Sunday, December 30, 2007

Another coffee shop, please

Mercer Island enjoys plenty of nice coffee outlets, but why do I have to drive to Seattle for the really good stuff?

Slate this week makes a good case for why Starbucks actually helps mom-and-pop coffee houses:

According to recent figures from the Specialty Coffee Association of America, 57 percent of the nation's coffeehouses are still mom and pops. Just over the five-year period from 2000 to 2005—long after Starbucks supposedly obliterated indie cafes—the number of mom and pops grew 40 percent, from 9,800 to nearly 14,000 coffeehouses.

There are so many great ways that a local coffee house can differentiate itself on Mercer Island.

  • Exotic varietals in small batches that Starbucks, with its huge volume requirements, can't match.
  • In-store roasting: talk about fresh.
  • Clover coffee machines (your $11k investment will quickly repay itself)
  • Free internet access  (Starbucks makes you pay)
  • Kid-friendly areas so the kids can occupy themselves while Mom chats with her friends.
  • In-store meeting rooms, available by reservation for group meet-ups.

David Schomer from Seattle's Espresso Vivace has many more tips in his excellent guide to how to compete with Starbucks.  And all of this is especially true for a Mercer Island location, given our proximity to the world's finest roasters and more in Seattle.

The margins on coffee are ridiculously high.  A mom-and-pop operation could even compete on price -- undercharge Starbucks, at least on basic items -- and still make be profitable.  Mercer Island consumers are not particularly price-sensitive, especially not in the morning, and would love to have a high-quality alternative to the same-old-same-old.

So how about it?  Anybody want to go in on an investment in an independent coffee shop?

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Blue State Blue Streak

When I'm online, whether sending emails or posting content, I know that my kids may be reading, so just as in real life I think it's important to be civil. That's why for example, I don't use foul language either offline or online.

So why is it that most, if not all left-leaning blogs seem to overflow with the kinds of words that would have my mother reaching for the soap dish? Right-wing blogs, by contrast, rarely if ever use profanity.

Even the name of my favorite local liberal blog is not a word I'd want to hear coming from my five-year-old. And the progressive bloggers' obsession with potty talk is not just something I'm imagining. Somebody did an unscientific study of that shows filthy language is 41 times more common on liberal blogs than on conservative ones.

I've been reading Steven Pinker's latest book, The Stuff of Thought, where he explains how naughty words are a window into emotion, which of course explains why angry liberals are profane, but why don't conservatives dish it back?

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Clover Factory

A big treat today: while visiting Seattle I stopped by the world headquarters of the Coffee Equipment Company where Zander Nosler gave me a personal tour of their factory and explained the history of the company. What a place!  The machines are hand-assembled by  the engineering team that designs the product.  These people definitely know how to build hardware, and it shows in the flavor you get from the coffee. Besides Trabant (which I visited last month), Clover machines are also in use at Zoka and a few others places in Seattle.  So much excellent coffee, so little time!


Saturday, December 15, 2007

[book] The Black Swan

This is one of the best books I've read in a long time and I'm sure I'll be referring to it for many years. It appeals to my natural skepticism, my sense that experts are often wrong and that you shouldn't believe so-called authorities just because they're in charge.  The author, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, is a Wharton grad (though a few years before my time).

The basic idea is that our knowledge is divided into observations that fit one of two different worlds. The first he calls Mediocristan, the terrain of the ordinary, the part of the world that conforms to the bell curve. It answers to statistics and knowable probabilities.

The other, Extremistan and its power-law statistics, is quite different. Nothing really changes with scale. The super-wealthy, for example, are orders of magnitude richer than the rest of us; but even among themselves there are exponentially-different levels of wealth. This is far different than the Mediocristan world of, say, height or weight.

The trouble is that the modern world is Extremistan, not the Mediocristan where we humans are well-evolved to understand. In Extremistan, the long tail of observations is thick with outliers, and the seemingly wildly unlikely event is more common than our experience with Mediocristan would indicate. Using Gaussian techniques in a non-Gaussian world, or equilibrium techniques in an (unknown) non-equilibrium world, will lead you to make errors.

In Extremistan  ... systems are chaotic, having many variables and/or high degrees of interdependence. Its participants' success are determined by cumulative advantage, and variables change in geometric and/or exponential progression. Uncertainty in these domains often entails "unknown unknowns." Anyone called an "expert" in this field is largely a good bluffer or rhetorician and little better at prediction in these domains than computer models based on single-point, just-prior performance. Some examples include stockbrokers, clinical psychologists, psychiatry, college admissions officers, court judges, and personnel selectors.

Humans are good at working with Mediocristan systems. Extremistan, on the other hand, confounds us. The difficulty arises from several psychological factors.

  • Confirmation bias: People seek largely to confirm what they know, i.e. to confirm their model, rather than refute it.
  • Silent evidence: Even when looking at the facts, what must be taken into account are the facts that never were but might have been.
  • Narrative fallacy: People prefer stories over data, even if the story version is misleading or wrong. This is because stories are easier to store and recall.
  • Attraction to platonic simplicity: People prefer the reduced, and simple when reality is rarely so.
  • Ludic fallacy: People mistake the (predictable, constrained) model for the real thing, and very often base plans in the world as if it was a simple model.

The most serious effect of our ineptitude with Extremistan is our inability to make predictions in these systems. In such cases, we are subject to being completely caught unawares by factors outside of our expectations and models. He calls such surprises "Black Swans"

Much of the above summary is my paraphrase of an excellent online review, which I post here to help me remember the main points later.  But what do I really think?

Well, I apply the same skepticism to his own arguments and there my disappointment is that he cannot accept there are circumstances where statistical reasoning is useful.  For example, he explains Microsoft's success over Apple as being a lucky accident, but a careful reader of the history will understand that ease-of-use is not the only way to win in computer operating systems. In other words, from the outside it may appear that the market picked the "wrong" one thanks to bad luck, but in reality there was much less "luck" than it appears. Microsoft "won" by being best at the overall set of things important in operating systems.

I wonder if he's read much of the literature on path dependence: how some ideas, once they catch on, are hard to dislodge and result in sometimes inferior long-term outcomes. People use QWERTY as the best-known example, or VHS vs. Beta -- how supposedly "better" technologies can lose because once something gets started the cost of switching is too great. But the path dependence idea has been well-refuted, I think, by Margolis etc who showed that in fact QWERTY stays with us because it's actually pretty good, and Beta's quality wasn't the kind of advantage that Sony's PR machine wants you to believe. In other words, more often than not, competition among many ideas does bring the best one to the top.

Still, the bottom line is that Taleb is  more right than he is wrong, in spite of a few incorrect digressions (like his silly made-up example of Yevgenia Nikolayevna Krasnova).  Get ready for me to start quoting this idea regularly.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Fred the Switcher

Several people have asked me what I think about the decision by our state representative, Fred Jarrett to switch to the Democratic Party.  The problem is, I have nothing original to say.  Most of us really like Fred and think he's a reasonable and responsible guy, so I assume his decision to switch sides was neither a betrayal of all that is good, nor a vindication of the cause of truth.  As a moderate Republican, he had the advantage of being the swing (and thus influential) vote on controversial issues, something he'll lose by being "just another Democrat" in a homogenous legislature.  He's a smart guy, so I guess he just figured that all-in-all he's better off with earlier access to the closed-door inter-party discussions than he did by being the first guy that all sides rush to when they want something approved.

Is there more to say?  Let me know in the comments.

But what I really think is that this shows another reason I wish Mercer Island had its own online network of blogs where we have discussions like this in public.  I shouldn't be the only person on the Island who posts publicly about local issues.  Many of you are emailing your friends with your opinions, or posting to private Listservs and closed discussion groups.  What a waste!  Say what you think in a way that will make your thoughts discoverable by other people who can join you.

