19 Oct 2017

18 Oct 2017

Links of interest

  1. Do you know your WaterHood? (Urban watershed?)
  2. The GAO says the EPA doesn't have good data on lead/copper in water [pdf]
  3. MMM explains why electric cars are the future NOW
  4. How Mexicans in Baja California are protecting their seas (and whales!)
  5. Hacking OKCupid to find love :)
  6. The Experian breach may blow up the credit industry. Did you freeze your credit?
  7. The Dutch call attention to Americans' unhealthy habit of shooting each other
  8. ...and how the Dutch grow enough food to be the world's 2nd largest exporter
  9. Trump's dream of banning the EPA means a return to the pollution levels of the 1970s
  10. Google and Facebook insiders on how they avoid the addictive technology they invented, and how Facebook lost the post in the 2016 election. Related: Dutch employee fired for paying more attention to her phone than customers and do you know the ideology of the "futurist" talking about technology? A white male may have a biased perspective of the impacts on minorities. Definitely read this piece on Zuckerberg's "vision,"
    The policy changes announced by Zuckerberg in September represent an effort at self-regulation — Facebook’s way of saying “Trust us, we can handle ourselves.” But this isn’t a particularly appealing pitch. Facebook has been wrong, often: It spent most of the year insisting that it had sold no political ads to Russian actors. Twice in the past year, it’s admitted misreporting metrics to advertisers. Earlier in September, ProPublica discovered that it was possible to purchase ads targeted at self-described “Jew-haters.” Maybe more important, it’s not clear why we’d imagine that Facebook’s interests are the same as the U.S. government’s.
    Why does this matter? Besides the fact that Facebook is tracking EVERYONE (account or not, signed in or not) via its website, the "like buttons everywhere, and its WhatsApp, NOW Facebook will be tracking your movements and selling the data:
    A new set of tools businesses can use to target Facebook members who have visited their stores: Now the experience of briefly visiting Zappos.com and finding yourself haunted for weeks by shoe ads could have an offline equivalent produced by a visit to your local shoe store (I hope you like shoe ads). Where Facebook’s new “offline outcomes” tools promise to entrap more of the analog world in Facebook’s broad surveillance net, Zuckerberg’s promise of transparency assured anxious readers that the company would submit itself to the established structures of offline politics.
H/T to VR

17 Oct 2017

San Diego loses against Met. Time for solutions?

Back in 2003, I was working over the summer after my first (very tough) year in graduate school at UC Davis when I got to talking about a fight over water and money with Richard Howitt, a professor in our department. That fight had begun in the early 1990s when some member agencies of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (Met) had been unevenly ("unfairly") protected during the 1987-1991 drought.

That conversation got me curious about the origins of the fight and my quest for an answer eventually  led to my doctoral dissertation, Conflict and Cooperation within an Organization: A Case Study of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, in which "I show that Met is inefficient by demonstrating that its members have heterogeneous preferences over outcomes: Members that are more dependent on Met prefer policies that increase water supply; others prefer lower rates... If Met is inefficient as a cooperative, we should see evidence of this inefficiency, and Met's pricing policies (setting annual prices in the prior year and selling water for the same price to all locations) provide this evidence. With increasing water scarcity, the damage from these policies is growing... I describe how marginal water can be auctioned after inframarginal, lifeline water is allocated..." such that allocations are both fairer and more efficient.

The upshot of all this is that Met was in the middle of a civil war, with San Diego being the most obviously upset about its policies and other members suffering from the same worries or from the conflict. Those "organizational frictions" (further explored in this chapter [pdf]) meant that my auction solution (mentioned above and published here [pdf]), which required cooperation among Met's member agencies, was premature.

That is, until a few weeks ago, when TL sent me this article reporting that San Diego had finally lost its appeal on the allocation of costs (and water) at Met, which means that Met's existing postage-stamp-pricing system for allocating costs and its "maybe historic, maybe not" system for allocating water was recognized as legitimate.

But legitimate -- as anyone reading the tax code would attest -- does not mean either efficient or fair.  What it does mean is that Met now has clear control over water and cost allocation, which will allow it to consider better ways to manage the water and expenses its member agencies share.

What newer better way might they look into? My suggestion for auctioning water among member agencies with consideration for historic rights (so-called "preferential shares"), changing water demands, and varying levels of dependency on Met (some agencies get all their water from Met, some less than 50 percent). The whole proposal is in Chapter 7 of my dissertation.

Bottom Line: The end of Met's civil war does not mean that Met should stick with its flawed formulas for allocating water and costs. An internal market for Met's water would bring agencies more flexibility and reliability at a lower and fairer cost. More importantly, it would reduce conflict at Met and bring many benefits to the 20 million people of Southern California who depend on Met's imported water.

12 Oct 2017

Fires in the San Francisco Bay Area

I was born and raised in San Francisco, and I'm pretty sad to hear about the "not-so-wild fires" there that have killed over 20 people and devastated communities as well as the famous "Wine Country." Although the fires were started by accident, they have spread so far, so fast, due to the presence of fire-fuel in all the hills that surround many towns in the area. That fuel is there because 5 years of drought followed by an intense rain followed by a VERY HOT summer has left lots of hot, dry grass and trees to burn, and it is.

Sadly, these fires -- like the hurricanes that have wrecked many places and killed many people in the Caribbean and US Gulf Coast -- are entirely consistent with the "increased variation in weather" predicted to result from climate change.

I've been working hard to bring the potential impacts of climate change (and need to adapt to survive those impacts) to people's attention via my project Life plus 2 meters, but it's kinda weird that the world is having disasters faster than we can publish "visions" (climate fiction) of what's possible. I'm starting to think that some of the more far-fetched chapters in the book (there are many authors) may end up coming true.

Bottom Line: Read the chapters, or read the newspaper, but above all: prepare yourself, your family and community for climate change.

