Friday, 30 May 2014

13:38 – Another day being eaten by locusts. I thought, as just one example, that I had another case of 500 Petri dishes in stock. That turns out to be wrong, so I just did a PO for another case of 500. For the time being, I’m fine, but I’m down to only 150 Petri dishes in stock, which is only 25 biology kit’s worth.

It took Barbara an hour to get to work this morning. We had a thunderstorm last night, which wasn’t at all strong here, but a couple miles down the road at the Wake Forest University main entrance it knocked down a tree and powerlines, which blocked traffic on Reynolda Road both ways. Which is an example of why I want to be prepared for emergencies. If something as minor as a downed tree can bollix things up so badly for so many people for so long, just imagine what a serious problem could do, let alone a catastrophic problem.


Thursday, 29 May 2014

08:00 – I didn’t quite finish building the biology kits yesterday, but I’ll get that done today. Fortunately so, because I have outstanding orders to fill today.

The US MSM has paid little attention to the seismic shift in European politics over the last week. Embarrassingly, UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s Tories finished third in the EU elections, far behind the UK Independence Party (UKIP; think the British version of the Tea Party). The Tories even managed to finish slightly behind Labour. But it’s not just the UK. Voters in most EU countries voted heavily for Eurosceptic parties. In France, voters’ rejection of Hollande’s Socialists was stunning, with Marine Le Pen’s Front National (FN; think the French version of the Tea Party) essentially sweeping the election.

These elections bode ill for the EU in general and the euro in particular. Here’s Ambrose Evans-Pritchard’s take: Europe has an even bigger crisis on its hands than a British exit FTA:

If Europe’s policy elites could not quite believe it before, they must now know beyond much doubt that they have lost Britain. This island is no longer part of the European project in any meaningful sense.

British defenders of the status quo were knouted on Sunday. UKIP won 27.5pc of the vote, or 29pc after adjusting for the negligence – or worse – of the Electoral Commission in allowing a spoiler party with much the same name to sow confusion. Margaret Thatcher’s Tory children are scarcely more friendly to the EU enterprise.


Wednesday, 28 May 2014

09:33 – I just shipped the last biology kit we had in stock, but I have another 30 in progress. I should be able to finish those today or tomorrow, depending on what else comes up. We’re also down under two dozen chemistry kits in stock, so I need to get another batch of 60 of those started.

In 2013, my goal was to double 2012 revenue. We didn’t quite make that, finishing 2013 at about 185% of 2012 revenue. Starting 2014, my goal was to double 2013 revenue. Through today, we’re running about 170% of January through May 2013 revenue. Of course, it’s the quarter covering July through September that will determine our year’s results. Last year, our revenue for that three month period matched the other nine months combined. And we did about a quarter of the entire year’s revenues just in August. Which is why I’m working hard to get finished-goods inventory built up in time for the rush.


12:35 – Using stamps.com rather than USPS Click-N-Ship just saved me $3.04. The USPS web site doesn’t offer first-class parcel as an option, and the least expensive Priority Mail option is $5.05 for a small flat-rate box. So I used the stamps.com software running on the Dell Windows 8.1 laptop to print a first-class parcel label for $2.01 to ship a four ounce box.

Stamps.com supposedly supports Linux and Mac clients via a web-based app. I couldn’t get that to work with my main system when it was running Linux Mint, but since I’d upgraded it to Ubuntu 14.04 LTS, I decided to give it another shot. It worked fine, right up to the point where I tried to print the postage label. A box popped up telling me that I had to install a small app before I could print postage. That app is a Windows .exe file. So much for supporting Linux and Mac clients.

So I fired up the laptop and ran the stamps.com software. Everything proceeded smoothly until I tried to print the postage label. When I did that, a box popped up warning me that I was using the “hide postage” option. Apparently, the USPS is very sensitive about that. The box warned me that if the weight was incorrect or there was any other significant issue, USPS would probably revoke my hidden-postage privileges. Okay, so I clicked on the button to show postage. The app then popped up another box that asked if I was really sure I wanted to show the postage amount on the label because hiding postage improves deliverability. Eh? No matter which of their suggestions I accepted, I’d be violating the other. So I chose to hide postage, just to see what the label would look like. The package, hidden postage and all, is now sitting in the queue to be picked up. If the Postal Police come after me, they’ll never take me alive.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

10:35 – Barbara is starting her 4-day week, which she says always seems longer than a regular 5-day week. I’m doing admin stuff and building some biology kits.

