The Home Scientist Continues!

“RickH” here. I’ve been working with the new owner of The Home Scientist (Ben Siciliano) to rebuild the web site and move it to a new hosting place.

If you have followed along with Barbara’s blog, you might have noticed that Barbara and Ben have come to an agreement for Ben to take over The Home Scientist business. I’ve been working with Ben to get the site rebuilt with new design and some content changes. Most of the changes have been in the ‘back-end’, using PHP functions for commonly-used items to allow those items to be more easily changed.

There will also be a new customer support forum (not quite ready yet) for customers.

The site is available to you, gentle readers (and lurkers), for a ‘beta read’. If you could take a look at the pages to make sure the content looks consistent, and try out the “Buy Now” buttons (make sure you cancel the order on the PayPal checkout page), that would be helpful. You can use the Contact page on the site for any issues or comments.

The new site is currently at http://www.thehomescientist.com . I’d appreciate if you spending a few moments to poke around the site.

Here’s the announcement that will appear on the site (once per day).

I would like to formally announce that The Home Scientist is under new ownership!

Since 2011, the Thompsons have produced a line of high quality, high value science kits in chemistry, biology, and forensic science. To honor their tradition of service, we will continue to offer these kits, which as you’re probably aware, had been created to provide a meaningful laboratory experience for students and enthusiasts – something increasingly difficult to come by these days.

Over the next several weeks, we will be re-stocking the complete line of kits and making it easier for you to obtain technical support for the experiments covered. We’ll also be starting a new customer support forum area.

We’ll be making some changes to the look of this site as we move to our new hosting platform, but our products will still have the same high quality. We thank you in advance for your patience, and welcome your questions, comments, and suggestions for improvement. Please use the Contact Us page for questions or comments.

I’m looking forward to being of service.

Sincerely,

Ben Siciliano, the new owner of TheHomeScientist LLC

Ben is restocking all the kits, and hopes to have them all ready by the end of the month.

Thanks for your help on being a ‘beta reader’. And thanks to Ben for agreeing to continue The Home Scientist as Robert and Barbara intend.

…Rick…

 

Saturday, 1 July 2017

10:51 – It was 73.4F (23C) when I took Colin out at 0700, partly cloudy. We apparently had a thunderstorm and heavy rain overnight, although I never woke up. Neither did Colin, or at least if he did he didn’t wake us. The rain apparently didn’t last long, because we got only 0.4″ (1 cm). We’re pretty much taking the holiday weekend off.

We’re now halfway through the year. Science kit revenues are running about 14.5% above revenues for the first half of last year. Not a huge increase, but an improvement on 2015 and 2016, both of which were actually down year-on-year.

The four of us had an early dinner yesterday at Mt. Surf Seafood Restaurant, a family-run restaurant up near the Virginia line that’s been there for almost 20 years. The parking lot was about one third VA plates and two-thirds NC plates.

The food was excellent, and the people were friendly. Including our waitress, Kelly, whom I assumed was part of the family who own the restaurant. Turns out, she wasn’t, although she’s worked there for nine years. As we were paying for dinner and mentioned that we’d just moved to Sparta 18 months ago, we got the usual questions: are you living here year-round, and what made you choose Sparta?

Barbara chatted about that with them for a while, and then I commented that what I liked about living up here is that all of the people are normal. The owner commented that we have some crazies up here, to which I replied, “Yes, but they’re NORMAL crazies.”

I came across a Youtube channel yesterday that was new to me. I don’t pay much attention to Youtube since it censored me several years ago. They never even bothered to email me; they just removed one of my TheHomeScientist videos, the one on making napalm. That’s apparently becoming much more common. A couple of the homesteading channels I’ve looked at have posted anti-Youtube rants because some or all of their videos are being flagged/removed as not being “family-friendly” or “advertiser-friendly”. Screw them. There are alternatives.

The channel I mentioned is one of those that Youtube is stomping all over. I was surprised I’d never heard of it before, given that they’ve been around since 2010, have something like 650,000 subscribers, and have posted something like 1,600 videos. A few of those are short, but the vast majority run anything from 8 or 9 minutes up to half an hour or so. In other words, they’re working this as a full-time job.

The channel is Wranglerstar, and it’s run by a young married couple, Cody Crone (AKA Wranglerstar) and his wife Melissa (AKA Mrs. Wranglerstar). They homestead on 50+ acres in Washington state and are serious preppers. My google-foo isn’t the best, but it took me about 30 seconds to locate them. From the name of their town, I assumed they were in prepper territory in eastern Washington, over near Idaho. Nope. They’re on the very southern edge of Washington, just over the border from Portland, Oregon. IOW, they’re very close to a massive population center, surrounded by superprogs. Oh, well. I wish them the best.