Links of interest

  1. An update on the 50-year effort to get mercury out of our ecosystems
  2. The Straight Dope on DNA testing (don't make any medical decisions based on it!)
  3. Londoners take the piss out of a clueless tourist asking about "where the Thames goes"
  4. Investor Risk Analysis: Why Groundwater Matters
  5. This 1933 article ("Water, Cheaper Than Dirt") shows how "full cost pricing" has been an issue for awhile
  6. A 1978 film about the last day of "hot lead," i.e., when the New York Times switched to digital typesetting
  7. Are the Russians as easy to understand as R.E.S.P.E.C.T?
  8. How AI might take over the world (not entirely fantasy)
  9. An introduction to behavioral economics (as compared to neoclassical economics)
  10. When people say "learn to code" they don't mean typing instructions but understanding systems: "Typically the main problem with software coding is not the skills of the coders. The people know how to code. The problem is what to code. Because most of the requirements are kind of natural language, ambiguous, and a requirement is never extremely precise, it’s often understood differently by the guy who’s supposed to code."
H/T to AM

11 Oct 2017

Teaching and learning in the classroom commons

I teach at Leiden University College, which prides itself on its small-class, interactive-teaching environment (we just won a teaching award of sorts). This environment is not just based on head count and physical space, but also rules and norms such as mandatory attendance and a ban on laptops/mobile phones, respectively.

Just the other day, we were having a discussion of which institutions students might want to change at LUC and one student said "I hate mandatory attendance. After all, if I miss the class, then I am the one who suffers, right? Shouldn't I have that choice?"

This logic is pretty sound when it comes to the student's personal experience (a private good), but it entirely misses the point of LUC's model, i.e., a seminar discussion that involves all students in listening and speaking, with the professor introducing new topics and encouraging others to bring their own thoughts, beliefs and experiences into the discussion. (This may sound like a liberal arts caricature, but it's the goal that I and many of my colleagues have, even if we don't always achieve Hollywood levels of humor, sudden genius and random discovery!)

The student, in other words, had failed to appreciate the importance of their attendance on the experience of others -- a failure that's particularly ironic in the particular context of the current course ("Foundations of common-pool resources management"), which is all about understanding, protecting and building shared spaces -- including learning spaces.

As part of that discussion, I mentioned just how difficult it is to teach students who are neither attending nor following the material, using my experience teaching at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver (SFU).

In early 2013, I taught two courses at SFU: a seminar for 15 students and a lecture for 90 students. In both courses, about 80 percent of my students were from mainland China, where plagiarism is tolerated and paper credentials are more important than learning.

But I saw a difference in attendance, participation and learning. In my smaller class, we had interesting, wide-ranging discussions. In my larger class, half the students only attended for exams. On most days, there were usually 40 or so ill-prepared students -- a situation (and norm) that frustrated me, especially as I had had a much better experience teaching the same number of students at UC Berkeley, where attendance and engagement was consistently high.

What does frustration look like? Well, one day I just stopped teaching and cancelled class because I couldn't find a single student who had done that day's reading. Since I was recording all my lectures,* you can watch my meltdown (the video starts at 14:30):

Bottom Line: It's hard to learn if you're not there, just as it's hard to teach if students are not prepared, but most of all it's hard to learn if students are not exchanging ideas, critiques and insights with each other. The professor is there to help learning, not to drop knowledge in your ear. If you're looking for that kind of "school," then watch Khan Academy videos, as they are cheaper and usually better than most "broadcast" lectures.
* I also recorded my Berkeley lectures, which have 20x the views as my Simon Fraser lectures, so watch those if you're interested in Environmental Economics and Policy.

10 Oct 2017

The many impacts of climate change

Some of you may know that I have been running a project named "Life plus 2 meters" that uses fiction ("cli-fi") to help readers think about how we may (not) adapt to life in a climate-changed world. Last year, I published Life Plus 2 Meters, Volume 1, which had 29 chapters from 27 authors. (It's free to download or $4 to buy.) Just recently, I received 33 new stories ("visions") from 32 authors submitting for Volume 2. (They are eligible for prizes; the final deadline for non-prize-eligible stories is 31 October, so get writing if you want to submit!)

Although, the title alludes to "2 meters of sea level rise (SLR)," the visions -- like the reality -- focus on all types of climate change impacts, i.e., ocean acidification, stronger storms, longer droughts, bigger floods, and greater heat and cold extremes.

Just last week, AS asked if I wasn't putting too much emphasis on SLR and not enough on, e.g., heat stress. That email caught me by surprise, as I was using "2 meters" as a proxy for ALL climate-change impacts, but let me be clear here on my opinions of where the danger lies/damage will come from:

In first place, I put changes in precipitation, which includes everything from stronger storms (=more flooding) to longer dry periods (=dead crops and ecosystems) to changes in where and when precipitation arrives (=overwhelmed infrastructure and species). These changes will be the worst because the atmosphere can push a LOT of water around quickly (the sun delivers as much energy in 2-3 hours as humans use in a year [pdf]), and climate change is speeding up those flows. Humans already spend vast sums on energy and infrastructure to contain flows, and those sums will have to rise by perhaps a factor of 2-3. (The fact that most water infrastructure is missing and/or poorly maintained means the problems will be larger.)

In second place, I put heat and cold stress. These problems will make some parts of the world uninhabitable (a band from the Middle East to India grow too hot for outdoor existence; the UK and Northern Europe may experience extremely cold winters), but people will not be immediately killed or displaced. Some people will "turn up the A/C" (e.g., Phoenix), but others will see big refugee flows.

SLR will probably be quite a small problem relative to the two above. Cities like Miami and Jakarta will be abandoned to rising seas, but most cities will only lose a bit on the edges. (The Netherlands is an interesting exception because half the country is now below sea level so that system may hold or break, in which case multiple cities will be abandoned at once.)

Finally, we must remember that Nature will also be a player (as "Nature bats last"), in terms of how flora and fauna will respond to changes in temperatures, sea-acidity, precipitation and so on. Some crops will fail, some species will go extinct, and oceans may turn into a mass of jellyfish, but most living matter will be adjusting as fast as possible to conditions unseen for 100,000+ years.

All of these forces will be occurring simultaneously, of course, so planners (and citizens!) will need to consider their joint impacts on where they live (or where they might want to live), as the those impacts will be both novel in their destructive power and expensive to counteract.

Bottom line: Climate change will bring slow, but powerful changes to our lives. Have you thought about those changes and how you, your family, your work and your community will cope? Read a little more over at life plus 2 meters to think about the possibilities.

