Interesting stuff

  1. Read: Skyrocketing [flood insurance] premiums have angered and worried residents across flood-prone states such as Louisiana…”How is that fair, that we’re just going to say that the price of insurance is going to cause you to have to move away?” ¡That’s the fucking point of high prices, amigo! To help you see that it’s important to move AWAY from risk.
  2. Read about the “complications” (=money) of cleaning up oil and gas equipment from the North Sea. Will CCS rescue them? Only on paper. Will government subsidies help? Not really, given they are already 75% of the costs!
  3. Read of the failures as higher ed faces GPT
  4. Melatonin is not “harmless.” Read how kids are overdosing on gummies filled with [zero to too much] melatonin.
  5. Online sellers are ending free returns as costs skyrocket and (physical) competition wanes. Will paid returns lead to lower sales? More accurate product descriptions? Read this.
  6. Read: Brussels (!) is moving away from cars to favor more bikes!
  7. Read: A tech-optimist turns pessimist: The Mindset (“the way Silicon Valley technocrats think”) is about a strategy of acceleration without a destination…these solutions usually involve finding new resources, exploiting them, selling them, and then disposing of them so more can be mined, manufactured, and sold.
  8. Watch and weep: Home owners associations can get out of hand.
  9. Read: (Internet) rankings are getting out of control, they are gamed, and some people take them too seriously. Time to return to word-of-mouth?
  10. Think: Is your health worse because you’re eating (ultra) processed food?

Review: Becoming Trader Joe

This 2021 book by Joe Coulombe (with assistance from Patty Civalleri) tells how Coulombe transformed a few markets into the Trader Joe’s juggernaut that so many of us “overeducated, underpaid” folks adore.  These folks are now called Bobos.

Joe was going after exactly that demographic in the 1960s, because he wanted to avoid head-to-head competition with the big chains.

The book is sharp and witty — it reminded me of Alchemy, another book by a maverick who continually undermines the conventional wisdom.

I’m not going to give my typical list of quotations in this review. Instead I will summarize a bit:

  1. Anyone in retail management should read this book. Joe has a lot of experience in making the unconventional the norm, often for entirely wrong reasons.
  2. Joe decided to pay his staff very well, and then he had to find ways to generate enough cash to make payroll. Luckily, his well-paid employees made all of that possible.
  3. Trader Joes (TJs) started off as a liquor store with a huge range of booze. That was profitable when alcohol laws were so weird. Then he shifted (too far) into health foods. Finally, he “got it right” by emphasizing high volumes, own brands, and low prices. (“Retail” comes from retailler, French for “cutting into pieces.”)
  4. His low prices were often the result of taking on “weird” products and packaging sizes, but also by taking the entire harvest/production. He made those profitable by minimizing the number of SKUs (stock keeping units) and maximizing volume. They didn’t need to refrigerate products that were selling too fast to go bad!
  5. The “Fearless Flyer” newsletter had a lot of information and advice, and it helped TJs shift these weird products to customers. “Normal” supermarkets were wrapped up in discounting with coupons and depending on advertising subsidies from manufacturers. What a shit show.
  6. My favorite product (mentioned in the book) is Heisenberg’s Uncertain Blend of coffee, which bagged all the “beans that got away” at the big roasters. Customers never knew what they were getting, but they were paying half the price of “standard” beans 🙂
  7. My economist friends will appreciate (or run in fear) from Joe’s emphasis on surprises and discontinuities, as in “focus on discontinuities in supplies” to get deals… and rush customers to “buy it before it’s gone”!
  8.  Joe is a humble guy in this book. He admits mistakes when he doesn’t need to. That’s a good sign of respect for his employees. He’s also old school in terms of avoiding excess bureaucracy and political correctness. I am also ok with that.
  9. More on discontinuity: Because TJs got started in wine, they had to deal with different vintages from different manufacturers. Some were good, some were bad, but all were different. When TJs turned to foods, they were ready to sell “too large” eggs and other non-homogenous commodity products. Customers loved the hunt… and the low prices. (Joe is a huge fan of Grocery Outlet, another discontinuous retailer I love.)
  10. Joe has an excellent sense of real estate — for his shops and also his shoppers. Lots of excellent insights that delivered exceptional profitability.
  11. His ideas on “double entry retailing” (demand-side factors such as location and price need to balance supply-side factors such as employees and landlords) are really interesting as a means of stimulating creative thinking, i.e., if one side changes, the other has to compensate. How?
  12. Joe sold TJs to Aldi (Nord) in 1979 and stepped down in 1988. He did a lot of consulting and turn arounds before he really retired. He died in 2020 after what was a massively successful career (and what appears to be an equally happy personal life). RIP.

Great read. FIVE STARS.

Here are all my reviews.

