What you need to know about ebay

ebay graphic shows thieves and crooks

It really is time for the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to start breaking up the gargantuan online companies like ebay.

Amazon should also be broken up, and certainly Google and Facebook. But one thing has to be said about Amazon: They make buying (and returning) easy.

Not so ebay. I ordered a product from iherb on ebay. They evidently did not have the product they pictured and described, so they sent me a substitute. So I wanted to return it and get a refund.

That’s when all the fun began. I won’t go through all the laborious and ridiculous steps I was required to go through only to end up unwilling to spend any more time trying to get them to do the right thing.

The vendor, iherb, never did respond to my attempts to get their attention. After they had ignored me for a couple of weeks I went over their head to ebay. Although quite friendly about it, they required me to jump through numerous hoops, eventually said the vendor iherb would be sending me a return label.

They did not and getting back in touch with ebay about this specific matter has been a nightmare and now a complete failure. I have no more time to mess with them. I am stuck with a $50 item I did not want, did not order, and evidently cannot return for a refund.

This is becoming more and more a common experience in late-state predatory capitalism. I used to believe whole heartedly in capitalism and the American Dream. No more. There never seems to be enough profit for these greedsters and they lie awake nights figuring out ways to screw us, the consuming public, out of yet more money.

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I was once used ebay’s service to take credit cards but stopped because of all the bad experiences others had with them.

Now I will not buy anything from anyone on ebay ever again. The ebay “guarantee” is BS, in my experience. You might be able to get a refund from them or with their help, but not without a lot of patience and time.

Ebay should take a lesson from Amazon. At least Amazon knows how to treat customers.

Letter to an aging, unwell friend

Dear Thom,

Your concepts regarding the snow on Crestone Needle [a Colorado mountain] are irrelevant. Whether or not the snow is melting does not constitute an argument against global warming. I think you are being mislead by isolated “facts” like this. I recognize the roots of your comments in contemporary Republican misinformation enabled by the propaganda machine Fox News and Rush Limbaugh.

Please take a look at this 6,000 word article on snow and global warming by some of the top climate scientists in the world: Scientific American. You will not find any Fox News blathering heads or Trump tweets or administration poobahs cited in it. Nor can you find any more than a tiny smattering of crackpot scientists who claim to refute the scientific facts supporting the view that global warming is real, that it is the result of human action, and that we are headed for a near-time catastrophe. The crackpots’ claims are each and every one invalid, unscientific, and totally without merit. I know, I’ve looked. Trust me; I’m a doctor — as we used to be fond of saying.

Then please view this speech by Greta Thunberg. Earlier when I asked you your opinion of her you said, among other things, “Greta hasn’t lived long enough to have knowledge of all the planet’s weather patterns.” And you have? What the fuck?

Both the article and Thunberg’s speech are powerful. But they will not be viewed as such by anyone constitutionally incapable of facing the reality of our rapidly approaching extinction. To them I say, I am no longer disposed to humor bullshit. There is no more time to waste swallowing the insultingly erroneous, wishful-thinking-based capitalist swill blasted forth from the Trump administration and his propagandists.

You also said, “I must find fulfillment in other ways. It has to be with my mind, my resolve, my decision to be productive somehow, and not be satisfied with limited time and place.” You are certainly capable of doing that. Your excellent writing skill and perceptive intelligence have always been a model I have looked up to and tried to emulate. We both started out — you were the department chair, I was lowly faculty — as conservative Republicans and I still consider myself somewhat conservative (but now definitely and defiantly anti-Republican). Where we differ significantly is on the concept of intellectual freedom. I fear you have voluntarily subjugated yourself to the rigorous straight jacket of contemporary political conservatism and it hurts me to see you slip into claptrap mode, expressing thoughts and reasoning not your own on politics, economics or climate.

None of us has all that much time left. To me that makes it all the more important to spend time in ways that are honest to myself and to others. I continually strive to honestly question the positions and stands I take. That, I believe, gives me license to challenge the opinions and positions of others in like manner. Which of course makes me offensive to a lot of people, especially those who are perpetually offended.

Cutting through the bullshit, I have always found, is expensive. It does not make life any easier for me. But I have no trouble sleeping at night. I used to take great pleasure in discussing, or debating when appropriate, contentious issues with you. But in recent years you have more and more parroted Rush Limbaugh or the talking heads on Fox News.

