Friday, March 28, 2008

I'm outta here

I'll be offline for the next week without internet access somewhere in the jungles of Costa Rica.  See you when I get back.

(For those of you who think it's dangerous to say this on the Wide Open Internet where any whacko can read this, please note that yes, my home security system is turned on and yes, the neighbors are watching.  Oh, and now that a zillion of my blog-reading friends know this too, any Bad Guy who wants to try something nefarious while I'm out is going to find he is very outnumbered)

Thursday, March 27, 2008

New Mercer Island School Superintendent Gary Plano

You have to respect a school administration official who cares enough to personally pound the pavement, waving a sign for our school levies.  Well tonight the school district has unanimously appointed him the new Superintendent of the Mercer Island School District.  Congratulations Dr. Gary Plano!

School Levy

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Watch me at the Small Business Summit

I'm doing a demo of Response Point, the super-easy phone system for small businesses, this morning (Tuesday) March 24th at the SB Summit web cast.

It's free, and the easiest way to watch is to follow the streaming video on the SMB Community Blog site.  Tune in between 10 and 11am (PST) on Tuesday morning, toward the last part of the hour, when I'll be doing a segment called "Phone it in".

update: Allen Miller just posted a downloadable version that you can watch any time.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Competition for Public Schools

Why would any parent drive their kid across the bridge through heavy traffic every morning just to go to one public school over another?  Seattle Times finds a bunch of people who gladly do that so they can get their kids into Mercer Island's supposedly relatively good schools.

The prospect of one district actively competing with another for students and the accompanying state funds strikes some school administrators as wrong. Edmonds Superintendent Nick Brossoit said he "wouldn't want to be a part of" a plan that used public money to market one district at the expense of another.

Funny how some people dismiss competition for schools as somehow "wrong".  What would happen if we "wouldn't want to be part of" a plan to market one grocery store over another, or for that matter one political candidate over another?  On the flip side, what if every school district had to compete heavily for each kid who enrolls?  Do you think schools would perform better or worse?

I'm actually not a huge fan of open enrollment, at least not unless I can carefully control which kids get in and which don't.  But at some level the best way to measure a school -- better than WASL scores, better than graduation rates -- is by seeing what happens when parents and kids actually have a choice on which one they attend. 

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Clover Coffee Sells to the Man

The good news is that soon we're likely to see Clover Coffee machines everywhere, now that Starbucks and the Clover Equipment Company have announced plans to mergeLike I keep saying, once you've tasted coffee from a Clover you won't want to go back to ordinary drip ever again, and I can't wait till it's much easier to find.

The coffee business is like a big long line with Starbucks at the front followed waaaayy in the back by everybody else.  If you care about flavor, atmosphere, value -- you will always prefer a good local roaster over Starbucks, guaranteed.  But sometimes life doesn't present you with other options and frankly, Starbucks is pretty good too.  In fact, maybe this will help improve the ratio of Starbucks per capita in the underserved Wal-Mart parts of the country.

Still, I know people who are disappointed that now it looks like Clover won't be able to sell to these smaller, superior coffee shops, which is a shame since these independent guys were what made Clover possible in the first place.

But my reaction is that this is all well-deserved goodness for Zander Nosler and his team, who can now focus on building a much more efficient production line, and new products including (Please!) a consumer-priced version.

I hope it also serves as a kick in the pants to the local VCs, many of whom were too risk-averse to invest in Clover.  There are people out there right now thinking up similarly wonderful product ideas, just waiting for the money and support to make them happen.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Mercer Island Chess Tournament

For the past several years, Kate Elliot Smith has organized a wonderful Mercer Island-only chess tournament for kids in grades K through 6th grade.  I like it because it promotes competition in a brainy way, as opposed to team sports which only emphasize athletics.  If your kid isn't the athletic type, or you just want kids to be exposed to an activity that rewards a good mind over a good body, you can't beat chess -- and we need way more of these pro-brain types.

