Sunday, December 30, 2007

Another coffee shop, please

Mercer Island enjoys plenty of nice coffee outlets, but why do I have to drive to Seattle for the really good stuff?

Slate this week makes a good case for why Starbucks actually helps mom-and-pop coffee houses:

According to recent figures from the Specialty Coffee Association of America, 57 percent of the nation's coffeehouses are still mom and pops. Just over the five-year period from 2000 to 2005—long after Starbucks supposedly obliterated indie cafes—the number of mom and pops grew 40 percent, from 9,800 to nearly 14,000 coffeehouses.

There are so many great ways that a local coffee house can differentiate itself on Mercer Island.

  • Exotic varietals in small batches that Starbucks, with its huge volume requirements, can't match.
  • In-store roasting: talk about fresh.
  • Clover coffee machines (your $11k investment will quickly repay itself)
  • Free internet access  (Starbucks makes you pay)
  • Kid-friendly areas so the kids can occupy themselves while Mom chats with her friends.
  • In-store meeting rooms, available by reservation for group meet-ups.

David Schomer from Seattle's Espresso Vivace has many more tips in his excellent guide to how to compete with Starbucks.  And all of this is especially true for a Mercer Island location, given our proximity to the world's finest roasters and more in Seattle.

The margins on coffee are ridiculously high.  A mom-and-pop operation could even compete on price -- undercharge Starbucks, at least on basic items -- and still make be profitable.  Mercer Island consumers are not particularly price-sensitive, especially not in the morning, and would love to have a high-quality alternative to the same-old-same-old.

So how about it?  Anybody want to go in on an investment in an independent coffee shop?

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Blue State Blue Streak

When I'm online, whether sending emails or posting content, I know that my kids may be reading, so just as in real life I think it's important to be civil. That's why for example, I don't use foul language either offline or online.

So why is it that most, if not all left-leaning blogs seem to overflow with the kinds of words that would have my mother reaching for the soap dish? Right-wing blogs, by contrast, rarely if ever use profanity.

Even the name of my favorite local liberal blog is not a word I'd want to hear coming from my five-year-old. And the progressive bloggers' obsession with potty talk is not just something I'm imagining. Somebody did an unscientific study of that shows filthy language is 41 times more common on liberal blogs than on conservative ones.

I've been reading Steven Pinker's latest book, The Stuff of Thought, where he explains how naughty words are a window into emotion, which of course explains why angry liberals are profane, but why don't conservatives dish it back?

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Clover Factory

A big treat today: while visiting Seattle I stopped by the world headquarters of the Coffee Equipment Company where Zander Nosler gave me a personal tour of their factory and explained the history of the company. What a place!  The machines are hand-assembled by  the engineering team that designs the product.  These people definitely know how to build hardware, and it shows in the flavor you get from the coffee. Besides Trabant (which I visited last month), Clover machines are also in use at Zoka and a few others places in Seattle.  So much excellent coffee, so little time!


Saturday, December 15, 2007

[book] The Black Swan

This is one of the best books I've read in a long time and I'm sure I'll be referring to it for many years. It appeals to my natural skepticism, my sense that experts are often wrong and that you shouldn't believe so-called authorities just because they're in charge.  The author, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, is a Wharton grad (though a few years before my time).

The basic idea is that our knowledge is divided into observations that fit one of two different worlds. The first he calls Mediocristan, the terrain of the ordinary, the part of the world that conforms to the bell curve. It answers to statistics and knowable probabilities.

The other, Extremistan and its power-law statistics, is quite different. Nothing really changes with scale. The super-wealthy, for example, are orders of magnitude richer than the rest of us; but even among themselves there are exponentially-different levels of wealth. This is far different than the Mediocristan world of, say, height or weight.

The trouble is that the modern world is Extremistan, not the Mediocristan where we humans are well-evolved to understand. In Extremistan, the long tail of observations is thick with outliers, and the seemingly wildly unlikely event is more common than our experience with Mediocristan would indicate. Using Gaussian techniques in a non-Gaussian world, or equilibrium techniques in an (unknown) non-equilibrium world, will lead you to make errors.

In Extremistan  ... systems are chaotic, having many variables and/or high degrees of interdependence. Its participants' success are determined by cumulative advantage, and variables change in geometric and/or exponential progression. Uncertainty in these domains often entails "unknown unknowns." Anyone called an "expert" in this field is largely a good bluffer or rhetorician and little better at prediction in these domains than computer models based on single-point, just-prior performance. Some examples include stockbrokers, clinical psychologists, psychiatry, college admissions officers, court judges, and personnel selectors.

