Why Do The Yaks Hate Us?

So instead of writing these massive book reviews, I thought I’d share a few tidbits from a book I’m currently reading. The book When a Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind–Or Destroy It. Yes, more light reading. It’s written by Jonathan Watts, a China-based environmental correspondent for The Guardian in the UK. Based on his years living in China, the book takes a look at the four geographic corners of the country, chronicling the China’s environmental history, the damage that’s been done by rapid industrialization and whether the country can avoid becoming an environmental wasteland.

Reading through a chapter on the Tibetan plateau, Watts conveys in three paragraphs how subtle changes to economic policy can have significant impacts on climate. In this case, the impact is negative, but I think a takeaway is that it can go either way.

The culprit here is yaks. Yes, yaks, or more to the point, regulatory changes made in the 1980s that deregulated herd sizes for both sheep and yaks, the two primary livestock on the Tibetan plateau. Deregulation meant that herders could buy as many animals as they could afford, and a subsequent change to tax policy valued yaks at four times the amount of sheep (which on the face of it makes sense, yaks are pretty big). In addition, the government banned polygamy around the same time. All of this incentivized herders to increase the size of their yak herds, because it was now legal, a better value and a larger yak herd made up for the lost prestige of no longer having multiple wives.

Yaks grazing on the Tibetan plateau

More yaks meant more yaks grazing, and that quickly threw off the equilibrium between livestock and grassland that had been set over thousands of years. The overgrazing caused much of the plateau to rapidly become desert and less able to absorb moisture. This caused more heat to radiate into the atmosphere, and with much of the plateau at an elevation of 14,000 feet or more, this heat radiation had an outsize impact on climate. The result was that the Tibetan mountains have been warmed more than anywhere else in China, even with the massive amounts of pollutants created by industrial production in the country’s east.

Set right against the Himalayas, the adjacent mountains funneled water vapor directly into the stratosphere rather than becoming rain or snow, as it would have at a lower elevation. Water vapor has a greater greenhouse effect than carbon dioxide, increasing climate temperatures even more. Because of its place on the globe–at an incredibly high elevation and next to the world’s highest mountain range–changes to the Tibetan land quickly impact climate on a global scale. As Watts writes:

Changes in the soil here fed back rapidly into the atmosphere, affecting global air circulation just as rising ocean surface temperatures affected storm patterns.

It’s a reminder of the law of unintended consequences. When dealing with the environment, every action has an equal and opposite reaction–but we don’t learn what it is until well after the fact.


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All About Dams

I won’t say too much about this to belabor the point, but this is a great video put out by the Hydropower Reform Coalition, a group aimed at pushing the hydropower industry to better manage dams in order to reduce their impact, often great, on river ecosystems.

Dams are complicated things. They’re emission-free and have great side effects, like turning the Central Washington desert into a major agricultural region, but they’re hell on rivers. Salmon are some of the most well-known losers. But dams can impact everything from water temperature and sediment flows to flooding lowland valleys, which are important for animals in search of food in the winter.

I consider myself reasonably informed on Northwest issues, but I had admittedly never heard of “small hydro” until coming across this video on the blog for the American Alps Legacy Project. Let’s just say the video, in all its tongue-in-cheek glory, did its job by framing the debate from the get-go and successfully shaping my opinion, while getting quite a few laughs out of me as well. I’m on board with their view that we should make the most of the dams we have rather than building new ones that will damage creeks in the North Cascades like this.

Bottom line: It’s an impressive piece of work from a fairly small advocacy group.

Small Hydro Power from Tom11 Films on Vimeo.

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SOTU: Salmon for the Win!

NPR ran a survey among listeners asking them to describe last night’s State of the Union speech in three words, and salmon emerged as the winner. They also put together this word cloud depicting it:

We asked our listeners to describe President Obama's State of the Union address in three words. This is a word cloud of the more than 12,000 words we received.

