Thursday, December 31, 2015

Closing out 2015

In a few hours it'll be the end of Foster Leathercraft's second year in operation.  All in all it hasn't been too bad on the business side.  It's been a vast improvement over 2014 and there'll be some new things to look forward to in 2016 (should be another post about that tomorrow).

This last year has had quite a few events in it.  From attending the first PAX South in the closest thing I have to a "home city" to tromping around a good portion of Europe.  I got to see the Mythbusters live one more time and I started DMing again.

It wasn't all sunshine and rainbows, of course.  I'm still pretty disappointed with Tandy.  In the process of reaching out to other communities I haven't been in contact with for awhile there's certainly plenty of other people who've had their own disappointing experiences with Tandy.  I put a lot of thought into whether or not to initiate any legal actions following my incident.  I fully believe that Tandy's policy is both ethically wrong and legally inappropriate but litigation would be complicated and expensive, especially since I'm roughly 3,000 miles from where it would probably be argued.  So I've settled for filing a complaint with the Dallas DA's office.  I don't know that anything will come of that but it at least makes it part of the public record.  And perhaps it will lend some ammunition to anyone else who takes that particular fight to a courtroom.  Either way, the corporate side of Tandy has seen to it that they won't be seeing any more of my business.

Speaking of my business, I shipped about a hundred orders this last year.  That makes the math pretty easy to figure out how they broke down.  75% of the orders went to the US, which isn't any big surprise. About 12% went to international destinations, mostly Australia and the UK.  The rest wound up somewhere in Canada.  Shoulder straps made up about 40% of all my orders, which wasn't bad for something I originally listed because I had a spare laying around.  March and May tied for the slowest months in terms of the orders coming in, but I was practically gone for half of May.  Likewise, July and Dec tied for the highest number of orders, followed by June and October.  So, for this year at least, it doesn't look like the belief in slow internet sales over the summer is really reflected by the data.

Meanwhile, things are looking up for 2016! More on that tomorrow! Happy New Year!

Friday, December 18, 2015

Final Orders of the Year

Pretty much everything's in the mail already and these will probably be the last orders I'll be delivering in 2015.

The first is a shoulderstrap heading to Lubbock TX.  It would be standard except the client was very keen on having a 2" wide strap.  Buckles in that size, especially brass buckles, are pretty tricky to find.  Fortunately I found an old vintage buckle from a fellow Etsy seller so it wasn't any big problem.

And finally we had a local job.  My father-in-law had bought an ordinary belt in a local brick-and-mortar store only to find the "genuine leather" it was made from didn't hold up to much wear and tear.  After a week or two the vinyl was already peeling off...

Cowhide to the rescue!  I gave it a bit of texture to match the original belt a bit better but the biggest selling point is that this belt will have a lifespan of decades, rather than weeks (like all my belts).

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

What Mythbusters Has Meant to Me

Last night the Missus and I went out to see the Mythbuster's Tour show for the second and last time.  Not that we wouldn't gladly pay to see that show again if the opportunity came up, but because we're the 3rd to last stop on the final tour.  I wouldn't be entirely surprised if Adam keeps doing something similar (and we'd probably pay to watch that too) but Jamie's "hanging up the beret".  I think they'd agree that without the both of them working together, it just isn't quite Mythbusters.

When Mythbusters started in 2003 I had just been stationed in Germany.  I remember a flightmate suggesting the show to me in '05-'06 as something I might appreciate.  I didn't pay it much mind at the time because my expectation was that any TV show would be trite and predictable.  There was also the fact that AFN (Armed Forces Network, what passes for TV for deployed military members) had a pretty difficult time getting to show anything more current than "Knight Rider."  So I didn't get a chance to actually see the show for quite awhile but I know exactly when and where I was when I did.

