Tag Archives: Conspiracy

Price Conspiracies

A believable conspiracy theory:

Airlines and online travel agencies surreptitiously use computer “cookies” they’ve implanted on your Web browser to track your activity on their sites and then raise prices when it appears that you’re interested in a fare. That’s the rumor, at least. … For years … the industry … has vehemently denied any tampering with prices. …

A United Kingdom-based hotel site called VivaStay reportedly dinged customers by way of a special link from an affiliated Web site that showed slightly higher prices than those quoted to customers who clicked directly on the VivaStay site. VivaStay apologized, but said it was unaware that the price variation was frowned upon.  …

A teacher … says … she recently tried to buy a ticket to Vietnam … through the Delta Air Line Web site. … But when she was actually ready to buy her flights, the airline informed her that the ticket she wanted was $300 more than the original price quote. … “I returned to Delta’s home page and began the process again. … The same lower fare was still displayed, so I worked my way through the process again only to be informed once again that the fare was no longer available. Over the course of a half hour I repeated this process two more times. Same result.” …

“If there is no bias in a process, there are about as many negative outcomes as positive outcomes. The process of posting the lower airfares — that is, making them initially available — should result in as many surprisingly lower prices at booking as it does surprisingly higher ones because they have all been taken.”  [This physicist] makes a good point. I’ve heard of only one or two cases where the fare dropped.

Given a room full of computers, such as in a school or library, it shouldn’t take more than a few hours to test this price-jump conspiracy theory.  Just try to book random flights and record the initial and final prices offered.  If the non-random pattern is strong, it shouldn’t take long to see clearly.

Price discrimination, i.e., charging different prices for the same thing (that costs the same), has long been a wide-spread business practice.  Firms are reluctant to admit they do it not only because customers get mad, but also because it has been illegal in the US since the 1914 Clayton Antitrust Act, at least if “the effect … may be substantially to lessen competition.”  Mark this as another bendable rule authorities rarely enforce, letting them selectively punish whomever they wish.

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Conspiracy Capacities

Huge brains helped primates fight via coalition politics, and language let human foragers enforce egalitarian norms against such fights.  If neutrally applied, such norms should have cut the gains to huge brains, yet we had the biggest brains. This suggests hierarchy and coalition politics continued via covert rule bending.  Support for this hypothesis comes from our highly evolved capacities for covert coalitions:

  • Body Language – Winks and nods and other body language are not just redundant or complementary to our words. “A wink and a nod” is a common expression for a communication intended to be less visible to third parties, in particular to enable corruption.  Since we are very good at seeing where other eyes look, we can often communicate via the direction of our gaze. Our unconscious status moves include the high status looking directly and the low status looking away; this grants more eye-talk conspiracy power to the high status.
  • Indirect Language – When talking with words, we commonly veil our language, instead of speaking directly.  Indirection makes it harder for others to interpret what your mean. So those who are very socially distant, lacking local context, may just not understand, while those closer may understand but be unable to prove what was meant; you’d have plausible deniability.  By varying the indirection of our language we can control how close a circle can understand or prove what we say. Extreme indirection can also signal; if we see that we understand each other, we confirm our intelligence and close connection.
  • Rumors – Even when rumors are expressed in direct language, they are not intended for all ears. We explicitly say to not tell certain others, or implicitly understand to only tell a shared coalition. At a minimum, we understand not to tell the subject of the rumor.  Spreading a mild rumor about a person allows us to test how well connected is that person.  If they never complain, perhaps they never heard of the rumor, and so are poorly connected, and thus can be conspired against more easily, perhaps via further rumors.

These skills seem to me too well developed in humans today to have only begun with farming ten thousand years ago.  Compare them to our clumsy farming, war, and writing skills that have to be explicitly taught.  Clearly, foragers had great conspiracy capacities, and so often conspired, bending their egalitarian rules.

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Twin Conspiracies

In a twin conspiracy, a pair of identical twins would pretend to be only one person. For example, in college each twin could specialize in, and then ace, half of the classes; their GPA would soar.  They might together make partner in a law firm by handling a lot more work than other lawyers.  They could cheat on their spouse while offering that spouse a near-constant video of “their” activities.  In fact, they could always have an alibi for anything they did.

This strategy seems tempting in “winner take all” areas of life where small productive gains are given huge rewards, or where secretly having more time can make you seem a lot more productive.  For example, high level managers attend a great many meetings to connect different parts of their organization.  A secretly-twin-CEO could attend twice as many meetings, and make twice the connections.

