Monday, November 27, 2006

Rewilding rural North America

I've written a couple of times in the past about development in New York City, and the issues involved with trying to figure out how to increase the density of a city that already has 8 million people. But Science News this week has a feature article (subscribers only, unfortunately) that relates to an almost directly opposite problem, what to do with the empty parts of the country.
If one group of conservation biologists have its way... the western United States could... within the next century [be] filled with megafauna, including carnivores and herbivores imported from Africa, Asia, and other parts of the world. These animals would repopulate the area where they lived until about 13,000 years ago, when the arrival of people in the region caused them to go extinct.
They call the plan "Pleistocene rewiliding", recreating the wild environment of the Pleistocene epoch which lasted from 1.8 million to 11,550 years ago. In what is now the United States,there were animals such as lions, Bactrian camels, giant Bolson tortoises, and Old World cheetahs, but the people who we now know as Native Americans apparently hunted most of those large animals to extinction soon after they crossed the Bering Strait at the end of the Pleistocene. There are large enough areas set aside as parkland and wildlife preserves that, in theory, similar animals from elsewhere in the world could be reintroduced to create an ecosystem that is more similar to how it used to be, many thousands of years ago.

The author of the Science News article notes only in an aside that there has been a similar movement to rewild parts of the West to the way they were only hundreds of years ago. Post-Columbian rather than pre-Human. The most appealing (to me) aspect of that idea is something I heard about several years ago -- bringing back the bison. And not just in small-scale ranches, suitable for renting out when you need to film Dances With Wolves, but in large numbers in vast restored prairies. The idea was originally proposed by several sociologists in 1988, in a proposal called Buffalo Commons, and it's happening almost by default. Just as people are moving to large cities like New York, Atlanta, and Phoenix, they're leaving the marginal agricultural land in the Great Plains of Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas. The idea of rewilding buffalo was to convert large areas of the plains, as people leave and agricultural irrigation becomes unsustainable, back to the way it was, without development or fences. Conservationists have been buying up old ranchland and converting it to buffalo land, and I've heard ideas that some Native American people might return to ranching buffalo too.

Think of the domestic ecotourism possibilities if both of these proposals pan out. Go to Western South Dakota, stay in a fancy lodge (serving buffalo steaks for dinner), then take a safari vehicle out to the reserve to watch wild lions hunt camels, and herds of buffalo that stretch to the horizon...


Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Italian-Japanese Fusion: Saltimbocca Katsu

I think that oftentimes creativity is easiest in the context of some sort of constraints. This isn't exactly a new idea, as poets have thrived with strict meter, and celebrity chefs on Iron Chef have thrived having to make five complex dishes based on clams. There's even a recent book on the topic (warning, I know nothing about the book).

My cooking club, I think, also works best under constraints. Some of our most creative dinners have had the most highly constrained themes ("black and white", "apples"), rather than those that were just an ethnicity. Our most recent dinner had the theme of Japanese fusion, which I think worked out rather well. Fusion food, as this interesting article points out, is just a conscious extension of the usual process by which cuisines change. The quintessential Italian dish eggplant Parmesan relies on eggplant, a Chinese vegetable, and tomatoes, an American one. By aggressively seeking out new combinations of flavors, fusion food is at the avant garde of a process that is happening anyway. This said, trying to fuse ideas from one cuisine, say, Japanese, with another, say Mozambiquean, requires clever thinking. One course of our dinner was in fact Japanese-Mozambiquean, using ingredients from a traditional oyster stew in a chawan mushi. Another course reinterpreted several Thanksgiving dishes in a Japanese style. The course I worked on, with fellow cook Leo, was Italian-Japanese.

We ended up combining several standard recipes: chicken saltimbocca, a standard Italian dish with prosciutto and sage, chicken katsu, a standard Japanese dish with panko bread crumbs, and a lemon cream sauce the Italians serve with pasta. After bouncing around ideas for a while, we came up with our recipe: panko-crusted chicken breast, pan-fried in pancetta fat, served over soba noodles, with a yuzu cream sauce, topped with pancetta crumbles and fried sage leaves.

