Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Christmas Greetings from the Compound

A belated Merry Christmas and best wishes for a Happy New Year!

2009 was a tough year for most of us (decline in home values, stock market drop, unemployment), but we can always find something to be thankful for, right? Here's my list of thankfuls.

  1. We had no law enforcement, fire department, or EMT interactions. At least not that I know of. And not for lack of trying. Bob did go to jail once, but it was only for the grand opening of a new law enforcement facility for which he did some engineering work.
  2. Our rodent control program continues to be quite successful thanks to the combined efforts of Moose and Bob. Notable eliminations this year included a possum and a badger.
  3. Everyone in my family remains financially afloat and I'm the only one on the dole. The VPE index (Val's Paid Employment) continues to underperform versus year ago. Hard to believe, but I haven't found a single job-posting for a Grammar Nazi or "How to Speak Minnesotan" speech coach. On the plus side, I did become quite adept at sock and washcloth knitting and am often now able to put a three-course meal on the table all at once with little or no injury to myself and others.
  4. Even with our depleted income, we managed to cover the cost of at least 6 unique fishing/hunting licenses and the usual quantities of new gear and ammo. We enjoyed eating a lot of fish, duck, and venison this year, too. Our firearms owned / pounds harvested ratio remains a little higher than I'd like, but since my only contribution was a couple of bass, I won't complain. For those who might be concerned, #2 does NOT overlap with #4!
  5. Keep an eye on the news for word of the next Illinois government scandal, as I won an uncontested election for Public Library Board Trustee and was sworn in in June. I haven't yet found any opportunity to give out patronage jobs or to take bribes, but this is Illinois, so I'll do my best to uphold our state's historical standards of integrity among government officials. I am pleased to report, however, one important perk in my job: I'm exempt from paying late return fees.
  6. Our once-25-pound cat, Fat Patrick, is now down to 23 pounds thanks to a rigorous diet and exercise program. Patrick's food was moved upstairs and he is encouraged to run the whole way up the stairs without stopping to rest. We are quite amused at his reaction to the sound of food hitting his dish without human intervention; he can move much more quickly than you would expect given his bulk. In contrast, Muffin Top eats in a Patrick-proof feeding station: a Rubbermaid tub securely fastened to a railing, with a small door cut into one end and the food dish bolted down at the back, out of Patrick-paw reach. Patent pending?

God bless you and keep until we meet again!

-- Val

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Freelance: The New Way to Work

I can't remember where this came from, but I remember it well: a humorous list titled "How Work is Like Prison." In prison, you're kept in a windowless cell most of the day; at work, you're kept in a windowless cell euphemistically called a cubicle most of the day. In prison, you have parole hearings, which rarely result in the release you want; at work, you have annual performance reviews, which rarely result in the raise you want. In prison, you have to stay on the warden's good side or he can throw you in solitary; at work, you have to stay on your boss's good side or he can fire you or at least stop inviting you to the "good" meetings. It went on from there, but you get the gist -- and I'll bet you're already drawing your own comparisons. The general theme of the work-prison is LACK OF CONTROL: over your clothes, your surroundings, your equipment, your lighting, the level of background noise, and so on.

When you change from being an employee to a freelancer, you experience not only a renewed sense of control but also an actual improvement in the quality of your daily life in many respects. Instead of leaving your house at oh-dark-hundred for an hour-long commute (involving your choice of a trainload of loud-talking cell-phone addicts or drivers trained at the I-Drive-For-Maximum-Annoyance school), you can roll out of bed and fire up the laptop in your jams. Instead of spending the day working up a Vitamin D deficiency in a dark cubicle in a dirty city with nary a blade of grass in sight, with dinged furniture and a shabby chair, you can work in your bright living room and look out over forests, fields, and gardens, with your pets for company and the option to breathe fresh air any time you want. (Your lungs physically reacted to that description, didn't they?) You can make a personal phone call without half the office finding out when your next OB/GYN appointment is. You don't have to have whispered discussions with friendly co-workers as to whether and how to address the behavior of the guy in the cube across from you, who cuts his toenails at his desk and "cuts the cheese" at a predictable time every afternoon (and I swear on my souvenir copy of a certain company's Employee Handbook that that is a true story).

As a freelancer, you can structure your work life in a way that is life-giving rather than spirit-sucking. And that is what's known as change for the better.

-- Val Walker, skalawalker@yahoo.com (Elance User ID: skalawalker)

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Building an Active Online Community for your Brand

I've been a member of several online communities (restaurants, product manufacturers, etc.) over the past couple of years, and from my experiences, I offer the following tips.

