29 Jun 2017

Review: Deep Web

I wanted to watch this movie to learn more about the foundation and operations of The Silk Road, the most famous "dark web" market where people used encrypted (PGP), traceless (Tor) communications to make deals, mostly exchanging bitcoin for drugs.

What I got was a rather ugly update on the drug wars, government misbehavior/corruption, and the future of marketplaces.

Drug wars: The Silk Road attracted attention for its open market for drugs and buyer ratings for vendors (just like Amazon). Users were happy to get better, cheaper gear with less risk.* Vendors could invest in building their reputation by competing to offer better service. Politicians and (some) law enforcement saw the site as a challenge to their authority. Companies selling legal highs also disliked SR because it offered cheaper (and perhaps safer) products.

Opiates (everything from Oxycontin to heroin) are now responsible for the greatest "premature" death toll of any activity in the US -- higher than deaths from guns and car accidents, combined.

Politicians and law enforcement decided to shut down the Silk Road (Big Pharma wouldn't mind), and the bulk of the film focusses on the chase, capture and trial of the "kingpin" behind SR (Ross Ulbricht, pictured) by any means, fair or foul.

Government corruption: I'll cut to the main point, which is that the government violated Ulbricht's Fourth Amendment Right against unlawful search and seizure when they "copied Silk Road servers" and seized Ulbricht's laptop without getting the correct warrants or following transparent procedures. Why does this matter? Because Ulbricht was accused of contracting for the murder of 5-6 individuals on top of money laundering, computer hacking, and conspiracy to traffic narcotics. Those attempted murder charges are what caught the attention of the press and anger of the trial judge, but the charges were dropped in the real trial. Why? Perhaps because no dead bodies were ever connected to Ulbricht?  Perhaps because law enforcement planted evidence on Ulbricht's computer? That latter action is very easy for me to believe after following the Drug War for several decades: Cops are willing to break, bend or undermine the law when it comes to getting "bad" guys or their assets.

Skeptical? Then think about this: Two government agents involved in catching Ulbricht were tried, convicted and jailed for stealing bitcoins from him in the course of the operation. I don't thins that was all they did to "give justice a hand up."

(Oh, and don't forget that poor black men suffer much more than affluent white men (like Ulbricht) from the War, so this story will be old news in communities that have been abused since the 1980s.)

The future of darknet markets: They're here to stay, for as long as people want drugs and drugs are illegal.** (Related: A very interesting post on how cryptocurrency markets work -- or fail!)

Bottom Line: Governments cannot shut down markets with willing buyers and sellers. (The best they can do is regulate them.) Ross Ulbricht was a rebel against -- and victim of -- the US Government's flat earth attitudes. I give this film FIVE STARS for bringing attention to the human side if those trying to innovate market institutions.

* Most of the danger from "drugs" comes from their illicit status, e.g., "medical marijuana laws lead to a decrease in violent crime in states that border Mexico. This is consistent with the theory that marijuana decriminalization reduces violent crime in markets traditionally controlled by Mexican drug trafficking organisations."

** I just took about 10 minutes to download Tor, find AlphaBay (a big Darknet site), create a profile (I already had GPG -- a version of PGP -- installed), and find this advert (out of 300k+):

FYI, this $104 purchase supplies the equivalent of 10,000 10mcg doses (I'm not quite sure, actually) or enough to kill about 50 people (100mg of heroin would not kill one). This drug is so cheap that it's being distributed everywhere to make "fake" heroin, but it is so strong that people are dying daily. The darknet is delivering what people want, but the lack of legal regulation (and safety) is resulting in violence (fights among street dealers) and death. Legalize it!
Addendum (1 Aug): Police have shut down alphabay and another darknet website. This observer notes that those actions will do nothing to stop demand and are likely to lead people to take more chances to get drugs from street dealers or less reputable sites. Fail.

28 Jun 2017

Links of interest

  1. "Dirty Soap Co. is an awareness project centered around marine pollution"
  2. Made from sewage, these “popsicles” reveal the scale of Taiwan’s water pollution
  3. Is Vegas's quest for other people's groundwater inevitable? Maybe, if you look at the return to Big Infrastructure in the US West
  4. A massive survey of households (mostly in developing countries) finds that adult women are still more likely to fetch water than adult men (children don't go so often), taking an average of 28 minutes/day. (I spend 0 minutes, since I have safe tap water.)
  5. Training rural Indian women to test their water quality (via Akvo support)
  6. The AMA lobbied to make America's health system ineffective and expensive
  7. Stephen Fry sees the future of the internet in the past of printing (it's on us)
  8. What's warming the world? After removing other factors, it's us, bigly.
  9. "Climate Change and Increasing Aridity: The Fate of Agriculture and Rural Communities in the Middle East and North Africa" [pdf]
  10. "We need a fundamental shift in the approach for modernizing the Columbia River Treaty, from a review of the original commercial contract for flood control and power generation to an ecosystem based management approach for the entire Columbia Basin" Read more of this communique [pdf] from this conference
H/T to PR

27 Jun 2017

Review: 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next 40 Years

Jorgen Randers -- one of the original authors on The Limits to Growth (my review of LTG) -- wrote this 2012 book to think about the future using similar techniques from the 1972 project. (Contrary to the claims of critics, LTG was pretty accurate in its predictions.)

