Saturday, October 31, 2009

Pundit contest

The 10 finalists in the Washington Post pundit contest have been announced . There were about 4800 entries so it is not too surprising that my entry did not make the cut. Perhaps it is just as well considering the nasty comments some of the entries are attracting.

I have posted my entry here .

Rating on the curve

The recent financial crisis represents a failure of the financial markets. As with other failures of complicated systems there were many contributing factors and many weaknesses were exposed.

One contributing factor was the failure of the major rating agencies to correctly assess the risk of collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) based on pools of residential mortgage loans. The resulting overly generous ratings allowed such CDOs to be sold for more than they were worth. This made assembling such CDOs extremely profitable and led to a flood of money into the residential mortgage market. The easy availability of mortgages in turn contributed to the housing bubble. When the housing bubble began to collapse it became apparent that many of the CDOs had been overrated triggering the crisis. Ironically one reason for the overly generous ratings was the failure of the rating agencies to properly consider the possibility of a housing bubble and subsequent price collapse.

Buyers have probably wised up to the risks of this particular product but the general problem still exists. Because the rating agencies are paid by the creators of the products they rate they have an incentive to give overly generous ratings. Similar grade inflation occurs in other contexts and can be difficult to prevent.

I am proposing a simple change that would alleviate this problem. The rating agencies should be required to rate on a curve. In other words instead (or in addition to) of giving a rating like AAA they would have to rank similar products from safest to riskiest. For example they could say a particular CDO was riskier than 36% of similar CDOs but safer than the remaining 64%.

This would have a number of positive effects. Like class rank this is a rating that is immune to grade inflation. It would encourage the sellers of the rated products to police the process as an overrated issue would knock down everyone else's rank. It would discourage the process of trying to produce products that just barely qualify for a target rating. And it would encourage potential buyers to look beyond a single letter grade.

No single change is likely to eliminate the possibility of future crises but the cumulative effect of a series of incremental improvements can be significant. This simple change would contribute.

Friday, October 30, 2009


I have been reading Richard Posner's book "A Failure of Capitalism". I will probably have more to say about this book but for now want to discuss a small point. On page 290 Posner includes in a list things that perhaps should be restricted:

... the right (which fosters overindebtedness) to eliminate debts by declaring bankruptcy. ...

This is a very simpleminded way of looking at things. It is true that the ability to discharge debt in bankruptcy does to some extent encourage reckless borrowing. However it also discourages reckless lending. So it is unclear whether it fosters overindebtedness on balance. Furthermore the ability to discharge debt also encourages prudent borrowing. Which means restrictions on bankruptcy might primarily deter prudent borrowers (who are more likely to worry about such things). So determining socially optimal bankruptcy regulation is considerably more complicated than Posner indicates here.

In general I think efforts to discourage inappropriate loans should concentrate on the lenders. After all we generally expect that people who have money are smarter and more prudent than people who don't have money and thus are easier to deter with evidence that a loan is likely to go bad.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Stone Walls

While walking in the parks around here I often see old stone walls. Some of them are surprisingly well made and are still in pretty good shape especially considering how old they must be. I had been under the impression that New England farmers built stone walls mostly to just have a place to pile the rocks that would constantly appear in their fields. In which case no great workmanship or long life would be expected. However it appears there was more to it than that.

... Some farmers could build a wall with stone that was found on their farmland. Most farmers however, had to steal or buy the stone. ...

Surprisingly (to me anyway) stealing stone is still a problem .

I took the picture Thursday in Kitchawan Preserve . This time I explored the trails on the other side of the North County Trailway . Incidentally I have found the trail map for Kitchawan preserve linked in my earlier post does not exactly depict how the trails are currently blazed.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Tax efficiency

I have just spent a couple of days entering data for some mutual funds I own into my new Quicken program . I had been vaguely aware that index funds have tax advantages over actively managed mutual funds but a concrete example was still startling. I owned $X of index fund A and $Y of actively managed fund B on 12/31/1986. In both cases I have reinvested all distributions and paid the taxes with other income. As of 10/28/2009, A was worth 7.21*X and B was worth 6.69*Y. So ignoring taxes the annual rates of return for A and B are about 9.04% and 8.69% respectively. The higher fees of active management don't seem to be adding value. However the after tax picture is even worse. Over the years the index fund has distributed 2.28*X while the actively managed fund has distributed 8.01*Y. So the tax cost of B has been much higher than A. This probably has increased the after tax difference in annual return by 1% or so.

