Tuesday, May 29, 2012

eBay Scam Anatomy

I've only sold something on eBay once or twice before, and it was low value. This time I had an unopened, $400+ HTC One S cutting-edge smartphone to unload (it was part of a Buy One, Get One deal from T-Mobile).

So with the help of my son, who has more eBay experience by far than I do, I listed it with a $375 minimum bid and a $450 Buy It Now. Based on other selling prices, I was pretty confident of clearing $400.

The phone was only listed 1 day, when I got an email that it had been purchased via Buy It Now. Shortly after that, I got an email from the buyer, who was in the U,K., asking for my email address so that he could pay me via PayPal.

That seemed fishy to me, I know you can pay someone, for anything, if you have their PayPal email, but I didn't see why he couldn't just click "Pay" within eBay. It also didn't help that he had been an eBay member since...earlier the same day. So I called eBay Customer Service.

I got a bad vibe right away. The person on the other end seemed possibly competent, but tired and uninterested. But they assured me that the request for an email address seemed valid, and in any event, I would be protected as a seller. Somewhat skeptically, I sent the buyer my email address.

My skepticism was rewarded. Hours later, I received an email from the buyer's PayPal account, telling me the payment had been made, but couldn't be released until I provided a shipping number. Oh, and would I mind shipping it to his son in Lagos, Nigeria?--it was to be a birthday present. At that point, the tell-tale fractured English wasn't even necessary to convince me that this was a scam, and a closer inspection revealed that it was a phishing email with a spoofed, pay-pal-like email address[1].

So now I have to go through the whole eBay complaint process, who knows how long that will take. Basically, this has supported my skepticism about whether eBay is worth the hassle. (Oh, did I mention the phone was actually listed before this, and eBay sent me an email telling me it had been won by a fraudulent buyer, and canceled the transaction?)

I know it is hard for eBay to eliminate scammers, but the inattentiveness of the Customer Service person is inexcusable. There were so many clues.

Also, it seems like eBay's defaults leave a lot to be desired. After about 10 minutes research, I concluded I should have only accepted domestic shipments and, much more importantly, should have required immediate payment, which would require the person have an existing PayPal account. So my point is, with all the Big Data that eBay has, can't they connect the dots:

  • I'm a newb seller
  • Selling a pricey electronics item

...and advise me as to the safest defaults to use? I'm not sure if they fail in this way because they are lazy, or because they don't want to scare people.

[1] As spoofed emails go, it was somewhat realistic, until you got to the actual content. If they would hire a competent Enligh-language writer, they might actually fool a few people.

P.S. I feel really, really sorry for anyone who lives in Nigeria and actually wants to buy stuff off of eBay! :(

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Early game intentional fouls

Stipulated that I am no student of the game, but...I think fouling in basketball to avoid a near-certain score is often a bad idea. Especially early in the game.

In last night's game 7 Celtics vs Sixers, Rajon Rondo committed a foul on the offensive player who had a pretty open path to the basket, early in the first quarter.  By late first quarter, he found himself benched to avoid foul trouble[1]. Then later in the game, he again was flirting with foul trouble and spent some extra time sitting down.

Rondo is a key starter on the Celtics. Losing his services is a big deal. He traded an important early foul to save, on average, about 0.5 pts. Seems like a bad deal to me.

How does the math on that work? Here's how...an ordinary field goal is worth 2 points. NBA players shoot 75% on average, meaning the "expected value" of a trip to the line is 1.5 pts. 2.0 minus 1.5 = 0.5. Seems like a pretty poor return to me, and that is the best-case. Most significantly, it doesn't quantify the risk of putting the opposition into the bonus earlier.[2]

[1] Whether you should bench a key player for being in foul trouble, so readily, is the subject for another blog post.

[2] It also assumes a 100% chance the offensive player would have scored. Even with breakaway dunks, you do see a few misses. And this wasn't a breakaway--it was just an open lane to the basket. I would guesstimate an 85-90% chance it would have been converted.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Let's Spike the Tired Old Notion of the Suffering Artist

Sometimes I would like to be a novelist. A micro reason is novelists get to explore  ideas that might be verboten or just never come up on ordinary conversation. A macro reason is to explore a major idea or theme. The latter purpose is the occasion for this post.

