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.

Jetlag and demos don't mix

Last night I finally slept sometime after 6am, and managed to get out of bed about 5 hours later. The previous night I slept much earlier but didn’t get up until midday. Alternating between sleeplessness and oversleeping is not much fun.

I did demos at the Seattle Uwajimaya this weekend, but I’m afraid I got a late start both days. Beyond that, my charisma quotient seemed to be down a few notches below normal, and I was probably not infrequently speaking slightly incoherently.

Food isn’t going so well… I’m eating erratically. Sometimes snacking madly, and sometimes eating too little at normal mealtimes.

I had a pleasant meal tonight… an experimental pasta dish, using a yuzu miso cream sauce and some yu-tsai, something like nanohana (basically, some lightly bitter stalky greens with pretty little flowers) Actually it probably sounds completely insane, but this is not your usual fusion restaurant overkill; I just used the miso in service of salt, waking up the pasta with the fermented complexity of miso and hint of yuzu. Plus it was a good excuse to see what Saison Factory’s products can be used for… I have a bunch of fun stuff from Japan I got as samples and wanted to look at ways to use them to see if they might be serviceable in upscale food retailers in the US… I like the things I’ve tried in the shops in Japan… though it’s a hard call if it would work in a wholesale business model.

Tonight it seems like many of the contacts I met in Asia have started touching base by email. I guess that will accelerate over the next few days. I’m also trying to nail down some other things at the same time. My sanity is decreasing, though, as I worry about finances, time, and so on.

One of those good day/braindead day kind of days

I was filling a number of orders today with moderate efficiency… and then, of course, it came time to take care of one other errand that required my digital camera and an extra light source… I was planning to shoot pictures of some other products I’ll be featuring on YuzuMura.com shortly, and wanted to do it while the vendor’s shop was still open.

It was probably a good idea to combine this errand with the errand of dropping off the packages for FedEx.

However, my brain was not entirely functional when planning to step out. I remembered the extra light and my camera. I didn’t remember to bring any extra batteries. By the time I noticed the low battery indicator, I also noticed a missing compact flash card, which was still in my laptop.

This was, of course, after I started cleaning some space and styling one of the objects to shoot. I apologized for the distraction and I think I’ll be back tomorrow…

We interrupt this silence...

My laptop died another, more unfixable death a few weeks ago, and this has made me a bit sluggish posting recently.

I caved in and replaced it with a Dell, after agonizing about whether to buy a cheapo replacement or something suitable for longer-term use. I decided to get something more long-term, because even though I think I’d get a good deal on a Windows Vista-ready laptop if I buy something cheap now and something average later, I just can’t stomach the idea of discarding a laptop after less than a year if I can help it.

I chose Dell mostly because of the good deal ex-Microsoft employees get through an alumni program… I was tempted to buy a Mac, but ones with suitably large storage and comparable processors were at least $500 more, and quite outside of my price range.

After an unfortunately unsuitable stint as an agency temp in MSN, which turned out to be a substantial mismatch between what was pitched to me and what I was actually needed for, I found something else more interesting in the SQL Server team, which is going reasonably well so far. I’m actually kind of hoping that, at some point in the future, I’ll find a web development role or internationalization-focused coding assignment, but for the moment, I’m spending a lot of time digging into test automation code and refactoring it into something hopefully saner. (For my non-geek visitors, refactoring refers to a series of small, isolated changes that over time improve the design of the system).

Outsourced customer service sucks

A bit over a week ago my otherwise nifty Motorola MPX220 phone decided to stop charging… the battery seemed fine, but when I plugged in any of several charging devices, no power flowed into the device.

After struggling through what I thought was a long hold time, I got someone who had a hard time understanding how to spell simple words, even when I spelled them out multiple times. A scheduled pickup never materialized, and I called back late the next day, and they told me my address was not on file. I gave my information all over again, and the scheduled AM pickup also never happened.

I called a third time yesterday, waited on hold about 20 minutes after several abortive attempts at navigating irrelevant voice prompts, and they scheduled a same-day pickup at my office. Someone from FedEx did show up, this time with a completely blank waybill, and I had no idea what the address should have been. So she said she could come back the next day, but I figured I could drop the package off somewhere just as easily on my own.

