Wednesday, November 26, 2008

So long, Sam's.

I turned in my Sam's Club card on Monday.

There could be many reasons to do that, of course, but the straw that broke this camel's back was pure business- I have lost faith in the management of Sam's Club.  They are doing business according to known failed practices.  Which, incidentally, are stupid on the face, and even stupider in today's business climate.

Is all the business world contracting at the moment?  Yes.  Then why, pray tell, would you want to actively insult and drive away customers who have a long record of always paying bills on time?  Hm?  

The answer to the obvious "What ARE they thinking??"  is: they're not thinking at all.

Here's the whole story.  I signed up as a Sam's Club member years ago, as soon as one opened where I could sensibly reach it.  It's a "Business Membership"- because, duh, I have a business, and we intended to actually use some of the price breaks that are possible there.

The whole fantasy that Sam's sells "wholesale" is a big fib, of course; they do sell some stuff aimed at small businesses, but mostly they make money by selling great big packages of stuff; at a slightly lower price per pound or whatever; but you have to buy four times as much- so they still come out ahead.  If you can buy carefully from them, and have storage space- you can save some pennies.  But you also have to keep your brain turned on- some things, like engine oil, are always much cheaper somewhere else.  Very hard to beat their prices on tires or car batteries, though- and we use golf-cart batteries for the power here.  Saved money there.

By and large, we managed to save a few pennies shopping there, and it was probably actually useful.  Though always a little marginal.  Lots of things could have been had cheaper through actual wholesalers, but it would have required more time and effort on our part; some of the benefit was just convenience.

After a couple of years, they expanded their enterprise, and got into providing business credit.  It was easy, though not cheap, and- convenient.  So we signed up for a $5k credit line, as soon as it was offered.  And have used it, over the years-probably ran it up to 4k once or twice; but always paid it back down in a month or two.

Our business here is plant based- which  means cash flow highly seasonal- some times there isn't any.  Which makes credit very useful.  And of course totally standard for any business; if you go to a bank or business advisor, and tell them you aren't using credit lines to even out cash availability, they will scream at you.  Not just shake a finger, naughty naughty- they'll say you're an incompetent manager.

It seemed to make sense (at the time...).  Never any problems with it; they were providing a service.  Credit.  We bought it, and paid for it.  On time, always.

Monday, we were in town celebrating a birthday, with a little lunch at the Chinese buffet, and stopped at Sam's to do a little stocking up.  Combine trips, of course.

As a matter of convenience, I said "leave it on the card", as we were checking out- and my Sam's Club business credit card was declined.  By Sam's.

Um.  What?

I knew, having paid the bill the week before, that the account was more than paid up, nowhere near the limit, and totally in good standing.

We also know that credit card companies are pulling in their credit lines- to cover their own sorry butts; even for customers who have nary a black mark against them.  We've bellyached about that here before.  Everyone in the community says this is a really, really bad idea; particularly right now.  Besides being dishonest.  But the credit companies are doing it anyway; bailouts or not.

I was - ok, incensed.  I'd expected this nonsense from Citi, and Chase.  But not from Sam's, whose business credit is handled internally.  They're really free to act as they choose.  And they're choosing stupid.

I gave them a chance to straighten it out.  Went to the "Membership Services" desk, and explained it (somewhat loudly, so everyone within 50 feet heard just fine).  They were well trained, and sympathetic.  The girl called up "the number", and actually tried to convince the poor woman answering the credit number to change it.  She, of course "doesn't have the authorization".  Eventually I talked to the credit person myself.  Laid it all out.

"Are you looking at my record there?"  
"Yes I am."  

"Ever late?"  


"Over limit?"


"I know this isn't YOUR doing- but part of your job is to pass on the customers' responses to your bosses; so I want you to really pass this on."

sigh "They really don't listen to us very much..."

"Tell them they need to remember.  This is a BUSINESS.  You are doing BUSINESS - with me.  And incidentally - I have been CHOOSING to DO BUSINESS - with you.  You can change the terms of our agreements without reason or notice?  Guess what.  So can I.  Business by definition has two participants- and the entire credit industry has forgotten that."

