Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Doubts about sun exposure and skin cancer

The Seattle Times today points out that Washington State ranks fifth in the country for Melanoma (skin cancer), right up there with other northern long-winter places like Rhode Island and Vermont.  Meanwhile, the sunniest states like Arizona and Florida have the lowest rates (according to the CDC).

Look at the PDF map of skin cancer rates in Washington State.  If I changed the title of the graph to "Rainiest places in Washington", you wouldn't know the difference:  there's an almost direct correlation.  Eastern Washington (Yakima, Kititas, Walla Walla -- all those sunny places in the "rain shadow") have the lowest rates while Western Washington (especially the rain forest areas of Jefferson and the Olympic Peninsula) have the highest rates.

By the way, you can get all the local cancer data you want from the Washington State Cancer Registry.  Someday when I get more time, it would be fun to pull the data and compare it to rainfall and other variables.  For example: King County males have an incidence of 52 cases per 100,000 (females are 44).

I'm no expert, but the standard explanation seems completely backwards to me.  "People in northern or rainy climates forget to put on enough sunscreen, so they get burned more often--hence the higher cancer rates"?   Huh?  That sounds like a classic example of a "Just So" story -- data that contradicts your central thesis (sunshine causes cancer) becomes a reason to dig a deeper hole in absurd explanations rather than a chance to rethink your assumptions.

I wonder if anyone has compared things like sunscreen sales or usage by state and location.  Again, I have no idea about the medical research on this, but it seems to me that somebody might want to consider that it's the lack of sunshine that is the problem here.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The appeal of downtown

The latest New Republic repeats an idea I first saw in the Atlantic Monthly in March:  the cool people are moving out of the suburbs and back to downtown.  TNR thinks a lot more of us will try to emulate the example of Vancouver, B.C:

20 percent of its residents live within a couple of square miles of each other in the city's center. Downtown Vancouver is a forest of slender, green, condo skyscrapers, many of them with three-story townhouse units forming a kind of podium at the base. Each morning, there are nearly as many people commuting out of the center to jobs in the suburbs as there are commuting in. Two public elementary schools have opened in downtown Vancouver in the past few years. A large proportion of the city's 600,000 residents, especially those with money, want to live downtown.

The Atlantic article is better overall because it suggests broad long-term demographic trends, and not simply the arrival of $5 gas.  One quote:

Arthur C. Nelson, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech, has looked carefully at trends in American demographics, construction, house prices, and consumer preferences. In 2006, using recent consumer research, housing supply data, and population growth rates, he modeled future demand for various types of housing. The results were bracing: Nelson forecasts a likely surplus of 22 million large-lot homes (houses built on a sixth of an acre or more) by 2025—that’s roughly 40 percent of the large-lot homes in existence today.

If you think about it from the perspective of hip, single people, urban life is hands-down more interesting.  No amount of hi-tech gizmos (telepresence, wall-size HD TVs, etc.) will ever replace the appeal of being able to directly interact with lots of fun neighbors.  That's true for families too: as long as we can get a little peace and quiet when we need it, it will always be nice to have the kids walk to activities and meet their friends. I can go from my house on Mercer Island to downtown Seattle in under 15 minutes, but it's still no substitute for being able to walk outside to a coffee shop, order fancy food delivered from downtown restaurants, or quickly access the other great resources (libraries, museums) of a big city.

That said, I have a hard time imagining how people will give up the extra elbow room we get in the suburbs.  It's nice to have a garden, a lawn, a big garage--all the reasons people move away from downtown as soon as they can afford it. 

You know what I predict?  As people get wealthier, they'll try to have the best of both worlds:  own/rent a place downtown for when you feel like being urban, and settle back in the suburbs (or further) as your home base the rest of the time.  In 2030 everyone will be far, far richer than today, and we'll just do it all.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Municipal League Rates Maxwell and Litzow

It's dangerous to vote if you don't know what you're doing, and it can be hard to get facts if you're a normal person.  You can read the newspaper, or follow other mass media, but they don't often go in-depth on candidates--and they have their own biases whether they admit it or not.  Fortunately, and partly thanks to the Progressive Movement (started by my Wisconsin ancestors) in the early 1900s, you can get independent, objective evaluations of candidate qualifications from the Municipal League, which has a King County branch that is a 501(c)(4) non-profit that's been around since 1910.

