Wednesday, November 30, 2005

You say you want a revolution

Chris Masse had asked me to blog about Firefox 1.5 after my entry on Knoppix, but I couldn't really, since I was using it only on my Linux box, and even then very infrequently. That has changed. I downloaded it this evening and have been customizing it.

I will admit that the only reason I'm trying Firefox now is because I've been experiencing an IE glitch. Since last night, the Blogger post editor hasn't shown the "Post and Comment Options" submenu where you can allow or deny comments and adjust the time. Clicking the right-pointing arrow won't drop down the menu, though JavaScript should be working properly. Rebooting didn't help, and then I found the submenu appears just fine under Firefox and Linux on my secondary PC. So I decided to try Firefox and not bother repairing IE.

Until last night, I was perfectly satisfied with Internet Explorer. It worked smoothly enough, and my home PC has never had problems with the myriad IE/Java/ActiveX exploits. I explained here how I lock down IE, which takes a little work, but disabling Java, JavaScript and ActiveX for most sites is much safer. A "whitelist" of permitted sites is, in my opinion, the only way to go, even for a safer browser like Firefox. Exploits like this Java sandbox vulnerability, discovered just yesterday, are in Sun Java and are not intrinsic to the browser. However, disable Java and JavaScript for all sites except a few trusted ones, and you should be fine whether you use IE, Firefox or Opera. It's not enough to avoid suspicious sites, because search engine results (for the most innocent of things like song lyrics) can bring you to a site that installs spyware.

Firefox initially displayed my blog a little wider than the screen, but it took only a minute to adjust my blog's template accordingly. And Firefox actually lacks an annoying glitch that IE has. The "BlogThis!" at the top of my blog is the proper (small) size in Firefox, but in IE it somehow defaults to a larger size. This makes the top Google bar larger than it should be, but after going through my HTML a dozen times, I still could find no good reason why the font size was so large. It's fine under Firefox...

Firefox 1.5, a whole five megs to download. Charlie could well be right: I may never go back to IE once I get used to tabbed browsing. There are many themes to try, and lots of extensions to customize Firefox in ways IE never will see (at least not easily). One extension I recommend is NoScript, which allows you to block Java and JavaScript for all sites except a selected "whitelist" (the same thing I had done with Internet Explorer, which I'll elaborate on below).

Many websites will look slightly different under Firefox, and some will look very different, because Microsoft has never programmed Internet Explorer to official HTML standards, and Firefox was designed from the ground up to adhere strictly to standards. It should be interesting in the coming months as Firefox gains greater market share, which will force Microsoft to improve IE security (if that's possible) and IE's adherence to official HTML.

Microsoft should be concerned. I, who until earlier this year always used Windows, who until today always used Internet Explorer, am starting to convert.

Who's afraid of GDP growth?

I had faith that we would still have robust growth, robust expansion, despite the doomsayers flailing their arms about in the wake of hurricanes and high crude oil prices.
GDP growth expands
Broad measure of nation's economy shows far more strength than earlier estimate or forecasts.


NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - The nation's economy grew far faster than earlier estimates in the third quarter, according to a government report that came in much stronger than Wall Street's expectations.

The gross domestic product, the government's broad measure of the nation's economic activity, grew at a 4.3 percent annual rate in the quarter, compared with the original estimate of 3.8 percent growth in the period. Economists surveyed by Briefing.com had forecast that GDP would be revised up to 4 percent in the period.

It was the fastest pace of growth since the first quarter of 2004.

The growth came despite major hurricanes that hit in the quarter, slowing growth, coupled with energy price shocks and higher interest rates that likely slowed the economy.

"I think if you would have excluded the hurricanes, you would have been talking as much as 4.7 percent. I don't think anyone would argue 4.6 percent," said Anthony Chan, senior economist with JPMorgan Asset Management.

But Chan said the report also shows various inflation readings in the report remaining in check, even creeping backwards. The price index for personal consumption expenditures excluding food and energy, one of the more closely watched inflation readings, fell to a 1.2 percent rate.
Yet as the same article notes, there are always people looking for the downside. There's a big double standard when it comes to reporting U.S. GDP. In early September, the Financial Times described Spain's economic growth, in the mid-3% range, as robust. Such reports come with cheering and applause. We in the U.S. are damned if our economic growth is sluggish, and damned even if it's very good because it supposedly leads to inflation.

Update: Don Luskin notes the same "Where's the bad news?" attitude at the New York Times.

I really wish economists would stop treating inflation as anything but a purely monetary phenomenon (as Milton Friedman himself described it). Real inflation is strictly a decline in domestic currency's purchasing power, which is engineered solely by central banking and thus leads to market distortions and errors.

Belling the cat

The New York Post reported yesterday:
POLS' PROMISE TO TRAGIC MANNY

November 28, 2005 -- Outraged over the death of Manuel Lanza — an uninsured man who was denied lifesaving surgery at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital — lawmakers are ripping state health officials and promising to introduce a "Manny's Law" to prevent similar tragedies.

City Councilwoman Christine Quinn (D-Manhattan) said she would propose a measure to require hospitals to inform patients that they can't be turned away simply because they're uninsured.

That was the tragedy that befell Lanza, a 24-year-old Wendy's worker who died when malformed blood vessels in his head burst — after officials at the hospital put off an operation that would have corrected the problem.

Manny's Law would also require hospitals to keep precise records of the number of uninsured patients they do treat.

"One of the reasons we want to pass this bill is because we heard so many reports of people being turned away from hospitals when they were uninsured," said Quinn, who chairs the council's Health Committee.

"And when they go to the state for help, they just seemed to run into brick walls. The state doesn't take any action to hold hospitals accountable. No matter who goes to them, no matter how tragic and potentially life-threatening their story is, the state either ignores them or finds in favor of the hospitals. This bill will help create a true safety net."

The announcement came a day after The Post reported how St. Luke's -Roosevelt refused to schedule surgery for Lanza, telling his mother, "When you get insurance, we'll take care of your son."

The mild-mannered native of Shirley, L.I., died last Jan. 6 when the blood vessels burst — a well-known complication of his condition....

Meanwhile, Assemblyman Richard Gottfried (D-Manhattan), chairman of that body's Health Committee, said he has been trying for years to force hospitals to treat the uninsured.

A bill co-sponsored by Gottfried and Peter Granis (D-Manhattan) would require hospitals to provide such services either for free or on a sliding scale depending on the patient's income level....
And today in a follow-up:
GOV'S MANNY PLEDGE

November 29, 2005 -- ALBANY — A "very concerned" Gov. Pataki promised yesterday there would be swift Health Department action over the death of Manuel Lanza, who may have been denied lifesaving surgery at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital because he lacked insurance.

"The governor is very concerned by the reports brought to light by The Post, since it is already illegal for hospitals to deny emergency treat ment to any patient based on lack of insurance," Pataki spokesman Andrew Rush said.

"The Department of Health has launched a full investigation . . . and we are confident they will move swiftly and take whatever action is necessary so that a tragic incident such as this does not occur in the future."

Federal and state rules require emergency care for all hospital patients. The state will check whether the needed surgery was put off over a lack of insurance, Health Department spokesman Robert Kenny said.

Of interest will be the level of services Lanza received while admitted to the hospital, whether he should have been discharged and whether his case should have been considered an emergency, Kenny said.

St. Luke's-Roosevelt spokesman Jim Mandler said the hospital "intends to cooperate fully" with the investigation....

The family has also petitioned Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Charles Schumer in hopes of spurring a U.S. Senate investigation. In a joint statement, Clinton and Schumer called Lanza's death "a tragic example of how our health-care system is broken " and vowed to monitor the state investigation.

Meanwhile, St. Luke's-Roosevelt has been cited by the state Health Department for three incidents of questionable emergency care since August, records obtained by The Post show. Mandler declined to comment.
What happened to Manuel Lanza is terrible, but big government is compounding the tragedy with greater wrongdoing. We already have laws, varying from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, requiring hospitals to treat emergency room patients, regardless of the ability to pay. This led to Congress giving $1 billion to the state of Texas earlier this year, for all the money its hospitals have spent on health care for illegal immigrants. With the proposed laws that will provide enforcement, hospitals all across New York state will have to make sure they tell uninsured patients they can't be turned away, or else.

But it is not government's responsibility or prerogative to use tax dollars to assist people, no matter how charitable and desperate the reason, and no matter how willing the majority of people are. Rather than soliciting the nearly almighty power of the state to coerce others into "helping," the family should have sought private charity, whether through a few wealthy philanthropists or a fund drive. Particularly in this age of the Internet and blogs (the story of baby Jordan needing a heart transplant was widespread), such drives have a greater chance of success.

No doubt I will sound cold and callous to many, but hospitals need to be run like real businesses. They need to be profitable, or at least operated so they don't run in the red, and that means charging enough money to cover expenditures. Otherwise we run into situations like the Westchester Medical Center, which has some $750 million in currently outstanding bonds. The Journal News last June had a very informative article on its woes. Politicians, naturally, wanted government to bail out the hospital, but as expected, they never pointed fingers at their constituents and said, "It won't be government, it will really be you who pays!"