5 Oct 2017

Review: An Inconvenient Truth

I was in graduate school when this film came out in 2006. I didn't watch it then because I busy with studying local water management failure (at the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, or Met) and because I thought I had a pretty decent idea about how climate change was happening, what we needed to do to slow it down (we studied the theoretical equivalence of cap and trade vs carbon taxes -- more below), and how climate change was going to increase variation in water deliveries and supplies. (I was a guest attendee at Met's August 2006 manager's meeting where they got a presentation from a UC Berkeley climate scientist on how precipitation was going to get "unreliable.")

So, I wasn't too shocked by the content of this film when I watched it a few weeks ago (It's a lot more thoughtful compared to DiCaprio's "do-something-now" version from 2016). In fact, I thought it was pretty reasonable and accessible, with Al Gore talking about his "slide show," how people were reacting, and how he had been working for years to bring policy and public attention to the matter.

Sadly, there seem to have been two opportunities that we've missed since that film came out. The first was the hardening of Republican opposition to acting to reduce GHG emissions. This opposition has now taken the form of religious belief for most Republicans rather than a willingness to consider the costs and benefits of action. (Don't forget that Reagan introduced cost-benefit analysis to Federal regulations!)

The second was a preoccupation with regulations, subsidies and over-complex, unworkable cap and trade over simpler measures to reduce GHG emissions. Most of these policies were the result of Democrats and state politicians trying to act without needing Republican approval. In some cases, you might argue that some improvement is better than no improvement, but the high cost (and occasional mistakes, such as the wasted Solyndra subsidies) made "action" a byword for partisan, bureaucratic waste.

On the other hand, there was also an over-reliance on the "elegance" of cap and trade systems, which promised to target the flow or stock of GHG emissions but did not make any predictions about the cost of limiting emissions. As you may have heard, this price uncertainty was not welcomed by businesses (Exxon supports carbon prices!), but cap and trade had two other flaws. The first was its bureaucratic nature (not just measuring emissions but also tracking trades). The second was its "feature" of allowing trade between regions (or countries) with different emissions profiles and -- very importantly -- different political classes and populations. Those differences promised huge gains from targeting "low hanging fruit" in whatever country could reduce GHG emissions at the lowest possible cost, but it ran into problems with fraud and worries that "we're sending our money to foreigners in return for promises to reduce emissions that may not be kept."

The alternative to cap and trade would be a carbon tax, which I favor (read this and this and watch this) for its clear price signal as well as its potential to "recycle" revenue back to the local population (like the Dutch already do), but carbon taxes have been opposed by Republicans (who won't even allow the gas tax to pay for highway maintenance!) as well as environmentalists ("we want money for our toys!") -- an unholy alliance that might go down in history as the worst bipartisan agreement ever.

Bottom Line: We are entering a period of consequences due to our failure to overcome short-term political games, anti-scientific ignorance, and the all-too-human desire to avoid hard choices today for a better life tomorrow.* Americans may be proud of their exceptionalism, but in this case it's an exceptionalism that is contributing to harm around the planet -- and a more difficult future for many Americans.** I give this film FIVE STARS for making climate science -- and our negative impact on the planet -- easier to understand.

For all my reviews, go here.

* It's no accident that the median US household has only $5,000 in savingsthe US ranks 22nd out of 32 OECD countries in terms of national savings.

** It's not hopeless, as this article tracking Republican parroting of fake news and this badass Florida editorial blaming Republican politicians for their willful inaction attest.

4 Oct 2017

Links of interest

  1. "Have smartphones destroyed a generation?" (maybe, but they wouldn't know)
  2. The GAO finds that US Army Corps of Engineers doesn't have the right data to manage its water storage properly. Whoops!
  3. The war between bikes and scooters in Amsterdam continues
  4. World Water Assessment Programme on Water scarcity/flooding and migration [pdf]
  5. Is populism the result of cities growing and rural areas fading? Makes sense to me.
  6. Moral hazard, a primer
  7. Uber is less of a "game changer" as much as a loss-making, law breaker
  8. How the Jones Act protects shippers and cripples Puerto Rico
  9. Asia’s longest earthen dam is a disaster-in-the-making
  10. HelloScience wants to improve water quality. They are looking for help from citizen scientists, labs and others who are interested in improving water quality (detection, treatment, etc.)
  11. An absolutely BADASS description of how to defend your credit from fraud:
    What causes a regulatory incident? Bad behavior on the part of the bank? No. Banks screw up all the time; the screwups are literally forecast and budgeted for. Do regulators cause regulatory incidents? Generally no; they’re understaffed and underfunded, and they don’t go on fishing expeditions. The thing which causes regulatory incidents is well-organized people taking paper trails to regulators which allow a regulator to trivially follow up with an investigatory letter. Accordingly, anyone who sounds like a well-organized professional with a paper trail is a problem to be swiftly addressed. That, dear reader, can be you.

3 Oct 2017

Easy ways to reduce energy use and GHG emissions

I'm helping you save energy!
I installed a NEST Thermostat in May 2015, just a few months after we moved into our flat.

The NEST has two use modes. The first is to set minimum temperatures for the times that you want the flat to be warm (or cool down, i.e., by lowering temperatures automatically everynight at 11pm). The second uses "smart" settings based on your presence in the room (it's watching!) and the manual adjustments that you make when you're in the room.

The NEST and installation cost about €335 ($400) all in, and I should have thought of that "investment" in terms of the returns it would bring me, but there's more than that.

I'm going to kill you
First, I can "set it and forget it," which is much better for us than waking up in the middle of the night with the (other) room steaming because I forgot to turn the dumb thermostat down.

Second, I can see use and set temperatures via the app. This is more of a gimmick than necessity for us, but it's sometimes fun to warm the house when we are riding bikes home in the cold and rain.

Third, the thermostat is MUCH better at warming the house in response to temperatures (rather than a dumb schedule). The correlation between average temperature for the month and cubic meters of gas consumption is 0.76, which seems to indicate that we're not wasting heat.

Although I do not have great data on how much we would have spent on natural gas without the NEST, the prior tenants were using roughly double our volume of natural gas, and my energy provider says that our use (at 380 m3 per year) is "a fraction of similar households."

