Thursday, 21 March 2013

15:09 – I’m currently assembling a dozen BK01 biology kits, which’ll leave us with 11 in stock counting the one we sold this morning. I’m just building a dozen because this is the last batch I’ll build upstairs. The components for the kits are currently split between the upstairs and downstairs work areas, but I’m gradually moving everything downstairs except the bottle labeling and filling operations. Space constraints upstairs mean I’ve been doing final assembly on kits in batches of 12 or 15. I have enough room downstairs to do batches of 30 at a time. I also have room to store a lot more finished kits to await shipment.

For now, I’ll continue to ship kits from upstairs, bringing up enough to keep a dozen or so of each in the shipping queue. But I talked to Danny, our mailman, yesterday. During our busy period last autumn, we often shipped half a dozen or more kits a day. That was a pain in the butt, having to make multiple trips from the house out to the street to load them in his truck. And with our sales trajectory this year, we may end up having to ship 25 or more kits on heavy days come July/August/September. So I asked Danny what he thought about pulling down our drive to pick up boxes at the rear, if he was even allowed to do that. He said that was no problem. So I’m going to allocate an area near the back door to stack boxes awaiting shipment.

Hmmm. One of my wholesalers just called to ask if I wanted them to ship my latest order UPS Ground or motor freight. Gulp. She said that by UPS Ground it’d be 11 large boxes, but it’d fit on one pallet. I told her to ship it UPS. I don’t have a forklift, and I’m not the man I once was. Just the thought of hauling a 300-pound pallet from the street down the driveway and into the basement is more than I can handle these days, let alone actually doing it. Of course, back in the days when I used to walk five miles to school (uphill both ways, in the snow) I could have just tossed a 300-pound pallet under each arm and then run a Marathon. Or something like that.


Wednesday, 20 March 2013

08:46 – One of the most annoying things about Netflix streaming is that they drop titles with only a week’s notice. One series we’ve had in our queue for probably a year has been gradually bubbling toward the top. Last night, I brought our queue up in my browser, intending to move it to the top so that we could conveniently sample it on our Roku. Unfortunately, availability of that series is now listed as “until 3/25”. There are 50+ 45-minute episodes, so there’s no point to starting it now. Netflix must know how long they’ve licensed each movie or series for, so what’s the point of waiting until a week before their license expires to let viewers know how much longer it’ll be available? They should list the expiration date as soon as they add a title to their catalog.

I see that Cyprus has become The Mouse that Roared. Cypriot legislators rejected the Troika’s (read, Germany’s) bailout terms without a single vote in favor, even though those terms had been modified to protect depositors with balances of €20,000 or less. Merkel must be spitting nails. Germany now has the choice of backing down, which it can’t do, or watching Cyprus crash out of the euro. That’s assuming that Cyprus doesn’t come to some agreement with Russia, which Merkel has explicitly forbidden. No matter what happens, things look ominous for the EU, the euro, and Merkel’s reelection chances this autumn. It will be ironic if tiny Cyprus, which accounts for something like 1/500th of EU GDP, is the straw that breaks the euro’s back.


12:20 – I’m building kits today. We’re getting low stock on the CK01A chemistry kits, with less than a dozen in finished goods inventory, but the real problem is the BK01 biology kits. I shipped one this morning, which takes our remaining stock down to one. I just finished putting together another 30 of the biology kit small parts bags, which was the last thing I needed for another batch of 30 biology kits.

The real problem is that the biology kits include a 12-pack of deep cavity slides. These aren’t the common well slides. They’re three times the thickness of a standard microscope slide–about 3.2mm versus 1 mm–and have a deep cylindrical cavity through most of their thickness. Only one of our vendors carries them, and they’re backordered through 15 May. After I build these 30 biology kits, I’ll be down to only eight packs of the thick cavity slides in stock. That means we’ll have only 38 biology kits available to carry us from now until mid-May. I don’t think that’ll be enough.

