31 March 2015

Anything but water

  1. Think today's capitalism is bad? Read about the violent British and Dutch East Indian Companies (NB: both companies used state military power to increase their profits and take markets share over). Not unrelated: An expat takes on Dutch racism, i.e., their attitudes towards "allochtonen mannen" -- a perspective I sympathize with

  2. Ready for progress? Read and sign the Open Borders Manifesto

  3. What makes a city beautiful? Spaces for people, among other things

  4. An Econtalk on government's (destabilizing) control over money*

  5. Satellite surveillance may save fish from a tragedy of the (open ocean) commons

  6. America's industrialized food system may kill you. Related: McDonald's follows other fast food chains in pledging to buy chicken raised with less antibiotics. Scary fact: Antibiotics were saving consumers 10-15 cents/kg, which seems a small savings when the risk of horrible death is much higher
H/Ts to CD and CE

*Also read Pettis on the Greeks and Debt, i.e.,
Debt can be thought of as a moral obligation when a loan is extended from one individual to another, especially if there is no interest on the loan. But loans to businesses or to sovereign entities are business transactions, and they should be managed as such.


Monetary policy is as much about politics as it is economics. It is about some of the ways in which wealth is created, allocated, and retained. Debt restructuring involves allocating wealth in the most efficient way. It does necessarily not mean, however, defaulting on payments. The only goal of a debt restructuring is to reduce the uncertainty associated with the resolution of the excessive and growing debt burden. There are many ways to do so, and in many cases they require significant debt forgiveness, but pretending that all will be fine if we only grit our teeth and wait longer has almost never turned out to be true.

30 March 2015

Monday funnies

Seen on an Amsterdam street:

In memory of Connie Cahlil

This may a bit heavy for Monday, but maybe it is a useful disruption of work to consider something more important: life.

Prologue: My mother died of cancer at 47 years of age. I was 18 years old. Her death was not sudden, so we had a long time to talk and get used to the idea. In the end, her death relieved her from the pain. She was one of the wisest people I know, and a lot of that wisdom came from the introspection she went through as she fought for life and approached death. I was holding her hand when she died. I told her "it's okay to die now," and she stopped breathing. This point is important because we all face death at some time. Acceptance makes it easier for you as well as those around you. I often think of my death (or absence), and it bothers me in terms of interrupting my plans or enjoyment of life. OTOH, it's going to happen so it hardly seems worth fearing.

My friend Connie died from cancer a week ago, 15 months after being told that she had six months to live. I met her in 1991, I think, when she was an unemployed Harvard MBA. She was also a single, soon-to-be mother of her son Kai, who is now about 23 years old. We spoke over the years about many things, but our emails over the past year were the most interesting:

Me to her [May 20 2014]:
I think you may want to read this.
Her reply [May 20 2014]:
David, that essay is so wonderfully thoughtful and well-written, thank you for sending the link!

These issues occur often in discussions especially now when I appear well even as I can feel the cancer returning. Recently people have been saying things like, “You made the decision not to go through chemo back when the doctors thought the cancer would return quickly. But now you have new information – it is months later and you are still well. So you should re-visit that decision.”

But the reality is that even though I have “well-being” – I smile often, I am happy, I do as much as I am physically able – my body is not well. The decision not to have chemo was made exactly so that I could have a few months of well-being – and that is the experience I am having.

But people misinterpret “well-being” as evidence that the cancer has gone away. It hasn’t.

After the surgery in January the doctors estimated my life expectancy, without chemo, at less than 6 months. Now here we are in the 3rd week of May. Based on what I feel happening in my abdomen it seems like the doctors’ estimate may still be accurate – time may be very short for me now. That thought does not fill me with dread, or fear, or depression.

There are very, very few people who can really ‘hear’ me say where I am at with all of this now. I made the decision not to go through a long, slow, uncomfortable decline to death. I have no interest in revisiting that decision.

Last Saturday a friend invited me to go to the “Rejuvenation Festival” at the park down by the river. On the spur of the moment I said yes. There were reggae bands playing, and we kicked off our shoes and danced barefoot on the grass until I was too tired to dance any more. The muscles in my legs were sore all the next day. It was worth it. (smile) I am enjoying being alive.

Thank you for sending that email, David, it is very timely.

Love, Connie
Her to her mailing list:
Subject: It's a miracle!

Today, June 23, is my 61st birthday.

For most of the past six months I did not know if I would live to see this birthday.

Things could change at any time, but for today – I feel well enough to celebrate!

If you would like to participate – just dance a little, and send some joyful thoughts my way. (smile)

(Yes, for those who know me well and are surprised at the header for today’s post – LOL!)
I replied:
It's life.

Every year is a miracle, especially when you consider how we complicate our enjoyments.

