Saturday, September 23, 2017

A Primer for Buying Used, Rare and Out-of-print Books on Amazon (Part 2)

As we talked about in the last edition of this blog, can be a great place to buy used, rare and out of print books. But as we pointed out then, searching through the innumerable offerings from innumerable third-party sellers (3Ps) on World’s Largest [Books] Marketplace can be daunting.

How can you read a listing for a particular book so that you know the condition of the book you want? How can you tell if a particular bookseller has any books at all? (Yes, believe it or not, many 3P sellers list books they do not actually have -- more on that below.)  The people who contact us asking us to find a book for them because they are afraid to use Amazon are often those who have dipped their toes into what is colloquially called “The River” and have met up with a crocodile seller.

The good news for them, and for others who are hoping to connect with a long-sought-after book, is that there are ways to weed out the good sellers from the bad sellers, and the good copies of books front the bad copies,  just by a skilled reading the information provided on Amazon.

There are at least seven things to watch out for when buying used, rare and out-of-print books on Amazon and finding a reliable 3P seller from whom to purchase that book.

1.  The first (and easiest) thing to look at is the seller’s Feedback Rating.

Feedback ratings are given to each 3P seller in two forms: yellow stars (between 1 and 5), and a percentage of positive ratings out of 100%. These ratings are found above the seller’s name in the column just to the left of the yellow “Add to Cart” button in each book listing.

It is rare to find sellers with less than a 90% feedback rating on Amazon. Amazon’s expectation is that sellers will aim for 100% positive feedback, and if a seller’s feedback falls below 90%, she
will very likely be told that she is no longer eligible to sell on Amazon. Feedback below 93% or 94% is a red flag for buyers.

But here is where it is important to look further. If you click on the percentage itself, you will see all the comments made by buyers about that particular seller.  In addition, you can see any responses to that feedback made by the seller, along with a grid showing how many feedback comments (and whether negative, positive, or neutral) the seller has received over the course of her Amazon selling career.

Of course because many buyers who leave Amazon feedback are people who have had bad experiences, the numbers for any seller are slightly skewed in favor of the negative. Other buyers leave reviews of the book they have bought rather than seller reviews. But if there is a pattern of a certain kind of bad feedback (“Book was described as new, but was falling apart” or “Ordered this book four weeks ago and it still hasn’t turned up” or “Tried to contact seller several times but got no response.”) you will know that a seller has problems delivering on promises.

Looking at the seller’s responses to feedback can also be instructive. If the pattern is: “This buyer is an idiot!” you know that if you have a complaint about an order, you are unlikely to get satisfaction without a hassle.

2. Sellers with generic ‘boilerplate’ book descriptions. The seller’s condition notes (found in the second column from the left under the book’s condition grade) are especially important when buying used or out-of-print books on Amazon. Descriptions such as “may have notes, or highlighting” or “may be ex-library” or “100% guaranteed” (most Amazon orders are, by definition, 100% guaranteed) mean that the seller has never actually taken the time to inspect the book itself. Some sellers just “dump” lots of titles onto Amazon, and have not given any thought at all to the condition grading of the book or to any faults it might have.

(In the EU these kind of “may have” descriptions are unlawful, for obvious reasons. The buyer is purchasing something that cannot be checked against a clear description.)

3. Drop-shippers. Speaking of “dumping titles,” some booksellers on Amazon do not actually have ANY books in stock. They are called “drop-shippers,” (or more negatively “bookjackers”) and they simply attempt to list every book ever published on the Amazon website. Then when you actually order a book from them, they are forced to go out and find it from another online seller. This means that you cannot count on anything the drop-shipper says about its condition, or even on whether they will be able to find the book for you.

There are several ways to tell if a particular seller is a drop-shipper, none foolproof, but useful as a quick check. If you see a seller of a book with an outlandishly high price (in the hundreds or even thousands of dollars), you can be pretty certain that they do not have a copy of the book in stock and are hoping that no one will order it at the price they are asking.  
(The last two of these are bookjackers)

And again, generic descriptions are another sign that you are dealing with a bookjacker who has never seen the book listed itself:

Seller feedback that most often reports things like “waited a VERY long time for this book” or “seller cancelled my order saying they were out of stock” are telltale signs of a drop-shipper. When in doubt, you can always send the seller a question if you suspect that he or she does not have a book they have listed that you want to buy.

