Wednesday, 31 July 2013

08:11 – I was surprised to read in the paper this morning that North Carolina has legalized the use of firearms suppressors (“silencers”) for hunting and other purposes. I was even more surprised to read that North Carolina is the 40th state to have done so. Of course, suppressors remain tightly controlled under federal law. They’re legal to buy and possess, but only after paying a $200 transfer tax, and even then transporting them is tightly controlled. Ironically, suppressors are unregulated in many countries. The last time I checked, one could walk into a hardware store in Britain and buy (for example) a Parker-Hale Sound Moderator, no questions asked.

Perhaps this means more Americans will find out what a suppressor actually looks like and sounds like. Contrary to how they’re represented in movies and TV, a suppressor–even for minor calibers like .22 rimfire–isn’t small. For a serious caliber, it’s typically the volume of a soda can, if not larger. And they don’t hiss, whistle, or thump. A good one reduces the report of a major caliber pistol from a resounding boom to a loud pop, like what you hear when you prick a balloon.


I’m shipping another box of stuff to “our” USMC unit in Afghanistan today. After I finished packing it, I was surprised how dense that box is. It’s USPS Regional Rate Box B–which has a volume of 615 cubic inches or 10 liters–and the sucker weighs over 13 pounds (6 kilos). I guess that’s what happens when one packs a box full of mostly canned foods. I’d used lots of packing tape originally, but I went back and taped the hell out of it again, just to make sure it doesn’t come apart.


12:07 – Now that I’m 60, I’m even more conscious of my physical and mental limitations. I mean, I’ve known for many years that I can no longer play serve-and-volley tennis anywhere near the level that I did when I was 20. As Barbara has pointed out, my arm would probably fall off when I served, and I’d probably drop dead of a heart attack before I reached the net. And that’s not even counting the fact that my vertigo would probably land me face-first on the court as I followed through, armless, on my serve.

Despite the fact that nearly all drivers rate themselves as above average, I recognize that I must be distinctly below average. I’m simply no longer in practice. For years, I’ve driven maybe five or ten miles in an average month. Months go by when I don’t drive at all. I try to avoid driving unless it’s really necessary. I mean, when I’m driving, I feel as if I’m driving about as well as I ever did, but I know that must be an illusion. At age 60, having driven probably less than a thousand miles in the last decade, I simply can’t be very good at it.

And I know I can no longer trust my memory as I once could. The other day, I was talking with Paul Jones and mentioned an organic compound by its trivial name, sulfanilic acid. Paul said something like, “that’s o-aminobenzenesulfonic acid, right?” What flashed through my mind was something like, “I thought it was para rather than ortho, but Paul’s the organic chemistry professor, not me.” So I kind of agreed with him and made a mental note to look it up later. It is in fact para, and there was a time when I’d have known that without having to look it up. I knew the structures of hundreds of organic compounds by their trivial names. No more.

But it’s not just forgetting facts. It’s forgetting things I need to do. For example, I was just down in the lab refluxing some Kastle-Meyer reagent. Instead of standing there watching it reflux for half an hour, I came back upstairs. There was a time when there was zero chance that I’d forget I had that reflux running. No more. This time, I set the timer in the kitchen to ding. Which it just did.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

09:38 – I just shipped a core forensic science kit, which includes a bottle of Kastle-Meyer reagent. I add that bottle immediately before sealing the box, because we store KM reagent refrigerated to extend its shelf life. That bottle of KM reagent was the last one we had in stock, so it’s time to make up more.

I’m probably being more cautious than necessary. KM reagent is inherently unstable by design, but it’s actual pretty damned stable if stored under an inert atmosphere in a nearly full amber glass bottle with a granule or two of zinc metal to prevent oxidation, and an airtight cap. Unopened, that bottle should remain stable for years. So I’m debating making up a new batch of 30 or 60 bottles rather than the usual 15.

Not that it’s a big deal to make the stuff up in small batches. It just a matter of making up a 40% w/v solution of potassium hydroxide, dissolving enough phenolphthalein powder in the alkaline solution to make it 4% w/r to phenolphthalein, refluxing for half an hour or so over metallic zinc to reduce the phenolphthalein to phenolphthalin, and then making up the solution to double the initial volume with 70% ethanol.


11:34 – A man after my own heart.

