People! It turns out capitalism is actually a thing!

Reddit is caught in a Nietzschean cycle of eternal recurrence where everyone asks the same questions every few weeks, and one of the common ones is “What is the best purchase you ever made?” The top answer is always “Amazon Prime”, and I always told myself to think about getting Amazon Prime, then never got around to doing so.

When I moved in with Mike, he already had Amazon Prime and I was able to piggyback off his account because we lived at the same household. And once again the Reddit hivemind has proven startlingly accurate.

My old algorithm for choosing a product was something like this:

1. Realize need for product
2. Go to store
3. Look over shelves full of competing brands of product
4. Reach for product with shiniest packaging
5. Think “No! That would not be virtuous!” Snatch back outreached arm.
6. Studiously examine marketing claims on packaging of all products.
7. Try to parse incomprehensible, unverifiable assertions like “Special n-acetylcysteine strip makes our product 150 kilojoules more convenient than competing brand!”
8. Furrow brow
9. Finally choose product which is cheap, but not too cheap, because the one that’s too cheap might be poor quality.
10. Be consumed by self-doubt.

My new algorithm for choosing a product goes more like this:

1. Type name of product into Amazon
2. Limit search to Prime-eligible and sort by average customer review
3. Find the inevitable five-star rated product which is also pretty cheap and has dozens of customer reviews all saying some variant on “I’ve used hundreds of different [product_type]s before, and finally my sainted grandmother, may she rest in peace, recommended [brand_name] to me. It was by far the best I’ve ever seen and I can’t believe it costs so little. [brand_name] has revolutionized my [product_type]-using-experience and I’m never going back to any of those other brands again!”
4. Buy that one
5. Profit

To my surprise, this second algorithm works a lot better.

(I’m not being sarcastic with that “to my surprise”, by the way. I have such a high prior for things not working – for magically returning themselves to baseline via mysterious set points despite all evidence that they shouldn’t – that it really did surprise me to find the second algorithm working better than the first.)

I have since successfully bought curtains that actually block light so that you can’t see it, industrial-strength earmuffs which I wear all the time people aren’t actively trying to talk to me and sometimes when they are, a laptop which has served me well beyond the incessant clicking noise (but see “earmuffs”, above), these amazing computer speakers that people actually remark upon, and a dream diary that legitimately looks like a sinister 16th-century magical grimoire while costing less than some non-grimoire-looking books.

Looking around the room for things to include in the above list, I also spot an Amazon purchase good enough that I feel compelled to mention it despite its not being recommended by Amazon. Andrew Rettek recommend for me IRON GYM, which aside from having the manliest name in the world is this really interesting contraption you attach to your door to turn it into a pull-up bar. I have no idea why I got it since I’m terrible at sticking to even non-contraption-requiring exercises like situps and pushups, but for some reason it seems to work. I think, as strange as this will be to relate, that the difference is that I have to shift to a near-the-floor position for situps and pushups, whereas I can just make use of the pull-up bar immediately when walking through a door without any positional change required. Judging by my difficulty getting off my comfy computer chair to do useful things, or getting out of bed in the morning, I think either people’s bodies or just my body may view change between sitting/lying and standing as some kind of bizarrely relevant millisecond-level-discounting trivial inconvenience cost factor when deciding what to do. In any case, the IRON GYM seems to work and I am now capable of multiple pull-ups, which would shock any of my high school gym teachers or really anyone else who knows anything about me at all.

It always makes me kind of surprised when things actually work the way I learned about in economics class. The first time I ever boycotted a company, I got inordinately excited walking past the store and not buying their products, because I was actually exerting economic power and affecting the market, just like those people in thought-experiments! And of course after three seconds I realized this was hilarious because of course everything I have bought or not bought since the moment I was born has been doing that. But until then it had always seemed like a passive process – buy something that doesn’t look terrible, or that a friend had used and not had any problems with, then hope for the best. That first boycott (I can’t even remember the company) made me feel like an active participant in the system again. And buying from Amazon is neat because it makes me feel the same way.

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32 Responses to People! It turns out capitalism is actually a thing!

    • Andrew Rettek says:

      The tag line referred to the job as “low paying” but I couldn’t find anything about the salary or hourly wage (although it does seem to have a lower bound of $3+minimum wage). If there are 16 people waiting for each opening, then the problem seems to be the lack of employment opportunities, eg growing businesses, rather than a specific employer.

  1. Thomas Eliot says:

    Can you link to the grimoire? I’m now inclined to purchase it

  2. Benkern says:

    I don’t know if the same thing is a problem in the States, or if you were aware of this when you made the boycott comment, but I couldn’t see a direct link to what you were saying, so:

  3. Army1987 says:

    My old algorithm for choosing a product was something like this:

    That’s also my algorithm! (except that I skip steps 4 and 5, and when I’m in a hurry I also skip steps 6 to 8)

  4. Nisan says:

    Sometimes I worry that Amazon reviews are shills.

    • Deiseach says:

      True, but you can generally pick out the fake reviews (they’re the ones which read exactly like the advertising blurb and are plainly regurgitated press releases). Also, the mocking of ludicrous products (like the Bic pens for women which were ordinary biros, but in PINK! and SLIMMER! for women’s dainty little hands, oh – and more expensive too, because of the PINK packaging and the SLIMNESS) are wonderful 🙂

      Oh, Amazon, I have not succumbed to Prime (because I don’t live in America) but you are the very devil incarnate when it comes to enticing me to part with my money. Curse you and your amazingly successful “If you purchased this item, you may be interested in this one as well” which, confound you, actually do match up to my tastes and interests!

