How to make a chocolate statue of yourself

For Valentine’s Day my wife and I have a tradition of making something for each other.  This year I decided to make a chocolate statue of myself.  This is the technical tutorial for anyone interested.

For my thoughts on whether you should give a statue of yourself as a Valentine’s Day gift, here’s another blog post.

To do this I ended up:

1. 3D scanning myself

2. 3D Printing myself

3. Making a negative mold using the 3D print

4. Creating a chocolate bar from the mold. 

Total Cost:  $50.  $25for 3D print, $20 for the Amazing Mold Putty, $5 for chocolate.

Here’s how it’s done:

1.  3D Scanning – You need an XBox Kinect.  it’s easiest if you have the old school one that has the USB interface.  I think the new ones will still work, but you need to get the Power Supply that allows you to plug it into your PC using USB.  Then you need to download the Kinect SDK so that it will work with your PC.   I used ReconstructMe to scan myself in.   It has some strict requirements on graphics cards, so make sure that you find hardware that can run it.  I needed a friend (Adam Robinson) to scan me in using the Kinect camera while I stood completely still.  He just walked around me scanning me up and down.

When you use the free version (which I did), there are 3d balls all over the place which is how they 3D “Watermark” the scan.  If you’re going to print yourself out, you need to get rid of these watermark balls.  If money is no object, then you can just pay for the Pro version of ReconstructMe which will not embed the watermark balls.

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After I was scanned in,  I downloaded another piece of free software called MeshLab.  I used MeshLab to convert the ReconstructMe output from a PLY file to an STL file.   I found that most 3D printers use the STL format.   Meshlab was easy to use to convert the file format, but everything else about it was incredibly difficult.  I found another online program at http://clara.io where I was able to upload my new STL.  Then I started removing the Watermark Balls.  Most of the Watermark balls were easy to remove.  There were a few that were embedded into my body.  Removing those were a bit like removing tumors.  I wasn’t able to remove them completely smoothly, but most of it was gone.  I figured I could sand down the 3D scan if it was too obtrusive.  Then I exported and downloaded the STL file from clara.io.  I re-opened it MeshLab, then scaled it so that I was about 3 inches tall, then re-saved.

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Next I used a service called NetFabb where I waterproofed the model.  Apparently, this is required before you can 3D Print anything.  A few minutes later, NetFabb emailed me with a link where I could download the processed model.  Now, I can use this model to make a 3D print of myself.

2.  3D Printing – I did a lot of shopping around for 3D print services.  There are a whole bunch available and they all offer different materials.  It seemed like ceramics was the cheapest.  However, all the companies had about a 3 week lead time on ceramics.  Most companies had a 2-3 day lead time for plastics, but they were quite expensive.  For a 3 inch print of me, we were looking at $40-$60…   I was a little sticker shocked and kept searching for other options.  That’s when I found makexyz.com.  They were a directory of a whole bunch of mom/pop 3D printers who would print out models for you.  I found several in the Seattle area that would make a print at 25 cents/cm^3 which was super cheap.  I picked a company called ObjectDefi 3d printing.  I uploaded my STL.  I got a quote the next day for  around $25.  I told him to go for it.  By the time I asked where I should pick it up, he had already printed and shipped it to my address.  The print arrived 2 days later.

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3.  Negative Mold –  Once I received the plastic statue of myself.   I used the Amazing Mold Putty to make a mold of myself.  The putty came in two bottles.  I had to mix an equal amount of putty from each bottle, then I had a couple minutes to cover my plastic statue before it started to harden.  I ended up making two molds.  The first mold, I covered my statue entirely, but then wondered if I got air bubbles inside.  I ended up removed the mold, re-kneading the putty then trying to cover my statue a second time.  But, I think I took to long and the putty was already starting to retain its shape.  it didn’t want to stick to my statue anymore.  I was pretty sure there were going to be bubbles between the statue and the mold.  I waited about an hour for the mold to harden, then I made a second mold.  The second time, I worked quicker and carefully rolled the putty down from top to bottom to avoid any air bubbles.  After about an hour, I cut the mold open with scissors and slipped out the statue. 

