The Right to Free Shipping

29 01 2009

The other day I found myself buying a $23 cookbook in order to get free shipping on a DVD that costs $4.99, and it got me thinking about the absolute brilliance of Amazon’s business model.  Let’s consider:

  1. Lots of stuff, relatively cheap.  When I started using Amazon, they were only selling books, music, and DVDs.  Now, of course, they have everything under the sun, and though about 70% of what I buy is books, their prices (and their free shipping – we’ll get to that, it’s a devious little cycle) make me check Amazon first for almost anything before I consider comparison shopping.  I’ve purchased tea, cooking supplies, DVDs, and even the plastic wrap to weatherproof my windows from Amazon.  
  2. The free shipping model.  Okay, so once you have a shitload of stuff that people will want to buy, at reasonable prices for the most part, you start offering free shipping on orders over $25.  We don’t really think about this, because it’s so ingrained now, but it’s freaking brilliant.  With other stores, I’ll see a free shipping deal for orders over $40 or $50 and think it’s silly, too much money, and not buy anything at all (partly because of what I’ve come to expect from Amazon). But $25 isn’t bad.  What’s more, for a lot of books, it’s more than the price of a book, but not much more, so you think “hey, if I buy just one more book, I’ll get free shipping!”  Over time, you get hooked on this system, and you come to expect free shipping.  So you do things like buy a $23 book to get free shipping on a $4.99 DVD.  And what’s more, you stop comparison shopping, because other stores don’t offer the free shipping.  
  3. Personalization.  This is the nail in the coffin, and I admit that it’s been killing me lately.  Amazon now has all these features – wishlists, listmania, personalized deals, recommendations, etc., that make you want more stuff, and then conveniently keep track of the stuff you want so that it’s available when you want to add an item to get that free shipping.  Whenever I’m shopping and come up short of the $25, I go immediately to my wishlist, and find something to add, which usually brings me up to $30 or $35.  Everybody wins.  On top of that, when I get bored in class I start playing with recommendations, and end up clicking the fatal deals link, which gives me not only gold box deals (the culprit that made me pay $115 for seven seasons of the West Wing – but so worth it), but also personalized deals.  I don’t think they actually cut much off the price, but they usually are pretty good, and I often find myself saying “ooh, 15% off?  Gimmee.”

So good job, Amazon.  You’ve converted a nice freebie into what’s practically an internationally recognized right.  (You have no idea how painful it was to live in Ireland and be ineligible for free shipping on  I salute you.

Perspective: Race and Nation

24 01 2009

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about perspective this week.  

It’s a topic I often hone in on, though in my everyday life I settle fairly firmly into my own shoes, like most people.  Still, I remember the absolute eureka moment when I once learned about some particular African tribal practice (don’t ask me now what it was) and it occurred to me, some time late in my high school career, that I didn’t know shit about what it meant to look at a problem from a different perspective.  I thought I knew difference, but in fact, the multitude of options of this world are always going to be beyond my grasp – and I like that.  I like knowing that there’s always a new way of looking at things, a new way of understanding.

Wednesday night, I went to an MLK week discussion called “Open Mouth, Insert Foot: An Open Community Discussion on Hate.”  Though a lot of what we talked about were things I’d already considered, I did hear some perspectives that were new to me.  It had never occurred to me, for example, that when journalists always mention that the Postville immigration raids happened at the largest kosher meatpacking plant in the country, the decision to include the kosher part might be interpreted as anti-Semitic, even though Judaism is part of my (rather complex and syncretic) faith.  As a panelist put it, “those guys weren’t Jewish crooks.  They were crooks.”

Yesterday, I listened to an inspiring address by National Urban League President Marc Morial on the topic of Obama’s presidency and the new multi-racial America.  He’s a fabulous speaker, and even in a lecture hall at the law school with maybe thirty people, he spoke as if he were addressing a crowd of hundreds.  He made a lot of very poignant statements, but the one I copied down was this: “We as we look to the future cannot be restrained and straitjacketed by the analytical frameworks of the past.”  A simple statement, yes, but immensely powerful.  He spoke about how whites will soon no longer be the majority, but also about how minorities themselves are complex and diverse – more Africans and Caribbean blacks, for example, are coming to this country, and Latino and Asian populations are similarly made up of individuals from a variety of backgrounds, with a variety of interests, values, and concerns.  He didn’t mention this, but I also thought about how ethnic minorities include women, and LGBT people, and linguistic and religious minorities.  He spoke about how the society is not post-racial, but multi-racial, and we should embrace that.  I wholeheartedly agree.  I also would add that we should reach across lines, find commonalities and use those points to approach and learn about difference.  For example, I have friends who are women of color whom I met because we share a lesbian sexuality.  Though I’m learning how to do this in appropriate ways, I would like to use this connection to ask questions about these friends’ perspectives as a racial minority, and as women of color specifically, and I would like to learn what interests and concerns these friends have that are different from my own, both as someone who may be involved in policy and also just as an interested citizen.

