Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Insect invasion

Eric LaGasa, State Entomologist for the Washington State Department of Agriculture was the speaker at last night's Scarab meeting.  Boy does this guy know his bugs!  He had a very detailed and enjoyable presentation discussing various new pests that have been discovered over the past few years, mostly new invasive creatures here to eat our apples and enjoy our lawns. Ugly critters like the European Cranefly, the European wireworm, and the Apple Clearwing Moth -- all new to our area in the past few years and, lacking natural enemies, terribly hard to control.  Yuk.

I was surprised to hear that new bugs are discovered basically by accident.  There is no funding for a systematic statewide survey.  Instead, entomologists hear about new invasive insects appearing in other places and rely on chance reportings from affected people.

One disappointment in his talk was his frequent, irrelevant diatribes against international trade.  He says, bizarrely, that apple growers (of all people) refuse to spend money to find invasive insects out of concern that their exports will suffer if other countries hear we are plagued by pests.  I guess farmers just sit back and hope the problem goes away since new pests would cost them, oh, only a few billion dollars--a small price to pay to keep those exports going.   Hopefully his future presentations will stick to entomology instead of trade bashing.

Coolest Internet access ever

I'm here in the Boston airport now, accessing the Internet on my laptop:


Big deal, people do that all the time right?  Take a closer look.  That gadget next to my seat is my Treo, and it's not wired to my laptop.  It's using an entirely wireless bluetooth connection to give my laptop a high-speed internet connection using Verizon's new VZAccess software

Costs me about 50 cents/day.  What a deal!  Now I can be online anywhere I can get a cell phone connection.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

School Board Blogger

Janet Frohnmayer, who recently won election to the Mercer Island School Board, has a blog.  "Bookworm - Big Ideas for Busy People" is where she summarizes the interesting books and ideas she's read, including:

All her summaries are very worth reading.  The only problem with the site is that she doesn't post enough! 

Moonlight at Hood Canal

We spent our Thanksgiving in a remote cabin north of Tahuya, facing Hood Canal. Last night we stayed up late to catch the low tide, which turned out to be very low,  with the beach and the mountains beyond lit brightly by a moon at perigee.  You would not believe the zillions of starfish we saw -- one every square foot at least -- most of them feasting on oysters. Very nice place, and less than two hours from Seattle.  Of course, maybe it was the perfect weather that made it so pleasant, but it was good to be away from civilization for a while.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Craig Venter

Best known as the guy whose private company, Celera, single-handedly beattied the international government-funded Human Genome Project in the race to sequence human DNA, Craig Venter stopped by our office on Friday to talk to us and promote his new book A Life Decoded: My Genome: My Life.

His new company focuses on synthetic biology, creating new life forms that (among other things) may revolutionize the way alternative fuels like ethanol are manufactured.

He's not a big fan of government research projects ability to do anything of breakthrough value.  In the name of preventing waste, the need to get approval from a broad spectrum of people for every project means that unproven ideas almost never get funded. He thinks the trend is headed toward more private funding of research for that reason, because the VC model of lots of highly-speculative bets works better in science just like it does in business.

My favorite emerging industry, consumer biology, has had some exciting news lately:  at least two new companies are now offering full DNA testing for normal people.  23andme is a Google company with 500K SNPs, and DeCODE offers 1M SNPs.  (SNPs are the parts of your DNA that differ from everybody else, and looking at them is the easiest way to see what your risk factors are for various diseases).  Yes, I'm signing up and I'll let you know when I get the results.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

How to win a local election

    Congratulations to Mike Cero, who claimed victory in his City Council election, a notable upset considering the huge lead in endorsements and high-power Democratic party backing enjoyed by his opponent, Maureen Judge, who tonight posted her concession statement on her web site. 

    For the record, let me say that I sincerely do think Maureen is highly-qualified and would have been an excellent addition to the City Council.  I hope she doesn't give up politics, but continues to use her formidable experience and energy volunteering to help the Island.

