Interesting Links, April 6, 2014

Here are links I found interesting on April 6, 2014:

The Joys of Online Shopping

Why visit stores?

I have gotten to the point where I do about 75% of my non-grocery shopping online. I’m willing to bet that a good portion of the folks who read this are in the same situation. The rest of you might wonder why.

The Shipping Cost Argument

Most people use this as their argument against online shopping: if you shop in a store, you don’t pay shipping.

Okay, this is true. But I still have to get to the store. That takes time and costs money for fuel.

While I’m more concerned with the value of my time than the cost of fuel to drive to a store that has what I need, I won’t deny that I probably would have to drive at least 80 miles roundtrip from my Wickenburg home to find the item I’m looking for.

Let’s do the math here.

First, my time. Suppose I have to drive 80 miles round trip to get to a store that might have what I want to buy. Suppose I can get to the store in about an hour and that it takes me a half hour to find what I want to buy and pay for it. Then another hour to get home. That’s 2-1/2 hours. But what if the store that I thought had what I wanted didn’t have it? Then I have to go to another store, which may or may not be nearby. Let’s estimate 30 minutes for each store I visit. Now let’s estimate 2 stores per item I need to buy. So if I have to buy something as simple as a pair of jeans, I might be spending about 3 hours to get to the store, find them in my size and color, buy them, and get home. In 3 hours, I can write a how-to article for publication on a Web site that pays me several hundred dollars per article. So I’m potentially losing out on several hundred dollars of income.

Okay, so suppose I wasn’t planning on doing anything else that day. For the sake of argument, let’s assume my time is worthless.

But let’s look at the fuel costs. Suppose I drive that in my Honda, which gets about 20-25 miles per gallon highway. There’s some highway driving and some nasty “city” driving in terrible traffic where I usually shop. To make the math easier, let’s assume 20 miles per gallon. That’s 4 gallons for the 80 miles. Fuel prices for premium (which this little car takes) have ranged from $1.50 to $5.00 per gallon over the past year. We’ll use today’s price, which is about $2 per gallon. That’s $8 in fuel alone.

How much is the shipping cost for that pair of jeans?

It’s Not Secure

What? Get with the program. If you shop smart online, your transaction is secure.

In fact, it’s probably more secure than handing your credit card to a waiter in a restaurant where it’s all too easy to copy down credit card information before running a charge for your meal. Or reciting it over the phone, in a place where it could be overheard, or to a company that may or may not have honest employees or good intentions.

What’s risky is entering credit card information in unsecured forms online. Look for the lock icon on the edge of your browser window to ensure that a form is secure. You can also look at the URL; it should start with https (note the all-important “s”). Another thing that’s risky is putting your credit card information in an e-mail message. There’s no reason to do it, so don’t.

It Doesn’t Support the Local Economy

Well, that’s certainly true. But neither does shopping at the mall. Or at Wal-Mart.

And neither does hiring staff in India or China or Pakistan to provide telephone support or make products.

Let’s not go there, okay?

Today’s Purchase

Simply said, online shopping is fast, convenient, and affordable. Here’s an example.

Chef PantsI just bought 3 pairs of the “chef” style baggy pants I like to wear. (And no, I didn’t buy them with this crazy pattern — although you have to admit they look pretty funky.) As I was buying them online, my husband pointed out that he knows a place in Phoenix that sells “those kind of pants.” But do they sell the brand I’m wearing right now? The brand that seems to be cut perfectly for my middle-aged body and relatively long legs? And how much do they sell for there? These are all unknowns. There’s a chance that I could track down the store he knows and spend 30 minutes in there only to find out that they don’t have what I want. That my time wasted.

I found an online retailer that sold the pants I wanted by doing a Google search for a brand name. I immediately saw a store I’d bought from in the past, as well as a bunch of other online stores. Within about 10 minutes, I confirmed that the store I’d used before had the colors I was interested in at the best price. (You want to buy your own pair? The pants are from Five Star Fundamentals and the online store is AllHeartsChefs. These a great pants.) The entire shop-and-buy transaction took 15 minutes of my time as I sat at the kitchen table, enjoying my morning coffee.