Of course if this actually happened often our institutions could easily adapt to check for secret twin conspiracies.  They don’t now look because they don’t expect them.  It would be interesting to search for such secret twins.  For example, one might take a list of top CEOs and compare the ratio of non-identical to identical twins in this group. If that ratio was substantially larger than in the larger population, that might suggests many secret twins hiding among CEOs.

One twin told me the loss of autonomy in this secret twin scenario would make it unacceptable to her, no matter what worldly success it produced.   Do people really care that much more about autonomy than success?

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Conspiracies Confirmed

Let it not be said that authorities never accept conspiracy theories. At the Post Gary Weiss endorsed two:

Here’s a field guide to prevalent Wall Street conspiracy theories, with each one graded … on a sliding scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being “fugetaboutit” and 5 being “damn right.”

— Goldman Sachs as giant vampire squid

Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi seemed to touch a raw nerve in the yammering classes with his July 2009 article on the breadth of Goldman Sachs’ influence in Washington, on Wall Street, and everywhere.

Goldman Sachs, as described by Taibbi, was a “giant vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity.” … the general thrust of his piece was correct. Goldman does have a way of coming out on top in every bad situation. Taibbi didn’t mention it, but Goldman was instrumental in ousting New York Stock Exchange chief executive Richard Grasso when he proved to be an embarrassment. … Goldman did have a key role in the mortgage-derivatives fiasco, and its tentacles have spread through government for eons. It’s a classic case of overconcentration of power. And if you don’t believe me, just ask Adam Storch, 29, the ex-Goldman executive who just became chief operating officer of the Securities and Exchange Commission enforcement division. …

Category: Alternate history, Scope: 5, Durability: 3, Crowd Appeal: 5, Plausibility: 4

— Tim Geithner is in the pocket of the big bankers

I debated whether to even include this in the list of conspiracy theories, because the evidence for it is so overwhelming. There’s no question that Tim Geithner likes to talk to people who run major financial institutions, and this was long before e-mails were released showing that as Treasury secretary his telephone buddies included all the major CEOs of the big banks. That was the case as well when Geithner was president of the New York Fed. No secret about it. The bankers freely admitted that they chat it up with Geithner.

One can argue that there’s nothing wrong with this, that it’s not at all surprising for a financial neophyte to lean on people at, for instance, the aforementioned Goldman Sachs — particularly when it employs one of Geithner’s predecessors, his confidant E. Gerald Corrigan. The price of getting all this terrific expertise is that it makes you seem beholden to the people from whom you’re getting all this terrific expertise, and so it is with Geithner. While it isn’t kind to say that Geithner is in the pocket of Wall Street, there’s a bit too much lint flying around to ignore.

Category: Hidden factors, Scope: 2, Durability: 5, Crowd Appeal: 3, Plausibility: 5

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What’s Pakistan’s Secret?

Today’s top headline is a big Pakistan attack on Taliban rebels; Thursday Obama signed a bill tripling US aid to Pakistan, to $7.5B over five years, on the condition of more such attacks.  Sounds promising for Obama’s Afgahn war, where he has doubled our troops, for a record number of troops at war, right?

But Tuesday’s Frontline, on “Obama’s War”, was pessimistic about the Afghan war, and said the  Taliban we fight there have long gotten most support from Pakistan!  Pakistan has also long supported al-Qaeda, and seems to be where the 911 attack money came from.  Pakistan has also been the main cause of nuclear proliferation over the last few decades, arming Iran and North Korea, who tried to arm Syria, and trying to arm Libya.

Most of the worst problems for the US over the last few decades seem to have come from Pakistan, yet the US treats them nice, not like Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, or North Korea – what is their secret?  Yes Pakistan has nukes, but so did Russia and China and we never treated them this nice.   And they don’t have the sort of home political support that let’s Israel get away with so much. What gives?

Here are some supporting quotes.  On Taliban support: Continue reading "What’s Pakistan’s Secret?" »

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911 Puzzling

Someone bent my ear again on 911 conspiracy theories, and I've had jigsaw-puzzle-solving fun digging through the details.  Also, I feel we should consider evidence for even pretty crazy-sounding claims when the evidence offered meets high enough standards.  To his credit physicist Steven Jones has published papers meeting such standards:

I conclude the twin towers probably held big chucks of hitech pyrotechnic materials quite uncommon in office buildings.  And a few hundred pounds of this stuff spread around the pillars of a single floor might well bring down a tower. 

BUT, I am unpersuaded by claims that plane crashes could not have induced the towers falling as they did, the sounds heard, the warnings voiced, etc. (E.g., hear him and him.)  Aside from the above findings, the match between simple theory and observation seems about as close as we should expect, given this complex and unusual situation; it would be crazy not to expect a few anomalies between simple predictions and what we saw.

Continue reading "911 Puzzling" »

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