The figures last June were that the hospital needed $100 million in annual revenue to become fiscally sound, including $60 million in government "contributions." I don't know if it ever passed, but there was also a bill proposing to turn the center from an academic hospital to a public one. The difference is that as a public hospital, it could get Medicaid dollars. Again, it's just another way of using tax dollars, especially from people who do not use the hospital.

A hospital is a consumable resource like any other. If I choose to go there instead of spending my money on something else, it is because I placed a greater priority on receiving -- purchasing -- health care. Let's say I choose the reverse, spending little (if anything) on health care. Yet when I am taxed, and that money is spent on services for someone else, I am no longer able to spend it on what I wanted, and though my money is going toward health care, it is for another person. I believe strongly in charity, as I will detail later, but I want to do it on my own terms, instead of giving money to someone a government bureaucrat tells me is most worthy. Such force-induced "charity" also discourages me, and others, from working as hard, because we know the more we earn, the more we lose in taxes. At a certain point, the marginal disposable (after-tax) income is not worth the loss of non-work time.

Moreover, it eventually becomes a moral hazard when people receive services they do not pay for. Some people will no longer bother to get insurance for catastrophic situations, knowing they can receive hospital treatment anyway. And no hospital will ever absorb the costs of treating uninsured patients: it passes it onto patients who are paying, or onto taxpayers who bail it out. When the costs are passed onto paying patients (whether out of their own pocket or through insurance), this can price some of them out of receiving health care. Just like with minimum wages, we are helping those at the very bottom, but we are injuring those who are just above them. So using tax money is preferable so that health care is not too expensive, right? There is no difference in net effect, though. While the health costs may stay the same, the increased tax burden means a reduction in a person's disposable income.

Either way, paying patients end up paying a higher percentage of their disposable income to cover the costs of the uninsured. Another problem with using tax money is that people pay, against their will, for services they don't use but that others do. Look again at the mess with Westchester Medical Center, and the proposed sales tax increase for seven counties that Westchester County executive Andy Spano (whose unfortunately successful re-election bid I strongly opposed) and others supported. Ulster County is one of them. Some of its residents do go to Westchester Medical Center, that is true. However, look at this map, and you'll see that Ulster is quite some ways from Westchester. For reference, it's about a full hour's drive from the southern tip of Westchester to the north border with Putnam County. Why should everyone making commercial purchases in Ulster have to pay extra to support a hospital in a county quite far from them, especially one they might not use, and very infrequently if they do use it?

Nor can we simply make "the rich" pay a heavier tax burden, because the rest of the economy is dependent on them to spend or save their money. Taxing millionaires more sounds "fair," but that means less money the millionaires have that they spend on goods and services that are almost universally provided by people of lower incomes. It also means less money the millionaires can save, which finances the mortgages and auto loans that lower-income people need, and that provides capital to small businesses (which provide jobs).

But politicians must appeal to voters if they wish to retain their offices, and it makes them appear "compassionate" and "caring" to pass a law requiring hospitals to inform uninsured patients in dire need that they cannot be turned away. I'm not surprised Hillary has seized on this issue, for that very reason. I've already predicted the 2008 Democratic candidate will campaign on universal health care and universal employment.

This debacle reminds me of the Aesop's fable of the young mouse who proposed putting a bell around the cat's neck, so that the mice would be alerted to its presence. After the other mice applauded him, a wise old mouse simply asked who was going to do it. Whether it's getting Westchester Medical Center solvent or helping uninsured patients get treatment, politicians are doing nothing more than making a new proposal to bell the cat. It's easy for them to pass a law, but who is going to pay for it?

Am I a cruel social Darwinist who doesn't want to help anyone? Far from it. Like Capital Freedom, I love our market system where force is not the principal means by which people acquire things. Subsequently, I recognize there are those who are less competitive, or simply down on their luck, and that we should have compassion on them. However, I don't believe in the power of the state to help people. I believe in the power of people helping each other. Did Charles Dicken write about ghosts that frightened Scrooge into paying his taxes? Did Christ mention in Matthew 25 that we should pay our taxes cheerfully so that government can take care of the needy? Thus I give money to private charities, usually the Salvation Army because I trust it, and Toys For Tots at this time of the year.

Individual, private charity also breeds a certain type of strength in the American character, which I discussed toward the end of this entry on those who feel "entitled" to government help. I first quoted part of something I posted on Conservative Philosopher:
I believe that government "charity" has greatly dampened the spiritual aspect of American life. "Spiritual" doesn't necessarily refer to believing in God (which I do), but to that American essence of community. Not this ridiculous notion that we're all a "family," but that we are a community. And for all our "cutthroat" competition and entrepreneurialism, we still manage to help our neighbors in need. Though man is capable of great evil, we are still capable of great compassion. I further believe that, after several decades of being told that only government can significantly alleviate poverty and other social problems, we've been deprived of an ineffable part of American character. I think it's an innate quality, the same thing that drives many of us to believe the U.S. is still the best country, despite our flaws.
Then I concluded:
The best thing we can do for "the poor" is to promote economic growth for everyone, even if "the rich" benefit. "A rising tide lifts all boats" isn't just about economic growth, but about the standard of living. As we continually advance our technology and abilities, today's latest technology will eventually become more affordable to the lower incomes. This is how today's "poor" are able to have lighting, indoor heat and telephone service, which once upon a time were things only "the rich" could enjoy. The "capitalist competition" that socialists claim is evil is the very thing that alleviates the condition of the poor.

And meanwhile, let us have charity on an individual level, for those who are truly worthy of help. We don't need government to tell us that, proven in Americans' private donations to charity, now up to a quarter-trillion dollars annually. Nor should we need government to direct us to help the less fortunate. I'll say again: when government does it for us, we lose something in our spirit. Today, how many of us think to help the widow, or the orphan? Very few, because government has conditioned us to believe that it will take care of things." We're a less caring society for it, in danger of degenerating into impersonal units. That's just what a socialist economy needs: workers, not individuals.
Let me add something I've said before: the politicians proposing this coerced charity should instead set an example by donating their own money. Surely someone with the financial means of Hillary Clinton could have written a check. She could have also assured the hospital, using the power of her name, that they could proceed immediately with the operation and that she would personally pay all costs. Now that would have been a worthy petition for the family to make, instead of crying out to the state for salvation.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

How to out-Krugman Krugman

Josh Hendrickson (whose blog Dobbs Report you should be reading if you're not already) alerted me over the weekend to this New York Times article by Robert H. Frank, categorized as "Economic Scene" in the Business section. We're talking about the Times, of course, so we can't expect them to be "fair." Being "fair" would have required putting Frank's piece in the op-ed section.

I was a little busy with shopping and errands and never did get around to blogging about Frank. Meanwhile, Don Luskin today seized on Frank's socialist theme, and he exposed him for being yet another Krugman-esque hack who masquerades under the guise of actual economics. Luskin's takedown of Frank is one of those things you simply have to read for yourself.

While I'm nowhere near as familiar with Frank, his agenda is quite evident. What I find curious is that he actually goes beyond Krugman's typical socialist schtick. Krugman supports a heavily progressive tax structure (the second plank of the Communist Manifesto) that facilitates "the rich" supporting everyone else via big government social programs. It naturally fails to account for incentive, for how long will "the rich" continue to support the rest of society? Nonetheless, only this last March, based on his Keynesian pseudo-economics and revisionist history, Krugman justified higher taxes because, though it's not true, "President Clinton's 1993 tax increase ushered in an economic boom." But Frank justifies heavy taxes on "the rich" because, he all but directly says, it's for their own protection.

Higher taxes on "the rich" are for their own good? If you believe Frank, if "the rich" pay lower taxes, they risk a higher chance of dying from bacteria in undercooked beef, of having their expensive cars damaged by potholes, and of having our national security compromised by stolen nuclear stockpiles in Russia. The first is supposedly because there's less federal money to inspect meat, which doesn't preclude someone from cooking beef thoroughly. The second is supposedly because there's supposedly less money for road repair, but a "rich" person can more easily afford a new tire and alloy mag for a Porsche than a poor person can afford a tire and steel rim for an Escort. The third is supposedly because we've cut back on funding to secure Russian nuclear stockpiles. It's a real stretch, as if the other two weren't, and not just because a liberal is suddenly worried about U.S. national security. You could spend every penny of U.S. GDP and still not completely secure Russia's nuclear stockpile. Perfect safety does not exist, so it's perfectly sensible to cut back on spending when you gain nothing from it. I would have thought that Frank, who is touted as an economist, would understand trade-offs between spending and benefits, particularly at the margin. Maybe that's why he teaches only introductory economics.

And Frank ignores a basic fact: deficits are borrowed money, allowing a government to spend beyond tax revenues collected. What he's saying would be true if the federal and state governments stayed on budget, which they hardly ever do. Take my home state of New York as an example. The majority of state voters approved a $2.9 billion bond proposal for a great many transporation expansions and repairs. I opposed it vehemently, but its passage proves that even New York can still borrow money, if it offers enough interest.

