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.