Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Anniversary Cards are for men


How come there are more anniversary cards addressed “to wife” than “to husband”?  At the Hallmark store yesterday I counted 25 cards designed for men shopping for their wives, versus only 14 for the wives to choose among for their husbands.  Here I always thought women do most of the greeting card buying, so why don’t they have a larger number of cards to choose from?

The reading habits of George W. Bush

I’m skeptical whenever mainstream consensus settles on an opinion about somebody or something, especially when it’s a subject that lends itself to very little first-hand, direct, up-close experience.  For example, It’s pretty well-accepted, both by the general media and by people I hang out with, that our outgoing president is not the brightest bulb who ever inhabited the White House. But I’ve always been skeptical of such a quick-and-easy conclusion.  You don’t get to be President by being a dummy.  There’s enough competition out there to weed out the dim bulbs pretty quickly. 

That’s why I was not as surprised as I bet you were to see that he reads about one serious book per week – far, far more than the general public, and probably more than you do.  In fact, about 40% of Americans didn’t read a single book last year.

According to a WSJ article by Bush friend Karl Rove, the President read the following books in 2008:

David Halberstam's "The Coldest Winter," Rick Atkinson's "Day of Battle," Hugh Thomas's "Spanish Civil War," Stephen W. Sears's "Gettysburg" and David King's "Vienna 1814." There's also plenty of biography -- including U.S. Grant's "Personal Memoirs"; Jon Meacham's "American Lion"; James M. McPherson's "Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief" and Jacobo Timerman's "Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number."

He’s not one-sided, either.  Look at this list of recent fiction:

Besides eight Travis McGee novels by John D. MacDonald, Mr. Bush tackled Michael Crichton's "Next," Vince Flynn's "Executive Power," Stephen Hunter's "Point of Impact," and Albert Camus's "The Stranger," among others.

Of course, just because somebody reads a lot more than you does not mean they are smart.  But like almost everything else you think you know politics, or the economy, or famous people – things you know only indirectly (from what you read) and by word-of-mouth (from people you talk to) – the real story is far more complicated than you can imagine.

p.s. I wonder if this is one of the books he’s read:

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Mercer Island snow and ice

Our weather is awful: thick ice and snow everywhere, with no prospects for clear roads for at least another week.  I’ve been following the details on the Cliff Nass Weather Blog, written by the famous University of Washington weather expert, but unfortunately there is not much good news lately.  The best I’ve seen is this snow plow, spotted on Island Crest Way this morning.  I wish there were more of these!

Snow plow
For those of you who read my blog for Mercer Island news, please start checking a new site, where a group of us will be posting more information about local topics:  I just posted a bunch of new photos there as well as on my FlickR page.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

McCafe is not worth it

On my long and dangerous journey through snow to Seatac this morning, I swung into McDonalds to try those new coffee beverages they’ve been advertising.  They give out these free latte coupons that expire December 31st, so I had to try it soon.  Yuk.  It tasted like Folgers with hot milk.  On a cold snowy day it was definitely worth the free coupon, but not much more.


Saturday, December 20, 2008

Snow and Ice

Newspapers shout bad snow day

Island roads have been terrible since the Big Snow hit on Thursday leaving many of us stuck in our homes, afraid to take our cars up and down slippery hills.

When I finally ventured out on Friday afternoon, I found unplowed, icy roads everywhere.  Just look at the ABS indicator on my dashboard, telling me that I’m losing traction as I drive up 40th from Island Crest Way.

Danger!  car is slipping

The City of Mercer Island is “prepared with sanders and snow plows to work around the clock if necessary”, according to the Mercer Island Winter Weather Update on the city website, which also includes a map of the snow and ice routes.  But I saw precious little plowing or sanding yet during my drive.  In fact, my Prius was completely unable to make it up the Merrimount Drive hill, in spite of two attempts.

Some streets, like 24th ave, were completely blocked off by city-erected barricades

Don't go up 24th.

Saturday morning looks to be a little better, but maybe not for long.  Another big storm is scheduled to hit tonight.

Click here to see a map of photos taken during my drive around the island.

[crossposted at]

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Mercer Island’s most accurate weather forecaster

Surrounded by Water took a walk to see how the island is coping with all this snow today, but some of us are wondering when it will let up.  Weather forecasts are so unreliable we think it’s almost a waste of time to pay attention to weather reports.  Don’t the forecasters get graded on accuracy?

Yes they do and evaluation service Forecastadvisor says the best weather source is MyForecast, with 80.61% overall accuracy last year.  Weather Channel is so close that you might as well assume they’re the leader, since you’ve probably heard of them more.

But on days like yesterday, when the forecast assumed tons of snow that never materialized, we really care about the accuracy of precipitation forecasts, and there Accuweather is tops.

