Published! The Best of Aguanomics

I thought I’d have this book out last May, but it takes a lot of time to choose 445 posts (out of 5,460), edit them into a manuscript, and then make editing corrections (with the help of nearly 20 people). 

But now that process is done, and The Best of Aguanomics is available! 

What does that mean to you? Read on…

Should you buy it? 
Not unless you’re going to read it. I am selling the book at cost (Amazon has added its 60 percent markup but that’s not money to me), so don’t buy it to send me money 😉

Should you read it?
The book is nearly 700 pages, but it’s not meant to be read cover to cover.  I included posts if they contributed either to discussions on important topics  or to exploring how I developed my thinking on ideas over the 11-year history of the blog. For examples of “important,” consider posts I wrote on agricultural policy, water auctions, important books, psychology, political corruption, academic failure, and many other topics (MOT). For examples of “development,” consider the collections I wrote on pricing water, climate change, and MOT. See below for MOT.

My main goal with this book was to summarize the best out of a massive body of work. I think it’s best read as a sampler that gives you a new topic each day (the average post is 500 words).

The book is available in paperback only on Amazon.com ($15.40), Amazon.co.uk (£12.80) and Amazon.de (€16.00). FYI, I am not providing kindle or PDF versions of the book because I want to encourage people to sit with a physical thing and think at their leisure about interesting ideas. 

Here’s a short video introduction to the book:

How about a sample to give me an idea of MOT?
This PDF has the table of contents, Introduction and bits of 2 chapters.

Bonus: This spreadsheet has links to all 445 posts, grouped by chapter. You can use this as a “cheat” way to read the book, but I don’t recommend it because (1) there are so many posts and (2) I wrote a little bit about every post to put it into context (see the PDF sample). 

Enjoy!

Weekend reading

  1. Down and Out in New York’s Bowery
  2. Sustainable (non-animal) foods are finally taking market share via taste and value (instead of guilt). This is a tipping point.
  3. How bad is it in Venezuela? So bad that the indigenous people (you know, the people who have lived there for thousands of years) are fleeing. That says something about their adoption of modern life styles (consumption), but also about the loss of their traditional means of mitigating risk.
  4. Turkey’s dam projects are destroying the environment and thousands of years of heritage to deliver profits to construction companies. (The photographer was arrested for a month by Turkey’s paranoid government, which imprisons more journalists than any other country.)
  5. Bitcoin miners are on track to use all the world’s electricity. Something will change, but I have no idea.
  6. What happens when women win election? Good stuff. Keep going, I say!
  7. The war on sugar — an interesting podcast
  8. If you want to learn more about water (conflict) between Israel and Palestine, then I suggest reading this very interesting paper on wastewater management in the region. The authors are also looking for feedback, so free free to contact them!
  9. Plan on dying at 75. Your life will be more enjoyable and less hopeless. Related: Genes determine only about 6 percent of life expectancy.
  10. I’m pleased to see an initial international effort to police ocean pollution

 

 

Forgetting things past

Under the GDPR, EU residents have gained several important rights over their data. (Privacy laws are weak in the US and non-existent in China.) 
 
One of them is the “right to be forgotten,” which tries to balance the right to privacy against the public’s need to know history. 
 
This post is not about these rights, but the actions that we can take to improve our remembrance of things past, i.e., removing details that might have been interesting for a few days or months but no longer matter to us.
 
As examples, consider emails you wrote to someone you no longer date, silly photos of events long ago, or tweets in reply to a once-urgent-but-now-forgotten conversation.
 
The main idea of deleting, cleaning or summarizing your past is not to whitewash it but to align with our natural tendency (or ability) to forget events (both good and bad) over time. This tendency is very useful, but it loses its power if our digital detritus is saved and shown to us (or others) when we (they) are looking for something else.
 
Even worse, the rise of artificial intelligence means that companies that are storing our data on various clouds (dropbox, iCloud, google drive, etc.) are increasingly likely to mine those data to build algorithms that they will use to make money.
 
