Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Happy Halloween

We had fun carving pumpkins again this year. My sister-in-law gave us a Martha Stewart pumpking carving kit a couple of years ago, and I gotta confess, having the right tools makes the job a whole lot easier. The keyhole saw, linoleum cutter, and scraper are the three essential items to make the job easy.

I experimented using my electric jig saw to carve the pumpkin (as recommended by the Extreme Pumpkins web site), and it worked great for cutting out the tops-- but probably only a little bit better than the good-old-fashioned keyhole saw. And for carving the face, the hand-held saw is defintely better. Unlike the folks at Extreme Pumpkins, I'm going to refrain from participating in any pumpkin pyrotechnics...

Map Geek

I'm a computer geek. And a map geek. So I guess it's no surprise that I spent several hours playing with Amherst's spiffy-cool online map of the town while half-watching the Red Sox game last Saturday.

Nifty feature number one: anybody can mark-up a map with text, lines, and so on. You just poke the Markup tab (in the upper-right corner of the viewer), then either select markup that somebody else has created or poke the New link to create a new set of markup that anybody can look at.

I've created markup groups for this Town Meeting's articles 7, 15, and 16. Zooming out with the Zoning tab selected gives a good overview of how the proposed changes fit into their surrounding neighborhoods.

Nifty feature number two: you can create hyperlinks that will bring up the viewer with one or more parcels selected; for example, the URL for Article 7's parcels would be:,3B-8,3B-9,3B-10,3B-11,3B-12,3B-13

Phew! Try these links: Article 7. Article 15. Article 16.

Thanks Amherst GIS/IT folks for giving us such a great tool!

Friday, October 26, 2007

I'm Allergic to Guinea Pigs

I'm allergic to guinea pigs. Also dogs, dust mites, ragweed, English plantain (which is a weed, not a type of banana), two kinds of mold and birch trees.

I know this because a few weeks ago I was allergy tested. It's a pretty simple medical procedure-- they dip teeny-tiny needles into purified allergens, then poke them into your back or arm and wait to see if you get what looks like a mosquito bite.

It's a nice application of scientific testing and controls-- they also poke you with a needle dipped in NOTHING to make sure it's not the needles causing the bumps, and a needle dipped in pure histamine to make sure you're reactive-- histamine is actually the stuff your body makes in reaction to an allergen like mosquito spit, and which causes the allergic welts.

Happily, there's a 93%-effective cure for allergies. Unhappily, the cure involves getting increasingly concentrated injections of the stuff to which you're allergic. For me, that translates into around 300 shots in my arms over the next two years.

I'd actually visited with a doctor at the Northampton Wellness Associates; they treat allergies both using the traditional shot-in-the-arm method and with a newfangled drops-under-the-tongue method that sounds less painful. But I just couldn't bring myself to support a place that promotes chelation therapy. Besides, the shots have more solid medical evidence that they're effective, and Dr. Bayuk's office is right next to the bike path in Florence so I go to try out the new bike path extension under Hwy. 91 (it's very nice).

So, if all goes well, next allergy season I'll be breathing easy. I'll still be allergic to guinea pigs, though-- they only test for that allergy, they don't give shots for it. I think I can live with that.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Random thought: Wildfires and Blizzards

Half a million people in California have been evacuated because of wildfires. Wow!

I wonder: which costs more, the wildfires that happen out West every couple of years, or the snowstorms (both blizzards and garden-variety) that the East deals with every year? I bet most of the cost is paid in property taxes (for snow removal out east) and home insurance (against fire or snow/wind damage), but I wonder who gets more FEMA money after these predictable disasters...

Organic Food Versus Homeopathy

One of the main arguments for buying and eating "organic" food is that it has less pesticide residue than non-organic food.

The main claim for homeopathy is, basically, "that which does not kill us makes us stronger." It looks like that might be true, in some cases (see this Scientific American article for examples, and see the Wikipedia article on homeopathy for why that doesn't actually apply to homeopathic remedies).

