Tuesday, 28 April 2015

07:51 – The morning paper finally called a spade a spade, referring to what’s going on in Baltimore as “rioting and looting” rather than “violent protests”. Whatever happened to Reading the Riot Act? The Baltimore PD is still using only tear gas and rubber bullets. Buckshot would be more effective, and would also send a signal. Looters and arsonists should be shot dead and piled up for later disposal in the landfill. Nor should any charges be filed against business owners and homeowners who use lethal force to defend themselves and their properties, nor against any police officer who does the same. People who riot, loot, and burn are not exercising their Constitutional rights. They are violent criminals and should be treated accordingly.

So far, this kind of activity has been limited to underclass areas in major cities, but I fear it’s going to spread to mid-size cities and eventually to smaller towns and anywhere else with concentrated underclass populations. I also fear it’s going to become the new normal. That’s one of the major reasons that we want to relocate away from Winston-Salem to a small town up in the mountains. That’s not a perfect solution by any means, but it’s the best we can do.

I started reading Harry Turtledove’s Supervolcano trilogy last night. I made it though the first book and halfway through the second. I’m not impressed. I’ve read several of his alternative history series, and all were competently done. Turtledove is certainly no Heinlein, nor even a Pournelle/Niven or a Bujold. But his past books have always had huge casts of characters with lots of action. This series has a much smaller cast and almost nothing going on. I keep expecting something to happen, but the book just drones on and on. I just checked the Amazon reviews on this series, which I should have done in the first place, and found that others have the same take on this series. I’ll probably finish the second book and I may even read the third and final in the series, but I’m not expecting much. Turtledove has somehow made a catastrophic eruption of the Yellowstone supervolcano into a boring, business-as-usual event.

More science kit stuff today. I’m making up solutions, and may have time to fill some bottles.

Monday, 13 April 2015

08:58 – Thanks to everyone who made suggestions about finding books that are available under Kindle Unlimited. This link allows you to search only books that are available under that program. It wasn’t an option the last time I looked. Either that, or Amazon had it so well hidden that I couldn’t find it. I’ll probably sign up for the KU 30-day free trial later this week and give it a try.

More of the same today, building and shipping science kits. We’re trying to get ahead of things now. April is the worst month for sales, but summer is approaching fast. Sales volume will start to increase next month, climb further in June, and start going crazy in July. In all likelihood, there will be days in July and August when we ship more kits than we do in the whole month of April, so we have to be ready to meet that demand. That means not just building subassemblies and full kits, but getting purchase orders staged to get stuff ordered in time to arrive here when we need it, including allowances for stuff that’s backordered.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

10:11 – I briefly considered joining Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program yesterday, but I decided it’s not worth the hassle. Like the Kindle Lending Library that allows any Prime member to “borrow” one book per month without additional charge, Amazon has intentionally made Kindle Unlimited as difficult as possible to use. They obviously want to discourage anyone from borrowing books under either program. Otherwise, whenever you search Amazon’s books there’d be checkboxes to refine the search by selecting “Show only Kindle Unlimited titles” and “Show only Kindle Lending Library titles”. But it doesn’t work that way. You have to choose a specific book and then figure out if it’s available under one or the other program, both, or neither. Amazon makes both programs such a hassle to use that I’m not going to bother using KLL and I sure won’t pay them $10/month for KU.

Or perhaps I’ll sign up for their free 30-day Kindle Unlimited trial to explore further. I’m not optimistic. The main issue is that KU doesn’t include titles from the Big Five (formerly the Big Six) publishers, and many of the books Barbara wants are from those publishers. The other issue is that Amazon keeps track by communicating with your Kindle(s) behind the scenes. The authors get paid if you get a book under either program and read at least the first 10% of the book. That means that Amazon is watching what we do, and I don’t like that. In fact, I’m going to disable WiFi access on both Barbara’s and my mono Kindles, leaving only her Fire able to access Amazon and vice versa. Not that disabling WiFi access on our mono Kindles loses us anything. Every time I try to connect with one of them, the Kindle crashes and I have to do a hard reset, losing everything that was on the Kindle.

Friday, 2 May 2014

09:34 – Last month was our worst month for kit sales in more than a year. I’m not too worried. These things fluctuate, and we’re still running something like 160% of last year’s sales through April.