They’re both likable people, particularly Melissa, who comes across as happy, friendly, and helpful. Unfortunately for them, they’re Deplorables on three counts: they’re preppers and own and use guns, they’re homesteaders, and they’re religious. Three strikes and you’re out, says Youtube.

USPS just showed up with my Amazon order: another 500 grams of agar, two spare electronic scales, and a gallon of liquid smoke for the deep pantry.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

10:47 – When I took Colin out around 0730 it was exactly freezing with a stiff breeze. The snow flurries/showers forecast for overnight never showed up, other than as a very light dusting. Still, Ray’s Weather does a pretty good job of forecasting. It’s notoriously difficult to predict weather at all, and harder still for a location sitting on top of a mountain.

Speaking of which, I never particularly trusted the National Weather Service forecasts. As it turns out, I had good reason. The latest scandal is the NWS concealing an updated forecast, supposedly for the common good. The great blizzard they predicted for the Northeastern US turned out to be a squib. Areas they’d forecast 18 inches of snow for actually ended up getting three to six inches, and some areas for which they’d forecast heavy snows ended up getting little or none. One could write that off to forecasting being inexact, but the problem is that they had an updated forecast that was much more accurate but they chose not to make it public because they apparently believed that reducing the forecast amount of snow would cause people to disregard the dangers.

I’ve seen various estimates that cluster around $3 billion as the total cost to people, businesses and governments of acting on that obsolete forecast. Businesses closed needlessly. State, county, and city governments spent a lot of their snow removal budgets needlessly. And millions of people made needlessly pessimistic decisions based on bad information.

There’s never any excuse for government failing to disclose what should be public information. Now that Trump is taking the ax to CPB, NEA, NEH, and so on, perhaps he should consider eliminating the NWS entirely.


We encountered a major problem yesterday as we were making up chemical bags for biology kits. A few days ago, we’d made up 90 bottles of 6M hydrochloric acid in 30 mL amber-glass bottles, capped them, and taped the caps (as required by USPS regulations). When we were building regulated chemical bags for biology kits yesterday, I opened the ziplock bags of those bottles and found that several of them had leaked. Not good.

We’d had another leakage problem a few weeks ago, but that was Kastle-Meyer reagent in forensic kits, which we produce in relatively small numbers. I found out about that one when I got email from a customer reporting a bad leak that had destroyed the labels on most of the chemicals in the forensic chemical bag.

I didn’t think much about it at the time. These things happen, although very infrequently. So I sent him a new forensic chemical bag that I pulled out of an already-built kit. A few days later, I got email from him that the second bag had the same problem. Shit. So we went back and opened all of the forensic kit chemical bags and found that several of them had KM reagent bottles that had leaked. Double shit.

So we replaced all of the damaged bottles in those bags and pulled out and discarded the KM reagent bottles. I made up new KM reagent bottles, but this time using phenolic-cone caps rather than the standard caps. We’d been using PC caps only on bottles that contained iodine solutions, because iodine vapor penetrated the seal on the standard caps. (Iodine vapor penetrates just about any seal. It really wants to be free.) We use the phenolic caps only when necessary, because they cost about $0.35 each, versus about $0.05/each for the standard caps.

We’d also made up 90 bottles of Lugol’s iodine solution a few days ago, using the phenolic caps as we’ve been doing since we found out a couple of years ago that they were necessary on iodine bottles. I was very surprised to find that there was a problem with those bottles as well. Over just a few days, enough iodine vapor had escape to turn the labels light brown. That’s really only a cosmetic issue; there was no actual leak. Everyone has this problem with iodine solutions. Here, for example, is an image on the Home Science Tools website of their iodine solution, brown stains and all.

So we’re replacing the standard caps on the undamaged hydrochloric acid bottles with phenolic caps. As a belt-and-suspender measure, I decided we’ll also package both the hydrochloric acid bottles and iodine bottles in individual sealed plastic bags. That means we need to go back and open every chemical bag that we have in stock and make that change. It’s probably several days’ work, but it has to be done.

I don’t expect our bottle vendor to do anything about the situation. I’ve determined the problem is with the amber-glass bottles themselves. I suspect a production issue. We’ve used the standard caps for a long time. They’re literally from the same bag of 5,000 that I ordered long ago. And there were never any problems with them until recently. We buy the bottles themselves in small quantities, but this problem has showed up with bottles from several different cases/batches. I think they’re doing something different recently with the bottles themselves.

