Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Geek events in Seattle

Friends have recommended the following events:

Ignite Seattle: a series of geek nights hosted by people from O'Reilly and Make, among others.  The next one is on Tuesday Feb 13.

Dorkspot: for engineers/artists involved in the creation of electronic art in the broadest sense of the term.  Meets the first Wednesday of every month.

Renton Airport Expansion Info

There was a Big Meeting at the Mercer Island City Council last night to discuss that new Jet Center expansion that Renton is considering. If approved, all of Mercer Island will be on the flight path of some noisy takeoffs and landings.

You can read all about it, with frequently-updated information at http://nojets.org

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Renton Jets over Mercer Island


The City of Renton is adding a new jet center, attracting new jet traffic to

Renton, flying directly over Mercer Island.  This would affect the

entire Island, from North to South.


On Monday, January 29, Renton officials will present their plan to

Mercer Island and solicit your comments.  It is critical that as many

people as possible attend since this meeting is likely the only

opportunity for Mercer Island citizens to provide input.  The meeting

is 7:00 to 9:00pm on January 29th at the Community Center at Mercer

View, 8236 SE 24th Street, MI.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Is my social security number stolen?

Answer: no.

Plug your social security number or credit card number into this specialized search engine and it will look through the universe of stolen numbers to tell whether your number has been compromised.  I tried it and it turned up bubkis.  For $8/year, they'll continue to monitor a list of your numbers and email you if something fishy ever happens.


So how do I know this website doesn't just harvest everything you type and then use it against you?  First, they promise they don't.  Second, they are backed by Draper Fisher Jurvetson, a leading Silicon Valley venture capital firm.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Data Visualization

IBM just introduced this neat data visualization software, Many Eyes, that lets you see dynamic portrayals of information.  Reminds me of the new site, Swivel.com that works like a Flickr for data--enter whatever data you want, then compare it with any other data set.

Monday, January 22, 2007

"Price Insurance" for plane tickets on Farecast

Next time you buy a plane ticket, use Farecast, a Seattle-based company that has reverse-engineered the algorithms used by the airlines to compute plane ticket prices. Is it better to buy today or wait until next week?  Farecast tells you the answer.  I've been blogging about these guys since they were beta, but they've come a long way since then.

For example, they now have a way to lock in a fare without buying the ticket.  If you pay them $10 (or $3 during their current special deal), they will guarantee for one week whatever lowest price you find today.

For example, suppose I want to fly my parents here to Seattle to visit me sometime in the next several months.  According to Farecast, the lowest price is $257 if they leave on the afternoon of Feb 6th or 7th.  The next lowest price is $309.  Imagine if I had tried to find this fare the old-fashioned way, plugging in various dates one after another. 

Another way to search is by destination. Where are all the cities I can fly to for less than $200 on my birthday?  Who would have guessed that I can go to New Orleans?  Or Philadelphia?  Plenty of restrictions apply (I have to leave Tuesday and return Saturday), but hey, a deal is a deal!

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Washington Learns Counter Arguments

State Representative Glenn Anderson has a 20-page "minority report" that counters many of the claims made in Gov. Christine Gregoire's Washington Learns committee report.

    Skip the first 8 pages, which just criticize the committee, and go to his recommendations:

  1. End grandfathered salaries. Apparently several districts have salary structures that are higher than others, due to some compromise made in the 1970's.
  2. End grandfathered local levy lids. Again, apparently through some historical quirk, some districts are allowed to have levys that are higher than others.
  3. Update the NERC (Non-Employee Related Cost Allocation).
  4. Update the pupil transportation formula.
  5. Stronger Guidance Counseling
  6. Accountability for School Performance
  7. Make high school diploma standards more rigorous

    None of these ideas seems unreasonable, so I wonder why (or if) they weren't sufficiently addressed by the official report. His final two ideas are the most aggressive, so I understand why they could generate some controversy and I'd love to hear the counter-arguments on why they haven't been addressed:

  8. Create a career ladder compensation system for teachers. In other words, accept that teaching is no different from any other skilled occupation, and that you get what you pay for. If we want a world-class education system, we need a compensation structure like those in world-class organizations.
  9. Reward good schools with a bonus program. Again, treat schools like businesses and give more to those who perform better.