16 January, 2007 was the day I landed in the US after serving in Germany for the previous four years.  I'd spent the preceding 38 hours stuffed in taxis, airplanes, airports, and other modes of transport designed for practicality over comfort.  To top it off, while Germany had been conspicuously snow-less that year my destination wasn't.  Just about an hour or so before my plane landed, Portland OR was slammed with a not inconsiderable amount of snow and ice.  The original plan was to rent a car and go straight from the airport to the new apartment, but the weather was making that impossible.  So instead there was a long, slow train ride that seemed to take hours (to cover the distance of a 15 minute drive) followed by a brisk walk to a hotel.  There was some confusion at the check-in because of course there was (I think the debit machine was down and I didn't have any cash) so half an hour later I finally saw the first bed I'd seen for probably about 40-50 hours.

And naturally I couldn't sleep.  Aside from it being 20:00 local time (and 11:00 Germany time) I was generally wound up.  I'd just left my way of life for the last six years.  I wasn't really sure how well I'd fit back in the civilian US world.  I especially had doubts about heading to the Pacific Northwest instead back home to Texas.  I wasn't sure if I could find employment that wasn't based on my security clearance.  I wasn't sure if I entirely -wanted- to leave the security field.  In short, I was an exhausted, tightly wound bundle of nerves.  So I turned on the TV if only to find out what commercials I'd been missing in Germany.  And I saw this (queued to the -exact- moment I tuned in):

It was exactly what I needed at that particular moment in time.  A bunch of experts putting forth some silly notions and finding crazy but effective ways to test them.  Even if it took them more than a few tries (Chicken gun?).  I spent a sizable portion of the next few months catching up with the show and I've been watching it ever since.

At a time when there hasn't really been any decent science on television, even of the fiction variety, Mythbusters stood up to say "Hey, we don't need to assume the audience is dumb as a sack of bricks. We can be entertaining, curious, and learn stuff through experimentation all at the same time!"  It filled that niche left vacant by Sagan's "Cosmos" & Roddenberry's "Star Trek" that were as much as about science and exploration as anything else.  As the show's gone on there's always been that concern that they would slip and buckle under the pressure of marketters and moguls; that they would become more about gimmicks than science.  To be honest, I think the Build Team (Kari, Tori, and Grant) were starting down that path when the show was switched up to focus on Adam & Jamie.  But these two Titans of Testing have stayed true to those scientific principles of question-test-verify for the whole run of the show.  They did not disappoint.

I've learned a lot from Mythbusters since that hasty hotel room in 2007.  Not just about the many ways things can be blown up but also how to set up experiments, interpret results, and enjoy the process of building stuff.  I'm saddened that next year's season will be the last, especially since there doesn't seem to be anything else to occupy that niche.  There is, hypothetically, a new "Star Trek" coming but given the last three or four attempts by studios to label something as "Star Trek" while ignoring every fundamental of "Star Trek"... well I'm not optimistic.  There is some serious conversation to be had about what standards we should expect our entertainment and if it's really ok for our primary media to be so homogenous/simple/"dumb".  It's a conversation nerds, geeks, and authors have been having for as long as the people making the entertainment have been ignoring it.  Personally, I don't expect that to change any time soon.  If media makers haven't figured that much out by now, they're not likely to.

The good news is, not all  media is being made by deep pockets in California and New York anymore.  The rise of online content and particularly YouTube has allowed for far more variety than TV or radio have ever been capable of.  And in that diversity of content we have things like Crash Course, Smarter Every Day, and Periodic Videos.  These are the channels that I see as the spiritual, if not literal, successors to Mythbusters.

Someday down the road, when the Missus and I have some form of progeny, I fully intend to seep them in the full run of Mythbusters.  We'll watch the shows, share the catchphrases, oogle the sheer gorgeous of the traffic plow, and probably have Mythbusters-themed LEGOs to play with (I'll print them if they aren't in stores by then).  If Adam's still doing Tours then I'm sure we'll make a point of getting the "Sprog" in there to see a full-grown man dangle from two interlaced phone books.  This kid will grow up knowing that "Failure is always an option" and "The difference between Science and Goofing Off is writing it down."  I don't expect there to be anything new or current on TV for us to share by then (though I'm sure there will be stuff from the Internet) but Mythbusters would be a big part of the "backlog" in the education of how to be an excellent, questioning human being.

