Monday, December 31, 2007

My Psychic Predictions for 2008

If all of this stuff doesn't happen, I'll resign my membership in the Psychic Friends Network:

Mitt Romney will be the Republican presidential nominee.

Barack Obama will be the Democratic presidential nominee, and will be elected President.

Pro football will have a major "athletes taking performance-enhancing drugs" scandal.

Oil prices will go over $100 per barrel at least twice.

Troop levels in Iraq will go down up until the November elections. Immediately after the elections, another troop surge will be proposed.

Around 200,000 people in Massachusetts will still not have health insurance at the end of 2008 (down from 500,000 without health insurance in 2006).

The increase in the minimum wage will mean fewer teenagers working during the summer of 2008.

Inflation-adjusted "total compensation" (wages plus benefits) will be up more than 1% for all income brackets over the year.

And last, and definitely least:

The New England Patriots will win the Super Bowl.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Saving the environment, the dumb way

This caught my eye in the Christmas Eve Gazette:

Meanwhile, at Hastings, Vizedom, with the help of employee Povinelli, had decided to go with the computer paper made from recycled paper for $5.95 over the regular brand for $5.45.

"The environment is definitely worth an extra 45 cents," she said.
Carbon offsets cost about $5.00 per ton, so would the environment be better off if Ms. Vizedom pays extra for recycled paper, or buys cheap paper and spends the extra money on carbon offsets? (assuming that you buy into the notion that buying carbon offsets is a good thing)

45 cents buys about 180 pounds of carbon offsets. Which is 9 gallons of gasoline worth of CO2. I'd buy the cheaper paper.

Maybe that's not the right way of looking at it. What if she saved the 45 cents and used it to buy a tree through the Arbor Day Foundation? They'll plant a tree in a National Forest for $6, so she could buy 1/14'th of a tree. Since you get more than 100 reams of paper from an average tree, we'd end up with more trees overall if everybody did that instead of spending extra on recycled paper.

Buy the cheap paper. Then find an environmental charity you like and give it all the money you save.

Friday, December 21, 2007

100 million pounds of CO2

So I was sitting in my car on Route 9 yesterday, thinking about Peak Oil and Global Warming.

In particular, I was wondering how much gasoline Amherst drivers waste, and how much CO2 they pump into the atmosphere, while they're waiting for the lights to change downtown.

I figure that over the last 35 years it's somewhere between 1 and 5 millions gallons of gas, which translates to 20-100 million pounds of CO2.

The math is pretty easy: a typical non-hybrid car burns about 3/10 of a gallon of gas per hour when it's standing still. An average of 23,000 people use Route 9 every day, and I figure they probably spend an average of somewhere between 1 and 5 minutes stuck in traffic. .3 * 23,000 * 1/60 * 365 * 35 = 1.4 million gallons for each minute spent waiting.

Why'd I pick 35 years? Because about 35 years ago Amherst decided not to build some roads to improve the traffic situation in town.

Google 'true cost gasoline' or 'pollution costs gasoline' and you'll find a range of estimates-- anywhere from a low of about $1 per gallon to over $10 per gallon. Add it all up, and you get costs of anywhere between $1 million and $50 million.

Weigh that against a likely $10-$20 million dollar cost of building a 3 mile extension of University Drive to Route 9 East of downtown (near Amherst Woods). If you believe the true cost of gasoline is $10/gallon, then Amherst did tens of millions dollars of damage to both it's economy and the environment by doing nothing about traffic congestion downtown.


Tuesday, December 18, 2007

...duty to God and my country...

Ages and years ago when I lived in Alaska I was a Cub Scout (a "webelo"-- we wobbled but we didn't fall down). I still remember the Boy Scout Oath, and the part about "doing my duty to God and my country" seems relevant to the kerfuffle here in Amherst over the Scouts selling Christmas trees on Town property.

It seems to me that part of doing your duty to your country is to pay for public services when you use them.

"But it's not about money, it's tradition! And besides, they're popular!" Uh-huh. That's always the tricky thing with public property-- how do we decide who gets to use it, and for what?

What if... the Amherst Vegan-Pagan Cooperative asked to use that bit of land to sell Healing Crystals on the Summer Solstice as a fundraiser? When that bit of town was privately owned, the answer was easy-- the owner of the land gets to decide (well, restricted by zoning laws, of course).

The easy public property answers are to either auction off the rights to use the property to the highest bidder. Or to hold an election and ask the Public what to do every time somebody wants to use the property. Or to trust Elected Officials to make a reasonable decision.

But this is Amherst, so I predict the following will happen;

There will be at least three public meetings, involving at least two Town Committees, in a process directed by the Select Board. The outcome will be a vague policy statement that the Town Manager will have the unenviable task of trying to apply to specific situations.

And next year, the Boy Scouts will sell lots of Christmas trees and will pay the Town a modest amount of money for the privilege of doing it where they've done it for decades.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Bus commute: does not compute

I started working half-time at UMass a few weeks ago (in the Computer Science department, working on the Rexa project), and have been experimenting with the best way to get to work.

According to Mr. Google, it's about two miles from my house to my new office:

I've tried getting to work by driving, bicycling, walking, and riding the bus. When it's dry and the roads are clear, bicycling is clearly the way to go-- it's quick (maybe ten minutes, door to door), environmentally friendly, and inexpensive.

I'll ride in the rain, but really wish there was a good place to park my bike out of the elements when I got to UMass (getting my recumbent through three sets of doors into my office is not an option). I asked the parking office if there was any sort of covered bicycle parking on campus, but they're all about the cars.

Driving makes me feel guilty (it just isn't efficient to take a thousand pounds of car to work with me), but it's the most practical way of getting there when the roads are too slippery to ride. I've got an occasional parker permit; parking costs $1 per day, and it's a little quicker than riding.

Riding the bus almost works; it takes me 3 minutes to walk to the PVTA bus 30 stop near my house, and another 5 minutes or so to walk to my office from it's nearest stop on campus. It's about a 15 minute ride in between, so it normally takes about 25 minutes to take the bus each way. Except for the other night, when the 5:05 bus didn't show up until 5:20 (or maybe didn't show up at all-- the buses run every 15 minutes), and it took me almost an hour to get home.

If I pay myself a "living wage" of $12/hour for extra time spent on the bus, and if I subtract money spent driving and parking, I figure riding the bus costs me $5/day. If I pay myself my actual salary, that jumps up to over $20/day. Hmm.

If I walk, I'm home in about half an hour. Reliably. And I get some much-needed exercise, to boot. Wave when you see me hiking down Triangle Street!

Friday, December 07, 2007

The Comprehensive Plan (no, not THAT one...)

