Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Anniversary Cards are for men


How come there are more anniversary cards addressed “to wife” than “to husband”?  At the Hallmark store yesterday I counted 25 cards designed for men shopping for their wives, versus only 14 for the wives to choose among for their husbands.  Here I always thought women do most of the greeting card buying, so why don’t they have a larger number of cards to choose from?

The reading habits of George W. Bush

I’m skeptical whenever mainstream consensus settles on an opinion about somebody or something, especially when it’s a subject that lends itself to very little first-hand, direct, up-close experience.  For example, It’s pretty well-accepted, both by the general media and by people I hang out with, that our outgoing president is not the brightest bulb who ever inhabited the White House. But I’ve always been skeptical of such a quick-and-easy conclusion.  You don’t get to be President by being a dummy.  There’s enough competition out there to weed out the dim bulbs pretty quickly. 

That’s why I was not as surprised as I bet you were to see that he reads about one serious book per week – far, far more than the general public, and probably more than you do.  In fact, about 40% of Americans didn’t read a single book last year.

According to a WSJ article by Bush friend Karl Rove, the President read the following books in 2008:

David Halberstam's "The Coldest Winter," Rick Atkinson's "Day of Battle," Hugh Thomas's "Spanish Civil War," Stephen W. Sears's "Gettysburg" and David King's "Vienna 1814." There's also plenty of biography -- including U.S. Grant's "Personal Memoirs"; Jon Meacham's "American Lion"; James M. McPherson's "Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief" and Jacobo Timerman's "Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number."

He’s not one-sided, either.  Look at this list of recent fiction:

Besides eight Travis McGee novels by John D. MacDonald, Mr. Bush tackled Michael Crichton's "Next," Vince Flynn's "Executive Power," Stephen Hunter's "Point of Impact," and Albert Camus's "The Stranger," among others.

Of course, just because somebody reads a lot more than you does not mean they are smart.  But like almost everything else you think you know politics, or the economy, or famous people – things you know only indirectly (from what you read) and by word-of-mouth (from people you talk to) – the real story is far more complicated than you can imagine.

p.s. I wonder if this is one of the books he’s read:

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Mercer Island snow and ice

Our weather is awful: thick ice and snow everywhere, with no prospects for clear roads for at least another week.  I’ve been following the details on the Cliff Nass Weather Blog, written by the famous University of Washington weather expert, but unfortunately there is not much good news lately.  The best I’ve seen is this snow plow, spotted on Island Crest Way this morning.  I wish there were more of these!

Snow plow
For those of you who read my blog for Mercer Island news, please start checking a new site, where a group of us will be posting more information about local topics:  I just posted a bunch of new photos there as well as on my FlickR page.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

McCafe is not worth it

On my long and dangerous journey through snow to Seatac this morning, I swung into McDonalds to try those new coffee beverages they’ve been advertising.  They give out these free latte coupons that expire December 31st, so I had to try it soon.  Yuk.  It tasted like Folgers with hot milk.  On a cold snowy day it was definitely worth the free coupon, but not much more.


Saturday, December 20, 2008

Snow and Ice

Newspapers shout bad snow day

Island roads have been terrible since the Big Snow hit on Thursday leaving many of us stuck in our homes, afraid to take our cars up and down slippery hills.

When I finally ventured out on Friday afternoon, I found unplowed, icy roads everywhere.  Just look at the ABS indicator on my dashboard, telling me that I’m losing traction as I drive up 40th from Island Crest Way.

Danger!  car is slipping

The City of Mercer Island is “prepared with sanders and snow plows to work around the clock if necessary”, according to the Mercer Island Winter Weather Update on the city website, which also includes a map of the snow and ice routes.  But I saw precious little plowing or sanding yet during my drive.  In fact, my Prius was completely unable to make it up the Merrimount Drive hill, in spite of two attempts.

Some streets, like 24th ave, were completely blocked off by city-erected barricades

Don't go up 24th.

Saturday morning looks to be a little better, but maybe not for long.  Another big storm is scheduled to hit tonight.

Click here to see a map of photos taken during my drive around the island.

[crossposted at]

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Mercer Island’s most accurate weather forecaster

Surrounded by Water took a walk to see how the island is coping with all this snow today, but some of us are wondering when it will let up.  Weather forecasts are so unreliable we think it’s almost a waste of time to pay attention to weather reports.  Don’t the forecasters get graded on accuracy?

Yes they do and evaluation service Forecastadvisor says the best weather source is MyForecast, with 80.61% overall accuracy last year.  Weather Channel is so close that you might as well assume they’re the leader, since you’ve probably heard of them more.

But on days like yesterday, when the forecast assumed tons of snow that never materialized, we really care about the accuracy of precipitation forecasts, and there Accuweather is tops.

ForecastAdvisor summary of Mercer Island forecasts

Of course, some days you can just look at the weather and judge for yourself:

Friday, December 12, 2008

The only way to improve schools

This week’s New Yorker is required reading of anyone interested in improving education.  An article by Malcolm Gladwell (author of “The Tipping Point”, “Blink” and other books) points out how teacher quality is so much more important than anything else:

Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford, estimates that the students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year’s worth of material in one school year. The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half’s worth of material. That difference amounts to a year’s worth of learning in a single year. Teacher effects dwarf school effects: your child is actually better off in a “bad” school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher. Teacher effects are also much stronger than class-size effects. You’d have to cut the average class almost in half to get the same boost that you’d get if you switched from an average teacher to a teacher in the eighty-fifth percentile.

According to Hanushek, the U.S. could close [the performance gap with the world’s top education systems] simply by replacing the bottom six per cent to ten per cent of public-school teachers with teachers of average quality. After years of worrying about issues like school funding levels, class size, and curriculum design, many reformers have come to the conclusion that nothing matters more than finding people with the potential to be great teachers.