Incidentally, I'm holding a series of brainstorming sessions next week with people who have contacted me about starting a Mercer Island online network.  Let me know if you're interested in joining.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Darcy Burner's Toys

Darcy Burner, Democratic contender for our district's congressional seat, is running a brilliant campaign gimmick appearance this week.  Rather than give speeches or hold boring "meet the candidate" forums, she's holding free "toxic toy testings" at various public libraries throughout the area, including one on Mercer Island (Island Park Elementary School) on Saturday, December 15th from 6 - 8pm.

I love this idea, which is straight out of Black Swan theory: it exposes her to possibly extreme upsides with almost no downside risk.

  • First, although very few (if any) toys -- other than those already recalled-- will test positive for lead,  nobody will ever print a headline that reports a negative result.  The only guaranteed campaign message that will make the papers is the one that's already been printed.  There is no danger of a headline like "Darcy Burner Fails to Find any Unsafe Toys" -- even if ultimately that's what happens.
  • Second, there is a very small (but non-zero) chance that testing might reveal a new, hitherto undiscovered toy that should be recalled.  Toy companies are extremely vigilant -- far more than any politician can be -- at protecting their brands from any perception whatsoever that their products might be unsafe.  But the recent publicity over recalls, combined with parents' natural fear of any unknown risks regarding their children, makes us naturally feel better about actions like this.  And who knows, maybe Darcy will get lucky.
  • Finally, there are plenty of reasonable ways Darcy can manipulate the testing to her advantage.  Just about anything (including the safest toy) has some naturally occurring level of toxins in it.  Equipment with enough sensitivity will find those toxins, even though the levels are far, far below anything of risk to humans.  And if you object that she is testing at unrealistic levels, she can always insist that the current standards are too lax.  After all, do you really want to take a chance with your children?

Here's my prediction: I bet she doesn't find a single unsafe toy (other than those already recalled).    Of course, she'll find many objects with high amounts of lead -- especially among items that any informed adult will recognize as something you shouldn't eat, but nothing from name-brand toy makers.  The prankster in me wants to show up with one of her campaign buttons (cracked open a bit to expose the lead paint) and test that, but otherwise the only toxins that will be uncovered will be, well, anger that the world is an unsafe place.

Update: Sure enough, she found 47 items (or 10% of the items tested) with lead levels above 40ppm, considered to be excessive by the American Academy of Pediatrics.   Her press release doesn't say whether any of the items were toys from name-brand makers, or newly discovered items that haven't already been recalled.  Since such a finding would have been far more newsworthy, I suspect that means she failed to find anything that hasn't already been pulled from store shelves -- i.e., nothing that the Consumer Products Safety Commission hasn't already flagged.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Goodbye Anita

Very sad news in my inbox this morning.  Anita Rowland, a blogger friend, passed away yesterday after a long bout with cancer. Her death is especially sad because, although I only met her face-to-face a few times, I felt like she was my neighbor.  I knew her as the organizer of a blogger meetup at Crossroads in Bellevue each month, often attended by people like Robert Scoble and Dare and many others who through their blogs feel like close friends but whom I rarely, if ever, see face to face.  Although Anita had been ill for a long time, you wouldn't have known it unless you paid close attention -- she was just always friendly, nice, and a true connector who liked blogs as a way to put people together.  I know she read my blog, and I read hers, like neighbors who keep in touch just because they're neighbors.  It's so awful to hear that she's gone.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Mercer Island Schools Don't Make Gold

Unlike several of our neighbors, Mercer Island schools are not in the top 100 nationwide, according to a new ranking by U.S. News and World Report.  Mercer Island High School received a "Silver", meaning we meet the ranking for "college readiness index" (a rough guide to how many students finish AP courses and other indicators of college success) , but we're out-classed by the following area schools:

School College Readiness Index Nationwide Rank
International Community (Kirkland) 88.2 17
Newport (Bellevue) 72.7 44
Garfield (Seattle) 53.2 N/A
Mercer Island 45.3 N/A

Too many Mercer Islanders will look at this and say "Oh this is great--we're better than average", but if you want your kids to have the best education possible, you should be disappointed.  Someday our kids will be competing worldwide for jobs and opportunities, and I don't want them left behind.  

Incidentally, here's how we compare to a few Silicon Valley schools:

Monte Vista (Cupertino) 67.8 59
Gunn (Palo Alto) 64 N/A
Homestead (Cupertino) 32.6 N/A

Interestingly, neither Los Altos nor Mountain View High made the list at all.

See for a comprehensive list of schools, with far more details about each one, including the Mercer Island School District.  The Seattle Schools Blog has more interesting information and commentary.

Chess Tournament

The Seattle area enjoyed a rare sunny day on Saturday, so what better way to spend it than at a chess tournament.

Thinking I would have more time to catch up on stuff, I brought my laptop, but there were too many interesting people there and I ended up talking the whole time with people like Janet Frohmayer, who told me more about her blog, and Ken Glass (the emcee) and several parents who are interested in improving the math curriculum.   So much to post, so little time...  There's a lot happening on Mercer Island, and I wish we could get a whole community of blog posters so we can share the load of getting more people involved.  

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Water Conservation with HydroLogics Software

Asheville, Oregon has help from software when they try to manage their water conservation.  According to last week's Citizen-Times of Asheville

Called OASIS, the software was developed by the Raleigh consulting firm HydroLogics and purchased by the Asheville Water Resources Department in 2004. Engineers based the Asheville model on decades of records of rainfall and the amount of water flowing into the North Fork Reservoir, the city’s primary water source north of Black Mountain...

Hey, HydroLogics is my cousin's company!  If you need water conservation software, you should definitely contact them.

But you might not want to let them know you heard about it from me.  I promised him I'd send him video I took at his wedding a few months ago and I'm late.  :-)

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Poison Oak

For me, it was an annoying couple of pimples on my hand.  Itched a lot, but nothing to get worried about.  My eightten-year-old, though, broke out in a rash all over his face, with splotches on his leg and chest -- serious enough that we went to the dermatologist today.  Diagnosis: an allergic response to urushiol, the active ingredient in Toxicodendron diversilobum, more commonly known as poison oak, no doubt from our trips through the woods last week at Hood Canal.

Click here for a photo of my hand (nothing too gross, I promise) and a reminder to be careful on hikes: "leaves of three -- let it be."

Update on additional facts I've learned:

  • Urushiol can remain active for months, so multiple after-exposures are possible if you don't wash (with detergent) everything that came in contact with the plant.  Apparently urishiol is easy to spot on an object, though: it oxidizes into a blackish lacquer upon exposure to air.
  • Allergic reaction seldom occurs on the first exposure. The second exposure is the one to watch for, because the reaction can be quite severe.  You can lose your sensitivity entirely if you are exposed often enough.
  • People who are allergic are super-allergic. In one test, people developed a reaction after a thumb was pressed on the back of a non-allergic person who had been exposed three days earlier!
  • The best article I found is here

How to Improve Schools

The (always interesting) Seattle Public Schools blog points to an Economist article from last year about a large McKinsey world-wide study, "How the world's best-performing schools come out on top".  When you systematically compare successful versus unsuccessful school systems, which policies work and which don't? 

Here's the executive summary:

The experiences of these top school systems suggests that three things matter most: 1) getting the right people to become teachers, 2) developing them into effective instructors and, 3) ensuring that the system is able to deliver the best possible instruction for every child.