1. Have a designated owner/moderator for the board.

  • This person should have their name and picture on the home page. Just knowing that there's a real person at corporate headquarters who cares about what the community is saying makes members feel this effort is legitimate and worth their time.
  • S/he should be doing the following types of tasks: make sure there are appropriate sections within the forum / message board to cover the key topics you want people to talk about, and add new sections as appropriate, check the board daily, answer questions (researching to find answers if necessary), post links to relevant information, contribute "thank you" and "we're sorry" comments on the board (which should also promise that you'll pass the information onto the store manager, brand manager, whoever can act on the feedback), start new threads by posing a question and explaining why the community's answers will help the company serve the customers better, and solicit subject matter experts in the company to answer questions that come up on the board.
  • This person should also regularly summarize activity on the board and present it to the rest of the company, ensuring that the community's opinions and suggestions are being heard and acted upon.

2. The website should include the following elements to make the community members feel engaged and stay active:

  • A forum / message board – of course! – where members post comments.
  • A way to give members points for their activity, such as starting discussion threads and contributing their opinions when the moderator poses a question.
  • A "leader board" to show community members how many points each member has racked up, and help a member see what "level" they're at. Moving up a level or ranking high on the leader board is positive reinforcement for competitive personalities.
  • A page that shows members what rewards or benefits they have received in the past or can receive in the future. Some community members will expect rewards just for showing up once in awhile, other members will want the chance to earn more rewards for contributing more, some community members won't expect anything. But somehow, you have to make the members feel like they're being heard and that their effort is appreciated. One low-cost reward that benefits all: a Suggestion Box or Scoreboard graphic displaying a running total of how many suggestions have been offered by the community and how many the company has implemented.
  • Occasional comments from top decision makers at the company, whose decisions are being impacted by the community's feedback. For a restaurant, bring on the head development chef; for a manufacturer, the head of new product development or at least a brand manager.
  • Pictures! Of new products, new stores, your charitable works, what's new in the broader industry that your fans might be interested in. Just make sure that whatever non-brand-specific stuff you post – including ads that appear on your site -- are in keeping with the overall brand image. If you have a hip bar/restaurant, you don't only have to talk about for food and drinks, you can branch into things like the latest music you're playing – but don't post about or allow ads for the latest in vacuum cleaners!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Learn About One of My Favorite Animals, the Giant Panda

Is it their unusual symmetrical black & white coloring? Their roly-poly, furry bodies? The fact they're about the same size as an American black bear (200-300 pounds and 5-6 feet long), yet so much more rare and mysterious? Whatever the reason, there’s no question that the giant panda is popular!

The giant panda has many intriguing traits which contribute to their allure. Their diet is one unusual trait, consisting 99% of bamboo, a degree of specialization that is rare among mammals. Yet the panda’s digestive system is not well adapted to process all of that plant fiber, so they spend much of their time eating in order to get enough nutrients, and they also poop a lot, as much as 48 pounds per day. Here’s another thing that might surprise you. Because of their solitary nature, you might think pandas are non-communicative, but they have two ways of communicating. With their voices, they will greet each other with a bleating sound like a young goat or sheep would make, and when frightened may make gruff, growling sounds. Pandas also communicate with each other through scent marks made by rubbing their hind ends against tree trunks and rocks. Scientists believe pandas can tell sex, age, and readiness for mating from these scent marks. In fact, their sense of smell is so highly developed that their zoo caretakers can tell that each panda has different favorite scents, such as cinnamon and lavender.

Sadly the giant panda is very rare, with just 200 in zoos worldwide and 1600 in the forested mountains of southwest China, according to a 2004 census survey by the Chinese government. While pandas are still considered endangered, their future looks brighter today than it did even 10 years ago. Nearly half of their remaining habitat has been placed into protected reserves by the Chinese government, and panda breeding programs are now producing as many as 30 cubs per year. However, pandas still face a difficult life in the wild. Although they have no natural predators, pandas are still subject to threads such as drought and illness and natural events such as earthquakes that affect their habitat. Pandas require a very specific type of habitat with plenty of bamboo. When their habitat gets broken up by roads, it is harder for the pandas to reach each other at their annual breeding time, when each female is fertile for only 3 days. Since a female giant panda typically has just one cub every other year, and only 5 to 8 cubs total in her lifetime (which is about 15 years in the wild, or up to 30 years in captivity), the population is slow-growing even under the best circumstances.
No one outside China even knew of the giant panda until 1869, when a French missionary brought home photographs. Today, China remains very protective of these bears, loaning them out to other countries’ zoos only under stringent conditions and for fees averaging $1 million per year.

