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Case Packing Time Lapse Video

Frosted Ice cases for Floppy Emu are back in stock at the BMOW store, and I took the opportunity to make a time lapse video of the case packing process. Where does all the time go? Last week’s video featured the behind-the-scenes order fulfillment process, in which pre-bagged case kits were already prepared. Today’s video shows where those came from.

The plastic case parts come pre-made on large laser-cut sheets from a third party, with enough parts for seven cases per sheet. The parts must be pulled out, sorted, and placed into individual bags. Fastener hardware is added to each bag, before it’s sealed and ready for sale. Extra light pipes from clear sheets are saved to be reused with opaque sheets for Snow White cases. It’s one more unglamorous task that consumes surprising amounts of time.

Things to find in the video: Macintosh Family Hardware Reference guide, Imagewriter II printer.

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Hobby Business Time-Lapse Video

This time-lapse video shows all the steps needed to fill six typical BMOW hardware orders. Running an electronics hobby business can be lots of fun, but can also be highly time-consuming. If your operation is too small to support other employees, you’ll spend the bulk of your time prepping product and stuffing boxes instead of developing new tech.

What exactly is involved in filling somebody’s order for a new gadget? Even when the products involved are pre-assembled and “ready to ship”, there’s still work to do. Starting from the beginning of the video, here’s the chronology:

0 minutes – Download the recent order data, and print packing lists. Make a little pile on the floor for each outgoing order. Add quickstart guides and instruction sheets to the piles, as needed.

4 minutes – Pull the LCD off each Floppy Emu, and tighten its mounting tabs. Adjust the LCD contrast to something reasonable – the exact level varies from one LCD to the next. Flash the newest Emu firmware to the board.

12 minutes – Grab a set of DB19 adapters and a bundle of ribbon cables. Remove the DB19 adapters from their anti-static bags, and put the Emu boards in the bags. Connect the cable assemblies, fold them up neatly, and add everything to the growing piles on the floor.

16 minutes – Cut the SD memory cards from their cardboard packaging. Copy the master image to the cards, using a stand-alone SD duplicator. Add to the piles. Also start wrapping some items, during the copying dead time.

22 minutes – Add enclosures to the piles. The enclosure parts were bagged previously, in a separate time-consuming process of punching and sorting parts from laser-cut sheets.

23 minutes – Pack fragile items in bubble wrap. Fold up the papers.

28 minutes – Buy necessary postage. Custom software determines what postage type and amount is needed for each shipment.

29 minutes – Why is this Japanese address getting rejected by the address validator? Manually rewrite the address, twice.

33 minutes – Print the postage.

36 minutes – Pack the finished piles into boxes or padded envelopes. Seal them and affix the postage.

42 minutes – Put some tiny spare parts into an envelope. Hand-address the envelope to the customer.

46 minutes – Collect all the outgoing mail into a bag, and clean up the leftover scraps.

The entire process in the video takes 47 minutes, which excludes the time needed to deliver the packages to the post office. All tolled, it’s about an hour of time.

If you’ve ever run a small hobby business, you’re probably nodding your head at all of this. If you’re thinking about turning your hobby creations into a small business, I don’t want to discourage you, but the reality is that selling physical goods takes time. It’s fun tinkering with interesting electronics, and talking with like-minded people, but the mundane work of getting parts and filling orders consumes most of the time you can devote to the business. Developing iPhone apps is probably a smarter way to earn extra dollars!

Bonus game: Search the video to see how many geeky electronics items you can identify hidden around the room.

