Thursday, June 30, 2022

Deep Fresh Insight on Mike Flynn

If you enjoy the Slog, it's likely because you strive to navigate a little deeper; to understand beyond lazy snark. "This sucks!" is an adolescent trope, and we've devolved into a society of adolescents. Cynical snark offers scant nutritional value, but media is now wall-to-wall junk food, leaving some of us starved for more enriched fare. Please, someone, tell me what's actually happening here, rather than spewing talking points, clichés, spin, and groupthink. Just the mere repetition of it all can be horrendously numbing.

There's so little fresh thinking. I'm seldom surprised by anything anyone says or writes, and I thirst for insight; for anything provoking rumination; for anything that doesn't merely leave a sweet or salty taste in my mouth.

But powerful forces drive media to preach to choirs. I wasted the first two years of the Trump administration watching endlessly agitated MSNBC pundits endlessly discuss and debate whether Donald Trump is a RACIST (spoiler alert: why, yes he is!). Audiences line up for their dopamine hit, tightly glued to the teevee box soothing them with predictable tribal patter rife with angry fear and outrage. The game is to resonate with the belchy toxins sloshing in people's guts. Forget insight or truth; the real money is in interminably "giving voice" to trendy viscerality, as if it weren't already being voiced absolutely everywhere. Media's finally become a true echo chamber.

But I found one gem of bona fide insight this week. A fresh, surprising, insightful, and enriched consideration, from 2016, of exactly what might have happened to Mike Flynn. You've never thought of things this way, so it's like entering a new world. And there's no snark, tongue-clucking, cliché, or dopamine-milking amygdala squeezing.

It's good. It makes sense. And it's something you've never considered in your whole life. A fresh perspective on a fresh perspective, with the power to shift your own perspective. You'll find yourself watching for this phenomenon everywhere, which is delightful given that it's all about the unusual ways in which some of us watch for certain phenomena everywhere!

Above all, it hammers home the little-recognized fact that every awesome gift comes with a built-in (and highly unpredictable) rebound/backsplash/downside. It's zero sum all the way, baby. This is one of the few things of which I'm unshakably certain.

Without further ado, here's "Making Sense of Mike Flynn" by Yoni Appelbaum, from The Atlantic.

The Atlantic offers fresh insight perhaps 1% of the time. That's world record territory, which is why I bought a digital subscription.

Oh, and do follow the links down the rabbit hole re: fossil hunter/UFOlogist Ray Stanford.


Every snob feels merely shy.

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Introducing "Year of Smoothies" (also: How I Learned to Cook)

Here's how I learned to cook.

I didn't want to be "educated". I didn't need to know how to blanch a rutabaga or prepare savory gelatins or make my own lasagna noodles or bake croissants or cut a turkey or roast a capon or whip up a hollandaise or chowder. I'm the only food lover who doesn't yearn to be a chef. I just wanted to cook healthy and delicious at home. That's all. Modest ambition. But really seriously delicious. Focused modest ambition!

I don't cook dishes with names. For dishes with names, I go out. At home, I might whip up something interesting with chicken breast, kasha and scallions. I improvise. But I wanted better results. I wanted control. I wanted touch.

I started with a Year of Panini, circa 2015. All year I cooked pretty much exclusively panini. And, no surprise, I got good at it. Because what makes you good is iterations. Lots of go-rounds. That's why restaurant cooking is so consistent; they've made that calamari 50,000 times, and it shows.

Not just iteration, though. You don't want to stand there with a pinched face and dangling cigarette pounding the food into submission, like scrubbing a toilet. You can't be rotely procedural. Instead, I played off of my perspective; my framing. Every time I have to make a decision, I picture myself eating the final result. Would I prefer this crunchier? Saltier? Would it miss some sort of oomph or other? Is this how I like it? How could I better serve my own taste? What might give me 100% satisfaction?

