Category Archives: Social comment

Free shipping: why it sucks for you

I’m not kidding.

In the modern-day online economy, free shipping has almost become a baseline expectation. I am told that if I’m selling online, and I don’t offer free shipping, I might as well write off every customer under forty. That is tantamount to telling me that every customer under forty is innumerate.

I don’t believe that. But I do believe that some customers, at all ages, refuse to do the simplest arithmetic.

To be fair, free shipping is an acceptable deal–for one item, from one vendor at a time. To be clear: that makes it a wash, not an advantage.

(This, by the way, is the first in a new category of posts at The ‘Lancer: “Robin Hood.” I intend to use this category for public service articles meant to expose ripoffs and scams, and to suggest creative ways to make life worse for ripoff and scam artists. Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood was my absolute favorite book growing up, and over half a century later is still a great inspiration to me.)

The ripoff comes when you buy more than one item from the same vendor. The more you buy, the more you inflate the vendor’s profit. The better a customer you are, the more you suffer. The vendor counts upon you to be an idiot. He hopes you will think: if there’s free shipping, hell, why not stock up?

Let’s take a fairly common vintage baseball card as an example. Suppose it costs $1.50 with free shipping with Vendor Joe. With another, Vendor Jill, it costs $0.75 with $0.75 also for shipping. In the second case, if you buy multiple items, Jill may readily agree to combine your shipping costs to a degree. (Since this is Jill’s moment of victory, if Jill did not, Jill would demonstrate the intellect of a prehistoric fern.) Joe’s shipping charges can’t go below zero, so Jill is sure to be the better deal. No matter what, when you get this so-called free shipping, you are absolutely being charged for the freight; the cost is just relocated to the item’s price.

That card costs either vendor fifty cents to mail, but appearances drive this whole monte game. In essence, Jill charges you the fifty cents plus a modest handling fee. Jill appears petty and pecuniary and nickel-and-diming. For gods’ sake, her shipping costs as much as her merch! What does she think I am, independently wealthy? Joe looks as if he waves a magnanimous hand and throws in the cost of delivery, just to do you a favor, fagedaboudit, good ol’ Joe.

Same amount. Same shipping. Same economics–except that you like Joe better. He’s the free shipping person! And when you buy two cards, your brain may think that the more you buy, the more you save, but you can see from this description that it is the other way around: the more you buy, the more you overspend. Suppose you buy ten cards in that price range. Obviously, they cannot all be shipped for one $0.75 shipping charge, but they surely can be shipped for far less than $7.50. Since Jill has not been lobotomized, she knows it costs less than $7.50. Jill also gives you credit for not having been lobotomized, so she presumes you know this as well. So she charges you perhaps $4.00, which still covers her overall shipping plus a little extra: total, $11.50.

Joe can’t lower shipping costs below free, so unless he offers a volume discount, his ten cards cost you $15.00. And whatever his volume discount, it is unlikely to beat Jill’s simple and fair charge.

Fagedaboudit.

Why doesn’t everyone go to Jill for their bulk buys? Joe counts upon your negative emotional reaction to Jill’s method, which appears to be dinging you for every little thing à la carte. (You mean I have to pay for extra sauces?) Also, you have to ascertain in advance what her policy will be, and that requires icky work-like stuff like reading and asking her questions. There is also addition and subtraction in play, which is math, thus even ickier and difficult and wasn’t on the test. It’s all so hard, and you just want to be done! The five-second instant gratification cycle has passed! Joe is hosing you, but you like him better, because he doesn’t quibble over petty stuff like shipping charges. Bing, bang, done, oh, I have a text coming in.

It’s a shell game. Ever seen those? Pick which coconut half (or overturned bowl, whatever) the ball is under. You always win the first time, just like a monte game. Or a nearby shill steps up and ‘wins’ to make it look good. When there’s more on the line, there is no way you win because the target has been moved in a way your eye will not track.

For one item, free shipping is a wash. Take it for gospel that the vendor pays for and is being paid for the shipping, whatever shell the money is under. Beyond one item, with the same vendor, the equation is simple:

The more you shop, the more you’re milked.

Joe really, really, really hopes you will never figure this out.

Ah, but what if Jill screws you by only discounting shipping a little bit?

First, this would defeat our non-lobotomized premise about Jill, because Jill would be stupid not to know she’s dealing with someone who has figured out the shell game and has chosen her on the logical presumption of better value. Jill is honest enough not to use the free shipping ripoff. Second, and consequently, Jill knows that she has a volume customer who may buy significant amounts from her in the future–but not if she gouges on the shipping. Once that customer trusts her to keep freight charges within reason, she will be a preferred vendor.

Joe? Fagedaboudim. Jill rocks. Joe’s running game on his customers.

Free shipping: just another shell game to make people think they got a bargain when in fact it’s a wash for one item, and a ripoff for more than one.

