Wednesday, January 18, 2017

First Recontact

Spoiler alert: This review reveals the main finding of the new documentary First Contact.
Watch the film first if you prefer a slow reveal.
While I was traveling in Nicaragua, my favorite librarian found a documentary that she thought would interest me. We had to tamp down a bit of skepticism because the title First Contact: Lost Tribe of the Amazon (see also: Netflix) does suggest wildness tropes that we have encountered in the 1960 sci-fi piece Lost World, in a problematic NatGeo documentary on the region, and in many narratives described in the book Olhares, which I co-authored with colleagues who study and/or live in the Amazon.

Since I wrote my dissertation in the Amazon and have been back twice -- once with my family -- we set our misgivings aside and watched this short (49m) documentary. It turns out that it takes place in Acre -- just west of my research area in Rondonia -- and neighboring parts of Peru. At first, it seemed like it was just going to play with the usual tropes of exaticism and danger (there is, after all, some actual danger to document).

Eventually, however, this story of initial contact with isolated people poses a plausible hypothesis that I had not encountered before. The entire area had been involved in the extraction of rubber over a century ago, and much of the labor used in that trade had been forced labor. The tribes that have emerged in recent years might not have been isolated since the neolithic period, as is often supposed. Instead, this film suggests, they may have been in hiding for a century or two, avoiding enslavement. Their emergence at this time -- including attacks on remote riparian villages -- could be the result of two factors. First, the oral history of long-ago slave raids may have faded in the minds of the young people of the Txapanawa. Second, illegal incursions of loggers or miners into the Alto Purús National Park may be displacing them from the refuge that had protected them since the early days of the rubber trade.
Map source: World Wildlife Fund

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Before the Flood

I really did not want to see Before the Flood, even though I teach several courses that relate directly to it. I pictured myself viewing it like a kid (or me) at a scary movie, watching through little gaps between my fingers as I try to shield my eyes from the screen. I have watched An Inconvenient Truth and its sequel a few times, and even with Al Gore's dry presentation, I found it nervous-making, at least.
Melting Arctic ice. Some parts of the film actually are pretty frightening.
So when I heard that a real film-maker had produced something very convincing about climate change, I knew that I had to see it and would want to avoid it, at the same time. Given the dramatic potential of climate change, I feared being sucked into an experience that would manipulate audience emotions with dramatic music and images of peril.

Thankfully, this film does none of that, and I managed to watch it three times in a ten-day period, without being scarred.

DiCaprio documents his travels as the U.N. Ambassador for Peace over a two-year period. Of course, I felt compelled to map his travels for him:

 He speaks in grown-up terms to a broad audience about the physical evidence for climate change and the possibilities for mitigation and adaptation, though students I showed it to found attention to remedies insufficient.

The variety of places included in the film exemplify the many important ways in which climate change is experienced -- from the disruption of crops to the rising of seas to the disruption of Hollywood film planning. Among the more interesting remedies is a more concerted effort to build batteries. The earth receives far more solar power than is needed to provide all the electricity we need -- even in New England, solar power is providing almost all of the electricity my family uses over the course of the year. This is only possible because our summer surpluses are "stored" on the grid. For solar to be a comprehensive solution, advanced batteries must be more widely available, and DiCaprio explores how this could be done.

DiCaprio could have focused more of the film on mitigation and prevention if he were making it for any audience other than a U.S. audience. But in this country, a significant amount of any discussion of climate change must be spent (squandered) on establishing that it even exists, despite mounting evidence that it does.

In my own classes, I have learned to spend relatively little time on climate denial for two reasons. First, I do not have to undertake similar apologetics for other topics, even if the topics are uncomfortable. Second, moving the discussion from scientific questions to matters of opinion is likely to use quite a lot of class time, and to do so ineffectively.

When I showed students an early draft of this blog post and asked for their suggestions, though, several suggested that I include the screenshot above -- it is a map of the relationships between semi-academic or even faux-academic organizations and their funders. The funding does not necessarily negate the findings of these think tanks, but it does suggest that skepticism would be better placed on the skeptics than on the scientists they doubt. Or harass and threaten, as DiCaprio details in the case of a scientist whose family was bullied by deniers.