Now much of this tax advantage would disappear if I sold both funds as the distributions have increased the basis so selling A would produce a substantial capital gain and selling B would produce a substantial capital loss. However under current law if I hold until death the basis will step up preserving the tax advantage.

Another way of looking at this is to assume annual returns of 9% consisting of 3% in dividends and 6% in capital appreciation. Suppose the index fund just distributes the dividends while the actively managed fund distributes the dividends and the capital gains. Then if you assume a tax rate of 20% and that you pay the taxes from the distributions and reinvest the remainder, the index fund will grow at an annual rate of 8.4% while the annual rate of growth for the actively managed fund will be 7.2%.

To substantially benefit from tax free compounding rather long holding periods are required. Suppose we ignore dividends and assume capital appreciation of 6% a year. Assume we hold for n years, then sell and pay 20% capital gains tax and reinvest. Then as n goes to infinity the effective annual yield rises from 4.8% (n=1) to 6% but rather slowly. It is an interesting exercise to determine how big n is required to be to get half the benefit (ie an annual yield of 5.4%).

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Breaking the Buck

One of the casualties in last falls financial crisis was the Reserve Primary Fund which broke the buck after its holdings of Lehman paper became worthless with Lehman's bankruptcy.

It has been repeatedly claimed (large pdf file, see page 10) that this was only the second time a money market had broken the buck. The previous instance having occurred in 1994. This claim is false as I have reason to know as I was a shareholder in the Merrill Lynch Ready Assets Trust on August 27, 1982 when it broke the buck. To be sure it didn't break it by very much, the value of a share falling to about $.999671. This was before the SEC adopted penny rounding (allowing money market funds to round their value to the nearest penny) in 1983. Contrary to current propaganda by the money market fund industry this was not the end of life as we know it. The fund computers had no trouble dealing with this event and as far as I know there was no panic or run on the fund.

In my view the SEC was wrong to allow penny rounding in the first place and should take this opportunity to eliminate it. It is ridiculous that some fund computers can not handle prices other than $1.00. And if small fluctuations were visible this would encourage the funds to operate in a more conservative way. Finally this would discourage runs because if fund assets are fairly valued every day there is no advantage to redeeming first when a fund runs into trouble. Unlike the case at the Reserve Primary Fund where many investors were able to get out whole sticking the slow and trusting with the entire loss.

The picture is a scan of one of the two letters I received concerning Ready Assets breaking the buck.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Great Unraveling

I recently read another book, "The Great Unraveling", by Paul Krugman. This 2005 book largely consists of reprints of Krugman's New York Times columns. I was not reading his column at the time so most of the material was new to me. Still I found the book disappointing. Many of the columns are about hot issues of the day and have little lasting interest. And when grouped together by theme they can be quite repetitive.

The book makes the general argument that Bush couldn't do anything right. I actually tend to agree but that doesn't mean I feel a need to read 400 pages of examples. I would advise skipping this book.

Sunday, October 25, 2009


I recently acquired Quicken Premier 2010. With the demise of Microsoft Money, Quicken seemed the obvious choice. I got the Premier version because I want to track my investments as well as my spending. My first impressions are pretty negative.

The biggest issue I have is there does not seem to be a safe way to import my bank account transaction data automatically. It doesn't seem like good security to give Quicken the id and password needed to access my bank online. This would not be necessary if I could download the transaction data to a file and then import the file into Quicken. However Quicken appears to have gone to great lengths to make this impossible. It is my understanding that they have done this so they can collect fees from my bank. This is pretty obnoxious and means I have been entering transactions manually which is painful.

The investment portion of the program has a number of issues as well. I would like to be able to enter a stock purchase in say 1985 (which I have not sold) and have Quicken automatically fill in splits, spin offs, dividends etc. This does not seem to be possible. The stock price look up only seems to go back 5 years and it does not appear to provide other information like dividends. This means the program does not seem able to provide an estimate of annual dividend income from a portfolio of stocks. There is also an issue with mergers. For example Wyeth was recently acquired by Pfizer. As a result all historical price information for Wyeth seems to have disappeared from their data provider (at least I can't figure out how to get it) making it impossible to track performance across the merger (without entering all the Wyeth price data manually).

In fairness it is possible that I will like the program better after becoming more familiar with it. However at the moment I am wondering whether I should have tried GnuCash first.

Time and Chance

Matthew Yglesias blogs about a paper which claims to find that graduating from college and entering the job market in a recession year has long term negative effects on your career. This seems plausible although the paper has the weakness that it only looks at a small number of years. So even if you show that people who graduated in high unemployment years did worse it is possible that these years were bad for other (or additional) reasons than high unemployment. However it is certainly true that chance events play a big part in life. This is not a new observation.