After a year of diligently making panini, I'd evolved certain habits - bundles of micro-tricks and nano-decisions. As mutations crept into the DNA of my panini-making, the successful ones endured. And that's how you build up deliciousness. Constant micro-revision, careful analysis, and sticking with what works amid oodles of iterations.

Why panini? I could get my mind around it. It felt familiar. And there's a safety net. Merely dropping a leftover chunk of chicken between two slices of decent bread and press-toasting would yield reasonably good results. The entry point (on my surprisingly non-ditzy system for rating foods and other things) would be a "6". If I'd started out attempting to master stock or crêpes Suzette, vast terrains of awfulness would need to be evaded. Also: panini-making didn't intimidate me. It didn't feel fussy. I could stretch my mind around it. Nearing age 60, I've discovered the immense power of a comfortable entry point.

My panini eventually got great, and I followed with Year of Tacos. I'd sourced righteous nixtamal tortillas (which again propped me up at a "6" starting point). And, as with the panini, as I improved my prep of protein fillings and my artful use of spices, sauces, and condiments, I sneakily instilled broader cooking skills. I learned how to sauté a helluva chicken thigh, and mastered salmon-broiling and high-confidence omelets (instructions buried here). In the end, I discovered that tacos and panini are effectively identical: protein engulfed by starch. I already had a feel for that, thanks to panini, so I expanded into tacos from a position of confidence.

Then came Year of Pasta, another configuration of engulfing protein in starch. I applied what I'd learned. I started getting good faster. I was learning. And now, even if I'm not making panini or tacos or pasta, I can use that experience, so long as I don't try to preparae dishes with a name. Still no hollandaise!

I've been smoothie-curious for some time, but whenever I research blenders, I rediscover two truths:

1. Everything but a Vitamix absolutely sucks, regardless of how many of your friends rave over their Nutribullets or Ninjas. Dig deep into comments and reviews, and you'll find that they suck. They all just suck.

2. Vitamixes are super-expensive, super-bulky overkill.

Whenever my blender amnesia leads me to deep-dive this realm, the conclusion is identical: I really can't beat the $20 Cuisinart Smart Stick immersion blender I already own.
Note: recent versions of the Cuisinart Smart Stick immersion blender suck. For liability reasons, they've added a safety nanny switch at the other end of the stick, so you need to press the "on" button with one hand and the nanny switch with the other, giving no way to control the cup, which results in splurging explosions of milk and fruit. I don't know what to tell you. Maybe try to buy a "vintage" used Smart Stick on eBay predating this "innovation.” Or else just give up and bite the Nutribullet.
The notion that I had the magic shoes all along was too surprising to stick. So I'd snooze the idea for another 6 months and then launch back into blender research. I was caught in this loop for several years.

Finally I roused myself from my stupor and bought this steel cup for smoothie-making (it doubles for smoothie-drinking), and gave it a try, discovering that my immersion blender actually works better than a conventional blender for smoothies, because you don't need to stop to unclump. Immersion blending is a more active way of blending, so clumps unclump in situ.

The one drawback is that only an expensive conventional blender can really crush ice. But you don't want ice in your smoothie! As any beginning chef learns: water dilutes. It's the enemy! So I slice bananas onto wax paper, freeze them for a couple hours, then pop the slices into a sealed freezer bag. Those are my ice cubes. Any other sort of fruit will work the same way. And not every smoothie needs to be super cold. When I must resort to ice, I do the spoon trick, very lightly but persistently tapping upon each cube with a teaspoon until the vibrations shatter the cube. Walla.

My stone mortar and pestle is better/faster than any other method for grinding flax seeds. You don't want to buy/keep ground flax seed, it goes rancid super-easily (it probably did before you even bought it). Whole seeds are far more resilient, and can be ground, a teaspoon or two at a time, in 20 secs flat. You can grind lots of other stuff in mortar pestle faster/easier than in food processor (unless you'd doing large quantity). Low-tech, low-price really works best in this realm.

