Thursday, January 31, 2008

I'm overconfident

I just finished reading SuperCrunchers, by Ian Ayres, and the big lesson I took away from it was that we're all more confident in our opinions than we should be.

There's a little 10-question quiz in the book, with questions like "what's the unloaded weight of a 747 airplane" and "how old was Martin Luther King, Jr. when he died." You're supposed to give a range of answers large enough that you're 90% certain that the right answer is in that range. 90% confidence on 10 questions means you should get 9 out of 10 correct. You can take the quiz online here to see how you do.

I got 3 out of 10, and I thought I was over-estimating the ranges. Shows you how much I know!

One of the points of SuperCrunchers is that experts are just like the rest of us-- they're overconfident, too. That's why mutual fund managers generally don't beat the stock market indexes, why we're in a stupid war in Iraq, and why medical errors kill so many people every year.

And that's part of why I'm mostly a libertarian. If I screw up and make a mistake because I'm overconfident the consequences aren't dire. When the government screws up and decides to subsidize ethanol production... people in Haiti resort to eating mud cookies because they can't afford to buy corn.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

What they WANT people to want...

One section of the 1973 Select Committee on Goals' report is the results of questionnaires sent to Amherst residents and Amherst Town Meeting members. Hindsight is always 20/20, but it seems like some of the failures of the SCOG plan could have been predicted by the results of the questionnaire. For example, here's the results for one of the questions about housing:
What type of housing would you prefer?
78% single-family house
9% apartment
5% 2-4 family unit
2% mobile home
And here's another:
If you are dissatisfied with your present housing, indicate the four most important reasons.
14% too little space
9% noise
9% traffic
8% inadequate facilities
8% too close to neighbors
8% garage lacking or too small
7% physical condition of unit
6% too few bedrooms
6% too small yard
3% dislike neighbors/lack similar interests
3% too far from shopping facilities
3% too far from bus stop
2% lack of activity in neighborhood
2% too far from recreation facilities
1% too much space
1% too distant from public facilities
1% too far from place of employment
.25% too far from neighbors
So, people back then wanted bigger single-family houses on quiet streets, on a bigger lot, with a bigger garage. That's basically the opposite of the "higher density Village Centers surrounded by open space" vision laid out in the SCOG plan.

We're about to make the same mistake again. I bet most people in Amherst still want bigger, new houses on bigger lots on quiet streets, but Town Meeting will continue trying, and failing, to get people to want smaller houses on smaller lots close to Village Centers...

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Select Committee on Goals

I went back to the Jones Library a few weeks ago and read the "Select Committee on Goals (SCOG)" -- the planning document that (I'm told) Amherst has been roughly following for the last 35 years. It replaced the "Downe Comprehensive Plan" of 1969 (which I wrote about last month).

Reading the two documents, I can see why the Downe plan was rejected-- it actually made lots of very specific recommendations, like "4,863 acres of open space." The SCOG plan is much fuzzier, with general goals like "more open space." It was produced by a committee, with lots of input from the public (sound familiar?)

So... how well did it work? Did Amherst meet the Select Committee's Goals? A few of the goals identified in the SCOG report are:

Primary Goal: Moderate Growth.
Grade: A.
Between 1960 and 1970, UMass more than tripled in size, and Amherst's population doubled. I gather that kind of freaked people out, and the reaction was to try to limit growth. If I was cynical, I'd say that the SCOG plans had no effect at all on growth-- that UMass stopped growing fast, so Amherst did, too. But I'll give the SCOG the benefit of the doubt-- population growth did slow during the 70's, slowed more in the 80's, and Amherst's population actually declined in the 90's (by about 1%).

Goal: Create Village Centers
Grade: D

The idea of a Village Center (as explained in both the Downe and SCOG plans) is to have a concentration of small businesses, schools, and houses, all within walking distance of each other. Amherst has had 30 years to develop village centers... and developing village centers is still a goal. Ok, on this one I am cynical. The only real village center that Amherst has is the downtown business district (which I like a lot!). Which brings me to:

Goal: Revitalize the Downtown Business District
Grade: C

I like Amherst's downtown a lot, but I'd like it even more if it had a hardware store, a real grocery store, and a place where I could buy a pair of jeans.

