Bootleg cigarette plant in the polder

A couple of weeks ago I noticed a news item about a bootleg cigarette plant in the polder. First I was a bit surprised, because who would make all that effort of setting up an illegal factory in one of the most regulated countries in the world. And then trying to sell a product which is a bit bulky for a small price.

The magic word of course is “tax”. To give you an idea of the break down of the price of a package of cigarettes (19 pieces) of 6 EURO:

€ 3,31 excise
€ 1,04 value added tax
€ 1,65 margin for producer and retailer (production costs etc.)
€ 6,00 total

That makes 4.35 EURO tax on a package of 6 EURO. You can imagine that one could make a nice profit selling cigarettes illegally. Even better, why not setting up a bootleg cigarette plant in the polder close to your customers. Still, it must be a pain to distribute a product which is mostly air to thousends of people right under the nose of the cops.

Now, I’m not a smoker and never have been. Disgusting habit actually. But that’s not the point. The case that the Dutch governmant is a champion in taxing its subjects, is! Last two years it was one tax increase after the other. If not in plain sight then in disguise, for instance a hefty increase in rents forced upon the building societies.

The question is, will all these increases help the government meet its budget goals. Already business near the border with Germany and Belgium are going bankrupt, because citizens shop abroad. Not only will this translate to less tax revenues, but also we have to pay for extra unemployment benefits.

The situation close to the border is depressing, the population at large isn’t happy either. Consumers keep being very tight with their money and the economy is noticing. Recovery of the economy in Holland is one of the slowest. Could it be that making sure that every household would feel the pain by means of widespread tax increases is actually a very dumb idea? Even punishing those households who have their finances in order and should be the first to help the recovery?

March 19th we have elections for the municipalities. It is predicted that the present coalition is going to suffer severly. A case of one excise too far.

Digital Homestead – making money online with Zazzle

Making money online with Digital Homestead. Yes, I’ve got a new website and it’s purely for commercial purposes. Getting a domain name and hosting isn’t difficult, but it took me about a week to make it look like a proper website. I used the twenty thirteen theme from the good people of WordPress. I don’t have to waste time with coding and the lot. The theme is also suitable for mobile devices. So, I’m a happy camper.

Why “Digital Homestead”? Well, I’ve got a longer explanation here. But the short story is that it isn’t really a full fledged company. It is more like getting a cheap plot of land and commit myself for a couple of years to make it work. Just working the “digital land” and hopefully it’ll produce a living.

Digital homestead - making money online
Making money online with a digital homestead.

Unlike this website I’ll try to keep Digital Homestead clean and focused. That is, just making money online. For instance with Zazzle selling Apple iPhone and Amazon Kindle cases. So no politics or economics. Maybe an opinion about making money online. Which reminds me, I’ve got a new design in my store 🙂

Chosokabe Mon Zazzle merchandise in the store

I recently added some Chosokabe Mon Zazzle merchandise to my store with he help of the quick create facility of Zazzle. The reason is that I really want to put more products in the store and maybe create a bit more revenue. Quick create of Zazzle allows for the creation of a whole range of products in one go. One of the results is this example:

Earning a steady income from Zazzle is more difficult then I previous thought. I did some research in order to find some succesful Zazzle sellers and I found one paricular seller on which I’ll blog perhaps later. A couple of things I found out was that to be succesful you really need more products than a couple of hundreds, more likely in the thousends is desired.

Another thing is marketing your products. Most often a succesful seller has websites specifically to sell categories of products. Or a blog to attract trafic to your merchandise. The blog or website can also be used for advertisement, such as Google Adsense or sponsered links in the blog post itself.

Obviously my marketing is pittyfull and I need to come up with a solution. This website is unfit for specifically marketing for instance Chosokabe Mon Zazzle merchandise. The website name and URL is not very interesting for this purpose. The design of the website is a bit old and not ery suited for displaying product.

Therefor I was thinking to start a new website with a new URL, geared towards selling stuff on the internet. I’ll use a standard template, because I don’t want to waste time and energy in building a website. I just want to configure it. It’ll be only a small investment and a good experiment. It should be possible to create a steady income stream from the internet, so I’m not giving up yet.

Overdue Permanent Portfolio report

It’s been a while already, I simply didn’t had the time and energy to blog. Sickness from colleagues which combined took well over five months left me with little option then work, eat and sleep. We’re gettinga bit to normal now and I think there is an Overdue Permanent Portfolio report somewhere.

