Blog Ipsa Loquitur

Recode on Amazon’s pricing strategies, as researched by a company called Boomerang Commerce:

[A]ccording to Boomerang’s analysis, Amazon identifies the most popular products on its site and consistently prices them under the competition. Amazon priced one of the most popular routers on its site about 20 percent below Walmart’s price. But when it came to a much less popular router, Amazon priced it almost 30 percent higher than Walmart did.

But when it comes to the HD cables that customers often buy with a new TV, … Amazon most likely figures (or knows) it can make a profit on these cables because customers won’t price-compare on them as carefully as they would on more expensive products.

“Amazon may not actually be the lowest-priced seller of a particular product in any given season,” the report reads, “but its consistently low prices on the highest-viewed and best-selling items drive a perception among consumers that Amazon has the best prices overall — even better than Walmart.”

This is nothing new. The product which is such a bargain that it gets customers in the store, where they buy things that make the store more money is called a “loss leader.” You sell the big TV at a loss and then also sell other goods at a normal price. (See: every Black Friday Sale ever.)

Published on under Disrupt Everything

The altogether fantastic Sarah Jeong, who is one half of the Five Interesting Articles team, has apparently been moonlighting. By day, she writes a niche IP comedy newsletter, but by night, she’s a regular contributor to Forbes about technology and the law. The sound of an awkward pause goes here.

Today, she writes about the trial of Ross Ulbricht, who has been indicted for a goodly number of federal crimes: conspiracy to traffic in narcotics, engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise, conspiracy to access a computer without authorization (i.e. hacking), and conspiracy to launder monetary instruments (money, guys. Just say money). If convicted of all of these, he could serve the rest of his life in prison, and then another life sentence, and then a twenty-five year sentence.

As Sarah writes, Ulbricht has been accused of being the founder and administrator of the Silk Road, a web site where people bought and sold drugs on the internet until it was shut down by the federal government because duh. Her article starts with the capture of Ulbricht’s laptop, which turns out to be the center of the government’s case against him:

[The FBI’s] orders were to seize the laptop in an open and unencrypted state. The arrest team suspected that the hard drive would become encrypted with a touch of a key or at the moment he shut the laptop. They were right—Ross Ulbricht’s Samsung 700z was secured with TrueCrypt. And by sheer luck, the inter-agency arrest team was able to seize it in its most vulnerable state.

The laptop was a goldmine. It wasn’t just a smoking gun; it was a smoking gun that came wrapped up in a box with fingerprints and photo ID. The computer contained accounting spreadsheets, PGP private keys, the .php files that made up Silk Road, chat logs, and—worst of all, for the defense—a journal.

Sidebar: When was the last time someone used the phrase “PGP private keys” in a puff piece about a trial? This is lovely. No more ‘the cloud is like a hat for your email, which is also like a boat with your passwords’ nonsense. Please please let Sarah Jeong write all the tech stories from now on.

Anyway, Ulbricht’s defense is apparently that, while he technically founded of Silk Road, he retired almost immediately. The real adminstrator, Dread Pirate Roberts, is someone else.

Before we found out that the FBI had a copy of his diary, which contains entries ruminating on the day to day running of Silk Road, that might have been more believable. He also apparently had chat logs for… everything. And scanned copies of his co-conspirators’ drivers licenses. (Yes, really.)

This information was all encrypted, but cryptography is like a fairy tale. The weakest link of Ulbricht’s security protocols were inside him all along.

Published on under Yo Ho Ho and a Barrel of Drugs

Never count out your local library. Oh, sure, it’s the Information Age, and you have more ready access to more information on your phone than any human has ever had access to ever. It boggles the mind.

But libraries have some tricks up their sleeve. The New York Public Library, for instance, rendered a map of Manhattan in 1860 in the cultural phenomenon Minecraft.

We chose to use this 1860 map of the Fort Washington area of Manhattan, near the Hudson River and modern-day 160th Street. There’s something special about this map: it has contour lines, which give us a picture of how far above the waterline each point on the map is. These lines take the map into the third dimension and make it possible for us to translate it into a meaningful Minecraft world.

Back then, there was very little development in this part of Manhattan, at least as far as I can see on the map. Perhaps New Yorkers were reluctant to settle this far North because of all the giant spiders and creepers.

Published on under The Digital Age

The musical copyright industry is not particularly well-designed. It’s had to adapt and add-on to itself every time someone comes up with a new way of listening to music. Although, as technology advanced and society progressed, the whole industry seems to have spent roughly the same amount of energy screeching about its own imminent demise at the hands of predatory upstarts as it has spent inventing bizarre new middlemen dedicated to skimming off its own revenue stream in new and exciting ways.

We’re going to focus on a specific kind of middleman here: performance rights organizations. In the U.S., you’ve got ASCAP, the American Society for uh… Capitalism and Arbitrary Protectionism, and BMI, the uh… Blithely Moribund Interlopers. These two “very” “useful” middlemen charge licenses for the performance of other peoples’ music, and then selflessly pass every penny along to the artists’ middlemen.

Well, every penny except for about a hundred million dollars or so. Annually. Each. Since 1941.

Published on under Shakedowns Gonna Shake Shake Shake

Plenty of people are bad at science. I mean, I’m not particularly great at it, but I’m not terrible, either. This one scientist at MIT is pretty good at some sciences and pretty bad at some other ones. Actually, more like really bad. She recently gave a speech claiming that half of all children will be autistic by 2025, on account of chemicals in genetically modified foods.

David Gorski debunked this laughable (and irresponsible) claim wonderfully. All he really does is point out that correlation does not equal causation and cite a whole bunch of studies debunking every element of the bogus autism claim. It’s great:

What the increase in autism prevalence corresponds to is really the expansion of diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorders that occurred in the early 1990s as well as increased screening for the condition, which, as I’ve pointed out, will always increase the prevalence of any condition.

One thing I like to do to demonstrate how correlation usually does not equal causation, particularly for looking at things like vaccines and autism, is to point out other things that have increased dramatically since the early 1990s or before.

Cell phones, the internet, and organic food all correlate to the rise in autism at least as well as genetically modified foods do. It’s pretty glorious.

So I’ve extrapolated the MIT scientist’s figures, and by my calculations, at this rate, in 2071, 200% of all children will be autistic.

Published on under This Doesn't Add Up

Time Magazine has some pretty amazing hand-wringing about the hand-wringing going on in the Midwest over a potential source of lawsuits. The article is called: Some Cities to Limit Sledding Over Liability Concerns, and there’s no two ways about it. This is going to be one of those face-palm articles. Let’s take a peek:

Faced with the potential bill from sledding injuries, some cities have opted to close hills rather than risk large liability claims. No one tracks how many cities have banned or limited sledding, but the list grows every year. One of the latest is in Dubuque, Iowa, where the City Council is moving ahead with a plan to ban sledding in all but two of its 50 parks.

“We have all kinds of parks that have hills on them,” said Marie Ware, Dubuque’s leisure services manager. “We can’t manage the risk at all of those places.”

Look, if you live in a town where there are so many idiots that juries give out judgments for this stuff, you have bigger problems. Your neighbors probably call 911 when Burger King screws up their order. You may consider wearing a helmet when crossing the street, as it’s unlikely that other drivers can discern which is the “gas” and “brake” pedal, or even what either of those words mean.

Published on under Trees Full of Lemons