summer reading tip: water, knifes, pistachio nuts and the tragedy of the commons

July 23rd, 2015

Here is a suggestion for a bit of summer reading: The first thing that you need to read (in order to polish up your knowledge of the water rights issues connected to the Colorado river, a.k.a the law of the river) is this New Yorker article from back in may: Where the River Runs Dry – The Colorado and America’s water crisis by David Owen.

Once you are done with this you need to aquire a copy of Paulo Bacagalupi’s new novel The Water Knife and find yourself a place with a swimming pool full of crystal clear water and amper supplies of bottled spring water (you can of course read this book in any other setting, but it is much more enjoyable that way). If you want to maximize your reading pleasure/guilt even more you should also make sure that you have a bowl of pistachio nuts at hand.

the water knife

So why the swimming pool and the bottled water? That is because The Water Knife is set in a dystopian near future where the lack of water has lead to ecological disaster, civil war like unrest and massive human suffering in American south west. States like Texas have become uninhabitable with their populations fleeing into neighbouring states which try to keep the refugees away while struggling to provide water for their own populations. Against this backdrop powerful water barons fight over water rights that grant them the rights to tap water from the Colorado river to provide water for giant, fully enclosed private real estate projects. The novel follows the story of an enforcer of one of these water barons (a so called ‘water knife’) as he becomes entangled in a mesh of conspiracy and mistrust in the dying city of phonic, Arizona.

For me The Water Knife excels both at creating a credible near term dystopia and as a thriller (i even liked the ending which is a rare thing with thrillers).

To increase your reading pleasure i would suggest that once you are about two thirds through the book (around chapter 39 or so) you take a break and listen to episode 640 of NPRs planet money podcast: The bottom of the well, in which the planet money team examines the economic effects of the current drought in California. As i listened to the podcast i was rather surprised to find out that some of the elements of Bacagalupi’s novel (public relief pumps, water consultants hawking state-of-the-art technology to reach deeper and deeper into dwindling aquifers) are already a reality in parts of California.

The planet money episode makes it painfully obvious how our economic system (a.k.a. capitalism) is set up to create the economic incentives to deplete scarce water resources in drought stricken areas for private gain (this is the moment where you want to reach for a hand full of pistachio nuts) and is possibly the most vivid explanation of the concept of the tragedy of the commons that i have come across to far.

victims of digitization….

December 27th, 2014

guess who?

dead stencil cutters

Berlin before the internet (part 2)

November 11th, 2014

from a Guardian piece about digital exiles in Berlin: Another reference to post fall-of-the-wall berlin as that strange place where the internet did not exist yet:

But then, it is the blink of an eye. It’s 25 years since the wall came down. And, in a strange historical collision, 25 years since the world wide web was invented. When I first came to Berlin, the internet didn’t exist and I was still some years away from sending my first email. In a historical time frame, the evolution of digital technology, its capabilities, the never-going-back cultural cataclysm that it’s precipitated, has all happened while most of us, a single generation, were working out what to have for dinner, or who to marry, or how to earn a living; a microscopic sliver of time that has changed not just the world at our fingertips but, we’ve discovered since Snowden, the secret world beyond our fingertips. What is known about us. Who we are. What our records say.

Online content moderators as canaries of the coming robot apocalypse

November 2nd, 2014

While running i listend to a On The Media interview with the autor of the Wired piece on content moderation that was making the rounds this week. After a while the interview addresses the relatively obvious question of why content moderation is still a task that can only be carried out by humans:

Brooke Gladstone: I think that one of the things that struck me is that this work demands human beings clued in to American mores and laws. This has to be done by brute force of eyes and clicking fingers. Is there no alternative to human moderation?

Adam Chen: Well everyone i talked to said that there was no way a robot could do all of this. They can come up with programmes and algorithms that will make it more effective and more streamlined but there is always going to be somebody who has to looks at it. And also the kinds of moderation that si going on is becoming more nuanced and complicated. And so i think you always gonna need people and probably more and more people as time goes on.

What struck me when listening to this is exchange that this is just one instance of a much broader problem, namely the current inability to encode moral judgement in algorithms. Once we have ‘solved’ this issue those poor schmucks who have do do content moderation for the rest of us will be out of job (which sounds as a good thing) but that will also be the moment where have to start dealing with killer drones/robots that do not require human interventions before firing their weapons.

Berlin wonderland

October 10th, 2014

from tumblr:

slavin:

I remember getting there in 1992 and feeling like I had already missed the main event.

Inside my head, the whole period has the quality of dreams, not memories; it was so long ago and the images in my head feel simply too implausible to have been real.

i also remember some of this although i mainly remember longing for more of this as i was only able to make it to Berlin in the weekends. what i find most striking tough, is that this was the end of the pre-internet era, recorded only in (dreamlike) memories (and a few rolls of 36mm film). this fundamentally changed right after this came to an end.