I read this book to learn more of how we might (not) adapt to life in a climate-changed world (the theme of my life plus 2 meters project).

I am going to group my comments on this book into several categories rather than focus on details, as I made far too many notes. The book is organized into Why & How 40 Years?, Five Big Issues (capitalism, economic growth, democracy, intergenerational relations and climate), a Global Forecast (population & consumption, energy & co2, food & footprint, non-material "goods" and zeitgeist 2052), and ending with sections on Analysis, Straight Questions, Five Regions, Other Futures, and What to Do.

First, consider that Randers makes a forecast rather than a prediction by relying on trends and possibilities rather than probabilities. To oversimplify, Randers focusses on several macro trends in five main regions in the 2012-2052 period. These trends -- based on demographics, economics, engineering and politics -- are used to explain forecast where we humans might find ourselves in 2052.

One important interactions is among trends for population, consumption and impact, with the main idea that the footprint will be heavier -- and thus the chance of "run away climate change" (RACC) larger -- if there are more people consuming more stuff. I think that Randers is too optimistic in his forecasts here. He predicts that the world population will peak at 8.1 billion, that 2-3 billion people will stay poor (=low consumption), and that people in the rich world will consume less because they need to invest significant resources in responding to climate change (e.g., recovering from disasters, coping with climate migrants, paying more as supply chains are disrupted and so on.)

This path -- in the presence of little or no climate change mitigation -- will leave the world on a knife's edge after 2052, with 2080's global temperatures of 2.8C above pre-industrial levels and a 50/50 chance of triggering RACC in which melting permafrost, wildfires and other natural responses trigger positive feedback loops that accelerate warming and far worse living conditions. [A negative trend I discussed over 9 years ago.]

Randers does not consider this forecast as good news (he says "global society will have to perform a miracle after 2052 if it is to end the century in a desirable situation" given that the transition to sustainability will only be half-complete by 2052), and he's admirably frank about our political mechanisms being too weak and short-termist to coordinate either mitigation or adaption, but I think that his underlying assumptions on population and consumption are far too optimistic. The UN recently forecast that "the current world population of 7.6 billion is expected to reach 8.6 billion in 2030, 9.8 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion in 2100." Turning to consumption, it is hard to see much sign of any government putting the brakes on the cult of GDP growth (e.g., Indonesia converting rainforest to palm oil, China promoting cars and suburbs, or economic refugees fleeing their dysfunctional homelands to go earn some money). Taken together, these "alt-guesses" would put the world in far worse shape in terms of RACC, temperature increases, and so on.

(You can download Randers's massive spreadsheet and change details to suit your own preferences, but I am focussing on aggregates. Am I "cheating" rather than "scientific" to say this? Not if a spreadsheet is merely an opinion dressed up as a model.)

Second, I want to congratulate Randers for his interesting use of "outside experts" who gave 20+ forecasts on various dimensions of the future (a few are a waste of time). Their contributions and Randers's own commentary really created a useful space for thinking about how systems interact (e.g., "more investment" means "less consumption") in our complex world.

There are many interesting, surprising and thoughtful statements in the book:
  • Nations will face climate change only after they give up on a global quota for carbon, tax fossil fuels and force adoption of renewables, energy efficiency, and carbon capture [the story there is grim]. They will only do this when climate damages are a clear and present danger (i.e. probably too late). Global investments will rise from a need to shut down fossil industries early [here's a nice perspective on its collapse in the near future] and cope with climate damages, but productivity will fall due to climate damages, loss of natural capital, more workers in services, etc.
  • There's not much support for "saving ecosystems" among voters who prefer Netflix... and will increasingly experience the world via screen. The impacts will be worse in nations without redistribution or social insurance (poor countries; the US), and especially if "democracy" leads to short-term consumption over long term sustainability. 
  • The worst shocks will not be to the poor (who already suffer), but to the Americans who will face the twin-disasters of losing first place to China as well as greater conflict over national and financial resources due to its weak social welfare system.
  • The Chinese government will use its strength to force its people to sustainability.
  • National militaries will be much more occupied with climate-related risks and assaults. The "third flowering of humanity" will arrive via computers that may work for us (or not).
  • Temperature zones (microclimates) will move away from the equator at a pace of 5km per year and up mountains at a pace of 5m per year
  • Do not acquire a taste for things that will disappear (or give that taste to your children), as you will only be disappointed when your "favorites" are no more. Stick with digital hobbies, etc.
  • Live in a place that's not exposed to CC but where political structures function (NL is -1 and +1 on these!)
Third, Randers covers many topics but he is sometimes trapped by "current thinking" on technology or politics, e.g., discussing the impact of greater biofuel production on food prices (not good for the poor) when cheaper oil (via fracking as well as the shift to renewables) is crowding out biofuels.

