A Tale Of Boxes

I make things and send them to people, usually via US Mail. I used to find it comforting to be able to engage package tracking and watch my work as it wended its way around the world. As with so many things, coronavirus has changed that.

I recently sent a suminigashi carbide holder bar that I made for a member of the commentariat who lives in Australia. When I summon the tracking information for that package, what I get is this:

OK, so that was April 15. My package went to the Pennsylvania hub then to Chicago and now it appears to be “processed through” Chicago and … vanished? We’re coming up on a month, now. Did it go to Australia and is it now sitting on a loading dock or in a land-fill, or what? I suspect that part of what’s going on is that postal inspectors are not wanting to open packages that may be full of viruses (why is tonight unlike any other night?) and perhaps they are simply side-lining everything coming into Australia. I don’t know.

This may be the last anyone ever sees of the suminigashi carbide holder bar

But, it gets weirder.

A week+ ago, I finished a knife that I worked very hard on, and – with considerable trepidation – I shipped it off to Scotland. A few days later, I got an email from the recipient that it had arrived, intact. I checked the tracking information and the tracking says that it’s still in Chicago. Chicago, where the dead letters go. The recipient believes that they have it, so I’m satisfied.

Now, look at this one! Before all of that, I sent a small turned ash-wood bowl to a member of the Commentariat(tm) in England. That box left:

From there it did the usual route to Chicago and then … things get weird.

From Chicago it went to Fort Worth, Texas in order to get some frequent flier miles, enroute to Tokyo. It had a long layover in Fort Worth. I’ve had long layovers in Fort Worth, too, so I’m sympathetic. From Tokyo it went back halfway around the world to Heathrow. Since we all know how far apart the terminals at Heathrow are, I make it that the box went around the world twice unnecessarily. OK, maybe not twice but at least once.

Once it was processed through facility “United Kingdom” (that’s a big facility!) it stopped showing any more updates and then I suddenly got an email from its intended recipient that it had arrived, intact. When I saw it heading to Tokyo, I was pretty sure that box was a goner, but it boomeranged.

None of this has any point, except that there’s clearly some major disturbance in the force regarding international mail. It completely makes sense, but it also reveals that there are some problems in the existing package tracing capabilities.

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Carbide bar: I ground and shaped it by hand on the platen of my sander, and (out of curiousity) I decided to check and see how close to flat I got it. I was surprised to see that it’s really not bad. It’s about 2/100ths of an inch out of spec in a few spots but that doesn’t matter. It’s amazing how good a job the human eye/hand can do when you pay attention.

That suminigashi bar is comprised of: 1 layer 15N20, 2 layers 1095, 2 layers mild hardware store steel, welded and then twisted before being hammered straight and drawn out. I deliberately went with a low layer count weld-up, so that it’d be visually distinctive. This time I remembered to anneal it, so it was only slightly hellish drilling a hole in the tip and tapping it for threads. Last time, I went through a brace of carbide drill bits before I realized that the 1095 must have work-hardened from the heat of drilling through the milder steels.


  1. Jazzlet says

    What a well travelled little bowl. I hope the carbide holder bar turns up soon.

  2. kestrel says

    Yikes. Good thing all this stuff is so sturdy and won’t suffer from the long wait!

    Someone sent me hatching eggs from PA. They just pretty much dropped off the face of the Earth for about a week (although it had been sent Priority) and finally ended up in Washington state, for some reason. By the time they arrived here, those eggs were thoroughly scrambled. So that was fun – in order to file a claim and prove damage, I had to go in and candle eggs for the Postmaster and explain to her why they were simply no longer going to hatch. I would dread having to send things overseas right now and keep hoping I won’t have to.

  3. billseymour says

    Nitpick: “Postal inspector” isn’t the correct term. The Postal Inspection Service is a law enforcement agency similar to the FBI, but with jurisdiction limited to Postal facilities and Postal employees. The trace messages you quoted are generated when a worker on the loading dock (official title, “mail handler”) scans the package’s bar code.

    I’ve no idea why a package might have gone through Japan on its way to England. I’ll ask some folks who work on international mail software during a Zoom meeting later this morning, but I doubt that they’ll have an answer either. It could have just been a mistake.

    Disclaimer:  “If this were my employer’s opinion I wouldn’t be allowed to post it.” — Norman Diamond

  4. lochaber says

    Doesn’t USPS have some sort of agreement with other countries about how international mail is handled?

    Like, don’t they hand-off the mail to that country’s postal service at some point, and could that be the source of the weirdness?

