Sunday, August 28, 2005

Book Review: Meridian: Worlds Apart

The author, James Wittenbach, sent this book to the LFS for review, and suggested that we might be interested because "strong currents of libertarian philosophy run through it". It's not from a major publisher, and the lack of editing shows. There are numerous repeated words, many misspellings, and sentence fragments in the narration where they are obviously not intended.

Those errors and distractions notwithstanding, it's a good read. The background is that humanity's galactic commonwealth fell apart over a 1000 years ago, leaving each separate world to get by on their own. Two planets, Sapphire (individualistic) and Republic (collectivist) have restored contact and joined forces to send ships out exploring in an attempt to regain contact and recreate a broader community. The author plans to write several novels in this setting (see the website for details). It's not a bad set-up for a series, but it's not well enough executed to justify much confidence that more will make it into print.

The contrast between Sapphire and Republic are supposed to drive some of the conflict, and create interesting conflicts between the characters. Unfortunately, a military expedition under constant pressure (the ship itself seems to be rebelling from the start) and in battle isn't' the best setting to show the differences between them.

The human civilization on Meridian, the planet visited in this book, has been taken over by an alien species that has managed to assimilate the human population. The explorers manage to avoid a similar fate, but it's mostly due to superior technology and luck, rather than character or the advantages individuals have over unthinking slaves. It's a fine read, though not a great one, and the libertarian themes aren't strong enough for me to recommend it to the attention of the Prometheus nominating committee.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

An Empire Of Wealth

The reading group discussed John Steele Gordon's An Empire of Wealth last night. This was a fun read, though surprisingly disjointed in its presentation of economics for a book recommended by Tyler Cowen. The reading group decided to read this book based explicitly on that recommendation. We had initially decided not to read it, partly because it seemed too lightweight, but when a few of us saw Cowen's review, we changed our minds and added it to our list. We choose several months worth of books at a time, so it's taken us 8 months to get to this one.

Cowen called it "the best single volume treatment of American economic history I have read, highly recommended", and it did provide a great review of the evolution of commercial culture in the US, as well as an overview of American History in general, with a focus on the business community and its interactions with government. But for all that, the economics was very inconsistent. Gordon gave similar praise and damnation to market-based solution, socialist innovations, and Keynesian approaches. Each time a problem arose in American History, he would talk about what the government did, or how the market reacted, or what some influential individual did.

He summarised his discussion of monopolies, in the context of Standard Oil with:

As the grip of Standard Oil relentlessly tightened on the oil industry, prices for petroleum products declined steadily, dropping by two-thirds over the course of the last three decades of the nineteenth century. It is simply a myth that monopolies will raise prices once they have the power to do so. Monopolies, like everyone else, want to maximize their profits, not their prices. Lower prices, which increase demand, and increased efficiency, which cuts costs is usually the best way to achieve the highest possible profits. What makes monopolies (and most of them today are government agencies, from motor vehicle bureaus to public schools) so economically evil is the fact that without competitive pressure, they become highly risk-aversive—and therefor shy away from innovation—and notably indifferent to their customers' convenience.

Gordon falls back on monetarist explanations when it's convenient (pp265):

The immediate cause of the new depression [in 1893]—as in most previous ones in this country—had been over-expansion due to the lack of a central bank to tap the brakes when needed

but later on the page says "The gold standard has one big advantage as a monetary system: it makes inflation nearly impossible." And finally, in his discussion of how the US managed to produce an astounding quantity of munitions of all kinds for WWII, he says

The United States accomplished this awesome feat of industry by turning the world's largest capitalist economy into a centrally planned one, virtually overnight. Central planning has always proved dismally inefficient at producing the goods and services needed by a consumer economy (largely because the consumers have so little say in what is produced). But central planning has done far better at producing the instruments of war.

Gordon never considers the question of how a market economy might do if set to the task of preparing for war, or how the market might be harnessed to that purpose. Since central planning produced surprisingly good results, he accepts the conventional assumption that that's the only approach that could have worked.

Gordon is at his best when explaining how people built businesses and how the businesses built the infrastructure that helped the country grow. When he tries to generalize about causes, he makes it clear that he doesn't believe in any general rules. This leaves the reader without an organizing principle. Gordon seems to have explained everything that happened, but the explanations conflict with one another, so the naive reader would be left grasping at analogies in order to decide how to apply any lessons they thought they might have picked up.

