Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Extending time to qualify for the long-term capital gains tax to overcome short-termism

For the past few years I've been advocating that the long-term capital gains tax rate of about 15% (to move up if the Bush tax cuts expire) be shifted so that the "long-term" holding requirement is 5 or even 10 years rather than 1 year. The tax rates should be staggered so that very short-term trading is taxed high (more than the income tax, perhaps by 10%), 1 year is taxed less (perhaps 5%+ of the income tax), and so on. Of course, there are other things that need to be addressed - for example, shareholders and institutional investors have to rise up and start voting their shares instead of leaving the managers to essentially own companies with a high turnover in ownership. This is one of the reasons I like extending long-term capital gains tax: it encourages people to stick with a company and act like an owner, and therefore hold management accountable to the long-term stability and profitability of a company.

I haven't heard many people repeating the idea. A while back I heard one guy on Bloomberg say that maybe there should be an 80% tax on short-term trading, and saying that his comrades on the Street would probably kill him for saying that. However, I was very happy to see the Aspen Institute's Overcoming Short-Termism report released in September 2009.

Of course, there are other things that need to be done - executives and employees doing risky deals (e.g., traders on Wall Street) should be rewarded with restricted stock or, if options are necessary, LEAPS (plus clawback arrangements). But I tend to think that these things can happen if more individual investors take long-term stakes in companies. The recent SEC rule which allows investors to access the proxy statement is nice, but really it's not such a big deal with the notice and access rules which allow investors to spend a relatively small amount of money to mount a proxy contest. Steve Nieman and Richard Foley have run proxy contests against Alaska Airlines in the past few years with only a few hundred dollars, and his votepal website offers some guidance on how to do it. He hasn't won, but that's probably more because he runs a slate of director composed of himself and his friends and family. Plus he seems to want to turn the company into a cooperative. I've been thinking about running a proxy contest, but generally I don't hold onto companies where there's reason to be highly dissatisfied.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Back pain troubles, chiropractic, and the multifidus

I've had back pain for just about as long as I can remember, but it is usually mild and somewhat intermittent. Lately it's gotten worse. I know basically why I have back pain: I sit a lot - but at the same time, lots of people sit a lot without as much back pain. I also have bad posture.

The last time I had back pain this bad was a couple years ago, after driving straight for a couple days. I went to a chiropractor and he gave me a quick adjustment for cheap. He first applied heat, and then solidly cracked my bank (spinal manipulation) manually. I felt way better. I don't generally have faith in chiropractic, but I figured I should try it again. This time, the (new) chiropractor first made me go through a whole diagnosis session with an "Insight Subluxation Station", X-rays, and a lot of stretch "testing". Then chiropractor then gave me an adjustment with an "activator gun" which gave relatively little relief. The subluxation station apparently showed my back as registering all sorts of out of whack and out of balance electrical signals, and the X-rays showed evidence of compression in the past (big surprise) but not much else. I would have preferred to look at an MRI scan to see if I have any herniated discs, out of curiosity, but the x-ray is interesting too.

The subluxation station is essentially a surface electromyograph (see THE SCIENCE & VALIDITY BEHIND THE INSIGHT MILLENNIUM SUBLUXATION STATION). I'll try to scan the results and post them later. I'm a bit skeptical, but I'm willing to see how it goes. It does not surprise me that it showed messed up results. I was able to feel my muscles and legs twitching with spasms when I had the really bad pain. I'm guessing that's not uncommon when you have back pain as bad as mine. But now the twitching has basically disappeared and it seems likely that the readings would be a fair bit better - acute back pain is often transient and self-limited, like most infections. The chiropractor seems to want to test me again after doing a dozen or so more adustments, and I imagine the reading will be much better - unsurprisingly. He's also saying that he wants to keep going until my legs are equal length, which is something the activator gun wiki article (linked above) discusses as somewhat dubious. The chiropractor is now expecting me to be a long-term customer, which I'm not really interested in - but I'll play it out for a bit longer (cheap with insurance). In the picture below, the right is me and the left is a healthy control (balanced).