So that's all fine and good, but my real point here is that a carbon tax wouldn't have a major financial impact on households (while saving the planet, obviously!) because we could so easily reduce our energy use. In this post, I estimate that adding a $30/ton "social cost of carbon" would increase the cost of electricity by $0.01/kwh. Using the same logic and a figure of 2.2kg CO2e emissions per m3 of gas, I estimate that a carbon tax would increase our natural gas price by €0.07 on top of the current cost of €0.55/m3. You may think these increases unbearable (and the energy company might agree, if conservation leads to lower revenues), but I think that "price" to be entirely reasonable, because the Nest (and other technologies) make it so much easier to use less energy.**

Bottom Line: We have the technology now to make it easy to "save the earth" by lowering our energy consumption. Sadly, lobbyists have convinced people that such changes would end "life as we know it" (à la Hal 9000) when they would merely end wasteful energy use from inattention.

*Our electricity use is also very low, so maybe we're just a small, efficient household.

** Don't forget that carbon taxes, since they are not covering direct costs, could be used in helpful ways. I prefer to rebate all carbon (or GHG) tax revenue to households (regardless of energy use) as a type of basic income. The Dutch already do a version of tax and rebate on energy, by the way.

28 Sep 2017

Review: The Fog of War

I'd known about this 2003 documentary for years, but only watched it last week. Wow, what a film.

It's a documentary that uses interviews with Robert McNamara to explore how the US engaged in the Cold War and Vietnam. If you're a GenX'er, then I highly recommend this film. Generations before and after might not get as much out of it.

Bottom line: I give this film FIVE STARS for explaining more of the context of US foreign policy.
For all my reviews, go here.

Dear National Geographic: Please use metric units!

I sent this in, but here's your copy :)
Dear editor,

The ongoing use of imperial units (feet, Fahrenheit, etc.) is one reason why Americans are disengaged from climate change. When they read reports with “foreign words,” they may (wrongly) assume that those words don’t apply in the US — just as Euro prices or Chinese language don't apply.

National Geographic brings complex topics into common understanding. Using the units of global discussion and scientific research would help Americans engage with those topics. Please consider adding metric units to help your readers access these very important topics.

David Zetland, PhD
A US citizen living in The Netherlands

26 Sep 2017

How the agribusiness camel first got its nose so far into the State Water Project tent

Bill Kier has decades of experience in California water politics, and he sends out occasional comments putting context on current events. I thought this one was worth posting here due to its connection between current policy debates and the "original sin" of a poorly made policy from decades earlier.*

Here's Bill:

This posturing over who will/won't commit to buying into the Delta Chunnels reminds me of the posturing that went on over Prop 1 on the 1960 statewide ballot, the funding for the State Water Project.**

During the run-up to that fall election DWR and the Metropolitan Water District of So Cal were negotiating Met's SWP contract. DWR desperately needed the LA Times to start editorializing on behalf the bond proposition (given that the north state was solidly opposed) but Met was holding the Times off until they'd got what they wanted from DWR. (Met’s public position was they were still weighing their options, which included building their own project on CA's North Coast -- they'd concocted an Eel River Commission with which they'd meet, wine-dine and dangle juicy offers of flood control and more).

The old-timers I debriefed 55 years ago told me that the key to DWR's success, in finally getting the Times' endorsement of Prop 1 – practically on the eve of the election – was Ralph Brody.

Ralph, you’ll all recall, was a Fresno attorney who had been with Bur Rec before becoming Pat Brown's deputy DWR director.

I’ve often wondered just what Brody offered the Chandlers that peeled them off Met. I suspect it had to do with the prospect of using "surplus" SWP water – that which would be available until such time as contractors like Met needed their full contract allotments. The Chandlers had significant holdings in the southern San Joaquin Valley. (Then, after you've used the "surplus" on nut-tree orchards who's going to take it away from you, right?)

Ralph, of course, went on to become Westlands Water District’s first General Mgr.

I can remember Ralph walking into a mtg at the Pajaro Dunes with Floyd Dominy in 1974 and the water buffaloes practically swooning – nobody exuded power like Floyd, but nobody – anywhere – was paid as much as Ralph.

Bill's Bottom Line: "California water politics -- the grist that keeps on giving."

* Other original sins: Allocating 16.5 MAF of Colorado River flows to states and Mexico when the average annual flow is 14MAF; Westland Water District's foundation in violation of the spirit and letter of the Reclamation Act; the legal separation of ground and surface water; Met's decision to build Hoover Dam for "emergency water storage" (leading to excess supply and urban sprawl) when it really only wanted cheap electricity; and the Bureau of Reclamation's use of a "portfolio" method of accounting that hides the poor returns of bad dams by combining them with good dams. I'm sure there are more, but you get the point.

** In the same email thread, someone dropped this link to a 2014 article saying that it would be cheaper to buy out Westlands for $1.5 billion than waste $25 billion plus on the Chunnels. I agree on that proposal (I said the same in 2011!), as urban SoCal could easily get along without importing more water from NorCal (and contributing to the destruction of the the Bay-Delta ecosystem).

19 Sep 2017

Webinar on Open Source Software and Open Data

Tomorrow (20 Sep)!

Will California farmers always be there?

I wrote "Dear Henry" (a fictional look back from 2047 on whether farmers in California's central valley were sustainable -- or not) as a chapter for inclusion in anthology: 2047: Short Stories from our Common Future (Commemorating the UN's Brundtland Report from 1987).

I'd love to get your comments and corrections on this draft.

14 Sep 2017

UN doesn't know how many billions need safe water

Nine years ago, I wrote a column1 pointing out that the UN's Millennium Development Goal (MDG) for "safe drinking water" had replaced "safe water" with a goal of "access to an improved water source [AIWS]," which was defined as a location that has the potential to supply water (meaning there may be no water or the water may not be safe to drink) and which lies within 200m of one's (urban) dwelling or "takes less than a disproportionate part of the day" to reach for rural dwellers (!)

If you were following this topic (MDG 7.3), then you would know that the UN now claims that less than 700 million people lack AIWS while others estimate that over 4 billion lack access to clean, reliable water. That's a pretty serious difference!

Well, I am glad to say that the UN has caught up with reality in designing its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)2 when it announced in July that SDG target 6.1 would seek, "by 2030, achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water [SADW] for all," meaning that drinking water should be:
  • accessible on premises,
  • available when needed, and
  • free from contamination.
This changed target is helpful in focussing attention (and time, money and personnel) on a target that everyone can understand (AIWS misdirected effort), but the UN still appears to be in denial, i.e., its report on SDG 6.1 goals mentions 663 million lacking access to AIWS, but provides no decent country-by-country figures comparing AIWS to SADW.

