Thursday, 21 August 2014

09:40 - Here’s a headline I didn’t want to see: Winston-Salem ranks high in national poverty study

Winston-Salem was second to Colorado Springs by this metric, which essentially measures the growth rate of formerly middle-class people in the suburbs falling into poverty as a result of long-term unemployment. It doesn’t mean that the city is the second-poorest in the nation. Far from it. The city itself is actually excluded from this study, which counts only the surrounding suburban and exurban metro area. In terms of numbers and percentages of people in poverty, the Winston-Salem area is far from the worst in North Carolina, let alone the rest of the country. What’s disturbing about the results of the study is that the Winston-Salem metro area has experienced very fast growth in the numbers/percentages of formerly middle-class people who are now living lives of quiet desperation. Their unemployment compensation payments have run out–North Carolina has by far the stingiest unemployment insurance in the nation, both in terms of amount and duration–and they are now surviving on little or no income other than welfare and food stamps. Many married couples where formerly both were employed are now down to one income, and barely making it on that one income.

As I’ve said before, welcome to the new normal, the post-employment society. Even as manufacturing continues to grow in the US–which it has done every year for the last several decades–manufacturing employment continues to fall, as it has done for the last several decades. Factories that employed 5,000 workers were replaced by factories that employed 500 workers, which in turn are being replaced by factories that employ 50 workers, and the output has increased with each reduction in employee head-count. Not the output per employee, you understand, the absolute output. Many manufacturing employees produce literally ten times what their fathers did, and 100 times what their grandfathers did. Robotics is the death-knell for manufacturing employment. Robots are much cheaper than people, and do much better work.

The good news is that the output is all that matters, and manufacturing output is ultimately purely dependent on capital. Ignoring allocated capital costs and profit, something like 99.9% of the price of anything you buy is a result of labor costs. If labor costs could be eliminated entirely, the only costs that remain are allocated capital costs and profit, which are a very small percentage of the whole. (Materials costs are really just disguised labor costs: excluding allocated capital costs and profit, the cost of that ton of steel that goes into a new vehicle is very low. What costs money is getting it out of the ground, smelting it, and transporting it.)

So, the obvious problem is that we have robotically-produced BMWs and TVs and food and everything else consumers want. They’re all incredibly cheap, but no one has a job or any income, so no one can afford to buy anything. There is no consumer demand, so all the factories stop making things and shut down. That’s why I and many other libertarians advocate the Basic Income.

The Basic Income simply means that every adult US citizen gets a check every month from the government. There’s no means testing: we all get the same amount, whether we’re destitute or Bill Gates. That amount might be set at, say, $1,500 per month. And it replaces every government social welfare program at every level from local to federal. No more Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, AFDC, etc. etc. No more government or military pensions of any type. No more bureaucrats overseeing all these hundreds of social welfare programs, either. No more subsidized government housing or medical care. No more subsidized government anything.

So, like every other married couple who are US citizens, Barbara and I get $36,000/year automatically from the government. We don’t have to work for it; it’s automatic. Bill and Melinda Gates also get $36,000/year, as do all those unemployed married couples that newspaper article was talking about. And any of us that choose to work can earn as much as we like or we can, without affecting our BI payment.

But, as people always ask, what about the huge costs involved in such a program? I always reply, “What costs?” We are already paying them, directly and indirectly. BI is simply a redesigned, much more efficient means of income redistribution than what we have now.

Posted in essays | 48 Comments

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

08:30 - As of this morning, we’re down to only 14 chemistry kits and four biology kits in stock. At recent run rates, that’s maybe a two- or three-day supply, so I’m building more kits today, starting with a batch of 30 biology kits.

15:15 - As always at this time of year, I start thinking about how we could do things more efficiently. I was particularly thinking about that as I was building 30 boxes for biology kits. I use a total of 22 strips of tape to seal a box. To begin with, I invert the box and seal the bottom with four short strips of tape along each short side seam, one strip of tape along the long middle seam, and a long strip of tape across the short dimension in the middle of the box. That’s ten strips so far. I then seal the glued side seam with two more short strips, for a total so far of 12 strips. When I seal the box for shipping, I tape up the top of the box the same way I taped the bottom, ten more strips, for a total of 22 strips of tape per box. No wonder I go through a metric boatload of packing tape.

