Selling at the MIT Flea

Today I was a seller at the MIT Flea market. Here is a report on my experience. Warning: this was my first time at the Flea and my first time being a vendor in general so future MIT Flea’s may be different. The MIT Flea is held on the third Sunday of the month April through October. The event takes place at an outdoor parking lot on Albany street in Cambridge. As a seller, you drive to the lot and are directed to a parking space. There’s enough room to set up a table or two behind your car to display your wares. The Flea lets sellers start setting up at 7:00 AM but doesn’t open the doors to buyers until 9:00 AM. I got there at 8:45 but found that I had plenty of time to set up before the market officially opened. The Flea charges $20 to sellers and $5 to buyers.

My motivation for going to the Flea was to sell off things that I no longer needed in order to declutter my apartment. I hoped that the Flea would be a good way to sell off a large number of things at once. Ebay and Craigslist are great for selling individual items but don’t really benefit from selling multiple items simultaneously. In the language of economics, ebay and craigslist have lower fixed cost but higher marginal cost while selling at the Flea has higher fixed costs — the registration fee, the time and effort of schlepping there, etc — but lower marginal costs — it doesn’t cost anything to have another items on your table.

I ended up bringing a few high value items: a cell phone, an eReader, autographed celebrity photos, and a projector; and a number of low and medium value items such as an unopened video card and a CPU cooler. I sold most of the low and medium value items and pretty much sold everything that I was willing to let go for $1. Of the high value items, I only sold the eReader.

Part of attending an event like this is the learning experience. Here’s the some of the lessons I learned.

  • The crowd at the Flea likes to buy things cheaply. The gentleman next to me was selling two classic Macs to the 1980’s. His prices were well within the online price range for collectible Mac computers (~$500). Although, many people stopped to admire them, no one purchased the computers. I couldn’t help but think that the crowd at the Flea are not the type to purchase expensive collectibles. But he was undeterred and plans to return next month to try again.
  • Some people haggle aggressively and obnoxiously. I priced the cell phone based on eBay and Craigslist listings. Some people offered a lot less than those values and most of the time that was no big deal. I simply explained that even with eBay and Paypal, I could make more selling online than what they were offering.  However, a few people didn’t want to take no for an answer to kept insisting I sell it for a lower price. One gentleman even throw some cash on the table and practically demanded that I accept his offer even though I had already told him that he was offering $40 less than the going price on eBay.
  • Be prepared for the heat and sun. The Flea takes place in an above ground lot with no trees. Even if it’s not a warm day, the constant sun can get intense. I had SPF 15 sunblock which was better than nothing but not enough. If I go again, I’ll wear a hat or have an umbrella set up at my table like some the veteran Flea attendees.
  • Bring food and liquids. Vending for an entire day takes a lot of energy so make sure you’re well nourished. Bring a snack or light lunch and plenty of water. There was only one food vendor and their items were limited to chips, grilled food, soda, and bottled water. I had to walk off site just to get some reasonably healthy food to make it through the day. (There are portable bathrooms so didn’t worry about limiting your liquids.)
  • Get there early and leave early. The Flea is busiest right after it opens at 9:00. New people come throughout the morning but by 12:00 things are relatively dead. Although the Flea is open until 2:00, I wouldn’t recommend staying much after 12:00. After the morning, I got few visitors and had no sales.
  • Carefully decide which weekends you want to attend the Flea. The word that I got was that the most active Flea’s are the first one (in April) and the last one (in October). The September Flea was said to be the third most active. Although the weather was excellent, I was told that the Flea I went to was comparatively poorly attended. It was also Fathers’ day which may have been part of the problem.
  • Have plastic bags. A number of people asked for plastic bags to hold their purchases. If you have a bunch of grocery store bags at home bring them along. Your customers will appreciate it and you’ll be able to rid yourself of some of the bags.

I haven’t attempted to explicitly calculated a return on investment from vending at the Flea but I didn’t think that it would seem like an impressive amount given that it took 5+ hours of my time. That said, I sold enough to more than cover the cost of my vendor’s fee and the process was kind of fun. With the exception of the few overly aggressive hagglers mentioned above, the people I encountered as both buyers and sellers were friendly and interesting. My goal had been largely to declutter and although I was not particularly successful selling my high value items, I did manage to sell off a box worth of stuff that had just been taking up space. There’s also something nice about selling something to someone who really appreciates it even if you’re only getting a $1 for it.