One of the reasons that I will no doubt feel much better is that I'm doing a lot of research and paying careful attention to posture. I've been aware of the Alexander technique, which had a very positive clinical trial published in the BMJ not too long ago. The easiest takeaway from that is to lay down on your back and lift your knees, which is a very relaxing and pain-relieving way to spend some time. I've also been reading through Dr. Jolie Bookspan's articles, and have been particularly intrigued by her article on hyperlordosis as a cause of lower back pain. My back pain is mainly from sitting (the article identifies hyperlordosis as related to standing) but I feel that my back is caused by hyperlordosis. I've tried to implement posture advice and it may have been partly counterproductive - I've been trying to arch my back too much, and every time I do it I can feel the pain and stress it causes. Ironically, in reviewing my x-ray results the chiropractor said I had too little curve and arch, which I think is completely wrong.

Bookspan's research led me to research which has identified more fatiguable trunk muscles in those with lower back pai (see, e.g., Chok et al 1999). Daneels et al (2000) found that only the multifidus was smaller in those with chronic low back pain, and in 2002 Daneels et al found that those with chronic low back pain weren't activating their multifidus. The Musculoskeletal Consumer Review suggests feeling for the multifidus and then exercising it mentally to help activate it, but I can't seem to do that. Suggestions at the SlowTwitch forum include the "pointer dog" exercise, which I imagine looks like the following. There's also the The Multifidus Back Pain Solution: Simple Exercises That Target the Muscles That Count book, which I'll probably buy. The "activation" problem is mentioned by one of the reviewers. The reviewer recommends Spinal Stabilization instead, but interestingly enough the first reviewer of that book similarly complains that there's no real discussion on how to activate these muscles or know if they are activating properly. This article describes how to activate these muscles, and apparently the practice also does real-time ultrasound imaging (RTUS) tests to confirm the activation (unfortunately not in my area). It's so mysterious that I don't know whether I'm activating them or not, and thus I can't blame a couple physical therapists at a forum for ranting a bit about the newest "fad" (although they still annoy me). UPDATE: This is called the motor control exercise in the literature, and a systematic review was published not long ago.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Audience measurement, Nielsen's validity, and surveying

A couple weeks ago I got in a debate with someone on the internet about Nielsen ratings. He said something to the effect of: "of course these are basically accurate; after all, the advertisers and networks rely on these for billions of dollars of expenses". I responded that comparable amounts of money were involved in the mortgage crisis - and he responded that that was "entirely different" and "involved collusion". I thought this was naive, but it sparked my interest in the topic.

I set about to learn more about ratings. According to Nielsen's website, it measures 40% of the world's TV viewing, and in the United States it has 25,000 meters. I didn't really understand what that means and tired of Nielsen's website quickly, so I went to my next source: Google Scholar. There I found an interesting, but rather lengthy Master's dissertation by Seles (Audience Research for Fun and Profit: Rediscovering the Value of Television Audiences). Seles referred me to the book Ratings Analysis, but I hadn't finished the first chapter before I wandered to the Wikipedia page - where I should have started, and which covers the gritty process details decently - and read this passage (referenced to a USA Today article):
The number of U.S. television households as of 2009 is 114,500,000.[12] As a result, the total number of Nielsen homes only amounts to 0.02183% of the total American television households, meaning that 99.97817% of American households have no input at all into what is actually being watched. Compounding matters is the fact that of the sample data that is collected, advertisers will not pay for time shifted (recorded for replay at a different time) programs.
Further, these sampled households self-select into this group. These are people who apparently care less on average about privacy. I'm not sure if they are being paid, if they are that would suggest they are also lower income. Seles points out that digital set-top boxes allow for an enormous amount of datamining which is much more valid than Nielsen ratings, but a confluence of factors have not led to these being fully exploited. As an odd sidenote, this 2004 Wired article reports that at that time, Nielsen was using diaries from samples of 500 to assess viewing. Diaries from 500 people, in the 21st century! It's worth noting that television networks should not be necessarily bothered by inaccurate data so long as the data overall does not underestimate viewers; it's only the advertisers that are screwed.

I've commonly heard people say that television advertising is more expensive than online advertising, but a 2009 eMarketer report abstract puts tv advertising at 13 cents/hour and online advertising at 17/cents hour. This suggests that advertisers are willing to pay up for the relatively rich and interactive data (e.g., click throughs and purchases). It's a topic which I need to become familiar with as I look into the media sector for investments, but like all these sectors it's mysterious at first. I've been looking at television networks (content owners) as a value alternative to the relatively "hot" area of Netflix, although I haven't gotten deep into it as of yet.

