Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Seven Months

The lead story across the Boston media this week is the arrest of Brian O'Hare, a State Police sergeant who has been charged with coercing a minor to engage in sex. O'Hare's wife has kicked him out of the house, and a judge has ordered him to stay away from his two children. If convicted, O'Hare faces a mandatory minimum of five years in prison.

He was caught in an FBI sting by Jeremy Morrissey, an agent who pretended to be a 14-year-old boy in AOL chatrooms. Morrissey spent seven months talking to O'Hare before O'Hare proposed a meeting.

I know. "Protect the children." I'm sure most Americans feel that Morrissey (identified in the newspaper as an "undercover agent") was doing good work. But you're wrong. The Dangerous Internet™ is a myth. There's been a lot of paranoia about MySpace recently, but consider this: Statistically, your child is more likely to be kidnapped or raped by virtue of living in the state of California than by using MySpace.

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, there are no legions of predators stalking the internet for victims. The vast majority of missing children are runaways or family abductions, which means that Special Agent Morrissey just spent seven months fighting a threat that barely exists. Ask the FBI how many agents they currently have assigned to open cases of verified abductions from five years ago. Hell, ask them whether they're actively looking for kids who were kidnapped last year. They're not.

For that matter, since we're embroiled in a national debate about port security, consider that roughly 26,000 containers arrived in US ports today. Fewer than 1 in 20 were inspected. ("Inspected," by the way, doesn't mean "searched.") Add to that the Mexican border: More than a million people cross illegally every year, and reports of violent clashes are increasing. There are tasks that need the FBI's attention. This isn't one of them.

Furthermore: Nonfamily abductions of children are rare; but when they occur, they're overwhelmingly committed by repeat offenders, not police veterans with decorated military records. I don't know whether Sergeant O'Hare would ever have harmed a child if left to his own devices. Maybe. But there are plenty of repeat offenders out there, and I do know that statistically, it's more likely that Special Agent Morrissey would have saved a child from harm if he had spent seven months capturing escaped fugitives and parole jumpers.

I don't condone O'Hare's actions. He seems to be guilty. But this country is becoming more suspicious every day, and I wonder about the wisdom of the FBI targeting would-be (or might-be) offenders. There's a lot of work to be done, and I don't think this is a good use of resources. Moreover, I think it's a dangerous trend, setting out to make criminals out of citizens. You sell a guy a bag of oregano and tell him it's pot; yes, he's guilty of attempted possession. But if the guy's never bought an ounce of weed in his life, I wonder whether you just helped or harmed society.

Monday, February 27, 2006

We Are the Champions

Bode Miller was sent home from Turin without any medals. And frankly, I'm glad.

Miller walked into the Winter Olympics after having bragged to 60 Minutes about skiing while drunk and having told Rolling Stone that Lance Armstrong and Barry Bonds, two fellow athletes whom he's never met, are cheaters. After failing in every event, he disparaged his teammates and opponents and bragged about his apathy toward competition.

I'm a patriot, and American patriots love to see American champions; but those champions are worthless if we can't look to them with pride. If we have to be ashamed of our athletes' behavior, then I'd rather they didn't win.

Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins wrote, "There are few things less worthy of respect than the athlete who pretends not to care about the outcome." I agree completely. I can live with Bode Miller's behavior being representative of Americans — just not the Americans that win.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

To Beat the House

I'm a nerd, so I spent my Saturday taking a free practice LSAT at Wellesley College. I scored 163, which puts my target of 170 within reach. I've got 15 weeks.

My preliminary list has a dozen schools. Harvard is worth fifty bucks only because the odds are better than a lottery ticket. Ditto, Yale. And obviously I'm not leaving Boston for anything short of Ivy League — so that leaves Boston College, Boston University, and Suffolk, not necessarily in that order.

Let's roll the dice.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Presidential Rebellion

President Bush told the press yesterday, "People don't need to worry about security."

Bill Maher returned to HBO last week, and during the premier show Dan Senor described President Bush as a "rebel." Maher's Los Angeles audience broke into laughter, but Senor is absolutely right. We're accustomed to presidents whose eyes are glued to their approval ratings, and President Bush simply doesn't seem to care.

You'd think the Harriet Miers trainwreck would have humbled his administration, reminded them that they're only one-third of our government and not a private entity. But we're talking about a group of people responsible for the fact that, for the first time in a half-century, the 2008 presidential election will proceed without an incumbent's advantage.

I've never understood that decision. Maybe Dick Cheney's a smart man and maybe his advice is valued by the president, but why not hire him as a senior advisor? For that matter, why hire him at all? He doesn't need the money, and there's no rule that says the president can't invite his friends into the Oval Office for advice. (See Karen Hughes.)

The vice president has three constitutional responsibilities: To break a tie in the US Senate, to preside over the counting of electoral votes, and to replace the president if necessary. It's hardly a vital or even powerful office. In practical terms, its primary function is to establish a presidential candidate for the incumbent party four years hence. Obviously, Dick Cheney will never run for president, so keeping him on the ticket denies an advantage to the Republican Party in 2008.

