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Rant for the day - Arvind Narayanan's journal [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]

Rant for the day [May. 26th, 2009|05:51 pm]
Arvind Narayanan
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Today has been all about people wasting my time.

First it was something to do with my damn car, but I'm not going to talk about that.

In the afternoon someone came over to look at my bike (I'm selling all my stuff since I'm moving to California). The price in the ad was $100. The buyer sounded like a really nice person. After taking my bike out for a spin, she brought it back, said she liked it, and took out the cash.

Specifically, $80.

She claimed she only brought along $80 because that's what her budget was, and wanted to see if I'd take that. THE AD SAID $100, BITCH! The whole time she knew perfectly well she was just wasting my time. And hers. On the off chance that I'd turn out to be a sucker. Fuckity fuck. Of course I didn't take it. I'd rather abandon the bike than sell to a shamelessly dishonest person.

This is yet another way in which Craigslist sucks big time. Honesty is largely a product of the circumstances; it is inherent in a person only to a small degree. In the absence of a reputation system, Craigslist buyers/sellers have no problem behaving in ways they wouldn't in any other context.

Next, I had to sell my all my books. I filled up suitcase with about 30 of them, and some DVDs, and took it to Half Price Books. I could have sold them on eBay, but I knew I'd go crazy listing and shipping them individually. Half Price Books had me wait for about 45 minutes. The dude evaluated each book minutely. On some of them he even brought in a colleague for consultation. They'd talk in hushed tones, then he'd write something down, and move on to the next one. It was a bizarre process. At the end of it, he had a number ready for me.

Specifically, $25.50.

If you know me, you know I don't show surprise easily. But when I heard that number, I literally stared at him with my mouth agape. And then I had him repeat it several times. The guy tried to remind me that they sell it for only 50% of the retail value. So I asked him why he was giving me 7%. He had no answer but a shrug.

It gets worse — they'd take either the whole lot or none of it. I took the offer, of course — the time I'd already wasted was a sunk cost, and they weren't being dishonest, just thoroughly inefficient.

My time was worth more than the money I made, especially if you include the time I spent driving to the store and back. Essentially, I was spending money to get rid of my books. Next time I'll just toss them in the dumpster.

Oh wait, there isn't going to be a next time. It's been a long time since I bought a dead-tree book. With the Kindle, not only are books cheaper, you don't have to delude yourself into thinking there's a meaningful resale value for them. You're buying 1's and 0's and you're paying for the convenience.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: cubby_t_bear
2009-05-27 01:17 am (UTC)
Arvind! You should've advertised your books here, or on facebook, or something. I know I'd have bid for at least some of them, and I'm guessing the same goes for the other UT types here.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2009-05-27 03:48 am (UTC)
oh, if i'd known how little they would give me, i certainly would have. that's what i was initially planning to do, but i'm running out of time, and i figured i could save some of it without wasting too much money. they ended up wasting my time and my money.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2009-05-27 05:18 am (UTC)
yes, yes i know. but i didn't before i got there.
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[User Picture]From: medryn
2009-05-27 08:06 am (UTC)
Arvind, you of all people should understand that Half Price Books is acting as a market maker, and they deserve to be compensated for their effort. Paying for rent and employees is not cheap. I'm always happy if I sell to Half Price and I make enough money to pay for the transportation costs.

The reason that Amazon marketplace and eBay take less money when acting as a market maker is twofold. First, they do not take on the risk that the merchandise will not sell. Second, they take on much less of the labor of reselling.

I basically use the following rule of thumb: if I have a book that is worth more than $40 on the secondary market, I'll sell it on Amazon marketplace because it's then worth the time to find a box and trek to the post office. Any books that are individually worth less than $40 I just sell to Half Price.

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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2009-05-27 02:54 pm (UTC)
i'm certainly aware that they have a different role in the market. however, i don't think they 'deserve' anything. well, they deserve to go out of business if they continue to be this inefficient, that's what they deserve.

unless they pay their employees minimum wage, they can save some money for themselves by using a quicker but less accurate pricing process. we have software to do this, for crying out loud. i'm starting to wonder if they deliberately take so long to keep the customer waiting in the hope that they will buy something during that time.

'I make enough money to pay for the transportation costs.'

i can never see things that way. it's got to be worth my time.

'The reason that Amazon marketplace and eBay take less money when acting as a market maker is twofold. First, they do not take on the risk that the merchandise will not sell. Second, they take on much less of the labor of reselling.'

again, i understand all that. i mentioned to the labor of reselling in my post, remember? but it's one thing to be qualitatively aware of it and another to realize they're going to give me like 1/4 of what i could otherwise get.