Since I'm touching on government deficits and bonds, let's revisit something that as Steve Conover explained last January. It is perfectly possible to neutralize your portion of the interest payments on the national debt. The more U.S. Treasury bonds you own, the more interest you receive that was partially coming from your taxes, and at a certain point you'll receive as much in interest as the portion of your taxes that pay the interest on the national debt. Then consider that it's overwhelmingly "the rich" who buy U.S. Treasury bonds, courtesy of their greater incomes. So Frank's assertion that the national debt falls more heavily on "the rich" is not necessarily true.

I have a keen interest in international trade, so one thing Frank wrote really got my attention. He claimed that "the United States' share of global patents granted continues to decline. Such cuts threaten the very basis of our long-term economic prosperity." Without having statistics in front of me, I'll just say right now that this also is not necessarily true. Beware of this time-honored way of skewing statistics. If I receive 100 patents in one year and 105 the next year, and everyone else receives 50 and then 55 patents, then my share has gone down as a percentage, but in absolute numbers I haven't lost ground.

And Frank had the foolishness to cite a Republican senator who is fearful and ignorant of international trade. Free trade brings prosperity, and even freer trade like NAFTA and CAFTA are a step in the right direction. When Domenici claims that "We're now on track to a second-rate economy and a second-rate country," is he speaking of the United States? Because if he's that clueless about the strength and resilience of the American economy, that alone is reason to get him out of Congress. Dr. Jagdish N. Bhagwati had two excellent pieces that explain why Americans have no one but themselves to fear: "Why Your Job Isn't Moving to Bangalore" and "Americans Manage to Convince Themselves They Are Underdogs."

Perhaps we should just take Domenici's prescription and impoverish ourselves. Protectionist economics may keep domestic wages high, but fewer people at home will be able to afford goods and services like before. About the worst thing politicians can do for the economy is enact protectionist policies during economic downturns: in addition to FDR's misplaced faith in government spending as a substitute for private consumption, the Hawley-Smoot Tariff was a major factor in exacerbating the Great Depression.

Now, focusing on Frank's overtly socialist agenda, no doubt he believes it's morally wrong that any single individual is able to consume more than anyone else, but the real immorality is when people consume more than others because the former have used the power of government to take (better termed "coerce" or "steal") wealth from the latter. This is the very "redistribution of wealth" that Krugman openly advocates, and for which Frank uses the euphemism "public investment." But as Jon Henke of QandO so well put it, "we don't have inequality in income—we have inequality in output. Some of us haven't been producing our share."

In Frank's world, how terrible a situation for anyone who has more wealth! Yet the reality is that greater wealth is as terrible as Brer Rabbit being thrown into the briar patch -- with the bonus that Brer Rabbit hired someone to throw him in. Look beyond the mere fact that someone bought more things of greater value: it necessarily means the supplier has earned more income, and the economy is greater than had the buyer only enough money for one rose, a cheaper car, etc. What is so wrong about people having the freedom, and thus the motivation, to produce more, earn more, and spend or save more? That is what Frank really thinks is terrible: the freedom to choose to earn, and the freedom to choose how to dispose of one's wealth. I was about to qualify "wealth" with "legitimate," meaning gained without the use of coercion and/or fraud, but socialists have completely distorted "legitimate" as they have many other words.

And most importantly, where does all the money go that "the rich" spend and save? To everybody else. "Trickle-down" does exist, folks, as I explained back in my second-ever blog entry. "The rich" do not sit on piles of money, or stick it where only other "rich" can touch it. Nor does it just "trickle down" to everyone else, because to everyone else is the only place it can go.

But, socialists claim, government spending is the same as private consumption, so there is no economic loss. First, they ignore the very real disincentive effect of higher taxes. Bruce Bartlett uses a conservative estimate of 20 cents lost for every $1 collected in taxes. As I've pointed out, that in fact is low compared to other estimates. Second, socialists (who these days hide behind the moniker "progressive") ignore the gross inefficiency of government spending. It's worth quoting Milton Friedman again: "...if I spend somebody else's money on somebody else, I'm not concerned about how much it is, and I'm not concerned about what I get."

It is the natural tendency of government to waste taxpayers' money. I'll say as I have before, that the problem isn't the lobbyists, but that governments exceed their Constitutional authority and thus generate special interest groups. We shouldn't be surprised that every $1 increase in Medicaid spending in the early 1990s meant the private sector could reduce its own spending by only 50 to 75 cents. We shouldn't be surprised that our public infrastructure costs so much to build to get so little, especially "expansions" the public wouldn't otherwise pay for. We shouldn't be surprised that Donald Trump fixed Central Park's Wollman rink at a fraction of what the city had wasted on nothing. And we shouldn't be surprised that we can't get rid of bad politicians, because we deserve such a fate for continually re-electing them.

One can only wonder what kind of world Frank thinks ours is, when he criticizes rich people thusly: "Wealthy families have further insulated themselves by living in gated communities and sending their children to private schools." Since when is it wrong to use your wealth to protect yourself and your family from the criminals with whom liberal politicians and liberal judges play catch-and-release? Since when is it wrong to want your children to receive a good education, at a safe school without bullies, troublemaking students that prevent others from learning, and bad teachers who get tenure because their unions lobbied city hall?

There's an old poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson, which my father taught me when I was little:
Richard Cory

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But sill he fluttered pulses when he said,
"Good-morning," and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich--yes, richer than a king--
And he was admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head
Something makes me suspect that this is one of Frank's favorites, since he believes people must be protected from having greater wealth. Yet not all rich people kill themselves, and above all, Richard Cory still had the freedom to dispose of his own life (literally) as he saw fit, apparently without harming others.

Perhaps a little from Jefferson is in order?
The care of every man's soul belongs to himself. But what if he neglect the care of it? Well what if he neglect the care of his health or his estate, which would more nearly relate to the state. Will the magistrate make a law that he not be poor or sick? Laws provide against injury from others; but not from ourselves. God himself will not save men against their wills.
Nor will God save men from their wealth, however they use it. They must choose, and remember, it's the love of money that is the root of all evil, not money itself.

Well, after this review of Frank's bad economics, it's no wonder he lamented in the Times that "most students seem to emerge from introductory economics courses without having learned even the most important basic principles." If he teaches introductory economics with such convoluted logic as he displays in his writings, I can see how he'd get such an impression from his own students, and it wouldn't be their fault.

Monday, November 28, 2005

The most wonderful time of the year, part II

After Friday's minor shopping adventure, yesterday I drove out to the Danbury Fair Mall out in Connecticut. For those of us in northwest Westchester, it's a nice alternative to White Plains' Westchester Mall and Galleria. With Macy's, Filene's, Lord & Taylor and a host of specialized stores, I like it better than competing with the frenzied Manhattan crowds. The C&C Unisex there is also a great place for a haircut and style; Carol usually does my hair and always does a great job.

I-84 eastbound traffic was heavy, with people heading home from Thanksgiving vacations. After leaving the mall, I had a few stops to make further east, and traffic was even worse. It was practically a standstill from exits 5 through 7. The last time I recall being in such bad traffic was when trying to escape D.C. after going there for Reagan's funeral. My friends Amber and Eric warned me to stay on the outer beltway, which was still a virtual parking lot.

Later this week I might go with a friend to Century 21, the discount department store I mentioned. She's much braver than I am, because as I said, the masses of pushy (literally) shoppers is bad enough outside the holiday seasons. Maybe now that "Black Friday" and the first official holiday shopping weekend have passed, it won't be as bad as I fear.

Capital Freedom wondered why we don't call "Black Friday" something else. I expect businesses will stick to the term because that day marks when many small businesses will be "in the black" (as opposed to red ink) for the total year. My aunt's wine store is one of them. Because of heavy local competition, prices are cutthroat throughout the year. Only the last five or six weeks of the year are significantly profitable, and solely because of volume. Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's probably give some customers the illusion that she's making money hand over fist, but without them the store wouldn't really be worth running.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Knoppix: the easy way to run Linux on your PC

Does the thought of kernel compiling give you the chills? Do your fingers tremble at having to type in Unix shells? Do you dread another nightmare about manually configuring your hardware?

Once upon a time, it took a bit of work and computer knowledge to run any Linux distribution on your system. My friend Charlie, as he put it, "cut his teeth on Slackware" years ago. Being more than a little handy with PCs and Windows, I probably could have learned to compile and use one or two distributions, but I chose to remain rationally ignorant. I was cognizant there existed a particular knowledge and that I lacked it, but I decided not to acquire it because it was not worth the costs (especially time). Also, Windows had all the software compatibility and driver availability I needed. I had grown up tinkering with my Vic-20, Commodore 64 and Commodore 128, learning 6502/6510/8510 assembly, but after I got my first PC, computers became just another tool. I simply needed them to work, because other than occasional hardware and software upgrades, I no longer had time to delve into their innards.