On their website, Zubal Books, a highly respected seller of used, rare and out-of-print books based in Cleveland, Ohio, has a good article about bookjackers, along with the list of those sellers the advise against: (“Bookjackers: Who they are, what they do, and why YOU should NEVER purchase from them.”)

Their bottom-line advice: NEVER buy from a bookjacjer!

4. Small sellers vs. mega-sellers.  When you have a number of sellers to choose from for a particular book, you will want to decide whether to buy from a small seller or a large seller. There are pros and cons to each of these choices. We tend to opt for smaller sellers, finding them more reliable and more responsive when there are difficulties. Large-scale sellers with hundreds of thousands of feedback entries can afford cancelled sales and poor-quality items and still be on good terms with Amazon. Small sellers usually cannot afford problems, and rely heavily on good buyer feedback and successful order completion, giving the buyer more leverage.

The first seller below is clearly a large-scale seller. The second a small (probably part-time) seller:

5. Brand new sellers. It’s a good idea to stay away from what Amazon calls  ‘Just Launched’ sellers or sellers with only a very low feedback numbers. Amazon is a complex marketplace for sellers, with lots of rules and regulations, and it takes awhile for new sellers to get the hang of things: the grading of books (i.e., what counts as New, Like New, Very Good, Good, or Acceptable – more on that below), the specifications for packing, shipping and tracking, the Amazon return policy (30 days. No questions asked), answering buyer messages, restocking fees all take some getting used to.  Reliable sellers will still be there this time next year. Bad sellers will be gone relatively quickly.


6. Slow-on-delivery sellers. Look carefully at the estimated arrival date for any book on offer. (“Arrives between” on the first line of the third column from the left of each listing). If you order a book on August 1 in the normal way and are expecting it in 7-14 days, but the listing itself says “Arrives between September 7-16” it means that either the book is located overseas, or is being sold by a drop-shipper, or the seller has set his or her shipping settings for a long delay for some other reason. None of these is good news for buyers who want their books to arrive quickly. (But if a seller does miss a delivery deadline, Amazon will make things right for you as a buyer.)

So, note the difference between shipping times for these two offers for the same book, appearing one after the other on the Amazon list:

7. Scammers. Most sellers on Amazon are honest people trying to make an honest living. But there are occasionally those who use Amazon simply as a vehicle for separating people from their money. For example, some scammers open new seller accounts with Amazon, list lots of inventory priced well below market price, take in the proceeds from unsuspecting buyers, and then disappear without sending customers their purchases. It doesn’t happen often, and Amazon usually catches these guys pretty quickly and reimburses the scammed buyers, but it’s a real nuisance for everyone. (Too-good-to-be-true prices and lots of 5-star feedback using exactly the same wording are also sometimes clues)

One more thing: This is a completely personal quirk of mine, but I also stay away from sellers with stupid seller names. “Grandma’s Junk” and “Mr. Smelly” come to mind. Of course this is not always an infallible indicator, (“The Dusty Bookshelf” and the “Tattered Cover” are perfectly respectable sellers, but I do question their business savvy!)
PS: We’ve talked about Amazon’s book grading guidelines over these two editions of this blog. Below is what Amazon itself says to expect from each condition grade:

“New: A brand-new, unused, unread copy in perfect condition. The dust cover and original protective wrapping, if any, is intact. All supplementary materials are included and all access codes for electronic material, if applicable, are valid and/or in working condition. Books with markings of any kind on the cover or pages, books marked as "Bargain" or "Remainder," or with any other labels attached, may not be listed as New condition.

            Note: as of May 1, “new” books on Amazon have no further condition description attached to the  
            book listing. New is new. Period.

