Great Processes

Low-Level Optimizations: A Year Without Amazon

This blog post will be split up into four sections:

Inside those lists of purchases, I’ll try to sprinkle in some thoughts, opinions, and words of wisdom.

 


Introduction

If you happened to read my previous post about the unseemly seller side of Amazon.com, it should have been immediately obvious that it’s pretty messed up.  Nearly every aspect of the division is plagued with quality control problems.  However, what you might not have taken away from that post was the fact that it’s also incredibly annoying!

How annoying is it?  It’s so annoying that you start to resent the entire Amazon company!…  Believe it or not, it’s so annoying that you start to actually enjoy the simple, mundane act of making purchases at other websites.  I’m not kidding – the simple act of making a purchase at another website actually becomes strangely satisfying – that’s how annoying it is!

So to that end, I’ll be happy to show you a year-long un-Amazon diary of sorts.  This won’t be a normal blog post.  It will be a living blog post that gets updated every once in a while when new purchases of interest are made.  For at least one year, and possibly much longer than that, I’ll be looking for better-than-Amazon deals and purchasing strategies.  (And so far, it hasn’t been difficult.)

And on a side note, you either like this sort of stuff or you don’t.  I’m not sure what it is, but I enjoy optimizing money management.  It’s just the way I’m wired.  For others, though, it’s their personal anathema.  You’ve been warned.  That said, I will also add that this is a  very useful exercise for anyone, even if they’re not particularly annoyed by Amazon for one thing or another.  First, it’s beneficial knowledge and it doesn’t require you to stop shopping at Amazon.  Second, you might easily become annoyed by Amazon in the future.  Third, it’s critical that these individual corporations never seize a monopoly in the marketplace.

For me, the unseemly experience with the seller side of Amazon was actually a good thing, as it prompted me to do what I should have done a long time ago.  I had been a frequent Amazon customer since 2000.  Now I can see that I had been on auto-pilot for too much of that time.  These days there really isn’t much of a reason to shop at Amazon as a matter of habit.

And finally, the title implies I won’t be shopping at Amazon for a year.  That’s not technically true.  What I’ve been doing is shopping anywhere else whenever the price was better, equal, or just slightly worse.  If Amazon has a much better deal, then I place the order there.  (So far, this hasn’t happened often.)

The blog post will definitely wrap up after one year, but like I said, I’ll probably keep this up for a lot longer; most likely, indefinitely.

 


General Concepts

First, it might sound petty, for example, to spend 3 minutes to save $3 on a $300 purchase.  But if you actually look at it, that’s an hourly rate of $60/hour, with zero risk.  Usually the rate is much higher than that.  Often times, it’s astronomical.  It’s nearly often the easiest money you’ll ever make.  That’s the general motivation.

The set-up work for much of this stuff (e.g. setting up a few new accounts) is where most of the time is spent, and truthfully it’s not really that much of an investment.  (Think about how long it took you to create an Amazon account.)  Then, after everything is set up, the purchases get done as quickly as ever.

General concepts to be keep in mind are levels of recourse, and levels of cash back.  Ideally, you want maximum levels of both.  For example, if I purchase an item on eBay, using PayPay, and I use a credit card as my payment method on PayPal, and I used a coupon from the online coupon industry when making the purchase on eBay, there’s multiple things going on.

First, I’m getting paid three times for my purchase: credit card cash back, coupon cash back, and eBay cash back (“eBay bucks”).

Second, I also have two (maybe even two-and-a-half) levels of recourse.  If something goes wrong with the transaction, I would dispute the transaction starting with eBay, then with PayPal, and then with my credit card provider.  (eBay has tried to make it so you can’t dispute a transaction with both them and with PayPal, but they’re separate companies, and so it’s kind of murky.)

(Note that Amazon is very stingy across the board.  They don’t integrate with PayPal.  The coupons they provide to the online coupon industry are extremely poor.  They also have no internal rewards system.)

Moving on, what is the proper sequence of a purchase?  Let’s say you want to re-order an item that you had purchased from Amazon in the past.  First, find the item in your Amazon order history.  Check the current price.  Copy and paste the name of that item into your favorite search engine, and then see what the results look like.  Chances are, you’ll find an equivalent or even better deal somewhere else… Now, if it’s an item you’ve never purchased before, Amazon is a good place to start in terms of evaluating reviews… but never assume those reviews are genuine.   There have been various Amazon pay-for-review scandals over the years.  I myself have had the misfortune of receiving awful products that had incredible Amazon reviews…  Same goes for seller reviews.  Amazon itself is implicated when it comes to this!  Take a look at the below image.  Amazon is currently erring on the size of voiding any and all negative reviews against sellers who partner with them via “FBA” (Fulfillment By Amazon).  FBA is sellers partnering with Amazon, where Amazon will pack and ship their products for them (i.e. fulfill the order).  Independent sellers rarely get negative reviews voided, but Amazon will look for any excuse to void negative reviews against Amazon-partnered sellers.  Be warned!

