Friday, February 29, 2008

Mercer Island Survey Results

The City of Mercer Island commissioned a study of 400 registered voters in late January, and the results are now posted on the city web site.  Some top level findings from the executive summary:

  • Island voters continue to be in a positive mood (65% Right Direction), and their relationship with City government remains strong.
  • Continuing a trend seen in 2006, transportation, traffic, overcrowding, and overdevelopment top the list of the most important problems. The negative rating for promoting traffic safety increased 12 percentage points in 2008.
  • Favorable ratings for the City Council remain solid (58%), and a majority give the City positive
    ratings for their responsible use of tax dollars (56%). The City continues to significantly outperform King County on both of these measures.
  • Voter priorities have remained constant over the past four years, with ensuring prompt fire/medical aid response times and preventing crime at the top of the list. Protecting the environment, a new item this year, ranks third, just above maintaining streets and promoting traffic safety.
  • The City receives strong positive ratings for almost all services tested (at least 62% positive). Only preparing for a natural disaster falls short of a majority positive rating.
  • A majority (58%) of voters say they are prepared to go without power or water for a week. Renters feel less prepared than homeowners, voters under 50 feel less prepared than those over 50, and homes with children feel less prepared than those without children.
  • An overwhelming percentage (86%) feel safe walking alone in their neighborhood or the town
  • While a strong majority of voters are satisfied with the appearance and condition of the town center (71%) a smaller majority are satisfied with the shopping and dining options there (58%).

A few other tidbits I noted:

  • While 56% of residents think Mercer Island is using tax money responsibly, only 28% think the same of King County.
  • I worry that "only" 86% of people feel safe walking alone (is crime really a concern for the others?) but when I re-read the question again I think the "unsafe" part could include fear of getting hit by a car.  Which if you've ever walked Island Crest at night, you'll understand.

And my favorite part of the survey, the last question, asked where people get their information regarding issues.  About half say the Mercer Island Reporter, followed a distant second by Seattle Times and "word of mouth".  There were a bunch of other choices on there, but a full 6% said "Other".   What could that possibly be?  Oh wait, maybe they meant "Some stupid idiot's Richard Sprague's blog"!  Ha!

How CAFE standards hurt the environment

I never understood the argument for CAFÉ (Corporate Average Fuel Economy), the law that forces auto manufacturers to increase the miles per gallon fuel efficiency of their cars. How could it possibly be a good thing to force -- by a top-down Soviet-style mandate -- which cars can and cannot be produced?  People make a zillion tradeoffs when deciding which car to buy -- safety, size, convenience, prestige, economy -- so why not let the manufacturers make the same set of tradeoffs?  Interfering in that process is a sure way to invite unintended consequences.

Don't get me wrong: I obviously think that saving gas is a good thing (heck, I drive a Prius!) But if we think gasoline consumption is too high, there are far better ways to discourage consumption, such as raising the tax on gas, or for that matter, the tax on gas guzzling vehicles.  Or, as the Seattle Times writes today, put tolls on our roads and bridges.

But here's the best reason of all for dumping the CAFÉ: it hurts the environment.  A study by Andrew Kleit, from Pennsylvania State University shows why:

Because the pollution from a car is a direct function of the number of miles it is driven, and people in more fuel-efficient vehicles drive more, the net result from an increase in cafe standards is an increase in automobile pollutants.

If you think about it, this is just common sense.   All other things being equal, you will drive more if your car costs less to drive.  I find this happening all the time myself: because my car gets 44+mpg, I don't think twice about taking trips that I might avoid if I were worried about gas prices.

How much worse will the air get under the new CAFE laws proposed by Obama and others?

  % increase because of CAFE
VOC Emissions 2.30%
NOx Emissions 4.97%

These are increased pollutants that Kleit computes will result from the extra driving that is an inevitable consequence of raising CAFE standards to 35mpg or more.  The math behind this isn't terribly complicated: just ask how much more people will drive thanks to better fuel efficiency and multiply by the additional pollutants expelled per mile.

Now of course you can immediately suggest that we double-down on the regulations and force both higher CAFE numbers and lower emissions. But what will be the unintended consequences of that

Conspicuous consumption

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Lunar Eclipse

Lunar Eclipse
Originally uploaded by JHallgren
Jason Hallgren posted this great image of last week's lunar eclipse, taken from Mercer Island. Thanks to some unusual clear weather in the evening, this is exactly what it looked like from our front window.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Campaigning for the school levy

Oh boy, finally I get my chance for sign-posting Mercer Island fame.  I'm going to be at the corner of Island Crest and 40th on Friday morning starting at 7:45, waving signs in support of the School Levy election coming up on March 11th.  Wave to me!

 update: thanks for all the happy honks!