Interesting stuff

  1. Listen to this discussion of the “end” (next phase) of digital media, which  sometimes includes journalism.
  2. Read about the struggles of street vendors in cities where temperatures are hitting 48C at sunrise (that’s 118Freedum units). Climate chaos hits the poorest the hardest.
  3. Read about the complexities of recycling buildings (“circular” seems to mean going around in circles, trying to figure out what to do…) Related: A con man helps companies steal $1 billion from the US government via fraudulent green tax deductions.
  4. Read about a writing tutor’s delusional failure to understand how GPT will take his job. Related: Listen to how GPTs will make out lives better — unless a model helps us understand otherwise.
  5. Listen to the author of Paving Paradise, i.e., how parking destroyed LA and other US cities.
  6. MSG is better for you than salt?!? Read on.
  7. Listen to a young female data scientist helping people get out of jail safely, and on time.
  8. Read about San Francisco’s Doom Loop (everyone’s leaving because everyone’s leaving)
  9. Read about the tire supply chain’s complexities.
  10. AI won’t take our jobs. It will force us [“knowledge workers”] to compete in generating filler “content.” Welcome to more crappy writing.

Review: Coffee: A Global History

I got a copy of this 2018 book by Jonathan Morris because I wanted to learn more about the topic (in the same vein of Salt, a book I still need to read). I chose it from a list of similar titles because I wanted a “straight” story, and Morris is an historian.

Well the book delivered, in some expected and surprising (good or bad) ways:

The first chapter has a clear description of the many steps between plant, bean and cup. Dry but useful for those of us unaware of all the work that goes into a cup.

The next chapters trace the development of coffee growing, trading and drinking, starting in the Islamic world (coffee came to Yemen from Ethiopia and spread from there), expanding as a colonial good (slavery included), an industrial product (Americans drank a majority of the world’s traded coffee from the 18th century), global commodity (Vietnam challenges Brazil) and specialty beverage (hipsters unite!). The book ends with some slightly wonky recipes.

Here are 41 (!) interesting things I learned from this book (quotes in italics):

