Jason Truesdell : Pursuing My Passions
A life in flux. Soon to be immigrant to Japan. Recently migrated this blog from another platform after many years of neglect (about March 6, 2017). Sorry for the styling and functionality potholes; I am working on cleaning things up and making it usable again.

Raspberry Lassi, Moon Viewing

I struggled to figure out the quirks of the high-powered convection oven at Floating Leaves Tea in Ballard yesterday, but after the second test batch I figured things out and started to get a rhythm. The oven fits about 5 baking sheets at a time, so I baked about 60 cookies at a time. I stopped counting how many batches I made.

When I finished, I know I had baked somewhere between 300–400 cookies…. If I recall correctly, it involved about 5 pounds of butter, about 8 pounds of flour, about 4 or 5 pounds of white chocolate, and a fair supply of pine nuts, not to mention a lot of matcha. Anyway, after baking an absurd amount of cookies, and cleaning up after myself, I rushed to Cash & Carry for some disposable cups, ice, and milk, then I made a brief stop at home to pick up my cooler and some ice. I managed to encounter some traffic on the freeway heading over to the arboretum, but I arrived just about 5 minutes before people started to line up at the Japanese Garden.

A few people were a bit confused about where I was supposed to set up refreshments, as is the nature of volunteer things, but I met my contact and got myself a little table to offer refreshments to guests of the moon-viewing festival. I stayed until about 10pm, since a fairly constant flow of visitors moved in and out of the garden. The sunset came a little late for moon-viewing, but I think the reason for staging the event so early in the year has something to do with the unpredictability of September weather.

I served iced tea donated by Floating Leaves, including a Jasmine, a Chinese Green, and something herbal, and of course I sampled matcha latte. I managed to use up absolutely everything I came with… It turns out that at least 500 people came for the festival.

I passed around a lot of business cards, and close to closing time I spoke a bit with Elizabeth Falconer, who is a well-known Seattle-based Koto player, and her family.

With some leftover raspberries, a bit of sugar, and some buttermilk, I made a kind of raspberry lassi today… No mangoes around, but raspberry works quite well.

Raspberry Lassi

Today, I finally made a dent in an upgrade from DotText to Community Server v1.1, although it did not go completely smoothly. My photo gallery is missing as of yet, and I haven’t had time to migrate my previous skin design, or tweak any of the new ones.

 

For someone with no income, I'm eating a little extravagantly in Chicago

I arrived in Chicago exhausted Thursday afternoon... I was able to sleep a bit on the airplane but it didn't quite make up for the inadequacy of the three hours of sleep I got Wednesday night.

Though I didn't eat dinner until late, a friend of mine and I went to Emilio's Tapas on Clark and ordered five “small” plates which turned out to be larger than I expected. We had an oversized salad, a oversized serving of patatas bravas, little eggplant roulades (which were in fact tapas-sized), some stuffed mushrooms, and some forgettable chickpea spread. I liked the egggplant roulades and the stuffed mushrooms were nice enough.

Today I was in Lincoln Park for a little walk, and then ate mediocre Chicago-style pizza at some regional chain that my friend wanted to try, and then recovered with some nice pastries at Bittersweet, a cute little pastry shop that serves modest portions of good quality tarts. Every time I've been in Chicago since stumbling onto that place, I've felt the urge to go there.

I went to a Korean movie, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, which was playing on the smaller screen in Music Box. Actually I missed the first few minutes because I walked into the wrong place. Overall, I was pretty pleased with the film; it had a simple, sparse aesthetic and explored innocence and human weakness in both mundane and jarring ways.

For dinner I had stuffed chiles with huitlacoche (corn fungus) at Salpicon in Old Town, as well as some nice corn soup and mini-tamales. It's a great place for upscale Mexican food; the flavors are a little more restrained than one might find at a more working-class kind of place, but I like the kind of sappari approach to Mexican cuisine; this way of thinking about food is not even close to imaginable at the low-end places that pile loads of yellow Irish cheese on everything. It was a little extravagantly priced, but I left happy.

Shoko at Dimitrou's, and the downside of remote control

Tonight I went to a free concert at Jazz Alley featuring this year’s winner of the Kobe Jazz Fesitival’s “Jazz Queen” title, Shoko. A similar event last year featured Yoshika, and I attended with a friend who was helping me out with some promotional events last summer.

