Coming to a harbor near you, surf!

While bushy blonde hairdos are not uncommon in Finland, there’s a reason there are no songs about surfing Hel-sin-ki. So imagine my surprise to see video of surf-able waves on Helsinki harbor. Naturally my curiosity was piqued. This Californian has spent a good portion of his life living in and visiting places with no surf. And fellow stranded surfer Atso Anderson was kind enough to show me the surf machine he had proposed to Aalto University upon returning from a week of surfing in Portugal.

Container and power plant

The container, at this “break” the pulley system is attached at the far side so surfers ride from the power plant towards the container (when the water surface isn’t frozen).

The system is built to be mobile. All the components of the surf generator fit inside a shipping container. All you need is a waterbody, a place to attach the pulley system on the far side, and an electric power source. Switch it on and the pulley system pulls two “wings” though the water at the depth of 1.5 meters. You’ve got surf!

For the exact physics of the system you’ll have to look elsewhere. My social science and more traditional surfing experiences are not good starting points for explaining how you produce a breaking wave with a pair of airplane like wings. A few master theses have been produced on the subject and a couple of professors at Aalto University are working out how to adjust the shape of the wave for optimal surf-ability.

I was interested to learn from Atso that this project has been integrated into an urban renewal and development project by the City of Helsinki, interestingly enough with a water quality component. The presence of the power plant and industrial legacy of the harbor front meant that many residents perceived the water as polluted, even though it is now flushed with sea water and the power plant filters its cooling water. The presence of the wave got people in the water immediately. Continue reading

Whacky Versus Dull (Fear Dull)

Here’s some crazy art theory that I encountered on a tour of the Lenbachhaus in Munich. It and similar ideas were central to inspiring Kandinsky and his compatriots.

“Blue is the male principle, stern and spiritual. Yellow the female principle, gentle, cheerful and sensual. Red is matter, brutal and heavy and always the colour which must be fought and vanquished by the other two.”

Franz Marc

German Expressionist Painter, 1880-1916


And look what it got us, a blue horse! Why would you think to paint a horse blue? It isn’t exactly intuitive, so as outmoded as the theory is, it did bring us something new, and something we can react to.

Here’s something boring, but far more dangerous, we were exposed to a derivative of this by the EU Commission. Don’t worry, I’m not asking you to make sense of it. Your eyes should glaze over.

“The trilemma more directly relevant to this conference theme is a financial stability trilemma put forward by Dirk Schoenmaker (2008), explaining the incompatibility within the euro zone of a stable financial system, an integrated financial system, and national financial stability policies. By far the most high profile current trilemma, as per some analysts, is the euro-zone trilemma: the seeming irreconcilability between its three wishes: a single currency, minimal fiscal contribution to bail outs, and the ECB’s commitment to low inflation.”
-Inaugural speech by Dr. Duvvuri Subbarao, Governor, Reserve Bank of India.

Confused? I hope so. If the above quote makes much sense at all you probably inhabit a rarefied and abstract world not often visited by human beings. Nevertheless this incredibly convoluted theory, meant to update previous macroeconomic theory for the financial crisis and the situation in the Euro Zone, is being used to justify a series of broad reforms which sound a lot like the reforms that economists always argue for.

We don’t need to trust or believe Marc’s theory, we have a blue horse to react to, and if we’re intrigued we can dig into the theory later. But the EU Commission’s economists, whose canvas consists of 28 member states, 24 languages, 507 million people, and $16 trillion in GDP, just ask us to trust them. Of course we cannot expect them to prove that their plan will work, but a bit of humility would be warranted, as most any theory driving human action is eventually made to look more ridiculous than a blue horse.

Decline in Italian Design

How are Italian water services like Italian airport security?

They both go downhill.Declining Design 1

And that’s a good thing.

Gravity can be your friend and has been Italy’s friend since Roman times as water from the Alps has been directed to do what it does best: flow downhill. In doing so it quenches Italy’s thirsty crops and cities. And the result, says Dr. Antonio Massarutto of the University of Udine, is that Italy spends substantially less on pumping water than flatter countries such as Germany.

Not that all is calm in Italy. Like U.S. cities, Italian cities have underinvested in water infrastructure for quite some time. Legislation that was unanimously passed in 1994 to make up this gap resulted in, always unpopular, rapid tariff increases. The public expressed their displeasure in an initiative in 2011 in which 95% of voters voted to overturn a provision stating that tariffs must fully cover the costs but which was perceived (incorrectly) as guaranteeing profits for private companies.

Indeed, as elsewhere, privatization has become a political hot point. And sadly one withDeclining Design 2 the potential to distract from the underlying issue. That is when tariffs are kept too low for many years, substantial increases are needed to make up the difference, and in the short term customers will not see the value they are getting for their money.

The national regulator continues to require full cost recovery in the tariffs and whether it can do so is now in the courts. The court’s decision will be handed down in the next couple of weeks.

