Monday, March 31, 2008

Seeing is believing. Except when it isn't.

There's an amazing website, run by aliens using advanced technologies, with some really amazing graphics. I like this one, which has a spooky green "UFO dot" that disappears as soon as you look directly at it.

As my 7-year-old daughter told me when I asked her to explain the UFO dot, "You look with your eyes, you see with your brain."

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Amherst's Bootleggers and Baptists

"Bootleggers and Baptists" refers to the unlikely coalitions that formed to support alcohol prohibition back before most places figured out that prohibition doesn't work.

The Baptists wanted prohibition because booze is immoral. The Bootleggers wanted prohibition because booze made them rich.

There's a similar, odd coalition here in Amherst that's supporting Hwei-Ling Greeney for the Select Board. In the role of Baptists are the "greenies"-- people who like her save-the-planet-starting-with-Amherst message. They feel Morally Just voting for Hwei-Ling (just like a lot of people felt good voting for Ralph Nader, and didn't see how being idealistic instead of practical can often have very negative consequences).

In the role of Bootleggers: the Amherst Taxpayers for Responsible Change are supporting Hwei-Ling, because of financial self-interest. She's promised not to raise their taxes, and that's good enough for them (just like a lot of people felt good voting for the first George "No New Taxes" Bush, and didn't realize that he would break that promise and run up deficits to pay for the stuff he cared about).

It looks to me like the Select Board election will be a close three-way race between the women (sorry Irv and Dave); it will be fun to try to interpret the election result tea leaves next Tuesday night!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Redevelopment AUTHORITY

Does Amherst need a Redevelopment Authority?

Unfortunately, I think it does. I'll be voting for Margaret (Peggy) Roberts and Aaron Hayden. Based on what I've seen in Town Meeting, Carol Gray has never met a development project that she likes. And based on what I saw at the LWV candidate's night (along with his Town Meeting voting record), I think Jim Oldham will be overly cautious. The Redevelopment Authority will have to be a strong voice for change to make anything happen.

Gavin's mini-ARA-ratings, from the Vote Database:
Vote 22: Rezone S.E./College St. intersection to Village Center - Business.
Vote 24: Change PRP zoning designation to also allow businesses with client visits.
Vote 34: Change PRP zoning designation to also allow businesses with client visits.
Vote 63: Zoning - Hotels/Motels by SPR - Main Motion
Vote 64: Zoning - Professional Offices in PRP and R-VC
Vote 65: Zoning - College St./South East St.

Vote 22 Vote 24 Vote 34 Vote 63 Vote 64 Vote 65 Rating
(Aaron is not a Town Meeting member yet)

I say it's "unfortunate" that we need a Redevelopment Authority not because there are places in town that need redevelopment. That's true of any town-- there's always room for improvement, whether the improvement is getting rid of an ugly strip mall or turning an old factory building into high-tech offices.

It is the "Authority" part that is unfortunate. We shouldn't need a small group of people with special legal authority to make Amherst reinvent itself. After all, Amherst seemed to do pretty well for over 150 years without any zoning regulations or Redevelopment Authority. In fact, I think that the areas in Amherst most in need of redevelopment were all created after we got zoning.

What is your favorite and least favorite developed place in Amherst? Were they developed before or after the early 1900's? (that's when zoning regulations started in Amherst)

My favorite place in Amherst: the common and the buildings around the common. Except for the Bank of America building-- I think it's ugly, and would like to see it redeveloped. It was built in the 1960s, after Zoning.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

I'm gonna vote for...

I'm gonna vote for Stephanie O'Keeffe on April 1'st. I knew that before going to the League of Women Voters Candidates Forum last night, because I've read her blog and talked with her at Town Meeting over the last year or two. My front lawn has been decorated with an O'Keeffe for Select Board lawn sign for a few weeks now; I think the endorsement I wrote for Stephanie's web site sums up why I'm so enthusiastic about her:
Thomas Jefferson wrote that ‘the whole art of government consists in the art of being honest.’ Stephanie is a master of that art, and is dedicated to making Amherst's government more honest and transparent. I'm supporting Stephanie for the Select Board because I belive her practical, rational, collaborative approach to solving problems will make the Select Board more efficient, effective, and relevant.
We'll get to vote for two Select Board candidates, so I was hoping that the candidate's forum would help me make up my mind on a second choice.