Shipping on these three pairs of pants was a hefty $12.50. That’s a lot more than the $8 of fuel that I use up on a Wickenburg to Peoria shopping trip. But guess what? There was no sales tax added to my purchase. That saved me about $4.50. Oddly enough, when you add the cost of fuel to the sales tax I saved, it results in exactly $12.50 for this purchase. So the net savings was just my time.

And I’ll continue to argue that my time is of value to me.

The Death of Brick and Mortar Retailers

Online shopping is going to put a lot of brick and mortar retailers out of business. It’s sad, but is it such a bad thing? Don’t you think we have enough strip malls in this country? Aren’t you sick of seeing “big box” stores popping up all over the place, causing traffic jams during the day and blotting out the night sky with their parking lot lights?

Yes, there’s a loss of jobs. Or maybe it’s just a shift of jobs from malls to warehouses.

The benefits — as far as being green go — are real. People argue that when you buy online, the item has to be shipped to you and the shipper has a carbon footprint. That’s true, but don’t I have a carbon footprint when I drive my Honda down to Peoria and back to buy a single pair of jeans? The UPS guy, in contrast, is bringing goods for dozens — if not hundreds — of Wickenburg residents every time he comes to down. He’s doing the driving for all of us. And the more online shopping we do, the more driving we don’t have to do — while his driving remains almost the same.

This is the same argument the railroads have been using lately to say why shipping freight via rail is more green than shipping via truck. They’re already making the trip; adding more items doesn’t substantially increase the carbon footprint.

Personally, I’d like to see malls go away. I’d like to see downtowns revitalized. I’d love to be able to go to downtown Wickenburg and shop for things like clothes and shoes and books and music. I’d love to sit at an outdoor coffee shop with friends in my own town, with shopping bags at our feet while we discuss the bargains we’ve found. None of that kind of shopping is available in my town or anywhere near it.

Just as malls are killing downtown shopping, online retailers are killing malls.

And the way I see it, I’ve wasted enough time and money shopping. When I want to buy, I’ll buy it online.

What do you think? Use the Comments link or form to share your thoughts.

Christmas Off-the-Grid, Part III

It can’t all work right at once.

I woke early Tuesday morning with a bright light in my face. It was the light of the full moon.

A Winter Morning at Howard Mesa

View from ShedWe sleep on a loft in the camping shed. There’s a wall to wall carpet up there with a mattress on top and a pair of very short night tables, one on each side. We make the bed just like we make our bed at home: with sheets and blankets and a cosy comforter. Our heads are right beneath a window that looks out on my favorite view: northwest toward Mount Trumbull.

We usually sleep with the blinds open so we can look out at the night sky if we happen to wake in the middle of the night. On a moonless night, its very dark outside, with just a few pinpoints of light representing far-off ranches. The sky, of course, is full of stars and the glow of the milky way on most moonless nights. If it’s cloudy, we can see the reflection of the lights of Las Vegas, at least 100 miles away, on the cloud bottoms out to the west.

But the moon yesterday morning was so bright that I had to shut the blinds to get another hour of sleep.

It was cold in the shed: in the 50s. The heat was on and set to 70° but the shed, which is insulated, was no match for the 27° cold outside. I changed from my pajamas to a pair of sweatpants and a sweatshirt. Since the power level was a bit low, I made my coffee with a stovetop percolator. I heated up Alex the Bird’s scrambled eggs — which I’d made in the microwave at home before coming to Howard Mesa — in a piece of aluminum foil on top of the heater. I let Jack the Dog out and then back in. With the critters fed and Mike still up in bed, I spent some time working on a blog entry.

Toilet Woes

[Note: The following is a somewhat graphic description of a sanitary problem we're having at the shed. If you're easily offended by discussions of toilet operations, please skip this section.]

