Thursday, November 30, 2006

Get out of your cell phone contract

The WSJ has a rundown on companies that will buy your current contract and resell to somebody else, in a legal way to get rid of your cell phone contract. It's good for buyers too, because you can get much cheaper phone service with a shorter contract life.

Social networking for kids and their moms

Two new venture-backed startups go after the stay-at-home market.

Industrious Kid, founded by former execs at Ascend Communications, just got $6M in venture funding to start Imbee, a MySpace-type social networking thing for 8-year-olds (and above).  At $40/year I just don't see it taking off, though.  Any parent involved enough with their kids' internet use will be involved enough to chaperone them on MySpace for free.  Why bother with less?


Club Mom wants to be a social networking site "for moms, by moms".

Again, I'm not sure what the market is.  Everybody wants to create a "community", but rather than force people to come to you, I think the future is in aggregation -- let people go wherever they want, and you come to them.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The gathering storm

Here's the National Weather Service radar showing what we can expect to hit Seattle later today:

Which cars have best resale value?

The Wall Street Journal has this summary, based on Kelley Blue Book's survey for the 2007 model year:

For the first time, Acura beat out BMW for the top spot in the sedan category.  Honda Odyssey was #1 for minivans.  All of these vehicles are expected to retain 48% to 56% of their new value after five years.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Mercer Island School District Survey

You have until December 5th to fill out the Community Technology Survey for the Mercer Island School District.  It's open till December 5th.

The district is auditing their technology operations and invite the community to provide input.

Drinking Liberally on Mercer Island

Looks like there's a regular get-together for Mercer Island liberals:

Maybe they could organize it to be held jointly with the Conservative Enthusiasts (they often meet at the Mercer Island Library). I bet you could get a lot more people to come.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Google Transit does Seattle

They started in Portland about a year ago, but now Google Transit has a site for Seattle. 

For example, it says that for me to get from home to my office right now (at 6:30 on a Saturday morning) would take 58 minutes.  That is, 58 minutes after my bus arrives near home, which won't be till 8:52am.

It seems to be hooked into the same GPS systems used by other sites, but the UI is the best I've seen yet.

Best coffee in Portland

While spending time here for Thanksgiving, I stumbled upon Stumphouse Coffee Roasters, an excellent cafe with stores in several locations including here in downtown Portland (3rd and Pine).  Top-of-the-line fresh hand-roasted taste, free Internet, and cheaper than Starbucks ($2.60 for an 8oz latte).  What more could you need?

Unfortunately they're not open till 7am, so the familiy is awake before I can venture out. 

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Food advice

Kevin Kelly recommends two source of food advice:

Cook's Thesaurus is an online database of substitute foods.  All out of oats for some special recipe?  Try wheatberries or rye flakes or triticale.  Still don't have it?  At least know the alternatives that might be stocked at your grocery:  rolled, steel-cut, groats, etc. each explained with its advantages and disadvantages.

If you really need to be prepared, have this book on hand:

Cooking Ingredients . The Ultimate Photographic Reference Guide for Cooks and Food Lovers (Paperback) by Christine Ingram, contains 1500 different food types and a brief explanation of each.

Next time I'm out of something, I'll try one of the sources above.  And if they're not handy, of course I can always go straight to Wikipedia, which is becoming the ultimate reference for everything.

Great Wall Video

 Here's a video from my trip to China last week.  I went with my boss and another engineer to the Great Wall, at Mutianyu.  Most people go to a slightly closer location of the Wall, so this one is less crowded with tourists. One fun part is that you can ride a toboggan on the way down.  I snuck a video camera for the ride, though I had to shut it off early when one of the guards started to yell "no photo". 

Video: Great Wall of China

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Where's the Math?

A local advocacy group trying to improve math standards in Washington State has made the New York Times front page.

“When my oldest child, an A-plus stellar student, was in sixth grade, I realized he had no idea, no idea at all, how to do long division,” Ms. Backman said, “so I went to school and talked to the teacher, who said, ‘We don’t teach long division; it stifles their creativity.’ ”

Where's the Math was founded by Shalimar Backman from Seattle and thinks kids need to learn the basics of addition/multiplication/division rather than fuzzy "concepts". 

Here's a quote from Mercer Island's school board member:

On Mercer Island, an affluent suburb of Seattle that had the state’s best scores on the 10th-grade test, the pendulum has begun to swing toward emphasizing computational skills, especially in high school.

“We’re looking at texts that have more numbers and less language,” said Lisa Eggers, president of the Mercer Island School Board, who at one point sent two of her three children to Kumon. “And we’re one of the few districts where the math scores are going up.”

[via sound politics]

Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift

I try to keep up with popular movies about Japan, so that explains why this is on my Netflix queue, but oh what a waste. Definitely do not pay to see this movie, and if absolutely forced to watch, be sure to put it on fast-forward the whole time.

It's basically a juvenile car-loving white trash movie about car-racing, where the hero finds himself plopped in Japan in the middle of a bunch of similarly car-loving derelicts. So many things about this comically unreal: as though unemployed Japanese punks have the money to blow on these cars, and yes they use their camera phones everywhere. But our hero has no need for their stupid computer gadgets. Just give him the raw power of a V8 engine and a hot chick and he's a man. Yeah, baby.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

What really happened in the dot-com bubble?

