GOOD

Who Can Profit from Selling 1-Cent Books on Amazon? Robots.

What happens when attempts to game the used book market go wrong?

What do you call a thriving marketplace of robots buying nonexistent books from other robots for millions of dollars?


Apparently, Amazon.com.

The online retailer we know and mostly love can be something of a wild west, especially on the frontiers of its business. Consider the experience of Carlos Bueno, a software engineer at Facebook who, late last year, wrote and self-published a children’s book about computer science called Lauren Ipsum.

The book is inspired by Bueno’s self-education in programming as a young man and his belief that everyone in our increasingly computerized society should understand how to program.

“If someone could read, but they couldn’t write, in our society today, it would be kind of weird,” Bueno says. “But we totally accept the idea of someone who can use a computer but can’t program it. There are amazing things you can do when you don’t tell a child it’s too hard.”

Bueno raised money with Kickstarter to publish his book through Amazon’s self-publishing service, making his book available in a variety of electronic formats and also as a print-on-demand book—each time a physical copy is purchased, it’s printed specifically for that order. Bueno set the price of the book at $14.95 and has sold about 1,000 copies.

But in the last few weeks, Bueno has seen his book become the center of a strange phenomenon on Amazon: the bot market. A reseller in Amazon’s used books section was offering the book for $55—even though the book was available for forty dollars less on the same website. Then another one appeared, selling for $14.94—lower than the retail price. Another was for sale for $12.50. The only way these resellers could profit would be through excessive shipping and handling charges.

Even stranger, these resellers are offering “Very Good” or “Like New” used copies of a book that is printed on demand—that is, they’re offering used copies of books that probably don’t even exist.

If you haven’t guessed yet, these resellers aren’t people at all, but bots—software created by someone to try and game Amazon’s marketplace, making a profit by exploiting loopholes and engaging in bidding wars. But when they go wrong, they end up doing crazy things; a biologist at UC-Berkeley documented a bidding fight between two bots over a “classic work in developmental biology” called The Making of a Fly. By the time they were done, copies of the book were advertised for $2,198,177.95

“I’m a programmer, and I’m mystified,” Bueno says. “We’re just going to have to watch and see what these bots do now.”

Amazon, he points out, is getting in on the bot action. In response to the apparently illogical prices offered by the robotic resellers, it cut prices, too, now selling the book for $10.76. That surprised Bueno, who thought he had set the final price, but Amazon’s price matching algorithm works automatically. Bueno was pleasantly surprised to find that the cut doesn’t come out of his royalties—Amazon is eating the cost of matching the prices of these fake-book purveying bots. Bueno estimates that Amazon is losing $4.19 of profit each time it sells the book at the discounted price.

Bueno and his friends have speculated that perhaps the point of these bots isn’t actually to game Amazon’s markets, but to use them for other purposes, perhaps laundering money from stolen credit cards by purchasing goods from fellow conspirators at inflated prices. Some of the resellers are based internationally; perhaps they are gaming exchange rates.

Some of these bots even make print-on-demand books, copying Wikipedia articles into books that they print on demand and sell to, well, whoever would be silly enough to buy something like that. We’ve asked Amazon what they think of the robots in their store and what, if anything they’ll do about it. They're not the only online retailer facing this challenge—Barnes & Noble, among others, appears to have its own entrepreneurial algorithms.

I ask Bueno if these programs-gone-wild offer any lessons, perhaps for his next book.

“The big lesson, no matter how clever you are, if you don’t have the right data, you’re just as helpless as if you didn’t know how to program,” he says. “As a general thing, I think large companies like Google and Facebook, they’ve figured this out, the real secret is data, and not really the algorithms.”

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Photocapy

Articles

Looking back, the year 1995 seems like such an innocent time. America was in the midst of its longest streak of peace and prosperity. September 11, 2001 was six years away, and the internet didn't seem like much more than a passing fad.

Twenty-four years ago, 18 million U.S. homes had modem-equipped computers, 7 million more than the year before. Most logged in through America Online where they got their email or communicated with random strangers in chat rooms.

According to a Pew Research study that year, only 32% of those who go online say they would miss it "a lot" if no longer available.

