Saturday, 14 April 2012

09:11 – Laundry and science kit stuff for me today. Barbara has yard work. With taxes out of the way, I can get back to re-writing the forensics book.

Our target date for biology kit availability was 18 April, which we’ll meet. I don’t expect to start getting many biology kits orders until maybe a week or two after the book hits the stores, which is late this month or early next. We have 30 biology kits in stock, and the components in inventory we need to build another 30 in a couple of hours. We also have most of what we need to build 30 more chemistry kits. All we lack is a few of the bottled chemicals, and we’ll be filling, labeling, and sealing the last group of those this weekend.

I talked to our letter carrier the other day. Until now, the most I’ve been shipping is one or two kits a day. I told him that with the new book hitting the stores, that number might increase significantly on some days, and asked if that would be a problem for him. He asked how many, and I told him I didn’t really know but it might be five or ten kits on a heavy day and maybe more than that on a very heavy day. He said it’d be no problem at all. We’re near the end of his route, so his truck is normally almost empty when he delivers our mail. He said that if there wasn’t room in his truck he’d take what he could and come back to get the rest or, if necessary, call in to the post office and have them send out an empty truck.

Friday, 13 April 2012

07:50 – Friday the 13th falls on a Friday this month.

Spain is now on the precipice of complete economic collapse. Its banks must redeem about €600 billion this year, and those banks are already zombies. In March, Spanish banks borrowed €316.3 billion and redeemed €88.7 billion, for net borrowing of €227.6 billion, almost a 50% increase in net borrowing over the €152.4 billion they borrowed in February. The trend is obvious to anyone who looks at the data. Without a huge bailout, which simply isn’t in the cards, Spain will default catastrophically sooner rather than later. Portugal is in similarly horrible shape, as is Italy. Meanwhile, the second Greek bailout is already heading for the rocks, with a third bailout or outright default inevitable. And the markets have begun to sit up and take notice. As Jeremy Warner says, it’s time to put the doomed euro out of its misery.

11:38 – Colin is now officially a Fearsome Predator. As I was walking him just now, he started sniffing around the base of a small tree. An apparently-oblivious squirrel came around the trunk and hopped to the ground about a foot (30 cm) from Colin’s snout. He pounced and the squirrel screamed. (Seriously; they do scream.) The squirrel tried to take off running, but Colin had its tail in his mouth. Rather than simply hold onto it, though, Colin let it run, with him following behind it with its tail still in his mouth. They ran around a big bush into the next yard. When I got there, the squirrel was up a tree, with Colin pacing around the trunk. I told him he was a good dog, and we headed for home, with him prancing all the way. Fearsome predator, indeed.

Actually, that was Colin’s second victory. He caught a bird when he was a young pup. He didn’t hurt it, either. Border Collies almost never harm something they catch. They have all the chase-and-capture instinct of their wild ancestors, but all of the kill instinct has been bred out of them. Of the many, many times over the years that our BCs have caught prey–ranging from birds to squirrels to frogs to possums to, on one memorable occasion, a feral cat–the only times any prey have been harmed were the feral cat that Duncan bit in half after it tried to claw him and the squirrel that Duncan killed after it bit him in the snout. Duncan, justifiably annoyed with the squirrel, struck faster than a rattlesnake, grabbed it, and gave it one deadly shake.

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.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

08:07 – The taxes are done, other than printing off final copies to mail in. I’ll print those today, Barbara will sign the returns tonight, and I’ll mail them tomorrow.

So, it’ll be Romney versus Obama in November. I don’t much like Romney, to put it mildly, but he’s certainly worlds better than Obama. Let’s hope that Romney kicks Obama’s ass in November, and that the Republicans retake the Senate on Romney’s coattails. Ordinarily, I prefer that the president and congress be at each other’s throats, but we really need the Republicans in control to repeal all the laws that the Democrats passed and undo as much as possible of the damage that Obama, Reid, Pelosi, and their crowd have done.

