Thursday, December 30, 2010

Half-wrong, half-right, or just half-wit?

I made 10 predictions at the beginning of the year:
  1. The Democrats will lose 7 or 8 seats in the Senate in the November 2010 election. FAIL
  2. There will be a kerfuffle when images supposedly from airport backskatter X-ray machines are leaked to the Internet. Score
  3. A Schleck will win the Tour De France. FAIL
  4. The president will sign a Cash for Caulkers bill. FAIL
  5. More than 100 banks will fail in the US. Score
  6. General Motors will sell fewer cars than they sold in 2009. FAIL
  7. Ford and Toyota will sell more cars than they sold in 2009. Score
  8. We'll have a white Christmas. FAIL
  9. Spring Town Meeting will last 5 or fewer nights. Score
  10. Amherst will pass an override. Score

I said I thought each of them had a greater than 50% chance of happening.  I got 50% correct.  Oops.

What lessons I should draw from my failures, besides the general fact that I'm overconfident?

I'm a programmer, so I should expect to make off-by-one errors.  The Democrats only lost 6 seats. 

I should avoid making predictions about sports.  So even though I think the Patriots are going to win the Super Bowl, I shouldn't predict that they're going to win.  But they are.  But I'm not predicting that.  Just so you know.

I don't know lesson to learn from my 'cash for caulkers' FAIL -- maybe that predicting what legislation will catch the fancy of our congress-critters is hopeless?  Two weeks ago I would have predicted that there was almost no chance Don't Ask Don't Tell would be repealed.

I should trust large organizations more; GM and Chrysler were not horribly mismanaged after being bought by Uncle Sam.

And I've lived here long enough to know that trying to predict New England weather is just plain dumb.

But I've learned my lesson, and I'm 100% positive that my 2011 predictions will be brilliant, insightful, and accurate-- guaranteed, or double your money back!

Friday, December 17, 2010

A Charlie Brown Christmas (tree)

We're hosting Christmas for Michele's siblings; this is an email she sent them a couple of days ago.

Ok so I learned something this year.  Don't pick out a tree during a torrential rain storm.
The only day we had enough time to get a tree and set it up was last Sunday.  So even though it was raining -- off we went.

Well the heavens pretty much opened up the moment we arrived at the tree lot. Fine.  "We won't melt" Robin declared.  Fine.  Now I'm shamed into being a trooper by my 10 year old.   Except she has a hood and I cleverly forgot a hat. 

So off we went up and down the aisles of trees in the pouring rain.  You know what?  In the pouring cold rain all trees pretty much look the same.  So when you've forgotten a rain hat you tend to make the tree picking out process go as quickly as possible.  Robin's one constraint was that the tree be nice and bushy, so you can't see the trunk.

Upon spotting the first bushy tree
"That one looks good" says me
"OOoo" says Will (for the record he said this about every tree)
"This one is nice and bushy" says Robin
"Ok look there is daddy coming back from the ATM, let's get this one" says me as I scurry to the boy scout hut. 

The boy scouts were not out in the lot selling the trees and assisting in the customers' decision making as they normally do.  No. They were smart. They were in the boy scout hut huddled next to the wood burning stove.  Our declaration to the scouts that we'd picked out our tree was not met with joy over another sales, the benefits of which would go into the smore fund for the summer's camping adventure.  No, I believed that one of them actually groaned.  You see they were obligated carry the tree to our car and secure it to the roof with twine. 

Skip ahead a few hours.  We put the tree in the garage to 'dry' off a bit and now Gavin has carried it into the house and to the living room.  He is positioning it while I turn the dang little screws on the stand to secure the tree.

One screw isn't meeting resistance. 

me: "Gavin. There is a hole in this tree."
Gavin: "A hole?"
me: "yeah part of the trunk is rotted or something"
Gavin "well let's turn it 45˚ so the screw can bite into wood"  <-- a problem solver that Gavin!

We did and the stand is stable but the hole is still there.  And... the tree dropped two dustpans' worth of needles within a few hours.  I've never seen so much debris from a fresh tree.   Then I noticed several dead branches.  Also, if you touch the back side of the tree the needles readily fall.

No, we are not getting another tree.  This one will just have to tough it out.  We've got the lights up and the decorations and no one is to touch the back side of the tree.

And so you are all welcome for Christmas but don't make fun of our tree.  It looks fine.  It is doing its job of holding up lights and ornaments. A tree doesn't need needles to do hold up lights and ornaments, just branches.  Our tree has branches....

So don't make fun of our Christmas tree.
It isn't half dead it is..... health impaired.


Friday, November 12, 2010

Fall Town Meeting : done in two!

We bravely forged ahead Wednesday night, and finished Fall Town Meeting in two nights.

I did something I usually don't do at Town Meeting-- I voted for a symbolic, advisory, "we the people of the Town" national-policy-interfering warrant article.

Yup, I voted to "Bring our War Dollars Home."   The rational side of me says I should have done what I usually do-- abstain, because I don't think national political issues belong at Town Meeting.

But I'm really pissed off at how much money the United States spends on the military in general and wars, and troops, overseas in particular.  If you look at polls of unpopular government spending, "foreign aid" is always near the top of the list.  And if you think about it, most of the military budget is really foreign aid, "defending" countries that are perfectly capable of defending themselves.

So, since I'm really pissed off, and since the warrant article specifically related national military spending to the Town's budget... I voted with my heart.

The only other controversial article this time around was Article 8, which tried to make some concrete changes to our zoning laws so developers are given incentives to do what the new Master Plan says people in Amherst want (and disincentives if they don't).

I hated it when I first saw it.  16 pages of new zoning regulations... bleuch!

But then I read it, and couldn't find a single thing in it that seems like a bad idea.  And the general approach is exactly the right idea-- encourage more of what we want (affordable housing, infill development, environmentally and historically sensitive development, etc) and discourage what we don't (McMansion subdivisions sprawling into open space).

Most of Town Meeting also thought it was a good idea, too... but it failed to get the required two-thirds by ten votes.  The BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone) minority defeated it.

I hope a modified version comes back before Town Meeting.  It would be tragic if the current Master Plan suffers the same fate as our last master plan (the Select Committe on Goals, which I wrote about a couple of years ago), and we continue with "business as usual" for another 40 years.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Licensed to Burn!