    There is a podcast on math education by Fred Jarrett and Ross Hunter, but they don't say much substantive beyond the obvious need to improve math education.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

College is over-rated

Charles Murray thinks fewer people should go to college and I agree, though maybe for different reasons.

There are two competing forces at work. Tuition costs continue to climb faster than inflation, making college far more expensive. Meanwhile thanks to technology, alternatives to college keep getting cheaper and higher quality. If you just want to learn about, say, anthropology, the content you get from today's Internet sites (like MIT's Open University) is much higher than what you find at many (most?) colleges. By the way, note that there are interactive sites too, where you do get the one-on-one feedback that's supposedly important about the college experience.

One point Murray makes that I thought was interesting: craft trades (like carpentry) are going to be in more demand, making the old journeyman system of apprenticeship more appealing. These are not low-paying jobs, and they can't be off-shored.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Snow on Island Crest Way

There are cars littered all over i-90, most of them parked quite orderly at the side of the road. Did they just run out of gas in the terrible, unmoving traffic?  It took me almost five hours to get home, ultimately whizzing past a bus stuck on Island Crest Way just south of Merrimount.  Here's what this evening's Seattle Times says:

Pea-sized hail began to fall on Mercer Island about 4:30 p.m., laying a coat of ice. At the Island Crest exit, traffic was immediately stopped before the hill.

The central business district was gridlock by 5:15 p.m. The streets didn't appear to be snowy or icy, but on the back streets heading south on the island, there was a school bus stuck sideways with a firetruck to the rescue on SE 40th Street. Cars were going 3 mph and people were leaving their cars and walking. There were two Sound Metro buses stuck on Island Crest Way.

 At 9:30pm I didn't find any problems getting up Island Crest -- maybe they salted it or something to make it very passable. But the temperatures are falling so I bet the morning's going to be a doozy of a commute.

Other than the crummy driving, it's kindda pretty outside.  Here's what my back yard looks like:

Roast your own coffee

Back in the pioneer days, settlers traveling west would bring green coffee beans that they roasted in a frying pan before grinding. Here's the high-tech modern equivalent: a $180 home roasting machine from Amazon.

Coffee tastes best a day or so after roasting, so this is not something for my morning latte ritual, but it sounds like something I'll have to try eventually.  Of course, I'd have to find a source for green coffee beans. There's one in the Bay Area, but I don't see anything in Seattle.

Tons of details on this site, including how to do it using a $10 popcorn popper.

Monday, January 08, 2007

My new car

Finally, I have my new car and I'm very excited. After all the searching (and thanks by the way to the zillions of you who offered suggestions), ultimately I ended up thinking hard about my list of what really matters to me:


  1. Must have lots of gadgets. A backup camera is the bare minimum, but yes of course it must have bluetooth for my phone, push-button ignition (no keys!), speech-driven nav system, etc. etc.
  2. Reliability. I was going to add cost, but although obviously I want to save money where I can, it's more important that I have dependable transportation for my commute.
  3. Noise. I want something quiet.
  4. Luxury. Leather seats, plenty of interior and storage room. Solid comfort all the way around.
  5. Status. Let's face it, I'm old enough that I want something that will make a statement, that says I can afford a decent car and that tells prospective customers, partners, and employees that I know how to enjoy life.


Now, here are some things I care less about: speed (I'm always in traffic, so who cares about going any faster than the speed limit), looks (within reason), global warming.

So what did I buy?

A Toyota Prius Touring Edition #6. It has everything I need. Even the standard system comes with a large LCD that displays details of the motor in real time. It has an SR-driven nav system, though the speech recognition UI is so poorly implemented that it's almost unusable -- but there are aftermarket options that I'll be getting anyway. I'll write more later about that.

Reliability is a given, since it's a Toyota. Some people talk about how the batteries run into trouble eventually, but after looking around I never did find a confirmed case. PriusChat mentions a cab driver who used it for 200,000 miles and it was still running. These things have been on the road for 10 years, so it's not an "experimental" vehicle by any stretch.