And I hung up; and handed my member's card to the Membership girl.  "Keep it.  I'm done here.  Cancel my membership."

I got nothing but understanding grim smiles from the other customers; and actual applause, from one.


In reality, I'm not giving up much- if anything.  Sam's is far from green, and as part of the Walmart empire, has some pretty questionable economic behavior, anyway.  I'm giving up some convenience, and cheap tortillas.  We have no similar stores here, no Costco, etc.  But now my dollars are going a little more locally, which is good.  And I have credit elsewhere.

So I'm not feeling all that noble.  But it did feel good.  And loud.

And I no longer have to feel slightly sleazy shopping there.


Oh, and.  Abbie's comment made me think of this little addition.

Abbie- yeah, the banks claim lots of "rights". Got a new one in my current American Express statement.  In extremely fine print:

"Your credit card agreement is hereby amended to include this sentence, in the section on "In the event of disagreements regarding payments" paragraph 3, after the last sentence: "You authorize us, or our agent, to access your bank account and withdraw the contested amount."

Oh, I do?

Hey, American Express; back atcha; our agreement is hereby amended to include; "YOU authorize me, the cardholder, to make any payment I want, whenever I want, and under no circumstances will any additional fees be charged for anything.  In the event of disagreement, I, or my agents, may access your bank account, and withdraw double the disputed amount."

I think that has exactly the same force of law, don't you?


Sunday, November 16, 2008


We just spent a couple hours dealing with a chimney fire.  Had a fair amount of time to think about stuff, while watching various portions of the stove, and stovepipe, glowing cherry-red.

Chimney fires are a fact of life.  If you burn wood- you will have fires, in your chimney, at some point.  

There are quite a few folks who will sell you stuff, and services, to "ensure" that you will never have to cope with a chimney fire.

The reality remains- if you burn wood- someday, you WILL have to cope with a fire in your chimney.  It's probably a good idea to know that- be ready for it, physically and mentally- so you're able to respond, when the time comes.

Metaphor alert.  

A whole bunch of this train of thought is applicable to - your entire life, and world.

I know plenty of people who are terrified of chimney fires, and go to great lengths to prevent them.  That's fine.  Maybe.  Maybe not.

I work on the other end of the spectrum- like most hillbillies from days gone by, I SET my chimney on fire, regularly.  So the fires are manageable, and non-catastrophic.

The one today was semi-planned; I knew the chimney needed a good burn, and when I dumped a whole pile of used nose-blowing tissue into it (we're still fighting the sinus bug from hell) - the chimney started to give the little warning signs that it was hot, starting to burn, and could go all the way if I encouraged it.  So I did, indeed, encourage the fire- gave it a little more heat from crumpled newspaper and old cardboard; opened up the flues to let the draft rip- and got a good fast burn going.

The problem with taking measures to "be sure" a fire never happens is:  some day - some day - you will have a fire anyway.  Either your measures will stop working.  Or you'll get old, and forget, just once, to have the chimney swept on time.  Or - something in the fire will be different, a little more creosote will form this cycle, or the fuel will burn a little hotter- and -

Presto.   Big fire in the chimney.  And you're not used to dealing with it.

Metaphor #1- gosh, it's called "California".

“It was a firestorm,” Captain Ruda said. “There were 50-foot-length flames streaking across the mobile home park. Fire hoses were melting into the cement and concrete. That’s how hot it was.”

For decades- we've suppressed fire in those areas.  Made them "fire proof", and "controllable".  Built houses, cities.  Sure, there was always a little fire danger, but hey, all you have to do is be careful, right?  And take proper precautions.

Turns out- not.  Nature's original answer for fires here?  Fires.  On a regular basis.  Stop them, and- eventually, all hell breaks loose.


Back to my own chimney fire.  It turned out to be more of a fire than I'd counted on.

No disasters; the Little House is intact.  But there could have been- if I hadn't been used to dealing with chimney fires.

