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Week of 7 March 2011

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Monday, 7 March 2011
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09:48 - Costco run and dinner with Paul and Mary yesterday. Mary was telling me about the three types of lab technicians she's encountered over her career. Type I is the sort who requires constant hand-holding. As Mary said, she might as well just do the work herself. Type II is competent and will follow instructions exactly, but no more. This type is basically a robot. If the results of an experiment make no sense, the robot collects and reports them without comment, and then clocks out. Type III is the type Mary prefers to work with and that I'd also prefer. A Type III is competent and follows instructions, but thinks about what he or she is doing. If the experimental results make no sense, a Type III will flag those results, suggest possible causes, and even suggest a modified experimental procedure. Type III's are often found in the lab after hours, working off the clock, because they're actually interested in what they're doing.

My first thought was, "Why would any scientist want any lab tech who wasn't a Type III?" But then, as I thought about it, I realized that Type II's are probably very popular among insecure scientists and martinet scientists. Some scientists, including many who are old enough to know better, haven't gotten over themselves. They regard questions, let alone suggestions (and, Thor forbid, criticisms), as challenges to their authority. So I guess I'm not surprised that Type II techs continue to be employed.

What I don't understand is how Type I's keep their jobs, particularly in this job market. There are a lot of unemployed people with Ph.D.'s in hard sciences, and many of them would be happy to accept jobs as lab technicians. Those jobs are usually reasonably secure, pay is usually decent, hours are regular, and the stress level is usually much lower. I suspect the HR dorks won't hire Ph.D.'s for lab tech positions because they're "overqualified", but that's simply stupid. We have thousands of Ph.D.'s in hard sciences working as waitresses and janitors and parking lot attendants. How stupid is that? At least as lab technicians they'd be doing science, which most of them love, and their employers would be getting high competence at a bargain price.

10:43 - I learn something every day. One of my readers emailed me a week or two ago to report a problem with Lab 20.2 in the home chemistry book. The lab is about determining the concentration of chlorine laundry bleach using iodometric titration. Her results were unexpected, to say the least. She needed literally one tenth the amount of titrant expected, so her bleach assayed as being about 0.525% sodium hypochlorite rather than the expected 5.25%. She repeated the experiment with the same results. She said that the only possible cause she could think of was that the bleach she used was old.

I replied that chlorine bleach is known to lose strength with age, but I'd expect maybe a 5% or 10% reduction in concentration versus the 90% she determined experimentally. I speculated on several unlikely causes, none of which were satisfying. She emailed me again this morning to say that she'd redone the experiment using fresh bleach, and the results were exactly as expected, 5.25%. So apparently, bleach really does lose strength over time, even in a closed bottle, and the loss is not trivial.


Tuesday, 8 March 2011
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10:30 - Interesting article in Wired. Made in America: Small Businesses Buck the Offshoring Trend

At first glance, that may seem to be good news for US employment statistics, but in fact US companies are bringing manufacturing back to the US is by replacing cheap Chinese labor with even cheaper US-based robotics manufacturing. Ultimately, their goal is to eliminate human labor entirely from manufacturing, and that's a good thing. Goods manufactured without human labor inputs cost very little to produce.

In the not-too-distant past, nearly 100% of the cost of nearly any item was in direct and indirect labor. That's why nearly everyone had to labor dawn to dark seven days a week just to produce enough to meet the basic needs of life. The industrial revolution started to change that, but even today most of the costs of most of what we consume are made up of human labor costs, direct and indirect.

We're at the point now where most workers put in 40 hours a week, which suffices to produce what we need to support our population. Of course, not everyone has to work nowadays. In the past, children and the elderly labored side-by-side with young and middle-aged adults, because their labor was needed. Those who didn't work didn't eat. Children began working as soon as they were capable of doing so, and the elderly worked until they dropped dead. Nowadays, the rest of us carry the children and the elderly, not to mention many unproductive young and middle-aged adults.

