Friday, December 12, 2008

Woot + eBay + Slot Machine

Jeff Atwood over at Coding Horror has an interesting post about Swoopo, an "entertainment shopping" website.

I first discovered Swoopo a few months ago, when I started seeing Google ads for things like Wiis and PS3s describing auctions where those items sold for amounts like $45. After seeing them repeatedly, my scam-o-meter went off and I investigated. On its face, the way it works is as an auction, anyone can bid on an item, and the high bidder wins.

The kicker is that each bidder pays to bid, even if they don't win. So, to figure out how much Swoopo's getting paid for an item, it's not enough to look at the final price. You have to divide the final price by fifteen cents (the bid increment), and multiply that by 75 cents to see how much they truly made. For example, to get a Wii at $45 required 300 bids, which cost 75 cents each, which comes to $200. Add in the actual $45, and they're selling it at about cost.

Looking at their site right now, I see a Wii that went for $107.70. That's 718 bids, at 75 cents each, which comes to $538.5 - almost $650 for a $250 item.

Just looking at the home page is hypnotic - each flash of a new bid is more money rolling into their coffers.

Is it legal? In a sense, you are because you're betting that no one else will bid after you do. On the other hand, they have a legitimate argument that it's just an auction with different rules. If I were on a jury, I'd have trouble convicting them of any kind of fraud, or being willing to call it gambling.

As I mentioned in Jeff's comments, when I first discovered Swoopo, I spent an hour or two on Wikipedia reading about logical fallacies, cognitive biases, and so on, hoping to find inspiration for something similar. No luck.

The best part about running something like Swoopo is that if the FTC does come sniffing around and talking about criminal prosecution, you more likely than not will wind up with a consent decree, a minor change to your business plan, and maybe having to hire some bureaucrat's wife's consulting firm for a year. It's extremely unlikely that the founders of this site, even if they were American (they're German) would ever see a courtroom.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

No disrespect intended

Flags are funny things. Colored scraps of cloth that represent a military regiment, a people, a state, a country, an ideal, or any number of other things.

Because of that, flag desecration is serious business. If you damage or destroy a flag to which a person has an emotional attachment, that person might react irrationally. For the past twenty years, politicians in the United States have been able to score cheap political points by promising to amend the constitution to prohibit desecration of the national flag. Countries like Denmark make it illegal to desecrate foreign flags so as to avoid offending foreigners. Pretentious art students damage or destroy flags as art.

I went to a Mexican restaurant today. This restaurant, like many such restaurants, puts a little Mexican-flag-on-a-toothpick onto every meal as a decoration.

I'm never quite sure what to do with this flag. Any other decoration would be casually set aside once I begin eating, but with a Mexican flag - in a restaurant staffed largely by Hispanics - it seems vaguely disrespectful to just toss it onto the table for it to be thrown away. I'm not sure what the rules for the Mexican flag are, but an American flag is not supposed to touch the ground and should only be disposed of (ironically enough) by burning.

So, to the Mexicans of the world, when I take your national symbol, stick it into the coleslaw that I'm not going to eat and then let it get thrown in the trash and covered with my uneaten enchilada sauce, I didn't mean any disrespect to your country when I did it.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Interesting fact of the day

In 1654, a colonist named Anthony Johnson had an indentured African servant named John Casor. John Casor tried to transfer his indenture to a different person, and the court refused, declaring him to be the property of Anthony Johnson, and indeed, "Property for Life". Thus, John Casor was the first legally-recognized slave in the English colonies that would eventually become the United States. Casor spent the rest of his life owned by Johnson.

Bizarre Twilight-zone-esque twist: Anthony Johnson, Casor's owner, was black, and was himself an African immigrant.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

But I thought it was for...

So, the bailout, which was originally sold as purchasing valuable if artificially depressed assets, won't even be doing that. Now it's just a general, free-for-all fund to give money to any company or industry that claims to need it.

I think we all know that any money given to GM, Ford, or any of the others that are asking for it, will never, ever be seen again.

And they're going to do it. Somehow, our government is going to come up with hundreds of billions - possibly over a trillion - dollars and pay it to any company who asks for it.

We had an overarching deficit before this all started. Now, suddenly we're spending billions more that we don't have.

If only there were a political party that was *against* giving large sums of money to private companies. I'd vote for them.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

I don't fear Obama...

...but I am concerned about the fact that the Democratic majority in congress is going to be running the show for the next two years.

