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…

 

Wednesday, -1 January 2015

09:50 – I’ll spend some time today closing out the business year. 2014 turned out to be a decent year, better than 2013, although not as much better as I’d hoped early in the year. 2015 should be better still, if the crick don’t rise.

Work on the prepping book continues. I’m not where I’d hoped to be as of now, although there’s nothing unusual about that. I know that I’ll never be completely happy with the book, and at some point I’ll just have to declare it finished and publish it. Nothing new there. My editor at O’Reilly/MAKE has had to drag every book I’ve ever written from me as I kicked and screamed and begged for just a little more time to work on it. The only difference with this one is that I’ll have to make that call myself.


Friday, 4 January 2013

08:26 – The bottle-top dispenser (auto-burette) arrived yesterday. I’m looking forward to trying it. It’s basically just a calibrated pump that sits on top of a one-liter reservoir bottle, kind of like the pumps they use in ice-cream stores to dispense syrups. It can be set to dispense 2.5 mL to 30 mL per pump, in 0.5 mL increments.

Using it should make filling chemical bottles for the kits much faster, particularly the 15 mL bottles. Oddly, it actually takes longer to fill 15 mL bottles manually than 30 mL bottles, because the 15 mL bottles have smaller mouths. Barbara and I will set up a mini-production line, with me filling bottles while she caps them.


08:57 – Congratulations to our friend, Brian Bilbrey, who decided to go back to school and get his degree. Way to go, Brian. (I often mistype Brian’s name “Brain”, which is actually appropriate.)

Degree: Bachelor of Science
Confer Date: 12/30/2012
Degree GPA: 4.000
Degree Honors: Summa Cum Laude
Plan: Computer Information Technology

Wednesday, 2 January 2012

07:59 – Wow, that’s a relief. After going all of 2013 without a single science kit order, we finally got the first one yesterday evening.

And I have to remember that as of yesterday Barbara is in charge of the paperwork. I suspect that’ll work out a lot better. In the past, I’d issue a purchase order and put a printed copy in one of the random stacks of paper in my office. Then, when the order arrived, I’d check off the contents against the packing list. I’d put the packing list in some other random stack, because I wouldn’t want to take the time to find the PO it went with. Then, when the invoice arrived, I’d pay it and put the paid invoice in yet another stack. Or maybe in one of the original stacks. Barbara will keep things much more organized. She uses these things called “file folders”. I did order a bunch of those originally, but I’ve never really figured out how to use them.


Tuesday, 1 January 2013

08:26 – Happy New Year.

As I expected, the Demopublicans and Republicrats have kickcanned the fiscliff for another month or two. Morons. And Obama has announced that new gun control laws will be his top priority. Geez. This from a man who is constantly surrounded by a Schutzstaffel of heavily-armed SS agents. I’d have at least a bit of respect for the bastard if he’d dismiss his bodyguards and walk around unprotected like the rest of us. Hypocrite.

Meanwhile, our business has started 2013 catastrophically. We haven’t sold a single science kit since last year.


10:42 – After struggling with forum spammers for a long time, I finally decided to close down our phpBB support forums on our own server and start new forums on Google Groups.

Friday, 12 October 2012

09:30 – We didn’t watch the vice-presidential debate last night, but, from all accounts I’ve read, Ryan won despite being outnumbered two to one. Instead of wasting time watching that, we chose to waste time watching the final four episodes of the final season of Despicable Housewives on Netflix streaming.

Speaking of despicable, the school fund-raisers are at it again. One of the neighborhood girls stopped by trying to sell magazines for her school fund-raiser. What possesses people to put 14-year-old girls in this position, not to mention putting their neighbors in that position? I almost told her that no one wants these overpriced magazines. No one. I’d rather just hand her money. In fact, they need to stop sending these kids out to raise money, period. What kind of lesson are they teaching them? We pay federal, state, and local taxes to support the schools. The kids shouldn’t be forced to raise more money themselves by begging from their neighbors. It’s demeaning.


