Sunday, April 27, 2008

Yong Zhao on how to use technology in the classroom

The Mercer Island education community is talking about Yong Zhao, a professor at Michigan State University with ideas on how to improve schools global competitiveness.

He'll be doing a presentation, open to the public, at Mercer Island High School on May 13th at 7pm, so somebody sent me a link to video of a talk he did in Singapore a few years ago.  You can skip the 60min lecture and just skim the powerpoint to get the basic idea.

Or if you want to hear the conclusion, skip ahead to about the 40:00 part of the talk (see slide 37).  Here's the gist:

  • Why are computers not making an impact on classrooms?
    • It’s not the teachers: they’ve all been trained
    • There’s no shortage of great software
  • Think of classrooms as ecosystems made of computers, students, teachers, etc. evolving toward an equilibrium
  • “Innovation is like an invasive species” that can only succeed by displacing something else
    • E.g. IM chatting (which should be an innovation) is thought of as a distraction to be shut down instead of a great way to enhance
    • PDAs are wasted because teachers don’t bother understanding them well enough to integrate into the ecology.
    • “computers only help if used less than 3 hrs/day” -- after that it’s wasted.
    • Henry Ford thought cars would be great because they’ll eliminate congestion caused by horses. How wrong!

Summary of suggestions (starts at minute 50:00)

  • Need a network of teachers working together, not as individuals
  • Technology takes time to soak in
  • Encourage teachers to play with technology instead of teaching it
  • Connect to existing practices and beliefs
  • Find the right niche where technology is natural, not forced

My takeaway: everything depends on the teacher, staff, and community. If you have proactive, intelligent, innovative teachers, your technology will help a lot. If people are just using technology because somebody told them to do it, it won’t work.

Note that this is no different than the situation in industry.  World-class companies require world-class employees and so do schools.  I still think the best place to start is the McKinsey study I mentioned before

Thursday, April 24, 2008

What's good about McDonalds

Everyone loves to pick on McDonalds, but a paper by Adrian Tschoegl from the Wharton School of U-Penn shows how dramatically the hygiene standards improve in a country's other restaurants, thanks to the forces of competition when customers see McDonalds obsession with cleanliness.

I like this disclaimer the author makes at the beginning of his paper:

The author came to the US in 1960 and ate his first McDonald’s hamburger in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1961, at a time when the signs said, “Over 125 million served.” He has happily eaten at McDonald’s several times a year ever since, but unfortunately never bought its shares. He has not
consulted for McDonald’s or any other fast food company, and does not expect to in the future, though he would not be averse to doing so, having recently renovated the kitchen in his house. The author would also like to thank participants at seminars at Victoria University of Wellington and the University of Melbourne for their comments and criticisms of an earlier draft. (What motivated the disclaimer above was the response of a participant at one of these seminars, whose questions implied that only venality could explain the author’s suggesting that McDonald’s might not represent unalloyed evil, the participant having presumably ruled out an alternative hypothesis of stupidity.) This paper draws in part on information gathered for the case study, “The sun never sets on the Golden Arches”: McDonald’s internationalizes’ that the author and his colleague Mauro Guill´en prepared for classroom use at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

I wonder what my favorite foodie blogger, Marion Nestle thinks about this.

[see also Don Boudreaux's summary]

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Switch to P-I

I skim the Seattle Times print edition each morning because it's there on my driveway each morning, but otherwise virtually all my news about the world comes from the internet.  Here's a Nielsen list of the top on-line news sites:

Source Viewers (M) 
18.9  10.7  8.9
Wall Street Journal Online  6.9
LA Times  5.7
New York Post  4.7  4.2
Chicago Tribune  3.8 Francisco Chronicle  3.8
Daily News Online Edition  3.3
Newsday  3.2
Village Voice Media  2.8  2.7
The Houston Chronicle  2.7
International Herald Tribune  2.6
Atlanta Journal Constitution  2.4
Chicago Sun Times 2.2
The Politico  2.1  2
Seattle Post Intelligencer  2  1.9
Star Tribune  1.8  1.7
Orlando Sentinel  1.6  1.6
Sun Sentinel  1.5
Detroit Free Press  1.5  1.5  1.5
The San Diego Union Tribune  1.4

  There it is, the Seattle P-I web site scores higher than the Seattle Times, which doesn't even make the top 30.  It even scores higher than the San Jose Mercury News (Silicon Valley's newspaper).

I wonder how much of the Seattle P-I score comes from their news department and how much comes from their popular blogs (like Todd Bishop's Microsoft blog).


[via Seattlest]

Monday, April 21, 2008

Edible Magazine

"I want farmers to be as famous as rock stars", says Jill Lightner, the editor of the new foodie quarterly, Edible Seattle.  As the grandson and son of Wisconsin farmers, this sounds like my kind of magazine!  So I rushed over to Metropolitan Market near the Space Needle, as soon as I heard it was on the newsstands.  (They don't yet have it at Whole Foods or PCC, at least when I called this weekend).

