Sunday, August 31, 2008

Best home espresso machine

I'm still using my humble Starbucks Barrista, purchased almost ten years ago and still going strong, faithfully producing my raw milk latte every single morning.  A friend who is looking to purchase his own system asked my advice for which one I'd buy today.  I haven't been in the market for a while so I'm not sure what's out there, but now I see that my favorite coffee shop Espresso Vivace advises the GS/3, from Franke Coffee Systems:

The GS/3 dramatically resets the gold standard for performance among all espresso machines. Its performance meets and surpasses the finest high volume machines on the market today. In a tiny footprint, with water reservoir or plumb-in options, GS/3 suits high-end home use and has sufficient steam power and performance for many commercial applications including restaurants, catering, and professional offices.




Contact your Franke regional sales manager for purchasing details.  Oh wait, I see it listed on eBay for a mere $6300.  Hmmm.  Time to raid my children's college fund?   How can I get my wife to agree.  Let's see, if I drink $4 worth of Starbucks a day, it would pay for itself in only, what, four years! Please, honey!

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Time to analyze my DNA

Our local public radio station, KUOW, aired a program on Personal DNA Testing that convinced me to finally get off my duff and order my own DNA testing kit.  Although I've been eager to do this ever since the kits became available, I've put it off because (1) it's expensive (about $1,000 per person), (2) similar tests are available from several vendors and I was waiting to see reviews on which is best, and (3) as with all technology, the longer you wait the better it gets.

I was finally pushed me into making the order because of one of the show guests,  Dr. Kathy Hudson, who argued that I'm too stupid to be trusted with knowing my own DNA and that the government needs to regulate our access to these tests for fear that people like me might "further strain" our "overburdened healthcare system" with frivolous questions about our bodies. Last month California told these companies to cease and desist, and it seems to me that there's a real possibility that after the elections we could have a regulation-happy Congress that does this nationwide.

It reminds me of how years ago when the PC industry was just getting started, there were little software companies popping up all over the place, founded by college drop-outs who had absolutely no training in computer programming.  This was back in the Carter years and I remember a congresswoman, upset about the "dangers" of poorly-written software, introducing legislation to make it illegal to sell software unless it was written by "professionals".  She wanted a new bureaucracy that would clamp down on "unauthorized" programmers so she could protect the public from buggy software.   When Reagan arrived, of course, the proposed legislation quickly died, but the tide could turn again and I can imagine a future congresswoman applying the same logic to prevent me from "unauthorized" viewing of my DNA results.

There are three companies I know of that will do these tests, but I ultimately decided on 23andme because (1) I studied under one of their advisors, and (2) it's run by an elite Silicon Valley team that I'm confident won't fly by night.  To do the test, you supply them a very large sample of spit, which takes about 6 weeks to analyze.  After that, you get an online version of about 500,000 SNPs ("snips") that describe areas where your DNA differs from other humans.  Every day there are new discoveries made about how SNPs relate to health and genealogy, so the important thing is to get a listing of your SNPs now so you can apply the new information.  I can't wait to get the results!

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Konga Co-op from Terroir Coffee

There is no point drinking bad coffee if you live in the Seattle area.  In fact, some would argue there's little point living here period, in all this rain, unless you take advantage of the extremely good coffee that's readily available.  But what to do when you're out of town, as I was earlier this month while vacationing on the East Coast?  Well, we had flown into Boston so naturally i made it a point to visit George Howell Coffee Company, in Acton.  It's a bit of a drive, but it was close to where my in-laws live, so we swung by anyway.  There is no retail store, so unfortunately I wasn't able to enjoy any of the coffees on the spot, but I did buy this extremely tasty espresso roast from Konga Co-op, in Ethiopian Yirgacheffe.  Boy is it tasty!  Definitely one of the best espressos I have ever had.  The roasting was absolutely perfect, as good as the best I've tasted in Seattle.

But now I've run out. So yesterday I swung by Trabant again to see if they had any Konga (they did a few months ago) but alas, none for a couple of months.  And Terroir distributes through Whole Foods in the Northeast, but not (yet) apparently here.   Somehow I must find more!

