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.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Burke Museum Bug Blast

The Burke Museum sponsored their annual Bug Blast at the University of Washington today. Ciscoe Morris from KIRO 710 radio was there too, giving a talk about his experiences with local bugs.  He's a local gardening expert and author.  Hey, did you know he's originally from Wisconsin?


Turns out there's a whole community of bug lovers in the Seattle area, the "Scarabs", a club founded in 1937 and open to the public. They're hosting a Bug Jam on Monday, September 24th at 7pm in the rear classroom at the Burke Museum and we can't wait.

National Issues, local governments

As I wondered about why non-locals would care about a Mercer Island city council election, one conspiracy theorist pointed me to an article called "They Won't Know What Hit Them" in March 2007 Atlantic Monthly that describes a brilliant strategy to influence national issues through local elections:

Ted Trimpa, who is Colorado’s answer to Karl Rove ... cited the example of Barack Obama: ... It feels good to write him a check. “The temptation is always to swoon for the popular candidate,” Trimpa told me, “but a fraction of that money, directed at the right state and local races, could have flipped a few chambers.

The idea is for a national organization to encourage its members to send checks, not to national campaigns (where a single contribution won't make much difference) but to local ones where a small donation can make or break an election.  Since nation-wide politicians have to start somewhere, you can dramatically affect the future in the long run if you can prevent the opposition from ever getting elected in the first place.

A quick glance at the donor list for our election makes it clear that the specific issues in the article don't apply to current Mercer Island elections, but I think it's a great idea and something all political interest groups will do eventually.

Incidentally, I'm getting a bunch of emails from both campaigns and while I'm happy to hear from you directly , I encourage you to please, post to my comments.  I'm not intending this to be a political blog and I'm too lazy to check all the facts before summarizing into another post. Go ahead and post anonymously if you like.

City Council Partisanship

Many people have been responding to my observation that much of the campaign money for Maureen Judge comes from off-island special interests -- nearly as much as she receives from Mercer Island residents themselves.  Now three people have asked me to take a closer look at Mike Cero's donors, which I called "boring" because they're all from individuals, not national organizations.  Maureen's funding and endorsements come from the Democratic party and orgs typically associated with Democrats, like NARAL (Pro-Choice) and the Sierra Club. Peek into Mike's funding, I was told, and you'll find Republicans.

Sure enough.  I won't bother naming people, since they're individuals and not organizations, but you can check for yourself. Looks like Mike received several contributions since I did my last check of the Public Disclosure Commission database, and what do you know, some of these so-called MI residents are donors to national political campaigns too!

Seriously, I suppose if we were going to do this right we'd check every single individual on both campaigns, look into their past history and decide whether they're more "Republican" or "Democrat".  But I'm not convinced that a private donation from an Islander who happens to donate to other causes, is the same as a check from an off-island special interest group.  This is an election for city council, for crying out loud, an office that influences road construction and zoning, not the War in Iraq. If individual MI residents, out of their own pockets, choose to donate to a local campaign, then who am I to say they're doing it for partisan reasons?

On the other hand, when an organization based in Olympia or Washington D.C. donates,  I have to wonder what would motivate their central committees to spend precious donations to influence an election in a place where they will never set foot.  And remember, we're talking about a local government office that, being non-partisan, has nothing to say about Supreme Court nominees, or logging in state parks, or whatever pressing international issues that matter to national political groups.

I want City Council members who will fix my roads, ensure good cooperation between the City and the schools, and avoid embarrassment.  I trust that every individual MI resident who gave to Mike (or Maureen) has some interest in those issues as well.  But Maureen's biggest donor is the Washington Conservation Voters.  If they really cared about Mercer Island, I bet they'd be upset that her campaign signs are still polluting Island Crest Way.

How about it Republicans?  Maureen is using state- and national political donations to fund her City Council campaign. Are you going to sit this one out?

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Bellevue traffic map

Everybody knows that the Washington Department of Transportation web site has a detailed traffic map, updated in real-time to show how long your commute will be.  That's nice if you take the freeways, but what about the side streets?  I just found out that the City of Bellevue has a network of road sensors and traffic cameras that let you see at a street level what the traffic is:

Can't wait to try this the next time I see the freeways covered in black clog.