My last report was March 2012, so what happened during that year? Well, obviously last five months little has been done, except last month I ramped up my investments. Growth of my total assets went quite well and I’m well above the benchmark I set myself. Today this is the state of my assets:

Amount Percentage
Stock 24.33 17.54%
Bonds 9.72 7.01%
Cash 100.15 72.2%
Gold 4.50 3.25%
Total 138.71 100.00%

In short, my assets have grown with about 39% in 3 years an 5 month since I started this little experiment. When I put my assets in a graph (I have tax data going back much further) per year, I notice dissappointing fact. The graph is more lineair than exponential, with a bit of fantasy a little bit it curves upwards. For privacy reasons I won’t show you that.

Lineair is not the curve I want, even though the results are above my benchmark. So what happened? Obviously I save as if my life depends on it, that means in the first years my savings will cause most of the growth (that is about 10 years ago). As my assets start to expend quickly, and my income not so, these savings won’t add that much relatively as time goes by. But what about interest on your saving account? Alas, thanks to the ECB interest are at an all-time low.

I need more yield!
Low interest and limited saving mean slow growth. This asks for drastic action. For the last month or so I started buying more investments. I’ve added more since March 2012, but now I’m speeding up buying. For now I keep to bonds (mostly High Yield) and conservative dividend stock funds. Commodities seem to be in a slow but steady decline, so I wait a bit before adding those.

At the moment interest is almost half that of inflation in the Netherlands (unlike the rest of EURO-land). Savers are being fleeced, for at least wo years now. Most of the inflation is caused by increased taxes and it doesn’t look as if these increases will stop. Therefor I want decrease my cash, at least to 25% at the end of the year, preferably 10%. Hopefully I’m able to bump up my income from my assets and start to accelerate the growth of those assets a bit.

Should we go to Mars as a united planet Earth?

Yesterday I read an interesting article on the Explore Mars Inc website. An oped which will also be published in several media outlets. The crux of the story is very straightforward; “We should head to Mars as a united planet Earth”. Recent events in the space industry though makes me wonder. “Should we go to Mars as a united earth”?

Working together.
Now, I have to point out, I’m a member of Explore Mars Netherlands and therefor somewhat biased. Nevertheless I’ll give my own opinion. The article notes the great success of the unmanned robot rover Curiousity. Also it laments the end of cooperation between ESA and NASA on the future ExoMars project. The authors point out how succesful international cooperation is and as an example they mention the ISS. Even though the ISS is seen as a big white elephant.

Big white elephant ISS
A big white elephant?

The ISS project did finish though and is regularly used. Whether everybody is happy with the ISS and its operational costs remains to be seen. Explore Mars Inc sees the ISS as a model for getting big space projects started and finished and urges for a Sample Return Mission to Mars in the manner of international cooperation. As mentioned the scientific interest for a Sample Return Mission is clearly present. The question is how deep this interst is but how wide.

Robot fatigue.
From this point on I start to have my doubts. Curiousity may be a huge engineering success an its photos are again stunning, it doesn’t get the attention anymore of the wider public. Curiousity really is a big monster, but it isn’t exactly regularly frontpage news. The public and politicians are getting perhaps a bit of robot fatigue and Curiousity could be the last big robot to Mars. So what has happened? Short answer, a shifting focus.

Yet another big white elephant
Martian Sample Return Mission.

Shifting focus.
In fact, what the ISS did cause was a sense that international cooperation was expensive and cumbersome. At the time just after the cold war it was an excellent project to do and it did help to improve relations between former enemies. It also pointed to a severly disfunctional Space Shuttle program. The US clearly needed to reasses its manned space program.

And so it did. Gradually it allowed private parties to deliver space services in stead of NASA. For instance SpaceX is delivering cargo to the ISS as we speak. Also the US started to facilitate private companies to do their own “space thing” outside of NASA. Space tourism was born. These new policies will have implications for future space projects.

Big brother goes to Mars.
An important implication is that the attention of the media and the public is put back to Earth. In the near future it will be possible for average Joe to go suborbital and with a bit more money go full orbit. Suddenly space isn’t something exclusively for space and science geeks, you know, that 0.1% of the population. Space has become truely commercial. When we talk space we mention Richard Branson, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Burt Rutan etc.

One of the more adventurous commercial space projects is Mars One. This Dutch enterprise envisiones a one way ticket to Mars. This journey will use off the shelf commercial hardware and is fully private funded. No sciency jusification needed. It pays by streaming 24×7 the daily life of the crew to Earth just like Big Borther. On route and on Mars.

At the crossroads.
Will a United States or an EU still be interested in big ticket international projects like a Sample Return Mission when the public wants to go suborbital or visit a space hotel? Will the nations go to Mars as “One” if the true frontier and the commercial opportunities are near Earth? If commercial space keeps going forward we might have to choose which path to go. Big scientific robotic government programs catering for a tiny public of scientists or commercial space enterprises for a wide audience.