An upcoming paper in the Journal of Financial Economics studied business plans from the dot-com era and concluded that the "bubble" wasn't much different from what happens at the birth of any new industry.  David A. Kirsch from the University of Maryland (see says:

  • the failure rate of dot-coms was only about 20% per year
  • spectacular blow-outs (like or webvan) resulted from the "get big fast" strategy that many pursued in order to gain their first-mover advantage.
  • many success stories happened in smaller niches that are just fine as businesses, though not as well-known as the big names.

This reminds me of the advice in entrepreneurship classes, how it's a myth that "the vast majority of new businesses fail".  In fact, the majority of dumb businesses fail, but well-thought ideas that focus on good, flexible business plans with good execution do just fine.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Dinner's Ready

Our Y-Guides group made a team visit to Dinner's Ready, a food preparation store in Bellevue. It's a nice idea, perfect for franchising: the store has all the ingredients and cooking equipment, all the

My 7-year-old son and I made two dinners: a flank steak with mashed potatoes, and a prawn stir fry.  Both were so easy to prepare that I almost wonder what the point was. And the total price ($36) was far more than I'd have paid in the grocery store.

The flank steak already came in a plastic ziplock bag.  We had to open the bag, dump a scoop of pre-measured ingredients inside and shake it up. That's it.  The garlic mashed potatoes were already mixed and mashed, so there really wasn't much to do.

The prawn dish was even simpler: take a bag of frozen prawns, add it to a bag of frozen vegetables, drop in a few tablespoons of olive oil, some salt, and a few others.  Done.

I came away wondering what the point was. I suppose if you never cook, it would be nice occasionally to eat something besides pizza. But if you have the cooking pots and pans, you almost certainly can do these recipes at home too, and the trouble of dropping by the Dinner's Ready store has got to be more time-consuming than just doing it all yourself.

I think there are two ways to improve the concept. First, make it all social -- and the store is already doing that, by encouraging groups of people to come in for reservations.  Again, why you can't do this at somebody's house, I'm not sure, but still, I suppose some people will do anything to avoid cleaning up.

But a better idea would be to go for more complicated dishes, things that require expensive equipment.  Like one of those really nice dough mixers, or a chocolate melter, or specialized meat grinders. I suppose the higher end you get, the more complicated the recipes become -- in which case you lose the mass market audience.

The LouseBuster

Thankfully, not a problem for my kids (yet), but it's a real scourge in elementary schools.  Now Biologist Dale Clayton has invented the "Lousebuster" and written about it in the latest issue of Pediatrics. I wonder if you'd get similar results from a regular hair dryer?

Clayton studies birds and lice, but after moving to Salt Lake City from England in 1996 he found the air was too dry to keep lice alive on laboratory birds. He had to humidify rooms to keep the bugs alive.

If dry air could kill lice on birds, Clayton reasoned, it might do the same on humans. And the project became personal: His own kids had them.

Clayton found temperature wasn’t as important as the amount of air. The air in his device is cooler than a standard hair dryer.

Larada Sciences, a University of Utah company set to market the LouseBuster to schools and doctors, believes the device could be available within two years.

“The device itself will be definitely under $2,000, and hopefully under $1,000,” Larada president Randy Block said. “While that sounds like a lot, think about the average parent spending $40 or $50 for a treatment.”

Source: A lice treatment to blow problem away? - Children's Health -

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Soccer in the rain

It's been pouring all day, but that didn't stop my daughter's team from playing soccer this morning:


Video: Soccer in the rain

Mercer Island geologic map

The University of Washington has a new map of Mercer Island's geology.  I don't see anything particularly unsettling (so-to-speak)about our neighborhood:

We're sitting on "Vashon subglacial till" (purple), which is between Vashon recessional deposits (orange) and "Pre-Fraser non-glacial deposits" (green). The jagged lines near us are "scarps", which in our case are those big dirt cliffs behind our neighbors across the street.

No fault lines, no artificial fill: just nice glacial deposits from the Pleistocene Era.

Steven Pinker on higher education

Steven Pinker thinks Harvard's new curriculum could be tweaked a little: Less Faith, More Reason

1. Adding an ethical tint to the study of science and technology misses the point that the pursuit of knowledge is a good thing in and of itself. "[S]cience courses should aim to be more than semester-long versions of “An Inconvenient Truth.” "
2. The "Reason and Faith" requirement is a U.S.-centric way to look at religion. "It is an American anachronism, I think, in an era in which the rest of the West is moving beyond it. "

HD Camcorders

Be still my beating heart!  HD video cameras are here at affordable prices.  CNet and CamcorderInfo review the new $1400 Sony HDR-SR1, as the "most forward-facing camcorder of the year".

When I looked into this one year ago, I concluded that HD camcorders aren't worth buying, but that's no longer true.  Some of the features I like:

  • can output to standard def TV sets.  You basically don't need to worry about getting the video out because it will convert to SD when necessary.
  • 30GB hard drive lets you leave tape behind and stores up to 4hrs of video with random access in VCR mode.

What I don't like

  • uses compressed AVCHD format instead of the lossless format you get on miniDV.
  • requires proprietary Sony software to get the video into your computer.  This is a big deal if you need to run the camera on some OS not supported by Sony (like something in the future)

I won't replace my Panasonic GS-400 yet, but it's clear that by next year at this time my tape-based SD camera will look pretty ancient.