This year, I was a slacker planning to attend, as I was last year, and I didn’t find anyone else to see the concert with. I ended up going on my own. It turns out I met some people who vaguely recognized me from other environs, and I recognized one of them from a weekly Japanese meeting. It turned out to open up an interesting coffee shop customer possibility I’ll have to explore, and created an opportunity to share a bottle of Oregon Pinot amongst us, and we could collectively enjoy a nice couple of sets of music.

I nearly had a disaster shipping out today’s orders… I had a bunch of packages to ship, and I was running up against the wire. I got everything loaded in my car, and tried to start it, whereupon I heard nothing but clicking sounds.

Last year, after a car breakin, I caved in and bought an expensive alarm system, which also featured a remote starter control. This is clever, if gimmicky, and is moderately useful. Unfortunately, it opens the door to special problems.

One of the very useful built-in features of my Toyota Camry is that, when I remove the key from the ignition and open the door, the headlights automatically shut off. This is very useful for someone like me, since I drive with my headlights on most of the time, and I often forget that I left them on when I get out of the car. Even when I’m forgetful, the battery doesn’t suffer.

Unless, of course, you have a remote starter. The feature still works, but, if, for example, you unwittingly kick off the remote starter when grabbing something out of your pocket, the headlights and the engine turn on. If I don’t actually drive the car anywhere, the engine shuts down after 12 minutes, but the headlights stay on, because the car door never gets opened when I’m busy packing orders in my office.

And then the battery drains. And then I miss the pickup at my nearest FedEx Kinkos. And I’m forced to wander around hoping to find someone with jumper cables, and this works out only about 30 minutes after I started this misadventure, when I happen upon some kind man walking his dog not far from his home. Then I drive to the FedEx sort facility and barely make the last shipping cutoff.

I was then compelled to eat mediocre slices of pizza somewhere downtown instead of doing something more interesting at home.

If I can keep this momentum...

Today I got two new wholesale accounts for the green tea latte and filled one re-order for Uwajimaya Bellevue, and took care of a couple of decent weekend internet orders. Small victories, all, but if every day of the month was like this I’d be in respectable financial shape. I’m spending the whole week being a salesman whenever I’m not filling or delivering orders.

Overall this was a pretty productive day. I am having fun, feeling motivated, and relatively at ease.

On the other hand, when I sell the green tea latte at coffee shops I feel obligated to order something so that I’m not just another annoying salesman. At the end of the day on Friday I was full of caffeine.

International District Street Fair is on

I registered for the street fair that takes place in the International District July 10/11. I plan to show off the Dragon Beard candy and the ceramics from Japan. Hopefully they will do well, but more importantly, it's a good venue to get some attention.

Before dropping off my check and space application, I made a stop at the office of the newspaper where I once worked, and chatted with my former publisher a bit about what I'm up to. I also talked about some rates for an ad campaign with their ad sales manager.

The last pottery class of the quarter is actually a potluck, with some cleanup, and, for those with some glazing or decoration to do, the last chance to finish that up. The only thing I had unfinished was a little ceramic train which still needs to be bisque fired before I can glaze it, so mostly I was chatting.

Before running off to pottery class, I prepared my contribution to the potluck, which is a slight variation of something I brought to a party a month or so ago. I basically put shredded filo dough, coated with butter, into a mini-muffin pan; in this case I filled the centers with chopped asparagus, orange bell peppers, caramelized onions, a little bit of sweet pepadew peppers, and some cave-aged gruyere and pine nuts. It sounds more elaborate than it is; I put everything together fairly quickly, especially compared to last time I made them. Actually this time I also made a non-dairy version using olive oil instead of butter and hummus instead of cheese, since one or two people in class have some dairy issues.

I also showed off a few pieces of work from the potters that I bought from in Mashiko... Minowa Yasuo, Akutsu Masato, and Senda Yoshiaki. Most items went over pretty well... I guess the next question is how well they will go over with audiences less familiar with the value of handmade pottery.

On Sunday we had a raku firing, and I had three pieces in the load. Nothing terribly exciting, but they did turn out pretty nicely. I also picked up a couple of plates and a tea bowl I had recently glazed.

Making difficult decisions, pressing the pause button

Over the last two years, I invested a substantial amount of money trying to build a market for one of my signature products, Dragon Beard Candy, from Bamboo Garden.

