Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Federalism and Hurricanes

Andrew Sullivan links to an interesting article about Federal Government funding for levy construction (or lack thereof) in the New Orleans area. Apparently, the administration diverted federal funds away from levy construction in New Orleans to pay for military spending in Iraq. In light of the recent hurricane, which caused floodwaters to break those levees this looks like a potential political problem for the President.

The final paragraph of the article states:

Local officials are now saying, the article reported, that had Washington heeded their warnings about the dire need for hurricane protection, including building up levees and repairing barrier islands, "the damage might not have been nearly as bad as it turned out to be."
This sounds remarkably like a breakdown in federalism. The local officials and their constituents in New Orleans are the ones being the most affected by the failure of the levees. They should be the people making decisions about levy construction and they should be the people to bear the political responsibility for raising taxes to pay for that construction. Andrew ends with the comment:

Yes, some would even blame Bush and the war for a hurricane. But blaming Bush and the war for the poor state of New Orleans' levees is a legitimate argument. And it could be a crushing one.
The supposed reason for the poor state of New Orleans’ levees is the Iraq War. Shouldn’t the management of the Iraq War be a higher priority for the President of the United States than the poor state of New Orleans’s levees? Shouldn’t the poor state of New Orleans’s levees be a higher priority for the local officials? Lets place responsibility where it belongs.


I just finished reading 1421: The Year the Chinese Discovered America by Gavin Menzies. The thesis of the book is that in the years from 1421 through 1424, a Chinese fleet under Admiral Zheng He voyaged across the globe and discovered all seven continents – all seventy years before Columbus. Interestingly a Google search of 1421 China returns Menzies’ site as the number one site and returns a site called Debunking Gavin Menzies second. Clearly, controversy surrounds Menzies thesis.

The evidence in favor of the Chinese voyage is certainly interesting. Much of the evidence comes in the form of old maps containing coastlines that had not been explored by Europeans at the time of their drawing. In addition, Menzies presents evidence of apparent Chinese shipwrecks, Chinese artifacts, and Chinese populations (colonies) throughout the world.

Unfortunately, the style of the writing leaves much to be desired. Many of the book’s conclusions could better be described as stretches. Some are certainly plausible, but Menzies is not as careful as he could be about making his cases. Menzies really wants to believe his thesis so he presents his evidence in a way to make it fit – this comes through in the writing. The other convenient aspects of the thesis is that no written record exists of the Chinese voyage. The Chinese apparently destroyed all evidence of the voyage as they fell into self-imposed isolation, the fleets apparently did not visit Europe, and the Portuguese who apparently inherited the Chinese maps did not mention them directly in their writing. All in all Menzies book is certainly an interesting story, but one that I would prefer to see presented much more rigorously, and with more corroborating evidence.

Leaving aside some of the shaky evidence, this story highlights the importance of political stability to human accomplishment. If all the Chinese actually accomplished all that Menzies claims, they were hundreds of years ahead of the Europeans. That within a few hundred years, China was actually conquered by those same Europeans shows just how fleeting their accomplishments were. Interesting to contemplate when viewing history on a scale of centuries, but hard to appreciate in our fast paced daily lives.

Lawyers vs. Businesspeople

The $253 million judgment against Merck in the recent Vioxx case provides me with a great opportunity to comment on the differences between lawyers and businesspeople.  While both groups are routinely castigated in public opinion for being greedy and unconcerned for the plight of their fellow citizens, these people drive our economy and provide the backbone for our country’s economic health.  Although both lawyers and businesspeople contribute to our country’s economic success, they contribute in vastly different ways.  Business people primarily use their creativity and leadership to create value, while lawyers use their knowledge of the law and contracts to defend or to redistribute value.  

Businesspeople use their knowledge of their customers as well as knowledge of some specific technical subject to create and sell products and services that bring unique value to their customers.  In return for creating that value for their customers, the business people and their firm capture a portion of the value that they created for their customers in the form of profits.  Changing customer preferences, technological advances, and relentless competition make the quest to capture profits an ongoing process.  Businesspeople must continually identify and develop new ways to serve their customers or risk losing their position to the competition.  

