Category Archives: Social comment

lighting a financial candle rather than cursing the financial darkness

Now and then, I have to give credit to a complete idiot.

Dirty laundry: I sometimes have trouble coming up with good topics to maintain a twice-monthly blog posting schedule. In this case, a friend’s friend said something so blithering that I had to contradict. Not harshly, of course. You never know when it’s someone’s wonderful Aunt Edna who, while dumber than a bag of wet nickels, has devoted her whole life to helping her nephew and about two hundred other kids from broken homes. I’d rather not find out the hard way. But the facts, at least, needed a saying.

This brought me to the realization that I have a substantial financial reading list, if I would but share it, to help people self-educate. Self-education is good. Why take my word for this stuff? Better to read people who know more about it than I do. And another of my beliefs is the old saying about lighting candles and cursing darkness. If I don’t feel good, I try to make myself do things that will make me feel more positive.

Before I go into the reading list, I ought to disclose my basic investing outlook and methods. I am not a fan of corporate America. I begin with the presumption that it is impossible to find a publicly traded American company not operated by criminals, at least as I define the term. The harder a company puts on the PR to tell me how wonderful it is, the more I assume the reality is opposite.

I am more an income investor than a growth investor. I don’t like CEO promises and predictions; my basic outlook is “Fuck you; pay up.” I like income because they can’t take it back. I own very few separate issue stocks. I go mostly for index ETFs (exchange-traded funds) and closed-end bond funds (CEFs). I can wring 2-5% payouts from the bond index ETFs, 12-15% from the CEFs (with capital loss potential), and results from the stock ETFs vary but are more volatile than most of the market (this works to my advantage). My primary objective, naturally, is to make money. The secondary objective, which leads to the primary but has to come first, is to keep emotion out of my investing.

It follows, therefore, that I don’t much believe in ethical investing. If you want to get all ethical, buy Satan Inc.’s stock (DEVL), donate the dividends to their enemies, and vote against all management’s recommendations. That is the action on your part that they fear most–but don’t confuse it with investing for gain.

I do believe that financial innumeracy is one of the leading causes of youth poverty in this country. The schools and parents didn’t teach them. The young made the naive assumption that opportunities would be the same for them as they were for their parents, a myth their parents knew was bullshit, but did not puncture. The parents should have.

With that, I offer you a list of excellent reads about money management, investing behaviors, strategies, and suchlike. I hope it will help you beat the rigged game that is our market, even if your method doesn’t even involve buying any stocks.

  • Financially Stupid People Are Everywhere; Don’t Be One of Them, by Jason Kelly. You’ll be seeing his name a couple more times, for good reason: Jason combines a very readable style with an iconoclastic, no-bullshit approach. We’re friends, but I was a fan of his writing years before we became personally acquainted. If adulting classes existed, this could be the textbook. If you’re in your twenties and you have debt and/or no savings, start here. It’s the icewater bath you need.
  • Warren Buffett Invests Like a Girl, and Why You Should, Too, by Louann Lofton. It turns out that women have investing tendencies that work to their advantage, and Lofton has taken time to observe and quantify these. It’s an excellent read, and likely to promote confidence on the part of women navigating what has historically been a male-dominated industry. Bottom line: if you’re beating their numbers, it doesn’t matter whether you do it through newsletter picks, tarot, Sacred Vagina Meditations, research, or free association. It means you’re better.
  • The Motley Fool Investment Guide, by David & Tom Gardner. While I’m out of the business of researching and picking separate issue securities (that would include common stocks), others might not be. Either way, this is a fun read full of helpful education.
  • Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value (and How to Take Advantage of It), by William Poundstone. Poundstone is the guy you have never read that you should be reading: author of the Secrets books, who then turned to studies of human psychology. Distilled essence: marketers use our instincts to lead us to decisions that work to their advantage and against ours. Understanding this is worth your while.
  • The 3% Signal: The Investing Technique that will Change Your Life, by Jason Kelly. Jason publishes The Kelly Letter, an outstanding investment newsletter. He used to pick stocks. He stopped, and his life got better. This book tells what he does now, and how anyone with an investment account can do the same. Five stars without a moment’s hesitation.
  • Your Money & Your Brain: How the New Science of Neuroeconomics Can Help Make You Rich, by Jason Zweig. Another good entry in the field of investing and money psychology. I don’t believe you can go too far wrong applying critical thinking to an understanding of how our minds work.
  • The Neatest Little Guide to Stock Market Investing, by Jason Kelly. There is some overlap here between more recent versions of this book and The 3% Signal. That said, if you want to go stock hunting, I’d take this book in addition to the Gardners’ treatise.

Because I feel in a sharing mode, I’m going to make a number of statements that I wish more people could absorb:

  • Any stock index report that goes by points rather than percentage change just makes you dumber.
  • Any person reporting a stock index result that reports points rather than percentage is either too uneducated to know how dumb this is, or is deliberately using the big number to draw attention.
  • Conventional open-end mutual funds are usually a bad deal. They’re great investments for 1975, if you’re currently living then.
  • About 90-95% of investors should just buy and accumulate index ETFs (exchange-traded funds).
  • Financial media suck. You get stupider every time you watch or read them.
  • Bonds don’t automatically mean you get your money back. Bond funds especially don’t mean this.
  • If investing a very small amount, you can afford to shoot high. Only when you pile up a big heap o’ money do you have to think about holding onto it.
  • Emotion is your investing enemy.
  • You don’t know who you are as an investor until you see a crash. Who you are is what you do during and after that crash. A fern could make money in a bull market.
  • The Dow is worse than useless; it is distortive. Any time someone cites it as meaningful, my opinion of that person’s investing savvy drops.
  • It follows, from the above and previous commentary, that any time anyone says “Dow drops 300 [or whatever number],” without including the percentage change, I conclude that the individual doesn’t understand the markets at all. I may heart them big time, but they said a dumb thing.
  • Most people throw away about half their lifetime returns just by playing with themselves all through their twenties, only getting serious come their thirties.
  • If you buy an investment you don’t understand, you do a stupid thing.
  • Any time someone starts by saying “If you had bought XX back in X month, year Y,” this person is sharing irrelevancy. Why? Because you didn’t. You wouldn’t. Next time, you won’t either. If only that defensive end had gotten to the passer on that third down play in the first quarter, the whole game would have been different–but he did not.
  • Always buy the stocks my wife says to buy. Unless, of course, I helped pick them, in which case they’ll tank.
  • The choice of a traditional vs. Roth IRA comes down to the tax benefit. If you don’t make enough money to need the writeoff, the Roth is probably more advantageous. However, the Roth means trusting the government to honor a promise years in the future. I never have. Your call.
  • Rich traders get to cheat in ways you and I do not.
  • For IPOs, if they’re worth getting into, you probably aren’t getting in unless you’re with a big full-commission brokerage. That’s one advantage for full-commission brokers, set against an ocean of disadvantages.