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4. Creating the Chocolate Statue –  Believe it or not, this was the most difficult part for me.  I first started with chocolate chips and tried to melt them in the microwave.  The chocolate chips would not melt.  It would turn into a thick chunky mess.  I went through several batches as I tried different times and power settings on the microwave.  I ended up giving up for the evening wondering if I needed to make Jell-o statues…  The next day, I spoke with a friend and explained my dilemma.  He told me I was using the wrong kind of chocolate.  I need to be using baker’s chocolate.  Apparently, there’s a special type of chocolate used for melting and creating molds.  I found it at my local Albertson’s.  I had to decide if I was going to get brown chocolate or white chocolate.  After a moment of racial identity struggle,  I ended up getting both…

Once I got home, I filled a pyrex measuring cup with 1 cup of chocolate bars (1/2 brown, 1/2 white).  I then heated it in the microwave for about 30 seconds on 50% power.  I did this about 5 times (for a total of 2.5 minutes.)  I stirred it up with a spoon and it was a nice, smooth liquid.  The chocolate was still cool to the touch. 

I put some rubber bands around the molds and placed them inside cups to hold them upside down.  I poured the chocolate in the mold.  Once I filled up the head section, I used a chop stick to stir around the chocolate to remove any air bubbles.  then I filled the remainder of the mold.   I put the mold in the refrigerator for a few hours.    When I took them out, the chocolate was completely solid.  I took off the rubber bands and peeled the silicone putty off of the chocolate, pulling out the statue. 

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Chocolate statues are done.  My first mold did indeed leave some air bubbles in the mold.  The chocolate statues that came out of that mold gave me jar-jar binks ears.  The second mold also gave me some deformities on the right side of my face, I think that might have happened while I was cutting open the mold. 

Fun project.  Not too expensive if you’ve got a kinect sensor.  The kids might be next.  Some friends at work suggested making a chess set out of co-workers…   Actually, when I told some people that I’m making a chocolate statue of myself, I got all kinds of interesting suggestions, most of which is not appropriate for this family blog… So, I’m sure there are a lot of ideas out there and I wish you well!

If you do decide to try this, please share what you make (if appropriate)!  

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Valentine’s Day–Just because you can doesn’t mean you should

I was getting a hair cut a few days ago, and the barber lady asked me if I was married.  For the good-looking people of the world, they are probably used to hearing this question and recognize it as a start of a courting conversation.  As for someone like me, it’s usually only asked of me when I am purchasing insurance, so I was taken a bit off guard as she didn’t look like she sold insurance on the side.  I answered that I was, and she asked if I had Valentine’s Day plans.  Oooohhhhhh, this is where the conversation was going…   I told her that my wife and I usually don’t do anything on Valentine’s day because it’s usually crowded and expensive.  We have a tradition of making a gift for each other. 

“Oh!  What did you make her?” she asked.

The short answer was “A chocolate statue of myself”… but I found that I was a bit embarrassed to just say those words out of my mouth.  In fact, I told her – “I didn’t really think about what I was making, but now that someone has asked me, I’m a a bit embarrassed to say.”

She persisted, her curiosity now perked.  I started to explain how I was scanning myself into a computer, printing myself out, then making a chocolate mold of myself.   I felt better about explaining it this way, then saying “A chocolate me.”  As I was thinking about it, there is something megalomaniacal or narcissistic about giving a statue of yourself as a gift.  I guess I didn’t really think about it that way until I had to explain to a stranger that I’m doing this.  I’ve really been more absorbed in the technical challenge of how to do it.  Probably the same type of neglect that scientists and engineers experience when they created the nuclear bomb, cloned humans, and grew the Chia Pet…. They only asked, “Could I do this?”  rather than “Should I do this?”   

I supposed if I really thought through it, I might have chosen a cuter subject to scan and print… like one of my sons… or our borrowed dog.  But, I suppose with it being Valentine’s Day and all, perhaps my wife’s husband is the most appropriate subject after all.  It won’t be pretty to look at,but the consolation is that the purpose of these statues is to be eaten, not really to be visually admired.  

I also found that there were other strange questions you have to grapple with when you’re making a chocolate statue of yourself.  Dark Chocolate, Milk Chocolate, or White Chocolate?  My wife’s favorite is white chocolate… but it just seemed a little weird to make myself white… A clash of self-identity issues and taste preferences.

