Wednesday, July 30, 2008

On being wrong on gas prices

I wrote a post on June 11 in which I predicted the national average for a gallon of gasoline would be about $4.50 in July. I just passed a station selling it for $3.37. The national average is reportedly $3.95.

Why was I wrong? I used a flawed formula using the futures price of gasoline for July, that's part of it. But, why were all the other pundits and the government wrong in their predictions about $4.50 gas by July?

The simple answer is that global demand has slowed and risks such as hurricanes and other refinery disasters like we saw last year haven't occurred to disrupt supply.This graph was posted on Carpe Diem the other day. Net oil exports used to keep up with the increase in World GDP. About mid-2006, exports began declining while GDP continued to grow. The result is simply an increase in demand combined with a decrease in supply. Why the supply decrease?

One reason may be that the falling dollar began giving people like the Saudis less incentive to pump their oil since they could conceivably wait until the dollar improved (oil is always priced in dollars). That's the situation currently.

The reason oil prices have slackened somewhat lately is because GDP growth is slowing as the U.S. is facing issues and it hampers markets elsewhere. People expect less future demand for oil, particularly from the slumping U.S.

This graph from Net Oil Exports shows that the U.S. and other developing countries actually decreased their demand for oil from 2005-2007. However, China's incredible increase for demand more than offsets this. The emerging economies are thirsty, and China's government subsidizes their purchase of gasoline, driving up world demand and therefore prices.

So, should we prepare for gasoline to eventually fall back below $3? Don't bet on it. I agree with Thomas Friedman that probably the smartest move to make to create a government-enforced price floor. Make it illegal for gas to be sold for, say, under $3.50 so that people will adjust their consumption accordingly and the markets will respond with gas-avoiding innovations.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Great day for Jimmie, bad day for NASCAR

I enjoyed one of my favorite old pastimes yesterday- coming to campus to watch a race on cable TV while also studying. Sadly, this was one of the worst races in NASCAR history and is being called a total debacle. Someone somewhere didn't figure out that the tires Goodyear was using wouldn't last more than 10 laps. So, they raced in 10 lap segments.

"There were 11 total yellow flags, and NASCAR had to throw six competition cautions to force teams to pit and change their tires. (Yahoo).

It meant the longest green-flag run was an embarrassing 12 laps, causing teams to fear both tire failures and a possible supply shortage. Goodyear shipped in 800 tires earmarked for use next week in Pocono before the race, but they ultimately weren’t needed."

The winner would be decided by whoever could pit the fastest-- it was all on the pit crews who were exhausted by the end of the day. Crew Chief Chad Knauss consistently made the call for 4 tires every time, while other teams settled for 2 and track position. This allowed Jimmie to roar to the front after every pit.

The only real racing came in the final 10 laps. Jimmie took two tires and out-dueled Cousin Carl (Missouri native) for the win.
Jimmie and Chandra on the bricks.

Chad Knauss is my hero.

A Jimmie Johnson win is pretty much a good day for me. I hope he enjoys every bit of the $509,236 purse.

Perks

Economists are fond of saying that there's no such thing as a free lunch (because every decision has an opportunity cost). While nothing is free, I do get some good local perks by showing my faculty ID. Most restaurants have 5-10% discounts.

But my favorite perk is free drinks at the Kum & Go, a gas station chain. Not only did I get gas at $3.40 this morning I also got a free 20 oz. Premium Dark Roast coffee. I go in just about every day and get coffee or a soft drink in the afternoon (up to 32 oz. is free). I don't have to buy anything else, I just show my ID and get a warm "thank you, have a great day!" from the salespeople who are getting to know me.

Kum & Go is running a promotion online called Pop vs. Soda, where you can vote for which is the proper term for a soft drink. I grew up saying neither pop nor soda so I am not voting. According to the map, the northern most states believe in "pop," while Missourians prefer "soda."

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Happenings in Bolivar

So, being smack dab in the Midwest means we get the big tornado-producing storms that come through in the summer and we'll get blizzards in the winter.