Ecclesiastes 9:11

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Yglesias goes on:

... If you’re graduating from college this spring, you’ll be sitting around at the age of thirty-five still suffering from the fact that Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe, Ben Nelson, and Kent Conrad decided to make the stimulus bill stingier in order to better bolster their credentials as preening centrists. When thinking about short-term inflation-unemployment tradeoffs, this sort of thing is crucial to keep in mind. Inflicting a high unemployment rate on the population has incredibly punitive and deleterious long-run consequences for young people.

I think this is pretty wrongheaded. First if you are looking for villains the people who caused the recession would seem better candidates than a few moderate Senators. Second optimal economic policy is not as obvious as Yglesias would have us believe. Third any policy has winners and losers. One could equally say "inflicting a high inflation rate on the population has incredibly punitive and deleterious long-run consequences for old people on fixed incomes".

Friday, October 23, 2009

Playoff puzzle

There was some angst in Yankeeland after the team failed to close out the Angels in game 5. However the Yankees would appear to still be in pretty good shape returning home up 3 games to 2 in the best of 7 American League Championship Series (ALCS).

This suggests the following puzzle. Suppose the Yankees will win each game with probability p (independent of the results of the other games). Then in a best of 7 playoff how large does p have to be for the Yankees to be worse off leading 3 to 2 than they were at the beginning before any games were played.

Blogger problem

Blogger was having having problems last night making it impossible to view some blogs including mine. Things seem to be fixed.

This seems like an opportunity to solict feedback. Anything you all would like to see more of? Less of?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Photovoltaic cell color

A silly controversy has arisen concerning the color of photovoltaic solar panels. Apparently a new book "SuperFreakonomics" contains the following (quoted here):

As an example he points to solar power. “The problem with solar cells is that they’re black, because they are designed to absorb light from the sun. But only about 12 percent gets turned into electricity, and the rest is reradiated as heat — which contributes to global warming.

Yglesias (among others) jumps on this statement (here and here) posting a photo of solar panels that appear to be dark blue and claiming:

... Still, it is worth dwelling a moment on the fact that their critique of photovoltaic literally rests on the idea that PV cells are black whereas in reality they’re usually blue:

First their critique depends on solar cells being dark (low albedo) not black. Perhaps they should have said "dark" instead of "black" but this is not a serious error. Especially since, Yglesias to the contrary, many cells are black. It is hard to judge color from photos because the cells are often reflecting the blue sky. See for instance this photo where the cells appear to be blue except at the upper right where they appear to be brown because they are reflecting brown branches instead of blue sky.

Anyway the critique is because solar cells are dark they may absorb more sunlight than whatever background they are replacing thus heating the earth. This can occur whether the cells are black or dark blue in appearance. However this effect is not important. Coal power plants also generate considerable waste heat as their thermal efficiency is only about 33%. It is doubtful that solar cells produce more excess heating per unit of electricity generated than the waste heat from coal power plants. And in any case the global warming concern with coal power plants is not their waste heat (which is not significant globally compared to solar heating) but the much greater long term heating effect from the CO2 emitted when coal is burned.

Does this mean photovoltaic solar cells make sense? Not really, they are inferior to wind turbines which also don't emit CO2 and are much cheaper .

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Arcady Road

I went walking in Kitchawan Preserve again on Monday. This time I explored the western portion of the Preserve. One trail terminates at Arcady Road. It looks like it would be easy to add a few parking spaces there but this has not been done.

Arcady Road used to connect Old Kitchawan Road to Croton Dam Road but a portion was damaged by Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and never repaired. The damaged portion has now been officially abandoned (pdf file see resolution 180). I walked down the road towards the closed portion. Auto traffic is blocked just past a driveway but you can walk a bit further until a chain link fence blocks the road.

I took the picture through the fence. It shows part of the road washed away.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Sunset years

I recently turned 55. Trying to look at the bright side this makes me eligible for more senior discounts . It also provides an excuse to post the picture which I took this July when I was in Denver. It is looking across Smith Lake in Washington Park .

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Mathematics and CDOs

This mathematics paper (with this FAQ ) has attracted some attention from bloggers. Briefly the paper starts with a model in which sellers construct collateralized debt obligations (or CDOs) from many different asset types (and with each asset type appearing in many different CDOs). If the seller knows some of the asset types are lemons (eg are worse risks than they appear) then the seller can create lemon CDOs by assigning them more than their fair share of the lemon asset types. The paper claims to show (using the conjectured intractability of the densest subgraph problem) that this nonrandom assignment is much easier for the seller to do than for the buyer to detect.

