20 September 2014

Flashback: 15-21 Sep 2013

A year later and still worth reading...

19 September 2014

Friday party!

What kind of accents would you hear at a London party? This guy will help you tell them apart:

Speed blogging

  1. Me on Yahoo Canada: "The Water Wars: Conflicts over water sources continue to grow"

  2. About 20 percent of people (in this sample) often pee in the shower

  3. A very interesting podcast on water infrastructure with Marshall Davert of MWH Global, a good reddit thread on how pipes stay clean (or get clogged) and a nice photo essay on a big NYC wastewater treatment plant

  4. The US Patent system is so broken: patents pending on systems for monitoring, marketing and analyzing water rights?!?

  5. China's S-N water transfer may stunt regional growth. No duh

  6. Delusional mayors plead for subsidies because "local governments pay for 98 percent of infrastructure improvements," but water-system failure would harms the national economy. Their economic illiteracy is exceeded only by their weak grasp of cost-benefit analysis: payment in proportion to benefits. I don't see any benefit to someone in Indiana for a water project in San Francisco.
HTs to RM and LV

18 September 2014

What can a state employee do to fight corrupt policy?

I got this email from a little bird (LB):
After 3 years of having my head deep in ecosystem restoration and coming the the conclusion that our program is just chasing its tail (not addressing the real problem, but doing lots of hand waving so that it looks like progress on the surface), I want to know how to push the debate towards the real issues of water over use, farming in inappropriate soils, depletion of ground water, political corruption, etc.

In terms of the CVP & SWP, Westlands Water District (and other junior water right holders farming in salty soils on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley), Federal Biological Opinions for the pumps in Tracy that address environmental symptoms instead of the cause (over-allocation), and subsidized water deliveries to billionaire farmers who are very cozy with state and federal politicians... What can someone like me -- a CA State Government employee working to protect our natural resources -- do to fix a system that is, well, already "fixed" for the benefit of special interests?
In reply, I said:
Thanks for your insights. I'm surprised that I don't hear, more often, from state employees...

You're in a tough spot. There's a bit of robber barons going on here -- they stole the gold and laundered it into mansions, etc. How to get it back?

I agree with you that many policies (and employees) focus on details while missing the big picture, e.g, WHY are we sending water in huge aqueducts to huge farms?

Perhaps the best way to push back on the current system is to imagine -- and project -- two different futures: (1) with business as usual (collapsing aquifers and ecosystems; dust bowl, etc.) versus (2) with changes in flows, smaller farms, etc.

The vision thing can help people grasp an alternative which can THEN result in huge policy overhauls. It's like busting a dam and seeing a river revive. People THEN understand the point.
LB wrote back:
I think a reason why you don't hear from state employees more often is because they are either too busy in their specialized tasks to have time to come up for air to see the big picture or following the "state worker golden rule," i.e., don't make more work for yourself.

I agree that vision is a powerful tool. I'm not sure how to apply that in a department that is reactionary and can't keep employees long enough to build institutional knowledge to see the vision through.

I've often joked to colleagues that only Oprah can save the environment due to her ability to sway the masses and plant the vision... but then this is a conversation about water, fish, farms and money, not sexy celebrities. We ecologists are not allowed to contact elected government officials. They can ask for information from us, but it's not to be given unsolicited. It is very "chain of command" here, and I'm still figuring out how that end of the machine functions.
Can any of you offer advice, sympathy or ideas to help LB do their job and/or cope in an environment that is designed to minimize innovation and feedback?

17 September 2014

Anything but water

  1. A really good backgrounder on the origins of ISIS (goes back to 570AD) and the influence of poorly-chosen borders. (Obama should send the bill to France and Britain)

  2. Don't waste your money on vitamins. They do nothing for your health (exception: folic acid for expecting mothers)

  3. A really fascinating website to explore people's priorities (healthcare, reliable energy, honest government, etc.) around the world

  4. Were we happier in the Stone Age? Perhaps, yes, when you consider the perverse impacts of consumerism

  5. An inquiry into social isolation and unhappiness: "Commute time should be offset by higher pay or lower living costs, or a better standard of living. It is this last category that people apparently have trouble measuring. They tend to overvalue the material fruits of their commute—money, house, prestige—and to undervalue what they’re giving up: sleep, exercise, fun."

16 September 2014

The practical ways in which laws are undermined

A water bureaucrat (WB) explained to me how laws that sound good in theory may be worthless in reality.

Water users in his state can pump groundwater with permission, without permission (exempt), or in excess of their permission (illegal).

Problems result from exempt or illegal pumping, so WBs (who want to represent/protect the public) should either monitor everyone (assuming adequate resources) or go after the largest abusers (prioritizing given a lack of resources).

WB told me that neither of these strategies are pursued. Politicians have withheld funding to monitor all uses, and they have directed WBs to monitor permitted uses. Given that most permits (say 90 percent) go to small users, these instructions mean that WBs spend 90 percent of their time on users who may account for 10-20 percent of total use (and very little abuse). WBs do not pay extra attention to large users, and they entirely ignore exempt users. The upshot is that the WBs are busy but useless.*

Bottom Line: Vague regulations and mis-prioritized enforcement can lower bureaucratic impact to zero, even with hard working, qualified staff. Pay attention to outcomes, and pay more attention to politicians who talk about sustainability but then hinder its pursuit.
* We would predict this result if we knew politicians condone over-use of groundwater. We can assume they do condone such over-use, given the predictable and known impact of their instructions.

