Friday, 5 October 2012

08:21 – Barbara took today off work to get some stuff done around the house and yard. This afternoon, she’ll start labeling a thousand or so containers for the new batch of biology kits. I’ll be making up solutions to fill the bottles.

Yesterday, I commented, “Unfortunately, I had no idea if we had any DEET and, if so, where it was. The first thought that crossed my mind, of course, was “I wonder how difficult this stuff is to synthesize.”” A lot of people thought I was kidding, but I was serious. It’s a generational thing.

Our friend Paul Jones is a professor of organic chemistry at Wake Forest University, and is half a generation younger than we are. I suspect that most or all of the time Paul needs a chemical for one of his classes, he just orders it from Sigma or Fisher or Alfa. It didn’t used to be that way. When I started undergraduate chemistry in 1971, the chemistry department ordered a lot of the chemicals they needed, but they also made a lot of them, often liters or kilograms at a time. In fact, it wasn’t unusual for rising junior and senior chemistry majors to have summer jobs at the college. They’d spend the summer doing syntheses. For many of the chemicals, it a lot cheaper to make them rather than buying them, even assuming that they were commercially available. That wasn’t always the case.

I remember talking to one of my chemistry professors, who would have been in his late 50’s at the time. He started off on the “you kids don’t appreciate how easy you have it nowadays” thing. When he was in undergrad chemistry in the 1930’s, he worked summers at the college synthesizing the chemicals they’d need for the following year. He said that about the only thing they bought was common precursors like acids and simple organics. Everything else, they made.

So, yeah, I was serious. My first thought really was, “I wonder how difficult this stuff is to synthesize.”

Speaking of which, I spent some time on the phone yesterday with John Farrell Kuhns, the owner of H.M.S. Beagle, a full-range home science supplies vendor in Kansas City. Among many other goodies, John carries a huge selection of raw chemicals, something like 700+ chemicals at last count. I was telling him that Barbara and I were about to start making up chemicals for a new batch of biology kits, and he commented that sometimes it seemed that he did nothing else all day long except label and fill chemical bottles. Tell me about it.

15:28 – Barbara is labeling bottles while she watches Felicity on Netflix streaming. She started by labeling 15 sets each for the substitute chemicals we ship with the Canadian versions of the chemistry and biology kits, and then got started on 30 sets each of the 15 mL bottles for the US biology kits. She works with a sheet of labels in front of her, a large box of unlabeled bottles on one side of her, and a labeled plastic bag to receive the labeled bottles on the other side of her. She said a few minutes ago that she was running short of the 15 mL bottles, so I went back to the stock room to refill her supply box. When I told her that I’d had to open the next-to-last case of 1,100 of those bottles, she commented that it was time to re-order. Which it will be soon. Those 2,200 bottles are roughly 80 to 100 kits worth, depending on the kit. And as I was refilling her box of unlabeled bottles, it occurred to me that I’d never imagined that I’d ever think that having only 2,200 new 15 mL bottles would constitute a shortage, or that I’d ever be transferring such bottles with a large scoop.

16:03 – So, Barbara is sitting in the den labeling bottles and watching Felicity. For those of you fortunate enough never to have seen this TV series, it’s about a bunch of whiny, obnoxious college students. The women are women, and the men are women too. So, I can hear the audio from my office. The students are sitting in a chemistry lecture, and the professor says, and I quote, “There are three main aspects to stereochemistry: chirality, handedness, and symmetry.” Say what? I shouted in to Barbara that chirality and handedness are synonyms. She thanked me. Thinking perhaps I could help her decipher the plot, such as it is, I then shouted in, “That guy’s not really a chemistry professor; he’s just pretending to be one.” “He’s an actor,” she replied. As though that’s an excuse for reciting garbage lines.

And, speaking of men being men, I saw an article about Zuckerberg the other day that mentioned that he wears the same thing every day, a gray t-shirt, of which he owns about 20 identical ones. He also mentioned that he has one drawer, “like men everywhere.” Ain’t that the truth? I mentioned the article to Barbara, who said she’d already read it and, of course, thought of me.