I’m still filling labeled bottles, and I’ve managed to cut the backlog down to less than 2,000, or roughly 60 kits’ worth. Of course, UPS delivered several thousand bottles yesterday, so Barbara will soon be building up that backlog again.

I decided to re-read all of R. Austin Freeman’s mysteries, which I last read about 50 years ago. Many have compared Freeman to Doyle and Christie, but in my opinion Freeman is better. His protagonist, Doctor John Evelyn Thorndyke, is what today would be called a forensic scientist, a fictional close contemporary of the great Sir Bernard Spilsbury.

But, unlike Doyle and Christie, Freeman wrote from direct experience. Thorndyke’s fictional laboratory is a more-or-less exact representation of Freeman’s actual laboratory. When Thorndyke performs forensic test procedures, he is merely reproducing what Freeman actually did in his own lab as he was writing the story. And Freeman “plays fair” with the reader, assuming that the reader has a great deal of arcane forensics knowledge.

I’d started to explore forensic science in detail by the time I was in sixth grade. Our librarian knew my interests, and one day she handed me a book and said she thought I’d really like it. It was Freeman’s The Red Thumb Mark, the first of his novels published under his own name, and she was right. When I returned it the next week, she asked if I’d figured it out. I told her that I had figured it out very early in the book, and that literally one word had given it all away. As soon as I saw that one word, I knew exactly who had done it and how it had been done.

So I read the rest of Freeman’s novels and short stories as fast as the librarian was able to get them for me. I figured most of them out early, because Freeman always told his readers early everything they needed to know to figure out the mystery (or, with his “inverted mysteries”, everything they needed to know to figure out how to do it). To figure things out often required some serious research. We didn’t have Wikipedia back then, so I often found myself delving deep into technical tomes about alkaloid poisons and so on. And what I found always confirmed that what Freeman wrote about forensic procedures was an accurate reflection of the state of forensic science in the early 20th century.

If you want to give Freeman a try, I recommend that you start with The Red Thumb Mark. It, as well as the rest of Freeman’s Thorndyke novels and short stories, are readily available free or at very low cost in e-book form. Amazon’s Kindle store has many of them free or for $0.99.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

08:10 – I see that Netflix streaming now has series 5 of Mad Men available. I’d almost forgotten we had that title in our queue. We watched series 4 on DVD in April 2011. I seem to remember that there was a delay in shooting series 5.

And I’ve just started re-reading Colleen McCullough’s First Man in Rome series, the first book of which centers on Gaius Marius and Sulla. It’s as good as I remember it. McCullough is a first-class historian, and this book, although fiction, reads like a serious history of Republican Rome. McCullough put more time and effort into just her glossary than most authors put into an entire novel.

I did the same calculations last night that I remember doing the first time I read this book, back when it was first published. McCullough is talking about the cursus honorum, the sequence of offices held by Romans on their ways to becoming consul. Sulla, who is high-born but poor, is dreaming of pursuing the cursus honorum, but has no hope of accumulating the wealth needed. To be a senator, he needs to prove to the censors that he has an income of at least one million sestertii per year, and even to become a knight he requires 400,000 sestertii per year. So I calculated that in today’s money. As it turns out, with the spot price of silver currently around $28/ounce, one sestertius is pretty close to one current US dollar. So, Republican Roman equites (knights) had incomes that would put them into today’s 1%, and Republican Roman senators would be today’s IRS millionaires.

When Barbara got home yesterday and found I’d unpacked those 11 boxes and put away their contents, she said I should have waited for her to help because she’s stronger than I am and in better shape. I scoffed, and pointed out that I could still bench-press 90 pounds. Aha!, she countered, she could bench-press 90 pounds. Aha!, I pointed out, 90 pounds is what a girl bench-presses. In reality, I could still bench-press guy weight, call it 250 pounds. Okay, I admit it. I don’t know for sure that I could still bench-press 250 pounds, but I suspect I could.

10:24 – Geez. Hard on the heels of demanding that Cyprus commit suicide in exchange for a $13 billion “bailout”, the eurocrats are now demanding a $15 billion increase in their budget for 2013. Not a budget of $15 billion, you understand. A budget increase of $15 billion.