15 September 2014

Just sayin'

"The people of the state of California are more or less destroying themselves to give cheap almonds to the world." -- me, in The Guardian

Monday funnies

Snow has hit the US and Canada at the earliest point in over 100 years, which obviously* proves that the earth is cooling instead of warming. This good news should encourage the fossil fuel community to step up production so we can use more energy. 

If the greenhouse effect is true, then we will save ourselves from icing over; if it's not true, then we can enjoy all the cheap energy. Win-win!

Just another summer day in Calgary, Alberta


* Well, not actually, since climate change is about greater volatility (e.g., snow in Sep) more than higher temperatures.

Cooked -- the review

I'm a big fan of Michael Pollan's writing. I read and enjoyed The Botany of Desire and The Omnivore's Dilemma.* I read his most recent book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation about six months ago.

This book makes you want to cook and experiment with food chemistry in your own kitchen. I did a few recipes with a crock pot (mac cheese was meh; brisket tasted metallic), a lot of oven roasting ("paella," mac cheese and roasted veggies were all yummy), and got much deeper into the pickles section (new favorite: green peppercorns).

Cooked also makes you think about the process of cooking and the social dimension of food. (I just bought an apartment with an open kitchen that will make it easy to talk while cooking for guests.)

These ideas are worth repeating:
  1. People who see preparing food as wasted time fail to connect with the natural world and appreciate the amazing cooperation necessary to bring food from a distant farmer to your plate
  2. Cooking may not show up in GDP, but it's definitely a source of happiness for the chef and guests
  3. "Barbecue has the highest bullshit-per-calorie ratio of any cooking method, either because barbecue is so straightforward or because it's done by men" [p 68]
  4. The "slow" dimension of southern cooking probably dates from an era (=slavery) where cooking used time that was worth nothing
  5. By cooking and eating garlic and onions, we convert their chemical defenses into ours
  6. Fire cooking is as wasteful (of heat and ingredients) as pot cooking is conservative. The English had plenty of wood and meat to waste; the French needed to economize in their cooking, hence their mastery of sauces and other ways of improving dodgy food
  7. "Time is the missing ingredient in our recipes -- and our lives." I sometimes feel I lack time to cook but never regret spending time when I do
  8. The move to processed foods was not pulled by demand from busy housewives but pushed by supply from food corporations that wanted higher profits**
  9. "Most of the increase in obesity in the US can be explained by food preparation outside the home" [p 191]
  10. There's strong evidence linking "western diseases of affluence" (cancer, heart disease, stroke, etc.) to refined grains and sugars (I agree)
  11. Most commercial "whole wheat flour" has had the germ and bran taken out and added back (perhaps in a different ratio), which may explain why the flour I milled at home was so much better than store-bought flour
  12. The explosion of research into the microbiome appears to justify the value of fermented foods that most cultures have integrated into their traditional diets
  13. Fermented foods are an "acquired taste" because they define our cultural loyalties
  14. The quest for "clean" foods and "antibiotic" environments may be undermining our health
  15. Cheeses do not just remind us of sex, death and animals; they connect us to life when we eat them
  16. It's not implausible to see fermenting grains into alcohol as a rationale for moving from a healthy hunter-gatherer lifestyle to farming, i.e., people sacrificed weight and height to get drunk
  17. Different cultures treat alcohol and drunkenness in different ways, which makes alcohol use acceptable while allowing alcohol to "open up new possibilities" in different ways
  18. Make your own beer or bread if you want to appreciate good bread or beer
  19. Yes, it's cheaper to buy bread, but baking allows you to be a producer, rather than just an empty consumer. Steaming hot bread reminds us of the joy of friendship and gifts of nature
  20. Pollan tends to criticize the over-industrialization of life that can -- like Adam Smith's pin factory or Chaplin's Modern Times -- erode our humanity. I agree with him on this, and I agree that alienation from production can depress people. I am lucky to have a VERY creative job (teaching, writing, making up ideas), but I think that everyone can do a little more producing, no matter their day job
  21. "Cooking is one of the more beautiful forms that human generosity takes... the very best cooking is a form of intimacy" [p 415]
Bottom Line: Food isn't fuel. Food is life and civilization. It is the string connecting us with others' minds and bodies. I give this book FIVE STARS for its fun and interesting exploration of food, cooking, eating and life. Read it, then cook something for someone.

* Botany describes how apples, tulips, marijuana and potatoes "use" us to extend their genetic footprint. Dilemma explains how Americans without a tradition of eating certain foods have a hard time choosing how to eat well.

** I'm routinely disgusted to see the variance between a food package's label and its ingredients. For a simple example, look at any carton of "banana-mango juice" (or similar) where you see that apple or grape juice -- or NO juices -- are the primary ingredients

13 September 2014

Flashback: 8-14 Sep 2013

A year later and still worth reading...