A group of researchers—Thomas J. Kane, an economist at Harvard’s school of education; Douglas Staiger, an economist at Dartmouth; and Robert Gordon, a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress—have investigated whether it helps to have a teacher who has earned a teaching certification or a master’s degree. Both are expensive, time-consuming credentials that almost every district expects teachers to acquire; neither makes a difference in the classroom.

The fundamental importance of teacher quality makes me pessimistic that public schools are likely to improve their mediocre, over-priced performance, no matter how much money you throw at them.

It’s not just me saying this.  Read Jonathan Alter’s Dec 6th column in Newsweek (“Bill Gates Goes to School”) and read the devastating comments of Microsoft’s founder:

It's no surprise that Gates is a believer in merit pay and incentive pay and has little use for teachers colleges as presently constituted because there's no evidence that having a master's degree improves teacher performance. You never hear Gates or his people talk about highly qualified teachers, only highly effective ones.

[btw, Steve Jobs says the same thing, and so does McKinsey]

I wish I understood the counter-argument.  Defenders of the current system tell me that it’s too hard to evaluate teacher performance fairly.  But do you think it’s easy to evaluate employee performance at Microsoft or IBM or GE or Apple?  It’s not easy, but every world-class company does it, and if we want world-class schools we’ll have to do it too.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

41st district election results by city

The complete official results of the November 4th election have been posted; I haven’t had time to do the analysis I did for the primary, but here’s what I got when I did a quick import into Excel:

  • Yup, Obama won Mercer Island (as Surrounded by Water already predicted)
  • Marcie Maxwell lost in Bellevue.  In fact, she lost practically everywhere except Renton, but her  2000-vote victory there made up for it.  The chart below is a little deceptive because it lumps into “Other” areas like Briar, Eastwood, and Daniel that really should be considered Renton.  Steve won Newcastle and most everywhere else listed “other”.
  • Except for popular Attorney General Rob McKenna, Democrats won everywhere, including Mercer Island.  Governor, Congressman, President – the whole district shifted further blue than at any time in the past 75 years.


Area Litzow Maxwell Obama McCain McKenna
 Bellevue             14,103          13,501           20,439          10,955            19,615
 Mercer Island               7,090             6,031             9,718            4,735              9,120
 Renton               3,304             5,304             6,098            3,347              5,436
 Other               6,639             7,055             9,255            5,881              9,427
 total             31,136          31,891           45,510          24,918            43,598


Area McKenna Rossi Gregoire Reichert Burner
 Bellevue             19,615          13,189           17,523          14,670            16,093
 Mercer Island               9,120             5,971             8,466            6,550              7,613
 Renton               5,436             4,235             5,267            4,273              5,047
 Other               9,427             7,314             7,905            7,453              7,484
 total             43,598          30,709           39,161          32,946            36,237


Note on the above numbers: my totals don’t completely match the official final results posted on the King County Elections page.  I didn’t include write-ins, blanks, overvotes, etc. – none of which made a material difference (I believe), but results in some discrepancies with official numbers.  For example, Marcie’s victory goes to 755 instead of the 748 in the official count.  But hey, I’m just an unpaid blogger so what are you expecting – something professional?

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Don’t miss me

I’ve been blogging regularly for close to five years now, but I still can’t seem to get my Mom to read me.  When I talked with her (and Dad) this morning, they still hadn’t heard about some of the things my blog readers take for granted, like the Randomness book I read last week or the the lower price of gas here.

So, maybe I can get my parents to take advantage of the new “Subscribe via email” option I added to the right hand column of this page.  Enter your email address there and you no longer have to load this page into your browser in order to read my latest drivel.   Don’t worry, your email address is stored securely and won’t be given over to a spammer. 

Oh, and if you haven’t noticed already, you’re welcome to follow me on Twitter too.  That’s a more efficient way to track the basics of a person: keep up to date on where I am and what I’m doing.  Just go to and set up your (quick) account.

Welcome to my life, Mom!

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Obama’s slave ancestors

The country is justifiably excited at the thought of a first lady in the White House who is the descendent of a slave.  Michelle Obama’s great-great grandfather, Jim Robinson, born about 1850, lived as a slave on a rice plantation until the Civil War.

So here’s what I’m thinking.  Michelle has a total of 32 great-great-grandparents, just like you and me.  That’s a lot of ancestors, each with his or her own complicated ancestry.   In fact, thanks to the mathematics of ancestry, it’s pretty likely that one of those 32 people is descended from somebody who was on the Mayflower, especially if her family had been in America for a long time.

it turns out that I too have a great-great grandparent who was a slave, (technically, a serf) working under a harsh landlord in the wilds of Lithuania; forbidden to own property, working long hours for no wages, subject to severe punishment if he tried to escape.  Somehow, thanks to changes in the economy and governments, his son Matthias (my great-grandfather) was able to leave the country and eventually settle in America.

Now, here’s another consequence.  We know that Barack Obama has an African father, so presumably there are no slaves on that side of his family (at least not in America).  But what about his mother (and former Mercer Island resident) Stanley Ann Dunham?  Wouldn’t it be likely that, like me, she too had an ancestor (perhaps a great-great grandmother) who had been born a serf?

A quick scan of Wikipedia indicates that Ann was mainly descended from people of the British Isles (where there was no serfdom in the mid-1800s), so I guess it’s unlikely (though not impossible—remember, all it takes is one who was not from there).  But wouldn’t it be ironic if our new President, like his wife, had a serf/slave great-great grandparent – on his mother’s side?

What an amazingly wonderful country!