I visited the Jones Library Special Collections for the first time on Wednesday, where the librarians helped me find Amherst's last Comprehensive (aka "Master") Plan.

It was published in 1969, and then promptly ignored. I'm told that it was considered 'dead on arrival.' I'm not sure why it didn't fly-- I was two years old and living in Melbourne, Australia at the time-- was it too "consultant-driven"? Too radical? Too many pages? (If you know, please leave a comment!)

Reading the old Plan makes me wonder what Amherst would be like today if it hadn't been ignored. It would certainly be easier to get around; University Drive would extend all the way from the North side of UMass to join up with Route 9 out by Amherst Woods. Imagine that, being able to get to UMass from Belchertown or the Notch WITHOUT going through downtown!

If I read the newspaper article correctly, Town Meeting rejected that idea by three votes back in 1970...

This piece of advice was ignored, also:
Because of the expanded research facilities at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst has the potential to attract research-oriented industries. These would have a definite need of being close to the academic environment where both college and industry would be of mutual benefit to each other. Such development would add a new dimension to the Town's economy.

The old Plan wasn't all about traffic and business development; it talked about the need for Open Space and historic preservation, too:
a large segment of the Town, approximately 4,863 acres, has been proposed for open space use.
Amherst currently has about 4,000 acres of protected open space (we only had 500 in 1970), so we're well on our way to meeting that goal.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Ugly Little Bank

I joined several other Town Meeting folks last night at Barts, and we talked a little bit about the Kentucky Fried Bank at the corner of Triangle and North Pleasant streets (picture credit: Larry Kelley, I swiped it from his blog).

The consensus was that Bank of America was stupid not to be more creative when developing it-- that's a valuable piece of real estate, close to downtown and UMass. Maybe they could've built a nice two-story building with a bank and maybe a shop downstairs, an apartment or two upstairs.

Only I'm not sure banks are allowed to do that kind of thing. Banks are still heavily regulated; for example, the Bank Holding Company Act:
...generally prohibited a bank holding company from engaging in most non-banking activities
Part of that Federal law has been repealed (banks are allowed to merge across state lines now), but I think most of the regulations are still in effect. And then there are all the state banking regulations.

Is our Ugly Little Bank an unintended consequence of our banking regulations? I dunno, but it wouldn't surprise me one bit if it was...


Fall Town Meeting is over! I thought for sure we'd have one more session in December, but I was wrong. Thank you, Mr. Moderator, for keeping things moving and wrapping it up!

Overall, my Town Meeting Crystal Ball worked pretty well-- all of the articles that I thought would pass, passed, and all of the articles I thought wouldn't pass didn't. I did get some of the details wrong, though-- we did not see pretty pictures of happy Fair Trade workers at any point during Town Meeting, and I had no idea zoning articles could be broken up into lots of tiny pieces.

I got lots of positive feedback on the Google Earth maps I created to illustrate a couple of the zoning articles (click on the picture in this blog post to see a full-sized version of the College/SouthEast street zoning changes). I like maps; maybe in a future Town Meeting I'll create and show an animated fly-by (maps are even spiffier when they move).

I'll publically post my predictions for Spring Town Meeting before it starts, just because (as I said before) it's fun to pretend to be psychic. Gazing into my crystal ball I see... structural budget deficits... chicken-counting while staring at eggs... Larry Kelley... Vince O'Connor... hard questions about "found" money in the school budgets... pointless debate over the Comprehensive Plan...

At least it won't be so dark and cold; I generally ride my unicycle to Town Meeting, and that's a lot more fun in the Spring.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Smart People Talking

I just finished listening to Cass Sunstein and Russ Roberts talk about how we react to low-probability potential catastrophes. Their conversation was the latest episode of the "EconTalk" (visit podcast, and they talk about why our government spends hundreds of billions of dollars after 9/11, and why it doesn't spend billions of dollars fighting global warming.

At the end of the podcast they have a fascinating discussion about how to think about spending money now to prevent Bad Things from happening in the future. The key insight (which was new to me), is that one human life today should be equivalent to one human life 100 years from now; but, one dollar today is equivalent to a whole lot less than a dollar 100 years from now.

I'd highly recommend you listen to the podcast. You don't need an iPod, you should be able to play it right from the web page.

I've been very pleased with the quality of the information from other EconTalk episodes; try any of these for some really great "brain food":It is really refreshing to hear smart people talking to each other without arguing, seriously considering alternative viewpoints, and just simply searching for the truth.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Slow News Day at the NY Times?

I read the Sunday New York Times almost every Sunday morning, and the story on the top-left of the front page bothered me.

The story is about how renters can be forced to move if their landlord defaults on the mortgage and the property is foreclosed.

My first impression was "this is front-page news???" Renters get kicked out of the place they're renting for all sorts of reasons, all the time. It is one of the drawbacks of renting. Sure, it's one more side effect of the bursting of the housing bubble, but I find it hard to believe that there aren't more important stories that could have made the front page.

The story itself left me with lots of questions, too. I'd like to know what percentage of renters per year nationwide are likely to face this situation, and what percentages are forced to move for other reasons (apartments turning into condos, getting condemned, etc).

It tells of renters in Las Vegas being given 72 hours notice to pack up and get out. I'd really like to know if Nevada's "renters rights" laws are typical of the rest of the nation.

I'd also like to hear from some legal experts on whether or not it's appropriate for the federal government to start passing laws on renter's rights. This article from the Boston Globe mentions that there's legislation proposed at both the state and federal level.

All that said-- my problem is really with what I think was sloppy reporting, and a bias by the New York Times to "hype" a hot story (the housing/credit crunch thing). I agree with the overall direction of the article-- renter's rights shouldn't be thrown out the window just because their landlord screwed up and their apartment got repossessed by a bank. The (state) laws should be changed (it ain't no free lunch, though-- banks will charge landlords slightly higher interest rates to cover their increased costs when foreclosing, and the landlords will, in turn, charge tenants a teeny bit more in rent...).

Monday, November 12, 2007

Intellectual Honesty

I'm deeply skeptical of people who are absolutely, positively convinced that they're right. If you're intellectually honest, then you've got to admit that there's a possibility that you're wrong; that there exists (at least in theory) some collection of evidence that would make you change your opinion.

For example, I believe that all life on earth evolved naturally from primitive organisms. It's possible I'm wrong, and if (for example) an advanced race of aliens landed on the White House lawn and then showed us how they genetically engineered the first tribe of Homo Sapiens then I'd have to reassess my opinion on where humans came from.

