Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Christmas Music

I absolutely hate the kind of Christmas music they play in stores.  The music, and decorations, and general atmosphere are so obnoxious that I always try to avoid setting foot in any retail establishment after Thanskgiving.
As I was walking back from the library today, I stopped inside a Dollar General, more out of anthropological curiousity than anything else.  I wanted to see wkat kind of things they would be selling.  Unfortnately, they were already playing Christmas music.  As I left, I heard the cashier talking to another customer.  The cashier was complaining about having to play the music, and wanted to play something else.  The customer agreed, and said that her six-year-old son also hated Christmas music in stores, and had specifically complained about it earlier.
I have never met anyone who likes this music.  Everyone I have ever talked to either hates it or finds it mildly distasteful.  So why do the stores keep playing it?  Some people might claim that the management is just being stupid, but any practice that survives for a long time in a competive industry must have some benefit.
Maybe the music actually is effective at getting a certain type of person to spend more money.  Maybe there are a sufficuent number of people out there who like it and enjoy the experience of shopping in stores that play it.  Maybe it works like advertising: people think they hate it, but it affects them subconsciously and gets them to spend money.  Maybe the fact that people hate it is what gives the benefits, and that their rush to get away from the insipid noise causes them to spend less time comparing prices or looking for good deals.
I wonder if any stores have actually done randomized controlled trials to see what kind of music boosts sales the most.  This library does not have the journal subscriptions the university does, so Google Scholar is mush less useful than normal, but a quick search and a look at abstracts seems to indicate that there is a little bit of academic research showing it works to boost sales.

Monday, November 22, 2010

What Would Jesus Buy?

Here's a good article that resists quoting and summarizing.  It discusses, among other things, the history of Christmas, burning Santa in effigy, and 'chav bling'.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Quick Observation

A slice of life in the USA: After a group of White and Black people finished their martial arts practice this afternoon, a group of Asians came into the gym and started playing badminton.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Dream Movie

I rarely remember my dreams.  Most of the ones I do recall are the 'normal' ones where I am doing something and interacting with the world.  But sometimes I have 'watching dreams' where I am doing nothing except watching events unfold.  In the dream, I usually feel like I am watching a movie.  I do not see any television set or screen or other spectators, but I am definitely watching something I know I am not a part of.  It is like I am a disembodied spirit just observing things, or like I am the only spectator in a large IMAX theater.

Last night, I was watching the part of 'The Return of the King' where Bilbo gets to Mount Doom and is attacked by Gollum.  In my dream version, Gollum got the ring away from Frodo, put it on, and was heading out the door.  I do not remember seeing Sam anywhere.

Then Gandalf showed up.  He could not see or stop Gollum, and tried to close the door to the cave ( There was no door in the movie but there was in the dream ).  He failed; Gollum managed to get there in time and stop the door from closing.  Then Gimli showed up, standing outside the door looking in.  He could not see Gollum, but he could talk to him.  

In my dream, Gollum was apparently a fallen goblin rather than a fallen Hobbit.  Gimli proceeds to give a talk that builds on the shared heritage of mountain-dwelling races, and convinces Gollum that his actions are misguided and wrong.  Gimli reminds Gollum of the joys of his former life in the sunlight with his family, comparing that to the state he has been reduced to by the Ring.  It went on for a while, and at the end, stricken with grief, Gollum jumps into the lava with the Ring.

I remember thinking "This is not what happened in the book.  But I am glad they gave Gimli this chance to shine, to make up for making him look bad in the rest of the movie."

I have no idea why my subconscious decided to rewrite the movie so that Gimli saves the day by delivering a Hannibal Lecture.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Criminal Justice Failures

When Obama was elected, I signed up for Change.org so I could sign all the libertarian petitions.  I still receive their weekly bulletin; it is a good look at the things that liberals consider to be the important issues of the day.  The last bulletin was noteworthy in that its top three stories were about how our criminal justice system is ruining lives:

Free Sex Trafficking Victim Sara Kruzan

At Change.org, we encounter a lot of stories of tragedy, injustice and triumph. None is more heart-wrenching than the story of Sara Kruzan.

Sara, who was once her elementary school's student body president, met the man who would become her pimp when she was just 11. After acting as the father figure she never had for two years, he raped Sara at age 13 and trafficked her into the commercial sex trade.

