Kill Your Status Quo
...Looking back at 2018 will go up Jan 2019
Mission Viejo, 14 Jan 2018
I'm in California for the first time in 18 months or so. I like the weather, the hills and the social scene around Berkeley, but many aspects of life here (from the incompetent migration process to the burger-joint-surrounded-by-cars dining experience) reaffirm my decision to migrate to the Netherlands. That said, it's nice to eat Mexican food and try various products from the recreational marijuana stores. If there's one thing the Americans are good at, it's innovating in food and drugs :)
It's been nice to catch up with friends and family, but it's clear that relations weaken with the square of distance, measured in travel time. That "fact" might be violated by the exception you're about to mutter, but I'm pretty sure that you'll agree that it's really nice to have a neighboring friend who you might see a few times per day. Perhaps that's why we do (or should) make friends with people we work with and live near?
2017 was very busy for us (I'll talk about me and then add a bit about Cornelia). Just looking through my Amsterdam photos, I can see that I went to a half-dozen conferences and many other events in Amsterdam and Den Haag (where I work). We also went to parties, had numerous dinner guests and enjoyed Amsterdam pretty much every day, rain, shine or snow. (Ok, I'll make an exception for wet snow. It sucks.)
I was also very busy at work. Besides my normal teaching at Leiden University College (environmental economics, managing the commons, entrepreneurship), I also worked on the college council (trying to understand and improve our policies), ran the "City Water Project" to improve urban quality, organized an entrepreneurial meet up (The Circus), published a second collection of "visions" about life plus 2 meters (i.e., in a climate-changed world), and published a few academic papers. This work was sometimes frustrating and sometimes exciting but it was definitely too much. That's why I'm handing the Circus over to some other people, closing down the City Water Project, and declaring Volume 2 to be the final output of the life plus 2 meter project.
For 2018, I have pledged to "simplify" and do no new projects -- with exceptions for learning more Dutch, publishing The Best of Aguanomics for the blog's 10th anniversary, and transitioning to a new blog in which I will take on larger-than-water political-economic issues (name, etc to be announced in July). So, yeah, I'm still working on doing less work ;)
While I've got your attention, I wonder if you've been thinking about the impacts and downsides of smart phones and social media? For me, the security/privacy risks (e.g., someone posing as you drains your bank account) and strong correlation with disinformation, status anxiety, miscommunication, and wasted time has led me to quit Facebook (this time for good ;), which gives me more time for books, projects and face-to-face communications. I also hid most of my YouTube videos and uninstalled trackers on all my sites as they facilitate manipulation by data brokers.
Turning back to mobiles and social media, I think that these technologies are terrible for young people's social skills and harmful to most adults -- especially those who drive and text! I'm not sure if any government is going to take on the advertising companies manipulating us via "social media," but they should. (Facebook makes $8 per user; even assuming Americans are "worth" $50/person, wouldn't it be better to allow FB users to subscribe for $1/week, if that gave them a better interface without fake news, fake friends and fake FOMO? The current model of FB, snap, insta, etc. is to manipulate users to benefit whoever is paying. Sad.)
Cornelia has been really busy bringing Sustainable Amsterdam to the masses. Last year, she designed and led 50 "study tours" for students, politicians, activists, bureaucrats and businesspeople who want to know more about the circular economy, public spaces, smart cities, mobility, and so on. At TEDx (Amsterdam University College) she gave a talk about connecting people (watch it; also watch this excerpt). If you're into twitter, then follow her ;)
Oh, but you're probably here for the travel photos, right? You're in luck! We went to Japan in July (don't do that... omg the heat!) and had a great time. Here's a hundred out of the 2,800 photos of that fascinating country, which is on my short list for revisits. We also visited Estonia, which is well ahead of everywhere in delivering secure digital citizenship and many services. At the end of the year (just a few weeks ago), we flew to Toulouse and traveled by train to Barcelona. I've only posted photos for the first few stops for now but more will come. (What about Catalan independence? I do not see their moral claim to independence, i.e., "the rest of the country is discriminating against us", as they have language rights, retain lots of local power, etc.
Speaking of digital, I just want to mention that I am a "crypto-optimist" on the potential (and real) benefits and uses of crypto-currencies and blockchain ledgers. As an economist, I am fascinated to see how rumors, competition, transaction costs, marketing and other elements in the mix of "smoke and fire" are interacting. I'm definitely on the side of "as important as the internet," so let's see what happens. (In the last few days, prices have dropped 30% Fun! Terror! Opportunity!) If you want to read a good book about the start of bitcoin, then I recommend this one.