When I called Motorola again, I waited on hold for 25 minutes once more, only to get transferred a recording with a barely audible pronunciation of the destination address. I tried to drop the filled-out waybill today at Kinko’s, but they refused to accept the package because there was no recipient account number on the waybill.

On the rare occasions when I’ve had to return something electronic for repairs or exchanges, the vendor almost always just sent their driver with a door tag, or gave me a link to a web page where I could print my own label. This odd exception has wasted more hours than I would have thought possible. I found the whole thing very frustrating.

I was about to unleash a fury on the unfortunate person who would answer my call today, but the wait time was only 2 minutes, this time and she was oddly disarming and suitably apologetic. She managed to confirm the pickup by telephone instead of the usual electronic method, and even gave me an account number to list on the waybill in case something went wrong.

I could have been more explosive… I was rehearsing empty threats of lawsuits in my mind before I called. Thank goodness an occasional customer sevice lackey has decent people skills. We might be reading about violent cases of Customer Service Rage.

All of the daytime customer service staff seemed to be located in India, and are apparently unaccustomed to US accents pronouncing things like letters and common street names. However, after 4 pm or so, it seems that the support staff are in some Latin American country, and although the staff speak with an accent the ones I’ve encountered so far seemed less confused by American English conventions.

I’m not philosophically opposed to outsourcing; it stretched our resource-constrained team far further than previously possible when I was at Microsoft. Telephone customer service is hard to do well even inside a company. But I wish companies would evaluate the cost in a more sophisticated fashion: What’s the cost of customer frustration with a company? What’s the cost of a bad experience? What are your corrective measures when your outsourced customer service ruins your customer relationships?

In my import business, my goal is to find things that are imported for a good reason: I want something if the product is made better where it’s from than anywhere else, or an has a distinctive style that can’t be readily duplicated, or it otherwise has a really compelling origin story. I think that outsourcing of technical services will ultimately have this approach, as well as the low-end brutal cost consciousness that’s the dominant reason for going to India, China and Russia right now. There are some really well-educated folks in Asia and Russia and some of them are bound to develop technologies or maybe even service methodologies that will be in demand on their own merits, rather than simply because they cost less. Burnout jobs in call centers that spend most of the time trying not to be helpful to customers in to avoid expensive bench time or better software design… is this really the best outsourcing model?

 

Woohoo! My laptop is back!

I have been living on borrowed laptop since the 29th or so, when I sent my laptop off for repairs. It finally came back today. I was off running errands in the morning so I had to pick it up from the FedEx distribution center down in South Seattle.

I scheduled a bunch of demos for the next couple of weeks, so I hope to clear some inventory. I don’t like being in the position I’m in now… having too much inventory, having no seasonal factors in my favor for buying… it’s frustrating. On the bright side, one of my customers indicated they had sold through more product over the last few weeks, so the sting will be a bit smaller.

Yesterday I had a meeting with a distributor to talk about a line of products I don’t think I can completely handle on my own. It’s will be using my own branding, so I can minimize the risk of someone else stealing my supplier, and of course I also would be selling some custom products that couldn’t just be duplicated. I need to explore a bit more. I learned a lot at the meeting, and got one option that might work out.k

In the evening, since it was First Thursday, I went to the Henry gallery with Jennifer and another couple of folks, where I saw a couple of nifty installation pieces. One of them, a three-screen video installation from Doug Aitken, called “Interiors,” must have taken some incredible editing skills… three simultaneous videos on three different screens with edits tightly syncronized, overlapped and with a complex sound design.

Alex Lieber’s mobiles were kind of clever… They seemed a little Ikea-inspired, but I might just be cynical.

Building my supplier network and logistics

I had some return contact from some of my favorite potential suppliers today, so that was gratifying. I also sent some inquiries out to some freight and web hosting companies since I’ll need to have some solution for transporting products and I need a better solution than I have now for the web retail presence I’ll be establishing. I have one meeting scheduled for tomorrow with a company that mostly deals in Korean beverage products (yuzu tea, ginger tea, date tea and so on); the representative is someone I encountered at FoodEx.

