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