My conversation with Dr. Massarutto in Florence also covered issues such as raising private capital, the benefits of public participation, and subsidies to address income inequality. You can look forward to learning more in a paper I am working on with funding from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and hosted by the Ecologic Institute.

The solutions for sustainable water infrastructure aren’t simple anywhere. But as the very clever gravity operated system at the security line at Pisa airport demonstrates, sometimes you just can’t beat Italian design.

Summer Sum-up: Goodbye Bonn!

This gray and damp Sunday will be our last in Bonn. We’ll be on a bus Wednesday to a city that we’ve been planning to move to for over three years, Berlin. But Bonn has its charms, and so a brief review of what we’ve gotten up to in the last three months is in order.

German Horror

Time-Cause-Mode-Location (TiKaMoLo!)= An unpleasant morning.

German. German. German. German. Man we’ve studied a lot of German. 4.5 hours a day plus homework. It has been wonderful, and without the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation’s support it would be years before we are where we are. Unfortunately, there are far more rules than anyone tells you about in this language. Just when you think you’ve got them all down (first verb in second position!) some new awfulness is sprung upon you. From what we’ve been told, we know them all now. So we’re being let loose on the German speaking world, which is fortunately on the whole quite merciful and impressed that you demonstrate some knowledge of the rules, irrespective of whether you actually can keep track of them all in conversation. (Which you can’t.)

Courtesy of Wiki

Courtesy of WikiCommons

Bonn has also allowed us some quite nice side trips. Strasbourg and Amsterdam can speak for themselves, as can our recent train adventure to Copenhagen. More off the beaten path were the bridge at Remagen and Schloss Brühl, which I’d like to highlight briefly.

At the bridge at Remagen the Americans “crossed the Rhine with dry feet” piercing the Nazi’s last natural line of defense. The Americans had previously bombed the bridge and taking it was unexpected by both sides and attributable to the quick movement of Americans in the Rhineland and failed German demolitions. Hitler was so incensed that the Americans had taken the bridge that he had four officers executed for treason. The museum in one of the towers of the ruins of the bridge covered the history from when it was first built to assist in invading France, to the action it saw in WWII, to its eventual collapse from bomb damage and the massive prisoner of war camp that sprung up next to it as the Americans captured hundreds of thousands of Germans late in the war. We were there in memory of my Grandpa Felder who passed away at 100 this Summer and who had served in WWII.

Schloss Brühl was the Summer palace of the powerful Kürfurst (prince who voted for the emperor) who held all the titles in this region. It was built to impress, which means it was gaudy as all hell. Of particular note were the staircase, the viewing area for the middle class to watch the nobility dine and dance, the baroque garden, and, of course, that there was a mini-palace a few kilometers away for the hunting expeditions.

Beyond our German and our expeditions we’ve spent most of our time bonding with the other fellows in the beer gardens of Bonn or in our dormitory style accommodations in Tannenbusch Mitte.

Last Monday I delivered a presentation on my research topic “The Water Infrastructure Gap: How Can U.S. Utilities and Regulators Learn from Germany’s Success?” in German. My mentor at Ecologic Institute, Ulf Stein, was kind enough to come up to watch this very special performance. The rest of the week we headed out for our introductory tour which included Bayer’s massive chemical park at Leverkusen, the Ministry of Defense, a federal transportation innovation center, and, best of all, a while tasting in the Ahr valley. Germany can make a decent red, though sadly it’ll cost you.

The study tour continues until almost the end of September, and with said tour we’ll be on a bus to Berlin on Wednesday. And it’s been great, Bonn, but we can’t wait.


There must be a German word for “having just enough to complain about to be truly content.”

It has been exactly two weeks since we moved to Bonn and life is good. We study, we get to know the other Humboldt fellows (Mitstipendiaten/innen being the incredibly precise German term), and we continue the search for the perfect Biergarten. In many ways it is university 2.0, except without all the awkwardness of the late teenage years or the unnecessary stress of finals. It’s the way university should always have been, just enough intellectual stimulation and work through the week so that you really feel that you’ve earned that Kölsch beer.

Of course, no university would be complete without dorms, ours being the acora [sic] Hotel20130623_102445 und Wohnen, a long term stay hotel which is a right of passage in itself. I jokingly sang “O Tannenbusch, O Tannenbusch” as we pulled into Bonn, as I saw a funny exit sign that reminded me of an X-Mas jingle. But that’s where we are, right in the middle of Tannenbusch, a grey bricked suburb that could be anywhere in Northern Europe. Fortunately a bicycle can put you in idyllic fields in 5 minutes, on a trail by the Rhine in 10 minutes, and in downtown Bonn in 30 minutes.