If you’d like to see one of the 7 giant pandas currently in the U.S., you will need to travel to Atlanta, San Diego, or Washington, D.C. Each zoo has a breeding pair and, if your timing is right, a cub or two. You can also watch the pandas on camera on each zoo’s website. Unlike other bears, pandas do not hibernate, so you can watch the pandas year-round.

What will you see if you watch a panda? They spend about half their day eating and the other half napping), with occasional bursts of energy for running, somersaulting, and tree climbing. But their life is mostly eat, nap, eat, nap … sounds like a good life to me!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

2012: The Rapture or What?

Since I've been freelance writing, I've seen a lot of interesting job postings and have gotten to wondering about a few things.

(1) There are a LOT of people writing their own eBooks these days, and apparently some people are making some good coin off of it. I need to start putting my eBook ideas on paper.

(2) There are far more blogs out there than I ever imagined. A lot of the content is total junk, leading me to wonder if blog landfills be our next major problem on this planet, JK. On the other hand, you have the "Julie and Julia" success story to motivate all these would-be Bestselling Authors to keep trying.

(3) There are people blogging and building websites about some really WEIRD topics. One of the job postings requested someone knowledgeable about – I kid you not – "the prophecy of the end of the world on December 2012, bilderbergs, illuminatis, planet X, paranormal, spiritualism, etc." My first reaction was, "people love diasters and conspiracies, could be some big money in this 2012 thing." On the other hand, I'm looking for things with long-term growth potential, and there's a big risk that knowledge will be obsolete in, let's see, 3 years and 3 months.

But I have to admit, I was curious. I had heard something about the Mayan calendar ending in 2012, but it was only a vague impression. I considered that I could just wait for the "2012" doomsday movie to come out in November, but being the curious and helpful person that I am, I decided to investigate and share my findings with you.

Turns out, there are several websites devoted to this 2012 malarkey. And that's what it is, a big bologna sandwich. The Mayan calendar cycles, it doesn't end. 2012 may be the end of a big cycle of some sort, but not the end of life on Earth as we know it.

What about the galactic alignment that is supposed to occur in 2012? Apparently, galactic alignment happens once every 26,000 years. The "alignment" is between Earth's sun and the black hole at the center of our Milky Way galaxy. Supposedly, the energy of the black hole could affect solar activity and create disastrous weather on earth. However, experts point out that because stars move through space pretty slowly, the galactic alignment doesn't occur in one day or even one year, it occurs over a 20 year period. So really, we should be thinking about 2012 as the year when we will allegedly enter into a period of great change. But nobody has any idea what KIND of change: meteorological, political, spiritual, etc.

Here's my take on the whole 2012 business. Nobody predicted 9/11 and all the domestic and international events that stemmed from that. Why worry about stuff we can't control? I'd say the same thing we've been told for the last 2000 years, from Jesus's time to the Virgin Mary's messages to the world given through the shepherd children at Fatima in 1917: get right with God today, because you don't know what's going to happen tomorrow.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Can you be TOO green?

Can you be TOO green? I think so, based on my recent experience with Propel flavored water. Earlier this year, they introduced new bottles made of one-third less plastic. Unfortunately, the 6-pack holder doesn't hold the bottles securely enough. I've had bottles drop out and land on my feet in the store, while loading groceries into my car, and while stocking the fridge at home. Bruised feet are not a price I'm willing to pay for green-ness. I called their customer service line, and in the mail I got coupons for other Gatorade products that I don't use. I'm not a very happy consumer right now.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

How CPG Will Be Affected by 2008 Scientific Discoveries

I just read Discover magazine's top 100 science stories of 2008 and thought it would be interesting to summarize the discoveries that are most likely to impact the CPG industry in the next 5 years.


  • Containers, wraps, connectors:
    • Self-healing rubber – if you break the rubber band, you can put the ends together and they bond back together with their original strength.
    • Nanopaper made of wood pulp ground so fine that it weaves together so tightly it's almost bulletproof.
  • Better, cheaper energy:
    • Microbatteries – viruses covered in metal pack a lot of power into a space the size of a skin cell.
    • New developments in capturing and storing solar energy are making this more cost effective.
    • Wind power could supply 20% of the U.S.'s electrical demand by 2030.
    • New generation of electric cars: Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV) will run 40 miles after being charged off a standard household outlet, and after that a combustion engine powers the onboard battery, overcoming the limitations of even the current generation of hybrids. The 100 mpg Chevy Volt and Toyota Prius PHEVs are slated for 2010 release, as is a fully electric Nissan vehicle.
  • Healthcare:
    • Affordable analysis of your individual DNA to identify your risk for a wide range of ailments so you can take steps to reduce your risk. ($500 to $2500 from companies such as Navigenics, decode, and 23andMe).
    • A drug that strengthens muscles without exercise.
    • Compounds in human saliva that hasten healing of wounds.
    • Memory training techniques that can actually raise your IQ.
  • Harry Potter's Invisibility Cloak?
    • Wonder materials that can deflect light, sound, or water waves away from the cloaked object.