Lagniappe -- not just Miami

DiCaprio's conversations with local planners in Miami are among the more persuasive sequences in Before the Flood. While members of Congress can respond to campaign donors, local officials have to respond to rising water. The increasingly frequent "sunny-day floods" in Miami are impossible to ignore, and are a very good reason to watch this film.

Shortly after I watched the film, I found a similar story from my former home in Maryland, where I studied and worked on the Chesapeake Bay in the 1980s ... and where I enjoyed a skipjack sail last summer. Baltimore Magazine recently published The Sea Also Rises, about the loss of low-lying areas in the Chesapeake Bay.

When I think of areas that are particularly vulnerable to rising waters, of course, I think of Miami, New Orleans and Louisiana generally, Bangladesh, and island nations such as Kiribati. But I should have thought of the unique geography of the Chesapeake Bay. Known by indigenous people as Great Shellfish Bay, it remains an important fishery, but the fish, crabs, and oysters are under pressure from suburban sprawl and its effects on both the quality of water and the concentration of runoff. The bay is quite shallow -- less than 40 feet deep over most of its area.  If a map of the entire 200-mile-long bay were printed on a sheet of paper, its greatest depths could be represented by scratches that would not go through the entire thickness of the sheet. Because the Chesapeake estuary is a post-Pleistocene flood of a series of river valleys, its coastline is incredibly intricate -- 8,000 miles of water front surround a 200-mile body of water --  a real boon to realtors!

I'm not sure whether that 8,000-mile figure includes islands, but it is certainly the case that islands are an important part of the human geography of the Bay. And it is the water rising around these islands that is the focus of Ron Cassie's excellent reporting.

In 2010, for example, this house became the last house to be lost to the waters rising around Holland Island. A significant portion of the island has disappeared since I took a course on the Bay as an undergraduate.
I'm getting older, but not enough older that this much of an island
should have disappeared since I was in college.
Lagniappe -- China database

The film includes pollution monitoring in China as one example of the many ways in which people around the world are taking responsibility for addressing climate change. I decided to track down some details for readers of this blog.

The organization profiled is the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), which is described in some detail on social-entrepreneurship website of the Skoll Foundation. The Institute hosts a real-time map of pollution sources of various types, shown in both English and Mandarin.
Dec 7 snapshot of air sources from IPE.
Some of these sources contribute directly to climate change; some also compound the damage to public health caused by climate change, and others are simply environmental problems that warrant attention and abatement efforts, regardless of any climate connection.

Friday, December 30, 2016

My Fellow Americans...

Although described by Huffington Post as squashing the question, author and NPR correspondent Tom Gjelten is gracious in his conversation with a C-SPAN listener who called in to suggest "vetting" migrants from Puerto Rico. Gjelten ignores the racist undertones of a call that begins by praising migrants from Norway and then goes on to suggest that migrants from Puerto Rico need extra screening. Rather, Gjelten patiently explains the difference between migration and immigration -- people from Puerto Rico cannot immigrate to the United States because they are already here.

Gjelten takes it easy on the caller for two reasons. One is that his style is naturally inclusive, and he is used to conversations with people of many different ideological persuasions -- so he glides past the "good" immigrant memories in order to get to the teachable moment.. The other reason might be that he knows the breadth of geographic ignorance in the United States, even regarding our own country.

The status of the Commonwealth is unusual, and even as a geographer I sometimes need reminding of the details. It is a semi-colonial place that has partial representation, full citizenship, limited taxation, and almost no autonomy. It is a complex relationship that is explored in cogent detail by actress and comedian Rosie Perez in her film ¡Yo soy Boricua, pa'que tu lo sepas! (available on Netflix DVD and elsewhere).

For more on Puerto Rico, see our 2010 Celebrating the States entry (from our year of marking the entrance of each state or state-like entity into the United States) and our posts about a Puerto Rico-related film and book. For comparison, I also suggest our post about my home town, which also has a semi-colonial relationship to the United States.

Finally, feel free to enjoy some of the photos we took during our first visit to Puerto Rico, in May 2016. We had won a stay in a villa near San Juan at a school auction over a year earlier, and were glad to be able to enjoy several parts of the island as a family. Of course we included a coffee farm! And we did not need our passports.
Photo from my first visit to the island. See the full collection of
Hayes-Boh photos from Puerto Rico 2016 

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Your Cheatin' Climate

Lipstick on the collar
Strange phone calls and hang-ups
Working late far too often
Business travel with an attractive co-worker
You get the picture...