Trump? Do I need to say anything about the worst president ever? I really upset by his willful distruction of many important American institutions (diplomatic relations, environmental data collection and regulation, integrating migrants into the melting pot, ad nauseum). Such destruction and distraction is likely to knock America out of first place in world influence (Hello China!) if not out of first place in the "developed world." There are no other rich countries of America's size, but the EU may be a contender as a region that has better regulations, stronger cultural differentiation (and thus better localization), and a drive to reform in the face of Russian aggression (sorry, "buffer management"). I haven't thought much about this until now, but I can see a lot of potential. Europe is less homogenous than the US, but it struggles with the same regional development, corruption and political incompetence as the US. The question is how "the center" (Washington, very powerful compared to Brussels) helps or hinders development. Washington DC is a toxic cancer these days, so Brussels merely needs to avoid fuck ups. Let's see how it goes.
On a final note, I will repeat my final words of Life Plus 2 Meters: "Take care of your family, be friends with the neighbors, and strengthen your community. Relationships, not technologies, are the key to surviving and thriving.
Amsterdam, 15 Jan 2017
Well, I am glad that I only do this once per year, because reading last year's (in preparation for writing now) has really daunted me. Please know that this summary is not to daunt you (or brag), but only because it's hard to "keep up" with people if you don't see them so often, and there are so few people in the world with whom I have constant interaction (perhaps this excuses Cornelia for not reading, but even she occasionally learns something from these updates :)
As I get older, I think experiences are more continuous than discrete. When we're in school, we "take algebra" or "graduate a grade" but life is not nearly as tidy. Each day, conversation, and event adds a little and takes a little -- staining and bending us into different people. The French talk all the time about the influence on terroir on the "personality" of their wines, and surely we are affected by the lands we live in and our interactions with their peoples. I'm not sure about your circle of friends and colleagues, but mine are everywhere, so it's not easy to keep up-to-date on events in everyone's terroir, let alone understand how those events matter to them. The rise of nationalist populism (Brexit, Trump, Erdogan and Putin, etc.) directly contradicts my perspective on whom I choose for friends, what lifestyles are acceptable, etc. I hope that my "cosmopolitan" ecosystem survives the current trend of willful ignorance and mistrust. I am glad to be living in the Netherlands while we wait to see how this echo of 1914 plays out.
(Oh yes. And don't mistake this type of communication as a "listen only." I do this for myself, but also because I think we often overlap interests in random ways. I'd love to get your updates by email, skype (better), or face to face (best). Drinks on me in Amsterdam!)
Now, to start...
We spent last January in Morocco, which I had last seen 20 years earlier. The annoying touts were still there, but there were also signs of progress (booking places on the internet) and tradition (generous hospitality and fierce bargaining). Fes was still an interesting market town, Essouira a creative and relaxing place, and Marrakech a smoggy messy place. We also visited Meknes, went camel camping in Merzouga and took the back roads through NKob and Skoura.
Right after returning, I did some water policy consulting in Astana, Kazakhstan (Borat is supposed to be from there, but the film was made in Romania). Astana was -30C in January and the coal smog gave me massive headaches. The job was also annoying in many ways, as it seems that the government suffers from a mix of conservatism, incompetence and distraction. (How else would you explain contaminated drinking water in a country as rich as Chile or Greece?) That modern planned city has some pretty bizarre architecture (pix from Jan and May visits).
Then I was BUSY teaching in 3 courses at LUC. Besides Global Challenges Prosperity (exposing first year students to the relations between markets, governments and community), I also taught the first course in the Social and Business minor. This was to help students "get a feel" for what entrepreneurs do (create value) and how they do that (usually with a lot of help). I'm very excited (and a bit proud) of how the 6 courses in this minor are really exposing students to some important ideas -- and pushing them to see if they work. I taught the last class in the minor this Fall, and it was fun (scary?) to see them selling burgers every week ("we deliver to rooms b/c students are lazy") or trying to get students from across several universities to meet each other (this one kinda failed). I'm restarting the cycle in a few weeks, so that's exciting. I also taught courses on environmental and growth/development economics. (Environmental economics is about actions and impacts that shift costs onto others; growth is about more while development is about better.) Student papers and class discussions were really great in those classes.
It was around April that I dropped the idea of a book (One Handed Economist, see last year) in favor of Life Plus 2 Meters, a project on how we will adapt (or not) to climate change. I started Lp2m after reading two papers that indicated we were underestimating the physical and economic risks from climate change. (Read more here, but the main idea is that damages are going to be bigger and sooner than the scientific consensus expects.) I was having beers with a guy when it occurred to me that the best way to do this project was by asking many authors to write their own perspectives on what life will be like in that world. I ended up getting 29 "visions" from 27 authors from a variety of backgrounds. I am very proud of this project and their writing, so I invite you to read the book we published (free PDF or $4 paperback/kindle) -- there's some really interesting stuff!
Meanwhile, we enjoyed Kingsday (best party of the year), I visited California and Cornelia and I went on "conference dates" in Paris and Bucharest.