My first smoothie triumph is a bit of a work-in-progress:

1 pitted medjool date, chopped fine (Trader Joe's has these)
1 handful of raw unsalted pepitas (shelled pumpkin seeds, also Trader Joe’s), lightly pre-ground in mortar and pestle
9 ounces Milkadamia unsweetened, non-vanilla macadamia milk, available at Shoprite or Whole Foods

The result was really thin (and not super-cold, since nothing was frozen), but smoothies don't always need to be milkshake thick or freezing cold. But the flavor. Oof, the flavor.

One problem: I found the limits of my immersion blender. It left a sediment of chewy date nuggets at the bottom of my stainless steel cup. But that was a problem only until I grabbed a spoon and ingested said nuggets amid dregs of the nutty medium, at which point I had no problems on god's green earth.

I have bought lucuma powder (low-glycemic butterscotchy natural sweetener) and dried mulberries and Venezuelan Gourmet Cocoa Powder as well as planet-killing plastic flexi-straws in preparation for this understaking. My flax seeds are organic whole goldens from Bob's Red Mill, bought at Stop-N-Shop.

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

The Ed Norton Approach to Shifting Perspective

Realizing truth is shockingly easy, in any scenario and at any scale. It's often not a matter of learning, which is laborious, but of shifting perspective, which is instant and effortless. The truth is always blowing in the wind. It's right there in front of your nose, awaiting your embrace.

The impediment is the need to recognize - and let go of - previous wrongness. That’s the hard part, because, being an unflattering process, emotions arise. So you must adjust yourself to accept the possibility that your assumptions might be crap.

You can’t let go of something while continuing to embrace and defend it. Visceral self-skepticism is requisite. Not self-loathing, not neurotic ambivalence. Just an earnestly alert blitheness. "Hey, wouldn't it be interesting if I were totally wrong on this?"

If you have a big ego (most do, including mild-mannered quiet types), self-skepticism challenges everything you've been clinging to. Terrifying! So wrongness stays.

This is why wise people advise us to work on ego. Loosen those straps, they say, and quit clinging. Then quiet your mind to reduce shouty mental distraction. By the time you've run that gauntlet, years have been spent preparing to make an easy shift of perspective so you can become a little bit less wrong.
What's worse, 95% of the time you'll bring that ego and clinging and noise along with you, so the supposed shift of perspective becomes a dramatic pose rather than an actuality. You'll conjure up a mere emulation of knowing.
Jeepers, so much work for something intrinsically effortless! Just shift! Choke down ego, favor childlike earnestness, open yourself to fresh perspective, generally STFU, and blithely try another perspective!

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Quick TV (and Movie!) Update

Following my sweeping TV update back in May, here's a quick update:

"Love Death and Robots" is a sometimes raunchy animated anthology series (each episode stands alone), sort of a mash-up of "Black Mirror" and Heavy Metal Magazine. Each episode has a different creative team, so quality is very mixed. But here's a list of the highest-rated episodes (in descending order), which makes it easy to just catch the good ones. At 6 - 20 minutes/episode, it's a neat way to fill time when you don't want to digest anything more ambitious.

If you want to list out best-to-worst episodes of a series, create a bookmarklet with the following code and trigger it from the main IMDB page for any series:,desc%22);
Movie, not TV: "Everything Everywhere All at Once" features an everything bagel that is literally everything. The movie itself is also every movie (it's not at all the film you think it is for the first few minutes...or ever). I thought it was fantastic, and you can still catch it in theaters (the usual streaming services charge $20).

HBO's "Rome" was their Game of Thrones (hugely expensive, sumptuous production values, sweeping purview) before Game of Thrones. At the time, it was known for being rrrrracy [Austin Powers cat meow], but I've finally dug in and find it tame compared to GOT and other more recent titles, and quite substantial (in a good way). The kind of show that tugs at you to view another episode. It can't hold a candle to "I Claudius", but what can? The latter can be streamed for free on Hoopla or Acorn (both likely available via your library account).

