Weekend reading

Now THIS is Upcycling!
  1. Some insights from the people Trump hates: Farmworkers and Abortionists.  Let’s thankful they’re helping us.
  2. Name and Praise? Cape Town’s water map shows houses that are meeting use targets.
  3. Correlation is not causation, but maybe we don’t understand causation?
  4. Looking back at 1968: “Antiwar radicals, recoiling from soullessness, challenged the church of technocratic rationality.” At some point, this goal was lost, and we’re still suffering the consequences.
  5. Design thinking: “Solving the problem without addressing the people, or focusing on the people without truly resolving the problem will only lead to frustration, alienation, and failure.”
  6. Psychoanalyzing Americans’ insecurities: “Trump’s deepest appeal lies in an unspoken promise… to undo the Enlightenment, to free us from the burdens of living rationally in a world where nothing is settled and where everything—economic well-being, national borders, gender identities, domestic arrangements—is up for grabs, let the strongest prevail.”
  7. Are the Poles taking advantage of Dutch labor laws or are the laws flawed?
  8. So maybe humans will not vanish in nuclear war or climate disruption catastrophe but because they cannot reproduce? Chemicals in our environment have already reduced male sperm counts by 50%, and it’s still dropping!
  9. “If you work a job with payroll, get products delivered from Amazon, or own a smartphone assembled from parts, you are a beneficiary of the relational-database industrial complex. And a victim of it, too…
  10. A fantastic analysis of the Trump Administration’s failures in Puerto Rico

H/Ts to FD and AM

Liberalism or misery?

I have read The Economist since 1989, and the past 30 years have been good for its mission of promoting liberalism (i.e., the rights of individuals to decide their destiny without impinging upon that of others as well as the value of promoting diversity and competition in the search for “truth” and innovations that will promote the general welfare) and thus for humanity’s progress, but this progress and those ideals are under attack.*

In this week’s issue, TE’s cover article says “Success turned liberals into a complacent elite. They need to rekindle their desire for radicalism.”

You should read the whole article, but I am going to give my own reasons for the importance of this mission  because (1) I have supported this mission for decades and (2) everyone needs to consider the implications of life in a non-liberal world.

First, I am a (classical, not American-style) liberal because I am aware of my limited knowledge and desire for freedom, and thus willing to assert the limits to others’ knowledge as well as their right to be free of my influence. I have for years collected examples of where “power corrupts and absolutely power corrupts absolutely,” so I am humble ab0ut the potential for top-down “solutions” and fearful of the tendencies of (so-called) leaders like Trump, Putin, Orban and Erdogan as they rally their followers to smash various opponents of the majority. (Here’s a paper on aid failure; here’s one on how groups cooperate or not.)

Second, I feel as if we’re in an era that most resembles that of of 1920-1933, when popular misery supported the rise of fascists of the left and right, as well as populists who promised easy answers to tough problems but ended up inmpoverishing or killing their followers while immiserating millions of defenseless and vulnerable minorities. The strengthening currents of authoritarianism dressed up as nationalism or, somewhat more transparently as majoritarianism, not bode well for our species. This article, for example, explains how “China and Russia are very different powers with different strategies, but they share the objective of targeting free and open societies to make the world a safer place for authoritarianism.”

I am writing this from Madrid where two artistic exhibitions have been coloring my thought. First, there is an exhibition of Russian Dadaist arts, which date from the 1920s and mostly highlight the ridiculous situations that Russians found themselves in during the early years of their revolution, which turned from proletarian optimism into fascist slaughter, starvation and terror. The second images are of Picassso’s Guernica, which he painted in 1937 in reaction to the  firebombing slaughter of innocent civilians by Nazis aligned with Franco. That painting, which is credited with “highlighting the need to forever remember and prevent the slaughter of innocent civilians,” seems remarkably relevant right now, at a time when Assad is barrel-bombing innocents and Aung Suu Kyi sits on her hands as Myanmar’s army slaughters innocent Rohinga citizens. I could write more about Venezuela, Turkey, Nigeria, and other places, but you get my point.

Liberalism as a philosophy is simple. It dictates humility, diffusion of power, and cooperation, but these ideals are unpopular with people who feel threatened and politicians who promise easy fast gains.  Sadly, those groups are ascendant as they were in the 1930s, and they do not yet see the obvious connection between their simple-minded, zero-sum view of the world and the obvious fact that attacks lead to counterattacks, and thus cycles of righteous conflict. (Check out Israel and Palestine for a long lesson in that futility.)

My one-handed conclusion is that our turn from faith and practice of liberalism will promote intra- and inter-group conflict at a time (climate disruption) when we should be joining in efforts to protect ourselves from our collective mistakes. Sad.