13:03 – Boy, am I not going to do business with U-Line. Back before we started the business, I ordered some stuff from them: shipping boxes, bubble-wrap, shrink-seals, and so on. I remember thinking at the time that their prices were a bit lower than local suppliers, but their shipping charges were outrageous. If there’s one thing customers really, really hate, it’s when a vendor attempts to making shipping a profit center.

So, this morning I got email from someone who wanted to know if we’d sell him just the six stains in the biology kit. Sure, why not? So I quoted him a price. All of those stains will fit in a USPS Priority Mail small flat rate box, which costs $5.15 to send anywhere in the US.

But I got to thinking. First-class mail is a very good deal for light packages, although it’s available only for packages that weigh 13 ounces or less. Those half-dozen stains would weigh well under 13 ounces, so I went to the USPS web site to check out how much first-class mail would cost. Even a 13-ounce package costs only $3.65, and it’s more likely this package would weigh maybe 6 ounces, which is $2.46 worth. Just as interesting to me is that I could send that package to a Canadian address for less than $5, versus the $30+ it costs to send it to Canada using Priority Mail International.

Just two problems. First, the USPS web site allows me to print postage labels for Express or Priority Mail, but not for First-Class mail. How strange is that? I guess they’re trying to keep the local post offices in business or something. Well, there is one alternative. Rather than using their web site to produce the postage labels, I could download and install an application that does the same thing, but allows me to print first-class, parcel post, and other postage labels. The only problem with that is that it won’t install under WINE, so I’d need to run an actual Windows box. Either that, or perhaps Virtual Box. The other problem, of course, is suitable boxes. The boxes that USPS provides are for use only with Express Mail or Priority Mail, NOT with first-class mail.

So I went over to the Uline site and found suitable boxes. I was going to order two sizes, one about the size of a DVD writer and a second about twice that size. They had those boxes for $0.42 each and $0.44 each, with a minimum order of one carton of 50. So I added one carton of each size to my shopping cart, for a total of $21 plus $22 or $43. Note that these boxes are, small, light, and are shipped flat, so this wouldn’t have been a bulky or heavy shipment. Uline offered me only one shipping option, UPS ground. Obviously they would ship from a warehouse not far from us, because they said delivery would take one business day even UPS Ground. Their shipping charge? About $21, or nearly 50% of the order amount. So, assuming that perhaps there was a minimum shipping charge that made that charge so high, I added another box of boxes for $21. That took me from $43 to $64 for the merchandise. It also boosted the shipping charge from about $21 to about $32. Once again, they were charging me about 50% of the merchandise total for shipping. So, I’ve written off Uline as a vendor. I’ll get what I need locally.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

08:10 – I see that the mayor of Scranton, Pennsylvania has cut the pay of all city employees, including himself, to minimum wage. Predictably, the howls of outrage, particularly from the public employee unions, are loud and continuous.

A basic principle of economics is that if qualified people are lining up to apply for jobs with you, you’re paying too much. And there’s no doubt that many of the government jobs in Scranton are overpaid, as are most jobs with most government organizations. I shudder to think, for example, what Winston-Salem pays garbage collectors, a job that’s minimum wage by definition. These people aren’t even required to be able to read.

A minimum-wage job pays roughly $15,000 per year. It seems to me that government at all levels should have three tiers. At least 50% of government employees–garbage collectors, clerks, and so on–should be making minimum wage to 2X minimum wage, with the average for those 50% no higher than 1.5X minimum wage. The second tier, 45% of government employees, should be in the 2X to 3X minimum wage–call it $30,000 to $45,000 per year, with the average for that group no higher than 2.5X minimum wage. That group includes police, firefighters, teachers, and so on, along with most federal employees. The final 5% should be at 3X to 4X minimum wage–$45,000 to $60,000 per year, with the average for that group no higher than 3.5X minimum wage. That group includes management.


11:35 – If you’ve ever wondered what I went through shooting videos for my TheHomeScientist channel on YouTube, here’s a true-to-life example. It’s the uncut version of what was to become a 21 second promo for Heartland. Graham Wardle (Ty) and Amber Marshall (Amy) star in the promo. Amber is a consummate pro. Graham is kind of like me, except he doesn’t make (quite) as many mistakes or need (quite) as many reshoots.


