Thursday, January 31, 2008

Obama and Mercer Island

It's been widely reported locally that Barack Obama's mother, Stanley Dunham, spent two years on Mercer Island during high school.  Yesterday's Seattlest blog links to this 2-min Youtube video that includes footage of MI downtown and interviews with two locals.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Bloggers and libel

It's fun, though a bit annoying, to watch inept PR firms try to shut down free speech in the name of "libel".  One of my favorite foodie blogs, What To Eat, just received such a threat from one David Martosko, claiming to represent the Center for Consumer Freedom, which the blog has been criticizing.

I hope his silly threat, and all similar ones directed toward people who exercise their First Amendment rights, ends up in a big backfire, providing even more publicity to the words we all enjoy.  Watch over the next few days as the Google search results shift against David Martosko and the Center shift as more people hear and write about their dumb action.

Incidentally, I don't even care that much about the facts of the case.  This is the internet. If you disagree with what somebody writes, get your own blog and tell us about it.  Don't go threatening a stupid and irrelevant lawsuit.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

[book] The World Without Us

Although I'm fascinated by the subject of the book -- how the world would fare if humans suddenly disappeared --I was too lazy at first to read the entire thing, since it had already been summarized (I thought) in an excellent Scientific American article last July. I find that many authors tend to make books that are unnecessarily repetitive so it's more time-efficient to simply read the summary. Happily that's not the case with this book, which I received as a present and now finally finished reading this week. I learned a lot, about everything from Bialowieza Puszcza, the old-growth forest on the border between Poland and Belarus, to Varosha Cyprus, a city in a warzone that was abandoned suddenly in the 1970s and hasn't been revisited since. Oh, and the Rothamsted research archive of the UK, keeping soil samples since the 1800s, plus the Panama canal, the "Petro Patch" near Houston where zillions of deadly chemicals are produced. All very interesting, though I kept thinking of other areas he didn't cover. For example, he doesn't mention how the lack of firefighters means that huge fires would almost certainly consume cities well before the other effects of decay set in. Also, what about the complete extinction of some interesting human-made species of plants, like yellow 2 maize, which can't reproduce on its own?

The biggest eye-opener for me was the ubiquity and resilience of plastics of all kinds, a substance never before seen on earth and which are essentially indestructible. Properly disposed of, plastic is a huge economic benefit over any alternative, but the disposal caveat is bigger than I thought. I wonder what would happen if we changed the price of plastic to include disposal costs -- would it still be such a net positive?

Anyway, I'm an optimist who believes that the world is getting much better, in spite of the human-caused environmental problems which I think are significant but solvable and temporary. Books like this (and I'll add Jared Diamond's Collapsewhich I also enjoyed and recommend) forget one critical detail when they discuss the environment: a world without humans is also a world without the most precious substance in the entire universe--the human brain. Properly configured, there are no limits to the ingenuity possible and fantastic things that can be done when you have cooperative, healthy, well-organized people around -- and the more the better, I say. Instead of fantasizing about a world that loses the most precious substance of all, we should be figuring out ways to make even more of us.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

$20,000 coffee machines from Japan

Jason pointed me to a NY Times article from last week about high-end coffee machines, including the siphon pot from Japan.  Also see a much more detailed article at LaughingSquid.


Although they give a nice look at Clover Coffee (of course!), the article fails to mention Trabant, which I think is the best place for brewed coffee.

Friday, January 25, 2008

520 Bridge falling apart

I live on an island, and I don't own a boat, so I'm completely dependent on the bridges that get me from home to everywhere else. What happens when those bridges fail?  Here are two simulations from the SR-520 bridge:

via Metroblog Seattle


Thursday, January 24, 2008

Are we in a recession?