Addendum (20 Sep): This article is worth a read: “China and Russia assessed that Western liberalism and freedom undermine authoritarian rule. Indeed, many Western policy makers saw this as a desirable side effect: It may be good news for the Chinese and Russian people, but it is bad news for their regimes. And so, China and Russia began to push back.”

* I forgot to add a comment on how US politics has played a major role in this deterioration. In 1989, the Wall fell and the Warsaw Pact countries left Soviet influence. In 1991, the USSR itself fell apart, freeing the Baltic countries to pursue their freedoms while leaving most of the other dozen republics to struggle with reform, corruption and authoritarianism. These moves were helpfully supported by George HW Bush as well as Clinton, but the lack of an “external enemy” led Republicans (under Newt Gingrich) to turn to dirty politics as a means of gaining domestic power. Those shenanigans (including the impeachment of Clinton before the House) previewed the gridlock that plagued Obama’s years. Perhaps the worst “luck” was the (fraudulent) election of George W Bush in 2000, which gave power to an incompetent who invaded Iraq (for no good reason), failed the people of New Orleans after Katrina, reversed progress towards a global agreement on climate change, and fueled the economic bubble that led to the Great Recession, which hurt the average person but protected bankers from their own failures. Obama did a heroic job with the shit-sandwhich he was given, but the Republicans spent all their time undermining him rather than helping the country and its vulnerable people. Sadly, their strategy enabled the election of Trump, who has got to be the worst person ever to sit in the White House (and I’m including Jackson, Nixon and Bush 2). Given the current clusterfuck in the US, I am sure that we’ve yet to see the worst of Trump’s presidency. I certainly hope that the damage is not too deep and that those responsible are punished, but that justice will only recover 1% of the damage Trump and the Republicans are doing to the US and the world.

Weekend reading

  1. The first “Nigerian scammers” were French prisoners from 100 years ago.
  2. A conversation on triggers, political correctness and free speech
  3. Fail fast for happiness.
  4. A look back from a future in which we only talk to others in our bubble.
  5. “Fox News has normalized racism, lying, scapegoating and corruption”
  6. How is (maybe) Tesla disruptive?
  7. A 1989 report from the Berlin Wall, on the future…
  8. A modern What Color Is Your Parachute? (thoughts on career)
  9. How technology will be used to control us: “In the 20th century, the masses revolted against exploitation… Now the masses fear irrelevance, and they are frantic to use their remaining political power before it is too late. [Thus]… Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump.” 
  10. “There is no controversy in calling Winston Churchill a white supremacist or in noting that the British Empire was predicated on racism.

H/T to FD

The Ostroms on funding municipal services

I’ve tagged this post “from the archives” because I intend to draw attention to old but useful work that is no longer in broad circulation.

Vincent and Elinor Ostrom gave their 1977 chapter the less-than-exciting title of “Public Economy Organization and Service Delivery,” but the work is important for two reasons.

First, it’s the earliest publication (that I’ve found) that describes, defines and compares the four types of goods in the 2×2 matrix* that I use all the time:

In this blog post, I explain how excludable goods are best managed in markets (via economic tools) while non-excludable goods are best managed through political (top down) or community (peer-to-peer) processes where people can be (and must be) jointly obligated to fund public goods (via taxes) or constrained from over-appropriating common pool goods (via regulation). Besides that difference, it’s also important to know that many goods can end up in any of these boxes, depending on governance and the (im)balance between supply and demand. In this paper, we explored how drinking water in the Netherlands cycled among them. 

Second, the chapter’s theoretical discussion is used to set up the case study of interest, i.e., how falling tax revenue may make it difficult for Detroit to offer municipal services (public goods), especially when those goods are “subtractable” (common pooled goods) and insufficient in supply to meet demand. Detroit’s decline — under the twin influences of white flight to the suburbs (where politicians did everything possible to keep tax revenues to themselves) and rising poverty and crime — is well known by now, but this paper’s date suggests that the decline was decades in the making and clearly understood. I wonder how the chapter (or the book that included it) was received by local citizens and policy makers.

It’s nice to learn from the wisdom of the past.

What’s in your drawer that’s worth a read?

  • Their 2×2 is turned on its side, and they are still a bit vague about the difference between public and common pooled goods — as they were in their 1971 paper that doesn’t really mention those latter goods.

