Thursday, 31 January 2013

08:09 – Barbara called around 8:15 last night when she arrived at her dad’s place after having dinner with her friend. Her dad is doing pretty well, and she said her mom is doing better. Frances is staying with their dad tonight, so Barbara will be back home this evening.

We had lots of rain last night, starting around 7:00 and lasting through about midnight. The expected strong storms never arrived, in the sense that there wasn’t any lightning or thunder to speak of, but the winds were pretty high. Apparently, some places locally had gusts of 60+ MPH (96+ KPH). I didn’t get much sleep, because every 10 or 20 minutes through the night Colin would start barking like crazy, jump down off the bed, and run to the front door.


Wednesday, 30 January 2013

08:39 – Barbara just headed off to work. This evening, she’s meeting a friend for dinner and then spending the night with her dad. Her mom is doing much better. They have her on IV antibiotics for a lung infection, but I’d be surprised if they release her sooner than this weekend.

As usual, winter in Winston-Salem is a mixed bag. After an ice storm last Friday followed by several days of lows well below freezing and highs not much if at all above freezing, yesterday’s high on our recording thermometer was 76F (24C). It was 61F (16C) at 0645 this morning, and the forecasters say we’ll have strong thunderstorms and possibly tornadoes this afternoon and evening. Then the temperature starts dropping again, with lows the rest of the week well below freezing.

I’m still working, gradually, on getting my lab cleaned up. For the first time in a long time, I have visible evidence that the countertops are beige. I’m also working on the LK01 Life Science Kit, which we intend to start shipping in March.


Tuesday, 29 January 2013

08:41 – The cops never, ever stop looking for a cop killer. In October, 1996, a local cop, Gregory Martin, radioed in that he was making a traffic stop and requested backup. A state cop soon arrived at the scene and found Martin dead on the ground by the side of the road and no one else in sight. The morning paper says three suspects are now in custody and have been charged with first-degree murder. If they’re guilty, I hope they’re executed. Anyone stupid enough to kill a cop is too stupid to live anyway.

Barbara spent the night with her dad, and is going straight into work from there. No word yet on when her mom will be released from the hospital. Sankie is suffering from sleep deprivation and hunger. No surprise, since she hasn’t been able to sleep or eat since Dutch came home from the hospital last time. There may also be other things going on, including possibly pneumonia and a UTI. Barbara said she may be released tomorrow, but I’d be surprised. Barbara and Frances are looking into getting someone to sit with Dutch and Sankie on a temporary basis, but unless/until that happens it looks like they’ll be taking turns staying over at her parents’ apartment themselves.

Last night, Colin and I played ball and finished series four of Heartland. Barbara is home tonight, unless something changes, but will probably being staying with her dad tomorrow night. If so, Colin and I will start on series five of Heartland. Series six is running now on CBC, and I’m bittorrenting HD versions of the episodes as they air. (I keep my upload speed throttled to 0.0 KB/s, so I’m breaking no laws by downloading them; I’m not “making available” by uploading.)

The HD episodes are about 1.4 GB each, and are typically in .mkv format. The old version of DeVeDe that I use to create video DVDs doesn’t work properly with .mkv files, so I run the .mkv files through ffmpeg to convert them to mpegs, which DeVeDe handles well. I end up with six DVDs per season, three episodes per DVD. Only the first 12 episodes of series six have aired, with the final six to be aired in February and March. The good news is that series six is getting higher ratings than series five did, so there should be a series seven.

We continue to build science kits. Right now, I’m working on the new LK01 Life Science Kit.


08:59 – Barbara just sent me this video of a Border Collie trying to force an uncooperative horse to do what it’s told. Boy, does this look familiar. I see it every time I walk Colin. The only difference is that on those walks I’m the horse.


10:21 – One of the good things about my lab is that I have lots and lots of glassware and plasticware. Hundreds of individual items: beakers, graduated cylinders, volumetric flasks, funnels, stirring rods, and on and on. That means I almost always have a clean whatever-I-need. But one of the bad things about my lab is that I have all that stuff. When I use a vessel, I just rinse it and put it in the sink to be washed later. The problem is, later never comes until I have piles of stuff in the sink and covering all the counters on both sides and usually the floor, by which time cleaning up my lab becomes an Augean Stable thing. The other day, Barbara was cleaning downstairs and was about to step into my lab. She flipped the lights on, immediately flipped them back off, and just turned around and walked away.

