August 2005

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Here’s an idea of how bad it is in New Orleans right now: The Mayor has told the Fire Department to stand down. The firefighters are securing the firehouses against the storm and heading to shelter.

Update: Woke up around 6am and turned on the TV. New Orleans has just lost power. In the Superdome, the emergency lighting system kicked on. Ten thousand people will be stuck there for the next 12 hours with no air conditioning.

CNN and MSNBC both have reporters to the east and west of New Orlieans, in Biloxi and Mobile, but the only reports in New Orleans are from people in shelters, with pictures from remote cameras. There’s not much to see because of the power failure.

The weather animations show the eye of the storm making landfall somewhere in the marsh to the south of New Orleans. The good news is that Katrina is no longer a category 5 hurricane. The winds have slowed to about 145. The meteorologists are now saying that the storm surge might not rise over the levees.

Outdoor camera footage shows some flooding, but that doesn’t mean the sea is pouring in. New Orleans is in the middle of a giant bowl in the land. It only takes an inch of rain to cause a flood. This could be normal. On the other hand, the pumping system that normally drains New Orleans is without power, so the water will keep building up.

From Yahoo’s New Orleans Weather page:

Tonight: Bands of heavy rain containing strong gusty winds at times. Low around 80F. NE winds at 25 to 40 mph, increasing to 70 to 90 mph. Rainfall over two inches. Winds could occasionally gust over 100 mph.

Tomorrow: Bands of heavy rain containing strong gusty winds at times. High around 85F. Winds NNE at 70 to 90 mph. Rainfall over two inches. Winds could occasionally gust over 100 mph.

That’s got to be computer generated.

Meanwhile, just to the right of that are three Google-style content-triggered ads. Two of them are for New Orleans hotel reservations. The third is a little more practical, it’s for a home builder.

As I write this, Hurricane Katrina is climbing up the Gulf toward the mouth of the Mississippi and the City of New Orleans. The winds have slowed from 175 miles per hour to about 160, but the warm Gulf water could drive it faster at any time.

If you’ve ever stuck your hand out the window of your car at 55 miles per hour, you know how much force that is. Katrina’s cyclone winds are three times as fast, which means they push nine times as hard as the air on your hand. There’s not much that can take that and keep standing. Even fewer things can take the pounding force of debris carried on that terrible wind.

And then there’s the sea.

Of all the people ever killed by hurricanes, nine tenths of them died not from the wind but from the storm surge. A hurricane is driven by a slight reduction in pressure at its center. While the weight of the surrounding air presses down on the sea with full force, the sea under the hurricane lifts up slightly.

Even worse, the continuous winds slowly build a giant wave. In some sense, it’s really not that big. Hurricane Katrina is a million feet wide, but its storm surge is only going to be about 20 feet. If it were a normal wave, it would crash against the land and be done. But it’s not. It may only be 20 feet high, but it stretches for miles and miles.

If Katrina hits New Orleans dead on, the storm surge will arrive in the form of wind-swept waves that crash on the shore again and again, retreating a little less each time. In just minutes, the waves will over-top the 14-foot levees surrounding the city. Then the sea will rise up and pour into the valley where New Orleans lies.

I’ve only ever been to New Orleans once, and then only for a few days. I was in a hotel located on the edge of the the French Quarter.

Have you ever been to Disney World? Running down the center of the Magic Kingdom is Old Main Street, Disney’s idea of an old-time small town. The main street in the French Quarter, Bourbon Street, is just like Disney’s Old Main Street, except with jazz bars and strip clubs. It’s ancient and decadent and a lot of fun. It’s what Old Main Street would like to be…if it weren’t for all those damned kids.

I don’t actually remember much. I remember all the spinning fans on the ceiling of the Old Absinthe House. I haven’t seen it in 20 years, but I’ll bet it hasn’t changed a bit. It’s been there for 200 years, why would they have made any recent changes?

I remember Jackson Square. As I recall, the pigeons there were really fat, no doubt stuffing themselves with scraps left behind by visitors to the surrounding bakeries and restaurants.

Then there’s Antoine’s Restaurant. Probably their most famous dish is Oysters Rockefeller. It’s the original, you know. The recipe is a secret. Every other Oysters Rockefeller you’ve ever had is just a cheap imitation. Or so I’m told. I didn’t get around to visiting Antoine’s back then.

I’m a northerner, a Midwesterner. I was born in Chicago, and I have every intention of staying here all my life. My visit to New Orleans was brief and long ago. Not much happened to me there. I’m not a party animal, so I didn’t do any legendary amounts of drinking. I didn’t meet a girl and have a fling I’ll always remember. I didn’t have any mystical epiphany in one of the all-night jazz clubs.