We’ve already decided to delay introducing our new LK01 Life Science Kit from 31 March until about 1 June, because it also includes thick cavity slides. I guess we’ll just continue to build stock of the biology kits without the thick cavity slides. If we get more than 38 orders for biology kits between now and mid-May, we’ll just ship what we have and back-order the rest of the orders.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

07:50 – The other day, I was using IMDB to look up a cast member from a British TV series I was considering adding to our queue to see what other series that actress had been in. The name of one of those other series reminded me of a one-hit wonder I hadn’t thought about in more than 40 years. It was back in the summer of 1970, when I was between my junior and senior years in high school. The performer was Freda Payne, and the track was Band of Gold. Technically, I suppose Payne didn’t qualify as a one-hit wonder. IIRC, she had one or two other top-40 tracks after that, but nowadays no one remembers her for anything other than Band of Gold.

Speaking of our queue, I finally got around to signing up for the Acorn TV 30-day free trial the other night. Much of what they offer is already available on Netflix streaming, but by no means all. Acorn carries many series that Netflix doesn’t, and they also have more recent episodes of many of the series that Netflix does carry. For example, Netflix has only series 1 through 13 of Midsomer Murders, while Acorn has the first half of series 14, which we’re watching now. Netflix has only the first three series of George Gently. Acorn is currently running series five. And so on. Acorn charges only $3/month or $30/year, so we may sign up once the free trial expires. But only may.

I just wish Acorn’s business model wasn’t so weird. Acorn definitely doesn’t cater to binge watchers, which we are. With other streaming services, we can pick what we want to watch when we want to watch it. We can start with the first episode of a new-to-us series and watch it straight through until we’ve finished all of the episodes they have available. With Acorn, we can watch only the episodes they choose to make available during a particular month. So, if we decide to watch series 5 of George Gently on Acorn, we’ll have to skip series 4 because it’s not on offer this month. If we decide to wait and watch series 4 first, we have no idea when that’ll be available, and by then series 5 may no longer be available. I think Acorn is afraid that with their limited catalog people will sign up for a couple of months, watch everything they’re interested in watching and then drop their memberships. They may even be right, but I still think they’re making a big mistake. The essence of streaming is to give people what they want to watch when they want to watch it, not to make them wait until you’re ready to let them watch it. We may end up not subscribing to Acorn TV for just this reason. As Barbara said, we have tons of stuff in our Netflix queue. We can wait until Netflix gets new episodes rather than playing Acorn’s game.


12:41 – I just got a welcome email from Acorn Online. When I clicked through to their web page, one of the options was to submit a review. So I submitted the following:

For $30/year, subscribing would be a no-brainer, except…

My wife and I are binge-watchers. When we discover a new-to-us series or rewatch a series, we strongly prefer to start at S1E1 and watch our way straight through until we’ve finished it. We actually sometimes wait years until a series has been canceled before we start watching it. We can’t do that with your service, because your entire catalog is not available at all times.

If we could do that, we wouldn’t have even used the 30-day free trial. We’d have just subscribed for a year. As it is, we’re on the fence about subscribing, simply because it’s a pain in the butt to try to keep track of what we’ve watched and what we have to wait for.

I understand that because your catalog is very small compared to, say, Netflix Instant, you’re probably afraid that people would sign up for a couple or three months, watch what they wanted to watch, and then drop their subscription. I don’t think that would happen often enough to worry about. Thirty bucks a year isn’t worth worrying about; having to keep track of what’s available when and not being able to watch what we want to watch when we want to watch it gives us serious pause.

Monday, 18 March 2013

10:51 – There seems to be a great deal of surprise that Cyprus has stopped asset transfers in preparation for stealing up to 9.9% of bank depositors’ account balances. I’m not sure why anyone is surprised. That’s what governments do. They call it a “tax”, and they can do it anytime they want and in any amount they want. That kind of thing happens in the US and other first-world countries as well. It just happened with ObamaCare. And it’s even more likely to occur in places with undemocratic, dictatorial, autocratic, unelected governments, like the EU. Cypriot bank account holders should be thankful that their government, at the insistence of the Troika, stole only 9.9% or less of their account balances. They could have stolen it all.