I think a great theme for a novel would be the bankruptcy of the notion of the suffering artist. While I might concede that some great artists have suffered quite a bit, and perhaps their suffering was to some extent related to their greatness as artists, I have two observations:
  1. My belief is that they would have suffered no matter what, due to problems of temperament or mental conditions. I reject the idea that it was a choice they made, as a sacrifice for their art.
  2. In the meantime, that mythology of suffering misleads so many young, talented but insufficiently gifted, would-be artists, at a substantial cost in lost happiness.
I stumbled onto an article that thoroughly explores this territory (my italics):
One can see why the cursed poets believed they had been chosen for so terrible and sublime a fate. Their mythology of genius born in suffering helped make their hard lot endurable, as countless adolescents who have read J. D. Salinger can testify. But it also drove them deeper into misery—drove them to seek out misery, to cherish drunkenness, madness, ordeal, as a source of poetic inspiration. That wisdom comes of suffering, at least for prophets and tragic heroes, is an ancient truth; but is it wisdom to chase after suffering, as though the evil of the day were insufficient?
There is something perverse about these poets and their view of their calling. Their loneliness, drunkenness, disease, the early deaths of or abandonment by their fathers, the tauntings and beatings they took from their schoolmates: These and other blows became the fundamental truths about the world and the stuff of their poetry. They did not imitate Christ’s selfless suffering. Instead, with a poet’s vanity, each relished in his own way his martyrdom, championed it, flaunted it.
Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud: They were remarkable artists, yes, among the greatest of their time. But the perversity of unhappiness cherished and cultivated constricts their excellence: The pursuit of unhappiness assumed too large a place in their souls.

Angry Birds Is Boring

Definitely agree with his characterization of stupid games. Casual gamers are missing outon one of fhe very best uses of smartphomes--reading devices.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Advice to Grads: Industry Matters

Advice I would give to young people charting their careers--all things being equal, seek an employer in a large, well-recognized industry (doesn't have to be a large employer, but a large industry). Example industries would be healthcare, finance, insurance, retail, pharmaceuticals, petroleum..

For the first 12 years of my career, I worked in the elevator industry. A very small, insular industry. My lack of obviously transferable industry experience was a real handicap in trying to change jobs.

(Eventually I did make the change, and it was no problem at all. The sad truth is that most recruiters and even hiring managers are terrible at being able to evaluate talent . So they way overrate nominal industry experience, and way underrate aptitude.)

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

In-App Purchases Are Evil

Okay, I don't know if they are entirely evil. But I don't like them. People never like the "getting nickeled and dimed" feeling, and nothing feels more like that than getting hit up for in-app purchases in the middle of using an app you already paid for.

Mostly this occurs in the games world, which means nothing to me since I don't waste time on them play them. But I ran into it for the first time on an app I already paid for--Words With Friends. And for a very basic feature that really should be built-in: computing the score of your candidate play.

Like I say, I recognize that app developers need to make a living, and don't always find that easy on Android. I hated the advertising in WWF, so I happily sprung for the paid version. I think it was $2.99. Maybe the publisher would argue that $5 or more is a fair price, so I'm still getting a good deal even if I pay $2 for the in-app feature. Could be, but like I said, I instinctively resist getting nickeled-and-dimed. Too much of a slippery slope.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Facebook IPO illustrates widespread misconceptions

Facebook IPO'd yesterday, and there was a lot of ink spilled about how little "pop" the stock experienced on its first day of trading. It closed up just a fraction over its IPO price. Many people greeted this a sign that Facebook or the IPO had problems. That's nonsense. It shows that the stock was priced almost perfectly (from Facebook's perspective).

The perfect price for an initial offering is very, very near the end-of-day equilibrium price. Anything less is leaving money on the table. That's what the brokerage house managing the offering, and their favorite customers, want, but there is no reason for the company going public to do them any special favors. The price needs to go up, just a little, to ensure that the offering is fully subscribed. But that's all.

Then today the stock was down 12%, on a day the overall market was up. My interpretation--the lack of an obvious bubble was enough to torpedo the stock. It reminds me of the sadly funny Onion headline from a few years back: "Recession-Plagued Nation Demands New Bubble To Invest In".

Friday, May 11, 2012

Everything you always wanted to know about PUNCH LIST

I used the term "punch list" at work, and someone asked me what it meant. While I was confident that I knew the common usage of the expression, I realized that I had no idea where it came from. Here is the answer...the full Wikipedia entry is here, but the punch line (pun intended) is this:
      A punch list is generally a list of tasks or "to-do" items. In the U.S. construction industry, a punch list is the name of a contract document used in the architecture and building trades to organize the completion of a construction project. In other places, it is also commonly known as "snag list".
      The phrase takes its name from the historical process of punching a hole in the margin of the document, next to one of the items on the list. This indicated that the work was completed for that particular construction task. Two copies of the list were punched at the same time to provide an identical record for the architect and contractor.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Family plans are great for smartphone upgrades

I have 5 people on a family plan. Is that ruinously expensive? No, because it is our beloved, low-cost TMo. I am on 2 Gb, everybody else is 200 Mb (grandfathered with no overages), for a grand total of $60 in data charges. That gives me 5 upgrades every 22 months, or an upgrade every 4.5 months. I take the latest and greatest, and the family gets my hand-me-downs.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Jargonwatch: Hands Down

I can't remember the first time I heard the use of the phrase "hands down" to denote a clear or easy victory. As in "Wilt Chamberlain was, hands down, the most dominant NBA player in any era". It's been at least 4 years. But recently I have noticed a major increase in usage--I seem to hear it more than once per week, including from my teens.