I also distrust people with an "us" versus "them" mentality, where "we" must be right and "they" are misguided or stupid or just plain stubborn and wrong. Reasonable people can be completely rational and still disagree about important issues, because they might start with different values or assumptions.

For example, I'm mostly a libertarian. I believe it is morally wrong to force people to do things that they don't want to do, if they're not harming (or threatening to harm) other people.

You might be more utilitarian, and believe that it's OK to force people to do things that they don't want to do as long as doing so is for the greater good of society as a whole. You're not unreasonable, or stupid, or stubborn, or misguided-- you're just starting with different assumptions than I am.

So, what collection of evidence would make me change my mostly-libertarian assumptions? Certainly if Socialist societies had higher productivity or innovation or health or wealth or happiness than Capitalist societies I might change my mind. But they don't.

I'm very interested in behavioral economics; maybe we are hard-wired in ways that cause us to make bad decisions on our own, and maybe our collective "hive mind" can do a better job of making the world a better place. Maybe. If you see any solid, data-driven pieces of evidence supporting that hypothesis, please send them my way!

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Vince, Mary, Ben: can't you Just Vote No?

I think I just figured out why last night's Town Meeting session felt so... wrong, even though I was happy about the way all the votes turned out (and none were close enough to require either standing or tally votes).

It seemed to me that instead of simply voting NO for the articles they didn't like, certain Town Meeting members instead proposed (or thought about proposing) various procedural motions that would have the same effect.

It started with Vince O'Connor and the proposal to use $100,000 in CPAC money to help fix Town Hall. He had a little discussion at the podium with Mr. Moderator before he spoke, apparently about whether or not he would be offering some kind of amendment. I guess reason prevailed, and, instead, he just argued (unsuccessfully) against the article.

It continued with Mary Wentworth proposing an amendment to the R&D overlay district article that, essentially, made the R&D overlay district do nothing at all. What the heck is that all about? If you don't like the article, then JUST VOTE NO. Making me vote twice (four times, if you count the votes to "call the question") just makes me cranky.

Finally, on that SAME article, Ben Grosscup made a motion to refer the article back to the Planning Board. Umm, yeah-- the planning board unaminously recommended the article after a bunch of work and public discussion. "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. -- Benjamin Franklin"

So, if I'm counting correctly, we had to vote three times (six if you count the "call the question" votes) to say Yes to this article.

I suppose I should gird my loins for a whole lot more of this; the Zoning Board of Appeals is gonna get into a turf war with the Planning Board, and is proposing amendments of their own. Zoning articles are complicated enough; add in proposed amendments and the associated "I call the motion to the previous question to amend motion B of Article 63..." complexity of Town Meeting procedure and it's just a big hairy mess that makes me really cranky. If you don't like it-- can't you keep it simple and Just Vote No?

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Anthropogenic Climate Change

We moved around a lot when I was growing up. I went to six different schools by the time I was in sixth grade, and lived in Melbourne (mild, like a California down-under), Seattle (rainy, lots of slugs), Anchorage (often quite cold indeed, but a great place to be a kid) and just Northeast of Santa Barbara (perfect weather almost all the time).

Maybe that's why Global Warming doesn't freak me out. I'm pretty confident about the human species' ability to adapt; I wouldn't choose to live in the snow like an Inuit or in the desert like a Las Vegan or behind a dike like a Netherlander, but I would adapt if forced.

Don't get me wrong-- I'm not a Global Warming Denier. The scientific evidence is pretty convincing that Global Warming is happening, and that we're almost certainly the cause.

I'm just skeptical that it will be a Global Environmental Crisis, and that it requires Drastic and Immediate Action. I think it would be easy to over-react and spend (say) a trillion or three dollars on a War on Global Warming. The War on Terror and the War on Drugs haven't exactly been shining examples of efficiency and effectiveness.

There's no such thing as a free lunch, so if we spend heaps of money fighting global warming that means we're not spending that money on something else. If the "something else" is a war overseas, then sign me up! Coming up with clean (or cleaner) energy solutions is certainly a more productive use of resources than killing people and blowing stuff up.

I'm not smart enough to figure out where the War on Warming should be on the list of Global Issues-- I have no idea if we should spend more money finding a cure for cancer, finding a way to burn coal that doesn't put carbon dioxide into the air, growing more corn for ethanol, producing solar cells to put on our houses, or banning cars that get less than 42 miles per gallon.

Nobody is that smart. I think the best we can do is create a society where smart, creative, dedicated people can work on the issues that they care about, and be confident that some of those smart people will figure it out.

PS: Looks like we're going to get biofuels in our home heating oil soon, just like we get ethanol in our gasoline-- not because it makes environmental or economic sense (it probably doesn't), but because somebody in our government thinks they're smart enough to know that doing so is The Right Answer.

I like making wild-ass predictions, so here are two:
1. Biofuels (of the sort they're mandating that we use now) will turn out to be worse for the environment, and more expensive, than oil/gas/coal, once all of the hidden costs are accounted for.
2. Within 25 years some smart person somewhere will figure out an insanely great way of creating energy, that's a lot cheaper and cleaner than anything we're using today.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Killer Cell Phones?

So these four Swedish guys (and one guy from Berkeley) are saying that using cell phones a lot for a long time increases your risk of getting brain cancer by 20-30% (here's the link to the paper).

They're probably wrong, but let's assume they're right. Does that mean your iPhone is gonna kill you in ten years?

Probably not. Imagine 100,000 people-- say two pro football stadiums chock-full of people, or three towns the size of Amherst. About 8 of them will get brain cancer per year.

So the study says that if all those 100,000 people use cell phones for an hour or more a day for, like, a decade, then two or three more will get brain cancer. Or, to think about it another way-- if you use your cell phone a lot, the Swedish guys think it has a 1 in 50,000 chance per year of giving you cancer.

But according to some British guy, using a cell phone when you're driving makes you four times (400% !) more likely to crash. Assuming those heavy cell phone users are on their phones half the time they're driving:

100,000 non-cell-phone folks: 15 will die in car accidents. 8 will die from brain cancer.
100,000 cell-phone maniacs: 30 will die in car accidents. 10 will die from brain cancer.

I don't use my cell phone much, but if I did, I wouldn't worry about getting brain cancer-- the risk is pretty darn small. You should be a lot more worried about talking on your cell phone while driving and killing yourself or an innocent bystander...

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...

Thursday, September 27, 2007

I was wrong: Ebay legal in Amherst, unless...

This afternoon I got a definitive answer on when you do or do not need permits to buy and sell stuff on Ebay from your house:

The other day you met with Bonnie Weeks and me to discuss whether such a business might be possible under certain circumstances and if so, what would be the permitting requirements for a business of this type. Here is our understanding of the situation:

1. Is it a business?

You have asked if buying and selling used items out of your home wouldbe considered a business. The answer is "yes" if you are doing this buying and selling for profit. (We did not say that buying and selling your own property or "stuff" on EBay would not be a business.)

