Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Origins 2011: Part 1 - "A Hero's Journey"

Last week was the Origins gaming convention in Columbus, Ohio. I wrote about it last year on this blog, and I went again this year. The first interesting part of the adventure was getting there. I originally booked a combination flight/hotel deal on Travelocity. The flight was from Champaign, through Chicago, and then to Columbus. However, the day of the flight, I was informed that the flight from Champaign to Chicago had been cancelled, and they automatically rebooked me on a flight the next day. I looked online and found that if I took a Greyhound bus to Chicago, I could still make the flight from Chicago to Columbus, so I called Travelocity and asked them to book me back on the original flight. However they informed me that was impossible because the flight from Chicago to Columbus was also cancelled. I wasn't sure they understood what I wanted, because I looked online (if you put the airline and flight number into Google it will give you the status of the flight) and that flight was showing as on time. However, when I called American Airlines, they told me the same thing. Eventually I decided to just not use the outbound ticket and take a bus from Champaign to Columbus instead, and take the plane back. (I felt really stupid for booking the flight in the first place and not remembering that there was a bus, especially since I took the bus from Champaign to Columbus to get to my brother's graduation.) looked online to see if I could get a refund for the part of the ticket that I didn't use, and I actually found that for some airlines if you don't use the outbound portion of the ticket, they won't honor the return portion. So I had to call American Airlines to change the ticket. I called and was directed from phone number A to phone number B, then to number C, then back to A, then to B again, and finally after about half an hour of waiting they told me that they were able to change the ticket, and I wouldn't get a refund because it was booked through an external source, but it wouldn't cost me anything extra. (It would certainly have been annoying if they charged me extra for not using part of the ticket.) Anyway, it worked out and I ended up in Columbus the night I expected to. Also, it was a good thing I decided to take the bus because as it turned out, the flight the next day that they originally rebooked me on was also cancelled.

So here are a few things I learned. First of all, always check to see if there is a bus or train before booking a flight. Second, I wonder why sites like Travelocity don't also incorporate things like buses and trains into their tool - it seems like it would be useful to have a tool that figures out the best/cheapest way of getting from point A to point B whether that involves a bus, train, plane, or some combination. I guess it just doesn't come up that often. Third, always book directly through the airline if you can because it is easier to change your flight that way if necessary. Fourth, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the Champaign-Urbana airport has an average of 28% of its flights delayed and 6% cancelled, compared with the national average of 20% delayed and 3% cancelled. After I move to Colorado I will usually be using Denver International Airport, which is better at 18% delayed and 1.6% cancelled, which of course makes sense because the people who work at the secret underground base there wouldn't want their evil plans ruined by flight problems. Of course, if there really was an evil conspiracy going on there, information about it wouldn't stay posted on Wikipedia. Or maybe that's just what they want you to think, and it's a clever diversion. (Of course, I don't actually believe that there's a conspiracy or anything, I just thought it was funny.)

But that's just part of the adventure. Next time I will tell you about what happened after I got there!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Interesting Pictures: Gaming

Will you look into the world of gaming? Games show many things.

Things that are...

... things that were...

...and some things which have not yet come to pass.

I wonder what the "non-simplified" version of this game looks like?

Although gamers are not usually major consumers of personal hygiene products, this manufacturer has developed an innovative way to market to this under-served demographic.

A recent "Magic: The Gathering" card set focuses on the conflict between the artifact-based Mirrans (not shown) and the virulent Phyrexians (represented by the symbol on the box). Evidently, the City of Champaign public works department supports the Phyrexians.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Debit Card Swipe Fees

In the news recently there is talk about legislation to reduce the fees that retailers pay to banks for debit card transactions. The fees currently average 44 cents per transaction, and the proposal is to cap them at 12 cents per transaction. Here are my thoughts:

- Clearly, the socially optimal amount to charge for swipe fees is equal to the marginal cost. And the marginal cost is probably very small; I imagine most of the costs of running the transaction system are fixed costs that don't depend that much on number of transactions.

- Of course, that only really matters if debit card transactions are at least somewhat price-elastic; i.e. number of transactions is affected by how much they cost. If the number of transactions is unaffected by cost, then changing the fee just redistributes money; it doesn't affect overall efficiency. (Of course, people do care about how the money is distributed.) And I would imagine that the price elasticity is very low: consumers don't care about swipe fees when they use their debit card (since they don't pay them) and most retailers don't choose not to accept debit cards just because of the fees (except sometimes for small transactions).