The figure above shows that 71 percent of the world's population have SADW (meaning that 2.1 billion people lack it) while 92 percent have AIWS. That 19 percent gap may be too small -- and thus too hopeful -- if an additional 1-2 billion actually lack SADW.

How big is the real gap?

The figure at left reflects an attempt at "ground truthing" in comparing AIWS to AIWS without E.coli, which is one fairly obvious step towards SADW. As you can see, the drop in "status" when E.Coli is added ranges from 36 to 74 percent, but it's 38 percent based on population (Bangladesh has many people. Of course, these countries are poorer and more corrupt than average,3 but we also haven't even tried to include "access on premises" or "available when needed," so the gap is probably larger than 38 percent for those countries.

I was going to make my own estimate of an SADW baseline using some statistical guesses based on ratios I just described, but I just found the UN report underlying the 71 percent figure above. The report makes for good reading, but its most important fact is that the 71 percent figure is based on "estimates available for 96 countries (representing 35 per cent of the global population)."

It's kinda scary to think that their 71 percent figure omits 2/3rds of the world population. Even worse, the included countries which are rich enough to provide data are also probably rich enough to have  SADW! Given these concerns, I suggest that you ignore the 71 percent claim of SADW until the UN gets better data.4 (Personally, I'm going to stick with 50 percent, i.e, 3.6 billion without SADW.)

Bottom Line: The UN is now talking about the right target for safe drinking water but achieving that target will require honest statistics and competent governments that can regulate, fund and (perhaps) deliver safe drinking water.

  1. This 2017 op/ed by Tortajada and Biswas makes the same points, with the indignity at the deception:
    The pontiff’s clear and unambiguous focus on safe, drinkable water should be noted and welcomed. This is a fresh and welcome statement which contrasts with the consistent obfuscations of the magnitude of the problems by international organizations over the past four decades... A fundamental issue in terms of water as a human right is quality. Inexplicably, this has been mostly missing from the global discussions. Humans have had access to water one way or another: otherwise they could not have survived. What is needed is equitable access to water that is safe to drink for everyone, irrespective of the economic and social conditions.
  2. I think the SDGs are too numerous and varied to be managed in any efficient way, but I don't mind presenting statistics on development indicators.
  3. Here's my Forbes column [full paper] on how poor governance (corruption) is a bigger barrier to SADW than the lack of a laws calling for a human right to water.
  4. Let's not even get started on the many flaws in data collection in poorer countries.

12 Sep 2017

How federal policies worsen river floods

A guest post from Mike Lien (Stream Restoration Director, Friends of the Teton River, Idaho), written in response to my post on policy failure increasing Hurricane Harvey damages.

"We are working, grassroots style, to change FEMA’s view of floodplains (protection, updating maps and inappropriate mapping requirements) from little old Driggs. I was successful in updating their project Cost Benefit Analysis model* a few years ago so maybe I can do it again although this is much larger monster. In particular:
  1. FEMA’s messaging is crap. To say something is a 100-year flood event is misleading especially for an uneducated public. A 1% chance flood is much better and they are working on this, so are we. Also, modeling flood event size is also misleading. Empirical data is lacking in most watersheds so we can only use models which almost always seem to underestimate 1% flood size.
  2. FEMA floodplain mapping is a slow and onerous process that is often not even followed by local governments. It is very difficult and expensive to go through the CLOMAR-LOMAR process so most communities don’t do it and even if they try, FEMA can’t keep up. Also, it is difficult to get online and find the latest LOMA maps to even know what has changed.
  3. Dikes and levees fail catastrophically -- and when they do say hello to a 10’ [3 meter] wall of water heading for your front door. Can you say false sense of security? We started a Flood Control District on Teton Creek in Driggs with the goal of managing floods by providing and protecting floodplain a first of its kind in Idaho (taxation with representation as well!). How big of a Monroe Shock Absorber can we build? FEMA and the CORPS have their eyes on the District.
  4. As far as restoring (renovating) damaged streams, the FEMA No-Rise certification is the single largest impediment to working in urban areas. For example if a channel has been enlarged it can hold more water but probably can’t pass its sediment load due to decreased velocities meaning that it will eventually fill in and send floodwaters traversing across the floodplain. If I go to restore the channel so it can work properly again I inevitably will have to make it smaller (cross-section) but this causes a Rise in Base Flood Elevations which is a big problem for FEMA. What a mess.
So after that rant, here's my proposed solution:

If communities choose to allow development in floodplains,* then it is their responsibility to address NFIP shortcomings. To do this, communities need to follow these steps:
  1. Assess current stream channel and floodplain conditions for all waterways affected by proposed developments and
  2. Determine what if any restoration work/protection measures need to be completed prior to development to ensure the safety of their citizens. If development has already occurred then communities need to go back to step 1 and then fix any problems before allowing additional development.
[Mike's] Bottom Line: Communities need to start viewing waterway management in holistic manner and not as a series of one-off projects since inappropriate actions in one section of a waterway can affect people in upstream and downstream directions for miles. The benefits of this approach will far exceed the costs."

* My post on the Army Corps distorted Cost-Benefit methods, and how they encourage construction in flood plains.

10 Sep 2017

Visualized: Realtime wind data from Florida

Click here for an update on the screenshot below:

Screenshot taken 5:40 EDT on Sunday 10 Sep

Recall that Florida's governor "denies" climate change. Scientists ran a Irma-like simulation in 2010. The state did nothing to take those results into account for planning purposes. Watch how much damage this storm causes and then ask yourself if it could have been reduced with planning g and action:

7 Sep 2017

If the media covered alcohol like other drugs

I'm reprinting this whole story for it's "think about it" potential.

NEW ORLEANS — An ongoing drug epidemic has swept the US, killing hundreds and sickening thousands more on a daily basis.

The widespread use of a substance called "alcohol" — also known as "booze" — has been linked to erratic and even dangerous behavior, ranging from college students running naked down public streets to brutal attacks and robberies.

