Friday, December 31, 2004

Greetings from Hurricane Evacuation Zone A

Well Gene, ya know it wouldn't be me if I weren't able to pull seemingly useless trivia from my, er, trivia conglomeration gland. There's probably good cause to worry about tsunamis hitting the East and Gulf Coasts of the US. I didn't read the NY Post story but any doom-and-gloomer worth his salt should probably first mention La Palma in the Canary Islands off Africa. Nearby, we have plenty to be worried about too from such fun things as the Montserrat and Kick 'Em Jenny volcanoes and a crisscross of faults under the Caribbean one of which recently gave the residents of the Cayman Islands a jolt that would have sent manly Californians screaming like little girls. Of course, land movement isn't the only cause of large waves. Besides a little hurricane (storm surge is the #1 killer!) here and there, rogue waves much like the one that hit Daytona Beach in the middle of the night back in 1992 frequently topple large ships out at sea. Heck, I don't know why we aren't all dead already.

Of course this should also signal a need to build earthquake resistant buildings everywhere in the US as well. I'm sure you're already aware that in recent history some of the largest earthquakes to hit the US were in Missouri and South Carolina. And let's not forget that the threat of twisters damns us all to becoming Toto-chasing Kansas girls at any moment. Just the other day near my old haunt in Los Angeles, they suffered from of all things: a tornado. Should I even get started on potential blizzards in Miami?

I think it's a bit obvious to almost everyone that I'm being a bit playful here. Yes, there might be good reason to think about a tsunami flooding the East Coast but is it worth the cost? Maybe. For the time being though, between the United States Geological Service and the Emergency Broadcast System which might require some slight tweaking for tsunami danger it seems pretty much covered--at least as much as we can handle. Not to mention that for many areas like New York City, Boston and Miami, complete and timely evacuation is logistically out of the question.

So should government require that all new buildings be tsunami safe bubbles in the unlikely even of catastrophic wave generation? Of course not. At the risk of sounding a bit like a communist hippie: All that these regulations do (outside of the unlikely tsunami event) is make living in prime areas too expensive for most people. How fortunate for the rich that building a simple home on the beachfront in Florida now requires oodles of money. A hundred years ago the poorest of the poor could live on the beach and should a big blow have wiped out their humble shotgun shacks, they simply rebuilt them...something that in the wake of four hurricanes and monster Andrew in 1992 is becoming increasingly hard for even the middle class to do. Not to mention that some of the buildings that have survived were built long before any damned and fancy hurricane construction regulations were in place.

I guess no matter how loopy the seemingly benign and wonderful schemes the government comes up with are, when we get back down to brass tacks, the Market is always the place to get the best information on exactly what to do for disaster prevention. Sure, mistakes are made. They are made often and when government makes them they tend to be worse and harder to fix so it's best to just let people make their little mistakes (sometimes known as spouses) and then repair them the best way they can (sometimes known as divorce.) Ya wouldn't want DC deciding who gets married and makes little blonde babies do you?

By the way, if it's not raining tomorrow I'll probably go boardsurfing. Come down and bring a snorkel!

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Tsunami Warning

Well, Margaret was spot on -- a few hours after I read her post, I read a columnist in the NY Daily News bemoaning the fact that there was no warning system in place. What people neglect to consider is that there is a cost for every precaution one takes, and that it is trivial, once a disaster has taken place, to judge that it would have been worthwhile to have had a warning system in place for that event, it is quite another matter to wisely allocate scarce resources beforehand.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

"Lawlessness" Pays

Interesting development in the wake of the tsunami. Across the Indian Ocean, Somalia also got whacked by the wave--at least a hundred dead last count. As part of relief efforts Dubya said he'd temporarily suspend their debt. Whaaaat?!?! Last I checked Somalia had no central government except a bunch of guys who have to hang around Kenya because they have no authority within Somalia itself. Interesting. Do you suppose this new government has already promised bankers to leach the Somali people for money to pay back the debt the old government took on? No wonder they can't show their faces in Mogadishu. Obviously the people of Somalia are better off with the numerous clan chiefs and warlords than whatever the bankers want to impose on them through Nairobi. I hope they get their wish and keep their money.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Some Wild Cleaning Is Gonna Happen Today

I heard an announcer on CBS News Radio in New York say that, in the city, "street cleaning rules are suspended tomorrow."

You don't want to be out there when they come around with those big old broom and water trucks and no rules!

Monday, December 27, 2004

Congressmen to install tsunami warning system in Capitol reflecting pool.