Score one for the Northwest! In all seriousness, though, it’s a good reminder of how a joke can make a point better than anything else. President Obama had pointed out the inconsistency of the Department of Commerce regulating salmon in saltwater and the Department of the Interior regulating salmon in fresh water. He ended by saying that “I hear it gets really complicated once they’re smoked.” Cue the laugh line.

Of course, it’s also an example that a joke or story can often obscure the intended message. I doubt the President’s advisers had salmon as one of the top three takeaways in the speech. It’s up for debate whether salmon as a one-liner gets the “simplify government” message across or just gets lost in its own cuteness.

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Green Gone Wrong: Or, Why We Can’t Buy Our Way Out of Global Warming

Green Gone Wrong, written by journalist Heather Rogers, is an expose of the green industry–organic food, carbon offsets, electric cars and their ilk–from the left. The author’s argument can be shaped like this:

Global warming is a real threat. Something needs to be done. But most of what’s being done under the guise of green isn’t solving the problem. In fact, it’s actually obscuring real solutions.

Take the hybrid car. CO2-spewing internal combustion engines  in cars have been replaced by hybrid electric engines, which at face value is a good thing. Score one point for the greens. But research has shown that Prius drivers actually drive farther, up to 25% more, once they own a hybrid. When people feel like they’re using less gas per mile, they often compensate by driving more miles. Net-net: They often end up using a similar amount of petroleum as they did when driving a car with an internal combustion engine.

And that leads to the book’s main point: The green industry as we know it is based on consumerism–switching from dirty products to green products–when in fact what we should be doing from an ecological standpoint is using less. That’s not a laine that goes over well in board rooms, and understandably so. The incentives of green capitalism, a term that Rogers uses throughout the book, are misaligned with what actually needs to be done to reduce atmospheric carbon in hopes of reversing–or at least stabilizing–climate change.

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Celebrating the Blog’s First Six-Month Hiatus

It seems that all personal blogs–in fact, most that I’ve dug up–generally have prolonged droughts during which it appears the author either got busy, lost interest or is trapped under something heavy. I’m going to blame being busy after returning to work from my paternity leave. My interest was maintained (I often found myself composing paragraphs in my mind as I read a new book or read a news article), but it could be a bit difficult to arouse after a long day in front of another computer screen and a beautiful daughter in want of my attention. Often the dishes in the sink were in want of my attention too.

So here goes the blog, take two. Thoughts on what I’m reading, what I’m thinking and what I’m doing. No guarantees on frequency of posting, but let’s keep it more regular than twice-annually, shall we?

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As Media Goes Online, Keeping a Foothold in Print

I don’t keep many subscriptions in print these days. Like many people, the availability of free online content from the best publications (save the Wall Street Journal) makes it a no brainer. But also like many people, I still think that there’s something about reading from the page. I have yet to buy a Kindle or iPad, and I read dozens of books each year (such as this one) in print, largely attracted by the costs of borrowing (that is to say, free) from the Seattle Public Library. The only publications that I subscribe to these days are Cook’s Illustrated (which charges for online access, more on that here) and The Atlantic; my subscription to The Economist recently lapsed after a few years. But online, I read from a wide array of outlets–The New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, The Atlantic, Slate and when I follow a link there and have a spare hour The New Yorker.

This brings me to my main point. Of all that I read–and I read far more than I listed here–the only one that I both pay for and read online for free is The Atlantic. It’s an old publication, founded in 1857, with one Ralph Waldo Emerson publishing a poem in the first issue.

In print it does much of what it’s done for the past 153 years. Top-notch long-form journalism, incisive opinion, thought-provoking arguments and a letter to the editor section in which authors respond to their critics. I read every single article in the July/August issue.

