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Merchant of Nothing
A Fictional Confession

Written September 1, 2003

Hello!  Glad to meet you!  My name is — well, on second thought, I'd rather not tell you my real name.  Call me "Mike O'Neill," or MON, the Merchant Of Nothing.

That's my talent:  I sell stuff that doesn't really exist.  And I make a good profit on it, too.  But please don't tell anybody.  It's a secret.

Anyway, I could use your help, because I hear that you have a little money to invest, and it just so happens that I have a new product.  It's called the Alwaysfloat® System.  My cousin and I are going to be installing it down at his marina over the winter.  It's a guaranteed way to keep boats from sinking, no matter what trouble they run into.  But we need a little capital to get started.  Maybe you could give us some money so that we can buy some advertising, some little gold decals to put on the boats, and some tools — caulking guns, defibrillators, whatnot.  Naturally, you'd get a share of the profits.

I figured you'd want more facts.  Well, I don't like to let many people know about these things, but I do like to brag a little.  Let me tell you how I got into this line of work.

Discovering Psychokinetics

I went to college, you know.  Graduated from State U. a couple years ago.  One day my sophomore year, I was talking with my psychology professor about his freshman students.  They weren't a very sharp bunch, and he was generally putting them down.  He said some of them thought they had paranormal abilities like ESP, clairvoyance, telepathy, precognition, that sort of thing.

Now I don't know much about the paranormal.  I'm not sure that real psychics even exist.  But I made a bet with the professor:  "Give me ten minutes with your class, and I'll find PK in at least one of your freshmen."

I bet him that there was someone in that class who could flip a coin and make it come up heads six times in a row.  The odds against that happening are 64 to 1.  To get six heads in a row, he'd have to be using PK, or psychokinesis.  That's a fancy term for moving objects with just the power of your mind.

Anyway, this prof's class was huge.  "Introduction to Psych," it was called.  They met in an auditorium.  There must have been more than 200 students.  The prof introduced me, and I asked everybody to flip a coin while concentrating hard on making it come up heads.

Of course, since there's probably no such thing as PK, concentrating didn't help.  Just as you'd expect, only about half the class got heads.

The ones with heads, I asked them to stand up and try the experiment again.  Half of them got tails this time, so I had them sit back down.  That left one-fourth of the class on their feet.

I told them to try a third time, and again I sat them down if they got tails.  Now there were 26 students still standing.  All of them had gotten heads three times in a row.

We ran two more trials, and now there were only five students standing.  I made a big deal about it — called them the "amazing five."  Even they were getting excited, starting to think they were something special, because they had been able to get heads five straight times.

I asked the "amazing five" to come up to the front of the auditorium for one final flip.  They all concentrated extra hard, and sure enough, two of them got heads again.

I immediately announced that this proved these two had PK!  They had successfully commanded a coin to come up heads six times in a row, which is, of course, highly unlikely to happen by chance.  (I conveniently ignored the fact that it had happened by chance.)

The class applauded my two newfound psychics.  I gave them Certificates of Proven Psychokinetic Abilities.  But I warned them:  "Paranormal effects are hard to pin down.  If you run the experiment again, you might find that your psychic powers have temporarily left you — especially if any skeptics are watching."

You get it, right?  The "experiment" proved nothing.  Nothing about the paranormal, anyway.  We just flipped coins, and anybody who got a tail had to sit down.  Finally, only a couple of lucky ones were left with nothing but heads.

Handicapping Sports

I wondered whether I could make any money from this scam.  When I was a senior, I figured out a way.  I'd sell predictions about our basketball team's next game, predicting whether State would beat the point spread.

Nothing illegal about that, right?  Now if someone wanted to use my prediction to make a wager, that might be illegal, but that didn't concern me.  Maybe they'd win the bet, maybe they'd lose.  Either way, I'd already have my money.

I went to the library and borrowed a copying machine to print up 1,000 notes.  All of them began, "Keep this to yourself.  Here's MON's lock of the week."  Half the notes said "Take State and the points against Central."  The other half said "Take Central against State and give the points."

Now the campus mail service was free, which was a good thing, because my scheme wouldn't have been worth it if I had to buy the stamps.  I used the free mail to send the first 500 notes to students with names beginning from A to M.  I sent the other 500 notes to the bottom half of the alphabet.  (I had other things to do, of course, so I conned two of my girlfriends into addressing all those notes.)