The results were (in my humble opinion) even tastier than we'd hoped. The sourness of the yuzu in the cream sauce complemented the richness of the pancetta and cream, while the earthy buckwheat of the soba contrasted nicely with the light and crispy panko. The dish is less complicated to prepare than you would think, and only took us about 45 minutes, start to finish. Perhaps not radically creative, but better than I think we would have come up with without the Japanese fusion constraint.


Monday, November 20, 2006


Fall being the beginning of stew season (remember this one from last winter?), and R wanting a dish with a little (but not too much) beef in it, I made a very tasty Philippine stew the other day. Called pochero, it's a Philippine adaptation of a traditional Spanish dish called cocido, which is one of those stews with eight types of meat and a smattering of vegetables and chickpeas. The variant I made, tweaked from a Philippine cookbook given to me by a Filipino friend, was delicious. It's a hearty stew of vegetables and beef, with the interesting plantains to give it a bit of tropical sweetness, and the fish sauce and lime juice to contribute the typically Philippine salty/sour pairing. The recipe is very easy, and takes about an hour and a half (filling your apartment with great meaty smells the whole time). And it looks almost as good as it tastes...


Wednesday, November 08, 2006

small-scale and large-scale development

Two very interesting essays in Gotham Gazette today (thanks to Curbed for the links). In one, Amanda Burden, the chair of the New York City Planning Commission and director of the Department of City Planning, talks about the competing influences of Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses on city development. Jacobs was an advocate of streets and neighborhoods. Moses was a central planner and an advocate of large-scale development projects. Burden comes down primarily on the side of Jacobs, and says that she has basically won the argument on style, but that Moses may have been correct on scope.

Moses may have gotten a lot done, built a great deal in the name of “the people”, but the truth is that he wanted little to do with the people who would live in the city he created. Their voices were dispensable, their homes were dispensable. And that is why he couldn’t conceive of the importance of neighborhoods.

Jacobs, on the other hand, knew that if you neglect neighborhoods, you do so at the city’s peril. People who no longer have faith in the future of the place in which they were brought up or where they are raising a family, will, if they can afford it, leave for a more predictable, safer place.


Where we do, or some of us might, have nostalgia for Moses is in the realization that it is very very difficult to get very complex and expensive projects built that are critical to our city’s future such as the Second Avenue Subway, East Side Access, a one seat ride to the airport from Lower Manhattan and the #7 line.


Big cities need big projects. Big projects are a necessary part of the diversity, competition and growth that both Jacobs and Moses fought for. But today’s big projects must have a human scale; must be designed, from idea to construction, to fit into the city. Projects may fail to live up to Jane Jacob’s standards, but they are still judged by her rules.

It is to the great credit of the mayor that we are building and rezoning today, once again, like Moses, on an unprecedented scale, but, with Jacobs firmly in mind, invigorated by the belief that the process matters and that great things can be built through a focus on the details, on the street, for the people who live in this great city.

In the other, Brad Lander of the Pratt Center for Community Development extends on this Jacobs vs. Moses theme and talks about how New York should balance affordable housing and grassroots neighborhoods with infrastructure development and the need for significant growth due to population pressures. He focuses on two recently proposed development projects, the sale and possible conversion to market-rate condos of Stuyvesant Town, the massive middle-class affordable-housing project in Manhattan, and the development of waterfront residential towers as part of the Queens West project.

It is not simply income and racial diversity that is in question. New York City’s growth and consequent market-led real estate pressures are putting strains on the quality of life of neighborhoods in every corner or the city – more traffic, more people using scarce open space, overcrowded schools in many growing neighborhoods, tear-downs of historic structures.

The answers will not be found in Moses’ style top-down mega-projects, which led to massive increases in traffic and were in many instance contemptuous of the very poor families they were serving (although he did create more open space that anyone before or since).

But the answers also won’t be found – as some who invoke Jacobs’ name today try to do – in seeking to prevent development altogether, nor in diminishing the role of government in city-building. New York City is expected to grow by one million people (mostly as a result of immigration) in the coming decades. We need thoughtful city planning and smart, activist government to make that growth work for New York’s communities.