For the next 3 years, from 6pm to 6am, strangers would pay Sara's pimp to rape her and other adolescent girls he recruited and preyed upon.

Finally, physically and psychologically traumatized, Sara snapped. She shot and killed her pimp.

Her punishment? Life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The sentence was handed down by a judge in 1994 against the recommendation of the California Youth Authority, and before there was much awareness about the violence of child trafficking or an appreciation for the trauma of adolescent sexual and physical abuse.

There is a constant joke about the Deep South, that it is a place where "He needed killin'." is a valid defense.  Well, sometimes it is.  Any sane criminal justice system would call this 'self defense' and release her, perhaps after a period of counseling and psychological evaluation.  She is not a threat to any law-abiding citizen.

Recovering from Wrongful Imprisonment

Gloria Killian spent more than 16 years behind bars for a murder she didn't commit, a victim of prosecutorial misconduct and admittedly false testimony from a man who had struck a deal with the state for a shorter sentence. Her conviction overturned in 2002, Killian has gone on to campaign on behalf of other women unjustly imprisoned.

This kind of thing is far too common.  The incentives for prosecutors are horrible: there is a constant pressure to convict, no good oversight, and no punishment for actions that would constitute perjury and criminal misconduct if committed by any other person.

Police Threaten Rape Victim

A South Carolina woman who reported being raped by a Marion police officer was subject to another assault when the officers who responded to her call threatened to put her in jail if she didn't recant her story. Instead, they forced her to write the following: "Though I didn't agree or consent to it (it) was not rape." Non-consensual sex is rape - there's no getting around it. And while the accused rapist has thankfully been sent on leave, the two officers who threatened to throw the victim in jail are sitting pretty. These officers need to be suspended for gross police misconduct pending investigation before they harass any other victims. 

This is the kind of thing that you would expect to see in a third world country.  It is clear that something is very wrong in the institutional structure of this police department.  American citizens simply should not be subjected to this kind of thuggish savagery from our police officers.

Sooner or later the liberals and progressives who follow these issues will realize that government is the problem, not the solution.  No matter how evil or corrupt they might be, businesses do not have access to violence and the power of the state.  True threats to liberty come from the corruption of people within the government.

But it may take a while.  People who get emotional involved in these kinds of issues often have no sense of perspective at all.  All too often, they utterly lack the ability to prioritize and focus on important things.  Here is another story from that same email:

Fighting Racist Mascots
The University of Illinois retired Chief Illiniwek, the college's costumed, dancing Native American mascot, in 2007 after pressure from the NCAA. But more than three years later, his ghost remains on campus. The administration has not named a new mascot and students still stage unofficial "chief" rallies, resurrecting a caricature that Native American groups have found offensive, racist and misleading. A coalition of student and community groups is pushing for a new mascot, saying this will help heal racial tensions and allow the campus to move on.

Seriously?  In the same email in which you bring serious abuses to light, you complain about a few college kids showing loyalty to an old mascot that some people find offensive?  This juxtaposition is an insult to the three women victimized by state power.  You will never get anything done if you waste time, attention, and moral authority with irrelevant things like this.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Momentous Fact

In Mexico, for instance, the fertility rate was 6.82 in 1970. It dropped to 5.3 in 1980, 3.61 in 1990, and 2.75 in 2000. It now sits at 2.1

The Mexican fertility rate has fallen to the replacement level.  Think about that for a moment.  An important driving force behind a lot of issues, like illegal immigration, has stopped.  Assuming that the Mexican economy does not actually start to contract, there will be enough jobs for everyone and no supply of excess workers.

Actually, there have been relatively few Mexican immigrants for some time.  Most illegals come from much poorer, higher-fertility countries in Central America, and they just pass through Mexico.

I was quite surprised when I read this.  Most of my core knowledge about the world was formed sometime between 1990 and 2000, when I was in middle and high school.  I had internalized the idea that the Mexican fertility rate was between 3 and 4, and nothing had caused me to update those beliefs until now.

