Monday, April 30, 2007

Bottled Water vs Tap

A four-year study by the NRDC (whoever they are) concludes that bottled water is mostly good stuff, but rarely better than tap water. They claim that the water from your faucet is produced under more stringent rules than the stuff that comes in bottles. For example, whereas city water must be tested 100 times per month, bottled water plants need test only once a week.

Why do we think bottled water is better? Marketing executives at Pepsi and Coke are trying to sell you a healthy alternative to soda, so of course they'll advertise it as great-tasting and good for you. They're not trying to compete against tap water, though they don't mind if you somehow get that impression. But don't be fooled.

There are good reasons to drink bottled water, such as the convenience while traveling. But at home or at a restaurant, it makes much more sense to get regular, plain ole tap water.

[for more details, see this CNN story]

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Luthar featured on KING5

Seattle NBC affiliate KING5 has a short news segmentt about Suniya Luthar's presentation to Mercer Island parents last week.  Nothing new in the broadcast, though it's always nice to see our school on TV.

I wonder how they got the video clip of the student smoking marijuana?  Did reporter Deborah Feldman ask around until she found a teenager willing to light up on camera?  Was he hard to find?  Will she (or anyone) help the kid get treatment or counseling?  That sounds like a much more interesting story to me because it points to an inconsistency in the way we think about drugs, versus other vices, in schools.  What if, instead of a pothead, the segment showed a kid shooting heroin?  Or brandishing a gun or a bomb? 

Head lice

This five-minute podcast from Sound Medicine at Indiana School of Medince should be mandatory listening to everyone with a child enrolled at Mercer Island elementary schools. Based on new, systematic research by Richard J. Pollack and other epidemiologists from Harvard, scientists have concluded that:

  • Lice spread only by head-to-head contact -- not from sharing hats or combs.
  • Personal hygiene has no affect one way or another on incidents of infestation
  • Even school nurses generally have only a 50% accuracy rate when diagnosing an infestation.

Here's what the Harvard School of Public Health says:

  • Sending children home in order to reduce transmission of lice is "virtually always counter-productive."
  • Head lice spread far less easily than cold or flu virus.
  • "We are unaware of any convincing data that demonstrates that enforced exclusion policies are effective in reducing the transmission of lice. "

Here's a data sheet with recommendations for how to manage a head lice infestation at school. Basic idea:

  1. Don't bother with the nits; thoroughly remove live lice with a louse comb every day or two for a week.
  2. Try chemicals if that doesn't work.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Mercer Island and Suniya Luthar

Here are my big takeaways from the Luthar talk on Monday night:

When it comes to risky behavior like cigarettes, alcohol, or drugs, Mercer Island kids versus national averages are:

  • Better in 8th grade, but much worse by 12th grade than other schools
  • Boys are the main driver of the poor stats.

As to causes and solutions, you have to take all these statistics with a huge grain of salt, but for what it's worth, Luthar's data seems to show:

  • Boys benefit from good parental relationships and a strong sense of consequences for bad behavior.
  • Girls benefit from having close friends who don't criticize them.

"Overscheduling" is a myth: kids involved in back-to-back after school activities and academics in order to get into college are doing it because they want to, not because parents make them. The real issue? Kids turn to destructive behavior when they feel they are criticized for achievements beyond their reach.

The most disturbing results from her survey of Mercer Island compared the number of kids with significantly worse behavior than the average. Here, something terrible happens between 8th and 12th grade, because the number of kids who are way bad is much higher than in other communities.

Much of the time was spent interacting with the audience, asking for people's thoughts on the causes, but most of the comments were anecdotal and, I thought, basically wrong. For example: "Girls are judged by different standards than boys", which is no doubt true but why would that be any different here than anywhere else? 

She ended the talk by acknowledging that some of the research was funded by the National Institutes of Health, but then she added: "but believe me, they couldn't care less about this research".  If you want more research like this, she needs a donor, because the government is completely uninterested in helping communities like Mercer Island.  Meanwhile, she wants as many people as possible to fill her on-line survey:

Tweens buying power

Apropos of the Luthar presentations is this NYTimes article from 4/22 about the huge increase of buying power among kids aged 8-15:

Wendy Liebmann, president and founder of WSL Strategic Retail, has studied consumer behavior in retail stores for 17 years for her How America Shops survey.  [She was astounded to find that] parents said 75 percent of their children under 13 had some say — always or occasionally — on the purchases of home d├ęcor for their own room. Forty percent had some say in the skin care products they used, 45 percent on hair care products, 65 percent on sneakers and 58 percent on jeans.