"The Other Two", a series about the elder brother and sister of a viral child megastar was great in its first season. This season it's been a bit too in love with itself. Still good, but not great. If you like this show, you'll love "You're the Worst", which is near the top of my pantheon of great shows nobody heard of ("Breaking Bad", "The Leftovers", and "Party Down" were originally part of that pantheon).

"Detectorist" is a lovely small, slow, charming, subtle show about metal detecting enthusiasts in England. Very highly recommended if that's your cup of tea. If you're allergic to affected, self-conscious British cutesy, don't worry, this isn't that. It's miles above pandering. Also: it's funny how emotions scale. The show's extraordinarily mild antagonists - e.g. detectorists from a competing club perennially trying to horn in on a promising meadow; a poacher from Germany; an archeologist consultant sold out to construction industry interests - seem far more awful than Joffrey in GOT or Sauron in LOTR. Absolutely horrible and emotionally scarring.

Monday, June 20, 2022

The Mike Pence Fallacy

There is a popular argument that Mike Pence was no hero because he was merely doing his job and obeying the constitution.

This argument is fallacious.

Heroism is doing right under duress. And no one can argue that Mike Pence wasn't under world-crushing duress. And there's no such thing as "merely" doing right. Right-doing is morality, especially under conditions where "right" becomes strenuously distant.

In any given moment, 10,000 bureaucrats are passively not-accepting bribes, which is moral (they'd all love Teslas) but not notably so. But if one is actively offered $10,000,000 - while everyone else in his office flagrantly accepts pay-offs and threatens to destroy him for making a fuss by refusing - his refusal is an entirely different thing from the passive complacency of non-criminality.

Heroism is actively doing right amid elevated effort and repercussions. It's evidently distinct from mulish passive compliance.

So Mike Pence behaved heroically.

Some point to the heroism Pence did NOT demonstrate to devalue the heroism he did exhibit. This is nonsense. When a fireman "just does his job" to pull you from a burning house, he doesn't also need to be nicer to his kids and cut back on drinking and philandering to deserve credit for heroism. If a person needed to be morally impeccable on every front to get credit for a heroic action, there would be no heroes on Earth, ever.

And the twisted notion that there exists a higher moral choice than "merely doing the right thing" has long been the source of much evil in the world.

There's a political stratum the Right mocks as virtue seekers. Discontent to be "merely" moral, they stridently, belligerently attack ("call out") those who engage in an ever-shifting and ever-growing portfolio of taboo thoughts, phrases, or behaviors. Such people see themselves as super-extra moral.

Their impetus is identical with those on the Right who reject being "merely" good Christians, framing themselves as super-extra good Christians by ferreting out witches for burning or "sexual deviants" for punishment.

Always try to avoid super-extra good people. They will fuck you up. They practice an ancient human trope: screaming, seething, accusing, and attacking in the name of morality. One might seek to be so Christian as to become obviously unChristian and so anti-racist as to become plainly racist. Vanity masquerading as lofty moral aspiration manifests as savage immorality. So the extremes of both Left and Right are perennially afflicted by super-extra virtuous types for whom everyday morality seems like such weak tea as to scarcely warrant attention while they grandly set their sights on towering moral heights.

In fact, those are the very ones currently shrugging off Mike Pence's genuine heroism on that one day. For them, doing right is weak tea.

Monday, June 13, 2022

My Piano Tuner's Romanticism

I've gathered a stable of titans. My massage therapist is a miracle healer (as umpteen of my friends have discovered, you don't need to even tell him what hurts; his fingers find, and rapidly fix, the problem, and that's that). The guy who cleans my car (I originally wrote about him here, and then again, recently, here) can, quite seriously, make cars look better than they did in the showroom (my theory is that he changes how light reflects off the car via a zillion strokes of his cleaning putty - like a Renaissance artist applying dabs of fresco). And my plumber may be the world's best brewer. Actually, he's my ex-plumber, having finally gone pro in the beer world, working here and here, though his full genius has not quite scaled. His commercial output is very good - worth going out of your way for - but not yet as mind-bending as his home brew.