Unfortunately, my wife found the chocolate statues the day before Valentine’s Day, so she got an early gift.  Luckily for me, she appreciated them for what they were – a completely geeky self-expression of my love for her.  It’s certainly not the most romantic gift in the world… but I think she appreciated them for the amount of effort I put in, in making something for her… kinda like how you thank your children for the Father’s Day gift made out of popsicle sticks… 

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I have to admit that it was a little strange seeing her take a bite into my head.  But, I got over it and took a bite of my arm.  I did offer one of the chocolate me’s to my mom… but she refused to eat it citing that it was gross…   That’s probably the typical and reasonable response I would expect from most women when they are offered a piece of chocolate in my likeness. 

But, that’s what makes Tenille so special.  She’ll bite off my head without a second thought.  What a lady! 

From Tenille, I received a much more practical gift of a mix CD.  I got to listen to it on my commute.  It contained all the special songs that we’ve shared throughout our marriage.  Thank you, Tenille!  Happy Valentine’s Day to my sweet wife. 

For those that are interested in the How-To, here’s the link:

How to make a chocolate statue of yourself

Child-Labor Hedge-fund

About a month ago,  I noticed that Caleb was always doing something he called “research”.  I asked him about it.  He said that there was a program at the zoo where you could write research papers and for each paper, you get a point.  The requirement for a research paper was that you had to write 10 facts about an animal.  If you write 50 papers about 50 different animals, then you can get a replica of a fossilized dinosaur egg.   So, Caleb spent a lot of time on Wikipedia looking up interesting animals and fun facts about them.  I noticed that he really loved doing this.  I looked in his folder and he had written over 60 papers.  I asked him why he did so many when he just needed to do 50.  He said that he just liked doing it.  It was fun.

Oh…. maybe this is his calling in life… This is something he’d do, even though he doesn’t have to.  It was fun!  Then I thought, maybe he could do some research on stuff that might be more productive… or even better – more profitable… Leave it to me to turn something pure and fun into a grimy, money-making scheme…. If there are a group of dads that can suck the fun from the marrows of a pure and enjoyable activity, I’d be the president.

I asked if he would be interested in doing stock research on companies.  Eventually, it would be to figure out which companies he might want to invest in.  He said he’d give it a try.  So that night, I created a simplified template for what a stock research paper might look like.  I also made a list of about 100 public companies from a stock screener on Google.  The next day, I went through the template and showed him where he could find each piece of information using Google Finance and Yahoo Finance.  I wanted him to get the stock price, company description, P/E, Forward P/E, Analyst earning estimates for the next year, and dividend yield.  We chatted about what each of these things meant and what was good and what was bad.  And for each research paper, I wanted him to write his own commentary on the company and give it a rating. 

I figured he probably needed a motivating reward for doing this… kinda like the dinosaur egg… Although I don’t really want to resort to money, it’s always an easy answer.  I told him that I’d give him 50 cents for each research paper and we can go to Walmart or Target so he could spend it after every 10 papers…. but if he wanted to save it, then I’d give him a dollar for each paper…   He said he’ll take the dollar… smart boy…  

I went to work that day wondering if he was actually going to produce anything.  The paper was a bit intensive and he had to do quite a bit of navigating around to get all the data.  When I got home, he excitedly told me that he had finished three papers, but he couldn’t get the earning estimates because he forgot where to get them.  Wow!  I was impressed.  I showed him where to get the estimates then asked him to tell me about the companies he researched.  He talked about the dividends and the P/E and told me about his ratings…  I complimented him on his work and encouraged him to finish a set of 10. 

When I got home the next day, he had finished 11 research papers!  He was also super excited about a few of his finds.  There were 3 companies that got a ratings of 8’s and 9’s from him.    One was FSC  (Fifth Street Finance Corp) because it had a dividend yield of 10%, and analysts anticipate continued earnings growth.  The other two were Smith and Wesson and QuestCor Pharma.   At a glance, they all definitely seemed like good candidates for further research.  I immediately transferred $10 into his bank account as promised.  I was thinking that was $10 well spent.  I told my friend, Michael about this, and he accused me of running a child-labor hedge-fund.  I guess it would only be bad if it was “forced” child-labor.   But, I make sure that Caleb understands that he can stop any time… and go live with some other family…   The program is completely voluntary.