Project Hamilton

This isn’t about editing or writing.

This is Project Hamilton.

This is about current US society and economics. It may apply to others in other societies, but I am speaking to the only one I know and in which I participate.

This is me summoning the haves. If you’re doing rather well, I’ve got a suggestion for you.

Because of the disease, which it seems highly likely will soon enter its second phase and do multiple times more harm, there are two economic categories: the haves and the have-nots. The haves either have plenty of money or are still earning enough to live and save a little. Most of them are currently spending less money than they usually do, so they have some extra. The have-nots are chronically underemployed, working at risk, or deprived of all income. Few of them asked for those situations.

The reason the haves can still buy groceries and live through this in relative comfort is in large part because some of the have-nots go to work. The have-even-lesses can’t even do that. My answer is Project Hamilton.

The concept is simple. You probably don’t shop locally as often as you did before. When you do, kick in an extra $10. If buying groceries, give the extra bill to the checker, and ask her please to hang onto it until someone comes along who is obviously in serious distress, then contribute it to that person’s payment. If you are going to get takeout or drive-through from a restaurant, add $10 in tip. The drive-through people never get anything normally; the takeout people are probably waitstaff who normally rely on tips. Wherever you go, give them an extra ten bucks. If you need to, do like at the grocery store and have them share it with a person in need.

At some point the nail salons and barbers will reopen, and you can take it for gospel they are all financially blasted (and sick of driving Uber or Grubhub). First couple times you go back, tack on an extra $10 above your normal gratuity, to help them catch up and rebuild.

If you cannot afford this, I’m not asking it of you.

If you can, I am. Share. Show people that you value them. Sustain this through the recovery. Right now the economic reality is that the dollars aren’t turning over. It is in your power to turn over some more dollars, which will help people have work and make money and stay somewhat afloat. It will also give people heart, which has its own value.

We have become a dystopian society, but this initiative has nothing to do with nationalism or politics. This has to do with whether we choose to share, or not to share. This has to do with how we each define ourselves. Are we really this dystopia, or are we better than that? Talk is cheap (including blog posts). What you do is who you are.

I have made my choice. Yours is up to you.

====

Addendum: in the early response to this post, shared in a number of places, I have seen many method variations on its basic theme. All of those variations are great. Better still, many people were already doing them before I got around to this post.

I salute all of you who participate in any way, whether you were already doing so or have now just begun. Any generous way one chooses to do this is a correct way.

COVID’s metamorphosis

If you see what I did there, I tip my cap.

Living in a region with some early cases and a few fatalities from the Wuhan COVID-19 virus, my perspective might be more immediate than some. My reactions, however, were unlike and yet like those of others. Based upon the data, I began with the following assumptions:

  • Since COVID could be contracted from an Amazon packer’s paws seven days before, while hand washing and other basic hygienic precautions might slow it down, it would erupt in surprise locations with a payload soon to hit.
  • My wife and I would ultimately contract this virus, with some chance of mortality. We would be fools to ignore it.
  • Whatever government might say would be targeted at manipulating behavior, not keeping people healthy. True of any government at times; truest of all of this one now.
  • People would expect the government to save them, and would discover that it cannot.
  • Most people would react irrationally to that realization.
  • People who did not believe in science were not about to start now.
  • People who believed in thoughts and prayers were going to find out just how well such things worked.
  • Financial media would immediately attribute any stock market faceplant to coronavirus. Any stock market recovery, somehow, would not. Few would question the fundamental association between high markets and sudden selling behavior.

Most of the above has come to pass so far, except for us catching the virus. In addition, people have been:

  • Cleaning out supplies of staples such as toilet paper. Costco is making bank.
  • Avoiding crowds: crowded stores, big public events, anything with many people.

Around here, we haven’t changed anything except for better hand washing and adding a couple of supplements aimed at immune boosting. Compared to many, I seemed to be under-reacting. Everyone else seemed more affected than me. And then I realized some things all at once.

I always keep on hand excellent stocks of basics. Maybe once a year I take my pickup to Costco, and I come back with the bed mostly full. I have no shame about buying five big bundles of paper towels, four tubs of dishwasher pods, twelve cans of coffee. I grew up in a household that constantly ran out of the basics and did everything cheap cheap cheap cheep cheep cheep cheep. I refuse to maintain a similar household.

I don’t like crowds; my normal life is based on avoiding them where possible. When I can’t avoid them, I exfiltrate from them as quickly as I can manage.

America, welcome to my regular life.

Bad reasons to move to the Portland area

Please do notice: I didn’t say “Oregon.” I said “the Portland area.” All Oregon is not Portland.

Oh, wait, but surely Portland is the only part of Oregon that’s relevant to any other place in the world?

If that’s your perception, definitely don’t move to Portland. There’s enough of that thinking here already, much of it home-grown. That entire attitude has a great deal to do with the urban/rural divide, in which two different-thinking populations that cannot function without looking for reasons to other each other.

With the Bay Area and Seattle costs of living sky-high, and Vancouver (B.C.) requiring that sticky bit about landed immigrant status, many eyes are on Portland as The Next Big Destination. I’m braced for it.

Unlike some (fewer than reputed) transplants and natives, I am glad to welcome newcomers who are willing to make some effort to adapt. For one thing, I am one. I’ve only been here five years, though I lived a quarter century within an hour’s drive of Oregon. That made adaptation rather easier. For another, sometimes the newcomers are better citizens than the natives. I recently had a situation in which two Oregon State Police cars and two county deputies completely ignored my post-accident situation (I could have been seriously hurt) while a river of vehicles with Oregon tags rolled past me. Who stopped to see if I was okay, to offer witness contact information, etc.? An SUV with California tags.

I got more kindness from an out-of-state SUV than from four local police cars (one of whom had in fact initiated the high-speed chase in which I was rammed by the suspect; thanks for the protection and service). So no, I’m not joining the xenophobic wing. There are good reasons to move here. I don’t really like any big cities at all, but as a person with fundamentally rural outlooks and orientation, I put it this way: if you have to pick a city of three million, this’d be the one.

That all noted, there are numerous terrible reasons to decide to move to the Portland area. (Not all of the Portland area is the city of Portland. Hereafter, I’ll just call it Portland, but what I mean is the metropolitan area from Forest Grove east to Gresham, from the Columbia to Oregon City and Wilsonville. It spans three counties and houses some three million people. I live in the western suburbs. I don’t feel like saying “the Portland/Vancouver/Hillsboro SMSA minus Vancouver” over and over.)

Here are the lousy reasons:

You watched Stumptown and Portlandia and it seemed so cool. It’s not that there aren’t elements of those shows to be found here; it’s that they in no way dominate the mindset. What does? Traffic, some of the nation’s worst.

You’ve heard that the food is excellent. Some is indeed excellent. Some is pretty good. Some is crappy, especially in Beaverton and Hillsboro. I’ve been astonished how much bad Thai, Mexican, and Chinese food can be found out here. For that matter, I have been astonished how much truly lousy American food one can find here.