I have no reason to doubt the mathematics in this paper but I do doubt its real world significance. The larger risk with such CDOs from the buyer's point of view is that the CDOs will be overpriced across the board not that they will purchase CDOs from a malevolently constructed fraction of lemons. This is what went wrong with the mortgage backed CDOs whose loss of value contributed so much to the recent crisis. The pricing models for these CDOs overvalued them by incorporating a number of overly optimistic assumptions. When this became apparent their prices collapsed. As far as I know the scenario in paper is purely hypothetical.

I don't see much point in worrying about hypothetical problems before fixing readily apparent real problems. And I don't think this particular hypothetical problem would actually be all that difficult to solve. It seems to me that it should be possible to devise a transparent verifiable randomization procedure if that should be felt to be important.

My opinion is this problem will prove to be largely moot going forward. These CDO products grew explosively because they could be sold for more than they were worth. Presumably potential buyers have wised up and this will no longer be possible. In which case I don't think these products have much reason for existing and will largely disappear.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Dreams from My Father

After reading Polanski's autobiography I moved on to Barack Obama's 1995 autobiography "Dreams from My Father". This is a strange book. It is a bit hard to understand why anyone at the time would have thought publishing 442 pages of self-absorbed rambling reflections on family and racial identity by the youthful Obama was a good idea. But of course, in a development which should hearten parents of underachieving children everywhere, the conflicted aimless Obama of this book somehow went on to be elected President.

This book doesn't shed much light on how he did it. The Obama of this book is plagued by self doubts, too willing and able to pick holes in his preferred self image. He wants to be an authentic American black but knows that his mother was white and that he was raised by whites. He wants to be proud of his African blood but is all too aware of all of Africa's failures. The resulting lack of direction and self-confidence would seem to be a big handicap for a politician. Perhaps Obama's later book "The Audacity of Hope" (which I have not read) explains how he resolved his issues and became an effective politician but this book doesn't offer many clues. And the narrow focus makes it hard to get a clear picture of Obama as a whole.

I found the book readable and sporadically interesting. However it is also quite lengthy and seemed cliched at times. It is mostly of interest because Obama went on to be elected President. So unless you are a politics addict or relate to Obama's identity issues I would not recommend this book.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Westchester recycles

Westchester occasionally has recycling days at Croton Point Park. Two were scheduled for today and tomorrow so I took the opportunity to get rid of some plastic bags . They took #4 plastic bags (used for newspapers) as well as the usual #2 plastic shopping bags and gave me in return (for 20 or more plastic bags while supplies last) the free reusable bag pictured. It looks like cloth but is really plastic itself which seems a little ironic.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Rain and snow mixed

It seems the proper name for the mix of rain and wet snow we got today is rain and snow mixed. Whatever the name, as a winter hater, I wasn't too pleased to see white blobs falling. The ground and lower atmosphere was well above freezing so there was no accumulation but still. Things could be worse, one year there was a real snowfall in October before all the leaves were off the trees and it did a lot of damage.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Unintentional humor

So Tuesday night I am watching an old (1995) episode of Friends on DVD when Chandler starts bragging about his new laptop . Seems it has 12 MB of RAM and a 500 MB hard drive.

This is of course humorous by 2009 standards. Currently a low end ($400) Dell Inspiron 15 laptop has 2 GB of RAM and a 160 GB hard drive. A GB is 1000 times as big as a MB. So the new machine has 167 times as much RAM and the hard drive is 320 times as large. Thus capacity has more than doubled every 2 years consistent with Moore's law .

Many things haven't changed too much since I was a kid in the 1960s. But the advances in computing technology are pretty incredible when you think about it.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Roman by Polanski

The recent arrest of Roman Polanski prompted me to read his 1984 autobiography, "Roman by Polanski". Polanski has led an eventful life, surviving in Nazi occupied Poland as a Jewish child, becoming a famous movie director and joining Sharon Tate in a marriage which ended tragically when she was murdered by the Manson Family. However I didn't find his account all that compelling. I am not much of a movie buff and the only one of Polanski's films that I have seen is Chinatown . Thus I wasn't that fascinated by inside accounts of the making of films I had never heard of. The book had some interesting material but not (in my opinion at least) 450 pages worth. So unless you have some special interest in Polanski's films I would skip this book.