Things that don't matter:

  • School funding (best schools often have the lowest funding, most well-funded schools are often the worst)
  • Class size (in fact, lower class sizes can hurt a school if it results in lower teacher quality)
  • Testing (this is neutral -- sometimes it helps, sometimes it doesn't)

Look at the (mostly anonymous) comments on the Seattle blog and get a sense for why I'm glad to be in the Mercer Island school district instead of Seattle.  Many of those commenting seem more interested in ensuring employment for existing teachers than in looking their problems straight in the eye and fixing them.  No wonder even die-hard supporters of Seattle-style politics have to flee when their kids leave elementary school.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Cero vs. Judge (by precinct)

The final, certified election results are in for Mercer Island, so I spent a few minutes looking over the detailed precinct-by-precinct results in the City Council race between Mike Cero and Maureen Judge, which Mike won by a slim 51% margin and fewer than 200 votes.  I've argued that "pothole" issues carried the day, but with a competitor who was new to the island, were there any patterns by neighborhood that explain the results?

The answer appears to be yes, that Mike's strong showing in his backyard South End neighborhoods had a big effect.  Although both candidates won an equal number of precincts (23 each), the extra push from the South swung the election.  Mike's own precinct gave him his best showing (66%).

Interestingly, his worst neighborhood (38%) was the same Forest Ave neighborhood that went strongest for Simple Majority, a pattern repeated when you see that the only Lakeridge neighborhoods that Mike lost were the ones that went strongest for Simple Majority.

Here's a breakdown by polling station to give you an idea of how people voted across the island:

Neighborhood Votes for Cero
Island Park School 49%
Islander Middle School 55%
Lakeridge 56%
Boys & Girls Club 47%
City Hall 52%
Fire Station 47%
High School 51%
West Mercer 50%

(I'm still looking for a GIS-format map of Mercer Island that would let me show the results in a pretty color chart. If you have one, please let me know and I'll share the rest of my SQL data with you)

Simple Majority on Mercer Island

4204 results by precinct
Originally uploaded by sprague
The vote has now been certified, so it's interesting to look at the results by neighborhood. Overall, Joint Resolution 4204 (aka Simple Majority) was approved by 5904 out of 8933 votes cast, or about 66% -- a landslide by any measure.

In fact, there wasn't a single neighborhood on the Island that didn't approve the measure. The narrowest victory (51%) came from one precinct near the high school. Two neighborhoods tied for first place in approval percentage (74%): one on Forest Ave and another near Lakeridge.

How did your neighborhood do?

My apologies for the poor and hard-to-read formatting of this post. I didn't have time to put it in a nice easy-to-copy table. Hopefully I can fix that when I post the precinct-by-precinct results for the City Council race.

Meanwhile, does anybody have a GIS (or other map format) for Mercer Island voting precincts? I'd love to put this data into map form to make it easier to read, but it would take too long to create it on my own.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Insect invasion

Eric LaGasa, State Entomologist for the Washington State Department of Agriculture was the speaker at last night's Scarab meeting.  Boy does this guy know his bugs!  He had a very detailed and enjoyable presentation discussing various new pests that have been discovered over the past few years, mostly new invasive creatures here to eat our apples and enjoy our lawns. Ugly critters like the European Cranefly, the European wireworm, and the Apple Clearwing Moth -- all new to our area in the past few years and, lacking natural enemies, terribly hard to control.  Yuk.

I was surprised to hear that new bugs are discovered basically by accident.  There is no funding for a systematic statewide survey.  Instead, entomologists hear about new invasive insects appearing in other places and rely on chance reportings from affected people.

One disappointment in his talk was his frequent, irrelevant diatribes against international trade.  He says, bizarrely, that apple growers (of all people) refuse to spend money to find invasive insects out of concern that their exports will suffer if other countries hear we are plagued by pests.  I guess farmers just sit back and hope the problem goes away since new pests would cost them, oh, only a few billion dollars--a small price to pay to keep those exports going.   Hopefully his future presentations will stick to entomology instead of trade bashing.

Coolest Internet access ever

I'm here in the Boston airport now, accessing the Internet on my laptop:


Big deal, people do that all the time right?  Take a closer look.  That gadget next to my seat is my Treo, and it's not wired to my laptop.  It's using an entirely wireless bluetooth connection to give my laptop a high-speed internet connection using Verizon's new VZAccess software

Costs me about 50 cents/day.  What a deal!  Now I can be online anywhere I can get a cell phone connection.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

School Board Blogger

Janet Frohnmayer, who recently won election to the Mercer Island School Board, has a blog.  "Bookworm - Big Ideas for Busy People" is where she summarizes the interesting books and ideas she's read, including:

All her summaries are very worth reading.  The only problem with the site is that she doesn't post enough! 

Moonlight at Hood Canal

We spent our Thanksgiving in a remote cabin north of Tahuya, facing Hood Canal. Last night we stayed up late to catch the low tide, which turned out to be very low,  with the beach and the mountains beyond lit brightly by a moon at perigee.  You would not believe the zillions of starfish we saw -- one every square foot at least -- most of them feasting on oysters. Very nice place, and less than two hours from Seattle.  Of course, maybe it was the perfect weather that made it so pleasant, but it was good to be away from civilization for a while.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Craig Venter

Best known as the guy whose private company, Celera, single-handedly beattied the international government-funded Human Genome Project in the race to sequence human DNA, Craig Venter stopped by our office on Friday to talk to us and promote his new book A Life Decoded: My Genome: My Life.

His new company focuses on synthetic biology, creating new life forms that (among other things) may revolutionize the way alternative fuels like ethanol are manufactured.

He's not a big fan of government research projects ability to do anything of breakthrough value.  In the name of preventing waste, the need to get approval from a broad spectrum of people for every project means that unproven ideas almost never get funded. He thinks the trend is headed toward more private funding of research for that reason, because the VC model of lots of highly-speculative bets works better in science just like it does in business.

My favorite emerging industry, consumer biology, has had some exciting news lately:  at least two new companies are now offering full DNA testing for normal people.  23andme is a Google company with 500K SNPs, and DeCODE offers 1M SNPs.  (SNPs are the parts of your DNA that differ from everybody else, and looking at them is the easiest way to see what your risk factors are for various diseases).  Yes, I'm signing up and I'll let you know when I get the results.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

How to win a local election

    Congratulations to Mike Cero, who claimed victory in his City Council election, a notable upset considering the huge lead in endorsements and high-power Democratic party backing enjoyed by his opponent, Maureen Judge, who tonight posted her concession statement on her web site. 

    For the record, let me say that I sincerely do think Maureen is highly-qualified and would have been an excellent addition to the City Council.  I hope she doesn't give up politics, but continues to use her formidable experience and energy volunteering to help the Island.

    Most discussions about the campaign give the following reasons for Mike's victory: 

  1. Mike befriended the grassroots, not the elites. He personally visited virtually every home on the Island, appeared in every public debate (Maureen skipped the one in August), sponsored a "meet the candidate" event at the Community Center, and waved his own signs day and night on Island Crest on the days before the election. Direct personal relationships always trump party affiliation and in this case, most of us felt like we knew Mike.
  2. Maureen, who moved to the Island only a few months before declaring her candidacy, was unable to demonstrate a sincere interest in the mundane details of local "pothole issues".  It was obvious to many of us that she intended this position to be a stepping stone to a bigger political career.  Some might think that would be a long-term advantage for Mercer Islanders, but plenty of people thought the opposite:  once in office would she sell us out in order to advance her own career?  And without local ties, who could blame her?
  3. Big-name endorsements are overrated. Why does it matter what out-of-town organizations think? Almost none of their members are Mercer Islanders anyway. Mike actively recruited endorsements from hundreds of "normal people", whereas Maureen seemed to care only about endorsements she could list as "firstname lastname (bigshot title)".
  4. Newspaper endorsements are superficial. The Seattle times endorsement of "Kathleen" (they botched her name!) begged obvious questions about how thoroughly they look at the candidates. The MI Reporter endorsement at least got the name correct, but left out details about why their editorial board made its decision.  Maybe they just flip a coin?  Who knows?