You’ve heard that the food trucks are wondrous. Some are. Many are mediocrities. Anyway, what’s the the big deal? So it’s a food truck. There is no reason to believe ours are vast improvements over anyone else’s. It just means you eat your food out in public with flimsy plastic forks.

The minimum wage is really high. And it’s not nearly high enough to live on without roommates. $1500/month rent isn’t terribly high by local standards. $12.50 is better than $7.50, but as an annual income, it totals $26K (before taxes and whatever your employer takes out for health insurance). $1500 rent per month is $18K.

You’ve heard that Oregon is a “liberal paradise” and you want to be surrounded only with people who share your views. In the first place, I see opposing decorations on vehicles here all the time, so you will not escape them. In the second, you might find that you can’t pass the purity test. They change it every year, so you have to retake it continually.

You like college football and the Ducks are a Big Thing. They are also in Eugene, about two and a half hours south, not here. Portland cares relatively little for the Zeroes; they don’t even much care for the local I-AA team, Portland State. You’ll see a fair number of Zero stickers on cars, but not a whole lot of giving of damns.

You want to get a dime each for your cans and bottles. You do realize, right, that this is just getting back the dime you paid when you bought it? And that you do this in noisy back rooms after standing in line behind someone who pretends not to speak English and has twice the daily legal limit (144)?

You want a physician-assisted suicide. Hold on there, bucko or bucka. You’ll have to jump through a number of hoops. Not every doctor will prescribe the lethal medication. It’s not like you can just get it at Walgreens. Notably, you can’t get it unless you are terminal within six months. If that is not the situation, and especially if you are not terminal at all, please seek other options wherever you go or are.

You know Oregon was founded as a Whitopia, that Portland remains overwhelmingly white, and that’s what you want, a Whitopia with good coffee. Don’t come. We already have enough homegrown bigoted, idiotic scumbags and don’t need any more.

You think this is the land of the free. Nope. Oregon is the most authoritarian state I have experienced. You shouldn’t be here unless you love rules, even rules that don’t help any situation, and enjoy obeying them. Oregon is excellent at closing every loophole and checking up, and it does well at doing something for the sake of doing something, anything, useful or not. The something is nearly always a more restrictive law, or a more draconian penalty, etc.

You’re homeless, and you’ve heard that Portland treats ’em right. Well, maybe better than Boise. Still, there are homeless tent camps and trash piles all along freeway green spaces. Shelters? Overloaded. Hoping for shelter under overpasses? Mostly fenced out. Public sympathy? Some, not much. Might be more if there weren’t so much litter.

You’ve heard that Portland is the bike-friendliest place in the world and you can’t wait to take to the sharrows with your moral peers. Bad news: Boise actually has bike-friendlier laws. Portland motorists are not especially worse than others, but they maneuver with great abruptness, and they hate cyclists plenty. Don’t take my word; ask some. That battle goes on here as it does anywhere else, with bad behavers on both sides.

You’re coming for the schools. That’s like going to Wyoming for the beaches. Oregon is a terrible state for education. There are lots of job openings for teachers because they don’t stay. Higher ed is about middle of the pack; primary and secondary education is near or in the bottom 20% relative to other states. One of the spendiest private schools in Portland ($30K/year per pupil) is reeling from a decades-long molestation scandal. Portland Public Schools seem unlikely ever to emerge from an ongoing management crisis.

You find the lack of sales tax enchanting. You’ll make up for it with high property taxes and a rather high state income tax. I’ve lived in a state that had sales tax only, one that had both, and one with just income tax. The sales tax screwed me far less, I felt, plus I didn’t have to send my Federal tax return to the state.

You want to be around fellow Ecotopians. While we do have some, including many who will sign onto any environmental idea whether or not it will solve anything, you’d be amazed at the crap that just gets left out on the sidewalk. In my area, the normal way of disposing of furniture is to (illegally) set it on the curb until someone “steals” it or someone complains and the county comes to get it. For an Ecotopia, we have plenty of litter. Just because one shops at Whole Paycheck (the local slang for Whole Foods) doesn’t make one an environmentalist.

You think you’ll get a state job with benefits rivaling Sweden’s. Yeah, that was before the population screwed things up by living too long. They’ve been cutting pensions and benefits ever since, and you should expect more such cuts. Now the benefits are marginally better than those of a decently run corporation.

You heard it’s where millennials go to retire. While that’s an amusing joke, the millennials I know are working their youthful butts off trying to make a living. They don’t have anything easy except the competition for underemployed jobs, and there is no competition there because so many underemployed people care so little about the job that any underemployed person who actually does care will stand out (and be the supervisor in three months). I don’t see any millennial “retirement” happening. I see young adults not getting paid what they deserve.

You dream of never having to pump your own gas. While I’ll give you that one to a degree–the other such alternative being New Jersey, which is a decided contrast to Oregon–this means you can experience lazy service in a new and fun sector. And keep an eye on your gas cap. I drive a pickup, and even then, they put my gas cap on top of the pump, not the wheelwell. After the first time they forgot to replace it, I learned to watch where the cap was. And sure enough, a few times when they brought the credit card slip: “How would it be if I asked you to go ahead and put my gas cap back on before I leave?” A higher minimum wage is not getting us higher standards of service. In fact, much of Portland’s service economy is sullen and apathetic. Considering the cost of living and how underpaid they are, I don’t find that surprising.

If you do come, at least come for reasons other than the above perceptions. The great light rail system? Yes, please. A general relaxed friendliness for a city this size? Got it. Proximity to mountains, great rivers, and an ocean? Yo. Good airport? Yes. Massive outcries against replacing quirky outdated (and ass-ugly) airport carpet? We got your outcries right here. Real estate with room to appreciate? Likely.

Regular news pieces on Antifa clashes with police-abetted racists? How can you resist? Lots of vegan artisanal cruelty-free fair trade farm-to-table organic eco-food? More than you can sample in years and years. Gigantic book store? Even has two outlying branches, both also very large. Want easy voting registration and vote-by-mail? Not only do you have to opt out of registration rather than in, the whole state is vote-by-mail. You can’t go to the polling place because we don’t have one of them.

Hop addiction? Oregon IPAs are often basically fermented hop juice with a little barley for flavor (and quite often some fruit juice, or veggie juice, or something else the gods did not intend to be put into beer). Wine enthusiast? We have this very grapey place called the Willamette Valley, and we are, like, in it. Soccer enthusiasm? They bring it for both genders. Basketball enthusiasm? Try and take their Trailblazers away; just try. Could you live on blueberries and strawberries? Here, it wouldn’t even be that expensive, and you could probably add artisanal free-range goat’s milk for some protein. Gay-friendly churches? Where I live, many display rainbows just in case the marquee didn’t get the message across. Libraries? Numerous, beautiful, and thriving.

Come for these, not those.

