18 July 2007

Desperate Australian Government resorts to terrorism card in last-ditch attempt to hold power

It’s a well-known truism of politics that if the people are unsettled or insecure they tend not to change governments. It has worked for Australia’s Howard Government in the past, when they deliberately played up ludicrous stories of babies being thrown overboard by refugees (whom they’d rather label as illegal immigrants or potential terrorists from the outset), and bought into the ‘weapons of mass destruction’ fiasco. Now, with the polls against them in an election year, they’ve decided to once again try and scare us with the terrorism threat.

For those of you not familiar with the saga let me give my 25-word (-ish) summary. Unexploded bombs discovered in London/associated terrorism suspect found with borrowed SIM card/SIM card traced back to Indian (Muslim) doctor Mohammed Haneef in Queensland hospital/doctor held for some time without details of actual offence being revealed to public, then finally charged with “recklessly providing resources to a terrorist organisation”/Federal Immigration Minister undermines court process by talking a great deal about the case, and whilst revealing no substantive facts regularly hints at secret info he has that makes it clear the man is of unfit character/Magistrate’s Court grants him bail pending hearing, clearly believing that he’s not much of a threat/Minister decides that he will be locked up in immigration detention anyway and his visa suspended until he can be expelled.

Now maybe this fella was up to no good, or at least knew people who were, but there was I labouring under the misapprehension that we had some sort of rule of law in this country. Instead I find the government can overrule that, as well as taking punitive action against someone on the basis of as yet unproven allegations. And whilst this evil-SIM-card-lending-threat-to-all-we-hold-sacred is to be detained and exported, the Australian Wheat Board’s A$300 million bribery scandal in Iraq seemed to pass gently by with no heads being patted, let alone rolled.

The Immigration Minister, Kevin Andrews, suggests that he is "acting in the national interest and about matters that go to national security". But far from making us feel safer, this should make all Australians feel very, very insecure indeed. This is the same government which completely failed to assist its own citizens detained overseas for years on beat-up charges in luxury accommodation in Guantanamo Bay and committed to military action in Iraq on beat-up allegations. ‘Be Alert not Alarmed’, they beseech us, whilst trying their utmost at every turn to terrify the populace by inventing new reds to place under our beds.

The Howard Government's history is already a shameful litany of lies and cover-ups, any one of which should have appalled the Australian people enough to kick them out years ago. And although these things have undoubtedly damaged our international reputation, they’ve generally buoyed the government’s political fortunes at home. But the credulity of the Australian people seems finally to be wearing thin, and I believe, and earnestly hope, that the government’s handling of the Haneef affair will be seen for the politically motivated, self-serving action that it is, and ultimately the final nail this government’s coffin.

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17 July 2007

Bargain fountain pen from Charles Hubert, Paris

I've always been a lover of fountain pens, and seem to take greater pride and care in what I write when holding one. Of course, it sometimes bumps into the keyboard when I'm typing, but that's the price I pay. Bad jokes aside (they'll be back later, I'm sure), my increasing computer use over a decade has tended to mean I write less with my hand, and my handwriting tends to reflect. But very few things match the feeling of writing on good paper with a substantial fountain pen. Over the years I've had (and lost) several Parkers and Lamys, and a lovely silver Shaeffer with inlaid gold nib (the best pen I've ever written with—I hope the person who pinched it from the Adelaide Uni games room in the mid 90s has made good use of it).

My current FP is a magnificent titanium-barrelled Cross Townsend, with the top of the line gold Extra Fine point. It's long and weighty, with a mirror-like finish that demands constant polishing. With that XF nib, it's not the smoothest writer ever, and it also tends to leak just a little. But it is a thing of elegance and beauty, which, because of my predilection for losing pens, has only left the house once in the dozen years I've owned it.

Not the most useful day-to-day pen, then. That tasks falls to a stylish red lacquer Parker Sonnet II ball pen (my second, of course) which I like very much, but I've been in a nib and ink mood recently, which has sent me to the web looking for FPs once again.

Following in the tradition of great pens such as Parker and Waterman, which hail from France, I came across a good looking fountain pen on eBay the other day called Charles Hubert, Paris. At the price it was clear that we weren't talking Paris, France, but Paris, China, but in the seller pictures as well as those at isellpens.com the entire range looked very well made. So I spent my $40 Australian plus P&P and acquired this little beastie, its finish reminiscent of the Sterling Silver Parkers, only in turned stainless steel:

It looks pretty well-finished in the pictures, doesn't it? That's because it is. Everything lines up nicely, the chroming is excellent and the cap clicks on and off very nicely at both ends. Clips are often a tell-tale sign of cost cutting, but even this is stylish and neatly finished. The nib, labelled 'Iridium Point Germany' looks good quality, and whilst its thickness is not labelled, I'd call it a Medium point towards the narrower end of that continuum.

In the hand it feels very solid, although the centre of gravity is a little high up the shaft for my liking with cap unposted, more than 8 cm away from the nib out of a barrel length of 12 cm. By contrast, my slightly longer Cross has a lower centre, and therefore just seems to take a fraction less effort to direct across the page. But I'm splitting hairs here, even if the price differential (which is almost ten-fold) were not taken into account. When I first picked up the pen, the black part of the barrel also seemed a little short, so that my fingers were riding up onto the fatter stainless steel section. This was a little uncomfortable, but I've quickly become used to it.