And for that I'd like to thank Jamie Hyneman, Adam Savage, Peter Rees, Tory Belleci, Scottie Chapman, Kari Byron, Grant Imahara, Jessi Combs, Lt. Al Normandy, Frank Doyle, Sgt. J.D. Nelson, Duncan Clark, Scott Sorensen, Ben Hanson, Will Nail, Crispy Camera, Alice Dallow, Lauren Gray Williams, Tabitha Lentle, Steve Christiansen, Matt Jepson, Alison Rider, Jaime Lipsky, W. Clark Bunting, Meredith Hussey, Evan Grimm, Michael Drake, Tim Alewood, Katie Winchester, Lars Fields, Fred Lewis, Jillian Rose, Tom Spiers, Hamish Gilbert, David Timperley, Anthony Toy, Shane Grace, Rebecca Clare, Dominique N. Butler, Ria Castle, Peter Tehan, Jenny Fulton, Mark Wheeler, Anita Bezjak, Jenny O'Shea, John Luscombe, Catherine Hoyle, John Hunt, Jon Blumberg, Dennis Kwon, Eric Haven, Nancy Daniels, Cari Hantsbarger, Denise Contis, Sara Kaplan, Bob Parr, Rose Kang, Alicia Wenman, Michael Bushroe, all the people I've failed to mention who've helped make the show over the years and, of course, Buster.  Great job, fellas!

Monday, December 14, 2015

Holiday Busy-ness

I remember about this time last year I was really worried I wouldn't be able to get all my orders done in time to get them in the mail.  It turned out one of those orders was delayed anyway (nobody's fault, just the random risk of international shipping) but mostly I was making large, complicated orders.  This year I've had a bevy of smaller, relatively simpler orders and even a few of the prototypes or OoAK (Etsy speak for art bits that aren't duplicated, they're One of A Kind) that have sold.  I last week churning through one shoulder strap (or the occasional purse strap) after another.  The ol' workbench was pretty constantly full of parts.

Most of those orders went out last week though there were one or two that held on till this week (like the belt set).  I'm happy to say that as of this moment, all my Not-In-Driving-Distance orders are on their way! \o/

Triple Brand Belt & Buckle Set

A fellow in Oklahoma commissioned me to make this set, I assume for himself and his two brothers.  The brands on the buckles are a combination of each gentleman's initials so it works out pretty well.  It went out this afternoon with a number of orders so it should get there just in time to go under the tree.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Complimentary Ornaments

Each year I've made some sort of ornament for the festive season and even before the shop opened I was handing them out to family and friends.  This year I figured I'd leverage this fandangled printer to produce some nice looking, consistent ornaments.  In hindsight it was a pretty good idea since I have no idea when I would've been able to crank out the number of leather ornaments I'd've needed otherwise.

I've already done christmas trees and snowmen so this year I figured I'd try my hand at some reindeer.  I grabbed a bevy of files off Thingiverse and started trying to print them using M3D's proprietary slicer.  Most of the prints I've been making this year have been processed through a separate software called Cura but I've been having a few issues with that lately so I was trying to cut down on the number of digital hoops to jump through for every print.  My first print, sort of a small reideer statue thing, -almost- came out but at this scale it just couldn't hold itself together.

They quickly went progressively downhill from there.  Either the printer would abruptly shift halfway through the print or it would "get lost" and start printing off in mid-air.  Each of these prints took upwards of 6 hours and trying to tweak them for better stability just seemed to make it less stable.

So I started trying some other models.  I soon realized that a flat model would be easier to ship anyway.  Only one of the flat models I'd found looked interesting enough to stick with so I tried focusing on that one.  It still took several days of running the printer non-stop, carefully documenting each change to the configuration, to get it to reliably successfully finish a print.

Thanks to that documentation I can say that it took 14 tries to land on the final model.  In the end I had to tweak the model itself in Blender to reinforce some areas so it wouldn't snap coming off the printer.  Normally a raft would prevent that but the way M3D was printing the rafts I wasn't able to get them to separate from these prints.

I'd like to think all that tinkering has been worth it though.  I print the result in about 4 hours (give or take) and it uses about a quarter's worth of filament.  They need a little cleaning up when they come off the print bed but nothing terribly time intensive.  No two prints are coming out exactly the same but overall I think it's a pretty reasonable result.