Then earlier this year, Charlie suggested I try Knoppix. For a while I resisted, and admittedly I tried it only to explore Linux as a possibility for a friend's computer. I was amazed from the outset by Knoppix's ease of use, because it can be configured to act like Windows, by its automatic hardware detection and very good driver support, and especially because Knoppix is an entire Linux operating system (Debian distribution) on a single bootable "live" CD. Download the ISO image for your language, burn it onto a CD, boot from it, and your PC will be running Linux in a matter of several minutes. Nor is this just a bash shell and little else. The full Knoppix 4.0.2 package is now over 3 gigs, meant for a DVD, but the single-CD ISO still comes with a lot of software, including:
  • KDE, a graphical interface that will be intuitive to Windows users. It can be customized to act just like Windows, and since this is Linux, it does run more smoothly than Windows XP. One of my gripes about XP is that it's so bloated and slow. I liked Windows 2000 much better.

  • OpenOffice, the free equivalent to basic Microsoft Office packages. It has fully functional equivalents for Word, Excel, Powerpoint, and more. Version 2.0 is extremely stable and runs very smoothly.

  • I want to specifically mention KStars, a neat desktop planetarium. Choose the city nearest you, and it will show you the constellations relative to the horizon. I always liked stargazing.

  • Lots of games (children, arcade, board and strategy), multimedia editors and players, and software for Internet browsing and e-mail. There's as much useful software as a basic store-bought PC.
It's important to clarify that this is all free software under the GNU license: Linux itself, Audacity (one of my favorites that has Windows, Mac and Linux versions) for editing sound files (including MP3 and Ogg Vorbis), Mozilla Firefox, and GAIM. There are also innumerable open source programs you can download and install. GAIM, I think, is the best instant messenger program today, if anything because of its Off-the-Record (OTR) plug-in. I don't engage in criminal activities of any sort, nor am I conspiring to do so, but I nonetheless like to have truly private communications with my friends. GAIM and OTR are reliable ways of securing my rights as enumerated in the Fourth Amendment.

Running Knoppix off CD or DVD is slow, but if you like it and want to use it, it's very easy to install it to your hard drive. The install script is actually far easier than a manual Windows installation; the only easier way to install Windows is with OEM installation CDs that come with a pre-manufactured PC. What if you'd like a dual-boot configuration, so you can run both Windows and Knoppix on the same PC? It's a little tricky to set up, but not really hard. QTParted can reduce the size of your Windows partition and use the newly freed space for Linux ext3 and swap partititions (but make backups of your files, just in case you do something wrong!). Then when using the Knoppix installer, you can have it drop GNU GRUB into the master boot record: then when your computer first boots, you can easily choose between Linux and Windows.

The Knoppix CD can be a handy rescue CD should your (any) Windows PC develop boot problems. Linux can easily read FAT32 and even NTFS partitions; on the other hand, Windows 2000 and XP need third-party software to read Linux partitions. (And forget it if you're running a FAT-based OS like Windows 95, 98 or ME: those need third-party software to read NTFS partitions.) So if the files on your Windows partition are still intact, boot up your Knoppix CD, access your Windows partition, and salvage your files to a floppy disk. If they're large, use K3B (packaged with Knoppix) to burn them to a CD or CD-RW. Can you do that with your standard Windows install CD?

Update: I mentioned the other night that I tried "Breezy Badger" (Ubunto 5.10), which also comes on a bootable CD. There's also a pure installation CD. However, the standard installation is with GNOME, which I hadn't used before and don't like as much as KDE. You can run either GNOME or KDE under either Knoppix or Ubuntu, though, but I don't have the time to customize to that extent. So I went back to Knoppix.

My main PC still runs Windows XP exclusively, only because I have a few pieces of software that run only under Windows. They run very poorly, or not at all, under WINE or Windows emulators for Linux (it should be noted that WINE is not an emulator). My second PC is a dual-boot system with Knoppix and Windows XP, and it runs Knoppix almost all the time. If I buy myself a laptop for Christmas as I'm thinking, I probably would never boot Windows on it. Most likely the first thing I'd do is wipe the drive and install Knoppix.

Networking my two PCs couldn't be simpler. Samba since 1992 has allowed Linux and Microsoft boxes to share files and printers, and setting my IP addresses in Knoppix is simple. My cable modem runs into my Windows PC, and a second network card allows me to share the Internet connection with my second computer. All I had to tell Knoppix was a few IP addresses -- it's actually simpler to set up Internet Connection Sharing with Windows and Knoppix than Windows and Windows!

Linux is also a superior operating system in that it has never required you to reboot your system to change your network IP address. On the other hand, Windows 2000 was the first Microsoft OS that let you change your network IP address without rebooting, and Windows XP still requires you to reboot if you change your workgroup name.

I think Charlie was pleased to hear me say this summer that in a couple of years, I may never run any Microsoft software again (except at work). When I no longer use these few pieces of Windows-specific software, I'll say goodbye to XP and run Linux exclusively. Just a year ago, I recognized the open source movement as a little threat to Microsoft, but I now think the astounding development of OpenOffice will pose a serious challenge to Microsoft's seeming hegemony.

Microsoft for a few years now has released studies arguing that Windows' Total Cost of Ownership is less than that of Linux. Even were that true once upon a time, I think it no longer is. It would have been from relatively high marginal costs in training IT staff in Linux, which is not as great today. Since the mid-1990s there's been a ready and cheap supply of IT people familiar with Windows, but not Linux, so a company migrating to Linux would have to pay a premium for people familiar with it. However, Linux is becoming easier and easier to install and administrate, and most of its distributions are completely free, so both its marginal and sunk costs are much less than in recent years.

One study Charlie cites is here, which is a few years old but still applies. It makes good points: what exactly are you using the computers for (which makes TCO hard to calculate), how qualified are your Windows admins, and as Charlie says, "You might pay more for a linux admin, but he can take care of far more machines." The MCSE issue goes beyond the Microsoft-Linux war: there have been a lot of "paper MCSEs" since the late 1990s, when it seemed every computer tech dreamed of a six-month MCSE program and a new starting salary of $60,000 per year. Too many lacked practical knowledge of computers and networking, but they studied the questions well enough to pass the tests.

Still, I won't say Microsoft's days are numbered. Bill & Co. will come up with something; they always seem to. You have to hand it to them, because they innovate, or at least they're good at convincing many of us that they're the best innovators.

Let me add a thought I had yesterday evening. I spent another frustrating hour with Cablevision "support," barely a day after they fixed my Thanksgiving and Friday service outage. This time my cable TV reception was fine, but my Internet connection was out. What I really should have done is plug my cable modem into my Linux box, and make the technician trouble that. I'm like my father in a few ways, especially in his voice and our love of singing. We sounded so alike that one of his best friends sometimes mistook me for him when I answered the telephone. I also take after him in that I can be downright nasty when I don't get a service I'm paying good money for.

My cable modem was periodically losing connection. The technician assured me that my lines and cable modem were fine, because she could ping me, but when I challenged her, she couldn't explain the occasional connection loss. She led me through a full hour of obviously scripted troubleshooting, mainly checking my Windows settings. In the end, she concluded my computer was fine, and there must be a problem with my cable modem or the lines. And what had I assured her from the start?

So I demanded her supervisor and yelled at him too. I just couldn't get it through his thick skull that I largely stopped calling their "support" because it's a waste of my time. I usually have to take time off work to meet any field technicians that come out, and because of the intermittent problems and their incompetence, they can never find anything anyway. One did have a good eye, though, or perhaps he was just lucky. He found that the installation tech punched a staple right through the middle of the coax running along the side of the house.

As expected, the connectivity problem "fixed itself" later on. That's generally the case, with a few exceptions like Thanksgiving and Friday.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

What is "Southern"?

I came across this interesting article a few days ago, "Definition of South, Southern Is Changing." I question the authenticity of the polls, because the polling sample would have to be pretty large to give a trustworthy projection. Pointing out a difference of seven percentage points is meaningless when a poll of typical size (several hundred people) can have a margin of error of plus-or-minus 3 or 4 percent.

May I put this to my readers for discussion: how do you all ("youse all"? "y'all"?) in the South feel about all us Yankees moving down? Ironically, it's often to escape all the oppressive taxation we've brought upon ourselves, because we keep re-electing the same tax-and-spenders (Democrats and Republicans alike). I say "us" and "we" because, though I did live for my first seven years in the Philippines and then 17 years in the western U.S., my father was always a Yankee, and I was raised one. "New Yorker" is not appropriate, because I'm not of the city and likely never will be. Nightfall in Manhattan is a wondrous thing, but it's so nice to come home to the quiet of Westchester.

I myself wonder what "New Yorker" means today when so many young women, born and raised in the city, talk just like the stereotypical Valley Girl. TV and movies have certainly done much to blur distinctions between regional accents, though there are always exceptions. One of my best friends is as Bronx-sounding as they come, and she'll still "axe" me something, for example. Conversely, one thing that's rubbed off on me is a too-infrequent tendency to say "How are ya?" (emphasis on "are") instead of what I used to say, "How are you?" (emphasis on "you").

They're not going to sue?

Most of you have probably heard of the accident at Times Square during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. An M&M balloon got caught on a street lamp, part of which got knocked off, hitting a 26-year-old woman and her 11-year-old sister.

But they're not going to sue, or at least that's what they're saying today. They're taking it very well, because they could have sued Mars Inc. (who makes M&Ms candy), Macy's East Inc., and the city too.

