Sunday, February 23, 2014

Annoying Slate Article Typology

I like Slate much of the time. But they do have their fair share of throwaway, barely-articles with link-bait-ey titles. Here's one: Spain Shouldn’t Change Its Mealtimes. We Should Change Ours. I thought it might provide some kind of scientific or at least economic justification for the title. It didn't. It was simply a brief, mildly opinionated love letter to late Mediterranean mealtimes. It would have been a reasonable okay blog post, but really doesn't rise to the level of a general-interest magazine article.

Or this: How to Biathlon-ize Every Winter Olympic Sport. I thought it might speak to how the biathlon combines to disciplines in a way that creates an exciting, real-time finish--no judging, no racing only against the clock--and offer creative suggestions for other sports doing the same. I couldn't quite imagine how, but I was intrigued . I should have known. No such serious thought was offered. Instead, it was predictable, one-joke riff on combining two unlike activities that might produce a slapstick-volatile combination. Again, reasonable for a post on a small blog, but not worth my click-attention on slate.

Give to smaller colleges instead of Harvard, and same for museums

There is a meme going around that well-meaning donors should stop giving to the already over-endowed elite colleges (Harvard, Stanford), and spread the wealth more. I agree. I would also like to see it applied to museums. You always hear how big museums have 80% of their collection in storage. While I understand they can't display everything all at once, it is a big waste for them to have stuff they never display. Pass that on down to lesser museums, I say.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Amazon Prime Pricing

Amazon is hinting at a price increase for Amazon Prime. Makes sense to me. Although a pretty major Amazon customer, I have resisted Prime for years. I am rarely in a rush, so the Super Saver shipping, free with a $25 minimum, worked for me. This Christmas I needed wanted something fast, so I decided to give Prime a try. I'm happy enough, but still not sure I will renew it. But I digress--the point of my post isn't to dwell on the consumer benefits of Prime, it is to look at it from the Amazon viewpoint.

I think I understand the general idea behind Prime. Make Amazon fulfillment more "frictionless", make people feel like they need to get their money's worth, collect a nice fee up-front. But the economics do seem daunting. For instance, Amazon just shipped me this huge box

(albeit not overly heavy) containing a set of $20 hubcaps, and a $20 water filter. Small order, low margins, before shipping costs. I'm sure they get amazing rates on their shipping, but still, it's hard to imagine it cost less than $5.

Part of the problem is that there is absolutely no incentive for the consumer to economize. In this case, I would have been perfectly happy if it took a week to arrive. I didn't need 2 days. But they both cost the same with Prime.

So here is an idea. Maybe Prime lets consumers get stuff 2-day and 1-day at a discount, but not free. Free would be standard shipping. Prime would be maybe 50% off. Or maybe 70% off. I don't have a strong opinion on what is the ideal precise number, but it has to ensure that consumers have enough "skin in the game" that they consider reverting to standard shipping when they really aren't in a hurry.

Note that this helps Amazon reduce their Prime costs in two ways. One, by redirecting a percentage of shipments from 2-day to cheaper standard ground. Two, by extracting a substantial "co-pay", when the consumer does choose Prime.

I know, it lacks the beautiful simplicity of all the 2-day you can eat, for one low annual fee. And I do think it is very important that Amazon can be positioned as providing free shipping. Especially for e-commerce newbies, the assumed cost of shipping can be a major perceived barrier. So it is an important competitive weapon for Amazon to be able to take this off the table. But I'm not sure they have extend that two 2-day.

Next-Level Bike Sharing

Ad-hoc use of bicycles, as a substitute for walking, becomes more and more viable as the transaction costs are reduced. Bike share is good wonderful, but it does take time to check out and check in. For a 10-minute or less walk, may not be worth the overhead. If you can just grab one instantly, though, that is a game-changer.

Sounds like the Olympic Village is an ideal special-case for frictionless bike-sharing. May be hard to achieve a pure pick up almost anywhere, drop off almost anywhere outside of such a special case, but that is the ideal. seems like an intriguing attempt to get close. 

Obama Jawboning Against Hiring Discrimination for Long-Term Unemployed--It Just May Work

One of the grab-bag of topics on President Obama's recent State of the Union was cajoling employers not to discriminate against the long-term unemployed. On moral grounds, I certainly think the sentiment is worthy. The idea that one major incident of bad luck--becoming unemployed, for whatever reason--could destroy a person's future prospects is shocking. One of the great attributes of America is the idea that the door is never closed--it's never too late to try something new, to reinvent yourself[1]. This kind of structural inflexibility reminds me of Britain c.1900[2]. It is morally wrong, and very un-American.

But is it the proper role of a President to micro-manage in this way? And is it likely to be effective? On the first point--I'll say yes, given the circumstances. With an obstructionist Congress foreclosing the possibility of doing anything big; and a country still struggling with unemployment--I say, do good where you can. This initiative both aims to do practical good, and provides a secondary benefit of perhaps stimulating some reflection on unexamined assumptions regarding how society is organized (this essay for example).

As to whether it will be effective--in other cases I might say it's 99.5% empty, if well-intentioned, sermonizing from the bully pulpit. But this might be an exception. Corporate HR departments are just about the least creative, most reactive, most risk-averse organizations you will ever find. Nearly never do they have striking original ideas, so they are always looking for trends (sometimes called "best practices") to latch onto. And then once a policy is promulgated, HR will want to observe it religiously, black-and-white, no shades of grey.

So the way it could work out in this case is that some corporate HR departments propose equal opportunity in hiring, for long-term unemployed, as a company policy, and get general management to sign-off. Instantly, it becomes the mission of HR to ensure the policy is pursued. Trust me, many HR types will do this, even to the point of being counter-productive. E.g., you as hiring manager have a dozen promising resumes for an open position, but none are long-term unemployed...HR will push to keep the posting open, in the hopes of attracting some long-term unemployed resumes. This is dumb, it goes way too far (I don't want affirmative action for long-term unemployed, just non-discrimination). But the point is, if presidential jawboning results in corprorate HR getting behind the idea, it just may catch fire.

[1] Not saying it's easy, that's a whole different argument. Just saying that the door isn't supposed to be barred on principle.
[2] At least that's how I recall having seen it portrayed in multiple BBC series. A young family man, aspiring but of humble origins and without connections, loses his job to a spiteful boss and permanently falls back 3 rungs in the economic ladder. Or a mere domestic servant, dismissed without a reference, is reduced to begging.