Cameron and the Tories are livid, and Farage and the UKIP are whatever beyond livid is. This budget increase translates to UK taxpayers “contributing” about $2 billion more, or roughly $125 per UK family. Just what they need in this economy. What’s worse, Cameron has no national veto, because this budget increase can/will be passed by majority vote. It seems to me that it’s long past time for the UK to make a definitive statement by withdrawing entirely from the EU. The only benefit the UK receives from EU membership is the Common Market, and that would survive a UK withdrawal. Cameron has delayed much too long holding a referendum on UK membership in the EU because he knows a referendum would go heavily in favor of withdrawal. Despite the evidence, Cameron remains a committed europhile. If he continues on this course, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Nigel Farage and the UKIP go from a minority party to running things. Cameron and the Tories scoff at that idea, but I think they’re just whistling past the graveyard.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

08:11 – We dodged the bullet again. When I woke up this morning, it was pouring rain and one degree above freezing. Barbara made a flying visit home last night after work. We had dinner and then she packed work clothes and her gym bag for today and took off to head over to her parents’ place to keep her dad company overnight. She’s taking him to the doctor this morning to get the paperwork done that he needs to get Medicare to approve a scooter.

I didn’t get as many containers filled yesterday as I’d planned because I ended up having a lot of other stuff going on. For one thing, I discovered I was short of caps for the 15 mL bottles. My vendor sells bottles and caps separately, and the numbers don’t correspond. For example, the 30 mL plastic bottles come 1,500/case but the caps for them come 1,440/case. That’s not so bad. I can keep those in close sync simply by ordering a case of bottles with a case of caps and an extra bag of 144 caps. Then, every once in a while, I’ll order a case of bottles without the extra bag of caps and things work out pretty closely. The 15 mL plastic bottles are more problematic. They come 1,100/case but their caps, different from the 30 mL caps, are still 1,440/case. So, unless I’m careful, sometimes we end up with a bunch of leftover bottles and sometimes a bunch of leftover caps.

So, we currently have one half-full case of 15 mL bottles and maybe 50 or 100 caps. I thought I had another case of 15 mL caps, but if so I can’t find it. So yesterday I ordered two cases of the 15 mL bottles and two cases of caps for them. That matches 2,200 bottles up with 2,880 caps, and should make things come out right. We needed more 15 mL bottles anyway, because Barbara will be starting on labeling new batches of bottles. Meanwhile, I got all the labeled 30 mL bottles filled yesterday, and would have started on the 15 mL bottles if I’d had caps for them. Oh, well. I have several hundred tubes to fill anyway, so I just changed gears and started filling tubes. And, with what we have on hand, those 2,200 15 mL bottles are enough for about 60 more chemistry kits and 60 more biology kits.

12:30 – Amazon has apparently created a monster with free Kindle books, and now they’re trying to clamp down by penalizing sites that feature their free ebook downloads. I’m not surprised. In the past year, I’ve downloaded close to 1,000 free Kindle ebooks. Well, 2,000 actually, because I download them for both my Kindle and Barbara’s. And even at that, I’m being pretty selective. I only click the link to view a book on Amazon if it looks like something we might want to read, and the sites that provide the link do some preliminary winnowing–minimum stars required to be listed and so on. On a typical day, that might mean I have a quick look at five or six books among the 50 to 100+ candidates. I then do a 15-second review of the description and number/average of the reviews. If it passes that test, I download a copy for me and one for Barbara. In the past, I’d typically download three of the final candidates; now I’m more selective and usually download only one or two a day. Then every couple or three weeks, Barbara will go through the titles I’ve gotten and winnow them further. The upshot is that we end up with maybe 1% of those free titles on our Kindles as final candidates. Then we read the first couple of chapters–or sometimes just the first couple of paragraphs–to decide if a book is worth spending any time on. Maybe a quarter of them are good enough to be keepers, and the vast majority of those are self-pubbed titles. So, overall, we actually end up reading maybe 0.25% of the featured free Kindle books. The good news for the winning authors is that we then usually go out and buy the rest of the titles in their series. But Amazon is doing its best to put a stop to all of this.

