Tuesday, July 31, 2007

How will they ban this from airplanes?

This credit-card size stainless steel tool can do a lot: knife, bottle opener, wrench, and more.  But it fits in your wallet and only costs $5 from Fishboy.com.  Another great Birthday/Fathers Day Gift.

[via Cooltools]

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Mercer Island needs more places like Cellar46

Did you know that Washington's wine country and the French Bordeaux region are both located at 46 degrees latitude?  That's the inspiration for Cellar46, that fancy wine bar in downtown Mercer Island that we finally visited this weekend. We didn't have a real meal there, just some dessert, but we'll be back.  Their lease contract forbids them from competing directly with Bennetts just around the corner, but they seem to interpret it fairly liberally. You could easily organize an evening for friends here and nobody would go hungry with all the salads, paninis, brushetta, and more. 

You can also order gourmet coffee, chocolate, and other goodies.  They're open from 11am to 11pm, so after lunch I have no idea why anybody would meet up at Starbucks when you have a place like this right around the corner.  Plus, they have quiet, live music in the evenings, and yes, kids are welcome -- we saw coloring books at the counter.  They even have free WiFi!



Cellar 46 in Mercer Island

Saturday, July 28, 2007

[Podcast] Matt Ridley

Matt Ridley doesn't say much new about genes and the environment in his interview with Moira Gunn and David Ewing Duncan, but I enjoyed the conversation anyway. One intriguing bit at the end hints at his next project: why for thousands of years have people been pessimistic about the future, when things long-term have clearly been getting better? fifty years ago, nuclear war was going to do us all in; then it was over-population; now it's global warming. Each generation somehow manages to pass itself on to the next, though always with a forelorn shake of the head at how the future has never been so gloomy. The end of the world will come eventually, so in that sense the doomsayers' predictions will come true eventually, but why do we insist it's just around the corner?

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Shiv Khemka on Knowledge@Wharton

Our old classmate, Shiv Khemka, is featured in a podcast from the 2007 Wharton Economic Summit. He's VP of the SUN Group, a family business that invests in emerging markets.  I listened to the podcast on my long traffic-congested commute today. Among other interesting observations, he points out that Putin's Russia is actually a good investment environment, thanks to the stability, if you know what you're doing.

Another point: energy demand far, far outstrips supply in fast-growing economies like India and China. When asked what he thinks about "green" energy investments, his response is that these places need as much energy as they can get, from any source.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Electrical Problems Solved by The Circuit Detective

For the past several years, we suffered through some strange, but highly intermittent troubles with the electrical sockets in our kitchen. It only affects a few plugs, and only some of the time, but it was getting annoying that every few months the coffee machine stopped working. Move it to another socket and it worked fine.  Leave it rest a few days and like magic the outlet came back to life.

About two years ago we paid an electrician to come to our house to take a look.  After an hour and $100, he concluded that the wiring for the entire kitchen was the wrong gauge.  The 20-amp standard outlets were being fed by wires that were too thin for the job.   Unfortunately that meant ripping out the wall of the kitchen and a lot more time and money than we were prepared to endure. The problem only happened occasionally (every month or two) and there was an easy workaround (use another socket for a while) so we just let it alone.

Well last month the socket stopped working again and stayed dead for a week--much longer than normal. The earlier diagnosis about wire gauge sizes didn't seem right, so this time we called a specialist:  Larry Dimock, a private contractor who calls himself the Circuit Detective. Boy is he good!  His resume says he's a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, but it's clear that electrical circuitry is his real calling.

First, he was extremely responsive and flexible. The outlet only dies sometimes, and then it can come back to life quickly, so we wanted him to see it immediately, and he did: on his way to another job he swung by our house to take a quick look. 

Second, he's very quick.  He dismissed the "wrong gauge" hypothesis immediately -- the symptoms don't fit, he said -- and within seconds narrowed in on the correct problem.  One of the outlets was just plain burnt out -- you could see the damage when he removed it.  The other outlets had been wired incorrectly -- not enough to break all the time, but in a way that made them likely to come loose.

Third, he's thorough: Noting that the same person who did these sockets incorrectly probably did other ones too, he walked through the house and tested our other sockets. Sure enough, several others had been wired poorly -- a potential future problem that he easily fixed.

While he was there, we asked him to look at a bathroom light that similarly seemed to malfunction intermittently.  In just a few minutes of inspection, he isolated the problem: a faulty light bulb!  By proving that the wiring was just fine, he saved us another bundle on a less competent electrician who would have recommended pulling and replacing hard-to-reach wires.

Finally, his prices were very reasonable. For about $200, he solved some problems that had been annoying us for years, and I believe he prevented others that we didn't even know existed.