Truth is, I really only ever saw the tourist areas, and not much of those. If Katrina does her worst, there are a lot more important things that will be lost. Lives will be lost, possibly a lot of them. I am frightened for the people who remain behind, and I wish them all the best in their struggle to come.

And still…

I was comfortable there, just strolling through the Quarter. There’s been a little bit of New Orleans in my heart ever since. I always planned to go back and see the rest of it. I always figured it would be there.

When Monday morning comes, I guess I’ll know.

Note added June 2006: I’m rather proud of this piece and the way it captured my thoughts at the time. I wrote it quickly, but it holds up pretty well. Because I’ve just added it to my “Best Of” list, I figured I should add a few notes on how things turned out.

My last line was off by a day. The leading edge of the hurricane made landfall on Monday morning, but it was a big storm. It wasn’t until Tuesday morning that we started getting good reports on the extent of the damage.

Although Katrina lost strength and didn’t strike New Orleans directly, it was still more than the levies and flood walls could stand. They failed in dozens of places for reasons that remain confusing and controversial.

Over on Hit & Run, they’re discussing in the comments the comparative merits of Survivor, The Sopranos, and Six Feet Under.

Which of these will future art historians most admire? Which of these television shows will future historians look back on as our Madame Bovary, as our Moby Dick?

I say none of them. A hundred years from now, historians will describe this as the era of the soap opera: A single play, performed an hour a day for decades on end, featuring the work of dozens of writers and hundreds of actors, following story arcs that stretch for generations, in real time, and all made feasible by the unique economics of the emerging broadcast media.

Nothing else like it ever before.

Whole academic conferences will be convened to discuss these remarkable artistic endeavors. And, as with Madame Bovary or Moby Dick today, nobody else will care.

The government of Hawaii just made a terrible mistake:

In an effort to gain some control over what motorists pay at the pump, Hawaii on Wednesday became the first state in the U.S. to set caps on the wholesale price of gasoline.

Economists have observed that setting below-market price caps on a good causes that good to become scarce. It has nothing to do with producers being greedy or petulant: Firms that produce the goods will just naturally lower their production when the sale price is lower.

The simplest explanation is the the lower sales price makes it impossible to earn a profit. If you’re running a factory that makes toasters for $25 each (parts, labor, taxes, insurance, maintenance, depreciation and everything else) and selling them for $35 each, a price cap of $24 will cause you to lose a dollar on each toaster. You’ll close the factory to avoid losing money.

Even if the price cap isn’t so low you can’t make money, let’s say $30, it could still impair your production. That’s because in reality, even though the toasters are identical, they don’t all cost the same to make. It might cost $25 to make a toaster during the regular shift, but if you give your workers some overtime, the price could shoot up to $32. At that cost, it’s still worth selling toasters for $35, but if the sale price is capped at $30, you can’t make money with overtime labor, so you’ll reduce your employees’ hours and toaster production will drop accordingly.

This can affect an amazing array of decisions that affect the final production figures. If your factory needs periodic maintenance, your decision about how large a maintenance crew to use, and therefore how fast the maintenance is done, is affected by the lost profit from the toasters that won’t get made while the factory is shut down. If a lower sales price means lower profits, you may let the factory stay idle longer. Again, production drops.

(By the way, if you’re wondering why you can’t just re-tool your factory to make the exact same toasters for, say, 20 dollars, the answer is that it’s not possible. If it were, you would have already done it so you could get that extra $5/toaster profit.)

Gasoline production is the same way. If someone caps the price of gas below the free-market price, production will fall. Again, greed has little to do with it. It will be things like older high-cost refinery facilities that stop production, or shipyards that cut their labor costs by cutting overtime for repairing oil tankers.

If the free market price bumps up against the caps, gasoline production in the Hawaiian islands will drop.

Does this mean Hawaiian motorists will soon be facing long lines at the gas pumps like we all did during the price freezes in the 1970s?


The cap, you see, is on the wholesale price of gas, not the retail price. Thus, there will still be shortages, but it will be the gas station operators who will be waiting in line for gas. Well, maybe not literally, but they’ll be having a hard time getting as much gas as they used to.

This means that they can’t sell as much gas as the motorists want. They’ll start to run short. But unlike their suppliers, they don’t have price caps. So as the gas supply starts to dwindle, they’ll raise prices on the remaining gas. Why? Because they can. Motorists will be desperate for gas and willing to pay more. You can call this greed if you want to, but they’ll only be charging what people are willing to pay.

As gas prices go up, some motorists will buy less gas. (They’ll ride the bus more, or walk, or consolidate trips, or drive the SUV less, or carpool, or something.) Eventually, the price will reach the point where motorist demand drops to match the reduced supply.