Bread Machine

I bought a bread machine on Saturday.  I got it at the thrift store for $5.  Then I bought about $40 worth of flour and yeast and other ingredients to make the bread.  My main goal with the bread machine was to get more sleep.  Instead of getting up at 6:00 to make oatmeal, eat it, and wash the pot, I could get up at 6:50, grab a fresh loaf of bread, and eat it in the car or my office. ( I am, in fact, still munching the bread as I write this.  Not even I can eat a 2 pound loaf of bread in one sitting. )

I know how to use a bread machine because I got one for my mother one for Christmas in 2005.  The one I got her was a really nice two-paddle machine that cost significantly more than $5.  It is quiet, reliable, and makes things that look like a real loaf of bread.  After experimenting with it, I developed a real taste for fresh bread.  The nice thing about bread machines is that you can make bread exactly the way you want it.  I usually make a dense, German-style loaf full of fruit and nuts, like the kind of artisanal breads that cost $5 a loaf

Mine is a one-paddle machine, which means that it makes a 'loaf' of bread that looks like a massive mutant muffin.  I tested the machine Saturday night, putting it on my kitchen table and setting it to finish making the bread at 9:00 AM Sunday.  But at 6:00 Sunday morning, I was awakened by a horrible racket in the kitchen.  It sounded like a cudgel-wielding dwarf barbarian locked in mortal combat with a steam-powered mechanical spider.  The noise was, of course, generated by the high-torque motor of the machine kneading the bread, which caused the machine to rock like an unbalanced washing machine.

The loaf of bread it produced in the end was perfectly good.  The appearance did not bother me and it tasted just like the bread from my mother's machine.  It was also much easier to get the loaf out of this machine than my mother's.  Because of the geometry, with more weight and less surface area, it slid right out, whereas with my mother's you sometimes have to bang the bread pan down to get the loaf out.  It also may have helped that this machine was very new; the previous owner had obviously used it very few times.

I am fairly sure that the noise was not due to a flaw of any kind; cheaper bread machines are usually loud like that.  If you had two closed doors and most of a house between your bed and the kitchen, it would not be a problem.  But I live in a one-bedroom apartment with no door, and maybe ten feet of distance, between my bed and the kitchen table.  Running the bread machine on the table every night would not have helped my goal of getting more sleep.

So I put the bread machine in my refrigerator.  This is not as crazy as it sounds.  I do not keep my refrigerator running; I have found that the noise and power consumption are not worth the benefits.  I do most of my cooking with nonperishable items, supplemented with the occasional trip to the store for the kind of fresh veggies that can be left out a few days.

This worked great.  The refrigerator muffled almost all of the noise, I did not lose any sleep, and I got a nice loaf of bread at 6:50.  When I opened the refrigerator door, a blast of hot, moist air fogged my glasses, but I did not notice any kind of condensation on the machine or the bread.

So my apartment now features a refrigerator that is not plugged in, with an extension cord running from behind the refrigerator and plugged into a smaller white power cord that disappears into the fridge door.  The vegetable drawer unit from the bottom of the fridge is sitting on top if the fridge; I had to remove it in order to make the bread machine fit.

The bread machine reinforces my decision not to run the fridge, because its function as a noise muffler is far more valuable than its function as a way to keep food cool.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Collapse and Measurement

A lot of historians and archaeologists have a bad habit of measuring civilizations by the art and monuments they produce.  A civilization that leaves a lot of visible traces and/or a collection of impressive art is called 'developed' and 'advanced' and lack of these signs is seen as evidence of a primitive or failed civilization.  This kind of thinking was more common in the past, but it still persists among some people.  It could happen because people see societies as symbols, rather than really thinking of what it would be like to live in them.  It could also happen when they identify with the upper class only.  But if you think about what really makes a civilization good, and apply Rawls's veil of ignorance, it quickly becomes apparent that, ceteris paribus, you would much rather be a peasant in a civilization where the ruling class does not levy crushing taxes to build massive pointless monuments to their own vanity.

A closely related problem is the glorification of state power and administration.  Way too many people see a large central government as a marker of a good civilization.  The reality is that, in most cases, the government mainly existed as a tool to extract wealth from the common people for the benefit of the elite.  The best that could be said for most of them was that they prevented anarchy and protected the people from even worse governments and outsiders.

To be fair, in the past the monuments and government records were all we had.  But now we can use modern forensics methods to measure the quality of life of the average people.  By analyzing bones, we can learn about diet, health, and other parts of their lifestyle, and see which civilizations were actually good at allowing people to live a good, prosperous life.

Here's a good article that, among other things, touches on this issue:

Societal collapse is a slippery concept that defies a strict definition. Renfrew contends that it involves the loss of central administration, disappearance of an elite, decline in settlements, and a loss of social and political complexity. Collapse implies an abrupt end rather than a long, slow devolution.