Uploading to the Cloud by Email

This post is about a problem and a solution.

I’m trying to go digital and replace my paper documents with digital ones. I have access to a fast scanner with an auto-document feeder but unfortunately essentially the only way that I’m able to get document off the scanner is by using scan to email. For a while, I had documents spent to my gmail. But that was suboptimal for a number of reasons. Firstly, it cluttered my inbox. Disk space was less of a concern here than clutter in general. Secondly, finding files was difficult since the scanner generated emails with identical subjects, no body text, and PDF file attachments with auto-generated names. Finally getting files out of gmail can be a hassle especially if they are spread out over many different messages.

Thankfully I found a solution that enables me to have the files stored directly in a cloud storage drive.

I signed up for a Dropbox account and then used the third party service to facilitate email uploads. is a great little service. It gives you a special email address and then uploads any attachments sent to it to your  Dropbox. It also has a number of special features such as allowing the folder location to be automatically determined based on sender or date.

Now, I simply have the scanner scan documents and upload them to this address and voila they’re conveniently stored in Dropbox.


SugarSync and have email uploading built in so there is no need to use a third party service. However, I decided to go with  Dropbox despite this. SugarSync does not have a Linux client and I knew this would end of driving me crazy since Ubuntu is my primary OS. The free versions of seemed to be overly limited and the paid versions were expensive. Finally, I just wanted to try  Dropbox since I’ve known many people who use it and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

Finding this solution took a lot of Googling but the following articles were hopeful.


Self-Applying Monetary Incentives to Improve Sleep Schedules

Sleeping Indira

For the next week, I will donate $1 to charity for every hour or fraction there of that I stay up after midnight. This is a one week experiment. Next week, I’ll evaluate it and decide if it’s something that I want to continue.


I have been trying to get on an earlier schedule for a while. One strategy that I’ve employed is to make myself to get up earlier. This semester, I took an early morning exercise class once a week. I made it to all classes and although there were a few painful days in which I was very sleep deprived, this has helped a lot.

However, I still find myself staying up later than I intend to do. When I’m on the computer, it’s just too easy to get sucked into thinking that I’ll just read one more article or post one additional email. When I’m out with friends, it’s easy to think that I’ll just stay up a few minutes longer. I’m instituting this experimental policy so that I’ll have an incentive to go to bed earlier. I know there will be times when staying up late is necessary or highly desirable which is why I’ve decided to use flexible monetary incentives rather than a hard and fast rule.

Notes: I’m counting the time when I’m in bed with the lights out rather than when I actually fall asleep. Calculating the exact time that I fall asleep is difficult and not something I can totally control. This project may have been inspired by this alarm clock.

Sleep, Don't Weep

Credits: Images courtesy of flickr  users kudumomo and Tambako the Jaguar (CC BY-ND 2.0)


Update: 29 April 2012 – Here are the results after 1 week.

Titanic Vintage Dance Weekend

From Titanic Vintage Dance Weekend

This weekend, I had the pleasure of attending Titanic Vintage Dance Weekend — a series of special events commemorating the 100 anniversary of the Titanic’s fateful maiden voyage. The dance weekend was run by commonwealth vintage dancers who always do an excellent job reenacting the historical ballroom. The attendees mostly worn historically accurate dress and their outfits were a treat to behold.

Although everything took place on land, they captured both the style of the ragtime period and the elegance of the RMS Titanic. Things started on Friday with a steerage dance reenacting the type of ball the that 3rd passengers might have had. Though comparatively informal by vintage standards, it was still classy and fun. Saturday featured an elegant formal tea luncheon at the historic Hawthorne Hotel followed by a formal dinner and grand ball at Colonial Hall at Rockafella’s. We finished off the weekend with a costumed stroll at the Peabody Essex Museum on Sunday morning and then a concert by grammy winning artist Ian Whitcomb in the afternoon.

While the events were festive celebrations of the kind that would have taken place a hundred years ago, the attendees frequently talked about the tragic loss of Titanic. At the 100 anniversary of the moment that the iceberg struck the ship they paused the grand ball and had a moment of silence out of respect for the victims.