As an "researcher," I published articles on the political-economy of water metering in the UK (it need not hurt the poor, but it is) and desalination (governments like to put costs and benefits on different groups). I also was quoted or gave talks about 15 times and published "pop" articles criticizing bad accounting in water footprints, the environmental cost of water leaks, and so on.
If you're into this stuff, then subscribe to my newsletter (here's the archive). This recent video ("why we we so bad at managing water?") is pretty accessible too.
The summer was all about South America. I had wanted to see more countries in the region after trips in Peru, Ecuador and Colombia, so we returned for 6 weeks in that region's winter (!). Long story short, it was expensive and often disappointing. Argentina calls itself "The most European country in Latin America." We called it the "most Eastern European." Chile was totally functional in comparison, with some cool things to see. Bolivia was cheaper, more exotic and less functional (in a normal, developing country way). Paraguay was WEIRD. The Iguazu Falls region was really nice (but a LONG way to go), and the best country was the last: Uruguay, a country where abortion and marijuana are legal (church and state separated long ago) and markets function. I like their perspective of "we're small, so we do quality over quantity." We had one attempted pickpocket (Santiago's subway) and one bag pilfered (at the airport somewhere in Bolivia), but no major issues. (I had an allergic rash that lasted 2 months from sandflies in the Bolivian Amazon. It was a daily reminder of how we should have left a lot more nature intact a lot earlier. Nature provides lots of "ecosystem services" but it makes no sense to live in an environment that sees you as food.)
Oh, and that trip marked my "entrance" to the group of people who have been to over 100 countries. That experience has given me more respect for and experience of diversity [more soon]. Speaking of diversity, looked deeper into our family tree. On my mom's side, one grandparent came from "Germans" who had lived in the US since before Independence while the other only arrived at the turn of the (20th) century. My dad's "English" side was much more interesting, as he's one-third "Indian". Read more here.
We returned to Amsterdam for two more months of "Indian summer" (my quip that climate change will bring California weather to the Netherlands may come true!) and back to school. I taught common pool resource management for the third time. This is a fun class in which students need to work together to solve collective problems (sound familiar?). I make it harder for them to collaborate, so there's a LOT of learning. Here are LUC photos from the rest of 2016.
I'm writing a lot more about the commons in my blog posts. Here's my review of Dark Age Ahead, Jane Jacob's 2004 book about a return to illiberalism and tribalism and -- related -- how Trump's victory built on alienation. (I had Occupy and the Tea Party pegged long ago.*) I decided to avoid Facebook as much as possible after watching HyperNormalization because "social media is neither social nor media." If you're looking for something more cheerful to read, then here's my attempt to relate the different contributions of each social sciences.
* Someone said it was "a little annoying" that I sometimes point out when I'm right, but I also point out when I am wrong. My professinal reputation depends on (a) being right, (b) learning from mistakes and (c) separating opinion from fact.
Speaking of cheerful, Cornelia's work at Sustainable Amsterdam (and with several other organizations) has really taken off in terms of her leading study tours that explore and explain how Amsterdam has saved itself from the car (they were going to put highways thorough the city in the 60s!), and how it's using innovation and mobility to make the city richer, safer and better for young, old, rich and poor. Here's her TEDx talk from Jacksonville, FL.
(Ahem, back to me...) After I took a quick trip to give a talk in Barcelona (and rushed back to comment on DiCaprio's pretty good Before the Flood), we went to Portugal for holidays and enjoyed it a lot. (FYI, they are recruiting students and creatives with "cheap cost of living" if you're thinking of visiting or staying.)
Just a few days ago, I did an AMA ("Ask Me Anything") on reddit, saying "IamA water economist from California/Amsterdam, here to talk about (non) adaptation to climate change and how we will cope with unusual droughts, floods, etc. Life is about to get MUCH more interesting (in many bad ways)." That effort got me 40 upvotes (my last one got 700+), which greatly disappointed me -- especially as my photo submission of "Π = 3.14...", written in stones on a Portuguese sidewalk got nearly 2,000 upvotes at the exact same time. I'm pretty worried about how well our communities are going to cope with climate change (let alone populism), and those numbers don't make me feel much better.
Take care of yourselves, your family, your friends and your community.
ps/If you want to see why we're so excited about Amsterdam, then check these out.
Amsterdam, 3 Jan 2016
We're off to Morocco tomorrow, so I'm trying to remember lots of good stuff in haste!
One year ago, I was in California to see my dad and print the Water Smarts Calendar. At the end of the month, we moved into the flat I bought on Wilhelminastraat (she was queen from 1890-1948), a quiet street in a nice neighborhood. I like this location because it is between the Vondelpark and Kinkerbuurt, i.e., gentrified and immigrant neighborhoods (similar to the scene in East Van). I loved the apartment because it was small (50m2 with one bedroom with an office two floors above), affordable (€ 220,000) and in lovely condition (the sellers were librarians). From here, I can ride my bike to the train station (to go to work in Den Haag) or center of Amsterdam in 10-15 minutes!
