Saturday, 24 September 2011

11:08 – I installed Zen Cart yesterday, and spent some time playing around with it. It’s an e-commerce/shopping-cart package, and it reminds me a great deal of the hosted e-commerce package that Maker Shed uses. Which is to say that I have no clue how it works in terms of setup and administration. I don’t intend to bring up a storefront right away, but I figured it was time to dip my toe in the water. Zen Cart is free (as in speech and beer), and it appears to have more than enough capability to do anything I’d want to do in the foreseeable future. Critically, it appears to work seamlessly with PayPal, which will allow me to accept credit cards without having to establish a merchant account or worry about keeping people’s credit card information secure, since I’ll never see it.

I got a delivery from one of my wholesalers yesterday that includes most of what I need to assemble a dozen biology kits. Over the next couple of weeks I’ll spend some time doing what amounts to a 3D jigsaw puzzle, trying to figure out what size box to use for the kits.

For the chemistry kits, I use Priority Mail large flat-rate boxes, which cost about $15 to ship whether the destination is next door or in Alaska or Hawaii. Those boxes have a weight limit of 70 pounds (~ 32 kilos), which is much more than the kits weigh. But USPS also offers regional-rate boxes, which cost anything from about the same as flat-rate boxes to several dollars less to ship, depending on destination zip code. They’re limited to 20 pounds, which isn’t a problem for the biology kits.

The problem is, there’s a size difference. The large flat-rate boxes are 12″ x 12″ 5-1/2″, or 792 cubic inches (about 13 liters). The large regional-rate boxes are 12-1/4″ x 10-1/2″ x 5-1/2″, or 707 cubic inches (about 11.6 liters). The chemistry kits as currently packaged simply won’t fit the smaller regional-rate box, but the biology kits might. In fact, to keep the price down, I may make some changes in the contents of the kits, if necessary to fit the box. Any changes I make won’t compromise the utility of the kits, but it’s often possible to make substitutions that provide equivalent functionality but fit the jigsaw puzzle better.

Once of those changes will be in chemical packaging. The chemistry kits currently use a styrofoam block that contains 44 15-mL PP centrifuge tubes. The six vacant positions in the block are filled with glass test tubes for protection during shipping. For the biology kits (and eventually for the chemistry kits) I’m going to substitute a mix of plastic dropper bottles for liquid chemicals, wide-mouth plastic “pharma packer” bottles for most solid chemicals, and coin envelopes for some items such as tablets, seeds, and so on. The bottles are actually significantly more expensive than the centrifuge tubes (which aren’t cheap to begin with), but they’re also easier and quicker to fill and seal. The coin envelopes are much cheaper than tubes or bottles, typically three to eight cents each, depending on size and type.

Of course, that leaves me with the question of how to pack test tubes for the biology kit. If I don’t have the foam block to protect them, the obvious answer is to wrap the half-dozen test tubes in bubble wrap. Doing that is time-consuming, and it also yields a bulky component that would have to be fitted into the 3D matrix. It occurred to me that I could bump the number of 50 mL PP centrifuge tubes included in the kit from four to six, and pack each glass test tube in a 50 mL centrifuge tube. That bumps my total cubic for 50 mL centrifuge tubes from about 0.2 liters to about 0.3 liters, but reduces the cubic by the volume that would otherwise have been needed for the bubble-wrapped test tubes.

As usual, solving one problem creates another. I have been using 15×125 mm glass test tubes in the chemistry kit, but those are too long to fit into 50 mL centrifuge tubes. So, part of what’s in that order that showed up yesterday is a couple gross of 16×100 mm glass test tubes, which do fit into the 50 mL centrifuge tubes.

One thing about starting a small business is that it’s forced me to learn to deal with details, which is not my strong suit. Well, it is when I’m writing or working in the lab, but not in my personal life. Running a small business, especially what amounts to a small manufacturing business, leaves no option but to deal with details. I’m doing it, but I’m still not very good at it.

14 Comments and discussion on "Saturday, 24 September 2011"

  1. brad says:

    Just as yet another alternative: at one point I needed to recommend a simple-but-useful CMS that also offered a shop module. One of the better options I found is a CMS called “Website Baker”, which has a shop module called (IIRC) “Bakery”. At the time (this was a couple of years ago), this was a very streamlined, no-frills package.

  2. MrAtoz says:


    You really need an intern. A low cost young person who wants to learn from you by “taking care of the details” while learning what it is you do. Like walking the dog (I know you love to do that yourself) when you are super busy in the lab. Perhaps someone that deserves your mentorship. Son/daughter of a close friend maybe.

  3. Miles_Teg says:

    Mr Atoz, I’ve already suggested that many times. He’s not buying.

    RBT wrote:

    “it appears to work seamlessly with PayPal, which will allow me to accept credit cards without having to establish a merchant account or worry about keeping people’s credit card information secure, since I’ll never see it.”

    Does PayPal take a larger commission that the cards?

