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Wednesday, Jun 7, 2006

Boing Boing linked to John Battelle’s blog, which reports on a new service, Farecast, that will attempt to thwart the mother of all price targeters, the airline industry. Perhaps nothing seems as arbitrary as the price of flights, because the airlines are always trying to keep its customers off-balance as to what the real cost of a trip is. Though it seems like services like Expedia cut through the nonsense and force competition on airlines to drive prices down, in fact such sites work for the airlines, not customers. As Battelle explains, “something funny happened on our way to internet mediated bliss: the big companies figured out how to game our demand. Dealers realized they can make more profit if they cooperate and withhold pricing information from the aggregators, and the aggregators got into bed with the supply side of the equation (if you think AutoByTel or Expedia is on your side, you’re kidding yourself). Nowhere is this more true that in how an airline prices its tickets.” So rather than dissemenate information, sites like Expedia make information more asymmetrical while giving the illusion of doing the opposite. Very nefarious. This is why shopping on Priceline is like working a Magic 8 Ball. “Price unclear. Ask again later.” The process is mystified until it’s positively occult, because customers have no leverage. (You can’t build your own airplane, at least not without a lot of trouble.) Airlines and travel brokers are thus free to play whatever games they want to assure that every customer pays how much they can afford rather than what the trip costs in material terms. Should some travelers pay more just because they can? Should there be a kind of progressive tax on their extra means, even if this money was redistributed to allow the less well-off to fly rather than to line the pockets of airline executives? One might make the argument that airlines would provide no service at all if they lost price flexibility—just like drug companies would stop researching if they couldn’t gouge the sick of America for maximum profit. The profits generated from bilking the those who can afford to be bilked subsudizes the entire industry. The problem is that sometimes those who are bilked aren’t those who can most afford it but those who can’t opt out at a given moment. Anyway, Farecast attempts to to track pricing changes based on historical data and put that information in a customer’s hands so that they may time their purchases and not get caught in that situation. While this system might work, it really sets one set of savvy customers against those other customers too lazy or ignorant to know about Farecast. The other customers generate the data that you then exploit, while the airlines continue their same business practices. What’s unclear to me is this: if everyone used it, would that bring about fairer pricing for all, or would it simply make the available data opaque again?


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Wednesday, Jun 7, 2006

A story at Slashdot, The Worst Bill You’ve Never Heard Of, doesn’t refer to a pay-due payment bill but a congressional bill that would require you to, get this, pay again for music that you’ve already bought, online or offline.


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Tuesday, Jun 6, 2006
by PopMatters Staff


Ladyhawk
Ladyhawk’s core is bracing rock. Neil Young’s Tonight’s The Night is the hailstorm on the hood of The Replacements Let It Be, while distorted guitars invoke the thread and swerve of Silkworm and Dinosaur Jr. Helped along the way by Amber Webber (vocals) and Josh Wells (percussion, organ, singing) of Black Mountain, it will be hard to find a more hauntingly beautiful set of rock music than this debut.
“The Dugout” [MP3]


Danielson
Ships, Danielson’s newest full-length, sees Daniel Smith opening his arms wider than ever. Daniel made a long list of artists who have worked with Danielson over the years and other folks who planned to work together at some point. This list led to working with family, making new friends, and keeping the old. All joined together—both the well-known (Deerhoof, Sufjan Stevens, Why?) and not as well-known artists (Sereena Maneesh, Leopulde, Half-handed Cloud)—each bringing his or her own skills and ideas to Daniel’s songs and voice, resulting in this crowning achievement.
“Did I Step on Your Trumpet?” [MP3]


The Boredoms
“Seadrum” [MP3]


I Am Robot and Proud
“The Electricity in Your House Wants to Sing” [MP3]


Koufax
“Soundwave Sound” [MP3]


The Court and Spark
“Fireworks” [MP3]


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Tuesday, Jun 6, 2006

In the “couldn’t have said it better myself” department comes this article by Simon Dumenco for Advertising Age: The FCC Thinks You Would Look Totally Hot in a Diaper.


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Tuesday, Jun 6, 2006

In the perfect world of econometric models, everyone would be forced to pay as much as they were willing to in every exchange, bringing about what economists would deem perfect efficiency—maximizing not the usefulness of the world’s resources but the accuracy of economists’ supply and demand curves. Economists like Tim Harford in The Undercover Economist assume that since we are willing to pay a certain price, we consider that price fair, even if, say, the person sitting beside us on a plane paid half as much for his ticket. This seems strange to me—it seems patently unfair. If democracy now finds primary expression not in the voting booth but in the marketplace (if historian William Leach’s notion of the “democratization of desire” is accurate; if the way we feel equal in America derives from the fact we can all shop in the same stores and dream about owning the same things; if purchasing power means more than the franchise; if we vote with our dollars) then this kind of pricing is a subversion of democracy. My votes in the marketplace are beign devalued if I am induced to may more for a good than some other American. I suppose it would be wrong to go around holding a grudge about every time I was duped into paying more than somebody else; the reason I’ve paid more is that generally, ultimately (hopefully) I have benefited from other past privileges that gave me more purchasing power in the first place than the people who paid less, and my overspending eventually will help level that playing field, distributing the privilege that accrued to me around to the underprivileged people out there catching discounts. (This is the paradigm that makes drugs cheaper for Africans than they are for my insurance company.) But a look at the way money tends to be accumulating at the top of the income pyramid suggests this is too hopeful. Often benefits, discounts, privileges beget further privilege, and disadvantaged people in the economy are merely more vulnerable to exploitation, both in their jobs and in their consuming—just pop in to a grocery store in a rundown area and see what deals are to be had on the stripped-down, limited supply of goods there.


And if we always paid what we were willing, we would experience not perfection but some sort of dystopic misery, as one of the main pleasures of shopping (and shopping is itself our main pleasure) would be robbed from us—the feeling of getting a deal. When we pay just what we’re willing, we are never getting to enjoy the experience of knowing we would have paid more but didn’t have to. That difference between what we would have spent and what we did is a kind of happiness dividend that comes to us at serendipidous times and may just have the kind of slot-machine like randomness to it to help keep us addicted to consumerism.


Also, more important, when I receive attentive service at a coffee shop, where the leverage of my upcoming tip has no business attracting it, I end up feeling a warm glow of gratitude for the human race, a sense that people are willing to be polite and friendly not because economics compels them but because their humanity does. It’s irrational and unpredictable, but it seems perfectly natural when I am enjoying my lunch because of it, and makes me want to do some irrational things myself, like write a long encomium to such behavior in a blog that no one pays me to write. It’s a beautiful thing when sheer sociability trumps the logic of price targeting and positional-good selling, creating an environment wherein people seem to be enjoying their work for the sake of preofessionalism, for the sake of the comfortable interaction it brings. I know that is a bit utopian. But it’s a scenario that for better or worse can’t ever be modeled, predicted. You can’t script unmotivated “random acts of kindness” (the best you can do is promote them with glib bumperstickers). If economists had their perfectly efficient world, I’d never get that service in low-priced establishments, just the surly indifferent service that admittedly I typically get. Perfect pricing, perfect efficiency, presumes nothing can be given, but thankfully the world isn’t that perfect and people make the error of generosity every now and then.


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