Ebowling for dividends and growth

I take a weekly investing e-letter authored by Jason Kelly, a Coloradoan* who lives in Japan. Jason is an interesting guy, a rare combination: an experienced financial advisor with a fine track record and a degree in English. He is author of The Neatest Little Guide to Stock Market Investing, which remains the clearest introductory book I have seen on the topic. Jason has writing game. Jim Cramer is not fit to do Jason’s laundry, either as writer or financial advisor.

In addition to insightful, readable commentary on the financial markets, the typical Kelly Letter incorporates some social comment at the end. Like me, Jason does not consider himself obligated to join in media-purveyed panic. Also like me, Jason doesn’t mind making fun of the inherently ridiculous. This week’s edition ended with Jason’s commentary on the Ebola situation. I laughed so hard that I requested and received gracious permission to share its full text with my small but smart audience. Thanks, Jason.

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That’ll do it for this week.

With America’s nationwide Ebola death toll up to one and possibly rising, public health officials warn it’s not too early to take personal precaution. A recent survey by Boston-based Hitseeker Group found that six of nine people who’ve heard Ebola mentioned at least three times since Oct 6 believe they know somebody who comes into frequent physical contact with Ebola-infected blood, urine, saliva, stool, and/or vomit, and are therefore at risk of contracting the deadly virus themselves by handling said fluids among their friends.

Worse, this is under current circumstances. Should the American hot zone spread, the incidence of thinking one knows a person at risk of contracting Ebola is likely to spread, too. Officials point out that should authorities in Dallas fail to contain the disease, it could get as far as Plano and Fort Worth. Pressed for details, they project the maximum possible death toll in the United States to lie between 316.1 and 317.9 million people accounting for those who die prior to contracting Ebola due to heart disease, cancer, or stroke.

A spokesperson for the new Homeland Quarantine Coordination Agency cautioned against distraction from the Ebola threat by reports that, every day, an average of 1,973 Americans suffer a heart attack. “This is old news,” he said. “We must face the new threat head-on while there’s time.” Citing a statistics book, he illustrated how easily the Ebola death toll could double. “With one more death,” he said, holding up a finger and pausing, “just one, we would double the number of people who have died from this terrible disease. Think of what two more would do to the growth rate. Then … three. We could see the number of deaths rise tenfold in no time if we don’t nip this in the bud.”

The agency has devised a color-coded Ebola alert system to help guide behavior. It’s currently flashing bright red, leading some to wonder what color will be used should the rate of expansion increase, but the issue has been tabled for a less pressing moment. The simplest cautionary procedure during a bright-red alert such as the current one is to limit blood, urine, stool, and vomit play to people one knows well and trusts, an admittedly daunting task in a society as friendly as America’s, but well worth it in the short term.

Be careful out there.

Yours very truly,
Jason Kelly

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*Some say ‘Coloradan,’ others ‘Coloradoan.’ My own Colorado cred comes from Fort Collins, where the city newspaper is called The Coloradoan. My parents were/are CSU Ram alumni, and we lived up on the Poudre. Jason’s a CU Buff, but I also like to see them win, so no divide there. But I will always maintain that the term for a Coloradoan is, well, a Coloradoan, because when I was a Coloradoan, that’s how I learned it was put.

Your news services suck at Arabic

So do most transliterators for public consumption. One side effect of taking an Arabic community ed class is that it refreshes all my thirty-years-gone memories of just how bad the media are at this. Of course, thirty years ago I didn’t have a handy reference to look up the Arabic spellings of words. We’ll work with place and people names you’ve heard a lot of from those news entertainment cretins at CNN.

Riyadh (capital of Saudi Arabia): it’s actually ‘the Riyadh,’ but I’m going to leave off the definite article ‘el’ (and yes, that’s where it got into Spanish). The final ‘dh’ is actually the Arabic deep D. It should just be ‘Ri-YAD,’ since there is no English phonetic for deep letters. If you want to try and get it right, pronounce the D with your tongue pulled back.

