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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 2003/10/28
by David Steinberg

Is This Any Way to Run a Monopoly?

Contrary to popular belief, it’s not against the law simply to be a
monopoly. It’s against the law to be a monopoly and to abuse that
power. You can sit there and corner a market all you want as long as
you’re actually providing a decent service and aren’t preventing
people from making attempts at making inroads into your territory.
Just sitting there and selling your product is allowed, finding ways
to make sure that no one can stop you from being the sole provider of
the product isn’t. That brings us to Ticketmaster.
As many of you know, String Cheese Incident is filing a lawsuit
against Ticketmaster. Due to exclusive arrangements with many
venues, only Ticketmaster can sell tickets to those events. Their
contracts make exceptions for what Ticketmaster considers to be
legitimate fan clubs. One of the conditions to be real in
Ticketmaster’s eyes is that the club charges money for the fans to
belong to it. This, of course, makes it impossible for a new
ticketing service to exist. There’s no way to get a better deal on
tickets. Either you have to pay the Ticketmaster service charges or
you have to pay the fan club fee. Sure there will be cases where the
fee is a bargain – if Phish instituted a system like this in order to
increase the allotment that Phish Tickets by Mail gets, I would be
among the first to sign up – but since most bands don’t have people
touring with them, this rarely would save people any money.
Now I suppose some of this might be acceptable if Ticketmaster had an
incredibly easy to use system. No one expects a system where
everyone gets tickets for sold out shows, but people do want a certain
degree of coherence out of the process. Let me detail how I got my
New Years’ tickets this year.
I first tried to mail order for tickets but I was apparently one of
like 10 people who were denied for that. Fortunately I knew one of
those paranoid people who got his friends to mail order for him. I
know that people hate the fact that this is happening but it’s getting
harder and harder for people to continue the multiple mail orders.
Why? Because demand is falling off. The people I’ve heard of who
did this in February had to scramble to get rid of the tickets. The
summer tour multiple orderers mostly had to eat their extras. Even
for New Years it turned out to be difficult to get rid of tickets.
When the consequence of doing multiple orders is to lose a lot of
money, people will get disinterested. That’s just about where we are
Anyway, after saving one friend who put out more money than he could
afford on his tickets, it was time to help another. Two members of
the Mockingbird Board would be in Europe on the day of the ticket
sale, so they needed my help to get them tickets for 12/30 and 12/31.
I made a point of being up and at work at 7 AM so I could pound the
servers over our fast work connection.
The first thing I noticed was that the system had changed… again.
It used to be that the way to get through on Ticketmaster online was
just to be persistent. Reload, check, reload, check, reload, check,
etc. Now, after you type in an alleged word – my favorite ones are
the those where they take a word and swap out an n for an m just to
cause maximum confusion – you go to this waiting room. Ok this
shouldn’t be too bad. I’ll just have to wait. "Approximate wait
time: under 1 minute." Cool, this is great. Won’t be long now.
The page refreshes every twenty seconds or so to give the new wait
time. My browser made the click of the reload sound, I flexed my
fingers to type in my credit card information, only to see,
"Approximate wait time: Greater than 15 minutes." That was just the
beginning. Apparently Ticketmaster – like most good postmodernists – eschews this mundane linear model of time that the rest of us mere
humans use. The estimates swung back and forth wildly and randomly.
Sure some might wonder why they even bother giving an estimate if
they’re not in the slightest serious about it, but at least it gives
us something to get excited about. "Under a minute! I bet it
really means it this time. click Here we g… ‘Approximately 7
minutes?’ " After – well I’d tell you how long it was but I was
trying to go by the Ticketmaster times so I have no clue – some time,
I eventually got to the order screen. A pair of 100 level tickets
were there, ripe for the taking. I put in my credit card
information, and got to the processing screen. Much like the
waiting room, it reloaded over and over and over again. Finally I got
to that screen that we all know and love. My order had timed out.
Meanwhile, on a second computer, I was going through the same thing
for 12/30 tickets. Wait, complain about the nature of a time system
that only Rudy Rucker [1] could love, get some tickets, put in my
information, and watch it time out.
There a reason why I was drafted to get these tickets. I don’t give
up easily. When Lord of the Rings trilogy tickets went onsale via
some inane Movies Online system, I was one of the few people who
actually managed to navigate it to get tickets… and I’m not even
going to go myself. When Atlanta told me it was sold out this
summer, I kept on trying and ultimately got myself a pair of tickets.
So I wasn’t going to let a little setback like having orders time out
bother me. I went back in. I watched Ticketmaster’s interesting
theories about the nature of time again, I saw tickets pop up in my