In my investigation into this topic, I ran across Reg Baker's The Survey Geek blog. This is an apparently honest, critical look into the survey industry which lays out the issues which I've suspected lie in the area: telephones increasingly difficult to access, surveytakers unresponsive, self-selection bias, etc. I'm still not clear on how the political surveys are accessing cellphone only users like myself. UPDATE: as I finish a survey on 9 Nov 2012, I have to say I didn't expect the surveys to be so terrible or tedious. There's really a lot of self-selection bias. I got $30, but not for sending it in (at least it's not biased towards poor people). Clearly this is only targeting really old-school cable; apparently the intelligent set-top boxes still haven't rolled out. Since I didn't have cable, I plugged my Hulu Plus shows but probably for no reason.

Cheap ink printers, Kodak marketing, and Consumer Reports

A while back I recall reading some article (probably the precursor to this 2008 article) about how Kodak was looking to enter the printer market through cheaper ink. People are constantly complaining about the price of ink. A couple months back I looked around at printers and, after hours of browsing, was not able to confidently conclude that Kodak were cheaper on ink. I recall that some consumers on Amazon said the apparently cheap Kodak ink did not last as long. It has been a while since Kodak tried its strategy

I was about to give up on making an informed purchase in frustration when I remembered my Consumer Reports subscription. I logged in and find a neat table with a column called "text cost", which is the estimated ink cost to produce a single page of paper. From the table Kodak does not stand out as having the cheapest printer for ink, with pages generally costing around 3-4 cents - about average. The Lexmark Prospect Pro205 ($200) stood out at about 1 cent a page, but the cheaper Lexmark printers are in the 4-5 cents/page range, with a high of 12.6 cents a page for the $50 Lexmark X267. Lexmark has actually been advertising its new "Vizix" line of printers as the cheapest per page since at least 2009, although some argue it's going to be difficult for them to break into the commercial market over laserjet printers even then. In the meantime, the market is favoring Lexmark quite a bit more than Kodak at P-Es of around 9 and around 5, respectively (trailing twelve months according to Google Finance).

The whole printer and ink question is sort of interesting from the perspective of economics. It's similar to the whole "prisoner's dilemma" game theory applied to oligopolies in economic theory. The situation is theoretically an oligopoly where none of the printer manufacturers is willing to cut prices on the ink. It could be that Kodak cut ink and thereby forced the industry to cut ink prices and innovate. However, the article above on Kodak suggests that it did not really have much of an impact, but even a small impact could change the competitive strategy situation. The industry was happy to cooperate but one player (in this case Kodak, an outsider), disrupted the party and the others cut prices preemptively.

There are similar situations throughout all industries - Skype is disrupting the phone companies, Netflix disrupted Blockbuster and is now disrupting cable companies. Direct insurers disrupt agent-based insurers. Even a direct title insurer has entered the market - Entitle Direct - so use it to save yourself a few hundred. My savings bank account is left neglected ($0) as all my savings is invested directly through a retail brokerage. Disintermediation will continue to rule. Hell, these days when I go to my doctor I'm already more well-informed on my specific condition than they are. This is a good thing for people like me, but the end result of this trend is fewer jobs as unnecessary people and infrastructure are cut out. Slowly but surely, unemployment will continue, as Martin Ford (the author of The Lights in the Tunnel and the econfuture blog) has discussed at length.

Enough rambling. Sign up for a subscription to ConsumerReports.org for $30 and promote efficient products while improving your pocketbook.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Self-loathing and philosophy professors?

Do philosophy profs have a tendency towards self-hate and embarrassment? I'm inclined to think that it's a possibility. This is understandable when one considers that we're talking about the ultimate profession of "intellectuals", yet most would not consider them to be smarter on average than the physics and math professors who are more like "rocket scientists".

I remember talking to one guy - a fisherman - who associated philosophy with poetry.