Used - Like New: Dust cover is intact, with no nicks or tears. Spine has no signs of creasing. Pages are clean and not marred by notes or folds of any kind. May contain remainder marks on outside edges, which should be noted in listing comments.

Used - Very Good: Pages and dust cover are intact and not marred by notes or highlighting. The spine is undamaged.

Used - Good: All pages and cover are intact (including the dust cover, if applicable). Spine may show signs of wear. Pages may include limited notes and highlighting. May include "From the library of" labels.

Used - Acceptable: All pages and the cover are intact, but the dust cover may be missing. Pages may include limited notes and highlighting, but the text cannot be obscured or unreadable.

Unacceptable: Includes missing pages and obscured or unreadable text. We also do not permit the sale of advance reading copies, including uncorrected proofs, of in-print or not-yet-published books.”  These books may NOT be listed on Amazon.

Of course, the bottom line is this: if a seller in question has the book you want, and you are having difficulty finding it anywhere else, you may have to take a chance, ignore these red flags, and buy. Amazon will, in virtually every case, back you up if there is a problem.

But if you do have a choice of sellers of a particular used, rare, or out-of-print book, taking these guidelines into account will increase your odds of having a great buying experience on Amazon.

Good luck, and happy shopping!

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

A Primer for Buying Used, Rare and Out-of-print Books on Amazon (Part I)

Every now and again it hits me what technological babies we all are. In the pre-internet 1980s, I wrote my graduate school work on a Commodore 128. The only thing it was good for was word processing -- it may have been able to do other things as well, but I didn't know what those might be.  Just before I finished my dissertation, its keyboard failed -- in particular, the letters 'J' and "M" virtually stopped working -- and writing my dissertation about a quarterly journal that was published in January, May and June became something of a challenge. (Since the Commodore hardware wasn't compatible with anything else, and since the model I owned had been phased out, getting just a new keyboard was out of the question.)

I think about the infantile state of our human species vis-a-vis the world of high-tech every time I see an grossly-inappropriate tweet, receive a too-hastily-sent email, or hear of someone who has been scammed by a 17-year-old Ukranian claiming to be his or her "soul mate" ("And won't you please send me the money it will take to enable us finally to meet and be together forever: bail, hospital fees, insurance bonds, court costs, $10,000 for a new passport, etc.?") We are so new to this world (even those who grew up with it) that we just haven't yet acquired enough technological 'life experience' to avoid the pitfalls with any regularity.

This brings us to the subject at hand: namely books. The other day we had a call from someone who lived in our village and who knew that we were booksellers. Could we find her a particular book for her, please?

So we asked the usual questions. But our first question was: "Have you looked on Amazon?" After all, it's what most people do these days when looking for a book, or anything else for that matter.

Her reply is one we've had in response to the same question, asked of many other callers requesting that we find scarce books for them over the years. "I'm afraid to go on Amazon to find old books. It's too confusing. It's hard to know which sellers to trust on Amazon." And we can sympathize. Amazon is great for buying new products, including recently-published, in-print books.  But out-of-print, used or rare books are something else again.

Actually,  can be a great place to buy used, rare and out of print books. It is easy, quick, and the range of choice is astonishingly vast. Books you never knew existed can be found there, and books you have spent years hunting for are there, too. Amazon began its corporate life as a book-selling site, and is still the "World’s Largest [Books] Marketplace."

But at the same time, book-buying on Amazon can be something of a challenge, especially when it comes to uncommon or hard-to-find books. Many sellers, both professional and amateur, inhabit the site, with different ways of doing business, different levels of professionalism, and different methods for describing and merchandizing their books. Like any online platform, getting the things you want in the condition you want in the timeframe you want is a matter of savvy shopping and the ability to look for warning signs when they appear.

In this 2-Part series of blogs, we'll quickly go through what to watch out for as you navigate the minefield that is Amazon used-book buying, so that you and the book you want can be happily united.

The Basics:

1. As almost everyone knows, Amazon as a corporate entity sells books themselves. These are usually the ones associated with the headlined, one-click ordering options. In-print books fall into this category, and when you purchase from Amazon itself you will receive a new copy from one of their many US warehouses.