On Wednesday morning there was an electric storm from about midnight to 7am. That's right, 7 hours of loud thunder. The local newspaper, the Bolivar Herald-Free Press, reports that a woman saw the phenomenon of ball lightning during the storm*.

"Carol Standley of Bolivar witnessed the phenomenon of a ball of lightning during the storms Wednesday morning.

"I've never seen anything like it in my life," she said. "I was just fluffing my couch cushions when I heard a pop." That was when she saw the ball of lightning about 10 feet outside her house.

"It cracked and popped all at the same time," she said. "It was very quick. I consider myself lucky it was just a show and it didn't touch anything."


Here's a Wikipedia article on ball lightning. This is a rather scary phenomenon. I watched a show about it on the Discovery Channel once as well as "Unsolved Mysteries" and similar shows so I'm basically an expert. Joni had never heard of it; she's a little concerned that we live in such a weather-exciting place. You never know what you're going to find here in Bolivar. Maybe even strange weather phenomena such as ball lightning.

The weather reports out of Springfield are cartoonish at best. Where's Andy Wallace when we need him? Actually, I just discovered our favorite Waco weatherman is now in Oklahoma City.

*(The paper gets the time the thunderstorms rolled in/out of town wrong as well as calling the phenomenon "ball of lightning" instead of just ball lightning, and supposedly their quote about 5% of people seeing the phenomenon is bogus. But we like the paper anyway.)

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Dismal news of the day

It's now cheaper to buy a new house in Detroit than it is a new car (ht: Carpe Diem).Average price of a new car is $22,650, according to the DOE.

In better news Dr. Perry says the housing market may finally be hitting bottom.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Fire McCain's Staffers

Who is the 25 year old poly sci graduate-lawyer-to-be that is advising the McCain camp? He/she should be fired. Yesterday. A disastrous week for McCain.

You turn the news on and there are currently two stories about the campaign:
1. Barack Obama speaking in front of 200,000 in Europe and being treated like a President.
2. John McCain's campaign's inability to match anything Obama is saying or doing.

McCain's current rhetoric is repeatedly:
"Obama was wrong on the surge. He therefore failed. He needs to admit this. Because he was a failure about the surge he will lead this country to failure."

Let's see. When the surge was announced I don't remember anyone in Congress lining up behind it with anything other than a "This might not work, but it might. We'll never know unless we try."
Republican columnist David Brooks sums this up in a column a few weeks ago:
"When President Bush consulted his own generals, the story was much the same. Almost every top general, including Abizaid, Schoomaker and Casey, was against the surge. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was against it, according to recent reports. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki called for a smaller U.S. presence, not a bigger one."

So, why isn't McCain also blasting the generals and Condi Rice for also being "wrong"?

Two weeks ago, Barack Obama wrote an op-ed for the NY Times where he said:

"In the 18 months since President Bush announced the surge, our troops have performed heroically in bringing down the level of violence. New tactics have protected the Iraqi population, and the Sunni tribes have rejected Al Qaeda — greatly weakening its effectiveness. But the same factors that led me to oppose the surge still hold true. The strain on our military has grown, the situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated and we’ve spent nearly $200 billion more in Iraq than we had budgeted...

...the Bush administration and Senator McCain are refusing to embrace this transition — despite their previous commitments to respect the will of Iraq’s sovereign government. They call any timetable for the removal of American troops “surrender,” even though we would be turning Iraq over to a sovereign Iraqi government.

But this is not a strategy for success — it is a strategy for staying that runs contrary to the will of the Iraqi people, the American people and the security interests of the United States. That is why, on my first day in office, I would give the military a new mission: ending this war.

Despite other disagreements and dislikes I have with Obama, his statements above are very reasonable.

Thomas Friedman (who was right about the whole war so far) concurs with me in his column yesterday where he encourages McCain to "wake up and smell the Arabic coffee."

"McCain was right about the surge. It has helped to stabilize Iraq and create a better chance there for political reconciliation. But Iraq has always been a story full of surprises. And one of the most important political surprises is how quickly the surge has made Iraq safe for Barack Obama’s foreign policy — and for the election policy of the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki...