ForecastAdvisor summary of Mercer Island forecasts

Of course, some days you can just look at the weather and judge for yourself:

Friday, December 12, 2008

The only way to improve schools

This week’s New Yorker is required reading of anyone interested in improving education.  An article by Malcolm Gladwell (author of “The Tipping Point”, “Blink” and other books) points out how teacher quality is so much more important than anything else:

Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford, estimates that the students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year’s worth of material in one school year. The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half’s worth of material. That difference amounts to a year’s worth of learning in a single year. Teacher effects dwarf school effects: your child is actually better off in a “bad” school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher. Teacher effects are also much stronger than class-size effects. You’d have to cut the average class almost in half to get the same boost that you’d get if you switched from an average teacher to a teacher in the eighty-fifth percentile.

According to Hanushek, the U.S. could close [the performance gap with the world’s top education systems] simply by replacing the bottom six per cent to ten per cent of public-school teachers with teachers of average quality. After years of worrying about issues like school funding levels, class size, and curriculum design, many reformers have come to the conclusion that nothing matters more than finding people with the potential to be great teachers.


A group of researchers—Thomas J. Kane, an economist at Harvard’s school of education; Douglas Staiger, an economist at Dartmouth; and Robert Gordon, a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress—have investigated whether it helps to have a teacher who has earned a teaching certification or a master’s degree. Both are expensive, time-consuming credentials that almost every district expects teachers to acquire; neither makes a difference in the classroom.

The fundamental importance of teacher quality makes me pessimistic that public schools are likely to improve their mediocre, over-priced performance, no matter how much money you throw at them.

It’s not just me saying this.  Read Jonathan Alter’s Dec 6th column in Newsweek (“Bill Gates Goes to School”) and read the devastating comments of Microsoft’s founder:

It's no surprise that Gates is a believer in merit pay and incentive pay and has little use for teachers colleges as presently constituted because there's no evidence that having a master's degree improves teacher performance. You never hear Gates or his people talk about highly qualified teachers, only highly effective ones.

[btw, Steve Jobs says the same thing, and so does McKinsey]

I wish I understood the counter-argument.  Defenders of the current system tell me that it’s too hard to evaluate teacher performance fairly.  But do you think it’s easy to evaluate employee performance at Microsoft or IBM or GE or Apple?  It’s not easy, but every world-class company does it, and if we want world-class schools we’ll have to do it too.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

41st district election results by city

The complete official results of the November 4th election have been posted; I haven’t had time to do the analysis I did for the primary, but here’s what I got when I did a quick import into Excel:

  • Yup, Obama won Mercer Island (as Surrounded by Water already predicted)
  • Marcie Maxwell lost in Bellevue.  In fact, she lost practically everywhere except Renton, but her  2000-vote victory there made up for it.  The chart below is a little deceptive because it lumps into “Other” areas like Briar, Eastwood, and Daniel that really should be considered Renton.  Steve won Newcastle and most everywhere else listed “other”.
  • Except for popular Attorney General Rob McKenna, Democrats won everywhere, including Mercer Island.  Governor, Congressman, President – the whole district shifted further blue than at any time in the past 75 years.


Area Litzow Maxwell Obama McCain McKenna
 Bellevue             14,103          13,501           20,439          10,955            19,615
 Mercer Island               7,090             6,031             9,718            4,735              9,120
 Renton               3,304             5,304             6,098            3,347              5,436
 Other               6,639             7,055             9,255            5,881              9,427
 total             31,136          31,891           45,510          24,918            43,598


Area McKenna Rossi Gregoire Reichert Burner
 Bellevue             19,615          13,189           17,523          14,670            16,093
 Mercer Island               9,120             5,971             8,466            6,550              7,613
 Renton               5,436             4,235             5,267            4,273              5,047
 Other               9,427             7,314             7,905            7,453              7,484
 total             43,598          30,709           39,161          32,946            36,237


Note on the above numbers: my totals don’t completely match the official final results posted on the King County Elections page.  I didn’t include write-ins, blanks, overvotes, etc. – none of which made a material difference (I believe), but results in some discrepancies with official numbers.  For example, Marcie’s victory goes to 755 instead of the 748 in the official count.  But hey, I’m just an unpaid blogger so what are you expecting – something professional?

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Don’t miss me

I’ve been blogging regularly for close to five years now, but I still can’t seem to get my Mom to read me.  When I talked with her (and Dad) this morning, they still hadn’t heard about some of the things my blog readers take for granted, like the Randomness book I read last week or the the lower price of gas here.

So, maybe I can get my parents to take advantage of the new “Subscribe via email” option I added to the right hand column of this page.  Enter your email address there and you no longer have to load this page into your browser in order to read my latest drivel.   Don’t worry, your email address is stored securely and won’t be given over to a spammer. 

Oh, and if you haven’t noticed already, you’re welcome to follow me on Twitter too.  That’s a more efficient way to track the basics of a person: keep up to date on where I am and what I’m doing.  Just go to and set up your (quick) account.

Welcome to my life, Mom!

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Obama’s slave ancestors

The country is justifiably excited at the thought of a first lady in the White House who is the descendent of a slave.  Michelle Obama’s great-great grandfather, Jim Robinson, born about 1850, lived as a slave on a rice plantation until the Civil War.