Monday, 29 October 2012

08:11 – Barbara called yesterday to let me know that her dad is to be released from the hospital Tuesday morning. Unlike last time, there’s no infection or other problems. It’s just the CHF. Her sister and brother-in-law returned yesterday, as planned. She and her mom are staying. She’ll drive them back tomorrow. I’m not particularly happy about them being stuck down at the beach in the middle of this storm, but at least the main effects of the storm will be farther north. It’s chilly here, and there’s a stiff breeze, but that’s about all we’ve seen so far of the effects of Sandy. There are higher winds and heavy rain forecast for tomorrow, along with heavy snow in the mountains to our west, but that’s nothing compared to what’s expected to our north.

Our supply of science kits continues to dwindle. I’m waiting for some 125 mL polypropylene bottles for the biology kits. Those should arrive today or tomorrow. And I’m labeling bottles for the chemistry kits in every spare moment. We should be able to get a new batch of 30 of those assembled this coming weekend.

Meanwhile, Germany is coming to realize that those “risk-free investments” in what have turned out to be junk sovereign bonds are anything but risk-free. German taxpayers are now on the hook for more than a trillion euros in junk debt. When this realization hits home, there’ll be a firestorm in German politics. All those Mercedes and BMWs that Germany “sold” to the southern tier were actually gifts, along with everything else the southern tier “bought” from Germany. Germans are already seriously pissed; they’re going to be livid.

I periodically get emails ridiculing me for saying that the US is in relatively good shape compared to Europe, and indeed compared to just about anyone else. Yes, we’re in bad shape, but we’re fully capable of growing our way out of it. Europe is moribund, if not in Cheyne-Stokes. Here’s another of the reasons why.

09:47 – Here’s one of the big reasons why I do what I do. These two emails arrived this morning, and are pretty typical of the emails I receive regularly. First up, a young scientist:

On Sunday 28 October 2012 09:13:14 pm you wrote:

Dear Mr. Thompson,

I am Nicholasand I am a huge fan of science , Over the summer I bought your book on chemistry after I took chemistry camp , a few months later I saw your biology book and finaly , I got your forensic book from barnes and noble on the 14th . I really love your books and you are a good author . Before I got your books I found a science store near my house called the Colorado Science company in december . The next day I went there and it looked really cool they had chemicals,microscopes, telescopes and lab supplies.You know its funny I am only 9 years old and I know alot about science.In my room I have a great science desk with a microscope, chemicals, rocks, minerals, books,a piece of american indian pottery,and marine biology specimens. When I am a grownup I want to be an archeologist and a professor of science.

I just wanted you to know that I am a big fan of your books.


Hi, Nicholas

First, thank you for the kind words. My first love was science, and for the last few years I’ve devoted all of my time to doing what I can to help young people develop their interest in science by hands-on lab work. I’m 50 years older than you are, but I still remember vividly being your age and working at my own science bench. You are at the beginning of a long and wonderful journey.

I applaud your ambition to become a scientist. We need all of the young scientists we can get. Realize that, like most young scientists, your focus may change as you get older. You may indeed become an archaeologist, but you might instead decide to become an organic chemist or a particle physicist or an evolutionary biologist. Or whatever. My point is that it’s important not to focus too much on just your current interest. Make sure along your journey to learn as much as you can about biology, chemistry, physics, and math.

Please keep me posted on your progress.

And a response from Rob in Adelaide, whose original email I posted recently:

On Saturday 27 October 2012 06:27:41 pm you wrote:Dear Bob

Thank you very much indeed for the prompt and thoughtful response. I admire your pragmatic enthusiasm to teach science.

I actually bought “Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments” first and only later noted your website and Home Chemistry Kit. I run an Ophthalmic Science Research lab in the Hanson Institute, Adelaide, so I can fairly easily source the equipment and materials independently.  But your Kit certainly looks great and would have been convenient. The image of your kit on the website brought back great memories of a chemistry set I had as a kid, something that started me on a scientific pathway. My 10-year-old daughter saw the photo of the chemistry set and her eyes were wide with excitement!

I will have to start ordering to try and make up something that looks as exciting as your kit: we have an old laundry that I need to turn into a lab for Xmas!



Hi, Rob

That’s great!