U.S. officials in Iraq tell me that the success of the Sunni tribes in beating back Al Qaeda in their regions and the success of the mainstream Shiites in beating back Moktada al-Sadr’s militia and other pro-Iranian elements in Baghdad and Basra has Iraqis looking at themselves differently and therefore at America’s presence in Iraq differently.

More and more mainstream Iraqi politicians believe they are able to run their own affairs, and fewer and fewer mainstream Americans believe we are able to devote another presidency to Iraq."

So, Obama was wrong that the surge wouldn't work. WHO CARES??? Everyone else was wrong, too. The point is that now Iraq is stabilizing, Iraqis are wanting us out, Americans in Iraq are saying we can leave, and Al-Maliki publicly applauded Obamas 16-month timetable. That's not failure.

If McCain hopes to win on that one single issue, then he won't. He also credits President Bush with the recent fall in oil prices. *sigh*

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Who Will Nuke Who?

You may (not) have heard that a few days ago Russian press was reporting that PM Putin is planning to meet with Bush at the Olympics to talk about his anger over U.S. agreement with the Czech Republic to build a radar/missile intercept station there. Russia is threatening to send nuclear bombers to Cuba. This crosses a "red line" for the U.S. military.

Russia's President, meanwhile, is telling Azerbaijan that Russia will buy all of its natural gas. The U.S. and Western allies have worked hard to build oil and gas pipelines out of Azerbaijan for export to Western markets. Russia has already been criticized in recent years for holding Europe hostage in its control of exports of gas and oil. You figure out what this would mean for the U.S.

Last night on the CBS Evening News Katie Couric declared that Iran may be "months away" from having "the ultimate weapon." She was doing a story on Israel's possible preemptive strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, something our Joint Chiefs Chairman is urging them not to do, and something they cannot apparently do without our help. Earlier this year, U.S. analysts said Iran was still several years away. Now, analysts are anonymously saying 2009.

I'm not real thrilled about the times we're living in. Americans don't seem to care, really. I should keep an eternal perspective here and remember that this world is not my home (Philippians 3:20). But, in the event of economic collapse, civil unrest, and war abroad, I still have to wonder what living here would be like and whether/how we should prepare.

I checked out how far we are from any nuclear weapons facilities or bomber bases, a check on how close to "potential ground zero" we would be. Turns out that there are several silos and a B-2 base less than 100 miles from our house. Ever see the 1983 movie The Day After? Trust me, you don't want to.

International Economics

The NBA is suddenly losing talent to European clubs. Josh Childress signed with Greek Olympiakos, Bostjan Nachbar signed with a Moscow club. Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus gets it right:
"The combination of rising salaries in Europe and the sinking value of the dollar relative to the Euro has allowed Euroleague teams to compete financially in a way that would have been difficult even a few years ago. While the exchange rate is likely to turn around in time, European teams will still have an important factor in their favor: They are unbound by the restrictions and vagaries of the NBA's Collective Bargaining Agreement."

Ah, the joys of the exchange rate and free movement of labor. I wonder what the income tax rates are like in Greece? That would be something else that would have to factor into a decision to play there.

I plan on using this as an in-class example in the fall.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Christians and Piracy

Occupying an office that has been occupied by several people over the years means I get a lot of mail, namely scholarly journals. On my desk is the latest copy of The Christian Business Academy Review, a publication devoted to "publication of faith-based articles that focus on Creative Instruction, Curriculum Development, Professional Issues, and Research in Business Education."

There is a paper presented by Lewer, Gerlich, and Lucas titled (link:) "The Impact of Christian Education and Curriculum on Illegal Media File Sharing Attitudes and Behavior." From the abstract (bold, italics mine):
"The purpose of this paper is to examine the ethics and economics behind file sharing and to empirically test the role a Christian education has on file sharing. The empirical results are interesting and find that Christian education has no effect on ethical attitudes or actual stealing behavior, and suggest that faculty at Christian colleges cannot assume that discussions about Christian principles and moral attitudes will automatically be seen in the student behavior that follows."

