Friday, 24 February 2012

07:40 – My basement lab is no more. Well, the room is still there, and it still looks pretty much the same, but its function is changing. Amidst everything else on my to-do list, I decided that it was time to convert my working lab into a prep lab. So far, the visible changes are subtle. Instead of shelves and cabinets filled with relatively small bottles of a few hundred different chemicals, those shelves are now in the process of being filled with relatively large bottles of a few score chemicals, all of which are used in making up kits. I’m also going to fill in an unused wall area with another 20-odd feet (7 meters) of shelving.

It’s hard enough keeping up with the chemicals for just the chemistry kits. In April, we’ll be shipping biology kits as well, and by August we’ll be shipping forensics kits. There’s some overlap, but not a great deal. Thus the need for more working and storage space. I regret the loss of this dedicated working lab area, but a prep lab is a higher priority. And, obviously, it will still be usable as a working lab, albeit not as convenient.

I was going to write something with a straight face about converting our upstairs hall bathroom into my new working lab, ripping out the toilet and bathtub and installing working benches and cabinets. I was going to make it so convincing that Barbara would believe it and think I’d lost my mind. But April 1 is too far in the future, and anyway Barbara has been so good-natured about my taking over large areas of the house for business purposes that it wouldn’t be fair to provoke her further.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

08:50 – Brian Jepson sent a PDF yesterday of the first half of the biology book, just to show us how the layout looked. As always, it’s gorgeous. The O’Reilly/MAKE design/layout folks are top-notch.

My only substantive suggestion was to change the theme color from blue to green. The chemistry book is blue. Biology should be green, or as I told Brian, quoting Simon & Garfunkel, a “deep forest green”. And forensics should be a maroon or similar subdued red.

Speaking of the forensics book, Brian also told me he’d gotten the go-ahead on it. That means I’ll be spending the next three months re-writing the original manuscript to make it kit-based. At this point, we’re shooting to have the forensics book in bookstores in August, in time for the autumn semester. That’s really pushing it, but we can do it.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

08:15 – The biology kits include glycerol (glycerin), and I just realized that the only unopened bottle I have in inventory is only a pint (473 mL), which isn’t nearly enough for 60 kits. I got that bottle at Costco some time ago, but they no longer carry it. I’d intended to run over to Walgreens or CVS, but their glycerol is quite expensive. So I checked Amazon, where I ordered a half gallon (1.9 L) of 99.7% food-grade “vegetable kosher glycerin, USP” for $27. Kosher? I guess they killed the vegetable oil with a ritual knife before they saponified it.

The latest Greek deal is already starting to unravel, just a day after it was agreed. As a condition for participating, the IMF is insisting that the EU “firewall” be boosted. Germany refuses to do that, because doing so to the extent required by the IMF would increase its already-huge liability by 50%, a step that German voters would not tolerate. Without IMF participation, the rest of the EU, which is to say Germany, would have to increase their own participation to cover the absence of IMF funding, which again is a step that German voters would not tolerate.

The math just doesn’t work for this deal. The current numbers were calculated under ridiculously rosy assumptions about the Greek economy. A top-secret study commissioned by the EU was leaked during the negotiations, and makes it clear that the planned €130 billion bailout is nowhere near adequate. Under that study’s assumptions, which are themselves extremely optimistic, Greece will require about twice that much, €245 billion. Although the press is calling those assumptions “worst case”, in fact they’re nowhere near worst-case. They’re not even anywhere near realistic-case. Realistically, the EU is looking at a transfer of at least €400 billion and probably €500 billion to €600 billion between now and 2020 to keep Greece even marginally solvent.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

07:56 – The EU summit turned out exactly as I predicted. They kicked the can a bit farther down the road, putting off Greece’s inevitable collapse for a few more weeks, if they’re lucky. Greece in turn agreed to become a wholly-owned subsidiary of the eurocracy, abandoning its sovereignty. Ironically, it was also announced yesterday that the old drachma ceases to be legal tender as of 1 March. One would have thought they’d have kept it around a while longer. It might come in useful. Or perhaps they’re just doing a central collection of all outstanding drachma-denominated notes and coins, expecting to reissue them shortly.