This weekend I want to go to Osaka and Wakayama, so today I finally bought plane tickets and hotel vouchers. I haven’t dealt with making my own domestic travel reservations without the assistance of Japanese friends before, so I realized how little I remember from the trip reservation conversation drills I had in Japanese classes in 1995. I guess I have to learn sometime…

In Machida, we were lucky enough to get seats at Ume no Hana, a tofu restaurant at the top of the Lumine department store there. They had told us there would be a 30 minute wait, but we were offered seats before we could finish calling another restaurant to find out if we had a prayer of getting in there.

The food was pretty nice… freshly made yuba and tofu nabe, various small nibbles, and all the elegance you’d expect… nice clean, refreshing flavors, very fresh foods, nothing overwhelming, nothing under-seasoned, beautiful presentation. They also made vegetarian substitutions for me where possible (dashijiru and a single piece of shrimp being minor exceptions). Restaurants that make substitutions are somewhat unusual in Japan, unlike the hyper-accommodating US world which will sometimes over-accommodate to the point of disastrous culinary results. So I was pretty happy when I got mostly what I asked for with good food quality. Some of the drinks that they do there are interesting, though some are a little sweet; we tried a few different things and shared tastes.

Tomorrow I need to call Yamato Transport in Seattle and try to set up a meeting or two in Osaka so I feel like I’m getting some business value out of that side trip.

Some days are complicated

Today I spent most of the day chasing down items that I’m supposed to be sending off to customers… One of my vendors hasn’t been able to come to Seattle to me for a while and we finally met halfway, so that I could get some product samples and this week’s local and internet customer orders.

I’ve also been trying to get an item from another vendor of mine who was waiting for a container to be delivered and faced three days of delivery truck delays and complications. It then turned out that the item in question was not even on that container because the styles have changed so dramatically since the previous shipment. They sent me to another one of their customers that still had the old style in stock, which required another cross-town run.

Unfortunately, this and every other errand meant that I missed the cutoff time at Kinkos; since one of the items I had to ship was in fact the thing that I ran all over town after, this was tough to avoid. Anyway, I braved rush hour traffic to drop off the package at the south Seattle FedEx facility. Of course, this took 30 minutes longer than typical due to an accident blocking part of Highway 99.

When I got home, it was very late. I set out baking some bread I had started early in the day and oven-steaming some squash. I prepared a meal of ambiguous ethnicity.

Soymilk Bread with Caraway Seeds and Coarse Salt

Caraway soymilk bread

In Japan bread made with soymilk became somewhat trendy, and, when made with a good, heavy, Asian-style soymilk, actually tastes quite nice too. A lot of breads are incorporating soy flour anyway, and I thought it would somehow work well with caraway seeds. I rarely remember to use my caraway seeds, so this half whole-wheat bread was a good opportunity. The result was nice; a dense loaf with a crackly, capricious seasoned crust.

Kabocha Soup

Kabocha soup

I used the other half of my kabocha to make a simple squash soup, with a little cream, pumpkin seed oil and toasted pepitas.

Tofu with Mustard Seeds, Sichuan Pepper and Sambal Manis

Tofu-sansho-karashi-sambalmanis-1

I pan-fried some tofu along with some sichuan pepper and mustard seeds, then seasoned with a bit of salt, a splash of soy sauce, and mirin. I topped each piece with some sambal manis, or sweet chili paste.

Moving office is no fun

I’ve been trying to make moving into my new commercial space a gradual process, but it turns out that even moving a load or two of things each day for the last week wasn’t fast enough to get everything over there in time for my intended Wednesday deadline.

I’ll probably get most of the remaining stuff, sans desk and printer, over there tonight. But my home is still a bit of a mess… I need to make it at least somewhat presentable by tomorrow, when a friend of a friend will start renting out my extra room.

Maybe by midnight I’ll get to the required vacuuming…

Maybe I can catch up

My internet orders seem to be quieter the last few days so I hope I can finally make a dent on some long-neglected wholesale work and bookkeeping… but now I am a little frustrated at the sudden calm…

It looks like the weather is slowly turning into September-ish weather. Today it was pleasantly clear but not very warm.

I drank a lot of coffee today.