Online it’s an equally strong publication. First, all of the content from the magazine is online for free, but because I’ve been convinced to subscribe, I prefer to read the magazine content in the print edition. The website doesn’t attempt to merely replicate the print product online–after all, it could never do the page layout and glossy photos justice. Instead, it creates an entirely separate class of content that fits online better. The magazine’s columnists and regular correspondents (Megan McArdle, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Megan McArdle, James Fallows and Michael Kinsley) all regularly blog on the website, frequently providing additional commentary on their articles in the print edition and beginning a discussion with readers. The website hosts the blog of Andrew Sullivan, arguably one of the most influential voices in the national dialogue. In addition to the blogs, all of which are an ongoing dialogues updated hourly, the website contains a number of channels that correspond to the magazine’s main sections, ranging from Politics and Culture to Food. These include posts in blog form from a range of Atlantic writers, regular columnists and guests. And finally, in recent months The Atlantic Wire was launched, acting as a high-brow aggregator (like the Huffington Post or Daily Beast’s Cheat Sheet) for opinion columns and blogs.

I can easily spend hours a day on The Atlantic, usually on Andrew Sullivan but frequently clicking on links to other online-based coverage across the website. The web operation is an extension of the print publication. It reinforces what the print edition does well but does it in a manner native to the Internet.

With The New York Times preparing itself for a move toward a metered system–with irregular visitors reading online for free but regular readers paying a subscription once they read a certain number of articles each month–it’s clear that online isn’t working for most print publications. They’ve followed an approach of giving all their content away for free, while only recently beginning to experiment with content that truly works online. That gives readers no reason to subscribe to the print edition and no (or at least very limited) online content that reinforces why the print version is valuable in the first place. And with consumers still not trained to pay for online access, it’s likely that the Times will see a significant drop among regular readers as they go elsewhere for their content.

The Times’ influence isn’t found in walled gardens but in cross-linking and being at the center of the national conversation. Its most valuable asset isn’t their content; it’s the brand. The Atlantic realized that and took steps to shore it up both online and in print. The New York Times and its counterparts should hope that they can find the sweet spot for daily reporting that The Atlantic has discovered for monthly opinion–and give us a reason to believe that it truly is all the news that’s fit to print, to blog and for some (but not all) of us to subscribe to.

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Recipe: Pasta with Radicchio Pesto and Pancetta

It’s sad to think it’s taken me well over a month for my first post on food, which is what much of my life revolves around. Every once in a while, I enjoy discovering a new ingredient–something I never would have cooked with a few years ago–and figuring out how to cook with it, all so one day I can go to the farmers’ market and ask for some truly obscure form of produce, leading people to think I grew up on an agricultural commune outside of Bolinas rather than a tract home in San Jose. 

This week, that ingredient is radicchio. Until about a week ago, I wasn’t quite sure what radicchio was, until I was reading the July issue of Cooking Light while catsitting for our neighbor and stumbling across a recipe for Indian lamb burgers with radicchio and roasted red pepper. We bought two heads of radicchio on Saturday for the burgers and quickly discovered that, well, radicchio is pretty damn spicy and bitter, so using two heads, which are quite small, on burgers is like tweaking your chili with a gallon of hot sauce. You can do it, but why would you?

So four burgers later, we had a head of radicchio left over–and we’re going on vacation on Wednesday. What to do? My wife and I were both thumbing through The Flavor Bible (an indispensable culinary reference book that shows what ingredients go well with each other) and discovered that radicchio goes well with risotto, but my wife had already reached her monthly risotto quota. Walnuts and lemon juice were also listed as good matches, as was the suggestion of making a pesto with it. I thought that pancetta might add some flavor and change the texture up a bit.

A few web searchers later, I determined that outside of the person cited in the cookbook, no one has ever made radicchio pesto in the history of mankind, or if they have, it’s not on the internet, which is pretty much the same thing. Of course, that meant that this was the perfect recipe to start food-blogging on the old blog. With that, I give you my recently developed recipe for radicchio pesto, courtesy of The Flavor Bible and with inspiration from Mark Bittman’s recipe for basic basil pesto. Radicchio pesto, say hello to the internet.

Radicchio pesto, a bit shy but easy to notice

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