    Most discussions about the campaign give the following reasons for Mike's victory: 

  1. Mike befriended the grassroots, not the elites. He personally visited virtually every home on the Island, appeared in every public debate (Maureen skipped the one in August), sponsored a "meet the candidate" event at the Community Center, and waved his own signs day and night on Island Crest on the days before the election. Direct personal relationships always trump party affiliation and in this case, most of us felt like we knew Mike.
  2. Maureen, who moved to the Island only a few months before declaring her candidacy, was unable to demonstrate a sincere interest in the mundane details of local "pothole issues".  It was obvious to many of us that she intended this position to be a stepping stone to a bigger political career.  Some might think that would be a long-term advantage for Mercer Islanders, but plenty of people thought the opposite:  once in office would she sell us out in order to advance her own career?  And without local ties, who could blame her?
  3. Big-name endorsements are overrated. Why does it matter what out-of-town organizations think? Almost none of their members are Mercer Islanders anyway. Mike actively recruited endorsements from hundreds of "normal people", whereas Maureen seemed to care only about endorsements she could list as "firstname lastname (bigshot title)".
  4. Newspaper endorsements are superficial. The Seattle times endorsement of "Kathleen" (they botched her name!) begged obvious questions about how thoroughly they look at the candidates. The MI Reporter endorsement at least got the name correct, but left out details about why their editorial board made its decision.  Maybe they just flip a coin?  Who knows?

I have another theory about how to win a local election, particularly in close races like this one: go electronic.  Look at this snapshot of the number of people who read my posts about Maureen and Mike during just the three weeks before election day:


(that midpoint line is 50 people per day)

A total of 997 unique visitors came to my site during this period, including a lot of people who found me via a Google search for "Maureen Judge" (my posts were consistently among the top results):

And these weren't just accidental visitors -- the average time spent looking at these posts was over 3 minutes.  What were they thinking about while they were here?

A few more observations:

  • I have a busy day job and this pathetic blog is an amateur hobby, nothing more. I do nothing to promote it. You're reading this because you found it by word of mouth from somebody else. Imagine if you created a local blog and actually tried to get readers, through advertising, through "professional" graphic design, etc.
  • I wasn't involved in any campaign.  I never attended a "strategy meeting", never coordinated my posts with other campaign activities.  Neither Mike nor Maureen had any control or advanced information on what I posted from one day to another.  Imagine what would have happened if an election campaign had specifically targeted the blogosphere!
  • Maureen was the only candidate who never contacted me (Cero, Bassett, Litzow--they all personally emailed me when I posted about them).  No doubt her campaign thought it was better to simply ignore me -- I'm just too little, particularly when she has such high-powered figures in her camp.  But I think the lesson is that in a local election you can't afford to ignore anybody -- particularly when victory is decided by a mere 200 votes. 

Finally, let me thank all of you readers for coming here, and especially those who provided great insight with your comments.  If anyone reading this is interested in running another campaign, please contact me and I'd love to give you additional suggestions based on what I learned while analyzing my web traffic.

Clover Coffee

After reading the writeup in this week's Economist, I just had to try coffee made on one of those high powered Clover machines. Made by a small company in the Fremont area of Seattle, the $11,000 devices supposedly extract a whole new level of flavor from the beans.  Naturally I wanted to try for myself and discovered there is one installed at Trabant, in Pioneer Square so I rushed over there this afternoon.

Unfortunately I missed today's coffee tasting, but the barista was super-helpful and patiently explained the entire Clover equipment process to me.  You can think of the machines as essentially a reverse french press: instead of pouring water on top of the ground beans, a vacuum sucks water through them, at carefully controlled temperature and pressure.  See that round disc under the water spigot in this picture?  Just drop the ground beans there and in less than a minute it brews the perfect cup. 

 So what about the taste?  I tried the El Salvador Mercedes and it was excellent.  It's such a unique flavor, it almost doesn't taste like regular coffee. It's hard to describe, but it tastes more fruity, almost like an herbal tea.  Later she gave me a sip of some of their $54/pound coffee (I think it was the El Injerto).  It was phenomenal!  I will definitely be back.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

I look like who??!?

Here's a site that lets you upload a photo of yourself, which it then compares mathematically to a bunch of celebrities in order to guess who most resembles you.  Here's what it thinks about me:


I have no idea who half these "celebrities" are.  Try it on your own photo.  The site lets you upload any photo for free without registration, so there's no need to fiddle with passwords or risk getting yourself spammed.  It's pretty quick too.