9/25: Update:  Michael from Trabant wrote me to say they now have some in stock!  I’ll be there this weekend to load up.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Mercer Island Farmers Market: The Video

It's finally here!  I was out of town during last week's opening day, but the first thing I did upon arriving back was to head over to Mercerdale park (across from the post office) to check out the new Mercer Island Farmers Market.  The Mercer Island blog, Surrounded By Water, wrote a nice description of it last weekend, so I was already prepared to be impressed but it was even better than I'd hoped.

Main thing I liked?  Variety.  The organizers focused on variety in vendors, not just quantity, so you can find a little bit of everything, from  River Valley Cheese to soup to Humingbird Hill sodas to Pure Passion Desserts to Wild Alaska salmon from Two If By Seafood.  Even the produce wasn't just the same-old-same-old:  Kittitas Valley Greenhouse must have been selling a dozen different varieties of tomatoes (I bought the Amish ones: very very tasty!)

By the way, it's the taste and variety that make the prices reasonable to me. Sure, you can buy cardboard-tasting, pesticide-soaked vegetables on sale at the supermarket for much less money, and there is a dollar menu at the fine McDonalds just down the street.  But this is America and you deserve to eat well, not just cheap.

Of course the other nice thing is just getting out into the community and bumping into friends.  I was too busy talking and didn't film as much as I'd hoped, but here's a 2-minute video of what I saw:

Saturday, August 16, 2008

[book] Fast Food Nation


I liked this book, which gives a nice behind-the-scenes overview of the conditions under which we get much of our food. It's not nearly as important a read as anything by Michael Pollan, but if you know how to read past the obvious errors in his anti-market biases, you'll learn something. I'm much more skeptical now of the food I eat after reading what really happens in those feedlots where my non-organic meals are grown.

But the best, certainly the wisest, words in this entire book are in the last two paragraphs:

Nobody in the United States is forced to buy fast food. The first step toward meaningful change is by far the easiest: stop buying it. The executives who run the fast food industry are not bad men. They are businessmen. They will sell free-range, organic, grass-fed hamburgers if you demand it. They will sell whatever sells at a profit.

I wish the author, Eric Schlosser, had noticed that the same thing does not apply to any of the government fixes he proposes. Once the USDA or FDA create a rule, you are forced to go along, whether it makes sense or not, and there are no competitors out there threatening the enforcing bureaucrats with unemployment if they fail.

Who do you trust more: Whole Foods or the government? Personally I have far greater faith in anything sold under the Whole Foods brand name than anything that says "USDA approved". And you won't change my mind even if you add the zillions of expensive inspectors that Schlosser would like to see. When Whole Foods screws up and sells something unhealthy, they know I'll go elsewhere and never give them another chance--so they have far, far more incentives to maintain quality than the government does.

Friday, August 15, 2008

October 1973: worst month in American history

When I hear people talk about gloom and doom and how the world is coming to an end, I remind them to look back to 1973 and count their blessings.  Imagine the following month (which actually happened, by the way):

Oct 2: Egypt and Syria begin an all-out attack on a surprised and under-prepared Israel.  For the next several weeks, Israel is in retreat and looks likely to lose. The Soviet Union (a very scary government, in case you're too young to remember), openly supports the anti-Israel forces and has military ships in the Mediterranean thought to be transporting nuclear weapons.

Oct 12: The Vice President of the U.S. resigns over tax fraud allegations and a new Vice President is announced.

Oct 20:  Saudi Arabia announces it will cut off all oil, every last barrel, to the United States in retaliation for supporting Israel.

Oct 20: The President of the United States fires the Watergate special prosecutor, and the Attorney General resigns in protest.  The President himself would resign in disgrace within a year.

The worldwide price of oil went up 5x, back in a time when the US was far more dependent on oil than it is now.  No Strategic Petroleum Reserve, no Alaska Pipeline, no Priuses.  The average car got 13 miles per gallon.

Meanwhile, the Cold War was in full force, with two large and scary countries (Maoist China and the Soviet Union) deploying powerful nuclear weapons that could, within minutes,  obliterate the U.S. or any of our friends many times over.  Did I mention we were still in the middle of a war in Vietnam that we would ultimately lose, and that had already cost nearly 50,000 casualties--most of them 19-year-olds who had been forced to join the army? 

No internet, no cell phones,  no Espresso Vivace, big TV sets were 19 inches, and just about everything cost way more in real terms than it does today.

