Saturday, September 30, 2006

Stepford Wives II

The critics panned it, but I thought Stepford (2004) was a worthy remake of the original, which was terribly out of date and becoming irrelevant. As I said previously, the women of Old Stepford seem lazy when looked at from today's world, where we take it for granted that women work in corporate jobs. The new version accepts that, and turns the women into powerful business icons. But now, the men and women are lazy. They've all taken early retirement so they can spend quality time together in their palatial suburban mansions. Sure, there's still a Men's Association, but it's stocked with guy stuff: high tech video games and robots that fight each other. The women have their own "association": the Stepford Day Spa. Now seriously, given a choice is there an MBA woman on earth who really feels like this is discrimination?

The acting is not as good (am I the only person who thinks Matthew Broderick is an amateur?) and the whole movie feels like the Big Name stars had more fun making it than we have watching, so it disappoints in the sense that I left hoping they'd do more. For example, one of the key characters is a powerful woman who moves to Stepford after finding her husband in bed with her 20-something assistant. Would it be more satisfying for her to just dump the creep and go back to the Boardroom where she can take revenge by making piles of money -- rich, divorced, alone ? Or should she accept early retirement and a robotic implant so she can spend her afternoons at the Day Spa and her evenings dressed glamorously, in the arms of her happy husband?

The remake, like the original, just takes it for granted that men will do anything to keep their women. Somebody should do a movie that asks what women will do to keep their men.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Rachel Ray and Me

Since she joined my life, I have never been more than 30 minutes away from dinner, so why is there a web site devoted to her called "Rachel Ray Sux"?

Look at this pin-up pose she did for FHM:


[see this nice Slate review]

Alternate social networking sites

MySpace's New Rivals Are Winning Friends -
Lists Piczo (most popular site in Canada),, (with a built-in music player), and (for high school kids).

It's going to be very hard to make any social networking site sticky. By definition, these sites make it easy for you to talk with your friends -- and mobilize them all to another site if you want.

A more interesting business, I think, is something truly complementary to Myspace. What if MySpace were a platform, with an API, and you could build sites that preserve some of your identity at Myspace but allow a richer experience targeted say, to kids who like bugs, or for that matter, moms who like politics.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Elementary-school students shouldn't do homework. By Emily Bazelon - Slate Magazine

Slate has a nice summary of three new books that argue that homework is a waste of time. The books claim that all the studies fail to show any lasting benefit to kids. Alfie Kohn's book The Homework Myth, while more controversial, is the "meatier read", according to the reviewer. Harris Cooper's The Battle Over Homework is more balanced, but still concludes that there is no evidence homework makes a difference.

Without reading the books, my initial take is that this is not inconsistent with Judith Rich-Harris' claims that nurture by itself is a poor lever of influence over how kids turn out. The fact is that some kids, in some schools do phenomenally better than other kids in other schools. Ironically, the fact that schools and peers care enough to assign it might be more important than the homework itself. From the review:
"It has been drilled into our collective psyche that rigorous schools assign rigorous homework," [a school principal] wrote. "I recognize that this is a ridiculous thought process, particularly since your research suggests otherwise, but it's hard to break the thinking on this one. How could we be a high-achieving school and not assign homework?"

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Class sizes don't matter?

I just listened to an interesting 30-min Econtalk podcast interview with Rick Hanushek from Stanford, talking about education and how to make schools better.

The most interesting part was the discussion about a study that shows that class sizes don't affect educational outcomes much.  After accounting for things like socioeconomic background, teacher education level, geography, etc., it turns out that the difference in outcomes is negligible, even between a 25-student classroom and a 15-student classroom.

In fact, he claims that if the goal is to improve student performance, only one thing really matters: teacher quality.  The difference between "good" teachers and "bad" teachers is so dramatic that it makes everything else irrelevant. 

 It just turns out that some teachers have the ability to take a classroom of kids at any performance level and increase their performance, consistently, year-after-year, regardless of starting level and regardless of all the other variables we ordinarily try to control (salary, class size, textbook spending, etc.)

Unfortunately it's very hard to say what makes some teachers better than others. We do know what doesn't matter: graduate degree, years of experience (after a few year start-up period), salary, school district. 