It would be unreasonable and foolish to expect you to agree with me on everything, and I have enjoyed batting around ideas and concepts with you when we did not agree. But only when the positions you espouse are your own thinking and not the residue of Trump/Fox/Limbaugh propaganda.

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I know you have felt alone since your beloved wife died, you hurt, every day is a litany of discomforts and inconveniences, your dignity is frequently assaulted, and you have very little freedom left. Believe me, I get it. But the great thing you so have left, the thing that is so valuable and precious, is mental freedom. Videtur quod sit libera. “Think and be free.” But only if you sunder the shackles of conventional wisdom (the phrase itself is an oxymoron). I believe it a far grander finale to go out free and liberated than to go out whimpering, being a chump who hews to the party lines of those pygmy intellects who are abjectly terrified of intellectual freedom.

If I were advising someone else about the wisdom of writing a message like this I would tell them to save their breath; don’t waste their time. I know how difficult it is — impossible, often — to break through those obdurate, protective boundaries the human mind sets up to protect an embrace of conventional wisdom.

But I had to try. This is the only way I know how to be an honest friend.

Perge movere.

Where’s the laughter of yore?

people laughing

Over the last several years I have been periodically checking in to Alain Laboile‘s web site to enjoy pictures of his family. They live in a secluded rural part of France and Alain’s photographic documentation of the children’s exploits are positively delightful. No small part of the reason is that Laboile is a discerning photographer with an artist’s eye. He is in fact a sculptor and graphic artist and his family album documenting his family is well worth your time. And money (he has a book or two for sale — see above for the URL to his website).

The above picture is of part of his family laughing about something. No text is provided with these family pictures so it is not possible to know what they are laughing about. But they do laugh a lot and the children are forever probing and testing their environment as they grow and learn in a natural and uninhibited way lost long ago by most of us in the Western world.

The thing about this picture of their laughter is the way they heartily laugh without reservation. It seems to me we Americans used to laugh a lot. Not so much anymore, though, I’m sorry to say.

Three members of a Luxembourg family enjoying a good laugh.
Three members of a Luxembourg family enjoying a good laugh.

This is a picture taken many years ago of some dear friends who lived in Luxembourg at the time. (They are Dutch, originally from The Hague — Den Haag, or Sravenhaga, to native Nederlanders.) I meant to get them to smile for the picture I was about to take but I obviously overdid it. Whatever I said cracked them up and, being the amateur that I was, I went ahead and snapped the picture anyway.

I didn’t care much for this picture originally because convention had it that pictures of people laughing bigly were not good pictures. You know, mouth wide open, eyes half shut, enjoying a great good guffaw.

But over the years I have returned more and more often to this picture because it truly captured the nature of these friends. They laughed often and large. They were not self-conscious about their laughter and it was never forced. They laughed when they felt like it and didn’t when they did not, yet managed to never be insensitive or rude.

It seems to me we Americans used to be at least a little bit that way. When I was growing up around animals and barns and windmills and other hayseeds in the 1940s and 1950s (I was born in 1939, if you must know) laughter was important and not a day went by that you would not hear someone laugh hugely. Someone would bust a gut, as we used to say.

Today unfortunately there is a pall upon the land. In my people watching I hardly ever observe anything more than a courteous (or often nervous, it seems) chuckle. There is one glaring exception to this I should point out, often in situation where alcohol is available. You can’t help noticing when someone in the near vicinity laughs loudly and obnoxiously. Over and over again. Dominating the surrounding sound space with non-stop forced hilarity. That kind of hysterical noise making just doesn’t qualify as honest laughter. Alcohol fueled (possibly) desperation laughter only makes more obvious the generalized absence of good humor in us stressed-out Americans.

I’ll not launch into speculation about why so many of us are maxed out on stress. Everyone has his own opinions about what is going on today and airing those opinions often ends badly. Suffice it to say things are not going well for us today.

People do still laugh, of course. Sometimes uproariously. But my point is that the big laugh has become rarer, more the exception rather. Big laughter is not expected frequently. Beyond any socio-psychological analysis of what’s wrong with us, what does diminished laughter mean as a cause, rather than an effect? That is, rather than the reasons for less laughter, what does laughing less — or for some people, it would seem, not at all — do to us?