I was hoping for something wallet-size.  And I guess they overestimated the demand for these when they had them printed back in 19-something... but I am glad they're saving trees and money by using up the old forms and just crossing out the nineteens.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

This is Why Amherst has a Reputation...

We're having a wood stove installed in our house, and because I'm a Good Gumby, I'm jumping through the Official Rules and Regulations that Keep Us Safe.

So I read up on wood stoves on the Town website, and find out I need to pass a "Woodburning Device Operator Examination" from the Amherst Board of Health.

I have an embarrassing confession: several years ago I operated a woodburning device without being properly licensed (our house on Butterfield Terrace had a wonderful German ceramic woodstove). I should've been fined $50 the first time I did it and $200 every other time.

That'll teach me. I've read the Town Bylaws (well, except the Zoning Bylaws, I'm not that big a masochist). I guess I was supposed to read all the Health Board Regulations, too ("ignorance of the law is no excuse", after all).

Anyway, the Woodburning Device Operator Examination is open-book multiple choice, and I expect I'll be properly licensed soon.

What really prompts me to write this is my experience trying to get a permit for the woodstove from the inspections department. Two weeks ago I sent them an email asking what I needed to do... no reply ("we're switching email systems and haven't fully converted everything yet...").

So on Friday I walk in and ask what I need to do. I'm given a form with the sections I need to fill out helpfully highlighted and am told to fill it out and come back with a check for $30.

Which I do on Tuesday. Which is when I'm told that the form isn't enough, they need to know all the manufacturer clearances and dimensions and how tall the stovepipe and what the heat-shields on the wall will be made out of and so on. And I shouldn't really be filling out the permit application, my contractor should be. But I can if I really want to and am willing to be a daredevil risk-taker.

I have an idea: lets get rid of Town inspections. My insurance company has the right incentives-- it doesn't want my house to burn down, but it also wants to keep me as a happy customer. Let insurance companies inspect wood stove installations. If they don't answer their email and then give me the runaround I can fire them and hire their competition.

And maybe they'd offer a discount on my insurance for taking their version of the Woodburning Operators Examination.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

S.A.F.E. statistics

So I get this letter sent home in Robin's backpack:
TO: Parents and/or Custodians of Fourth Grade STudents

The Amherst Fire Department, ... blah blah blah... will be presenting a fire safety awareness program to your child. This program is funded through a state grant knows as S.A.F.E. (Student Awareness of Fire Education).
OK... cool, I suppose. I don't like the cutesy government acronym, but that's just me being cynical. I would kind of like to know how much school time was going to be spent (hours? days?) on Fire Education and the letter doesn't tell me that, but OK.

Then they push several of my pet peeve buttons:
Please consider the following tragic statistics:
  1. Nearly 10% of the 52 fire deaths in Massachusetts in 2005 were children unde r the age of 18.
  2. 75% of fire victims died in the so-called safety of their own homes.
  3. Nearly one-quarter of these deaths occurred in homes with no working smoke detectors.
  4. Unsafe disposal of smoking materials was the leading cause of residential fire fatalities in 2005, just as it is every year
"Nearly 10% of 52?" Why not just say "5 kids were killed in fires in 2005"? Even better, how about telling me how many kids were killed last year, or maybe the average number of kids killed over the last 5 years? Was 2005 a really bad year for fires?

I guess these statistics are supposed to make me appreciate the importance of Fire Awareness Education, but I'd summarize them as: A handful of kids die in fires in Massachusetts every year, mostly because some parents are careless with their cigarettes.

We don't smoke and our house has working, hard-wired smoke detectors on every floor. Phew, looks like there's approximately a 0% chance we'll have a house fire.

Fewer people are killed in fires these days than ever before-- maybe because of programs like S.A.F.E. But I doubt it; I bet if I dug out the long-term trends of number-of-kids-killed-in-fires in states with programs like S.A.F.E. versus states without student fire education programs I'd see exactly the same trends.

But what's the harm? S.A.F.E. only costs about a million dollars a year, if it saves just one life every few years it is worth it.

Then again, if it distracts parents from the real risks to their kids maybe it is doing more harm than good.

Friday, July 02, 2010

I love the Internets, episode number 1,974,233

So this morning my task is to teach some C++ code how to POST information to a website. Writing the code is pretty easy, but I need a way of testing it.

I need a website that just shows information POSTed to it.

I could write a web page that did that, but it would probably take me an hour to get it all setup and debugged. But somebody must have done it before, right? I know there are "paste-bin" services where you can throw up arbitrary information that other people can get to later. I want a "POST bin".

Google: postbin

First result:

Ahhh.... geeky heaven. I love the Internets.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Money, Broken

Last Friday I saw The Money Fix and heard about Valley Time Trade-- a "time bank" in Northampton. You can pay a small yearly membership fee, spend a little bit of time being interviewed and trained to use some facilitating software, and then can sell and buy "time dollars" by working for, or hiring, other time bank members.

They seem like incredibly nice, earnest, caring, enthusiastic people. So it makes me sad to say it, but I think their project is doomed.

Maybe I'm just a big cynical meanie who doesn't see that the Time Bank will foster mutual respect, increase community interaction and connect people with unmet needs to people with untapped resources.

But I think I'm a realist who has looked hard at how economics really works, and I think there are two really fundamental lessons of economics:
  1. Incentives Matter
  2. Productivity Matters
Valley Time Trade ignores both of those lessons.

On incentives: Valley Time Trade is a "mutual credit system." Everybody starts out with a zero balance, and if I do work for you I get credit and you get a debit that you're supposed to work off at some point in the future, for me or somebody else. The Time Trading Adminstrators keep track of everything, and talk to people to try to get them from either hoarding credits or running up huge debits.

I think that will work really well on a small scale, but will eventually fail. People leaving the system (moving to another state, perhaps) have a natural incentive to leave with a zero or negative balance. Peer pressure and a sense of social obligation will keep that from happening when everybody in the system knows and trusts each other, but eventually that trust will break down. This is the same reason communes and other utopian organizations typically fail after a few years.

On productivity: Time Trade systems assume that any hour of work is the same as any other hour of work. One of their goals is to: "Promote equality, recognizing that all services are necessary to society and equally valuable."

Bullshit. They don't really believe that. I certainly don't believe that soldiers providing me the "service" of keeping me safe from terrorism by bombing the crap out of some foreign country is necessary or valuable.