Other than Japanese ceramics, it was the first big product that I started with, so I have a pretty strong attachment to it. I want to continue to invest in the Dragon Beard Candy, but I analyzed the last two years of sales and trends over the last couple of months and I realized that it doesn’t make much sense to throw more money at the product during the summer months, when sales are not quite as vigorous as in the fall and winter. I also don’t have the time to fully invest in promoting it right now, as I’m trying to build up more resources before the next holiday season.

There’s only about a 3.5–4 month shelf life from the time I receive it from the manufacturer on average, so I tend to import very modest amounts because I’d rather run out than throw it away or give it away.

Fuel costs went sky-high over the last year, so my freight costs have made wholesale sales of that product, which really needs to be shipped by air, almost without value, and I just got another notification from my freight vendor that air freight fuel surcharges went up again. I have been emphasizing retail sales on my web site more this year partially for that reason, as the margins on the web site make profitability more attainable.

Unfortunately, there’s just not that much value in selling the product in the summertime, unless I do more large-scale corporate gift sales… Of course, those orders tend to cluster around the holidays, as well.

I don’t expect the fuel costs to get better, but I want to assign my resources toward some new products this summer, so about a week or so ago I clearance priced the last little bit of candy I have from my spring shipment.

I plan to pick up a few other products that I’ve had in the back of my mind for the last few months… some Japanese snacks, some more gifty stuff, and maybe a few other unexpected things. I’ll pick up the dragon beard candy again when appropriate holidays are approaching, starting around September. That’ll coincide with the Chinese mid-Autumn festival, sometimes called the Moon Festival in the U.S. For the last two years, that’s when sales for the product really started picking up. Thanksgiving, Christmas, and to a lesser extent, Chinese New Year also drive a lot of sales.

I also think it’s more compelling as a special occasion product, with limited availability. When I was at FoodEx this year, I started thinking that I might shift into selling a few featured products and only offer them until I run out… It would let me feature a wider variety of interesting products, and of course, I could always revisit a product that turns out to have particularly enduring demand.

The dangers of Yurakucho

For people who appreciate food and would like to take a bit of Japan home with them, Yurakucho (Yuurakuchou) is a dangerous place. It’s home to the regional food specialty shop Mura-kara Machi-kara Kan, which features fresh and packaged foods from all over the country, as well as alcoholic drinks, and Hokkaido Dosanko Plaza, which features lots of treats from Hokkaido. A short walk from here will take you to another shop that focuses on all things Okinawan.

If you’re easily tempted, it might be best to avert your eyes as you walk by these shops.

Yuurakuchou-shopping

We left with soba karintou (buckwheat sweet crackers), haru yutari karintou (a wheat snack), black sugar peanut crunch, a shiso drink base, yomogi senbe (mugwort-flavored crackers), Hokkaido Tokaji wine caramels, Hokkaido hascup caramels, Hokkaido’s famous raisin butter cookie sandwiches (not from the most sought-after brand, but still quite tasty), murasaki-imo senbe or purple sweet potato senbe from Okinawa, another purple sweet potato snack also from Okinawa, some yuzu-flavored konpeito (hard candy), shiikuwasaa kokutou (Okinawan citron flavored black sugar), shiikuwasaa Calpis, some snackable salted konbu (kelp), kiritampo (rolls of mochigome toasted sort of rotisserie style, often used in nabemono or hotpot meals) from Akita, some heart-shaped cookies, umi-budou (sea grapes) from Okinawa, smoked eggs, yuzu-miso, yuzu kanten, yuzu-sake, ume-shidzuku (chewy Japanese apricot kanten candies) and two bottles of yuzu juice. Hiromi also picked up some drinking yogurt from the Hokkaido shop flavored with hascup berries, but we drank that before even getting back to the hotel.

Most of these items found their way into our luggage, but the Hokkaido raisin butter sandwiches have long since disappeared, because, of course, they are so perishable and we couldn’t possibly keep them…

For the most part, these shops carry items that are not widely distributed even inside Japan, so if you want to suprise someone with a little gift with minimal probability they will find the same thing in their local Asian market, this is the place to go.

Rushed bread

I’ve been swamped today trying to catch up with orders. Unfortunately, I didn’t get as far as I had hoped, so I need to knock out a lot of the rest tomorrow or I’ll be in desperate shape.