With the proliferation of robotics, that trend will accelerate. As robotics become ubiquitous, a smaller and smaller percentage of the population will carry a larger and larger percentage. Even now, we see the lifestyles of the non-productive continuing to increase. In the past, most non-productive people lived in true poverty, crammed 20 to a room and not knowing where their next meals were coming from. Nowadays, what passes for poverty would in the past have been considered a middle-class lifestyle or better. Our poor have not just the basics--food, shelter, medical care, and so on--but they enjoy what not all that long ago were luxuries reserved for the wealthy. Automobiles, air conditioning, TV, cellphones, Internet access, and so on.

But that also means that jobs will continue to disappear. Any job that can be automated is destined to be automated. Until now, that's meant mostly blue-collar manual labor jobs, but we're beginning to see automation of midde-class white-collar jobs. Computers are in the early stages of replacing attorneys, and strides are being made that will eventually see computers replace physicians. Eventually, the only jobs that will remain are those that involve true creativity and figuring stuff out, at which point we'll have 0.1% of the population creating and 99.9% doing nothing but consuming. Even the idea of having a job will begin to seem strange, as is already universal among certain segments of our population.


Wednesday, 9 March 2011
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08:35 - One of the hazards of Netflix streaming is that I sometimes forget to keep an eye on our disc queue. So we'll be getting a disc today that had inched its way up our queue unnoticed until it reached the top position. It's Gossip Girl S1D1.

Apparently I have a great deal of confidence in Netflix's recommendations, because that's how it got in our queue. Some months ago, Netflix recommended it to me, estimating I'd give it 3.8 stars. The description of it as a teen drama didn't sound particularly like something we'd enjoy, but on the other hand we did think Veronica Mars was one of the best programs we'd seen. And, perhaps not coincidentally, Gossip Girl stars Kristen Bell from Veronica Mars. Alas, she apparently never appears on screen but does only the voiceovers.

I've read quite a few comments about the series, many of which say that it starts out slow but improves a lot as the first season goes on. So we'll watch the first disc tonight and give it a chance.

I'm doing a bit of experimentation with packaging for the microchemistry kits. I'll supply chemicals and a few other small items in 15 mL centifuge tubes. The tubes and screwcaps are polypropylene, which is extremely resistant to all the chemicals in the kit, but I want to make sure the caps can't come off in shipping. I've had tubes filled with water and sitting inverted on my desk for a couple months with no leakage. I've also filled tubes with water and run them through the dryer with a load of laundry. They don't leak. Even so, it's so important that they don't leak during shipping that I'm taking pains to make sure they don't.

I order the tubes wholesale, packaged in rigid foam blocks of 50. Each kit will include one of those blocks, with six positions occupied by test tubes, 42 positions with filled tubes, and (unless I think of something more to add) two positions with empty tubes. I'll use a sheet of thin cardboard on top of the caps, wrap the entire block in a heavy zip-lock bag, and tape the bag to secure the cardboard against the caps. That should prevent any caps from working loose.

But, being a belt-and-suspenders kind of guy, I started playing around the other day with sealing the caps. I first tried a drop of Elmer's Glue. It's rated to glue only porous and semi-porous surfaces, so I wasn't expecting it to make a tight bond on the PP tubes and caps. That's fine, because I don't want to glue them together tightly, just enough to keep the caps from working loose. The Elmer's Glue was a complete failure. It didn't dry and set even after several days. So it was on to Plan B. This morning, I applied a tiny amount of Barbara's colorless nail polish to a cap and screwed it onto a tube. I'll let that set for a day or so and then see how it works.


Thursday, 10 March 2011
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08:06 - There was some discussion on the forums yesterday about the generic term used in different parts of the US for carbonated soft drinks. In one reply, I mentioned several different brand names, which got me to thinking...

They say one can find anything on YouTube, so I decided to see if that is true. As my regular readers know, I despise television commercials. Hate them. Won't watch them. With one exception. Back in 1974, there was one television commercial that I not only would watch, but would actually stop whatever I was doing to watch. It was for a soft drink called Tab.