I can't figure out who it helps, or how. And consequently, I don't see a Republican president. I see a group of people who have manipulated the Republican party for the benefit of their own private fraternity.

I'm not surprised that President Bush would sign a deal allowing an Arab company to control six ports. We seem to have a tradition of lame-duck presidents selling their loyalty to foreign interests, and Bush's family has always been too close to Arab leaders. Frankly, it doesn't bother me much; we have military ties to the UAE, and the power brokers care less about ideology than profit and they have every reason to ensure their investment. Moreover, foreign management of port terminals is commonplace worldwide.

But obviously, these are special circumstances. This deal looks wrong, and the man who told us that Iraq had the bomb is assuring us that we can trust him. And after warning Americans to be alert, to involve themselves in national security and to report anything amiss, President Bush now says, "People don't need to worry about security."

At this moment, I see three likely contenders for the Republican nomination in two years: Mitt Romney, Condoleeza Rice, and Jeb Bush. I'd vote for Romney — hell, I'd campaign for Romney. But either of the latter two would result in the same group of people running our country for another four years. And given their stunning lack of judgment in matters of security, diplomacy, and even professional politics, I have to confess: I'm strongly considering voting for Hillary.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Parent Trap

There was a Batman story titled "Cataclysm" where Gotham City was destroyed by an earthquake and the island was sealed off by the US government. The survivors were stranded in a post-apocalyptic society with mob violence and gang rule.

In one issue, Superman showed up to help despite Batman's objection. Superman enlisted a few workers and restored electricity to a section of the city; and within an hour, a hundred people had crowded the facility to offer payment in tribute. He insisted that it didn't have to work like that, that they could cooperate and rebuild their neighborhood together. They wouldn't listen.

He met Batman on the outskirts of the city before leaving. "You were right. I didn't understand."

He looked sad. "They're not ready."

Today, Iraq is on the brink of civil war. Maybe they'll recover their balance and maybe they won't, but we can't help. They need to find their own footing, and we're just getting in the way. We toppled Saddam — and while his might have been a brutal gang rule, it was structure and it was all they had. In the short term, we've done more harm than good. For sake of the long term, we need to take a step back.

Democracy occurs as the direct result of violent revolution. We can't install democracy. We can't impose it. It's like a baby learning to walk. They have to learn it for themselves.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Attention Deficit

I didn't want to write this column. When I first read about a couple of lawyers' snippy emails circulating online, I dismissed it as uninteresting gossip. Then the Boston Globe published it on the front page, and I was floored. I decided I wasn't going to comment, recalling a bit of ethical advice from a journalism professor: "You can't unring a bell, but you can stop ringing it."

However, the Globe report has repeatedly topped the "Most Emailed" list for the past week. I can ignore stupid, childish behavior from attorneys, and I can turn my head when the Globe puts gossip on its front page. But hundreds of people in Boston and thousands of people across the internet are continuing to recycle this story, and it's time someone told them to shut up.

Here are the emails. The story is brief. Dianna Abdala, a 24-year-old graduate of Suffolk Law, applied for a job with a law firm owned by 36-year-old former prosecutor William Korman. Following the initial interview, Korman decided to hire two attorneys instead of one and consequently reduced the salary he was offering Abdala. She declined his offer, and they traded a short series of emails that were, at worst, impolite and testy.

Korman forwarded the exchange to a colleague, who forwarded it to someone else. Lather, rinse, repeat. The email has since circled the world.

The Globe tried to spin this as a lesson: "The next time you're tempted to send a nasty, exasperated, or snippy e-mail, pause, take a deep breath, and think again." That's a cheap ploy to justify publishing pointless gossip, and both Sacha Pfeiffer and the editors should be ashamed.

It's not worth trying to reprimand any 24-year-old foolish enough to describe herself to a newspaper reporter as a "trust fund baby"; and any attorney trying to build his criminal defense practice by announcing to the world that he has no regard for privacy or discretion certainly deserves whatever lessons he's about to learn. But the truth is, aside from the lack of any substance to this story, there's isn't even much fire. You can spend five minutes in any internet forum and find less civil arguments about more pertinent issues, so it's absolutely astounding that the Boston Globe found this worthy of attention. I know the paper's a rag, but I don't understand why they feel compelled to prove it twice a month.

We're cursed to live in interesting times. You would think those privileged to practice the law and those entrusted to report the news would find more constructive uses for their time than shuffling inconsequential gossip. Get back to work.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Force of Assertion

In a column for PC Magazine, John C. Dvorak made the remarkably dumb prediction that Apple is planning to abandon its operating system and switch to Windows. Dvorak bases his assertion on a number of false premises and ignores a few basic flaws — like the fact that software is vastly more profitable than hardware, so it's a bit odd to predict that Apple will drop its popular software and instead manufacture high-priced computers for an already over-saturated bargain-bin market.

