The Third Rail

The third rail on electric railways carries the electrical current. Touching the rail will cause death. By extension, a number of topics in politics have been characterized as the third rail, in that they will cause an immediate political demise. Domestically, one of these subjects is Social Security, a program from which so many people benefit that altering the program would result in an electoral defeat. In foreign policy, this position was previously held by Communism. Now it is Israel. I’m not sure why that is, or what unquestioning support of Israeli policy has to do with American interests.

I opened the paper today, after a week-long hiatus, to find that the disagreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians over who should exist escalated over the weekend. Coincidentally enough, I also read Glenn Greenwald‘s column today, in which I learned that 71% of the U.S. population polled favor a neutral position on the above question, in stark contrast to the 99% of the U.S. political establishment which vociferously supports Israeli policy. There are, however, signs that this unanimity is splintering, at least among the chattering classes.

Charitable Giving

As I pay the last set of bills before the New Year, I also make final charitable contributions. There are some guidelines that I use to select to which charities to give. First, what will I support? I support life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and so give to charities that enable, encourage, and provide these. Second, what must a charity do to retain my support? They must be effective, they must not misuse funds, and they must not give my name and address to other charities. Charity Navigator is helpful in determining the first two of those criteria. For the latter, I received a bunch of junk mail from environmental charities, and so will be removing one from our list. Is the marginal return from selling my address really worth the lost income?

This year due to the foolish behavior of certain people in the financial services industry, we will also not be making contributions in the “happiness” category. (If someone could recommend a charity that sponsors schadenfreude….) Instead, our focus will be on charities which provide the necessities of life: food, water, and shelter.

We recommend your local food bank, Habitat for Humanity, Heifer International, and Medicins sans Frontieres.

Slow Banking Day

Odd. All of the banking sites I use are slower than molasses in winter. The rest of the Internet is responding fine.

I’m finding this intriguingly strange. I suspect something with my network link, since the sluggishness is impacting all of the computers attached to this network. I’ve not narrowed down any commonality other than banking sites, though it may be issues with HTTP/S. I would be more certain of that if the responses from non-bank sites were as sluggish. I’m curious enough that I might devote some time to isolating this.

Marshalls’ View of Over-Production

The Marshalls department store has a great advertisement playing now, on the subject of over-production, which I would re-post here for your enjoyment, if it were easily found on-line.

They call it a shopportunity.

Designers can’t sell their clothes, and malls are struggling. … The totally crummy economy is your ‘shopportunity’ at Marshalls.

When supply exceeds demand, prices fall.

Now Where Did I Read That?

Dear Google, where did I read that thing I remember reading a few days ago? Can you find it for me? kthxbye.

Google’s goal is to organize our information. One thing I have trouble with — though I suppose it’s only trouble because I have an obsessive need to cite my sources — is remembering where I read something recently. For example, the other day I read an article asserting that enterprise-grade software is expensive in order to cover the costs of compliance with the requirements of the large companies who would tend to buy that software, rather than to cover the costs of development or because of demand. Where did I read that? Given my continuing experiences with the enterprise-grade shit that we buy here, enterprise-grade is definitely not a synonym for quality.

Can you imagine how improved the lives of students, and even journalists, would be if they could properly cite the results of their casual reading?

Deferred Consumption

I recently subscribed to a number of podcasts in an effort to drown out the unbearable background noise in the Fishkill office: Fox News. One of them was a program from WNYC and Public Radio International, The Takeaway. They’re running a series on debt. On November 17th (podcast, November 21, but hey) they interviewed Ronald Wilcox on the why Americans don’t save, and how we got to this predicament. The general explanation is that we’re optimists, and optimists, because they think tomorrow will be better, tend to live for today.

Savings is a somewhat interesting topic currently because we’re on the downturn of an business cycle because of a collapse in aggregate spending (because the cheap money has become more dear). So there was some discussion in the interview of whether or not saving helps or harms the economy. It was granted that in the short-term saving hurts, while in the long-term saving helps. That is, saving, or deferred consumption, reduces aggregate demand and thus causes an excess of supply, an excess of labor, and contraction in industry as workers are laid-off and factories closed in order to remove the excess, thus causing a decrease in aggregate demand which causes …. and so on.

Today there’s a story on a reduction in the amount of debt we hold: Saving Too Much (for once)?

(The take-away? The Takeaway needs transcripts.)