12:58 – Speaking of shooting videos for my YouTube channel, it’s about time I started doing some new ones. I posted the most recent one two years ago next month, and between writing books, starting the business, and doing kits, I just haven’t had time to shoot and edit any new ones. Amazingly, I still have something like 8,000 or 9,000 subscribers.

My current camcorder is an SD unit that records to mini-DV tapes. There was some discussion in the comments recently about an HD Canon model that records to flash memory and has an audio input. I suppose I should order one of those. There seems little point to recording SD video when a decent HD camera for my purposes sells for $300.

I suppose I should start my first new video by shouting “Stop! Don’t pay the ransom! I’ve escaped!” Or something like that. I’ve been MIA for two years now, and some of my subscribers are likely to be surprised at my return. I suppose I’ll just tell them what I’ve been doing all that time, as well as announcing the biology book and the forensics book, along with their kits. Then I have some good ideas for follow-up videos about some really neat stuff. Some of it’s trivial, but obscure. For example, a lot of home scientists occasionally need some 30% hydrogen peroxide. You can order it from a lab supplies vendor, but it’s fairly expensive and in anything but the smallest amounts requires paying a hazardous shipping surcharge. But there’s a trivially easy method that requires no special equipment to concentrate drugstore 3% hydrogen peroxide to 30% or higher. I think I paid something like $1.59 for a quart (almost a liter) of 3% hydrogen peroxide at Costco. That’ll yield about 100 mL of 30% peroxide.

Sometimes the USPS rates make no sense whatsoever. We normally ship kits in a USPS Priority Mail Regional Rate Box B. I just processed an order for two chemistry kits from a woman in California, which is Zone 8. Those two boxes would have cost $15.46 each to ship in the RR Box B, but substituting a Priority Mail Large Flat Rate box cuts the cost to $14.65 each. The FR box is larger than the RR box and its weight limit is 70 pounds, versus 20 pounds for the RR box. So why is the FR box $0.81 cheaper to ship to Zone 8? I just slide each pre-packed RR box into a FR box and thereby saved myself $1.62.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

09:34 – I’ve finished stubbing out the company web site. It was getting embarrassing to have just the order pages for the kits. There are still missing and broken links, and some of the text is just placeholder stuff, but at least the framework is up and working.


Colin needs more exercise than he’s getting. Working Border Collies routinely run 50 miles a day or more. He doesn’t need that much, but he does need more than I’ve been giving him, which is a half dozen short walks a day, down the block and back. Watching Amy on Heartland exercising horses on leads in the coral gave me the idea to try exercising Colin the same way. I connect him to the 6-meter roller leash and stand in the middle of the front yard, with Colin running in circles around me, at about 35 to 40 meters per circuit. If he stops, all I have to do is turn my back on him and take a couple steps in the opposite direction. His Border Collie instinct is to circle out to cut me off. I figure that if humans can run 4-minute miles, a BC on the run should do 3-minute miles, so a few minutes of that gives him at least a mile (1.6 km) of flat-out running. I try to do that at least 2 or 3 times a day. The trouble is, a young BC like Colin could run a full Marathon and be ready immediately to run another, literally. BCs truly are running machines.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

11:08 – I installed Zen Cart yesterday, and spent some time playing around with it. It’s an e-commerce/shopping-cart package, and it reminds me a great deal of the hosted e-commerce package that Maker Shed uses. Which is to say that I have no clue how it works in terms of setup and administration. I don’t intend to bring up a storefront right away, but I figured it was time to dip my toe in the water. Zen Cart is free (as in speech and beer), and it appears to have more than enough capability to do anything I’d want to do in the foreseeable future. Critically, it appears to work seamlessly with PayPal, which will allow me to accept credit cards without having to establish a merchant account or worry about keeping people’s credit card information secure, since I’ll never see it.