But I'm still torn.

Hwei-Ling Greeney has a lot of the same priorities as me (lets have efficient government, business development, keep our schools strong...) but I'm not sure her "independent voice" will really help move our Town forward. Compromise and consensus and collaboration are really important if you want to get things done.

Irv Rhodes stressed his wide experience, but I wanted to hear less about who he is and more about what he wants to do, and how he'll do it. That's tough to do in two minutes, but I thought Hwei-Ling and Stephanie and Diana managed to do it fairly well.

Diana Stein said that her background as a scientist would be useful on the Select Board; that appeals to me (I'm married to a scientist, after all), but I have questions about some of her economic ideas.

David Keenan was a hoot.

I did make up my mind after listening to Chrystel Romero and Catherine Sanderson, the candidates for School Committee. I thought Chrystel sounded like a politician-- I heard vague statements about the importance of giving the schools more money, and increasing diversity and making them more energy efficient.

I was very impressed with Catherine; she seems very "data-driven" -- she won't be satisfied with trying to solve problems, she will insist that results get measured so we know whether or not what we're doing in the schools is making things better.

That's a process I can support 100%...
EDITED 21 March: Changed to say that I agree with Hwei-Ling's priorities; I shouldn't say that I agree with "many of her ideas", because I really don't know enough about how to run a Town to know whether or not her ideas are practical.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Supreme Court impresses me

The Supreme Court of the United States listened to arguments yesterday morning about whether or not the second amendment is an individual right to bear arms. I think gun control isn't a black-or-white issue, so I went looking for a summary of the arguments.

I found something much better! The Supreme Court posts transcripts of oral arguments the same day they're heard on their web site (the second amendment case is "07-290. District of Columbia v. Heller").

I'm impressed. If the Supreme Court was like most government bureaucracies, transcripts would have to go through some lengthy approval process before being made available to the public. During business hours, Tuesdays through Thursdays. In the basement of the main office in Washington, DC...

PS: as for what's going to happen in this particular case: I have no idea. It was a very lively discussion, and I thought the lawyer for Heller did a better job than the lawyers for either the District of Columbia or the Department of Justice.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Attach yourself to the process

I really like this quote from Steven Novella on the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe (my favorite podcast these days):
"Attach yourself to the process, not the conclusion."
We all get emotionally attached to conclusions: "echinacea cured my cold," or "nuclear power is bad," or "natural is good," or "islamo-fascists are a serious threat to this nation," or "drugs cause crime," or "the Federal Reserve was created to steal our money," or "Wal-Mart is destroying America." Our brains are great at post-hoc rationalization; it's why people really and truly believe they see UFOs and ghosts. We are hard-wired to interpret patterns and look for evidence to reinforce what we thinks we already know.

Science gives us a process we can apply to avoid reasoning our way to incorrect conclusions. Scientists commit themselves to the process, and good scientists are willing to admit that they are wrong if experimental results contradict their hypotheses.

I wish political and public policy debates focused more on process and less on specific issues. Is Universal Health Care a worthwhile goal? Sure! Is it the proper role of the Federal Government to either provide it or pay for it? Hang on a minute, let me check the Constitution and see what it says about the role of the Federal Government with respect to health care...

We need more intellectually honest politicians who are willing to attach themselves to the process, and not try to subvert the process to get results they desire.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Herd immunity... to the Truth!

I was sick last week with one of the flu or cold viruses that's been going around. I didn't feel like doing much of anything besides sleep, so I found myself watching a news conference on CNN about vaccines and autism. The parents of a little girl with a rare genetic disorder had been awarded money from a fund the government set up to compensate victims of diseases caused by vaccinations.

Watching them describe how their little girl was normal and healthy until she got several vaccinations on one day, I waited for somebody to step in and provide a voice of reason.

