Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Is it the Budget or the Weather?

I feel grumpy.

Maybe because I've been thinking about the Town budget, or maybe it's the rainy weather. Probably both, combined with the seven allergy shots I got this morning.

I spent a couple of hours today trying to figure out whether or not the Amherst's budget crunch is a hangover caused by the Town spending like a drunken sailor during the '97-'01 Boom Times, or if it's suffering from Chronic Proposition 2½ Disease.

You can argue either position, depending on which year you start measuring from and whether you think town spending should rise with increasing wages or increasing inflation. Town revenue has been growing at about 4% per year since 1994-- about the same rate as median wages. Inflation over that time has been about 2.7% per year.

If it's raining again Thursday I might go to the library and dig out the detailed town budget from 1994, inflation-adjust (and population-adjust, if I can find those numbers) everything, and try to figure out if there's stuff we're paying for now that we weren't paying for then.

But I hope it's sunny; I'd rather go for a nice, long bike ride...

Monday, April 28, 2008

For baseball fans...

From Scott Adams' Dilbert blog:
Yesterday I went to a Giants baseball game. It was Little League Day, so there were about ten thousand young boys running wild in the stands. It was also free bat day, courtesy Bank of America.

I will pause while you digest this concept.
Read the whole thing here. I haven't taken Will to a baseball game yet; when I do, I think I'll avoid bat day.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Hiding Mistakes

When I was a teenager and saw other pregnant teenagers at my Arkansas high school, but none at my California high school, I assumed that the Arkansas kids were fooling around more.

I realize now that probably wasn't true. I can think of at least three other hypotheses that might explain my observation:

1. The California kids were better at using birth control.
2. Girls in California left school to have their babies.
3. Girls in California had more abortions.

Being the great big Data Geek that I am, I decided to look at the numbers. A little googling on "Teen Pregnancy" turned up rates for both pregnancies and live births in Arkansas and California in the 80's, and the numbers are pretty clear (click here for the data).

The most likely reason I didn't see any pregnant girls at my California high school is because they had abortions. I was hoping that maybe superior sex education in California would explain the difference, but it's very clear from the data that California kids got pregnant more than Arkansas kids. They just had fewer babies.

I'm writing about this not because I want to generate a discussion about the morality of abortion, but to marvel at the tools and data we all have available right at our fingertips to help us figure out whether or not what we believe is correct. A lot has changed since 1981-- including the teen pregnancy and abortion rates, which, happily, are WAY down from the 80's.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Mena, Arkansas

My family moved to Mena, Arkansas in 1981, when I was a freshman in high school.

We were living in a "double-wide" in a mobile home park in Buellton, California. It wasn't a bad place-- no decaying cars on cinder blocks or mongrel dogs or broken screen doors. Instead there was a swimming pool and playground and a lot of quiet, old, retired people.

But it was a place full of bad memories. We moved there to be close to Vandenberg Air Force Base, so my dad, who was a World War II vet, could get treated for lung cancer. It didn't work; he got sicker and sicker and eventually, after almost two years of radiation and chemotherapy and even Laetrile, he died.

After a couple of years my mum decided that we'd be better off somewhere else; somewhere where we could afford to live in a bigger house, without neighbors ten feet from us on all sides. So, we ended up in Arkansas.

Mena was (and probably still is) in a dry, all-white county. Our movers (who were black) were genuinely worried about getting out of the county before sundown; I guess they wanted to go someplace where they could get a beer with dinner and not have to worry about getting lynched.

I remember being shocked on my first day of school there, when I saw two very-pregnant girls walking around during lunch recess. The designated smoking area behind the gym, for students 18 or older, was also something we didn't have back in my California high school.

Fighting was common. I saw this kid named "Rusty" hit another kid named "Red" (I swear I'm not making this up) in the face, knocking him down and winning the fight-- and breaking his wrist in the process. I'd say that Rusty was the overall loser in that exchange, but the general opinion around school was that Red was a loser and Rusty a hero.

We moved back to California after just a few months, but I think even if we'd stayed my life would have turned out mostly the same. Academically, the Arkansas public school wasn't a whole lot worse than the California public school-- at least, it wasn't worse for a straight-A student who spent all of his spare time reading.