Edited at 2009-05-27 03:04 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: medryn
2009-05-27 05:24 pm (UTC)
In Austin the Half-Price books is right next to the Goodwill. So I would always go to both places at the same time. That way instead of spending $5 in transportation to donate my goods, I would often get back the $5 by selling some books.

If you think about the value of your time anytime you are going to leave the house, you are going to go crazy. Like if it takes you 1.5 hrs to go grocery shopping, and you value your time at $50/hr, you will probably decide never to go grocery shopping and you will eventually starve.

The primary reason I sell books to Half Price instead of putting them in the trash is same reason I donate unnecessary clothing to Goodwill instead of putting it in the trash. I like the idea of somebody getting use out of my stuff instead of it taking up space in a landfull. I could just as well donate them to a library, but the tiny amount of money that Half Price books gives me is just enough to get me to go to them instead.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2009-05-27 05:35 pm (UTC)
"In Austin the Half-Price books is right next to the Goodwill. "

you know, i wish i'd known that. i gave away all my clothes yesterday at the goodwill next to the wal-mart (because i thought that was the only location in austin where they accept your stuff), went back home, loaded up my books, went to the HPB and noticed another goodwill right there. coulda saved a lot of time.

"If you think about the value of your time anytime you are going to leave the house, you are going to go crazy."

not true at all. if you make a habit of doing it, you internalize the computations to the point that most of the time, it is subconscious.

"Like if it takes you 1.5 hrs to go grocery shopping, and you value your time at $50/hr, you will probably decide never to go grocery shopping and you will eventually starve."

i am already aware that the time i spend grocery shopping is worth almost as much as what i pay for groceries. consequently, i've put in a lot of thought into optimizing my routine. it's automatic these days. i really hate it though when some woman in front of me at the counter starts counting coupons. i've been meaning to write a longer essay about wasting other people's time. did you know that with a single push of the pedestrian crossing button in a busy palo alto intersection, you can waste around $30 in other people's cumulative time?

"The primary reason I sell books to Half Price instead of putting them in the trash is same reason I donate unnecessary clothing to Goodwill instead of putting it in the trash. I like the idea of somebody getting use out of my stuff instead of it taking up space in a landfull. I could just as well donate them to a library, but the tiny amount of money that Half Price books gives me is just enough to get me to go to them instead."

point taken. if they were a bit faster i wouldn't be too grumpy about it.
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[User Picture]From: shephi
2009-05-27 11:15 am (UTC)
1. I always haggle for bikes. I guess with Craigslist you'd expect less haggling? But seriously, I don't find story 1 that strange. Maybe you could have talked her up to $95 and given her a token $5.

2. With story 2, when I was moving overseas I decided finally to part with my books, probably thousands of dollars worth. I manage to get a few hundred in total for ~20 of them (including some expensive textbooks), and the rest the place didn't even want to take for free. And it took me hours to lug over. You might look into a barcode scanner app with IBSC using a webcam and auto-process for ebay posting, or have a yardsale, book swap/giveaway. I finally freecycled most books to new owners-I have too much of an emotional attachment to my books to trash them. So, I also don't find 2. that surprising.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2009-05-27 03:00 pm (UTC)
"But seriously, I don't find story 1 that strange."

let me get this straight -- you'd set up a time to come see it, making me stay home instead of doing all the moving-out shit that i could have been doing, spend time checking it out, and then announce that you have no intention of paying the stated price?

i don't care if everyone does it, i'm not cool with that. it's more about my time than about money.


"You might look into a barcode scanner app with IBSC using a webcam and auto-process for ebay posting"

i did, but didn't find any. actually i intended to post here about how the world desperately needed such an app.. i guess i didn't look hard enough.

Edited at 2009-05-27 03:04 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: shephi
2009-05-27 03:13 pm (UTC)
yea, absolutely. I've bought three cars and four bikes in my life off of ads and never paid the price advertised. especially with the cars.

how is it much different to show up to look at the bike and completely decide not to buy it? perhaps the person selling the item just randomly picked a price; not all are completely fair, and often people pick a higher price than they are actually willing to sell for.

I think delicious library for the mac now supports barcode scanning and there must be other similar apps out there-maybe also for smartphones.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2009-05-27 03:20 pm (UTC)
first, it's different with a car or an expensive bike. in those cases, the time i spent on the sale is not worth a significant fraction of the value of the item.

second, on craigslist you say 'Or Best Offer' if you're ok with haggling. i didn't. perhaps i should update the ad to say 'No Haggling' or something.. i thought that was the default.

third, a couple of people emailed and asked if i'd be ok with a lower price. i think that's completely reasonable.

