Dutch innovators vs Dutch farmers

This past weekend, I visited the Dutch Design Week exposition in Eindhoven (home of Philips). There were hundreds thousands of interesting (and sometimes baffling) displays, demos and ideas scattered around town.

One that caught my eye was from a team trying to sell an “easy harvesting” devise that could be used on small scale, labor intensive farms. Here’s a photo from their exhibit:

The rig rotates on wheels (far side) around a pivot (near side), allowing a circular area to be maintained (image at lower right)

What struck me immediately is that no farmers would be willing to buy (or use) such a rig if they faced competition from farmers using cheap (often illegal and underpaid) labor in mechanized greenhouses with the benefit of scale, chemicals, etc., i.e., typical Dutch farmers.

Sure, there are some people in this country who are “willing to pay a fair price for a good product,” but those folks (the “20 percent” in my 20/80 formulation*) are too few compared to the 80 percent who care more about low prices than labor conditions, sustainability, etc.

Is this the end of the story? Not at all. The Dutch government (regardless of the bad ideas present in the EU’s common agricultural policy) could end implicit and direct subsidies to industrialized farmers as well as taxing them for their pollution (vervuiling) and other sharp practices.

Food prices wouldn’t actually rise by that much as a result (even for veggies, the share of wholesale cost in the final price to the consumer is surely less than half), and the Netherlands could get a little closer to practicing what they preach.

My one-handed conclusion is that no innovation will occur in industries where the incumbents are protected from innovation.

* From 2009: My rule of thumb is that about 20 percent of people conserve because it’s the right thing to do, and 80 percent conserve because it’s expensive NOT to. It’s just a guess, but look around and compare the number of vegetarian, bike riding, no kid, book reading types to the number of meat eating, car commuting, TV watching folks with kids. 20 percent is GENEROUS!

Interesting stuff

  1. Watch: Europe’s Experiment: Treating Trains Like Planes Low Cost Carriers
  2. Watch this episode from the 130+ episode (!) series about rebuilding a 110-year old wooden boat. It gives a charming overview of an English lad from Bristol who took to boating, then boat building, and made a career. Amazing 🙂
  3. Read: The Cockney criminals retired by fewer thieving opportunities
  4. Read about a 30-year-old’s nostalgia for the “old internet” that stayed at home. Then mobile data spoiled everything. Totally agree.
  5. Read: What goes up also goes down: The UK treasury pays $11 billion to the Central Bank of England as QE turns into QT. No free lunches 😉
  6. Listen to this really “plugged in” guy from America’s Department of Energy talk about innovation
  7. Listen to the surprising return of small-scale, sustainable agriculture, watch how cows own the Netherlands (80% exported as beef and dairy) [in Dutch, use subs], and read how Uruguay does (more) sustainable ranching while pursuing social justice.
  8. Read: The Dutch struggle to manage a “circular donut” with buildings (i.e., no new resources while helping the poor and unburdening the planet)
  9. Listen: Utopia — even one without men — is hard.

On building a boat

I just returned from a nine-day boat building workshop in Den Helder (a port town to the north of Amsterdam). During the workshop, I worked with L (at the start of his boat building career) and A & M (two experienced boat guys) under the leadership of Bert, a 70-year old master boatbuilder for whom this was the last workshop. I was definitely the least-experienced guy there. For most of the time, it was also in Dutch, which resulted in an  “immersive” experience.

The process began with a weekend of “lofting” (uitslaan) a life-size drawing of the boat’s dimensions from the designer’s scale drawings. This step…

Lofting. Note the heavy bronze whales used to hold the batten (lat) in place.
  • Helps you understand the scale of the final boat in two-dimensions
  • Uses some pretty sophisticated drafting and scaling techniques (the drawings need to show the boat from above, side and head-on), which allow everyone to see if the lines are where they should be (so a double-check on transcription errors). Here’s a nice video on lofting from a great YT series on boat building.
  • Allows the boat builder to make forms (malen) that are used to cut wood to the right shape.
The boat (upside down) is taking shape, with the bottom and two sets of planks set on the frames (still set into their forms).

A few weeks later, I came back to help with building the boat (a Shelbourne Dory, btw). In the meantime, Bert had made forms from the drawings that we used to make the frames (spanten) of the boat, i.e., gluing strips of wood with epoxy to make thicker, curving parts, in seven sections. The frames determine the shape of the hull, so that step is really important.