Finally, I read this article by Robert Kagan for my European Union law class, and I found it very interesting (and readable whether you’re a legal person or not).  Rather than race, it’s talking about the difference in perspectives based on position of power, comparing the United States and Europe, and it’s a way of looking at geopolitics that I hadn’t quite considered.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on any of this.

A Haiku

17 01 2009

Stars and Stripes

There’s red states and blue,

But what it all comes down to

Is the votes of whites.

Why My Public Library is Better Than Your Public Library

15 01 2009

We already have a copy of Jessica’s (of Feministing) Yes Means Yes on the shelves.  When I leave, can I take my library with me?

The Terror of Reading Deprivation

10 01 2009

In my life, I tend to take on a lot of projects.  I’m a very project-oriented person, though my projects tend to be large and not necessarily focused on a certain end point but just on “working on” something.  A fair number of these projects involve reading.  I’m committed to reading the New Yorker each week, for example, to perusing Slate and Salon every day, to reading my RSS feed reader a few times a day, and to reading books as frequently as time allows.  Another one of my projects is a book called Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron.  This “artistic recovery” program has actually been opening a lot of doors for me in a very short time, and I’m optimistic about it, but this week is the biggest challenge yet.  One week of reading deprivation.

The idea is that depriving oneself of reading is liberating, because it frees up time to do other things.  I do agree to some extent, in that the daily pouring of news into my brain takes up a lot of time.  On the other hand – and she said to expect resistance, so I’m not alone – not reading for a week is SCARY.  She suggests that we blow off work or school assignments (just for a week!) and I admittedly can’t quite bring myself to do that.  I’m going to do my class reading after this morning’s exam and then my reading deprivation will start.  Maybe that’s cheating, but it is after all the first week of school.  I also am not entirely sure that reading is an artistic block, especially to a writer.  Reading makes me feel great, it inspires me, it liberates me.  But I’ll give it a shot.  I’m not going to try not to read at all, to the extent that things like checking my e-mail and doing projects require reading.  My work assignments right now, for example, involve summarizing Congressional testimony (which requires skimming) and editing a briefing paper.  So I’m saying that writing projects with incidental reading don’t count, nor does e-mail or skimming the headings of articles to decide whether to save them (another on-going project is reading-for-later collection).  Working on shortening my paper so that I can submit it to an essay prize is okay.  But no Google Reader, no Slate, no Salon, none of the fourteen ticking-time-bomb checked out library books, no magazines, none of that.  I’ll let you know how it goes.

The Significance of Rhetorical War

9 01 2009

John Dickerson has a short piece up on Slate about rhetorical wars, the next one of which appears to be war on the economy.  Oops, I’m sorry, that’s war on the economic crisis.  My mistake.  Anyway, in my National Security Law intersession course this week, one thing we talked about was whether the war on terror is any different from the other rhetorical wars on drugs, poverty, cancer, etc. or if it’s just another phrase in the presidential bag of tricks.  I’d say yes and no.

In some ways, it’s like all the other rhetorical wars, in that the word “war” announces a policy priority and commission of resources.  It’s intended to make those who are doing whatever we’re at war with a little more afraid of us in the case of something like the war on drugs, and to make victims believe that we’re serious in the case of the war on poverty or the war on cancer.  The war on terror does announce a policy priority and commission of resources, and it is supposed to make terrorists fear us and Americans feel like the government is doing something to protect us.  But that’s not all.

While other wars may have done this to some extent, I think the war on terror sets a new precedent in terms of using the “war” as a justification for actions that may or may not be legal or otherwise socially justifiable.  Increased surveillance?  We’re at war!  Questionable interrogation techniques?  We’re at war!  If Congress doesn’t give the President more and more authority, then it looks like it’s on the wrong side of a war, and that’s something you don’t want to be.  It’s also fuzzy because while Congress has not actually declared war on terrorists (something it doesn’t have the legal power to do as the enemy has to be at least somewhat identifiable), it has authorized the use of force against those responsible for 9/11 in the AUMF.  We’re actively fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the President is allowed to do whatever is appropriate and necessary to track down the Al Qaeda people responsible for the 9/11 terrorist plot.  This means that the rhetorical war gets the added brunt of being associated with a real war, and sometimes the two get disturbingly enmeshed.  For example, it was easy to call Iraq just another battle in the broader war.  But Congress authorized force against those who had attacked us first; it never declared a wider war or referred to the war in Afghanistan as an opening battle.

Things to think about.