Full vs. Abbreviated Feeds

It has been some matter of argument in what passes for the blogosphere for some time whether or not full-content feeds are better than partial-content. Some of this discussion was driven by the default behavior of competing publishing tools, but recently it seems to be in context of making money from one’s writings. This whole discussion seems rather pointless to me, mainly because some of those arguing don’t seem to pay attention to their own reading patterns, but pointless discussions are the raison d’être of blogs. Two that I read are abbreviated, containing only partial content, and terminated usually in the middle of a sentence. They are Freakonomics and the Legal History Blog.

Freakonomics often has interesting stuff. However, the cost to me, in time, of clicking through to the full page prevents me from reading it unless the lede grabs me by the throat and drags me over. Once there, navigation between posts is poor, so one must either return to the naggregator or to the top of their site. I usually just leave.

The Legal History Blog always has interesting stuff. What they post, however, are links to recent papers in the field. This falls into the category of “stuff to print and read later.” Because of the truncated posts, it’s difficult to skim through and mark those I’d like to read later. Instead, I ignore it until I have the time. And since I don’t have the time, I may never read it again.

The Value of an Automobile

It is said that an automobile loses half of its value when it drives off the dealer’s lot. That is, the price that is willing to be paid for it, now that you drove it, is half of what you just paid. For some reason this does not apply to the cars on the dealer’s lot but which the dealer allows to be driven around town, so it has no relation to the mileage on the car, only to the demands of potential purchasers. Such purchasers might be individual buyers who intend to use the vehicle, or someone who intends to resell the vehicle, or even the dealer from whom the vehicle was originally bought. Why is this?

This is not just a hypothetical question as the lease on our 2006 Honda Odyssey ends in February, and we have the opportunity to shop for a replacement in what should be a buyer’s market.

If the immediate resale price of the vehicle, when the only difference in state is a change of ownership, is 50% of the initial sale price of the vehicle, then the initial sale price is inflated.

Is there data on this truism?

Expanded Horizons

I used to follow about 300 or so websites, but pruned that back to about 10 and my friends’ shared items in Google Reader around two years ago. My job responsibilities, and workload, had changed dramatically, and my leisure time shrank to nothing. Things have been letting up a little bit, and I’ve gradually expanded my horizons. I just followed a link from one of those, and noticed that the world has changed.

When I put my head down, nose to the grindstone, Userland still maintained a list of recently updated weblogs, Technorati was still relatively new, and Feedburner was blazing new paths with feed management. (And I cared enough to put links on lots of words in my posts.) Now, I look up, and the world has changed. The horizon is far distant, and the lands around are populated by clusters of strangers, some of whom talk to each other.


I’ve seen several references to this time between the election and the inauguration as an interregnum, and many writers expressing concern that President Bush is still, well, the President until January 20th. The thing is, we don’t have an interregnum because President Bush is still the President. And regardless of one’s wishes, he remains the President until President-elect Obama takes the oath and assumes the office.

One concern is that President Bush will follow tradition and issue a bunch of midnight regulations that will be difficult to overturn. Another is that President Bush, lacking in political authority since he has no more terms in office, will be unable to deal effectively with an emergency of some kind. The example usually given is the present financial tumult. But this is a concern only if one thinks the President some kind of demigod, and the Executive indispensable to daily life — or the orderly functioning of the NYSE.

The machinery of government will function just fine during this transitional period, which is most emphatically not an interregnum.

Breaking News: Entropy Exists!

The Economist reports that the broken windows theory of policing is correct.

I think some theories are controversial only because the people who start the controversy have never maintained a household. Anyone who maintains a system, whether a computer or a household, knows that an ordered system tends toward disorder, and that disorder tends to encourage further disorder.

The acceptable level of disorder varies, but the trends should be obvious.

(Of course, it may be they simply have no ability to recognize the obvious, or prefer to argue against the policy prescriptions derived from the observation, rather than the against the theory itself.)


The Associated Press reported that the Food and Drug Administration has set a standard for the amount of melamine found in infant formula: one part per million.

The development comes days after The Associated Press reported FDA tests found traces of melamine in the infant formula of one major manufacturer [Mead Johnson] and cyanuric acid, a chemical relative, in the formula of a second major maker [Nestle].

This all begs the question, why is melamine in food to begin with?

Coerced for My Own Good

H. W. Brands, in his biography of F.D.R., Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, writes,

Many of the progressives, judging themselves lovers of peace, had assumed that they would be the wrong sorts of people to run a war. …. But to their surprise, and in some cases to their dismay, the progressives discovered they were the ideal war administrators. The reformist temperament in American life has always hidden a coercive streak: if people won’t shape up voluntarily, they should be encouraged, even compelled, to do so. [emphasis mine] (p. 111)

This captures exactly my disagreement with progressive thought.

I prefer to let people suffer the consequences of their actions.