When I was about your daughter’s age, my dad helped me turn a corner of the basement into my own lab. I wonder if he knew then that he’d started me off on a life of loving and doing science. We need all the young scientists we can get, and it sounds like you’re doing for your daughter what my dad did for me. She’ll look back on this later and realize how lucky she was to have you for her dad.

Best regards.


13:33 – Although I was under the impression that he died in about 1825, Thomas Bowdler is apparently alive and well. What else to think about this abomination, an “improved” version of Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet? This cretin does more damage to a classic work of fiction than Reader’s Digest Condensed Books ever did to the books they butchered. This jerk can’t even get the aspect ratio of his cover right.

14:29 – Hah! UPS showed up a little while ago with boxes from one of my wholesalers with the stuff I ordered last week. Among them I found five dozen of the 125 mL polypropylene bottles. (I almost strained myself lifting the smallest of the boxes, which contained 90 sets each comprising 72 frosted flat slides, a dozen 3mm thick cavity slides, and a box of coverslips. Talk about a dense little turkey. I suspect that box would be literally bullet-proof. Fifteen to 30 centimeters of densely-packed glass will easily stop a bullet.)

So I labeled 30 bottles and filled them plus an extra three unlabeled. I now have everything I need to build 30 more biology kits. All I need to do is pack everything up.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

08:16 – The taxes are in the mail. Another year until I have to worry about that again.

The US DoJ has finally filed suit against Apple and two of the major ebook publishers. (The others had already settled.) The DoJ claims that the price-fixing by Apple and the major publishers cost consumers about $100 million in the last couple of years by pricing books $2 to $5 higher than they would have been in a competitive market. If anything, that’s probably an underestimate. Assuming that the DoJ wins, the effect on the price of indie books will be nil, and that of books from major publishers somewhat greater. Ultimately, getting rid of Apple’s “agency model” will result in lower prices overall for consumers, with essentially all of that cost reduction coming directly from the major publishers’ revenues.

As things stand now, an indie publisher prices his book at, say, $2.99. Amazon pays the indie publisher 70% of that list price, less a small charge for data transfer. For the average $2.99 book, the indie publisher is paid about $2.04 by Amazon. If the DoJ wins, the indie publisher will no longer set the selling price at $2.99. Instead, he’ll set the price to Amazon at $2.04, and Amazon will decide how much to sell the book for. Probably $2.99. So, no change there.

For books from major publishers, everything will change. As things are now under the agency model, a publisher may set the list price of one of its books at, say, $13.99. When Amazon sells a copy of that book for $13.99, it pays the publisher 35% of retail, or $4.90. (Amazon pays the 70% royalty only on books priced from $2.99 to $9.99; those priced at less than $2.99 or more than $9.99 earn only 35% royalties.) When the agency model goes away, that publisher is no longer able to set the selling price. All it can set is the wholesale price it charges Amazon for a copy. Major publishers, of course, will want to boost the wholesale price from $4.90 up into the $10 range, but that’s not going to fly. In fact, it’s quite possible that the terms of the settlement will forbid publishers from boosting prices significantly. So, if Amazon is still getting that book for the effective wholesale price of $4.90, it’s not going to price that book at $13.99. Instead, it’s more likely to price the book at maybe $6.99. That in turn puts the screws to the major publishers, who were using the $13.99 price as an umbrella to maintain high hardback prices. Not many people are going to pay Amazon’s discounted price of $20 for the hardback if they can get the ebook for $7. Hardback sales, which are what earn major publishers most or all of their profits, are going to tank even worse than they already have. And more and more traditionally-publisher authors, as they watch hardback advances and royalties continue to plummet, are going to start going the indie publishing route. Traditional publishing is already in a death spiral, and this will simply be the final nail in the coffin.

13:08 – About three weeks ago, I mentioned that I was considering replacing our Time-Warner VoIP phone service. A couple of people mentioned MagicJack. I was familiar with the name from a few years ago when I’d signed up for PhonePower VoIP service. I had an impression that I’d decided back then for good reasons that I wouldn’t consider MagicJack. So I decided to look into MagicJack again.

