I was wrong about analytic price discrimination

This post from Kate reminds me: I realized over the weekend that I was totally wrong about the evilness of automated price discrimination.

I’d heard the arguments, but for some reason they hadn’t sunk in. Pricing goods based on the buyer’s means isn’t too dissimilar to the Swiss policy of ticketing drivers for amounts that go up with their incomes. In most markets, it seems likely that this will amount to a cross-subsidization from rich purchasers to poor — a progressive transfer. In the past I might have complained about this because the sorting mechanism used to distinguish between the rich and poor was basically to make the poor jump through a ton of hoops: weird store hours, clipping coupons, and otherwise imposing what amounted to a tax on their time (which they were willing to pay because their time was worth less than that of the wealthy). This seemed pointlessly wasteful and inhumane. I think that’s the part that really bugged me.

But of course the stores don’t have any particular desire to make you clip coupons. They just want to be able to effectively price discriminate. I realized that the privacy-dissolving information technology that makes that possible should be viewed primarily as a benefit to the less wealthy: the beneficial price discrimination scheme can continue, but with fewer associated costs to filter out rich people who aspire to freeloading. If those least able to pay can be given a price break without any gross affronts to human dignity, I’m all for it.

Of course, there’s still plenty of room for the unscrupulous to take advantage of the less fortunate, and there remains a tendency to want to give rich people free stuff to promote overall demand. So don’t consider this a blanket endorsement of businesses hunting customers based on inferred wealth.

But the broader loyalty-card behemoth now seems less objectionable to me. I don’t expect to retain much privacy in the face of technology; and to the extent we try to impose restrictions, enforcement against firms seems like the way to go. Let’s pass some relevant legislation, beef up the FTC’s budget and call it a day.

today, in “ruining Breaking Bad”

Last night Walt escaped a plastic zip-tie handcuff by using electricity from a household socket to create an electrical arc that melted the plastic. Not to belabor this, but when you short out a household electrical socket, this is what it looks like:

There are sparks of hot metal that burst everywhere, and it only lasts for an instant because the circuit’s breaker or fuse pops. It’s also probably going to complicate things to be connected to a very well-grounded metal object like a radiator — to say nothing of stripping the live wire with your mouth, which is wet and much more conductive than skin, producing a circuit that flows directly through your heart as it heads toward your earthed left arm.

In general, that’s how household voltages can kill you: by overcoming the actually-pretty-high resistance of your skin and disrupting your cardiac function. It takes a lot of juice before electricity starts killing you through other means (basically: by cooking you).

On the other hand, if you grant the implausibly-persistent arc welder effect (perhaps Vamonos Pest has a dangerously configured but simultaneously robust electrical system), the grounded radiator would presumably have allowed Walt to apply it against the part of the plastic ziptie that anchored him to the radiator, rather than producing an unnecessary (but dramatic) act of self-mortification.

So yeah: it’s implausible that he would’ve survived the wire-stripping without serious injury. And even making some allowances for an unusual electrical system, Walt could’ve done something less painful.

UPDATE: in comments it’s been pointed out that Walt turned off the power while stripping the wires. I don’t remember that at all, but that’s probably just my own lousy memory. The stuff about the electrical arc still stands, though.

free fall

Go timeI went skydiving with coworkers yesterday. This is the third year that Eric has arranged such an outing (though a last-minute injury kept him from going this year), and the first time that I’ve joined the proceedings. It was fun! The staff at Skydive Orange were friendly and professional, and the whole process went very smoothly. And, though I sort of joked about it, the atmosphere really did remind me of Drop Zone, the great(?) Wesley Snipes Point Break knockoff.

(OT: having your male lead punch his love interest = really charming screenwriting, guys!)

I say this not because I saw Gary Busey kill anyone by forcing their parachute into high-voltage power lines (though obviously I didn’t watch every jump), but because of the atmosphere. It was a big event weekend at Skydive Orange, apparently, with an extra plane and team competitions and beer-filled campfires in the evenings. Everyone seemed implausibly attractive, friendly, bohemian, and really, really happy. Skydiver parties must be pretty fun.

But of course as newbies (and ones who weren’t camping out), that scene wasn’t really available to us. Perhaps later jumps become about freedom and self-expression. For first-timers like myself, the experience is about introspection.

A few weeks back I found myself boozily explaining why I wanted to jump out of a plane. It was a statement about human progress, I said: a testament to our mastery over materials, physics and our own instincts. How many other species would ever pursue a recreational activity like this? How many subsequent generations, for that matter, will be able to waste the energies necessary to haul themselves up and down the atmosphere for a thrill? I was lucky to be born during an age when this strange, beautiful ritual was possible, and that struck me as a privilege I should embrace.

I still believe all of that, but the actual experience didn’t tell me much about the fate of our species; it told me about myself. Specifically, about the kinds of fear that work on me. And I don’t mean to flatter myself with the following: I don’t think I’m a particularly brave person (quite the opposite, in fact). But this experience didn’t trouble me. There was a sense of unreality about it. Nerves, sure. Necessary compartmentalization, certainly. And at the lip of the door there was that cliched moment of vertiginous terror as I looked down at the ground below and the miles of air between us.

