Monday, June 30, 2008

I'm (about) as smart as a third world tenth grader

The people behind Two Million Minutes, that film about high school education in China and India, released an online test that lets you get a sense of what tests are like in India so you can compare yourself (or your kids) to their future competitors.

I tried the History exam.  Supposedly it's not nearly as rigorous as the real exam that Indian kids take, but at least it gives you a flavor of the difficulty. History is pretty fuzzy, of course, at least compared to math or physics or chemistry (some of the other sections on the test). I mean, with math it's fairly straightforward to ask a question like "what is the probability of having 53 sundays in a leap year". Even though you may have never heard that math question before, you'll know how to solve it if you know something about probability. With history, I don't see a way to do well unless you simply memorize every possible date or event. It basically boils down to a rote memory contest; somebody with photographic memory would do exceptionally well.

I think I understand now why I'm less than impressed with Indian schools, at least as they were presented by the movie and, now, the test. You don't need to understand anything about history other than dates. You could do well on this test even if you were completely incapable of applying lessons of history to current events, for example, or if you were unable to think outside the rote box.  Assuming the math and science sections are similar (a big assumption), I'm less worried about straight head-to-head competition on real-life matters.

On the other hand, there is much to be said for the type of discipline that these schools apparently instill in students who have the patience to learn fact after fact. 

The test took only took a few minutes to complete, and afterwards I received an emailed PDF summary of my results. Of 15 questions, I answered 9 correct, 2 incorrect, and 4 "no answer".  It concluded that I am "Good", but gave me no other obvious way to compare myself to other test takers.

One good reason to keep your bottled water

Today's Seattle Times describes bottled water and mentions that many of the the nation's mayors are suggesting we use tap water instead.

But missing from the discussion is the one difference between bottled and tap water that might matter: tap water contains fluoride (at least here in Seattle and Mercer Island).  Adults with healthy teeth don't need fluoride, and young kids can get it plenty of other ways.  Scientific American and others point out that many of us get too much, mostly thanks to tap water.

I just checked with Aquafina (and I'm sure the other mainstream waters are similar): they don't contain fluoride.

So my advice to anyone in government who wants to force us to give up bottled water:  turn off the fluoride in the tap water first.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Chasing the relative decline in Mercer Island incomes

One of the many ways people get frustrated with me is that I have a very skeptical view of statistics. Numbers are so easy to manipulate -- and so regularly wrong -- that I rarely see a so-called "fact" without finding a hole or two in it.

Here's my latest example, but first, I apologize for the misleading headline. I believe it is a statistical fact that Mercer Island household incomes are falling relative to the per-capita incomes of the rest of the United States. Unfortunately I'm unable right now to get specific Mercer Island historical information (at least, not on-line) so my claim is a little weak right now. But hear me out.

Anyone who reads the newspaper (or political web sites) knows that incomes in America are stagnant, and have been for a while. But just because it's in the paper, is it true?

I looked up the statistics myself on the Census bureau website. Here are the latest numbers available:

  Median household income
2006 $ 116,011
1995 $ 98,990

Sure enough: that's about 17% wage increase in 10 years -- less than inflation--and pretty pathetic. [insert newspaper man-on-the-street interview with somebody struggling to make ends meet. Extra credit: insert contrasting story about rich guy who made a windfall on oil profits]

Now let's look at per-capita income:

  Median per-capita income
2006 $ 26,352
1995 $ 17,227

That's a whopping 53% improvement during the same 10 year period.

How can both facts be true at the same time? The answer is that household sizes are changing. People who tell you that American incomes are stagnant are making the classic error of comparing apples to oranges; a "household" in 1995 is not the same as a "household" in 2006.  In fact, you would expect household incomes to rise more slowly relative to per-capita income because the more incomes rise, the more likely people are to want their own living space (think about 20-somethings who can't wait to get a job so they can move into their own place).

So how does this relate to Mercer Island? Well, we are one of the few areas in the country where (thanks to the limited amount of developable land available) the number of households hasn't changed much in 50 years. In fact, 68% of us live the Ozzie & Harriet way, with a mom+dad and kids all living in the same house, often with Mom earning no income. So I bet if you look at the ratio between Mercer Island household income and U.S. per-capita income in 1960, you'd find the gap has almost certainly dropped compared to today. Our households are becoming poorer relative to the rest of the U.S.!