After 20 or so minutes of parent vaccine-bashing, CNN did put on their science correspondent for 15 seconds, and he did point out that there's absolutely no evidence that vaccines cause autism. But I bet most people watching took away the message "vaccines ruined a little girl's life; vaccines are bad."

I didn't find out the child has a rare genetic disorder (her mitochondria are messed up) until I did a little research online.

I'm skeptical about a lot of things, but vaccines are not something that I'm skeptical about. Vaccines work. They work best when given to the majority of a population, so the population develops what's known as "herd immunity."

The anti-vaccination crowd are a bunch of non-scientific Luddites. They managed to get thimerosal banned from vaccines (because they claimed it caused autism) back in 2002. Did banning thimerosal (the mercury-based preservative) have any effect on the autism rate among children? No: none, zero, zilch, nada. The rate (and the increase in the rate) of autism is the same before and after the ban.

Do they give up and say "gee, sorry, I guess we were wrong about vaccines causing autism-- I guess all those scientific studies that said there is no link were right" ? Ummm, no. Like fuzzy-thinkers everywhere, they stick to their bad ideas because "it happened to my sister," or "science doesn't know everything," or "it's all a Grand Conspiracy!"

I'm generally a very tolerant person. I think the world would be a better place if everybody was rational and clear-thinking and open-minded. But if you want to believe in astrology or UFOs or ghosts, then that's OK with me; it doesn't do me any harm.

But all those people who decide not to vaccinate their children do harm me a tiny little bit-- they make it a tiny bit more likely that my kids will get sick. It's the herd immunity thing; not everybody who gets vaccinated is immune, but vaccinate a large enough percentage of the population and epidemics can't happen. I don't want your kids in school with my kids unless they're vaccinated.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Gotta keep those options open!

Jeff Blaustein points out that one of the rational reasons we might want to spend money on something (like War Memorial pool) is to keep our options open-- if we don't take care of our "stuff", even when we're not using it, then one day, when we need or want that "stuff", we'll find that it's broken beyond repair.

That's a compelling argument... but Chapter 8 of Predictably Irrational, "Keeping Doors Open -- Why Options Distract Us from Our Main Objectives," describes some fascinating experiments which show that people will go to great lengths to keep their options open.

The experiments were pretty simple: You sit down in front of a computer which shows you three doors. Click on a door and you're shown a room where you can click and earn (real) money. The rooms give out different amounts of money for each click-- for example, one might give a random amount from 2-6 cents, another 1-4, and the third 4-10. You're told that the rooms are programmed this way (but you're not told what the payouts are). You have 200 clicks to try to make as much money as you can.

Just given that setup, people were rational-- they quickly found the room that seemed to give the most money, and then spent all the rest of their time clicking there.

But make one little change and people become irrational: make a door disappear if it hasn't been visited in the last 12 clicks, and people spend lots of time visiting those lower-paying doors, just to keep their options open.

It looks like we're hard-wired to keep doors open. "I'll keep these pants because maybe one day I'll be able to fit into them again..." After all, the cost of keeping them is small (they only take up a small fraction of your closet space), and, who knows, maybe one of these years I'll actually spend more time exercising and my waist will stop its slow inflation.

So how can we trick ourselves into being more rational? For pants, I apply a rule: If I haven't worn something in over a year, it gets donated to charity. I empty out my closet, save time not trying on pants that don't fit, and make the world a tiny bit better.

For "price anchoring" irrationality, I ask myself "How much am I willing to pay? How much is this worth to me?" before I look at something's price tag. If it costs more, I don't buy it.

Could we come up with similar tricks for thinking about budget issues at Town Meeting? I wonder; if we surveyed Town Meeting members (or, even, everybody in Amherst) and asked "How much money should the Town pay to provide entertainment to one kid for four hours during the summer?" ... what people would say? $5? $10? $50?

I don't know how much a kid's 4-hour visit to the pool costs the Town, but it seems to me that if it costs more than about $10 there's something wrong. Am I a cheapskate?