By “taking responsibility” Amazon means that it will whitewash and void negative seller reviews given to non-independent, Amazon-partnered sellers, for virtually any reason, and then leave no aggregated information anywhere on the entire Amazon website regarding all these negative experiences. They’re literally swept under the rug.

Next, out of the entire online coupon industry, I’ve found that CouponCabin is very good.  RetailMeNot looks promising, but I haven’t had a chance to use it very much.  In both cases, I went in thinking it would be a super-sleazy experience, but it was just the opposite.  You just need to create a password for your account, and then provide an email address that’s associated with your PayPal account.  You get paid via PayPal, and they simply use the email address you provide. You can associate multiple email addresses with PayPal, which makes it even easier when you want to give one out to a site that you’re not that familiar with.

Other things to keep an eye out for:

  • A ShopRunner account.  I received this as a free benefit with one of my credit cards.  If the website integrates with ShopRunner, you can log in to your ShopRunner account when making that purchase, and you’ll receive free 2-day shipping, free returns, etc. on that purchase.  It’s kind of like an independent, decentralized, alternate version of Amazon Prime.  It’s a decent idea and I’m hoping more websites integrate with it.

 


un-Amazon Order List:

7/5/2017:  Purchased a new laptop at HP.com.  HP actually had the best value for the laptop I wanted.  It’s been ages since I shopped directly at a manufacturer’s website!  (Note that shopping for computers on Amazon is OK at best.  It’s probably a decent reference point.)  In the past, I’ve usually made this purchase at BestBuy.

7/25/2017:  Purchased brand new bottle of my preferred vitamins at eBay.  Better price than Amazon.  Checkout very easy.  Similar in nature to Amazon’s checkout.

7/26/2017:  Purchased preferred vitamins at SwansonVitamins.com.  They had the best price on these vitamins, and I’ve shopped here before.  Checkout easy and painless since they take PayPal.  Google Reviews was a handy thing that gave this website credibility when I first started ordering here.  After this most recent order, I decided to finally create an account here.

7/29/17:  Bulk order of toilet paper was ~1cent/roll cheaper at Walmart.com.  Plus additional savings through online coupon industry.

7/30/17:  Walmart.com had the best price for a particular chicken coop.  It was the same price at Amazon, but I received additional savings through the online coupon industry at Walmart.  I’m also thinking it will be easier to return this chicken coop to my local Walmart if necessary.  It’s also worth noting that Walmart is very wise in leveraging their physical store holdings, and offering free delivery of many items, without a minimum purchase, to your preferred local Walmart.  It seems unlikely that Amazon will catch up on that front.

8/7/2017:  HomeDepot.com had the best value (that I could find online) for non-expired, name-brand (or at least semi-name-brand) AAA batteries.  Beat nearest price by 50 cents per 100 batteries.  Another 5% discount on top of that with online coupon industry.

8/7/2017:  144 pack of Dixon #2 pencils at Walmart.com is price matched exactly to 144 pack of AmazonBasics #2 pencils.  However, I get an extra 2% cashback through online coupon industry at Walmart.

8/15/2017:  Purchased an MP3 on iTunes.  Same price as Amazon, but you do have to jump through a few more hoops, to say the least.  (Buying MP3s is slightly convoluted on Amazon as well, just not as much.)

8/20/2017:  Purchased mailing boxes at Staples.com.  Actually, Amazon never has good prices on mailing boxes.   In fact, I’ve never bought mailing boxes there.  Additional 15% cash back through online coupon industry.

8/22/2017: Purchased custom soap from Target.com.  Same exact price as Amazon, also free shipping, but I also received 8% cash back from online coupon industry.  Integrates with PayPal, which Amazon does not.  But really, the Target website is very smooth.  It was fine the last time I used it, but now it’s very nice.  It seems smoother than Amazon’s website…  When I had ordered this from Amazon in the past, the soap had arrived busted open and spilled on other package contents.  (What a surprise – I guess the crumpled wads of brown paper randomly placed inside a huge cardboard box weren’t enough to protect it.)

8/24/2017:  Purchased three new bottles of my my preferred curcumin supplements on eBay.  The price was $7.96 cheaper than the exact same order would have been on Amazon.

