Random Ideas

eBay shipping scam and more eBay dynamics

I’ve done a few threads on eBay feedback, today I want to discuss ways to fix the eBay shipping scam. In this scam, a significant proporation of eBay sellers are listing items low, sometimes below cost, and charging shipping fees far above cost. It’s not uncommon to see an item with a $1 cost and $30 in shipping rather than fairer numbers. The most eBay has done about it is allow the display of the shipping fees when you do a search, so you can spot these listings.

I am amazed eBay doesn’t do more, as one of the main reasons for sellers to do this is to save on eBay fees. However, it has negative consequences for the buyer, aside from making it harder to compare auctions. First of all, if you have a problem, the seller can refund your “price” (the $1) but not the shipping, which is no refund at all. Presumably ditto with paypal refunds. Secondly, the law requires that if you are charged more than actual shipping (ie. handling) there is tax on the total S&H. That means buyers pay pointles taxes on shipping.

Again, since eBay would make more fees if they fixed this I don’t know why they have taken so long. I suggest:

  • Let buyers sort by shipping fees. Pretty soon you get a sense of what real shipping on your item should be. A sort will reveal who is charging the real amount and who isn’t. Those who don’t provide fees get listed last — which is good as far as I am concerned.
  • Let buyers see a total price, especially on Buy-it-now, shipping + cost, and sort on that or search on that. Again, those who don’t provide a sipping price come last.
  • Highlight auctions wthat use actual shipping price, or have a handling fee below a reasonable threshold. This will be unfair on certain high-handling items.
  • Of course, charge eBay fees on the total, including handling and shipping. Doesn’t help the buyer any but at least removes the incentive.

Now let’s talk about the reputation dynamics of the transaction. The norm is buyer sends liquid money sight unseen to the seller, and the seller sends merchandise. Why should it necessarily be one way or the other? In business, high reputation buyers just send a purchase order, get the item and an invoice, and pay later.

I think it would be good on eBay to develop a norm that if the buyer has a better reputation thant he seller, the seller ships first, the buyer pays last. If the seller’s rep is better, or it’s even, stick with the current system.

Sellers could always offer this sort of payment, even when the seller is high-rep, to high-rep buyers as an incentive.

There should also be special rules for zero-rep or low-rep sellers. By this I don’t mean negative reputation, just having few transactions. Who is going to buy from a zero-rep seller? The tradition has been to build up a buyer rep, and then you can sell, which is better than nothing but not perfect.

When the seller has a very low rep, the seller should just automatically assume it’s going to be send-merchandise-first, get money later except with very low rep buyers. Low rep sellers should be strongly encouraged to offer escrow, at their expense. It would be worth it. Often I’ve seen auctions where the difference in price is quite large, 20% or more, for sellers of reputations under 5. eBay should just make a strong warning to the low-rep sellers that they should consider this, and even offer it as a service.

Update: I’ve run into a highly useful Firefox extension called ShortShip. This modifies eBay search pages to include columns with total price. Their “pro” version has other useful features. You can sort by it, but it only is able to sort what was on that particular page (ie. the auctions close to ending, typically) so the price sort can be mistaken, with a cheaper buy-it-now not shown. eBay is so slow in adding software features that extensions like this are the way to go.

"Topographic" map based on zillow-like data

Ok, like a lot of people I find it fascinating to browse Zillow and see the estimated values of my neighbour’s houses, and yes, I admit it, my friends. Another example of the little shock you get when data that was always technically public becomes truly public thanks to some new internet application.

Of course Zillow is adding to the data, by taking the public info (house sale figures, house size and features from county records and MLS) and applying algorithms to guess current values. However, they’re often quite innacurate. High for my house, way low for a number of others I checked. (Diane Feinstein’s new house, which just sold for $16 million, shows as only around 5 million. I wonder if she played some tricks to keep the value out of the records?)

Anyway, as this data becomes more available it would be nice to do other things with it. The idea I thought about was a something like a topographic map, so you could soar, Google Earth style, over “hills” of high value. Or plot other metrics like cost per square foot etc. Might also help people neighbourhood shop, and an interesting lesson in real estate capitalism.