Theories of laughter abound, none of them totally convincing or satisfactory. I’ve read most of them and I still can’t give you even a vague precis as to what laughter is. I once in my dim ancient past had a setup in my lab for research that required spoken English language played backwards. This required a not-insignificant technological setup. Or at least it did back then.

Laughter was not on our research agenda but we did analyze a few samples of laughter just out of curiosity. We noted some of the stereotypic ingredients of laughter like laugh‐note structure and duration, internote intervals, crescendos and decrescendos — boring stuff like that. Just for the heck of it we played recorded laughter backwards to see what it sounded like.

We were curious about reversed laughter because ordinary spoken language, when played in reverse, sounds nothing like ordinary speech. Backward speech creates sounds that are impossible to make with the human mouth and not likely to be mistaken for any human language.

Interestingly, we noted that laughter played backward sounds pretty much like ordinary laughter. Whether it was one person’s laughter or the recorded laughter of several people laughing at the same time, it all sounded like you would expect laughter to sound. That may not surprise you be we found it remarkable. Why should laughter be so different from spoken language? Alas, it was a question we never got around to addressing.

We were just too busy at the time to spend much time on laughter. I wish we could have but we were steeped in studies associated with the production, perception, and evolution of human auditory signals of which speech is a special case. The particular dynamics of human laughter clearly demarcate a domain of neuroscientific inquiry; I thought it would be (and others have shown this to be correct) fruitful to analyze the neurobehavioral mechanisms involved in laugh detection and generation. I am eagerly following the ongoing research in this area but so far there is not much to interest anyone outside of a laboratory setting.

Laughter is a reflex located in the reticular system of the hindbrain. The whole enterprise of human laughter is quite complex. Preceded by smiling, even in the womb, laughter appears very early in life, sometimes within just a few days of birth. Each of us has his own characteristic laugh which is stable throughout our lives.

It is commonly assumed that laughter and speech differentiate us from the rest of the animal kingdom. Frankly I’m not as sanguine about that as I once allowed myself to be. With age comes wisdom and a greater awareness of ignorance. Consider for instance how much more ignorant we are today than were the people of, say, Copernicus’ time. That’s because we are much more aware of how much we don’t know than was Nick (1473-1543 AD) and his contemporaries back in the 15th century. He did not know it was even possible to plot the path from a launch pad on Earth to a landing site on the moon, and back again. I do know that it is possible, and I also know that I do not know how to do it. Hence I am more ignorant than anyone living in Copernicus’ time. 

That having been said, and perhaps apropos of nothing, I am no longer as confident as I once was that other animals do not have language skills the way we humans do. And I have not since my childhood Sunday school days thought that animals do not laugh. I’ve always suspected that that hunh-hunh-hunh from a horse that had just dumped me on the ground by “inadvertently” stumbling was a chuckle. The horse’s version of heh heh heh. And the horse’s highly mobile ears would usually twitch just a little as they chuckled at me lying on the ground.

By the way, you know that way horses have of curling their upper lip and opening their mouth? They look like they are laughing. They are not. They are getting ready to bite the crap out of you. Run.

Rats giggle when tickled. They seek out the handler’s hand that is doing the tickling — “Do it again, Daddy, do it again!” Then they struggle to escape the tickling as they issue a subsonic titter. Sound like any kids you know (except the subsonic part is usually supersonic with kids of the human persuasion)?

Then there was Omar. Omar was a pet parakeet I once had whom I refused to keep caged up. He did had a cage which was his place of privacy where he ate (mostly) and slept at night. He insisted that his cage be covered at night so he could sleep undisturbed and he became quite vocal in the morning when it was time to remove the cover so he could get out and say good morning. The door to his cage was always open.

Omar loved to throw things off the coffee table. I had a handful of small cotton swabs (Q-Tips is one brand name) which I would scatter on the table and Omar would grab one in his beak, walk over to the edge of the table, and drop it to the floor. Then make a sound that could only be taken as a parakeet’s laugh as he looked down at his handiwork. He would do this repeatedly until all the swabs were on the floor, sufficiently laughed at.

This was play for Omar. Most animals, it appears, like to play. Everyone has played with dogs and cats, but who would have thought birds like to play. In my experience the only animals I’ve been around but never seen play were cattle. Calves play but seem to give it up when they get older. Like some people I know.