No one of these things proves an affair, but a pattern draws suspicion. Hire a PI, and the pattern is confirmed. Hire 100 PIs, and 97 of them agree. This still proves nothing, but the next strange event will be hard to ignore.

I watched the Leonardo DiCaprio film Before the Flood three times in the past couple weeks -- twice with classes and once with my spouse (and fellow climate-change scholar). At the end of this period, our New England weather was swinging wildly -- not setting record highs or lows for these December days, but coming close. And more importantly, changing extremes from high to low on a daily basis.

This results from oscillations in the flow of the jet stream that are more meridional (N-S) than zonal (E-W). Changes of this kind have been anticipated by climate scientists for decades, and in fact are the main reason the term "climate change" came to replace the original nomenclature.

No single week of temperature swings in a single place "proves" that our climate is unraveling. But such swings are consistent with the finding that the changes that were starting to become evident during my graduate-school days are now quite well established. At this point, our climate is Michael Douglas as Dan Gallagher, and that lipstick really should not be ignored.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Breaking with Reagan

I became a geographer as an undergraduate, while Ronald Reagan was president. His lack of international experience and his commitment to simplistic views of geopolitics was worrisome, and also amusing. This poster went on my wall in those days, and I moved it from place to place for years. The original, tattered print is probably buried in my office somewhere; I was fortunate to find a clear version on Kelso's Corner, the blog of Washington Post cartographer Nathaniel Vaughn Kelso (the actual artist is named Horsey).
Those who know me know that I could digress -- and I probably will in class next week -- about many parts of this map. But for now I will focus on just one corner of the map -- the outsized island labeled "Our China" -- better known as Taiwan or more archaically as Nationalist China.

Of the two, Taiwan is by far the closer to the United States in terms of political outlook, but mainland China is far more important in economic terms, as a major supplier of many billions of dollars in products each year. Even before trade became so important, its military might meant that U.S. presidents were loathe to speak very honestly about our relationship with Taiwan, generally pretending not to recognize it.

So even though Ronald Reagan was perhaps the staunchest anti-communist president we ever had, he participated in the awkward diplomatic charade of pretending not to recognize both Chinas as the same time. In fact, he refused to speak to Taiwan's president, even though he had a deep ideological affinity for Taiwan. None of Reagan's successors have changed that practice..

Until this week.

Technically, of course, it is still the case that no president of either party has yet parted ways with the Gipper in theory or in practice. But a president-elect has done so, and knowledgeable diplomats are aghast. Even those who wished to change the policy have been alarmed by the cavalier way in which it was done. The exception seems to be the intransigent John Bolton, who might actually have orchestrated Donald Trump's latest faux pas.

Writing about the call and its aftermath, Evan Osnos of The New Yorker concedes that it might very well be time to end the charade and admit our de facto recognition of Taiwan. But the approach was reckless, creating substantial new risks.  Osnos explains how entertainer-turned-politician Trump may actually have walked into a trap. He writes:
I spoke to a former Republican White House official whom Trump has consulted, who told me, “Honestly, the problem with Donald is he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.” It turns out that is half of the problem; the other half is that he has surrounded himself with people who know how much he doesn’t know. 
As evil as John Bolton's intentions usually are, he is quite smart, and certainly able to realize an opportunity in Trump's lack of background in foreign policy. His influence is all the greater, given that Trump has waived off most of the actual policy briefings he has been offered. Osnos notes that this is exactly what George W. Bush did as he entered office -- when he ignored intelligence on preparations then being made by one Osama bin Laden.

Or perhaps it was not ignorance at all, but a very simple conflict of interest. Osnos writes:
Trump and his family are currently trying to win a lucrative contract with a Taiwanese city: “A representative from the Trump Organization paid a visit to [the city of] Taoyuan in September, expressing interest in the city’s Aerotropolis, a large-scale urban development project aimed at capitalizing on Taoyuan’s status as a transport hub for East Asia ...

Saturday, December 03, 2016

Practical Geography

I always knew that the U.K. had a lot of pubs, but I did not realize it was quite this many. Go ahead, count them:
To understand which parts of these islands are in the UK and which are not, I recommend
a five-minute tutorial on the UK by CGP Gray
Done counting? It is quite a few, is it not? Some but not all are mentioned in Bill Bryson's book Little Dribbling, which I have written about recently here and here. I expect to have maps of some of those pubs in the spring, when my geography seniors will be mapping some aspects of the book.