Here are some of the references:

About the failure of spending and smaller class size to improve test scores:

About the importance of teacher quality:

About the economics of education

Everyone shops CostCo

See, I knew I wasn't the only one who loves that place. Their prices aren't as i-cant-believe-its-so-cheap (like Fry's) but they usually only stock high quality items, so you also know you're getting something good.

Costco "accounted for 11 percent of the organic milk and 40 percent of the Tuscan olive oil sold in the states during the same time period. It also sold $805 million worth of wine, a figure that included $390 million of fine wines. "

[from: Costco: Where tech changes, but hot dog prices don't CNET ]

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

NYTimes suggests best items for your pantry

Here's their list

Beans, canned: Goya.

Butter: Land O’Lakes unsalted.

Chicken broth: Swanson 99 percent fat-free, in a resealable carton.

Extra virgin olive oil: Private labels like Master Choice (A&P stores) and Private Selection (Kroger) can be buttery, excellent and inexpensive.

Frozen foods: Peas and spinach (no sauce); peaches, cherries and berries (no sugar).

Mustards: Plain Dijon for cooking (Roland is cheap and hot; better than the American Grey Poupon); Gulden’s Spicy Brown for sandwiches and hot dogs.

Peanut butter: Smucker’s Natural.

Peanut oil: For frying.

Tomatoes, canned: Redpack, Italian San Marzanos, Pomì (in a carton).

Tomato paste: Amore, in a tube.

Vinegars: White vinegar for brightening a dish without adding noticeable flavors; store-brand red wine vinegar for dressings and cooking. (Supermarket balsamics and sherries tend to be of poor quality.) JULIA MOSKIN


Also see their suggestions for real gourmet you can buy at the supermarket.  Including:


and more

Monday, September 18, 2006

New Pace STB at Best Buy

Best Buy is now selling a $299 DirecTV receiver that was made in part by Jeff Phillips, a friend from my MSTV days.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

MaximumPC's utilities

    MaximumPC (Nov 2006) recommends the following utilities that caught my eye:

    WinDirStat: to help understan where all your hard disc space went.

    File Shedder: to completely, thoroughly, erase and permanently delete a file.

    TrueCrypt: really,really encrypt a file. Apparently works with USB keys.

    Ccleaner: recover hard drive space wasted on temp files, unused regedit entries, etc.

    Belarc Advisor: audit your system's drivers, logins, etc.

    ExplorerXP: much better than the Windows Explorer. Also chop up large files into smaller ones for easier FTP.

    This issue has a How To article about streaming video from a webcam. They recommend a $20 utility from

Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Pope versus the World

Reading the New York Times editorial, it sounds like the Pope really put his foot in his mouth, apparently calling Muslims "evil and inhuman".  An obvious insensitive remark requiring an immediate and heartfelt apology, right?

My first reaction is to think how could a leader with as much public experience as Benedict XVI say something so stupid?  So I read the speech transcript and now I wonder the exact opposite:  How could journalists or thinking Muslims possibly interpret his remarks as offensive?

The speech, addressed to scientists at the University of Regensburg, is about religion and reason and a response to the question posed by some scientists for why universities would have theology and religion departments with faculty devoted to the study of something (God) that doesn't exist.

The Pope's answer is that in the West, with its Greek-inspired traditions, God and reason (science) are fundamentally bound together.  By contrast, he quotes the Islamic philosopher R. Arnaldez who argues that God is absolutely transcendent and unbound by anything at all, even reason itself.  The remark about Muslims, quoting from a 14th Century dialog between a Byzantine emperor and an educated Persian, is given as an example for how under the Greek tradition, you couldn't convert somebody through violence -- only through reason.

Here's the full quote:

[The 14th Century Byzantine emperor] addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached". The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable.

If an apology is justified, the Pope has to first understand what he said that makes people angry.  Should he apologize for saying or implying that:

  1. It is evil and inhuman to spread faith by the sword?
  2. Islam advocates such behavior?
  3. Something else, like the hypocritical assumption that Christians never use the sword?

 I hope nobody disagrees with the first statement. Presumably we all agree that forcing someone to convert is evil and inhuman.