There are others, but let's cut to the chase. My piano tuner, Lou, happens to be one of America's best contemporary composers.
He's also a good piano tuner. The thing you need to understand about piano tuners is that they hate your piano. Doesn't matter what piano. Piano tuners are fussily pedantic perfectionists, predisposed to exasperation, and no piano can be perfectly tuned (they're fiendishly complicated boxes which swell and contract from minor climate variations). This makes the entire proposition - i.e. their livelihood - a complete horror. But Lou is a good piano tuner because he doesn't quite curse my piano out loud. He does his best with my turd of a (very nice) 1959 Chickering baby grand (same year/model Bill Evans kept at home), and he walks away (with fistfuls of my money), his unbridled contempt stoically veiled. A consummate professional!
Louis Pelosi's compositional work merits thorough examination. But while I've played a decent amount of contemporary classical music, it's not really my thing. So I'm not the guy to write it, nor is this the place to publish it. I'd recommend a deep dive into his web site, full of sound excerpts (start with "Twelve Etudes for Piano"). I'll just use his work as a launching pad for some broad thoughts on music, and creativity, generally.

There's a word that frequently comes up with Lou - sorry, Louis. Mr. Pelosi. "Romanticism". Usually it's something like this: "While thoroughly modern in most facets, Pelosi always has one foot firmly set in Romanticism." They say it like he's defiantly holding on to Old Ways. They mean he's a bit conservative, or even - seethingly insulting to a modern composer - traditional.

I’ve never seen a really satisfying definition of Romanticism, so I’ll roll my own. Romanticism, when it comes to art, is the deliberate arrangement of artistic events into a dramatic contour intended to create emotional engagement with the audience.
There's a Japanese word for the pace of unfolding events in an art form, and it's almost entirely unheard-of outside of Japan: "Ma". Think about "Ma" - make it the thing you listen/watch/taste for - and you'll reframe your appreciation interestingly.
More simply put, Romanticism is storytelling. And that's widely considered reactionary, because we're still coming to terms with a rather extreme shift orchestrated (hee-hee) by 20th century composers. Like all extremists, this crop defined themselves by their transgressiveness. For them, Romanticism is your father's music. It's gross.
"You might as well go all the way and don a straw hat and pick up a banjo if you're concerned with emotions and engagement and all that corny showbiz bullshit!" I hear them shouting from their graves.
That generation - primarily snooty academicians, naturally - prized a dryly intellectual approach and produced radical music impossible to listen to. They shunned any hint of romanticism, which struck them as juvenile and unserious as stringing up garish Christmas lights on one's appallingly bourgeois abode.

These days, classical composers find themselves adrift in the backwash of that extremism, and it can be hard to find one's bearings. If one manages to forge a coherent and persuasive compositional style that's modernly unchained yet also emotional - dare I say, Romantic - you'll be seen - even by those who don't share the radical frosty severity of a Schoenberg or a Webern - as reactionary.

I've been listening to Lou Mr. Pelosi's work for years now, and recently realized I'd unwittingly bought into this. All this time, I've been discretely appreciative of the emotional coherence and tasteful unfoldment, which make his output more accessible. More "musical", if that's not another taboo term. But as I listened to the dazzling performance of his work at Merkin Hall in NYC this Spring, I finally realized I'd bought into utter hogwash.

Romanticism is not a trend. It does not connotate an era or school. One may depart from it, or even reject it, but it's been the default approach to art for all eternity, and will continue to thrive forever. Telling stories with a coherent dramatic contour arranged to evoke a given emotional response is not "old school", unless Fire and The Wheel are "old school". If you design triangular tires, I'll salute your creativity, but, when your contemporaries persist in designing round ones, it doesn't make them fuddy-duddies.