I'm very pleased that this smart development approach is now in the forefront, and that the Mayor has decided that his legacy requires the creation of an Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability. Hopefully the combination of large-scale infrastructure development and small-scale, neighborhood-based community development will allow the city to grow in a way that will allow everyone to be able to live here, and also to want to live here.


Monday, November 06, 2006

political views and genetics

Tomorrow is of course the US elections, so a few thoughts about politics from a scientific point of view... A few days ago the AP ran a story about a possible genetic basis for political views. Coincidentally, the same day I learned about the research done by a social psychologist in my department on a possible psychological basis for political (and related) views. Let me fill you in on both of these.

First, the genetics. A professor named John Hibbing at the University of Nebraska has studied the political views of twins, fraternal and identical. Twin studies are a standard way of learning how much of a particular skill or personality trait is genetic and how much is environmental. (There is some controversy.) Identical twins share essentially all of their genetic material, while fraternal twins share only half of their genetic material. To the extent a pair of identical twins share traits/skills/whatever more so than do fraternal twins, then it's known that genetics accounts for a portion of the variation in traits/skills/whatever. So, for example, identical twins are considerably more likely to both be gay or both be straight than fraternal twins, so it's been concluded that homosexuality is partially genetic (and partially environmental) in cause. Hibbing followed on some earlier work that had shown significant genetic effects on social attitudes such as conservatism and religion. His new work looked at attitudes towards a series of specific political policies and views, and found that all of them had non-zero heritability. (Heritability is measured on a scale of "variance accounted for" from 0 to 1, where 0 means entirely environmental and 1 means entirely genetic, ala eye color.) In fact, heritable attitudes ranged from .18 on the low end, for attitude towards liberals, to .41 at the high end, for school prayer and property taxes. Interestingly, abortion is towards the low end, with only .25 heritability. Attitudes towards Republicans are notably more heritable (.36) than attributes towards Democrats (.26)! Hibbing speculates that genetics cause personality traits that lead people to be "absolutist" or "contextualist" (labels that roughly correspond to "conservative" and "liberal" in the US) and notes that the substantial genetic basis for political attitudes does not give much hope for a genuinely unifying political movement.

John Jost at NYU does work that fills in the gap between genes and political views. He explains his research program thusly:

Most of my work focuses on theoretical and empirical implications of a system justification theory... There are two major goals of system justification theory... The first goal is to understand how and why people provide cognitive and ideological support for the status quo, even when their support appears to conflict with personal and group interests. The second is to analyze the social and psychological consequences of supporting the status quo, especially for members of disadvantaged groups.

System justification theory addresses the holding of attitudes that are often contrary to one's own self-interest and therefore contrary to what one would expect on the basis of theories of self-enhancement or rational self-interest. Thus, our research focuses on counter-intuitive outcomes, such as the internalization of unfavorable stereotypes about one's own group, nonconscious biases that perpetuate inequality, attitudinal ambivalence directed at fellow ingroup members who challenge the system, opposition to equality among members of disadvantaged groups, rationalization of anticipated social and political outcomes, and tendencies among members of powerless groups to subjectively enhance the legitimacy of their powerlessness and, in some cases, to show greater support for the system than do members of powerful groups.

That is to say, he has been developing a psychological answer to the question "What's the Matter with Kansas?" In a recent paper (pdf), Jost and a colleague review a number of these system justification ideologies, including the Protestant work ethic and political conservatism. They note several personality traits that are linked to system justification, including "need for order, structure, and closure", and (the inverse of) "openness to experience." As many personality traits are about 50% genetically linked, this clearly suggests a genetic propensity for system justification views, and thus political attitudes.

Clearly, these two lines of research are coming to the same conclusion, that most people don't vote their strict personal self-interest, and the reasons why they do vote have substantially to do with personality traits that are partially genetic. As Lakoff has pointed out, the Democrats assume that people vote rationally on pocketbook issues, an assumption that is probably not justified.

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