Dhahran (coastal city in Saudi Arabia): again the ‘dh’ is misused. That first consonant is actually a deep and hard TH (as in ‘that’ but with tongue pulled back). DTHAH-ran is fine, though in the Gulf dialect it’s actually a deep Z sound: ZAH-ran.

Abu Dhabi (capital of the United Arab Emirates): has the same letter and the same issue. AH-bu DTHAH-bee, but locally they speak the Gulf dialect: AH-bu ZAH-bee.

Umm Qasr (Iraqi city fought over in first Gulf War): when you see double letters in Arabic, that’s not a long/short vowel cue. That means to pronounce it twice, like the double K in ‘bookkeeping.’ OOM-M KAHSS-r, not that idiotic ‘oom ka-SAR.’ The Q is a deep K sound (represented thus because the Latin characters happen to have a second K sound letter), and the S is the deep S, so the whole second word goes back into the throat. ‘Umm Qasr’ is thus actually a fair approximation. Every time they said ‘oom ka-SAR,’ a news anchor should have been kicked in the kidneys.

Gaddafi (our old pal): probably one of the most abused names in the Arab world for more than one reason. Dialects vary, but for starters, that G is actually the Q (deep K). The double D is fine except it’s really a front hard TH as in ‘that,’ which we could render as DH except that, as you can see, that is abused. The short version is that the news have no idea what the hell any of it means and think you neither know nor care. It’s doubled, so you’d render it kadth-DTHAF-ee, hauling that K back in the throat.

Benghazi (winner of the Libyan ‘most popular city in dumbass US news shows’ award): they are actually close here, but what you should know is that the Arabic GH is a gargled G. As in, you should sound as if you have a throat issue. bin-GHAH-zee.

Baghdad (it used to sound so mystical and romantic, didn’t it, not so long ago): again, they’re not so far off, just lazy. In Arabic, BAGH-dad, gargling your GH and rhyming its vowels with ‘straw pod.’

If you’ve ever heard Arabic spoken, and thought it sounded guttural, what you are hearing is those deep letters. There is a front A and a deep A, a front G/J and the deep GH, a front T and a deep T, front S and deep S, and so on. I think it affects perception, because in a masculine voice, the language can sound harsh to our ears, just as French sounds indistinct due to its intonation and many varieties in vowel pronunciation. Language can shape how we think of a culture, and the challenge is to move past that. So here are some more of the key differences:

Arabic has a ‘letter’ that is a glottal stop. This means a break in sound. When you hear it spoken, and there seem to be abrupt brief halts, sometimes that is the reason.

Arabic has a diacritical mark that doubles the letter, as we saw in a couple examples above. It’s pretty common, so when you hear a speaker, you hear an example pretty quickly. It’s in the name of God in Arabic, which is articulated ‘al-LAH.’

Does it look like a line of bean sprouts to you in writing? It still does, to me, and I can at least make out the letters. Here’s what I’m up against. First, and very important, all those dots you see above or below letters are integral parts of the letters. Second, Arabic is a Semitic language written from right to left, and all the letters in a word are connected–all Arabic is like English cursive that way. Except: six letters cannot be connected to a following letter, ever. Thus, all but six letters have four forms: initial, medial, final, and alone. The initial and medial forms tend to look very alike; the final and isolated forms are generally very similar. Those six, since they cannot connect to a following letter, do not need medial or initial forms. They are always in final form, or isolated form. So you can be looking at a word full of spaces, and it’s all one word.

In reality, there are only about half as many shapes as there are letters, since many look exactly alike except for the dots. For example, the B, front T, and front soft TH are precisely the same, except the B has one dot below, T has two above, and TH three above. The Y and N resemble them closely (two below, one above respectively) except in final form. Nearly half the abjad (alphabet) is like this; an R shape with no dot above is an R, and the same letter with one dot above is a Z, etc. Thus, it is not as hard as it looks. Fortunately.

When you see it written with the vowels, those are the little angular slashes high or low, a little loop above, or a little circle (which means no sound between consonants). The doubling mark looks like a little W. The vowels really heighten the bean sprout effect.