He should apologize if people misunderstood him as saying that Islam advocates violence. It's not his place to pontificate (so-to-speak) about Islam. Note that his real point, however, was not about Islam but rather about the idea that God transcends reason. I wonder: do Muslims agree or disagree?

The third statement -- that Christians are sometimes hypocritical -- is something I bet the Pope would not deny.  But he would say that Christians fail their Greek-inspired heritage of reason when they resort to violence.

 Either way, I wish I understood the logic of those people who are firebombing Christian churches over this. "You defame us by calling us violent, so we're going to kill you!"

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

American attitudes toward God

A recent survey by Baylor University (summarized in today's USAToday) found that:

  • 28.5% of Americans have read The Davinci Code.
  • 44% have seen The Passion of the Christ.
  • 19% have read at least one of the Left Behind novels.
  • 25% of US women have read The Purpose-Driven Life.

The study authors also decided that the respondents (a statistically-valid representative sample of all Americans) divided their attitudes toward God into these categories:

  • Authoritarian (28%): God is angry at sinners and won't hesitate to throw disaster at the unfaithful.
  • Benevolent (23%): God sets absolute standards but is inclined to be nice to us.
  • Distant (24.4%): God is a cosmic force that launched the world and now lets it run on its own.  [This is the God most common among Catholics and Jews]
  • Critical (16%): God is judgmental, but isn't going to intervene one way or the other.

[source: Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion, funded by the John Templeton Foundation]

Monday, September 11, 2006

Flavorpill city events

The New York Times Magazine (Sep 10) has a gushing review of Flavorpill , a new site for cultural events that is gaining a wide audience for its nice whats-new coverage. You get an email each Tuesday that describes all the music, lectures, and other events happening for the next week, all very web2.0 with forwarding to your cell phone, etc.

It's available now for NYC, San Francisco, Chicago, London, and (soon) Miami. I'm sure they're also working on a Seattle version.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

The Economist on Climate Change

Global warming is real, it's caused by humans, and there is much we can do about it. That's the position convincingly argued in a special "Survey of climate change" in the Economist 9/9/2006. Here are some interesting facts I took away:

  • What causes CO2 emissions?
    • Not cars. Put them together with planes and ships and you still only get 13.% of the total.
    • The biggest contributor is power generation (24.5%), of which coal is the biggest contributor. Going nuclear would bring more benefits than if you switched every car to a Prius
  • The industrial revolution started us on a warming trend that was interrupted in the mid-20th century by heavy sulfur emissions that blocked sunlight and cooled the earth again. That's why there were false alarms like the 1975 Newsweek cover predicting a cooler earth. Anti-smog and other policies started reducing sulfur by the late 1900s and now we're back to warming again.
  • The biggest CO2 emitter will be China by 2015, mostly thanks to coal-fired power generation. The energy elasticity of GDP rose from 0.5 (2000) to 1.5 (2004), demonstrating that China is becoming more, not less, energy dependent.
  • This is not just Al Gore's issue. Besides tree huggers, the alliance includes ethanol-loving farmers, cheap hawks who hate dependence on foreign oil, and evangelicals, according to Jim Woolsey, former head of the CIA and a supporter of fuel-efficiency and more.
  • Gradual mitigation through gradual turnover to more efficient alternatives is the best solution economically, but imprecise knowledge about climate makes it hard to see if that's possible. Some serious models predict a small but non-zero probability of utter disaster unless we make big changes now, but do you want to take the chance?
  • Hurricanes are becoming more common. A minority of scientists question the degree to which man-made causes are responsible, but there is one thing humans can do: fix the perverse incentives created by current insurance regulations. Government subsidies make it financially possible to build on Florida beach fronts that will not last. With correct price signals, Florida would look more like Grand Bahama, a desirable area where nobody builds because there is no insurance.

Lose weight on Mercer Island

Today's Pacific Northwest Sunday Magazine in the Seattle Times had us chuckling in the middle of an article on why it's so hard to lose weight:

A TREND IN obesity research is to look beyond individuals and at environments, says Streichert of the exploratory center.

The new obesity conversation includes urban planners, architects, grocers, school boards, economists, politicians, transportation experts.