The statistics above show how this would work nationally: in 1995, the ratio between household income and per-capita income was 5.75, but by 2006 it had dropped to 4.4, no doubt because all those rising incomes make people naturally want to move out of shared living quarters into their own private places.

How about it?  can somebody get me a previous year for the following statistics:

Mercer Island HH income # HH # indivs Per-capita income (MI) Per Capita income (US) Radio between MI-HH and US Per capita
1999  110,830 8,437 22,036 57,799 27,939 3.96
1989 ? or before ? ? ? ?   <I bet you this ratio is higher>

If I can find another earlier dataset, I'm sure it would prove my case.  Then, like anyone who finds a statistical fact that supports a preconceived idea, I think I'll try to find a politician who can do something to fix this inequity.  What can we do to prevent Mercer Island household incomes from plunging any further?  Don't laugh -- the statistics don't lie.  :-)-

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Who is Marcie Maxwell?

Besides the presidential race, there's another election in November, one that will affect your house, your schools, and your neighborhood more directly than anything that happens in Washington D.C.  It may be more fun to discuss geopolitical issues, or pretend your opinion matters about macroeconomic policy, but your local and state representatives have an immediate affect on your day-to-day school issues and transportation options -- and as candidates they are a lot more responsive to your input.

The Mercer Island area is served by representatives from the Washington State 41st legislative district, and this year there are two candidates:  Steve Litzow (Mercer Island City Councilman) and Marcie Maxwell from Renton.  Steve's a good guy -- I have a lot of respect for him and his role on Mercer Island.  But I hadn't heard of Marcie until earlier this year. She presented to the Mercer Island school legislative team a few months ago and I'm sure she'll be making many more appearances as we head into summer and fall (she let me take that photo when I met her at a party).  So who is she?

She's a real estate agent with years and years of local community involvement in everything from the Rotary Club (she's local president) to the school board (former president) to her local neighborhood association (Kennydale, former president).  I'm pretty sure she knows everybody in Renton (including my favorite public official blogger, Renton Councilman Randy).

By all accounts, she'd make a great representative, but I have two concerns.  So I emailed her and she responded immediately with a personal reply.

First, since my natural inclination is to support my home team (Steve Litzow lives not far from me), I wanted to know what sort of connections (if any) she has with Mercer Island.  Here's her response:

My parents have lived on Mercer Island since 1989.  My dad passed away on December 13th, 2007 at age 86 and my mother continues to live in her condominium on Mercer Island.  As I grew up in Central and South Seattle and am Sephardic Jewish, we have many life long family friends and community connections on Mercer Island.  Also, for many years, we attended Temple B'Nai Torah where my children went to Sunday School and had their Bar/Bat Mitzvahs at the temple's former site on Mercer Island. 

I have worked directly with Mercer Island School Board Directors on education issues as well as built ongoing working relationships with my state legislators who live there.

Second, since education is my number one issue, I was concerned about one thing missing from her background: although she and her family seem extremely supportive of public schools, their focus seems to stop at high school.  What about college? or graduate school?  Does she push students to pursue doctorates and professional degrees?  Here's what she said:

My daughter graduated from Central Washington University with a degree in Nutrition; she went on to Western Culinary School and is a Classicly Trained Chef; and then graduated from the highly regarded Dietitian program at Oregon Health Sciences University and is a Registered Dietitian.  My son attended a university then graduated from Renton Technical College with an AA degree and ASE Certification in auto mechanics.  Both are successfully employed in their fields, supporting themselves, and are wonderful young people.

I grew up in a working class household in inner city Seattle, attended Seattle Public Schools, attended college but did not graduate as I needed and wanted to work.  At age 22 and with strong work ethics and promotions, I was hiring, training, and managing college graduates to work in the branch banking field.  I have been through extensive trainings and continued learning opportunities throughout each of my careers.

Long-term, deep community involvement is her biggest strength, but in one way that's her biggest weakness as well.  Her entire life and career, along with her family and friends, has been so focused on local that she's faced little serious competition from people or organizations out of the area, much less any kind of threat from world-class or global competitors.  The people of the 41st district will always need auto mechanics and chefs, policemen, and real estate agents, no matter how good the schools are in China or India.   Strong unions can protect teachers, and Olympia can ensure that the Microsofts and Amazons pay their "fair share" of the revenue needed for transportation and public services, but will that be enough?