Thus, in the past few years, I have:

(Note that I have kept copies of all these deleted items on a back-up hard drive — just in case — but I kinda doubt I’ll ever look at that stuff. Years ago, I threw away the negatives from a few thousand rolls of film I shot while traveling for five years. I’ve not missed them. I still have most of my travel diaries from that period, but I have no temptation to read the detailed scribbles of my 25-year-old self.)

My one-handed conclusion is that you should take control of your digital memory, first to protect yourself from the bots and second to free your memory to keep what’s really important. This control takes more effort than letting things pile up, but the resulting privacy and calm should make the effort worthwhile.

Weekend reading

  1. Most medical academic studies are wrong… due to a bias of publishing exciting (outlier) statistical results.
  2. How one Amsterdam neighborhood saved itself from homeless junkies… only to lose itself to tourists attracted to its quaint charm
  3. Silicon Valley is driving the technology that’s creating a “useless class” — and they don’t mind. Related: Fascism simplifies life (before it destroys it)
  4. Metabolism affects our weight, but it’s hard to “manage”
  5. The value of “do nothing” on your to-do list. Related: Slow down your internet life to enjoy your real life
  6. In a randomized control trial, psychologists show that people who limit social media use are less depressed than those who do not. 
  7. Nature vs commerce on the Mississippi
  8. Some Trump supporters are betting Iraqi dinars will suddenly rise in value. That’s as likely as Trump telling the truth. Related: Authoritarianism.
  9. They should read “5 principles for making better life decisions
  10. Tim Cook: “For artificial intelligence to be truly smart it must respect human values — including privacy. If we get this wrong, the dangers are profound.” Related: The AI Cold War (see also my discussion)

America’s Pravda

When I visited my father a few weeks ago in California, I was forced to listen to Fox “News” for more than the 12 seconds that I can usually stand. What struck me then was its relentless devotion to all things Trump and obsession with tiny slights that served Republican talking points (like four days of discussion of Jim Acosta’s refusal to give up the mike while asking Trump questions at the press conference). 

What I didn’t realize is how far Fox has strayed from any objective definition of news-reporting or journalism. As this VOX video shows — with clips of Fox personalities — the channel has basically morphed into a full time propaganda machine for the Republican Party. Yes, that may be profitable, but it’s also horrible to see tactics borrowed from Orwell’s Ministry of Truth and the Soviet Union’s Russia’s Pravda (un-ironically meaning “truth”) in the US. 

Watch the video and tell me that you’re ok with that. (If you are, then I have a few dictators whose prisons you’d enjoy.)

My one-handed conclusion is that a few too many Americans seem to prefer delusion to truth and tribal loyalties to national strength. Sad.

The frumping of Trump

Trump is an egotistic windbag, and his lying incompetence is catching up with him.*

This retired military officer calls his “march to the border” a political stunt that risks the military’s integrity and loyalty to the Constitution.

The Trump administration tried to bury a new, massive report by 13 US government agencies  on the current and future damages from climate disruption by releasing it on Black Friday (when most Americans are shopping or recovering from overeating on Thanksgiving). Trump thinks that cold weather “disproves” climate disruption (like he thinks that people like him rather than his money), but this report buries his ignorance under 1,600 pages of science and data. Go read it — and then get angry that America’s “leader” cares more about golf than defending the country.**

My one-handed conclusion is that the best defense against lying deception is truth, facts and protest. Have you called your representative lately?


* I’m usually polite about leaders, but Trump is such a failure that I cannot see any redeeming qualities or mitigating actions. One reader of my newsletter was not happy with my criticism:

I suggested that the Swordmaiden unsubscribe as she (like her hero Trump) does not seem to engage in critical thinking. Related: Russia (as a dictatorship) benefits from confusion and disinformation, much as the U.S. (as a democracy) suffers. Support truth.

[I just did by subscribing to the New York Times (over 3 million digital subscribers), Atlantic and Guardian (they just hit 1 million subscribers). Good journalism needs your support.]