Everything I know about macro-economics I learned in classes from my old finance professor Jeremy Siegel, so I basically trust everything he says, and he says no in a new podcast from Knowledge@Wharton.   He's an optimist like me, and I've watched him come a long way since last year when he said 25%, then 30% chance of a recession, until now he thinks "professional economists" say the odds are 50-50.   Bottom line: the Fed's recent cut will help, the politically-inspired government giveaway won't, and property prices will fall about 15% before bottoming out.  Interestingly, he thinks there are some parallels to the bubble situation in Japan in the 1980s, but says we're responding far more appropriately.

I've been fairly cash-heavy for the past several months so at these new stock market prices, I'm going on a buying spree.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Take Flouride out of our water?

The January 2008 Scientific American does a summary of the rethinking about flouridated drinking water, Second Thoughts on Flouride:

  • Researchers are intensifying their scrutiny of fluoride, which is added to most public water systems in the U.S. Some recent studies suggest that overconsumption of fluoride can raise the risks of disorders affecting teeth, bones, the brain and the thyroid gland.
  • A 2006 report by a committee of the National Research Council recommended that the federal government lower its current limit for fluoride in drinking water because of health risks to both children and adults.

Mercer Island gets its water from the Cedar River Watershed and the Tolt River Watershed, both located in eastern King County.  Cedar River water is "Fluoridated for dental health protection", according to their web site (I couldn't find anything about flouride on the Tolt River web site ).

If you think flouride is a good idea for your kids, ask your dentist to give you special flouride drops.  But why do all the rest of us need that extra stuff added to our water?

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Northwest Food and Wine

Celebrating Food and Wine in the Northwest is a short (9-min) podcast from NPR last week worth listening to if you like food. From the description:

Weekend Edition Sunday, January 13, 2008 · Northwestern cities such as Seattle and Portland are experiencing an explosion of new restaurants and wineries. Braiden Rex-Johnson, author of Pacific Northwest Wining and Dining, talks to Liane Hansen about why she loves Seattle's food and wine scene, how to shop for seafood, and what makes a good wine pairing.

Here's the book


My sound bites:

  • Portland chefs are more daring because the real estate costs are lower.
  • See Etta seafood: cold-smoked salmon with shiitake mushrooms
  • Best recipe is on p.34 "wild king salmon with cherries"
  • Kevin Davis at Steelhead Diner in Pike Place Market is "taking the city by a storm"
  • Recommends the virginica oyster

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Mercer Island Farmers Market

A group of citizens are trying to create a farmers market for Mercer Island, an absolutely wonderful idea that is long overdue.  I can't make it to tonight's planning meeting (Jan 10th, 7pm at the library), but here are my ideas:

First, I think the focus should be on variety -- diversity in products (of course), but also vendors, geography, and processing.  Locally-grown, farm fresh produce is great, but rather than simply imitate other local farmers markets that overflow with aisle after aisle of similar vendors hawking the same fruits and vegetables, how about just one or two of those, plus some or all of the following:

  • Dairy: Dungeness Valley Creamery already delivers extremely fresh, unprocessed milk, cheese, and cream to Mercer Island each week.  Ask them to set up a stand and sell it to the public.
  • Kosher and halal: micro-scale cooking, like from Kafe Kineret: falafel, real Matzo Ball soup, shawarma.
  • Tofu: freshly-made tofu tastes completely different from that yuk stuff you get at Safeway or Whole Foods.
  • Grains: Koshihikari rice (order through Uwajimaya) or barley or whole wheat, ground for you on the spot?
  • Coffee: Maybe Trabant could do a tasting menu?  or bring one of their Clover machines for us to try?
  • Spices: invite World Spice Merchants from Seattle or other small vendors who will sell small samplers in bulk.
  • Rain Forest fruits: find a supplier who can provide samples; nobody wants to risk ordering a large quantity without trying it first.
  • Meat: Alligator meat, goose, black bear?  Invite Exotic Meats from Bellevue to provide samplers.