I have another theory about how to win a local election, particularly in close races like this one: go electronic.  Look at this snapshot of the number of people who read my posts about Maureen and Mike during just the three weeks before election day:


(that midpoint line is 50 people per day)

A total of 997 unique visitors came to my site during this period, including a lot of people who found me via a Google search for "Maureen Judge" (my posts were consistently among the top results):

And these weren't just accidental visitors -- the average time spent looking at these posts was over 3 minutes.  What were they thinking about while they were here?

A few more observations:

  • I have a busy day job and this pathetic blog is an amateur hobby, nothing more. I do nothing to promote it. You're reading this because you found it by word of mouth from somebody else. Imagine if you created a local blog and actually tried to get readers, through advertising, through "professional" graphic design, etc.
  • I wasn't involved in any campaign.  I never attended a "strategy meeting", never coordinated my posts with other campaign activities.  Neither Mike nor Maureen had any control or advanced information on what I posted from one day to another.  Imagine what would have happened if an election campaign had specifically targeted the blogosphere!
  • Maureen was the only candidate who never contacted me (Cero, Bassett, Litzow--they all personally emailed me when I posted about them).  No doubt her campaign thought it was better to simply ignore me -- I'm just too little, particularly when she has such high-powered figures in her camp.  But I think the lesson is that in a local election you can't afford to ignore anybody -- particularly when victory is decided by a mere 200 votes. 

Finally, let me thank all of you readers for coming here, and especially those who provided great insight with your comments.  If anyone reading this is interested in running another campaign, please contact me and I'd love to give you additional suggestions based on what I learned while analyzing my web traffic.

Clover Coffee

After reading the writeup in this week's Economist, I just had to try coffee made on one of those high powered Clover machines. Made by a small company in the Fremont area of Seattle, the $11,000 devices supposedly extract a whole new level of flavor from the beans.  Naturally I wanted to try for myself and discovered there is one installed at Trabant, in Pioneer Square so I rushed over there this afternoon.

Unfortunately I missed today's coffee tasting, but the barista was super-helpful and patiently explained the entire Clover equipment process to me.  You can think of the machines as essentially a reverse french press: instead of pouring water on top of the ground beans, a vacuum sucks water through them, at carefully controlled temperature and pressure.  See that round disc under the water spigot in this picture?  Just drop the ground beans there and in less than a minute it brews the perfect cup. 

 So what about the taste?  I tried the El Salvador Mercedes and it was excellent.  It's such a unique flavor, it almost doesn't taste like regular coffee. It's hard to describe, but it tastes more fruity, almost like an herbal tea.  Later she gave me a sip of some of their $54/pound coffee (I think it was the El Injerto).  It was phenomenal!  I will definitely be back.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

I look like who??!?

Here's a site that lets you upload a photo of yourself, which it then compares mathematically to a bunch of celebrities in order to guess who most resembles you.  Here's what it thinks about me:


I have no idea who half these "celebrities" are.  Try it on your own photo.  The site lets you upload any photo for free without registration, so there's no need to fiddle with passwords or risk getting yourself spammed.  It's pretty quick too.

Another (free) service will tell you which parent (mom or dad) your child most resembles.  I'm going to upload a photo of our mailman just to double-check.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Renters and property taxes

Despite the close call, Simple Majority looks like it will pass, which is a HUGE relief to those of us who care about public schools and can see the dramatic positive effect this will have on state education funding. But if you're a renter, particularly someone without children or perhaps living on a fixed income, you might be worried that the flood of new school funding will come at your expense. Won't the new school levies cause your rent to rise?

The answer is no. Rents are set purely by supply and demand; property taxes are paid entirely by the owners. In fact, property tax is one of the few, truly progressive taxes, and one of the areas where our democracy works directly in favor of the little guy. Now, thanks to Simple Majority, renters (who are typically lower income) get exactly the same vote as the property owners (who are generally wealthier), but (here's the critical part) renters don't have to pay. Unlike, say, an income tax, a property tax under a simple majority is the perfect progressive tax because the people who pay for it (owners) can't manipulate the political process to give themselves tax loopholes at the expense of the people who don't pay (renters).

Most other states with property taxes require a super-majority for exactly that reason--to make it harder for the one group who doesn't pay (renters, who tend to be a majority) to raise taxes on those who do (owners, who tend to be in the minority).

Still skeptical? Here's the proof:

Consider two adjacent rental complexes, identical in every way except that one is located in City A directly across the city line from the other in City B. Assume that each complex has 100 units, owned by a single owner who is the only property owner in the city. There are a total of 100 renters, 50 of whom live in A and 50 in B. In other words, assume that each rental complex is half-full. The rent for each unit is $1,000.

The people in City A, concerned about their school system, vote to fund a $10,000 school levy to be paid by property taxes. City B does not pass its levy.

Question: What, if anything, will happen to rents in City A? Answer: nothing. Rents will remain exactly where they were before the levy. The entire cost of the levy will be absorbed by the single landowner.

Reason: Suppose the landowner decides to raise rents to pay for the additional taxes. To do so, he would have to raise the rent by $10,000 / 50 = $200.00, for a new total rent of $1,200 per occupant. Since the rental unit in City A is identical to those in City B, each occupant in A will move to City B rather than pay the additional rent. Note that the city still receives its levy funds regardless of how many renters remain, since the landowner -- not the renters -- ultimately pays the tax.

Yes, this is a simplified example and the real world is much more complicated (no two cities are every "exactly alike", and people might prefer to live in City A in spite of the higher rents because the schools are better, for example). But the point of this proof is show that all other things being equal, rents are set by the market, not by taxes, and therefore property taxes help renters at no cost.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Christine Gregoire

We moved into a brand new office building today this morning and look who was there to greet us:

I was waiting in line at the espresso bar (free drinks today!) and she just walked right in.  She says yes they're going to build a new 520 in spite of the failure of RTID.  And she's crossing her fingers about 4204.  (I'd tell you more but I'm forbidden to blog about it :-)

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Election Day

Unfortunately I'm on a plane today and will miss much of the fun, but so far it looks like Mercer Island is winning.
What do you think? Will it hold? Will there be a recount?

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Meeting Bruce Bassett at Starbucks

Local elections should be about local issues, so why waste your vote on somebody you've never met, or who isn't already a friend of somebody you know or trust?  Endorsements from Big Shots or national political organizations won't help you much the next time your street gets a pothole or your kids' school needs their soccer fields repaired.

I like Bruce Bassett because I know him.  He's a long-time resident of Mercer Island who has been active in local organizations for many years, long enough to know what matters to normal people. I saw him at the South End Starbucks yesterday and talked to him about the campaign (and his competitor, Patti Darling),  downtown traffic issues, and what he thinks about technologies like Wikis and Blogs.

See for yourself: click here for a 3-min video summary of our chat:

Chat with Bruce Bassett
Bruce Bassett for Mercer Island City Council

Still trying to figure out how to vote for Position # 5 on November 6th?  Contact Bruce yourself -- I know he'll be more than happy to talk about what matters to you too.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Schools Foundation

We moved to Mercer Island from Los Altos, California a few years ago because we thought the similar demographics would mean that people have the same high standards for education.  It's true that Mercer Island schools are among the best in the state and many people move here just for the quality of the public education.  But in spite of virtually identical demographics, people in Mercer Island have a long way to go to match the much higher emphasis on quality schools they have in Los Altos.

I happened to visit our old school district yesterday.  This picture says it all.