They focus on locally grown food, which of course always comes down to farmers like the people behind wooly pigs (featured in the first issue), or chickens (how to raise them in your back yard!). I can't wait till they do something with dairy farms and raw milk (hey maybe they could get my 90-year-old grandma to tell them how to milk a cow by hand--the way she showed me when I was a kid). It appears that most of the contributors have web pages and blogs, making it easy to follow up if you see something really interesting.

The $5 price tag is worth it for the excellent summaries of the local food calendar (which foods are in season and when), the farmers markets (they list Mercer Island's too), and various gems like the Tofu Restaurant on Jackson I didn't know sells its own tofu fresh every day.  (Unfortunately, an apparent typo in the magazine didn't list the shop's name, so I'll have to try calling or visiting them, maybe when I'm near there next Saturday).  I liked the "news bites" summary, which among other things was the first place I'd heard that distillery laws are changing this year, enabling smaller producers to get into the business.

The publisher has been putting out regional food magazines for a long time in other parts of the country for a long time.  I think I first heard about them in San Francisco, or maybe it was Portland, so it's nice they finally have one for us too.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Of all nights to forget to put the car in the garage

I woke up to see the neighborhood blanketed with snow.  It's April 20th, for crying out loud.

Snow on a Prius

Puh-lease, will somebody turn up the heat?  This is making me want to move back to California.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Leap for Green

it was hard to find a parking place between all those SUVs, minivans, and BMWs parked at the Mercer Island Community Center this morning for the Leap for Green event.

SUVs at Mercer Island Community Center

I was surprised at the number of exhibits inside, including Island Books and Full Circle Farms.   Lots of kids everywhere.

Leap for Green at Mercer Island Community Center

Definitely worth a visit on a snowy April day.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Mike Cero's Carbon Challenge

Mercer Island City Councilman Mike Cero has always been a strong supporter of the environment, especially where it really counts at the local level.  On every issue, from HOV lanes to preserving parks to reducing airport noise, he is on the side of preserving quality of life.

He's also the the first local official I've seen who is brave enough to publicly talk about his own family's carbon footprint (in Nancy Hilliard's column in this week's Mercer Island Reporter):

From,  I calculated [my family of five] at 120,692 pounds, which doesn’t seem too bad given that the average U.S. household of two is 41,500 pounds. According to, we create 14.3 tons, double the average family of about 7.5 tons. At, I found my family of five at 78 tons...

Taking Mike's challenge for my own family, I was disappointed to see that my household footprint is higher than his:

Carbon Footprint

I'm not sure why Mike beats me, but I suspect that it might be due to my frequent business trips.  I'm going to start doing more to cut down on travel.

In honor of this Saturday's Leap for Green event at Mercer Island Community Center, I think it would be great to see the rest of our public officials follow Mike's lead and publish their own carbon footprints.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Compare my school

I'm always interested in school rankings, since competition is the only way to be sure your school is performing as well as it could be.  Here's another site for evaluating public schools, this one run by the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction [and discussed today on Crosscut].

I immediately compared the three Mercer Island elementary schools, not expecting to see anything new since the data is the same public info that is published in the paper and elsewhere, but I was surprised to see that Lakeridge had by far the lowest number of years of teacher experience.  At 8 years, the average Lakeridge teacher has less experience than either West Mercer (13 years) or Island Park (16).  All three schools are roughly the same on most everything else (including the percentage of teachers with masters degree -- about 2/3rds, wow!)

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Michael Crichton Next [book]

Although I typically like anything related to future biology, especially the "consumer biology" that I expected Crighton to highlight, this book was too meandering and too unrealistic to be interesting. It was just a lot of work for me to finish.

For the near-future science fiction that Crichton writes so well, you'd think the idea of transgenic animals -- especially when they're half-human-- could turn into a useful plot. But the Steven Pinker-inspired armchair linguist in me just had to dismiss several of the core ideas. A parrot that can carry on a real conversation? A half-ape boy who attends school? Crichton I think doesn't understand how much language is the premier identifying mark of being a human. Language isn't a symptom of intelligence, it is what we mean by intelligence. Sorry I don't have time to explain what I mean in more detail, but I need to warn you not to bother.


Sunday, April 13, 2008

I'm so much better than you

After my eco-tour of Costa Rica, and in honor of our globally warmed weather this weekend, I loaded up my Prius with garbage and dumped it at the Mercer Island Spring Recycling event on Saturday afternoon.  Besides a stash of household batteries I've been keeping for the past year, I finally got rid of an old computer monitor that's just been wasting space (only $10 dump fee).  I arrived at about 1:30pm, expecting to have to wait in a long line like last year, but there was no wait at all. 

Mercer Island recycling event


I suppose I should include a sanctimonious comment about how wonderful and caring I am for doing this, or as Alisa Gravitz, organizer of this weekend's Seattle Green Festival puts it:

When you make a commitment to recycle, you're reducing waste, but you're also taking a stand that everyone should be able to live in a safe, healthy community, and to stop putting dumps in low-income communities.