Monday, 29 July 2013

08:07 – I didn’t realize that this phenomenon had made it to Britain: All part-time Sports Direct staff employed on zero-hours contracts

That’s been commonplace here for years, of course. Many US employers, particularly brick-and-mortar retailers and fast-food restaurants, employ as few full-time permanent staff as possible. They depend largely on part-time and temporary employees, who are generally paid minimum wage and receive few or no benefits. It’s even worse in the US than what the article describes in Britain. Not only are part-time employees unsure “of how many hours they will work each week”, they’re unsure of how many hours, if any, they’ll work each day. It’s not uncommon for a temp employee to be called out in the morning to work for a couple hours, be sent home, and then be called out later the same day to work another couple of hours. About all they can be sure of is that they’ll never be offered enough hours in a week to qualify as full-time.

I think this practice is contemptible, and I’ll never engage in it myself, but I don’t really blame the employers. It’s just a matter of unintended consequences. Well-meaning legislators and bureaucrats attempt to protect low/no-skill workers by implementing laws and regulations, including minimum-wage laws. Employers defend their own interests by taking advantage of every exception and loophole to the maximum extent possible. Employees suffer. If the laws and regulations are tightened, the employees find they have no jobs at all.

I remember the first time we invited Mary and Paul to go along as our guests to Costco. Mary declined. When I asked her why, she said that she didn’t like how Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club, Costco, and similar companies treated their employees. My impression was that Costco wasn’t like that, so I did some quick research, including talking to a Costco employee. Mary was and is right about Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club. They treat their employees very badly. But I found that Costco employees were at the time being paid an average of $41,000/year and had full benefits. I sent Mary a couple of links to articles about how Costco treated its employees, and told her about the Costco employee I’d spoken with. This woman was a single mom, and praised Costco to the heavens. When she started with Costco, during her probationary period before becoming full-time permanent, she wasn’t yet eligible for the full benefits package. She was a single mom, and her child was ill and needed expensive medical treatment. Costco found out about her situation and waived the waiting period, putting her and her child under full medical coverage before they would normally have become eligible. By doing that, Costco gained an employee who will be loyal for life, and showed themselves to be the kind of company we want to do business with. Yeah, Sam’s Club may be a bit cheaper because their labor costs are lower, but we’ll never know because Sam’s Club is not the kind of company we want to do business with.


Sunday, 28 July 2013

08:27 – Although the official rainfall total for yesterday was 1.25 inches, we ended up getting 4.2 inches (10+ cm) at our house. I’ve lost track of how many times this year we’ve gotten a month’s worth of rain in one day. Charlotte got 12 inches (30+ cm) yesterday.

After all those nasty things I said about Netflix yesterday, they sent me an email to tell me that series two of Hell on Wheels was now available, so we watched the first episode last night. It’d been a month or so since we’d watched the last episode of series one, and it took us a few minutes to remember what had been going on. We had a similar experience recently with Inspector Lewis. We weren’t sure if we’d seen some of the episodes that Netflix had just made available, so we started watching one. Barbara couldn’t remember watching it at all. It seemed vaguely familiar to me, enough so that I knew we’d seen it but I couldn’t remember any of the details.

Barbara really, really doesn’t like re-runs. She hates re-watching a series even if she really liked it the first time. She hates re-reading a book, even if she really liked it the first time. I, on the other hand, much prefer re-watching a series I really liked or re-reading a book I really liked to trying a new one. They’re comfortable and familiar, like old friends. Watching or reading something new is like meeting new people, which I don’t like to do.

Barbara had commented that One Tree Hill, which we’re currently watching, reminded her of Everwood, which we both liked. So I suggested that, since we hadn’t watched Everwood in years, maybe we should pull out the discs, since neither of us would remember any details. That, and I want to watch Emily at age 14 again. Barbara said she didn’t want to watch it again, but I was welcome to watch it when she wasn’t home. I may do that, although it’d cut down on the time I’d have available for rewatching Amber in Heartland.


Saturday, 27 July 2013

09:14 – We got an order for a biology kit overnight, to be shipped to Australia. That’s the first order we’ve gotten from Australia. Well, the first valid order, anyway. We got an order from Australia a few days ago for a chemistry kit, but the buyer hadn’t added the shipping surcharge. I emailed him to tell him we couldn’t ship until he’d paid the shipping surcharge, but I haven’t heard back from him.

Barbara is out running errands this morning. This afternoon, she’ll be labeling bottles for 30 sets each of the two forensic science kit supplements. She may also get started on labeling another set of bottles for 60 biology kits. Which reminds me that I need to check our inventory of empty bottles. We use the things by the thousands, and we stock seven or eight different types of bottles.


12:39 – It’s raining. Again. Officially, we have “only” about 5 inches (12.5 cm) of rain month-to-date. At our house, we’ve had over 8 inches (20 cm) MTD through yesterday. Today, we have monsoon weather. The instantaneous rainfall rate at the moment is about 1.5 inches per hour, with flood warnings posted by the NWS. Our rain gauge has more than 2 inches (5 cm) in it, and our front yard looks like a rice paddy.