Federal officials suggest this drug has already been linked to 88,000 deaths each year across the country, including traffic accidents caused by drug-induced impairment, liver damage caused by excessive consumption, and violent behavior. Experts warn that it can also lead to nausea, vomiting, severe headaches, cognitive deficits among children and teens, and even fetal defects in pregnant women.

On the ground in America's alcohol epidemic capital

Excessive consumption of alcohol "is a leading cause of preventable deaths in the US," Centers for Disease Control and Prevention principal deputy director Ileana Arias said in a statement. "We need to implement effective programs and policies to prevent binge drinking and the many health and social harms that are related to it, including deaths from alcohol poisoning."

Here in New Orleans, the horror of the drug was particularly prominent in the city's French Quarter, where hundreds of young adults could be seen roiling from the effects of the drug. Some collapsed on the ground, dazed from alcohol's effects. Others could be seen vomiting in public — a common result of drinking alcohol. Many could be seen limping and clumsily walking down the street, showcasing the type of impairment that public health officials warn can lead to accidents, especially when someone is behind the wheel of a car.

What's worse, public use of this drug has become widely accepted in some circles. In New Orleans, several men and women in their 20s and 30s shouted that they're going to get "wasted" — a slang term for coming under the effects of alcohol. Some have even turned drinking alcohol into a game that involves ping pong balls and cups. One popular holiday, St. Patrick's Day, appears to celebrate the dangerous drug.

In other places, there have been similar reports of individuals engaging in bizarre, inexplicable behavior while under the effects of alcohol. Some reports found intoxicated college students exposing themselves to others or running the streets naked while shouting hysterically, particularly during spring time. Others report people urinating in public streets after a few alcoholic beverages. And at least one man who consumed alcohol tried to ride a crocodile and was seriously injured when the animal fought back.

"It actually starts to rewire the brain chemistry," one law enforcement official said. "They have no control over their thoughts. They can't control their actions. It's just a dangerous, dangerous drug."

Across the US, public health officials have linked alcohol to much graver effects, including domestic abuse, sexual assault on college campuses, 40 percent of violent crimes in the US, and more than 4.6 million emergency room visits in 2010.

According to federal data, alcohol is already the second deadliest drug in the country — topped only by another legal substance called "tobacco," which causes an astonishing 480,000 deaths each year by some estimates and 540,000 by others.

No other drug comes close to the staggering fatalities of these two. Heroin, which has consumed widespread media attention in the past few years, was linked to fewer than 9,000 deaths in 2013, and marijuana — another drug that federal lawmakers, including President Obama, have warned is dangerous — reportedly caused zero overdose deaths in the past few thousand years.

Public health experts demand action

Despite the heightened public health crisis, federal and state officials seem reluctant to do anything about the drug, which remains legal for adults 21 and older to possess and even sell in most of the US. Policymakers say that banning alcohol is out of the question, citing its importance to the economy and American culture.

Drug policy experts have suggested levying higher taxes on the drug or bringing its sales under state control, pointing to numerous studies that have shown these measures would reduce use. But lawmakers at the state and federal levels seem reluctant to take up even these milder measures, likely under the influence and lobbying of drug producers and dealers profiting from hundreds of billions in sales of alcohol each year.

Perhaps as a result, alcohol producers have felt free to advertise their product during major televised events such as the Super Bowl, which is viewed by millions of children each year. The marketing ploys tend to portray alcohol as cool and fun, seldom mentioning the risks and thousands of deaths linked to the drug.

As policymakers stand idly by, alcohol consumption has reached epidemic proportions. A recent Gallup survey found nearly two-thirds of Americans admitted to using alcohol — even as another survey by Gallup found more than one in three Americans blame alcohol for family problems.

For many public health officials, the startling numbers pose the question: What will it take to wake up the public and officials to this widening epidemic?

6 Sep 2017

Links of interest

  1. "How to tackle institutionalized corruption in the water sector -- lessons from Indonesia"
  2. "Why everyone should write" (it helps you think!)
  3. How to pursue truth in a regime of lies (Soviet mathematician example)
  4. The Water Footprinting Network filed for bankruptcy in August. I'm curious to see their financial statements (they are a non profit), especially as their 2015 numbers [pdf] indicate they spent about €680k on salaries and consultants (against gross revenue of €780k)
  5. A very clever investment banker thinks about the cryptocurrency future.
  6. Let your kids fail. They will learn faster!
  7. The Americas Latino Eco Festival is in Denver on 15-17 Sept!
  8. A decentralized internet (you -- yes you -- have a hub) is the way around gov't control
  9. A fascinating interview with an ex-white supremacist (who Trump doesn't like)
  10. Pot-trepreneurs are making rapid productivity gains. Predictable but cool ;)

5 Sep 2017

Review: The Pirate Organization

I bought this 2012 book by Rodolphe Durand and Jean-Philippe Vergne after hearing Vergne give a talk about the "right price" for bitcoin in Amsterdam.* I wanted to read the book (subtitled "Lessons from the Fringes of Capitalism") because it seemed a good way to understand how an idea or innovation might begin "at the pirate fringe" before normalizing into a valued part for the social and economic system.

At first the book promises to explore this thesis, i.e., how capitalists have struggled with sovereigns over where and how to do business, with an implication that really valuable innovations (bank drafts, partnerships, risk insurance, etc.) will eventually be recognized by a sovereign eager to get a piece of the action. This thesis is supported by the historic role of pirates (the word is derived from peirao, Greek for "put to the test"), which was connected with people and villages who refused to follow central rules and/or relied on their own rules to maintain order or advance themselves.

And then the wheels fall off.

I don't know if it's the French-origins of this book or its authors' background, but the book just wonders off into long, tedious chapters on the origins of capitalism (I would put those origins much earlier than post-Enlightenment), the difference in perspective on what's legal or not, and (seemingly random) vignettes. I reads as if its two authors had dumped all the loose notes into the text (sometimes without coordinating their messages) in order to produce a book that reads more like a series of hyperlinks between wikipedia articles.** I stopped reading it.

The book, in other words, has a thesis but no strong structure and too many unsubstantiated statements (e.g., The Dutch East India Company was not state-controlled). I would have preferred a 20 page version that was clear and to the point, as it is now hard to see any logic emerge from a mass of tangential asides.