Unfortunately Kate is leaving Mercer Island so we desperately need a replacement organizer.  My work keeps me too busy to devote more time to this myself (though I've been honored to be one of the judges for the past two events), but if you know somebody who can help, please let us know.

Mercer Island Chess Tournament

Meanwhile, the results for this year's competition are now posted online, so like last year I resorted the list to see the top 30 from K through 3rd grade:

























































































Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Theo Chocolate Factory Tour

This month is my turn to host our local Y-Guide boy's club, so I arranged for everyone to visit the Theo Chocolate Factory in the Fremont Area of Seattle.  What a wonderful way to see (and taste) how chocolate is made!   I highly recommend it as a place to bring out-of-town guests.  Although they offer tours to the public each day, they are happy to arrange private tours as well at a cost of $10/person ($100 minimum).

When we arrived at their retail store, they warned us not to get carried away with all the free samples -- you'll get plenty during the tour, they said and I realized I was going to like this place already.  Then they started us on a short lecture, with plenty of props (and tastings) to give you a feel for how cocoa beans are harvested and shipped to their warehouse.  After everyone donned hair nets, they marched us through the factory where we watched the beans go from the destoner (which cleans them) and roaster, through the mill and refiner, where everything is crushed and then mixed with sugar and/or milk powder, to the conche (which circulates and oxidizes the mix), through a holding tank and tempering machine where finally it is deposited on special molds and through a cooling tunnel into your chocolate bar.  Yes, we were offered generous samples all along the way.

By the time the tour is finished, you'll be full enough that you'll better appreciate all the wonderful items for sale in the retail shop, including my favorite, the $6 Theo Venezuela Limited Edition Dark Chocolate Bar 91%.  The retail store also sells various wine pairing kits and other gourmet items that every foodie will love.

Theo Chocolate Factory Tour

Throughout the tour you get a dose of the organic and Fair Trade philosophy of the company, which prides itself on how much they go out of their way to help local cocoa farmers and the environment.  I asked how much of that $6 chocolate bar actually goes to the farmer...and the answer is 2 or 3 cents, maybe double if it's really special beans.  The other $5.90+ goes to help all the distributors, marketing people, retailers, entrepreneurs -- everyone else who is making what is otherwise a foul-tasting and ugly tropical fruit into a wonderful pleasure to eat.

1,670 Naysayers

Although it was important to show our support, the last minute work of sign-wavers probably didn't make much difference since the Capital Projects Levy passed by a 68.98% margin.  Even without Simple Majority, the measure breezed through.

Now that it's over and there's no risk of me jinxing the vote, I have a question about why we asked for so little.  The Good People of Mercer Island say yes -- by wide margins -- to anything related to public schools, so why aren't we doing more?  It feels good to have a measure pass by such a huge amount, but in the long run I worry that school supporters will grow lazy in two ways:

  • The Yes Campaign people won't work as hard next time. We're busy with other things, so why bother with phone-a-thons or letters to the editor or sign-waving in the cold when it probably won't matter either way.

and far worse of course

  • We'll be more flippant with how we propose and spend money.  If any tax will pass no matter what, why be meticulous with how the money is spent?  Forget repainting the school or buying new networking equipment.  How about Aeron chairs for all the teachers?

Consider the following mathematical facts about this year's levy results.   One in four registered voters went out of their way to vote yes, either in person or through mail-in ballot, while only 10% -- a mere 1,670 people -- came out against it.

This was a too-easy election, driven I think a little too much by fear of those 1,670 naysayers -- who probably would have voted against anything that had been on the ballot.  Rather than focus on them, I wish we could do something bigger, bolder, more ambitious; something that would stir up the juices of the 10,000 people who didn't vote at all. That might probably would mean more money (we're only 7% tax rate vs 9% in Seattle for example), but not necessarily.  What if we proposed something Big, like an idea for how schools in the future should be run.  Something international, maybe, or combining technology with distance learning.  Throw a bunch of competition into it, with big rewards for those who have the best results.