      Personal reviews are great because it’s real people using the stuff in real life situations, not a carefully selected focus group getting ten minutes under controlled conditions, so any flaws show up extremely fast. I tend to look for “average customer review” and it hasn’t steered me wrong yet.

    • jimrandomh says:

      My strategy is to read only the negative reviews, and judge whether they’re the type and quantity of negative reviews that good products tend to have. A good product’s negative reviews will be a mix of defects/broken units and obviously unreasonable expectations. A bad product’s negative reviews will name specific surprising flaws, which may or may not matter but which I’d like to know about in any case.

      • The “read the negative reviews, check if there are any legit ones” works for pretty much every review site. I find it to be of great help on Yelp, because people are entitled dicks rather often, so it’s helpful to know if the majority of the 1-star reviews are due to that, or other things that I don’t much care about (like slow service).

    • Qiaochu says:

      I was recently deciding whether or not to buy a product that had a large number of positive reviews, but the negative reviews suggested that the product had been high-quality in the past but the seller had recently started replacing the product with low-quality imitations. Sure enough, all of the positive reviews were from several years ago, and the recent reviews were much more negative.

  5. atreic says:

    Am I missing something? I thought Amazon Prime was exactly the same as Amazon, but things turn up in a day, rather than in three days, and you pay for it every month. I love online shopping with reviews, but generally waiting 5 days rather than 1 for a chopping board is not that much of a hardship, and I can always pay for speedy delivery for those times I urgently need the chopping board Right Now, which is generally cheaper overall than joining Prime?

    • Anonymous says:

      The other difference is that you *don’t* pay for shipping.

      • atreic says:

        Amazon in the UK has free super saver delivery for 3 – 5 days, you only have to pay for fast shipping. With Prime-in-the-UK you don’t have to pay for fast shipping (but you do pay for Prime)

        • A Nonny Mouse says:

          Amazon in the US offers free super saver delivery for orders over $25, but Prime has no lower limit for free shipping. So, if you want something that is less than $25, you can either buy more things until you’re spending at least $25 and qualify for the free slow shipping, pay for the slow shipping, or have Prime and get free 2-day shipping anyway. Also, it’s nice to have a more precise estimate of when it will arrive: “Tuesday” instead of “Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday”. Finally, having access to a .edu email address, I got a free year of Prime, and a few years of half-price Prime, which got me to actually try the service. And having tried it, I really don’t want to go back.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      No, you’re not missing anything. The main difference for me is that with Prime I get free shipping without having to make sure my order is $25+, and it gets there a little faster overcoming my discounting function.

      I think it’s paid per year rather than per month, and if you have someone else in your household with it you don’t have to pay at all.

      • atreic says:

        Ah, UK Amazon has no lower bound that I am aware of on free supersaver delivery. If it did I would be tempted by something like Prime, as I spend most of my Amazon shopping buying a single book.

    • Eric Anholt says:

      They don’t turn up in a day. I think a recent purchase of 3 things showed up in 1, 3, and 5 days. I was rather disappointed, given that the 5-day thing really needed to be there the next day.

      But I love having done away with the choice of how many days I would like things to show up in. I’ve precommitted on ASAP for not much over what I would have paid otherwise over the course of the year, and I don’t have to go through the irritating deciding process any more.

  6. Octexal says:

    Okay, let’s analyze this article. Your old algorithm was selecting from one of many competing products in one of many open, largely unregulated marketplaces. Your new algorithm is selecting one from a short list of products curated by a central authority, guided by The People, or at least those who review products on Amazon.

    Not to be condescending, but are you sure your title wasn’t meant to refer to communism rather than capitalism?

  7. Andrew Rettek says:

    Just a note on the exercise, you can replace/augment situps (no such thing as too much core exercise) with pulling your knees to your chest at the top of the pull-up motion. This is often called a “kip-up”. This should be something you should be able to add to your exercise routine without the “extra effort” situps would require.

    • Nomophilos says:

      I think that if soviet union was still around but it’s government and economy were run by Amazon, it wouldn’t suck nearly as much as it used to.

    • Thomas Eliot says:

      I have found the following pair of exercises from the Charles Atlas routine to be much more effective than sit-ups for me, and to tire me out much quicker (for an idea of effectiveness, I have a six pack for the first time in my life).

      Lie on your back with your legs extended and arms by your sides. Raise your legs up, keeping them straight, until your feet are above your head. Repeat. This is for the lower abs.

      Same position, but now with your arms on your chest. Raise your head and neck off the ground a la a crunch. Repeat. This is for your upper abs.

  8. Your “incessant clicking noise” link is broken. Its href begins with a quote character that should be removed.

  9. Randy M says:

    I thought you were being silly about the clicking, but my mouse button has started to stick and make an extra mechanical clicking sound when I press it. It can be irritating.

  10. mrmandias says:

    I think the ape mind gets scared that a lion might jump you while you’re on the ground exercising. While pull-ups just mean that when the lion leaps you can brachiate away.

    Hey, its just as plausible as most other evo-psych stories.

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