As for status, it seems to be the standard issue vehicle among the technology elite (take a look at all the famous owners). And here's what the New York Times had to say:

After all, said David M. Buss, a professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Texas in Austin, women are almost hard-wired to notice a car like the Mustang BMW or Infiniti. "Men with the muscle cars and sports cars tend to be signaling that they have extravagant resources, and sufficient excess to lavish those resources on nonnecessities," he said in an e-mail message. "These are precisely the qualities that women look for in a short-term mate — extravagant display of resources that can be devoted to them.

But that does not mean that manhood must be sacrificed in a Prius, he said. "Men driving the prudent, fuel efficient cars, in contrast, are signaling that they are not short-term mating strategies, but rather long-term mating strategies," he added. " They are signaling dependability, reliability, conscientiousness, long-term planning and willingness to commit."

This in spite of the evidence that hybrid cars are worse for the environment when you consider the dust-to-dust lifecycle of the car, but hey not everyone agrees.

I'll have much more to say about this car in future posts, but right now I'm just enjoying the new-car smell and wishing my commute were longer We'll see how long that lasts :-(

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Who is my neighbor?

Our new phonebook arrived today. I can never remember which is the "official" phonebook, because I think Donnelly or somebody makes a competing one. Anyway, this is published by Verizon and comes with an online version at http://www.superpages.com.

The cool thing about Superpages is that you can easily create a phonebook of just your neighbors.  Enter your name and zipcode on the "People Finder" page.  After you see the listing, click the option "Find Neighbors" and it shows all the people on your street.  Select the "printable" option and it formats it nicely for printing.

Podcast: Jeff Hawkins

He's the entrepreneur behind Palm, using his fortunes to finance his hobby, a neurosciences institute and a new secret spin-off company Numenta.  He's also the author of the intriguing book On Intelligence, which I read last year and loved so much. He spoke at this Stanford symposium (April 2006) and here are my takeaways:


  • Work Smart: He's proud that he usually ate breakfast and dinner with his kids, even during his busy startup days.  You work 20 hour days when you're lost, and its an indication that you need to get yourself back on track.
  • The book written about Palm by an ex-employee is very accurate.
  • His company, Numenta, should have something to show in Spring 2007.
  • In response to a question from the audience, he didn't seem to have heard of the Singularity, but noted that he thinks Bill Joy's Future Doesn't Need us is wrong.




Story of Acquisition: Palm, US Robotics, 3Com

2 min. 19 sec.

What is an entrepreneur?

49 sec.

Portable Technologies

2 min. 59 sec.

Difficult Negotiations

2 min. 3 sec.

Establish Strong Human Resources Early On

1 min. 34 sec.

Follow Your Passions

2 min. 54 sec.

Entrepreneurship is a Means to an End

1 min. 54 sec.

Role of Market Research

3 min. 49 sec.

Entrepreneurship Viewed as a Tool and When to Use it in Industry & Science

54 min. 48 sec.

Hawkins: What I Wish I'd Learned in College

3 min. 32 sec.

Importance of Experience

2 min. 47 sec.

Product Development: Importance of Customers and Testing

2 min. 6 sec.

Genesis of Palm Computing

3 min. 40 sec.

Spinoff: Handspring

1 min. 41 sec.

Serial Entrepreneurship: Redwood Neuroscience Institute

1 min. 47 sec.

Importance of Going Slow

1 min. 37 sec.

Designing Successful Products

2 min. 30 sec.

Profiles of Entrepreneurs

36 sec.

Following Your Goal

4 min. 10 sec.

Individual vs. Company

1 min. 12 sec.


Pasted from <http://edcorner.stanford.edu/authorMaterialInfo.html?d-5886639-p=1&d-5886639-s=2&d-5886639-o=2&author=16>

Podcast: Marissa Mayer

I'm listening to tons of podcast in my car now.  Here's one from the head of Google's Product Management, who spoke in July 2006 on "9 Lessons on Creativity"



Ideas Come From Everywhere

3 min. 9 sec.

Share Everything You Can

2 min. 36 sec.

Working with Smart People Take a job where you are surrounded by people smarter than you.

2 min. 53 sec.

License to Pursue Dreams

2 min. 13 sec.

Innovation, Not Instant Perfection

4 min. 5 sec.

Data is Apolitical

Don't bother doing a presentation unless you have factual data to back up your thesis.

2 min. 31 sec.