  • In addition, I received $6 in eBay bucks.
  • In addition, I’ll also receive 1% ($0.74) cash back through the online coupon industry.
  • In addition, many eBay sellers also provide positive feedback to you as a buyer.  Although these feedback ratings are ultimately dysfunctional, it’s still something small to weigh.  Amazon doesn’t provide any sort of public mechanism that tracks your history and credibility as an individual in the marketplace.  Said differently, out of the two dysfunctional feedback systems, I know which one I prefer.

8/29/2017:  Read the reviews (which included custom tips and tricks) at Amazon, and then purchased new ignition spark tester at eBay for $1.38 less.  Additional cash back through online coupon industry.

8/30/2017:  My preferred potassium citrate supplement (it’s supposed to counter some of the negative effects of sodium, and at low doses there should at least be no downside) is at SwansonVitamins.com.  It’s price matched exactly to Amazon’s price, but with an online coupon, each new bottle is $0.51 less.

9/11/2017:  Went to Amazon.com to read the reviews for a battery charger.  Sifted through the reviews to eventually locate critical and definitive information that was copy-and-pasted straight from the product’s manual.  Then purchased that new battery charger at Walmart.com; it was price matched to Amazon’s price, but it also provided 2% cash back through the online coupon industry…  I also had a well-reviewed (and completely forgotten) residue remover in my Walmart shopping cart.  (It had the lowest price online [and it was $3.57 cheaper than Amazon].)  It was sitting there waiting for another Walmart purchase to round that order up to free shipping, and so this was it.

9/19/2017:  Purchased my preferred supplements containing cocoa flavanols at eBay.  The price for each new bottle (with an acceptable expiration date) was $7.08 less than the Amazon Prime price.  Plus some cash back in the form of eBay bucks.  Plus additional cash back through online coupon industry.


Interlude

Reliability: Myths and Methodology

There may be a misperception that Amazon is a more reliable marketplace, or that eBay, for example, is less reliable.  I can tell you without any hesitation that that notion is a completely false.

First, Amazon as a vendor and fulfiller of its own merchandise is not especially reliable.  I’ve had just about the same number of issues with their orders as I have had with other big online stores.  If you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe the numbers.  Amazon’s internal division, “Amazon Warehouse Deals”, regularly has a feedback score of less than 80%!

Wow!

Now, you always expect a certain amount of phony negative reviews, but sub-80%??!  That points to a serious lack of quality control.

As for it’s principal competitor eBay, you have to understand the actual issue at hand.  In any marketplace where 3rd party sellers are allowed to sell, the critical issue is the 3rd party sellers themselves.  Is the specific seller reliable?   eBay has policies that facilitate more sellers selling more types of things on their site.  Not surprisingly, a non-trivial percentage of those additional sellers have lower reliability.  What it all boils down to on any site (including and especially Amazon) is the reliability of the 3rd party seller.

Below are some of my all-time favorite screenshots of sellers on Amazon.  Not only does this illustrate my basic point, it also demonstrates how Amazon is absolutely negligent in addressing clearly unreliable (and even blatantly fraudulent) sellers on its site.

It would take a real amazing algorithm to spot a fraudulent seller like this! Good thing Amazon’s fabled coding prowess is in your corner, huh?

 

What I love here is how even random customers started feeling compelled to give Amazon advice on how to run its business.
What I love here is how even random customers started feeling compelled to give Amazon advice on how to run its business.

(For the record, I’ve never seen anything this shocking or ludicrous at any other shopping website.)

So, how does one best deal with uncertain reliability in the online marketplace?  Obviously, form the best educated guess you can regarding the reliability of individual sellers.  This will often times require probing beneath the surface and going beyond the tidy facade of previous seller reviews.  Second, if at all possible, don’t order something you need at the last minute!  If you need to re-order vitamins, for example, do so several months before you actually need them.  This gives you plenty of time to deal with unexpected problems.


9/27/2017:  Reviewed old order information at Amazon.com, looked up and confirmed an item to re-order through Amazon.com, but then purchased the new pressure cooker at Walmart.com.  It was price matched exactly to Amazon’s price, but I received free 2-day shipping with Walmart, plus $3.80 cash back via the online coupon industry… This is a very common workflow.  Amazon currently has one of the better websites to find items.  However, as I’ve demonstrated repeatedly, it’s almost always a better deal somewhere else.

 


Orders At Amazon

Order Placed At Amazon.com Since 7/5/2017: 5

7/27/2017:  Purchased a sign.  Merchant got the order wrong and sent me a magnet instead.  They had to send me a second shipment.