The other little point about the Sumatran superquake I'd like to point out is the absurd coverage of the lack of an adequate tsunami warning system in place in the Indian Ocean. We can't spend all our time and money chasing nearly implausible dangers, can we? This is the first ocean wide tsunami in at least 500 years in the Indian Ocean. Is it really so newsworthy and ridiculous that they didn't have a system in place? Guess what? The East Coast of the United States doesn't have one in place either. Why?!?! Because it's probably not worth the expense since Atlantic tsunamis are as rare as Indian Ocean ones. An estimated 95% of these quakeborn waves occur in the Pacific where the system not only is in place but is a necessity. What do you think the chances are that within a year there will be a bill in Congress asking to put one in place on the East Coast? I bet it happens before the next wave hits shore.

Hey, it'll just spur growth in South Asia, right?

Not to take lightly the horror of the Sumatran superquake but this seems like a good time to bring up Bastiat's Broken Window Fallacy. Nobody in their right mind would seriously suggest that the quake and tsunami that killed over 25,000 people would be a boon to the local or world economies. On the contrary, it's obvious we're all worse off for it especially in the directly hit areas. Yet, when four hurricanes beat the swamp out of Florida in August and September of this year, some financial analysts were proclaiming these multiple disasters would spur growth in the Florida economy. To be fair, the disasters weren't as bad and few people lost their lives but that only means that the Florida economy will recover to the point it was at before the disasters much faster. It will eventually get back on track but it will be months or years later than it would have been without the storms and that track will be in a different direction than it would have been. Likewise, a broken window doesn't help a neighborhood, it just sets one household back about the price of a pane of glass and the labor to install it. When money is spent to replace something instead of creating something new, it's as good as if you threw it away in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Season's Greeting from Ali Gene

Yes, me been gone from the blog for a good spell of time now, but for the hollydays me giving all you ladies something to look at, should youse boyfriends be away:

Friday, December 24, 2004

Photos from Sicily

An allee outside the Museo Archaeologico in Syracuse.

A view from the hilltown of San Fratello.

Another view from San Fratello.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Propaganda 101

I'm cleaning out all of my accumulated junk (it's part of my "Honey Do" list from my wife) and I came across a "Global Social Studies" notebook from my high school days. I was quite amused at the "ID" section on the very first page of the notebook. Some excerpts:

Persian Gulf A very unstable area that is associated with many oil-producing countries. Because of their power over the economy, these countries are potentially very dangerous.

Saddam Hussein A very dangerous ruler of Iraq. He could try and take over all of the oil in the Persian Gulf, crippling the economy. He has already invaded and annexed Kuwait.

Helmut Kohl President of W. Germany, fighting to unify Germany.

Manuel Noriega A former leader of Panama who was voted out of office, but used force to retain his position. U.S. forces restored order.

Nelson Mandela A revolutionary in South Africa who was imprisoned for civil disobedience. He was released and toured the world, preaching about freedom for blacks in S.A.

(Oh, by the way, I went to a very reputable private, Catholic high school, and my Soc. Studies teacher was a very liberal guy!)

Thursday, December 16, 2004

(/&&£()(=)!"° Keyboards!

So why does every country have to move the punctuation keys around on me? I just have gotten used to the English layout, and now I find the Italians have yet another way to arrange them. If you see silly punctuation in my posts, youàll know why! Wonàt youé


I'm touring Sicily for a week before returning to the States, so my blogging will be limited -- OK, Bob? -- but I'm going to begin blogging my trip.

The most striking thing so far, besides the physical beauty of the island, is how wrong I was in my naive impression of what life here would be like. I had heard of "la problema del sud," referring to the economic disparity between the north of Italy and the south. I had expected to find the island mired in poverty, a sort of time warp where elderly women in black dresses were sweeping the sidewalk in front of their ancient, stone homes, and men in traditional Italian garb sat in trattorias sipping wine and talking with great passion.

Traveling across the north coast of the island, I found the towns to be more modern and less impoverished than I had expected. There were Internet cafes, plenty of cell phones, modern fashions, and an awful lot of Mercedes and BMWs for an "impoverished area." In the small town of Sant'Agata, where we spent three nights, we walked past a building that contained a physical therapist's office, a masseuse, and "Agopuntura tradizionale cinese." (In the same town, we met an Italian woman who had been Michael Jordan's linguistics professor at UNC.)

But it was when we headed south, heading down the east coast for Syracuse, that my preconceptions were totally shattered. We turned south at the bustling city of Messina, at the northeast tip of the island. (I looked on the map for the closely associated town of Loggins, but could not locate it.) We then passed through a massive rush-hour traffic jam in Catania. Drivers would accelerate madly to pass us, in order to sit in line one car ahead of us for five minutes. The point of the passing seemed to be in the passing itself, not in any substantive reduction in travel time. Motor scooters, often bearing two people, shot between lanes of traffic. When the cars were too close to permit that maneuver, the scooters would climb the sidewalk and skirt around several cars instead.