Finally, I now think different on several big topics. For example:
  • Japan's consumption per person rose by 33 percent between 1990 and 2010 because GDP was "flat" while population and investment was falling. (One reason robots are so popular in Japan!)
  • Countries that import food may lack "food security" when times get tough and they cannot afford to buy food on world markets. (The same might be said of energy, manufactured goods, etc.) Thus a country like Pakistan may turn into a failed state with hungry people because it has mismanaged its natural resources ("liquidating natural capital") at an even worse pace than the rest of the world, thereby increasing its relative insecurity. We can see this problem today in Yemen but not in places like Japan or New Zealand that have protected their natural capital.
  • Younger generations will not respect older generations -- they will take part of their pensions to pay for damages. (A strategy that may not work if bitcoin, tax havens and corruption undermine government action.)
Bottom Line: I give this book FIVE STARS for helping me think about our (potential) common future, which Randers summarizes as follows [snipped from several places]:
It is surprisingly difficult to maintain a happy outlook when you know deep in your heart that the world is on a path toward disaster (reducing age-old biological diversity and man-made cultural diversity in the process).

The world of 2052 will be well established on a path that I really fear—the path toward self-reinforcing climate change and climate disaster in the second part of the century. I certainly did not find a world on a well-planned path toward sustainability. I don’t know how to assess this future. It will be much better than a global cataclysm where population and production drop dramatically as a consequence of natural disaster and war. But it will be much worse than the now common expectation of continuing growth in GDP and disposable income. It will be good for me as an old Norwegian living in the New North, which will fare well over the next couple of decades. But it will be surprisingly bad for all my good friends in the United States, who will have to endure gradual and seemingly never-ending stagnation from the peak years of their empire in the twentieth century. And much worse for the two billion earthlings who will remain poor.

Even if your personal life is sound and satisfying, it is wearying to know that so much is being done systematically to destroy our common future. Thus my final word of encouragement: Don’t let the possibility of impending disaster crush your spirits. Don’t let the prospect of a suboptimal long-term future kill your hope. Hope for the unlikely! Work for the unlikely! Remember, too, that even if we do not succeed in our fight for a better world, there will still be a future world. And there will still be a world with a future—just less beautiful and less harmonious than it could have been.

For all my reviews, go here.

26 Jun 2017

Bitcoin and government failure

I sent this to The Economist (no idea if they will publish):

I enjoy both the theory and empirical outputs of your BigMac Index, which gives an indication of whether currencies are over-/undervalued relative to the USD (and each other).

Given this success, it seems useful to promote a new index — The Bitcoin Governance Index (BGI) — as an indicator of the over-/underperformance of a government’s ministries of finance and treasury.

The index would compare official exchange rates to bitcoin exchange rates to see how much “leakage” is escaping to bitcoin.

The Indian Rupee, for example has a rate of INR 64.5 per USD, but it takes INR 185,026 per BTC. Given a USD 2,685 price per BTC, the BGI "exchange rate” is INR 68.91 per USD, indicating a discount of ~9 percent.

Although these differences are going to be arbitraged in liquid markets with traders in both currencies, they will not in illiquid markets. In Venezuela, for example, the central bank rate is VZB 2,640 per USD, but it takes VZB 21,800,000 per BTC. The BGI “exchange rate” is VZB 8,119 per USD, indicating a discount of ~67 percent.

The BGI, by showing the gap between market sentiment and government assertion, will help readers, traders and politicians understand just how well government policies are working.

Monday's cartoon

This video and poem by Russ Roberts does a nice job at explaining how "nobody" is in charge of markets, even as they "deliver the goods." It's part of his effort to explain basic (but very important economics) to regular folks.

While I agree with his portrait of 'the invisible hand" at work, I think that he puts far too little emphasis on the disruption that markets can bring to people's lives, via competition that destroys their businesses and jobs as well as the "negative spillovers" that are not "priced correctly" -- e.g., GHGs emitted from the use of fossil fuels. Read more about those caveats here.

22 Jun 2017

Yes water markets work

Just my 183rd reminder to everyone that Australia has gone down that road :)

Happy summer solstice!

Stay cool! Drink water! (and stay warm if you're in the Southern Hemisphere :)

Growth, development and the doughnut

This post discusses a book (Doughnut Economics) that uses said image to help people understand how we need balance between too much (unsustainable) growth and too little (unfair) development. As someone who teaches on these topics, I think the image captures the key messages that are often lost on citizens and in public debates.

21 Jun 2017

Links of interest

  1. "There is really nothing much to be said about China that does not start with a river"
  2. China farms the world (can technology overcome pollution and resource consumption?)
  3. Chinese techno-infrastructure vs prepaid meters on groundwater [pdf]
  4. How Eritrea's dictator micro-manages and macro-fails
  5. "The Earth has been taking advantage of America" and "Trump trolls the world on the Paris Agreement" including suspending rules on methane leaks ("because they cost money to reduce"). Trump is hell-bent on getting to that tipping point of unstoppable CC.
  6. A connection is nice, a reliable connection is way better (applies to water as well as electricity)
  7. Hayek would have supported a carbon tax. (These 40 countries -- including China -- are pricing carbon)
  8. The blessings of Lake Malawi and Gash the river (Eritrea) are more obvious as they become more drained and diverted :(
  9. "Economics" is not about money as much as production choices in a large group
  10. "When the money gets big enough, finance and economics and politics are all the same thing. They are ways to measure risk."