I'm near the end of my two week vacation, and just managed to finish the 800-page Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Prize, by Daniel Yergin. It's about the history of the oil industry, and though it's a little on the older side (it was published in the early 90's), I learned a great deal about some epic events of the 20th century.  If you can spare the 30+ hours it took me to read this thing, I can highly recommend it.  Really makes you appreciate how much better things are today than ever before.

Our historical blind spots

It seems to me that each of us has a blind spot in our understanding of recent history that makes us unable to fully appreciate many of the most important lessons that are obvious to people even slightly older than we are.

Where did you learn what you know about big historical events, like Columbus' discovery of America or the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor? Mostly, you learned in school, augmented later with bits and pieces you picked up in references from popular culture, movies, documentaries, books or articles.  But when was the last time you formally studied history? For most people, it was high school or possibly a year or two into college. Very few people, even the most informed and curious, read much history after that.

Meanwhile, what was the age at which you started to pay serious attention to current events, by regularly reading a newspaper/magazine, watching TV news, or (these days) following a particular internet news source? Most informed people, I think, start somewhere between age 15 and, say, 25.

The trouble with history education is that it takes many years before the events can be put into enough context to write a worthwhile textbook. Not only that, but history classes are usually organized chronologically, which means that the most recent events are covered near the end of the class--often when there is a rush to wrap up everything.

The net result is that there is a significant gap -- a blind spot -- between the events you learn about from your teacher and those you ultimately learn about through personal experience by following current events. That blind spot, I figure, lasts anywhere from five to twenty years, depending on how up-to-date your text books were and how soon you started to pay attention to current events.

In my case, I know very little about the 1960s, and relatively little about the 1970s. They didn't teach me in school and I was too young (or unborn) to appreciate the daily news. I missed a whole bunch of important events: the Vietnam War, Watergate, the Apollo moon landings -- things that people just a few years older than me can remember vividly.

People born in the 1980s have a similar blind spot about the Reagan years, the end of the Cold War, and the first Gulf War.

If you were born in the 1990s, you'll need to work extra hard to understand Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, 9/11, Saddam Hussein. They won't teach you much about these things in school, so you'll have to pick it up from dinner conversations with your parents, or from explanatory paragraphs late into articles about something else.

I just finished reading a fascinating history book about the 1970's (I'll write more later) and I'm just amazed at how many of the mistakes people made then are being repeated today. It occurs to me that we make these mistakes because today's policy makers just weren't old enough to understand then what was happening and they never had the opportunity to formally study that period of history.  These are people who are very knowledgeable about the 80s and 90s (they were adults by then), and they know about the 40s and 50s too (because they did well on their history exams) but the in-between years are lost.

For example, I'm too young to have ever been subjected to the military draft, but I'm too old to have learned about it in school.  I can't even imagine what it would be like for the government to force an 18-year-old (boys only, not girls) to become a soldier, yet it was completely normal for people just a little older than me.  Those who studied it in school are, I bet, better prepared to discuss the concept than somebody with a blind spot like mine.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Supporting Mercer Island Tent City

We all care about homelessness. Every one of us. But caring is easy; helping is hard. It occurs to me, now that Tent City 4 has moved into the parking lot of the Methodist Church, too many people are choosing another option: gain the respect of your community by showing that you care, even if it costs you nothing.

I should come out loudly in support of  Mercer Island Tent City.  Why not?  It doesn't affect me in the slightest. I don't live anywhere near the site, and I rarely if ever drive that way. It won't affect my property value one bit; the residents won't come anywhere near my children. Their honeybuckets tents might as well be in Seattle or Bellevue.

I looked through the various letters to the editor and online comments, and as far as I can tell, the "pro-tent" people are nearly all just like me. We live far enough away that we can afford to look approvingly at Tent City as a fine example of how Mercer Island comes together to help the less fortunate. And we can shake our heads with disapproval at that pesky minority who just don't have as much compassion as we do. Look at this recent letter to the editor:

I am amazed (and disappointed) at the actions and response of a vocal minority in opposition to TC4.