So I find it odd that so many people who take homeopathic remedies also religiously shop for organic food. If you believe that taking a teeny-tiny bit of something bad is good for you... then shouldn't you be eating non-organic foods?

Confession: I don't buy organic, but I do always wash my produce. Not because I'm worried about pesticides, but because I'm worried about E.coli.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Our kids are gonna be rich

That's a graph of how much "stuff" an average person created in a year, from 1790 to 2005 (measured in inflation-adjusted dollars). Our economy has been growing at somewhere between 2 and 5 percent a year.

If our economy continues growing at an average 2% per year (after-inflation) rate, then in 40 years the average family in America will make over $100,000 per year.

If our economy grows at an average 3% per year, then they'll make over $150,000 per year (again, measured in "2007 dollars").

What will our kids do with all that extra money? They'll be making between two and three times what we do! (2006 median household income is $48,000/year)

I predict that they'll be spending money on:
  • Private schooling for their kids. With more disposable income, I think people will send their kids to better schools. I really hope education policy catches up with that trend so public schools don't become a place where only poor kids go.
  • Services like housecleaning, catered parties and personal chefs will all be booming businesses.
  • Donations to charity will increase. I'm actually hopeful that we'll move from a culture of "my car is bigger than your car" to "I gave more last year than you did."
How do you think they'll spend all that extra cash? Or do you think economic growth won't continue to grow as it has for the last 50 years?

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Fair Trade sounds nice...

Article 9 on the Fall Town Meeting Warrant is all about Fair Trade.

I'm flip-flopping between feeling indifferent and feeling slightly annoyed by it.

If it mandated that the Town Manager buy only Fair Trade Certified coffee and chocolate, or that stores in Amherst sell only Fair Trade Certified coffee and chocolate then I'd be Very Upset Indeed. But it doesn't, it just suggests that the Select Board promote Fair Trade and that the Town Manager ensure that Fair Trade goods get proper consideration in the normal Town Chocolate Procurement Process (for the humor-impaired-- just kidding, I'm sure the Town does NOT have a separate process just for buying chocolate).

I get slightly annoyed when I imagine how this will play out at Town Meeting. There will be pretty pictures of coffee plantations and happy, smiling Fair Trade plantation workers. And then the Grumpy Curmudgeons will stand up and say that it's dumb for the Town Manager to spend Precious Taxpayer Money thinking about Fair Trade, and what is Town Hall doing buying coffee and chocolate anyway when the employees could just bring their own from home or buy some from Amherst Coffee and save the Town some money?

Overall, I'm very skeptical of the whole Fair Trade movement. If you want to really help people overseas or help the environment, then switch from drinking $3 cups of coffee to taking a 10-cent caffeine pill every morning with some water.

Then send the $2.90 you saved to your favorite organization trying to make other countries as nice as this one (I like the Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity) or your favorite environmental non-profit (I like The Nature Conservancy).

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Amherst's Health Insurance Woes

In the last two days, there have been over a dozen messages on the town meeting mailing list talking about town employee health insurance, and whether or not the Town could save money if Town employees joined the State's insurance program.

Sigh. That conversation wouldn't be necessary in a world where employees were responsible for buying their own health insurance. Each Town employee would be free to choose the best insurance plan for their individual situation, weighing the costs and benefits and deciding what was best for them (I'd choose a very-high-deductible low-cost policy that only covered catastrophic costs; maybe you'd choose an expensive "all-you-can-eat" policy that paid for eyeglasses and weekly massages).

It also wouldn't be necessary if we had something like Britain's National Health Service (in that case, some government panel would decide whether eyeglasses and weekly massages were "essential health services" or not). The more I learn about our health care and health insurance systems, the more I'm convinced that we would be better off with either a completely free-market system OR a so-called "single-payer" system. Right now, we have a "50% socialized" system (the government, through Medicare and Medicaid, pays about half of all medical costs).

Massachusetts has started a trend that I hope will continue-- states experimenting with different solutions to the health care problem. The Federal government needs to loosen it's grip on Federal Medicare/Medicaid dollars, and allow states to try different approaches to solving the health care crisis. Some will succeed, some will fail, but maybe by the time my children are sending their children to college we'll have a more rational health care system in this country.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

How Many Laws Do We Need?