20 Jun 2017

Leadership will prevail over censorship

This kid's going places...

Scam conflict diamonds

Speaking of India...

ps: I still am looking for someone who wants to run and "eco-diamond" business. PM me.

India's institutions are failing its people

Institutions are the "rules of the game" -- the formal rules and informal norms that can -- when strong -- enhance cooperation, defeat corruption, and contribute to prosperity and development.

One ready measure of "development" (or functional institutions) is the ready availability of safe drinking water and functioning sanitation.

In India, the institutions are weakened by corruption, caste-discrimination and bureaucratic indifference. To get an amazing insight into how dysfunction leads to failure, read this epic (17,000 word) investigation into the failing attempt to end "open defecation"

But not all Indians -- and very few politicians -- understand how failure occurs or who should get the blame. Read this piece on the scapegoating of Coke and Pepsi due to failures to manage groundwater, deliver drinking water or regulate pollution. Ask yourself how it might be possible for these companies to "destroy water security" in India, but not in many developed countries? The reason is that they are not the problem, but merely participants in India's failure.

Bottom Line: The Indian people need to go after their politicians and bureaucrats -- their fellow citizens -- if they are going to get safe water and the dignity of sanitation.

19 Jun 2017

Monday funnies

A very creative (violent? romantic?) story:

17 Jun 2017

Community is dying but nobody is watching

(Originally sent to my Aguanomics update mailing list)

It was about a decade ago that the iPhone and other "smart phones" came to the world. Little did we know that they would turn numerous people into zombies staring, swiping and liking whatever was "fed" to them by apps, websites and the like.

I grew up in the pre-internet era when TV had 3-5 channels, most people read the local paper, and buses and sidewalks were occupied by people who looked at each other. Although the internet (and related media) have brought us a deluge of content that's just right for me, that same freedom of choice has made it easier to forget what might be right (or useful) for others or society.

We've seen countries split into political factions claiming their own truths, pluralistic cultures dividing into "threatened" groups of Christians, Millennials or Blacks, and righteous groups forming around an endless circle-jerk of how special they are -- and others not.

These developments are changing us in slow and subtle, but serious ways: we are losing our communities.

I've blogged on these dynamics numerous times, have a paper "in press" on how people cooperate against a common enemy, and work hard to help our fledgling Leiden-University-College community work with its idealism and diversity.

Take a moment to look at your life. Do you have empathy sympathy for the people around you? To the point where you're happy to see your taxes help them, your work burdened (or assisted) by them, or your views resisted by them? Yes, it takes "two to tango," but social media and smart phones have made it ever easier to dance alone as "demands" -- including this newsletter -- fight for your attention.

I wouldn't mind losing my share of eyeballs if I knew that people were putting more time into their local community matters, but it seems that people are more isolated these days.

I have selfish reasons to say this -- as a public intellectual advertising new (sometimes uncomfortable) ideas, an entrepreneur asking others to support my climate-change projects, or as a teacher fighting students' addiction to "status updates" -- but I make these observations for all of us.

If there's one thing I've learned about sustainable communities, it's that connection is the key to success -- and survival.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on these ideas, but I also want your help:

Please consider contributing to the Life plus 2 meters Kickstarter, as that money will help me attract writers with diverse "visions" of life in a climate-changed world. I am crowdsourcing the money (and stories!) because I think these projects should be part of a community effort to understand and negotiate how we will live with each other. Check out volume 1 to get an idea of the diverse potential futures we may experience.

We're only $100 short of the $600 goal and there's about a week until the deadline. (If we go over, then I put more money into prizes :)

Please contribute here if you're in North America.

If you want to contribute outside of Kickstarter, then you can PayPal to dzetland@gmail.com, transfer € to NL80ABNA0518695174 or send Bitcoin to 19G1kvaqwKKoyJcqRXPPvBjPXrHTTKGaqY. Please add your name and email to any donations :)

This is a non-profit negative-profit endeavor -- here's the spreadsheet of expenses to date.

15 Jun 2017

Aswan High Dam as a high modern means of control

Alexander Lemons [email] wrote this paper [pdf] for his anthropology class while doing his Masters degree at Reed College.

I highly recommend it for its "non-engineered" take on the impacts of Aswan High Dam on Egyptian citizens.