Maybe I'm too much of a "modern" parent because this doesn't seem out of line to me.  What's wrong with letting your kid pick their own sneakers?  My mom used to bring me to the shoe store and let me pick my own shoes -- within a specific price range and utility of course.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Are rich kids more stressed?

The Seattle Times writes (and Melissa blogs  at SaveSeattleSchools) about an upcoming study on anxiety among affluent kids, by Suniya S. Luthar, professor of psychology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University.  The study was paid for by a Department of Health grant to the Mercer Island Communities That Care, an initiative to reduce teen drinking and drug use in a project coordinated by Suzanne Tedesko on the Mercer Island City staff.  From the Times:

Results of a communitywide survey Luthar did on Mercer Island replicated many of her earlier findings on affluent youth and substance abuse. It showed a steep jump between junior high and high school in the percentage of students who used alcohol, cigarettes or drugs. A lack of contact with their parents contributed to distress among youth, according to the report.

Mercer Island High School students were far more likely to display anxiety, depression, withdrawal, trouble sleeping, social problems and rule-breaking behavior than the norm, the survey said.

Luthar is speaking Monday night at 7pm at the High School and I'll try to attend.  (She's also presenting in Bellevue on Tuesday, but instead of free you have to pay $20 -- I wonder if it's the same talk?)

I'm skeptical of the idea that Mercer Island kids are more likely to do drugs because they're burned out from all that overscheduling from their hyper-competitive parents who think getting into Stanford is the only thing that matters.  Why would kids today, whether affluent or not, be any more "overscheduled" than farm kids or those in hungry hunter-gatherer communities?

Fortunately, it looks like Dr. Luthar has read Judith Rich Harris and Steven Pinker, whose thesis is that stress within families matters much less than peer group influences.  In other words, parents' overscheduling is pretty inconsequential compared to, say, those friends from the Rave party you let your daughter attend.

So does Mercer Island have a drug problem?  Nationally, about 45% have never touched the stuff according to The National Center On Addiction and Substance Abuse. That same 45% claim not to have any friends who use drugs either.  In fact only about 17% of kids are considered "high risk" -- have used drugs in the past 30 days.  In their 2004 paper The High Price of Affluence, Luthar along with Chris Sexton, report findings from an affluent community that shows 50% never do drugs -- hey, that's actually better than the national average, though slightly worse than the less affluent school that the study used.

One interesting part of their 2004 study divided the students into self-identified peer groups (Populars, Jocks, Intelligent, Theater, Preppies, Independent, Druggies, and more).  Turns out that Populars are more likely to do drugs, which to me explains why it can seem like there is more substance abuse than there really is.  Unfortunately the paper I saw only describes the high level of the study; I'd love to see the actual data and understand this peer group division better.

I'll wait to hear more from Dr. Luthar, but after some reading I'm inclined to think that if your Mercer Island kid is involved in high-risk behavior, you need to know he/she is part of a small minority of students -- it's not "normal" or "typical", whether they are overscheduled or not.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Literary magazine for kids

While browsing with my 10-year-old in the children's section of the Seattle Public Library today, I stumbled into Stone Soup, bimonthly literary magazine targeted at kids under age 13.  It contains stories, poems, and book reviews written by kids.  They pay $40 per published article, which would be a lot of money to a kid and quite an incentive to submit something. I guess it works, since they claim to get 250 submissions per week.


Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Why ranch style houses are disappearing

Nine of out ten new houses built in 1950 were those one-story "ranch style" homes with big front picture windows, tiny lawns, and open kitchens framed with wood paneling and simple room dividers.  Today's Slate, features Witold Rybczynski, author of the Last Harvest: How a Cornfield Became Danville, a new book dissecting the construction of a suburb.  He explains the history of ranch homes (in California we often called them "ramblers").  These are the highlights:

  • Invented in 1932 by Cliff May, a San Diego architect
  • Home sizes have grown from an average of 800 SF in 1950 to 2100 SF today (one third of new homes are over 2400 SF)
  • More than half of new homes today are 2 stories and none are ranch style
  • New styles: pitched roofs, gables, dormers, bay windows, keystones, shutters, porches, and paneled doors

Having lived in a ranch style house in Sunnyvale for five years, I guess I took it for granted that this was the way houses (particularly in California) are supposed to be.  But it's nice to know that America has moved on.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Best places to fix a fender bender

So far we've been lucky not to dent our cars (knock on wood), but to be honest I'm wary of most auto collision shops.  They seem to get their business via insurance companies, so over time there's a natural incentive for them to do the bare minimum necessary to settle a claim, which can mean shortcuts like non-standard or plastic parts instead of the real thing.  So how to evaluate?  The May 2007 Kiplingers suggests as a web site for independent body shops, not beholden to insurers.  Here are the sites they recommend that are closest to Mercer Island:

Bellevue Auto Rebuild

1424 130th Ave NE
Bellevue, WA 98005
(425) 453-2901

Kelly's Auto Body - Bellevue

1500 130th Ave NE
Bellevue, WA 98005
(425) 454-0855

Taylor's Auto Body Collision 1

330 Main Avenue South
Renton, WA 98055

[don't bother writing this down.  If you ever need your car fixed, just Google "Richard Sprague Auto Body" or something similar to get to this page again]

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Simple majority for school levies

EHJR 4204 - 2007-08 just passed the state senate (and yes, Mercer Island's Senator Weinstein supported it). This is a proposed change to the state constitution that will allow school levies to pass by a simple majority instead of the current 2/3rds -- a much-higher bar.

This still must be approved by the Governor (slam dunk) and then by voters, and there is already a web site and campaign underway to get this passed.

I part with my fellow Libertarians on this one. Sure, there is the ever-present danger that this makes it too easy for lazy districts to raise taxes without accountability, but my kids' school is way underfunded today. For now I'd much rather fight to ensure the money is spent wisely than fight that it gets raised at all.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Counterargument to Al Gore

I'm pretty much convinced that global warming is real, that it is exacerbated if not caused by human activity, and that the next 100 years will see significant climate changes. Although I'm generally skeptical of politicians, I think in this case Al Gore's facts are basically correct, that mainstream science is about as united as it can be, and that opposing the consensus is about as productive as arguing for a Flat Earth. Both Scientific American and The Economist have come out strongly approving the idea and, without time to do original research myself, until now I found no reason to question them.

That's why now I find myself shaken by a new 1-hr documentary from Britain's Channel 4 called The Great Global Warming Swindle. I watched it on Google Video, but I don't know if it was uploaded legally or not so it may be pulled by now. There is also a copy at (along with another bunch of content that, frankly, makes me skeptical of the facts in this video, but still).

The documentary quotes from many experts (former New Scientist editor, professors from M.I.T. and elsewhere, senior NASA scientists, etc.) who not only question the science behind Al Gore's movie, but offer convincing reasons why it appears that there is an overwhelming scientific consensus in spite of very good counter-evidence.

Briefly, the film argues that changes in solar activity influence earth's climate far more than anything we humans can do. Meanwhile, the way science is funded creates an industry of people who will be unemployed if man-made global warming isn't a problem. There is so much government money flowing to climatology study these days that, for example, a lonely scientist wanting to study squirrels will rewrite the application in a way to make it appear to be related to global warming. 

One interesting claim is that the whole concept of global warming was kick-started in the early 1980s when Margaret Thatcher funded research that would help discredit coal mining (and their unions) as a long-term source of energy.

At the very least, I am now wondering why we should let Al Gore's movie be shown to public school kids without also showing something like this one.  Anybody know if there are any counter-counter arguments?


Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Future of local news

From Scott Moore, former publisher of Slate, on Frontline

In other words, you'd take a pile of money -- not even all that much money in relative terms -- and go and create new staffs in a handful of cities around the country and start creating an online-only competitor to the local newspaper. You wouldn't have the same cost structure as the newspaper, but if you were putting out a product that was of equal quality and perhaps much more attractive and Web-like in its approach, you might take a lot of their audience away. And because your cost basis would be lower, you could make a lot of money on that.

People already get a lot of their local information this way, but it's just not tied into a newspaper.  What happens when somebody turns that into a central news portal that is super-local?  The traditional newspapers won't be able to compete.