It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood...”

--Alexander Hamilton and James Madison (Federalist No. 62, 1788)
I've read Amherst's Town Bylaws. I haven't read all the Zoning Bylaws; that would qualify as cruel and unusual punishment.

It would take me a very long time to read the State Laws.

And there is absolutely, positively no way anybody with a social life and a full-time job could read all of the Federal Laws.

Does it have to be this way? Maybe we need insanely complex laws and regulations, because our modern society is so complex. Does it bother you that your neighbor owns seven cats? Pass a law! People not paying attention to traffic as they walk across the street listeing to their iPods? Pass a law! Worried about genetically modified crops? Pass a law!

Robin Hanson has a great blog post on the "regulation ratchet." It's a flaw in our system of government; I wish the Founding Fathers had included a stronger check on the number of Federal laws and regulations. If I were King, I'd tell the lawmakers that they had to come up with a set of laws that were small enough to fit into an 11'th grade textbook, and simple enough that they could be taught in a semester-long class to all High School students.

Then, if they wanted to pass a new law they'd have to repeal an old law to make room.

That's way too radical an idea, though-- expecting everybody to actually know the Law. How does that saying go-- Ignorance of the Law is a Good Excuse?

For a much less radical idea, check out the Read the Bills Act. It's a common-sense proposal-- that our lawmakers read the laws before they vote for them.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Class Warfare in the Zoning Bylaws

I've become very familiar with sections 5.012 and 5.013 of the Amherst Zoning Bylaws-- they're the sections that say whether or not you're allowed to use part of your home as a business.

Section 5.012 says that if you're upper-class (doctor, dentist, optician, member of the clergy, lawyer, architect, engineer, etc) you can, as long as you follow three rules.

Section 5.013 says that if you're working-class (a resident artist, craftsperson, beautician, dressmaker, milliner, photographer, cabinetmaker, skate sharpener, radio repair technician, etc-- yes, 'skate sharpener', I copied that list directly from the bylaws), you need to apply for a special permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals. And as long as you follow the eight rules in the zoning article, and go through the special permit process (which takes three months and costs $175), you can go about your business.

Does that seem unfair to anybody besides me?

Here's my suggested rewrite of that section of the zoning bylaws, lifted from the Keene, New Hampshire city code:
(a) Home occupations or home vocational activity may be permitted in all zoning districts provided that:
(1) It does not result in alteration of the residential appearance of the dwelling unit or the lot on which it is located.
(2) It does not result in the production of any offensive noise, vibration, light, odor, dust, smoke, or other pollution external to the property.
(3) The use will not generate vehicular or pedestrian traffic of a quantity or quality as to be injurious, offensive, or otherwise detrimental to the neighborhood. Vehicular traffic of more than ten vehicles per day shall be considered prima facie evidence of traffic which is detrimental to the neighborhood.
(4) It is not identified by any externally visible sign or externally visible on-premises advertising of any kind or any off-premises advertising which identifies the location of the property.
(5) It does not result in the use of an area equal to more than ten percent of the total of gross floor area of the dwelling unit up to a maximum of 300 square feet, which may be in the dwelling or an accessory building.
(6) There shall be no more than one employee of the home occupation who is not a resident of the dwelling unit.
(7) All activity associated with producing, storing, or selling the goods or services of the home occupation must be performed in the dwelling or an accessory building.
(8) Retail sales as a primary home occupation that attracts customers to the residence to purchase articles/goods is not permitted. Retail sales that are accessory to a home occupation, such as a beauty salon selling hair care products, is permitted. Retail sales where the customers do not visit the residence is permitted, such as sales over the Internet and the goods are shipped either from the residence or another location.
(b) The purpose of this section is to permit home occupations as long as such activity does not have a detrimental effect on the residential character of the neighborhood.

That seems fair-- do business from your home, just don't bother your neighbors, whether you're a doctor or a radio repair technician...