Our food storage project is progressing. Yesterday, I decided to check the lds.org site to review their recommendations. I was surprised to see that they’d entirely revamped their suggested food storage, apparently back in 2008. They used to recommend a one-year supply of food, mostly dry grains and beans and so on. They now recommend a 3-month supply of canned goods and other foods you regularly eat, along with a one-year supply of the long-term storage stuff. They’ve also hugely increased their shelf-life estimates for many products, although they’re still far too pessimistic about many items. For example, they list white sugar properly stored as being good for 30 years, when 300 years is more like it, if not 3,000.

Also, I either never knew or had forgotten that lds.org has a physical store out near the airport, about half an hour’s drive from us. They carry lots of stuff in #10 cans for long-term storage, and the prices are quite reasonable. Their hours are quite limited–9 hours a week or so–but they are open the 2nd and 4th Saturdays of each month from 9:00 a.m. to noon. And they’re happy to sell products to anyone rather than just church members. I guess their attitude is that the more people who are prepared for emergencies, the better.


Monday, 26 May 2014

09:11 – It’s Memorial Day here in the U.S., the day set aside to remember those who sacrificed themselves to protect our freedom. Although the official purpose of Memorial Day is to remember those who gave their lives in the service of our country, let’s also remember all of those brave men and women, living and dead, who through the years have put their lives on the line to protect all of us. As we have our cookouts and family get-togethers today, let’s all take a moment to think about our troops in the Middle East and elsewhere, who can’t be with their families. And let’s have a thought, not just today but every day of the year, for them and the sacrifices they are making and have made.


Sunday, 25 May 2014

08:48 – Obviously, I had to read this one: Atheists in the Bible Belt: A survival guide

The article focuses on North Carolina, which they apparently consider to be part of the Bible Belt. I never thought of it that way. Sure, we have a lot of Southern Baptists around here, but we’re nothing like the Deep South, not to mention Texas, Oklahoma, and other states where religion is much more dominant in daily life. And apparently many atheist North Carolinians hide their atheism from friends, neighbors, and co-workers. I’ve never done that. Since I moved to North Carolina almost 35 years ago, I’ve been completely upfront about my beliefs (or lack thereof). I think every one of my friends, neighbors, and co-workers that whole time has been aware that I’m not just an atheist but a rabid atheist. Not just non-theist but anti-theist. I don’t care what they believe, and as far as I’m aware nearly all of them don’t care what I don’t believe.

And I spotted another very strange article on CNN: Don’t machine wash your denim, says Levi’s CEO

I actually read something similar to this a year or two ago, about a new fad for never washing jeans. That article recommended putting them in the freezer instead, claiming that freezing killed bacteria. Obviously, no one bothered to tell those teeming masses of bacteria that are happily living atop Mount Everest or in Antarctica about that. Or, for that matter, those foolish scientists who routinely preserve living bacteria by lyophilizing (freeze-drying) them. Freezing jeans doesn’t sterilize them. Not even close. If you really don’t want to wash your jeans, I recommend autoclaving them. Stick them in a pressure cooker at 15 PSI for 30 minutes. They won’t come out clean, but they will come out sterile.


Saturday, 24 May 2014

08:17 – The morning paper ran an article about the North Carolinians for Home Education annual conference that’s currently running in Winston-Salem. The article mentioned that North Carolina is a “homeschool friendly” state, which is kind of true. North Carolina is friendlier to homeschooling than many states, but it’s by no means in the top rank. Some states have no requirements at all for homeschooling, not even requiring notification of intent to homeschool. North Carolina requires notification to register a home school. The requirements are not onerous, but they do exist.