8/7/2017:  Purchased 1080 count of Vanity Fair napkins.  Just so you know, those are the best napkins I’ve ever purchased.  Amazon’s price beat all other online prices, by far.

8/11/2017:  Purchased the sign I actually wanted.  (If you have a choice, buy from Highway Traffic Supply.  They provide the correct quality.  FYI, they’re also a seller on eBay.)   Also ordered a cheap book by an independent author; book wasn’t really being sold anywhere else.

10/18/2017:  Purchased a 32 oz. dishwasher rinse agent with “cosmetic damages” (presumably to the bottle) from Amazon Warehouse Deals.  The price was significantly lower than any other price anywhere for this item.  (Furthermore, I’m surprised this hadn’t been snapped up already… who would care about a dent in their bottle of dishwasher rinse aid?)  At the same time I also purchased two new bags of dishwasher salt.  They happened to be moderately cheaper at Amazon, at when combined with the rinse aid, my order reached the free shipping threshold.

10/19/2017:  Purchased document repair tape from an independent seller at Amazon.  It was $2 less than any other price online… It was also about 30 cents less than the Amazon “Buy Box” seller for that product.

  • Amazon “awards” the Buy Box (basically the ‘Buy’ button for a product page) to vendors based on a secret algorithm.  Unbeknownst to many, when one clicks ‘Add to Cart’ for a product, often times the vendor is not Amazon, but instead a 3rd party seller who has been awarded the Buy Box.  You have to read the fine print at the top of the page to figure out if Amazon is the actual vendor or if it’s a 3rd party merchant…  Regardless of which vendor is behind the Buy Box, often times there is another seller who has not been awarded the Buy Box, but who is offering the same exact product for a lower price.  To view those sellers, you have to click on the ‘New and Used…’ link, also at the top of the page.

†  For me personally, I have figured that the amount I would pay for an Amazon Prime membership, without hesitation, is $5.  The reason is that I almost never need expedited shipping.  I also know exactly what I’m looking to buy, and pretty much never buy random stuff just because it’s on sale.   However, I still think the idea of ShopRunner is a good one.  It basically decouples the major benefits of Amazon Prime from the Amazon company.  The fact that my ShopRunner membership is a free benefit courtesy of my American Express card makes it all the more lucrative; I don’t even have to pay that hypothetical $5 to have it.

Poor Processes

The Little-Known “D” Team @ amazon.com: Seller Services

If you’ve ever bought a used item at amazon.com, you may not know what goes into the whole process.  It’s really not that complicated.  Anyone – and I mean anyone – can register on their website to sell items.

But what happens next?  On the buyer side, you buy the item, and it shows up.  On the seller side, the seller receives an email notification with purchase and shipping details.  And additionally, an entire team of Amazon workers is there behind the scenes, in theory, to make the whole process work right.

In theory, it’s not complicated stuff.  But oh yeah, who are those people again, who in theory make the whole machine work?  The seller services team?  Well, I’m going to pull the curtain back just slightly, and show you a place that can only be described as an appallingly bad, alternate Amazon universe.

Believe it or not, that division constitutes the near-antithesis of what is commonly believed to be Amazon’s internal zeitgeist.  You know… the values, the ideals, the vision, the philosophy… only the opposite!  That might sound kind of crazy to hear or even believe… until you fully understand how bad that team is.

First, it’s a rare – and I mean rare – occasion when these Amazon employees have a recognizable, pronounceable name.  Starting with some of the easier names to pronounce, you’ll find employees with names like Srinivas and Divyank, and trust me from there it only gets more difficult.  Now, since English is my native language, and since these services cater to a large U.S. seller base, all I really care about in this case is whether or not these Amazon employees can communicate with me, in English, effectively.  It is business, after all!  Needless to say, some can, and some are more challenged.  Errors in communication are common with these Amazon employees.

Out of a veritable sea of incompetence, I’ll share a few lighthearted examples:

Sunil from Amazon seller services once sent me some wise correspondence with the following entreaty: “Do not pressurize buyers to remove feedback.”§  I’d have to agree.  Since only the most grizzled, tough-as-nails customers could withstand even a few minutes in my dungeon’s pressure chamber, it’s simply not cool to take it to that level.  (But, he didn’t mention water boarding…)  But what’s funny though is that statement was in a block of text that was clearly copy-and-pasted into his message.  (“Copy-and-paste” is usually these employees’ second language.)  In other words, it was a stern admonition given to every seller he spoke to!