Bottom Line: Pirate organizations, like the mafia, have their own rules for internal order and a business model (providing order for those who pay) that only works when the state is too weak to supply its own order. A strong state is the end of pirates and mafia but not exploitation, which depends on limits (checks and balances) to the sovereign's power. I give this book TWO STARS for its rambling, confused discourse over an interesting topic but recommend that you avoid it.

* He's doing well as a crypto-guru, but I found his analysis to be rather shallow.

** Here's an example from the end of a chapter:
Organizations come together with an identity, a set of stated goals, and particular relationships with the normalizing state that give meaning to the development of capitalism. Understanding them avoids the simplifying image of capital as a self-devouring force without any other horizon than itself. Among the various organizational forms, one is essential for the constant evolution and recoding of capitalism. This form, perceived as irrational, abnormal, and dangerous by capitalist organizations from the legitimate milieu, appears both “necessary” and “renegade” -- the pirate organization.
What does this mean?
For all my reviews, go here.

1 Sep 2017

So what now, America?

I was going to call this post "I told you so, America," but I want to change people's perspectives and motivate action more than be right.

First of all, let's all agree that the flood damages to Houston were worse due to poor planning that paved wetlands and allowed the city to sprawl into flood plains.

Second, subsidized flood insurance (or the lack of a requirement for insurance) means that many people fail to consider the risk of flooding when choosing where to live. (Me complaining about this 10 years ago, an update 5 years ago, and my student this year.)

Third, climate change means that many models and assumptions are wrong. Houston has experienced three "500-year storms" in the past 50 years (or in the past 3 years?) and the number of storms is increasing, worldwide:

Fourth, people and cities around the world are going to experience greater damages as climate change (emphasis on change) raises sea levels, redirects ocean currents and increases storm strength. Greater threats to weaker populations (Bangladesh just flooded) will result in economic loss, political instability, forced migration and many other impacts that will spill over to countries that are not immediately affected by climate.

Fifth, there's no need to spend €2-3,000 to get access to "expert opinions" at Stockholm's World Water Week (it ends today). The right actions are obvious:
  1. Stop subsidies for living in risky places
  2. Restore the buffers that can protect cities from floods
  3. Build more absorption/storage capacity into systems to cope with flood -- or drought!
  4. Plan for the next 50-100 years, not the next election cycle
These costs may bother people, but we're talking about investing $ today to save $$$ in the near future. (NYC decided to not build flood defenses just before Sandy hit.)

What will that future look like? Check out my project -- Life plus 2 meters -- to read some visions of how we might (not) adapt to climate change. I bet that some people in Houston would have wished they had read the book... and planned for a future that arrived a little sooner than expected.*

Bottom Line: Make sure that your city has plans -- and is taking actions -- to cope with living in a climate-changed world. You can do that by pressuring politicians to plan for the long term and supporting spending that will realize those plans.

* We published Volume 1 last year. The deadline to submit new visions for Volume 2 is 15 September!

Friday party!

Pretty cool

31 Aug 2017

Protecting groundwater and reducing pollution in India

KA writes:
In developing countries which there is a constant struggle between farmers and utilities over water allocation, most of implemented policies are based on punishment. For example, quotas are assigned to each farmer and if he goes over his quota he will face a sort of a punishment. With this setup, if famers find a way not to be caught they will be the winner and they can take water as much as they want. Nobody makes money by saving water and the one acting responsibly in their consumption will be victims; because the others are being awarded by screwing the system. I strongly believe unless we find a mechanism in which people make money by saving water, no other effort matters.

In my last trip to India, I learned of such a mechanism to protect groundwater. Tushaar Shah (of IWMI-TATA and a well-known figure in the energy and water sector of India) has started a pilot in Gujarat called SPaRC. He is giving farmers solar power system to operate their pumps. The farmer can sell his extra power to the grid and make money. Nominal power of the solar system is a bit higher than the nominal power of the pump. Also, any farmer by subscribing to the program loses his connection to the grid so that he can only evacuate solar power into the grid and not get any electricity from the grid. A farmer can either operate his pump or sell the power to grid; as he expected now farmers participating in the program are voluntarily practicing water saving methods because the solar power they sell to the grid for money is also power NOT used to pump water.
Read more about the projects in this and this PDF.

29 Aug 2017

Review: In Our Hands

Charles Murray wrote this short, clear book in 2006 [free PDF], and I downloaded it to see what a "libertarian conservative" (he thinks many government welfare programs are ineffective) had to say about basic income. (Guy Standing, an intellectual on the left, has just released a new book in favor of basic income.)

Right off the bat, Murray is different from Standing et al., since Murray would only provide basic income to people "poor enough" to qualify (up to roughly $30,000 per year of income in the US), as he sees the main goal of a BI as a replacement for ineffective programs run by myopic bureaucrats. Standing and others (including me) support a Universal Basic Income (UBI) that goes to everyone (I prefer citizens over 18 years old, but that's a side debate), regardless of their earnings.

The benefit of UBI over BI is simplicity and reliability, as there's no need to keep any records of earnings nor fear of losing BI due to a change in circumstances. Murray might concede this advantage because he spends a lot of time trying to explain (and justify) the removal of BI as people earn more. I think he tries to defend that choice as a means of preventing sloth (more below) and making the system "affordable," but I think he's mistaken on the latter, as there's no difference between a UBI that gives $10k to a rich person whose gross contribution is $90k (thus $80k net) and charging that person $80k because you know how much they make. It's much easier to give UBI to everyone and then pay for the program by taxing wealth or pollutants (such as GHGs).

(Murray assumes the current tax system would be used to fund BI, but he misses a great opportunity to switch from income taxes -- which discourage work and are hard to track -- to property taxes that would still be progressive but are easier to implement. Such a switch would actually affect rich people, so it may be impossible in countries where the rich control politics.)

Turning back to thresholds and earnings, Murray is eloquent in his defense of BI as a means of helping people choose jobs that better match their skills (rather than those that pay more) as well as how BI -- by ending many government welfare programs -- would allow civil society to step back into its role of taking care of the needy, a role that was crushed by the massive expansion of US programs in the 1930s and much of Europe after World War II. That said, Murray and others such as John Cochrane worry that people who have "no reason to work" will form a permanent, unproductive underclass. Although I see the potential for such abuse, I think they would be trivial (just as the "Welfare Queen" that Reagan complained about was a one-in-a-million scammer). Although we may never agree on whether free money will create more problems than it solves, the current wave of (U)BI pilot projects will help us understand whether it enables or undermines human flourishing.