One of these is being included with every order shipped in the month of December.

Daytripper's Exhibition Game

Yesterday I had the distinct pleasure to take part in an online exhibition game for a new system called Daytrippers.  The basic idea was that the three players, who'd never played the system before, would give it a go on Google Hangout in a one shot DMed by the system's creator, Todd.

It was a pretty good time.  The system has some mechanics I haven't come across before but it seems Cypher-ish in it's focus on story > mechanics.  Our characters were contests in a futuristic Survivor-type show called HyperSurvive.  We had to get across an obstacle course on the Planet Zhood (which was purple because of course it was purple).

The full video is below in case anyone's interested in watching the whole thing unfold.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Getting Festive Back Home

I was sent this pic of my own father relaxing with the folk's pups a few days.  As the season's still warming up it seems like a nice way of engaging the festivities.  I have a number of blurbs that have been on hold while I've been working to get orders out the door.  We're close enough to the big day now that the orders have started slowing down so there will probably be a windfall of new blurbs in the next few days.  In the meantime, please enjoy "Lola's" joyous expression!

Friday, December 11, 2015

So Long Tandy

tl;dr: Tandy doing bad things, won't be shopping there, probable changes in prices/hardware with 2016

Tandy Leather is a bit of a monolithish in the leathercrafting industry.  It probably wouldn't be too far to go to compare them to Wal-Mart in that context, or maybe Michaels would be a better comparison.  They have hundreds of stores spread over dozens of countries and it's probably safe to say that most lay persons get their start in leatherwork through a Tandy store.  Among the leatherworking community they've earned a pretty mixed to poor reputation.  On the one hand they're a principle supplier for a quite a few crafters and generally good way for new people to enter the field (such as I did six years ago).  On the other hand the quality of their materials is sometimes suspect and their support can be hit and miss.  They also have a justly earned reputation for high prices that keep going up year after year.

My personal experience for the past six years had until, recently, been pretty good.  I've been a regular at the store first in Portland, OR and then the store in Surrey, BC.  Some of the folks at the local store were the first people I'd met in Canada that I'm not currently related to in some way.  They might be a tad over zealous to sell from time to time but they're good peoples.  For the past couple years I've generally shown up there at least once a month.  I'm sure I'm not their biggest customer but according to my own records they make up 2/3s (65.6%) of all my business expenses.

Precisely because I do have that relationship with the local store I'd dropped off a resume with them back in April, just in case they needed a part timer.  My own shop is successful enough on its own but working at Tandy would have given me an opportunity to expand my skill set and the store would have had someone with experience in running an online store (something they're currently lacking).  So it was pretty exciting when the manager called me on 16Oct and we set up an interview on 20Oct.  As interviews go it was pretty informal and the whole thing took 10 minutes.  Afterwards I was given a verbal job offer, a handshake, and a link to a personality survey that the corporate office down in Fort Worth is requiring all employees to complete.  I had to sign a piece of paper saying that I would take the test but it was never actually made clear to me what Tandy intended to do with the information.

There's dozens of personality surveys out there and all of them have a few things in common.  The Myers-Briggs is the one most people are familiar with and the one most often used for research purposes.  It's a bit lengthy and grades individuals along four different spectra fully acknowledging that there's a significant margin for error.  You can take the Myers-Briggs multiple times and it won't be uncommon for you to score a bit differently each time.

Tandy's test, the Predictive Index Survey, doesn't really have anything in common with the Myers-Briggs.  It's two questions ("What do think people expect of you" followed by "What do you expect of yourself") with 85 adjective responses for the tester to choose from.  It was developed in 1965 and has seen a rather few revisions since then, the last being in the 90s, that mostly just updated some of the wording.  It scores testers by giving them a specific, numerical value on four factors (dominance, extroversion, patience and formality).  The company that sells the survey (because, of course, it is a product) sells it as being a silver bullet to solve a company's personnel complications.  They claim that a company can use this survey to identify the traits of an employee so that you can place them in just the right position.  They're a bit vague on the mechanics of how that works but they're eager to site "over 500 criterion-rated surveys" that prove the test works.  Translated from research-speak it means that (presumably over the past 60 years) they've retested subjects at least 500 times and gotten the same or similar results as the first time the subject took the test.  There is, of course, absolutely no peer reviewed evidence or Randomized Control Trials (RCTs) even testing this survey.  The only studies I could find that even included PI as a variable were studies the company itself was conducting. 