In February, it was back to school at Leiden University College (photos to end of school year), where I was co-teaching Global Challenges: Prosperity (one of four multi-disciplinary classes for first year students) and supervising graduating students' capstone (bachelors) theses. I also gave some talks (and was named "best instructor") at a utility regulation training in Budapest. During break, we headed to Paris for a week after Cornelia came back from a study trip to Istanbul (they seem to like sprawl). When I wasn't teaching, I was busy with Kingsday (a huge Dutch party), the Beyond Festival (like Burning Man), conferences in Groningen, Maastricht and Helsinki, fixing my broken "vintage" bike and celebrating Cornelia's birthday. These "events" took place amidst many other, awesome activities in Amsterdam.
During the summer, we went on a two-week trip to Bilbao, Zaragoza and NoWhere (European Burning Man regional), which was really fun, but hot and exhausting. Luckily, we could relax in Amsterdam. Cornelia, besides doing her MSc in Urban Planning at the University of Amsterdam, was busy with "Sustainable Amsterdam" -- her business devoted to study tours and educating people about livable and sustainable cities (she's on twitter!). Fast Company wrote up her work on Amsterdam's excape from car suffocation. Her study of various the rise and fall (and rise?) of various neighborhoods has taken us to Ost, the waterfront, Zuid, IJBerg and Gein (basically to all points of the compass), which has helped me see the huge variety and evolution of neighborhoods in Amsterdam. We rounded off the summer with parties (boring Loveland, my birthday on a boat, tall ships SAIL, and fun Wonderland) before I went back to teaching.
An aside: It's funny to have a scheduled job with lots of agenda obligations, but it definitely forces me to work. The downside of time pressure is less quality time for "big ideas" so I have cut back on blogging and found it difficult to work on research papers that need big blocks of open time. The good news is that I am learning to set aside this time on holidays, which may explain why 2-3 months in summer and 6 weeks in winter just fly by. Why? How about the 50 talks and interviews that I gave in 2015 -- most devoted to the political-economic causes of water scarcity, but also Canadian water theft, almonds, totalitarian optimism, Russia's economy, pro-poor desalination, etc. Am I making any difference? Living with Water Scarcity got an award, was translated into Spanish (free download!) and was downloaded over 40,000 times. I'm not sure of how or where to measure impact, but maybe there's something to be said about patience and repetition. Oh yeah, I also published four "popular" essays (go read these first), including an "Ask me anything" on Reddit that got so much attention that I was published alongside President Obama (!)
Although I really enjoy talking about water, I'm slowly putting more time into teaching (I designed a minor for "Social and Business Entrepreneurship" that's launching next month at LUC) and plan to switch my blogging effort over to a new project/book, The One Handed Economist. Stay tuned.
Right, so then we came into the Fall, when we finished our year of Dutch lessons (I gave a terrible talk on "vraag en aanbod" -- demand and supply -- to very tolerant students), I raced for ALS by swimming in the canals (nearly went hypothermic), saw some "edgy" theater in our neighbors' living rooms, and went the Dutch Decompression (there are definitely different party crowds in A'dam).
Although Dutch is not the easiest language to learn, I have enjoyed greater understanding -- often by reading ridiculous advertisements or tax forms -- and I hope to learn more. The limit is time, again, but it's a resolution for 2016 :)
And then there was some more travel! Stavanger to see Gorm and Yuko (UC Davis alumni) and their lovely daughters, London, Scotland and Geneva for water events, and Sicily for a driving tour. And here's another slew of photos from around Amsterdam between July and December.
Wow. I'm exhausted just writing this out. It was a busy year for me (for us) but rewarding in many ways. Looking ahead, my job seems to be going well (still no permanent contract, but on track and getting better at teaching), Cornelia and I have more plans (including S American in July/Aug), and "the past" (via DNA testing and genealogical tracking) is opening up. The funny thing that I've realized about that last item is that I have grown up with a totally fragmented "family." This has made it hard for me to feel loyalty to a single place or people, but it has also freed me to talk to many people in many places. I think the key to survival, for me, has been a willingness to accept many ways of doing things as well as a reasonable paranoia in avoiding the traps that seem to get so many people.
I hope that your 2016 has few traps and many pleasant surprises.
Amsterdam, 23 Dec 2015
Whoops! I forgot to write the 2014 report, so I'm going to write as much -- and as accurately -- as I can remember.
When we last saw our heroes...
Our winter in Vancouver went pretty well, all things considered. Cornelia was working with a large composting firm, trying to expand their capacity and customer base. I was teaching two classes at Simon Fraser University. It rained a lot (to us), but the rainfall was "about half" of normal (Vancouver's idea of a drought?)