Now, back to the book. Part I describes The Framework, i.e., design, eligibility and funding in two short chapters. Part II discusses Immediate Effects on retirement, health care, poverty, the underclass and working (dis)incentives. Part III covers The Larger Purpose, i.e., the pursuit of happiness, vocation, marriage and community. The book concludes with some useful appendices where Murray goes over the details of how his BI proposal might affect US Government finances.

In Part II, Murray presents the debate for and against paternalism with respect to retirement and health care, stating his support in favor of people's freedom to manage their retirement options (with a risk that they may go bankrupt) while endorsing mandatory payments towards health services/insurance. Regarding retirement, Murray follows the classical libertarian guideline of trusting people to look after themselves better than bureaucrats, while allowing for their ultimate safety via a means-tested BI. On health care, he sees mandatory health care payments as necessary to protect people from uninsured risk but also as a means of using consumer choice to increase competition and efficiency. I agree with both of these positions.

In the next three chapters, he talks mostly about how BI will make it easier for "the poor" to change their lives (and neighborhoods), take responsibility for their actions (absentee dads can't claims they have no money to support their kids), and look for work without fear of losing unemployment insurance immediately. I also agree with most of this discussion, but I think UBI is superior because it's easier to administer and admits citizens based on their membership in a society ("American") instead of a class ("BI poor").

John Cochrane thinks that we should make it hard for people to collect BI to save money. I think we should make it easy to collect UBI, as a means of helping the least able get a break. (It's widely known that the wealthy are much better at collecting "their due" -- as Mr Trump implied with his "I'm smart" response to the observation that he pays no income taxes.)

In Part III, Murray attacks the "Europe Syndrome" of short working hours, unwedded relationships and a collapse of church going, which "explains why Western Europe has become a continent with neither dreams of greatness nor the means to reacquire greatness" (page 86). I repeat this groundless  critique to set up Murray's "three active raw materials for the pursuit of happiness... intimate relationships with other human beings, vocation, and self-respect" (page 90). I don't know about your experience of Europe versus the US, but I can surely say that I see a lot of intimacy, vocation and self respect in the Netherlands, most of northern Europe, and many other places in southern and eastern Europe. Indeed, Murray seems to be living in a Fox-news-inspired bubble of life over here:
Europe is especially useful as the canary in this part of the coal mine. Government regulation has made the costs of hiring an employee so high, and made it so hard to dismiss an employee, that the European labor market has become rigid. New jobs are scarce, and long-term unemployment is high. So an employee who has a job he hates nonetheless will tend to keep it rather than quit and look for a better one. European peasants used to be tied to the land. In this new version of serfdom, European workers are tied to their jobs. A major strength of the American economy is its history of high labor mobility. (page 96)
These sentiments are more cliché than true when you factor in two-tiered labor contracts in Europe, the value of job security to employees (and banks!), and higher minimum wages (vs employment at will and $2.13/hour for restaurant workers in the US), and how Europeans can work in 28 (soon to be 27!) countries. From the US perspective, Murray needs to look further into "occupational licensing" (a libertarian bugbear), the concentration of market power in larger firms, and how mortgage debt and fear of losing heath insurance have reduced mobility for American workers. Perhaps he was accurate in 2006, but not today, where the US is in 16th place in terms of employment rates, at 70 percent of the potential workforce.

Putting aside his ill-informed beliefs about Europe, Murray is right to focus on happiness via relationships (choice of partners and friends), self-respect (freedom to work in low wage but interesting jobs) and community (working with neighbors rather then living with state interventions).  BI (or better, UBI) could increase happiness without disrupting US or EU culture.

So why don't we have (U)BI? Murray and I agree that politicians like spending other people's money on programs they design and control. Besides inviting corruption, such hubris is also doomed to fail in the face of our individual and collective diversity, which is why UBI (or "selfie-welfare") is so much more promising as a way of letting people best help themselves.

Murray is perhaps most eloquent and passionate when he turns to the power and value of community in giving us support and identity, and he is right to point out how the centralization and growth of the US Federal Government in the 1930s under FDR really undermined the power of one of America's best institutions -- the voluntary association, as memorably described by De Tocqueville (1835):
Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of dispositions are forever forming associations. There are not only commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but others of a thousand different types—religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large and very minute. Americans combine to give fêtes, found seminaries, build churches, distribute books, and send missionaries to the antipodes. Hospitals, prisons, and schools take place in that way. Finally, if they want to proclaim a truth or propagate some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form an association. In every case, at the head of any new undertaking, where in France you would find the government or in England some territorial magnate, in the United States you are sure to find an association.
And what could undermine these associations? Murray quotes De Tocqueville again, who had indeed seen the danger of intervention by a (well meaning?) state:
A government could take the place of some of the largest associations in America, and some particular states of the Union have already attempted that. But what political power could ever carry on the vast multitude of lesser undertakings which associations daily enable American citizens to control?... The more government takes the place of associations, the more will individuals lose the idea of forming associations and need the government to come to their help. That is a vicious circle of cause and effect.
I can't help by agree with Murray's point here, just as I see UBI as a convenient way to protect the safety net that most of us take for granted while encouraging people to re-engage with their communities that can -- and should -- find local solutions to suit their local problems.

Returning back to the politicians who are most likely to oppose UBI,* I think that UBI offers an opportunity to break the ideology- and corruption-fueled deadlock of Washington DC that is turning the US into "the sick man of the developed world." If all Americans agree that Congress is a mess (20 percent approve; 74 percent disapprove), then perhaps it's time to stop fighting for control of Congress (and further wreckage) and start fighting to take power from Congress. UBI would hit them where it hurts -- their corruption-prone laws, regulations and give-aways.

Bottom Line I give this book FOUR STARS for its clear and thoughtful exploration of Basic Income. Read it, and then decide on what (U)BI would work for you and your community. It's time.

* I mentioned an idea to "empower" students at my school by giving them more choice on how their funds were spent on their behalf by (our version of) the student council, but both councilors who I approached disliked the idea "as it would leave us with less money to manage, so we don't think they know how to spend the money."

For all my reviews, go here.