Amtrak & PVTA tips

UPDATE: October 2015

Double trackAmtrak service has been running for 10 months now here in Northampton.  It’s great to have a passenger train running through town again, but it’s an expensive ride.  Here are some tips on getting around inexpensively.

You can save 20% on the Vermonter (and many other Amtrak trains) if you buy 7 days in advance via this page on AmtrakRailserve.com compiles all the Amtrak promotion codes.  It’s a great resource and helpful to learn about how Amtrak prices tickets.

If you’re heading all the way north to Burlington-Essex Junction, VT, it’s cheaper to buy two tickets: one from Northampton to Brattleboro and then another from Brattleboro to Essex Junction – on the same train and the same day!  Amtrak is currently offering “Saver” fares of $18 from Brattleboro to Essex Junction with a 3-day advance purchase.  Together with the 20% discount from Northampton to Brattleboro ($12.61), you can do the whole trip for $30.61, instead of $41 if you just buy one ticket.

Heading south to Springfield and New York City, it’s far cheaper to take the PVTA from Northampton to Holyoke (B48), and then an express bus from Holyoke to Springfield (P21e), all for $1.50.  Weekdays, this bus combination runs once an hour from 7 am to 6 pm (7 pm on the way back). Then you can transfer to the many trains running from Springfield.

Even if you are committed to taking the train from Northampton, it’s often cheaper to buy two separate tickets, one from Northampton to Springfield ($12, or $9.60 with the 20% discount), and then one from Springfield south to New York ($34 in advance).  This only works if you buy in advance, because special “Saver” fares (14 day advance ticket) are posted for Springfield south, but not from Northampton – even for the same train.

If you’re going to New York City and you can’t buy two weeks in advance, consider taking Amtrak just to New Haven from Springfield ($23, or $18.40 a week in advance), and then riding Metro North into the city ($16.25 off peak).  Together with PVTA, the total cost is between $36.50 and $40.75 one way (versus $61 for taking Amtrak the whole way).

Finally, if you join the National Association of Railroad Passengers you get 10% off all Amtrak tickets.

(There’s also Megabus, Greyhound and Peter Pan bus lines if you’re willing to forgo train travel entirely).

Random vacations

The other day my friend Barry and I went on a walk.  At each intersection we flipped a coin.  Heads meant we continued straight.  Tails then we flipped again, and then heads was left, tails was right.

Later that evening a group of friends brainstormed taking random vacations:

Taken from http://www.aboutzipcode.com
Taken from http://www.aboutzipcode.com
  1. Zip codes.  Roll up to 5 numbers on a ten-sided die (or 9 or 11 numbers depending on how precise you want to be!), and plan a vacation to that zip code.  It might be Smith College (01063), the Northampton Post Office Boxes (01061), Ketichan, AK (99950) or the IRS office in Holtsville, NY (00501)!
  2. Amtrak stations.  Pick a random one and travel by train.
  3. Megabus.  Set a dollar amount you are willing to pay, and figure out the farthest you can travel on Megabus for that amount.  Someone should write a program to help figure this out.  $25 can take you pretty far if you book in advance.
  4. Hitchhiking without a destination in mind.  Just go wherever the rides you get are going!
  5. Follow the wind.  Take a bicycle trip (or sailboat) and always go downwind as much as possible.  Or upwind if you want a challenge.
  6. Follow the money.  Offer your labor to everyone around you and do or go to whomever will pay you the most.  Or least.  You get to decide what your limits are – legal or illegal.
  7. Follow an animal’s tracks.  Once I followed a moose’s tracks in the snow for hours.  They can travel hundreds of miles, so it could be quite an adventure.
  8. On USGS topo maps, each square kilometer is outlined.  Pick one of these, and spend a day exploring it.
  9. Visit a random intersection of integer degree latitude and longitude lines, such as 42°N 73°W.  Who would want to do that? 12,832 so far with the Degree Confluence Project.

Why are these kinds of things interesting to me?  I think it creates an opportunity to break away from my ordinary routine and thinking.  Who knows what will happen en route or who I will meet?