I’d hate to change vendors. I’ve been happy with our current vendor for the five or six years we’ve been using their bottles and caps. But this goes far beyond the cost of the bottles and caps themselves. We’ve discarded a lot of those because they were ruined, and it’s certainly costing us a lot in terms of chemicals, labor, and so on to fix that damage, not to mention postage costs on replacing damaged shipments. One bottle leaking can mean we have to replace the 20 or 30 other bottles that were in the same bag. But the real cost is in damage to our reputation among our customers. One customer who received a damaged shipment may tell lots of his or her friends. That one unhappy customer could end up losing us a dozen or a hundred potential customers.

* * * * *

 

Thursday, 16 March 2017

10:00 – When I took Colin out around 0745 it was 14.1F (-10C) with a light breeze. I think our forecast multi-day blizzard is over now. We ended up with about 1/4″ (~ 6mm) accumulation. We depend on Ray’s Weather for our forecasts. He’s based in Boone, an hour or so down the road, and he gets it right more often than anyone. He missed it this time, but it’s notoriously difficult to forecast weather, particularly for folks like us who sit on top of a mountain range.

I increased our science kit prices across the board yesterday. Our last price increase was in the summer of 2014, and all of our costs have been increasing since then. Until now, we’ve just been eating the difference, but things were getting out of hand. We try to keep our prices as low as possible to make these kits affordable for homeschool families, but it was starting to get ridiculous.

For example, in 2014 it cost an average of $11.08 to ship a kit. For 2017 to date, our average has been $13.19 in postage per kit, an increase of about 19%. A couple bucks more per kit may not sound like much, but all of our other costs have shown similar increases. Chemicals in particular have skyrocketed, but everything from bottles to labware has also increased significantly. Overall, from summer 2014 until now our costs, excluding labor, have increased about 21% while our prices have remained the same. All of the labor is done by Barbara and me, so we’re not actually out-of-pocket on it.

So I increased kit prices yesterday by about 10% across the board. Our standard Biology kit, for example, went from $199 to $219. I hate to do that, because I know that many homeschool families are on very tight budgets, but we really needed to do something to bring our revenues more in line with costs.

More work on science kit stuff today.

* * * * *

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

10:40 – It was 43F (6C) when I took Colin out this morning, with no wind. Today I’ll be working on taxes again and Barbara will be filling containers this morning and volunteering at the Friends of the Library bookstore this afternoon. She made chicken fried rice for dinner last night, all from long-term storage food.

One of the most time-consuming parts of doing taxes is figuring expenses. For most business purchases, I create a purchase order, and then have to go through every PO and total expenses in different categories. That’s not as easy as it sounds. As just one example, I may issue a PO to one of our vendors for, say, $1,500. But that doesn’t include shipping, which I find out the cost of only when I get the actual invoice from them. I then have to go back to our corporate check register and match PO#’s to checks written to verify the total. Even worse, if I paid by credit card, I have to find those transactions and update the totals for each PO.

So this year I’ve done something I swear I’ll do every year: keep a running journal/register of PO’s and update it as I actually get the final data. That should make things a lot faster when I do taxes next year.

There were several comments and emails about Jen’s guest post yesterday, all of which said they’d like to hear more from her. Meanwhile, I’d also sent emails to several other regular visitors inviting them to make guest posts as well. I got email last night from Jenny (not Jen) in Alaska accepting the offer, so I hope to see a series of posts from her starting in the near future.

If I didn’t send you email, please don’t take it as an insult. If you have something to say and want to say it here, please let me know. In sending invites, I was looking for unique viewpoints. I asked Jenny because she’s (a) prepping in Alaska at the end of a very long supply line, and (b) she’s a woman, and we don’t have many women here who do anything but lurk. I’ve not intentionally made this an old-boys club, but that’s the way it’s worked out. Having active participation by more women would be a Good Thing.

* * * * *

Monday, 23 January 2017

09:29 – Yesterday was one of those days with a continuing series of problems. It started with the USPS Click-and-Ship website misbehaving while I was trying to print a label for a shipment to Canada. Ordinarily, I fill out the first page, which has me enter the total weight of the package. I filled in the correct weight, 5 pounds 8 ounces, and then clicked Continue. On the second page, I have to give details about the details of the shipment, including for some reason the net weight, which was 4 pounds, thirteen ounces. At the point, it told me that the net weight was more than the gross weight and refused to continue. After numerous retries, starting from scratch each time, I finally got it to accept that 4-13 was in fact less than 5-8. I then paid for the postage label and it displayed the label as a PDF, as usual.

