Hidden-city ticketing

The NYTimes with a tip on one way to find cheaper airfares. It's called hidden-city ticketing.

Well, there’s a way to save some of that money. It’s called “hidden-city ticketing,” but before I explain how to execute the maneuver, you’re going to need some background. Passengers flying to or from airports that are dominated by a single carrier — like Memphis, Newark or Dallas/Fort Worth — pay fares 20 or 30 percent higher than at non-hub airports. The prices are even more inflated when you’re flying from a smaller city with a limited number of flights. A nonstop one-way ticket from Des Moines to Dallas/Fort Worth is $375 on American Airlines, for example — more than the $335 Delta will charge you to fly from Miami to Anchorage.

But what happens when you’re interested in flying American from Des Moines to Los Angeles, which hosts a more competitive airport? That flight is only about half the price ($186), despite its being more than double the distance. Now, here’s the trick: American flights from Des Moines to L.A. have a layover in Dallas. If you want to travel to Dallas, the best way to get a reasonable fare is to book the flight to Los Angeles instead, and simply get off the plane at Dallas.

Making a habit of this certainly won’t endear you to the airlines. Most of them — the major exception being free-spirited Southwest Airlines — expressly forbid it in their ticketing rules. But those rules don’t carry the force of law, and most travel lawyers say that their recourse is limited. They could probably preclude you from flying with them in the future, but their case for demanding penalties is weak, and the risk of detection is low if you don’t book these kinds of routes more often than a couple of times per carrier per year.

Fly Shortcut is an airfare search engine focused specifically on this pricing loophole. Has anyone tried this technique or Fly Shortcut?

Los Angeles Plays Itself

The great documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself is finally coming out on DVD October 14. I had to catch this years ago on a bootleg DVD that some cinephile friend had managed to track down. While in LA I somehow always managed to miss the annual screening at the American Cinematheque.

It's rare in this age to have things that are actually hard to find. Fans had long assumed the movie wasn't available because all the movie clips would prove impossible to clear, but apparently all the clips were covered under fair use.

Fair use in movies comes down to three questions: Is the clip illustrating an idea that the filmmaker is trying to make in the new work? Is the clip being used in a reasonably appropriate manner? And is the connection clear between the clip and the point being made? If the filmmaker can answer yes to all three questions, then, Donaldson says, it's fair use and the movie can be insured against lawsuits.

I hope this frees people up to do more film analysis online using actual clips from movies. It still feels like an underserved market, perhaps because most people don't want to go to the trouble of tracking down a DVD and ripping it, or perhaps because we're all philistines.

Clash of titans

Perhaps the greatest assemblage of human chess players ever converged on, of all places, St. Louis, for the 2014 Sinquefeld Cup. Included in the group were the world's top-ranked player Magnus Carlsen and the world number 2 Levon Aronian.

But, as Seth Stevenson writes, neither of those two players triumphed, and the run by the eventual winner might be one of the most incredible feats in chess history.

By the time Caruana won his fifth straight game to open the tournament, destroying Nakamura while playing with black, the commentators were struggling to situate this performance in historical context. Some brought up Anatoly Karpov’s run at Linares in 1994, when he won his first six tournament games (including one against a then-babyfaced Topalov) before Garry Kasparov at last slowed him down with a draw. There was also a magical Viktor Korchnoi showing in the 1968 tournament in Wijk aan Zee, Netherlands. But many think the field in St. Louis is stronger than those Karpov and Korchnoi faced. And Caruana was still going. Were he to win all 10 games without a blemish, it would likely be considered the greatest feat in the annals of tournament chess, stretching back to the 1800s.

I asked some experts to explain, to a layman, what sort of accomplishment it would be to go on a 10–0 run here. When not reaching for analogies from other sports—one grandmaster, in complete earnestness, likened it to pitching 100 straight innings of no-hit baseball—they invariably turned to Bobby Fischer. Fischer’s streak of 20 consecutive victories against grandmasters. Fischer’s mindblowing tournament performances. Fischer’s near-hallucinatory leaps of chess logic. Stumped for further superlatives with which to describe Caruana’s excellence, one chess expert resorted to the highest possible praise: Caruana, he said, was “Fischer-esque.”
 

I wish I had learned to play chess when I was younger. Now I don't even know where to begin.

