Thursday, 24 April 2014

08:54 - Barbara was over at her sister’s house yesterday, when I was struck by a cunning plan. I asked if Al would be willing to let me borrow his Windows laptop overnight, to which he kindly agreed. So I waited until this morning in case we got orders overnight, and then fired it up and attempted to pay for the postage labels in my cart. No joy. I got the same “payment method declined” error message on Al’s Windows laptop. Apparently, it’s not Linux that USPS hates. It’s me personally. USPS will not accept payment from me using any credit card or PayPal on any computer running any browser. I even tried creating a new USPS account and re-entering the label data. When I tried to pay, I got the same error.

Costco says my new Windows notebook system is to arrive tomorrow. It probably won’t work either. But I already have a stamps.com account set up, so I’ll install their client software and just start using stamps.com to generate my postage labels. They charge $16 per month, which’ll probably be less expensive than paying USPS directly because stamps.com discounts postage.


Posted in business | 17 Comments

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

08:15 - Yesterday, I signed up for stamps.com after talking with one of their reps. I told her that I was running Linux, so I couldn’t run their software. No problem, she said, their software runs only under Windows, but they have many Mac customers who use their web-based service. And, she told me when I asked, their site provided the labels as downloadable PDFs rather than using a server-side script to send the label directly to my printer. So I signed up, logged on to the web site, signed in, and promptly got an error message that I was running an unsupported OS. Crap. So I changed the user agent to tell their site I was running Mozilla 26 under Windows. I was then able to use the site, until I tried to print a label. It then told me that I needed to install a plug-in and to click the icon to install it. No icon was visible, of course.

So, at least until my Windows laptop arrives, I’m stuck trying to generate labels on the USPS site. Sometimes that works, but very seldom. Meanwhile, I have kits stacking up in the shipping queue. I’m going to try wiping out everything Chrome has stored and see if that’ll let me generate labels.


Posted in science kits | 12 Comments

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

09:41 - Sankie’s funeral is Thursday. I’ve arranged with the neighbors to walk Colin while we’re gone and keep an eye on our house. Barbara is heading over to her mom’s apartment this morning to meet Frances and get the place ready to meet people after the funeral.

Meanwhile, it turns out that the Opera workaround for getting labels printed on the USPS website was not the permanent fix I’d hoped it was. I had kits to ship yesterday, so I fired up Opera and entered the data for the labels. When I attempted to pay for them, I got the old “payment method denied” message. So I fired up Chrome or Firefox, I forget which, and clicked on the link to pay for the labels in my cart. This time it worked, and I was able to pay for some of the labels, get them printed, and get the kits shipped. Not all of the kits, though. The USPS web site choked on the foreign shipments, so I have two kits going to Canada that are still sitting in the cart.

So I tried using PayPal shipping for the Canadian kits. No dice. It appeared to work normally. It let me pay from my PayPal balance. But PayPal uses Pitney-Bowes, which doesn’t produce a downloadable PDF label. Instead it runs a script that is supposed to send the label to your printer, but doesn’t allow you to save a copy of the label. Long story short, I could not get the label to either printer no matter what I tried. Bastards.

I decided to give up trying to make this work. I checked the Costco site for Windows notebook systems. Barbara is going to pick one up for me while she’s out today. Assuming that solves the USPS label problem, I will dedicate that system to printing labels.


13:19 - Barbara called from Costco to say they had literally no Dell laptops. Apparently, they’re in the midst of a model-year changeover. They did have a few Toshiba and HP laptops, but I told her I wasn’t interested in any of those and that I’d just order on-line.

I checked Amazon, which of course had slews of laptops, but everything they had in Dell models was more expensive than Costco. And Amazon doesn’t have the doubled warranty or the easy return. I ordered a model that was a couple steps up from the bottom model Costco carried. It has an Intel Core i3 rather than a Celeron. Only a 500 GB 5400 RPM hard drive and 4 GB of RAM, but that’s fine for what I want it for. No touch screen, which I explicitly didn’t want. The total, with $30 shipping and sales tax, was just over $400. Not bad.

It comes with Windows 8.1. If there’s an option at first boot to choose Win 7, I’ll do that. Otherwise, I’ll probably install the shell program that several readers have recommended.

Oh, and a guy just showed up at the front door with flowers for Barbara. I called to see how her day was going, and mentioned the flowers. I also made it very clear that they’re not from me. (Barbara has told me in the past that if I ever buy her flowers she’ll know I’ve been up to no good…) She claims that she doesn’t think I’m funny (although just about every other woman I know does think I’m funny…) but she did laugh at that.

Posted in Barbara, technology | 19 Comments

Monday, 21 April 2014

09:00 - Barbara’s mom died last night at her apartment. We knew that Sankie couldn’t last much longer, but we were still surprised at how quickly it happened. Although her sudden death was a shock to everyone, particularly Barbara and Frances, it was actually a good thing. The Hospice nurse had started her Saturday night on morphine for severe pain, so at least she didn’t linger on in pain for days or weeks.