Things that I'm worried might happen, in no particular order of probability or magnitude:

1) Tax hikes

2) More complicated taxes

3) Elimination of my HSA and forcing me to go onto my employer's health insurance

4) Any criticism of the president being called racist

5) Reintroduction of the fairness doctrine and other attempts to suppress dissent

6) Elimination of my employer's health insurance and forcing me to go into a national single-payer system

7) War in Pakistan

8) War in Korea

9) War in Iran

10) War between Iran and Israel, potentially nuclear

11) Higher gas taxes

12) Much more expensive mortgages

13) A draft, either military or 'mandatory national service'

14) Loss of integrity in the power delivery system, with rolling blackout and mandatory remote shut-off devices on your air conditioner and other high-power devices becoming the norm

15) 'Card-check' union elections

16) Massive new gun control schemes


Well, I was wrong. As of this morning, with 96% of the votes counted, Barack Obama managed to pull over 52% of the popular vote, making him the most popular Democrat to run for President in over 40 years.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Interesting events on eBay...

Microsoft Live Search has teamed up with eBay to offer cash back - currently at 25% of purchase price - for people using Live Search to buy things on eBay.

The 25% maxes out at $200 per purchase, meaning that you get optimal payback by buying an $800 item. This discount only applies to buy-it-now items, not auction items.

Gold is currently running at around $750 / ounce, and one-ounce gold coins have long been popular on eBay. I have occasionally looked into buying gold coins there, and they usually trade at just a very small premium over melt value - not more than a few percent.

Until recently.

An economy seems to have sprung up on eBay of people selling gold coins (and other ~$800 items) to each other at a substantial premium. Right now, the cheapest 1-ounce gold coins are selling via buy-it-now for around $910, and most non-interesting one-ounce gold coins seem to be priced around $950, about $200 above melt value. This premium represents the entire cash-back that a buyer will get via the Live Search program.

So, the law of supply and demand is still functioning. By subsidizing purchases, Microsoft has just added $200 or 33% to the cost of every purchase on eBay.

And on a side note, if I were in the gold business, I'd be dumping my entire inventory on eBay right now, since I could get 25% above regular market value for it.

Friday, October 31, 2008


It used to be so simple. Until about four years ago, I lived alone in my house. For Halloween, I usually turned off my front light, went to the back of the house, and watched a movie. Trick-or-treaters knew that light-off meant nobody-home, and I usually didn't have to ignore more than one or two knocks per night.

I was quiet and lived alone, and didn't know my neighbors all that well. It was a good arrangement.

Then, about four years ago, police started loudly saying that sex offenders and other parolees were required to leave their lights off and not answer the door. To avoid any misunderstanding with my neighbors, I started leaving my light on and giving out candy. This was probably for the best, as it increased my neighborhood activity participation quotient by at least 0.4%.

This year, again, I had my light on and gave out candy until around 8:30pm. Then my girlfriend and I turned off the light, went out on the town for a bit, and came back at around 10:00. A little after 10:30, we were getting ready to go to bed, and I decided to turn my front light back on to discourage any mischief that older kids might decide to partake in.

I didn't have the light on for much more than ten minutes when another group of older kids knocked on the door. At 10:50 at night!

I didn't answer it, and turned off the light after they'd left. I'll just hope to not find any property destruction outside in the morning. Sigh...

Will Barack break 50%?

So, as I write this, we're four days out from the 2008 presidential election. As I wrote two years ago, Democratic presidential candidates never get above half of the popular vote unless there has been sufficient national trauma to drive voters to them. While the last two years have seen soaring gas prices (which have come back down quite a bit), bailouts, a continuing war in Iraq, and more, I'm not sure that any of those things constitute the kind of crisis that makes the Democrats a majority party.

In discussions with friends a few months ago, I first made a prediction that Barack Obama would win the presidential election with 44% of the popular vote. I assumed that Ron Paul or some other spoiler, combined with conservative loathing of John McCain, would cause enough of a split in the right half of the country to create such a result.

As of Halloween, no such spoiler appears likely. Ron Paul is not on the ballot in very many places, and no other candidate will get anywhere near 1% of the vote. I still predict that, barring a major surprise between today and Tuesday, Barack Obama will be elected.

However, this is still a very divided nation. I wouldn't be surprised to see a repeat of 2000, where the winner of the popular vote is not the winner of the electoral vote.

Looking at the most recent polls, the ones I was able to find indicate about a 49-42 popular vote split for the two, with the remainder presumably undecided or 'other'.

That bodes well for an Obama majority. Assuming, of course, that Obama supporters are not more likely to refuse to answer pollsters or lie to them, that they come out to vote, and that the polls are otherwise accurate.

So, I don't think that 44% will happen. But 48-49% - with victory - wouldn't surprise me at all.

I'm back!

OK, after a 2+ year hiatus, after encouragement from a fan of my rants at work, I've decided to try blogging again. Let's hope I stick with it better this time.