How come a lot of places in Arabic start with ‘El-‘ or ‘Al-‘? That’s ‘the’ in Arabic, which is where the Spaniards got it while the Moors camped out in Spain for about 750 years, building mosques and failing to teach the Spaniards to make a decent hummus. A lot of place names require the definite article in Arabic, so for example one says ‘The Iraq.’ It’s also how one does adjectival use, so ‘the big house’ reads as ‘house, the big.’ Sometimes you see a different consonant than L, such as in El-Arabiya As-Saudiya (Saudi Arabia; literally ‘the Arabia the Saudi’). That’s grammar. The actual letter is still L, but in some cases its articulation matches the start of the word it refers to.

Arabic has no P. That’s why Palestine, in Arabic, is ‘el-Falestin.’ What it does have is dialects, as you might expect of a language spoken in daily life from Morocco to Oman. Then there’s Quranic Arabic, which is not commonly spoken but is read and at least somewhat understood by many of the world’s Muslims. We are used to two grammatical numbers, singular and plural. Arabic has a third: dual.

The world’s largest Muslim populations in order are Indonesia, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. Only about 20% of the world’s Muslims live in Arab countries. So if you want ISIL’s ass kicked, the most logical way is to have the rich Gulf oil states (who stand to lose the most) bankroll a multinational effort by those four. Of course, given how India and Pakistan get along, and that Muslims are a minority in India, probably count India out. Let Egypt and Turkey step up instead–they are populous, well-armed, closer, and can always use the money. If Turkey ever decides it’s time for ISIL to be over, ISIL will be over.

By the way, people are Muslim; objects and concepts are Islamic. ‘Muslim’ can only refer to one who follows Islam (literally, ‘one who submits’). Doesn’t attract me, but if as a country we’re going to jump to conclusions about it and go on crusades, maybe we ought to understand a bit about its followers. Oh, and the news people are screwing up ‘Taliban’ as well. That is a plural term. So, that odd dude from California who joined the Taliban, seriously limiting his career options, wasn’t an ‘American Taliban.’ That would be at least three people, since you’d use the dual for just two of them. Singular is ‘Talib’ (student).

You may now commence throwing things at your TV, cussing news anchors up and down the floor, and generally showing news entertainment the respect it merits. Make sure to flip them off with your left hand, as that’s much worse in the Islamic world.

A thought on outliving people

As we age, there’s a terrible temptation to think in terms of outliving: our enemies, witnesses to our humiliations, those who know secrets. There are two problems with the mentality, both serious.

  1. The longer you live, the shorter-lived your pleasure with each outlived person/mistake.
  2. The more you adopt this mentality, the more the world looks forward to the years without you.

Have a good weekend, and think positive.

New release: Chad Stinson Goes for a Walk, by Shawn Inmon

This short story is now available on Amazon. I was substantive editor.

Shawn brings me story ideas early in the process, which I wish more of my clients would do. I am very frank with him. Some of his ideas, no likey, and I tell him so in a style I call tactful bluntness. If he still wants to write it, of course, I stand ready to help him as best I can. For some reason, he seems to be surprised when I like an idea very much, which is not justified because he has a lot of good ideas, and I tell him so.

This was one of the good ones, and after the first read, I told him as much. Shawn’s horror/supernatural concepts are maturing, and his characters grow more original with his advancement as a writer. The best thing about Chad Stinson, in my view, is the witty mix of social comment and growing macabreness (macabrosity?).

Any author who can pull you gradually into something freaky, while making you laugh at society, accomplishes in two different directions. A great, quick read with broad appeal.

Hitler’s Foreign Executioners, by Christopher Hale

I love history.

Because I love history, I like to see history books that take on difficult topics, expand understanding, challenge perceptions.

When someone picks up a history book, my respect for that person grows. However, I also feel a duty to help the history consumer who may look at a well-put-together book and take it all at face value.

And when the author of a history book botches up a number of details, that’s a problem.