I was able to pick most of my orders for in-stock things picked but some complications made it impossible to get everything out. I’ve never been this overwhelmed before.

Just after making the ground cutoff for FedEx, I went back home and got a yeast dough started, while I worked on some other things. I really needed a brisk walk to decompress, so stepped out for about 30 minutes. I’m really exhausted, and I really got minimal sleep last night. Right now I’d like to be packing a few more orders to get a jump on tomorrow, but I’m so worn out I’m afraid of making mistakes.

This bread proofed only for about an hour, so it never developed any real flavor or textural complexity, but it formed a nice crust.

Rushed bread

One small importer's perspective on the Dubai Ports World soap opera

I usually eschew political monologue here since it is so rarely relevant to my post-Microsoft life as an importer, food aficionado, and struggling business owner. In college, I wore my progressive and occasionally radical politics on my sleeve, but I’ve mellowed out considerably over the years, even if I maintain a relatively similar belief system. I promise I’m not going to turn into my relatively unread blog into a political soap-box, but I do have something I must gently rant about.

I have been increasingly frustrated by the thinly veiled anti-Arab, xenophobic reaction to the news that Dubai Ports World is buying out another foreign company that manages terminals at a half dozen ports around the U.S. With a few exceptions, progressives, liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, have responded in a completely reprehensible, opportunistic fashion. At the same time, the administration’s own handling of the eruption of controversy is also laughable, with the “we didn’t know anything about it, but really it’s fine with us” performance worthy of a cameo appearance by John Kerry.

The hostility toward this deal is full of opportunistic misunderstanding about how ports work, and the fuel for this uproar is equivalently opportunistic hostility and fear of Arabs and the Muslim world. Why react intelligently when you can create a fire-storm?

This is not about ceding U.S. control of our ports infrastructure to foreign companies, as Dubai Ports World has only gained control of a lease allowing them to operate terminals at US ports. This gives them the power to hire US labor to do such low-margin work as unloading shipping containers, and passing paperwork from one company to another. For their efforts, they will have the power to repeatedly touch high volumes of money that produce very low margins. Only an Arab buy-out of a municipal bond hedge fund could possibly be more uninteresting.

The way ports work is not a big secret; thanks to British trade practices dating back hundreds of years, almost every port in the world relies on the same tedious paperwork with un-memorable acronyms designed to squarely clarify title and liability for every piece of cargo and every set of hands that might touch it. The operational side is pretty much the same worldwide, except for variations in things like union-negotiated restrictions on which job description is allowed to do what kind of work. “The terrorists” aren’t going to gain substantially more insight into our security weaknesses than they could by working at a any port closer to home for a few weeks.

Security is still firmly the responsibility of the U.S. Coast Guard (for seaports) and the TSA (for airports), in addition to other agencies such as local police forces and local port authorities. The terminal managers are usually only responsible for securing their own facilities, an interest which all for-profit enterprises share; Dubai World Ports is no more interested in allowing terrorists to rifle through its paperwork or sneak into its warehouse facilities than any other company.

The United Arab Emirates port of Dubai is the only Arab port participating in the innovative Container Security Initiative, which improves container security by stationing U.S. customs personnel at the port of origin, enabling risk assessment and security inspections as early in the supply chain as possible. Aside from the obvious benefit of early detection, this expedites cargo release on the U.S. side, since Customs merely needs to be satisfied that the freight containers have an intact seal before releasing cargo to the consignees.

UAE also subscribes to maritime security treaties and has a solid record of cooperation. The US Navy trusts the maritime infrastructure enough to regularly dock and service its ships at Jebel Ali, all managed by Dubai Ports Authority, closely tied to Dubai Ports World.

By buying the U.K. company which previously held these port leases and various small offices around the United States, DPW is tying its success to the future of U.S. trade. This is a textbook example of how the U.S. could improve relations with the Arab world through constructive engagement. Aside from this, Dubai Ports World’s executive staff is as multinational as any other conglomerate. Their (soon-to-retire) Chief Operating Officer is an American, their Head of Business Development and commercial business unit’s Senior Vice President, and their Chief Counsel are all American. Most of their other executives are Indian or European. Although executives are replaceable, the current management’s success is clearly not tied to an Islamist extremist future.