If you're a heterosexual male who had reached puberty by 1974, I'm sure you remember it. It started with a memorable guitar riff, reminiscent of the Beach Boys. The opening shot was of an absolutely stunning girl in a bikini walking up the beach, with the ocean as background. She walks by a young couple sitting on the beach. The guy notices her. His mouth drops open, and he twists around to watch the girl walk on by. Meanwhile, his girlfriend or wife has noticed him noticing the girl. She picks up a cooler and dumps ice water on him, but makes sure he knows she was only teasing him. He takes it all good-naturedly.

This commercial is absolutely brilliant. After you watch it normally, watch it with the sound off, and see how many things it ties together seamlessly to tell a story in 30 seconds.

Incidentally, there's some confusion about this video. It was, IIRC, originally aired in 1974, although the description of the video says it aired in 1982. That's wrong. The reason for the confusion is that this masterpiece, starring Lisa Parker as the girl, was followed by a 1982 remake that starred 17-year-old Elle Macpherson in her very first modeling role. That remake is inferior in every respect to the original. Not to be harsh, but Elle was not even remotely in the same class as the lithe, beautiful Lisa Parker. And, while the director of the original commercial was an artist, the director of the remake was a ham-handed hack. Here's the remake.

The gap between these two commercials spanned the Carter era of high inflation, and I noticed that Tab had inflated from one to two calories. The other thing I noticed is the absence of inflated boobs in 1974. They used women who had normal boobs instead of gigantic silicone implants.

11:15 - Oh, yeah. Gossip Girl. After reading some of the reader reviews on Netflix, I gather that I'm supposed to be embarrassed to admit that I like this program. When I told Barbara yesterday that I had the disc and it was a "teen drama", she said it'd probably be too young for us. Of course, she said the same thing about Veronica Mars, which she loved and which is one of the very few series I've rated 5 stars on Netflix.

So we watched the first four episodes. Several reviews had commented that the series starts out poorly but gets very good later in series one. I have to say if the first four episodes are of noticeably poorer quality than the rest of the series, the rest of the series must be really excellent. The episodes we watched were well acted and tightly written. The entire cast is very good, but the real scene stealer is 14-year-old Taylor Momson, who reminds me very much of Emily VanCamp. Not just in terms of appearance, either. She's adorable. I've already put the remaining series 1 discs at the top of our queue, and will add the other seasons. I wish Netflix streamed it.

Oh, and if you enjoy mysteries, I recommend Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce series. Barbara just brought me the most recent book, A Red Herring Without Mustard. You can buy it in hardcover for $14.47 or in the Kindle edition <sarcasm>for a mere $11.99</sarcasm>. Flavia is a pre-teen girl who just happens to be a chemistry prodigy and has access to her uncle's fully-equipped chemistry lab, which she uses to solve mysteries.

Alan is one of many mystery authors who periodically emails me with chemistry, forensic, or history questions. Alan's are often interesting because I sometimes don't know the answers to them and have to run an actual experiment to find out. For example, "If a bottle with fingerprints on it were dropped in running water, would the latent prints be recoverable? For how long?" I never did get around to running that experiment. Alan did credit me in his acknowledgements section for this book. My name is at the end of a very long list; Alan doesn't leave anyone out.


Friday, 11 March 2011
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08:48 - If you spend any time on ebook forums, you'll frequently read complaints about the prices of ebooks from Big Six publishers. "Don't they want to sell their ebooks?", people ask.

Well, no. No, they don't. Big Publishing isn't in the business of selling books. They're in the business of selling paper books, and ebooks are a deadly threat to their business model. Big Publishing wants to kill ebooks, and they're doing everything they can to accomplish that. Yes, it's obviously ridiculous to price ebooks at nearly the same price as the hardback, if not higher.

When Big Publishing succeeded in forcing Amazon to the agency model, they immediately increased the price of ebooks from the typical $9.99 that Amazon had been charging to $12 to $15. Until a few months ago, an ebook was typically released at that price and kept there until the paperback was available. At that point, the ebook price was usually cut to around the same price as the paperback, or perhaps a buck or two more. Since about December, Big Publishing has stopped doing that. Now, they continue to price the ebook at the original level even after the paperback has been released.