Dvorak has made his career by positing ridiculous predictions. He's worse than a financial analyst who is consistently proven wrong, because Dvorak's claims are patently stupid. It's like a meteorologist forecasting that tomorrow's weather will drop thousands of blueberry muffins from the sky. You don't have to wait and see whether the prediction will come true. It's just stupid.

But Dvorak keeps writing and readers keep responding, and I'm reminded of something George Bernard Shaw wrote.
It was from Handel that I learned that style consists in force of assertion. If you can say a thing with one stroke unanswerably you have style; if not, you are at best a marchand de plaisir; a decorative litterateur, or a musical confectioner, or a painter of fans with cupids and cocottes. Handel has this power. When he sets the words "Fixed in his everlasting seat," the atheist is struck dumb; God is there, fixed in his everlasting seat by Handel, even if you live in an Avenue Paul Bert and despise such superstitions. You may despise what you like, but you cannot contradict Handel. All the sermons of Bossuet could not convince Grimm that God existed. The four bars in which Handel finally affirms "the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace," would have struck Grimm into the gutter, as by a thunderbolt. When he tells you that when the Israelites went out of Egypt, "there was not one feeble person in all their tribes," it is utterly useless for you to plead that there must have been at least one case of influenza. Handel will not have it: "There was not one, not one feeble person in all their tribes," and the orchestra repeats it in curt, smashing chords that leave you speechless.
I've gotten some helpful feedback on this blog in the past few months. For one thing, people prefer the political columns to the CD reviews. I won't be abandoning jazz altogether, but I do keep that in mind when choosing subjects. I've also been told, regarding the political columns, that my position is sometimes difficult to decipher. Folks say they have to read an essay twice to figure out which side I'm on. (Believe me, it's the first time in my life I've been accused of being equivocal.)

I can appreciate the implied compliment, that I'm presenting a balanced view by lending voice to both sides. I don't aim to throw bombs; and if I'm achieving an intelligent tone, I'm glad. But Shaw was right. What he said about Handel is true, just as it's true about Miles Davis or Bill Evans or Thelonious Monk. The great voices never lacked force of assertion. With it, even an empty shirt like Dvorak can scrape by. So it's a tool I'll spend more time sharpening.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

A Show of Reason

Neil Entwistle is back in Boston. Today he'll be arraigned in Framingham District Court on two charges of first-degree murder, and the question has turned to whether he can receive a fair trial. I'll guarantee that Entwistle will plead to avoid trial; but just for the sake of argument, let's examine the question.

The day after police discovered the bodies of Rachel, 27, and 9-month-old Lillian in their Hopkinton home, Neil Entwistle told a detective that he had found his wife and daughter murdered when he returned home from a two-hour trip to Staples. He claimed that he grabbed a kitchen knife to kill himself, then reconsidered and instead fled to Europe. This conflicts with what Entwistle apparently told his father, that he had only been gone for 20 minutes and that he had called police. He had not.

The murder weapon was a .22-caliber revolver taken from his father-in-law's pistol collection that had Entwistle's fingerprints on the handle and his wife's DNA on the muzzle. (The technical term is "blowback." When someone is shot point blank, the rush of air subsequent to the bullet's exit can suck drops of blood inside the gun barrel.)

Police searched Entwistle's computers and found that he had used the internet to research killing and suicide. He had also attempted several internet businesses that failed, including pornography and penis enlargement websites. The family was heavily in debt, with a $498 per month leased BMW and a $2,700 per month lease on the house in Hopkinton into which they had moved only ten days before the killings.

The day after Entwistle's wife and child were murdered, he drove to Logan International Airport and flew to England. He did not attend his wife's and daughter's funeral. When he was first arrested in England last week, he indicated that he would contest extradition.

The question is, at what point does a presumption of innocence become absurd?

Like I said, Entwistle is going to plead. This case won't go to trial. (Remember who said that first.) But in the meantime, his lawyer is going to drum a ruckus about the impossibility of a fair trial and he's got a point. Most people have heard about the story, and virtually anyone who's heard it will have decided that Entwistle is guilty. It's obvious. In a case like this, if it were even possible to give Entwistle the benefit of the doubt, what would be a compelling reason for doing so?

We afford criminal defendants the benefit of the doubt because prosecution is a serious matter. We're talking about using 12 laymen to suspend another man's liberty, to remove him from home and family and lock him inside a cement prison for a significant portion of his life. We want to make damn sure we've got the right guy, and we achieve that by making the prosecution tie every loose end. If they can't, he walks. And that's fair because those dozen people are supposed to be a jury of his peers; they're supposed to put themselves in his position and think, "What if I were sitting there, facing all this damning evidence, and I didn't commit the crime?"

This isn't that. This is a man who had motive, means, opportunity, who is incriminated by forensic evidence and who has behaved as if he is guilty at almost every opportunity. This is a kid standing in front of a cookie jar with his hand stuck inside that cookie jar, with cookie crumbs on his shirt and still chewing, but shaking his head and mumbling, "I didn't eat any cookies!"