Laundromat machine / locker

I haven’t been to a laundromat in ages, but we’re fixing up a house that has no washer/dryer yet and has a laundromat 200’ away. Long ago, when I lived in an appartment tower, I would go to the basement laundry room, and leave my clothes there. Worst case was they ran out of machines and somebody tossed them in a basket. And even though the odds of somebody stealing your clothes are low, most people are not as willing to leave their stuff unattended in a city street laundromat.

So how about combining the machines with a timed airport style locker system. You would insert the coins and pull out a key which you could use to open the washer or dryer. The lock would auto-reset about 10 minutes after the cycle ends, so in addition, you could put in more coins, which would act as insurance. If you didn’t get to the machine in time, these coins would be taken, and give you more time on the lock. If you did get to the machine shortly after the cycle ended, you could get back your extra coins in the coin return…  read more »

Teach history recycling old calendars

There are 14 different calendars possible — With Jan 1 on each different weekday, in both regular and leap-year form.

An interesting idea for schools (and other places) would be to put up a calendar for a year from the past which has the same form as the current year. For example, an old 1995 Calendar would work mostly fine for 2006.

One could use real calendars, or specially made calendars which would talk about the history of the year in question, showing events which took place on the days those years ago.

Certain holidays are not the same each time around, such as Easter and holidays from the Jewish calendar and other calendars. And of course some holidays are modern, like MLKing day. A modern retro-calendar could show both. (Puzzle: How many calendars are there if you factor in Easter/Passover and the major Jewish holidays?)

In 2020, it might be fun to use, for part of the year, the 1752 calendar (USA/UK) which, after Wed September 2, jumped immediately to Thursday, Sept 14. This was the gregorian calendar correction. One would have to replace the calendars on Sept 2 with some other year to keep them accurate, and tell the story.

Calendars could also be printed with historical scenes and other worthwhile lessons.

And for fun, one could do a future calendar as well, with imagined events of history.

Newspaper recycling slot at the base of a kitchen cabinet

In thinking about a Kitchen remodel, in a house which sits on top of a garage/basement where the recycling and garbage bins are, I thought it would be nice to have a chute in the Kitchen to drop stuff into the bins down below. But you don't want to waste a lot of space in the kitchen on those.

One idea is to put the chute under a regular cabinet/countertop. It would look like a large mail slot at the base of the cabinet, under the door (or behind the door so you have to open it up to see it.)

Push the newspaper into the slot, and it falls down the chute and into the basket. The chute can be very wide for no-jam.

I've seen some counters have a circular hole for cans and bottles to fall down to the basement for recycle, which would also be nice. Haven't seen one for the papers before though. Alas for ordinary trash, you need a big chute with a big access, which still may be worth it, but the bottle/can and newspaper chutes take up no valuable space. (Laundry chutes are of course popular but also take up enough space to be jam free.)

Scroogle -- Scrabble played with Google

Here’s an idea to try — Scrabble played with Google as the base, rather than the dictionary. Ie. you can play any word you can find in Google (sort of.)

This obviously vastly expands the set of words, perhaps too vastly, and it brings in all foreign languages to boot. It includes vast numbers of joinedwords, and zillions of other things. As such you would want to consider the following limits:

  • Only words from Google 5 or more letters in length count. Just about everything of 3 or 4 letters is a domain name now.
  • Typos and misspellings don’t count. If Google suggests an alternate and you don’t have something else to back it up as real, it’s not usable.
  • Or more simply, require a minimum number of hits, like 1,000.
  • Make the rules for missing harsh. If your word is not in Google, you lose a turn, lose tiles, lose points etc.
  • Since there are not any numeric tiles, no 1337-speak. But you can get PWNAGE over other players.

Let me know if you try it.

Rethinking household/office power, beyond 60hz

I’ve written before about the desire for a new universal dc power standard. Now I want to rethink our systems of household and office power.