2. Selling on EBay vs. Garage Sales

You asked how buying and selling on EBay was different from a garage sale. The response was that garage sales usually entail people selling items that they or others have owned and no longer need or use to people who visit the premises to conduct their purchases. Garage sales are not a continuous use and usually only last about 1 or 2 days and occur once or twice a year.

3. Deliveries

You have said that you are planning to buy and sell on EBay and that you will not have customers come to your home. You have told us that you will be using the U.S. Postal Service and other delivery services (such as UPS) for delivery of the items to and from your home and that you will also be going to the Post Office with items that you are selling.

4. Details of the Business

We asked you about the details of your business, i.e. the volume of business, the size and number of items that you might be selling, the traffic that might be generated by the delivery trucks coming and going and other issues that might be bothersome to your neighbors. You were not specific in your answers to these questions. In evaluating how your proposed use will be regulated under zoning, we will need specific estimates for each of these issues.

5. Special Permit for a Home Occupation

Section 5.013 of the Zoning Bylaw authorizes the Zoning Board of Appeals to grant a Special Permit for a Home Occupation, an accessory use to a principle residential use, which generally includes such things as the workroom of an artist, craftsperson, cabinetmaker, etc. While your proposed business does not fall neatly under this category, it appears to be the closest category in the Bylaw to encompass what you are proposing to do. Obtaining a Special Permit for a Home Occupation requires you to submit an application and accompanying documentation describing your business. It requires that your neighbors be notified and it requires the holding of a public hearing. The whole process takes approximately three (3) months, including the appeal period, and costs $150.00, plus $25.00 for an abutters (neighbors) list. The
$150.00 and the $25.00 are one-time fees, assuming that you receive and act on your permit within two years (that is, if you begin to operate your business and continue to operate it). If you do not act on your permit within two years and you still wish to conduct the business you will need to apply for a new (renewal) permit. If your business changes substantially you will also need to apply for a new (modified) permit. This would entail paying the fees again.

6. Office or Studio

Section 5.012 of the Zoning Bylaw allows the use of a portion of a house as an accessory office for a member of a recognized profession, such as doctor, lawyer, etc., without a Special Permit. It does not appear that your proposed business would fall under this category since you do not propose to operate your office as a member of a recognized profession. What you are proposing is closer to a mail-order business.

7. Second Hand Sales License

In addition to any permit that may be required from the Zoning Board of Appeals, there is a permit required by the Town's General By-Laws to operate a business that deals with the selling of used articles. This Second Hand Sales License can be obtained from the Select Board. We understand that the fee for this license is $75.00, and that the permit needs to be renewed annually.

8. Management Plan

If you wish to pursue buying and selling used items on EBay from your home we recommend that you draft a Management Plan for your business and submit it to Bonnie Weeks, Building Commissioner. The Management Plan should include the following information:

* Location of business

* Description of the type of business, including a description of the type, approximate size and number of items to be sold

* Hours of operation

* Number of employees

* Frequency of deliveries to and from the property by UPS or other delivery service (i.e., once a day, once a week, etc.)

* Description of how you propose to handle trash and recycling, including the frequency of pick-up

* Parking required to operate the business, if applicable

* Lighting, including location of lights and hours of operation of lights

* Signage, if applicable

* Landscape maintenance

* Snow removal

* Equipment to be used in the business

* Noise generated by the business

* Storage of materials and equipment associated with the business.

Based on a written Management Plan, including information on all of the categories listed above, Ms. Weeks will determine whether or not you need a Special Permit for a Home Occupation. She is the Zoning Enforcement Officer for the Town of Amherst.

I hope this is helpful. Please contact me or Bonnie Weeks if you need further clarification.

Chris Brestrup
(scroll down if you're curious about the process for properly licensing a home-based Ebay business in Amherst).

So "engage in the business of" means "sell for a profit." So I'm OK, as long as the stuff I sell on Ebay sells for less than the price I paid for it. Good to know. I wonder if I'm allowed to use inflation-adjusted prices (if I sell a Star Wars action figure I bought for $3 in 1977, and sell it for $25 in 2007...)

I feel a little dirty. Just the other day I implied that Larry Kelly was wasting state employee time filing ethics complaints, and here I go and cause who knows HOW much town employee time on this one little question. I didn't mean to; I expected a quick, simple answer like the one I got from Northampton...

Yay Amherst Public Works!

In a previous blog post, I said that Guilford Mooring is my favorite Town employee. I think the entire Public Works department deserves praise for their quick response to problems that have been brought to their attention:
  • Painting crosswalks in front of the Chinese Charter School
  • Adjusting the traffic cushions on Lincoln Avenue
  • Fixing the potholes on Hulst road
Thanks! I know I suffer from negativity bias-- I tend to complain about things I don't like, but keep quiet about things I do like. Maybe it's the computer programmer in me, always looking for software bugs to be fixed...

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Northampton 1, Amherst 0

Northampton, like Amherst, has special regulations for dealing in second-hand stuff. A while ago, I asked the Powers That Be in Northampton a similar question to the one I asked of Amherst:
If I were to buy and sell "secondhand articles" on Ebay.... would this city ordinance apply to me?
§ 202-7. License required.
It shall be unlawful for any person to be a collector of, dealer in, or keeper of a shop for the purchase, sale, or barter of rags, paper, old metals, junk, or secondhand articles without first obtaining a license from the City Council as provided in Chapter 140 of the Massachusetts General Laws. No person shall purchase or receive by barter within the limits of this City any of the articles mentioned above without first procuring such a license.
I guess the question is: what's the definition of a "dealer in" ? Is there some dollar amount that would make me a dealer in secondhand articles?
The next day I got this reply:
In order to be licensed for secondhand articles, you would need to have a place of business, that would be zoned for this type of business and file a Business Certificate. A dealer in second articles is a person who buys and sells second hand articles, such as used clothing, used books, records, etc., there is no dollar amount associated with being a secondhand dealer. The license fee for a secondhand dealers license is $25.00 a year, and the business certificate fee is $50.00. The business certificate is good for four years.

Wendy Mazza
City Clerk
Just to be sure, I asked:
So... am I allowed to buy and sell used articles on Ebay, through the mail, out of my home? Or does this apply only to "walk-in" businesses, with customers that come to a storefront?
... and got this reply 10 minutes later:
This would only apply to walk-in businesses, with customers that do come to a storefront.
The only way you would need to have a second-hand license is if you had to file a business certificate to set up a business checking account and the bank required you to provide them with necessary documentation that you where in business.