But at the end of the day, I have to agree with Tyler Cowen that this is the best single volume treatment of American economy history I've come across. Tom Bethel's Noblest Triumph is much broader, Burton Folsom's The Myth of the Robber Barons is focused on a narrow period, Fernand Braudel's Civilization and Capitalism is three volumes, and not limited to the Americas.

An Empire of Wealth succeeds as history; it's quite readable, and brings up many interesting episodes that should be much better known. The story of New York State's grant of a monopoly on the steamship trade within the state and the ensuing competition in the market and in the courts hasn't been mentioned in anything else I've read.

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Friday, August 26, 2005

Shortages and Price Controls

Catallarchy reports that Hawaii has passed price controls on gas at the wholesale level. According to some of their comments, Florida is considering following suit.

It's easy to predict that shortages will soon follow, and if the legislature doesn't backtrack on the controls, there will soon be calls for rationing. The only thing that would stop shortages would be if Hawaii's suppliers are locked into that market and can't choose to deliver marginal barrels to other markets. I doubt that this is the case, but California's experiences with local pollution regulations and an inability to get marginal barrels redirected here to deal with short-term situations makes it seem possible.

It's hard to believe that anyone could make this mistake, but I guess legislators don't know any more about economics than the general public.

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Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Radio Economics PodCast

I've been listening to PodCasts recently. There seem to be three categories that most of the ones I listen to fall into: Real Estate, Economics, and Science Fiction. I've listened to a few different podcasts in the Real Estate and Science Fiction categories, but I only found one Economics PodCast that caught my eye.

RadioEconomics has host Dr. James Reese, an economist at the University of South Carolina, Upstate interviewing various economists. My favorite so far was Don Boudreaux, the chair of the George Mason Econ Department. (broadcast 8/11/05) I've been working on Prediction Markets with some economists at George Mason, and I've been a fan of their style of economics for a while, so I was interested in finding out what the department chair had to say. Boudreaux talked about his own interests as well as those of the department in general. He was quite frank in claiming that every one of the Economists at GMU is a vocal fan of the free markets. At the end of the PodCast, Dr. Reese asked what other departments around the world were most like and most unlike the GMU department, and Boudreaux didn't shy away from naming other departments that are probably doing good work, but which Boudreaux doesn't have any personal interest in.

I also enjoyed the interview (7/26/05) with Gary Becker and Richard Posner, authors of the Becker/Posner Blog, one of the blogs I read regularly. There are some older podcasts I intend to go back and listen to, including (7/15/05) with Skip Sauer of I listened to most of the interview with Michael Perelmanof CSU Chico last night while walking the dog. He's an unrepentant socialist. He didn't do a good job of defending his viewpoint. He presented several factors that have led to the bad name that central planning has gotten among economists, and several apparent ineficiencies produced by market economies, but no specific proposals to improve any situation, and nothing to show why his proposals would work better than the failed experiments of the past.

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Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Puzzle: PQRST 14

PQRST has a good puzzle contest that they run quarterly. The 14th iteration was last week, and it seemed tougher than usual, though I didn't have as much time as I sometimes spend. I thought puzzle #7 was particularly clever; and no math is required. If you're into puzzles, give it a try.

Divide the whole grid into smaller geometric shapes, following the grid lines or the diagonals of the square cells. Each shape must have exactly one symbol inside, which represents it. Rectangle symbol cannot be contained in a square. Trapezoid has two sides parallel, but its other two sides are not parallel.

The solution will be posted at PQRST in a week or so if you can't get it.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Strange Orbits

I read Science News, both on paper and their electronic newsletter. The online newsletter has a section called MathTrek that's not included in the magazine, with fun math-based tidbits. This week, they talk about unusual orbits that have been calculated; they're possible, but unlikely to ever occur naturally. Charlie McDowell's animations are a good selection of interesting ones. I particularly like "8 on a Daisy". But I was surprised not to find any explicit mention of Cruithne (pronounced cru EEN ya) or 2002 AA2 9 there. Paul Doherty has a good discussion of Earth's Three Moons. (Wikipedia denies that Cruithne is a moon, but I couldn't find anything there that explained the distinction.)