Vote Schools Yes

Monday, February 18, 2008

United States Mission canvassing Mercer Island

We just got back from a fun ski trip and around 6pm I got a knock on the door from a stranger who introduced himself as "Jimmie".  Very polite, very nice guy, said he was from United States Mission, a homeless shelter in Seattle.  He asked if I'd be willing to donate.  I don't know anything about the organization, but I took his flyer and said I'd read it later.

We rarely get unsolicited callers during the evening (except maybe during campaign season).  Upon reading their web site I see that the people who receive services from them are put to work six days a week doing a variety of things, including fundraising.  Maybe that's what Jimmie was up to.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Speak up about Softcare Dental Bellevue

A friend, somebody I trust, says she was intimidated by a dentist, Softcare Dental, in Bellevue Washington. It's making her think twice now about posting reviews on the Internet.

I say no way! Speak up! If you had a bad experience, say so. If you had a good experience, say so.

I know nothing at all about this dentist, other than my friend's opinion and what I just read on the internet. I may be wrong.  But I note that (most?) of the "good" reviews are suspicious.  Posted the same day, by anonymous people who didn't post any other reviews.  I don't believe them.  I believe my friend.

If  this dentist wants to intimidate me for posting my concerns, she's welcome to email me or call me.  Meanwhile, there are just too many good dentists out there (like Dr. Nadeem Merchant, who I use) so why bother risking your teeth with Softcare Dental?

By the way, I disagree with my friend on one thing:  I prefer to post under my real name. <insert counter-arguments here>  I know, I know, but the psychos will find you anyway and when they do, your transparency will be an asset.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

I'm a Tull

If there's no Espresso Vivace or Trabant, I'll much prefer Tulley's over Starbucks.

[see Crosscut posting about what your taste in coffee vendor says about your sociological status]

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Selling Mercer Island


Windemere mailed us their Mercer Island 2007 Year in Review (full color, glossy summary of the local housing market) which notes that median sale prices on Mercer Island increased by 12% last year, though have begun to tighten starting in August.  This morning Mercer Island Blogger has a more up-to-date summary showing how in the last 90 days we've lost 12% -- putting us back where we were a year ago.  And meanwhile, Mercer Island is winning (by a large margin) the unscientific Seattle Bubble Blog poll of which neighborhood will hold up best in a downturn.  As Windermere concludes:

Commute proximity, a strong community, and excellent local schools continue to be Mercer Island's strongest selling points.

I'm not planning to sell for a while (but go ahead, make me an offer!) but one thing I don't understand about the Northwest real estate market is the obsession with offering price.  The Windemere brochure goes to the trouble of tracking the "list to sales price ratio", which at 97%, they conclude is healthy. But who cares about the list price?  The only price that matters is the selling price.  Back in Silicon Valley, one of the most competitive markets in the world, we sold both our houses by listing them at super low-ball prices  (outrageously low-ball, like 20% lower than you'd expect) just to get people to come shopping.  In both cases we ended up with multiple offers right away -- and a great selling price thanks to the bidding war that results when shoppers who love your house suddenly realize they can pay more than they originally thought.

If you're serious about selling your house, why post it for $1.3M -- Redfin's median price for Mercer Island?  Instead, I say, stage it impeccably, post it for under $1M, get a ton of traffic from "deal seekers", and watch a flood of people outbid each other to $1.4M.  Instead of "honey, we can't afford that place so we're not even going to look at it", you get "okay, fine -- maybe we can afford it if we [borrow some money from your mother|sell some of your jewelry|get another job|etc]"

Monday, February 11, 2008

National trends don't count

Read with a big grain of salt the Washington Post reprint on today's Seattle Times front page: Girlhood Gone Wild: Drinking and Drug Use Grow.  It's riddled with errors and anecdotally-driven speculation, too many for me to refute right now.  (e.g. the quote "a growing number of reports show that..." -- what does that even mean?)

But my biggest criticism is the underlying assumption that a national story is relevant to you.  It's too hard to keep track of what may or may not be happening at a national (or international) level, when what really matters --and where you have direct control -- is your own family and school.