And they don't really believe that an hour's worth of open heart surgery is as necessary and valuable as an hour's worth of lawn mowing by a ten-year-old kid.

Some people are more productive than others because they're smarter or stronger or have invested a lot of time and effort to learn how to do something. Money is society's way of telling you whether or not you're doing something useful.

Take away that price signal and you'll eventually end up with people doing as little as possible to get by. North Korea is one of the poorest countries on earth because people there are not rewarded for extra effort.

Again, peer pressure and the warm fuzzies from doing nice things for your neighbors will keep Valley Time Trade going for a few years. But eventually there will be a few assholes who exploit it by getting the most valuable services that they can but giving just enough to get by. Which will make the people giving those valuable services a little bit resentful, so maybe they decide to stop giving those valuable, in-demand services and give something else, instead.

The average commune lasts about 10 years. I bet the average Time Bank will last about half that.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Money, Fixed

I'm happiest when I'm working on One Big Thing. I think I've found my next Big Thing, and I'm excited!

Bitcoin is a new kind of money that fixes a bunch of bugs in the old-fashioned money you have in your bank account and your wallet.

Getting excited about a new kind of money is kind of crazy. You're probably thinking I've been brainwashed by the loony wing of Tea Party that believes that the Federal Reserve was illegally created and that we should go back to a solid currency backed by gold stored in Fort Knox. Or that I've drunk the Rainbow Sunshine Kool-Aid of the loony wanna-be Socialists who think that local currencies are the answer to everybody's economic problems.

I'm excited because Bitcoin isn't a pie-in-the-sky theoretical idea for how to make a better currency. It is a working system that a few geeks (like me!) are already using and trying to break. It fixes these bugs in our current monetary systems:
  • It doesn't require trust in any central authority; there is no central bank or company or board of directors controlling the currency.
  • It is immune from long-term inflation, because it is designed so that only a limited number of Bitcoins will ever be created.
  • It is a global currency and, like the Internet, national borders are pretty much irrelevant in the Bitcoin world.
  • Because it is based on the best currently-known cryptography, it cannot be counterfeited.
Of course, it is possible there's some terrible, fundamental flaw in the Bitcoin system that nobody has thought of yet. I've been thinking about it really hard (and dissecting the C++ source code) for the last month or so and I can't see any flaws, but I know that time and experience are the only true test of any new system.

I'm already putting my Bitcoins where my mouth is, and have created a simple little website to get some experience with handling Bitcoins. The Bitcoin Faucet will give you 5 Bitcoins to play with.

For free.

Maybe I am crazy. What percentage of crazy people think they're sane?

Monday, June 07, 2010

Wax or Plastic?

It is more than twice as expensive to use wax paper sandwich bags than cheap, flimsy plastic bags.

I know this because a friend asked me to do a little research to try to figure out whether wax or plastic was better for the environment.

Well... wax-coated paper is probably better. Both paraffin wax and plastic are created in oil refineries, but paraffin is biodegradable; there are bacteria that can eat it. Polyethylene plastic isn't biodegradable (although it is theoretically recyclable, recycling it isn't economical or practical).

But is spending money on wax paper bags better for the environment compared to spending less money on plastic bags and spending the money you save on something else? 100 fold-top plastic bags cost under $2; 100 wax bags bags cost over $4.

So what if you used the plastic and then donated the $2 to the Nature Conservancy? Would the environmental benefit outweigh the cost of dumping those 100 plastic bags in a garbage dump?

I dug up the Nature Conservancy annual report, and just dividing their budget by the number of acres of land they were able to acquire last year works out to $1,400 per acre. So giving them the $2 you save by buying plastic lets them purchase and preserve 1/700'th of an acre of land, or about 60 square feet. I'm going to buy plastic and donate more.

Of course, maybe buying the plastic bags will make you less environmentally conscious, and you'll spend that $2 doing something environmentally unfriendly like. Or conversely, maybe buying the wax bags will make you more environmentally conscious.

Unfortunately, this research shows the opposite: effect, a green purchase licenses us to say “I’ve done my good deed for the day, and now I can focus on my own self-interest.” I gave at the office, I paid my dues, I did my share — that sort of thing.
So next time you go shopping, buy the cheapest non-organic non-environmentally-friendly option. Then feel guilty about it, and promise yourself that your penance will be writing a nice fat check to your favorite environmental charity.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Progressive Doom and Gloom

Last week the Pioneer Valley chapter of MassBike celebrated bike-to-work week by showing off a bunch of cool bikes and screening some cool videos at the Jones library.

One of the videos they showed was a compelling little video by Annie Leonard called The Story of Stuff.

"The Story of Stuff Project’s mission is to build a strong, diverse, decentralized, cross-sector movement to transform systems of production and consumption to serve ecological sustainability and social wellbeing."

I agree with their mission; who wouldn't? I even agree with their premise-- that parts of our current system are broken; we've got plenty of laws and regulations that harm the environment and create social ills-- and I agree with their conclusion: that we're overly obsessed with "stuff."

But... the video gives me the skeptical willies. I've seen enough propaganda videos to have a pretty good sense of when I'm being manipulated with cherry-picked facts and carefully worded half-truths that reinforce my pre-existing beliefs and fears.

For example, in the first minute of the video, the narrator claims that we're running out of resources-- "the truth is it’s a system in crisis. And the reason it is in crisis is that it is a linear system and we live on a finite planet and you can not run a linear system on a finite planet indefinitely."

Ummm, no, that's a straw-man argument. We're getting better and better at creating better and better things with the stuff we have. We're not going to run out of trees or atoms or electrons or ideas any time soon.

The capitalist materials production system adapts. It is not linear; price signals move up and down the production chain, creating feedback loops that make the whole thing wonderfully efficient at giving people what they want.

I'm with Russ Roberts; I think a lot of things people spend money on are dumb and wasteful and useless. I don't spend money on beanie-baby collectibles or fine art or fancy cars, and I think we'd all be better off if people spent less money on sports memorabilia and donated more to worthwhile charities.

But claiming that our consumerist culture is headed for a crisis because we're subjected to too much advertising or because we're not recycling more is wrong.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Electronic voting Luddite

After Town Meeting ended Monday night I stayed for a demonstration of an electronic voting system. The idea is that maybe investing some money in high-tech gadgets will make Amherst Town Meeting faster and will save the Town Clerk the work of recording the paper ballots we use for Tally votes.

