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.