Speaking of drought, I visited my dad -- and tried to sell a solution to water evaporation -- in Southern California in Feb. That "pushing-on-a-string" experience (see my TEDx talk) was just another reminder that California water managers seem determined to ruin the state before changing their antiquated habits.
My teaching gig was eye-opening and disappointing. SFU has a policy of accepting many "cash cow" overseas students (90% from China) who were either un-skilled or un-motivated. I taught a 90 person class (Natural Resources 362) that had an average attendance of 50 percent. When I asked students to write a briefing, 40 percent of them plagiarized from others. The funny thing was that "the same" students in my smaller, 12 person class (Environment 482), did a much better job -- probably due to a combination of the class being optional and much more face time in that class. The low point of my time there was when I just stopped, mid-lecture, in frustration with students not doing the reading (watch this from 15:00). You can find out more about these classes (syllabi, tests, videos of lectures) here.
Oh, and here are posts on fracking and pollution and who gets energy profits in Canada.
I also published my second book, Living with Water Scarcity, in April. It took me about six months to write it, and I had a lot of help from volunteer readers/reviewers. I see it as a nice restatement (shorter and punchier) on the same topics I covered in End of Abundance. After a few months of less-than stellar sales (about 300-400 copies), I decided to make the PDF version free, and that's been a good decision. (Dec 2015: I estimate that people have downloaded over 40,000 copies of the book!)
Life in Vancouver was pretty good -- the best, IMO, in North America (this Canadian phrase reveals how Americans rarely include Canada in their evaluations) -- and we enjoyed ourselves in East Van. As you may recall from last year's update, we were also thinking of returning to Amsterdam, and a contract job in Saudi Arabia gave us the push to move sooner than later.
"Don't leave before summer," said many locals. "The weather is so nice." Yes, but it's also nice in Amsterdam and you get to enjoy it in Amsterdam!
After saying good bye to Vancouver and driving over to Calgary (including the adventure of
breaking the radiator running low on coolant), we flew back to Amsterdam in time for King's Day -- surely one of the best days of the year in the Netherlands.
After one last bacon-wrapped sausage, I flew first class (oil money!) to Riyadh to work for a month at KAPSARC (King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center) on water-energy questions.
Life on an expat compound in Riyadh -- a city of 5 million in the middle of the desert -- is weird, like being imprisoned in the suburbs. Most of the staff were expats as Saudis are not really that keen -- or qualified -- for most work. This is because the royal family infantilizes the population using subsidies, restictive rules on speech (the blogger sentenced to 1,000 lashes), and a business-killing bureaucracy. (I have never seen lazier immigration control anywhere; those jobs are reserved for nationals.) Although I was paid very well for the month there, I knew from the start that some of that money was going to pay for me to get out (as well as see Cornelia) in Rome and Istanbul.
That turned out to be a good plan. I don't know how to convey the alien feeling of Riyadh or Saudi Arabia to you (here's my YouTube monologue), especially after I had visited so many countries in the region. All I can say is that the place is the opposite of Amsterdam in many ways: an unsustainable, ugly, sprawling mess of traffic jams, bored men, and "bagged" women who have little more to do than shop and gossip. I hated it.
My side trip to Jeddah was better in some ways -- I got to go diving and could walk around -- but even the single instance of a taxi driver who could not find my hotel nor get help from anyone else (turning a 20 min drive into an hour) reminded me that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia resembles a cancerous stick figure under shiny robes. #wtf
Anyway -- here are some pictures from around KAPSARC and some "excursions" into Riyadh. (I don't have photos from the embassy parties where a $50 entrance ticket will get you all you can eat pig and shitty beers cost $8, but those desperate, debauched and desultory scenes were surreal in their own way.)
While I was in Riyadh, Cornelia told me about an assistant professor position at a small liberal arts college in Den Haag, i.e., the type of position I had been pursuing after UC Davis (see 20 Dec 2007). I applied to that job and got hired!
Although I experienced a few bumps at LUC (mostly because I was learning a lot of "obvious" rules through trial and error), I really enjoyed the job from the start. It was 180 degrees different from SFU: smaller classes of very bring students who usualy did the reading, excellent colleagues, a multi-disciplinary atmosphere, and a nice commute from Amsterdam (one hour, door to door, via bike and train).
LUC was founded in 2010, so it's still building its institutions (informal norms and formal rules), but I am pleased to be part of that process. I was especially pleased to arrive after a huge shake up under the guidence of a "rescue dean" -- Jos -- whom I enjoyed working with (when we had time to communicate clearly.)