So I put a sheet of half-page labels in the manual feed slot of my Brother HL-5250DN laser printer and told it to print. The label jammed, which made a real mess. So I cleared the jam, inserted a new label, and told it to print again. It jammed again. I cleared the jam and told it to print again, this time with plain paper from the paper tray. That time, the sheet of paper made it half-way out the printer and then jammed again. At least I had a usable label, after I forcibly pulled it out of the printer.

This obviously wasn’t working, so I disconnected the HL-5250DN and moved it out of the way. When we moved up to Sparta in December, 2015, I’d originally tried to install the newer Brother HL-3070CW laser printer, but it refused to connect with USB so I’d stuck it in storage, intending to troubleshoot it later. I never got around to that until now, so I set it up and used a new USB cable to connect it. Once again, Linux didn’t see the printer. Okay, it looked like the USB interface on the printer was dead. That printer also has an Ethernet interface, so I went downstairs, grabbed an Ethernet cable, and brought it back upstairs to try getting the printer working with a direct Ethernet connection.

The Ethernet cable wouldn’t fit into the jack on the printer. Huh? I was working in a very tight space, but we finally got the printer turned so that I could actually see the USB and Ethernet jacks on the back. Duh. I’d plugged the USB cable into the Ethernet jack. No wonder it hadn’t worked, this time or a year ago, when I must have made the same mistake. So I pulled the USB cable out of the Ethernet jack and plugged it into the correct jack. Linux recognized the printer instantly, and I was back in business.

So I proceeded to connect to the USPS site again to generate postage labels for US shipments. The postage didn’t look right for the first one I processed. Well, that’s because postage rates just went up as of yesterday. Duh, again.

I knew postage rates were going to increase, but after the huge increase a year ago, I was expecting a pretty minor jump. Not so, unfortunately. Since January a year ago, I’d been paying $17.09 to send a Regional Rate B box to the west coast. That had jumped from $17.09 to $20.41, a 19.4% increase. Fortunately, the rate for a Large Flat Rate box had increased from $18.75 to only $18.85, so I just put the RRB box inside a LFR box and paid the $18.85. Even so, that amounts to a $1.76 (10.3%) increase. Geez.

* * * * *

As I mentioned last week, doing a copy-edit pass on Franklin Horton’s latest book in his Borrowed World series got me to wondering, not for the first time, if I could write fiction myself. So I decided to sit down and give it a try.

Writing fiction turns out to be very different from writing non-fiction. The main difference is that I can just sit down and write fiction. It just flows. With non-fiction, I spend literally 50% to 95% of my “writing” time checking facts and researching stuff on the fly. I suppose that’s why Jerry Pournelle writes fiction in his Monk’s Cell, with no Internet access.

The most obvious difference is in word count. With non-fiction, I average maybe 1,000 to 1,200 words per day. My all-time record was probably 5,000 or 6,000 words, and that was working heads-down for 14 hours or so. And the days when I could write heads-down for 14 hours straight are long gone. Nowadays, I’m lucky if I can get in six solid hours of writing per day. Writing fiction, I can crank out a first-draft at about 1,000 words PER HOUR.

But no writer can judge his own writing, so I decided to let people look at my first fiction efforts. As I promised last week, I’ve converted what I’ve done so far to a PDF that I’ll send to anyone who wants to take a look at it and give me his opinion. Can I write fiction? Tell me what you think of my work on a 1 to 10 or A to F scale.

I’ll emphasize that this is very much a first, rough draft. I haven’t even read it, let alone done a first editing pass on it. It’s just a collection of chapters, and partial scenes. I’m sure there are lots of clangers in there. I probably even have characters changing names in mid-narrative. This document is at the level that I wouldn’t ordinarily let even Barbara see, let alone friends or editors.

I’m not looking for any kind of corrections, suggestions, or edits from anyone. All I want to know from anyone who takes the time to read it is whether or not I can write fiction.

If you’d like to take a look at it, send me email at thompson at ttgnet dot com with the subject line “your fiction book”. I’ll send you a PDF of the document. Please be completely honest in your feedback. You’re not going to hurt my feelings. I’m looking for brutal honesty here, not an attaboy. If the general consensus is that my fiction writing has potential, I’ll continue working on the book until it’s finished and then self-publish it on Amazon. If the general consensus is that I am to PA fiction writing what Zsa Zsa Gabor was to acting, I’ll give up on it.


Wednesday, 18 May 2016

09:27 – Barbara is off to the gym and the bank. The final settlement check from our corporate bank account in Winston-Salem just arrived in the mail. She’ll deposit that to our new corporate bank account here in Sparta, at which point all of our banking will now be in Sparta.