The writer lives in mid-Island, about 3 miles away, so he can afford to be disappointed.  But he's relatively kind compared to another supporter, from the South End (about as far from the site as you can be), who has these stern words for those nasty neighbors:

It is extremely disappointing to me to hear of the small group of Island residents who have sued to prevent Tent City 4 from coming here ["Mercer Islanders fighting Tent City," Local News July 24]. Why it is more difficult for them to look at Honey Buckets in use by the Tent City's residents than the numerous examples in constant use for residential remodels is beyond me.

Now that's the kind of pious self-righteous caring attitude we all should have!  But our mayor, who also lives far away, says it best:

After lengthy staff review, and discussions with the Mayors, Council members and community leaders of the other Tent City communities, I have concluded that Tent City has been an overall positive experience for their respective communities.

I whole-heartily agree! it's been a positive experience for everyone (like me) who lives far enough away from the site to remain blissfully unaffected.  I'm happy to speak out in favor of Tent City in Kirkland or Issaquah!  Mercer Island North End is many miles from me--I may as well speak out in favor of that one too.

That's why it seems to me the only people who are really entitled to strong opinions about Tent City are the neighbors -- they're the only ones directly affected.  What about Pastor Leslie Ann Knight, the most visible proponent of Tent City 4 on Mercer Island, who lives only half a block away?  I know she cares deeply about homelessness (just as we all do), but surely a teeny, tiny additional part of her interest in the project is balanced in her case by the rewards she gains to her career and her church, thanks to all the great visibility she's getting on TV and radio. She doesn't own her home, so she won't pay like her neighbors with property values, and without children at home she suffers little of the anxiety (real or imagined) of her neighbors.

There are a few neighbors who do speak out in favor of TC4, and good for them! I know of one woman who lives a few blocks away and thinks it's wonderful. This despite having been affected by previous burglaries and the occasional I-90 traveler who treats her lawn like a public restroom. She's a true supporter!  Similarly, a church member and homeowner who lives nearby is quoted in the paper supporting the opportunity to learn from TC4. But after searching online and through various letters to the editor, I couldn't find any other supporters who truly live near the site.  (Anyone can claim anonymously to be a neighbor so I discount them).  I'm sure there are some, and good for them, but it seems presumptuous and arrogant for me to judge the motivations of those neighbors who oppose TC4 and who have far more at stake than the rest of us.

Meanwhile there are great causes, like Farestart and many others, with solid track records helping the homeless. Are the pro-tent people supporting those organizations too ?  Before you rave about your long-distance support of Tent City, or criticize those oppose the project, or brag about how you're serving meals for a few hours before rushing back to hide in the safety of your home far away -- before you do all that, shouldn't you bear some humility and respect for the neighbors, the only ones who truly bear the full costs of Tent City?

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Family reunion at the Mayflower

We brought the kids yesterday to Plymouth, Massachusetts to see the Plimouth Plantation, and the full-size replica of the Mayflower. My wife's family can trace itself back to John Howland, one of the original 104 passengers back in 1620 and the oldest surviving pilgrim (he died in his 80s, having fathered ten children). There were no Spragues on the Mayflower itself, but several of the passengers either later married Spragues or had daughters who did, so although as far as I know there is no similar well-documented genealogy on my side of the family, I'm almost certainly a direct male descendent.  Genetic testing on my grandmother last Fall shows that I might be descended from some of the native people as well.

That's less of a big deal than you think. In fact you, my dear reader, are almost certainly a direct descendent of the Mayflower passengers too. It's obvious from simple mathematics. Four hundred years have passed since the Pilgrim days. If you assume that each of your ancestors had children somewhere between age 20 and 40, then you are something like 10 or 20 generations removed from then. Each generation has a mother and father, of course, so the total number of your direct ancestors who were alive in 1620 is somewhere between 2 to the 10th and 2 to the 20th power, or anywhere from 1,000 to 1 million people. You are a direct descendent of every single one of them, so don't be fooled by your last name or what you think of as your ethnicity. 

This is true even if you think your ancestors are from China or India, or Jewish, or African. Think about it: you had as many as a million ancestors alive and breeding back in 1620. Only one supplied you with your last name, yet each of the others contributed just as much of your genetic material as he did. That's a lot of people, and a lot of years for all kinds of mixups: orphans abandoned and rescued because of war or disease, "non-paternity" events from rape or infidelity, kidnappings. All it takes is one, just one of those events and you are part of another lineage even if it's not preserved in your name or looks.

Welcome to the family!