Enjoy the cake :)
She replied:
Yes! You are one of the few people who ‘gets’ the joke – “It’s a Miracle!”

Even now I receive emails from people saying Don’t give up! You can fight this! Miracles do happen!

The reality is that life is a miracle every day and I don’t need to be ‘saved’ from cancer to enjoy that…

Love, Connie
Connie remarked at the cooperation of these "masses"
of hummingbirds outside her Santa Cruz window.
They were probably hungry due to the drought :(

Connie started a blog (tagline: "A belief is nothing more than the result of a decision to stop asking questions") just before she found out about her cancer, as a means of preserving the dialogue on depression that she was having with a young hacker (Aaron Swartz killed himself around the same time). That blog turned into an archive of her thoughts on life, cancer, community and death. It also has an amazing post on her 40-year battle with depression -- a battle that she eventually won (AFAIK).

My mother was not exactly depressed in her life, but her other four sisters often said she attracted bad luck. Although my memory of our times together have faded, I do think that she ended up enjoying herself more often (I remember her saying "well, I like pesto so I'm going to eat it from the jar" and "what's the point of having best dishes if you don't use them?"). I know that she did not want to die, but I also know that she made the best of what time she had, even with the pain and bickering (everyone has an opinion).

Connie was thinking similar thoughts in this excerpt from her last post:
Sometimes when I am in town I run into people I know and they exclaim, “You look great!”, and they are surprised that I am not confined to bed at this point. (Well, actually, maybe they are surprised that I am not dead at this point.)

Honestly, I think a major reason why my quality of life is so good even now is because I DO NOT TAKE DRUGS.

My healthcare team is once again repeatedly suggesting that I take morphine. I’ll take morphine when I have reached the point where all I want to do is curl up on the bed with my mind lost in a confused daze. Because that was my experience of being on morphine when I was in the hospital.

And I’ll add – a hospice worker implored me not to write about this on my blog because it might ‘discourage people from taking morphine when they really need it’.

Here is one way to figure out if a hospice patient might ‘really need’ morphine: Ask them if they think they need it.

Seems simple enough but whenever I really get specific with my healthcare team about my symptoms at this point the response is almost always, “You should be taking morphine!”

So then I check in with myself and say, “Self, do you think you should be taking morphine?” So far the answer keeps coming back, No.

And it actually creates tension with my healthcare team which is unfortunate.

Sometimes in quiet moments I contemplate the reality that death might be quite near now. And when I think about how it all fits with the trajectory of my entire life, and the naturalness of death as a part of life – I am flooded with a deep sense of peace, of stillness, of gratitude. It is the outcome of years spent learning how my mind works, and how to explore and question my own thoughts, and how to identify when Ego has taken control with its fears and incessant chatter, and how to go beyond all of that to find the inner wellspring of peace. That peacefulness is so far beyond any experience that any drug could provide, I cannot even explain it in words.
May she rest in peace... and her example remind us of where peace resides.

27 March 2015

Friday party!

This video comes from Israeli sources, and it's great. The sad thing is that we could be seeing the same from the people of Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon (and Syria, Jordan and Egypt, for different reasons). So... "glass-half-full-see-the-potential"?

Anything but water

  1. How Putin et al. are robbing the Russians blind. Coming from the other direction, Zimbabwe's Minister of Finance (from the opposition party, often undermined by Mugabe) describes his attempts to help his people

  2. State-by-state crony capitalism in the US, plus the $760 for $1 returns lobbyists get from US politicians (using other people's money, of course)

  3. How does drawing help us think? Probably in the same way that good teaching helps students learn

  4. The departing Secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection got a nice present from staff: 26 pages of "Everything is Fine [since climate change isn't happening]"

  5. Israel's policies on Palestine are based on its own experience (and success) as a terrorist state against pre-WWII Britain

  6. Insurance companies will destroy the insurance business if they find out too much about us

26 March 2015

Seven years of aguanomics

Dutch mountain hiking...
Well, it's been seven years of digestion, if you think about the millions of words I've trawled through in preparation for the 5,000+ posts on this blog. It's been enjoyable, educational and -- hopefully -- useful to the thousands of people who have stopped by at one time or another.

So, what's happened since the last update? We've returned to Amsterdam after nine months in Vancouver to find the city and its people better than we remembered. I bought a flat (on the second floor, just to be safe) and found a job as an Assistant Professor at Leiden University College (LUC). Cornelia is busy with a masters degree in Urban Planning at UvA, where they seem to take "community-directed development" a little more seriously than in North America.

Just after returning here, I worked in Saudi Arabia for a month on an energy-water project. I learned more than I wanted about "water management" there -- an experience that echoed my time in California, where "that's not possible" seems to have replaced the California Dream. Oh, and if it wasn't clear... I've decided to emigrate to the Netherlands, mostly due to their competence, intelligence and joie-de-vivre -- which is still not too joyeuse to cut short le vivre!