The presumption of evidence is a crucial construct of our criminal justice system intended to facilitate justice. Explain to me exactly what practical purpose that presumption would serve in the case of Neil Entwistle.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006


I spent most of yesterday driving, and I checked in sporadically with the talk radio shows. Nearly every host spent his entire shift talking about Vice President Cheney's weekend hunting accident. Cheney accidentally shot his friend Harry Whittington on Saturday, and the story didn't break until Sunday. The White House press corps has been throwing a conniption ever since. Their objection? They weren't notified in a timely manner.

The whole situation is absurd. It's currently on the front page of every major news website, and it has been a lead story for the past three days. Tonight will be no different. Let me be clear: This is a story of absolutely zero consequence.

Is there anyone who honestly believes Cheney intentionally shot his 78-year-old friend? Is there anyone who thinks Cheney was criminally negligent, or impaired by drugs or alcohol? Does anyone believe that charges should be filed — that if Whittington dies, Cheney should be impeached?

Of course not. This was a hunting accident, nothing more. It has no political ramifications. It doesn't affect our national security or our international relations. This is a story of absolutely zero consequence, yet it has dominated our national press for three days and counting.

What the hell.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006


I apologize for the recent lag in content. Technorati has been having difficulty indexing my page, and it was necessary that I keep it static for a few days while technical support sorted out the issue. I've been told the problem is now fixed, and we'll now return to our regular schedule.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

How To Sell On EBay

[Revised December 4, 2008.]

I've gotten a lot of hits lately on my EBay FAQ, and there seems to be interest in an FAQ for new sellers. Feel free to use the comments to offer feedback.

Q: How should I set my starting price?

Browse similar auctions. Use the "Completed Listings Only" search function to compare bidding patterns. Generally speaking, a lower starting price will attract more bidders. And you don't have to worry about people thinking your item must be flawed if your minimum is too low; many sellers use low minimums and rely on the market to establish a fair price. It's common because it usually works.

Q: When is the best time to start my auction?

Weekends, between 8:00 PM and midnight Eastern Time.

Q: Should I use "Buy It Now"?

Maybe. This is a neat feature that can benefit everyone involved. What you have to realize, however, is you're setting two different prices for your item; so now, in addition to competing with other sellers, you're also competing with yourself. A "Buy It Now" price of $69.99 might be reasonable compared to what similar items are selling for; but if your minimum bid is only $14.99, I guarantee you'll attract a cheapskate who isn't willing to pay the market value but hopes he can win your item for only $14.99. He'll place a bid, which causes the "Buy It Now" option to disappear for everyone else, and then he'll drop out of the bidding before it reaches a reasonable price.

Remember that bidding is free, so people have nothing to lose placing dozens of unreasonably low bids. If they get outbid, they simply shrug and move on; and if they win, they get your item for a steal. You need to set your "Buy It Now" price low enough to attract serious buyers; but if you're going to pay that fee, you can't set your opening bid so low that it attracts penny-pinchers.

Q: Should I set a reserve price?

No. If you have a minimum selling price, that should be your starting price. Using a reserve simply tells bidders that you're not being forthright, and many bidders will ignore your auction altogether. You also risk attracting bidders who will bid repeatedly until they discover your reserve limit; and once they do, they'll realize they didn't really want to pay that much and they'll retract their bids or refuse to pay. Regardless of what anyone tells you, there is absolutely no reason to use a reserve, ever. It's like Priority Mail, which costs more than First Class but often takes longer to deliver. It's a special service that is, at best, equal to the standard service; but as long as folks keep paying for it, eBay will continue to offer it. Don't use it.

Q: Should I offer free shipping?

You'd think this would matter to bidders, but it doesn't. Check similar items in your category. You don't want to be the only seller not offering free shipping; but if you think people will bid more on your item because you've promised free shipping, they won't. You're better off stating a reasonable shipping charge and setting a lower opening price.

Q: How much should I charge for shipping?

Figure out your cost. Remember that "shipping & handling" includes more than postage. Depending on what you're selling, you may have to buy boxes, padded envelopes, packing peanuts, bubble wrap, packing tape, etc. You should also consider the time you'll spend driving to the post office. If you're sending a package outside the country or via registered mail, you'll have to fill out forms. You should also know that it's standard practice to absorb the various fees charged by both eBay and PayPal into your shipping charge.

Make sure you clearly state your shipping charge in your auction. I can't stress this enough. Bidders don't understand how much it costs to sell and ship items via eBay; many of them think "shipping" should include only the cost of postage. This is a frequent area of contention between bidder and sellers, and the only way to avoid trouble is to clearly state your charges up front, before anyone bids.

Q: Should I purchase additional listing features like a second category, bold, gallery, etc.?

This depends entirely on what you're selling, but the bottom line is that you need substance to back up the gimmick. If your item is unique in a popular category, it's worth a few dollars to grab people's attention. But if your auction is just like everyone else's, bidders will know and you'll be wasting your money.

The blue-chip promotions like featuring your item on eBay's home page are strictly for auctions that will benefit from a high profile. If you're selling a piece of toast shaped like the Virgin Mary, it's probably worth your money. If you're selling an antique coffee grinder, it's probably not.