Laughter is closely related to play. I don’t recall ever hearing noises from playing calves or colts, but who knows? If rats can make laughing sounds undetectable by human ears, maybe other animals can too.

Laughter is a unique medium of communication. All human societies speak their own language but the sounds of their laughter are universal. Most people laugh at least sometimes but there are always some who never laugh. I’ve known a few of those and to a man I did not like them. I can’t recall ever knowing a woman who never laughed. Oh, wait, I take that back. Many years ago there was an undergraduate in Colorado who took a couple of my classes. She would not even smile because, she said, she did not want to cause wrinkles. She was a professional model. That explains a lot right there.

Laughter has a mood elevating and relaxing effect, but only when it is of the right kind. Cynical, cruel or derisive laughter does not appear to have any positive effects. But what I’ll call here clean or healthy laughter does — muscles are activated; heart rate is increased; respiration is amplified, with a concomitant increase in oxygen exchange. All of these are antithetical to stress so laughter is a great method of stress management.

The healing power of humor has been a serious subject ever since 1964 when a guy named Norman Cousins — at the time a well known American political journalist and author — used humor to cure himself, by his claim, of ankylosing spondylitis. To do this he watched comedy movies and claimed that watching (and laughing) for ten minutes would give him two hours of pain free sleep.

We know there is a profound relationship between stress, which we can think of as negative emotions, and disease and illness. Somewhere between 70 and 90 percent of disease and illness is strongly associated with stress. Cousins made a strong argument, based on his own experience and his considerable reading of the extant research literature, that if negative thoughts can have negative physiological repercussions, then positive thoughts should have the potential to produce positive effects throughout the body. This kind of thinking which was widely popular at the time led to the development of a new research discipline called psychoneuroimmunology. That is, the study of the mind-body relationship.

drawing of norman vincent peale
Norman Vincent Peale in his Shriner’s fez., rumored to be covering a tin foil hat.

By the way, please note that having positive thoughts or even thinking positively does not mean the same as Positive Thinking, the cultist belief in a magical elixir somehow conjured up by mere belief. The cult of Positive Thinking is essentially a religious devotion to an imagined power of belief. If you can make yourself believe it, it will come true. As I have written elsewhere and at length, Positive Thinking does more harm than good. Sometimes this is difficult for people to understand because of all the nonsense proliferated by hucksters like Napoleon Hill and religious crackpot preacher Norman Vincent Peale (also known as the Grand Imperial Chaplain of the Shriners). But I digress.

It cannot be said that psychoneuroimmunology has made a lot of progress. I submit that that is because it is a) a really dumb name and b) it was immediately hijacked by the medical profession. Now, I don’t have a lot against the American medical profession (take that with a grain of NaCl) but it is well known that it is difficult to make headway in any area — research or applied — that does not hold the promise of outrageously profitable new drugs for the pharmaceutical industry or expensive gadgets for the biomechanical manufacturers to make and sell.

But let’s get back to laughter and how we don’t do as much of it as we used to. Laughing, that is. Laughter or a jolly demeanor go together, which also goes with positive thinking. Maybe we have done to much laughing and feeling positive, or forcing a positive outlook. That might be one of the reasons we are in such a pickle today. If you force yourself to look on the positive side all the time you miss a lot. You are less likely to see things, or people, creeping up on you. Things that are not in your best interest and tend to waylay you when they catch you by surprise.

For that matter, someone who is really into seeing only the bright side probably would not waste time and money on like, say, insurance. We all know how that can end up. No, a healthy pessimism is in fact the basis of the scientific method as well as being at the root of any analysis meant to be meaningful and useful.

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All-out pessimism is not called for and is actually not a good thing. What is needed is a form of balanced, objective pessimism in order to form realistic expectations and conduct a sober evaluation before taking action. This facilitates a thinking-through of all the negative possibilities in order to avoid them.

Objective pessimism can be the precursor to objective optimism. That is, wax negative and play the devil’s advocate as preparation for something you intend to do. Be tough. Be rigorous. Get it all out there where you can deal the potential negatives. Once you have done that thoroughly, put aside the negative attitude and be positive.

Not blindly positive — you should always be alert and ready to get back into objective pessimism mode. This way you are less likely to turn a negative attitude into a self-fulfilling prophecy.


