I got an email this morning from Lior. Not that that’s a huge surprise, but this one was unusual in that he passed along a pointer for an interesting story on Ars Technica. Thanks for the tip!
For those of you who haven’t read the article, the gist of it is that a Bay Area geek got frustrated over not being able to get reservations for hot restaurants. So he did what any good geek would do: he wrote some code. First he wrote a program to monitor the reservation website to watch for new reservations and email him when one opened up. What he found was that slots for popular times would be taken in less than a minute. He attributed it to people using scripts to watch for openings and book them automatically, so he wrote his own to do exactly the same thing. And then he released his script to the world.
Lior’s tip said “Something a bit unethical, but technological brilliant if not a little sad.” More than a little sad, IMNSHO, but I don’t think I agree on either the ethicality or the brilliance.
Let’s take them in reverse order, just for fun.
- Sad – Yep, no argument from me. In a city like San Francisco with thousands of restaurants (and probably hundreds of good restaurants), why do people get so obsessive about any particular one? Maybe it has the greatest food in the world (at least until the next great place opens), but I’d be willing to bet that the restaurant with the second greatest food has an empty table, or at worst, available reservations. Let’s be honest here: much of the time, a hot restaurant is hot largely because it’s hot: people want to be able to casually mention they ate there or want to be seen eating there. If it’s tough to get a seat, that must be because everyone else is trying to get a seat. For crying out loud, people: go to a restaurant because you want to eat the food, not to be seen eating it. If they’re booked solid, give it some time: once the novelty wears off, it’ll get easier to get in. You may miss an occasional goodie when quality implodes, but on the other hand, you probably would have missed it anyway, because you couldn’t get a reservation.
- Brilliant – Nope. The article points out that his troubles started because others were using bots to make reservations and shutting him out. He used standard, freely available libraries to build his own bot. No brilliance, just yet another implementation of a technology that’s been around for ages. (Remember when you could buy something on eBay without using a sniping bot? Remember how quickly sniping bots appeared?)
- Unethical – Again, I disagree. Is it unethical to ask a hotel concierge to get you reservations? I doubt anyone would think so: you’re merely tapping the expertise of someone who has contacts you don’t. Is it unethical to camp overnight outside a theater to get tickets to a new show? Again, no. Stupid, maybe, depending on the weather conditions and how long you wait, but not unethical. As long as you’re only getting tickets for yourself. I think most people would consider it unethical if you were waiting to buy tickets with the intent to resell them at a huge markup, but that’s not what’s happening here: this is a guy trying to get a reservation for himself; he’s not scalping it outside the restaurant. Note that this guy actually made his bot available for anyone to download and use: he’s giving up his advantage and making the same technology available to everyone; if anything, he’s being the ethical one here by comparison with the writers of the earlier bots who have kept them to themselves.
This is hardly a new problem. Remember Yogi Berra‘s immortal words: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” It’s not a new solution. But it is a sad state of affairs.