So I started wondering if I could substitute spray adhesive for the tape. I turns out that I could, but doing so would be extremely expensive and probably no faster than taping. So I started reading up on proper packing methods. It seems that the standard packing method is the two-strip method: one strip down the long seams on the top and bottom of the box, and nothing else. The alternative–recommended by USPS, UPS, and FedEx–is the so-called 6-strip or H-method. The long middle seams on the top and bottom of the box still get one long strip each, that runs 2″ to 3″ down the side of the box. Then each short side seam gets one strip laid down parallel to the seam and folded over the side. Four more strips, for a total of six. I just now shipped my first kit using the H-method on the top of the box. It still makes me nervous, but the people who should know say it’s very secure even using 2″ rather than 3″ packing tape. We’ll see. In my own defense, the boxes I receive from vendors are usually taped more like my former practice. On particularly large/heavy/dense boxes, I swear sometimes they must use most of a roll of tape to seal that one box. Packing tape is cheap; returns and damaged shipments are expensive in more ways than one. But the labor to apply 20+ strips of tape versus only six is also a factor. My engineering nature tells me I should try taping up sample boxes with both methods and then test them to destruction to see how much difference, if any, there really is.

Posted in science kits | 34 Comments

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

09:55 - Barbara and I are about halfway through the sixth and final season of Dawson’s Creek on Netflix streaming. If it were me, I’d have stopped watching after season four. I commented to Barbara at the start of season five that the series “felt” different, and that I didn’t like the changes. As we continued to watch season five, it became obvious that the writing had tanked, with stupid plotting, poor characterization, and inane dialog. With season six, it’s gotten even worse. Maybe the showrunner or head writer left after season four, or maybe they just ran out of ideas. If you’ve never seen Dawson’s Creek, I’d recommend watching it, but only the first four seasons. Then just pretend that they never made seasons five and six, which they shouldn’t have.

Another of our bottle-top dispensers died Sunday. Fortunately, I have an unused spare sitting on the shelf, because I sure don’t want to be without at least one working unit. These things are kind of like the pumps used to dispense toppings on sundaes, except they’re extremely accurate (~0.05 mL) and repeatable (~0.01 mL). To operate them, you simply pull up on the pump handle, place an empty bottle at the dispensing tip, and press down the pump handle.

They’re not cheap–$200 give or take, depending on the capacity–plus another $50 to $100 for the reservoir bottle, again depending on capacity. Here’s an image of one, not the model we use, but a similar one.

I dithered before I bought the first one because I wasn’t sure a BTD would really save much time, if any. But it does, trimming maybe 10 seconds from the fill time per bottle. That may not sound like much, but it adds up quickly if you’re filling hundreds of bottles in a session and tens of thousands per year.

The one that failed Sunday was the fourth failure. I’ll notify the vendor, who in the past has replaced each failed unit, but by now is probably getting tired of doing that. If so, it’s no big deal. I’ll order another unit today to become my hot spare. I think I got something close to 10,000 bottles filled with the failed unit, which means if I treat the BTD’s as consumables it costs me an extra $0.02 to fill a bottle. Or, another way of looking at it, that BTD saved me 100,000 seconds (about 28 hours) at a cost of about $7 per hour.

10:28 - As it turns out, I don’t need to order a spare. I just opened the box that I thought contained one spare unit. In fact, it contained two: one that the vendor had replaced under warranty and a second that I’d ordered and paid for.

Posted in netflix, personal, science kits | 44 Comments

Monday, 18 August 2014

09:48 - Six more kits to ship so far this morning, plus whatever orders come in today before the mailman shows up.

Our component inventory system is starting to break down, as it always does this time of year. The problem is that we have so many different things going on at once that updating component inventories sometimes gets deferred or overlooked completely.

Posted in science kits | 54 Comments

Sunday, 17 August 2014

11:46 - Barbara spent the morning cleaning house while I finished the laundry and bottled chemicals. This afternoon we’ll build subassemblies for kits.

Kit orders continue to come in at a good rate. We shipped eight kits Thursday, six Friday, and seven yesterday. If that rate holds up, we’ll have a decent month, assuming we can build and ship kits fast enough to meet demand.

Posted in science kits | 21 Comments

Saturday, 16 August 2014

12:16 - Barbara is helping Frances and Al finish cleaning out their rented storage site this morning. I’m doing kit stuff, of course. This afternoon and tomorrow–between yard work and house cleaning–Barbara will help put more kit subassemblies together.

The main reason we joined Sam’s Club is that they carry stuff that Costco doesn’t. For example, our Costco doesn’t stock much in the way of canned soups. Periodically the supermarket has a sale on canned soups, 10 for $10, and Barbara picks up 10 cans of Campbell’s cream of mushroom or whatever. But Sam’s carries shrink-wrapped 10-packs of Campbell’s COM soup for $8.28, so we pick up a case or two or three each time we go there.