  1. Coffee was “put on trial” in Mecca, with the prosecution claiming it was a drug that — like alcohol — intoxicated. The defense claimed its effects helped one get closer to Allah. They won, somewhat due to the judges (imams) already being addicted to coffee.
  2. The coffee house’s appeal lay in providing the first legitimate public space for socialization among Muslim men. At night, convention demanded that decent people should eat at home, so the only places open were those with dubious reputations – the wine taverns and establishments selling boza, a mildly alcoholic malt beverage made with fermented cereals.
  3. The advent of the coffee house created possibilities for new forms of social interaction. Previously, entertaining others would have involved inviting them to one’s house, providing a banquet, probably prepared by servants, and entailing the display of possessions (and probably wife), all of which created a distinction between host and guest. Now one could meet peers at a coffee house, and exchange hospitality on a more equal footing through the simple expedient of buying each other cups of coffee.
  4. The coffee houses’ success reflected a shift in the social and political structures of the Ottoman Empire. The centralized, hierarchical administration model gave way to a society in which power was fragmented, elites divided and religious and secular ideologies contested. The coffee house, where one could address anyone directly and engage in open conversation, became a symbol of this new culture.
  5. Part of Ataturk’s programme for Turkey’s modernization during the twentieth century’s first half was converting it into a teadrinking country, substituting a beverage made from locally grown produce for an expensive import.
  6. Europeans often sought to rescue the beverage from its Muslim associations by reimagining its past… The Englishman Sir Henry Blount claimed it was the Spartans’ black broth drunk before battles. By locating coffee among the ancient Greeks, they effectively claimed it for European civilization, and reminded contemporaries of coffee-drinking Christians within the Ottoman borders. There is, though, no evidence that Pope Clemente VIII tasted coffee and baptized it as a Christian beverage in the 1600s, although the story’s widespread circulation suggests those with a stake in the coffee trade wished he had done so.
  7. Regulations protecting the apothecary trade [!!] probably account for the late appearance of the first café allowed to serve coffee in Venice in 1683.
  8. …adding milk to the coffee, with customers using a colour chart to indicate their desired shade. This was the origin of the Kapuziner, a beverage the colour of the Capuchin monks’ tunic. As well as sweetening (or perhaps masking) the taste, milk symbolically transformed the black Muslim brew into a white Christian confection.
  9. The term ‘virtuosi’ described gentlemen possessed of intellectual curiosity about cultural novelties, rarities and the fledgling field of empirical, quasi-scientific enquiry associated with figures such as Francis Bacon. As virtuosi were not courtiers, they were free to learn about new phenomena and discuss them within the so-called ‘penny universities’ – the price coffee houses charged for a dish of coffee.
  10. Coffee’s association with the coffee house may have held back its adoption in the home. The coffee house was essentially a male environment in which talking to strangers was encouraged. The only women present were either serving or ‘servicing’ the customer’s needs. The Women’s Petition against Coffee – a 1674 condemnation of both coffee and coffee houses on the grounds that they kept men away from the home and rendered them impotent – was probably sponsored by brewers keen to recapture lost customers, but it played on this gender division.
  11. Women might take tea together, either at home, or publicly in tea gardens where the open-air settings conferred a visibility, rendering them respectable places for ladies.
  12. The 8,000-plus gin palaces in London outnumbered coffee houses by some eighty to one.
  13. By 1720 there were in the region of 280 cafés in Paris, rising to around 1,000 in 1750 and 1,800 in 1790, serving a population of approximately 650,000
  14. The Low Countries witnessed an even more rapid adoption of coffee among both sexes and throughout the classes. Coffee-making equipment was frequently found among probate inventories of lower-class and middling households in eighteenth-century Amsterdam. As early as 1726 it was claimed coffee ‘has broken through so generally in our land that maids and seamstresses now have to have their coffee in the morning or they cannot put their thread through the eye of their needle’
  15. Regular shipments from Java to Holland began in 1711, enabling Amsterdam to establish the first European coffee exchange. In 1721, 90 per cent of the coffee on the Amsterdam market originated in the Yemen; by 1726, 90 per cent was supplied from Java. Deliveries from the island continued to increase until the middle of the century, but tailed off as new plantations in the Caribbean took over. The Dutch were partly responsible for this. In 1712 they introduced coffee to Suriname, a colonial enclave on the northeastern coastline of mainland Latin America, bordering the Caribbean Sea. Exports began in 1721 and surpassed those from Java by the 1740s. In Suriname, cultivators had no option but to produce coffee – the crop was grown on plantations tended by slave labour.
  16. [After Haiti won its independence,] over a thousand coffee plantations were destroyed… Although new farms were established, the coffee trade was effectively lost because European states and the USA shunned Haiti for fear of legitimizing black rule.
  17. The first drip-brewing apparatus appeared in the early nineteenth century.
  18. The Dutch colonial authorities … required peasant households to set aside a portion of their land or labour to cultivate commercial crops sold exclusively to the state. The autobiographical novel Max Havelaar, penned by a former administrator in 1860, showed how peasants starved while the Dutch indulged their indigent lords. By the 1880s, 60 per cent of Java’s peasant households were forced to grow coffee. Tending to the trees took up 15 per cent of their time, yet generated only 4 per cent of their income, due to the low fixed prices.
  19. Hills Brothers, a San Francisco company, introduced vacuum-packed coffee in 1900.
  20. Coffee cemented its position as America’s national beverage during the early twentieth century as consumption reached 5 kilograms (11 lb) per capita. The United States now imported well over half of the world’s coffee supply, and roasters positioned their brands as inherently American with names such as ‘Buffalo’ and ‘Dining Car Special’. 
  21. By the mid-1870s more than 75 per cent of the coffee consumed in the United States came from Brazil. NB: Coffee got a huge boost during the US Civil War, when it was given to troops to improve morale.
  22. This ‘valorization’ of the coffee price orchestrated by Brazilian authorities [restricting supply to increase prices] was a significant moment in coffee’s history: it was the first time producer countries had dictated trade terms to consumer nations. It caused outrage in the U.S… The São Paulo state started an agency to organize coffee interests, which was subsequently transformed into the national Instituto Brasileiro do Café (IBC).
  23. To increase consumption of coffee — a crop whose production Brazil dominated — the IBC opened Brazilian coffee houses around the world. I visited on in Alexandria in 1997:
  24. El Salvador, vagrancy laws were used to force native populations from their lands and turn them into labourers on plantation-style estates. This generated a class of coffee oligarchs, effectively controlling the country, creating inequalities and conflicts that persisted throughout the twentieth century. In 1932 a revolt of impoverished coffee workers resulted in the Matanza (massacre) of tens of thousands of indigenous Salvadorans by government forces.