Humans are good at working with Mediocristan systems. Extremistan, on the other hand, confounds us. The difficulty arises from several psychological factors.

  • Confirmation bias: People seek largely to confirm what they know, i.e. to confirm their model, rather than refute it.
  • Silent evidence: Even when looking at the facts, what must be taken into account are the facts that never were but might have been.
  • Narrative fallacy: People prefer stories over data, even if the story version is misleading or wrong. This is because stories are easier to store and recall.
  • Attraction to platonic simplicity: People prefer the reduced, and simple when reality is rarely so.
  • Ludic fallacy: People mistake the (predictable, constrained) model for the real thing, and very often base plans in the world as if it was a simple model.

The most serious effect of our ineptitude with Extremistan is our inability to make predictions in these systems. In such cases, we are subject to being completely caught unawares by factors outside of our expectations and models. He calls such surprises "Black Swans"

Much of the above summary is my paraphrase of an excellent online review, which I post here to help me remember the main points later.  But what do I really think?

Well, I apply the same skepticism to his own arguments and there my disappointment is that he cannot accept there are circumstances where statistical reasoning is useful.  For example, he explains Microsoft's success over Apple as being a lucky accident, but a careful reader of the history will understand that ease-of-use is not the only way to win in computer operating systems. In other words, from the outside it may appear that the market picked the "wrong" one thanks to bad luck, but in reality there was much less "luck" than it appears. Microsoft "won" by being best at the overall set of things important in operating systems.

I wonder if he's read much of the literature on path dependence: how some ideas, once they catch on, are hard to dislodge and result in sometimes inferior long-term outcomes. People use QWERTY as the best-known example, or VHS vs. Beta -- how supposedly "better" technologies can lose because once something gets started the cost of switching is too great. But the path dependence idea has been well-refuted, I think, by Margolis etc who showed that in fact QWERTY stays with us because it's actually pretty good, and Beta's quality wasn't the kind of advantage that Sony's PR machine wants you to believe. In other words, more often than not, competition among many ideas does bring the best one to the top.

Still, the bottom line is that Taleb is  more right than he is wrong, in spite of a few incorrect digressions (like his silly made-up example of Yevgenia Nikolayevna Krasnova).  Get ready for me to start quoting this idea regularly.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Fred the Switcher

Several people have asked me what I think about the decision by our state representative, Fred Jarrett to switch to the Democratic Party.  The problem is, I have nothing original to say.  Most of us really like Fred and think he's a reasonable and responsible guy, so I assume his decision to switch sides was neither a betrayal of all that is good, nor a vindication of the cause of truth.  As a moderate Republican, he had the advantage of being the swing (and thus influential) vote on controversial issues, something he'll lose by being "just another Democrat" in a homogenous legislature.  He's a smart guy, so I guess he just figured that all-in-all he's better off with earlier access to the closed-door inter-party discussions than he did by being the first guy that all sides rush to when they want something approved.

Is there more to say?  Let me know in the comments.

But what I really think is that this shows another reason I wish Mercer Island had its own online network of blogs where we have discussions like this in public.  I shouldn't be the only person on the Island who posts publicly about local issues.  Many of you are emailing your friends with your opinions, or posting to private Listservs and closed discussion groups.  What a waste!  Say what you think in a way that will make your thoughts discoverable by other people who can join you.

Incidentally, I'm holding a series of brainstorming sessions next week with people who have contacted me about starting a Mercer Island online network.  Let me know if you're interested in joining.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Darcy Burner's Toys

Darcy Burner, Democratic contender for our district's congressional seat, is running a brilliant campaign gimmick appearance this week.  Rather than give speeches or hold boring "meet the candidate" forums, she's holding free "toxic toy testings" at various public libraries throughout the area, including one on Mercer Island (Island Park Elementary School) on Saturday, December 15th from 6 - 8pm.

I love this idea, which is straight out of Black Swan theory: it exposes her to possibly extreme upsides with almost no downside risk.

  • First, although very few (if any) toys -- other than those already recalled-- will test positive for lead,  nobody will ever print a headline that reports a negative result.  The only guaranteed campaign message that will make the papers is the one that's already been printed.  There is no danger of a headline like "Darcy Burner Fails to Find any Unsafe Toys" -- even if ultimately that's what happens.
  • Second, there is a very small (but non-zero) chance that testing might reveal a new, hitherto undiscovered toy that should be recalled.  Toy companies are extremely vigilant -- far more than any politician can be -- at protecting their brands from any perception whatsoever that their products might be unsafe.  But the recent publicity over recalls, combined with parents' natural fear of any unknown risks regarding their children, makes us naturally feel better about actions like this.  And who knows, maybe Darcy will get lucky.
  • Finally, there are plenty of reasonable ways Darcy can manipulate the testing to her advantage.  Just about anything (including the safest toy) has some naturally occurring level of toxins in it.  Equipment with enough sensitivity will find those toxins, even though the levels are far, far below anything of risk to humans.  And if you object that she is testing at unrealistic levels, she can always insist that the current standards are too lax.  After all, do you really want to take a chance with your children?