These are the sorts of questions I think we should be asking of her (and Steve) between now and November.  A lot will happen between now and then, so I'm not ready to put my name (or money) on any candidate yet.  Marcie has plenty of impressive backers, but so does SteveSome people endorse both.  What do you think?

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Your future as a classics major

As I continue thinking about the whole Yong Zhao discussion, Mercer Island resident Keith Pleas sent me a pointer to an interesting study mentioned on the Economist blog, (which in turn came from my favorite, Freakonomics blog).   Apparently your college major has little impact on lifelong earnings after you control for all the other influences like family background, differences in hours worked, and SAT scores. So, go ahead, major in philosophy!

This doesn't surprise me.  Motivated, ambitious people tend to be successful no matter what.

Sometimes we don't have a choice in what we study, as I'm reminded by in this quote from John Adams:

I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.

Check out to see how your own salary compares and see if you agree.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Not enough jails in this country

When I arrived home from Vashon late last night, our mailbox was still there, but sometime between then and mid-morning, some jerk pulled it out of the ground and ran off with it.

mailbox torn down

They didn't take our neighbor's box (on the left) but that little stump (on the right) is all that remains of ours.  The policeman tried to suggest that maybe somebody knocked it over with a car, but that doesn't make sense: why would they steal the whole thing and take it with them?

All our important mail (finances, bills, letters from Trabant) goes to our PO Box, so the most a thief would get is maybe a late Fathers Day card or a copy of the Economist, and besides, the guy took it before the mailman arrived today anyway.  ("Are you sure, Daddy?" my daughter asked, "Maybe they wanted the Ross-Simons catalog").

It clearly was a deliberate act. We found the mailbox later, tossed under a tree on a nearby street.

Missing mailbox

What kind of a loser would do such a thing?

Our house has an armed security system, plus a web cam that pushes live images to the internet (unfortunately, it doesn't face the mailbox, though). Plus our neighbors all know each other and we talk a lot, so we are all now very wary.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

From Kurtwood cow to me

Nothing beats the taste and nutritional value of raw milk:  fresh, not cooked unpasteurized, from cows grazing on real pasture -- the kind I drank as a kid, the kind your ancestors drank for thousands of years.  While visiting Vashon Island this weekend, we finally had the chance to stop at Kurtwood Farms, to see real cows and drink real milk.

Kurtwood farm cow

Kurt Timmermeister was kind enough to show us the pasture, let us touch the cows, and of course buy some of the fresh, clean milk, which he hand-pours into bottles each day -- about 15 gallons worth, from four cows -- a herd he has been raising for the past few years on a small farm in the middle of the island, right there with pigs, sheep, and a field of corn.

Kurt Timmermeister pours milk

He is obsessed with quality and cleanliness. He follows all the regulations, of course, but talking with him I got the sense that he is a meticulous guy anyway, doing this for fun and for the thrill of making a high-quality product.

If you think good food only comes from Whole Foods or gourmet restaurants, there's nothing like a visit to a farm to help you understand what your ancestors knew, that real food comes from sun, water, air, and lots of labor.  I am extremely grateful for the wonderful variety and low costs possible by specialization and industrial scale agriculture and food processing -- that's why I'm not a locavore -- but I think everyone should spend the extra money and indulge now and then in the really good stuff.


Sunday, June 08, 2008

The Namesake [film]


I can't remember how I heard about this film, but somehow it ended up on my Netflix list and I'm not disappointed. It was an excellent movie on several levels and I give it a lot of stars.

It's about a Bengali family in America, and of course there are the standard struggles of an immigrant family with parents trying to understand their American children. But the ideas in the movie are much deeper, revolving around themes from the Russian novelist Nicolai Gogol and how we live up to (or fail to live up to) our names and identities.

There's no point showing this to elementary school kids, since the light profanity and "adult situations" will overshadow what they get out of the deeper themes, but I would definitely recommend it to anyone interested in culture and what's it's like to live between the cracks.