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Falling into an Email Blacklist with DreamHost

naught-list

A blacklist can be a powerful tool for identifying spam email senders, but if you find yourself unfairly blacklisted, it’s maddening. Since sometime last September, roughly 30% of all my outbound customer-related emails have been rejected by the destination email server. Most of these are order confirmations or shipment notifications, and when they go missing, I get lots of frustrated inquiries from customers wondering why they never heard anything after placing an order. The rejections from the destination email server typically look like this:

<xxxxxx@provisoire.fr>: host mail.provisoire.fr[50.87.141.14] said:
550-“JunkMail rejected – pdx1-shared-relay1.dreamhost.com
[66.33.200.130]:40663 550-is in an RBL on rbl.unified-contact.com, see
Blocked – see 550 http://psbl.surriel.com/listing?ip=66.33.200.130” (in
reply to RCPT TO command)
Reporting-MTA: dns; pdx1-shared-relay1.dreamhost.com
X-Postfix-Queue-ID: D4C0A30000327
X-Postfix-Sender: rfc822; steve@bigmessowires.com
Arrival-Date: Mon, 9 Jan 2017 14:07:03 -0800 (PST)

The exact message varies, but it usually mentions being on a realtime blacklist, or simply says my email was suspended, blocked, or refused. Other mail hosts such as Yahoo and Outlook.com take a passive-aggressive approach, and just drop the connection when I try to send email to one of their customers:

<xxxxxxxxx@yahoo.com>: delivery temporarily suspended: lost connection with
mta6.am0.yahoodns.net[66.196.118.34] while sending RCPT TO
Reporting-MTA: dns; pdx1-shared-relay2.dreamhost.com
X-Postfix-Queue-ID: B795D38088EC2
X-Postfix-Sender: rfc822; steve@bigmessowires.com
Arrival-Date: Wed, 4 Jan 2017 15:51:07 -0800 (PST)

I haven’t tested it thoroughly enough to be certain, but I believe the problem only occurs for auto-generated emails from the BMOW store, and not for customer support emails that I compose manually – even though both are sent through mail.bigmessowires.com to the same destination email server.

 
Identifying a Spammer

So how did I get on these blacklists? It turns out it has nothing to do with the content of my own emails, but is entirely due to my web and email hosting provider, DreamHost. They offer cheap and convenient hosting, which doubtless attracts a few people using their servers for evil purposes, sending spam. This causes the DreamHost email relay server to be placed on multiple blacklists, affecting all the other DreamHost customers who share that relay. While I only started to notice the problem last fall, this forum discussion reveals it’s been happening since at least 2013.

I’ve contacted DreamHost customer support several times about this issue. At first, they said the problem was resolved, and they had confirmed with all major blacklist providers that the block on the affected relay had been removed. And the situation did seem to improve temporarily, though it was never completely resolved. When the blocks grew more frequent again, I contacted DreamHost a second time on December 8 and received this reply:

The IP that’s showing up as blocked is actually a load balancer used for
sending mail, and it is used by hundreds of individual users. …
Over the last week, we have experienced a surge of compromised customer
SMTP users that were being used to send out malicious emails. Although we
monitor outgoing mail traffic closely and were able to stop these
compromised domains quickly, enough email managed to get through to cause
several blocklist providers to block a percentage of our email servers.
Many providers have already delisted the IP, but some holdouts do remain,
with whom we are actively working to fully resolve the block. If these
rejection notices continue for more than about 48 hours, please don’t
hesitate to let us know.

Sorry, we’re working on it, everything will be back to normal soon. But unfortunately it didn’t go back to normal, and a few weeks later I contacted them a third time. I received a detailed technical reply that focused primarily on a specific provider named 1&1. Apparently 1&1 doesn’t like the way DreamHost mail servers identify themselves when communicating – an issue related to reverse lookups involving a load balancer – so the DreamHost servers get blacklisted regardless of the content of the email. It wasn’t clear if a solution to this identification problem was imminent, or even possible. Customer support also mentioned that it can take up to a month to be removed from a blacklist:

some blacklist providers (Mostly European providers such as UCEProtect,
Backscatter, and LashBack), provide a paid “express” delisting, while
imposing an unreasonable long wait for manual or automated delisting (In
the case of LashBack, they autodelist after a month). As this amounts to
extortion, it is Dreamhost policy not to utilize paid delisting services
(they provide no added benefit to customers, encourage “bad behavior”,
and are generally a sign of an overzealous mail system administrator).

It seems unlikely that 1&1 is the only remaining problem, since my emails to domains like Yahoo and Outlook.com are also being rejected. As far as I’m aware, these are unaffiliated with 1&1.

