Stuff to read

  1. What’s the value of your time? Why do Americans work so much?
  2. Do you take too long to reply to email?
  3. I guess the Dutch are right to be skeptical of over-medication
  4. Amsterdam was bike heaven in the 1950s (and again, in Dutch)
  5. Why rent control doesn’t work (“and then what happens?”)
  6. I agree: The Trump administration sacrifices American political authority for American power
  7. Canada’s community-sourced anti-poverty works work better.
  8. Social media platforms destroy your value to make themselves profits (best analysis I’ve heard in years).
  9. I’ve switched to DuckDuckGo for search. It works, and it’s private
  10. Amsterdam is eliminating parking to leave more space for people. Does your city care more about people or cars?

More Jive Talking!

I’m really enjoying the conversations I am having with academics, LUC alumni and professionals. I’ve published 18 episodes of Jive Talking so far and have plans for many more. 

Here are some recent ones:

And here are some LUC #alumnistories:

You can subscribe to this podcast via iTunes, Google Play or many other platforms. More information here.

Stuff to read

  1. Apples are actually quite similar to oranges!
  2. Sorting useful from useless information 
  3. The background story of the founder of DeepMind (one of the most cutting-edge AI companies) . Related XKCD
  4. Our evolution as cooperative animals (humans are to chimps as dogs are to wolves)
  5. Airbnb claims it has no obligations to help guests filmed by hidden cameras. Shame.
  6. Environmentalists are facing prosecution in totalitarian/populist countries as the results of corruption and incompetence are revealed in collapsing ecosystems and species disappearance. Climate change will only make this worse.
  7. Female politicians are doing a good job displacing men
  8. Wireless phone companies in the US are selling customer location data to anyone with a few hundred $. The FCC doesn’t care.
  9. A look into planned (and psychological) obsolescence.
  10. April fools! Icebergs to save California and Brexit means no weed for British tourists in Amsterdam 

H/T to AM


Water in Venice

I just spent a few delightful days in Venice. It was my third (or fifth?) time in the city, but this was the first time I paid attention to water management. Here’s an overview of what I learned. (Please add to or correct my information!)


Venice was founded by “mainlanders” seeking refuge from attacks. They settled on “islands” in the saltwater lagoon that were basically mud and grass (much like the Dutch did, but without the tidal and storm violence). Over time, these islands became around 120 “campi” (fields), each with its separate church, common areas, and local governance (via collective action). The islands were stabilized by driving trees into the mud (as in Amsterdam) and topped by Istrian stone that looks like marble but is actually a very strong and water-resistant limestone that formed a transition layer between the trees and brick buildings built on top. The campi are now joined by over 450 bridges. (Buildings and bridges were originally wood, but they burned so often that they were gradually replaced by stone and brick, but there’s still some fire risk.)

The Republic of Venice was rich, powerful and imperialist for centuries, so there was a lot of investment in churches, palaces and other public spaces. Decline began in the 1400s, as trade routes shifted from the Byzantine Empire, Silk Road and Middle East to routes around Africa (removing profits from spices, silks and other eastern goods) and across the Atlantic (bringing far greater colonial wealth). Napoleon conquered Venice in 1797, signaling an end to autonomy and beginning of rule (or neglect) from afar.

Most people think of Venice as a group of islands in the lagoon, but the area also includes the mainland, where more people now live. The population of the islands has dropped from a high of 175,000 in the 1920s (mostly due to Murano’s glass industry) to around 60,000 today. (The population was over 100,000 for centuries and only dropped under that level in the 1960s as the mainland industrialized and families moved to cheaper housing there.) It’s important to note that 70% of voters live on the mainland, so they may not favor policies or spending to maintain a place they no longer consider home.

Drinking water

For centuries, drinking water was collected in cisterns (pozzi) underneath each campo. These cisterns were topped by well heads with locking covers that were opened twice per day so that residents could collect their drinking water. The keys were kept by the priest from the local church. My impression is that this system was robust to free-riding due to the small number of users (each household had a designated water collector) and intense social relations. I’m also guessing that anyone subject to community punishment might have been forced to leave the campo, since it’s hard to live without water.

The pozzi are no longer in use, and drinking water comes from the mainland, via the causeway that brings cars, trains, gas and electricity to the islands. We drank the water from taps and public taps without problems. I didn’t look into the cost of drinking water or state (e.g., leaks) of the water network.