Q: Is the 10-day auction a waste of money?


Q: Should I ship internationally?

You might attract more bidders and a higher selling price. You'll definitely have to pay more for postage and fill out US Customs Declarations. [Since 9/11, shipping to Canada requires a Customs Declaration.] Again, this question depends on what you're selling. If you choose to offer international shipping, I recommend specifying a separate, higher shipping price for international bidders.

Q: Should I post a photo of my item?

Yes. A photograph is probably the best way to increase your selling price. People like to see what they're buying. EBay allows you to post one photo per auction, free, and you should always do it. Whether or not you need additional photos depends on what you're selling. If there's a practical reason, like showing both sides of a collectible coin, then you should.

Q: Should I offer a return policy?

No. EBay works best when treated like a yard sale. If you clearly describe the item's condition and post a photograph, there should be no reason for a return. Having a return policy will just act like an open door for abusers to walk through. All such doors that can be closed, should.

Q: Should I accept personal checks?

No. After shipping charges, bounced checks are the second most common source of problems on eBay. There's absolutely no reason to accept personal checks. If your bidder needs to pay with his checking account, he can send an eCheck via PayPal. If your bidder needs to pay via mail, he can send a cashier's check or money order. Don't expose yourself to unnecessary hassle by accepting personal checks.

Q: Should I use PayPal?


You've probably heard that PayPal is controversial. In a nutshell, the story is that PayPal makes a habit of "freezing" funds when a transaction is disputed or if PayPal thinks it's suspicious. Some of those people never got their money back. Let me be clear: I think PayPal does this on purpose, and I think it's blatantly unethical. I think some of the PayPal executives should probably go to jail.

However, the good news is that it's relatively easy to avoid being victimized by PayPal. You just have to remember one simple rule: PayPal is not a bank. PayPal is a payment processing service — and if you remember that, and if you follow my simple instructions, you'll be safe.

There are two ways you can link PayPal to your checking account. The first is automatic; as soon as you provide the routing information, PayPal can transfer funds into your checking account. However, PayPal cannot withdraw from that account unless you choose to "verify" it, which is the second option. This is a simple process: PayPal will make two small, secret deposits, something like 37¢ and 63¢, and you'll be asked to confirm the amounts. This proves that you own the account. PayPal is now authorized to withdraw money from that account (but only with your permission).

It's important to remember that you don't have to verify your checking account. If you choose not to, you can still deposit up to $400 per month from PayPal into that account. If you receive $560 from eBay sales in February, you'll have to wait until March to deposit the remaining $160. If you expect to make less than $400 per month, this doesn't affect you.

That's the safest option, to leave your account unverified. However, you shouldn't worry if you need to verify it. PayPal knows its legal limits. It can freeze funds left in its trust without exposing itself to serious legal repercussions, but making unauthorized withdrawals from federally-insured banks is another story. I wouldn't worry about this happening.

Now, here's the key: Don't leave money sitting in your PayPal account. When your customers pay, immediately transfer that money from PayPal into your checking account. These transfers are free and you can do it as often as you like. I recommend doing a transfer at least once every day while you're receiving payments. Each transfer takes about two days to clear — and once the money arrives in your checking account, you're protected by federal banking regulations. It's that simple.

You should use PayPal because it's convenient. It's convenient for you; but more importantly, it's convenient for bidders. People who shop online want to use credit cards. They expect to be able to finish their transactions online. Even if they tell you they would rather mail a check, they won't. They'll procrastinate, or they'll forget, or they'll change their minds. Trust me when I tell you: If you accept payment via mail, you will get deadbeat bidders. Accepting PayPal is the single most effective strategy for preventing that from happening.

Q: Should I email the bidder to confirm when I've shipped his item?

Yes. It's a small courtesy that bidders appreciate. Most sellers are poor at communication, and you can impress your customers by being an exception. Let your bidder know that you've received his payment and shipped his item, and give an idea when he can expect to receive it. Remember that the only thing customers like better than good surprises are no surprises.

Q: Should I buy shipping insurance?

If you're selling small items, offer it at extra cost. Most bidders won't buy it. If you're selling expensive items, however, you should always promise to use shipping insurance and build the cost into your shipping & handling charge. You'll probably never need it, because the Postal Service is safe and they're even safer with insured packages — but if you're shipping a $1,500 item between two strangers on opposite sides of the country, you should make sure everyone is protected. Use shipping insurance.

When you ship via First Class, modern post offices will automatically print a receipt showing the package's weight and destination zip code. If you're paranoid, you can request a 95¢ proof of mailing, which is a postmarked receipt noting the recipient's full address along with your return address.

Q: When should I leave feedback?

The transaction isn't complete until the bidder has received his item and expressed satisfaction. Some sellers choose to leave feedback as soon as they receive payment. That's noble, but I think it's unwise. There are a hundred things that could still go wrong, and I've seen some of them happen. Even if what happens isn't your fault, the bidder will be more likely to leave negative feedback if he knows you can't retaliate.