[Dec 2015 butts in:] Communication is definitely the key to working with people, as most of our troubles arise out of "collective" rather than "private" activities. It is easy to get into disagreements over taxes, pollution, educational subsidies (and so on) when various sides see the dispute from a "I win, you lose" perspective. Markets, in contrast, work very well with selfish actions, as those lead people to "work for us" in exchange for our money (or whatever we offer). I am glad to see that my work as a water economist has pushed me into working to improve collective action problems. What's the first step for success? See others as your partners in the long run, rather than adversaries over whom you can gain tactical advantage. There are numerous examples of people losing opportunities to improve their joint outcomes due to one party's attempt to "grab the whole pie."
Speaking of collective action, the first class I taught was Common Pool Resource Challenges. That class was fun because I got the students to work in teams on CPR problems are LUC. One team worked on people parking their bikes in the way of others (PDF report); the other tried to reduce elevator over-crowding between classes (PDF report). Both teams found out how hard it is to implement "obvious" solutions.
We were not neglecting Amsterdam during all of this! We went to some parties (Welcome to the Future, Loveland, ADE and Dutch Decom), drove a little electric boat around the canals for my birthday, and celebrated the opening of De Ceuvel -- a repurposed industrial area that's is now so cool that hipsters need to wear glasses.
We also made some interesting housing moves. When we returned to Amsterdam, we took a short-term sublet at Apollolaan -- one of the wealthiest streets in Amsterdam. The house was originally owned by a Jewish family before it was seized during WWII, used as a police station/prison, returned to a surviving member of the family (3 or 4 members died in concentration camps), bought by a drug lord (perhaps John Mieremet) and inherited by his widow when he was killed in Thailand. When we moved in, the common areas were a mess (I spent the first two days cleaning :-\), and that should have been a sign of a poorly functioning house (there were 10-20 people living there, in a dozen rooms), but we didn't see it. Suffice to say that we were VERY happy to move away after a few months... to a flat on the Singel -- the former "moat" around Amsterdam that was encircled with the famous "Golden Belt" of canals when they were built in the 17th century.
Our move from nightmare roommates to "inner city lush life" was welcome in all respects, and we enjoyed our six months there. (It was 2 bedrooms on the 4th floor for €1,450 per month -- about 40 percent of my salary, but "cheap" according to many Dutch visitors.) Why so few? Because I decided to buy a flat in Amsterdam -- the first place I ever thought about owning property -- and the Singel was going to be our temporary residence until we found a place. Welll, we found a place, and I -- with the help of an estate agent (on a bike!) -- signed the purchase contract in October, to move in at the end of January 2015 (spoiler: it went well).
I could tell many stories of the amazing things that you can see and do in Amsterdam, but I'll just leave these photos with you (April-October and November-December)
Besides LUC and Amsterdam, we also found some time for traveling to Bordeaux (France's "Wine country") and UAE, Oman and UAE/Oman. Although I assured Cornelia that UAE was far better than Saudi, she was not so sure... and I agree that the crazy driving, endless building sites, and surreal scene of overpaid westerners and exploited South Asians made the place unattractive. Oman, OTOH, was relatively nice. The biggest reason -- to me -- was the country's lack of oil, which meant that citizens were expected to work and their work was more varied. I'm not going to recommend any place on the Arabian Peninsula to you readers (Yemen -- sadly -- has gone from best to worst), but I feel like I have a better understanding of their culture -- as well as why so many are attracted to terrorism and fundamentalism.
We returned to Amsterdam for New Years Eve... and had many reasons to celebrate :)
Vancouver, 12 Jan 2014
Last year I wrote:
I'm looking for a well-paid job in a lovely city where I get to pursue the work I want -- just as I've done in the past four years in Berkeley and Amsterdam, but it's not always easy to get paid to have fun, so I may end up working without a salary while taking project work here and there. I don't know what will happen now, but I'll be sure to tell you when I find out :)I found out (and you will too), but let's start at the start...
At the end of January, we returned from Asia (Malaysia I, Brunei, Philippines, Bali & Flores, Singapore and Malaysia II) to spend a month or so at a friend's place in de Jordaan (tiny studio that was cheap because she waited 15 years to get it). Then we moved to a lovely place on Paramariboplein in de Baarsjes.
I carried on with my work on EPI-Water, and Cornelia worked on climate change (Climate Focus), walking tours (Sandeman's) and her own Sustainable Amsterdam project. (We gave talks at Amsterdam Ignite -- she talked about sustainability; I talked about my next book -- promising a draft by July -- ha!)
Life in Amsterdam was fun, but I had decided to return to "North America" to rejuvenate my water contacts, be a little closer to friends and family, and live in a city where meeting people and socializing would be easier. I wasn't really ready to return to the US (the transition from Dutch competence was going to be tough) and Cornelia was from Canada, so we decided to move to Vancouver.