And what about my school?  In fact, on Mercer Island we have the exact opposite problem. According to a study by Columbia University psychologist Suniya Luthar, half of all Mercer Island boys have tried marijuana by graduation time, but only 30% of girls have.  And more significantly, it's the boys [who this article implies we can ignore] who appear to be driving the problems.

I have no idea what's happening in Bethesda, Md (the source of quotes in the article).  People in Bethesda should figure that out.

Lake Washington Sunrise

Lake Washington Sunrise
Originally uploaded by Da Beej
Nice photo, but I'm not sure exactly which part of Mercer Island it was taken from.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

New Mercer Island blogger

Please welcome to your blogroll the new Surrounded By Water: A Mercer Island Blog. I don't know the author,  but I can't wait to learn more about him (her?).   It's a couple who have just arrived to the island and are writing about their first impressions:

I imagined a place full of Stepford Wives, which was difficult because I haven’t read the book or seen the movie. Anyway, we wondered if we would be shunned by our neighbors. Or worse, we would be welcome but, over time, become horrible people ourselves.

Did you say Stepford Wives ?  I guess our secret is beginning to leak?

Anyway, please go to her comments section and leave a snobby warm Mercer Island welcome to our new neighbor!

Saturday, February 09, 2008

No I didn't bother



Did you? I heard it was crowded.

Huskywonk posted videos of the GOP caucus at Islander Middle School.  (Although somewhat edited, at 7minutes it's way too long and boring)

Friday, February 08, 2008

Challenging Global Warming Skeptics

Prof. Richard Gammon

"Facts are stubborn things", Ronald Reagan reminded knee-jerk ideologues with advice that applies to many of the people gathered at the Mercer Island Library for last night's Conservative Enthusiasts meeting on Global Warming. No matter how much you may wish it were different, if you're wrong about the evidence, your position is ultimately doomed.

Mark Sussman (MIT PhD and organizer of the group) understands the importance of real debate, so he invited as a special guest Dr. Richard Gammon, climatologist from the University of Washington, and Nobel Prize-winning member of the IPCC. After a showing of the movie (I saw last year) The Great Global Warming Swindle, they invited Prof. Gammon to give a rebuttal -- and take questions from the skeptics.

Prof. Gammon deserves another Nobel Prize for agreeing to present in front of such a hostile audience. If you think man-made global warming is a crisis and you want to affect opinions, you need to persuade the skeptics, not dismiss them as idiots the way Al Gore and others do by insisting "the debate is over". (If you think there's nothing to debate, by the way, I dare you to listen to the NPR-sponsored Global Warming debate ).  To Gammon's great credit, at least he was willing to come visit the other side.

The problem for most of the conservatives last night, I think, is that they approach the scientists' political motivations so skeptically that they refuse to listen, whether to facts or anything else. Unfortunately, Professor Gammon's talk ultimately failed because, like many from the Global Warming movement, he mixes science (where he is an expert) with policy (where he is not) -- and of course the audience saw right through it, and missed his overall point.

Here's the kind of presentation I'd like to see Prof. Gammon and others give next time:

  1. Eliminate all talk about politics.  Assume nobody's a liberal, nobody's a conservative. Just talk provable science.
  2. Be very humble when discussing projections about the future.  What may or may not happen in 50 or 100 years is so speculative and prone to error that it distracts from the real message--experimentally verifiable facts about what has happened in the past and what is happening right now.
  3. Stop the tape.  While watching the video, push the pause button and refute the assertions one-by-one.  One reason the Swindle video is so powerful is that it does have some truth to it; acknowledge those facts and the uncertainties so you have credibility when refuting the errors.
  4. Ask for advice. Conservatives don't want the world to end either.  If humans are causing the world to warm out of control, ask the audience how they would fix it.  Unfortunately, conservatives think the IPCC's proposal is "vote for Al Gore" -- which clearly has nothing to do with science. 

The Global Warming deniers are making a huge bet that facts are on their side.  But facts don't care about ideology. I think a committed focus on facts--not policy opinions--would change more minds.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Healthy ways to school

There's a wonderful debate going on about school transportation at, a community web site organized by new city council member Bruce Bassett.  Bruce and school board member John DeVleming discuss how and whether to promote getting kids to school via means other than cars, a debate that has additional new data to help understand the current situation.   A classroom survey at Lakeridge Elementary School last month indicated that on most mornings, here's how Mercer Island kids get to school:

Walked 16%
Biked 2%
Rode the bus 39%
Rode in a car 43%

Note that these numbers are subject to some interpretation, since we don't know how many of the car riders were actually car pools of several kids riding together.  And the kids who walk or biked are almost all from homes located adjacent to the school. 