The authors surveyed 302 students at 3 universities (one public) and controlled for race, gender, age, and religious affiliation and intensity. Students were given a set of 14 statements and asked on a scale of 1 to 5 whether they strongly disagree (1) or strongly agree (5).

While the majority of small private Christian college students surveyed (84%) professed Christianity and attended church an average of 3.12 times a month, they showed no difference from non-Christian students at the public university in their attitudes toward statements like:

"It is morally wrong to copy CDs or DVDs for friends."
"It is morally wrong to download unauthorized music, movies, or TV shows from the Internet."

In fact, the Christian students felt significantly more strongly than non-Christians that:
"I resent the anti-copying features some record labels have started putting on their CDs."
and "The threat of being sued will not keep me from illegally sharing files."

Christians tended to disagree that the government could stop piracy, whereas State students felt government was capable. (Reminds me of the modern-day definition of an Evangelical: a person who is pro-life and believes in lower taxes and less government).

"The curriculum at a Christian college or university is designed to emphasize the intergration of faith into the students' process of thinking, learning, and ultimately, practice or behavior."

Using a Logit model with the survey results as the dependent variable, the authors find that only higher age and having a stronger locus of control (believing that you can control your own destiny) are the only things that seem to correlate with stronger attitudes against piracy.

Looking at the survey questions asking whether students have downloaded both pirated movies and music, the study shows that older females are less likely to actually download pirated wares.

The authors conclude that Christians have conformed and that Christian education isn't helping this area. This is the type of stuff that we talk about at my university, the type of thing we'd like to teach business students to avoid.

Confession:
I was in college at the time illegal Napster was just starting, before you could download mp3s for 99 cents, in a time where high-speed internet was new and the boundaries seemingly endless. Everyone was pirating everything. I later decided to buy the CD of whatever music I downloaded that I liked and to buy the movie when it came out on DVD.
(I now haven't bought or downloaded music in years. I don't own an IPod and the only CDs I listen to are audiobooks).

In markets overseas there are often no legal movies, everything is just well-copied but sold like new. I knew some missionaries who refused to buy or even watch any pirated stuff, I knew others who bought it but threw it away before returning Stateside. I know others who still have theirs. In Moldova we saw that Christians overwhelmingly believe that using Bit Torrent software is ethical, legal, and even necessary. We had to draw our own conclusions at the time, deciding not to use Torrents at all when we returned to the States. But it's always a temptation.

There's a huge ethical "gray area" about participating in piracy overseas and Romans 14 seems to win the day. It pains me to hear of church mission trips that eagerly splurge on the black market to bring home as much pirated software as possible.

It's something we as believers need to discuss. In America, there's no question what the laws are. Why do Christians disobey them? Is anyone preaching about piracy from the pulpit? So long as the marginal cost of the risk of being caught and sued is less than the marginal benefit, Christians seem content to download and even have a "stick it to the man" mentality.

Any thoughts?

Monday, July 21, 2008

Book Review (#17 of 2008)

A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper by John Allen Paulos. The book is about 200 pages but has over 50 chapters. So, each chapter reads sort of like a blog entry. It was published in 1994, before blogs, so it made him more money than simply blogging his thoughts now would. Each chapter are his thoughts after reading particular articles in the newspaper and introduce various mathematical theories and statistical concepts that would add some much-needed info to the articles.
The author loves the newspaper but is also critical of journalists and publishers. His overall point is that we, as readers, should "Always be smart; seldom be certain." Knowledge of basic statistics help insulate us against having our decisions influenced by journalists that don't always ask the right questions and almost never reveal their biases.

One of the author's previous books (Innumeracy) was a bestseller about how/why American kids aren't getting proper mathematics training and what the consequences could be. He has a paragraph about that in this book, mentions that the way mathematics is taught in school today is equivalent to teaching literature solely by analyzing and focusing on punctuation. Thus, most students (like myself) never see the big picture and all the wonderful uses of mathematics beyond calculation and engineering.