I won’t go into the many many steps, occasional corrections, and interesting conversations that peppered our nine days of building. Instead, I want to give some “meta” thoughts on the process, which I started to take very seriously while reading Shopclass as Soulcraft [my review], i.e.,

  • “First-hand learning” takes place when you set your hands on the topic and do it yourself. In our university classroom it’s common to have fourth-hand learning (textbooks tell you about what others have done).* First-hand learning is far more powerful, in terms of feedback and muscle memory, and I use it as often as possible when teaching.
  • We all had different levels of experience, which is troublesome if there’s some formal hierarchy, but (blue collar) workers of all sorts have known for centuries that everyone — from apprentice (me) to master (Bert) — can contribute, that teaching leads to learning and insight for everyone, and that team work is much more about helping than skills.
  • Goals help everyone stay focussed. We had a boat to build, and everything that advanced that process was welcome. In the office, it’s sometimes hard to identify any goal, let alone decide how to organize around multiple goals. The growth of bullshit jobs as well as the malign influences of social media and polarized politics has undermined teamwork in offices, to the detriment of mental health, productivity and cooperation/collaboration with outsiders. “Teambuilding” exercises are no cure for these ills, as they are designed to be “inclusive,” which means that nobody is challenged, no mistakes are possible, and the output is nebulous (yay — we built a sand castle). A boat needs to float and nobody gives any fucks about whether its builders felt “validated” in the process of making it.
Everyone can contribute to a clear outcome.
  • Teams need a leader, to help direct, reconcile and decide among different perspectives and techniques. Leadership does not mean wielding the hammer of discipline as much as bringing out the best of people, to advance to the goal. Team leaders need to know who can do what, which requires first-hand observation rather than third-hand data (e.g., student evaluations that tell you how the teaching went), let alone fourth-hand data (summaries of those evaluations by “experts”). It’s pretty clear to me that Bert learned far more about my work skills (after 60+ hours of working together over nine days) than my old boss learned about my teaching in five years. Annual evaluations are kinda useless when you’ve not even observed my teaching for one hour in five years!
  • The casual side of “work” was indirectly helpful. People wondered in and out of the shop (it was used by many boat people), asking questions, giving suggestions, and just encouraging us. Lunch and coffee breaks (totalling about 90 min/day), gave everyone a chance to step back, refresh, and see the work with refreshed eyes. Breaks were very useful after things went wrong, as it’s sometimes better to reflect rather than bash on. Breaks were also the time that we would tell stories and discuss topics ranging from politics to money to relationships to boats and sailing. They gave us insights into each other’s lives and perspectives — the basic ingredients to friendship and sympathy — which resulted in the sort of camaraderie that one can see among any workers in the trades, factories, teams, and so on. Big groups, like big companies, cannot build those relations due to prioritization of output and efficiency. The Luddites were right.
  • Who needs to drive to the gym (!) when you’re doing physical work all day. There’s a limit to one’s endurance (I can understand why manual workers want to retire in their 50s), but there’s also a benefit of using your body and your mind together, often achieving flow.
  • In the end, we made a boat together. We started with plans and logic, balanced precision and adaptation, and kept our eyes on the prize:
The boat (not named) as we left it. It still needs a lot of finishing (seats, floorboards, rudder, etc.) but it’s well on its way to the water!

My one-handed conclusion is that we (office workers) definitely need to do physical team-work if we’re going to see the best of our fellow humans. Yes, we have weaknesses. Yes, we make mistakes and sometimes fail to live up to higher principles. But those faults are not nearly so “toxic” when they can be weighed against other aspects of our humanity.

*I can’t find a good reference for “handed” learning, but my memory of what I heard is (roughly):

First hand: You do it yourself (learning by doing).
Second hand: You watch someone else do it (learning by observation).
Third hand: Someone tells you how they did it (learning by imagination).
Fourth hand: Someone tells you how someone else did it (learning by abstraction).

Interesting stuff

  1. The Dutch face water scarcity
  2. This NYT article on water scarcity is not news (you heard it here first!), but it’s well written. It also linked to a fun (and useful) national competition to remove tiles (typically 40cm square, cement) from streets and gardens, as a means of reducing runoff and increasing groundwater recharge. This website (in Dutch) shows how cities are performing (the KPI is TPI, or tegels per inwooner), and I am glad to see Amsterdam outpacing Rotterdam (although I suspect A’dam has a larger supply 😉
  3. Watch: Harry Mack, one of the world’s best freestyle rappers, comes to the Netherlands!
  4. Watch: Wanna know how much energy we use? How about an olympic cyclist trying to make toast?
  5. Read: Ukrainian women go to war with their laptops, documenting Russian violence and crimes
  6. Read: Amsterdam is talking tough with Airbnb, as I recommended 5 years ago.
  7. Listen: Malcolm Gladwell is angry with billionaires giving money to rich schools (e.g., Stanford) that already have too much. He also levels much needed criticism at the tax breaks LA golf courses get (99% discount!)
  8. Watch (in Dutch): Time to give up cut flowers; they use too much energy and chemicals, and contribute to worker abuse.
  9. Read about the small but passionate community of female boat builders
  10. Read: What happened to the thieves when the theft economy collapsed?