I got a delivery from one of my wholesalers yesterday that includes most of what I need to assemble a dozen biology kits. Over the next couple of weeks I’ll spend some time doing what amounts to a 3D jigsaw puzzle, trying to figure out what size box to use for the kits.

For the chemistry kits, I use Priority Mail large flat-rate boxes, which cost about $15 to ship whether the destination is next door or in Alaska or Hawaii. Those boxes have a weight limit of 70 pounds (~ 32 kilos), which is much more than the kits weigh. But USPS also offers regional-rate boxes, which cost anything from about the same as flat-rate boxes to several dollars less to ship, depending on destination zip code. They’re limited to 20 pounds, which isn’t a problem for the biology kits.

The problem is, there’s a size difference. The large flat-rate boxes are 12″ x 12″ 5-1/2″, or 792 cubic inches (about 13 liters). The large regional-rate boxes are 12-1/4″ x 10-1/2″ x 5-1/2″, or 707 cubic inches (about 11.6 liters). The chemistry kits as currently packaged simply won’t fit the smaller regional-rate box, but the biology kits might. In fact, to keep the price down, I may make some changes in the contents of the kits, if necessary to fit the box. Any changes I make won’t compromise the utility of the kits, but it’s often possible to make substitutions that provide equivalent functionality but fit the jigsaw puzzle better.

Once of those changes will be in chemical packaging. The chemistry kits currently use a styrofoam block that contains 44 15-mL PP centrifuge tubes. The six vacant positions in the block are filled with glass test tubes for protection during shipping. For the biology kits (and eventually for the chemistry kits) I’m going to substitute a mix of plastic dropper bottles for liquid chemicals, wide-mouth plastic “pharma packer” bottles for most solid chemicals, and coin envelopes for some items such as tablets, seeds, and so on. The bottles are actually significantly more expensive than the centrifuge tubes (which aren’t cheap to begin with), but they’re also easier and quicker to fill and seal. The coin envelopes are much cheaper than tubes or bottles, typically three to eight cents each, depending on size and type.

Of course, that leaves me with the question of how to pack test tubes for the biology kit. If I don’t have the foam block to protect them, the obvious answer is to wrap the half-dozen test tubes in bubble wrap. Doing that is time-consuming, and it also yields a bulky component that would have to be fitted into the 3D matrix. It occurred to me that I could bump the number of 50 mL PP centrifuge tubes included in the kit from four to six, and pack each glass test tube in a 50 mL centrifuge tube. That bumps my total cubic for 50 mL centrifuge tubes from about 0.2 liters to about 0.3 liters, but reduces the cubic by the volume that would otherwise have been needed for the bubble-wrapped test tubes.

As usual, solving one problem creates another. I have been using 15×125 mm glass test tubes in the chemistry kit, but those are too long to fit into 50 mL centrifuge tubes. So, part of what’s in that order that showed up yesterday is a couple gross of 16×100 mm glass test tubes, which do fit into the 50 mL centrifuge tubes.

One thing about starting a small business is that it’s forced me to learn to deal with details, which is not my strong suit. Well, it is when I’m writing or working in the lab, but not in my personal life. Running a small business, especially what amounts to a small manufacturing business, leaves no option but to deal with details. I’m doing it, but I’m still not very good at it.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

14:37 – Here’s my first cut at the 25 slides I’ll include in Slide Set A.

Amoeba, wm
Bacteria, three types (rod, coccus, spiral)
Blood, human, sm
Bone, dry ground, cs
Diatoms, mixed, wm
Euglena, wm
Fucus (brown algae), cs
Grantia, cs
Hydra, budding, wm
Liver, frog, cs
Liver, mammal, cs
Meiosis (grasshopper)
Meiosis I (plant cell)
Meiosis II (plant cell)
Mitosis, onion (allium) root tip [monocot]
Monocot and dicot leaf, cs
Monocot and dicot root, cs
Monocot and dicot stem, cs
Muscle, three types (cardiac, smooth, striated)
Mushroom, cs
Oscillatoria (blue-green “algae”, cyanobacteria), wm
Paramecium, wm
Penicillium
Rhizopus sp. (bread mold)
Spirogyra, conj, wm