In contemporary business, almost every activity requires input from multiple individuals who have specialized skill sets - in many cases, these individuals may even work for separate firms.  In order for these groups to perform effectively, business leaders must coordinate activities and motivate the group.  The ability to organize a group of individuals into an effective team defines leadership in many areas and especially in business.  Business people and their companies require effective leadership and creativity to serve their customers well, which creates value.  Business people can defend their positions well in the marketplace but need help in the courthouse.  

The United State’s legal system provides an environment in which individuals and firms can freely contract and seek remedy for transgressions.  Absent this environment, the best efforts of business people could easily be lost without redress.  Lawyers use patents, copyrights, contracts, and lawsuits to defend the value created by businesspeople.  Without patents and copyrights others could benefit from a firms creative new ideas and inventions.  Without effective contracts, other parties would not have to honor their business agreements.  Both the threat of and an actual lawsuit provide incentives for others to act in accordance with the laws with respect to a particular firm.  All of the activities that lawyers perform serve to keep the value that businesspeople create within their firm.  Lawyers do not create value; they protect it.  

Unfortunately for Merck, their lawyers did not succeed in defending the value that Merck’s creative scientists, marketers, and production organization created with Vioxx.  Whether justified or not, this judgment will clearly affect Merck’s future investment decisions, likely reducing the number of creative new drugs entering the market.  Regardless of how successful a firm is in developing attractive new products, unless it can expect to retain the value created thorough its efforts the firm will not succeed in pleasing it’s stakeholders.  

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Red Sox Game

Went to the Red Sox game last night with three friends, Mel, Pat, and Jody. Special thanks to all of the people who had seats on the third base line and decided to leave during the rain delay. It was great fun to have such a close view of the game - literally eye level with the players. Below are a few grainy pictures that I took with my mobile phone. The built in camera is ok for taking close up pictures in doors, but does not work well outside especially in tough lighting situations. Pictures aside, the Red Sox played a great game to beat the Devil Rays 10-6 with plenty of home runs to go around!

Red Sox

Bye Abe!

Monday, August 29, 2005

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Transportation Socialism Comments

A few days ago Travis posted an interesting essay on the unfortunate federal highway bill just signed into law. In general I agree with Travis’ conclusions regarding 1. Returning control of highway spending to the states, and 2. Exploring private ownership of roads. If there ever was a compelling federal interest in highway construction, it has ceased to exist with the completion of the interstate highway system. Returning decision making and tax authority to the state level will at least remove one layer of government and hopefully make the decision making process more accountable to tax payers. Going a step further, allowing private ownership of roads and compensating these firms via tolls will allow for price signals and consumer behavior to drive future investment. Also it will remove the government from the decision making process and allow individuals and firms to make the choices about what serves them best. For an interesting background article please take a look at this.

What I think that Travis misses in his essay is the fact that monopoly power is real. That the government (state and federal) currently has a monopoly over the highway system is not really a good argument for replacing one monopoly with another. The only good reason to privatize highways is to increase the efficiency of our highway system through incentives and competition. Clearly the public would not be well served if a single firm controlled all of the highway routes between two places. If this were the case that firm would price tolls higher and invest less than if a competitor operated an alternate route and each driver had a choice of with route to take.

My point is not that a private highway network is unworkable, but only that the government should have regulatory authority to ensure that no firm gains monopoly power over consumers. For example separate firms should operate interstates 95, 495, 93, and route 90 in the Boston area to ensure that drivers had multiple options to reach their destination.

In addition other modes of transportation such as railroads and air travel should be included in the definition of travel when assessing a firm’s market position. The CEO of Amtrak has stated that he believes that transporting people is only a marginally profitable business. How can this possibly be true? Americans travel constantly for business and pleasure and are willing to pay for that ability. The reason that the major airlines lose millions of dollars a day and that Amtrak needs over a billion dollars a year in government subsidies is that the transportation industry has been constrained and regulated too much by government. Freeing all modes of transportation from government control and only regulating enough to prevent monopoly power (which likely means not at all in many if not all markets) will enable private capital to improve our national transportation network and earn strong returns while they do.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Rip Currents

I have posted about rip currents and ocean wave theory before and recently I came across some interesting material describing some of the key causes of dangerous rip currents as well as well as the theory behind how rip currents form and how strong they become. The National Weather Service has some great resources on rip currents for anyone who does not know what a rip current is or how to identify one on their website.