The survey is, in two words: absolute bullshit.  At best it gives an idea of how the subject views their own personality at the time the test is taken.  That's assuming the subject is responding earnestly since it isn't a difficult survey to influence the results of.  The test has no way to verify if the subject's impression is accurate or not.  And basic psychology is pretty clear that while surveys can be useful for identifying an individual's traits in the general sense, they're nowhere near reliable enough to predict the individual's actions.  People are complicated, especially on the individual scale.  It's sometimes possible to predict how a group of people will react if they some traits in common, but the same doesn't hold true for individuals.  No code of 4 letters is ever going to be able to describe an individual with enough clarity to predict their actions or abilities.  The very basic premise behind the survey is, to the very best of my ability to discern, fraudulent.

Getting back to the story, I didn't really hear anything from Tandy for awhile.  I was supposed to start that Friday (23Oct) but got a call from the local store letting me know that the corporate office hadn't sent along the paperwork necessary for me to start.  I was told that the corporate office was probably backlogged and everything would be sorted out in due time.  Then on 03Nov the local store's manager emailed me to let me know that I hadn't "qualified" on the survey.  He also mentioned that he and the Regional Director were rather upset and were trying to find a way to work around it.  He didn't go into any detail and never responded to my request for more information.  And that was when I figured out that Tandy was using the PI survey to actively screen applicants.  If the applicant doesn't score the way they want then the applicant's work history, personality, or interview are considered moot and, of course, they aren't permitted to retake the test (probably because it would be so easy to manipulate).

I've since gathered that it's not such an uncommon thing these days but it seemed so unconscionable that it hadn't even occurred to me until just that particular moment.  I did note that PI doesn't usually advertise it as a screening tool in their promotional material and it's easy to imagine why.  At least in the US, screening applicants based on a personality survey is generally illegal.  According to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (yes, that Civil Rights Act) the employer would need to show A) that the test is accurate and B) that the property the test is checking for is necessary (or at least relevant) to the work at hand.  I'm extremely skeptical that Tandy or PI could meet either of those criteria.

You might be wondering what the problem is exactly, or why this would be an anti-discrimination issue.  Just for the sake of argument we could assume that the survey is 100% accurate and everyone who takes it is being 100% earnest.  In this hypothetical scenario we might say that the company decides that only people who test high on the "Peppiness" factor can be sales people.  Overtime this results in a sales department populated entirely by "peppy" people and anyone who isn't "peppy" won't be hired.  The "non-peppy" applicants are rather clearly being discriminated against.  Whether or not that's legally valid would depend on whether or not the "peppy" factor really is relevant to that particular position.  But either way, you wind up with a department that's selected for a single trait.  That makes it harder for that group to adapt to their conditions.  Continuing our hypothetical example, we could stipulate that at least one of these stores is in an area where "peppiness" is seen as being culturally insensivitive, perhaps even rude.  Instead of drawing customers in, the peppy sales clerk repels them.  This is an apocryphal example though I would argue that you could replace "peppiness" with any other perceived value (including dominance, extroversion, patience and formality) and get the same result.  Phrased another way, from a scientific point of view these policies are no different than a company saying "We won't hire you because you have blue eyes and blue eyes can't fill the position we have open."

So it would certainly seem like I have grounds for a lawsuit.  Based on what I'd turned up it seems like an open and shut case.  But getting the courts involved is a big step and I reasoned that perhaps Tandy just hadn't thought this whole thing through.  It was easy for me to imagine a scenario where the ol' fellas (of course, there's only one woman among their executives/senior management) in Fort Worth were duped by PI's marketing and went overboard with a policy that would only hurt them in the long run (if not the short run).  I figured that if I could just talk with them, explain why this policy of screening applicants with the PI wasn't a good idea, then everyone would be better off.  By this point I'd given up on working at the local Tandy store so it had become a moral issue.  Yes it sucked that I'd been apparently rejected on flimsy grounds but I have the shop so it was never a critical deal for me to begin with.  But the longer any company maintains a policy of screening applicants with the PI the more they undermine themselves, not to mention the applicants.