They just published their evaluations of the candidates running for District 41 (Mercer Island, Bellevue, and Renton) and here are the results for my two favorites:

Candidate Rating Questionnaire Web site
Marcie Maxwell Good Questionnaire Campaign Website
Steve Litzow Very Good Questionnaire Campaign Website

I was surprised at the League's thoroughness and objectivity.  Somebody from their org who saw my posts (Steve Litzow, Marcie Maxwell) contacted me directly to ask if I had more background information. At first I was skeptical about the League, thinking that if it's staffed by volunteers, it would no doubt be packed with partisans from one side or another.  But after talking to them, I think it would be hard to manipulate their results.  The decision-making process is pretty objective: they just want to know if the person is qualified.  The person who contacted me asked if I knew other facts about the candidates: things like criminal record, education, employment history, etc. -- basically a reference check to confirm that everything on the questionnaire was up to snuff. 

So why did Steve Litzow get a better rating?  I suspect it was the in-person interviews, which I bet he handled better.  Marcie's campaign depends on the lead in endorsements she enjoys from many well-organized groups--each of which has its own reasons for supporting her over Steve.  But endorsements represent a tricky calculation that takes into account many factors, including the likelihood that the candidate will win--and not necessarily whether the candidate is "best" for the district. Steve's campaign, perhaps of necessity, depends less on endorsements and more on one-on-one persuasion and how well he articulates his issues--all of which make for a better in-person interview.  "Vote for me because so-and-so endorsed me" works better on a questionnaire, but in-person you need to say persuasively "vote for me because I'll do X and Y".

Note that this does not mean Steve is necessarily better for you or for District 41.  You may not want X and Y.   But if you do, then I bet the League's ratings are accurate.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Does more funding help schools?

Washington state Governor Christine Gregoire poured huge amounts of new money into education in the past four years:  about $2.46 Billion.   Most of this (80%) went to pay increases for teachers (including the worst ones), but some also went to other education initiatives, such as training and all-day kindergarten.  If you think big jumps in education funding helps education quality, then it's just a matter of time before we start to see big improvements, right?

Stanford University's Eric Hanushek wants to know how money helps improve schools, but in spite of many years of searching, he can't find examples where additional money has made a clear difference.  You'd think it would be easy :  decide on some measure of school quality (e.g. WASL or other test scores, percentage of kids who graduate, etc.), find every school in the country where funding went up, and pick out those where your measure of quality also increased. 

He can't find any examples!  That's why this podcast I heard this week on Econtalk should be required listening for everyone interested in school funding.  So much of every discussion about education finances takes it for granted that schools need more money, and who could argue otherwise?  My local public school, for example,  is pathetically underfunded.  Overeager legislators are happy to pile on mandate after mandate (special education this, equality that) while allocating no additional money, and we are getting squeezed.  In 2005-6, before the full effects of Gregoire's increases, our state ranked 38th in the country on education funding, though interestingly that didn't stop us from out-performing the "best" state, New York.  Meanwhile, Utah finished dead last in per-pupil spending on education. At about $3400 they spend 40% less than we do, yet they score higher than the national average on math and reading. 

The problem, according to Hanushek's research,  is that money is almost completely irrelevant to education quality.

Hanushek describes the history of education and school finance and how dramatically it has changed just in the past 25 years from a system funded locally through property taxes, to today's system where state governments have a larger and growing role.  Much of the changes have resulted from lawsuits, starting with "equity lawsuits" that use state constitutional requirements to show huge disparities in spending by district, and force redistribution to poorer localities.  More recently, there has been a rise in  "adequacy lawsuits" that claim schools are not funded properly in the first place--usually resulting in judgments forcing additional money for education.

You'd think Hanushek could find the proof in one of these court cases.  Wouldn't the plaintiffs, somewhere, introduce evidence of an underfunded school that was turned around when a bag of money arrived?  Hanushek complains that in fact there are no such examples--the courts simply take it for granted that more funding equals better education.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of egregious counter-examples.  Take New Jersey, where courts forced 28 districts to increase their spending to $19,000/student/year (when the national average was closer to $8k/student).  Except for a single one-year blip in 4th grade reading scores, nothing else about those districts results changed.  This was in spite of lowered class sizes, pre-school education, after school programs -- the works.

