Month: December 2011

Sunday, 11 December 2011

09:35 – I just shipped my first kit using the on-line USPS Click-N-Ship. Well, technically it’s not shipped yet, but it is queued for pick-up by the USPS. I was surprised to see that today was among the options available for ship date. I wonder if the USPS actually has people driving around on Sunday picking up boxes to be shipped. We’ll see.

I follow the Well-Trained Minds forum, which is one of the largest homeschool forums. I was amused yesterday when a woman posted a query about which holster would be best for her for concealed carry, knowing how some of the forum members would react.

I wasn’t disappointed. Many responders, including me, posted responses that tried to help her but, as I expected, the anti-gun folks were also out in force. There are many forum members who live in Canada, Europe, Australia, and other places that aren’t gun-friendly, and they simply don’t get it. Some of them were horrified by the idea of a private individual carrying a concealed pistol, but many were simply puzzled why anyone would want to. Most responses to that question were the same as I use: for the same reason I carry a spare tire and fire insurance on my house. I don’t expect to need any of those, but I’d rather be prepared.

What amused me was the number of people who responded something like, “Well, no one around here except the police carries concealed weapons” or “no one I know carries a concealed weapon”. Yeah, right. Other than Illinois and DC, which have no concealed-carry permits (and where many people simply carry anyway), essentially everyone who lives in the US knows many people who carry concealed–they just aren’t aware that those people do so. Here in Winston-Salem, I’d estimate that about 1 out of every 15 to 20 adults you pass on the street or in the mall carries concealed, many of them with permits, but many without. And, as some posters on the WTM forums commented, that makes me feel more secure, because most of those armed people are Good Guys. If some lunatic starts shooting the place up, there’s at least a reasonable chance that they’ll encounter someone who can shoot back. And, as they say, when seconds count, the cops are only minutes away.

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Saturday, 10 December 2011

09:22 – Well, this latest summit was widely considered to be the last chance to save the EU and the euro. Instead of concentrating on the immediate crisis and coming up with measures to address it, the participants focused on how to avoid future crises, doing essentially nothing to deal with the current mess. They fooled no one, nor was their attempt to make the UK the scapegoat successful.

Nor was there any sign of their so-called “big bazooka”. I was about to say “stupidly-named big bazooka”, but in fact it’s well-named when you think about it. Ordinarily in a situation like this, people talk about bringing out “the artillery”, crew-served weapons that fire large and effective charges. A bazooka was a personal weapon that fired a small and usually ineffective charge, which makes the comparison exact with what the EU had done to date. They’ve essentially lined up to piss on a 5-alarm fire, and nothing decided at this most recent summit changes that.

One of the reasons we redesigned the latest batch of chemistry kits was to allow them to fit into a USPS priority mail large regional-rate box rather than the priority mail large flat-rate box we’d been using. The large regional-rate box is just enough smaller than the large flat-rate box that the earlier version of the kit wouldn’t fit.

The upside to the change is that we expected it to reduce shipping costs. The large flat-rate box costs $14.95 to ship anywhere in the US, including Alaska and Hawaii. The large regional-rate box costs anything from $5.81 to $14.62, depending on the destination.

So, yesterday I drove out to the post office to mail the first batch of the kits in regional-rate boxes. When I got to the counter, the guy told me that the USPS didn’t offer counter service for regional-rate boxes. He could still ship them, but he’d have to charge me standard priority mail rates according to the weights and destinations of the boxes. If I wanted the regional-rate postage rates, I had to generate the label on-line with postage. Crap. I’d never been able to get the USPS Click-N-Ship web site to produce a label. When I tried to produce a test label, the site just went into an endless loop.

After he weighed the boxes and told me the postage cost for each, I told him I didn’t have any alternative, so to go ahead and ship them. The postage costs were all over the place, but all were higher than they would have been for regional-rate. For example, one box going to Pennsylvania would have been $6.88 under regional-rate postage but ended up costing $10.95 under standard priority mail rates. Another, going to New Jersey, would have been $8.06 regional rate, but cost $12.40 at standard PM rates. Another, going to New Hampshire, would have been $10.51 regional rate, but ended up costing $17.45, which is actually more than the large flat-rate box would have cost. And so on.

I drove home fuming, because I’d seen nothing anywhere on the USPS site that mentioned that local post offices don’t accept regional-rate boxes at regional-rate postage rates. So I spent a while looking around the USPS site, and finally found one place where it does mention that. Otherwise, I’d have fired off a nasty email to the Postmaster General. I may do that anyway, because the notice is extremely easy to overlook. Most people who’d used Priority Mail flat-rate boxes would probably assume, as I did, that if the USPS accepted flat-rate boxes at the counter they’d also accept regional-rate boxes.