I give the book 2.75 stars of 5. He mentions Chaos Theory a couple of times, which yet again tantalizes me to find a good book on the subject.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Church Shopping...(part 1?)

Joni and I began the process of church shopping in Bolivar today. We've really missed our home church, Highland in Waco. While we were in East TN we really enjoyed my sister's church, Fellowship Evangelical Free in Knoxville.
(Aside: In fact, Greg Pinkner, their teaching pastor, is one of the best expositors of Scripture I've ever heard. I've seen him do a much better job with certain difficult passages than other expository guys like Mark Dever and John Piper. He's definitely a hidden gem, and I recommend all my expository-loving friends to check out his current series in 1 Timothy. You will learn something about the historical context of the Scripture passage every single time. I have added a link to their podcasted sermons on the right. With the newborn, we did a lot of house church in East TN and we would either listen to Pinkner or Piper).

So, the question we're basically faced with here is: What flavor of conservative Southern Baptist do you want your church to be? On my first visit to Bolivar I was told of a "contemporary" Baptist church that was doing a radical new thing: projecting the words to the songs on a screen so that you didn't have to hold a hymnal. I chuckled at that upon hearing it, thinking the person was being sarcastic, and ended up probably offending him.

This particular church is also unique in that is has no paid staff; everyone is volunteering and have full-time jobs elsewhere in the community. So, all of your offering goes to the lights, programs, or missions, but not to salary for staff people. And they have organized home groups. That's refreshing. They have other good stories about how God has grown the church.
We visited the church this morning, we happened to pick the one Sunday when most of the elders were on vacation and the service (hopefully) very different than usual.

I've written a lot on this blog about Spirit-led church vs. rationally-acting organized humans. I've also talked a little bit about our general preferences. I'm not sure what we'll find here in Bolivar. I'm thinking about investigating Mennonite beliefs and looking for a contemporary Mennonite fellowship nearby. Seriously. I bought some great inexpensive produce from a very nice Mennonite guy at the farmer's market yesterday.

I can say one thing: Midwestern culture is different than Southern culture, and we've been duly warned by several people about that. People like to keep you at arms distance. One couple we met here who graduated from Baylor told us to "give it a couple years before people warm up to you." A couple of years.
That advice came to mind during the rather stoic greet-your-neighbor segment of church this morning. It's just different. I half expected someone to say "If you're a visitor, welcome, and good luck!"

I'm not sure what we'll find here in Bolivar, but we're definitely going to look for it.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Book Review (#16 of 2008)

MacArthur's War: Korea and the Undoing of an American Hero (audio).
I give this one 4.5 stars (out of 5). It was well-researched, easy listening, and I learned a lot. I guess all I previously knew about the Korean war came from books I'd read from the GIs' perspectives and some documentaries based on 1950's newsreels (which were mostly uninformed propaganda). This gave a much broader view of the conflict from the view of the generals.

Korea was a fiasco from start to finish. MacArthur's hubris as America's greatest general was quite costly. His poor decisions probably cost us the war while his political statements kept the nation fiercely behind him, calling for an impeachment of the President that fired him. Most people probably remember the firing as being because of his threats to drop A-bombs on mainland China, but that would be inaccurate. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs concluded in the end that he should have been fired years earlier for incompetence and insubordination.
But, at the time, MacArthur was a living legend, "God among us," blasphemed many Congressmen.

There are perhaps several parallels to the Korean effort and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but Korea had the potential to be a flashpoint for World War III. Great book, great read.

A Smart Move

Last year I wrote about how we were switching to compact fluorescent bulbs in our Waco apartment. We replaced all the existing lightbulbs and stored the old regular ones until we moved back to KY. When we made the move, we meticulously packed our compact fluorescents to take with us. We had probably over $100 worth of bulbs and saw them as a long-term investment.