That's a good idea, and I'm glad electronic voting is being considered. But like a lot of good ideas, I think it might be destroyed on the rocks of reality.

First, it took something like 20 minutes to get the electronic voting software up and running. Not a good start!

Once running, I thought the system was pretty darn spiffy, and easy to use. But a few people had trouble, and managed to be confused even after what I thought was a clear explanation of how the voting works (press the button to vote: your name on the screen changes color. Press an invalid button: your name turns yellow, otherwise it cycles
through a rainbow of colors every time you push.)

Once people understood it, it is extremely fast; we completed a test vote in 30 seconds.

If the system was going to be used for dozens of votes per year, then the costs might justify the benefits. The first one or two TM sessions would likely be chaotic as people are trained or re-trained on how to use the clickers, but after using them a few times I think people would figure them out.

If it's used to just to replace Tally/Standing votes, then I think it's a bad idea. We're more likely to spend more time fussing with the technology ("Point of Order: my battery is dead") and training new Town Meeting members how to use the clickers than the time saved. If I recall correctly, we had just one Tally vote and three (or was it two?) standing votes at the past Town Meeting.

And the up-front cost isn't trivial ($12,000-$22,000).

I was going to write about possible security concerns, but assuming all vote results would become public (just as tally votes are made public), I don't think that would be a problem. What WOULD be a problem is people accidentally pressing the wrong buttons on their clickers, and then suspecting that the system got hacked (or that there's a bug) when they see the vote results and their vote is the opposite of what they intended. With no paper trail, it will be impossible to know what happened, and it will take just a couple of incidents for people to lose confidence in the system.

So I guess I'm an electronic voting Luddite. Keep the paper ballots, and instead of spending more time on electronic voting spend some time figuring out how to make the sound system at Town Meeting better.

Real-time captioning would be wonderful, too-- that'd give us a transcript of the meeting, accessibility for the hearing impaired, and closed captioning for the ACTV broadcast...

Monday, May 17, 2010

To Solar or Not to Solar...

Last week Town Meeting approved giving Community Preservation Act money to Habitat for Humanity to help build affordable housing. $20,000 or so will go towards solar panels on the roof.

I've been tempted to install solar panels (either photovoltaic or hot-water or maybe both) on our roof, so the fact that Habitat decided it's a good idea caught my interest.

It is definitely a good idea for them; it is a very clever way of pre-paying the electricity bill for the lower-income homeowners. Pay $20,000 now in capital costs (which, because solar panels are "stuff" and not a "service", are eligible for all sorts of subsidies) and save the homeowners $X-thousand dollars in electricity bills over the next Y years. Even if it doesn't make economic sense (if the net-present-value of X is less than $20,000) it fits their charitable mission to make home ownership more affordable for lower-income folks and it gives their donors the warm fuzzies to know their money is building green houses.

I don't know if it is a good idea for me. Should I spend a bunch of money and install solar panels on my roof now? Lots of people who will tell me "Yes! Absolutely!" ... but they're either well-meaning-but-possibly-misguided environmentalists or companies that want me to pay them a bunch of money to do the installation. Maybe I'd pay $20,000 to a company who will go out of business in a year or three, and maybe the system I buy is obsolete or breaks in a year or three. Maybe I won't save as much in electricity costs as they claim because most of our electricity usage is at night.

Maybe I'll end up paying an extra couple thousand bucks in a few years when we need to reshingle our roof because the roofers have to disassemble and then reassemble the solar panels.

If solar power is a slam-dunk financial win, they why isn't every Wal-Mart in America covered in solar panels?

I'm a technological optimist, and I think that solar panels will be a slam-dunk financial win pretty soon. They probably already are in sunny places like Arizona. The fact that companies are springing up with "residential solar lease" plans is a really good sign, and if I can find a residential solar lease company that operates in Western Massachusetts, offers leases of less than 10 years, and can point me to some satisfied customers I'd definitely sign up.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Pension Problem

So we've promised our public employees pension packages that were supposed to be funded with profits from AAA-rated, regulator-approved investments.


The Town of Amherst (and Hampshire County and just about every other public pension system around the country and the world) has a big, looming pension problem. Last week at Town Meeting we were urged by the chair of the Select Board to support a bill that gives towns ten more years to fully fund their pension plans (from 2030 to 2040).

I'm a "pull the band-aid off fast" kind of guy, so my first reaction is that's a bad idea. If we've promised benefits that we can't afford, well, tough cookies! A promise is a promise, and we should cut spending now to ensure we can fulfill our long-term obligations.

But the very fact that this is a widespread problem makes me wonder what is really going to happen. It is great to be fiscally responsible, until you're forced to take your hard-earned savings and give it to your irresponsible neighbors.

So I wonder: maybe Massachusetts should push off the day of reckoning until 2040. If I had to bet, I'd wager that the next major financial crisis and Federal bailout will involve public employee pensions, and I'd wager that the more irresponsible states (California, I'm looking at you) will benefit more.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Bravo Mr. Shaffer!

The most controversial issue on this season's Town Meeting warrant is sure to be the "Patterson property."

Mr. Shaffer, Amherst's Town Manager, wants to spend up to $120,000 to jump-start the development of some land in North Amherst. This is controversial for at least two reasons: first, there's a minority of town meeting that is against any development anywhere in Amherst. And then there's another group of people who just don't like the idea of giving tax money to a private landowner to help them sell and develop their property.

I might be in that second group-- I haven't entirely made up my mind. I'm generally skeptical of top-down, "if we build it the tax revenue will come" plans, but I do think that a big research park on this property would be good for the Town (it is a good location, near the University and highway 116, and would diversify the Town's tax base, which I suspect we'll find out is important if the State budget gets worse and Beacon Hill decides to drastically cut the UMass budget).