What if schools banned high-fat and high-sugar foods? (The Seattle School District did just that in 2004; last year, high-school students said they consumed 20 percent less soda and 13 percent less candy and chips during the school day.)


What if sidewalks, bike trails and nearby parks and shops encouraged people to make exercise part of their daily routine?

What if we could all afford to eat as if we lived on Mercer Island?

Obesity rates would plummet, predicts Dr. Adam Drewnowski, who specializes in obesity, economics and taste preference at the UW.

Mercer Island has its fair share of chubby people, so I'm not sure what this is saying. Maybe it's because we have so few restaurants?

What I liked in Wired Sept 2006

ArXiv and PLoS are growing as the way scientists share knowledge.

Digital Cameras: They recommend Casio EX-Z600 ($279), Canon Powershot SD600 ($350) and more.  All have 6MP and great specs, including min 800ISO sensitivity.

Hospital-grade air filters can clean your air for about $500.

See John Maeda's book The Laws of Simplicity for UI and design hints.

Lessig's column tells about new opensource-inspired business models. See (for videos, with ads inserted automatically),, Eric von Hippel's book Democratizing Innovation.

Netflix has a production company Red Envelope that secures distribution rights for overlooked DVDs, and turns them into money through its recommendation engine finding viewers.

Charles Mann (the 1491 author) writes about the splog industry.

[movie] The Stepford Wives

    I know the real reason the wives of the Manhattan suburb of Stepford are so happy. While their husbands work 80-hour weeks, they spend mornings leisurely reading the paper, afternoons playing tennis and socializing, evenings walking the dog through quiet, peaceful neighborhoods. As far as I can tell from the movie, the husbands do all the real work around the house too: planning and supervising new construction projects (like putting in a new swimming pool), doing the yardwork, organizing family vacations and dates with the wife. Even when grocery shopping, the husband comes along with the checkbook to pay for it all.

    I watched the 1975 version of the movie, so I noticed much of the dialog feels anachronistic and even silly today. At one point the main character confides to her friend that she once "dabbled in Women's lib", like it was some secret outlaw organization. None of the wives have, or apparently ever had, careers of any kind, and they show no detectable interest either. It's hard to tell whether that's part of the script -- to make you feel the pain of their lack of self-fulfillment -- or whether it was simply not something audiences would have understood.

    Today we live in an odd time of transition. The Post-Stepford America of the 70s and 80s went through a long period where it became not just an option, but an expectation that women hold down full-time business-oriented careers. Through today's eyes, the Stepford wives look not so much suppressed as, well, lazy. Instead of sitting around all day waiting for their husbands to come home, why aren't they doing something? Meanwhile, today's post-70s men have moved on. There are no men-only associations. Fathers drop the kids at daycare because the mothers need to get to work early. The ironic legacy of Stepford is that most families can't afford to have one person stay home all day, even if he or she wants to.

    The reviews for the 2004 remake are disappointing, but now I want to watch it anyway just to see how the filmmakers dealt with the cultural transition. Are the wives at work too now?  Are there Stepford husbands who are programmed only to please their wives?   Or -- I hope not -- did they leave the basic premise alone and recreate a world that no longer exists?


Saturday, September 09, 2006

Corn Zipper

This looks interesting. A $15 device that claims to make it easy to "unzip" corn on the cob.  From FactoryDirect2You.Com


I read about in Wired Sep 2006.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Plus Addressing on Gmail

Here's a neat trick to give yourself an arbitrarily large number of email addresses.  On Gmail, just use whatever username you normally use, followed by the character '+' followed by anything else. For example: gets delivered to

I'm going to use plus addressing whenever I fill out an online form so I can track how people get my email address.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Feld's 80-19-1 Rule

Brad Feld has the interesting insight that a content publisher should worry most about the 19% who are left after the 1% of people who will actively participate in any new online venture (give up on the remaining 80% who are contributors only and won't actively participate).  He also points to Tom Evslin's site where you can even download an Excel file to model this.

My quick take: you engage the 19% by offering them a way to participate that is brain-dead simple. For example, Amazon's "Did you like this review" feature--just click yes or no and you're done. No registration, no typing, just click on a link and you're done.