More on Maureen Judge Campaign Donations

Many people have emailed about my recents posts about the off-islanders behind Maureen Judge's campaign for city council. I was out of town this weekend and I'm finally catching up. Here's one from David Goldstein:

Hi Richard,

I noticed your posts on donations in the MI city council races. My interest in that race is that Maureen Judge is my ex-wife, and my daughter is about to start a new school year at Island Park Elementary. As a political blogger I've got a bit of experience analyzing PDC reports, and a bit of knowledge in the way campaigns raise their funds, so I just wanted to point out a couple subtleties regarding off-island and "special interest" donations that you may be missing.

When candidates raise money -- especially first time candidates who lack an established donor base -- they are advised to start with friends and family first, extending their fundraising efforts out in concentric circles, using established donors to help you connect with their close friends and family. This is particularly true of very local races, and can particularly distort the fundraising reports in low budget campaigns.

In Maureen's case, looking at the contribution detail report on the PDC website, I can tell you that all but 3 of the top 25 individual donations come from very close friends and family members; the other three donations came from the Clarks, who are active in the local Democratic Party. Apart from her Uncle Martin and Aunt Delores Judge who are longtime residents, and one person who is in the process of moving to the Island, the other top individuals have no interest in the race other than their love and respect for Maureen. Quite frankly, as a relative newcomer to the Island, Maureen simply doesn't have an established circle of close friends from whom to make this kind of ask, but as the campaign continues and Island residents get to know her better, I expect the bulk of her remaining fundraising will come in relatively small donations from Island residents. This is very, very, typical, and while I do not know Steve Litzow's circumstances, it wouldn't surprise me if the bulk of his out of state donations came from close friends and family too. That's just the way small campaigns work.

As to "special interest" money, well, no doubt, that's exactly what it is, but it isn't really fair to consider that off-Island, as groups like Washington Conservation Voters, NARAL/Pro-Choice WA, Cascade Bike Club, and the Women's Political Caucus represent many, many Island residents. As for Progressive Majority of Washington, it's mission is to elect progressive candidates into local races, so as to build the farm team from which future political stars might rise. There's nothing secretive or nefarious here.

Anyway, just thought I'd add my two cents.


Thanks, David, for the clarification and for giving me permission to post your reply. You offer good explanations for the off-island giving, but you've also raised some other questions.

  1. By saying "she doesn't have an established circle of close friends" -- well, then how does she know what Islanders want? I was disappointed that she didn't bother to attend the all-Island debate last month; How exactly are we supposed to get to know her?
  2. It's great that Maureen has so many off-island friends, but how do I know those gifts have no strings attached? and how much off-island influence should the public tolerate anyway? What if Maureen starts taking donations from friends in Renton?
  3. Is Maureen turning a non-partisan office into a partisan one? Should her competitor, Mike Cero, try to recruit money and support from special interests as well? Note that she receives about as much from special interests ($2100) as she gets from Islanders ($2400).

Incidentally, I've been too busy to post Mike Cero's contribution numbers, but frankly the list is pretty boring: a bunch of $100 checks from miscellaneous residents who support him one at a time. I have no idea what Mike Cero's political leanings are, but I think it would be a shame if, to compete with all her special interest and off-island money, he were forced to solicit similar donations from the opposing sides of state-wide and national organizations.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Road Narrows

This sign greeted us when we returned from last week's vacation:

It's on a street not far from our house.  The neighbors, especially those with children, have been wanting it for a long time because too many cars like to tumble down this hill at full speed, unaware children and bicyclists might be ahead. At the narrowest section, it's effectively a one-way street so cars often find themselves head-to-head.

Do you recognize this street?  Dan Grausz, on Mercer Island City Council does. He helped the neighbors get that sign. He's a good city councilman.  Guess how much he raised for his last re-election?  Answer: $7500, virtually all of it in small donations from local people. None of it from big off-island special interest organizations.

Everything is local, in politics and in the rest of life. Mercer Island's not a big place.  I wonder how many of the candidates in this year's City Council election can name this street?  I wonder how many of them ever been on this street? If I were on the Seattle Times editorial board, that'd be one of my questions to people like Maureen Judge, Mike Cero, Bruce Bassett, Patti Darling:  can you name this street?