So here’s what I’m thinking.  Michelle has a total of 32 great-great-grandparents, just like you and me.  That’s a lot of ancestors, each with his or her own complicated ancestry.   In fact, thanks to the mathematics of ancestry, it’s pretty likely that one of those 32 people is descended from somebody who was on the Mayflower, especially if her family had been in America for a long time.

it turns out that I too have a great-great grandparent who was a slave, (technically, a serf) working under a harsh landlord in the wilds of Lithuania; forbidden to own property, working long hours for no wages, subject to severe punishment if he tried to escape.  Somehow, thanks to changes in the economy and governments, his son Matthias (my great-grandfather) was able to leave the country and eventually settle in America.

Now, here’s another consequence.  We know that Barack Obama has an African father, so presumably there are no slaves on that side of his family (at least not in America).  But what about his mother (and former Mercer Island resident) Stanley Ann Dunham?  Wouldn’t it be likely that, like me, she too had an ancestor (perhaps a great-great grandmother) who had been born a serf?

A quick scan of Wikipedia indicates that Ann was mainly descended from people of the British Isles (where there was no serfdom in the mid-1800s), so I guess it’s unlikely (though not impossible—remember, all it takes is one who was not from there).  But wouldn’t it be ironic if our new President, like his wife, had a serf/slave great-great grandparent – on his mother’s side?

What an amazingly wonderful country!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Fooled by Randomness [book]


In many ways this is better than Taleb’s more popular book, The Black Swan, which I’ve already noted is one of my favorite books of all time.  He started it before he was famous (before he knew it would sell), so he tried harder while writing it and it shows. The second edition (which is a third larger and better edited) is well-organized and easy-to-read, unlike Black Swan which sometimes can meander.

His central thesis is the same in both books: humans are hard-wired to demand an explanation for everything, even when there is none, leading us to be fooled into thinking that something is not random when it really is.

Much of this is easily demonstrated mathematically. My favorite example is the game where an evil investment advisor sends letters to a thousand or so prospective clients, telling half that a particular stock will go up and the other half that it will go down. The second month, repeat the same mailing to the half of the list where the prediction happened to be correct. Keep repeating each month and at the end of ten months he'll have a (short) list of people who think he was correct for ten months in a row. Apply the same math to the world's pool of actual investment advisors and mutual fund managers and you'll find that the number of people with 10 year successful track records is about what you'd expect from pure chance!

Ergodicity, the statistical concept behind the law of large numbers, says that the true properties of a process become clear only after many iterations.  The problem in life, says Taleb, is that “winners” (whether successful investment advisors or CEOs) are often there because of the survivorship bias:  since they’re graded on results, not process, many “successful” people are in their positions because of luck not skill.  If your boss thinks he’s so smart, strip him of his current position and force him to do something new without relying on his resume (which may be luck anyway).  Then you’ll see how smart he really is.

The danger of Taleb's thesis -- and one I haven't fully navigated around yet -- is that you'll succumb to fatalism. If everything is random, then why bother working hard?

Some of his suggestions are good ones, such as the idea of Buridan's Donkey: a donkey equidistant from food and water will starve unless you give him a slight nudge toward one or the other. In this case randomness is your friend, because it provides just enough of a push to get you off your duff and doing something, regardless of what it is.

You can't blame all success on luck. The investment advisor who was smart enough and worked hard enough to notice fraud in the company's annual report: I believe he'll be more successful long-term than the one who simply flipped coins.

As in the Black Swan, the weak parts of Taleb’s case are exposed in his uninformed discussion of the QWERTY problem, or so-called "path independence" : the idea that once a particular idea or product takes off, network effects kick in to give it an insurmountable advantage, even if the original is provably inferior to alternatives. Path independence theory has been refuted to my satisfaction by the works of Liebowitz and Margolis, who showed that most (all?) of the so-called examples of this are wrong, that in fact network effects are pretty good at giving the advantage to the best technology, not the worst.

As I get older, I become more humbled at how little you can trust even the smartest analysis for why and how things turn out the way they do. Newspapers and TV are so often wrong, especially on their first reports, that I wonder why we bother to pay attention at all.   I am intrigued by the Taleb style of reasoning that says randomness is at the heart of everything we do.  The trick is to internalize that fact, yet keep trying in spite it.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Greenspan Recants (or did he?)

The current financial crisis is an interesting real-life experiment to free market fans like me.  It’s far too early to draw conclusions, but much of the generally accepted wisdom right now is that “pure capitalism” has failed and that the world needs more regulated markets to protect against “excess” and prevent or lessen these crises in the future.

But my belief in free markets is more about information than it is about money.  Most regulations involve one person (a bureaucrat) telling another person (you or me) what to do.  Sometimes that’s necessary:  for example we’re all better off when a central planner decides that everyone must drive on the right-hand side of the road.  But for this to be effective, bureaucrats need to be humble about their terrible disadvantage in information.  No regulator can possibly know as much as you do about your individual circumstances, and this information disparity is the source of why regulation often causes more harm than help.