What that means, of course, is that relatively few people buy the ebook when the choice is between it and the hardback for at most a couple bucks more, and that nearly no one buys the ebook when the paperback is available for less. That, of course, is exactly the intent. Big Publishing doesn't want people to buy ebooks.

The obvious problem with this strategy is that any ebook they release is quickly available for free from numerous Internet sites. It doesn't take much technical ability to find the cracked version of the book, download it, and transfer it to one's ebook reader. As I've said repeatedly, the true value of an ebook is at most half the price of a used paperback copy. If Big Publishing released their new books as $2.99 ebooks, they'd sell a slew of them. The problem is, Big Publishing can't stay in business selling $2.99 books, even though they pay the authors only 17.5% royalties on them. Look at the numbers for a traditional hardback versus an e-book.

Traditional Hardback

$25.00 - retail price

$12.50 - revenue to publisher
$  3.75 - author royalty (15% of retail)
$  8.75 - gross margin to publisher


$  3.00 - retail price
$  2.04 - revenue to publisher
$  0.51 - author royalty (25% of revenue = 17.5% of retail)
$  1.53 - gross margin to publisher

In percentage terms, the publisher actually does a lot better on the ebook, 35% gross margin on the print book versus 51% on the ebook. But the problem is the absolute size of those numbers. The publisher makes $8.75 on the print copy versus only $1.53 on the ebook. And publishers really, really need that $8.75 to pay their outrageously high fixed costs. Just paying the rent on their New York City skyscrapers would drive them bankrupt if they had only ebook profits to sustain them.

Worse still from the publishers' point of view is that their authors are waking up to the new realities. Amazon and the other ebook vendors don't care who "publishes" the book. They offer the publisher 70% of revenue, whether that publisher is a Big Six corporation or an individual author. Authors now have a choice. They can publish through a traditional publisher and earn $0.51 on every $3 of ebook revenue, or they can publish themselves and earn $2.04 on every $3 of revenue. Guess which option is more attractive to any sane author.

In reality, the choice is even more obvious. Big Six publishers won't price ebooks at $2.99. They price them at four or five times that. You might think that's good news for authors. After all, rather than earning a $0.51 royalty on a $3 ebook they'll earn a $2.04 royalty on a $12 ebook. The problem is, a $3 ebook is likely to sell literally at least 100 times and probably 1,000 times as many copies as a $12 ebook. So, for every $2.04 an author earns with a $12 trad-pub ebook, that same trad-pub book priced at $3 would earn the author between $51 and $510. Or, more to the point, if the author self-published that book, he'd earn between $204 and $2,040 rather than $2.04.

We're starting to see signs that traditionally-published authors are starting to jump ship. In most cases, Big Publishing has them locked up. They may be under contract to deliver x number of books over the next several years. Their backlists are tied up, and Big Publishing will make very sure that their rights never revert. That's inconvenient, but it still won't stop the exodus of authors. They're still free to write new stuff and self-publish it.

And the lock-in for promised titles is illusory. Just yesterday I was reading one of the self-pub forums and one author lamented the fact that he was committed to turn in one or more books to his trad publisher over the coming year or two, so he was effectively trapped. Not so, said one of the other experienced authors on the forum. Keep the good one you're working on now and self-publish it later. To fulfill the contract, turn in a piece of crap. The publisher will reject it, obviously, but the author has met his commitment. The second author even offered the first author one of his own early efforts as a sacrificial piece of crap.

So, I think it's pretty obvious that the Big Six are doomed. They'll try hard to kill ebooks, but that train has already left the station. Economic realities say that authors (and readers) are going to win this one. There's nothing Big Publishing can do to stop the juggernaut.


Saturday, 12 March 2011
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09:29 - Someone emailed me to ask why traditional publishers wouldn't actually be better off selling more ebooks at a lower price and ending up with a 51% gross margin instead of a 35% gross margin. Good question, and the short answer is that publishers think publishing is a zero-sum game. They're used to thinking in terms of paper books, and the difference between paper and ebooks have entirely escaped them. They believe that the demand for books is pretty much fixed, and that making a $3 sale means they'll lose a $15 to $25 sale. That's absolutely true, of course, but what they ignore is that they'll make many, many more sales at $3 than they would at $15 to $25.