But it’s when the errors become intentional, that this team of Amazon employees truly earns its “D” grade!  On occasion, some of these Amazon employees will actually misstate something on purpose, using their English language impediment as a cover for their mistake!  Pretty crazy, huh?

Here an unnamed (literally unnamed) Amazon employee submitted a report on my behalf relating to customer fraud.

It was supposed to read: “Buyer is sending incorrect pictures suggesting that the seller is sending damaged products”

But she decided to write: “Buyer is sending in correct pictures suggesting that the seller is sending damaged products”||

This particular employee also shared a customer’s private contact information with me, for no reason!  It was a truly bizarre violation of protocol.

Moving on to long-standing negligence, if you’ve never seen it, it’s time to let you peek behind the seller side’s web-curtain.  This is what the little Amazon seller portal looks like:

At the very top, you have the most important information: What kind of interest rate can I get if I take out a $1,000 personal loan from Amazon.  It’s good that’s at the very top.  Where else would someone go for a loan, plus what happens if the interest rate changes.

Next you have information pertaining to new orders that were placed.  I guess that’s semi-important for sellers?

And then next, near the middle of the page (roughly where the sports section would be if this were a newspaper), you finally get to highly-critical-but-completely-obscured information like ‘Buyer Messages’ and ‘A-to-z Guarantee claims’.  (The A-to-z Guarantee is basically Amazon’s guarantee that a buyer will actually get what’s advertised from a third-party seller.  If they don’t, they can file a claim that Amazon will investigate.)  These particular fields represent information that materializes infrequently, but is highly, highly critical in nature, and absolutely must be addressed immediately!

(And in case you’re wondering – no, all of the various widgets and sections are not movable within the webpage.   They’re not arrangeable.  You can’t close them!  You can barely even collapse them!)

Excuse the pun, but unhandled A-to-z claims, and unhandled buyer messages, are of prime importance to sellers on Amazon.  So why do sellers have to scroll down half-way down the page to even find this information?…

Yes, I do think we ought to live in an America where individuals can take out small, uncollateralized personal loans from online shopping websites.  But, I’m still profoundly confused as to why that “Amazon Lending” widget is on that particular web portal, much less in the single most important spot on that web portal – an Amazon portal that’s succinctly titled “Amazon Seller Central”, meaning a location where sellers are supposed to take care of their seller business.

Amazon warns sellers that their respective email clients are a potential hazard, and that buyers’ messages or even A-to-z claims might be incorrectly routed to their junk mail folder.  Along with that hazard, we can definitely add intensely awful, intensely ridiculous website design by the website designers at Amazon seller services.  Folks, that’s not just broken website design and broken information architecture.  That’s not just incompetent and inexcusable.  That is negligent.

But will Amazon honor its own policies with respect to sellers?  No, not necessarily.  One Amazon webpage titled “A-to-z Guarantee: Frequently Asked Questions” lays out policies relating to various A-to-z claim issues.

Near the bottom, we have one discrete section titled “Am I required to represent A-to-z Guarantee claims submitted against me?”  (In Amazon terminology, “representing” a claim means you’re responding to it.  Yup, it sounds kind of strange to me too.)

I’ll blow it up slightly and highlight the relevant portions:

And so when I forget to respond to one dubious and fraudulent A-to-z claim, what is their response to me?  Their response to me is that my appeal will be summarily rejected, on procedural grounds, since I forgot to respond to the claim initially!  (Forgot, because of, you know, those previously-mentioned hazards.)  Strange verdict, and even sadder to see Amazon seller services auto-violate itself – even as their own crystal-clear policy on their own website is shown right to them!  And even though it only involved a small sum of money, I really don’t have enough negative things to say about that “D” team at Amazon!

So no, Amazon will most definitely not honor its own policies on the seller side.

Regarding interactions with employees working at Amazon seller services, on the whole, about 50% of those interactions are acceptable.  About 15% are above average.  And roughly 35% are below average.  And needless to say, some of those 35% are shockingly bad.

Which really gets back to the previous statement about how this “D” team constitutes the near-antithesis of Amazon’s perceived values.  Part of what makes it so shockingly bad is the contrast with the rest of Amazon.  Sometimes it’s literally as if you’re in an anti-Amazon parallel reality.

And I haven’t even touched on the dozens of ostensibly-ignored (and even sometimes brazenly misrouted) suggestions that I’ve volunteered to that division, purely out of good will, many of which actually have little to do with sellers, but are instead low-impact changes on the seller side that would greatly benefit customers on the customer side.