These systems range from 100v to 240v, typically at 50 or 60hz. But very little that we plug in these days inherently wants that sort of power. Most of them quickly convert it to something else. DC devices use linear and switched mode power supplies to generate lower voltage DC. Flourescent lights convert to high voltage AC. Incandescent bulbs and heating elements use the voltage directly, but can be designed for any voltage and care little about the frequency. There are a dwindling number of direct 60hz AC motors in use in the home. In the old days clocks counted the cycles but that’s very rare now.

On top of that, most of what we plug in uses only modest power. The most commonly plugged in things in my house are small power supplies using a few watts. Most consumer electronics are using in the 50-200w range. A few items, such as power tools, major appliances, cooking appliances, heatters, vacuum cleaners and hairdryers use the full 1000 to 1800 watts a plug can provide.

So with this in mind, how might we redesign household and office power…  read more »

Giftwrapping Robot

Here’s a festive idea for a robotics company — a giftwrapping robot, able to take a standard, not particularly fragile rectangular box and perfectly giftwrap it.

This might be a viable product for online stores that offer giftwrapping options, but I think one decent market would be malls at Christmastime. Aside from making money charging for wrapping, it would be an attraction (expecially in Japan where they love gifts) that brought in shoppers. I suppose some might worry it could deprive the charities that sometimes do giftwrapping in malls of a fundraising opportunity.

The robot would presumably grab the gift by its sides, and spin it or the paper roll to place a perfectly cut ring of paper around it with adhesive dabbed in the right places by a robot arm. The trickier part would be arms to fold the end folds.

Do you sense the fact that I just spent a lot of time wrapping? Due to the fear of customs and the TSA, I wrap my presents after I arrive in Toronto. The TSA did indeed open my box of gifts and one gift inside, providing the gift of TSA inspection tape for my nephew.

Shipping redirection and order editing

All the shipping companies today support very nice package tracking with web interfaces that let you see your package move through all the depots. Some day they might even send you an alert when it’s half an hour before delivery.

However, more than a few times I’ve wished for something else — package redirection, either at the behest of the recipient or the shipper. I talked earlier about my Addresscrow system, which would let you change your alias to mean different addresses as you move around, but this is more than that.

For example, when there is a problem (buy.com screwed up on a 2-day shipping order and sent it ground, so I won’t get it for Christmas) they often tell you to refuse the shipment. That’s your easiest way of returning a product that arrives too late. Why not let me, or failing that the shipper, do that via the net? Or let the shipper convert the in-transit item from ground to 1-day or 2-day when it’s clear that it won’t arrive in the right place or at the right time? Yes, I realize that Fedex Ground was an entirely different company from Fedex air, but they do meet from time to time, and at worst case one could redirect a package to the nearest shipping office for the alternate service to be scanned and re-coded.

Ideally though one would just change the meaning of the barcode, and the next routing station would spit it down a different channel.

To make this even better, internet retailers should really do a better job of not finalizing orders until they are truly shipped. Often I’ve made a purchase at an internet retailer, and after paying been shown a special offer, or at least a link to “continue shopping.” Indeed, when I do change my mind, or realize I want to add something to the order, it’s tough. In many cases you must cancel the entire order and re-enter it all. Some let you cancel individual non-shipped items. A few will let you add an item but that’s very rare.

It should all be done just-in-time now. In the old days, you could just phone the place and they would amend the order sitting in the warehouse because they were in contact. Today that personal contact is gone but the computers should be able to do it. Yes, it might cost extra but as long as it costs less than doing a whole new order, it makes sense.

Can I get a dishwasher with soft edges?

I don't know how many times I've gotten a scrape or cut from hitting a dishwasher door, while it's down, with my leg. It's very annoying how the sides are always sharp. They don't make the seal, that's on the front, so there's no reason these sides couldn't be soft, or even hard rubber that won't cut you. Perhaps some dishwashers I haven't owned do this, but I have yet to get one!

The fourth Wednesday is the best weekday to have your event

I just got an invitation to a new event series that I was told would take place on the First Tuesday of the month. However, I already go to two different dinners that take place on the First Tuesday, and I suspect that was no accident. For social events, people use the weekends, and for other events people prefer the weekdays. They have a psychological desire for the first week of the month.