Why your Ebay vendor loathes Ebay

After writing about why Ebay vendors come to hate some of their customers, I realized that the vendors have many more reasons to hate Ebenezer (as I like to call it) than they ever could hate their customers. The customers, even some of the more annoying ones, represent revenue. Ebay represents only costs and pains: a sort of death of a thousand little inconveniences and surcharges, never improving for the vendor, always growing worse, and always masked in intellect-insulting peppy language about how great the change is.

Simple hint: the harder Ebenezer tries to convince the vendor that the change is for the vendor’s benefit, the more certain that vendor can be that the change works to the vendor’s detriment. That Ebenezer believes it can get people happy about actions that run counter to their own interests says a great deal about their low opinion of their vendors’ brainpower. It’s much like all the times other corporations send you something announcing: “We are again your best friends! To serve you better, we are raising costs, cutting support staff, adding extra pains to your ass, and removing any actual goodness you were getting from us! Aren’t you delighted?”

Just thrilled.

Here are some reasons your Ebay vendor might hate Ebenezer a little bit more every day. Note that this list is a snapshot in time. Next month, Ebenezer will have invented some fresh hells that we cannot yet quantify. We know only that it will be bad, and that it will come. But for now:

  • Ebenezer lets people win auctions, then blow off payment with no meaningful penalty. Yes. Ever want to ruin a vendor’s day? Start new account, win highly contested auction, don’t pay. The buyer is never forced to complete a purchase. Ebenezer thus effectively allows the buyer to act in the worst of faith. Their “Will Sell” subcategory should be titled “Might Sell, If The Buyer Actually Pays.”
  • Not only that; since Ebenezer won’t let you give negative feedback to a deadbeat or jerk buyer, your only feedback remedy is not to provide any feedback at all. There is no way to say “never give this purchase any feedback and clear it from my list.” It will sit therefore the full time allowed before your feedback option expires. And at the top of your dashboard, it will nag you that you still owe feedback for that one (and however many others).
  • Ebenezer now and then hands out enormous numbers of fee-free listings, then stops handing them out for a month at a time. You see, Ebenezer wants vendors to buy store subscriptions, which will guarantee them a certain number of fee-free listings. If a listing doesn’t sell, it goes into Unsold listings, where it will vanish in two months if not relisted sooner. Of course, while it’s not listed, it cannot sell. It’s playing financial chicken with you.
  • A recent Ebenezer fresh hell (“to help you sell more”) was changing all fixed price listings to “Good Till Canceled.” They now automatically renew each month (incurring a fresh listing fee), if not canceled first. If you have freebies, this relisting will chew those up; if you don’t have them and don’t want to incur the fees, you will have to end them all yourself before they would expire. No big deal if you have a new pile of freebies; very big deal if you have used up your monthly 50 and have 200 expiring. Oh, and the first time you attempt to end a batch of listings, half the time it makes you re-log in. You just checked one hundred boxes and hit End? Tough. Go check them all again and push the button again now that you’ve re-logged in. Thank you, Ebenezer, for “helping me to sell more” in this way. Don’t help me any more, okay?
  • Ebenezer provides no way to mass relist items at a specified time. To do them in mass, the only way is to send them live immediately. Problem with that? Yes, because sometimes you would like to stagger them in groups, schedule them for specific times. And you can. One. By. Fucking. One. Hope you don’t have two hundred to do! Oh, wait…I always do.
  • Ebenezer spazzes on your shipping location restrictions when you relist a GTC listing as auction, or an auction listing as GTC. In case you did not know, if the shipper doesn’t want to mess with shipping to certain types of addresses or countries, that is coded into a given listing (you could choose to ship this item abroad, for example, but not those). Except that once you change between listing types, you can no longer see this list of shipping exclusions. Is it still there? You will have to click on the link to go in and see. It usually is, but it’s a needless and annoying step.
  • Ebenezer has a very stupid volume discount function that was evidently so bad they commented it out for about a year while they tried to fix it. Now it might work as designed, but as designed, it’s dumb. The first discount percentage must apply to two of the same item. The second must apply to three. The fourth must apply to four or more. So there is no way to dispense with two and three, and offer a discount only for four or more. This is minimally useful and no one thought it through, which seem to be the primary qualifying traits for any new Ebenezer feature.
  • Ebenezer lets sellers pay an extra selling fee to promote listings. This is generally a good method for sellers, because there’s a fair chance people will discover your other stuff after viewing the promoted listing. However, since one is invited to name one’s ad percentage, in order to get premium placement one must offer a fee percentage that is sufficiently high to exceed the highest known past fees–typically 6-9%. If you want to screw Ebenezer, when you see a promoted listing and want to buy it, make a note of it and then log out, log in, and choose the search result for that item that does not indicate a promoted listing. You might have to dig through the vendor’s listings to achieve this. While it’s true the vendor will never know you did this for him/her, should a problem come up, the fact that you did so will get you all the favorable consideration you can find from him/her–plus, you have the fun of knowing you screwed Ebenezer.
  • Ebenezer’s descriptive field. Oh, gods, how I hate their descriptive field. What it really is: simple HTML that is normally hidden. There are codes present that you can not see unless you choose to show the HTML. So if you backspace to just the wrong spot, a bunch of formatting will disappear without being apparent. Copy and paste text from certain sources? No text at all will show, nor can be made to show. It looks WYSIWYG, but it isn’t. It sounds infuriating? Oh, it is. How it is. Did you accidentally, innocently use a # (octothorpe) in your listing, for example to begin a serial number or other identifier? The entire remainder of the text is hidden–and you have no idea why unless you happen to have some understanding of HTML, or you eventually come to notice that the octothorpe (no, that’s not a “hash tag”) is the problem child.
  • Ebenezer’s stores. A store subscription amounts to paying more money for a worse outcome in return for a certain number of guaranteed listings. (Their analysis and productivity tools don’t seem to do anyone any good.) How could it be worse? I’ll tell you. The standard freebie issue is fifty per month, either auction-style with Buy It Now or fixed-price Good Till Canceled. Buy the basic store for, what is it, $9/month? It says you get 100 free listings–and you do. Not 150; 100, so it’s just fifty extras. You find that out after you pony up for the first month. Oh, and your whole 100 now do not include Buy It Now on auction items, so those basic fifty are now worse than before! There’s Ebay, always looking out for you!
  • Ebenezer constantly tacks on new little fuckeries. In the time I have been doing this, I have seen them dink away at profit margins with little stuff like higher fees for books, can’t use freebies for this or that category, the previously mentioned store ripoff, and more. It’s always something.
  • Ebenezer purports to offer the vendor help with item listings by auto-filling from the Ebay catalogue. I wouldn’t let it. “Auto-fill” may create a listing full of bullshit. The smart vendor just refuses the help and describes it without intervention from Ebenezer, because you can take this to the bank: if the description contains one fiction, and the buyer points it out, the explanation of “It’s not my fault; Ebay’s catalogue was wrong” will cut zero ice. It’s the vendor’s obligation to describe the item accurately, and the less help from Ebenezer, the better.
  • Every little extra thing costs a little hit, the death of a thousand fees. Want to add a reserve price? Fee. Claim the item fits into more than one of Ebenezer’s remarkably inadequate categories? Fee. Larger photo in gallery? Fee. Every time you turn around, it seems, there’s a little fee. Don’t think they add up? Ebenezer does.
  • As a practical matter, it is impossible to sell on Ebenezer without a Paypal account. Paypal is horrible. It’s Ebenezer’s pet payment service, and if you don’t use it, I am reliably informed that you become a preferred fraud/scam target. It’s like a shotgun wedding to a horrible spouse.
  • Ebenezer has a terrible help system. Try to use the one that’s easy to find, on the right side of the screen? That doesn’t go to anything but a list of FAQs. You have to scroll all the way down, and when you do start digging, half the time the help you find answers only questions you did not have. Last month, I actually used Ebenezer’s help to find a semi-answer as to how to do something. Once the disbelief wore off, I felt like celebrating.
  • One of the many worthwhile concepts Ebenezer has botched is Customer Questions. If the customer chooses to Ask the Seller about an item, the seller gets a message. What’s wrong with that? Sometimes you cannot clear the stupid things. There is some metric that measures your response and clears the flag, but if that is missed or somehow fails to function, and the Mark as Answered doesn’t work, the question still shows in need of a response, glowing in all its irrelevancy.
  • Ebenezer wants you to buy postage from them. On the plus side, it’s cheaper than at USPS. Problem: you’d better know your postal regulations very well. I suppose it’s great if everything you sell complies with a certain form factor or two, but for variable stuff…well, there’s a good chance your shipments will get delivered postage due. In any case, my complaint isn’t that Ebenezer offers postage. My complaint is that their process does its very best to nag you into buying theirs. By itself, it would mean little. Taken as part of the whole, it’s just one of the ten thousand cuts. If I wanted to buy the postage from them, I would do it without being pushed.
  • Another Ebenezer pushiness, far more toxic, is always in the directions of new interfaces that make everything much harder. It’s much as if there’s some buyer-hating sadist constantly tinkering with the system. Now, I’m not automatically resistant to change. Some changes are all right. But the mantra of “change is good; embrace the change” is for morons. The growth of a malignant tumor is change: is it good? Change is morally and qualitatively neutral on its face. Whether it is good depends whether it helps more or hurts more. Ebenezer’s changes tend to be badly thought out by a PHB somewhere, and more often hurt than help.
  • When someone stiffs you on Ebenezer (and they will, and Ebenezer will do nothing useful about it), the amount due shows up for two full months even when you’ve reported it as uncollectible and gotten your fees back. Yes. Even when they couldn’t pay you if they wanted to, it shows you are owed the money.
  • Now and then, when you are going through and relisting a hundred or so items one by one (because Ebenezer won’t let you select a time to relist them all at once), you find that one of your listings is now missing its photos. Since Ebenezer requires photos, that one won’t go. Hope you kept copies!
  • Ebenezer interprets trade embargos literally and eternally. Got a Persian artifact from the Sassanid era (before Ayatollahs, Islam, or even the modern boundaries of Iran)? Can’t list that; it’s Iranian! They will take it down and send you a warning. Ever think of selling an aboriginal artifact from Cuba? Gods, don’t use that word, or down it will come–never mind that it has zero connection to trafficking with the modern Cuban state. It could have been in this country for generations before Castro; they don’t care. That’s what happens when you deal with simpleminded idiots.