Speaking of which, I just got a PDF form from one of our state government customers, asking for lots of information they need to set us up as an approved vendor. One of the items they want is our corporate bank account number and routing number. That makes me uncomfortable, given the number of big corporations and government agencies who’ve lost tens of millions of customer records to hackers. It’s my understanding that with only those two numbers, anyone anywhere in the world can withdraw as much money as they want from our bank account. I’d prefer that the customer write us a physical check rather than pay by electronic funds transfer.



Tuesday, 16 February 2016

11:32 – More sleet and freezing rain came in yesterday afternoon and through the night, but not enough more to matter. Our mail ran late this morning, but it was the replacement guy delivering on the Tuesday after a Monday holiday, so that was expected. The garbage pickup service didn’t run yesterday, but they’ll get here eventually.

I just closed my Stamps.com account. It’s a PITA to use their software, and with USPS Click-N-Ship now supporting Regional Rate boxes again at the Commercial Base Pricing, I wouldn’t save enough money with Stamps.com to offset the $16/month fee.

The Lenovo Core i7 micro-tower is setup and running fine under Windows 10. When I get a spare moment, I’ll pop the lid, disconnect the Windows drive, install a new hard drive, and install Linux Mint. I’ll just leave the original hard drive in the unit, where I can find it if I ever need to run Windows again.

I did pull three DVDs of the original Windows installation, or at least I think I did. I was expecting each restore/recovery set to span more than one DVD+R disc, but each set fit on one DVD with something like 1 GB to spare. I have no clue where to find the activation key or whatever they call it now. I expected at least a sticker on the system unit, but there isn’t one. Search around in Windows, all I found listed was a long string of all X’s and hyphens, with only the last few characters being a part of the actual key. Have I ever mentioned how much I hate Microsoft?


Thursday, 11 February 2016

10:16 – Barbara is headed down to Winston to run errands and have lunch with a friend. Before she left, she followed me over to B&T Tire, where I dropped off the Trooper to have the check-engine light problem looked at. The guy seemed to think it’d be a minor issue, and I told him to give it a good once-over while he was looking at it.

I ordered a new Kindle last night, the basic Touch model. I was about to order one at $80 a couple days ago, but they frequently go on sale. Sure enough, last night the Amazon main page had it on sale for $60, so I ordered one. I’m afraid my current one is about to fail, so once I get the new one I’ll hard reset the old one and keep it as a spare. The new one will never connect via WiFi, which has caused major issues in the past with both Barbara’s and my reading Kindles. Also, Amazon has no need to know everything I’m reading.

I was pleased the other day to learn that USPS had not only restored support for Regional Rate boxes in their Click-N-Ship website, but had them priced at Commercial Base Pricing instead of retail. I’d planned to drop stamps.com and start using Click-N-Ship again. As of yesterday afternoon, I’d used up all but $0.20 of the pre-paid postage in my stamps.com account, and planned to use Click-N-Ship to run postage labels this morning for any overnight orders. Well, sometime between a few days ago and this morning, USPS eliminated CBP for Regional Rate boxes and started charging much higher retail-like rates. So it’s back to stamps.com or one of its competitors. Now that I can’t trust USPS, I should check out all the third-party alternatives. One that looks better than stamps.com is shippingeasy.com. They even have a starter plan that’s free (other than postage costs) and allows one to ship up to 50 packages a month. I’ll probably sign up for that and give it a try for a couple of months.


Saturday, 30 January 2016

10:30 – More administrative stuff today and tomorrow. Monday, I start on building more chemical bags and other subassemblies for science kits, as well as getting shelves up in my office and the unfinished basement area and getting my new desktop system set up and configured. Barbara’s been doing yeoman duty upstairs, getting stuff moved in, unboxed, and organized, as well as getting the garage cleared and organized. We’re making progress. We’re entering the slowest period of the year for science kit sales, which gives us time to focus on the other stuff that needs to be done.

My voter registration card came the other day, and I’m debating what to do. I’ll vote in the state and local primaries this spring and the general election in November, but I’m not sure about the federal level races. I’m halfway inclined to write in none of the above for each of them, but I may vote for Cruz in the primary and the Republican presidential candidate in the November election. Whoever that might be must be better than whoever the Democrats run. I’m really inclined to vote for the Libertarian candidates in all races, of course, but they have no chance of being elected except perhaps at the local level. And I’m not fool enough to think that it ultimately makes any difference who’s in office. They’re all bad.

Barbara baked a pan of cornbread yesterday, which turned out very well. Today, she’s baking regular bread and a batch of oatmeal cookies.