'how is it much different to show up to look at the bike and completely decide not to buy it?'

it's different because you didn't decide that ahead of time, so i can assume good faith. this person said she only brought along $80 in cash.
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[User Picture]From: shephi
2009-05-27 03:31 pm (UTC)
yea, sometimes you don't know how much you are willing to pay until you see the item. she should have at least brought $100 I agree. although "only having $x" is a standard haggling trick; she might have even had more.

yea-perhaps this is the default on craigslist? you can now be extra clear-"no haggling"

good luck!
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2009-05-27 03:34 pm (UTC)
''although "only having $x" is a standard haggling trick; she might have even had more.''

i'm aware, having grown up in india :-) when i said i wasn't ok with $80 i assumed she'd offer more, but in fact she walked away.

"you can now be extra clear-"no haggling""

sigh. i guess so.

"good luck!"

thanks!
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[User Picture]From: medryn
2009-05-27 05:17 pm (UTC)
It was irrational for you to not take the $80, since the time you invest to get the additional $20 will be worth more than $20.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2009-05-27 05:27 pm (UTC)
oh, i'm perfectly aware of that. but it is only true if you define rationality the way economists do -- 100% selfish, infinitely intelligent, and (usually) short-sighted. as i said, i am prepared to do something way more 'irrational,' which is to give the bike away rather than sell it to someone who is not honest. but i think sticking up for your principles will pay off in the long run. do you remember economists being baffled with the experiments where they'd have pairs of people play an asymmetric game? the key to understanding it, i think, is that there is no true prisoner's dilemma in real life, only iterated prisoner's dilemmas.
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[User Picture]From: drederick
2009-05-28 12:28 am (UTC)
>>but i think sticking up for your principles will pay off in the long run<<

In some situations this is true, but I doubt it's true with this craigslist buyer. Most likely you'll never interact with this person again, and even if you taught her some sort of lesson the global effect on society will be negligable.

(Although maybe the fact that you can broadcast this story on your blog makes it worth it -- now all your livejournal friends will know that you'll punish them if you think they're acting sketchy).
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2009-05-28 01:00 am (UTC)
oh, i already thought about that; there are two answers. (i think i have worked out the game-theoretic underpinnings of nearly every real-life situation in my head at some point (-: )

it's not about her at all, it's about me in future transactions. when i'm making a spot decision like turning down $80, i'm doing it by reflex; all this discussion is pure rationalization after-the-fact. if i train myself to give in under pressure, i will do the same in much more crucial situations. by not flinching now, i'm developing the ability to stare down the adversary in situations that involve a lot more money. this is an example of having to take bounded intelligence into account.

the second reason is what you already pointed out -- it is an iterated game, but the iterations involve different players. by letting potential players know that i have a reciprocal strategy (and being able to prove it , to a degree), i put myself in a powerful negotiating position. it's not just the blog* though: the story is sure to come up in conversation as well. (come to think of it, it already has.)

if you ignore the math and go with your 'gut,' you will reach the optimal decision a good majority of the time, although sometimes our hard-wired behavior fails horribly. in this instance i think it works pretty well.

*incidentally, my blog has a significantly wider readership than my livejournal f-list :-)
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From: fixious
2009-05-27 01:07 pm (UTC)
Are there any good independent used-book stores near where you live? They are generally better about prices. And I second the yard-sale suggestion.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2009-05-27 03:01 pm (UTC)
"And I second the yard-sale suggestion."

didn't really have the volume for that to be meaningful. plus many of my books were somewhat niche -- scifi/cs/india...
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[User Picture]From: hukuma
2009-05-27 06:49 pm (UTC)
I don't know; in most used goods markets, bargaining is implicit, so I wouldn't necessarily call your would-be bike purchaser dishonest, and I certainly don't think your refusal to sell at $80 will change this social norm.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2009-05-27 06:53 pm (UTC)
three of the four potential buyers didn't seem to think that bargaining was implicit, including the person i just sold it to 8 minutes ago.

i'm not trying to change the world, i'm exhibiting the classic tendency for punishing unscrupulous behavior. 'retaliation' is an evolutionarily stable strategy in game theory.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2009-05-27 06:57 pm (UTC)
oops, i believe the correct term is 'reciprocation.'
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From: (Anonymous)
2009-06-01 06:48 pm (UTC)
How can you be mad at the book store for giving you a deal that you found worthwhile? (After all, you did accept it.) 7% doesn't sound so terrible to me. Sometimes these used bookstores will hold onto a book for years. They have very high costs and it is terribly inefficient.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2009-06-02 01:02 am (UTC)
as i have explained several times, i'm mad at them for taking as long as they did to offer me that deal. it was not a worthwhile deal, but i had to accept it because they had already wasted my time. you seem to have trouble with this concept.

inefficiency is not an excuse, it is exactly what i'm complaining about. inefficient companies need to go out of business.
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