So on 20Nov, one month after my interview, I wrote to the woman listed as the contact for the Survey.  I tried to explain my position and asked who I could talk to about this policy.  This particular woman also happens to be the company's PR contact (and apparently the Executive Assistant) so I'd written her previously on an entirely unrelated issue.  I wasn't particularly surprised when a week went by without any response because it was the same week as Thanksgiving.  Still, I wrote back the following Monday (30 Nov) just as a reminder.  When another week went by I figured perhaps this particular woman just wasn't the best at responding to email so I sent a message directly to the CEO (4Dec).  I went over my points again, underscored why I thought this policy was not in Tandy's interest, and requested to have a candid conversation about it.  It's been another week and to date I haven't heard anything back.

This whole incident has done a lot to change my impression of Tandy as a company.  Four months ago I might have described them as "occasionally error prone but generally well meaning".  After all this I would be hard pressed to provide any justification that this is a company which behaves ethically.  I keep trying to give them the benefit of a doubt but so far, at least when it comes to the corporate office, I've been disappointed every time.  I feel obligated to look into a lawsuit if only to provide another reason for Tandy and other companies not to use similar policies.  Interestingly, on the business side of things such lawsuits are generally the first reason given not to adopt these policies.  At least I assume they'd find a lawsuit more difficult to ignore than a customer.  As often as I've spoken up for Tandy, not to mention all the business and personal interactions, it has been very disappointing to just be outright ignored.  If nothing else it's disrespectful.  I would've been happy to speak with the PR/Survey Contact/Executive Assistant that I first wrote to or anyone that they directed me to but all I've gotten is silence.  In that silence I can only make assumptions as to what their motives and justifications really are, and those assumptions aren't terribly complimentary.

Going forward I'll be spending my money there as little as possible.  I'm not comfortable with relying on a company as my principle supplier when I know that company to be behaving unethically.  It's a bit of a shame since the local shop will be the most directly affected by that and they haven't really done anything to merit anything like a boycott.  They are good peoples, but the people who they ultimately work for don't seem to be.  Logistically this will be a challenge since there are a number of things I only know of Tandy's as a supplier of.  There's a few leather stores in the greater area so I should still be able to get the raw material in person (which is my primary concern).  And there are plenty of places online to provide hardware, particularly if I buy in bulk.  So for the client it's unlikely things will change all that much.  Prices will probably fluctuate a bit and the hardware might look a bit different but I'll still be offering the same workmanship.  I'll do what I can to keep things from being as disruptive as I can, and odds are the quality might very well improve.  It's going to be an interesting challenge in 2016.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Black on Red Weave Belt

Another Christmas present that got on its way this afternoon.  In this case the client wasn't entirely sure what they were looking for, just so long as it was a simple pattern, black with red highlights.  I came up with a few different samples and from that she picked a weave design and a layering of two different watercolors.

On the hole it was straightforward enough as projects go.  My 9 oz hide wound up being about 6" shy of the necessary length so I whipped up an extension to hold the buckle on.  The watercolor stain was finicky as usual and seems to have caused some wrinkling on the extender somehow.  I don't think I've seen that before but it has been a long time since I've used this particular stain.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Gulliver Lake & Three Lakes Maps

I'm pleased that lake maps seem to be becoming a trend.  Aside from being just a bit of novelty I always enjoy carving up some cartography.  In this case one of the maps included a legend that the client wanted me to duplicate.  That took extensive use of the little 1/8" alphabet stamps that have been really hit and miss in the past.  This time I threw out everything the manufacturer suggested for aligning the characters and worked out my own technique on some scrap.  On the whole I think that worked out rather much better.

Normally I'd use a medium weight leather for the maps so that there's some height difference between the map and the frame.  However these are two, large 11 x 17" maps and the only hide I could cut them both from was the thickest hide I have in stock.  So in this one case the map is flush with the frame.