Earlier today several of our internet service provider’s (ISP) servers, ours among them, came under massive attack. There are many ways to attack servers, but the impetus behind the attacks is always corrupt hackers driven by greed and criminality. (If you want to know about such attacks, google “server attack.”)

This and other manifestations of lawlessness are becoming more and more rampant. We are seeing it at every level of society and in every sphere of activity.

Health insurance executives expend large sums to (successfully) buy off politicians to keep them from passing something lawful and sensible (in the U.S.) like universal healthcare. They suborn journalists and media types to play their role in keeping the subject off the minds and tables of the American public.

Decision makers in the food industry couldn’t give a fig about the harm they are doing by adding high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), salt and fat to everything possible. We now have a population forty percent of which is obese. That’s in America. It may not be that bad in other parts of the world, but it will. If you doubt that, look at the ingredients section of the labels of food you buy. Expect to see high levels of HFCS and salt even in foods that don’t otherwise need them.

I wonder what goes on in New Zealand. Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, and the NZ government, was massively impressive in their response and handling of the recent murderous mosque shooting. (She lives in a two bedroom suburban house. Trump couldn’t get even his egregiously bloated ego into someplace as sensible as that.)

Speaking of Trump (aren’t we always?), he is the kind of person that represents our contemporary lawlessness. Conservatives like him are all for separation and individuality regardless of how much it costs or injures others. They hate liberals for being inclusive and trying to convince others that we are all in this together.

There may be conservatives who don’t like Trump or his type but they have not spoken up in a timely fashion, for for that matter, loudly enough to be heard. So it is too late. No matter how much they try to bullshit their way out of tacit or active support of the bloated tyrant in the White House, it is too late. Not buying it. (Lily G. just reminded me of that old expression last Friday. Thanks, Babe.)

Right-wing populism is supporting bad eggs all over the world. I won’t bother to name them; you know who they are. It is no accident that the rising lawlessness and callous indifference to the plight of others is correlated with the rise of the louts in political power. In fact it is more than correlated. It is causative.

I’ll continue this tomorrow . . .

April 12, 2021 update. Well, no, I did not get around to continuing this the next day, as I had planned. It was all just too big a topic for me too big a topic for me. I should not have started it.

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Now Trump is out of office and bloviating from his fat cat digs in Florida, trying to make trouble for everyone. He’s pretty much out of mind now except for a handful of media reporting on him because, well, they don’t know any better. That is, they don’t know any better way to get attention. They had such a field day for the four years Trump was in the White House they find it hard to give up those old habits.

The Republicans, though, are still with us. They need more than ever to have their collective ass kicked. And that goes for West Virginia’s senator, Joe Manchin, too. Why don’t the Democrats kick him out of the party? He is such slime!

You see how hard it is to stop commenting on this topic. These topics. Like eating peanuts, potato chips or, for that matter, just about anything: It’s hard to eat just one.

World’s ugliest chair from Waunakee Furniture ETC

Now sitting in our sunroom is what has to be a strong competitor for the title of World’s Ugliest Chair. (Please see pictures below.)

We recently decided to get a new rocking chair to accompany one we already had. We’ve had the old rocker for several years and been happy with it, so we decided to get the same brand (Flexsteel) and model (Las Cruces) with a different fabric.

Waunakee Furniture ETC handles Flexsteel so we decided to give them a try. They did not have this particular chair on the floor but they did show us a picture of it and it looked fine. So we ordered it ($1,032.30 with tax).

When the chair was delivered to us a couple of months later I could not believe my eyes. The fabric was what we ordered but the wooden parts looked atrocious.

Two Flexsteel chairs showing shoddy workmanship
Two Flexsteel chairs from Waunakee Furnature that were supposed to be the same model. The new one is on the left, old on the right.

The wood – some kind of lower grade oak (maybe) – has the appearance of scrap lumber. The stain is blotchy and irregular. It looks like it was done by a five-year-old having a temper tantrum.

Brand new Flexsteel chair with joint coming apart
New Flexsteel chair from Waunakee furniture. Note the (1) sloppy gluing, (2) crooked faux tenon, and (3) gap in joint.
chair parts
New chair (Flexsteel) from Waunakee Furniture ETC showing shoddy joinery (nothing really fits) and exceptionally poor finish work.