What surprised me was the number of registered homeschools in Forsyth County: 1,600 of them. That means that 1,600 families in this county are homeschooling. Some homeschool families homeschool only one child, but many have two or more learning at home. One homeschool family that lives down the street from us has four or five kids being homeschooled, and that’s not an unusual number. I think it’s safe to assume that the average homeschool family has at least two kids being homeschooled. That means there are 3,000+ students being homeschooled in Forsyth County. ISTR that Forsyth County has about 50,000 students in public schools, which means homeschooler students here are 6% or so of total students.

This fast-increasing percentage of homeschoolers doesn’t bode well for public schools. On average, homeschool students dramatically outperform public school students by every measure. That’s not because home schools are “better” than public schools. It’s because there’s self-selection going on. Brighter kids are much more likely to be homeschooled than average or slow kids, simply because brighter kids are much more likely to have bright parents, who in turn are much more likely both to care about their kids’ education and to have the resources to take on homeschooling. What we’re watching is the dumbing down of public schools, as they lose many of their best students to homeschooling. If this trend continues and accelerates, which I suspect it will, public schools are going to end up being warehouses for average and below-average students, with most of the above-average and really bright kids being homeschooled or attending private schools.


10:36 – Speaking of reasons why any sane parent who is able to do so homeschools their kids or sends them to private school, take the case of poor Gwendolyn Williams. She’s eight years old. She stands 4’1″ (125 cm) tall and weighs 66 pounds (30 kilos).

The New York City Department of Public Education is very concerned about overweight kids. They send notes home with the kids to report to the parents on their weight status. They tell the kids not to look at the notes, but of course nearly all of them do. Gwendolyn’s note reported that she is fat, which of course horrified her. This was not a mistake, you understand. The NYC DPE honestly believes this little girl is fat, not that they are in any way qualified to have an opinion. They base their judgment on BMI, which has been known for decades to be worthless. But they accomplished what they apparently intended to accomplish: they now have this little girl and presumably tens of thousands of others believing they are “fat”. Way to go folks. I wonder how many cases of anorexia nervosa they’ll cause. Not to mention how many little girls will have their self-images destroyed for no reason. Here’s a better image of Gwendolyn than they used in the article. She looks to me like a normal little girl, with a stick-like figure. Only a moron could believe that this little girl is “fat”. But I’m sure that the NYC DPE has lots and lots of morons on staff.

Friday, 23 May 2014

07:35 – Barbara is taking today off work. With the holiday Monday, that gives her a four-day weekend. We’d planned to sleep in this morning, but Colin woke us at 6:15 vomiting. At least he wasn’t up on the bed at the time.

Barbara has lots of work planned for the next few days, including painting the new columns on the front porch and the new threshold at the back door. I hope we can keep Colin away from the wet paint. Over the years, our experience with Border Collies and wet paint hasn’t been good.

There’s an article in the paper this morning about state government subsidies for movie and TV production companies. North Carolina has been a major participant. Most of the action takes place in Wilmington, where many TV series have been or are being produced, including Dawson’s Creek, One Tree Hill, Hart of Dixie, Under the Dome, Revolution, Sleepy Hollow, and Eastbound and Down.

But now many states are rethinking these tax breaks and production credits, wondering if they’re getting enough bang for their bucks. Many states are eliminating subsidies entirely. North Carolina is tweaking the rules, eliminating subsidies for talk shows and sporting events and focusing more on credits for building production facilities and other infrastructure. I suspect that North Carolina has already reached critical mass, with major production facilities already located here, a continuing flow of talented and skilled graduates from Winston-Salem’s North Carolina School of the Arts, and our generally low cost of living.


09:16 – In terms of physical components, chemicals are by far the largest cost item in our kits. The chemical cost for a bottle ranges from a few cents to a few dollars each, depending on the chemical. But the second largest cost item for physical components is the containers themselves, which range from about $0.15 to $0.90 each. That may not sound like much until you realize that one kit may contain 50+ containers.