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Celebrating those unifying national traditions…by being jerks to each other on Nextdoor

For those unfamiliar with it, Nextdoor is a social media site for neighborhoods. In order to get in, one must prove that one lives in a given area. It’s another brainchild of Nirav Tolia, of Epinions fame, someone I have at least spoken with on the phone. One can see in its concepts certain commonalities, including the farming out of moderation to community leaders.

What’s Nextdoor like? You’ve all seen just how phallic people can get when hiding behind a keyboard. (If you haven’t, create a Facebook account and despair for humanity.) Nextdoor offers the same pleasures, but with a bit of a reality show vibe because you might meet these people. For those in your neighborhood, you can see their real names and addresses. There’s one lady in mine that I muted long ago, but every time I drive past her house, I think less than kind thoughts about the canine components in her DNA.

About two-thirds of Nextdoor posting concerns lost and found pets. No joke. I call it Lostcatsdoor in my mind. I sympathize with everyone who loses a pet, though I think everyone who says ‘fur baby’ needs a bucket of cold water. I never say anything about those posts, unless I think I spotted the animal in question, but at least lost pet searching is a productive purpose. It boggles my mind how so many people can be so urgently bothering deities every single day over someone else’s pet, but it’s harmless, so okay.

Right now is prime time for the most important tradition in Nextdoor’s young history: The Great Annual Fourth of July Alienation and Verbal Brawl. Ours is already in full swing, with everyone piously choosing up sides. The battle concerns fireworks, and whether they should be detonated, and what sort. Here’s a scorecard:

  • Team Pet Trauma: demands that everyone else stop celebrating because it scares their pets.
  • Team Murrica Fuck Yeah: demands that everyone stop bitching and start blasting, the more the merrier. Will set off dynamite sticks if he (it’s always a he) can find any. Would probably fire howitzer salvos if he could.
  • Team Law & Order: reminds everyone that all fireworks more interesting than a kitchen match are illegal here in Oregon, therefore everyone must be obedient. Ve muscht nicht disobey der rules!
  • Team Veteran PTSD: points out that a holiday celebrated by traumatizing the nation’s past defenders is Doing It Wrong. They have a point.
  • Team Rectum: doesn’t particularly care about the issue, just trolls people up real good. If need be, brings up politics and accuses some people of being on the wrong side. Without them, this verbal brawl might peter out.
  • Team Incendiary: dismisses all safety concerns, telling people they should sit out all night with a hose if they worry about someone else starting fires.

And every year, by this time, they are in full swing having the entire fight all over again. It’s usually even the same people. I’ve lived here for three years now. I think they look forward to it. It never seems to occur to them that if this is the way they feel about and treat each other, maybe we have less to celebrate than we might imagine. Maybe we should call it Division Day, to reflect how we really feel.

Watching people bicker over Independence Day fireworks is like watching several doctors and nurses have an all-out brawl over patient care. “No, you pill-pushing hillbilly, he does not need a goddamn MRI!” “Go soak your head in a filled bedpan! He needs an MRI and if you don’t get out of the way I will run your ass over with this gurney!” “Bring it, Doc Holliday. This scalpel will sort you out.”

I have no plans ever to be a senior citizen

No, I’m not checking out early. If I were, I’d practice far less self-denial. I expect to live a lot longer than my life choices say I should, which is unfair to people who made excellent life choices and don’t get to do so. I can’t help that.

Rather, I plan to refuse the label, ‘senior citizen.’ I hate it.

My problem is not with my elders per se, but with this prominent tumor in our landscape of euphemisms. Some of them actually warp meaning. (How is ‘bath tissue’ descriptive of toilet paper? Do you take toilet paper into the bath with you?)

Worse still, every so often, we decide that the label is not laudatory enough, and concoct a new one that kisses more ass, deviates farther from sane reality. This is grotesque. If you aren’t satisfied that your label kisses enough ass, why not just call them ‘sainted deities’ so you don’t have to keep upgrading to something gushier? I’m serious. If that’s the ultimate intent, just come up with something right now that implies they are perfect and wonderful in every way, and speech-nightstick the rest of us into using it. Take the short cut.

My grandfather, who was elderly for most of the time I knew him, referred to himself as elderly. He also referred to his clients as elderly. As a nursing home administrator, that was a lot of people. If we’re going to choose a word, I’d say ‘elderly’ is a little nicer-sounding than ‘old’ to apply to people (but only if one attaches stigma to age as a concept, which our culture definitely does). If we want a shorter single noun for ‘elderly people,’ we have ‘elders’ ready to hand. We don’t need ‘senior citizen.’ For one thing, we don’t know whether or not they are citizens, especially in my area. (I am reminded of the dumbass who lauded Nelson Mandela as a ‘brave African American.’) For another, it feels like trying to hide the reality of aging, as if the fundamental fact is stigmatizing. I do not consider that it must be so, though I must say that quite a few elderly people seem dead set on making it so by the way they treat the young people who serve them. The term seems to hint that one is afraid or ashamed to come to terms with old age, and thus now wants a new word that will let him or her pretend otherwise.