Lou Mr. Pelosi's work is "grounded" modernism - free-wheeling, often dissonant, inventiveness arranged in a coherent, engaging manner that Handel might, with effort, find affinity with.

Note that I said "manner", not "structure". Novice composers pay great attention to structure. An etude is, primarily, an etude; a chorale a chorale. But real artists regard structural norms as mere scaffolding; a throwaway framework - a mere propositional excuse, really - for organizing the deeper thing they actually do. A chef might serve a smaller portion of pasta at lunch than at dinner, but it's the same cooking; he's not thinking "LUNCH". A great chef barely acknowledges framework - yadda yadda like whether wait staff wears bikinis or tuxedos. It's all about the food!

Handel would not find a single structure in this music he'd feel comfortable with. He'd experience the full violence of the gradual unchaining by which generations of composers have freed themselves, and with which our modern ears have grown gradually more or less comfortable. But he'd still dig the Romanticism. Not because it's of his time, and thus stuck-in-the-mud, but because it's grounded in the terra firma of humanity's eternal relationship with art.

Mateusz Borowiak, a young Polish-British pianist, is the most frequent performer of Lou Mr. Pelosi's music, and he's a gem. The Japanese "ma" I mentioned above - the pace of unfolding of events in an art form - is something Borowiak has mastered (normally, one must be ancient, with throbbing arthritic fingers; e.g. check out the immortal Michal Hambourg). This comes in addition to his technical mastery - never wielded as a raison d'être - and his delightfully juicy, "go-for-it" gleeful passion (passionate glee?). Check him out, he's about the best guy out there, for my taste (we all keep expecting him to explode into massive fame and champagne and limos, but perhaps 2022 isn't the era for that).

But how does classical piano relate to the cheesy cake of El Salvador? Here's your answer!

My proudest writing on music composition is a piece seemingly no one can get through. But since I do try my damndest to be coherent, digestible, and emotionally engaging (I'm very much a romantic), I'd be grateful if you'd at least take a stab at "Shostakovich, Eddie Barefield, and The Evolution of Western Art"

Here are all postings tagged "music", in reverse-chronological order

Friday, June 10, 2022

Jan 6 Hearings: We All Know it Wasn't Power Trump Was Grasping At

I'm configured for honesty. I can't say I'm a 100% honest person - no one is - but I choose truth even when it makes me look bad, or lowers my position, or creates impediments. Show me truth and I'll click to it like a light switch.

It's not because I'm virtuous. It's because I configured myself this way as a child. I fully recognized back then that the child is father to the man, so I had a responsibility to set myself on a good track. Adults seemed like lying liars so conditioned for untruth that they lied even when they didn't need to. The aggregated weight of falsehood was a pressurizing, toxic burden leaving them unable to see straight. I wanted to see straight, so I locked in a robust propensity for honesty.

So I find it cognitively unpleasant when the good guys - e.g. the congressmen bringing Jan 6 instigators to justice (or, at least, to public exposure) fudge the truth.

Trump wasn't desperately hanging onto power, as they framed it last night. Trump didn't even like being president. If we'd made him a cool outfit and propped him up in a regal chair and appointed him king - a constitutional monarch with only ceremonial power - he'd have loved it. Trump was no more interested in presidenting than Chauncy Gardiner (Peter Seller's character in "Being There") would have been. Hell, he's not even interested in real estate, which is why, after several bankruptcies, he changed his business into mostly a licensing bureau for his name and image (self-elevation, his sole interest, being a malady that could be leveraged into remunerative commerce).

Everyone in America, from these Congressmen, to you and me, and to the MAGA faithful, understood that Trump would never accept defeat. All his turmoil, division, noise, and propaganda is 100% about saving face from the loss. It's not grasping at power, it's grasping at feeling like a winner.

But the Jan 6 committee chose to cast this as a power grab rather than a petulant child stomping over the game board and setting fire to the house, the neighborhood, and the nation, after being defeated by other kids.