And the dozens of other problems that really deserve their own treatment.  For instance, how Amazon seller services displays web advertisements to all third-party sellers, and how some of those ads are for God-forsaken “nag” software that automatically spams customers until they leave compliant “positive reviews” and “positive feedback”.  (I can’t think of a review system that’s any more broken than that.  Plus folks, make no mistake – that software itself is analogous to adware, which is considered to be malware.   Amazon is allowing companies to advertise nuisance software to sellers, who would then utilize that malware against customers.)

Amazon shows these ads for malware to the sellers.
Amazon shows these ads for malware to the sellers.

Solution?  Obviously you can fire the seller services leadership and fire a bunch of lame employees.  (That’s exactly what I would have done in a heartbeat a long time ago.)  That type of boldness is the American way.  But half of what’s so sinister with something like this… is figuring out whether this shadowy division actually profits Amazon more, or less, when it serves the sellers incorrectly.


†  The national unemployment rate  is 4.3% in mid 2017.  That means about 1 in 25 American workers don’t have employment.  Considering the fact that these Amazon seller services jobs require almost zero technical skills, and in fact only require basic reasoning, basic comprehension, and English proficiency, the obvious question is why are these simple, English-language-based customer service jobs being outsourced to foreign countries in the first place (or “insourced” for that matter)?… We’ve seen multi-billion dollar corporations like Facebook attempt to evoke notions of corporate responsibility by implementing things like fake-news alerts.  While these constructive ideas shouldn’t be discounted, when you get to nine zeros and beyond, real corporate responsibility ought to include more opportunistic hiring of citizens in your own community.

‡  After this blog post was published, I found an easy-to-reproduce bug on the seller portion of the Amazon website.  This was right around August 4, 2017.   I submitted a bug report to Amazon seller services, at which point a string of 12 employees failed to discern that it was actually a bug report.  Ajaz, Kanchan, Amrit, Shubham, Bharat, Abhishek, Manish, Sunil, Radhika, Radhika, Radhika, and Manoj each copy-and-pasted generic answers to irrelevant questions that had nothing to do with software/website bugs.  Two other representatives, Keshav and Alok, discerned that it was a bug report.  However, Keshav re-requested  the relevant data necessary to reproduce the bug, even though it had been provided, succinctly and unambiguously, in the case details.  Alok did everything correctly, but was not on the case long enough to drive it to a successful conclusion (which in this case, meant logging a single bug in their bug database!!).  Jenny correctly discerned that it was a bug report, but merely did some meta-level administrative work on the case, and did not see it through to a successful conclusion (which again, only required logging a single bug in their bug database!).  For this incident/interaction, that’s a competence rate of roughly 7%.  Technically, that might have been a new low, but I also can’t say it surprised me.  (Also, this division does solicit and process bug reports, so in general this wasn’t something foreign or new.)  Most importantly, it tended to corroborate my suspicion that English speaking wasn’t the extent of the problem, but also English reading and comprehension.  That’s not really the representatives’ fault, but it is the fault of the hiring managers and executives who thought it would be a good idea to hire them for this job – a job whose principal requirement is English proficiency.

§  After this blog post was published, I actually received a new message on July 19, 2017 from an Amazon employee (in their seller services division), regarding previous suggestions on fixing their broken website for sellers.  It was true to form in every unfortunate way: “I really appreciate your idea of having this feature as it will improvise buyer experience.”

||  “I would kinldy request you to let s know what exactly is your concern.”  Yes, after this blog post was published, that message verbatim was actually sent to me by an Amazon employee (in their seller services division).  (The employee ignored the previous message history that he had been assigned to handle, and asked me to restate everything back to him.  Which sadly is almost the rule over there, not the exception.)  1.) It’s clearly 150% unprofessional.  2.) Yes it sure does seem like there’s too many typos.  3.) How to attribute those glaring, conspicuous errors… that’s another matter altogether.  Those ubiquitous spell checkers and grammar checkers – I guess employees over there turn ’em off.

¶  Later on, I accidentally discovered the most hilarious thing yet – a contingent of sellers who earnestly swear that you actually have to post all seller issues onto the “Amazon Seller Forums”.  So that other sellers can somehow solve the problem?  No.  So that the problem might be solved at all?  No.  They say you must do this because of rampant, chronic incompetence in the Amazon seller support division, and apparently there is (or was) a single named moderator whose job it is to watch over that massive seller forum (containing zillions of comments about bugs, issues, problems, complaints, and threats against Amazon), and this lone Amazon forum moderator has been known to be competent if she chooses to attend to the issue!!  I’m not joking in any way about this, and I’m not even sure how many levels of dysfunctional this is.  First, that the “best practice” for addressing any issue on the seller side would be to not contact Amazon seller support!  And second, that this hidden work-around  involves some kind of unofficial Amazon Lottery.  And third, that all of this zany dysfunction almost looks like some kind of concerted move thrown together by the greater Amazon corporation.