Those of us who believe this idea have long thought of Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan as an ally, so I was intrigued when I saw news reports (now repeated over and over) that he “changed his mind”.

Except, he didn't. When I look at the actual transcripts, it's clear to me that careless news reporters have simply spun his remarks incorrectly.  Here's the key quote:

Chairman WAXMAN. Well, where did you make a mistake then?

Mr. GREENSPAN. I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interest of organizations, specifically banks and others, were such is that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms.

And it's been my experience, having worked both as a regulator for 18 years and similar quantities, in the private sector, especially, 10 years at a major international bank, that the loan officers of those institutions knew far more about the risks involved and the people to whom they lent money, than I saw even our best regulators at the Fed capable of doing. So the problem here is something which looked to be a very solid edifice, and, indeed, a critical pillar to market competition and free markets, did break down. And I think that, as I said, shocked me. I still do not fuIly understand why it happened and, obviously, to the extent that f figure out where it happened and why, I will change my views. If the facts change, I will change.

What follows is his attempt to defend himself against the implication that somehow he was derelict at his duties as Fed Chairman, that ideology got in the way of his performing his legal responsibilities. As someone who obviously cares about integrity, much of Greenspan's testimony is simply responding to those charges, which he thinks are unfair.

But he eventually reaches his bottom line:

Mr. GREENSPAN. I think that it's interesting to observe that we find failures of regulation all the time, and one of the reasons is a very significant amount of regulation in the economic area is based on a forecast to know in advance whether or not particular products will go bad or the cycle will turn. If we are right 60 percent of the time in forecasting, we're doing exceptionally well. That means we are wrong 40 percent of the time, and when you observe the extent of the broad failure, the difficulty is that nobody can forecast. If you try to take a look at what the private sector does it's precisely the same thing that goes on in government. We at the Federal Reserve had a much better record forecasting than the private sector, but we were wrong quite a good deal of the time and that is reflected in how one views what the appropriate regulatory authorities are because unless you can anticipate the types of problems that are going to happen, it's very difficult to know what to do. And I think that's the problem that this type of thing confronts and I don't see any way in which that's going to be fundamentally changed. We can try to do better, but forecasting is never--never gets to the point where it's 100 percent accurate.

When you look at his entire testimony, it's clear that Greenspan in no way has changed his mind or even modified his fundamental pro-market position. He maintains his strong support for an unregulated market in derivatives, for example, which "are working well" (his quote). The part he doesn't understand (where he'll change his mind if the facts change) relates to credit default swaps--a market that barely existed when Greenspan was chairman and therefore was impossible to forecast.  And who would we be regulating anyway?   He reminds us of this:

"We are not dealing with people who are dumb. We are dealing with, by far, the most sophisticated, thoughtful people about the way markets work who created the major problems".

Enacting regulations to prevent a future collapse of the credit default swaps market would be a waste of time, since (as Greenspan notes) nobody is interested in that market anymore now anyway. But enacting other regulations would simply hamper a market that is already working well 60% of the time. Does anybody think they can get better odds on an alternative system? Exactly which regulations would you enact that would improve upon that record? Greenspan doesn't recant: he just admits he doesn't know.  Do his regulation-happy opponents or the careless reporters know?   Do you?

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Maxwell wins

Many of us have been watching the shifting return counts since election night, but now it’s official:  Marcie Maxwell won the election for 41st district state representative over Steve Litzow.  The margin was extremely close:  748 out of 64,394 votes cast, much tighter than the 1591 votes that separated the two of them during the primary election.

I think she won for two reasons:

  1. She’s not George Bush.   In a district that Obama carried by 64%,  anybody with a “D” in their name was guaranteed at least 748 voters who wanted their state legislator to end the war in Iraq, end subsidies to Big Oil, end all that corruption in Washington D.C., stop the Born Again Fundamentalists from running the government, help those poor Katrina victims, and make abortion legal again.  If you can fog up a mirror you can vote in this country, and this year the momentum was on the side of Democrats.
  2. Steve went negative.  Too many people were put off by the petty, irrelevant attack mails that Steve sent, implying that Marcie somehow doesn’t care about student privacy.  Or something – I’m not even sure what he was implying about her.  Anyone who knows Marcie personally (or knows somebody who does – which is half the city of Renton) looked at his ads and rolled their eyes.  Same thing with his comments about Renton school performance; there was a right way to legitimately bring this up as an issue, but Steve came across as somebody who was just picking on the good people of Renton.

The full downloadable results will be ready in early December, and I can’t wait to pour through the numbers so I can update the analysis from the August primary.  Here’s what I’ll be looking for:

  • Did Steve carry Bellevue?  I bet he did.  That would be interesting because it challenges the popular explanation that the Eastside is becoming more Democratic.  In other words, it’s possible (even likely) for a Republican to win District 41, even in a terrible year.
  • Did education voters make the difference?  Since this is Marcie’s main campaign theme, it will be interesting to see how much the voters agreed.  This didn’t matter much in the primary, so I want to see if anything changed in the larger turnout for the final election.