Traditional publishers typically have 4% profit margins. That is, on that $25 list price book, they actually receive $12.50, of which 4% or $0.50 is profit. The remainder goes to pay staff salaries and other overhead costs, not to mention paying for unprofitable books and author advances that don't earn out. That means that of their $8.75 in gross margin, $8.25 goes to pay expenses, and they've come to think of that amount as the "cost" of publishing each book. Obviously, if they sell books for $3.00 with a $1.53 gross margin, they're going to go bankrupt quickly. That's because they don't understand that people who read ebooks buy a lot more books. According to Amazon, which is in a position to know, their customers buy more than three times as many books after they buy a Kindle as they did before. When you knock out the paper-specific costs (printing, distribution, and so on) they'd actually be much better off selling three times as many ebooks at a much lower price. But of course that also kills their print book business completely dead. That scares them so badly that they're willing to do anything to kill ebooks.

I'll give you another example. Amazon and other vendors actually pay different royalty percentages depending on the price of the ebook. Amazon pays 70% (after a small e-delivery charge, typically $0.06 per book) on ebooks priced between $2.99 and $9.99. On books priced at $2.98 or less or $10.00 or more, Amazon pays a straight 35%, without any delivery charge. So, take a look at the price of ebooks from traditional publishers on Amazon. You'll see a ton of them priced from (literally) $10.00 to $15 or more.

Take that $10.00 book as an example. If the publisher had priced it at $9.99, they'd receive [($9.99 - $0.06) * 0.7] = $6.95 in revenue. By increasing the price by one cent, they change the calculation to ($10.00 * 0.35) = $3.50. Even if they price the book at $15.00, they're making only ($15.00 * 0.35) = $5.25 in revenue. So, why would any sane publisher price the book at $10 or even $15 rather than $9.99? Because the publishers still, incredibly, think $9.99 is a "bargain" price that cannibalizes sales of their hardbacks. They're actually willing to take half as much revenue in order to increase the price from $9.99 to $10.00, because $10.00 gets them into double figures. Incredible, but true.

And a real problem for the publishers is becoming obvious. Some book buyers did consider $9.99 a bargain price, but that was last year. This year, $9.99 is considered a rip-off by a large and rapidly increasing percentage of readers. People are making the obvious choice. Is a $15 ebook really 15 times better than a $0.99 ebook? Some of them, sure. There're a lot of $0.99 ebooks that are complete garbage. (Of course, there are also more than a few $15 ebooks that are also complete garbage.) Readers are discovering that there are a ton of ebooks priced at $0.99 to $2.99 that are as good or better than the $12 and $15 ebooks from traditional publishers. You can see that in the Amazon.com bestseller lists.  A few months ago, they were almost entirely populated by ebooks from traditional publishers. As of now, self-pubbed ebooks are claiming close to half the positions. Six months from now, unless traditional publishers suddenly wake up to reality and start pricing their ebooks in the $2.99 range, self-pubbed titles at $0.99 to $2.99 are likely to claim most or all of the bestselling slots. Ebooks priced at $12 or $15 will sink without a trace.

A big part of the reason that ebook owners buy more books is availability. I'll use Barbara and me as examples. In the past, we might browse the shelves at the library or a bookstore, new or used, and notice a book we thought might be interesting. So we buy it and take it home. I read it and like it, and tell Barbara I think she'd like it. What's the next thing we want? The rest of the titles in the series. I just read, say, #8, but Barbara really, really prefers to read a series in order. Of the eight titles in the series, only two others, #6 and #7, are still in print. The library has #2 and #4. The only way to get #1, #3, and #5 is to look at used book stores or on-line used book sellers. So we track down those titles, order the ones the library doesn't have, and wait for them to arrive. When they arrive, we both read #1. We try to get #2 and #4 from the library, but it owns only one copy of each, and that copy hasn't been returned. It may come back tomorrow, in six months, or never. (That's why, in reality, we wouldn't have ordered just #1, #3, and #5; we'd have ordered all of the titles.)