If there were a less odious alternative, I’d definitely consider it.

 

Why your Ebay vendor loathes you

Our society goes on and on about the customer always being right, the customer being king/queen/quing/whatever. I have heard it all my life.

It was stupid to begin with and it has gotten stupider.

The customer is not always right, and never has been. The customer is right to the extent that we can arrange him or her to be without giving away the store or rewarding/encouraging horrible behavior. The customer is not king/queen/quing/padishah/nawab/sultan/etc., is not even nobility, and needs to get over him/her/it/theirself. After a couple years of selling stuff on Ebenezer, as well as some dumbass buying mistakes of my own, I think I’m ready to present a list of common errors that many buyers make.

Wait, who says it’s an error? Why should the buyer care, if the buyer is in fact royalty and always correct? Because the seller doesn’t have to sell to you and doesn’t have to give you special treatment. If you want special treatment, you need to eliminate the aspects of your behavior that cause the vendor to wish you plagues of flamethrowing cockroaches. Such as:

  • You can’t master the concept of the shopping cart and invoice request, so you just pay individually for five fixed-price items, but you still want shipping combined. And you think you should now get a discount. Why not? You’re the monarch! Dut-dudda-ding!
  • Closely connected: you win multiple auction items at once, pay immediately for each in sequence, then want your shipping combined. You don’t have the intellect or savvy to wait and request a combined invoice. Nice going, Exalted One.
  • You can’t understand (or don’t care) that Ebenezer charges your seller a fee, typically 10% of more, on both shipping and merchandise. You see on your parcel that stamps totaled $2.75 and you were charged $2.95 (of which the vendor actually got to keep $2.66)? Alert the BBB! Ripoff report! Lèse majesté!
  • You can’t understand that the materials your shipper uses were not free. What, you mean bubble mailers costs 20-30 cents? Not Your Majesty’s problem!
  • You bid up to the last minute, win, then dick around for two days before paying. Who cares about doing the businesslike thing and just paying up? You’ve got 48 damned hours, and you’re damn well going to use 47 of them! There’s important interest to be earned in two days on $3.95!
  • You not only don’t pay on time; before paying, you let elapse 90 of the 96 hours Ebenezer allows to redeem an unpaid item claim. Aren’t you cute? Ha-ha, you got four more days’ worth of interest on your $3.95! Baller! Your vendor truly hates you. Your vendor should block you. In fact, your vendor should have blocked you the instant after filing the unpaid item claim.
  • You don’t even pay after all six days have elapsed. You just decided screw it, you didn’t really want it. Unfortunately, Ebenezer won’t simply take the money out of your account and bill you for it, because Ebenezer does little to protect sellers. That’s why the sellers hate Ebenezer as much as they hate deadbeats.
  • You don’t pay at all for five days, then send a message explaining that you are doing this so you can buy more stuff and make a big combined payment to get some benefit from Praypal. Had you asked for such consideration beforehand, your vendor would probably have said “no problem.” But you didn’t. Why should Your Majesty care about the villains, knaves, oaves, and other help? Your Majesty’s time is accountable to no one, least of all the servant class. Hmph.
  • You make insulting offers. $100 or best offer? You throw out a $25 trial balloon. Why shouldn’t you? What’s the worst they can do, say “no”? That whole attitude–“It never hurts to ask, the worst they can say is ‘no'”–is part of what is wrong with business. It dignifies, even glorifies the insulting question, the lowball.
  • You fail to read the listing, then blame your vendor for what you should have learned and did not. If it says there are no returns, and you ask for a return, best be polite and unentitled. If the condition is clearly/accurately described, and you complain about it and want a refund, you are why your vendor hates doing this.
  • You think “free shipping” is a good thing, a benefit, obligatory for all vendors, and that those who don’t offer it are cheap, greedy bastards. You’re not only wrong, you are not doing too well in the numeracy department. Free shipping is a massive ripoff. If you buy just one item at a time, it’s a wash; the more business you do at once, the more screwed you are. Viewed another way, the better the customer, the worse a hosing is his/her/their/its reward. If that’s you, cut up your credit cards, because those scum beings saw you coming miles away.
  • You confuse feedback on the item’s suitability with feedback on the vendor’s service. Who cares if it’s not the vendor’s fault that the shaving razors didn’t last long enough? It’s not like you’re harming a real person’s business.
  • You don’t bother with the feedback racket, even when the vendor does everything right. Why should Your Holiness care? It’s a vendor: a peon, a peasant, a worm.

