Saturday, December 21, 2019

Frederick Douglass: Self-made Man, by Tim Sandefur

Timothy Sandefur's Frederick Douglass: Self-Made Man is an inspirational read. Sandefur does a masterful job of putting the story of Douglass' life and accomplishments into context. Douglass was born a slave, and became one of the most prominent abolitionist leaders. He insisted on telling his own story, and led the faction that was most interested in integration. While the leading faction when he started advocating freedom was arguing that the constitution was an impediment to freedom for blacks, he argued that it would be better to take the constitution literally, and use it as the basis for a moral case for equality.

I heard Sandefur give a wonderful talk about Douglass' life at Reason Weekend. (There's an earlier version of the talk on YouTube.) Both the talk and the book deliver a powerful pro-liberty statement and show how Douglass lived as a model of what he advocated, and convinced many other people that playing on the positive vision of the founders would be a more productive way to engage on the issue of emancipation. Douglass trumpeted that "the Consitution is a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT". Douglass argued that the Supreme Court is bound to follow the words of the Consitution rather than historical precedent, and there's nothing in the words that allows or supports treating some citizens as second class. It took a long time before the Supreme Court agreed, but eventually, the aspirational message of the constitution's meaning prevailed.

While I was in the DC area for Thanksgiving, we visited the Smithsonian's African American Museum, since the lines were finally short enough (during the week) that we could get in without reservations. While the historical section of the museum is arranged chronologically, it didn't feel like the museum did a good job of connecting the exhibits to give a feeling of how different incidents connected together. I was glad I was reading a history of the period for context. The museum's exhibits confirmed that Douglass was a prominent leader, though (not surprisingly) they didn't say much about the content of his views, or how much contention there was among different factions of the movement.

I enjoyed the book and recommend it.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Two by C. J. Cherryh

I was recently reading Alliance Rising by C. J. Cherryh and Jane S. Fancher and Defender by C. J. Cherryh at the same time. (It's not unusual for me to be reading 4 or 5 books at the same time. Some I have as hard copies by the bed, some on my tablet, and others on my phone.) I've liked most of the Cherryh that I've read, so I was a little surprised at my reaction to these two.

Defender is book 5 in a 20 book series, and I enjoyed it a lot. I'm familiar with the characters, and there's a lot of action, and many factions jockeying for control. It doesn't have much of a pro-liberty message -- I don't insist on that in everything I read.

Defender focuses more on a struggle to keep the peace, and a society where some of the characters have very alien motivations. This is one of the things that I like about this series--Cherryh has a really great ability to depict people who don't think as we do.

My response to Alliance Rising, was quite different. If it hadn't been nominated for this year's Prometheus award (I'm on the review committee) I might even have set it aside. After getting through about a third of the book, I felt like the only actual action that had taken place was that an unexpected ship had arrived at the space station where the story takes place. The rest was all talk. There had been meetings and trysts and discussions and a lot of description of historical and political background by the authors. By the end there was a little more action, but the focus was really on politics and lobbying.

But I have to admit that Alliance Rising is a plausible candidate for the award. The politics and hobnobbing are all in service of the independent trading ships banding together in the face of Earth's apparent intent to take over the interstellar shipping business. There are safety concerns because the people acting for Earth's government are more concerned with controlling commerce than operating a business, while the traders have family ties with the stations, and have an interest in making sure that trade continues even where it's uneconomical at times. I'm not sure that it's a principaled pro-freedom message, but it's at least plausible. I still prefer to read SF stories where the plot is advanced by stuff happening, rather than by people talking. I'll have to wait to see how this book stacks up against the other contenders for this year's Prometheus.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Lucy Jones, "The Big Ones"

Lucy Jones' The Big Ones talks about many major disasters, and what we can do to prepare for them. She is an earthquake specialist (working for the USGS), so she focuses on quakes, but she also spent time working on more general disaster preparedness for various California state and local agencies. The disasters include earthquakes, floods, tsunamis (flooding caused by earthquakes), and volcanoes. Each chapter focuses on a separate incident.

The introduction talks about the structure and geology of earthquakes. The San Andreas, for example, only produces big quakes. The surfaces that are pulling past each other have been ground smooth enough that they stick together. This means it can't release pressure a little at a time; it waits for a sizable build-up, and releases the tension all at once. The magnitude of a quake is determined by how much of the fault releases at once. If it's a short distance, it produces a small quake. Quakes that release a few yards of pressure would be under 2.0. If the rupture goes for a mile and then stops, you get a magnitude 5. A 100 mile long break would produce a magnitude 7.5 quake. Since the rupture front on the San Andreas is pretty smooth, a quake on it will continue to propagate once started, and will cover most of the length of the fault. The built up stresses (at two inches a year) on the southern end of the fault have accumulated about 26 feet of differential since the last major release more than 300 years ago. The section in northern California has had more recent quakes. If two hundred miles of the fault give way, we're talking about 7.8, while 350 miles is conceivable, and would reach 8.2. The section around Paso Robles releases pressure gradually, and should stop further propagation.

I was already pretty aware of the big picture for a major earthquake, since I've been part of the earthquake response teams both at Google and for Mountain View. After a major quake, some roads will be out, and all the fire, police and hospitals will be busy, so no one will get the mutual assistance that they can usually count on. Jones led a team of more than 300 experts as they explored what an 8.2 in LA would be like. Even though building codes have been improving for several decades in California, not enough have been retrofitted to keep this from being a serious disaster. 1500 buildings are likely to collapse including possibly some high-rises. When we drill in Mountain View, or at Google, we always assume that we'll be on our own--no fire or medical help should be expected for a few days. Google (and most other large employers) have plans to be able to feed employees for a few days, and the earthquake team is trained in triage and first aid. But anyone needing attention from a doctor is unlikely to get it.