This brings us to Hitler’s Foreign Executioners: Europe’s Dirty Secret, by Christopher Hale.

Hale, a documentary producer and journalist, sets forth to explain that the Holocaust was not merely a German production, but that soldiers and civilians from many European countries took active, willing, and destructive parts in it. He was motivated to do so by a ceremony honoring Latvian SS veterans as patriots, when in reality the Latvian SS were guilty of Holocaust atrocities and don’t deserve to be honored by anyone. I believe he is responding to the rising tide of far-right sentiment in Europe that keeps finding reasons why Jews are somehow bad, and why therefore, the Holocaust really wasn’t quite so bad.

He had a good idea there, because some people evidently need a reminder of just how widespread and awful the atrocities of WWII Europe were. I don’t; I know. I was interested in new evidence, research, and analysis to add to my store of understanding.

And he has screwed it up. It annoys me.

The problem is that he makes many factual errors. I don’t like factual errors. These are factual errors no academic historian worth even a bachelor’s degree would make, much less a professor of history.

He has ‘heavy’ Ju-52 ‘bombers’ pounding Yugoslavia, when in fact the Tante Ju was a transport. It was capable of bombardment, but the Luftwaffe had far better bombers (none truly heavy, by the way) and far too few Ju-52s. I’m pretty sure that the Ju-88s, Ju-87s, Do-17s and He-111s, all main Luftwaffe bombers, did the bulk of it. Hale doesn’t even know which bombers were which.

He has Nazi Germany ‘seizing’ the Ploesti oilfields in Romania. This is false. Romania joined the Axis in late 1940, and Hitler had no need to seize anything. Romanian oil in large part fueled the Nazi war effort, supplied without qualms. Hale evidently doesn’t realize that Romania joined the Axis of its own free will, which overlooks a fact that would help his case.

He describes the June 1941 Iași (Romania) pogrom as the first large-scale pogrom of the war. This is ridiculous. To think it not ridiculous, one must decide that Kristallnacht (1938) was somehow not a pogrom. There had already been quite a few pogroms, which is not to minimize Iași, simply to point out that Hale’s wording is recklessly imprecise.

He believes that the Yugoslav Army, crushed by the Germans and Italians in April 1941, fielded only five divisions. That’s ridiculous. It had over thirty divisions, and while much of it was low in training or morale, to suggest that it was half the size of the Dutch Army Hitler overran (ten divisions) in May 1940 is silliness. Hale does not seem to know anything about the orders of battle for the conflict.

And that’s all by page 87 of a 400-page book.

Ah, one might rejoin, but aren’t those all just minor details that do not detract from his primary point? Yes and no, in that his primary point happens to be well supported by evidence whether or not he supplies it correctly. Here’s the problem with a journalist who doesn’t know or understand the minor details. While I give Hale credit for providing lengthy footnotes and sources, I do not want to have to check them all. When he has the accepted details right, I feel less compulsion to verify everything he says. When he gets them wrong, and puts out a sloppy book, I begin to wonder how far I can trust his account and use of the sources. This undermines his credibility in a very unfortunate way. If he thinks the Ju-52 is a bomber, and that the Royal Yugoslav Army had only five divisions, I with good reason question his basic knowledge of the facts. And if I must question that, then I can’t believe him without digging up all his sources and verifying them.

I don’t buy a book expecting to have to do that. However, in my case at least, I know enough about the war and the Holocaust that if I wanted to dedicate a few months to the job, I could check them all and make my own determinations. Or, far better, I could read one that doesn’t make me think the author didn’t really care about getting the history right.

This is terrible. We needed this book. The overwhelming body of evidence–and believe me, I am aware that Rosh Hashanah will begin in my time zone shortly after I post this, and yes, that bothers me–documents what Hale is saying. The attempted eradication of European Jewry, which ‘succeeded’ to an appalling degree and which we call the Holocaust, is supported by oceans of evidence. More to the point of this book, most European nationalities had some sordid hand in the Holocaust. Some participated with gusto that embarrassed and concerned even the SS, which is saying rather a lot. People should know that. People should know that this monstrosity is part of the history of the nations whose people participated in it, whether that bothers those nations or not (and if it doesn’t, that bothers me). And when anti-Semitic groups start trying to paint mass murderers as decent human beings, we need books to bonk them on the head with. Thick ones. good ones.