Wendy Mazza
So: two emails to one person in Northampton and a day later I get a "yes, you are allowed."

I first sent essentially the same question to Amherst Town Hall on September 5'th. 20 days later, it's bounced around to the following people in the Amherst bureaucracy (these are all the people cc:ed on the dozen or so emails I've sent/received on this, so far):
Patricia J Olanyk, Larry Shaffer, Gail Weston, Chris Brestrep, Caroyln Holstein, Bonny Weeks, Jonathan Tucker, and the entire Amherst Select Board.

And I'm still waiting for a straightforward answer to my original question, which maybe I can restate here: "Under what conditions does buying and selling used stuff from my home constitute a 'business', for which I need to get permits and stuff?"

Three Months and $225 Ain't Friendly

I'm going to introduce an article for next spring's Town Meeting to repeal the town bylaws regulating "Dealing in Used Articles," but before I do, I decided to do my homework and make sure it really says what I think it says.

So I sent this question to
The town bylaws state:

"2. No personal shall engage in the business of buying or selling second-hand articles within the limits of the town of Amherst unless he is duly licensed by the selectmen."

What does "engage in the business of" mean? If I buy and sell used articles out of my house, am I engaging in business? Or does this bylaw apply only to businesses that have public storefronts?
Holy Bureaucracy, Batman! I didn't expect such a simple question to generate a little blizzard of activity from Town Hall!

First stop was Patricia J Olanyk, in the Town Clerk's office. She referred my question to the Select Board's office, and told me that I might also have to file a "Doing Business As" certificate with their office. I don't think that applies to buying and selling stuff on Ebay, although maybe it does-- I don't use my real name as my Ebay nickname. I'm still looking for an answer to "what does 'engage in the business of' mean?", so I press on.

According to Jonathan Tucker in the planning department:
This is a fairly straightforward business licensing, similar to a liquor license, a license to operate coin-operated amusement devices, etc. This is listed as “Second-Hand Sales” on an old 1997 list I have of Select Board licenses and permits. The licensing is, I believe, intended to help prevent unregulated dealing in second-hand articles with an uncertain or illegal origin. From the listing I have, it appears that after receiving a recommendation from the Police Department, the Select Board holds a public hearing to hear from the applicant. Both the Select Board and the Police Dept. must approve the application which, following approval, is signed by the Police Chief or his designee. There’s a $75 fee for the application. There should be copies of the application form and copies of past applications in the Select Board files. I’m sure the Police Department could give you more particulars.
I was also referred to the Zoning department, because conducting a business out of my house might require a Special Permit.

It's a beautiful day today, and I was planning on walking downtown to get my hair cut, so I decided to stop by Town Hall and try to get to the bottom of all this in person. I met with Christine Brestrup (planning department) and Bonnie Weeks (I THINK that's who it was, down in the Zoning department), who were both very nice and patient as they asked me whether I had people come to my house (no), if this would generate extra traffic for the neighborhood (maybe a little, I might make a couple extra trips to the Post Office), and to describe what kind of stuff I was buying and selling on Ebay.

Now, that's kind of personal question. Is it really any of their business what I'm buying and selling? So I asked if there was some threshold in terms of amount of stuff that would make me a "business" subject to regulation.

Apparently there isn't. The consensus was that I need to apply for a Special Permit (cost: $150), explain what I'm up to in front of the Zoning Board of Appeals, and wait the three months it takes to get an answer from them to decide whether or not I'd disturb my neighbors.

Oh, and I'll need that $75 permit for dealing in used articles, no matter what the ZBA decides.

Sigh. I still don't have an answer to my question: "what does 'engage in the business of' mean?", but I've sent a followup question about that to the Zoning/Planning folks. If selling stuff you personally used/owned makes you a business, then wouldn't all these regulations apply to tag sales?

But imagine for a moment that I really DID have an Ebay business-- there are lots of people who buy stuff at tag sales and then resell it on Ebay. Even if we do repeal the silly bylaw about dealing in secondhand articles, doing that would still be illegal in Amherst, unless you go through a process that costs $150, and takes at least three months and several hours of your time.

Isn't that EXACTLY the type of no-impact, knowledge-based, green business that we want in Amherst?

Monday, September 24, 2007

Would a Meals Tax be a Free Lunch?

Should Amherst impose a local meals tax if the State decides to let towns impose meals taxes?

A meals tax is a particular kind of luxury tax, which seems like a good idea. Tax wealthy people on stuff that they buy, and use the money to pay for vital services used by everybody. Meals are particularly good, because I don't think people would drive to Hadley just to avoid paying an extra buck or two on their $100 dinner at La Baraque de Casse-Croûte (or an extra nickel on their Happy Meal).

There ain't no such thing as a free lunch, though, so that extra $1 that they're paying the Town is a dollar that they're not spending on something else. Maybe they'll eat out 99 times in a year instead of 100, costing local restaurants a little bit of business. Maybe they'll give a little less money to charity. Maybe the next time they want chocolate they'll buy Hershey instead of Godiva. Or maybe they'll decide to vote against property tax increases. Probably they'll do a little bit of all of those things.

I'd support a local meals tax if 100% of the money went to the local government, if only because it's more progressive than the property taxes and fees we pay now.

But the meals tax being proposed last year gave 75% of the money to the local government, with the other 25% going to the State. Is that a good deal for Amherst?

I don't know. It depends on how the tax changes spending patterns. If spending $1 more when eating out means that people spend $1 less on other stuff in Amherst, then it's a bad deal for Amherst-- we'll get 75 cents in tax revenue, but local businesses lose $1 in revenue. A quick google search turned up this factoid:
The results show that for every $100 in consumer spending at the local businesses, $73 stays in Chicago's economy (--Andersonville Study of Retail Economics)
Assuming that Amherst consumers spend like Chicago businesses (admittedly a bad assumption-- I wouldn't be surprised if we spend more money in Hadley than we do in Amherst), an extra dollar meals tax (as proposed last year) would mean 73 cents less for local businesses and 75 cents more for local government.

I'd vote no.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

New York Times: Skeptical!

The New York Times magazine has an article today entitled "Do We Really Know What Makes Us Healthy? (read it here)"

I'm impressed. Lots of great information on why we should be skeptical of epidemiological studies (you know, the ones that result in headlines like "Trans Fats Linked To Higher Risk of Irritable Bowel Syndrome"). I'll have to add to my list of statistics to beware of:

7. Be very skeptical of epidemiological studies that show a correlation between a certain behavior and a certain disease. Until there are an overwhelming number of them all showing a strong correlation, or until a double-blind, placebo controlled clinical study is done, they should be treated as an interesting hypothesis that needs more research.