The nib is reasonably stiff and still a little scratchy having only been used for a week, but with the standard un-marked ink cartridge that came with it, it's a nice writer, with good, even inkflow and solid colour. When I get a higher quality cartridge in it things can only improve. And so far there has been no leakage or ink build-up on nib, finger-wrest or inside the cap, a problem which has always quietly afflicted my Cross.

Overall, the pen oozes quality, is fun to write with and I can afford to take it out of the house. At the price it is an absolute bargain, and I suspect the same could be said of others in the range, which I will explore further. Highly recommended!

You can source these pens from my Australian eBay seller, Selectview, who offers good prices and service or at www.isellpens.com.
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10 July 2007

Deal with eBay negativity using Toolhaus and Firefox

Following on from my previous post about ebay negatives, let me introduce Toolhaus—my favourite tool as a buyer on eBay. Just type in the name of a seller and it shows all their negative/neutral and withdrawn feedback, uninterrupted by those pesky positives. This, as Bowie would say, is the Nazz!

Just look how it seems to polarise eBayers. Some (most) seem to love it, but you get comments such as “That site is HORRIBLE and a disservice to EBay users. I understand the intention but it is very dangerous and produce (sic) more harm than good”, “I hate that toolhaus thing. Lame. “ and “That site is digusting (sic), what is it, lets find the bad side of sellers and exploit it”. Hey, anything that “digusting” must surely have merit!

And there’s a little plug in for Firefox that makes Toolhaus even easier to use by adding quick access to the tool to your right click menu. Just point at a seller’s eBay id, right click and Bob’s your auntie’s grandmother’s poodle. If you are using Firefox, and of course you are, download it here.

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Ebay feedback—reading between the lines

Newbies to eBay are often misled into putting too much faith in eBay feedback numbers. On the surface 99% seems like a high number, but in reality could be telling a very different story, particularly if the seller is moving high volumes.

So my advice to eBay newbies is to forget about the percentage and look instead at the number of negative/neutral and withdrawn feedbacks and their nature. For example, I came across a seller the other day who had a feedback rating of 98.8% based on 3,500 transactions. This tells me that there were a lot of people who were not impressed, in fact 43 negatives, more than 60 neutrals and dozens of withdrawns. And when I looked through the comments, I noticed significant patterns, falling into the three or four usual groups. People were complaining about slow despatch, receiving the wrong items or items in bad condition, excessive postal charges and items being despatched from Hong Kong though advertised from the UK.

Now, I like to give people the benefit of the doubt, and even the most conscientious seller can make honest mistakes from time to time, so I do not expect sellers to have 100% feedback. But when you get the same feedback for the same problems over and over, you are a seller to be avoided. In the case of my example seller, it was clear that he was breaking a number of eBay rules. He was a Hong Kong seller who was pretending to be based in the UK; he was lowering the buy price and padding out the P&P unreasonably, a favourite trick of Hong Kong sellers; and he was selling stock he didn’t actually have. He was also selling some crappy product, but that, alas, is not against eBay rules. Caveat emptor, as always.

Interestingly, this seller’s answer to disgruntled buyers was always to try and discredit the buyer. “Another deadbeat buyer” he would opine repeatedly, or he would defend his excessive padding of P&P by encouraging buyers to look at the overall cost. Of course, that’s not bad advice in itself, but it’s still against eBay rules to sell an item that is clearly worth $300 for $0.99 plus $299 in postage. But his most amusing defence was to say “If this were true... why would we have such good feedback?” Er, I’m looking at your feedback, mate, and all I see is 150 or so very annoyed customers.

Of course, 98.8% of buyers are apparently happy with this seller, who is certainly not an extreme case as eBay sellers go—many are far worse. But even that positive feedback is misleading because most sellers refuse to leave feedback until the buyer has done so. This is, effectively, a form of blackmail. In fact the buyer has fulfilled his contractual obligation in an eBay transaction as soon as payment is received by the seller, and it’s at this point that sellers should leave feedback, as, indeed, a few of them do. Hats off to those people, but eBay should build this into its system and force sellers to leave feedback first, in my opinion.

Ebay has recently introduced the option for buyers to leave detailed feedback on four aspects of a transaction: item description, seller’s communications, speed of posting and postage and packaging cost. Whilst the overall feedback is visible to the seller, this detailed breakdown is not, so you could theoretically avoid a bad seller blackmailing you by leaving positive overall feedback and then very poor detailed feedback. It’s a major improvement, and will work very well if buyers use 4/5 stars as the benchmark for a good transaction and only award the fifth star in exceptional cases. I think ebay is to be commended for this initiative, but I’d still like to see sellers forced to leave feedback as soon as payment is received.

In my experience, the vast majority of the sellers I have dealt with have been honest and remarkably efficient, and I am constantly amazed by how many people seem to live at the Post Office, ready to despatch my orders the nanosecond I press the Buy button. Reading between the lines of eBay feedback will help you identify these people before you buy and avoid the others.

In my next post I’ll point you towards a great tool for analysing negative and neutral feedback. Watch this space :-)
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