32 Comments and discussion on "Friday, 5 October 2012"

  1. Bob: Thanks for the mention. Last night was one of the first evenings that I didn’t fill chemicals in my lab. I was anxiously waiting for a call, e-mail or text message from my collegues in Make: KC as to how they did in the “Raise the Bar” competition. So far I have heard nothing. The Beagle contributed a Graham condenser, a Soxhlet extractor body and delivery tip (all 24/40 joints) to receive the Dickel whiskey as it was pumped from the homemade peristaltic pump (made with LASER-cut plywood). The Beagle, of course, supplied some of the workspace for the crew that designed and built the bar. I can’t wait to see the completed bar; it was designed in a steampumk theme.

  2. Miles_Teg says:

    “I was telling him that Barbara and I were about to start making up chemicals for a new batch of biology kits, and he commented that sometimes it seemed that he did nothing else all day long except label and fill chemical bottles. Tell me about it.”

    Outsource it!. Seriously! That’s what smart teenagers are for.

  3. Miles_Teg says:

    “And, speaking of men being men, I saw an article about Zuckerberg the other day that mentioned that he wears the same thing every day, a gray t-shirt, of which he owns about 20 identical ones.”

    I worked with a chap in the early Eighties who wore the same t-shirt to work every day for a week. One of the woman at work noticed it. I always assumed that it was the same t-shirt each day, and thought “what a grot, even I wouldn’t do that.” But perhaps he had a draw full of those t-shirts, we’ll never know. (Or perhaps she was going on the smell or dirtiness of the t-shirt.) I have a number of shirts that are identical but I avoid wearing them on consecutive days. I do have a small amount of pride about that sort of stuff.

  4. SteveF says:

    Miles_Teg, perhaps the laws and regulations and taxes and fees are different in Downunderland, but here in the Land of the Fee there is a huge jump in paperwork and regulations and fees once you take on your first non-family employee. And you often can’t even avoid that nonsense by contracting out the work as piece-work because the regulators seem to assume the independent contractor is actually an employee and it’s up to you to prove the negative that they aren’t.

  5. Miles_Teg says:

    I don’t know the situation with employees here, but I do know I wouldn’t want any. We have a tax called Payroll Tax here, and it cuts in at some number of employees, or when the total payroll exceeds a certain amount. It really kills jobs, as employers think long and hard before exceeding those limits. There’s always talk about reducing or abolishing that tax, or raising the threshold. I’m just not interested in spending my day filling out forms for the government. I even hate doing my own tax return (due 31/10), even though I always get a nice refund.

  6. MrAtoz says:

    I also have one drawer for under clothes. But, I use those springy dividers to make sure shirts, socks and undies never touch each other. lol My wife laughs at me.

  7. Lynn McGuire says:

    Hey Miles, I just had the weirdest situation here at my business office outside Sugar Land, Texas about 5pm. A young lady with a baby rang our door bell and asked if she could use the phone. Big time British accent. I walked outside and checked everything out since we are way down a two lane country road. I then said sure, let her in and showed her how to use our phone system. She called a taxi service but they answered with “all lines busy” several times.

    I asked her where she needed to go and she said was trying to go to a hotel. She had moved here three weeks ago from Sydney, Australia and was working for a family down the road about a mile. She got into an argument with the wife and quit her job. So she just took off down this busy little road with her baby in a stroller. No shoulders on the road and lots of trucks and cars going 60 mph. She saw my business sign and walked the quarter mile down the gravel road to us.

    I told her that I knew of two hotels and explained where they were to her and said that I was more than willing to give her a ride. All this time she is trying to keep from crying. So I took her to one of the hotels about 5 miles away and dropped her off after I made sure that they had a room. She said that she did have cash, thank goodness.

    She did call the airlines to see about getting back to Sidney. They said there were no seats until Oct 31! I imagine that is coach seats.


  8. Lynn McGuire says:

    I’ve got 12 employees at the moment (including myself) and every agency in the Feds and State have got their hands in my pocket. We’ve got all kinds of insurance: health, fall down, workers comprehensive and long term disability. And then they have the audacity to send me 40 page surveys about how I run my business!

  9. CowboySlim says:

    OK, here is what they do here:
    1. Find a bilingual straw boss,
    2. Send him to go to Home Depot and bring back some workers (crimmigrants, of course),
    3. Put them in the back yard and show the boss what they are supposed to do,
    4. When the day is done, give all the money to the boss, they work for him not you.