So, Cyprus becomes the fifth eurozone nation to be bailed out, following Greece, Ireland, Portugal, and Spain. Italy can’t be far behind, and France not far behind Italy. When those two go, it’s game over for the euro. Meanwhile, the Protestant northern-tier nations look on, dreading the day when those bills come due, while the Catholic southern-tier nations continue to run up huge bills they have no hope of ever paying. Merkel is mortgaging Germany’s future solely to improve her chances of being re-elected this autumn, which looks increasingly unlikely to happen. And the downward slide of Greece has already passed the “developing nation” third-world level, and is quickly headed for whatever’s worse than third-world. And, as much as I’m glad not to be European and particularly not on the euro, I keep thinking that it can happen here. In fact, if we don’t soon start taking a meat-axe to spending, it will happen here.


Saturday, 16 March 2013

09:37 – Barbara’s out working in the yard, I’m doing laundry, and Colin is whining to go out and play. A typical Saturday. We haven’t had many of those recently. But now things seem to have settled down with Barbara’s parents, which is exactly what she needed.

My vendor acknowledged the PO I sent yesterday. Unfortunately, two of the items were backordered. One of them, the 96-well plate, is out of stock permanently. They’re out and don’t intend to get more. That’s not a big problem. I can order those elsewhere. The worrisome one is the deep cavity slides. I ordered $600+ worth of those, and they’re backordered until May 15th. No one else carries those, unless I want to order directly from the factory in China. That’s a can of worms I’d rather not open.


Friday, 15 March 2013

07:47 – Barbara and I have started watching another good Canadian series on Netflix streaming. It’s Bomb Girls, set in a Toronto munitions plant in 1941. With one jarring exception, their technical advisors have done a good job. That exception was a scene that showed the girls sitting around on break (outside the plant, of course) smoking cigarettes. I almost choked on my Coke. The cigarettes they were smoking were filter tips, which didn’t become common until about 15 years after that scene was set. Also, some of the slang seems a bit anachronistic to my ears. For example, the girls use the phrase “head in the game” more than once.

But the tech advisors did get a lot of subtle things right. For example, there’s an accidental explosion and one of the survivors comments that the smoke was black instead of white. The girls fill shells with amatol, which is a mixture of TNT and ammonium nitrate. TNT is oxygen-deficient and produces black smoke when it detonates. Ammonium nitrate is oxygen-rich, and causes properly-blended amatol to produce white smoke when it detonates. So it would seem that the accident was not the fault of the girls who were filling the shells, but of the people who made up the amatol blend. I checked all this against a book I just happen to have on my shelves, the 1941 edition of Chemistry of Powder and Explosives. It’s a great reference resource for anyone who happens to be running a munitions factory in 1941.

Work on science kits continues. UPS showed up yesterday with my case of 60 Sterilite plastic shoe-box bins, which are already unpacked and in use as assembly bins.


12:28 – Back when we incorporated and started selling science kits, one of the first things I did was contact various wholesalers that we intended to use and ask them about credit terms. Most of them pretty much automatically granted $1,000 worth of trade credit, which was more than enough at the time.

Since then, I’ve started paying all of our minor vendors and all but two of the major vendors by credit card. It’s quicker and cleaner. I don’t have to write and mail checks. And our AmEx card gives us a kick-back on all purchases, so it makes sense to use it.

The two major vendors don’t accept credit cards, so I do the PO/check thing with them. Both authorized $1,000 of trade credit when we established accounts with them two years ago. One of them is pretty flexible. I mentioned Katie the other day. When I asked her early on how rigid they were about the $1,000 limit, she said not to worry about going over it within reason. She said if I ordered $1,500 or $2,000 worth of stuff or even more that probably no one would care. She said that if I issued them a PO for $4,000 or $5,000 their credit department would probably flag the transaction. The other vendor is much more rigid. They’ll accept POs up to $1,000, not including shipping (which can be significant, particularly for glassware orders), but that’s as far as they’ll budge. And until I’d paid outstanding invoices, which I do on receipt, I couldn’t order any more stuff from them, unless I pre-paid. Cutting a check for items I hadn’t yet ordered is a pain in the butt in terms of record keeping, so I just never did that.