Unfortunately, this slide set will be in competition with the junk Chinese slide sets sold by many homeschool supplies vendors, which typically sell for $35 or so. We simply can’t meet that price, and I refuse to use Chinese-sourced slides. Better, Indian-sourced slide sets typically sell for twice that much or more. Here’s a typical example, a $73 set of 25 general biology slides from Nasco. (Interestingly, in the absence of cheap Chinese slide sets, I’d probably have priced this slide set at $75.) Unfortunately, with cheap Chinese sets readily available, I suspect few home schoolers would pay $70+ for a set of 25 general biology slides, even if they are better than the Chinese sets. I think I’m going to price our Slide Set A at $50. At that price, we won’t make much money, but at least we won’t lose money. And homeschoolers get a good deal on a decent slide set, although I suspect many of them won’t realize they’re getting a better than usual deal.

And, speaking of prices, we’re going to have to raise the price of the chemistry kit once we’ve sold out the current batch. Each time I reorder, I’ve seen prices increase, often by 5% to 15% compared to orders from just a few months ago. The most extraordinary example is potassium iodide. Before the Japanese nuclear plant catastrophe, I was paying about $125 per kilo for reagent grade potassium iodide. I expected the price to shoot up and then fall quickly back to normal once the panic was over. The price did shoot up, but it’s remained there and from what industry sources tell me it’s likely to remain there. I just checked the other day, and the lowest price I found from anyone who actually had the stuff in stock and was willing to ship it to me was over $500 per kilo. I see that Home Science Tools is still advertising lab grade potassium iodide at $4 for a 30 gram bottle, which comes to about $133 per kilo. I’m half tempted to log on to their web site and buy every bottle they have in stock.

Well, more than half-tempted. I use a fair amount of potassium iodide in the kits, and I’m down to maybe 300 or 400 grams in stock. My regular vendor can supply me, but only at the higher current price. Lab grade KI is fine for most or all of what I do, so I just ordered 25 bottles of KI from Home Science Tools. That’s 750 grams, which’ll be enough for quite a while. I didn’t want to make a pig of myself, and not leave any for anyone else. So, if you foresee needing any KI in the near future, you might want to grab some while HST is still selling it at that price. My guess is that they’re using FIFO cost accounting and when that inexpensive stock runs out, they’ll reprice a 30 g bottle at something like $12 or $15. Either, that, or they’ll cut it from 30 g to 15 g and price it at $6 or $7.


Barbara and I made a post office run and then headed over to the lawn and garden center to pick up a 4 cubic foot bag of vermiculite, which I’ll use as an absorbent and cushion in packing the kits. U-Line sells pretty much the same stuff for a few bucks less, but charges more to deliver it than the stuff itself costs.

I was momentarily confused when I saw the sales tax rate on the invoice. I was thinking that NC cut the sales tax from 7.25% to 6.25% on 1 July, but in fact they cut it from 7.75% to 6.75%. Which brings up an interesting issue. I’m tax-exempt for resale purposes, but I still have to pay sales tax on items purchased for business use. For example, I include a purple Sharpie marker in each of the chemistry kits, so I don’t have to pay sales tax on those Sharpies. But if I buy a box of Sharpies for office use, I do have to pay the sales tax. My rule is that anything that goes in or on the box–labels, packing materials, and so on–is tax exempt. Technically, the vermiculite falls into that category because I’m using it for packing. Although no one would ordinarily think of it as “selling” vermiculite to customers, that’s in fact what I’m doing.

In reality, I usually buy only minor items locally, so I just ignore the sales tax as a cost of doing business. Technically, I could file for a refund, but it’s not worth the hassle. For example, I just ordered two things from Costco: a pack of 100 file folders, and a box of 500 coin envelopes. Costco, of course, collected sales tax on both orders. The file folders are for business use rather than resale, but the coin envelopes are used as packaging in a future kit. So, the couple bucks of sales tax I paid on those envelopes could be reclaimed, but it’s not worth the time to fill out the necessary form.