Monday, 21 January 2013

08:43 – Barbara is off work today for MLK day, but will be spending most of the day running around doing errands. I’ll continue working on kit stuff. Kit sales have slowed down a lot in the last few days, which is fine with me. I was so busy building and shipping kits that I didn’t have time to do much else.

One of the comments yesterday said that MLK day isn’t treated as a real holiday, in his opinion because of “holdover race issues”. That may be part of it, but if so I think it’s a small part. The resentment is certainly widespread among whites, but I think the race of MLK has very little to do with that. I think it has more to do with timing and the insignificance of MLK.

Most businesses that give employees MLK day as paid time-off do so at the expense of Washington’s Birthday in late February or Good Friday/Easter Monday in late March or early April. Most employees now have two days off in January: New Year’s Day followed only two or three weeks later by MLK day. Their next paid day off is then Memorial Day, more than a third of a year later. That’s a long time without a holiday.

But most people would tolerate that if that second January holiday commemorated something or someone really worth commemorating. MLK isn’t. An individual has to be pretty damned special to deserve a national holiday. MLK doesn’t make the top 10,000 of people who deserve their own day. Probably not the top 100,000. I mean, Thomas Jefferson doesn’t have his own day, for heaven’s sake. National holidays should not be devoted to individuals. They should be reserved for things of enduring national importance or to commemorate things that are important to most citizens. Independence Day. Memorial Day. New Year’s Day. Veterans’ Day. Even Thanksgiving and Christmas and Easter, despite their religious basis. Devoting a national holiday to an individual, particularly one so insignificant as MLK, predictably generates a lot of resentment and needlessly contributes to racial polarization.

The truth is, I don’t think we should have any national holidays. If I had employees, I’d tell them to take whatever days off they wanted to take off. Just give me some warning so that I could schedule around their absence those days. If MLK’s birthday is significant to them, fine. Take it off. Otherwise, show up for work. If they’d prefer having Good Friday off, that’s their business. If they’d rather take time off for Hanukkah or the Winter Solstice than Christmas, or vice versa, fine. Why force people to commemorate things and people that aren’t important to them?


Sunday, 20 January 2013

08:23 – Among all the regular weekend tasks yesterday, Barbara spent a few hours doing kit stuff, including building 48 small-parts bags for chemistry kits and labeling a bunch of bottles. I timed her, and found she can label 300 bottles/hour. That translates to about nine hours’ work for her to label containers for 60 chemistry kits. Both of us working together should be able to fill, cap, and seal those 60 kits worth of containers in another nine to 12 hours.

Of course, there’s a lot more to building kits than just labeling and filling containers and building small-parts bags. Everything from making up chemicals to figuring out what needs to be ordered and ordering it to receiving and shelving orders as they arrive to taping up boxes for the kits to assembling the kits to processing orders and printing postage labels. Still, at this point, I estimate that if Barbara and I were both working full-time on kits we could produce 50 to 60 kits a week. Call it 2,500 to 3,000 kits a year. Even if she continues to work full-time and helps me on the weekends, some evenings, and an occasional vacation day, we should be able to crank out at least 20 kits a week or 1,000/year. That’ll do for now.


Saturday, 19 January 2013

10:59 – This morning, I’m doing laundry and my other usual Saturday tasks while Barbara continues with her annual Deep Clean. She’s working downstairs this morning. This afternoon and tomorrow we’ll do kit stuff. She’s off work Monday for the holiday, but has commitments for most of that day. Right now, she’s building 48 small parts bags for the chemistry kits.

During the relatively slow period through the end of April, I want to focus our kit efforts on getting as much as possible of the labor-intensive stuff complete to make it possible to knock out finished kits quickly during the summer and autumn rush. That’s mostly labeling and filling containers. So, after we finish building all of the kits we can with what’s currently in stock, the next step is to label and fill 60 sets of chemistry kit containers, followed by 30 sets each of biology kit and forensic science kit containers. That gives us some breathing room, which we’ll use to label (but not fill) more sets of containers. In addition to finished goods inventory, I’d like to start July with at least 300 labeled container sets for the chemistry kits, 150 for biology kits, and 90 for forensic science kits, with at least half of them filled.