My guess is the future is rather like Mars One and less like yet antoher big white elephant of scientific space robot. We space geeks live in exciting times. Thanks to commercial space we see a glimmer of hope of the science fiction we love come true. If only for a tourist ride to near Earth Space.

A one way trip to Mars with Mars One

Recently Mars One got a lot of attention in the Dutch media, Arno Wielders did some television work and the organasation got to do a radio interview. Started in May 2012, Mars One certainly had its fair share of time in the spotlights. Maybe I finally should write my thoughts about it.

Well, what does Mars One want? In a nuttshell, a permanent settlement of humans on Mars. and do they want to accomplish that? By using of the shelf technology and finance the project purely commercially. As a big television event.

Mars One isn’t the first one to come up with a plan to colonize Mars. NASA tried it, but came with a ridiculous expensive project which was shot down almost immediately. With that bad experience in mind, the Mars Society presented their Mars Direct plan. The first practical approach to put humans on Mars.

Mars Direct uses off the shelf technology and tries to keep costs as low as possible. It did take a page from NASA, the astronauts returned back to earth after the visit to Mars. This does complicates things, you need to create an infrastructure to bring the people back.

Mars One Base
A permanent base on Mars envisioned by Mars One. Photo: Mars One

Also, like NASA, Mars Direct assumes that the astronauts will have to do something “useful”. Obviously that would be doing sciency stuff and since time on Mars is limited, the astronauts can’t be bothered with all kinds of mondane tasks. Like setting up a settlement. Another big issue of doing science as your main task is that you will come in conflict with the “robot crowd”. And that’s a can of political worms you don’t want to open.

So how does Mars One go about it. First, they make their intention quite clear. They want a permanent settlement of humans on Mars. Secondly, science isn’t their main goal. Instead they want a kind of “Big Brother” in space. A continous media stream of the daily life of the settlers will pay the bill of this endeavour. But most importantly, the journey is a one way ticket.

A one way ticket to Mars has been proposed earlier but got very negative reaction for being suicidal. It is a very clever idea though. It prevent much complcation and saves ton of money. Probably due to the rise of firms like SpaceX, Mars One doesn’t seem to crazy. Elon Musk has similar ideas about humans in space and has proven that it is possible to create a much cheaper space infrastructure.

For now Mars One has the wind in its sails. They can base their plan on the technologies developed by the likes of SpaceX and thanks to all the commercial space hooplah Mars One isn’t depicted as a bunch of lunatics. Also, not interfering with the science crowd (and their precious budgets), their Mars settlers can focus on one thing only, setting up a permanent settlement.

Mars One explains much better their project than I’ll ever can. They’ve got a fantastic website, well made and very clear. One last note, the roadmap they envision is awfully tight. I doubt it is possible on such a short notice, but that might not be that important. What counts is that Mars One presented a realistic and affordable plan to put humans on Mars. If it will be 2033 instead of 2023 would fine with me. I definitely will blog more on clubs like Mars One, what drives them and put my own spin ont it.

Neil Armstrong passed away

Since I’m a bit involved in Explore Mars I got a somewhat closer to one of the first men walking on the moon, Buzz Aldrin. Well, probably as close I’ll ever get. Buzz is an advisor to Explore Mars. Still, it must be awsome to the American Explore Mars members to work with Buzz now and then.

Neil Armstrong passed away

Yesterday, August 25th, the other one, Neil Armstrong passed away. Old age got the better of him and he died from complications during a surgery. I was too young when Gagarin died but Neil and Buzz were always there, alive and kicking. It is odd now that the first man on moon isn’t among us anymore.

That first moonlanding is now 43 years ago and I’ll bet you that in the many commentaries, blogs, articles, etcetera, the question will asked, “why did we stop at the moon and didn’t we go any further?”. People no doubt will reflect on Armstrongs death and conclude that manned space got stuck and there was no progress after the Apollo program.

Progress is a relative term. Progress implies a starting point and a direction, when neither is made explicit the usage of the word progress will sound empty. A lot has happened since Apollo, most importantly a fledgling new direction for progress is suggested. Commercial manned space travel, tourist to low earth orbit and perhaps beyond.

Off the beaten track
Sometimes the old direction isn’t perhaps the best one and it is better to choose a new one. In the Space industry this can take a long time, but it is possible. Elon Musk saw that the old way of doing space travel had its best time and started is own rocket company. Musk showed us that there is another way. A new organization, Mars One, completely baffled the mainstream media with their “one way ticket” to Mars. And surprisingly Mars One wasn’t dismissed as a bunch of nutcases.