I was hoping that it would be like San Francisco (mixed-up but relaxed, rain/water/fog) with medical care. Cornelia was not so keen to leave, but she wanted to get her career on firmer ground (=permanent position with higher pay). She hoped to work on urban sustainability, rather than the oil-gas default of Calgary.
With those thoughts in mind, we enjoyed our last months in the Netherlands (going to Utrecht and Lisse for spring flowers; celebrating the last Queen's Day, sailing on the IJsselmeer, welcoming Cornelia's girlfriends and having one more Day at the Park).
We also traveled to some bucket destinations: Andalusia (Seville-Cadiz-Ronda-Granada-Cordoba) and Maastricht, Antwerp and Bruges for Cornelia; Dubrovnik (Croatia) and Montenegro for me.
We also had an interesting visit to Kyiv, Ukraine where I did some consulting on water utility regulation for the World Bank. The job paid well, but the local clients fired me because I told them their plans mismatched a system that was falling apart due to populist policies. I feel slightly vindicated by the popular protests against incompetent and corrupt rule that began 6 months later, but I still worry about the people there. I may go back there if they get a competent government.
In the middle of all that travel, I worked on EPI-Water (speaking at conferences, editing/writing reports and publishing a paper) and did some teaching. I really enjoyed working with colleagues around the EU (this is a GOOD way for EU to spend money; crop subsidies do NOT unite Europeans) and at Wageningen. The culture is the same as the US in many ways (some people work hard, some don't; some academics are hard to reach, others are eager to share), but also different. The Dutch are often too busy for off-agenda, casual conversations; "culture" influences the topics of interest as well as the design and implementation of solutions. Overall, I enjoyed the flexibility that comes from working among different nationalities and the Dutch emphasis on pragmatic solutions NOW.
In July, we sold our bikes, our museumkaartjes and household gear and left the Netherlands. Given how much we liked it there, we knew that Vancouver would really have to be special. Lots of people told us it was a great city.
What the hell, we said. We can always go back.
Vancouver has 21st-century-skyscraper apartments, a large Asian population, sunsets, and mountains that are "right there." It's also got a lot of cool people doing cool things.
But we didn't settle in immediately. I drove my BMW from California to meet Cornelia when she drove from Calgary. Then we drove through BC, the Yukon, Alaska and Alberta. We met friendly people (Couchsurfers are the best), saw beautiful vistas, and even flew over the glaciers near Skagway Alaska (thanks for the birthday present, sweetie!)
On the road, we only saw a little of the massive oil/gas industries that are responsible for a lot of money, pollution and controversy. (I'm pro-Keystone XL pipeline because it's better than trains and trucks for transporting oil; we can address over-consumption of oil by taxing fuel, not avoiding its transport.)
That road trip pretty much killed my desire to do any more driving trips (as my jaunt through France killed my desire to keep my motorcycle), so I sold my awesome car (after storing it for three years!) to a guy who was moving to California. Very lucky for me, paperworkwise.
We found a little furnished apartment near Commercial Drive (freeing Cat and Andrew's couch -- thanks guys!), at the heart of hipster Vancouver. We really like The Drive for its coffee places, convenient stores, interesting stores, and people into art, burning man, tattoos, kale, and fixies.
But wait. The Drive? We realized that Amsterdam had ruined us by revealing what it's like to live in a city that's built around people instead of cars. Vancouver, San Francisco, Berkeley, Davis, and most cities in North America (even New York) are like that. People here are used to it. Canadians will say "at least it's better than the US" (I've got medical insurance; bureaucrats are MUCH nicer) -- revealing their "World Series" perspective -- but we have non-North American choices of where to live (more on in a bit).
We hit Ikea, bought bikes (no Dutch bikes? the bikes here are non-metric and macho), joined the public recreation program, and got to work. Cornelia did some short-term work on carbon accounting, bike policy and solid waste management (hint: the solution is not more bins, it's less crap). I continued blogging, revised a few of my "last" academic papers (the system is broken), did some consulting and public speaking, and started my next book, Living with Water Scarcity.
We also explored the area (Victoria, Vancouver Island, BC and The Grind) and went to some cool parties (Work Less Party PARTY! and AfterGlow!).
Overall, Vancouver is a nice place with lots of nice people, but we see far more aggression, frustration and fear than we were used to in Amsterdam (probably resulting from a combination of money-stress, car-aggression and alienation), even if those levels are lower than we'd see in the average American city.
Oh, and the rain is worse here than in Amsterdam!
All things considered, we've had a good time here and we've made lots of great friends, but we see our stay as a sabbatical until "we go back to Amsterdam."