#firstworldproblems as R&D for solving real problems in the developing world

September 29th, 2014

a while ago i used this space to express my skepticism with regards to delivery drones becoming a major thing in the developed world anytime soon (and also hedged that by pointing to the fact that they may be much more useful and economically viable in developing countries). A couple of days ago i came across an excellent essay (Build cargo drones, get rich) by J.M. Ledgard in which he makes the most convincing case for cargo drones i have come across yet.

donkey station in 2014

While his scenario is entirely focussed on the use of drones (which he calles donkeys) in Africa it is interesting to note that the first step in the scenario that het is working on is exactly the same as an experiment just announced by German logistics company DHL. Here are the opening words from Legards essay:

My goal is to help set up the world’s first commercial cargo drone route in Africa by 2016. It will be about 80 kilometres long and will connect several towns and villages. The first cargo drones will carry small payloads of blood to keep alive children who would otherwise perish.

and here is the relevant passage from DHL’s press release announcing their experiment:

For the first time worldwide, medications and other urgently needed goods will be delivered to the island at certain times of the day by DHL parcelcopter. This research project represents the first and only time in Europe that a flight by an unmanned aircraft will be operated outside of the pilot’s field of vision in a real-life mission.

Aside from the fact that it seems that Ledgard has lost its bid for running the world’s first commercial cargo drone route it is interesting to note that the business case is the same here: Emergency deliveries of life-saving, small things by drone.

This is indeed where commercial cargo drones seem make some sense in their current state. What is happening here should be seen in the light of another recent innovation that started as an expensive solution for a first world problem but dramatically changed the lives of millions of Africans once it became technological mature enough to be commoditized: The mobile telephone. So while he may have lost his bet to be the first, DHL is most likely doing a bit of extra R&D work for Ledgard’s scheme to get rich with cargo cones.

p.s. also notice how both implementation are targeted at rural, non-urban environments. the point i made in my earlier post clearly still holds.

The Homeless house cleaners of the sharing economy

September 21st, 2014

If this NY mag article is to be believed you can hire house cleaners who are themselves homeless via www.homejoy.com a San Francisco based startup that has received $40 million in funding. Guess this says a lot about how out of whack the bay area real estate market is, but that is not what the article is about. Instead it tries to shine light on another issue, namely the fact that many recent startups (many of them falling in the broad (and equally meaningless) ‘sharing economy’ category) offer services that are performed by independent contractors instead of regular employees:

To explain why it’s possible for a cash-flush tech start-up to have homeless workers, it helps to know that the man I hired through Homejoy wasn’t a Homejoy employee at all. That’s because Homejoy doesn’t employ any cleaners — like many of its peer start-ups, it uses an army of contract workers to do its customers’ bidding. To hear Homejoy tell it, it’s simply the digital middleman that allows people seeking home-cleaning services to find people willing to do it. [...] As the Washington Post wrote, “Homejoy is just organizing the masses of people who already offer their cleaning services independently.”

While the NY mag article makes it sound as if this is a fairly recent phenomenon (citing an abundance of startups relying on contract workers such as Uber, Lyft, Homejoy, Handy, Postmates, Spoonrocket, TaskRabbit, DoorDash or Washio) this practice is anything but new.

My first job fresh out of high school was working as a bike messenger for Der Kurier in Hannover. As part of that work i was required to wear a company shirt, a company issued messenger bag and could only work on days that they had scheduled me in. I also had do pay them rent for the radio and 20% of the fares that i earned. At that time this kind of ‘employment’ was common for bike messengers in lots of places (i worked under similar conditions for other companies in Hannover, Berlin and New York). The only place where bike messengers were employed and paid by the hour and not by the delivery was in Amsterdam where i worked my last years as a messenger (at one company we even had a pension plan which means that i will draw a pension of €10 per year(!!) once i am 67).

As a bike messenger i never had a problem with being a contractor and being paid by the delivery (at high-demand times that meant more money and motivation to go extra fast and at low-demand times you could always read a book). But to my mind this construction has always been about limiting the cost of labour for employees. The fact that so many ‘Sharing Economy’ startups are working with contractors instead of employees makes it rather obvious that the sharing economy is much less about sharing ressources and much more about reducing the cost of labor. Or as Kevin Roose notes in the NY mag article:

Require a 1099 start-up to reclassify its workers as W-2 employees, and you radically change its ability to lower prices and undercut the competition — which was, in many cases, a key reason investors were interested in the first place.

Equipopulous Europe

September 14th, 2014

i am strangely fascinated by this map that depicts the European Union as 28 equipopulous member states (although i would rather imagine this as administrative territories rather than as states):

Equipopulous Europe by Alasdair Gunn

Twenty-eight equally sized European Union Member States, by Alasdair Gunn

Of course this is utterly unrealistic as (re)drawing borders has been one of the most destructive activities in the history of humanity. So the only way to improve on the current situation would be to do away with border altogether.