Notes on other purgings

Deleting some other links:
  • I like the idea of the distributism and think it will be increasingly important in a world where capital does most things and labor is left to do less and less, but I'm not sure I have time to read into the The Distributist Review. It moved from its old blogspot and now looks like a real publication! Chesterton and Friends was basically just related to this.
  • I really liked the blog Akinesis on Livejournal. It was basically personal with a few thoughts about the ongoing study of economics interspersed. Unfortunately "purged".
  • Dusk in Autumn is another interesting one similar to the two below, with fascinating topics and a data-centric, seemingly (!) well-informed perspective. Unfortunately it has the same issues and therefore I can't keep it up looking like a running endorsement, but I'll be checking in I imagine.
  • News Hounds shows clips from Fox News. I used to find this amusing in a cruel sort of way. It might have also had to do with bringing back childhood memories, as my parents watched this type of stuff. Now it just provokes some anger and frustration. I've matured.
  • Uncertain Principles. Not sure why I ever linked to this, which is apparently about pop culture and physics. If I'm going to read science I want to read something more instructional at this point.
  • Optimmen. I added Daniel Tammet's blog somehow hoping that the highly functional autistic savant could somehow maybe release his secret to genius. Silly me. Interesting story, but the blog content isn't that great.

Audacious Epigone and Mangan's Miscellany trimmed out

For a long time, I kept the above two bloggers on my blogroll. After skimming their recent work, I've removed them today. Basically, when I added them I was using my blogroll as a blog bookmark list, not as an endorsement list. Considering their controversial subject matter on race and "right-wing" perspective, I feel compelled to comment. I don't agree at all with their views on race, income inequality, politics, and probably not much on economics either. However, they push the contrarian button in me. They provide that different perspective in a slightly less crass manner than someone like Steve Sailer. I'm not sure how much the race stuff applies to Mangan but it applies very obviously with Audacious.

Both have interesting personalities and each has unique strengths: Audacious Epigone is data-heavy on intelligence; Mangan's Miscellany touches on nutrition and investing. But these are topics that are better to learn about elsewhere, such as through peer-reviewed review articles on the topics. Some might say that intelligence is too politically sensitive to be discussed properly in these channels. That's just wrong, because there are probably hundreds of articles discussing the topic, plenty of academics have advocated for it, and they have been responded to by other academics in the very recent past.

Having read into the debate and worked a bit on the Wikipedia article, I don't think that Flynn and Nisbett have really been engaged properly by Rushton and Jensen. In the response to Nisbett's latest book, Rushton and Jensen resorted to technical jargon rather than proper engagement. Overall, yes, we know there's a gap between the races as shown by measures used to test intelligence.

In any case, whether there truly is a gap doesn't really matter. All that matters are the social implications. Does bringing up this issue and trying to convince everyone of it serve any useful social purpose? Rushton and Jensen have tried to argue yes. While it's debated, I strongly suspect that in 1969 Jensen tried to argue that the correct takeaway was to teach black people in a more rote manner (see Harvard Educational Review 39: 1–123). I can't see any useful social purpose, and I see substantial risk of racism, discrimination, and stereotype threat. The fact that someone would advocate such a thing despite the vastness of the unknowns, individual heterogeneity, and the imperfect information available to people in everyday life is morally despicable.

In 1969, we did not even know that lead caused IQ deficits in children. In fact, "we" didn't really know that leaded gasoline caused any health problems at all. By "we", I mean the general public, since occupational health scientists were well-aware of the health hazards of lead when it was first used (see Kovarik 2005). However, this brings up another point: these two bloggers, like many others of the "right-wing" crowd, do not seem to recognize the four-dimensional nature of the political compass. Would these people have opposed lead regulation? Some might think that is a straw man argument, but I hardly think it is a straw man to say that in the 1930s, these type of people would be the most strident of corporate apologists, as those who are self-described "right-wingers" are similarly corporate apologists today.

There's a general antipathy towards moving forward which is evident in even the label "conservative". And this is more than just a worded label. Those who use it to describe themselves take it to heart. These are often people who think that we can save the economy by simply drilling more and more holes in the ground. These are the people who have strongly opposed the abolition, as more than half of the country at the time did.

Despite my talk of the political compass above, I genuinely believe that conservative is a mindset - perhaps a genetic predisposition - which has been generally against every progressive (defined as a change which equalizes power among the units of a society) change in society, ever. An example from American History can be provided. Abraham Lincoln was an extreme liberal in his day. Seward, his secretary of state, almost won the Republican nomination but was considered too left-wing as he had been more open in his views toward abolishing slavery, and had also been a typical liberal spendthrift as Governor of New York. I have read that Abraham Lincoln ran on a platform of increasing federal power and government infrastructure investment. When the Democrat party began to become liberal, the conservatives swiftly shifted to the Republican party. Many are aware because of the Trent Lott incident that the infamous Strom Thurmond, a Republican Congressman who ran on a desegregation campaign, was originally a Democrat - but the hyper-racists have switched parties as conservatism has switched to the Republican party. And there they persist in their campaign to make sure that the productive energy of the world is used in making sure that the rich can have more luxuries, with a caveat that the lower classes can be helped through oil subsidies to the companies to which the rich own.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Modern Work Life

This. Although I don't have the balls to chat at work (just trade stocks on occasion, which I do rarely and apprehensively).

