Sunday, 7 August 2011

08:53 – Mainstream European newspapers are now starting to talk about the collapse of the Euro and the breakup of the EU, not just as a possibility but as something that’s likely to occur. Of course, their timeframe is wildly optimistic. I just read one article that quoted an economist as saying he estimated only a 20% likelihood that the Euro (and therefore, inevitably, the EU itself) would last in its present form for 10 years. Ten years? Give me a break. I’d estimate there’s only a 20% probability that the Euro will last in its current form for the next 90 days, and maybe a 1% probability it’ll still be around at the end of the year. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Euro and the EU crashed by the end of this month.

Many people disagreed with me that Germany will return to the Deutschmark, or something very like it, but I still think that’s almost certain to happen. Or, if Germany decides not to go it alone, it may form a new union with Austria, Holland, Luxembourg, and Finland. I think that’s less likely than Germany going it alone, if only because Germany is now well aware of the extreme hazards of a currency union without a political union and a fiscal union, and those are not things Germans are likely to tolerate.

Work on building more chemistry kits continues. I’m filling, capping, and sealing containers and Barbara is labeling them. She can do that about twice as fast as I can do my part, so I try to get a backlog built up while she’s doing other things.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

11:53 – Well, we’re now down to zero kits in inventory, having sold the last five yesterday. Barbara is off on a day trip with her friend Bonnie, and I’m working on more kits while I do the laundry. By far the most time-consuming part is building the chemical block, which contains 44 chemicals and 6 test tubes (packed in the foam block for safe shipping). We do them in batches of 28 because there are 28 labels per page. That’s 1,232 containers to fill and label per batch, of which 13 chemicals (364 containers per batch) have to be individually sealed with tape to meet small-quantity exemption shipping requirements.

I’ve tried using heat-shrink cap bands, but that’s actually more time-consuming than applying tape manually. While I was looking for a better way to seal caps, I happened to notice a roll of ScotchBlue masking tape that Barbara had bought for a painting project. I tried using it to seal a cap, and it worked so well that Barbara was unable to twist off the cap without first removing the tape. That’s good enough to meet shipping requirements, so that’s what we’re using now.

Friday, 5 August 2011

08:29 – Black Friday. I suspect that when we look back upon this day, we’ll see it as the day the Euro died. And probably the EU itself. Even Barroso, the chief EU cheerleader, now concedes that the “contagion” has spread beyond the periphery. After denying, as late as Wednesday afternoon, that it would even consider doing so, Spain has now withdrawn a bond auction scheduled for later this month, in hopes that people won’t notice that its bonds are nearly worthless.

With the stock market crashes across the world yesterday and US employment numbers that are likely to be worse than everyone fears due later today, the stage is set for a real Black Friday on the markets today. And most of the EU country leaders have caught the last train for the coast, unwilling to interrupt their planned vacations. Geez.

Incidentally, for weeks news reports have been using the word “unsustainable” with regard to bond yields. I read an article this morning that reported that benchmark 10-year Spanish and Italian yields were “approaching 7%, a level that most economists consider unsustainable”. Just to be clear, there is no single rate that marks the “unsustainable” boundary. It varies from country to country, according to its own economic situation. For countries in horrible economic shape, like Spain and Italy, that rate doesn’t have to get to 7% to be unsustainable. For them, 6% is just as unsustainable, as is 5%, as is 4%. Looking at the numbers, I think 3% or even 2% is unsustainable for Spain and Italy. In fact, they’re both in such bad shape that anything much over 0% is unsustainable.

Barbara is taking the day off work today to help me build more chemistry kits. Just in time, too, because we’re down to less than half a dozen in inventory.

21:37 – Oh, my. The United States of America, which has had a AAA credit rating since before my mother was born and before my father’s father was fighting in the trenches in France, has now been downgraded by S&P to AA+. It’s ridiculous, really, and unlikely to have any real effect on US debt yields. After all, where else will investors put their money? Britain, despite its AAA rating, and Japan have higher debt loads than the US, and less dynamic economies. Switzerland is solid, but much too small to matter. The Euro is a joke. No one in his right mind would buy Asian debt. And does anyone really believe that bonds issued by Belgium, which hasn’t even had a government for the past year or so, are of the same risk level as US bonds?

Thursday, 4 August 2011

09:31 – I read an interesting article the other day on CNN or FoxNews about small business owners pawning their Rolexes to meet payroll, and a second article about lending being extremely tight even for those with top-notch credit ratings. Interest rates are very low, which means nothing if no bank will lend you money.