The toilet was not working properly. The shed has an RV toilet, which we installed because it would use less water.

Now most folks reading this probably know how a standard toilet works. There’s a fixture with a seat and a bowl and a tank on back (or up high). You do your business in the bowl and then use a handle or a pull-cord to flush. The water in the tank rushes into the bowl, flushing the bowl’s contents down the drain and filling the bowl with fresh water. Pretty basic stuff.

An RV toilet works a bit differently. There’s no tank of water. Instead, there’s a foot or hand pedal that lets you put water from your water source into the bowl. You do your business and then use the pedal to open the bottom of the bowl so the contents drop out. Clean water swooshes around the bowl to clean it a bit, but it goes down the drain, too. So the bowl is usually pretty empty between uses. The benefit of this system for an RV — or cabin where you have to haul your own water — is that you can use as much (or as little) water as you like to take care of business.

The problem with the toilet was that the valve to let water into the bowl wasn’t working. You’d push the foot pedal and the bottom would open to drop the bowl contents into the septic system, but no water would rush in to clean the bowl, etc. We used what we called “manual flush” — we kept a bucket of clean water in the bathroom and used that to add and flush water down the drain after using the toilet. Sanitation was not impaired; the bathroom was still clean and the toilet was still flushed.

And the rest of the plumbing worked fine — right down to the water heater.

We figured that the toilet’s valve had water in it that had frozen, thus preventing the flow of water. But the shed had been above freezing for close to a full day, so the chances of it still being frozen were minimal.

After breakfast, Mike worked on the problem. He removed the valve. The plastic pipe had bulged and cracked under stress where water had frozen in it. The valve was broken.

It was the day before Christmas, on a Monday. We worked the phones, using our Flagstaff phone book. The one place that was likely to have the part was closed. No other place that was open had the part.

Mike put the bad valve back on so the pedal would work. (I was not interested in reaching behind the bottom of the toilet to manually twist and untwist the valve control after using the facilities.) And we realized that we’d be on manual flush for the rest of our stay.

It seems to me that every time we come up here, something isn’t working right. Last time was the heater — Mike had to remove a mouse nest from it before it would work. On other visits, it was the water heater not relighting automatically when it should, the water pump cutting out in the middle of a shower, or cracked pipes.

It would be nice to come up here and have everything working right at the same time.

Flagstaff

We spent a good portion of the day in Flagstaff, the nearest city to Howard Mesa.

Flagstaff is a great town, with a wonderful mix of people of different ages and nationalities and backgrounds. It’s a melting pot where young and old get together to steer economic growth. So you’ll find all kinds of businesses there, from hippie gift shops smelling of incense to book shops to sporting goods shops to natural food stores. It also has all the standard big box stores, including Home Depot, Wal-Mart, Target, and Sam’s Club.

Yesterday, we went into Flagstaff for lunch, to walk around the historic downtown area, and to pick up a few odd things we needed. There was quite a bit of snow on the ground, but it had been plowed or shoveled off the roads and sidewalks, leaving scattered ice and some very impressive icicles hanging from rooflines. Traffic was lighter than usual — probably because NAU was between semesters and most of the students had gone home. We still had some trouble finding a parking spot downtown, but soon were parked on Humphrey’s.

There was a Japanese restaurant on Route 66, right around the corner, that I wanted to try. When we got there, it was closed.

We walked around town. There was a Thai restaurant at the Hotel Monte Vista. I like Thai food, but every time we’d looked into the place at lunchtime, it was empty. On that day, there were about a half dozen people inside at noon. We decided to give it a try.

Good choice. The menu was extensive, the service was friendly, and the food was served good and hot. We shared a hot pot of soup, some spring rolls, and an order of short ribs. The ribs were good, but when the guy next to me got his curry, I decided I’d try that next time. I really like curry. Meanwhile, the place filled up. It wasn’t until we left that I realized the place was under new management.

We went into Babbitt’s and a few of the other downtown shops. They were all winding down from the Christmas shopping rush. There were other shoppers, but not many.