    Just wondering if maybe it’s not that the packages are actually traveling all over the place, but maybe just some weird errors or miscommunications twixt the two systems?

  5. rojmiller says

    I think parcel shipments for some services are totally screwed up right now. UPS is here. I had a parcel shipped to me from the other side of Ottawa, from a place 19 km away. They first sent it to Montreal, 200 past where I live (“Your package has been delayed due to events beyond our control.”), then back to Ottawa. Then it sat at their Ottawa depot for 3 days (“Your package has been delayed due to events beyond our control.”), before finally being delivered.

    Now I have another package coming from Toronto (400 km away). It took 2 days to get to Ottawa (usually takes 1), and has been sitting there for a week, with no sign it is out for delivery today. But “Your package has been delayed due to events beyond our control.”

    Marcus, you might want to try entering the tracking number in the destination country’s postal service tracker. It can be more reliable once the parcel has left the US.

  6. StonedRanger says

    Two christmases ago, five days before christmas I sent a letter from Portland Oregon to Dallas Texas by two day priority mail. Being so close to christmas I did not expect the letter to get there in two days but I figured if it got there in a week I would be happy. According to USPS tracking, that letter left Portland four days after christmas and then proceeded to fall off the planet. After two weeks I called the USPS. First call was an hour and forty five minutes on hold, then disconnected. Second try two hours on hold. Finally spoke to a human and was told it was on its way to Dallas still. But they gave me a case number. I waited a month, with nothing happening. I called the USPS again. Same thing, an hour and a half on hold, only to be disconnected. Called back twice more before I was able to speak to someone. They were very upset that my my two day letter was now one month late and no sign of it nor had anyone from the USPS contacted me. I was given a phone number for the USPS main office in Portland with the name of someone here who could help me locally. The number was disconnected. Seems the Portland main USPS moved its location, so its number was changed and they didnt tell anyone within the USPS what the new number was. I was never able to contact anyone in the Portland main office in two months trying. No emails were returned, no calls were returned. The first week of march I tried calling the USPS again. I only had to wait an hour and twenty minutes to speak to someone on the first try. After giving them all my tracking numbers, case numbers, phone numbers Id called, emails I sent in over two months, this person told me my letter would have gone to the dead letter office because if it hadnt been delivered in this amount of time it must have had both the sending address and the return address must have been obscured.
    What I sent was a check for 500 dollars. I had already had to pay to have the check cancelled (cost me 30 bucks) and had resent a new check. The person on the phone told me there was nothing further they could do to help me. If I wanted to, I could file a claim for my loss, but when I tried to do that the system would not allow me because too much time had passed. Then they hung up on me. The letter arrived intact three weeks later. Never again.

  7. says

    Marcus, you might want to try entering the tracking number in the destination country’s postal service tracker. It can be more reliable once the parcel has left the US.

    Good suggestion! The Aussies say it’s in Chicago, and the Americans make it sound as though it may have left Chicago.

    Fortunately, it only took a few hours of my life to make the damn thing, so I can make another.

  8. says

    Doesn’t USPS have some sort of agreement with other countries about how international mail is handled?

    It’s actually pretty cool what’s going on. It appears that the USPS and a few of the other major postal services are agreeing on a standard encoding for barcodes, national package-ID format, and how the data is interchanged between services. I’d kind of like to know how it’s working behind the scenes but I assume it’s “just” a bunch of standards and some standardized APIs, callbacks, and nomenclature. For example, “package is in transit to next destination” means the same thing everywhere, as does “out for delivery” etc. I’m assuming some people had to meet and hash out a set of state-codes and a dictionary of values, probably also some standard message formats. It’s a straightforward problem but I’ve seen standards efforts go horribly into the weeds trying to accomplish this sort of thing. But – it appears to be working better than the F-35, so “go, USPS!”

  9. says

    (official title, “mail handler”)

    Ah! And I think the delivery guys are “letter carriers” or used to be.
    I know that because I managed to score a “letter carrier’s” jacket back in the day and wore it to the shooting range as my official range jacket, back when “going postal” used to mean something.

  10. says

    As an Australian, I can confidently state that your international postal system is, and has always been, right royally fucked. I used to occasionally order stuff from the US that wasn’t available anywhere else. Roughly half of all parcels would summarily disappear. Have dropped the habit of US purchases for a year or more.