Now think about this. “In an effort to gain some control over what motorists pay at the pump,” Hawaii has just passed a price control system that will increase the price at the pump.

People who know what Adam Smith really wrote about the free market will by this time begin to suspect the these price controls are somehow the work of lobbyists for Hawaiian gas station owners. I’m almost sure they’re right. If station owners colluded to increase profits by restricting the supply of gasoline, they could be fined or jailed under the anti-trust laws. But if they lobby the legislature to do it for them, it’s perfectly legal.

It won’t last, though. Unless the Hawaiian legislature comes to its senses real soon, the public will start to demand retail price controls because of all the high gas prices.

Then there will be long lines at the gas pumps.

Update: The market has spoken.

Glenn Reynolds has already linked to this, but it’s an amazing story.

Independent journalist Steven Vincent was killed in Basra a few weeks ago.

Professor Juan Cole at the University of Michigan (who had previously been the subject of criticism by Vincent) looked into rumors that Vincent was having an affair with his female Iraqi translator, Nour Weidi, and suggested strongly that Vincent was the subject of an honor killing because of his ignorance of Islamic ways.

Now, Steven Vincent’s American wife has set the record straight in a letter she’s sent to several people. She really tears into Juan Cole in several places, but that’s not the amazing part.

Read what Steven Vincent and Nour Weidi were really up to:


Here’s an unusual way to demonize fast food:

In the battle against childhood obesity, well-intentioned government policies that encourage healthy eating face a daunting challenge from the proliferation of fast-food establishments right outside the schoolhouse door, a new Chicago-based study shows.

The median distance from any Chicago school to the nearest fast-food restaurant is about a third of a mile—a walk of little more than 5 minutes for an adult—according to the study by Boston researchers, published today in the American Journal of Public Health.

Almost 80 percent of public and private schools in Chicago had at least one fast-food restaurant within about a half mile, exposing children to “poor-quality food environments in their school neighborhoods,” according to the researchers from Children’s Hospital Boston and the Harvard School of Public Health.

The study found 79 fast-food restaurant chains clustered around some 1,300 Chicago schools. McDonald’s restaurants made up 16 percent of the 613 fast-food sites, followed by Subway, Dunkin’ Donuts, KFC, Burger King, and other chains.

The article makes it sounds like fast food restaurants are predators stalking the little children.

Well, why not?

The cheerleaders for the nanny state have demonized booze, cigarettes, and firearms by spreading fear about the effects on “the children.” People have been joking for years that fast food would be next. I guess so…

Police in Utah raided a rave attended by about 400 people. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, the rave was illegal and the police broke it up with little violence.

On the other hand, Daily Kos has a different story, claiming that the police used paramilitary tactics to shut down a legal concert, complete with permits and security guards. This is consistent with accounts by some people attending the party. Police say the party organizers had some permits, but not something called a “mass gathering permit.”

The Utah County Sheriff’s Office said there were guns and drugs, and they busted the security guards for drug possession. Attendees say everybody was searched when the entered, so the only weapons were those brought by the police.

The ravers are clearly a crazy bunch, and some of their stories seem pretty far-fetched. Sploid, for example, is somehow linking this mess to George Bush. I doubt the rave was as innocent, legal, and drug-free as the ravers are now saying.

On the other hand, the police side of the story sounds like all the drug war hysteria I’ve been hearing all my life. The police reports all list terrible things that have happened at previous raves, such as drug overdoses and violence. But the same things happen at football games and fraternity parties, and nobody sends armed gunmen to break them up. If somebody is beating up somebody else, the police should arrest the guilty to protect the innocent, not just drive everybody off at gunpoint.

So, who to believe? No, that’s not right. I don’t believe either side completely. A better question is, “Who are the bad guys?” How can we decide that?

Fortunately, there’s video.

And what I see in the video is a bunch of cops shutting down a party. The cops are dressed like soldiers—helmets and camouflage—rather than uniformed police officers, and they’re armed with weapons that look like assault rifles. They throw people on the ground a lot. There are dogs barking. At the end of the video, you can hear the cops yelling at the cameraman to put down his camera.

There’s also one telling detail. The cops are wearing masks.

They hide their faces and don’t want someone to take pictures of what they’re doing. They wear military outfits and have guns. These are not the peace-keepers of a free society. These are not the good guys.

Update: I forgot to mention it, but the security guards arrested for drug possession claim that the drugs had been confiscated from attendees as they passed through security checkpoints.

Utah County Sheriff James Tracy responds:

“[Security guards] have no legal statutory authority to take and hold controlled substances. It’s against the law for them to have them,” Tracy said.