He gives a defensive and not completely convincing account of the incident that led to his becoming a fugitive from justice. But the exact truth of what happened doesn't matter too much at this point. He admits to the charge to which he plead guilty (unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13 year old girl). By his account the 42 days he did spend in jail was not particularly traumatic. His decision to flee the country instead of appearing for sentencing is not really explained and seems to have been somewhat irrational. The bottom line in my view is this. Martha Stewart and many others, who could easily have fled the country, showed up for sentencing and did their time. It would be completely unfair to them to give Polanski a pass.

Monday, October 12, 2009


I had mixed feelings about this NYT article on the growing popularity of chicken wings and how they currently cost more per pound than chicken breasts. I have always preferred wings to breasts myself so this is not really surprising to me. But of course it was nice to get wings cheap.

Columbus Day

Yglesias thinks Colombus Day is weird. I think I would add annoying. I don't think I ever got the day off when I was working. And the absent of mail delivery was generally an unexpected irritant. Today I was further aggravated to find the Shrub Oak public library which I don't get up to very often closed.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Fall colors

Substantial fall color starting appearing around here this week. Many trees are still completely green but driving around today I saw lots of color. This is normal, for here, trees turn color at varying times. This makes for a less spectacular peak but prolongs the color which I think I prefer. And having green mixed in is ok.

The picture is of a tree across the small pond behind my condo. I took it last Monday(with a zoom setting) from a small second story balcony on my unit. This tree tends to turn early and had already lost many leaves by today. The tree on the right is on my side of the pond.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Half Moon Bay

I went out to Croton Point Park again today and took some photos. The weather was nice but windy. The wind brings out kitesurfers in Half Moon Bay which lies to the north of the Croton Point peninsula.

The buildings behind the kitesurfer are the Half Moon Bay (on the left I believe) and Discovery Cove condominiums. The Half Moon Bay developer went bankrupt around 1990 and the project was completed as Discovery Cove more than a decade later.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Peace Prize

The big news of the day was of course the unexpected award of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama. I don't think Obama was especially deserving but I can't get upset about it. It wasn't like he campaigned for it. Obama just seems to be a lucky guy and I am superstitious enough to think that is a desirable trait in a President.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Barney Frank

Barney Frank is a Democratic Congressman from Massachusetts. He is a liberal favorite but his appeal escapes me. He was deeply complicit in the housing bubble which led to the recent financial crisis. Here is a short YouTube video of Frank on the House floor in 2005 spouting nonsense about how we can't be in a housing bubble because housing is not leveraged.

Of course many people erred during this period but Frank does not seem to have learned anything. Today I am reading a maddening NYT article about how the FHA is continuing to squander our tax money guaranteeing high risk mortgages when I encounter this Frank quote:

“I don’t think it’s a bad thing that the bad loans occurred,” he said. “It was an effort to keep prices from falling too fast. That’s a policy.”

In other things Frank thinks it was good public policy to guarantee loans people couldn't afford so they could buy overpriced houses in a futile attempt to keep the housing bubble inflated. Now predictably these loans are going bad and the government is on the hook. And the government is still guaranteeing high risk loans:

“I knew in my heart I could not really afford the house, but they gave it to me anyway,” said Mr. Fullenkamp, 22. “I thought, ‘Wow, I’m surprised I pulled that off.’ ”

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


I recently read "Enough" by John C. Bogle. Bogle founded the Vanguard mutual fund complex in 1975. Its low cost shareholder oriented philosophy has been very successful. I have owned shares in a couple of Vanguard funds for many years.

Unfortunately while I think Bogle accomplished a great thing by creating Vanguard he doesn't seem to be a very interesting man or writer. When selecting someone to entrust with your money there is a lot to be said for the boring straight arrow. However this is less attractive in a writer.

"Enough" largely consists of various arguments that people today are overly selfish and insufficiently public spirited. Few of the ideas are original. Bogle is hardly the first to observe for example that it would nice if everybody followed the Golden Rule . And Bogle is not a particularly compelling writer.

This is not to say Bogle is wrong. I think our society would be better if there was more social pressure against seeking purely private advantage. But Bogle is not in my view the best advocate for this position. Warren Buffet has similar views and in my experience is a better and more interesting writer.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Counting calories again

It's always nice to have your prejudices confirmed. I didn't think the new laws requiring chain restaurants to give calorie counts on their menus would have the desired effect and now a study agrees. If anything people are now eating meals with more calories. This is not a surprise to me as that would be my response (I haven't actually encountered any of new menus). People buy fast food because it is cheap and filling.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Kitchawan Preserve

It was nice again today so I took a walk in Kitchawan Preserve. Although it is just a couple of miles from my former place of employment I had never visited it before. There is a small parking area off the east side of Route 134 a bit northwest of the intersection with Pinesbridge road. The entrance is in the middle of an s-curve so some caution is indicated when getting back on Route 134.