Think about that in modern terms.  If a civilization like North Korea turned into a civilization like Switzerland, it would be defined as a 'collapse'.  We know from modern economic studies that a clustering of the population in one big city that is also the center of government is a sign of stagnation and oppression.  Healthy countries are ones where the population is spread out into more areas, as people focus their activity on generating wealth from the environment rather than seeking political favors and handouts.  It makes sense to assume the same about the past.

An increasing number of Egyptologists also now posit a more complicated and drawn-out decline—and one that ultimately had limited impact on the population. Miroslav Barta of Charles University in Prague notes that by the 25th century B.C.E., important changes in Egyptian society were already afoot. Smaller pyramids were built, nepotism within the royal families diminished, royal princesses married nonroyals, and the move from a centralized, pharaonic kingdom to a more regionalized structure was well under way.

All of these things are what I would call 'progress'. 

"There was no collapse," he insists. While the unified state disappeared and large monuments weren't built, copper continued to be imported from abroad and the concept of maat or kingship continued to be used at a more local level. "The peasants may never have noticed the change," he adds.

As long as there is trade and economic activity, that is a sign of a healthy society.  Wealth and prosperity come from the size of the market, not the size of the political unit.

Like the end of Egypt's Old Kingdom, the close of the classic Maya period around 900 C.E. has long been a poster child of collapse. Huge cities in the northern highlands were abandoned, monumental architecture ceased, and royal inscriptions halted. ...
But Elizabeth Graham, an archaeologist at University College London who works in the lowlands of Belize, says "there's not a blip" in the occupation of the Maya areas she has dug along the coast, which lie about 300 kilometers from major inland centers to the north. ...

Coastal sites like Lamanai and Tipu were admittedly smaller than the great inland cities, but Graham says there is no sign of crisis there at the end of the Classic period. Skeletons show no increase in dietary stress, populations seem constant, terraces and check dams are maintained, and sophisticated pottery continues to be crafted. The drying of the climate doesn't appear to trigger any societal rupture.

Basically, the people and real economic activity were just as healthy as before, and less wealth was being wasted on monuments.  That could be a sign of a revolution that deposed a predatory elite and instituted a system of local autonomy.  And of course, such an event would be recorded by royal scribes as 'anarchy' and 'ruin'.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Perils of Success

Here's an amusing, ironically droll statement:
The leader of the dredging party, Edén Pastora, is an eccentric former Sandinista guerrilla leader, who claimed that Google Maps showed his camp to be in Nicaraguan territory. Google then admitted to an "inaccuracy" in its map, adding that these should not be relied on to make military decisions.

This illustrates an important lesson about providing something new: If you are successful in launching a new product or service that everyone starts to rely on, then you will end up with situations that you never imagined.  Ten years ago, nobody at Google could possibly have imagined that one of their computer programs would be an issue in an armed standoff between two soverign countries.

People will accept error and inconsistency in new things, especially if they offer lots of benefits.  But after a few years, people expect more and more things of you, and you can get in trouble if you do not meet these rising expectations.  When the thing you provide moves from being a luxury to a necessity, you are suddenly operating within an entirely different implicit social contract.  People go from being happy with any benefits of the new thing to being unhappy with any flaws in it.  You have to change your engineering standards from 'good enough to amuse early adapters' to 'capable of handling mission-critical tasks at five-nines reliability' which often requires a big change in corporate thinking.


The department seminar today is about torture.  It might seem odd that this is an issue for economists, rather than legal scholars or criminal justice people, but we have a lot of models of bureaucratic incentives and decision-making and that can be used to analyze the issue.  The paper shows that torture, even if it works, is counterproductive, because it reduces the incentives to fight terrorism using means other than torture.

I've known for some time that torture simply does not work.  Centuries of experience have shown that it has basically zero information or deterrence value.  Good interrogators get far more information with other methods, and the institutional use of torture tends to reduce the use of more reliable methods of police work and information gathering.

Even beyond that, I absolutely hate the idea of our government torturing anybody.  I see torture as a fundamental insult to the values of our nation and culture.  I believe that it would cause serious damage to America if we adopted a long-term policy of torturing people or being complicit with torture.  I think that people who defend or advocate for torture are very harmful.

One of our professors just asked:

"Why is torture uniquely bad?  I'm sure that many more people have died [in the USA] in no-knock drug raids than from torture."