But even though I might vote against the warrant article, I'm glad the Town Manager proposed it. He's consistently shown an entrepreneurial streak that I think is great for the Town:
  • He got lambasted a few years back for questioning the Boy Scout's use of Kendrick Park to sell Christmas trees. Messing with a cherished Amherst tradition was probably a bad idea, but I think it is OK to experiment and fail, and it is OK to ask hard questions like "what's the policy for private use of public spaces?"
  • Speaking of Kendrick Park, he's had the department of public works create an ice skating rink by flooding a flat spot in the winter. That's after a failed experiment to create a rink on the Town Common (turns out the Common isn't flat enough for a rink).
  • He's actively working on developing or redeveloping places in Town where it makes sense, like the former "fraternity row" on North Pleasant Street.
  • And, best of all, he's implemented rewards for Town employees who come up with ideas that generate revenue, save the Town money, or improve services.
So: Bravo, Mr. Shaffer! Keep experimenting; I think you've done a great job trying out low-cost ways of making Amherst a better place.

UPDATE 12 May: I'm wrong again! The Patterson property isn't the most controversial issue, because the Town Manager (wisely, I think) saw the confusion and controversy and decided to withdraw it from consideration this time around.

Friday, April 16, 2010


I really want to visit Iceland someday. It is an island country in the process of being ripped apart by the biggest forces of Nature on earth; how cool is that?

Reading the wikipedia page on the latest volcanic eruption in Iceland is fascinating. The bad news is that it's making life difficult for the 500 or so people who live near the volcano, disrupting air travel all over Europe, and might kill a bunch of sheep via flourine poisoning.

I wonder if all the flourine getting dumped on Europe along with the volcanic ash will give them stronger teeth...

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Cobbler's Wife Had No Shoes

Did I jinx myself by writing about LastPass a few weeks ago?

Somebody guessed Michele's gmail account password, and got control of her account. She was basically doing what I'd been doing until a couple of months ago, using a password that was short and easy to remember and, it turns out, easy to guess if you did a little bit of googling on her. Her gmail account started out as just a non-work email address she'd use when online services or shops asked for an email address.

So who cares if somebody guessed the password? No biggie.

But over time she started using the gmail account for all her non-work stuff. So she was extremely unhappy to wake up yesterday morning and find out all her friends and family received this message:
This had to come in a hurry and it has left me in a devastating state. I'm in some terrible situation and I'm really going to need your urgent help. Some days ago,unannounced,I came to visit a resort center in Drayton, Scotland Road Industrial Estate, Dry Drayton Cambridge England, UK..but I got mugged by some hoodlums and lost all my cash,credit cards, I'm financially stranded right now and my return flight leaves in few hours time but I need some money to clear some bills, I didn't bring my cell phone along since I didn't get to roam them before coming over. So all I can do now is pay cash and get out of here quickly.I do not want to make a scene of this which is why I did not call my house,this is embarrassing enough. I was wondering if you could loan me some cash, I'll refund it to you as soon as I arrive home just need to clear my Hotel bills and get the next plane home, As soon as I get home I'll refund it immediately. Write me so I can let you know how to send it.
Wow! Well, I was certainly concerned, so of course I wrote back:
Oh my gosh, that's terrible! I knew you were heading overseas, I'm sorry to hear you are having SUCH a hard time!

How can I help?

Three hours later "Michele" replied:
Glad you replied back to my email..I still have my life and passport cos it would have been worst if they made away with my passport. well all I need is just $2,450 and you can have it wired to me via Western Union. Here's my info below

Michele Cooke
8, Scotland Road Industrial Estate, Dry Drayton Cambridge CB23 8AT , United Kingdom.

As soon as it is done, kindly get back to me with the confirmation number and let me know if you are heading to the WU outlet now?

Anybody who knows Michele well enough to lend her $2,450 will know that she doesn't write "cos" unless she's writing about trigonometry. And after reporting the hijacking she's got control over her gmail account again and sent an "all clear" message, thanking all the people who emailed or called to let her know that she'd been hacked.

The scammers did several sneaky things, though:
  1. After spamming everybody, they deleted her gmail contacts list-- I assume to make it harder for her to send an "ignore that last email, I do not need money" message.
  2. They created a very similar free email address at Yahoo ( and setup a gmail filter to forward all email to that address.
  3. They moved all of her mail to the gmail Trash folder, and had the same mail forwarding filter automatically move new messages to the Trash.
Tricky buggers! Her email would probably still be forwarded to the scammers if I hadn't done a little research and run across a handy list of things to check if your gmail account gets compromised.

I suppose this is the digital equivalent of losing your wallet -- it is annoying and embarrassing and time-consuming. Gmail has a pretty good account recovery process, although it takes them most of a day to investigate and figure out who the proper owner is. Michele re-created it from messages left in the Trash folder; good design on Gmail's part that there's no way to erase a message immediately. But it would be way cool if they could automatically restore all the mail forwarding and contact list and other account settings to how they were before the account got hijacked.

I hadn't finished creating ultra-secure LastPass passwords for all the sites I visit; "who cares if somebody hijacks my Wordpress comment-on-blogs account?"

The answer is "anybody who might be fooled if they got a message from me saying I was in trouble." I'm changing those passwords, and am going to make sure the answers to the password recovery security questions are ultra-secure, too...

Thursday, April 08, 2010

The Weather Makers

A couple of years ago Richard Morse suggested I read The Weather Makers to get a convincing argument for why global warming is a Really Big Deal and why we Must Do Something Now.

I read it on my Kindle, and used the Kindle's "add note" feature to jot down my thoughts as I read. Definitely klunky, but better than sticking post-it notes in a paper book or writing in the margins-- the Kindle lets me see all my notes at once and it's way more environmentally friendly to use electrons to read rather than pen and paper.

Which brings me to my first criticism of the book. Flannery repeatedly makes the mistake of believing that we're all competing with each other for a share of a fixed resource pie. For example, talking about grain yields he says "although substantial wheat surpluses were recorded in 1999 and 2004, overall the trend in world food security has been a downward one."

Ummm... no. My favorite usually-unbiased quick source of information (Wikipedia) has a helpful graph of global food production per capita; "food per person increased during the 1961-2005 period."

Flannery's warnings about Peak Oil fall into the same trap. Another "oops" I noted: he predicts "the world may experience the end of cheap oil sometime between now and 2010." Well... no, not yet.

Yes, oil will become more expensive than it is now. No, that won't matter, any more than the fact that whale oil is impossible to buy today but used to be cheap and economically important.

I recently read From Poverity to Prosperity (also on my Kindle), which is all about why thinking about the modern economy in terms of physical stuff is all wrong. In today's world using human ingenuity to rearrange atoms or bits in new and interesting ways is the key to prosperity.