Unfortunately my reasons were more selfish than self-righteous: I recycled because, well, I needed to get rid of that monitor and the regular garbage people won't take it. Same with the batteries, which I prefer for their high-energy content, in spite of the nasty chemicals inside.  As for putting dumps in low-income communities, I think Alisa's got it backwards: dumps are located near affordable housing because well, nobody wants to live there.

Now, time to get ready for next weekend's Leap for Green, paid for with my tax dollars, but before I go I'm going to re-read this report on the "State of Green Business"

Consumers’ skepticism was given credence in a report on “the six sins of greenwashing,” which found that the overwhelming majority of environmental marketing claims in North America are inaccurate, inappropriate, or unsubstantiated. After examining 1,018 consumer products bearing 1,753 environmental claims, researchers concluded that all but one made claims that are either “demonstrably false or that risk misleading intended audiences.”

By the way, here's a calculator to show how much energy you're saving my reading my blog:

Jesus Christ lizard and the bugs of Costa Rica

Everywhere in Costa Rica, all the time, there's something interesting to look at or hear.  One of our days was spent on Rio Frio, watching some of the incredible wildlife, including this basilisk lizard, better known as the "Jesus Christ" lizard because of the way it walks on water.

Basilisk (aka Jesus Christ lizard) walking on the water

My kids and other travel companions are always embarrassed with the way I seem to be constantly taking photos, so this photo wasn't so much a "lucky shot" as it was just one of the hundreds I was taking.

And here's a Hercules Beetle that was given to us by a store keeper in the Poas Volcano area, when she saw how enamored my son is with all things entomological:

Hercules Beetle

Volcanoes in Costa Rica

Spectacular volcanoes are another reason Costa Rica is like Hawaii, only cheaper.  The best example of this is the Arenal volcano, as seen from the window of our plane:

Arenal Volcano from air

Here's the same volcano as we saw it from our room in the morning at the Arenal Observatory Lodge. All day and night you hear booming explosive sounds of hot boulders crashing down the sides of the mountain. Supposedly it's totally safe for us this far away, though a tourist was killed was a few years ago, apparently from hiking too close when the volcano was having a bad day.

Lava flowing down Arenal volcano in Costa Rica

That lodge is a great place to stay, by the way.  Our family (3 kids) is too big for a single room, but we were able to get two rooms side-by-side in what they call the Smithsonian section of the hotel. The view, as you can see, is spectacular, but that's not all.  There's a wonderful "infinity pool" just outside the room, and plenty of nature hiking.  The rates are on the order of what you'd pay at a Holiday Inn in a big US city ($100-$150), and include good US-style breakfast food.

The only downside of the lodge is its remote location.  It's an hour-long, very bumpy ride up a desolate but well-traveled road.  No dangerous cliffs or curves, but you will be very glad when you reach the top.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Alex Alben on presidential power

High tech executive and Former Mercer Island resident Alex Alben writes an excellent summary of the limits of Presidential power in this week's Seattle Times:

For a candidate to claim that he or she can "create jobs," or "fix the economy," by any combination of policies is not simply bombast, it is highly misleading and diminishes the true role of our private sector and financial markets.

That's true on fiscal policy, as Alex correctly shows how tiny a proportion of U.S. economy consists of spending controlled by government.  Businesses have far, far more influence of course on, say, job creation.

But what about non-fiscal policy, on things like the minimum wage, environmental standards, or immigration?   Poorly-designed policies that make it harder for businesses to hire and fire -- or conversely, well-designed policies that make individual and companies more competitive -- seems to me that politicians have quite a bit of influence on this part of the economy too, just as they do over the foreign policy and social issues that Alex names.

Interesting facts about Costa Rica

We're back from our trip -- a very busy, jam-packed, hectic vacation in Costa Rica.  This was my first time to visit the country, and as I always say when arriving in a new place, visiting in person is the best way to pick up interesting facts, so here are some of the tidbits I discovered:

  • Biggest employer is Intel, which makes nearly all of its server chips there.
  • Has never had a military, and is proud of its strong constitution and stable democracy.
  • 23% of the country is protected forests and reserves
  • They don't trill their r's, like other Spanish speakers
  • Home to more unique species of birds (over 850) and insects (over 35,000) than the rest of North America or Europe. More than 10% of the world's butterflies live here.

I had expected it to be poor and run-down like other developing countries, but I was pleasantly surprised. For a tourist, even traveling in the countryside, I found it not much different than Hawaii, only cheaper.  Everyone takes US dollars and is friendly to Americans, and you won't have trouble speaking English anywhere.  Plus, it's only a 3 1/2 hour flight from Dallas, and you're on basically the same time zone when you arrive--no jet lag!

I felt safe and clean the whole time, no nasty mosquitoes or other annoyances.  Definitely recommended, even if you are traveling like we were with small children.

Map image