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.


Tuesday, 17 January 2012

08:11 – I just mailed off the state and federal estimated tax payments. Government should be just like any other product. If you want it, you pay for it voluntarily. If you don’t, you don’t.

I spent yesterday working on the front matter for the biology book and also on rewrite on the first group of lab sessions. I just re-worked one of those, on antibiotic sensitivity of bacteria, yet again. This is the third time, so let’s hope it’s a charm. In the first iteration, I based the lab session around antibiotic test papers, which is the usual method of testing sensitivity of bacteria to different antibiotics.

The problem with that was that I wanted to do a follow-up procedure in which we retested the now-resistant bacteria against the various antibiotics. That required re-culturing the bacteria in the presence of an antibiotic, which really meant I needed to supply the antibiotics in more concentrated form. So, several weeks ago, I rewrote that procedure to use solutions of the antibiotics rather than impregnated test papers, and respecified the kit contents accordingly.

The problem with that method is that it turns out that dilute solutions of some of the antibiotics I used are not stable in dilute solutions, even when refrigerated. So, yesterday I re-rewrote that procedure around different antibiotics, one of which I can supply with the kits in liquid form, one as capsules, and two as powders, all of which are stable.

That, of course, meant that I had to track down sources for the materials, put together purchase orders, and actually order the materials for the first batch of kits. Not to mention creating new labels for those components and creating new MSDS sheets for each. I’ve now done all that (other than the MSDSs), and updated the bill-of-materials for the kits.


14:12 – Wow. I just took a break to do a backup, and while the backup is copying to the thumb drives I was checking news sites. It appears that that Italian cruise-ship company has hit the rocks in more ways than one. The ship itself is a write-off, and I suspect the insurers will balk at paying a third of a billion dollars to replace the ship, given that the captain acted completely irresponsibly. I understand that he knowingly approached the rocks to get close enough to shore that his head cook could wave to a family member. Then the captain bailed at his first opportunity. The hell with his passengers, he was out to save himself. And now I see that the company has left the shipwrecked passengers stranded, literally. Most of the passengers lost all of their possessions, including passports, credit cards, and cash. Not to mention things like prescription medications. Ordinarily in a situation like this, one would expect the company to fall all over itself to help the people it dumped into the ocean. Buy them clothing and personal items to tide them over. Intercede to help them get temporary papers or replacement passports. Pay airfare to get them back home. And so on. Apparently, this company is doing literally nothing to help, not so much as buying the victims a cup of coffee. Victims who’ve asked for help have been told to sue the company. It’s not that the company is trying to avoid admitting responsibility. They’ve already done that. They’re just not willing to spend a cent to help the victims. Apparently, the captain was not the only miserable excuse for a human being employed by this company.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

12:00 – I’m still cranking away on the final lab session, which I should finish up today or tomorrow.

Barbara disassembled 600 15 mL dropper bottles yesterday, which means unscrewing and removing the cap and then pulling the dropper tip plug. That’s a lot of work that wouldn’t be necessary if our supplier shipped those bottles already disassembled. These are Chinese-made bottles, and the supplier says they’re shipped that way to save shipping costs. I suggested that since bottles must be disassembled to fill them, they might want to package the bottles, caps, and dropper tips separately, even if that raised the price a bit.

Before I ordered these bottles, I seriously considered buying the equivalent bottles from one of my other suppliers. Those bottles are US-made and cost about 25% more than the Chinese bottles. Although the cost of bottles is not an insignificant percentage of component costs, the extra cost of the US-made bottles wasn’t really the deciding factor. Other than having to disassemble them, I actually prefer the Chinese bottles. The body of their dropper tips is about two or three times longer than the body of the US-made dropper tips. The Chinese tips are a tight friction fit in the mouth of the bottle, while the much shorter US tips are a snap fit. To me, the Chinese tips seem more secure. I’m afraid that if I use the US bottles someone will squeeze a bottle too enthusiastically and pop out the dropper tip. That wouldn’t be good, particularly if the bottle contained a concentrated acid, strong ammonia, or a similar chemical. So for now I’m sticking with the Chinese bottles and hoping I can convince my supplier to package the bottles, caps, and tips separately.


Saturday, 14 January 2012

09:36 – S&P downgraded the sovereign debt of France, Italy, and Spain yesterday, but that may turn out to be yesterday’s second most important eurozone development. Of course, everyone is focused on upcoming debt auctions by those countries over the next two or three weeks, at which they can expect very high yields and very low bid/cover ratios, but the really significant euro news yesterday was the collapse of negotiations on Greek debt.

The “troika” insists on PSI (private-sector involvement), which means there won’t be any more bailout money for Greece unless private investors “voluntarily” agree to a “haircut” (write-down) on the Greek debt they already hold. Yesterday, hopes of that pretty much disappeared. The group representing private investors basically told the troika to get screwed. Why should they take any loss at all? If Greece formally defaults, the credit-default swaps that the private investors hold become payable, and those investors walk away with 100% instead of 50% or less. Of course, there’s also a very high probability that a formal default by Greece causes the collapse of the euro and the eurozone, with Italy, Spain, and the rest toppling like dominoes. As of now, there’s no more bailout money in prospect for Greece, which has debt coming due in a few weeks and no way to finance it. A so-called disorderly default looks almost certain, after which everything quickly unravels.


Yesterday, I decided to do a complete reorganization and rewrite of the final lab session. I had intended to focus that session on vertebrate organs and organ systems, but I finally realized I was trying to cram an entire anatomy book into a single lab session. So instead I’ve repurposed that lab session around an exploration of tissue types, which will of course also touch on numerous organs and organ systems. So, rather than finishing the session today as planned, it looks like it’ll take me a couple more days.