Remember, you can get a lot of the fresh vegetables and locally-grown produce delivered to your door through services like Pioneer Organics (and without encouraging more driving, the way a farmers market does), so I hope that rather than displace these other excellent services, the Mercer Island Farmers Market can serve as a catalyst to expose more people to the joys of super-fresh food, increasing the market for everyone.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Hillary wants government bloggers

Hillary agrees with me:

"We should even have a government blogging team where people in the agencies are constantly telling all of you, the taxpayers, the citizens of America, everything that's going on so that you have up-to-the-minute information about what your government is doing, so that you too can be informed, and hold the government accountable," Clinton said.

[quoted in Wired]

But rather than push this on at the federal or even state level, where it will just become the job of professional PR people, I think this would be far more important and effective for local governments, where individual personalities matter more, and where direct feedback with individuals can be more effective.

Monday, January 07, 2008

I need a bigger living room

I'm at the Consumer Electronics Show this week, enjoying all the latest cool gadgets, including this one:

World's largest TV (150")

Okay, it's just a prototype for now, but how long till they make this available for normal people?

Here's another cool TV, from Sony.  It's made from OLED technology, which is not only very bright (i.e. easy to view) but it's also very, very thin.

ultra-thin OLED Sony display    Sony OLED 21" TV

Study the photo on the left carefully.  It's a side shot of the 21" TV set on the right.  It's so incredibly thin you'll have to be careful not to cut yourself if you hold it.

(See more of my CES experiences on my work blog)

Saturday, January 05, 2008

[book] The Price of Privilege

Why are rich kids often so screwed up?

Can you blame it on the parents, whose dog-eat-dog obsession with work and competition makes them "successful" in business at the expense of their children. And if you are well-off and you care about your kids, what can you do to keep the money from ruining them?

The Price of Privilege, by Marin County psychologist Madeline Levine, tries to explain why well-off communities like Mercer Island are plagued by noticeably higher-than-average frequency of risky behavior like drug and alcohol abuse. Levine [no relation to Mel], quotes Soniya Luthar, the Columbia University psychologist who did a recent study of Mercer Island kids that shows our teenagers have many serious problems. (For example, something like 10% of girls here victimize themselves through "cutting"-- self-mutilation by carving permanent scars into their bodies in a desperate cry for help). Mercer Island's own Cindy Goodwin, from Youth and Family Services, is quoted in the book (p.29) blaming the pursuit of perfection here as a reason some kids are pushed over the edge.

Here are the main points:

  1. The most important trait kids must develop is a healthy sense of self: Self-efficacy (I can affect the world) and agency (I act in my own long-term best interests).
  2. Use different parenting skills at different ages
    • Age 5-7: their world is black and white, so behavior is controlled externally. They only understand "bad" as what's punished, but help them understand that bad behavior doesn't mean bad kid.
    • Age 8-11: they're now aware of their affect on others and groups, so show them you value their (1) character, then (2) effort, and finally (3) results -- in that order.
    • Age 12-14: Peers take on a central role, so give them expanded (but contained) opportunities to work things out for themselves. They can handle abstraction at this point, including ethical/moral ones, so talk to them about it.
    • Age 15-17: treat them like adults who are just less experienced than you are.
  3. Parents must practice wise discipline and control: learn to be firm, monitor performance, practice containment to demonstrate limits, and be flexible when behavior isn't perfect. [this is by far the best chapter of the book]
  4. Parenting comes in three styles: authoritarian (which breeds bullies), permissive (breeds self-esteem, but also impulsive kids), and authoritative (best)

Notice that all the above sensible points apply to every family, affluent or not. But to these perfectly reasonable suggestions, Levine adds two more that she claims are the special curse of well-off communities: "Materialism", which she blames on affluence, and the "Poison of Perfectionism", which she blames on success. Kids, she says, burn out because their success-oriented parents push them too hard. That's where I think she's wrong.