Posted in Barbara | 35 Comments

Sunday, 20 April 2014

08:24 - Barbara got a phone call around 9:00 last night from Pam, her mom’s caregiver. Pam reported that Sankie was doing very badly, and apparently in pain. Barbara told her to call Hospice, who would send someone out to see Sankie and determine if she needed to be moved to the Hospice facility. We haven’t heard back from Hospice, so apparently the visiting nurse was able to administer pain medication and get Sankie stabilized. Barbara didn’t sleep very well last night, anticipating a call that didn’t come. With Sankie not eating and no longer able to speak, I suspect it’s not going to be much longer.


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Saturday, 19 April 2014

09:59 - Barbara and Frances met the Hospice nurse at 5:30 yesterday at Sankie’s apartment. The nurse determined that Sankie isn’t ready to be moved to Hospice yet, but she’s now officially under Hospice care. That means no more trips to the doctor, and if there’s a crisis they’ll call Hospice instead of 911. If Sankie continues to get worse, they’ll eventually move her directly to Hospice. There’s no telling how long that might be. It could be weeks or it could be days. I suspect days is more likely than weeks. So, for now, we’re all in waiting mode.

It’s a cold, breezy, wet day. Barbara has yard work she wants to do, but that’ll have to wait for tomorrow. She’s out running errands at the moment. When she returns, she’ll get started on labeling 90 more sets of bottles for chemistry kits while she watches some of the series she likes on Netflix streaming.


Posted in Barbara | 34 Comments

Friday, 18 April 2014

08:22 - The lead story in the morning paper is about a guy who’s being tried for involuntary manslaughter. He’s accused of passing a stopped school bus, striking and killing an 11-year-old boy. The driver claims that the school bus had its yellow lights flashing, but had not yet extended the stop-arm and started flashing its red lights. At least one witness confirms the driver’s story. At least one other witness disputes it. Given what information the news stories have provided, if I were on the jury I’d vote to acquit based on reasonable doubt.

Regardless of what actually happened in this case, there’s no question that many drivers think nothing of passing stopped school buses. Barbara watched it happen earlier this week. She said the driver didn’t even slow down, just blew past a stopped school bus. That happens in North Carolina thousands of times every year. In the US as a whole, probably thousands of times every week. I told Barbara I was surprised that school buses don’t have HD video cameras installed front and rear as standard equipment, set up to start recording video and GPS data every time the yellow caution lights are turned on. When a bus driver finishes the run and reports an incident, that video should be provided to the police for investigation and prosecution.

I’m trying to cut down on the inventory of labeled but empty bottles. Right now, I’m working on getting bottles filled for another batch of 60 biology kits. Next up is filling bottles for 90 more chemistry kits, followed by 60 forensic science kits. Then it’ll be lather, rinse, repeat.


14:27 - Hmmm. One of our upcoming kits is for AP Chemistry, so I was out looking around the web to see what else is out there. I came across a supposed AP Chemistry kit from one of our competitors that included the following in its contents list:

qsl-ap-chemApparently, this kit contains a dilute solution of … water.


16:03 - This isn’t good. Barbara called to tell me that her mom’s caregiver had called to say that her mom had stopped eating and stopped talking. The most she could get out of Sankie was an occasional grunt. Barbara and Frances are going to meet the evaluator from Hospice over at their mom’s apartment at 5:30 to see what the evaluator thinks. If the evaluator thinks Sankie belongs in Hospice now and if they have a room available Barbara says they’ll transfer her tonight or perhaps tomorrow.

Posted in news, science kits | 27 Comments

Thursday, 17 April 2014

10:17 - Success! I finally managed to get postage/customs labels printed for the international shipment that’s been sitting here in the queue since Monday. I did it by installing the Opera browser. From now on, I’ll use Opera only for printing USPS postage labels.

Also, as it turns out, I was wrong about not being able to use PayPal Shipping to produce postage/customs labels for Priority Mail International. It didn’t offer me that option yesterday because I was shipping to US addresses. When I ship to an international address, it gives me the choice of Priority Mail International or Priority Mail Express International. Duh.

So at this point I’m comfortable using only USPS. One way or another, I can get postage labels printed, and that’s all that matters. I’m quite happy otherwise with USPS. It’s cheap, fast, and reliable.

Barbara has been quite patient, but she’s mentioned several times recently that she’d like me to get all the kit clutter cleaned up. Currently, I have kit stuff stacked up in my office and the stockroom upstairs, along with the library/living room, dining room, and kitchen. Until yesterday, there was also a lot of kit stuff in the den. In fact, only our bedroom/bathroom, the hall bathroom, and Barbara’s office are kit-free. The unfinished area downstairs, of course, has tons of kit stuff, although the finished area other than my lab is kit-free. So I told Barbara this morning that if she has time to help this weekend, I’d like to spend some serious time getting the clutter cleared away and organized. I’m sure she’s delighted.

The new neighbors, across the street and two houses down, moved in yesterday. They’re a married couple, Zakiah and Bernard. As is so often true of married couples, she is very friendly and outgoing while he is quieter and more reserved. Friendly, but not effusive. If I understood correctly, she is a mental-health counselor and he’s a substance-abuse counselor.