So yesterday I decided I’d better get started on cleaning up my lab. It’ll take a while because I’m going to do it gradually. I couldn’t get to the sink in the lab, so I filled a 10-gallon (40 liter) bin with dirty glass/plasticware and carried it upstairs to the kitchen to wash it there. (Most of the stuff was already reasonably clean, so there’s no real hazard to washing it upstairs.)

The goal is to get the floor, counters, and sink in the lab completely empty and clean. That’s going to take some doing. I decided this task needed a name of its own, so I’m calling it Operation Overlord.

Monday, 28 January 2013

07:50 – Barbara just headed off to work. She and Frances are alternating staying overnight with their dad, and it’s Barbara’s turn tonight. She’ll stay there tonight and go directly in to work tomorrow. If their mom is still in the hospital Wednesday night, Barbara will stay over again then. I told her again last night that it wouldn’t bother me if she decided to stay over at her parents’ place every night while her mom’s in the hospital. That’d let her spend some time with her dad while she still can. Colin and I can take care of ourselves while she’s gone.


Sunday, 27 January 2013

08:22 – The hospital admitted Barbara’s mom yesterday. They checked her dad, who’d also fallen, and sent him home. Dutch was afraid to stay by himself, so Frances stayed with him while Barbara made a flying visit home to pick up clothes and whatever else she needed to stay the night with her dad. I suspect she’ll have to stay with her dad tonight as well, and possibly every night until her mom is released from the hospital.


09:34 – Yesterday we shipped a biology kit and a chemistry kit, the last two kits we’ll ship under the old postage rates. We ship most of our kits in USPS Regional Rate B boxes, with the smaller kits shipping in RR A boxes. Kits that ordinarily ship in RR B boxes but are going to zone 8 ship in large flat-rate boxes because they cost a buck or so less to ship than the RR B boxes. The cost to ship large flat-rate boxes increased 4.4%, from $14.65 to $15.30. Before the postage increase, our cost to ship RR B boxes ranged from $5.90 for nearby addresses up to $12.74 for zone 7 addresses. It’s now $6.16 for nearby addresses up to $13.25 to zone 7. Even with increases in the 4% to 5% range, USPS is still the best shipping option for us, by far.

Even with everything else that’s been going on, we’re in good shape for now in terms of finished-goods kit inventory. We have between three and four dozen finished kits on hand. The problem is, the well has gone dry. We assembled those finished kits from subassemblies already in stock. To build more, we first need to build more subassemblies, which means we need to label and fill a bunch of bottles. That’s the time-consuming part, but we’ll get it done before we run out of kits.


12:34 – As of now, we’re no longer shipping our science kits to Canada. Part of the reason for our decision was the paperwork hassles, but it had more to do with shipping costs. We’ve had a lot of email from Canadians who were outraged by the $40 surcharge on shipping kits to Canada. Well, as of today, that surcharge would have gone from $40 to $54. Probably fewer than 25% of our Canadian customers had us ship the kits to Canada. Most Canadians live reasonably close to the US border, and many of them frequently visit friends or family in the US. They have us ship the kits to a US address and then just drive back over the border into Canada with their kits. No one has ever reported a problem with doing so. I’m sorry to disappoint potential customers who live too far from the US border to make a trip to the US convenient, but it just no longer makes sense for us to continue shipping kits to Canada.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

10:32 – I’m doing laundry while Barbara continues to clean and organized the finished area in the basement. When she finishes down there she’ll start labeling bottles. She has to go over to her parents’ house to meet a real estate agent mid-afternoon, but otherwise we’re in for the weekend. The roads and sidewalks are still covered with ice. Fortunately, it’s to warm up enough today to melt off some of the accumulation.

I’m still organizing and counting our raw materials inventory for the science kits. We’re in good shape on most stuff and great shape on some. Both to minimize working capital and storage requirements, I try to maintain raw materials inventory at pretty low levels on stuff that’s easy to get and has multiple sources. On the other hand, I try to maintain pretty high levels of stuff that’s frequently back-ordered, particularly if it’s inexpensive and/or available from only one source. For example, we have only one reasonable source for the 5/10/15X pocket magnifiers we use in the biology, forensics, and life science kits. I ordered 300 of those last week. They arrived yesterday. I can order those, if necessary, from another of my wholesalers, but at a cost about 75% higher. Same deal on alligator clip leads. I can buy those nearly anywhere, but one of my suppliers sells them at about 60% the price other suppliers charge. (They’re exactly the same product…) So I ordered 500 each of the black and red leads, which also arrived yesterday. It’s worse for a few items that are single-source. For example, the exact stainless-steel spatula that we use in all of our kits is available from only one source, and they’re sometimes backordered. Without those, we can’t build kits. The things cost us something like a buck each, plus shipping. We’re down to low inventory on that spatula, so I’m going to order 500 next week and up the re-order quantity to 200 on that item. I don’t mind devoting $200 to $500 in working capital to an item that’s a showstopper.