So I ran a quick set of yahoo queries to find out how many hits there were on the web for "first monday" and similar strings. I figured that would tell when the most events do occur, and help people pick a day that is likely to have the least conflicts.

The results are below:  read more »

Addrescrow -- privacy for physical address and much more

This is an idea from several years go I’ve never written up fully, but it’s one of my favourites.

We’ve seen lots of pushes for online identity management — Microsoft Passport, Liberty Alliance and more. But what I want is for the online world to help me manage my physical identity. That’s much more valuable.

I propose a service I call “addrescrow” which holds and protects your physical address. It will give that address to any delivery company you specify when they have something to deliver, but has limits on how else it will give away info from you. It can also play a role in billing and online identity.

You would get one or more special ID names you could use in place of your address (and perhaps your name and everything else) when ordering stuff or otherwise giving an address. If my ID was “Brad Ideas” then somebody would be able to send a letter, fedex or UPS to me addressed simply to “Brad Ideas” and it would get to me, wherever I was.

(Read on…)  read more »

Cool Walls

On the wall now near desks are plates with power and ethernet (and phone until VoIP takes over.) I’ve been wondering if we shouldn’t add another jack — air, and plumb our walls with pipes to move air for cooling electronic devices.

This idea started by reading about a guy who attached a plastic vent hose from the output of his PC fan to a hole he cut in his wall. This directs much of the heat and some of the noise into the wall and up to the attic.

I started wondering, shouldn’t we deliberately plumb our houses to cool our devices? And even more, our office buildings? And can we put the blowers at the other end of the pipes, to move the noise away from our devices? How much would we save on air conditioning?

Read on…  read more »

Banks, let me enumerate the line items in my deposits, or let me deposit at home.

At my bank (Wells Fargo) and some others I have checked, the ATM lets you make a deposit with an envelope. You must key in the total amount being deposited, even if you put several cheques in the envelope. This in turn shows up as just one transaction in my statement, and in my download of my transactions to my computer.

That’s not what I want of course. I want to see the different deposits split out individually. The bank certainly splits them out in any event to send each cheque out to the bank that will honour it. Why not have me start the process. It might also assure more accurate addition of the amounts.

Of course, this would take a little more time at the ATM, but a lot less time than what I do now — put each cheque into a different envelope, and deposit them one at a time. Or at least put the cheques of different classes into different envelopes. Of course, if I planned ahead, I could enter them all into the accounting software before I go to the bank, and in that case need not enter the individual tallies. But you don’t always plan like this.

Does any bank’s ATM do this?

Of course even better would be to let me make my deposits at home, with my scanner. No, I’m not kidding. More and more, people are happy to get scans of their cancelled cheques back instead of the physical paper ones. The banks are moving to doing it all inter-bank with scans. So let the customer do it too. Of course, the system would scan the OCR digits with cheque number, account number and routing number and not let the same cheque be deposited twice. A live query could be made after you scan with the payer’s bank. And you would be required to hold on to the cheques you scan, since any one could be challenged, and if challenged you would have to bring the physical one down to the bank. And perhaps you would have to bring them all down eventually for final records.

And eventually of course I could duplicate paypal, by writing you a cheque and sending you a scan of it which you can then cash — in which case we should just go to full electronic money.

Naturally all of this would only be for well trusted regular customers, and the money would probably be on invisible hold in your bank account just like ATM deposits often are until the bank looks at them.

Museums, put your movies and A/V presentations on the web

More and more often when I tour a museum these days, I’ll see either a computer terminal with some interactive exhibit, or a video screen or cinema to play a movie.

All well and good, these media are sometimes the best way to present what the museum wants to present. On the other hand, since there is never enough time on a tourist’s schedule to see all the things you want to see, or even all the exhibits in a good museum, I often find myself saying, “Did I fly 5,000 miles to watch a video or browse a web application?” So I sometimes skip these videos and computers in order to spend times on things unique to the area.

Of course in many cases the videos and applications are unique to the museum, but only artificially, because the museum has chosen to do things that way. They could easily, and should, put these exhibits up on the web.