Friday, 18 January 2013

08:07 – We got what looks like a couple inches (~ 5 cm) of wet snow through about midnight, followed by rain and freezing rain. The temperature is now hovering right around freezing, which is going to make Barbara’s morning commute a mess. Colin is enjoying the snow. He’s never seen much of it.

Even with everything else going on, we’re managing to keep up with the demand for science kits. All of the kits are in stock, and we’re building more as fast as we can. The problem is, this is supposed to be a slow time of year, and I’d planned to spend this slow period doing things like pre-labeling thousands of bottles and otherwise preparing for the rush. Our goal for this year is 500 kits, but at the current run rate we’re doing close to that now on an annualized basis, not taking seasonality into account. Factoring in seasonality, if our current run rate holds up, we’d easily do 1,000 kits this year–our goal for CY 2014–and we might do 2,000. That’s why I’m kind of hoping that this mini-rush is an anomaly. If it isn’t, we’re going to be covered up all year long.


11:28 – I certainly don’t always agree with Ambrose Evans-Pritchard–he’s much too Keynesian for my taste–but his articles and blog entries are usually worth reading. Here’s an interesting one: A new Gold Standard is being born

I agree with him that returning to the Gold Standard is a bad idea, but not for the reasons he thinks. He favors fiat currency because he wants governments and central banks to be able to fiddle with the money supply. I don’t. I’ve always been a hard-money guy. Giving any government the ability to create “money” out of nothing always, without exception, ends badly. And, as he points out, central banks and governments are fully aware that the value of the Big Four fiat currencies–the US dollar, the euro, the GB pound, and the Japanese yen–are going to have their value inflated away big-time. No one wants to hold any of them, given a choice. The dollar is still by far the best of the four, and it’s pathetic. Gold and other commodities can’t be inflated.

But gold is a very poor choice of a value store, for two reasons. First, there’s not enough of it. At $2,000 per troy ounce, a kilogram of gold is worth only about $64,000. A tonne (1,000 kilos) of gold is worth only $64 million, and a kilotonne (1,000,000 kilos) only $64 billion. The other, and more important, reason is that a value store should be valuable because of what you can do with it, not merely because it’s rare (in an economic sense). Gold does have many practical uses, but certainly none that require it by the multi-kilotonne.

I would like to see the US dollar become a hard currency again, as it hasn’t been since 1964 (or 1970, depending on how you look at it). But returning to the Gold Standard isn’t the way to do it. Instead, the federal government needs to remonetize our currency by holding a defined basket of commodities for each dollar issued. The value of a dollar might be defined as a combination of so many milligrams of gold, so many milligrams of copper, so many grams of wheat, so many grams of petroleum, and so on. The actual value of those commodities will fluctuate with market conditions, but having the basket contain 100 or 1,000 different commodities minimizes the effects of such fluctuations and would keep the value of the dollar stable. But the key issue is that the government must actually hold the required commodities in the required amounts for each dollar it issues, and must redeem those dollars on demand by accepting a dollar and handing the depositor that market-basket mix.

Of course, you wouldn’t be able to walk into a bank, hand them a dollar bill (or even a $1,000,000 bill) and expect them to cough up the appropriate amounts of 100 or 1,000 different commodities. But the market would take care of that. You would be able to hand over $1,000 or $1,000,000 and receive the appropriate commodity or mix of commodities in the amounts that reflected the current market prices of those commodities.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

07:41 – Yesterday was the first “normal” day in a long time. Barbara went to work and came home. We had dinner and watched TV for a while. No phone calls from her parents. No emergencies. No doctor appointments or meetings. We’re hoping for another normal day today.

The weather forecasters say we can expect our first snow of the season, with rain today turning into sleet and snow this evening. We’re expecting one to two inches (2.5 to 5 cm) of snow tonight, which is a blizzard for us. In the mountains not far to our west they’re expecting 5 to 10 inches. She’ll drive her car to work today, but tomorrow she’ll take the Trooper. When there’s winter weather, I like having her in a 4X4. Also, the Trooper weighs about 4,500 pounds (2,000+ kilos), and I much prefer her being in a vehicle that has some serious mass.

I got half a liter of Kastle-Meyer reagent made up yesterday, which I’ll bottle today. I also got 30 sets of Dragendorff reagent A and B bottled, so now I have all I need to make up some forensic science kits. After I get those built, I’ll assemble 15 biology kits, assemble the eight chemistry kits I have materials for, and get started on the next batch of 60 chemistry kits. That’ll probably take me into tomorrow and possibly the weekend.