Someone still wants to rook the city, though. Mayor Mike Bloomberg announced that he wants an investigation into what happened. An investigation? There was a bit of wind (10 mph at Central Park, probably a little more at Times Square with all the buildings), the handlers couldn't control the balloon, and part of the street lamp got knocked off. Why does Bloomberg want to waste taxpayer money to discover obvious facts? There isn't anything to review, no more than we should review every automobile in America because they get into accidents.

In the five Thanksgivings I've had here since moving to the state for a better job and finishing my degree, I still have never gone into the city to watch the parade. It's generally too cold, and I dislike such large crowds. Instead, I watch it on TV where I can sip coffee for pleasure, not gulp it for warmth. However, though coverage has seemed to get better in recent years, this year the hosts and guests talked too much about themselves.

Two words for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

I would give him three, specifically what Dick Cheney properly told Pat Leahy, but my blog isn't the place for such language, no matter how apropos.
Iran President: Charge Bush for War Crimes

TEHRAN, Iran - Iran's hard-line president said Saturday the Bush administration should be tried on war crimes charges, and he denounced the West for pressuring Iran to curb its controversial nuclear program.

"You, who have used nuclear weapons against innocent people, who have used uranium ordnance in Iraq, should be tried as war criminals in courts," Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in an apparent reference to the United States.

Ahmadinejad did not elaborate, but he apparently was referring to the U.S. military's reported use of artillery shells packed with depleted uranium, which is far less radioactive than natural uranium and is left over from the process of enriching uranium for use as nuclear fuel.

Since the Iraq war started in 2003, American forces have fired at least 120 tons of shells packed with depleted uranium, an extremely dense material used by the U.S. and British militaries to penetrate tank armor. Once fired, the shells melt, vaporize and turn to dust.

"Who in the world are you to accuse Iran of suspicious nuclear armed activity?" Ahmadinejad said during a nationally televised ceremony marking the 36th anniversary of the establishment of Iran's volunteer Basij paramilitary force.

Iran has been under intense international pressure to curb its nuclear program, which the United States claims is part of an effort to produce nuclear weapons. Iran denies such claims and says its program is aimed at generating electricity.
Two words for you, Mahmoud: Pearl Harbor. Since you're evidently unfamiliar with world history, I'll briefly educate you that the U.S. was engaged in peace talks with Japan when we were suddenly and cowardly attacked. President Franklin Roosevelt began, asking Congress to declare war:
Yesterday, December 7, 1941 - a date which will live in infamy - the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

The United States was at peace with that nation and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its Government and its Emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific. Indeed, one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in Oahu, the Japanese Ambassador to the United States and his colleague delivered to the Secretary of State a formal reply to a recent American message. While this reply stated that it seemed useless to continue the existing diplomatic negotiations, it contained no threat or hint of war or armed attack.

It will be recorded that the distance of Hawaii from Japan makes it obvious that the attack was deliberately planned many days or even weeks ago. During the intervening time the Japanese Government has deliberately sought to deceive the United States by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace.
Mahmoud, I'll tell you just who are are. We're the United States of America. We're the good guys. You (and here I'll specify you and the other Iranian leaders and try not to attack the Iranian people in general) are the bad guys.

The last sixty years have proven we have never aggressively used nuclear weapons, and while we have had some foreign policy failings, we're far from the imperialist nation that you dream of while puffing away at the hashish. You, on the other hand, couldn't be trusted with so much as a spitball. You claim you want nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, then wonder why we question your Chavez-like maneuver. Why do you insist your nuclear intentions are for energy purposes when it would be far cheaper to use all the petroleum in your back yard? Do you not even have the bravery of North Korea's Kim Il Sung, who eventually admitted that their nuclear program is to develop weapons?

Updated: you brought up the depleted uranium shells, Mahmoud. They're certainly not the nicest things to use, but you know something? That's the nature of war: you do a lot of terrible things to win it. Wars are not won by spitballs and calling each other names. At least when we kill civilians, it's by accident and exceedingly rare, because we give actually give a damn about them, contrary to your "useful idiots" like liar Jimmy Massey. We voluntarily refrain from using our full military capabilities when we could kill civilians, or surrendering enemy forces. Tragically that has allowed you and other cowards to take advantage of us, but that's part of being the good guys. At other times, like Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we'll do what we can so that a million American GIs don't have to die invading Japan -- and several million Japanese to boot. Accuse us all you'd like in your delusions, Mahmoud, but we're nothing like your fellow terrorists who regularly commit genuine atrocities, who attack a few dozen American soldiers, knowing perfectly well it will also kill children who are getting food and candy at that Iraqi hospital. But who are we to accuse, when your government, after all, does far more terrible things to far more people as a matter of public policy?

Though leftist moonbats would disagree, we're not run by a religious dictatorship. The United States has many failings about which I've blogged extensively, but who are you to accuse us? What you accuse us of in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay (mountains out of molehills if ever there were any) is five-star hotel service compared to what you do to dissident students. And we do not oppress our women. We don't force them to wear a hijab or else; you'd like them to think the head scarf is a good and moral "tradition," but it's actually as "traditional" as bell-bottoms in the West. When someone like Shirin Ibadi can become the leader of your nation, come back and we'll talk.

We've never taken over any embassies, let alone one of yours, and held innocent people hostage for 444 days. Even had we, we wouldn't be cowardly enough to release them on the inauguration day of the enemy's new president, specifically one with cojones and who wouldn't tolerate such a terrorist action.

You know what, Mahmoud, you and your fellow leaders really can go ____ yourselves.

The most wonderful time of the year

Heeeeeeeeee's back!

After work, I spent the afternoon and evening downtown, doing a bit of shopping. I got home to find my interrupted cable service had been restored sometime during the day, a good thing so that I could enjoy a badly needed night off. "Pleased" is too strong a word, really, since Cablevision had the responsibility to repair things. I still doubt they had even started work until yesterday morning, despite assurances they had started working on it Thanksgiving night.

Among my stops was J&R, which I call Manhattan's technology Mecca; when I go there, I say that I'm making a pilgrimage downtown. Afterward, waiting at the R/W station nearby, several others were also carrying J&R shopping bags. I couldn't help but smile inwardly at that and the great variety of other shopping bags. A couple of young women were coming from Century 21, not the real estate company, but the discount department store directly across from Ground Zero. Here are some reviews, and I attest to their truthfulness. Their weekends any time of the year are like the day after Thanksgiving anywhere else. People push and sometimes cuss you out if you're too slow (softly enough so security can't hear). Sometimes you have to rummage through piles that had others left in thorough disarray. And you think that's bad...shopping there during Thanksgiving weekend is like facing down stampeding wildebeest, or driving in midtown morning rush hour with the traffic lights out!

Compared to a regular department store like Macy's, the search costs are very, very high to find most of the bargains, but for most people it's worth it to buy many designer labels at rock-bottom prices. I took a friend there when he came to visit a few years ago, insisting we do at least one thing to make his drab wardrobe a little more elegant. One easy purchase was from a rack of really beautiful men's topcoats. He bought one for just $90, 100% wool that felt just as soft as my more expensive wool-cashmere coat. He wondered if it was too "flamboyant," but it's served him well, and kept him more stylish, back in Chicago.

Oh, the commerce, how I love it. Buyers and sellers coming together, with buyers competing with each other by offering deep discounts. Truly, the most wonderful time of the year. As I earlier explained to two co-workers, I am a capitalist: I believe in free markets and the ability of business owners to reinvest their profits to expand their holdings. I love commerce. But, I clarified, my beliefs are not in "materialism" and the drive to acquire things. I seek to acquire things that are useful, so that we can improve our lives with greater wealth that leads to greater ease and greater comfort.

Greater wealth means a greater ability to charitably assist those -- not through government's coercion -- who, by luck or inability, do not have a surplus the rest of us enjoy. As the only way we can acquire legitimate wealth is to transact commerce with each other, government must therefore not discourage us with prohibitive tax policies and regulations. I maintain it's the wrong thing to say government must encourage us, because it should not encourage nor discourage us either way.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,
Jefferson made government's purpose quite clear in the Declaration of Independence. It is not government's role to guarantee (or try to) that our rights will never be violated. It is strictly government's role to ensure that we have those rights, and to punish those who violate them. It is indeed a motivation when the U.S. Constitution promises "to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity," however, what we choose to do with our rights is entirely up to us. Once government exceeds those boundaries, it becomes the state, that monstrosity about which Bastiat wrote, "The state is the great fictitious entity by which everyone seeks to live at the expense of everyone else."

Bastiat also wrote, in the first chapter of his Sophisms: "Man produces in order to consume. He is at once both producer and consumer." I humbly take this further in a thought that is certainly not original, but it is a passionate one for me: it does no good for a man to buy (especially to borrow to finance that consumption) in the hope that the buyer's new marginal income will spread around the economy and boost it. That's why Keynesian demand-side economics always fails, and that's why I'm a supply-sider. Not in the Jude Wanniski sense, but in my emphasis on how all the demand in the world won't do a blessed thing if nobody wants to produce.