While the orbits that Science News talks about are prettier, Cruithne and 2002 AA2 9 are real objects, and in some ways their orbits are even more bizarre. The mathematical constructs are (mostly) regular trefoils, flowers, and figure eights, and contain 4 to 99 bodies. Cruithne and 2002 AA2 9 co-orbit with the Earth, and seem to have relatively stable orbits. Both travel at roughly the same distance from the sun as the Earth, with roughly the same period. They both follow a pattern from an Earth-centric perspective, travelling faster than the Earth till they almost catch up, then slowing down for many years until the Earth catches them, and they start the cycle again. Cruithne has a highly inclined orbit (20°) and is about 5 km in diameter. 2002 AA2 9 travels in a continuous spiral around Earth's orbit.

Friday, August 12, 2005

I Don't Climb Alone

Hal Murray sent me a pointer to this trip report of a solo on a hair-raising climb on Sykes' Sickle. It reminded me of Desperate Days in Blue John Canyon, which I watched in early July. (You should realize that we never watch TV. My dad had recommended that I watch the program, and it was probably the first time in 10 years that we watched broadcast TV. Maybe the third time in 20 years.)

After watching Desperate Days, I wrote a note to my dad thanking him for the recommendation and commenting

  1. If you're going alone, tell someone where you're going and when you'll be back.
  2. leave a note visible in your car saying where you're going and when you'll be back.
  3. Don't go dangerous places alone. (Slot canyons are dangerous when you're alone.)
  4. Take more food and water than you think you'll need.
  5. Carry a whistle. (Probably wouldn't have done him any good, but you can whistle a lot longer than you can shout, and they can be heard much further. He could easily have whistled every hour if he'd had a whistle.)
  6. If a rock falls and pins your arm, cut your arm off. He should have done it much sooner. I hope I'd be able to do it if it had been me. I wouldn't have been there alone, but (as in the movie "Touching the Void") sometimes something bad happens and you end up alone.
The solo climber mentioned above didn't break these rules: he had a friend watching from the ground. What he did is still too scary for my. I don't think I would climb anything above about 5.6 solo, and if there's exposure (serious risk of falling a long way if you make a mistake), which there was here, I'd be even more conservative than that. 5.6 is about the level that someone in reasonable shape can climb with just a few pointers. 5.9 (the rating of Sykes' Sickle) is hard enough that PD's nephew, Dan, only reached it at then end of a summer of climbing indoors every week. And he was excited about having done it, too.

Anyway, the Sykes' Sickle climber wondered where the line is between safe enough and crazy when climbing solo. I think he's way on the crazy side of the line. I continue to think that technical climbing is not a solo sport.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

First review: Reflex, by Steven Gould

I read a lot. I read a lot of science fiction (broadly construed). I'm also part of a mostly extropian/libertarian reading group. The reading group reads history, science, economics, biology, psychology, evolution, and more. I'm a member of the finalist commitee for the LFS Best Novel awards, so I read a lot of SF that I evaluate for libertarian viewpoints. Now that I have a blog, I'm going to start trying to write at least a short review of most of what I read.

Reflex, by Steven Gould, is a fine novel. It tells the story of Davy Rice, a natural teleport. He doesn't know why he can jump, he just can. He's been working for the NSA for years, but someone has figured out his weaknesses, and figured out how to kidnap and control him. The story follows Davy and his wife, Millie, as they work to find a way out of the trap.

The story is well-told, the characters are interesting, their struggles are convincing. Davy shows great personal strength: he is adamant about not subjecting other people to harm even when it's the only way to save himself. The morality displayed in the story is quite admirable. The bad guys we meet are venal, but completely in thrall to hidden characters who are apparently evil. The good guys have superhuman powers along with weaknesses their enemies know how to exploit. They are also extremely moral, though they are willing to threaten and kill those who have demonstrated they are their enemies.

The libertarian aspects rest mainly in that the government agencies Davy and his wife have to work with are internally divided, and can't be relied on to keep a secret, protect a source, or follow through on a commitment. It's hard to rank this book, since it's the first of next year's nominees that I've read. It's compatible with libertarianism, but not strong on teaching the weaknesses of governments or the strengths of private actions. The good guys are very moral, but they're merely defending themselves from bad guys who are trying to force them to support their evil plots.