In keeping with the tradition of more laudatory euphemisms every so often, now stores and restaurants are using ‘honored citizen’ to describe discounts and menus. Gods. Does that mean that the rest of the citizens are not honored? Dishonored? What is worse, it plays into a sense of entitlement that says to youth: now it’s my turn to be a jerk and make the kids put up with it. I will become harder to please, less patient, crabbier, fussier, and expect to be catered to as though this all were my due. Oh, am I going to enjoy this. I will let my ‘too old to give a shit’ flag fly free!

Think of it as Roseanne’s Mother Syndrome.

So far as I’m concerned, this is a horrible way to age. It tells me that this person, despite all those years of experience, has missed most of the lessons. Patience? Nah. Compassion? Faaaa! Empathy? Harrumph. Kindness? Screw you, my hip hurts. Courtesy? I’m old enough not to care what people think. Smile? I’m grumpy, so forget it!

(I cannot resist a digression. My parents-in-law lived in a gated ‘senior citizen’ community in Orlando. FIL was president of the HOA, a hive of backbiting and bitchery that only his considerable retired first sergeant skills could restrain from open civil warfare. He nearly always had someone in his house complaining about someone else. Anyway, the first morning I was there, he was sitting with another old guy in the living room and introduced me. The old man scowled at me. “I’m grumpy,” he said, I decided to have a little fun. I smiled, walked up and put out my hand. “Well, nice to meet you, Mr. Grumpy!” I think my FIL smiled. And when I was gone, I suspect Mr. Grumpy did. In fact, I called him that for the rest of the time I knew him, and asked about him by that term when I talked to my parents-in-law. He’s long since passed on now, and I couldn’t tell you what Mr. Grumpy’s driver’s license said his name was.)

But back to life’s lessons. How awful is that? Not only does it mean that all life taught someone is to be a worse person, it separates one. It divides one from the youthful and middle-aged majority of society. The young will endure it, as they always have, but it will harm them for no good reason on multiple levels. In addition to the indignity of having to tolerate crabbiness they did not deserve, the young won’t get what could help them most. They need access to all that elders have learned, but they damn sure aren’t going to ask an unapproachable person. Young and old move farther apart.

It is not acceptable to me. I don’t want to be alone. One day, unless something goes very wrong very soon, I will be elderly. If my grandmother’s genetics have taken significant hold, it is theoretically possible I could spend a long time being elderly. The one barrier we can nearly never cross in perception before we cross it for real is time: at fifty-four, it is not in my power even to imagine how sixty and seventy and ninety feel. Following my own logic, maybe when I’m sixty I’ll have this huge change of heart, embrace ‘senior citizen’ for myself, become a jerk, and dismiss this post as whippersnapper stuff. I cannot know nor can I imagine. However, I think it likelier I will hold fast to a view that by then will have aged six more years in the barrel.

At the same time, if young people call me a senior citizen, or an honored citizen, or whatever increasingly laudatory baloney their employers have pressed upon them, I won’t get mean about that. Talk about someone who didn’t even read his own messages. No, I’ll just smile and be kind to the kids. Why?

I do not often raise my voice.

Because we should be kind to the kids. Because it is wise and just and proper and decent. And because anyone too stupid to figure that out in sixty or more years, including thirty spent as a young person in one’s own right, has wasted over half a century.

The young need our help, if they can view us as people rather than wellsprings of grump. They need our knowledge, our friendship, and above all, they need our support. They need us to seek to understand their world, that it differs from the one we experienced at their age, and to apply all we have learned while offering them our resilient support. I have seen elderly people who aged in this way, and it taught me a lot about how I ought to age. When they finally passed on, they left a world filled with loving kindness that had delighted to honor them and now revered their memories. They were never separate.

They did not need euphemisms. They made elderhood something to admire on its own merit.

Euphemisms are only needed when honesty simply won’t do.

The role of bird poop in US history

Guano, as we towers of literary force are supposed to refer to bird excrement, has the surprising tendency to accumulate on islands frequented by numerous birds. What in the continental United States would be referred to as ‘parts of rural Georgia,’ far out to sea, may once have been worth planting the flag and bringing a shovel.

In 1856, the United States decided that it was entitled to claim any island that was:

  • a) uninhabited (perhaps because it was too coated with bird dook for anyone to want to live there);
  • b) too coated with bird dook for anyone to want to live there; and
  • c) unclaimed by anyone else (perhaps because it was too covered in bird dook to be of interest).