** Speaking of not caring about people, I’m pleased to see the wheels falling off Facebook, as Zuckerberg’s business model of using your data against you and hiring sockpuppets to attack his critics (via… yes, “fake news”) backfires. I hope that the UK’s seizure of internal memos reveals more Facebook manipulation, if only to force people to recognize it. The result? “Zuckerberg’s could be the first in history to collapse simply because its citizens logged out.

Weekend reading

  1. Watch this YouTube on African innovation, which is only starting to recover from centuries of colonial destruction.
  2. Anti-terror laws in the UK are shutting down academic debate
  3. Social media encourages lazy thinking. How bad might it get? Read this (perhaps) fictional piece on how people are set off against each other.
  4. Sir David Attenborough is covering up, rather than exposing, environmental destruction
  5. Joseph Stiglitz: ‘America should be a warning to other countries‘ …in failing to reduce inequality
  6. The Rise, Fall, and Restoration of the Kingdom of Bicycles
  7. Canada’s health system continues to fail First Nations (as was planned)
  8. Tyler Cowen explains why “demand slopes down” is so important (and central to all social sciences). Also, listen to his interview with Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google Alphabet and a really clever guy (unlike the CEO of the US).
  9. American telecoms companies promised that they would invest more if they got tax breaks and an end to net neutrality. They aren’t.
  10. The Catholic Church struggles with its dogma over celibacy

Review: Valley of Genius

I bought this book for two reasons. First, I went to high school with its author Adam Fisher. Second, I am always interested in learning more about the history of innovation, entrepreneurship and start-ups.

I haven’t talked to Adam in 30 years, so my relation with him was more relevant in alerting me to the book’s existence than it was in my decision to buy it. That decision was based on Adam’s unusual method of telling the “uncensored history” through a “mashup” of first person perspectives on various Silicon Valley companies and trends. (Here’s the he-said-she-said excerpt on Facebook.)

The book’s 28 chapters are arranged into “waves” that struck Silicon Valley, moving from hardware (70s and 80s), to the internet (90s) and then to social media (00s). These topics overlap and intermingle, but the groupings provide structure in a history book with nearly as many characters as the cast of War and Peace. 

I found this book to be an exciting read due to its broad coverage of most of the major players in the Valley over the past 50 years and its technique of telling stories using the fresh perspectives of actual participants. In combination, I learned a lot more about the evolving culture in my “home town” and how that culture changed itself before it changed the world.

And what do I mean by culture? Try this (Loc 382):

Your basic values are essentially the architecture of the project. Why does it exist? And in Silicon Valley there are two really common sets of values. There are what I call financial values, where the main thing is to make a bunch of money. That’s not a really good spiritual reason to be working on a project, although it’s completely valid. Then there are technical values that dominate lots of places where people care about using the best technique—doing things right. Sometimes that translates to ability or to performance, but it’s really a technical way of looking at things. But then there is a third set of values that are much less common: and they are the values essentially of the art world or the artist. And artistic values are when you want to create something new under the sun. If you want to contribute to art, your technique isn’t what matters. What matters is originality. It’s an emotional value.

This quote captures the main tension that’s explored in the book (and prevalent in Silicon Valley), i.e., the tensions between free and corporate, hippy and troll, community and individual, art and engineering, acid rainbows and beery white dudes. 

Thus, the Valley’s inhabitants face a struggle between creating “insanely great” improvements in our lives and sacrificing us to their greed, ego and power. The book is full of warnings and wisdom from this struggle:

There was kind of a social policy: “You own your own words” was mostly about people had to get permission if they were going to quote you, but it was also about taking responsibility for your words.

Larry Brilliant: And the reason that The Well succeeded was because of those things—not because of the software, not because of the money.