Wal-Mart and Beyond

Mike decided that there might be a chance of finding the toilet valve at Wal-Mart, since some Wal-Mart stores stock RV parts and supplies. He talked me into going into Wal-Mart with him. The day before Christmas.

We parked on the side near the garden shop area, which was full of Christmas stuff. One step inside and my stress level rose considerably.

I’ve been in Wal-Marts before, but the one in Flag has to be the worst. It’s an older store, much smaller than the Super Wal-Marts going up all over the country. To fit all that merchandise in the store, they have very tall shelves on rather narrow aisles. The result is claustrophobic. The store was full of last-minute shoppers looking for crap from China to give as gifts or to decorate their homes.

We found the RV Accessories aisle and realized after a moment that they wouldn’t have the part we needed. I immediately went into escape mode, plotting my way out of the store with the least interaction with anyone else. Mike, on the other hand, wanted to get all the items on our little list there: a pencil sharpener, RV antifreeze (to fill drain traps when we leave), distilled water (for our solar setup’s batteries), 9v battery (for our smoke/carbon monoxide detector), hand sanitizer. That would have us running all over the store, which was not a viable option for me. So when he found the antifreeze not far from the RV Accessories, I talked him into buying just that and stopping at a supermarket for the rest.

I endured the recorded sound of dogs barking to the tune of Jingle Bells at the check out area before we emerged back into the sunshine.

We got back into the truck and drove to the nearby Basha’s Supermarket. We got everything on our list there, then headed back to Howard Mesa.

Afternoon and Evening at the Shed

Back at the shed, it was nice and toasty. The outside temperature had risen to the 40s but the sun was very strong, beating on the front of the shed and coming through the front windows. It was in the 70s in the shed. The wind was blowing lightly outside — not enough to find the cracks around the windows and the rest of the structure.

We each took good, hot showers and changed into comfortable lounging clothes. I made up a little cheese platter and opened a bottle of wine. We relaxed and read and studied IFR charts.

We each opened a present. I got a bottle of absinthe from Mike. Mike got a watch-winder cabinet from me. We had three presents left to open: two for me and one for him. I’m pretty certain there’s a small pile of presents on my doorstep at home.

Mike made some pasta for dinner. I was still full from lunch and our snack, so I didn’t eat much.

For our evening entertainment, we tried to play a DVD we’d brought along. My MacBook Pro’s CD/DVD drive is dead — I discovered that just the other day and will be sending it back to Apple for repair next week. So Mike had brought his Dell laptop. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem able to play a DVD either.

So we played dominos and listened to music.

Now this might seem boring to you. I won’t lie and say it’s exciting. What I will say, however, is that it’s restful. Our place is small and far from neighbors and paved roads. No one drives by. The only sound is the wind and an occasional coyote howl.

The only thing that could make this a nicer place to spend Christmas eve is a fireplace with a real yule log burning in it.

And a fully working toilet.

Life Can Be So Surreal

Day one in Kingman.

We’re in Kingman, camping out in a dusty parking lot on the opposite side of a fence from a carnival. My helicopter is parked about 200 feet away, next to a pile of manure. (I really can’t make this stuff up.)

Flying Up

The flight up here was just as I expected: long, hot, and bumpy. It was actually longer and bumpier than I expected but not quite as hot. That’s a good thing because I had all four doors on so I could maximize my speed and minimize my flight time.

The bumps were due to the wind. It was howling at Kingman when I arrived. It always is. This has to be one of the windiest places in Arizona. The AWOS at Kingman airport reported the wind as 180 at 24 gusting to 32.

As usual, the people in charge of the fair had dragged the north parking lot with something that got up every last bit of vegetation. They must have done this at least a week ago so the barren dirt would have plenty of time to bake in the Arizona sun and turn into the fine powdery dust we’ve come to know and hate in Kingman. When I touched down in the parking lot, I blew up a cloud of dust that could probably be seen from space. I’m sure the folks who look at satellite photos are still trying to figure out what the hell happened in Kingman today.