I'm a huge fan of Judith Rich Harris, who has convinced me to be very skeptical about claims that parents behavior matters much to kids (in reality, peers matter far more). When you look carefully at the statistics, including most of those cited by Levine, they just don't hold up. So I'm not persuaded by her claim that there is anything special about affluent parenting. Here's why:

  1. "Affluence" is relative. The most affluent neighborhood in America fifty years ago would seem quite average, maybe a bit below average by today's standards. Incomes rise, living standards go up, and what is considered "affluent" in one age, place, culture, is not particularly affluent in another.
  2. Ethnicity and culture must play a role too -- a role almost certainly larger than mere "affluence". Think about Jewish or Mormon or Asian communities. Many of them are just as "perfection-driven" as Mercer Island, if not more so.
  3. Levine claims materialism is a particular problem in affluent families, but hang around low-income Wal-Mart shoppers sometime and you'll quickly see that poor people are just as materialistic. If anything, my experience is that affluent people are less interested in material things (which are easy to get) and more interested in status (which is not measured in dollars). Greed is not related to the number of zeroes in the price tag.
  4. Yes, Mercer Island kids exhibit risky behavior out of range of "average" America, but why assume the cause is money? There are other communities where people aren't particularly wealthy but where the parents are very focused on their careers (artists, universities, etc.) Do they have similar problems?
  5. Even if money is a factor, shouldn't you distinguish earned versus unearned (inherited) wealth? Levine assumes the problem is hyper-competitive parents. But many wealthy kids are being raised by trust fund parents who've never worked themselves -- surely that has some affect.

I'm not convinced that the pursuit (she says "poison") of perfection is a factor either.

  1. Like affluence, "perfection" is relative. For every group that thinks Mercer Island is too "perfection-driven", there's some group that thinks we're too laid back. Maybe a tribe of hunter-gatherers thinks we worry too much about AP classes, for example, but we are easy on our kids compared to a Japanese "kyoiku Mama".
  2. We demand perfection from our airline pilots and surgeons. Why not our kids? We should encourage everyone to be their best. I bet if you look closely at the stressed-out kids, you'll find that the trouble isn't the focus on perfection, but rather the forcing them to be something that they aren't. But again, why are "affluent" parents any different than, say, the poor farmer who forces his kids to be corn growers?
  3. Levine admits that in surveys on the issue of overscheduling, kids say that they do extracurriculars because it's fun, not because parents force them. So how could this be a source of stress and suicide?

Rather than blame parents, or the "privilege" of a Mercer Island upbringing, I would like to see more attention paid to the peer group studies of Suniya Luthar and Chris Sexton, where they ask kids to self-identify into groups like "populars", "nerds", or "jocks", and then compare the answers to what other kids say. The fascinating results in other communities showed that kids mostly self-identify correctly but that, for example, kids who everyone agrees are "popular" actually have few close friends. Wouldn't you love to know how that plays out on Mercer Island -- and what it means specifically to your kid?

Yes, a lot of rich kids are screwed up. But a lot of poor kids are too. The fact that 25% of MI kids engage in risky behavior means that 75% don't. If you're one of the parents who cares enough to read this book, it makes a big difference whether that 25% is spread evenly throughout the school, or whether it's confined to a few outcast groups that your kid doesn't normally associate with anyway. That kind of information -- and tips for how to ensure your kid joins the right crowd -- would be far, far more useful I think than simply blaming everything on parents, whose success and drive should be admired, not scorned.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Tea and Taiko at Sponge

Want to expose your kids to a foreign language while they're very young -- the best time for their young brains to soak up the sounds and grammar of Chinese, Spanish, French, Japanese?  Bring them to the Sponge School, run by my good friend, Jackie Friedman Mighdoll.   I first met Jackie more than 10 years ago, in Japan, where she moved after college because she loves languages so much.  A few years ago, when she had her first baby, she set up a school to help small children get started with languages.  Classes are 55 minutes long, full of games, music, and play designed for 0-4 year olds. 

Sunday, January 13th is a good time to learn more about Sponge.  Jackie's hosting a tea party, featuring a Japanese taiko drum performance by YushinDaiko.  It's free, and your toddler will thank you (in some other language, no doubt).