Wastewater and waste

For centuries, garbage and wastewater ended up in canals, to be carried away by tides. A system of drains also emptied into canals. In the 1500s, this system was relatively advanced compared to the standard of Europe, but it has not been upgraded to modern standards. At the moment, there’s a mix of septic tanks, sewerage that gets collected, and untreated discharge (30%) that flows into canals. As you can imagine, there’s a smell. It was worst for us on the island of Burano but not so bad on Murano or the main (tourist) islands. We were told that Venice stinks in the August heat and crowding. Don’t go then.

Garbage used to be piled next to canals for collection, but the rat problem got so bad that they instituted a system where households had to bring their waste directly to boats that passed a few times per week. (Businesses use large dumpsters.) This system means that costs are much higher, but problems with smells, mess and rats have fallen. In touristed areas, there were many overflowing garbage cans so I guess the problem is much greater in the high season.

We rented a room in an Airbnb from some young people who were trying to cover their rent (four shared rent of €1,400/month). One told me that garbage fees rise “exponentially” with the number of apartments owned, which was a problem for them, since their landlord owned 7 places and their lease says they pay the cost. This system — like systems of punative water tariffs — is silly. If you want to”soak the rich,” then tax their wealth (property).

Flood waters

Venice is sinking due to natural and artificial subsidence and sea levels are rising due to climate change. Cruise ships in the lagoon area make matters worse by creating waves that undermine foundations.

We visited the “public information point” for the MOSE project that’s supposed to protect the islands by closing three entrances to the lagoon during high tides. The project cost is €billions over budget and politicians have gone to jail for stealing  few billion euros, but it seems that the gates might actually work (or might slowly — or suddenly — fail). They are in final stages of testing and plan the “hand over” in 2022, about 4-5 years late. I just re-visited the Maeslantkering that the Dutch built in 1997 to protect Rotterdam’s ports, and I am not confident that the Italians — who claim to have “learned a lot in the process” — will be successful.

My one-handed conclusion is that Venice is a lovely city that is suffering from decades of underinvestment and a lack of political will to make hard decisions (e.g., banning cruise ships). In the decades to come, I guess that there will be more problems with pollution, mosquito-borne disease,* and crumbling foundations than there will be with sudden floods.

* I was saddened, but not shocked, to see that Italian populists in the government have proposed to allow unvaccinated children into public child care centers. It looks as if the country will be seeing an increase in preventable deaths and diseases due to anti-vax lies and propaganda. I bambini poveri 🙁

Stuff to read

  1. Social infrastructure (e.g., libraries, community relations) is important!
  2. Taking the train across the US and Rick Steves’s life of encouraging Americans to discover Europe and better their lives.
  3. Although it’s sad to see politicians changing the rules to try to avoid corruption charges, I agree that these shenanigans — some of which are reversed by popular protests — are better than the old regime of impunity.
  4. Gaming Disorder: What it’s like to be addicted to video games
  5.  Ljubjlana is impressive. I love it’s car free area. Read the backstory.
  6. An update on Saudi Arabia’s use of subsidized U.S. water
  7. Big Pharma doesn’t need high drug prices for research but profits
  8. Some students are better off choosing trade schools over university
  9. Arranged marriage can work and bring love
  10. Listen to these recent Jive Talking podcasts: Janna Ruiter brings a human touch to space and Martin Keulertz says solar will free the Middle East

Stuff to read

  1. An update on the collapse of recycling in America. (China banned imports of “trash” and American cities cannot afford to run recycling services at prices residents are used to. Either prices rise or the materials go to the landfill.)
  2. A surreal video portraying Capetown when it was near Day Zero (no water)
  3. Jihadists and white extremists have a lot in common (e.g., needing hugs)
  4. Hygiene saves us from infectious diseases but now we’re getting allergies
  5. Inside the world of drop-shippers, theft and counterfeits
  6. Raghuram Rajan is very wise on trade, competition and bank policies
  7. The Cambridge Analytica Facebook manipulation scandal broke one year ago, but politicians have not acted to prevent election manipulation. Fail.
  8. Journalists are suing Trump for threatening their First Amendment rights to safely do their job. Good.
  9. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt on politics, morality, and the coddling of the American mind
  10. This podcast on parenting and breastfeeding makes me question the value of “natural parenting” 

Review: Millennium

This 2016 book (subtitle: “From Religion to Revolution: How Civilization Has Changed Over a Thousand Years”) by Ian Mortimer is a fascinating read. Mortimer says he wrote the book in response to the common claim that “everything important has happened in the last century,” which he takes as a sign of ignorance about history more than the outcome of careful consideration. 

In this book, he looks at “culturally Western” (European) history over the past millennium, one century at a time, to review the people, events and changes that made a difference in that hundred year period. This structure really helps organize a massive set of materials in an easy-to-follow and fun manner. I wish my history courses — I remember one called “Ancient and Medieval History” that was far too heavy on kings and wars — had been taught with this structure.