    Don’t worry, if the authorities do not see them actively commiting a violent crime, they have no probable cause to ask them for legal residence, or other ID papers, and if the authorities don’t know who they are, you have no employees of record.


  10. SteveF says:

    Yah, the NYS Dept of Labor sent me quite a few questionnaires about many aspects of my business and especially my non-existent employees. Well, strictly speaking, since it’s a corporation I’m my own employee. And of course there was the one short-term contractor whom they considered to be an employee, at what ended up being considerable cost to me. I threw away most of the requests, but attached one of their postage-paid-by-recipient envelopes to a cinder block, then had to take the cinder block back inside and put it in a cardboard box and re-attach the envelope because the mailman said the bare block would damage their equipment. He did laugh his ass off, though, as he put the cinder block in his truck the next day.

  11. Miles_Teg says:

    Mr Atoz wrote:

    “But, I use those springy dividers to make sure shirts, socks and undies never touch each other. lol My wife laughs at me.”

    A friend of a friend used to iron his socks. Crazy eh?

  12. brad says:

    Hey, waitaminute. I have two drawers. I separate my sports stuff from my normal stuff.

    Sniff. Whimper. Does that mean I’m not a real man?

  13. bgrigg says:

    You were until you whimpered…

    I have two drawers, as well, but they’re small drawers, and only have the space that one regular sized drawer has.

  14. eristicist says:

    I think it makes a lot of sense to have separate drawers for different categories of clothing. This way, you can be sure you’ve depleted all of a particular category (e.g. socks) before doing a laundry run.

    Well done on the cinder block antics, SteveF. I’m keeping the idea in mind for the next time I get mired in bureaucracy.

  15. Robert Bruce Thompson says:

    Well, far be it from me to call bullshit on so distinguished a storyteller as SteveF, so I merely point out that the USPS places a limit of 13 ounces on first-class mail, which is what a BRE is. Anything 14 ounces or heavier must go parcel post, Priority Mail, Express Mail, or another service, for none of which is a BRE valid postage.

  16. One of the things about our small business is that we’ve suffered none of government intrusion that another here complained about. We have a full-time employee (an astronomer and rocket scientist) and two part-timers (one, a high school boy and another a graduate student in geology). I work full-time and my wife works part-time (even though she has a full-time job with HHS (thanks to the stimulus)).

  17. SteveF says:

    Hmm. Well, I didn’t see the cinderblock go the full route, so maybe it got stopped at the office. The mailman accepted the boxed block into his truck (we live in a residential subdivision which is spread out enough that the mailmen drive, not walk) and laughed when he said he’d love to see their faces when they got the bill. I would think he’d know what would be acceptable and what wouldn’t. I’ll ask, the next time I happen to catch one of the mailmen during delivery.

    To loop the conversation back to an earlier discussion of USPS cost and efficiency and such, as a taxpayer I’d much prefer that we had just a few postbox sites in our subdivision, rather than a box for every house. Heck, even one site for the sixteen houses on our dead-end would let the postman drop off the day’s post in a quarter the time. Other residential areas around here do that, so it clearly doesn’t violate zoning or safety regs or whatever excuse might be given.

  18. Robert Bruce Thompson says:

    Nope. Go to the USPS site and click on the option to determine postage amount. Enter the origin and delivery zipcodes, click the radio button for a parcel (as opposed to an envelope), and enter a weight. You’ll find that as long as that weight is 13 ounces or less, the results page will list First Class as an option. If you enter 14 ounces or more, First Class is no longer an option.

    The problem with the neighborhood postboxes you suggest is that they’re really good only for envelopes and sometimes small parcels. Any medium or larger box has to be delivered to the home address anyway, and USPS delivers a lot of boxes nowadays. eBay sellers use USPS very heavily, and even UPS uses USPS to do the final mile delivery on a lot of parcels. Eliminating home delivery wouldn’t save USPS much time or money.

    What they really need to eliminate is rural free delivery. That is extraordinarily costly in terms of time and fuel and vehicle maintenance. USPS loses a lot of money on every RFD delivery. What they should do is provide free PO boxes at the nearest branch post office. Granted, they should also close a lot of rural post offices, so those who now get RFD might have drive a long way to pick up their mail.

    Of course, much as I hate to say it, they also need to eliminate Saturday delivery.

