Let the Recipient Beware


Online shopping increases as a percentage of overall retail buying year after year, with the current rate a little under ten percent. When people buy items online, they typically have them delivered to their home, and since regular hours for package delivery usually coincide with the hours most people are away at work, that opens an opportunity for package thieves, or “porch pirates”. As could be expected, boom times for online shopping and home delivery of packages has created an accompanying boom in porch piracy, which has victimized as many as 23 million people in the United States.


There are technological solutions available to combat the problem, though none are foolproof. One item employs a siren when a package is somehow removed from it, but on further reflection that may not be the best solution since there are a number of ways a package might get knocked off the item without the assistance of a thief, such as an inspection visit by a neighborhood pet. Having a siren going off unnecessarily like that is likely to make a homeowner unpopular in the neighborhood, and similarly to a car owner with an overly sensitive car alarm, that person’s property could be in for an egging.

Milkman 3b04462r
A Milkman makes his rounds in 1925. Did thieves pilfer milk from porches in the old days?

Cameras are a front porch security option, and to be effective the homeowner really does need more than one. Simply having a view of the thief is often not enough information for an eventual arrest; it is more helpful to have a view of the street as well in order to capture an image of the thief’s vehicle make and model, or even the license plate. In any event, it’s always a good idea to make thieves aware that they are under video surveillance, unfortunate as it may seem that innocent visitors are also being watched, in a kinder, gentler version of Big Brother. Little Brother?


Third party drop sites are becoming more prevalent in cities. For people in outlying suburbs or the countryside, those sites are generally not an option now because of the poor economics. As online shopping continues to grow, however, that may change to the point where it will not be unusual for people to pick up their packages at some secure location not far from their home, even in lightly populated areas. In a way, such a system would be a return to the days of picking up a package at the local general store. To be a viable option, the pickup location would have to offer more flexibility in services and hours than the local post office.

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A United States Postal Service Parcel Post carrier delivering packages in the snow around Christmas, 1950. Photo from the Smithsonian Institution.

Apartment dwellers have few options for secure delivery of packages to their door because of limited space, but since almost all apartments are in town, they have better access to third party pickup sites, or even the building of the package delivery service. A delivery option that has been in the news lately involves giving the delivery service access to the recipient’s house or apartment. That appears to open a can of worms, and it would be surprising if the nightmare of liability pitfalls were ever worked out to everyone’s satisfaction.


A better idea that goes halfway is for the package recipient to install a lock box outside the home, sharing the pass code with the delivery service. For apartment dwellers, a lock box would probably have to be no bigger than breadbox. Homeowners could have a box as large as practicable for them, or could even use a shed, though again for liability reasons it would be a good idea not to store anything else in the shed.

Milk home delivery truck
A milk delivery truck in Auburn, Washington in 2017. More uncommon these days than 60 or 70 years ago, home delivery of milk is nevertheless increasing, gaining in popularity along with other home deliveries. Photo by Ron Clausen.

Ultimately in order to put the skids on the current halcyon days for porch pirates, the onus for package security once delivered is going to fall to the recipient. Online shopping is only going to continue growing, and the consequent increase in home delivery will continue to present growing opportunities for thieves. Up until now, online stores and package delivery services have been accommodating toward customers who have reported stolen packages, offering replacements or refunds. That is likely to change if the trend in porch piracy continues upward unchecked, increasingly eating into firms’ bottom lines. The firms involved in online selling and the delivery of those goods have a vested interest in developing better safeguards than what is currently the widespread practice of relying on watchful neighbors. That was the old days, if it ever really was. More likely the problem now is nobody’s around during the day but the thieves, who are tempted by more and more easy pickings showing up on porches.
― Techly


Strange Bedfellows


Legg’d like a man! and his fins like arms! Warm, o’ my troth! I do now let loose my opinion, hold it no longer: this is no fish, but an islander, that hath lately suffered by a thunderbolt. [Thunder.] Alas, the storm is come again! My best way is to creep under his gaberdine; there is no other shelter hereabout. Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows. I will here shroud till the dregs of the storm be past.

― William Shakespeare, The Tempest (Act II, Scene ii).

After Hurricane Irma tore through Florida earlier this month, some stories surfaced about Florida homeowners with solar panels being unable to use their power in the power grid outages that followed. Like many stories, there was some truth to them, but not the entire truth. Due to intensive lobbying from utility companies, Florida has enacted more obstacles to solar energy than most states, despite the fact that its weather and latitude make it better suited than most to take advantage of solar power. Homeowners with grid-tied solar panel arrays without batteries or transfer switches were legally barred from using their solar power while the grid in their area was off line.

That in itself is not unusual compared to arrangements in other states, and should not have been the source of stories making it sound as if Big Brother was interfering in individual initiative. The problem was the stories focused on that part while at the same time ignoring the real story of how Florida legislators have systematically made business difficult for the solar power industry. It is usual practice to ensure grid-tied systems have safety measures in place such as transfer switches to prevent power from back-feeding on the grid lines and endangering utility workers as they try to restore electrical service. In Florida, however, it appears legislation has been enacted at the behest of the major utilities to go beyond this to ensure that grid-tied solar power systems could not be legally used at any time during a general power outage.

The MGM Tower in Century City, Los Angeles, with solar array atop the adjoining parking garage. Photo by SolarWriter.

So there you are sitting in the dark after Hurricane Irma came through, just like all your neighbors, despite the array of solar panels on your roof. If you had disassociated your solar array from the grid entirely, you might have had better luck, though that would depend on local building codes or homeowners’ association rules. But since you tied into the grid with your solar array out of economic necessity and convenience, you may find out belatedly you signed a bargain with the devil. It’s like that natural gas powered fireplace which turns out to be useless when severe winter weather has cut off all services. Lighting candles won’t do enough to keep you warm.

The invidious corruption of the Florida utility laws, pervaded as they are by money from the Koch Brothers and entrenched fossil fuel interests, has had the unusual effect of forging an unlikely coalition of Tea Party conservatives and environmentalists, known as the “Green Tea” movement. The Tea Partiers are motivated by their distaste for government telling them how they can power their own homes, and tilting the playing field against them should they decide to sell surplus power on the open market, all because of the undue influence of utilities on the government. Environmentalists decry the same government corruption, but see it as unfairly limiting options for homeowners to leave a greener footprint, besides getting in the way of individual exercise of freedom.

The 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia, directed by David Lean and edited by Anne V. Coates, had many great moments, and this match cut from flame to sun is one of the most renowned.

Florida is an excellent test case for how we will cope with a warming climate, much as some people don’t want to look at it that way. Florida is hot and humid. Before the invention and widespread use of air conditioning in the twentieth century, Florida was lightly settled precisely because of its challenging climate. Since the middle of the twentieth century, Florida’s population has boomed. Florida’s energy use is 40% higher than the national average, largely because of the extensive use of air conditioning. Look at Puerto Rico now in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. That could be Florida in a worst case scenario, which the state dodged as Hurricane Irma played out, as opposed to how an earlier forecast showed it might work out. Considering all that, it seems making solar power easier for all homeowners to implement rather than more difficult is the sensible option, no matter the arrangement of strange bedfellows.
― Izzy