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Algorithmic Prices on Amazon

I’m trying to write 38,000 more words on Ten Gentle Opportunities (basically, the rest of it) by Worldcon, so I won’t go on at length about this, but today I stumbled on some information on a topic I mentioned briefly several years ago: The weird way used book prices wobbulate around on Amazon. As it happens, the goofuses are apparently using software originally developed for high-speed stock trading. Techdirt explained the process in a little more detail last year, providing us (finally) a clue as to how a mild-mannered book on the genetics of certain flies could come to command the super price of $23,698,655.93. Lots more out there if you’re interested.

In short: If you define your book’s price as 1.270589 times that of your competitor’s, and your competitor defines his price as 1.270589 times yours, well, you’ll both be rich in no time…or at least pricing your books as though you were. Fly genetics never had it so good.

What remains a bit of a mystery is why you’d want to price your books above your competitor’s and not below. Unless…the game is to buy the book from your competitor when you find a buyer so dumb as to buy the book from you, at 1.270589 times the price they could get it elsewhere. It’s likely that the fly genetics book was not in either seller’s hands at any point.

Such clueless buyers may exist–after all, people are still installing smileys and comet cursors and anything else on the Internet labeled “free.” This implies that the magic number 1.270589 is in fact the atomic weight of Sleazium, which absorbs certain subatomic particles, particularly morons, better than anything else ever discovered.

Chrysanth WebStory Is Not Free

Because as best I can tell Zoundry Raven is abandonware (it hasn’t been updated in almost four years) I’ve been sniffing around for a client-side blog editor that’s still alive and kicking. I came across something peculiar the other day, which highlights a trend in small-scale commercial software that I find extremely annoying: Hiding your pricing structure and obfuscating your business model.

The product in question is Chrysanth WebStory. I went up to the firm’s Web site to see what it is, what it does and what it costs. Figuring out what it is was not easy. Figuring out what it does was easier, though I keep getting the creeping impression that I don’t have the whole story. Figuring out what it costs is impossible, apart from near certainty that it is not free. (More on that shortly.)

When I evaluate commercial software, I do a certain amount of research before I even download the product. I look for a company Web site. I look for buzz, in the form of online discussion and product reviews posted by individuals on their own blogs, and not sites supported by ads. I make sure I understand how the company makes money (one-time cost? subscription?) and how much money is involved. Only then do I download the software and give it a shot.

The first red flag with WebStory is that there is almost no buzz online. The free download is available all over the place, but almost no one has anything to say about it. The site itself is extremely stingy with hard information. I managed to dope out that what WebStory really is is a blogging service. There is a free client-side editor app that connects to the company servers, where blog entries are stored in a database. From the database you can feed one or more blogs hosted elsewhere, or a blog hosted on the firm’s own servers.

There are two license levels for the service, casual and professional. The casual license is limited, and to activate it you must present a certain unstated number of undefined “credits.” Here’s where it gets a little freaky: To find out more about the service’s cost you have to establish an account with WebStory, which involves handing them an email address and creating a password.

Read that again: You have to create an account before you can even find out what the service costs. Nowhere on the public portions of the site do I see any mention of what credits cost, nor what the professional license costs. It’s true that they do specify that credits can be earned by writing reviews of the product, but for people who would just prefer to pay for the service, there’s no clue at all. The service is thus “free” in the sense that you can use it without paying money for it as long as you keep reviewing it and earning credits. (Or something.) In my view, it doesn’t matter if you are required to pay in money or credits. Paying anything at all for the Chrysanth WebStory service means that it is not free.

The almost complete lack of discussion of the product online makes me wonder if more than a dozen people are actually using it. The online forums have 14 posts total, across all forum topics. Discussion of the product in other online venues is virtually absent. Of the handful I found, this one was not reassuring.