I can appreciate the difficulty of most sports and also enjoy watching for them the dramatic uncertainty. However, I lack an appreciation of chess tactics and strategy, and that makes watching a chess match akin to watching some semiotically opaque performance art.

The economics of priceless transactions

Taken together, you have a simple alternative to trading: the price of anything that affirms shared values is infinite, the price of anything else is zero or negative when the alternative is to debase or reverse a value.

Saint-saint transactions are not uncomputable though. You can order priceless values from greatest to smallest. You can do some simple, low-precision math with the infinities of pricelessness. Lives are priceless, but it is only acceptable for a mother to give her life to save  a young child, not the other way around. Often, one infinity is devalued in proportion to how corrupted it seems relative to another infinity of the same kind. So the adult life has been more corrupted by base trader considerations of adult circumstances. Therefore it must be sacrificed for the child’s life.

In general, the innocent are more priceless than the corrupt, the pure more priceless than the impure, the lofty more priceless than the base, the natural more priceless than the artificial. Some examples are harder to analyze. Soldiers giving their lives for their country are often viewed as superior, purer people giving their lives to protect inferior, more corrupt people.

To resolve this paradox, we agree to pretend that soldiers fight directly for the proclaimed values of a nation, rather than the lived values of its actual people. This is why soldiers’ families in movies are always archetypal, sometimes even cartoonish, models of perfect virtue. They are never the messed-up rolling train-wrecks that are the families of most real people. In theory, we are supposed to honor the lives of the fallen by striving harder to be worthy of their sacrifice. That of course means living more truly by the values they died for.
 

Excerpt from a fascinating post on the economics of priceless transactions. As the author notes, the rise of the internet has put a spotlight on the economics of free, but what of the opposite end of the spectrum?

Three things come to mind. One is that I recall my mother never split any bills when going out to meals with friends and family. Someone always picked up the tab only after a theatrical fight between Asian adults for the check when it landed on the table after a meal, almost a ceremony of sorts. It resembled some notion of what the author terms a saint-saint transaction with a price attached but treated as an afterthought. More important than the equitable division of the tab was affirming the friendship. Since the continuation of the relationship likely meant more meals in the future, the favor would be returned at the next meal in a the next stroke of a lifelong financial volley.

I picked up on this tradition, and after college, once I had enough income to start eating out on a more regular basis, I tried to carry it on when eating out with others. This worked well with some folks who shared that tradition, but I found the vast majority of Americans were more accustomed to splitting the check. This often led to a semi-awkward impedance mismatch after meals.

The second thing that comes to mind is that our online selves are often closer to idealized constructions of our identity than to our actual selves. This, to me, leads to the exhausting cycle of outrage on Twitter and other social networks. In 140 characters, we must express absolute outrage at every moral transgression from any public figures. After all, we live in an age where our online self, our construction of it, often reaches more people than our real selves. This makes our virtual identity critical, and after all, the cost of moral indignation online comes with little cost. Online, we are all saints.

Third is the internal struggle many NFL fans are caught up in right now. On the one hand, football fans love the sport, the cultural touchstone that is the secular religion of NFL Sunday. It is nearly impossible to dispute, however, the gladiatorial destruction the sport wreaks on its participants' bodies and minds. And, thanks to the elevator security footage of Ray Rice knocking his wife out cold with a vicious left hook, all the multitude of domestic violence cases over the years involving NFL players suddenly took on a tangible nature that's not as easy for fans of the sport to ignore.

What makes fans uncomfortable is that even if they elevate their love of the sport to an intangible and priceless stature, perhaps as some touchstone of American spirit, or some cultural bond between generations, they know that in a comparison of priceless values, the health and lives of players and the safety of their spouses and children must rank higher. It's not sacrifice if you aren't letting go of something you genuinely love.

I also loved this bit from the post:

When traders, rather than saints, control the narrative, the narrative logic is baser-than-thou. This is the logic of status-leveling humor rather than the logic of status-preserving solemnity. To understand why, consider the classic joke about prostitution:

Man: will you sleep with me for $1 million?
Woman: Okay
Man: will you sleep with me for $5?
Woman: WHAT! What kind of woman do you take me for?
Man: we’ve already established what kind of woman you are. Now we’re just haggling over the price.