Friday, November 25, 2005

My home Internet access is down

Just in case some of you are wondering why I'm not answering e-mails and offline on ICQ, my entire cable service, including my cable modem, went out around 7 yesterday evening. It was still out when I left for work this morning at 8:15. For the nonce, all I have is limited Internet access at work. Like all other companies in the securities industry, the firm wisely blocks us from web-based e-mail and forbids instant messenger programs, so here I'm unable to access my principal Internet communications. Public libraries are not an option to me, because I will not trust my login information to computers I must deem unsecure.

I was in the middle of downloading the latest Breezy Badger (Ubuntu 5.10, which a friend recommended I try as an alternative to Knoppix) and then jinxed myself by telling someone on ICQ how great my cable modem was. Not 20 seconds later, my cable signal went poof. Cablevision support told me last night, and again this morning when I called to yell at a new person, that it's an outage for my entire neighborhood. I suspect that, with the holiday, they're having trouble just finding anyone to work on it; they probably didn't even start until this morning. But holiday or none, they have no excuse for the service being out this long.

In the four years I've had Cablevision service, I've had recurring problems with signal outages. They were of infuriatingly great frequency during the first two years, but fairly rare in the last two. The signal would always come back in three or four hours, so calling to schedule a service call just meant having to call back and cancel it. A few "technicians" (and I use that term loosely because they made me wonder if they even could tell a physical difference between coax and cat-5) did come out to examine my wiring. None could ever find a reason why my signal would just go out and basically restore itself a few hours later. Eventually I stopped bothering to call altogether, hence my records with Cablevision don't accurately reflect the total outages.

I would sign up with a dial-up service like NetZero so I can at least have e-mail, ICQ and blogging for the time being, however, I cancelled my land line a couple of years ago. My cell phone became more than sufficient for my telephone needs, and one day I realized I was paying $40 a month to make two calls a month on my land line. While I still won't get a land line, perhaps now it's time to look at Verizon DSL. It's slower (768K download versus my current 10-megabit) and more expensive, but last night could be the straw that broke the camel's back. I wonder if anything could be less reliable than Cablevision.

Hope you all are having a better holiday weekend. From what I'm hearing, the subway system all over New York City has had breakdowns and delays all over, a wonderful way to start the shopping season. The shuttle from Grand Central to Times Square was fine, but the N/Q/R/W line had some delay up the line. Normally I get off at 57th Street (actually I use the 55th Street exit) and 7th Avenue. When we made the normal stop at 49th and 7th and then stayed there for several minutes, I got off and walked the rest of the way.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

The true story of the first Thanksgiving

It's been a popular theme for the last couple of years, and rehashed this year. Nothing can beat original scholarship and historical analysis, however. The Foundation for Economic Education provides us with the original 1949 essay by Henry Hazlitt, and Sartell Prentice, Jr.'s 1955 essay, which reflect on the triumph of free market capitalism over famine-generating socialism.

John Hinderaker at Power Line gives thanks for democracy, but consider that real democracy is the unfettered rule of the majority (and by definition does not regard individual rights). So I will instead side with Alex Tabarrok, who gives thanks for capitalism and its abundancy.

And finally, here's a quiz via Michelle Malkin's blog last year: What part of Thanksgiving are you?

Maybe I really am too predictable. I'm...



Mashed potatoes: ordinary, comforting, and more than a little predictable, I'm the glue that holds everyone together.

Xbox problems

Microsoft Reports Isolated Xbox Glitches

Microsoft Corp. said Wednesday it had received isolated reports of technical problems with its popular new Xbox 360 videogame system.

Some owners complained that their systems were crashing during game play, sometimes with error messages popping up. On http://www.xbox-scene.com, a site dedicated to Xbox gaming, a member called jsgongwon reported that he could not finish the first lap of "Project Gotham Racing 3."

"It's a few reports of consoles here and there not working properly," said Molly O'Donnell, a spokeswoman for Microsoft's Xbox division. "It's what you would expect with a consumer electronics instrument of this complexity .... par for the course."
I've heard about some of the glitches. Here's a screenshot of one:



Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Xbox-onomics

After explaining a few concepts to someone last night, I realized that the Xbox 360's debut is greatly illustrative of some introductory microeconomics. Some say that Microsoft purposely created a "shortage" (which in economics is more properly called a scarcity) to hype up demand. That could well be, but I'm going to examine what does not require speculation.

It all began with my explaining to someone why it's not worth my time to fix my own breakfast and lunches. I always buy them when I'm working. It would be cheaper monetarily to fix them myself and bring them to work, but that's not the full cost. Preparing them takes away from my already limited, hence very valuable time, and I happen to value certain amounts of money less than having more time. Therefore I am willing to trade several dollars for a meal not just because it is convenient sustenance, but so I can have more time to spend with friends, to blog, to sleep, etc.

I explained that convenience is why people pay much higher prices for small bottles of soda at checkout lines, instead of getting the larger bottles that are better values. And, I added, such a purchase is perfectly rational. It's not the most efficient transaction insofar as money, and perhaps for most people it's not even worth the convenience factor. Nonetheless, the buyers arrived at the decision using reasoned judgment, weighing the risks and gains; whether it took a second or a day, the decision is a rational one.

Then the other person sent me the link to this eBay sale, commenting, "Care to talk about economic rationality?" So someone was willing to pay $9100 on an Xbox 360 premium package, about 19 times what one of my friends paid for the same, which at first seems like a big waste of money. But when you examine the circumstances, this purchase turns out to be an exceptionally rational decision. It's less and less an impulsive buy because of the several steps required to register with eBay, place bids and contact the seller. Also, the buyer more likely evaluated the purchase carefully simply because the quantity of money is more significant than a 20-ounce soda for $1.

To buy his Xbox for a monetary cost of $479, one of my oldest friends camped out all night in freezing weather. On the other end of the consumer spectrum, the eBay auction winner clearly valued staying at home, where it's warm and familiar, where he can buy the product online and wait a few days to have it shipped, as worth more than $8621. Depending on how highly some people value time, convenience and comfort, they are willing to part with a greater amount of their wealth than a purchase's listed price.

Couldn't the buyer have spent less to hire someone in real life to camp a store for him? I imagine a lot of young men would have done it for $1000; perhaps $2000 to start, and a ready supply of labor would bid the price down. However, hiring someone still would have carried the risk of "disappointment" (being unable to buy the item at market price or even greater), because the person hired might go through the wait and be out of luck. So part of the $8621 premium was the buyer's desire for insurance that the sale would actually happen.

Couldn't the buyer have done better at other eBay auctions? Radical ignorance (pure "not knowing" and in fact not knowing you don't know) is highly improbable, since a typical person would realize there were other Xboxes being auctioned. Without scrutinizing the person's bid history, I'd guess he or she decided to stick with that single auction, for reasons ranging from preferring that seller (feedback ratings, conditions, etc.) to deciding that spending thousands of dollars more was worth more than the search costs of bidding in multiple auctions. The latter carries the risk of winning multiple auctions, which can give you negative feedback should you back out of any.

It's safe to conclude that a quite wealthy person bought that Xbox; a working class individual would not spend that kind of money. He's about 5'11, sandy hair and brown eyes, between 50 and 55, a slight case of carpal tunnel in the left wrist, a mild case of gout, and a family history of heart disease. The one conjecture I will offer is that it's a parent for his or her young son, and they didn't pre-order for one of two reasons: they didn't know (either of the new Xbox or that they would want it), or they waited for reviews before committing. Many Xbox 360 reviews like this one are extremely unfavorable, and for seemingly very good reasons, but it still hasn't deterred a lot of people from going half-nuts trying to get one.

Economics tells us that the eBay seller was serving a valuable purpose as middleman, bringing together the original seller and the ultimate buyer. Clearly someone was willing to pay $9100 for an Xbox, and even at that price he may not have found one without the eBay seller, so another part of that $8621 is a willingness to pay a finder's fee. I salute this example of arbitrage and don't consider the profit "excessive" in the least, since the deal was purely voluntary. If you think the eBay price (or the original retail) is outrageous, you are free not to buy an Xbox 360 and instead wait for the PS3. Your kid (or you) might be disappointed this Christmas, but weren't we all taught from a young age, "Life isn't fair, and you can't always have what you want"? Or in this case, have what you want at the price you want. I personally think it was for the best that my parents couldn't find any Transformers for me -- Christmas 1984, I think.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

What did I say?

I think my minute amount of smugness can be permitted here. I said early Tuesday morning about GM's labor cuts:
The unions are right to criticize GM's management, but that's not offering a solution. Actually, the union leaders can do something: let them formulate their own plan on how to turn GM around, and present that to the shareholders. If it's sound, the shareholders and directors should listen; if they don't, then they deserve to lose their investment.

Barring that, the union leaders should advise their at-risk members to start applying at Toyota.
Note the very end. And in today's news:
Toyota Quickens Quest to Unseat GM

TOKYO - Toyota Motor Corp. is quickening its quest to unseat ailing rival General Motors Corp. as the world's biggest automaker with reported plans to start manufacturing up to 100,000 Toyota vehicles at a Subaru factory in Indiana.