Creativity Loves Constraint

1 min. 41 sec.

Users, Not Money Money follows reach, so go ahead and implement something as long as it gets users.

1 min. 37 sec.

Don't Kill Projects, Morph Them

2 min. 2 sec.

Surviving the Bubble

1 min. 45 sec.

Nine Lessons Learned about Creativity at Google



Pasted from <http://edcorner.stanford.edu/authorMaterialInfo.html?author=205>

Complex Google Searches

One of the best things about Google (and part of the reason for its success) is the way its engineers think of themselves as much more than a simple, consumer-oriented search box.  Their search box is actually a sophisticated command line that lets you do very complicated stuff once you know what you're doing.  I bought a copy of Google Hacks even though the full text is available online through Safari (which by the way, is free if you go through home pages like the Sunnyvale Library) because I wanted to learn more about these searches.

Here's my favorite: it returns music files of certain types with the word Nirvana in the link from certain pages all over the web:

-inurl:(htm|html|php) intitle:"index of" +"last modified" +"parent directory" +description +size +(wma|mp3) "Nirvana"

[see LifeHacker for more details]

Friday, January 05, 2007

ConsumerReports changes its mind on car seats

ConsumerReports.org - gained a lot of publicity early this month over their study concluding that car seats don't perform nearly as well as they should.

Well, now they changed their mind. Turns out their tests were done improperly, at conditions more like 70 mph instead of 35mph. So they're recalling the study until they can do a followup.

Oh, never mind.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Why don't they bury our power lines?

After last month's awful storm, many of us wonder why the power lines are above ground.  When you lose power for 5 days like we did, and you multiply that by the population of Mercer Island, that's a lot of lost productivity that could have been avoided if the lines hadn't blown down.

Here's a thorough report by the Edison Electric Institute that answers the question:

  • Underground lines cost 10 times as much and, even when you take into account the lost productivity when there's a power failure, the benefits only cover 38% of the costs.
  • It may be worthwhile for aesthetic reasons, and who knows, maybe Mercer Island property values would go up, but our power rates would go up a lot as well: perhaps 80 to 125 percent.

I say forget it.

(thanks to Chuck for the pointer)

Cool Tips

Kevin Kelly's Cool Tools site strikes again with some very neat ideas that make life slightly better:

My favorites:

  • Get some Wintergreen oil (methyl salicylate) at the drugstore for a cheap, extremely effective way to loosen rusted or frozen bolts.
  • Don't bother cleaning paintbrushes between uses, especially between coats. Put them in the freezer instead.
  • Instead of expensive "clip chips", reseal opened bags with those office clip things.
  • Olive oil is the best shaving cream.  It's been used for zillions of years and works as well as the $15/can stuff.

Amazon's secret price guarantee

I didn't know that Amazon has a secret price guarantee. They'll refund the difference if something drops in price within 30 days after you purchase.

There's even a website that will email you if that happens.

You have to call Amazon (no email) to get the refund. Call 1-800-201-7575; to get a human right away, dial extension 7.

Peak Oil in Seattle

I told you what I think of the Peak Oil movement (it's hogwash, based partly on simple math errors), so I raised my eyebrows a bit at the Seattle Times article profiling the group Seattle Peak Oil.

I don't know which way the price of oil will go long term -- though I presume it will go up -- but the amount of energy being put into finding alternatives is the classic way the Invisible Hand successfully solves problems like that.

These people remind me of the survivalists, who got some attention back in the 1980s when people were afraid that Ronald Reagan was going to bring us nuclear war.  It's not that their predictions are wrong (after all, they're right that the world will end some day).  But timing is everything. 

(more interesting discussion on Sound Politics)

Don't open the mail

As my son grows interested in coin collecting, and my daughter starts on stamps, I wonder how much longer the post office will continue dealing in physical, paper envelopes.

Here's a start-up in Kirkland that will take your (corporate) mail, scan it, and present it to you in your browser so you don't have to deal with it. They claim 50% of the envelopes they process for customers go unopened.

They just received $3.5M in Angel funding, which sounds like peanuts for how much they can use when they turn into a serious force. Can you imagine what they could do internationally? Imagine if your company could have its postal address in one place and you read all your mail the same day in another?