16:58 – The forecast keeps getting worse. This morning, they were calling for one or two inches of snow tonight. Around noon, they’d boosted that to 2 to 4 inches. As of the 15:41 update, they’re now calling for 3 to 5 inches. It’s just lucky the colder air didn’t move in sooner. When Barbara emptied the rain gauge last night, there were about 2 inches in it. Since then, we’ve had another 2 inches of cold rain. If all of that had come down as snow, we’d have something like a meter of snow on the ground now. More likely around here, though, it would have come down mostly as freezing rain, enough to take down big trees and cause major days-long power outages. So we really have dodged the proverbial bullet.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

08:20 – We’re hoping that today will be the first “normal” day in a long time. No doctor appointments, no unexpected trips over to Barbara’s parents’ place. We’ll see. Barbara and Frances both need a break from the constant turmoil.

As of this morning, we have two BK01 biology kits, three CK01A chemistry kits, and zero FK01 forensic science kits in stock, and we got an order overnight for a biology kit. Fortunately, I spent yesterday building kit subassemblies. At this point, we have everything needed to build 14 more BK01 biology kits, 8 more CK01A chemistry kits, and half a dozen FK01 forensic science kits, which should be enough to carry us into next month.

I’m also issuing purchase orders, and they’re typically considerably larger than the ones I issued in the past. For example, we buy pocket magnifiers and alligator clip leads from one of our wholesalers. The last time I did a PO to them, I ordered 100 pocket magnifiers and 200 each of the black and red alligator clip leads. I issued a new PO to them yesterday, ordering 300 pocket magnifiers and 500 each of the alligator clip leads.

I have no clue how many kits we’re going to sell this year. In the first half of this month, we sold more kits than we sold in the first three months of 2012 combined. Annualizing that yields a very scary number. I guess all we can do is keep building kits as fast as we can, and hope we can keep up with demand.

Speaking of which, Brian Jepson, our O’Reilly/MAKE editor called yesterday just to touch base. During the conversation, I said, “I hope you’re not going to tell me you want another book out of us.” He said, “Whenever you’re ready.” I told him that Barbara really wanted to focus on kits, but I’d mention it to her. When I did that this morning, she said it was up to me. She knows I like doing books. But she also said that her strong preference was to spend our time doing kits rather than a new book. As she said, we’re already covered up just doing kit stuff, so doing a new book would end up costing us a lot of money, not to mention disappointing would-be kit customers when we can’t meet demand. So it looks like we’re not going to do another book any time soon.


12:41 – Well, another order for an FK01 forensic science kit just came in, so our stock status on those just went from zero to minus one. I mailed the woman who ordered the FK01 kit to say we couldn’t ship it until the day after tomorrow and that we’d be happy to refund her payment if she wished. Fortunately, she’d bought one of our other kits some time ago and was very happy with it, so she was willing to wait.

I have everything I need to build another 15 FK01 kits, except I have only five FK01 small parts bags and I’m completely out of Kastle-Meyer reagent and Dragendorff reagent bottles. I made up enough Dragendorff reagent for 30 sets, but I have to make up the Kastle-Meyer reagent this afternoon or tomorrow. That involves refluxing a concentrated solution of potassium hydroxide and phenolphthalein over zinc metal to reduce the phenolphthalein to phenolphthalin, which takes a while. I’ll make up enough of that for 15 or so kits, because the solution is fairly unstable. We use amber glass bottles, add some zinc powder, and store the bottles refrigerated to prevent the solution from oxidizing, but even so it’s unwise to make up more than we expect to ship in a couple months.

Speaking of which, I need to do something about how I ship kits. In the past, we might have kits sitting waiting for pickup only two or three days a week. Nowadays, it’s a rare day that we don’t have kits waiting for pickup. The mailman generally arrives mid- to late-afternoon but when a substitute is doing the route he or she sometimes arrives before 9:00 a.m. I don’t want to leave kits sitting on the front porch, and I can’t hear the doorbell when I’m working in my lab. Colin barks every few minutes at a passing dog or even a person walking down the street. I can hear him barking from my lab, but I’d soon be exhausted if I ran back upstairs every time he barked.