Goal: Set aside open space, preserve historic stuff
Grade: A

We've got over eight times as much open space set aside as we did in 1970, and we now have a special tax for open space and historical preservation. Maybe it's time to start talking about doing a better job of taking care of what we have, instead of acquiring more and more...

Goal: Redevelop land between UMass and Downtown
Grade: F

The idea was to extend downtown towards UMass, so all the students living there could easily walk to shopping. Instead, they all take the bus or drive to the malls in Hadley. Ah well, maybe there will be some creative thinking about this part of Town as we think about what to do with Kendrick Park.

Goal: Improve Traffic
Grade: D-

The SCOG had a six-point plan for how to improve the traffic situation in Town:
A. Limit Growth (achieved!)
B. Develop Village Centers (failed)
C. Improve the Central Business District by implementing the 1969 traffic plan (failed)
D. Discourage families from getting 2nd/3rd cars, and discourage college students from brining cars to campus (failed)
E. No high-speed 'trunk' highways through town (succeeded-- but didn't this "success" make traffic worse?)
F. Public transit to apartments and village centers (mixed success, I'd say)

Before reading these old planning documents, I was very skeptical about them. I tend to believe that people will do what they want to do, and if your Master Plan dictates that they do something that they don't want to do... well, your Master Plan will be ignored.

After reading the old Plans, I'm a little less skeptical. Some things can be planned and directed; we can spend money buying land and putting it aside for Open Space, and we can discourage population growth (a moratorium on new apartment construction and a suspension of new sewer/water permits were proposed back in 1973, for example). We might even be able to encourage growth, but we should recognize that any Grand Plans about exactly where, and what type, of growth we get are likely to be just as successful as the Grand Plans we've had in the past.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Feeling virtuous on vacation

Maho Bay Camps on St John (one of the US Virgin Islands) is an "Eco-Resort." We stayed there last week, and mostly had a fantastic time. Highlights were:

Watching two big iguanas crawl around in the trees above our tent cabin.

Snorkeling and building sand castles on the beach; seeing a sea turtle and a really big (sting? manta?) ray.

Watching glass-blowing after dinner.

No jet-skis, no drunken college students, no people selling drugs or tourist knick-knacks on the beach.

We were itchy from bug-bites, and the beds weren't super comfortable, and the tent cabin felt cramped and small at times, the people who stay and work there are pretty much uniformly white, privileged folk from the US and Europe, and I never did get used to the lack of hot showers, but, overall, it was very nice. We didn't mind carrying our own drinking water, or walking up and down scores of steps to get to the beach, or strolling to the toilet, flashlight in hand in the middle of the night.

While I was there, I kept thinking about the notion of "eco-tourism." Does it really make sense to fly thousands of miles and spend thousands of dollars going to an environmentally-more-friendly eco-resort? I haven't bothered to work out how much CO2 our trip there and back released into the atomosphere (6 hours of car/taxi rides, about 9 hours of plane flights, and 2 hours of ferry boat rides), but that part can't have been good for the environment.

Should I feel virtuous because we took cold showers and stayed in tents with hermit crabs, geckos, chickens and iguanas living under them?

Or should I feel guilty for spending money on a vacation instead of donating it to a charity dedicated to saving the environment?

Perhaps the starkest example of the contradictions inherent in the Maho Bay style of "eco-tourism" was one night at dinner, where one of the main dishes was Prince Edward Island mussels. We went all the way from Massachusetts to the Virgin Islands to eat mussels from Canada????

Hmm. I've been thinking a lot lately about luxury versus charity; how do we figure out what luxuries we "deserve," or how do we figure out what luxuries we should sacrifice to help make the world a better place?

Saturday, January 19, 2008

NO2 and biofuels

A couple of months ago I predicted:
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.
A few days ago the British Royal Society released a report that says we don't really know whether or not biofuels are a good idea or not.

I'd started this blog posting as a "nyah-nyah, told ya so" -- another blog I read had cherry-picked a couple of facts from the report to bash biofuels (like the fact that nobody's sure whether or not fertilizing the crops used to make biofuels releases enough nitrous oxide into the atmosphere to cause more global warming than would be caused by just burning coal or oil and releasing CO2; nitrous oxide is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2...)