Meanwhile, Marcie deserves congratulations, and I’m proud to stand behind her as my legislator for the next two years  (Argh, is that all it is?!  After nearly a year of hard work campaigning, the prize is a lot more of those 2-hour drives to Olympia, a diddly state legislator’s salary,  and then you have to do it all over again!

Friday, November 21, 2008

Civics test: 90%

Ouch! I’m disappointed that I got three answers wrong on a new 33-question civics test created by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, giving me a score of 90.1%.

Still, that’s better than 49% mean score of the 2500 people test-takers nationwide. In fact, it’s way better than every single category sampled:

Income > $100K55
Age 18-2447
Age 45-6452

The study's authors somehow convinced 164 elected officials to take the test, and their average score was 44% – five points lower than the general public.

These questions are pretty basic: multiple choice answers to questions about the First Amendment, the purpose of the Federal Reserve Bank, names for the three branches of government. Yes, some of them were a little tricky, but I don't think you can be an informed voter if you don't know this stuff.

Take the 5-minute test yourself and let me know how you did:

Monday, November 10, 2008

Cheap Gas

What’s going on with gas prices?  Look what I just paid at a 76 station right off the freeway near Ellensburg:


(That’s a ‘1’ at the beginning of the price, not a ‘2’)

Purple toes in Zillah

There are no wine lovers in the San Francisco Bay Area (or in Seattle for that matter) who haven’t been to Napa Valley.  But comparatively few people know about a  similar wine-growing region just two hours east of Mercer Island (over the soon-to-be-tolled I-90 bridge), in the Rattlesnake Hills area of the Yakima Valley.  We spent our weekend there, where some good friends are getting started with their own winery.

First, we picked some grapes:


then we crushed them:

Stomping grapes

and now look at the toes on my 6-year-old:

Stomping grapes

You should go too!  Best place to stay in Zillah is the Comfort Inn, for about $100/night, including a big breakfast, a pool, and free use of their grill!

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Worst President Ever

I'm a big fan of Black Swan theory, which says that although leaders are measured by the Big Things that happen, they are rarely given credit for policies or actions that prevent Big Things from happening in the first place. Since it's impossible to wind back the clock and do the redo the experiment, we are left victims of the narrative fallacy, our desperate need to explain everything even when the real cause is unknowable, and to assign credit or blame to people (like the President) who have very little real influence compared to the collective, independent actions of the rest of us.

Think how history would look back on the past eight years if we had a President who had done this:

  • Instead of focusing on the economy, he wasted his first year in office on a quixotic push to pass intrusive Homeland Security laws like the one forcing airlines to put locks on cockpit doors.  Experts agree this had no effect on safety, as shown by the complete lack of hijackings since.
  • Second year in office, he forced burdensome new regulations on business transparency that devastated many innocent companies, forcing needless management changes at great American companies like Enron, Worldcom, Tyco, and others.  It’s a miracle these companies still exist.
  • Iraq War: rather than leave the task to international inspectors, he wasted a trillion dollars removing a dictator who experts agree presented no serious long-term threat.
  • New Orleans levee protection: in a blatantly corrupt attempt to reward his cronies and win votes, he poured excessive federal money into a crash program to over-build flood levees when it’s now obvious that even during a large storm like Hurricane Katrina, the original levees would have held just fine.
  • Millions of poor families remain stuck in rental housing because of his refusal to continue the wise policies of the 1990s that offered a chance at home ownership to everyone.  The economy is now paying the price, with stalled housing values and a stock market that barely rises past the inflation rate.

Nobody, not even the wisest expert out there, can predict the Biggest Thing that will happen to the next President.  But any pre-emptive thing he does will be judged unkindly by history precisely because the Biggest Disaster he prevents is the one that never happens.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Free coffee at Starbucks

I dropped in on West Mercer Elementary school this morning:


and then I went downtown and got one of these for free:

Starbucks coffee

Incidentally, I disagree with the idea that irresponsible or uninformed people should vote.  If you’re unsure about a candidate or an issue, please don’t guess – you’ll likely just make things worse.

If you want to know what I think about issues, read these posts.  If I’m wrong about something, please leave comments so I can change my mind.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Sign Waving to Commuters

If you want to say something to Mercer Islanders, you can’t beat the intersection of Island Crest Way and 40th as a place to publicize your message.  A large percentage of the island drives past it every morning, and they’re your captive audience until the light turns green.  There must be an election or something this week, because here’s what we had this morning:


Can you spot the three City Council members in these photos?


I wonder how crowded it’ll be tomorrow morning?