Weekend reading

Social media is not a good place to lose your cool
  1. Corruption facilitates smuggling rosewood from Madagascar to China 
  2. Can China “police the commons” with top-down, data-driven methods (rather than encouraging bottom up community self-policing?)
  3. China’s “Belt and Road” program is not just about logistics, but collecting a group of countries that is economically indebted and politically subservient. The irony is that China was abused in the same way in the past (Opium wars, etc.) 
  4. These guys are giving a second chance to the people Trump wants to ruin
  5. Cyber warfare inflicts massive collateral damage (an update on my fears)
  6. Great visualization of US/USSR(Russia) arms sales ($ for death) since 1950.
  7. How to be a “good” troublemaker.
  8. A great essay on jobs that are “useful” (creating value) vs jobs that are “bullshit” (transferring value).  Which is yours?
  9. John Oliver does economics proud explaining Trump’ ignorance on trade.
  10. How are we evolving with and changing Nature?

Review: Chasing Coral

This documentary follows a team of activists, scientists and divers as they try to document the death of coral reefs. Along the way, they explain how the oceans are absorbing the brunt of the impacts of climate change disruption, and how coral death is the “canary in the coal mine” of other impending impacts.

The sad part of this film is that it’s mostly about the effort to capture time lapse images of dying coral, not about actually saving the coral from death. This set of goals is mostly because so few people know that coral is dying but also because the driving force of death — net increases of GHGs — can only be countered by overcoming “the world’s greatest market failure” or what I prefer to call “the greatest tragedy of the commons.” 

I’ve tried to do the same thing (raise awareness, drive action) with the Life Plus 2 Meters books that I edited and published in the last two years, so I am both supportive of this type of media and pessimistic about its potential impact in a world where people are often too busy or indifferent to act and where politicians and corporations are often pushing for more exploitation and fewer restrictions on GHG emissions, as if their additional profits will insulate them from dying ecosystems and the ensuing collapse of food chains, reduction in global oxygen supplies, etc. (For a discussion of similar impacts from the loss of polar ice, read this depressing overview.)

The movie makes a few good points about how important oceans are. The biggest is that oceans are absorbing 93% of excess heat retained by GHGs. Without this sink, we’d have average surface temperatures of 50C rather than the 14.4C we have now. Second, they explain how coral are more sensitive to warmer ocean waters because they can’t move away. The analogy they use is that a 2C (3.6 Freedom unit) fever can kill a coral just as it can kill a human. Our normal temperature is 36.8C (98.2F) and a fever starts at 37.7C/100F, which is only 1C/1.8F higher. We are, in other words cooking the coral by raising water temperatures above their viable threshold:

In the movie, the team talks about monitoring the death of coral reefs from a floating restaurant full of people who eat and dance while floating over death. Coral reefs provide food and biodiversity. Their death will lead to the collapse and death of a large share of oceanic ecosystems, which will not just be bad for divers and the 500+ million people who depend on reefs for food, but also on the rest of the world that will be more vulnerable to tsunamis that are no longer blocked by reef ecosystems, the need to feed people from other sources (raising the price of food for everyone else), and the other numerous impacts of a disrupted ocean.

Although they are eventually able to capture the before and after images of a reef that dies over the course of a few months of hot water (image below), I am sad to see that there’s still far too little attention on the looming oceanic catastrophe that is going to hit humans in the near — not far! — future.

My one-handed conclusion is that we’re going to suffer a great loss of biodiversity with the death of the ocean’s corals (about half the world’s coral has died in the past 40 years, with 40% of that death occurring in the past three years). I highly recommend this film (5 stars), if only to educate yourself to a world not long with us.

Weekend reading

  1. An appeal to the Dutch to accept migrants, brown, black and white.
  2. How feminism made me a better scientist.
  3. Economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of SF estimate the financial crisis “cost every American $70,000.” This result is based on the permanent loss of production — roughly equivalent to the type of loss from war.
  4. LA’s palm trees are not native. They’re marketing.
  5. A Japanese working class woman writes about her life.
  6. US Wildfires are getting worse, on several dimensions
  7. I used to say that climate change would mean faster atmospheric circulation, as a means of distributing warmer air from the equator to the polls, but faster polar heating means that circulation is slowing down, bringing a different problem of stronger stationary weather. #cantwin!
  8. The US criminal “justice” system is awfully close to a mafia designed to rip off the poor. This article mistakes that system for “neoliberal capitalism” when it’s really just the State taking advantage of its citizens, i.e., corrupt politics.
  9. The legal case against advertising makes similar claims to my social case against it.
  10. Cool shit: Schrodinger’s hula hoop and the ultimate “interactive wall”

Burning man’s #metoo problem

Burning man opens its gates today to ~70,000 burners and virgins, eager to express themselves, participate and enjoy the dynamics of one of the world’s most inclusive, radical and innovative communities.

Many people are changed by Burning Man, the vast majority for the better but some for the worse. As a glass-half empty kinda guy, I want to talk a about Burning Man’s constitutional failure to protect the innocent.