The snapshot above was created for the benefit of those whose computers or phones might not support exploration of the actual map. It is included in an article that finds this pub map somewhat reassuring. One comment suggests -- humorously -- that the map reveals something about alcoholism in the UK. I am no expert on pubs, but the ubiquity depicted here reinforces my notion that pubs are at least as much about community as they are drink.

The default view of the actual dataset is an area of London that includes several dozen pubs, centered on a Yahoo! office. I chose to explore Glasgow, which will be a destination for me in the next few years, possibly for a family wedding and definitely to explore the place from which the first Bohanan (Buchanan) migrated in 1734. (Andrew Bohanan was 25 when he was pressed into naval service, perhaps as he overstayed in a pub one night; he promptly went AWOL when he reached Boston. Yes, I am an 11th-generation undocumented migrant. But I digress.)
When the time comes, I will need to do "research" in several pubs, but I think I will start with the Iron Horse, handily located as it is near Buchanan Street and Buchanan Gardens. In addition to a pint or two of ale, I will also be seeking the family recipe that we always keep at our house.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Beyond Castro

Fidel Castro died last week, several generations after entering Havana in the vanguard of a revolution. A decade after passing political power to his "younger" brother Raul, his corporeal passing was nonetheless long-anticipated in Washington and Miami.
A montage from my Geography of Cuba page, recounting my
2003 visit to the island nation.
Whether this is a new, new era in relations between two countries or simply a chance to rehearse old controversies for the sake of nostalgia, it is too soon to tell. As a Latin Americanist, I have been indulging in a bit of the latter and also seeking resources to which I can point my students and other readers for some context. 

One might start with the overview provided by Charlotte England's survey in the Independent (UK), in which she explores how each of these presidents shown above interacted with the elder Castro. Writing for Slate last spring, Fred Kaplan draws connections between Fidel's 1959 conversation with then-VP Nixon and the President Obama's more recent overtures. During that 1959 meeting, it was not clear what direction Cuba would take following the overthrow of the US-allied "friendly dictator" Batista; by the end of that year, the relationship was firmly frozen along Cold War lines.

See my 2009 Cuba May Finally Be Open, 2011 Against the World, and 2013 Cuba Paradox posts for some of my observations about the relationship between Washington and Havana in recent years. 

My real impetus for this post, however, was NPR's Morning Edition, which offered four stories on various aspects of Castro's passing during its November 28 program. Together they convey just some of the complexity of this enigmatic figure and his legacy. Hearing some of these items reminded me of The New Latinos, Episode 4 in the six-part PBS series Latino Americans. This episode details migrations from the Caribbean -- Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, and Cuba -- between World War II and the 1960s. Particularly in the case of Cuba, it emphasizes the rapid shifts in the public perception of migrants, depending on race, class, and political context.

Whatever happens next between the United States and Cuba -- and whatever we make of the revolution and its aftermath -- one lesson of my 2003 visit remains vitally important: much more unites us as people than divides us.
A rumba lesson in Lajas and a great conversation in Havana, 2003

Saturday, November 26, 2016

¡Mariposas, Presentes!

Yesterday was the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, recognized on the anniversary of the 1960 assassination of the remarkable Mirabel sisters. Known as the Butterflies, Patria, María Argentina Minerva and Antonia María Teresa inspired and energized the opposition to the dictatorship of the U.S.-allied Rafael Trujillo, resulting in his eventual downfall.

Their story is told in the novel In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez and in the equally excellent film by the same name starring Salma Hayek, Edward James Olmos and Lumi Cavazos.

In searching for a film trailer, I found two that were created by students;

The one by Kevin Peralta posted a video labeled as an official trailer, though it does not does not actually show the film at all. Rather short takes of high-school students reenacting some of the film's key moments provide  a moving introduction to the story.

A literature student identified only as Travis has also posted a compelling railer by editing clips for the actual film.

Note: I use the exclamation ¡Presente! in the title of this post in reference to the way those who are killed or disappeared by governments in Latin America are recognized at ceremonies or rallies. The term ¡Viva! is sometimes used, but often not quite accurate for those whose fates are unknown. So when someone like the Mirabel sisters is remembered, the word ¡Presente! (or its plural) is shouted, signifying their ongoing presence in the movement.

