Social tipping points and climate chaos

Social consciousness can overtake rational calculation and lead to tipping points that overwhelm all planning.

These tipping points, which may not look very different from mass panic or mania, can be useful or destructive. Consider:

  • How anti-vaxxers were able to convince many people to avoid Covid jabs.
  • How people have rushed in, then out, then into (and out) of crypto.
  • How Instagram has replaced Facebook (sadly, also the owner of IG) for young people wanting to hang out with friends and for advertisers chasing them (network effects)
  • How “nobody” wants to buy a house in Flint (lead poisoning) or Groningen (fracking-related earthquakes)
  • The rise of K-pop
  • How Americans facing higher gasoline prices didn’t just pay $100 extra per week or month for gasoline, but paid $10-20k to buy a smaller car. (This was in 2009 and maybe also today…)
  • Etc., forever.

Now these trends can be helpful (more fuel efficient cars) or harmful (anti-vaxxers), but they share one common element: those people are not making calculated guesses based on data, risk and modeling (Thinking Slow). They are reacting emotionally and following the mob (Thinking Fast).

All of this means that government and scientific models of “climate change” (which have their own flaws) are likely to be ignored or overwhelmed in a way that leads to “climate chaos,” i.e.,

  • People will abandon an area due to a single weather event.
  • People will suddenly become vegan.
  • Politicians will block food markets, “for safety”
  • People will follow a (cult) leader promising protection or redemption.
  • Etc.

This post is inspired by an event I attended in Amsterdam that focused on land management in response to climate change. At the event, there were discussions that focussed on millimetres of sea level rise or percentage changes in risk. Those discussions were NOT looking at long-term CC impacts (e.g., depopulating coastal areas — the Randstad being most notable in the Netherlands — as they flood), but how to “manage” that inevitability.

IMO, that sort of mierenneuken (focussing on tiny details) was ignoring the potential for tipping points that would screw up all plans. Imagine everyone in Amsterdam trying to drive or bike out of the city. The roads would be too crowded to work. (We saw this in Ukraine’s western borders with people trying to flee the Russians.)

In short: one big storm surge, and the Randstad depopulates 100x faster than predicted.

Aside: What was ironic, or perhaps calculated, in the Dutch discussion is how much energy politicians and banks are putting into the story (or myth) of protecting people’s homes real estate values. What we know is that those values will drop like a rock as soon as owners realize that nobody wants to buy. Such a drop will have a very big impact on bank finances and the government’s ability to raise taxes and pay for all the nice people who work for it. We saw this in Flint and Groningen recently but also in Detroit over the past decades.

That’s one irony. The other is that the Dutch government is now doing “everything it can” to make housing more affordable. The easiest way to do that is announce how fast (currently expensive) areas could be underwater. That would drop prices to affordable in a hurry. Problem solved, eh?

My one-handed conclusion is that most of our work on climate chaos may be worthless in the face of tipping points.

Thanks to PB and TR for chatting about these topics with me

Interesting stuff

  1. Watch: Environmental racism (or lack of justice) in the US
  2. Read: AI System for Real Time Monitoring of Water Quality
  3. Read: Unilever’s push for more single-use plastics
  4. Read: Hoboken Hasn’t Had a Traffic Death in Four Years. What’s It Doing Right?
  5. Read: Wildlife crossings cut down on roadkill, but they may not help with conservation
  6. Read: Stefanie Kelton (of modern monetary theory fame) has delusional ideas of how interest rates and inflation work (e.g., “higher interest rates will give more income to bond holders who will spend it, spurring inflation”… which is suspect at best, but clearly silly when one considers how higher rates put a massive brake on borrowing/debt). My prediction is that MMT will die quickly as its “birth conditions” (the great moderation) disappear and we discover the purpose of interest rates: putting a price on money.
  7. Watch: Utilities often abuse their monopoly power (regulatory fail)
  8. Listen: The business of porn, a short podcast series
  9. Watch: Misinformation on social media is much worse for non-English speakers… because US social media companies (FB, YT) don’t have enough foreign-language moderators (oh… and what algorithm?!?)
  10. Read: Researchers now estimate that humans cannot “tolerate” (=not die) wetbulb temperatures above 31C (87F @100% humidity), which is much lower than the widely used cited figure of 35C. Some people now experience these temperatures (and feel terrible) but climate chaos will make them more common, in more places. Time for the matrix?