They have four children, ranging in age from 1 to 13. Barbara and I met the three older kids last night when we were walking Colin. The oldest is at a STEM magnet school. He wants (for now, anyway) to major in college in marine biology. Zakiah says that until recently he wanted to pursue robotics, but one way or another it sounds to me as though he’ll be a STEM major.


Posted in business, personal | 21 Comments

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

11:36 - The USPS Click-N-Ship website is still not accepting payments. I’ve done everything I can think of on my end. I’ve tried using two different browsers on two computers. I’ve cleared the cache and cookies. I’ve tried paying with three different credit cards, all of which are good and none of which worked, and I’ve tried paying via PayPal. No dice. The USPS website simply refuses to accept payments. I even created a new USPS Click-N-Ship account in Barbara’s name. It does the same thing. I’ve emailed USPS and gotten no response. I’ve called them repeatedly and spent long times on hold before finally giving up and trying again later.

As it turns out, I am able to ship some kits by using the PayPal shipping feature, but it’s less than ideal. It provides only some USPS Priority Mail options. The only two useful ones are the USPS PM Large Flat-Rate Box and the straight distance/weight Priority Mail option. Notably absent are the Regional-Rate Box options, and we use RR boxes for about 90% of our kit shipments. I just used the distance/weight PayPal PM option to ship a kit to Florida in a regional-rate box B. That would have cost $8.10 in postage if the RR box option was available with PayPal. It isn’t, so I shipped via the standard PM distance/weight rate, which was $8.55. The extra $0.45 on this shipment isn’t too bad, but that’s because it’s a nearby destination. The RR box B rate is the same as the 4-pound distance/weight PM rate, but our kits range from 5 to 7 pounds. The one I just shipped was at the 5-pound rate, but the differential increases rapidly with each extra pound and each additional zone. A typical kit is going to cost me several dollars extra to ship via PayPal’s USPS PM option relative to the USPS price for a RR box. But at least I can ship the kits. The problem is that PayPal has no International PM option. I’ve had a kit sitting waiting to ship to Denmark since Monday, and no way to generate postage for it.

As I was fuming about this problem yesterday, I had a scary thought. This is happening now, during a very slow time for kit sales. What if it happened in July, August, or September, when we might be shipping 50 or 100 kits a week? Right now, the problem is annoying; if it happened in August, it’d be disastrous. I simply can’t afford to take that risk.

So yesterday I looked again at UPS and FedEx. I set up a UPS account, and I intend to get set up to begin shipping via UPS Ground. (Air isn’t an option at this point because of UPS restrictions on hazardous chemicals.)

Comparing shipping costs between USPS and UPS is complicated. USPS provides free boxes. With UPS, I have to buy boxes, which cost around $1/each delivered. For our typical kits, which weigh 5 to 7 pounds, USPS Regional Rate costs from $6.16 for nearby zones to $14.42 for zone 7. For zone 8, we use Large Flat-Rate Boxes, which cost $15.80, versus $16.28 for a RR box B to zone 8, including Alaska and Hawaii. UPS Ground costs $7.30 to $11.61 for similar distance/weight, except that shipments to Alaska or Hawaii cost from $34.36 to $45.76. None of those include the numerous surcharges that UPS applies, including fees for picking up from or delivering to a residence, delivery area surcharges, package tracking surcharges, fuel surcharges, etc. etc. And UPS also charges to pick up the packages here, which costs $10 to $20 per week.

Just eyeballing things, my impression is that UPS will cost considerably more than USPS for shipments to the lower 48 states, and for 2 to 5 day delivery times versus 1 to 3 day for USPS. For shipments to Alaska and Hawaii, there’s no contest. USPS charges $15.80, while UPS will cost at least $40 and probably $50, $60, or more. International shipments are even worse. A kit that costs us $50 to ship via USPS Priority Mail International will cost two to three times that much via UPS. And that doesn’t count the very high customs brokerage fees that UPS charges and USPS doesn’t.

You know what? I just talked myself out of using UPS. Costs much more, slower deliveries, more hassles. Worst case, even when the USPS website isn’t working properly I can use PayPay to ship via USPS Priority Mail distance/weight or flat rate, at least to US addresses.


Posted in business | 20 Comments

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

09:58 - With the taxes done and off, at least I can get back to my real work. Or I could, if the USPS Click-and-Ship website would let me print postage labels. I have kits sitting here ready to go, if only I could print postage for them. What is it about government websites? One would think that the disastrous roll-out of the Obamacare website would have made USPS think twice about the website “upgrade” they did earlier this year, but apparently not. I have this mental image of rooms full of government website developers, all wearing kamikaze headbands.

Kit sales are extremely slow. In fact, kit revenues for the month to date are less than half the amount of the purchase orders I’ve issued this month. I’m beginning to feel like the Maytag repairman. I suspect kit sales will pick up now that tax day has passed. They did in 2012 and 2013.


Posted in science kits | 19 Comments