  4. Robert Bruce Thompson says:

    I’ve thought about an intern, but I really, really want to avoid hiring any employees as long as possible. And from what I’ve seen most companies that hire “interns” are usually just looking for a way to get work out of people without paying them, or at least paying them much less than the going rate for the work they’re doing. Very seldom are internships set up to allow the intern to learn anything useful, other than perhaps that being an intern is a stupid thing to do. If I hire someone, I’ll pay that person what he or she is worth to me.

    As to merchant accounts, it’s typically expensive and a pain in the butt to get one set up. And then you end up paying high transaction fees and percentages unless your volume is pretty high. At this point, it’s actually cheaper not to mention a lot more convenient to just let PayPal handle the transactions. On a $150 kit, I pay a bit less than $5 to PayPal, which is probably less than I’d end up paying per transaction if I had a merchant account, not to mention the overhead costs and hassles of having one.

  5. BGrigg says:

    Ah, but hiring a young kid for part time work could be a boon for you and a huge benefit for the kid, who gets to put Chemical Facilities Management on their resume.

  6. Steve says:

    Interesting flowchart of possibilities for the Greek debt resolution:

    Note that every possible combination of choices ends up bad for Greece. They also all end up bad for the Euro and Germany.

  7. Steve says:

    Super-cheap and easy credit card merchant account is from Square (
    I had a real credit service account for 15 years.. just changed over to Square. Fees are about the same, actually, but a lot less hassle and they don’t harass me with fees like my old system.
    The Square system is built for swiping physical cards, but I simply type in the CC numbers since all my orders are online. You still need a phone or tablet app for it.. no web page version.

  8. Miles_Teg says:

    Has anyone been following this case closely:

    It’s been around forever but I don’t know enough to say whether she was framed or is guilty…

  9. brad says:

    I wasn’t familiar with the case, but I just read the Wikipedia entry. The accused woman, an American visiting England, was interrogated in Italian? With no record of or neutral witnesses to this interrogation, except a confession she signed – again in Italian? Very strange indeed.

    Do you have further information and/or opinions?

  10. Don Armstrong says:

    “Has anyone been following this case closely”.

    I’ve watched it, but not closely. It certainly reads a if she could be being framed, or at least with the prosecution digging their heels in, stubbornly sticking to a theory and refusing to listen to contrary facts disproving their theories and proving her innocence. But then again it could be true, and she could be guilty as sin and brazen as brass.

    I don’t know.

    I expect this sort of thing, victimising the innocent, in Asia – we foreigners (and presumably locals as well) are routinely rail-roaded by corrupt police in Indonesia and Thailand. Often innocent, often guilty, but rail-roaded in any case. I cannot imagine anyone of any sense any longer indulging in the traditional Bali or Phuket holiday – that’s just sitting up and begging for trouble.

    I’d hope for better in the traditional European nations, but in this case it’s not clear that Italy is doing any better.

  11. brad says:

    Ah, I see I skimmed the article too fast – it happened in Italy, which explains the Italian. One point I found odd: she says that she was beaten during the interrogation (of which there is no recording, and to which there were apparently no neutral witnesses). The Italian response is to now charge her with slander. That seems, at best, completely petty.

  12. Don Armstrong says:

    One further comment. I made the same point decades ago, when I was discussing the Lindy Chamberlain case with a group of drinking buddies. They were of the “hang her high, obviously guilty because she’s not only strongly Christian, but from a sect” persuasion. My comment was that I didn’t know all the facts, and I was glad I didn’t have to make the jury’s decision.

    So, again, I don’t know all the facts, and I’m glad I don’t have to make the jury’s decision.

    However, a comment: European law doesn’t run as British justice does.
    We tend to think that in Knox’s case her guilt has obviously not been established beyond all reasonable doubt. The European law tends more towards our civil law, and only wants “balance of probability”. They tend to decide on the basis of “looks like she mighta dunnit”, whereas our expectation, the way we decide, is on the basis of “looks like she might maybe notta dunnit”.
    Our basis is that “better ten guilty men go free than that one innocent man be convicted”.
    Their’s is basically that Hannibal Lecter should never get a second chance at more victims. That’s great for the potential victims, but it’s damned hard on the falsely accused, and it gives a scary amount of power to stubborn or bent cops – of which there are a lot in this world.

  13. Robert Bruce Thompson says:

    I made the same points when this case first hit the news. As I said to Barbara, based on this girl’s published comments, she is either entirely innocent or a psychopath. I suspect the former, but I certainly wouldn’t rule out the latter.

    European standards for protection of the innocent are certainly better than those of many countries, but are nowhere near those of Australia/Canada/NZ/UK/US. We often forget just how lucky we are to live under systems based on English common law until situations like this arise.

  14. Miles_Teg says:

    Well, I’ve read most of the Wikipedia article and two things come to mind. First, there was plenty of theorising, some of it quite imaginative, and secondly that there wasn’t enough evidence to convict Knox and Sollecito of jaywalking, let alone murder. I’m not saying she’s innocent, just that the investigation and prosecution seems to have been very unprofessional.

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