The People Behind the Algorithm

You know those “you bought this, so you might like this” recommendations on Amazon? Turns out, a real live human helps ensure the recommendations you see aren’t too out of whack.

They log in to the Amazon Mechanical Turk site and are presented with two products. If one doesn’t belong with the other, they say so. For every match they identify, they make a few pennies. There’s still an algorithm, but it’s receiving crucial help from an army of low-paid workers.

NPR’s Planet Money team thought of a clever way to interview some Turks. Check it out here.

Local Success

Author Ann Patchett is an enthusiastic new voice in the anti-amazon, pro-local bookstore scene. And she’s not all words: along with co-owner Karen Hayes, she opened a small, successful independent book store in her hometown, called Parnassus Books.

From her recent article in The Atlantic:

Two years ago, the city of Nashville had two bookstores. One was Davis-Kidd, which had been our much-beloved locally owned and operated independent before selling out to the Ohio-based Joseph-Beth Booksellers chain 15 years earlier. Joseph-Beth moved Davis-Kidd into a mall, provided it with 30,000 square feet of retail space, and put wind chimes and coffee mugs and scented candles in front of the book displays. We continued to call it our “local independent,” even though we knew that wasn’t really true anymore. …

In December 2010, Davis-Kidd closed. It was profitable, declared the owners from Ohio, who were dismantling the chain, but not profitable enough. Then, in May 2011, our Borders store—also profitable—went the way of all Borders stores. Nashvillians woke up one morning and found that we no longer had a bookstore.

How had this happened? Had digital books led us astray? Had we been lured away by the siren song of Amazon’s underpricing? Had we been careless, failing to support the very places that had hosted our children’s story hours and brought in touring authors and set up summer-reading tables? Our city experienced a great collective gnashing of teeth and rending of garments, but to what extent was Nashville to blame? Both of the closed stores had been profitable. …

See also: her interview on The Colbert Report, and more about local bookstores on this blog.

A Bot That Buys You Random Stuff from Amazon

If your name is Darius Kazemi, that is.

Darius’s bot picks a random word, searches for that word on amazon, and then purchases items from the results list, in order, until the bot hits a pre-determined budget.

From his site:

I’ve had an idea for a long time now. It’s inspired by one of my favorite feelings: when you order something on Amazon, and it’s put on backorder, and then you forget you ordered it, and a year later it arrives—and it’s like a gift you bought yourself.

Well, I thought: what if I just wrote a program to buy stuff for me? The first iteration of this was going to be a program that bought me stuff that I probably would like.

But then I decided that was too boring. How about I build something that buys me things completely at random? Something that just… fills my life with crap? How would these purchases make me feel? Would they actually be any less meaningful than the crap I buy myself on a regular basis anyway?

His first shipment recently arrived, and the objects are just as fascinating as his commentary. Check out his tumblr for more: Random Shopper {via andrew sullivan, of course}.

It would be cool to use this bot to send completely random stuff to random ex-girlfriends or something.

words to live by

From none other than evil genius and head of amazon {previous amazon coverage on this blog}, Jeff Bezos:

He said people who were right a lot of the time were people who often changed their minds. He doesn’t think consistency of thought is a particularly positive trait. It’s perfectly healthy — encouraged, even — to have an idea tomorrow that contradicted your idea today.

Read the whole thing here {37 signals}.

Hint: he isn’t talking about politics.

that ain’t smart that’s creepy: vanishing ebooks

This is part of my ongoing coverage of disappearing ebooks. (See also: destroying ebooks is easy.)

This time, instead of an ebook being pulled by its publisher and vanishing from ebook stores, it’s a story about books being erased from a device without one unlucky user’s consent. And it doesn’t seem like she’s getting her books back any time soon:

Did she violate any terms? Amazon will not tell. Perhaps by accident? Amazon does not care. The conclusion so far is clear: Amazon closed her account, wiped her Kindle and refuses to tell her why. End of discussion.

Read Outlawed by Amazon DRM {bekkelund.net; via daring fireball}.