Word of Toyota's ramped-up production schedule comes just days after money-losing GM said it will close 12 facilities by 2008 in a move that will slash the number of vehicles it is able to build in North America by about 1 million a year.
While it's not exactly next door, Toyota will be a nice lure to the labor pool of skilled, experienced GM workers, not just those facing immediate cuts, but those who lack confidence in their future at an automaker that might be in its twilight.

The New York tea party

I've been meaning to blog about this but haven't had the time to address it properly. New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, fresh from a landslide re-election on the 8th, proposed a new tax. And the beauty of it, from his perspective, is that it falls on those who reside outside the city but commute in for work, i.e. those who have limited political power over him.

The New York Post had a stinging editorial, for whatever it was worth. It shares the same sentiment I've had all along, that New York City's government is spending far too much, and Bloomberg cannot just listen to his liberal instincts that tax hikes are the way to cover budget shortfalls.
BLOOMY'S BROKEN PROMISE

November 15, 2005 -- Forty-eight hours. That's how long it took for Mayor Mike to double- cross New York and call for new taxes — violating repeated promises that he would do no such thing.

Indeed, the actual direct-from-the-machine vote counts only come today — yet Bloomberg has already announced a plan for socking it to New Yorkers and their neighbors.

On Friday, he renewed his demand to restore the commuter tax, which would zap non-city residents who work here and, indirectly, their employers.

Over and over again during the election campaign, Bloomy vowed not to raise taxes.

"If we focus on trying to do a little more with less, with the expansion of the economy, we will get through [next] year without any tax increases or fee increase," he said just days before the vote.

New Yorkers thought Rudy Giuliani evicted the Three-Card Monte sharps; little did they know they'd be returning one to City Hall for four more years.

Frankly, though, voters had fair warning. (As they say, fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.)

No, this is not the first time Bloomy has pulled a "no new taxes" bait-and-switch.

Remember his first campaign?


He promised to keep levies down in that one, too. At least then he had the decency to wait until he was inaugurated before turning Gothamites into suckers....

But let's face it: Mayor Mike has never understood the fundamental problem with the city's budget. It's quite simple, really:

The budget is too high!

The city spends too much — and taxes too much to pay for all the spending.

Which is why Bloomberg is dead wrong when he says a commuter tax is "the way to solve some of these problems."


Curbing the city's financial obligations is the way. Not forever scrambling for new streams of revenue....

Meanwhile, Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy is already contemplating revenge: "a toll for those using our county roads to get to the Hamptons." (OK, he may not be serious now — but if the commuter tax comes back, who knows?)

All this to plug a gap guaranteed to plague Gotham for years, given the budget's underlying fiscal imbalance. Consider that the commuter tax itself was only bringing in $500 million a year, just one-ninth of the $4.5 billion gap.

Will Mike be hiking other taxes to close the other eight-ninths?

Expect him to try — because that's the easy way out. Never mind that it'll break a key campaign vow, for a second time.

Think it of as Bloomy's breach of faith.
Bloomberg thinks a commuter tax will help balance the city's budget after the 2006 fiscal year, when it will start running huge deficits again. I've previously detailed the current fiscal situation, including what was projected in May would be a $3 billion surplus for 2005. Bloomberg initially (I don't know about now) wanted to save it to cover future deficits, which is wise. Yet the teachers didn't understand the concept of saving an excess for an expected rainy day: they demanded to know why Bloomberg wasn't planning to use it to hire new teachers and put more money into NYC public schools.

Bloomberg's justification is that commuters use city services that, as residents, we do not pay enough taxes for. Is it not enough that I pay 2%-plus of my city income in city income taxes? Doesn't that one-fiftieth of my city income help fund the NYPD and fire departments, in case I need their assistance, though I fortunately have never needed it? Doesn't that one-fiftieth of my city income help the sanitation crews that empty trash cans into which I throw my garbage? Doesn't that one-fiftieth of my city income help fund Central Park and other public areas I go to?

Those are about all I can think of; I directly pay for every other "city service" I use, like subways. And if various fee-based city services aren't pulling enough from fees, then the fees need to go up, just like any business would do with its prices. However, Bloomberg over the last four years has clearly shown he doesn't believe that you should pay only for what you use, and I should pay only for what I use. And now he seems to be telling commuters like me that our city income taxes aren't enough to pay for our share of the city's bloated, wasteful government. Why do no politicians ever look at reducing the size -- and especially the scope -- of the city budget, instead of expecting the latest taxpayer du jour to make up any revenue shortfalls?

When Bloomberg institutes his desired commuter tax, I and other commuters would fork over another $500 million to the city's coffers. Yes, that will help balance the budget; that is what is seen. However, has Bloomberg and his advisors not considered what is not seen? I doubt what the Post predicts, that companies would raise salaries for many affected employees, not unless they're top echelon management who are in very high demand and must be kept at their city jobs. The rest of us would, for the most part, put up with an additional 0.45% taken out of each paycheck. We'd still be making more in the city than elsewhere, however, there's still a certain level at which we'd cry, "Enough!" and look for jobs close to home in Westchester, Rockland, Fairfield and New Jersey. There's a certain level at which businesses will start fleeing the city again.

The Post editorial is correct, though, in predicting the commuter tax's effect on city businesses. What Bloomberg's administration (not to mention all four of the Democratic candidates who supported a commuter tax) does not see is that commuters would compensate by simply reducing our consumption spending in the city. We'll shop for fewer clothes than we otherwise would, go to fewer shows, consume at a wine bar, etc. Instead of eating lunch at restaurants with a certain frequency, we might eat more often at delis, or get lunch at a halal stand.

That's how taxes work: government may be able to balance its budget, but it deprives people of their own money to spend (or save) as they see fit. That in turn hurts businesses, and that means hurting people trying to make a real living -- as opposed to all the unions and other special interest groups who have successfully lobbied City Hall for generous pay yet rarely give the value that the private sector would. It wouldn't be so bad if taxpayers got their money's worth, but we are, after all, dealing with one of the classic cases of big government.

And most of all, this is taxation without representation, making the comparison to 1773 Boston very apt. It's time that we who commute into New York City for work let him know. Eric Cowperthwaite already began a nationwide tea party back in October, but I want to start one with a focus on the New York metropolitan region. I'd like nothing better than a big media event where we dump tea into the East River, but I'm sure that's illegal, so we'll do it Eric's way. All of us, from Poughkeepsie to Stamford, from Danbury to the Jersey shore, should start sending tea bags to Hizzoner:

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg
City Hall
New York, NY 10007

Include a note indicating your displeasure at having to pay this additional tribute. Make sure to use tea bags, not loose tea. His staff might just throw loose tea away, or worse, they'll freak out that you've sent them a hazardous substance. It's just a matter of exercising common sense.

Send the tea bags, and send around the link to my entry here so that enough people are made aware. It would probably get me in trouble for "littering," otherwise I would photocopy fliers and leave them on the seats of my usual Metro-North train (I usually get there before most other passengers). Let's send King Mike a message that for once, he needs to look at cutting city spending, instead of hiking taxes on anyone he can.

Addendum: a list of my entries on Bloomberg, illustrating my views on the man, can be found here.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Why insist on further increasing a company's losses?

I've been laid off before, so I know it's not pleasant nor easy. But when a business is losing money and can't afford to keep you, why should you expect to stay around?
GM to Ax 30,000 Jobs, Close 12 Facilities

DETROIT - General Motors Corp., pounded by declining sales and rising health care costs, said Monday it will cut more than a quarter of its North American manufacturing jobs and close 12 facilities by 2008. The United Auto Workers called the plan "devastating" and warned it will make negotiations more difficult, but some Wall Street analysts said GM's actions may not go far enough.

To get production in line with demand, GM will cut 30,000 jobs, which represent 17 percent of GM's North American hourly and salaried work force of 173,000, and will close nine assembly, stamping and powertrain plants and three parts facilities. GM's U.S. market share fell to 26.2 percent in the first 10 months of this year compared with 33 percent a decade ago, the result of increasing competition from Asian rivals. GM lost almost $4 billion in the first nine months of this year.

"The decisions we are announcing today were very difficult to reach because of their impact on our employees and the communities where we live and work," GM Chairman and Chief Executive Rick Wagoner said. "But these actions are necessary for GM to get its costs in line with our major global competitors." ...

Wagoner said the job cuts will come primarily through attrition and early-retirement packages to mitigate the impact on workers. GM has an annual attrition rate of about 7 percent, Wagoner said. The average hourly worker is around 49 years old, he said.

Some workers who don't choose to retire could go into jobs banks, which pay laid-off workers their salary and benefits. Wagoner said details about layoffs and early-retirement packages still need to be worked out with the UAW, the Canadian Auto Workers and other unions....

"Workers have no control over GM's capital investment, product development, design, marketing and advertising decisions. But, unfortunately, it is workers, their families and our communities that are being forced to suffer because of the failures of others," UAW President Ron Gettelfinger and Vice President Richard Shoemaker said in a joint statement.
No one wants to see workers receive pay cuts or fewer benefits, or lose their jobs (which aren't outright layoffs because of the contract requirements). However, GM simply isn't making money, and it's unrealistic for the unions to expect GM to keep employing them. The workers are asking the shareholders -- the owners of the company -- to be philanthropists instead of investors. That's not how you run a business. Similarly, it's unrealistic for people to pay a little into pension funds and expect big returns regardless of the business' performance, as I've discussed before.