Some people complain that DPW is state-owned, but UAE’s government is also no friend of Islamic terrorists; they do have some human rights problems that merit concern, but this is not particularly relevant to the security of U.S. ports. Singapore’s Neptune Orient Lines can be accused of the same, and they lease a terminal in Oakland, CA; a number of Chinese state-funded enterprises lease terminals and smaller facilities at ports around the U.S. The only reason why DPW would merit special consideration is the fact that they are based in an Arab country, and the only justification for such concern is racist or anti-Islamic fear.

The security of ports in the United States is not going to be determined by the country in which the corporate parent of the shipping and logistics vendors operating in our terminals is based. It’s going to depend on the quality of the people working at those facilities, most of which are meagerly paid U.S. citizens, Hispanic immigrants, and so on, much like any number of other foreign companies operating in the United States.

Additionally, security is going to depend on the amount of resources available for inspecting incoming cargo, the biggest hole in the equation. This is about a $2 billion dollar problem, with 9–10 million containers entering the United States each year. If customs had 30,000 people whose full time job was to inspect every container that came in to this country, it would cost $1.4–2.0 billion, assuming a roughly $50–65,000 average annual cost per employee. This would add about $250 to the cost of every shipping container. That’s a lot of money from an importer’s perspective (our margins are thin, too) and I certainly would like to avoid having to pay for it, but it would do far more than disallowing companies that come from parts of the world that scare us to handle stevedoring and paperwork.

The concerns about foreign control of U.S. shipping operations are also completely misplaced. The reason why some 80% of U.S. shipping terminals are operated by foreign companies is that most U.S. companies aren’t interested in that kind of low-margin money. Imagine trying to wow shareholders of a public company with single digit profit margins, even in good years with double-digit revenue growth, as DPW has achieved through strategic acquisitions. At the same time, you have high operating costs, rapidly depreciating, expensive fixed assets (airplanes, empty containers and ships) and completely virtual strategic assets (leases and contracts).

What does that get you? A reliable source of modest income. For companies from developing countries, or countries without a lot strength in intellectual-property driven enterprise, that’s potentially compelling. But for anyone else, you could buy a mutual fund and get the same thing without all the headaches.

Cooler heads:

Technorati: Dubai, Dubai Ports World

Every little shipment is an adventure

When I was younger, my family moved around frequently, from city to city or sometimes relatively short stretches within town. This usually required renting a truck from U-Haul whose every panel was plastered with the slogan “Adventures in Moving.” Usually the adventure part involved exhaust fumes coming into the passenger cabin, an overheated engine, or some small electrical fire, so the phrase “Adventures in Moving” became a standard inside joke for several years, as our minds filled with images of disaster.

People don’t want moving to be an adventure. Likewise, an importer does not want a shipment to be an adventure.

If, for example, you remind your shipping vendor about three times to make sure FDA Prior Notice is filed and noted on the airwaybill before shipping the cargo, several days before and on the day of departure, you would like that to happen. It’s not sort of a Las Vegas, “hey, if this doesn’t pan out, I only wagered a little bit of money and it’s no big deal; it’s the experience of just being here that I came for” kind of thing, it’s a “will I see my cargo at all and how much will the FDA penalize me and will I ever be able to convince the shipping vendor that they owe me that money since it was their mistake after all, and if so, will I ever see the refund” kind of thing.

Adventure is not what we want; it’s not the experience of shipping something, it’s the getting the cargo in a timely manner that I care about. I’m all for zen-like experiences, you know, when I’m on a four hour bicycle ride or jogging around Greenlake, or maybe if I'm cooking a really good meal. In such cases, I don’t mind something being about the process and not about the result.

But importers are not particularly excited by shipping products. That’s why we usually let someone else handle the freight arrangements. Importers are excited about receiving products, and then actually selling them.

So, when I found out on Tuesday that, in spite of at least three days reminders from my supplier and me, requests for fax copies (which we did not receive), I was a little peeved when my customs broker told me that the cargo might be refused because no prior notice was filed. Or, if the FDA decided they would release the cargo in spite of lacking prior notice, they could still penalize me some amount of money which is likely to be whatever tiny amount of money I could possibly home to profit from this shipment and then some.

My customs broker went ahead and filed prior notice. It turns out that I got the shipment in a timely manner. But the remaining unknowns still make me very irritated. I was paying a premium for my particular shipping vendor because they never screw anything up, but they did this time. So I’m not very happy about that.  I think my next shipment will be handled by someone else.

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