Okay, okay, I'm just mindlessly kicking out ideas here, but you get the point.  When we let schools, or school funding, run themselves, we are no longer pushing ourselves and that's when we start to fall behind.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Coffee shops and women

Caitlin Knowles Myers from the Middlebury College Economics Discussion Group reported last September on a study of about 300 transactions at Boston-area coffee shops concluding that female customers wait on average 20 seconds longer than males, even after controlling for all the obvious things like type/size of order (e.g. regular versus fancy soy-lowfat-decaf-whatever), cash/credit, age, appearance (well-dressed vs. sloppy) and more. I looked at the data, and it seems solid and statistically-significant.

The authors conclude the obvious: that women are subtly discriminated against, in spite of the fact that a free market should stamp out such nonsense, since women are free to bring their business elsewhere. Nobel prizewinner Gary Becker provides ample evidence that free markets do in fact make the world more fair, so this seems like counter-evidence.

After reading the paper more carefully, though, I see that the study didn't control for some other potentially-important variables like:

  1. whether the wait time was driven by the customer. If females happen to chat more with the barista, wouldn't that matter? What if an indecisive customer asks for the order to be redone?
  2. whether the customer was a regular or not. Maybe some of the people are there every morning, making the staff processing more efficient.

Although the study did note that the apparent discrimination goes away when there is more female staff is involved, the number of data points is too small to be statistically conclusive.

Finally, there is another qualitative problem with this analysis: who says longer wait times are necessarily "unfair"? Seems plausible, but maybe on closer inspection we'd find that longer wait time is a function of something else, like better service.

[see also Tim Hartford's analysis]

Friday, March 07, 2008

I am a wimp

I don't like email. I started this blog many years ago partly because I'm too lazy to forward to my friends every interesting thing I find on the internet and blogs obey the principal of keystroke conservation: rather than retype the same thing over and over in separate emails, why not say what I think once and for all and let those who are interested come to me. It also serves as a handy archive of interesting ideas I've accumulated, all nicely google-able so I can quickly go back and find something when I need it.

Occasionally people will forward something to me that I think is interesting, or I might hear something verbally that I want to write down. Again, my first instinct is to simply post it here once and for all, so I can find it again and in case any of my friends are interested. I just don't see the point of email forwarding it around.

But -- important point -- I publish under my own name, so there is no way I'm going to be one of those hyperactive, filth-spewing rumor-mongers that make up parts of the blogosphere. After all, my family reads this (hi Mom!)

Recently I overheard somebody (joking?) that you better not let Richard hear such-and-such because he might post it to his blog, and I was deeply disturbed because I really try hard to respect other people's privacy. Please be assured: I only post things that are either (1) available for all to see either in public or on the open internet, (2) my own personal thoughts or opinions, or (3) something I've been given express permission to repost.

For example, a few months back I emailed a person who was the subject of a local newspaper story about a public health issue and found -- to my surprise-- that the article was completely wrong. I wanted desperately to tell my friends, many of whom were making incorrect decisions partly based on the misinformation in the article. But the person asked me not to post their side of the story. So I dropped it.

During last year's election somebody forwarded me a very interesting email in support of a particular candidate. The email header specifically said "PLEASE PASS THIS TO YOUR FRIENDS". I didn't know the originator of the email, so I replied (privately) to ask for permission to repost. The author not only refused my request (which of course I respect) but seemed disturbed that I would contemplate such an invasion of their privacy. I wanted to scream! WHY DO YOU THINK AN EMAIL IS ANY MORE PRIVATE THAN A BLOG? But I dropped it.

Similarly, recently I came upon another of those "PLEASE FORWARD" emails, and this time the originator kindly gave me permission to repost. In the course of fact-checking a few things in order to form my own opinion, somebody else asked me specifically NOT to repost that email. "Don't give it any more publicity", I was told. "It probably only went to a few people."