Hale could have written one of these, but he failed, because he either did not know the fundamental facts, or did not consider them very important. I cannot see another logical reason; I do not think he set out to be wrong. I think he just doesn’t know and doesn’t think it’s important. His training is to create an impression, which is what documentaries do: present in a short time the selected information that will tell the viewer how to think.

Fundamental facts are important, whether Hale thinks so or not. Command of the fundamentals is the basis on which to build an argument. Without it, one undermines one’s own basis. The poor proofreading I can pardon. A series of flagrant mistakes, I will not.

Thus, the assistance to the history consumer that I promised: before you buy it, take a look at the author’s main line of work. Most of the truly lousy history books I have read were not written by professors of history. Most were written by journalists. Hale is a documentary producer, and based on many of the documentaries I’ve watched, that suggests he’s in the entertainment business. Fine and good–but when he starts to write history that the layman will tend to believe, he is loansharking in my temple, and I will lash his journalistic ass out of it.

Even if I agree with the conclusion he reached.

Dumbness or aging?

Please untwist thy matronly lingerie. I speak only of myself.

If any of you younger folks would like to speak of a situation when you forgot something that was once spectacularly obvious and automatic, this would be most welcome. I need it.

The secret weapon that revolutionized my motoring experience is the combination of the Ipod and a stereo to which I can connect it. It is not my way to be an automatic adopter of new technology. If it were, by now I would probably have forsaken my truck, which is older than every traditional college undergrad today (except for a few who went on LDS missions, and next year, they fall off the scale as well). If it were, I would not have a flip cell phone with rudimentary Internet capacity. If it were, I would use that Internet capacity and install ‘apps.’ If it were, I’d dump my landline. You get the idea.

When I found out that I could load all my music onto the computer, that became worthwhile. When I found out that I could load it all into a device smaller than a pack of cigarettes, that became worthwhile. When I found out I could use that as my motoring music source, it was finally time to replace the failing factory AM/FM radio and speakers in my truck with a real stereo and speakers that did not, on inspection, resemble papier-mâché projects. That was about six years ago.

I don’t much interact with my Ipod. I rarely get around to updating the music library, because to do that, I’ll have to figure out how to get MediaMonkey to do so. Itunes? It’s malware. What I do is dial up a playlist through the stereo’s knobs and buttons, start it, and forget about it for months. Every so often it locks up, I reboot it, figure out which playlist I want for the next few months, and interact with it only to change the volume or pause it when I’m at a drive-through window.

Today I thought it was done for. ‘No Device’ on the stereo faceplace. I disconnected the Ipod, rebooted it, and could not navigate it. Could not scroll through menus. The center button seemed to work, and the back button, but if you can’t scroll through a menu, you can’t do much.

I stressed. I rebooted it many times. I agonized. I wondered what it would take to get a new one (now that I have tunes in my truck, I can’t go back). I found out that all the new ones have far less storage. I thought of taking it to the Apple store. I decided to let the battery run down all the way, reboot it, recharge it, and try again.

Losing patience with the slow erosion of the battery, I picked it up and tried to use it. No longer stressed and irritated, my hands remembered. On this device, one scrolls by running a finger clockwise or counterclockwise around the circular thing. It was fine; I had just forgotten, cognitively, how to operate it. But when I was resigned and unrattled, my mind dredged up the proper operation. The only problem was that I don’t touch the thing often enough to keep its functions in my active memory.