The first paper, which is on the NWS’s rip current page, describes a study to improve forecasting of dangerous rip currents in Volusia County Florida. The study concluded that four factors contributed to the formation of dangerous rip currents – those rip currents that tended to lead to large numbers of rescues by local lifeguards. These four factors are: wave height, wave direction, wave period, and a tidal factor. The first two factors seemed pretty obvious to me because wave height and wave direction clearly play an important factor in the strength and formation of rip currents. The later two, wave period and the tidal factor, were interesting to me. I had not thought much about wave periods influencing rip current strength, but it certainly makes sense that:
Long period waves will be effected by the bottom at deeper depths and will break further from shore, resulting in a larger wave set up. Long period waves may also have significance due to their ‘groupiness’ creating pulses of the rip currents (Shepard and Inman 1950), catching bathers by surprise.

When I think back to days when I have made the most rescues, the majority of rescues tend to happen after a larger set of waves breaks over the sandbar. I would hypothesize that long period waves cause increased rescues due to 1. the increased strength of the rip current themselves and 2. the temporarily higher set up height which causes swimmers in relatively deep water to suddenly find themselves in water over their heads and hence become venerable to the currents.

The tidal factor undoubtedly plays a major role in the formation and strength of rip currents. This study found that 62% of rescues occurred during the 42% of the time when the tide was between 0.45 m and 0.75 m below the mean with 0.6 m below the mean being ideal. It is interesting that evidence from Volusia County shows this empirically. I would expect that the tidal component might be somewhat more complex than this because of differences in the structure of the ocean floor at various different beaches. The empirical study shows that when the tide falls below 0.75 m of the mean the number of rescues decrease, perhaps because of sandbar exposure. The tidal level where sandbar exposure begins likely varies from beach to beach and also over time at a single beach as the height of the sandbar changes.

I will not comment as much on the second article that I found here, which describes some ongoing research to determine the causes of rip currents and lists some hypothesis about why the form in the first place. Many people who swim in the Ocean have long been able to describe what a rip current is, how to identify it, and how to avoid and escape from one. It looks like science is still working to identify the underlying physics of why they from and how to predict where and when they will form.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Weekend at the Beach

I went to the beach, Ocean City Maryland, this weekend for another great long weekend.  While at the beach, I worked for the Beach Patrol.  The weather was great all weekend except for a few hours of drizzle on Friday.  Unfortunately the surf was very small, bordering on nonexistent so I could not surf in the mornings before work or the evenings after work.  Oddly enough the weather and surf conditions in the middle of August this year remind me more of the middle of July when the air is hot and the surf is small.  

The highlight of our weekend trip occurred at the Beach Patrol’s annual awards banquet where I received an award for ten years of service.  Amazing to think that I have been associated with an organization for ten years – as a lifeguard no less.  I intend to compose a more carefully considered essay on what I love so much about the Beach Patrol and post it here in the next few days to weeks.  For now, I think that it is enough to say that I had a great trip this past weekend and have loved all ten years of being a part of the Beach Patrol.  

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Breaking the 11th

In the Agora has declared August 11, 2005 Breaking the 11th Commandment Day, which is an opportunity for Republicans to criticize the Republican leadership currently in power. As a confirmed Republican, I am going to take this opportunity to express my concerns with the performance of those Republicans currently in power. Hopefully criticizing my own party will help strengthen it and demonstrate my intellectual honesty. Over the past four and a half years, the Republican leadership has let me down in three areas: limiting the size of the federal government and liberalizing the economy, and blurring the line between Church and State

Limiting the Size of the Federal Government

Republicans have traditionally been known as the party of limited government. From their position as the minority in congress the GOP opposed the big government programs from the New Deal to the Great Society. Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich continued this tradition and made the promise of limited government explicit although they did not have enough control over government to completely realize their objectives. With the election of George W. Bush, the GOP gained control of both the executive and legislative branches of the federal government so the ability to limit the size of government should be with their control. Unfortunately over the past four and a half years the federal government has expanded greatly rather than contracted. Nearly all areas of the federal government have greatly expanded their budgets even those outside the scope of homeland security. From bloated transportation and energy bills, to Medicare prescription drug entitlements, to the farm bill, to no child left behind, to Amtrak Republicans have spent government (taxpayer) money on programs far beyond the scope of anyone's definition of limited government.