This resulted in us claiming about eighty islands worldwide. Considering the nitrate-rich nature of bird poop, this was somewhat less stupid and arrogant than it might seem–though that bar wasn’t set terribly high.

Weirder: we still claim some of them. Some have even been strategic in wars. Others, strategic or not, got the shit kicked out of them in those wars. The United States: Not Only Will We Control Your Islands Of Bird Ca-Ca, You May Wish You Had Thought Of That Before We Did, Suckers.

Here are the ones we’re still hanging onto, even if our yearning for bird turds has declined or, more plausibly, if we already confiscated all the bird turds we deemed essential to our national interest:

Bajo Nuevo Bank, a.k.a. the Petrel Islands. A couple of very narrow atoll-like reefs with minimal land area (as in, if you have a decent arm you could throw a baseball from the east beach to the west beach at most points): draw a line north from the Panamá Canal, stop where you reach the latitude of the north Nicaraguan border well to the west, and you’re in the right neighborhood. Colombia claims them, and the International Court of Justice agrees, but for some reason we still dispute the sovereignty. Thus, it is a pair of guano islands that still fit into the conversation. I doubt that we will ever go down and start shooting at the Colombian Navy over this, although given trends in our national leadership, I no longer put any stupidity or lunacy past them.

Baker Island, originally New Nantucket. Just over three-quarters of a square mile, it’s halfway between Hawaii and Australia and very close to the Equator. We built an airfield and used it as a base during World War II, partly in response to some Japanese air attacks. We left a lot of airfield-and-army-related junk there, where it all still rusts or otherwise deteriorates. Now the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service operates it as a wildlife refuge, which means in essence leaving it alone since it has no human population or strategic value. They visit it every couple of years, just to see how everything’s coming. You know, make sure no one has set up a meth lab, look for Gilligan, that sort of stuff.

Howland Island. This isn’t far from Baker Island, about thirty miles nearly due north, and is in roughly the same ignored condition. Its land area is a little over a square mile and a half. Before she disappeared, that great Kansan Amelia Earhart was searching for her preplanned stopover point on Howland Island. We had big plans for this place in the 1930s, intending it as a refueling stopover for intercontinental air travel, and to that end we set up a colonist program where four Hawaiians at a time would come to live there. This was not easy in peacetime, but got worse when the Japanese bombed it the day after Pearl Harbor, killing two of the colonists. We evacuated the other two, landed a battalion of Marines, and prepared to hold fast. After the war, we abandoned Howland Island; now it’s another Fish & Wildlife-administered/ignored refuge.

Jarvis Island, formerly Bunker Island. Well southeast of Baker Island–far enough to be almost due south of the Hawaiian island chain–is another square mile and three-quarters of former guano mine. We tried a small settlement there, which led to some drama when the colonists saw a submarine surfacing not long after Pearl Harbor. They figured the US Navy was there to rescue them. When the sub opened up on them with its deck gun, the colonists reconsidered their hypothesis. Later, the Coast Guard picked up the Jarvis Island colonists, then shelled their former settlement. Not to be outdone in the destruction of uninhabited places, another Japanese sub swung by and also shelled the ex-settlement. This too is now a wildlife refuge.

Johnston Atoll. This small group of islands, the largest of which amounts to a square mile, sits about 850 miles southwest of Hawaii. There’s a long reef, the primary island, and a couple of minor islands. In aerial photos, they mostly look sculpted by Seabees. You will not believe the things we have done to Johnston Atoll.

For a variation on the usual theme, we did the wildlife refuge thing first. Given that tensions with Japan were on the rise in those days, that didn’t last long. Over the next seventy years, we would:

  • Base warplanes out of it
  • Base the Coast Guard out of it
  • Plaster it with nuclear weapons, including some failed launches
  • Set up an anti-satellite missile base (we did not shoot down any actual satellites from here, at least not that we admit to)
  • Track satellites and recover film cans dropped from satellites
  • Test biological weapons
  • Store chemical weapons
  • Store Agent Orange
  • Destroy the chemical weapons
  • Knock down all but one building, then abandon it
  • Come back to clean up all the chemical and nuclear mess we’d made over the years
  • Kill some invasive ‘crazy ants’

And there may have been other activities that have never become public. In fact, I think you could just about bank on that.

Kingman Reef, formerly Danger Reef. Its total land area is .012 square kilometers, and it sits there and gets wet about a thousand miles south of Hawaii. After about ten minutes of mathematical ineptitude, I collapsed with apathy before figuring out whether its area was the size of a basketball court, or a football field, or a baseball card. Then I found out it’s three acres, so much of it awash that there is not much need to take any action except refraining from hitting it with a boat (odds of which, by accident, are rather remote). Another wildlife refuge run by those hardworking and dedicated public servants at Fish & Wildlife, and another guano island that found its way into the United States due to bird feces.