2. Out-of-print, used, and rare books are sold almost-exclusively on Amazon by Third-Party sellers (3Ps). These are businesses (like us) or individuals who have a relationship with Amazon, and who are permitted to sell on the Amazon platform for a fee.

(Of course, 3Ps can also sell in-print books on Amazon as well. In the example above, the $4.11 copy is sold by Amazon itself, and the "154 new and used copies" under "More Buying Choices" and starting at $0.01 are being sold by 3P sellers.)

3. 3P sellers have to follow Amazon's rules on things like returns, the condition-grading of items for sale, quick turnaround of orders, and delivery deadlines, but can set their own rules about some other things (pricing, the content and format of their book descriptions, shipping methods, and their standards for packing books). Amazon also does its best to 'police' 3P sellers to ensure that Amazon customers will have a good buying experience. (More about that in Part II)

4. Amazon 3P sellers may be based in the USA or may be operating from somewhere overseas. Sometimes it is difficult to tell which. (Again, more on that later.)

5. Although many 3P sellers store their books on their own premises or at nearby locations, many others ship all their merchandise to a centralized Amazon warehouse, and orders are packed and sent to you from that warehouse (in these cases you will see "Fulfilled by Amazon" somewhere in the Seller's listing).

5. You can message 3P sellers with questions before you buy using Amazon's "Ask a question" option. Amazon expects all 3P sellers to respond to messages promptly (the rule is a response within 24 hours) and courteously.

When you see a seller's name in the list of books for sale, simply click on the name and you will get a window that looks like this:

Click on the yellow "Ask a question" button and write your message to the seller. Your email or other identifying information will be masked, and will not be available to the seller.

Complaints after buying are directed through the Your Orders page.

6. Some 3P sellers have earned what is called the Amazon "Buy Box," which is located at the righthand side of the screen as a yellow "Add to Cart" button.

Add caption
This enables one-click ordering from that buyer, even though there may be several other buyers with the same book on offer. (The Buy Box is actually one of 'Amazon's Great Mysteries.' Amazon giveth, and Amazon taketh away, and no one knows why.) Although clicking on the the Add to Cart link is a convenient way to order, there maybe other copies in better condition for lower prices available,

7. The only performance metric that the buyer sees for any given 3P seller is the Feedback score (calculated and shown as  between 1 and 5 yellow stars underneath the seller's name), a positive percentage rate, the lifetime number of feedback ratings, and actual buyer comments by clicking on the percentage rate link. In the screenshot below, this seller has a 4.5-star feedback rating from buyers rating with 94% positive comments, and over a million individual comments from buyers.

But there are other 3P seller metrics that Amazon itself uses to keep 3P sellers in line (overall order dissatisfaction rate, slow shipment time, the percentage of valid tracking attached to an order, fast response to buyer messages, and so on) that buyers do not see. These metrics are Amazon's way of determining whether a particular seller retains selling privileges on Amazon, and (probably) whether the seller is eligible to win the Buy Box.

That means that when you have a choice of sellers -- sometimes a choice between many, many sellers -- for an old book that you want to buy on Amazon, you have to do some added detective work.  Even reading and interpreting the Feedback scores that you CAN see is something of a challenge.

And hints for meeting that "challenge of choice" will come in Part II of this seres.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Healing powers

Unless we were very saintly children (which I was most decidedly NOT), we all remember our own particular variation of "The dog ate my homework." And so it is here. Over a year ago, and quite unexpectedly, we added a puppy to our household, and I can state with some certainty that "The puppy ate this blog."

She has been, and continues to be at the age of 22 months, a joy and a delight. We named her "Jiva," which is the Sanskrit word for the Elemental Life Force [जीव], of which she is possessed in abundance. (In her early days, some people mis-heard her name and, having seen her in action, thought we had named her "Shiva," the Deity also called "The Destroyer" in the Hindu tradition.) As our own grasp on the elemental life force seems to be a bit feeble at the moment, she has been just the tonic we have needed. But I regret that she has been such an effective excuse for months of inattention to my writing.