I’m not saying that the typical Ebenezer vendor is some sainted, courteous being. In fact, many do a truly suck job and deserve to be treated in all the above ways. I’ve even got a blacklist of vendors to make sure I never use again (since stupid Ebenezer won’t let buyers block a vendor). But I suspect I understand why some of them go bad, and I think some of it’s misvented frustration.

As an Ebenezer seller, you spend much avoidable time fighting with Ebenezer’s remarkably bad interface. I am convinced that Ebenezer has a Sucky Interface Creation Commission (SICC) that stays up late and works weekends just to find new ways to make the listing experience worse. They’re evil. They’re awful. They’re capricious. They’re downright stupid. If you’re a buyer and not a seller, count some blessings. It’s not right, sensible, or fair for a seller to take loathing of Ebenezer out on buyers–but I believe some do. Especially since there are enough truly deserving buyers to fan the flames.

And if you’re a buyer and not a seller, now you know some of the most irritating things some buyers do. Maybe you have done some of them. About half your vendors are so jaded they won’t give two damns how you treat them. They have experienced so much of the above listing irritation and customer abuse that they no longer care; they just churn it through. The other half, however, will go out of its way for you if it gets a little consideration.

  • I have successfully returned non-returnable merchandise. (They are so unused to the words “please; I made a mistake” that the phrase takes them aback.)
  • I have been given merchandise free of charge without asking for it. (In fact, it was offered and I tried to decline.)
  • I have been given discounts I didn’t request. (And all it took was a little empathy.)
  • I have had faulty merchandise replaced immediately. (Without being asked to send back the other.)

Those things don’t happen when you behave as an entitled schlong toward your vendor.

It’s partly your business world. It will, in part, take the shape you impose upon it. Think of yourself as sculpting.

If you sculpt it like a turd, well, that’s up to you.

the hardest literary bias to overcome

In fact, it’s so hard there is no way to overcome it. We can mitigate it, ease it, look past it, but this fact is inescapable:

Every evening, except in polar latitudes, the sun goes down. It gets dark, and most of us can’t see as well. Our instincts tell us to fear greater danger at that time. Every morning, the sun rises, and we can easily see. We feel safer.

From this fundamental fact of our existence has sprung the entire light vs. darkness motif, leading us to equate the light with good and the dark with evil. It’s not fair, because our skin color varies. There is zero reason that the color of a person’s flesh should carry any connotation of beneficence or malevolence, safety or danger.

I believe that this reality has poisoned racial relations and feelings for humanity in many ways we either do not see, or see but would rather pretend we do not. How many times have we heard the phrase “in darkest Africa?” To me, Africa seems pretty sunny. Its jungles are probably dark, but so are our Northwestern pine and fir forests. No. That’s a reference to skin color, no matter how hard anyone may try to deny it, and somehow it is still considered tolerable–even though it equates to the dangerous unknown full of wild things and hazards.

Since our orientation relative to the sun is not likely to shift any time soon, we are stuck with this situation. We aren’t going to have a sudden species shift toward perfect night vision, and our bodies of literature are not going to undergo a massive rewrite. We can only change what we do from here. What can we do?

Writers can help. Now, hear me well: I’m not buying into the notion that we must use immediate social nuclear retaliation against every tiny vestige of any historic social injustice. If your writing happens to mention some reference to the fact that it truly is easier for most of us to see during the daytime, it won’t mean that you belong in the linen closet. You don’t have to turn around and republish every word you ever wrote, scrubbed of every light/dark reference, lest you be kicked out of the nice tent. That would be idiotic. The fact that people do just that all the time without thinking any of it through, always seeking .999999 fine ideological purity and damning to hell anyone who falls short, doesn’t make it sane.

You can’t change our geo/astrophysics, but you can seek other ways to present good and evil in writing. That’s all. Just, when you run across a case where you’re thinking of describing evil as darkness and good as the light, be writer enough to think of a more considerate way to put it. It’s a good thing to do, and that should be enough motivation for a good person to try.

Is it hard? Sometimes; but you wanted to be a writer, didn’t you? Always thought it would be so cool? Great! Welcome to doing the thing for real. If it were easy, even more people would do it. Don’t give yourself an excuse; write better.

If you need extra motivation, imagine what it would be like if the way you looked, and for all your life would look no matter what you did about it, matched a standard metaphor for evil. If you need further motivation, remember that people who spend money on literary property come in many hues, might notice things you might not, and often have a refined sense for when someone is (or is not) showing a little sensitivity to others. Between motivation for good deeds, and motivation to make money, that should cover a large percentage of those who auth.

Let’s make the world of writing a little more inclusive. Not because someone’s on our asses about it, but because we can see that it would be worthwhile.

Omaha Steaks, telemarketing brass

Some time back, my wife and I decided to give Omaha Steaks a try. I’m from that part of the country, and what most Oregonians consider a decent steak simply could not be served back home. Plus, Deb loves Nebraska, entirely because some nice people took her and a friend in during a tornado alert near Doniphan back when she was in her teens. I’m partial to the place myself, as I find it one of the friendliest parts of the Great Plains. I’ll never forget the time the Huskies beat the Huskers in a football game in Lincoln, and their fans gave our guys a standing ovation. That’s what a young person might call epic class.

Go Big Red.

As for the steaks and such, we bought a combination pack of different stuff. Came in a styrofoam cooler. The product values ranged from superb (definitely would order more of the chicken fried steak) to no big deal (hamburger patties).

If they didn’t find ways to annoy us, we might well order again. But oh, the marketing.

It began with a notable addition to our junk mail burden. I’d estimate that they send me thick envelopes full of recyclable solicitations twice a month. That can be borne, but the telemarketing can not.

As much as I like Nebraska, don’t ever give this company your phone number. If they say they need it, just refuse. If they insist, and you really want the product, make one up. Do not give them a real telephone number. You will end up having to be abrupt with friendly people who are just doing their jobs, even if their job is a bad one and deserves some negative reaction. That doesn’t make it fun. Just do not give it.