Here's my prediction: I bet she doesn't find a single unsafe toy (other than those already recalled).    Of course, she'll find many objects with high amounts of lead -- especially among items that any informed adult will recognize as something you shouldn't eat, but nothing from name-brand toy makers.  The prankster in me wants to show up with one of her campaign buttons (cracked open a bit to expose the lead paint) and test that, but otherwise the only toxins that will be uncovered will be, well, anger that the world is an unsafe place.

Update: Sure enough, she found 47 items (or 10% of the items tested) with lead levels above 40ppm, considered to be excessive by the American Academy of Pediatrics.   Her press release doesn't say whether any of the items were toys from name-brand makers, or newly discovered items that haven't already been recalled.  Since such a finding would have been far more newsworthy, I suspect that means she failed to find anything that hasn't already been pulled from store shelves -- i.e., nothing that the Consumer Products Safety Commission hasn't already flagged.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Goodbye Anita

Very sad news in my inbox this morning.  Anita Rowland, a blogger friend, passed away yesterday after a long bout with cancer. Her death is especially sad because, although I only met her face-to-face a few times, I felt like she was my neighbor.  I knew her as the organizer of a blogger meetup at Crossroads in Bellevue each month, often attended by people like Robert Scoble and Dare and many others who through their blogs feel like close friends but whom I rarely, if ever, see face to face.  Although Anita had been ill for a long time, you wouldn't have known it unless you paid close attention -- she was just always friendly, nice, and a true connector who liked blogs as a way to put people together.  I know she read my blog, and I read hers, like neighbors who keep in touch just because they're neighbors.  It's so awful to hear that she's gone.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Mercer Island Schools Don't Make Gold

Unlike several of our neighbors, Mercer Island schools are not in the top 100 nationwide, according to a new ranking by U.S. News and World Report.  Mercer Island High School received a "Silver", meaning we meet the ranking for "college readiness index" (a rough guide to how many students finish AP courses and other indicators of college success) , but we're out-classed by the following area schools:

School College Readiness Index Nationwide Rank
International Community (Kirkland) 88.2 17
Newport (Bellevue) 72.7 44
Garfield (Seattle) 53.2 N/A
Mercer Island 45.3 N/A

Too many Mercer Islanders will look at this and say "Oh this is great--we're better than average", but if you want your kids to have the best education possible, you should be disappointed.  Someday our kids will be competing worldwide for jobs and opportunities, and I don't want them left behind.  

Incidentally, here's how we compare to a few Silicon Valley schools:

Monte Vista (Cupertino) 67.8 59
Gunn (Palo Alto) 64 N/A
Homestead (Cupertino) 32.6 N/A

Interestingly, neither Los Altos nor Mountain View High made the list at all.

See for a comprehensive list of schools, with far more details about each one, including the Mercer Island School District.  The Seattle Schools Blog has more interesting information and commentary.

Chess Tournament

The Seattle area enjoyed a rare sunny day on Saturday, so what better way to spend it than at a chess tournament.

Thinking I would have more time to catch up on stuff, I brought my laptop, but there were too many interesting people there and I ended up talking the whole time with people like Janet Frohmayer, who told me more about her blog, and Ken Glass (the emcee) and several parents who are interested in improving the math curriculum.   So much to post, so little time...  There's a lot happening on Mercer Island, and I wish we could get a whole community of blog posters so we can share the load of getting more people involved.  

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Water Conservation with HydroLogics Software

Asheville, Oregon has help from software when they try to manage their water conservation.  According to last week's Citizen-Times of Asheville

Called OASIS, the software was developed by the Raleigh consulting firm HydroLogics and purchased by the Asheville Water Resources Department in 2004. Engineers based the Asheville model on decades of records of rainfall and the amount of water flowing into the North Fork Reservoir, the city’s primary water source north of Black Mountain...

Hey, HydroLogics is my cousin's company!  If you need water conservation software, you should definitely contact them.