Friday, August 08, 2008

League of Education Voters Endorses Marcie Maxwell

Marcie Maxwell picked up an endorsement this week from the League of Education Voters Political Action Fund, an important advocacy group focused on K12 issues for Washington State.  I don't know how the LEV vetted the candidates  (I couldn't find anything on the website) so I'm not sure if it's as thorough a process as the one by the Municipal League.  But given Marcie's background in the PTA, school board, and more, this is clearly her strongest area and I have no doubt that the PAC chose wisely.

The LEV has been pretty successful at achieving their goals over the past few years (at least, since I've been watching them) and Marcie has been consistently supportive of their efforts to pass school levies, promote preschool early learning, and support a whole range of "pro-education" issues.  I say that with quotes because, frankly, who would ever promote an "anti-education" agenda?  Marcie's opponent, Steve Litzow, claims to be "pro-education" as well.

Over the many, many years Marcie has been fighting for education, I wonder how many issues she fought for that she didn't get?  Or better yet, how many proposals did she oppose that went on to become policy anyway?   This seems to me the important question, because if you believe the status quo is doing well for schools, then you should be grateful for the efforts of the Marcie and her many education endorsers.

For example, if funding is the important measure of whether the state is "pro-education" or not, then Washington has been doing exceptionally well:   despite the dire warnings of "pro-education" proponents, the state has never reduced its funding on education year-to-year, and overall spending is triple what it was in 1980 (in real dollars), despite having the number of students grow by only 1/3rd.  Or if treating teachers well is the measure, it's hard to imagine how Marcie's supporters could have done more.

I think that's the bottom line. If you believe Washington's education policy is on track -- if you think it would be risky to try something different-- then the LEV PAC endorsements are the way to go.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Cell phone calls from airplanes

A very smart, well-read, highly-educated friend of mine is convinced that the "standard explanation" for 9/11 is a hoax.  As one proof, he points out that you can't make a mobile phone call from an airplane in flight, like supposedly the passengers  of United 93 on Flight 93 did before the plane crashed in Pennsylvania.  That famous "let's roll" from heroic passenger Tom Burnett?   Never happened, he says.

So in the interest of debunking the conspiracy theory, I risked the ire of the flight attendants during my plane ride this weekend, turning on my AT&T Tilt in order to test the signal strength.  I figured I'd call my friend from the plane, maybe leave him a ha-ha-guess-where-i'm-calling-you-from message on his answering machine.  Yeah, yeah, I know they ban cell phones out of fear that they'll interfere with "sensitive communications equipment", but the New York Times says there's no evidence for that, and my experiment was for a good cause.

But guess what? It didn't work.  Try as I might, I was completely unable to get a signal.  It just wasn't there.  Only as the plane was on its final descent, not more than 5,000 feet from the ground, did the signal strength become strong enough to detect.

So what does this mean?  I can think of a few possible explanations: 

  • The planes flew much lower than cruising altitude, at least when the calls were made.
  • The passengers on Flight 93 didn't use cell phones -- they used those in-flight GTE Airphones.
  • Passengers were using much older, analog phones that have more signal strength and work on a different technology that maybe reaches the ground better.

What do you think?  I'm not a conspiracy theorist, so those are the only explanations I'll suggest, but I admit it does make me curious.  Have you ever tried successfully to make a phone call from a plane?

Friday, August 01, 2008

Life keeps getting better

Two economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas write a nice summary (in The American magazine) of how much things are improving.  They show how, when you take a long view, this is true on just about any dimension you care to measure: availability of products, the real wealth of poor people, amount of leisure time, hours spent doing household chores, etc. etc.  Here's my favorite of the 14 easy-to-understand figures in the article:


(by the way, the scale on this chart makes it harder to see the real progress of the last ten years, but it's still there.  And even though the law of large numbers means the number of hours can no longer drop as precipitously as it did 50 years ago, it's important to remember that an hour of "work" is much, much easier than it was before, thanks to huge improvements in workplace safety comfort, and flexibility--think cellphones and internet)

Even overall spending on healthcare, which has risen over the past decades, is an indicator that people are living longer and wealthier--enough to need to spend money on health.

I think it's more exciting to think about the future and what the world will look like in ten, twenty, or thirty years, when there will be another few doublings of productivity and wealth.