Some of the people helping us move to Missouri thought it was odd and somewhat annoying to see a light box marked "Fragile: Lightbulbs" in our truck. But, these are quite valuable. And we're more glad than ever that we kept them because I had this conversation with the electric company on Monday when I was getting the service switched to our name:

Operator: Have you already signed your papers on the house, like you're committed?
Me: Um, yes.
Operator: Sir, are you sitting down?
Me: Yes. How bad is it?
Operator: I'm showing that the average monthly electric bill at the house last year was $170. In the month of August it was $240. The deposit alone on the house is going to be $300 since the bills are so high.
Me: Wow. Guess we're going to have to figure something out.
Operator: Yeah, you probably just want to sit on a block of ice in August.

$240 for electricity is way out of our budget range and I don't get my first paycheck until mid-September. So, I immediately went to work replacing all the standard bulbs with our compacts. When you can replace a 60 watt bulb with an equivalent fluorescent that only uses 13 watts, you're going to save some energy. Our living room ceiling fan was doing a good job with just one standard 60 watt bulb. I replaced it with four 9 watt fluorescents (equivalent to a 40 watt bulb, but actually as bright as the 60 watt standard bulb) and get 36 watts in 4 bulbs, almost half the wattage of the one bulb.

We also got the plumber to turn the water heater down to 117 degrees, like a hospital or nursing home. The heater had been turned up way too high. We also shut off the hot area of the house from the rest to keep the a/c from running too much. So, we feel like we're doing a decent job of saving money now.

I talked to the landlord about it, she said the previous renters had 4 kids. So, hopefully they were running a lot more appliances and using more of the house than we will.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Amish Stories

So, Amish people are all over southern Missouri. I mentioned that in a previous post. We passed several on US 60 and I've seen them on every trip I've made to Wal Mart here in Bolivar. Two stories:

I drove a UHaul with my father-in-law to Bolivar on Saturday. The first place we stopped to get gas I saw a bunch of Amish kids in their overalls and hats come running out of the convenient store. They stopped and stared and pointed at me and the UHaul as if I was odd-looking.
Then, the kids all piled into a big shiny new SUV. Their dad (with full beard) came out a minute later talking on his Motorola Razr. They drove off in the SUV. I guess some Amish don't ride in buggies.

We stopped for lunch at a McDonald's just east of Springfield. There were probably 2 dozen Amish inside waiting on their food. It struck me as odd that a people who strive to grow farm produce naturally and organically were eating lunch at McDonalds, the antithesis of all things natural. I imagine they had brought their goods to a local farmers market that morning and were now getting a special lunch treat before heading back to the farm.

I imagine that each Amish enclave probably decides what is "wordly" and what isn't. In west KY there has been an uproar because several Amish refuse to put the orange safety reflector on their buggies because it's too worldly. While in Southeast Missouri the Amish drive black SUVs. Ah, it's a different world here in Missouri.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Moved

We've moved to Bolivar, MO. And we're busy getting settled. We'll probably post on our blogs next week. We're well.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Rural Adventures- Missouri edition

I've been on another 4 state road trip, some of it on the backroads.

Some observations:
About the only thing good about driving across Tennessee is that you can listen to the NASCAR race from one end to the other. That was much appreciated on Sunday.

Illinois ties Indiana for "Most Boring State I've Ever Driven Through."

Most of Missouri is very rural. The entire drive along I-44 you see signs trying to get you to instead drive what used to be historic Route 66. I bit once, to stop for lunch at a place called Missouri Hick Barbecue in Cuba, MO.
I'd been told that Missouri barbecue left much to be desired, and indeed I haven't seen that many BBQ places in the state. This place was pretty decent, though. A variety of meats and a decent selection of homemade sauces that they also sell cheaply by the bottle.

Google Maps sent me on a backroad into Bolivar, highway 32. The highlight of that was driving 15 mph behind a few farm combines. Looks like the communities take pride in their weekend cattle auctions. The best town name was Halfway, MO. Along the road there is actually a Half Way Baptist Church. They're almost Baptist, just haven't made it all the way over yet.

I returned to KY via U.S. 60, an under appreciated road that is about as long as Route 66 and goes all the way through Missouri and Kentucky. It's 4-lane through much of Missouri. I passed some Amish horse & buggies, there are signs all over the road cautioning you about not hitting them. I saw quite a few in Bolivar, as well. I also drove past Laura Ingals Wilder's old homestead where she wrote the Little House on the Prarie books. It's fun to think about how Missouri used to be the frontier.