This is a good question.  Why do I hate torture so much?  If you look at actual pain and damage, there are many other current policies that are far worse.  I oppose those policies as well, but I do not oppose them with quite as much emotional intensity.  

To complicate things further, a few months ago I basically advocated for a form of torture as an alternative to jail time.  I understand intellectually that jail is worse for people than torture.  Why then should I care so deeply about torture?

I think it is mainly about symbolism.  Torture is the tool of thugs, savages, and fascists.  If we torture people the same way they do or did, we become like them.  This threat to our identity, I suppose, motivates me more than utilitarian concerns about pain in this case.

Partly by analyzing my thoughts and emotions like this, I have learned to become more understanding of the 'sacred values' and identity threats embedded in other people's thinking.  For example, many people feel the same way about putting a dollar value on human life that I do about torture.  It is, to them, Not Something We Should Do.  So I reframe the issue as 'finding the way to save the most lives with our limited resources' and then I can do the cost-benefit analysis without threatening anyone's values.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Pop Quiz

When governments outlaw high interest rates and the ceiling is binding,
what probably happens to the total amount of money borrowed?
a. It rises because borrowers are protected from high interest rates.
b. It falls because savers aren't willing to lend as much money at this low
interest rate.
c. Both a and b are usually true.

Far too many of my students answered c.  You don't have to know any economics to realize that this is impossible.  Yet somehow the wording of the question convinced people that the amount of money borrowed could rise and fall simultaneously.

Many of these are good students, too.  I've never understood why the humans find it so hard to do word problems.  What is it about our language that makes it so hard to see the logic embedded in a sentence?  A group of reasonably smart people, with reasonably strong incentives to think through the problem, were convinced that A=!A.*  This is a serious problem.

* The ! symbol in this context means 'NOT'.  It is a fundamental principle of logic that an argument 'A' and its opposite '!A' cannot simultaneously be true.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Good Sentences

from an article on viruses:

Those who like their categories cut and dried may wonder whether viruses are alive or not. Wise biologists do not struggle too much with such questions.  ...

The problem with categorical thinking in biology is that evolution does not work like that. It actually works by whatever works working.

Humans, by instinct, like to put things in neat categories.  Our schooling reinforces that; students in school are taught all kinds of classification rules.  This can be useful, but you also need to realize that reality can be very messy.  

It is also important to realize the danger if categorical thinking when it comes to dealing with people.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Food and Health

I was going to add this article about height and health to another blog post, but it is so important it deserves a spotlight.  It shows, with sobering clarity of science, that there is something seriously wrong with public health in our country:

Then [in the 20th century] something strange happened. While heights in Europe continued to climb, Komlos said, "the U.S. just went flat." In the First World War, the average American soldier was still two inches taller than the average German. But sometime around 1955 the situation began to reverse. The Germans and other Europeans went on to grow an extra two centimetres a decade, and some Asian populations several times more, yet Americans haven't grown taller in fifty years. By now, even the Japanese—once the shortest industrialized people on earth—have nearly caught up with us, and Northern Europeans are three inches taller and rising.

The average American man is only five feet nine and a half—less than an inch taller than the average soldier during the Revolutionary War. Women, meanwhile, seem to be getting smaller. According to the National Center for Health Statistics—which conducts periodic surveys of as many as thirty-five thousand Americans—women born in the late nineteen-fifties and early nineteen-sixties average just under five feet five. Those born a decade later are a third of an inch shorter.

The average Japanese is now almost as tall as the average American.  And those numbers only include White, native-born Americans.  Our diet and lifestyle is that messed up.  Too many of us are simultaneously overweight and malnourished enough to stunt our growth.  Here's an amazing finding:

In a recent British study, one group of schoolchildren was given hamburgers, French fries, and other familiar lunch foods; the other was fed nineteen-forties-style wartime rations such as boiled cabbage and corned beef. Within eight weeks, the children on the rations were both taller and slimmer than the ones on a regular diet.

There may be some flaw in the study methodology.  I have not been able to find it, and like most mainstream journalists they don't cite sources.  But my instinct is to believe it.