Depending on the role of the museum they might put them up for free, for the world to browse, or they might put them up for a fee. They would do this if they felt that people would stop coming to the museum because the materials were available free.

Another alternative would be to print an access code on your museum ticket, or issue you an access code ticket on requests. These access codes could be permanent, or bound to the first few IP addresses on which they are used, or work for only a few days after first use, if they need that level of access control. Then I would know that I could watch that movie later, when I have more free time, and devote more time to the physical exhibits that I came for.

Simple, cute symphony intro

You've all heard the famous "Nokia ringtone" many times (hard to describe in text, it's 10 notes, often satirized on Trigger-Happy-TV) and even the polyphonic version.

I suggest that a symphony orchestra, around warmup time, should suddenly play this song with their full glory and set of instruments. This would be funny on its own, but could then be followed by a very memorable, "please remember to turn off your cell phone now in preparation for the performance." It might actually get people to do it.

Tagging, then and now

Yesterday I visited Tag Camp an impromptu weekend conference on tagging in the spirit of Foo Camp and the Bar Camp I wrote about earlier. User-applied tagging has become all the rage on sites like fickr and del.icio.us. I was pleased when one person at the conference saw my name and said, “hey you started all this.”

Well I didn’t really. Tagging is of course an ancient concept, espcially for personal use. And it’s been done formally by professionals like librarians in card catalogs and online databases.

However, back in 1983, in one of my many forays into fixing USENET’s newsgroup system, I drafted an RFC of sorts around the idea of a tag (or keyword) based USENET. I called it K News, or Keyword based News, and posted the KNews URFC

As today, people were of mixed opinions about tagging. You can see some of the discussion via Google Groups. It never went very far, but a standard “Keywords” header was added to the the USENET standard. Some used it but there was no critical mass. I wrote the newsclip filtering language which was able to filter on the tags. And for 18 years we have been tagging posts in rec.humor.funny with tags ranging from how funny the joke is, to whom it might be offensive to and so on. I don’t know how many people really use the tags to filter the group (it’s low volume) but I used them to build the web site for the newsgroup (which is of course netfunny.com.

Now, as noted tagging is the hot topic in online community and publishing. I lost faith in the concept, deciding users could not self-tag well enough. However, today the net is so big that even though users indeed do not self-tag well, you get enough people who do tag in ways you like to get useful stuff.

Of course, many of the people excited about tagging are in that state because they see it as a means to find even more cool stuff on the web. I’ve been moving to the camp that wants to find less stuff, higher quality stuff. There’s already too much good stuff to read, too much good stuff I have to discard. I can’t even read the blogs of my friends let alone all the truly interesting folks I don’t know. I hope that tags might help us along that path somehow, though it’s not the area of research right now.

But I thought a pointer to the history might be of use.

External laptop batteries, especially on planes

Recently I purchased an external battery for my Thinkpad. The internal batteries were getting weaker, and I also needed something for the 14 hour overseas flights. I picked up a generic one on eBay, a 17 volt battery with about 110 watt-hours, for about $120. It's very small, and only about 1.5 lbs. Very impressive for the money. (When these things first came out they had half the capacity and cost more like $300.)

There are downsides to an external: The laptop doesn't know how much charge is in the battery and doesn't charge it. You need an external charger. My battery came with its own very tiny charger which is quite slow (it takes almost a day to recharge from a full discharge.) The battery has its own basic guage built in, however. An external is not as efficient as an internal (you convert the 17v to the laptop's internal voltage and you also do wasteful charging of the laptop's internal if it is not full, though you can remove the internal at the risk of a sudden cutoff should you get to the end of the external's life.)

However, the plus is around 9 to 10 hours of life in a small, cheap package, plus the life of your laptop's internal battery. About all you need for any flight or long day's work.

It's so nice that in fact I think it's a meaningful alternative to the power jacks found on some airlines, usually only in business class. I bought an airline adapter a few years ago for a similar price to this battery, and even when I have flown in business class, half the time the power jack has not been working properly. Some airlines have power in coach but it's rare. And it costs a lot of money for the airlines to fit these 80 watt jacks in lots of seat, especially with all the safety regs on airlines.