And that brings me to the other major issue I have with this book. Flannery isn't an economist, so why does he dismiss their expert opinion? He admits that "economists who participated in the IPCC discussions stated that doing anything serious about climate change was too expensive to be worthwhile," and then instead of examining their arguments he simply states that "... adaptation of this sort is genocide, and attempted Gaia-cide, as well."

No mention of discount rates or cost/benefit calculations or any serious discussion of how to balance our competing desires for material wealth and a pristine environment, just over-the-top rhetoric and fear-mongering. NO serious scientist thinks that global warming will kill all life on Earth, and as a paleontologist Flannery should know that. Carbon dioxide concentrations in paleolithic times were much, much higher than even the highest of the IPCC projections, and life flourished.

And that brings me to my last criticism. For somebody who has studied the stunning variety of life nature produces (Flannery is an expert in kangaroo evolution, among other things-- didja know that there used to be 10-foot-tall kangaroos hopping around?) he seems amazingly pessimistic about nature's ability to respond to change. Biologists have discovered that new species can evolve in as little as 20 years.

So I remain unconvinced that global warming is a Really Big Deal and that we Must Act Now. As I've said before, I think we should focus on more immediate issues like habitat destruction, pollution from coal-burning power plants, stupid, expensive, environmentally-destructive ethanol subsidies, and environmentally unfriendly zoning laws that encourage cars and energy-inefficient single-family houses.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Being unlucky (I'm a bleeding-heart libertarian)

I like Megan McArdle's proposal for health care reform:
I'd like to see the government pick up the tab for expenses that total more than 15% or 20% of annual income. There's certainly also a case for providing basic care and treatment for certain chronic conditions to the poor, though even in that case, I'd like to see us at least try to handle the problem with a combination of catastrophic insurance, and better income supports.
The government supposedly already pays for basic care and treatment for the poor through the Medicaid program. I say "supposedly" because in many places it is tough to find doctors who will accept Medicaid patients.

I found it disheartening that the recent health care debate the main talking point from the left was "insuring the XYZ million uninsured." We're failing Medicaid patients now, adding millions more won't fix the problem, it will just make it worse.

And I found it equally disheartening that the main talking point from the right seemed to be "no socialized medicine." Our current half-socialized system is the worst of both worlds.

I think I'll start calling myself a "bleeding-heart libertarian." "Bleeding heart" because I believe that we have a moral obligation to help people who, through no fault of their own, get sick and cannot afford to pay for their health care. "Libertarian" because I realize that there's no free lunch-- health care is a limited resource, and like any limited resource there are only a few ways to figure out who gets it.

I like McArdle's proposal because it is a natural, market-driven way of identifying the truly needy. If you make $40,000 per year and are spending more than $6,000/year on health care then you're either a huge hypochondriac (but they're so rare I don't think we need to worry about them) or you're really sick. If we all paid out-of-pocket for run-of-the-mill health care that would provide powerful incentives to keep costs down. The average person spends about 15% of their income for food; it seems perfectly reasonable to expect to spend an equal amount on health care.

Especially since we're already spending that much on health care, we just don't realize it because the costs are hidden from us.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Innovate Holyoke

I'm trying hard to think positive thoughts about the Innovate Holyoke project that just got $25M in state funding to help create a high-performance computing and data center.

Maybe it will be the best investment the State ever makes, and will help make Holyoke a hotbed of high-tech activity. That would be great!

But I think they'll end up creating an obsolete product that nobody will really want. Amazon and Google (and IBM and probably some startup that we haven't heard of yet) have tremendous expertise and experience running high-performance, high-availability data centers. And competition will drive them to provide an ever-better, ever-cheaper product.

I like the idea of putting a computing center next to a green source of energy ("The project is designed to draw hydroelectric power from the river while serving as an example of a green, environmentally friendly data center"), but that's not a new idea-- Google, Microsoft and Yahoo have been doing it for at least 5 years.

I also like the idea of recycling old factories, but that's an old idea, too-- here I am with the rest of the Resounding Technology team at our MASS MoCA offices in 1999:

I believe the master plan was to make North Adams a hotbed of high-tech activity, building on the success of That... hasn't really happened.

Most startups fail (Resounding was a moderate success-- it was sold to a Silicon Valley company about a year before the .com implosion; the company to which it was sold imploded). And most government projects designed to revitalize a city or region fail; that's par for the course. Writing this blog entry, I did some research on perhaps the most shining example of a project that has done really well-- North Carolina's Research Triangle Park.

It might just be my anti-government bias shining through making my cherry-pick factoids that support my ideology, but I couldn't help noticing one factor that I think might have helped it succeed:
"The park is 7,000 acres (2,833 ha) situated in a pine forest with approximately 630 acres (255 ha) for development. The park is an unincorporated area, and state law prohibits municipalities from annexing areas within the park." (from wikipedia)
I wonder if any economists have tried to study whether projects in unincorporated areas do better overall...

Monday, March 22, 2010

I'm voting YES

Tomorrow (Tuesday, March 23'rd) is election day in Amherst. If you're a registered voter in Amherst, don't forget to vote!

I'm running again for Town Meeting, so if you're a registered voter in Precinct 9 in Amherst do not forget to vote. At Wildwood Elementary School. Between 7am and 8pm.

As I've written before, I think Proposition 2 1/2 was a well-intentioned but ultimately bone-headed idea, so I'm voting for the override.

I'm supporting Rick Hood for school committee because I think he's calm and rational and smart and will make good decisions for our schools.

I'm also going to vote for Rob Spence because I like what he says better than the other three candidates. I suspect he'll ask lots of hard questions and make life uncomfortable for the school administration, and I think that'll be good in the long run. I hope.

If I had my druthers I'd make the school committee obsolete (and give kids a public education via competing private schools), but that's not on the ballot. Maybe next year. (hah!)

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

ACTV Localocracy panel

While watching the Localocracy Q&A panel (embedded above) I was surprised at how little faith some people have in the idea of crowdsourcing/"the wisdom of crowds."

For example, there were concerns about somebody stealing your identity and posting in your name. I thought Conor's response was pretty darn good-- Localocracy is as secure as in-person voting (anybody COULD walk up to the polls, give your name and address, and vote as you), and if you or any of your friends or neighbors notice that somebody has stolen your identity and is claiming to be you it is easy to resolve the problem (just tell the Localocracy team what happened and they'll sort it out).