I could drive out to the post office and drop off kits, but that’s several miles round-trip. Also, oddly, if I drop off a Regional Rate box at the counter, they charge an extra $0.75 postage. Talk about adding insult to injury. Driving to the post office is time and money, even before they add the extra $0.75 per box. So I think what I’m going to do is start moving boxes that are ready to ship to my Trooper and go off driving around the neighborhood looking for a mail truck. Then I can just hand the boxes to the letter carrier. That’ll take a lot less time than driving to the post office, and the letter carrier doesn’t charge the extra $0.75/box.


14:17 – Just call me Baldrick, because I have come up with a truly Cunning Plan. Last Sunday, Barbara and I did a Costco run and dinner with Mary and Paul. I mentioned the stability problem with Kastle-Meyer reagent to Paul, and he suggested nitrogen-packing the bottles. The problem with that is that there’s no convenient source of pure nitrogen other than bottles, which are relatively expensive and dangerous to have around. (In college, I once saw the results of a full-size compressed gas bottle that had fallen over and broken off the valve. Instant rocket. The bottle crashed through two concrete-block walls and severely damaged a third.)

So I focused my Gigantic Brain™ on the problem, and came up with Cunning Plan A. Oxygen concentrators like the one Barbara’s dad has extract nearly all of the oxygen from ordinary air, leaving only nitrogen with tiny percentages of carbon dioxide, water vapor, and noble gases. Used concentrators are readily available and inexpensive. There’s a big market for them from people who need oxygen for stuff like micro-welding of jewelry and so on. I though that perhaps I could simply reverse the functioning of a used oxygen concentrator to collect the nitrogen and discard the oxygen. I was actually about to start searching google for used oxygen concentrators.

Then I was struck by Cunning Plan B, a great improvement over CP A. Barbara buys six-packs of Dust-Off canned “air” at Costco. The contents of the can are actually 100.0% 1,1-difluoroethane, which is a refrigerant and is essentially inert. It’s also denser than air. So, I’m going to fill the Kastle-Meyer reagent bottles normally, add a few grains of zinc dust to stabilize them against any oxygen that happens to remain, and then flush the bottles with canned air before capping them. Since I’ll also store them refrigerated at near 0C, their shelf life unopened should be at least a year and probably much more. There just won’t be anything in that bottle to sustain oxidation. I’ll put a few dated bottles aside and open and test one every six months or so to get a better idea of actual shelf life.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

07:43 – Barbara stopped at her parents’ apartment after work yesterday and laid down the law to both of them about their behavior. Let’s hope it sunk in. We didn’t get any phone calls overnight, so perhaps it did. Barbara’s taking her dad to the doctor today for a follow-up visit, and will check on things over there.

Inventory on all our science kits is perilously low, so I’ll spend today building more subassemblies and a few more kits.


Monday, 14 January 2013

10:21 – The good news is that Barbara’s dad is doing pretty well, better than anyone expected. He still can’t walk very far and is pretty much limited to their apartment, but he’s doing better both physically and mentally. The bad news is that Barbara’s mom is very fragile mentally. She’s getting very little sleep, because she’s terrified that Dutch will die. She’s also hovering over Dutch constantly, pestering him, which upsets him. And, to top it off, she’s afraid to be alone in the apartment at any time, and she’s afraid to be in the apartment at night, even with Dutch there. Or perhaps especially with Dutch there. What she really wants is for Barbara or Frances to be there 24X7, which obviously isn’t going to happen. Barbara and Frances both have lives, jobs, and families.

Frances called us this morning just before 0700, while Barbara was in the shower. She and her husband, Al, were over at Dutch and Sankie’s apartment because Sankie had panicked. Barbara thought about heading over there this morning, but decided to wait and go over this afternoon. This simply can’t go on. The stress on Barbara and Frances is incredible. About the only good thing about the situation is that they got their parents moved to the retirement village. If they were still in their house the whole situation would be completely unmanageable. Even so, Barbara’s mom is under such severe stress that I’m afraid she’s not far from a complete breakdown. That would be disastrous.


16:20 – I’ve been busy today. Among other things, like cutting POs, I shipped three BK01 biology kits, two SK01 slide sets, and one FK01 forensic science kit. We also received a check from a university for four FK01 forensic science kits, so I got those ready to ship out tomorrow. That takes our inventory down to a handful of biology and chemistry kits, and zero forensic science kits, so I know what I’ll be working on the rest of this week.

