Expensive browsing

A few links have come my way recently on using internet browsers to price discriminate.

Via Cheap Talk, from the WSJ:

Orbitz Worldwide Inc. has found that people who use Apple Inc.’s Mac computers spend as much as 30% more a night on hotels, so the online travel agency is starting to show them different, and sometimes costlier, travel options than Windows visitors see. Orbitz executives confirmed that the company is experimenting with showing different hotel offers to Mac and PC visitors, but said the company isn’t showing the same room to different users at different prices.


Via Marginal Revolution, from this blog, interest rates from Capital One if using Chrome:

But if using Internet Explorer, you’ll be left wondering what’s left in your wallet:


And a story here this retailer explicitly charging users more for using older versions of web browsers:



Along with the story that “Users of the most popular web browser, Internet Explorer, tend to have lower-than-average IQ, according to a survey of online habits”, reported across much of the mainstream press last year, that was subsequently shown to be a hoax.


Nudges, webforms and cookies

They can designed to be in your best interests (as in the libertarian paternalism espoused in Thaler’s and Sunstein’s book, Nudge) but also in someone else’s best interest.

One small way is the resetting of options of webforms. The next time you’re booking something, uncheck/check the boxes so as not to receive marketing mail, then make a mistake in e.g., your payment details before pressing submit. Watch what happens when the site loads the page again with a message saying to review that section – I bet all your details are still there, except the marketing options have reverted to the defaults of opting in.

I forget the company now (Eurostar, Opodo Booking.com, ?) that I was using a lot sometime ago, but there would always be a ‘mistake’ on the form – I think it was the CVV number – and the page would reload with that bit blank asking me to try again. I’d retype the number (the same number as before) but in the reload process the marketing options had reverted back and needed changing again.

Anyway, I noticed today on the Brussels Airlines website, that when the page reloads after making an incorrect entry they keep everything for you – except for the frequent flyer number you’ve entered, which will need retyping if you happen to notice. A nice way to marginally lower some of their future airmile liability.

One of my favourite sites is thedailymash.co.uk, which recently has started to charge readers when they view more than 7 articles a month (as far as I can tell, this is only when your IP address is outside of the UK). However, simply going via your browser’s internet options to see the list of cookies, and deleting the one from ppjol.com will reset your count back to zero, which made me wonder – is this theft?

Party A clearly wishes to charge Party B for their product, but Party B is preventing Party A from conducting the process that will lead to an invoice being issued and this is done in a way that Party A can’t detect.

Party A’s process involves planting a tracking device on Party B however. But then Party B probably also implicitly accepts such an activity (I haven’t read through the T&Cs on the site, but presume it’s standard to have a line about ‘we may use cookies when you use this service’). Ultimately though, when Party B is not on the site, what is wrong with choosing to remove data files from her computer so as to no longer be tracked, even if that does stop the payment process from being triggered on a later return?

Healthcare expenditure -v- life expectancy

A smart way to reduce the risk of confusing correlation with causation, especially when comparing different countries, is to plot the two variables of interest over time.

Here’s a nice example, showing that it’s likely the US has a less efficient healthcare system than other rich countries, and that the low life expectancy is not due to other confounding variables (e.g., having a higher homicide rate – something which has actually decreased over the time period shown).

More here by Lane Kenworthy

Earth to reach boiling point in 400 years

As an ex-physicist who realises later in life that he’d probably rather have studied economics, I’d like to paraphrase from an interesting article by Tom Murphy. It uses fundamental physics to argue that economic growth cannot continue indefinitely, albeit under the assumption that increases in GDP require an increased use of energy*:

US energy consumption has increased by about 3% per year for several centuries.This is partly due to increases in population, but per-capita energy use itself has grown also — our energy lives today are far richer than those of our great-great-grandparents a century ago.

So even if population stabilizes, it’s fair to say we are accustomed to per-capita energy growth.

The Earth has only one mechanism for releasing heat to space, and that’s via infrared radiation. It’s well understood. If we use more energy (it must all end up as heat energy) then more must be radiated away, and the surface temperature of the planet will increase.

This graph, which presumes a constant 2.3% energy increase per year, plots the Earth’s surface temperature over time:

Graph of earth temperature over time at constant energy growth

The upshot is that at a 2.3% growth rate, the Earth would reach boiling temperature in about 400 years. This statement is independent of technology. Even if we don’t have a name for the energy source yet, as long as it obeys the laws of thermodynamics, we cook ourselves with perpetual energy increase. Thermodynamic limits impose a cap to energy growth due to the process of radiating the spent energy away.