I do not object to paying for software or online services. I do it all the time. I have a lot of sympathy for developers who want to explore new business models and ways to make money. I can also understand that linking a piece of client-side software to a server-side system is one way to eliminate software piracy as an issue. None of that bothers me in the slightest. What I object to is the secrecy. Tell me up front and in big type: What does your product/service cost?

And how in any weird dimension of the multiverse can it help sales to keep the price a secret?

Odd Lots

  • Here’s a nice graph of the smoothed sunspot number for the last four solar cycles (21-24.) Our current Cycle 24 is still young, but it stands fair to be the weakest solar cycle in 200 years. It may mean nothing, but 200 years ago we saw cycles like that frequently and were in the worst part of the Little Ice Age.
  • Darrin Chandler pointed out Maqetta to me: an HTML5 WYSIWYG Web editor, free and open-source. And from IBM, yet. Haven’t tried it but hope to in coming days. Has anybody else played with it at any length? I use Kompozer for Web work right now, and it’s not evolving very quickly, let’s say.
  • And what we may need more than Maqetta for Web pages is Maqetta for epub ebooks. I remain appalled at how much kafeutherin’ it still takes to do an epub with a cover image and even the simplest forms of paragraph differentiation. (Like no first indent to indicate a new scene in a story.) People continue to hand-code ebooks. This is idiocy to the seventeenth power.
  • Sometimes you read a short, casual mention of something in a book or article, and the weirdness of it doesn’t really hit you. So stand ready for some pretty boggling astronomical weirdness: A 400-meter asteroid that moves in a horseshoe-shaped orbit. And guess who’s in the gap of the horseshoe?
  • At our most recent nerd party, my new friend Aaron Spriggs mentioned Chisanbop, a method of finger arithmetic created by the Koreans and little known here in the US. This is very cool, and would be extremely handy on fictional planets (like my own Hell and the Drumlins world) where electronic computation either doesn’t work and hasn’t been invented.
  • A brilliant new method of imaging underground structures like magma plumes shows that the Yellowstone supervolcano is bigger than we thought. The imaging is done by measuring electrical conductivity in the rock rather than the transmission of physical (seismic) vibration. The images give us no additional information on how close (or far) we may be to another eruption, but it may help us to interpret what little data we already have.
  • Hoo-boy, here’s a problem I don’t think anyone anticipated in the wake of Japan’s recent catastrophic tsunami: Safes full of (soggy) money washed out of individual homes are now washing up on the seashore.

Odd Lots

  • From the Words-I-Didn’t-Know-Until-Yesterday Department: mobula, a genus of fish in the general category of ray or skate. They can weigh as much as a ton, and get as high as two meters out of the water when they breach. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for pointing it out.)
  • From the same department: bodge, a UK-ism for a clumsy or ineffective repair. I’m guessing it’s a portmanteau of “botched kludge.” (In the US, see There I Fixed It.)
  • And for the deep history of the silly, probably racist, and still-undefined phrase “bunga bunga” you can’t do better than the Beeb. (Another one from Pete.)
  • Almost everyone else has aggregated this, but it’s important: A brilliant chart showing relative radiation risks, from (not all that remarkably) xkcd. Everything is radioactive, from bananas to the family dog to…you.
  • I got a smile out of seeing that the latest ABEBooks email newsletter featured (mostly) Victorian-era etiquette guides, and it arrived during Anomaly Con. Do we even know what “etiquette” means anymore? It sure looks like they did.
  • Heat capacitors for your coffee! I put too much cream in mine for these to be useful, but for a novel application of real physics Joulies are hard to beat.
  • For a couple of days now, any attempt to access modernmechanix.com has hung waiting for yui.yahooapis.com. This used to happen, and then it stopped happening, and then it started happening again, and then it stopped (and not just on that site) and nothing has changed here on my part in the meantime. It hangs in all browsers I have installed here. Do I have to call the programmers morons to get their attention? Do I have to call their software dogshit? YUI doesn’t work. It doesn’t. Stop using it.
  • Don Lancaster has just put his two-volume Apple Assembly Cookbook (1984) up on his site as free ebooks. (PDF format.) I guess I should remind the young’uns that these are books focusing on the 6502 assembly language that was used on the Apple II/IIe machines in the 1970s and 80s. Don has been significant in my life for a number of reasons (I learned IC technology from his books back in the mid-70s) but most of all because I learned how to do technical writing by studying his technique. He’s one of the best tech writers ever. Period.
  • You could probably have figgered what this was even before I told you: a steampunk wrist radio.
  • And at the other end of the spectrum (as it were) we have a very nice DIY tutorial on building a standalone Wi-Fi radio. My first thought was to put it into the cabinet of an old “All-American Five” tube radio, but somebody beat me to it.
  • Even more radio: I bought a nice Standard Communications SR-C146 on eBay, for $30 inluding shipping. The unit is dusty but works fine, and looks like it had not been used much. I have a couple of repeater pair crystals for it (though I haven’t tested them yet) but what I really need is a pair for the National Simplex Frequency of 146.52 MHz. Trying to figure out who might still make/sell crystals for the unit.