  19. SteveF says:

    Regarding residential parcel delivery, that makes sense. I hadn’t given it any thought.

    Regarding the cinder block, this happened in early-Spring (recall that I’m in upstate New York, so that means late April or early May), so the rules were probably the same as they are now. Maybe the postman just screwed up, but another thought occurs to me: he might have scammed me out of a cinder block. Given that the block had been used for something and that new 8x16x4 blocks go for a buck or so, it seems a questionable way to fund his retirement, but I can’t think of any better explanation for his going along with it. Unless he really didn’t realize that “letter” postage doesn’t cover 30-pound parcels.

  20. Robert Bruce Thompson says:

    There’s a lot of variation in how much USPS delivery people know. Those who’ve been delivery people or worked in a distribution facility for their entire careers usually don’t know much about USPS policies. Those who’ve done counter work often do.

    I once mailed a brick to a company that had been spamming me, but that was many years ago. I wrapped it in paper, taped it up, taped the BRE to the front, and dropped it in a mailbox. I have no idea what happened to it. But those old mailboxes with the pivoting openings were certainly large enough to accept parcels, so perhaps the rules have changed since then. Maybe too many people were using BREs to mail bricks.

  21. Robert Bruce Thompson says:

    And, speaking of mailing bricks, the USPS large flat-rate box (12x12x5.5″ inside) has a weight limit of 70 pounds. So that’s about 0.458 cubic foot, or about 152.7 pounds per cubic foot. The density of water is about 62 pounds per cubic foot, depending on temperature, so that box would hold only 28 or 29 pounds of water. Or, another way of looking it it, you could fill that box with material that had a density of (152.7/62) = 2.5+

    That means you could fill the box with concrete or indeed brick and it’d still be within the weight limit.

  22. Miles_Teg says:

    I have a number of draws, so I don’t have to do the washing too often. Economies of scale and all that.

  23. Lynn McGuire says:

    If the post office would just put those neighborhood mailboxes with locks everywhere, I would be happy with getting rid of rural delivery to the house or office. And my office is rural but not real rural. However, I do not want to drive to the post office every day as it is 8 miles away from us.

    I currently have 4 mailboxes on my office property and am getting ready to add 2 more when the weather cools down. My 3 neighbors behind me have their mailboxes on my property (they drive down my gravel road to get to their properties). Google maps has the wrong property pointed out here (we are the west property from the A):,+Richmond,+TX&hl=en&ll=29.535234,-95.667234&spn=0.003641,0.0036&sll=29.584206,-95.731773&sspn=0.23288,0.361176&oq=8653+fm+2759&hnear=8653+FM+2759+Rd,+Richmond,+Texas+77469&t=h&z=18

    The mail dudes (there are 2 of them) have to drive about a quarter mile down our gravel road to get to our mailbox. And UPS visits us 3 or 4 days a week also.

    BTW, both of those RFD mail dudes are contractors. They have their own cars and get paid $10/hour (according to one of them). I hope they get mileage also.

  24. SteveF says:

    Why does Toll Road Booth Road look like a dead end? Did someone make the worst placement decision since the Gov. William J. Le Petomane Thruway?

  25. Chuck W says:

    Those groups of mailboxes are officially known as “cluster boxes”. I really don’t care what happens to you folks out in the country who want to voluntarily drive long distances to pick up your mail (even a quarter mile walk is unacceptable to me); I want my mail delivered to my door and picked up from there. I don’t understand wanting to put the burden on yourself. It won’t lower your taxes. In fact, your taxes are going to go up, even if they make everybody go to the post office to pick up their mail. You are just punishing yourself, because your pocketbook will never see any savings from such a thing.

    It is like my uncle, who berates me for not having had a car for the near 10 years I was in Germany. “Only fools and poor people would not have a car,” he repeatedly derides me. Hmm. Fact is, driving into Berlin from Strausberg took 3 times as long as taking the train, and once in Berlin, good luck finding parking. Unlike US cities, there are no parking garages in central cities. A combination of surface trains, trams, and subways got me within 5 minutes walking of every job I had—and they were spread out all over Berlin from Pankow to Tempelhof and beyond. Why would I ever pay the terrific expense of owning a car—costing many, many multiples of a yearly transit pass—when it is positively not necessary and much, much slower to boot?