I’m told that no one in Europe wants to be holding Greek-branded euros, and that those of Portugal, Ireland, Spain, and Italy are also looked upon as of questionable value. In a real-world demonstration of Gresham’s Law, everyone is getting rid of southern-tier euros as fast as they can and attempting to replace them with German, Dutch, and Finnish euros. And who can blame them? The expectation is that when Greece leaves the euro, Greek euros will be the new drachma until Greece can afford to print real new drachmas. And the same will occur as the other southern-tier nations leave the euro. Frankly, I expect the opposite to happen; the poorer nations, including Belgium and France, will end up using increasingly worthless euros, while Germany and the other richer nations return to their own former currencies. Or, if they’re foolish, to a new shared currency, but one shared only among the richer northern-tier nations.

One thing is certain, though. The results of the latest euro summit bought them weeks if they’re lucky, and only days if they’re not.

Monday, 20 February 2012

08:38 – We did have a pretty nasty evening and night. Sleet turning into snow, a stiff breeze, and wind chills down at one point into the single digits Fahrenheit. Fortunately, it had been pretty warm for several days prior, with temperatures in the 60’s (~ 20C), so the ground and roads were warm enough to melt off the accumulated snow overnight. This morning I’m sure there’ll be glare ice on bridges and so on, but the effects of our Great Blizzard of 2012 should be gone by this afternoon. Colin loved it. It was the first time he’d seen snow. He was running around, digging his snout in and grabbing mouthfuls.

We got a lot done yesterday on the biology kits. If Barbara and I work full-time for the next couple of weekends, we’ll be ready to start assembling and shipping the first batch of 60 biology kits. Several people here have emailed me to ask about availability. I’ll post a heads-up here ahead of the general announcement to make sure my readers here get the first shot. We have no idea how long the first batch of 60 kits will last. They may sell out the first day, or it may be a week or a month.

The financial markets are awaiting the results of the big eurogroup meeting today to see if Germany cuts Greece loose or puts up sufficient money to keep things dragging on for a few more weeks. Ultimately, it doesn’t make any difference. Greece is toast. Everyone knows that, including the Greeks. Merkel is inclined to keep things going for a bit longer, but she’s facing considerable opposition in Germany, including from within her own party.

The problem is, it’s not a question of allocating just $20 billion or so to prevent Greece from defaulting on 20 March. The way things are structured, the eurogroup would have to commit $100+ billion immediately, of which Germany would have to commit the largest share. With the IMF backing away, agreeing to commit only about 10% of the total (versus about a third for earlier bailouts), and with Greece’s economy continuing to tank big-time, the eurozone governments will have to commit much more than originally planned. Regardless of what Merkozy think should be done, they both have their voters to worry about. German and French voters have had enough, long since, and there’s only so far that Merkozy can push.

My guess is that today’s meeting will end in “success”, with an announcement that the new bailout has been approved and that Greece has substantially complied with the requirements. The markets will rejoice. But then everyone will notice that Greece has no chance of meeting the conditions attached to the new bailout, and we’ll be back to where we were, with Greece teetering for a while longer before it actually falls into the abyss.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

09:22 – We’re under a blizzard warning for tonight. Well, a blizzard by our standards. Temperatures in the 20’s (~ -5C), with winds of 25 MPH (40 KPH), and two to four inches (5 to 10 cm) of snow.

We got a lot done yesterday on the biology kits. We now have 60 sets of the solids–thirteen of them–packaged, labeled, and bagged into subassemblies. We also started making up 100 sets of tube subassemblies. Those are six glass test tubes individually packaged inside 50 mL polypropylene centrifuge tubes (for shipping protection), with six 15 mL polypropylene centrifuge tubes, all inside a quart ziplock bag. I’ve made up all six of the stains included in the kit–Eosin Y, Gram’s Iodine, Hucker’s Crystal Violet, Methylene Blue, Safranin O, and Sudan III–and today we’ll bottle and label 60 sets of those.

11:47 – I’ve often complained that one can’t buy real chemistry sets nowadays. The kinds of chemistry sets I grew up with have been extinct for close to 40 years. Until now.