The weekend was a unique opportunity to experience an earlier era. It was also a chance for me to catch up with old friends and make new ones. I’m very glad to have attended and would like to thank all those who worked so hard to make the weekend a success.

Here are some pictures here if you’re curious about the event.

Titanic Vintage Dance Weekend

The State of Perl

The last decade of Perl could be summarized as follows. Around 2000 Perl was essentially the goto scripting language for system administration and dynamic web sites. The design process for Perl 6 was announced in June of that year by Perl creator Larry Wall who hoped to remove “historical warts” from the language. It was expected that Perl 6 design and development would proceed quickly and that within a few years Perl 6 would displace Perl 5 the way Perl 5 displaced Perl 4. As a result development of Perl 5 stagnated, while the Perl community expected a Perl 6 which never really materialized. Perl 5.8 was released in 2002 and the 5.8.x branch remained the current version for 5 and a half years until Perl 5.10 was finally released in December of 2007. The Perl community eventually began to view Perl 6 as a parallel project rather than a replacement for Perl 5 but the damage had already been done.  Perl had lost much of its mindshare and was increasingly being displaced by languages such as Php, Python, and Ruby.The Perl community has returned to improving Perl 5 with renewed vigor. The community aims to release a new point release of Perl 5 every 6 months and numerous modules have been created to improve the Perl 5 experience. It’s hard to determine what the mind share of Perl will be a few years from now.

Perl now faces both technical and marketing challenges. In many ways, it is a victim of its own success.  Because Perl has been around so long, numerous outdated tutorials are still floating around the web. When Googling it can be difficult to figure out which pages tell the best way to do something in Perl now and which tell you what was the best way 10 years ago. Debian GNU/Linux and derivative distributions such as Ubuntu are essential written in Perl. While this increases Perl’s mind share, it also means that the system Perl can not be easily upgraded. Unlike updating the Java version, changing the Perl version has widespread implications that require extensive testing. As a result, Ubuntu release tend to include the version that was current 6 months before the actual release rather than the latest version.

More generally, Perl suffers from outdated perceptions. Yes it was once possible and common for people to write unreadable Perl programs that resembled line noise. (The old joke was that “Perl is like a toothbrush — you should use it but you don’t want to use someone elses”.) But this is no longer the case. Simply adding ‘use strict’ prevents a lot of bad code. Using good style practices prevents many of the rest of the issues. It’s certainly true that Perl allows people to do things that might not be a good idea such as using arbitrary regular expression delimiters but in real programs, this is the exception rather than the rule.

This has been a short discussion of the state of Perl and the issues facing it. I write this as someone who is knowledgeable about the language but isn’t a Perl partisan. I’ve known Perl for over a decade and used it as a primary development language for the last three years. However, I’ve also used other languages and know that every language has its strengths and weaknesses. In subsequent blog posts, I plan to further explore the state of Perl and the efforts of the community to improve it.

Waltz Instructor app is available as promised

 Dance at Bougival

I’m pleased to report that my Waltz Instructor Android application that I mentioned last week is now available for download.

I’ll be submitting it to the Android market soon but you can install in directly by going to the following link on your Android phone.


Click the download button. After the Download is complete select WaltzInstructor.apk from the list of completed downloads and the application will install.

Note that you may need to enable Applications from 3rd party sources for this to work.

UPDATE: The early reviewers have convinced me that the application needs more work before being released on the Android market. I’m reluctantly holding off on publishing while I make some improvements.

Dance Application Coming to Android Soon – Beta testers wanted

In an earlier blog post, I discussed the possible uses of smart phones as dance aids. I’m pleased to say that this idea is now a step closer to reality. I’ve been working on the application and I hope to have a beta version available on the Android market later this week.


If anyone is interested in providing feed back on the application before it’s released, please contact me and I’ll be happy to provide you with an advance copy. The application is going to be Android only initially (sorry iPhone people) but if you have an Android phone, I would greatly appreciate your help beta testing.


I’ll provide more details later this week when the application is officially release.

Image Source: Petr Novák, Wikipedia (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic)

If the Computer Industry Made Sewing Machines

My sewing machine and my current sewing project.
I’ve been working on my first real sewing project and I’ve gotten the sense that sewing machines could be simpler to use. Below, I suggest how sewing machines would be different this they were designed by computer companies particularly those companies that make inkjet printers.