It will be a long road still towards a Space civilaization, whether on Mars or somewhere else. Scientific research is still seen by many, even manned space advocates, as the only reason for our presence in space. Of course this is false and it makes the proponents for manned space travel, like Explore Mars and the Mars Society, an easy target for the opponents of a human presence in space, like the Planetary Society.

Neil Armstrong didn’t do to much about space advocacy, I believe. Buzz Aldrin, on the other hand, is a staunch proponent of humans in space. I hope Buzz will be among us for many years in order to spread the good word. And I hope people will see the Apollo program as just one of many possible direction and not as the last really big achievement of western civilization, because we have done so much more since then.

Space Merchandise for Space Travel Geeks

I’m always looking out for space merchandise, especially if it is well made. In our modern world you can buy an enormous amount of junk and trinkets, just look at the stores in you main street and see the plastic thrash everywhere. A webshop like Zazzle takes it a step further, billions of crappy designs are already shlepped onto a growing list of “useful” products. Are people rally buying that muck?

Sometimes a company wants to make a small amount of objects, do it well and put their heart and soul into it. Such a company is Greenwood Space Travel Supply Co. They make this for instance:

space merchandise

Their products are fun but can also be inspiring. And do “space products” not say; “Hey, I’m into science, rational thought and the future”? Well, at least they are my crowd. For me they inspire me to create better and more original designs and I’ll keep searching for these kind of businesses. And maybe I’ll start my own Space Merchandise business.

Gene Expression quits (not yet)

A bit off topic, but after ten years blogging Gene Expression quits.

I have a few websites as bookmarks I regularly visit. One of them is a science blog called Gene Expression run by a guy called Razib. His posts are mainly about genetics, hereditary of genetic material and the effects of population movement on the genetic make-up of humans (and sometimes other creatures. No doubt this is a poor summary of his writings since I’m quite inept to understand most of his posts (they involve a lot of statistics about genetical traits and genes).

gene expression Razib

The beauty of his blog, besides being very informative about subjects I’m interested in, is that Razib kept a very short leash on his commenters. He ruthlessly punished any comments which reflected unfounded oppinion or lack of solid scientific arguments. This not only kept the amount of comments in check, but also maintained high level of quality of the responses. He also refrained in turning is blog into a long rant on whatever political pet peeves he might have, a problem which makes so many blogs unreadable.

Though Razib is quite succesful in keeping his personal life out of the website as much as possible, this doesn’t mean he hasn’t a life. In fact he recently became a father of a daughter and in his last blog post he mentioned an increase in personal obligations. Maintaining a good blog along a full-time job and family life must be very hard to do, especially if the blog is of such a high standard of Gene Experssion

So that’s the end. I was hoping it was just an April fools day joke, but it would simply a too poor one to be true. It was fun reading his articles and I hope he’ll keep is website as an archive. I wish him good luck and I hope that one day they he’ll find the time again to write articles for the interwebs. And for all other, please visit his site and brows his articles.

UPDATE.
As I feared, a poor April Fools Day joke. If you open up to your loyal public and lament your increasingly heavy obligations, they will tend to take it seriously. His articles may be of a high standard, his humour needs some honing. Anyway, gene expression quits, but not right now.

Permanent Portfolio check and eShop additions

Well, this is ridiculous. Such a long time not posted a blog. This is no way to increase traffic and try to sell anything. There is a good reason, I work in the financial industry and the last two months of 2011 and January were rather busy. Which left very little energy for other projects. It’s a bit better now, so I want to start writing little posts again. First an update of my permanent portfolio:

Amount Percentage
Stock 10.61 8.33%
Bonds 0.00 0.00%
Cash 112.55 88.37%
Gold 4.20 3.30%
Total 127.36 100.00%

In December I increased my amount of stock, mostly with conservative funds. Also, as you can see, the total went up. From 100 to 127 in about two years. Savings substantially contributed to that. Yields on saving accounts and funds are obviously pretty low. Still the proportion of cash is way high to and I need to start buying stock funds again for my permanent portfolio. In these uncertain times in the EU that’s the only thing I dare to do, although all that cash in EURO’s isn’t exactly prudent either.

As you know I do have an eShop with Zazzle were I show my amateur designs. Now and then I do post some designs and create in Zazzle a series of product classes (one usually adapt a design for f.i. all light coloured t-shirts, or round buttons). This is my latest:

This design is adapted for the product class “light t-shirts”. You can use this pattern for all light t-shirts Zazzle currently has to offer. My goal is to add at least one combination of a design of mine with a product class per day. At the moment I’ve passed the 100 and at the end of the year it should be at minimum 400.