  Mercer Island Los Altos
Students 4,102 4,299
# of people with jobs 17,080 14,979
Households with >$200K annual income 1,556 2,355
School Foundation annual donations $725 $1.7M

In Los Altos, the "recommended" donation to the Los Altos Educational Foundation is $600 per family.  You don't have to give, and of course some people are unable, but if you have the means, you'll feel guilty if you don't contribute at least that much.

Why do people on Mercer Island contribute so little to the Mercer Island Schools Foundation?  Is there a suggested donation?  Does anybody feel guilty for not giving?

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Blue Fin Seafood

Why do people classify sushi as ethnic (Japanese) cuisine, rather than seafood, which is what it really is?  Some of the more high-end seafood places already classify it correctly, like at Blue Fin in Times Square,where I had a wonderful lunch while in New York this week. The menu includes all the standard, fresh fish you'd expect from a seafood restaurant: crab, lobster, mahi, etc.  but they also have sushi. 

It's such a good idea that I expect someday all seafood places will offer sushi too.



Blue Fin in New York

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Jump Start Your Prius

I was out of town all week, so apparently just sitting in the garage was enough to run down the puny 12-volt battery inside my car. A Prius actually has two batteries: one to run the car (of course) and the other to run the electronics -- and that's the one that was dead.  Next time I guess I better manually turn off the keyless entry system.  Whatever the cause, it wouldn't start this morning. One problem with a Prius is that the all-electronic drive means you can't even get it into neutral without the 12-volt battery, which in my case meant I couldn't get jumper cables close enough to start it myself, so I called AAA.

The service guy who arrived was friendly but pretty clueless about the Prius.  He eventually agreed to look at my manual and long story short, we got it running. 

Now I've had more time to look into the situation and I wonder why next time I don't just attach any old 12v battery.  Even the Toyota web site says:

Q: Can Prius be jump-started?

Yes. Should you need it, Prius can be jump-started with any standard 12-volt DC power source, and it actually requires less power than a conventional car. Simply connect the cable clamps to access points under the hood (which are connected to the auxiliary battery near the cargo area) and energize the computer. Then press the Start button to turn the car on.

In other words, a simple 12V power source, like the one in one of our emergency lanterns (or maybe my laptop?) would have worked fine.  Next time I'm going to try that before wasting time with AAA.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Kathleen Who?

The Seattle Times endorsed somebody named Kathleen for Mercer Island city council.  Anybody know who he/she is?  I'm sure that these editorial boards have a thorough vetting of each candidate before doing their endorsements, which is of course why I trust every single word of their editorials.  So who's Kathleen?  Are the other names right too?

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Transcripts of Voters Forum

Thank you to everyone who responded with their comments letting me know about last week's Voter Forum.  I can listen to the the whole podcast on the plane to New York this morning, but meanwhile, my readers pointed me to two audience questions near the end, where the differences between Mike Cero and Maureen Judge were most obvious.

The first was about whether the City Council should sign a petition for the Families and Education Program.  Here's Mike's answer:

I'm in favor. I have two years experience on the signing board; I was Lakeridge PTA president last year; I understand the challenges of the district. From the beginning, looking at Olympia, I don't see relief on our financial issues with the district from Olympia to happen in the short term. So I am all for islanders helping Islanders. That's going to be an efficient tax, if you will, to improve our school district.

Now, I may try to influence, if you will, a little bit of the direction that the school board goes, and they all know what direction that may be--Frank you know what direction that might be, we served on the same committee together (class size). Absolutely, I think that's a win-win situation. The reason my wife and I moved here 11 years ago were primarily for the schools and the education that our schools will get from the district and I certainly support that Frank and would use that as an opportunity to promote class sizes -- at least get the ship going in the right direction.

Here's Maureen:

I support the petition as well. It is one of those things about MI that makes it so special. People move here for the schools, and if we don't fund them properly, not only do our children suffer, all of us suffer. So yes, I am definitely in favor of the petition.

I also believe that we need to apply more pressure at the state level, for appropriate funding. When I met with the MIEA for their endorsement interview I made the point of saying "We're all in this together" and as a City Council person, I would be down in Olympia testifying that we need more money. We're in this together. It's not just up to Brian and Judy and Fred. I will be standing by them when they need to, perhaps, increase taxes so that we are appropriately funding schools.

Interestingly, both of the sitting councilmen (Steve Litzow and El Jahncke) were non-committal, reminding the audience that the City is already hugely exposed to a looming budget shortfall caused by a $20M lake sewer project and that any use of tax money for schools would be lower priority.

To the second audience question, on low-income housing, El Jahncke (Councilman up for re-election this year) responded by saying he prefers the term "workforce housing", and that we should find incentives for City police/fire and teachers to live where they work.

Here's Mike:

I'm a little bit apprehensive about low-income housing, workforce housing -- whatever you want to call it. This is an affluent island and I don't apologize for that. It's going to be tough to maintain the charm and character of our many different neighborhoods and get quote-unquote affordable housing. I was on a police ride a couple weeks ago and he basically said 'I don't live on Mercer Island; I don't care to live on Mercer Island." Yes it would be nice to have our teachers, some of the police force, some of the firemen living on the island but the fact of the matter is, this is an affluent island. I don't apologize for it. We have some wonderful neighborhoods with charm and character, and you start fooling around with that charm and character, with great intentions for affordable housing, but the end result is it doesn't end up being affordable housing because of the market demands. It ends up being a very expensive, affluent house like we have on Mercer Island.

Here's Maureen:

I think we can work with the developers -- there's still so much building going on Mercer Island. I think there are creative solutions to try to block out affordable housing. You know, it's not a simple answer but I think creative solutions in this case -- working with developers, giving them incentives so we can make housing available to people who do want to be on the island and to stay.

I was pleased to see that, in spite of the short amount of time given to audience questions, it was still possible to see sharp differences between the candidates, and I look forward to listening to the whole thing.

Meanwhile, you know who I think did the best job overall?   Steve Litzow:  his opening statement about "pothole" issues nicely summarized exactly what I think a local official should be, and his informed responses to the parking and education issues gave me a new level of respect for him.

Amazon Fresh in Bellevue

I saw this truck on 156th street in Bellevue this week:

After doing a trial rollout on Mercer Island for the past few months, are they expanding to other areas?

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Compexity Behind Simple Majority

I’m a long-time supporter of EHJR 4204, the proposed change to the Washington State Constitution to allow school levies to be approved by a simple majority (50%+1) rather than the super-majority (60%) required today . There is no shortage of well-written arguments in favor of 4204, but they basically boil down to these two:

  1. Schools are extremely important and they need more funding.
  2. The current constitutional system is archaic and unfair. The levy system was invented in the 1940s and a lot has changed since then. You can approve a jail with 50%, but not schools? A President or Governor can be elected by a mere 50% (or sometimes less), so it's ridiculous to put our children's future hostage to a higher bar.

These arguments are pretty straight-forward, so why would anyone oppose the measure, especially when it's so vital to children? And why did it take half a century to finally propose ditching the current, unjust system?

The Voters Guide official statement against 4204 just rants about high taxes, saying (I'm paraphrasing) even though we of course support education, you should reject this on the basic principle that higher taxes are never good.