I published Living with Water Scarcity in April 2014 at a price of $5 (PDF) and $10. Overall sales fell short of my patience, and I lowered the PDF price to "free" for my birthday. I am pleased with that decision, as the book has been downloaded at least 20,000 times since then, far far more than I would have ever expected at $5, let alone $1. It doesn't make sense to charge money when we are living in an economy of attention.

Free didn't make me money but it extended my impact. I'm seeing more debate of the ideas I have been promoting (I am not the first, of course), more media attention, and a greater willingness for others to see my role as advocate of sane policy rather than a guy trying to shift books. I've also been able to attract help from like-minded people. "We" should be releasing the Spanish edition of Living (Vivir con la escasez del agua) in the next month or so.

Perhaps my greatest increase in impact has come with my new work as a professor at LUC. Our liberal arts faculty teaches a diverse group of about 600 students, and they are fun for debate, discussion and passion. Looks like this blog will have some good competition for my attention!

Well, well. It looks like site visits and unique user numbers are up by about 50 percent [pdf]. That's good news (more eyeballs means more impact), and I'd like to extend it. But I'm wondering why so many people are visiting from Algeria (the second largest source country after the US)? Is there some water issue of interest? I think I understand India, Brazil and Canada, but Egypt and Tunisia? Perhaps readers from these countries can (a) tell me water issues they are interested in or (b) give insights on water management that maybe I've missed. The same applies to any of you, of course: Please suggest topics that you'd like to hear more about or that you can contribute as guest bloggers. Here's my email.

I could carry on with more free-flowing thoughts, but I'll save those for future blog posts.

Bottom Line: Blogging is still an amazing way to communicate useful, pointed commentary on events and policies in the water world. I hope you enjoy this blog as much as I do but feel free to comment or email suggestions!

25 March 2015

Is desalination a boondoggle or helpful backstop?

JH emails:
I’m from Melbourne, and I was wondering if you could tell me more about you opinion on desal plants.

Melbourne only built the desal plant when our water levels looked dire due to a long drought. I was just finishing high school at the time, and remember how the newspaper began printing water reservoir levels in the daily.

In retrospect that the desal plant looks like an bad decision, but at the time I don’t really recall that there was significant objection to its initiation (there was a lot of political noise later due to its cost and delays etc.). Once the drought broke there was clearly no need for it, and it was a colossal waste of money. But what if the drought hadn’t broken? In that case perhaps the government that built it would have looked like geniuses.

Do you think desal plants have a role in preventing catastrophes if extreme droughts end up exhausting existing supplies, or do you think that with correct management and pricing this really shouldn’t be happening?
I replied:
The answer is "endogenous," i.e., there's no need for desal IF management keeps demand in line with supply, but that depends on supply "behaving." In the case of Melb, Sydney, etc., there was a doubt on whether supply would return to "historic norms" or if it was changing in an unprecedented way (i.e., Australia's 12-year drought), such that desal was necessary.

This doesn't mean that many cities and regions must go to desalination first. There are better ways to improve supply buffers for droughts (aquifers, then reservoirs), but desalination has the advantage of "making" water. The question is the appropriate scale given that big plants are more expensive. San Diego's $1billion plant can only meet about 6 percent of local "needs" that include lawns and pools -- so you can see that demand -- at 500+ liters/capita/day -- is still inflated there.

I think Aussies made the right choice (Sao Paolo is experiencing the results of the wrong choice), since it's better to have less money than no water. That's a hard point to make when rain arrives for "free"...
Bottom Line: It is useful to add desalination to the urban supply portfolio after all other demand and supply options have been implemented.

24 March 2015

Speed blogging

  1. I got mentioned a lot last week, i.e., over at Marginal Revolution, Reason Magazine and Knowledge Problem. Seems that "mismanagement" -- the word I used to describe the crisis on radio last week -- is good for business attention. Besides my own writing, I recommend PPIC's post on useful actions to take and ridicule the "anti-Nestle coalition of useless" for attacking a company responsible for none of the crisis. It's noise like this that keeps California on the edge of disaster

  2. Emily Green explains the history and role of California's Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta

  3. Submit a paper to win the ERRA [energy, water] Regulatory Research Award by 31 May! If that's too "advanced" for you, then attend the International Summer School on Regulation of Local Public Services in Torino, Italia (deadline 10 June)

  4. Businesses are pushing for resolution of California's drought, i.e., management reforms, since they can't push for "rain reform." I've supported this move (slow in coming) for years. Luckily, Ceres is trying to coordinate collective action to get businesses on board

  5. German brewers win protection from fracking pollution. Why isn't this everywhere?

H/Ts to BB and RM