 
Getting Past the Block

Monkey-Fix-it-300x285

DreamHost’s responses have all been apologetic, giving the impression that service should be back to normal soon. Maybe I should just be patient and wait, but it’s been three more weeks since that last customer support response, and the situation hasn’t improved. The 2013 forum discussion complaining of this same problem proves it’s not a one-time occurrence. And I received no reply to my most recent CS inquiry asking for a status update or work-around suggestions.

Maybe I should move bigmessowires.com to a Virtual Private Server with a unique IP, instead of relying on shared hosting. I’d consider that if I were confident it would fix the problem, but that’s exactly what the 2013 forum poster tried and complained didn’t work. It’s unclear to me whether that was his fault or DreamHost’s. Even if I knew it would solve the email problem, I’m a little reluctant to jump to a VPS due to the extra server admin hassles it would involve. I really like the convenience of shared hosting, where I focus entirely on the content and leave the server administration to someone else.

Perhaps it’s time to migrate the whole site to another hosting provider, but I don’t think so. I expect most other shared hosting providers will have similar issues, and possibly worse service. During the 13 years I’ve been with DreamHost, their customer support has been excellent. This email blacklist problem is the first time I’ve felt let down by their service.

The best option I’ve come up with is to move BMOW’s email functions to a more “trusted” provider, while leaving the web site and store with DreamHost. That would mean monkeying with DNS entries to relocate mail.bigmessowires.com and a few others, or else simply using a different domain like bmowmail.com for all email. Zoho looks like it might fit my needs, and it would be free for my level of usage. I need to dig into the technical details to confirm it would do what I think it does, and would actually solve the blacklist problem.

If you’ve ever dealt with an email blacklist dilemma, or have any other suggestions on how I might resolve this one, please leave your feedback in the comments. Thanks!

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Lower International Shipping Costs!

international-shipping

Good news for BMOW fans from outside the United States: international shipping costs for most orders should now be substantially lower than before. I wrote about the pain of international shipping costs a few weeks ago, and ever since then it’s been on my mind. Since about half of all BMOW customers are outside the US, I want to do everything I can to make their shopping easy and inexpensive, and I’m glad I’ve finally been able to address the shipping issue.

So how did I do it? The weight-based shipping rates haven’t changed, and those are set by the US Postal Service. Since I can’t lower the postage cost for a given weight, I instead focused on reducing the weight for a given item by using ultra-light packaging material whenever possible. Instead of shipping international orders in bulky and heavy cardboard boxes, many orders will now ship in padded mailing envelopes with a triple-layer of bubble wrap inside to protect the contents. I’ve tested this to several different destination countries, and it’s proven to protect the contents just as well as a box. Lower weight means lower shipping costs, so everybody wins.

International shipping costs for typical orders will be 40% cheaper thanks to this change. Most orders will now fall under the critical 0.5 pound threshold where higher postage rates take effect. Overseas customers will see typical shipping costs reduced from $24.25 to $15.25, and Canadian customers will see a reduction from $17.00 to $11.00. Hooray!

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Crikey! USPS International Shipping Costs

international-shipping

Running a mail-order business gives me many opportunities to think about the cost of shipping. I’ve just made a change to the BMOW store that enables small, lightweight packages sent within the USA to be shipped by USPS First Class Mail rather than Priority Mail, cutting the shipping cost in half. Woohoo! But that’s about all the help I’m going to get from the US Postal Service, and I’m slowly realizing that USPS has some of the least competitive postage rates in the world.

A typical BMOW package weighs about 10 ounces, or 283 grams. To mail that package to the UK, Australia, Germany, or other countries where customers may live costs me $22.75 in postage via “First-Class Package International Service”, which is the cheapest option available. That’s a significant amount of money. If my store sells a 10 ounce item that costs about $20, it’s unlikely anyone outside the USA will be buying it, unless they relish paying more for postage than for the item itself.