Here's an excerpt:
The AHD was more than mechanical device crammed into a river in order to provide nearly limitless water for year-round crop production and hydropower. The dam was an infrastructure machine hardwired to specific ideas about how to organize a country politically, economically and agriculturally which in turn required a specific type of expert management bound within the ideology of high modernism. This “Rule of Experts,” as Timothy Mitchell calls them, was a techno-political promise to solve the legacy of postcolonial socio-economic problems in rapid way at the expense of a longer and messier democratic debate. Supporting and selling the dam required burying the potential problems, both ecological or social during and after its construction, while touting its line-by-line economic promises in a far distant future. Ultimately, the AHD was an inherently authoritarian method of radically defining citizenship within modern Egypt while jettisoning an organic democratic structure because its goals, from controlling the river at one focal point to simplifying agriculture on an industrial scale to transporting citizens from farms to cities to an obsession with the future at the expense of the present, forced Egyptians to abandon their traditions about water practices and farming as well as the possibility of a more plural post-revolution to match the demands of the dam.
I can't wait to see more from Alexander.

California's shameful lack of conservation innovation

A few weeks ago, Dr. Rocket (my pseudonym) emailed:
I enjoyed reading your PDF of Living With Water Scarcity. Especially here in California, these are real issues.

Normally, I work in aerospace flow metrology, e.g.
  • Providing 100% of the flow measurement systems used for jet engine testing, notable since engines for entire fleets of aircraft are based on specific fuel consumption advantages as small as 0.1%
  • Providing calibration support for military flow measurement systems, etc.
(Years ago, as a young man, I calibrated the flow systems that performed the Apollo missions' lunar mid-course correction and the balanced flow-thrust systems that landed the Apollo LEMs upright on the moon!)

With this sort of flow metrology background, I frequently get enquiries regarding measurement systems for pipeline leak detection systems based on mass or volume balance. In the course of such analyses, I discovered that there is a really serious problem with water pipeline leaks. It seems that typical municipal water systems have a loss of something around 16% in the USA. But when we looking at natural gas pipeline leak detection systems in New Mexico, the state's Secretary of Energy even commented "You should talk with the Albuquerque Water District. They apparently have a loss of 30%." That's a lot of water in arid regions...

According to the AWWA (American Water Works Association) 2011 water audit of 21 utilities, the range of losses is 645.42 - 3,496.21 gallons/mile of main/day, with an average of 1,821.15 gallons/mile of main/day. NRW losses are 6.8% - 45.5% by volume, with an average of 22.6%.

As I see it, water is taken for granted, and its leakage does not pose direct health or environmental damage. It's also relatively cheap. So traditionally measurement and leakage have been pretty much ignored. This is not going to improve until measurement is improved in the large water mains in the municipal distribution systems. And measurement is not going to improve until there is some way to accurately calibrate large municipal water meters, e.g. in sizes up to 24".

Guess what, there are no large water flow calibration facilities that are capable of performing calibrations with +/-0.1% uncertainty... (I've arbitrarily chosen +/-0.1% so that one could realistically do 0.25% leak detection, i.e. to detect, find and patch small leaks before the pipeline erodes to catastrophic proportions, such as happened on Sunset Blvd., and flooded UCLA.)

And actually, such calibration systems are relatively easy to build. So there's something fishy going on -- or water managers are just to lazy to take steps that would lead to more efficient supply of water. Something has to change is this era of ever diminishing water supplies.
In reply, I wrote:
There are two main "drivers" (or lack thereof) for monitoring/blocking water losses:
  1. The cost of reducing losses is high relative to the value of the water.
  2. Water managers face no penalties for "following industry standards"
You've read my book, so you know that I think managers need to face discipline on these issues.

This article may also be useful: Why loss calculations must include opportunity costs
He replied:
Actually, David, the cost of maintaining water pipeline, finding leaks, and avoiding catastrophic failures (such as UCLA and/or other road closures) is very low if properly planned. If one is to believe the American Water Works Association (AWWA) survey of water audits, between 6.8% and 45.5% percent of the potable water is lost to leakage. Assuming that their average of 22.6% annual loss is representative, then said annual losses would easily cover the costs of the required monitoring systems.
  • Good measurement means equitable/honest distribution of costs
  • Good measurement allows early detection of leakage at low levels
  • Since most pipeline failures begin as pinhole corrosion pits, such small leaks (when detected) are easily repaired via saddle patches -- or pipeline section replacement can be scheduled before catastrophes occur.
  • Repairs under emergency conditions are usually considerably more difficult, less reliable, and much more costly than planned repairs -- and almost always require service shutdowns.
Since I am very concerned about California's water situation, I have already passed on the designs for a primary standard flow calibration facility to LA County Department of Public Works -- for free! -- so that they can take the first necessary steps to improving measurement. Unfortunately there is a high degree of apathy among water managers.
I replied:
  1. You're right.
  2. It's hard to get water bureaucrats (called "water buffaloes" for their indifference to reality) to act.
I'd love to stay in touch.
He replied:
Yes, let's stay in touch. Getting some sort of reaction to our looming water problems is going to require a massive effort to shake water burro-crats awake. It's always better to take a multi-pronged approach.

Certainly you may use my emails as support for your effort. However, I would appreciate it if you somehow insure that my email address is not exposed to those who are simply collecting email addresses for marketing purposes. Maybe something like "A concerned scientist. Name, affiliation, and contact information upon request"...