If I had planned ahead a bit better I would have printed out and brought along a copy of the trail map (pdf file) available here . There is no map at the parking area. The trails are blazed and fairly easy to follow but a map would have been nice for planning a route. I ended up exploring a few of the trails in the eastern section of the preserve. There is another group of trails in the western part of the preserve that I didn't get to.

I first took a trail which goes over a ridge and intersects with the North County Trailway near where the power lines cross. I diverted onto the North County Trail and walked up to the bridge over the reservoir and back. Then I returned over the ridge and returned to the parking area by some different trails (Red Oak and Little Brook).

There is something nice about exploring a trail for the first time but I don't think these trails will become favorites. Most of the time you are walking through deep woods which I find kind of boring. And the trail is a little rougher than I prefer.

I took the picture from the North County Trailway on the way to the bridge. The sun coming through the trees was nice and not really done justice by the picture. The power line cut is just behind the trees in the picture increasing the amount of sun.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Teller's Point

It has been cloudy and a bit chilly the last few days but it was warm and sunny today. I went walking in Croton Point Park . There are two walks I like to take from the parking lot. A loop around and over the capped landfill which takes me about 30 minutes. And my walk today, out to Teller's Point (which is the southwest tip of Croton Point) and back which can be done mostly as a loop as well. This walk takes me about 45 minutes.

I was going to take some pictures but encountered a downside of digital cameras, the batteries can die unexpectedly. So the picture is from last November. It is looking south from Teller's Point towards the Tappen Zee Bridge .

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Condo prices

I have been keeping track of condo sale prices in my complex since I bought my unit in late 1989. In past years this has involved looking through the folders kept at the town assessors office. This is a bit of a chore and it seems like it shouldn't be necessary in the internet age. In fact Zillow claims to map recent sales (going back three years) but it doesn't seem to be complete. However it appears to be the best free online data available. Westchester county has the deeds online but annoyingly charges $20/day to view information which is free if you go down to their office. It was while trying to locate some missing data online that I encountered the weirdness I blogged about yesterday.

Anyway this is how prices for units like mine have varied over the years scaled so the price I paid is 1.0.

1990 0.93
1991 0.88
1992 0.87
1993 0.84
1994 0.80
1995 0.86
1996 0.86
1997 0.87
1998 0.92
1999 0.98
2000 1.22
2001 1.26
2002 1.64
2003 1.64
2004 1.89
2005 2.03
2006 1.97
2007 1.97
2008 1.97

As can be seen I didn't exactly buy at the low. Prices seem to be holding up ok after peaking in 2005 but I believe this is a bit misleading and that it would be hard to actually obtain the indicated price today. Which may be why there don't appear to have been any sales this year (although there is a considerable lag in reporting so there may have been some recently).

Disclaimer: while the above data is accurate as far as I know, I am not a real estate professional and may be making some obvious error. It should not be relied on without being independently verified.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Search engine weirdness

If you search on google for the string "nuc00.dtf" you get a bunch of results from "". Clicking on the results produces broken link messages. Looking at the results in the google cache shows them to be Westchester real estate sales records. The site seems to be some sort of stamp collecting club. So how did google cached pages of Westchester property records end up attributed to a stamp collecting domain? It is a mystery to me, perhaps a reader can explain.

Using the new bing search engine produces similar results.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Public Schools

One source of confusion regarding education policy is a lack of clarity about what the purposes of public schools are. As I see it public schools (K-12) have two main purposes. First to attempt to teach all their students those basic skills needed to function well as an adult in the United States. Second to identify and sort out the brighter students. In practice current schools attempt both of these. However, particularly in the higher grades, they seem more devoted to the second. In fact they sometimes seem actively hostile to teaching anything practical. Hence for example the trend towards dropping driver's ed.

But many policy discussions seem to only consider the first purpose. Devoting additional resources to the slower students makes sense when they are learning important basic skills. It makes no sense for classes like plane geometry which have little practical value and are used almost exclusively for sorting out the brighter students. Pushing slow students into such classes is just foolish. They don't need additional confirmation that they aren't as bright as other students and even if through great effort and perseverance they actually learn the material it won't do them any good.