But the story does have a happy ending. I’ve made my last trip to the post office. While I was on the USPS site, I decided to try once more printing a sample Click-N-Ship label. This time it worked. Apparently, even though I had the latest available Linux version of Adobe Reader installed, it wasn’t compatible with the USPS web site. I got rid of Adobe Reader and just used a native Linux PDF reader, which worked fine.

So, no more carrying boxes out to the post office to ship them. USPS will pick them up at my front door. Printing labels and postage on-line also provides a discount over the rates charged at the counter, even for flat-rate stuff, and they include delivery confirmation for free. It’s a no-brainer to use the on-line service, and I would have been using it all along if I’d been able to get it to work.

With the USPS pushing so hard to get people to buy postage and print labels on-line, I have to wonder if this is part of a larger plan eventually to eliminate local branch offices. When you think about it, there’s not really much need for them, and they are extremely expensive to operate both in terms of staffing and facilities costs. There are all kinds of places that rent PO boxes. You can buy stamps at Costco. A huge percentage of mail volume comes from corporate mailers, who don’t need the services provided by local branches. Closing all of those local branches and firing the staff would go a long way toward putting the USPS on a sound financial footing.

10:47 – The Open/Libre Office standard dictionary never ceases to surprise me with what’s included and what’s not. As I write the biology book, I’ve had to add a large number of pretty common scientific terms to the dictionary, so I’ve gotten used to it. But today I typed the phrase “monocotyledonous or dicotyledonous”, fully expecting to see squiggly red underlines for both words. Nope. Both were already in the standard dictionary.

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Friday, 9 December 2011

07:52 – The EU summit has already ended in disaster, with the main Friday meeting having just gotten underway. Late last night, it was announced that UK PM David Cameron had, unexpectedly, proven that he possesses a backbone. Cameron vetoed Merkozy’s plan to federalize the EU and thereby eliminate the sovereignty of member nations.

Merkozy are trying to make the best of this fundamental split, claiming that because the 17 euro nations and some of the non-euro EU members agreed to form a “super eurozone”, they have achieved their goal. They’re wrong, of course, because their plans depend upon this clique having its decisions enforced by institutions that belong to the entire EU, including the UK. And the UK maintains a veto over such actions.

This summit is just like all the others have been, with grand plans being announced for the future, but without any details about how they’re to be approved by national legislatures, implemented, and, more importantly, paid for. More of the same, in other words. And more of the same just isn’t going to cut it. I expect the markets to be delighted, as usual, for a few days, after which reality will set in and the downward spiral will continue. Of course, this time S&P has already announced that if the summit doesn’t take concrete and effective steps to resolve the crisis, S&P may carry out its threatened downgrades of ratings on the sovereign debt of the entire EU, possibly as early as tomorrow. And nothing coming out of this summit is likely to satisfy S&P, or indeed anyone with a realistic view of the matter. We’ll see what happens.

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Thursday, 8 December 2011

10:43 – Still working heads-down, writing, shooting images, and doing lab work. I have about 8.5 weeks left to get this book finished, and I’ll use every minute of it.

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Wednesday, 7 December 2011

09:25 – The 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. Those of us too young to remember Pearl Harbor had difficulty understanding the hatred for the Japanese that atrocity caused among Americans. My dad never fought in the Pacific. He was a navigator on a B-17 and flew many missions over Germany, with Germans trying to kill him the whole time. And yet he never had any hatred for the Germans, even at the time. He bought German-made products, including an automobile, and thought nothing of it. But he never bought Japanese products. I finally came to understand how my parents’ generation felt about Japan ten years ago, on 9/11.

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Tuesday, 6 December 2011

08:17 – I see that S&P has belatedly noticed that all 15 eurozone countries that don’t already have junk ratings should be downgraded, including Germany. The problem is, S&P is under immense political pressure, and so will probably downgrade these countries by only one or two notches. The reality, of course, is that there’s not a country in the eurozone that should have a rating in the investment-grade range. Back on 25 November, I posted my suggestions for accurate ratings for the eurozone countries. We’ll see how close S&P comes to reality when they finally get around to cutting these ratings.

We have all the subassemblies ready to make up a new batch of chemistry kits, so it’s just a matter of getting them boxed up and ready to ship. I have a bunch of backorders to fill, and intend to ship all of those Friday.

Work on the biology book continues. Right now, I’m working on a lab session about the root, stem, and leaf structures of seed plants, with another session about reproductive structures in the on-deck circle.