Midway Atoll. Now we’re talking! Imagine you are on Hawaii’s big island and you get this craving to boat along the line of the islands, headed for Japan. As you pass between Kauai and Ni’ihau, you say screw it, I’m just going to keep going. About a third of the way to Japan, you’d hit Midway. It has three islands (one is dinky), surrounded by a reef, so unless you looked alive on the approach you would probably run your boat aground and suffer an ignominious and very expensive rescue. You aren’t supposed to go to Midway without advance permission, so there is no reason for the permanent workforce of forty to make nice with you, even if you hum the Marines’ Hymn and say you only came out to visit the war memorials. Total land area is about two and a half square miles, so there are a finite number of places to sneak in, and you would somewhat stand out. Do not do it.

While history has proven Midway an ideal location for carrier-based naval warfare battles (look this up if you doubt me, then come back and apologize), its location was incredibly strategic in World War II. Had the Japanese won the 1942 carrier/air battle and occupied Midway, they would have been positioned to threaten the Hawaiian Islands. Having fought so hard to keep it, the armed forces just couldn’t break up with Midway for another fifty years. The Navy finally shut down its last operations in 1993. The people who live/work there are with Fish & Wildlife, and it’s another refuge. It has proven a good place to study the impact of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which stands as an enormous monument to corporate and government social responsibility when no one is around to punish them for doing the wrong thing.

Navassa Island. About a third of the way from Haiti to Jamaica, you’ll find this two-square-mile uninhabited island. Columbus’s men visited it and reported back that it had no water, giving people (even those Native Americans Columbus and his successors failed to eradicate) reason to avoid it for another three hundred and fifty years. Only when its bird crap value became evident (and it met the other conditions) did the young United States pounce on this place. Haiti protested. Even then, we knew we could win a war against Haiti, so we stood our guano. It was the scene of some ugliness when a phosphate (bird crap) mining company hired 140 black contract workers from Maryland to extract the fabled feces. Conditions were awful, the workers revolted in 1889, and in a move much envied by so many in the modern world, they killed five of their supervisors. Take a guess at how that went over in our justice system, knowing how it functions even today.. At least we didn’t execute them, but only because President Harrison intervened.

For some years we kept up a lighthouse on Navassa, but the Coast Guard took it down in 1996. I gather that what happens there now is: Fish & Wildlife officially has charge of it, Haitian fishermen camp out there when they feel the need, the U.S. prohibits this but does nothing to prevent it, and the end result is a wildlife refuge that mostly works in spite of a disputed claim no one seems to press.

Palmyra Atoll. Had you gone looking for Kingman Reef, but missed about twenty miles south, you would come to one of the few guano islands (this one, in fact, did not contain significant guano, so the original basis for a claim was flawed) with a permanent staff. One wonders what sins one must commit in order to be assigned there. Anyway, Palmyra amounts to a little more than two and a half square miles, girdled by reefs on three sides, and divided into a whole bunch of little islands. In a clever attempt to disguise its true purpose, the one with the airstrip is called “Aviation Island.” Back when there was a Kingdom of Hawaii, said kingdom claimed Palmyra. The United States incorporated it into the Territory of Hawaii, but it is not now part of the state; the government took it away upon statehood. It did service as an airbase during World War II, and now the Nature Conservancy owns part of it, with an ongoing population of a half to two dozen.

As for the other seventy-odd, other countries claimed them, or got them in treaties, or for whatever other reason we decided not to be difficult about it.

And that’s the story of our guano islands, the territory we annexed in the name of bird deuces.

Myths (and truths) about Ireland

I like Ireland, though not everything about Ireland, and not as much as my wife does. She would move there tomorrow if I were to let down my resistance for an instant. I think some of that is how much she has enjoyed travel there, but traveling in a place differs very much from living there.

One suspects that a part of her perspective still buys into a little of the mythology. It occurs to me that Ireland is a very mythologized country in the United States. Maybe I can clear some of these up by stating the myth or perception as I have heard it, and clarifying the reality as I saw it.

Ireland is dangerous due to sectarian and nationalist violence. False. Even at the worst times of the Troubles, as they are known, most of Ireland was far safer than much of the United States. To get caught in the crossfire, a visitor would have needed a) tremendous bad luck and the worst imaginable timing, or b) enormous stupidity. A sensible visitor would have been, and would now be, far more concerned about an auto accident on a narrow road. Nowadays, concern about Trouble-related violence makes about as much sense as avoiding Midland, Texas for fear of Comanche raids.

All of Ulster is in Northern Ireland. False. In fact, three counties of Ulster are within the Republic. None of Leinster or Connaught’s counties are in Northern Ireland. (Munster does not border Ulster, thus sparing us that question entirely.) Thus, when you say ‘Ulster’ to refer to the North, this is imprecise.