First thing to know about chimney fires- if you've got one; you have to WATCH IT- every second- until it's out.  Really really out.  

Ok, some basics:  chimneys catch on fire because wood burns inconsistently (no matter what you do, or what you burn) and wood is a very complex material, with fractions that vaporize at wildly differing temperatures.  And condense again, at wildly differing temperatures.

The Owners Manual that comes with your spiffy new state of the art woodstove says: "When starting your fire, be sure to let the fire burn as hot as possible for the first half hour, to ensure that the chimney is properly heated, and to decrease creosote build-up.  Burning fires 'cool', with a cool stack, will greatly increase the risk of chimney fires."  Sure will.

The thing is- you are going to have SOME creosote deposited in your chimney, no matter how meticulous you are about getting the stack hot.  It will happen.  When you put a new piece of wood in- is it hot?  No.  Does it all start to burn at exactly the same time?  Nope.  One end of the log is a little further from the core of the fire- and rather than burning- "stuff" in the wood vaporizes, and blows up the stack- which, regardless of your efforts, is cooler than the firebox.  Some of those gasses will condense out of the smoke- bingo; creosote build up.  Guaranteed.

Lots of things influence how fast the gunk builds up- what kind of wood you burn; whether it was really "seasoned" before you burned it, or was "a little green" ; how cold the weather is (if it's not too cold, the tendency is to burn a cooler fire= more creosote); who in the family has been chief fire regulator recently (holding my tongue); etc.

The gunk will build up.  There is no way around it.

In the specific case of my present fire- gunk had built up in a place I'd never thought of before, inside the stove.  And this time- it caught fire.

I can't tell you the name of our wood stove- I can't remember it, and it isn't written all over it like most models.  We bought it through our Amish neighbors- it's made in Canada, by a Mennonite community.  A great stove, really; uses about 1/3 of the wood that our much older US made stove that was designed and built in the 1920's did.  This one is designed both to cook on, and heat with; the firebox is much bigger than kitchen stoves usually come with.

Not that it's perfect.  It's advertised as "airtight" - but that's a pretty big fib; there are a bunch of air-leaks connected to the oven doors; cannot be sealed, and make it impossible to truly operate it as an airtight stove.

The cause of this weird fire - there's a water reservoir built in; a 5 gallon tank with one side in the combustion gas stream.  Somebody - decided it would heat the water faster if they put a moveable baffle right next to the tank, so that you can direct the stack gases to run under the tank, as well as next to it.  Yup, it heats the water faster.  It also- very very slowly- accumulates creosote.

So I was pretty astonished when, as I was watching my chimney fire cool down, I started to see my water tank (with water in it, of course)  smoke, and see blue flames coming from underneath the water tank.

That was not cool.

But at least I was watching; and saw it start to happen.  And was not scared out my mind by this horrifying danger.  

If you burn your chimney on a regular basis, it's not too hard to control.  Fire needs- fuel, heat, and oxygen.  If you decrease the supply of any of those, the fire has to slow down.  If you cut one off completely, the fire will go out.  Closing all the dampers slows the air flow- if your stove is actually airtight, you can cut the air off completely.

Or you can add water.  Dumping water on your hot stove, or into the hot firebox- is NOT recommended; you can warp the iron, or crack the firebrick.  But- as a 2nd resort, a little water, sprayed onto the fire from a spray bottle- can cool and slow a fire.

Last resort?  Your fire extinguisher; sprayed right into the firebox, and up the chimney.  Makes a mess, but it will do the job.  You DO have a fire extinguisher, I know- right handy to the stove.  Of course you do.  You'd be a fool not to.

I had my spray bottle right there- but the weird location of the creosote made it impossible to get at.  Mostly I had to just spray near by, and keep the fire from getting too hot.

It worked.  Burned out- boy, it's nice and clean under there now.  I guess we have a "self cleaning oven" after all.