Speaking of frontiers, I saw many fewer confederate flags in Missouri than I do in Tennessee. In fact, I told someone I lived in East TN and they told me "Wow, they're still fighting the (Civil) War there, aren't they?" "Yes, ma'am" was my (sadly) accurate response.

Worst part of the trip is driving U.S. 60 across the Mississippi River first into Illinois and then into Kentucky. First, you drive across narrow levees and see all the flood devastation around you. Then, the bridge across the river into Illinois is extremely narrow and loaded with 18-wheelers. The 18-wheeler in front of me must have been a rookie because he kept slowing to a crawl to try and avoid hitting the other 18-wheelers coming from the other direction. Trucks pass within inches of each other hundreds of feet above the raging river on this narrow bridge from who-knows-when. That was the scariest part of the journey.

In KY, U.S. 60 is mostly 2-lane. I think I've now driven most of it from the western tip to Lexington. Today I drove through the townships of Wickliffe and Kevil. Wickliffe unfortunately has 18-wheelers roaring down its main street all day, but if you're brave enough there are some Indian mounds dating from 1,000 AD there you can visit.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Book Review (#15 of 2008)

A long drive called for a good audio book. Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays by Stephen Hawking fit the bill. Hawking is the famous physicist who also has ALS.

Hawking published this book in 1993, five years after he published his bestseller A Brief History of Time.

I wanted to post this review as soon as I could while I could still remember and sort of understand the gist of what Hawking was saying. The first 1/4 of the book is autobiographical, him explaining his upbringing and love for cosmology. The rest are a compilation of essays and lectures he gave to various groups over two decades.

Hawking's research has primarily been on black holes. Much of what we know/suspect about black holes can be attributed to him. I'm awed by the mathematical concepts that had to be invented to do the research that he and other physicists do. There's a point where mathematics becomes philosophical-- and that is the deep soul of physics and cosmology.

His lectures always point to the quest for the grand unified theory of the universe (GUT). This is the one theory that will explain how everything in the universe works. As the years in the lectures progress, it becomes obvious to me that the GUT becomes a sort of deity, Hawking has said if we can know it we "can know the mind of God." It raises all sorts of philosophical questions about predestination and free will.

Here's the main point I got from the book and Hawking's work: If the universe is unlimited in scope then the laws of physics were the same at its creation as they are now. The universe was not created nor can be destroyed--it just is.
However, if the universe is actually limited in scope, then the laws of physics didn't apply at its creation as they do today. Some outside entity must be responsible for its creation.

Hawking believes the former, and I'm betting on the latter.


Hawking invented something called imaginary time. Kind of complex to attempt to explain here, essentially imaginary time is the sum of all possible points in time. Think about alternate realities, all the possible variations of possible histories. If you look at things through the lens of imaginary time (which is a heavy mathematical concept) then things like the Big Bang no longer become troublesome singularities where the laws of physics don't apply, but become like any other event in history.

Interestingly, Hawking believed in 1992 that the GUT was only about 20 years away, and inhabiting other planets less than 100 years away. Looks like is probably wrong on those. Apparently, new research has led Hawking to change his mind on some of his beliefs, and published another book recently. I've read recently about a high-powered particle accelerator being built to test several theories in physics. One guy in Hawaii is actually suing to get the scientists to stop because he fears they will create a black hole here on earth. The work of that particle accelerator will have profound implications for all of science, however.

This book reminded me that in talking about Biblical creation you have to start at the very beginning--when the universe was created. I think most Biblical creation apologists are biology-oriented and therefore don't have the mathematical understanding needed to develop a good Christian apologetic against theories like the ones Hawking purports. There are a few really good redeemed physicists out there, however.

I've made it a point to read more mathematical and scientifically-challenging books this year. Many of the recent books I've read have referred to Chaos Theory, which is what I would like to read into next.