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.