Fortunately, I don’t want to borrow money. In fact, the last thing I want is to borrow money. That may seem odd for someone who’s just starting a small business, but in my experience the two biggest causes of small business failures are borrowing money and hiring employees. When Barbara and I talked about this new business, I told her that I intended to fund it out-of-pocket and that I would not hire our first employee until Barbara and I were run ragged and also had some assurance that the hectic pace was not merely a seasonal bump in sales. And, even then, I’d almost certainly contract work out or, as a last resort, hire a temp/part-time employee.

The problem with borrowing money or hiring employees is that you give up control by doing so. As long as we avoid either, we don’t have to worry about making a loan payment or meeting payroll, which is the way I want it. Now, if only the US government would be equally careful with our money.

Inventory of the chemistry kits is getting perilously low, so Barbara is taking the day off from work tomorrow to help me build more. We have enough components to build another dozen or so kits, and all but one of the components needed to build 50 or so more beyond that first dozen. The problem is, that one component is back-ordered for about the next three weeks. So we’re going to build all of the kits, but missing that one component. That way, we can just drop in that one component when it finally arrives and have kits ready to ship.

I’m also preparing purchase orders that I can drop on a moment’s notice if kit sales pick up quickly as the new school year approaches. Making up all the chemical solutions for any arbitrary number of kits is a couple days’ work, whether I make up enough for 50 kits or 500. The really time-consuming steps are filling and labeling the containers, assembling and packaging the chemical blocks, making up the small-parts bags, and assembling the kits themselves. For 50 kits, that’s maybe three days’ work for Barbara and me working together.

The media, including most of the financial media, is putting as favorable a spin as possible on today’s Spanish bond auction, although of course the yields remain disastrously high. That WSJ article does mention one significant factor that’s being generally ignored in news reports: a large and increasing percentage of Spanish bond sales are being made to Spaniards. The latest figures the WSJ quotes are for the end of last year. I suspect the percentage of Spanish bonds being bought by non-Spaniards is much lower now. And what few of the reports mention is that Spain has to sell another €38 billion in bonds–more than ten times as much as they sold today–between now and the end of the year. Good luck selling €38 billion worth of bonds into the Spanish economy, which is already nearly saturated.

Friday, 29 July 2011

08:45 – It’s interesting, in the same way that watching a train wreck is interesting, to watch the maneuvering of FIGS (France, Italy, Greece, and Spain) versus FANG (Finland, Austria, Netherlands, and Germany). The former, along with Portugal and Belgium, are pressing for fiscal union so that they can pillage the wealth of FANG to support their own spendthrift governments and moribund economies. FANG legislators and voters are perfectly aware of this, and very unlikely to allow it to happen. Smart money is on the Eurozone and then inevitably the EU itself fragmenting into one group of rich, productive northern nations and a second tier of poor, unproductive southern nations. Look for that to happen sooner rather than later, possibly even before the end of this year.

On a related note, I see that the ratings agencies have downgraded regional Spanish debt, a likely preliminary to them downgrading Spanish sovereign debt itself. Spanish and Italian bonds are already selling at historically high yields, and their most recent auctions have failed to sell out. They’re both at the point now where one or two more straws will break their backs. And the EU bailout fund has insufficient resources to stabilize either of them, let alone both. Nor are Germany and the other wealthier EU nations willing to throw more money down that rat hole. I suspect that the FANG nations have already decided to let nature take its course with the weaker nations. Everything the FANG nations are doing now is aimed at damage control for their own economies and their own citizens.

Work on the biology book continues.

12:21 – Apple has finally carried through on its threat to disable ebook reader apps that allow purchasing ebooks from within the app, bypassing Apple’s store. Talk about the height of arrogance. Apple demands 30% of revenue for doing nothing, and further insists that publishers and distributors price their works on the Apple store no higher than elsewhere. In effect, Apple demands 100% of the profit (or more) on all sales.

For example, let’s say I publish an ebook on for $3.00 list price. For each ebook they sell, Amazon pays me 70% of that $3.00 and keeps the other $0.90 to cover its own costs. If Amazon updated its reader app to meet Apple’s requirements for in-app purchasing, Amazon would still pay me the $2.10 royalty, but would have to pay the remaining $0.90 to Apple as Apple’s 30% cut, leaving Amazon with $0.00.

So, as of last night, Amazon updated its iOS app to remove the in-app purchasing option. Someone using an iOS device now has two options. First, they can purchase a book from Apple’s store (which was the whole idea all along; Apple was embarrassed because almost no one was purchasing ebooks through their crappy store). Second, the iOS user can fire up a browser, navigate to, and purchase the ebook manually. Way to go, Apple. Nothing like screwing your users in a money-grab that has no justification.