Friday, September 14, 2007

All the Cool Kids Have One

I spent $5 on this PayPal Security doo-hickey.

Now, whenever I want to login to my PayPal account, I enter my username and password and the six-digit number that the thingamajig generates when I poke it's button.

I wouldn't have bothered spending the $5 if it was only good for logging into PayPal-- the last thing I need is 7 different dongles hanging off my keychain for securely logging into different web sites. I did bother because the same device works for any web site that supports the OpenID standard. Not many do today, but I predict that over the next couple of years OpenID will become widely supported. If you're a geeky early adopter like me, check out for details.

If you're not a geeky early-adopter, but you use PayPal more than twice a month or keep more than $1,000 in your PayPal account (the cash in my PayPal account is earning 5.2% interest right now, which is darn hard to beat), you should pay the $5 for the extra security.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Skeptical Approach to Statistics

There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.
-- Benjamin Disraeli
Sometimes when I use statistical arguments the person I'm talking with will say something along the lines of "you can prove anything by choosing the right statistics." Yeah, but...

My rules of thumb for which statistics to believe are:

1. Never believe statistics you read in a newspaper or popular magazines or blogs. 87.5% of reporters have liberal arts backgrounds, and they're just not particularly good at math/science/statistics. Track down the original source, and see what the researchers actually say. If you can, run the paper through Google Scholar then find later papers that cite the study/paper, and see if all the citations support the same conclusions.

2. Never believe statistics that come from non-peer-reviewed sources. A statistic from the Quarterly Journal of Economics is 99.98% more trustworthy than a statistic from me.

3. Look closely at how close the statistic is to being "signficant." If the statistic is given without any measure of statistical significance, then it's almost certainly bogus.

4. Be very wary of statistics generated from "meta analyses" of a bunch of other studies. I'm told it's much harder (2.6 times harder) to get the math right for a meta-analysis.

5. Beware of statistics that give you differences in risk-- e.g. "doing XYZ decreases your risk of dying by 10%." These kinds of statistics sound impressive until you look at the absolute risk of doing XYZ-- very often, the risk is insanely tiny to begin with. Who cares if you decrease your risk of dying by a shark attack by 99% if you only swim in fresh water, if your chances of dying from a shark attack are essentially zero to begin with?

6. Beware of data mining effects. If you generate enough statistics about ANYTHING, some of them (1 in 20) will be outside the "95% confidence level." Pick and choose the ones that support your point of view and you can pretend that the randomness in the data is ironclad proof that you're right.

In an ideal world of infinite time and resources, I'd sit down with somebody I disagree with and together we'd decide on a statistic that we both agreed would be an unbiased way of measuring whatever we're arguing about (does the minimum wage cause unemployment, is more immigration good or bad for the economy, does capital punishment prevent crime...).

Then we'd go look up the relevant data and generate the statistic, and see who's right. With the astounding quantity of data and research available on the Internet we're getting closer to this ideal.
DISCLAIMER: All of the statistics in this blog post are 100% made up.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Government as Mommy or Daddy?

After getting elected to Amherst Town Meeting, I felt it was my duty to keep an open mind and try to see issues from all sides. So I'm trying to get a handle on exactly what it means to be "progressive," because I bet that's the label that most Town Meeting members would give themselves, if they were forced to choose a label.

Rob Kusner (bicycle riding Select Board guy, and arch-nemesis of bicycle riding Golf Course Crusader Larry Kelley) pointed me to George Lakoff and the Rockridge Institute.

I've read "On Freedom" and "Thinking Points," but found it really hard not to tear their pages up into tiny little pieces as I read, for two reasons:

1. I was looking for utilitarian arguments for the progressive agenda, and instead I found advice on making the progressive agenda palatable to The Masses.

2. I don't fit into either of the two fundamental political "frames." I felt like a Buddhist listening in on an argument between Muslims and Christians; I believe in a Middle Way that makes all their arguments about whether or not Christ was the Son of God or just a prophet irrelevant to me.

According to Mr. Lakoff, progressives argue using the "Nurturant Parent" frame. Conservatives, the "Strict Father" frame. That's true, but there's a third frame-- the "Government is Not My Parent" frame of libertarians. There's a comment on the Thinking Points discussion page that sums it up nicely:
The problem with both the "Strict Father" and "Nurturant Parent" models is that both assume We the People are mere children to be guided to and fro, by either a strict father or a "nurturant parent" (whatever that verbal gobbledygook means).

We're not. We the People ARE the government. You will not find the word "leader" anywhere in the U.S. Constitution. There's a reason for that. We don't elect our "leaders." We elect our "representatives." They are our deputies. They hold those positions by our consent, and are sworn to act on our behalf.

We the People are the source of civil legitimacy, and thus We the People are morally responsible for what our representatives, our deputies do.
-- crissieb
I'm proud to represent part of my neighborhood in Town Meeting. But I'll never forget that everybody who voted for me is a grown-up, capable of deciding for themselves what's best for them.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Australian Humor

One of the benefits of having Australian relatives (Uncle, Aunt, and cousins) is that the kids regularly get Australian picture books.

The latest is "In the Bush: Our Holiday at Wombat Flat." It's kind of an Australian version of "Where's Waldo", only instead of geeky looking people in stripey hats, it's full of beer-drinking people doing all sorts of dangerous and politically incorrect things.

The Andresen household gives it four thumbs up, even though it has words we don't understand (what the heck is a "hoon"?), and even though we're probably missing half the jokes.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Just give them the money?

How much does the Federal government spend on programs to help poor people every year?

According to the National Priorities Project, 14% on "income security" and 4% on "education, training, employment and social services."

18% of 2 trillion dollars (the total Federal budget) is 360 billion dollars.

That's a darn convenient number-- the total number of people below the poverty line is about 36 million (according to the census bureau). Divide dollars by people and you get a nice, even $10,000 spent for every man, woman, and child under the poverty line. $40,000 for a family of 4, $30,000 for a family of 3, $20,000 for a family of 2.

Which is pretty astounding, considering:
the weighted average poverty threshold for a family of four in 2006 was $20,614; for a family of three, $16,079; for a family of two, $13,167; and for unrelated individuals, $10,294.
Why isn't it as simple as:
1. Everybody fills out an income tax form.
2. If your income is below the poverty line, then the IRS sends you a check to make up the difference, including any taxes you had to pay.