13:23 – Barbara was in the shower about 11:30 when her sister called to tell her that their mom had fallen and had some cuts and scrapes. Tom, the guy from the retirement village, was in their apartment with them. He said it didn’t look too bad, but Barbara’s mom wanted to call 911. So Tom called, expecting that they’d just patch her up and leave. Instead, the EMTs transported her to the hospital. I guess at her age the fact that she hit her head (her face, actually) was enough for the EMTs to decide she’d better be seen by the doctors. They took Dutch along, too, because he fell while he was trying to help Sankie get up. Barbara called a little while ago from the hospital. They don’t know yet if Sankie will be admitted or sent home. I hope the former, because I think she needs to be under observation at least overnight, if not longer.

Friday, 25 January 2013

07:32 – The weather forecasters say we have a 70% chance of a blizzard today. Snow, sleet, and freezing rain, with accumulations expected to reach a quarter to half an inch (6.35 to 12.7 mm), mostly ice. It’s to start coming down this afternoon and continue through the evening. Schools are letting out early. The high today is to be below freezing, so tomorrow morning is likely to be a mess. At least the brine trucks have been out. They worked all day yesterday. The streets in our neighborhood and presumably the rest of the city are all covered with parallel white streaks of salt.

I’ve been organizing and counting our raw materials inventory for the science kits. As of now, we have most of what we need for another 150 or so kits. With finished-goods inventory we already have on hand, that should be enough to carry us through April or so. I’ll place some small orders soon to fill out the inventory and maybe boost it to 200 kits’ worth, and wait until closer to summer to place the larger orders to prepare for the autumn rush.


Thursday, 24 January 2013

07:42 – Barbara’s sister, Frances, took their mom to the neurologist appointment yesterday morning. He changed her medication, which they’re hoping will help their mom’s mental state. Then, yesterday afternoon, Barbara took her mom and dad to the audiologist appointment to get their hearing aids cleaned and tweaked and then went out to dinner with them. A few minutes ago, Barbara’s dad called to say that Sankie wouldn’t get out of bed and said she needed to go to the hospital. Barbara assured her dad that the new medication would take some time to kick in, and that Sankie didn’t need to go to the hospital. As Barbara just commented to me, “At least with your parents it was just one at a time.” She just left to head over to her parents’ place on the way to work.


10:08 – There were a couple of interesting articles on the front page of the paper this morning, one about charter schools and one about state income taxes. North Carolina is now a purely red state, with a Republican governor and Republicans controlling both sides of the legislature. They’ll use that clout to try to get a lot of bad laws passed, but along the way they’re also trying to get some Good Things done.

Donny Lambeth, who led the Forsyth County school board for 18 years and is now a state representative, is championing a law that will allow the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school system to go 100% charter. Don Martin, the current superintendent of schools, is trying to keep that from happening. Almost 100% of the public school teachers and administrators are against it, of course, because that means they’ll no longer be government employees. They’d be employed by the individual charter schools, which would be non-profits. Like nearly all public school systems, ours pays much, much higher salaries and benefits than most teachers and administrators could ever hope to earn in the private sector. They also have almost absolute job security. If WSFC Schools transitions to 100% charter, all of that goes away. Of course, that’d be a very good thing for taxpayers and the children, but it gores the ox of the teachers and administrators so you can bet they’ll fight to the death to stop it from happening. Let’s hope they fail and we end up 100% charter. Hell, let’s hope we end up 100% voucher. Let the schools compete for students, and let the teachers compete for jobs.

As to the state personal and corporate income taxes, the governor and many in the legislature want to eliminate them entirely and make up the difference by extending the sales tax to apply to services. That might increase the current sales tax by a couple of percentage points. The liberals are howling about “regressive taxation”, of course, but the truth is that shifting to a sales tax to raise state revenues would be much fairer than what we have now. The US has the most “progressive” income tax in the developed world. The poorest 50% of our population pay next to nothing. In fact, many of them actually have negative income taxes; the government “refunds” income taxes to them that they never paid in the first place. The middle class pays about half the income taxes collected, and the wealthy pay the other half. North Carolina is even worse for the middle class. Our highest personal income tax rate is 7.75%, and even those who are just barely middle class pay high rates on most of their income.