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Monday, 5 December 2011

08:52 – Costco run and dinner yesterday with Mary and Paul. It was a nice break. Barbara and I had just finished building the final sub-assemblies for a new batch of chemistry kits, which’ll start shipping this week.

11:51 – I started the morning intending to write all day, but as usual I got sidetracked. I was writing a lab session that involved germinating carrot seeds, and I realized I might as well include carrot seeds in the kit. So, I went off in search of on-line wholesale seed vendors.

Now, carrot seeds are tiny, really tiny. Maybe an average of a milligram each, literally. Incredibly, one place was selling carrot seeds by number rather than weight. I could have ordered, 10,000, 50,000, 100,000, or 325,000 carrot seeds. Do they really count them, I wonder? Perhaps they count out a thousand, weigh them on a milligram-class analytical balance and then fill containers by mass.

At any rate, I found a place that looked to be a good source, and put half a pound (~225 g, or something like 200,000+ seeds) in my shopping cart. Then I got to thinking. I also need bush lima bean seeds for another lab, so I looked at that company’s offerings and added a pound (454 g) of bush lima seeds to my cart. But the lab with the lima beans also requires rhizobium inoculum, which this company didn’t offer. So I put my order on hold and went off to find another company that offered the rhizobium, thinking it might also have the seeds I needed. It did, but their prices were much higher, so I went ahead and completed the order with the first company.

Ah, but not all rhizobium inoculum is the same. Some works with clover or alfalfa, but not lima beans, or vice versa. In fact, there are a bunch of different varieties of rhizobium, each of which is optimized for a particular species or group of species, and works poorly if at all with other species. So I called the second company to tell them I needed a rhizobium inoculum to use with bush limas. They told me which of their products were suitable, so I placed my second order of the morning.

Of course, it’s not worth jumping through hoops to get wholesale prices, tax exemptions, etc. for small quantities, so I just put the orders on credit cards. But despite the fact that these were charged as “personal” purchases, they are of course actually business purchases. So that meant I had to go back and generate and print purchase orders and invoices for both orders so I didn’t lose track of them.

At least I’m finally back to writing.

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Sunday, 4 December 2011

09:55 – We’re back in stock on the chemistry kits, or at least we will be after Barbara finishes building the final subassembly this afternoon. We’ll start shipping backorders this week.

I finished up the lab session on mosses and ferns yesterday except for a few end-of-session questions, which I’ll do today. Then I’ll get started with a lab session or two on seed plants, probably leading off with gymnosperms and then segueing into angiosperms and monocot versus dicot structures. I hope to finish up plants this week or early next, and then move along to invertebrates (which is where I was thinking about dissecting a politician). By around the 26th I should be getting started on chordates.

And I see that there’s another failed EU summit scheduled for later this week. As usual, Merkozy are talking past each other. Sarkozy honestly believes that Merkel is going to open the German coffers and accept Eurobonds and an interventionist ECB, which she isn’t going to do. Merkel honestly believes that Sarkozy is going to yield French sovereignty over taxing and spending to German control, which he isn’t going to do. So the outcome is predictable. They’ll meet, argue, make zero significant progress, and then announce that they’ve agreed a comprehensive solution, when in fact they’ve agreed on nothing that matters. The markets will rejoice for a few days, believing that a real solution has been reached, until they realize that it’s the same-old-same-old. Eventually, Germany will probably announce that it intends to invade France, and France will surrender. Same-old-same-old.

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Saturday, 3 December 2011

08:26 – I’m still cranking away on the biology book, still in the plants group. I hope to finish the lab session on mosses and ferns today and get started on one about gymnosperms and angiosperms. After that I’ll move along to the next group, invertebrates, and do two or three lab sessions for that group, then some lab sessions for the chordates group, and finally some lab sessions on the human body. Once I finish all that, I’ll jump back and start filling in additional lab sessions in the groups I’ve already populated to fill the available time.

The drop-dead deadline for the book is 31 January, so I’ll continue knocking out new stuff until about 24 January. That leaves me a week or so to do a final run-through, incorporating comments from tech reviewers, rewriting as necessary, adding more images, and so on. At that point, it’s ready to go to production, although of course I’ll continue making changes through the editing process. At some point, Brian Jepson, my editor, will have to drag the manuscript away from me, despite my kicking and screaming. At that point, I’ll wave good-bye to the book, take a day or two off, and then start work on the forensics manual and kit.

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Friday, 2 December 2011

07:54 – Barbara seemed to like her Petri dishes and Eppie tubes. She asked me to put them somewhere safe and keep them for her.

The drop-dead deadline on the book is 31 January, so for the next two months I’ll be working heads-down on the book. It’s shaping up well, but a lot remains to be done.

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