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Sunday, June 03, 2007

Explainer, explain thyself!

Why be a one-trick pony if you're going to flub your one trick? A column of advice on tricky ethical questions is a great idea for a trick, but Randy Cohen botches it as "The Ethicist" every week, next to fellow NY Times Magazine regular Deborah Solomon, who believes that interviewing "requires no special talent".

I love Slate's multi-author column "The Explainer", which does the answer-anything format better than it's ever been done. Mostly this is because they choose questions that are interesting and risque, rather than standard fodder like "What are Israelis and Palestinians fighting about, anyway?" or "How rich is the richest man in the world?".

Some recent Explainer topics have been, What should you do when confronted with a gun-toting madman?, What's the smell of burning human flesh?, How does God reward a female suicide bomber? and, Is it dangerous to snort your dad's ashes?

But I disagree a bit with three recent Explainer answers.

First there is the question, At what point does compressed music really sound worse than a CD? It's silly to attempt to answer this question, as one Explainer does, without mentioning the open-source music file format called "Ogg Vorbis". OGG files sound much better than mp3 does at the same file sizes. Mp3 at 128 mbps (the most common compression level) is definitely distinguishable from CD quality if you use headphones. OGG at 128 mbps is not, and even sounds great at 80mbps. The iPod doesn't play OGG files, but Apple could change this in an instant if consumers wanted OGG support.

Next is a great question: What's the Christian doctrine on bong hits? To my surprise, the Explainer leaves out the speculation by archaeologists that cannabis oil may have been a common anointing oil in Jesus's age. To be fair, that's not a question of doctrine, but it is a crucial, and amusing, bit of context.

Last, there is the question, Is it a good idea to invest in forever stamps? ("Forever stamps" are the Liberty Bell-adorned stamps the Postal Service is selling for 41 cents, which will never expire or require you to buy a sheet of 2 cent stamps every time the first class mail rate goes up.) The Explainer says it's not worth the investment, because postage increases don't keep pace with inflation.

But this ignores the practical aspect of the question. The reality for most people that they'd only be investing to the tune of, say, a hundred bucks. $100 would buy you 234 forever stamps, which you could use for years. Let's say that, in this email age, you use two stamps per month; your $100 purchase would last you ten years. If the rate of increases in the last ten years holds, by that time stamps will be 53 cents, which means the average price during that ten year period would have been 47 cents, which, adjusted for predicted inflation, is 40 cents in today's money. You will be paying, on average, a one-cent premium per stamp, totaling $1.

Now consider the inconvenience of buying stamps in the future. In the past ten years, I have spent several hours--let's say two--standing in line at the post office to buy sheets of 2 cent stamps or other small amounts. Would I exchange the $1 lost on forever stamps for having these two hours back over the next ten years? Absolutely. You might get up to a two- or three-cent premium per stamp if you buy stamps for the next 30 years instead of just 10, but it would still be well worth the money.

So no, Warren Buffet shouldn't invest in forever stamps. But you should.