In this “review” I will mention the big trends for each century and give my thoughts on 1,000 years of human history.

1000s: “The eleventh century was when the Catholic Church changed from being simply a faith into which people were baptised to being a vast, organised system that governed how they lived and died” Page 19. The Church played a big role in promoting peace among believers, which directed violence at outsiders (the Crusades). The Church also helped end slavery (hold that thought!) as “slave classes” became Christians (“slave derives from the Slavs, who had not yet been converted to Christianity” page 25). Peace also made more sense as improvements in structural engineering improved castles that could defend territories. 

1100s: The Medieval Warm Period made it easier to grow food and raise children, so population expanded and fields replaced forests. More monks meant more literacy but also logical and rational debates over religious dogma, sec, crime and faith. An intellectual renaissance driven by the “rediscovery” of Greek and Roman works that Muslim scholars had preserved while Europe was lost in its Dark Ages. The Arabic world also brought new ideas (Page 45: “al-Khwarizmi’s Zij al-Sindhind introduced Arabic numerals, the decimal point and trigonometry to the West”). Rationality and knowledge improved medicine by replacing faith in God with systematic care that relied on cause and effect. The rule of law spread as Popes and kings replaced ad-hoc whim with a unified rules that made planning, choices and consequences more predictable. 

1200s: The number of towns and cities exploded as markets grew (Amsterdam’s charter dates from 1275). Trade led to coinage, banks, credit, insurance and record-keeping. This last innovation increased demand for clerks and thus literacy, which was increasingly provided by universities that set standards of conduct and qualification: 

Students read for the degree of Master of Arts by studying the seven liberal arts, divided into the ‘trivium’ (grammar, rhetoric and dialectic) and the ‘quadrivium’ (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music)… By this time it had become usual for any cleric hoping to attain high office in the Church to read for a Master of Arts degree at a university. Methods of debate, scholarship and attaining knowledge had been formalised and distributed systematically across Christendom. Page 68.

Accountability arose when kings and emperors tried to force their nobles to obey and — when they failed — were forced to accept limits on their power and accountability for their promises. This period initiated the right to trial by jury, an end to arbitrary imprisonment (habeas corpus), and the establishment of parliaments that would advise the king (“parler” means to talk in French). Newly established orders of friars (from the French word for brother, frères) created a bridge between the secular and religious worlds, bringing good works and monastic knowledge to the people. Travel was driven by commerce (going to market; seeking exotic goods) as well as accountability (attending parliament), but mostly by the falling risk to those who ventured beyond their home village and into the “alien” world. Travel brought ideas, freedom, and economic gains. The world began to shrink. 

1300s: The Black Death killed 50-60 percent of Europe’s population and triggered big changes. Rigid institutions on land-ownership, serfdom and wages fell as peasants became more valuable. (One of my favorite papers links the Black Death to social mobility to political competition to colonial/world domination.) The Church lost power, women could choose to marry, and capitalism replaced feudalism. Projectile warfare empowered cheap archers over expensive knights. Nationalism based on language, interest or place emerged as people from difference places encountered each other at markets, parliaments or religious gatherings. Although it created bonds among those within the nation, it also led to conflict with those outside of it. Those “us vs them” conflicts were not accidents. They were encouraged by kings (politicians) who needed to raise armies, collect tax revenues, and maintain domestic peace. Nationalism also meant using vernacular languages over Latin, a move that harmed international relations but aided domestic unity (as well as vastly easing literacy and education efforts). 

1400s: The age of discovery was driven mostly by greed, and it set off the colonial disaster whose effects still immiserate many. Columbus was no saint, but he helped by “exploding the myth that everything worth knowing had already been discovered by the Greeks and Romans” (page 116), which encouraged others to challenge conventional wisdom. Measured standardized time shifted power from God (who made time) and the Church (that rang the bells of time) to humans. Normal people could now measure time, synchronize themselves, and even charge interest, independent of God. Individualism stared back from manufactured mirrors and invaded portraits and letters. Private bedrooms and other habits separated people from their community. Realism replaced abstract images with individual observation, as people related the world to themselves. 

