Want to See How Crazy a Bot-Run Market Can Be?


Then check out, if you haven't seen it already, the description by Michael Eisen, a biologist at UC Berkeley, of his efforts to buy an old science book, about flies, from Amazon. Automatic pricing algorithms by used-book vendors there drove the asking price for The Making of a Fly to more than $23.6 million. Here, from Eisen, was the bidding early in the process, when the book was going for just over $2 million, plus $3.99 shipping:


I've written before, though I can't find the link at the moment, about the oddities of used-book pricing on Amazon, where some books that originally went for $10 are listed at 10 cents and others, inexplicably, at $500. Eisen explains the automatic-bidding "logic" that produced the $23 million price. As he puts it, in a model of applying scientific deduction to a clearly wacky phenomenon, "Both profnath [one seller] and bordeebook [the other] were clearly using automatic pricing - employing algorithms that didn't have a built-in sanity check on the prices they produced." (Thanks to MTJ for the tip.)

For more on the general concept of out-of-control bots upsetting financial and social life, see Bill Davidow's recent book, with Katie Hafner, Overconnected. It's $18.45 on Amazon -- or a bargain at only $22 million direct from me.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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