Great Design

Transparent Entrapment

In my previous post, I took a look at one government dysfunction.  Although bigger problems in Texas might theoretically exist, it’s really no different than any other dysfunction in terms of how it can be fixed.  The solution, in my own words, is transparent entrapment.

We are actually told by the Bible that it’s God’s preferred model.  We are told that God has designed transparent entrapment for humanity.

The Temptation of Christ by the Devil.  By Félix-Joseph Barrias in 1860.
The Temptation of Christ by the Devil.  By Félix-Joseph Barrias in 1860.

It’s entrapment because the subject is being tempted to take an action he or she would not otherwise take.

It’s transparent because the subjects have been given forewarning or foreknowledge of it.

One can certainly debate the merits of entrapment, and plenty of other theological questions, but I will tell you this… I have trained a number of dogs employing this device.

For humans, the legal definition of entrapment centers around the use of coercion and other overbearing tactics to induce someone to commit a crime.  In general, this method is a legal non-starter, and a solid defense strategy in court is simply to shine a spotlight on it.

Opaque entrapment would simply be the use of entrapment, but without any advance warning that such activity was taking place.  Saddam Hussein was allegedly a prolific, incredibly successful practitioner of opaque entrapment.  And his long-time grip over his government and his people more than validated that attribution.  Iraqi government figures were solicited for betrayal, and if they chose betrayal, they vanished.

Opaque entrapment has an interesting quality, in that if the subjects start to suspect this model is being used, the model still works.  And it was said that this was indeed the case in Iraq.  Saddam’s regime acquired an unofficial reputation for using this model, and it still worked perfectly, and it still snuffed out nearly all hope of internal opposition, because the subjects could never discern whether a betrayal solicitation was genuine or a trap.

In the free world, it’s generally agreed that opaque entrapment borders on cruel.  However, a closer look must be given to transparent entrapment.

Why not tell federal judges they will be intentionally solicited for bribery several times a year?  That in fact, this is all part of the job description.

Why not tell members of the CIA that they will be intentionally solicited for betrayal several times a month?  And that their friends and family will also be intentionally solicited for use in soliciting them?  Yes, there’s obviously a cost there, but I think it’s easy to argue that it’s worth the cost.

And, for example, why not tell Texas Boll Weevil employees that they will encounter intentionally broken, busted boll weevil traps on the ground near their work sites – just begging to be taken back to the boll weevil laboratory?  Failure to return them is considered failure on the job.

Why shouldn’t our public employees be held to high standards?

The fact that it’s transparent may provide a legal defense of the method, but if not, constitutional-level changes would admittedly need to be made.  I really can’t see how it wouldn’t be justified.

This is perhaps the method for rooting out almost any undesirable trait, in any context.

Poor Processes

Don’t Mess With Texas?

Anyone from Texas, or travelling through Texas, has surely seen the iconic “Don’t Mess With Texas” slogan, often times emblazoned on highway billboards as an admonition against littering.

Once again, by all accounts, Texas is anti-garbage.

But yet even with all this momentum, we still have a classic government agency dysfunction in our midst…

Take a good look at the image below.  What are these things?

Badminton Equipment?
Badminton Equipment?

It looks like plastic, and maybe related to a badminton game?

Well, actually these are part of a boll weevil trap.  State employees place these around farm fields to trap boll weevils as a part of a larger plan to eradicate them.  This is what the entire trap looks like when it’s upright and operational:

And acting as a minor pest in its own right, this collection of state employees will then leave these plastic, non-biodegradable trap pieces behind in the Texas landscape.  Whether the traps are busted or broken, or just not being used anymore, often times their life cycle ends with state employees leaving them as garbage on the ground.

Garbage left behind - just a few feet from a working boll weevil trap.
Garbage left behind – just a few feet from a working boll weevil trap.

Last time I checked, broken, busted boll weevil traps weren’t a part of Texas’s state seal.  Nor are they included in the official state song, or the state pledge of allegiance!  And I’ve never seen a single Texas highway billboard singing the praises of a boll weevil holocaust.

But they’re left behind – by state employees – as if this makes sense and they’re some kind of blessing for the Texas landscape.

Nothing confuses me more than state employees caring less about the state than ordinary citizens, people working for the county caring less about the county than people not working for the county, and federal civil servants caring less about the country than people working in the private sector.