Now I’m trying to figure out whether this makes me a technoboob, or a budding Forgetful Old Person. (I plan to decline all the bullshit laudatory titles like ‘Honored Citizen,’ ‘Senior Citizen,’ and all that. A part of me can’t wait to be a good-tipping, easy-to-please old person dining out, being kind to waitstaff. And if anyone points out the ‘senior menu,’ my plan is to smile and say quietly to the waitress, “Actually, ma’am, the truth is that most old people dining out are pains in the ass: entitled, stingy, and crabby. We should be charged more, not less, so I will be glad to order off the normal menu.” I grew up with a parent and grandparent who were abominable restaurant customers, and once I was old enough to stop imitating their bad behaviors, I went the other direction.)

So what’s the verdict? Does the above digression pretty much speak for itself? Technoboob or codger-in-the-making?

Flytember in Flydaho

If you ever read William Golding’s famous novelized Survivor variant, and yearned to be the lord or lady of the common housefly, now is the time and here is your place.

For some reason, every September, all the fly eggs in Boise hatch, and they are on everything. There is almost nothing you can do to keep them out of the house. They harass animals without mercy. Are you going to a fast food restaurant where the door necessarily gets opened hundreds of times a day, and there’s a drive-through window? Just bring your own fly swatter.

We went through this last year. As luck would have it, it began just as I arrived. I wanted anti-aircraft cannon. I kept a fly swatter right by my recliner. I spent hours hunting down the little bastards.

Since I have a fundamental hatred of flies, this is not a fun time for me. This year I bought an electric flyswatter; looks like a mini tennis racket. I soon realized why not everyone owns one of these: it’s hard and heavy, thus you cannot swing it anywhere that you might break something (window, TV, lamp, mirror). If you are good enough to swing it through the air and nail them, you will kill them, which you could have done anyway with a badminton racket covered in screening or cheesecloth, or even a small towel doubled up. I dislike them enough that I am finding excuses to use the electric one on them.

If we were staying, and I would be anticipating another autumn of this fly-ridden situation, I would be gearing up and experimenting with the fine art of fly slaying. As it is, I’m just hoping that September in Portland will be less disgusting.

In the meantime, I wish I had a small army of frogs.

On patrol with my weed killer tank

I did something dumb related to property maintenance. This is nothing new.

This is not as dumb as some of the things I have done, most of which have related to irrigation. Simply put, I made too much weed killer. I have a 4-gallon backpack spray tank, and earlier this summer, I made a full batch. The thing is a bastard; difficult to get into, nozzle tends to clog just as you get all rigged up, feels cold on your back so you can’t help wondering if it’s leaking toxic chemicals down your spine.

What was I thinking? I didn’t need four gallons of weed killer even then. Now it was almost September, and I didn’t need three gallons now. But what do you do?

You can’t just dump it out in the street. Good lord.

You can’t throw it into the dumpster. That’s unconscionable.

You can, I suppose, figure out where is the waste dump around here–information you otherwise would never have needed to mess with–and then probably learn that there are a whole bunch of requirements and you’ll have to come back. Well-deserved for bad planning? Sure. Are you going to do that, if you have a better option? Not so much.

So you plan to use it. Problem: on what? There is enough in this tank to kill your whole yard about eight times over. Might be enough to kill a tree. Every weed on the perimeter, you will slay. Okay, that used up an eighth of it. What’s next?

I donated it to the neighborhood.

Of course, my spray tank pump was on the fritz, and I had to spend a fussy half hour fixing it first. After, of course, getting rigged up in the thing. But I won that round, and went to work.

After assuring that every pertinent weed on my property had been well and truly hosed down, I went on weed patrol. I checked with my neighbors: any weeds you want killed? Here I had hope, because I have neighbors who rent, who would lose a lawn maintenance contest with a platoon of gophers, and who were sure to have a back yard full of enormous weeds. “Wow! Thank you!” No problem, kids. But I still had half a tank. Argh.

Then I remembered all the times I had gone for walks along my street, and all the times I had thought to myself: this is what you get in return for minimal property taxes. All these weeds have been bursting out of the sidewalks and pavement all summer. The city is obviously not going to do a damn thing about them; this is Idaho. I suppose the homeowners are probably supposed to, but it’s clear that they will not, and equally clear the city will not make them. Of course, it is just as clear that if I do it myself, I might slightly improve the look of my immediate neighborhood at selling time, and absolutely no one will care so long as I don’t hit a yard.