Odd Lots

  • Okay, I promised more about circuses and steampunk today, but odd lots are piling up.
  • From the Words I Didn’t Know Until Yesterday Department: spudger, a small tool like a miniature putty knife that helps you pry the backs off of watches and electronics, like the monitor I repaired last month. (Thanks to Tom Roderick for alerting me to its existence.)
  • Also from the Words I Didn’t Know Until Yesterday (ok, last month) Department: algophilist , a person who takes sexual pleasure in pain. Broader and more ancient term than “masochist” or “sadist.” (One such appears in Drumlin Circus.) And to think I first thought it was a guy who liked algorithms…
  • Given that Amazon buries the cost of Kindle’s 3G connection in publisher content fees, the lack of graphics (big) within text (small) makes sense. I always thought it was about the crappy low-res e-ink display. It’s not. Here’s how it works.
  • Alas, this may be too late for me. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
  • From Bill Higgins comes a link to a list (alas, not searchable) of the 200 Borders bookstores that will be disappeared shortly. (PDF) Bogglingly, neither of the Colorado Springs stores are on the list, even the small, always empty, and mostly pointless one at Southgate. I will miss the one in Crystal Lake, though.
  • Guys who come up with schemes like this talk about avoiding government censorship and such, but what will actually drive adoption (if it ever happens) is anonymous file sharing. And nertz, I outlined a novel a couple of years ago describing a technology very much like it. The late George Ewing called this The Weaselrats Effect.
  • Years ago I remember reading somewhere that steam calliopes are hard to keep tuned because the metal whistles expand as steam passes through them, throwing their notes off enough to easily hear. Can’t find a reference now. Running a calliope on compressed air from a tank might be problematic as well, because air stored under pressure gets cold when it’s released. Surprisingly (perhaps unsurprisingly) good technical information on calliopes is hard to come by.
  • Whoa! If you’re interested in solar astronomy, do not miss this video of new monster sunspot 1158 forming out of nothing. It will give you a very crisp feeling for the tubulent nature of the photosphere. Those aren’t spots: They’re solar hurricanes!
  • If you’re reasonably high-latitude (45+ degrees) look north after dark for the next few days. That giant sunspot 1158 is spitting a great deal of energetic chaos in our direction, and the sky could light up as a result.
  • Samsung has announced a new, larger 10.1″ Galaxy Tab, running Android Honeycomb. Details are sparse, but I’m wondering if we’re not ultimately going to see the slate market divide into 7″ and 10″ form factors.
  • Beating cancer may mean we’ll have to be three and a half feet tall, like these mutant Ecuadorians. I’d be good with that–as long as everyone else was three and a half feet tall as well.
  • Gawker Media has a new Web UI that I find so annoying that I’ve mostly stopped reading their sites, which include Io9 and Gizmodo. I could do without sites like Jalopnik and Jezebel, but damn, I’m gonna miss those other two.
  • I have yet to find a good popular history of refrigeration. Somehow I doubt people are going to feel sorry for me about that.