The other regretful thing that has effectively stopped me writing has been the incessant pounding of the 2016 political campaign and its aftermath, which seems to have begun sometime back in the Jurassic Period. This is no place to air my particular political proclivities. But as the culmination of a trend toward the diminishment of civility (and even to the diminishment of any conviction that civility is a virtue), the presidential campaign absorbed a great deal of my mental and emotional energy.

As a result, I decided to take a 'media sabbatical,' which lasted longer than I expected.

But puppies -- now even mostly grown-up puppies -- are good for the soul, and after this unexpected hiatus I have returned to this forum.

The other things that puppies are good for is nursing.

In November I fell on the ice on our front steps early in the morning and broke my leg in three places. Jiva barked and barked from inside the house, and The Spouse repeatedly told her to 'Shut up' and went back to sleep. After 40 minutes, someone on a neighboring street heard me calling and came to my rescue. The Spouse felt (and continues to feel) terrible.

All is (mainly) mended now, but I realized in the healing process how necessary a dog is to my general well-being.

Sometime in the winter someone gave me a copy of Mary Oliver's Dog Songs (Penguin, 2013). It was a healing gift -- and I had so many healing gifts last winter as I recovered -- and since then I've been giving it to everyone with very little excuse.

So, in honor of puppies, and of the Bright Succession of our old dogs now gone to their eternal rest, I finish with Oliver's hymn to her dog Luke:


I had a dog
  who loved flowers.
    Briskly she went
        through the fields,

yet paused
  for the honeysuckle
    or the rose,
        her dark head

and her wet nose
    the face
         of every one

with its petals
  of silk,
    with its fragrance

into the air
  where the bees,
    their bodies
        heavy with pollen,

  and easily
     she adored
        every blossom,

not in the serious,
  careful way
    that we choose
        this blossom or that blossom—

the way we praise or don’t praise—
  the way we love
     or don’t love—
        but the way

we long to be—
  that happy
    in the heaven of earth—
        that wild, that loving.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Productive Stupidity

When I was a child, there were whole classes of people who possessed an almost-Drudical power and eminence: parents, doctors, the clergy, teachers, scientists, civic leaders. Part of their power rested in the fact that everything about their lives was a mystery. The idea that my 4th grade teacher, for example, might have a life outside of the classroom, or that Mr. Justice So-and-So might vacation on Cape Cod with his spouse, quite simply never entered my mind. And even though one would occasionally hear the phrase, "Just remember, we all put our trousers on one leg at a time," no one ever seemed really to believe it.

Today, by contrast, the young know almost everything about their parents' lives, the clergy are all-too-often in the news for various indiscretions, doctors are just another cog in the machine of the medical-bureaucratic system, teachers are more and more likely to "share" stories of their off-duty experiences with their students. Even the world's royal families have not been able to preserve the shroud of mystery that had kept their power unassailable for centuries.  The exact disposition of the trousers of many of these is rarely left to the imagination.

And, all too often, our authorities have let us down. This, of course, is nothing new. With the centenary of the 1914-1918 War, the image of the British generals leading hundreds of thousands of men to their deaths at the Somme, Ypres, Verdun, the Marne is before us. The generals planned it, the clergy blessed it, the king told us that every death was noble, the press refused to report it, the politicians funded it; and after 1918, when the men in the trenches began to tell their stories, the underpinnings of the whole structures of authority started to crumble.

In his wonderful book No Sense of Place (Oxford University Press, 1986), Joshua Meyrowitz talks about this process, and about about the role of the media in pulling off the "invisibility cloak" that had allowed authority to maintain its mystique, and hence its power over us. Meyrowitz, professor of communications at the University of New Hampshire, argues that mass media have broken down the established concepts of roles, hierarchies, and identities by showing us the intimate details of the lives of authority figures, and by closing the social distance between us and them. (The number of people who said they would vote for George W. Bush because "he seemed like a guy I could sit down and have a beer with." is just one example of this.)