Both the Costco and Sam’s web sites carry a lot of long-term storable food, which apparently is a big seller nowadays even among non-Mormons. It seems that more and more people fear that we face a dystopian future, and are stocking up food and other essentials against emergencies.

Sam’s carries a much wider selection of long-term storable food than Costco does. A lot of it is outrageously expensive freeze-dried stuff, which is also very space-inefficient to store. But some is reasonably priced and useful. FedEx just showed up with my first order from Sam’s on-line, including four #10 cans of dried whole eggs (after rehydration the equivalent of 24 dozen whole eggs). They cost $16/can, the equivalent of about $2.67/dozen. I also ordered a case of six bags of dried cheese/broccoli soup mix for $16. Each bag makes a gallon of soup. We’ll use this mix for making casseroles.

Posted in personal, science kits | 27 Comments

Friday, 15 August 2014

08:06 - I’m still covered up with kit orders, but unfortunately this month isn’t as hectic as August of last year. Through this morning we’re running at about 85% of last August’s overall rate. Still, the second half of the month is always even busier than the first, so we may be able to match last August’s results or nearly so.

Posted in science kits | 64 Comments

Thursday, 14 August 2014

08:01 - I’m covered up with kit orders, but still managing to get kits shipped without delays. At the moment, I have seven outstanding kit orders that came in yesterday evening and overnight.

I’m very careful to comply with all the requirements for shipping hazardous materials, but sometimes I wonder why I bother. Many shippers seem to ignore them completely. For example, yesterday I got a delivery of a bunch of chemicals that included 12 kilos of sodium hydroxide (AKA caustic soda or lye). It was shipped via UPS as ordinary goods, without so much as a warning label on the box.

Then there’s Amazon. One of the AP chemistry labs involves testing various chemicals for suitability in making hand-warmers. Among those chemicals is ammonium nitrate, an explosive fertilizer famous for being used in the Oklahoma City bombing. Our AP chemistry kit will include a 30 gram bottle of the stuff, carefully packaged to meet hazardous chemical shipping regulations. I could use lab-grade or even reagent-grade ammonium nitrate in the kits, but there’s no point to paying the higher price for purer ammonium nitrate. We’re making hand-warmers, after all. But ammonium nitrate is also used in the cold-packs you can buy at the drugstore, so I checked Amazon. Sure enough, they had a 24-pack of ammonium nitrate cold-packs for $15, including free Prime shipping. UPS showed up with the case of cold-packs yesterday, again without so much as a warning label on the box. I’m guessing those 24 cold-packs probably contain at least five kilos of ammonium nitrate. Geez.

Posted in science kits | 59 Comments

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

10:08 - We’re back at reasonable stock levels of the FK01A forensic science kits and CK01B chemistry kits, or we will be once I finish boxing up the kits. Then I need to get chemicals bottled for a custom order of 25 sets. Once I finish that, I’ll start on another batch of 30 BK01 biology kits.

Barbara is going out to dinner with friends tonight, so Colin and I will watch Heartland reruns. We’ll finish series six this evening and may have time to get started on series seven. CBC starts broadcasting series eight in a couple of months, but it won’t finish its run until next April or May. I’ll download HD copies of each episode every week and accumulate them until we have all 18 episodes, at which point I’ll burn DVDs and we’ll binge watch series eight. Between now and then, I’ll have time to re-watch the first seven series two or three more times.

Posted in personal, science kits | 53 Comments

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

10:46 - Orders yesterday and overnight have taken us down to zero FK01A forensic science kits and zero CK01B chemistry kits in stock. I’m building more forensic science kits this morning, and I’ll get started on another batch of the CK01B chemistry kits this afternoon. In other words, a typical August day around here. At least we’re in pretty good shape on the CK01A chemistry kits, with 40 or so in stock.

Sometimes I wonder why I even try to plan. For example, we’re getting critically short of BK01 biology kits, so I’ll start another batch of them as soon as I get the FK01A forensic science kits and CK01B chemistry kits built. But we shouldn’t be running low on BK01 biology kits. We ordinarily sell about three CK01A chemistry kits for every two BK01 biology kits. In the last couple of weeks, we’ve sold literally eight or nine times as many BK01 biology kits as CK01A chemistry kits. And these are all individual sales, with no bulk order to mess up the ratio. There’s no way to plan for that kind of skewed ordering pattern.

Posted in science kits | 19 Comments