The acora lifestyle is characterized by many little quirks. An automatic door in front of the reception with a remarkably acute sensor that makes it impossible to pass within a hundred feet of it without setting it off. It’s impossible to avoid turning to see the ghosts exiting the hotel lobby. There is also an inconsistently priced laundry room in which 6 hours of usage have been free and yet a single load cost me 6 euros. And the infamous Baustelle (building site) that works from 7am to 7pm six days a week and has driven the poor residents of building 4 to distraction.

But the truly unique fixture of our acora life is the closet kitchen. Equipped with two hot P6200018.JPGplates, two pots and a pan, two egg cups, two fish forks, a spatula OR a serving spoon, what may or may not be a cutting board, and no preparation space, the aspiring chef will find more challenges than a ship’s galley (which at least has an oven). The acoravore, must truly be a flexible and resilient beast. So far I’ve been able to keep calorie intake with an abundant use of pre-chopped bacon and new potatoes (as they don’t need to be peeled).

So it appears that Eeva and I are set to survive, as many before us, a Summer at the acora. But please send no-chop, no-bake, versions of your favorite recipes, just to be safe. Otherwise we might be forced to increase our intake of incredibly delicious and competitively priced meat, wine, cheese, and bread. The equivalent of living off ramen noodles out here.

China and International Norms

The contrast between how this article in the Sunday New York Times discussed international political economy and how we discussed it in grad school really struck me. The article discusses the distinct advantages Chinese firms enjoy due to the country’s immense liquidity, the state’s willingness to bolster them with subsidies, and the ailing condition of Western economies. The just of the article is that we are in the midst of an immense economic power grab from China and that this grab has political consequences as Western countries mute their criticism of China’s record on human rights and fair trade.

The theoretical meat of my grad program was good old Ricardian canon of yesteryear with comparative advantage and gains from trade and all that. Needless to say, anyone who impedes trade pays the consequences themselves. Mercantilism was reduced to rubble. (And yes there were area study classes, but let’s be honest, they don’t have the “moral” heft that pure economic theory carries.)

No doubt a smug student of above average intellect raised in this school would tell you the West has nothing to worry about. Chinese subsidies are no doubt inefficient as they are state run, and at any rate, even if they are efficient, we all benefit from gains from trade. China only hurts itself by keeping Western firms out of many of its markets.

And our smug student is likely partly right. And I also would agree that there is something fragile about the Chinese regime’s lack of human rights and state run capitalism with its endemic corruption. But the Chinese are buying economic and political power in the short run, and with those, the ability to alter international norms and set the rules of the game. And they may change the norms and rules before they have to deal with their own fragility. The West, partly because many young minds are trained to fight against the mercantilists of yesteryear, instead of coping with rapidly ascendant state capitalism may acquiesce to playing on a field that is not of its liking.

Safely in Saarland


I have changed my header photo to the beautiful Saarschleife to announce my arrival in Saarland, a state in the southwest of Germany. In fact I’ve been here a few days but between visiting family, getting access to the Internet, and traveling around and taking pictures of things, I’ve  taken a few days before posting.

It’s good to be here, and while I’ve been in Germany a few times before, you certainly look at a country through different eyes when it is your new home. So I have been putting in a bit of extra time thinking and observing.

First, Saarland has been putting the point very bluntly that Germany is not a water poor country. While the hills of California were already turning orange this May, everything is very green here. Apparently it’s rained every day for weeks. The Mosel river is so high that the usual ferry isn’t running and the locals who have to cross the river have to commute an extra 13 kilometers each day for the bridge at Trier. Needless to say, they aren’t terribly amused by their abundance of water resources.

Having just come from living and breathing American politics, it’s also hard not to notice some distinct differences in political culture here.

We stopped by a little festival put on by a newly opened shopping center. Quite a nice little event with some games, delicious sausages and wine, and some community oriented tents for blood donations and the fire department. Of course there were the usual comments by the managers of the stores about investing in their community and the like. Nothing surprising here. But then, the local kindergartners got up with their teachers and after a couple of very cute numbers, sang about how everyone who needed to feed their dog or take care of their banking needs could use the specific shops in this center. American corporations get away with a lot, but they’d never get away with that. Holding a birthday party at McDonald’s can be controversial, a school backed endorsement would be out of the question. This may presage a different relationship between private and public sectors here.

Finally, I’d like you to take a look at the signs below. The locals were lobbying for a circle road so large trucks would no longer travel through their small town center. They got what they wanted, and responded by thanking their politicians publicly with a sign. In over a decade of working and studying American politics I have never seen a sign thanking politicians in general. The general rule in America is that politicians are awful. And though your guy is great, you thank him at the ribbon cutting, or in his office, but never on a sign. Rather the sign at the bottom from the CA water wars, which is much less civil and assesses blame with a somewhat dubious logic, is much more our speed.

We need a circle road!

We need a circle road!

Politicians, thank you for the circle road.

Politicians, thank you for the circle road.

Current minority members of the House of Representatives, I hold you accountable for the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and years of drought.