    Likewise, why would I ever want to walk or drive a good long distance to collect my mail, when the mailman drops it through a slot in the front wall of my house, next to the front door, and will pick up anything I put there? Besides, I can (and often am) gone for from several days to a week at a time, and do not have to bother with stopping the mail (which ALWAYS gets screwed up) and have the mail piled up to overflowing in an outside mailbox, signaling to every would-be thief in the neighborhood that no one is home?

    If you want mail savings, then cut carrier’s pay. They should make more than trash collectors? Put them on bicycles like Europe does and eliminate the expensive vehicles they drive. Our mailman in Chicago rode free on the busses. Why should we pay for Jeeps and other trucks when they can already ride public transport for free? I am looking to make life easier, not harder.

  26. Lynn McGuire says:

    BTW, our “cluster” mailboxes are just a bunch of mailboxes sitting on a 4×4 rail. No security at all.

  27. bgrigg says:


    Mail carriers should get equal pay to garbage collectors. One brings the trash, one carries it away. Same job, really.

  28. MrAtoz says:

    Most new neighborhoods have cluster fucks, er, boxes anyway.

  29. Lynn McGuire says:

    I do not know why google maps calls that road “toll road booth road”. It is a private road of which I own (the gravel and the potholes) the first 1500 ft of. I tried to give it to the county but they will not take it without a 6″ base, 6″ concrete, curbs and ditches. It is the road to nowhere except my neighbors living behind my office space.

    I am with Bob, I think that USPS should install those cluster mailboxes all over the place and assign a lockable slot to us. That is what I have at my home (a house built in 1994).

    BTW, there is no public transportation in Fort Bend County. As the young lady proved yesterday, you cannot even get a taxi to come get you out here. And this is a county of 650,000 people.

  30. Miles_Teg says:

    Wow, that must have been a hell of an argument to just walk out like that.

  31. Roy Harvey says:

    Chuck, if I have this right…
    a) A five minute walk didn’t bother you when getting around in Germany.
    b) Farther than to your door is too far to walk for the mail in the US.

  32. Chuck W says:

    Right. Two entirely different purposes. I have to go to another building to earn money. No option that my previous or present work could/can be done from home (except for video editing). I don’t WANT to go to another place to get my mail—and that is aside from the mail piling up visibly from the outside when I am gone. In fact, during this hottest summer on record in Indiana, I frequently wore no clothes on days I worked at home and kept the air-conditioning working at minimum. It would probably get me arrested in this country, to walk outside to the mailbox—wherever that could be—in such a state.

    Apparently, and surprisingly, not many agree with me. I was discussing this with two other groups of people at lunch last week, all of whom get their mail delivered to their door (not in an RFD box at the end of a long driveway) and hardly anyone in either group objected to having to travel to a clusterbox somewhere else in the neighborhood, to pick up their mail. The primary person who objected was a guy who runs a small business in his house, and gets lots of mail. Like me, he does not want mail piling up somewhere else, in part because there are packages with valuables and checks that he receives, which could easily be stolen. Right now, his mail is dropped through a slot in the wall, just like mine.

    There is so little resistance in this country, to the taking of more money out of people’s wallet, while receiving little or nothing—or even a negative—in return. Pay attention here, people. I have never yet known a business in an office building where the mailman did not go INTO the office itself to deliver the mail. So you want to walk—or maybe even have to drive—to pick up your mail, while every business in the nation gets its mail delivered person-to-person, in their very office? We do not think alike at all. I am with Ralph Nader on the clusterboxes. He campaigned for one of his Presidential bids on elminating clusterboxes as a way of increasing employment. At that time (and I think it is still true) the Post Office WAS revenue neutral—and still is, according to what I can find. Some people claim that the USPS is subsidized, but that is for things Congress has mandated—like free postage for every blind person in the US. Cut Saturday delivery and deliver mail to every house in the nation, not to clusterboxes.

    On the subject of Saturday delivery, according to one person in the lunch group, there apparently have been several surveys of people’s reaction, and Americans overwhelmingly do NOT want Saturday delivery (but yet both Congress and the USPS insist we must continue Saturday delivery at all costs). However, it seems the reason people do not want Saturday delivery is because mail is perceived as bringing primarily bad news, and they do not want their weekends interrupted with bad news from a mail delivery.

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