Here are some much better arguments against the measure:

  • More than 98% of all levies pass anyway, so what's the problem? 33 out of 226 levies in 2006 passed the first time, and only 4 failed the second time (according to the pro-4204 campaign web site). I'm not sure: has Mercer Island, for example, ever failed to get levy funds?
  • Levies often fail for good reasons. Who decides how much to raise in a levy, and how to spend it? School board elections everywhere are notoriously uncompetitive. Mercer Island's currently open seats are all uncontested. If the public's not watching, a tiny minority can put whatever they like on that levy and that 60% approval is often the only thing holding them back. For example:
    • Bainbridge Island tried to use their levy to pay for a laptop for each child in the district (according to a caller on last Wednesday's KUOW Community Forum podcast). Many voters thought it was a wasteful use of tax-payer money, particularly in an affluent community where parents could afford this with their own money.
    • Name something controversial in your community: Intelligent Design textbooks? Immigration? PEAK? What stops the levy committee from putting their pet project into your taxes? Answer: the fear of igniting an organized backlash that threatens that 60% majority.
  • Renters benefit from schools too, and they should pay their fair share. Why force property owners to bear the burden of schools alone, particularly in a community with a large percentage of home-owning seniors living on fixed incomes?
  • Schools don't fail for lack of money. Corrected for inflation, spending per student has tripled since 1960. Forcing levy backers to get 60% approval also forces them to get real community sponsorship of the schools -- which is often at least as important as the money itself.

As I said, I'm a big supporter of 4204, and I want you to support it as well. But you can't be a good advocate without understanding and refuting the counter-arguments. Can you ?

Don't let that wine leave the house

An oenophile friend bought a place near Zillah to grow grapes and make their own wine. Is it legal for them to give some to us?

It appears the answer is no:

Here are the rules, from Washington Revised Code Title 66, Chapter 66.12, §66.12.010:

  1. An adult member of a household may remove family wine from the home for exhibition or use at organized wine tastings or competitions, subject to the following conditions:
    (a) The quantity removed by a producer for these purposes is limited to a quantity not exceeding one gallon;
    (b) Family wine is not removed for sale or for the use of any person other than the producer.

I also checked the rules for a few other states. In New Hampshire, for example, the law is unclear about whether it's okay to make your own beer or not.

[Slate has a nice summary about home brew alcohol]

Accidents and Campaign Signs

I'll be glad when the election is over and the candidates start to clean up their litter, but sometimes I wish it weren't illegal to remove some of them right now. 

I was trying to turn left onto Island Crest from 86th Ave in the pouring rain last night and look what blocked my view of the oncoming traffic:


Question #1: Do you think this sign placement helps or hurts this candidate?

Question #2: Which is more dangerous: a campaign sign that blocks the view of traffic, or an idiot who tries to take a picture of it from his car while turning?  :-)

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Here we go again

Argh, today's big storm caused the power to go out earlier this afternoon and now my neighborhood is in the dark again, just like last December, and I'm having to get on the Internet by candlelight. What a pain.

About 100 homes on Mercer Island are without power, according to the city web site, but I don't believe them -- it's got to be more than that. There's a whole dark section along West Mercer down to the water, and a friend says the South End is dark too.

Update: I was wrong. The power to our neighborhood was back on before midnight and now everything's back to normal. Maybe it wasn't very widespread after all. Cancel that order for a generator.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Voter Forum

Much as I wish I could have attended all of tonight's Mercer Island Voter Forum, my day job has kept me far too busy lately and I had to rush home. It was nice to see a few familiar faces, especially Steve Litzow, who agreed to be my friend on Facebook!

I heard the best soundbite was from Maureen Judge, who promised to fight for us from Olympia.  But what else?  If you attended, please pile on in the comments of this post and let us know what you thought.


Saturday, October 13, 2007

Mercer Islanders for Mike Cero

I've been critical of how the City Council campaign for Mercer Island newcomer Maureen Judge is financed almost entirely by non-residents and special interest groups. Several people have complained that I haven't given a similar critical look at Mike Cero and his campaign, and one anonymous reader even tipped me off that Mike's newest contributors are also off-island. I've been too lazy till now to check the facts, but I guess it's better late than never:

Median Donation$50$100
Ave Donation$110$150
New indiv donors since the primary508

As you can see, the anonymous tipster was completely wrong. Not only does Mike get nearly all his money from Island residents, but he also has a far broader base of support -- about double the number of individual donors as Maureen. Presumably he can count on at least 200 votes if you assume that everyone who donated will also vote for him. Actually, that's not necessarily true: some people contributed to both campaigns! (interestingly, the "double-dippers" gave to Maureen early in the Spring, then switched to Mike within the past two months).

It's clear that Maureen, who filed for City Council less than 9 months after moving to the Island, is a long-term bet by the Democratic party to establish a "bench" of experienced political leaders who can move on to state or national offices. Darcy Burner, for example, lost the 2006 congressional election in part because many voters who were otherwise frustrated by Bush and Iraq simply couldn't bring themselves to vote for somebody with no civic experience. Too bad Darcy wasn't first elected to Mercer Island City Council.

So what about Mike? If the Democrats see this as an important partisan race, what do the Republicans think? and are they voting with their wallets the way that special interests have rallied behind Maureen? The short answer is no, not officially: neither of his off-island donors are reliable Republicans. Yes, most of his top Islander contributors do in fact donate regularly to Republicans, but at least two of the top ten contributed to Nobel Prize Winner Al Gore's past campaigns (I presume that means they're Democrats) and another shows up on the official list of people whose ballots were mistakenly not counted during the 2004 election (Gregoire's razor-thin election recount depends on it being a Democrat).

Since Maureen is so clearly backed by the Democrats as a long-term national bet, that explains why so few big-time Democratic donors have openly backed Mike. In looking over the donation records of Maureen's key supporters (the school board members, the former mayors, etc. who have endorsed her) -- virtually all of them are active in the Democratic Party. What could they possibly gain by openly supporting her opponent, especially when many of them announced their support for her before it was even clear who else would be running? By default, that means Mike is going to attract non-Democratic donors.

Bottom line: in spite of Maureen's impressive Democratic endorsements, Mike's one-voter-at-a-time grassroots campaign is real competition.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Why does he bother?

El Jahncke, Mercer Island resident since 1978, is running uncontested for reelection to the City Council.  He has raised exactly $0 for his campaign.  By all accounts, he is well-respected and well-liked.  He will win no matter what he does.

In spite of that, he goes out of his way to post signs (personally?), file his biography in the official voters pamphlet, and make himself available to the public, almost as if he's really running for reelection.  Does he somehow think that we, the voting public, matter?


But why does he bother?  His fellow councilman, Steve Litzow, is also running uncontested and his biography doesn't even appear in the voters pamphlet.  Steve raised more than $20K for this election, and spent more than half of it, mostly on consulting services.   Steve sent a $3,000 fund-raising letter in May -- how come I didn't get one?!  -- but otherwise, in contrast to El Jahncke, I haven't seen any evidence whatsoever that he's campaigning.  What do all his consultants ($3,000 -- billed long after it was clear he was running uncontested), web site designers ($500), book-keepers ($1000), and others do? 

Update: shortly after this was posted, Steve Litzow signs started popping up all over.  Today I even got my direct mail piece.  His web site is up and running and looking very slick.  Go Steve!

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Inevitable Thaw in Global Warming

As I've said before, it is an indisputable scientific fact that the world is getting warmer, that the trend is likely to continue, and that humans are partly if not mostly responsible. The only real question is what, if anything, should be done about it.

The new Harvard Business Review has a whole section on it, featuring my b-school hero Michael Porter, and futurist Peter Schwartz who I respect greatly, but -- am I crazy? --I can't find a single recommendation that wouldn't be worth doing even if the world were not warming. Reduce transportation costs? Manage water resources wisely? A smart firm should do those things, period.

Sorry, there are a few exceptions. Michael Porter suggests that in some industries, new government regulations promoting carbon trading could make it more profitable for, say, a forestry company to plant rather than harvest trees. But that's a fake example that applies to any government policy. Farmers already plant unwanted crops when the government artificially subsidizes them.

