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Name: Simon Quellen Field
Location: Los Gatos, California, United States

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Thursday, March 16, 2006

Making a quick buck

I got a chance to talk to John Morgan today about an experiment he ran at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley.

His experiment set out to see if there was a benefit to sellers to switch between eBay and Yahoo! auction sites. Among several interesting points, it came out that sellers could make 29.7% more money on eBay for the same items, with the same descriptions, from the same seller with the same reputation.

One of his conclusions is that eBay is becoming a monopoly, and this is evidence of "tipping" towards that state.

So I asked the question -- If someone can buy things at Yahoo! and sell those things on eBay and make an immediate 30% profit, why aren't there arbitragers making money that way, and flattening out the markets? The answer was that the information was not widely known, and so the arbitragers weren't there yet.

The next question was -- Wouldn't it be in Yahoo!'s best interest to make this widely known, so that the tipping towards an eBay monopoly would be thwarted, and Yahoo! would make more money, and the end users would benefit from competition?

Of course Dr. Morgan could not speak for Yahoo!, but seemed to agree that it would be in their interest to make his work a best seller.

So, all of you auction site site users, and all of you who are quick with the occasional Python script, do yourself and Yahoo! and possibly the world a favor, and help stamp out a burgeoning monopoly, and get a 30% return on investment right away.

Learning From Ancient Gardeners

In the upland areas of the Amazon basin, the soil is acidic and highly weathered, and the constant rain washes nutrients out of the upper soil layers. In the forests, the trees have deep roots to collect nutrients. But in areas used for agriculture, the topsoil cannot retain the soluble nutrients needed to grow corn, beans, or other crops.

However, some 2000 years ago, Amazonian farmers developed a way of building exceptionally rich soils called Terra Preta do Indio, that are remarkably good at retaining phosphorus, potassium, calcium, zinc, and copper, and have been found to be better than surrounding soils, even those with added phosphate fertilizers.

Throughout the Amazon region, large islands of this rich soil can be found, surrounded by the natural nutrient-poor soils of the region, called oxisols.

The secret is charcoal.

Charcoal forms when wood is burned slowly in low oxygen environments, such as when it is buried. The charcoal does not break down as easily as unburned organic matter, and can remain in the soil for centuries. Charcoal is used in charcoal filters because it is very good at trapping many chemicals, such as the phosphorus and potassium that plants need to grow. That same quality helps charcoal keep nutrients in the topsoil from leaching out during heavy rainfall.

The soil also contains calcium and phosphorus from fish bones, and has a lot of organic matter in it, making it an excellent soil for earthworms and termites, which turn the soil and work the nutrients deep into the earth.

The benefits of storing large amounts of carbon in the soil extend beyond making the soils fabulously more productive. By sequestering carbon in stable soils for centuries, we can reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and reduce global warming.