It certainly gave me an appreciation for the cultural diversity of the United States. And a heathy skepticism for the notion that all cultures should be treated with equal respect.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Parades and Protests

Once upon a time, I marched through San Francisco to support... hmmm, I forget what it was exactly I was supporting. I think it was "Reproductive Rights."

That was the first, and last, time I ever marched in support of some political cause. The march was overrun (in my opinion) by people with signs supporting other, unrelated political issues. "Workers Unite: Unionize Now!" and "Join the Socialist Party of North America!" and "It's Potato, Stupid!" (this was back in the Dan Quayle era) and "Bikers against Helmet Laws" and on and on and on.

I didn't want to be associated with all those wacky causes. So I didn't bother going to any more political marches; I wasn't going to implicitly support a bunch of stuff I didn't agree with.

So I agree with the position of the Amherst 4'th of July parade organizers. Anybody can march in the parade, as long as they don't try to inject whatever wacky (or extremely important, depending on your point of view) causes they care about into the event.

Oh, and a footnote for the parade organizers: Less candy, please! How long has the "tradition" of throwing candy at kids been going on? Paraphrasing (badly) JFK: "Ask not what the parade can give to you, ask what you can give to the parade...."

Monday, April 21, 2008

Peak Oil: More like a big-ass speed bump, really...

I believe in Peak Oil.

I trust that Ken Deffeyes, who was my Geology professor (and who was Michele's thesis advisor) knows about a million times more about the petroleum industry than I do. He's not a lunatic, he knows what he's talking about when he says that oil production peaked on Thanksgiving day, 2005.

(Aside: I can personally attest that he is a lunatic when driving a van down Tioga Pass near Yosemite. Never let a geologist drive when going down a winding, dangerous mountain road that passes interesting rocks. They spend all their time looking at the rocks and ignoring the road...)

It's unfortunate that the word "peak" is used to describe world oil production; it suggest a sharp rise followed by a sharp decline, but that's not what's going to happen.

Instead, we'll get a 300-year-wide bell curve. We've had 150 years of gradually increasing production, with oil becoming more and more important to our economy. We'll have something like 5-10 years of essentially flat production.

And then we'll have another 100 years or more of slow decline.

I have no idea what will replace conventional oil, but I'm confident that somebody somewhere will figure it out (and will get insanely rich doing it). Maybe we'll just stop traveling as much as we do now, or maybe we'll cover Arizona with solar panels, figure out how to build superconducting power lines, and will all drive electric cars.

I'm not afraid. We'll work it out.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Small Miracles

Article 39 on Spring Town Meeting Warrant is:
To see if the Town will vote to amend Article III of the General Bylaws by striking the section entitled "Application of Recombinant DNA Technology" in its entirety.
No way! We might actually get rid of a bylaw!

The Amherst Board of Health is bringing this article; I'll have to find out what made them realize that maybe they're not the best organization to try to regulate recombinant DNA research. It took them 30 years to figure that out, but better late than never.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Incentives in Iraq

I'm tired of hearing about the war. It has been discussed to death over the last five years, with the Left saying that we shouldn't have done it in the first place, and the Right saying that we HAD to do it (and that either Unforseen Circumstances have made it go poorly, or that the Administration made some "unfortunate" decisions along the way).

So I was disappointed when I saw that Russ Roberts was talking with Christopher Coyne about Iraq, and war in general, on the latest EconTalk podcast (my second-favorite podcast these days).

I'm glad I gave it a listen; it's not the same, tired discussion I've heard before.

I learned a lot about previous US attempts to use war to bring about democracy overseas (Japan and Germany after WWII were successes, Germany after WWI and Somalia and Haiti were miserable failures). Professor Roberts has a very nice way of being politely skeptical and really probing ideas without having the discussion turn into an argument.

Unfortunately, there weren't any brilliant ideas for how to make Iraq a productive, modern, liberal democracy any time soon. It seems that the best we can do is to get out of the way and let the citizens of Iraq work it out for themselves. You cannot use command-and-control to dictate that a group of people Shall Now Be Free, any more than you can use command-and-control to dictate that a group of people Shall Now Be Economically Productive (as every try at economic Communism has discovered).

(Photo from the Library of Congress archives via Flickr, another link well worth visiting).