To put this in context, consider Burning Man’s 10 Principles, most of which boil down to “let everyone do what they want, no matter how weird you might think it is.”

B.E.D. has the right idea.

But these ideals of “radical inclusion” do not touch on the most important element of freedom. i.e., freedom from being harassed by those “radically” photographing, approaching, and touching others without their consent. Assault (menacing approach) and battery (actual physical contact) are, of course, banned at Burning Man in exactly the same way that they are banned in the “default world,” but they are not explicitly called out as inappropriate in the 10 Principles, which is why there have been more reports of sexual harassment, unwanted groping and rape at Burning Man.

Most Burners are aware of these issues, and the Bureau of Erotic Discourse (B.E.D.) has been active for years in promoting consent before engagement, but those efforts have not been adopted into the 10 Principles that are plastered all over Burning Man, featured prominently in the handbook sent to all ticket buyers, and so on.

My one-handed conclusion is that the Burning Man Organization (the Borg) must revise its constitution to add an 11th Principle: “Consent is more important than your radical expression, so ask first and anything other than Yes means No.”

Weekend reading

  1. The Street Debater (the “yes-no-on-Brexit”-scale in the photo) gives beggars a way to engage passers-by on topics. Much better than a sign and a hat, and the design is open-source to download.
  2. Dog cloning: rich people and entrepreneur-scientists are pushing technology and ethics to the limit. Human baby cloning? When, not if.
  3. Students from poorer backgrounds can’t just use “grit” to succeed. What they need is agency, which is in short supply in the US.
  4. Americans view “economic health” through the lens of their political affiliation, a tendency that’s common in poorer corrupt countries. Bad sign.
  5. Good competition helps everyone; bad competition harms the powerless.
  6. The end of the liberal order means a return to the power politics, exploitation and conflict of the 19th century, except this time, it may be the (formerly) colonized dealing the pain and taking the gain.
  7. A fascinating discussion of autism between 1.25 autistics.
  8. John Oliver on Astroturfing (i.e., the lie behind “Americans for Prosperity”, “Latinos for water,” et al.) and the identity politics of mayonnaise (!)
  9. The real people of IAmsterdam, a city whose charms continue to seduce me.
  10. Americans “pay” an average of $1,600 per year in “the costs of sprawl.” The  worst offenders are in band from Arizona to Florida. High housing prices in SF and NY may reflect their low “costs of sprawl.”





Who has the time to get stuff done?

(I’m taking a break from a multi-day painting project to write this. The irony!)

Most people juggle a mess of overlapping, conflicting time demands arising from a variety of obligations and desires. Running at 110 percent means that there’s always something waiting to be done. (Social media makes this problem worse because it’s common for “a quick scroll” to absorb so much time that you’re not only late for your next to do, but stressed because you “haven’t had a breather” between tasks…)

The problem with piecemeal, jammed schedules is that people have a hard time devoting a block of time (3-4 hours) to a topic, let alone finding 3-4 hours on short notice for an urgent topic. 

Thus, we see an equilibrium where everyone is rushed, each task only gets a little attention, and it’s much harder for a group project to advance in a timely manner. Indeed, it’s much more common to have a three-person project drag on over several weeks instead of getting done in a few hours. The delays are mostly around coordination, because each person, as they turn to the project, needs an update from others, which means delay and confusion before they can even start, let alone send their part to others. In these conditions, transaction costs are high and the whole process annoying. (Trans-disciplinary communication among academics can be particularly bad due to jargon and work norms, let alone philosophical disagreements.)

There are two ways forward from these issues. For individuals, it’s to cut back on casual tasks, leave gaps empty for a breather, and set aside empty blocks of time each week. (I can’t remember where, but I read a few months ago about a very successful person who had blocked out two free days per week.)

For groups, the issue is worse because the person with the worst agenda is going to set the pace for everyone else, losing even more time and annoying even more people. 

I thought of this topic two months ago while at a conference with 700 economists in such a hurry to get to their presentations or find one of 25 parallel sessions that they hardly had any time to think, let alone extend serendipitous meetings into the conversations they might deserve.

So my suggestion for groups is that they go for a “hackathon” concept in which everyone works only on one topic for 1-3 days. The key elements — presence, communication and deadline — will aid success by setting expectations, collecting all decision makers and aiding problem solving.

I suspect that every company, academic department and family could get a lot more done by scheduling 2-4 “hacks” per year, with details (fix a nagging problem, design a new idea, etc.) decided as the date approaches. These hacks will be more productive because everyone will be there, the deadline will force attention onto ugly issues, and progress will motivate everyone to keep pushing for the next step.

My one-handed advice is to set aside more “empty blocks” for yourself and schedule a block for your family or work. 

Do you see anything familiar here? How do you get stuff done?