And all that was in the introduction. The next few chapters cover the volcanoes that buried Pompeii in C.E. 79 (there were early warnings, so there are eyewitness reports from people who fled days or hours before the final eruption) and Iceland in 1783, and the earthquake that shook Lisbon in 1755.

I want to spend more time on chapter 4, which covers the great flood of California's central valley in 1861-2. Just that description should make you suspect that it was bigger than you'd expect. This was a flood that filled the Central Valley, and the water didn't recede for 9 months. California had only been a state for about 10 years at the time, and the only thing that most Californians today have heard about this event is that Sacramento raised its street level by 10 feet in response.

Most people who are familiar with California weather know that most of it is basically a desert. It usually only rains in the winter, and most of the rain falls in the mountains. We only have enough to drink because we dam the rivers, and store water from rainy years in the reservoirs. If you live here for a while, you get used to the idea that some winters are pretty dry, and other years, we'll get a couple of storms that seem to get stuck here, and we can get rain that lasts for a week or two.

Starting in December 1861, the rain throughout much of the state was continuous for nearly 45 days. Other than the mountainous areas, normal rainfall is 12-18 inches, with 24 inches being heavy. That storm apparently dropped 5-6 feet of rain in many places. There were no dams at the time, so by January 9th, the water in Sacramento was 24 foot above its normal level. Most of the city was at 16 feet, so the water was 8 feet deep. The water was still there 3 months later. But this was only what was visible at Sacramento, which is pretty much the northern tip of the central valley. The entire central valley: 30 miles wide and 200 miles long was inundated to a depth of thirty feet. Innumerable cities and towns were completely washed away. All the cattle grazing there died.

Modern California has dams and reservoirs, but they wouldn't have been able to hold back this much water. It was only 150 years ago, and there's no reason to think that extreme variation in annual rainfall has abated. Jones says that geologic records indicate we should expect this much rain "once every century or two", which is suitably vague, but scarily often. There's no way we're prepared for an event of this size. We now get decent alerts about rain two weeks ahead, but several recent winters have included anomalous weather patterns that persisted for longer than that, and the weather bureaus don't have much more to say than "we can't tell how long it'll last". If it starts raining and doesn't stop, we won't know until two weeks before all the dams are overtopped.

Later chapters cover flooding on the Mississippi and in New Orleans, tsunamis in the Indian Ocean, other disasters in Italy and China, and Japan's Fukushima, which combined earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown. She talks about emergency response, long-range preparedness, and our tendency to estimate the future based on past incidents we're familiar with.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Order Without Law, Robert Ellickson

Robert Ellickson's Order Without Law is a study, as its sub-title says of "How Neighbors Settle Disputes". Ellickson starts with a deep dive into how ranchers and farmers in Shasta County, in the rural northern part of California actually deal with a problem that Richard Coase brought up in a classic paper on transactions costs. In "The Problem of Social Cost", Coase argued that if transaction costs were irrelevant, it wouldn't matter how property rights were allocated. Regardless of whether ranchers were responsible for keeping their cattle from straying or farmers were responsible for keeping unwelcome beasts out of their crops, the same solutions would be reached. If the law doesn't allocate responsibility to the low cost actor, then according to Coase the other party would find a way to pay the other party to do the cheaper thing. Of course, most of the argument since then has focused on the fact that transaction costs are seldom negligible.
Ellickson says that Shasta County is uniquely positioned for a study on this issue
Shasta County is "open range." In open range an owner of cattle is typically not legally liable for damages stemming from his cattle's accidental trespass upon unfenced land. Since 1945, however a special California statute has authorized the Shasta County Board of Supervisors, the county's elected governing body, to "close the range" in subareas of the county. A closed-range ordinance makes a cattleman strictly liable (that is liable even in the absence of negligence) for any damage his livestock might cause while trespassing within the territory described by the ordinance. The Shasta County Board of Supervisors has exercised its power to close the range on dozens of occasions since 1945, thus changing for selected territories the exact rule of liability that Coase used in his famous example.
This is the kind of change that economists love to study, because they can look at how behavior changes over time and treat the change of law as an independent variable. Any consistent changes in people's activity after the law changes can be treated as the result of the legal change.Ellickson focuses on how neighbors actually respond when trespasses occur. The book is filled with colorful stories giving details of what happened when particular responsible or irresponsible ranchers allowed their livestock to wander. The main observation is that while people were generally aware whether their property was in 'open' or 'closed' lands, their resolutions to incidents had little to do with what the law called for and more to do with a commonly accepted wisdom about that cattle owners are morally responsible for the damage. According to Ellickson, this fits Coase's model, since cattle owners are the low-cost provider. There are a variety of different types of pasture throughout Shasta County, and the cattle owners know more about how densely they are using any particular piece, and are more aware of which neighbors are most sensitive to their intrusions.
One of the most important enforcement mechanisms that Ellickson cites is plain simple gossip. Most of the people he talks about are eager to make things right, rather than be the subject of their neighbors' pointed comments. There is one member of the community who gets discussed a lot, but there are more extreme measures available when there are repeated run-ins, and one party is a consistent non-cooperator.
Ellickson is a good story teller and an astute observer. While the subjects of his study are less tight-knit than the farmers Ostrum described, there is enough social cohesion so that norms develop, and neighborliness is for the most part, a stronger limitation on people's interactions than actual laws.