  25. Advertisers played on consumers’ lack of confidence about coffee. Coffee was regarded as representing the house-hold to outsiders, so they created anxiety about its quality. Getting it right was presented as vital to domestic harmony – no new bride wants to live in a ‘home without success’.
  26. Munitions workers proved more productive when allowed the new ‘coffee breaks’. These were introduced throughout the military. The practice spread into post-war civilian life, with around 60 per cent of factories adopting it by the mid-1950s. This was partly a consequence of the Pan-American Coffee Bureau’s heavy promotional campaign in favour of workplace coffee breaks. It also advocated ‘coffee breaks on the road’, arguing that coffee kept drivers alert in an increasingly motorized America.
  27. Immediately following the Second World War, U.S. consumption levels per capita reached an all-time peak of over 8.6 kilograms (19 lb) per person for those over ten years old. Latin America was producing 85 per cent of the world’s output and sending 70 per cent of it to the U.S., where coffee was now consumed in virtually every household. The concept of the American ‘cup of Joe’ – a term for ‘ordinary coffee’ that first appeared in the 1930s – was firmly established. This presented as a thin-bodied, weak-flavoured coffee served in a comparatively large volume to accompany meals. Its taste [dz: sic] profile reflected the blandness of the Brazilian beans at its base, the over-extracted coffee that resulted from brewing with a percolator, and the parsimoniousness of American housewives with the quantities of coffee they used.
  28. Kenyan government retained the Coffee Board’s central auction system, whereby exporters purchased lots classified according to cup characteristics, and growers received the average price for their class, thereby rewarding quality. By contrast, in newly independent Tanzania, coffee was sold by the Coffee Board in homogeneous lots, and quickly lost its reputation.
  29. It took Nestlé research scientist Max Morgenthaler over six years to come up with a palatable soluble coffee [Nescafe].
  30. At a trade fair in Thessaloniki, Greece, in 1957, a Nescafé representative mixed instant powder and cold water in a cocoa drink shaker, creating a thick foam. Diluted with more water and served over ice, it proved very refreshing. The company began promoting this new use, which was adopted by young Greeks, becoming a symbol of the outdoor lifestyle. Frappé became Greece’s national summer beverage [much to my chagrin].
  31. Applying pressure to the brewing process speeded up the extraction time, enabling a fresh cup of coffee to be prepared ‘expressly’ for each customer. The first commercially produced machine was the La Pavoni Ideale. I have a La Pavoni Europiccola, which I was able to date to 1992. What a machine!
  32. During the 1998-2003 “coffee crisis” [pdf] in which supply far outdistanced demand due to the entry of Vietnam into the market and break down of coffee quotas among producers, many Mexican growers gave up and attempted to illegally enter the U.S., often perishing in the attempt. Political conflicts intensified, with peasants in Chiapas, the centre of Mexican coffee production, supporting the Zapatista guerrilla movement’s rebellion against the government. Even in Vietnam, some farmers were forced to sell possessions to satisfy debt collectors. Poverty levels in the Central Highlands reached 50 per cent, with 30 per cent of the population suffering from hunger and malnutrition. Robusta’s price fell from 83 cents in 1998 to just 28 cents in 2001. 
  33. The paradox that the so-called ‘latte revolution’, characterized by the rapid growth of coffee shops charging premium prices, coincided with the coffee crisis, provoked criticism of consuming ‘poverty in your coffee cup’. Others, though, saw this new phenomenon as an opportunity to recast coffee as a ‘specialty beverage’, facilitating its de-commodification, and the generation of greater revenues throughout the value chain.
  34. Independent roasters saw their numbers fall from around 1,500 in 1945 to 162 in 1972. To survive they evolved an alternative business strategy. Rather than price, they would compete on quality, enabling them to increase profit margins on their beans. Their approach suited a consumer economy in which different social groups had started using their purchases to convey messages about their lifestyles, values and tastes. These might include demonstrating sophistication or wealth; adherence to ‘alternative’, anti-corporate values; or a preference for ‘authentic’ artisan goods. Hipsters had entered the chat.
  35. Schultz trumpeted Starbucks as an exemplar of a ‘third place’ between work and home in which – as the sociologist Ray Oldenburg describes it – informal contacts between unrelated people create a sense of community. Behavioural studies, however, find little evidence of conversations being initiated between strangers: the attraction of the coffee shop lies in being surrounded by people without having to engage with them. The continuing advances of digital technologies – the laptop computer, the mobile phone, the wireless Internet connection – allow individuals to continue working, or engage in social media conversation, while ‘consuming’ the coffee shop ambience.
  36. Starbucks wanted to brew the same beverages consistently, hence Swiss super-automatic push-button espresso machines replaced the traditional Italian equipment in 1999. Celebrities were paid to be ‘found’ and photographed sipping coffee from branded takeaway cups. Starbucks maintained itself as the hegemonic brand within the coffee shop sector, and was so dominant that it effectively defined what consumers understood the coffee shop concept to mean.
  37. The first wave of mass-market roasters had ‘made bad coffee commonplace’. The original specialty operators ‘started destination shops with small roasting operations . . . serving espresso’, but their format was eclipsed by second wave giants such as Starbucks who ‘want to automate or homogenize specialty coffee’. The third wave would pursue a ‘no rules’ approach to crafting outstanding coffee.
  38. The third wave can best be described as a form of transnational ‘subculture’, with its own mix of philosophies, iconic brands, fanzine-style publications and key influencers. The Internet has made this possible, enabling micro-roasters to find customers around the country – so-called ‘prosumers’ – to discuss the best ways to customize their machinery, and connoisseurs to read the latest coffee reviews online. Watch James and find out 🙂
  39. In 1988 Solidaridad, a Dutch religious organization, established the Max Havelaar label – named after the novel denouncing the colonial coffee trade in Java. It started purchasing from producer cooperatives, initially in Mexico, and marketing the coffee in Germany and the Netherlands… In 1997 Fairtrade International was established to unite the various national schemes.
  40. By 2013 around 40 per cent of coffee’s global production was in accordance with some form of certification standard. Enthusiasts have argued that this represents one of the greatest triumphs of imposing social responsibility on global capitalism. Critics say this is a triumph of public relations, enabling the coffee industry to simultaneously monetize consumers’ ethical concerns while engaging in ‘virtue signalling’.
  41. Proudly independent? JAB, the Luxembourg-based private equity company whose portfolio of coffee brands includes JDE (Jacobs Douwe Egberts), has also invested in specialty, acquiring Peets and the ‘third wave’ chains Intelligentsia and Stumptown, as well as Keurig.