I've though more recently about migration. My mother migrated to California, via Indiana and Hawaii; my father came via India, England and (Toronto) Canada. Cornelia's family came from Romania to Calgary. The common goal of migrants is "a better life" but that definition depends on the person. My dad is very happy with his car and sterile (clean!) suburban streets. I am happier with a mash of people (port cities), but I also like honest governments, functioning water management, and social systems that take care of the unfortunate without killing entrepreneurial forces. The Dutch are not perfect, but they're 20+ years ahead of Vancouver, which is 20 years ahead of San Francisco (sorry folks, restaurants per capita are not as important as decent schools, healthcare and police).
Speaking of healthcare, my dad had a quadruple-bypass surgery in October. He had turned 80 earlier in the year, but this was a surprise to everyone. Luckily, he had insurance, access to a good hospital and no interest at all in staying in bed. After several tragi-comic incidents, he made it back home and is now in physical therapy as he continues to work as a real estate agent. Big lesson there? Get regular checkups and have a plan B (insurance/savings) in case your Plan A (work until you die) doesn't pan out. I hope to inherit his luck :)
So we've decided to migrate back to Amsterdam (a city unlike most Dutch cities) because we want to be in a nice city after we leave a friend's house or club. I understand more now, the way the Dutch feel when they return from abroad. I'm planning on reconnecting with a lot of people over there, for work and play.
In the meantime, I'm teaching resource economics at Simon Fraser University (lectures on YouTube!) and finishing my book (hopefully in the next month!). Cornelia is looking at a few different jobs.
Oh, and we just had an excellent break from the cold, dark rain -- 3 weeks in Ecuador and Colombia.
Life smiles on people with choices.
Have a happy 2014!
These are interesting questions to me (besides being about me :), and so let me say a few things. Most of you have only known me for a few years, which means that you've probably missed my "evolution" over the past 30 years. If you were to go back that far, you'd find that I was 14, living in Palo Alto, going to a posh school (as one of the middle class strivers), selling candy to buy a car, socially inept, working after school, and dealing (more or less) with my mother's cancer. Her illness and my parent's divorce 10 years earlier had forced me to be more self-reliant. Her death (when I was 18, in my first year @ UCLA) was a relief to me because her suffering was over, but it was also the removal of my first and last support. (She was amazing.) At the time, my father was not talking to me (religious opinions) and my step-father was soon to betray me in business. But that was a few years later.
After the funeral, I continued at UCLA, discovered that I loved economics, spent way too much time studying (after too long with my first girlfriend, I didn't date for 5 years), became obsessed about food killing me (carcinogens), and did lots of photography. I graduated with lots of honors in 1991 and left to Europe on the casual suggestion that "that's what you do." In Europe, I discovered that I liked all the curiosities of different cultures, that my French wasn't totally useless, and that food was not going to kill me. It was as a vegan that I went from my low of 114lbs (52kg) to a normal 165lbs(75kg).
After four months abroad, I returned without a job, but a fantasy of living on a commune in Oregon. That didn't happen, so I started working with my stepfather on a start-up, Loanfax, that would connect lenders and borrowers in the commercial real estate market. This business would have made $$ in the dot com era but it failed in the early 90s. Before reaching failure, it absorbed my time -- 80hr weeks for over two years -- as well as some of my savings (from my mother's death insurance and work savings) that used to fund part of the business. I also lent $15,000 to my step-father (Reginald Foster Byrne, a man with a fascinating history of his own) so he could pay the mortgage. The trouble was that he was NOT earning money for the business because he was tied up in some financial scams, so I was supporting myself, him and the business. I was 24.
After I started dating Maria, I realized that Reggie and Loanfax were not good for me, so I announced -- after a few months of manoeuvering to get some of my money back -- that I was going to leave the company. Reggie didn't like that; he asked me to stay longer (to train him in the software I'd written) before he'd repay me. Well, I did but he didn't. I left him (and my home) and haven't talked to him for years.
So that was my not-so-nice "get rich" experience. After failing in chasing money, I asked myself "what do you like to do?" I realized that I liked cleaning things up (efficiency is slippery) as well as travelling. So I went traveling -- against lots of advice that I was ruining my career, leaving friends, etc. -- and it was a good move. Some people are not geared for lots of travel, people and change, but I love travelling, which is why I've been to 90+ countries now.
So, the bottom line about why I disclose so much and why I'm usually happy is this: I've seen a lot of bad shit, and I've experienced my fair share. What I've discovered is that it's good to keep your life simple and your expectations modest but also that you should do whatever makes you happy, especially after you've discovered that it takes very little money to be independent and very little effort to be a good person. I also "disclose" all this because -- no matter how shitty my day -- it's useful to keep all the good things in focus. Speaking of good things, I should emphasize that my mother (the smart, responsible German-American nurse who took charge) and father (the fun, creative Anglo-American sales guy who doesn't mind the spotlight) each contributed their personalities and wisdom to me. My mom also gave me the great gift of a Montessori education. Those eight years turned my natural (and smart-ass) curiosity into a life-long passion for learning and exploring. So there you go.