By the way, even if you don't live in the Seattle area, you should take advantage of Larry's extensive web site:  http://www.thecircuitdetective.com.  It gives pages and pages of tips and tricks for trouble-shooting, and it should be your first stop if you are wondering about some nasty home electrical problem, no matter where you live. 


Incidentally, although Larry strictly limits himself to troubleshooting jobs, he recommends these places for other electrical chores: 

  • Snoqualmie Valley - Mark Stevens 425 788 5887
  • Jerry Burns - Electron Electron 425 222 7400

We want to have our house wired for a generator, and if these guys are anywhere near as good as Larry I'm sure we'll be in good hands.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Mercer Island Summer Celebration

Here's a short (3-min) video summary of what's happening today at the Mercer Island Summer Celebration. Watch the parade, including the Mercer Island Preschool Association. Pirates of Puget Sound put on a performance featuring sword fighting and explosives (cover your ears!)

Lots of people campaigning for the upcoming City Council election, including Bruce Basset, who makes a short cameo appearance in this clip.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Who's the other registered voter at my address?

Sound Politics runs an online tool to look up registered voters in Washington State.  They show three people registered at my address: my wife and I, plus...who is this other guy?  A total stranger, somebody not listed in the phone book.

That convicted sex offender who killed that 12-year-old Tacoma girl is a registered voter too.  And, he's wanted on immigration charges -- so he's not a U.S. citizen?  What gives?

Thank goodness voter fraud is just an illusion concocted by Republicans to justify their loss in our last gubernatorial election.

Check it out: who else is using your address to vote? 

Friday, July 06, 2007

Speeding Ticket

     After how many decades of perfect driving (not one scratch, not one ticket), I was stopped last week by officer M684 on motorcycle at Milepost 202 on I-5 North, just North of Marysville. He claims I was going 65 in a 60mph zone and ticketed me for a 46.61.400 ("Basic Rule and Maximum Limits"). He wrote me up for $81.

    As I study this thing more closely I learn the following about Washington driving laws:

  1. There is no such thing here as "traffic school", that silly waste of time that people in California refer to as "kindergarten for adults".
  2. Since I have an excellent driving record, I can take a "deferment" if the judge allows. Basically, this means I pay the fine and if I don't commit any other violations for a year, it gets wiped off my record. I'm only allowed one deferment every seven years.
  3. Speeding tickets remain on your record for three years.
  4. SpeedingTicketCentral recommends against a contested hearing. The ticket itself is considered evidence you committed the infraction. The officer doesn't have to appear in court, and it's simply the word of a trained officer against yours.

    Possible attorneys who can represent me

    TixNix is a site that claims to put me in touch with an attorney specializing in traffic violations. Donaldson & Knigge is one such firm that for $265 will handle all the paperwork, and even appear in court for you. Another firm, Jahnis J. Abelite, based in Arlington (where my officer is based) and on their web site claims they won 110/115 cases. Another is Waticket, though their website makes them sound more pushy than I like.

    The whole episode caught me off-guard and I'm now kicking myself for not paying more attention, not so much to the speed I was traveling (believe me, I wasn't doing anything unsafe) but to my reaction when I saw the policeman.

    Here are some things I wish I had done:

  5. Take lots of photos. My video camera was right there on the seat next to me: why oh why didn't I just pick it up and record the whole thing? IF nothing else it would have been a great Youtube video.
  6. Engage in conversation. I had so many questions, but I just wasn't thinking enough to ask. What was his evidence? What is the speed limit here and how far up the road does it last?

    How about you? Any advice?

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Stressed out students

Speaking of Suniya Luther's research at Mercer high school, Stanford News reports on the Stressed Out Students conference last month featuring Madeline Levine, author of The Price of Privilege, and Denise Pope, Director of SOS and lecturer at the School of Education:

Twenty-two percent of girls from affluent families suffer from clinical depression, three times the national average, Levine said. And when Pope researched her book, Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed-Out, Materialistic and Miseducated Students, she found that 75 percent of high school students said they had at some point cheated on a test, and 90 percent had copied homework.

Here's another quote:

In addition to causing psychological stress, the fixation on achievement is impeding the process of true education, said Maureen Powers, dean of students at Stanford. "If all you've done is filled your pail with a bunch of A's and a bunch of titles, and you haven't had a passion for genuine learning, you will have people who have very high grades but who are not up to the job," she said.

Beyond practical implications, Levine explained, is the development of life skills, character and happiness. "When our kids start to feel that they're only as good as their last performance, we set the stage for the inability to construct an internal sense of self," she said. "No matter how affluent your home may be, if your internal home is impoverished, it doesn't do you any good."

The focus on external achievements over inner growth comes largely from well-meaning parents who overprotect their children in the hopes of helping them succeed but forget the importance of learning to overcome obstacles, said Wendy Mogel, a psychologist and author of The Blessing of a B-. "Good parenting feels like neglect," she said. "We are overprotecting our children, overindulging them, expecting them to be perfect in every sphere, academically, socially, athletically. But we are neglecting to require of them integrity, respect for adults, self-respect."