Capital or the erosion of the social farbric of the city

September 5th, 2014

capital by rana dasgupta

This is the second book i have read this year that has the words ‘capital’ and ’21st century’ in its title. While this smells a lot like free-riding on the popularity of the other book, it is not [1].

Capital by Rana Dasgupta chronicles the last one-and-a-half decades of the Indian capital Delhi. It is a mix between encounters (not in the indian sense of the word) with (moneyed) inhabitants of Delhi, snippets of history and more abstract reflections on the city in an globalized world.

It is a fascinating book that describes a city that is torn loose from its history and thrown into the maelstrom of globalization. I have been privileged to vist the Delhi a number of times between 2003 and 2006 and observing some of the transitions that Dasgupta describes. I also spend some time among the ‘bohemian artists and intellectuals’ that he found himself among and who were fueled by the energies unleashed by Delhi’s transformation:

But the anticipation of those years has a much larger scope than the city itself. It sprang from a universal sense: What will happen here will change the entire world.

The people i met were cosmopolitans, and they were delighted to see the walls coming down around india. They disdained nationalism and loved the new riches that reached them via the internet. But true to their own skepticism – and the history of anti-imperialist thought in this part of the word – they were also critical of the economic and social bases of western societies – and the last thing that they wanted from this moment of India’s opening-up was that a similar society be established here, Much of their intellectual inspiration came from Western capitalism’s internal critics: from American free software theorists, from the squatter movement in the Netherlands, from artists in Great Britain who challenged corporate food and property cultures, from Harvard and Oxford legal scholars who imagined alternative possibilities for the ownership of seeds, images and ideas.

Mingling with these people has had an enormous influence on my own intellectual development and the same is true for witnessing the transformation of the urban landscape of Delhi. Compared to what was going on in Delhi at the time, the social dynamics back home felt stagnant. The most obvious illustration of this was provided by the Delhi Metro[2]: When i first came to Delhi the first section of the Delhi metro had just become operational, yet by the time of my last visit at the end of 2006 the Delhi metro was already having more daily riders than the entire dutch railway system.

delhi metro - a dream comes true

During those years I have spend a fair amount of time in the city exploring it by bicycle and i recognize lots of places that Dasgupta describes in Capital (most vividly parts of a hike along the west bank of the Yanuma that he describes towards the end of the book). While i am familiar with many of the localities featured in the book i have been almost entirely unaware of the secluded oases of wealth that Dasgupta describes rather vividly. Reading about them, and the role played by the moneyed business elites explains a lot of what i observed but did not really comprehend back then.

This is also where Capital comes very close to Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. Woven through Dasgupta’s book is a recurring theme of how a small business elite is ruthlessly riding the wave of transformation and harvesting almost all the wealth generated by it. In this sense Capital can almost be read as a case study illustrating the effects described by Piketty (r > g) in a turbo charged economic catch-up scenario[3]. In line with Piketty’s main argument Dasgupata recounts how the business elites leveraged existing capital assists (mainly in the form of real estate) to disproportionally benefit from the transformation of the urban economy.

Unfortunately for Delhi and the majority of its inhabitants, this accumulation of wealth is unlikely to benefit the city as a whole. In what is maybe the most important insight provided by Dasgupta he points out that the relationship of Delhi’s elites with the city that provides the foundations for their wealth is fundamentally different from the relationship between the past elites of places like New York, Amsterdam or Berlin and ‘their’ cities. He observes that 21st century elites seem to have stopped to invest in the social fabric of their citie because the incentives to do so have largely disappeared in a globalized world:

Delhi does not hold the overwhelming significance for the super-rich that New York did for the [American elite of a century ago]: it is just a place where the accumulate income, and they have rather little inclination to turn it into an urban masterpiece. They have no personal need of such an enterprise because they have been used to seeing the world’s existing ressources as their own: they do not need to build great universities for themselves because they have already been built for them – in the United States.

Such a feeling is not confined to Delhi. It applies to elites everywhere. members of the Dehi elite are identical to their peers from Paris, Moscow or São Paulo – in that they possess houses in London, educate their children in the United States, holiday in St. Tropez, use clinics in Lausanne and keep their money – offshore, nowhere. That circumstance in which great quantities of private wealth were ploughed back into the needs and concerns of one place, which was ‘our place’, no longer pertains. Not here not elsewhere.


  1. I have to admit that when an internet search for Piketty’s book turned up this one i almost filed it away as click-bait. Only when i noticed the name of the author i realized that this might actually be worth reading.
  2. The impact of the then new delhi metro is beautifully captured in Vivek Narayanan’s poem ‘In the early days of the Delhi Metro
  3. If you trust Amazons frequently bought together feature this seems to be exactly what people doing

The original (fixie) hipster was a cop

August 31st, 2014

from the amazing collection of public domain images extracted from the scanned books of the Internet Archive:

Policeman Bicycle Squad

Image from page 224 of “The Great north side, or, Borough of the Bronx, New York” (1897)