Apparently someone had decided to clean out their horse trailer right in the middle of my landing zone. There’s a sizable pile of manure and hay about 5 feet in front of my helicopter. From the freshness of it, I’d say it was deposited last night or this morning. I’m hoping that if I ignore it, it’ll go away.

Of course, I beat Mike up here by a good 30 minutes. I passed him on route 93 just south of Wikieup. So when two kids started walking toward the helicopter while I was shutting down, I had to trust hand signals to keep them back. They were smart kids and waited until I shut down.

Later, I took them for a ride. They were my only two rides today.

That’s two more than Friday last year.

What’s Surreal

What’s surreal is our trip to Wal-Mart. We went in after dinner, at 9 PM. I thought they’d be closing, but the damn place is open 24 hours a day.

Why Wal-Mart? Where else can you get two marine batteries, a 50-foot drinking water hose, an RV level, a quart of milk and an apple pie at 9 PM?

The batteries are for the trailer. Have I mentioned that it’s jinxed? Today’s problems include the vent cover for the bathroom ceiling vent, which apparently flew off while Mike was driving up route 93 from Wickenburg, and the pair of “maintenance free” batteries, which cannot keep a charge despite the solar panel on the roof. (At least that didn’t fly off in transit. Yet.)

I took photos of the things in Wal-Mart that I thought were weird and immediately sent them to my TumbleLog:

  • The row of about a dozen handicapped shopping carts plugged into wall sockets by the entrance. You know the ones I mean. Little scooters with big baskets on front. These things are meant for handicapped people, folks. Not fat slobs too lazy to walk the 5 acres of floor space.
  • The entire supermarket aisle dedicated to Halloween candy. Hello? Does anyone in Wal-Mart headquarters realize that Halloween is still six weeks away? And yes, they did already have Christmas stuff out, too.
  • Extended SizesThe sign advertising “extended sizes” for only $2 more. Yes, this is why I feel thin when I’m in Wal-Mart. Because compared to other Wal-Mart shoppers, I am thin.

While I’m sure the extra-large martini I had with dinner (on an otherwise empty stomach, I might add) did make the Wal-Mart shopping experience a little more enjoyable, I still think it was weird.

But what I also think is weird is that the last time I was in Wal-Mart was a full year ago — in the same store, 130 road miles from my home.

Tomorrow is another Day

Dave and Darlene will be joining us tomorrow. I’m sure I’ll do a bunch of flying. This gig is usually good for about 150 rides over 3 days. A great way to start the season.

Look for more photos on my TumbleLog.

[composed in a travel trailer parked next to a carnival with ecto]

Zen and the Art of Ikea Furniture Assembly

I experience a Zen-like calm while assembling Scandinavian-designed shelves and cabinets.

Okay, so I’m exaggerating. But it certainly was pleasant — at least for a while.

Our storage shed at Howard Mesa was in desperate need of some shelves and mouse-proof cabinets.We needed the solution to be cheap.

In a fit of confusion, we’d gone to a Wal-Mart in Prescott and bought some crappy, Chinese-made modular shelves. Of course, we didn’t know they were crappy at the time. Although I hate Wal-Mart and hadn’t stepped foot inside one for more than two years, for some reason we thought we could find what we needed there. After all, Stan raves about the place. Maybe it had changed in two years. It hadn’t. (People say I’m too hard on Wal-Mart but I know I’m not.) And the “furniture” we bought was so poorly made that we brought back all the pieces we hadn’t assembled. We’re still trying to figure out what we’ll do with the three pieces we did put together.

Back to square one.

I was going to try Office Max when Mike suggested Ikea. There’s one down in Tempe, near Phoenix. I didn’t think they’d have what we wanted, but got online to check their catalog. That’s when I found the Träby series of cube-like shelves with optional doors and drawers. We went down to Ikea with the truck to see them in person. They were exactly what we were looking for. And — surprise, surprise — all the pieces we needed were in stock. I loaded up the cart, checked out, and loaded up the truck. Yesterday, at Howard Mesa, I began assembly.