A lot of bloggers seem to think this change will let Apple grab a lot of ebook market share, on the theory that iOS users will take the easy way out and just buy from the Apple store. I don’t think so. It’s easy enough for an iPad user to buy the book directly from the Amazon or B&N site, and I think Apple’s going to see some pushback over this nasty little scheme. Furthermore, I have purchased hundreds of books for my Kindle over the six months since I bought it, and I have purchased none of them using the Kindle itself. In every case, I’ve ordered the book from the Amazon web site on my office or den PC and later downloaded it, via Wi-Fi or USB, to my Kindle. Every Kindle owner I know does it the same way, and I don’t know any smartphone users who buy directly from their smartphones. They all buy from a browser running on their PCs and then sync the book to their smartphones and other reading devices.

So, Apple may get a few more ebook purchases from iPad users, but probably not many more. IIRC, Apple to date has sold via the Apple store an average of about one ebook for each Apple unit capable of displaying ebooks. Their nasty little scheme may bump that to maybe two or three ebooks per device, but I doubt that it will threaten B&N’s market share for ebooks, let alone Amazon’s.

14:03 – Ruh-roh. I just shipped the last of the chemistry kits I had already made up and boxed. I have the sub-assemblies necessary to make up another batch quickly, but I’m not sure that batch will last me until the backordered component arrives.

Meanwhile, I do have all but one of the components necessary to make up another 60 or so kits. That means we can put together the main sub-assemblies (chemical block and small parts bag) and assemble and box up 60 more kits, missing only that one component. Once it arrives, it won’t take long to add that one component to each box and then tape them up and have them ready to ship.

Speaking of taping them up, it turns out to be good that I bought much more packing tape than I thought I’d need. U-line had the stuff on sale for $1.69 per roll, which was half the normal price, but only if I ordered a case of 36 220-yard rolls. So I did, thinking it’d be a lifetime supply. As it turns out, I’m using the stuff much faster than I though I would. The large priority-mail flat-rate boxes are one-foot cubes, so I figured I’d need maybe three or four feet to seal the top and bottom middle seams, plus maybe another four feet to seal the edge seams. Call it eight feet per box. At 660 feet per roll of packing tape, I figured I’d get something like 80 or 85 boxes per roll. Then reality intruded. I’m taping the crap out of these boxes, because the last thing I want is to have one come apart in transit. Incredibly, I ran out of tape on the first roll after sealing only 20 boxes, which amounts to 33 feet (10 meters) of tape per box. Still, that means my 36 rolls of tape are enough for 720 boxes, so I should be good for quite a while longer.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

10:12 – Here’s a torrent worth grabbing: a 32.5 GB file that contains thousands of pre-1923 articles by The Royal Society, all of them out of copyright in the US. It’s long past time that someone did something about JSTOR and similar organizations, which put up expensive paywalls around public domain information and guard it jealously. Now if only someone would do the same for old articles published by the ACS and other scientific organizations.

This archive contains 18,592 scientific publications totaling 33GiB, all from Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society and which should be available to everyone at no cost, but most have previously only been made available at high prices through paywall gatekeepers like JSTOR.

Limited access to the documents here is typically sold for $19 USD per article, though some of the older ones are available as cheaply as $8. Purchasing access to this collection one article at a time would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

All of these articles should be available for free on Google and other Internet sources. In fact, US scientific articles, including current ones, should be freely available, at least to US citizens, because nearly all of them were produced with US government funding. I’ve already paid for these articles through my taxes. I shouldn’t have to pay again to read them.

I’m going to have to do a bit of research on the actual chemical resistance of the polyethylene bottles I just bought. Checking various sources for the effect on polyethylene of concentrated sulfuric acid at 20 °C and 60 °C (the containers could get quite warm during shipping) tells me that the resistance may be anything from excellent to mediocre, depending on which source I believe.

I suspect this is because polyethylene is a class or classes of compounds rather than a specific compound. There are many, many types of PE, which are broadly grouped into LDPE, HDPE, and XDPE, but the exact characteristics of any particular PE may vary slightly, even from others in the same class.

It may be easier just to use glass bottles.

11:50 – On sexual dimorphism in humans…

Here is an actual, unretouched image of pairs of Barbara’s and my socks. (Mine are at the top, in case you hadn’t guessed; they were originally black, but I accidentally bleached them and liked the two-tone brown result.) No, I didn’t shrink Barbara’s socks. This is actually how they appear normally.

Now it’s true that I have occasionally been accused of having larger than usual feet. (Get your big, clumsy feet out of my …) But I think of myself as having dainty little feet. After all, I wear only a US male size 12 shoe, which isn’t bad for a guy my size.