I immediately called the store to tell them the chair was unacceptable and ask what they were willing to do about it. Cassandra “Sandy” Taylor (one of several owners of Waunakee Furniture ETC) told me to take pictures and write what it was I was unhappy about. Send all that to her and she would forward it to the Flexsteel quality control department and blah blah blah . . .

In other words, Waunakee Furniture ETC did not consider themselves responsible for delivering an unsatisfactory piece of furniture. Not their fault.

While talking to Cassandra Taylor I kept thinking about the Cassandra in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon who reneged on a deal she had made with Apollo. I know how he felt. There is an implied contract between customer and business in any purchase. When a business says an unsatisfactory product is not their problem, I feel they have violated our contract.

American retailers used to feel responsible for what they sold. Not so much any more. Many conveniently (for them) consider themselves mere conduits between manufacturers and consumers. Once the goods are delivered they feel no further responsibility. That is scandalous at a time when bloated retailer profits in some cases are as high as sixty to eighty percent of the retail price. They simply take the money and run.

But forgive me; I digress.

The rigmarole Waunakee Furniture ETC’s Taylor prescribed for me, I was pretty sure, was going to be an exercise in futility. You know, get all exercised, jump through an endless succession of hoops, wait a long time, then nothing happens. The objective is to drag things out and wear the customer down until he finally gives up.

This attrition strategy was perfected decades ago and became known as the Kmart strategy. Their business philosophy was that it was more profitable to buy new customers (with advertising) than to go to the expense of making an irate customer happy. Kmart shuttered hundreds of stores last year.

So even though I resented the strategy and didn’t have much hope for anything meaningful coming of it, I didn’t have much choice. I started taking pictures and making notes as soon as I got off the phone.

I had been at it less than an hour when I got a call from Waunakee Furniture ETC’s delivery guy for that day, Eric Myhre (another owner), who was calling me “from the truck.” He acted like he didn’t know what the problem was, only that I had a complaint. He told me to explain the problem to him.

Now, why was he calling me I wondered, less than an hour after Taylor had spelled out at some length the convoluted procedure I was to follow? Taylor had obviously immediately called Myhre and I was sure she had told him all about my complaint. But he was playing dumb, a role I assumed not totally unfamiliar to him.

This was another strategy, the one where you get an unhappy customer to repeat their complaint as many times as possible. That’s because most complaints sound better when thought than when spoken out loud; they tend to feel weaker with each repetition.

I knew what he was doing but once again I figured I didn’t have much choice so I briefly stated the problem to Myhre. His response was that the chair had looked okay to him. Another strategy. It is supposed to shake your faith in your position if someone else cannot see what you are talking about. None are so blind as those who will not see. Or if seeing and acknowledging a problem will cost them money.

He was waxing strong with his strategy when I interrupted him. I’d had enough. I told him I wasn’t interested in listening to a bunch of brochure blather, that I just wanted to know what they were going to do about the abomination they had delivered to me.

He didn’t like that. Told me to “settle down” and “keep a level head.”

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This was yet another strategy. Get the customer irate then show who’s boss with a command like “settle down.” This is a form of condescension where the intent is to infantilize the customer.

I told him I’d had enough of their insulting strategies and who-struck-John evasions. I permit no one to order me to settle down, especially merchants who take all the profit and none of the responsibility for what they sell. Our conversation was at an end and I terminated the call.

That was a week ago. I have not heard from them since, nor do I expect to. Why would they want to waste any time getting back in touch with me? After all, they’ve already got my money and they clearly intend to keep it. [Update: It has now been over six months with no word from them so it is pretty obvious I will not hear from them again. Pathetic!]

My experience is not an isolated example. American manufacturers and businesses have for years engaged in a headlong rush to ever greater profit with cheaper and cheaper (but expensive) products. It has long been nearly impossible to buy the same thing twice if more than a half hour has transpired since the first purchase. Whatever it is will inevitably have been changed in some way – diminished in quality, of course – and sold at a higher price as “new and improved.”

So I guess I should not have been surprised by the degradation by Flexsteel of their Las Crucis rocker, that it would be nothing like the one we bought a few years ago. What else can one expect in the land of profit über alles?

As for Waunakee Furniture ETC? Caveat emptor!