As it turned out, State upset Central.  The 500 guys in the bottom half of the alphabet thought my prediction had failed.  They forgot about MON, and I forgot about them.

But the 500 from A to M thought that I'd nailed the prediction.  Before long, they got another note from MON.  I reminded them of my correct call, and I gave them another free "lock" for the following week.  Half those notes said that State would beat the spread again; the other half said the opposite.

The next week, 250 students got notes.  The week after that, 125.  (Good thing that the numbers kept dropping, because my girlfriends got tired of writing out all those names and addresses each week.  I think one of them even broke up with me over that.  No matter.)

After a month of this, I had 62 students in the palm of my hand.  I had given them four straight correct predictions, and I hadn't asked for anything in return.  Until now, that is.

Now I mailed them one more note.  I boasted about my perfect record.  However, the next game was so big, and my prediction on it so eagerly awaited, that it was going to cost each of them $100.  I'd send them my prediction if they'd send me a hundred bucks and agree to keep quiet about it.  (You see, rumors about MON's abilities were starting to get around, and I was afraid that only one of my 62 suckers would buy my prediction and then share it with the other suckers.)

Eighteen of the 62 came up with the money, and I pocketed nearly two thousand bucks.  I mailed out nine predictions that State would win and nine that State would lose.  I don't remember what actually happened.  It didn't matter, anyway.  My predictions had nothing to do with basketball.

And the nine suckers who now had gotten five correct predictions were more than happy to send me another $100 the next week!

Guaranteed Unsinkable

Now that I've graduated, the best job I've been able to keep is at the marina.  My cousin and I take care of people's boats, making sure the motors are tuned up and everything.  Each fall, we haul the boats out of the water and store them in a big building until the next spring.

But I've figured out a way to use what I learned in college.  Next month, my cousin and I are going to start installing the Alwaysfloat® System for any customer who wants it, for $1,000 a pop.

Actually, the only thing we'll be installing is the little gold decal.  But we'll be telling the customers that Alwaysfloat uses secret patented technology to make their boats unsinkable.  Over the winter, we'll weld the seams with ultrasound and pump in helium and anodize the keels, we tell them.  We'll show them our helium tank and our electronic gadgets — none of which we'll ever get around to actually using, of course. 

If one of our Alwaysfloat boats ever sinks, there's an ironclad guarantee.  The customer gets double his money back — a $2,000 refund.

Now you probably think we're fools, to offer a double-your-money-back guarantee on a product we know is worthless.  But look at the numbers.  There's only a two per cent chance that any given boat will actually sink.  The odds are that we'll only lose one boat out of every 50.

Say that we "install" 50 Alwaysfloat systems and put $50,000 in the bank.  Then one of the boats springs a leak and goes to the bottom.  We reassure our customers by inventing an excuse for what went wrong, and the guy with the sunken boat gets a $2,000 refund check and our "sincere" apologies.  He's lost his boat, of course.  But we've still got $48,000 in the bank!

Selling nothing is going to be very profitable. 

 

Background:  The Merchant of Nothing exploits a weakness called innumeracy.”

The idea for his latest venture occurred to me after I heard a radio commercial for the LoJack vehicle-recovery device.  The ad made this offer:  If your LoJack-equipped car is ever stolen and the radio signals fail to lead the police to it, you get double your money back.

How could these people afford to make a guarantee like that?  I soon realized that they pocket hefty fees, but very few cars are actually stolen and most of them are quickly recovered, with or without LoJack.  Making good on the warranty is a rarely-incurred cost of doing business — even if the device doesn’t work.

LoJack is a legitimate product, so in my story about the Merchant of Nothing, I changed it to the illegitimate Alwaysfloat.  Later, in 2015, Mark Evanier realized the opportunity for a similar scam involving computer hard drives.

Other questionable products that offer to return your money if you’re not “completely satisfied” include over-the-counter medications.  When you have a cold and you take zinc tablets or Vitamin C or homeopathic pills, the “medicine” doesn’t help you at all.  Nevertheless, the cold soon goes away on its own.  You’re no longer sniffling, so you’re “completely satisfied.”  There’s no need to go to the trouble of requesting a refund.  In fact, you recommend the miracle cure to your friends.

 

 

 

TBT

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