Ceramics buying trip in Mashiko, and meeting the potters

Today was my first purchase of note. I picked ceramic wares from three different artists at two different dealers. My original intent was to buy from four separate dealers, but time was getting tight.

I ended up buying a substantial amount of work from a Mr. Minowa, who is a 60-something potter who does beautiful gas-fired work using the classic Mashiko kaki-yu (persimmon glaze), but which depending on oxidation or reduction factors can take on a temmoku-like appearance, a red rainbow striated pattern, or sometimes a luster-like metallic appearance. Kaki-yu is an iron-based glaze but is very versatile in gas-fired work. I bought about 12 guinomi for drinking sake, a few sakazuki, which are lower, wider forms also for sake, various meoto-jawan (husband-wife sets for tea), and a good number of vases. Mr. Minowa came to the gallery to meet us and show us some additional work. He invited us to come and see his workshop after we finished our other business today.

At another gallery, I bought out probably 75% of a show from a young potter name Mr. Akutsu, who was doing his first solo exhibition. He previously co-presented most of his work with his family. His work has about three or four motifs but tends toward earthy textures… sometimes a wood-like appearance, sometimes lighter colors, and sometimes a strong green glaze. A lot of his work is slab built, but of course his cups and bowl-like forms are wheel thrown. We talked to him a little bit and then made a lot of work for him and the staff by selecting more than a hundred pieces from the collection.

Hiromi and I were getting tremendously hungry by around 4:30, so while they were doing some initial packing and drawing up the long invoice, we walked across the street to get a bite to eat at a nearby Mashiko café. Everything at that café is served on Mashiko ware… almost everything is Wafuu (Japanese style) western food… we had a Japanese-style pasta dish with mushrooms and nori, a cheese-heavy “pizza” with little chunks of potato on top, and some salad in a beautifully rustic Mashiko plate with braided handles. Afterword we leapt for the yuzu-flavored desserts, a yuzu poundcake and yuzu cheesecake, served with lemon tea.

When we came back I made some additional selections for work from Mr. Yoshiaki Senda, which are pricy but very desirable pots made by combining multiple colored clays into floral or geometric patterns. The technical complexity of this work is truly amazing. In most cases, the pattern is visible on both the inside and outside of the form. I bought a relatively small amount of these pots because of budget constraints, but I think it will be easy to sell them.

We made some final logistics arrangements with the gallery owners and tried to find Mr. Minowa’s workshop, which is about 20 minutes from the center of Mashiko by car if you know where you’re going, or 40 minutes if you have never been there before. He comes to meet us at a nearby landmark after we call him, then leads us toward his home.

A windy dirt and gravel road leads off the main street to his home and workshop. He greets us and shows us around the outdoor parts of his workshop… He points us toward his mostly dormant noborigama (climbing kiln), his huge gas kiln, and his stash of clay. When we come inside he shows us his kickwheels and some unfired, bisqued and recently produced work. His wife, who had been representing him at the gallery, served us some black tea in English-style cups.

He then proceeds to show us some of his other pieces and tell us about the happy accidents and intentional manipulations that make up his work. My friend understands only a little of the Japanese terminology for ceramic materials and techniques, but occasionally when I volunteer an English technical term for the same thing Mr. Minowa seems to recognize when I get it right. Occasionally all of us are at a loss to communicate in a way that is meaningful to more than one of us, so we aren’t always sure what we understand…

We are forced by time constraints to depart his studio at about 8:45 pm, even then uncertain if we’ll get back to Tokyo in time for Hiromi to return her car to Yokohama and for me to get to the hotel near Shimbashi. Today was an incredible experience, though, as I had a chance to meet two of the potters whose work I had planned to buy since my last trip. I look forward to coming back here a few months from now and making another buy… This small purchase is more of a test to see what it takes to market handmade ceramics to an American audience… if it goes well, I’ll need to be buying on a larger scale than I could on this trip. If not so well, then I’ll need to be very good at acting as an import agent on the other stuff I’ve been investigating.

I’ve been an avid collector of Japanese ceramics for quite a long time, though, and this is really a labor of love for me. So even if it takes some time to develop an audience for these ceramics, I’ll keep investing in it. These things are too special to go unnoticed by US customers.

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