Trimming old stuff

Lately I've been trying to go through my bookmarks and cut stuff. Many of my bookmarks are cool sources of reference information. I don't use these often but they could be handy sometime. Others are articles that I plan to read but still haven't read after several years. The former I should probably keep, but the latter I feel like I should definitely read and then cut out. Then again, I'm not sure of that - what if I want to refer to the articles in the future? Maybe I could keep a separate little folder of articles, or write an article about the interesting articles. But that's a lot of work. One thing I try to do is add them to Wikipedia since then I can find it through my contributions, but some of this information really shouldn't be in Wikipedia. In the long-run, I want to record everything I've read somehow in a database, along with notes on how extensively I read it, as I do for the books that I read. Which reminds me of how I need to write up that program, as well as a program which makes it easier to track where I'm spending all my time. But for that I need to study more programing. Sigh.

It's hard going. I got down to the Economics folder of my bookmarks and started reading through QuickMBA, where I got through about half of it. It is a great site - the accounting section is particularly nice for someone like me who does not have a strong accounting background.

I also glanced to some of the old blogs linked from here. With a couple exceptions I haven't really read any of them with any regularity in the past year or so, probably longer. In my trimming quest, I started with Barely Legal (and quickly drifted from there to the hilarious In It But Not Of It). Barely Legal is probably the funniest of the blogs (example), and also has a great message: law school is not all its cracked up to be. See, for example, Law School Student Story #4. Law is something that I get constantly sucked into learning about. It's handy to know about bankruptcy law, trusts and securitization, and the dirty details of corporate taxation, but ultimately it distracts me from what I keep telling myself I need to learn about: programming, math, and science, in that order. So I'll be trying to trim excessive legalese out of my life, and I may be recording some of what I've read here while I do that.

The foreclosure fiasco

I'm not exactly sure about what to think about Matt Taisbi's latest article "Courts Helping Banks Screw Over Homeowners". Matt makes the argument that many of these homeowners are making their mortgages and they are being foreclosed on anyway. This seems unlikely, and Matt bring a lot of statistics,or even many (any?) homeowners who feel they are being unjustly foreclosed upon. However, he does bring lots of evidence that there is ridiculously sloppy paperwork, and rather than punishing the banks for the poor paperwork, the judge in question is accommodating the banks and allowing them to "fix" (forge?) the paperwork.

One of Taibbi's main argument seems to be that banks have been suggesting that homeowners stop paying so that their loans can be modified, and then when the homeowners stop paying they are foreclosed upon. Of course, the fact that these people need a modification suggests that they are going to default anyway.

Thanks to Seeking Alpha and Ellen Browns' "Homeowners’ Rebellion: Could 62 Million Homes Be Foreclosure-Proof?", I had heard about this issue in August, a couple months earlier than when it hit mainstream media in full force.

Google Trends "foreclosure" in 2010


When I initially heard about the whole foreclosure issue, I figured that ultimately these foreclosures should go through because these people are not paying their mortgages. But after reading Matt's article I'm not so sure. I've been working as a regulator of a financial services industry for a state government for the past couple years. Sloppy paperwork doesn't surprise me. I see sloppy paperwork all the time, and I'm not just talking about companies not complying with arcane regulations that only I would really know - I'm talking about basic statistical work that the companies should know a lot better than I do, or carefully worded legal contract language that is entirely ambiguous. And while we manage to avoid pandering to the industry's whims, my impression is that we are perhaps more the exception than the rule. We have a statute which prohibits companies from knowingly providing misleading or false documents, but we generally don't bring it up. Like the judges in the case, we bend over backwards to let companies fix their mistakes, but in our case the mistakes just waste our time. In this case the mistakes cost people their homes.