H/Ts to DL and PB

Italian vs Dutch flood infrastructure

This article on Venice’s flood problems has an interesting set of facts:

The Italians proposed the “Mose” project (gates that would rise in high tides to protect Venice) in 1992. It may be finished in 2023 (41 31 years later) at an estimated cost of €8 billion. Mose has 1.6 km of barriers.

The Dutch proposed the Delta project in ±1954 (right after the 1953 floods) and it was completed in stages until 1997 (building capacity over 43 years). It cost €7 billion (probably not adjusted for inflation). The Delta works stretch over 30km.

Superficially, the Dutch built 20x more protection — that’s in use — for about the same price. My one-handed observation is that they may be better at delivery than the Italians. Momma mia!

Interesting stuff

  1. Listen to Erik Hoel’s damning critique of Effective Altruism
  2. Watch: The Western US is putting one-third of its water into animal feed
  3. Read: American schools are using AI to monitor student social media and private emails (same tech that China is using). Related: An artist shows public webcams are watching social media influencers as they create content (=spies are everywhere, open to anyone).
  4. Listen to Freakonomics explain why nuclear power is the way to go (very good!)
  5. Listen: Gönül Tol on how Erdoğan established an iron grip on Turkey
  6. Watch: Behind-the-scenes of James Hoffman’s hysterical remake of Brad Pitt’s weird coffee drinking habits
  7. Listen: Antitrust-Isn’t: The Story of Declining Enforcement in America
  8. Read: “The Dutch government has an army of experienced researchers at its disposal, yet constantly manages to be ambushed by reality” (insightful!)
  9. Read: “Tipping [in the US] began amid slavery, then helped keep former Black slaves’ wages low.” True.
  10. Read: The Onion has written its first amicus brief — for a case going before the US Supreme Court. I worry that the Court will destroy satire. Not funny.

Welcome to inflation chaos.

Central bankers have been trying to “restart the party” ever since the 2007-8 financial crisis. They invented quantitative easing (printing money to buy financial assets), pushed interest rates to zero and below, and pursued other means of making money so cheap (from the supply side) that it would stimulate the economy.

What they wanted was spending and investing in ways that would raise employment and productivity.

What they got were crypto bubbles, government deficits, and asset inflation.

Price inflation happens on the “pull” side when people demand a product with limited supply, which leads to higher prices. Examples: tickets to a popular show, or tickets out of Russia.

Asset inflation happens on the “push” side when too much money is chasing too little product. It also tends to occur for many products at once. For market goods, a slower supply response means more push inflation, so push inflation is weak for goods whose supply responds quickly (either through production or trade), and it’s stronger for assets.

Financial assets are often limited in supply (by definition). Physical assets like houses are not easy to build quickly — especially in places where NIMBYs stand in the way (self-interestedly, since their houses are worth more in shortage).

I was not alone in looking for inflation (“Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon,” said Milton Friedman in 1963), and it showed up in housing prices* long before Covid-chaos increased demand (all those handouts) and decreased supply (all the supply chain problems) for many products, leading to today’s widespread inflation (this May 2021 column was written just as it was taking off).

What are the magnitudes? US CPI-inflation for the 15 years from 2007 to Aug 2022 was 42% in total (2.8% per year). For the 15 years prior (1992-2007), it was 47%, or 3.1% per year. Now it’s at least 8 percent per year.

So inflation has arrived. What does that mean?

  • Markets are going nuts, with prices rising and (mostly) falling, as traders and investors move away from risk and towards safety.
  • House prices are falling (or rising less quickly), as mortgage rates rise and “how much house you can afford” is falling.
  • Wages are rising as workers (still benefitting from relative labor scarcity) exercise market power and negotiate cost-of-living allowances (COLA).
  • Businesses and individuals with too much debt are facing bankruptcy. Those who can still earn more than they pay might do better if their wages rise with inflation but their debts (paying fixed interest rates) do not. People with fixed income and variable-interest debts are in trouble.