H/T to RM

Review: Cork Dork

I can’t remember who recommend this book to me, but I am glad they did. It is about wine, and the weirdnesses we attach to wine, sometimes for good reasons, but often not. It’s a good companion to a movie like Sideways for those people who have a tendency to put their noses too deep into their glasses.

Bianca Bosker sets out with a huge ambition (to become certified as a sommelier, aka “cork dork”), and she learns a lot on the way from those kind enough to give their time (or too slow to escape her persistence). This book is her record of that process of going from “red or white?” to someone able to recognize the smell of a particular grape, vintage AND region.

I won’t go into step-by-step details, except to say that the process gives some excellent structure to writing that balances between funny failure and caustic critique of the many steps between the grape and your glass.

The good news is that most of us can drink tasty wine for $30 per bottle (these are restaurant prices, so maybe $10 from the store?). The bad news is that anyone who wants “something different” — and especially if they want something that’s more handmade (a thousand cases per year) than industrial (a thousand cases per day) is gonna be paying $100 per bottle ($30 in store) and up, until you get to showoff bottles ($500 and up) that are not really worth the extra Benjamins.

Along the way, I made some notes:

  • The per-glass price to a customer is roughly the per bottle price to the restaurant.
  • If you’ve heard of the grape (e.g., cabernet sauvignon), then you’re likely to be over-paying for such a crowd-pleaser. Weird grapes are better value for money.
  • Sommeliers can steer you to more expensive wines, but they are more likely to get excited about finding “the most interesting you have for $30,” since they can actually put their knowledge to work.
  • Intellectuals and scientists have neglected smell as a sense, which is why we know so little about it in comparison to other senses. It’s also hard to collect anything like “objective” data on smell, since we have different sensitivities to different smells and can’t easily explain what we smell to others. It’s much easier to describe what we see or hear…
  • A “dry” wine has turned all its sugar into alcohol, so its stronger and less sweet.
  • Rules rules rules: “Don’t pour men before women, don’t pour hosts before their guests, don’t pour more for one person than another. And God help you if you drip. Don’t pick up glasses to pour, and don’t take more than two pours to fill one glass. Don’t empty the bottle the first go-around. Don’t ever block the label with your hand. Don’t look awkward. Don’t fidget. Don’t pour from the left. Don’t walk clockwise. Don’t ever swear. Don’t make guests ask you the vintage. Don’t be so eager. Don’t be so serious—you don’t want to be a funeral director, do you? Don’t be so shy. Don’t say “um.” And for the love of God don’t look so nervous. This is supposed to be fun.”
  • “Flavor” happens in the mouth. “Taste” combines flavor, smell, and even touch (feel).
  • Humans can smell more accurately than dogs, sometimes, and smell can help us avoid dangers, such as sick people or food that’s gone bad. Protip: If the wine is corked, then say something. I got a corked glass once and sent it back. I was amazed to see that it came from a nearly-empty bottle, which meant that three people before me hadn’t noticed that the wine tasted (=smell + flavor) like shit corky-syrup.)
  • Marketing? “These mass-market wines are what you see over and over again in every liquor store you visit, or on the laminated menus in chain restaurants. They usually have critters on the label, or puns that get chuckles around the office water cooler (“Marilyn Merlot,” “Seven Deadly Zins”). And they drive oenophiles crazy. Wines like Yellow Tail have all the delicacy of “raspberry motor oil,” railed biodynamic winemaker and cellar celebrity Randall Grahm in one of his newsletters. To the elite, these are overmanipulated, nurture-trumps-nature, factory-made Frankenwines
  • Lots of marketing: “Anything that costs $500, it’s not about wine. You’re not buying wine. That’s a collectible,” said Orley Ashenfelter, a Princeton University econometrics professor who collaborates with Karl on the Journal of Wine Economics. Putting aside speculation or sentimental value, when it comes to flavor, “there’s no justification for a $500 bottle of wine. I guarantee you I can get you one that will cost only $100 and you won’t be able to tell it apart,” he said. “The world is full of people buying bullshit
  • All the crazy words associated with taste (start with “forest fruits” and keep going to “wet socks”) are there for two reasons — pretension and communication — that are hard for normal people to separate (=they’re meaningless). These “flavor words” were only invented in the 1970s, so Churchill (a legendary drinker) was not asking for a “lively” wine with “a dose of rich mineral character,” and which was “very refined with a driving slate imprint that intensifies the already seething soil/fruit battle.
  • Sommeliers who cannot afford to taste the wine menu are not going to be able to say more than “others have chosen this” when it comes to recommending expensive bottles. Part of their high price, therefore, is the cost of helping the somms learn what’s on offer.
  • Is there such a thing as “super smell”? Maybe for some people but that’s not what somms specialize in: “Though I’d initially wondered about super-noses and über-tongues, I no longer had any doubt: Advanced flavor-fanatic sommeliers don’t possess better physical equipment, like ten times as many taste buds or thousands of extra olfactory receptor genes. Rather, it’s their manner of thinking that is unique. They perceive and interpret the flavors they encounter in a more developed way, and that filter changes everything.

