.

I was about to order gelatin and yeast on-line, until I realized that it’d be cheaper and faster just to make a visit to the supermarket. Sure enough, the local Lowes Foods has yeast for $0.59 for eight packets of 8.75 grams each, so I’ll just buy enough of those to make the first batch of kits. Same thing for gelatin, cheap and readily available. I’ll just buy a couple pounds of unflavored gelatin and repackage it for the kits.

12:52 – I’m uploading the last of the lab session chapters to the server right now. That takes a while, given that Time-Warner caps upload speeds around 125 KB/s (still an improvement over the 45 to 50 KB/s we got until a few months ago) and some of these chapter directories are rather large. Even with thumbnailed images, some of the chapters are 10 to 15 MB, and the scores of high-res images tend to add up. I think this batch totals something like 1.5 GB.

I’m going to reward myself by taking a ten-minute break and then jump back into the early narrative matter. Most of that doesn’t require tech review, so I wanted to get the lab session chapters available first to the reviewers.

I’m in my usual worry mode now. For some reason, I always think that the material I’ve submitted is going to end up after formatting and lay-out as a 30-page pamphlet or something. Of course, that’s ridiculous. No book I’ve ever written has come in under the allotted page count, and some have been significantly larger. Oh, well. I covered what I wanted to cover, and soon it’ll be on to building biology kits and starting on the re-write of the forensics book. I already have an idea for a lab session I want to add to that, but I’ll have to do some experiments to see if it’s practical. (Hint: it involves raw meat and flies.)

Thursday, 19 January 2012

08:46 – I’m in heads-down mode on the biology book chapters, doing a final pass on them and sending off several a day to the editors. I’m also updating and annotating the bill of materials for the biology kits as I go along.

Some of the BoM changes are pretty trivial. For example, we’ll use ordinary unflavored gelatin in a couple of lab sessions. Until now, I’d included gelatin in the You-Provide list, but yesterday I decided to make it an Included-in-the-kit item. It’s certainly no real hardship to have kit purchasers buy a pack of unflavored gelatin at the supermarket, but including it means there’s just one less thing for them to worry about.

Other BoM changes have implications. For example, one of the lab sessions involves growing lima beans with and without Rhizobium, which is a nitrogen-fixing bacteria, and then comparing growth in the test specimens grown with and without nitrogen. That’s an interesting experiment, but the problem is that I can ship kits with the Rhizobium to 49 states, but not Hawaii. (Apparently, Hawaii is worried about a pestilence of nitrogen-fixing bacteria.) So, I had to update the BoM to make two kit versions, one for Hawaii and one for the other 49 states. That raises the issue of what Hawaii residents should do for this lab session. I decided to include a bottle of ammonium nitrate with only those kits shipping to Hawaii. Geez.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

09:35 – I was going to black out this site today in sympathy with the SOPA/PIPA protests, but I couldn’t figure out how to turn the whole page black. If SOPA/PIPA does pass, I’ll have to make some changes around here, starting with disabling comments.

I’m still cranking away on my final pre-editing pass of the lab sessions. There are quite a few missing images, which I’m just putting in placeholders for for now. I created a to-be-shot images list, and I’ll go through and shoot those in a batch.

USPS introduces a new regional-rate box today, to join the current RR Boxes A and B. The new RR C box is considerably larger—12x12x15” (30.5×30.5x38cm)—and might actually have been useful had the USPS not priced it ridiculously high.

The smallest RR box, A, requires postage at the Priority Mail 2-pound level, and can be used for up to 15 pounds. The mid-size RR box, B, which is what I use for kits, requires postage at the Priority Mail 4-pound level, which means it costs me $5.81 in postage for relatively nearby destinations up to $14.62 for zone 8 (the west coast, Hawaii, and Alaska). It can be used for up to 20 pounds. The new RR Box C is priced at the Priority Mail 17-pound level, which means it would cost almost $15 to send to nearby destinations and about $45 to send to zone 8. It can be used for up to 25 pounds. That’s not a very good deal, considering that the large flat-rate PM box (12x12x5.5”, up to 70 pounds) costs only about $15 to send to any address in the US, including zone 8.

There’s a lot of discussion about this new box on the forums frequented by eBay sellers and other vendors. Many people thought the 17-pound rate was a typo, and that USPS really meant to say the 7-pound rate. That might have been reasonable, but as it turns out they really did mean the 17-pound rate. In effect, the USPS has made this new box useless other than for a very small percentage of shipments: those that weigh between 18 and 25 pounds, are too large to fit a large flat-rate box, and are going to distant addresses. Otherwise, it’s cheaper to use UPS or FedEx. Sometimes far cheaper.

If USPS had been smart, they’d have made the RR box C a 12x12x10” box with a 25-pound limit and priced it at the PM 7-pound rate. That box would have been very useful and very widely used. But a RR box C that costs from $14+ to $45 is simply a non-starter.