    Not that Australia Post is a shining beacon in these dark times either. There are warehouses full of undelivered parcels all over the country that take a month or more to sort. Even a small item from 20km away has now taken more that 2 weeks to turn up, how good is that. The only way to get stuff delivered in good time is to pay for premium express freight, then it’s only a few days later than expected.

    UK’s Royal Mail on the other hand has always been the most reliable, nothing from there ever got lost. And their international postal rates are pretty good.

  11. billseymour says

    Marcus @9, yes, “letter carrier”, or just “carrier” for short when the context is clear, is indeed the official non-gendered replacement for “mailman”.

    The “mail handler”, whom you don’t see, is the person who does most of the sorting and heavy lifting involved in moving mail around inside Postal facilities.

    The third, and only other, “craft” (a union term) of folks whose hands actually touch the mail is “clerk”. That’s the person behind the counter at your local “retail unit”, which you probably call your “post office”.

    Sorry if I‘m being boring…I really love jargon. 8-)

    But back to the original topic of your post:  I wasn’t able to get an answer about why your package might have gone to England via Japan. I can tell you in boring detail what happens 35, 28, 21, 14 and 7 days prior to your mailing something…I wrote a good bit of the software involved; but my work is only about domestic mail. I’m largely ignorant of the details on the international side.

  12. jrkrideau says

    @ Marcus
    I’m assuming some people had to meet and hash out a set of state-codes and a dictionary of values, probably also some standard message formats.

    It’s called the Universal Postal Union (UPU). It is a UN agency though it has been around since long before the United Nations; it was formed in 1874. It is the organization that maintains the international postal tracking system among many other activities. The UPU seems to be on a Covid-19 war footing at the moment.

    I cannot see why rojmiller @ 5 should be having such problems within Canada but your packages may be falling through the cracks due to nothing flying. There are thousands or tens of thousands of planes on the ground rather than in the air. The demands on cargo space on what is still in the air is probably fierce.

    Tokyo sounds really weird but perhaps it was the only route that seemed to offer a hope of getting that package to the UK?

    I do have a thought about rojmiller’s packages. I wonder if there has been enough increase in on-line shopping that it it overloading Canada Post’s facilities?

  13. dangerousbeans says

    I’ll let you know when the bar turns up. Hopefully it’s soon, it looks really cool.
    International shipping does seem to be a mess at the moment, everyone being overworked and a reduction in plane capacity

  14. Sunday Afternoon says

    A long time ago I ordered a fabulous print of the transit of Venus across the sun from an astrophotographer in Germany (if memory serves). I was expecting that it would be sent airmail, which should have taken at most 10 days to California. When it didn’t arrive, we exchanged a couple of unhappy emails with no resolution. In retrospect, it must have come surface mail as I received it much to my surprise something like 4 months later with the original date in the postmark.

  15. Ridana says

    I thought it was funny that the bowl was processed through the Chicago Regional Facility 3 days before it arrived in Chicago (the last time it would “arrive” anywhere). There it loitered around for a whole minute before launching off to TX. It then left Tokyo twice (I actually mostly understand that part, having watched the movements of packages from Japan via their postal system’s site), and then London before being processed somewhere in the United Kingdom.

    I suspect wormholes may be involved.

  16. rojmiller says

    @12. jrkrideau
    Note I did not say Canada Post – my problem has been with UPS (United Parcel Service). It may just be a problem locally, as UPS parcels seem to sit in Ottawa for a few days being delivered. My latest parcel did get delivered yesterday, despite never being scanned for “Out for Delivery”. And weirdly, I noticed that the person who delivered my parcel did not return to a UPS truck but to what looked like a personal car. The later being a sign of Intelcom Express. So maybe the local UPS office is so short-staffed they have to sub parcels out to Intelcom?

    I have had quite a few Amazon parcels delivered in the past few months by Intelcom, and a few by Canada Post, all in a very timely way. So a UPS-only problem…

    As for mail parcel delivery from Canada to the US, in the past it has been very, very predictable. I have had parcels delivered to Pennsylvania, Chicago, and Florida, even in the week before Christmas, and they always arrive within 7 days – using Expedited shipping, that is. That is Canada Post shipping for small busines, which is slightly cheaper than regular parcel delivery, faster, and includes tracking. Highly recommended – and my “small business” is just my family name…

  17. jrkrideau says

    @ 16 rojmiller
    Duh, somehow completely missed the UPS!

    I tend to trust Canada Post though I don’t often ship or receive things. Good service when I do. A friend of mine has been making good use of their Flex Delivery service.

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