Q: Should I leave negative feedback for deadbeat bidders?

Yes. They deserve it — but more importantly, other sellers deserve to know. The guy who just stiffed you might have stiffed three other sellers last month; but because they didn't report him, you didn't know and you couldn't protect yourself. You can set your auctions to reject bidders with a certain number of negative feedbacks; and once a bidder receives three strikes, eBay suspends his account.

Some sellers refuse to leave negative feedback because they're scared of receiving retaliatory feedback. I've received retaliatory feedback and it's easily addressed: Respond briefly and professionally, and everyone will clearly see the retaliation for what it is. There might be bidders who will avoid your auctions when they see that negative, but I suspect those would be people more likely to cause trouble themselves. Honest bidders will recognize your professionalism in handling a deadbeat. It makes you look better, not worse.

[Updated June 12, 2006.]

I've kept an eye on the referrer logs to watch how people are finding this page. I've seen a couple of questions appear frequently; and although they're not specifically related to a Selling FAQ, they are worth answering for everyone's benefit.

Q: What happens if I don't pay on eBay?

That depends. In the worst case scenario, you will get negative feedback from the seller and a Non-Paying Bidder warning from eBay. These warnings operate on a three-strikes rule: If you refuse to pay for three auctions, your account will be suspended.

You should pay. When you placed your bid, you agreed to a contract. The seller paid to list his item, and he waited a week to find a buyer. Maybe you changed your mind, or maybe you bid by mistake, but you should take responsibility. Your actions did affect another person, and you should accept the consequences.

Having said that: You might have a valid reason for not paying. If the seller is trying to raise the price after the auction has ended, he's violating eBay policy. You can report him to eBay, and his account may be suspended. If you think you're being scammed, don't pay. It's better to get negative feedback and a warning letter from eBay than to lose several hundred dollars.

Q: Can the seller sue me if I don't pay?

Yes. He probably won't, but he could. If the auction involved a large sum of money, or if the seller lives in your jurisdiction, then you should consider this possibility. But it's rare. No seller is going to fly across the country to sue over a $7 compact disc.

[Updated December 4, 2008.]

EBay has modified several policies since I wrote this article. You can review the current rules by clicking here, but the bottom line is that eBay is now trying to focus on so-called PowerSellers (high-volume merchants who use eBay as their storefront) instead of regular people. PowerSellers can streamline their sales and use fewer resources, which makes them more profitable for eBay. And so, while eBay once tried to encourage people to sell on its site, now its focus is on encouraging people to buy. The rationale is that if the buyers come here, the sellers will follow.

Most of the advice above still holds true, but I should point out a couple changes. Most importantly, sellers are now required to offer PayPal or a comparable payment method. EBay no longer permits sellers to require payment by mail. This was significant because US Postal money orders were always the safest payment method. If you paid with a postal money order and a seller scammed you, he had committed mail fraud; and US Postal Inspectors take mail fraud seriously. So why did eBay change? (Apart from the fact that eBay owns PayPal...) Because that was the direction the tide was turning. As I noted several years ago, most buyers want to be able to complete the entire transaction online. That's the way Amazon and other websites work, and eBay wants to stay in the mainstream.

That led to the second major change: Sellers cannot leave negative feedback for buyers. This was a controversial move, but I don't think it's catastrophic. The most common reason for leaving buyers negative feedback was that they won your auctions but didn't pay. Deadbeat bidders were common when people paid by mail; they would win an auction and then change their mind on the way to the post office. Now that everybody is using PayPal, it's less of a problem.

Both of these policies make sense from eBay's perspective. Buyers can be discouraged by the prospect of unwarranted negative feedback, so eBay simply eliminated that problem. It's all about encouraging buyers to visit the site. The result is a loophole, where one malicious buyer can threaten to leave negative feedback for a regular seller without possibility of retaliation. I don't think this is a significant problem; the truth is, there are easier and more profitable ways for dishonest people to scam eBay nowadays. But you should be aware of it.

One final note. Amazon has become a central player in this market. If you're selling books, CDs, DVDs, etc., then check the item's page on Amazon and browse the "Used & New" third-party listings. Your buyers will be looking at these. For many of these items, Amazon is now the place to sell. Unless you're selling something rare or collectible, you can often get a higher price for less effort. But the market works in reverse: Instead of bidders competing to pay the highest price, Amazon sellers compete to advertise the lowest price. If you list a DVD for $15.99, you will often find that within just a few hours, someone else has lowered their price to $15.98. It's like The Price Is Right: Your listing can quickly become obsolete by just a penny.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

A Cry for Help

Last month, Chris McKinstry killed himself. And while I'm inclined to respect his privacy, the circumstances of his death warrant discussion.

Chris was a 39-year-old computer researcher. He created several projects that caught the interest of the artificial intelligence community, including Mindpixel, which was designed to collect millions of human-validated true/false statements into a database that would constitute "intelligence." Chris was born in Canada; but after losing most of his money to several failed dot-com ventures during the late '90s, he moved to Chile to work as a telescope operator.