Contrast that with ebooks. For the traditional publishers, the situation isn't a lot different, because most of them haven't published all or even most of their backlists and probably never will. We're still stuck finding those on our own. We'd buy them if they were available at a reasonable price, but they either aren't available at all or are priced outrageously high. For self-pubbed authors, it's the difference between night and day. If, for example, Barbara wanted to give Amanda Hocking a try, she could order the first book in each of her series for $0.99. If she liked those, she could with one click each buy each of Hocking's other books for $0.99 to $2.99 each. Total time needed is less than a minute (versus hours old-style); total cost is about $20 (versus $50 to $100 or more old-style); total wait time is literally seconds (versus anything from days to literally months old-style).

Someone posted on the forums yesterday that he was considering buying a Kindle but was concerned that he wouldn't be able to find enough good indie books to keep him happy. He didn't want to pay $12 or $15 a copy for ebooks from traditional publishers. I told him that he could do what a lot of other people do: visit Pirate Bay and search for Kindle. Set his bittorrent client to 0 Kb/s upload speed. (IIUC, it's not illegal to download copyright material as long as you don't upload it.) Download two files, one of which is titled something like "2500 Five-Star Ebooks for Kindle" and the other simply "Kindle". The latter has something like 976 titles. There's some overlap between the files, and a fair amount of public domain stuff like Shakespeare, but there are probably 3,000+ current ebooks in those files, most of them from traditional publishers and many of them recent.

He now has his security blanket and can start looking at indie books priced from $0 to $2.99. My guess is that he'll find enough indie stuff he likes that he'll never even bother to read even a tiny fraction of the stuff from the torrent files. In the not quite two months since I got my Kindle, I've read 40 or 50 ebooks, all of which I purchased legally in the $0 to $2.99 range, and the vast majority of which were in the $0 to $0.99 range. Most recently, I read Joe Konrath's $0.99 book, The List, and I'll probably buy more of his $0.99 to $2.99 titles. There's lots of good stuff out there at little to no cost.

Incidentally, speaking of the effect of price on sales volume, The List is one of Konrath's early books. He's had it available in the Kindle store for a long time, priced at $2.99. It was consistently selling an average of 40 copies a day, which was earning Konrath $81.60 per day. On 15 March he cut the price to $0.99. The List is now selling 1,000 copies/day consistently, earning Konrath $350 per day. So, dropping the price from $2.99 to $0.99 increased sales by a factor of 25 times and more than quadrupled Konrath's royalty earnings. It's no wonder that Konrath is seriously considering cutting the price of all his titles to $0.99. Basically, the vast majority of people have no brains. So, if you cut your prices to $0.99 and make buying your book a no-brainer, you greatly expand your potential market.


Sunday, 13 March 2011
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10:28 - When Barbara and I awoke to news of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, the magnitude of the disaster at least seemed tempered by the limited loss of life, which at the time was a few hundred. This morning, we read that there are now 1,200 known dead, that one Japanese police source says the total is more than 10,000, and that another says the total will be in the tens of thousands. Hundreds of thousands more are without water, food, heat, or shelter. The Japanese emergency services infrastructure is obviously overwhelmed, but at least international help has arrived or is on the way from the usual suspects: the US, Australia, Canada, the UK and others in Western Europe, and Scandinavia.

Given the poor quality of news reporting, the nuclear plant situation is unclear at best. It seems there has been no large-scale radiation release, but news reports continue to talk about possible full meltdowns. It's impossible to know if that is actually likely to occur or simply ignorant reporters projecting their own fears. One thing is clear. This is not another Chernobyl situation developing. It may be another Three Mile Island.

Barbara read and liked the Twilight series, so I asked her yesterday if she'd mind sampling Amanda Hocking's first book. She read the first 16% of it--about 15.8 cents worth--and said that Hocking is indeed a good writer. She prefers Twilight, but said Hocking's stuff is definitely worth reading.


Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 by Robert Bruce Thompson. All Rights Reserved.