Friday, July 24, 2009


Every so often, this blog is going to talk about scrapbooking, one of my favorite pastimes.

Today, I want to tell you about 3 great finds that I discovered while cropping with my JammieSisters friends at Archiver's this week.

1. Tim Holtz snip scissors -- My friends swear these stay sharp longer than any other scissors. I'm so sick of my Cutterbee scissors that will barely cut ribbon any more! The Tim Holtz scissors also have a non-stick surface, so if you need to trim off a sticker, you won't gunk up your blades. $11.49 at store.scrapbooking-warehouse.com

2. Inkssentials Cut-n-Dry 8" x10" sheet of stamp foam. Use in place of more expensive foam daubers for inking and distressing tasks. I don't like to use the Ranger Distress inks direct to paper; I prefer to ink a piece of foam and use the foam to apply ink to paper. The large sheet lets you cut pieces as needed. $4.99 at Archivers, lower on a few websites.

3. PeachyCheap.Com -- This site sells one product for one day at a clearance price. A new item everyday, only available til it sells out or until the 24 hours is up. I know, I know, you already have too many different sites to check every day. But if you like a bargain, check this one out.

How do you put a pet on a diet?

Our Moose is too big. Moose is a 115-pound Chesapeake Bay Retriver. Our vet says he needs to get below 110.

How do you put a cat or dog on a diet when very few of the pet products have calorie counts on them? Is it better to feed the dog less of their regular food, or the recommended amount (based on dog's weight) of a dog food labeled "weight control formula"?

The best information I found came from the Drs. Foster & Smith (retailer) website. They said you should use a food labeled "weight control formula" to ensure that the dog is getting the right amount of nutrients per serving. The weight control formula will have a lower proportion of fat and thus will have fewer calories per serving, since fat has more than twice as many calories as protein and carbs. I would definitely recommend reading the weight loss FAQs on their site if you need to help your dog lose weight.

According to Purina Pet Institute, a fit and trim dog can live 15% longer than an overweight one. In other words, a dog could live to be 17 instead of 15. To many people, an additional 2 years of healthy life for man's best friend might be worth the effort.

I saw a web post suggesting that you replace 1 cup of the dog's food with 1 cup of low-sodium green beans; the dog will feel as satisfied, but his body won't digest the beans into calories. But how do you confirm whether something like that really works and is recommended? I guess you'd better ask your vet.

Consumer Unmet Need: Calorie information on all pet food packages, and diet tips on weight loss formula products.

Consumer Unmet Need: Probiotics Outside Yogurt

Are you in one of the 20% of American homes who don't buy yogurt? Or one of the non-eaters in a buying household? For those of us who are convinced of the value of probiotics but don't like the taste and texture of yogurt, why aren't there better alternatives for getting probiotics into one's diet? I loved the Dannon Activia yogurt commercials, so I bought it for my husband, and it has worked for him. Now I want a probiotic product that I can eat every day. I thought the Kraft LiveActive cheese products tasted okay, but they were short-lived: introduced in 2007 and discontinued just recently. Kraft says the sales of the cheddar and co-jack products weren't high enough.

I wish: they could put the probiotics into America's favorite snacking cheese: mozzarella sticks.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Consumer Unmet Need: Do you brush your pets' teeth?

Am I the only person who missed the memo on toothbrushing for cats and dogs?
80 percent of dogs and 70% of cats over age 3 show signs of gum disease, and less than half of dog and cat owners are brushing their pets' teeth regularly.

Dogs and cats don't commonly get cavities like humans, but our pets are susceptible to gum disease just like adults. It starts with plaque on the teeth, which leads to red/swollen/painful/bleeding gums, which eventually leads to tooth loss. Plus, this infection can spread to other areas of the body, causing kidney, liver, and/or heart problems.

Our 5-year-old dog's teeth are in great shape, because he eats at least one compressed rawhide stick per day. We were merely using the rawhides to get 15 minutes of peace so we could eat supper, and didn't know they were ideal for dental cleaning until recently. Raw bones are also good.

But our two 8-year-old cats have developed red/swollen gums. Our vet recommended dental cleaning under anesthesia -- and one cat needs two teeth extracted -- for a total cost of over $600!

Unmet consumer need: better products and instruction on dog/cat dental preventative care.