And it looks like the economy will turn sour again, just in time to frustrate Obama’s hopes. From about mid-2011, had a “Financial Crisis” link on the hot news bar on their front page every day. That disappeared a few weeks ago, but I predict it will soon be back. The effects of Draghi’s LTRO have by now pretty much completely worn off, and the market euphoria from the Greek default is fast dissipating. People are realizing that the LTRO and Greek default didn’t improve matters at all. Fundamentally, Europe is still bankrupt, and now the vultures are coming home to roost. The euro crisis is about to come roaring back, worse than ever before. Europe, having wasted a lot of money to buy a little time, is now in a worse position than it was. Spain will soon be forced to seek a bail-out, with Portugal and Italy not far behind. And the cupboard is bare. This will be an exciting spring and summer.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

09:35 – Barbara and I have started watching Heartland on Netflix streaming. Netflix streaming has only the first two seasons, totaling 31 episodes, but seasons three and four are available on DVD, with season five currently running. I’m not sure if Netflix has those DVDs, but once we near the end of the available episodes I’ll probably add DVDs to our Netflix account. There are several other DVD-only series with new seasons available, so we’ll get DVDs for a few months until we’re caught up with those and then change back to streaming only.

I’m not sure what it is about Canada, but it certainly produces more than its share of really fine young actresses. There is Emily VanCamp, of course, whom I adore, and now Amber Marshall, the lead character in Heartland.

When we started watching Heartland, we knew nothing about it other than the Netflix description. We watch a lot of Canadian series, and this is the first one we’ve watched that didn’t scream “Canadian”. I’m not sure what it is, but I can usually identify a series as Canadian within the first minute or two. It’s not the accent. Maybe something to do with production values. For the first few minutes of the first episode of Heartland, I didn’t really think about it, but if I had I would have just assumed it was a US series. Yes, most of the characters pronounced “ou” as the Canadian “oo” rather than the US “ow”, but that pronunciation is not unique to Canada. Many US residents in the upper plains states sound more Canadian than American in that respect. When one of the characters said something about over the border “in Montana”, that narrowed things down a bit. We knew the series was set in North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, or Idaho. Or perhaps Saskatchewan, Alberta, or British Columbia. Alberta, as it turns out.

Monday, 9 April 2012

07:55 – I start work on our federal and state incomes taxes today. As far as I can see, our LLC makes zero difference to how I’ll do the taxes. The revenue and expenses for the corporation go directly to Schedule C on the federal return, just as they did when I was operating as a sole proprietor. And the state return simply uses figures plugged in from the federal return, as always.

Speaking of the state return, I finally took some time yesterday to get my new Epson V300 scanner up and working. There was no prayer of that happening on my main office system, which is running Ubuntu 9.04 (!). So I took the scanner back to Barbara’s office and connected it to her system, which is running a more recent Ubuntu. Epson supplies Linux drivers, but the installation wasn’t completely straightforward. I had to install an older version of one of the support files manually, after which the scanner was immediately recognized by xSane. I did a test scan, and everything appears to be working normally.

What motivated me to finally get the scanner running is that the stupid North Carolina PDF tax forms can be filled out and printed with Adobe Reader, but they can’t be saved. How stupid is that? So, my choices were to just print an extra copy of the completed return for our records or to get the scanner working. Either that, or to what I’ve done in a couple prior years when I didn’t have a working scanner: put the completed forms on the floor and shoot images of them with a digital camera.

Barbara tried to give Colin a bath yesterday. As usual, she stripped down and got in the downstairs shower and then I brought Colin into the bathroom. The last time, he was pretty good about getting into the shower with her and seemed resigned to being bathed. This time, he simply refused to get in the shower. He was terrified. He actually snapped at Barbara. I could feel him shivering in terror. So we bagged it. With the weather getting warmer, it’s not a big deal. Barbara will wash him outdoors with the hose at the next opportunity.

We’re starting to get queries about the biology kits, which will start shipping next week. Other than the supplemental DVD included with each kit, we have the first batch of 30 kits made up and ready to go, with components for 30 more in the on-deck circle. We hope that’ll be enough at least to buffer the initial flood of orders when the book hits the stores, but of course we’re prepared to order in components for and assemble a lot more kits quickly if the initial flood of orders is larger than expected. We’re also in the process of making up 30 more chemistry kits, and we’ve penciled in some time in a couple of months to begin assembling forensics kits. Obviously, we’re going to be busy for the next few months.

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, 7 April 2012

09:01 – Okay, this is really strange. When we did the first draft of the forensics lab book a few years ago, we recommended one of those small portable BLB fluorescent tube UV light sources. Since then, technology has moved on, and UV LED flashlights have become commonplace and inexpensive.