Having to wind thread through the machine and thread the needle is a bit cumbersome. Having to separately fill the bobbin with thread and insert it just seems like an unnecessary complication. Ideally a single color of thread would only need to be inserted into the machine once in a single location. If the computer industry made sewing machines, instead of spools of thread we would have thread cartridges that could be inserted into the machine quickly and easily in a single location.

If you want to use a different color thread on a sewing machine, you need to remove the current thread  and place the new thread in the machine using the cumbersome process outlined above. If the computer industry made sewing machines, they would be able to store multiple colors of thread and it would be easy to switch between color without opening the machine.


Of course there would also be some downsides of computer industry made sewing machines…

Currently you can buy thread anywhere and know that it will work with your sewing machine. If the computer industry made sewing machines, each machine would require different incompatible kinds of threads. Furthermore, manufactures would actively try to prevent generic thread from working with their machine through means such as authentication chips and DMCA law suites.

Currently thread essentially lasts forever. If the computer industry made sewing machines, thread would have an expiration date and machines would refuse to work with it past this expiration date. Manufactures would defend this practice by making badly supported claims about the quality of thread decreasing over time even if it’s unopened and argue they were only trying to protect customers.

Currently sewing machines are a tad expensive but thread is cheap. If the computer industry made sewing machines, thread would cost as much or more than low end sewing machines themselves. Low end sewing machines would be sold at a loss but thread would likely cost the equivalent of $30 a spool.

Currently if you run out one color of thread a sewing machine will still let you use other colors of threads. If the computer industry made sewing machines, machines would store multiple colors of thread but would refuse to work if one color was depleted, even if that color wasn’t needed. On low end machines, multiple colors of thread would sold as a single unit or cartridge, once one color was used up, the entire cartridge would need to be replaced — even if there was plenty of thread left in the other colors. On high end machines, it might be possible to replace only a single thread color. However, in both cases, the machine would refuse to sew with any color of thread until the depleted color was replaced.

Sending photos to the Philippines

My great uncle lives in the Philippines and I decided to send him some photos of a recent family wedding. He doesn’t have email so I needed to send him prints. Rather than have them printed locally and mailing them or have them printed in by an America company and then shipped internationally, I decided to use a Filipino website This seemed like the most efficient approach — the photos would be shipped from the United States to the Philippines as bits instead of atoms.The process of ordering prints on digiprint turned out to be more difficult than I expected though in fairness this may be because I run Linux. Their site has multi-file upload functionality which they implement using the Jquery uploadify plugin. They only allow you to upload files with the following extensions: jpg, jpeg, png, and gif. This may seem reasonable but these extensions are case sensitive. Since all of my files were copied directly from my camera, they had the following file name format SAM_XXXX.JPG. The extension .JPG was considered different than .jpg so these files couldn’t be uploaded. To get around this, I copied the files to a temporary directory and batch renamed them to have the .jpg extension instead of .JPG.   I used the Unix commands find and rename to do this:

dlarochelle@server:~/Pictures/$ cp `find -newer SAM_1555.JPG -not -newer  SAM_1679.JPG ` /tmp/wedding/

dlarochelle@server:~/Pictures/$ cd /tmp/jay_wedding/

dlarochelle@server:/tmp/jay_wedding$ rename ‘s/\.JPG/\.jpg/’ *

The next huddle was that Digiprint only allows 20 pictures to uploaded at a time. Since I had over 120 pictures, this meant that I had to upload multiple times. This was an added hassle but something I could do  while I was doing other things on my computer. The next step was selecting the print size. Since the Philippines — like pretty much every country but the United States uses the metric system rather than U.S. customary units — they didn’t have the sizes that I was familiar with. Instead there were sizes such as 3R, 4R, and 6R. However, a bit of Googling revealed that 4R was essentially 4”X6”, so that’s what I selected.

I was able to check out using Paypal which simplified the process since I didn’t have to worried about my credit card company getting suspicious about a charge from the Philippines. My total come to around $20 US which works out to around $.17 a print. This is about what CVS would charge for in store prices. However, that price includes shipping and having to pay for postage from the US would have substantially increased the total cost.

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