Odd Lots

  • Please read this short article by Mark Shuttleworth. I’ve been saying this for years, but he’s a lot more famous than I am: Tribalism makes you stupid. It also means that you are owned, and are not a free man or woman.
  • The Insight debugger front end for gdb has been removed from all Debian-based Linux distributions, and is not present in Ubuntu 10.4. The Debian package for Insight has been criticized as “insane” and unmaintained, and I’m curious: Has anyone here used it in recent releases of Fedora or OpenSuse?
  • Autodesk founder John Walker has an interesting free Web toy for Greasemonkey, which attempts to spot “media trigger words” and alert you when weaselspeak is being attempted. (Thanks to Jason Kaczor for the tipoff.)
  • Oh, no! It’s the Pluto Effect for dinosaurs! Triceratops is actually an immature Torosaurus!
  • Man, turn your head for ten minutes and there’s a whole new kind of punk out there. But this one I may actually like: Dieselpunk. Think Art Deco urban fantasy, with the cultural clock set at 1920-1945. This might include the first Indiana Jones movie, and certainly one of my personal favorites, The Rocketeer. Lessee, we still need Musketpunk, for gritty urban fantasy in 1780 Philadelphia. Ben Franklin with tattoos. Could work, no?
  • Don’t be drinkin’ Diet Mountain Dew while reading this site. Trust me.
  • There is an entire news site devoted to good news. Perky people like me and Flo read it every day now.
  • Sheesh. What’s wrong with “Hi! Is this seat taken?” (Wait, no, that was the 70s. And purely analog.)
  • I don’t think I posted a link to this back in April, but I should have. There’s a rectangle of this identical cloth hanging on my workshop wall as framed art. Pray without ceasing, even when you’re soldering up a regenerative receiver.

Odd Lots

  • Everyone’s talking about a recent Copyright Office ruling that jailbreaking of smartphones is no longer illegal, but few have mentioned that several other significant exceptions to the DMCA’s anticircumvention provisions have been issued in the same ruling. Most interesting to me are limitations on ebook DRM where they prevent audio interpretation of texts from working.
  • Could Popular Electronics be returning? Let us pray. (And thanks to Don Lancaster for the link.)
  • Carol and I have begun avoiding movies in 3D. They give her headaches and they make me seasick. I thought it was just us being weird, but there’s some evidence that 3D isn’t the crowdpleaser that everybody (especially in Hollywood) thinks it is. Here’s some explanation.
  • And even the 2D movies we’ve seen recently seem excessively loud. We may not be imagining things.
  • A new dual-core Android-based tablet by an otherwise unknown German firm is really calling to me. We may not see this one here for awhile (if ever) but if it’s evidence of an evolutionary explosion in Android tablets, I’m good with that. Ours will arrive eventually.
  • I’ve always been taken aback by the near-psychotic venom with which certain people treat an informal, likeable little font called Comic Sans. Scan the Internet and you’ll get a sense for what I mean. From ten steps back it looks like a tribal identity thing: You must slander Comic Sans to prove that you’re a member of the tribe, especially if you’re insecure about your membership. Secure people just keep their mouths shut and use something else.
  • The little red guy running with a hatchet (see my entry for June 27, 2010) appears to be the logo of Psychopathic Records, not the Insane Clown Posse band itself, granting that the label was founded by the Insane Clowns and is probably owned by them. (Thanks to Ricky C on LiveJournal for the tipoff.)
  • I solved another band logo question with the help of Google’s new output format for their Images search. Carol and I saw a band logo that resembled a bright red ballet dancer, apparently headless. I typed “red dancer band logo” into Images and there it was, an emblem of the Dave Matthews Band. I’m starting to like the new Google Images search output because it allows me to scan more images at once, rather than page repeatedly through a more limited matrix. This isn’t always useful, but I’m guessing it’s useful more often than not.
  • Bicyclists in NYC seem to be preparing early for the coming Ice Age.