order – much worse than the earlier ones but still tickets. I put in
my credit card, and this time I was rewarded. I had a pair for
12/30 and for 12/31. Go me!
You would think that this would be the end of the story, but no, it’s
not. A few days later I looked at my credit card statement. I was
charged for all four sets of tickets. I knew that I couldn’t get all
four tickets for each night because the limit was only two. I
checked my account online and saw that I had the two orders that I
thought I had… only one was cancelled. It looked like I would be
charged for eight tickets and receiving two.
I suppose that any company can make a mistake. The trick is how they
rectify their problem. I called customer service to see what was up
with my order. After being on hold for a half hour, I talked to
someone who threw up her hands and transferred me into another queue
with its own half hour wait. There I got someone who also couldn’t
figure out what was going on – and didn’t understand the concept of
time zones as an added bonus [2]. It actually took someone who
didn’t work at Ticketmaster to discover the secret. If I searched
outside my account but instead using my credit card and state, I
discovered that one of my 12/30 orders would be cancelled, but I would
be receiving 2 tickets to 12/30 and – for some reason – 4 to 12/31.
In this case it helped me out, but what’s the point of having ticket
limits if they’re not going to be enforced?
Between mystery orders that somehow get filled, the confusing ticket
re-releases that only happen if you constantly call Ticketmaster
10-15 times every single day hoping that you finally got the right
time, and bad customer service, Ticketmaster is making dealings with
them more and more frustrating. There’s an unwritten rule of
monopoly law. If you want to get away with bending the rules, you
have to at least have a public who likes you. With each passing
tour more and more people get frustrated by their system. String
Cheese Incident might have a secret ally in their fight with
Ticketmaster. Not only is the rule of law seemingly on their side,
but so will be the ticket buying population. It’s much easier to
rule against a hated monopoly than a loved one. Ticketmaster take
Disclaimer: I don’t blame Ticketmaster for getting shut out of
Boston tickets through them3. However, I have heard a rumor that if
I can score some on a re-release, their approval rating will shoot up.
You might want to forward that to an executive or two.
Author’s Note: I would like to dedicate this column to my cat
Last Cous. Since I believe that no house is complete without
kittens, as soon as I got back from It, I picked up two cats – First
Cous and Last Cous. They bonded immediately. All night they run
around the house chasing each other. However, when I was writing
this First Cous was at the vet getting That Operation. Last Cous
didn’t know what to do with herself, and as a result I’ve spent most
of the time I was writing this fighting to keep her off of the
keyboard. Your buddy will be ready to play with you in a couple of
days Cous, and believe me, no one is more excited about that than me.
Oh and your turn is coming up soon so don’t get smug there.
[1] Rudy Rucker is a crazed cyberpunk author/math professor.
Some of his books are weird for the sake of being weird (White
Light), others actually are fairly touching (as in The Secret
of Life, a vaguely autobiographical – vaguely because he gave
himself superpowers – novel about his quest to find some reason for
why we’re all here), but in this case also the author of the book
The Fourth Dimension – A Guided Tour of the Higher Universes.
This book is an accessible pop math text about the different ways the
fourth dimension can be said to exist. He uses the Flatland
analogy for a while of course, and then tries to speculate in other
ways. It’s silly, full of cartoons, and is worth getting – if for
no other reason – for the cool drawing of the hypercube [4] that you
can use to freak out tripping people.
Rucker goes into detail in one chapter about how the passage of time
is an illusion. He puts forth other models of time that would be
equally valid. My favorite one is the hopping around idea. It
speculates that we move through time completely randomly, and the only
way we know we are in "the present" is that we have memories at that
moment of the past. I like it because it means that maybe the past
isn’t. Perhaps the next thing I experience won’t be me still writing
this column, but rather at 10/16/89 as the first notes of Dark Star
start. I’ve found it interesting for years, but I never thought that
a major corporation would base their waiting room around the concept.
[2] "We’ll call you by 6 PM." "6 PM Miami time or Seattle time."
"Seattle time of course." "Ok, thanks." "Wait, what time is it
there?" "9 AM." "Huh, it’s not noon there? Then Miami time."
Of course none of this mattered because they didn’t call me for
another two days anyway.
[3] I have been offered a ticket though so I should be inside. Thank
you for asking.
[4] A cube is a three dimensional square. A hypercube is a four
dimensional cube.
David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New
Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live
music at the Capitol Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His
Phish stats website is at
He is the stats section editor for
The Phish Companion and is on the board of directors for the Netspace Foundation. You can read more of his thoughts at

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