This is an entertaining fun book. If you like wine, then read it. FIVE STARS.

Here are all my reviews.

Interesting stuff

  1. Read: Natural (now more like “worsened by us”) disasters are more frequent, which makes each one harder to recover from (and makes us poorer, by diverting resources from “adding” to “staying the same”)
  2. Read: Legalise ecstasy and cannabis to combat drugs crime in NL. Yep.
  3. Read: Why It’s Impossible to Rent a Car Right Now (markets are taking time to adjust)
  4. Listen: Nature needs rights to be protected from us — and Nature is getting them.
  5. Read: The real gentrification villain? Not the hipsters, but the boomers preventing new development in their neighborhoods.
  6. Watch: The French Fry King Of Rio de Janeiro
  7. Watch: John Oliver on databrokers selling your data to anyone. (I can’t find an update, to see if he exposed the “members of congress” he was targeting.)
  8. Watch: Some insights into Christiana (Copenhagen).
  9. Listen: Rethinking (Neo)liberalism? (An excellent discussion of a many-sided topic).
  10. Read: Lead exposure dropped 3-6 points off the IQs of Americans born in the 60s and 70s (that’s me…. aarg!). Related: Read this post on lead, crime and poverty and another on (modern) air pollution.

The Dutch nitrogen crisis

The Netherlands is one of the highest (per capita) GHG emitters in the EU. It is also responsible for a lot of local pollution, mostly due to its intense agricultural production (mostly meat and dairy, mostly for export).

The government has promised to improve its pollution record, but it’s often tried to avoid action.

Now the country is in a “stikstof (nitrogen) crisis” in which nitrogen emissions (a local pollution) need to be reduced by 50-70 percent by 2030.

From what I’ve heard (correct me if I’m wrong), the government is focussing on identifying and closing farms (responsible for most of the domestic nitrogen emissions), and this “plan” is attracting a lot of opposition. Just imagine thousands of angry farmers.

This method of “efficiently” finding/closing farms is neither politically nor economically efficient, as bureaucrats will have to pay a lot if “targeted” farmers don’t want to shut down. The bureaucrats will also be unpopular for “attacking” certain farms.

What the government should do instead is set up a “cap (and reduce) and trade” system where all large farms get a certain number of “rights” (say 1000 in total) and a schedule of “eroding” those rights by 50% by 2030.

Such a system will allow farmers to decide if they want to stay in business (buying rights), close down (selling rights) or change their methods (relieving them of the need to have rights to operate).

My one-handed conclusion is that bureaucrats never know more than farmers on either how to farm or who should retire.

Use market incentives. Farmers already do!