- The discussion from both sides seems to be centered on whether it will help or hurt consumers, which is reasonable. The pro-regulation side says that businesses will pass the savings on to consumers, while the anti-regulation side says that will not necessarily occur and banks will be forced to increase other fees or reduce perks like free checking to make up for the lost revenue.

- From the retailer's perspective, the swipe fee is like a tax on the transaction, so whether it's the consumer or the producer that ends up paying it depends on the relative elasticity of supply and demand for the goods, as described here. Of course, almost none of the coverage that expresses opinions about this questions even mentions price elasticity. (You could do a similar analysis to answer the question about whether banks will increase other fees; think of the reduction in swipe fees as like a tax on the banks based on how often their customers use debit cards).

- Of course, I don't have any data on the questions above, so I don't know who is correct. But one thing I did notice is that pro-regulation advocates say it will "help small businesses" and take money away from the "big banks", while anti-regulation advocates say that it "helps giant retailers" at the expense of "small credit unions." My question is: How did the whole "big business equals bad, small business equals good" thing start? I mean, isn't the theory behind capitalism that the way businesses become bigger is by improving efficiency to lower costs and responding to the needs of their customers to increase revenue? Maybe Joe Kernen is right that we are being indoctrinated with anti-capitalist values.

Monday, June 6, 2011

News Quiz

1. Which of the following is an actual reality show about to enter its second season?

(a) The Auditors, which features stories of taxpayers who have been audited by the IRS, from the initial contact through the final accounting of taxes owed.

(b) Extreme Couponing, in which shoppers save thousands of dollars through strategic use of coupons, store promotions, and similar deals.

(c) Health Care Hustle, which features a "behind-the-scenes" look at the business side of a doctor's office in Oakland, California.

(d) Wikipedia Wars, where contestants compete to use Wikipedia to find the answers to trivia questions while strategically editing it to confuse their opponents.

2. Which of the following is an actual recent scientific finding?

(a) The gene responsible for blonde hair also produces neurotoxins which lower intelligence.

(b) Using Twitter and Facebook immediately after studying for exams improves grades.

(c) The most important factor in determining how much students learn in college classes is how funny they think their professor is.

(d) Showing Apple fans images of Apple products activates the same areas of the brain as showing religious believers images of deities.

3. Sarah Palin recently made which of the following false claims about American history in an interview?

(a) Part of the purpose of Paul Revere's famous ride was to warn the British that they would face American resistance.

(b) Alexander Hamilton once gave a speech warning of the dangers of financial bailouts.

(c) Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves because he wanted to sabotage the Southern economy.

(d) President Kennedy ordered Predator drone strikes on Cuba during the Cuban missile crisis.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Interesting Pictures: Politics

Here are pictures of Lyndon LaRouche supporters, from my previous post. Despite their kookery, they promote some sensible policies like increased investment in science and technology.

In order to do that, though, they'll first need to cut excessive spending. Unfortunately, nobody wants their own pet program cut.

Maybe the cause of the budget problems is that our children are being indoctrinated with anti-capitalist values in our schools. (He must have gone to a different school than I did, because I don't remember being indoctrinated with anything.)

Friday, June 3, 2011

Interesting Web Sites: Economics and Statistics

Another feature of this blog that I am going to start writing more often is web sites that I think are interesting. I already mentioned Cheap Talk,a blog written by economists that applies economic and game theory analysis to topics as diverse as crime and politics, and corruption, and has lots of interesting new ideas. While browsing some of the old posts I came across an article that mentions a company that I interviewed for a job at (but did not get an offer.) There are lots of very interesting blogs written by economists; probably the most well known one is Marginal Revolution, and if you scroll down you will see links to other blogs about economics, inclusing one about statistical analysis.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Interesting Pictures: Technology

With my new iPhone I have been taking lots of funny and interesting pictures, and I haven't gotten around to posting them on my blog .. until now! This is the first of a series of posts with pictures in them.
Apparently, this port replicator is not a Jedi Master yet. And what's that on top of it?

As it turns out, its just a little thing to change the "gender" of a VGA connection. (On many different types of connectors, the part that sticks out is referred to as the "male" side, and the socket you stick it into is referred to as the "female" side. The intended metaphor is left as an exercise for the reader. For the answer, see here.)

This pinball machine is in the ACM (Association of Computing Machinery) lounge. As you can see, not all computer science students are just into software; they like to do stuff with hardware too.

This computer is hooked up to a vending machine, and enables you to pay for caffeinated drinks using your university ID. It keeps track of the total amount of calories and milligrams of caffeine purchased.

Not all advancements in technology involve high-tech electronics. One example is the microwave popcorn bag. While versions of this technology date back to 1973, a recent breakthrough holds the promise to significantly reduce cleanup effort.