In this joke, the initial offer of $1 million is actually fake-out code for “priceless.” The joke relies on treating it as an actual negotiable number later, instead of sticking to the fiction that it is a symbolic infinity. The trader here has an ulterior motive: exposing the hypocrisy of the woman’s position, thereby up-ending the presumed status relationship at the start.

The reason jokes like this work is that priceless actually is a number less than infinity in many practical situations. For something to be priceless, it is only necessary for it to be priced at a point where it can be compared with something else that is priceless.

In the prostitution example, an offer of $1 million is (if you’ll pardon the joke) big enough to be considered fuck-you money. This has a very specific valuation in the priceless economy: it is the price of liberty for the rest of your life. The woman is willing to do for $1 million what she is not willing to do for $5. Not because she has a rational pricing model in mind, but because at $1 million, she is wrestling with a high-minded internal values conflict (liberty versus purity). At $5, she’s thinking about paying for a sandwich. The joke works because it disrupts the original fiction that purity ought to be the more priceless value of the two. Indecent Proposal works as a tragedy for the opposite reason: the original fiction is ambiguous and the ending affirms values in the “right” order (watch the movie to understand why and at what cost).

This is why earnest discussions in the startup world about what your “number” might be, are deluded. Liberty means different things to different people. For some, it is a dollar and a mindset shift away. Others remain trapped even with hundreds of millions of dollars.
 

And, for those of you who come here just for technology related stories, an excerpt that veers closer:

Marketing represents a net return on investment if the irrationality it induces, via movement of the transaction into saintly regimes, increases margins sufficiently. You could measure the irrationality of a market (or equivalently, the hierarchical rationality of a reputation economy) by the amount spent on marketing, particularly in a saintly mode. A marketing-dominates-sales company is one that has carved out a defensible position: a regime behind a fixed boundary where a favorable values economy of pricelessness prevails.

This is what positioning means: drawing a boundary around a set of values that your customers will accept, that put you on top in most transactions.

As Exhibit A, I give you Apple during the reign of Steve Jobs at the top of the Apple reputation economy. That Apple at the time was primarily a reputation economy, and only secondarily a computing hardware market, is clear from the fact that there is a clear hierarchy in its market, with users at the bottom, genius-bar reps one level up, and an invisible secret church in the background with Jobs at the top. Now that he’s gone, the fate of the company depends on the ability of Tim Cook to play St. Peter well.

Ants

Another question I hear a lot is, "What can we learn of moral value from the ants?” Here again I will answer definitively: nothing. Nothing at all can be learned from ants that our species should even consider imitating. For one thing, all working ants are female. Males are bred and appear in the nest only once a year, and then only briefly. They are pitiful creatures with wings, huge eyes, small brains and genitalia that make up a large portion of their rear body segment. They have only one function in life: to inseminate the virgin queens during the nuptial season. They are built to be robot flying sexual missiles. Upon mating or doing their best to mate, they are programmed to die within hours, usually as victims of predators.

Many kinds of ants eat their dead -- and their injured, too. You may have seen ant workers retrieve nestmates that you have mangled or killed underfoot (accidentally, I hope), thinking it battlefield heroism. The purpose, alas, is more sinister.

As ants grow older, they spend more time in the outermost chambers and tunnels of the nest, and are more prone to undertake dangerous foraging trips. They also are the first to attack enemy ants and other intruders. Here indeed is a major difference between people and ants: While we send our young men to war, ants send their old ladies.
 

Edward O. Wilson on the marvel that are ants.

While reading the article, I had a thought. Are human societies also like superorganisms? As if he were reading my mind, Wilson answered that exact question three paragraphs later.

You may occasionally hear human societies described as superorganisms. This is a bit of a stretch. It is true that we form societies dependent on cooperation, labor specialization and frequent acts of altruism. But where social insects are ruled almost entirely by instinct, we base labor division on transmission of culture. Also, unlike social insects, we are too selfish to behave like cells in an organism. Human beings seek their own destiny. They will always revolt against slavery, and refuse to be treated like worker ants.

Presenter's paradox

The problem, in a nutshell, is this: We assume when we present someone with a list of our accomplishments (or with a bundle of services or products), that they will see what we’re offering additively. If going to Harvard, a prestigious internship, and mad statistical skills are all a “10” on the scale of impressiveness, and two semesters of Spanish is a “2,” then we reason that added together, this is a 10 + 10 + 10 + 2, or a “32” in impressiveness. So it makes sense to mention your minimal Spanish skills — they add to the overall picture. More is better.