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Litzow vs. Maxwell at the PTA

The Mercer Island Legislative Team of the PTA sponsored a discussion recently between the Washington State 41st district legislative candidates, Democrat Marcie Maxwell and Republican Steve Litzow. It’s getting close to Election Day and maybe with absentee ballots the decision has already been made.  But if like me you’re planning to vote in person on Tuesday,  here’s my bottom line on the differences between the candidates:

Steve cares most about freedom: let schools, teachers, parents, and taxpayers have maximum choice and flexibility.  Marcie cares most about fairness: don’t let the “rich” districts (like Mercer Island) forget that there are less well-off places in need.  Marcie knows more details about education issues, but Steve is less beholden to vested interests and more likely to bring real change – if you think that’s necessary.

The best example of this difference is school funding.  Mercer Islanders would spend even more on our schools if we could, but Washington is one of only two states that put a maximum cap on the amount you can raise in tax levies – even if 100% of the voters in a district beg for it.  How silly is that?

Steve: would eliminate the levy lid if he could, but recognizes it’s politically difficult, so he supports a compromise that involves raising the floor on funds we get from the state.

Marcie: reminds us there are other districts out there that won’t support higher taxes for education the way we do, and it’s important not to let Mercer Island get too far ahead.

In other words, Steve wants people to be free to choose the level of funding they want, but Marcie worries that’ll lead to unfair advantages for the pro-education districts.

One nit: both candidates keep repeating the incorrect statistic that Washington scores 42nd in funding on education. That’s very old data; the actual number is 38th (as of 2006) and probably much higher by now thanks to the $2.46B added to teacher salaries in the past four years .

Both candidates say teacher strikes should be illegal, though neither gives specifics on what to do.  Steve notes that the unions seem to strike each year just before elections, and that we should expect another one two years from now, just before the next election. No suggestions for how to avoid it. Marcie repeats her union supporters’ statements about how “teachers are happiest in the classroom”  and that presumably the best way to ensure happiness is to pay them more.

But how should we pay them?  I saw a big, healthy difference:

Steve:  “I do believe it’s possible to tell the difference between good teachers and bad teachers” and the good ones should be rewarded.

Marcie: “It’s complicated”, so let’s focus on making existing teachers better, through things like National Board Certification or the Math Academy they tried in the Renton district.

Here Steve’s clearly right.  It’s ridiculous that we give the same raises to the worst 10% of teachers that we give to the top 1%.  That study people quote about National Board Certification is flawed because it didn’t distinguish between causation and causality: the certification doesn’t change the teacher. Marcie should read up on what Apple’s Steve Jobs says: today’s schools will never really improve until you fix the awful way we hire and compensate teachers.  Meanwhile, those mediocre teachers who want to keep their jobs should spend every waking minute of their day trying to ensure Marcie gets elected because she’s unlikely to propose anything new here.

Somebody asked Marcie why schools in her home district of Renton fare so poorly, and she replied with the important reminder that demographics are important: Renton is not like Mercer Island.  It’s a much bigger school district (100K students), with 44% of kids on government assisted lunch programs (in one school it’s as high as 73%).  Top-down mandates like No Child Left Behind offer little flexibility, which crushes the options for resource-constrained schools.

There is no question that Marcie is more aware of the day-to-day realities of poor districts, and that her legislative priorities are more focused on the immediate needs of the have-nots.  That’s why the Mercer Island School Board President says Steve Litzow doesn’t get it.  That may very well be true (he definitely doesn’t get it with his lame, idiotic ads implying Marcie doesn’t protect privacy—give me a break), but does it matter who “gets it” or does it matter who’s more effective?    Sure, Marcie cares about the poorest kids (so do we all) but an elected official shouldn’t be given an “A” just for effort.

One more thing: everyone blames the rising cost of education on mandates, so one question to ask is where are those mandates coming from, are they really necessary, and who is more likely to reduce them.  Marcie mentioned that we should reconsider some of those mandates (she specifically blames No Child Left Behind).  Still, it seems to me that most (all?) of the mandates come from the “fairness” people like her, not from the “freedom” people like Steve.   I don’t necessarily disagree with Marcie – I  mean, I like “fairness” too – but everything in life is a tradeoff and we can’t keep pretending that more funding is the only answer.

As for me, I’m following the lead of Surrounded by Water and voting for Steve.  Since I’m also voting for Fred Jarrett, and I know Marcie’s pretty much lockstep with Fred anyway, I think this is the best way to ensure healthy variety and flexibility in state government. 

Prius Gas Mileage

I’m having fun computing the long-term gas mileage for my 2007 Prius Touring Edition.  It’s now just under two years old, and here’s the chart for my cumulative performance:


Gas prices (blue line above) have plummeted so much lately that my fill-up last Friday ($2.499) was close to the lowest I’ve paid in two years.  The red line shows the most important number: how many miles I can travel on a dollar’s worth of gas.  Generally it hovers between 10 and 15 miles—at least double what we get from our other car (Honda Odyssey).

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Prius Flat Tire

Work has kept me so busy lately that I haven’t had time to do much of anything, so imagine my frustration when I heard that tell-tale “pop” noise coming from my rear right tire as I drove down I-405 on my way home late last night.  But the car still rode okay, so it wasn’t till I was home that I discovered this tire was not repairable.