Now I see that in our local Mercer Island City Council election of all places, we have candidate Patti Darling making this her number one campaign issue. How ridiculous is that? Reduce our carbon footprint, she says!? What on earth does that have to do with zoning, traffic, taxes--the issues that matter to me? Name one thing you would do on Mercer Island to reduce carbon emissions that wouldn't be smart even if there were no global warming? I dare you: think of a specific proposal that can't be justified for better, more practical and short-term reasons.

By the way, I'm ignoring the important fact that anything we do is so trivial that it will be completely irrelevant to the global climate. Sure, we can "show leadership" or whatever, but our sister city in China will be happy to out-pollute our leadership if it offers a way out of poverty.

Even if the entire world were to unite on this issue, most people agree that significant climate change is inevitable no matter what we do. But here's my point: we're not interested in an issue whose significant effects take decades, where mitigation steps are important for good reasons that have nothing to do with climate, and especially when it's clear to us that politicians and businesses are using this as crude attempt to sound like they care.

So I have a prediction: the 2008 election season will be the high point for "Global Warming" as a significant campaign issue. By 2012, and certainly within a decade or two, public attention will return to other, more meaningful problems. Sure, sea levels might rise and polar bears might die, but 2050 is a long, long time from now and we'll have long since given up on politicians who can't describe their platform more pragmatically.

Bonus question: how come nobody runs a City Council campaign on solving the Arab-Israeli conflict, or better relations with China, or reducing third world poverty? Any of those issues would have immediate relevance to many of us (and our relatives) today, could drive practical local initiatives (like sister city programs), and would have sustainable long-term benefits to children.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Democratic Candidate Maureen Judge

Okay, here it is in black and white about what Maureen Judge supporters think about the supposedly non-partisan City Council election:

The Democrats are building a deep, deep bench with candidates like Maureen Judge in Mercer Island and Keri Andrews in Bellevue.


I have no doubt that Maureen is intelligent, caring, and laser-focused on the politics of winning an election. But how interested, really, is she in local affairs?  I bet she couldn't care less about the traffic on my street (not enough voters), or about issues that matter to my school (too local). 

Why doesn't she run for state legislature, or Congress?  I might vote for her.  But if she wins the City Council election, who's going to represent me on zoning issues or traffic or parks? 

The Internet is changing everything, including politics, to be hyper-individualized and hyper-local. Maureen is taking a logical step -- use non-local money and national issues to convince voters they can trust her.  In the long, long run, that won't work, as online tools like Facebook make it ultra-easy for local/individual issues to trump national ones.  In a few years, a newcomer supported mostly by outside interests will be ignored.

Meanwhile this election will be an interesting test.  Can Mike Cero, with his close personal connections to Islanders, trump somebody whose only relationship to voters is their party affiliation?

Bonus question: what would happen if Maureen campaigned openly as a Democrat?  Would she gain or lose more votes overall? 

Million Dollar Quartet

We endured rain at the Issaquah Salmon Festival again this year (in spite of my previous experiences there) to attend a performance of Million Dollar Quartet at the Village Theatre.

As predicted, the music was excellent -- I think the casting call went to musicians, not actors.  The plot, if you can call it that, was so-so.  It described a legendary meeting of Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, and Jerry Lee Lewis, so as you might expect, most of the people in the audience were senior citizens.

The American South is a remarkable place, sometimes associated (incorrectly, I think) with backwardness and poverty, but it's also at the core of America, as you can see from the contributions Southerners have made to American culture with Jazz, Blues, Rock N Roll, not to mention most of our post-War U.S. Presidents.  People from the Coasts, or foreigners: if you want to really understand America, you need to understand the South.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Camera truck on Mercer Island

Look at the cameras on top of this truck, spotted near the middle of Mercer Island yesterday.  If you peer closely through the tinted glass, you can see several laptop computers with various map-like displays.

The driver went systematically through every public street in our neighborhood, traveling at a pretty reasonable clip. I assume he was taking photos the whole time, which presumably means that in some future update of Windows Live Local, you'll see me holding a camera at the side of the road.

City Council Blogger

Randy Corman, Renton City Councilman for 14 years, has a blog that he updates nearly every day.  Many people think Mercer Island could use televised city council proceedings, and I don't disagree, but a blog is so much better.  You really get a sense of what a public official is up to.

Local officials and candidates send dozens of emails each day.  They could save time by simply posting their daily thoughts on line and pointing others to it. 

Incidentally I just noticed that Mike Cero has a regular newsletter (the latest was just published October 2nd).  It's quite informative, and gives you a good sense of what he stands for.  Too bad it's only in PDF, which is annoying to read on line and doesn't show up in Google searches. Still, it's much more information than you get about the other candidates, none of whom has any online updates that I can see.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Reading list for September

So much to write, so little time. Several good friends have asked me about what interesting books I've read lately. I say "check out my blog", but now I realize that I'm so far behind on my summaries that it'll be hard to get a good glimpse. So rather than do a helpful, thoughtful review, here's a brief look at where I'm getting my new ideas:


I listen to an hour or so of various things each day. My favorite is Econtalk, which comes out every Monday. Every one is good, but in the last few weeks I've particularly enjoyed the interview with Black Swan author Nassim Taleb. The basic idea is that many processes we think of as statistical (like stock markets or insurance) are really much more complicated. It'll be on my short list of books I want to read.

I also listen to the Wall Street Journal This Morning, a daily business news summary, and I follow IT Conversations in case there's anything good. Nothing special lately, except for a nice summary of open source telephony that's relevant to what I do at work.


I'm reading Steven Pinker's new book, of course, and I'll write up something in more detail when I'm done. I also read Tyler Cowen's Discover Your Inner Economist, but I found it disappointing: Cowen's Marginal Revolution may be a nice blog, but in book form he just meanders too much.

There's much more to write, about movies (like the Enron Documentary I just watched) and tons of magazines. But I can't write now -- I have too much reading to finish.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007


Lately a new feature has begun to appear in our back yard:  Little divots, randomly scattered throughout the lawn, as though a golfer or a kid with a shovel has been through here.  Very annoying.

Our neighbors have been afflicted by moles, so I suppose it was a matter of time before some of the creatures decided to move in with us too.  Apparently it's illegal to poison or trap them, so unless we decide to welcome the extra aerating for the lawn, we will have to hire a licensed professional.  Any suggestions?

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Blog your way to city council

Brian Seitz is a Microsoft employee who happens to be running for a seat on the Redmond City Council.  I don't know anything about him, but if I lived in Redmond I'd definitely be following his blog.  He updates it regularly, so if you read it you come away feeling like you have a good sense of who he is and what he's trying to accomplish. Brian gives immediate feedback about each event he attends, tells his side of the story when the press makes a mistake, and even posts Youtube outtakes of himself.

But here on Mercer Island, we've got nothing but ugly campaign signs and boring web sites.  Patti Darling's site is an ugly single page that was apparently designed using the 1930 edition of Microsoft Word (slow!)   Maureen Judge hasn't updated hers in over a month.  Where's Mike Cero or Bruce Basset? Are they still running?

So far none of our candidates offer an easy way to keep up with how their campaigns are progressing.  What's with that?  Are they expecting me to do all their blogging for them? 

Bug Jam

Last night we went to the Bug Jam, sponsored by the Scarab Society and hosted at the University of Washington Burke Museum  I was surprised at the turnout: about 25 people of all ages, about half kids half adults.  Many of them are obviously regulars, and some of the older adults are seriously hard-core.  One woman (a teacher) came from Federal Way; another man (retired) drove from Enumclaw just for this. 

Entomologist Sharon Collman (recently profiled in the Seattle Times) led the discussion, with informal presentations by attendees showing off their latest prized finding.  There were plenty of experts on hand to identify various mysterious creatures people had with them.