On Friday, January 20, Chris published two suicide notes on his blog. He also posted a series of messages on a discussion group claiming that he was sitting in an internet cafe and had swallowed a lethal dose of pills. As the forum participants tried to persuade him to call for help, Chris described feeling weak and said he was about to die. The other posters managed to contact Carolyn Turpin, a Foreign Service Officer at the US embassy in Chile, who enlisted the help of local police and turned the matter over to the Canadian embassy.

Three days later, Chris was found dead in his apartment. He had disconnected the gas hose from his stove and asphyxiated himself.

It's difficult to accuse a man of lying in his suicide note when he turns up dead three days later. But obviously, Chris was lying. Call it fishing for attention, or call it a cry for help; but he posted a dozen messages saying things like, "I have to go die...bye" and "It is too late. I will leave this cafe soon and curl up somewhere." One of his last posts read, "I am leaving now. People are strating to notice I canot type and I am about to vomit. Take to go. Last post."

Shortly after that, Chris stopped posting when other participants began calling police. He was spotted leaving his apartment the next day. On Monday, he committed suicide.

I don't doubt that he felt suicidal on Friday. He explained that he'd struggled with depression throughout his life, and that suicide had always felt like an option. But he staged a very public incident on that Friday evening — so public, in fact, that someone pointed out to Chris during the discussion that his Wikipedia entry had been updated to reflect his suicidal intentions. The question is: But for the events of Friday, would Chris still have killed himself on Monday?

Chris lived in a world of computers. He expressed a great deal of concern for his reputation online, and had complained several times when he saw something unflattering on Google or Wikipedia. That was where he lived, where he worked. He certainly knew he couldn't erase what he'd done. He knew word would spread and his entire community would hear the story by Monday morning: how Chris McKinstry had posted a suicide note on his blog, how he told everyone he was dying inside an internet cafe in Chile. If he logged back online Monday morning, he would be forever branded a drama queen and a liar.

The hardest part of suicide is pulling the trigger. No matter how deep your depression, you can't suppress the instinct to survive — an instinct that manifests itself as abject terror when you're holding the gun in your hands. It's an impossible task to overcome that fear; and for many people contemplating suicide, saying goodbye seems like an easy way to trap yourself into a corner where you'll have no other choice.

Chris knew people would never forget what he'd done. So he was left with two choices: Confess that he had been lying and accept the shame of being labeled an attention whore, or follow through and kill himself. He must have agonized all weekend. Finally, Monday morning when he knew his absence would be noticed, he had to make his decision. And he did.

I'm not inclined to pass judgment. Nor am I inclined to assign blame to anyone else; cries for help are usually dishonest, but Chris was 39 years old and responsible for his own actions. Having said that: He locked himself onto a fast track beyond the point of no return, and I sympathize with how he must have felt. I wonder: If he'd made those comments to friends on the telephone — if not for his belief in the permanence of the internet, that his suicidal proclamation would remain on the World Wide Web for posterity — would Chris McKinstry be alive today?

Saturday, February 04, 2006


This afternoon, a three-day manhunt for Jacob Robida ended with a highway pursuit, a gunfight, and his capture. He had been pulled over by Arkansas police officer Jim Sell for a routine traffic stop. Robida shot and killed Officer Sell, 63, and led Arkansas state troopers on a chase into the town of Norfolk, at which point he killed an unidentified woman riding in his car before turning his gun on police. He was wounded twice and remains in critical condition at a hospital in Springfield, Missouri.

Robida's spree began on Wednesday night when he entered a gay bar in New Bedford, Massachusetts. He ordered two drinks before brandishing a hatchet and attacking two male patrons. Then he pulled out a pistol, shot both men and a third customer, and fled the scene.

This has been described as a "hate crime." Robida, a high school dropout, was known to disparage blacks and Jews and decorated his bedroom with swastikas; and although his friends said he had never exhibited hostility toward gays specifically, he chose a well-known gay bar to stage his massacre. He apparently even asked the bartender whether it was a gay bar before ordering his drinks, and seemed satisfied when assured that it was.

If Robida survives, he will face multiple counts of first-degree murder. In Arkansas, a jury may impose the death penalty for the intentional killing of a police officer.

But Robida would also be subject to federal hate crime charges; and given the high profile of his case, it's almost certain the US attorney would prosecute. And that's what bugs me. Because we shouldn't get into the business of becoming thought police; but more importantly, that idea cheapens what Robida did.

Calling him a homophobe aligns him with a million other men who roll their eyes at Will & Grace, with a nation that chuckles along with the saucy antics of Queer Eye, with every guy who's ever joked about his locker-room buddies being "queers" or "fags." This isn't that. He didn't yell insults at a gay couple in a park or spraypaint slurs on a billboard. He smashed two men in the head with an axe and killed two people with a pistol. This wasn't a hate crime. This was murder.