I think it might make more sense for airlines to just offer these sorts of batteries, either free or for a cheap rental fee. Cheaper for them and for passengers than the power jacks. (Admittedly the airline adapter I bought has seen much more use as a car and RV adapter.) Of course they do need to offer a few different voltages (most laptops can take a range) but passengers could reserve a battery with their flight reservation to be sure they get the right one.

It would be even cheaper for airlines to offer sealed lead-acid batteries. You can buy (not rent) an SLA with over 200 watt-hours (more than you need for any flight) for under $20! The downside is they are very heavy (17lbs) but if you only have to carry it onto the plane from the gate this may not be a giant barrier.

Of course, what would be great would be a standard power plug on laptops for external batteries, where the laptop could use the power directly, and measure and charge the external. Right now the battery is the first part to fail in a laptop, and as such you want to replace batteries at different times from laptops. This new external should last me into my next laptop if it is a similar voltage.

Government could buy emergency petroleum reserve as futures

Many are commenting on the gasoline shortages and price increases involved with hurricane evacuation and other emergencies. Some people can’t get gas to get out of the city. Others full up giant tanks even when they don’t need it. Stations raise prices as supply drops and demand increases, as per the normal rules of the market. Some suggest the stations be price-controlled to stop this, but that would only result in even more gas hoarding by the public.

The government could instead have a strategic emergency gasoline reserve. However, it need not keep this reserve in tanks, it could “keep” it in the storage tanks of all the private gas stations, by arranging a special emergency-based futures contract with the station owners, in advance. Not all stations need participate, as long as enough gas for evacuation can be reserved.

During the emergency, it would be calculated how much fuel will be needed per vehicle. Each station would provide that much fuel to each vehicle. The simplest way to do this is to devise some long-lasting mark that will last at least a few days to a week, and for each station to put it on a car after delivering the fuel. Perhaps something as simple as a sharpie mark or other semi-permanent mark on the gas cap. This is unfair in that people with multiple cars could get extra fuel, but other systems, like vouchers and databases have their own problems. Vouchers would be lost or sold on the black market, unfortunately.

Any fuel over and above the contracted amount could be sold at market prices to those who want more fuel and/or wish to hoard. Probably quite high market prices. Fuel tankers could also be arranged to resupply stations with emergency reserve needs. Note that the customers could still pay a normal price for the reserve gas, reducing the cost of the contract. They would also sign a voucher at the station, on which random audits could later be done to confirm compliance. Stations would contract to deliver based on the minimum reserve they keep in their own tanks. There could also be a true reserve in government owned tankers to cover the slop factor.

Editing down the funnies to those actually funny

Newspapers won’t like this idea, but the truth is that most of the funnies aren’t funny, certainly not every day. There are some talented people doing comic strips, but it’s hard to do on a 7 days a week schedule, so they are almost all inconsistent.

You can read most of the strips on the web, so the next step is to build a system where we do shared editorial on their quality. People would read the funnies and vote on them. Then, you could present a page which showed you only the ones that made a certain cut. You could tune the cut — “Show me the top 90% of Dilbert, only the top 10% of Blondie” as you like it.

And you could even ask for the top few percent of comics you don’t normally read, though of course some of the jokes only make sense to semi-regular readers, so this won’t always be a winner. But it should be often enough.

Of course, some people have to read the comics before they have been graded. And there are fans willing to do that, but if there aren’t, you can make a trading system that says to make use of the ratings you have to contribute some. (Though if you get too hardnosed about it, people would start to introduce fake ratings to game this.)

User’s ratings would not be absolute, but rather based on their past history, and where in their own spectrum of ratings for that comic a particular rating falls. So it doesn’t help that you rank every Dilbert a 10 out of 10, such scoring would be discarded. Nor can individual comic publishers bump their own ratings on an absolute level, since again it’s a percentile result — they can only promote a personal favourite at the expense of others.

This would not be so hard to code, who wants to code it?

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