The Republic is Catholic and the North is Protestant. Partly false. Catholics form a large majority in the Republic, but are also a strong presence in the North, which is about half Catholic and half Protestant. Of course, a percentage do not identify with either religious direction from the standpoint of practice, but may still identify with one as a cultural factor. Every religion has its own culture. Just as I know nominally Mormon people who practice almost none of the LDS faith’s strictures (yet still describe themselves as Mormon), you could find atheists and agnostics in Ireland who come by Catholic or Protestant identify through family heritage and upbringing. I would say that the Irish are less religious than Americans, but since religion is so connected to culture in Ireland, it conveys something of a misleading impression to the observing outside world.

Gaelic is a dead language. False on two counts. In the first place, ‘Gaelic’ is inspecific as a descriptor, as it could also refer to Scots. With regard to Ireland, the the suitable term is ‘Irish.’ Irish is not a dead language, though it may be fair to say it might have died out but for strenuous efforts toward its preservation. In the first place, the Republic of Ireland’s Bunreacht (constitution, in force since 1937) states that the Republic has two official languages, Irish and English, and that an Irish citizen may receive all official services in either language. What is more, the Irish version of the Bunreacht is the definitive original. You should be able to see where this goes. Gardaí (police), many government officials, and so forth must be capable of serving the public in Irish, thus must be conversational. Irish is spoken as a first language in certain areas, mainly in Connaught and Munster but also heavily in western Donegal, called Gaelteachts.

In my experience, while one may function well in English in Gaelteachts, locals will welcome a sincere effort to speak Irish. One would have to search very hard for a part of Ireland where one would need to speak Irish in order to function, but I am sure they exist. Some in Ulster also speak Scots Gaelic, which is very akin to its Irish sister language. I can tell you from experience that an American speaking Irish in the Republic is considered something of a wonder, though that American should take a little care in trotting out his or her ability. I found that many Irish felt they should be more proficient in the language, and that it embarrassed them a bit for an American to be more conversant with it than they. It’s never good manners to embarrass one’s hosts, especially hosts as patient as the Irish.

Ireland rains all the time. More true than false. Ireland is fairly rainy even in summer (though they tell me that is changing), and very much so in winter. Drainage and flooding are always issues. I doubt any part of Ireland uses, needs, or wants irrigation, in much the same way that few equatorial nations spend much effort on central home heating. However, even in winter in Ireland, there’s a fair chance of a sunny day. And a sunny day in Ireland is something to treasure and soak up.

There’s a castle everywhere you look in Ireland. Partly true. Ireland is loaded with old buildings and ruins, some of which are or were castles or forts. Some are open to the public some of the time. Some are open to some members of the public who know the right way to pose the question, which in Ireland is often not in the most direct way. In my experience, the best way to search for anything in Ireland involves a pub and some patience. In a pub, some locals get the chance to size you up and decide whether to refer you onward or not, make a phone call for you or not, give you directions or not. Once they make up their mind about you, in their own time and in a positive way, they tend to look out for you. Attempts to rush the Irish only serve to annoy them.

The Irish drink a lot. Depends on perspective. In terms of per capita consumption, the Republic stands slightly above the UK (which includes the North) and Germany, slightly below Australia, and well below much of eastern Europe. The French and South Koreans drink more than the Irish, for example. So if your perspective is American, on balance, drinking is slightly more. If it’s Ukrainian, the Irish are relatively light drinkers. I have seen a lot of people drinking in Ireland, but I have rarely seen anyone sloppy drunk, and in those cases I saw clear evidence of general disapproval.

What is true (though gradually changing): the pub is a social center. While some pubs still have the old ‘snug’ (women’s area), it’s kind of an artifact. Nowadays women and children are more than welcome, and it is unremarkable to see an entire Irish family having dinner at the pub. A non-drinker is still welcome in most pubs provided, as in most hospitality establishments, he or she at least buys something. A recovering alcoholic, if asked, might explain that s/he has taken the Pledge (a religious vow). This is an acceptable excuse for declining to have a pint with someone, as is a strict religious observation. The Irish understand that some faiths (LDS, Islam) drink no alcohol.

The Irish remember everything forever. True–both the good and the bad. There is a monument in County Cork to the Choctaw, who in response to the 1840s famines gathered up as much money as they could find and sent it to help alleviate the famine. Roadside markers show the points where Volunteers fell during the struggles for independence. Even during the Troubles, it was remembered which families had bought their land many years before, and which had appropriated it. The Irish build monuments to historians; I have seen them myself. If a fairy mound happens to be in the way of a proposed road, workers cannot be found to bulldoze it. The road will simply have to go around. Do good deeds in Ireland, and be remembered for them. Do wrong there, and be remembered as well. Cromwell has been gone for nearly four hundred years, and they haven’t even begun making an effort to forget his deeds.