Interesting stuff

  1. Listen: Land taxes are a good idea (I am wavering between land-only and land+improvements taxes, but both are easier/better than taxing income!)
  2. Watch: The big tech monopolies (Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple) need stronger regulation.
  3. Listen: Some wisdom on where markets are going and why many will still go down.
  4. Read: Undirected consumerism, supply chain snafus and confused retailers are creating messes of wasteful excess and shortage
  5. Watch: A nice guy’s guide to dealing with a bad cup of (paid) coffee.
  6. Read: People are already facing “unlivable heat” (wetbulb temperatures over 35C) in this Pakistani city. Surviving, yes, but not thriving.
  7. Read: Here’s a good update on the clusterfucked mismanagement of the Colorado River. I emailed its author these thoughts: Sadly, the REAL harm is not to farmers (who need to get behind cap and trade of scarce water), but the environment. The Colorado Delta is dead, and Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin is in trouble and/or dying… in both cases due to excess “take.” More ecosystems will collapse, and air conditioning will not replace them.
  8. This essay on the “internet middle class” of people who make a modest living through internet activities (writing, performing, selling stuff) stuck me as a bit sad. Yes, supporters from anywhere in the world might find you in random ways, but that process, and the endurance of your (patron-creator) relationship, is fragile and one-dimensional compared to working for local supporters. Eighteen years ago, I described [pdf] how Google (and the internet’s “winner-takes all” dynamic) would undermine creativity by removing the “middle-class” performers and teachers. I think that’s still true, to a degree. I’m personally thinking about (one day) moving from my paid job to an unpaid retirement where I do mostly the same as I do now (save the faculty meetings), as the “work for the internet” option seems to have too many negatives.
  9. Listen: This discussion with a Canadian of the slow supply response from the oil/gas industries surfaced an interesting problem: So many people are refusing to enter this “unethical” industry, and so many people are retiring now (with high share prices that allow them to cash out), that there’s a risk of serious price increases due to unyielding demand. Be careful what you ask for!
  10. Listen to this podcast episode on why a liberal arts training provides useful tools for a happier — and more successful — life.

The high cost of permit parking

That’s the title of a new paper that I just uploaded on SSRN.

The paper is “interesting” for its critique of weaknesses in Amsterdam’s parking policies, which the city is (perhaps unjustly) famous for.

It’s also interesting for the “ratio” method of comparing market and bureaucratic prices, to see if they are in balance.

I am definitely looking for feedback/corrections/advice on the paper. please forward to anyone who may have an interest!

The high cost of permit parking” (with Karolina Kneller)

Abstract: In 1992, Amsterdam’s voters pushed for a more-aggressive autoluw (fewer cars) policy, but progress has been slow. Hourly parking tariffs are the highest in the country, but car registrations are higher than in 1992. We explore the gap between promise and results by making a spatial comparison of parking prices (set by bureaucrats) to living prices (set by market forces). We assume that a balance between supply and demand for open spaces will result in a relatively stable ratio of these prices across the city. We do not find such stability.* The normalized price of parking permits (for residents) is much lower than the normalized prices of living space or hourly parking (for visitors). Cheap permits encourage car ownership, which takes public space away from other uses. Our recommendation, in line with that of Donald Shoup (an inspiration for this study), is to increase the price of permits and let neighborhoods spend the proceeds on improving their streets.

*one-handedly 😉

Interesting stuff

  1. Read: Shipping containers have lowered the cost of handling ocean-freight by 99 percent, but they fall off ships all the time (and increasingly so, due to climate chaos), which leads to some weird stuff floating around.
  2. Listen: George Monbriot on why and how we need to change our food systems
  3. Read: As the Great Salt Lake Dries Up, Utah Faces An ‘Environmental Nuclear Bomb’ — this story surprised me, as the Mormons (who dominate Utah politics) were famously good at managing water. It seems that THAT culture has been replaced by excess growth and water use. The GSL drying up, like the Aral and Salton “Seas,” exposes toxic dust but also shows the magnitude of excess use — a vision that we do not — but should — have of disappearing groundwater. More: Paul Krugman agrees with me and makes the (obvious, but important) point that there’s no chance of addressing climate chaos if Utah can’t even save the GSL.
  4. Read: How San Francisco Became a Failed City (but may be coming back from the edge of woke-stupid?): “…these are parables of a sort of progressive-libertarian nihilism, of the belief that any intervention that has to be imposed on a vulnerable person is so fundamentally flawed and problematic that the best thing to do is nothing at all. Anyone offended by the sight of the suffering is just judging someone who’s having a mental-health episode, and any liberal who argues that the state can and should take control of someone in the throes of drugs and psychosis is basically a Republican. If and when the vulnerable person dies, that was his choice, and in San Francisco we congratulate ourselves on being very accepting of that choice.” Fuck.
  5. Read: How crypto giant Binance became a hub for hackers, fraudsters and drug traffickers (and that $2.3 billion is MAYBE 0.1% of the volumes banks  launder, so keep that in mind…). Related: Hackers switch to email-fraud (e.g., sending a fake invoice from a “trusted” email).
  6. Read: Constant bargain hunting makes us value all the wrong things about shopping (like the value of the item itself).
  7. Read: Cities need to absorb water to reduce flood damage
  8. Read: Conservative (US) judges are “mining” linguistics databases to justify their opinions by selecting past uses of words
  9. Listen: Steve Levitt discusses his failure to understand geo-engineering but also the many troubles of the IPCC and other climate-related programs
  10. Read: Writers describe how they revise (and revise and revise)

H/T to ED

Review: Longitude

Since I got into watches, I’ve heard more about more about Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, a book by Dana Sobel that was published in 1995.