The unions are right to criticize GM's management, but that's not offering a solution. Actually, the union leaders can do something: let them formulate their own plan on how to turn GM around, and present that to the shareholders. If it's sound, the shareholders and directors should listen; if they don't, then they deserve to lose their investment.

Barring that, the union leaders should advise their at-risk members to start applying at Toyota.

No liberal media bias?

Why, they're completely objective toward President Bush, didn't you know?

Michael Scanlon had been charged with conspiring to bribe public officials, and on Monday he plead guilty. He was a partner of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, but there's one person that the Washington Post, New York Times and L.A. Times won't let you forget:







Never mind that the case against Tom DeLay is very weak and clearly driven by politics. Even the New York Times article, making the usual insinuations by calling Scanlon "a longtime Republican operative in the capital," admits Scanlon hasn't worked for DeLay since 2000.

Prosecutor Ronnie Earle may be worrying he can't convict Tom DeLay in a court of law, but he knows he can depend on mainstream media to do its best to slime the former Speaker of the House in the court of public opinion.

Just remember:


(With thanks to www.welovetheiraqiinformationminister.com for the original picture.)

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Joe Biden: gone fishin'

On November 6th, Biden said he believed a filibuster was unlikely, and that Alito would get an up-or-down vote.

Last night, I saw the same Yahoo! News article that Professor Bainbridge did, but I didn't have time to blog about it:
Biden: Alito's Views May Bring Filibuster

WASHINGTON - The views that Samuel Alito expressed on reapportionment in a 20-year-old document could jeopardize his Supreme Court nomination and provoke a filibuster, a leading Democratic senator said Sunday.

"I think he's got a lot of explaining to do, and depending on how he does, I think will determine whether or not he has a problem or not," said Sen. Joseph Biden, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which plans confirmation hearings in early January.

In 1985, Alito was applying to become deputy assistant attorney general in the Reagan administration. In the document, he boasted that while working as an assistant to the solicitor general, he helped "to advance legal positions in which I personally believe very strongly."

Drawing the most attention from Alito's critics today is his comment on abortion.

"I am particularly proud of my contributions in recent cases in which the government argued that racial and ethnic quotas should not be allowed and that the Constitution does not protect a right to an abortion," wrote Alito, now a federal appeals court judge.

But Biden, D-Del., said he was most troubled by Alito's comment about reapportionment under the Supreme Court when it was led by Chief Justice Earl Warren.

The Warren Court, as it became known, ended public school segregation and established the election principle of one-man one-vote.

"The part that jeopardizes it (Alito's nomination) more is his quotes in there saying that he had strong disagreement with the Warren Court particularly on reapportionment — one man, one vote," Biden told "Fox News Sunday."

"The fact that he questioned abortion and the idea of quotas is one thing. The fact that he questioned the idea of the legitimacy of the reapportionment decisions of the Warren Court is even something well beyond that," Biden said.

In the document, Alito wrote, "In college, I developed a deep interest in constitutional law, motivated in large part by disagreement with Warren Court decisions, particularly in the areas of criminal procedure, the Establishment Clause and reapportionment," he said.
Biden is full of nonsense, and he likely knows it.

Was Alito "boasting," or is mainstream media again twisting a conservative's words like they did with President Bush's? All I see is that Alito merely expressed pride in how he helped represent the interests of the federal government, i.e. his employer, in certain cases. And he happened to agree with his employer's stance. This is the same tired argument we saw with John Roberts, which didn't work then, and hopefully won't work now against Alito.

Professor Bainbridge last week gave an excellent explanation as to why opposing the specifics of the Warren Court's decision on reapportionment does not necessarily mean one opposes the principle of reapportionment. As another example, take the FEC's recent ruling that "Fired Up" is entitled to press exemptions from campaign finance reform laws. I agree with the part of the ruling that groups "Fired Up" (and presumably other bloggish sites) with the general idea of "the press," but I simultaneously see danger in such rulings: we're seeing more and more specific definitions of what "the press" is.

The Professor also wondered if mainstream media bias had anything to do with the article mentioning the irrelevant end of segregation, when Alito hadn't brought it up at all. They do it all the time to the President, so should it surprise us that they'd do it to his nominee?

In any case, Joe Biden's gone fishin' for whatever he can on Samuel Alito, but I think he needs a better lure. Nothing's biting here, and I agree with the Professor: this is nothing that would sustain a filibuster. Republicans, I feel, could get public opinion on their side when a handful of extreme Democrats are clearly looking for any reason to play politics. If anything, there weren't blogs around in 1987...right, Dan Rather?

Monday, November 21, 2005

A new definition of insanity

Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result.

My definition: camping outside a store in freezing weather so one can get an Xbox 360 when the store opens in the morning. And it's only 8 p.m.!

No, I'm not doing that, but an old friend is.

Who doesn't like Wal-Mart's "everyday low prices"?

Politicians and Wal-Mart's competitors, that's who. You can't tell me that the following real people don't appreciate Wal-Mart:
Retailers Like Wal-Mart Adjust to Katrina
Wal-Mart, Best Buy and Other Retailers Adjust to Katrina With Inventive Store Formats


WAVELAND, Miss. - No other Wal-Mart in the country looks like the one that reopened here more than two months after Hurricane Katrina nearly wiped the town off the map.

Pallets of space heaters, box fans, mops and buckets are stacked on the floor. Plywood walls hide workers still repairing what used to be the food department.

Wal-Mart is one of a handful of retailers along the Gulf Coast that have tailored their reopened stores to meet the basic needs of their hurricane-weary customers, stocking shelves with large quantities of hardware, appliances, no-frills clothes, dry food and other post-disaster products.

"It's a real uplifting thing," Jim Freeman, 60, said as he and his wife, Nina, filled a shopping cart with food. "You take a lot of things for granted until it's all gone."

Best Buy on Friday opened a first-of-its-kind store in Gulfport, converting a former grocery store into a warehouse-style store with roughly twice as much floor space for appliances as a normal store. The rest of the space is still for computers, televisions and other electronics, but compact discs and DVDs won't be sold there right away.

A Home Depot in eastern New Orleans partially reopened Thursday, 81 days after the hurricane filled it with six feet of water. The store sells only building materials and appliances and uses only half of the original store's space.

Almost all of Waveland's stores are vacant and littered with debris, but the Wal-Mart's parking lot was nearly full Saturday when the store opened for the first time since the hurricane flooded it with 14 feet of water.

Waveland's "Wal-Mart Express" is roughly one-third of the size of the original 205,800-square-foot "Supercenter."

Store manager Ray Cox said his inventory will change as residents go from cleaning up their homes to rebuilding them.

"It's quick, it's easy and we can change on the fly," he said.

Other retailers are sticking to their standard format: When Target reopens a hurricane-damaged store in Beaumont, Texas, it will look like any other store in the chain, said company spokeswoman Lena Michaud.

"What our guests have told us is that they like being able to come into a place that is back to normal and reminds them of life before the hurricane," she said.

Richard Hastings, a retail analyst for Bernard Sands in New York, said Wal-Mart and other retailers have nothing to lose by opening these experimental stores in hurricane-affected areas.

"They're helping the community, no question about it, and they're going to recapture the market down there," he said.

Wal-Mart doesn't have much competition in Waveland yet. Other stores along Highway 90 are in shambles. A fast-food restaurant and several convenience stores are the only other businesses that have reopened, residents said.

While the store's interior was being gutted and repaired, Wal-Mart sold some basic items out of a tent in the parking lot. The nearest grocery store was about a half-hour drive.

"It's definitely a sign of recovery when Wal-Mart comes back," said shopper Sharon Adams....
Wal-Mart has surely not rushed to provide its (in)famously low-priced goods out of altruism, but because there's profit to be earned. Just don't tell any of this to Senator Byron Dorgan, because he might next propose levying "windfall taxes" on Wal-Mart -- just as he has on oil companies.

Yet the fact that Wal-Mart is profiting from people's rebuilding should never be construed as a bad thing. They have goods that people want, that people are willing to pay for, and only Wal-Mart had the ability to provide them. With the level of destruction, and considering the capabilities of small stores, only a giant like Wal-Mart could clean up its retail space and get back in business so soon.

Target has a nice idea of pretending everything is normal, but my personal hunch is that Wal-Mart, Best Buy and Home Depot have the better idea in devoting their limited space to what people need in the here and now. It's a matter of how quickly, and again, Wal-Mart can do it with greater ease than any small store. Having worked at my aunt's wine store during more than one holiday season, I find it astounding how quickly a Wal-Mart can transform itself.

I wonder how many Waveland residents had previously complained about Wal-Mart's practices but are now shopping there. What are the odds they'll finally appreciate a big business model that, yes, tends to drive small "mom & pop" stores out of business, but has the ability to supply their consumer needs after a natural disaster?

Do those who think Wal-Mart is evil ever dream of an alternate universe where it doesn't exist? There, people in Waveland would still have to drive 30 minutes just to buy groceries, and likely pay higher prices to boot.

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