One collector showed off some of his prizes, the smallest beetles on earth, captured at his home.  We also saw a wasp-like thing (I can't remember the name) that is attracted to wood fires, of all things, so it can lay eggs in places like forest fires where its young will grow up surrounded by fresh vegetation.  All-in-all an interesting event, and not to be missed if you are fascinated by the insects of the Northwest. Held the fourth Monday of each month.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Forecasting Global Warming

 Scott Armstrong is a professor of marketing at Wharton who I remember as the geeky Decision Sciences instructor. He's an expert on forecasting, an important business discipline for market research of course, but also relevant for evaluating any long-term predictions of the future. His team runs a web site on forecasting principles, and publishes a book which is the standard textbook on the systematic study of decision-making about the future. His team has studied more than 82,000 forecasts to see which techniques work and which don't and one of their conclusions is that, without rigorous attention to some key details, "expert" long-range forecasts are almost always wrong.

This week he published a draft of a new report where he analyzes the IPCC's report on climate change (you know, the big UN-sponsored one that got all the attention earlier this year). Using his forecasting principles he concludes that the IPCC methodology is riddled with classic errors that essentially render it useless. Here are some biggies:

  1. Forecasts made by experts who collaborate on their projections are weakly related to accuracy. The IPCC would have had better results if the various contributors reached their conclusions independently.
  2. Even given modest uncertainty in models, the degree of long-range variability among predictions is so huge that you're unlikely to get valuable policy recommendations.
  3. Models that "fit" to historical data, like much of the complex math behind the IPCC models, rarely produce accurate results without rigorous attention to details. All it takes it one or two unexpected events (volcanoes? El Nino?) and the entire projection goes out the window. He offers ways to control for this, but notes that IPCC didn't do that and probably would have had different results if they had.

Ever notice how discussions of global warming rarely (if ever) offer serious policy suggestions to fix the problem? Most recommendations I've seen on how to "save the planet" are worth doing for other short-term and very practical reasons: lowering your carbon footprint will lower your electric bill, cutting America's "addiction to oil" lessens our dependence on Middle East suppliers, a Prius is a fun high-tech car anyway, etc.  Nothing about that advice changes, regardless of the accuracy of these long-term (and probably inaccurate) projections. 

But don't be fooled when you see a company or politician use Global Warming as marketing spin to make it look like they have your long-term interests at heart.  If Scott Armstrong is right, the long-range forecasts are meaningless and may in fact be serving the short-term interests of people who just want you to buy their stuff or vote them into office.

Monday, September 17, 2007

I'm an Indian!

A few months ago I asked my 90-year-old grandmother to rub the inside of her cheek with a soft cotton swab, and then I sent it to the Genographic Project's DNA laboratory to be tested (cost is about $99). Grandma grew up speaking German, surrounded by relatives who had come from Prussia, so imagine our surprise when the results showed that she is of Haplogroup X, a DNA sequence associated with the indigenous people of North America. Grandma is an American Indian!

She scoffs at the very thought of it. There were native Americans nearby where she grew up in Northern Wisconsin, but they certainly weren't part of the family. She's German, like everyone else she new growing up. Grandma doesn't think much of those stupid DNA tests.

Well to be precise, this test looks at mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), which is not the same thing as the DNA you inherit equally from both parents. If you remember your high school biology, every cell in your body contains a nucleus, made of "regular" DNA. But a cell also contains other material, including little energy-supplying mitochondria, which also contain bits of DNA called mtDNA.

Remember how cells divide by splitting into identical halves, each of which in turn will divide, on and on forever? Each cell in your body is the result of a long series of divisions that began when you were a single, unfertilized egg cell in your mother. That cell was also the result of a series of divisions all the way back to her mother, and so on into the distant past. That's what makes mtDNA interesting: it's from the non-nucleus (i.e. unfertilized) part of that single, constantly-dividing cell that goes way, way back into time, and since it's unfertilized, it contains no DNA from any father, ever.

So my grandmother's haplotype X comes from her mother, and her mother's mother, all the way back -- no fathers involved. And since it's just for mothers, we asked Grandma to think carefully about her mother's history, and the history of her grandmother. That's when Grandma remembered that her own grandmother, orphaned at a young age when her parents died of tuberculosis, was adopted by German immigrants! Grandma's father's side was German, but now we know what happened on the mother's side!

Since Grandma had no daughters of her own, there would have been no way to discover this fact about my family if we hadn't swapped her cheek in time. Good reason for those of you who have living grandmothers to rush out this instant and get her tested before it's too late. You may find a similar surprise in your family tree!

Friday, September 14, 2007

Case Dismissed

Remember that speeding ticket I got driving north from Seattle earlier this summer? I was annoyed about it because I’m proud of my spotless record (not one scratch, not one ticket) and frankly I thought it was unfair that he singled me out when I was driving the same speed as everyone else.

Well, I'm proud to say that this week the Snohomish County court ruled that I am not a crook. My perfect record remains intact now that the judge dismissed the case.  Here are the lessons I learned:

  1. Never, ever admit guilt to the officer on the scene. I hear stories from friends who claim you stand a better chance if you appear "nice and honest", but really all you do is incriminate yourself. Don't offer yourself as the State's best witness.
  2. Within a few days, you'll receive a ticket in the mail. Always contest the charges. After seeing how easy it was to dispute the charges, I don't know why anybody would just admit guilt and pay up. You have nothing to lose.
  3. Don't request a "mitigation hearing". It's a waste of time. You might think that by being upfront and honest you'll find a judge who respects your sincerity. Forget it. As far as I can tell, these hearings are only for people who have lots of violations, are guilty as sin, and don't know the rules.  Check the box that says "contest the charges". (oh, and pay the extra couple bucks to send it certified mail to prevent screw-ups)

Soon you'll receive another notice in the mail, one giving you a court date, which in my case was about 6 weeks later. At this point you have a choice: contest it yourself, or hire an attorney to represent you. I considered representing myself, but decided against it because I care about my perfect record more than the fine or even the potential increase in insurance rates.  I just didn't want to take a chance on screwing up.

I contacted several attorneys (see my original post and comments for details) but ultimately decided on Jeannie Mucklestone.  I asked around and found another friend who had worked with her in the past and spoke highly of her.  (My friend's wife was accused of speeding in a school zone, but Jeannie got the case dismissed). Jeannie also convinced me that she knows her stuff and is very responsive. She charges an all-inclusive flat fee of $350, which is a little more than the others but again, I didn't want to take chances on a rookie. 

Another attorney I considered (and would recommend you consider) is Jon Zimmerman, of  He was incredibly responsive -- he replied within minutes when I sent emails over the weekend -- and if you prefer to do everything on line, he's very tech-savvy.

You might think it makes sense to ask potential lawyers about their success rate, but that's a waste of time. None of them will give you a percentage because every case is different, but I suspect in fact the odds are highly in your favor. Rather than ask about overall percentages, ask them about their familiarity with your court.  Jeannie was able to rattle off facts about my court that convinced me she really does have experience there.

Retaining the attorney is very easy.  Jeannie let me pay online by Paypal, and then I mailed her my court document.  After that, I was done!  She handled absolutely everything: I didn't have to write a statement, didn't have to sign anything, and I didn't even need to appear in person.  (That was nice, considering the court was a 45-minute drive from my home).  All I had to do was wait for the court date and the letter afterwards announcing that all charges were dropped.

If you're an unsafe driver, or you yak on your phone while swerving through traffic and ignoring lights, then I have no sympathy for you and none of the above tips apply. But if you're like me, just trying to get from one place to another as efficiently and safely as possible, you owe it to yourself to fight back.