I think John DeVleming wins this one, hands down.  How do "we" as a society (whatever that means), know that it's "better" for more kids to walk or bike to school?  Bruce says it's better because:

  1. Childhood obesity has reached epidemic proportions due in part to increasingly inactive lifestyles.
  2. An estimated 25% of morning traffic is parents driving their children to school.
  3. More cars on the street make neighborhoods seem less safe, discouraging walking and biking.
  4. Overcrowded school drop-off and pick-up areas bring pollution and traffic danger to the doorsteps of our schools.

The first argument doesn't apply to my family: my kids are not obese and they're not inactive.  I'm not an expert on other families or other communities (maybe Bruce is?) so other than some speculation and/or personal opinions, I don't know how to tell whether encouraging walking will help or hurt "society".

The second and third arguments don't apply to my family either, since I drive the kids to school on my way to work, so no gas or traffic would be saved by them taking the bus.

The fourth argument is one where smart school policies can really have a positive impact--and already do.  My elementary school has strict rules, enforced by volunteers each morning, to ensure exactly how cars may approach the school.  And of course general speed limits (strictly enforced by a visible police presence) keep the area around schools much safer.

Finally, let's imagine Bruce could get his dream situation enacted and a tree-lined footpath were created in my back yard, with happy, singing children dancing together on their way to school and back each day.  My kids probably still would end up with me.  Why?  Because we're in a hurry to get them to school and back again so they can go to their karate lessons, soccer games, and a host of other active lifestyle choices.  I walked to school when I was a kid (and my grandparents walked to work) because we were all much poorer, with no other options.  Thankfully, the world has progressed a long way since then.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Realtime 911 dispatches

The City of Seattle has a web site where you can see constantly-updated reports emergency 911 dispatches

The site Public911 also mashes that same data onto a map like this one:


I'm still working on my map project, but this is another example of how nice it would be to have the ability to map local information in real time.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Organic vs. Conventional food on Mercer Island

Another reason to support a farmer's market: a new study of 19 kids from Mercer Island Elementary schools shows significant levels of pesticide residues in kids who eat conventionally-grown versus organic food.  The study, conducted over a one-year period in 2003-2004 showed that the pesticide residue disappears from these kids within a day or two of switching to organic food.

Here's the abstract (study by Chensheng Lu, Dana B. Barr, Melanie A. Pearson, and Lance A. Waller)

RESULTS: By substituting organic fresh fruits and vegetables for corresponding
conventional food items, the median urinary metabolite concentrations were reduced to
non-detected or close to non-detected levels for malathion and chlorpyrifos at the end of
5-day organic diet intervention period in both summer and fall seasons. We also
observed a seasonal effect on the OP urinary metabolite concentrations, and this
seasonality is correspondent to the consumption of fresh produce throughout the year.
CONCLUSIONS: The findings from this study demonstrate that dietary intake of OP
pesticides represents the major source of exposure in young children.

One interesting finding: pesticide levels are higher in the winter, even though the kids were eating the same amount of fruits and vegetables.  One possible explanation is that they're eating non-local food.  It's hard to get organic fruits/vegetables out of season, so kids switch to non-local (conventional) stuff.  I think one lesson is that parents should try to get their kids to eat seasonally-grown food, rather than the same ole grapes/carrots/apples all year round.

I wish our public schools would serve organic too.

[read more in the Seattle PI]

Mercer Island Carjacker

Recognize the woman in this photo?

 Carjacking suspect on Mercer Island

The guy who delivers my newspaper each morning was minding his own business outside Covenant Shores last Sunday when her friend pulled out a gun and stole his car.  An hour later, they were at Seatac stealing money at an ATM.  [Oh, am I supposed to say "allegedly"?]

If you know anything about her, please call Mercer Island Police Detective Pete Erickson at 275-7904.

Friday, February 01, 2008

How safe is that bridge?

Neal pointed me Bridge Tracker, a site that uses Virtual Earth to let you know the level of safety (or danger) for public bridges near you. Here's what it says I face when traveling to Espresso Vivace (where I must go this weekend to pick up some fresh beans):

Bridge from Mercer Island to Espresso Vivace Seattle

The blue markers on the map indicate bridges which have passed inspection recently. Looks like I'll be okay. Whew!