Imagine what those poll numbers would look like if the question was asked today.

RELATED: Bill and Melinda Gates had a surprising answer when asked about a 70 percent tax on the wealthiest Americans

"Few see online activities as essential to them, and no single online feature, with the exception of E-Mail, is used with any regularity," the Pew article said. "Consumers have yet to begin purchasing goods and services online, and there is little indication that online news features are changing traditional news consumption patterns."

"Late Night" host David Letterman had Microsoft founder and, at that time the richest man in the world, on his show for an interview in '95 to discuss the "the big new thing."

During the interview Letterman chided Gates about the usefulness of the new technology, comparing it to radio and tape recorders.

Gates seems excited by the internet because it will soon allow people to listen to a baseball game on their computer. To which Letterman smugly replies, "Does radio ring a bell?" to laughter from the crowd.

But Gates presses Letterman saying that the new technology allows you to listen to the game "whenever you want," to which Letterman responds, "Do tape recorders ring a bell?"

Gates then tells Letterman he can keep up with the latest in his favorite hobbies such as cigar smoking or race cars through the internet. Letterman shuts him down saying that he reads about his interests in magazines.

RELATED: Bill Gates has five books he thinks you should read this summer.

The discussion ends with the two laughing over meeting like-minded people in "troubled loner chat room on the internet."

The clip brings to mind a 1994 segment on "The Today Show" where host Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric have a similar discussion.

"What is internet anyway?" an exasperated Gumball asks. "What do you write to it like mail?"

"It's a computer billboard but it's nationwide and it's several universities all joined together and it's getting bigger and bigger all the time," a producer explains from off-stage.





Culture
via The Howard Stern Show / YouTube

Former Secretary of State, first lady, and winner of the popular vote in the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton, sat own for an epic, two-and-a--half hour interview with Howard Stern on his SiriusXM show Wednesday.

She was there to promote "The Book of Gutsy Women," a book about heroic women co-written with her daughter, Chelsea Clinton.

In the far-reaching conversation, Clinton and the self-proclaimed "King of All Media" and, without a doubt, the best interviewer in America discussed everything from Donald Trump's inauguration to her sexuality.

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Politics

The healthcare systems in the United States and the United Kingdom couldn't be more different.

The UK's National Health Service is the largest government-run healthcare system in the world and the US's is largest private sector system.

Almost all essential health services in the UK are free, whereas in America cost can vary wildly based on insurance, co pays and what the hospitals and physicians choose to charge.

A medical bill in the US

One of the largest differences is cost. The average person in the UK spends £2,989 ($3915) per year on healthcare (most of which is collected through taxes), whereas the average American spends around $10,739 a year.

So Americans should obviously be getting better care, right? Well, the average life expectancy in the UK is higher and infant mortality rate is lower than that in the US.

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Plus, in the U.S., only 84% of people are covered by private insurance, Medicare or Medicaid. Sixteen percent of the population are forced to pay out of pocket.

In the UK, everyone is covered unless they are visiting the country or an undocumented resident.

Prescription drugs can cost Americans an arm and a leg, but in the UK, prescriptions or either free or capped at £8.60 ($11.27).

via Wikimedia Commons

The one drawback to the NHS system is responsiveness. In the UK people tend to wait longer for inessential surgeries, doctor's appointments, and in emergency rooms. Whereas, the US is ranked as the most responsive country in the world.

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The New York Times printed a fair evaluation of the UK's system:

The service is known for its simplicity: It is free at the point of use to anyone who needs it. Paperwork is minimal, and most patients never see a bill. … No one needs to delay medical treatment until he or she can afford it, and virtually everyone is covered. …

According to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States spent 17.2 percent of its economic output on health care in 2016, compared with 9.7 percent in Britain. Yet Britain has a higher life expectancy at birth and lower infant mortality.

Citizens in each country have an interesting perspective on each other's healthcare systems. UK citizens think it's inhumane for Americans have to pay through the nose when they're sick or injured. While Americans are skeptical of socialist medicine.

A reporter from Politics Joe hit the streets of London and asked everyday people what they think Americans pay for healthcare and they were completely shocked.

Health