I'm sure nobody who uses it knows the origin. That would have included me, until I looked it up:
Jockeys need to keep a tight rein in order to encourage their horse to run. Anyone who is so far ahead that he can afford to slacken off and still win he can drop his hands and loosen the reins - hence winning 'hands down'. This is recorded from the mid 19th century; for example, 'Pips' Lyrics & Lays, 1867: 
"There were good horses in those days, as he can well recall, But Barker upon Elepoo, hands down, shot by them all."
 It began to be used in a figurative sense, to denote an easy win in other contexts, from the early 20th century.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Why fiction is good for you

I thought this article was an especially good case for what I have always believed--reading fiction is good for you in many ways, including morally/spiritually. I am always surprised by how many people say they never read fiction.

Dave Winer: Politics Is Not War

Dave Winer puts it very well:

Many people see politics as I see sports. There are two teams, and my team is going to beat yours, and nothing else matters. Winning is everything. And that's a bad mistake. Because as we noted yesterday, while sports is a simulation of war -- it's harmless to project tribalism on the symbols of basketball or baseball -- it's not harmless to do that with politics. We're not manipuating symbols there. There are real armies and economies at stake. Nuclear weapons. The viability of the planet. The future of our species. If we see this as war, then it is war. How much do you know about war, and do you really want to usher it in so quickly, without thinking.

One More Routine Altered by InfoTech

Add to the list of old routines altered by InfoTech: Listening to the news (for me, that is synonmous with "NPR"). This is an example of technology takes away, and technology gives.

Like so many, I did almost all of my NPR-listening in the car. Morning + afternoon commutes, that added up to an hour each weekday. But now I telecommute. Time-in-car is drastically reduced--some days to zero. But streaming allows me to listen even more than before. Basically, when performing any mundane chore--kitchen cleanup, laundry, yardwork--I walk around with my wireless headset and consume the news. Not only do I listen more, I listen better--I get to skip the long hour of  Minnesota news, and all the music stories.

I am actually trying to find a way to donate directly to NPR, and bypass my local station, which I have little use for. (Now if only they would clean up the buggy-as-heck Android app.)

Game Giant Forced To Play Catch Up

I like to hear that Electronic Arts, purveyor of expensive video games, is struggling to compete with producers of low-cost video games (i.e., Zynga). Not because I play, let alone, buy the things, because I don't. I like it because it is a nice triumph for Doing Things the Cheap Way.

Food Trucks Seek 'That Mystical Spot'

This article provides a good example of why "government is the problem" rhetoric sells well. Food trucks in Manhattan covet the perfect parking space, but there are way too few of those. In an effort to control what might otherwise become a third-world-like, chaotic mess, NYC holds an  auction, to ensure that carefully designed food truck-friendly spaces are allocated with maximum economic efficiency imposes many layers of byzantine rules to plague the food truck vendors, create jobs enforcing the rules, and undoubtedly offer rich opportunities for low-level bribery in exchange for non-enforcement.

Seriously, is there any other explanation for such an inefficient, frustrating approach that also ignores a nice, opaque way of raising tax revenue?!

I think the lesson here, of interest to non-ideological centrists and "good government types", is: government will be better when it does fewer things, well.

Next up: the artificial shortage of taxicabs in NYC (and many other cities).

AT&T Exec regrets offering unlimited data? That's Karmic justice.

"My only regret was how we introduced pricing in the beginning, because how did we introduce pricing? Thirty dollars and you get all you can eat," he said in the on-stage interview at the Milken Institute's Global Conference on Wednesday. "And it's a variable cost model. Every additional megabyte you use in this network, I have to invest capital."
I agree with him in principle--there should have been more options than "all you can eat" data. Here's the thing, though--it is the phone company's anti-consumer greed that created that monster in the first place! That was, for all intents and purposes, the only option offered, way back in the pre-iPhone era, when users were only going to consume small portions of data. It was a huge rip-off, but they very intentionally offered no practical alternative. It was either that big $30 commitment, or pay-per-megabyte at about $2 Mb--literally 1000X the unit cost of all-you-can eat. Karmic.

PS--AT&T is at it again. Their entry-level data plan is already 50% more than T-Mobile's, but now they are going to a $20 minimum. For $20, T-Mobile gives you TEN TIMES as much data, with a feature that eliminates overages in favor of throttling down to 2G speeds.