I recommend this book for its strengths in presenting facts and history in a unified, sensical analysis. I recommend The Coffee Trader for readers looking for more drama. FOUR STARS.

Here are all my reviews.

Interesting stuff

  1. Listen: Care Work in the United States Has Been Broken for Years
  2. Read: Smarter parking policies will help drivers… and everyone else
  3. Read: The Great Electrician Shortage: Going green will depend on blue-collar workers. Can we train enough of them before time runs out?
  4. Listen to Eliezer Yudkowsky on the Dangers of AI — I think there’s a lot of truth here, but I think it’s going to be more like a cancer than a heart attack.
  5. Read How to Build (And Destroy) a Social Network (by taking away prestige — something far more valuable than Musk and Trump realize. Case in point: AI is about to make social media (much) more toxic.
  6. Read (and apply?) the Viking laws for battle, business and community [no idea if these are real]
  7. Read: Faulty Memory Is a Feature, Not a Bug
  8. Lolz… This AI summary of my recent talk (taken from the audio) is not just full of typos but also mis-interpretations. Zoom-AI is not going to take over the world, it’s just going to confuse a lot of people:

    David Setland is a professor at Lyon University College who teaches in governance, economics, and development nature. He has a Phd in agriculture and resource economics from California University of California and has worked in various countries including Canada, Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, and the US. He is known for his work on water scarcity and governance. In this talk, he discusses how he got involved with the Ostroms and how they got involved in urban governance. David analyzes spatial data from Amsterdam to understand how the city manages parking. In 1992, Amsterdam voted to remove 4,000 illegal parking places to make the city nearly car-free. This led to the creation of Audulu, which is the Dutch call for nearly car free parking. David is discussing the high cost of parking in Amsterdam. He explains that parking is expensive because 80-90% of parking spaces are taken, so residents have to pay for them. He recommends that parking be more expensive so that people find other ways to get around. David gives an overview of the situation in Amsterdam and how the city is trying to improve the bike-car ratio. Ilkhom asks a question about the number of parking permits and how they are being used. David explains that the permits are for people who have a lot of parking and that the city does not have a strategy for reducing them. Haller and David discuss the process of selecting and managing parking permits in Amsterdam. They discuss the pros and cons of a centralized, institutional parking system and the possibility of a neighborhood-based system where residents and business owners negotiate who gets a permit to park.

H/T to TJ

Review: The Geography of Risk

I bought this 2019 book (subtitle: Epic Storms, Rising Seas, and the Cost of America’s Coasts) by Gilbert M. Gaul on the recommendation of Chris Daly, a Jive Talk guest.

The book, in short, explains how land developers on the East Coast of the US have — with government support — built more and more housing in places that are less and less safe from storm surges, “rain bombs” and river flooding. Rising risk, in other words, is getting worse not just with the increasing impacts of climate change but also the increasing share of housing built in unsafe locations.

Here are some excerpts (italics) and my notes:

  1. The mayors and politicians like to call hurricanes ‘natural’ disasters,” he said. “But in my opinion, there’s nothing natural about them. They are man-made. Barrier islands are always moving. Beaches are always eroding. It’s only a problem when you put a house there.
  2. Those houses are… backed by an array of federal and state programs that provide inexpensive financing and tax breaks; offer heavily subsidized flood insurance; underwrite roads, bridges, and utilities; and distribute billions more in disaster aid to help beach towns rebuild after hurricanes and floods—setting the stage for a seemingly endless loop of government payouts. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that without the federal government, the coast as we know it simply wouldn’t exist.
  3. In the 1950s, the federal government covered just 5 percent of the cost of rebuilding after hurricanes. Today, it pays for 70 percent. And in some cases, it pays for 100 percent. It is no accident that the federalization of disasters coincided with the explosive development at the coasts.
  4. The “reclamation” oxymoron (why “re-” when the land was always under water?): In the 1940s and 1950s, there were no environmental rules, let alone building codes or master plans to guide development. If a developer had a few dollars (it literally required only dollars), he could buy the rights to the land beneath the marsh, fill it with mud and dirt, and erect a house on top.
  5. The [New Jersey shore] mayors liked the idea of widening their beaches, especially if the state was going to pay. But they hated Hughes’s proposed ban on new development and giving large swaths of their beaches back to the public. There was too much money at stake, and restricting development threatened their tax bases. The debate shifted away from retreating out of harm’s way to getting the federal government to pay as much as possible toward the recovery.
  6. The Ash Wednesday Storm [of 1962] powerfully recast the politics of coastal disasters, sharply expanding federal aid and leading to the creation of new programs, including government-backed flood insurance several years later, not to mention helping to instill a growing expectation among Americans that the federal government would always be there to rescue them after hurricanes, floods, and other disasters, including aid for beach resorts and second homes. In this sense, the Ash Wednesday Storm represents a pivot point in the evolution of the nation’s coasts, shifting some of the risk of rebuilding from private homeowners to the public, and encouraging a dangerous and costly pattern of building, damage, and rebuilding in harm’s way.
  7. The story of New Jersey’s failures to manage building at the beach and along its coastal waterways mirrors the larger story of the nation’s coasts. Time and again, private interests and money have trumped sound environmental policies and public interests, whether it is restricting access to the beach or limiting risky development.
  8. Kahrl blames “coastal capitalism,” along with the powerful forces of segregation, for driving away African American families and transforming the coasts into “whites-only summer destinations — and dead communities in the off season.
  9. Instead of focusing on climate change, policymakers should address “the ever-growing concentration of population and wealth in vulnerable coastal regions.” The researchers then pivoted to the question of risk. “Rapidly escalating hurricane damage in recent decades owes much to government policies that serve to subsidize risk,” not to mention “political pressures that hold down [flood insurance] premiums in risky coastal areas.”
  10. While disaster aid provides humanitarian benefits, they wrote, it also serves “to promote risky behavior in the long run… A smarter approach would be to build smaller, cheaper houses, he suggested. “That’s what they do in the Philippines and Taiwan, which are battered every year by bigger typhoons. You see a handful of fortresses built for a Category 5 [typhoon]. Everything else is a shanty, plywood shacks so poor people can go out there, nothing of value. Every few years, they blow away, and so what? It’s a pretty smart adaptation, actually… As the population and wealth of the United States has increased in coastal locations, it has invariably led to growth in exposure and vulnerability of coastal property along the U.S. Gulf and East coasts.” 
  11. In the last two decades [2000-2020], hurricanes and coastal storms have caused over three-quarters of a trillion dollars in damage at the coast—far more than earthquakes, tornadoes, and wildfires combined. That represents a nearly sixfold increase from the prior two decades (1980–1990 2000).
  12. The report that White delivered to the Johnson administration in 1966 was ambitious yet cautionary. Yes, a government-backed flood insurance program was feasible, but only under a number of strict conditions. First, insurance had to be closely linked to rigorous land-use policies limiting future development in floodplains. Second, the government had to price its premiums at levels reflecting the actual risk of flooding; anything less would be fiscally reckless. Third, the government shouldn’t offer subsidies to policyholders, because they would distort the market and incite even more risky development. And fourth, the government should test its program in one or two markets to see whether it worked before offering flood insurance nationwide. These conditions were ignored.
  13. Floods are an act of God; flood damages result from the acts of man,” White wrote in the task force report. “Those who occupy the floodplain should be responsible for the results of their actions…
  14. Over its troubled fifty-year history, the National Flood Insurance Program has lost $40 billion, including claims from Harvey, Irma, and Maria in 2017. No investor-owned insurance company would be in business with such poor risk management.
  15. Krimm speculated that private insurance agents may have sold flood insurance to owners of beach houses [second homes] without the government’s knowledge to boost the overall number of flood policies… Curiously, FEMA officials told me they don’t know how many second homes they insure. In 2015, a spokeswoman informed me that they don’t track the data that way and that it would be expensive to run a computer search to identify the beach houses.
  16. Craig Fugate suggested to me that it may be time for the federal government to get out of the flood business… “You know who our biggest opponent was who got this killed? It was the National Association of Realtors. What the hell? Are you that wedded to selling property in the flood zone? They said it would be detrimental to home sales. Property values would plummet.” Just another case of privatize the profits, socialize the losses. Indeed, this recent article says “Accounting for flood risk would lower American house prices by $187bn.”
  17. The Army Corps of Engineers didn’t set out to be in the beach-building business. For years, the engineers fought efforts to add beach repairs to their mission statement. But eventually, coastal interests won the engineers over, thanks in part to the efforts of an engaging and persistent lobbyist from New Jersey who convinced them that beach erosion wasn’t only a local issue; it was a national threat.. that have cost the taxpayers $32 million for each mile of NJ beach in front of millionaires’ mansions. The Corps has no problem with this, as they like building things.
  18. By building in harm’s way, humans had created a “self-inflicted problem,” an internal Corps history notes. The nation’s shorelines were now viewed “as a recreational resource and a producer of profit. Increasingly, the ocean generally, and the waves in particular, became depicted as ‘enemies’—threats, which had to be controlled to the greatest extent possible.” According to the Corps history, Smith and the ASBPA were maneuvering to get the engineers involved in beach repairs. “Rather than seeing coastal erosion as a natural phenomenon and taking full cognizance of this fact when developing shore sites, some other explanation was sought … to account for this force which was now destroying valuable property.” Colonel Earl Ivan Brown complained that private interests were looking to the federal government as a “source of easy money … to force the federal government to assume the burden of shore protection.
  19. There is a beach economy. But it is different from the one depicted in the studies. Most of the money is associated with real estate and construction [not “community”]. The tourism jobs touted in the studies—retail clerks, cooks, dishwashers, lifeguards, waiters—are seasonal and low-wage. Meanwhile, many beach towns are losing year-round jobs as populations tumble and barrier-island resorts transition from places where people live and work to seasonal communities of second homes and investment properties. 
  20. Tampa is the proverbial disaster waiting to happen…Hurricane Ian (2022) was a powerful Category 5 Atlantic hurricane which was the third-costliest weather disaster on record, and the deadliest hurricane to strike the state of Florida since the 1935 Labor Day hurricane.
  21. The entire coastline of the Netherlands is smaller than Florida’s. At least half the nation was at or below sea level. The Dutch couldn’t retreat to higher ground because, well, there was no higher ground. Rising water and powerful storms posed an existential threat. So they planned accordingly, spending billions each year keeping water out of their cities. There was even a national tax to pay for water defenses, though no government flood insurance. If a community decided to build in a floodplain, it had to pay for its own defense, unlike Americans, who richly subsidize risky development and then lurch from disaster to disaster. Dutch engineers also continually reassess their approach. Lately, they have begun to shift away from building barriers, levees, and surge protectors in favor of using green spaces, parks, and other public land to harbor floodwater until it recedes.
  22. This is fine: In the last three years alone, Houston had twice thrice experienced five-hundred-year rainfalls.
  23. This being Texas, there was no such thing as zoning and, for decades, very few rules governing building. Crucially, there were also no federal flood maps until the 1980s, by which point developers had already filled many of the wetlands, prairies, and rice fields with town houses, condominiums, and suburban housing tracts… Harvey underscored how the risks at the coast are not limited to waves, storm surge, and wind. Torrential rainstorms fueled by rising temperatures and the oversaturated atmosphere are becoming increasingly common, and not only in Houston. Even if the engineers armor the nation’s coasts, that won’t save Houston, Charleston, Miami, or New York City when the next rain bomb stalls out there, unleashing the next epochal deluge.
  24. North Carolina had enjoyed a reputation as a national leader in coastal management, even embracing rules limiting oceanfront development. But after conservative Republicans took control of the state capitol, the politics turned ugly, and they began rolling back rules. In 2012, they criticized the committee’s findings on sea-level rise as unfriendly to business and rejected the science as unproven estimates—even though the report closely mirrored the estimates of esteemed national panels. What next? A ban on gravity?!
  25. How did you defend so much shoreline and so many houses? You could begin by restoring the lost marsh and wetlands, as they were doing in Louisiana and Mississippi. You could elevate the houses and roads. Or you could try to prevent the water from getting into the bays by constructing huge steel gates and seawalls, as was currently being planned in Galveston and New York City. But the cost was enormous. A single gate in front of a small inlet could easily run $100 million, while the tab for a far larger wall, such as the proposed Ike Dike, could cost upward of $31 billion. The engineers could spin out their solutions. But someone was going to have to pay.
  26. What is the best way to fix thousands of miles of broken, vulnerable shorelines? One of the attendees, a Corps engineer no less, had scribbled across the top of his questionnaire “Stop spending money and leave.”