They'll have to figure out how to scale that up, but that's not a hard problem to solve.

There were vague concerns that the political biases of the Localocracy creators might seep in and subtly influence things. Ummm.... no. Trust me, they'll be way too busy just trying to get the code working properly and figuring out how to make it a viable business; they won't have time to insert sneaky, very-hard-to-detect biasing techniques so their favorite pet issues get preferential treatment.

It also seemed like people couldn't wrap their heads around the idea that EVERYBODY was going to be "in charge." Watching the panel, several times I wanted to yell at the screen "if you don't agree with something or see some information that is wrong YOU get to fix it!" Doesn't everybody know about the success of wikipedia by now?

I hope it's just a generational thing, and that young people who have been exposed to the socially-self-controlled anarchy of Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia (and, for that matter, the entire World Wide Web) will have more faith in the power of people to organize themselves to try to make the world a better place.

Monday, March 01, 2010

What motivates environmentalists?

Jonathan pokes holes in my "global warming worriers are committing the Appeal to Nature fallacy:"
I think it's safe to say that most environmentalists would greatly prefer that we focus our efforts on changing the behavior that is causing GW, rather than on massive geoengineering projects to mitigate its effects. I don't see any contradiction or appeal to nature fallacy in that approach.
Very good point! I need to do some more thinking; I'm going around in circles trying to figure out if the Appeal to Nature fallacy applies:

WHY are people environmentalists?
BECAUSE they like nature.

WHY do they like nature?
Just... because? (appeal to nature fallacy? utilitarian "I don't want to be poisoned by pollution"? love of squirrels? preference for natural versus man-made landscapes? mild case of enochlophobia? I dunno! All of the above, I guess)

Then there's the whole "but humans are part of nature so we should be able to do whatever the hell we want" argument. To which I say, just because you CAN jump off a bridge doesn't mean you SHOULD.

And the opposite ultra-radical-environmental "cities are unnatural, and we must radically reduce our population and live like our very distant ancestors did to restore the natural balance of things" argument.

And there's the Bjørn Lomborg argument, with which I agree: we aught to invest our environmental dollars and energies where they'll give the most bang for the buck. Tackling global warming shouldn't be anywhere near the top of the list, there are many more immediate, easier-to-solve issues that will make the world a better place.

After all, isn't that the goal? To try to make the world a better place, both for us hairless brainy apes and the rest of the planet?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

AGW versus GW: why does it matter?

Imagine for a minute that global warming isn't anthropogenic-- that it is happening, but it is happening because of... oh, I dunno, sunspots or an overabundance of squirrels or some other natural cause.

Would we just resign ourselves to dealing with the consequences, or would we try to do something about it?

Would environmentalists be lobbying for geoengineering solutions to save polar bear habitat or would they be protesting proposed geoengineering, waving signs saying "Don't Fool With Mother Nature!"

I bet they'd be waving signs.

If the consequences are the same, why does the cause matter? Would the argument be "we didn't cause the problem, so we don't have to fix it?" Or would it be the Appeal to Nature fallacy ("if it is natural, it must be good; if unnatural, bad")?

There are lots of problems we don't cause that we try hard to fix or prevent (diseases, natural disasters), so I don't think that would be the argument. I think instead there would be a double Appeal to Nature-- if global warming was natural, then it must be good. And geoengineering is unnatural, so it must be bad. So, the argument would go, we should do nothing.

I don't believe in the Appeal to Nature, and I don't think it matters whether or not global warming is "natural" or man-made. I think we should weigh the costs and benefits of global warming and compare them to the costs and benefits of possible solutions to figure out what, if anything, we should do.

And I expect that'll happen when Whole Foods decides to get rid of its Natural and Homeopathic Remedies aisle. I predict we'll have genetically engineered flying pigs before then (on second thought, that's dumb; they'll create chickens that taste like bacon).

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Three cool tools

1. Localocracy. Email lists, blogs and online bulletin boards are all used to talk about local politics, but they're all less-than-ideal forums for ideas. Discussions easily wander off topic, anonymous people can make nasty personal attacks and the people with the most time on their hands (or who are the most willing to spend hours reading blogs or mailing lists) can overwhelm the discussion.

Localocracy is an Amherst start-up that's trying a new approach for discussing local issues, and they're using Spring Town Meeting as a "beta test." Any registered Amherst voter can sign up for free and give their opinions, and anybody at all can go and see what people in Amherst are talking about.

2. Dropbox. Create a folder that's shared on all of your Windows, Mac and Linux machines (and on your iPhone, if you like). Michele tried a couple of solutions before settling on Dropbox-- she'd email herself files before heading home (WAY to easy to get confused about which was the latest version) and she tried carrying an external USB disk back and forth to work (inconvenient and losing or dropping the disk or thumb drive would be a minor disaster). Dropbox has been working perfectly for her; it's easy and the first two gigabytes of storage is free.

3. LastPass. One of my technical interests is computer security, but until recently I was pretty lazy about passwords. I used one "low security" password (easily guessed, something like "password123") for all the websites where I didn't really care about security. I'm not terribly worried about somebody guessing my password and adding "The Bad Girls Club" to my viewing queue. And I used a "high security," not-easily-guessed password for everything else (banking sites, online stock broker, etc).

OpenID is starting to solve the "every website in the world wants me to create a new username and password" problem, but until OpenID is supported everywhere I'll be using LastPass. It lets me have a different, super-secure password for every website I visit, all protected by one super-secure password that is all I need to remember. It works on Mac, Windows and Linux (and on your iPhone or BlackBerry if you upgrade to the $1-per-month Premium version), and even though all my passwords are stored encrypted on the Lastpass servers, my master password never leaves my computers so it's as secure as possible.

They even make it easy to export all of your passwords so I can back them up into my safe-deposit box (or in an encrypted folder on my hard drive) just in case LastPass ever goes out of business. Nice!

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Why not a billion dollar override?

In 1980 Proposition 2½ was passed by Massachusetts voters.

But Amherst voters were against it by a 3 to 1 margin.

I wonder what would have happened if the 1981 Select Board had asked those same voters to approve a billion dollar override. That would have been an effective way of vetoing Prop 2½. A billion dollar override would mean the Select Board and Town Meeting would have to come up with budgets the way they did before-- decide how much money is needed, how much people were willing to pay, and then convincing a majority of Town Meeting that the budgets are justified.