The interesting thing about Omaha Steaks’s telemarketing is its cheerful, self-confident brass. Most telemarketers call with a certain amount of defensive script adherence, seeming to expect and attempt to deflect some verbal abuse. (“Sir, this is not telemarketing; it’s just a courtesy call to let you know about our specials…”) Not Omaha Steaks; they open the conversation as if this is perfectly normal, like your nice neighbors calling to share something like extra tomatoes from their garden, and that no one should classify this as an unwanted marketing call. I see the logic. It conveys: You wouldn’t want to be rude to such nice friendly folks, now, would you?

If they telemarket me after I tell them to stop, oh, yes, I would. Not happily, but get on my bad radar and it’s on for young and old.

The first time I just dismissed it, saying I didn’t want any. The rep seemed bewildered, as though he were returning my call, in which I had requested help with adding Omaha Steaks to my monthly budgeting.

(Okay, it’s true: when I ordered, I did not outright tell them never to telemarket me. Kind of like when people come over for dinner, I do not outright ask them to please not crap in the corners. This is because I presume that dinner guests are not animals, are either adults or supervised by adults, and do not need to be asked not to be barbarians.)

A couple of weeks later, they called again. The same tone the second time, but this time I was blunter: “Don’t ever telemarket me again.” In tones that conjured a puppy punished for no reason, he agreed. I sensed a lack of conviction, though, and was pretty sure that wasn’t the end of it.

This morning, I learned I’d been right. A peppy representative interrupted my morning by briefly asking how I was, and would I like to hear about their specials? She didn’t give me the chance to answer “yes” or “no” before launching in. Clearly courtesy is wasted here, so I butted in. “Well, you didn’t even wait to hear my answer. [Notice how often they do that?] But last time you did this, I told you not to telemarket me again.”

After a brief and pained pause, she tried to debate. “Sir, we’re not a telemarketing agency. You ordered with us before. We just–”

“No,” I said. “Even if you are not a telemarketing agency, what you are doing is telemarketing and I told you to stop it. This is the last time I will be polite about it at all. Don’t ever, ever, ever telemarket me again.”

She leaped on the seeming ambiguity in that sentence. “So do you mean you want to be only on the [monthly/quarterly/holiday…I can’t remember precisely] call list, or none at all?”

I laughed. “Ah, I see how it works. You mark people down for periodic telemarketing calls. The answer is none, never. Do not ever telemarket me again.”

She said they would not, and then signed off with the peppy well-wishes some phone representatives use to say “what a jerk you are.” I always find those amusing in their hypocrisy, but once the situation is as it is, I can’t fault that part even if I find it less than credible. What would I prefer, that she hang up on me? In any case, that was that.

For the moment.

I’m not betting that I’ve had my last telemarketing call from them, though.

Anyone else find themselves getting a steady flow of phone rings from friendly Midwesterners who act as though returning a call?

In memoriam: Jim Bouton, 1939-2019

Word comes to me of the passing of one of my life’s most inspirational figures: James Alan Bouton.

Jim was a professional baseball pitcher, inventor, author, and motivational speaker. He enjoyed brief but eye-opening success with the Yankees in the mid-sixties–won two games in a World Series, for example–until his arm began to give out. Reinventing himself as a knuckleball pitcher in his first comeback, he caught on with the inaugural Seattle Pilots in 1969. The Pilots traded him to Houston during the second half of the season. He was mostly effective in relief for both teams, but not enough to guarantee staying.

Few of his teammates realized that, during 1969, Jim was writing a book. Unlike most baseball books, this one would tell the whole truth. Ball Four, perhaps the most important baseball memoir ever authored, would forever polarize Jim Bouton’s world. His detractors would accuse him of revealing material shared in private, embarrassing baseball, ingratitude toward the game, and other unwelcome deeds. His supporters, including me since my teen years, would laud him for writing a very interesting book; telling the honest truth about the lives of professional ballplayers; refusing to conform to the establishment (and baseball’s establishment has long been full of Stuffy McStuffshirts); and countering the dumb jock stereotype.

Neither side is entirely right or wrong, but there can be no doubt of my position. I’ve never imagined Jim Bouton as a perfect man, nor does he present himself as such in Ball Four or his subsequent books. For me, a bullied intellectual trapped in a horrible situation with nearly no person or institution to take my side, Jim’s book gave me heart. It may be one of the reasons I didn’t go all the way around the bend.

In 1990, while unemployed, I took the time to find a mailing address for Jim Bouton. I felt he needed to know how much I appreciated his work, and I told him what it had meant to me. I didn’t expect a response. Three months later, a UPS driver delivered me a small parcel: a copy of the 1990 re-release of Ball Four. I opened it to see the inscription: “For Jonathan. Smoke ’em inside. Jim Bouton 8/90.”

You may imagine what that meant. Later, with the rise of e-mail, I would have a couple of exchanges with him. I would learn that my letter had made it into a special file where he kept those that meant most to him, letters he would take out and read again on bad days or for inspiration. I learned that as much as Jim Bouton mattered to me, it turned out that in a small way, I also mattered to him.

Jim made a second baseball comeback in the mid-1970s, ultimately reaching the Atlanta Braves. He didn’t stay, but he did reach his goal, and in the process had a number of adventures including a turn with the Portland Mavericks. Let’s give you a sample of Jim’s writing style, and let him tell it:

“The Mavericks were the dirty dozen of baseball, a collection of players nobody else wanted, owned by actor Bing Russell. The team motto could have been “Give me your tired, your poor, your wretched pitchers yearning to breathe free.” In a league stocked with high-priced bonus babies, Maverick players made only $300 per month and had to double as the ground crew. Revenge being a strong motivator, the Mavs had the best team in the league.”

I so wish the Mavs still existed.

Jim Bouton meant more to me than a distant inspirational figure in another way, in that I also made two baseball comebacks. The first occurred when I was 29, having not played since my high school catching and outfielding days ended at 17. Six years later, including five with the Seattle Giants (PSMSBL; just to be clear, I always had to pay to play; I was never paid to play), my achilles tendon parted as I took a step toward the dugout at the end of an inning. We moved from Seattle to eastern Washington. The walking cast came off. I followed the instructions. And then I learned of a local MABL league that was offering tryouts. Even lousy catchers always get drafted, and I turned out. An expansion team picked me up, but the next year that group would morph into the Tri-City Rattlers. I would play there until I was 44, when a brief juke to avoid a fastball to the knee tore my cartilage and induced me to hang ’em up.

For that second comeback, I switched from my old number standby of 9 to 56, Jim’s number all through his big league days. It always made me proud when anyone would ask about it. I even worked hard enough on my own knuckleball to get two pitching tries, one a start. I’m pretty sure our manager knew we were going to get clobbered and felt that our usual pitchers were in serious need of rest, but I still went five innings. I’d watched people try to bunt the knuckleball from behind the plate, but never from the mound. Most amusing.