Then we can argue about where the poverty line should be drawn, and whether it's moral to increase the poverty line for people lucky enough to be born US Citizens (or lucky enough to manage to immigrate here) from $10,000 to $12,000 when most of the world's population survives on less than $1,000 per year.
UPDATE: I asked the National Priorities Project what "Income Security" means, and it is NOT all for helping poor people. It's:
Income security is a 'function area' defined by the federal government that includes general retirement and disability insurance (excluding social security); federal employee retirement and disability; unemployment compensation; housing assistance; food and nutrition assistance; and some other stuff (e.g. TANF, child care, foster and adoption services, supplemental security income).

Why don't caregivers get Social Security?

I'm reading Riane Eisler's "The Real Wealth of Nations"; the idea of "Creating a Caring Economics" caught my eye when I saw it in the new books section of the Jones Library.

So far, I'm underwhelmed. She seems to cite all the same doom-and-gloom statistics I've seen other liberal-leaning people cite, like:

+ US lags in child mortality. But that's probably because of the way child mortality is measured (stillborn and premature babies are counted in the US stats, I've seen claims that other countries do not count those in their child mortality stats), not because our pediatricians suck.

+ Wages for working-class people have been going down. True, but total compensation (wages+benefits) have been going up. Health care costs are skyrocketing, mainly because the market for health care is screwed up (most people don't pay directly for their health care, so most people overconsume health care).

... and so forth.

She does ask a very good question, though: if you spend your whole life homeschooling your kids or (maybe) taking care of a sick/elderly relative, why isn't all that hard work valued when it comes to Social Security? You don't get any Social Security benefits unless you've had a traditional job with a paycheck.

Why doesn't our social safety net value the work caregivers do?

I haven't yet read how she thinks we could fix this problem. People who homeschool their kids save the rest of us a bunch of money; giving them Social Security credits makes sense to me. Ditto for people who take care of old/sick relatives who would otherwise cost the Medicare/Medicaid programs lots of money.

Maybe we should give tax credits to encourage these kinds of caregiving. A $5,000 per year tax credit, along with Social Security benefits, for homeschooling your kids would probably encourage lots more homeschooling, with corresponding savings in public school budgets.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Recycling. Aluminum: good. Glass: bad.

I'm listening to a couple of economists talk about recycling. The conversation was humorous and entertaining, and I found two bits of it really interesting:

First, a prediction by Prof. Munger that in 100 years we will see strip-mining of old landfills to recover plastic (which we'll burn to produce energy, since oil will be very expensive by then). I agree; I think old landfills will be a great very-long-term investment, there's all sorts of good stuff in there that is currently too expensive to recover and reuse. But in 100 years, I bet we'll have the technology to efficiently extract all sorts of valuable stuff from old garbage dumps (if the history nuts will let us; maybe they'll all be declared "archeologically valuable" and put off-limits).

Second, insights into the "recycling religion." Some environmentalists put an essentially infinite value on "Virgin Mother Earth." It doesn't matter what the cost is to recycle (of human time, energy, water, ...), in their view it is ALWAYS worth it to recycle rather than "take precious, irreplaceable resources from Mother Earth." Recycling has become Religion, and we're judged by our neighbors if we don't go along with the Holy Rites and put our bright blue and red containers by the curb with our trash.

News flash: paper comes from trees that are grown for that purpose, just like we grow wheat to make bread. Glass comes from sand. Sand comes from rocks. And rocks are being created all the time.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Right back at ya, Rudy

Rudy Giuliani sent me a letter today. He wants me to send him money, because (he says) I'll be safer from the Terrorists if he's President.

Here's my response:

Thanks for paying the postage, Rudy!

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Don't worry, your kids are safe

We went car-camping in Arlington, Vermont this past weekend, and somehow the topic of child abductions came up. It was the first time I'd heard the urban legend about a child being nearly abducted at Disney World (and the first time I'd heard an urban legend recounted as "this happened to a friend of mine...").

I knew that child abductions are waaaaay down the list of things I should worry about; the kinds of abductions that make headlines are very rare. I was curious to see what I should be worried about as a parent of two kids (who are 5 and 7 years old), and some google searching led me to the CDC Health Data for All Ages Child and Adolescent Mortality by cause.

And the answer is: I'd have to be pretty darn unlucky for my white, northeastern kids to get killed by anything in the next few years. Here's the data from 2002-2004; look at the 5-9 year old column:

Only 251 kids aged 5-9 died per year in the Northeast between 2002 and 2004. That's out of a total of 2.3 million kids that old in the Northeast (that 2.3 million number's not in the above table, you'd have to go to the website and play with the live version to see).

4 per year were murdered. Twice as many kids aged 5-9 died of heart disease in that time period! And only 10 TOTAL non-hispanic white, Northeastern kids died of asthma (go figure, I woulda thought that number would be much higher).

It's tragic when any child dies, but I find these cold, hard statistics comforting. On average, the statistics say that about 1 child aged 1-17 will die from ANY cause in Amherst each year. Our kids are much safer than we are; mortality rates for adults (even 18-34 year old adults) are much higher than for kids.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Fight Evil or Do Good

From John McCarthy, on ideology:
For many politically active people, perhaps most, fighting evil is perceived as more important than doing good.

That's probably just another way of looking at the libertarian/statist axis of political thought, since both lefties and righties like to (irrationally, in my opinion) Fight Against Evil. It's just Evil Corporations for the lefties, and Evil Terrorists (used to be Evil Communists) for the righties.

What is it about computer geeks?

I ran across two other computer geeks with very interesting ideas today on my daily wandering around the Internet.

Robin Hanson is a former computer geek who's now an economics geek. He's a polymath with lots of interesting ideas about lots of things-- his ideas on health and medicine will keep me thinking for quite a while.

Then there's John McCarthy, a retired computer science professor at Stanford who has lots of information about why human progress is sustainable. I've written before that I'm optimistic about the future; I think I'm being rational about that, but maybe it's just the computer geek in me that makes me think the way I do.

What is it about computer geeks that makes us think we're more rational about social problems than people who were History and Sociology and Politics majors? Good computer geeks have lots of problem-solving skills; we're good at taking a big, hairy problem, then applying logic and reason to figure out:
a) what's causing the problem
b) what's not causing the problem
c) how we can fix the problem without causing further problems.
We even have a name for this: "debugging"

Good computer geeks also have the ability to create generic solutions to a set of specific problems, and to figure out how to "scale up" a solution that works for 10 people so it will work for 10,000,000 people. Is it rational to believe that those skills might apply to real-world problems, too?

There is at least one ginormous difference between computers and the real world-- computer geeks are, quite literally, gods over their computers, making them do just about whatever we want them to do. Maybe this god-like power we have over computers has gone to our heads, and we're fooling ourselves that we might be able to invent better political, economic, and social institutions than currently exist.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Does the Scientific Method apply to Politics?