Liberalizing the Economy

President Bush campaigned for office by telling voting Republicans that he would enhance our economic potential through tax cuts and more open trade with other countries. While the tax cuts and a few free trade agreements have been enacted, the administration has committed multiple missteps along the path to a truly liberal economy including steel and lumber tariffs and the farm bill. Steel tariffs were the first misstep and the first issue where I disagreed with this president. In addition to violating our commitments to other countries, they drastically raised the cost of steel, which hurt US consumers and especially US manufactures who must purchase steel. Likewise placing punitive tariffs on Canadian lumber only hurts US consumers and the housing industry. Finally the farm bill greatly expanded agricultural subsidies, which serve to distort our agricultural market and enrich US farmers at the expense of desperately poor farmers in other parts of the world. Each of these missteps has served to enrich special interests in the US (steelmakers, lumber industry, and agribusiness) at the expense of the average American consumer. In a truly liberal economy, consumers would benefit from greater competition and all sectors of industry would need become much more efficient.

Blurring the Line Between Church and State

On social issues the republicans in power have blurred the line between church and state too much for comfort. Although faith based initiates certainly stop federal programs from discriminating against religious charities, which is better than the previous status, ideally government should not fund any charities at all - individuals would. Forcing Federal involvement upon religion serves to cheapen the role of religion in society. Conversely, writing discrimination of gays into the constitution and Federal intervention in the Terry Schrivo situation are illustrations of Republicans allowing religion to master government. In the Byzantine world nearly constant state intervention in religion ultimately hurt the Orthodox Churches while in the west the Roman Church essentially took over the Roman Empire and culminated in corruption and reformation. We need to be vigilant about both of these relationships in the US. Church Religion needs a space separate from state, in which to operate in people's lives without the crushing weight of state intervention. Some Republicans seem to have forgotten.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Armor for Sleep

Went to a free concert at the Hatch Memorial Shell, which is on the beautiful Charles River Esplanade. WFNX put on the show, which featured Armor for Sleep (we missed the first band). The band has an interesting sound. They have a very heavy sound, but lighten it up with melodic chords. Many of their songs transition multiple times, which makes for an interesting effect. I was happy to hear this band in an open air environment, because in a club I am sure my ears would have been ringing at the end of the show (not that that is necessarily a bad thing). The concert was a nice treat in the middle of the week.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Ocean Waves

Last week I spent three days at Ocean City, Maryland, which is a beautiful resort town on the Atlantic Ocean. We had a little bit of a swell from Tropical Storm Franklin as it passed to the east. I have always enjoyed riding waves first on body boards and then on surf boards. Even when I do not have either of these I like to body surf the waves. The rush of catching a wave is an incredible feeling.

Once I had advanced far enough in physics and engineering to understand the properties of waves in general, I began to wonder about the physics of ocean waves in particular. From a brief search of the web, I found a couple of interesting sites that give explanations of how ocean waves form, how they propagate, and how the release their energy. The best overview discussion is here. A site with a little more math, but without quite enough physical background is here. A particular description of the formation of rogue waves is here. Please post references to any other descriptive or mathematical sites in the comments field.


Travis makes an interesting comment regarding privacy in response to this post on the Digital Television Industry. I agree that many people may oppose this type of development on privacy grounds, however I can only describe their position as tenuous. The entire reason that television exists today is to allow advertisers to gain access to viewers. To assert that content and service providers should invest in creating and distributing programming to serve some public good (entertainment?) is counter factual. As corporations, service providers aim to maximize value for their owners so refining and targeting demographics, ultimately down to individuals is clearly in their interests for the reasons that I cited before.

From a consumer perspective, privacy can only serve as a waste of time and a waist of an opportunity to learn about valuable goods and services. Most Americans spend countless hours watching television, with almost half of that time spent watching commercial messages. What possible good can be served if majority of these messages are for products that the individual does not want because the advertiser does not know anything about the viewer? I want advertisers to know as much about me as possible so that they can pitch products that I actually value highly.

Privacy advocates often use class to argue for increased privacy. I presume that their argument would be that corporations would focus their resources on more affluent individuals at the expense of the less affluent. However, targeted advertising will make both rich and poor alike better off as advertisers of luxury goods target those who can afford them and advertisers of low cost goods target those who need to make their money go farther. Are their other arguments to make in favor of privacy over utility?