Why you should not vote

Newsweek calls them "Low Info Voters", the people who don't know or apparently care what issues are at stake in an election. They base their preferences on how much they like a candidate or how they feel about an issue.  I know one person who seriously likes one candidate because "he has nice hair".


In a new book I read last week, Bryan Caplan, an associate professor of economics (and blogger) at George Mason University, argues convincingly that the problem is even deeper than it appears. Most political scientists and economists assume that, in general voters in a democracy are rational -- at least over time --favoring policies that improve lives and disfavoring those that cause harm. Caplan disputes this assumption, pointing to four biases, where citizens tend to vote irrationally, for policies that cause greater harm than good.

Many economic policies have effects that are well-known and uncontroversial to anyone who studies the situation carefully.  Experts may disagree on the cost/benefit tradeoffs, but for example all economists (left, right, in-between) understand how lowering the gas tax will tend to make people drive more. Similarly with the following four biases Caplan identifies:

  • Antimarket: rent control, minimum wages, etc.
  • Antiforeign: immigration, trade, etc.
  • Make-work: many people assume that any policy that improves employment is good. But what if the government hired people to run through town breaking windows? This would provide a double-bump to the economy: jobs for those who break the windows and jobs for those who fix them. If you can't explain why this is a bad idea, then you have an irrational make-work bias.
  • Pessimism: people assume the worst, even when things are getting better (as they usually are).

Nobody will argue that the right to vote should be taken away from dumb people; how would you ever define "dumb"? A lot of you probably think I'm too dumb to vote -- and who knows, maybe you're right. But at least let me make an appeal to intelligent people who otherwise feel it their civic duty to go to the polls in every election, voting for everything on the ballot no matter how little informed they are about the candidates or issues.

Simply put: if you don't understand the candidate or the issue, please don't vote. Don't go into the poll booth and "guess". Don't decide your vote based on the sound of a name or the gender of the candidate. You'll do more harm than good.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Why Yong Zhao is wrong

While working at Apple Computer long ago, I became good friends with Andy Van Schaack, who later received his PhD in Instructional Technology and knows way more about education -- what works and doesn't -- than I ever will.  Since so many educators on Mercer Island seem enamored with Yong Zhao lately, I wanted to know what Andy thinks.  Here's my edited version of his response to the points made  in my earlier blog  post:

1. It’s not the teachers: they’ve all been trained

Baloney. I teach courses on the use of technology in the classroom at an undergraduate and graduate level. And I present to teachers frequently through in-service training. Generally speaking, teachers don't have the first clue about how to use technology to improve the effectiveness, efficiency, and accessibility of instruction. I can't blame them, though. Teacher educators and educational researchers aren't much better off. There are exceptions which I will describe below.

2. There’s no shortage of great software

Baloney. The vast majority of educational software is ineffective. In fact, I would argue that the use of most educational software is counterproductive... Companies that develop and sell educational software [ought to] demonstrate how much more effective/efficient their software is relative to conventional approaches to meet the instructional objective. And by demonstrate, I'm expecting good, solid scientific research... [like I did in my dissertation].


IMPORTANT: It is not enough to say your educational technology is "research-based." Anyone can pull out a research study (of potentially dubious quality), point to it, and say, "Our technology is based on this!" So what? Do the experiment, show me the date, and then we'll talk.


This is not really that hard or that expensive to do. I believe the reason companies don't provide this kind of evidence is because their products don't actually work--and either they already know it or are afraid to find out.

3. “computers only help if used less than 3 hrs/day” -- after that it’s wasted.

I'm not sure where this comes from--but certainly it's based on historical data. I'd argue that if the computer is loaded with software developed based on empirically-validated psychological principles AND the software is aligned with the instructional objectives of the school/state AND the software has been validated through experimental studies to produce the outcomes desired THEN I'd use it as much as I could. 3 hours is too much if the software sucks and too little if the software is great. 

4. Need a network of teachers working together, not as individuals

Putting a bunch of uneducated people in a room together is not going to magically produce great tools and/or techniques. (I'm not using the term "uneducated" to belittle teachers, but based on research studies that have examined teacher knowledge of effective instructional practices, most teachers beliefs about what does and does not work in the classroom to produce the best educational outcomes are incorrect. They, very simply, have not been trained well. That's a fault of the teaching colleges/professors, not the teachers themselves.)