All of this has been brought to mind in the past week or so by the furore surrounding the vaccination of children for measles. In the past, physicians and scientists simply told us that we should be vaccinated -- for polio, for measles, for rubella and whooping cough -- and we happily complied, largely without hesitation. Many of us had seen the terrors of polio, my mother had had whooping cough as a child, her father had had smallpox. We had as a part our common memory the devastation of infectious disease, and the high-priests of science had finally conjured up our salvation from it. We were grateful. We lined up for injections. It didn't matter that we didn't understand how they worked or why they worked. The "experts," the "authorities" told us that they would work, and we believed them.

But the world has turned, and the words of one anti-vaccination mother are shared by many: "You just have to follow your own heart when it comes to medical decision-making.” In other words, we may not understand science, but we know what we like. Or perhaps because we don't understand science, and don't trust the authority of scientists, we are left with "what we like" as the ground of our decision-making. Part of our retreat from scientific authority is that, as the chemist-poet Carl Djerassi (who died at the end of January at the age of 92) says: "The talk is heavy and the words are long." And so in matters related to science, whether the science of infectious disease, or climate change, or Ebola, or the risk of the earth being hit by a meteorite, we are left to the panderers of alarm (and the anecdotes of the alarmists) to tell us what to think and believe.

Perhaps part of it is that we have begun to feel with real intensity the disjuncture between the waning authority of those who engage in scientific pursuit on the one hand, the their immense power over our lives on the other.  Carl Djerassi provides a good example. Most people, it is safe to say, had never heard of him, although among his peers he was honored and respected, not least for his work over such a wide range of scientific disciplines: from marine biology to artificial intelligence, from the structure of steroids to pest control.

But Djerassi's most lasting impact on the lives of ordinary human beings was through his groundbreaking work on oral contraceptives, which gave women control of fertility and family planning, and re-ordered the balance of power between men and women. Our lives and the life of our planet has been immeasurably and irrevocably changed by the work of this one man working in his lab on things that can only be described by "heavy talk" and "long words." (Anyone with allergies or hay fever should also be grateful to Djerassi, whose work led to the development of the first commercially-available antihistamines.)

I despair the generalized scientific illiteracy of my fellow citizens. But it is not very surprising: there is simply too much to know, and things move too fast, and even the simplest explanations, precisely because they are simple, get it wrong. The "authorities" can't explain it to us, and even if they could the underpinnings of their authority are unsound, and our trust is weakened. The group to which we belong, whether we are a "crunchy Mom," an  evangelical Christian, a vegan, or a GMO activist, has far more power to interpret the world of science than those who are actually doing the work, "the experts." Our group latches on to anecdotes about MMR vaccines and autism, or outlier studies about "the myth of climate change," or the Biblical view of the age of the earth, and we know what to think. It has become simple.

Do I have a solution to all of this? Do I even have a suggestion? Not really. I do know that as an immune-compromised person, I am really frightened that don't-know anything-about-science-but-know-what-they-like anti-vaccination people are putting me and lots of others at risk. I do know that I am really frightened by people who are not concerned with climate change because the Apocalypse is coming and God will rapture all the righteous off the planet before anything bad happens. I do know that I am really frightened by politicians who think that women can't get pregnant if they are the victims of "legitimate rape," and that LGBT people can be "made straight" with the right kind of psychological counseling.

But while the human consequences of these kinds of beliefs are indeed frightening, even more frightening is the certainty of those who hold them. No argument, no amount of new information, no evidence that their hypotheses are off-base, will shake their conviction.

In The Importance of Stupidity in Scientific Research (Journal of Cell Science, 2008)Martin A. Schwartz, Professor of Medicine and Biomedical Engineering at Yale, talks about the role of ignorance and failure in the scientific pursuit. He says:

“The crucial lesson was that the scope of things I didn’t know wasn’t merely vast; it was, for all practical purposes, infinite. That realization, instead of being discouraging, was liberating. If our ignorance is infinite, the only possible course of action is to muddle through as best we can.”