An even better example was Kansas City, where courts told administrators that money was no object:  "dream your biggest dreams," they said and do whatever it takes to make your school district so attractive that  people from outside the district will try to get in there.  Result:  huge new facilities (a wonderful swimming pool, a "zoological garden") but no noticeable difference in education quality.

Why does funding, by itself, make no difference?  And if it makes no difference, why do we assume that politicians who want to "increase funding for education" are better for kids than those who don't? 

There are plenty of factors that are proven to make a difference in educational quality.  So why doesn't somebody run for office specifically pushing for things that matter (like better teachers)?  Unlike the simple push for "more funding", the data would be on your side.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Count me in

The new August 2008 issue of Wired describes the Personal Genome Project, an upcoming ambitious attempt to collect DNA and more from 100,000 individuals.  Of course I immediately signed up!  Funny to see that my hero, Steven Pinker, also signed up as one of the first 10.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Visiting Lithuania in Sixteen Years

Sixteen years ago this week, I was traveling in my family's ancestral home of Panevezys, Lithuania.  A New York Times travel writer visited there now, searching for his family roots, just like I did, only he was more successful.

What a difference sixteen years can make in the life of a country!  The place I visited was terribly poor, and although it was a free country, it had been liberated from the Soviets only six months before I arrived.  I saw Russian soldiers everywhere, people paid for everything in rubles, and absolutely nobody spoke any English whatsoever.

Of course, during the same period things have changed a lot in the U.S. as well.  Average Americans were much poorer back then (per capita incomes in the U.S. are up 77% in real terms in the past 16 years (15% in the past 4 years).  Almost nobody used the internet or email. Cell phones were called "car phones" because they were so bulky, and only rich people had them.  Although a lot of people had PCs, they were hard to use -- no Windows back then.  Digital cameras?  GPS?  none of that stuff existed. 

And what about sixteen years from now?  If anything, I'm sure the world will have changed by an even greater amount.  You'll be richer (probably at least by double).  There'll be new, impossible-to-imagine technologies as significant as the internet in common use.

It's so easy to take today's bad news out of its long-term context.  Step back a little, though, and you'll become an optimist like me.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Test Driving the Miles Electric Car

Mike Cero, always looking for cost-effective ways to help the environment,  invited me to help test drive an electric car now available for sale from MC Electric Vehicles, a local dealership that specializes in green vehicles.

We tried the ZX40S, a 4-seater hatchback from Miles Electric Vehicles, and the first street-legal Chinese-made auto sold in America.  Good Clean Tech rated them the "Electric Car Company of 2007", and they're getting some buzz among die-hards who want no-pollution cars.  This one is solidly-built, though very basic:  no power steering or air conditioning, and since it won't go faster than 35mph you can't use it on the freeway.  But it might be perfect as a fleet vehicle for organizations looking for short-range shuttle cars, or for people who do all short trips in a small community like Mercer Island.

In terms of performance and handling, the part I love about electrics is their quiet ride.  My Prius goes into silent all-electric mode too, but you hear the engine again when you accelerate.  Not so with the ZX40S: it's quiet all the time.  In fact, it's so quiet we joked that you might need to take extra measures to ensure bicyclists can hear you on the road--it really runs silently.

Of course the big advantage of an electric car is the complete lack of a gas tank.  It says it charges in about 8 hours (i.e. overnight), giving you a range of about 50 miles.  We didn't test it that far, but I think you'd want to be careful counting on it past 30 miles or so.  The range seems to depend on how hilly the area is and how much load you have in the car (i.e. total passenger and cargo weight).  Of course, if you run low on a charge it's a simple matter of plugging it into the closest electric outlet.  (But be careful: it has to be a 20 amp outlet--not the more typical 15A sockets you'd normally find in your house).

So how did it do?  I think in a flat area this car would be just fine, but there's not a lot of oomph for climbing.  We found it slow going up some of the more challenging Mercer Island areas (like Gallagher Hill), especially as the charge runs down.  And as I noted, it's only legal for road speeds under 35mph, so you're limited to neighborhood driving.