I also think the world needs something to expose your passive activities (e.g. surfing from link to link) in a way that helps you build content and maintain privacy without specifically needing to enter something.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

[book] The End of Medicine

The End of Medince by Andy Kessler

This is another of those "lucky-rich Silicon Valley guy writes a book just for fun" books, with a style similar to Randy Komasar's Monk and the Riddle, though not nearly as good. As a former technology analyst, he could have written an excellent and detailed summary of the companies working on medical technology, with keen insights on their various prospects (and for all I know, maybe he did write a private book like that), so to be fair, I think he wanted his book to be interesting.

On the other hand, it's a fun read if you're interested in how many rich friends he has, or the countless important people who love to chat with him in various vacation spots. He's trying to be chatty, and "regular-guy", so there are way, way too many irrelevant side remarks and bad jokes (at least 300 out of the 335 pages), but there are a few interesting items in all that fluff.

I learned two things:

  1. Cholesterol drugs are a great business, but they don't prevent that many heart attacks. The latest study (ASCOT-LLA) showed that 98.41% of high-risk people on placebos did just fine. Statins dropped their risk 35%, but that's still only 50 people out of 20K who were saved. Not terribly exciting.
  2. A cool new chip is in the works that might revolutionize personalized medicine. Remember the names Sam Ghambir, Hong Dai, Jim Heath, Bob Sinclair and others doing protein detection with chips.

I admire Andy's insight for how Silicon Valley-style entrepreneurship and technology will reinvent medicine, but if you want to learn about the future, this is not the book.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Mercer Island's #1 real estate agent

Jane Potaschnick is # 1 on the list of realtors on Mercer Island. The site claims they crawl the web for data about number of homes sold, length of time on market, etc., in order to produce the rankings.  Stephanie St. Mary is #177.

Jane Brace is #23 for Dover, Massachusetts.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Pay $10,000 to ride in a Realtor's Lexus?

The New York Times has a lengthy article about pressure on that 6% commision that real estate brokers make, regardless of how much work they do and regardless of the price of the home. The Seattle comany Redfin, featured prominently in the article, is a fully-licensed broker that gives buyers a rebate on the sales commision and is making traditional agents mad.

Quotes from Chang-Tai Hsieh, an economist at UC-Berkeley is quoted for pointing out that the 6% system benefits nobody, not even the brokers, who spend most of their time searching for new clients--a fixed system like a retainer or salary would benefit them more.

Redfin looks like a cross between an online store (like Amazon) and a traditional hands-on broker. You have to log into their site to get all the info they promise (e.g. neighborhood reports that are more detailed than MLS), so I couldn't check for myself, but the site looks like they understand the online experience. 

One thing I thought was neat is how when agents refuse to sell to online buyers, Redfin contacts the seller directly.

Home Prices on Mercer Island

Today's Seattle Times has a front-page article predicting that home prices nationwide are going to fall. They quote from PMI Mortgage Insurance calculations that show a 50% or greater likelihood of housing price drops for Boston, San Francisco, and San Jose, in contrast with Seattle where the risk of falling prices is only 11%.

But who cares about averages? What matters to you is how your own neighborhood is doing. The online edition of the paper offers a more detailed breakdown that shows

  • Mercer Island is #28 (out of 108 neighborhoods) for 5-year price appreciation.  We're 10.8% (vs. 15.7% for #1-ranked Medina).
  • Median home price on Mercer Island is $825K, putting us #3 in the region, behind Madison Park ($869K) and Medina ($1.14M).
  • Price per square food, we're #9 ($332), well behind Madison Park ($408), Medina ($394), Queen Anne ($359) and others in North Seattle.
  • Appreciation in 2004-2005, we're ranked #27 (18.2% -- same as Medina), behind super-hot places like Southpark (27.2%), West Seattle (22%), or Green Lake (19.4%), all of which are much more affordable of course. 

The bottom line is that long-term I still think Mercer Island is about as protected pricewise as you can get. It's an island, with its own (strong) school system, with a fixed number of homes and residents.  People will always want to live here, making home prices about as secure as they can get.