Finally free of the jam, we continued south to Syracuse, passing through countryside much less mountainous than in the north. Coming into the city, we spotted a large shopping mall. I had run down the battery on my digital camera, and we decided to pull in to search for another.

Well, the mall was as grand and as modern as anything I've seen in the US. The clothing stores were as fashionable as those I saw in Florence last year. There were no less than four shops selling digital cameras, and in the fourth I found the battery I needed. (Despite the surface similarity to an American mall, there were significant differences: many shoppers were smoking as they strolled the shops, and when I stopped for a cappucino at a stand in the middle of one of the corridors, I saw men ordering shots of liquor from the same vendor, doubtlessly finding that an agreeable way to pass the time as their wives shopped.)

An allee in Syracuse's archaeological park.

There certainly are pockets of poverty here. We've passed through a couple of hill towns where most of the shops were shuttered. The outskirts of Palermo reminded me of poorer sections of Florida. And it is harder here to find people who speak English than in Florence, so I've had to get by on my rudimentary Italian much more frequently. Still, this is nothing like the Sicily of which I had heard rumors.

The landscape in the interior has also been a surprise. The coastal terrain is much as I had expected it to be -- dotted with orange and lemon groves, olive orchards, and studded with tall palms -- albeit more rugged than I had imagined. (I have never been in a place where the moutains rise so quickly from the sea.) But once we began to climb into the mountains, we passed through a number of different vegetative zones. From the greenery of the coast we climbed into fall and, eventually, winter. At perhaps 3000 or 4000 feet, we hiked through an oak forest under a canopy of copper-colored leaves, encountering herds of goats, cow bells (goat bells?) around their necks, clanging through the woods. Higher up, we entered an evergreen zone and were surrounded by tall fir trees. Finally, on the slopes of Mount Aetna, we reached the edge of the tree line. We climbed out of the car and stood amidst snow and vast piles of smoldering lava.

The food here resembles the Italian food of my childhood -- spent in Norwalk, Connecticut -- more closely than the cuisine of Florence. That is hardly surprising, considering that the bulk of the Italian immigrants to the US came from the south. The Sicilian restaurants are also less elegant and less pretentious than those in Florence. Sitting in one the other night, I was idly eating an apple while I watched our waitress walk by. I had to shake myself out of the fancy that I was back in my hometown -- the waitress, the hostess, the blinking Christmas lights, the portrait of Jesus hanging on the wall, and the TV placed near the ceiling, blaring some sports event into the room, all could have been lifted straight out of one of the small Italian restaurants in which I ate while growing up. Only the fact that the sport was soccer, and the people around me were speaking Italian, woke me from my reverie.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Murphy Audio Files

Well, Gene is still AWOL in posting to his own blog, so I guess I can fill the air time by linking to the Ludwig von Mises Institute's gracious hosting of some speeches I've given. One is a talk on the Austrian approach to capital and interest theory...

...whoa, sorry, I fell asleep just typing that out!...and the other is a critique of the invasion of Iraq that I gave at Hillsdale College. So for those of you who have always said, "That Bob has funny quips, but I wonder if he's got a funny voice to match them?", enjoy!

Sunday, December 12, 2004 sickness and in health...

Two things are crazy about this story:

First, the Marine tells them to chop off his finger rather than cut his wedding band, even though (as any pregnant woman can tell you) you can cut a wedding band and put it back together again.

Second, after the doctors chop his finger off to save the ring, they lose his ring. (Or more likely, somebody stole it.)

Adventures in Babysitting

True story: I was sitting up with our three-week old baby, Clark, who wouldn't go to sleep. I decided to be like Mommy and sing a song. Rachael normally sings "Come Away With Me" (Norah Jones), to which I don't know the words. I racked my brain for a few moments, trying to think of a song that I both knew and that was soothing. I finally hit upon it: Dan Fogelberg's "Leader of the Band."

About five seconds into it, Clark had stuffed his fist into his ear. What a precocious infant!

Thursday, December 09, 2004

A Coordination Failure

I was at an academic conference some time ago, sitting with a friend, who commented to me that "I'm tired of hearing Professor X talk on conservatism. Can't they come up with something new?"

A few months ago, about a year after that conference, I happened to sit next to Professor X during a dinner. While we were eating, he remarked to me, "I just recently went to country Y, where they had asked me to present a talk on conservatism. I wish they would ask me to talk on something else, as I'm so tired of talking about conservatism."