None of this was a problem before. The typical PO I issued to that vendor might be for $600 or $800, and I seldom issued more than one or two a month. But with our business ramping up fast, I could see that it’s going to become a bigger problem. So I called and spoke to the owner this morning and asked him if he could increase my credit limit. He asked how much I wanted. I told him I was looking at a PO for $1,800–just one line item was for over $600–and trying to figure out how to prioritize items to get the PO under $1,000. I told him that our business was ramping up fast and issuing so many sub-$1,000 POs was going to be a pain in the butt, both for us and for them. So he raised our credit limit to $2,000 and said to give him a call in a few months about raising it further.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

07:57 – So, the catholics have a new pope. I’m not sure why anyone cares, including catholics, although from the amount of news coverage one would think something important had been going on. One vicious old bastard with medieval attitudes retired; now the catholics have a different vicious old bastard with medieval attitudes. Meet the new boss. As they say, ignorance is bliss.

Speaking of ignorance, the county commissioners of neighboring Rowan County insist on starting meetings with sectarian prayers. The ACLU pointed out that this is illegal and asked them to stop doing that, but they refused. So the ACLU is suing the county. I think that’s a mistake. The ACLU should be suing those commissioners personally. The taxpayers of Rowan County should not be liable for paying the costs to defend the indefensible actions of this group of individuals. Closer to home, a local legislator has introduced a bill that would allow local school systems to offer bible study courses in public schools. Why can these morons not get it through their tiny little brains that there is no place for religion in government? None. Government is supposed to represent all of the people, not just this subset of very vocal religious nutcases.


Wednesday, 13 March 2013

08:30 – Science kit sales continue to be strong, at least for this time of year. We’re running low on both biology and forensics kits, so over the next couple of days I’ll build new batches of each. We’re currently shipping kits at a rate of about 30/month, and increasing. We expect that rate to peak at about 300 kits/month in August, so for now we’re building just enough finished kits to keep reasonable stock levels while we focus the rest of our attention on building subassemblies for the summer rush.


12:02 – I’ve spent the morning doing miscellany. I managed to get 30 of the regulated chemical bags for the biology kits assembled. Then I filed the annual report for our LLC and wrote a $200 check to the Secretary of State for the protection money it demands. Since I had the corporate checkbook out, I paid an invoice on some stuff that arrived Monday. Which made me think: remember when invoices used to say something like “2% 10, net 30”? Remember when the accounting department used to hold off paying invoices until the last moment so the company would get the benefit of the float? You seldom see discounts for quick payment nowadays. Every invoice I get just says “Net 30”. With interest rates where they are, discounts and slow paying are pretty pointless. I simply pay invoices as soon as the shipment has arrived and been checked in.

When I returned the corporate checkbook to Barbara’s office, I happened to look in the bedroom door. The bed pillows were all pillaged, which is usual. All of our Border Collies have arranged the pillows to their liking, so they can lie on the bed and look out the window while having a comfortable place to rest their heads. But today Colin had done more than rearrange the pillows; he’d shredded the corner of one and pulled out some of the stuffing. I chastised him and he slunk away.