In October I have two weeks off.  Maybe I’ll pick one of these – which one do you think I should do?

Walking journey 2015

UPDATE: Listen to the radio show of the first five days of my walk!

I’m going on a walking journey from April 17 to 25, 2015, around Western Massachusetts and possibly into neighboring states.  I’ve created a website to help me plan the route and find hosts at journey.sharett.org.

Last April I spent four days walking from my house to western Florence, Huntington, Easthampton, Mass. and back home – about 35 miles 2014-04-17 13.53.36total.  Each night I spent with a different friend, and each day I walked, sometimes with friends, sometimes meeting new people along the way, sometimes being barked at, mapping new trails and roads that I found and adding them to Open Street Map. Most of the time I was off of major roads, walking old woods roads and sometimes bushwhacking through fields, forests and the occasional swamp!

This year I’m not quite sure what the journey will bring, but I’m looking forward to meeting new people and seeing the beauty of the early spring.

My route is mostly set, but I’m still looking for a host in Williamsburg, MA.  If you’d like to host me for a night, visit journey.sharett.org and fill out the form at the bottom of the page, or contact me.

If you’d like to walk with me for part of the journey, or want me to deliver letters to people along the route, be in touch!

Here are some pictures from last year’s journey:

2014-04-16 12.10.58

2014-04-16 14.27.38

Mill River tubing forecast

The Mill River in Northampton, Mass. is normally a quiet river.  When the river levels rise, it becomes as exciting tubing adventure!  This doesn’t happen very often, and I don’t want anyone to miss it when conditions are right.  So I wrote a website that predicts when the tubing will be good, and you can sign up to get a text message when this happens:

Mill River tubing forecast

On August 28, 2011 at noon, after a hurricane, the river reached 4,000 cubic feet per second of water!
On August 28, 2011 at noon, after a hurricane, the river reached 4,000 cubic feet per second of water!

Mapping my city with Open Street Map

Over the last few months I’ve been mapping the hiking trails and off street paths of my city, Northampton, Massachusetts, using Open Street Map, a free world map that anyone can edit.  My Sundays have often been going out hiking with friends in the Sawmill Hills of Florence, recording my tracks with a GPS.  There are miles of paths and every time I go out I discover another new to me path heading off that I mark to map later.  I especially enjoy walking through the hills to visit friends on the other side – walking through the woods to a fun destination is the best!

My dream is be able to walk pretty much anywhere on trails and back roads.  A couple of weeks ago I walked to my friend’s place in Huntington, Mass. on trails and back roads like this one, which is Spruce Hill Rd in Westhampton.  Just the kind of “road” I like:

Spruce Hill Rd in WesthamptonAll that needs to happen for my dream to be realized is for the many trails and paths that already exist to be mapped – if you have a smart phone with a GPS in it (most do), you can explore the trails near you, and add them to Open Street Map.  (For Android, you can use My Tracks).

P.S. 7/12/14: Since writing this post, I discovered the Strava heat map of the Sawmill Hills. Strava compiles all of their customers’ running and biking journeys into one map, allowing you to see where many trails are.  You can use it to edit Open Street Map as well.

Game theory and cooperation in real estate

I recently had the opportunity to help out a few friends who found themselves in an awkward situation.  They both wanted the same house and both were negotiating with the owner to buy it.  The owner asked both parties to put in their highest and best offer.

I did some research and thinking about it.  If both parties put in their highest and best offer, one of them is likely to pay as high as they possibly can.  And all that money, of course, goes to the seller, which also raises housing prices and taxes in that neighborhood.

An auction is a better situation for the buyers, but not as good for the seller.  This is because each buyer can stop at any time and they know what the other one is bidding.  In a highest and best, you never know what the other party will offer so you bid as high as you can.

One option is that both parties sit down and come to consensus on who should receive the property based on who is the best fit, optionally negotiating an amount that the one who gets the house pays to the one who doesn’t.  This option is quite tricky and requires a lot of trust, but if successful offers the best results and both parties can walk away from it at any time, albeit with some information revealed.