A normal, planned chimney fire is a half hour job.  One person stays at the stove, opening and closing drafts to keep the fire from getting too hot (or going out too soon; as long as this fire is going, we'd like it to clean out the chimney.)  One person stays upstairs, watching the stove pipe where it goes through the bedroom- it will usually get some red spots.  If the red starts to move to yellow- you need to cool the fire.  If it turns towards white- you've got trouble; that's when you can melt steel stove pipe- and set a fire that will burn the house down.  If closing the drafts and air on the stove doesn't cool a yellow spot to red quickly- start reaching for the fire extinguisher.

The house will get stinky from the extremely hot stove and pipe- open the windows.  In a half hour- it's over, the stove is drawing much better, burning much more efficiently, and you're safe from chimney fires for a couple weeks, at least; maybe a couple months.

This fire took us two hours- the gunk inside the stove caught, set on fire by burning chunks of creosote dropping down the chimney, and couldn't be extinguished.  It warped the inside of the oven a bit; and we just had to let it burn out.

Bad design, I'd have to say.  Basically, there is no way to clean that part of the stove- and no access to it in case of a problem, either.  The design needs to be changed, to make it safe.


Which leads me to the title for this post: "Foolproof".

We spend a lot of time making machines, and processes, foolproof, in our present society.  Safe.  Really, really safe.

I remember the startling realization when I was learning German that their word "idiotensicher" - does not, in fact, translate exactly as "fool proof".  Though that's what the dictionaries say.  It's not what they mean.

An idiot is NOT a fool; it's different.  And "secure" is not the same as "proof", either.

Both interesting, and related, concepts; but not identical.  Made me start thinking.  For one thing, it made it clear to me that German is not English with different words- there's a lot of stuff that just will never translate; the core cultures are different.

Another thing I know from my own business; as I have proven many times, in trying to develop "instructions" for customers.

If you make a process foolproof; Nature will quickly make a better fool.

You can see how well it's worked to make our economy "foolproof".  All the time and effort and legislation spent on making processes safe.


Looking ahead to our new world: one thing that worries me is our current supply of fools.

We're over-supplied; I think that's clear.

It might be useful to blame Ralph Nader.  

All of the efforts to make the world a little safer for those who are a little careless-  may not be turning out so well.  An awful lot of people who would have been self-eliminated, in the old days; have lived on; and reproduced.

My woodstove would have burned the house down today, if I hadn't been on guard.

If you are a real Laura Ingalls Wilder fan, you've read "The First Four Years" - the continued story of the first four years of married life for Laura and Almanzo.

He built her a house.  She burned it down.  Somehow- she hadn't learned well enough, not to allow flammable materials to build up around the stove.  One spark is all it takes.  You keep a pile of newspapers handy right by the stove for lighting it in the morning?  Bad idea.  No kidding.  No, really.  You must not do that.  Ever.  Don't.  Just this once, for a few minutes, is ok, though, right?  No.

The world is now full of people for whom "not ever" is an approximate statement, not an absolute.  The chimney fire that will burn them out of our stove pipe- is going to be very painful for all concerned.

Try to make sure the people you depend on have common sense.  Really.

There should be a Nobel Prize for Common Sense, don't you think?  And Depts. of Common Sense in the universities.  How is it they don't exist?  They would contribute far more to the well being of humanity than any Dept. of Economics.


Spice informs me that our stove is a "Gem Pac".  The closest thing to it listed is the 2020-W, though there are significant differences between current models and our 12 year old one.

In case anybody is interested; I'm convinced the evolution of the home wood cookstove is in a very primitive stage.  Most models out there have one or two nifty features- but then use the wrong materials- or skimp on construction, or something.  The wood stove that "has it all" - has not been made.  A business waiting to happen...

Monday, November 10, 2008

The ice has hit the fan.

I've been kind of quiet here - when that happens, you can pretty much count on it being due to some kind of distraction or other, generating new and improved emergencies for us.

It's an old emergency this time- called "Winter".  After living in a fool's paradise for weeks, with balmy 70°F days, and 50° nights, and record high temps last week; November has now started clearing its throat.