Until recently, I’ve been happy with our primary container supplier. Their prices are competitive, they stock most of the containers and caps we need, and they ship quickly. They also provide free ground shipping on any order of $250 or more, which isn’t a problem for us. But I’m starting to worry about them. In the past, I’d place an order with them and it would be shipped the same day or the following day. I’d generally receive it two or three days after I placed the order. But on the last couple of orders they’ve been much slower to ship. It’s not a backorder problem. When I placed those orders, they showed all items as in-stock. But rather than ship the same or the following day, they’re now taking five to ten business days to ship. In one sense, that’s not a big problem. I always keep reasonable stock levels of the containers we use. But I do wonder what’s going on with them.


11:44 – Amazon just added a new benefit for Prime members, called Amazon Prime Pantry. They charge $6 for shipping, but that’s for a very large box. Adding a Prime Pantry item to your cart starts a new box. Each Prime Pantry item states how much of a box it fills. If you exceed the volume or weight capacity of the box, it automatically starts a new box.

So I started playing around with it, just to see how much would actually fit in the box. I’m still building our long-term food storage (as opposed to just the car emergency kits). Lipids are an issue for long-term storage, and one of the best ways to store lipids is canned Crisco. The manufacturer says Crisco remains good for at least two years, but in fact an unopened can will remain good for at least ten years, and probably a lot longer. We don’t routinely use Crisco here, but Barbara frequently uses vegetable oil for frying chicken, stir-fry, etc. Crisco works just as well for that as liquid oil, so I decided to add some Crisco to the box. (Incidentally, canned Crisco is also excellent for emergency lighting. Sticking a piece of string in a can gives you an emergency candle that’ll burn all day long for literally a month.)

Despite Python, I happen to like Spam canned meat, so I added a few cans of that as well. I ended up with 11 48-ounce cans of Crisco and 14 12-ounce cans of Spam in that one box. Amazon informed me that my box was 100% full and asked if I wanted to check out.

I typically place several Amazon.com orders per month, and every time it offers a discount if I apply for an Amazon Visa card. I finally decided to click on the Learn More link, and I liked what I saw. I’d been using our Costco AmEx card at Amazon. It provides a 1% rebate on all purchases, with a higher percentage for Costco purchases. The Amazon card provides a 3% rebate on Amazon purchases, and lower percentages on non-Amazon purchases. So I filled out the on-line application, asked for a second card for Barbara, and clicked Submit. After about 10 seconds, the screen refreshed and said the card was approved and that it had been set as our default payment method for Amazon purchases. It also said I’d been issued a $60 credit that would be applied automatically to our next Amazon order unless I told them otherwise.

Given that we make a huge percentage of our purchases from either Costco or Amazon, it makes sense to have a stored-branded card for each. We already have a Visa card from our credit union, but it’ll be easy enough to cancel that. The new card has only a $5,000 credit limit, but I’m sure we can get that increased if we need to.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

09:16 – Darrell Issa is still pushing for USPS reform. His latest bill in committee would end door delivery for 15 million addresses over the next 10 years, substituting curbside or communal boxes. At the stated cost annually per address of $380 for door delivery versus $240 for curbside versus $170 for communal boxes, the cost savings could be substantial. The articles I’ve seen state that USPS would pay all costs for the change, but I doubt that. I’m sure they’ll pay to install communal boxes, but I don’t see them paying to install curbside boxes at individual homes. Actually, they should. Assuming their numbers are accurate, replacing door delivery with a curbside box saves $140 per year, every year. If it costs $140 to install a curbside box, they’d pay off that cost in one year and then save $140/year every year thereafter.

Actually, I suspect they’d save more than $140/year when you consider the improved fuel mileage and reduction in maintenance costs on their vehicles. Nationwide, those LLV USPS vans are started and stopped literally billions of times a month. They must go through a metric boatload of new starters every year. And, although I’d be annoyed at being forced to pay for a curbside box and installation, otherwise I’d have no problem with shifting to curbside delivery. Obviously, I wouldn’t be able to fit outgoing kits into a curbside box, but I could just make up a laminated sign to hang on the flag and train the carriers on our route to come to the door when I had outgoing packages.

I’m still building kits and filling bottles. Sales are still slowish, but starting to pick up. Starting in mid-July, only two months from now, things will start to get crazy, so we need to be ready.