Another (free) service will tell you which parent (mom or dad) your child most resembles.  I'm going to upload a photo of our mailman just to double-check.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Renters and property taxes

Despite the close call, Simple Majority looks like it will pass, which is a HUGE relief to those of us who care about public schools and can see the dramatic positive effect this will have on state education funding. But if you're a renter, particularly someone without children or perhaps living on a fixed income, you might be worried that the flood of new school funding will come at your expense. Won't the new school levies cause your rent to rise?

The answer is no. Rents are set purely by supply and demand; property taxes are paid entirely by the owners. In fact, property tax is one of the few, truly progressive taxes, and one of the areas where our democracy works directly in favor of the little guy. Now, thanks to Simple Majority, renters (who are typically lower income) get exactly the same vote as the property owners (who are generally wealthier), but (here's the critical part) renters don't have to pay. Unlike, say, an income tax, a property tax under a simple majority is the perfect progressive tax because the people who pay for it (owners) can't manipulate the political process to give themselves tax loopholes at the expense of the people who don't pay (renters).

Most other states with property taxes require a super-majority for exactly that reason--to make it harder for the one group who doesn't pay (renters, who tend to be a majority) to raise taxes on those who do (owners, who tend to be in the minority).

Still skeptical? Here's the proof:

Consider two adjacent rental complexes, identical in every way except that one is located in City A directly across the city line from the other in City B. Assume that each complex has 100 units, owned by a single owner who is the only property owner in the city. There are a total of 100 renters, 50 of whom live in A and 50 in B. In other words, assume that each rental complex is half-full. The rent for each unit is $1,000.

The people in City A, concerned about their school system, vote to fund a $10,000 school levy to be paid by property taxes. City B does not pass its levy.

Question: What, if anything, will happen to rents in City A? Answer: nothing. Rents will remain exactly where they were before the levy. The entire cost of the levy will be absorbed by the single landowner.

Reason: Suppose the landowner decides to raise rents to pay for the additional taxes. To do so, he would have to raise the rent by $10,000 / 50 = $200.00, for a new total rent of $1,200 per occupant. Since the rental unit in City A is identical to those in City B, each occupant in A will move to City B rather than pay the additional rent. Note that the city still receives its levy funds regardless of how many renters remain, since the landowner -- not the renters -- ultimately pays the tax.

Yes, this is a simplified example and the real world is much more complicated (no two cities are every "exactly alike", and people might prefer to live in City A in spite of the higher rents because the schools are better, for example). But the point of this proof is show that all other things being equal, rents are set by the market, not by taxes, and therefore property taxes help renters at no cost.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Christine Gregoire

We moved into a brand new office building today this morning and look who was there to greet us:

I was waiting in line at the espresso bar (free drinks today!) and she just walked right in.  She says yes they're going to build a new 520 in spite of the failure of RTID.  And she's crossing her fingers about 4204.  (I'd tell you more but I'm forbidden to blog about it :-)

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Election Day

Unfortunately I'm on a plane today and will miss much of the fun, but so far it looks like Mercer Island is winning.
What do you think? Will it hold? Will there be a recount?

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Meeting Bruce Bassett at Starbucks

Local elections should be about local issues, so why waste your vote on somebody you've never met, or who isn't already a friend of somebody you know or trust?  Endorsements from Big Shots or national political organizations won't help you much the next time your street gets a pothole or your kids' school needs their soccer fields repaired.

I like Bruce Bassett because I know him.  He's a long-time resident of Mercer Island who has been active in local organizations for many years, long enough to know what matters to normal people. I saw him at the South End Starbucks yesterday and talked to him about the campaign (and his competitor, Patti Darling),  downtown traffic issues, and what he thinks about technologies like Wikis and Blogs.

See for yourself: click here for a 3-min video summary of our chat:

Chat with Bruce Bassett
Bruce Bassett for Mercer Island City Council

Still trying to figure out how to vote for Position # 5 on November 6th?  Contact Bruce yourself -- I know he'll be more than happy to talk about what matters to you too.