We were at 18°F last night.  Finding us short on firewood, short on housing for the poultry, and short on personal energy to cope.

Not really looking for sympathy here; all of this is pretty much "life", as usual.  No biggie, we'll muddle through.  Just explaining the quietness here.  I have energy to react- but it's harder to find the energy for initiative.

The reality of water- for poultry, in wintertime- without electric heaters- has arrived overnight.  Thirsty birds, water founts that could freeze and burst now (waste of permanent tools we can't afford), and a new chore- making sure the birds have water, morning and night.

We've had more than our share of illness recently, too.  Spice has been coping with a recurrence of her "walking pneumonia".  And we've all caught a cold that's gone to the sinuses; lots of fun having the little one blow gobs of green and brown gunk...  ew.

The decision to put time, money, and sweat into the guinea fowl has been confirmed as the right way to go.  In a pretty bad way.  The night before I took off for my trip, we found a tick in Smidgen's hair.  A deer tick.  Embedded, but not engorged.

Right after dropping me at the airport, Spice took the tick to the clinic for testing - and - it came back positive.  So Smidgen had to go on heavy antibiotics for Lyme disease.  She was infected, had a fever and lethargy for several days.

She's done with it now; and tested clear after the antibiotics.  But that was scary.

Lyme has been very uncommon here until recently; now it's exploding.

We've got 20 guineas left.  Owls took a few, Bruce took a few.  Haven't lost any for weeks now, and Delilah is doing well with them so far.  20 is too few to think they'll really control all the ticks here in Deer Heaven, but it's a good start, and quite likely we'd have more to cope with without them.  We've only had to pull 2 ticks total off Delilah so far, as opposed to 20/day for Bruce last summer.  Not really comparable, but still.

Busy busy.  My chores today- clean out the ash and creosote from the wood stove; it's starting to clog up the combustion.  Get some dry wood in.  That will be mostly American or rock elm, dried out on the stump; I know where it is.

Oh, yeah, and I was forgetting.  There's a deer hanging in the walnut tree out front.  Young doe, gift from the hunters we let hunt our farm.  Couldn't be more "Little House In The Big Woods".  Smidgen looked at it; "Why is that deer in the tree, Daddy?"  "It's for us to eat, Smidgen."  "Oh, goody!  Yum!  I love deer!"  

:-)  Just straight enthusiasm for everything there; I don't think she's actually had venison before.  Hadn't really planned on the work of butchering a deer; but can't pass it up, either.

Winter is a reality that you just can't ignore.  I kind of prefer my realities that way- it does make your decisions easier.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

And now for something completely different...

Interesting times.

In case you haven't seen this, it's worth a look.  The NYT was running an "emotions" graphic, during the vote count last night, and up until 1 AM ET, I think.

You need to click on each of the three categories in the upper right; "Everyone" "McCain Supporters", and "Obama Supporters."

This was generated by votes.  Anyone coming onto the site was invited to pick a word- one already floating, or type in any new one.  And you could vote for another word once an hour.  I voted twice.

Kind of cool.  Flip through them- then flip back to the summary - "Everyone".

Who knows, maybe we'll make it.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Equal opportunity.

Amid all the discussions of tough times, inequity, and iniquity; in all the fault finding and divisive partisan finger pointing, all the edgy racial and cultural tension; I'm delighted to present you with..  this.

Ok, it's ghoulish, rotten, tasteless, and wrong of me, but this does have a bit of a funny side to it.

Just so everyone knows; solid, salt-of-the-earth, rural, Minnesota families; who share a long-time landscaping business- can get testy and go right off the deep end, just like any evildoers from your worst nightmare.


Embezzlement seems to be getting less popular.  Has to be frustration with Wall Street, don't you think?  Maybe you should email this to your favorite "financial sector" worker - help cheer them up.

Authorities are allegedly investigating the possibility that this entire family is descended from Nellie Oleson, of "Little House" infamy.


Meanwhile; working on a fridge post; but it'll be later, gotta harvest, then vote.