The tension between taking responsibility (and being held accountable) for your actions and denying that responsibility in a quasi-libertarian excuse to screw over others also plays an important role in my research and teaching. In many instances, water policy affects the social distribution of costs and benefits. In many instances, those policies are flawed because some group is able to take benefits for themselves at a cost to others. That’s the tension between a farmer’s consumption of groundwater and the community’s security. That’s the tension between Facebook’s promise to connect the world, and its business of profiting from manipulating those connections.

I highly recommend (5-stars) this book to anyone who wants to learn more about the humans who built a Valley of Genius. Is the genius good or evil? The answer depends on who takes responsibility and who is held accountable.


To read all my reviews, go here.

Weekend reading

  1. The trouble with American politics is that the Republican-Democrat duopoly (like any monopoly) is more interested in profits than adding value
  2. Trump is also screwing with water management in the West. That’s no surprise to me, given the brown-nosing of Devin Nunes.
  3. I was in California last week and I gained a kilo from the excess of food that results from eating out. We know that caloric intake is more important than exercise for maintaining weight (exercise is good for many other things!), but we don’t know much more than that. Listen for more.
  4. If you care about online security, then swap SMS for 2FA authentication. Speaking of security, the USPS has made identity theft easier, weak passwords are your fault, and how a Dutch company lost $20 million to a (spear)phishing scam.
  5. Want better sex? Pay attention.
  6. We’re learning more about how marijuana affects us (and the news is good)
  7. Scientists are trying to save the Internet from greed and censorship, but their methods (voluntary restraint) might not protect the commons.
  8. Students are stressing themselves out chasing perfection
  9. The longer Bannon spoke, the clearer it became how empty the populist program is
  10. Forget occasional vacation: Try everyday leisure.

Everyone is trading your data

I went to dinner with some friends in San Francisco about a week ago. In the process, I learned a little more about how our data are tracked, traded and used to solicit our time and money.

The key is that my friends used “car share” services to get to and from the restaurant. (In the past, we might have walked to a local restaurant, but “cheap and seamless” makes it very easy to “tap the app” and get a ride.)

At one point in the past, I had Uber on my phone, but I had never used Lyft deleted Lyft’s app off my phone months ago. so imagine my surprise when I got this email the next day: 

So there are two possible reasons why I got this email from out of the blue the Borg:

  1. Some remnant of the deleted Lyft App on my phone was tracking where I was going and matched my physical presence to that of the Lyft driver.
  2. My location was matched with a Lyft driver, which then triggered an “account update” email to me that I had never signed up for.

I think that #2 is more likely, but both options are bad in the sense that they reveal the degree to which Americans (without knowing it) and Chinese (often knowing it, but not caring) are being tracked in their daily movements. (Tracking is probably also happening in the EU, but  GDPR makes that harder as well as illegal.)

How pervasive is this loss of privacy and gain in stalking? Read this article outlining how our data are collected, traded, aggregated and used to advertise to us. Then read this one on how “restaurant waiting list” apps are being used to record what we eat (digital menus), with who (location data!), and for how much (credit card bills). Finally, read this industry profile* of how a “decentralized internet” will weaken aggregation services and  platforms such as Google, Facebook and Amazon that track our browsing, logins, friends, finances and so on.**

My one-handed conclusion is that companies and governments are collecting far more data on your location, friends, activities and (probably) thoughts than you will ever suspect. The panopticon is now.

Postscript: Just a few days ago, I bought a swimsuit in a used-clothing store in Southern California. When I wanted to pay, the cashier asked me for my mobile phone number. “Why? You want to call me in the Netherlands?” “No, don’t worry,” he said. So I guess that the NSA, Facebook and Amazon are going to have to wait a bit longer to know what color swim trunks I wear.


* If you want to give them your identity; for some reason, I read it without signing up.

** I was annoyed to hear Mark Zuckerberg say “Now we’re going to change Facebook’s whole mission, as a company, in order to focus on [more community and connection]” as that’s a lie. Facebook, like Google, is an advertising company that makes 90+ percent of its revenues from advertisers who pay for access to your personal and “community” data.