By the way, I sent an email to the Governor via the state's website, specifically noting his recent (April 16) executive order B-37-16 regarding stopping water leakage. I got a reply from some low level screener to contact the state's business opportunities office -- even though I stated that I was willing to provide guidance on a no-cost basis. I'll forward the email to you.*
Bottom Line: California is full of thoughtful people who are eager to help solve its water problems, but these people are ignored for the same reason that the State finds itself in continual "crisis": bureaucrats prefer inaction or their own biases to working for the public good -- a troublesome topic I've researched and blogged upon many times.

* Here's that email (note the last line)
Thank you for taking the time to write to Governor Brown regarding water flow calibration and leak detection technologies. The Governor always appreciates hearing from people who have innovative ideas to improve California.

The Governor's Office of Business and Economic Development (GO-Biz) was created by Governor Jerry Brown to serve as California's single point of contact for economic development and job creation efforts. GO-Biz offers a range of services to business owners including: attraction, retention and expansion services, site selection, permit streamlining, clearing of regulatory hurdles, small business assistance, international trade development, assistance with state government, and much more.

For further information visit Go-Biz's website, business.ca.gov. We hope you find this information useful. On behalf of the Governor, we wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors.


Constituent Affairs
Office of Governor Jerry Brown
The Governor is asking all Californians to do their part in conserving water. Please visit SaveOurWater.Com to see how you can help.

14 Jun 2017

Links worth your time

  1. A reasonable defense of Brexit
  2. When you're out of money: "Saudi Arabia Experiments with Reform"
  3. A Kiwi learns about natural resource management from the Maoris
  4. Amazon is "eating the world" because it makes internal divisions compete in markets, per Coase (1937). Related (and scary): Silicon Valley's "big five" have an oligopoly
  5. Plato did behavioral economics and "the right to recline (or paid not to) on planes"
  6. "Russia's propaganda works by forcing your right brain (the emotional one) to overpower your left brain (the logical one), while clogging all your logical filters."
  7. "Blockchains Never Forget" with useful socio-political implications
  8. "Dutch households will use [cloud] servers to heat their showers for free"
  9. A letter from the Mayor to a Sexist
  10. The IMF on the future of work (for millennials)
H/T to MV

13 Jun 2017

Everykey -- the $1 million startup failure

Back in 2014, I pledged $50 to Everykey's Kickstarter, believing in their promise to deliver a wristband (or key dongle) that would automatically unlock my computer, phone, house, or whatever I wanted using bluetooth.

The product, in other words, would "let me be me" instead of forcing me to remember pesky passwords, keys, fingerprints, etc.

Just look at their video (try to avoid the CEO's demon eyes)

Even better, they got John McAfee (this guy) to come aboard as their spokesperson:

I ordered a single dongle/wristband for Windows and waited... and waited... and waited.

Then I bought a Mac, so I asked to get an OSX version instead.

Then I waited... and waited... and WAIT! A package!

Whoops, bad news. They labeled the package as "merchandise" so I had to pay €25 to pick up the reward I got for backing their project, which really pissed me off. (Kickstarter backers are NOT buying merchandise, but giving financial support to a project that may succeed or fail.)

I asked the folks at Everykey to refund the customs charges and change their shipping labels, but no such luck. So their EU backers are going to be paying €extra to pick up packages* that don't even work.

Wait. What?

Yes, the version of Everykey I received does not work. I know this for two reasons. The first is that  they shipped me a Windows version (they are still not shipping OSX), and many people are already complaining about the product/app/software not working. (There are over 1,550 comments -- mostly complaining about delays and failures -- on their Kickstarter.)

The second is that I sold my Everykey to a security developer who wanted to check it out.

Here's what he told me after he had time to test the unit:
As expected, it doesn't work, neither on Windows 10 nor on Android.
On Android, it pairs successfully but the app can't unlock the phone (it says it's still not compatible with Android 7).
On Windows, the App SEEMS fake, it systematically crashes !
I dismounted the Everykey device and discovered that inside there is a standard Bluetooth low energy chip without a co-processor for security.
So, actually, it is nothing more than an iBeacon and it can never guarantee real security .. :)
If you google "Everykey reviews" you get the naive, the bot, the actual security expert, and those worried about McAfee.

Bottom Line: Everykey has shitty customer service (broken delivery promises, waste your money for no reason), a non-functioning and/or insecure product, and no future. Avoid them** at all costs.

* Shipping policy: "In addition, it is the sole responsibility of the receiving customer to pay any import duties, taxes, or brokerage fees due at the time of delivery. Packing slips for international shipments cannot be labeled as a gift."

** Founders Christopher Wentz and CiCi Qian are not listed on their website, but they are mentioned in articles. Be careful about supporting ANYTHING they ever do.

12 Jun 2017

Bureaucrats' quixotic attempts to "rescue" California

DH sent me this article on California's quest for "affordable" drinking water. Its short overview of bureaucrats' attempts to "make water affordable" is painful to read, as they seem to think that prices should be low enough that nobody spends more than 2.5% of their income on water. Besides the obvious issue (many poor people spend far more on mobile phones or cable TV), this effort misses the obvious fact that the price of water should reflect its full cost and that the best way to help poor people is by giving them money, not cheap water.