In recognition of this practice, the newsletter of SOA Watch is known as ¡Presente! It documents ongoing efforts to close the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, which has a long, bipartisan history of training U.S. allies in the suppression of democratic movements.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Happis, Hayes, Whatever

My favorite librarian and I often read to each other -- mostly she to me: I talk for a living, but do not read out loud as well as she does -- and currently we are enjoying a new book by Bill Bryson, who is rapidly becoming one of our favorite authors. See Pam's reviews of other Bryson works on her Liberry Books blog.

This book -- The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of An American in Britain -- is so rich with geographic gems that it is one of two Bryson books that I will be assigning in my senior seminar in geography in the spring. I cannot possibly include all of his geographic insights on my blog, but after reading the following paragraph, Pam suggested I blog about it. And of course she was correct, for reasons that will become apparent.
In the morning I woke to watery sunshine, and after breakfast in the Burlington's large but empty dining room drove twenty miles down the coast to Happisburgh, a remote and lonely but good-looking village roughly halfway between Sheringham and Great Yarmouth. Happisburgh is dominated by a tall, lovely lighthouse with three red stripes. A sign in the neighboring parking lot informed me that this was "the only independently run lighthouse in the Uk." Now I am very sorry, but how can you possibly pass a lifetime in a country and not know how to abbreviate it? Why did you bother going to school at all? Why did your teachers turn up in the morning? Apart from this minor outburst of illiteracy, Happisburgh seemed to be an entirely agreeable place. It is pronounced, incidentally, hays-burro, or even just hays-brrrrrr. Norfolk specializes in odd pronunciations. Hautbois is hobbiss, Wymondham is windum, Costessey is cozzy, Postwick is pozzik. People often ask why that is. I'm not sure, but I think it is just something that happens when you sleep with close relatives [sic].
Sic in this case letting readers know that this blog does not traffic in humor of this low variety, but Bryson did it, so I am leaving it here for readers to judge for themselves.

More important, though, is the geographic question: where are all these places?

This phenomenon is very familiar to residents of Massachusetts, who are used to some fairly odd pronunciations.

I was introduced to the special nature of Massachusetts town names early in my tenure here, when I told students that a field trip would include a rest stop in LEO-minster -- the first town mentioned in the video above. Fortunately, I was well-versed by the time I made a visit to Leominster High School a couple of weeks ago.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Just Read

Lifted shamelessly from Instagram.
Civil-rights leader and U.S. Congressman John Lewis cites the value of reading and libraries and teachers on the occasion of accepting the National Book Award.

The movie Selma tells some of the story of this national hero. I highly recommend it! And I will be ordering the graphic novel for which he and his co-authors won this award: March: Book Three (the link is to a boxed set of all three volumes; each volume is available in a couple of formats). To learn about the importance of this series, see Jody Arlington's review of the first volume, the Washington Post's announcement of the award for Book Three. I also recommend his 2009 interview with Terry Gross, about the movement to win the vote..

Good writing stems from time spent reading. If I see what someone has written, I cannot tell whether they went to a "good" school or not. But I can tell whether they have devoted any serious attention to reading. For more on the connections between reading and writing, please see my How to Become a Better Writer page. It is one of several Writing Tips pages on my Not-the-13th-Grade web site. As "Dear Abby" Abigail Van Buren has written, "Those who do not read are no better off than those who cannot read."

For more on libraries, visit the web site or blog of my favorite librarian.


Item #3 above refers to the skills ascribed to Christian mystic Edgar Cayce.


In the same week that Rep. Lewis so eloquently articulated the importance of reading, other politicians announce their opposition to literacy. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyders -- and his education bureaucrats -- have argued in court that students in Detroit have no right to an education that would afford them basic literacy.
Gov. Snyders doubles down on low-quality education.

All of this comes as the results of a study of information literacy confirms that students across a wide range of ages have difficulty discerning real news from fake news or opinion. When "my opinion is as good as your facts," reality becomes a very slippery concept. The Wall Street Journal report on this study cites educational "consultants" who blame parents for not teaching information literacy, even as it admits that high-stakes testing and the elimination of school librarians are the real culprits.

In addition to bringing information professionals back into schools and allowing teachers to teach there subjects rather than taking of tests, students should be encouraged at every turn to read both deeply and widely. The more we read, the less easily we are fooled.