If you're configured for honesty, the above will hopefully soothe you and help inoculate you from the colliding waves of expedient truth buggery on both sides. I'm no fan of confirmation bias; I normally fight against it here, where I present counter-intuitive notions and endless observations of how we all do it all wrong. But in a moment where one side lies and gaslights shamelessly, and the other side seems dementedly incapable of recognizing that the truth is bad enough - a bit of confirmation isn't a bad thing.

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Downsizing 101

Here's what I learned from finally going through all my stuff and selling/giving/throwing most of it away. It's all about triage:

Take ample time to sell high-quality in-demand stuff for a good price.

Do this first, if possible. Clear somewhere in your home (and a folder on your hard drive) to dedicate to organizing, temporarily storing, and packing/shipping actually valuable stuff.

Make this distinct - and higher priority - from other downsizing tasks. This one actually pays! Disposing of your previous laptop or iPhone is not akin to getting rid of, say, a Napoleon Dynamite DVD.

Note that you can process and store items in this category together with items in the following category, but do make a distinction for the valuable stuff. Give it more time/attention/marketing muscle.

List anything worth over $20 for sale and hope for the best.

Between eBay fees, credit card fees, postage and handling, and materials, you won't make much even on a $20 sale. But you can learn to create tidy listings (eBay, Craig, NextDoor, FB Market) quickly, and streamline your fulfillment to the point where it's easy and fun and worth it even for the flow of a few bucks here and there. I was once eBay-phobic, but I've made it so efficient that it's now a delight. For details, see my previous posting, "Making eBay Efficient and Fun".

Give lots of gifts.

But don't waste much time hunting for charity solutions. Everyone's rich now. Nobody wants your old shirts. You can donate books to the library, but the "normal" titles will be sold in annual sales for pennies, while the really cool and interesting ones will almost certainly wind up in the trash. Maybe .5% of books are worth something and have a chance of connecting with a buyer. If no one wants to buy it, no one wants to own it. So if you can't sell or gift a book, trash it. Any other solution is just a conscience-salving intermediary step to trashing. (Caveat: if it's something that a typical 15-25 year old might read, maybe find a library in a rough area that might accept the donation, but they will not make proper use of your Shanghai soup dumpling cookbook or anything else "weird". Only stupid books are widely useful. 

Photograph anything you hate to let go of.

This is how you push past the tipping point on mementos and curiosities you want to remember but don't need to display or keep close. Tell yourself you're photographing it so you can remember, but really photograph it so you can let go.

Then blithely chuck what's left.

"When in doubt, throw it out." That's your Johnnie Cochran money line. Use it early and often. You don’t need to justify trashing it. Flip that and try to justify keeping it. 

Everyone starts out by pricing garbage containers and other industrial-strength solutions. That may be right for some people, but you're likely not to produce that scale of garbage so fast. Try putting it out incrementally with the garbage. If this backlogs you with many large trash bags (I use these for this purpose, because they don't puncture easily and they're unscented) perennially awaiting the next trash day, ok, pursue sturdier solutions.

Before you start, here's a framing: how much would it be worth it for you, in dollars, to get this done? Probably a few grand, if you're honest. Make that your reverse budget; the amount you're willing to waste to get this done. You may need one of those five clipboards - or felt stick-on furniture gliders, or light switch wall plates - one day! If you throw them out, you might need to re-buy them! Well, if/when that day arrives, the money you spend will draw from the reverse budget. Accept that you might waste $XXXX at some indeterminate future date rebuying items you imprudently throw away today. As you toss those things in the trash, make a mental note of it. And notice how satisfying it is to trash more and more stuff. It’s worth a lot!

Saturday, June 4, 2022

Making eBay Efficient and Fun

I was once eBay-phobic, but have made the process so efficient that it's now a delight. Here are tips.