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*Under a model in which GDP is fixed, with conditions of stable energy, stable population, and steady-state economy, then if we accumulate knowledge, improve the quality of life, and thus create an unambiguously more desirable world this is a form of economic growth, but one which more normally falls under the title of “development” rather than “growth”.

Let there be light

I’ve come across this a few times over the years, and been meaning to post it the next time I saw the numbers somewhere. And today I have, here:

In 1800, a candle providing one hour’s light cost six hours’ work. In the 1880s, the same light from a kerosene lamp took 15 minutes’ work to pay for. In 1950, it was eight seconds. Today, it’s half a second. In these terms, we are 43,200 times better off than in 1800.

The 1800 number I think is too high (I reckon you can go and find some wood in less than 6 hrs, or buy some for an amount smaller than 6 hrs of labour). Order of magnitude correct though.

I also think it takes less than half a second, by the way, today, plugging in average salary and electricity kw/h numbers for the UK.

But the thrust of the point is clear, we are massively better off than generations before because we have gotten more efficient at producing things. Four of the basic human needs, food, clothing, fuel, and housing, are now far cheaper in terms of the average wage.

And given it’s Easter, remember, stars died so that you could live.

If you’re not paying for it…

A quote I saw somewhere recently (sorry, I don’t have the link now):

If you’re not paying for something, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.

This is partly why I don’t read free Metro-type newspapers when I come across one. More thoughts on whether you should spend time reading/watching the news here.

Flying: weigh more, pay more?

I saw an article earlier discussing whether people who weigh more should pay more to fly. (It reminds me of one of Tim Harford’s ‘Dear Economist articles’ on how to split a taxi fare on a trip home after a night out when a group of friends are going different distances).

The author states that:

Friends with whom I discuss this proposal often say that many obese people cannot help being overweight – they just have a different metabolism from the rest of us. But the point of a surcharge for extra weight is not to punish a sin, whether it is levied on baggage or on bodies. It is a way of recouping from you the true cost of flying you to your destination, rather than imposing it on your fellow passenger.

But I think he may be in danger of missing the woods for the trees. It’s true that the cost of flying is directly proportional to the weight carried, but almost all of that weight is the plane itself: a passenger on a A380 at maximum takeoff weight is about 0.01% of the total. Differences in passengers would run at an order of magnitude less. If you did want to charge according to weight, then the fixed cost of moving the plane itself (from which all passengers derive the same aerodynamic benefit) should presumably be shared equally amongst everyone, and then the smallest of deltas added on for individual weights.

Indeed, the data point given in the article is that carrying an extra 1kg from London to Sydney and back again on an A380 costs an additional… answer at the bottom, under the fold.

I typically fly a few times per week, and my answer to friends who ask what I think about the environmental consequences of this is that at the margin, I don’t think I make any difference. If I didn’t fly, I would be significantly financially poorer, yet the environment in no measurable way any better off. Tens of billions of humans will be responsible for dangerous climate change should it occur (it’s from accumulated excess CO2 in the atmosphere, so you need to add up the contributions of everyone from 1850ish, up to say 2050ish) and I’m going to be an infinitesimal portion of it. Tragedy of the commons, yes. (And it’s only looking at one side of the equation anyway, think about all the benefits accruing to other people from the consulting project I’m working on…hmmm.)

People sometimes take issue about me considering myself to be the marginal passenger, rather than an average one, which is a reasonable point, not withstanding the point above regarding the relative weight of the passenger to the plane. Of course, at some point the lose of one more passenger could cause the  airline to drop the route, and I could [not] be that passenger. I read an article a few years back that suggested that whilst the scenario can play out like this in the US, in Europe typically Airline A might keep operating unprofitable routes in order to tie up take-off and landing slots so that competitors B,C, and D are unable to use the slots to compete on the route/timing that is super profitable for A.

And anyway, wouldn’t the plane not just be deployed on another route? If you want to reduce the contribution to global warming from air travel then you need to stop planes moving, not passengers flying on them. Therefore reduce slots, rather than tax passengers more. I guess that would raise governments less revenue though, all things equal.

And, if you’ve read this far, the cost of carrying an extra 1kg from London to Sydney and back again on an A380 is: Read more of this post