1500s: These summary notes do not capture the insights of this book. The rise of wage labor, for example, led to the invention of breakfast as the third meal for people now working for others. It was a very busy century:

By 1600 most people followed a routine that you will probably recognise. They washed their face and hands and cleaned their teeth when they got up in the morning. They had breakfast and went to school or work for about eight o’clock. They ate lunch around midday, and came home and ate supper with metal knives and spoons off plates, warming themselves at a fireplace. They lay down to rest in sheets on a mattress on a proper bed frame, with their head on a soft pillow. If your main concern is the routine of daily life, you may well conclude that the sixteenth century saw the greatest developments of the millennium. Page 131

The Gutenberg Bible was printed in the mid-15th century, but it was in Latin. Literacy and reading rose dramatically when vernacular-language bibles appeared in the late 1400s-early 1500s. Literacy empowered normal people to learn and communicate without needing permission from priests or aristocrats. Governments began keeping records of births and deaths. Scientists could publish and argue from afar. Women could not be “kept in place” when they could learn from others and teach. The Reformation began as a protest against ungodly norms, but it quickly turned into a conflict between rulers and priests, tradition and innovation. The (now “Catholic”) Church was forced to reform. The many flavors of Protestantism led to debates over conduct and fights between church(s) and states. Although the Catholic Church may have deserved to lose power for its corruption, that loss removed a check on State abuse of power. Better guns increased the randomness of death, thereby removing God’s role in victory and defeat. European nations used their military technology to conquor the world Private violence fell as literacy and organized legal systems made State justice more effective than personal revenge. The need for soldiers also displaced violent men from home to abroad, much to the disadvantage of colonized peoples. 

1600s: The Little Ice Age led to famines,  migration around the world, and increased risk taking as people struggled to survive. The scientific revolution grew out of literacy, rational critique and communication changes from earlier centuries. One good result is that persecution of witchcraft stopped. The medical revolution continued as doctors (i.e., “experts with doctorates”) normalized and tested treatments. The colonial era saw wars, opportunistic migration, governments replaced by occupying forces, freedom for settlers and slavery for many. The West’s business was everyone’s business. The social contract and middle classes arose in the Old World as citizens debated (and fought) for power in relation to the State and freedom to enjoy leisure, respectively. 

1700s: It is said that the British departed their newly independent American colonies playing “The World Turned Upside Down.” Indeed:

By comparison to the taste of previous centuries, which could be salty, sour, bittersweet or just plain bitter as the circumstances dictated, the taste of the eighteenth century has a certain fizz to it – like fireworks and string quartets bursting above the mere mud of human tragedy. Page 189

Improved roads, canals and newspapers made it easier to transport people and goods, and communicate ideas around the world. The scientific method and New World crops (e.g., potatoes) combined to drive an agricultural revolution that lowered food prices and raised population. Liberalism arrived via Voltaire, Rousseau and Turgot, all of them advancing the rights of the individual over the nobility or State. Sexual liberation 1.0 had arrived. Economic liberalism arrived via Adam Smith and others who argued for free trade over government monopolies. Some people started to get much wealthier. Capitalism and coal drove the Industrial Revolution and vast increases in output per worker. Political revolution in America replaced a foreign king with a president restrained by a constitution. The French Revolution lead to the deaths of the king, aristocrats and many citizens in the name of “freedom.”

1800s: 54 percent of the people who lived in the last 1,000 years lived in the last two centuries. Are these centuries half our “total value add”? Hard to say, as quality can matter more than quantity. The forces behind this statistical fact were massive population growth as farm productivity grew and urbanism that lowered the costs of goods and services. “England went from 80% rural in 1800 to 70% urban by 1900” (Page 230). Cheaper transport via railways brought synchronized time, “generic architecture”, industrial trade agglomeration, insanity and empty churches. Steamboats and (safety) bicycles took people far and near at record low costs. Telegrams and telephones sped up communication. Public heath saved millions of lives by discovering, treating and preventing infectious diseases (read my paper). Photography brought the “real world” to distant people and created a new standard of truth. Social revolution driven by popular misery resulted in the franchise for most men, the right for women to work or study at university, and expanded educational, health and pension subsidies. 

1900s: Transport shrank the world, spread benefits and increased volatility:

Rapid modernisation forced the citizens of these nations to go through the same process of skills specialisation that had taken place in Europe and America in the nineteenth century. Many non-Western countries were therefore forced to come to terms with the Scientific, Medical, Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions in the course of just a few decades. It is no coincidence that as transport networks widened, food yields increased, population expanded, urbanisation increased and literacy rose. In 1900 only 13 per cent of the world’s population lived in towns and approximately 20 per cent could read and write. In 2000 half the world lived in urban areas and over 70 per cent were literate. The whole world was forced to compete in a marketplace created by transport links and the movement of capital and goods. Page 267

Wars killed many but survivors shared what remained as they lived longer lives. The media organized the informal flows of information that had intensified over the last few centuries. Electronics gave us cheap powerful toys but also separated us from the “means of production,” just as the invention of “The Future” made us think about sustainability, population, technology and society. Science fiction was a bet on future lives. 