13:39 – And an hour later we’re up from 2.1 inches to 3.6 inches DTD. I’ve decided to stop work on lab kits and start building an ark.


13:59 – Two of the annoying things about Netflix streaming are their extremely liberal definition of “New Arrivals” and their very short notice when a title is about to disappear. They list titles as “New Arrivals” that we finished watching almost a year ago. Disregarding the fact that they shouldn’t list any title that we’re current on, even if we just finished watching it yesterday, claiming titles as “new” that in fact have been available on their service for a year borders on deceptive. And when their rights to a title are about to run out, they list the expiration date, which is seldom more than a week before the title actually disappears. Certainly they must know from the time they license a title when that license expires, so why not post the expiration date immediately? Otherwise, they put their customers in the position of starting to watch a series that’ll go away before they have time to watch all of it.

The obvious problem is that for the last year or more Netflix has been forced to pay much more to license content. They obviously want to make their streaming catalog look more comprehensive and up-to-date than it actually is. They’re not doing themselves or their customers any favors by deceptively padding their new listings. I’d much rather see a new-this-week or new-this-month list that actually has only new titles than have to scroll through a bunch of stuff that’s “new” only in the minds of the Netflix marketing folks.

And, as I’ve been telling them every time I talk to them, at $8/month, their streaming price is much too low. Double it. They’ll lose some customers, sure. But not many, I suspect. At $16/month, Netflix streaming would still be a great bargain compared to what cable and satellite TV providers charge, assuming that Netflix uses that additional money to license more content.

Friday, 26 July 2013

07:31 – Yet more evidence, as if any more was needed, that really smart people sometimes do incredibly stupid things. Dr. Robert Ferrante, a University of Pittsburgh medical researcher, is accused of murdering his wife, neurologist Dr. Autumn Klein, by poisoning her with cyanide.

I mean, come on. Conventional wisdom has it that physicians make the most dangerous murderers. (I’d put them fourth, behind toxicologists, biologists, and organic chemists/biochemists.) But the point is that any of those people should be able to figure out how to murder someone without being caught. Dr. Ferrrante moronically decided to use cyanide, which is trivially easy to detect both from the symptoms exhibited by the victim and in the body after death. To top it all off, having decided to use cyanide, rather than synthesizing it himself–which is trivially easy even without access to a lab–he actually ordered 250 grams of the stuff on his university credit card, the only item he ordered that had no place in his research activities.


Barbara is off on a day trip with her friend Bonnie Richardson. She’s been working very hard lately and needs a break. I’ll be working on science kits, as usual.


11:37 – I just got email from AmEx saying that they believed an unauthorized charge had been made on my card. Indeed it was unauthorized, which I told the lady on the phone. She’s canceled the current card and issued me a new one, which is supposed to arrive Monday. This is getting annoying. It seems to happen about once a year, although my record was only two or three months between new cards. Each time, it takes an hour or so of my time to get the new card issued and update sites like Amazon, Netflix, PhonePower, GoDaddy, Dreamhost, and the many others with whom I have recurring transactions set up. They really need to bring back the death penalty for scammers.


12:48 – Has technology ruined handwriting?

Who cares? Teaching schoolchildren to write cursive is a waste of time. Other than my signature, I haven’t used cursive in more than 40 years, and I’ve barely used it in 50. Like everyone else at the time, I was required to learn cursive in elementary school, but I used it only when forced. Otherwise, I printed, which I could do faster and more legibly. In junior high-school, we had one required course each year in a “practical” subject. Girls took home economics and the like; boys took mechanical drawing, wood shop, and so on. Mechanical drawing emphasized neatness and, yes, printing. I don’t think I ever used cursive after that other than for those few teachers who required reports be done in cursive. Then in 10th grade I started computer programming, and that really put a nail in cursive. Well, that and the fact that I also took a typing course in 10th grade, taught by Brenda Spanish, who was an extremely attractive young woman but, alas, married to Dan Spanish, our ex-DI gym teacher.

So, I just checked. For the first time in at least 40 years, I just wrote a sentence in cursive. (Now is the time for all good men…) Not surprisingly, it was relatively neat and quite readable, if I do say so myself. Even after 40 years, muscle memory abides. I wonder if that means I could still hit the cover off a tennis ball. I also tried writing cursively left-handed, which made an unreadable mess; interestingly, I can print left-handed, albeit not as neatly as I can right-handed, but I can’t write cursively at all.