13:34 – As a Viking-American, I found this article interesting.

If you can believe the article, past archaeologists had just assumed that Viking burials were all male because they all included grave artifacts like swords and shields. A new study reports the results of osteological examinations of a small number of Viking burials, which found that about half of the skeletons were female. Unfortunately, DNA analyses, which would have been definitive, were not done.

It makes sense to me that the Viking warriors would have taken their women along. After all, put yourself in the position of a Viking woman. Would you allow your husband to go off raping and pillaging without you?

Incidentally, don’t bother clicking the moron link at the bottom of the article, which reads “See photos of: Vikings“. I made the mistake of clicking it and it took me to page that featured–you guessed it–images of the Minnesota Vikings. Geez.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

08:53 – In the lead-up to the EU crisis summit tomorrow, it seems that the EU authorities can do nothing but bicker about which unworkable plan each prefers. It seems that the leading candidate is now Euro bonds, which would allow unstable economies like those of Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Italy, and Spain to issue sovereign debt instruments that are backed by the creditworthiness of Germany and other stronger northern European economies. In effect, this “solution” gives Greece Germany’s credit card and allows Greece to run up essentially unlimited debt which Germany is then responsible for paying. That’s kind of like asking me to co-sign a mortgage loan for an unemployed homeless person. Why would I do that? Why would Germany? If this is the best solution the EU authorities can come up with, the Euro is doomed.

Ultimately, the problem comes down to one of authority versus responsibility. The Europeans have an economic union, but not a fiscal union or a political union. Eurozone member nations are actually not nations in the traditional sense. A nation controls its own money. Eurozone members have given up that control, which amounts to giving up sovereignty. A sovereign nation can never be forced into default on debt instruments denominated in its own currency. The US, for example, is never in danger of defaulting on dollar-denominated bonds because, if push comes to shove, the US can simply print more dollars. The same is not true for Eurozone members, who have accepted responsibility while giving up authority.

The result of all this is that we now have a cat fight, with poor, unproductive, and deeply-indebted EU nations able by their actions to destroy the common currency, and wealthier and more productive nations faced with few alternatives but to pay the huge bills that have been incurred by those profligate nations. What’s worse is that this won’t be a one-time bailout. Those poor nations will continue returning to the well, expecting the richer nations to go on subsidizing them indefinitely. Obviously, that’s unsustainable.

UPS showed up yesterday with boxes from one of my wholesalers, which contain about 20% of the components I need to assemble another 60 chemistry kits. I already had about 10% of the components in hand, and nearly all of the remainder should arrive by the end of this month, with one exception. One small item is backordered, and I can’t find another source for it. It’s due to ship by 15 August, so I’m limited to on-hand inventory for about the next four weeks. Fortunately, this is the slowest time of year for kit orders, so I shouldn’t have to backorder many kits. I hope.

09:45 – I finally decided I had to do something about my inbox. I use it as a kind of pseudo-to-do list, marking action items as “unread” and think-about items as read. As of this morning, I had more than 600 messages in my inbox, some of them from last year. All real messages. So I just spent the last 45 minutes getting rid of the ones that were OBE (most of them), doing something about the ones that still required doing something about, and leaving the ones that require doing something about, but which will require more time than I have to devote to them at the moment. I’m now down to eight messages in my inbox.

Usually, I try hard to keep the number of messages in my inbox small enough that they don’t fill the message-list pane. When a scroll-bar appears for that pane, I know I need to do some pruning. This time, I let it get completely out of control. I’ll try to keep that from happening again.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

08:55 – When I started using WordPress, I decided to try using topic-oriented posts for a couple of weeks to see how they worked out. As far as I’m concerned, they’re not. With my old static weekly pages, I’d often post a short update during the day, sometimes only a sentence or two. That’s awkward with topic-oriented posts, not least because it makes it difficult for readers to keep track of comments.

I thought about creating one post per week and updating it daily, but that would be extremely awkward both for me and for readers. So I decided to go to day-oriented posts, one per day, or at least one per day that I post anything at all. I’ll try this for a week or two to see how it works out. If it works better than the topic-oriented posts, I’ll just continue doing it indefinitely.

The Euro crisis continues and deepens. Overnight, Irish debt was cut to junk status, which means it’s now impossible for Ireland to sell bonds in the private markets, as they’d planned to do.

Meanwhile, Italy seems to have fallen off a cliff. Italy had until recently avoided the ire of the bond markets, largely because although its debt is gigantic, something like €1.8 trillion, its current deficit is relatively small. (Spain has exactly the opposite problem: its debt is relatively small, but its current deficit is huge.)