Eight years ago, the state of Texas made headlines when three men committed a hate crime. The story erupted into a national debate about racism, about black/white relations, and about legislating to protect minorities against cruelty and oppression; and amid all the clamor about the relatively polite term "hate crime," many people lost sight of the fact that a man had been chained to the back of a pickup truck and dragged for three miles — that he had remained alive until the very end, when his right arm and head were torn off.

These acts aren't hate crimes. They're murder. And that act cannot, must not be robbed of its atrocity. To call it something else cheapens the act and irreparably harms our society — first, because although motive is an element of the crime, it cannot be a crime itself in a free society; but far, far more importantly, because murder must remain our absolute evil.

If we label Robida's act a "hate crime," we ascribe reason to it. We assign cause. And we demote three men from "innocent victims" by labeling them "homosexuals." To pretend Robida's act was worse than a husband killing his pregnant wife is harmful because it necessarily elevates the latter crime — but more crucially, because it distracts from the awful fact than an 18-year-old criminal attacked three innocent men with a pistol and an axe.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Both Ways

Last September, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a dozen cartoons making fun of Islam for its religious intolerance and links to terrorism. Those cartoons have since been reprinted by various newspapers across the world. Muslims have condemned the cartoons; and they've chosen to express their anger at being portrayed as intolerant terrorists by donning masks, grabbing assault rifles, and storming European embassies.

Last year, Newsweek reported that a US soldier had flushed a copy of the Koran down a toilet. The Muslim world erupted in absolute furor. It was a front-page story for several weeks, even in Western newspapers. The entire world was outraged at the purported actions of the United States. Muslim leaders condemned our country. When the report was later shown to be false, there was no apology.

In March 2004, four Americans were ambushed in Iraq, shot, then dragged through the streets, hung from a bridge and burned. The Associated Press printed photographs of the crowd. Iraqi men, women, and children were surrounding the massacre, all of them smiling and all of them cheering. Muslim leaders kept silent.

Muslim "insurgents" routinely kidnap American and European civilians. They demand something in return for the hostages' release, then broadcast a video of each hostage being murdered and decapitated. It's become so common that it barely makes headlines anymore. Muslim leaders keep silent.

Israel lives in a de facto state of war. They're a nation of six million Jews surrounded by 220 million Arabs who want to kill them, and their closest neighbor just elected a terrorist organization devoted to the extermination of Jews to lead its government. Muslim leaders remained silent.

Jay Severin is fond of saying, "Not all Muslims are terrorists. But so far, all the terrorists have been Muslim." He's right. Not all Muslims are terrorists; and generally, I don't believe we can hold religious leaders responsible for the actions of a few fanatics from among a billion worshippers. If those leaders choose to keep silent, so be it. But the moment they join the debate to criticize a cartoon, they lose that privilege and their silence on every other issue becomes fair game.

For the record: Muhammad wasn't simply a prophet. He was a soldier, and Muslims consider his honor to be sacred. If I were going to draw a cartoon lampooning Muhammad's modern image, I might point out that every Muslim terrorist begins his jihad by pulling a ski cap over his head. Even Hitler never wore a mask.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Revisionist Journalism

Certain jobs stick with you. I worked behind a deli counter when I was a kid; I knew the differences between a dozen different cheeses, and today I can hardly distinguish between mozzarella and grated Swiss. Ditto with working in a record store: I knew all the Top 40 bands, and I knew which hit songs appeared on which albums. Five minutes after I walked out, that knowledge vanished.

But once an editor, always an editor. You just can't shake it. And in reading daily headlines with an editor's eye, you catch certain things.

Barbara Asher is a professional dominatrix who was charged with watching a 53-year-old man die on her bondage rack before cutting up his body and dumping the pieces in a trash bin. She was acquitted this week. The prosecution failed to produce a body, despite claiming to know exactly where Asher had dumped the body; and the police claimed she had confessed, but they didn't record it and they couldn't produce any interview notes. Whether or not she's guilty, there was certainly reasonable doubt, so the jury was correct.

The story was interesting enough, I suppose — although less for the sex than for the notion of prosecuting a murder without proof of death — but what caught my editor's eye was the CNN front page reporting the story. Within 24 hours, they changed the headline three times.

They began with:
  • Dominatrix acquitted on manslaughter charges.
That's accurate, but journalistic integrity doesn't sell advertising space. You can imagine the lecture that took place in some editor's office. "We spend every day praying for a sordid tale of sex and violence, a story that will appeal to the absolute gutter of American society. We finally get that story, and it's everything we could hope for, including bondage and dismemberment and a leather mask...and you obscure it with five-dollar words?!?"

Hence this revision:
  • Dominatrix beats murder rap.
Much better. That's much more pulp, much more Daily News. That'll grab people's attention. Good job.

...Except, no. That pesky journalistic integrity. She wasn't actually charged with murder.
  • Dominatrix beats manslaughter rap.
It's a trivial observation; but it's an insight into a newsroom that you couldn't get 20 years ago, thanks to a technology that has completely changed the attitude of publishing. It's about immediacy. The web allows infinite revision, so there's no reason not to beat the competition to the punch. Proofread later. Publish now.