The option we decided upon was to hold a private auction between the two bidders.  The winner would get the property for the starting bid, which was a price we knew the seller would accept.  The winner would pay the loser the difference between the winning bid and the starting bid.  So, if the starting bid was $100,000, and it was bid up to $110,000, then the winner would buy the houes for $100,000 and pay the loser $10,000.

Another way to look at this option is that you are bidding on what it is worth for the other party to walk away.  This has a very different psychological feeling to it though.

One problem with payments between the winning and losing bidder is that these payments can’t be bank financed.

So we all sat down together and talked for a long time about the house, and drew up some “handshake agreements”.  Each party went off to discuss the options privately.  It almost looked like it wasn’t going to happen, but then they agreed and we started the auction.  My heart was beating fast and I was quite nervous even though I didn’t have anything at stake!

Then the auction ended, one party was declared the winner, and when the sale went though, the winner paid the loser.  I can’t reveal exact amounts here due to a confidentiality agreement, but it saved the winner a substantial amount of money, and the loser got something out of the deal too!

This experience has made it clear to me that cooperation and negotiating in an agreed upon way with each other is far better for both bidders than going with a secret highest and best offer – if the parties trust each other, or have a trusted third party.

Maybe I should create some sort of business that brings buyers together to figure out the best deal for them.  Or maybe you should.

Joke Exchange

Since 2006 I’ve been running an Asterisk server called the “Bike Path Phone” system.  The newest addition to it is the Joke Exchange, an interactive phone system where you can record your jokes and listen to other people’s.  Callers can rate jokes or ban them. There aren’t very many good jokes in there yet, but there’s something nice about listening to ordinary people tell jokes in their own voice.

Call in to 413-825-6795, extension 65.

Balance

My friend Joe Edelman recently introduced me to Meteor, a javascript based web application framework.  I decided a great way to learn it would be to write a tool to help me keep track of our household’s finances, with an eye towards bigger systems.

So I created Balance, an open source tool to keep track of shared finances for groups.  You can create groups that are public, require approval to join or are invitation-only, and add transactions, from simple one to one payments to complicated reimbursements.   The program keeps a running total of who owes money or who is owed money.

Before now I was spending quite a bit of time with complicated spreadsheets to determine who owed what in my household.  It’s much simpler now.

This is my first open source project, and I’m getting a handle on code repositories and such.  I hope others can improve on it!  Please let me know what you think.

How is the picture above related?  It’s describes how my brain sometimes feels when working on a project like this!

Collective equity and cooperative housing

Eight years ago four of us bought a two-family house together. Ruthy and I have lived in one side of the house with many different housemates. We’ve always expressed the intention of considering further co-ownership with these housemates after living with them for a year, but none of them have taken us up on it.

Over the years they’ve contributed money, some of which pays interest on debt, taxes, insurance and maintenance of the house, but some of which goes toward equity in the house. My question is, how should this equity be treated ethically, and could we set up a cooperative legal structure to represent this shared equity?

First, I’d argue we should subtract from this contributed equity money for the extra work we’ve done to take care of the house. We could estimate the work we’ve done and figure out a fair wage to pay ourselves for that. The rest should be considered collective equity,

Worker cooperatives in Italy take a portion of their surplus each year and place it into an internal collective equity account. They can use this money to expand their business or to borrow against if times are hard. But they can’t distribute it to themselves. If the business folds, the collective equity goes to a cooperative development organization to start a new cooperative.

What if we set up a cooperative with equity shares for me and Ruthy, and a collective equity account for the rest? If we sell the house, we could stipulate that collective equity has to go toward another cooperative housing situation or a non-profit that supports cooperative housing.

What if new housemates that we are living with want to buy in? Would they buy out the collective equity account? Perhaps that money would then go towards starting a new cooperative house, with the same cooperative arrangement, creating a growth model.

In order to stop us from changing the bylaws of the cooperative later and pocketing the money, one option could be to require permission from some outside person or organization to approve bylaw changes. I’m not worried about Ruthy or me doing this on purpose, but what if someone sues us? We don’t want them to get access to this money. And if we try to expand this model, it should be robust enough to handle any situation.