I decided to compare the cost of international shipping for a comparable 10 ounce / 283 gram package, sent from a few other major countries:

County Cost for shipping 283g
International Package
Cost in US Dollars
USA USD $22.75 $22.75
Canada CAD $19.39 $14.90
UK £14.90 $21.20
Australia AUD $14.10 $10.83
Germany     €3.70 $4.22

The US has the most expensive international postage rates of any of these countries. (But at least this gave me a chance to learn how to type £ and € on a US keyboard, where those symbols don’t appear.)

The real anomaly in international shipping is China. Sending a package from the USA to China costs me the same as to any other country. But sending a package from China to the USA appears to be nearly free. Take one look at any of the many “free shipping” deals available from Chinese sellers on Aliexpress, eBay, or similar sites, and you’ll wonder if reality has been suspended. And it’s not that they’re absorbing the cost of shipping into the item price. Take this LED voltage meter for example: it costs $0.78, is available in single quantities, and ships free to the USA. Granted the delivery time stinks (up to 40 days), but at that price few people are complaining. How are postage prices like that possible? I can’t even ship within the USA for that price, let alone internationally.

I’m always looking for the most economical way to get BMOW packages to customers. I only wish USPS could be more help!

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New Project Ideas

thinking

It’s high time for a new project here at BMOW. These days I spend so much time on Floppy Emu, it’s hard to squeeze in anything else! A new project would help stir things up, and get the creative juices flowing. Here are some ideas I’ve been kicking around:

Electric Scribbling Machine – I described this one in yesterday’s post. It’s a tripod with colored pens for legs, and a motor that makes it move, drawing tracks on the paper beneath it as it goes. Yesterday’s post described a “vibrabot” design using an offset weight on the motor shaft, which randomly jiggles the machine and creates interesting erratic drawings. I’ve since been working on an alternate design in which the motor is used directly as one of the legs, which spins the whole machine in rapid circles, and creates elegant looping drawings somewhat reminiscent of a Spirograph.

USB Keyboard/Mouse Adapter for Vintage Macintosh – Classic Macintosh computers like the Mac SE and Mac II series used input devices based on ADB – the Apple Desktop Bus. The Mac Plus and Mac 128K/512K were more primitive, and used custom protocols for keyboard and mouse rather than any bus-based system. Both systems are fairly well documented, and I have some experience with them already. Using a modern microcontroller, it shouldn’t be too difficult to build an adapter that functions as a USB host for a modern keyboard and mouse, and translates the input data to ADB or the Mac Plus protocol.

Weather Logging Station – A few years ago I designed the Backwoods Logger, an ultra-tiny portable weather station. I envisioned it mainly as a graphing altimeter for people going on mountain hikes. After many discussions with interested people, it became clear that most people didn’t care about portability, or about having graphing functions or even a screen. What they wanted was a stationary module that could take regular temperature, pressure, and maybe humidity readings, and save a history of weeks or months of data. There are already a few designs like this, but maybe they’re too intimidating or their feature set isn’t quite right, because I still get occasional emails from people asking for something like this.

Nibbler KitNibbler is a 4-bit CPU that I designed entirely using basic 7400-series logic elements. It was a one-off project for my own entertainment. William Buchholz later designed a nice Nibbler PCB for his hacker group, which got me thinking that something more polished would be nice. My web stats say the Nibbler pages are some of the most popular content on this site, so maybe there would be enough interest to justify a Nibbler kit? My only fear in offering a kit for something this complex is the potential support headaches. It might make more sense to offer finished Nibblers instead of kits, though that would take some of the fun out of it.

Electric Bow Tie 2.0 – As with the Backwoods Logger, I think I misjudged popular interest when I designed the Electric Bow Tie Kit. It’s fun to have neckwear that blinks and beeps, but mostly people don’t seem interested in assembling a kit – they just want something kitschy they can wear to a special event and get some laughs. I can say from personal experience that the blinking effect is fun, but the beeping effect starts to grate on your sanity after about 60 seconds. Electric Bow Tie 2.0 would probably drop the sound effects, but add many more LEDs controlled by a microcontroller, enabling all kinds of entertaining and annoying patterns like chase lights and starbursts. I’d also try to replace the 9V battery with one or two smaller CR2032 batteries to reduce weight.

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