If you’ve never assembled Ikea furniture, you really are missing out on an experience.

First, open the box in which the item’s pieces are packed. You’ll find the box completely filled in with furniture pieces, bag-wrapped hardware, and the minimum number of foam inserts. There’s no wasted space in that box. Since Träby had a natural wood finish, each piece was wrapped in clean, blank newsprint paper.

Now unwrap the hardware and sort it out. There will be pieces you’ve never seen before (unless you’ve assembled Ikea furniture in the past). You might want to sort out the furniture pieces, too. Each one will be slightly different and have tons of holes pre-drilled into it.

Open the instruction booklet. The whole thing is pictures. Line drawings of furniture pieces and hardware with arrows and numbers. In fact, it looks a lot like a coloring book before a kid has gotten to it with crayons. My favorite picture is the one of the man with the pointy nose on the phone; they phone wire is connected to the Ikea store. In words: Call us if you need help.

Next, get your tools ready. You’ll need a philips head screwdriver. That’s it. Okay, sometimes you might need a hammer, but if you do, the hammering job is so light that you can use the heel of your shoe or the handle of the screwdriver.

Now sit on the floor with everything around you. And follow the numbered pictures in the instruction booklet. You’ll screw in weird, tall screws that stick up an inch or more, then stand a panel on top of them and use round do-dads to hold it in place. It’ll be rock solid when you turn the round thing, as if there are ten more screws doing the job. Back panels slide into slots and are held in place with other slots.

What’s amazing about the assembly process is that everything is so incredibly well designed that the pieces can only go together one way. When you’re finished assembling a piece, you feel as if you have performed the final function in a long string of tasks that bring that piece of furniture into existence. You feel as if you’re part of the Ikea team. Like there are a bunch of Europeans nodding their approval at you from across the ocean.

I say Europeans because Ikea is a Scandinavian company and the Träby shelves I bought were made in Poland. The workmanship was quite impressive for such inexpensive furniture. And everything is designed right down to the last screw hole.

The cabinet doors went on just as easily. The only hard part was bending my body in such a way to get the screws into the right pre-drilled holes. The hinges had all kinds of adjustment screws, but I found that if I just used the center setting for each screw, the door hung properly — the first time, every time. Sheesh.

Things changed when it came time to do the drawers. I’d bought two sets of them. Each set had a big drawer and a small drawer. When I opened the box, I got a shock: the drawer insides were lavender. You know. The color. Popular around Easter.

I followed the instructions to assemble the drawers and found that the pieces fit together admirably well. But I hit a snag when I screwed the roller tracks into the cubes I’d already assembled. I kept stripping the screw heads before I could get the screw all the way in.

Now this was weird. I’d been screwing things in all afternoon and hadn’t changed my technique. I hadn’t stripped a single screw up until that point. Now I was stripping the heads on every single screw, unable to get them all the way in. What had changed?

I looked at the box the drawers had come in and saw my answer: Made in China. I guess Poland wasn’t cheap enough for the folks at Ikea headquarters. They’d outsourced to China, like everyone else. The Europeans who’d been nodding their approval were now snickering at me.

I got fed up and stopped only halfway finished with the job. I’ll need Mike to get two of the screws out so I can try again with a fresh set. I’ll go to the hardware store today and buy new screws. Hopefully, they won’t be made in China. Or, if they are, they’ll be made with slightly better quality metal.

Lessons to be learned here? Cheap is cheap for a reason. Even Ikea outsources to China. The best-designed furniture can still be rendered useless by poor-quality hardware.

Today I’ll put together the last shelf cube. With luck, I’ll get that same feeling I had yesterday at the end of all my successful assemblies. But when I feel those Europeans nodding their approval, I’ll ignore them.

As for the Träby shelves and cabinets — they look great and are rock solid.

[posted with ecto]

Ikea, furniture, Poland, China