Flat tire

Immediately I checked PriusChat and found that the best tire for a Prius is the Nokian WR, which goes for something like $160+ each at places like the Tire Factory in Redmond.   Turns out that my Prius Touring Edition has 16” wheels, which are not terribly easy to find in stock in any case.  Other people recommended the Michelin Pilot Primacy (also sold at Costco), but at $163 it actually costs about the same as the Nokian and doesn’t get as good gas mileage.  Didn’t matter, cuz it wasn’t in stock at the places I called.

Argh.  Long story short I ended up going to my favorite tire place, Les Schwab, who sold me the Toyo Proxes T1R, for about $350 for two of them, installed.  It’s a sport tire, so supposedly I’ll get better handling, but I really wanted better fuel economy.  I guess that’s the down side of the Touring Edition Prius—you end up with sport tires because nobody keeps anything else in stock.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Confidence in Fred Jarrett

I think there are at least two kinds of politicians: the "populists" and the "wonks". Too many politicians are populists, who treat government like a popularity contest: a grown-up version of the Homecoming King and Queen (come to think of it, a lot of politicians are former homecoming kings).

We need more wonks, which is why I'm voting for Fred Jarrett. Meet him in person like I did this weekend and you'll see why: he is knee-deep in the details about the issues that matter to him (and me): like education  and transportation.

Here are a couple of areas where he changed my mind:

  • Vote no on I-985: I'm partial to cars--it's far and away the most important way people get around, and I disagree with the do-goodies who push ultra-expensive mass transit that won't help a bit. I figured there's enough opposition to I-985 that it won't pass anyway, but I want to send a message that cars are important. Not anymore. Fred thinks it's likely to pass, unfortunately. I agree with him that it would be a disaster (micromanage how traffic lights get synchronized? Puh-lease)
  • It’s possible to get bad teachers to quit, through policy changes that don’t have to upset their union.  Best example: make pensions portable.  A lot of middle-aged teachers would love to change jobs but the golden handcuffs of their generous pensions are keeping them there.  What if we could make their pensions portable?  through defined contribution (like the 401k that I have) or through something else…  I think that’s the single best way to improve schools.
  • Tolling on I-90.  Fred’s opponent, Bob Baker, talks like it’s a simple matter of “just say no”, but in fact Bob Baker’s naive stance would make matters far worse for Mercer Island.  [this deserves its own post, like the one from Surrounded by Water]

I'm not surprised the non-partisan Municipal League gives Fred the highest rating for our district.

Stop by the Education Funding blog he runs with several other legislators for more wonky details.

Vote for Fred Jarret, Washington 41st Legislative District

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Kenmore Airlines to Camp Orkila

As far as I know there’s no law forcing us to do it, but for some reason it seems like all Mercer Island fathers enroll in the Y-Guides program of the Lake Heights Family YMCA, a highlight of which is when we dutifully schlepp our kids to Camp Orkila, in the San Juan Islands each October.  Usually they try to schedule it on a cold and rainy weekend, but this year it was absolutely beautiful.

The fathers in my tribe were too busy at work to take the 4+ hour trip via ferry, so instead we did something different: we flew on the Northwest’s own Kenmore Airlines, which has a fleet of seaplanes that take off from Lake Union.  I can’t believe I haven’t done this before!  Instead of a long, roundabout drive up I-5 and over a ferry, we were at our destination in only 40 minutes.

Camp Orkila from the air

The prices are pretty reasonable, considering the time saved.  For about $100/person each way, we saved about a day of our weekend in travel time.  The plane literally landed us right on the beach of Camp Orkila.

Kenmore Air at Camp Orkila beach

Getting there is half the fun, of course.  Nothing like flying around the Space Needle in 9-seater airplane.

I haven’t had this much fun in the air since last year when a friend took us up in his private plane and we flew over Mercer Island.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Seattle Times Endorses Steve Litzow

The Seattle Times endorsed Steve Litzow in the race for 41st State Legislative District. You have to chuckle at their follow-on comment

His opponent, Democrat Marcie Maxwell, a member of the Renton School Board, is passionate about education but doesn't seem to have an original idea about the topic.


Their rejection stings even more when compared to the kinder comments they made when they passed on Fred Jarrett’s competitor, Bob Baker, who they at least encourage to “stay in local politics”.  It’s clear they agree with the Municipal League’s non-partisan assessment that Marcie just isn’t as qualified.

Note how quickly Steve added the Seattle Times endorsement to this brand new campaign video:

Compare it to a similar one released by Marcie’s team a few weeks ago:

I think the Seattle Times assessment is accurate.  I don’t know any Democrats who are enthusiastic about Marcie.  If you are, and you really think she’d be a better legislator, especially on education issues, please let me know in the comments.  Do original ideas matter in this race?