Between eBay fees, credit card fees, packaging, postage and handling, you won't make much even on a $20 sale. But if you can learn to create tidy listings (eBay, Craig, NextDoor, FB Market) quickly, and streamline your fulfillment, it becomes an absolute breeze; worth it even for a few bucks here and there; or even just to escape the shame of throwing away useful stuff. eBaying is the new "donating". It's like this cool thriving circle of regeneration.

First, get a free account at Pirate Ship, a beautifully sleek web app that imports order data from ebay and offers you shipping choices (all discounted). Great service, too (they communicate in pirate-speak). Note that options like Priority Mail flat-rate and media mail (which you must ALWAYS use for books/audio/video) are available; you just need to dig around a bit as you plug in the particulars for a given shipment. And remember that padded envelopes ship way more cheaply than boxes.

For shipping, weigh with a good digital kitchen scale (don't buy a postage scale, they all suck). Weight limit is usually 10 lbs, but you won't be shipping heavier items much. Get this tape (don't use a tape gun for small packages; they're too unwieldy) and this handy little tape measure. Print labels out (Pirate Ship makes it easy) and stick them on with tape (see below).

If you don't already have an enormous collection of small and odd-shaped cardboard boxes (which are expensive and annoying to buy one-by-one), treat yourself to Amazon Prime for a while and order every damned thing you ever need to buy (toilet paper, tissues, toothpaste, eyedrops...everything!) that way and save the boxes. Just do it for the boxes. Also buy (e.g. from Staples) some 8x10 and 9x12 clasp envelopes and some 5x9 and #3 (8.5 x 14.5) poly bubble mailers. EBay seller TheBoxery has the best prices. Remember you can "shrink" large padded envelopes by folding them over on themselves and taping, and shrink clasp envelopes by cutting from the opening side and taping shut.

Buy all that stuff and set aside a dedicated space for eBay activity so you're not constantly reinventing the wheel ad hoc for each sale and shipment. Keep dedicated tape and tape measure and scale handy there even if you have similar items scattered elsewhere around your house. I also keep dedicated scissors, box cutter, and sharpie. Set up a folding table to serve as Sales Central. Dedicate a closet shelf to storing listed items awaiting sale/shipping. This is how you make eBay fun rather than hassle. Respect the hustle!

Always thoroughly scrape off or cover up or black-sharpie over old shipping labels. I've heard horror stories of a sticker code meaning "hazardous item", so your shipment gets pulled aside and you need to drive hundreds of miles to go pick it up because they won't restore it to shipping channels.

If the fussy scraping and taping and weighing and all the rest start to feel oppressive and/or "beneath you", here's a framing trick. You're sending personal items which have served you well off to nice people who eagerly await them. Pack and process like you're dispatching holiday presents - or even pets/babies for adoption. Call it corny if you want, but that's actually what eBay is at its heart (though plenty of buyers and sellers might not get it). I sometimes throw in minor treats, too, as a disciple of Walter the Bus Driver. The world insidiously improves, despite the evident shmuckery.

If you're on deadline, every couple weeks, reduce prices on anything unsold by 20%. But bear in mind that more obscure items can take a while to connect at any price.

For pricing, don't just search eBay. Check the "Completed Items" box in the left margin as you search to discover what stuff's actually selling for. Remember that good feedback, coherent and thorough description (talk like a real person; don’t feign brusque impersonality), and quality photos all help earn a premium. 

It's way better to lose money than to anger a buyer, even if it's someone awful/stupid/crazy (they mostly are very nice!). I have 100% feedback, and it serves me way better than 99.8% feedback. So maybe let them keep the item even though you've refunded. Etc etc. Your goal is to serve people as quickly and effortlessly as possible, even if sometimes it costs you extra. Delight them if possible, but marginal satisfaction works fine, too. Don't get drawn into spats or negotiations. Who's got time? If you're the contentious and/or penny-pinching type, eBay will drive you slowly mad. Everyone else: enjoy the release and surrender of low-stakes caving-in to imperious consumers. Retail satori!

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