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Week of 16 November 2009


Latest Update: Wednesday, 18 November 2009 10:21 -0500

Paying for this Place
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Monday, 16 November 2009
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16:47 - One day has been pretty much blurring into the next lately, with only the weather changing. We've gone from a period of about normal weather--chilly days last week with lows just above freezing--to highs around 77F/25C over the weekend and today, and back again to cool weather tomorrow.

As I retrieved the mail from our box only to find mostly catalogs and junk mail, I was reminded of this article, just one of many about how the US Postal Service is in deep, deep trouble. The USPS is on life support now. The only things keeping it going are junk mail and catalogs. Well, those and Netflix, whose postage bill will probably soon exceed a billion dollars a year. It seems to me these difficulties indicate a need for two things: eliminating the USPS monopoly on first-class mail, and passage of a Do Not Mail law similar to the Do Not Call law. The former would force the USPS to become competitive or die. The latter would eliminate the useless transport of billions of pieces of garbage that no one wants anyway. Of course, it would probably also eliminate the USPS, clearing the way for more efficient private alternatives. Natural selection is a bitch.


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Tuesday, 17 November 2009
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07:36 - Barbara is off this morning to get her driver's license renewed. North Carolina licenses are good for five years, renewable on birthdays that end in zero or five. With her 30th birthday coming up next month, she's getting it done a couple of weeks early. She'll have to do the vision test and the sign test, but that's it.

I'm still writing and shooting images and videos.


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Wednesday, 18 November 2009
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10:21 - It even made the morning newspaper. Costco and Coca-Cola have parted ways, one suspects only temporarily. Costco says that Coke won't give it a workable price on its products, and Coke seems unwilling to reduce its margins to the point where it can offer Costco an acceptable price. This may seem to be a minor spat between producer and retailer, but I suspect it goes much deeper than that, with every producer and retailer fighting out a zero-sum margin game.

I'd hate to be one of Wal*Mart's suppliers at the best of times, let alone now. Even when things were good, my impression was that Wal*Mart's goal was to pay its suppliers just enough for products to keep them out of bankruptcy. Now, I suspect, Wal*Mart doesn't care much if any of its suppliers goes belly-up. They can just find another supplier who's willing to give them unsustainable prices on product in the hope that that revenue will keep them in business just a while longer. Things must be pretty desperate on the wholesaler/retailer front, and they're likely to get worse as the Christmas season comes into full swing.



I've been working on microscope sets for Maker Shed. Until now, the only microscope set the Shed carried was the Thames & Kosmos TK2. That's a decent set at the under $100 price point, but it's still a toy microscope. We wanted some better sets, so I put together three microscope sets, which we imaginatively named the Basic Microscope Set, Intermediate Microscope Set, and Advanced Microscope Set. The sets differ only in which microscope is included; the accessories are the same.

Speaking of accessories, I've always been annoyed by the accessory selection in typical microscope sets, which seem to be chosen for cheapness rather than usefulness. A typical set includes a few prepared slides, which are usually next to worthless. Prepared slides come in two varieties: good but too expensive for a set versus cheap but nearly useless. I'll let you guess which variety comes in most microscope sets. Most sets include a "cleaning kit", which again is cheap and of very limited use. (If you keep your microscope covered with a plastic bag, the optics should remain clean indefinitely.) And you usually get maybe a dozen slides and a few coverslips, which is barely enough to get started. In other words, the typical accessory set is pathetic, but has the advantage from the seller's point of view of being cheap to include and making an impressive-looking list and product image. I knew we could do a lot better than that.

When I sat down to make a list of which accessories to include, I realized that I didn't need to re-invent the wheel. When I started work on the forensics book, I bought a microscope (not coincidentally, we carry that same model, including the objective upgrades, in Maker Shed). When I ordered the microscope, I also ordered accessories, so all I had to do was check back to see which accessories I ordered with the microscope.

First up was slides and coverslips. I actually ordered three gross of slides (six boxes of 72) and several ounces of different coverslips (at about 100 to the ounce). That's obviously overkill for a set, so I decided to include one box of 72 slides and an ounce of coverslips. Glass, in both cases. Yeah, glass breaks, but plastic slides are a pain to use and plastic coverslips are really poor optically. For slide making, I included plastic forceps, which are better than metal for handling coverslips and most specimens, a pack of ten polyethylene pipettes, and bottle of glycerol for making temporary wet mounts. I was going to include a bottle of permanent mounting fluid, but the good stuff is expensive and would needlessly boost the price of the set. A small bottle of colorless Sally Hansen's Hard As Nails from the drugstore costs only a couple bucks and works about as well. No one ever thinks about how they're going to store the permanent slides they make, so I included a slide storage box. Oh, and because a beginning microscopist needs lots of interesting things to look at, I included one of our Microbe Motel kits, so they can grow their own microorganisms. (Yeah, the name is cute, but it includes everything you need to culture bacteria and other microorganisms. Real stuff, not shoddy plastic junk.)

I dithered about which stains and supplemental reagents, if any, to include. I have more than 30 biological stains and reagents at my microscope workstation, but real biostains and reagents are relatively expensive, so including even a few of them would boost the prices of the sets for something that some people wouldn't use. Then I was struck by a cunning plan. I headed for the local strip mall. At Walgreens, I scored one ounce bottles of iodine tincture and gentian violet and a pint bottle of ethanol for about $7 total. At the supermarket, another few bucks got me a box of four food coloring dyes, two or three of which are actually useful biostains, and a bottle of distilled white vinegar (acetic acid). And at the pet store next door, I picked up a small bottle of methylene blue for a couple bucks. So, for a grand total of about $12, I ended up with a pretty decent starter set of biological stains and reagents, including everything necessary to do basic biostaining and even Gram staining. Including all that stuff in the microscope kits would boost their prices by a lot more than $12, so I decided it made more sense just to recommend kit buyers make a quick trip to the local strip mall. My boss probably hates that, but the kit buyers should love it.


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Thursday, 19 November 2009
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Friday, 20 November 2009
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Saturday, 21 November 2009
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Sunday, 22 November 2009
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Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 by Robert Bruce Thompson. All Rights Reserved.