The Importance of Culturally Appropriate Interrogation Techniques

8 01 2009

Although the current interrogation manual used by the Army does, I am happy to say, specifically prohibit the use of sexual or religious interrogation techniques, I was rather disturbed to read about the previous approach to interrogation, based almost entirely on the degree of physical force used to determine whether inappropriate techniques were being used.  This approach is flawed from the general standpoint of how the armed forces should look at lawful interrogation versus torture in the first place, but I was specifically bothered by the use of sexual and religious methods designed to humiliate a detainee because they represent a complete failure to understand why these methods are inappropriate.  In conducting interrogation, the question should not simply be, “are we torturing the detainee in violation of international law?”  Certainly, that should be a threshhold question, but beyond that there is another question I want the interrogators to be asking.  “Are we using techniques that (1) are actually designed with the sole purpose of obtaining information and (2) conform with our social expectations of dignity and respect for human beings?”  The whole point of having laws of war is that there are certain expectations that apply, even when dealing with the enemy (putting aside for the moment the question of whether some of these detainees even are legitimately “the enemy.”)  

I’m bothered by any interrogation technique that is designed to humiliate the prisoner because it’s disrespectful and it doesn’t work.  First of all, from everything I’ve seen and read, the most effective interrogators are those who are patient and develop a rapport for the detainee.  Respect is a very powerful tool, as is cultural understanding.  Ideally, interrogators should be those who speak the subject’s language and whenever possible either come from or are very familiar with the subject’s culture and religion to whatever extent possible.  Even inadvertant cultural faux pas can diminish respect for the interrogator and make a subject defiant.  Intentional humiliation techniques in many cases are only going to harden the subject against revealing anything, and at the same time they compromise the interrogator.  If the army uses these techniques, it’s going to develop self-hatred and psychological damage among its interrogators as well as the detainees.  It will also further damage our already pretty shitty international reputation.  And finally, using these techniques is evidence of a purpose that has little to do with information – desire to humiliate, to dehumanize, to make one’s self greater than the subject.  Use the Golden Rule, folks.  Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Unrelated note: Please note that discussion is open on Patience & Sarah, as is the Round Four suggestions thread.  To encourage more discussion in the future, I’ll be posting specific discussion questions within each round’s discussion forum on the boards to get the juices flowing.  Of course, anyone is welcome to simply post their thoughts or start a thread with a question of their own, but I’m hoping that more directed discussion will encourage more participation.  Of course, as always, this is an entirely guilt-free group, and if I’m the only one reading in a round I’m just happy to have read the book!  Feel free to comment on a discussion post well after the round has started if you read the book late.  I myself haven’t read P&S yet, which is why discussion questions aren’t up yet 😉

Maybe I should reconsider not renewing my Harper’s subscription

2 01 2009

From the October 2008 “Index”:

Average number of names added to the U.S. terrorist watch list each month: 20,000

Date on which Nelson Mandela’s name was removed: 7/1/2008

Annual salary of the Bush Administration’s director of fact checking: $60,000

The Joy of Books

1 01 2009

As you probably guessed from the lesbian book club (don’t forget! discussion on Patience & Sarah starts soon!) I’m a big fan of reading.  In 2008, I finished fifty books in one year, which I’m quite proud of.  I’m also trying to read all the Booker prize winners in my lifetime.  You can see everything I’m reading and my personal challenges here.  I’m adding a new challenge, which is to read as many of the Lambda Lit Award winners as I can (before they go out of print).  Books going out of print is extremely frustrating, and I’m probably at the best library for queer books in the country, or at least one of them, so I want to read a lot before I leave.  But I made one interesting observation as I was dutifully taking down titles.  Two of my all time favourite books, Colm Toibin’s The Master and Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, were both up for Gay Men’s Fiction in 2004.  Toibin won, but I couldn’t imagine why they didn’t at least tie the two.  If I had to pick just one, I’d probably go with Hollinghurst, but that’s just me.

I hope to do some book reviews here soon, or at least brief impressions, but I did want to go ahead and make one recommendation.  If you’re not familiar with Ian McEwan, become familiar.  Really, do.  Atonement is fabulous, as is Saturday, but I just read two of his that I hadn’t before and was impressed by both.  The Comfort of Strangers is a brief look into a couple’s vacation and it’s mostly focused on snapshots, those lyrical impressions of which McEwan is such a master.  There is a rather creepy erotic element, but it doesn’t overshadow the beauty of the book or dominate the tone.  The other that I even more strongly recommend is On Chesil Beach, which I believe is his most recent novel.  It’s again only a snapshot, this time of one evening, though with bits of backdrop interspersed.  It captures the dawn of a sexual revolution, an unfortunate brink where newlyweds are unable to communicate on their wedding night and remain trapped in time and space.  Anyone who’s ever had bad heterosexual sex, or trouble talking to a partner, will deeply relate to this.  And again, the lyric quality of the writing is just stunning.