Again, I wonder why anyone cares about the decline and eventual death of cursive. Teach elementary school kids to print and to use a keyboard. Spend a little bit of time teaching them to make a reproducible cursive signature. That’s all they need.

I’ll admit that at one point I wondered whether cursive might be useful in teaching young children fine muscle control, but we now have many people in their 30’s and 40’s who never learned cursive. If they lack fine muscle control, that’s not evident from any data I’ve seen.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

16:01 – Barbara and I have started watching One Tree Hill, which revolves around two high-school basketball players and their extended families in small-town North Carolina. It’s set in the fictional small town of Tree Hill, NC, which is apparently in the extreme northeasternmost part of the state–somewhere around Essex, Massachusetts if the 01928 zipcode is to be trusted. So far, the series seems decent, and there are multiple cuties for me to watch.

We rotated this series in to replace Glee, which we dropped a couple episodes into series three. Barbara thought it was getting repetitive. I thought it jumped the shark midway through series one. Finding out that the late Cory Monteith, the male lead, had been not just a doper but an actual junkie pretty much sealed it for me. I had no desire to watch a dead junkie. And, like most straight guys, I don’t particularly like show tunes, which it seemed was all they were doing for the last several episodes we watched.

Science kit sales are picking up, although not to the extent I’d expected. We’re shipping kits at a 15 to 20 per week rate, which is accelerating. I’d hoped to be at a 30 kits/week rate by late July or early August. Still, I guess I should be careful what I wish for. Shipping 15 or 20 kits a week is sustainable; shipping twice that would get very hectic very quickly.


Wednesday, 24 July 2013

12:48 – When Danny delivered the mail yesterday, I asked him about some of the stuff I mentioned here yesterday. He said that as far as he knew anyone could get delivery to a curbside box, even if there was a CBU in the neighborhood. He thinks CBUs are insecure, curbside boxes somewhat more secure, and porch boxes most secure of all. Apparently there are frequent thefts from CBUs, probably because it’s not obvious that the thief has no business there. Theft from curbside boxes is less common, probably because the thief is in plain sight and it’s obvious to neighbors that he’s messing with a box he doesn’t own. Theft from porch boxes is still less common because the thief has to walk right up to the porch to steal the mail.

Other than Kastle-Meyer reagent, which we store refrigerated and add individually at ship time, we have plenty of inventory of the FK01A core forensic science kits, but we’re nearly out of stock on the FK01B and FK01C supplement kits. Time to build more of those. I’ll probably do only 15 or 20 of each, because at least half of the orders for forensic kits are for the core kit only.


Tuesday, 23 July 2013

10:38 – I remember when headline writers used to do their best to sum up the actual news story in a few words. At some point, they turned sleazy and gave up accuracy in favor of sensationalizing mundane news stories. Here’s an example: Postal Service looks to end at-your-door mail

That’s bogus, of course. USPS isn’t eliminating home delivery to existing homes. What they’ve done is require new developments to install Cluster Box Units, something they should have done years ago. And they’ve finally started to enforce a long-standing rule that when you buy a home you’re required to install a curbside mail box if there’s not one already there. They don’t require people who are already getting delivery to their door to install curbside boxes. Of course, if Issa has his way, they will eventually require everyone whose home isn’t served by a CBU to have a curbside box, but that’s by no means settled.

No matter what they eventually do, it won’t have much effect on us. We ship a lot of Priority Mail boxes, and even on days that we don’t have a PM box to ship we often receive boxes via USPS. So, one way or another, the USPS delivery person is going to end up coming to our door most days.


Monday, 22 July 2013

10:22 – As usual, I’ll be working on science kits this week. I also hope to be able to devote at least a few hours to several longer-range projects. There’s never enough time.


13:38 – I keep seeing these articles in the MSM about how the economy is improving, consumer confidence is up, and so on. I don’t buy it. I think things have really tanked in the last couple of months. We see that in our business. From January through the end of May, our sales were running between three and four times month-on-month 2012 sales. Then things seemed to fall off a cliff. In June, we beat June 2012 numbers by maybe 20%. We may or may not beat last year’s number this month.

But it’s not just us. I’ve exchanged email with several other small business owners, and they all tell me the same thing: sales have really slowed over the last couple of months. And I see other evidence as well. I’m getting a bunch of promo emails from many of our minor vendors. They’re all similar. One formerly offered free shipping on orders over $75. They’re now offering free shipping on any order. Another dropped the limit for free shipping from $250 to $25. Yet another is offering 20% discounts on any order over $100. And so on. And none of these are vendors for whom this is ordinarily a slow time of year. That tells me that a lot of businesses are trying desperately to generate traffic and sales. Even Costco seems to be pushing harder than usual.