“Click the Word That Describes Them…”

ClassmatesLaneTechGirl500Wide.jpg

How about… “imaginary”?

As I’ve said before with respect to fraudulent pitches like this, there were no girls in Lane’s Class of 1970. And I’ve heard from others who have paid up for the service in response to Classmates’ endless emails, only to find that no one had signed their guestbooks, and no one was looking for them. Once I’d call a mistake. But this is actually the third such pitch I’ve received (I mentioned the second back in January) and three’s a pattern. I suspect I will get another every so often.

Simple lesson, put bluntly: Assume that everything you receive from Classmates.com is a scam.

“A Meetup Group That Matches Your Interests…”

Today is Delphi Meetup day, and, peculiarly, I got an email from Meetup.com a few minutes ago. It was peculiar because although we still call it Delphi Meetup, we dropped Meetup.com like a hot rock years back after it started charging $100+ per year to coordinate a monthly meeting. (Like that takes anything even close to $100 worth of cycles or storage or bandwidth.) Meetup.com keeps trying gamely to get me to come back by promising me interesting groups to join…just as soon as somebody ponies up that hundred bucks. Wi-Fi and New In Town were the ones I used to belong to circa 2003, when I was working on my Wi-Fi book and we were still new in town. I guess they gave up, as I haven’t heard from them in most of a year.

Until today, when I got an email with the breathlessly overcapitalized subject line: “A New Meetup Group That Matches Your Interests Has Started!” Hmm. Wi-Fi? Ebooks? Ham radio? Kites? Contrarianism?

No. Only inside the message do they reveal the group’s name: “Paranormal Erotic Romance Book Club of Colorado Springs.”

Wow. I never even knew that there were paranormal erotic romance books. Lesbian pirate novels, sure–a woman who used to work for me brokered foreign rights in that genre for awhile. So I guess anything’s possible…but I have to wonder how they fingered me as a potential member. Was it a mistake, or simple desperation?

In truth, I’m quite sure I don’t want to know.

How Do I Know You Again?

It happened again this morning. I got an email from LinkedIn with the headline, “Mary Mankiewicz wants to keep in touch on LinkedIn!” I scratched my head. No recall of Mary Mankiewicz. I went to her LinkedIn profile page. Interesting, ambitious woman, eight or nine years younger than I, lots of experience in publishing. But no least clue that I have ever even met her.

I get machine-generated notes from LinkedIn and Facebook all the time asking to connect to my network, and generally I friend those who ask. I turn off Mafia Wars and Farmville and all that other stuff (no offense; I’m not interested in who you stabbed last night or where that new piglet came from) and enjoy the short posts, even though the scroll rate has gotten mighty fast lately. But I think it would be very courteous to include a note saying something like, “Hi Jeff! I was down the hall from Randy Osgood at Ziff-Davis at One Park Ave and we all had lunch once while you were up from Baltimore for a meeting. Oh, forgot–my maiden name was Chisholm.”

Ahhh. Sure. Mary Chisholm. Worked for PC Mag when I was at PC Tech Journal mid-80s, and (I think) was dating Randy, who was one of our sales reps at the time. (Note well: All these names are utterly fictitious. The situation is utterly real.) That’s all it would take, and would obviate the awkward need for me to ask her straight-out when she wants to network: How do I know you again?

This problem is not unique to me, though I imagine even moderately famous people have it far worse than I do. Here’s my solution: Every friend request sent by any social network must require a fill-out form that at least has a list of checkboxes under “I know you from…” for high school, college, job, church, volunteer work, or whatever. And under that a simple text box with a noodge over it saying something like, “As a courtesy, please jot a short note here indicating how you knew this person in the past.”

That’s all it would take. Ladies, please include your maiden name if that’s how I knew you back in the day and you don’t use it anymore. Thanks!