I'm a Skeptic. If you want to convince me of something, show me logic, or numbers, or a double-blind, placebo-controlled scientific study. Anecdotes or arguments that appeal to emotion are entertaining, but, to me, never convincing.

I've been reading and listening to a lot of progressive media lately, and the skeptic in me has been wondering if it's even possible to apply the scientific method to political questions. I think it is possible. Take Venezuela and Hugo Chávez, for example:

1. Develop a hypothesis: "modern socialism" works-- it makes the ordinary citizen healthier and wealthier.

2. Design an experiment to test the hypothesis: measure economic growth in Venezuela, factoring out external forces (like the price of oil). This is the tough part...

3. Run the experiment, and see if the results confirm the hypothesis or not.

I'd like to see more discussion between lefties and righties on what their fundamental political hypotheses are, and see if they can agree on ways of measuring whether or not those hypotheses are correct.

Of course, even if lefties and righties agree on steps 1 and 2, they can always endlessly argues about (3), arguing that real-world factors make the experiment invalid. Most people agree that Communism is a failed economic ideology, but die-hard Communists will argue that it failed in Russia and China only because the governments there did not apply the principles properly, or were corrupt, or....

I predict that Venezuela's economy will be a shambles when Pres. Chávez leaves office. I believe that it's extraordinary growth over the last few years is due entirely to the rise in the price of oil, and has very little to do with the socialist policies of the government1. Resource-rich countries tend to be cursed with rampant corruption in huge State bureaucracies, and I predict that Venezuela will be no different.

1 Spending oil money on education for everybody is a great idea, and a good long-term investment in a country's future. But I don't think it will be enough to overcome the negative effects of Chávez' other socialist economic policies.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Blog-reading 101

I'm a Google-head. Over the last couple of years I've been switching from PC-based applications to Web-based applications. I used to use Eudora for email, now I use Gmail. I need a spreadsheet once in a blue moon, so I now use Google Documents instead of Excel. I use Google Bookmarks to keep track of web pages I like, and so on. I use two different Macs and one PC on any given day, and keeping most of my "stuff" on Google's servers is darn convenient.

My home page is the Google Personalized Home Page, aka iGoogle. I read about 30 different blogs, and use iGoogle's tabs to organize and keep track of them; for example, the "Amherst" tab looks like this:

A neat feature: I can share all the stuff in a tab by clicking on the little triangle in the tab and choosing "Share this tab." If you've got an iGoogle home page, follow this link and you'll be asked which of my favorite Amherst blogs you'd like to add to your iGoogle page.

I do have one criticism of iGoogle-- they make it downright tricky to subscribe to a blog when you have a link to the blog's RSS feed. You have to poke the "Add Stuff" link, then the teeny-tiny "Add by URL" link on the Add Stuff page. Easy when you know how, but it took me a while to figure out that it was even possible to add blog entries to my Google home page.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Bang for buck

The steam pipe explosion in Manhattan got me to thinking about the War on Terror.

Are we spending money on the right risks? The explosion yesterday was essentially an accidental "dirty bomb"-- blasting asbestos into the air instead of radiation.

I'm a firm believer that the best way to figure out what's important and what's not is to let the People decide. Create a free market, and let people spend money on what's important to them. But in the case of public infrastructure blowing up and killing people, or terrorists intentionally blowing things up, it's not clear how to do that.

Most people aren't very good at estimating risks. But there are experts who consider costs versus risks for a living; they work for insurance companies.

Should New York City spend more money inspecting steam pipes or inspecting people's bags in subways? I have no idea. But if I was King of New York, I'd buy insurance coverage for all man-made and natural disasters, and then let my insurance companies tell me how my policy decisions would affect my insurance premiums.

If I put my cynical hat on: this'll never happen. Politicians love to head directly to disaster sites, look tough, and talk tough about how they'll protect us from something like this happening in the future by blah blah blah. Then they can fund their pet projects and screw over the victims of the disaster (because I'd bet a dollar that the city has Sovereign Immunity in this case).

Monday, July 16, 2007

I may have to vote... Republican?!?!

More procrastination today. This time, watching Ron Paul at Google:

It's so nice to hear a candidate for president talking about principles, and concrete proposals for change. If he gets the Republican nomination (and nobody who knows anything about the nomination process thinks he will), then I think I'll have to vote for him, even though I have the following misgivings:

I think he's wrong about Global Warming (see his answer to a question at around minute 38 of the video). I think there is a true market failure when it comes to global environmental issues. I think it makes sense to try to quantify the imbalance we're causing in carbon emissions, and then impose some kind of carbon tax, with the money going directly towards research, development, and/or deployment of carbon sequestration technologies. That said, I have almost zero faith that our current political system could possibly create a rational, effective system for fighting global warming that wouldn't degenerate into Yet Another "corporate welfare" system like our current agricultural price support system.

I'm also skeptical that he'd be able to actually get things done; I have a feeling our Senators and Representatives will not appreciate him vetoing every single pork-filled piece of legislation that they send to him to sign, and I have a feeling President Paul wouldn't suddenly be willing to compromise his principles if he found himself in the Oval Office. Maybe 4 years of total legislative gridlock in Washington DC would show us that we don't really need the Federal Government as much as we think we do. In any case, it would be a very interesting experiment!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Productive Procrastination: RailTrail map

I went for a ride on the Norwottuck Rail Trail this morning, and when I got home I was inspired to play with Google Maps "create your own map" feature to create an interactive map of the rail trail. I'm impressed with Google; after just a couple of minutes, I figured out the user interface and it was pretty darn easy to use.

Now I'm going to ask Mary Carey and the folks at the Norwottuck Rail Trail Online if it's OK that I "deep linked" to their images of the rail trail... (I did give them credit and the image descriptions link back to their sites).

Tuesday, July 10, 2007


According to the Daily Hampshire Gazette, three local Amherst businesses had counterfeit, possibly dangerous, toothpaste on their shelves.

But we don't get to know which three businesses. The Health department is worried that revealing that information might hurt those local businesses.

Well, duh! That's how a free market is supposed to work. If you screw up, you get punished by the market.

Yes, it may not be the local business' fault. But it's their responsibility to make sure that the products they sell are safe. If they sell an unsafe product unwittingly because their distributor defrauded them, and they're financially damaged as a result, then they should be able to sue their distributor for fraud.

If there's no punishment for screwing up, then businesses have no motivation to do better.

Update, 11 July: Sanity reigns, and the names of the stores are released (Amherst MiniMart on College Street and Amherst Grocery on Main Street).