Only more is not in fact better to the interviewer (or the client or buyer), because this is not how other people see what we’re offering. They don’t add up the impressiveness, they average it. They see the Big Picture — looking at the package as a whole, rather than focusing on the individual parts.

To them, this is a (10+ 10+ 10+ 2)/4 package, or an “8” in impressiveness. And if you had left off the bit about Spanish, you would have had a (10 + 10+ 10)/3, or a “10” in impressiveness. So even though logically it seems like a little Spanish is better than none, mentioning it makes you a less attractive candidate than if you’d said nothing at all.

More is actually not better, if what you are adding is of lesser quality than the rest of your offerings. Highly favorable or positive things are diminished or diluted in the eye of the beholder when they are presented in the company of only moderately favorable or positive things.
 

And that is presenter's paradox. Based on the PR blowback, it seems like the free U2 album was an example of that subtraction by addition at the latest Apple keynote.

Optimal robot personality

They gave them distinct personalities. It was an experiment: would humans react to the robots differently based on how they carried themselves? They tried out two different personalities on each robot. One version was extraverted; the robot would speak loudly and quickly, use more animated hand gestures, and start conversations instead of waiting to be spoken to. The other personality was more reserved, speaking much more slowly and quietly, moving around less, and letting the user initiate communication.

What the researchers found, as they described in a recently published paper, was a striking difference between the two. When it came to the nurse robot, people preferred and trusted it more when its personality was outgoing and assertive. What people wanted in a security guard was exactly the opposite: the livelier, extraverted version clearly rubbed people the wrong way. Not only were they less confident in its abilities, and dubious that it would keep them away from danger, they simply liked it less overall.

...

What researchers are finding is that it’s not enough for a machine to have an agreeable personality—it needs the right personality. A robot designed to serve as a motivational exercise coach, for instance, might benefit from being more intense than a teacher-robot that plays chess with kids. A museum tour guide robot might need to be less indulgent than a personal assistant robot that’s supposed to help out around the house.

A growing body of research is starting to reveal what works and what doesn’t. And although building truly human-like robots will probably remain technologically impossible for a long time to come, researchers say that imbuing machines with personalities we can understand doesn’t require them to be “human-like” at all. To hear them describe the future is to imagine a world—one coming soon—in which we interact and even form long-term relationships with socially gifted devices that are designed to communicate with us on our terms. And what the ideal machine personalities turn out to be may expose needs and prejudices that we’re not even aware we have.
 

More here. How many of our personality preferences for robots will we inherit from the human analogues we're most familiar with? We may wish for a robot personal trainer to be tough, forceful, while we may prefer a calm, almost flat affect from our robot therapist.

Regardless, I'm excited to see the first generation of robots or AI's with personality roll out to the world. It feels like one of the most likely vectors of delight in user experience design when it comes to AI.

Young blood

A researcher has discovered that the blood of the young may have regenerative powers for the elderly.

Her son’s research has found that blood from young mice can improve the learning and memory of old ones, and she’s certainly not the only one to wonder what this could mean for humans. In his lab at UCSF and his postdoc lab at Stanford, Villeda and colleagues injected old mice with blood plasma from young mice, and vice versa. They found that the senescent rodents learned quicker and grew more neurons after infusions from young blood, while the juvenile mice got correspondingly worse at learning new tricks.
 

Perhaps this is what turns us to vampirism. Or not. As the article mentions later, any treatment developed based on such studies would depend on synthetic proteins, not blood from live humans.

At best, it provides a new metaphoric through line for the vampire genre which has become so prevalent it has grown stale. 

As Gosselink points out, old age was so rare in less-developed societies that people who achieved it were granted a certain amount of status and even a mystical cachet. Later, the elderly might have been mocked or isolated, but age was still not seen as an illness. It’s only in recent centuries, as old age has become more and more commonplace, that we have started to venerate youth; ageing is now associated not with fortunate longevity but with decrepitude and disease. And accordingly, our magical thinking has expanded to find mystical cures for loss of vitality. That’s why a strange light appears in people’s eyes when they hear about the mouse blood experiment. We are culturally primed to look to sympathetic magic as a means for curing what ails us, and old age is now regarded as a disease to be fought.