My one-handed conclusion is that we’re going to have a lot of chaos and adjustment as people (many of them facing inflation for the first time in their lives) try to balance between rising interest rates, fluctuating prices and chaotic asset markets.

And that’s before you include the impacts of Covid, climate chaos, wars, etc.

Fun times.

*Amsterdam housing prices peaked in Summer 2008, bottomed out in Spring 2013 and blew through the 2008 peak in Spring 2018. They are now at record highs, or 95% higher than the 2013 low (11% increase per year, since the bottom).


Interesting stuff

  1. Read: Book publishers want to stop sharing of digital books (they want to be paid every time a digital book is read, even if it’s from a library)
  2. Listen: Kieran Setiya on Midlife 
  3. Read: A Roma(nian) story of mining, money and corruption
  4. If you want to see what we missed during Covid — and what humans need — then watch this 🙂
  5. Read about “rewilding” a Dutch river (these actions will help us adapt to the climate chaos). Related: The Colorado drought means new homes have no water (they need to get it with trucks, à la slums in poor countries). Super-related watch: Let beavers convert rivers from straight engineering conduits into chaotic habitats.
  6. Read: YouTube’s quest for ad revenues means it’s not safe for kids
  7. Read: Patagonia shows how following the mission leads to happy workers, more customers and higher profits.
  8. Listen: President Clinton interviews Roman Mars on urban design (good!)
  9. Think: Take the ACE-quiz about childhood trauma. Its 10 questions can help you understand how you might benefit from counseling — and how you may have mental or emotional issues (the average ACE of someone in a US prison is 6). Mine was 1.
  10. Panic: We’re passing climate tipping points: Arctic warming releasing methane and melting Greenland’s ice sheet, leading to 5-8C increase in temperature in 20 years and 7 meters of sea level rise (in ?? years). These changes are moving from theoretical problems, to things needing action to avoid, to inevitabilities that we’ve done nothing to avoid. Let the deluge begin 🙁

H/T to RM

Selling fairytales to the credulous

The Economist recently reviewed Superabundance, a book whose subtitle (The Story of Population Growth, Innovation and Human Flourishing on an Infinitely Bountiful Planet) evokes some combination of delusion and chicanery to anyone aware of our impact on the environment.

I wrote the following letter to the Editors:

Your review of “Superabundance” appears to written without engaging critical facilities.

The book argues that more people are good for our civilization. In doing so, it (or your reviewer) makes a few mistakes when recounting the story of “The Bet” between Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simons, and especially in concluding that Simons’s victory “proved” that more people were a good idea.

First, The Bet was a “sucker bet” in the sense that it concerned resources traded in markets rather than ecosystems that are not. Simons, as a good economist, was right to believe that price signals would respond to scarcity, as they did. Ehrlich, as a ecologist, did not connect the dots between the supply of priced resources and the unpriced harm that their extraction and use inflicted on ecosystems that are not just beautiful to behold but essential to our survival.

Second, the authors’ argument that  “more minds mean more solutions” makes no sense to anyone thinking “on the margin.” We now number 7.75 billion people, many of whom are working on reducing the impacts of population and — more worrying — overconsumption. What is the likelihood of an 8 billionth person discovering the secret to nuclear fusion or direct air capture of green-house-gases? Vanishing, given the human resources already deployed.

In sum, most of our problems arise from our private consumption of goods produced and priced in markets overwhelming shared ecosystems that are not. Yes, there are efforts to price carbon and value ecosystem services, but those efforts are built on political foundations that are too weak and too scarce. Researchers have very clearly shown that our conversion of “natural capital” into private goods and services is not just unsustainable but also grossly unfair to the world’s poorest 6 billion people.

I am not disagreeing with the moral right to have children. I am merely pointing out that more children will not reduce the risks our species faces from climate chaos, ecosystem collapse and crashing biodiversity.

…and then I got to thinking “WTF leads authors to write such books?”

I can think of three reasons:

  1. The authors collect speaking fees from the “business as usual” crowd — memorably portrayed by the “mine-the-asteroid” folks in “Don’t Look Up”
  2. They want to be popular with the “humans are amazing” crowd
  3. They are so tech-optimistic (“it takes more people to fix the problems caused by more people”) that they forget about the limits of technology.

My one-handed conclusion is that a significant share of humans (including the Economist here) are out to lunch. That’s a problem when we should be at our desks, taking action against the consequences of lunch our destructive practices.