I had to simplify a few concepts, but he caught on pretty quick.  He latched on to the idea of value using the P/E.  I told him that you can think of it as the number of years it would take for you to make your money back with the company’s profits.  So, for Microsoft with a P/E of 13.5, it’d take 13.5 years to get your investment back.  For Netflix, with a P/E of 233, it’d take 233 years.  He didn’t like that.

Eventually, we also had to talk about growth and why we would pay more money for a growing company, then a “mature” company.  We started talking about companies in terms of the PEG ratio to integrate all these concepts.  Then, we had to distinguish between using historical growth vs. future (anticipated) growth for the PEG.    As we looked at different companies, we found interesting earning patterns and had to dig into the annual report of Delta Airlines to figure out that they had some accounting changes.  It might be interesting to get on an earnings call with him and try to explain what in the world they are talking about… Maybe an earnings call of a distressed company might be more fun than one that is doing well.   It might also be fun to go to an annual stockholder meeting.  We’ve been to Berkshire Hathaway a few times, but maybe it might be more interesting now since he’s thinking about the company’s earnings.

It seems like Caleb is enjoying this research work.  Much more so than working on bicycles.  He’s up to 20 research papers.  I’ve been pushing him to be much more quantitative on his commentary and he’s working on a more systematic rating system.  Hopefully, it stays fun.  There’s so much material to learn…  Maybe, he can find some other kids to create an investment club.  It’s always good to lose money together with other people when you first get started… well… maybe not always… but at least you have someone to commiserate with…

If you’re looking for investment advice, Caleb wants everyone to know that he’s open for business.  He says $1 for every stock you buy based on his recommendation…   but, just a reminder that he’s not a licensed investment advisor… and he’s nine years old…

Finding Radio Transmitters and Character

Last week, I was invited to a “Transmitter Hunt” – sometimes called a foxhunt or a bunny hunt.  These are events where amateur radio enthusiasts will hunt for hidden transmitters using home-made antennas.   Apparently, it can get very competitive.  However, the one that we went to was very casual and put on by the Radio Club of Tacoma at Point Defiance Park.  It is probably one of the top 5 nerdiest things I’ve ever done… and that’s not an easy list to get on to…

Andrew and I arrived about 10am and there were already a bunch of amateur radio enthusiasts set up with giant antennas for their field day.  I found the Transmitter Hunt guy, and he gave us a homemade antenna and gave us a 1 minute tutorial on how to use it.  Basically, you set the radio to the frequency of the transmitter, then you sweep the antenna all around until you get the signal.  You then adjust the attenuator until you only get a signal in the direction of the transmitter.  Then you just walk toward the transmitter repeating the steps until you find it. 

Andrew and I excitedly took our gear and started off toward the transmitter.  As we walked, we discussed how walkie talkies worked and about radio waves.  The transmitter would only transmit some morse code for 30 seconds, then turn off for 30 seconds, so we would pause or walk slowly while the transmitter was off.   Then when the morse code started beep beep beeping, we would scan with our antenna and started walking quickly toward the signal.   The first transmitter was only about a hundred meters from the main station and we found it within 5 minutes.  It was exciting nonetheless. 

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We walked back to the station and told our teacher proudly that we nailed it!  The teacher congratulated us and gave Andrew a few prizes.  He asked if we wanted to try another.  I said, “Sure!”  We came all the way down to Tacoma… we might as well do another… He asked if we wanted to do a driving one…. Then he looked at Andrew and said it might not be the best idea because the passenger needs to do some intensive antenna work to track the transmitter.  So, we opted for another “walking” one.  He set up the antenna at the right frequency and told us, “This one is a little farther… but I think you guys will find it… “  He paused… then repeated, “Yeah… I think you’ll find it… “

We started walking down the beach toward the signal.  After about 15 minutes of walking, I started wondering if we walked too far…   The beach walkway was very narrow, but the transmitter could have easily been hidden in the nearby woods along the walkway and we could have walked right by it.  The antennas that we had only showed that it was lined up with the signal…but it didn’t tell us if the signal was in front of us or behind us.  