Out went Weed Patrolman. If it looked weedish, and wasn’t on private property, it got a hosing. If anyone noticed me, they probably either thought I was OCD or nuts, but no police showed up. And at least this way, the stuff got used for its intended purpose.

If I had any guts, I’d send the City of Boise an invoice for labor and materials.

With my luck, they’d send a SWAT team out in an armored car. Because, you know, the government was basically just giving them away.

If you consider Amazon an evil empire, pay slightly more

I often read very disturbing accounts of how Amazon treats its warehouse employees. I am already acquainted with the comic opera that is Amazon customer service. (Although if you write an articulate letter to Mr. Bezos, and have a valid concern, I must say that you get connected to very intelligent and diligent people who have the power to throw lightning bolts.) I am aware how difficult it is for anyone but Amazon to make money selling through Amazon. Amazon uses really nasty little pricing tactics to beat out the independent sellers who sell through it. Some say that Amazon has become worse than Walmart.

If so, it has also become more useful than Walmart. It has become a way that, without:

  • patronizing Walmart;
  • wandering a building the size of Liechtenstein;
  • watching simian children who really just need corporal punishment in liberal measure;
  • stepping over bodily wastes and those who collapsed after discharging them;
  • meeting the vacant stare of a Walbot;
  • being ‘greeted;’
  • viewing the gluteal creases, lateral mammary declines, pre-gluteal tattoos advertising coital attitudes, dorsal corpulence, evidence of recent and disappointing commode use attempts, ochre jellies, green slimes, black puddings, grey oozes, and the rest of the D&D Monster Manual,

I can:

  • Hunt up an old hockey guide from the 1970s and check now and then to see if someone sells one for a reasonable price.
  • Go shopping for cyan Samsung CLP-300 toner, ant baits, BioClean, the most recent DVD season of Boardwalk Empire, and a Sahaptin/English dictionary–and find them, and buy them.
  • Maintain a list of all the stuff I might someday buy, and on a whim, throw an item into an order. Maintain another, private list of all the stuff I regularly buy, but don’t want people to know about, and at need, reach right into there and buy this or that.
  • Read what other people think about a product, filter out reactions that are ignorant or douchey, and form an impression of whether I myself would be satisfied.
  • Browse books beyond the temporal limits of the waking day, at will.

You’ve got to admit the appeal. If it’s just books, sure, there are other booksellers. But it’s hard to find a one-stop shop that automatically carries the air filters, sports team t-shirts, new thriller, MP3 album, and blender on your shopping list. This way, you do not have to create logins at jimsfilterempire.com, licensedgreed.com, Powell’s (wait, you already have one there), Itunes (where you will let the Apple iCamel’s iNose under too many of your tents), and damemixalot.com. You do not have to take your chances with their service or lack thereof.

Would I prefer to buy all of the above at local stores, paying local merchants? Sure. And if I would like to spend seven hours on the phone speaking with underpaid people whose own best interests are served by just pretending to go check, then telling me they don’t carry what I want, or four gallons of gas and two miles of walking in futile effort to see for myself if I can find even one of them, I can do that. But local retailers generally don’t pay people enough to give a damn, cannot possibly be certain to carry the thing I need, and are often owned (at least, in Boise, which is a very entrepreneurial place) by sociopaths who just couldn’t get along with anyone else long enough to hold a job. And will pepper their establishments with political and/or religious references. Not always, just often enough to turn one off.

It ends up with going to Amazon. Knowing full well that one is helping to fund the sweatshop business model. So if that’s what’s going to happen, how to salvage any sense of social responsibility?

For me, it’s about convenience rather than price. Here’s one thing you can do. Amazon will still get paid, but it will not reward their tactics.

Suppose you’re browsing for more than books, which means you can’t just shop at Powell’s. You’re buying a USB cable, nipple cream, a book for your husband, a stuffed animal, polyhedra dice, the last version of Quicken that didn’t suck, and a Halloween costume (child size) of a Uighur insurgent. Your odds are excellent at Amazon.