Irish time is ‘-ish’ time. Mainly true. Business hours, where posted, tend to flexibility. The most pointless thing one can do in Ireland is try to pressure anyone to do anything faster; they will not comply, and it will only irritate them. If a flock of sheep is blocking the road, it will continue to do so until the shepherd gets them where he wants them. Honk and you prove yourself a fool. Wave in a friendly way and be patient, and the shepherd will be prone to get the beasts moving a little faster.

Ireland has made it easier to get to its most famous destinations. True, but at the cost of making them unappealing. The Cliffs of Moher? Newgrange? Giant’s Causeway? Blarney Castle? Killarney? All generously equipped with tour bus parking, the dreaded ‘Visitors’ Centre’ (except Killarney, all of which is a de facto Visitors’ Centre, thus it needs none) and suitable entry fees. Sweater and other traps, of course, for your shopping pleasure. The Giant’s Causeway so saddened us that we coined the verb “to causeway”: to take an otherwise appealing and beautiful place and garbage it up for money. I understand that everyone needs to make a living, that it is their island to do with as they choose, and that they don’t want or need my advice on that subject. I also understand that most of them despise this trend. Look on the bright side: there are many locations just as appealing and special that are rarely overrun by huge green tour buses labeled “Paddy Wagon” and displaying a large Disney cartoon leprechaun. I very much doubt that every worthwhile place in Ireland will become causewayed in my lifetime. I do not think the Irish will allow that.

Bless them.

Amazon blacklists

In case you were hoping to see such a list, I want to make sure the first line tells you that you won’t find one in this post. Legal reasons. However, don’t fret; on the worst one, I’ll drop enough clues.

There was once an aspiring writer who sent his ms to a famous literary personage for comment. The cunning aspirant pasted a couple of his pages together, so that when he got his ms back (children, we used to create these things on typewriters, and copying was so expensive that we sent our originals out to publishers, accompanied by return postage since we did want them back once inevitably rejected), he could see if the personage had finished it. The pasted pages had not been separated, the personage panned the ms, and the aspirant wrote in to complain. “You don’t have to eat a whole egg to know if it’s rotten,” answered the literary personage.

On this philosophy I base a good deal of my life. If something is bad, it is not necessary to continue suffering with it. One ought to be shut of it without remorse. Be it a Facebook moron, a mediocre restaurant, or a crappy Amazon vendor, one may dismiss it. If one can, one probably should.

Amazon does not offer a feature to block or flag a bad seller. One can write a nasty review (and watch the bad seller get it removed), but might someday forget that seller’s name. In such a case, one might send that seller repeat business. We wouldn’t want to do that, would we?

What makes a bad seller? From my standpoint, it’s poor handling when something goes awry. I have learned that there is almost a small industry that rips sellers off: it requests returns and refunds for items where the shipping cost is rather expensive, and it becomes cheaper for the seller to refund the money and not ask for the item back. Disgusting that anyone would do business that way, but this is humanity, and in humanity, if there is a way to do something dishonestly, it will be discovered within seconds of the honest method’s invention.

What it means is that many sellers start out with chips on shoulders. They come to assume that anyone with an issue is angling for something free. Some have procedures they demand be followed, which may or may not be reasonable. They all know that you have them over a barrel, if you want to roll out said barrel, but they try to steer you away from that.

I decided not to make the same mistakes twice (although an infuriating one, noticed this very day, somehow got past me), so I created an Amazon blacklist. It’s a Word table listing the vendor’s name and why I placed them on a no-buy list. Since I try hard to shop with independent vendors rather than accept a 2¢ discount to get it from Amazon’s undercut pricing (yeah, they do that), I’m not the kind of customer the indies should mess with. Yet a few do, and they end up on my blacklist.

In one case, I learned that a whole bunch of idealistic-sounding book vendors were in fact branches of one larger book vendor. It took me some time to find and blacklist them all. Not only have they been jackasses both times something went wrong with an order, but they have the maddening habit of using barcode stickers on the exterior spine. These are usually very difficult to remove without damaging the dust jacket spine or actual spine. Their labels are so fiercely adhesive and persistent that it can take an hour’s soak with Googone to loosen them, and because they are on the spine, that is harder than it would otherwise be. All dozen-odd of their locations are blacklisted. I see them very often when book shopping, and I get a little bit of joy every time I cheerfully pay someone else fifty cents more.

Until Amazon comes up with a blacklisting system for us, I guess it’ll have to do.

The Social Grenadier’s Helpful Keyboard-Launched Grenade Assembly Guide

The descent of Facebook into its natural level–a place where no one can get the living snot whaled out of him or her for being just plain rude, thus people say things they would not say in person and expect no backlash–has led us to a new means of lowering the dialogue level. I call it the Social Grenade.