I read that article because it was linked to from this blog post, which is itself a good read:

Remember this the next time you read about the genetics of I.Q. and the arguments that are framed around differences in intelligence between races or other population groups. The heritability of I.Q. can be hard even to define (read this lengthy but worthwhile post by Cosma Shalizi to understand why) but good estimates often place it at around 50 percent—well below that of height. Environmental influences on I.Q. should therefore be huge, and one should be very skeptical of arguments that imply (or state outright) that any alleged differences between those groups are innate or unchangeable. Indeed, if Komlos and his colleagues are right that differences in health care explain the plateau in U.S. height, one might expect that those same health care differences—which certainly correlate with economic status and race in this country—could have a very marked effect on I.Q., too.

Banana Box

In the last decade or so, discount food stores have been appearing all over the country.  They take the kind of damaged and out-of-date goods that used to be thrown away or donated to soup kitchens* and sell them at a discount.  They are often called 'Banana Box' stores because the grocery stores ship stuff to them in banana boxes and they often put stuff out in those banana boxes rather than wasting time shelving them.

My parents shop at a couple of these stores near their house.  Most of the stuff in those stores is junk, but every so often you can get really good stuff that is obviously leftover from a high-end grocery store.  My parents, and their like-minded friends, have added all kinds of interesting, exotic, and premium foods to their diets as a result.  But finding these things is like getting lucky in a treasure hunt; the stores are obviously run by and for the kind of people who measure food in terms of quantity rather than quality.

However, I have discovered a far superior grade of discount store.  On the way back from visiting a friend for Fall Break, I stopped by Amazing Savings in Greenville.  She had taken me shopping there one time, and I had been impressed, but had not had time to really inspect the place.  This time, I seriously went shopping.  The more I looked, the more good stuff there was.  The shelves were packed with what I would call a lucky find at most discount stores.  For example, in the ones near my parents' house, you might get lucky and find a few $1 boxes of premium granola cereal.  I typically clean the store out when I find a good brand.  Here, there were shelves full of them.  I got a about half a dozen boxes and did not affect their stock that much.

The store is specifically run to be a place that packs healthy, specialty, and exotic food.  For example, they identify gluten-free food and put it in a special section.  They even have their own store-label foods like granola and dried fruit and steel-cut oats, packed in zipper bags with simple labels.  Presumably they get them from local farmers.  I have been idly munching on a 20 ounce bag of their 'vanilla macaroon' granola as I write this, and it is disappearing at an alarming rate.

I started off with a basket, but moved up to a shopping cart once I saw the 3-for-a-dollar bags of beans.  I had to stop myself from getting too much, and limited myself to one example of each thing that looked good, to test them out.  I basically had the attitude that I was going grocery shopping for the next couple of months, and also conducting a sample to figure out which foods and brands were good.  The cashier seemed surprised to see someone buying so much stuff.  I was surprised that more people were not doing the same.  You could easily use that place as your primary grocery store, and cut your grocery bill in half while dramatically boosting quality.

I think that most people are limited by their plans, goals, habits, and routines.  They make a list to go grocery shopping, and go to a store that is guaranteed to have everything on that list.  The few customers at discount stores go in with the attitude of looking for something specific that the store is likely to have, or with the idea that they are finding a treat to supplement their diet.  It takes a rare sort of person to be willing to adjust diet plans based on what the store happens to have.  But really, the attitude should not be that rare.  Our forager ancestors went out looking for food and ate whatever was available.

I spent about $60 for a staggering amount of food.  I mean that literally; I was almost staggering as I carried it out.  The cashier offered to pack my purchase in banana boxes rather than grocery bags, and I accepted.  She was actually quite good at packing the boxes efficiently, and they ended up being a lot easier to carry than a big pile of bagged groceries.

There is now a banana box full of food perched above my head as I write this. ( My desk in my office at school is one of those tall standalone units that incorporates shelves above the desk.)   It is packed with various kinds of cereal, granola, dried fruit, crackers, snack bars, and exotic microwave meals.  This is in addition to the stuff I pulled out and put in my bottom drawer for easy access.  The pantries in my apartment are also packed with food.

The store is too far away to go to on a regular basis.  The 50-mile round trip would cost me over $10 in gas and car depreciation, which would erase any savings from trips where I did not fill up the shopping cart.  I can, however, get in the habit of making the small detour there when I visit my parents.  They also have another branch in a small town about 8 miles from my apartment.  Hopefully that one is just as good.

*Yes, this is bad for the soup kitchens.  When the economy gets more efficient, there are often losers.  But the gains to the workers and customers of these stores are bigger than the losses to the soup kitchens, and the existence of these stores can keep people out of the soup kitchens.