Where: 3107 S Day Street, Seattle
When: Sunday, January 13th 3-5pm
RSVP (not required):


Get your TV converter box coupon

My family dumped our cable TV last Spring, relying strictly on DVD and over-the-air broadcasts of HDTV for the few hours minutes a month of TV-watching we do.  All analog TV sets (i.e. virtually set except those purchased in the past few years) will stop working entirely at midnight, February 17, 2009 -- just over a year from now -- when the entire United States switches over to digital TV broadcasting.  You probably won't notice if, like most Americans, you get your TV exclusively from cable, but any sets that rely on over-the-air broadcasts will be looking at dead air unless you have a digital TV converter box.

The good news is that Congress has created a program to give away $40 coupons toward the purchase of a converter box.  I just applied for one at the web site.  Not sure what the full cost of the boxes will be, but my guess is that the Big Retailers will have at least one model you can get basically for free.  Anyway, it's worth signing up, especially if you have a spare TV someplace not connected to cable, since otherwise your TV set will become nothing more than a useless heavy object.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Amazon Fresh Morning

We returned from a long trip last night and, knowing we'd arrive late with no food in the house, I decided to try Amazon Fresh and their pre-dawn delivery service.

I was reminded to try thanks to a regular mailing they sent, this time one that told me about specials they have on gourmet cheese. I like the idea of a home delivery service for hard-to-find specialty food items, so I'm glad Amazon has started to move in that direction.

Some of my comments:

  • Best part: only $25 for free delivery! And it arrives before we wake up!
  • Still no high-end gourmet coffee! Not even Peets or Starbucks, much less the really specialty stuff like Espresso Vivace. Only one brand of whole bean coffee at all: Dunkin Donuts (?!). Yuk. [update:  apparently I screwed up while searching.  Turns out there are plenty of gourmet coffees, whole bean and otherwise.  No Espresso Vivace or Peets, but plenty of others]
  • Too hard to browse. Obviously it's nice to do a keyword search (like, say, "rice") but then I'm presented with a zillion options but my ways of winnowing the choices are limited to really basic things like brand or price. The "show only" pane helps, but only if I'm specifically looking for things like organic or kosher. How about letting me browse by "what other customers bought", like I can on Amazon?
  • The sorting algorithm needs to be more transparent. When presented with a long list of items to choose from, it's way too tempting to just buy the first one. Do vendors pay Amazon for placement? Not that I mind, but they'd be more likely to get my repeat business if I knew how to organize the list to match my interests.
  • Many basic items are not available. Lots of things I wanted were out of stock, though they still showed up at the top of the search results (why?).  I wanted fresh bread, for example, but they don't deliver that before 10am.  The brand of rice I wanted was also out of stock.

So in the morning, how did it go? Well, the groceries arrived well before 6, as promised, in nice big hard plastic totes right outside our doorstep. The delivery man nicely placed our morning newspaper right on top -- very thoughtful touch, saving us a far trek up the driveway.

Amazon Fresh Delivery (with newspaper)

Each tote was sealed with a tamper-resistant tag -- easy to remove, but a reassuring measure for a food delivery.

Amazon Fresh Delivery (tamper-proof)

The cold items, like milk and bacon, were sealed in special insulated pouches with ice packs.  That's not really necessary this time of year, but another example of the attention Amazon has paid to logistics.

Amazon Fresh Delivery (insulation)

All items arrived exactly as ordered, and they even threw in a few bonus things like vine-ripened tomatoes, some snap peas, and some carrots.  Again, that's another friendly touch that costs Amazon nothing (especially if the items are overstocked anyway) but greatly added to our experience.

Will I order again?  You betcha.  It saved us a trip to the store to buy milk before the kids woke up, and it was soooo easy. 

If Amazon could find a way to deliver freshly-baked bread or croissants with some gourmet coffee and the morning's New York Times, I bet everyone on Mercer Island would be hooked.