A social grenade is a statement that follows fairly close to the model: “If you disagree, you have no value.” I call it a social grenade because it catches everyone who sees it in the blast radius, sparing only those it imagines that it exempts. I thought of calling it the social mortar round, but a mortar (an indirect fire weapon) lacks the personal connotation of a hand-thrown or launcher-fired fragmentation grenade. A modern trip through Facebook feels like a trip through no-man’s-land in which both sides pitch periodic grenades and rarely look to see where they fell.

I suspect it is exhausting. People may be having difficult times coming up with suitably alienating and relationship-impairing social grenades. My initial reaction was to compose a post like “If you throw social grenades, please tie a garbage bag tightly over your head.” I am normally a believer in fighting fire with napalm fire, revenge doubling the wrong done, letting people see how it feels, making sure the lesson takes; however, blind adherence to past practice leads to dumb present practice. The brain is not obsolete, even if it may happen to be in disfavor. Don’t always go with your gut, for it is sometimes queasy.

After giving it about two seconds of thought,  I thought I would light a candle rather than curse the darkness. I would offer something proactive and helpful: a handy social grenade assembly guide to smooth and assist in the complete deterioration of all worthwhile dialogue. If the goal is to wreck the maximum number of relationships, let’s streamline the process. Why make alienation harder than it needs to be?

To use this quick-assembly tool, when you come to bracketed items, choose the option that best fits. Please remember that these are only suggestions; if none of the given choices are sufficiently fanatical, invent and insert your own. (If they are all too fanatical for you, you are not the type to throw social grenades, so this is unhelpful for you. When all the social grenadiers have blown up all their relationships, look around you: the survivors will be those who did not participate. They may be very fun people.)

The social grenade begins with your statement of opinion (or absolute truth, if your view does not allow for any remote possibility of differing views qualifying as opinions). So:

My

  • [opinion]
  • [belief]
  • [thesis]
  • [truth]
  • [personal hobbyhorse]
  • [monomania]
  • [objective reality]
  • [divine revelation]
  • [horoscope]
  • [meme]
  • [{other} ________]

is that [{expound your viewpoint here}______________________] and that this view is

  • [divinely revealed, that’s why I called it a damn divine revelation]
  • [fundamentally perfect]
  • [way cool]
  • [duh, winning]
  • [too obvious to explain to idiots]
  • [Zen master wisdom]
  • [the best ever]
  • [eternal truth]
  • [bae]
  • [the only valid perspective]
  • [woke with a mighty waking]
  • [obvious to anyone who was not randomly trepanned in infancy]
  • [directly from the {Bible/Qur’an/Talmud/sports section/bathroom graffiti/________}]
  • [{morally/intellectually/genetically/_____ly} superior]

[{./!/!!!/!!!!!!!!!!!!!!}]

If you disagree, your

  • [perspective]
  • [delusion]
  • [Cthulhu worship]
  • [baffling lapse in reason]
  • [opinion]
  • [conclusion]
  • [tragic mental deficiency]
  • [raving]
  • [idiocy]
  • [psychological incontinence]
  • [cretinism]
  • [ideological perv]
  • [demonic evil]
  • [drug-induced foolishness]
  • [laughable standpoint]
  • [dipshittery]
  • [warped reality]

  • [is wrong]
  • [sucks real hard]
  • [would embarrass a lobotomized tree sloth]
  • [is actively leading us to degeneracy]
  • [makes me puke]
  • [makes me prolapse my stomach, I took selfies as proof]
  • [is cray cray]
  • [makes a strong case for whacking one’s head against a bridge abutment]
  • [admits liking Justin Bieber]
  • [wrote in Kim Jong-Un during the last election for all the offices]
  • [saddens me for humanity]
  • [poaches baby elephants]
  • [would drive a living saint to opium addiction]
  • [is worse than Hitler]
  • [is worse than Hitler and Himmler combined]

Therefore, if you feel this way,

  • [hang yourself]
  • [unfriend me now]
  • [unfriend and block me now]
  • [unfriend, block, and sue me now]
  • [unfriend, block, and ambush me now]
  • [consume a sack of penises]
  • [I will burn your name over a purple flame mounted in a virgin’s skull at midnight]
  • [auto-euthanasia is worth exploring]
  • [you suck]
  • [add some tinfoil to your next pizza]
  • [add some drano to your next pizza]
  • [please get cancer]
  • [I hate you]
  • [your feelings are invalid]
  • [in the garage is a running engine with your name on it]
  • [never speak to me again]
  • [you are such a fuckhead]
  • [you deserve a fatal yeast infection]
  • [I will hunt you down with a nailgun and a bad attitude]
  • [you need mental help]
  • [you need mental health institutionalization]

[./!/!!!/!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!/]

There. Hope that makes it easier!