Although Italy is striving mightily to address its economic problems, the best they’ve been able to come up with in austerity measures is a proposal to reduce the current deficit by €10 billion per year for the next four years. So, they currently owe about €1,800 billion, and they propose to reduce current deficit spending by €10 billion per year? That means they’ll still be spending more than they take in, thereby increasing their total existing debt.

For Italy, the elephant in the room is that a huge chunk of its debt, more than €200 billion, comes due next year and will have to be refinanced if Italy is not to default. The chance that Italy will be able to refinance €200 billion privately is nil, which means they’ll need a government bailout. The problem is that the EU can’t afford such a massive bailout, particularly coming on the heels of bailouts for Greece, Portugal, and Ireland.

The reaction to Netflix’s massive price increase has been uniformly negative. When I read the announcement on the Netflix blog, there were something like 3,800 comments from subscribers. Reading only the first page, it seems that they’re about 98%+ negative, with most posters threatening to drop Netflix.

And do what? It’s not like there are any good alternatives. Some people threatened to return to cable TV. Yeah, right. To avoid a price jump from $10 to $16/month they’re going to sign up for cable TV? For $16/month they’ll be lucky to get basic cable.

Many mentioned Amazon Prime streaming, so I went over to take a look at what Amazon had to offer. Not much. I checked the first ten titles in our Netflix instant queue. Amazon had none of them. So I checked 11 through 20. Amazon had none of them, either.

Thinking that maybe there was little overlap between Netflix and Amazon, and that Amazon might have a bunch of titles that weren’t available on Netflix, I started checking Amazon streaming by categories. Nope. There was nothing there that we hadn’t either already watched or had in the Netflix queue. Eyeballing it, I’d estimate that Amazon has maybe 5% of the titles that Netflix does.

The only place that Amazon seemed to have some advantage was in recent movie titles, which Barbara and I pretty much don’t care about. It seems that Amazon prime must appeal to people who like watching new stuff. We prefer watching good stuff, regardless of its age.

09:30 – Boy, am I glad that I decided to use USPS instead of UPS for shipping kits. Yesterday, UPS delivered a box that was supposed to contain eight dozen Sharpie markers. It looked like the UPS truck had run over the box before it delivered it. Barbara found it when she was taking Colin out after dinner, and shouted back to me that there was a really crushed up box on the front porch.

I suppose the good news is that 92 of the 96 markers were actually in the box. The bad news is that the box was crushed and beaten to a pulp and apparently leaked four of the markers. Not surprising, since of the eight Sharpie boxes inside the shipping box, six of them were crushed open and I had maybe 30 Sharpie markers rattling around loose in the shipping box. Fortunately, the remaining markers appear undamaged.

Then this morning I got email from UPS, with the heading “UPS Exception Notification”. In the body of the message, it explained the reason:


In other words, the shipping box must have broken (or been torn to shreds by some UPS machine), scattering my eight dozen 9V batteries all over the floor at some UPS site.

This is by no means the first and second time UPS has done this on my shipments. It happens pretty regularly. I’m not sure why, because it almost never happens with USPS or FedEx.

Doing things the hard way

I really must take the time to get set up with the USPS Click-N-Ship program. It’s a hassle to load 5 or 8 cubic feet of kit boxes into the truck, haul them out to the post office, carry them in to the counter, wait for them to be scanned and logged, pay the postage, and get them on their way.

With Click-N-Ship, I can log on to the USPS web site, enter the addressee, and print a bar-coded label. The postage is charged to my account, and the USPS delivery person gets a notice that there’s a package waiting to be picked up at my home. That means I can ship six days a week instead of batching up shipments for a weekly trip to the post office. Buyers get their kits faster, the postage is cheaper, and I get a free delivery notification.

The fact that I am just getting around to getting this set up is more evidence that my to-do list is too long. If it’s a hassle now to do things the hard way, I can just imagine what it’ll be like as we start shipping kits in higher volume.

More chemistry kits

The chemistry kits are selling well enough that it’s almost time to order more components. I really don’t want to have to backorder the kits, particularly between now and September.

I dithered about how many kits’ worth to order, and settled on 56.  If that number sounds odd, I chose it because the chemical labels are printed 28 per sheet. Also, that’s a convenient number for kit assembly. We can make up all 56 chemical blocks and small-parts bags in one pass, and do final assembly of the kits in four batches of 14 each. Finally, 56 boxed kits occupy more than two cubic yards, which is about all the space I want to devote to storing finished goods inventory.