So, to recap, you have entomological employees working for The Lone Star State (AKA The “Don’t Mess With Texas” State), leaving behind their non-biodegradable garbage everywhere, for a job, that by all appearances, isn’t even close to being on par with the state-wide anti-garbage mission.

Commemorative coins:

Yes, there are even pot holders:

In case anyone doubts your fervor.
In case anyone doubts your fervor.

Throwback:

(Can you imagine a boll weevil re-mix?  Neither can I.)

 

 


Epilogue

Great Design

Down Home Country Solutions

We had some knives coming out of the dishwasher with little brown rust stains on them.  I tried a variety of methods to remove them, but nothing seemed to really work.

Recently I found some advice online that called for pure lemon juice.  So, I started searching for the internet’s best lemon juice, but the solution ended up being much more down to earth.  We have some lemon trees, and as it turns out, jabbing a knife into a lemon is a lot easier than applying liquid solvents or filling up cups to the brim with commercial lemon products.

lemons 1

And when you’re done with the blade… yes, you can simply flip it around and clean the handle.

lemons 2

 

The results?  UNBELIEVABLE.  I was truly shocked!  Lemons somehow solve this problem perfectly.  The stains get obliterated.  All of them.  They all come right off.

Miscellany

Reasons You Shouldn’t Kick Inconspicuous Tires That Have Been Dumped

bees-in-tire-1

It’s been said that bees love to find tires to build hives in.  The honeycomb in the picture above was built by extremely aggressive Africanized bees.  The tire had been dumped long ago and was sitting right next to a path used by pedestrians and also horse riders.

Dumped tires like this look like trash to most people, but they must look like mansions to bees searching for a home.  When you see a dumped tire, it’s best to assume the worst.

With full bee gear, we safely moved this tire to a much safer location.  The bees you see in the pictures and in the video below are mostly neighboring bees that came to harvest this killer bee honey after we moved the tire.

As for the killer bees themselves, believe it or not, it took three attempts to completely kill them!  Drowning first, then locally-controlled fumigation, and then finally soapy water.  And each time we figured we “must have got almost all of ’em”.

If you ever see or suspect anything like this, assume the worst and call a professional or the local authority responsible for dealing with something like this.

bees-in-tire-2

bees-in-tire-3

bees-in-tire-4

In the video below, more flying neighbors got into the action after we pulled out some honeycomb and put it on a flat surface.

 

We got 'er. The deadly colony's Ace of Spades.
We got ‘er. The deadly colony’s Ace of Spades.

Great Design

Reuse, Reduce, Recycle?

Mr. Sandman

Victor Mr. Sandman
Was “Mr. Sandman” the nom de guerre of Victor?

Mr. Sandman had a few kills in his day.  So many in fact, that the metal parts became twisted and bent to the point the trap was unusable.

To make matters worse, we now favor more human methods (live traps), and best of all, finding and sealing up old rodent entryways.  But Mr. Sandman has moved on as well.  He’s reinvented himself as a sanding block (after going through the dishwasher several times).  Not a bad move on his part.

Sanding Block

Poor Design

Sliding Standards

I won’t say that “back in my day”, it was simply expected that you graduate from high school, but one got the sense that in generations prior, that’s how it was.  You were supposed to graduate from high school.

Now every school in my area takes out a full-page ad (some take out several pages of ads) trumpeting the unbelievable accomplishment of our high school students graduating from high school.

In fact, if you stripped all the words and context away, these ads almost look like photos of people who just won the lottery!

600 graduates

100 percent passing rate

I strongly disagree with this approach.  I refuse to participate in this cult of the high-school-graduation hysteria.  It looks and feels like sliding standards.  I’m skeptical that the world’s highest-performing countries do this.

And sadly, it will be hard for individual schools to stop doing this, as long as all the other schools continue doing it.  This form of peer pressure will tend to ensure this embarrassing trend continues going strong.

One wonders what’s next.  All-out celebrations for junior high graduates?  Custom theme music getting blared out for students each time they successfully go to the restroom?

To tell you the truth, I feel like the students here are pawns, at least partially, in an academia-led scheme to cult-ify high school graduation.  Very similar to how we used to always hear the mind-boggling sage wisdom about how 18-year-old basketball phenoms should play four years of college basketball.  While making $0 and risking a career-ending, millions-losing injury!  With the only upside being that they get a college education… that they could have actually received later after they secured hundreds of millions of dollars (with tens of those millions being guaranteed in their initial contract, before they even stepped foot on the court).