One may well see reasons I always felt close to Jim Bouton. Later in his life, he added to his authorial body of work with a fictional story about a bribed umpire, then the non-fictional story of his efforts to save an aging historic ballpark. His website advertised his services as a motivational speaker, and he was in demand at Old-Timers’ and commemorative events. I fell in with the Facebook group Ball Four Freaks, a hilarious place where it is always customary to respond with lines from the book. A new member shows up? That’s part of the heckling. “Hiya, blondie, how’s your old tomato?” “That sure is an ugly baby you got there.” “Okay, all you guys, act horny.” Everyone who loves the book gets it immediately. We don’t get many phonies. One fun aspect is that Jim’s son, Michael, will stop by now and then and can answer a question or two.

Jim Bouton did much in life, most of it after his best playing days. He kept playing semi-pro, then amateur baseball until his seventies, when he helped start up an old-time flannel league. To the end, he was as accessible as he could be to those of us whose lives he had affected. He wrote a number of great books, all themed around baseball. He has now stepped off the mound for the last time.

He will be remembered after many of his contemporary athletes have faded from the public mind.

As for me, my eyes very rarely even begin to water in grief. They water easily when I am moved by action or achievement of valor, but rarely in grief. It is not that I do not mourn; it’s that I mourn in introspective silence. This time, they watered.

Books by Jim Bouton:

Ball Four: The Final Pitch

Foul Ball: My Life and Hard Times Trying to Save an Old Ballpark

Strike Zone (with Eliot Asinof)

I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally

I Managed Good, But Boy Did They Play Bad (edited/anthology)

P3: Punishing porch pirates

By now most of you have heard of the new suburban crime: porch piracy. You order stuff from Blue Nile, or Yangtze, or Congo, or Amazon, wherever. In some cases, a postal worker delivers it; in others, a UPSS driver. In others, it’s an obvious meth-head. Either way, they may or may not ring the doorbell before they throw it into the exact spot that will keep you from opening your screen door to retrieve it.

And some amateur porch pirate, following the delivery vehicle around town, pulls up, leaps out, darts up to your porch, steals your parcel, runs back to his/her car, and drives off.

The police aren’t doing much about this. I understand. This doesn’t raise revenue, so it’s not important to them. However, the police will definitely prevent us from doing anything really decisive about this. For example, I’m pretty sure anyone who fills the porch pirate’s ass with 12-gauge rock salt will face much stiffer penalties than will the porch pirate. This falls into line with my view that the basic purpose of policing is to maintain social control while shielding bad people from real consequences. This view is controversial, and is rooted in my personal experiences. I don’t expect other people to agree with it.

But I bet even those who think I just wrote the most horrible thing still don’t themselves much like porch pirates.

Since we can’t really punish them (and this is me going on firm record as strongly advocating that we not really punish them in any illegal way), we’re going to have to get creative.

Do in such a way: wait until your next sizable parcel from a vendor who uses clear plastic packing tape and normal brown cardboard boxes. Turn it over (so that you do not damage the shipping label, which is usually right across the box closure), take a box cutter, and gently slit the tape holding the box bottom together. Take out whatever you ordered.

If you happen to make/receive regular trips to/from Somewhere Else whose resident also wants to punish porch pirates, you can gain added security. Get them to do the same with their boxes, and when you meet up, swap. The porch pirates aren’t going to stare intensely at the label or match it to the target address before they leave; the savviest might merely glance to make sure the label doesn’t show signs of the re-closure you plan to do. When they get home and start opening Santa’s haul, if the one containing the goodness has an address in Bug Tussle (and you do not actually live in Bug Tussle), they will think it was grossly misdelivered or something and open it anyway. They probably won’t remember where they got that one.

Okay, let’s get on with the fun.

Do you have cats? If you do, great! If you do not, you probably know someone who does. He or she probably talks about them more than you would like, but now comes your reward for enduring it with sainted patience. Pick the person you know that has the most cats, and ask if they have any heavily used litter box contents they could part with. Most people who own litter box contents are generous in spirit and will gladly part with clumps of cat-urine-caked litter and cat turds, especially in a good cause. There are people who hoard cats, but few who voluntarily hoard cat excretions–and that’s golden for your purposes.

You should also get some glitter, preferably a pound or two, and some powdered sugar. Another great tool for this purpose, to anoint what I will call the Goodness, is a Vietnamese anchovy sauce called nuoc-mam (nook-MOM). I put it on my Thai food. It’s very salty and smells very fishy. Do not ever, ever, ever, not even to your worst enemy, squirt this stuff into the heater vents of anyone’s vehicle.

If you grocery shop, you probably have a small collection of flimsy, crappy plastic bags, the absolute cheapest things the store could buy in bulk that stand half a chance of getting your groceries to your car. Now, because you care about climate change and the environment, you are going to do the ecologically friendly thing and repurpose two of the bags while disposing of them in an appropriate way. You are so green. Double the bags and fill them up with as much goodness as you can arrange: cat sanitation disappointments, powdered sugar, any condiments you may care to add, and glitter. Don’t tie up the top.

Now lay the bag on its side and reclose the box bottom around it, without spilling any of the goodness (for safety’s sake, do this outside, especially if you are butterfingered). Re-cover the bottom tape seams with fresh clear packing tape, taking care not to tilt the box. It may help to have an assistant, if you know anyone else who hates porch piracy. Do as good a job as you can at making the tape look professional.

Put it out on your porch and be patient. Sometimes porch pirates rush up and leave behind an empty box, to keep watchers from getting suspicious. Either way, as they walk away, they are almost guaranteed to spill the goodness. When they open it, with luck, it will spill all over their vehicle. Or, if they wait until they get home to open their haul, on the floor. Maybe on the dining room table.

Wherever they spill it will likely never be the same.

And the beauty of this is that you haven’t mailed anything illegal because you haven’t mailed anything to anyone. You put a box on your front porch, one that no one has the right to inspect or abscond with. One great mistake people make in life is answering nosy questions just to “be nice.” Why did you put it there? That’s none of anyone’s business, and they can go to hell for asking. Other people pile tons of stuff on their property and no one asks stupid questions about it, unless it’s the Homeowners’ Stasi.

You can put any legal substance you desire into a box that sits on your own property. Cat urine clumps are illegal to mail, but not to put into outdoor storage on private property in manageable quantities. You have deterred a porch pirate in the only useful way that is safe from the law: by leaving them something not terribly pleasant to steal.

Anyone seeking to report you for this, presumably for being a Big Meany to Poor Downtrodden Criminals, would also have to admit to having stolen the package. While the police would protect them from more direct retaliation by you, I’m pretty sure that if the porch pirates filed a complaint, the police would be laughing almost too hard to arrest them.

Since what they stole had low value, of course, it’s unlikely they would or will get in any trouble. But it is likely they’ll have a bad day and question their choice of careers.

If that’s all the compensation you can get, might as well get it.