The price, about $23K including taxes and everything, is about what you'd pay for a basic Prius--which has a lot more power and flexibility.  Still, if you live in a flat area, don't need high speeds, and you want zero-pollution without the hassle or expense of going to a gas station, this car will do what it says.  Meanwhile I think I'll wait for MC Electric to start carrying the Miles XS500, the new Camry-sized 80MPH luxury model scheduled to go on sale later this year.


Saturday, July 05, 2008

Who is Steve Litzow?

As I keep saying, local elections are more relevant than national ones, and for Mercer Island you need to know about the choices for 41st district state legislature, Marcie Maxwell and Steve Litzow. Since I already mentioned Marcie, I need to say a few words about Steve as well.  Or better yet, let Steve speak for himself.  I met him the other day at Tully's, where he talked to me about his background and some thoughts about how to improve education.

Both Marcie and Steve are easy (and eager!) to meet people in our district, so if you care about local issues, don't be shy: get to know them before you make up your mind.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Best place to watch fireworks

Surrounded by Water asks the best place to watch fireworks on Mercer Island and my answer is: your back yard!  Here's the view from my house on the Fourth evening:

4th of July 054


Thankfully Mercer Island remains one of the last bastions of true July 4th Freedom in the area: residents (not visitors!) are allowed to purchase fireworks (in personal quantities only, of course) and discharge them on private property -- not parks or other public spaces, which are specially patrolled this week to prevent violations.  Every so often a busy-body will try to shut down our right to peaceably go pyro like this, so if you're a resident please, please don't be stupid or you'll ruin it for the rest of us.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Mass transit vs. green alternatives

Mass transit is always good, right? It's way more efficient than all those cars clogging up the roads. I loved my years in Japan, where trains come and go everywhere with high efficiency and frequency. I didn't need a car, and it was great. You'll know what I mean if you've ever spent time in New York City or Washington D.C. Plus, the imminent threat of global warming compels us to build for a future of mass transit, right?

But while reading the Economist's excellent survey on The Future of Energy last week, a new thought occurred to me that I haven't seen discussed. What happens when, thanks to all this entrepreneurial energy going into solving our energy problems, we get zero-emissions cars? Then, what's the green argument for building zillion-dollar train and bus infrastructure? Some of these projects take decades to complete--by which time it's hard to imagine gas-hogging cars will still be around. Road congestion, parking scarcity, etc. -- all of these can be made much easier with information technology that again it's hard to imagine won't be in full swing by the time that gigantic train project is complete.

I'm just one guy, so you shouldn't make policy based solely on what works for me, but at the same time you risk doing terribly damaging and irrational things if you try to "guess" about what works best for society as a whole. If you aren't positive something's a good public policy idea, you should be extremely cautious recommending it, and public transportation policy is another example.

There is just no way you will ever make mass transit efficient enough for those of us in the suburbs to give up our cars. I'll carpool or vanpool to work if it's convenient, sure, but a bus? Or a train? No way, especially if I have one of those super-efficient low-cost, carbon-neutral cars of the future.

I bet virtually everyone supporting big mass transit projects agrees with me when they say we want mass transit for other people. I'm too busy/important/lazy to take the train, but you on the other hand shouldn't be able to enjoy my lifestyle. I want you to deal with hauling groceries, making multiple drop-offs for young kids, changing your mind to pick up last-minute takeout -- all the reasons it's rational for me to take a car instead of the bus or train. If you get off the road, it will make my life easier: no traffic congestion, no parking problems.

But what happens when you decide you want to move into your own single-family dwelling in the suburbs? Hmmm, maybe I can think of something that will prevent you from ever being able to afford that. Like, maybe if I raise your taxes enough to pay for some expensive mass transit project?

Incidentally, before you say it's obvious what should be done, take a look at Jimmy Carter's energy crisis speech of 1979.  What happened to the 20% of energy we were supposed to get from solar by 2000?  Or the declaration that "this nation will never use more foreign oil than we did in 1977"?  Laudable goals, but they look about as silly in hindsight as I'm sure most of today's well-meaning proposals will seem in 30 years.