In fact, it is very likely that you will have many shopping options for some products. Amazon itself will be one of them. Take a close look at the pricing. The minimum freight charge for any order is $3.99. Notice how, in so many cases, Amazon offers the item for $3.97 or so more, in the assumption that you’ll buy enough to get free shipping. Examples:

  • The lowest-priced seller for the book lists it for $5.00. Amazon lists it for $8.97, but it’s eligible for free shipping. $8.99 vs. $8.97.
  • You can get the Quicken for $45.00. Amazon has it for $48.95, so it gets free shipping without having to buy anything else. $48.99 vs. $48.95.
  • Just to get rid of it, hoping to make a little money on the freight overage, the seller lists the book for $0.01. So do five other sellers. Amazon’s price? $3.98, just buy enough other stuff for free shipping. $4.00 vs. $3.98.

You see the trend. Any time you see Amazon’s price just shy of $4 higher than one of their independent sellers, that’s what is happening. Since Amazon will combine it all into a shipment, and has significant freight negotiation leverage, their freight cost assures them a better margin than it appears. Freight out is often a profit center, the one you never really consider.

So if you want to feel better about it, just pay the other guy what will work out to be a nickel to a dollar more. That’s all you have to do. Sure, Amazon will still get its cut, but your order will not be packaged by a suffering, footsore individual whose pick quota was just increased from 75 per hour to 100. You’ll support an independent who probably also has a retail operation. You still won’t have create one more login. And you won’t be rewarding that devilish pricing tactic.

If our call was really important to automated phone systems…

…they would operate something like this.

–Thank you for calling Feculent, the world leader in male bovine waste processing and distribution.

  • For English, please hold your horses.
  • Para continuar en Español, oprima ocho.
  • To hurl racial slurs at us, press nine, and leave your slur at the tone.

–Welcome to Feculent. We are committed to getting you off the phone as cheaply as possible. Please, seriously, no joke, listen to all the following options before making your selection.

1) To stab zero repeatedly until you get a human, please press one.

  • Your approximate wait time is measured in weeks. Please hold. All calls are answered in the order received.

2) To accuse us of shocking maternal relationships and prostitution, press two.

  • For haiku format, press one, and leave your message after the tone.
  • For rap format, press two, then dis us after the tone.
  • For incoherent rage, please press three, and fulminate after the tone.

3) To explain why you shouldn’t have to pay your bill, or why you didn’t, press three.

  • If you’re a deadbeat, press one.
  • If you are a flake, press two.
  • If you’re an honest person who simply would like a minor consideration based upon years of faithful patronage, press three, and our Universal Loathing Technicians will be with you shortly.

4) To fire us, press four.

  • If you are really calling to beat us up for a better price, press one.
  • If you just want us to drop dead, press two.

5) To order new product, or to hear more about our products and services, press five.

  • To convince us you’re serious, press one.
  • If you just thought that was a good joke, press two.

6) If you are a bored, lonely senior citizen with a wandering mind, and just want to talk someone’s ear off, press six.

  • If you are harmless, press one.
  • If you are a perv, press two, and our Pervert Task Force will help you.

7) If you plan to just demand to speak to a manager, and do not yet realize that you will just be handed to another random person who will play the role, press seven.

  • If you are relatively calm, press one.
  • If you are close to a stroke, press two, and our system will dial 911 for you.

8) If you have no sense of logic, and would like to be connected to someone who can only repeat the same phrases until you hang up in frustration, press eight.

  • For someone with a heavy Indian accent, press one.
  • For a heavy Filipino accent, please press two.
  • For an Idaho accent, please press the potato key.

9) If you are calling with any sort of positive message at all, press nine to be connected to a representative who will change your mind.

  • If you have already changed your mind, press one.
  • If you are a Pollyanna who really believes it will matter to us, press two. Someone will be with you shortly.

#) To hear all that crap one more time, press pound.

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