5. Connect to existing practices and beliefs

Generally speaking, existing practices and beliefs (i.e. what happens in most classrooms) is seriously flawed. I'd like to see us move away from the current, popular philosophies of education to those that are more grounded in the evidence of what actually produces the outcomes we desire.

6. Find the right niche where technology is natural, not forced

I would never want to force technology into an application where it is not the right solution, but that doesn't mean that the application of effective technology is always going to feel natural. Surgery is not natural, but for many who are seriously ill, it is often the right solution. I don't think teaching and learning should necessarily be "fun." It is work, but you can take enjoyment from work, just as you can be invigorated after a hard workout even though you are sweaty and sore.

Andy suggests two books: "Talks to Teachers" (by Berliner & Rosenshine) and "Evidence-Based Educational Methods" (by Moran & Malott). He also sent some more thoughts on why he disagrees with "the currently popular constructivist philosophy (which advocates that children should independently explore the world in order to create their own knowledge)" versus "the instructivist philosophy (which advocates that teachers should direct the activities of the student through a structured curriculum)".  I've always been sympathetic to the "Where's the Math" campaign, but now Andy's given me a lot more homework that will help me understand more.

As always, I'm eager to hear what you think in the comments.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Grandma and Me

Grandma and Me

I spent last week with my 92-year-old grandmother.  A lifelong dairy farmer, she grew up in a cabin with a dirt floor, deep in the woods of rural Wisconsin, so it's not surprising that she's extremely tough.  Extremely opinionated too, as I learned 15 years ago when she visited me in Japan and heard her talking about WWII and her work in a bandage factory. On everything from politics to the economy to international relations and the environment, she has the fierce confidence of a woman who knows you need to chop wood to survive a sub-zero Wisconsin winter -- and thinks that what many of you talk about is a bunch of hooey.

She's cut back her coffee drinking in the last few years.  I remember when she used to drink a pot before bedtime to "help her sleep".  And what does she think about organic food?  "Hah!," she says. "That's crazy."  She remembers being glad that they could finally afford pesticides, and she would never go back.  "You ever seen how many bugs you get?"

What about raw milk?  She thinks pasteurization is fine for the city folk, but as someone who drank fresh milk straight from the bulk tank her whole life, she's never heard of anyone getting sick.   When she was a girl, the woods were so thick that the bigger worry was finding pasture land for the cows.  Be thankful for what you have.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Brown your teeth with Crest Pro-Health Rinse

About two months ago, I bought one of those special giant Costco boxes of a mouthwash from Crest.  I've been long convinced by the evidence that anti-bacterial rinses like Listerine decrease your chances of tooth problems, particularly gingivitis, so for many years I've been using as directed, at least once a day.  (No, it doesn't cause cancer -- I checked).

Coincidentally, I also noticed recently that my teeth have been turning color: ugly brown stains all over my mouth.  I assumed it was caused by my Espresso Vivace habit, though it's strange that it appeared suddenly and with such force. But whatever, I'd rather have ugly teeth than give up my morning latte, so I ignored it until today when my dentist asked me if by any chance I was using Crest Pro-Health rinse.  Bingo!

Now I was stunned to see that Crest actually admits that this rinse can brown your teeth!  I'm shocked because Crest's parent company, Procter & Gamble, is ultra-ultra conservative about these things--they test their products interminably, and their healthcare divisions in particular are obsessive about consumer safety.  The web site notes that staining is extremely rare--affecting fewer than 0.001% of people--so I guess I'm just one of those unlucky mouths.

Incidentally, although I won't be using Pro-Health again (anybody want my extra, unopened bottle?), I disagree with people who think the FDA should order a recall. No doubt the product does work for some people, and it's easy enough for me to be informed about it, so it should be up to me (or you, dear reader) to decide whether to use it or not.  Some people find the alcohol-based rinses like Listerine too harsh (I don't) and if you're one of them, you should have every right to buy Pro-Health.

And as their web site notes, if you do happen to get stains on your teeth, you can fix it with Crest Whitestrips!

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

PTA Advocate of the Year

Look who was recently honored with this year's PTA Outstanding Advocate Award:



Quite an achievement, but believe me, you don't know the half of what she advocates.