But you might not want to let them know you heard about it from me.  I promised him I'd send him video I took at his wedding a few months ago and I'm late.  :-)

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Poison Oak

For me, it was an annoying couple of pimples on my hand.  Itched a lot, but nothing to get worried about.  My eightten-year-old, though, broke out in a rash all over his face, with splotches on his leg and chest -- serious enough that we went to the dermatologist today.  Diagnosis: an allergic response to urushiol, the active ingredient in Toxicodendron diversilobum, more commonly known as poison oak, no doubt from our trips through the woods last week at Hood Canal.

Click here for a photo of my hand (nothing too gross, I promise) and a reminder to be careful on hikes: "leaves of three -- let it be."

Update on additional facts I've learned:

  • Urushiol can remain active for months, so multiple after-exposures are possible if you don't wash (with detergent) everything that came in contact with the plant.  Apparently urishiol is easy to spot on an object, though: it oxidizes into a blackish lacquer upon exposure to air.
  • Allergic reaction seldom occurs on the first exposure. The second exposure is the one to watch for, because the reaction can be quite severe.  You can lose your sensitivity entirely if you are exposed often enough.
  • People who are allergic are super-allergic. In one test, people developed a reaction after a thumb was pressed on the back of a non-allergic person who had been exposed three days earlier!
  • The best article I found is here

How to Improve Schools

The (always interesting) Seattle Public Schools blog points to an Economist article from last year about a large McKinsey world-wide study, "How the world's best-performing schools come out on top".  When you systematically compare successful versus unsuccessful school systems, which policies work and which don't? 

Here's the executive summary:

The experiences of these top school systems suggests that three things matter most: 1) getting the right people to become teachers, 2) developing them into effective instructors and, 3) ensuring that the system is able to deliver the best possible instruction for every child.

Things that don't matter:

  • School funding (best schools often have the lowest funding, most well-funded schools are often the worst)
  • Class size (in fact, lower class sizes can hurt a school if it results in lower teacher quality)
  • Testing (this is neutral -- sometimes it helps, sometimes it doesn't)

Look at the (mostly anonymous) comments on the Seattle blog and get a sense for why I'm glad to be in the Mercer Island school district instead of Seattle.  Many of those commenting seem more interested in ensuring employment for existing teachers than in looking their problems straight in the eye and fixing them.  No wonder even die-hard supporters of Seattle-style politics have to flee when their kids leave elementary school.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Cero vs. Judge (by precinct)

The final, certified election results are in for Mercer Island, so I spent a few minutes looking over the detailed precinct-by-precinct results in the City Council race between Mike Cero and Maureen Judge, which Mike won by a slim 51% margin and fewer than 200 votes.  I've argued that "pothole" issues carried the day, but with a competitor who was new to the island, were there any patterns by neighborhood that explain the results?

The answer appears to be yes, that Mike's strong showing in his backyard South End neighborhoods had a big effect.  Although both candidates won an equal number of precincts (23 each), the extra push from the South swung the election.  Mike's own precinct gave him his best showing (66%).

Interestingly, his worst neighborhood (38%) was the same Forest Ave neighborhood that went strongest for Simple Majority, a pattern repeated when you see that the only Lakeridge neighborhoods that Mike lost were the ones that went strongest for Simple Majority.

Here's a breakdown by polling station to give you an idea of how people voted across the island:

Neighborhood Votes for Cero
Island Park School 49%
Islander Middle School 55%
Lakeridge 56%
Boys & Girls Club 47%
City Hall 52%
Fire Station 47%
High School 51%
West Mercer 50%

(I'm still looking for a GIS-format map of Mercer Island that would let me show the results in a pretty color chart. If you have one, please let me know and I'll share the rest of my SQL data with you)

Simple Majority on Mercer Island

4204 results by precinct
Originally uploaded by sprague
The vote has now been certified, so it's interesting to look at the results by neighborhood. Overall, Joint Resolution 4204 (aka Simple Majority) was approved by 5904 out of 8933 votes cast, or about 66% -- a landslide by any measure.

In fact, there wasn't a single neighborhood on the Island that didn't approve the measure. The narrowest victory (51%) came from one precinct near the high school. Two neighborhoods tied for first place in approval percentage (74%): one on Forest Ave and another near Lakeridge.

How did your neighborhood do?

My apologies for the poor and hard-to-read formatting of this post. I didn't have time to put it in a nice easy-to-copy table. Hopefully I can fix that when I post the precinct-by-precinct results for the City Council race.

Meanwhile, does anybody have a GIS (or other map format) for Mercer Island voting precincts? I'd love to put this data into map form to make it easier to read, but it would take too long to create it on my own.