Cindy Goodwin, from Mercer Island's Youth and Family Services, is heavily featured in Levine's book.

Private Weather Station for Mercer Island

Looks like somebody's been publishing a personal weather feed for Mercer Island since mid-January 2007, which I found via that Google Maps interface I've been watching.  This is more way more amazing than it may look at first glance, because unlike other RSS feeds (like the one published by St. Monica's High School), this one is updated every few minutes and lets you download historical information all you like.



Click here to see the Google Map of other weather stations near Mercer Island.  You can publish your own feed if you have the equipment and want to run the uploading software on your computer.

Rugose video

Here's a video version of the Sinodendron Rugosum we have in our yard:


Reading Omnivore's Dilemma

The Roman writer Livy warned in 14 A.D. that a society is in danger when its chefs are aggrandized and of course that's exactly describes America today, whether you're speaking of Paul Prudhomme, Alice Waters, Edible Seattle, or Ronald McDonald--everywhere you look, somebody is telling you why their food is so good. Well, "good" is of course a word with many subtle meanings. But that's exactly the dilemma we face as omnivore's, and Michael Pollan writes about it well in this book, which turns out to be one of the top 10 recommended by the New York Times for 2006.

If you don't have time to read the book: read his summary here, this excerpt, or a later essay in which he gives his bottom-line advice: Eat Food, not too much, mostly plants .
After surveying the way food is produced in America, from the mechanized large-scale agriculture of Iowa (which he hates) to the often deceptive marketing of Whole Foods (better, but still suspect), he concludes that small farmers, like Polyface Farms in Swoope, Virginia, are the only true way to grow and eat food. He recommends http://www.eatwild.com as a place to find good local farms (and there are of course many in the Seattle area)
Here are some of my top-of-mind thoughts:

  • Seasonality is critical: to really eat well you'll need to give up on year-round tomatoes and lettuce. Eat beef and pork in the Fall and Winter, and chicken the rest of the year.

  • Hey! he quotes Steven Pinker: "disgust is intuitive microbiology" (p.292)

  • Whole Foods and other mass organic producers aren't necessarily any "kinder" to animals or easier on the environment. The requirements of their large distribution channels force them into compromises that aren't that different from what goes on at Safeway or even McDonalds.

  • Introduces the word "holon", from Arthur Koestler's Ghost in the Machine as an alternative way to describe "organic" farming, a term he claims has been so manipulated these days as to have lost much of its original meaning.

  • Pollan does a great job dissecting and then refuting the claims by Animal Liberation and others that somehow meat-eating is immoral. My favorite: these people are simply pushing their own human-centric viewpoint onto animals, to whom nature already has been symbiotic relationships that often require killing for sustainable existence.

  • But ultimately I am skeptical of most of Pollan's arguments in favor of organic and so-called "sustainable" farming.

    First, I'm sympathetic to the arguments he quotes from Steven Blank, the economist and author of End of Agriculture in the American Portfolio, which argues that from an economy-of-scale and division-of-labor efficiency standpoint, everyone on earth would be better off if Americans left food production to places that have a comparative production advantage over us. If you really care about the world's poor (both here and abroad), you need as much food as possible -- and mass-production is the only way to do that. It's simply not possible to feed 300 million Americans on 50-mile-local food. 

    Pollan thinks it's good to "Keep your money in the community", or "only trust food from a farmer you can look in the eye". The trouble with these arguments is they're self-contradictory and ultimately have no end. Why is it okay to eat food grown less than 50 miles away, but not 100 or 1000? Maybe I should limit myself just to farmers on Mercer Island? Or for that matter, my own back yard? Pollan himself allows (p. 263) that you can eat non-local goods like chocolate and coffee because people have been trading for thousands of years. Well that's the point: Trade is a good thing, and it is wonderful that today we live in a world that is peaceful enough that we can buy from low-cost and efficient producers anywhere in the world. 

    There is one extremely good argument for buying locally-produced food, and it's the real reason on Mercer Island I subscribe to Smith Brothers Farms for my milk, and Pioneer Organics for vegetables: it tastes better! Plus, they deliver it to my door! I don't begrudge those who, simply for efficiency reasons , prefer to spend their money and time on more convenient ways of eating (whether at Whole Foods, Safeway, or McDonalds). It takes effort to eat well, and some (most?) people just don't want the trouble. 

    I get the sense that Pollan and many of the back-to-nature people think economists' obsession with efficiency results in short-term decisions and that if only we could "educate" more people (what are we doing to our environment?! To our children!?), that everyone would revolt if they really understood where that hamburger came from. Well, I say why bother. Once you really taste the produce of a farmer's market, you won't want to go back.