I’m sure I looked like a character out of Ghostbusters waving around a gigantic antenna and yelling “Come on, Andrew!  It’s this way!”  We would inevitably get questioned by all the other casual walkers – “What are you guys doing?”  I would explain and let them know that if they would like to do it also, that they had gear at the end of the walkway.  They usually smiled politely, but I could hear them thinking sarcastically, “Sure, we’ll do that… once I find my tin foil hat and find the keymaster.”

After about 30 minutes of walking, I was starting to get nervous…  The signal still showed the same direction, but I was really starting to second guess myself if it was in front of us or behind us… I found a concrete building and used it as a shield to see if the radio waves were coming from front or from the back.  The signals coming in said that it was still in front of us.  I started thinking, “Wow… this is pretty far… “  

This is when I started thinking about an interesting book I’m listening to right now called How Children Succeed

The primary premise of the book is that character is a far better predictor of children’s success than test scores or IQ.  Yet, we have essentially built our school system entirely around test scores, and there’s almost no attention given to teaching character to our children in a systematic way.  When you go to the Washington State Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, the primary measures for schools are standardized test scores.  When you go to greatschools.org, their rating are based purely on test scores.   This is not to say that school teachers don’t try to teach “character” individually in their classrooms, but it’s not tracked or measured in any meaningful way by the school, districts, states, or other third parties.  What if we could measure how each school instills positive character traits in their students.

One of the ideas in the book is that they make a distinction between “moral character” and “performance character”.  Moral character attributes are things like honesty, kindness, and empathy.  “Golden Rule” type attributes.  These character traits are also mired in controversy because there’s a value judgment involved that often has its foundation in faith-based culture.  Needless to say, teaching “moral character” is a tough one for everyone to agree on in a school setting. 

Performance character attributes are things like resilience to failure, optimism, self-control, and grit.  These attributes are typically universally valued and are not as controversial.  The book goes through study after study of correlating between “performance character” and success (measured in various ways).     But as a parent, how do you teach things like “grit” to your kids? 

 

Walking ever longer and longer on this seemingly endless beach walkway with Andrew, I was thinking about this very question.    After about an hour of walking, I was on the brink of giving up.  We had long passed the end of the beach walkway.  We went through the Tacoma Yacht Club parking lot, and we were starting to approach the end of the park.  Andrew was also getting pretty tired and starting to ask if we should just turn around. 

I think I probably would have quit  if the book I’ve been reading wasn’t foremost on my mind.  I gave Andrew a quick pep talk and asked how cool it would be if we could go tell the guy at the radio station that we found it!  Even if it was super far away.  Even though it was super hard!  He probably doesn’t think we’re going to get it.  But, we can!  We will!  He was re-energized and we kept walking.

It was probably another 15 minutes of walking when we got right to the edge of the park and found the transmitter behind the parking gate.  We were both super excited that we finally found it.  But in my mind, I was also dreading the long walk back.   We took a little break and took some pictures. 

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Then, started the long walk back.  The walk back wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought.  For one thing, we didn’t have to stop every 30 seconds to take sweeps of the signal.  Also, I think when I was second-guessing myself the entire time wondering if the transmitter was behind me, my pace was probably pretty slow. 

We got back, and Andrew proudly told the transmitter hunt teacher that we found it.  Although, I felt somewhat betrayed by him that he would describe that 2.5 hour walk as “a little further” than the 100 meter initial hunt, the pride of having found the transmitter overcame any potential bad feelings…

In the car, we called Tenille and Andrew exclaimed over the speakerphone with pride how we found the two’th (second) transmitter… and how difficult and far it was. Then, he promptly fell asleep…   The experience was fun and I’m hoping I can take our cub scouts to do it again.  And it was a timely experience as I’ve been thinking about how to teach “grit” to our kids in a productive way.

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The idea of teaching persistence is still one that eludes me.  I haven’t been able to deliberately and systematically think of ways to teach “grit” or persistence… but just recognize that some activities may be good for developing those characteristics.