11:14 – How could I have forgotten? The first real web browser, NCSA Mosaic, was released 20 years ago today. I downloaded and installed it immediately, and started browsing the web, such as it was. Back then, my co-worker John Mikol and I were the only people I knew who had full-time Internet access at home. We both had dedicated telephone lines at home that dialed into a modem rack at work. We dialed in and stayed connected 24×7, although that term was not yet common. Our nailed-up dial-up connections did drop once in a great while, but I think my all-time record length for one phone call was something like 18 months. John and I did a lot of neat stuff together. I remember the first time we burned a CD-R disc. At the time, almost no one had CD burners. I forget what the burner itself cost, but the discs were $50 each. John and I watched one as it burned. The burn failed, and John invented a new term that became part of technology jargon. “Well,” he said, “that’s a $50 coaster.”

Oh, yeah, John and I are among a very small group for another reason. We both finished the world-wide web. That is, when we installed Mosaic, we both followed every link on every page that was then up on the web.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

07:42 – I told Barbara last night that she shouldn’t worry about Colin and me at home. We can hold down the fort here if she wants to spend more time with her dad over the coming days, weeks, and possibly months. Today, she’s picking up her parents to drive them over to an audiologist appointment in High Point. They need to visit the audiologist regularly to get their hearing aids cleaned and checked. Her dad said he needed to keep this appointment. If Dutch is up to it, they may stop for dinner on the way home. If not, Barbara may have dinner with them at the retirement village. She’ll either bring me something for dinner or I’ll just make something for myself.

Work on science kits continues. Sales have slowed down a lot since the first half of this month, but we’re still doing well. So far this month, we’ve already sold more kits than we did in January, February, March, and April of 2012 combined. On that basis, I’m expecting things to really start getting busy starting in July. Between now and then, we’ll focus on getting chemical bottles ready, which is the real labor-intensive part. We can build kits pretty quickly on-the-fly if we don’t have to spend time labeling and filling bottles. With only a couple of exceptions, the chemicals we provide in the kits are stable indefinitely, which means we can make them up weeks to months ahead of time.


09:22 – Like “unionized”, “elegant” is a word that chemists use differently from most people. To a chemist, elegant means simple, with nothing wasted. I came across an excellent example of an elegant synthesis while reading Derek Lowe’s blog last week and checking one of the drugs he mentioned on Wikipedia. It’s metformin, a drug used to treat Type 2 diabetes.

“According to the procedure described in the 1975 Aron patent, and the Pharmaceutical Manufacturing Encyclopedia, equimolar amounts of dimethylamine and 2-cyanoguanidine are dissolved in toluene with cooling to make a concentrated solution, and an equimolar amount of hydrogen chloride is slowly added. The mixture begins to boil on its own, and after cooling, metformin hydrochloride precipitates with a 96% yield.”

Wow. That is truly elegant. Simple, and nothing wasted. A 96%(!) yield, and the stuff just falls out of solution. That’s a synthesis that will warm the cockles of the heart of any synthetic chemist, let alone the chemical engineer who’s responsible for upscaling a laboratory-level synthesis to an industrial-level synthesis.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

08:03 – Things are not going well with Barbara’s parents. Her dad is doing okay physically and mentally, about as well as can be expected, but Barbara’s mom can’t cope with the fact that Barbara’s dad is going to die sooner or later, probably sooner. Her mom told Barbara yesterday that she needs someone to stay with her 24 hours a day, which just isn’t going to happen. Her mom is desperate to do something, anything, to keep Barbara’s dad from dying, even though there’s obviously nothing at all she or anyone else can do. So she pesters Barbara’s dad constantly, making his life miserable, ordering him to do this or that or not to do the other thing. Her mom hovers over her dad every minute, determined to control a situation that’s uncontrollable.

The stress on Barbara and her sister is incredible. I told Barbara last night that she and Frances need to give top priority to maintaining their own physical and mental well-being. The two of them working together are just barely able to keep a lid on the situation now. One or the other of them is over there every day, sometimes both of them, and sometimes more than once. If one of them breaks under the strain, things will be unmanageable.

I told Barbara last night that I’m hoping that for Barbara’s mom anticipation turns out to be worse than the reality. That is, I’m hoping that when Barbara’s dad does eventually die, her mother will finally accept reality and be able to grieve and then get on with her own life. But for now the situation is pure torture for everyone involved.