I’m sure that he is technically correct, but is this really a good way to use police resources? I mean, here are some guys preventing kids from doing drugs, and the police response is to arrest them for it? (If the guards are lying, the police should say so, not stand on the legalism.)

By the way, I’ll bet the same legal logic prohibits parents from taking drugs from their own children.

About a decade ago, the high-school aged children of a friend of mine had a party at which they and their friends had some alcoholic drinks. My friend knew all about what her kids were up to. In fact, she hosted the party and served the alcohol herself.

It seemed like a good idea. Kids that age can always get booze when they want to, but at least this way a responsible adult would be there to make sure they didn’t drink too much or drive away drunk.

It must have seemed like a good idea to a lot of people, because she got signed permission slips from the parents of every kid who attended. The only exception was the son of the Chief of Police in her town. He called her to say he couldn’t sign the note because she was technically breaking the law, but he assured her he approved of his son attending.

That was then, this is now:

That’s exactly what a Rhode Island couple did in 2004. When they learned that their son planned to celebrate the prom with a booze bash at a beach 40 miles away, William and Patricia Anderson instead threw a supervised party for him and his friends at their home. They served alcohol, but William Anderson stationed himself at the party’s entrance and collected keys from every teen who showed. No one who came to the party could leave until the next morning.

For this the Andersons found themselves arrested and charged with supplying alcohol to minors. The case ignited a fiery debate that eventually spilled onto the front page of the Wall Street Journal.

That’s from Radley Balko in the Washington Post. He goes on:

The local chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving oddly decided to make an example of William Anderson, a man who probably did more to keep drunk teens off the road that night than most Providence-area parents.

I’m shocked! Why would a driving safety group like MADD be acting like a bunch of old-time prohibitionists? I don’t know, but as I mentioned before, MADD has drifted far from their original goals.

In fact, the Andersons were lucky. A couple in Virginia was recently sentenced to 27 months in jail for throwing a supervised party for their son’s 16th birthday, at which beer was made available. That was reduced on appeal from the eight-year sentenced imposed by the trial judge. The local MADD president said she was “pleasantly surprised” at the original eight-year verdict, and “applauded” the judge’s efforts.

Eight years. That’s an awfully long sentence for serving alcohol to minors. Bank robbers and rapists would serve less time (for a single first offense). That a MADD officer would support such a sentence makes me wonder if MADD is becoming some sort of hate group, kind of like the KKK except instead of hating another race, they hate drinkers.

Update: Okay, I got angry and went overboard there. My apologies to MADD for the unqualified comparison to the KKK. Unlike the KKK, MADD acts within the law, not against it, and they don’t do lynchings. However, I still say the MADD president’s comment suggests that MADD is more motivated by hatred of drinkers than by improving traffic safety.

I just heard a radio ad for Harper College that was…surprising.

The ad lists off a bunch of pairs of things where one is greater than the other and eventually suggests that I’d be greater with a Harper education than without one. What caught my attention, however, was the very first pair of things listed, which went something like this:

“x to the n is greater than x to the n minus one.”

I suppose that you could read that a couple of ways, but if they mean

xn > x(n-1)

then I think they haven’t checked enough cases.

In case you forgot, xn means x times x times x and so on until x has been multiplied by itself n times. For example, if x = 2 and n = 4, we have 24 = 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 = 16. In this case, the ad’s assertion is true, because x(n-1) = 2(4-1) = 23 = 2 x 2 x 2 = 8.

The problem is that for a mathematical statement to be true it has to work for all possible assignments of variables, and that’s not the case here. For example, if x is a fraction between 0 and 1, then the opposite is true:

xn < x(n-1)

for 0 < x < 1

The ends of that range are bad too: The number 1 multiplied by itself any number of times is always 1, so if we set x = 1 then both sides of the equation are equal to 1, meaning neither side can be greater than the other. The same thing is true for x = 0. And if x is a negative number, the sign changes every time you multiply it by itself, so one side of the equation is negative, depending on the value of n.

I don’t normally expect mathematical rigor from advertising, but when there’s a formula, and it’s an educational institution…

(I tried to email the Harper math department, but the first two people on the department web page bounced. I think I may have found the address of someone who teaches Quantitative Literacy at Harper. I’ll update this if I hear anything back.)

Update: I got a friendly reply from Gary Schmidt thanking me for the contact and telling me (with just a hint of concern) that this doesn’t represent Harper’s mathematics program.

I knew that. Actually, it brought on a pang of sympathy. I spent a lot of time as a student and staff member at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and I can remember some things coming out of our marketing department that made us cringe a bit.