What I found out wasn’t good. First, the web site is incredibly tacky. Nowhere on it could I find anything about terms of service, and I looked. Nor does MagicJack offer telephone support of any kind. All you can do is contact their chat line. Which is probably fortunate, because what I read about MagicJack’s so-called support is that, incredibly, it’s actually worse than Roku’s support. Although some have found the equipment to be reliable, reports of “it just stopped working” are distressingly common. There are also numerous reports of what amounts to fraud, with MagicJack charging people’s credit cards well before the “free trial” expires, sometimes within a couple days of when they sign up. Finally, the BBB gave MagicJack an F rating, which is actually worse than Greece’s credit rating. I don’t even like to deal with companies that have B ratings, let alone an F.

Other than the fact that TWC phone service is outrageously priced, there’s no urgency. I’ll probably take my time and choose an independent VoIP company like PhonePower. It may be even be PhonePower. I suspect a lot of the problems that I had with PhonePower may have resulted from running the TA behind our router. If I do this again, I’ll stick an Ethernet hub/switch between the cable modem and the router and connect both the TA and the router to that hub/switch. I had the TA port on the router assigned to what D-Link calls the “DMZ”, which in theory is supposed to be the same as having the device in front of the router. In practice, I’m not so sure that’s the case.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

09:25 – Today, Christians world-wide gather to celebrate the resurrection of the Easter Bunny. The fact that there is absolutely zero evidence that the Easter Bunny ever actually lived, let alone died and was resurrected, is apparently no impediment.

Interesting article on CNN about the boom in ebooks. The article ignores, as most do, the really significant factor: that the 90/10 rule applies in spades to ebooks and ereaders. That is, 10% of the readers read 90% of the books. Serious readers–those who read, say, 50 or more books a year–have migrated overwhelmingly to ereaders and ebooks. These readers as a group still read pbooks, but they buy very few of them. Most are borrowed from the library or friends, and when they do buy a new book it’s generally a paperback from an airport shop because they need something to read until they can recharge their Kindles. And if they do buy a new fiction hardback, it’s almost certainly from Amazon rather than a local bookstore. The entire traditional publishing infrastructure is disappearing, being replaced by the new ebook infrastructure. This is really good news for authors and really, really bad news for publishers, agents, bookstores, and the rest of traditional publishing.

The other sea change is the shift of books themselves from the scarcity model to the abundance model. In the Bad Olde Days, Barbara and I kept close eyes on our to-be-read piles because we didn’t want to run out of things to read. Nowadays, although we still have pbook TBR piles, there’s really no need for them. We have virtual TBR piles that contain millions of ebooks, all available with a few mouse clicks. We can read whatever we want to read, whenever we want to read it. Which also means we can be a lot pickier about what we choose to read. If we start a book and it turns out to be mediocre or worse, there’s no need to continue reading it just because it’s what we happen to have available. We can abandon it and move on to something better.

Nor need our virtual library be expensive. There are now literally hundreds of thousands of ebooks out there priced from $0.99 to $3 or $4, and that’s assuming we pay Amazon for them rather than simply download free ebooks, many of which are as good or better than the pay-for ebooks. In fact, a significant percentage of the free ebooks are pay-for titles that are temporarily given away to promote them and their authors. Barbara and I could both read every waking moment for the rest of our lives without putting even a small dent in the currently available titles, let alone the flood of new titles being released every day. In short, having new good stuff to read is now a solved problem.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

09:31 – Barbara emailed the author Stephen Booth to report a slight problem with one of his ebooks that she’d just read on her Kindle. The copyright page credited the book to Alexander McCall Smith rather than Booth. She got a nice reply from Booth, asking her how she’d managed to get that book for the Kindle since it hadn’t been published in the US. (Steve is a popular mystery author in the UK, but has had trouble getting a US publisher.) Barbara was horrified last night when I told her I’d grabbed it off a torrent site.

So, this morning, I replied to Mr. Booth, explaining that we’d purchased his books when we could, including (in the past) ordering them from UK booksellers, waiting weeks for them to arrive, and often paying more in shipping costs than the cost of the books themselves. I told him that Barbara had asked me to get some of his newer titles as Christmas gifts and that I’d tried hard to buy them. Amazon didn’t have the ebook version, nor even any used copies for sale, let alone new copies. So I grabbed them off a torrent site. I also mentioned that if he still owns the US rights to his titles, he should seriously consider self-pubbing them on Amazon.