So, on March 23rd, I ordered this 9 LED 400 nM UV Ultra Violet Blacklight Flashlight 3AAA, 7301UV400 from an Amazon Marketplace vendor, for $3.59 with free shipping. (The price has since increased to $3.79.) I wasn’t expecting much, especially with shipping included in the $3.59. On the other hand, I think I mentioned that a couple of years ago I bought a package of 10 six-LED white flashlights at Lowes or Home Depot for $9.99. A buck each, including the AAA batteries, albeit cheap zinc-carbon ones.

When I got the confirming email from Amazon, I was surprised to see that it showed the expected arrival date as “Wednesday April 18, 2012 – Friday May 4, 2012”. I figured they must be back-ordered, but I really wasn’t in any hurry. Then, three days later on March 26th, I got email from Amazon saying that the product had shipped, but that the expected arrival date was still April 18th through May 4th. I wondered how it was possible to ship something on March 26th that would take three to five weeks or more to arrive. Slow boat from China?

Well, yes, as it turned out. Or at least a slow plane from China. The flashlight arrived yesterday, with a Par Avion label and customs sticker. It was shipped from Hong Kong. How in the hell can you ship anything from Hong Kong for $3.59 and not lose money on the deal?

The flashlight itself is of surprisingly good quality, at least on superficial examination. I was expecting plastic construction, but it’s made of machined metal, apparently aluminum. The switch is in the base, and seems solid. And the nine UV LEDs put out a lot of light. I suspect the 400 nM label is accurate, because the output is right on the edge between visible deep violet and invisible long wavelength UV. In the dark, ordinary white objects are lit in deep purple and fluorescent objects, including most white paper, fluoresce brilliantly. I suspect this unit would quite useful for scorpion hunting, as well as all the other things a UV light source is usually used for. For $3.59, I’m happy with it.

Friday, 6 April 2012

08:03 – Names and dates. I was reading something the other night that was sneering at teaching history as “names and dates”. Over the last few decades, it’s become the prevailing opinion that such teaching of names and dates is useless. Perhaps that’s why few people who are younger than 50 or 60 years old know anything about history.

I learned history the old way, starting by memorizing hundreds and eventually thousands of, yes, names and dates. Even now, I remember most of those. Superficially, it may seem useless knowledge for me to remember, say, that Gaius Marius (157 to 86 BCE) served as consul seven times and reformed the legions or that Octavian (63 BCE to 14 CE) won the Battle of Actium in September 31 BCE or that Charles “The Hammer” Martel lived from 686 to 741 CE and won the Battle of Tours in the autumn of 732 CE or that Queen Victoria lived from 1819 to 1901. And, considered in isolation, those are indeed useless factoids.

But only when considered in isolation, and only when there are just a few of those factoids. When there are hundreds and thousands of them, they assume critical importance. They provide the framework for understanding history. Ironically, new-style history teachers condemn old-style history teachers for teaching “isolated names and dates” rather than teaching the relationships of people and events. In fact, it’s just the opposite.

Ask a student who learned new-style history about a particular period. They may understand a famous event in some detail, but if you ask them what was going on elsewhere in the world at about the same time that influenced that event, they’ll have no clue. Conversely, ask someone who learned old-style history about the same event. They’ll be able to “connect the dots”. They’ll know what was happening elsewhere at about the same time, and who was involved. The new-style student sees history as a collection of unrelated events; the old-style student sees history as a tapestry.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

07:30 – Regarding US manufacturing, this article (h/t to Derek Lowe) says pretty much what I’ve been saying for a couple of decades. Ultimately, all US factories will be staffed only by one man and his dog, or as close as doesn’t matter. The days when factories employed large numbers of unskilled and semi-skilled laborers are long gone, and the days are coming when even skilled specialists will be thin on the ground.

Efforts to maintain, let alone increase, manufacturing employment are futile and doomed to fail. Ultimately, US factories will become black boxes, with a chute on one end to receive raw materials and a conveyor on the the other end that delivers finished products, all with no human intervention. Some factories are nearly at that point even now. Manufacturing jobs? Good luck with that. There won’t be any.

As I’ve said frequently, human progress ultimately comes down to two things: new knowledge, which is produced by science, and productivity, which is produced by automation. Progress comes down to discovering new and more efficient ways to accomplish goals and then implementing that new knowledge.