I think the perpatrators of this sloppiness should be punished severely. However, one wonders whether the banks should be punished. Many of these banks have ownership which turns over all the time. The investors should not necessarily be punished, either, as they are fraud victims. Rather, one should punish the managers of the banks. I'm talking about the executives who have collected hundreds of billions of dollars in stock options with little downside risk, many of whom owned little in stock at the time of the crash. These people should be going to prison in some cases. Of course we know that's not going to happen.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Mysteries of the rich

Having just watched the documentary Born Rich on Netflix (watch instantly), I've been consumed for the last couple hours in reading about the super-rich. Jamie Johson's articles at Vanity Fair are a great source. I can't really point to any in particular as more worth reading - although his story of a Christmas party was bizarre - but this article on why the rich people congregate together reminded me of Lapham’s Rules of Influence, which I found immensely interesting when I read it briefly in Goodwill one time. I'll have to check that out again.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Linux assessment and standardization

I've had Ubuntu on my laptop for the past couple years. It's dual-partitioned with Windows XP, but oddly enough Ubuntu recognizes my wireless driver correctly while Windows does not. Score for Linux, eh?

However, all is not well with Linux. Before I used Linux, I was optimistic about its prospects. Now I'm baffled at the complexity. The general user interface (GUI) is not as good as Windows. For example, the Control Panel functionality is Windows is much less detailed and more scattered. I haven't been able to get deeply into the system and I don't use the command-line regularly. Even with Ubuntu with its general user focus, that means I'm essentially crippled. I could not even reinstall Flash, which I installed about a year ago, without digging deep into an online blog post and posting a few obscure commands. Recently, my Flash has seemingly broken for many websites; Hulu says that since "express install" is not enabled for my system, I can't view videos. Apparently upgrading from Ubuntu 8.04 sometimes fixes the problem. However, there are lot of people warning that upgrading with a weak integrated graphics card leads to huge issues. So I'm not upgrading. With that all said, I do plan to buy a System76 laptop soon, dual-partition it with Windows XP, and likely run Linux most of the time, just because I agree with the philosophy of a programmer nation.

The best overview that I've seen on the problems with Linux standardization come from Bryant Lunduke's "Linux (Still) Sucks" April 2010 video. This is one of those flash videos I can still watch. While I'm not qualified to give a critique on the specific issues, he points out that there's no standardization and (although he doesn't use the word) significant Balkinization. 300 distros, hundreds of shoddy programs which do the same thing, dozens of frameworks on various things - the list goes on. I'm guessing that this happens for various reasons, but mainly: first, when one founds (or forks) a project, one gets all the credit; second, the initial work is generally the easiest, especially when similar code is already out there. There's also just the general tendency for many people (particularly myself) to be ADHD and do a lot of projects without doing any of them well.

I do not agree with Bryant that getting more commercial software available on Linux is important. Linux is the long-run (20-30 years from now) future as more and more people become programmers and the basic software functions that people need become programmed by these people as open-source. With the exception of games, it's going to make most programmers unemployed and put most software companies out of business. Right now, I can do most of what I want on a Ubuntu laptop in my free-time without paying for anything. Now, that's not technically true - I do want a better spreadsheet than OpenOffice and I may want to play a game (but not likely). At some point I might want a computer-aided design (CAD) program. But that's really what's left that Linux doesn't have, and these specialized users are not a high percent of the market. Gamers are not a huge percent of computer users either and they will come when all the normal people who can trust the OS to browse the web and play music start not buying Windows to save a few hundred bucks on their initial investment. After that they'll start looking for games and play the Linux ones available (assuming WINE isn't good enough to run the Windows games anyway).

This issue of standardization is also timely since in the last few days I've been reading about the convergence of accounting standards (goodbye US GAAP, hello IFRS and international standardization in the next few years). I've also been working on my desktop - and have perhaps messed it up - and have found that my old Compaq is really not going to work with the new motherboard that I got for it (because I bought a new AMD Phenom II CPU) because the "system panel connector" calls for a 20-8 pin and the Compaq has a proprietary 10-1 pin. And now I've scavenged a new case, but I can't put the cd-drive in the new case because the screws aren't long enough. Standards are also a big topic in various other legal and regulatory initiatives (think the Uniform Law Commission for the United States and the various initiatives by the European Union).

Standards encourage choice. Perhaps surprising, perhaps not is that Linux people don't seem to be a big fan of reducing choice and focusing on making a few really good products. See "Would Linux be more popular with LESS choice" on Mint's forum. Mint is the major competitor to Ubuntu, which actually I'm inclined to seriously look at considering how much Ubuntu has seemingly fucked up in the past year or two.