That was all I was going to say about that article until Dr Rocket (coming soon!) pointed out our "Quixotic quest" to bring sense to California water policy.

But I think that observation is backwards. Just read this bit from Cervantes:
Just then they saw some large water-mills in the middle of the river, and as soon as don Quixote saw them, he shouted to Sancho: “Don’t you see over there, my friend, a city, castle, or fort where there must be some oppressed knight or some queen or wronged princess, for whose assistance I’ve been summoned?”

“What the devil kind of city, fort, or castle are you talking about, seƱor?” said Sancho. “Can’t you see that they’re water-mills in the river, where flour is milled?”

“Hush, Sancho,” said don Quixote, “although they appear to be water-mills, they are not, and I’ve told you that enchantments change things from their natural state. I don’t mean that the enchanters really change the form of things, but rather it just looks that way, as experience has shown in the transformation of Dulcinea, the sole refuge of my hope.”

At this point the boat, having gone into the middle of the river’s current, began to travel not as slowly as it had to that point. Many millers in the water-mills who saw the boat coming toward them down the river, realized that it was going to enter into the millrace leading to the waterwheels, jumped out with long sticks to prevent it, and since their faces and clothing were covered with flour, they were a menacing sight. They shouted loudly saying: “You devils! Where are you going? Are you depressed and want to kill yourselves and be crushed to pieces by these water wheels?”

“Didn’t I tell you, Sancho,” said don Quixote, “that we have come to a place where I must show the strength of my arm? Look at how those brigands and rogues have come to attack us. Look how many monsters are against me. Look at the ugly grimaces they’re making at us. Well, now you’ll see, you scoundrels!”

He stood up in the boat and with a very loud voice began to threaten the millers, saying: “Evil and ill-advised rabble, set the oppressed person free that you’re keeping in this fort or prison, whether he be noble or plebeian, of whatever condition or station in life. I’m don Quixote de La Mancha, also called the Knight of the Lions, for whom the happy conclusion of this adventure is reserved.”

And saying this, he clapped his hand on his sword and began to brandish it in the air toward the millers, who, hearing, but not understanding his foolish banter, tended to the business of stopping the boat, which was going into the torrent of the channel leading to the mill-wheels, with their poles. Sancho got on his knees and was praying devoutly to heaven to free him from such imminent danger. The millers, with great skill and speed pushed against the boat with their poles and stopped it, but not without turning it over and causing don Quixote and Sancho to be thrown overboard into the water. It came out all right for don Quixote, who knew how to swim like a gander, although the weight of the armor he was wearing took him to the bottom twice, and if it weren’t for the millers, who plunged in after them and took them out as dead weight, it would have been another Troy for the two of them.

When they were on shore, more drenched than dying of thirst, Sancho, once again on his knees and his hands joined in prayer, asked God, through a long and devout supplication, to free him starting right then from the daring plans and assaults of his master. At this point the fisherman, owners of the boat that the water wheels had smashed to bits, arrived, and when they saw it in pieces, they attacked Sancho so they could strip him, and demand payment from don Quixote, who, with great calmness, as if nothing had happened to him, told the millers and fisherman that he would pay for the boat very willingly, provided that they set the person or persons who were languishing in that castle free and uninjured.

“What person or castle are you talking about,” replied one of the millers, “you crazy man? Do you want to carry off the people who bring wheat to grind in these mills?”

“That’s enough,” said don Quixote to himself. “It would be like preaching in the wilderness to persuade this rabble to do anything good. In this adventure there must have been two fierce enchanters—one of them prevents what the other attempts. One of them presented me with the boat and the other threw me overboard. May God provide the remedy, for the world is filled with plots and tricks, all contrary to each other. I can’t do any more.”

And raising his voice, he proceeded, looking toward the mills: “Friends, whoever you may be who remain locked up in that prison, pardon me, for by my misfortune and yours, I cannot remove you from your afflictions. This adventure is doubtless reserved for some other knight.”

After he said this, the fishermen and he came to an agreement on the price, and don Quixote paid 50 reales for the boat, which Sancho disbursed much against his will, saying: “Two more boat trips like this one, and all our wealth will have sunk to the bottom.”

The fisherman and millers were amazed, seeing those two figures, so uncommon and different from other men. They never did understand where don Quixote’s words and questions were leading, and considering the two of them to be crazy, they left them; the millers went back to their mills and the fishermen to their huts. Don Quixote and Sancho returned to their animals, and this was the end of the adventure of the enchanted boat.
Bottom Line: Water bureaucrats -- like Don Quixote -- are fighting imaginary dragons (water mills) with their ridiculous solutions distractions while normal folks -- like Sancho Panza -- wonder how the hell they got such crazy ideas.* One day perhaps they will realize that the problem is not water affordability but water that is too cheap (leading to over-use and system decay) and poor people that are too poor.

* Yes, I know that politicians like to promise stuff they can't deliver (or that shouldn't be delivered), but bureaucrats are supposed to step that BS and keep things working.

