I get many of my best ideas in my sleep concepts that seem so blindingly brilliant they wake me up. Because I never have a writing implement near my bed, I shuffle into the bathroom and scrawl my idea on the mirror with a bar of soap.
It's a dandy system, except the mirror is narrow and the soap is fat, so I must abbreviate. This means that in the clear light of morning, my messages are often indecipherable, such as this one I recently soaped: "EbFb!" (Also, the sleeping brain is not always the most discriminating brain. Here, in its entirety, is a no-lose column idea I once dreamed up: "MAD!")
But the "EbFb!" idea actually turned out to be pretty good, once I finally figured out that it was not "E-flat, F-flat," an insipid tune I played on the piano for three straight days without inspiration. Eventually, I remembered: "eBay feedback!"
People who buy or sell items in the popular online marketplace get to report on their satisfaction with the sale basically, to critique the person they dealt with. But they are allowed only a few dozen keystrokes, meaning these reports like my soap-scrawls mst b vry cncise n 2 th pt.
Reading eBay feedback gives you an excellent profile of America at the start of the 21st century. Most people are respectful, and the vast majority of transactions occur to mutual satisfaction. But when disagreements arise, they are often wildly overblown, accompanied by sputtering, exclamation-laden, tooth-gnashing tirades. To judge from these reports, no transaction ever falls apart because of a simple misunderstanding between well-intentioned people. When things go sour, it is apparently always because at least one party is a suppurating morsel of human filth. Often, both are.
Here's an actual eBay feedback line from the recent attempted sale of an antique: "DEADBEAT! WACK JOB! FLIM-FLAM ARTIST!"
Here's another, from the sale of a guitar amp: "You sold me trash. I was a fool for buying it but you offload TRASH!"
From the buyer of a lamp: "Item was piece of crap! Wouldn't put in my dog house!"
From the seller of doll clothes, about the buyer: "Beware! Not trustworthy! Extremely immature person!"
That prompted this response: "NICE TRY! LIAR!!! I REPORTED U!!! U NEVER SENT DRESS."
From a dissatisfied buyer of flatware: "Parcel was insured, sller wd not send me receipt, he is a donkeyhole."
Response from the flatware seller: "He is a liar and a harasser! Beware!"
Flatware buyer retort: "You lying sack of . . ."
Because each eBay user has his or her own feedback profile, which is accessible to anyone, it takes only a little research to figure out that 95 percent of all the viciously negative feedback on the site involves about 5 percent of all users time and again, when they buy and when they sell. These are The Jerks.
The tragedy of eBay's system is that the user names are all pseudonyms. That means that, although you can identify the jerks and try to stay away from them on eBay, you can't avoid them elsewhere in life. And that's too bad, because if eBay named names, we'd not only be better jerk-forewarned, but, I'm guessing, we'd see some highly entertaining entries.
I use eBay often, but have never given or received negative feedback. That doesn't mean I've been entirely satisfied with all transactions it's just that the system actually seems to encourage civility. That's because you know that if you flame someone even justifiably you are almost certain to be flamed in return.
After winning one recent auction, but at a higher price than I'd expected to pay, I strongly suspected that the seller had been shilling me bidding against me through a second pseudonym, to jack up the price. Further feedback research showed he'd been accused of the same offense several times before. So I e-mailed him to cancel our transaction, explained why, and invited him to submit negative feedback about me if he wished. But I first previewed for him my would-be retaliatory line, which in 70 efficiently marshaled keystrokes established his guilt, exposed his recidivism and impugned his manhood.
That was a month ago. My feedback profile is still perfect.
See, it's the same deterrence system that worked splendidly for the Cold War. Mutually assured destruction. MAD.
Hey, wait a minute . . .