Monday, July 28, 2008

The only thing we have to fear...


Mr. Weiss, Ms. Stein, and Ms. Awad are afraid.

They're afraid that a conversation held in private 35 years ago between a former select board member and a judge might inspire somebody to sue the Town for holding an election on the same day that the State holds elections.

So we'll elect somebody to replace Ms. Awad in November instead of September. Not a big deal, in the grand scheme of things, but it still bothers me.

It bothers me that they're second-guessing the opinion of the legal experts, who didn't see anything wrong with holding the election as planned.

It bothers me that this whole episode smells fishy. Changing the election date the day before nomination papers are due??? My spidey-sense is telling me that something beyond fear of a lawsuit is motivating at least some of the actors-- somebody wants the select board seat to remain empty a little longer, or wants a little more time to convince somebody to run for the open seat...

And it bothers me that it sets a bad precedent. What's to stop other former select board members from "remembering" agreements that they made in private with judges in the distant past, if the current select board makes a decision with which they don't agree? There are very good reasons meeting minutes and court records are public documents; our memories are fallible, even when we are honestly trying to remember accurately what happened.


Blink Be Gone

Some random geeky thoughts today: The software I'm working on uses blinking, red text for "server error" messages. I had forgotten how annoying that was; blinking text on the web has gone away.

WAAAY back in HTML 1.0 days, there was a lot of use of the infamous <blink> tag. Blinking text on a web site was a sure sign that it was designed by somebody who didn't know what they were doing.

It's yet another nice example of market forces creating spontaneous order, and creating "good enough" solutions. Firefox still support blink, but you almost never see it any more. I'm just surprised no congress-critter jumped on the bandwagon and introduced legislation to ban it (for safety-- apparently, too much blinking text can cause seizures in certain sensitive people).

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Natural, but more deadly

Robin is going to the Hitchcock Center's nature camp this week. They spend a lot of time outside looking at plants and critters, so the camp registration materials suggest applying sunscreen and bug repellent to campers every morning.

They further recommend the use of non-DEET ("natural") products, "so we don't hurt the creatures we might pick up."

That got my skeptical hackles up. "Natural" doesn't mean "safe," or "good," or "effective," despite what many people seem to think. It's what drives the whole faith-based (oops, I mean "Complementary and Alternative") medicine industry.

So could DEET residue left on your hand hurt a froggie that you pick up?

I dunno. And that's not really the relevant question; the real question is "might DEET hurt the froggie any more than any of the other things that are likely to be found on a six-year-old's hands?"

Like, oh, maybe the citronella oil that is the active ingredient in a lot of "natural" bug repellents. Mr. Google knows everything, and it turns out both DEET and citronella oil have been tested for toxicity on wildlife:

DEET is slightly toxic to trout, with a Mean Toxic dose of about 70,000 parts per billion.
Citronella oil is also slightly toxic to trout, with a Mean Toxic dose of about 17,000 parts per billion.

I'm citing the figures for trout not because I like the word "trout" (mmm... trout...) but because that's the only species I could find that had been studied for toxicity to citronella oil.

So-- the "natural" products are four times as toxic. And they're less effective, so you have to use more.

They do smell a little bit better than DEET, and by using a 100% organic, all-natural, fair-trade-certified bug spray you're telling your eco-friendly friends that you really care about the environment and your kids' health. Which is why I spray the kids with DEET as they leave the house, but put "naturapel" in their backpacks to reapply at camp. I don't want the camp counselors to think I'm trying to kill their frogs.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

My dissonant inbox

We humans have a tendency to seek out information that reinforces our pre-existing beliefs. I'm worried that I'm brainwashing myself by reading and listening to too much pro-free-market, anti-central-planning media, so I try to expose myself to progressive points of view on economic issues.

My email inbox this morning was particularly dissonant. I'm on the mailing lists for both the Center for Small Government, which is trying to repeal the Massachusetts income tax, and The Coalition for Our Communities, which is absolutely opposed to repealing the tax.

It seems to me the key questions are:
  • What does Massachusetts state government spend it's money on? Bridges and roads? Health care? Police? Higher education? Programs to help the poor? (answers at: ).
  • How much of the budget goes back to local communities (and do richer communities get less, per-capita, than poorer communities)? (I did some spot-checking for rich and poor communities, and it looks like state aid, chapter 70, and chapter 90 are nicely progressive).
  • Does Beacon Hill spend more or less per-capita than other states? (the folks like to use "spending as a percentage of personal income", which seems like an odd measure to me-- do richer people need more government services than poorer people?)
  • How fair is the income tax, compared to other taxes and fees the state collects? (pretty fair, as far as I can tell)
Unfortunately, both the pro- and con- websites aren't very good at answering those questions. The Vote NO website is using the Bush war-on-terror strategy-- scare tactics. Risk! Unsafe! Cuts! Fragile!