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Last day this year for Farmers Market

mi farmers mkt

The Mercer Island Farmers Market closes for the winter after today, so my six-year-old and I rode our bikes there one last time to stock up on fresh butter from Golden Glen Creamery,  just-picked apples from Jones Creek Farms and (my daughter’s favorite) pluots from Tiny’s Organic.

She took the photos this time.  Can’t wait till it opens again next Summer.

Flights around the world

Whenever I’m on a flight, I like to imagine how many people must be in airplanes at the same time all around the world.  My favorite flight info site,, has excellent information in real time about everything related to current flights, but what does the world as a whole look like?  The answer is in this video, a simulation of all flights worldwide over a 24-hour period.

I love the way you can just watch the traffic spill from east to west as the world wakes up.

[via Air Traffic Worldwide 24HR from kouko a on Vimeo.]

Saturday, October 11, 2008

What’s in my genes? Results from 23andme

My DNA test results arrived much sooner than I expected. They tell you six to eight weeks, but it was more like two or three. The company that I chose for the test, 23andme, recently dropped their price to only $400, making it much more affordable. (By the way, I paid the original $1,000 price, but they generously refunded the difference--a hint that they care about good customer satisfaction).

I hope to post much more about this as I get time to analyze my data, but meanwhile enough customers are out there now that it's possible to get a sense for the direction this technology is headed. Mark Fletcher is an early user who posted his experiences, and there are several others who have even posted their entire results on line. One of my readers suggested I check out Promethease, a Windows/Mac program that will run through your results and tell you everything that's known about your SNPs. Since my test shows 500,000 SNPs, there is a lot to analyze and I'll need as much help as I can get.

So let's open the envelope, please, and tell me the results!

First, no surprises on my ancestry. Although I found out through the $99 Genographic Project's test that my grandmother is likely descended from native Americans, no such traces exist on either my mitochondrial or Y-chromosomal DNA. I am about as pure-blooded a north European as the test shows it is possible to be. For example, here's a distribution of the people who share my haplogroup, H1*, the one I got from my mother.


On my father's side, R1b1c9, the results are similar:


Note that these results are consistent with the very different conclusion from my Indian grandmother, who gave me 1/4th of my overall genes, but not the ones from this test. Remember, my mitochondrial DNA comes exclusively via my mother, just like my Y-chromosome DNA comes exclusively from my father. Since Grandma (a female) had no Y to pass down, my Y comes from my father and grandfather. Similarly, my mitochondrial DNA is 100% from my Lithuanian mother's side (as you can clearly see from the diagrams above).  All the more reason to test your own grandparents while they’re still alive.

Okay, so that’s ancestry.  What about the rest?  23andme provides some basic analysis on (as of today) about 90 specific genetic conditions, with varying degrees of scientific certainty or idle interest, depending on how well-studied these are.

In my case the following areas turned up good:

  • Very low chance of Parkinson’s Disease (unlike Google co-founder Sergei Brin)
  • I have the same mutation as that Jamaican Olympic sprinter!
  • No Crohn’s, no Celiac, no lupus, no gout.
  • No male infertility (hmmmm)
  • Higher odds of living to 100
  • IQ:  breast-feeding would have raised my IQ 4-5 points.  (thanks for nothing, Mom)
  • Heart disease:  lower than average risk.  (14.5 out of 100 versus 17.7 out of 100 for other white males)
  • Arthritis:  lower than normal (1.1/100 vs. 4.2)
  • Diabetes: almost no chance whatsoever of getting Type I and lower than normal odds on Type II (13 vs. 21/100)
  • Lactose tolerance:  what do you expect from a farm boy like me?

Biggest worries:  [note to insurance companies: please stop reading here]

There are many more mutations covered by the test, but these are the most relevant to me.  As you can see, the results are mixed: some “good” news, some “bad”.  But look more closely and you’ll see why I’m not sure yet if this really tells me much.  For example, I have a mutation (rs1051730) associated with nicotine dependence.  Okay, guess I better not smoke.  Same thing goes with similar mutations associated with heroin, HIV, and noroviruses:  I’m at risk.  Big deal.  My mother tells me these things even without viewing my genetic results.  Did I pay $400 for this?

Of course, if some of these results had gone the other way – and I’m less susceptible to addiction, HIV, or other preventable conditions – would that make me consider taking up different behaviors?  No, of course not.  There are lots of good non-genetic reasons to avoid these things.

I also question the reliability of some of the science.  For example, one of my mutations is associated with higher-than-normal risk of becoming obese if I eat more than 30% of my calories as fat.  That’s absurd to anyone who knows me and my eating habits: I’ve been skinny since childhood, seemingly regardless of what I eat.  But if I were overweight, I’d look at the same result with a big “aha” and think I know something revealing about myself.

So my bottom line is that although this is fascinating to somebody like me who is willing to invest the time and skeptical energy to interpreting these results, I’m not sure others will benefit much yet.  A cursory glance will tell you a few things, but it will take much work and analysis to uncover whether the results are truly interesting, or whether they merely confirm your own preconceived biases about yourself.