The book is short (191 pages) and blazing read, which stems more from Sobel’s clear and direct style than from the simplicity of the plot, which takes many twists and turns between the 1714 announcement of the “Longitude Prize” and its ultimate (but anti-climatic) award 60 years later.

What was the Longitude Prize and why did it matter? 

After “just a few too many” maritime disasters resulting from ships now knowing their correct longitude, the British Parliament offered the  prize to direct inventors and scientists towards finding a solution. What was the problem? Sailors at sea could easily identify their latitude, or distance from the equator, by observing sun’s noon height above the horizon, but they could not determine their longitude, as that distance could only be known relative to a starting point to the east or west.

Two main solutions were proposed. The first method tracked the difference in time between the starting point and the current location (comparing “local noon” to time at the starting point), which would tell you how far you were, in terms of the 24 hours it takes for the Earth to rotate. The second method compared the “star map” above one’s head to a published guide of star locations, to understand where in its rotation the Earth stood.

The first method was a challenge because there were no clocks (let alone watches) that could stay accurate as a ship sailed and swung and dipped and heaved across the seas, through changing temperatures and humidities. Few clocks could stay within 5 minutes per day, let alone the 5 seconds per day needed to win the prize. The second method was a challenge because it required mapping stars from different locations on Earth across the 16-year cycle it took the Earth, while wobbling, to pass through its “star cruise.” The second method was also useless in cloudy conditions or when the moonlight was too bright.

A determined problem-solver

The hero of the story is John Harrison, a carpenter-turned-clockmaker who spent most of his life (from 20 to 80 years old) inventing, refining and improving various clocks, and then finally a pocket watch (see the cover image). The villain(s) of the story are the astronomers who blocked recognition of Harrison (they were in charge of awarding the prize) while promoting their preferred “star solution.”

Although I am no watchmaker, I was impressed by the many advances that Harrison created and refined, such as a constant-tension winding spring (to replace a pendulum) and bimetallic components whose differing reactions to temperature maintained the same shape (length or thickness) in hot and cold conditions.

Although the Longitude Board could should have recognized Harrison’s victory as early as 1737 (and certainly by 1761), it issued smaller awards here and there, to encourage several contestants, before finally recognizing Harrison (after intervention by King George III) in 1773. Harrison was 80 years old. One of the main reason’s for his ultimate success was the ease of using his clocks/watches, which gave a location quickly and easily in comparison to the star method, which required several hours of calculation.

In these days of GPS and atomic clocks, most of us do not struggle to know our time and location, but these “modern delights” are only due to the efforts of determined, creative geniuses like Harrison. (NB: His pocket watch lost 5 seconds over 80 days in 1761; a modern, Swiss-certified “chronometer” — such as a Rolex — is allowed to lose 10 seconds per day!)

I give this book FIVE STARS for its compelling and interesting story.

Here are all my reviews.

Interesting stuff

  1. Read: Rent-the-Runway struggles with its “sharing” business model — is it sustainable? Profitable?
  2. Read: “As transformative investing grows, even if it remains a niche part of the financial market, emphasizing how it’s different from other kinds of ethical investing will become even more important, especially if it wants to avoid the haziness that surrounds socially responsible investing.”
  3. Read: Airlines take seating space and then sell it back — and you’re thrilled!
  4. Read: China’s new vassal: Vladimir Putin (the tables have turned)
  5. Read: Climate chaos: More Dengue in Singapore — and worldwide.
  6. Listen: Demographics, population growth and more (or less?)
  7. Watch: The ebb and flow of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
  8. Read: Climate change damages (and other problems with life) can be radically reduced by educating people (women in particular) in poorer countries — or everywhere!
  9. Read: How harmful is social media? (Not as harmful as toxic personalities)
  10. Laugh (cry?):