In the conclusion of his book, Mortimer spends some time deciding which century was the most important by ranking them by their impact on meeting needs, as ordered by Maslow (read the book for details).

Then he predicts our future by shifting attention from our “demand” for the good life to the “supply” of resources those goods depend upon. Although I do not agree with the details of his analysis (he worries about running out of oil; I worry about pressures on the commons), I agree that:

The challenge now is not one of expansion but self-containment: a series of problems with which the all-conquering male is ill-equipped to deal. We, Homo sapiens, have never before had to face the problem of our own instincts threatening our continued existence; they have always been for our benefit, the survival of our genes. The frontiers we face now lie not on the horizon – or even in space – but inside our own minds. Page 324, my emphasis.

In this review, I have skipped Morrison’s discussions of each century’s most influential figure, but his discussion of the figure of the millennium leads to this interesting observation:

In highlighting this absence of truly influential women in the past, I hope to draw attention to the capacity for things to be different in the future. I wrote above: ‘The challenge now is not one of expansion but self-containment: a series of problems with which the all-conquering male is ill-equipped to deal.’ The emphasis on the male in that statement was not accidental. The character traits we commonly associate with women, which are less to do with testosterone-fuelled conquests and more to do with nurturing and protection, are much better suited to lead us into the future. If men change in their nature, then no doubt women will do too – and there is a significant danger in that: there will be no advantage for the world if women simply take on male traits. Nevertheless, if there is to be hope for mankind, we must accept that it may be better for us all if the principal agent of change in the twenty-first century is a woman. Page 327

I agree that humanity (and our world) would benefit from less testosterone. 

In his final (post-conclusion) chapter, Mortimer ventures into a future of falling resources and increasing conflict, channeling his inner Malthus and failing (IMO) to appreciate the power of innovation at the same time as he misses the political failures that misdirect our brilliance and greed away from sustainability. After 400 or so pages, I see this omission as a missed opportunity to call for change in community dialogues that could force the political classes to save us from ourselves.

My one-handed conclusion is that everyone should read this book to learn about history, think about human progress, and plan for (surviving) a better tomorrow.

Here are all my reviews.

Stuff to read

  1. Struggling millennials need financial help from parents. Related: It’s hard to get ahead if you’re not “of the right class”
  2. Listen to this discussion on the impact of minimum wages on workers!
  3. Robert Schiller (of “Irrational Exuberance” fame) explains political-economy
  4. Lake Erie is now a “legal person” with the right to not be polluted. Big Ag is upset, but Big Ag can go fuck itself or — better — stop killing neighbors. (NB: This move is/will be challenged in court, so it’s not operational yet.)
  5. Facebook is locked in an unwinnable war with the world it helped create
  6. A former jihadist speaks on the war in Afghanistan
  7. Natives owned land before Columbus, so most settlers were stealing
  8. Police criminals, not “dangerous” neighborhoods
  9. Why is American light rail so expensive compared to other countries?
  10. California has a half-million homeless — and a public health crisis

H/T to SM

More Jive Talking!

I’ve got lots of people lined up for interviews, which means more than one episode of Jive Talking per week. Here are listening/subscription options.

Episode 9 (“Julianne Subia is bringing justice to privacy”)

This episode’s motto: “Work to learn the skills for your next job.”

Julianne is a 22-year-old Dutch-American, from Detroit and currently based in Boston. At Leiden University College, Julianne majored in International Justice with a focus on human rights. Since graduating, she has been taking the opportunity to explore different kinds of career paths, and is now doing marketing for Abine, Inc. Abine ( is a startup that sells tools allowing individuals to take control of their online privacy.

Episode 10 (“Brian Czech wants to save us from ourselves”)

This episode’s motto: “Everyone needs to do their part!”

Brian Czech is the executive director of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE). Czech served as a conservation biologist in the headquarters of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from 1999-2017 and as a visiting professor of natural resources economics with Virginia Tech through most of that period. He is the author of three books: Supply Shock, Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train, and The Endangered Species Act: History, Conservation Biology, and Public Policy. He has published over 50 academic journal articles in more than 20 peer-reviewed journals. Czech is a frequent speaker, commentator, and a regular contributor to the Steady State Herald, CASSE’s blog. He has a B.S. from the University of Wisconsin, an M.S. from the University of Washington, and a Ph.D. from the University of Arizona.

Email me if you or someone you know should be on Jive Talking!