But then I looked back up — a field of view that was more “window seat” than “imminent death” — and worried about arching my back, and whether I was causing any inconvenience to my instructor (an enormous Italian guy, now strapped to my back, who had complained at length about his car’s failing catalytic converter as the plane ascended). And then I was tumbling; straightening; figuring out how to breathe; trying not to glance at my altimeter too much; and noticing the sluggishness of my arm as Mario guided it to the ripcord. Violence, satisfaction that the instant of greatest stress on the equipment had passed safely, and then a few still moments as Mario pointed out our shadow and gave a brief lecture on steering a parafoil. We slid to earth more smoothly than some slip-n-slide trips I’ve taken, and then it was over. Supposedly this took about six minutes; it felt like 90 seconds at most.

I had been told what to do, and I’d done it robotically, and it was fine. As I said, this wasn’t physical bravery. I think such a thing exists, and is necessary for someone to become a great athlete or dancer or even just to photograph well. This was more about embracing blankness, ignoring anxiety by focusing on the task at hand. It reminded me of my LASIK surgery more than anything else.

What was interesting was the fear that persisted outside the blankness: the worry over disappointing my instructor, or insulting him through second-guessing, or committing a dangerous faux pas by standing in the wrong place as people packed their chutes in the hangar. I think I understand better how a soldier can leap over the lip of a trench and into machinegun fire: it’s because back in the trench there’s a sergeant yelling at him, who would be extremely disappointed to see any hesitation. It would just be very awkward.

I’m sure it’s different for everyone, but I think I know a little more about myself for having jumped. I’d recommend it to anyone, and encourage those who feel nervous to push through their fears. It’s really not that bad. Leaning out of an airplane is infinitely easier than leaning in for a first kiss.

those who do not learn from history are active on Kickstarter, apparently

I haven’t quite figured out what to make of App.net. On the one hand, I’ve been worried about the corporate nature of Twitter for a while — the service is an important utility, and I dread the rents that are going to be slowly, irritatingly and indirectly extracted from all of us as the company gets serious about making money. App.net wants to be distributed, open and transparently funded; those are exactly the qualities I’d like to see in a Twitter replacement.

Yet I’m conflicted: I remember a wave of excitement around Identi.ca and XMPP that was motivated by many of the same concerns. People were talking about federating with Twitter, building something more like SMTP or Usenet. Some early adopters cross-posted between the two services, but Identi.ca never really went anywhere. I haven’t followed the fortunes of the platform closely, but I see troublingly few people asking how App.net will be substantively different, and even fewer plausible answers.

Predictably, the valley types most excited about App.net are talking about its odds in terms of its technology and business model. This is understandable: these are things that can be controlled. It is both self-flattering and empowering to pretend that these are the most important inputs to the equation that will determine a technology project’s fate. Nobody likes talking about overcoming network effects or path dependence. Certainly no one wants to talk about dumb luck, novelty, stylishness or the role that celebrities like Ashton Kutcher played in making Twitter a hit. Not unless Marco Arment counts as a Kutcher-equivalent, anyway.

I wish these guys success, but it does seem like, having watched David challenge Goliath and lose, they’ve decided to make the next David a new shirt and send him back into the fray. Well, fingers crossed.

What’s a bit more interesting is the idea that all of this is part of a new trend. You can find pieces proposing that Svbtle, Medium, App.net and their ilk all represent some kind of noveau-social-web minimalist/anticorporate movement (unsurprisingly, BuzzFeed has the one I found most easily via Google).

This is stupid. Refactoring software is not a process that stops. As I’ve said before, I think online disillusionment and reinvention is a cyclical phenomenon, but that the periods of these cycles are increasingly out of sync. By way of example, it seems suspicious that this allegedly-new ad-eschewing, content-esteeming minimalist web publishing movement seemingly doesn’t include Tumblr or Instapaper. Those services are a couple of years old though, you see. Not much use for a trend story! And the novelty that these latest sites offer is strikingly threadbare — nobody’s even mustering a story as compelling as the celebration of Tumblr’s incredible “like” (and not unlike!) button innovation. What they offer is not being the current thing, but seemingly not much else.

Still, it may be true that something is happening. The relative popularity of social networks is a dynamic system, and no equilibrium in this space should be considered permanent. Sometimes I picture us as so many early-adopting wildebeests, wallowing in our watering hole, grazing and snorting and occasionally forming ranks against threats (SOPA, lions). But perhaps there is a ripple of unease growing: a sense that the grass is thinning, the seasons are changing, and we need to move, move, move. Knots will break away, tentatively and unsuccessfully at first, but at some point it will be like a bottle that’s uncorked, and we’ll all flow across the plain to whatever the next thing is.

I’ve talked about this before, too. It seems inevitable.

All of which brings me to Anil Dash’s post on this moment, or movement, or whatever you want to call it. Even apart from Dash’s unusually informed perspective, it’s well worth a read, and the impulses it represents are noble. I’m a bit more cynical: I think attracting early-adopting elites is an important part of a network’s success, and that exclusivity rarely hurts one’s chances. It’s not a pleasingly democratic perspective, but I don’t see any reason why these services should be exempt from the dynamics that clubs, restaurants, bands and political movements seem to be subject to. In this case, though, I’m not sure that the type of elites App.net is attracting — people who care about things like PuSH and Webfinger — will presage broader adoption by non-technical cultures.