Shipping the forensic science kit today was a bit strange. For US shipments, I print a postage label on a half-sheet (8.5×5.5″) sticky label. For Canadian shipments and in the past for APO/FPO shipments, I’ve had to fill out several screens on the USPS shipping web site. Then, instead of a half-sheet postage label, I get four half sheets. The first one is the actual postage label, and the others are various customs declarations. I print those on ordinary paper and then insert them into a plastic sleeve with a sticky back. Presumably, various people along the way pull out and keep one or another of the half sheets. But for the APO/FPO shipment today, I got a single screen that I’d never seen before. When I printed the postage label, it was just one half sheet, but it looked completely different than the US half-sheets. I commented on it to the mailman, who said he’d seen those before. I told him as long as it’d be delivered I didn’t care what it looked like, and he just commented that it looked easier for me.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

08:29 – Barbara’s dad is doing better than expected. Barbara and her sister are taking shifts so one of them is there with him at all times. It’s not that Dutch needs help constantly. The problem is that he’s still too weak to get up from his reclining chair or the toilet, so someone needs to be there to help him on a moment’s notice. When I talked to Barbara last night, she said he was improving fast, so we’re hoping he’ll soon no longer need 24-hour coverage.

I’m putting together a small batch of forensic science kits today. Our current stock status on those is minus one.


Saturday, 12 January 2013

10:06 – Barbara’s dad was released from the hospital yesterday afternoon. Barbara picked him up and took him home, where they met the guy who was delivering and installing the oxygen concentrator. Meanwhile, Barbara’s sister, Frances, was taking their mom to a doctor’s appointment. Fortunately, it turned out there’s nothing seriously wrong with their mom, other than just age.

Dutch, on the other hand, isn’t in good shape. He’s still too weak to walk more than a few steps or to use the bathroom. So Barbara and Frances are covering it in shifts for now. Frances covered last night and this morning. Barbara is heading over there after lunch to relieve Frances. Barbara will probably stay overnight tonight and then through lunch time tomorrow.

The oxygen concentrator is pretty cool. In addition to providing oxygen directly, it can also fill two small oxygen cylinders that are used on a portable oxygen mask for when Dutch needs to leave the apartment. Finally, as backup in case of power failure, Dutch has a large oxygen tank.

Dutch won’t be on oxygen all the time, just most of the time. And I suggested to Barbara that when Dutch isn’t using the oxygen concentrator, they should have their mom use it. She’s had lung/breathing issues since Barbara was a baby and is currently borderline COPD, so a bit of supplemental oxygen won’t hurt her a bit and may help a lot.

Work on building a new batch of science kits continues, now with some urgency. We’re down to two or three CK01A chemistry kits and maybe four biology kits. Today, we’re assembling batches of small parts bags for both of those so that we can build another batch of each. Forensic kit inventory is now critical. As of now, we actually have four FK01 forensic kits ready to ship, but all four of those are spoken for. I got email yesterday saying that the check was in the mail for those four kits, and this morning we got another order for a forensic kit.

Chemistry kits outsell biology kits maybe 2:1 and forensic kits maybe 6:1. Other than small parts bags, we have everything needed to build another 15 each of the kits. So this weekend I’ll build 15 each of the chemistry kits and maybe half a dozen forensics kits. Once that’s done, I’ll get started on bottling chemicals for another 60 each of the chemistry and biology kits.


11:59 – Barbara just headed over to her parents’ place, where she’ll spend the next 24 hours or so. She ran a few errands this morning, including buying groceries. She picked up a box of powdered and cinnamon doughnuts for me, 1.5 pounds (two-thirds of a kilo). I plan to have them for dinner and an evening snack. Looking at the nutrition label, it appears that they provide a fully-balanced meal.

Colin has no idea what’s going on, except that Barbara isn’t home as much as he thinks she should be. I’ll try to take him on more walks, play more ball with him, and give him more treats to make up for that, but it’ll go only so far in soothing his offended Border Collie sensibilities. BC’s have a strong sense of order, and they don’t like it when things change. This evening, I’ll just read and watch Heartland reruns. Right now, I need to get to work on kit stuff.