The anti-income-tax website is using a shotgun approach, appealing to idealism, putting up misleading statistics (like using non-inflation-adjusted budget numbers), and talking about how they're not fringe lunatics (... but it doesn't help that their home page looks a little bit like lots of colors, really long, lots of subjects on One Big Page....).

Neither is very convincing. My gut feeling is that repealing the state income tax would be irresponsible, and if we're going to repeal a tax, it should be the sales tax; at least the income tax is reasonably progressive (whereas the sales tax is pretty darn regressive).

Both sides agree that the state budget should be even more transparent. One change I'd like to see, at the Local, State, and Federal levels, is to put budget numbers in perspective. For example, I have no idea whether or not $5,889,274,147 (almost six billion dollars) is the right amount of money to spend in Massachusetts on Health and Human Services. I have trouble imagining six billion dollars.

A billion is too big a number for my little brain to handle. Divide by either the state population, or divide by the number of people in the state below the poverty line, and I can begin to understand:

State Health and Human service spending per-capita per-year is about $900. About 10% of Massachusetts citizens have incomes below the poverty line ($11,000 per year), so if Health and Human Services spends all their money on those poorest people, that's $9,000 per poor-person per year, not counting education spending for poor kids, which is a different part of the budget. Oh, and not counting affordable housing. Or early education. Or labor and workforce development.

Sigh. I feel slightly better than I did three hours ago, when I started my state budget spelunking. But I also feel like I'll never really figure out whether or not our tax dollars are being spent wisely. I don't think anybody is smart enough to figure that out; that's why I believe in democracy and free markets and not benevolent dictators. There's gotta be a better way...

Monday, July 07, 2008

What can we learn from Chilean buses?

Foto tomada por Antoine.

The powers-that-be in Chile decided last year to get rid of the private bus system in Santiago and replace it with the government-run Transantiago, to better serve everybody (especially the poor).

Can you guess what happened?

Michael Munger explains on the latest EconTalk (listen here). As usual, it's funny (really!) and interesting and thought-provoking.

Friday, July 04, 2008

I'm a Professional Predictor!

I'm not a gadget geek. I don't have to have the latest&greatest cell phone or MP3 player. I don't like owning lots of stuff.

But I am a service slut. I try out all sorts of stuff; BookCrossing and Swaptree to recycle books, FreeCycle to give things away, and Prosper to lend money to strangers (I've been meaning to give Kiva a try; it's another way to lend money to strangers).

Lately, I've been having fun with Predictify:
Predictify is a web-based prediction platform where you can predict the outcome of real-world events, build a reputation based on your accuracy, and even get paid REAL MONEY when you're right! Best of all, it's free, no points or bets required.
I made an accurate prediction about drought conditions in California and made $10!

Of course, if I divided that $10 by the number of hours I've spent at well, I'm not going to quit my day job. I enjoy making predictions, and a website that keeps a running total of my prediction accuracy is a good reality check (we tend to remember when we were right, but forget when we were wrong).

I want a website that reads the news and the net, extracts predictions, automatically determines whether or not the predictions come true, and then gives pundits and bloggers a bullshit rating. With a browser plug-in, so when I came across anything from one of the idiots who said the Iraq war would be quick and cheap I'd get a great big "THIS PERSON IS AN IDIOT" splashed across the page.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Cap and Trade sounds nicer

I predict (with confidence of about 68.3%) that early next year Congress will vote to do something about global warming. As Bryan Caplan puts it:
Something must be done.
This is something.
Therefore, this must be done.

With both McCain and Obama proposing cap and trade systems, it looks like that's what we'll get.

I'd rather just have a straight greenhouse-gas-tax. It's too easy to cheat with cap&trade (as Europe seems to be finding out-- it looks like their system isn't working very well), and cap&trade creates more inertia-- everybody who makes money trading emission permits under a cap&trade system will lobby VERY hard against changing a system that pays their salary. If, 50 years from now, somebody figures out a clever way of either reversing global warming or if it turns out rising temperatures and ocean levels isn't as big a problem as we think, we'll be stuck with an antiquated system that just makes a few rich people richer.

A tax would be simpler and more transparent. Which, I think, is part of the reason it has no chance of being adopted.

I think the other part of the reason is because "tax" is a dirty word. Nobody likes taxes, and politicians bend over backwards to avoid using the "t" word ("It's not a tax, it's a user fee!").

But Cap and Trade has something for everybody! Lefties like the Cap part-- we'll Cap emissions and save the environment! And Righties like the Trade part-- we'll Trade our way to economic bliss!