One thing that the kids started doing was re-organizing their Legos.  Every year, both Caleb and Andrew probably receive as gifts or buy 6-7 lego sets.  All together, they probably have over 30 sets of legos mixed together in a gigantic Lego vat.  Recently, they’ve been trying to re-organize the legos back into their original sets.  “What a colossal waste of time!” was my first reaction.  But, they were very into it.  It was kind of like searching for puzzle pieces.  I was a bit surprised as they have put back together several sets and have a whole bunch of partial sets started.  When I started to help them, I found that this was definitely an exercise in persistence. 

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I’m wondering now if all those dull, grinding, slogging activities where I was told “It’ll build character,”  (mostly in consolation) actually does build character… Will performing meaningless, tedious, long-term tasks actually “build character” and help kids succeed?  Was Mr. Miyagi showing us how we should be teaching our kids?  I suppose ideally it’d be better if there were meaningful, tedious tasks that we could set our kids to… anyway, definitely open to ideas on what other families are doing (or have done) on this front… 

Caleb’s Business Venture

Caleb has long expressed interest in doing some kind of entrepreneurial activity.  I think it started when we took our first father and son trip to the Berkshire Hathaway shareholder conference.  I had just finished reading Warren Buffett’s biography and we were talking on the plane about how he used to buy packs of gum and sell it to his friends one stick at a time. 

Inspired by Warren’s childhood gum business, we had tossed around all kinds of ideas including selling ice cream at the Redondo pier to delivering donuts to companies on Monday mornings.  A few months ago, he decided to finally take the plunge.  When we bought a bike last year from a guy on Craigslist, he mentioned that he got bikes from police auctions, then fixed them up.  We could do this!  We found where the police department auctions off bikes and after a lot of discussion about what might be involved in selling these bikes, he started obsessively watching the auctions.  Then, one fateful day, he took $90 of his hard earned money bought a bulk lot of bikes.   We ended up getting 7.     Tenille took out the seats in her van to transform it into cargo mode, and we all drove together as a family to the auction warehouse to pick up the bikes.

The bikes were all duct-taped in plastic sitting atop a wooden pallet.  It was like they were all crushed together in a massive bike compacter, then wrapped in a body bag.  We removed the plastic and packed them into the van one by one… As I was loading up one dilapidated bike after another, I was wondering if we’re going to be able to break even on this venture.  Once we got home, we assessed our assets.  None of the bikes were in sellable condition.  3 of them might be ride-able after some work.  2 of them would require a considerable number of parts to make it function, and 2 were pretty much just frames.  At the end of the day, we might be able to sell 3.  If we were lucky, we could franken-bike another one and sell a 4th… but I didn’t think we’d get too much for it. 

I spent the next few weekends teaching Caleb how to repair the bikes.  I helped him by loosening some bolts, then he could usually take the wheel off and replace the tube.  I showed him how to completely disassemble the handlebar and fork assembly.  I also showed him how to take the rear wheel off.  Although Caleb was motivated by the prospect of making money, I could see that being a bike mechanic was not his calling in life. 

This was a little strange to me… As a kid, I loved working on my bike.  I would take it apart and re-assemble it even when there was nothing wrong with it… Naturally, I thought Caleb might have the same affinity toward mechanical work, but it seemed like his path likely lied elsewhere. 

After a few weekends of messing around with the bikes, we finally got 2 of them to a sell-able state.  It was time to post on Craigslist.  I thought this would be a good exercise in supply/demand as well as negotiating.  Caleb, realizing that he didn’t have as many bikes to sell, was mostly concerned about making his money back.  He priced them a bit high, but he figured he could always lower the price later.  He did end up getting a few inquiries, but we didn’t answer them in time and lost the customers.  He hasn’t posted in about a week, but the short story is that we still have seven bikes sitting next to our garage… Although, we had some good bonding time and Caleb learned a lot about bikes and profit margins, I wouldn’t call the venture itself a resounding success.  I guess it’s always good to get a couple failed business ventures out of the way early…  but, game’s not over yet… (Not until mom tells us to go throw away the bikes… ) 

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There’s a part of me that says that we have until spring time until people start earnestly looking for bikes again… So, we’ll slowly work on brake cables on the other bikes until April…