The anti-science crowd will surely use this as a further nail in the coffin for scientific authority. "They don't know what they are doing: they're just blundering around." But Schwartz is talking about a particular kind of stupidity here, a "productive stupidity," a joy in getting things wrong because you know you are on the way to getting it right, a willingness to wade into the unknown without fear.

That indeed may be the best way of approaching the work of science. But it seems to me that it is also the best way of approaching life in general. And if we could just understand that, if we could just embrace the power of "productive stupidity" (as opposed to just plain old implacable stupidity), we might not be quite so dangerous as a species.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Waiting for the Barbarians

Someone once said that "poetry is the best defense against prose." And at the beginning of a year when we will hear, read, and produce more prose than is probably good for us, I thought we should begin with a poem. The Greek poet C.F. Cavafy (1863-1933) published a fairly large body of work, but the only poem of his that I know is Waiting for the Barbarians (1904). So, with the a new Congressional year upon us, and with news of acts of terror and mayhem across the world in mind, I will reproduce here in full:

             Waiting for the Barbarians

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?
            The barbarians are due here today.
Why isn’t anything happening in the senate?
Why do the senators sit there without legislating?
            Because the barbarians are coming today.
            What laws can the senators make now?
            Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.
Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting at the city’s main gate
on his throne, in state, wearing the crown?
            Because the barbarians are coming today
            and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader.
            He has even prepared a scroll to give him,
            replete with titles, with imposing names.
Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?
            Because the barbarians are coming today
            and things like that dazzle the barbarians.
Why don’t our distinguished orators come forward as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?
            Because the barbarians are coming today
            and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.
Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home so lost in thought?
            Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
            And some who have just returned from the border say
            there are no barbarians any longer.
And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.

In Cavafy's poem the barbarians never do come, leaving the politicos with nothing to do and no one to blame.

But in our case the barbarians have come, and they have been very, very busy. And this week has been marked by a series of particularly barbarous public acts. For me, the most difficult image to come to grips with was of the little 10-year old Nigerian girl, strapped up to an explosive device and sent by the men of Boko Haram into a local marketplace. There they detonated the bomb by remote control, killing her and 19 others. And in this first half of the first month of the new year, there have already been too many stories like this. I feel fear and despair when I hear them. Worse still, I feel my heart slowly turning to stone.

Fear and despair and hard-heartedness are, of course, the barbarians' stock-in-trade. And in some sense they have already won: we are afraid so we don't travel and we put bigger locks on our doors, we despair so we give up on peacemaking, our hearts are hardened so we torture and we build walls between ourselves and The Other and we buy lots and lots and lots of guns.

But it is the beginning of a new year. And there is still something about the beginning of the new year that primes us for fresh starts and a future of possibilities that we intend to grasp with both hands. And we are deeply cheered, deeply moved, by the sight of millions of people filling the streets of Paris with placards: Je suis Charlie, Je suis, Ahmed, Je suis Police.

We are cheered by the growing trend in Pakistan, where for the first time young people are willing to post calls for the end of Taliban and, even in the face of the threat of reprisal, are brave enough to give their names and show their faces on social media. We are cheered by stories of medical personnel from the West traveling to West Africa to treat the victims of ebola at great personal risk. We are are cheered by acts of courage, we are cheered by visions of hope, we are cheered by signs of faith in the future.

Yes, fear and despair and hard-heartedness are the stock-in-trade of the barbarians. But they are also, sadly, the storck-in-trade of the merchants, the sellers of bombs and guns and locks and walls. So I imagine that what used to be called the 'military-industrial complex' are intensly worried about these outbreaks of hope. I imagine they are asking, like the people in the Cavafy poem, "what's going to happen to us without the barbarians?" It is a hard combination to fight, the combination of those who incite our fear and those who profit from our fear. These days, it's hard to know which sort of barbarian is the more dangerous.

But it is the beginning of a new year. And we are primed to make a fresh start. But we know today, when the barbarians have indeed come, that the hardest New Year's Resolution we may ever have to make is a commitment to hope.