8 Jun 2017

Free idea: Tamaguchi 2.0

You may recall the Tamaguchi craze from the late 90s, i.e., the "little digital creatures" that needed constant attention. That version was kinda annoying.

Here's an idea for Tamaguchi 2.0, an app that tracks your mobile phone habits (without collecting detailed data on words or actual apps) and then creates a "fingerprint" based on, e.g., "wake up and use phone for 10 minutes..." or "call only on weekends" etc. The idea is that everyone uses their phone in a specific way.

The app *then* hangs around and only pops up when you're using your phone in a different way, at which time it pops up and asks "how's everything? you ok?" and allows you to say "all good" or "I'm depressed" or "I'm traveling" or "I have a new partner" etc. Then the app gives a little feedback (e.g., thumbs up for travel but "maybe call a friend" for depressed)

It need not be invasive, and the data will only reside on the device, as it's unique to you.

Any app developer types out there are free to use this idea... I only ask for a thanks (and update!) if you go ahead with it :)

6 Jun 2017

Poverty is subjective, not objective

If you didn't know that already, then read this short post on how some people (usually Americans but many economists) credit success to individual effort while others (usually Europeans but many sociologists) see success as a collective outcome.

Remember Obama's "you didn't do that all by yourself" comment? It captures those diverging opinions.

Now watch this excellent TED talk by a Dutchman who really nails it.

I agree with him and that's why I support a Universal Basic Income. I think that people who live without fear of poverty will work rather than lying around eating donuts.* The difference is that they will work at jobs that they enjoy, rather than jobs that "pay the bills."

NB: Finland is 5 months into basic income trials

* An old, but sad, joke is how European colonialists got Africans to work shit jobs:

Euro dude: Hey! Want a job?

African dude: Why? I have land, food, water and shelter. Why would I work for you?

Euro dude: Well, I bought it from another white dude, so now you need to pay rent.

African dude: But I've lived here forever. Why would I pay rent?

Euro dude: Because you don't want my white dude friend to put you in jail for breaking the laws that we wrote saying that you have to pay rent.

African dude: Well that sucks. How do I get rent?

Euro dude: Work for me. Oh, and the rent it a lot, so you need to work a lot, eh?

African dude: FFS.

5 Jun 2017

Lost on Monday?

What Three Words can provide better locations than addresses in London (and definitely in less-developed places!)

3 Jun 2017

1 Jun 2017

What's up with NYC water?

PJ asks:
I am wondering if you have any resources about water usage in NYC. I have always been proud of our non-filtered, non-pumped system, however, I realized later that we were so stupid on the economics that we never even billed many people. Now we use twice as much water as the average American, at ~130 gal/person/day, though down from our 1990 peak of 200+!
So this observation gets at several related topics, i.e., cost, consumption, pricing and scarcity. I'll comment on each.

Cost recovery: Most water utilities are run (or regulated) to recover costs. Operating costs (energy, chemicals, etc.) are the smallest share (perhaps 10-20%) and thus "easy" to cover with initial revenues. Fixed investment and renewal costs are often much higher (80-90%) as well as spread over time, so they are far less likely to be covered, usually because politicians prefer "cheap water now and problems for their successors later" and tell regulators to set prices too low. (Regulators of municipal or investor owned utilities have the same job; ownership isn't really the problem.) Finally, there are "opportunity costs" that are missed most of the time by managers who do not consider environmental impacts, etc. I wrote a good column on those here.

Water consumption: Forget "dirt cheap" -- water is way cheaper at about $1 per m^3 (1,000 liters) delivered to your house. (10 cubic yards of dirt, or 7.5 cubic meters, costs $320 at Home Depot, which is $42/m^3 without delivery!) That low price -- assuming a water meter! -- means that most people don't think about how much water they consume. They just use what "feels right" and pay the bill. Most water "conservation" has come from water-efficient appliances (an idea Trump is trying to kill) more than people changing their habits.

Water pricing: In the past, most people paid a flat charge for water (I do in Amsterdam) instead of a volumetric charge based on metered use. That system makes sense where people are unlikely to "waste" water on yards but it doesn't help people patch leaks, etc. I'm a big fan of metered pricing where discretionary use is a problem (anywhere with lawns). Read this post on how to price water or this paper on the introduction of water metering in the UK.

Water scarcity: Excess demand relative to supply means that scarcity is present and ongoing scarcity can lead to shortages, e.g., when Sao Paulo nearly ran out of water (drought, leaking system, cheap prices) or in California (mismanaged rights, weak controls on groundwater use, subsidies to lawns, etc.) Scarcity is a local issue so it doesn't always pay to worry about it in places with plenty of water (e.g., Amsterdam and perhaps New Amsterdam NYC), but we do need to remember that human water use always has environmental impacts.

Bottom Line: PJ doesn't really need to worry about NYC running out of water, but that's more because the system is still running within capacity, not necessarily because New Yorkers are the biggest environmentalists. Unfortunately, many other parts of the world are facing water shortages because they do not maintain their systems, charge customers too little or price water without regard to scarcity.