John Farrell Kuhns of H.M.S. Beagle is now offering a real chemistry set, the kind I drooled over back in the 1960’s. The hand-built H.M.S. Beagle Master Chemistry Set echoes a bygone era, when millions of boys hoped to find something just like this under the Christmas tree.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

10:17 – Along with doing laundry, it’s another lab day for me today, while Barbara labels and fills containers and makes up subassemblies for the biology kits. She’s working upstairs today, filling containers with non-hazardous materials. Tomorrow, we’ll work downstairs, filling containers with hazardous materials. Well, actually, they’re not hazardous, except to our work surfaces and floors. I’m making up several stains today, most of which would indelibly stain counters, tables, and hardwood floors. We’ll fill those containers in the basement.

12:55 – I was doing fine until I made up the last of the stains for the biology kit, Hucker’s crystal violet. When I inverted the container to mix the solution, the cap leaked. So my hands now have pretty (and indelible) purple stains. I wasn’t wearing gloves because this stain is hazardous only in the sense that it, well, stains things. Oh, well. All working chemists get used to having stains on their hands.

Friday, 17 February 2012

10:13 – Today is a miscellaneous day. I’m going to take a break from writing and get some work done in the lab. I also have a few more purchase orders to get out for the biology kits.

Interestingly, I had to fight off a guy today who wanted to order a biology kit right now. As I pointed out, he had no idea what was in the kit or how much it would cost. He wanted to send me extra money and have me refund the difference when we’d finally set the price. I finally convinced him that we would allocate the very first kit to him and ship it as soon as it became available.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

07:55 – A comment yesterday got me to thinking. Dave mentioned that if the kits were still available in a dozen years or so, his daughter would be the right age for them.

I replied that we’re in this for the long haul, which is true, but it got me to thinking (again) about what happens if I get run over by a beer truck. As things stand, although Barbara helps with packing, labeling, and other tasks, this is really a one-man operation. I wear all of the hats, from lead scientist to manual writer to IT to purchasing, A/R, and A/P to …. well, you get the idea. The last thing I want to do is grow too fast, which means for at least the next couple of years we’ll be doing things pretty much as we’re doing them now.

But I do want to make sure that if I do get run over by that beer truck, Barbara will be in a position to carry on, either herself or with hired help. I intend to build this business gradually, with the goal being to establish it as a rock-solid enterprise. If for some reason I’m no longer around, I don’t want the business to die. I’ve already made some efforts in that direction. Several months ago, I talked to Mary Chervenak. As Mary is aware, Barbara is not a scientist, so one of the big things she’d need would be a scientific advisor. Mary (and Paul) are ideal for that. They could steer Barbara in the right direction and help her understand sciency things that she wouldn’t otherwise be able to deal with on her own. I’ve also made a start on documenting everything about the business, from usernames and passwords for the website to a procedures manual for making up chemicals to lists of wholesalers, contacts, and account information to business and corporate information.

To be honest, I’m not sure what Barbara would do in that situation. She might just choose to let things drop. But if she does want to continue the business, I want to do everything possible to make it as easy as possible for her to do that. At least until one of my clones is old enough to take over.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

08:58 – At least Amazon Prime instant video saves recent searches, so when I pressed the asterisk button on the Roku controller last night the search box came up with Inspector Lewis already listed. Still, it’s pretty obvious that Amazon is trying to make watching free videos difficult. Presumably, they’re paying for those videos by the number of times they’re watched, so it’s in their interest to minimize free views. It’s pretty clear that Netflix has nothing to worry about from Amazon.

I’m still working heads-down on the forensics book re-write. There’s a surprising amount of work involved in re-purposing the text to make it kit-based, mainly because having a customized kit available opens up the options considerably. We’re able to add lab sessions that weren’t practical before because of the cost of purchasing all the necessary items piecemeal. Of course, using the book won’t require buying the kit. Anyone who wants to can still buy all of the stuff piecemeal, but they’ll end up spending a lot more money to do that.

13:09 – Hmmm. Here’s a fascinating video of a rabbit that thinks it’s a Border Collie. Apparently, the actual Border Collie shown in the video has trained the rabbit to herd sheep. I particularly liked the part around 2:08 where one of the sheep challenges the rabbit, who gives it that steely-eyed Border Collie stare. The sheep decides it’s not worth messing with something as dangerous as a rabbit.