Yeah, right. Maybe a few thousand people. But I wimped out. It's not my email, but this is my reputation here and I'm not going to antagonize either side. For what it's worth, I didn't forward the email either--although, interestingly, my censor did (in order to "warn" others). And probably those recipients forwarded it too….

Anyway, this is why I want everyone to get their own blog and avoid mass emails whenever possible. If anything, a blog posting is safer and more private than email. Every single one of your emails can be is already forwarded, deliberately or by accident. People can copy/paste your words out of context, can refer to them anonymously; the entire universe can be talking about you behind your back without your knowledge. With a blog posting, your words are your words, a permanent record that you control, and can't be quoted out of context.  For wimps like me, that's reason enough to avoid email.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Inoffensive fifth grade art

Among the excellent exhibits at last night's 29th Annual Fine Arts Showcase at Mercer Island High School:

inoffensive minimalism


Apparently, this fifth grade class had prepared an exhibit that included one picture that one parent found "offensive", so at the last minute they re-did their pictures this way to ensure that nobody would take offense.

I don't know about you, but I find this new display highly offensive!  I will be greatly offended if they do not take it down and replace it with the original!

Sunday, March 02, 2008

What's in the school levy?

For the past year or two, I've been part of the Mercer Island School District's Technology Advisory Committee, which studied and commented on the $6.74 million of items that are included in this year's Capital Projects Levy (which by the way, is much less than the $7.9M that our group recommended in order to keep up with other districts).

Here's how the technology portion will be spent (all numbers in $K):

2008 2009 2010 2011
Machine replacement





Additional computers





WAN/LAN upgrades










New/replacement peripherals










Pilot projects





Network engineers





Tech specialists










LCD Projectors





Digital Doc cameras





Interactive whiteboards










These items are considered bare essentials in any world-class company these days. The machine replacement budget and the LAN/WAN upgrades are obvious, unless you are living in some third-world society (in which case you don't read my blog anyway).  LCD projectors?  I use these every day in my job; why wouldn't we want teachers to use them too? 

You might think that teacher quality is what matters most in a classroom -- and I agree -- but like any good technology, some of these items make teachers far more effective.  Take a look at some videos showing off those interactive whiteboards.  My kids have been lucky enough to be in a few of the classrooms that use these and they are way more productive than with the old-fashioned blackboards.  Those whiteboards also use that new "clicker" technology that dramatically helps shy kids be included in classroom conversations.  Imagine how much more you might have learned in school if you could have anonymously told the teacher that you don't understand something, rather than be intimidated by the show-off kids who seem to be the only ones raising their hands.

If we want Mercer Island kids to keep up to their real competitors in China and India, we are going to have to use every tool at our disposal, including technologies like these.  I think this budget is on the low side of what we really should be doing, especially compared to the IT budgets in highly-competitive industries where I want my kids to someday participate. 

Why you should support the school levy

Mercer Island is holding a special election on March 11th for a proposition to authorize the district to levy in the amount of $9,994,000 for the district's Capital Projects Fund.  I believe that any proposal to levy property owners should be made with great humility -- after all, we're taking real money from real people -- but in this case I think it's very well-justified and urgently needed -- perhaps the best example you'll ever find of a "good tax".  I'm already on record as strongly supporting this levy, so in the next few posts let me take some time to explain why.

First, note that you won't be paying as high a property tax rate as surrounding communities -- in fact, our rate actually goes down from last year.  Look carefully at this chart from the Seattle P-I:

Mercer Island has a built-in disadvantage for school funding compared to, say, Bellevue, because we don't have a significant commercial tax base.  Of the nine districts in our area, we currently rank last in per pupil expenditures per year in technology.  Many people move here because of the schools, but don't get complacent: we're not as good as we could be, and unless we keep up the funding, we're going to get worse.

I've got a bunch more things to say about this levy, particularly the technology section, and I'll follow up in more detail in posts throughout the next few days.