But then I actually tracked down and read the report, and it basically says that policy makers screwed up by requiring that a certain amount of biofuels be used by a certain date. Like here in Massachusetts, where Thou Shalt Use 10% Ethanol In Thine Gasoline (it's a state law, if I recall correctly). You'd think maybe they'd learned their lesson with the MTBE fiasco.

The problem is that if you just mandate a requirement like "X% of your gasoline must be biofuels" then the biofuel manufacturers have absolutely no incentive to make their biofuels environmentally friendly. There's no incentive to do research and development into biofuels that don't require lots of nitrogen fertilizer, not to mention no opportunity to weigh the environmental costs of biofuels versus other energy technologies.

It would be much better policy to simply tax or cap all greenhouse gas emissions (CO2, NO2, and any others that have a significant effect), tax or cap any other pollution produced by the various energy technologies, and then let the Market do what it's good at-- innovate to lower costs and compete to provide the highest-quality, lowest cost product.
Update: The ICSU thinks biofuels are bad, too.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

I was irresponsible

If, before you do something, you think to yourself: "This is irresponsible of me, but I'm going to do it anyway." -- does that really count as being irresponsible?

Irresponsible act #1: I signed a petition to put ending the Massachusetts state income tax on the ballot.

In my defense, I have tried to understand the state budget. I sent this email to my state representative on October 23'rd:

... but received no response. Maybe her spam filter ate it, or maybe she doesn't answer email. I'll try printing it out and snail-mailing it to her office.

I gotta say, I'm a little miffed at the Massachusetts Teacher's Association. I got a telephone call from a telemarketing firm (hired by the MTA, apparently) asking me if I REALLY and TRULY meant to sign the petition, and if I understood what I was signing. I'm on the state "Do Not Call" list, but I suppose bugging me about signing a petition doesn't count as "marketing."

Irresponsible act #2: I gave money to the Ron Paul for President campaign on the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party.

I'm torn between thinking "we need a really good, rational president who will make the right compromises and get the country headed in the right direction" and thinking "exactly who becomes president doesn't really matter-- what we really need are fixes to our system of government so it can't help but get better over time, no matter who tries to screw it up."

Giving money to Ron Paul was my way of saying "It's the system, stupid."

Irresponsible act #3: I ate Dragon Fries for lunch one day at Pete's. Fake cheese and greasy chili and fried potatoes.... If only they used organic local cheddar, Hadley potatoes, and hormone-free beef then I could at least pretend to be virtuous while clogging my arteries.
UPDATE, 19 Jan: I sent the same email to Stan Rosenberg, my state Senator, and received a reply three hours later. On a SATURDAY. I'm impressed, even though I'm not super happy with the answer I received-- basically, it looks like there is NOT a good, user-friendly summary of the State budget available anywhere.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

"Only" a Theory

There aught to be a marketing firm for Science. If there was, I think the first thing they'd suggest is that scientists stop using the word "theory" -- as in "the Theory of Evolution," or "the Germ Theory of Disease," or "the Theory of Continental Drift."

Most people hear the word "theory" and think it's a synonym for "opinion." 9/11 conspiracy nuts have theories about how the Illuminati flew holographic airplanes into buildings that they had packed with explosives, and those wacky scientists have their theories on how monkeys evolved into self-deluded, paranoid 9/11 conspiracy nuts. Right?

Nope. The Truthers have a bunch of hypotheses. They'd be on their way to having a scientific theory if they made testable predictions based on their hunches, and then performed carefully controlled and independently reviewed experiments that showed what was predicted. Then they'd have to wait at least a couple of decades to let other people try to disprove or validate their results (or for other people to come up with alternative hypotheses to explain them).

It's hopeless to train people to say "I have a hypothesis on why the cat is barfing on the sofa" rather than "I have a theory..." Science should come up with another word; "Scientific Law" doesn't work (laws are abitrary human-made ideas, changed at the whim of our lawmakers). A word that means "something that is as close to correct as we can figure out, given our current level of understanding of how the world works." Maybe "Reality:"

The Reality of Continental Drift. The Germ Reality of Disease. The Reality of Evolution. Hmm, maybe there's a reason I'm a computer geek and not in marketing...