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April 26, 2011

The most expensive book on flies EVER

screen shot from Amazon, taken from Michael Eisen's It's Not Junk blog

You may have missed this, but for a little while earlier this year one of the most expensive science books in the world was a little known work called "The Making of a Fly" by Peter Lawrence. At least that's what a couple of book sellers on Amazon.com thought. It turns out both of these sellers have automatic systems in place that notice the price competitors have quoted for a book, and then adjust their price accordingly. In the case of "The Making of a Fly" two sellers were trapped in a feedback loop where each one set their prices based on the other's price. This process ran unchecked for who knows how many days before the book (which had an original list price of US$70) reached the insane level of over two million (US) dollars.

Evolutionary biologist Michael Eisen credits a postdoc in his lab with first noticing this craziness, and bringing it to his attention. Eisen tracked the climb in price day by day and he's written up a fascinating blog post analyzing the automated algorithms at work here.

Lessons to be drawn from this innocent run amuck process in light of the huge tangle of automated stock trading systems running right now all around the world is left as an exercise for the reader.

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Posted by Chris Spurgeon at April 26, 2011 12:16 PM

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