Then I went out on the front porch to put the new mail on the mailbox. There was already a note on the front of the mailbox to let the mailman know there were boxes awaiting pickup inside. That note was held on the mailbox with two clothespins, the tops of which held the lid of the mailbox up. The entire mailbox was full to overflowing with small sticks, grass, leaves, moss, and other assorted biomass. Obviously, spring has arrived early and a bird had decided this would be a good place to build her nest. So I cleared out the nesting materials, reclamped the note and envelopes to keep the lid of the box down, and came back inside. Colin was standing there watching me the whole time. When I came back in, Colin claimed that he’d shredded the pillow and removed stuffing to help the bird gather good nesting materials. Yeah, right.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

08:59 – We started watching The Grand last night on Netflix streaming. It’s set in an English hotel, with the first episode opening on New Year’s Eve 1919. The cast is good, as are the writing and production values. It’s reminiscent of Upstairs, Downstairs. The one thing I found jarring was that more than once they had characters laughing and joking about WWI. In 1919, that wasn’t a subject for levity. Britain had just lost literally most of a generation of its young men, and nearly every family had lost a young man killed, blinded, or crippled in the war. If not more than one. The scale of the slaughter was almost inconceivable to us today. On the worst day of the Battle of the Somme, for example, there were more men killed than the US lost during the entire Viet Nam war. And that battle went on for months, with more than a million total casualties. No joking matter.

I got email Sunday from a homeschool mom who really wanted to do a forensic science lab course, but her budget wouldn’t stretch to $247 for our FK01 forensic kit. She asked if there was any way we could break up the FK01 kit into smaller, less expensive kits. Hers was by no means the first similar email I’d gotten, and I was already thinking about doing exactly what she wanted. I decided to break up the FK01 kit into three kits:

The FK01A Core Forensic Science Kit sells for $165, and includes the specialized equipment, chemicals, and specimens needed to do the 25 lab sessions in the first six groups in the book. The other two kits require the FK01A kit if the user doesn’t already have the equipment and chemicals on hand. The FK01B Forensic Science Kit Supplement 1 sells for $51, and includes the specialized chemicals and specimens needed to do the 7 lab sessions in the Forensic Drug Testing and Forensic Toxicology groups in the book. The FK01C Forensic Science Kit Supplement 2 sells for $79, and includes the specialized chemicals and specimens needed to do the 7 lab sessions in the Gunshot and Explosive Residues Analysis, Detecting Altered and Forged Documents, and Forensic Biology groups in the book.


10:52 – Barbara called earlier to say they’d had an offer on their parents’ house. Their agent suggested they counter-offer, but Barbara thought the amount he suggested was a bit high, in particular because the latest real estate valuation reduced the tax value of the house by 20%. I suggested that they split the difference on their counter-offer between the listing price and the price offered. On the one hand, they don’t want to leave too much money on the table. On the other, they don’t want the potential buyer to walk away and end up having the house sitting on the market. On the gripping hand, homes are starting to sell a lot faster than they had been.

Last week, I ordered 360 glass Petri dishes, all my vendor had in stock. UPS delivered them about 6:00 last night. As usual with UPS, the boxes were a bit banged up, so I was a bit concerned. I’d ordered 100 of the same Petri dishes earlier, which Barbara packed last weekend into groups of three, padded with bubble-wrap. Of those 100, there were two cracked. A 2% breakage rate is no big deal. Almost any glassware order has some breakage.

The problem is, it’s not convenient for us to discover the actual amount of breakage because that involves unpacking every box and examining each Petri dish. The boxes are small cubes, each with four stacks of five Petri dishes, and having to repack undamaged dishes would be time-consuming and inconvenient. So I called Katie, who’s our rep with that vendor, and explained the problem. Ordinarily, vendors expect buyers to report damage or shortage quickly, usually within one to three days of receipt, but that obviously wasn’t going to work. Katie understood our problem and said just to keep a running total of breakage when we pack up the dishes for kits. She’ll issue a credit to apply towards the next order.

I also suggested to Katie that they contact the manufacturer about improving their packing. It’s a long boat trip from China, and the only protection they use within the boxes of 20 is a sheet of tissue paper between the halves of a plate pair and another sheet between plate pairs. That’s no real protection against breakage, and I suggested to Katie that they get the manufacturer to start using thin sheets of bubble wrap between halves and between pairs. If that means the boxes have to be a little larger and the cost of the plates a little higher, fine. Better that than having to deal with breakage.