I strongly recommend this book to anyone living on the coast, or a river, or where rain falls (so, yeah, everyone). US taxpayers need to know their taxes subsidize vacation properties. US homeowners need to know risks are not “priced in.” US citizens need to know government policy is not protecting them. “Do your own research” (read this book) because US politicians are screwing over most citizens. FIVE STARS.

Here are all my reviews.

Interesting stuff

  1. This guy’s story of walking around the world in seven years echoes my five years of travel — except I got help from trains, busses and an occasional plane 😉
  2. Swearing Is More Important Than You Think. Fuck yeah!
  3. Read: Many public crusaders are private reactionaries, e.g., “help the poor but don’t build housing in my neighborhood”
  4. Read how the EU’s “Covid recovery fund” (its real purpose is sustainability, just as the IRA in the US is not really about inflation) is being used to “stimulate” reforms that are either (a) already done or (b) legally required.
  5. Read: Globalisation now means “hustlers” in rich countries hiring (virtual) personal assistants in poorer countries (e.g., Philippines) to handle their crap.
  6. Watch Lubach [in Dutch] on the agro-businesses that are behind (“astroturfing”) opposition to scaling down The Netherlands’s intensive agriculture. Related: Climate town on how “expiration dates,” which have no legal definition, lead to consumers — and worse, markets — throwing away millions of tons of edible food.
  7. Watch this forester explain plantation vs old-growth forest ecosystems
  8. Learn from The Economist‘s clear definitions of economic jargon
  9. Read about the collapse of public transportation in US cities (hint: land developers).
  10. Cities are experimenting with converting commercial/office space to residential spaces, which requires more than installing kitchens (neighborhoods anyone?). At the same time as remote work empties those buildings, younger workers (and esp. non-white-men) losing the benefits of working alongside their elders.  The “water cooler” does have an important role.

Review: Slouching towards Bethlehem

I ran across this book while on holiday in California. I had heard of Didion (1934-2021), but I did not know she was “an observer of California in the 50s and 60s.”

This collection of short stories (“Slouching towards Bethlehem” is one) provide  interesting snapshots of life in places where I lived decades later.

Didion’s lovely writing is the highlight of this book, so here are some quotations:

  • The future always looks good in the golden land [Southern California], because no one remembers the past. Here is where the hot wind blows and the old ways do not seem relevant, where the divorce rate is double the national average and where one person in every thirty-eight lives in a trailer. Here is the last stop for all those who come from somewhere else, for all those who drifted away from the cold and the past and the old ways. Here is where they are trying to find a new life style, trying to find it in the only places they know to look: the movies and the newspapers. –“Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” (1966)
  • By July 8, the conventional tensions of love and money had reached the conventional impasse in the new house on the acre lot at 8488 Bella Vista, and Lucille Miller filed for divorce. Within a month, however, the Millers seemed reconciled. They saw a marriage counselor. They talked about a fourth child. It seemed that the marriage had reached the traditional truce, the point at which so many resign themselves to cutting both their losses and their hopes. — “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” (1966)
  • She [Joan Baez, who grew up in Palo Alto (!)] could reach an audience in a way that neither the purists nor the more commercial folksingers seemed to be able to do. If her interest was never in the money, neither was it really in the music: she was interested instead in something that went on between her and the audience. “The easiest kind of relationship for me is with ten thousand people,” she said. “The hardest is with one.” — “Where the Kissing Never Stops” (1966)
  • That we have made a hero of Howard Hughes tells us something interesting about ourselves, something only dimly remembered, tells us that the secret point of money and power in America is neither the things that money can buy nor power for power’s sake (Americans are uneasy with their possessions, guilty about power, all of which is difficult for Europeans to perceive because they are themselves so truly materialistic, so versed in the uses of power), but absolute personal freedom, mobility, privacy. It is the instinct which drove America to the Pacific, all through the nineteenth century, the desire to be able to find a restaurant open in case you want a sandwich, to be a free agent, live by one’s own rules. — “7000 Romaine, Los Angeles 38” (1967)
  • All of these [wedding] services, like most others in Las Vegas (sauna baths, payroll-check cashing, chinchilla coats for sale or rent) are offered twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, presumably on the premise that marriage, like craps, is a game to be played when the table seems hot. — Marrying Absurd (1967)
  • Although I have felt compelled to write things down since I was five years old, I doubt that my daughter ever will, for she is a singularly blessed and accepting child, delighted with life exactly as life presents itself to her, unafraid to go to sleep and unafraid to wake up. Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss. — “On Keeping a Notebook” (1966)
  • …the most disturbing aspect of “morality” seems to me to be the frequency with which the word now appears; in the press, on television, in the most perfunctory kinds of conversation. Questions of straightforward power (or survival) politics, questions of quite indifferent public policy, questions of almost anything: they are all assigned these factitious moral burdens. There is something facile going on, some self-indulgence at work. Of course we would all like to “believe” in something, like to assuage our private guilts in public causes, like to lose our tiresome selves; like, perhaps, to transform the white flag of defeat at home into the brave white banner of battle away from home. And of course it is all right to do that; that is how, immemorially, things have gotten done. But I think it is all right only so long as we do not delude ourselves about what we are doing, and why. It is all right only so long as we remember that all the ad hoc committees, all the picket lines, all the brave signatures in The New York Times, all the tools of agitprop straight across the spectrum, do not confer upon anyone any ipso facto virtue. It is all right only so long as we recognize that the end may or may not be expedient, may or may not be a good idea, but in any case has nothing to do with “morality.” Because when we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something, not that it is a pragmatic necessity for us to have it, but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when we join the fashionable madmen, and then is when the thin whine of hysteria is heard in the land, and then is when we are in bad trouble. And I suspect we are already there. — “On Morality” (1965)
  • “On nights like that,” Raymond Chandler once wrote about the Santa Ana [winds], “every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.” That was the kind of wind it was. — “Los Angeles Notebook” (1965-67)
  • I remember once, one cold bright December evening in New York, suggesting to a friend who complained of having been around too long that he come with me to a party where there would be, I assured him with the bright resourcefulness of twenty-three, “new faces.” He laughed literally until he choked, and I had to roll down the taxi window and hit him on the back. “New faces,” he said finally, “don’t tell me about new faces.” It seemed that the last time he had gone to a party where he had been promised “new faces,” there had been fifteen people in the room, and he had already slept with five of the women and owed money to all but two of the men. — “Goodbye to All That” (1967)

I recommend this book to someone with an interest in American culture and good writing. FOUR STARS.

Here are all my reviews.

Interesting stuff

  1. Read: There’s Exactly One Good Reason to Buy a House (to socialize)
  2. Listen to Anand Giridharadas on how to re-connect divided groups
  3. Listen to So Much of the World Economy Has Been Going in Reverse
  4. Listen to The psychology behind the apocalyptic anxieties creating a surge of billionaire preppers
  5. Read: Group chats are now the most powerful (disruptive) force on the internet. Funny, as they represent a decentralisation relative to social media, so they should be less disruptive…
  6. Listen to How to improve our lives (and the world) by improving the quality of our disagreements
  7. Listen for some hints on how to organise your digital workflow
  8. The Rich are Different: The psychology behind the apocalyptic anxieties creating a surge of billionaire preppers
  9. Read about the dietary virtues of ice cream (!)
  10. Read: ‘Overemployed’ Hustlers Exploit ChatGPT To Take On Even More Full-Time Jobs
  11. Consider this:

H/T to CD

Geo-privacy (an idea)

“Geo-fencing” refers to a program that enables (or disables) some function based on physical location.

“Privacy” is something we tell people we care about but don’t really defend against violation.

It’s a fact that many mobile phone apps track our location to harvest and sell our geo-data to anyone.

(It’s also fact that mobile phone companies sell this data in some places, and that some stores track us via bluetooth pings. I’m not talking about these dubious practices here.)

So I think mobile phone operating systems (i.e., Android or iOS) should allow you to “geo-private” yourself within x km of various places you specify. Then geo-data is not collected (and thus not available) to any and all apps on your phone.

Example: I live in Amsterdam. I tell my phone to not track me within 15 km of my home. That, more or less, turns off all tracking while I am in the city, which is fine by me.

This system will resotre power to those whose data is being harvested and sold: you and me.

My one-handed conclusion is that mobile phone manufacturers/operating system owners should make it easy for us to protect our privacy.