For true public goods, that's actually a reasonably good process. But Prop 2½ screwed it up.

I wrote about one study that showed some unintended consequences a couple of years ago:
"It takes time for various levels of government to institute and implement changes, but following a brief lag, California and Massachusetts began to make up those lost revenues, largely through rapidly growing non-tax fees and charges. During a period of "tax revolt," these revenue sources were both less constrained and less visible to voters than taxes."
From: A tale of two tax jurisdictions: the surprising effects of California's Proposition 13 and Massachusetts' Proposition 2 ½ - property tax
I think another unintended consequence was the centralization of funding at the State level. Our schools and Towns are increasingly reliant on money from the State instead of local property taxes, and I think Amherst is worse off because of it.

Maybe that's OK-- maybe Holyoke is much better off because more education funding is funneling through the State education bureaucracy and being spread around from rich places like Amherst to poorer places in the state. Ummm, no, after 30 years: Holyoke, Springfield, ranked as 2 lowest performing school districts in Mass. (September 14, 2009)

So: why not a billion dollar override? I'm only half serious, although the more I think about it the more the idea appeals to me. Either we trust the Select Board, School Committee, and Town Meeting to be fiscally responsible... or we're screwed, because even with Prop 2½ they could decide to take all our property taxes and build a monorail to Belchertown.

Monday, February 01, 2010

What part of "shall make no law" don't you understand?

I don't understand the liberal angst over the recent Supreme Court decision that allows corporations to spend money on political campaigns.

I thought it particularly ironic when my local newspaper ran an editorial saying that allowing corporations to endorse or malign political candidates will skew the democratic process.

From the Massachusetts Corporations Division database:
The exact name of the Domestic Profit Corporation: DAILY HAMPSHIRE GAZETTE, INC.
Entity Type: Domestic Profit Corporation
The Gazette routinely endorses candidates and takes political positions. I guess it is OK if you're the right KIND of corporation?

Maybe we could all vote to decide what KIND of corporation should be allowed to spend money to promote their views. I can see it now: Amherst Overwhelmingly Votes to Ban Fox News from Local Cable.

The Supreme Court made the right decision. If you don't like the way a corporation is behaving, then take your business elsewhere. Don't try to pass laws that limit how or when groups of people can get together, pool their money and try to get a message out.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Fear of change is rational

I wrote last week about upgrading my DSL service, and finished with a sarcastic "what if I can't get on the Internet at all. Nah, that'd never happen."


It WAS faster, but the network connection started randomly dropped for a minute or two every hour or so. A very nice Verizon repair person just left after spending four hours here fixing problems with the wires both inside and outside the house. Our house was built in 1862, so I expect to run into issues whenever we upgrade anything. I have faith that my new and improved phone lines will make my life a little bit better over the years, which will make up for the time I lost talking with Verizon to fix the glitches.

Now if we could just fix the glitches in our health care and political systems I'd be a really happy camper.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Mr. Wishy-Washy

I'm having trouble getting worked up about tomorrow's election. None of the campaigns speak to me; they seem to be targeted at hot-button issues like The Threat of Terrorism or Abortion. And I haven't done my homework-- I didn't watch any of the debates and don't know much about any of the candidates. I decided to do some homework today, so I went to and took their "VoteMatch" quiz to see which candidate I agree with the most.

Results: Kennedy: 35% Coakley 33%. Brown 33%
Or, in other words, I mostly disagree with all of them.

I'm wishy-washy on the health care bill, so I'm unmoved by arguments that "you've gotta elect (Brown/Coakley) to (prevent/ensure) we get health care reform." I do think that it's better to divide power between the political parties rather than have one-party rule, so that's a reason to vote for Brown.

It's just not a terribly good reason.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Wildly Irresponsible Predictions for 2020

It's the beginning of a new decade, so what the hell: here are five things I think will happen in the next ten years:

1. Google's operating system will be a big success; lots of people will choose an Internet-centric computer that doesn't have all the virus and software update and slow bootup problems of Windows.
2. A Republican will be elected President in 2012 or 2016.
3. In 2020 health care costs will still be rising, and we'll still be arguing over what to do about it.
4. The consensus on Global Warming will be that the Earth isn't actually terribly sensitive to CO2 levels, and that while warming will have significant costs it will also have significant benefits, so the best solution is "deal with the consequences, don't try to prevent CO2 emissions."
5. Medical marijuana will become legal in at least 10 states.

I hope that 1, 4 and 5 happen.

2 worries me (I really don't like the direction the country took under the last two Republican presidents).

And I think 3 is inevitable; even if we get British-style single-payer healthcare or a more free-market Singapore-style system, we'll spend more on health care because we'll be older and richer (on average) than we are now.

Call Verizon (then call your mother)

If you've had high-speed Internet for a while, you should call your Cable or DSL provider and ask about upgrading.

We've been paying for Verizon 1.5MBit DSL service for a couple of years, and a couple of years is a long time in the technology world. So I emailed Verizon, they eventually emailed back and told me to call them, I call and get lost in their robot phone system but persist and eventually get a very nice and efficient customer service person who switches me to a 7MBit plan that costs only $1 more per month. With a special offer of "first six months only $30/month".

So starting Friday I'll be blogging four times as fast!

Unless Verizon screws something up and I can't get on the Internet at all. Nah, that'd never happen...

Sunday, January 10, 2010

2010 Predictions

Image by rakka
I've been having trouble coming up with interesting predictions. It's easy to predict things that are virtually certain to happen (I'm certain my New Years cold will go away eventually, even though I'm not taking any vitamin C or E or echinacea or gingko biloba or zinc). I'm far from 100% certain that any of these things will happen in 2010, but I think they all have a greater than 50% change of becoming true:
  1. The Democrats will lose 7 or 8 seats in the Senate in the November 2010 election.
  2. There will be a kerfuffle when images supposedly from airport backskatter X-ray machines are leaked to the Internet.
  3. A Schleck will win the Tour De France.
  4. The president will sign a Cash for Caulkers bill.
  5. More than 100 banks will fail in the US.
  6. General Motors will sell fewer cars than they sold in 2009.
  7. Ford and Toyota will sell more cars than they sold in 2009.
  8. We'll have a white Christmas.
  9. Spring Town Meeting will last 5 or fewer nights.
  10. Amherst will pass an override.