What I Saw Inside the UFO

Can you guess what it really is?

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

I'll Trade Ya

In this article I do my best to explain why it doesn't make us richer to prevent (a) US consumers from buying products as cheaply as possible, (b) US workers from working for the highest possible wages, and/or (c) US firms from producing at the lowest possible cost. Simplistic, I know, but very few people agree with this view so forgive me.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

St. James Park and Buckingham Palace

A flower and shrub border in St. James Park.

The birdman of London.

A view across the water in the park.

Buckingham Palace and the Queen Victoria Memorial, from the entrance to the park.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Murphy vs. Long

In his unblog, Roderick Long recently made an unpost in which he critiqued my LRC article on miracles and physical law. Because my answers to his challenges are fairly brief, I’ll post them here:

I see three problems with Bob’s solution. First, as Bob acknowledges, it’s much harder to see how the really fancy miracles, like walking on water or ascending into heaven, could be accounted for in purely naturalistic terms – yet Bob is committed to accepting those stories too. (And things really get tricky if we try to handle the Old Testament miracles too, like Eve arising from Adam’s rib or Joshua stopping the sun.)

Now here, I think Long is missing one of my basic points: No matter what happens, it must have been possible, and hence could have been explained “in purely naturalistic terms.” I think what Long really means to say is, that it would be really tricky to explain walking on water etc. using only a very few simple laws of nature. To this objection, all I can say is that God is pretty clever.

Second, since on present scientific understanding the most basic laws of physics are probabilistic, simply setting the laws and initial conditions is insufficient to determine what happens down the line. (Of course Bob thinks that God sustains the whole process rather than merely kicking it off. But since on Bob’s view God sustains it in such a way that it’s just as if he had merely kicked it off, it’s not clear that this will solve the problem.)

The quick answer to this is that I don’t think probability concepts really make sense when we’re talking about one timeline, each moment of which the Creator creates in one fell swoop. God can certainly (and apparently has) cause the material universe to behave as if it’s governed by the rules of quantum mechanics, but ultimately the probabilistic interpretation of QED is just due to the fact that that model gives the best predictions of experimental results. There is even in principle no experiment that could ever prove whether the underlying laws were “really” indeterminate or just appeared that way. Thus I agree with Einstein that God doesn’t play dice.

(And please, believe me that I have read fairly extensively about quantum mechanics. I am familiar with the Copenhagen interpretation etc. I’m not naively suggesting, e.g., that maybe we could go faster than light if we really really tried. But what I am saying is that, ultimately, there’s no way to test a probabilistic rule. Whatever happens, happens. We can say that there is a 1/2 chance that a coin will come up tails, but this is consistent with two million consecutive heads.)

Third, it seems at least awkward that on Bob’s view, the fact that God exists makes no difference to what happens; everything proceeds just as it would have if the atheist were right. Not only does this seem to downgrade God’s status in a way that most theists would find unacceptable, it also makes religious belief much harder to defend, since any evidence one might offer for God’s existence would still exist even if God did not exist.

I think I understand what Long’s point is, but it strikes me as surprisingly silly; he again seems not to really take the time to consider my stance. On my view, God has designed the laws of the material universe such that, e.g., all of the prophesies in the Old Testament concerning the Messiah were fulfilled in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. This person walked on water, healed the sick, and rose from the dead.

Now Long’s point is that (according to my view) an atheist could explain this all as being no violation of the laws of physics, but no matter WHAT happens, the atheist can say this by definition. And surely the atheist would not concede that all of these things happened, and were just a coincidence; rather he would DENY that Jesus rose from the dead, walked on water, etc.

So the component of my worldview that carries the theological punch is my belief in the “miracles” of the Bible, and in fulfilled prophecies. I don’t see why I should feel awkward about this. If there were no God, then I see no reason that a Jewish carpenter could have done all of the things I believe he did.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Those Dirty Law-non-breakers!

Some English doctor was on the news this morning, complaining that the government has not been helping her enough with her duty to harass smokers. She said that it has been "too lenient" on them.

Smoking is legal in the UK. Was does it mean when someone says the State is being "too lenient" on people who are not breaking the law? I believe she thinks that everything a person does is subject to government meddling, whatever the law happens to be.

My Seminar Missed Me

I have missed my history of science seminar a couple of times this term. On the other hand, a couple of times it has missed me. Today, for the second time, I arrived to find an empty room.

I think my two misses and its two misses cancel each other out, don't you?

Zeno for the computer age

If you wish to better understand Zeno's worry about the continuum, you could do worse than to consider loops in software. Case 1: You...